"Shhh, Duo. I'm right here. I won't leave you..."
Heero brushed his knuckles down Duo's cheek and kissed his temple, trying to soothe his sleeping lover out of his current nightmare without actually waking him up.
The Japanese teen allowed himself to relax as Duo's breathing evened out again. He sighed deeply and rested his head on his lover's shoulder. Between Duo's nightmares and his own anxiety over Relena's arrival, he'd gotten precious little sleep.
Duo had seemed fine after his nap. Howard had gone off to work on the suits, they'd gone over Deathscythe's schematics so Heero knew that suit almost as well as his own, everyone had joined them for dinner - and Duo had *seemed* fine. But Heero knew better.
Duo had buried his fear and anxiety deep beneath the smiling mask... and Heero had known they would rear their ugly heads as soon as the other boy was asleep. It had happened many times before.
**Never let them see you sweat,** he thought, running through one of the braided teen's mantras. **Never let them see you cry. Never let them see you...**
It had seemed like he had just dozed off again when the loudspeakers blared to life.
"Sergeant Santiago, Sergeant Dabrowski, report to the infirmary! Sergeants Santiago and Dabrowski, report to the infirmary! This is not a drill!"
Burying his face in a pillow, Heero groaned. He knew what that had to mean. "God, you must hate me."
"Heero?" Duo asked, voice sleepy and anxious. "She's here, isn't she?"
The short-haired pilot lightly rubbed Duo's hip. "I'd say so, love. And trust her to be earlier than expected."
"Are you sure we can't run away, now?"
Heero chuckled softly. "We could, I suppose. But do you *really* want to face Sally *and* Une when they catch up with us? You know they would..."
The braided teen whimpered slightly. "I don't know which is the lesser evil..."
There was a sharp knock on the door and Rad stuck his head inside, Ines waving at the boys from behind him.
"Damn, kid, couldn't you have warned me that your maniac stalker doesn't know the meaning of 'punctuality'?" Rad grumbled. "It's not exactly polite to roust people out of bed at 5 AM..."
"Just wanted to let you know we're here, Maxwell," Ines said. "Not to worry. She won't get past us."
She nodded at both teens, pulled Rad back, and shut the door.
Duo turned his face to nuzzle into Heero's shoulder. "Do you think they can handle her? Really?" he mumbled.
The Japanese teen raised the other boy's face and smiled slightly. "Duo, my love, I don't think there's much at all that those guys can't handle."
Duo nodded, and Heero could see the trust in the blue eyes looking back at him. Giving into temptation, he leaned down and gave his lover a deep, reassuring kiss.
Treize sighed as he looked out the window in the door of the command post. Sally had knocked on his door twenty minutes earlier, warning him that Noin and Relena - would be landing soon, and his presence was required. Zechs and Wufei had joined him, unnecessarily, but he was glad of their company. A hot cup of coffee was placed in his hands by his blond lover, and he smiled his thanks.
"Do you think Heero and Duo know, yet?" Zechs asked, looking out the window as the jet came to a halt on the runway.
The older man nodded at the two armed soldiers, rushing across the compound towards the infirmary. "If they don't, they will soon. Have arrangements been made for our guests' accommodations?"
"Sally said she would put Relena and Noin in their own tent," Wufei said softly, stepping to Treize's other side. "A tent on the other side of the base from the infirmary. With the weather as bad as it is, now, she's hoping that'll deter Relena's Heero-stalking forays," he added, smirking slightly. "I doubt that anything short of tying her up or locking her in a closet would stop her, though."
"It's hard to believe she could be that bad," Zechs sighed. "She was such a sweet child. Of course, she was only... what? just a baby when we were separated, but still if I had..."
Warm hands came to rest on his hips, from behind, and he could feel his younger lover lean into his back.
"It's not your fault, Zechs," Wufei murmured. "There was nothing you could do when you fled, and for the past few years it was safer for her not to know you existed. You did the best you could in a bad situation."
