Author: Gloria
See Ch. 1 for other warnings, notes, disclaimer

Summary: His mouth was set in a serious frown, his face jaded and apathetic. Heero stared back. He stared, and saw himself. Tortured, Heero thought with a slash of agonizing pain that he had somehow become OZ.

Spoiler Warning: Scattered Duo-isms from the series. Specifically, for this chapter, the adored episode where Heero and Duo play basketball at the school, Zechs screws around with Tallgeese, and we realize Relena is officially stalking Heero. Irony; love it.

Author's Note: I'd like to thank Link for her beta-ing. I love that she doesn't hold punches with me. She my very own personal Sally Po, I think. Thank you so much!

Prerequisite + Chapter 10: Reckless

AC 203

You wouldn't be so suspicious if you tried to act natural instead of secretive.

It can be said that a soldier's life is not dissimilar to entropy. There is the beginning of it, where certain extraneous events can be assimilated together to hone a thing--or a person--into what it must become. Of course there is then the period where it shines, where it lives out its usefulness. Ultimately, there is that last, sad period of time when for one reason or another, the thing, or the person--the soldier--is cast aside for something different. Not always better or worse, this replacement, but different. The point is, once thrown away, during these final, dwindling moments of apathetic displacement--which could last minutes or an eternity--the thing, person, soldier, rots back into the nothingness from whence it came, despite the potential, despite the tireless hours of labor or the frantic collisions of chance that produced it, him, her, to begin with.

Heero Yuy was uncertain who coined the phrase Perfect Soldier first. It might have been J, but OZ had had a way of nicknaming them when they were all supposed to be anonymous. A threat is more frightening when it is faceless, emotionless, and nameless. It still made him smile to remember how many times he heard "But he's just a kid!" during the war.

Heero never considered himself perfect. Certainly perfection was something he strove for--agonized over even--but Heero learned very early that he was extremely flawed. He thought perhaps he was the most ill-equipped Gundam pilot for the war of 195. Even Quatre had an army, financial backing, and the cleverest strategic mind of all five of them. Trowa could move in and out of the enemy like smoke, even if Heero was unsure whether that was a natural talent or not. Wufei had enough rage to make up for any lack of formal military training. And Duo--well, he may not have been the classiest of the lot, but he sure as hell was the best pilot, honest sneak thief or not.

Well, then, perfection since unattained, it might stand to reason that Heero Yuy's stubborn existence in this world could be the one exception against the rule. Heero did not feel as if he was decaying. He did not feel that he had been cast aside. He didn't even really feel displaced. Perhaps that was abnormal. But then, Heero usually comprehended normal on the second heartbeat, and not the first.

He felt alive. His chest hurt more these days than usual, but he woke up in the morning, he ate, occupied himself during the day, accepted challenges, relieved himself, socialized-- or not--and slept again at the end of it. Not extraordinarily different from his days during the war.

However, there was certainly a definitive sense--and Heero didn't think this was the same thing as existing in a state of entropy--of having aged. Matured maybe, grown up. He was larger, yes, physically. He ached, especially when it rained, radiating out from wounds acquired during the war. But there was also...

Heero had overheard a conversation once. He thought he might have been somewhere in Italy--Venice, perhaps, because it was wet and muggy and Heero recalled being fascinated by the mold. He was forcing himself through a meal the waiter had insisted was a delicacy, but every time he chewed and swallowed>,< he was more convinced it wasn't because it was wretchedly horrible. One man, a massive round, fleshy man, said to a girl half his age, A weapon is not a weapon unless it is used. He said, A bomb isn't a bomb unless it explodes. The girl then, while Heero snorted into his unsavory meal, said, That's a load of bull. Did you take a nap during the war?

Even though it seemed absurd, and it probably warranted the response it received, it was something Heero thought about often later. Perfect Soldier, they called him, but Heero never remembered doing anything perfectly. Rashly, perhaps, often ruthlessly. He remembered a lot of pain and confusion. He remembered Relena and--

Last night triggered something from before. Not something he'd forgotten, but something he didn't wish to remember. He'd stayed overnight at Headquarters to go over data with Oliver Hapner, the succeeding Commander of DTRA after Lucrezia Noin. According to DTRA, which Hapner revealed with a ceaseless expression of severity, there were several unaccounted for mobile suits that had disappeared from Victoria after the war. It had been one of Noin's earliest projects, abandoned, of course, after her decision to go to Mars. Together, with several other stone-faced, serious researchers and analysts, they compiled a list of machinery they thought most likely to appear in Nairobi should this rebel army attack. It wasn't the thought of fighting mobile suits again that triggered buried thoughts and echoes of whispers, nor was it rebels with guns and political movements. It was the drink that had been offered him. A small vial, offered with a small smile, encouraged because it contained taurine and caffeine and vitamin B. Heero drained it, and even though it barely fluttered his deeply regular heartbeat, did mostly nothing to accelerate him in any way, there was that inhale, that echo, that memory of a needle in his arm and the clicking of J's metal hand as he murmured, This will keep you focused, my boy, keep you focused on your mission.

Not to say that he didn't remember what all came after, but it was a blur. A determined, driven blur until the brakes went squealing in his mind, his will jarring against the confines of his body, frustrated as his brain told his fingers to do a thing and his fingers doing something else entirely. What's wrong with me? he had screamed. What's wrong with me? as she stared up at him while he missed crushing her, burying his shield into the ground next her instead. Big cornflower blue eyes moist and compassionate and bewildered as she watched him crack for the first time. This will help you focus. But J never accounted for her.

