Caveat + Part 19
Duo's neck was salty with sweat when Zechs put his mouth to it. The rub of their bodies was almost torturously inadequate; he burned, clenching every muscle he had to hold out just a little longer. Duo hadn't come yet. He wanted Duo to come first.
But it just wasn't happening. The shower water was already cold. Duo had knocked the lever to a dribble at least ten minutes ago. Duo was still hard in his hand, but he was concerned-- they'd been at it long enough for Duo to be sore. But it wouldn't end.
Duo propped an arm up on the tile. It slipped in the wet, and he knocked the bar soap from the shelf. Zechs shifted left to avoid stepping on it.
'Don't worry about it,' Duo whispered. 'Good practise for prison.'
Duo pushed away from him, sliding free. He threw back the curtain and stepped out of the cubicle. Zechs turned to watch, uncertain if he was meant to follow. But Duo reached back for him. Pulled him in by the wrist. He left the shower and followed Duo to the sink. Duo bent low over it, tugged him near. Pulled Zechs' arm close around his waist. Zechs didn't ask if he was sure. He moved in close. The way Duo tensed when he fitted their bodies made Zechs grind his teeth. He cupped Duo by the groin. But it wasn't quite right. He smoothed his palm up, over Duo's flat belly, over his damp chest. He found the same spot on his neck to kiss. He traced a string of wet hair along Duo's jaw, lifted it away. Buried his nose in Duo's smell. It was going to be gone from him for a while. It was one last chance.
When he brushed his lips over Duo's ear, Duo shivered. Tilted his head for it. Zechs did it again, stroked Duo's cheek, the line of his jaw. This time, when he lowered his hand to take Duo in his fist, it was time. Duo choked off a gasp into his own shoulder, and Zechs wrapped him tight.
Afterward, he pulled their towels from the rack on the door. Duo gave his hair a weary scrub. 'She's waiting for us,' he murmured. 'She knows what we're doing in here.'
Probably. But she wouldn't interrupt them. 'They won't put you in general population,' Zechs said. 'They can't. They'd be liable.'
'I don't want to talk about it.' Duo dried himself and tossed the towel over the sink. He yanked his jeans on, awkward with his casted arm, and buttoned them one-handed. 'They won't. I know. They didn't before.'
Zechs fingered his hair back from his face and wrapped it in an elastic. 'You know it's only for a while. Until we can deal with Tropic.'
'I'm not part of the equation any more. Just keep Relena safe. And Heero.'
'We will. I hope you believe me.'
'I believe you.' Duo met his eyes. 'I do believe you. You're doing what I would do. Anything it takes to keep your people safe. I get that. I trust that.'
His throat was tight. But what if it doesn't work, he wanted to say. What if, what if. But Duo was right. Duo of all people knew himself, and knew what he could put his faith in.
Duo's fingers curled in his. Duo lifted his hand to his cheek. Kissed his knuckles.
'Be good while I'm gone,' Duo said.
Zechs bent to press their lips together. 'I will.'
Of his fellow agents, only Neptune had remained behind. Cobra and Mamba were on their way to HQ, to pick up Sally and move on to Sanq, to prepare for manoeuvres there. Troyes was hours gone, now, meeting Heero Yuy in a location every Preventer had been careful not to ask about. Zechs took longer dressing, but when he emerged, he found his friends sitting on the couch together, heads together, hands tightly clasped. For Duo, he was glad of the comfort. And he was grateful once again to Neptune, for bringing Duo back to him once and for being here to save him one more time.
If they really did pull this off, it would save Duo. If they didn't...
Duo cleared his throat and sat back. He scraped wet hair behind his ears. 'We ready?' he asked.
Neptune helped him with the strap of his sling. 'You think they'll let you keep it?'
'Probably not,' Zechs said. 'But they'll give him one from their own clinic.'
A broken arm could be a deadly disadvantage, in a prison that was bound to have one or two hardened types who would know who Duo was. Even if they didn't, he was a young, attractive man, small in stature. Zechs didn't doubt he would hold his own. But for how long? If Duo was lucky and the authorities cooperated Duo would spend his time in the numbing isolation of a solitary cell. Which would be worse? But Duo had still said yes.
