"So, what do we tell her?" Heero asked, once the jet had reached cruising altitude. He and Trowa had settled back as comfortably as possible for the five hour flight."We can't just sneak into her room, knock her out and bundle her out of there in a sack."
Trowa sighed. "That would be easiest, wouldn't it? But I doubt Treize would appreciate us treating his daughter that way. I seriously wish Duo were here. Neither you or I are very... reassuring to children."
"Hn. Duo said explain it to her... but she's only six. How do you explain something like this to a six year old?"
"If I may?" Marco asked, looking back at them from the pilot's seat. "From what I gather, the little girl is extremely bright for her age. Just tell her that you're going to take her somewhere safe. A place where her real father is waiting for her, where she has friends who want to take care of her. Where she doesn't have to be afraid of being hit or yelled at for being herself."
Trowa chuckled. "That probably would go over better than Duo's 'I'm Luke Skywalker and I'm here to rescue you'."
At Marco's confused look, Heero explained. "It's a line from an old, pre-colony science-fiction movie. I think Duo called it 'Star Wars'. This Luke person says that when he tries to rescue the princess. She ends up getting him out."
"Ah," Marco replied, nodding. "I prefer pre-colony mysteries, myself. Gentlemen, I'm warning you, if our 'little princess' ends up rescuing you two, you'll never live it down..."
Relena slowly walked down the infirmary hall. She had kept to herself mostly over the last couple of days, going over all of the things Farley had pointed out. She knew what was going on, of course... Treize's daughter, the current mission... but she had been pre-occupied.
**So, I jumped to some conclusions about Duo Maxwell. That doesn't mean they were *wrong* conclusions, just unsubstantiated. He's still nothing more than a street rat...**
**But does that make him a bad person? He did what he had to... to survive... and to keep other children alive...**
**Alright. He's *not* a bad person. In fact, he may be a wonderful person... But, Heero... I love Heero. Heero loves me...**
Her thoughts swirling in her head, she didn't notice she was in front of the braided boy's room until a tall, frighteningly cold-looking man stepped in front of her.
"You shouldn't be here," the man said shortly.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, startled, looking up at him. "I... I was..." She gathered her wits, and noticing his rank insignia, continued. "Captain, could you please direct me to Lieutenant Farley's office? I need to speak with him, if he's not busy."
The two guards exchanged looks, then the shorter one nodded. "I'm Takano. I'll take you to his office. Let's go."
Relena nearly had to run to keep up with him, but within a minute they were outside Farley's office. With a short nod, Takano spun around and stalked off, leaving the young blonde standing at the door. Taking a deep breath, she knocked.
"It's open!" Farley called from inside, and Relena opened the door and stepped in.
"Mr. Farley... Are you..."
"Princess! Come on in. You've just saved me from the horrors of paperwork. What can I do for you?" he asked, smiling cheerfully and waving her towards a seat.
The young woman sat down and frowned slightly. "I'm not sure there's anything you can do," she said, twisting her hands in her lap. "I just... oh, I don't know..."
"You just needed an ear, possibly some feedback, and a little non-hostile human interaction?" the older man said, leaning back in his chair.
Relena nodded. "I thought about what you said..."
"And? Your conclusion?"
"I am a spoiled brat!" the girl blurted. "Or, at least I've acted like one... And I've jumped to conclusions, and been rude... and I've treated people horribly..."
"Whoa! Slow down, girl!" Farley cut in with a chuckle. "Self-realisation is a good thing, but let's not go nuts here. Yes, you did, and were, all that. What do you plan to do about it?"
"I'll change... then Heero will love me, just like I love him!"
Farley's face fell, and shook his head sadly. "Relena... listen to me, please? Heero will never love you like you want him to. He's found his other half..."
"But I love him!"
"Why?" Farley asked sharply. "Why do you *love* him?"
"Because..." Relena thought for a few moments. "He's handsome, strong, honourable... protective... He's my prince from space..."
Farley sighed. "What's his favourite colour? Music? Food?"
"I... I don't know! But what does it matter? I just know I love him... and he..."
"Relena! It *does* matter! You don't even know him!" Farley said urgently. "You say you love him... you think you're in love with him. You think you're the right one for him, yes?"
At the girl's nod he continued. "Let me ask you this: would you die for him? Would you endure vicious beatings for him? Would you break your most important rule and *lie* for him?" Farley took a breath, leaned forward and stared her in the eyes. "Would you kill for him?"
