Author: Sunhawk
see part 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Connections (cont)

'I didn't make a scene,' Quatre grinned. 'Now did I?'

If I was any judge at all, the guy was on something of an adrenaline kick, and looking for something to kick in return. I snorted, derailing whatever response Trowa would have made. 'Probably less of a scene than the one I was apparently about to make, if you hadn't come along and shut me up. Thanks guys.'

'You are entirely welcome,' Trowa responded with the quirk of a grin. 'Shutting people up is what I do best.'

'It's what you try to do,' Quatre murmured from behind his glass, but before his partner could even start to reply to that, his attention was on me. 'This portrait, Duo, did you have plans for it? Because if not, I want it.'

I glanced up finally, and found that we were standing in front of the sketch I'd been working on of the two of them, the one I started way back while Heero was in the hospital. 'Uh... about that,' I said, ducking my head because I knew I was blushing furiously. 'I never meant for this to end up here, guys. I swear. Aleyah got hold of a sketch pad that I hadn't really intended?'

'We're not looking for an apology, you dork,' Trowa said genially. 'We want to buy it, if it's one of the ones that are for sale.'

I blinked up at him, a little surprised that I didn't find any sort of irritation in his expression. 'Are you nuts? After everything you two have done for me? If you want the thing, you know it's yours.'

They shared this look that made me feel like I'd said something stupid, and Quatre all but snickered at me. 'Aleyah was right, Duo... you really do need to leave the financial end of things up to her.'

There was that slur on my business skills again, and I might have been irritated about it, but I was too busy thinking about the implication that Quatre and Aleyah had been talking about me. How completely weird.

Since I wasn't sure how to answer that, I glanced back at the picture in question and wondered why they weren't ready to kill me. It was a strange damn thing; a ying and yang sort of picture, with Trowa and Quat as the two halves, almost knee to forehead with each other. Their hands were cupped in front of the curl of their bodies, not touching, but framing the white rose held between them. It was oddly intimate despite the rather unusual design. I'd have thrown a fit over it with Aleyah, if I hadn't felt like I needed to pick and choose my battles. I'd had a feeling that I was only going to win one, and it had been far more important to me that I not embarrass Heero.

I wanted to feel guilty that I'd thrown the guys to the wolves, so to speak, but neither of them seemed to be the slightest bit upset, so it kind of felt like a waste of energy. I was opening my mouth to apologize one more time anyway, when Trowa suddenly shifted.

'There's Aleyah now,' he said. 'I'll be right back.'

I glanced up in the direction he was moving, and could just see Aleyah back in the entry room, still talking with Mr. Kirby, though there was another man standing with them now.

Quatre blew out a breath and I turned me attention his way. 'Whoa, Duo,' he muttered softly, shifting just a bit as someone moved past us. 'That's Jack Lee... I haven't seen him come out to a show in ages.'

'Jack Lee?' I questioned, wondering if I was supposed to recognize the name.

'He's Aleyah and Stan's other partner,' he explained, just as we saw Trowa approach the group and shake hands all around. 'He's got something of a reputation for being very particular; he seldom comes to the gallery except on special occasions.'

At the end of the hall, we could see Trowa as he talked with the group. It was very strange seeing Trowa Barton in a setting like that one. The last time I could remember it, was at the end of the war. We'd all been pulled fresh from the battle-field, stuffed into suits and ties, and expected to mingle with the elite and powerful at the many celebrations that the world seemed to need to throw. Back then... Trowa had been just as miserably uncomfortable as I'd been. A street rat, and a mercenary, with no real names of our own, suddenly trying to make small talk with people who had qualified as 'the enemy' not all that long before.

Looked like Trowa had gotten it all figured out. Watching him laugh lightly at something Mrs. Kirby said, watching him clap Mr. Lee on the shoulder... he seemed very much at home. It made me feel odd; like I'd fallen behind my class-mates in school. When had I lost the ability to adapt? When had such small, insignificant things become so difficult?

I realized I probably should have said something to Quatre's comment, but wasn't sure just what it would be. I was just starting to worry that my silence might be stretching a bit too long, when we saw the Kirby's daughter approach Trowa. He leaned down to listen to something she said, smiled broadly, and then straightened to point our way. The kid... JC, I suddenly remembered, flashed Trowa a grin and started to run down the hall. Some parental word must have sounded, because we saw her slow down, though we also saw her roll her eyes.

