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 10: A Game of This and That

There's nothing in your head or pocket, throat or wallet that could change just how this goes...

"Mr. Maxwell..."

"Call me Duo," I generously offered as I settled into the chair at the table in what was clearly an interrogation room. Without Trowa there to distract me, I immediately began my little swivel routine. I had no reason to not be relaxed. I hadn't said or done anything so far to indicate that I wouldn't be happily cooperative once we got a few details straightened out. Details like showing Howard better hospitality and ordering Dekim "Creepy Guy" Barton to stay the hell away from my husband.

But what about that reconnoitering business, you ask? Well, that was to be expected. If I hadn't taken steps to check the place out for myself, that would have been very suspicious. Gundam pilots weren't known for taking things at face value. Mariemeia's dad had taught us that.

Speaking of which... damn. I was looking at Treize Khushrenada's daughter. She was twice as charismatic as the OZ-man, himself. I could definitely see why Dekim Barton was so happy to thrust her into the limelight while he fiddled and finagled behind her back. I wondered how aware she was of the fact that he was using her and planned to continue using her as a shield while he soaked up power like a freakin' sponge.

Hmm, yes. There was a potential weakness there if I could figure out just how to reach her. If Dekim lost his lovely and charming future-queen, the soldiers might be less inclined to follow his orders. From what I'd seen, they more or less doted on Mariemeia; they hung on her every word. Of course, Dekim had to be aware of this weak link and had probably brain washed the poor kid into believing some kind of destiny or fate crapola. Yes, something to ponder.

The object of my thoughts dimpled a smile at me in delight. "Duo."

Dekim Barton charged into the budding conversation, probably feeling a little territorial since I was charming his meal ticket. "What are you prepared to do to help the colonies?" he demanded.

"That all depends," I retorted, tucking my hands behind my head and slouching comfortably, one foot propped up on the opposite knee. Oh, yeah. I was settling in. The longer these negotiations took, the better. "What are you prepared to do to help me?"

"As mercenary as your husband?" the man spat. Clearly, he had some kind of ax to grind with Trowa. I wasn't all that keen to let him do that, especially since I wasn't sure if I could be there to have Trowa's back. I wondered what I could do about running interference without actually, y'know, physically interfering since that was kinda impossible what with me being shoved into – oh, excuse me, escorted to – a separate "meeting room". I tried not to remember Trowa's reaction to Dekim commanding me out of that conference room for "a word in private". Damn, but I'd thought he was gonna take on the bastard with his bare hands.

I'd been a bit too busy filling in the blanks of Trowa's reaction to make a move to stop him from lunging. Thank God Wufei had been standing right there and had clamped a hand on his shoulder.

"Hey, no problem!" I'd chirped as if being ordered around like a damn private in his freakin' army was no biggie

"Trust nothing he says," Trowa had growled very softly.

I'd met his narrowed eyes, nodded, and assured him in a quiet but audible tone, "I'll see ya later, babe." And then I sauntered over to the general and my imminent interrogation. Yeah, yeah; I know he'd said he only wanted "a word in private" but, hell. Did these guys think I was born yesterday?

"Me? Mercenary?" I mused playfully. "Nah, I wouldn't go that far." After all, this wasn't about money for me. I was playing for a second chance, for street cred with the world, for personal liberty and the freedom for all five of us to live our own damn lives however we wanted; Dekim was playing for the shallow dream of an unopposed dictatorship. Or so my instincts told me. "But I do have some questions, of course." And some conditions, but we'd get into those after the general laid his cards on the table.

"Of course," he bit out disagreeably.

I tilted my head to the side. "Y'know, we're not gonna get very far if we start this conversation with you determined to hate my guts."

"Is that so?"

Mariemeia frowned at the general, probably wondering why he was in such a pisser of a mood. "We do need your help, Duo," she said, turning back to me.

"I dunno about that, Miss M. From what I've seen, you guys already have a lot of support."

"Yes, what did you see during your stroll this evening?" Dekim pressed.

I was this close to rolling my eyes at the man. He'd probably have my ass tossed in the brig for that little insubordination, though. I winked instead and relished the way his expression soured. Mariemeia bit back a giggle.

"Oh, a coupla hangars," I replied with a dismissive wave of my hand. "But, man. You give a good speech. Hell, I don't mind sayin' I was motivated." It belatedly occurred to me that I'd just cussed in the presence of a child. Crap. Oh well. She wasn't exactly fainting in horror over it.

I glanced at her and noticed a rebellious twinkle in her eyes. Right then and there I decided I was gonna coax some kind of unladylike language outta her before all was said and done. I wouldn't try to turn her into a space-surfer or anything, but she'd get bonus points for coarseness and originality.

"So you will help us!" Mariemeia concluded with glee.

"Well, now, that all depends on what you're gonna ask me to do," I temporized.

"Pilot, of course!" she enthused. "We have Deathscythe here, all ready for you."

"Do you?" I mused, my heart thumping with adrenaline.

"Would you like to see it?"

"Would I ever! Lead the way, Miss M," I invited, planting my feet on the floor and standing.

Dekim didn't look all that thrilled about this turn of events. Something told me he hadn't planned on delivering the offer like Mariemeia had. I could only hope it was because they didn't have the real Deathscythe. Maybe they had a crappy knock-off in their hangar, something they'd slapped together over a Leo suit to scare the pants off the War Tribunal and nothing more.

Well, I guess I'd be finding out soon enough.

With a nod to the nearest minion, the general consented to the little field trip Mariemeia and I had drummed up. A nametag-less, expendable soldier led the way, opening the door and stepping out into the hall first. I half expected Heero and Wufei to be out there picking their way over all the bodies they'd taken down without breaking a damn sweat.

But no. There were no bodies. No hostage uprising or colony takeover. Heero and Wufei were still behaving themselves back in the conference room, it seemed. I was almost disappointed.

