Cobra poured from the carafe on the silver cart in the corner-- three glasses, though Barton disdained it when offered. Chang accepted it with a chilly nod, and set it down immediately. Winner was the only one who drank. His hand shook visibly.
Zechs silently texted a message to Mamba and Neptune, who had gone to ground in the residence with their respective charges, Heero and Relena. Stay low until contact, he typed. Yuy especially. Motives still unclear.
'Thank you,' Winner said. 'It was a long flight. We're-- we're--' He clamped his lips between his teeth. 'Grateful,' he finished carefully.
'A long flight,' Zechs echoed. 'Yes. A long and very illegal flight.'
'And?' Chang interrupted.
'And your presence here is an open invitation to every law enforcement agency on the planet.'
'Yes,' Winner agreed. 'But they'll move slowly. It's not so simple to dr-- dr--'
'Draft an extradition agreement,' Chang finished for him. 'Law enforcement may certainly arrest us. What they will do with us is a thornier question. Or do I mistake this hospitality for something other than a command to hide us?'
It was surreal. It was almost the same argument he'd had with Duo when Duo had contrived to be arrested in Heero's place. Bait and switch. No-- not surreal. Deliberate. Heero had been there. And Heero Yuy had never had a problem borrowing a trick once he'd seen it work.
He drew in a deep breath and blew it out slowly. 'All right,' he murmured. 'Let's try a little blunt honesty. You must be aware that Heero did not inform us that he had contacted you. And you must then also be aware that Heero has taken more than a few unsolicited and unexpected actions lately.'
Three pairs of eyes turned cautiously to him. Winner was the leader, even in his current state, and it was to him that Zechs looked. It earned him a nod. 'Yes,' Winner answered. 'He told us the truth.'
'Then you know that your presence here is a complication.'
'A turn on a theme.' Winner's smile was a jagged up-tick. 'Heero said this rogue Prev-- Prev--'
'Preventer,' Barton supplied quietly.
'Resents the influence of the Gundam Pilots,' Winner finished. 'So let's show him that influence. Let him see us. Four of us here by Relena's side should tip the balance.'
'And the consequences--'
'Are ours,' Chang said.
'To the Princess,' Zechs corrected. 'There are political consequences to being seen with you. She's already risked enough in bringing Heero here. She can't afford to make Sanq a refuge for all Gundam Pilots.'
'Can't she?' Chang opened his coat. Not a few Preventers in the room twitched at that, but Chang dismissed them with a lazy wave of his hand. He removed a thick envelope in diplomatic bindings from his inner pocket. 'The Premier of Lagrange Point Five sends his greetings and his gratitude to the Princess Relena Peacecraft of Sanq for her long years of friendship with the Colonies, and expresses his hope that her brave and public embrace of amnesty will be a shining example to the Earth-Sphere's leadership.'
That was no joke. Zechs was no politician, either, but he knew exactly how much that was worth, if that document Chang held really did say that. And Barton and Winner were both producing similar bundles. He extended his hand. Chang and Winner surrendered theirs immediately; Barton made him reach for it, but they all had the appropriate seals, looked official. Zechs examined them each as carefully as he could without cutting the ribbon binding them.
When he looked up, he nodded to Cobra. 'Get in contact with your partner. Keep lockdown in place-- but get the Princess in here.'
Relena finished reading by taking off her glasses and setting them aside. Her fingers lingered in place on the middle of the three documents, each lined up along the table in colony order. The Preventers in the room watched her tensely, not daring to interrupt her study, but each of them had touched their weapons at least once in each long minute it had taken her to survey the documents.
'Well?' Zechs asked finally.
'Wait,' Spider said, and made a show of crossing his chest in the sign of the cross. 'Now.'
Troyes stood, taking place behind Relena's chair. He rubbed her shoulders gently. She smiled wearily at him.
'It's a narrow path,' she said. 'The language is vague enough to be positive and broad enough not to have any real meaning. But one thing seems clear. It's not a form letter. The colonial governments knew this was happening, this specific event, the Gundam Pilots coming into Earth Space. There's no direct threats, but it's clear that arresting the Pilots would be taken as a hostile act. This is not a clandestine visit, even if it's not one taken with any actual authority.'
