Fandom: GW
Pairing: 6x2
Rating: Rish

Caveat + Part 18

'There's no body out there,' Sally said. 'They've had dogs on the area for hours and people beating the bush from the ground. Either Árni Olsen isn't really dead, or something magical happened to his body.'

'Maybe he's not dead,' Cobra offered. 'Maxwell said he just hit until Olsen stopped fighting him. He might have thought Olsen was dead, but it was a pretty chaotic scene. He thought he'd killed the bugger, and he ran. Meanwhile, Olsen wakes up, drags himself off to safety.'

'Did they turn up blood?' Zechs asked. 'Forensic evidence? Duo said he used a rock. There would be tyre tracks.'

'They have a likely site. They're on it now. We have their word they'll forward all the evidence collected.'

'So what are you saying?' Mamba asked curiously. 'That the stories aren't meeting up with reality?'

Sally didn't answer that immediately. She planted both hands on her desk, staring down at it grimly.

'You don't want to impugn one of your own agents,' Zechs guessed. He dropped his head to rest on the chair rail behind him. 'Neptune's story matches Duo's.'

'Maybe a little too closely.' Sally blew out a slow breath. 'She claims to have been in and out of consciousness. She heard shouting, raised her head, saw Duo fighting with Olsen. Saw him hit Olsen and, she says, apparently kill him. Duo helped her out of the trunk, drove them for a while. Found a farm with a family who helped them. She was out for at least a few hours after they found the farm, but when she woke, she remembered my number, and they contacted me.'

'Does she remember Duo calling Troyes Lefèvre?' Cobra questioned.

'She says she was aware of Duo calling someone for help, but he didn't know if it had helped. She said he was frustrated and afraid on her behalf. That he seemed shaken and didn't know what to do.' Sally raised her head, and Zechs became aware she was looking at him, now. 'And, honestly, that's where I find myself asking questions. Granted, I don't know Duo as well as you do, but I don't think there's anyone on the planet who's ever seen Duo Maxwell at a loss for what to do.'

'That's not fair, Sally.' Zechs sat forward to tap on her desk. 'That isn't fair. See it from his perspective. He'd been locked in a trunk with an agent he likes and respects, and he was worried for her safety, being forced over and over again to choose her safety, her life over trying to call for help, to make a scene that might have got them caught before it was so dire. After hours of that Olsen brings him out at gunpoint, and attacks him for his actions in the war. You do know him well enough to know he feels strongly about it, and that he's suffered for his choices, to the point of living practically under house arrest in Brussels for years because he wouldn't disavow what he'd done as a Gundam Pilot. Add in fighting Olsen for his life and Neptune's life, and consider this-- he knew as well as we did that when he hit Olsen hard enough to kill him that he was probably going to lose his freedom again just for defending himself. I think that's enough stress to make a man forget a few details.'

Cobra was nodding. Mamba wasn't. Mamba was pursing his lips, and his eyes dipped away when Zechs looked at him. So did Sally.

'You can't tell me that being a Gundam Pilot didn't train him and prepare him for stressful situations,' Sally said finally. 'Or that killing one man who deserved it was so earth-shattering to him that he lost his head. Even for a few minutes. He's lying, Zechs.'

Zechs stood. 'Where's the proof? Are we going to go to court on that, that he's a Gundam Pilot and that should answer for all sins?'

'That isn't what I'm saying.'

'I think it is. I think it is, that you really think that. He isn't a Gundam Pilot-- he was a Gundam Pilot, five years ago. When he was fifteen years old, Sally, let's just remember that, too, and that since that time the most danger he's faced is a rusty engine in a mechanic's garage.'

'Zechs--'

'What about Neptune?' Cobra interrupted. 'If you think Maxwell's lying, then we have to assume Neptune's lying, too.'

'So we're going to just accuse an agent wounded in action of breaking her oath and covering up crimes?' Zechs pointed out. 'All because you can't believe Duo's too capable not to murder someone.'

'That's enough, Agent.' Sally crossed her arms. 'We're not assuming anything. But we will keep looking for proof. That's our job. And no, we are not accusing Neptune of anything-- but I want her re-interviewed. There's holes in the story, and it's our job to find out why. And may I just point out, if we can cut across the self-righteousness in the room, that the reason we're all standing here is that an agent did break his oath, did cover up crimes, and is still at large? Find your damn partner, Merquise, and then talk to me about what we can and can't assume.'

'If those are your orders, Commander,' Zechs said coldly, and didn't wait for her answer. He didn't slam the door on his way out, but his hands itched to do it. He strode hard for the stairwell, and pushed his way in.

'Wind, wait.' The door opened again above him, and Zechs slowed his descent. It was Cobra.

'What,' he asked her shortly.