"Besides," Treize added, "she's apparently only that way when it comes to Heero and Duo. She's polite to the rest of the pilots, if not quite friendly. Don't worry, *Milliardo*," he continued when the blond sighed again and hung his head slightly, "I promised I'd speak to her for you, and so I will. Perhaps she's not beyond redemption, yet."
Wufei snickered, the sound muffled by Zechs' coat.
Treize raised an eyebrow and looked at their Chinese lover. "Something amusing, Dragon?"
Wufei nodded and raised his head, eyes glittering with humour. "I was just thinking that you're becoming quite the father figure, Treize. First Duo, then Heero... now you're going to 'handle' Relena. What will you do - threaten to send her to bed without supper? No television? Spank her?"
The conversation broke off as the door to the jet slid open and Noin stepped into view. Treize took a deep breath, nodded to Sally, and the small group headed out to the runway.
"Where's Heero?! I want to see Heero, now! Where..."
Wufei cringed. "Nataku save us! Can't she *wait* until *dawn* at least before she goes into stalker mode?"
Treize shot the boy a despairing look and nodded to Zechs. Chastened, Wufei nodded back. For Zechs' sake, he would at least *try* to be civil. **But if she tries anything, all bets are off. Sorry, Zechs.**
The tall blond stepped forward as he caught Noin's eye - she looked frazzled, but gave him a warm smile as she pushed past Relena and practically threw herself into his arms. "Zechs! You had us all so worried "
He hugged her tightly. "I'm sorry "
"No, don't apologise!" she said, pulling back to look up into his face. "None of this is *your* fault!"
He kissed her forehead and drew her close to his side as he turned to Sally, who had walked up to join them. "Luca, I'd like you to meet Commander Sally Po, formerly of the Alliance. She's the head person around here. Sally, this is my sister, Lucretzia Noin."
The two women shook hands, and Sally smiled. "Zechs and Treize have told us much about you. Welcome to Transylvania."
Noin was very careful *not* to roll her eyes as she stiffened and turned back to her young charge. The girl had insisted on wearing a *dress* to visit the Transylvanian Alps, and looked quite blue. "Yes, Relena. Come here."
Sally swallowed a smile as Relena joined them. The girl had obviously taken pains to look nice for her arrival, and while that much was sweet in a high school crush sort of way, it was a clear indicator of how well logic applied to her where Heero was concerned. The boys' attitudes towards the young Princess were suddenly quite understandable.
Noin set a hand on Relena's shoulder. "May I introduce Relena Dorlian-Peacecraft?"
Relena shook Sally's hand in a genteel manner before she turned to Zechs with one raised eyebrow. "You are Zechs Marquise, the OZ lieutenant?"
He made her a small bow. "That's correct."
She frowned. "I've seen you and your mobile suit on the vids "
Before she could finish her thought, though, Treize walked up to the small group, and Noin immediately straightened to give him a sharp salute. "Sir! I'm very happy to know that the rumours about your death are false."
He returned her salute and smiled as he reached out to shake her hand. "Please! I'm no longer your General I'm just Treize, now."
She smiled. "One thing you will never be is *just* Treize "
Relena's voice once again broke into the conversation. "General Kushrenada, it's a pleasure to meet you," she said, with something approximating a smile on her face.
He turned and gave her a small bow. "And you, Princess. Come, let me introduce you to "
She looked from Treize's extended hand to the two people still waiting and flinched away from it. "I don't need to be introduced to either of them, and I have no wish for a formal introduction to *that woman,*" she finished icily, glaring at Une.
"Relena!" Zechs exclaimed.
Une clenched her fist at her side and might well have turned to walk away, if not for Wufei's hand on her shoulder. She simply looked away.
Treize frowned darkly and straightened with one hand on his hip, knowing perfectly well just how imposing the look was. "Young lady, I would expect better from a daughter of a King! I would remind you that Miss Noin was invited to join us, *not* you. We have allowed you to join us here out of respect for the position you hold. We can spend the next decade trying to apologise for the mistakes we have made in the past, but we don't have that much time. Lady Une is a good woman who greatly regrets the things she has done in the past, mostly by *my* orders, I might add. If you must hate anyone, hate me and let her be. But whatever you choose to do, don't embarrass your family and your Crown!"
