Author: Sunhawk

Directions (cont.)

'Duo...' he grumbled, and I leaned in again.

'Shut up, Yuy; not your fault.'

It was a little longer before I let him try to speak again.

'I love you,' is what he blurted when I did, and I grinned down at him.

'Much better,' I praised and finally got a smile out of him, though it seemed kind of wan, like he was still tired. 'Are you ok?' I had to ask that look, and his smile went all warm.

'I am now,' he said, and hugged me close.

'Such a sap,' I teased, and squeezed him tight in return.

We probably would have continued to trade endearments but the mood was pretty well shot when Trowa suddenly asked from somewhere in the vicinity of the doorway, 'You two want to come down for breakfast, or should I just close the door?'

We both jumped a damn foot in the air. Son of a bitch laughed all the way down the hall.

So we climbed out of bed and cleaned up the best we could, both of us obviously, looking like we'd slept in our clothes. Or borrowed scrubs... I couldn't quite think of my aqua pajamas as 'clothes'. And to be honest, I was a little miffed that nobody had yet to think to offer to loan me anything else. Quatre and I are pretty much the same size, and surely the guy had something lying around that hadn't cost him the equivalent of one of my paychecks.

Heero was staying about as close to me as he could get without just picking me up and carrying me everywhere we went. It was in me to object, but I couldn't quite figure out if it was for his sake or mine, so I let it go, figuring he'd work it out of his system eventually either way. There was just no way I could remember the mess he'd been in my arms the previous night and seriously consider reprimanding him over anything. I'm a sucker for kids even when they're merely the psychological manifestation of the way my thinking catalogs feelings.

The smells of breakfast had my stomach calling out like a love sick moose before we hit the bottom of the staircase, and I wondered if I would ever get over feeling like I could happily eat said moose all on my own with nothing more than a bottle of ketchup and a fork. I would have been embarrassed at the noises I was making, if Heero's stomach hadn't chimed in too. It almost made me laugh, until I stopped to realize just what a rotten job he'd been doing the last few days of taking care of himself. I reached out and took his hand and he led me into the dining room that way. I wasn't too uncomfortable about it, since it was just us and the guys anyway.

As usual, there were a variety of foods that would have put an all you can eat buffet to shame, but for the first time I could remember, I wasn't really all that bothered by the overindulgence. There were places set for us, and I let Heero steer me into the seat that had me between him and Quatre, I wondered if it was some sort of deliberate protective move, or if I was just being hyper sensitive. Suppose it didn't matter, both places had a plate and a fork and that's really all I cared about at that moment.

I had already dished up bacon, eggs, fruit and toast and was slathering jelly on my toast when I suddenly realized that the conversation had lagged after the standard 'good morning' stuff. It made me remember the 'ooops' thing from the evening before and I glanced between Trowa and Quatre, trying to determine if they'd worked things out or not. Trowa seemed ok, if a bit quiet, but Quatre just seemed uncomfortable as all hell.

I suppose if things had gone really badly between them, they wouldn't have both been sitting there at the breakfast table, but that was really nothing more than an assumption, and you know what they say about assumptions. I took a bite of my toast, looking for clues while trying not to look like I was staring at them.

About gave myself a heart attack when I noticed that a certain chain was missing from around Trowa's neck. Until he reached for his orange juice and I realized that the ring had just been relocated. I happened to catch his eye then, and he smiled crookedly before turning his attention back to his eggs.

So... we were not sitting in the middle of a lover's spat. I glanced at Quatre again and could tell the quiet was just his embarrassment over the incident. I watched him dissect a strawberry with his knife and fork with a precision usually reserved for diamond cutting, and laughed at him to cover the stupid grin when I saw the matching ring on his hand.

'Oh come on, Winner,' I mocked, lifting a strawberry from my plate and taking a bite. 'Strawberries are a finger food! Pick it up... I dare you!'

He blinked at me for a moment, managing to look sheepish and embarrassed and relieved all at once. 'Uncouth lout,' he grumbled good-naturedly.

'Finicky.' I teased back, and waved my half eaten strawberry at him before popping the rest in my mouth. He huffed at me, seeming to relax, his attention leaving the boundaries of his plate at least.

'Heero,' he ventured. 'I'm sorry I missed you last night.'

My partner made a dry sound that was kind of a place holder for amusement and glanced down the table Quatre's way. 'I pretty much missed everybody last night.' And though he didn't seem very repentant, he tacked on a little, 'Sorry.'

Trowa snorted and I glanced across at him. The look on his face made me imagine Heero blasting through the house like a man on a mission from God, and I felt a smile cross my own face that was probably pretty damn goofy. I turned my attention to my bacon, sparing a glance Quatre's way to see if he tried to eat that with a fork too, but didn't find any on his plate at all. It will remain one of the world's mysteries, I suppose.

I was just trying to decide if it would be rude to ask to leave before we even finished breakfast, when Abdul did that Maganac thing and appeared at Quatre's elbow. He leaned down and spoke softly for several moments, whatever he was saying keeping Quatre's rapt attention. If he was looking at any of the rest of us, you couldn't tell through the damn sunglasses the guy never seemed to be without.

'Excellent,' Quatre said when he was done, and Abdul bowed himself out. I couldn't help giving him a little waggle of my fingers and the guy grinned and gave me a thumbs up before he left the room.

'What is excellent, Quatre?' Heero asked, having wolfed down the contents of his plate in record time, and was still eying the fruit and muffins like he was considering going back for more.

