Pargan arrived at Zechs's study in his usual noiseless, unobtrusive fashion.. The king, reading through a proposal to enlarge Sanc University, looked up, startled, to find the old servant standing by his desk.
"Mr. Smith, sir. He says its urgent."
Wilder! In spite of himself, Zechs felt a sudden twinge of excitement. He kept it out of his voice, however.
"See him in, please, Pargan. Thank you."
Setting aside the file, Zechs rose, facing the tall, beautiful creature who had been occupying far too many of his thoughts lately. Wind-blown, spangles of rain on his long coat, Arcane nodded.
"Wilder?" Zechs gestured toward the chair on the other side of his desk. "What a nice surprise. What brings you to Sanc?"
Zechs sat down again and, over steepled fingers, waited.
"Yuy sent the docs some biological samples for analysis."
Inhaling sharply, Zechs wasn't sure whether to laugh or curse. "So. He did take them."
"Yuy "liberated" those samples from the police department a couple days ago. Une spent a good fifteen minutes this morning ranting at me over the phone about it. They were from some old case, weren't they? Something to do with an illegal research facility."
"Analysis established that they were genetic samples, the kind usually used in cloning."
"And..." prompted Zechs gently.
"One of the samples matched the Peacecraft family matrix." The other..." Wilder hesitated as Zech's straightened, eyes narrowing sharply. "The other sample matched Treize Kushrenada."
"You're fucking crazy, you know that?"
Heero stopped running, falling back against the wall of the alley, panting.
"Whatever made you shoot at him in there?" Duo demanded. "Jeezus!"
"It was stupid," agreed Heero, grimacing. "I just couldn't stand it -- the way he was looking at you. His bullshit story. And I missed!"
"At least you got his gun hand," Duo continued. "Christ. I never moved so fast in my life!"
"I missed." Heero still sounded stunned. "I can't believe I missed."
"Shit. What if you'd hit a civilian? It's not like you!"
"There wasn't anyone behind him." But Duo was right. What had he been thinking? "Sorry," he muttered.
Duo just shook his head. He smiled suddenly. "I gotta admit, though, it's a real turn on to know you care about me enough to lose your famous cool."
The car was parked several blocks from the flea market. Cop cars screamed past, on their way to the scene. Duo looked over at his lover.
"Ya know," he said finally, "maybe we should have taken Arcane up on his deal."
"You can't be serious."
"I keep thinkin' -- what if he's telling the truth?"
They drove back to the apartment in silence. There was more trouble waiting for them there. As Heero pulled into the parking lot, Duo saw several large, plainclothes sedans parked in front of their building.
"Maybe we should leave," he said uneasily.
"There's Dunn," Heero replied, spying the tall detective. "I want to talk to him."
But his pig-headed boyfriend kept going, pulling up parallel with a big black car. "Ah, shit," muttered Duo, slumping into the seat. "That guy hates me."
"Stay here," Heero said shortly. He put the car in park and got out. Dunn, seeing him, did likewise, face dark as a thundercloud. As the two men faced each other on the sidewalk, the door to the apartment building opened and out came Une, a policewoman at her side. She hurried forward to join them.
"I want the evidence you stole, Yuy." Dunn roared. He dwarfed the slight, Japanese youth, large hands balled into fists. "Where is it?"
The cop laughed harshly. "So -- not even bothering to deny you took it now, eh? Good idea, since there wasn't anyone else who could have done it."
"Why?" Une asked. "Why not just ask to see it?"
"I didn't want to just see it," Heero replied. "I wanted those samples analyzed."
Dunn swore long and volubly. "What are you saying? Where are they?"
Heero gave every sign of being completely unconcerned. He looked up at the cop, face just as grim. "I'm curious to hear why that wasn't done in the course of the initial investigation. What's your connection to the White Rose, Dunn?"
"What the hell are you talking about? There is no connection! I was the investigating officer."
"Where are the samples now?" asked Une before Dunn could explode.
Heero said nothing.
"Heero, please. You're just getting deeper into trouble!"
But Heero remained mute. Dunn turned and stomped over to Heero's car. Duo straightened, alarmed at the expression on his face.
"Where are they, Maxwell?"
"Hey!" Duo held up empty hands. "I don't have 'em!"
"He's not involved." Heero called. "Leave him alone."
The man's lip curled. He turned back to Heero. "Somehow, I doubt that. Where are they?"
Heero met the angry glare stolidly.
