- 5 -

Duo came back with conclusive news.  "It's been confirmed.  Brisbois went on about human genetics.  Specifically, it was last October, when there was legislation up before the World Council on tweaking the genes in unborn children for the elimination of birth defects.  He was totally against it, going on about creating unnatural humans and messing up the gene pool and natural selection and all that crap.  Uh, no offense to you or any of your sisters, of course, Quatre," he appended.

Quatre smiled briefly.  "None taken.  I hardly respect Brisbois' opinions, although in this case, I'd almost agree with him."  He paused to register all of our raised eyebrows, then continued.  "Not that children that are genetically manipulated are any less human than 'normal' humans, but that there does need to be limits on pre-natal manipulation.  I remember that bill.  For obvious reasons, I followed its progression rather closely."

"Did it pass?" I asked.  I had more than an average citizen's awareness of world politics, but I didn't remember how this story had ended.  It was a hot topic for a while, and then it just quietly faded out of the public's consciousness.

He shook his head.  "It got stuck in a subcommittee somewhere, and then it was withdrawn and hacked to pieces, revised and reborn as several new, smaller bills.  Those are still on the table for this year's session."

"Before we get any further into this, is this even a valid concern?" Wufei asked first.  "Or are we about to get sidetracked?  Does it make sense that Brisbois would be following this cause, and what reason would a group have to further it?"

Good questions.  Quatre beat me to the obvious answers.  "The theme of genetic purity or what have you is hardly a new one in Earth history.  Tinkering with the very stuff of humanity makes a lot of people unsettled.  Wars have been started over racial cleansing, but those have always had large minorities as their target.  Who would the target be this time?"

"The same sort of nationalism that was present then, isn't now," Trowa mused.

"Ya don't need nationalism," Duo scowled, a dark look on his face.  "'Cleansing' just means getting rid of the stuff you don't want anymore.  Could be anyone, any group of people."

His words disturbed me a little, bringing up vague images that lurked just on the edges of my mind.  Some spark of recognition had flared inside of me.  Now what was it?  "Quatre... the legislation.  Who advocated it?  Who was against it?"

"Mostly, there was the typical array of religious and family value type groups against it, with research concerns on the other side of things.  In addition to those..."  His eyes went towards the ceiling as he thought about it.  "The CCC was sort of on the line about it.  Like me, they agreed to some regulation, but they're strongly in support of research in the matter since the occurrence of birth defects is higher in the colonies.  There are also the long-term side effects of living in space, which leads into the area of what sort of adaptations we have developed to deal with that, or if we will in the future."

"Which leads to the Earth First worrying about Earth's control over the colonies."  I remembered the debates.  I was always concerned by any assertion by the earthbound that they should maintain dominance over the colonies.

"Which leads nicely into this whole 'genetic purity', 'genetic superiority' crap," Duo finished the thought.  "Afraid that colonists will evolve beyond their roots.  Bah.  Don't they teach Earth kids anything about biology?  Evolution takes generations, many of them, millennia even!"

"Yes, but they're concerned about active research hurrying the process along," Wufei explained.  "Many people fear change."

"Enough so that they would take Zero and... I don't know."  Quatre shrugged.  "Unless they're interested in bringing all the colonists back to Earth, I don't see how they could possibly halt genetic variations, with or without Zero.  Actually, countering it would require the tweaking to undo nature, so it makes no sense.   And I can't really see anyone getting militant over it yet.  There isn't a large enough population of anyone to target to make that a reasonable cause."

I sighed softly, letting it be no more than a puff of breath.  We were really no closer now than we had been when we started.  "Let's stop trying to guess at their causes," I proposed.   "We can still follow up on the other ideas we had.  Trowa, did anything interesting surface today?"

It had been his task to follow up on the components that a person would need in order to complete the system.  "I looked into the four hardware manufacturers and three biotech companies involved in neural research.  I've flagged all of their activity, but none of them have any history or show any signs of being involved in suspicious activities.  None of them have any cause to have stolen Zero themselves."

