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

Connections (cont)

'I, uh... guess you figured out it wasn't my dog?' I finally managed, trying for teasing, but not really making it. I got nothing but a tight little nod without him even meeting my eyes. I felt like I'd just served at tennis and nobody bothered to hit the ball back. I watched it roll around on his side of the conversational net and sighed.

I was left unsure if I should prod at him, or just try steering him away from the whole mess. He was starting to scare me in a whole different way than he'd been scaring me before.

But then his hands came away and he finally looked up at me with this... weird-ass expression that I didn't quite know what to make of. His face? his expression? was almost stony. Flat and closed off and frightening and... not like I'd seen in a long, long time. But his eyes... there was something behind those eyes that was just screaming at me, something that was calling out to me until the only thing I could think to do was open my arms.

I really wasn't expecting him to almost crumble into them.

'Don't let me not feel,' he whispered, and though the words didn't make sense, his hands clutching at me spoke a different language, and I gathered him to me in a fierce embrace. He was trembling.

'It's all right,' I told him, not sure if it was, but less sure of what else to tell him.

I knew he wasn't half in control, because he was hurting me. It made me hold on all the tighter; he obviously needed it.

'I'm so sorry,' he finally murmured, voice all twisted round itself.

'Hush,' I soothed. 'It's all right... but, Heero... you've got to give me a clue. You've got to tell me what I did, because God... I don't ever want to do it again.'

He shuddered and I swear, if he could have turned himself into something that would have fit, he'd have crawled into my lap like a child. All I could do was hang on and endure the bite of his fingers on my flesh. 'Wasn't you...' he panted, sounding on the verge of some kind of damn break-down. 'It wasn't you... I'm sorry... please forgive me...'

I kissed the top of his head and told him as firmly as I could, 'You know I'd forgive you anything. I'm not mad... just really confused.'

'I know,' he whispered.

I moved us over to the couch before our combined weight did something bad to the coffee table. Heero went where I took him, as damn docile as a babe in arms; it unnerved me. He's just not normally like that, but he really did seem to need to be held, just needed the contact. Maybe he was drawing some reassurance from my touch; proof that I wasn't angry.

'It's going to take more than a couple of cuss words to get rid of me, Yuy,' I grumbled, trying to make it come out sounding like a threat. He didn't buy it as joke, or threat, and made a noise that was kind of strangled.

We just sat for a bit then. He had himself curled up against my chest, tucked under my chin, and I had to resist a very strong urge to rock him like a child. I stroked my knuckles over his hair instead, while he just seemed to be working out the mechanics of breathing.

'Who...' he finally asked. 'Who was that?'

'Our neighbor,' I told him. 'Ruthie. She came over the other day with her brother to borrow some eggs. She came back today because she was playing some kind of scavenger game and wanted to take a picture of the willow tree.'

He digested that and I let him, deciding that we weren't going to get anywhere if I kept letting him get away with the traumatized silence thing. It took him a bit and I knew he was going to speak before he did, because his fingers suddenly tightened further, digging in almost harshly.

'Tell me...' he blurted and it broke my heart to hear the need in him. To hear how torn up he was... and not understand it.

'Oh course,' I whispered, and stroked the back of my knuckles along his jaw line until he tilted his head up enough for me to kiss him. I meant for it to be soft and gentle; he made it fierce and hungry. 'I love you more than anything, and I always will,' I reassured. 'You know that.'

'I do,' he told me earnestly, looking deep into my eyes, as though still hunting for that reassurance. 'I am so sorry; it caught me off guard... I didn't mean... I...'

I touched a finger ever so gently to his lips and stopped the stumbling rush of words. 'Shhh... no more apologizing. Just please... tell me what's wrong?'

He stilled and settled his head back against my shoulder. 'Later,' he breathed, so softly I almost didn't hear him. 'Please... later...'

What the hell could I say, but, 'Ok'...

I tried not to let it sting. I understood that something had him a bit too raw and he needed his distance first. I remembered how damn hard it had been for me to talk to him about... certain things. But it was hard not to believe that he wouldn't just sweep it all under the rug, and I never would know what the hell it was about neighbor relations and pets that had made my lover look like he wanted to divorce me.

But if he needed to sweep it away, then by God I would let him sweep it away. If he didn't want to talk to me, I would be damned if I would try and pry it out of him. 'I promise not to have the other kids over when you're out of the house any more, Dad,' I teased softly and he managed a little snort of a laugh, but didn't reply.

It was one of those jokes that, under the circumstances, I could make... but he couldn't join in with. But he seemed to relax a little bit, getting the message behind the words that I would let it go if he wanted.

'I don't deserve you,' he told my collar-bone, and it was my turn to snort.

'It's too late in the day to start the I'm not worthy game,' I chuckled and he finally seemed to let go completely, his embrace no longer so desperate, his breathing no longer sounding so ragged.