"Fine. You're under arrest."
"HEY!" Alarmed, Duo opened his door and scrambled out, only to be pushed back by the cops as they moved in around Heero. For one scary moment, seeing the sinewy form tense, Duo was sure Heero was going to resist. Dunn's eyes narrowed and his hand slid under his coat. Then Heero gave a quick, angry shrug.
"Une, what the hell?" Duo demanded. Une gave him a worried look.
"What do you want from me, Duo? What Heero did was wrong! This isn't the war. There's no room for vigilante action in this age of peace! Damn, I didn't need this!"
"Once a terrorist, always a terrorist," snarled Dunn. "Take him away!"
"Duo!" Heero dug in his heels, pulling against the hands that would drag him down the sidewalk to a waiting car. "Go to Zechs!"
"Yeah," agreed Dunn contemptuously, "run to the king. He got you off a murder charge, but this is my case and it isn't going to be that easy this time."
Une looked distressed. "Bill..."
"No," Dunn said shortly. "I'm sorry, Une. I know he's a friend of yours, but this is the last straw. Thanks to you and Peacecraft, the little shit believes he's above the law. No more. Take him."
Open-mouthed, Duo watched them pile into their cars and drive off, Heero sitting straight and stiff in the backseat of Dunn's vehicle. Une lingered after they were gone. She met Duo's angry scowl.
"Please, Duo," she said. "This really is serious. Heero is in a lot of trouble. If you know where those samples are, you must tell us."
"Sorry, Une. He didn't tell me anything. Honest!"
She sighed. "I'm flying out of Sanc tomorrow afternoon for a conference in Beijing. I'll leave instructions with Noin -- if you change your mind, call her."
Then she, too was gone. Duo stood outside the empty apartment, still stunned at the speed in which everything had just taken place. Heero in jail. Duo remembered jail all too well. He got back into the car and, as their curious neighbors looked down from their windows, headed downtown to Sanc palace.
Zechs looked up as Wilder jumped to his feet.
"Something's wrong," the alien said shortly. "He's afraid. I can feel it."
Zechs, startled, met those lavender eyes. He nodded to Pargan. A moment later, the slim young pilot practically exploded into the study.
"They've arrested Heero!" Duo cried by way of greeting. "They say he stole some evidence from the police. We gotta get him out! Arcane's in town and. . ."
"ARCANE?" Wilder's voice rose dangerously. "Where?"
It was with some difficulty that Zechs managed to calm both of his guests. He got Duo to sit down and, after some nudging, heard a startling, if somewhat disjointed tale.
When Duo finally ran out of breath, Zechs frowned.
"The report I got of the Morita incident claimed that there drug dealers storing contraband in that old underground lab. To be honest, though, I don't remember anything about the White Rose Institute. I was..." Zechs hesitated, remembering that terrible night three years past, ". . . distracted."
"I think Dunn's dirty," Duo said flatly. "He was the original investigator on the White Rose case; it was his department that referred the Morita tip to the Preventers when it probably should have gone to the cops..."
"Heero took genetic material that had been recovered at the site," Wilder told Duo. "As for Arcane being the result of an adult cloning project as he claims-- it may be possible. Arcane did look one hell of a lot like Zechs and J said...." He broke off suddenly.
"J said what?"
Wilder took a deep breath. "J said there were anomalies in the samples Heero sent. He said he had no idea what they meant, but I think he was lying. He seemed pretty shaken up when they got the results from those samples."
"You can read minds," Duo said. "How come you didn't find out?"
Wilder lifted an eyebrow and Duo flushed.
"According to Arcane," the boy continued, "the guy who created him used to be involved in some corporation that was doin' a bunch of weird cloning shit. Nothin' ever came from any of it, according to the stuff we read, but -- J was involved. At the very least, he might have more information about this guy, Shields. Heero was trying to reach him to ask him about it, but J never returned his calls."
"I think we should have a talk with J as soon as possible," Zechs decided, "I'd really like to know more about those samples, too. First, however, we need to get Yuy out of jail."
He pushed a button. "Pargan, get me my legal team. I have a job for them. And I want to talk to Lady Une."
From the corner of his eye, he saw Wilder move over to Duo's chair and lay a hand on the boy's shoulder. Absently, Duo covered it with his own. There was an unexpected twinge in the vicinity of Zechs' heart.
He caught Une on her way out of the office. She was not surprised to hear from him.