'Your house is clear,' Quatre informed him, dissecting another piece of fruit with a delicacy that I suspected was purely for my benefit.

'Report?' Heero asked, while I tried to figure out which of them to gape at.

'My men took in scanners and dogs, and swept the place from top to bottom,' Quatre said around a bite of strawberry. 'Nothing out of place, though you've got something of a squirrel problem in the attic and a possum living in your shed. The Preventers canvassed the neighborhood and found no reports of suspicious activity or strangers. We cleared your vehicles as well.'

Heero was making sounds that were approving, and I suppose on some level I was approving too, but I had another couple of levels that were thinking about... not strangers, but you know what I mean... digging through my underwear drawer and harassing my neighbors. 'What?' I couldn't help ask. 'Dogs? Canvassed?'

'Don't worry,' Trowa grinned across at me. 'Coquette was not involved.'

'Har,' I deadpanned. 'Funny, asshole. What the hell did they tell our neighbors?'

For some reason, that made Quatre get a funny little smirk and he waved his fork in my general direction. 'Don't worry, I don't think any of your neighbors were all that traumatized... between the Preventer agents and my men, the little girl down the street managed to sell twenty boxes of Girl Scout cookies.'

'Oh God,' I groaned, imagining extras from Men in Black standing on Ruthie's front porch, that little mop of a dog barking its fool head off, while her mother answered questions and wondered if the new semi-celebrity addition to the neighborhood was such a hot idea or not. Cookie sales, not withstanding.

Heero was suddenly rubbing soothing circles in the middle of my back, his breakfast forgotten. 'Duo? What is it?'

I turned to give him the disbelieving raised eyebrow look, finding his own expression a little more upset than the situation warranted, though it made it kind of confusing about why he was questioning me. If he got the upset... why was he questioning my upset? The man, sometimes, is damn hard to read.

'You are totally not getting the rumor mill aspects of this whole thing, are you?' I asked with a sigh. 'Our whole neighborhood just got grilled by professional movie extras. We're either going to have a rash of hate mail, or every Tom, Dick, and Tikemeyer is going to be finding an excuse to ring our doorbell to see if they can get a clue what's going on.'

The hand rubbing my back hesitated and Heero managed to look vaguely confused, he opened his mouth to reply, but then seemed to think better of it. I rolled my eyes in disgust.

'You know,' I had to tell him. 'For a detective type of guy, sometimes you really just don't think things through, Heero. What do you think the neighbors thought that was all about? A background check for a job interview? Popularity poll? Practical joke?'

Trowa chuckled at me and I glanced away from Heero and found Trowa and Quatre looking at me funny too. Trowa kind of smug, and Quatre kind of... weirdly warm. Affectionate? I suddenly didn't want to know. I turned back to Heero and his confusion was lifting, but his new expression wasn't any easier to understand, but it weirdly echoed Quatre's. I've over-used that word, haven't I? But weird is the only thing I can say to describe that moment. They were just being... weird. I thought Quatre was going to hug me, and I didn't even know why. I decided to finish my bacon and worry about it later.

'So does that mean we can go home now?' I ventured, deciding to take the news in the best light. 'Or,' I suddenly hesitated. 'It's Thursday, isn't it? Shouldn't we be going to work?'

Trowa laughed right the hell out loud, pushing his plate away and giving up on breakfast entirely. 'I'm pretty sure getting kidnapped gets you a day or two off work,' he said.

'You don't know my boss,' I replied. 'He'll just want to know why I didn't come in for half a day, since I was... unkidnapped yesterday morning.'

I was going to have to come up with a better word before I did go back to work though; kidnapped sounded so... Victorian. Abducted? Somehow that just implied aliens. I'd have to work on it.

'Griff has been kept... apprised,' Heero interjected quietly. 'You don't have to go back to work until you're ready.'

'I wouldn't mind blowing off the rest of today at least,' I had to admit. 'Kind of want to go down to the infirmary and check on Wufei and Sally. Though I want to go home for some damn clothes first.'

Whatever had been bugging Heero seemed to wash away and he let a smile overtake him. 'I think I'd like to go home too.'

'Great!' I quipped, pushing away from the table 'Let's blow this pop stand!'

'Pop stand?' Quatre asked, trying to decide if he'd just been insulted or not. I laughed at him, stopping to tousle his hair, then on impulse leaned down to give him a teasing, sloppy kiss on the cheek.

'It's an expression, baby brother, don't get your knickers in a wad,' I said, meaning to breeze by and make that my exit, but he suddenly had an arm tossed awkwardly around my shoulders and I was left little choice but to stop. It was an attempt at that hug I'd felt coming on, and it was accompanied by a weird... there's that word again... little hitch in his breath.

'Hey,' I soothed, squatting down by his chair where I could get a better idea of what was going on. I think I got it when I got a good look at his face. 'I'm ok,' I told him gently and he gave me this watery little smile.

'You really are, aren't you?' he asked, but it wasn't really a question and he didn't wait for an answer, just took the opportunity offered by my new position and gave me a real hug.

It was a... peculiar moment that left me feeling, all the way out of the mansion, like I'd missed something, but I never did figure out what. I guess the week had been as rough on him as it had been on the rest of us, even if he'd had the resources to make things happen instead of having to just twiddle his thumbs and wait.

And for the record, he did finally think to offer me some clothes, but by that time we were on our way home anyway, and I was less than a half an hour from my own wardrobe and it just seemed... kind of pointless. So I left the Winner mansion the same way I came in... shoeless and in my spiffy aqua jammies.