All of them jumped at the knock. 'It's probably Van den Broeck,' Zechs said. 'He must have rushed.'
'I'll get it.' Neptune rose, but Duo stopped her with a touch of the hand. He went to the door himself, unlocking and opening it. He no sooner opened it than Van den Broeck, not even over the threshold, looped him tight in two long arms. Twenty years old or not, Duo only stood resistant for a moment. He was blushing dully when Van den Broeck finally let him go, but stayed close to his mentor as they locked up again and rejoined the Preventers on the couch.
'Thank you for coming, Pieter,' Zechs said, extending a hand. Van den Broeck gripped it tightly. 'We all appreciate it.'
'Though I think I am here as a friend today, and less as a lawyer.' Van den Broeck sank down onto the couch, tucking his coat between his knees. 'You must know there is very little I can do now.'
Duo nodded. 'I know.'
'I am sorry, my friend,' Pieter said simply. He put his hand on Duo's denim-covered knee. 'Trouble follows some people. Let us hope only because you are strong enough to survive it.'
'I'm not worried about strong enough.' Duo caught Zechs' eyes. 'I'm worried about Relena and Heero. Tropic knows Preventers from the inside. And if he's from Sanq, he knows the countryside, too. He can guess where you'll stash her and how you'll try to protect her.'
'Guessing isn't the same as beating it.' Zechs detoured to the kitchen. Bread, butter, and, with a little searching, some cheese and cucumbers. 'Duo, you should eat.'
'I'm not hungry.'
'You don't know when they'll get around to it at Saint-Gilles.' Zechs cobbled together a sandwich that was rather more wobbly than what Duo would have produced, but it would eat the same. He brought the plate to Duo.
Duo took it. 'We've got to figure he knows his son is dead. We wouldn't all have been swanning around here for days if we'd just somehow escaped.'
'We've thought of that. It at least increases the chances he'll have to make the stupid, rash moves himself.'
'My point is that now he's a lone crazy. Lone crazies take bigger risks. And I don't think your ideas about Radical Pacifism really hold water.'
'What do you mean?' Neptune asked curiously. 'We found evidence.'
'That he dicked around with some hippie chicks at university. Treize Khushrenada sure as hell wasn't a Pacifist, but he was definitely interested in Relena. And in you, Zechs.'
'The prince of Sanq.'
It was an automatic discomfort he felt, even though Duo was hardly revealing anything that the other two didn't already know. Van den Broeck had recognised him immediately, and Neptune had figured it out for herself long ago. Still, he felt tension in his backbone, and tried to shake it.
'You did say Tropic kept warning you off Duo,' Neptune mused. 'And the rest of us heard it at one point or another. And he really didn't like it when you'd pull one of your off-the-book moves. He said once you of all people should be above it. I thought at the time he said it because we all knew Sally wanted you to be Deputy.'
'And he dosed me with GHB the night we were going to have sex,' Duo added. 'I guess he thought if I looked like a big slut then the Prince of Sanq wouldn't want anything to do with me.'
This time it was Zechs who blushed. Neptune buried a smile, but Van den Broeck just looked stiffly away. Leave it to Duo to unearth a new truth in the bluntest possible way. Zechs cleared his throat. 'I didn't know you were planning on-- that-- that night.'
'We were definitely getting closer to it.' Duo's smile faded. 'You were patient. I liked that.'
'We will find him, Duo.' Neptune squeezed his hand. 'I promise. And the rest of it--'
'The rest of it will be what it will be.' Duo inhaled deeply. 'So we just wait, now? I hate waiting.'
'I know.' Zechs nudged the plate of sandwich on the coffee table. 'You could fill the time with eating.'
With a sigh, Duo obeyed him. 'Don't let him eat like this while I'm gone,' he told Neptune. 'There's a reason I'm the one who cooks in this relationship.'
Van den Broeck followed Zechs to the balcony when Zechs wandered there next, in some faint hope of spotting his missing partner on the street. Of course, it was empty below, not even an out-of-place car to stare at suspiciously. It was a grey, overcast day, a stubborn winter that refused to leave them. A brisk walk outside would have done Duo good, but they had to be here for the police escort, whenever it arrived. Zechs checked the time. It wouldn't be long. Already it was mid-afternoon.
