by: Sunhawk

Confrontations (cont)

Proud wasn't exactly the term I would have used. Resigned maybe. I flashed him a grin; during the war Trowa had always had the same fascination with machinery that I'd had. We had passed more than one afternoon permanently imbedding grease under our fingernails together. He would expect me to be excited about this, so I told him, 'Not new, but...you wanna see it?'

I noticed the somewhat... pleased look that came into Heero's eyes and made another conscious effort not to resent the hunk of metal that was parked out front. Trowa grinned his interest and we headed downstairs. Quatre and Wufei begged off, neither of them all that attracted to engines, teasing about how we would probably be gone for hours and they'd find us later with the car in a dozen pieces, trying to rebuild it into something that ran faster.

So I took my soda and Trowa, and we walked outside to look at my new car.

"What year is it?" Trowa asked as we made our way across the parking lot to where the thing was parked.

I blinked for a moment, but couldn't dredge it up. "I forget," I told him. "It should be on the paper on the window... I think it's still on there."

"A Chevy?" he questioned, as we got close enough for him to see the logo. "You told me once that you hated working on Chevys... didn't like the engine mounting."

I shrugged noncommittally. "Well, I'm hoping it runs well enough I won't have to be working on it constantly."

He had stopped to stand beside the car, reading the specs sheet still taped to the window. I stood back, sipping my soda and watching a squirrel that was digging around one of the trees next to the sidewalk. Weird things, squirrels... everybody thinks they're so cute, but get rid of the tail and what do you have? A rat.

"Well?" I heard Trowa say, and I looked at him, not sure what he was talking about.

"Well, what?" I frowned, and he snickered at me.

"Aren't you going to unlock it at least?" He crossed his arms across his chest and gave me an appraising look.

I flushed darkly, realizing that I hadn't even brought the keys. I told him as much and he laughed lightly, leaning back against the car. "Duo... if this car was any less 'you', it would be a tricycle."

I snorted and shook my head, taking another swallow of my soda while I thought of something witty to say. "We're not eighteen year old kids anymore," I finally managed. "Practicality has a little more to do with it than the 'coolness' factor."

But you want to know what kind of stung? Trowa had looked at that car and known in less than five minutes that it wasn't the sort of thing I would have picked out for myself. It kind of hurt that Heero didn't know me that well.

He cocked his head, glancing at the car and then at me. "It's a four cylinder," he said, his tone almost accusatory.

"I'm not planning on street racing it," I smirked.

"You hate an automatic transmission," he noted blandly and I could feel my face getting hotter by the minute.

"I got old and lazy," I grinned, bound and determined that he wasn't going to get me to admit anything. I'd learned a long time ago that anything said to one of these guys was said to all of them. That included Heero. Fat lot of good it was going to do me to buy this car to put Heero's mind at ease if Trowa just reported back to him that I hated the thing and had only settled on it to make him happy.

"Duo," Trowa said gently. "There isn't even a stereo in it."

I figured I'd better kick the evasion dance into a higher gear or I wasn't going to get through this conversation that had suddenly turned into an interrogation. "Ah," I scoffed. "Dealership didn't have anything worth bothering with. I'm planning on putting in my own system after I save a little money." Actually, I wasn't planning on doing a damn thing to it, because I just didn't care. But it crossed my mind, standing there in the parking lot with Trowa's penetrating gaze on me, that I would probably end up doing all kinds of work on the damn thing just to maintain the illusion for Heero. For a second I thought I saw a hamster standing on the dash with a little banner that said 'stupid!'

Trowa just stood and looked at me for a couple of long minutes and I was seriously afraid I saw a glimmer of some sort of understanding in his eyes. Trowa has always unnerved me; he sees things too damn clearly sometimes. "You need to stop breaking your own back trying to make Heero happy," he said suddenly and it's a wonder I didn't drop my bottle of soda right there in the parking lot.

I probably did my deer-in-headlights impression, but covered it with a swig from that bottle after I had a better grip on it. "What do you mean?" I asked in all innocence.

He frowned a little, shifting against the fender and recrossing his arms. "Duo... this car isn't anything like what you would have picked out for yourself," he cocked his head, looking at me intently. "In fact... I can probably name a half a dozen things about it you would hate, just off the top of my head."

I smirked at him, hiding my shock at how quickly he'd arrived at this conclusion. "It's a car, man," I told him. "Not a marriage."

"It's your first car, Duo," he said gently. "You should be allowed to have what you wanted. You should be excited about this."