Quatre grinned down at her, when she drew abreast of us. 'Well, hello JC; you look lovely tonight.'

The kid did the eye-roll again and blew out her a breath. 'Pah-leese,' she informed him. 'I look like a Barbie doll.'

Quatre laughed and gave her a conspiratorial grin. 'Well... at least it's not pink.'

He got a dark look that made me wonder if pink hadn't been Mommy's first choice. But then the kid was looking up at me with a light in her eyes that was a little unnerving. Like she'd just been told that I was a member of the latest, popular, boy band and no one had bothered to tell her. 'You drew a cat,' she suddenly observed, sounding like she thought I might not know that.

I couldn't help grinning. 'Yes, I suppose I did.'

She pointed past me to where Wufei's portrait with Beowulf hung. 'Can't you do the back end either?'

Beside us, I thought Quatre was going to spit champagne. I followed JC over to stand in front of the portrait and she pointed up at it and its companion piece of just Beowulf. Both of them did indeed show the cat from the front.

'See?' she said, tone just a bit accusing, as though I'd cheated somehow.

'Well,' I replied, trying to tone the grin down just a little bit. 'These just worked out that way; I suppose I could manage the back end of a cat if I had to.'

Her expression changed to one of guarded hopefulness. 'Really? Then could you help me get this right?' And she was digging around in this dinky little purse that I had thought was only there to accent the outfit. She pulled out a folded up piece of paper and handed it up to me. Some artistic part of my soul wanted to cringe, but really, the picture had been erased so many times that it was going to have to be redone on good paper at some point anyway. 'See?' she said, pointing at the back half of the cat on the paper. 'It's all wrong.'

There was more wrong with it than just the back end, but the rear definitely had some major issues with cat anatomy. I turned the paper around where she could see it too and pointed along the curve of a back leg. 'Here's your problem,' I explained. 'You're thinking backward.'

'Backward?' she frowned up at me, fidgeting in place, making me wonder just what her normal attire was. Somehow I saw jeans and cover-alls, and a lot less curl in the hair. Kid should have been home with a babysitter, playing video games or watching TV, not out being paraded around like some porcelain doll for show.

'Cats back legs bend the other way,' I smiled. 'Don't you have a model?'

She blew out a breath of sheer irritation. 'My Dad's allergic.'

'Ah,' I commiserated. 'If I had a pencil or something, I'd show you.'

That was all it took for the kid to drop down right there on the floor and start digging through her purse. I heard Quatre snort almost involuntarily and I glanced up at him, noticing the pissed off parental person down the hall, just over his right shoulder.

What else was I to do? I sat down with her.

She looked startled for a second, but then grinned widely at me and settled in, her God-awful puffy skirt hiding her legs and making it look like she was only half there. It was a morbid little thought that made me shake my head as I accepted the pencil she produced. And then we bent over the paper on the floor and I did a quick cat drawing lesson.

'See?' I began, doing a small sketch in the corner of her paper. 'Cat's may have a knee back here, but it bends the other way?'

'Standing up,' she commanded, when I started to do a lying down pose. 'I want one walking.'

I shifted to another corner of the paper and started again. 'The back foot is really kind of longer than the front...' I explained and she nodded as I worked.

'Did you have a model?' she suddenly asked, making it sound like an accusation, as though that were cheating too.

'For Beowulf?' I asked distractedly, working out the details of a walking cat. 'Yeah, he belongs to a friend of mine.'

'Bayowolf?' she snickered. 'What a dumb name for a cat.'

'It's classic,' I grinned. 'What would you name a cat?'

'Tiger,' she said decisively and I glanced up at her, thinking that there was a whole lot of 'I wish' in that tone of voice. I bent back to the picture and began shading in stripes.

She kind of gasped and pushed at my hand, so she could see. 'How'd you do that?'

'There's more to a pencil than the point,' I smirked and showed her how to hold it. 'Got another pencil in there?'

