Caveat + Part 17
'I can't believe I was so stupid,' he said rigidly. 'Incredibly stupid. How could I miss this?'
'Beat yourself up later,' Sally told him, clapping him on the shoulder. 'And tell me again what he said about--'
'He said he wasn't staring down at the street waiting to catch me.' Zechs glared grimly at the bloodstain on his carpet. The apartment was swarming with Preventers, but it felt still to Zechs, ominously empty. 'I thought at first he must mean a camera. He told me he set up Yuy's equipment. I assumed it meant just the computers. I missed that, too. But I don't think it was a new camera. I think he meant Heero's old camera. The one that captured a tall, blond man--'
'Zechs.' She drew him to the bedroom, the one space not currently overrun with his co-workers. Hydra, working in the connected bath, took one look at their Director and shut the door. 'Sit for a minute,' Sally told Zechs. 'Get your breath. Get your head on straight.'
He obeyed that. He sat on the edge of his bed, still neatly made the way Duo had left it. He wiped a spot of sweat from his temple, and inhaled deeply. 'I made a mistake,' he said. 'A very large and very bad mistake.'
'Yes.' Sally sat next to him. 'All right. Let's be honest. You did. But so did I. I shouldn't have thrown FreeSpace at you in the middle of this. And we all thought Olsen would turn around for Sanq and the Princess.'
'My fault, again. I'm the one who assumed it was Wing Zero in that image. I completely overlooked Deathscythe Hell.' He smoothed the crumpled printout he held-- an archived image of Duo's Gundam, bat-wings spread, glowing scythe raised. The outline matched almost perfectly with Olsen's drawings. 'The attacks have been aimed at both of them. All along. Why would I think--'
'Don't start second-guessing your logic. I was in agreement with you every step of the way.'
'I can't be your Deputy,' he admitted, bitter with himself. He'd always hated failure, but this was just so typical of the man he'd thought he'd left behind on Mars. A string of half-baked theories, the arrogant belief that he'd gone exactly as far as he needed to, and no farther. He never made mistakes in little things, no, not Zechs Merquise; Zechs Merquise only made the epic wrongs. There was blood on his carpet, Duo and a Preventer agent missing, and Zechs had let it go unreported for eight hours because he'd assumed he was on top of things.
'It won't look good,' Sally agreed. She sighed. 'But it's not a reason not to do it. In fact, I think it's the best reason yet for you to try. Preventers can't be everything to everybody. We need more people, we need more training, we need a central mission that's defined and narrowed, and we need agents who don't feel torn between conflicting cases. To get that, I need a deputy who really understands the problems we face. If you can get up the guts to admit to a mistake you made because you were tired, strung out, and overloaded, Zechs, I need you to do it in front of the Committee.'
There couldn't be another answer to that. Even if it resulted in a well-deserved censure. 'Yes,' he said. 'I can do it.'
'All right.' She knocked his shoulder. 'Now. Let's figure this out. Staring down at the street trying to catch you.'
With an effort he forced himself to concentrate solely on Duo's clues. 'Yuy had a camera. He was filming the street outside his old apartment. Neptune and I made him stop. After Yuy was deported, Duo collected all his equipment.'
Mamba knocked at the door, and came in when Sally gestured. 'Everything is encrypted,' he reported. 'We got into one of the laptops, but the big PCs--'
'Those are Heero's,' Zechs said.
'They're packing them up for the techs back at HQ. Hydra tried to get into one of them, and it went into a cascade lockdown. They're afraid it will fry the data at any unauthorised access attempts.'
'Gundam Pilots,' Sally muttered. 'God forbid it be easy. What about Duo's computer?'
'He has a bio-lock. They're easier to hack, apparently. Hydra says they can deal with it in Forensics, but there's nothing doing now. No immediate information.'
'So even if there is a camera, we can't view the upload for hours at best.' Zechs rose and walked to the window. He ran his fingers over the frame, but the team had already been over all of that, had already gone over his curtains and his corners. 'I didn't think Duo was that paranoid. He seemed to think it was silly that Heero was. Maybe I underestimated how much Heero's deportation affected him.'
'The terms of their parole bar both of them from purchasing any kind of obviously sensitive equipment,' Mamba pointed out. 'Security cameras should have tripped alarms. Especially anything high-tech enough to be hidden from a good sweep. Hydra didn't find anything when he was here during the protection detail.'