"I was wondering when you'd call," she replied. Her voice was tired. "Zechs, Heero stole police evidence. It was a stupid move. Then he compounded his idiocy by accusing Bill of being on the take! Good god, Milliardo! At any rate, if he'd had questions about the way Bill handled that case three years ago, Heero should have come to me or Bill. Do you know what he did with those samples?"
"He sent them to J and the other docs," replied Zechs. "Those samples, Une, are of genetic material that's been identified as belonging to me and to Trieze."
There was a stunned silence. "You're not serious," she said finally, tightly. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, and I'm very curious to know why they were not analyzed originally. I'd like to know how and where this White Rose Institute got their hands on it. "
"I-I don't know that."
"Indeed. Well, I intend to find out. In the meantime, I want Yuy released -- on my personal recognizance, if that's what it takes."
"Zechs, please! It was a confused and terrible time three years ago. The fire occurred the night your sister was killed. Bill and everyone else were pulled off their cases to pursue that one . . ."
"I think this is something the Oversight Committee needs to investigate," Zechs interrupted grimly. "The whole things stinks to the skies, Une. I'll be sending some lawyers over to the lock-up to retrieve Yuy."
"Your Excellency, he's already been booked..."
"I'll wake up a judge. Frank Brocca owes me a few favors. I'll get him to set bond." He rang off in the middle of her protests and looked over at his two guests.
"Damn," Duo said admiringly. "It sure is handy knowin' a king!"
"You should stay here, Duo," Wilder announced. "It's too dangerous for you with Arcane around."
"Aw, c'mon." Duo grinned up at the alien. Hard as Zechs looked, he saw nothing more than friendly affection in the Duo's face. "I can take care of myself!"
"Wilder's right." Seeing storm clouds gathering, Zechs added hastily: "Not that I don't believe you can't handle yourself, but this mysterious White Rose organization may be a danger to you as well as Heero. Arcane certainly is. Until we know more, both of you should be somewhere more secure than your apartment. In fact, as soon as he's released, I'm going to insist that Yuy come here, too."
"Hmmm. In that case -- okay."
"Duo's hungry," Wilder said.
"Damn it, Wilder!"
"I can hear your stomach growling."
Duo reddened. "Well, maybe a sandwich or somethin' will be okay. I don't suppose I can go to the jail with whoever you send for Heero, can I?"
"Relax," Zechs smiled. "Let me take care of it."
He was the recipient of a sunny smile that was impossible not to return. "Thanks," said Duo. "Ya think maybe I could have two sandwiches?"
Zechs had food sent up, a veritable feast and all of it delicious. Now that Heero's immediate problem was well on its way to being solved, Duo found his appetite back in full force. He wolfed down three sandwiches, a small mountain of potato chips and several soft drinks.
Wilder watched in awe. "And I thought SB was a glutton!"
"Where do you put it?" Zechs asked, equally impressed.
"Dunno," shrugged the young man. "I just like food."
"So I see."
Duo watched as his two companions exchanged laughing looks and his eyes narrowed. Something about that exchange made him wonder at the relationship between them. Zechs seemed to spend an awful lot of time looking at Wilder, then looking away when Wilder looked at him. Duo remembered indulging in much the same behavior during the war when he'd been suffering through his unrequited lust for Heero.
When one of Zechs' servants called the young king away, he set down his empty pop can and fixed a beady eye on the alien.
"Sooooo, Wilder. Looks like you and Zechs are gettin' to be pretty good friends."
Wilder regarded him limpidly.
"He's real cute." added Duo meaningfully. "And he's available."
"Is he?" Wilder's smile was crooked.
"Do you see a wife or a boyfriend?"
"I saw a great love," replied Wilder, gaze turning inward.
"You did? Who?"
"Treize? You're kiddin', right?"
Wilder shook his head.
"No shit?" Duo was stunned. "Wow."
"You didn't know they were lovers?"
"No! I always thought Treize and Une... Shit. Treize, huh?"
"They were secret lovers. Zechs still dreams about him."
Duo's grin turned sly. "Does it bother you?"
"Yes." Wilder sighed. "It seems that each time my body wants another body, that body wants someone else! It's so -- so stupid."
"Yeah, well -- Trieze is dead. Go for it!"
The alien stared at him a second, then grinned. "Things sure are different here," he said.