'I should go get my bag out of the car,' he said, finishing the job of putting himself back together, like some part of him just wanted to pretend the whole thing had never happened. I felt a spark of irritation, that I throttled down fairly easily. I could well relate to that desire. Done more than my fair share of things that I had wanted, at the time, to undo. Had more than one instance of wishing fervently for a time machine.

Who was I to deny him his need to save face?

'Why don't you do that while I start dinner,' I agreed. What I might have wanted here wasn't what was important. 'You probably even have time to get cleaned up, if you'd like... I got some fish at the market and haven't even started yet.'

He sat up and I let him, though it was a conscious effort on my part. He was faintly flushed, and I think he had a hard time meeting my eyes, but he did, reaching out to stroke his fingers over my cheek. 'I missed you,' he ventured and I smiled for him, turning my head to kiss his hand.

'Missed you, too.'

Then he took himself outside and I went to the kitchen. It's a wonder I didn't kill us both with my culinary attempts that night, because I sure as hell didn't have my mind on what I was doing.

It wasn't long before guilt beast was tailing me around as I went from refrigerator to stove to sink. I felt petty and small and like an absolute asshole, but you want to know what I was struggling with the most?

The fact that I had shared... and Heero hadn't.

You know what I mean?

Oh, come on... you really think Heero Yuy tried to rip me a new asshole because he thought I bought a pet without asking him? You can't tell me there wasn't something more to that whole little scene than was on the surface. It had something to do with the dog, but it had just as much to do with the neighbor kid. I'd been looking right at Heero when Ruthie had made her appearance. He'd looked like a Leo had just come stomping out of our back yard.

Something had kicked him in the ass so hard it damn near took his breath away. I'd been looking into the face of a haunted man. I know the look... I've seen it in the mirror often enough.

On that trip to L2... the one that was still so painfully fresh in my memory... Heero had asked me to dish up a large piece of my soul and point out for him all the quaint little flaws. And I had. Maybe not everything, but a hell of a lot. I'd told him things that nobody else in the universe knew. And no, it hadn't been easy.

You tell me he wasn't refusing to share those same kinds of things now.

It's not that I hadn't wanted to tell Heero. It had felt... good, somehow, to give him that piece of myself. But it seemed... tainted now, like telling someone 'I love you' and not hearing it in return.

It was making every defensive tendency I owned want to kick into hyper-drive.

Which made me feel like a real shit.

By the time I'd managed to get something resembling food onto the table, guilt had pretty well gnawed my leg down to the bone.

I had heard Heero moving about the house, bringing his things in and even coming through the kitchen once to take his laundry to the basement. But we hadn't really talked. I'd heard him go up to shower and remembered with a pang my earlier thoughts about not wanting to smell of grease when he came home. Somehow... I doubted that was going to matter much with the frame of mind we seemed to be in.

He came into the kitchen looking freshly washed just as I was pouring the drinks. My own discomfort made me wonder if he'd been avoiding me until he couldn't any more.

Guilt and I'd had a long talk, and we'd decided that I was trying to turn something that should have been about Heero into something that was about me. That seemed just the tiniest bit self-centered, so I was making a solid effort to remove my head from my ass.

The effort was not helped by the realization that I'd unconsciously poured myself a glass of water instead of soda, and had actually remembered to set out my bottle of iron tablets... something I had not managed in days. Obviously, some part of my head did not want Heero to get upset with me again. And that rather left me feeling pathetic.

So I sat down at our kitchen table across from Heero, feeling defensive, lame, and hurt, and smiled brightly. 'So, are you going to give me all the juicy details of the case, now that you're home, or do I have to languish away in ignorance forever?'

He smiled back at me, though there was a quality to it that let me know he understood my effort to move on. Understood, and appreciated.

'We didn't find much at the record's center,' he told me, seeming to jump on the new topic almost eagerly. 'Confirmed that they did both serve, though they were hardly as involved in the war as they tried to imply; they flew messenger ships and never saw a moment's action.'

I snorted, remembering Hill's flippant remarks about 'making do' and being 'veterans'. I'm sure they got a lot of practice doing out-ship work on the little courier jump ships. 'Well,' I mused, looking at the information for other clues. 'I suppose that makes it unlikely that this whole thing is based on some grudge Gray holds against Gundam pilots, since he never fought.'

Heero grunted, cutting into his fish. 'Not likely. Unless it's just unfounded prejudice. We found no record that he or anyone in his immediate family ever saw combat.'

That was about the point were I took my first bite and realized that I'd fucked the fish six ways to Sunday. Overcooked would be an understatement. I chewed slowly, trying to decide if it would actually kill me. It was not only overcooked, but over seasoned, and while I doubted it would harm us, it certainly tasted like shit. And while taste has little or no meaning to me, Heero places some store by it.

I sighed and rose without comment, going to fetch the shrimp from the refrigerator while Heero figured out what I'd done. I hadn't thought the stuff was a contingency plan when I'd bought it, but I was glad it was there. I took his plate of fish away without needing to comment, and sat the shrimp and cocktail sauce down in front of him while he took a couple of swallows of water to wash the taste away.