"Great," Duo muttered.  "Why do I get the feeling that whoever it is behind this is going to come at us out of the blue?   I bet it's someone like Lena or something!"

Lena?  I did a mental double-take at the name.  'Lena' as in 'Relena'?  Or did Duo know someone else named Lena?   Contextually, it made more sense for him to be speaking of the pacifist, and yet I hadn't known that the two of them were close enough to warrant nicknames.  It was disconcerting to be reminded of how out of the loop I was, but I was pleased.  They were both good people.

"Relena," Quatre echoed, confirming my thoughts.  "Has anyone...?"  His eyes flickered to me, then away.  "I'll contact her.  She should know."

I agreed.  Though her official position had been downgraded in the years following the war, she was still a major player in world politics.  Her name and image lingered in the minds of the people, and she had no intention of letting it fade.  Her influence was wielded to great effect.  I would have been profoundly disappointed to hear otherwise.  It would be very reassuring to know that, should we fail in our mission and Zero get out in some way, the situation would be handled with her grace and elegance.

Discussion continued, but there was a very restless feeling in the room.  We weren't men of words, but actions, and yet we had no actions to take yet, no enemy to strike at, no clear targets to research.  I poked half-heartedly at Brisbois' laptop as I gave my report, hoping it would give me new ideas.

Brisbois' computer hadn't given me as much information as I would have liked, but not because he had been particularly intelligent about hiding his tracks.  He just hadn't had access to very much information.  We had been prepared for that under the assumption that Brisbois had been carefully controlled and manipulated into stealing the system for his unknown partners.

Zero itself was currently classified information, but there were a few reports that were still accessible that discussed events surrounding Zero's participation in the war.  He had reports on the first appearance of Wing Zero as it threatened the colonies, of its use in the defense of Sanq, of its assault on Mariemeia's bunker.  In addition to those files, I also found a text file listing numbers and directions.  A bit of thought proved to me that it was the blueprint for how he had gotten through Preventers security to steal the system and then transport it out of the city.

Those were the easy files to identify.  Unfortunately, Brisbois' occupation made it difficult to sort out what research was work-related and what was personal.  We had cross-referenced with his work computer and his assigned duties, but the patterns were too loose to claim as solid findings, only things to keep in mind.

The man did not receive very many e-mails.  Unsurprising, in retrospect, since he didn't have very many friends.  There were no personal correspondences.  It was passingly interesting to note that he received more junk mail touting investment schemes rather than anatomical enlargements.  The lack of anything conspicuous threw me at first, until I remembered the one piece of junk mail that he had received at his work account.  I found five more messages from that same sender in his personal inbox, each with an exhortatory phrase or two spouting nonsense, and a dead link -- a different one each time.  I knew it couldn't be coincidence when I checked out his mail application's spam filter, and found that he had set it never to mark mail from that sender as junk.  We couldn't trace the IPs to any particular location, but two of them led to public channels, and three of them came attached to ports that had probably been left open only for some specified time.

A man like Brisbois thought he was in control, therefore he had to have a way to contact someone on the other end.  Checking his cache of sent messages, I found one message bearing a similar format as the ones he had received, naming a rendezvous point in cyberspace.

"Do you think that they know Brisbois has been compromised?" I asked my partners after filling them in on my findings.

Duo followed my train of thought immediately.  "And if they don't, should we try establishing contact?"

Drawing conclusions from the profile he had formed, Quatre analyzed the question almost before it had been vocalized.   "Brisbois is small fry.  After they got what they wanted from him, I think it unlikely that they would care to have any further communication with him.  If he knows enough to give them away, they might be monitoring him, but I don't think that's the case.  I think they don't know or care that he's been compromised, but on the other hand, I'm not certain they would respond to him attempting to contact them."

"Nothing to be lost from trying then, right?  We won't be tipping our hand since we won't be targeting anyone in particular, just whomever's on the other end of the line."

"We could increase our chances of response by trying to convince them that we -- or rather, Brisbois," Wufei amended, "has useful information.  Or perhaps he's having second thoughts?  Getting pushy?"