We wound our way deeper into the building, in a direction Trowa and I hadn't investigated. Beside me, Mariemeia skipped along as if we were on our way to a freakin' picnic. "Hey, so, what's the plan, Miss M? Why d'you need Deathscythe?"

She frowned a bit. "Um..." Hah! She didn't know. I guess good ol' Dekim hadn't told her that part. On cue, she glanced up at the man and asked, "Grandfath... um, General Barton?"

He glanced at us over his shoulder, his lip curling under his salt-and-pepper mustache. "It's our symbol," he replied shortly, as if he'd already explained this to her before and she hadn't been paying attention. Of course, he'd probably just felt pissy because she'd given away his big secret; he was her grandfather? Holy crappin' cow. This little drama just kept gettin' better and better, didn't it?

Mariemeia blushed in response to the scolding tone. I took it upon myself to distract her with something she really ought to be thinking about.

"So you want me to disable the weapons on it? I mean, if it's just gonna be a mascot, then Deathscythe won't need them."

I could tell Dekim did not like that suggestion. Unfortunately, Mariemeia seemed to think that was a perfectly reasonable request. "I suppose so..." she began slowly, obviously giving the issue careful thought for the first time.

"Don't be ridiculous," Dekim Barton barked at us. "What would Deathscythe be without its weapons?"

"Um, a symbol?" I ventured and, I kid you not, I really thought Dekim was gonna backhand me.

Wisely, Mariemeia said nothing. All I could do was hope she was adding things up and realizing that Deathscythe was not going to be a symbol; it was going to be called into service as a deadly weapon again. Just in case she hadn't made that connection yet, I mused with suicidal daring, "It'd actually be a good idea to remove the weapons system otherwise it could cause a lot of damage and hurt a lot of people."

"We shall trust the pilot to maintain the suit's integrity," the general replied icily.

I glanced at Mariemeia. It pained me slightly to see the frown on her young face. She no longer skipped along beside me. Yeah, she was beginning to see just how serious her grandfather's pet project really was. This was only the tip of the iceberg, I was sure, but I didn't dare push any more at this precise moment. If I did, Dekim might just say to hell with it and shoot me.

The soldier at the head of our little caravan paused beside a seemingly-random door. It looked the same as all the others lining this hallway. There was nothing on it to indicate that a Gundam was being stored on the other side. I clung to the hope that it wasn't my Deathscythe: the hope that Howard had somehow manufactured a copy of my suit and given it to Dekim as a gesture of good faith.

Rather than barge in self-importantly, Dekim also stepped to the side and, his thin lips twisting into a viciously victorious smile, gestured me within. I might not have gone if Mariemeia hadn't been right beside me. For that reason alone, I was pretty sure there wasn't a trap waiting for me. I stepped inside and took in the viewing station I was standing in. This was where engineers crunched the data they got from mobile suits in the hangar beyond the glass windows that made up an entire wall of the observation deck. I wandered over to the windows and looked out... right into the face of Deathscythe.

I couldn't believe it. What in the hell had Howard been thinking just giving my Gundam to these people? My hands scrambled for the nearest window lock and I pushed the pane aside, hoping I was seeing a hologram.

I hoped in vain. Deathscythe was really there. And it was really the real Deathscythe. I recognized the smell of the metal and stored ammo, the sheen of the paint, the seams of the welds. This was no copy. This was the real deal.

Howard had a helluvalot of explaining to do.

But, clearly, that wasn't going to happen at this exact moment. Focus on the here and now, Maxwell, Shinigami whispered.

Right. So. I turned and, leaning a hip against the window frame, gave Dekim Barton a crooked grin. His cold eyes flashed with victory. Yup, here we were. He had something of mine that he wanted to use and I had the knowhow to make it work. He needed the codes that were in my head; while Deathscythe wasn't impossible to hack, he'd need years and plenty of fearlessly suicidal volunteers to do it. He had neither.

Mariemeia braced her hands on the window sill and leaned out to get a good look at my Gundam. "It looks like a devil," she commented softly.

"It was meant to," I confirmed, my gaze still on Dekim. "Its creator wanted it to look as deadly as it actually was." My voice softened, like I was telling a bedtime story. "Imagine looking up and finding two glowing eyes peering at you from the darkness, then the silhouette of its horns. The last thing you see is the green flash of the Beam Scythe arcing toward you and then—!" I glanced at Mariemeia and, ensuring that I had her attention, I drew a finger across my own throat. "Lights out."

She bit her lip and shifted nervously. "Did you kill a lot of people?"

Christ. Only a child would ask something like that. "Yes," I replied.

"Who?" she pressed.

"Enemy soldiers," I answered, and then with painful honesty, added, "Maybe civilians who worked on military bases: cooks, janitors, people like that. People who were defenseless."

Mariemeia opened her mouth and I braced myself for the next question.

"That's enough, Mariemeia," Dekim Barton ordered in a tone no child would dare cross. "It's getting late."

She didn't want to be a good girl and toddle off to bed, but she didn't put up a fight, either. I watched her go, feet dragging, toward the door. She paused on the threshold and turned back toward me.

"Good night, Duo. Thank you for helping us."

"Good night, Miss M," I replied with a friendly smile. The instant the door closed behind her, it crumbled into a scowl.

The general chuckled darkly at my expression. "Yes, there's no need for pretense now." He approached the wall of windows and gazed out at my mobile suit. "You know what I want."

"Yeah." And as badly as I wanted to know how he'd conned Howard into handing over Deathscythe, it wouldn't be very helpful. "What's the target?"

He chuckled. "What makes you think you're going to be the pilot?"

I arched a single brow at him. Condescension and I go way back. It was nice to buddy up with him again. "Well, good luck poppin' the hatch, then, ‘cuz the only way you're gettin' in Deathscythe is if it's me in there."

Dekim ignored me. Still studying the mobile suit in the hangar beyond, he mused thoughtfully, "Did you know that ‘Trowa' was my son's name?"