He looked vaguely guilty, understanding where my distraction had come from, and when I sat back down across from him, he reached out to touch my hand. 'I'm sorry.'

I shrugged, not really wanting to get into it, and picked my fork up again. 'So the military records didn't really pan out, what about the ex-wife?' I prodded, wanting to not dwell on the ruined meal; so far this had not been the world's best homecoming. But I could tell from the look on his face as he saw me start to cut into my fish again, that we weren't done. 'Heero,' I said, interrupting him before he could even get started. 'Just don't. It will make me feel better not to waste it, ok?'

'Duo,' he began, 'it's ruined?'

'It is not ruined,' I heard myself snap. 'Just eat your damn...'

Ok, apparently my efforts at setting shit aside where being relatively unsuccessful. I laid my fork carefully down on the table, because I've got a history of hurling things when I'm getting pissed, and just took a moment to concentrate on shutting up.

Heero was busy looking like he was trying not to implode with frustration.

'Strained' is about the only word that applied.

I suddenly didn't have the stomach for fish, shrimp, or any damn thing else.

'I wish we could start this whole day over,' I told him softly. 'But I don't know how.'

'I don't know what else to say,' he told me, eyes on the table and not me.

Tell me what happened, I wanted to say to him, but if I had to ask? if I had to force it, it was only going to make matters worse.

'I think we're both just tired,' I told him, in an effort to ease the strain, though we both knew I was just talking. 'Can I assume that you don't want to eat any of this any more than I do?'

He looked hesitant for a moment; as though he were afraid I would get my feelings hurt, but then gave me a little nod.

I got up and took it away to wrap up before he had a chance to throw it out. Maybe I could use the fish to make something else later. Soup or something; maybe chowder. Heero let me, sitting at the table and watching me move around him. I think he just flat didn't know what to do.

I was hurt and trying to hide it. He could tell, but either couldn't decide what he should do, or wasn't capable of doing it. It was one of those lose-lose situations. When I had the mess pretty well cleaned up, food put away and the dishes stacked in the sink, I went to him and made him let me sit in his lap.

'I'm trying,' I told him, feeling like I was letting him down because I couldn't put a lid on my feelings. 'It's just been an... odd week.'

He put his arms around me and buried his face against my chest. 'You shouldn't have to be trying. I'm the one... I should...' he floundered to a stop.

I sighed without meaning to, and kissed the top of his head. He straightened and looked up at me, heart in his eyes.

'I'm not...' he began, struggling with it so much it was painful. 'I'm not trying to shut you out. I'm not. It's just so...'

'Hard...' I whispered, smiling gently. 'I know.'

He heaved a sigh so heavy I felt it through his whole body. 'Yeah,' he agreed.

I gathered him against me again, a little surprised at how readily he gave in to it. 'There is nothing you could ever say to me that would make me stop loving you,' I told him, and knew I'd nailed it from the shudder that coursed through him.

I knew that fear well and good. Knew it inside and out. Though it was not something I had ever thought to see echoed in Heero's eyes.

We sat like that until he didn't need to hang on anymore. It was probably as much an excuse as anything when he said he had some reports to type up, but it didn't sting so much somehow. I had the feeling that he was at least trying to work it out in his head, so it was easier to let him.

Besides, I still had my very real excuse of sketch hunting.

He went up to his study and I went out to my studio and we tried to pretend we weren't hiding from the whole damn mess.

I just was not up to working on Jensen's portrait, no matter that Heero was in the house with me again. Off balance as I was, I didn't figure I needed that on top of everything else, so I settled on the old couch with a stack of sketch pads instead.

I was a little disconcerted to feel the need for my music, I normally don't when Heero's home, no matter where he is in the house. But somehow, the silence was as sharp as it had been all week long. I resisted because I didn't want him realizing. Didn't want him knowing how much I still had to fight with the silence. How much it still ate at me to be alone.

So I leafed through my art books in the quiet and it didn't take long before I was cringing thinking about showing them to my 'patron'. I could just imagine the woman titling Froggy's portrait. Felt vaguely horrified at the idea of her seeing the strange portrait of Quatre and Trowa.

Maybe it would be best if I just tried to draw something new? Something specifically for the damn show and stopped trying to find something suitable for public consumption? The thought had barely hit my forebrain when I found a pencil in my hand. She had said 'more recent', you couldn't get any more recent than the moment you lived in. I certainly didn't have the time to do much, but if I came up with anything, it would meet the request and really... that was all I cared about. Make the woman happy, meet the requirements, and get this the hell over with.

Sound like an ungrateful wretch, don't I?

That fact does not escape me. I had set this fiasco in motion with my own little speed-dialing hand, and now that it was too late to stop the avalanche, I was having second thoughts. So it makes me a little pissy -- sue me.