Relena's jaw moved, but nothing came out. Her eyes widened as she finally realised what he was asking, and a tear rolled down her cheek. Farley nodded, rose and walked to the door. "Come with me. I have something you need to see... but you have to swear to be quiet and not cause trouble."
At her nod, he led her out the door to Duo's room. The guards stepped aside at Farley's terse "It's ok", and the two walked into the room.
"Look at him," Farley whispered. "Really look."
Duo was asleep, brow creased in the slight pain that never left him. The bruises on his face had faded to yellow-green smudges, but were still clearly bruises. His arm, in the cast from fingers nearly to his shoulder, rested on a pillow at his side. His good hand was fisted in the blankets. He looked pale and small, almost fragile.
Relena gasped quietly, and Farley leaned over to whisper in her ear. "What you don't see are the bruises all over the rest of his body. You don't see the broken ribs, the punctured lung, the bronchitis, the bruised kidneys... This is what he went through for Heero. Duo took Heero's mission to protect him, knowing he would probably end up this way, or worse. He went into it knowing he was going to be caught and tortured. Can you honestly say you'd do the same?"
When there was no answer from Relena, he continued. "This is what love is, Princess. He nearly died..."
Farley broke off as Duo stirred. "H'ro?" the braided boy murmured, "...hurts..."
Nodding his head towards the door, Farley gently pulled Relena out, then shut it silently behind them. Putting his arm over her shoulder, he led her outside and into the mess tent. Grabbing a cup of coffee, he sat her at a table and pressed the mug into her hands. "I think you *do* love Heero, in many ways... but not the way you think. You love the image of him. You love the idea of being in love... and he fits into the fairytales in your mind. But life isn't a fairytale. Put the whole *love* thing on the back burner and get to know them. You might be pleasantly surprised."
With a wink, he left her to sort things out for herself.
Quatre knocked on Duo's door and waited for an acknowledgement from within before he opened it and walked in, Wufei trailing behind him. "Hello, again. How are you feeling?"
Duo shrugged and looked at the clock - nearly noon. "I got a little sleep. Not bad, I guess."
Wufei snorted. "Hn. You're nervous?"
Duo sighed. "Is it that obvious?" He relaxed back into his pillows. "This mission has my name all over it, and I'm not there."
Quatre smiled and sat down next to the braided teen. "Nope, and since Heero's off doing something that's more along your lines, I need your help with one if his specialties."
Blinking, Duo raised an eyebrow. "Huh?"
Wufei joined them. "Just a little hacking job, if you're up to it."
"Hacking? What "
"Surveillance satellites," Quatre said, his manner entirely businesslike. "I have some sites to check out, but Dermail's group is very careful not to do anything suspicious during satellite passes overhead. We'll only have a fifteen minute window "
Duo interrupted, "Q, I'd love to help, but I'm one-handed right now. I can't type that well "
Wufei nodded his head. "We know that, Maxwell. I'll be your hands; you just have to tell me what to do."
"Are you sure? I mean, Treize was pretty shaken up "
Wufei sighed and hung his head. "He still is, but he needs space to deal with it. And I need something to do to keep my mind occupied."
Duo looked between his friends' faces. He could see the tension in them both, and the underlying ache for some way of burning off their nervous feelings. He smiled and nodded.
As she finished tucking Mariemeia into bed that night, Marianne fought down the urge to blow her cover completely by running down the hallway and beating Dekim Barton to death. She understood now why the little girl had shied away from even the gentlest and kindest of touches - her arms were black and blue from elbows to shoulders. She didn't say a word about it, though - she didn't even whimper, though she was biting her lip as Marianne helped her into her pyjamas.
She'd gotten the signal from Hermes - it would happen tonight. Marianne smiled to herself secretively. She had a bag ready for whoever was coming to take with them when they took the child.
And she had another dispatch. The tricky part would be planting it without giving herself away.
Marianne liked challenges.
Kissing Mariemeia's forehead softly, she turned to leave. The soft smile on Marianne's face faded as she walked, to be replaced by Athena's hard eyes and daunting grin.
She finished her customary chores for the evening, but instead of heading back to her room, turned and headed for the French doors that lead out into the gardens. She patted her pocket to be sure her note was there, then settled back to wait.
Treize was breathing hard as he took off his boxing gloves and looked up at the clock. He'd lasted twenty-five minutes this time he was getting better. Still, it would take a while before he'd be up to the level he'd been at before he was taken prisoner.