Cobra skipped down the steps quickly to join him near the landing. 'I'm with you,' she said simply. Zechs forced himself to relax, and nodded tightly. 'Now let's go prove it.'

He gripped her arm. 'Thank you.'

'I won't let it be a witch hunt.' She gestured, and they climbed down the steps together. 'I've seen it before,' Cobra added then. 'I've got more sympathy for Maxwell than you might think.'

Zechs lifted his hair from his neck, trying to cool himself from his fit of temper. It was already leaving him; he was too tired to sustain it. And apparently too tired to sustain civility. They all were. It wasn't like Sally to issue ultimatums, but both of them behaving badly was still a problem, and if he didn't rein himself in, it might become entrenched. He could only help Duo if he kept a cool head and brought Sally actionable proof.

'Seen it before?' he asked then. 'A case you worked?'

'My brother.' Cobra pulled at a chain under her shirt, and lifted it to the light. Hand-fashioned dog tags, a bit of polished tin with a name stamped in uneven letters. 'He was pulled into the Provincial Army, during the war. He was thirteen. When the war ended and the Army was disbanded, there was a rash of murders. Collaborators being targeted. Someone from our town gave up Kwanele. He was lynched.'

Zechs touched her arm again. 'I'm sorry. There are too many stories like that.'

She nodded. Her fingers rubbed the edges of the dog tags, a gesture Zechs thought he remembered from chance glances at her, when she sat alone at her desk or was lost in her thoughts at meetings. He stopped walking, and held her wrist until she stopped, as well. He cupped her shoulders, waiting for her nod. He embraced her gently.

It took a moment, but she brought her hands up tentatively to rest on his back. 'Thank you,' she said, subdued.

'Thank you. For telling me. And for helping Duo now.' He released her quickly. 'For understanding what's at stake. I'm not sure I did, until this. Wars never really end, do they.'

'That's what Preventers are here for. So we'll do our job, and do it right. Duo will be all right.'

He wasn't sure yet that he believed it. But he nodded, himself, and they went down the stairs together.


**


'I woke up in the boot,' Neptune told them. 'There wasn't really room for both of us. Duo was-- I don't even know how he had the presence of mind. He's a good person. He'd worked his way under me, so my head could rest on his chest. To cushion me against bumps, because of this.' She waved a hand at the brilliantly bruised wound on her temple, now bandaged in bright white gauze. 'He told me everything. I think he had to repeat it a dozen times, whenever I woke up. He just kept saying we needed to be calm, that we'd have our chance to do something if we just waited it out. Nothing like being reassured by a pocket-sized teenager.' She smiled wearily at Zechs.

'Tell us about the confrontation with Olsen,' Mamba said. He was working the recorder, and taking notes as well. Unconsciously-- mostly unconsciously-- Zechs and Cobra had arrayed themselves against Mamba, taking the right of Neptune's gurney while Mamba was stranded alone on the left. He was stiff, pretending not to notice it, but Zechs refused to feel badly about it. If Mamba came around on his own, that was good; if he didn't, they'd have to work without him, and Zechs was prepared to cut his losses.

Neptune grimaced at her water cup, and pushed it away with a finger. 'I don't suppose one of you could jail-break me for a coffee.'

'No stimulants until you're cleared,' Zechs reminded her. 'But the minute you are, I'll bury you in chocolate and caffeine.'

Her grin had a bit more cheek in it, then. 'I'll hold you to that.'

'Olsen,' Mamba reminded her.

'The car stopped moving at some point. I wasn't really awake at first. He made Duo climb out; I was aware of that, but all the jostling-- I was sick.' She shook her head at her own remembered weakness. 'Duo tried to help me, and Olsen told him to leave me and move away from the car. There was a lot of shouting. Olsen wasn't incredibly coherent; a lot of snarling and screaming. He was demented,' she said flatly. 'He's-- was obviously obsessed with Relena Peacecraft. Most of his ranting had to do with her. That the Gundam Pilots had corrupted her. That they'd ruined the one pure thing on the planet. He kept repeating himself-- You're evil. You're evil. I was trying to climb out of the trunk, and I think Olsen saw me. He was facing away until then, but he started to turn. That's when Duo hit him. He has a mean right hook. Olsen keeled over, and Duo fought him for the gun. Olsen started firing at random, or I think at random. He was pinging the car, so I ducked back down in the boot. The shooting stopped. Olsen started his rant again, but he was cut off. When I looked, Duo was on top of him, hitting him with a rock. Three times, maybe, or maybe four, I'm not entirely sure. But Olsen was down and he wasn't moving. Duo came running for me. He got me out of the boot and into the passenger seat. He just started driving.'

Mamba nodded over his notes. 'And when did you ditch the car?'

