Peace Children + Friday (cont)

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"We want to know where the Weapon is," Heero said.

Relena didn't blink. "In the Chamber, of course," she said with just the right blend of condescension and bemusement.

Duo stretched. "Do you know that I can hear your heart beating? Is there a particular reason it just got a whole lot faster? And your breathing -- you shouldn't take such fast, shallow breaths. Also, if you clench your hands so tightly beneath the table you'll hurt yourself."

"Watch your tone when you speak to her royal highness," Sally Po snapped.

"It doesn't matter, Sally," Relena said wearily. "Please, my lord Duo, forgive me if my heart pounds a bit faster after the death of my cousin yesterday. I am not so inured that death fails to move me."

"She was your cousin?" Duo asked, his eyes glinting with interest.

"A manner of speech, only," Relena told him, "though I daresay if you went far enough back we are related. One way or another. Is this what you wanted to ask me?"

"We wanted to know where the Weapon is. And how long it's been missing."

"Don't be ridiculous," Sally Po said, still annoyed. Heero noticed that she was looking daggers at his lover -- as if her harsh behavior would balance out her fond flirtatiousness of the days before. She obviously felt betrayed, he realized. "The Weapon cannot leave the room. Only the monarch can wield it -- few can so much as touch it."

"I had no problems running my hands over it earlier," Heero said stoically. He was lying -- he'd been too busy running his hands over an all but unconscious Duo, who had been quite thrown by their experience in the Chamber.

"My lord, you're a Clan Lord. You should have small problem touching it," Sally said.

"What about me?" Duo asked. "Why could I touch it?"

"Because it's a fake," Relena said softly.

Sally sat down. Hard.

"We're not sure how long the real Weapon has been gone. We have no idea where it is or who took it."

"That's why you brought us here," Heero realized.

"Yes," Relena said simply. "To try and preserve the peace."

"And instead we've had betrayal and murder and a killer dancing every waltz," Sally said, her eyes red-rimmed.

"Oh, that," Duo said, and casually draped a leg over the arm of his (priceless) chair. "That's the other reason we're here. I thought I should tell you before your spymaster did -- I've accepted a contract on Hilde."

"He's been offered a king's ransom to kill her," Heero confirmed.

He saw the expressions on Relena's face, on Sally's -- a sort of horror, a sudden awareness of the depths to which humanity could sink, and a sick fascination with the idea that a dear friend could drive a knife into your heart as easily as breathe. He had felt the same way, himself, last night -- for that everlasting millisecond until Duo had told Solo, "Fuck off!" And then the longer stretch -- minutes in a dim room that stretched like lifetimes -- until Solo's face had relaxed into that mocking grin. "I thought you'd say something like that," he'd said. And Heero had remembered how to breathe.

"I got the offer yesterday," Duo continued, flicking an imaginary grain of dust from his shoe.

"And you accepted it?" Relena's voice was icy.

"Well, sure," Duo said, astonished. "If someone thinks I'm trying to kill her they might not try too hard to get anyone else to."

"Where is the Lady Hilde?" Relena asked, rising. Her hands were still clenched at her sides -- she could feel the imprints of her perfectly shaped fingernails in her perfectly moisturized skin. She felt utterly and completely afraid.

"I picked a few of those soldiers of Quatre's," Duo said carelessly, "and told them not to let her out of their sight. Meiran and Catherine are also keeping a fair eye on her, though not so much that anyone would notice. I've told the rest of Quatre's squad to stand on guard so that it looks like security has been beefed up -- I don't want anyone to know that anybody in the palace knows about the contract. The way I see it there are two groups of people -- the ones who know that Shinigami is Hilde's old chum and the ones who don't. The first group is a lot smaller than the second." He shrugged. "Truth be told, I shouldn't be letting any of you live. And if I didn't love Hilde like I love my sisters I don't know what would happen."

"You'd take out the heir to the throne and most of the Clan Heirs?" Sally asked incredulously.

Duo shot her a sexy grin. "It's the kind of thing that makes a boy's reputation, don'tcha think?"

+

"We have to ask ourselves what benefit Hilde's death would have," Wufei argued.

Hilde looked a little pale. "I've been asking myself that all day."

"You're not going to die," Catherine insisted. "We won't allow it."

Yeah, Hil, Duo thought. You've got a flock of useless nobles trying to protect you. And me. Who knows everything about death but jack shit about preventing it. Aloud he said, "What have you come up with?"

"Well," Hilde said, taking a deep breath, "whoever did this has money. You cost a fair bit."

"They could promise the money but not deliver," Meiran pointed out. "Or have the expectation of money."