Hell, I hadn't even known that Dekim Barton existed until about twenty minutes ago. I didn't say that, though. I was a bit busy filling in all the glaringly empty blanks.

"You can't blame my husband for his death," I said tightly. "He was just a kid when—"

"He stole my son's name and his role in the war. He stole his identity, his life, his glory." Dekim Barton turned toward me and I tensed. If only the four goons by the door weren't so damn far away, I would've had one of their guns in my hand and been giving Dekim Barton a personal introduction to Shinigami.

The general informed me, "Your mercenary husband will pilot this Gundam in my son's name and honor."

OK, that was the biggest line of bullshit I'd heard so far. This wasn't about Goddamn honor. This was about revenge. I just wasn't sure how Dekim was planning to deliver it.

"Have you suggested this to him, yet?" I replied. "No? I didn't think so. See, I know something you don't, pal; he'll never do it. Never."

"And you would?" he challenged. Before I could do more than shrug indifferently, he laughed. It was a raspy, dry, crackling sort of sound that reminded me of machinery in need of oiling. "I don't think so, Duo Maxwell. If I let you inside that suit, you'll destroy us all."

I didn't deny it. What would be the point? I said instead, "You don't think you have enough leverage to convince me otherwise?" There. I was practically inviting him to take Trowa hostage in order to force my compliance.

"And let you trigger the suit's self-destruct? No, I can't allow that."

"You're assuming I'm selfless enough to even consider it."

Dekim grinned. "Love changes a man."

I stiffened.

He continued, "It makes him weak, willing to lay down his life for the sake of those he cares for." He straightened and motioned for the goons at the door to come forward. "We shall see if the mercenary loves you as much as you care for him," Dekim declared.

Right, this was starting to suck. If only I didn't need this bastard to, well, be a bastard. If only I could just eliminate my enemies now and be done with it, but I couldn't. I had to put the mission first. So, when I would have lunged for the open window and taken my chances climbing down my suit under a maelstrom of bullets, I had to restrain myself. I merely glanced at my escape route and kept my feet firmly on the damn floor.

"I wouldn't recommend it," Dekim suggested. "If you run, I'll have one of your friends shot. Say... Winner? Perhaps in the knee."

"My, my," I mused. "What a dirty, rotten scoundrel you are, Barton. Don't expect us to accept any of your other invitations in the future."

"I don't," he replied and signaled for the goons to close in.

I fought them. I knew I couldn't win, but I still fought. I put my fist into the first guy's face, kicked the second's knee, elbowed the third in the solar plexus and then the fourth tackled me to the ground. I twisted as I fell, landing on my hip and doing my Maxwell best to squirm and twist and just make sure the sonuvabitch couldn't get a good grip on me until I could roll clear, hopefully in the direction of the door. It was a move I'd used on Heero regularly and it usually worked.

It didn't work today. Someone grabbed my damn braid and pulled my head back. Shit. At least Heero'd never done that to me. It hurt like holy hell and my respect for my old war buddy's self-restraint went up several notches. No, Heero'd never gone for this cheap shot during our wrestling matches. But I wasn't wrestling with Heero at the moment.

At the moment, it felt like all four guys had just freakin' piled themselves on top of me. Fuck. My chest was so squished I could barely breathe. I felt cuffs of Gundanium clamping shut over my forearms and I knew better than to fight the magnetic pull that was coming. I made sure my arms were in front of me – rather than behind my back – when it came so that my wrists ended up locked together in front of my chest otherwise I'd end up with a pair of dislocated shoulders. Damn, but I hated these fucking cuffs. I'd had my fill of them when I'd been a guest of OZ.

"Bring him," Dekim ordered and I was pulled to my feet. I lashed out, kicking someone in the ribs before the general informed me, "One more act of resistance, Maxwell, and Quatre will have you to thank for the limp he'll suffer the rest of his life."

I stopped fighting. I didn't stop glaring, though. Or gritting my teeth. Or silently promising the bastard a slow, painful death once I got loose.

They manhandled me out of the room and back down the hall to the interrogation room I'd just left. "You guys sure know how to show your guests a good time," I snarked. "The tour was amazing. Why isn't it featured on your brochure?"

They sat me down in the chair I'd enjoyed the first time around, declining to comment on my constructive criticism. Fine. Whatever. If they weren't gonna rise to the bait, then the bait would swim down and bite them on the ass.

I glanced up to find Dekim looming in the doorway, looking like all he and his puffed-up self needed was a dead animal to stand over in triumph. "If you refuse to cooperate, Maxwell—" he began.

"Quatre. Bullet in the knee. I got it."

"No, you don't," the general growled back. "If you refuse to tell your husband how to access Deathscythe, we will give him the access codes."

"You don't know them," I retorted.

A cruel smile curved those thin lips into a gruesome grin. "Precisely."

Oh, that rat-ass-sucking bastard. He knew – there was no doubt about it now – that my suit would detect an attempted hack and attack the perpetrator. And, I figured he knew that because—

"How many volunteers did you burn through trying to break your way in?" This I asked with a cocky grin.

Dekim nodded to a goon on my left who promptly punched me in the face. Fuck! Ow. That was gonna bruise, dammit.

"You suck at popularity contests," I informed him.

"We'll just see about that," Dekim pontificated before stepping back into the hall and letting the door slide closed.

I was kind of tickled that he'd left me alone with the four guys I'd punched, kicked, and elbowed in the hangar's observation deck. Heh. I wondered if I could work them up into going for a second round.

"Does he always have to have the last freakin' word?" I asked the minions.

Nobody answered. Hell, no one even looked at me. I decided now was a good time to pass gas as loudly as possible. Squirming a bit in my seat, I managed a nice, squeaky fart just this side of juicy. Whoo yeah. Now that's what I'm talkin' about.

I sighed out a noisy breath as if relieving the pressure in my bowels was the best thing since the invention of baked beans. Interesting how those two coincided so nicely, eh?