'Agent Cobra was light on details for what will come next,' Van den Broeck told him quietly.
Zechs stirred himself with a small shake. 'He'll go to prison.'
'Without a body, there is no proof.'
'But they can hold him on his confession, and a Preventer's corroboration. And people have been tried without a body before.'
'It cannot escape your calculations that there may not be a trial. Not again.'
No, it hadn't. There wouldn't be many people in favour of giving a Gundam Pilot another day in the sun, especially if it meant he'd walk free again. And Relena's diplomatic superpowers couldn't be abused again without destroying her caché. 'I think you'll like this even less than Duo,' Zechs murmured. 'But we do have a last resort.'
'A last resort?'
Zechs turned to face the man. 'There's a clause in Preventers' Charter that gives us the ability to bring in certain categories of people to act as Temporary Appointment Agents. It was meant for me, in the days in which it was entirely possible that both Zechs Merquise and Milliardo Peacecraft could be charged with crimes against humanity. It's not a rule that could ever be passed today, but in those fresh days after the war we had-- some extraordinary leeway.'
Van den Broeck was an intelligent man and he figured it out quickly. 'Certain categories of people,' he repeated coolly. 'Such as a prisoner. And I assume from your presence that Temporary Appointment has an indefinite term.'
'You'll spring him from jail only to trap him in Preventers' employ!'
'He's already agreed.'
'Given the alternative he could hardly fail to. That does not make it right.' Van den Broeck checked his rising voice. 'I had thought you more committed to him than to force him into this. He's already turned Preventers down a dozen times with far more pleasant offers. He does not want to be a soldier.'
'He doesn't want to be a prisoner, either.'
He expected Van den Broeck to fight him. But Van den Broeck only shook his head. 'How frequently this happens,' he muttered. 'It will ruin him.'
'He'll have to be strong enough.' Zechs rubbed his face. He'd forgotten to shave, during their shower, and his jaw was bristly now. 'He is strong enough. Believe in that.'
The police came just after seven. No sirens; that was enough to be thankful for, tense as they all were, but Neptune spotted the arrival of the caravan. They stayed seated on the couch, surrounding Duo, who had gone silent and grim in the last hours, locked down. Preparing himself. He did not flinch at the sound of a dozen pairs of feet on the stairs, not even at the pounding on the door. Zechs stayed with him as Van den Broeck opened the door, and let them in.
The two who entered were, not surprisingly, the Special Prosecutor, and a uniformed policeman who wasted no time in freeing his wristcuffs.
'Duo Maxwell,' the Prosecutor said.
Duo stood. Zechs rose, and Neptune came to his side as well. She shook her head at Zechs. No sign of Tropic outside. But if they were right-- and they needed to be right-- he was watching somehow.
'It will be okay,' Duo told him briefly. Zechs nodded, his throat tight. He ought to be reassuring Duo. But he didn't have words.
Duo left them, stepping out of their protective circle. He held out his hands, wrists together. He let the policeman wrap one in cuffs and then turn him, to chain him with his hands behind his back. The policeman patted him down for weapons, thorough on the baggy weight of his hoodie and even probing his casted arm, down his legs and the surface of his trainers. When the man stood and nodded toward the Prosecutor, she signed the papers she held, and extended them to Zechs.
'Our thanks to Preventers for bringing us this case,' she said, giving Zechs a hard smile. 'May our future collaborations be as fruitful.'
'Truly,' Zechs answered, and signed his name, officially transferring Duo to their custody. 'Please keep us updated about his conditions. For the records.'
'Of course,' she said.
It was slow going on the stairs. They'd brought far too many people for one slender Gundam Pilot, but the show was what they'd wanted. Zechs' neighbours stood in open doors to watch the procession, and they garnered attention on the street, as well, people drawn by the flashing police lights and the cars parked in a rough semi-circle in the street, blocking traffic. Duo was escorted to one of the cars, and they pushed him inside without even a chance to look back. Once he was inside, Zechs couldn't see him through the tinted windows. Neptune wrapped her hands about his arm and rested her head on his shoulder. Zechs looked down at her, puzzled. It wasn't like her to display that kind of girlish upset. He patted her hand awkwardly, and she sighed heavily against him, even swaying before Zechs caught her.
