Author: The Manwell
Notes
: Chapter titles and subheadings are from the album,Infinity on High,by Fall Out Boy.
Disclaimer: I don't own the boys, the Gundams, the copyrights, or the patents. But the snappy one-liners are mine, all mine.

Two out of Three
Chapter 11: Quitters Never Win

We walk the plank on a sinking ship...

"Duo!"

My head jerked up, my knee banged against the underside of the table, and my mouth was off an' running before I even opened my eyes. "Hit the thrusters an' input the following code on my mark—!"

"Duo, stop," Trowa's voice soothed apologetically in my ear via the still-clinging headset. "Everything's fine."

"Fine?" I parroted, blinking at the innards of Deathscythe's cockpit being displayed on the monitor. There were no amber alarms or flashing oh-shit lights, no sirens belching, no poisonous gas venting at the hapless pilot trapped within the locked-down suit. I skimmed what I could see of the controls and screens. Huh. Everything appeared to be operating normally. In which case—

"Then what the hell'd'ja wake me up for?" I bitched, rubbing a hand over my stubbly chin to check for drool crust.

"You were snoring."

"The hell I was."

"Loudly."

"Whatever, pal."

And then a third voice softly interjected over the line. It was a tiny sound – the deliberate clearing of a throat – and I somehow knew it was both feminine and friendly: Hilde was contacting us.

"I'm goin' back to sleep," I announced. "Wake me if you actually have a question, smarty pants.” With that order, I leaned back in my chair and, in the process, checked the status of the pair of minions watching over me in the room – they both looked bored outta their brainwashed, glory-seeking minds. I stretched my arms out between my knees, tilted my head down until my chin rested on my chest, and closed my eyes.

"Do I bore you, Duo?" Hilde asked softly on a laugh. "Don't answer that."

I didn't.

"Sorry for the rude awakening," she continued, but she didn't sound all that damn sorry. From that statement I decided she must've asked Trowa to do the honors just in case I blurted out something stupid before I was completely awake.

I coughed.

Hilde got on with it. "I have updates. They've been moving the colony into a closer Earth orbit. Also, most of the troops have been assigned to a mobile suit. Deployment is in fourteen hours."

Ah, so they did have manned suits here. Dammity damn damn damn!

"But here's the thing," she told us, "the mobile dolls – all of them – are going to be deployed in twelve hours... along with Deathscythe."

I was burning to ask how she knew this. I was also burning to ask what the target was.

"If what I read was the actual battle plan," Hilde whispered, "then Trowa will be accompanying the mobile dolls to Brussels to launch an attack on the ESUN compound, which is where Relena and several other dignitaries are being held by fifty-two of Barton's soldiers. Preventers have moved in, but can't establish contact. They've been in a stand-off for over twelve hours now. No negotiations at all in that time."

I took note of the stressed tone in Hilde's voice and agreed with it. So far, this was looking like a setup: Trowa was gonna go down to Earth in my Deathscythe to "handle" the rebels who had taken over the ESUN headquarters. The delayed deployment of Barton's manned mobile suit forces suggested they wouldn't be the reinforcements, no matter what Dekim said about honoring his dead son's name. No, the manned mobile suits would be the cavalry, riding in to "save" the people of Earth from a swarm of mobile dolls and a crazed Gundam pilot on the warpath.

"Trowa's orders will be to destroy the building," Hilde reported through what sounded like gritted teeth. "Then Dekim steps in and Trowa supposedly self-detonates."

Oh, man. Blowing up a Gundam was pretty tough to do, but it was possible. Especially if they had access to the cockpit and main computer which – thanks to me and my recent talk-through to Trowa – they did. It would be easy enough to plant a bomb inside the cockpit so that even if the suit wasn't blown to hell and back, the pilot would be toast.

I swallowed thickly. With a threat like that hanging over our heads, I was gonna have a job of it outmaneuvering these bastards. Oh, I could do it, but timing would be key.

Hilde summed up, "Then Mariemeia becomes queen of the universe and Barton establishes a military dictatorship that lasts until the end of time yada yada yada."

OK, yeah. That plan was gonna have to be changed, because the only way it was happening was over my dead body.

"So, here's the rundown. Howard's on level three, in detention cell eleven. He's secure. And Heero—"

I listened closely, fidgeting occasionally to make it look like I really was dozing (with the expected level of discomfort given the chair I was in) while Hilde outlined where all the guys were being held in relation to my location and the hangar. She gave us intel on the comm. room and the main computer hub and then finished off with, "I'll be staying behind to monitor communications following both deployments. I'll find a way to contact you again if anything else comes up."

I sighed out a breath in acknowledgement.

"Good luck, guys," she said, and then she was gone.

I could only hope she'd covered her tracks when she'd hacked into the system. I knew she was a smart girl and I doubted anyone other than Trowa and I had heard her message, but I didn't know how paranoid Dekim was. I had no way of knowing if he'd been counting on some kind of internal sabotage and had left false mission plans lying around on purpose. Nor did I have any way of knowing if any Dekim drones had been assigned to scan the airwaves or monitor the communications bandwidth. Christ, there were so many damn things that could go wrong, but my gut told me that this plan had to be taken seriously. It totally jived with what I'd expect from a guy like Dekim Barton.

Which just served to piss me off even more.

That bastard was gonna use the five of us Gundam pilots as a rallying point. He was going to point to Trowa's "suicide bombing" and the fact that he'd done it in my Deathscythe to prove how dangerous we all were. The people of Earth – and not just the War Tribunal – would call for our executions this time and Dekim Barton would be more than happy to oblige them. Then Mariemeia would charm her way to the throne.