Once again, Quatre provided valuable insight into the man's mind.  "Pushy.  He would have expected something, some sort of reward for delivering the goods.  From listening to him... I got the feeling that... maybe it was a test.  Something about the proud way he kept denying us, like it was some... trial by fire at which he needed to succeed in order to prove himself.  They didn't give him much information, but if he delivered the system to them, then he would be brought into the fold.  Something of that sort."

"We have maybe two grammatically incorrect sentences to hint vaguely at pushiness, then," I reminded them.  The e-mails had only set up a location, nothing more.  My teammates started exchanging the possibilities as I delved into the laptop once more, seeking out a time for contact.  There didn't seem to be any information about a time in the text, so it must have been pre-arranged and regular.   Having the addresses that Brisbois visited, I started looking for matches in his network history.

I had just found a second match when Wufei asked what sort of information the company would likely be willing to provide to Brisbois.  Even as I searched, I was paying attention to their discussion, but I admit I wasn't thinking as hard as I should have been before I responded.  "I'd kill him instead."

Only the tapping of my keys filled the air in the room for a few seconds, and even that slowed and stopped eventually as I realized what I had just proposed.  I looked up from the LCD display to find four pairs of eyes on me.  If there had been a mirror handy, I might have been staring at me, too.  "Hypothetically speaking, of course," I appended.  "If I were a really bad guy, I'd set up a meeting, and then dispose of him.  To silence a possible leak.  ...Hypothetically."

It was finally Duo that blinked first and recovered.   "Riiiiight.  Okay, so I guess we can push for a meeting, if it comes up.  That'd probably be the best outcome.  But say we can't get that.  What else should we ask for?"

The discussion got going again, and I returned the bulk of my attention to the computer.  The remainder of my attention, what wasn't keeping track of the others, was spent on figuring out whether I should be disturbed or not by my suggestion.  It had been strictly hypothetical.  A moment's thought yielded that as the obvious conclusion.  It was a reasonable course of action I proposed for a ruthless enemy, not myself.  And yet... perhaps it was just the 'I'd kill him' that had fallen from my lips.  I hadn't spoken of killing anyone, hypothetical or otherwise, for a while now.

The next thing I could contribute to the discussion was, "Twenty-one hundred, the day after the e-mail was received.  All six correspondences match that pattern."

Quatre nodded.  "Alright.  I think we should go for it.  Even if we don't get anything out of him, we might be able to trace his network signal during the exchange and track him down that way.  Nothing to lose."

They composed the sparse content of the message, with the assistance of a couple of crude jokes on Duo's part that got everyone to laughing, while I worked on securing an IP outside the Preventers firewall.  The message was sent out into the ether in short order.  I hoped it would pan out.  Zero was out there, and we really needed a clue as to where it had gone.  Everything we had so far was purely speculation, circumstantial, tenuous.  I feared that it would be exactly as Duo had said, that the threat would come from some sector completely unexpected, catching us offguard and unprepared.

It irked me that there seemed to be so little that we could do.  Even the one solid lead that we had required us to wait another thirty hours before we could see if it led to anything.  I couldn't sit around waiting that long.  I announced that I was going to go back to Brisbois' apartment to see if there was something relevant, given our new insight into the man.  Duo volunteered to go with me.  He had spent the morning and some of the afternoon questioning the man's co-workers; now he would see if there was anything to be found from his neighbors.

Since neither of us had transportation, not being local to the area, Duo borrowed the keys to Wufei's car with a good deal of wheedling and joking around.  Perhaps we would look into going through the paperwork to acquire a vehicle from the Preventers motor pool some later time.  I watched as they exchanged their good-natured barbs, not understanding where half of their references were coming from.   Apparently, I had missed some sort of incident involving a motorbike, a flock of sheep, and a malicious bush.  Or perhaps that was two separate incidents.

I had expected as much.  The four of them had kept in contact, met up, shared stories and experiences.  I knew that they would have a life together, and that I wouldn't be a part of it.  I might have been very sad at being left out, if I hadn't developed a life of my own, and if that hadn't been my choice.  Instead, I just soaked in their interactions, glad that they had found such companionship with each other.