The sound of a door opening in the distance roused me from my contemplation of possibly trying to belch the alphabet. I glanced up and watched as the two-way mirror on the wall across from me was deactivated so that I could see through the glass to the other side... where Trowa was being told to take a seat.

Aw, hell. Here it comes. Now this – this – was the moment I'd been waiting for. You've been wondering, maybe, why I had to be married for this mission to work? Well, it's all about leverage. See, your average bad dude wouldn't be able to trick or torture any of us pilots into giving up our Gundams. Hell, the five of us would simply revolt and take over the damn place. Then we'd be right back in WEI, public servants (literally) for the rest of our damn lives. What my mission did was create a situation that was unignorable and required sacrifices. And, as it was my op, I was gonna do my damnedest to make sure the others were kept in the loop, but on the fringes. So, I got married and that, ladies and gentlemen, gave me something to lose. Something that could be taken away. I'd optimistically hoped that the bad guys would threaten Trowa's life in order to ensure my cooperation with their dastardly plans. It looked like things were unfolding along the lines of my less-palatable Option B, in which I became the leverage used against my husband.

But this was precisely why being married to Heero never would have worked. He'd totally take over the whole damn show and I'd be sitting on my ass in a detention cell waiting for the Preventers to show up and liberate me. Um. No. Hell no.

Neither Quatre nor Wufei would have ever put up with the pretense in the first place. Hell, the only reason Quatre and Wufei were even here in this tin can with the rest of us was because they'd come to watch our backs. That was the line Howard had fed Quatre and I was sure he'd said something to the same effect to Wufei: "Duo and Trowa are headed to outer space; you gonna be a pal, get off your ass, and go after them or sit around here and waste oxygen?"

So, here we were. Trowa and I were married. We both had something – namely someone – to lose. And Dekim Barton was all over that weakness like black on Deathscythe.

"What the hell is this?" I showily demanded, but no one answered me. Hell, Trowa didn't even appear to see or hear me. My chair tipped over as I stood, preparing to march the hell over there and bang on the damn window to let him know I was just one puny wall away. Goon Number Three clamped a hand on my shoulder while Number Two righted my chair. I considered resisting for the hell of it, but in the end I just sat the hell down again. Stuff was happening in the other room and wanted to know what it was.

"General Barton," I heard Trowa say in a reserved tone.

Craning my neck, I glimpsed Dekim posing in the doorway of the neighboring room and had to bite back a snicker. Christ, the man was so not as photogenic as he thought he was.

He crossed the threshold and prowled closer to my husband. I was inordinately proud of Trowa for not tensing. Hell, he didn't even watch the man when Dekim moved behind him and around to the wall opposite the door. Nor did Trowa seem to give a damn about the four goons that had posted themselves throughout the room. God, my partner was nine hundred and twelve kinds of awesome for sitting there with his arms loosely crossed and his expression blank with boredom. It made me want to cheer. Hell, it made me want to bow down and sing the "I'm not worthy" song. Hm, that probably hadn't been what he'd meant the other day when he'd told me he'd trade his immortal soul for a song, but whatever.

The general pivoted back to my husband and sneered, "Trowa."

"That's what I go by these days" was the mild reply.

"These days, you are a menace to society," Dekim hissed.

The corner of Trowa's mouth quirked up. "That's funny. I wasn't aware I'd met all that many people."

I actually guffawed at this. "Whoo baby! How d'ya like them apples!" I crowed at the glass. Dekim didn't hear me. Damnitall.

"In that case, it's only fitting," General Barton continued as if he hadn't just had his ass knocked off and handed back to him, "that you – who have unfairly sullied my son's name – now work to clear it."

"I don't owe you anything."

"It's a pity we don't see eye to eye on the subject." Dekim gestured to someone out of sight and the glass between the rooms brightened further. Trowa's gaze suddenly focused on me and I knew then that this was the part where the shit was gonna hit the proverbial fan. I could smell it coming.

I gave Trowa a grin and a wink. I was fine. Everything was under control. In answer, he lifted a hand to the collar of his shirt and pressed a finger against the pendant I knew was underneath. Yeah, he still trusted me.

"Let's try this again," Dekim generously offered. "I have something you want."

Trowa didn't deny it. "What do you want?"

"A pilot for Deathscythe."

Trowa tilted his head meaningfully in my direction. "You already have one."

"He doesn't call himself Trowa Barton."

Trowa's expression iced over and locked down. "I'm not going to pilot a suit in your son's name. He was a selfish, bloodthirsty, spoiled child. He doesn't deserve recognition for that."

For a minute, I actually thought Dekim was going to strike my husband right in front of me. I held my breath. My hands fisted and my muscles fought against the unforgiving confines of the Gundanium cuffs. Yeah, I knew Trowa could handle a little love tap or two from the general over there, but he was my partner.

Despite the tightening deep in my gut, Dekim didn't swoop in and land a blow. Instead, he looked up and met the gaze of one of the goons behind me and nodded once.

Oh, shit. Here it comes...

I braced myself as best I could, but it was still a shock when two pairs of hands shoved me down against the table. I kicked out, sending the chair clattering. Booted feet hooked around mine, trapping me in place. I heard an answering clatter in the other room as Trowa presumably stood in protest.

"Release him!" he demanded.

I wiggled and heaved. With my arms pinned beneath me against the metal table, I had zero leverage to work with. And then I heard the sound of a knife being drawn.

Hah! Bring it, soldier-boys!

I struggled harder, tapping reserves of strength I hadn't been 100% sure I still had squirreled away deep inside me. Huh. It was nice knowing I still had the ol' Maxwell Oomph (patent pending) so I took it for a spin. This was the moment for it, after all. No point in having it if I never used it.

I felt my braid being picked up and pulled taut. Oh my God. For an instant, my mind blanked with shock... and then I blinked and the whole freakin' scenario hit me in the solar plexus and I almost laughed.