But... wait. There was something missing there. The general still needed some kind of leverage to use against the national governments on Earth. Something like... like...

Trowa coughed and it was such a surprisingly normal sound to hear from a guy who takes control to a whole new level that my eyes blinked open and I found myself blearily peering at a file listing in Deathscythe's system cache. One directory in particular caught my eye. I remembered burying these files and deactivating all the commands associated with them ages ago. Hell, G had even coached me through it. Considering what was in that folder, the obsolete files cache was the best place for it.

I was looking at Operation Meteor.

Holy. Fuck.

It made perfect sense. Horribly perfect sense. Dekim was going to threaten to drop X18999 on Earth – destroying life as we know it – if he didn't get his way.

Y'know, this kind of shit is what happens when kids don't outgrow the tendency toward temper tantrums: they develop ruthless plots for world conquest.

Since it was possible someone else might be seeing the same thing I was, I cleared my throat and rasped phlegmily as if I were forcing myself to remain conscious, "Are we having fun yet?"

"I've beaten Solitaire seventeen times so far," Trowa replied, scrolling through the other files in the cache as if browsing out of curiosity.

"Out of fifty games?"

"Fourty-nine.” He actually sounded a little hurt at my gross overestimate.

"I'm not so sure that's something to brag about," I mused.

"But there's still a chance that you'll be impressed," Trowa argued.

I grinned. "Stick with the flying tackles, babe."

"Roger that."

Despite the overwhelming craving for something bursting with caffeine, I forced myself to ask, "You got the Beam Scythe logarithms all set?” He'd still have to tweak them a bit once he could actually light up and swing the weapon, but I wanted to be sure he was familiar with the programming language G'd installed before he suited up and shipped out. The vacuum of space was so not the place to learn a new machine lingo for the first time, believe you me.

"For the most part," he replied. "I'll need your help once I'm out-ship."

I highly doubted he'd need my help, but he was giving me the chance to accept or refuse a position in the comm. room while he was on his way to Earth. I accepted like the offer was about to expire. "Sign me up, babe. Just say when an' where an' I'll be there with bells on."

He chuckled. It was a dark and sexy and very suggestive sound. "Now there's an image."

"I said bells not bows.” I rolled my eyes.

"Why not both?"

"Hah! You make me laugh."

He subsided and I watched as he ran through a few training simulations to test his familiarity and accuracy with Deathscythe's weapons and thruster controls. The Beam Scythe was fairly unique, so I figured he'd need the most practice with that. Oh, and the Hyper Jammers. Piloting Deathscythe was a whole other deal compared to Heavyarms: Trowa's Gundam was classic in-your-face-bitch, whereas my buddy ‘Scythe was more of the tiptoe-up-from-behind-and-tap-you-on-the-shoulder-hello! type.

I watched as Trowa handled the controls. I sometimes gave timely suggestions or warned him to anticipate some counter reaction to whatever maneuver he'd executed, and sometimes I just shut the hell up and made mental notes of fiddly junk to bring up after the sim. ended.

When he got himself backed up against the proverbial wall and I had to order him to use the Hyper Jammers to simply evade the enemy, I decided school was out for the time being. "Stop, babe. You're exhausted.” And obviously not thinking clearly if he was gonna launch a head-on attack against that enemy formation. The hell. Did Trowa collect harness bruises? Because that's what he would've ended up with if he'd been in a real battle. Jesus.

The fact that he didn't protest the order spoke volumes. We both knew that the instant he left that cockpit, the engineers and scientists would swarm, planting whatever explosive devices or viral software Dekim had ordered installed, but there was nothing we could do about it. Dekim was hedging his bets so well with regards to the leaders of Earth that there was no way he wasn't gonna make sure he had total control of both Trowa and me: in my case, I wouldn't dare interfere with the operation unless I wanted Dekim to push the button that ended the Trowa Barton Show permanently; in Trowa's case, he'd do as he was told unless he didn't care if a goon introduced my brain to a bullet.

Of course, there was the smallest chance that Dekim didn't know we'd been told about the big finale part of his plan; the part where Trowa "suicide bombs" the damn ESUN building in Brussels. Well, if that was the case, we'd let him think he was a genius for a little while longer.

And if he really was planning on sacrificing my husband to further his military campaign of lies and blackmail, then I'd freakin' owe Hilde a damn steak dinner. The intel she'd given us was invaluable. If, as I mentioned earlier, we could trust it to be accurate and not a plant.

With a sigh that sounded like it started somewhere around the soles of his aching feet it was so damn deep, Trowa unbuckled himself from the pilot's seat and moved toward the door. The swarm was – predictably – standing by. There was a moment of hesitation as an assistant stepped forward and held out his hand.

"The headset, sir."

"I guess this is goodbye for now," I mused, my smile wry.

It was a measure of his exhaustion that Trowa merely said in a stress-strained tone, "I miss you already."

And, I guess it was a measure of mine that the best I could come up with in response was a totally lame "Me, too."

I glimpsed his face – drooping eyelids, dark circles, pale skin, tense expression – as he lifted the gizmo off his ear and handed it to the hovering grunt. But that wasn't all I saw. I saw the lump of the pendant beneath his shirt and the hard gleam in his green eyes.

Yeah, we could do this. We were gonna do this. I just needed to see to a few more details first.