And I'm pretty sure it was only my imagination that made me see curtains moving aside and people peeking out of every house within five blocks of our own, but I'm not positive.

I was surprised to see my own car parked out front... Quatre and 'the boys' really had thought of everything. Oddly, it was that small touch that really made me feel... not 'all right' about the whole thing, but more like the invasion of our home was something thoughtful from a friend and less like something that made me want to squirm.

It was such a relief to walk through our own front door, that I even ignored the shiny new key Heero had to use to do it. There was a new access code for the alarm system too, which just seemed like over-kill to me; not like I'd had the old one written down in my wallet or something. It had never been compromised anyway. But I suppose I couldn't blame anybody for being thorough.

Never mind how it kind of made me feel like... a civilian. That's not quite right, but you know what I mean? Like... if it had been any of the other guys, they'd have never fallen for that lame ass bait and switch with the soda bottle? The whole episode just made me feel... soft. Like I'd lost some edge. It just wasn't an edge I'd missed before then. Not like I ever wanted to feel like a 'soldier' again, but I guess I just didn't much like the idea of feeling like a liability either.

Quatre's men had been as discreet as possible while still being their meticulous selves; the house didn't look ransacked at all, but there was just a vague air of... wrongness about the place. I'll admit, if I hadn't known they'd been there, it would have taken me a bit before I noticed. But things were just oh so slightly not how we left them. A picture sitting more to the left than normal. A book that had been left on the coffee table face down, was face up. Couch cushions ever so slightly out of kilter, obviously having been lifted and checked under.

I wandered into our little dining room, automatically reaching out to shift a chair back into place, Heero trailing after me. 'It's creepy,' I said unnecessarily.

'I know,' Heero replied, and he sounded almost... guilty. I kept walking, going into the kitchen, kind of wishing I hadn't said anything.

When we came up beside the phone, the light on the answering machine was blinking and I paused to check the display that registered one message waiting to be played. I punched the button and listened to the automated voice tell me it had come in Monday afternoon.

'Duo...' Heero muttered, but his tinny, recorded voice had already started to play.

'Duo? Duo if you're there, please pick up,' it said, and it was a jolt to hear his voice all tight and contained, an edge of panic in it. 'God, please be there...' that voice continued, sounding almost like it was talking to itself, and that was when Heero reached around me and hit the delete button.

'Sorry,' he muttered sheepishly, and I turned to lean my head against his.

'I'm sorry I put you through that,' I told him gently and he slipped his arms around my waist, sighing softly.

He hesitated for a moment, picking his way through all the faults and sorrys and regrets to settle on, 'I'm just glad you're all right.'

It made me grin. 'Me too,' I agreed, and managed to keep it to that, cutting off all the one-liners that sprang to mind about smithereened and moldering bones. I've learned that Heero just doesn't quite get that level of my sense of humor.

We separated and continued the walk through the house, having to take stock ourselves, and just verify that there weren't any spooks hiding behind any doors or anything. Not that we didn't have faith in Abdul and his boys, but... it just helped settle nerves.

The tour ended in our bedroom where I stripped out of the damn scrubs, dumping them in the dirty clothes basket even though I wasn't sure what I was going to do with them. I wondered if I ought to return them to the hospital and started to ask Heero's opinion, but was stopped when I turned that way and he caught hold of my hand. His touch was light, gentle in a way that said 'careful', and I realized he was taking inventory of all the little hurts. The wrappings on my wrists made them painfully obvious, but the bruising on my ankles and the various other bumps and scrapes had been hidden before then. The place where I'd ripped out the IV was, oddly, the most shocking looking and surprised us both; it had darkened overnight.

'You're really all right?' he asked me, and I smiled, slipping my arms around his neck, incidentally hiding most of the damage from him.

'Fine,' I assured him, and he kissed me lightly since I was right there in his face anyway. 'Humiliated, as much as anything,' I confessed, trying a bit of teasing, just to see if he was ready, but he didn't rise to the bait, just sliding his arms around me, pulling me in close and moving us across the room. The naked/not naked thing was making me feel a little weird, but before I could do anything about his state of over-dress, he had us tumbled down on the bed and it was obvious he wasn't really thinking amorous thoughts anyway. In typical Heero fashion... he was after the details.

For the next hour, he pulled at me with questions, and I rather surprised myself with a sudden need to clear some of it out of my head. I had thought I just wanted to forget about the whole bloody thing, but I found myself telling him all the damning little bits, skipping only the parts that involved ghosts and chain mail and other things that go bump in the night. We started out with me lying between his thighs, my head propped on my arms folding across the middle of his chest, hands relatively free to gesture as needed, but somehow, when we got to the cold and scary, 'oh shit' parts, I found myself lying under him, as though he could hide me away from it all. And I could see in his eyes that he got all the levels of that 'scary', just like Trowa had. It bothered me a little bit, almost like he could see those moments where I'd given in to the panic. But he somehow made a haven out of nothing but the two of us, wrapped up together. This web of safety and warmth that drew whispered confessions from me until it was all spilled out for him to see. Almost all. I didn't confess that the ghost of my dead brother had kept me company, I didn't confess that I sometimes saw motivational rodents. And I didn't confess to being so far gone that I'd cried.

He's seen it all from me, since that accident in the belt, so he knows all the holes in my dignity, but some things... you aren't required by law to share.

