- 20 -

As promised, Duo showed up in my room again that night, a small bag slung over his shoulder.  Following the pattern, I allowed him into my room without a word.  I hadn't been waiting for him to knock on my door, but I had had the feeling that he would.  Though he hadn't promised as much earlier, he had said it with that peculiar undertone that indicated he meant it.

He sat down on my bed, watching me watching him.  I had left the light on this time.  It made things seem different.   I became more aware of the fact that I was wearing a tank top and pajama bottoms, while he was still wearing his button down and slacks, though his shirt had the top two buttons undone and its sleeves rolled up.  What was in the bag, I wondered.  My eyes moved in that direction.  His followed, then returned to me.

This was obviously not getting me any closer to a restful sleep.  With a slight shake of my head, I walked over to the main light switch and flipped it off, the small nightlight by the bathroom automatically kicking in.

"What the heck?" he asked, a confused amusement leaking into his voice.

I climbed around him on the bed and sat with my back to the pillows, facing him.  One leg hung off the side of the bed.   The other was bent, and I rested a hand on my knee.  "Do you realize that any time we've been in this situation, the lights have always been off?  And with them on just now, we obviously weren't getting into any sort of situation."

He was silent for a moment before he chuckled.  "I do believe you're right.  That's gotta say something about our relationship, you know?  Like..."

"I can think of a few things it can say, but I don't like them very much.  It could say we were hiding from each other, or that we're uncomfortable with each other...  But we're not, are we?"

Repeating his earlier MO, he was quiet for a few long moments before he moved.  "If we are, we shouldn't be," he said, determination in his voice as he leaned over me to hit the switch on the small reading light next to my bed.

I reached out to turn the switch another notch, dimming the light.  It was still brighter than it was before, though.  He caught me with startled look.  "You're not... are you?"

That was the obvious conclusion, I supposed, but incorrect nevertheless.  I shook my head.  "No, I just don't like white light too much.  It's so... institutional."

"Artificial?  Cold?  Man-made, even?  Yeah, reminds me of the colonies, I guess.  You'd think that after all this time, 'simulated sunlight' would have more of an emphasis on 'sunlight' and less on 'simulated'."

"And bases... without windows," I added thoughtfully.   "They have that same lighting, too.  Hangars, and metal walls.  Office buildings.  Anything with those overhead fluorescent bulbs.  Those things are horrible.  Especially when they flicker."

He smirked at me.  "No wonder you live on Earth.  You sure you were born to the colonies?"

"I like space," I said in my defense.  "I like low gravity.  I like being able to look at some point far away, and not see the horizon curve off at a measurable distance.  But that's space, which is different from living in space.  I do like not having to think about recycled air and reclaimed water and explosive decompression."

His lips spread into another smile.  "How did you ever survive in the cockpit of a suit?"

"Wing was different.  For starters, I trusted Wing to not explosively decompress me."  Exercising some right only he had, he pushed at my knee, humor passing through the gesture.  His hand lingered, then slid down my shin to rest lightly around the bare skin of my ankle.  I looked at it for a second before finishing my train of thought.  "Wing was warm with the heat of all the electronics.  It wasn't lit with white light.  There were the green lights showing everything checked out.  There were the red warning lights.  The blue LEDs for the numeric readouts.  The amber display of Zero."

His grip tightened barely for a fleeting moment.  "Zero..."

I shrugged.  You'd think its name was some sort of horrible taboo, what with the way everyone always flinched at its mention.   "I like warm light.  It just seems to make everything... warmer."

"Gee, ya think?"

"Not everything in life has to be rich with meaning."  Some things were just simple gestures, like the way his fingers rubbed soothingly at my ankle.

He made a sour face.  "But a lot of things are, even if you don't realize it."

And that was probably one of them.  I didn't push him into explaining.  Everything came in its own time, and at its own pace.  "Have you spent much of your time in the colonies?"

What was so difficult about the question that he pursed his lips?  "Yeah.  Yeah, I did.  Or ships, otherwise.   You know.  Sticking with the familiar, I guess."

"There's nothing wrong with the familiar, so long as you don't fear the unknown."

Though he laughed again, this time it was a sharp sound.   "'Not everything is rich with meaning', and yet you're always spouting these... these sage little sayings.  You're like a goddamn fortune cookie."