She dug back through the little purse, and I had a feeling her mother did not have a clue what all was in that thing. I suspected it had been meant for show, or maybe just a dainty little handkerchief. I doubt dear old Joan had seen the junk the kid had managed to drag along with her. Then she sighed, pulling something purple out of the purse. It wasn't a pencil and I wrinkled my nose. 'What is that? It stinks.'

I thought she was going to giggle herself silly before she burst out, 'A crayon, silly!'

I took it from her and tested it on the paper; it made a quite unsatisfactory line, almost crumbling as I worked. I stopped pretty quick and handed it back. 'That's nasty,' I had to tell her. 'Have your parents get you some colored pencils and forgot those things. How do you get a decent line out of it?'

She had to cover her mouth to stifle the laughter that wanted to come out. 'You're weird,' she finally proclaimed, though something in her tone of voice made it sound like that might be a cool thing, and not really the insult it sounded like.

'I like to think so,' I smirked and got a roll of the eyes. Then she took the pencil and tried to add some stripes to my cat. There was a noise somewhere above us that sounded... not happy.

'Don't press so hard,' I instructed and she did a decent job finishing out the tail. When it was done, not that it was much, I took the pencil back and did a quick sketch of a little girl in a pair of cover-alls standing with the cat and positively got beamed at.

Then we both sort of became aware of the fact that it was kind of... quiet.

I'm not sure what brought it to my attention, but JC seemed to notice at the same time, and we probably looked damn comical as we kind of unbent from where we'd been working on the floor and looked up.

At first all I saw was legs, and realized that we'd drawn some attention. I glanced at JC and wondered if my own face was as red as hers. 'Busted,' I muttered, and she giggled, though it was a bit more subdued than her mirth had been. We wordlessly, but mutually, agreed to pack her things up and I noticed that we lost a pair of legs or two when the paper got put away. It was something of a relief.

JC bounced to her feet then, sticking her hand out for me to shake, and I got the impression it was a last ditch effort in not getting in trouble with her parents for sitting down on the floor in a dress in a public place. 'Thank you very much, Mr. Maxwell.'

I snorted at the sudden formality, but shook her hand quite solemnly. When she stepped away, I started to rise, a little sorry that the reprieve was over, and a hand presented itself to me. I took it and let myself be pulled to my feet, expecting Trowa, but turning to find, 'Heero!'

He smiled at me, his hand squeezing mine tight for a moment. 'Hello, love,' he murmured very softly and I couldn't help grinning at him. God, it was so good to see him. If we'd been anywhere else, I'd probably have already been demonstrating that fact a bit more physically.

'What are you doing here?' I had to ask though. 'What about the trial?'

His smile turned just a little bit smug and he told me, 'It's over.'

He let go of my hand then, though I could tell he hadn't really wanted to, but any longer would have been awkward. 'What happened?' I pressed.

His grin failed him then, and I suddenly remembered the last occasion I'd had to talk to him. Remembered the subject matter. Remembered what he'd had to do. I couldn't help a glance around, suddenly realizing that everyone in the room with us had probably seen that damn broadcast. I was relieved that people were moving off now that the spectacle of the resident artist sitting on the floor was over. Though I imagine my smile deserted me every bit as much as his had.

'I am so sorry--' he began, but I stopped him with a shake of my head.

'Old ground,' I said, trying not to think about it. 'Just tell me what happened to Gray.'

Though he didn't get that smug grin back, there was a certain satisfaction in his voice as he told me, 'The... evidence, when it went public, finally broke one of them. That flight attendant came forward and the rest of them just caved one after the other.'

I grinned, recalling the girl who had led us down to the air lock. 'Bobbi?'

Heero shook his head. 'The other one.'

I blinked at him, remembering the giggly girl who had asked for my autograph. 'Leslie?' I muttered. 'I'll be damned.'

'As soon as she came forward,' Heero said. 'Spencer was quick to follow. I think the only thing that was keeping him from telling the truth right from the beginning was fear of his father. But once the truth came out...' he shrugged, not bothering to finish.

I looked at him long and hard, caught in a sudden rush of emotion. 'It's really over?' I almost whispered, maybe afraid that weird little deity in charge of torturing me might hear.

Heero smiled warmly. 'Case closed. Gray confessed when his subordinates turned on him.'

