Author: The Manwell

see part i for warnings, notes, disclaimer

The Stand-In
XII.

The crew watches as the young man works continuously, silently, and methodically. They'd offered to help but their gestures had been refused. They'd extended an invitation to include their passenger in their evening card games but that, too, had been declined.

"Hey, Howard! What's with your boy?" one of the mechanics asks.

Howard braces his hands on the metal railing and gazes down at the youth through his tinted sunglasses. "He's just quiet," he tells his perplexed employees. "He's always been like that."

"Oh yeah?" another man asks, looking concerned. "If you ask me, that kind of single-minded stubbornness just ain't natural."

Howard chuckles. "Maybe not," he agrees, "but it's normal for him."

A few random grumbles follow that statement before the small crowd disperses. Howard remains on the upper deck for a moment before winding his way down the Sweepers' ship. He's been keeping an eye on the kid's progress and knows it's almost time.

Approaching the young man, Howard calls out, "Hey, kid! How's it going?"

He expects no answer and isn't disappointed when he doesn't get one.

"You gonna need some help getting that thing ashore?"

The youth shakes his head, his hands continuing without interruption.

Howard considers the boy's even more silent companion. "You sure you don't want to sell that to me? I could give you a real good rate on the scrap."

Again, he shakes his head.

Howard shrugs. "Ah, well. Can't hurt to ask, right?"

There is no discernable reply to that.

"So, if you're not gonna sell it and you can't fight with it anymore, what are you planning to do with your Gundam?"

The young man finally pauses in his preparations. Howard finds himself staring into a pair of deep, dark eyes. The silence suddenly surrounding him is so intense that he doesn't even notice the sound of the waves lapping against the hull of the ship. Those eyes draw him in and Howard has the crazy thought that, if he only knew the kid's language, he'd understand the meaning in that stare.

Slowly, the young man looks away, out across the sea. Very deliberately, he softly says, "For a year, I've been watching. I've been waiting to see if it's true. I've been listening to the world and I think it's finally here. I think this peace is real."

Howard blinks. He's so surprised to have actually gotten a verbal response that he doesn't immediately think of a reply himself.

After a beat of silence, the youth continues, "I've been keeping an eye on her as well. And I'll continue to do so, but the world is different now."

The young man turns back to the twisted, broken machine of war and gently lays a hand against the scorched metal.

"I must reevaluate my purpose," he says. "I must discover what I am without... this."

Howard can only watch as the boy caresses the metal briefly before his hand falls away. Turning his attention once again to the vast expanse of the ocean, he concludes, "I owe it to her. To myself. To everyone."

//Well, what's a guy supposed to say to that?// Howard muses, scratching a spot above his ear. Hell, he'd had no idea the kid had even been capable of coherent speech let alone philosophy.

"Stop the ship."

It takes Howard a moment to realize his passenger has spoken. And then it takes another moment to realize what he'd said.

"You want me to stop the ship," Howard repeats, wondering after the young man's sanity.

"Yes."

"Here?"

"Yes."

Howard looks around him, befuddled. "But we're in the middle of the Pacific! There's nothing out here!"

The youth nods. "Exactly."

Suddenly, Howard gets it. "Ah. I think I see." Is it irony that this Gundam is about to return to the depths in which it sank upon its initial entry though the Earth's atmosphere? Or is it justice? Does it matter if this is where a machine such as this truly belongs?

Howard nods once. "All right." Removing his two-way radio from where he keeps it clipped to his belt, Howard radios the control room and commands a halt to the vessel's progress. As the engines slow, then begin to whine again as they reverse, Howard lays a hand on the kid's shoulder. "You want me to open the hatch?"

"No" is the reply. "I'll do it."

"Okay, then." And Howard resigns himself to watching as the remains of the Gundam Wing Zero are dropped into the depths of the ocean. Afterwards, he expects to see the young pilot lingering near the railing, watching that spot in the ocean where the mecha had fallen, but to his surprise, Heero Yuy doesn't look down. He looks up. Into the sky.

Howard studies the almost-wistful expression on the lad's face and shakes his head, unable to begin to imagine the thoughts going through that boy's mind. So he moves off ­ going on about his business ­ and never knowing that the young soldier is thinking of two people. Two people who are at this very moment falling through the sky with hands clasped. Two people who are Duo Maxwell and Sasha Abei.

Aboard the Sweepers' ship, Dr. J's lingering protégé stares up at the sky... and smiles.

The End

Author's Notes:

:: In "Endless Waltz" it's assumed that Heero's Gundam is destroyed during his attack on Dekim Barton's underground fortress. However, I wanted a more definitive ending. Plus... I needed an excuse to bring Heero Yuy back into the story.

:: Howard's thoughts on returning Wing Zero to the exact place where it had rested upon arriving on Earth the first time refers to Episode 1; Wing crashed into the ocean near the J.A.P. point after encountering resistance from Zechs.

:: So, where does the stand-in theory come from? Well, actually, I'm not really sure. Stellarbeams (co-webmistress of "Left Wing") saw a program about it on "Sightings" or "Unsolved Mysteries" or some TV show like that and told me about it. Neither one of us have been able to find much information on it which leads me to think this isn't a widely accepted theory in science or even along its fringes. Still, it's damn interesting.

:: Feel free to take this final chapter as metaphoric. Or interpret it literally. Tell yourself that's Heero's "ghost," if you like. Either way... it makes you wonder about the fate of that which we create. (As a side note, the book "Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder illustrates this concept brilliantly.)

:: Also, Heero's admission to watching over "her" is ­ you guessed it ­ a reference to Relena. Although I (as a fan of the series) don't really feel the connection between them could lead to a substantial relationship, I can't deny that there is a connection. And in "The Stand-In," I've decided to express it in the brilliantly (if I do say so myself) mysterious (so glad I thought of it) concluding scene. Thanks for reading! Until next time...

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