Gundam Wing is property of Sotsu Agency, Bandai Studios, and TV Asahi. Sainan no Kekka and all original characters and plot copyright 2000-2002 by Quicksilver and Gerald Tarrant. Please ask permission before reposting.

SHIN KIDOU SENKI GUNDAM WING

SAINAN NO KEKKA
ACT XIII, PART III

I feel your love reflection
Mitsumekaesu hitomi ni
Egaite haruka na Neverending Story
I feel your love reflection
In your eyes as they gaze into mine
Writing a distant, neverending story

--Gundam Wing, White Reflection
Endless Waltz

Scene X: A Scene at Sunset

"And then you bring me home
Afraid to find out that you're alone."
-- Something Corporate, Konstantine

Sometimes, Heero would be sitting at his new, solid wood desk in the new, white-walled office that still smelled like fresh paint, the radio pinging softly, the sun just beginning its downward slope on the horizon, and he would think of Doctor J.

He couldn't say where the thoughts came from. It wasn't that he missed the old man, the mad scientist who had sent a human killing machine into the world to further goals in which the colonies hadn't believed. It wasn't that he yearned to be back in the Breaks. Even if he had wanted to go back, the Breaks no longer existed. Heero preferred to think that the man who stared back at him in the mirror each morning was not only taller, older, shoulders broader and messy hair cut shorter, but also no longer a weary shadow of the L1 orphan child.

"You've been eating better, haven't you?" Relena had said when she had seen him last, two weeks ago passing through Geneva on a routine diplomatic something-or-other. She always told him when she was coming, and they always met for lunch or dinner or coffee. She didn't force him and he didn't feel forced. It was just something natural, an extension of himself, as if every time he saw her, something inside him was renewed.

He supposed he had been eating better lately. Post-war Geneva wasn't the frantic base of Une's days, and definitely not of the Federation's. The headquarters had, over the past half year, morphed into something that Zechs Merquise called "quietly efficient" on the days when he was in a good mood, and "political shithole" when he wasn't in such a good mood. Whatever the moniker, Preventers Headquarters had been pared down. The troops that remained were not combat troops, but commanders, staff personnel, specialists. The warfighting mission had been taken elsewhere, wisely delegated to bases as far as possible just in case the World Nation decided to rescind the mobile suit policy that they had been persuaded to write in the aftermath of Sally's rebellion.

Heero Yuy, Major, Preventers Special Operations Forces, was not a war hero. Zechs had offered him the position of commander of Special Forces Command two days after the change of command, and Heero had told him he was not surprised. "I didn't think you would be," Zechs said, the general's stars on his shoulders looking a little odd against the slightly shaggy white-blond hair. He was used to seeing Zechs in the OZ uniform, no matter how hard he tried otherwise. "But I had to ask."

Heero had almost smiled. "There are plenty of other people eligible for the job," he said. "You don't have to pick me."

Zechs had been quiet for a long while, and Heero had let him think, though he had the suspicion the Epyon pilot wasn't thinking at all. Then Zechs said, "I'm not giving this to you because you're a hero or anything, you know."

"I'm glad to hear it," Heero said. "Everyone else but you seems to think I am, unfortunately."

The corner of Zechs' mouth quirked upward. "Everyone else is not someone who faced you in single combat over the fate of a planet, either."

"Touché," he acknowledged. Then, "So now what?"

"As long as you're willing to stay," Zechs said, "I'll have you."

He looked closely into those blue eyes, hard now with the resolve of a seasoned veteran and a man at peace, and saw the honesty there. He had never imagined he would have called Zechs Merquise honest, but it was a new world. "Thank you, sir," Heero said. "I will stay as long as you need me."

He only permitted himself to think about Doctor J when his work was done and he could pretend to relax at the end of a long day. His own office sported floor-to-ceiling windows which reminded him of how Une's office used to look. Zechs had since removed the large windows and replaced them with smaller ones, saying that they made him feel like he was being spied on. Heero didn't mind the big windows. It was nice to see the sky, and sometimes in the evening, he could catch a glimpse of the sunlight reflecting off something that might or might not be a colony.

It was curious that he could not quite remember the doctor. Not his looks, because those were unmistakable. But little things, like his voice, or the curious movements of his head, like a bird, when he would speak. The small things that made the man, Heero had forgotten over time.

There had been times when he would suddenly have the desire to simply walk out the door, buy the cheapest ticket to L1, and take the next shuttle out to the colony. Sometimes late at night, he would sit up bolt upright in bed, breathing hard and sweating in the small, dim bedroom as if from a nightmare, though he could not remember what he had dreamed, only knowing desperately he had to go back. He'd never told Zechs, nor even Relena. It wasn't something that either of them could understand. Duo perhaps would, but Duo was far away in Africa now, content with his new job, and Heero had never been quite comfortable enough with the thought to express it over the short conversations he had with Duo over the defense service network.

It had been about three months after Sally when Heero had received an envelope in the mail, which was an odd occurrence in this era of email and instant communication. He'd taken it home, thinking it strange that there was no return address, and very slowly and carefully torn the envelope open.

The moment he saw the crooked, spidery kana, written almost in a child's hand, he knew who the letter was from.

Darkflight had been brief and to the point. He was well settled, he wrote, and was attending school at night while working days in the construction yards to rebuild the colony. He was getting used to life "on the outside," as he put it, and the sarcastic edge there was just how Heero remembered him. The tone of the letter, on the whole, was very peculiar. Heero read it twice through, but it wasn't until he was preparing for bed, in the middle of brushing his teeth, that it hit him.

For the first time he could remember, Darkflight sounded content.

He finished brushing his teeth with a slight frown, flopping down on the narrow bed and staring up at the dimly lighted ceiling. Darkflight had been an enigma when they had been in the Breaks together, and maybe it was just that he hadn't known the other boy as well as he thought. But he did not recognize this Darkflight, the boy whose words in the letter had sounded hopeful, almost happy. There had been no happiness in the Breaks.

The last thing that crossed his mind as he fell asleep was a familiar face, the click of an electronic eye, voice surprisingly soft as the white-haired form stooped against a backdrop of ruined church steps.

I'm pleased to meet you, Zero. My name is Doctor J.

The next few weeks went by in a blur, with the base preparing for another influx of dignitaries for the World Nation's World Economic and Agricultural Summit, about which Zechs had been complaining privately for weeks in advance, even though Heero could tell the complaining was more routine than anything. "Every time I see your brother," he told Relena when she called to tell him she would be attending the conference, "he seems to me more and more like a commander."

"That would be a good thing, I suppose?" she said, tilting her head at him over the screen, the gesture so lifelike that he had to stop himself from reaching out a hand to touch her.

"I never thought I would respect Zechs Merquise as a leader, much less as a man," he said. "But he has become both."

"Une made a good choice," she said, and her dimpled smile made him almost smile involuntarily in return. "I know you have also."

That night after work, he left his car on the base and went on foot through the back gate. No one stopped him, and the guard on duty didn't even turn his head as Heero slipped by. He thought back to how this part of the base had looked after the attacks a few months ago, a few months that seemed almost years now. The gates had been rebuilt, an imposing structure of metal and white stone that seemed almost as historic as the old city around it, and the desperate look he remembered in the soldiers' eyes had been replaced also by something that was not pride but not nonchalance.

Treize was right, he thought, slipping his hands into his pockets and trotting steadily down the wide sidewalk through the rays of the setting sun, feeling the rush of wind at his back as cars passed him on the wide boulevard. Geneva was moving, changing around him, one of the great cities of the world now, and he would be left behind someday, as a relic of a great era that had passed.

There was a park ahead, through a tangle of old trees and wide grassy spaces, and he entered it. There were usually children playing here after school, accompanied by harried mothers or nannies or grandparents, but it was empty now, the swings still and the jungle gyms silent. Shadows stretched long over the cobblestone paths and Heero stopped halfway between the playground and the entry gate, closing his eyes and letting the wind wash over his face, and thought of Darkflight, of Doctor J, of the Breaks which no longer existed.

"Asleep on your feet?"

If he had been less of a trained killer, he would have jumped, but Heero simply opened his eyes to look into blue ones that were somehow less hard than they used to be, and said, "Good evening, sir."

"Zechs is fine," the Preventers commander-in-chief said, smiling. "We're off duty, you know."

Heero gave him a look. "Are we ever off duty?"

Zechs raised one eyebrow at him. "I came here today to relax before one of those horrid official dinners tonight. I don't need you of all people spouting rhetoric at me. I get plenty of it from the World Nation already."

"I see," Heero said, suppressing the urge to smile, and instead looked up at the canopy of tree branches, red and orange and black in the dying sunlight. "I apologize."

"Not necessary," Zechs returned easily. "Did you talk to Relena?"

"She's coming in tomorrow. Though you probably already know that."

"I didn't, actually," Zechs said. "She wasn't sure if she would be able to make it. There's several summits going on in Cinq at the same time about economic issues, or something of the sort. I try not to get too involved in her business. It all makes me confused. I'm a military man, not a politician."

"I think you do very well at the politics," Heero told him, looking fixedly up at the trees. "It runs in your family."

Zechs was silent, though he could feel the other man's sharp eyes on him, and then he finally said, "What's bothering you, Heero?"

Nothing, he wanted to say, or none of your business. That was what the old Heero would have said, the Heero before the war, before both wars, before Wufei and Darkflight and Atsuki and everyone who had saved him. "I wonder if L1 will be visible tonight," he said neutrally. "It has been hard to see it lately, and living downtown with all the lights doesn't help."

"I never pinpointed you for a stargazer," Zechs said, and Heero shook his head.

"I'm not. But Treize was, wasn't he?"

Zechs sucked in his breath softly, and Heero knew Zechs knew what he was thinking without the words being said. "Treize isn't coming back," Zechs said.

"We should have died," Heero told him. "We should have, but we didn't. I think somehow Treize knew that we wouldn't. I think that somehow, Treize wanted us to live."

"We did die," Zechs began, and Heero shook his head.

"Not like that. I remember coming out of space, into the atmosphere, seeing the Libra burning...and at that moment, all I could think about was surviving. All those years of training, all of Doctor J's philosophies drummed into me, and when it came down to the final seconds, living was the only thing on my mind." He shot Zechs a bemused look, and found that the blue eyes were kind. "It's funny. I hit that self-destruct button once, and Trowa saved me. That was the first time I realized that I wasn't alone in this world."

The wind swayed in the trees and a truck roared by on the road outside, and he thought about flowers in the snow, a little girl and her puppy. The images were faint in his mind now.