Duo drove, and I climbed into the car with him, wondering what sort of companionship we had.  We'd once had comfortable, comforting silences, for at least a few days towards the end of the war, during the days of attrition spent on the Peacemillion.  Our group split up after the peace was won, each to our own devices, until the Barton incident brought us back together for several long, busy days.

Afterwards, I think the others decided that splitting had been a mistake.  I didn't agree.  Things were... 'right' between the five of us, but not within myself, and I didn't want them to be crutches for me, shoring up my weaknesses.  That wasn't the way I operated.  If I had a weakness, I worked on it until it was no longer a liability, at the very least.  I didn't believe in kluges and cheap hacks.  They had the unfortunate tendency to become permanent, and then they would inevitably come back to bite a person in the ass.

The last time I saw Duo, we were so far away from each other.  I had spoken to everyone the night before, said my goodbyes, settled my affairs.  A dawn departure, clean and uncluttered, seemed the way to go.  I was near the gates to the embassy when I looked over my shoulder and saw Duo standing at an upstairs window.  He waved.  I waved back.  And then I left.

I guess I couldn't really call that resolution, considering the things we didn't talk about, but at least we mutually agreed to leave it that way.  They didn't need to be talked about.  It was all just history.  Circumstances had changed, and history had no place in the present.

Duo's voice broke through my reverie.  "Enjoying the scenery?"

He must have noticed the way I was staring out the window.  We were still in the city, but the streets had a very different feel to them from colonial neighborhoods.  Blocks in the colonies had been laid out, zoned, and planned ahead of time along straight lines, strictly parallel and perpendicular.  Earth urban planning hadn't been so regular.  I diverted my gaze from the city to his profile.  His cheeks had lost their roundness, giving him a stronger jawline, but his nose was the same.  "I've gotten rather fond of Earth."

"See much of it?"  He was making small talk with me, but it seemed like we were just going through the motions, following the ancient diversionary formula written up for two strangers in a car.

I opened the window a little to enjoy some fresh Earth air.  "The first year, before I started school.  And some the year before."  The first year I had spent indulging my whims.  The year before I had spent moving restlessly between old battlefields, driven to purge them of lingering dangers.

"Before Mariemeia."

"Before Barton," I corrected.  He threw me an inquisitive glance out of the corner of his eye before he returned his attention to the streets in front of us.  I explained myself.  "Let's assign blame where blame is due.  Mariemeia was just the figurehead for her grandfather's revolt.  It was Barton's uprising."

I considered Mariemeia a Khushrenada, so I could look down upon the Bartons unequivocally.  The man we knew as Trowa, of course, didn't count.  Maybe it was absurd to hold a grudge in the world of hits, marks, and assassinations, but I held the Barton family to blame for Odin's death.  I would not have minded killing the man responsible for that.  It would have been poetic justice.

His lips thinned for a brief moment before he spoke again.  "I heard you tried to kill her."

"Mariemeia?"  My eyes dropped, then slid across to study the view out the front window.  That was a severe deviation from the formula, but I didn't mind.  I didn't want us to be strangers.  "The logic behind Zechs also applied to her.  Figureheads can be dangerous unless defused properly, regardless of whether or not their cause has been neutralized.  The possibilities were... a threat."

He exhaled in an audible, disdainful puff.  "The possibilities Zero fed you?"

"The possibilities Zero fed me."  In the moments before Wing's demise.  They had all been rendered obsolete by the time I got down to the control center.

"Then it was wrong."  He didn't say it with any real emphasis, but it came out more strongly than his normal tone.   "Mariemeia's still alive, and there haven't been any more revolts in her name."

"Zero never predicted that she would jump in front of a bullet.  It wouldn't."

"So it's not the perfect analytical machine."  He made it sound as if I had just proved some point for him.

"Of course not.  Zero is a computer.  The idea of self-sacrifice doesn't really fit very well into computer logic, especially when the person she was protecting was not her grandfather, but a person that had been her hostage only minutes prior to that."