There were just so many things to think about... to worry about. So many things I needed to be doing. I had a Spacer's sendoff to deal with that was scratching at the back of my brain with little claws of dread. There would be people there that I had not dealt with in awhile. There would be alcohol that I used to indulge in without thought, that I was leery of now. And the guilt. Let us not forget the damn guilt. Can't forget what this funeral was all about, after all.

'Damn it, Jock,' I muttered to the air and hoped to God he wasn't one of the ones who would come back to talk to me. Didn't think I could deal with living with that morose voice for the rest of my life.

And those thoughts led back around to time and timing and understanding that Jensen's portrait had to be finished the very night of the wake. Either before hand, or afterward, and I doubted I was going to be up to it when it was all said and done. But Aleyah would be there on Friday and my time was stinking well up. I had to sigh, thinking that Heero coming home was going to make this harder, because he would not put up with my staying awake until the wee hours to do the work when I had to get up for my actual job the next day.

And of course, that thought came full circle to the little drama we had enacted on our front lawn and I wondered if I could get any more depressed.

Then I looked into the eyes of the kid on the paper in front of me and decided that I had barely scratched the surface.

It was probably me, though thankfully, that fact was not as obvious as some of my other self-portraits. For simplicities sake I will refer to the portrait as though it really was of some other child and not another damn version of my splintered little self.

I... no, he was looking right straight at me, with the most beauteous expression of openness. Smiling broadly, eyes shining with hope and happiness, he offered up in his cupped little hands what must have been his most prized possession. He cradled it, gentle and careful, holding it out to... someone... we won't get into that right now. He was... proud? I'm not sure about that part... there was something very akin to it in the expression. Something in the eyes that said 'this is a treasure'. That said, 'I'm sharing something important with you'.

The thing in the cupped hands was... oddly bird shaped. It was a thing that might have been pretty once. But it had been broken and mended many times. It looked pathetic lying there. Sad. More-so in the sharp contrast with the boy's expression. As though he didn't see what he held in his own hands with the same vision as the rest of the world.

A soul with wings that could not fly.

I tossed the sketch pad down on the couch beside me and wondered again if it was possible for me to freaking draw a simple still life. Don't other people just draw flowers sometimes?

That was when it finally filtered through to my brain that I could hear water running through the pipes in the house, and I realized that Heero was in the shower. It took me almost thirty damn seconds to pull my brain out of the haze it had been in to realize why that was odd.

Heero had showered while I'd fixed dinner. What the hell?

It was late. Later than I would have thought, and I rose to go up the stairs, turning lights off as I went.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I started to go toward the closed bathroom door, but the light on in the bedroom caught my eye. Heero is almost anal about turning lights off as he leaves a room. I almost think it causes him some kind of physical pain not to. If the light was on in the bedroom, there was a reason, so I went there instead.

The sheaf of neatly stacked papers sitting on our bed stood out like a neon sign. Starkly white against the dark green fabric of the comforter. They didn't exactly have my name written on them, but the intent was obvious. Heero had wanted me to come up and find them. I was almost loathe to make the walk across the bedroom and pick them up.

It was a shock to recognize the format and style of an old time mission report. It had not at all been what I'd been expecting, and that alone was enough to make me sit down on the bed. I scanned the cover sheet; surprised to note the date? it was nothing current, AC 194; a moment's calculation put the year in perspective? before Operation Meteor. Before the real war. During that period of time when we were all just finishing up our training and taking on our first missions. Going out into the field for the first time.

The report wasn't Heero's, but rather about a mission of Heero's. There wasn't a single author, but several reports all centered around an infiltration and sabotage mission that had apparently gone bad. I skimmed my way over the pages, suddenly filled with a vague sense of dread. A training mission that seemed to be almost a test; there had been a spotter who reported afterward. The words 'perfect' and 'flawless' were used often... until near the end. Get in, plant the explosives, get out, blow the installation. Simple; I'd run several almost identical assignments in my day. But this one had apparently not been so simple.

There was an evaluation. There were recommendations. A memo from Dr. J insisting on 'not discarding a useful weapon'. There were statistics and numbers, a death-count, quite clinically listing the military numbers right next to the... civilian.

Reports on retraining. Desensitization. Discipline. I read the term 'acceptable losses'. I read the term 'additional training'. I felt sick just reading the crap over.

War and desperation can make men do some damn unspeakable things.

I still didn't understand just what in the hell the dog had to do with anything, but I understood enough.

Heero's mistake at New Edwards had not been his first brush with 'civilian casualties'. God; it was no damn wonder he'd been so quick with the self-destruct button.

I was suddenly more concerned with how long he'd been in that shower waiting for me to come upstairs and find his attempt at showing me what he hadn't been able to tell me, than what those papers had to say.

I don't even know where they fell when I dropped them. I think I was down the hall and had the bathroom door open before they hit wherever they ended up.