"What's on your mind, Heero?" Zechs said, and Heero answered, "I got a letter from Darkflight yesterday."

"Ah."

"He's happy. I wouldn't have expected otherwise. He's back where he belongs, after all. The Breaks are gone, but he's part of that rebuilding process, and he's content doing it. He's going to school. Got an apartment out in the city. Watching L1 get back on its feet."

"I detect a trace of 'why not me?' in your voice," Zechs said. "You're not thinking about quitting your day job, are you?"

"It was just strange reading that letter and realizing that he's moved on without me," Heero said quietly. "I used to be there, where he is now."

"And in a year or two or three," Zechs said, "you'll have moved on again, and he will be where you are now. That's how things are."

"What if I don't want them to be that way?" Heero returned, aware he was running the risk of sounding childish, but the back of his mind told him that it was better now than later, because neither he nor Zechs had ever been children.

But Zechs simply smiled, though there was something hard, like resolve, around his eyes where there hadn't been a moment before. "I hired you because I knew you were the man for the job," he said. "I don't want to have a reason to doubt my decision."

"There's no reason to doubt me, sir," Heero said softly. Zechs looked like he was about to say something at the honorific, then shook his head as if it didn't matter. "If there's one thing Doctor J taught me, it's to finish what I started."

"And when you've finished it?"

Heero stared for a long time at the sun through the trees. When he turned back, the image of Zechs was blurred, obscured by a fiery shadow. "I don't know," he said. "I've been wondering that too."

Zechs did not speak again, just gave him a glance that said, I'll see you back at the job when you're ready. They stared at each other for a moment, then the elder Peacecraft turned and moved away through the copse of trees on long legs, strides purposeful and resolute. The red afterglow was still there, and Heero blinked, trying to clear it away. The trees were all on fire, it seemed, on fire like that collapsed building that held the little girl and her puppy, the fires that had been burning all around him as Atsuki had died.

He did not feel sad as he made his own way out from the park's hedge-fence and shoved his hands in his pockets to meander down the wide path between grand old Victorian-era estates, thick stone walls towering above him. He had tried writing back to Darkflight, and had found that the words would not come. It was the same in the past few months as he had tried writing to Quatre, trying to quiet the last remaining twinge of guilt that plagued him every time he saw the blonde's face on television for some conference or other. There was nothing that could be said that did not remind too painfully of the past. For Quatre, I loved your sister was almost grovelingly pathetic, and for Darkflight, I wish I could see you was a part of an emotion he wasn't sure he could feel.

He became conscious of the flow of traffic around him, commuters returning home from work, the twinkling of street lamps and stoplights, the steady red of the crosswalk signal ahead of him, and his feet stopped. Cars rushed past, and he breathed in the fumes deeply. Gasoline had never been a familiar smell to him; in the Breaks, there were few cars, and the smell of jet fuel and the scent of the innards of his own Gundam's oil had been completely different. Breathe in, breathe out, he thought, and as the crosswalk light turned green, Heero trotted across the white striped pavement, feet carrying him forward without conscious effort. He was not far from the base, and if just kept walking he would eventually get to where he wanted to go.

The path took him in a wide circle, and far too soon he spotted the entrance gates to the Preventers Headquarters, the wide white drive that still looked painfully new in this old city. He turned toward it, then stopped. It's not time yet, something told him, and instead, he turned the other way, jogging across the four-lane road with its blinking signal, and picked up his pace where the road began to slant upwards. He was glad he had worn his running shoes.

The wind whistled past his ears and the hill leveled out, began a steady downward slope punctuated only by fluorescent street lights at regular intervals. The flow of cars and headlights thinned, and as he watched, the sun slipped behind the horizon and the thin white light of the moon glimmered hazily through the clouds. It was his heartbeat, and the pounding of his shoes against the concrete walk, and the air he breathed, in, out.

The road curved to the right and he followed it, legs pumping faster now, flying between the white guardrails as if running for his life, like he had during the war so many times. Doctor J had taught him that too. And now the war was over and he was still running, still felt sometimes he would never be able to stop running. He could hardly see the streetlights now, breath coming in short gasps from a tortured ribcage, knowing that he needed to stop but could not, until his foot caught on a stone and he stumbled forward, falling to his knees.

There was only a little blood, he noticed distractedly, pushing himself to his feet and seeing spots in his vision where the red sun had been. Only a scrape to the knee. He could keep on running, and his brain nodded agreement to that suggestion. He took one step forward uncertainly, clenching his hands as if that could rub away the sweat and dirt that stuck to the palms, and then stopped.

To the left, almost too far to see out of the corner of his peripheral vision, there was a church.

Once upon a time, he would have turned resolutely the other way, but now, there was just the faintest inkling of curiosity, the faintest touch of nostalgic memory, and Heero took a breath of cool night air, blew it out slowly, and went up the driveway.

It was a small chapel, floors lovingly swept and pews glossy with the look of dedicated maintenance. Heero lingered at the doorway for a moment, trying to sort out the feeling of familiarity that struck him as he entered, but could not place it. Instead, he made his slow way down the center aisle, eyes fixed on the crucifix mounted between the simple stained glass windows at the front of the chapel. He paused as he came to the front, closing his eyes for a moment, wondering what Duo would do. Duo had grown up in a church, would have known the right things to say. But he, Heero Yuy, a child of the godless Breaks, had been just another orphan, would have died just another orphan, if not for Doctor J.

Are you God?

The words came unbidden to mind, and Heero frowned, wondering if it was a memory or just a fragment of something he had heard once, spoken by someone he knew in the near past.

No. I'm just a messenger.

One hand crept to the collar of his shirt, soaked with sweat now. The slim chain that had once held his knife in its leather case was still there, albeit slippery with the same sweat. He had worn it around his neck for a few days after Duo had given it back to him before he could acknowledge to himself that it felt strange, like it no longer belonged. The day after that, he'd taken it over to the bank and told them to lock it up in one of their storage boxes. "You know, like for jewelry," he said lamely, not quite sure of the correct term.

The man at the counter had looked at him uncertainly, then peered over his glasses with that look of recognition that Heero was quickly becoming used to. It was the scar, he knew, the thick, ugly thing across the bridge of his nose, up over his eye and disappearing into his hairline. He'd simply smiled and let the man gush on about the war and the Preventers, and about heroes, and finally ask for Heero's autograph. He'd given it unhesitatingly, then looked at his knife in the man's hands, and said, "You know what? Never mind. I'd like to keep that after all."

His fingers went to his scar now, and he could feel it as hard and ridged as ever. He imagined it black in the stained-glass moonlight, feeling the ghost of Atsuki's touch.

Quatre, he thought, I loved your sister.

He drew the silver chain out from under his shirt, reaching behind him to unclasp the hook. It opened with a soft snick, and he watched the silver puddle in his hand, melting in the white light under the crucifix. The knife he had continued to wear, though it felt odd, like a part of him that had been detached but he could not yet leave behind. He'd thought of several places he could have put it for safekeeping, but as with the bank, at the last minute he had decided not to. It lay there so innocently in his palm, and he thought of the scar across his face, the mark Zechs Merquise had given him to set him free.

Perhaps the two of them were bound together after all.

All he could remember afterwards about that moment were two things. First, that as he tipped his hand to let the knife and the chain fall to the floor in front of the altar on the steps, there seemed to be a flash of light at the edges of his vision, like the afterimage of an explosion. Not like when the Libra exploded, or when L1 had been hit by Sally's missiles, but something whiter, more pure. And then secondly, as the weapon hit the floor with a clatter, the rest of the thought that might have been a memory surfaced - the image of a long-haired man with his mechanical eye, raspy voice against strangely gentle grip, saying, I'm pleased to meet you, Zero. My name is Doctor J.

He felt suddenly refreshed as he left the church and stood there on the steps. A lone car passed by, skidding slightly on the rough surface of the road, and even as Heero turned his feet towards the Preventers Headquarters and home, it began to rain.

Relena would be coming into Geneva tomorrow, and they would be going out to dinner, perhaps with Zechs, maybe without him if her brother was busy. He knew he could ask her what she thought of getting rid of the scar, but he didn't think he'd be surprised if she told him to keep it. It was, after all, part of him now. Instead, maybe he would ask her if she wanted to take a trip with him. Just the two of them, off this blue planet and to the colony to which his heart still belonged.


Scene XI: Inheritance of the Next Generation

"It's what you do and not what you say
If you're not part of the future then get out of the way."
-- John Mellancamp, Peaceful World

On the good days, he would awake to an elbow in the stomach as Hilde tossed, restless from her dreams. He'd rub her back, soothing her until she fell deeper into her sleep. Then he would stare at the ceiling, wondering how he'd been so lucky to survive this long.

The bad days had him awakening to his nightmares, a scream caught in his throat. He'd been too long on the streets to actually make noise while sleeping, but he could still feel panic and terror ripping through him. It always took a moment to orient himself, and somehow Hilde managed to wake up each time, and she ended up being the one to rub his shoulders to quiet his inner demons.

He was haunted by war, and the "what-ifs." What if he'd let Ilene kill him; what if Hilde hadn't proven stronger than Epyon; what if Sally had won. These thoughts became a familiar refrain in his head, a litany of "almosts" and "too damn closes." It was useless to dwell on recriminations, but that didn't stop him. It was human nature to second-guess.

Hilde had her own nightmares as well, but she didn't experience them while asleep. He would find her occasionally staring off into space, frozen as she lost herself in her memories. All he could do was wrap himself around her, offering a reassuring hug and kiss and just hold her. Her demons were her own, but at least she could know he loved her.

The nights were bad sometimes, but he found his days unexpectedly pleasant. He liked teaching, he discovered, although he wasn't a natural. He learned things intuitively, and it was difficult for him to break them down so others could understand. It was worth it, he knew, because he could see the future taking shape in front of him. Noin Academy was doing well, and he was a part of that.

He had no degree, since all his learning had come through the school of life. He'd received an honorary diploma from Yuy University on L1, and that seemed to be good enough for most people - at least no one was questioning his credentials.

People treated him differently than he was used to, a cautious wariness and respect they would have offered a mysterious package, left unattended on the bus. He often caught people staring at him, but few bothered to approach. He didn't like the isolation, since he was a naturally extroverted personality, but he understood the reasoning for it. He had been one of those pivotal individuals in the war, and many weren't sure how to handle him - did he deserve respect? Hatred? Until people reconciled their ambivalent feelings about the Gundam pilots, he would be marked as a pariah.

He accepted that, and worked to move on. For once, he was creating, instead of destroying. It was even more challenging than being a pilot, because it took patience and a sense of humor. He wasn't used to being an authority figure, but he learned quickly to establish the boundaries, or else the students would walk all over him.