'Any word from Tropic?' Sally asked then.
'None,' Zechs said bitterly. 'Move that to the top of my list of blatant errors. Duo warned me about him.'
'Hey, there could be a good reason,' Mamba began.
Sally cut him off with a flat gesture. 'Not unless he's dead or dying,' she said. 'I personally left him a message demanding he check in. I don't know if I'm willing to believe he's the one who took Yuy's mail and called in the anonymous tip to get Yuy deported--'
'And drugged Duo and kidnapped a fellow agent, not to mention injured one of them,' Zechs added.
'I don't know if I'm willing to believe that entirely,' Sally repeated. 'But I admit I'm ready to sack him for disappearing without leave.' She waved Mamba out and moved to follow him, then turned back to Zechs. 'And before you get locked into blaming one of our own, Zechs, ask yourself what you're basing your theory on. Duo's suspicions aren't good enough.'
'He has a son,' Zechs said. 'And he recognised a Norsk word. He might speak the language.'
'Might? That's not good enough either.'
'What's his real name, Sally? Where is he from? How much of what you think you know about him is confirmed?'
'Director.' It was Cobra, hovering at the door with her partner. 'We just had a call from the Kalmar office,' she said gravely. 'Yuy's gone missing.'
'What?' Zechs demanded. 'What do you mean, missing?'
'He slipped out during the night. Disappeared from a locked and guarded room. They didn't even know he was gone until this morning. They crashed the house into lockdown, but he's gone.'
'What did Relena know?'
'She says nothing,' Cobra answered, and Zechs dismissed that with an angry shake of his head. There was no way Yuy would abandon her without telling her first-- not given the strength of his feelings for her. 'But,' Cobra added, 'she says she's not surprised. She said he got a call last night.'
'From--' Sally raised her eyebrows. 'From Maxwell?'
'That's what the Princess thinks. Yuy didn't say.'
'Find out the number and dump the phone,' Sally ordered. 'I want time and origin of that call. And discreetly put out an APB-- no-- don't do that. God. If he's found outside of Sanq, he'll be arrested again. Just dump the phone for now. Let's see if we can get a timeline out of this. It would tell us what direction they're headed in, anyway. Zechs, you're on point with that.'
He inclined his head. 'Yes, Director.'
'Let's go, people,' Sally said grimly. 'We need a win today.'
'We've got the phone dumps,' Cobra said, leaning over Zechs to put a sheaf of paper on the table. Zechs had it in his hands before it hit the table. 'Maxwell's number isn't anywhere on this. And we did check for your number, too, Wind, but the only calls we had were the ones you'd already disclosed. If Maxwell called Yuy for help, there's no sign of it.'
'So what call did he get?' The lists covered both the Malmö residence landline and the mobile Yuy had been given-- and, Zechs noted, it also covered the mobile Yuy had been known to have in Brussels. Smart. But the only one that had incoming calls was the landline. 'Who would even have known to call them there? There can't be more than a dozen or fifteen who know where Preventers have moved the Princess.'
'We started work on that.' Cobra pulled another sheet from her dossier. 'Two officers in the Sanq Preventers station, plus Orange and Spider. Presumably they had no reason not to stay mum.' She eyed him sideways, when Zechs pulled a face. He'd presumed that Tropic was trustworthy, too. 'At any rate there's no evidence they were leaks. Here's where it's harder to say. They staff at Malmö who opened the place might have guessed why, and if one of them let out even a casual say-so, it could spread. That's six people. Plus the staff who came with the Princess, which adds another two, plus the staff who packed for her and who know now that she's not at the palace in the capitol. We've requested all their possible phone numbers, but it takes time to run that down, and the Sanq office is swamped just dealing with the Princess.'
Zechs gave up the lists in defeat. 'It was a long shot. And, honestly, I'm not sure it ever made sense, that Duo would try to reach Heero. Heero's too far away to help in an emergency. And he had time on the phone with me to pass a message, to scream, anything. He didn't. Your next step wouldn't be trying to call someone in another country, even if that someone is a Gundam Pilot.'
'It doesn't answer for how Yuy knew to go to him.'
'No, it doesn't.'