I could see Heero in the tub, just his vague silhouette through the shower curtain. He was standing in the back corner, leaned up against the wall. I wondered how long he'd been there, waiting for me to hear the water and come to investigate. I wondered how long it had taken me to come out of my day-dreaming to notice. It's a wonder I didn't rip the curtain getting past it. Getting to him. I went in, clothes and all. The damn water had been running long enough that it was cold. He should have been shivering his ass off? but wasn't. It made me think of something he'd said. Something I hadn't understood at the time.

'You're not what they tried to make you,' I told him fiercely, grabbing hold of him. 'You are so much more than that. So damn much more.'

It was what he'd needed to hear, because he came away from the wall and buried himself in my arms. 'You don't think I'm a...'

'No,' I cut him off before the words could come tumbling out. I didn't even know what he'd meant to say. A monster? A killer? A cold-hearted bastard? It didn't matter; I just knew it wasn't going to be good, and I didn't want to hear it. Didn't want him to hear it. Sometimes putting things into words makes it harder to set it aside. 'You are none of the things they said. You are none of the things they wanted you to be.'

'I was,' he whispered in a tone of voice that was kind of flat. Kind of resigned.

'Maybe so,' I agreed, because you don't waste your time arguing with the truth. 'So was I. So were we all. But that was then... and we aren't what we were.'

'I'm not always so sure...' he said and I pushed him away to look him in the eye.

'I am very damn sure,' I told him, and then kissed him hard. Fed him raw feeling until he choked on a sound that wanted to be a sob that didn't come clear, and he was kissing me back.

Need was an almost-living presence there with us. Though it took me a minute to understand that it was as much my reassurance he craved, as anything physical.

I wanted to take him the hell out of there right then, but my clothes were soaked through. I groped behind us and got the damn water turned off and then he had to help me peel out of the clothes that were plastered to me. I simply abandoned them there in the tub, to drain and be dealt with later. I pulled him out, and got us dry and then took us to bed where we could hide together in the dark, under the dubious security of our blankets.

He curled against me, a thing that felt strange somehow, with his head pillowed on my shoulder. 'I'm sorry I took so long,' I had to tell him.

'S'ok,' he murmured, not seeming to care at all, but I couldn't escape the vision of him standing there all alone with the icy water running over him. He felt chilled still.

'Heero?' I began, not at all sure where I was going. I wanted to encourage him to talk. I wanted to understand. But I just... ached for him. So I also wanted to help him make it all go away again, didn't want him so upset. I wanted to run his ghosts off and keep him safe from them. 'I'm here,' I finally said, though it sounded rather feeble there in the dark.

'I know,' he replied and his hand stole up to stroke gentle patterns over my chest. He was quiet for a long time before he murmured, 'I feel like such a fool.'

I couldn't help a tiny snort of derision, understanding that feeling all too well. 'You're not,' was all I said.

'I just...' he said softly, 'haven't lost myself like that... in a long time.'

I didn't speak, letting him tell it, understanding that we were finally there. It was oddly... not what I'd expected. There was nothing about it that felt good in any way. I had thought it would make me feel closer to him... but it only hurt.

'That dog,' he said at last, just seeming to want to mold himself against me, 'was so much like... M...Mary.'

'Mary?' I prompted gently, though I really didn't want to. I wanted to tell him that he didn't need to tell me anything more, but I wasn't at all sure that he didn't need to tell me. A little bit the way I'd needed to tell him.

'Isn't that sad?' he suddenly said. 'I knew the dog's name... but I never knew the little girl's.'

Somehow I knew we weren't talking about Ruthie. I raised my arm and curled it more tightly around him, carefully letting my palm rest against his side. He sighed softly, sorting through words.

'I'd wanted to prove myself so badly,' he said, voice almost not his own. 'J had such faith in me; I wanted to prove I could handle it. I just wanted to be allowed to fight.'

There wasn't much I could say to that; I understood that need? that desire, inside and out. But he knew that. He didn't need to hear me say it, to know that I'd been down my own path of fire.

'I was so damn... full of myself,' he confessed, his voice finally betraying some of the pain I knew he was in. 'I slipped into that base in broad daylight to set the charges. I was so... so fucking proud of myself... I was so damned...'

His voice choked and he ground to a halt. I held him and kissed his forehead and waited for him to begin again. Knowing that he couldn't stop now that he'd started this tale. No more than I could have.

Once the memories come out of the box, they have a tendency to dance out their parts before they'll go back to their rest.

'There was this... little girl,' he said when he could manage it. 'She... she thought I was lost.' He made a sound like a laugh crumbling away to nothing, and his hand left off stroking over my skin to slide on around me. We just held on for a bit. I felt like I should say something, but was almost afraid to. It made me feel odd? Heero had always seemed to know just what to say to me when I was struggling so damn hard with words. I felt like I was letting him down.

'We talked,' he said. 'She... let me pet her dog. The dog's name was Mary. It was all cinnamon brown and... and soft. They had no idea what I was. No idea?'