'I'm not sure how long we drove, but we were off the road, and without lights we couldn't find it. Maybe half an hour? It doesn't feel real.' Neptune touched her bandage, and sighed. 'I don't know. It felt like forever, and it also felt like I blinked and it was over.'

'So once you left the car, you found the farm.'

'Not right away. We hit something, hard enough to blow the airbags. The car alarm went off. Duo managed to cut it, yanked the wires right out of the dash. He asked me if I could walk, and I said I wasn't sure. He tried the car phone. He said he knew someone who might be able to help us. I don't remember the name, but he said a friend. Someone who could be trusted.'

'Why not try the police? Or the Preventers' Hot Line?'

'Neither of us knew the local emergency code. The Hot Line-- I--' She shook her head in frustration. 'Honest to God, I didn't think of it, and I guess he didn't either. It just never occurred to me. No-one ever warned me a head wound turns you into an idiot.'

It was plausible. It might even have been true. But Zechs doubted it. Sally was right. Neptune's story was just a little too close to Duo's. There was a little too much detail, too much-- correctness. She'd even gotten chronology right, and it just sounded a little too much like a memorised narrative, even for an agent whose job was to present the facts that way. But she'd included the note about Troyes Lefèvre without prompting. Duo hadn't.

'Heero Yuy is missing,' Zechs told her. 'Apparently Troyes Lefèvre called him. And Yuy took that as a signal to leave Sanq. We haven't been able to track his movements.'

'Leave Sanq? Wouldn't that break the terms of his asylum?'

'As much as Duo killing Olsen would break the terms of his.'

'But Sanq isn't going to throw Heero Yuy in jail,' Mamba said. 'Brussels will leap at the chance to put Maxwell back behind bars.'

'Only if we find Olsen's body,' Cobra disagreed. 'Without a body, even if Maxwell thinks he killed Olsen, there's not enough to revoke his parole.'

'You haven't found Olsen?' Neptune interrupted. 'How?'

Zechs answered when the other two stayed silent. 'Unknown. The German branch of Preventers say they found the trail, but no Olsen.'

'What about Tropic? Maybe he followed us after all. I meant to ask about that-- what's the connection between Tropic and Árni Olsen?'

Mamba reluctantly supplied it. 'We believe Tropic is his father. It looks like Tropic stole the identity of a soldier who went MIA in the war. Nothing conclusive, but circumstantially it looks like Olsen is his son from his previous life, and that, possibly at least, Tropic managed to indoctrinate Olsen with all this nonsense about the Pilots corrupting Pacificism's greatest leader.'

Neptune shook her head. 'Enough crazy to go around and then some. I wondered. He didn't say anything to us, Tropic. Just wanted me to hand over Duo to him. He said the why didn't matter to me.'

'But maybe there's something to that,' Zechs mused. 'If he's really the driving force behind this entire debacle. He's the one who intellectualises the “threat” posed by the Pilots to Relena Peacecraft, and we know that he was behind at least Heero's mail theft. I'd argue he's most likely behind poisoning Duo and attempting to have Heero deported. And if we accept for the sake of argument that all of those acts fit within a philosophy of radical Pacificism, all acts designed to “save” Relena from the evil Gundam Pilots, then it makes a certain kind of sense that he consistently left the real violence to his son. Olsen's a different kind of deranged. Exactly as you said, Neptune, demented. And we know he's capable of murder, because he killed his grandfather, probably for realising that Olsen was dangerous. But to me the question is whether Tropic expected Olsen to follow a script. Remember when Olsen tried to approach Relena in Sanq, the first time we caught him? We've been assuming he went off-book for that. So did Tropic hand Duo over to his crazy son, hand him a gun, and tell himself at least he isn't the one pulling the trigger? Or did he expect Olsen to do something specific, but Olsen went rogue again, and killing Duo was never part of the plan at all?'

'But why go after Duo at all?' Zechs turned his head to Cobra. She was leaning on her elbows on Neptune's gurney, her brows creased in thought. 'When you think about it. I accept everything you just said, Wind, but think about it-- Yuy's the greater threat. That's why we thought Olsen would head back to Sanq. Yuy's right beside the Princess. Duo's just a friend, and, not to put this crudely, but I think we can all assume that now that Yuy and the Princess are together in Sanq, Duo wasn't going to be in the picture much anymore. None of Tropic's attacks were crimes of opportunity, not in the traditional sense. He was escalating with every move, but all his attacks were deliberately designed to push the Pilots into getting themselves into trouble. Getting them deported or getting them thrown into prison where there'd be no access to the Princess. So why go after Duo, when he's basically succeeded in separating Duo from Relena?'

'Because Duo brings him Heero Yuy,' Mamba said. He snapped his fingers. 'That's exactly it. He knew Maxwell would call Yuy for help, and that Yuy would leave Sanq to do it.'