Relena scowled up at him, angrily. Who was this man to talk to her so! "Thanks to you and your kind, I no longer have a family to embarrass. Please try and keep that in mind, *Count* Kushrenada."
Wufei forced himself to take a deep breath and exhale slowly as he walked forward to the small group, catching Sally's amazed look and responding to it with a slight shake of his head. It was somewhat depressing to know that he'd predicted Relena's reaction to meeting with this group. He walked straight up to her side and gave her a perfunctory bow, as was his custom. "You look cold, Relena. May I suggest taking this conversation inside?"
She shivered and quickly stepped to Wufei's side, slipping in the snow a little. "Thank you, Wufei. Maybe you could take me to Heero "
He caught Treize's eye and nodded in Zechs' direction as he began guiding her towards the Command Centre. "With all due respect, Relena, it isn't even 0600. I doubt he's awake yet "
The doors closed, leaving Sally, Zechs, Treize, Noin and Une staring at each other with gaping mouths.
Noin took her brother's hand and squeezed it. "I am *so* sorry about her! I tried to talk her down "
Treize put a hand on her shoulder. "It's hardly your fault, my dear," he said. "She does have a good reason to hate us, after all. Even if she *is* abominably rude "
Sally shook her head. "And here I thought the boys were exaggerating! What a little minx!"
Zechs leaned into Noin's embrace. "I wanted to tell her the truth, Luca. I was ready to "
Noin shook her head. "Give it some time, Zechs. Let her get used to the changes around here before you spring that on her, okay?"
As Zechs moved to escort Sally and Noin to the Command Centre, Treize moved to Une's side and took hold of her shoulders. "Are you okay, Lady? I can send someone to find Kevin and bring him here "
She shook her head, finally looking up and into his face. Treize could see the steely resolve in her brown eyes. "No, he needs to be where he is right now. We have a mission to run, regardless of whatever else is going on."
He brought her gloved hand to his lips and kissed it gently, then took her arm and led her in.
Relena sank gratefully onto the sofa and accepted a cup of tea with a smile. "So, Wufei how have you five been? I haven't seen you in at least a few months "
Leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest, Wufei answered, "We've been busy, especially with Treize's disappearance, and then Maxwell "
"And Heero? He hasn't been hurt again, has he?" she asked.
Wufei closed his eyes, a wrinkle of frustration forming between his eyebrows as he struggled to remain civil. "Yuy is fine, apart from his worry over Maxwell. Duo was badly injured on his last mission."
"Ah. Well, I hope he is okay." Wufei nearly flinched at the total lack of sincerity in the words.
Luckily, the door opened at that moment to admit Quatre and Trowa, with Sally, Noin and Zechs right behind them. The blond teen smiled brightly. "We heard the plane arriving. Welcome, Miss Relena!"
She rose and shook his hand with an honest smile. "Quatre! It is *so* good to see you again. And Trowa, too Wufei was just telling me about how busy you've been " She looked past them, though, and her smile faltered. "Heero didn't come with you?"
Quatre shook his head. "No, he doesn't leave Duo much unless he has to, and Duo isn't allowed to even leave his bed yet, let alone venture outdoors."
Relena grabbed for her coat. "Well, then take me to him!"
As Treize walked in, Quatre put a restraining hand on Relena's arm. "Im afraid we can't do that. Heero and Duo will see you when they are ready for it, I assure you, but now is *not* the time."
She froze. "Why? Im sure if you tell Heero I am here to see him "
Trowa finally broke his silence. "You apparently don't know how serious Duo's condition is. Heero will not leave his side."
Treize gratefully let Quatre intercede again. Given Relena's reaction to him outside, he didn't need to be the one telling her about Heero and Duo's relationship! The blond teen gently but firmly escorted her back to the couch and sat her down. "Miss Relena, there is something you don't know and that you have to know, if you are going to be here and work with us. Heero respects you and values you as a friend, I am sure, but his heart is already spoken for. You will only hurt both Heero and his friend by interfering in any way."