I then saw a blur that was most likely the hangar ceiling, a glimpse of Deathscythe and some nerdy type sticking his head in the cockpit, and then... nothing. Someone had shut off the headset and was probably putting it away even now. I really, really didn't like not knowing what was going on with Trowa. I sat there for a full minute – by my count – staring at the snow on the monitor before someone pulled the plug.

"Are we on a budget?" I inquired instead of asking if someone was behind on their electric bill.

"Come with us, Mr. Maxwell."

And get jettisoned out into space, I didn't joke. Probably because it wasn't really much of a joke. Hell, Dekim was probably seriously considering it, might even have ordered it if Trowa hadn't thought to inform me that he'd need my help in the near future.

Damn. That's probably why he'd said it. It was a guarantee that I'd remain alive, unharmed, and a comm. link up away.

I love you, baby, I didn't say... and then I wondered if I would have said it if Trowa'd been able to hear me. And... would I have meant it? Did I mean it?

Oh, Maaaaxwell...! I winced as Shinigami sidled into my awareness. Yeah. That question – as well as its mosh pit of close cousins – was one of the nine billion things I should not be thinking about right now.

I kept all these thoughts to myself as the minions led me out of the room and down the empty hall... in the opposite direction of the hangar and the suite I'd settled into the evening before. This simple act kinda clinched it; I wasn't gonna be able to see Trowa. I frowned at the odd sensation of my heart slip-sliding into a puddle of disappointment.

Oi! Knock it the hell off! If they tossed your dumb ass back in the suite, just how in the hell would you manage the next objective of your mission, dammit?

OK, that bucked me the hell up.

As I suspected, I wasn't taken back to the suite. I guess a guy of my importance warranted nothing less than the finest in detention cell technology. At least, that's what I gathered as I was marched down the corridor on level three, past room eleven. Presumably, Howard was in there. And just across the hall and three doors down, was my ol' mission partner, Heero Yuy.

Right. Time to launch this pontoon. I didn't give any physical sign that I was about to plow one of my guards into the wall, kick the other unconscious, and use that instant of distraction to slip my super spiffy magnetic cuff deactivators out of my pants pocket and into the meal slot of Heero's cell so he could nullify his cuffs and – given two or three hours of dedication – the door's magnetic lock. To anyone watching, I was stumbling along, half asleep, totally harmless, completely—

What the—!

I blinked once, positive that my mind was playing tricks on me. There was no way – no way – I was actually watching Heero being escorted down the hall toward me. I was never this freakin' lucky. This had to be a mirage. I was dreaming. I was REM's bitch. That was the only explanation that made any sense whatsoever.

Still, it wasn't like I was just gonna let this chance pass me by. Even if I was imagining it, I could still knock the goons out and drop my secret gadgets into Heero's cell. I plodded onward. Heero strode toward me, bracketed by his own minionic pair. I made sure not to make it obvious that I'd noticed him until I was within range, and then...!

"You sonuvabitch!" I hissed, my head coming up suddenly. I channeled every ounce of energy I had into being flaming pissed. Before the goons could figure out what was going on, I freakin' launched myself at Heero.

Just, y'know, for the record, it's freakin' hard to tackle someone and still keep your wrists together. To aid in that, I aimed for his throat. He twisted to the side so I missed and smashed my knuckles against the steel floor. Ow.

I didn't waste time trying to articulate my beef with Heero. That was what the rumor mill was for. I was a little busy re-tackling him to the ground after he'd shoved me off. I slipped the magnetic lock picks into the back pocket of his jeans before he could roll away for a second time.

"Your ass is mine, you traitor!" I hollered.

Heero didn't say anything. Probably because he wasn't sure what he should say to back my play here. That was fine. We both knew I could talk enough for both of us. And then some.

I was currently growling and spitting random words – Gundam, traitor, Deathscythe, sonuvabitch, war, rat bastard... you get the idea – as we did our best to punch each other stupid while rolling around on the damn floor. (Except, in my case, I was also trying to keep my damn cuffs together. Yes, so much fun.) It took the goons for-freakin'-ever to pull us off each other. (The hell, guys? Were you placing Goddamn bets?)

I struggled just enough to be a pain-in-the-ass so they'd chuck me into my cell as quickly as possible. I stumbled inside and, skidding to a halt, I swiveled back around and charged the damn door. Of course it shut and locked before I got there, but I still beat my cuffed forearms against it, cursing the day Heero Yuy was born.

"When I get outta here, I'm gonna kick your ass, partner! You can bet your Goddamn ass on it!"

OK, hopefully three ‘ass' references was gonna be enough for him to figure out that I'd left a present in his back pocket because, otherwise, I'd have to start using smoke signals or neon signs and that'd probably defeat the whole point of the covert passing-of-useful-stuff thing.

With a gusty sigh, I turned back to my room. There was a toilet, a sink, and a pallet on a bunk. That was all. "Downgrades," I muttered resentfully and flopped myself down on the sorry excuse for a bed. Spying the camera unit tucked up over the door, I gave whoever was watching a nice, clear view of my middle finger. "These accommodations are seriously lacking, people," I informed my watchers.

Then I laid my head down and stared up at the ceiling. It pissed me off – in a totally genuine way, not in a just-for-show way – that I still didn't know what the hell time it was. When I had a chance, I was gonna have to mention to my good friend Hilde how nice it would have been to know that. Not that it would have made the waiting any easier. I figured they'd be taking Trowa back to the hangar anytime between six to eight hours from now for briefing and suiting up. Someone would probably be by to collect me when Trowa insisted on me being present for his takeoff. So, I totally had the time to catch some Z's.