His voice, and the tension in him, told me how he'd felt about that. I remembered that strange little rush of walking bold as you please among the unsuspecting. Of smiling and speaking to people, of having them talk to you and never realize what you were on your way to do... on your way from doing. Made you feel almost smug. God? we'd been so young.

'I was to blow the installation that night,' he told me, voice steadying on the technical parts. Operation parameters are so much easier to talk about than feelings. Than guilt. Than... consequences. 'The mission was to destroy the Alliance base. I set the charge and returned that night to detonate it. Minimal crew on the night shift. The... the least amount of... the least...'

'I know,' I told him, because I couldn't listen to him struggle with it anymore. The least amount of casualties. Skeleton night crew. It was odd to remember that there had been a point in the war when that had mattered. Back before things had gotten... intense.

He nodded his head against my shoulder in acknowledgement, letting me know he was grateful not to have to say it. But really? I'd seen the report; it was the least of what we had to get through yet.

'You don't have to,' I told him, suddenly remembering when he'd made that offer to me. At the time, I remembered thinking that it was far too late for that, and it was probably the same for him now, but I understood the need to say it. Understood suddenly the need to try and spare.

'I know,' he whispered and shifted so he could twine his leg over mine, settling as close as he could. I felt his breath sigh across my chest.

He knew I had the gist of it, knew he didn't have to tell me every minute little detail and when he spoke again, he'd skipped forward a bit. 'They said later that I miscalculated the charge, but it wasn't really that. I just wanted? I?'

Had just wanted to be certain. Had just wanted to pass the test. Had only wanted to make absolutely sure of the assignment. Had only wanted to prove himself.

I knew. God, did I know. He couldn't say it, and I kissed his brow gently, absolving him of the need. He tilted his face up to meet mine then, almost suddenly, but waited for me to bring us together. I kissed him willingly, trying to give back at least in part some of the endless support he's always given me. It ate at me seeing him so unsure of himself. So unsure of me.

I tried to imagine him back then, it seemed so damn long ago, though it wasn't... not really. A thousand life-times, but less than a dozen years.

'I found them,' he told me, quite suddenly cutting to the heart of it. 'In the rubble. She lived in the residential quarters. I found... them... I...'

I just couldn't bear to hear any more; I turned to pull him completely into my arms and he came quite readily. 'I know, love... I know,' I soothed and felt him heave a sigh that I hoped was relief.

I could only imagine the fixation he'd had on that little girl and her dog Mary. The casualty list had been? long, but Heero had not stopped and spoken with all the others. Had not been introduced to their dogs. Had not talked about being lost.

I thought about that child, and that dog, and truly understood what had happened on our front steps.

The crash after the high always made things worse. To go in and do the job, to think you have it nailed and perfect... only to have it all go to hell in your face, is infinitely worse than just generally fucking up, if you understand what I mean.

You know, I really don't know that I could have gone on, had I been in his place all those years ago. I don't think I could have continued to fight the fight... no matter my reasoning. No matter the training I'd have been wasting. No matter the revenge I'd have forsaken.

The fact that he'd been able to, kind of filled me with a twisted sort of pride.

It's a daunting thing to find that breed of strength curled in your arms.

We were down to the soft murmurings then. Words of comfort on my part. A few more words of confession on his. Apologies. Acceptance. Until he eventually fell asleep, exhausted, with his head still pillowed on my arm.

I was a very long time following him. I don't sleep well with shit stuck in my craw.

You know, I pretty much gave those five scientists their ride to Hell. I suppose if you want to get severely technical, I have to take some responsibility for their deaths. And I suppose the fact that they went to those deaths quite willingly, doing their part to stop Zechs' lunatic plan, should absolve them of a lot.

But it would never be enough, in my book, for what that fucker Dr. J did to Heero. Damn bastard. I went through Gundam training too. So did Trowa, and Quatre, and Wufei. None of the rest of us were told we weren't allowed to feel. None of the rest of us were told to check our humanity at the door. None of the rest of us endured that kind of 'retraining' for our mistakes.

While Dr. G was never what I would have called a father figure for me, I can't ever say the man went out of his way to be cruel. He trained me, or saw to my training, and there was nothing about it that was easy. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Not easy for a full grown adult soldier, much less a scrawny little kid. But from what I'd just read, he didn't have shit on Heero's own personal SOB.

Had I known then what I know now, I'm not entirely sure that Dr. J would have lived to make that crossing to the Peacemillion. I might have crushed the bastard in the hand of my Gundam.

My Heero was more than just a weapon. More than just a damn tool.

Like I said... I was a long time joining him in sleep.

I was a little surprised that there weren't nightmares, but Heero has never been the 'thrash and yell' type. My own bad dreams have put me on the floor more than once, but he kind of... contains his. If he has them. I'm assuming that he has them. Hell; he might have enough damn control over his sub-conscious mind that he just doesn't, but I don't think so. Sometimes there's a haunted quality in his eyes in the morning, and sometimes he wakes needing to make love in a way that speaks of desperation.