'How could he know that?' Zechs retorted, disturbed by the notion. Disturbed because, he thought with a sinking stomach, it sounded perfectly true. 'And even if it was true, why the rigamarole of trading his prisoners to his son? Especially knowing that Olsen is insane enough to execute them. And not just a Gundam Pilot, but also a fellow Preventer. Tropic is rational enough to expect that, and so far he's stayed away from overt violence.'

'How rational is he?' Cobra asked. 'Rational enough to decide his son is a liability, to expect that Duo or Neptune would be able to overpower him and kill him? And then call for Heero Yuy anyway?'

The others stared at her. 'No-one is that cold,' Neptune said, but trailed off uncertainly. 'Setting up his own son to die?'

'I don't think there's any real love lost,' Zechs admitted slowly. 'He did rush off to Sanq to help Olsen cover up Pargan's murder, but when he got back he said it was just a disappointment. He basically called his son a loser.'

'But it does work with the timeline.' Mamba tapped his pencil on his pad. 'At some point Tropic passed off the car to Olsen. And left him alone. If the real goal was to make sure Duo was out of the picture, he would have stayed until the end to see it done. But if the real goal is to get Heero Yuy to come to you, and if you don't really care if your son lives or dies in the doing, then you just set the board and wait to make your play. He's still out there. And so is Heero Yuy.'

'But waiting for what?' Zechs was unsettled. He rose to pace, going as far as the window, to look out over the parking lot below. 'Heero won't come openly to Brussels. He can't. So how can Tropic believe he'll even be able to find Yuy?'

'Yuy won't come openly,' Mamba repeated pointedly. He stood, grabbing his coat. 'We should check your apartment.'

'My apartment?' Zechs turned to face him. 'You can't believe--'

'I'm not accusing you,' Mamba said hastily, holding up both hands, palm-out. 'But I think it's worth staking out the area. He'll want to check in on Duo, and Duo's in your apartment. We might catch him in the act.'

'And what do we do if we do catch him?' Neptune demanded. 'Arrest him?'

'We're obligated to arrest him,' Mamba said. 'And we're obligated to follow through on a lead, so don't even pretend we can say we never thought of it.'

Neptune was staring at him with alarm. She bit her lip, catching Zechs' eyes. He shook his head, not even sure what he was denying. There was no way to get ahead of it. And if Mamba was right, if Heero really were there, watching-- God, if Duo knew that Heero was there and was contriving to meet up with him-- surely Duo wouldn't be that stupid?

Cobra stood. 'We're not Immigration. It's not our job to arrest him. Our only concern is Tropic, and preventing Tropic from assaulting anyone else. Agreed?'

Mamba squared off against his partner, meeting her eyes forthrightly. 'The law is the law.'

'And the law has priorities built into it. What Tropic has done is far worse than what Heero Yuy has. Which makes Tropic our priority.'

'And if Heero Yuy gets away in the dust-up?'

'Then it's Sanq's priority.'

Mamba clenched his jaw. 'Look, I know people in this room have a connection to the Pilots--'

'This isn't about how we feel,' Cobra said. 'It's about doing what's right, not what's technically correct.'

'Please,' Zechs said quietly. 'She's right. How many times have we been yanked in a hundred directions at once because we don't fundamentally distinguish between the mission and the reality? Focussing on Heero misses the point. If Heero's broken the law, there's already a legal way of handling it, and Sanq will have to deal with it. But the only people who can deal with Tropic are Preventers.'

'You all keep arguing,' Neptune said. 'Just don't leave until I'm ready.'

'Ready?' Mamba broke off glaring at his partner and looked down at her. Zechs followed his gaze, and realised Neptune had thrown off her blankets and was pressing the call button. 'What are you doing?'

'Going with you.'

'Like hell you are,' Zechs said. 'You haven't been cleared for active duty!'

'You know medical types, always playing the cautious hand. You need everyone you have on this. I'm fine.' She did make it to her feet steadily, but she was pale still, and Zechs had to bite his lip to stop himself from shoving her back down to her pillows.

'Is there something about this hospital that makes everyone so eager to leave it?' he demanded instead, and shook his head. 'You're not driving.'

'I can be content with that. For now.' She pointed to her bag of belongings. 'I believe my uniform is just there, if one of you will be so kind.'

'This is nuts,' Mamba muttered. But he surrendered with a sigh. 'I'll let Commander know where we're headed. Hydra can take care of following up with the Germans while we see if reality matches the mission.'


**


'Hey,' Duo said, when Zechs opened their door. 'I tried to call you. Is your phone off?'

Zechs checked it in his belt. The battery had died, unnoticed. 'What's wrong?' he demanded. 'Is it Heero?'