That silly girl who hounded him, trailed him, but not for some mere teenage crush. Not really. Relena relentlessly berated him and challenged him and told him he mattered until he finally believed it. Because that was all her message really was, wasn't it? That's how she really saved the world--saved him. You matter, she said. Confounding. Heero remembered Trowa's curious eyes on the back of his neck as he offered his gun to every surviving family member of the Doves he had slaughtered; curious and unpitying as he watched Heero remember how to breathe on his own, eat food and think to taste it too, how to sleep and recall dreams later. Perhaps he might have been the decayed husk of a soldier in another reality where she didn't exist, or in a lifetime where they had never met. But she had left her handprint on his soul, and he was better for it. She was magical; Relena.

Heero tried to smile, but his throat was too dry. He sipped at some water instead. His hands were clammy. He wanted to wipe them on his pants, but knew it would only distract Duo, who was frowning as he listened to Major speak to his men about the adjusted mission, the thinned out lines, the escort that had somehow transformed into a sting. Duo, who had left Preventers yesterday storming and angry, but returned expressionless and still, his eyes the only indication that he was feeling anything strongly at all. Duo, who had turned the pre-brief on its ear, leaving a roomful of people who were actually all very intelligent feeling stupid and uninformed. Heero was mildly confused by their reaction. Wasn't this why they had wanted Duo Maxwell? They should have been hardly surprised when he decided to give them exactly what they had asked for.

Duo looked at him suddenly, as if sensing Heero's thoughts had shifted to him. His eyes burned amidst the black shadow of his fringe. He was rebelliously dressed in black jeans and a flannel Heero had never seen before, even if his Preventer jacket was flung over the back of his seat. The line of his mouth seemed set, but it was more a look of concentration than one of consternation. He looked away just a heartbeat off-awkward and went back to staring at Major. Heero tuned in, and immediately regretted it. Major was giving his men leave to refuse the mission because of the involvement of child soldiers. Morally-sensitive, yes, but choices like those made Heero uncomfortable--and it seemed a bit showy, disingenuous. Most of the men and women that worked for Preventers now had been very young when they began their career in one way or another. None of the soldiers left, but judging from the way Duo's eyes had become slits in his face, Heero wondered if his instincts weren't entirely inaccurate.

A tap on his shoulder then, someone whispering in his ear that Une was on the line for him. Heero rose quietly to follow the messenger to an awaiting telephone. He didn't turn to look back, but could feel Duo's eyes on him, watching him leave.

"She's here," Une said, her voice clipped and distant as if she was fully immersed in some other project that had nothing to do with having Heero Yuy on the phone. "Thought you should know."

"Roger," he said, because it was instinctive. He meant it as a question. Somehow it sounded nothing like a question.

"She's asking for you," Une said. "I've informed her of your codename. See that she adheres to it."

"Yes, ma'am," Heero said, and hung up.

His hands shook.

+

Well! She's not your average chick, is she--trying to see the guy's that's trying to kill her.

Nothing could have prepared him for the sight of her.

Relena wore a suit very much like the one she'd been wearing when he shot Mariemeia, but her hair was down, her bangs longer and styled smartly around her face. She rose like mist out of the chair she'd been waiting in as Heero stepped into the conference room. There were other people present, but all Heero could manage was counting how many, memorizing their sizes, and noting which ones were armed and which weren't before--

"Apollo," she breathed, and she might as well have said ‘Heero' for all the warmth and bottomless affection she mustered into that single word. Relena approached him slowly, but was unafraid. Her smile was unhurried and genuine. Her eyes were wide and searching, all silent laughter and forget-me-nots. Relena's hands came up, long, slender fingers with skin like new cream. She smelled like cotton. Relena touched his face briefly, feather-like, before leisurely, deliberately wrapping her arms around him and holding him close. "It is so very good to see you again. It's been too long," she murmured in his ear. He lifted one arm and applied the slightest amount of pressure possible to complete the hug, and stepped back. Immediately, her arms fell away, but she did not retreat. If anything, Relena's smile deepened. Against his will, Heero felt his expression soften. "Hello, Relena."

The door behind him flew open and Duo teetered inside, struggling with a strand of his hair that had become caught in a button on his flannel, his eyes fixed on the door number as if he was unsure he'd found the right one. Relena laughed, a tinkling sound that made Heero think of Christmas in London. She reached around Heero to help Duo untangle himself. If Duo was bothered by the maternal gesture, he certainly didn't show it. He immediately grinned at her, laughed a thanks, and swept her into a crushing embrace that lifted her right off her feet. By the conference table, one of the armed men, a bodyguard, straightened to full attention.

Duo let her down a bit more breathless and windswept, but she was still laughing, her expression beaming at both of them.

"Blackbird! How fitting for you, I think."

Duo bowed low, theatrically sweeping his arm through the air. "Glad to have met your approval, Princess. How've you been?"

"Very well," she answered, turning that smile back on Heero. Her cornflower blues eyes bored into his. "Very well."

+

Wouldn't be so suspicious if you tried to act natural...