He chuckled.  "So I guess it can't account for the weird, random notions that humans can produce from time to time, eh?"

"No, I suppose not."  Even pseudo-chaotic systems such as weather could be reasonably predicted if they followed natural, rigorous laws, but human whimsy -- or inspiration, one might say -- was very much too random to work with.  Even any 'random' number a computer generated was just the result of a formulaic calculation based on very large integers.  For all the knowledge a computer might gain, it would never be capable of an intuitive leap.

"I like the idea that it's fallible.  Makes it a little less intimidating."

"Zero's just a computer, Duo.  It does what it's told.  If a computer produces strange results, it's probably user error."

"I've noticed that computer people always blame the user."

"What did you see?" I asked curiously.  "When you were plugged in to the system, what did it show you?"

"I saw..."  He trailed off, going introspective for a few moments.  He shook his head sharply then, as if dislodging the visions.  "I saw some seriously weird shit.  What do you see?  It seems to make sense for you, and I can't even begin to imagine what that must be like."

"...To not see crazy things?"

I won a startled laugh from him.  "Yeah, sure.  I see crazy things all the time, don't you?  Well, no, I guess not, 'cuz that was the point, right?"

I wanted to answer his question frankly, but I had to fumble for the words to describe it.  "It's... You don't really see things anymore.  When you're out of sync with the system, you feel it.  You see things, nothing makes sense, everything seems wrong.  Notions come flying at you out of nowhere, and it's a struggle to keep up, if you can.  But when you're in sync with the system... you don't feel it.  If it feeds you a possibility, you feel it no more than you would... an intuitive leap.  I guess the technical explanation would say something about how it calibrates its output to match the user's brainwaves.  It just sort of... slides right in, and doesn't mess anything else up while it's there."

He shuddered dramatically.  "Well, that's kinda freaky, don't you think?"

No, actually, I didn't.   I thought it was rather clean, elegant, and maybe even a little bit beautiful.  "How so?"

One of his hands released the steering wheel to scratch at his other.  "I mean, think about it.  Couldn't Zero just, like, take over a guy's mind?  Just pop a few thoughts in there, make a person do whatever it wanted?  How could a person even tell?"

"A thought from Zero feels different," I started automatically, defending the system, but I had to stop myself and consider it from another's shoes.  For me, I had a choice.  I recognized Zero's analyses and just took them into account when making my decisions.  I didn't act automatically upon them.  But that was just me.  "Well... alright, it feels different to me, but I suppose it's possible that, if a person wasn't able to tell the difference, then he might get confused.  But as for Zero taking over someone's mind?  Zero analyzes whatever the user points it at.  It doesn't make those decisions itself."

"For you," he emphasized.  "You can point Zero at something in particular, but most people probably can't organize their thoughts so well.  Zero will pick up on whatever it thinks you're pointing it at, and that's an important difference."

I blinked in thought, intellectually understanding what he was trying to tell me, but finding it difficult to really picture it.   I'd never had that problem, myself.  "Hm.  I guess that's true enough."  Just another example of how dangerous Zero could be in the wrong hands.

Not seeing much more left to the subject, I went back to staring out the window, a part of me devoted to getting a feel for the air between us now.  We hadn't spoken about ourselves or what we had been doing for the last five years, but it seemed like a good start.  Maybe that was safer, anyway.  The facts of the last five years weren't important.  It was who we had become because of the last five years that really mattered.

Maybe it was just the feeling of urgency I got from this entire case, but something made me just go ahead and ask him about us.  I didn't look at him as I did, thinking at least to be non-confrontational about it.  I didn't want to start anything major.  I just wanted to know.  "Duo.  Why are you cross with me?"

I saw his reflection in the window glance at me reflexively, and he probably would have continued to do so if he hadn't been driving at the time.  He didn't answer though, so I pretended I hadn't asked and continued watching the traffic outside, listening to the wind whistle by.  It was almost two minutes later when he finally said something.  "You left, man."

I responded to him with a similarly soft voice.  "You said you understood."

