Une marched crisply along the hallway, her steps perfectly even and measured. It wasn't a parade ground march, but it was close - certainly no one could ever have mistaken her for anything but career military. From the spit-and-polish shine on her shoes to the perfectly coiled buns of hair on her head, her uniform and posture were textbook perfect. She would allow nothing less from herself, whether she was technically off-duty or not.
Of course, once she reached her rooms, it would be another story. Longingly, she permitted herself a brief thought of the bubble bath she planned to draw, accompanied by dry white wine and a book she'd picked up at the base tuck shop. It was the most frivoulous, UN-military thing she'd been able to find - a sappy romance of the sort she normally scorned people for reading, whose cover hero had caught her eye because he looked ever-so-slightly like Treize-sama...
She dismissed the thought as inappropriate, and continued to move briskly along the hallway. Twenty more feet, and she would be at the door to her room. Until then she was vulnerable to rushing aides and officers with urgent problems, but once she got inside she was bloody well staying there, come hell or high water. It was her birthday, and she was by God going to enjoy it! Treize-sama had even called to wish her a happy birthday, adding in a not-quite-order that she should take the evening off for herself, rather than working long past her duty hours as she usually did. Since that had been her plan anyway, she'd been perfectly happy to agree with him, surprising him a little with her easy capitulation. She had a sneaking suspicion that the General was going to try to call her at her desk later that night, to ensure she'd actually followed his suggestion - he would get a pleasant surprise when she didn't answer.
Ten feet to freedom. She'd been wearing this god-awful uniform for far too many hours of the day - she'd nearly forgotten what it felt like to be free of it. Horrid constricting things, but they certainly suited Treize-sama's flair for the dramatic, and she had to admit that he looked dashing in his. And they certainly gave the impression of authority! She quelled the urge to tug at her collar to loosen it - she wasn't home free yet.
Five more feet. Just a few more steps, and there wasn't another soldier in sight. No disasters or calamities that just HAD to have her personal attention, and not a sign of any impending. Briefly, she wondered what people did when she wasn't there to get them organized - they certainly couldn't seem to do anything right without her instruction when she WAS present.
Two more steps... one more... with a sigh of relief she reached out to touch her hand to the palmpad beside the door to unlock it...
The building actually rocked with the force of the explosion, tossing her against the still-locked door. Another followed almost immediately after it, and was trailed by distant shouts of panic. Une righted herself, tugging her tunic straight and adjusting her glasses with a scowl. She moved a few feet farther along the hallway to the nearest communications panel, and slapped the controls irritatedly. "Captain! What is going on out there?" she barked to the commanding officer of the base.
The man's face appeared on the small screen, looking panicked and frightened. He snapped of a quick salute, before replying, "Ma'am, there appears to be a Gundam approaching the base. It's firing warning shots at the moment - it hasn't actually damaged anything, but it's coming in fast. The Tauruses have been scrambled to meet it..."
"Warning shots?" Une repeated, eyebrows lifting in surprise. That was new. "Is it 04?" She couldn't imagine any of the other pilots bothering to fire warning shots at the base they were planning to blow up.
"No Ma'am, it's..." he was cut off by a sharp crackle of static as another explosion hit, but she didn't need to hear his answer. Even through the thick walls of the building she could make out the booming echo of the 1812 Overture, smaller explosions coming in time with the crash of the cymbals. There was only one pilot who would be so brazen...
"Maxwell!" she exclaimed, and turned sharply on her heel to run back down the hall the way she'd come. She cast one longing glance at her door as she passed it - wasn't she even allowed a moment of peace on her birthday? And of all the pilots, did it HAVE to be Maxwell? He was a guaranteed migraine all by himself, without even throwing that damnable Gundam of his into the mix! But her footsteps didn't falter as she went past, her full concentration once again on her duties.
She made it to the command centre just as the Taurus squads engaged the Gundam. The tactical heads-up display in the centre of the room didn't look promising; this was a small base with only six squads, only two of which were on deck at any given time. "Status?" she snapped, and the tactical officer turned to salute her.
"Ma'am! The other four squads are scrambling ma'am, and we've called for reinforcements from Dallas base. They'll be here in an hour."
"We do NOT have an hour!" Une exclaimed. "It's only a fifteen minute flight by transport from there to here - why the delay?"
"They say they're experiencing technical difficulties with their transports, ma'am," the communications officer volunteered. "All other bases within an hour's flight are reporting the same." He paused uncertainly, one hand holding his headset to his ear. "Something about 'green goo in the engines'?" he repeated hesitantly.
"Maxwell," Une concluded with a sigh. The brat had ensured that they would have no reinforcements - and she was going to have a stern talking-to with the heads of security at those four bases. Not that any security measures had ever been able to stop Maxwell when he was determined, but some of them must have been hit at least an hour previously - they should have found and fixed the problem before it ever became an issue!
Gundam Deathscythe was cutting a swath through the little green dots on the HUD, wading through its opponents with the casual ease they'd all come to expect of the rebel pilots. Reports were beginning to trickle in through communications - Une was as surprised as her subordinates when the tactical officer exclaimed, "They're all just wounded! Not a single fatality reported, ma'am!" The lieutenant looked incredulous, double-checking her display as if certain she was wrong. "He must be doing it on purpose. He's going for the disabling shots, instead of blowing them up."