I took his cynicism in stride.  "Perhaps I should rephrase, then.  There are some things in life that are simple, and maybe meaningful in that simplicity."  I put a hand on top of his, forcing him to meet my eyes.  "This is one of them."  The distance between our lips was easily dispelled in favor of a more comfortable communion.  I kissed him, trying to recapture that air of innocence we used to have.

Success was achieved in some small measure.  When I pulled back, the faint beginnings of a scowl had faded, though its replacement was not worry-free.  Patting his hand, I left his thoughts to percolate while I got up and headed towards the sink with the intent of brushing my teeth.

As I squeezed my toothpaste from the bottom up, Duo sighed.  "I'm discontent, Heero.  Fix me."  His tone was only partially joking.

If only that were one of the simple things in life.  I paused, turning to face him, then turning back briefly to set my toothbrush down before it dripped onto the floor.  "I don't have the answers you want, Duo.  Just... figure out what's bothering you.  Figure out where you'd rather be.  Figure out how to get there.  Then start doing it."  That was, sadly, all the advice I could give.  I wasn't certain what it was that was making him unhappy, and I wouldn't know until he decided to tell me, if, in fact, he knew himself.  I suspected he didn't.

I watched him contemplate things in the bathroom mirror while I brushed my teeth.  His presence there reminded me of his initial goal of making sure I got enough sleep that night, which in turn reminded me of Sally, which in turn reminded me of the orange bottle sitting in my overnight bag that was probably still more full than it ought to have been.  After I was done with my teeth, I popped the cap off the bottle and tipped two tablets into the palm in my hand, briefly wishing that they could have a cumulative effect as well.   If only I could do the entire bottle at once and just be as good as new.  Shaking my head a little, I left the sink to cross the room for a water bottle, and with a sip I tossed back my pills.

Capping the bottle and putting it back down, I returned my attention to Duo, only to find him staring at me with wide eyes.   "What?" I asked.

His mouth moved several times in aborted beginnings before he buckled down and found the proper thing to say.  "You... That's not a part of why you left or something... is it?"

I blinked with incomprehension.  "Is what?"

He gestured vaguely in my direction.  "I mean, you're not, like... sick or something, are you?"

I blinked some more, then figured out he was actually waving at the sink area behind me.  It clicked.  "Those are just vitamins, Duo.  Really."

His skepticism endured for the duration of a good, hard look before he laughed nervously.  "Vitamins, huh?  You... you had me worried for a second there.  What with you being so worn out lately, and Sally getting on your case for... for... I don't even know what, and you just leaving and coming back all philosophical about life...."  He ran a hand through his bangs.  "Geez.   Scare a guy, why don't you?"

"Sorry."  I smiled an apology and moved back to the bed, tugging the covers out from underneath him and folding them back.   Taking my former seat with nearly the same position, I stopped to give him an impulsive embrace before releasing him and tucking my toes beneath the blankets.  He seemed to need one.  "You're not completely incorrect, I guess.  It is a part of the reason I left."

"What?"  An edge of tension ran within his one word.

I moved to allay his fears immediately.  "I'm not sick or anything.  I'm just... worn out."  I sighed, deciding to start from the beginning of the story.  "After the Barton incident, when I was still in the hospital, Sally came to talk to me.  They'd done some testing.  She gave me a run down of all the damage I had done to my body... and all of the long term effects it had.  She warned me in no uncertain terms that if I continued to 'pull off such crazy stunts' that my body would break before I did, and that, as it is, I'm going to have to be extra nice to myself if I don't want to be trapped in a prison of my own making in my later years."

He reached out, staring at me as if he could see past my skin and straight to the bones that had been fractured, the muscles that had been strained, the joints that had been dislocated.  "...So you take vitamins?" he hissed in disbelief.  "It's all breaking down, and you just take vitamins?  What the hell is that going to do?"

I could help it.  I laughed.  He glared.  I laughed again, taking his hand that had been suspended above my skin and pushing it down to the mattress with my own.  "And I take it easy, most of the time.  I can't fix it, Duo.  I can stop it from getting worse, but it's not going to get better.  The damage has been done."

He raised his other hand to my shoulder and ran it down my arm.  "So you really are out of the game," he breathed.

"Absolutely not," I responded firmly.  "If something needs doing, I'm going to do it.  But in the meantime, I'm going to maintain my body so I know it'll be good to go if I need it."

"But..."  That disturbed, concerned look in his eyes hadn't gone away.  He shook his head, dismissing his previous thought.  "Dammit, Yuy, maybe you're right.  Maybe you haven't changed that much after all."