'They don't have a network here?' Cobra sat next to him slowly. Softly, she said, 'If you tell me anything they're doing illegally, it won't go farther than the two of us. Right now all we want is enough information to find Maxwell and Neptune.'
Zechs scrubbed at his stubbled cheeks, deciding he'd earned that. 'Right now, if I knew anything, I would tell you. But I don't. As far as I know, they never breached the terms of their parole in any significant way. I know Yuy was in contact with the other Pilots in the colonies, or at least with Quatre Winner, but they can't even enter Earth-space without facing an extradition order. As for a network in Brussels-- not that I ever saw. The only people they had contact with were local services and a few acquaintances who've all checked out.'
She sighed. 'So another penny for the wishing well. You know, sometimes I wish people didn't live so quietly. Then at least we'd have clues.'
Mamba arrived, knocking on the side of Zechs' cubicle. 'We were able to get Tropic's file. I'm running down a few confirmations, but so far it looks like a cover. He came in early from the Johannesburg group and we didn't have the same level of scrutiny in those days. It looks like they did a casual sweep on his background check and didn't follow up on the irregularities.'
Mamba took the space that they shifted to give him, and laid out the folder. It was a blue-covered, two-sided employment form, with the usual paperwork, but Mamba had been flagging items, and now it bristled with sticky notes. 'Like the fact that a man with his name disappeared in action, in April 195, from his unit in Order of the Zodiac.'
'He was in OZ?' That surprised Zechs. Then made him wary. His had been a well-known face and a well-known name. If Tropic had been in OZ, then Tropic would have known him. But had never said anything, nor ever betrayed any hints that he knew.
'Maybe he was, and maybe he wasn't. Because the man with his name who disappeared didn't turn up again until Tropic joined the Johannesburg unit, in early 197.'
'A cover story. Stealing an identity from someone assumed dead, who can never contradict you.'
'It's at least a possibility. It's been known to happen. Just not usually within Preventers.'
'They would have fingerprinted--' Cobra turned the page to light of Zechs' desk lamp. 'Ferrins Meijer for the military. If Tropic isn't Ferrins Meijer, there's forensic proof.'
Mamba shrugged, and took Tropic's chair. 'OZ wiped out zettabytes of data held by Alliance servers during the coup. And even if they did save any of it, their own servers got wiped after Libra.'
'Heero Yuy could probably tell us that. He's the one who was always looking for secret information.' Zechs rubbed his eyes. 'Any mention in that file of family?'
'A couple of old girlfriends. I rang all three, and they all claim to not have heard from him in years.'
'But not a son.' Zechs turned to his computer. 'Árni Olsen's birth certificate only lists his mother, Bara. But Pargan told me that Olsen had lived with his father for at least a span. But not recently enough to trigger any obvious lies in his background check. Tropic sat in that chair and told me he had to take care of something his son had done that was “disappointing”. The timeline fits. That's the time Olsen murdered Pargan. Tropic went to Sanq to help him cover it up.'
'Assuming that's correct, assuming Olsen is his son, then why's he disappeared now?'
'Because he's in on it,' Cobra said. 'He would have to be. It goes with Maxwell's report that there was a blond man watching his flat. It goes with someone calling Immigration when there were no Preventers here in Brussels to stop it. It even goes with drugging Maxwell that night. Tropic had to be the one doing it.'
'Olsen got caught early trying to reach Relena,' Mamba speculated. 'And then, perhaps, Pargan started to figure things out, so Olsen killed him. And when we started to close in on the truth, Tropic went AWOL. To do what, though?'
'To get to Maxwell while he was vulnerable.' Zechs felt a sinking sensation open in his stomach, and grabbed for his water to fill it. 'That's what Duo meant. He said, “It's not like I'm staring down at the street waiting to catch you”. He was telling me about Tropic-- because Tropic was on Heero's video tape. And he used our code names. He never uses our code names. It all adds up to identifying a Preventer.'
That was worth a moment of silence between the agents. Cobra broke it. 'Any luck searching for Olsen's parents?'
'Nothing. We already knew the mother had died. A few years before the war. Olsen lived with his grandfather from that time forward. But all we have about the father is the given name, Latham. It's not enough to go on.'
'So we're back where we started,' Mamba grumped. 'A fat lot of unknown.'