Seriously? Seriously?! These bozos were threatening to give me a haircut? This was their main intimidation tactic?! Fuckin' hah!

The humor was more of a bubble than a wave and it burst almost as quickly as it had swelled into existence. Somebody pulled harder on my hair and I was suddenly rip-roarin' pissed. These bastards pawing at my hair were goin' down. Fuckin' nobody touches my hair except for me and Trowa!

"No!" Trowa shouted. "Get your hands off of him right now!"

While I appreciated the gesture, it didn't do a whole helluvalot. I heard a rhythmic banging and – damn! – was Trowa freakin' beating against the glass window? He damn well was! Which probably meant he'd freakin' leaped over the table in an effort to get to me.

Of course, attacking the mastermind himself or going for a minion's sidearm would have been more effective, but this was all just for show. I hoped to holy hell that he-who-thirsts-for-world-conquest over there was freakin' enjoying it because I damn well wasn't gonna be giving an encore. Take the bait, you sonuvabitch! Take it and choke on it!

Suddenly, there was one last sharp pull, the soft whisper of a slicing cut, and then... nothing. The weight that had always kept me on the level, that had reminded me that there really were people – good people – worth knowing, worth trusting, and worth fighting for, was gone. A wisp of hair tumbled into my vision and I blinked at the uniformly trimmed ends.

Fucking hell. Those Goddamn bastards. They'd—!

My braid was tossed onto the table in front of me like it was nuthin' more than a sack of dirty laundry.

"Duo!" Trowa rasped.

I closed my eyes, knowing that tone, knowing the fury that produces it. Yeah, he was pissed. So was I on one or more levels, but this was the price of the mission. It was also the only one I was willing to pay. I gathered my resolve, sharpened my focus, and pushed away the rage as well as the vague sense of betrayal – was it possible to betray yourself when you'd half-expected it happen all along? – and cued Trowa with a look. The ball was bouncing over to his court now. Time for the grudgingly cooperative free throw.

Meeting Trowa's gaze, I saw a heartache that had to be genuine and – you wanna know something bizarre? – even though I wasn't really all that upset about the loss of my braid, I was furious on Trowa's behalf. I was sorry for him. My braid had meant something to Trowa and I'd lost it. No, check that: I'd allowed it to be taken. I'd let that bastard Dekim put me in this position. I hadn't fought as hard as I could have and maybe should have. And now this was the result. Above all else, I really wished Trowa hadn't had to see that.

But there wasn't a whole helluvalot I could do about it now. Channeling all that anger, I pushed myself away from the table and shook off the minions with a teeth-baring grin and a manic light in my eyes. "Is it too late to request a bob?" I quipped, my tone so sharp and flippant, I thought it was gonna leave visible marks on all of us. "Because this straight cut just ain't workin' for me."

No one answered, but then again, I didn't really expect them to.

My chair was righted again and I was shoved the hell down into it. I clenched my jaw, gnawing on a token protest and an oath that would damn them all to flaming hell for putting that pain in my Trowa's expressive, green eyes. My gaze flickered briefly down to the hollow of Trowa's throat where the pendant I'd given him rested. Don't you dare give up, dammit, I tried to say with narrowed eyes and the stubborn angle of my chin.

A tiny flicker of something passed over Trowa's expression. It was too brief for me to clearly identify what it was. I hoped it was an acknowledgement of my obscure message. But, considering the day I'd been having, hope was probably a total wasted effort.

Trowa turned his chin slightly to the side and addressed General Barton. I heard The Silencer in his tone when he rumbled, "You will pay for that."

Dekim Barton nodded again at one of the goons and I felt the sharp edge of a blade beneath my right ear. Offensive reflexes that had been drilled into me during my pilot training kicked in and I had to beat them back down and force myself to hold the hell still. Christ, the general was really on a roll with all these threats of non-fatal maiming.

"Actually, it will be Duo who pays if you continue to be uncooperative," Dekim informed us both. "And the next bit we cut off may never grow back."

Have you ever watched as someone fantasized in great detail about murdering another person in cold blood? I have. I was a witness to that very thing as Trowa's expression darkened and hardened right in front of me. I knew what he was thinking. He was imagining Dekim at his mercy, bloody and begging for death. Maybe his imagination put the bastard in the palm of his Gundam. Or maybe a garrote was involved or a gun. I wasn't sure what Trowa's preferred method would be in this case, but oh yes. I knew what he was thinking. And I had to force myself not to let him do it. No, no this was not the time for Trowa to step into his old office and get to work. Dekim hadn't doled out enough rope with which to hang himself yet. Soon, he would – I was sure of it – but not yet.

"I'm fine, babe," I said in a firm tone.

Trowa's throat worked as he swallowed with an effort. Damn, but I was so giving the man a frickin' award when we got through this. I mean, he was freakin' choked up over my encouragement. Holy hell.

"Don't agree to anything," I coached him but then negated that by wincing theatrically when the blade of the knife bit into the flesh of my ear. I don't think I imagined the soft splatter of a drop of blood on the collar of my leather jacket. Well, at least it wouldn't leave a noticeable stain.

"Stop," Trowa ordered in that damned deadman's tone of his. He was staring at my collar, though, so I guess I was bleeding a bit. "I'll do it." He then looked up into my eyes. When he next spoke, the words were an order, but the regret in his eyes made them into something that was almost a plea: "Show me how to pilot Deathscythe."

At this point, I couldn't afford to refuse. Or, rather, the mission required that I give in. I figured I'd probably put up enough of a fuss for my cooperation to seem genuine now. Besides, if I continued denying Dekim access to Deathscythe, I'd start losing non-necessary body parts and Trowa – out an effort to protect his partner – would probably try to hack into my Gundam on his own. And that was gonna result with him being injured or worse. So. This was my cue; I closed my eyes and sighed in resignation. The knife was withdrawn and I resisted the urge to check my injury. It only felt like a nick, anyway, so I figured I'd just let it clot and worry about washing up later.