Had it been any other kind of school, students would have rebelled at the strictness, but Noin Academy was only for the best. The school was a strange mix of would-be soldiers and students interested in diplomatic work. The course load was rigorous, weeding the students out mercilessly after the first two weeks. Some went home, admitting that they couldn't cut it. Others were kicked out for violations of the code; the expectations were high for students, and there was little mercy for truants. There were a few who managed to coast through the academy, but those were rare. He found he liked the ones who struggled best. They tended to have a sincerity about them he admired.

There were still problems, but he found he was able to cope by either asking for advice - an action which made him annoyed and uncomfortable, since he had to admit his weaknesses - or just winging it, his preferred mode of operation.

He wasn't the most popular professor, despite his good humor, since he'd flunked out more students than any two other faculty members combined. His standards were high, since he figured that he, an undereducated street rat from L2, had mastered piloting a Gundam, the least these scions of privilege could do was keep up. That he was compressing what would have amounted to two years of engineering courses into a semester never occurred to him. He considered it basic knowledge for what he'd really be teaching come next year. Maybe what he taught would save the lives of someone, way down the road, and that could be his penance.

It was even stranger when he considered that he was planning to remain for the next year. Duo had never been much on long-term planning, but this place felt right to him. He could see himself here in a decade, teaching students what they needed to know even as he worked on his own projects in his spare time. Une had arranged for him to have a large lab - really more of a garage - where he would spend hours using what he'd learned during the wars and on his own to cobble together "gadgets." He'd always been the best when it came to improvising, his natural understanding of technology aiding him well.

So far the pride of his workshop was a filter which managed to add another 20 percent to the gas efficiency of automobiles. He was working on a version that would aid with large, commercial vehicles, but so far his prototypes weren't worth talking about. The patents would belong to him, though the school would get the first rights when it came to development. It was a fair deal, because when he tried to calculate the potential earnings off his Duomax (as Hilde had playfully named it), the number of zeros had caused his mind to boggle.

He never thought his knack with tinkering might translate to actual cash. He occasionally would freeze as it came crashing down that he was the one most like the scientists who had created the Gundams. G would have had laughing fits, before smacking the back of his head and reminding him not to get uppity. You still have a long way to go, boy, the old man would have said with a wheezing laugh.

He tried not to dwell on it too much. The scientists were dead, and he was alive. Looking back brought nothing but despair. Instead, he would live for those who couldn't. Only at night, in those damnable dreams, would he allow those ghosts to take hold.

It was just pushing six that evening when he entered their living quarters. The teachers were housed on the campus grounds, and though Hilde wasn't a part of the staff, she remained with him. She was currently working with a variety of former sweepers to establish better trading routes to Earth. He found her work dull and tedious, but she was enjoying it. It was challenging and precise, calling for someone who was a natural diplomat. She was creating jobs, which might have been more important in the long run than anything else. People who had good salaries weren't as likely to become dissatisfied.

"Hey, Hil?" he called. "You around?"

There was a slight rustle from the bedroom, and she called back to him. "Just a second, I'm getting something you shoved under the bed," she yelled, her voice slightly muffled.

Knowing better than to enter while she had her back vulnerable, he settled onto their couch. It was second hand, rescued from some acquaintance of Relena's, and made of good material. The slight wear had been cunningly disguised with a cover pattern in cheerful red and oranges. Their entire living room looked like fire, yellows and oranges blending with deeper reds in the carpet. He thought it was tacky, but Hilde had shown him a cutting-edge interior design magazine that the style had been drawn from.

It was closer to five minutes before she finally appeared, sitting down next to him with a rather graceless plop. She had a bit of dirt on her cheek, but her smile was brilliant as she stretched her body slowly. There was something about the tilt in her head.

"So what were you after?" he asked.

"Remember that black silk shirt I was wearing last week?" she asked.

"Of course," he said. The silk had slid over her body in the most interesting ways, and felt cool and slippery under his fingers. "If it was under the bed, I'm sure it's a bit dusty."

"Found it at the bottom of the hamper," she said. "Sending it out for dry-cleaning tomorrow, since I want to have it back in time to wear to the New Year's party Relena is having."

Duo pulled a face. Despite the changes the world had gone through, it wasn't an event he was looking forward to. He still felt awkward around Trowa sometimes, and doubted that he would ever be completely comfortable with his friend again. He could forgive, but it was hard to forget.

"Don't be like that," Hilde said, swatting him playfully. "I know Heero and Trowa will be there, so you'll have someone to talk to."

"Well, there's that," he said, not wanting to push it. There were still ten days before New Year's, and he could take that time to think of a graceful way to back out, if he decided it was completely untenable. He didn't think he would ? he knew better than to run from his problems.

She rested a hand on his knee. "It'll be fine," she assured him. "Something to look forward to."

"Sure. Just like Santa," he said. The Christmas decorations around the school had been annoying him. He'd never celebrated the holiday before, except for once with his family at Maxwell Church, and found the overly festive atmosphere irritating.

"Did you give it any thought?" she asked.

"What?" Sometimes he could never follow her thoughts.

"What we are doing for the holidays? We can get a tree and put it up, maybe go to church if you want. Or I'm sure we could go to Relena's early and spend Christmas with her. If not, there's some Eve War remembrance ceremonies, if you'd rather go to one of them." She spoke quickly, laying out the options neatly.

He noticed that the only thing she hadn't offered was to do nothing. That would have been his first choice, and she had politely nixed that possibility. Duo knew he could make it an issue, but that would be unfair to her. She was nominally Christian, and deserved the chance to celebrate the season.

Suddenly an idea struck him, and he had to force himself not to spring to his feet to implement it. Taking a deep breath, he shut his eyes as a wave of unexpected longing swept him. "Can you take until New Year's off?" he asked. "My last class session is tomorrow, so I'll be free. Up for a little trip?"

"You expect me to take the holiday week off with one day's notice?" she asked incredulously.

"Um, why not?" he said, knowing that he was pushing it.

She gave him a blank stare before shaking her head and laughing. "Sure. Why not," she echoed. "So where are we going? Somewhere warm?"

"Not exactly. I think it's about time we went back to L2 for a visit," he said, giving her a cocky grin he didn't feel. "I want to go home," he added softly.

The air on L2 was cleaner than he remembered. It still had that acrid taste that tickled the back of his throat, but the born colonial he was recognized that it wasn't as heavy with waste gases. He'd wager they'd replaced the oxy processors. It would take years before the whole air system would be up to standards, but it was well on the way.

Howard had given them his guest room. The man hadn't changed at all, although the shirt was even brighter than the ones Duo remembered from the war.

"You're always welcome," Howard said after giving them both a backbreaking embrace. "It's good you're back."

Hilde had wanted to look around her old business. The new owner, a former White Fang soldier, had been pleased to show them both around the operation. Business was good, the woman said. There were plenty of building projects being undertaken on all the colonies, especially L1. The market for metal was excellent, and she'd been forced to hire eight new employees to keep up with the work.

Duo listened with half an ear as Hilde talked shop with the woman, discussing trade routes. When he was convinced she was thoroughly distracted, he pressed a kiss against her cheek, murmuring that he needed to go do something. She merely waved a hand at him, indicating it was fine.

Getting to C-Side took him nearly two hours using the public transportation system. The train was more than fifty years old, but there were new seats. He claimed one early on, not wanting to stand for the duration of the ride. A couple of the people he assumed were regular commuters slanted him nasty looks, which he returned with a slightly challenging smile. Just try it.

No one made any protest.

The place was still dangerous, he knew as he stepped off the train. He could see the gang's colors, more freshly painted than any building, splashed over the streets. He felt the eyes on him, but he walked boldly, showing no fear. He saw eyes weigh him, gauging how much threat he carried, and all dismissed him as a possible target. They'd find someone weaker.

The bar he went to was the same as the one he and Hilde visited when they'd come to L2 to retrieve the Gundams. The clientele was just as rough as ever, but a few recognize him, and word was quickly passed to warn others who might try to get something out of the slender teenager. Duo earned suspicious, fearful glances, but none challenged him.

Instead, a stick-thin man whose skin was covered entirely in a series of complex, interlinked tattoos approached him. He held his hands out wide, showing he was carrying no weapons. "There's a lady waiting for you off the side, Maxwell," he said, signing with his hands that it was optional for the meeting to take place, no threat was intended.

Duo nodded. "Take me there," he ordered.

He wasn't surprised to see who it was as he opened the side door. Nuance stood with her back holding up the wall of the alley, grinning at him. Her hair was silver now, a boldly metallic color that age wouldn't account for, but other than that she seemed unchanged to his eyes.

"Heya, pretty boy," she said. "Need a ride?"

He didn't wonder how she'd known he was there. She had her own sources of information, and she'd already proven herself as an ally, if not a friend. "Sure, babe," he told her. "Going my way?"

"I'll go anyway you want," she replied, offering him a playful leer. "Just follow me."

She took him to the car he'd bought from her last time. He snorted as she gestured for him to climb into the passenger seat. "I'd rather drive," he told her.

"Sure you would, Maxwell, but you're not going to. My way or walk," she said.

It wasn't much of a choice, and he scowled as he pulled the old door open and slid grumpily in. "Do you even have a license?" he asked, knowing that most residents of C Side never bothered to take the official channel.

She cocked an eyebrow (which had been pierced by a safety pin) before taking the driver's seat. "The boy who flew a Gundam at fifteen wants to know if I have a license," she said, sotto voce before fluttering her eyelashes. "Really, cutie." She pulled a pair of expensive-looking sunglasses out and shoved them onto her face. "Where did you put it?" Nuance asked.

"What?" He couldn't follow her train of thought.

"Your Gundam," she said, speaking slowly like she would to a child. "It's not back at the church."

"Because people know now that was where I put it," he said in a slow, you-must-be-stupid tone of voice. "There's no point in hiding something where people expect it."

She rolled her eyes. "We knew it was here. How the hell do you think it didn't get scavenged before you picked it up? We look after our own, Maxwell."

He almost laughed. C Side was one of the roughest places in the colonies, full of murderers and worse. There truly must have been honor among thieves. "How are things?" he asked, changing the subject. There was no way he was going to even hint where he'd stashed Deathscythe this time. That was a secret he planned to take to the grave with him; he wouldn't even hint to Hilde its location.

"Both better and worse," Nuance replied. She dug into her pocket and pulled out a joint, shoving one of the roughly wrapped ends into her mouth. "Got a light?"