But he seemed peaceful enough that night, so when I woke from my own unsettled dreams, I didn't really hesitate to leave the bed. He didn't need my tossing and turning, after all, and since I was awake anyway, I might as well try to get some work done on the stupid painting that I needed for the stupid art show that was coming up in something like a stupid week.

Stupid damn idea; should have just gone for the second job.

If I had not already had so much time invested in that damn picture, I think I would have been tempted to trash it. I was heartily sick of it and at five in the morning, was suddenly a little aware that it was a large part of my irritation with the whole damn endeavor. The only thing that was even letting me consider turning it over to Aleyah's tender mercies, was knowing that no one would ever know who he was or just what the thing was all about. Would never know that they were looking at the portrait of a rapist and murderer. Would never realize that they were looking at a man that had haunted my dreams for a lot of years. Guess I was never quite going to let go of the guilt over that one.

I was just finishing the shadows at Jensen's feet when warm arms slid around my waist and soft lips brushed across the back of my shoulder. I shivered and had to bite back a gasp, finally getting the touch I'd been wanting for days.

'Part of your... rough week?' Heero asked gently, and I snorted.

'Guess so,' I confessed, leaning into him. 'Wish these damn things would consult me before I start painting.' He chuckled softly and nuzzled against my hair.

'Things?' he asked, not understanding at all, I don't think.

'Ideas? Muses? Errant thoughts?' I sighed. 'I don't know... whatever damn whim starts these projects.'

'You all right?' he said, his voice knowing, and I was a little surprised.

'You...' I said, turning my head to try to look at him. 'You know what this is?'

'Yes,' he affirmed gently, and gave me a tight squeeze. 'Can't say I'm happy to find you've been... working through this all alone.'

I ignored the somewhat embarrassing statement and went for the other part. 'Quatre recognized it too. How in the hell...?'

'You sketched him, remember?' he told me and I had to stop and think about it. It had been a long time ago.

I blinked owlishly at the canvas in front of us, because I couldn't really turn far enough to see Heero all that well. 'You... recognize the man in this painting based on a two minute sketch I did all those years ago?'

'I had reason to memorize that face,' he murmured, and though his voice was soft, his tone was as hard as steel.

'Oh,' was the best I could come up with, but then I felt him tense and I made the effort to turn enough to see him. He'd spotted the other paintings and I wasn't surprised when he moved away from me to go look at them. I took the moment to clean out my brush; it would be nearing time to get ready for work, after all.

He gave Aleyah's portrait a glance and I saw him quirk a little, amused grin at it. Perhaps imagining what she was going to think of it. But then he looked further, and Allison's portrait he had to pick up.

'Oh, Duo,' he sighed, and it was my turn to go slip arms around him from behind. 'I'm sorry I wasn't here,' he told me and turned to kiss my cheek.

I shrugged and shared a grin with nobody in particular. 'Had plenty of company,' I quipped before I had a chance to think better of it. He set the picture carefully down and turned to pull me into his arms. He seemed to want to say a million things and I wasn't sure that any of it was going to be something I wanted to talk about. So, 'How are you feeling this morning?' I asked instead, before he had a chance.

'Stupid?' he chuckled after a moment, though I could tell he hadn't really wanted to change subjects.

'You know this is the part where I tell you how damn amazing you are, and you have to take it, because you did it to me on my 'morning after', right?' I grinned and kissed the side of his neck. It won me a full, if somewhat rueful laugh, but he didn't have a reply, so we just stood with our arms wrapped tight around each other. Offering with mere presence all the things that words might have made too painful.

He was the one who finally broke away, telling me, 'We have to get ready to go... it's getting late.'

'Guess that means I can't talk you into playing hooky?' I teased, though I wasn't really serious, I'd already missed enough work.

'Look where that got us last time,' he snorted and took my hand, giving it a tug just as though he thought he was really going to have to fight with me over it.

I followed him out of the studio and up the stairs, sighing dramatically and playing the game. It helped us put it all aside for the moment, and I guess that's what I'd been missing the most. Just another living being to help me focus enough not to think about the crap I didn't want to be thinking about.

With Heero back in the house, even Jensen's portrait was... just another painting.

We cleaned up, we dressed, we ate breakfast and were on our merry way with only one awkward little moment as we made our way down the front steps. Heero gave me a look that told me he wanted to apologize again, and I just stepped up beside him, bumping shoulders with him and giving him a look that kept the words from coming out. Then we climbed in his car, following our routine just like he'd never been gone.

I cheerfully waved at a woman I took to be Ruthie's mother, from the fact that she was standing on her front lawn in her housecoat waiting for Buffy to finish watering the shrubs. She waved back, though she looked a little confused and a little embarrassed all at the same time. I made a mental note to walk down to their house some evening and introduce myself since I was becoming so acquainted with her kids.