Une frowned. Maxwell never did anything idly - even his seemingly spurious pranks always had a reason behind them, even if it was only distraction or lifting his own morale. Why go for the more difficult disabling shots? For that matter, why attack this base at all? There were several more tempting targets nearby, four of which he'd obviously been to recently. This base was neither a production facility nor a strategic emplacement - she was here only because she'd been making an inspection tour of the region. She'd purposely timed her itinerary so she'd be here on her birthday, figuring there was less likely to be a crisis to interrupt her.
The Gundam finished the last of the Tauruses, leaving the worst injury reported a broken arm and a concussion. The other four squads would be a few minutes more mobilizing - they were sitting ducks until then. Oddly, Maxwell just sat there, barely inside their perimeter, waiting.
They all watched tensely as the seconds ticked by. Une stared at the video display of the Gundam on a side screen, frowning. There was something going on here that she was missing...
"Sound," she suddenly snapped at the communications officer, realizing abruptly that she hadn't heard the noise of the music for some time. Granted, the command room was better shielded than the hallways, but...
"...on Une-baby, turn on your speakers like a good little girl," came the cajoling voice, confirming her suspicions. "I know they're working, I didn't hit any of the communications arrays. Do it before the rest of the squads mobilize - I dunno if I can avoid killing anybody with that many opponents at once..."
"Give me the mike," she instructed the astonished comm officer, and he handed it to her promptly. She thumbed the button on the side, and spoke into it. "What do you want, Maxwell?" she asked, her voice echoing across the base and over the barren ground to where the Gundam was standing motionless.
"Une-chan!" Maxwell exclaimed, sounding pleased. "Knew you'd figure it out sooner or later, babe. I can always count on you!"
She frowned - apparently the L2 pilot was in a flattering mood, but that could change quickly enough. She'd never met anyone so mercurial! "What do you WANT?" she repeated sternly.
"Aw, you're no fun," Maxwell replied in a crestfallen tone. When she didn't reply after a long moment, he sighed and continued. "Okay, here's the deal. Those precious production factories of yours, about half an hour from here? I didn't just mess with their transport engines, I planted bombs in the factories as well. Now, I can trigger those babies right from here any time I please - and it's gonna take your techs a while to find them all, I guarantee it." Une grimaced, remembering some of the weird places he'd chosen to hide his explosives the LAST time he'd bombed a base she'd been at. The cafeteria coffee maker came to mind...
"And you're telling me this because?" she snapped, her patience wearing thin. She didn't like being toyed with, and Maxwell was a past master at it.
"Because I'm giving you a chance to NOT get them blown to kingdom come," he answered in an overly patient tone, as if dealing with a particularly recalcitrant two-year-old. "You come out here, hands up and unescorted, and come with me, and I'll leave the other bases alone."
"You expect me to turn myself over to you as a hostage?" she repeated incredulously. It wasn't that she had a huge ego, but she was well aware that she was considerably more valuable than a few production bases. She had Treize-sama's itinerary memorized, for one thing - not the one they published, but the one he ACTUALLY followed. Not to mention access codes for every base, most of the main computers, and millions of other minutiae that could mean the difference between winning and losing the war, used properly... "I don't think so!"
"Not a hostage, babe," Maxwell corrected her cheerfully. "I swear no harm will come to you, from me or anyone else, and you won't be asked a single war-related question. I'll even have you safe back in your bed by dawn!"
Une considered it. For all his other flaws, Maxwell had proven that anything he promised, he would stick to. Of course, that usually referred to the various threats he issued during battles - but on the occasions he had been captured, if he gave his word about something, he never broke it. Of course, he was endlessly creative at coming up with ways to get what he wanted without technically breaking his promise... but he'd worded this particular promise very carefully. Still...
"Oh, did I mention the computer virus I planted?" the Gundam pilot commented mock-innocently. "It should be chewing its way through the firewalls right about now. It's pretty neat; I designed it myself, with a little help from Heero. It's a puzzle-virus - takes a chunk of data from this file at that base, transfers it to that computer at this base, then moves some files from this base to another one... you get the idea. We estimated it'll take your best brains about an hour to crack it - by then your systems will be so screwed up it'll take you a month to sort it all out!" He sounded positively gleeful, and Une winced. "And of course, all the data collected ALSO gets copied to a file on one of our secure lines, so we get to look at it all."
Damn and double damn! This was getting worse by the moment. She glanced at the HUD and saw that the four Taurus squads had left the base - ETA sixty seconds to the Gundam. "Better make up your mind fast, Une-chan, I've got incoming," Maxwell added brightly. "Call them off and come out here, and I'll cancel the virus before it does any more damage..."
She gritted her teeth so hard her jaw ached, but turned to the tactical officer and ordered, "Call them back to base." The woman nodded and scrambled to comply, snapping orders into her microphone as quickly as she could formulate them. One by one the Taurus squads peeled off of the attack formation, returning back to the base. Une watched, fuming, and when the last of them had cleared the hanger doors, she raised her own mike once more. "All right - I'm coming out."
"Knew you'd make the right choice, babe," he replied patronizingly. She dropped the mike back into the comm officer's hand, and stalked out the door.
"Ma'am, you... you can't do this!" the captain cried, scrambling after her as if to block her way. She glared at him, and he gave ground hastily.
"Call Treize-sama in Nairobi, and inform him of the situation," she ordered him crisply, not slowing her pace in the least. "I have a tracker on me, if Maxwell doesn't discover it you should be able to follow me with no problems." They slammed through the door to the outside, and she paused. "Stay here," she told him, pointing at the doorway for emphasis. "He may change his mind if there's someone with me."