'Is that enough to ensure their freedom?' Neptune asked tentatively. 'Are Preventers...'
'We have no obligation to perform an arrest, until we have an order from Brussels,' Zechs answered. 'Which is not to say we'll be above criticism for failing to take action regardless.'
'And I can't afford to cushion you by providing you a counter-order,' Relena added. She tapped her glossy fingernails on the dossier from L3. 'The original indictment of the Pilots was issued in November of 195, before the end of the war. It was, however, inherited by the Provisional Government, and it was enacted by an executive order, not by Parliamentary vote. Technically it falls on the President to enforce the indictment against the remaining Pilots.'
'That's why there was such intensive manoeuvring to catch Duo and Heero in other illegal activity,' Cobra guessed. 'So they could be easily removed under the existing terms, but only with proof.'
'Yes,' Relena agreed. 'By the terms of their sentence they had strict parole requirements. But the other Pilots don't. They weren't tried, even in absentia. They're technically free citizens, until the indictment is enforced. If the President chooses to enforce it.'
'Are you enjoined to report their presence?' Troyes asked then.
That was a salient question. 'Preventers aren't,' Zechs said slowly. 'At least not entirely. We have latitude in circumstances involving ongoing mission-related intelligence work and operations. But we have to answer for the reasons we don't report, and I didn't want to isn't an acceptable reason.'
'Exactly,' Relena said, and sighed. Troyes squeezed her shoulders, and she patted his hand. 'All of this said, I think I should meet with them. The rest of the Sphere will believe I did anyway, and I don't lose anything by giving them that courtesy, after they came all this way, at such risk to themselves.'
If he didn't know exactly how Preventers ought to act, he did know what he had to say about Heero, and he knew too that his sister was not going to like it. 'Heero can't meet them,' Zechs told her. 'You know he can't. That is a violation of his sentence. Contacting them at all was a violation.'
Relena was silent for far too long for his comfort. There was a growing jut to her chin that was more than familiar to him; he saw in the mirror all too often. She was going to say no.
Or it could be infinitely worse.
'Maybe it's time they all got used to seeing him at my side no matter what I'm doing,' she said. 'They won't have any choice about it when we're married.'
Zechs had to suck in air just to keep himself from imploding. 'Married?' he repeated, when he could speak without shouting. He was proud of his level tone.
'He asked me,' Relena said. There was a delicate flush in her pale cheeks, but that stubborn jaw dared him to provoke her. 'Last night.'
'I see. And you don't think the timing is suspect?'
If he could have taken that back, he would have, if only for the sudden uncertainty in her eyes. He'd put that doubt there, made her wonder if Heero were only using her to get the Gundam Pilots on Earth with her royal power. Even if it were true, he should have never said it to her.
'Relena,' he sighed, and rose to take her in his arms. She resisted him for a moment, but when he stroked her hair she let her head rest against his chest. 'Forgive me. That was unfair.'
'You're wrong about him.' Relena separated gingerly from his embrace. 'I don't ask for you to love him, Zechs. Only that you believe me when I tell you that he does love me.'
'I do believe that,' Zechs admitted reluctantly. 'I've seen more than enough of it to be sure of that. But marriage? Are you sure? Duo said you turned him down before.'
'I had growing up to do.' Relena smiled fondly at him. 'It was never that I didn't love him. But I was afraid I wasn't able to stand up without him. I think I've just finally realised that he needs me as much as I need him.'
Neptune cleared her throat, and the room expanded again to include his fellow Preventer and Troyes, who were not incurious about their exchange. Only Neptune knew that Relena was really his sister; Spider and Orange did not, and nor did Cobra or, for that matter, the innocent Troyes, and it would be quite a remarkable thing for a Preventer, even one in Relena's circle of friends, to be quite so intimate with her. Not to mention what it did for his reputation as a cool-headed leader. First his involvement with Duo, now his tenderness with Relena. He would undermine himself before he even formally took the title of Deputy. Zechs took a careful step back, then another. He went to the window, to glance out over the lawn two flights below. Empty. Or so it appeared. But Tropic had to be out there.
'It's not that I disagree with the scheme,' he said reluctantly. 'It's the same premise as removing Duo from the picture so Tropic would focus on Heero. But I worry about the risk, to Sanq and to the Pilots.'