He almost felt bad for taking out his troubles on the practice dummy, but as he towelled his face off and sat on the narrow bench to rest, he decided he was glad of it. Both Zechs and Wufei had been trying to talk to him for the past day and a half anything to get him to open up again. But He couldn't. This was just too big to be true he was a father, and if everything went well, he'd be meeting his child in less than 24 hours.
"God, I don't know anything about children," he grumbled to himself, staring moodily down at the floor.
"None of us do, really, sir, but that's not too important." Treize turned his head to see Walker, standing on the far side of the gym floor with his arms crossed over his chest. The young man pushed off the wall and walked over. "The only thing that matters is if you're ready to try and learn."
Treize lifted an eyebrow. "Did Une put you up to this?"
Smiling and chuckling a little, Walker shook his head. "No, sir. It was Zechs, actually. And Wufei they're worried about you. They figured that anyone who could tame Une stood a chance of getting a reaction out of you."
Despite himself, Treize felt his lips turning up in the beginnings of a smile. "How did you tame her, speaking of it?"
Walker gave a little shrug. "I pissed her off. It was shortly after you were transferred to Geneva, when you got your promotion to Colonel. Une was put in charge of Lancaster Air Field, and the bunch of us had heard all about her, sir. Everyone was afraid of her, but I took one look at the woman talking to us all, and I knew she couldn't possibly be as scary as everyone made her out to be."
Walker took a seat next to the General. "I mouthed off at her, and she gave me a full week of early morning KP."
Treize laughed. "That doesn't sound too promising, Walker."
"Ah, but that's not the end of the story." Walker grinned widely. "Since I was in the kitchen so early and everything was really under control they didn't need me there I prepared a breakfast platter, went to the PX for some flowers, and brought her breakfast in bed."
Treize was nearly choking with laughter as he stared incredulously at the younger man. "And you're still breathing?"
"Strange, isn't it, sir?"
Treize shook his head. "No wonder she likes you so much."
Walker's smile was happy and carefree, his eyes twinkling slightly. "Anyway, the point is that if I could pull all that and not just survive it, but make her fall in love with me, you can handle having a kid around, sir. It's not like you'll be alone to handle her, anyway."
Treize stood up and stretched. "Thanks, Walker. Point noted."
Walker stood up, as well. "Does that mean you'll go and find Zechs and tell him you're okay?"
"On one condition."
Walker arched an eyebrow. "Let's hear it."
Treize smiled and wrapped his towel over his shoulders. "You've got to stop calling me 'sir.' I don't really have a rank anymore I'm legally dead, come to think of it. And don't tell me it's just an old authority thing you don't call Une 'Ma'am' anymore, do you?"
Walker winked. "Only when she wants me to."
Treize groaned and rolled his eyes. "I didn't need that image, Kevin. I fear Duo's been a bad influence on you."
Both men laughed as they headed out of the room.
Heero waited for a terse nod from Trowa before stealthily approaching his target. She was looking up into the sky, as though stargazing, her sweater pulled tightly around her body to fend off the night-time chill. Just one more step closer-
Marianne nearly cried out as arms wrapped around her like steel traps, immobilising her completely. She struggled in her attacker's grip, twisting desperately.
"Shut up and stop moving if you want to live," a voice rasped in her ear. She felt a jolt of adrenaline running through her - it was a young voice, but hard and determined, and cold as ice. She went still immediately. This had to be one of the infamous Gundam pilots!
The voice rasped again, "Do you know where the Duke's guests are staying?"
She nodded, remembering to try and appear frightened.
The arms around her tightened painfully before the voice spoke again, low and menacing, "I'm going to let you go, but if you scream or try and give us away, you'll beg me to kill you before I'm finished. Take us to Mariemeia's room. Now."
**Us?** She took a deep, cleansing breath as the grip around her loosened, and one hand snuck back from her pocket to the armour vest she could feel her captor was wearing.
"Hold it!" another voice commanded, as a second grip took her wrist. She turned her head - cold green eyes stared back at her dispassionately. The envelope she'd been holding fell from nerveless fingers, but the young man next to her caught it effortlessly and the arms around her tightened again, making her whimper in pain.
Trowa tore the envelope open and quickly scanned its contents before looking up, something like admiration glowing in his eyes. Though it was clearly in code, he knew what he was holding and who she had to be. "That took balls to even try and pull off, Athena," he whispered, his voice pitched so low that she had trouble catching it. The arms around her loosened immediately, though, and she was allowed to turn.
She looked them both over and felt her adrenaline going crazy again. Flashing them a dangerous smile, she nodded at the quiet house behind them. "Come on - we have very little time." She turned her back on them -
The slick sound of a knife being drawn froze her to the spot, but Heero's ice-cold voice floated to her ears, his tone softened slightly. "For appearances only."
She nodded and waited for him to grab her arm before she opened the doors and led them into the manor.
"We're in!" Wufei turned excited eyes on Quatre. "Quatre, the coordinates, please."
The blond crowded close. "Okay, we need Comsat Echo-2 to make a 13 second burn and rotate its cameras 46 degrees."
"Roger that." Wufei was already typing furiously, with Duo hovering at his side. "Camera is rotated, burn commencing."
Duo watched, wide-eyed, as the pictures began to come online. "Chicago? What's going on in "
Quatre pointed at a particular image. "Something is, obviously."
"Quatre?" Wufei queried. "We have less than fifteen minutes left. Let's leave off examining the pictures until we get everything we need, okay?"
Duo tore his eyes away from the images on the screen and turned back to Wufei and the Computer. "Okay, well we're already in. Let's go for the big one next. Enter this code stream "
Marianne watched in silent awe as her captors moved through the sleeping house. Neither made any noise, whatsoever. Not just being quiet, but silent - it was a talent that took a long time to develop and was made twice as difficult when one was so well-armed. The taller one was on point; she enjoyed the opportunity to watch him as he moved, like less than a shadow ahead of her. Dangerous didn't even begin to describe the way this teenager moved.
He stopped as he got to the corridor she'd indicated and waited for the other two to catch up. "Which door?" he asked in a low whisper.
She pointed ahead to the third door on the left.
Trowa opened the door silently and slipped inside - there was a nightlight burning that cast a soft, pink glow over the room and its small occupant. Acknowledging Heero's entrance with a small nod, he moved to the bedside and knelt carefully, reaching out towards the child with hands that shook ever so slightly. "Mariemeia."
She stirred slightly, and Trowa found a small smile tugging at his lips - she looked adorably cute as she slept, her hair mussed over her pale skin and slightly forked eyebrows. He reached out again, stroking a fingertip over her cheek. "Wake up, Mariemeia."
Blue eyes opened blearily, clouded by sleep - Mariemeia felt a moment of panic as she looked up into a stranger's face, and she opened her mouth -
Trowa quickly put a finger to his lips, no longer fighting the smile that had been tugging at him since he saw the child. He leaned close and spoke in a low, urgent whisper. "Time to get up, sweetheart. We're going on a little trip."
She gripped her blanket tightly. "Who're you? Where's..."
He smiled. "My name is Trowa Barton."
Blue eyes looked briefly confused. "B-barton? Uncle Trowa?"
He nodded, smiling again. **In a very strange way, yes.** "It's time to go now, quietly."
"Where're we goin?" She rubbed at her eyes.
"Time, 03," Heero's voice rumbled from behind him.
Trowa nodded and turned back to the girl, helping her pull on her slippers and robe over footsie pyjamas. "I'm taking you to meet someone who loves you very much, but you have to be really, really quiet, okay?"
"Kay," she replied, self-consciously running her fingers through her hair. Trowa smiled indulgently - it was a cute gesture coming from one so young-
Mariemeia froze, though, seeing Heero behind Trowa, still holding the knife on Marianne. She turned angry, hurt eyes on Trowa. "What are you doing?!"
The words echoed loudly in the room, and Marianne, Trowa and Heero froze immediately. The green-eyed teen cursed inwardly - they'd just blown their stealth plan. "Put that away, 01," he ordered tersely before kneeling down again to be on eye level with the little girl. "You have to trust me, Mariemeia. I swear it to you - I won't let anything bad happen to you, and he won't either. He is my friend."
"But he's hurting that nice lady..."
**If all hell wasn't about to break loose, this might actually be funny,** Marianne thought as she stepped away from Heero and knelt at Trowa's side. "He's not hurting me, dear. I'm here to help them and help you. I promise."
Mariemeia looked from one face to the other and finally nodded. Relieved Trowa stood, offering Marianne a hand to help her to her feet.
Athena smiled at the gallantry, but quickly shoved the thought aside and was all business again. "You need to get out, now. The bag by the door is holding some clothes for her - don't forget it. Now knock me out. Make it look good - my cover cannot be blown."
Trowa nodded, looking into her eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered, reaching towards her.
She felt his hand slide up her neck and, just before he could pinch the nerve that would knock her unconscious, she gave him a small smile. "Don't mention it." She slumped, senseless, into his arms.
Trowa quickly laid her out on the bed, pulling a plastic cuff tie from his belt and expertly binding her hands at her back. He bent and scooped Mariemeia into his arms, a guilty twinge floating through his mind as he saw her eyes, wide as saucers, staring down at Marianne's silent, unmoving form. "What did you do?"
He looked her in the eye. "I just made her go to sleep. I didn't hurt her, sweetheart. You have to be real quiet now, okay?"
Mariemeia stared back into the green eyes of her 'uncle.' She knew she wasn't supposed to talk to strangers or go anywhere with them, but the nice lady trusted this guy, and he seemed so...
He was a good person - she could see it in his face and hear it in his voice. So unlike... any other man her grandfather had ever let her meet. Her little arms tightened around his neck. "Okay."
Trowa cautiously edged out into the hallway. He could see Heero, Mariemeia's bag slung over his shoulder, waiting ahead, and he slunk forward, acutely aware of the small body nestled in his arms. He looked down and gave her a small smile-
"INTRUDERS!" He didn't have the time to react as he heard a yell right behind him and something solid and powerful barrelled into him. Eyes wide, he tightened his grip on Mariemeia and pitched forward into a tight shoulder roll, carefully releasing her as he straightened again and turned, knives already drawn in both hands-
"Shit!" Trowa was forced to dance backwards as his opponent flew at him with inhuman speed and precision, seemingly unmindful of the knives in his hands, even as he sliced the person deeply in the arm.
Mariemeia whimpered at the sight of blood running down the attacker's arm, and grey eyes turned in her direction-
Trowa grunted and slammed his knee into the attacker's mid-section in that split second.
He grabbed for its short hair and pulled - "Oh God..." He was staring into the bruised, furious face of a teenage girl, no older than he was!
Bravo backhanded him across the face and reached down as he stumbled, yanking a gun from its holster on his thigh and sighting-
"Trowa, NO!" Another body was rushing forward, yelling, and she looked up in shock. Somehow she knew that voice. **Who **
Two guns fired at the same time, and Bravo had just enough sense left to try and dodge as best she could. Mariemeia screamed-
Trowa gasped in pain and stumbled back, right into his friend's arms. Heero threw them both to the side, cradling Trowa as best he could in the hallway. "Trowa..." They both looked up - their assailant was nowhere to be seen, though there was a pool of blood on the polished floor.
Forcing himself to breathe normally, the green-eyed teen squeezed Heero's hand tightly. "We need to keep moving." They could both hear people shouting, heavy footsteps heading in their direction, and neither of them had any doubts of what would happen if they were caught.
"Hn." Heero hauled the other teen to his feet as though he was lifting a box of tissues. "You okay?"
"I'll live. Pick her up and let's go. I'm taking point." Trowa didn't stop to see if Heero followed his orders or not. He clenched a fist, looking down at the bloody mess in his left bicep, but drew a gun in either hand and dashed on ahead.
Mariemeia trembled but passively allowed Heero to pick her up, and he took off running after Trowa without another word. He could hear gunfire ahead, and screaming.
Still running, he reached into a pocket and pulled out a flash-bang grenade, pulling the pin with his teeth. "Incoming, 03!" he yelled, and threw.
Mariemeia screamed again as the explosion deafened her - she was cradled safely in the strange man's arms and strong grip, and she clung to him.
The gun in his right hand spitting death, Heero quickly made it to Trowa's side, and the two of them polished off the small guard force. Heero made to wrap an arm around Trowa's waist for support, but the green-eyed teen shook his head. "No, I'm fine. Go!"
Heero ran for the open French doors and out onto the garden deck. He looked down at his small charge as he ran and murmured, "Hold on tight." Reaching the end of the deck, he leapt into the air, made a clean somersault and landed running.
Trowa finally caught up to him, panting raggedly as he ran. "Show off."
Heero shot him a look. "You said you were okay."
Trowa was white-faced with pain and fatigue. "I lied. I'll make it to the car."
"Dammit!" They continued running.