The limo pulled up early the next morning to the entrance hall of Dermail's home. Marianne rushed to meet it, still tying on her apron as she darted around other servants. Only one other guest was expected - this had to be the visitor from the Colonies, and she was dying to find out who it was!
The man stepping from the car was tall and spare, bald, with hard eyes that spoke of an iron will and a keen mind. She dropped him a quick curtsy, knowing that he wouldn't see it, but would yet be insulted if she didn't-
Unnoticed by anyone else, another figure chose that moment to climb down out of the car.
Marianne focused on her immediately - it was no more than a child, six years old at best. The little girl was struggling to get out of the car without help and somehow *not* ruin her dress Marianne hurried over and gently lifted the child down, smoothing out her dress with practiced hands. "Hi, there! And what's your name?"
The girl's wide blue-grey eyes smiled up at her. "I'm Mariemeia Kushrenada. Who are you?"
Marianne fought down a dizzy spell. **Tell me she didn't just say what I think she said ** "I'm "
"MARIEMEIA! I told you *never* to use that name "
Marianne scrambled out of the way as the tall, bald man hurried over and grabbed the child's arm, shaking her roughly. She twisted her apron - Mariemeia was biting her little lip to keep from crying out, though the grip on her arm must have hurt her badly. **There's only one way to get a child so young to react like that - training. Please don't tell me ** In her mind, people who could harm children on purpose, for whatever their reasons, were the lowest of bottom-dwelling scum. Her stomach turned as she watched Mariemeia flinch away from the tall man.
Marianne felt herself unable to stop it as she swayed on her feet-
The driver caught her gently by the arms and held her steady. "Are you okay, Miss?"
She forced herself to look up at him and give him a trembling smile. "I am, thanks." She turned around again-
Mariemeia and whoever the taller man was had vanished into the house. She followed slowly, lost in thought. A child that young
Kushrenada. The name was distinctive enough - this girl was in some way related to the ex-Oz leader who, Marianne knew, was currently in hiding. Apollo had passed that information on to Hermes for her. The question was How?
Howard cursed mildly and tossed his wrench to the floor of the hangar. "There is no way, short of full upgrades, that we're going to manage to get anything more than Deathscythe's hyper jammers on these suits!" he muttered, slamming Heavyarms' access panel closed. "And for all Duo's done with that monster, the cloaking system *isn't* all that stable. We got lucky on that last mission... Kev! Where are the schematics for..."
"Sorry, Howard," Trowa's voice called from below, startling the engineer, "Walker said to tell you he had to run to the machine shop. Something about the rear thruster coil needing grinding."
"Ah," Howard replied, wiping his hands on a rag, then climbing down the scaffolding to join the young pilot on the ground. Looking over the sunglasses riding low on his nose, he gave Trowa a stern look. "So, I've been hearing some rumours, boy. Something about my kid and Gio adopting you. Well, it would be nice of people to tell me these things, but I'm only the boss."
"Howard... I..." Trowa started, only to be cut off as the larger man took a few steps forward and engulfed him in a huge hug.
"Welcome to the family, boy!" Howard exclaimed, thumping the teen on the back. "Damn good to have you with us. I can always use another kid!" He released Trowa, stepping back just far enough to allow him to drop one arm around his shoulder. "Now, let me lay down the ground rules..."
"Ground rules...?" Trowa repeated, following numbly as Howard led him towards the small office area.
"Yep, ground rules," the engineer said, nodding. "There's only two. One - my name is Howard. Not 'Dad', not 'Pops', and *not*, as my infernal other kid calls me, 'Howie'. And two - do *not* mess with my sunglasses!"
Marianne slipped on her headphones and pressed [PLAY], seeming to the whole world to be listening to the radio.
" so good to see you again, my old friend. It has been too long, has it not?" she recognised Dermail's voice saying. Electronic bugs were a fantastic invention, in her opinion.
Another voice answered, "Indeed it has. I must say, I was surprised to hear from your lieutenant " Marianne recognised it immediately - it was the Mr. Barton who'd arrived earlier.
Dermail replied, "Yes, my apologies for having him call you, but doing it myself is too risky right now. Difficult times, as you know."
"You brought another guest with you, I saw." Dermail's voice came back. "Is she yours?"
"No, my daughter's, actually. Leia's," Barton continued. "But who her father is, is even more interesting."
Marianne could hear the grin in Barton's voice. "Yes. He was your late nephew, Treize."
She froze. **It can't be true, but **
"Treize's daughter? Good lord," Dermail answered. "I did not think he was interested in women, if the rumours I'd heard were true."
A dry laugh. "He was eighteen at the time, Dermail," Barton replied. "Eighteen year olds will take anything they can get."