'We can worry or we can act,' Relena answered. She shrugged her slim shoulders. 'I don't see that we have all that much choice in the matter. They're here. If we had the option of stopping them at the border, that would be one thing, but that's not how it happened. I say we go full steam ahead.'
'Heero is definitely a bad influence,' Zechs said sourly.
But in the end that was the decision they made, and there really was no other way forward. Still, it was Relena's job to take political action, and Preventers' job to see that she did it with proper safeguards. They kept the palace in lockdown, all personnel, even Troyes, banned from the corridors. Outside, they kept the patrols going, stalking the garden walks in formation as if nothing had occurred. Deception would play a necessary part in this, the better to surprise Tropic when the time came. They'd have one shot at throwing him off his game, of outraging him so thoroughly that he'd be willing to jeopardise himself in order to confront them.
Given everything, the greetings exchanged between Relena and the Pilots were subdued. Chang, elegantly enough in his long robe, rose at her entrance and inclined himself in a bow. 'Princess,' he said, politely, if distantly.
'Beile,' she answered, returning his bow with one of her own. 'Welcome to my kingdom, and please forgive our caution in your reception. In these troubled times safety often takes the place of courtesy.'
'Not at all.' Faced with Relena's effortless charm, even Chang seemed mollified. He didn't go so far as to smile, but he did make a reasonably gracious gesture to introduce her to his friends. 'You recall my companions. Trowa Barton, Pilot of Gundam Heavyarms, and Quatre Winner, Pilot of Gundam Sandrock.'
'Interesting introduction,' Orange noted in undertone to Zechs.
'Yes,' Zechs agreed. 'Isn't it.'
'Of course I remember.' Relena offered a hand to Barton, who pressed it but released it quickly, regarding her impassively and straying no further than an inch from his partner. Winner, the warmest of the three, took both of Relena's hands in his, even rising up to kiss her cheek, though it was clear that he was not well-balanced on his feet and that both Barton and Relena moved to support him.
'Sanq is still as beautiful as I rem-remember,' Winner told her.
'Thank you, Quatre.' Relena drew a chair to his side, sweeping her skirt beneath her to sit. 'More beautiful without a war being fought inside its borders. But that's why you're here, I see.'
'I hope not a war.'
'We more than hope,' Chang pointed out, leaving his post by the fireplace to stand near the princess. He rested on spread feet, his hands clasped behind his back. 'Do I correctly take your presence here as an indication that you accept certain political illusions until we can resolve this situation?'
'I accept that we've reached a point of desperate measures.' Relena rested a hand on Winner's knee. 'Preventers are completely satisfied that this Agent Tropic wasn't complicit in what happened to you in the mines?'
'Not beyond taking advantage of our paranoia about it,' Barton said, the longest sentence Zechs had heard out of him yet. And it was bitterly spoken, soft words while his eyes lingered steadfastly on his lover. 'It's my fault. Heero being picked up by Immigration. I was trying to reach him, trying to get his help. I thought it must be connected and he was trying to find out. If Tropic was waiting for an opening, we gave him one. And because of what happened to Heero, he was able to get to Duo.'
'Stop it,' Winner said firmly. When Barton looked away, Winner sighed. 'If we begin blaming ourselves, then let's start with me. I knew Mavise was involved in Fr-- Fr-- FreeSpace and I was convinced it was Wealthy Trustee Syndrome. If I'd minded her radicalism I would have saved lives, much less spared Duo and Heero this ordeal.' He rubbed his eyes with a shaking hand. 'I'm sorry, could I have a glass of water?'
Chang fetched the glass that Zechs had poured before. He had to help Winner hold it. 'If we're going to blame anyone,' he said grimly, 'then may we please blame those who truly deserve it? The face-saving bastards who stranded Heero and Duo on this blighted planet to begin with, and this maniac who's trying to murder them here now.'
'What exactly do you think we can do about Tropic?' Relena asked. 'In all honesty, I'm not sure I believe we can startle him. He's already made his big move-- exposing himself by coming for Duo once. Will he really risk coming forward again without an escape route in place?'
'Not if he's smart,' Winner agreed, 'and I think we can agree that he is unfortunately smart. But Duo's removed his pawn. He doesn't have a son... son to take the dangerous risks.'