When I opened my eyes again, Trowa was still standing at the window but now one of his palms was pressed against the glass. That called to me in a way that his impressive display of temper earlier hadn't.

"Get him a headset with a camera and link it up to a mic and a monitor in here," I ordered Dekim's minions without removing my gaze from Trowa's. "The power-up sequence is a series of random prompts and response time is limited. I'll need to see what he sees in order to walk him through it."

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Dekim nodding in acquiescence and two goons scampered off to do my bidding. I would have gloated more if I hadn't been mesmerized by Trowa's silent vigil. Ignoring the other two minions still standing guard, I stood and slid over the table top – Mad Hatter style – to the other side where I could stand opposite my husband and press my palm to the glass over his. The cuffs made it awkward, but I didn't pay much attention. I was thinking about how weirdly light-weight my hair was and how strangely fragile-feeling. A stray breeze never used to stir the locks at the nape of my neck the way it did now. I imagined I must look pretty ridiculous, and I was suddenly thankful that Trowa had tucked his necklace and pendant back inside his turtleneck at some point before this behemoth of a task had passed the point of no return. The last thing I wanted was for Dekim to take that, too.

Is it weird if I say I've never felt closer to Trowa than I did at the moment? We were separated by glass, watched by our enemies, and in clear and present danger, but there was something between us that could not be separated, severed, or shattered. It was trust, I realized with a spurt of adrenaline. Trust.

Oh, I was damn sure Trowa was gonna rip me a new one for letting those sonsuvbitches hack off my braid, but he was trusting me to play my part, such as it was. I only wished I'd been able to work it the other way around so that it was me behind the yoke instead of him.

We didn't say anything as doors opened and closed around us. Trowa took the headset Random Goon Number... er, Number Whatever handed him without looking away from me. We stayed right where we were until the video monitor was brought into my room and set up on the table. Trowa's gaze flickered toward the power cables and my lips quirked into a knowing grin. Oh yeah, he was back to imagining Dekim's Demise.

"Time to go to work, babe," I whispered as the goons stepped back and righted my chair with a meaningful clatter.

Trowa's mouth twitched into a tiny smile in a knee-jerk reaction to my levity. "Since when do you work overtime?"

"First time for everything!" I bantered recklessly.

"Duo..." he began and then just stopped.

I took in the look on his face. He did not want to do this. He didn't want to pilot Deathscythe, to be used like a damn ticking time bomb by a man who didn't care if innocents were killed. "Yeah," I whispered in agreement. "Me, too."

And then Trowa was being shoved – er, I mean escorted – toward the door.

"Hold the hell up, pal!" I barked at the offender. "We've gotta test the comm. link first."

I glanced at Trowa again. I wanted to tell him I had his back. I wanted him to know that just because I'd sacrificed my braid, I was not going to sacrifice the peace or him. But what I said was, "Put it on. Let's see if it works."

As he fitted the headset onto his left ear, I turned toward the table and, ignoring the chair held out for me, picked up my own headpiece. Mine was mic and speaker only whereas his had a camera attached, all of which needed to be tested. I leaned down to the monitor and saw an image of myself on the screen, bracing myself above the table and scowling at the equipment. I tried to ignore the view of my hacksaw-haircut and the pile of severed braid from Trowa's point of view, but the picture seared itself into my memory.

Closing my eyes briefly, I gathered my focus and looked up at Trowa. "Focus on something small, point nine meters away, angled low," I instructed.

"Copy that," he complied, his voice warm and steady in my ear. He glanced at the utility belt of a nearby minion and reported back, "Confirm video feed. Over."

I checked the monitor. The picture was clear, centered, and focused. Also very educational – I now knew the exact make and model of the handgun that came standard around here. Hm. Could be useful intel.

Next, I instructed, "Now something up high at a distance of point four five meters." Again, a clear picture. This time of a soldier's stupid cap. "OK, roger that. We're good to go," I judged, my pulse rate picking up. Trowa glanced back my way and I was suddenly watching myself struggle not to grin like a bloodthirsty demon right there on the monitor. Huh. Fun, but creepy. I tried to take it down a notch. Dekim didn't need to know he'd played right into my hands.

Then the view changed as Trowa turned toward the door. Like a comedy of errors, that's when I perversely decided that I wanted just one more glimpse of him. Isn't that some kind of technique used by sadistic movie directors to illustrate the romantic connection between two star-crossed lovers? The very thought bothered me way more than it should have. Trowa and I weren't star-crossed. Hell, there wasn't any romance to get star-crossed over. Er, was there?

Do the angsting damsel routine later, Maxwell, Shinigami chirped cheerfully. The imaginary sound of that voice was so freaky, it actually jarred me back to reality. Giving myself a shake, I blinked at the monitor and watched from Trowa's point of view as he stepped into the hallway.

"Y'know," I drawled into the mic, "you're really not that much taller than me."

My comment startled a chuckle out of him. "Comparing the view?"

"Of course not," I sniffed pompously.

"I don't believe you."

I wondered if it was immature of me to make a rude hand gesture at the monitor. "Well, that's your problem."

"We're married," he argued. "My problem is your problem."

And, just like that, everything else just freakin' faded away. I didn't care that a bunch of people – maybe even Dekim himself – were listening in. I didn't anticipate the fancy footwork I was gonna have to pull off in the very near future. I didn't think about every single damn thing that could go wrong. None of it even registered as a blip on my radar.

"Is it too late for a do-over?" I joked.

"Absolutely."

"Tell ya what," I finagled. "Let's play rock-paper-scissors for it. Best out of three."

"I am not agreeing to that," he informed me in a droll tone.

"Where's your gambler's spirit?" I challenged back.

"Waiting to see how his first bet plays out."

"Huh," I muttered. "Not much of a multi-tasker, are you?"

"Hmm," he agreed. "And I expect you to take full advantage of that later."