Over. Case closed. It was like some sort of weight was lifted off my shoulders that I hadn't even known was there. I had not thought I'd been dwelling on it that much, but the sudden wobbly feeling in my knees told me I had. If there had been someplace handy, I might have sat the hell down. Like some sort of buzzing adrenaline over-load in the back of my brain was suddenly gone. We won.

'Yes,' Heero agreed to a thing I had not realized I'd said out loud. 'We damn well did.' And there was a hell of a broad hint of pride in his voice.

Something about that tone, sounding just a tiny bit dangerous, brought me back to our surroundings and I glanced around. The world had moved on when I hadn't been paying attention. I didn't see JC or her parents and I hoped the poor kid wasn't off in some corner getting lectured about lady-like behavior. I could just see Trowa and Quatre in the entry room, talking with Aleyah now that she seemed to have stopped her debate with Mr. Kirby, Cocotte still tucked neatly under her arm.

'Did Wufei...' I began, not sure if it was politic to ask, but Heero snorted.

'Like he would have missed this for anything in the world,' he said, and inclined his head in the general direction of the exit room. I turned just in time for Wufei to snap the picture, and I realized I'd been set up. Wufei was smiling at me with the most bizarre proprietary air, just as though he were somehow responsible for the entire gallery show.

'I didn't think cameras were allowed in here...' I grumbled, blinking at him in mock irritation. Well... mostly mock.

'Do you honestly think that even Aleyah Winner could say no to this charm,' Sally said, stepping up beside her... whatever you want to call him. Boyfriend? God, but that was just too weird a word to use for Chang Wufei. Significant other?

'Charm?' Heero asked in disbelief. 'I thought he snuck it in...'

'Why, of course,' Sally returned, in a really bad southern drawl. 'But it will be his considerable, dark-eyed charm that gets him out of trouble when he gets caught, good sir.'

I think only Wufei can manage to look pleased and disdainful at the same time, using little more than an arched eyebrow. 'I did not 'sneak' anything, Yuy,' he corrected. 'I have free rein as long as I take some pictures for Aleyah as well.'

Somehow, it figured.

Sally was toying with one of those champagne glasses and it suddenly reminded me of mine, and I wondered where it had gotten to. I looked around, fairly sure that I must have set it down when I'd sat on the floor with JC, but I didn't see it and could only assume that one of the black-dress brigade had come and cleaned up after me.

When I brought my attention back to the group, the conversation had moved on without me, and Heero was teasing Sally about the dress. I had this strange sense of detachment; like one of those out-of-yourself moments that you hear people talk about. Words flowed around me, but I didn't really hear them. I was too busy thinking about how strange the evening was. I'd been feeling so damn uncomfortable, hadn't known how in the hell to talk to the people around me. JC had been a welcome relief. Kids are easy to talk to; there's no pretension, no hidden agenda, just blunt honesty and a curiosity that generally won't be quelled.

I had rather been dreading returning to the grown-up world when she and I had put away our toys. But... finding that Heero was there, had made everything different. Finding... my friends there, had made everything different.

It was very strange to feel all these... touchstones around me. Like a safety net. Like backup. But not. I was struggling, very close to understanding what I was almost feeling when Heero touched my elbow, bringing me back into focus. I'm afraid I only blinked at him for a second, a little frustrated as it slipped through my fingers.

'Duo,' he asked gently, voice low, 'are you all right? Would you... like me to take you home?'

I could sense his concern, and I could also sense eyes on us. I glanced up to find Wufei watching Heero, taking his cues from him. I felt something more, and turned a little further to look behind me and found Trowa trying to catch Wufei's eye, perhaps seeing the disquiet on Heero's face and wanting to know what was going on. Beside him, Quatre seemed to sense Trowa's attention drift and looked up at his partner, following his gaze our way.

I could feel the connection between us like a damn physical tie. Something I could have traced with my hands if I could only feel well enough to touch it. It rather left me feeling breathless, and still not quite sure I understood it.

'We should get a picture,' I blurted, turning back to Heero.

'What?' he asked in this totally bemused tone, like he was trying to follow my thought processes and had taken a wrong turn. I had the urge to tell him that I couldn't always follow my thought processes, but refrained.