Chang set the water glass aside. 'As for big moves, that is where I believe our advantage lies. He's lost his job, his place in society, his son, yes. He'll let himself be forced out of hiding because he has nothing else to lose but his life, and his life is increasingly worthless. If we can tempt him to spend it in saving something he holds more dear than life--'
'Princess Relena,' Zechs said.
The three Gundam Pilots turned their eyes to him.
'Yes,' Winner said. 'All the threats were concerned with her safety and her corruption. Two Pilots in Brussels just associating with her were a threat. A Pilot in Sanq making a love match with her would be terrifying. Four Pilots is inconceivable. He'll try to stop it. And if we want to stop him, then we have to provide him a carefully constructed avenue of approach. We give him one way in, and no way out.'
'I want him alive,' Relana interrupted bluntly. 'And I want to be very clear with all of you that I will not tolerate euphemisms or lies or pretty deceptions. I want Tropic alive. I think the best approach is not to present him with a threat and a trap, but a threat and an offer. Let him see you here. And then give him the chance to come say his piece. If he wants it badly enough, he'll come even under threat of arrest.'
'He will hardly believe he'll only be arrested after what he's done,' Chang scoffed.
'He'll believe it if I give my word.' Relena stood. 'You gentlemen can talk all you like. You do have my hospitality, and I hope that you enjoy it while you stay. But this is my home, and my kingdom, and for just this once, gentlemen, you'll do things my way.' She smiled brightly, but there was steel in it. 'Now, then. Is anyone hungry?'
'You should have stayed on colony,' Barton whispered. 'You're not well enough for this.'
'It had to be all of us.' Winner leant his cheek against the window pane. His eyes were closed, but lines of strain creased his pale forehead. Barton's hand on the small of his back stroked tenderly. 'We discussed it. We agreed.'
'You bulldozed us,' Barton corrected him.
Winner's mouth eased into a smile. His eyes slitted open. 'You let me,' he answered.
Barton bent his head to rest it against Winner's. 'It could still be dangerous. Remember what you promised. No convenient I forgot s.'
Zechs cleared his throat. Barton turned toward him, and, after a deep breath, so did Winner.
'We've got rooms for you,' Zechs told them. 'Mr Chang has already been shown to his. If you'd follow me, I can also let you in on our security arrangements for your stay.'
'Thank you.' Winner took his lead, steps dragging. Barton was his silent shadow, wary now in Zechs' presence. Though Zechs was sure that the two had noted much of what he pointed out, he noted the window alarms and the motion-sensors on the lawn, the security cameras both indoors and out. 'And the Princess is safe?' Winner asked.
'No place this big is impregnable,' Zechs admitted reluctantly. 'But once inside here Tropic would never be able to reach her. She's guarded at all times. And... I believe Heero would die to protect her.'
'He'd kill first,' Barton murmured.
'You heard the Princess.'
'Preventers do not and cannot take orders from Sanq,' Winner noted.
'No,' Zechs said. 'But it's not an unreasonable request.'
'Isn't it?' Winner asked him soberly. 'Pargan and his son are bo both dead on his account. We'd be fools not to expect one last act of violence. He's a desperate man now.'
Zechs halted at the head of a bright little hall just past the small orangery. 'I might admit that I personally hope he makes a rash move. But for the Princess' sake, let us publicly hope that he comes in unarmed and leaves under arrest with no delay between.' He gestured. 'Your suite is the first door. Mr Chang is just to the left.'
To his surprise, Winner reached the distance between them, and pressed his wrist. It was only a brief touch, but it was the kind of touch that passed between friends, not between men who were barely acquaintances. Yet they were more than that. They had Duo between them, and they had this grim adventure. However it ended.
'Rest while you can,' Zechs told them. 'And please listen to me very closely on this. You cannot have contact with Heero while you're here. It would be far too dangerous for him. Even if you think it's a silly fiction, it's a fiction we must maintain, or everything he and Duo sacrificed in Brussels could be for nothing.'
'We understand.' Barton took the door, and held it for Winner. But when Barton would have gone in, he stopped, and looked back at Zechs.
'A bit of return advice,' he said shortly. 'If I were you, I'd avoid casual conversation with Wufei. I don't think he's got a lot to say to you that's going to be polite.'