Relena was displeased with the amount of Nairobi citizens refusing to evacuate the city. She closed herself up at Headquarters with only a handful of advisors and several live feeds communicating with Une's office, Dorothy Catalonia--who was in Paris representing the Foreign Minister at a Public Relations conference--and Kumbaki, to name a few, until she was finally satisfied with moving the accords to two days later than scheduled. Relena agreed that it wasn't really enough time to prepare better security for the remaining civilians, but also understood that prolonging the meeting with Kumbaki only gave the rebels more time to move in on the city. The Peacecraft envoy left for Africa later that afternoon. Apollo and Blackbird went with them. The Ssese Islands contained some of the last functional military bases left in Lake Victoria. The Gundam Shenlong had destroyed most of the coastline bases, and also the mobile suit factory situated amidst Bugala Island, giving the chain back to the Basese people, who had become truly displaced and not much better than slaves during the OZ occupation. An interesting Bantu tribe--and Heero had familiarized himself with several--that worshiped a deity called Mukasa, were reported to be powerful in witchcraft and had a reputation for cannibalism. Heero wondered if Wufei knew.

Relena seemed unimpressed by her lake view quarters on Lolui Island, however her Portuguese assistant, Anabela, lit up like a Christmas tree, bustling about like a mother hen attempting to make it seem as much like an exotic resort as possible. Heero understood why Relena liked her. She was a short, square woman with dark eyes and even darker hair, but very fine bones and a pretty face even if deeply lined with age. She smiled a lot, her black lashes crunching as her eyes crinkled. She was irrepressible.

"When will Dorothy arrive?" Relena asked, the next morning over tea.

Heero stood somberly by the window, staring at the Ugandan coastline. Duo had all but disappeared into the bowels of the base since their arrival yesterday, throwing himself into operational preparations like a man possessed. Heero was with him at first, but Duo pointedly told him to stay with Relena. Someone must always be with her, he said. And even if her regular security was acceptably capable, they both agreed it wasn't enough. Not here.

"She'll be here before supper," Anabela answered from the kitchenette, just a notch too cheerful for Heero's mood. Her accent was thick, but discernable. A strange stressing on the n's, a rolling on the r's that went off-beat, but otherwise... "She landed in Guinea twenty minutes ago."

"Good," Relena murmured, rubbing at her temples.

Heero looked at her. Relena must have felt his eyes on her because she answered the unspoken question.

"There is an aggressiveness, a vivacity some politicking requires, Apollo," Relena said quietly, gazing at her tea. "Just as much as compassionate diplomacy. Dorothy and I counter-balance one another."

"I understand."

"Hm," she said only. Relena unraveled her legs from under her, patted the vacant seat beside her on the sofa. She had the grace to seem unfazed when he minutely shook his head. "Sally tells me you and Blackbird share a home."

Heero looked away from her expectant gaze, returning his eyes back to Uganda where rebels lurked in the bush. It was hot and humid, several degrees higher than comfortable. Heero didn't like the way his footsteps echoed eerily on the rocky pathway around the few short buildings on the island. He didn't like the buzzing of the insects swarming through the fauna either.

"I wonder," she said, "if the house is big enough for the two of you."

It was probably a joke, an attempt to lighten the mood. But Heero said, before he could stop himself, "It's too big."

Relena was silent, watching him with sad eyes. Then: "You should not have expected it to be easy, you silly boy."

Heero turned to face her fully, the hurt in his chest resonating down his arms and legs. She rose from the sofa, approached him, embraced him gently and stubbornly did not release him. Finally Heero relented, closing his eyes and burying his face in her hair. His hands remained idle by his side as his eyes slid closed, as he heard her whisper: "Everyone needs a Wendy."

Heero didn't know what that meant. In many ways, Relena was just as odd as he was. Anabela was finally quiet in the kitchenette, watching them silently from the doorway.

+

You and I are going after the same thing. You can't hide it from me; I can see it in your eyes as plain as day, pal.

"I won't be going with you," Duo said, almost irreverently, as if he had known this for a while and only just now thought to mention it. "Sally's agreed to take my place. We think its best to have a medic with the envoy."

Heero paused, his hands stilling over the switchboard.

"Left gunner," Duo said, making notations on his clipboard.

"Green," Heero answered, his voice deep and automatic. They were doing preflight checks on the regiment of helicopters they intended to use in the morning. Relena had locked herself up with Dorothy Catalonia--who insisted she was more than enough protection for the Foreign Minister on a base full of Preventer soldiers--to pore over notes for the meeting with Kumbaki. "Who's my pilot then?"

Duo scribbled something down. "No, no. I'll fly you in. But there's a Blackhawk on the flat I'll take to the perimeter."

"You're with Major now." His tone was flat, non-objective and, admittedly, very nearly accusatory.

"Technically, I'll be with Chang, but he has to cover the waterfront with the Echo Fighter Squadron." Echo was a deployment of F-22 Raptors on loan from the U.S. Navy, and Chang's specific mission was to provide a retreat escort for the Peacecraft envoy, as well as covering ground units as they left Nairobi. The catch, of course, was the U.S. Navy refused to be involved in the fighting until it was affirmed that Relena and company were in the air at the close of the accords--unless they were attacked by sea-faring mobile suits, which Heero had discovered might be a lurking threat. Duo lifted a panel, checked some wiring, grunted and made another note. "This thing is a piece of junk. Anyway, you were the one who said they might have a pair of Virgos."