"One doesn't skip out on an assassin's bill," Duo said dryly. "We tend to get a wee bit annoyed. . . and to take it out in training, instead."

Hilde laughed. "My father has gotten some interesting incentives over the years. I don't believe he's ever been late with a payment."

"Getting a jar full of testicles can do that to a client," Duo said cheerfully. "Me, I have a collection of -- "

"We don't want to know," Quatre said quickly, going a bit green. He leaned a bit closer to Trowa -- if such a thing were possible.

"False teeth," Duo continued.

"False teeth?" Heero asked.

"Yep. Always thought they were cool. When I lost my baby teeth I used to go around wearing false teeth I'd stolen off of -- uh, friends. I used to try and knock my teeth out on purpose just so I could wear the fake ones."

"But you grew out of that, right?" Catherine asked, her hand frozen in the act of stroking Hanako. The kitten, annoyed at the cessation of affection, rolled over and dug her teeth and claws into Catherine's hand. The Lady Wanderer didn't notice.

"Well. . . my big brother found me doing it one day and beat me black and blue," Duo grinned. "Turned out I'd run out of baby teeth and was trying to get rid of my permanent ones. He told me that if anyone was going to knock out my teeth, it'd be him, and he'd let me know when he was ready."

"But he never did." Meiran looked downright entranced with the story.

"Oh, yeah, he sure as hell did. Just none of the front ones -- said it'd make me too easy to remember. I'm missing a few back in here -- shee?"

"Shut your mouth," Heero said, "and let's try and get back on topic. We didn't arrange this meeting so you could show us all your tonsils."

Duo flashed him a wicked grin. "Oh, you want a private showing? Maybe later. . . depends on what kind of sweet things you say to me."

Heero went even more impassive -- if such a thing was possible. Duo sighed and flopped back. "I have. . . friends. . . trying to find out where the contract originated. It's not easy, because it's not meant to be. In most cases -- my association with Hilde and her family is a rare exception -- it's dangerous for both parties to know each other." He stretched. "For a second when I got the job I thought it was because she betrayed me yesterday."

Hilde looked stricken.

"She had a higher loyalty," Meiran said in Hilde's defense, and Wufei concurred, adding, "it would hardly be honorable for her to continue the deception. Under the circumstances."

Duo's posture was completely relaxed; Heero wasn't so sure about his eyes. "Guess there's a reason why she's the noble Lady and I'm the street rat."

"Guess so," Hilde said softly.

"In any case," Quatre said, gently dragging them back on topic, "we've determined that Hilde's death was not something ordered as revenge for. . . exposing Duo."

Heero was almost disappointed when the braided boy let that pass with only a smirk.

"How likely is it that the deaths of two Clan Heirs within as many days would be coincidental?" Hilde asked.

"Not very," Catherine mused, "but if it's the same person, why not simply kill you in the same way that Faiza was killed?"

Hilde raised a hand to her throat, her face pale and drawn. Heero remembered how she'd looked last night, asleep, when he and Duo had gone to warn her. A bit tired, certainly -- she had obviously cried before sleeping. But it had been a child's face, a sweet face. Today she looked decades older. . . like a laugh would shatter her.

"Alibi?" Quatre suggested.

"Which points to someone in the palace," Wufei followed. "And makes us ask if it was someone who knew me or not," Duo added glumly.

"Which brings us back to the question of why they want her dead," Quatre sighed. "If we assume that they didn't know who you are, Duo, it's a little more straightforward. But if we assume that they do. . . well, then, that implicates one of us."

"And makes me wonder just who you all told about my little secret," Duo said in singsong tones. "The eight remaining Heirs, the princess, Sally Po. My brother, and two of my sisters, one of whom wouldn't recognize me now if she met me on the street. She has little idea where I am."

"She was the one that Faiza hurt, though," Quatre reminded him. "She might find some way to connect you."

"My sister won't give a fuck about your cousin's death," Duo said bluntly. "She knows better than to wonder too hard about what I'm doing."

"Did any of us tell anyone else?" Heero asked, meeting the eyes of each of his peers in turn.

"You say it like any of us has someone to tell," Catherine said with a quiet dignity. "I myself know no one in the entire city. I didn't tell anyone -- I didn't even speak the words aloud."

"Trowa?" Duo asked, his legs swinging carelessly. His eyes intent.

"Yeah -- I might have let it slip to a few of the maids while I pounded their brains out. Moments of passion -- you know how they are," the other boy said without thinking, then winced. "No. Told no one. . . pounded no one. . . no one to tell." His eyes flicked to Quatre.