Zechs inhaled slowly. 'I can imagine not. Thanks for that.'
Barton inclined his head. And closed the door in his face.
'Short route from outside,' Zechs approved. 'I like that. I don't want Tropic parading through our defences. The room can be utterly secured?'
'Only one window, and we can take care of that from inside and out,' Spider replied, showing him on the blueprint. 'Access is one door, and I've had my boys adding a barricade. Here's my problem with the scenario.'
Zechs looked at his fellow agent expectantly. Spider chewed a bit of twisted paper, eying him back speculatively. 'Yes?' Zechs prompted him.
'Orders from the Princess,' Spider said. 'Figured I was to run them by you, but orders is orders. And you'll see for yourself why it's a problem.' He lifted a page from his folder and handed it over.
In Relena's elegant script, phrased disingenuously as a 'request', it was a problem indeed. 'Table and chairs,' Zechs said aloud, incredulous at even repeating it. 'She wants them all to sit down to tea?'
'Civilised diplomacy,' Spider noted wisely.
Zechs tossed the paper away to the table. 'She's out of her mind.'
'You said it, Boss, not me.'
He planted his hands flat on the table. 'We've tried to accommodate her wishes, but this-- get Yuy in here. Without the Princess.' He reached for his mobile, and dialled Sally.
She answered swiftly-- she'd been waiting for his call. 'We're close?' she asked immediately.
'Close,' Zechs said. 'We're working on set-up, and then we'll put out the broadcast. After that it's just a countdown until Tropic either takes the bait or bails.'
'This is nerve-wracking.'
'Extremely.' Zechs scratched vigorously at his skull. 'So far the Pilots are playing nice, but Relena isn't. She wants to bring Tropic in for diplomatic talks.'
'I'm sorry, it sounded an awful lot like you said diplomatic talks .'
'I did. A formal sit-down so he can rant at length.'
'Does she think there's an endpoint to negotiating with this man?'
'I'm about to yell at her. I suppose I'll find out. My gut says no, but she wants to observe the form of it anyway. I think she's feeling bruised by how this has played out, and this is her way of restoring the rules.'
'Given the way her life has been the last decade, I can understand that.' Sally sighed. 'Don't be too hard on her, Zechs. She went out on a limb for this. If we can keep her safe and still do it her way, that's our job.'
He'd needed the reminder. He was tired, bodily and mentally, and it wasn't going to get easier in the next however-many-hours it took for Tropic to come in. He might need Relena to give in on something worse than a table and a few chairs. The better he behaved himself now, the better chance he'd have of winning her cooperation later.
'I'll check in again soon,' he told his commander, and hung up.
Spider was back shortly, and in his wake came Heero Yuy. If Sanq was wearing Zechs to the bone, it seemed to be reinvigorating Yuy. The paranoia and grimness that had marked him in Brussels was still there, but there was life in his eyes now too, a quickness in his step. At least someone was benefiting. Duo would have been happy to see it.
That thought was the only one that brought him any ease. Duo would have been happy about it. Duo loved his friend, and for that, if for nothing else, Zechs should be glad. He would remember to tell Duo, when this was over.
That made him less gruff than he might have been when he showed Heero Relena's note. 'Were you aware of this?' he asked.
Heero read it in a glance. 'I told her it was a bad idea. I thought that meant she wouldn't do it.'
Spider snorted his amusement. Heero shot him a sour look. Zechs buried a grin.
'Well, she's done it, so let's figure out how to make it work,' Zechs said. 'Having Relena seated behind a table is a risk, but it's not insurmountable. A long table, positioned lengthwise down the room. Tropic would have to be seated here, nearest the door.'
'Barricaded door,' Spider added. 'At least he won't be running anywhere.'
'No, he'll be trapped in the room with the Princess and a potential weapon. Can we get chairs that nail to the floor?'
'The Historical Commission won't let us damage the floorboards.' Zechs levelled a long look at his fellow Preventer. Spider only shrugged. 'I don't make the rules,' Spider said. 'They're original Finnish birch.'
'Lightweight plastic chairs,' Heero said abruptly. 'They have some in storage. They use them for concerts. The backs break away from seats and they don't weigh more than two pounds each. They'd be relatively useless as weapons.'