God, but it was tempting to talk to him. It would have been nice to be able to spill all the frustration of the previous day on somebody. I had been excited... when we'd first started out yesterday. Before things had gotten... stressful. But I knew that anything I said to him would get repeated right back to Heero and I didn't want that. That damn car was sitting there because Heero had gotten scared. He'd never liked my using the bus, and that accident had taken all his fears and kicked them square in the nuts. It hadn't been about me finding the car of my dreams... it had been about easing Heero's nightmares.

"Trowa," I chuckled. "That 'first car' thing is kinda... lame after you've owned your own ship."

There was a hint of doubt in his eyes then, he wasn't sure if he was reading me right, and I pressed the advantage. I began talking about the stereo system I planned to put in... something I could manage to generate a little enthusiasm over, and steered us back toward the apartment.

There was a bit of teasing about how quickly we had come back, and I admitted rather sheepishly that I had forgotten the keys to the car. But it faded quickly and I became aware of a touch of tension in the air. I resettled on my stool and watched it play out to see what was up. Trowa returned to his place beside Quatre and I had to repress a sigh as I saw them exchange a look that told me Quatre would know all about Trowa's suspicions the first time they had a moment alone to talk. It took a few minutes, but Wufei finally gave out with an unhappy little cough, and glancing toward Heero for support, said, "Duo, I'm afraid I have some rather bad news about the search for Mrs. Camden."

This time I couldn't quite repress the sigh. "Heero told me you were about at the end of your rope," I told him, trying to ease the telling of it for him. He looked terribly guilty about it, not quite able to meet my eyes. I wondered if he had his own guilt-beast and almost grinned at the thought. Wufei kept glancing toward Heero, as though expecting some help from that quarter. Maybe he thought I would be angry with him for giving up.

"It's all right, man," I soothed. "I guess if I'd been in her shoes, I'd have disappeared too."

"I'm truly sorry," he told me, and I suppose when I thought about it, I knew how much Chang Wufei hated to give up on something, this must be killing him. "But she seems to have just vanished."

"Don't worry about it," I assured him. "I'm just really grateful for all the work you've done."

He ducked his head and flushed darkly, seeming suddenly to be rather tongue-tied. I caught him stealing another glance in Heero's direction and I wondered about it, not sure what to make of it. Was he expecting me to fall apart over his decision to stop searching? Did he think I was going to lose my temper?

Heero cleared his throat softly, and changed the subject, taking pity on poor Wufei. "We were discussing going out for lunch before you two came back in... you interested?"

So we trouped off to the pizza place up the street, walking the three blocks, for which I was glad because I'm sure they would have insisted on taking my 'new' car if we'd driven anywhere... and I'd forgotten the keys again.

It was an oddly uncomfortable meal. Wufei seemed to be absolutely miserable. It really was eating at him to have to give up on our search. He'd read Captain Camden's journal right along with me when I'd first found it again, stuffed away in my utility pouch. I think he felt almost as strongly as I did about delivering the Captain's final messages to his wife. It had been a damned emotional evening as he and I had sat huddled over that book, taking turns reading aloud the final months of a total stranger's life.

My deciding to deliver that journal to Camden's family had gone a long way toward easing my guilt and stopping my screaming nightmares. Toward stopping the dead crew of the Londonderry from chasing me through the memory of phantom corridors. Stopping them from stealing the breath from my throat and leaving me gasping for air in the cold, wee hours of the night. I knew it was all in my head, but frankly... I know how in the hell my head works and I was pretty sure that not finding the woman that journal was destined for, was going to mess me up pretty good. It was important to me. It would have put a lot of ghosts to rest, and given me a certain... closure to the whole episode. I really, really didn't like the idea of having to admit defeat.

But I knew Wufei. He has to be the most tenacious man walking the face of the planet; if he told me she couldn't be found, then the woman was just not out there. So his telling me that he was giving up was the same thing as my giving up. If Wufei couldn't find her, I didn't stand a milkshake's chance in Hell.

So I guess I was pretty miserable at lunch as well. Quatre and Trowa tried gamely to keep a conversational ball in the air, but even Heero seemed subdued. I remember reflecting that they could use the services of Relena's assistant Chezarina, the woman had been a master at difficult social situations. Guilt-beast was lolling under my chair, grinning evilly, eyeing my ass and just waiting for me to admit to myself that the quest was over.

There was an extremely heavy sigh on my right and I glanced up to see Heero staring at my plate. I looked back down only to find a slice of pizza shredded at fork point into something that resembled spaghetti. "Oooops," I murmured and tried on a sheepish little grin. Heero only sighed again, reaching to replace the mess in front of me with a fresh slice. "Don't be wasteful," I admonished, tapping the back of his hand with a knuckle. "It's still edible." He gave me an exaggerated look of distaste as I ate a fork-full of pizza-ghetti and I smirked at him.