My mind immediately swan-dived into a nice, comfy, rumpled bed with a pair of sweaty bodies and their gasping breaths. "Dammit," I complained. "You do this kind of shit on purpose."

"What do I do?" he dared me to explain. His tone was too innocent for him to not know what I was talking about.

I glared at the monitor. "Drive me total batshit crazy."

I could freakin' hear his triumphant smile. "Crazy's a nice place. I've been there several times."

I barked out a laugh at the reminder. Yeah, that was Tro, all right. Turning my own witty moments around and using them against me. "There's a word for guys like you." I stopped the comment there and let it dangle juicily.

"Charming?"

"Wacko."

"Ah, but you like that about me."

I cackled. "Am I so transparent?"

"If only," he replied in a wistful tone that brought a regretful end to our back-and-forth.

I sighed, recalling the minions, the goons, the psychopathic egomaniac, and the mission. For five glorious minutes, none of that stuff had existed. For that brief span of time, the sum total of the universe had been the sound of Trowa's voice. I wanted that back, dammit, but the hangar doors were directly ahead.

Clearing my throat, I said, "Don't touch the hatch without letting me take a look at it first. You copy?"

"Copy that."

Biting back a second sigh, I plopped my ass down in my chair and propped my left foot up on my right knee. It had the advantage of being the perfect height for resting my cuffed forearms, the skin of which was starting to chafe. It was just as well I didn't have to type while wearing the damn things.

I fiddled with the leather seams of my good ol' combat boot, tapping with impatience as Trowa entered the hangar and gazed up at my ol' buddy Deathscythe. It felt viscerally wrong knowing that someone other than me was gonna be climbing into that cockpit, but I was conversely proud that it'd be Trowa in there. I'd programmed Deathscythe's security system according to my own unique logic and humor. I was looking forward to hearing what Trowa thought of it. I suppose that was a statement in and of itself; if it had been any of the other guys, I'd be bracing myself for their censure and bafflement. The fact that the thought didn't cross my mind in Trowa's case probably said something. It probably said a helluvalot. Later, if I had a couple minutes of leisure time, I might contemplate that.

As it turned out, the hatch was still locked. Trowa's headset cam gave me a great view of ‘Scythe's sealed cockpit. I could detect a couple of scorch marks that hadn't been there before and smirked with satisfaction. Yeah, my security system was every bit as awesome as I'd thought it was. "You're gonna love this," I informed Trowa and then started talking him through the unlocking sequence.

Basically, the whole thing was a series of ones and zeros. Yup. Binary code. And the message? None other than the famous soliloquy from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Well, with a few small changes.

"To quote or not to quote, that is the question," I narrated slowly enough so that Trowa could translate each character to its binary equivalent and punch it into the remote keypad. "Whether to use some dead guy's words or make up my own and kick his rotting ass."

"This is sacrilege," Trowa complained as he punched away at the remote.

I continued on through the whole damn thing – and, in case it's been a while since you've read or heard it, that little speech of Hamlet's is damn long – and each line had been colorfully altered by yours truly. For instance:

"To forgive or to wreck vengeance on that pillaging plebian Heero Yuy who stole my buddy's parts without so much as a thank you..."

And then there was:

"Who could put up with Wufei's snooty tone, Quatre's excessively pastel wardrobe, Trowa's—" At this point, I paused, bit my lip, and waited for the next object of my litany of complaints to prompt me with a soft "Yes...?"

I cleared my throat and hedged, "Uh, you realize that I set this code years ago, right? Uh, before I really got to know you an' stuff?"

"Uh huh..."

I sighed and got the hell on with it. "Trowa's trigger-happy, Deathscythe-blasting hobby, Heero's ongoing love affair with his Goddamn laptop—"

"Is ‘Goddamn' one word in this case?" Trowa checked.

"Er, yeah," I answered. "Capital G." Of course.

"Roger that."

And so it went until we got to the very end. "With this Beam Scythe, I leap into the fray and start kicking some serious ass."

When Trowa was done, he let out a long sigh. "Duo."

"Um, yeah?"

"I'm telling Wufei about this."

"Do it and die, babe," I retorted, wincing as I imagined the guy's reaction to my battle-wit rendition of a cherished classic. Actually, I was pretty sure Trowa'd have to scrape me off the bottom of Altron's Gundanium-alloy foot if Wufei ever found out about this...

But then the hatch was hissing open and Trowa asked, "All clear to enter?"

"Be warned: as soon as you do, you have to hit the self-destruct button."

There was a long moment of silence as Trowa paused, balanced on the threshold, camera pointed at the pilot's seat. "What?"

"It's not wired to the actual self-destruct system. I tried it once. G disabled it before I ever took the damn thing to Earth. After the war, I popped the panel off and hotwired it into the security system."

"If I don't hit it fast enough, what will happen?" He didn't sound concerned about it. Actually, I was pretty sure he was just curious.

"The start-up sequence takes six hours instead of two."

"Is that your way of telling me now would be the time to use the head if I'm in need?"

I barked out a laugh. "Yeah. But you might want to check your super special headset at the door unless you wanna give your husband and unknown others an eyeful."

"Acknowledged," he replied and we took a ten minute break for annoying, mortal man necessities like taking a piss, guzzling some caffeine, and wolfing down some sustenance.

In my case, I made the goons fetch and carry. That was fun. What was even better was the fact that, in the midst of the activity, I managed to achieve my next mission objective. Remember that convenient, hidden compartment in my boot heel where I'd kept the microtransmitter safe and sound all these years? Well, that compartment had a distant cousin. A concealed pocket at the heel of the shoe, above the sole and set into the leather, contained the best invention since magnetic arm cuffs made of weapon's grade Gundamium: the battery-powered magnetic-charge-cancelling lock picks needed to render the damn cuffs useless.