The phone on Zechs' desk rang, and they all jumped. They'd been tired to begin it and there wasn't any good rest coming, Zechs thought guiltily. He grabbed for the receiver and stuck it into the crook of his neck. 'Wind.'
'This is Ulv in Sanq. I have news for you.'
Zechs waved for the others just as they were rising to leave. 'I'm putting you on speaker, Ulv.' He punched the button and hung up the receiver. 'Go ahead. Agents Mamba and Cobra are with me.'
Ulv wasted no time on polite greetings. 'We missed something,' she said bluntly. 'I'll make my report to the Director after this. We had a call from an informant, but we missed it-- we put him off and didn't check into it when we ought to have.'
Zechs tapped impatiently on the desktop. 'It happens,' he admitted. 'And it's been going around with this case. But what did the informant say? Who was it?'
'A young man named Troyes Lefèvre. He's a known associate of the Princess, but we assumed at the time of his contact that he was simply trying to get information from us, not the reverse. We've had dozens of calls from people who've heard she's left the Palace abruptly, cancelled events. It's still a twitchy place, when it involves the Princess. We all remember the Barton Rebellion.' At Zechs' inhale, she got to the point. 'Lefèvre claimed to have been contacted by Duo Maxwell.'
'What?' Mamba was suddenly crowding his shoulder, but Zechs ignored it as he grabbed for paper and pencil. 'How did Maxwell reach him? When?'
'Unknown at this time. My man who spoke with Lefèvre didn't follow up on it, for which I'll string him up by the thumbs. Maxwell apparently told Lefèvre that they were stranded in unknown countryside. Lefèvre supplied the number, and we ran it down an hour ago. It's from one of your company cars.'
Zechs was already writing. 'Registration?'
'State-supplied is KAZ-937. Fleet number 4-HHI-272.'
Cobra grabbed the keyboard of Zechs' computer to pull up their internal databases. She typed the numbers quickly. 'It wasn't officially checked out for use. I'll get an APB out, and get a tracker on the car's GPS.' She left immediately, and her partner ducked after to follow.
'Tropic had to transport them somehow. But he wouldn't stay in a Preventers' vehicle, knowing we can trace it.' Zechs tapped his pencil on his knee. 'Lefèvre didn't say anything else?'
'No. And we can't reach him now. He'd been staying as a guest in the palace here, and staff say he's gone. We've tried his home residence in France, but it appears to be closed for the season.'
'Why would Maxwell contact Lefèvre? Why not try to reach Preventers?'
'I wish I could be of more help.'
So did Zechs. He didn't say it aloud, however. 'The Princess is still secure?'
'I have every available agent on her. That's why I've only got rookies left in the office to answer the phones. It's a hell of a situation, Wind. Pants down and arse to the winter, here.'
'We can only do the best we can.' Zechs caught his hair in a tail, and released it with a slow, calming breath. 'Thank you for the information. It's more than we had a minute ago.'
'Best of luck, Agent.'
'And to you.' Zechs abandoned his desk as soon as he'd hung up. Mamba was in his cubicle when Zechs passed it, on the phone himself and simultaneously at work on their GPS tracking software, trying to locate the vehicle. Zechs prowled the small stretch of carpet just outside it, cracking his knuckles, trying to shake out the kinks in a sore neck.
Cobra finished her task first. 'The locals are alerted to the car. But if they are in countryside, it's going to be hard to find.'
'They've had eleven hours to drive. They could be anywhere in Europe by now.'
'At least we know who contacted Heero Yuy. It must have been Lefèvre. We overlooked the number because he's always in contact with the Princess.'
'We overlooked it,' Zechs echoed. He touched her arm. 'We might have overlooked Lefèvre entirely. He's wealthy. And wealthy people own private transport. He could have got Yuy back onto the continent.'
'I'll get to work on it,' she said promptly. 'Private or not, any vehicle he owns will be registered. We'll search for those too.'
'Check for private planes as well. Anything he has access to.'
Mamba beckoned him in. Zechs planted a hand on the desktop, bending to read the small green print on the screen of Mamba's computer. 'GPS in the vehicle still says it's in Brussels. On the street outside Maxwell's flat.'