His reflection cast another look in my direction.  "I did.... But things change, I guess."

There was a strange note of finality there that stopped me from trying to explain myself, or asking him to explain.  Maybe he didn't need to.  We were sixteen, then; now we were twenty-one.  Five of some of the most formative years of a person's life.  Of course things changed.  Just for the better, I hoped.

Was it true that, the more things changed, the more things stayed the same?  When we got out of the car, he reached out with a hand and fluffed my hair back into place after being mussed by the wind from the window I had opened.  It caught me off-guard even though I saw his hand coming.  I blinked at him.  He blinked back, then glanced around the neighborhood as he said gruffly, "You'd never be taken seriously with hair looking like that."

That... was a change.  And yet, his fingers brought back memories of a few simple, comforting moments of time during a period of turmoil.  I needed more of those.  It wasn't often that a person could catch a hold of something so basic and elemental that no thought needed to be devoted to it, even after it had fled.  It only needed to be tucked away into storage, preserved and treasured.

When he looked back at me to signal his readiness, he did an amusing double-take, his eyes widening as he peered at my head more closely.  Reaching out once more, he snagged a lock of hair and fingered it in the sunlight.  "Yuy... is your hair green?"

I reflexively tried to look at what he was holding, but that obviously didn't fare very well.  I would have to trust his judgment.  "Is it still?  Not all of it, though, right?"

He dropped my hair to stare at me.  "You know?"

"Wouldn't you be more frightened if I didn't know?  I thought it would have come out by now."  I shrugged.  I never saw my hair in the light much, so I didn't think about it too often.  I also never thought that 'my roots are showing' would be something I could say in all seriousness.

"What on earth possessed you to dye your hair?"

"A friend's twenty-first birthday.  If nothing else, she has an eye for quality."  I tugged my bangs in front of my eyes and inspected the coloring.  It had never been a very powerful hue, but now its color had faded enough to give me subtle mossy highlights.  The effect was interesting.

He paused, then scratched at his head.  "Don't people usually, I don't know, go out drinking or get tattoos or something?"

"I already got one of those."

He blinked at me.  I blinked back, maintaining a perfectly neutral expression.  At length, he laughed uneasily.  "Man, you're a trip, you know that, Yuy?"

The more things changed, indeed.

We didn't find anything.  We searched the apartment, and then we canvassed the neighborhood, and all we got was confirmation that Brisbois kept to himself, kept regular hours, bought a newspaper from the corner stand every morning.  He was allergic to dogs.  Every Tuesday, he ordered Chinese takeout, and wasn't a very good tipper.  The people in the area had been friendly enough, especially with Duo to work some impressive charm and smooth-talking on them, but once again, there simply wasn't that much information to give up.

There was a surprise waiting for us when we got back to the office.  Duo preceded me and entered the office, pausing for a moment when he caught sight of our guest.  I nearly bumped into him before he sprang back into motion with a happy exclamation.   "Lena!"

He strode into the room to approach her, leaving me suddenly exposed to the scene.  I stood there in the doorway blinking dumbly at her as she returned the warm hug that Duo gave her, adding a peck on his cheek.  I didn't know what to feel.

Relena.  She meant a lot to me, in a strange sort of way.  Seeing her again made all sorts of things swell up inside of me.  For some reason, I hadn't prepared myself for this, even though I knew she generally worked in the city, and even though I had known Quatre was going to contact her.  She turned towards me, making eye contact, and I could see that same sort of force hit her.  We stared at each other for a few silent seconds with a similar sort of shallow breathing before I choked her name out through my stupor.

Her face lit up with a brilliant smile, even more powerful than the one I saw her wield on her unsuspecting victims in the newsfeeds.  She'd always had a way of smiling at a crowd that made it feel like her smile was meant just for you.  "Heero.  It's been far too long since I last heard someone say my name like that."

It took me a little while to process what she meant.  I didn't notice it as much anymore when the L1 colonial accent slipped into my speech.  I didn't have to anymore.  The realization got my brain working again, and I finished entering the room, shutting the door behind me.  It registered that the others were watching us with varying expressions on their faces: indulgent, interested, intent.