She left him gaping behind her, and jogged out towards the Gundam. The giant mobile suit walked towards her, its steps shaking the ground and making it hard to stay on her feet, but she managed. She met it a few hundred feet out from the base, and stood at the massive gundanium foot, wondering what she was supposed to do now.
The chest plate of the Gundam cracked open, sliding down and across to permit the occupant to crawl out onto the platform. "Yo!" the braided menace waved to her cheerfully, tossing something down to her. She caught it, and recognized it as a lift wire. Gripping the handle tightly, she felt herself being lifted off her feet as the mechanism reeled the wire back in.
In moments she was level with Maxwell, and stepped onto the platform, releasing the wire. He was looking at her with his usual cocky grin firmly in place, arms akimbo and fists on his hips. A black ball cap, matching the black priest's outfit he habitually wore, shaded his eyes. "C'mon in," he invited cheekily, gesturing to the inside of the Gundam. Amazed that he would let her so close to the controls, she stepped gingerly through the small entrance.
He crawled in after her, making the compartment very cramped. It hadn't been designed to hold more than one person. "Make yourself as comfortable as you can," he instructed her, gesturing at the base of his chair as he climbed into it. She saw that he'd placed a fluffy cushion there to pad the hard gundanium platform, and settled herself onto it. The cockpit sealed itself behind them, and status displays blinked on all around them.
She took the opportunity to examine the area, her sharp mind committing as many details as possibly to memory. Many of the panels had cloths draped over them or were otherwise blanked out - what was left was remarkably similar to a Taurus' controls. "Sorry babe," he said, seeing her curious glance as he keyed in the power-up sequence. There was a slight jolt as the thrusters kicked in, and the Gundam lifted into the air. "I covered everything that isn't just a moderate improvement on something you already have. No sneak peeks at the stealth system for you."
"Why are you doing this?" she asked, feeling decidedly out of her element. She was completely at his mercy, and only his promise stood between her and torture or death.
"Heard it was your birthday, and thought I'd do something special to celebrate it!" he said, grinning back at her. She frowned.
"How did you find out it was my birthday?" she asked. Her personal files were something she policed herself, and there had been no sign that they'd been hacked into...
"Sore wa... himitsu desu!" Maxwell chuckled, a quote from an old anime that he'd used in notes to her before. "Relax, Une. No worries... just consider it my version of a birthday present." He flicked a switch on the control panel, and settled back into his seat. "There - we're out of range of the anti-air defence missiles. I can leave it on autopilot for a while."
"I don't believe this," she snarled furiously, frustrated beyond belief at the situation. "You found out it was my birthday, so you decided to kidnap me?"
Maxwell sighed, and turned to face her completely. "C'mon, Une. You're what - turning nineteen? Twenty?"
"Twenty," she replied stiffly. He nodded as if she'd proved his point for him.
"You ACT like you're turning forty!" he exclaimed, gesturing widely. "I don't think I've ever seen you have any fun at all. I bet you've been slaving away all day, and your idea of celebrating your birthday was going off duty a few hours early, wasn't it?"
"Why, yes," she was startled into admitting. She scowled as she realized her slip, and he chuckled.
"Not this year, babe. I'm going to take you out and teach you how to have some real fun!" He eyed her. "Now, that's going to be difficult if you're trying to fight me and get away at every opportunity. I swore that you wouldn't come to any harm - do you believe me?"
"Yes," she answered reluctantly.
"Good. That'll make this easier. I'm gonna extend the same trust to you. I want you to promise me that you won't do anything to try to make life difficult for me tonight. Do what I tell you, don't try to run away or get help, and we'll have a blast tonight, I promise."
"And I suppose if I refuse, you'll threaten to blow up a base or start the computer virus?" she gritted out sourly.
"Hell no!" he surprised her by replying. "A promise made under duress ain't worth shit. And if you're looking for ways around it all night, then I won't have accomplished my objective."
"Making me have fun," she clarified, just to be certain she understood the situation. He nodded, and she stared at him incredulously. "WHY?"
He gave her a look that was full of both pain and gentleness, and a longing that echoed something she'd tucked away deep within herself. "Why not just let yourself enjoy being a normal girl for one night?" he asked her softly. "You and I both know this war isn't gonna let you do it again any time soon. We've all been forced to grow up too quickly - enjoy it while you can!"
She sighed, and closed her eyes for a moment, trying to gather her thoughts. "Maxwell, you regularly refer to me as 'the psycho-bitch from Hell,'" she pointed out wryly. "I have got to be your least favourite person in this war. Yet you persist in sending me presents, giving me cheerful little notes, and now this... I ask again, why?"
Again that incredibly sorrowful look, and she felt her breath catch in her throat. "Maybe I just wanna see what you're like when you're NOT being the psycho-bitch from Hell," he replied, shrugging. "Hell, maybe I just wanna see what you look like when you smile!" he added, his familiar manic grin sliding firmly back into place. "Now, do you promise, or are we gonna have to do this the hard way?"
"I promise," she surprised herself by saying, still feeling the ache in her chest from the look he'd given her. She'd never realized just how expressive his eyes could be. Suddenly she DID wonder what it would be like to just be another twenty-year-old for one night. "I won't try to run away or cause problems, and I'll do what you tell me to. Satisfied, Maxwell?"
