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 12: Poster Boys

This ain't a scene – it's a Goddamn arms race...

My fingers had never moved so damn fast in my life. I may have been muttering something – possibly someone's name – over and over again like a mantra, but I couldn't tell you for sure. Ask Hilde; I'm sure she'd know. Mostly, I was just trying to save my husband's life.

As Trowa plummeted through the Earth's atmosphere, slicing his way through as many dolls as he could while not getting incinerated along with my mobile suit (God, it was the Libra incident all over again, right?), I pounded away at the keyboard like every stroke was a single footstep and I was racing against time – which I was – and I'd never had so much to lose before.

Oh, God.

It took me too long – too damn freakin' long! – just to lay the foundation for the firewall I'd promised Trowa. And now only two minutes and ten seconds were left until the earliest communications window opened – damnitalltohellandback! – at which time Dekim would do a scan, count his toys, and figure out our betrayal (unless Quatre managed to get the false data feed ready by then, in which case, everything would appear to be status quo, but if he didn't...) then – with a simple push of a button – Dekim could trigger Deathscythe to self-destruct and there was nothing – nuthin'! – I'd be able to do to stop it!

But, no. I had Trowa's back. He was my partner and this was my Goddamn mission and I was not going to let anything happen to him. Nothing was going to happen. Nothing nothing nothing nothing—!

I freakin' attacked that frickin' comm. system like it owed me a blood debt and I was out to collect. Hell yeah. Nobody built Goddamn firewalls like Duo Maxwell. Knowing who I was protecting on the other side of that defensive barrier gave me a level of focus that was just stronger that the oh-shit-oh-fuck-oh-please! roaring through my head. Hell, I couldn't even tell you if I was even breathing during that whole blackout period (which could last as little as three minutes or as long as forever if the Worst happened).

I heard voices around me: Heero's, Wufei's, Hilde's. I got the distinct impression that someone was looking over my shoulder and someone else was talking about me. Maybe Hilde was briefing the guys on the situation. Whatever. I was busy. I had to be ready to transmit the moment Trowa's comm. link came back on-line – and it would come back on-line; he would be alive and OK and everything was gonna be fine because I was gonna beat Dekim to the punch and get this code written before—!

YES! THERE! GOTCHA, YOU BASTARD!

I slammed the last key much harder than necessary, but I didn't care. My finger hovered over the Enter key, waiting for that blip in the static, for the off-line message to stop blinking and reconnect. I was ready. This was gonna work!

Please be OK, baby...

Again, I felt the presence of someone at my shoulder. Normally, it'd bug the hell outta me, but it was a comfort now. I was pretty sure the person reading through my coding was Heero and I was pretty sure he'd tell me if I'd fucked something up. Hell, he'd dump my ass outta the Goddamn chair and rewrite it himself.

"All clear?" I asked because it felt like my chest was gonna explode if I didn't relieve some of the pressure.

"Affirmative," he answered. "Colony thrusters are off-line and the guidance system is locked in a safe Earth orbit."

"Knew you could do it, buddy," I told him and then the devil in me made me tease, "Thought it'd take you half the time, though."

I felt him glare at me. Oh yeah. I'd pay for that later. "You tell Quatre that Trowa's taking out as many ‘dolls as he can?"

"Yes. He and Wufei are putting together false readings to feed to General Barton."

The static was still hissing in my ear and I had nuthin' else better to do, so I asked, "Has Hilde contacted the Preventers and let ‘em know what's coming?"

"I did," she told me and I could hear that she was standing behind my other shoulder. "I also asked them to pull up some communications recordings from the war to broadcast just in case we have to pull a battle out of thin air."

"Damn," I mused, both tickled and irritated that I hadn't had to issue those orders at all. "Was my plan that damn obvious?"

"Maybe we're all as equally brilliant as you," Hilde retorted cheekily.

Heero snorted.

And that's when I heard the first hiccup in the white noise. "Hilde, you reading any ‘dolls?"

Another hiccup. My finger hovered over the Enter key.

"No... yes! Forty-seven on long-range radar!"

Before she even finished speaking, I'd pounded the Enter key and the cursor on the monitor jumped to a new line, blinking, blinking, blinking...

C'mon c'mon c'mon C'MON DAMMIT C'MON...!

And then new text winked at me on the screen.

Access granted.

Setup complete.

Communications system status: locked down.

Oh my God. I just freakin' slumped in my chair and tried not to end up in a puddle of relief on the damn floor. Heero's hand came down on my shoulder, holding my ass in my seat.

"Good work," he said.

I blinked, a little startled at the praise, and then I snorted. "The hell, Yuy. It's my Goddamn mission. I oughtta be the one telling you that."

"Guys!" Hilde squealed with glee. "Trowa's still taking out the ‘dolls! Their numbers are going down! Forty-two... thirty-nine..."

Why, hello, Relief. Where the hell have you been, you lazy ass? Late much?

While I was waiting for Relief to deliver his stuttering excuses, Heero leaned over me, called up a video link, and suddenly Quatre's face was there. "Status!" Heero barked, jarring me back to the here and now.

The bastard. I'd always known he'd take over the whole freakin' mission as soon as he got his foot in the damn door.

Quatre reported even as he worked the keyboard in front of him, "Currently transmitting false data on mobile doll coordinates, altitude, velocity..." He looked up and grinned. "It's all taken care of, guys."

He might be a sadist, but I loved him anyway.

"Now can I radio the Peace Million and let them know we're secure here?" Hilde asked impatiently. The smile she was struggling against was a dead giveaway that she was acting, though.

"Uh... yeah," I replied, turning back to the keyboard and calling up the previous log of Deathscythe's stats. I needed to fudge an algorithm to generate more so it'd look like Trowa was on his way to Brussels. "How far out are they?"

She grinned. "Not far." Turning back to the mic, Hilde told whoever was on the receiving end of the transmission, "You can bring the ship around now. Docking bay two-oh-niner-alpha."

"They damn well better have enough shuttles on board," I groused.