The cell was ten feet by eight feet, small even as jail cells went. Heero sat on the steel bench and stared at the wall. Blank, gray, it was remarkably uninformative. He wondered what time it was. Booking had taken about a half hour, most of that time spent listening to Dunn rant at him. The man wasn't fond of Gundam pilots; Heero had heard himself called a murderer and a terrorist, among other things. The epithets hadn't bothered him much -- they were true, after all. Finally, Heero had been marched off to this cell where he'd been sitting every since.
There would be a hearing in the morning to determine if formal charges would be laid and bail set. Dunn had promised him grimly that the police would ask that he be denied bond.
"You'd be gone in a heartbeat, disappearing into the colonies." he'd sneered "To your kind, the law is a joke,"
"Depends on the law," Heero had replied -- which hadn't endeared him much.
Heero's biggest worry at the moment was Duo. He devoutly hoped the baka had done what Heero had asked. Zechs would protect him until Heero could get out.
He sighed and stretched out on the bench. The metal was cold, its chill easily penetrating his thin shirt. A deep silence pervaded the cell block. This part of it, at least, seemed to be empty. He missed Duo. Would they let him come visit Heero if bond was denied?
A muffled slam somewhere in the distance interrupted the quiet of his cell. Heero closed his eyes, listening. Someone was coming. He sat up. The door opened. Expecting to see cops, Heero's eyes widened. A man in a suit stood in the doorway, another man at his back. The first man lifted a rifle and aimed it straight at Heero.
Then Heero's mouth dropped open and he forgot the men and the gun. Behind them was a third person, a person who quietly instructed the man with the gun to fire.
"Une!" he exclaimed, starting forward angrily.
"Fire!" she cried. "Damn you! He's dangerous!"
Tranquilizer gun, thought Heero, and, heart lurching, he jumped at them. The stranger squeezed the trigger. There was a loud pop and a sharp, stinging pain in his shoulder.
Hissing, Heero tore out the dart, but it was too late. He watched the faces of the men blur, watched them step aside to let Lady Une past. She was smiling. The last thing he remembered was the concrete floor of the cell racing up to meet him.
"Duo! Duo, wake up!"
"Unnnn." Duo lifted his head from the table. "Heero?"
It was Wilder and he looked worried. Alarm sat Duo up straight in the chair. "Wi!"
"Huh? Waddya mean missing?"
"Zechs got the writ from the judge, but now the police say he's not in his cell. There's no record of his being released. Do you think he may have escaped?"
"What time is it?"
"A little after three in the morning."
Duo's initial surge of alarm receded. "Escaped, did he?"
Wilder shook his head. "There was blood on the floor of the cell and more in the corridor -- and the cell door wasn't forced."
"How long ago?"
"Zechs' men were there at midnight."
Unease flooded back. "And he hasn't been in touch?"
"Not with any of us."
Duo launched himself from the chair, bolting across the floor to the room computer. He logged in, fingers flying over the keyboard, heart thumping. Why would Heero escape? What would be the point? Dunn's posturing notwithstanding, there would be no way Zechs would let his favorite ex-enemy languish in jail.
Duo's email boxes were empty. No messages had been left on the phone at home.
"Not at home and Une isn't answering her phone. Zechs has sent someone out to her place to see if they're together."
"Damn! Damndamndamn!" Duo straightened, fixing Wilder with wild eyes. "We've got to find him! If White Rose has him..."
"What would they do to him? Kill him?"
Duo shook his head, fighting to keep panic at bay. "Even Arcane didn't know why they wanted Heero, but I sure as hell bet it ain't pleasant! Wi, is there anything you can do -- ya know, with your powers?"
Wilder looked miserable. He shook his head. "I have to be within at least a hundred feet of another sentient to catch telepathic traces of them. I'm sorry Duo."
"Hey. It's okay. I have an idea. While Zechs and his boys are lookin', let's drive around and you can see if you feel Heero anywhere."
"All right," Wilder said promptly.
Zechs gave them a limo and promised to let them know what Dunn had to say as soon as the detective was found. For the next few hours, Duo and Wilder rode slowly through Sanc. Duo kept sharp eyes on windows and alleys, wondering if it were possible that Heero had escaped.
In the seat beside him, Wilder slumped, eyes closed, fingertips pressing against his temples, brow furrowed as his mind roamed.
"No good," he said finally, voice rough with exhaustion. "Nothing. Sorry."
"Then let's go to my place. Maybe there's a message there."
Duo found two Imperial guards sitting at the curb in front of his apartment building. They moved to stop him as he ran toward it, but seeing who he was, let him go. There was another guard at the door to the apartment.