Noin's eyes went wide and flew to Zechs' face. She mouthed, 'Duo?' and got a nod in return. **Oh, this is going to be bad! Very bad **
Relena was not a stupid girl. She knew perfectly well what Quatre was trying to tell her. She clenched her hands together as she stood and glared at the blond. "I I can't believe that. I *refuse* to believe "
"Ancestors, onna! You *have* a brain -- use it, for the love of God!" Wufei exclaimed. He'd had enough of it
"Why you how dare you speak to *me* so disrespectfully!" She rounded on Wufei, and Treize darted forward.
"That is enough, all of you!"
Feeling much like chastened children, the teenagers in the room turned to look at him.
Treize glowered down at them. "Miss Relena, I'm going to be blunt for everyone's sake. Heero Yuy does not and will never love you as you want him to. He is in love with someone else. He loves Duo Maxwell, and before you say another word," he held up one hand, halting her protests before she could utter them, "Before you say a word, I want you to know we are not saying this to be cruel at all. We are trying to help you. He is not interested. Give it up, and at least try to be civil to us."
Noin's hand was cold, clasped in Zechs', as she watched Relena deflate. "With *Duo*? Duo Maxwell is nothing but a "
"Silence, woman!" Wufei spat, stalking closer to her and glaring at her full force. "You have no idea what or who Duo is. You've never even attempted to find out; you've assumed the absolute worst of him in an attempt to deny what was right before your eyes."
She recoiled from him and turned to Noin for comfort. "I would like to be shown to my quarters, please."
Sally sprang into action. "Of course! Let me show you " She quickly escorted Relena and Noin out.
The rest were left staring at each other in shock as the door closed.
Quatre sank down into a chair. "Well. That went well."
Sally led the way across the camp, Noin at her side, and Relena following behind them.
"Our apologies for the accommodations, but we're very limited on space. It was either house you together in a private tent, or put you in one of the barracks," Sally explained. "I assumed you'd prefer the private tent, Lieutenant Noin."
The dark-haired woman nodded, wrapping her coat tighter around her. "Just 'Luca', Sally. We're all friends, here." She glanced over her shoulder at the scowling princess and dropped her voice. "Well, most of us are, anyway..."
"True," Sally replied, her voice at its normal level. "Here's the mess tent," she pointed out, gesturing at the large canvas structure. "There's always coffee and sandwiches available, but the actual mealtimes are generally regulated. Breakfast will be available from 0600 until 0800, lunch from 1200 until 1400, and dinner runs from 1700 until 1900."
Noin nodded, and pointed to a large, concrete building, one of the very few on base. "Let me guess. That would be the hangar, correct?"
Sally chuckled. "Yes, our mobile suit hangar. We have very few actual permanent structures here; the command centre, this hangar, a few tiny storage sheds, the motor pool, a couple of occupied bungalows, and the infirmary. That's about it..."
They walked along in silence, through the bustle of the camp, and Noin threw another look over her shoulder at Relena.
The younger girl was looking around disdainfully and with something close to panic written on her face. Was *she* truly expected to subsist in this place? In a *tent*? Her feet were already soaked and frozen through her thin shoes, and she could only assume that *her* tent would be much like the others they were passing, dark and dirty. She looked up and grimaced as she tried to rush and catch up with the older women. "Umm... excuse me? Are you *sure* this is the way to my quarters? Shouldn't I be nearer to Heero? And the command centre? In one of the bungalows?"
Noin sighed and Sally threw a dark look at the princess, then stopped in front of a tent. Opening the wood-frame door, she stepped aside and motioned them in.
"These will be your quarters for the duration of your stay. Your bags will be sent over, as soon as one of the techs can be spared from their duties. It's not the Ritz, but you will be warm," the blonde doctor said, pointing out the wood stove and piled up logs. "You're out of the weather and have cots to sleep on..."
Relena stared at the interior in horror and turned on Sally. "Okay, so we just met and I'm sure that Duo has told you all sorts of lies about me, but this isn't funny! I don't think you realise -- I am a *visiting dignitary,* not some common, dirty..."