"It was a red flag in Noin's report," Heero said. "The biggest threats are the missing Tauruses."

"I read the detail, Heero."

"Why you?"

Duo looked up then, peering at him over the rim of his sunglasses, his expression plainly stating that no one expected Heero to budge from Relena's side during the op. and apparently Blackbird was the next best thing. But there was something more, just there, behind Duo's eyes. Something dark, almost manic. A gleam, a ghost of Duo's buried battle-lust. If anyone could combat mobile machinery with archaic weapons, it was Duo Maxwell. Heero had seen him do it at sixteen.

Duo looked back at his clipboard. "How are we on fuel?"

"Green and we have reserves. Duo--"

"Rear engines?"

"Duo."

"Don't Duo me," he snapped, climbing into the back and jumping onto the flat from the gunner platform to check the engines himself. "And you're breaking the rules, mister. ‘Round these parts folks call me Blackbird."

Heero rolled his eyes skyward, sucked in a deep, steadying breath.

And followed him around the bird.

"Coward," he growled.

"Coward?" came the incredulous reiteration.

"You're avoiding."

Duo shoved his sunglasses up his forehead, tossed his clipboard into the chopper, and crossed his arms over his chest. Dressed in battle-fatigues riding low on his hips and a Preventer-issued black tank, leather gloves and oil smeared on his cheek, Duo Maxwell looked more at ease in this place than Heero could have ever expected. When had that happened? When had Duo Maxwell decided to play nice? Something was wrong.

"Fine. Not avoiding. Start talking--and make it quick. We've got three more birds before we can break for mess." Duo adopted his best look of impatient insolence.

"Was it your idea."

Duo blinked. "Probably? I don't know, man. I've said and suggested a lot of things in the past thirty-six hours. Whether it was one of the things they decided fit into their goddamn funding or not is beyond me."

Heero straightened, doing his best to dissemble. "You won't be reckless?"

Duo's face cracked, a boil of rage leaking through his expression finally. "Hey, fuck you, man. I will be as fucking reckless as I goddamn want to. Quit mothering me; you never used to do this."

"I'm not mothering you."

"You are," Duo challenged, taking a step toward him, his arms falling away from his chest, hands curled into fists. "If I want to beat up a Taurus with my bare hands, I'll do it because that's what you people hired me for. You wanted me to unleash me. I'll be unleashed tomorrow, right? I swear to God, I'll bring the whole damn army to its knees."

Anger shook Heero's entire body like a bolt of electricity. Since fucking when did Heero become you people? "You start thinking like this and your luck will run out, Duo. You're not fifteen anymore. You're as fallible and breakable as the rest of ‘us people'."

"Cute," Duo smirked. "And sure, my luck'll run out. And when it does I'll give Death the finger for making me the punch line of my own goddamn joke. It's what I do, Heero. What the fuck are you? New?"

Heero nodded, resigning, a weight settling in the center of his being. "Fine. Be reckless; die tomorrow because you're so eager to do what you do. I was never the one that wanted to unleash you. I thought it was you and me, us and them. I thought we had at least that in common."

That seemed to quiet Duo, who straightened up to his full height, uncurled his fists. His face was so immobile, staring back at Heero, that he might have been sleepwalking if Heero didn't know better. Finally, Duo lowered his sunglasses back over his face, making his eyes disappear behind the black lens, hiding whatever truth they might have betrayed. He walked around Heero and retrieved his clipboard.

"I'll finish the preflight," he said as he began to walk away. "Gear up after mess. I want to fly the perimeter once it gets dark."

Heero felt safe enough when Duo was flying that he could literally fall asleep. It was a comfort he had discovered sometime during the war, a comfort not many could rival. The lake bucked and thrashed under the stormy wind, an inky black, frothing, roiling mass of water. Duo sped over it, ignoring the war of sea spray beneath them, towards the faint tinkling of lights that marked the coast of Kenya clear on the other side of Lake Victoria. They passed over bright specks that bespoke of bonfires among the bush, village folk sitting on their verandas watching the storm coming, craning their necks to try and pinpoint what was making the sound the helicopter spread in its wake. Further on, the city of Nairobi. Quiet, but bright; still busy in the late evening, though well on its way to slowing down. Duo circled the city once and then headed back towards the lake. Against regulations, Duo turned off the radio connecting them to base, keeping open only the feed between their headsets.

"It is you and me," Duo said, his tone quiet even if he had to speak loudly to be heard over the blades. "It is."

Heero looked at him but said nothing, watched the light of the moon battle with the switch board to illuminate Duo's face.

"Would you believe me," Duo said after a long pause, "if I told you I am holding perimeter so you won't have to?"

"I don't know," Heero answered. "You make it seem like it's more than that."

Duo wet his lips with his tongue, frowned into the dark, stormy horizon. Lightening shot down through the black clouds, making the world pulsate as evening dwindled into night. "Would you believe me if I swore I would come back to the flat and take you and Relena home?"

Heero considered this--and what it implied. "Yes," he said.

Duo took his eyes off the horizon, looked at Heero with intense, genuine sincerity. "I won't promise I won't be reckless, but I swear I will come back. I'll fly you in, and I'll fly you out."

It would have to be enough. They weren't the type of people to waste time on sentiments. "It's you and it's me," Heero said.

"It's us and it's them," Duo agreed, his eyes back on the storm ahead.

+

What took you, Heero? Don't worry. I left you some action.