Zechs nodded slowly. 'That's a good option. Under the circumstances. Any plastic tables?'
'I can dig one up,' Spider promised.
'All right, that gets us past the set-up. I don't want a beverage set in there. Ceramics mean breakables and tea means hot liquids. I think if the Princess wants the courtesy we can stay with our plastic theme and compromise; I'm willing to provide paper cups and water. Now. Let's discuss how we're going to film this broadcast.'
'What's to discuss?' Heero said.
That struck Zechs as purposefully na´ve, and he let it pass with effort. 'You know the restrictions on your interaction with the other men. We're going to have to handle this carefully.'
'Relena said she took care of it when she transferred my asylum rights to Sanq.'
'Only partially. The terms of your parole still apply, and those preclude contact with your fellow Gundam Pilots.'
'They're not,' Heero said, tonelessly and quietly. 'None of us have Gundams anymore. We destroyed them, and we've lived public lives because we were made to. Duo tried. Quatre tried. Look what it's done to them.'
As he'd done the first day they'd met again in Brussels, Zechs faced him simply and directly. 'You know what I mean, Heero,' he said. 'You can't be part of this the way they will be.'
'I won't leave Relena alone.'
'You can't legally be in the room.'
'Then find a way. They let us be together in Brussels.'
'I take it you made it very clear there was no way to keep the two of you apart in Brussels. Anyone who's ever been near the two of you would understand that.' Zechs tapped the blueprint. 'Preventers can't buffer you. Pieter Van den Broeck can't buffer you. You can't be in that room.'
'As Heero Yuy,' he retorted. 'As Relena's fiance, I have different rights--'
'No, you don't. There's no legal status for engaged, and if you think I'm going to stand here and let you drag her into a rushed marriage for your own selfish purposes, you haven't even begun to test my mettle, Yuy.'
'I ' Yuy stared down at the table darkly. He squared his jaw. 'I wouldn't do that to her,' he said softly. 'But I can't protect her if I'm not there.'
'Asking you to trust me to protect her is beyond the pale, I suppose. Heero, you can't do this anymore. Running off after Duo and hiding ┴rni Olsen's body was the last straw. You can't flout the law just because it's not fair and you don't like it. If nothing else, you have to be convinced by now that you're not the one who's suffering for it. Who's going to be in trouble if you push it? Your three friends, who could be stranded here on Earth without the legal protections you've been given. Duo, whose options are going to depend entirely on how successful we are in netting Tropic. You need to behave, Heero.'
He gave Heero the time it took him to get to acceptance of that. It was all the kindness he could give, but he owed it. He knew when Heero's eyes dipped closed that he'd won real agreement. Knew, too, that Heero had already worked it out for himself, but had needed to hear it all the same. For himself, Zechs didn't know if he would have stayed standing still if he'd heard trouble and known he could help, if only he could be there. He didn't blame Heero for trying.
And when he accepted that, himself, he gave up being angry at Heero for the mess that had resulted. It didn't make the mess disappear, but it wasn't Heero's fault any more than it was Duo's or Winner's or Barton's. They'd all been targeted, and they'd all done what they could to survive. That was all that had to be said, could be said, about it.
Heero dragged a finger down the tissue edge of the blueprint. 'The parole orders define contact as close interaction . That's why they excluded Duo from it. They couldn't confine us to the same city and reasonably prevent close interaction without actually jailing us. I can be in the room with the others if I avoid interacting directly with them.'
'That's the only parametre set by the orders? They didn't use any specifics about proximity or middle-man contacts?'
'I'm not sure that gives us actual legal cover. It could come down to a legal argument, and that means a court and a judge, and I don't personally want to invite that circumstance.'
Heero bunched his shoulders, and released them. He rolled his head, bones cracking. 'Duo is more patient with this bullshit,' he muttered.
'Yes,' Zechs agreed. 'He is. It must have come from all that experience with your trial and the work at Small Arms.' He pushed his hair back again. He wanted for a long, hot shower. Soon. 'Did he-- did Duo have to get any kind of waiver to work with Small Arms?'
'What?' Heero looked sharply at him. 'I don't know. I didn't like to talk about it.' He grimaced. 'I should have paid attention.'