When he ran out of questions, and I ran out of story, I wasn't much surprised to find that there was room in my head to think about our position. To think about how, if those damn pants of his weren't where they were, that I would only have to tilt my hips just so, and he was right where he needed to be. It was a realization that came fast and hot, and had me hard in a moment. I pulled my legs up, wrapping around him, the denim of his jeans rough under my heels, rougher against other things, tilting to meet him anyway, even though clothes were in the way of it. It made him hiss after a lost breath and his body thrust helplessly against mine, utterly uncaring of barriers and obstructions. I tugged vainly at his shirt, wanting the touch of skin, wanting to not be the only naked man in our bed any more. Heero pulled away, rising up to pull his shirt off, his gaze raking over me in an entirely different way than he'd been looking at me earlier. His shirt tossed off to the side, his hands dropped down and tugged the button free on his jeans and that was the exact instant that his cell phone began to ring.

I had this bizarre moment of incomprehension, my brain somehow convinced that button popping free was what had caused the sound.

We froze, the moment utterly shattered. We were both familiar with his ring codes enough that he didn't need to tell me, but he did anyway, voice a melting pot of frustration, exasperation, and resignation. 'It's Relena.'

'You need to answer it,' I told him, and managed a wry little smile that made him able to pull the phone out of his pocket and not bite the poor girl's head off.

'Yuy,' he said into the receiver, managing to only sound tired and not angry with her. For a long moment, his attention was still on me, even while he listened, his eyes full of regret. But I could hear the vague upset in the voice coming over the phone and his focus shifted reluctantly away.

'Wait, Relena,' he said after a moment, and he lifted his head to look up at the ceiling and I'm not sure if he was asking for patience from the higher powers, or just needed to not be looking at my naked self all sprawled out under him in order to concentrate. On another day, I'd have probably nibbled on his bicep or something; just to see if he could keep his focus, but... well... it just hadn't been that kind of week. 'Just where are you?' he finally asked, and the explanation he got was long winded and made him sit back on his heels.

I gathered myself, feeling weirdly vulnerable all of a sudden, and sat up beside him, dragging a pillow over into my lap. I couldn't hear much, but the sound of her voice was obviously not happy. I caught something about the Preventers and something about Zechs, though she called him Milliardo.

After a few minutes Heero cut her off. 'Ok Relena, calm down. Let me make some calls and I'll be there as soon as I can.'

'We,' I muttered, and he either didn't hear me, or wasn't inclined to argue. I went ahead and got up to fetch clothes just in case he tried to ditch me with the whole 'naked' thing as an excuse, and got dressed while he finished the call.

When he snapped the phone closed it was with a heavy sigh that was more... tired sounding than truly worried.

'What's up?' I asked when he didn't immediately tell me anything, and I got another one of those sighs that seemed to radiate up all the way from the soles of his feet.

'Sometimes,' he said slowly. 'I think there are just a few too many groups around here with their hands in the security pot.'

I sat down beside him on the bed, snagging his shirt on the way and handed it to him before bending to put on my shoes and socks. 'Bodyguard competitiveness?' I prompted and he let out a little snort of a sound.

'I'm not even sure,' he said, rubbing a hand over his face. 'Preventers had both Relena and Zechs secure, but she says they're moving back into the estate and she's not even sure who authorized it. But Zechs is on-board a hundred percent, so she claims nobody is listening to her objections.'

'That... seems unlikely,' I ventured, trying to imagine the Queen of Allshesurveys being ignored by anybody.

'Unfortunately,' Heero grumbled. 'She tends not to really voice her objections when Zechs is involved.'

'So...uh,' I hesitated on the wording, not wanting to offend, but having a bit of trouble getting my head around the part where, 'we're going back out to mediate a case of sibling rivalry?'

I got a laugh out of him and he finally stopped fiddling with his shirt and pulled it back on. 'Yeah,' he had to agree. 'I guess that's about the size of it.' Once his shirt was on though, we just kept sitting there and I turned slightly to look at him.

He gave me a drawn little smile that was about midway between miserable and sheepish. 'God, I'm so sorry...'

I leaned in and dropped a kiss somewhere near the corner of his mouth. 'There will be time later, husband-mine.'

It made him smile in a way that was all warm and soft, and he leaned into my arms for a long moment that was pure indulgence on his part. He doesn't allow himself many of those moments, so I just held him until he made the move to pull away.

'Come on, Sancho,' I grinned then. 'Let's go tilt at the windmill for the lady.'

He just snorted, but climbed to his feet and pulled me to mine. 'I...' he began, and gave my hand a squeeze. 'You don't have to go, but I...'

I spared him the search for phrasing. 'Try and stop me.' I think he was relieved, at the same time that he managed to look guilty. I suppose it was a toss up between him wanting to keep an eye on me, and not wanting to drag me back across the city.

All my stuff was still in some evidence bag somewhere, but Quatre had anticipated that and Heero had a second set of the new house keys that he handed over to me when we stopped on the way out for him to teach me the new alarm code.

Heero used the drive over to place various calls to various folks in charge of various phases of security. Uttering various curses when he was done.

'Not part of the master plan?' I had to prompt and he let out a rather explosive snort of derision.

'Politics,' he grumbled, sounding like the word tasted bad. 'The Sanq counsel is concerned about... appearances. The colony heads are pushing to finish out the summit. Une is... hedging her bets. She seems to privately agree that the danger is over, but publicly she's opposed.'

'Is that what's feeding Relena's...' I searched for a more polite term, but couldn't find one, so I just tried to make it sound teasing, 'hysterics?'

I sensed the side-long glance, but didn't look across to meet it, so I was able to ignore it. 'Probably,' he finally admitted, letting my wording go.