"Major to all units, we have radar activity."

"Hawk One here, copy that." Duo. "Circling back to confirm aerial visual."

"Ten-four, Hawk One."

Heero was very still, listening with one ear to the transmissions in his headset and to the diplomatic conversation at the table with the other, all the while keeping both eyes on hand placements. He stood directly to the right of Relena, who sat upright, listening to Kumbaki speak. Beside her sat Dorothy Catalonia, her body angled towards the Foreign Minister but her stern gaze fixed on the Kenyan politicians across from them. On either side of the pair of women were two other ESUN representatives: Evan Hale, a young man just barely older than Relena, whose position was unclear to Heero, though Relena spoke highly of him, and Stephen Malcolm, whom Relena had joked was sent by the President to make sure she behaved like a lady and did not promise things ESUN would not be willing to keep. Beside Heero, just behind and to the left of Relena, was Sally Po, alert and armed, her Preventers army gear pressed and polished, pale blue eyes fixed on the guard that had escorted Kumbaki and narrowing every time they fidgeted. Flanked on either side of the two SPG Preventers were Relena's regular security, a pair of men in black and white suits: one, a dark-skinned and stone-faced man called Darnell Rivers, and the other, Alex Chin, whose appearance resembled Asian descent but tall and fair. All alert, all taut and ready to grab Relena Peacecraft and bolt the moment Major gave them the go.

Mauibi Kumbaki was a man whose presence filled up the entire room. Heero had been familiar with photos and televisions feeds of him, heard him speak on world news and radio, but it was something altogether different being near Kumbaki in person. He smelled of the mountains and rivers that had borne him; his eyes were black like silt and seemed to see only truth, piercing and unavoidable if they landed on you. His movements were few and decisive; this man knew only what he was about, and cared little for much else. His hands rested, interlaced in a seeming casual fashion, atop a short stack of hand-written notes he never once glanced at. He had a strong, square face with broad planes and stark slashes for features. He sat very straight in his chair, gazing with intent purpose at Relena as she spoke eloquently to him. When it was her turn to listen, Kumbaki's speech was polite but forthright, no room in his words for grandeur or embellishments.

"Lake Victoria is only valuable to us as an agricultural resource," Kumbaki said in his deep, rich voice, rolling like grassy hills. His accent was deeply influenced by his native tongue, but he spoke English clearly like he was born to it. "I do not think Uganda and Tanzania will appreciate this continued occupation of their coast, but I am not here to barter for them."

A twitch from the man sitting beside Kumbaki, who was named Alhaji and assumed to be some sort of advisor. Sally noticed it too.

"Yes, that is an unrelenting topic at ESUN," Relena said softly, smiling a little. "And as I said, we are willing to allow you to speak on this matter in Brussels. The point I am trying to make is you do in fact have a chair at Council now. That is the offer I can make today, and it is my sincere wish that you accept it. I think you have very good ideas for independent government policy, and you should present these ideas in Brussels."

"Bogey faction visual confirmed, sending data now. Is this IRA?"

"43rd Regiment, Tommy Four reporting. We have ground visual coming in from the east."

"Copy that, Tommy Four. Hold fire. Hawk One, received your data. Confirmed IRA logo in frontlines."

"Copy, Major. I'm at the edge of the perimeter now." A pause. "Major, I am confirming a visual on mobile machinery."

"Copy, Hawk One. How many?"

"Four. Please advise."

"Standby, hold fire."

There were no less than a dozen men surrounding Mauibi Kumbaki. Only one sat at the table with the politician, Alhaji, and he was dressed in an odd marigold-colored suit jacket and red tie. His round head was shiny, pale brown eyes lifting periodically to look at Heero, then Sally, and finally back to Relena. The other men, introduced as Mambu, Jabati, Beah, Moriba, Jumah, Kanei, Musa, Kabbah, Gasemu, Kona and Mohamed, stood in some meaningful formation behind the two, listening to their own earpieces and watching the Peacecraft envoy with the same intensity as the Preventers were. Five of them, the nearest to the table, had thunderous expressions, as if extremely unhappy with what they were hearing. The rest were still, yes, but there was something anticipatory about their stance, about the way they held themselves angled away from each other. Heero didn't like it.

"Echo One reporting. Waters are quiet."

"Copy, Echo. All units, prepare to engage. Echo, standby."

"Ten-four."

"97th Regiment, SPG Eagle Nine reporting. Visual confirmed--armed rebels appearing from the northwest and advancing."

"Furthermore," Relena continued. "It has never been the intention of the Earth Sphere Unified Nation to rob any people of their autonomy. Please believe that you will be received with respect and a willingness to hear you, Mr. Kumbaki. Our only regret is that it has taken nine years to attend to this matter properly."

Mauibi Kumbaki smiled slightly, though his black eyes had turned suddenly inward and reclusive. "It would be an honor to attend your Council is Brussels, Minister. One day, perhaps, my countrymen will be satisfied."

"Hawk One to Major. Give me the go. Taurus Bogey One is Green."

"Hold fire, Hawk One."

Heero breathed in quietly, holding the air in his chest, watching as one of the stone-faced men, Moriba, tensed, muscles rippling under his shirt.

The window shuddered slightly as a boom echoed distantly from far on the other side of the city.

"Give me go, Major."

Another faint reverberation from an explosion. A half-second of quiet. The whispering echo of the sound of screams in the distance.