'He ripped it out.' Zechs fell back into the spare chair, trying not to be disappointed. 'Of course he would think of it. He knows how we track the fleet.'
'Do we assume at this point that Olsen's met up with Tropic?'
'We haven't had any other sightings. We don't have any evidence to support it, but I think yes.'
'I've been running another query. Trying to track down any Lathams from the right period.' Mamba raised the window on his computer screen. 'I did run across one that's interesting. We have a Latham who turned up on an old Alliance watch list.'
'A watch list? Who were they watching?' Zechs sat forward again. 'How'd you even find the list?'
'It was leaked to the internet a decade ago. I turned up a few versions of it, so authenticity might be questionable, but at this point we're open to guesswork, I should think. Here's the entry. Latham Ohlsen.'
'Different spelling. Why did he turn up?'
'As a radical Pacifist. Alliance were watching university students. He's listed as a possible member of a group that supported total disarmament and universal government.'
'The kind of person who might be expected to ecstatically support Relena, and fanatically protect her from corrupting influences like Gundam Pilots.'
Mamba inclined his head. 'But square that with joining Preventers? We're the only official exception to disarmament.'
'Fight the power from the inside?' It didn't seem to jive, true. 'And you can argue that while none of the attacks against the Pilots were overtly violent, they certainly caused harm. Radical Pacifism doesn't allow for any aggression.'
'Assuming he's not just a kook who thinks one thing and does another. You can never account for crazy.'
'No. That's true.' Milliardo Peacecraft had espoused Pacifism, after all, and still turned to White Fang. Zechs rubbed his neck, and shook his head. 'Even if that Latham is Tropic, I'd say Árni Olsen doesn't share his father's beliefs. Those drawings of his and murdering his grandfather don't bode well for Neptune and Maxwell.'
'Well, from where I sit, that leaves us with one option.' Mamba slapped his knees and stood. 'We catch the sons of bitches and ask them.'
In the end, however, they didn't do much catching.
Sally announced it over the PA at twenty-six hours past the kidnapping. 'Attention,' she called, and Zechs looked up in the act of sorting results on radical pacifists. 'We've had contact with Agent Neptune. We have a location, and we're sending a car to pick them up now.'
Zechs went running. His fellow agents weren't far behind him. He ignored the lifts and just took the stairs, two at a time, banged open the firedoor and up the hall to Sally's office. 'What?' he demanded.
Sally nodded to her phone. 'I had a call from Neptune. She said that she and Maxwell are injured but that they're alone, now, and safe, and that they've found shelter. A local family.'
'Almost to Dresden.'
'Germany?' His first reaction was disbelief. To have gone so far. And then he felt relief-- and then disbelief again. 'What was the point of that? Where the hell were they going? Just driving until-- what?'
'Unknown, and it might stay that way.' Sally shook her head grimly. 'Árni Olsen is dead.'
Zechs gripped the back of the nearest chair, trying to imagine that. 'Which of them killed him.'
Sally hesitated now. 'Duo.'
'I know. But from what Neptune says, there was no other choice. It was unquestionably self-defence.' She pushed it off by straightening her shoulders. 'We'll deal with that when it comes. For right now, we pick up our people and get them safe back at home.'
'I'm going,' Zechs said.
'No argument. Meet up with them on the border.'
'It's going to take six hours for them to get there!'
'That we will argue about, Zechs. You go as far as the border. We've still got problems with this case, Heero Yuy is still out there running around, and I haven't heard that we've answered the question of where Troyes Lefèvre fits in. Not to mention your partner.'
'You mean--' That paused him. 'He wasn't with his son?'
'He was. But he's fled. And that means we have a Preventer who's AWOL and an accessory. We need to bring him in. And I need you close enough to participate in that.'
It galled, but he couldn't argue with the logic. 'Agreed.'
But six hours later, Zechs sat in his car with Hydra, gripping his wheel so tightly his fingers were numbing, no closer to locating Tropic than before. There was no way of knowing which country Tropic was in, now-- if he'd made it across the border to Germany, the smartest thing he could do would be to keep running. And if he'd already adopted a fake identity once, it was more than possible for him to do it again.
'That's them,' Hydra said, showing Zechs the text on his phone. 'The German agents will pull off to meet us. We'll make the switch and they'll head home.'