I quirked a smile at him.  "Told you so."

With only an absent gesture that ended up more a caress than anything forceful, he slapped at my arm, fingers ending the action by tracing the curves of my muscles, the lines of my scars.  They lingered on that little reminder he'd left me of our first meeting.  "I guess that makes me feel a little better."

"I thought you were going to be pissed if I hadn't changed.  More pissed, that is.  And for the better, as I recall."  I shook my head at him fondly.  "I can't tell if you're always placing yourself in a win-win situation, or a no-win situation."

"Heh, Quatre's the Winner.  I'm just... me."

He shouldn't have said that like it wasn't a remarkable thing.  It was.  "I hate to be a source of your discontent, Duo."

His hand stopped, then jumped, as if only in stopping did he realize what it had been doing all this time.  "You're not--   Well... it's not your fault, anyway."

The concession hardly appeased me.  "Would it help to just... make up your mind about me?  If you need answers from me, I'll give them to you gladly."

He looked up at me through downcast lashes, glancing down at one point to focus on the hand that had fallen on top of mine, fingers curling around my wrist.  "...Maybe by 'change for the better' I meant... being well-adjusted.  I guess... a person doesn't really have to change for that.  Which makes me feel better, see... 'cuz then it seems a lot easier."

So there was a bit of logic behind his wavering.  I knew it had to be in there somewhere, but it was probably something I would never figure out on my own.  "No.  They don't have to change.  It's not much more complicated than... changing your clothes to fit your environment."

"Hey, that wasn't a mobile suit analogy."  He pouted an accusation at me to put off having to process the statement.

I smiled.  "Fine.  Mobile suits have to undergo different modifications to be fit for land, sea, air, and space, right?"

"That's not as easy as changing clothes."

"See, I liked my original comparison better.  You're still wearing the long sleeves from the war.  Shed a few layers.   It's not so cold anymore."

He laughed sharply.  "Ha, this coming from the person I hear wore a tank top and shorts in Antarctica."

I shrugged.  "Didn't I say it was warm in a cockpit?"

He laughed again, some of the edge taken off this time.   "What if I don't have much in the way of short sleeves?"

"Go shopping."

His nose wrinkled a little.  "I hate clothes shopping."

"So do I.  But it's a necessary evil if you want to find something that fits well and looks good.  And is something you like.  Watch out for when other people try to buy you clothes according to what they like.  That doesn't always work out so well."

His laugh finally wore itself down to warm chuckle.   "Personal experience much?"

"Yes," I answered, thinking about the t-shirt Trix had given me.  The one with the evil bunny wielding a pointy carrot on the front.  She'd thought it was the most hilarious thing in the world.   I wondered if Duo would like it.

He plucked at my tank top, rubbing the fabric between his fingers as if he could get a decent feel for the 'clothing' that I was wearing.  "Sometimes it takes a long time to find something you like."

"Maybe in the meantime, you take off your shirt anyway.   You may not want to go out in public much, but at least you won't be so hot."

"Couldn't I just push up my sleeves?"

This conversation was getting a little out of hand.  I had long since stopped trying to figure out what I was really saying.   "That never works for long.  They always fall back down again.  Maybe if you take it all off, you'll have better incentive to find something-- what?"

He had started laughing.  His head was tossed back in helpless amusement, but when his chuckles died down he leaned forward, resting against my shoulder.  "You do realize you just told me to strip to my skivvies?"

That startled a small laugh from me.  So I had.  Maybe it had been a bad idea to disengage my mind from the task.  "That wouldn't be an entirely bad idea if you're staying."  My fingers squeezed between us and wandered up to his shirt buttons.

He jerked back.  "Heero..."

"Are you staying?"  I had meant it as a simple question, but my quiet tone somehow added a depth of implication I hadn't intended.


"Because if you are," I continued, shaking off that moment of meaning.  "You'll get your clothes all wrinkly if you wear them to sleep.  You should put on the proper attire for the given activity."  I wasn't sure anymore whether I was actually talking about clothes, or life in general.

He suddenly looked frustrated and relieved at the same time.  "Heero, you..."  He exhaled forcefully.  "Yeah.  I guess.  I probably shouldn't or something, but... sure.  I'll stay."