"Don't smoke," he replied, waving a hand.

She pulled a face before patting herself down to locate her matches, which she produced with a smirk. "Good boy. Hell of a lot cheaper way to live," Nuance said. She let go of the wheel as she struck the match, and Duo grabbed the steering wheel to make sure they remained on the road.

Nuance rolled her eyes. "You honestly think I'm going to crash?" she asked in disbelief.

"I don't trust anyone's driving but my own," he returned through gritted teeth. It was difficult, but he turned the wheel to the left to smoothly take the turn. "Either stop the car and let me drive, or take it seriously."

She laughed again, but took the steering wheel back. "I'm just funning with you, sweet thing."

He cast her a sulky look before settling back into his seat and rolling down the window so he didn't end up with a secondary high. He lost his disgruntlement as the streets became more familiar. Finally they made the last turn, and they came to a smooth stop in front of a vacant lot. It had been hidden by the buildings, but now he could see a vast stretch of flatness, with signs promoting sale of the "land."

"What's happening here?" he asked, stunned. He never realized that the shattered remnants of the church that he'd grown up in would ever be replaced. A surge of resentment swelled inside of him. This place was holy ground. How dare they try to wipe away the sins of the past? Some things should never be forgotten.

Nuance took a long drag of her fag before replying. "This place is going to be revived. The diocese sold it to a developer, and there's talk about putting up some housing," Nuance said. 'I don't think anyone is going to want to live here, but it's better than another box of project housing." She paused. 'It's going to be a new division, tentatively named Maxwell Heights."

He stared at the flat lot, feeling muddled. This was something he hadn't been expecting, and he didn't know how to cope. He couldn't decide if it was a good thing or not.

Nuance wasn't going to have that. "Get out, take a walk around and stretch your legs," she said. 'I'll be here when you come back."

In a daze, he obeyed, unclipping his seatbelt and exiting the vehicle. Nuance pulled some kind of magazine from behind her, propping it open against the steering wheel. He looked at her once, but it was clear she intended him to do this himself.

The church had been fairly large, and when it had been attacked, several other buildings had been brought down. There were at least four blocks that could be created if the architects were clever. Space was usually at a premium on the colonies, but this place was located in C Side. No one with any brains would want to move here.

He pushed passed the construction tape, walking onto the fake ground of the colony. Without thinking too deeply, he traced a path to where the church would have been. The home of his childhood was completely gone, and there was no sign of the lives that had been lost here. For a second, rage swelled inside of him, and he clenched his fists, wanting to destroy something. This was disrespectful, this was wrong-

As suddenly as his anger had arisen, it fell back. A sense of peace, perhaps inspired by the lingering remnants of the holy place the church had been, overcame him. Father Maxwell and Sister Helen would approve of this, he thought. They had always believed in forgiveness and rebirth. They wouldn't want anyone to live caught in the past, and the land could do the people some good.

He was being silly to even think badly of the changes. This was the result of his battles. New life was finally coming to his home, the chances and opportunities that he had fought so hard to get. He should embrace this change, become a part of it. He pulled his cell phone out, speed dialing Hilde's number.

"Hey Hilde?" he said when she picked up, feeling giddy and nearly breathless with excitement.

"Where are you?" she demanded. Her voice sounded a bit cross. "I turn my back on you for five minutes, and you managed to wander off. Do I need to get you a leash or something?"

"Sorry, Hilde, there was just something I had to do,"

"Are you at the church?" she asked.

He didn't take time to wonder how she'd figured it out. He must have been getting predictable. "Yeah. Yeah, I am, but I'll be coming back shortly. There's just something I wanted to ask you."

"What?"

"The real estate is cheap here," he said. "Would you like to buy a piece of property and build a vacation home?"

"What?" she asked again. "On C Side?"

He couldn't blame her for her reaction. People didn't buy homes on the colonies for vacations. The colonial rich bought places on earth to escape from the colonies. Everyone else saved their money so they could at least get out. No one in their right mind would buy a "vacation home" on C Side.

"Yeah. We're going to build us a little place, just so we have somewhere to come home to when school's not in session. It'll probably get broken into a couple times of year, but that's okay. This is where I want to be."

She laughed then, a bubbly sound Duo heard too rarely. "Sure, let's," she agreed. "If it'll make you happy, it's fine."

It was a crazy plan, impractical and foolhardy, but no one had ever claimed Duo Maxwell was sane. He continued to babble his ideas into the phone as he set off back to Nuance's car, feeling more alive than he had in ages. Sure, he might have nightmares for the rest of his life about the things he had done, and his regrets would follow him forever, but that was no reason to stop living. There was a future, and he had the ability to choose which path he took.

And wasn't that what he had fought for?


Scene XII: Ballade pour Adeline, part IV

"The summer's all in bloom.
The summer's ending soon."
-- Vanessa Carlton, White Houses

The commander of the military garrison on L3 before him had been a heavyset man, a bit florid with a large moustache that had flowed past the corners of his mouth, brushed and curled and very 19th century European. Trowa hadn't asked what had happened to him when he'd arrived to take command there, and had discovered quickly that the old commander had preferred his office lavish and his wallet full. The rest of the installation, in comparison, was a bit of a relic: rusted gates, ramshackle housing, unmowed lawns and broken sewage pumps.

It had been strange walking in through those front gates, gates that he'd passed every once in a while in his time on L3. He had always scurried past, ducking through the alleyways near the post at dusk, hoping the soldiers wouldn't spot him. Operation Meteor, Doktor S had drummed into his head, depended on him, Trowa Barton, to be undetectable, inaudible, invisible. Trowa Barton did not exist.

But now he did exist. He woke up every morning as the sun rose outside the window of his newly renovated quarters, washed his face, brushed his teeth, did some quick calisthenics, jogged to work. He'd usually have a crisp uniform hanging in the closet when he got there, courtesy of the dry cleaning which he allowed himself as his one luxury, because wearing the same clothes more than one or two days in a row would remind him again of the war.

The war was over.

Captain Jeong told him that on occasion when he would open the door and Trowa would be sitting at the desk brooding. "The war's over, sir," the young Korean man would say with a wry grin, handing him a disk or slipping some papers into his inbox. "Why the long face?" He was glad the man was here, because sometimes he reminded him of Wufei and then other times he reminded him of Heero, and then sometimes it was just because he was a link, however tenuous, to the fact that there was an Earth still spinning outside the walls of the military post.

He'd come back to L3 officially under Zech's orders, or maybe it was Une's; either way it didn't matter. But he liked to think in his mind that he'd returned under Catherine's orders, because that would rouse him a bit and make him look out the window over the reddish walls that separated his world from the colony's world, and make him wonder what exactly he was still searching for.

"L3's garrison needs a new commander," Zechs said when Trowa had wandered into his office in Geneva, hands behind his back and trying not to seem too eager, yet not pretending to hide the pleasant surprise on his face. "I trust you're the man for the job."

"I don't want to disappoint you, sir."

"If you're talking about the missile thing," Zechs told him, "you're talking to the wrong man. Zechs Merquise used to hold grudges, two years ago, but that Zechs Merquise doesn't exist anymore. If he did, I wouldn't be standing here talking to you."

"I'm young-" Trowa began, and Zechs laughed. The sound was startling.

"Une told me," the Preventers commander said when he'd finished laughing, "that you'd make excuses all the way."

Trowa said, "Two years ago, Trowa Barton would be standing here in your office saying nothing, carrying out your orders to the death. Would you prefer that?"

Zechs smiled. "I believe you've proved your worth a thousand times over." He handed some papers over the desk, saying, "Here are your orders. The shuttle leaves in two hours. Captain Jeong will pick you up at the terminal when you arrive."

He was not prepared for the mechanical clicking of Captain Jeong's right eye, or the carefully stitched, painfully swollen scar tissue covering the man's face and the right side of his neck. At Trowa's raised eyebrow, Jeong said, "I was in a mobile suit, in Chang Wufei's company. Got hit by one of those missiles, sir. Aimed at L1, you know." There was a certain kind of pride in his voice, as if to say look at me. I was there.

The garrison, Jeong told him without any sort of attempt to make it sound pretty, was a mess. "The man who was here before in the commander's position apparently had some sort of deal with the yakuza. They're still searching through his papers to find out exactly what happened, but we know that he'd given at least a few million a year to fund the yakuza and their counterparts on L1 and L2. Who knows what that money might have done or where it might have gone."

"Where is this man now?" Trowa had asked, and Jeong shook his head.

"They came in with a warrant to arrest him about three months before Banks' War, and he'd slipped off the colony with half a million euros in government money, knowing they were coming for him, I suppose. They found his body washed up on one of the beaches near Forteleza Sea Station about a month after that. I don't know, sir, I suppose people like that always get what they deserve in the end."

Trowa said nothing, thinking of Doktor S. Jeong seemed to realize he'd crossed some invisible line, snapped his mouth shut and backed up a few steps to the office door. "I'm sorry, sir," he said.

"What about the yakuza?" Trowa asked.

Jeong took a deep breath. "They confirmed his ties with the yakuza right after that, but the L3 yakuza have been near extinct since the end of the One Year War. I'm not sure what happened. With all the trouble over the cartel on L1 and between their leader here on L3 dying about a year ago, I guess they just faded out."

"So he died," Trowa mused. "I see."

"That place is a ghost town now," Jeong said. "Not that it wasn't to begin with - I haven't ever lived on L3, but some who have been here for a long time said you could tell there were people living there, but you never saw them. But now it's simply empty, like a shell, or like a tomb. Nothing there but you and the ghosts. Everyone's dead." He paused. "That was quite morbid, wasn't it? I'm sorry, sir."

Trowa turned and smiled a bit. "No need," he said. "As you're always saying, the war is over."

"The war isn't over unless you want it to be," the other returned, then snapped to attention and disappear out to the hallway beyond, his shoes clicking on the newly redone stone floor.

Finances were tight because of the late commander's spending habits, and Trowa spent a week down in financial management poring over budget analyses and old, dormant bank accounts, trying to figure out which pots of money still existed and if the Preventers could get them any more. At the end of a week, neither he nor the accountants had made any progress, so he returned to his office and made a few calls. Two to Zechs, three to Financial Management at the World Nation headquarters, one to Dorothy Catalonia.

"Well, isn't this something," she said, peering into the screen like she didn't quite recognize him. "How are you doing, Trowa? I hear you've moved up in the world. I trust you've written your sister?"

"I have," he said. "Dorothy, I need a favor."

"I'm not your rich aunt," she retorted, "nor your favorite moneylender. Nevertheless, ask away."

"Why do you automatically assume it has to do with money?"