"And I suppose you brought her here for a reason," Dermail responded.
"Just to keep her occupied, actually," Barton replied. "She has nothing to do with our real business."
"Yes, about that. Wessex brought his lead subject with him."
"Did he?" Barton asked. "Interesting. You know, she was mine once. The Barton Foundation was looking into something similar to your 'Enforcer' programme a few years ago."
"How did it work out?"
Barton gave a dry chuckle. "We ended up having to kill off our test subject - Alpha. He didn't react well to the treatment, and a mistake he made almost burned us all. We sent Bravo down to your Lord Wessex shortly afterwards."
"Speaking of the devil, Wessex is waiting for us at the stables," Dermail said, his voice accompanied by the scraping of chair legs on the polished wooden floor. "We thought it best to discuss out business away from any prying eyes and ears."
Marianne hit the [STOP] button and quickly shoved her headphones into a pocket. She needed to act, and she needed to act *fast.*
Stretched out on the conference room couch under a heavy blanket, Heero behind him providing support for his aching torso, Duo tapped a few keys on his laptop.
"You know, lover, if we can figure out a way to jam control signals to the dolls... or even disrupt their own onboard computers, that would give us a major edge if, and when, we do run into them. See, I made a mock-up scenario, here," he pointed to part of the screen, "and it *should* work... at least according to the info I downloaded at Baikal..."
Heero watched over the braided teen's shoulder as the scene played out on one half of the screen, and the technical computations flowed down the other side, nodding.
"Hn. It *could* work, providing we could hack into whatever main computer is sending the signals and gain the control codes, which would be a massive job on its own. That having been done, we could override the computers on the main command dolls. Unfortunately, the odds are that they probably have some sort of fail-safe set up. We have no way of knowing what that would be. They could fall back on preset commands, release control of the rest of the dolls, which in turn would act on pre-existing orders... they could go rogue and attack anything that moves..."
"Point," Duo murmured, frowning. "What about... is there any way we could hack into the onboard computers and drop a worm in? Maybe one that forces the command dolls to self-destruct?" He peered over his shoulder at Heero. "I mean, without the command units, the 'grunt' dolls would *have* to be easier to take out... regardless of any pre-set commands... At least I *think* so..."
The braided pilot tapped a few more keys, then sighed as he read the results. "'Success probability 50%'," he read softly. "Well, that bites."
Heero leaned forward enough to drop a kiss on his lover's temple.
"It's a good plan, Duo, just not enough on its own." He reached over the other teen's shoulder and saved all of their work. "We'll work out some more refinements later. How do you feel?"
"Not too bad," Duo replied, leaning his head back on Heero's shoulder as the Japanese pilot moved the laptop to the low table. "Just getting a little tired, mostly. My chest, ribs and arm ache, and the cast itches something awful... but not too bad, considering."
"Well, your hour is up..."
"Heero... can we just nap here until lunch? I'm warm and I'm as comfortable like this as I would be in that damn bed. Please?"
His lover chuckled. "You do realise you could get me in trouble if we get caught?" At Duo's sigh and slight movement, he tightened his arms around his hips, keeping the boy still. "I didn't say 'no', did I?" he murmured. "I'll expect you to defend me if your *mother* or *father* catch us and have a fit, though."
Duo laughed softly, laying his good hand on top of Heero's and turning his head to rest his cheek against his lover's neck. "Promise," he said around a small yawn. "I'll protect you..."
Une stalked down the hall towards the conference room, annoyance written on her face. "One hour... he's allowed one hour and now it's been almost two. Give that boy an inch and he takes a mile. And Heero! He should know better!" she muttered to herself. "Maybe if we lock them in his room he'll stay where he's..."
"Ma'am?" A light hand on her arm stopped her and she realised she had reached her destination. "Ma'am," the man in front of her said again, "is there a problem?"
She nodded sharply. "Yes... Lieutenant Takano, is it?" At his nod, she continued. "The problem is that Duo Maxwell does not stay where he's put, does not pay attention to time, does not take care of himself..."
The grin on Takano's face stopped her tirade and she raised an eyebrow. "Care to share with me what is so humorous?"
He shared a glance with Gillen and opened the door silently, motioning her to look inside. Her face softened as she saw Duo, leaning against Heero's chest, both teens sound asleep. She quietly crossed the room, picked up the blanket from the second couch and gently placed it over the two boys. Heero woke, feeling her presence, and started to speak, but Une raised a finger to her lips.
"Sh," she whispered. "Let him sleep for now. I'll yell at you both later. Just make sure you get him back to his room for the afternoon... and keep him there!" With a nod and another gentle smile, she turned and left the room, leaving a slightly stunned Heero behind.