"Good."  My fingers crept back up to his buttons, not that he needed my help.  They just felt like performing the task.   He watched me as I undid the four buttons, tugged the cloth from the waistband of his pants, and unbuttoned the last.  When his shirt finally parted completely, I found myself fascinated by the way his body had filled out over the years.  He was neither bulky nor scrawny, his wiry strength having spread out into something a little more solid.  The not-harsh light cast a warm tint over his skin, the angle bringing forth shadows that defined his pecs and abs.  I ran a finger beneath the collar of his shirt, heading towards his shoulder, but then he broke the contact, leaning forward suddenly to untie the laces of his boots.

I watched him, watched his braid slide forward over his shoulder, watched him flick it irritably back.  I caught it before it defied him again, and I could tell that he noticed my action by the brief tensing of his muscles, but he let my presumption pass and finished taking his boots off.

After he straightened, I returned the tail of hair to his custody with an odd reluctance, compensating by moving to complete my earlier action.  Slipping my hands across the warm skin beneath the edges of his open shirt, I slid the fabric off his shoulders and tugged at it until Duo shrugged his arms out of it completely.  With careful aim, I fluffed it out and tossed it over the back of a nearby chair.

Under his curious scrutiny, I started in on his belt, then paused, hands still on the buckle.  "You *are* wearing your skivvies underneath this, right?"

I knew I was losing it when I mentally cheered that I had managed to make him laugh again.  I'd gone too long without hearing it, and it'd only been a couple of minutes.

"Yes, I am, thank you for asking."  His hands fell on top of mine, holding me by the wrists for a moment before he nudged my hands out of the way.  I let him finish on his own.  After he wriggled out of his pants, revealing boxers underneath, I took them from him, shook them out again, then folded them neatly before tossing them over to join his shirt.

"Wow," he commented, amusement dancing over his entire face.  "You weren't kidding about that whole 'wrinkly' thing, were you?"

"You can't show up to work like that," I answered primly.   "What would people think?"

Something else danced its way into his expression as he leant forward.  "That I slept with Heero Yuy... and you wouldn't be able to deny it."

I was trapped in our eye contact when his finger darted forth, slipped beneath the waistband of my loose cotton pants, and pulled.  He craned his neck and got a glimpse before I managed to jump in surprise and slap his hand away.  "Duo!"

He smirked at me.  "Briefs," he announced smugly.   "Just so we're on the same page."

Yes, he liked that, I'd grant him that.  It gave him peace of mind to know that we were equals, even if he didn't seem particularly body-shy.  "What would you have done if I hadn't been wearing anything under there?"  At least I'd asked first.

"Then I would have gotten an eyeful."  He didn't sound the least bit bothered by the possibility.  Were we on even ground again?  He seemed to have gotten his confidence back, enough for him to close the distance between us again and engage our lips in a kiss.  It crossed my mind to try and put a comforting edge to it, but he stubbornly turned it into something more, much like the first night he had come to this room.  Once again, I tried to process what it was that had changed about it, but he was making it damned difficult to think, so I gave up and saved it for a later time, abandoning myself instead to the way his lips massaged mine, the give and take of pressure and acceptance, the feel of his hand as it followed the dips and curves of the abs beneath my shirt.

My initial impression had not changed in the slightest: it was indeed good, if in a way I didn't understand.  I liked the way we spoke without words.  I liked the way I felt like I could trust someone enough to be in this position with him.  I liked the way humor and melancholy played off each other.  Somewhere inside my mind, a voice was going on about hormones and pheromones and humans being wired as reproductive beings, but that voice was boring and sounded something like Dr. J, the last person I wanted to be thinking about at a time like this, so I let it ramble on in the background while other things drowned it out.

A proximity alert sounded in my mind just a tad too late.   "Oof!" I couldn't help myself from saying, interrupting our kiss.   My hand removed itself from the base of his braid and flew between the wall and the back of my head, where less than gentle contact had been made when we had started leaning back without consideration for our position.

He stared at me with wide eyes before laughing, covering his mouth with one hand and clearly trying to stop so he could comfort me, but clearly failing.  I leveled a mock-glare at him, which finally induced him to reach out with his free hand and cradle the back of my head.  "Sorry," he choked out.  "You okay?"

I nodded, recognizing the humor even if I didn't feel the need to double over in laughter over it.  It didn't hurt.  It just surprised me, was all.  He gathered me to him and shifted us far enough down the bed that our heads could rest on the pillows.  I dropped a kiss on his cheek when he apologized again, letting him know that it was already history.