"No, sir," the man said. "There's been no one in or out all night."
The sun was coming up. Duo threw himself in the chair before Heero's computer and logged in. While Wilder stood at his shoulder, he checked both mailboxes again. This time, in Heero's, there was a note from J. With a trembling finger, Duo accessed it.
"Heero. Come to the moon labs at once. You are in great danger. J."
"A little late, you old fart," Duo hissed.
In the other room, the phone rang. He was on his feet so fast, the chair tipped over. It wasn't Heero, it was Zechs.
"Dunn still hasn't turned up," the king said shortly. "Une has no idea where he is. Any luck?"
"No." Duo squeezed the syllable from his aching throat. He told Zechs about J's message.
"So that's where he went," muttered the blond. "I'll handle it. You and Wilder get back here."
It was Wilder who finally propelled a numb, exhausted Duo back to the limo. Tired as he was, Duo's mind spun in endless, useless circles. Wilder darted anxious looks at him, but Duo barely noticed.
Arcane, he thought then and shuddered.
They reached the palace to find Zechs talking with some of his guard officers. He dismissed his men at the sight of Duo and Wilder.
"We're doing everything we can," he said. "You look done in, Duo. Get some sleep. We'll let you know the minute we hear anything."
"Can't sleep. Gotta think of what else to do."
"Leave this to me," he heard Wilder say quietly. The alien set a hand on Duo's arm.
"No," objected Duo, and was immediately asleep.
Heero stumbled out onto a broad strip of concrete. His head ached dully and there was a foul taste in his mouth. The shackles holding his wrists at his back cut into his skin and he could no longer feel his fingers. One of his two beefy guards kept a hand on his bicep, holding Heero upright when his knees inexplicably gave out. He turned his head.
Une emerged from the small plane. She stood on the patch of runway, adjusting her spectacles. Sometime during the flight, while Heero had still been unconscious, she had changed into a skirt and jacket that were more than slightly reminiscent of her old uniform. It was Colonel Une of Oz who coldly returned his bewildered gaze.
Mountains rose steeply on every side of the tiny airstrip. This hilltop was bare of trees, but everywhere else Heero looked was forest. Further up the slope, sprawled like some predatory beast across a rocky cliff, was a castle. A car was parked on the edge of the tarmac, two more men standing by it. They wore black uniforms. On the left breast pocket of each was pinned a small, ivory rose.
Une got into the front. The uniformed men took charge of Heero, pushing him into the back and taking a seat on either side of him.
"Une, what's going on?"
"Be quiet," she said shortly.
She, too, wore a white rose pinned to her lapel.
"Freak," she added in disgust.
The man on Heero's right hit him, the blow knocking his head back and filling his mouth with blood.
The car rolled up a steep, winding road and suddenly the castle was in front of them. The portcullis lifted as they approached. Inside there were more black-uniformed men waiting. All wore white roses. With them stood a distinguished-looking man in his early sixties. Dressed in a pristine white lab coat, he watched them get out of the car with poorly disguised eagerness.
"Heero Yuy," Une said crisply. "As promised."
Heero stared up at the man. "Dr. Shields, I presume?"
The man gave Une a surprised look.
"I told you it was now or never," she said shortly. "These brats are far too clever for their own good. In another day or two, they'd have discovered everything."
Shields turned and headed toward the castle's keep. Une fell into step beside him. They drew ahead, talking, leaving Heero to the ungentle attentions of his escort. Through ancient stone hallways they went, past age-darkened paintings in massive, ornate frames, tall suits of armor and antique furniture. Velvet drapes lined narrow, mullioned windows.
He was in Europe somewhere and Heero suspected one of the old Romefeller strongholds. He caught glimpses of rooms as they passed and saw more elegant furnishings. There was money here -- a lot of it.
Ahead was a door and on either side, more uniformed guards. It opened onto a steep, narrow stair leading down. The dungeons. Low stone corridors led in three directions at the bottom of it. The little party went straight. Another door opened and suddenly, the medieval dank and gloom vanished.
The room beyond was large and low-ceilinged, but the stone had been covered with smooth, pristine white material and the air hummed with electricity. A row of what appeared to be large horizontal freezers lined one side. A multitude of cables, wires and conduits sprang from them, some going into the wall, others connecting the freezers to the banks of computers that took up most of the remaining space. Across the room was an archway and through it, Heero saw more laboratory space.