Slowly the manic grin morphed into something sweeter and more genuine - a real smile. "Duo," he corrected her. "And yes, I'm satisfied. Now that we've got that settled..." his eyes sparkled. "Let's go tear up the town!"
Two hours later Une found herself in a clothing store, feeling even more out of place without her uniform as she modeled the clothes Duo had picked out for her. "Must we REALLY do this?" she muttered at him under her breath as he examined her critically.
"Yes, we really must," he countered, grinning at her discomfort. "You stand out like a sore thumb in that uniform, Une-chan. No WAY are you gonna pass for a 'normal twenty-something' in THAT. Now, what do you think of this one?"
She examined herself in the three-way mirror, scowling. This was the third outfit he'd made her try, and by far it was the skimpiest. A shell-pink halter top left her entire back bare, clinging to her front in the way that only lycra-laced cotton could. The scoop neck showed off her slender neck, and the hue suited her colouring quite well, she had to admit. The denim shorts with the built-in fringe that made them look like cut-offs barely came down to her upper thighs, revealing her legs to the world. Mentally she was grateful she used her depilatory cream faithfully - it left her skin smooth and hairless. A pair of white and blue sneakers completed the outfit, along with white cotton socks. All in all, she was forced to say she didn't look half bad - and she could certainly pass as just another bystander in the crowd.
"Not bad, huh?" Duo chirped, nodding. "I like it. It suits you, babe. Now these..." he reached out and snatched off her glasses before she realized what he was about, dangling them just out of reach. "Do you actually need these?"
"Just to read," she admitted, fighting the urge to reach out and snatch them back. She'd promised to behave, and be damned if she'd go back on her word before he did!
"Good!" he exclaimed, tucking them away in a pocket. "Don't worry, I'll make sure they stay in one piece," he promised when she glared at him. He frowned, and considered her once more. "Mmm... still something not right... I know!" he snapped his fingers. "Hold still!"
Fuming, she did so, wondering for the hundredth time what had possessed her to agree to this. He reached out and tugged on the ribbons that held her buns in place, freeing her hair to swing down around her shoulders. "Much better!" he nodded, looking pleased. Une stared at her reflection in the mirror, hardly recognizing herself. She didn't look any older than seventeen, and although her stance was still automatically authoritarian, she didn't look so much like a military adjutant as a confident, poised young woman. She felt lighter, freer somehow, without the trappings of OZ weighing her down. It was a liberating feeling, truth be told.
"Now what?" she asked reluctantly, hoping he was done messing with her appearance. He gave her an innocent look that she didn't believe in the slightest.
"Now we go have fun," he told her, grabbing her by the hand and hauling her out of the store. He paused briefly at the till to pay for the outfit, and her eyes widened at the sight of the gold card he flashed at the clerk.
"Where did you get that?" she demanded, incensed.
"What, this?" he asked, holding up the OZ expense credit card - the ones only issued to colonels and above. "Stole it out of Treize's desk last time I paid him a visit," he answered nonchalantly, his eyes sparkling. "HE thinks he cancelled it after he discovered it was missing, but somehow the message never seemed to make it to the credit company."
"You've been funding your attacks on our expense account?" she asked, horrified. How could they have MISSED something like this?
He snorted. "Hell, no! Too obvious. Ammo for a Gundam is not cheap, you know! The only thing I use this for is to buy your presents." He slipped it back into his wallet, and took her hand again, tugging on it to lead her out of the store. She followed him - it was walk or be dragged - and they emerged into the muggy heat of a southern Missouri summer evening. Somewhere in the distance she thought she could hear bright music playing, and the majority of the people around them were heading in that direction. Duo slipped them into the crowd, walking along with her hand in his as though it were a regular occurrence for him to be strolling along the street in a quiet little town with one of his worst enemies.
Une didn't feel much like a 'worst enemy' at the moment. As they neared the source of the music the crowd around them got more energetic, chattering as they lined up to get in the entrance of...
"A carnival?" she asked, finally catching sight of the sign. Duo shrugged and grinned at her. "You're taking me to a carnival," she repeated, making it more a statement than a question.
"Sure. I've never been to one before, and I've always wanted to." He paid the attendant in the boot at the gate, and they both got their hands stamped by a bored-looking teenaged girl before they went through. Duo inhaled deeply. "Oh, yeah!" he exclaimed, looking around happily. "This is the life. Popcorn, hot dogs, cotton candy. Games and rides, and I hear this carnival has a really neat circus." His eyes glittered with something she couldn't identify, but he turned away too fast for her to get a good look. "C'mon! I don't know about you, but I skipped dinner setting up all those booby traps at the bases. Lunch, too. I'm hungry!"
He pulled her along after him to one of the concession stands, already digging into his wallet again. Une looked over the choice of menu bemusedly, feeling a little surreal. Honestly, this couldn't really be happening to her, could it? It had to be some sort of weird dream.
"I'll have two chilli dogs and a set of nachos," Duo told the attendant. "Une? How about you?"
"Do I want to know what the nutritional content of most of this is?" she asked him in a sort of sick fascination. He grinned again and shook his head. "Right. I'll have what he's having."
His grin widened. "Adventurous, babe, I like it. Way to go!" They collected their meal and snagged one of the nearby picnic tables just as a family of four got up. Une took a hesitant bite of the first hot dog, and felt the taste explode across her taste buds. She swallowed hastily, then decided that she rather liked it and took a larger bite. "That's the ticket!" Duo told her, cheering. She rolled her eyes and finished her food.