'And what do you think?' I asked, his being the pertinent opinion, if you asked me.

He didn't answer immediately, mulling it over before admitting, 'I'm not sure I can be... clinical on this one.' I did turn his way then, but he was the one studiously not looking. Even in profile, I could plainly see an expression best described as pained. I reached out to rest my hand on his thigh, the look eased, and he sighed. 'They're... amateur. Their plan was flawed, the execution was mistimed, and they were cocky. We identified and captured the first one within the first twenty-four hours. We had the second one not long after we had your sketch. They folded under questioning pretty quickly after that, and it's just been mop up.'

'So,' I had to ask, 'just what the hell is their agenda, anyway? Do we know?'

He snorted, a sound that held a little bit of disbelief. 'They call themselves the Sons of Adam... the 'planet's care-takers'. They're an animal rights group protesting the exporting of wildlife to the colonies.'

I felt a little bit of that disbelief myself. 'You're shitting me, right?' I blurted, even knowing that Heero doesn't joke like that. 'Are you saying they targeted me because of that stupid export job?'

'Seems to have been incidental,' he said, his hands working at the wheel as though he were thinking about getting to squeeze somebody's throat. 'They went after you to distract Wufei and me; you were right about that part. The plan was to kidnap Relena to leverage through boycotts on exports.' He worked at a few more things, lips parting on words that died still-born more than once before settling on, 'Damn bunch of idiots.'

'The zealots usually are,' I agreed simply, and let it go so he had time to calm down because we were almost at our destination. I hate when bad people get hold of good causes. Or at least... reasonable causes. Doesn't really matter if you have a valid point, once you try to kill somebody to make it.

Since we were getting close, I pulled out my gloves and began putting them on, and got the expected little sigh of protest from my partner.

'Heero, we've been over it,' I chided. 'You know how she feels.'

'I know,' he had to admit and made himself stop, though I could hear the objections he was biting back on in his tone. I flexed my hands as I worked the fingerless gloves in place, oddly struck by how uncomfortable I found them. I tried to remember the last time I'd worn them, and decided it had probably been at the gallery opening. It rather surprised me that it had been that long... it had actually taken me a moment to find the things, back at the house.

We drove in silence for a bit before he finally spoke again, going back to the original question. 'I'm pretty sure the whole thing is over, I guess it just makes me feel like I'm being cocky to admit that.'

I chuckled at him. 'You know... deep down you don't believe there's any more danger, or I wouldn't be along for the ride.'

I could tell the statement gave him pause and when he smiled at me, it was a little shamefaced. 'I guess you're right,' he admitted, and he did seem to relax at bit.

'We'll go in, pat the Princess's pretty little hand, you do your security Nazi thing, and then we'll drive through Mr. Bucket for lunch.'

I finally got a real laugh out of him, though I wasn't sure for which part. 'What?' he had to ask. 'Mr. Bucket again so soon?'

'It's been... days,' I hedged, not even sure. 'And I've had a damn craving for a chicken sandwich that nobody will indulge.'

He just shook his head. 'Sounds like a plan, just...'

'I know,' I sighed. 'No calling her Princess to her face.'

'Actually,' he drawled, quirking a grin that was a touch self-deprecating. 'I was going to tell you not to mention where we're eating unless you want a lecture on cholesterol.'

It was my turn to laugh, so I did... though the image of Relena lecturing us about our diet was just kind of creepy.

Relena's place... the Darlien place, I suppose you'd call it, was just as shiny and crystalline as I remembered... and the site of total chaos.

There were Preventers at the gate and household security at the door. Servants carting belongings in, orders being issued and countermanded... two minutes inside the place and I was overcome with this overwhelming urge to laugh right the hell out loud.

Off in a corner of my mind a troupe of little performing hamsters were reenacting the scene with a Three Stooges bent, pointing and gesturing wildly, plowing into each other and falling on their asses. I bit my cheek and just tried to look... attentive.

We were approached by a frazzled looking guy in a black suit that just screamed 'Security!' who seemed relieved to see Heero making an appearance. He was wearing a spiffy ear piece and he handed one over to Heero without being prompted. I opened my mouth to make some crack about him always getting to play with the cool tech stuff, when the guy handed one to me too.

I grinned and accepted it before Heero had a chance to set the man straight. Guess the guy was used to seeing Heero with a partner and assumed I was the replacement until Wufei got out of the infirmary. I imagined he'd be hearing about it at some point.

'Come on man,' I grinned when the guy had moved off to question some maid about the contents of a bag she was carrying in. 'I promise I won't sing dirty pub songs or anything... I just want to hear you work.'

He snorted at me, putting his own unit in place. 'You'll be sorry... it's like having a half a dozen bees yammering in your ear for attention.'

'Just because you get to play with the neat toys all the time...' I began, but could tell he was already tuning into the radio chatter. I looked my own ear piece over, finding the volume control and making sure the 'talk' part was muted so I wouldn't be broadcasting my snarky comments to the room at large, then slipped it on.

I was immediately assaulted by a cacophony of the same voices that were all around us, and I winced, turning the volume down. Heero smirked at me.

'...has the kitchen been cleared for...'

'...Browder, report to the third floor lounge...'

'...I need somebody out at the front to relieve...'

'...Merquise? Your wife is on the land line...'

I think that last one was the last straw, and Heero reached up to press his own 'talk' button. 'Ok people; cut the chatter. The radio is reserved for security issues.'

There was an immediate cease of all talk, like a room full of kids who got caught by Daddy with their hand in the cookie jar.