I turned my gaze across the table and found Wufei looking like his best friend had just died. I felt awful. I tried not to wince when guilt bit me in the butt with a snicker. I sighed instead. "Come on, Fei," I told him softly. "Don't look like that... I know you did your best. If anybody in the world could have found Mrs. Camden, it's you. I'm not upset with you or anything." Somehow, he only managed to look more uncomfortable and I floundered a little. "I mean... I'm disappointed, sure... but not with you. I know you tried."

He just... withered right in front of me, so I shut up; I was obviously making it worse somehow. Beside me, Heero softly cleared his throat and when I glanced his way he gave me an almost imperceptible shake of his head that told me to drop it. I figured he knew his partner better than I did, so I followed his lead and just bent to eating my lunch. There was another one of those uncomfortable silences.

"Duo," Quatre ventured into it, always the game one, "are you going to get around to telling us about... the other day, now?"

I chuckled at the look of utterly frustrated, unsated curiosity on his face. "What did you want to know that hasn't been on the damn news fifty times, Qat?"

He gave me an exasperated little growl and glared at me. "Everything!" he blurted and it got a laugh from the whole table.

I shrugged when they quieted. "It was just one of those 'Murphy's Law' days, man. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong?"

That got me a scornful glare from both Heero and Quatre, and I sighed. "Ask already!" I told them, eating another bite of shredded pizza.

"Well for starters," Quatre said, his tone a little exasperated. "Are you all right?"

I blinked at him, chewing slowly. That one had rather caught me by surprise and I wasn't sure at first what he meant. "Sure," I frowned. "I'm fine."

"Maxwell," Wufei grumbled, rolling his eyes heavenward as though asking God for patience. "You were, however briefly, on fire."

I grinned at him, happy that he seemed to be coming out of his dark mood enough to at least enter the conversation. "Oh yeah," I muttered dismissively, knowing it would get a rise out of him. He didn't disappoint.

"Only you could manage to forget something like that!" he exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air.

Beside me, Heero chuckled softly. "Don't let him fool you," he grinned at Wufei. "He certainly didn't forget about it last night while he was trying to sleep."

"It stings," I informed him haughtily. "And itches like a son-of-a-bitch."

Trowa smiled across at me, reaching for another slice of pizza. "How bad is it?" he asked gently.

"No worse than a sunburn," I told him with a rueful shake of my head. "Didn't you see the footage? Clint and Sam had me on the sidewalk and were beating it out before I even knew I'd been hit!"

"How in the seven hells did that woman get separated from her child in the first place?" Wufei suddenly asked, a stark, almost angry look on his face. Judging from his _expression, I imagine he'd been thinking the mother saved herself and left her daughter.

"She got knocked out when the bus went over," I placated. "She was unconscious when we hauled her out of there. The kid must have been scared or something and freakin' hid behind the seat. Nobody saw her." I shivered in remembrance. "I thought I was never going to find her." There was an uncomfortable little bit of silence and I glanced up from my plate to find them all looking at me with varying degrees of... something odd in their eyes. "What?" I murmured, feeling weird.

Nobody spoke and after a second Heero dropped his hand down to cover mine, squeezing tight for a second before letting go. I'd scared them. All of them. Genuinely scared them. I felt... warmed somehow. And embarrassed.

Wufei braved the strained moment with a gruff, "I can't believe you jumped back into a damn burning bus!"

I dropped my eyes to the table. "There was a kid," I mumbled and left it at that. I felt the weight of an intense stare and glanced up to meet Quatre's eyes. He smiled gently and I knew he understood more than anybody else at the table. I nodded faintly, to acknowledge that understanding. Under the table, Heero shifted his leg so that his knee was pressed against mine, telling me he wished he could put an arm around me. Though it was a more than welcome gesture of support... all the sudden attention was making me uncomfortable. I reached for my glass of soda to cover it.

"Just what in the hell caused the accident to begin with?" Trowa suddenly interjected into the rapidly lengthening quiet. I could have blessed him.

"Some guy in a red sports car fell asleep at the wheel or had a damn heart attack or something," I told him, more than happy to change the subject. "He just suddenly was all over the road. Almost hit a couple of other cars before he veered into a truck and caused this chain reaction... mess." I shook my head, remembering the twisted pile of metal under the front end of the bus. "We'll probably never know... the guy had to have been incinerated. It was his car that caused the bus to actually tip over."

Their curiosity was just fucking insatiable. Every time I thought we had it all covered, somebody thought of another question. We ended up pushing things around on the table until I could use salt, pepper and napkin holder to reenact the whole stupid accident. I was getting really tired of the whole topic before they seemed to be content with their answers. Just when I thought we might finally get off on some other subject, Wufei suddenly asked, "Just what in the world were you doing over on Third Street in the middle of the day, anyway?"