They dumped the trash in a nearby bin, and headed off down the midway. Une found that the cheerful music and hyperactive atmosphere were catching - unbelievably, she was actually beginning to enjoy herself. It WAS nice to get away from the pressures of her job for a little while, and just be herself. Not that she really knew what 'herself' consisted of, these days. Maybe she'd find a piece of it tonight.
"You got anything against fast rides?" Duo asked her, glancing back over his shoulder to see her face. She rolled her eyes.
"I'm a mobile suit pilot, Maxwell," she reminded him acidly. "I can handle carnival rides."
Five minutes later she was wishing she'd kept her mouth shut, as the bar lowered across her chest and she clutched at it like a lifeline. She eyed the incline of the track before them, certain that it went higher than safety regulations could possibly allow. "I thought these things had to be portable!" she exclaimed, working hard to keep her fear out of her voice.
"They are," he told her cheerfully, eyes lit with anticipation as the car lurched forward and started the long climb. "You'd be surprised how quick they can disassemble these things and move them. Don't worry, no one's been killed on a roller coaster in years!"
She rolled her eyes, watching as the ground got further and further away. "I thought you said you'd never been to one of these before?" she asked him.
"I haven't!" he replied brightly. "But I did a lot of research. I never go into a mission without knowing everything about the situation!" The clicking of the chain pulling the long car up the hill grew louder, and Une swore she could feel the strain on it in the way the car swayed from side to side. She held the bar a little tighter, swearing at herself for getting into this situation. It wasn't the height that bothered her, or the prospect of the drop, or the corkscrew turns that would come later on. It was the total lack of control over the ride - if something went wrong in her suit, it was a result of HER carelessness. Now her life rested in the care of someone ELSE, and if something went wrong there'd be nothing she could do about it.
They crested the top of the climb, and for an endless moment they seemed to hang poised over the drop. Duo had gotten them into the front seats, and there was nothing between them and the ground except what seemed like infinity...
Then they were plunging over the precipice, people screaming as their stomachs climbed up into their throats. Une was shocked to discover she was one of those screaming, as Duo whooped beside her. "OH YEAH!" he shouted as they hit the bottom of the hill and thundered over the track towards the first corkscrew. "Relax, Une! It's perfectly safe - WHOOHOO!" he cheered again as they were abruptly upside down.
Une was grateful she wasn't wearing her glasses - they would have flown off her face with the first loop, never mind the second and third. But as she adjusted to the rush of the wind in her face and the lurching of the car, she found her grip was loosening and her stomach was settling, and she was actually enjoying the adrenalin rush. Her screams of fear turned to cheers very similar to Duo's, as they went past a sharp turn and started to climb another hill.
Sixty seconds later she felt a surge of disappointment as the car clanked its way back into the station, and was surprised at herself. She should have been furious with Maxwell, angry at herself for letting him manoeuvre her into this situation - instead his enthusiasm was proving infectious.
They exited the ride with flushed cheeks, Duo grinning madly and Une fighting the tug of a smile on her own lips. Immediately he grabbed her hand and was pulling her off again, to a cotton candy stand this time.
"You want FOOD?" she exclaimed, amazed.
"I always want food," he told her, paying for the sticks of fluffy candy. He handed one to her. "C'mon, try it - pure sugar rush. Can't get any better short of a direct IV line!"
She took the paper cone reluctantly, following his example as he bit into the mass of wispy sugar. The almost sickly-sweet flavour was nonetheless almost instantly addicting, and she took a larger second bite as he chuckled. "So? What now?" she asked again as they wandered away from the concession stand.
"Midway games!" he replied cheerfully, as they left the area of the rides and got back into the main part of the fair. "We can come back to the rides again later, the line-ups are too long right now." He scanned the rows of booths around them critically. "Man, most of these are scams, that's for sure. But some of them are possible to win. Pick a plushie, Une-babe, any plushie, and I'll win it for ya."
She raised an eyebrow at him over her cotton candy. "Isn't that a privilege usually reserved for a boyfriend?" she asked tartly. He flushed a little.
"Hey, don't go getting any ideas," he muttered, scratching the back of his head in embarrassment. She chuckled, amused that she'd disconcerted him, and he grinned at her again. "See? There ya go!" he exclaimed. "I knew you could laugh."
Instantly Une stifled the chuckle, not wanting him to know that he was getting to her. "I'm just taking pleasure in catching you off guard," she replied haughtily, but the glint in his eyes told her he wasn't buying it. Glancing around, she tried to decide on a plushie, hoping to distract him.
There were stuffed EVERYTHINGS, from hardware tools to mobile suits, from ordinary house pets to mythical beasts. Her eyes settled on a forlorn looking plushie puppy, and softened. "I always wanted a dog like that," she murmured under her breath. Duo's sharp ears didn't miss the wistful comment, however.
"One puppy, coming up!" he said cheerfully, handing her his candy floss and eyeing the game. It was a shooting game - little paper targets with bright red stars on them hung at the far end of the range. You paid for a hundred pellets, and the size of the prize depended on how many of the arms you completely shot the red out of. There were a few other people at the game, but none managed to get more than three arms of the five-sided star. It wasn't rigged, just very, very difficult. Duo paid the attendant, who was eyeing him and his 'older girlfriend' with some amusement, and picked up one of the pellet rifles.