He sighed, settling on his side while I laid on my back.   His hand went back to toying with the fabric of my shirt.  "You know... I've never slept with anyone before -- literally, that is -- other than you, I guess."

That was an interesting revelation, if, in my mind, completely irrelevant.  In the spirit of equality, I answered in kind.   "Neither have I, I suppose."

"Just letting you know... Wouldn't want you to think I'm easy or something."  It sounded more like he was just trying to make conversation to me.

I snorted.  "Somehow, I don't think you'll ever be easy to me."  There was very little about him that I understood without a bit of thought, but that was why I had labeled him axiomatic, wasn't it?  The same applied to us.  I accepted the way things were between us without need for logical derivation.  If I didn't, I'd have to wonder why I was unhesitatingly undressing and sleeping with a man whom I was only really getting to reknow as of a few days ago.

From the way he looked at me, I thought it funny how much energy we probably devoted to trying to understand each other.  I wondered if he knew any better than I did.  I wondered if just maybe I was axiomatic to him, too.

"I think I like jammie-clad Heero," he declared suddenly.

It took me a moment to process what he meant by 'jammie', then another to recognize what my sleepwear had to do with anything, and even then, I still didn't quite follow his train of thought.  "Oh?"

He grinned, the discontent from earlier not showing itself now.  No doubt it would be back, but for now, it had fled.   "Jammie-clad Heero is warm and cuddly and full of wisdom."

I chose to let the 'warm and cuddly' part slide.   "Jammie-clad Heero has been on a journey in search of wisdom," I answered solemnly.

"Was it a long journey?"

I revised my answer to head off the tiredness that threatened to return already.  "A life-long journey.  Jammie-clad Heero is still on that journey.  ...And maybe he wouldn't mind a little company.  To keep things lively, you know."

He struggled against that dark mood again, waiting until he had emerged triumphant before answering.  "And where is jammie-clad Heero off to now?"

I shrugged.  "Maybe he'll wander over to your neck of the woods next."

"Hm."  He reached up to turn off the light, then settled down more deeply.  "And what will jammie-clad Heero do there?"

"Wait for an invitation?"

He hummed again thoughtfully, but in the end, he chose not to continue.  Instead, he bid me good night, and we closed our eyes.  About a minute later, I knew he wasn't yet asleep.  "Duo?" I asked softly.


"I meant it.  You can ask me whatever."

"Already did."

That was news to me.  "...Oh.  Did I answer?"


Huh.  Who knew?  Hopefully I gave a good answer.

As pleasant an interlude as the previous night had been, I still found myself waking up at what most people would consider an ungodly hour.  I might have rolled out of bed, too, if Duo's leg hadn't been thrown over my own, and his arm over my chest.  His other arm was wrapped around the arm I had resting between us, and his head lay close to my shoulder.

I shifted experimentally, using my free hand to dance around the arm on my chest, wondering how it could remove the impediment to my rising.  I was frowning at the appendage when Duo's sleepy murmur caught me in the act.  "Go back t'sleep."

I didn't answer, but I suppose he could guess at my reluctance by reading the body beneath his outflung arm.  "It's..."  He dragged that arm closer to his face so he could crack open his eyes and squint at the watch he was still wearing.  "Not even oh-six-hundred, dammit.  An' I said I was gonna make sure you slept, so sleep."  His arm slid across my chest again, and applied a passing downward pressure as if to emphasize that he had no intentions of letting me up.

"There are things that need to be done," I responded softly, reluctant to keep him awake with my own desire to be up and about.

"Not this early," he grumped, the morning scratchiness of his voice turning it into something more like a growl.  "Now go back to sleep and stop worryin'.  I won't let you oversleep."

I sighed.  Short of throwing him off of me, I had no other choice but to obey his commands, so I closed my eyes and let myself drift off again.

The next thing I knew, there was a tentative shaking of my shoulder.  "Heero?" Duo was saying softly.  His foot rubbed up and down along the inside of my calf.

I woke up rather immediately, but he soothed me back down with a hand through my bangs.  He looked like he'd been awake for at least a little while.  "Hey, relax, it's only seven-thirty.  Earlier than I'd want to get up, which I figure probably makes it just right for you."

Blinking the sluggishness from my eyelids, I let awareness saturate my mind, let it analyze the feel of waking up with a warm body next to mine.  It reached some positive preliminary conclusions.  "Good morning," I answered belatedly.