'We're all five here together,' I told him, wanting to capture what I couldn't quite see. 'And... you know... we're all dressed up and crap.' I shrugged, suddenly feeling kind of stupid for asking. But something took light in Wufei's eyes and I realized that I'd just poked at his own hobby. Maybe stirred up his own artistic muse.

'Duo,' he said, pouncing on the notion, 'that's a very good idea. I'll go out to the car and get my tripod and...'

Sally cut him off with a jab to the ribs. 'Don't turn it into a three-ring circus, Chang, just give me the camera.'

Wufei growled at her, muttering something under his breath about 'over-exposure' that made Sally get indignant. Beside me, Heero chuckled lightly and leaned in to whisper, 'Now see what you've done?' but he sounded pleased.

If I had thought that Chang Wufei was anal about his candid photography, that was only because I'd never dealt with him doing a posed piece. I thought he would never get everything just the way he wanted it, moving us several times until the background was just so, checking lighting, making minute adjustments to his camera, and giving Sally detailed instructions. If we were bothering anyone there in the flow of the gallery, no one dared challenge Wufei's dark glare to say anything.

When it was all said and done, I found myself in the center, turned slightly toward Heero, Wufei at his back, Trowa at mine, Quatre at his side. I felt it again, that strong sense of connection, of relationship, and though Wufei made Sally take several shots of the same pose, just in case, I knew somehow that the first one would be 'the one'. I already knew where I wanted to put our copy.

When we broke apart, while Sally was still mocking Wufei for checking his 'precious' camera over after she'd handled it, I found Kit standing at my elbow. 'Ms. Winner would like to speak with you,' she informed me, all trace of her normal impish humor set aside, for a much more professional tone. 'She's in the foyer.'

I tried not to feel like my number had just been called by the executioner, and excused myself. I had rather hoped that the woman would wait until some other time and place to give me hell over the picture I'd removed from her carefully crafted display, but I suppose I shouldn't have set my sights quite that high.

I went around through the exit room, since it was closer, and noticed that Zechs and Noin were still standing near the Jensen portrait, never having made it much further, engaged in quiet conversation. I tried not to look that way as I slipped between the other visitors, excusing myself quietly as I went.

As soon as Aleyah caught sight of me, she gave me a rather imperious gesture that wordlessly commanded, 'This way,' and she went back into the gallery, not bothering to make sure I was following.

She came to a stop in front of Allison's portrait and turned to wait for me to join her; Cocotte had been shifted from her left arm to her right, but was otherwise much like I'd seen her last.

'Darling,' Aleyah said, her voice managing to convey just a whole world of stressed exasperation. 'You simply must stop holding out information. You make things so very difficult.'

'What?' I blurted, completely confused, blinking at her while I tried to change gears. This strange, almost affectionate, exasperation was not what I had been expecting.

She flicked those manicured fingers of hers in the general direction of Allison's portrait and graced me with a slightly accusing look. 'You did not tell me this was a charity show. I could have done so much more had I only been privy to that information.'

I opened my mouth with another what, but felt kind of stupid and closed it again. When next I opened it, what popped out was, 'Who...?'

She laughed lightly in a way that made me feel like I was being terribly dense. I thought back over the evening and realized pretty quickly that the only one who had a clue about my agenda that I had seen talking to Aleyah at any length, had been, 'Trowa?'

'Oh, he does have a brain in that darling little head,' Aleyah said delightedly to, apparently, the damn dog.

I snorted, but she was still waiting for some sort of explanation from me and I stopped looking at her and looked at Allison's portrait instead. 'They... aren't charity cases.'

I had to imagine the raised eyebrow since I wasn't looking right at her. 'What you provide isn't charity?'

I frowned, irritated somehow, by her manner. 'No; I'm... I'm family. I came from that place as much as they do.'

The delicate little sniff she let out then made me look at her again. Her smile was quite condescending and my irritation flared. 'Commendable, pet, but impractical.'

I glared at her, taking in the dress and the jewelry and the damn little dog, and growled, 'What the hell would you know about it?'

It didn't faze her, just made her smile soften a bit. 'What I understand, Duo, is that it's your pride keeping those children from reaping the real benefits you could bring to them. You have connections, my dear, that you shouldn't be so persnickety about exploiting.'

I blinked at her and could see that she was quite pleased with herself for taking the wind out of my sails, but I couldn't think how to answer would amounted to an accusation.