The attendant ran the paper back along the line to the far end of the range, and hit the button that allowed Duo access to his ammo. The Gundam pilot lifted the rifle to his shoulder, leaning his face over it so his eye was directly lined up with the sight, and squeezed the trigger.
Part of the problem the other players were having, was that you couldn't just shoot one pellet at a time - they came out in a stream, and the best you could manage was a short burst. One hundred rounds of ammo didn't last very long at that rate, and you had to remove every trace of red on the arm for it to count. The attendant and surrounding observers watched in amazement as Duo fired a brief burst to the center of the target to get a feel for the handling, and proceeded to stitch his way along the edges of the star. The gun tracked smoothly and evenly over the outline of the star, his finger never once lifting from the trigger as he methodically cut it out of the paper. The last few bullets were unnecessary - the star had fallen from the target to flutter to the ground, and Duo raised the rifle with his usual cheeky grin.
Astonished, the attendant retrieved the target and the star. Except for the small hole in the center, there was not a single mark in the star itself. There was a thin edge of white all around it, and a perfectly star-shaped hole in the target. The teen running the booth shook his head. "By strict interpretation, you lost," he told Duo in an awed tone of voice. "The star is still in once piece - but be damned if I'll penalize you for that! That was incredible!"
Duo shrugged modestly. "You've just got to have a good eye and a steady hand," he replied, collecting his plushie prize. He traded the oversized puppy for his cotton candy, and Une cradled the monstrous thing awkwardly under her arm. "See ya 'round!" he called cheerfully, waving to the awed bystanders as they sauntered away. Une chuckled under her breath as immediately several others rushed forward to try the same trick Duo had used.
"That was hardly fair," she chided him under her breath as they walked away. "You've got far more training than they could hope to have."
Duo shrugged. "It's not like I cleaned him out - it's just one prize." He glanced at his watch. "Oh, hey! C'mon, the circus is starting soon, and I don't want to miss it!"
The ticket taker at the entrance of the circus wanted them to pay an extra ticket for the plushie - it would take up a seat he could sell to someone else, he insisted. Duo rolled his eyes and paid the extra money, grumbling good naturedly. They settled into their seats, the plushie taking up a space between them like an oversized pet. Une waited for the show to start, munching on the last of her candy floss and not even realizing that her grin was starting to match Duo's.
The Ringmaster was a dark man with a booming voice and a flair for the dramatic, and for a small-time circus the acts were remarkably entertaining. There was a pair of acrobats doing their act on the backs of the elephants, a lion-tamer who got his giant cats to jump through hoops of roaring flame and perform other entertaining tricks, though Une spotted that his clown-costumed assistant was actually doing most of the coaxing. A family of aerial performers flew back and forth on the trapeze and did impossible things on a high wire, and she jumped to her feet and clapped as loud as any of them when the youngest, a girl of ten, climbed out of the safety net unharmed after slipping from the trapeze and went right back up again to finish the stunt. The finale was a young woman about Une's age, who positioned the same masked boy who'd been assisting the lion tamer against a board, and proceeded to outline him with a row of quivering throwing knives. She had to admire the nerve of the boy, who didn't flinch once though the knives came close enough to shave the hairs from his face.
"We need some people in OZ like that boy playing the target," she murmured as people began to file out of the tent once the show was over. "He has a lot of discipline!"
Duo choked on the last of his candy, and coughed for a moment, eyes watering. "I'm okay!" he waved her and a few other concerned people off. "Just went down the wrong way. I'm okay." He straightened, chuckling and shaking his head. "Why don't you try recruiting him?" he asked her with a touch of irony in his voice that she didn't understand.
"I thought I wasn't supposed to be thinking about work tonight?" she asked him archly, and he grinned.
"You started it, not me. C'mon, the crowd's breaking up."
They wandered down the midway again, going on a few more rides and playing some more games. Whenever Duo spotted a kid looking longingly at a prize, he would stop and attempt to win it for the child. Une was impressed at how many of the games he won - at none of them did he walk away with anything less than a small prize. The children squealed and thanked him, and ran off to indulgently watching parents as Duo waved cheerfully at them.
At his coaxing, she tried her own hand at a few of them. A ball-toss game that involved shattering plates she won with ease, despite the fact that Duo warned her the plates were angled so the ball was more likely to glance off them than shatter them. Following his example, she gave the prize to a small girl standing nearby, who gave her a dazzling smile and clutched the plushie to her happily. She stroked the head of her own prize, smiling softly. Despite herself, this night was turning into one of the best of her life.
"HEY! You! With the braid!" A sudden shout from behind them startled them both into turning, and they saw two uniformed OZ officers making their way through the crowd towards them, hands on their guns. "Hold it right there!"
"Oh, shit!" Duo yelped, grabbing her wrist and pelting in the opposite direction. The officers shouted again and drew their guns, but didn't dare fire into the crowd of innocent people. They ducked and wove through the crowd, quickly losing the two uniforms and emerging out near the rides. They slowed again, blending into the crowd once more. "How did they find us?" Duo wondered, amazed.
Une flushed, and he gave her a sideways look. "Tracker?" he hazarded a guess, and she nodded. "In the uniform," he concluded, "or they wouldn't have lost us. Damn! Une, I'm disappointed - I could have blocked it if I'd known about it, and you promised you wouldn't try to get away or cause trouble."