"Because that's the only time people call me," she told him, the corners of her lips jerking upwards a bit.

"Dorothy," Trowa said, "I need to contact the Winner Foundation."

She was silent for about three seconds, but the perfectly manicured eyebrows and blank politician's eyes gave nothing away. "I'd assume you would have their phone number," she said.

"Quatre never asked my whereabouts, and I never asked his. None of us did. It wasn't...something we did." Perhaps an exaggerated plea for something to call our own, he thought to himself, and watched her chew that bit of information over. She looked slightly less politician-like now, more like an actual woman on the screen, someone he knew and understood. "I called Geneva hoping they'd have it. Zechs told me to ask you."

"If you're thinking of asking him for anything, forget it," she advised. "His little project out in the middle of nowhere is sucking the Winner legacy dry."

"I don't need anything tangible," Trowa said. "Just some advice."

Her look softened somewhat, if any expression on Dorothy Catalonia's face could be called soft. This was the woman who had faced the Zero system without flinching, and he felt faintly honored that she would be speaking to him, just a mere soldier, because that's what he'd been after all. "If that's all you want," she said, "you can have it."

He hung up with her, sitting in his darkened office that was now somewhat of a second home, thinking of Heavyarms. He'd seen her, or what remained of her that the salvage crew had managed to truck back to one of the hangars, and the mechanics had been politely non-committal. "We don't know enough to say yet, sir," they would say, or "We're working on repairing it as soon as possible." But Trowa was mechanic enough - pilot enough - to know that Heavyarms would never fly again.

The scrawled numbers that Dorothy had dictated to him were large and black on the stark, white memo paper in the fading light, and he pushed the rest of the papers on his desk aside, pressed the telecom button one more time. "I'd like to make a long distance call, please," he said.

The screen seemed to be blank for quite some time, and he was beginning to wonder if the operator had accidentally hung up on him, or maybe Dorothy had given him a wrong number. The connection light lit up at last, bathing the top of the light wooden desk in a faint green light, reflecting onto the glass of the windows, the darkened computer screen. It blinked. He waited.

"Winner Enterprises," a pleasant voice said, and then the screen lit up. The face was just as pretty as the voice; he would guess she was in her early thirties, dark-haired and blue eyed in that exotic combination of Western and Middle Eastern that characterized so many of the Winner siblings.

"I'm sorry for calling at an odd hour, if it is an odd hour," he began, and she shook her head.

"Not at all, sir. It's only about 8 in the evening, as it so happens." Her slightly accented English rose and fell as she spoke, like a song. "How can I help you?"

"I was hoping to speak to Quatre Winner," he said, and she gave him a rueful look, one which he was sure had been used on hundreds of people before him.

"I'm sorry," she said, "Quatre's currently out of the area. If you leave your name and number, I'll give him the message when he returns and he'll try to contact you as soon as possible. Is this about one of our ventures, or are you wishing to make a donation?"

"Well," Trowa said, feeling a little confused, "neither, actually. I'm calling from L3, hoping to ask him something. It's no problem-"

She'd been staring at him as he had started his last sentence, leaning in a little closer to the screen, cocking her head like she was trying to place him. He felt somewhat foolish, like he would have just been better off giving his name at the beginning of the call, but he hadn't wanted to seem like he was throwing that around. People like Dorothy and Relena did it, and they were comfortable with it. Trowa Barton was not a celebrity.

"Do I know you?" she said.

"You might have seen me on the news once or twice," he said. "I was with Quatre during the war."

"Oh," she said, then louder, "Oh! Trowa Barton! I'm sorry!"

"It's no problem," he told her again. "Are you one of his sisters? I do regret I never met any of you."

"I'm his sister Aisha," she told him, looking a tiny bit flustered. "Usually acting as his secretary. I'm so sorry. I should have realized-"

"Don't worry about it. When will Quatre be back?"

"Not till next week," she said. "He went to Russia for a conference. I'll let him know you called, though. He usually phones at night to let us know he's still alive." She smiled a bit, the look in her eyes confiding in him that it wasn't so much of a joke as it could be.

"I understand," Trowa said. "This wasn't entirely a pleasure call; I was hoping to consult him on some financial matters. I'm no great analyst myself, by any means, and we have ourselves in a bit of a jam. The World Nation is working on it, but-"

"The bureaucracy," Aisha said, sounding sympathetic. "I know. Hold on just a minute." She rummaged in one drawer for a few seconds, then brightened. "Maybe I do know someone who could help you. Have you heard of Frances Bartlett?"

"The name sounds familiar," Trowa said. "But I can't place it, no."

"He was Father's right hand man before the...well, the first war. The man's a genius with numbers. I can't say I cared much for his attitude towards the rest of the family, nor his moral standards, but he was just recently here for a site visit, and I might have to change my opinion of him."

"Anything you give would be wonderful," Trowa said, and she smiled again.

"I'll fax you the information."

He had Jeong contact Bartlett the next day while he went to Finance again and called the World Nation. He listened to them explain again that they understood the dilemma the L3 garrison was in, but his problem was hardly unique, and everything would be sorted out as quickly as they could. "Thank you," Trowa said politely, and hung up.

"We got ahold of his secretary," Jeong said when Trowa returned to ask about the state of things. "Meanwhile, the mobile suit yard is requesting funds for junkyard transfer of scrap metal they've acquired in the past few months, and the main sewage pipe is leaking again."

"Hilde," Trowa said automatically, holding up one finger, and then holding up the second finger as Jeong looked confused, "Stop using the toilets. Anything else?"

"It's lunchtime, sir," Jeong said, trying not to laugh, and Trowa looked at him consideringly.

"You'd make a much better commander than me," he said, and Jeong shook his head.

"No, sir. Being a commander - that requires a knowledge of people, a kind of inner eye. I don't have it yet. But you have it."

He didn't quite know what to say to that, so he said nothing.

"You all have it," Jeong said.

He left the base still thinking about it, realizing as he was halfway down the block that it was the first time he'd been outside these gates in almost a week. The world outside was loud and bustling, the town still a little rundown, rough around the edges with its cracking brick walls and half-dead trees covering abandoned apartment complexes. But this was L3, and this was where Catherine had sent him. He fingered the cell phone in his pocket, crossing the street as the motors of cars purred behind the invisible line of the stoplight. No one called out his name. The elderly man walking his dog didn't even glance at him twice as they passed each other, and Trowa remembered how Aisha Winner had to dig through her memory for a face that was once on every television screen across the world.

Is that what they mean when they say the war is over? he thought, and remembered Catherine saying that night at the circus, Something is lost for everything we gain.

It seemed the natural thing to do to buy the ticket, to board the train. The buzz of French in the conversations around him was soothing and he almost lost himself in the wave of nostalgia that came over him. But there was English too now, he realized after a moment, and two Japanese girls in the corner, a few Arabic businessmen across from him. Even L3 was changing.

The cool air of late fall breezed across his face as he exited the train station and his feet took him, without asking, in the direction of the place to which he'd vowed never to return. A few scattered leaves whispered past his ears, and he heard, faintly, the honk of a car horn, the bark of a dog. The streets he walked were empty, deserted, flagstones cracked under his feet with blades of grass sprouting up from the corners, tiny survivors of the last war.

He could feel the ghosts at his back as he walked on, steps slowing. The air whispered around him and he kept his eyes doggedly forward, one foot in front of the other, wondering how this could have happened. It had only been two years, two years in which the colony and Earth had swirled and changed with the tidings of war and after war, but that had happened before, and the yakuza had remained. His oyabun had been forever telling him it was how it always would be, that they were a dam against the surging tide, the last remnant of a forgotten age. He pictured the old man's face in his mind, the steel eyes under the pleasant smile, imagined stepping into that doorway again and saying, sir, I'm home.

He stopped walking.

Even the air was still here. Duo had told him once, when he had asked, about the ruins of Maxwell Church, how the very silence was alive with memories, how you could almost pluck names and faces and pasts out of the air. Broken windows glared at him out of half-collapsed high-rises, abandoned concrete structures sagging desolately behind gates swinging raggedly from rusted hinges. There were no memories here, Trowa knew, no names or pasts, because the yakuza had none.

There was a clattering sound behind him, and he whirled, realizing that he'd been almost crouched in a defensive position, hand going to the gun at his belt even though he saw in the next split second that it was simply pebbles clattering down empty stone steps. He'd been waiting, he supposed, for that gunshot in his back, the knife against his throat, the welcome for the stepchild who had returned against orders because he wanted to pay his respects one last time.

"Oyabun," Trowa said out loud to the empty air, and felt it echo, like Jeong said, like a tomb. "I've come home to stay."

He knelt and kissed the earth.

A breath of air moved across his collar, lifting the dust of the street, swirling it in small, sunlit spirals further into the places of the dead. As Trowa lifted his head to watch it go, his phone rang.

Despite himself, he jerked back as the electronic version of Ballade pour Adeline beeped out at him, and he fumbled for the phone inside his pocket, just trying to make it stop. "Barton," he said.

"Sir, we got ahold of Frances Bartlett. He said it would be his pleasure." He could almost feel Jeong's relief through the static on the other end. "And you have another call."

"Who?"

"He says his name is Winner."

The train ride back seemed both longer and shorter, beginning shadows of twilight drawing up against the walls of the train, against the giggling group of teenagers two seats over, the elderly couple reading on the train bench next to him. Change could be good, or it could be bad, or sometimes it just was, and it was creeping up now on L3 without fanfare or hurry, the silent passing of an old era and the gentle knocking of the new at the door of a world he, Trowa Barton, had helped to create. All the ones who had died - Treize, Noin, Ilene - they had been a part of that. Jeong, with his battle scars and mechanical eye because Trowa hadn't fired those missiles, was a part of it too.

The door of his office was ajar when he returned. Jeong was waiting by his chair, looking a bit surprised at the dirt on Trowa's uniform, but he waved it aside. "Is he still on the line?"

"Yes, sir," Jeong said, and then he smiled. "I've been having a rather pleasant conversation with him, actually. We might be able to fix that sewage pipe while still using the toilets."

"That would be the wisest course of action," Trowa agreed, and looked up at the Korean man again, at his scarred face, and thought of Heero. "You once told me the war wasn't over until I wanted it to be."

"Yes, sir?"

Trowa pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I think I finally understand what you mean. Thank you."

Jeong smiled. "Anytime, sir."

The door closed behind him, and Trowa walked to the front of his desk, dropping into his chair, not bothering to wipe the dirt off his face or straighten his shirt, because there was no need with the man smiling at him from the telecom screen.