Zechs nodded, the most he could manage. He already knew the tally of hurts suffered; the German agents had forwarded plenty of information. Neptune had a concussion-- they'd knocked her out to get her out of Duo's flat. Duo had a broken arm, minor lacerations. It was a relatively light escape, all told, but seeing it would be worse than hearing about it, and Zechs already felt he could cheerfully wring Tropic's neck with bare hands.
He saw headlights against the setting sun, rising over a hill. Zechs flashed his own lights, from the service station road, and the car headed toward them left the carriageway and took the loop around. Zechs opened his door and stood out on the pavement.
The car slowed approaching them, and pulled to a stop perhaps fifteen feet away. The agents stepped out first, both from the front of the car. One came toward Zechs while the other stepped to the back, opening the door. Neptune. The agent helped her rise, provided an arm for her to lean on. But Zechs barely had eyes for her. Duo was coming out the other side.
He had a large coat draped over him, a scarf wrapped loosely around his neck. And he was looking for Zechs-- his eyes roamed, and then found him. They stared at each other for a long solemn moment. Then Duo walked around the car, and took Neptune's side. The agent let them approach unaided.
'Yes.' Zechs belatedly extended a hand to the agent in front of him. 'Agent Hida.'
'They're battered, but they're alive. We stopped for food on the way, but they'll need something hot in them soon. We've got a file started, which we'll transfer to your office, of course. We found the vehicle. We'll return that too.'
'Appreciated. Please--excuse me. Hydra, wrap up any details with them, please.' Zechs took five steps, to meet his friends as they neared. It took all the restraint in him to offer Neptune his hand first. She pressed it gently. 'Let's get you in the car,' he told her. 'Hospital for you.'
'Normally I'd groan, but if they let me lay flat, I don't care,' she replied. Her smile was strained. 'I'm ready to debrief.'
'Don't worry about it until we're sure you're all right.'
'He did well,' Neptune said then. 'Duo. And he saved my life. I want that on the record.'
He'd never been more grateful to her. 'That will help,' he said quietly. 'Thank you.'
She nodded once. Her hand slipped from Duo's shoulder, and she walked the rest of the way to the car on her own. Hydra helped her in.
Zechs drew a deep breath. He reached for Duo's coat, tugged it open. He had one arm in a sling. There was a darkening bruise on his chest, revealed by the vee collar of his shirt, and a stitched cut on his temple as well.
Duo let him inventory each wound, but his eyes were waiting when Zechs looked again. He said only, 'I'm okay.'
Zechs had to clear his throat. 'Good,' he said huskily.
'I want to go home.' Duo shrugged his coat closed. 'That's not possible right now, is it.'
'I'm afraid not. I really wish that it were.'
Duo nodded to himself. He gathered himself up, and it tugged at Zechs to see how weary he was, to see the new closed and shuttered look to his face. But he walked for the car. Zechs followed him, and held the door for him. He shut it only when Duo was seated, his head falling back to rest.
'I was on the phone with Agent Wind.' Duo picked at a dent in the table, scraping it with the edge of his nail. 'There was a knock. Identified himself as Tropic. Neptune let him in. There was no reason not to assume it was official business. At first I think he tried to convince her to hand me off. When she protested, I noticed it was happening. So he pulled a weapon on us. Me, actually. He said he didn't want things to be violent but if we pushed him, it would be. He told me to act normal, to hang up the phone with Agent Wind, to not pass any clues or make a sound out of turn. Of course I did it anyway.'
And Zechs hadn't even noticed. He clenched his jaw, but he didn't speak. He was an observer only, at the moment, and his failure was already well recorded.
'Tropic didn't like that. He said he'd find a place to put a hole in me that would stop me speaking at all, if I did it again. I told him he could fuck me and his mother, too, and I knew he was dirty and I'd already told his partner. I told him he was already under investigation and he wouldn't make it out of the fucking building. Then Neptune tried to hit him on the head with my lamp.' Duo picked at the table. 'My favourite lamp. As it happens. They struggled, and he clocked her with his gun. I took my turn at it, and he broke my fucking arm. And then he told me he'd shoot Neptune if I didn't back down. It went like that for hours, pretty much. Using us against each other. Sucks that it works.'
Cobra smiled briefly, in sympathy. 'It usually does. What happened next?'