With the algorithm churning out fake data for Hilde to transmit to the general's crew, there was no need for me to stick around. Yup, my work here was done. I climbed to my feet and suddenly I felt both shaky and bursting with energy. Like I'd had over a hundred cups of coffee about an hour ago and I was on the verge of crashing hard.

By way of explanation, I told Hilde, "Heero, Quatre, Wufei, and I have got to get to Earth and intercept Dekim in Brussels." I turned to Heero. "Can you get to Wing that fast?" Yes, Dekim and his manned mobile suit force were considerably slower than a Gundam and an army of mobile dolls, but that didn't mean we could stop for a beer or anything now that X18999 was secure and nobody was gonna be blowing up Deathscythe or gassing its pilot.

"No problem," Heero replied. "Send Howard's best comm. people up here. After I brief them, I'll be ready to go."

"Okie dokie. I'll see what I can do." I stepped up to Hilde and gave her another fast, hard hug. "You were awesome, Hilde," I told her.

"Yeah, I know."

I barked out a laugh. "Don't leave me in suspense too long. I'm gonna want details when all this is over."

"You'll have ‘em. Now get out of here, buddy-boy."

I boogied. I think I ran all the way down the corridor, bounced up and down on my feet in the elevator, and sprinted for the docking bay. To tell you the truth, the entire trip was a blur. I assume I hauled ass, but my head was so full of what-if's and if-then's that I was a little surprised to find myself standing next to Howard on the arrival deck with no memory of even stumbling through the bay doors.

Freaky.

"Hey, Duo!" he greeted, turning toward me with a big smile and looking as if he'd spent the last two days kickin' back and chillin' out on the deck of the Sweepers' barge somewhere in the tropics. His smile wavered for a second and, even though I couldn't see his eyes behind those damn shades of his, I just knew he was taking a good, long look at my hacked-off hair.

"Yo, geezer," I replied, charging forward into a topic that did not revolve around explanations. I just did not freakin' feel like it. Y'know? "You gonna give us a hand savin' the damn day, again?"

"Christ!" he wheezed on a laugh. "You've turned into the most hazardous client I've ever had, kid."

Yeah, knowing me was guaranteed to make your life more, um, interesting. Usually, not in a good way. Hell, there were several epitaphs out there that ought to read: "Friend of Duo Maxwell. Life was short but interesting." Wincing away from that harsh reality, I interrogated, "Just tell me how many shuttles you've got on that giant turkey of yours."

"Oh, a fair few. Courier ships only, though," he replied. Despite the words, he was grinning. I grinned back. Courier ships might be damn small and gimped by limited fuel cell capacity, but they were fast and they'd get us where we needed to go.

"Can you have four of ‘em ready for launch in—" I trailed off as I spun around, seeking out the nearest displayed clock.

"Relax, Duo," Howard told me in that damn mellow voice that makes him sound perpetually stoned. "Already taken care of."

"Is that so?" I retorted, his words poking at my memory: "Don't worry, Duo. I'll look after Deathscythe..." I gave him my Fierce Maxwell Gaze. "Like you took care of Deathscythe?"

Howard raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Take that one up with Hilde. It was her idea to ‘recruit' me until I gave up the Gundam and got you guys outta that place—"

"Before she exposed you as a spy or saboteur or some-odd shit to get promoted to Chief of Comms?"

"Heh. Somethin' like that. Worked like a charm, too." He tucked his chin down and gave me a look over the rim of his trademark shades. "Here you are."

Yeah, here I was. Waiting for a shuttle. Wondering if my husband was still alive...

"Upgraded your Gundam a couple years back," he continued and that got my attention. With a lazy gesture, he motioned me over to the nearest mechanics bay and started rummaging through the tools. "New Hyper Jammers and the shoulder armor lifts away so you can use the Beam Deflector Barriers – you've heard of those, right?"

"Uh, those nifty little devices that hover around my suit, creating an impenetrable electric field?" I guessed in a tone that would have been mocking if I weren't so damn impressed.

Howard chuckled. "Right. Gotcha a set o' those." He waved at my still-cuffed wrists impatiently until I held them out so he could get to work on unlocking the damn things. "Installed a cloaking system and added a Buster Rocket to the ‘Scythe itself. Quadruple cutting power. That should come in handy when you meet up with Dekim Barton!"

Man, did I have the awesomest suit-savvy buddy or what? I'm not sayin' I was forgiving him for going along with Hilde's plan, but if Trowa made it through this all right, I'd give it serious thought. Still, those were a helluvalotta new toys. "Damn, Howie. You thought of everything, huh?"

He tilted his head to the side and then, as if remembering something unpleasant, he grimaced. "I didn't think of those military rations."

"Hah! Amen, brother."

We lapsed into silence, the metallic clinks and clanks of the locking mechanism marking the seconds. As I waited for the damn things to give it the hell up and unclamp from around my forearms, I ruminated on how all-encompassing my mission had turned out to be, how many people from different groups and organizations were involved... and would become involved.

"Damn. I guess we can expect a visit from the Preventers when Dekim is dealt with," I mused and Howard laughed out loud.

I blinked at him for a solid second before I griped, "What am I missing here, man? Clue me in."

He informed me, "You've been working with a Preventer agent pretty much the whole time, kid!"

"Huh?"

"You think that Schbeiker girl would hide in those junkyard scrap piles when her friends needed her?"

The penny dropped. "Damn. Really?"

Howard nodded. "She's got a badge an' everything. Hell, she set up this op." He gestured grandly, encompassing the colony around us. "Joining up with Mariemeia's army, winning Dekim Barton's trust, helping to extract you guys..."

Whoa. Hilde was hardcore. I was having a time-and-a-freakin'-half of it digesting this new and awesomely-improved version of my old friend and ally. But, blinking through all that and following the trail of logic, I summed up, "So Une knows everything. And she actually approved...?" I couldn't say the words. They were just too damn fantastic.

Howard picked up the thread of my thought and reeled it out. "Yup, she approved assisting with the escape of five war criminals."