"Hello, Quatre," he said.


Scene XIII: Building Castles in the Sand

"Now this is the world we live in
And these are the hands we're given
Use them and let's start trying
To make it a place worth fighting for."
-- Genesis, Lands of Confusion

The knock on the door went unanswered until the visitor finally just decided to push his way into the office. Aisha Winner sat behind a desk, looking every inch the professional secretary, despite her surroundings. Her files were neat and she had her hair pulled back into a bun, probably because the air conditioner was on the fritz. A lone fan sat behind her, futilely pushing hot air around in an attempt to keep things cool.

"Can I help you, sir?" she asked, looking at him with surprise and a bit of annoyance.

"Is he in?" Frances Bartlett. He felt overdressed in his business suit, and sweat decorated his brow. It was not good for him, with his heart condition, to be in such a sweltering environment, but he had to be here. He had to know for himself.

"He's currently in the field," she said. "I can have him paged, if you need to speak to him." She looked at him in a considering fashion. "Or I can have someone escort you on-site."

It was a subtle challenge, one that he took. "A tour would be lovely."

She smiled slightly, acknowledging his acceptance. "Just a second, then." She picked up a phone to place a call, and Bartlett took the chance to examine the office.

There were no trappings of riches here. Even the computer on the desk looked like it'd already seen a few years of wear and tear. It was different than Frances Bartlett been expecting, though he should have realized that he had never really known Quatre. All he'd seen was a two-dimensional image, one that had been innocent and ignorant of the harshness of the world.

The computers, he noticed, were moving more slowly than he'd seen any in years. When Aisha hung up the phone, he nodded toward computer. "You might want to consider an upgrade. Yours is two years out of date."

"I'm afraid it's not in the budget. This one works for what I need to do." She sounded perfectly serene, as if the idea of a Winner not having the very best of equipment wasn't utterly ridiculous.

"You might be able to work faster with better equipment." He'd always liked Aisha, since she was diligent and reliable, and he hated the idea of her making herself miserable due to some cracked idea of her brother's.

A smile touched her lips. "It's better the money go somewhere else. Having a top-of-the-line computer isn't a priority." Then she winked, surprising him. "Though my birthday is coming up shortly..."

He laughed at that. "Email me where you'd like it delivered," he said. It was a weird thought to be buying something like a computer for a girl who had enough money to buy a small island.

"I might just do that." She laughed, but the door opened abruptly, and Reeshya Winner swung into the room, panting a bit. Apparently she'd been running.

It was rude to stare, but he figured Reeshya's current appearance would excuse his poor manners. He had known that Reeshya had joined her brother in this venture, but it startled him to see the Winner daughter dressed in a no-nonsense coverall, spattered with a bit of grease. He noted the cell phone clipped to a utility belt, along with a variety of gadgets he couldn't begin to identify. He had never considered her the technical type, and they looked out of place. Even more surprising was the content look on her face.

"Bartlett!" she sounded surprised and delighted, coming forward and embracing him warmly. He had watched her grow up, acting almost as an uncle. She had been Raberba's favorite. He held onto her for a second, before she abruptly pulled away, embarrassment on her face. "I'm so sorry, I think I might have ruined your suit..."

He smiled, before stepping forward to wrap his arms around her again. "Dirt will wash," he said.

"It's oil." She pressed her face into the shirt.

"I have a good drycleaner," he teased back.

She stiffened a bit in surprise. She'd never known him to have a sense of humor. "Bartlett?" she said, her voice lilting upward with question.

He was the one who released her this time. "A heart attack makes a man think about his life," he said, answering the unspoken question.

"I'm glad you're okay," Reeshya said. "Have you had any problems?"

"Not really." Aside from a lingering weakness on his right side, the doctor had told him he would make a full recovery. "I've been exercising and changed my diet a bit."

"Good. You need to take care of yourself," she said approvingly, before placing her hands on her hips. "Nice as it is to see you, I'm sure you're not here for a social visit. Is there something I can help you with?"

"He's looking for Quatre," Aisha chimed in. "I was thinking you might know where our beloved little brother has gotten himself to."

"I think he's with the men, touring the new filtration plant," Reeshya said. "Or he could be out in the fields training the new hands." She looked at Aisha, then at Bartlett, before coming to some kind of decision. "Would you like to see the operation?"

"I would love to," Bartlett responded, not lying. His curiosity was eating him alive; none of this was anything like he had expected.

Reeshya laughed, then winked. "There's not much to see, yet, but we're working on it!" Her hand grabbed Bartlett's with a familiarity he found surprising and welcoming.

Outside, the dry air assaulted his lungs, pinching painfully at his still-recovering body. He had never liked the desert climate; he preferred a more temperate environment. Reeshya's hand was sweaty, and he started to feel uncomfortable. This was out of his realm of comfort.

Reeshya practically bounced as she waved to different parts of the site. "As you know, this is a reclamation site. We're working on transforming this place back into farmland, which requires a ton of effort, since more of the nutrients in the soil have been destroyed. There was this one outfit that did a kind of strip-farming right before the war started, well, I'm sure you've heard about that."

"I have," he said. He'd advised Raberba Winner against investing in firms using such methods, finding the short-term profit not worth the long-term effects. He'd been right, since those firms had gone under quickly once the World Nation began to implement environmental regulations.

Reeshya's lips tightened. "I don't know if we're ever going to be able to fix all the damage they did, but we're sure trying our best." She pointed over at one machine that he recognized as an oxidizer. "This is a new design we're testing here. If it goes well, we're going to mass produce it so it can be used at some of the other parts of the world."

"What's the difference in this model?" asked Bartlett. He'd seen oxidizers before, and if anything, this one looked bulkier than the sleet units he'd seen demonstrated at the opening ceremonies for the industrial farms the Winner Group had put together.

"It'll be substantially cheaper to build," Reeshya said. "Farmers operating less than 100 acres will be able to afford this model, and at a ten percent mark-up of manufacturing costs, we'll still be able to add to our bottom line. We're not a charitable organization," Reeshya said, grinning.

"Though you're not making as much profit as you should," Bartlett said, the words tripping out of his lips before he thought better of it. The main criticism of the new branch of the Winner Group had been its low profit margin; it remained in the black, but barely.

"There's more important things than money," Reeshya replied softly. "It's great to have, but it won't make you happy."

"It helps, though," he said. He wasn't naive enough to think that money didn't matter. It was a nice idea, but he was too old to be an idealist.

"It does indeed," Reeshya agreed to his surprise. She pointed off at a group off in the distance. "We're offering jobs, and a chance for advancement. It's very hard for young men to find employment in this area, which forces the best and brightest away. Many of them want to remain locally, though, so we're doing our best to offer them a chance."

They moved closer to the crew of laborers crawling all over a massive truck that resembled a garbage truck. "Ah, there he is. Hey, Quat!" she called, raising her voice so it could be heard over the hum of the machines. "We've got a visitor, get over here!"

Bartlett hadn't recognized the young man from behind. Quatre was dressed in khakis and a vest, clothing too casual for the Winner heir. His skin was a surprisingly deep tan, sign of too much time spent unprotected under the sun's rays, while his hair had been bleached almost white. He squinted in the bright light, before leaping off the truck and landing with relative grace a few feet from his sister and Bartlett. He closed the distance quickly, though his expression remained shuttered.

"Hello, Bartlett," he said, holding out a hand to be shaken. "I must say I wasn't expecting to see you here."

It was more neutral a greeting than Bartlett had been expecting. Quatre had always been polite, but the enmity between the two of them had made Bartlett wonder if he'd be welcomed. He shouldn't have, even under the greatest of stresses, Quatre was a gentleman.

He took the proffered hand, and was treated to a firm, yet not bruising, handshake. "How have you been, sir?" he asked.

Quatre looked healthy, and relatively content. He had grown several inches since the last time they had met, a late growth spurt finally kicking in. He would never be as tall as his father, but he would likely top-out at a more reasonable height. His eyes weren't serene, but they seemed settled. Quatre would never be completely at peace with himself, but at least he could come to accept his faults.

"Well enough," Quatre answered. "You?"

"Recovering nicely," he said. "I stopped by to see the operation," he said unnecessarily. "The board is functioning well under Naadira, but some have wondered if you'll be coming back now that things have settled down."

Reeshya opened her mouth to say something, but Quatre forestalled her with a smile. "Reeshya, can you take this over for me? This is a basics class," he said, waving at the eight men. "They signed on last week, and are just finishing with orientation.

"Sure," she said, although she gave a measured glance between Bartlett and her brother. "Anything in particular I need to do?"

"Just ask questions and make sure they've got a good grounding," Quatre said. "I don't think there's any problems, they're a smart bunch," he added, grinning over at the men. They smiled back at him, some wearing slight blushes of pleasure.

"Got it," she said.

He waved to the men. "I'll see you later," he promised. "Try not to give Reeshya too hard a time." That earned him a chorus of laugher. "I've got something I'd like to show you, Bartlett," Quatre said. "If you'll come this way?"

Bartlett could only admire how diplomatically Quatre had taken control of what could have been an unpleasant situation. He nodded, following Quatre as the teenager left the group behind. "You seem to have quite an operation going," he said.

"This area was devastated by the war. Groups came in, did some rather unethical drilling for oil, and then left, though I think the pollution they left behind means people won't forget them anytime soon. There's a lot of work to be done, since many of the residents here have been here for generations and won't even consider leaving," Quatre said. He was walking slowly, probably out of concern for Banks' health. "Water?" Quatre offered, pulling a small blue bottle out of one of the pouches on his hip.

The water wasn't anything special, not like the highly filtered and enhanced water he had at home, but he couldn't remember any he'd enjoyed more. There was something satisfying about quenching genuine thirst instead of drinking from habit. He made sure to drink it slowly, savoring the relief it offered his throat.

Quatre watched his reaction without expression before continuing. "It's going to take generations anyway to make things right. One of the men I hired used to be a local farmer. He told me that people said that this area grew such wonderful foods because the plants drank the blood of the dead. More people have died over this piece of land than anywhere else in the entire world."

"I'm familiar with the area's history," Banks said. "But why are you handling this personally? There's work that needs to be done that is far more pressing...the colonies are trying to rebuild using the new loans from the World Bank, and those projects could use a man of your skill."

"They could," Quatre agreed, "and I love the colonies, but there's already plenty of people who have hopped on those bandwagons. There's several different kinds of figureheads, and no matter what I do, I am going to become one, because of my fame. I just decided that if that was the case, at least I'd be a figurehead to something that needed one."

It was a response Bartlett hadn't been expecting. "Why this, though?"