Sally rolled her eyes. "Do I need to remind you that these 'common, dirty' people you seem to be so high above are the very people who keep you safe?"
Relena stamped her foot; the squelching noise her designer shoes made only fanned her temper. "Just who do you think you are? I bet *you'll* be comfortable, in *your* room! I don't see *you* living out in squalor... I'm *not* staying here, and that's final!"
Noin attempted to intercede. "Relena, you have to understand! This is a working base with limited resources! We're lucky not to be *sharing* this space with someone else..."
Relena shook her head. "I *don't* understand! I bet the *pilots* are somewhere warm and dry! I bet that dirty, little street whore is pretty *comfortable* and *laughing* at me..."
Sally flew across the open space and slapped Relena hard across the face. "How dare you! For your *information,*" she ground out from between clenched teeth, "Duo Maxwell is in the infirmary for a good reason. He spent a fucking week in a Siberian prison with little food and water and no blankets to speak of, getting the shit beat out of him every day by a bunch of sadistic bastards! He's lucky to be *alive* and doesn't need your derision and bullshit!"
Relena reeled from the slap, her wide, blue eyes fixed on Sally's angry face. "I can't believe you... Noin, you aren't going to let her..."
Noin's face was dark with anger, though. "You deserved it, Relena! I can't *believe* you'd say that about a person who's saved your life so many times! You should be ashamed of yourself..."
Relena's face went white in shock. "Why? For telling the truth? For seeing that little piece of space trash for what he is..."
Sally raised her hand again, and Relena backed away, nearly tripping over a cot. "Not everyone had the luxury to grow up as you did, Relena. Most people in Duo's situation might have whored themselves, just to have money to buy food! But he didn't. That was one of the few things he had that he could protect and keep clean, you little shit! Don't presume to make judgements about things you can't possibly understand!"
She stepped back and took a deep breath. "Make yourselves comfortable. We'll be meeting in the mess tent in another hour for breakfast." Sally turned to leave, but stopped with her hand on the door handle. "Oh, and Relena? Just to let you know, you are not going to be allowed in to see Heero and Duo until they give permission. My people have orders to forcibly remove you from the building if you make a nuisance of yourself over it. Don't disgrace yourself further by making them do so. You've already embarrassed your brother enough." She slammed the door behind her.
Relena turned to Noin with a confused look on her face. "My what?!"
Noin groaned and buried her face in her hands.
Farley walked into her office with two cups of coffee not five minutes after Sally had collapsed into her chair, and perched himself on the corner of the desk.
"So, how did it go?" he asked, handing her a cup.
"Badly, very badly," she said, taking a sip. "I ended up losing my temper and slapping the little bitch."
Farley's eyes widened. "You *slapped* her? What the hell did she do to get you *that* worked up?"
"It was bad enough she was being snide about the base and our people," she sighed, leaning back and closing her eyes. "But when she started in on Duo, I lost it. I'm just so glad no one else heard her. We might have to worry about her life, if they did."
"She started in on..." Farley shook his head and ran a hand through his short hair. "Tell me, Sally. All of it. How bad is the situation? Cole and his people will need to know."
Sally nodded and told him the whole story.
Walker wiped greasy hands on his coveralls and waved to catch Howard's attention. "That should do it. Give her a try!" he shouted down. He wiped his brow with a dirty sleeve grimacing at the mess, he was glad he'd remembered his hat. A baseball cap wouldn't protect his head from a falling heavy object, but it *would* keep the grime out of his hair! Getting a thumbs-up in reply, he began climbing down Tallgeese.
Howard waited until the younger man was safely down before he remotely accessed the main computers and started the suit up. "Here goes nothing," he remarked, grinning, and hit a button.
Immediately, the air around the suit began to crackle with energy, and several people shouted in surprise as the lines of the suit began to break up visibly in the brightly-lit hangar.