At that moment, the cuffs surrendered and Howard made a happy little sound that was squashed by the racket caused when the things clattered to the floor. We both left them there where they'd fallen. Howard wiped the tools down, though, and put them back precisely where he'd gotten them.

"Thanks," I muttered, brain still numb with shock.

"No problem."

I followed him back over to the docking station controls, mulling over what he'd said. No matter which angle I looked at it, I just could not freakin' comprehend that Une would be involved, willingly and benignly, in anything associated with the Gundam pilots.

"A helping hand from the one and only Lady Une," I finally said. "Pardon me if I find that difficult to believe." Did she seriously not have enough firepower and people to throw at Dekim Barton? Or were the five of us expendable? No way was she actually trying to give us a chance to exonerate ourselves. Just... no way. We were talkin' about Une, here!

"Believe it or not, Duo," Howard replied, "if you guys can wrap up Dekim and deliver him to her in a pretty, pink bow, I'm bettin' you'll get your freedom."

Damn. The very idea of Une – former Coronel Une of OZ – helping us...!

My laugh was a little hysterical and Howard just put a hand on my shoulder until I wound down. That happy moment coincided nicely with the blare of proximity alarms as the Peace Million drew close enough to dock. I gave Howard a hand sealing off the arrivals deck and then decompressing the bay. The doors cranked open with painful slowness and the behemoth of a ship itself inched its way inside.

"Goddamn," I moaned. "Could the pilot go any freakin' slower?"

Howard let me bitch out my anxiety. It – the objectives we'd met and ones still before us and the potential consequences of them all – was really all too much to take in and we weren't even done yet. Fuck. Ever have that feeling like you have too much to do with yourself and even though you know where to start, all you can do is stare blankly into an incomprehensible future? Yeah, I was in that place and time alternately ticked by with grotesque slowness and zoomed by like blasts from space-calibrated Buster Rifles.

When I blinked myself out of my own head, I was treated to the sight of Trowa's self-appointed sister, Cathy, barreling out of the airlock quarantine straight for us. I actually took a step back. Shit. Was she gonna kick my ass for marrying her, um, brother? Or choke news of him outta me? I scrutinized her for any sign that she was carrying those knives she was so good at tossing around.

"Howard!" she hollered, crashing right into his outstretched arms. "You stupid old man! What were you thinking getting yourself captured!? Do you have any idea how worried I was!? You—you—you—!"

Her incomplete sentence reminded me of my parting words to Trowa and it both amused and disturbed me that I seemed to have some kind of speech impediment in common with Catherine Bloom.

And then suddenly I was gaping at the sight of Howard kissing Trowa's fierce sister. On the lips. Passionately.

Whoa, buddy. Too much information.

I was still blinking, trying to either digest or deny (or both at the same time, which might explain why I wasn't managing much more than a blank stare), when Cathy leaned back, slapped Howard on his skinny arm, and turned to me.

Shit. I'd totally wasted my chance to run and freakin' dive for cover.

"Duo!" she enthused, reaching for me and pressing a quick kiss to my cheek. "I'm so happy to see you!"

"Uh, yeah. Um. Me, uh, too," I coughed out.

"You're so darling. It's obvious what Trowa sees in you."

Er, it was? Wait. No. Trowa and I weren't really married—er, I mean we were married but it was all for show and she obviously didn't know that but—!

"Um," I began.

"Welcome to the family," she said, wrapping an arm around Howard's waist and I just kind of boggled at the implication. "Now, what are you still doing here? Don't you have a madman to deal with?"

"Er, yes, ma'am!" I retorted and got my ass the hell off the arrival deck. I did not look back to see how Howard and Cathy were, uh, enjoying their reunion. I barreled aboard the Peace Million, shouted greetings to a couple of guys I recognized, shouted some more about gettin' guys up to the colony comm. room for briefing, and then shouted for someone to get my Goddamn shuttle ready. I think, somewhere in there, I may have said please. Possibly.

As I slid into the pilot's seat and freakin' zoomed through the preflight checklist, Heero's voice sounded over the comm. channel.

"Don't be reckless, Duo."

I glared at the speaker. "The hell, man! I—"

"It's been years since you've piloted," Wufei reminded me.

I stuck my tongue out at him. Too bad he couldn't see it. The courier shuttles didn't have a video screen. Basic comm. only.

"Take it easy, Duo," Quatre urged, voice warm and caring, and I felt something hard and burning within me soften and calm just a bit. "Be careful. For Trowa's sake."

"Dammit, guys," I snarled, fighting against their collective effort to talk sense into me when I most definitely did not need it, thank you very damn much. "Do you think I'm gonna hold my breath an' freakin' jump down to Earth?"

"No, of course not," Quatre placated me. But, since Quatre was the only one who of us who actually did any placating, I guess that could only be expected.

"We'll be right behind you," Heero promised.

"Rendezvous in Brussels," Wufei confirmed.

"Yeah, just don't forget to bring your game!" I quipped, grinning as I imagined Heero's grunt, Quatre's exasperated smile, and Wufei's irritated glare. Before anybody tried to chew my ass for not taking this seriously, I metaphorically bit my tongue and told them, "I'll be on this frequency. Reestablish contact when you're Earth-bound. Duo over and out."

So, I launched ahead of the others, the coordinates Trowa had sent me before communications blackout already locked into the courier shuttle's navigation system. After reentry, I knew exactly where I was going.

Although I knew it was too soon, I used the secondary radio to scan both our old wartime frequency and the channel we'd been using earlier. I wondered if Dekim even knew I'd been sitting in the colony's damn comm. room, chatting with Trowa. Maybe not. I'd gotten the impression from Trowa that he'd made some kind of deal with the goons themselves.

Still, I wasn't terribly concerned. I was pretty sure my new-and-improved-friend Hilde had it all under control. The girl really was one in about ten billion. I was gonna have to see about making sure her significant other properly appreciated that.

Imagining that inevitable meeting took the edge off while I waited for Trowa to make contact. Even though I knew it'd be something like another hour or two (or possibly more) before he landed, powered up Heavyarms, and had access to his suit's working comm. system, I was still listening and listening hard.