Sally Po felt a little stupid for being nervous as a knock sounded at her door. **It's just Jason. It's not like it's a real date, or something. We're just friends, just colleagues **
She opened the door.
Farley had obviously taken some pains to clean himself up - his usually mussed hair was neatly combed, and he was wearing a casual red sweater over his khaki shirt and slacks, shoes well-polished, hands clasped behind his back. He smiled broadly. "Hi." Still grinning, he blushed as he brought his hands around.
Sally's eyes went wide. How the hell did he manage to get his hands on fresh flowers in *this* part of the world? "Do I even want to ask?"
He shrugged easily. "Supply clerk owed me a couple favours."
Sally buried her nose in the flowers to hide her blush. **A date, huh?** She quickly turned around to find a vase. "I guess I owe her the favour, now."
"I'll let her know," Farley said, deadpan. "She can go to *you* next time her cramps get so bad she can't sit at her desk for more than a few minutes at a time."
"Cramps?" Sally asked over her shoulder.
Farley nodded, stepping forward behind her. "The once monthly kind."
Sally smiled down at her flowers. "I see. I "
She turned to find him standing right behind her, her coat in his arms. "Jason?"
He held her coat for her as she put it on. "You ready?"
She raised an eyebrow. "I don't know - what should I be ready for?"
"Nothing too scary - it's just dinner," he said. "Food, a little bit of friendly conversation, getting away from this place for a little while "
Sally smiled - Farley had that cute, little tendency to babble when he got nervous **Wait a minute - cute? Jason?**
She grabbed her keys, refusing to think about it just yet. "So where are we going?"
He smiled and gave her a very Treize-like bow as he opened the door. "If Madam would care to follow, her chariot awaits."
"Cute. You haven't been talking to our Ex-Ozzie friends, have you?"
He offered her his arm gallantly. "Don't laugh. Learning all that charm stuff is more complicated than it looks."
She laughed and took his arm. **Somehow, I find it hard to believe you needed much help, Jason!**
Quatre and Treize stopped short as they took in the crowd in Duo's room at suppertime. There was barely enough room to walk, much less sit and eat comfortably. Quatre sighed and looked up at Treize.
"Conference room?" he asked.
The tall man nodded. "Conference room," he answered, then cleared his throat. "Ladies and gentlemen! I believe we should relocate, if Duo is up to it," he called, ending on a questioning note, with a glance at the braided teen, propped up on his bed. The boy nodded back and Treize continued. "We should move to the conference room, down the hall. It's far too crowded in here..."
He and Quatre stepped out of the doorway as Une led everyone to the other room. Heero brought up the rear, Duo wrapped in a blanket and secure in his arms. The blond pilot walked to the bed, picked up the pillows and followed them down the hall.
It didn't take long to get everyone settled and the food served. The conversation was lively and pleasant, no talk of the war interrupting the generally cheerful mood. After the dishes were cleared away, and everyone was sipping on hot drinks, Howard stood up and cleared his throat.
"Tonight is a happy night, for two reasons. One," his gaze settled on Duo, affection clear for all to read on his face, "my kid is finally well enough to be let out of that damned bed... even if it is only for short periods..."
Gio thumped her fist on the table. "About damned time, if you ask me," she grumbled emphatically.
"*Ahem*. If I can continue?" Howard asked, shooting the woman a slight glare which she ignored. "*And* because it seems I have another kid. Trowa, I'm making it official, in public. Welcome to the family!"
Duo cheered, nearly jumping out of his chair, only Heero's grasp on his hand keeping him seated. Quatre, a bright smile on his face, wrapped his arms around his slightly dazed lover.
Rodney was already at Trowa's side. "Welcome home, kid!" he said, patting the teen on the shoulder. Gio pushed him out of the way, then put her arms around both Trowa and Quatre.
"That goes for you, too, Blondie," she said huskily, dropping a light kiss on his cheek, before stepping back and regaining her composure. "Just call me 'Auntie Gio', like Duo does."
Walker hugged Une, then pulled her over to the 'new Sweeper' and gave him their enthusiastic congratulations.
Wufei, across the table with Zechs and Treize, grasped their hands tightly, eyes bright, as he watched the happy scene. "This is the best thing that could happen to Trowa," he murmured with a smile.
"Oh?" Zechs asked, squeezing his younger lover's hand.
Wufei nodded, smile turning into a slight frown. "Like Duo, Trowa's had no one, really. Mercenaries raised him. From what I've gathered, there was little affection or 'family' in that relationship. He was a tool... nothing more."
"'A tool'," Treize repeated, distaste evident in his voice.
"His childhood consisted of training, learning to fight, learning to spy... not as bad as Duo's, I suppose. At least he had food, shelter, medical attention - if he needed it, but nothing like what a normal child needs. Nothing like Quatre or I had. Even Heero had Odin Lowe. He may not have been the best 'father' figure, but Heero *has* said there was some affection there."