"All-RIGHT!" Howard high-fived the younger man. "Houston, all systems are go!" Still grinning, he disengaged the cloaking mechanism and shut the suit back down, finally turning to the younger engineer with an approving look. "That was some fantastic work, Kev. What gave you the idea to route the cloak through the static charger? I wouldn't have thought of that in a hundred years "
"Not what, but who," Walker replied, picking up a nearby towel and attempting to wipe his hands again. "It was Duo's idea. No reason why you couldn't enhance the cloaking device by using excess radiation that already exists. I wouldn't have thought of it, either. I checked Deathscythe out he tried it on his own machine."
Howard laughed. "That's my boy!" He turned and yelled, "Hey, Rod! Time check!"
The redhead popped out of Wing's cockpit. "0630, Howie! We're right on schedule!"
Howard made a face at the nickname. "Howie," he grumbled, turning back to stare up at Tallgeese. He'd never expected to see this suit again, but was glad to see it back in action. Building it had been a labour of love.
"Coffee?" He turned to find Kevin holding out a mug, and accepted it gratefully.
He took a sip and grinned in appreciation. "What's next on the list?"
Walker picked up a clipboard and took a quick look at it. "Shenlong. Wufei's log says there's been a quarter-second lag in response time on its left arm, but he can't find the reason why." He set the clipboard back down again and removed his hat to wipe his face. He replaced it, the brim turned backwards. "You wanna check it out, or should I?"
Howard shook his head in amazement he couldn't believe the amount of energy this young man had! Then again, he'd probably been much the same in his youth "Go right ahead. I think I need to take a little break for a while."
Walker smiled. "There's a room back behind the water cooler with a vidset and some comfortable chairs. Go ahead. I'm going to have to actually get in the suit and turn her on to get a feel for the problem do you think Wufei will mind too much?"
"If he says anything about it, I'll smack some sense into him," Howard replied. "Have fun. Just don't joyride too much, okay?"
Walker put a hand to his chest in mock offence. "You wound me! I'm a qualified pilot, myself, you know!"
"And *that*," Howard replied, "is a Gundam whose owner carries a sword, a gun, and whose hands should be classified as lethal weapons. I don't doubt you can pilot. I doubt you want to face Chang if something goes wrong."
Walker grinned. "Nothing will. See you in a bit!" He turned with a wave and headed towards the Chinese pilot's suit with a spring to his step.
Howard shook his head, but grinned. "I like that guy."
Quatre saw Farley walk into Sally's office with two cups of coffee, and followed.
**Sally must be back. I'll see how things went, and we can all decide where to go from here. Hopefully, this situation is *not* beyond repair...**
"...I'm just so glad no one else heard her. We might have to worry about her life, if they did."
"She started in on... Tell me, Sally. All of it. How bad is the situation? Cole and his people will need to know," Sally's and Farley's voices floated out from the room just as the blond pilot reached the semi-closed door.
**She doesn't want anyone to know what?** he thought, leaning against the wall out of sight, his need to know overriding his good manners.
"She started out complaining about her accommodations... 'Shouldn't I be nearer to Heero? And the command centre? In one of the bungalows?'," Sally said, imitating Relena's whiny tone. "Then she moved on to our people, calling them dirty and common, complaining of having to live in squalor."
Quatre grew more frustrated and annoyed as Sally related the details to her assistant. Then he was seeing red.
"When she called Duo a 'dirty, little street whore', I lost it and slapped her. *And* told her how things really were."
Barely controlling his rage, Quatre forced himself to listen to the rest.
"She wasn't even ashamed, Jason. She just moved right on to calling him a 'piece of space trash'. I yelled at her again, then told her she wouldn't be allowed near Duo or Heero, unless they chose to see her, and that our people had orders to keep her away, using force if necessary. I left then. If she'd said one more word to me..."
Quatre straightened up, fists clenched, and stalked rapidly down the hall towards his room.
**I may just kill her myself! How *dare* she?! Spoiled little bitch! Heero should have killed her when he had the chance! Duo is *not* a whore, or dirty, or trash or anything else! She's going to learn...**
Reaching the door, he threw it open, slamming it shut behind him.
A surprised Trowa looked up, then jumped to his feet as the expression of murderous rage on his lover's face registered.
"Quatre! What happ..."
"I'm going to kill the little bitch!"