"Advance, Hawk One."

Duo's answer was immediate, cutting off the end of Major's transmission. "Hawks Niner, Twelve, Six and Four--fire at will, I repeat, fire at--"

There was another reverberation from the window pane. Kumbaki did not look up, but Alhaji did, lifting his hand in a strange gesture.

Moriba reached into his jacket. Heero reacted reflexively, like a reflection only quicker. He shot Moriba between the eyes before the man had time to properly aim his Glock in Heero's direction. The bullet Moriba sent his way grazed his jacket, tearing the fabric, but nothing more. In a chaotic flurry of movement and shouting, a gunfight shook the conference room.

Sally was worth her weight in competency. She jerked Relena's chair back as Heero advanced, dragging her from the chair and shoving her into the arms of Rivers and Chin. Dorothy acquired a semi-automatic from Sally's holster and used her body to shield the Foreign Minister, backing her into a corner of the room with Hale and Malcolm. The men closest to Kumbaki, those who were able to reach them before being overpowered, fired their weapons at the men on the outer-flanks, who bewilderingly fought back. Heero sprinted atop the table in a blur of motion, downing Jabati and Kabbah, who were the first after Moriba to fire towards the Peacecraft envoy. Kona killed Gasemu. Beah fired at Kona, his back pushed against the side of Kumbaki's chair protectively, but missed. Kona smacked the pistol from Beah's hand. Heero fired again; Kona stumbled backwards with a shout. Relena screamed. Heero's empty chamber slid free, clattering on the table top, and he reloaded it, reached into his holster for his knife, aimed his firearm at Jumah and slid the edge of his dagger against Kumbaki's throat. Someone shouted in Bantu--Alhaji.

"Apollo, don't!" Relena.

The two days Preventers had used to prepare had given IRA the opportunity to infiltrate. Heero could tell, now, who was loyal to Kumbaki--and who was not. Alhaji seemed to be the ringleader, his face thoughtful as he peered up at Heero, still seated in his chair beside Kumbaki. Kanei, Mambu and Musa had their weapons trained on Beah and Mohamed, who were still pressed against Kumbaki, using their bodies to shield the politician. It was futile, since Alhaji had a semi-automatic pressed under Kumbaki's ribs, now, and even Heero was willing to kill Mauibi Kumbaki to ensure Relena Peacecraft's safety. The mission had been clear. The Foreign Minister's well-being came before anything, everything else. Kumbaki would be collateral damage if Heero's gambit failed. Mauibi Kumbaki'e black eyes bored into Heero, his gaze pulling on Heero like gravity. Heero finally looked down into the man's face--and saw that the man understood, even though Heero's knife was slicing shallowly into his throat. He had resigned himself into the hands of these men. Heero's pistol clinked against Jumah's, reminding the man that Heero had not forgotten him.

"Cease fire," Heero growled softly, a demand that was as dangerous and lethal as it sounded. "Or I will end him."

Alhaji's gaze slid casually behind Heero, where Relena now stood in the center of her two bodyguards, Sally Po, Dorothy Catalonia, Hale and Malcolm.

"Look at her again," Heero hissed, adjusting his aim to point directly at Alhaji, forcing the man's pale brown eyes back to him. "And I will kill you and everyone else from here to the door."

"He means it," came Dorothy's frank tone. "Every word. Why do you think we brought him?"

Alhaji smiled. "I can see you are a very dangerous man."

"Decide," Heero said.

Alhaji shrugged. "We just want him," he said, jerking his chin in Kumbaki's direction. "This coward thinks he can abandon his country in its most solemn hour."

"Apollo," came Relena's muffled voice. "Please don't."

Beah said something angrily in a language Heero did not recognize. Kumbaki, his face still upturned and gazing at Heero[,] who crouched above him, answered softly in the same idiom. Beah bowed his head, and then, scowling fiercely, put down his hands, said something to Mohamed. With a jerky movement, Mohamed threw down his gun and was roughly shoved towards the door by Musa. There was a loud banging from the hallway, and Kanei opened the door. Several IRA rebels stepped into the room, handling Beah and Mohamed into the hall. One of them spoke rapidly, and not in English. Alhaji shook his head, chuckled darkly and motioned for Kumbaki to stand with him as he rose. Slowly, Heero lowered his knife from Kumbaki's throat.

"We will leave," Alhaji said. "Take your women and do not return."

Heero stared at him, pointedly ignoring Kumbaki, who was backed into the rebel hands waiting for him. His mission was clear. His mission was clear.

Heero advanced as they backed out of the room. His hand was steady, his aim fixed. He stepped down at the other end of the table, just as Alhaji shut the door. Heero moved forward quickly, then, gun trained on the doorjamb as he turned to stand against the wall by the frame, ready to shoot anyone who came back into the room. He finally looked over to where the Peacecraft Envoy stood. Dorothy Catalonia broke away, neared the window, peering out through the blinds to attempt a glimpse of the battle taking place outside. Sally's weapon remained pointed at the door, but her expression was sour as her icy gaze roamed the carnage Heero had left on the floor.

"Now what?" she demanded.

"Step away from the window, Catalonia," Heero demanded, though she ignored him.

Relena covered her face with one hand as he spoke into his microphone, quickly updating base on the infiltration and their current location.