'Heero?' Duo stared at him warily. 'No. We have a guest.' He looked past Zechs' shoulder, and his expression brightened. 'Rebeka!'

'Hi, Duo.' Zechs moved aside to let Neptune in the door, and Duo gave her a quick kiss to the cheek. 'You look better than the last time I saw you.'

'Same to you. Digging the hair.' He touched the sweep of dark waves that covered the bandage on her head. 'You should keep it like that.'

'I'll think about it. You said you had a guest?'

'Yeah.' Duo met Zechs' eyes again. 'Don't flip out. Promise me.'

'Just tell me what's going on, Duo.'

Duo led the way inside. As they rounded the kitchen, Zechs took note of a coat draped over the bar stool, and the light on over the balcony. He looked sharply at Duo, and crossed his living room to yank open the sliding glass door.

Troyes Lefèvre rose. 'Hello, Agent Wind,' he greeted Zechs. 'Thank you for allowing my visit to your home.'

Zechs about-faced. Duo was there, scratching at his casted arm, chewing the inside of one cheek.

'Where is he,' Zechs said.

'Where's who.'

'Don't play with me. We may not have much time to stop something worse from happening. Where is Heero?'

'He isn't here.' Zechs shook his head, and abandoned persuasion. Neptune went to the spare room, and Zechs went to the master, throwing open the door and checking the corners, under the bed. Duo followed him in, standing in the doorway with tension written all over his body. 'He isn't here,' Duo repeated. 'Will you fucking listen to me?'

'Then he's nearby. Where?' Zechs wrenched open the blinds and scanned the street below. 'I almost didn't believe it.'

'You're acting crazy. Will you--'

'No, I will not. Tell me to my face that Lefèvre didn't transport Heero here.' He waited expectantly. Duo was silent, breathing in deep, quick inhales, his lips pressed white together. 'When did Heero get to you?' Zechs asked him bluntly. 'Was it in Germany? Is that why we can't find a body? Heero got rid of it. Why even admit you killed him? All you had to do was say he got away--'

Neptune had followed the shouting. She stood at Duo's shoulder. Troyes Lefèvre had come, too, though he didn't have their practise at standing straight for a fight. His shoulders were tight and he didn't meet Zechs' eyes.

'What do you want me to say?' Duo flicked his hair out of his eyes with a toss of his head, his chin defiantly high. 'I told Preventers the truth about what happened that night. I called Troyes for help. He called Preventers Hotline.'

'But could not get assurances,' Lefèvre added. He faltered when Zechs turned a glare on him, but went on quietly. 'I rang the Princess to tell her what had happened. And I flew to Brussels as soon as I heard that Duo was safe, to see for myself.'

'And where were you for the many hours between your original call to the Hotline and now? Preventers have been trying to track you down.'

'I have no explanation. I don't know why I did not receive their calls--'

'I need all of you to stop lying to me.' Zechs gripped the wooden doorjamb, gathering his temper, his strength. 'Neptune. You of all people know how important it is that we operate with the facts.'

The three exchanged long looks. Damn, he had been a fool. He'd let Duo lie in the interview last night, and he'd gone to the ropes battling Sally for figuring it out before he did.

'Duo saved my life,' Neptune said finally. 'That's the part that matters, and it's still true. And you of all people know that Preventers is not at odds with compassion. Isn't that what you told me? I understand what you mean now. And we should be concentrating on finding Tropic, just like you said.'

'Tropic.' Duo stirred. 'What about him?'

'We suspect he'd come back here. On the expectation that Heero would also be here, trying to protect you.' Zechs shook his head to clear it, and turned his gaze on Lefèvre. 'How did you get here?'

'After Duo called--'

'I mean by what vehicle. Car, taxi, what.'

'A town car. From the airport to here.'

'And were you wearing a hat? Hood?'

'No.'

'Then we have to assume Tropic saw him enter. And that Tropic has some idea of who you are, if he's as obsessed with Relena as we think he is. Another factor to deal with.'

'You don't think this is a fake-out?' Duo said sharply. 'That he'd get us all here so that there'd be less people on Relena?'

Zechs inhaled deeply. 'Give me your phone. Now.'

Duo was already handing it over. Neptune was on hers as well, turning away as she rang. Zechs heard her say 'Commander' before she stepped into the kitchen to murmur softly. Zechs didn't spare any more time on it. He dialled Spider's number, and stood waiting for each ring with his stomach clenched.

'Spider,' he said, the moment he heard the line click. 'It's Wind. Get Relena out of there immediately.'

'What?' Spider said, startled. 'What's going on there?'