For the record, I really hate waiting. The courier shuttle didn't even have good long-range sensors, so I couldn't follow Dekim's progress toward Brussels. I tapped into the nearest media satellite and tuned in to the local news broadcast there, following along with what wasn't happening around the ESUN building. It sounded like the Preventers had all moved in and taken up positions around the government headquarters, but nobody had been able to establish contact with anyone inside since the building had been locked down something like twenty-eight hours ago. I could imagine how restless the brass must be getting as the situation dragged on.

Of course, now that Preventer Agent Hilde Schbeiker had filled in her bosses, they all knew what was supposed to happen in T-minus four hours when Dekim was due to arrive. And nobody wanted to rock the boat until they had enough backup to deal with a frickin' army of manned mobile suits.

Damn. I wondered if there was any hope at all that we'd all come outta this just fine and dandy. Not just me an' the guys, but everyone. Was there a chance that no one in the ESUN headquarters had been harmed? Could we keep Dekim's forces from firing on the city? Was it inevitable that civilians were gonna get hurt? That soldiers were gonna needlessly lose their lives?

I tortured myself with thoughts along those lines for a bit until Heero's voice called me back from the dark possibilities I was contemplating. "This is Heero Yuy, en route."

"Roger that. Welcome to the rat race," I replied with a little too much panache.

"Any word from Trowa yet?"

I had to take a moment for a deep breath before I responded. "Not yet."

"There will be." I hated how he could sound so damn sure. Or maybe I envied him that. Probably the latter, I admitted to myself with a wince.

Wufei and Quatre joined us about fifteen minutes later and gave us the low-down on the mobile doll deal. "Howard's guys are going to keep generating misleading data. For all intents and purposes, it's going to look like the mobile dolls have landed in Brussels and are attacking the city," Quatre reported.

Wufei gave us the other side of the story. "The Preventers have asked for assistance from the media which has agreed to air stock footage from the war consistent with a mobile doll attack."

Well. OK, then. "Looks like we've got ourselves a nice setup for an ambush, eh?" I commented. All we had to do was just get our asses there as fast as humanly (and Gundam-ly) possible.

"We?" Heero replied and, by the tone of his voice, I knew where this was going. "You are not entering a battle in a civilian area with a tank of sarin gas and no communications capabilities," he dictated.

Huh. I guess someone had been listening in on a certain private conversation after all! I almost punched out the speaker in an effort to bust up his face long-distance for that. "I will take care of the gas, but I will be there an' there ain't nuthin' you can do to stop me, Yuy."

"That's a double negative," Wufei pointed out and I was this freakin' close to screaming. I ground my teeth, counted to three, and ignored him. Damn smartass.

"I will be in Brussels and I will stay the hell outta your way."

"No, you—"

"Will turn this Goddamn comm. link off if you keep arguing with me, pal." And I meant it.

He shut up.

The silence was blissful until I realized that the one voice I wanted – no, needed to hear – was still not speaking to me. Damnitall, Trowa! Where the hell are you!?

And then I laughed at myself: for a second there, I'd kinda sounded like Cathy. Hah!

The thought amused me for about three seconds and then I was back to not screaming at the silence around me. With a sigh, I gave in and turned back to the mic. "So, Heero. How come they had you outta your cell?"

It's kinda fun when you can hear other people's attention sharpen to a razor-thin point. Quatre and Wufei didn't say anything but I could tell they were vitally curious about this. Clearly, it was the first they'd heard of it.

Heero grunted. "Ah. I told them I'd cooperate by helping test their mobile suit simulator."

"Yuy!" Wufei barked. "They were gathering data for the purpose of improving their training program!"

"I knew that," Heero retorted irritably. Smirking, I sat back and enjoyed the show. "I wanted the practice."

Oooh, now Heero was gonna try and convince us that he'd been using them – and I'm not saying he hadn't been – but he couldn't fool me. Always looking for a foothold in a situation, that was our Heero. Always reaching for the high ground, always scouting for weaknesses, always lookin' out for number one. That's probably why I'd both hated and admired him so much during the war.

It startled me a bit to realize that I didn't feel that way about him anymore. Now I was just... mildly irritated and mostly exasperated. It was freakin' odd to realize that I was married to the guy I admired the most now. Trowa was a survivor. He made the hard choices and he followed through. That took guts. Hell, that took more than guts – it took fire.

I listened with half an ear as Quatre jumped in with both feet and started tearing Heero up one side and down the other for giving the enemy – the still undefeated enemy – access to the kind of data a highly trained soldier like Heero could provide. If any of Dekim's troops decided to follow in the wannabe-warlord's footsteps, they'd make a better pilot-training program and, next time around, the threat to the peace would be all that much harder to stop.

Heero argued back that he hadn't been trying all that hard to beat their damn simulations, so it wouldn't matter. Wufei bitched a bit about how stupid he was. Quatre had to interject a few times before the two of them ended up deciding to leave Dekim to us while they went off and battled for honor or some such stupid thing. I wouldn't put it past them. I kept my mouth shut and let Quatre handle it. Mostly, I just continued scanning the airwaves with the backup radio.

Nuthin'.

Eventually, I took pity on Heero and butted the hell in just before I started reentry – damn, but Wufei and Quatre were still riding his ass like horsemen of the freakin' apocalypse! – and asked, "How the hell did you guys get outta your cells, anyway? Heero, that little present I slipped you in the hall come in handy?"

The silence from Quatre and Wufei was definitely contrite. And, somehow, Heero's spoke of smugness. The fact that I could hear emotions in static-laced silence probably indicated unfavorable things about my mental health, but whatever.

"Starting reentry. See ya on the other side, guys."

Heero, Quatre, and Wufei all copied that. I listened for it right up until flames started licking at the windows, testing the strength of the little shuttle's heat shield, but I didn't hear Trowa's acknowledgement. Damnitall, baby, you better make contact before I land! Because I was gonna kick his ass for leavin' me hangin' like this if he didn't.