"Ten-four, Apollo. Secure that room and standby, we're sending wings to fly you home. Echo One, prepare to deploy. Major to Hawk One, the envoy--"

"Hawk Niner to Major. Hawk One is down. I repeat, Hawk One is down. He destroyed Bogey Taurus One and Two. Hawk Seven is turning back for the envoy."

A pause where static screamed in Heero's ears like banshees, cold dread seeping into his skin, down to his core. Relena's hand fell away from her face, her blue eyes dark and apprehensive. She had not heard the transmission, but she sensed the change in the atmosphere, the blackness creeping in at the corners.

"Copy Hawk Niner. Apollo, standby."

Sally had to answer for him. "Po to Major, ten-four."

The world seemed to split open beneath his feet, swallowing him up. He blinked, tried desperately to recapture that remote part of him that knew he couldn't care because he couldn't afford to. He reloaded his firearm. Sally was speaking to him, but he couldn't make out what she was saying.

He had smiled that devil-may-care grin as he switched off the envoy transport on the flat, jumped from the gunner. Waved as he jogged across the lift to the waiting Black Hawk that he would fly to the perimeter. "I'll be right back", he'd said. Relena had smiled indulgently. Dorothy had seemed faintly jealous. They were distracted too soon by Kumbaki's party waiting to greet them. They were busy being polite while Duo Maxwell lifted off to lead his Hawk Squadron into battle.

"He's crashed before," Sally murmured reasonably, absently tugging on Dorothy's sleeve so she would step back from the window. "Dozens of times. I'm sure he's fine."

"What's happened?" Relena demanded hoarsely.

"Nothing," Heero said in a dead voice. "Nothing has happened." But everything had happened--was happening.

For several minutes, the radio feed was alive with reports. Duo's surviving Hawks could not bring down the remaining two Tauruses without Duo's guidance and the IRA breached the city. An RPG shot down Hawk Seven, and Hawk Niner sent Hawk Four for the pick-up. Another twenty-minutes went by. The pop-popping of automatic weapons tore through the air, dully bouncing against the quiet of the room as the envoy waited for Heero's signal, and Heero waited for Major's. Several explosions sounded, each closer than the last. Abruptly--

Don't worry. I left you some action.

"Blackbird reporting from Bogey Taurus Three. Locked on Four, firing now."

Heero's head snapped up, looked around in bewilderment, realizing he hadn't imagined it as he saw a slow smile creep along Sally's face. "Told ya," she said.

"Copy that, Blackbird. Good to have you back."

"Spoke too soon, Major. Reporting misfire. Rifle jam or something--hold on."

"Hold the door," Heero ordered, and Sally rushed to take his position as he went to the window and pulled open the blinds. Two Tauruses could be seen towering over squat buildings several blocks away. Apparently, Duo was now in one of them. A Taurus discarded its rifle, turned to the other and lodged its right arm underneath the other's rib-plate. Heero felt himself grinning.

"Ordering fall back of all ground units from Bogey suits," came Duo's voice over the Taurus radio. "This might get messy."

"Ten-four," came the response from several feeds. Bogey Four attempted to aim its rifle against the rogue Taurus, but could not twist inward enough. Duo had both suits interlocked. The rogue hatch opened. Heero could not see Duo slip from the cockpit, but knew well enough he was. Distracted, however, by what Blackbird was doing to the enemy suit, Heero did not see the missile until it was just a block away, heading straight towards the building they occupied.

Heero was unsure of what he shouted, but it was enough that Rivers and Chin pushed Relena beneath them. Heero could not reach Sally in time, but he threw Dorothy to the ground, covered her body with his. The explosion shook the entire structure. Glass shattered, raining in slinging shards all around them. The sound, however, distracted him from the pain of the glass slicing into him. Deafening, leaving only a silence that was maddening, ringing. He rolled forward to one knee, shaking his head to dispel the rush of vertigo, the unsteadiness. He swayed, but he made it to his feet, dragged up Dorothy with him. The hot Kenyan air rushed into the room, scorching with the accompanying electrical flames sparking and sizzling around damaged wiring in the bent infrastructure. A gaping hole was all that remained of the wall with the window. The building shuddered. Heero stumbled forward, grabbed Chin by his collar and pulled him off of Relena. He shouted at the man, but Chin did not respond. Rivers rolled to his side, clutching his head, blood pouring from a deep gouge in his lip. Heero shook Chin, but suddenly Sally was there, looking horrible but seemed well enough to be walking. She laid a hand on his arm, reached down to check Chin's pulse, and shook her head. Heero set the man down, immediately turned his attention to the Foreign Minister. She was sitting up with the aid of Hale and Malcolm, who seemed dazed but mobile as well. Sally was shouting something to Heero, but his head was still ringing. He motioned quickly to her that they were leaving immediately. Heero would fly the transport himself if he needed to.

They were well into the hall before Heero could hear more than the shouting silence inside his head. His radio was fried and he pulled it from his ear. "Po, is your radio working?"

"Negative, Apollo."

"Rivers?"

"No, sir." Rivers supported Relena as they rushed down the hallway. Chin's dead body hung over Hale's shoulder--they were unwilling to leave a single one of them behind. Sally took up the rear, Dorothy and Malcolm followed closely behind Heero, who let his firearm lead every turn.