'No time to worry about that now. Spider, can you contact someone for me? A barrister in Brussels, Belgium. Pieter Van den Broeck. He's the president of a non-governmental group called--'
'Small Arms, heard you,' Spider said, making a note for himself. 'How do you spell Broeck?'
'I want to know if Duo Maxwell needed and how he got any legal waivers for work with a group whose sole purpose is rehabilitation of soldiers. I'm sure it would have rubbed wrong against his parole orders in some way. There has to be an active military component with Small Arms, even if it's not a direct contribution, and that would have required legal wrangling. Let's get details on that. It might be useful for us. And ask Van den Broeck if he has any updates on Maxwell? Anything at all.'
'Will this work?' Heero asked him.
'If not, we're running out of ideas.'
Troyes manned the camera, a tiny little thing on a tripod that had dozens of minute settings that required careful tinkering and frequent repositioning. Zechs hovered impatiently for several minutes, then gave up on it as a bad business and took himself across the room to his sister and the Gundam Pilots instead.
They were a spruce-looking bunch. As staged theatre went, this would be an interesting show. Relena wore the uniform of state, Sanq's royal colours and even a demure tiara to indicate her rank, as if she didn't have one of the most famous faces in the Sphere. It was unusual to see her in such attire; in fact, Zechs couldn't remember it in recent years, outside of her appearance at rare royal functions. For political reasons Relena had publicly preferred to avoid the anachronistic dress that recalled Romafeller's noble abuses and the old fallen regimes of aristocratic privilege. For personal reasons, being a modern young woman, she preferred simple and professional suits, hair long hair pulled back, not brushed full and shining over her shoulders as it was now. But she was beautiful, and Zechs smiled proudly at her.
The young men standing with her made a handsome portrait as well. Chang was the most striking, in his traditional costume. Zechs had had to discreetly look up the title Relena had used for him, Beile. It was unfamiliar because it was centuries out of use, like much of the culture that had transported to space with the clans of Lagrange Point 5. Chang Wufei, the direct if many, many times removed descendant of a long-dead emperor, was a proper lord, a son of a prince. The title itself was more gallantry than accuracy, however. All claims to properties and rights had been wiped away by the Long Clan's self-immolation during the war. No small wonder that Chang had travelled so far for his friends, and risked so much even now. Family was family, even in these peculiar circumstances.
Barton and Winner were no more than a handclasp apart, of course. Zechs was already used to seeing it. They looked very right together, a tall and fit couple. Their suits were subtly complimentary, Winner's with a lavender pinstripe to match Barton's tie. But Winner did not look well. He was noticeably pale, and his eyes wandered distractedly.
'We're nearly ready,' Zechs told them. 'I trust everyone's properly revised their lines.'
'We're not actors, but I think we can be counted on,' Chang said drily. 'Quatre, you're not looking very clever. Sit down before you fall down.'
'I'm fine,' Winner said, even as he wiped sweat from his brow. 'Can I-- I-- Trowa?'
'I'll get a chair,' Barton murmured, and went for it. Chang smoothly assumed Barton's position, taking Winner by the arm and providing him balance and support without drawing undue attention to it.
'I've had news about Duo,' Zechs said then. The Pilots and Relena alike turned keen on that. Barton, bringing the chair, attended closely. 'His lawyer, Pieter Van den Broeck, told us that Duo's been moved to solitary confinement.'
'Solitary?' Relena repeated. 'Is that normal treatment?'
'I wouldn't think normal, no. He wasn't able to determine if there was any kind of precipitating incident, and I haven't had the opportunity to follow up on it yet. But solitary is not the worst place for Duo right now.'
The Pilots exchanged looks between them, solemn expressions worn by men who'd all experienced exactly that kind of imprisonment, and knew more than Relena or, indeed, Zechs, what it meant, what it felt like.
'He's safe,' Zechs said. 'That's the important thing.'
Winner sat when Barton pressed him down by the shoulder. 'Safe,' he echoed. 'Yes. That's imp important.'
A knock at the door announced the arrival of Neptune and Spider with Heero. Zechs took a deep breath, and turned back to his sister. 'Are you sure?' he asked her, one final time.
He knew before she even answered. Her eyes had locked to Heero's face, as if the rest of the world had disappeared as soon as he entered. He knew without looking that Heero would be staring back at her.