When Hilde had given us her most recent report on the mobile dolls, all of them had been destroyed so that seemed to indicate that Trowa was alive (or had been then). But I had no idea if he'd been injured during reentry (and if so, how badly) or what his status was now. It belatedly occurred to me that the guys had dumped an argument on the airwaves because they were trying to distract me from the fact that no one knew if Trowa had made it all the way through to landing.

Huh. I spent the remaining minutes of my communications blackout trying to decide if the guys were coddling me (and therefore deserved to have Shinigami pay them a visit) or if they were damn awesome. A question for the ages.

I gradually brought the courier shuttle out of its plunge and, as I did so, the communications radio started spitting static at me. I confirmed my safe reentry to Heero, Quatre, and Wufei. But, once all the copy-that's were said and awkward silence started to settle in, a slightly different sound introduced itself to the airwaves. A new static tone fizzed out from the speaker and I held my breath, waiting, wondering... I clutched the yoke like a man on the verge of falling overboard, hoping...

"This is Trowa Barton. Do you read me?"

Oh boy did I ever! My whoop of joy would have echoed in the cockpit if it had actually burst out of my mouth. I was biting my lip too hard for it to escape. The sheer power of it exploded upward from my chest and pushed tears of reaction from my eyes.

"Barton! Status!" Wufei barked. I would have said something similar, but I was too busy restraining myself from, I dunno, kissing the damn comm. speaker or something.

"Moving out in Heavyarms now. All systems operational."

"He meant for you to give us your injury report," Heero interjected drolly.

"Fine. Some bruising from the harness. Nothing serious."

"Trowa! That harness wasn't designed for you. You could have internal injuries!"

"I know when I'm experiencing internal bleeding, Quatre," he replied. "Don't worry."

Everyone got quiet after that which meant it was probably my turn to talk. I just couldn't think of anything to say with the other guys listening in. I muted my mic on the main radio and dialed up the old war frequency on the secondary comm. unit – I was betting Hilde wasn't listening in on this one – and I asked nervously, "Trowa? You read me?"

A moment later, I heard his voice over our "private" channel. "Duo. I read you."

I freakin' slumped in the pilot's seat. If not for the yoke in my hands and the harness over my chest, I would have just melted onto the floor. Damn. I wanted to ask if he was really OK, but I didn't think he'd change his story now, even if there was something to tell. I took all my anxiety and did something constructive with it. Like—

"Freakin' took you long enough!"

"I was waiting for an engraved invitation."

"On that fancy vellum shit?"

"Naturally."

I snorted.

"Your suit isn't the only one with elaborate security procedures to deal with," he explained.

Ah. I wondered what kind of insanity he'd installed to prevent people from ransacking his Gundam, but I knew better than to ask. "Speaking of which, is there anything left of Deathscythe for me to pilot?"

"I was gentle."

"Hah. I'll bet. A hundred and twelve mobile dolls and not a scratch on my buddy?"

"So youwerewatching."

"Uh, actually, I hope you made a recording for posterity. When I blinked, I missed it."

"A likely story. But yes, there's a recording. I thought it might be needful."

"So I can gleefully point out everything you did wrong?"

"You just try it, darling." He sounded like he really wanted me to, too.

I was about to set a date and a time for this much-anticipated event, but then Trowa suddenly said, "Hold that thought," and I listened as he switched frequencies to talk to all of us. I wondered why the others were being so quiet all of a sudden. Heh. They were probably on a separate frequency, gossiping about Trowa and me behind our backs.

"I'm still over two hours outside of Brussels – no sign of Dekim or his forces – but I'll start transmitting sector scans."

"Don't engage Dekim alone," Heero ordered.

Trowa didn't dignify that with a response.

"Sorry," Trowa said just to me-and-only-me on our alternate frequency. "What were you about to demand?"

"Demand!" I squawked. "What makes you think I was gonna demand anything, pal?"

"You're very... demanding."

"Me? No way, babe. You must have me confused with your other husband. I'm the personification of laidback unconcern."

"Says the guy who's out to add my soul to his personal collection."

"Is it possible to have a collection of one?"

"You don't have similar designs on other souls?"

"I'm a plus-one-soul kind of guy."

"And what would you do with it if you had it?" he teased, bringing back the memory of suit fittings and a kiss in the men's department of a crappy general store in purgatory.

I smirked. "Teach it to dance."

"I can dance."

"Hah!"

"You doubt me?"

"You walk tightropes, play tag with ferocious lions, pilot mobile suits in battle like it's a damn ballet... there's no way you can dance, too. Nobody's that perfect."

"Perfect?"

"Well, all that stuff is at the top ofmyshort list. I'd have it all done and notched if it weren't for this damn cat dander allergy of mine."

"Allergy?" he blatantly doubted.

"Which reminds me! If we end up getting a cat, it's gonna have to be one of those freaky, hairless ones. We can name it Alien Refugee and call it ‘Al' for short."

Trowa laughed. Y'know, that sound never ceased to amaze me. I was already flyin' high on relief that he was OK and now I hadthisreward to bolster me further. I felt like I could freakin' take on the universe bare-fuckin'-handed!

"You are insane," he told me in a tone traditionally reserved for three very different words.

"Yeah," I agreed amicably, my own tone warming and softening. "But you like me that way."

"I do." He didn't even try to deny it. Good man.

We bantered a bit more and I could not articulate how welcome thatnormalcywas. Bit by bit, my manic energy calmed and fizzled out, ceding to much-needed control. We listened as, one by one, the others went through reentry and then set off on separate courses to retrieve their Gundams.

"Hey, listen," I told Trowa. He was still a ways out from his objective, but I was nearing the coordinates he'd given me. "You know I've gotta go to Brussels, right?"

He sighed. "I know."

"If there's any juice left in the Hyper Jammers, I'm gonna move in behind Dekim's position. If, y'know, you need me to take him down or supply distraction, we need a signal."

He thought for a moment before saying, "I'll flash the lights in Heavyarms' eyes."

"OK."

"Duo... be careful. We're not at war anymore."

"Why does everyone think I'm gonna charge in blindly, Scythe-swinging?"