Heero decided to clear to the other side of the building before taking the stairs, unwilling to chance the stairwell on the previous side, as now IRA seemed hell-bent on burying them with the building. Explosions sounded off in rapid succession, surrounded on all sides by ceaseless gunfire. They made it up the seventeen flights of stairs without incident, moving quickly and quietly. At the top, Heero saw the exit door was ajar and spotted a shadow moving across it. He held up his fist.

"I'll clear you a pathway to the transport," Heero whispered to Sally. "Get them in; get it running."

Sally, fully focused, nodded once.

There were several IRA soldiers standing guard on the flat, their orders apparently to prevent the Peacecraft envoy from leaving. Heero nodded to himself, contemplating oddly that, yes, that would have been something he would have considered logical. That perhaps he would have thought of it too. He remembered, painfully, the Noventa Doves. Heero slipped through the door. He swiftly killed two, acquired one dead man's AK-47 and shot four more in rapid fire. The rest sought cover. Sally moved in, running towards the helicopter at full speed, the envoy close at her heels. All Heero could think was that Duo was not here. That he should be, but that he was not. Heero had an awful moment of hesitation, an excruciating flinch, a second to process the notion that he might not be willing to leave without him. Heero was unfamiliar with this: he had not anticipated that Duo would not keep his promise. Sally geared up the chopper, the whine of the engine battling with the exchange of gunfire across the flat as Heero covered the transport.

There was a rustling, a darting shadow, and Heero twisted, cock-and-lock, pressed the holster into his shoulder--and froze.

A boy. A child stared back at him, concerned only that he was caught mid-movement. An angry burn, not yet healed, branded I.R.A. into the side of the child's throat, a pink and red infected boil against his ebony, sweating skin. His black and yellow stare bored into Heero, blood-veins snaking spidery lines all across the whites of his eyes. His mouth was set in a serious frown, his face jaded and apathetic. Heero stared back. He stared, and saw himself. Tortured, Heero thought with a slash of agonizing pain that he had somehow become OZ. He had somehow become the enemy.

He stared, feeling sick, and felt a compulsion. He thought, perhaps this was how Relena had felt all those years ago when she confronted him at her school. Perhaps all this boy needs is to hear it. Heero remembered her saying, You matter.

He whispered, "You matter."

"HEERO!"

Pain blossomed in his shoulder as a bullet tore through him from the back. He was shoved roughly to the side. The trance was broken; the boy lifted his handgun with deadly, brutal intent--

And Duo, as he must, as he couldn't not, shot the boy twice in the face.

Duo grabbed Heero by his jacket and hauled him up, swearing foully, and exchanged rapid fire to the right of them, where IRA rebels were still attempting to swarm the transport. Duo shouted behind him, and Heero saw that Beah was there, carrying an injured Musa bleeding profusely from his side--and Kumbaki. Mauibi Kumbaki ran like a soldier, sharing the weight of Musa's body as Beah fired his way to the transport with an automatic rifle. Heero got his feet under him. Together, they ran to the helicopter and threw themselves into the cockpit. Duo moved quickly over the panel and gripped the stick, jerking it up, causing the bird to lurch. But rise it did. Beah manned the port side gunner, while Sally was fully engaged on the other side. Heero climbed into the back to relieve Sally so she could see to Musa. Duo screamed for Echo to deploy over the helicopter's radio, but did not wait.

What took you...

"I repeat: we are taking heavy fire. We need air cover now!" A scream of static, Major's voice indiscernible. Another transmission, this one sounding muffled, as if coming from the cockpit of a fighter jet. "Chang, I will kiss you full on the mouth if you get my ass out of here in one piece," Duo growled. "Bring the fucking rain."

"Echo One to Transport, we are en route. Engaging hostiles now."

Heero felt his finger spasm on the trigger of his machine gun, paused only briefly to reload, and kept on firing. The roar of the Echo deployment raged overhead, leaving a trail of wreckage in their wake. Duo navigated through the smoke, clearing the city at last. Heero finally pulled his finger away from the trigger, resting his head against the metal hull of the bird, one foot dangling from the gunner platform as he tried to feel the wind on his face. But all he could see was the dead eyes of the child that he couldn't save because it was not anything remotely close to what he was good at. The boy soldier that wore his face, staring murderously back at him without rage or feeling, only misguided, single-minded purpose.

The helicopter dipped dangerously, losing altitude. Duo swore softly behind him. Heero met Sally's alarmed expression and twisted to look at him. The dash trilled at him, but Duo's fingers were slow to quiet it, creeping along the switchboard. Just ahead, the coast of Lake Victoria.

"Apollo," Duo said, his voice rough and weak. "I need you in here."

Heero climbed into the cockpit immediately, his eyes searching Duo over. His combat gear was dark all along one side, and Heero noticed for the first time that the right side of Duo's face and hair was matted with blood.

"I'm fading fast, Apollo. I need you to take the stick."

Heero's response was automatic, hands moving mindlessly over the panel, taking the gear and lifting the bird up, gaining altitude as they swept out over the water. "Blackbird, where are you injured?"

Behind them, Sally was moving forward through the hull, trying to get closer to Duo to check him, but the transport was over-crowded.

Duo's eyes drooped, his head nodding forward. His hands slipped completely away from the stick. "Everywhere," he whispered.

"Blackbird!" Heero shouted, panic bursting in his chest. The world opened up beneath his feet, a cavernous black hole attempting to swallow him whole. "Stay with me, dammit. Sally! Sally!"

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