She didn't wait for me to figure something out, tapping the back of one of my gloved hands instead. 'Perspective, darling. Put it in perspective.' She lifted her arm and displayed a diamond bracelet sparkling there; she didn't have to tell me that it had probably cost her damn near as much as I was struggling to raise for Allison's surgery. I blushed, scowling at the notion, and she walked away laughing at my consternation.

I stared at Allison, and she stared back. Was that a hint of reproach in her shadowed gaze? More so than had been there before?

Pride? I suppose I have to kind of take that one without too much argument. It's rather been the trait that has gotten my ass into trouble for as far back as I can remember. But... was I really letting my need to handle things on my own stand in the way of something better for those kids?

What I chose to do, or didn't choose to do, as far as the Maxwell home was concerned was between me and Mrs. Octavia and those kids. If I sent them books, or I sent them money, or I sent them gifts, what the hell did that have to do with Aleyah Winner? Or anyone else, for that matter. I sure as hell wasn't stopping anybody else from making donations if that's what they wanted to do.

Was I?

All my hamsters, artwork, beasts, and ghosts were strangely silent.

'Why's she so sad?' a small voice asked me, and I looked down to find JC back from her presumed lecture, and standing beside me.

'Because...' I said, really thinking about it, 'somebody let her down.'

'Oh,' JC replied, not seeming to know what else to say to that.

'You get in trouble?' I asked, kind of wanting to change the subject.

'Nah,' she smirked. 'I don't get yelled at in front of people.'

I chuckled. 'And by the time you get home, it's been forgotten?'

She just grinned, which I took to mean yes, and we just let that go.

'My Dad bought that picture,' she suddenly blurted, as though she was telling me something that was a secret.

'Huh?' I said brightly and looked to where she was pointing.

'That weird one,' she clarified. 'With the bird.'

I had to walk over closer; just to be sure we were talking about the same picture, though I couldn't think of anything else with a bird in it. 'This one? But I thought he said it was all unbalanced?'

She grinned again, telling me, 'Yep. He says it makes him think.' Then she rolled her eyes and skipped off after one of the black-clad servers, having seen something on one of the trays that must have been to her liking. I wished her luck; I hadn't seen anything yet I could identify.

As she got the attention of the server, and the woman held the tray down so that JC could delicately pluck something from it, I tried to imagine Allison in her place. Or Sarah. I couldn't. Instead, I imagined them standing just behind me, peeking out at all the people with trepidation, their eyes solemn and wide.

JC wandered on, probably off to find her parents, and I was left to look around at all the people, and I wondered if there was an expression of trepidation on my own face. Aleyah's words came back to me and I had to wonder; what really kept me from feeling like I could fit into this bizarre little world of hers? It's not like L2 orphans were branded on the forehead or anything. Nobody could possibly know about my past or my history to pass judgment on me.

Then someone wandered past me, leafing through one of those little pamphlets and I had to shake my head. At least, I hoped they didn't know about my past. God only knows what Aleyah had written about me. If I hadn't felt like I just didn't need another thing to deal with at that moment, I might have been tempted to pull my copy out and check. Though... in retrospect, I suppose that would have looked just a little bit self-absorbed.

But... was I just as guilty as the people that I felt were judging me? Wasn't I just as judgmental, only in reverse, so to speak? I resented those people their money and their life styles, but I honestly didn't even know them.

Was it really just my pride that painted such a picture of 'us' and 'them'? And was that same pride really keeping me from doing all that I could for those kids?

I really hate it when people see things about me that I haven't figured out on my own. Though... you have to give me the bracelet thing; there's just no damn call for a piece of jewelry that costs as much as your average car.

So just what the hell was I supposed to be exploiting?

I might have stood and chewed on that for quite a while longer, if I hadn't suddenly caught sight of Zechs in the foyer, obviously querying an employee about something, and that something turned out to be me. I was pointed out, and the good Prince Peacecraft was heading my way.

I always set aside personal epiphanies when confronted with royalty. Even if it's only the King of Peroxide.