Did I?

Pshaw, right.

I did the next best thing: I helped myself to the (barely edible) military rations that had been left at the foot of the bed as I ran through the whole mission looking for weak points. Now that I knew who and what we were (likely) dealing with, I could made some decent guestimates about how the next twelve hours were gonna go. But first, the mission summary as the situation stood now:

About five days ago, Howard received a transmission from someone inside the WEI building (i.e., me). He probably shared this with Dekim thinking that the general was looking for evidence of a potential ally. At this point, I wasn't sure if that was even a blip on the man's radar. He seemed to be more focused on using our marriage (and the affection that state entails) against Trowa and me, threatening us into behaving the way he wanted us to.

I still wasn't sure what the hell he was doing with Heero, Quatre, and Wufei. Earlier, Heero might have been coming from the laboratory. But, he might just as easily have been being led down the hall from an elevator at the opposite side of the floor. Did Dekim just mean to keep all three of them locked up, ready to parade to the public? Was he going to claim he'd caught us in the midst of some kind of plot to destroy the ESUN headquarters and only Trowa had escaped to make good on that plan or die trying? Which, if Dekim had his way, he would.

Right, so that explanation was one possibility. I couldn't imagine a scenario in which the other guys would go along with lab experiments or training simulations, in essence helping Dekim better-train his goons. Or was it torture? Was he trying to get more Gundams to add to his arsenal? If the plans Hilde had uncovered were accurate, then he wouldn't have time for that, not if the dolls were being shipped out with Deathscythe in about ten hours. Well, less than that by now.

I hated the uncertainty of it all a lot more than I'd expected I would. Normally, I'd be jazzed – practically humming with anticipation – at the challenge before me, the minefield I was on the verge of breakdancing across. Now it felt like I was giving myself an ulcer (or I would have been if those damn military rations hadn't been lying in my stomach like a freakin' lead weight).

I sighed out a long breath as the reason for my nervous tension came to me in a flash of insight. "Trowa...”

Back when I'd asked Trowa to marry me, I'd expected that the guys funding our "rescue" and providing sanctuary would want something from us. I'd hoped to paint the biggest, shiniest target on my forehead so it'd be me out there trying to figure out how to keep the hounds of war at bay from a disgustingly vulnerable public. That's what I'd hoped, but I'd been realistic enough to recognize the possibility of them choosing Trowa for their song and dance. I'd always known it might come to this: me playing a supportive role while Trowa stuck his neck out and braced himself for the blade to fall.

So, I shouldn't be surprised to find myself here – or, in this situation, I mean. Things played out according to one of my plans. I even had a shitload of contingencies, one of which I'd set in motion with that glomp-‘n'-grope in the hall not long ago. I was quietly freaking out not because I lacked confidence in my plan or in Dekim's predictability. I was sure of those things.

Which meant something else was shredding me from the inside out. But, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what it was.

The answer still hadn't come to me – not in a flash of insight or an impressive puff of scented smoke – by the time I heard official-sounding footsteps approaching the door to my cell. I considered lying here a bit longer, flat on my back in defiance of their apparent control over me should my little detention den actually be their destination, but I figured it wouldn't jive with the concerned spouse thing they were probably expecting. I swung my legs over the side of the pallet – dislodging the assortment of wrappers which was all that was left of the rations they'd left for me however long ago (and with military rations, you never could tell exactly how "fresh" they were anyway) – and sat up just as the door opened. The light from the hall stabbed through my eyeballs like dull butter knives. Yay.

"Hallelujah," I grumbled, wincing helplessly into the light. I thought about adding more than that. A good half-dozen lines popped into my head and formed a mosh pit on the tip of my tongue. Did I say any of them? No. No, I didn't. I wanted to get this party started. I wanted to see Trowa. I wanted to find out if we were dealing with the kind of back-stabbing, underhanded bastardness I thought we were.

There were six goons this time instead of two – huh, I guess my little conversation with Heero had made the rounds after all – and nobody said a Goddamn thing as they marched me down the hall and into the elevator. I rocked back and forth my heels as it took us downward. Our stop turned out to be same level as the second floor of the hangars. That was promising.

They steered me down a familiar hall to an equally familiar door which, as it turned out, led to the observation deck which looked out at Deathscythe. Ignoring my pseudo-military escort, I leaped over to the wall of windows – exhibiting enthusiasm I hadn't even suspected I possessed in my current, sleep-deprived state – and peered, leaning up on my tiptoes like a damn kid at the freakin' zoo, out into the cavernous room beyond.

Deathscythe was right there in-your-face, of course, but I only gave my Gundam a cursory glance. I didn't doubt that Dekim's geek squad had tampered with my ol' war buddy, but from this distance, there was no way in hell I'd be able to tell what they'd done just by eye-balling it. My gaze searched, skimmed, and scanned until I located the tall, brown-haired, long-banged guy I was looking for.

Whoa-damn!

Trowa was suited up in one of those skin-tight zero G suits that we'd all worn during the final battle four years ago, but I was sure he hadn't looked this good aboard the Peace Million or I'd have accepted his offer of a game of chess to pass the time with a hellvalot more gusto. I damn well appreciated the figure he cut now, though. Whoo boy.

He was doubly sexy with that fierce scowl on his face, his lips pulled back in a snarl, and his entire body tensed to bristling as he laid down the law to someone. The hapless victim of my husband's impressive emoting clutched his clipboard like it was a Buster Shield.