"I..." Une discovered she was ashamed to have broken her promise, even inadvertently. "I forgot about it," she said truthfully. "You threw me off stride so badly, I didn't even think about it. Treize-sama must be frantic..."
"FREEZE!" someone shouted from the left, and they turned to see two more OZ officers running toward them. "Everybody down!" The fairgoers screamed and dropped to their stomachs, parents tugging little children down and clearing the way for the officers to get a shot at Duo and Une.
"C'mon!" Duo ordered, turning to run down a side corridor. "I don't know about you, but I don't feel like getting shot!"
"They won't shoot me, I'm their commanding officer," she snapped back at him as she ran. Behind them a shot rang out, eliciting more screams from the bystanders.
"Wanna bet?" Duo asked, rolling his eyes. "I don't think they recognize you out of uniform, babe..."
Une realized he was right as they snapped off another shot and it buried itself in the side of her plushie puppy. Only the massive amounts of stuffing stopped it from reaching her chest - it would have been a fatal or near-fatal shot. Stuffing leaked out of the hole like a wispy cloud trailing along behind them, the tear growing bigger with each moment under the stress of the plushie's own weight. They turned another sharp corner, and found themselves face to face with the Fun House.
"Oh, perfect!" Duo cheered, and charged past the startled ticket-taker with Une in tow.
"Hey, you can't just... holy crap!" the teenager shouted as the officers rounded the corner and took another shot at Duo and Une as they vanished into the depths of the Fun House. The bullet ricocheted off the doorway, nearly striking a nearby child, and Duo swore.
"Don't they know any better than to shoot into a crowd?" he snarled as they clattered down the shifting stairs into the first room.
"I'll have a talk with them when I get back," Une promised grimly. The walls of the room they were in were all tilted, as were the contents - table, chairs, cupboards, etc. She leaned forward automatically to compensate for the tilt of the floor, and nearly tripped when it stayed level. Duo chuckled at her.
"Optical illusion," he told her, striding across the room. "C'mon - there should be a mirror maze in here somewhere, that'll be our best chance to lose them."
Une found she was wobbling, her body trying to compensate for what her eyes were seeing even though she told it not to. Finally she closed her eyes and let Duo lead her by the hand, until they were out of the room. Behind them the officers made the same mistake she had, one of them tripping and the other firing his bullet too high, sighting along the line of the walls.
They ducked around another corner and found themselves faced with a circular tube about twenty feet long that rotated as you walked through it. Duo trotted along as though it were standing still, and Une managed to follow him without much difficulty. Once again the officers - now a little further behind them thanks to the disorientation of the first room - ran into problems, stumbling as they tried to run through the tube. Duo turned and thumbed his nose at them most unprofessionally, laughing as they tried to get to their feet and tripped over each other in the narrow tube.
Finally they reached the mirror maze, Duo still chuckling mercilessly at their beleaguered pursuers. Une had never understood how anyone could have problems in such a place - you knew it was a mirror if you saw your own reflection in it, after all. She discovered that the confusing part came when you moved quickly - side corridors and turnoffs were almost impossible to find, the mirrors reflecting each other endlessly. Duo manoeuvred them through the maze effortlessly, only twice running into a mirror instead of a turn. Behind them Une heard a shot ring out, followed by the sound of shattering glass and more cursing.
Duo swore as they rounded a corner and found themselves in a blind alley, with no other exits. Hastily they backtracked, looking for an alternate route. They had to go halfway back to the beginning, and just as they found the alternate turnoff, one of the officers rounded the corner.
"You..." he started to say, bringing his gun to bear, and Une flung her plushie in his face without a second thought. He stumbled under the weight of it, his gun firing harmlessly into a nearby mirror as they pelted off down the other corridor.
Finally they made it out of the maze, well ahead of the two officers. They happened to be near a fair exit; Duo stuffed his braid inside his jacket to make himself less obvious, and they trailed out of the carnival with the rest of the exiting crowd.
They walked right by four more officers, straight faced, and the uniforms didn't even give them a second look. Once out of sight, Duo located a motorbike and quickly hotwired it, indicating that she should get on behind him. She did so, though not without a second or third thought. "This is stealing," she pointed out as they took off down the road. She felt him shrug, his torso shifting beneath her arms.
"I'll drop it somewhere it will be found, no harm done," he said nonchalantly. "You kinda get used to it in my line of work."
OZ had already put up a cordon around the area, but Duo evaded it easily by going off-road through the forest outside the town. "You've really gotta teach them to watch for alternate escape routes, Une-chan," he chided her as they eventually ditched the bike at the side of the road beyond the checkpoint. "Terrorists DON'T generally use the highways when escaping a controlled area."
"I'll keep it in mind," she replied dryly, making a mental note to do just that. They reached the area where Deathscythe was hidden quickly, and Une shook her head at the thought that her soldiers could have missed such an obvious sight, camouflage net or no.
"Don't get mad at them for THAT," Duo told her, grinning as he helped her up to the cockpit entrance. "I left the stealth systems on, 'cause I knew we wouldn't be gone long enough to drain the battery. C'mon." He typed in the access code, and the cockpit hissed open once more. They climbed inside, Une settling herself awkwardly against the base of the seat, her back to the 'down' direction. Duo hit the keys that retracted the netting back into its compartments as the cockpit sealed itself, and the Gundam came to life. The giant mobile suit clambered to its feet, and he powered on the thrusters.