Van den Broeck walked by with the Special Prosecutor. 'I'll follow them to Saint-Gilles,' he told Zechs. 'I should be able to stay with him for another hour or two. I'll let you know.'
'Thank you,' Zechs said, but Van den Broeck was already past him. He went in the front of Duo's car. It was only another minute before the rest of the crowd divided up in vehicles, and then those vehicles were wheeling about and driving off. In short order, the street was empty.
'We should get back to HQ,' Zechs said.
'Yes.' Neptune wiped her eyes dramatically. 'Did you lock up?'
'Yes.' Zechs gestured to his own company car, and walked her to it, carefully supporting her faltering steps. 'Are you-- feeling all right?'
He shut her into the passenger seat and climbed into the driver's. He checked the street automatically, but if Tropic was there, he was as good as invisible.
'Let him think we're all weak,' Neptune said, suddenly fine. 'He'll underestimate us that much more. If he buys the weak woman act, I might be able to get close enough to rip his balls off. I think Duo would like that as a belated New Years gift.'
Zechs barked out a laugh before he caught himself. 'You're terrifying.'
'Good,' she said succinctly.
Sally met him at his desk. Their eyes met, and Zechs inclined his head. Sally lowered hers in sympathy.
'Hard?' she asked quietly.
'There's an upside,' she said.
Zechs dropped his coat on his chair. Tropic's side of their cubicle was empty, of course. Zechs gave it a long look, and turned his back on it. 'Upside?'
'I don't think you've ever loved anyone enough to do what you did today.'
That caught him. Certainly he'd had terrible motivations before: vengeance had sustained him two solid decades, but had left him empty and bitter when one death had failed to change the universe. His parents had been revenged, and Sanq had risen again, but nothing could be as it was when he was a child, and it had been a child's fury and grief that had failed to see that, not a grown man's acceptance of a complicated world. But he was a grown man now. And while he'd cared, and cared deeply, for people, including the woman standing by him now, he'd never-- loved.
'He won't thank me for it,' he rasped, and sat.
'Don't sell him short. He did it for you as much as for himself. More, maybe.'
'And how can he fail to resent me for it, one day?'
'The same way he can love Heero even though Heero left him for Sanq. The same way he can love Relena even though she took his best friend away. That's what love is, Zechs.'
It was too early and too raw to respond to that. He buried it by turning to touch his computer on. 'Did Yuy report in?'
'Three hours ago.' Sally rested against the wall of his cubicle. 'Of course Spider and Orange asked him for an official reason behind his disappearance. Guess what he said.'
' I took a walk ,' Sally deadpanned.
Even Zechs cracked a grin for that. 'He didn't dare.'
'Oh, yes. I think we have a long way to go with that one.' She sobered then. 'On the downside, we can't officially ask him about Árni Olsen. Which means we may never locate the body.'
Zechs shook his head. 'Can you honestly say anyone will miss him?'
'I just don't like loose ends. What are you checking for?'
'FreeSpace,' Zechs said. 'I owe Agent Mèo a check-in.'
'Don't bother. I pulled you off it. Mèo's capable of running it solo, and we don't need the distraction.'
Zechs stiffened. 'I apologise, Commander.'
'Don't,' she said again, and touched his shoulder. 'You were right, and I wasn't. By the way, I have something for you.' She put an envelope on his desk. 'The paperwork is for a slower day, but the badge is for now.'
Badge? Zechs unwound the string and shook it upended over his hand. Yes, badge. Silver pinned to a slip of olive leather. Deputy.
When he looked up to thank her, she was gone.
Sanq felt even less welcoming than usual.