"That's your style, Shinigami."

"Hah! That's rich coming from The Silencer. How many rounds are you packin' anyway?"

"Point taken."

I chuckled.

"What's your ETA on those coordinates?" he asked.

"Approaching now."

He coached me over to a good landing area and then I was touching down, tearing up the abandoned field with the landing gear and hoping Howard was gonna get reimbursed from the Preventers because I sure as hell didn't have the cash for these kinds of repairs. Wincing, I sent off the landing coordinates to the Peace Million for pick up even as I broadcasted my safe landing to the others. I signed off from the main comm. channel before they could get started in on me again. No way was I sitting this one out. No freakin' way.

"Hey, baby?" I asked, hesitating to cut the engines.

"Yes?"

There were no less than a million questions swirling around in my brain, scrambling my thoughts. I spent a solid minute trying to convince them to just get the hell in line. It didn't work. I gave up on trying to prioritize them and heaved a useless sigh. Since the mission wasn't over with yet, I made myself focus on that. The rest would have to come later. "No lost innocents. No matter what."

"No matter what," he agreed. "You'll see me afterwards."

It was the closest thing to a promise he could make considering the situation we were all heading into, and I knew what he was telling me: he wasn't gonna take the kind of risks he had during the war. He was gonna make it through this and we'd... we'd... hell, I dunno what we'd do or be, but we'd be seeing each other. It wasn't much, but it was almost more than I could handle at this point.

"I damn well better," I replied. "Duo, out." And then I cut the radio and shut off the shuttle engine before I could say something lame. I had a suit to locate and a baddie to sneak up on. Whoo yeah!

It wasn't hard to locate Deathscythe. I stumbled out of the courier shuttle and there my buddy was, just kickin' back under the leafy canopy of the nearby forest. For the first time infour long years,I was able to just stand next to ‘Scythe, put my hand on its Gundanium alloy ankle and smile. "Hope you're not tired of the action yet, buddy-boy, because the fun is just beginning."

I didn't hang around waiting for a response. Hell, d'ya think I'm nuts or something? I knew my Gundam wasn't gonna freakin' talkbackto me! I hauled my ass up to the cockpit and got myself seated. It was a simple matter of voice recognition and retina and palm scans since the start-up sequence had already been keyed in. In less than five minutes, I was staring at my fuel gauge, calculating how far it would get me. It'd get me to Brussels and, at this point, that was all I cared about.

I launched.

Whoo baby! I whooped. I laughed. I had freakin' tears streaming down my face. I was piloting again. Whoa damn. I'd never thought – well, OK, I'dthought– but I'd neverhopedI'd be sitting here again, strapped into the pilot's seat, thrusters at my fingertips, the Earth zooming by as I blazed a trail across the sky. They could lock me up forever after this and I wouldn't care. I'd have this memory of freedom. It'd be enough to get me through.

Even if you had to give up Trowa, too?

My heart stopped beating. The muscles in my chest squeezed tight as if to cradle it, hold it together to keep it from falling to pieces. Damn. This is what I get for letting myself think beyond the moment. I could not afford this kinda shit now. Notnow.

"I've got your back," I promised even though there was no one to hear it. Trowa was counting on me. Hell, all the guys were.Focus, Maxwell! I did.

I dropped the emergency oxygen tank – still full of sarin gas – in the Baltic Sea as I carved a flight path toward Brussels. I committed the dump coordinates to memory. (Well, I couldn't justleaveit there, could I? It wouldn't be safe in the long run. Plus, Une might need it as evidence against Dekim if this circus actually went to trial.) And then I was shakin' ass toward the ESUN headquarters and whatever scene awaited me there.

It burned me up that I had no eyes or ears here in Deathscythe. Hell, I didn't even have email. I had sensor scans, terrain maps, microphone, video and infrared of the immediate vicinityonly,but I had no radio, television, or digital broadcast access. Damn. It was a wonder Trowa was so freakin' calm after piloting this thing for as long as he had without gettinganydata on whether or not the world was still frickin' turning.

Which reminded me...

I cued up the cockpit video recorder just to check and see if he really had... Yes! There was a recent and fairly large file saved in the recordings folder. I'd have to check that puppy out later. Y'know, so I could give him some pointers.

I smirked. Hah! As if Trowa needed any pointers from an amateur like me. He'd been pretty much raised inside a mobile suit. Hell, he'd cut down dozens of mobile dolls during reentry and Deathscythe had taken virtually zero damage. (I'd noticed some scorch marks, but the suit's integrity was at 100%, which was just freakin' amazing.) If anything, I'd learn a thing or two fromhim,but how much conversation time could we squeeze out of "Gee, thanks, I learned bunches from your awesome mad piloting skills, man"? Not much. And Iwantedto have an excuse – as many excuses as I could drum up – to talk to him again, to keep that connection we'd forged open between us. The thought of parting ways and only seeing him at annual get-togethers or public events... (And wasn't that a hell of a thing to contemplate! Would Trowa, inveterate loner that he was, even bother to show up to one of those damn fancy powwows?) Well, I didn't want that. He was my husband, dammit, and I... I...

The mission, Maxwell!Shinigami reminded me cheerfully and I – somewhat less cheerfully – gritted my teeth and got the hell on with doing my damn job. I kept an eye on the clock, hating the fact that it was taking me the same amount of time that it had Trowa to reach my destination; once upon a time, Deathscythe had been the fastest of all our Gundams, but I guess the upgrades had added a bit of weight which was slowing my suit down. To counter that, I let myself fall into my pilot's zone and the passage of time sort of blew past me like a March wind.

When my proximity alarmed beeped, I checked to make sure and, yes, the Hyper Jammers were still jamming away and the cloaking system was on-line, making me invisible to all but the naked eye and video cameras, and then only if I did a dance or fell flat on my face. As I zoomed over the suburbs of Brussels, I powered up all the screens in Deathscythe, giving myself a one-hundred-and-eighty degree view of the area in front of me. Before I got within visual range of the ESUN building, I cut the thrusters, dropped down low and, using the high-rise apartment complexes and corporate office buildings as cover, weaved my way toward ground zero.