Ok, get off my damn case. I really don't like the man; I'm supposed to not take the cheap shots just because of who he is? I think I deserve points for toning down 'vile hatred' to mere 'dislike'. This was the man who goaded Heero into that dumb-ass duel when Heero was still recovering from self-destructing his damn Gundam. You want to tell me where the honor and shit was in that?

'Maxwell,' Zechs said curtly as he stopped in front of me, and I nodded a greeting, having to tilt my head a bit to look up at him. I had to fight the urge to step back a pace; he'd gotten just a hair farther into my personal space than I was comfortable with, but I suppose the flow of people dictated it.

'I...' he began, and a strange frown flitted across his face. 'I didn't know you were an artist until Lucrezia told me about your opening here; you're very talented.'

I recognized it for the 'nicety' thing. Breeding will tell, I suppose. Do the polite stuff first, because that sure as hell wasn't what the man had hunted me up to say.

'So they keep telling me,' I quipped and I could tell he wasn't sure how to take the comment. He assumed false modesty, just because that's what that comment would have been, coming out of his own mouth. He couldn't fathom a person not being supremely confident in their own abilities. I wondered if the man had ever known a doubt in his life. I saw him eventually just dismiss the remark rather than decide how it was meant.

'I wanted to ask you,' he said instead, surprising me by cutting to the meat of things. Perhaps his military training overriding his breeding? 'What Quatre said... about that man...' he surprised me again with his hesitation. I wouldn't have thought he had it in him. The man wasn't sure he wanted the answers he was asking for. I grudgingly had to give him points. Not many, mind you, but a few.

'Jensen?' I prompted, not letting it just be that man.

He nodded, looking even more uncomfortable. 'Jensen; yes. Was that true?'

The guy looked like he'd just taken a sip of his champagne, only to discover that it was really Kool-aid in disguise. 'That he was a murderer?' I replied levelly. 'Yes, it was.'

I saw the faint hint of disbelief behind those damn ice-water eyes of his and thought for a minute that he would keep it there, but he couldn't contain it and blurted, 'How do you know that?'

I almost laughed at the strange, line-in-the-dirt feeling he was exuding? except it kind of pissed me off that he was questioning Quatre's word. 'That would be the part where he tried to add me to his list of victims,' I told him coldly, getting a sudden mental image of a Pekinese growling at a St. Bernard. No, not a St. Bernard; too mundane for Zechs. A Greyhound, maybe... or a Doberman.

He blinked and I watched the disbelief fade. He surprised me for a third time; he hadn't just been doubting us, but simply verifying personal knowledge. Checking his facts. I suppose I should have expected that; he was a Preventor agent, after all. But then his expression turned just a touch guarded.

'Define murder, if you will,' he said, not mincing words any more at all. 'We were at war...'

It kinda rubbed me the wrong way at the same time that I had to give him another half point for having the balls to ask. 'We were not, to my knowledge, at war with innocent teenage street people,' I told him, not entirely able to keep the anger out of my voice. 'We encountered him in the middle of a mission, yes. But during our surveillance, we over-heard a clear admission of no less than five rapes and subsequent murders of civilians.'

That rather caught him by surprise, I was very pleased to see, and he just stared at me for a long couple of minutes, as though he could somehow read whatever information he wanted in my eyes. 'And you...' he finally asked.

'Under cover,' I admitted. 'I was supposed to make contact with him in an attempt to follow him back to the target.'

If he got the scenario from the Reader's Digest condensed description, it didn't show on his face, and so far, just about everything else he'd been thinking had. He chewed on that for a second before asking, 'And what was the target?'

I snorted. 'That was the question of the hour. It turned out to be a hidden manufacturing site for some type of advanced mobile dolls.'

He looked... not happy. Kind of guilty, actually. Another surprise from Prince Pomp. I had no doubt from the look on his face that he knew exactly what the operation had been, and might well have had a hand in it somewhere up the chain of command. I was starting to wish that he would get his curiosity satisfied soon though, he was making me think about things that were making me just as... not happy.

I couldn't help making an adjustment to my gloves, not that I'd meant to, but it made his gaze flick that way. I thought for a second that he would speak of them, but he didn't.

'Thank you,' he finally said, acknowledging my speaking to him honestly, I think. Then he got in one last surprise shot, inclining his head slightly and saying, 'I'm sincerely sorry,' before he turned and walked away.


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