Smirking, I leaned a hip against the window frame, settling in to enjoy the show. But when the sacrificial nerd's bespeckled gaze slid in my direction for the second time, his mouth quivering like he was working up the nerve to actually interrupt the Gundam pilot looming over him (and, can I just say... DAMN! Who knew Trowa would ever be compelled to speak so forcefully and at such length about anything!), I took pity on the poor schmuck in the lab coat and announced my presence. Lifting my cuffed hands, I rapped my knuckles on the glass in an obnoxious rhythm Trowa was sure to recognize.

He did.

He freakin' stopped midsentence, glanced up, and then practically bolted up the stairs to the service platform nearest to my window. He was still something like three meters away and a little below my position, but it was close enough for me to see that he was still all in one piece.

"Whoa, just lookit you!" I teased cheekily, relief making me giddy. I added a wolf whistle and saucy wink. I knew he couldn't hear me, but he could read lips at least as well as I could. "There really is something about a guy in uniform."

In another time and place, I might have gotten a blush for that. Not now, however. Trowa looked me over critically. "Are you all right?"

I nodded. "Oh, I've had my fill of military rations for, say, the next fifty-odd years, but otherwise, I can't complain.” I gave him a visual survey of my own. "Did you get any sleep?"

He sighed.

"Yeah, that's what I figured.” I flattened my palm against the glass and told him, "I'm gonna help you do this. I promise.” Even if I had to scream at him like a frickin' alarm clock to keep him awake throughout the whole damn mission.

"I know you will.” Trowa gave me one of his warm little smiles and, for that moment, it was just the two of us.

Then his gaze shifted from mine and I watched him study my frazzled, haphazardly cut hair and his expression iced over with an arctic chill. I was damn glad he aimed it at the head minion instead of me. "If Duo is prevented from communicating with me or removed from the communications deck at any point during my mission, I'll go through any-and-everyone I have to in order to get to Dekim. Is that clear?"

"Very," the minion acknowledged grudgingly.

I briefly wondered if Dekim was even aware that I'd be in the comm. room at all. Had Trowa somehow struck a bargain with the foot soldiers? Oh, how I burned to ask, but what I queried instead was—

"Speaking of which, what is the mission?” I hated to interrupt Trowa's fume-and-growl which was giving me a severe case of the tingle-ies, but if I didn't ask, it'd look strange. At least to anyone with a functioning brain.

Trowa didn't volunteer an answer even though I'd been asking him. That right there told me that Hilde's info was accurate and Trowa had been sworn (or coerced) to secrecy on it because, obviously, a suicide mission was not the sort of news one would give their spouse. Who might just go epic apeshit.

Head minion said, "Your task is to assist the pilot. Nothing more."

I harrumphed. "I still think they should send me. I am the better pilot," I bragged.

Although I expected Trowa to roll his eyes at me, he surprised me by grinning. "Say that again in few hours. I dare you."

Oooh. A dare! This could be interesting. "Yeah, OK, babe," I relented. "Let's see whatcha got."

The goon on my right shifted with purpose. Ah, our time was up. I met Trowa's gaze, words crowding my throat, but I couldn't say any of them. From the look on his face, he felt the same. So we parted in edgy silence. I looked back over my shoulder the whole time as I was ushered toward the door. Trowa remained where he was, following my progress with stiff shoulders and hands which clutched the metal railing until his knuckles turned white.

"I'm not gonna let you die," I yearned to say. I was screaming the words in silence and I wondered if Trowa was not-saying much the same.

And then the door shut behind me and we were both committed to our roles. I didn't encounter Dekim during the trek to the communications hub. I kind of expected he would be there, barking at his troops and posturing triumphantly, but he wasn't. Mariemeia was, there, though and she smiled when she saw me... that is, until she noticed my missing braid and the Gundanium cuffs on my arms.

"Duo...?" she asked, clearly confused.

"Hey, Miss M. How's it goin'?"

I could see that my cheer just confused her further. She turned to the chief goon and demanded, "Who cut off his braid? And why is he wearing cuffs?"

"General Barton's orders, miss," the soldier replied uncomfortably.

Now it comes to it; Miss Mariemeia was beginning to notice how her grandfather's vision of equality for the colonies wasn't jiving with his actions. "Don't sweat it," I interjected before she could issue an order of her own that would contradict the old man's. I wasn't ready for her to rise up against him. Not quite yet. "I was so impressed by your stylin' hairdo there that I thought, ‘hey, short is where it's at!' Not sure it's workin' for me, though," I mused, lifting my hands to tug at the short strands. "Oh, and these—" I continued, indicating the cuffs. "These dandy gizmos are a guaranteed cure for itchy elbows. You get those, too, right?" I checked.

She giggled almost in spite of herself. "No, I'm sorry. I don't."

"Lu~ucky!" I replied, noticing the slight scowls on each goonish face in the room. Maybe they were wondering why I'd pass up the opportunity to stir the pot. Or maybe they were realizing – like Mariemeia – that Dekim was hiding certain aspects of the operation from his granddaughter. Or maybe they had a collective case of indigestion. Who the hell knew.

"Mr. Maxwell," a guy sitting at a comm. unit interjected delicately. "Mr... um, Barton is asking for you."

"That's my cue," I said by way of excusing myself. I picked up the offered headset and awkwardly slipped it on, mindful of keeping my weakened cuffs together, and eased down into the offered seat. "Hey, babe. Miss me?"

"You have to ask?" he retorted dryly.

I chuckled.