This was the tricky part. I had to make sure I found myself in a good positionbehindenemy lines. And I had to make sure I stayed the hell outta everyone's way if this little arms race exploded into a fight. I hoped it wouldn't come to that.

The external sensorsfinallystarted picking up Dekim's forces and I moved in with more confidence.

I spotted Wing's distinctive outline as I metaphorically tiptoed between two glass-and-steel monstrosities. It looked like he'd taken up position directly in front of the main gates of the ESUN offices. Heh. Offices. Well, I guess they had offices inside that fancy-schmancy mansion thing. Along with a couple of art galleries, a grand hall, a ballroom, a five-star restaurant kitchen, and... well, you get the idea.

Sandrock was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Heavyarms not far away and I had to beat back the flare of jealousy – that wasmypost beside Trowa, not Quatre's! – but I squashed it with a wave of thankfulness. I did not want Trowa to stand there and face Dekim alone. I knew it couldn't bemeon his flank, but I was glad someone we both trusted was there.

Wufei's Gundam was harder to spot. He was positioned along the line of Preventers vehicles surrounding the perimeter of the estate. I had to scoot a few blocks down before I could see what they were up against. When I finally had a clear shot—

Damn!

What I saw confirmed the readout on my screen. It was like a freakin'fieldof mobile suits. I instantly regretted not being able to study their schematics prior to this moment: they looked bulky as hell – from an older design, perhaps – but so damnedsolidthat I wondered if a swarm of them really could take down a Gundam. Dekim certainly had enough drones if it came to that.

The scene before me looked like a kind of stalemate. There was a good chance people were talking over loudspeakers rather than comm. links. I flipped on the out-suit microphone.

Luck was with me.

"—not getting past us, Dekim," Heero's voice boomed out across the tableau. From that, I gathered that I wasn't all that late to the festivities after all. Sweet.

"How dare you threaten the Vice Foreign Minister and her aides!" Dekim screeched back. Ah, so that's how he was gonna play it. His next words confirmed what I was thinking. "Command your men to vacate the premises immediately, leaving the hostages unharmed, or we will open fire!"

That was so not gonna happen. Not in my lifetime.

"If you open fire, you'll kill everyone!" Quatre informed him in a voice that was as authoritative as it was heartfelt. "Innocent people, included!"

"We will not negotiate with terrorists!" Dekim roared back and, although he was a smarmy sonuvabitch, I had to admire how he was rolling with the punches here. It was clear no one was gonna be able to get through to the guy; he was totally off his rocker. But if we could reach Mariemeia – she was presumably with him somewhere in this mess – and if we could turn her against her grandfather, create just an instant of doubt...!

Goddamnitalltohell! Why hadn't Itoldthe other guys this part of my plan?! Here, now, we had agoldenopportunity to open the girl's eyes and make herseewhat the old man was doing waswrongand the army would probably follow her damn leadif only—!

"Miss Mariemeia Khushrenada," a familiar voice rang out, echoing in the tense silence. "My name is Chang Wufei."

Whoa. No way Wufei had the same damn idea as me. Just no frickin' way. I mean –Wufei!?The hell!? When did he get all observant and shit? Or was he meditating inside Altron and freakin' channeling his psychic energies?

He continued, "I knew your father, Treize Khushrenada. We fought together more than once."

Hah. Nice way to gloss over the messy truth there.

"Because of that, I can tell you this: heneverwould have allowed civilian casualties in the name of peace and equality. Battle is meant to be an honorable conflict between foes, between soldiers."

I held off on cheering as I moved into position. I could sense that whatever Wufei "Wielder of the Word-as-Weapon" Chang was about to say was gonna rip a hole in Dekim's logic. It was a no-brainer how the old guy was gonna react: like a desperate man. On my screen, Heavyarms shifted, readying for an offensive.

"Who is pointing weapons at the people now, Miss Khushrenada? Who is threatening the lives of innocents?" He paused, presumably, to give her a moment to work that through. "What your grandfather seeks is wrong. It will never lead to true freedom for the colonies."

"Lies!" Dekim roared. Wufei ignored him. I moved in a bit closer. Hell, I was a frickin'sneezeaway from the edge of the lines of drones. It occurred to me then that I probably should have taken the new cloaking system for a test drivebeforethis moment. Oh well.

Wufei spoke over Dekim's furious and ongoing slandering, "You can end this, Miss Khushrenada. You can save lives here and now. Make your father proud."

Wow. That was... pretty damn good. The Preventers, the pilots, the damn army crowding the streets of downtown Brussels all seemed to hold their breath. Impossibly, the fate of hundreds – if not thousands – of lives was resting on the reaction of a twelve-year-old girl.

Man. That's fucked up.

There was a small hiss – like the sound of a door sliding open – and I had to inch my way a bit to the north in order to get a view of what was going on. I watched as Mariemeia stepped out of an armored car – ortankmore like – which was on the front line and flanked by a pair of heavily armed, manned suits. One of which was likely piloted by the general himself.

She walked out into the empty street between the Gundams and her grandfather's army and stopped when she was almost exactly half way between the two. Her personal guard hovered uncertainly by the still-open door of the tank. They were probably envisioning the end of their careers even if their side ended up coming out on top. I was pretty sure Dekim was fuming right now. Or maybe scowling mightily, trying to whip up a Plan B.

I kept one eye on Mariemeia and one eye on the manned suits at her back as she paused, lifted a megaphone to her mouth and then turned to face the men and women who were prepared to give their lives to make her a queen.

"Stop. Everyone, lower your weapons."

"What?!"Dekim shouted. I found it telling that the old buzzard had waited to be sure she wasn't about to give everyone a rallying battle cry before objecting. Opportunistic old crackpot. "Get back in the carimmediately!"

"No!" she replied. "I don't want people to be hurt. I don't want to attack. I don't want to bequeen!"