What to say?  "It's... been a while."

She laughed softly.  "Yes.  Yes, it has."  She started to close the distance between us, and I met her halfway.   "You're looking as handsome as ever."

Handsome?  Not quite.  She was making me feel sixteen again.  "And you..."  She looked every last centimeter of her the beautiful princess I had left, even in her business casual pant suit, her hair pulled back in a loose braid.  She retained the poise and confidence that had driven me to protect her, only now it was more refined.  Well, I could be, too.  This little boy had learnt a few tricks over the last few years.  A princess she was, though the title was renounced, and whimsy made me give her a prince in return.  I took up her hand and bowed over it, my lips just barely brushing over the back of it.  "You have grown only more lovely with the years."

I fulfilled my promise to her and showed her a roguish smile, winning another laugh that was almost more startled than amused.  I don't know why it felt so good to see her delighted, but it did.   If I could bring that look to her face with a few embellishments, then so I would.  "What are you doing here?" I asked, releasing her hand.

Her smile dimmed.  "Quatre told me what happened.  I can help prepare for the worst-case scenario."  Then she brightened again for a moment.  "And then we are all going to have dinner together, and we will catch up."

Business first.  Trowa pulled the chair out for her at the remaining seat in the office, the desk next to mine and in front of the door, and the rest of us seated ourselves soon after.  Duo and I briefed them on what little we had found out about Brisbois, while Trowa and Quatre told us what little they had learnt from Brisbois upon further investigation.  All in all, it was fairly unencouraging.

Afterwards, we discussed what few, quiet things Relena could work on to make sure that the world was ready to deal with a crisis, should our thieves precipitate a disaster.  It could be just as much a disaster if panic were spread prematurely.  The meeting could have gone on all night, getting progressively gloomier as time went on, and finally we had to simply declare a stop to it before we ruined our morale entirely.

As promised, she whisked us all away to a late dinner in the city.  I managed to keep myself mostly out of the crossfire, dodging questions in favor of absorbing new knowledge about them.   There was a lot to be learned by simply watching.

When Relena heard that I was staying in a room on the base, she insisted that I take a room at the embassy.  It would have been strangely reminiscent of the days following the Barton incident.  I declined the invitation.  It was convenient for me to stay on the base.  Nevertheless, she did manage to squeeze one night out of me, just so we could spend some time in each other's company.

I followed her home, stopping outside for a moment to study the estate.  It seemed different than when I had last seen it, but it hadn't actually changed.  Only Duo wasn't in the window, and it was evening now, not dawn.  The roses had bloomed, rather than being clipped back for the winter.  I suppose the most significant difference was that I was coming, not going.

She installed us in the sitting room of her suite, kicking off her pumps to curl herself in the arm of the sofa.  She propped one elbow up along the back of the sofa and watched me with the same amused delight I had seen before.  I bore it silently, perched on my end of the sofa, until she finally spoke.  "You look good, Heero."

"You've said that already," I pointed out dryly.

"No, I said you were handsome before.  This time... You look good.  Settled, I mean."

"You agree, then?"  I wanted her to say yes.  Her approval in this matter suddenly meant a lot to me.  "That leaving wasn't such a bad idea?"

"Not if you've come back to us with such... with such a confidence in yourself.  You were so..."

I saved her the trouble of trying to find diplomatic words.  "Unsure?  Uncomfortable?  Unsettled?"

Her laugh was very pleasant to my ears, no longer girlish, but still quite feminine.  "Well, you're certainly more open now, that's for sure."

Open?  No.  I had always been open with her.  I just had more answers now.  "If I've done anything over these last few years, it's gotten to know myself better."

"And if that's the case, then how could your leaving have been a bad idea?"  Her expression softened with understanding.  "Have they been giving you a hard time about it?"

Perhaps that was why I so suddenly craved her approval.  Or why I was so willing to talk to her.  We'd always been rather alike in the paths our thoughts could travel.  "No... but... You really think it was the right thing?"  She had reduced me to that lost sixteen year old again, seeking counsel from one no less young and lost than I.