It made me wonder... do you eat Girl Scout cookies out of the package? Because we didn't own a cookie jar. I started to ask, but then decided I might just strip Heero's mental gears, and the poor guy acted like he'd been running full throttle for days, and probably didn't need the distraction.

The radio silence lasted all of about fifteen seconds, until somebody figured out the voice of authority belonged to Heero... excuse me; Agent Yuy, and then the demands for attention started.

Heero brought a hand to the small of my back, herding me with him through the foyer while he fielded questions and gave directives, sparing me an apologetic little smile.

I think it was about then that Relena spotted us. It was a weird kind of moment; Relena Darlien-Peacecraft... Peacecraft-Darlien? has been through a lot in her life, I suppose. The loss of her family when she was so young that most of it was lost to vague sparks of toddler memory. Hell, from what Heero has told me, she didn't even know she was a Peacecraft until the first war, when her adoptive father was killed. But through it all, she'd been raised to be a diplomat. Raised to live in the public eye as part of being a member of an influential family. The girl knows how to do poised. She knows how to do grace and manner.

But when we heard her voice calling Heero's name in relieved greeting, and turned toward that grand staircase to see her on the bottom step, I was struck not by her comportment, but by the look in her eyes.

Do we all have an inner child? Am I not the only person in the world who has a little kid living in their head that sometimes just wants a cookie?

I recalled a conversation during a certain trip to L2 about reliance and trust. About leaning on people. The little kid in Relena's head was running across that foyer and throwing herself into Heero's arms.

Adult Relena managed to keep it to a brisk walk and a brief hand-clasp.

Surprised the hell out of me though, when her first words were to me.

'Duo!' she had to ask, all wide-eyed. 'Are you all right? Should you be out?'

It made me chuckle, though a second's thought left me wanting to cringe at the realization that the whole household probably knew what had happened to me.

I'd give a lot to be able to go just a couple of days without being the topic of all the water cooler conversations in the whole damn city.

'I'm fine,' I assured her, ignoring the presence of the bandages around my wrists, though I could see her looking at them and wondering. I wasn't sure if it was squeamishness or breeding that kept her from asking. I felt like I ought to say something more, it somehow felt terse, but nothing much was coming to mind. But then she was overtaken with this guilty expression and suddenly didn't seem to know which of us to turn to.

'I'm so sorry I bothered you,' she told one of us, or both of us, I couldn't tell. 'But Milliardo and Lady Une just... well, sometimes they just don't seem to...'

Whatever they didn't seem to, there must not have been a politically correct way of wording it, because she just petered out and looked imploringly at Heero, seeming to ask him to understand. And he did, because he let out with a snort of almost disgust and all but rolled his eyes.

'Rivals to the end,' he muttered and she blushed lightly, but nodded. I had a feeling I was missing a whole hell of a lot, but decided it didn't really matter. The gist was, they didn't get along, and that was probably enough knowledge to follow the conversation. Relieved of explaining herself, Relena went on.

'When we began to relocate, barely twenty-four hours after the evacuation, I couldn't help but think it was...' she hesitated, and gave a quick glance around, looking for Zechs, I presumed, or maybe making sure none of the scurrying employees were within earshot, 'just Milliardo wanting to go against Preventers orders.'

I kind of decided in that moment, that it was probably a good thing Relena and Zechs didn't normally live under the same roof. Heero dropped an arm around her shoulders and gave her a reassuring squeeze. 'He has his pig-headed moments,' he agreed, 'but he'd never endanger you, just to irritate Une.'

She gave him a wan little smile and allowed the little kid to lean into the hug. 'I know,' she admitted, somewhat grudgingly, from the tone. 'It just all happened so fast, and I couldn't seem to find out who actually authorized anything.'

'Let me go talk to Milliardo,' Heero said, already scanning the room, looking for the good Prince of starched shirts and leather. I realized he was about to leave me making small talk with Relena - again - about two seconds before he reached out and brushed apologetic fingers down my arm.

'You be all right for a few minutes?' is what he asked and I wanted to roll my eyes at him. All right, yes... happy, not so much.

'I'm fine,' I told him anyway, because I may not have breeding, but I do have manners. They might have been learned at the business end of a ruler, but I had them all the same. I watched him walk away, hearing him ask for Zechs' presence in my right ear. I wanted to say something smart-ass about him using the radio for a non-security issue, but I guess it's just one of the perks of being at the top of the pecking order. You make the rules, so they don't apply to you.

I was trying to think of a nice safe topic of conversation, when Relena took the ball out of my hands. Assuming I'd ever had it in the first place.

'You don't like him very much, do you?' she said, standing there with her hands folded and watching Heero walk away too. I knew darn well we weren't talking about my lover.

'What?' I began, blinking at her and trying to think of an evasion that wouldn't have me choking on my own tongue. But she didn't really look all that pissed off, just vaguely curious, so I swallowed what probably would have been a lame attempt, and sighed. 'I guess I can't quite get over that whole stupid 'duel' thing.'

She glanced at me, seeming kind of confused. 'Duel? That's not what most people hold against him.'

I couldn't contain the snort, and my manners apparently took a hike to boot. 'Guess most people aren't... cohabitating with the guy he was doing that whole 'to the death' thing with.'

She just managed to contain a little giggle, lifting a hand to her mouth to do it, and looking entirely too much like a little girl.

'What?' I muttered.

'It's sweet,' she said, blushing faintly and having to look away again, eyes following the path of a man with a bag of groceries, for lack of anything else to watch.