They looked innocuously like largish, black hair ties and I fished them out, activated them, and slipped them over my wrists while Dekim's minions were deciding who had babysitting duty with me in the john. Little did they know that the damage had already been done. The bands were already tucked under the edge of my cuffs and emitting a magnetic resonance that would weaken the force holding my cuffs together in under an hour. Of course, there'd be no point in making my cuffs completely useless or else I'd have my work cut out for me faking my own confinement, but when the time came, my right hook was gonna announce itself at this little party. Oh yes it was.

So, bladder emptied, stomach somewhat full, and whistle wetted, I plunked my ass back down behind the monitor. I had no idea what the hell time it was; I hadn't seen a clock or window on my little jaunt to the water closet. For all I knew, we were well into the next day cycle in this damn place.

"Tro-babe?" I asked into the mic. After a moment, the view changed from a constant and unwavering picture of Deathscythe's opened cockpit (Trowa must have set the headpiece down on a nearby diagnostics station before he'd gone to take care of his business) and blurred as the device was picked up. I was treated to brief flash of Trowa's face before he placed the headset back over his left ear and it was back to that couple-of-inches-higher-than-normal view.

"I'm back," he said.

"I noticed," I answered. I imagined his lips twitched into one of those cute little smiles of his.

"No flying tackle required this time."

"Aw, I'm sure you'll get another shot at it."

"Promises, promises."

"Are you up for this?" I asked suddenly. "Two hours of no blinking?"

There was a pause on Trowa's end. I didn't think he was really debating with himself over it. I mean, of course he was gonna do it. But the real question was whether or not he was ready. After a moment, he replied, "Yes, talk me through it," and I knew he'd just finished battening down all the mental hatches and securing any loose items which might shift around during takeoff. He was ready for this marathon, so I fired the proverbial starting pistol.

"Then have a seat, babe, hit the self-destruct, and make yourself comfortable."

And it was a good damn thing the pilot's seat was state-of-the-art – hell, it even had freakin' lumbar support! – because Trowa was stuck in it for two damn hours. I was actually kind of envious by the time we were halfway through the slideshow of randomly presented images and prompts. I wiggled and shifted trying to find a more comfortable position in my damn plastic chair. Yeah, that was a mission fail. Anyway... at least I got the magnetic lock picks pulled off and tucked into a pocket of my jeans without anyone noticing. With how much I was already wiggling around, nobody paid the sleight-of-hand any mind at all.

Another photo flashed on Deathscythe's screen. This one was of Howard posing in that damn pink Hawaiian shirt of his. There were a dozen possible associations with this photo – he was standing on the deck of the Sweepers' main ocean barge; it was a clear day; he was wearing those stupid sunglasses; hell, any number of things could be said about the image – but what I coached Trowa to type in was simply: snazzy duds.

That's basically how it went. For two damn hours.

When the last prompt finally appeared, text this time – I run and hide but I never... – and the answer was supplied – "...lie to a priest" – I just slumped down in my seat, back and shoulders aching.

"I'm in," Trowa reported.

"Copy that," I sighed out wearily. "Lemme talk you through the operating system setup so you can get started."

So we spent another hour and a half on that. Binary code password soliloquy and word association prompts only just scratched the surface of the security measures I'd put in place. Before I'd signed off and shut my buddy down for the last time, I'd gone through and altered most of the algorithms that translated the movements of the yoke into offensive attacks. All those equations had to be spiffed back up to the originals again.

"OK, now, for the Beam Scythe," I began, chin in the palm of my hand as I leaned heavily on the tabletop.

"Damn," Trowa muttered. "Paranoid much?"

"Hey, mobile suits are dangerous, pal-y," I retorted. No one knew that as well as I did. Mobile suits were a snap to steal and frighteningly easy to use. The fact that innocent people were startlingly easy to kill with them was more or less the sum total of my nightmare fodder, to tell ya the truth.

Trowa didn't respond to that. I think he heard the tetchy tone in my voice and, rather than asking for details, he simply filed it away. "Do you have any firepower in this damn thing?" he complained.

Heh. Yeah. Trowa... complaining. Now that was priceless. I wondered if I would have noticed it in his tone a week ago. Possibly. We were friends, after all, but now we were more. Now, we were partners.

"I come from the school of Gundam where piloting is an art, babe. Any monkey can push a trigger button."

Yeah, I was totally talking trash about his Heavyarms and long-range fighting style. Holy hell, but Trowa's Gundam packed the frickin' heat. Pretty much all of my memories of him in a fight were of missiles roaring, bullets flying, and mushroom clouds of flame and smoke in the distance.

"Eek eek," Trowa deadpanned and I laughed so hard I had to lay my head down on the table for balance.

"My monkey..." I crooned on a wheeze. I imagined Trowa was smiling. "Are you ready to learn some new tricks?"

"I await your wisdom."

I snorted. "Right. Let's fix those Beam Scythe algorithms and then we'll back up to the cloaking device and the Maxwell Lecture on super stealth."

So, I talked. And talked. And explained some stuff... I dunno what-all. And then I told an anecdote because it seemed like a good idea at the time... and then I talked some more. After God only knows how long, Trowa finally said, "Stop, Duo. You're slurring so badly I can't understand you."

"OK," I think I said. My face was oddly numb and I couldn't remember what I'd seen on the monitor the last time I'd opened my tearing, itchy eyes.

"Let's take a break."

"Sounds good." I didn't even bother to take off the headset. I just stretched my shackled arms out in front of me – careful not to let the now-weak cuffs drift apart – and leaned my cheek on an arm. Oh, Christ, I was tired. My own bicep had never been a more comfortable pillow.

I was plummeting into a sleep death spiral when I heard a voice in my ear, a soft rumble that sounded like a collection of Trowa-words. "Sleep fast, darling," the voice murmured warmly, and then I was swallowed up by oblivion.

-----------

NOTES:

I referred to the Gundam Wikia site for technical specs on Deathscythe (and Deathscythe Hell).

Duo's reference to mobile suits being easy to steal and use is drawn from the events in the Episode Zero manga, since he did both at like the age of eight or something.

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