"This is the land of my ancestors, Bartlett," Quatre said. "This is the land I inadvertently hurt when I joined Operation Meteor." He tilted his head back, and squinted up at the blue sky. "I'll never be able to repay my debt, but I can at least make a down payment on it." They turned a corner, and Bartlett's breath caught.

It was a small oasis amidst the buildings. Water pooled into a carefully crafted fountain that was covered by a large, open pavilion. Women, dressed in long, loose clothing and veils, congregated around one area, carefully separate from the men. Around the fountain there were several pumps, most of which were occupied by grizzled old men filling troughs. Children played a game nearby, their voices lifted in song.

It was like looking at a scene directly out of the history books. Bartlett hadn't realized that people still lived from shepherding. None of them seemed to be carrying any of the technological marvels that were so much a part of everyday life for the colonies.

"What is this?" Bartlett asked.

"They're nomads," Quatre said. "We built this before we opened our operations. It's one of the few places where they know they can find clean water. We get a lot of visitors because of it, which is good for trade. These people have lived on this land for hundreds of years, leading the lives that their ancestors did. They have simple needs, but often suffer whenever there's a war.

"There's a small medical facility on the premises which is open to anyone, though we ask for some kind of trade; either a day of labor, or some kind of barter. They don't have money, but their handcrafts are simply gorgeous. They're some of the most wonderful people I've ever met," Quatre spoke in level tones, but the affectionate look he cast them was notable. One of the men noticed them, waved in a friendly fashion, and then returned to his conversation.

Bartlett thought before speaking. This place wouldn't be making a profit, which would have most of the stockholders upset, but it wouldn't be costing anything, either, breaking even with careful management. There were other places Quatre could have chosen to go to build upon his reputation, but this humble operation was what he had decided on.

"Your father... he would have approve," Bartlett said finally. It was a tenuous offer of acceptance, a token of forgiveness for Quatre's role in his recent heart attack, his admittance that he might have been wrong about the Winner Heir.

The faint curving of Quatre's lips might have been a smile. "I'm glad you think so." He tilted his head slightly, and for a second Bartlett was taken back to when he'd first seen the boy in his father's office, and how he had loathed him. Now he wished he'd be found worthy of Quatre's respect. "I'm sure Reeshya gave you the dime tour, but if you can stay until this evening, I can show you some more of what we're doing, and what we have planned."

Bartlett shook his head. "I'm afraid I can't - I have to be back on L4 tomorrow for a meeting first thing in the morning." He hesitated. "Can I take a rain check?" he asked, pushing his luck. He wanted to know the man Quatre was becoming. He had been Raberba's friend as well as employee. He owed it to him to watch after his son.

Now Quatre was definitely smiling. "You're welcome any time," he assured the older man. "I don't turn away anyone who comes as a friend."


Scene XIV: The Tides of History

"Even my death is not without meaning."
--Treize Khushrenada, Gundam Wing

There were still times, half a year after Sally's rebellion, two years after Treize's war, and three years after her death, when Chang Wufei still wished that it had not all come to pass.

He could have lived out a full life, he sometimes believed, on that colony that was but a line in the history books now. There were no mountains there, but there were the old libraries, smelling of parchment and spice and the familiar heavy smell of brush and ink. There were no rivers there, but there were fields of wildflowers that bloomed in the springtime. There were no monuments to the endurance of the Chinese race, no Imperial Palace, no Great Wall, but there had been Elder Long, and family, and perhaps at the end, a girl who he could have learned to love.

There had been no true sun, but there were still stars.

And that, when he came to that thought, was what always made him realize he could not have stayed there and become a whole man. There had been something missing from the idyllic life there on the colony, something that Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell and Trowa Barton and Quatre Raberba Winner had shown him, and if he had never met them, he would have been that much poorer for it.

After everything had calmed down and the world had begun turning again, Une had asked him to stay in Geneva. For a brief moment in time, he had considered it. The old Wufei would have been shocked, but the new Wufei knew that justice and duty and honor were more than mere words to be shouted out. Duty and justice was about friendship, and Une was his friend.

In the end, though, it was Heero who had changed his mind. He'd been sitting in his room in the VOQ, so familiar now that it was like a second home to him, stretched out on the bed with a half-packed suitcase at his feet. He knew the other boy had meant for him to hear his footsteps. Heero could be as quiet as air when he wanted, but the time for that was past.

He had sat up slowly as the Wing Gundam pilot appeared in the doorway, and Heero stared at him a moment, the scar across his face strangely incongruous with the peace in those deep blue eyes. Wufei was content to let him speak first. There was nothing between them that had not already been said.

"Are you leaving tomorrow?"

Wufei gestured to the suitcase. "I'm trying."

Heero raised one eyebrow. "I see."

Wufei laughed, not sure what he was laughing at, but just glad to hear the sound coming from his own throat. "It's funny. A few weeks ago I couldn't wait to get out of here. Now, it seems like I might be staying."

"I heard," Heero said, "about Une's request. It's true. The Preventers could use you. I think the combat pilot career field will be around for a while longer."

"What do you think I should do, then?"

Heero had stared at him for a long time, and then replied, "I think you should go home."

Wufei had waited for him to say something else, to state the reasons and list the good and the bad, but Heero simply paused in the doorway a moment longer, and then was gone.

That was how things were between them now, he supposed. When he had gone to the hangar the next day after telling Une that he could not stay right now, Shenlong had been there looking as good as new after a full week of heavy maintenance. Quatre had been there as well, looking a little pale but none the worse for wear, and Trowa had been by the Arabian's side, with his sister in tow. Duo was at Kashmir with Hilde, but he had sent word through Trowa, something along the lines of see you later, I'll track you down. It was uniquely Duo - not a goodbye, but a good luck.

"Where's Heero?" Trowa wondered, and Wufei had shook his head, smiled, said, it doesn't matter. He's not coming. He doesn't need to.

Shenlong's flight back was uneventful, and the house was the same as he had left it, except for a few layers of dust and dead grass inside and out, and the broken window and remnants of bloodstains from his brawl with two nameless assassins from L1. The first thing he did after parking Shenlong outside and making sure the Gundam was secure under a layer of camouflage nets was to draw up several buckets of water from the river outside and scrub the cottage until it glowed.

When he woke up the next morning, he'd had a sudden moment of disorientation, wondering why the ceiling of his room had gone dark and thatched, then realized he was no longer in Geneva. He had gotten up, washed his face and rinsed his mouth, and then sat with his head in his hands for a long time watching the sun in its slow arc across the sky.

"What shall I do now?" he wondered.

The open volume of James Joyce's Ulysses was lying open on the table still, and as he touched its pages, the words leapt out at him, and he remembered the dark night when Heero had tried to kill him, the night when everything had changed again.

-History, said Stephen, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

The phrase stuck in his mind for the rest of the day, for the rest of the week and the month that followed as he repaired the window and wall that Heero and Darkflight had broken, straightened the bookcases, installed electric lights in the rooms of the house, and generally kept himself busy fixing odds and ends. He checked the mail every day, but there was usually never anything for him, and he had no computer in this house.

One day, a flat envelope arrived for him, sealed with the seal of the Preventers, and when he opened it he found that it was an invitation to Milliard Peacecraft's change of command ceremony. He went back inside, wrote a polite refusal on the RSVP, and sent the negative reply back with a package of some Chinese confectionaries. Two weeks later, he received another flat envelope, but this one was not sealed, and it contained a single-line note, The food was delicious.

It was signed "Z.M."

Another month passed, and the stack of papers that was his Chinese translation of Ulysses grew from a stack to a pile, and then to several piles. He was more than halfway through the book, and he told himself that it was a project worthy of this kind of devotion. But he knew at the same time that it wasn't really true, that his heart was not in the writing, and that when he read the book over at the end, he would be disappointed.

Elder Long had instructed all of them on the importance of preserving the soul of the text. If the words have sound but no substance, she had rasped, then what are they but bodies with no souls?

Every evening after dinner he would go out to the field where he had left Shenlong, would climb up to the Gundam's shoulder and stretch out on the solar-warmed metal and watch the sunset. There was something melancholy about China's sunsets, something that L5's false sunset had never managed to grasp. It was like the line between fact and fiction, history and fabrication. He wondered what the world would make of Treize Khushrenada fifty years down the road. Treize, already a demigod, a legend two years after his death, had still been only a man. He wondered if the people had forgotten that.

Three months after he returned to China, he received another package.

This one bore a neat address and contained something heavy, something that he knew had to be a book or packet of some sort, because it did not crinkle like gift wrapping, nor did it rattle like chocolate. Wufei kept it sealed on the bus ride home, carried it back up to the house and left it lying on the low table in the living room as he cooked dinner.

After dinner, he scrubbed the bowl and chopsticks, put the leftovers in the small refrigerator he had procured from a second hand store in town, picked up the package and headed out to Shenlong. The days were growing shorter now as winter approached, and the wind whipped his light jacket and flung the strands of his long hair into his face, and he brushed them aside irritably in the dimming light of the sun.

Only after he had settled comfortably into the crook of Shenlong's arm did he carefully slit open the envelope with his pocket knife. It was neatly taped and came apart smoothly at the first touch. The top item was a letter in a smaller envelope, and Wufei held it up to the fading twilight to read.

Dear Wufei, it said. How are you? It has been about three months since I've seen you last, and things are going well. I'm no longer with the Winner Group as leader, though I am still involved in the running of its affairs, and that suits me just fine. I was never the corporate type anyway. My sisters are heading up the group now, and they're doing ten times better than I ever could, so that's a relief.

I was going through my old things the other day, trying to do some fall cleaning, and I found this. I'd printed it up a while back and forgotten all about it during the pandemonium this summer. It's very hastily written, sentence fragments and run-ons in many parts, and towards the end I was so delirious from lack of sleep that it might not make much sense. But still, it begs to be read, and I didn't want to throw it away.

Out of everyone I know, I think you'd understand it best. Quatre had ended the letter with the printing of his name in neat letters, not his full name, not even his last name. It was just "Quatre," the simple signature saying far more than he could have ever said with fancy parting words or a cursive flourish.

The sun had entirely set by the time Wufei arrived home, and he turned on the lights, sat down at his desk and pulled out the rest of the package.

It was easily a hundred pages, perhaps a little more, untitled. He frowned a bit and brought the first page into the light. There was no introduction, no prologue or prelude, and he realized at first glance that this was not some essay or fiction that Quatre had taken a fancy to or even had decided to write up in a fit of boredom.

When I was fifteen, it read, my father died in the war.