'I don't have time to explain it all, but I want Relena out of Malmö now. Communicate your new location through Command. And do not accept any communication whatsoever from Tropic. Repeat: do not communicate with Tropic. He's AWOL and suspect in a conspiracy that may include trying to kidnap the Princess. We're on alert for him in Brussels but until we know for sure where he's headed, we can't risk exposing Relena to danger.'

'Right. We'll move ASAP.' Spider accepted it rapidly, and Zechs heard him shout in dialect to his partner. He returned to Zechs a moment later. 'I take it we're missing the big party at HQ, eh.'

'Very big party,' Zechs said heavily. 'I'll fill you in later.'

'Better do. We're go. I'll check in when we're secure.' With nothing else, Spider hung up on him. Zechs punched 'end'.

'I thought Tropic took your phone,' he said to Duo.

Duo blinked once. 'He just chucked it into the kitchen when he was taking us. Or am I lying about phones now, too?'

'I don't damn well know, Duo.' There was a crack in the screen. He didn't know if it had been there before, but he knew Duo loved his little gadgets, and it washed that it might have been damaged in a careless throw in all the confusion. And Duo wouldn't have used the car phone in Germany if he'd had access to his own phone. But before he could quite think it through, he was touching the icon for 'Call History' and scrolling through all the recent numbers. Several calls from himself, a few from Pieter Van den Broeck, a pair of numbers he didn't know but which had local and commercial area codes-- none from Sanq. And none from Heero's old number.

'Satisfied?' Duo asked tonelessly.

'I would be if you'd stop playing with me.'

'Not playing,' Duo said. 'It's anything but a game.' He took his phone when Zechs offered it. 'Is Relena okay?'

'For now.' He beckoned at Lefèvre. 'You're leaving.'

'He's not,' Duo disagreed. 'If Tropic does know his face, I don't want him wandering around trying to find a safe place to land.'

'He's not on Tropic's radar.'

'Know that for sure?'

'He's one more person to protect and we're already stretched thin.'

'He went out of his way to help me. Please.'

There were a lot of pleases going around. Zechs shook his head, but hopelessly. It wasn't an argument he was going to win, and Duo was right. If nothing else, Lefèvre knew too much to be set loose before they found Heero.

'Stay away from the balcony,' he said, and left them standing there. Neptune was just hanging up as he approached. 'Spider and Orange are moving Relena,' he told her.

'Commander will be in touch with them. They're going to put her double back out there, too. Tropic knew about Malmö, though, so if he's already watching, there's not much we can do but hope to distract him.'

'What a mess.' Zechs scrubbed his hands through his hair, scratching at his scalp. 'How did he get so far ahead of us?'

'We were busy giving him the benefit of the doubt. We overlooked his eccentricities because we wanted to trust one of our own.'

'And he spent a lot of time building up his defences.' Zechs leant on his refrigerator wearily. 'And tried his best to keep us all suspecting each other. He's been trying to turn me off Duo from the beginning, picking at our relationship, calling him a distraction. And he even went to Sally about you.'

'About me?'

Too late, Zechs remembered why he shouldn't have spilled that particular secret. 'Reporting-- supposedly bad behaviour,' he said lamely. 'Trying to turn us all on each other.'

'Excuse me?' Her eyes were suddenly bright with fire. 'What bad behaviour would this be?'

Zechs rubbed his mouth. 'Sex... sexual harassment.'

'Of him?'

'Me.'

Unexpectedly, she burst into laughter. She slapped his arm. 'Oh, that's too funny.'

Zechs unclenched slowly. 'It is?'

'Isn't it? There's a certain kind of man who thinks any woman who dares to talk about sex ought to be locked away and treated for hysteria. I bet Sally tossed him out on his ass.'

'I think she probably did.'

'If that's the worst he could do to me, then I think we won't struggle all that much to put him down.' The mirth in her smile hardened, then. 'And I think I'm going to enjoy it. He's earned it.'

Zechs just about managed a smile that didn't feel too fake. 'Let's get Cobra and Mamba on the line. We need to lay out our plan.'

They left Duo and Lefèvre talking quietly on the couch, and used the computer room for their own conference. Zechs didn't shut the door-- he wanted Duo where he could see him, and not just for anxiety about his safety. Duo was lying, and he couldn't trust, not now. Neptune was lying, too, but somehow it was different; he understood why she was lying, and that it didn't have anything to do with Zechs and their relationship. But he believed both of them that wherever Heero was now, they didn't know, not for certain. They were worried, and that made Zechs worried.

'You're on speaker,' he told Cobra, and set his phone in the charger. 'We've been in contact with Spider and Orange, and they're moving the Princess of Sanq. We have to consider the possibility that Tropic either planned or is taking advantage of how things have fallen out to get access to the Princess while we're distracted trying to find Heero Yuy.'

'That's a horrifying thought,' Mamba said.

'Agreed,' Neptune said drily.