A corner of his lips curved upwards.  "Good morning to you, too."  He brushed his hand down the side of my face again.   "No wonder you haven't been getting enough sleep."


"You're kind of twitchy in your sleep, you know that?  Like you're dreaming."

"Really?"  I couldn't refute his claims.  Though I retained no memory of any dreams I may have had, I did get the impression that my mind had been active during my sleep, busy with things just below the surface of my consciousness.  It happened on occasion, but a lot more so recently.

"Mm-hmm."  His hand wandered back up to my hair.   "You're gonna insist we get out of bed now, aren't you?"

I let my actions speak for me, nuzzling his hand only briefly in apology before untangling myself from him and getting out of bed.   I stretched, and he lay there watching.  "That your idea of 'taking it easy'?"

"Regular exercise is an important part of routine maintenance."

I didn't catch his expression, but I knew he was emoting something at my back.  After a few moments, he rose and headed towards the small bathroom.

There were indeed things that needed doing, only we didn't have a good idea of what they were.  Unfortunately, we had no solid leads into Zamora's whereabouts or intentions.  That did not negate the fact that we still had to search for clues, however.  I was already feeling lazy from getting the extra ninety or so minutes in bed, despite the fact that I had probably needed it, and that the hour wasn't really late so much as normal.

I was done with my morning exercises and had gotten dressed by the time Duo emerged from the bathroom, the small bag he had brought with him last night in his hands now.  Eyeing its contents before he tied it shut, I saw it contained a few personal products.  I caught his eye and raised an eyebrow.  "You were planning on staying."

He shifted on his feet.  "No... I was just prepared in case I decided to stay."

Details.  I shook my head and brushed by him.  He was fully dressed when I got out, but I walked up to him and straightened out his collar for him, then smoothed the shirt over his shoulders.  "See?  Wrinkle-free."

He laughed.  "You weird me out sometimes, Yuy."

On the way into the office, I followed my custom and stopped by the commissary, once again prompting comment from Duo.  "Hey, do I now know the reason why you always have breakfast in the morning?"

"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day," I intoned piously at him.  That, and Sally would do unpleasant things to me if she found out I had willfully skipped a meal.

Wufei actually beat us to the office for once.  It was almost an odd feeling.  I left Duo to deal with him while I sat and booted up my computer.

Duo responded to some unasked question.  "What?"

Wufei spoke quietly, but not so quietly that I could not hear.  "Do you know what you're doing, Duo?"

I felt Duo's eyes on me, but made no sign that I noticed as I opened my milk while staring at the loading screen.  He eventually answered Wufei in with a similarly low voice.  "I sure hope so."

It didn't bother me that they were talking about me.  If they had been doing so this entire time, then it had helped Duo to think his way through some of the issues with me that had plagued him through the last week and more, and I could not begrudge him that.  Of all people, I knew that sometimes a person needed a change of venue and maybe the opinions of a disinterested party in order to see his problems more clearly.

Once I was logged into my computer, I hopped another signal out to the file server running out of my apartment.  A muttered curse caught the others' attention, and I informed them that during the night, there had been another four hits on information pertaining to me, three of them raised on files I had only flagged the day before.  It made me worry how many I might have missed the first time around.

I'm afraid I was rather useless that day.  Perhaps whatever had toyed with me through sleep had followed me into waking, creating an incessant undertone of thought to which I was not quite privy.  I made it into the afternoon, lost in my own little world so many times that Duo was starting to shoot me worried glances once in a while.

He was just as startled when I finally moved out of my funk to tap rapidly at my keyboard, accessing the images we had on file of Meridian's security systems.  I had already been in and out of those systems so often that they should have just given me an administrator account and been done with it.  It took me barely any time at all to find the data I needed, and when I had, I sat back in my chair and contemplated the ramifications.

Duo threw an eraser at me.  It hit me on my left arm and bounced to the floor.  I bent over to pick it up, and was able to hand it directly to him since he was next to me by the time I straightened.  He took it back without looking at it, instead looking at me intently.  He jerked his head towards the laptop.  "What did you find?"

Something that was only beginning to add up.  "Zamora was there that night we were."

"Yeah.  And?"  He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back casually against the edge of my table, but already there was a wrinkle about to form on his brow in anticipation of my news.