Une figured out which HUD was the tactical display, and watched as the OZ corps a few miles away looked up and spotted the Gundam flying away from them. They scrambled to mobilize their squads, but Deathscythe was out of range long before they got organized.
"Sorry about your plushie," Duo apologized when they were on autopilot once more. He sounded genuinely contrite. "It was as loyal as any dog could be. I can't believe you threw it in his face like that! I was still half-expecting you to turn on me and give us away."
Une chuckled, remembering the look of astonished surprise on the soldier's face as he found himself with an armful of plushie. "I can't believe I did that either," she admitted wryly. "Your insanity must be contagious, Maxwell."
"Duo," he reminded her, grinning. "No need to go back to being enemies until we get there. I had a blast, Une-chan. You out to take a night off more often!"
"Oh, no!" she exclaimed, raising her hands as if to ward him off. "Once is enough, thank you!" She paused consideringly. "I did have fun, though," she admitted reluctantly.
"Good," Duo said, satisfied. They fell silent, and it was an oddly companionable silence, not like the tense one on the flight there. Une found she was regretting the evening coming to an end when the Gundam touched down a few miles outside the base where the whole mess had started.
"Here're your glasses." Duo handed her the wire frames, amazingly undamaged in their escapades. "And the ribbons for your hair. I had planned to go back and retrieve your uniform from the store, but I guess you'll just have to get a new one."
"I'm sure I'll manage," she replied dryly, taking them from him and slipping them on. It felt as if the weight of her rank settled over her with them, and she sighed a little at the loss of freedom. He cracked the cockpit and she climbed out, using the lift wire to lower herself to the ground.
"Don't think this means I'll go easy on you the next time we meet," she cautioned him as she started to drop down out of sight.
He gave her a wicked grin. "Don't think this means I'll go easy on YOU, Une-chan," he replied flippantly. "Birthdays are special circumstances. But try not to work so hard this year, hey?"
She snorted, her feet touching the ground. She released the wire, and it wound itself back up again. "So you'll have an easier time of it? I don't think so, Maxwell." But there was a smile on her face as she said it, which remained even as she turned and began to walk away.
Duo waited until she was out of range of the thrusters, cockpit closed once again. "Sleep tight, Une baby," he told her over the speakers, his voice oddly affectionate. "Don't let the Gundams bite." With that he hit the jets, the menacing black form of his Gundam rising slowly into the air, then turning to disappear over the horizon.
Une watched until it was gone, before taking the ribbons and redoing her hair. It wasn't a perfect job without a brush to help contain the wayward strands, but at least it would make her more recognizable to her subordinates. Once that was done, she turned and began the long walk back to the base, tucking the memory of the night deep inside her heart where she would be able to cherish it without anyone else ever knowing.
Une marched down the hall to her room, her feet dragging just a bit despite her best efforts to keep her paces even. She'd barely gotten any sleep the night before, what with walking back to the base and reporting in, assuring Treize-sama that she was unharmed and that the pilots had gained no vital information, and organizing the return of the search teams. Then she'd had to spend the rest of the day finding and removing all the bombs Maxwell had set as a threat the day before and ensuring that the virus had been neutralized. She snorted quietly to herself, chuckling over the stink bomb they'd found in the base commandant's underwear drawer. Maxwell was nothing if not creative.
Ten more feet to the door. Oh, she was looking forward to sleeping tonight! Treize-sama had wanted her to take the day off to recover, but she'd known there wouldn't be anyone capable of handling the clean-up efforts other than herself. Five more feet. Maybe she should take that missed bubble bath before going to bed? No, she was just too tired. Two feet. She just had to keep her tired body going a little further... one foot...
She rested her hand on the palmpad, and frowned when it didn't beep. Her tired eyes finally registered that the light at the top of the pad was green, not red - the door was unlocked. Swearing, she unholstered her gun and kicked in the door, spinning to cover the entire room in one sweep.
It was empty - except for the small brown plushie puppy sitting on her pillow, looking back at her forlornly. Sighing, she put up her gun and walked forward to pick it up, examining it. It was identical in every detail to the one Maxwell had won for her the night before, save that it was considerably smaller. Turning, she found a blinking 'click-me' sign on her computer just like the one that had been in Treize-sama's bedroom. She slapped the comm button wearily.
"Tell the Captain that Maxwell has been inside the base," she instructed the lieutenant who answered the call. "No, I don't think he's caused any trouble, but have a sweep made to be sure. And check all the mechanics and engines and such!" she added, remembering the 'green goo'. She thumbed the comm off, and moved the mouse to click on the screen.
<<Hey babe, I felt bad about you losing your prize,>> the electronic image of Duo said. <<You managed to tighten the security enough that I couldn't get in with a big one, so I guess you'll just have to settle for this. Hope it's as cuddly as it looks! Oh, and...>> he leaned forward conspiratorially. <<I won't tell anyone about our little date if you won't.>> He leaned back again and waved at her with his trademark grin firmly in place. <<Love ya Une-chan! Happy birthday!>>
The screen faded into a picture of chibi Deathscythes and puppies waltzing along, then the message vanished. Une knew it was useless trying to track it, or even trying to find it on the system - it was gone. Smiling and shaking her head, she turned and shed her uniform, hanging it up so that it wouldn't get wrinkled, next to the halter top and shorts draped over another hanger. She turned and crawled into bed, clutching the plushie close to her chest, and fell asleep with the unaccustomed smile still playing about her lips.