"Hey, keep the comedic routine down to a minimum!" I heard Hilde bark at me and I swiveled around, taking in the fact that she was damn well the officer-in-charge of the freakin' comm. room. How the hell had she managed that? Had she paid off the minions not to mention the warm welcome she'd given us at the shuttle port on Earth?

I figured now was not the moment to reminisce with her about the time she'd risked her life to deliver data on Libra to us just before the final battle or that botched date to the circus. (Speaking of which, how bizarre was that whole history, huh? It kind of boggled my mind that here I was, married to the acrobat, the comrade who had blown up my Gundam and then lost his memories, and now I was taking orders from the girl I'd gone to see his show with on a date. Holy hell that was messed up.)

I gave Hilde a half-assed, cocky salute. "Yes, ma'am!"

She actually looked like she was considering shooting me in the knee caps, so I swiveled the hell back around and tried to look cowed. It would not do to upset her hard-earned authority, not if she was gonna use it to help me out later.

"I'm going to assume you were not speaking to me just now," Trowa informed me.

I bit down on a laugh. "Most definitely not.” Trowa was many things, but I'd long since noticed what he wasn't and female was definitely one of the latter. "I've been ordered to cut the cute."

"Ah. So that's what you call it."

"Oh, man. I am so not getting into it with you over my abundance of awesome Cute."

"You're giving it a capital letter, aren't you?"

"You know me so well."

"For better or worse."

"Hey, have a little faith, babe! I'll getcha to Earth. Cross my heart and hope to—"

"Don't finish that sentence, Duo Maxwell."

It was too bad Trowa couldn't see me do that dorky locking-lips gesture thing. Which reminded me... "Hey, comm. dudes! Don't I get a monitor or somethin' so I can see what's going on in the cockpit?"

The guy next to me punched a button and the screen in front of me lit up with data read-outs. OK, that hadn't quite been what I'd had in mind, but I wasn't gonna waste time bitching about it.

"Uh, cool.” I told Trowa, "I've got your readings on screen now, babe.” I squinted at a range of numbers and informed him, "Looks like the balance needs to be recalibrated. You're wasting power already."

"Let's run it once I'm enroute."

"Your command is my, um, well, cue, I guess," I joked lamely. Trowa humored me, though, with a snort laced with mock exasperation, so the effort wasn't a total loss.

I waited – on pins and frickin' needles – while Deathscythe and the dozens of mobile dolls began the launch sequence. I endured the countdown, the wail of the hangar alarms as the massive doors crawled open, the roar of thrusters firing and then fading into the airless nothingness of space. The fact that they weren't even using a barge for transport told me just how close to Earth the colony was now. Damn. I wondered how soon Trowa would be hitting reentry. Luckily, I had a valid reason for asking him once he was clear and essentially falling toward the planet beneath us.

"How much time do we have for tweaking the balance?" I asked, trying not to envy the ease with which he could wrap his hands around the controls in front of him. I didn't envy him the various booby traps keeping him company in the cockpit, though. It actually kind of irritated me that I'd have to clean up the mess Dekim's dorks had made. And, to be perfectly honest with you, being irritated about picking up after someone else was preferable to contemplating what those little bundles of joy were meant to do if Trowa and I didn't behave ourselves.

"Reentry in two hours, twenty minutes."

I focused on that, pushing everything else from my mind. "OK, I guess we'd better get on it, then."

We did. I let the laborious task of recalibrating a mobile suit's equilibrium in zero G – which, lemme tell ya, is no easy feat – consume me so totally that I was only peripherally aware of Mariemeia being summoned by the general's personal guards to accompany her grandfather to Earth. I was a little torqued that Dekim seemed so damn confident of his plan that he didn't even bother to stop by and gloat in person.

Trowa and I wrapped up the recalibration just as the sirens of the second launch (the one with Dekim and Mariemeia aboard a military transport shuttle, surrounded by their intimidating escort of no less than a hundred mobile suits) rang through the communications hub. Now that was my cue.

It was now or freakin' never.

"Sounds like a pretty big party," Trowa observed, hearing the commotion through my headset.

I took advantage of the noise to mutter as indistinctly as I dared, "Don't freak out if we get disconnected for a minute, babe. I'll be right back. I promise."

There was a beat of silence over the comm. link as looked up and searched out Hilde. She was at a terminal on a raised platform overlooking the half dozen comm. stations and their respective operators. When she raised her gaze, we shared a look. I questioned. She nodded.

"Copy that," Trowa told me, sounding as if he were bracing for impact.

And then Hilde and I struck.

The Gundanium cuffs made a dull sound when I threw out both of my arms and bashed them into the temples of each guy sitting next to me. They didn't even squeak. They just tumbled off their seats, one to the left and the other to the right, in silence. In fact, it was so fast and the room was so noisy and they were all so focused on the readouts on their respective monitors that their comrades didn't immediately notice the attack. I moved through the room as quickly as I could, ghosting up behind the operators like I was in Deathscythe and sending them on an unscheduled trip to La-la Land. The last guy put up a bit of a fight, but there was no point, not against Shinigami. When he went down, he went down hard.

The entire thing took about twenty seconds. Oh, yeah. I still had the Maxwell Magic. Hell, I wasn't even panting. Dude. Sweet.

It turns out that unmagnetized Gundanium cuffs are pretty awesome accessories. "I am so keepin' these bad boys!" I informed Hilde as she confiscated the radios and weapons from the pair of goon guards stationed by the door.