'Don't get me wrong,' I grumbled. 'Not like I don't think that whole Armageddon plan wasn't a bit on the psychotic side, but I can't seem to get past what he put Heero through.' It came out sounding harsher than I'd intended and I ducked my head, rubbing at the back of my neck. 'Sorry... I know he's your brother and all.'

'I suppose he is,' she said, gaze sweeping across the room and voice kind of weirdly wistful.

I chuckled. 'You don't sound so sure... thinking of a DNA test?'

It amused her, I saw it in the twitch of her lips, but she quickly tamped down on it and tried for something a little more disdainful, a look I was more than familiar with. Then that morphed too, and she just looked kind of sad. 'We're... family because we work at it, but I... really don't even remember him. He says he remembers me, but I wonder sometimes how much.'

I looked around too, as though I might see the wayward Prince, and had to think about what something like that would be like. 'It must be hard having a... virtual stranger, suddenly having so much say in your life.'

The comment made her jerk her head around, and she stared at me for a minute. 'Nobody has ever realized that before,' she said softly, and there was something in her voice I couldn't identify. Surprise, maybe? Or maybe just frustration that it was me, of all people, that got it? I couldn't tell. But then she was looking away again and blushing hotly.

'It stands to reason,' I shrugged. 'Zechs is a... take-charge sort of guy. And used to having people follow his orders without question.'

'I'm not one of his damn soldiers,' she hissed, and I really don't think she had meant to let it slip out. The tops of her ears were so red, I took pity and let it pass, pretending not to have heard.

'Heero was right; this thing really is kind of annoying,' I said, fiddling with my earpiece and letting her think the radio chatter had drowned out her words.

'How did you...' she began, looking up at the thing with a funny little frown and it made me wonder if maybe they wouldn't let her have one.

'I think somebody assumed I was Heero's partner,' I admitted, hoping I wasn't going to get the poor guy in the suit in trouble. 'And I didn't bother to set them straight.'

She made a little harrumphing sound and frowned more, and it made me grin. 'You want to listen for a bit?'

The little kid was in her eyes again even while the rest of her was demurely declining. In my mind's eye, I envisioned a stern and pompous Zechs patting her head and telling her to be a good girl while he went off and played soldier. I ignored her protests and pulled the thing off, warning her where the 'talk' button was, then fit it over her ear. Her expression went from embarrassed to exultant to guilty to curious all in a flash and I couldn't help leaning in and saying in a low tone so nobody else would hear, 'Come on, Princess... a little rebellion now and again is good for the soul.'

Riding her little wave of guilt, it made her laugh, but she squelched it pretty quickly and I got a weirdly calculating look. I think I caught her by surprise again.

It really made me stop and wonder just what her life was like, if something as simple as getting to listen in on the security net was such a rush for her. She forgot I was there for a minute, her focus going inward to the voices in her ear, head cocked slightly with eyes unfocused. It made me wish I had my sketch pad with me.

I wondered for the first time if that trip to L2 had taken place as easily as it had, because her Highness had secretly wanted it to happen. Because really, looking around at all the security and the people whose very livelihoods were tied up with one family's existence... that little adventure never should have happened. Maybe the poor kid had just wanted out for a while, and I had been an excuse that made the whole thing... not her fault. She could justify a couple of weeks away because it hadn't been a 'vacation', she'd been doing her best to... what? Deal with a publicity incident? I wondered just how she'd spun the whole thing to her brother and her security detail.

'Duo?' Relena suddenly said, interrupting my musings. 'Do you... want to sit down somewhere?'

'What?' I asked, wondering if I'd done something to make her think I was feeling... puny.

'You just must be tired,' she ventured, all weird hesitation, looking at me searchingly like she was trying to see some sign of my ordeal.

'I'm fine,' I told her, thinking that it would serve me well to just get a button or something to wear. Maybe a name badge; Hi! I'm Duo Maxwell, and... I'm fine!

She got a funny little frown then, that searching look going intense. 'You're not doing that stupid... macho thing again, are you?'

I stared at her for so long, trying to think of a reply that her frown kind of crumbled and she looked away, blushing brightly again. 'Sorry,' she mumbled. 'That was... rude.'

I snorted. 'Probably not in light of my track record,' I admitted. 'But no... I don't think I've been particularly macho at all for the last couple of days.'

She glanced back up at me, seeming surprised that I wasn't irritated at her for the remark and met my smile with a tentative one of her own. 'So... what happened?'

I understood the notion of a press conference in that moment, and wondered just how many more times I was going to have to tell the story. 'It was pretty lame, really,' I told her, ducking my head and looking down at my Nikes. 'They drugged me and hauled me away like a load of turnips. I was actually kind of embarrassed.'

She touched my arm and gave me a sympathetic look. 'In that moment right before you pass out?'

It took me a second, then I laughed out loud, a couple of the servants looking at me oddly. 'Yeah... right then; I think my last thought was that Heero was gonna kill me!'

She burst out with a laugh almost as loud as mine. 'Me too!'

I'm not sure where the conversation might have led from there, but we both heard the voice of the man in question and looked up to see him coming down the grand staircase with Zechs and his entourage in tow. I hadn't even known Zechs had an entourage, but there were about four guys in suits that managed to look like uniforms ranged around the guy like a pack of damn hunting dogs, the blue glow of earpieces on every one of them, and tell-tale bulges under their jackets. I'd bet money they saluted Zechs and called him sir and would probably eat out of dog dishes if he told them too. I managed by sheer force of will not to roll my eyes.