"What of the duchess?" Heero asked.

"Dorothy?" Trowa made a face. "I wouldn't tell that bitch I was bleeding to death. All she'd do would be to settle back for the show. No. I told no one. Like Ca -- like my cousin, I didn't even speak the words aloud."

"So," Duo said. "That leaves Zechs, Lucrezia, and aitch-are- aitch. Lady Catherine, Lady Meiran, I would be forever in you debt if you would continue to keep my. . . Lady Hilde with you at all times."

"Of course," Catherine said, and Meiran echoed the sentiment.

"And what do you expect me to do while someone tries to kill me?" Hilde asked, her voice casual."

"I expect you to stay safe."

"I intend to, but I hardly think that hiding in my room is the safest way to go." She stood, a lifetime of leadership adding a dramatic element to the gesture. "If my companions will accompany me, I intend to go speak to Lord Zechs and Lady Lucrezia."

"And if one of them tries to kill you?" Duo asked, his tone totally unconcerned.

"Then I shall take great delight in trying out the new tricks Catherine and I have been teaching these little angels," Hilde said, swooping up Hanako in one arm and sweeping from the room. Catherine and Meiran exchanged glances and followed her.

"Took her long enough," Duo said, satisfaction evident in every movement of his body as he stood and stretched. "I thought she'd sit on her ass like a ghost all day." He looked around the room at his companions -- Trowa, Quatre, Wufei, and Heero. His gaze lingered a little longer on Heero. "Now the five of us can get to the real problem."

"And what would that be?" Wufei asked.

"That, my dear Lord Drag-On, would the be location of aitch- are-aitch's precious little Weapon."

"It's Dragon," Wufei snapped automatically. Then, a second later, "what did you just say?"

+

"We're going to search for the missing item in your bedroom?" the amused tone of Quatre's voice as he followed the prince through the door left little question as to what he thought their real mission in Trowa's chambers was.

"There are a few things I do really well," Trowa said. "And in a crisis one should always rely on one's strengths. I happen to be good at fucking." He spun and caught the blond in a kiss, slamming the door shut with one arm.

"I've. . . oh! . . . noticed," Quatre said, and slipped a hand lower to prove that he, himself, had picked up a few things recently.

Trowa pulled his mouth from his lover's and grinned. "But that's not why I brought you here."

Quatre's face fell. "Well, that's good," he said, as if trying to convince himself. "You've got an idea of where to start?"

"No," said Trowa, "I wanted to ask you what I should wear to dinner tonight." He walked into the next room and opened his wardrobe. "Perhaps this? Or this? Or this one?" He tossed a few garments to Quatre. "All items my dear brother has obtained from his newly discovered clothmakers in a small town no one has heard of. Does it look familiar to you?"

Quatre raised his head; his fingers still caressed the fabric. "This is Winner work."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm positive," Quatre said. "This type of stitch -- right here -- it's a mark of ours. It could be a forgery, but anyone who can make something of such quality has no need to pass it off as another's work. It could have come from my cousins in Oz -- but if that was the case why wouldn't your brother say so?"

"So it came from your missing caravans," Trowa said. "And this?" He tossed his lover a brooch. "Just part of the bribe to get me peacefully out of the caravan."

"Sapphires look to be from Auverne," Quatre said, eyeing them carefully. "The jade could be from several places, including Arthis. We lost a load of gems from Auverne two months ago and a caravan from Arthis a month before that." He eyed the setting disdainfully. "They certainly weren't set by the Winners. Not our style. Or rather, our lack thereof."

"My brother-in-law took over my country and all I got was this lousy brooch," Trowa murmured. "Bastard always was cheap."

In spite of himself Quatre laughed.

A few minutes later, still examining his wardrobe, Trowa remarked, "Treize is too much in control of Oz to not know about this. If someone else had provided the goods -- maybe -- but the fact that he introduced them to us means that he knows they're from Raberba."

"And from Winner," Quatre said grimly. "I find it hard to believe that even Treize would take on my family. I have some cousins in the Oz court who are not without power and influence."

"Are you sure of them?" Trowa asked softly.

"Two days ago I would have said yes without hesitation," his lover whispered, face blank, eyes haunted. "Now. . . I think not. But I am sure of so little."

Watching the boy, Trowa felt a pain deep within him. He had been betrayed by his own family, but that had mattered little in the long run. He had survived it. Seeing the other boy doubt his family, people Trowa knew nothing of -- that hurt him. He had the sudden and completely impractical thought that he would do anything to keep Quatre from being hurt. And following it was the equally strong revelation that there was little he could do.

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