She would have rolled her eyes at me if she hadn't been such a sucky multi-tasker. "Come on, Duo! We don't have all day!"

Didn't I know it! Even though Dekim was momentarily out of the picture, a threat still loomed: Trowa was sixteen minutes and some change away from his scheduled reentry, which he wasn't gonna be able to put off without arousing suspicion from the general.

"Comm. still broadcasting?" I checked as Hilde tossed a couple sets of run-of-the-mill steel handcuffs my way. I booked ass getting the six operators properly accessorized and secured to an out-of-the-way railing where they could, I dunno, swap knock-out stories when they eventually came to.

"Yup," she confirmed. "The barge is getting data stream only on the mobile dolls and Deathscythe."

Whew! That meant Dekim wouldn't have "heard" any of the developments that had just occurred in this room. "You still with me, baby?" I asked into the comm. link which – miraculously – had not gotten knocked off my head in the tussle.

"I'm here. Status?"

"Secure. No injuries," I informed him, sliding into the seat behind the main operating station, my fingers flying over the keys. "Hilde, see what's keepin' Heero, will ya?” Because, by my calculations, he should have gotten loose, sprung Quatre and Wufei, and been here already, trying to kick ass and steal all the glory for himself.

Since all the Dekim doofuses – or would that be "doofi"? – were securely restrained and all threats in the room neutralized, I started bringing up Deathscythe's history of recently accessed files on the monitor while Hilde opened the comm. room door—

—and let out a giggle, of all damn things.

"Hey, Heero. All you had to do was knock."

I glanced over my shoulder. "Sweet as!" I enthused. "The cavalry has arrived.” This last comment, I meant for Trowa.

"Operation Meteor?" Heero prompted, leaving off on trying to hotwire his way in and stepping up to the nearest communications unit.

"Goin' full throttle, man. What can you do about taking this iceberg off-line?"

"I'm on it."

"Q-bean and Wufei?" I prompted.

"Handling the mobile dolls."

"Copy that!" I crowed and passed on the report to Trowa.

"What if they can't hack the system in time?" he replied somberly.

"That's why you're gonna give me the details on what we're dealing with.” Smart guy that he is, Trowa didn't try to gainsay me.

"They've re-wired the self-destruct," he reported as I scanned through files and commands. "Dekim has sole, remote access to it.” Well, that was bad news, but not unexpected. I had a plan. Sort of.

I couldn't download actual copies of the files themselves in the time that remained to us, which was a damn shame, but if I could just isolate the codes that were meant to work against us, I could whip somethin' up to shut them down.

"That's not all they re-wired," I replied, skimming through the computer's recent activity logs. The Nerds of Nasty hadn't bothered to line the cockpit with C4 or some other explosive material. Noooo, they'd filled up the emergency oxygen tank with freakin' sarin gas. I had to take my fingers off the keys, close my eyes, and swear silently.

"Tell me," Trowa said quietly.

Oh fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck. I took a deep breath. Trowa wouldn't panic, so there was no reason for me to. Besides, I'd made a promise and he was counting on me.

"They pumped your emergency air tank full of nerve gas," I reported. "I gotta lock it down."

Trowa didn't hesitate even though he knew what this would mean: he'd be fucked if he had a problem with the main tank. "Do it."

"And... shit, you've only got eight minutes until reentry," I observed as I boogied my ass (metaphorically) through coding the commands that would permanently seal that gas up inside the tank until I could dispose of it safely later.

"Six minutes and forty seconds," he updated me what felt like a blink of an eye later.

Oh, damn. No pressure, right? I had to stop and hunt for any hidden command prompts that I might inadvertently trigger, tiptoeing around a few warily. That rat bastard had remote control of the freakin' emergency support system! The hell! Simply blowing up Deathscythe wasn't enough for the sonuvabitch? Although, to be fair, it hadn't been enough to kill Heero, had it?

I still hadn't finished taking the emergency life support off-line, but what I had to say couldn't wait any longer. "Trowa baby? Trust me?" I ventured shakily, hating what I was about to ask him to do, envying that he'd be the one to do it, scared spitless that I'd fuck up and he'd be... he'd be...!

When he answered my plea, his voice was calm, warm, peaceful. "Tell me what you need, darling Duo."

I swallowed and forced myself to follow through with the plan I'd made in the event that it came to this: a serious and as-yet-uncontrolled threat descending on the helpless people of Earth. "Once you hit reentry and the comm. link fails—” In other words, once he was invisible to Dekim. "—take out as many mobile dolls as you can."

His silence was telling. If he failed to destroy all of them by the time they hit Brussels, people – innocent people – were gonna die. But, given the extreme heat generated by falling through the Earth's atmosphere, one wrong move could burn up Deathscythe and its pilot and leave me a widower. Trowa could wait until Brussels popped up on the horizon before he started to slice-‘n'-dice, but it'd be too dangerous to destroy the ‘dolls so close to civilization. The best time to do it was now... even though we weren't ready to counter the fallout. See, once reentry was complete and radio contact was re-established, Dekim would realize that he was missing some of his precious ‘dolls. If that happened, he'd blow Deathsycthe outta the sky with the push of a button. Unless Quatre got his lily-white ass in gear and not only cracked the system but started feeding false data to Dekim's new base of operations. Oh my God... so many damn things could go wrong. So, so, so many damn things...

"I can do it," he told me and I could hear his fingers dancing over the keys, inputting the data into the computer simulator. I know I'd never used that feature much during the war, preferring the thrill of going in blind and being awesome, but Trowa wasn't me. He was raised a merc and mercs don't take unnecessary risks. I never thought I'd see the day when that thought would be a comforting one, but it was. It so was.