There was no detouring from landing at the small airport and hustling into the waiting van. The local Preventers had spared only a single escort, so they crammed together with all their equipment and weapons. It was a tense, silent ride. Neptune had not been allowed to join them in this adventure, with a barely stable head injury, and Zechs already missed her presence. She had gone ahead of them hours ago, and joined Spider and Orange in protecting Relena, whose company had expanded to include her walk-about lover and Troyes. There weren't many places the well-known face of Sanq's Princess could go unobserved, and there was no question of removing her from the country so long as she refused to leave Heero behind her, so their options had been limited. Zechs would have preferred to remove her from the equation entirely, but he'd been overruled, and he could hardly argue, because it had been, really, his own idea.
'We need visibility now,' Sally had said flatly. 'Tropic can stay out in the cold for far longer than we can protect Relena in some secret hide-away. Not to mention that she has to function as a head of state. Hiding her doesn't help anything. We need her out where Tropic can see her, the same as Duo. And we need Heero standing right next to her, daring him to make a move.'
It was only common sense, of course, but it made Zechs itch under the skin. If any harm came to Relena because they'd exposed her, he wouldn't have to worry about forgiving himself. Heero would murder him.
So they'd gone back to Malmö. They'd walked Relena very publicly back into the residence, and posted guard, because Tropic would expect them to, and snipers, because regulations required it, and then they'd walked Heero Yuy around the perimetre as if explaining all of their preparations to him. If Tropic were watching, he'd see what would, they hoped, infuriate him enough to make a move.
They did it again on the hour. By the time Zechs arrived, Heero had been through it four times. Zechs went with him for the fifth.
Yuy was not best pleased to see him. It was a mutual feeling. They went almost the full walk around Malmö's grounds before Yuy broke the silence.
He said, 'Duo. He did better in prison than me. Before.'
Zechs shortened the strap of his assault rifle so that it hung better cocked for a sudden shoot-out. 'He was younger then,' he answered. 'And he was doing it for you.'
'So now he'll do it for you.'
They passed through an ivied arch into the tiered gardens. Malmö was only a very large house, not a proper palace, but the gardens were spread over acres in a veritable forest of botanicals and shade trees, and they would afford a savvy man like Tropic plenty of cover, particularly at night. Zechs flexed his finger over his rifle's trigger.
'Will it be enough?' he asked.
Heero had yet to look him in the face. It was not avoidance. He was too busy scanning with his eyes, seeking out every miniscule clue from the landscape, staring like a hawk for any tiny movement. He wore that wrinkled yellow shirt again, nothing that spoke especially of danger, but he walked like a man ready to commit dangerous deeds. His hands hung open and empty at his sides-- no Preventer had wanted to give him a weapon, even if it weren't against the law, but he didn't look much like he'd need one. Zechs knew better than most men how deadly Heero Yuy was, with or without help.
'What happened to your cap?' Zechs asked.
'The one Relena made you.'
Heero blinked once, and turned to his left. 'I had to leave it in Brussels. She's knitting me a new one.'
'What did you do with the body?'
They were alone. He wouldn't have asked it if they weren't. Heero didn't look at him, even for that. 'It's gone,' he said.
'It didn't solve anything.'
'It should have.' Heero clenched his fists slowly. Zechs watched it. 'I told him. He's too stubborn. He thinks there should be rules, that the rules will protect people. Protect his people.'
'In a fair world.'
'It's not,' Heero said softly. 'A fair world. You're making him a Preventer.'
Zechs ground his teeth together. He could see all the way to the treeline, not beyond it, the heavy brush that could be hiding a man and his private arsenal. 'We're not evil. We're not even the worst of a dozen bad options.'
'Where will you station him?'
'There's been no time to think about that.'
'So you'll slap that together, too.'
'Improvise. We have to be light on our feet. You of all people should recognise that mode. Or didn't it occur to you when you went charging out of Sanq that you might be making things worse for him? Or Relena? What if you'd been caught?' Heero's very breath was dismissive, and Zechs had to suck in a deep breath to keep from shaking him. 'What?'
Heero never so much as looked at him. 'You're not competent enough to catch me,' he said. 'And Preventers wouldn't know light feet if you were kicked with it. You're slow. You're unwieldy. You move in groups, you wait for confirmed intelligence, and you don't shoot until they do. At least in OZ you didn't hesitate to mow down civilians.'
'We don't really have the time to re-fight the war, Yuy.'