We'd gotten around to the second incident. Joy. It was all I could do not to sigh out loud. I was going to get to exercise that old 'repressing urges' thing again. "Griff sent me over to the dry cleaners to pick up a batch of shirts," I told him and could only hope that they'd tire of this... incident faster than the bus thing.

Beside me, Heero stiffened slightly and turned to look at me. 'He makes you run errands?' he questioned, irritation plain as day in his voice. "You're not some... damn gofer or something..."

"Settle down there Mr. Defensive," I chuckled at him. "We all take a turn doing it... even Griff."

He only looked slightly mollified and for a moment I feared he might be thinking about going over Griff's head about it. I hated doing the chore, but I certainly didn't need Heero making a fuss out of it and getting Griff pissed off at me.

"Did you see the news report on that this morning?" Trowa interjected and it crossed my mind that the guy might actually have gone to the same social classes that Chezarina had. He knew a thing or two about conversational timing.

"I've been rather avoiding it," I told him dryly, and won a chuckle.

"They said the sniper finally confessed," he told us and had the attention of everyone at the table. "Turns out he'd gotten fired from his job at an insurance company there on Third Street."

I thought about that street and recalled looking for a place I could take shelter when I had first come under fire. There had been a building right in front of me, which would have been almost directly across the street from the sniper's position. It had been closed for the lunch hour, one of those stupid signs in the window with the little clock face on it that said 'Will return after...'. It might very well have been an insurance agency, I couldn't remember if I noticed a sign. In my mind, I placed the two victims in relationship to that building. Either one of them might have just come out of there, locking the door behind them, and walking off down the sidewalk thinking about what they were going to eat for lunch. I saw again the spastic twitching and the blood, and shivered.

"He was apparently having marital problems and got fired for drinking on the job," Trowa was saying, shaking his head in mild disbelief. "Guess he'd worked there for over ten years."

"Damn," I muttered. Lost his wife, probably lost his home, lost his job. I wondered suddenly if there had been kids involved. Wondered where the guy had been staying. All of a sudden that nameless, greasy looking guy that I had seen hauled away in cuffs... was a person. I shivered almost violently and had to set my glass down on the table. I thought, inexplicably, about Jock. I thought about Neo. Hell... I thought about myself, and wondered what it was in the human mind that let some people blame all their problems on someone else. What was it that made so many people react so very differently to... the end of their world? Neo just seemed like he drifted through life now, just went where the tides took him without conscious direction, without caring. Jock... had turned bitter. Bitter and distrusting and would probably end his own life one day if he didn't get off the alcohol. And then this guy. Took a gun, climbed the proverbial water tower and started killing. Had probably gotten the man he was after in his first two shots and then hadn't been able to stop. Had just kept shooting, trying to eradicate every living thing that crossed his path. Trying to... what? Ease his own pain somehow? Make the rest of the world as miserable as he was? How could you understand a mind like that? Would you really even want to?

What made me any different? Had I not lost as much? Have I not been as miserable? Did I not have days where I just wanted to drift? Days that tasted bitter as poison on my tongue? Why wasn't I living my life at the bottom of a bottle? Why wasn't I wandering from spacer bar to spacer bar, hoping for a glimpse of the stars again? Why wasn't I out there somewhere, looking for retribution, trying to find someone to blame for all my pain... someone I could make pay?

A warmth settled around my waist, carefully low enough to avoid the burn, and squeezed tight. I looked into concerned, loving blue eyes and had to smile, seeing my 'why' sitting close beside me.

Can you half understand why I can't disappoint him?

"Are you all right?" he murmured softly and I smiled for him, wishing we were where I could wrap my arms around him. But I already couldn't believe he was daring as much as he was out here in public, out here where he ran the risk of drawing the kind of attention we didn't want.

I did my best to convey my gratitude for the gesture with a look. "I'm fine," I told him warmly and was sorry when the warmth of his arm slid away. "Just makes you think, doesn't it?"

Wufei snorted disdainfully. "Think about what? The man was obviously a lunatic."

I picked my fork up again to eat some more of my shredded pizza. "A lunatic who had reached the end of his rope," I shrugged. "It just makes me wonder about his life... about what all he lost."

There was a funny little sound from Quatre and I looked his way. "Surely you're not saying that you... sympathize with the man?"

I had to chuckle at the almost shocked look on his face. "Sympathize with what he did? Hell no. Sympathize with what led him to where he ended up... I don't know; maybe."

Quatre just shook his head. "I don't care what led him there, there isn't any excuse for what he did."

[back] [cont] [back to Sunhawk's fic]