Zechs looked... miffed somehow, and Heero looked irritated. The four horsemen didn't look anything at all. Stoic, maybe.

The guy in the lead who had been sweeping his gaze over the foyer, I'd swear, in a damn pattern, reached the bottom of the stairs and his attention seemed to stick on us. I saw him reach up to his radio and he said something I couldn't make out. Beside me Relena stiffened and sighed. I looked at her and found her mirth all gone and a somewhat resigned look on her face.

'What'd he say?' I asked and she glanced that way before replying.

'Wanted to know why 'the target' was out of her room,' she replied and couldn't manage to keep the bitterness out of her voice. I realized that she was keeping her right side turned away from them, so the group wouldn't see her own blue glowing headset.

'They... locked you in your room?' I blurted before I had a chance to think up better wording.

'Like I was twelve years old!' she hissed tersely, the irritation plain on her face for a second before she smoothed it away. Almost surreptitiously, she reached up and plucked the communicator from her ear and slipped it into my hand. My fingers closed around it automatically, and she gave me a crookedly little smile. 'They wouldn't let me keep it anyway, but... thank you for letting me...'

She didn't quite know what it was she was thanking me for, so I finished the sentence for her. 'Play?' It made her wrinkle her nose in an admission of sorts.

Those manners of hers kicked in then and she touched my arm lightly. 'It was... nice talking with you, Duo,' she said and not only sounded like she meant it, but that it surprised her. Then she walked off to meet her captor... uh... escort, and they began the walk up the stairs. She went with her head up, walking sedately, as if the guy wasn't tailing her every move.

Had it been me, I'd have had my hands mock cuffed behind my back and turned it into a theatrical event, but I suppose Relena's way was more dignified.

I watched them reach the top of the stairs and turn to the right and just as they disappeared, a tinny little sound from my left hand made me jump, and I had to chuckle self-consciously. I'd forgotten the stupid radio. I almost stuffed the thing in my pocket, feeling a little weird about having it again... like I'd taken a cool toy away from some other kid on the playground. But then I realized that Heero hadn't come across the foyer and wasn't in sight. So I slipped it back on, to see if I could catch what was being said and tell where he'd gone.

The tinny voice turned out to be Zechs and I couldn't help a grin while my mind made 'tin' jokes. Tin man... Tin plated... Tin God... He came clear while I was fitting the radio back in place. '...done, report back to me in the ballroom, Simcoe.'

But then all was forgotten when the Simcoe guy responded... and I recognized his voice. 'Yes, Commander Peacecraft,' was all he said, but it was enough.

Relena had just gotten escorted to her room by the missing third man.

I think the resultant firing of electrical impulses in my brain fried every hamster I owned... I went through half a dozen possible courses of action inside of that first lurching heartbeat, then charged up the stairs after them.

I had very little to go on; I just knew that Relena was about to be alone in her room, God knew how far into the gilded palace, with a guy who had attempted to blow me into the next life without so much as a regretful sigh.

Plan A was grab Heero and go get the asshole, but Heero was not in sight and I didn't know if I dared waste the time hunting for him; there were a dozen routes out of that foyer and I had no idea which way he'd gone.

Plan B was to holler for Heero over the spiffy security radio, but since the bad guy was on the same damn channel... bad idea.

Plan C was some vague notion of grabbing the first Darlien employee I passed and get them to go find Heero. But the long explanation about just why they had to move fast, keep calm, and be discreet... would have taken just as long as finding Heero myself. Last thing I needed was for some maid to go shrieking through the palace in hysterics and alert the guy that I was on to him.

So we went with Plan D which was just an even vaguer 'don't leave Relena alone with the scary man' idea, then... something would present itself. I hoped.

Thankfully, they were still in sight when I topped the stairs and I didn't have to go racing down the labyrinth of halls chasing after them. As it was, my sudden appearance behind them, made tall, dark and pony-tailed reach a hand under his jacket. I chose to pretend to be a total civilian and to not get the implication.

'Hey Princess,' I called cheerfully as I caught up with them. 'Heero says he's going to be a while yet, so I thought I could work on that sketch we talked about while we wait.'

Simcoe looked less than thrilled, making sure he gave me plenty of room in the wide hallway to get past him to catch up to Relena, thus thwarting my tentative plan D and a half. If I could have gotten in behind him close enough, I'd have just taken his ass out and asked questions later. Though he didn't seem all that suspicious, he was a wary son of a bitch, and I had to settle for just getting myself between him and Relena.

'Sketch?' Relena asked, sounding uncertain, and I grabbed hold of her hand, trying for plan D and three quarters.

'I know it's short notice,' I blurted out, mind going a mile a minute. 'But I'm here and we've obviously got the time.' I gave a tug, trying to head her back toward the front of the house. 'Let's just go down and rustle up some paper and some pencils. Then we can go on up to your room.'

I really think she sensed something was up, because she was frowning slightly, but Simcoe seemed to intimidate her and she glanced his way instead of following my lead. 'I don't know...' she began, and gave the guy his opening.

'Commander Peacecraft's orders are for you to return to a secure room, Miss,' he said, looking more unhappy by the moment. Getting to hear him speak again just cemented it in my mind though. I knew I wasn't wrong.

'Ok then,' I agreed, turning us back around. 'We'll just ring for a maid or something, and have it sent up.' I didn't want to piss the guy off and force him into a move if I could help it. He seemed to relax once we were moving in the direction he wanted again, and there was just no doubt in my mind that something bad was going to happen once we got there.

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