Duo dragged his fingers through his hair, and fell back in his seat with a sigh. 'Neptune was out hard. He made me get her down the stairs. We went out the back, through the garden. He had a car. He made me put her in the trunk and then told me to climb in after her. I did it. He closed the lid. I looked for the emergency trunk release, but he'd cut it out. I tried to kick down the backseat, too, but that was a no-go. With both of us in the trunk I didn't have room to try the brake lights, but I did manage the pull the wires and short-circuit all the signals. Figured maybe we'd get pulled over.' He shrugged jaggedly. 'But we didn't. So he drove. For a long time. We stopped at some point, I think about three hours. Neptune was in and out by then, but the trunk was pretty cramped and we didn't have a lot of spare oxygen floating around. Anyway I figured that when we stopped, he switched with the kid. Pargan's grandson. I never saw the guy again.'
That was interesting. They'd known that Tropic hadn't been with his victims all the way to the end, but Zechs would take Duo's internal clock as fact any day. He gestured for Hydra. 'Map,' he said. 'We can at least figure out a range based on their final destination and the three hour mark.'
'So we keep driving. I could tell when we were totally out of city bounds-- they don't repair the roads as much out in the country. If we were in the country, it meant he was going to waste us. You don't dump in your own yard; you find somewhere quiet out in cow country. When he finally stopped the car we were in some kind of forest. Woods, I guess, properly; it wasn't that far from civilisation, but enough to cover any casual noise. Kid pops the trunk. He's got the gun now. It wasn't Preventers' issue, by the way. You might be able to track it if you trace it back to Agent Tropic. He wants me out first. The kid. He's frothing at the mouth practically. He starts this screed about how I personally have fucked up the world. The whole of history. And that it's not enough that I came here to kill, but now I wanted Relena Peacecraft to turn from her path. Most of it was the same noise you get on the net or whatever. But that stood out to me. Turning her from her path.'
Cobra let him sit quietly for a moment before prodding him. 'What happened then?'
'Then I hit him in the face and broke his nose.' Duo stirred, to sit forward now, to drop his chin onto his hand. 'We wrestled for the gun. He fired a few times. Hit the car. Sorry about that-- it got pretty beat up in this--' Duo's lips twisted to the side. 'Thing. So Neptune is in the car. So we're wrestling for the gun. With my arm broke, I'm not so great at wrestling, so he wins. He says I did this to myself. He shoots at the trunk. So I grabbed a rock and I hit. I hit him until he stopped moving, and then I took the gun. Neptune was okay, but-- I didn't take the time to think about it. I just got her out and into the front seat. We drove. It was dark and I'd shorted all the fucking lights so I couldn't see for shit. We hit some kind of dike, I think, and the car wouldn't restart... It's kind of a blur. Neptune said we had to keep moving. We left the car and we went out on foot. We thrashed around out there for maybe forty minutes before we saw lights. One of those old farmhouses. There was a family, and they let us in, use the phone. That's pretty much the end of it.'
'Well, not quite.' Cobra turned her file toward Duo. 'This is a transcript of a call that was made by Troyes Lefèvre to Preventers' Hotline. Claiming he spoke to you.'
'Yeah.' Zechs looked up from the map, some instinct catching on that. There was nothing any different in Duo's slump, but there was just the tiniest change in his voice. 'That sonnovabitch Tropic took my phone and I was shaken. I couldn't remember any numbers. I called Troyes because I had his card in my shirt from the last time I wore it. I asked him to call Preventers. The family we'd found, they were taking care of Neptune, and when she woke up she gave me Sally's number to try.'
'Were you aware that Troyes Lefèvre contracted Heero Yuy?'
'Maybe you know why?'
'Nothing obvious is leaping at me.' Duo's confusion seemed real-- but somehow Zechs was sure that seemed was the operative word.
'Heero is missing,' Cobra said. 'Did you know that?'
'Are you accusing me of something? How the hell would I know what the fuck Heero's doing? I was in a fucking car trunk for most of the fucking day!' Duo shoved to his feet. 'I'm tired and I want to go home. Are we done?'
Sally, standing at the window, gave her nod. Cobra rose as well. 'We're all glad you're all right,' she told Duo. 'Truly.'
'Yeah.' Duo hunched his shoulders. 'Thanks. But I really do want to just go home.'