'Then make the time.' Heero pivoted, but whatever had caught his attention, he was back to walking a moment later. 'If you make the same mistakes now that you did then, you'll lose.'
Relena was easier. She was used to being moved swiftly and told little about it, so she asked him no questions, when he came to bid her good night. It was not brotherly suspicion-- much-- that made him wait until he knew she was in her bedroom to do it, but he was nonetheless relieved to see no sign that Yuy was sharing it with her. If nothing else, he would have expected more mess.
She was seated on her bed-- her happily small bed-- brushing her hair when he entered. Zechs sat next to her, propping his rifle on the carpet below. 'You're in for the night,' he told her. 'There will be two Preventers outside your door for the duration. If you need anything, hear anything, call.'
'I will.' She tucked her small feet beneath her. 'Heero said there's holes in the defences. You're trying to leave this rogue agent a path inside?'
'On the assumption that he'll recognise them for what they are, but feel compelled to use them anyway.'
'I take it you agree, or you wouldn't be doing it.' She smiled for him, tapping his wrist with her hairbrush. 'May I suggest something?'
'Of course. Always.'
'Offer him the opportunity to speak to me. In person. That might spare us the violence you're so keenly anticipating.'
Zechs glanced away from her. He had to. Her guileless, even look was too much challenge for him. 'He's earned a little violence, Relena. Because of him, a boy is dead, and even if that boy was no innocent, that's Tropic's failure, as well. That boy killed Pargan. Tropic's done nothing but inflict pain and suffering.'
'And he'll have his. His son is dead. He'll fail at whatever it is he's trying to do now. And he'll live a long and miserable life in prison. He has that coming to him. It can't happen if you shoot him dead on sight.'
Zechs shook his head. 'We don't have a way of contacting him anyhow.'
'What's the saying?' Relena tied her hair with a ribbon. 'Broadcast on all frequencies.'
'Is this genetic?' Sally demanded.
'Genetic?' Zechs repeated uncertainly.
'This Peacecraft need for complication.'
Zechs absolutely did not smile. 'I'm not necessarily recommending the idea. But-- it is a possibility.'
'He'll know it's a trick.'
'So we make it not a trick. Let him have his say. Who knows. He might even come quietly if he has a chance to spew his hatred for a while.'
Neptune spoke up. 'I don't like it,' she said. 'Preventers don't negotiate with people like Tropic. Our duty is to bring him in, dead or alive.' She scrunched her face comically. 'So if we can do our duty without ammo, I... suppose we should do it whether we like it or not.'
Somehow she'd struck the right note. Sally was caving. 'I'll let you two tell Heero,' she muttered. 'Come up with a plan that protects every inch of the grounds and I'll consider it. Consider it.'
'We'll be in communication,' Zechs said, and cut their connection. He raised an eyebrow at Neptune. 'So? We're really thinking about this?'
'As an alternative to waiting weeks or even months for Tropic to decide whether he wants to make another move? It's been days already. He's got to know his son is dead. Maybe he's decided to cut his losses?'
'The idea of him waiting out there for years puts my nerves in a grinder.' Zechs found a wall to lean his head against. He was bone-tired. It was early morning, by now, and there'd been little sleep for days before this one.
'Do you think he's okay?'
He knew without asking that she meant Duo. If Zechs was tired, Duo had to be dead on his feet. He hoped by now Duo was sleeping, safe in a cell. 'Do you think I rushed it?' he asked, trusting her to answer him honestly. 'Should I have tried something else.'
'The only other thing we could have done was smuggle him out of the country. And if we'd tried it, everyone would have known it was us, and he'd be a fugitive for the rest of his life. And that's without knowing whether we would have started a diplomatic disaster between whoever took him in and the rest of the world that wants him contained.'
'I asked Yuy about the dead boy. I don't know why it even matters.' Zechs paused, unsure why he'd even brought it up. Neptune's face was grave and gave back absolutely none of her thoughts; she was far more competent than he'd thought her, this past year. How easily Tropic had played on his anxieties about a workplace that he'd feared wouldn't accept him, agents who were merely mortal men and women, not ideal officers in the mould of Treize Khushrenada's Platonic perfection of the breed. But when had any mortal man or woman been perfect? Not Treize, who'd lived just long enough to bury his own ignoble roots and rise to unparalleled heights on the sheer power of ambition and greed. Not Zechs, who had followed him for as long as it benefited and left him when his loyalty was truly tested. Not Une, who had been a mad dog when Treize needed one, a meek and comely ambassador when he'd needed that, and only found her own voice when her master had finally abandoned her. Noin, who'd never truly believed, Noin might be the only one of them who'd escaped clean. Neptune reminded him of her. Healthy. Not just in body, not just a beautiful specimen who wore the uniform well. A woman who'd known herself without OZ telling her. A woman who'd been able to love openly, and easily, frightening him. All that emotion, that devotion, given so freely.
'I think I owe you a number of apologies,' he said finally.
She looked at him. Her mouth quirked, not quite a smile. 'I'll issue a blanket pardon. That's what friends do, isn't it?'
'We are friends, then?'
'I'd like to think so.' She stirred. Her hand extended, her manicured nails catching the light. But when Zechs squeezed her fingers, her grip was strong.
'Thank you,' Zechs said. 'For everything. For him and for me.'
'We'll make it work, Zechs. You'll see.'
He wasn't entirely sure he believed that. But he nodded, and she smiled for him.
Spider marked it on the calendar with a large 'x' through the date. 'Five days and counting, my colleagues.'
Zechs grimaced over his water. He wanted something stronger, but he knew better. He'd even come to be wary of tea and coffee-- too many stimulants were just as bad as too many depressants. He needed his wits about him and in their natural state. But Spider was right. Tropic had been at large for five days. No, longer; five since they'd brought Relena back so publicly to Malmö, and three days before that, nearly four, after Tropic had handed prisoners over to his son and disappeared through the aftermath. If he was watching, they had no way of knowing. If he was listening to their appeals, he wasn't answering. Every hour on the hour they'd sent out a message on all frequencies used by Preventers. Come in and talk. Safe passage guaranteed.
And every hour on the hour they'd paraded Heero Yuy around the grounds. Even Yuy had grown tired of his constant vigilance, and no longer wasted effort staring off into the horizon for signs of distant movement.
A knock at the door of their suite-turned-office made them all jump. Orange, outright asleep in his chair, nearly sprawled to the floor in an effort to go hopping to his feet. Cobra cracked a weary smile for it as she answered the door.
It was Relena and Troyes Lefèvre, heading a veritable convoy of kitchen carts. 'Dinner,' Relena announced brightly. 'And no protests. I know you're all but dead on your feet. A real hot meal is just what you need.'
'No objections from me,' Spider said enthusiastically. He whipped a lid from a tray and inhaled deeply. 'Ah. Magical.'
'And a cart's gone out to all your agents who are on watch duty,' Relena added, directing her cart-pushers with little flips of her hand. 'Everyone's getting a tray.'
Troyes was already dispensing plates. 'Mister Duo said this is your favourite,' he murmured to Zechs, setting it before him. The cover came off to reveal a crisp fillet of sablefish and whole morrel mushrooms. Zechs hid his own smile with his hand. 'I was instructed to be sure the chef followed the recipe exact,' Troyes added. 'Though I do not know how it could be as good as if Duo himself prepared it.'
'I can't imagine that myself.' Zechs wet his lips. 'Thank you. A lovely gesture.'
'I am under strict orders.' Troyes gave him a napkin and a set of silverware. 'Enjoy it. It will make him happy.'
Yes, it would. As it made Zechs happy to have a treat before him, even if that treat had likely been in planning before Duo had been taken away from him. But it whet his appetite as sandwiches had not. Zechs ate with no more prodding.
'That's better,' Relena decided, seating herself beside him. 'You've all been looking wan. Perhaps you ought to think about hiring a new crop of agents. Or contracting.'
'It would seem to be a worthy thought.' The fish was flaky and perfectly seasoned. The butter emulsion tasted like truffles-- not an ingredient Duo would have afforded, but Zechs was willing to grant that license. 'Thank you, as well. I know it hasn't been easy, being exiled in your own kingdom.'
'You'll do as you see fit. All I hope is that one day it won't be necessary.' She stole a sliver of mushroom from his plate. 'Promise me you'll sleep tonight. You look horrid.'
'The meal will help, as you said.' Zechs swallowed a massive bite. 'You don't look well-rested, yourself. You're not worried about Tropic?'
'He's upended my kingdom,' she said tartly. 'It's not that I'm not glad to have Heero here. Of course I am. But exile away from my own capitol? And Pargan.' Her small fingers plucked at a napkin's seam. 'I have a nightmare about him. Trapped under the dirt in his garden. Dying alone.'
Zechs covered her hand. 'Then you do understand why we want so badly for Tropic to give us a reason.'
'Of course I understand wanting it. That's not the same thing as wanting to be his executioner.'
'You have more virtue than me.'
'No.' She smiled sadly. 'But maybe more luxury for my principles. If I had to hold the gun, I don't know that I would resist. If I'd been a better shot, there would have been no Lady Une to create Preventers.'
'You were a child then,' he said.
'I stopped being a child when I watched my father die.' She met his gaze, clear-eyed. 'We've always had that in common, you and I.'
What he would have replied, he never knew. Every agent in the room reached for the comm unit at the same time, alerted by the sharp buzz. 'Message from HQ,' Zechs said, already rising. 'Relena, Troyes--'
Troyes was already moving Relena to an inside wall near the exit. Good. He'd been trained enough, and scared enough recently, to assist in his own defence, and in Relena's. Spider and Orange were there only an instant later, a wall of muscle raised in automatic protection of one of the Earth-Sphere's greatest assets. Zechs dialled, and put his phone to his ear.
Sally answered after a single ring. 'Trouble,' she greeted him.
'Worse, in a way. We've just received a red-level alert from Border Patrol.'
'Not that border. The border between Earth and Colonial Space. They slipped through on a shipping protocol, and they managed to get through customs as well. How anyone could fail to recognise them in this country particularly is beyond me--'
'Sally, which country? Who are you talking about? They?'
'The Gundam Pilots. They landed in Sanq's national airport thirty minutes ago. They have a vehicle and they're headed toward you. An employee at the rental car company recognised Quatre Winner. He was gossiping about it and an off-duty airport security officer heard him, and called it in.'
Zechs snapped his fingers at his fellow agents. 'No attack,' he told them. 'We have Gundam Pilots. All of them, Sally?'
'Three men. From the descriptions, it's all three of them. They're on all the no-fly lists, but there's no global don't-rent-these-people-a-car database.'
'And their objective is the residence?'
'We don't know, but I know who I want to ask.'
Heero. Who had proven before he could get information into and out of the Colonies.
'I'll keep you informed,' Zechs told his commander, and hung up. 'Get Yuy on the line. Now. Relena, did you know he'd called them in for backup?'
Her colour was heightened, a flush on her cheeks. 'No,' she said. 'The Gundam Pilots? They're coming here?'
'So it would seem. Orange, who has Yuy?'
'Mamba.' Orange passed him the comm. 'They're at the south gate.'
Zechs held the comm to his lips as he opened the door to their suite, checking up and down the hall for staff lingering near. Empty. 'Yuy?' he called, ducking back inside and securing the door by leaning on it. 'Answer me now.'
'What,' came the irritated response.
'When did you call them in?'
To his credit-- no, Zechs thought, irritated himself, to Preventers' embarrassment-- Yuy didn't even pretend not to know what he meant. 'Two days ago,' Heero answered. 'Are they here yet?'
If they were a half hour out of the airport, it wouldn't be long. Zechs didn't bother to answer him. 'Can you speak to them now?' he demanded. 'Tell them they absolutely cannot be seen coming in.'
'No method. But why shouldn't they be seen? The entire essence of your defence is visibility.'
Now he understood how Sally had felt, hearing those words from Zechs days ago. He wanted to grind his teeth into powder. 'Communications crash,' he told his fellow agents. 'Starting now. No-one uses a line in or out or between rooms here until we have custody of incoming. We can't spare the people to meet them on the road, but we control entry. And tell those snipers they can't shoot a Gundam Pilot without starting a damn war.'
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