The Chinese pilot sighed, and smiled again. "Now, he has a *real* family. Oh, maybe not family in the normal sense of the word, but Howard and the rest of the Sweepers will give him more love and acceptance than many children receive from their real families. When it comes to the important things, he'll lack for nothing."
"Do you envy him, now?" Zechs asked, a hint of concern in his voice.
Wufei smiled at him. "Envy? No. I know exactly how they feel about me. Duo and Quatre have emphasized to me many times that they consider me a brother. To use Duo's words, 'You're family, Wuffers! The past doesn't matter, only now matters. And now you're our brother'. I will admit, that was said while I was stitching up his shoulder after he took a bullet meant for me, and I was apologising profusely for my previous callous treatment of him. That was his answer when I asked why he stepped in front of me."
Treize shook his head, a grin of admiration on his face as he caught Zechs' eye. "You five never cease to amaze me. I have blood relatives who would probably celebrate my demise while I was still dying, rather than attempt to save me."
Zechs ran one hand up Wufei's back soothingly. "Remind us to thank him, later on." He tilted Wufei's head back and gave him a quick, sweet kiss on the lips.
The tall blond winked at his lovers as he pulled away from them and stood, heading to congratulate Trowa on his new family.
Treize wrapped an arm around Wufei. "This kind of thing would mean a lot to him - strange that we're all orphans, in one way or another, isn't it?"
"Not if we have each other," Wufei replied, smiling as he stood up. "My brothers taught me that." He approached Trowa and Quatre with a smirk on his face. "Barton, I hope that becoming Maxwell's brother doesn't mean you'll be adopting any of his less desirable traits "
"Hey, I heard that, you know," Duo grumped from his spot, firmly held in place by Heero's grip on his braid.
The wheels of a motorcycle squealing on the pavement outside Sally's window woke her from a sound sleep, and she groaned. She'd already been out late enough with Jason
Footsteps pounded out on the corridor, and she buried her face in her pillow, groaning. Sure enough
"Colonel!" Someone was knocking loudly on her door.
She rose as quickly as she could manage and grabbed her bathrobe before padding over to the door and opened it.
Johann Marco stood outside, still carrying his helmet in his hands. He saluted sharply. "Ma'am, I'm sorry to disturb you so early in the morning, but this is hotter than hot. It can't wait."
She was instantly fully awake. "News from Olympus?"
He nodded and unzipped the breast pocket of his motorcycle jacket, pulling out a small envelope. Sally took it and looked it over - it was in Athena's handwriting. She looked up. "You know the rules, Marco! *Nothing* from Athena is supposed to travel like this! This note should have been destroyed immediately "
Marco nodded his head. "I know; Hermes knew it, too. It's too time-sensitive, though. We had no choice."
**And Athena must have been desperate, to send a message out like this.** She opened the envelope and quickly scanned its contents.
She looked back up again immediately, her face white with shock. "You've got to be kidding me."
"That's what I said," he replied, straight-faced.
Sally flipped on the overhead light and reached for her boots, quickly pulling them on and lacing them up, and talking to Marco over her shoulder the whole time. "Go find General Kushrenada's room and wake him up. We're meeting again in my office in fifteen minutes - I want you there for it. For that matter, wake the pilots, as well, and have everyone meet in the Conference Room. No - Treize has the right to hear this stuff first. We can call everyone else in once he's had a moment to get it straight."
She stood up and grabbed her coat. Buttoning it up, she turned and gave Marco a small, grim smile. "Go on - as soon as this is over with, go bunk out, too. Good work."
He nodded back. "Thanks, Ma'am."
Treize was still blinking sleep out of his eyes as he followed Marco into the room. He frowned at Sally, still in her pyjamas and bathrobe. "My dear Colonel, I do not believe we'd scheduled a slumber party "
"I'm not in the mood for it right now, Treize," She answered tiredly. "Marco, here, just got back in with something we'll need to act on immediately."
Treize eyed the man at his side. "Is that so? Where is it coming in from?"
"The message is from America, sir."
Treize lifted a graceful eyebrow and turned back to Sally. "And?"
Sally sighed. "Mr Marco is Agent Apollo, Treize, of the Olympus ring. He broke just about every security protocol we've got to get back here and bring you this information."
She took a deep breath. "You might wish to sit down, Treize."
The man cocked his head, but obeyed.
Sally sat across from him, motioning for Marco to take a seat at her side. "Did you Treize, did you know a woman named Leia Barton?"
The tall man blinked at the name, but that was all the reaction she got. Sally nodded to herself. **I thought as much.** "Treize, you have a daughter."