'Yes,' Relena said, almost dreamily. 'I'm sure.'
Heero joined them. Barton shook his hand, and so did Chang, but as Zechs had thought, he only had eyes for Relena, and as soon as his hands were free, they were taking hers, his big rough fingers impossibly gentle curling around Relena's small white ones. Heero raised them to his lips, and then he took her in his arms, pressing a tender kiss to her temple. They looked right together, too, Zechs thought, feeling a little pang.
'And this is all legal?' Chang asked.
'Tentatively,' Relena answered, tearing her gaze away from Heero reluctantly. 'It was Zechs' idea. Mr Van den Broeck secured a waiver for Duo when he brought Duo into Small Arms for counselling. Technically that's what we're trying here, although we're galloping ahead of the actual waiver application. Zechs thinks because it's a well-established investigation and because Preventers are so deeply involved, we can bring Heero in as a legal exception to the no-contact ruling. As for what happens later...'
'We'll make the most of it,' Winner said.
Heero put a hand on his shoulder. Barton covered it, and so did Chang. They nodded as one.
'The camera is ready,' Troyes announced. 'Whenever you want to start, Relena.'
Zechs stepped away. He joined his fellow Preventers by the door. Neptune gave him a smile, and he nudged her shoulder with his. Spider propped an unlit cigarette over his ear and settled in to watch.
'History in the making,' Neptune whispered.
'Yes,' he agreed. 'Don't you feel privileged?'
Spider chuckled. 'Not as privileged as I'll feel when I slap the cuffs on my old friend Tropic.'
'I'll drink to that,' Neptune grinned.
'Recording,' Troyes said.
Relena stood centre to the four pilots. Winner, standing now and supported by Barton's body right at his side, was placed directly beside her, to make the visual point that the colonial Pilots had not just arrived but were well established with Relena. Heero stood to her left, and Chang beside him. It was a deliberately composed portrait, framed by one of the most recognisable windows in Malm÷, a ten-foot stained glass depicting the first royal Parliament in Kalmar, four generations ago. Assuming Tropic hadn't missed them coming in, given the show they'd made of it, then he would know that window for sure, especially if he really was a Sanqian as they suspected. To the rest of the world, it would act as a marker of their seriousness, and that was all that mattered.
'My name is Relena Peacecraft,' she began. 'I speak today as the Princess Royal of Sanq, and as a woman who is proud to be friend to the men I stand with. These men were once known as the Gundam Pilots, who represented the Resistance during the Colony War and who defended this kingdom, my kingdom, with their lives when we opened our borders to refugees. In recompense for that brave act I promised my loyalty, and today I am repaying it. Today I speak to the Sphere to say that I have welcomed these men who were once Gundam Pilots to my home and to my confidence.
'I risk little myself in this act beyond censure for flouting etiquette and tradition. The risk to these men is greater. By coming to Earth, they risk arrest, imprisonment. The loss of freedom and livelihood. And yet even their risk in coming to my side is small when we look beyond the personal. For too long we have swept aside the consequences of the war. In our haste to rebuild, in our hurry to move on, have we failed to ask questions which cause us pain? Have we failed to look too closely at wounds which healed imperfectly, and now must be reopened? And so I turn to these men for counsel, for wisdom, for their experience and their aid.'
'As we look to Earth,' Winner began, his voice breathy with the effort, 'as we open-- open our eyes to a new era-- Cooperation becomes the sole-- sole tool with which we all begin equally. The Colonies-- Colonies have sent us as rep-- representatives to speak to anyone who wishes to be heard.' He produced the diplomatic document he'd brought from L4, raising it for the camera, and the other Pilots mimicked him. 'Thank you, Princess, for welcoming us to your kingdom.'
'I speak for the United Clans of Lagrange Five,' Chang said. He spoke rather haughtily, but given the point of their broadcast, it wasn't misplaced attitude. 'And more than that, I come to listen. Thank you, Princess, for opening a dialogue.'
'I speak for Lagrange Three,' Barton said, quieter than the other two, but loud enough for the camera. 'Thank you, Princess, for the opportunity to talk.'
'To any who would join us,' Relena finished, 'you are welcome.'
Zechs blew out a long breath. 'And it's done,' he said. 'Now we wait.'
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