A simple smile reassured me, as it always had.  "Don't you?"

I nodded firmly.  "Absolutely.  I'm... just not certain they think the same, and... it saddens me."

"Are you sure?  They're all happy you're back, Heero."

"Happy I'm back...  Back, like I went astray for a little while, but now I've learnt the errors of my ways and come home."  I forestalled her protests.  "They don't say anything of the sort, of course.  But if that's the impression I get, it hardly matters if they say anything, now does it?"

She bit the inside of her lip a little in thought, an old habit it comforted me to see.  How easily we had fallen back into our old pattern with each other.  "They've just missed you is all, Heero.  It was never so hard as when we'd gathered, but we couldn't say 'all of us' because we were missing someone."

"I'm sorry," I felt obliged to apologize.  "But I had--"

She shushed me before I could finish my sentence.  "I know.  I agreed, remember?  And you kept your promise; you came back with a smile on your face."  She reached towards me, then stopped herself, giving me an odd little look.  "Do I get to hug you?"

I blinked at the sudden question, but apparently I managed to look amenable to it since she clamored across the sofa to wrap her arms around me sideways and squeeze.  It felt good, enough so that I brought my hands up to rest on the arm she had draped across my chest.  I hadn't been hugged like that since I had bid her good-bye.

We enjoyed it for a few long seconds before she disengaged and grinned impishly at me.  "I would have hugged you when I first saw you, but you took my hand first and bowed over it!  Now where in the world did you learn such a thing?"

I smiled back at her.  "You can learn a lot in school."

"I didn't know they still taught classes in courtly manners."

"Drama class, actually.  Emphasis in improv."

She laughed in her startlement.  "Drama?  Why, I had no idea you had an interest in such a thing."

I shrugged dismissively.  "I figured if I wanted to learn how to act normal, I'd better learn how to act normal."  That had taken care of the 'acting' part of things.  Taking a few classes in psychology had helped me to better understand the 'normal' side of things.

I could tell she didn't quite know what to make of that.  I thought it a reasonable course of action, but I suppose I could see how a person might be disturbed by the notion of literally 'acting' normal.  She recovered with her typical grace and aplomb.  "Is kissing a lady's hand 'normal'?"

"I thought it was appropriate for the situation.  Would you have preferred a hug like the one you gave Duo?"

"If I were to be hugged by you, I would hope it to be one with your own signature on it, not just an imitation," she answered haughtily.

And speaking of Duo... "You two seem to be good friends."

"Hmm?"  She batted her lashes mischievously at me.   "Jealous?"

I shook my head.  "Of course not.  Just... unexpected, I guess.  You two never spent much time together before I left."

"And then you left, and we spent time together."  She threw me an arch look that I couldn't interpret.  It disappeared before I could figure it out.  "He's a good man."

"He is," I agreed with a slight smile, thinking back on the times we had spent together.  Nothing like the times now.   Maybe it wasn't my place to ask, or her place to get involved, but I asked anyway.  "Do you know why he's unhappy with me?"  When I saw a conflicted look on her face, I took it back.  "Never mind.  It's between us, I guess."  No easy answers for me, not at the price of putting her on the spot and dividing her loyalties.

She agreed reluctantly.  "It is... but... he's just thrown by your sudden return.  He'll get over it."

That didn't seem exactly right, considering what he had said to me during the ride to Brisbois' apartment.  'Things change.'   Had they changed so much we could no longer be friends?  That would be regrettable.  "He'll get over it... but things will be different."

"As well they should be.  You're two different people now."

Had I really changed so much?  I still had all the same things inside of me that had always been there.  They'd just been rearranged a little.  I wondered if that was the case with Duo.  It was hard to tell.

This piece of fiction is the intellectual property of the little turnip that could. The basis for this fic, i.e. Gundam Wing, Kyuuketsuki Miyu, et al., is the property of someone else. The author can be con tacted at jchew at This has been an entirely automated message.

last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST