Motion farther up the beach caught Wufei's attention and he turned his head to see Howard approaching. He started to wave, but his arm stopped almost before it moved as he registered the odd, resigned expression on the older man's face.
Something's wrong, he thought, stepping closer to Duo and Quatre, neither of whom had noticed the Sweeper boss. He looks like... not upset, exactly, so I doubt anything serious has happened to the others... more like someone assigned to the worst duty on a base...
Mentally shaking himself, the Chinese teen nudged the blond boy beside him, then nodded toward the approaching figure.
Quatre's eyes narrowed, then he sighed and tugged Duo upright.
"What?" Deathscythe's pilot complained. "I was just gonna try and catch one... of... those..." His voice tapered off as he also saw Howard approaching. Seeing the look on the older man's face, he stepped closer to his friends.
"Howard? Umm... I thought we were off until tomorrow..."
Wufei and Quatre stepped up to flank their long-haired friend.
"Is there a problem, Howard?" Wufei asked calmly.
With a resigned sigh, the older man nodded. "You could say there's a small problem, but don't worry, everyone is fine," he said quickly, uncharacteristically pushing his sunglasses up on top of his head. "I'd say Murphy's Law struck again, myself. Trowa just called with a change of plans. It seems that after Team Kushrenada's successful foray into space, the launch mechanism broke down. Bang-boy said they had to evacuate earlier than anticipated, and destinations have temporarily changed. We're going to have to send a ship to pick up Trowa and Sally in Lisbon just as soon as they let us know when. Une and Heero grabbed the 'Buddy' and made it out just fine. She's one fine ship, isn't she Duo? We really should add a few more to the fleet - "
Howard shuffled his feet absently. "So yeah. We've got one crew on its way out, and the other might just take a little longer. It's just a minor setback to the schedule, but at least Trowa's fight came out okay "
"Trowa was in a fight?!" Quatre asked, eyes wide.
Howard nodded and gave the blond teen a small grin. "Yeah, but don't worry. He wiped the floor with those OZ bastards. He's the one who called me, and he was just fine."
"Anything else?" Duo asked, eyes darkening. "What about the 'Buddy'? Where's it going?"
The old mechanic cleared his throat. "It's just a minor setback. I'm sure Heero can get them out pretty easily, and I know Une has other contacts to help them out. They'll just need to lay low for a few days "
Wufei tipped his head, eyeing the Sweeper boss. He's not comfortable with the changes, the Chinese pilot thought. Nor is he happy telling us about them, if his current inability to make a long story short is any indication... "Howard, you're beating around the bush. If everyone is fine, what are you trying not to tell us? Just say it and get it over with!"
"Dammit, Chang! I don't want to tell you that Une and Heero are currently en route to Sanc where they'll have to wait until Yuy can procure a shuttle to fit Wing and manage a secret launch! There, now you know," he finished, voice softer, and he turned to a very pale Duo. "Kid, don't worry. Noin won't let Relena cause any trouble, and Une... well, that's one scary woman when she wants to be. I promise you, it'll be all right."
Seeing the slight tremble in the long-haired boy's frame, Howard stepped forward and wrapped his arms around him. "Just remember, Spandex-boy loves you," he murmured confidently. "He wouldn't have said it in public, in front of your family if it wasn't true, right?"
Duo nodded, a slight shiver and a quiet sniff the only outward signs of his worry. "Right, old man," he mumbled, then took a deep breath and stepped back. "So, everyone got away safe, huh? That's the important part," he continued, putting on an obviously fake smile. "So, we should probably help you out with the upgrades..."
"Not a chance, kid," Howard cut in firmly. "You, Blondie and Dragon-boy are on vacation for 48 hours. That's an order. If I even see one nose poking inside, all three of you will regret it. Understand?"
Quatre nodded emphatically, nudging the Chinese teen when he took a breath to argue. One look at the blond's face had him agreeing immediately. Duo, on the other hand, started to protest, only to be brought up short as Howard raised a hand.
"Don't even start, Duo. I meant what I said. Once your 'vacation' is over, you'll be welcome in the Shop, to supervise and assist. You will not do anything to strain yourself in any way, though. Is that clear?"
"Crystal," Duo sighed, "And I'll do what you want... under protest."
"Protest noted. Now, the guys are planning a luau for you and Marie. We'll expect you on the south beach at eight. No excuses."
Howard turned, took a few steps, then paused and glanced over his shoulder.
"Oh, and Duo, if my calculations are right, they should be landing in Sanc in roughly three hours or so. Knowing Heero, his first plan of attack will be to settle Wing and spend a couple of hours in the cockpit doing God knows what. If you wanted to show up at the com shack before the party, I suppose we can manage to get a secure line to Wing..."
The calmer expression and small smile on the boy he loved like a son was all the reply the Sweeper boss needed.
Heero fidgeted as he waited for the call to go through.
As soon as they landed, Noin told him she'd received a call from Howard and that Duo would be waiting to talk to him. He was both elated and worried by that news the other teen had obviously heard about the change in plans, and it remained to be seen whether or not that was a good thing.
It wasn't as if he was happy about it far from it! Knowing what he now knew about Relena's behaviour towards the braided teen, it was going to be very difficult for him to resist the urge to harm her if she dared speak to him. Her callous words had hurt all of them he'd seen how torn up Trowa was by her comments, as well and Heero knew he could never forgive her for it.
He'd never had a family before, but he was quickly learning how a person could become overprotective of it, once they got it.
The screen briefly flashed the 'CONNECTING PLEASE STAND BY' message before an image popped up. Heero barely stopped himself from reaching out to touch the screen as Duo's image appeared, wearing a brave smile that was all the more endearing for its forced, pinched look.
"Hey, handsome," Duo drawled slowly. "Long time no see."
Typical Duo, trying to put on a brave, carefree face. He's worth ten thousand Relenas! Heero felt his face softening into a smile as Duo's voice washed over him.
"Too long already," Heero replied, giving in to the urge to reach out and touch the viewscreen. "Was the flight out okay?"
"Better than yours, I hear," Duo said, arching an eyebrow. "How long will it take to get a shuttle set up?"
Heero grimaced. "Not sure yet, though it shouldn't be too long. Duo I'm sorry, I really am."
"What?" the other teen asked, eyes wide.
"For being here, of all places," Heero said, gesturing around with his right hand. "She doesn't know yet, but we can't possibly keep this a secret. You know that."
Duo nodded. "I do know, but I also know you. And I know I have nothing to worry about," he managed to say, though his eyes gave away the worry he was trying so hard to hide.
Heero sighed deeply. "Duo Maxwell, listen to me very carefully. I'm only here because there was little other choice in the matter. She is irrelevant. I'm in no mood to deal with her, and neither is Une, you know. This won't be pleasant for her, either. But we will both be fine. And when it's all over, the only person I'm coming home to is you."
Duo smiled slowly as his lover spoke, absorbing each carefully-chosen word, and finally breaking into a full-fledged grin at the end of the small speech. "How is it that you always know what to say to me?"
"Yup, that's my Heero!" Duo called, laughing out loud. "I love you, babe, and I really do trust you. I just don't trust the Harpy, so try and steer clear of her, okay?"
"Operation 'Avoid The Harpy' commencing immediately," Heero said, giving his own smile. "Mission accepted."
"Good." Duo kissed his palm and pressed it to the viewscreen, eyes softening even more as Heero imitated the gesture. "Now go sleep. You look exhausted."
"I love you, Duo."
"Forever and then some, Heero."
By the time they reached the Palace after securing both the 'Buddy' and Wing, Noin and Dorothy could tell that Une and Heero were ready to drop from fatigue.
Sunlight was just beginning to filter in as Noin lead the small group to a side parlour. She ushered them in quickly. "Pargan is bringing you up some breakfast while we find you some rooms for your stay. I think for security reasons, we'll have to put you on the Princess' wing "
Heero's dark glare stopped her in mid-sentence. "I want nothing to do with that "
"We know that, Mr. Yuy," Dorothy interjected smoothly in a quiet, no-nonsense tone. "I understand she has been quite insulting to all of you, but most especially to Mr. Maxwell, and you naturally feel strongly about it. Noin and I will do our best to assure her good behaviour; I ask only that you play along with me when she makes an appearance. I have no wish to get shot."
Une shot the blonde girl a wary look. "What is that supposed to mean, exactly?"
Dorothy cocked her head, an amused glint entering her grey-blue eyes. "Her behaviour has not been exactly graceful. I only intend to point it out to her as clearly as humanly possible."
Une stiffened slightly at Dorothy's choice of words, a haunted look in her eyes as she stared back at the girl. "More like Treize than you know," she whispered.
Noin quickly stepped in. "We'll also need to restrict your access to the rest of the Palace. I don't want anyone to know you're here for as long as it's possible to keep the secret "
There was a polite but urgent knock on the door and, without waiting for a response, it opened. Pargan stepped in quickly, his eyes immediately finding Heero as he said in a low voice, "I'm sorry, sir, but she followed me." He opened the door completely.
"Noin!" Relena called brightly. "Isn't it a beautiful day? Pargan told me you and Dorothy would be taking breakfast here, so I thought I'd " She froze in the doorway as she finally looked around the room and spotted the two newcomers. "Tag along. Oh my God!"
She quickly entered and closed the door behind her. "Heero! And Colonel Une, of course. Welcome to Sanc! Oh, I wish I'd known you were headed this way. Goodness, we need to "
Dorothy tossed Heero a wink. "Oh, we already handled everything, Miss Relena! Isn't this wonderful! And he's just as hot as you told me he was!" She turned and leered at a completely bewildered Heero.
"Dorothy!" Relena squeaked. If it had been anyone else but a blushing Princess, it would have been a scream.
The platinum blonde girl paid no attention to her, though, instead bouncing to Heero's side and threading her arm through his quickly. "Oh, stop being shy, Miss Relena! You know I've been dying to meet 'Mr. Buns of Steel' ever since you told me all about him! Heero, how do you stay in shape? Is it true you can bend steel with your bare hands? I bet those hands are just wonderful in b-"
Watching Heero squirm and Relena turn a deep crimson, Noin lost the battle and burst out laughing hysterically.
Une stepped up next to Dorothy and put a calming hand on her shoulder, afraid Heero might snap if she went much further. "Really, Dorothy! Didn't Relena also tell you he was taken? By another boy, I might add?"
Dorothy tossed her head and winked at the older woman before turning back to Heero. "Yes, yes, I know But I think The right woman just possibly could reform you. Specimens such as yourself shouldn't be allowed to exit the gene pool."
Heero quirked an eyebrow if she hadn't warned him, he just *might* have shot her by now. As it was, watching Relena's discomfort was actually worth the charade. "Hn. Perhaps the right woman could reform you, too."
Dorothy, Une and Noin all laughed out loud at that line, and even Pargan gave a dry chuckle.
Still grinning, Dorothy sighed dramatically. "You can't blame a girl for trying, at least "
"If you'll all please excuse me " Relena left as quickly as she could, her face still a bright red colour to match her jacket.
Noin wiped at her face, staring down at the evil glint in Dorothy's eyes. "Oh God I can't believe scratch that, of course I can! Damn, that was good. But " She sent a longing look at the steaming tray of food Pargan was arranging on the table. "I really should go and make sure she knows the ground rules. Not to talk to anyone about you and all that."
The old man looked up and gave her a gentle smile. "Go right ahead, Miss Noin. Calm the poor child down, and I'll be in with breakfast for the two of you shortly."
"Thanks, Pargan!" She gave them all a smile and left, still chuckling.
Dorothy clapped her hands together, still giggling. "Well, we won't see any more of Relena until very late today at the earliest, would be my guess. Hungry, anyone?" She sat down and enthusiastically helped herself to a powdered-sugar covered Belgian waffle.
Heero shot Une a look. "Buns of Steel?! I don't "
"I think, Heero," the tall Lady said, gliding to a seat of her own, "that Duo would probably agree."
"Oh, really." He sat down and yawned widely, covering it with one hand. By the time he opened his eyes again, Dorothy was smiling at him and holding out a cup of coffee.
He accepted it with a minute smile of his own. "You know, Dorothy I think Duo would like you."
"There's the mining colony, right on schedule," Zechs said quietly. "Kevin, wake Treize and..."
"No, need," the ginger-haired man replied from the cockpit's jump seat behind him. "I'm awake. Now let's just hope those remote codes Quatre gave us still work. Initiate colony power up when you're ready, Zechs."
The blond pressed a few keys and the three men waited silently. Within minutes, the colony lights began winking on.
"Good. Walker, begin our approach. Zechs, send the codes for docking protocol."
"Yessir!" Walker answered, taking over manual control of the shuttle. In the co-pilot's seat, Zechs nodded and began entering the next set of codes.
Treize released his harness and floated to the doorway between the cockpit and the small passenger section.
"Captain Gillen, we will be docking in approximately ten minutes," he said, nodding at the tall ex-special forces officer. "Please have your team ready to disembark and begin a security sweep."
"Yessir!" Gillen snapped, releasing his belt, and floating down the narrow aisle between the seats. "Alright team! You heard the General! Put on your suits and check your gear!"
Behind the security team, the small group of technical personnel, including Jason Farley, began securing various bits of gear and prepared to dock, but they all looked up when Treize cleared his throat. The doctor nearly laughed at the playful gleam in the older man's eyes.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Treize said, imitating the tone used by quality civilian shuttle flight attendants everywhere, "we'll be docking at our final destination, Mining Colony XH-497, in approximately ten minutes. Please bring your seats to an upright position and secure all personal items. On behalf of the Captain and crew, we hope you've had a pleasant journey and thank you for choosing Escape Air."
With a wink at the slightly flabbergasted group of people in the compartment, he turned and floated back into the cockpit, smiling widely as shouts and laughter broke out behind him.
"Sir," Gillen's voice came over the comm, "the shuttle bay is secure. Campbell reports that life support systems are online colony-wide. I'm sending my people out in teams of two to check the rest of this satellite, but honestly, sir, I believe it is totally uninhabited at the present time. I'm heading to the control center now, and will report again upon arrival."
"Thank you, Captain," Treize replied, "We'll start unloading now. Treize out."
"Well, that's a relief," Zechs murmured, stretching and stamping his feet. "It's good to be back in gravity, even if it isn't the same as Earth's. So, according to the schematics of this place, the mobile suit bay is just next door. Kevin, if you'll open it up, I'll get Tallgeese out of the hold and situated, then come back for the Leo. How does that sound?"
"Sounds good to me," the engineer replied, rising and sliding past Treize. "Give me about five minutes."
"Roger that, Walker," the ex-general said, smirking, as he walked towards his blond lover. "I'll just debrief this pilot, and send him out."
Kevin laughed out loud. "I'm sure you will, General," he retorted, then slipped out of the cockpit, only to poke his head back inside. "Really sir, don't rush on my account. The suit bay isn't going anywhere, and I'm sure I can occupy myself somehow..."
Treize just waved the young engineer away.
Quatre leaned back in the sand, the warmth from the bonfire easing the chill from the air, looked up at the stars and sighed contentedly.
"You know, I could almost forget we're fighting a war," he said to Duo and Wufei sprawled beside him, voice raised slightly to be heard over the happy party sounds all around.
"That's the idea," Howard said gruffly, suddenly standing over them. He grinned as the three youths jumped. "There's nothing wrong with taking a few hours off to be just normal teenaged boys enjoying life, you know. Take a hint from Marie. Relax a little."
"Jesus, Howie!" Duo yelped. "I think you just took ten years off my life!"
"Nonsense. You're young. You'll bounce back." The Sweeper boss cleared his throat, almost nervously. "Actually, I just wanted to make sure ... ah, that everything was okay..."
Quatre put a supporting arm around Duo as the long-haired teen nodded slightly.
"Yeah, I think so," Duo said slowly. "I mean, I'm not happy about their being in Sanc of all places, but I trust Heero, and he loves me. I certainly don't trust Relena, but I trust Heero. I just keep telling myself that 'this, too, shall pass'."
Wufei squeezed the other pilot's shoulder, and smiled slightly, then looked up at Howard. "Don't worry, Howard. We won't let him forget that. Things will turn out all right. So," he continued, changing the subject slightly, "did you come over here for any other reason, or do you just enjoy scaring the wits out of unaware Gundam pilots?"
The older man chuckled, grin returning. "Well, I have a request from a young lady. Miss Marie would be pleased if you would join her and Toi tomorrow for a short boat trip to explore the coves and aquatic life that this island offers."
Wufei laughed out loud. "She obviously did not phrase it that way..."
"No, it was more like 'I won't go unless Uncle Wufei, Uncle Duo and Uncle Quatre can go with me', then she stomped a foot for emphasis."
Quatre grinned at Duo's nod and answered for all of them. "Please tell Miss Marie that we would be overjoyed to join her in the morning. Also tell her it's past her bedtime and she should get some sleep so she doesn't end up dozing off and missing something."
"I will certainly relay your acceptance, however, as wound up as she is, it may be days before we get her to bed," Howard replied with another chuckle, then he shook his head and started to walk away. The three teens didn't miss his parting comment though.
"Damn... I really can't understand how people can hold complete conversations in that uppity speech..."
Trowa yawned and stretched gingerly as he waved goodbye to a helpful driver, who had given him a lift for the last mile or so into town. He'd hidden Heavyarms in the Ocean, about twenty miles outside of town, and hopped on a bus. It had only taken him as far as the Spaceport, though, just outside of town, and he'd needed to get all the way downtown.
It wasn't especially late yet, but the air blowing into Lisbon from the water had a chill to it that made the tall teen's few bruises from his latest firefight ache that much more. He zipped up his jacket and pulled the collar tight around his throat, absently wishing he'd brought a scarf.
Kaz had told him simply to go to Pavilhão Chinês, an old-fashioned bar in one of the city's older sections, and ask for Rocket. When he'd asked how the guy got a name like Rocket, Kaz just smiled and told him to ask the man, himself. Trowa wasn't sure what to think about that.
From the outside, it looked pretty tame, and he was surprised by that. He would have thought the Sweepers would find the biggest, loudest, craziest No, he shook his head. He'd passed a place like that - a bar that looked like it had once upon a time been a barn, complete with huge, wooden doors and a glimpse of horse stalls in the interior. They were flashy places, but not the kind of place a respectable Spacer or Salvage man would be caught in.
Respectable Spacer, Trowa mused. Isn't that a contradiction in terms? He smiled and reached for the door.
The bar was brightly and warmly lit, and over the sound of many voices, Trowa could hear some antique rock playing, probably coming from the ancient jukebox sitting in a corner. The first thing Trowa noticed was that the place was filled with knick-knacks, probably items brought in by customers from around the world, everything from posters to a set of rather interesting masks that literally covered a wall. The next thing he realised was that he could understand most of the chatter he was hearing.
He breathed a sigh of relief. Trowa hadn't been joking when he told Sally his Portuguese needed a lot of work. He hadn't been looking forward to trying to talk to someone for real.
He shouldered his way past a few poker tables, his eyes scanning the room carefully. There was a group of men - obviously pretty tipsy already throwing darts on the left side of the space, and a bunch of people hunched around a nearby table, all yelling and waving credits in their hands as they watched whatever was going on.
Trowa seated himself on an antique barstool and finally caught the bartender's eye. "Noite boa. Uma cerveja, por favor."
"One beer coming right up, kid," the man replied with a wry smirk.
Trowa shook his head, a small grin gracing his face. "Was my accent really that bad? Thanks, by the way."
The bartender shook his head. "Just needs a little work, kid. You new around here?"
"Maybe." Trowa took a long pull on his drink and, setting it down, sighed heavily. The room was warm, but he didn't dare to even open his jacket. Not with the kind of gun he was toting underneath it!! "I was told this was the place to come if I didn't want to stay too long, though."
The man gave him a harsh look. "So you want to talk to them, eh? Why am I not surprised?"
Trowa took another pull on his beer. "I'm looking for one guy in particular. Goes by the name Rocket."
The Bartender's stare broke into a grin. "Rocket, eh? Why d'you want to talk to him?" His eyes darted ever so slightly over Trowa's left shoulder, towards the door beyond.
"My own reasons," the teen replied, setting his beer down. He pulled out enough credits to pay for the beer and slapped them down on the bar, plus a bit of extra. "So where is he?"
The bartender stared down at the money, then glared back up at Trowa. "You've gotta do better than that, kid. You come in here looking for a friend, and not a few minutes later, a couple OZ officers come in. What would you think?" he hissed in a low voice.
Trowa felt a frisson of fear run down his back, though he refused to show any signs of it. "How many?" he asked in a low voice. "Are there any other ways out of here? I won't cause you any trouble if you can tell this guy I'm looking for him."
"Right. And how do I know I want to tell him you were here, kid?"
Trowa leaned forward. "Because Howie and Duo would want me to get out of here before I have to mess up your pretty, shiny floor." A small smile bloomed over his face.
The bartender finally laughed. "How did you guess, kid? By the way, I was just kidding about the Ozzies - they don't come here. Ever."
Trowa grinned back at the man and took a relieved pull on his beer. "You had me going for a moment there."
"Nah - Kaz called and told me there would be someone coming in to find me soon, gave me your description," the bartender - Rocket - said smugly. "So you're friends with the Kid? Howard was pretty upset just a few weeks ago - said Duo was missing "
"He was, but he's fine now," Trowa said quietly. "It's an occupational hazard, in our business."
"Good one!" Rocket leaned over the bar and called out, "Walt! Eduardo! Get your fat asses over here!"
A complaint went up from the loud table before one side of the group around it burst into cheers, while the other side groaned. Trowa's eyes widened as two men stood, both of them huge and hulking and rubbing at their right hands. "Damn it all, Walt! Can't you lose just once?" the (slightly!) shorter man said, grimacing as he flexed his hand.
"Not a chance in hell, Eddie, now pay up!" the other man boomed, to the cheers of the people behind him. The two approached the bar, and Walt slapped the other man on the back as he said, "Give us two tall ones, Rockey, and make it good if this asshole's payin!"
Rocket shook his head as he handed two of the largest mugs of beer Trowa had ever seen over the counter. "Someday someone's going to beat you out at your own game, Walt, and then what will you do?"
"Hell, that's an easy one!" the man bellowed with a grin. "I'll become a bartender like you!"
The whole room laughed out loud, and Eduardo took a long pull on his own beer before he noticed the outsider sitting at their bar, watching everything with a blank look on his face and cold eyes. "Hey - who's this?"
Rocket's grin got wider, if that was possible. "This, my friends, is a friend of Duo's. He even called the Old Man 'Howie!'"
The room went up in a shout of approval, and all Trowa could think as several people crowded close and all began to speak at once was All these guys are Sweepers? Jesus Christ! How many of them are there?