Wufei did not sleep that night, turning page after page. There were fragments, as Quatre said, and run-on sentences, and a few places where he had to stop and think and consult his English dictionary because Quatre's vocabulary was that of a young, upper-class educated politician, and Wufei did not know the meaning of the words. But still he read on, and as the dawn light came through the windows and the morning birds began chirping, he came to the end of the last page.

The manuscript was unfinished.

He felt drained, stood up and stretched and felt the bones in his back crack refreshingly, but he did not feel refreshed. Quatre's writing had been amateur and clunky, and there had been many times when it had seemed that the Sandrock pilot had not known exactly how to describe a particular scene, and so had neglected to write the rest and simply moved on.

But every word had been the truth.

Quatre had written about the war. He had written about the conflict between his father and his sisters and himself, about the fact that he had believed in something his father and his colony had not. He had written about the Maguanacs and their unfailing loyalty even when the Federation had said that loyalty was outdated. He had written about the Gundams and the four pilots who had been his friends. He had written about the fear, the sadness, the death, the uncertainty that tomorrow would not come. He had taken his memories and poured them into something tangible, and Wufei suddenly realized that Quatre had done something that he, the scholar, had been unable to do.

Quatre had taken the truth and turned it into history.

"Elder Long would be proud of you," he said to the empty air, and gathered up the scattered papers, stuffing them carefully back into the envelope. Quatre's letter he placed on top of the pile, and then he went to bed.

He woke when the sun set, this time actually feeling refreshed, and as he made dinner, he looked outside the window and saw that it was dark and realized that it was the first day he had not gone out to see Shenlong since he had returned.

"What would you do, Meilan?" he said. He didn't expect a reply; he was at least aware of that now, but still, the whispering of the night wind was an echo of the air currents that used to move across the field of flowers on the colony, and he remembered Elder Long's words.

You will fly, boy.

Abruptly, he turned away from the window, finishing his tea and then sitting down at the table to draft a letter to Quatre. I read your manuscript. It was a very moving piece of work. Thank you.

I wonder if you might allow me to borrow it? There's something I want to do, and what you wrote has given me some inspiration. I am thinking it might be time to contact the Preventers again. He mailed the letter off, and was surprised to receive a reply only a week later.

I think you should contact the Preventers too, Quatre wrote. Heero says he has been waiting for something from you. They would be glad to have you back. As for the manuscript, it's yours. Do whatever you wish with it.

That night, as he sat on Shenlong's broad shoulder and watched the first shooting star of the season pass by, a streak of silver through the night sky, he looked into the dark eyes of his Gundam and felt a sense of peace settle over his soul. It should not be surprising, Wufei thought, that things would eventually come to this again. He understood now why Heero had told him to go home; it wasn't that the Preventers no longer needed him, but that he had still not understood that he needed them.

Meilan would have understood, he decided, standing up and taking a long look at the Gundam's still form in the moonlight. Melian would have understood a lot of things. But Meilan was no longer here, and she wouldn't have wished him to dwell as long as he had on her memory.

Even my death is not without meaning...

His letter to Heero was answered two weeks later, making it four months since he had left the Preventers at Geneva. There was not much, a note hurriedly scribbled off, and Wufei could hardly decipher the cramped handwriting in bold, permanent ink. Heero had written in Japanese.

The Preventers has need of a head historian. I was thinking you might fill that position. If you like, show up sometime and I'll put you to work. Zechs sends his regards. Relena says that she would like to see you again soon as well. If you hurry, you can make it to Geneva in time for Christmas.

The note was signed, "Wing."

Wufei's hands tightened on the paper and he closed his eyes briefly, wondering if his whole life had simply been leading up to this moment, repeated in circles and circles again until history had caught up to him and made him realize he could not run forever. It had all begun on that night of the harvest moon, when he had been told that his future did not lie on his colony after all, that his story would span the Earth and beyond, and had led him here, to the fields of China. Treize Khushrenada would have laughed, would have said that his life had always been leading to this moment, and he had just been too stubborn to realize it.

When he went out to Shenlong that night, he carried something in his pocket, something which he had disconnected from the Gundam's cockpit the day he had landed it back in the field. He hadn't quite known why he had done so, but it felt right at the time, and he was a pilot, which meant he trusted his instincts more than the common man would have. The object seemed to drag somewhat at his pants pocket, but he arrived at the field at a brisk trot, feeling the chill wind at his back. Shenlong lay where she had always lain, the nets making her a huge, somewhat bristly and bumpy hill in the starlight.

"Hello, Nataku," he said softly, clambering over the hulk of one arm and unfastening the nets. They fell smoothly away and he unhooked them from where they were chained to the Gundam at the bottom, dragged them away from the engines, and then popped the hatch.

Shenlong started up as smoothly as he remembered her, cockpit lights dimming to the familiar combat glow, and he felt a wash of nostalgia at the whine of the engines, the almost musical sound of the startup sequence, and a shudder ran through him. It wasn't too late, his brain told him. He could still turn back. Shut the machine down, get out, go home.

But that, Wufei told himself firmly, would be a lie.

Are you God?

No. Just a messenger.

He moved the controls with care, feeling an extension of himself reach out with ghostly hands and feet to touch Nataku's hands and feet, lift his palms to hers as the dragon rose with the snarling of underpowered engines. Shenlong surged under his touch. She wanted to break free, he knew, to fly again, to do what she was born to do.

That is what has been spoken. Fly. Out of here, out of the colony.

But no one has ever left the colony and survived.

No one. Not yet.

"It's time to fly, Nataku," he whispered, and Shenlong's engines rumbled as he pushed the lever to standby and then moved his hands down the control panel to where something was missing, several wires twisted together reaching out to an empty place. Wufei was no technician, but he did know something about aircraft systems, and he had done the best he could under the circumstances. It did not need to be pretty, just functional. Shenlong would forgive him.

He touched the controls one last time, glanced around the cockpit, etching it all in his memory even though he knew that this was not how he would remember the craft that had borne him out of death so many times. Shenlong's cockpit to him would always be lit with the glow that had sparkled off the sword as Tallgeese exploded across his video screens and as Treize had died.

For that too now, he held no regrets.

The Gundam was poised, energy coiled, waiting, and he popped the hatch again and lowered himself to the ground as the night air rushed through, cooling his pounding heart and the blood that had strangely seemed to rush to his head as he made his muffled way through the tall grass to a safe distance away.

Shenlong's eyes were the same green he remembered, but they did not seem so bright and deadly now. They shone over the empty field as twin beacons in the dark. From somewhere far away, the call of a night bird rippled through the rumbling silence, and Wufei tore his eyes away, fumbled in his pocket for the object that he had brought.

The self-destruct button was a cold metal medallion. He held the control lightly in one hand, as if by not fully grasping hold of it he could somehow pretend that this was not what he had come to do. Somehow, he was glad that the others were not here. He brought his hands up slowly, the remote gripped between them, the metal warming to his touch now.

Take me to that field of flowers.

"I loved you, Meilan," he said aloud. The grass bent slightly in the sudden rushing wind, and Wufei straightened, met the Gundam's green eyes. "The story is not over, and I don't think it will ever be over. But I don't think I can write the next chapter until I let you go. This is till we meet again."

But my father-

You are not your father, Chang Wufei.

"Be free," he said. "Goodbye, Nataku."

And then he pressed the button.

Shenlong shuddered, and a wisp of smoke rose from the engines, and for a horrible moment he thought that he had done something wrong, that the system had malfunctioned, or that Master O had hardwired some immobilization device into the computer just as Deathscythe's had had, and it would not work. But then as another wisp of smoke rose into the sky, and then another and another, he realized that it was beginning.

Wufei brought his cold hands to his chin, pressed them together as Shenlong shuddered again, and then he could see the bright pieces of metal glowing at the seams like some kind of bizarre metal angel without wings, the glow brightening to cover the field, the sky, until he had to turn his eyes away, seeing each individual stalk of grass stand out crisp and dark in the brilliance, black shadows as sharp as daggers. The furnace-molten heat rolled out from the Gundam's form like clouds of red summer lightning. Electricity snapped in angry sparks over his head, and he forced himself to turn, forced himself to squint his eyes against the unbearable radiance, to watch the trails of liquid metal run down Shenlong's silvered body.

And then the Gundam burst outward and he fell to his knees, sobbing with an emotion he could not name as the flaming hot remnants of the shell that had once housed her memory showered down around him. There was no sound, just a beautiful explosion of metallic color as the fuselage slivered from the bottom up and Shenlong collapsed upon herself.

When his dazzled eyes finally could focus, there were simply a few rapidly cooling lumps of metal scattered about between scorched grasses. Looking up to the sky, he saw a faint haze, a mirage of glittering smoke, like the air after fireworks.

That night, he wrote his acceptance letter to Heero and went to sleep with a clear mind. He began packing the next day, dragging out a large suitcase from the house's only closet and emptying all the drawers of their contents. He took everything; clothes, dishes, towels, shoes. The books he did not bother packing, because they would be too heavy to carry. He could send some boxes for them and ship them later.

Heero did not question his choice of transportation when Wufei requested a plane ticket from Beijing to Geneva. His flight was in two days, leaving at noon on Christmas Eve and landing in Geneva a little past ten in the morning on the same day, according to the time change. His suitcase was packed, Quatre's package safely wrapped between layers of clothes, and the little house as bare as if no one had ever lived there.

The night before he left, he went to the back door to watch the sunset one last time. The Chinese sunset did not seem so sad now, for some reason. He wasn't sure if that was because he had finally gotten his priorities straight, or if it was just because there was something to look forward to in life besides the monotony of living day to day. It was good to no longer be an island.

He leaned against the solid wall of the house and ran over Quatre's words again. Quatre's had been a good start, and he would simply build on them. He shaped what he would say in his mind, imagining the words being written down on pieces of thick parchment paper in flowing ink, filling line by line like calligraphy flowing from the end of a brush, coming as freely as flying.

Freely, as they were free now, because the war was finally over.

He would write the history not only of the war, he decided, but of the world as they had known it, and not simply of the world, but of Treize Khushrenada's world. Because Treize, in the end, had been the one who had shaped the world, both by his life and by his death, and history, if nothing else, should be a story of the truth. He would start with Treize's story, and with that, he would tell all their stories.

Prologue: Treize Khushrenada...the Creator of History.

It was a good beginning, Wufei thought. He smiled against the night wind, against her voice in his memory, against the joy of knowing that from now on, his friends would once again be with him, against the light of Shenlong filling the sky as she had embarked on her final flight through the stars that Treize had loved.

END SAINAN NO KEKKA

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