'One more twist,' Zechs added. 'And the reason we've been late getting to you. Troyes Lefèvre is here. I can't get confirmation from anyone here, but...' He hesitated, wondering how much to say. If Lefèvre was here because he'd brought Heero, then whether or not Tropic ever arrived there was still the question of where and when they'd unearth Heero hiding nearby. And he did not want to be responsible for Heero blowing up his fragile possibility at having a future in Sanq. Neither Duo nor Relena would forgive him, and he didn't believe, himself, that Heero deserved prison just for being trapped in a paranoid, compulsive quagmire with Duo. The best scenario he could imagine now was somehow finding a way to contact Heero before he got caught, and returning him to Sanq without Headquarters catching word of it until it was done.

'Wind?'

Neptune was watching him, not interfering. Zechs rubbed both his tired eyes. 'With no way of knowing where Tropic is, we can't be sure he didn't see Lefèvre enter the apartment here, so we're keeping him inside with Duo. We don't need extra targets. I want to set up a perimetre around the apartment and get a lock on all access points.'

'How can we be sure Tropic won't wait us out?' Cobra asked. 'He's been patient so far. All he really has to do is sit on his hands until something pulls us off protection.'

'Or until Olsen's body turns up,' Neptune said. 'If the locals come for Duo, it decides things one way or the other, from Tropic's perspective.'

'At least he'd be safe in prison.' Zechs twisted to look behind him. Duo had opened a bottle of wine, but only Lefèvre had a glass. Duo was standing just far enough back from the balcony doors that he could look out without being seen from the alley, and he stood tugging at the strap of his sling with a grim expression on his face.

'Maybe there's something to that,' Zechs said.

'What do you mean?'

'I mean, what if Tropic is watching, and what he sees is a very public parade of local police carting Duo off to prison? It's what he wants. Our problem right now is that we don't know which direction Tropic's going to go. So we take away one of the possibilities. If Duo's imprisoned, he's out of the picture, and we can lay bets that Tropic will go to Sanq instead, to take out Heero Yuy.'

'I see a couple of major problems with that,' Neptune began.

'So do I,' Mamba said. 'From everything we've seen of him, do we know that Yuy would leave Brussels if Maxwell goes behind bars?'

'He will if Duo tells him to.' He met Neptune's eyes frankly. 'So let's put them in contact. Tropic is the priority. We'll deal with the rest of it as it comes.'

'Like whether or not we can get Duo out of prison when this is over?'

'They're going to come for him. He knows that, we know it. We can't sit on the fact that Duo confessed to killing Olsen. As soon as the Special Prosecutor gets the news, she'll be here with bells on. I burned her last time and she's going to leap at the opportunity to get Duo where she thinks he belongs.' He forestalled her protest. 'This is an inevitability. So we let it happen, and we use this time to fortify Relena. We put her and Heero somewhere visible, and we lay our trap. Tropic doesn't have his son to run the risks for him now. He'll have to act on his own, and we'll have our chance to catch him.'

Mamba was the first to agree. 'I'm in.'

'Good. Cobra?'

'What about Duo? Neptune's right. We can't be sure we can get him out of this if we let him go now.'

'I have an idea about that. He won't like it, but it's better than sitting in a locked cell for the rest of his life. Duo's smart. He'll make the right call.' And, if he was lucky, Sally would back him up. He didn't like to count his chickens before they hatched, but he didn't see he had much choice. 'Are you with me?'

'I'm with you,' she said reluctantly.

'Neptune?'

She bit her lower lip. 'I trust you. And I trust you not to throw this on a wild idea. I think.'

'Then these are our next steps. Mamba, coordinate with Commander. We need a big, public place to stage Heero Yuy's return to Sanq, and I want Relena surrounded by the entire strength of the Corps. Cobra, liaise with the locals. We can control the time and place of Duo's arrest, and we'll get cooperation if we make it look voluntary. Tell them he's going to turn himself in. And please call a local barrister; he's been Duo's attorney and he'll want to know what's going on. The name is Van den Broeck. Neptune, you and I need to get to work convincing Duo to play his part.'

She drew a deep breath. 'I'm in.'

Zechs nodded. 'Then let's go, team.'


**


He'd been proud of Duo before, but never quite in the way he was when Duo listened to his explanation, and agreed without question.

'You'll have a little time,' he said, in the long silence that followed. 'Cobra will be talking to the locals, but they won't be able to pull together a delegation to come get you until the legalities are satisfied. I'd say by tonight. Tomorrow morning at the latest.'

'It won't be the Asylum Centre, this time?'

'No. Likely it will be the Prison de Saint-Gilles.'

'Yeah.'

'Your conditions won't be harsh. And I don't think we'll see a repeat of deportation attempts. That backfired on them last time. They'll want to keep you here, to prevent embarrassment.'