With one last keystroke, I skimmed over the list of commands and then sent it off. A moment later, I let out a breath as Deathscythe's system status flashed on the screen:

Emergency oxygen tank: off-line.

Remote access to all emergency systems: disabled.

Fuck yeah! Take that, you sonvabitch!

It was Trowa's voice that reminded me to breathe again. "Thank you."

"I promised," I answered simply. And he was still only halfway to safety, so I got the hell back to work.

"The self-destruct is tied to the comm. link," I told him. "It's too complicated for me to disable before blackout.” Hell, I'd be coding like I've never coded before in order to pull this off by the time he finished passing through the Earth's atmosphere. "I'm gonna have to firewall the whole system.” Which meant that I wasn't going to be able to contact him after our comm. link reconnected and I snapped the firewall in place like a Goddamn Kevlar vest. And I was gonna have to be pretty damn snappy about it, too. I couldn't afford to chit-chat with him and risk giving Dekim an opening. So, bottom line? I wouldn't know his status, if he was injured or... whatever. Unless Deathscythe crashed into the Earth. In which case, the odds of Trowa being alive were vanishingly small.

But even knowing that much would be beyond my current means. None of our Gundams would show up on traditional radar. (Something about the alloy used in its construction making it "invisible" to traditional methods of long-range detection. Don't ask me; I don't have the time to get into it right now.) Unless Trowa "pinged" me his coordinates regularly (a process which used – you guessed it! – the communications system) then there was absolutely no way (short of a visual on video feed) to tell where the hell Deathscythe was, what condition it was in, and if there was any external damage that might translate into pilot injuries.

In short, I wasn't gonna be able to tell if he'd made it through reentry safely until he was standing right in front of me. Not that there was anything I could do about it if he did encounter trouble, but Trowa was counting on me to watch his back. So that's what I'd do. To the best of my abilities. End of story.

Reassurances would have to come later. In the meantime, I was gonna assume that he was still alive and still counting on me to keep a lid on the what-if's.

"Rendezvous point or destination?" Trowa asked as I started lining up the command prompts I'd need for shielding him from Dekim's wrath.

"Heavyarms," I answered. "Get to your Gundam, power up, and head for Brussels. Heero, Quatre, and Wufei will meet you there. We've got a megalomaniac to stop."

"And you?"

"Send me the coordinates for where you're probably gonna abandon Deathscythe. I'll get my hands on a shuttle—” One damn way or another. "—pick up my suit, and meet up with you guys near the ESUN building."

"You won't have a functioning comm. system until Dekim and his army have been neutralized."

"Yeah.” It'd be kinda suicidal to turn it back on for as long as Dekim had his finger poised over the big red button of doom.

"Duo..."

"That's my final offer, baby. Take it or take it."

"Hold on while I flip a coin."

I snorted. "Gimme the coordinates, Trowa."

He did.

We only had about a minute of airtime left. Damn, I sure could use a hand with firewalling an entire damn system, but I was on my own here. I glanced at Heero. He was still busy with disabling the colony thrusters, making them unresponsive to whatever command Dekim might send their way so that X18999 would not make Operation Meteor a reality. I hated it, but saving the whole damn planet had to come first here.

I glanced at Hilde. She was on the horn with someone. I wasn't sure who, but it sounded damn important. Hell, she was probably making sure nobody mustered the troops and got in the way of Trowa and a Beam Scythe of certain renown. I'd confirm that later.

There was still no word from Quatre or Wufei on the mobile doll issue. I prayed as I have never prayed before that they'd been briefed on the situation and knew just what kind of tightrope we were all walking. I prayed they got in and generated misleading data that masked our subterfuge. Hilde'd have a job of it just sending false data on Deathscythe off to Dekim's battle cruiser, so I couldn't ask her to cover the ‘dolls, too...

"It's going to be all right," Trowa told me.

I laughed and, yeah, it came out a bit manic. Even for me. "That's what I love about you, baby."

"Oh? You find my voice ogle-worthy now?"

"I've got news for you, pal-y. You can't ogle someone's voice.” Although I was doing my damnedest to try.

"Hm," he said. And then: "So what do you love about me?"

Everything, I didn't say. "You—" always land on your feet. "You—" have faith in me. "You—"

And then it didn't matter what I wanted to say, what I couldn't say, what I should say. Static hissed at me through the headset. He'd just started reentry.

------------

NOTES:

"ESUN" stands for the Earth Sphere United Nation. Sorry, I've been calling it the United Earth Sphere up until this point. I guess Duo didn't give enough of a care to use the new name. (In the beginning of the series, the Earth and colonies were called the United Earth Sphere Allied Nations... I think.)

On the topic of Trowa snarling at the poor, helpless scientist guy, I just have to say that even the most mild-mannered people can snap and when they lose their temper on your behalf and proceed to rip somebody a new one in your defense, it is the sexiest thing ever. EVER.

As I re-watched the series recently, I noticed in the first few episodes that on at least one occasion, the Alliance couldn't get any readings on the Gundam that was not only within range but attacking. So, I'm guessing they're invisible to traditional radar. Or something equally cool. So I'm thinking that's why Dekim has Trowa on such a short leash.

The "What do you love about me?" and the "You—you—" vaguely reminds me of the very end of the movie French Kiss, which I am unashamed to say that I love with all my heart. (^__^)

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