Ooh, now she'd done it. I could sense the buildup in the tension. It thickened the air. The mobile suits in Barton's army seemed frozen. Weapons that had been held at the ready were audibly powered down. It was as I'd surmised: the army followed Miss Mariemeia first and foremost.

"You stupid child!" Dekim bellowed and I tightened my fingers around Deathscythe's controls. I knew which suit he was using – he'd talked enough to give me an accurate reading on his position – but I wasn't going in until I wassurehe'd hit his breaking point.

"Get out of my way!" This he commanded as he lifted a stripped-down version of a Buster Rifle and aimed it directly over his granddaughter's unprotected head, lining up Wing and the government building beyond in his sights. It glowed with power; it crackled with energy. Still, I had to besureit wasn't an act.

"Sir—!" a neighboring mobile suit pilot objected.

It was the final straw. Dekim broke. He swung at his own henchman, backhanding the suit and sending it stumbling into the one beside it. Then he was grasping the Buster Rifle in both giant, metal hands, fitting a finger around the trigger—

Heero, Trowa, Quatre, Wufei, the Preventers... they were all on the wrong side of the situation to do anything to stop the sonuvabitch from firing that blast. I, on the other hand, wasnot.

"Oh no you don't, you—!" Even as the words came screaming out of me, I was in motion. I leaped to the front line, Beam Scythe arcing down, slicing cleanly through the gun as I knocked Dekim's mobile suit back with a timely kick and then I was falling, crouching, curling my Gundam around the young girl standing right smack dab in the center of the blast radius.

And a blast there was.

I didn't have time to shut off the outside mic before the cockpit was ringing with the booming, eardrum-incineratingBANG!of the rifle exploding at full-charge. I flinched, riding it out as it freakin' echoed for Goddamnever.

And then... silence. Silence so profound, I was sure I was deaf. But no. No, I could hear my own panting breaths. The silence was external. Everyone was in shock.

Lying awkwardly on my side in Deathscythe, which was also sprawled on its side in the middle of the Goddamn government plaza, I rotated the screen focus to behind me. Where Dekim's suit had stood there was now a smoking rubble of twisted metal. Amazingly, the cockpit appeared to be intact, a bit melted, but it was entirely possible that Dekim was still alive in there, reeling from the explosion.

Several suits had stumbled and even tumbled to the ground, but it looked like the damage was minimal. I keyed my mic as I called up the camera angle that would let me know how Mariemeia, shielded by the bulk of my suit, had fared. "Miss M? Are you all right?"

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Heavyarms take half a step forward. Sandrock lifted an arm to block his path, however, and I was grateful. We were nearly there.Nearly there!

"I'm fine, Mr. Max— Duo."

I sighed out a breath in relief. "That's good." I was still checking over her image just to make sure, but she really did seem all right. "Miss M, I gotta ask you for a favor."

"What is it?"

"Can you call the soldiers inside the building – the ones with Relena and her staff – and ask them to surrender?"

I watched as she nodded and then moved to stand. She was dirty and dusty and her hair was windblown, but she had never looked more regal. She would have made a good queen, I decided, but I was glad she wasn't. She was too young to have that kind of responsibility thrust upon her. That Dekim was willing to saddle his own granddaughter with such a weight bespoke of profound selfishness on his part. Someday, I hoped she'd realize that.

"There's no need!" a new voice announced and I had to resort to Deathscythe's sensors to trace the origin back to the ESUN's public address speakers. "We are releasing the hostages, unharmed, and will be exiting the building peacefully."

As the Preventers moved in to intercept the crowd of people soon to be emerging from the building, I lay there grinning. Damn. Had we done it? Had we really stopped a hostile coup d'état in its tracks?

My repeated scans of both the government building and the army behind me confirmed it again and again no matter how many times I looked: weapons were laid down, soldiers were emerging from their suits with arms raised in surrender, hostages were shuffling out of the Brussels HQ looking shell shocked.

Hell. After all the drama... that had been too damn easy.

My musings were interrupted by someone calling my name over the speaker system. "Duo? Duo!" I grinned as I recognized this voice.

Focusing on the woman approaching Deathscythe, I took in the sight of the Vice Foreign Minister in a suit that looked a little wrinkled and stale. "Relena!" I greeted. "Long time no see!"

She smiled. "Speak for yourself, Duo Maxwell."

Ah, I guess that was true. She wasn't seeing much of the actual me, was she? Well, maybe after the dust settled a bit more, we'd all get together and get caught up.

"Relena, if you'd take Miss M and move her a few steps back, I'd like to pick myself up off the asphalt."

"Oh! Certainly."

I had to shake my head in amazement as I watched Relena smile gently at her would-be successor, offer her hand, and then lead Treize's daughter to a safe distance so I could get Deathscythe back on its feet. I didn't power down or step out of the cockpit: Who knew what kind of crazy wackos were still simmering with indignation in their suits around here? Hell, all the guys and I stood guard as people swarmed the area. I did, however, have one observation to make.

"Y'know, guys..." I mused aloud to the whole damn world, "yet again, I arrive just in time to save the damsel from serious peril. I'm sensing a definite career path for me, here!"

I think Relena replied, saying something like, "And a fine career it will be, Duo!" but, honestly, I wasn't really paying attention to her. I was busy listening to the laughter I wassureI could hear coming from Heavyarm's out-suit speakers and grinning my ass off.

Yeah...I didn't say.We did it, Trowa baby. We did it.

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

NOTES:

The specs on Deathscythe were taken from gundam.wikia.com

Duo's comment about saving the damsel is referring to the time (at the beginning of the series) when he stopped Heero from shooting (and possibly killing) Relena. (And a whole lotta thanks he got for it, too.) Oh, and there was also a time in the series when he pushed Hilde's Leo suit out of the way of oncoming fire. So, yeah. A definite career path there.

Plus, there's new fanart!! Commissioned fanart of (upcoming) Chapter 13 by kracken
Spoilers: Not terribly spoiler-ish. (^__~)
Worksafe? Um. Maybe? If you blink and look innocent, you can pass this off as a man bestie moment to anyone peering over your shoulder... Possibly.

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