"Zero was, too.  The only problem is, they weren't in the same place."  We had caught the attention of the others.  I flicked my fingers towards my computer.  "The day we officially moved against Meridian, I checked their logs to see when Zamora had used his security clearance to enter the research lab where Zero was being kept.  I only just now realized and confirmed that there weren't any entries in the log indicating that he was there when we were that night."

"I concluded he was in his office," Wufei reported.  "I saw activity in there."

Quatre nodded, but brought up another idea.  "Could he have taken Zero to his office?"

I shook my head.  "The Zero system isn't something you can just pick up and borrow, unless they've done something revolutionary with its casing.  I didn't see any evidence of that in B-four-sixteen."

"You did say that portability would be a good thing," Duo reminded me.

"I did.  But would Zamora have been working on that by himself, and have it well-developed enough to be fully operational?  We know Hoffman and company weren't interested in that.  Even if he did borrow the system from the lab, he would have had to return it at some point, and the system doesn't log him doing so.  He couldn't have had it the whole time.  The team reported seeing it the next day."

"You also implied that remote control would be good.  Could he have accessed it remotely from his office?"

I tapped my fingers absently on the tabletop while I mulled it over.  "I'm not certain what sort of technology would be involved in that.  There would have had to have been hardware changes, maybe something someone would have noticed.  Some sort of wireless transmitter, sure, but over so great a distance?  Zero was on the network, but none of its systems were accessible from remote accounts via landline.  But wireless is more error-prone than a direct connection.  Either there would have to be a whole set of error-correction algorithms written, or else... or else Zero would just accept the flawed data and proceed as normal."

Quatre winced.  "That sounds... dangerous."

I nodded slowly.  "Yeah, it does.  And the latency might mess things up even further.  I can't see that being a very good idea... but of course, that doesn't mean that it wasn't done."  The foolishness of man would never cease to amaze me.

Duo made a wry sound.  Apparently he agreed with me.   "I don't suppose the logs show anyone else in the lab while we were there?"

"You wish things were that easy."

"Yeah, I do, sometimes."

So did I... sometimes.  Some things shouldn't be easy, like Duo.  I think I liked the fact that we were often on different wavelengths, so long as they were concordant frequencies.  I wouldn't find him half so interesting a person if I could easily understand his every whim and fancy.

That led me to wondering what Zero would think about Duo... and what Zero would think about me thinking about Duo... and then came that startling realization that I was thinking about Zero thinking, all on its own.

My face must have gone blank again because Duo snapped his fingers by my head to get my attention.  "Yo, Heero?  Still with us?"  He had on an amused expression, but there was concern lurking in his eyes.

"What if..."  I ran the words through my mind first to make sure they weren't as crazy as they sounded.  "What if Zero was acting on its own that night?  What if... I don't know why, but what if someone told it to watch the network that night?  What if there wasn't a human mind behind it?"

Oh, it made far too much sense in my mind.  That night, when contact between the two of us was made, I should have sensed it.  The way it deftly avoided me as I tracked its wake was far too graceful for it to have been wielded by some untrained, ill-equipped mind.  The bombardment I had received when I finally caught up with it had been no jumbled chaos of corrupted data, but a dense packet of information too concise and abstract for me to comprehend at first glance, though now I suspected my brain of slogging through it all in my sleep.  No, when I ran into it on the network, my thoughts had been entirely focused on the familiar sensation of Zero, with no one else getting in our way.

"Can it do that?" Wufei asked.  "Can a person hook Zero up to run on its own?"

"Not... exactly," I answered distractedly.  "You could change the input, set it up to receive network traffic, for instance, and define the pattern of input, but then you'd have to impress it with some sort of purpose.  You'd have to specify for Zero what you wanted to get out of the packet stream, and then you'd have to give it some form of output.  You could do it, but it'd be much like hooking a person up to Zero, and then having the person watch the network traffic, only then you'd be limited by the person's ability to receive and parse all that data well enough for it to be useful for Zero.  It's an analytical engine at the heart of it.  It'll analyze whatever you point it at.  The human hookup only provides direction, and a set of definitions can serve as a rudimentary proxy in the short term."

"So maybe that's why nothing happened when you were detected on the network," Trowa mused.  "Maybe Zero was never told what to do in that situation, and Zamora didn't take a look at Zero's activity until the next night, at which point he ran."

That was as good a theory as any, and it was what we went with, but still there was something... something more that I felt I was missing.  I don't think I'd ever been so frustrated with myself or my situation.

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