'Okay.' Troyes offered Duo a glass of wine, and Duo took it without comment. He drank it steadily for several sips, then set it on the edge of the kitchen bar. 'What about Heero? What are his guarantees?'

'Preventers will take no actions against him. You have my word on that, and Commander Po's word. We can't give it to you in writing.'

'Same for Troyes.'

'The same for Troyes.'

Duo looked to the Frenchman. 'That okay with you? You take their word for it?'

Lefèvre inclined his head. 'If you trust them, then I will trust them.'

'Agreed?' Zechs asked.

Duo nodded once. 'Agreed.'

That had been the hard part. Zechs wanted that glass of wine for himself, but his job wasn't done, not yet. 'Now lay it out for me. The truth.'

'Off the record.'

'Off the record.'

Duo swiped a hand under his nose. He picked up the wine glass again, but didn't drink from it. 'We did tell the truth. Rebeka and I. Tropic got us out of the apartment, he changed places at some point with the kid, and the kid pulled his crazy stunt with the gun and tried to kill us. So I hit him with the rock, like I said. I wasn't entirely sure he was dead. I felt for a pulse, but I wasn't sure. I had a lot of adrenaline going and I didn't know for sure if Tropic were still out there watching. So I grabbed Rebeka out of the trunk and I drove until we hit the dike. Then I called Troyes. I told him what had happened and I said he needed to call Preventers and tell them we were stuck somewhere and I couldn't figure out where. Tropic had ripped the navigation out and the kid had a road map, but it covered the entire fucking continent and I had no clue where we were.'

'I contacted the Preventers Hotline,' Lefèvre said, taking up the narrative. 'The agent I spoke to was very dismissive. He told me they would take care of it. I had no choice but to believe him. But I called Relena next because she is very good friends with Duo, and of course Mister Yuy would want to know what had happened. And he was very distressed. He said...'

'What. What did he say.'

'He asked if I had the number they'd used to call. I gave it to him. The number for the car phone.'

'So you had contact with Heero while you were still with the car.' Zechs braced his arms on the bar, considering that. 'And he got your location.'

'I didn't have a location to give him,' Duo said. 'I didn't know where we were. And I was shaken. I'd just killed the fucking kid and I knew I'd be arrested for it. It was like-- it was like it was all for nothing, the last five years. At the end of the day I'm still a Gundam Pilot, and everyone is always going to see me that way no matter what I do.' He pulled himself in, closed his eyes. No-one spoke as he steadied himself. 'Heero told me to find a safe place. A house or a farm. To call in. To him. When I had a location. So we left the car. Rebeka and I, we just-- walked. She was in and out, and I carried her half of it, and I didn't think she'd die from it, but I wasn't sure. We finally found the farm. The family was good to us, they helped Rebeka, and they let me use the phone. I called Heero. At that point I was thinking, just to reassure him. But he-- he--'

'He got the location,' Lefèvre finished. 'And then he asked me to get him there.'

'Asked you,' Zechs said sceptically.

'Asked,' Lef´evre repeated mildly. 'I complied. I have a private plane that flies out of Sanq. I gave it over to his use.'

'Did you meet up with him?' Zechs asked Duo.

'Just for a minute. Outside the farm. I didn't want the family to see him, it just would have brought trouble for them. I sneaked out while they were occupied with Rebeka. I told him about the car, about Olsen. He said he'd take care of it. I said they'd figure it out when he never showed up again. He told me I should lie-- said you'd just assume he got away, or died somewhere you'd never find him, but that I wouldn't be blamed.'

'You should have listened to him,' Zechs said bluntly. 'Why didn't you? You'll lie about Heero's interference, but not about killing a man?'

'Rebeka saw it happen. She would have had to lie too. If we got caught, that would put her career on the line.'

Zechs scraped his hair behind his neck, but he was past fighting it. 'Then what.'

'He said he'd take care of it. That was the last I saw of him. But I think he's here. You said he hadn't turned up back in Sanq, and he never contacted Troyes for extract.'

'Do you have any way of reaching him?'

'I gave him my mobile phone,' Lefèvre said. 'If we contact him from Duo's line, I'm sure he would answer it.'

'Then let's do it.' Zechs touched Duo's phone, sitting on the counter. 'Bring him in.'

Duo picked it up. His thumb scrolled with ease of practise over the touch screen, lingered for just a second. He put the phone to his ear.

'It's me,' he said, just a second later. 'It's over. You need to get back to Sanq. Troyes will pick you up.' There was some protest too soft to hear; Zechs knew it only because of the dip of Duo's eyes. 'No,' Duo said then. 'I'm telling you. It's over. Thank you. But it's over.'

[part 17] [part 19] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]