'So,' Heero ventured hesitantly after a couple of blocks. 'You going to tell me some more about this... funeral we're going to this evening?'

Oh yeah. Guess that would be fair.

'It's not exactly a funeral,' I told him, looking out my side window. 'Have you ever been to an Irish wake?'

'No,' he said, 'but I think I get the gist of it.'

I sighed heavily. 'A Spacer send-off is kinda like that.'

'Spacer send-off?' he asked, sounding like he wasn't quite sure what to make of that.

'We...' I began and then rethought that. 'Spacer's don't really go in for the standard 'bury 'em in the dirt' kind of thing. So there's no real funeral.' Just a couple of friends to raise a final glass, space your ashes, and wave goodbye. A lot cheaper than a ground-bounder funeral too.

I forced myself to tear my gaze from the fascinating scenery when his fingers brushed across my thigh. 'You... ok?' he asked, and I gave him my hand to hold on to.

'Yeah,' I reassured, trying not to let it come out on a sigh. 'Just... such a damn waste.' I ended up telling him the whole stupid, gory story, such as it was, just as I'd gotten it from McMurphy. I hadn't really meant to, but at least he didn't get the terminal guilt part. There was no real reason for him to make that connection; he'd only seen me around Jock that one time. I don't think he'd ever pieced together that I'd talked the poor sap down from situations like that a dozen damn times. Talked him down when nobody else could sometimes.

I never seem to be in the right damn place at the right time.

'So this service... thing is actually going to be at McMurphy's?' Heero asked and I wasn't sure if he wasn't just a bit scandalized by that fact. But then he'd been thinking for the past couple of days that we were talking a black suit and tie kind of thing.

I snorted, imagining the evening. 'All the better for those involved to get rip roaring drunk.'

I felt him look at me as much as saw it. His gaze had a certain? weight to it. 'Are you... all right with that?'

I sighed, trying to recall if I'd ever said anything to him about the vague unease I had about alcohol now, or if I had Wufei to thank for passing on that little tidbit of information. 'I'm not planning on getting soused,' I informed him, just a touch of something snappish in it.

He squeezed my hand and when I looked, he quirked that little lop-sided grin at me. 'Well, you know I've got your back if you decide you want to... right?'

I couldn't help the chuckle at the mental picture of Heero Yuy playing designated driver for me and the Musketeers back in the day. 'I think I'll pass, thanks,' I grinned, and he seemed relieved despite his offer.

'I'm assuming then,' he quipped, 'that the suit I thought I'd be wearing would be... a little out of place?'

That made me laugh just right the hell out loud. I'm not sure that McMurphy's place had ever seen a freakin' tie. 'Just a little bit,' I grinned, when I was able. 'The uniform of the day will be jeans and smart-ass slogan shirts.'

Heero groaned. 'Please don't tell me you'll be wearing that beaver shirt...'

I grinned ruthlessly and actually thought about it for a couple of seconds. Heero absolutely hates the thing ever since he realized that his naive little Relena paraded around L2 in it without knowing about the three... manner-challenged Beavers on the back. 'Nah,' I finally said. 'I've got way more obnoxious shirts than that.'

He raised an eye-brow and gave me a look that was supposed to quell me. 'I'm so reassured,' he dead-panned, but since we were pulling up to the Preventors' building, I had to let it go.

He gave my hand one last squeeze just before I climbed out of the car and I was moved to tell him, 'I'm glad to have you home, Yuy.'

He looked pleased, gracing me with that smile of his that always makes me feel warm all over.

And then it was time to go the hell to work.

I have come to hate time-clocks. In the salvage business, you worked when you had work and you stopped when you were tired. Or you stopped when you could. It was way less... regimented than this weird ground-bounder method of daylight versus dark. It bugged me that it mattered if I walked through the door in the morning at a quarter till eight, eight, or eight-fifteen. Give me a break; fifteen minutes out of a day should not matter so damn much. If I was early, I had to wait to clock in or some poor clerk upstairs in the main building had a coronary over 'unauthorized' over-time. If I was late, I got docked for the full half hour. It just seemed so damn anal to me.

And at the same time, it drove me nuts to be in the middle of a job and have to quit just because the clock said it was five. It's just stupid; unproductive and wasteful. You lose all that time putting your tools away only to get them back out in the morning and start all over again. You lose the thread of what you were doing and waste time getting back into the job. Why not just work until you're done?

And if anybody could ever find a logical explanation for me about the flow of time from day to day, I would be greatly appreciative. The last few days, waiting for Heero to come home, had crept by like sluggish oil down a clogged drain. I thought the days were never going to end. But that day, with a damn Spacer's social event I didn't want to go to loaming in my face, the day sped by like the spray from a damn garden hose. Noon, before I had a chance to blink, and almost time to go home before I thought to get a little hungry over the missed lunch. And the jobs I'd been doing were not even all that interesting. Boredom was usually a recipe for long days, but nothing ever goes the way I want it too.

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