'We're putting Preventers back on watch,' Sally told him. 'Until we have Tropic in custody.'
Zechs clapped Hydra on the back. 'I'll drive,' he told Duo. 'Let's go.'
'Zechs.' Sally stopped him. Duo slowed, with Cobra behind him, and Zechs nodded his assurance that it was all right. The door closed behind them. 'They haven't found Olsen's body,' Sally told him. 'They're pausing the search until they have daylight.'
'Duo wasn't able to pinpoint a location.'
'No, but the woods aren't that big. We'll keep looking.'
Zechs wet his lips. 'If there's no body, there's no proof of death.'
'Meaning no proof Duo assaulted and killed someone.'
'In self-defence. And Neptune backed up his story.'
'Then we'll hope that's enough,' Sally said. 'But we have to file on it. And that means it will go up against his terms of parole.'
'We can't sit on it? Even for a day or two?'
'Maybe twenty-four hours,' Sally said reluctantly. 'But we won't get away with more than that.'
'Then we'll hope,' Zechs echoed, and left her.
For a long time, they just lay together in their bed. Duo curled toward the wall, and Zechs lay behind him, stroking his splinted arm, his hair. Several times he began to speak, but stopped himself. He wanted Duo to get there in his own time.
It was nearly three in the morning when Duo inhaled deeply, and rolled to face him. He said, 'I know we have to talk about it, but I don't want to.'
Zechs bit his bottom lip and let it go. 'All right.'
He kissed Duo's chin. 'Do you want to sleep?'
'No.' Duo touched him, his fingertip dragging down Zechs' ribs one by one. 'I really like Rebeka. We should marry her. It can be a double wedding thing, and we'll wear twin tuxedos. That's legal, right?'
'Somewhere, I'm sure.' It took effort not to touch Duo's bruises, now purpling like orchids, but he restrained himself. 'She likes you. She says you saved her life.'
'I don't want to talk about it, Zechs.' Duo sat up, to set the alarm. 'You need to be in by six?'
'Seven. Don't worry about it. One more night without sleep isn't going to make a difference at this point.'
'They're working you too hard. Aren't there labour laws?'
'Duo.' He propped himself up to kiss Duo's mouth. 'Why don't you take a hot bath. I'll bring a glass of wine and make you breakfast.'
'Sounds good.' Duo caressed his throat, and Zechs pretended not to notice that Duo's fingers trembled. 'Hey, I know this is going to be weird, but do you kind of mind, like, um--'
'Fucking the sad out of you.'
Duo smiled involuntarily. 'I think that's the dirtiest thing you've ever said.'
'I've been hanging around with you for a long time now.' He kissed Duo, deeply, pressing him back to the pillows. 'I was scared for you,' he whispered. 'I don't mind reaffirming how much I love you by physical demonstration.'
'Good call.' Duo hooked a leg over Zechs' thigh. 'It's not weird? It feels like it might be.'
'Maybe if we make a habit of it. I think we can let one go.'
Duo squeezed him by the buttocks, but then his hand slid north, to settle on the small of Zechs' back. 'I was scared. Also. Bad things happen. It doesn't normally bother me so much. But it was always just me, before. Or me and Heero, but even if we are weirdly close I promise we never did it, unless you count the weird shower incident, which I totally don't. Unless I'm super lonely and drunk.'
Zechs buried a grin in Duo's shoulder. 'I thought I was going to be making you feel better. Not the other way round.'
'I don't know. I think I felt better when I saw you on the border.' Duo squirmed under him, to shuck his sling, hurl it into the darkness of their bedroom. He propped his cast behind his head. The other hand traced a languid path up Zechs' spine. 'And whatever that German medic gave Rebeka on the way home made her pretty horny. She whispered a lot of sweet nothings in my ear the whole way up. I'm serious about that three-way.'
'I'm sure.' He hugged Duo's thigh to his. 'Without talking about it-- I do want to say that all I could think was that I have nothing here without you.'
'Zechs.' Duo kissed him. 'That's so gay.'
He couldn't help his laugh. 'Duo.'
'I love you, too.' Duo fingered his hair back from his temple. 'I really do. It's pretty amazing.'
'Yes. It is.'
[part 16] [part 18] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]