Une's voice rose, and Heero looked over at her and Shields.
"How much longer?" she was demanding. "Damn it, Mike! We don't have much more time. If they catch Milliardo II..."
"I thought you said he was dead!"
Une flushed. "I thought he was. We've been hunting for him ever since Elion, but he's eluded us. Sooner or later, however, his luck will run out. If my people don't get him, the Gundam pilots will."
"I don't like it," Shields muttered. "If anyone puts two and two together, they'll figure out what happened that night. They'll know it wasn't that boy who killed Relena Peacecraft. If the Preventers take a closer look at those samples..."
"Une!" Quivering with rage, Heero met her annoyed glance. "What the hell is going on?"
She said something in a low voice to Shields, then walked over to one of the freezers. At her nod, his guards pushed him forward.
It wasn't a freezer. It was some sort of stasis chamber. The chamber's transparent lid revealed a man stretched full length inside it, eyes open and empty, arms crossed over his chest as if in his coffin. Zechs.
Except it couldn't be Zechs. Heero looked closer. This one was a much better copy of the real thing than Arcane. There were minute differences, but they were so minute that Heero thought that it might be simply his imagination.
He looked around. Une had moved to the next chamber and was staring down into it, face alight with desperate longing. Heero took a tentative step toward her. This chamber had an even ruder shock.
Like the duplicate Zechs, this creature was almost indistinguishable from the real thing -- or at least, what Heero could remember of that most dangerous and charismatic man. Even unconscious, a small smile played on those finely shaped lips. The hunger in Une's eyes was naked and raw.
Heart thumping now, trepidation drying his mouth and making his hands clammy, Heero moved to the next chamber.
Inside was a third figure, this one smaller and slighter. Although clearly human, it was so twisted and deformed that it was barely recognizable as such. Skin mottled and puckered by scars, shiny scalp covered with tufts of long, brittle hair, it was a horror to behold. Burns, thought Heero and then, in shock, he realized the grotesque thing was female.
Une's laughter ran like ice water through Heero's veins. "Meet Relena's murderer," said the woman softly. "Relena II."
A light was still burning in the library. It was late. The servants usually extinguished them before going to bed, so Zechs stepped in to attend to it. In the doorway, he paused. Someone sat in the corner of the room, haloed by a floor lamp beside his chair. Wilder.
"Do you sleep?" asked Zechs for lack of anything better to say.
"Of course. It's necessary for this body."
The lamp's low light accentuated the graceful curve of his jaw and cheekbone. Purple eyes seemed black. His hair fell over his pale brow and over his collar. Zechs was infected with a compulsion to touch it.
Wilder said finally. "We've driven over half the countryside without any luck. When we aren't doing that, he's on the phone or on the computer. He tries to be cheerful, but he's coming apart inside. I don't know what will happen to him if we don't find Yuy."
Zechs didn't have to ask who "he" was. Duo's pale face and determined grin came readily to his mind. The boy was strong, but he'd expected that from Shinigami.
"He's not your entire responsibility, Wilder. The others are here now, too."
"Yes. They do seem to comfort him."
"Did you put him to sleep?"
A nod. "He was furious about it the last time and threatened me with dire bodily harm if I did it again, but I had to. His health is precarious enough since Elion, although he refuses to acknowledge that."
"I got a call from the moon. J will be here in the morning. Maybe he can shed some light on this thing. He's been damned close-mouthed."
"I wish I had looked in J's mind when he sent me here with the information on the samples. I could feel the unease radiating from him, but Duo made me promise not to read peoples' minds without their permission."
There was a book lying on the table beside Wilder. Absently, Zechs picked it up and put it back on the shelf. He turned around. Wilder sat, shoulders hunched, head bowed. He looked so forlorn that Zechs, without thinking, set hands on those shoulders and began gently kneading. The muscles beneath them were hard as stone.
Wilder made a small sound, stiffening a moment, then relaxing. His head bent lower, fine hair parting to expose the nape of his neck. "We'll find Heero. You just keep taking care of Duo until we do."
Suddenly, Wilder caught one of Zechs' hands and held tight. He didn't look up and seemed barely to breathe. Without a word, the young king extracted his fingers and then, very gently, tilted Wilder's head back until those wide, amethyst eyes were staring straight up into his. Zechs bent and covered Wilder's parted lips with his own.
It was the first kiss he'd given since Treize and, although Wilder clearly did not have the General's expertise, it was still exceedingly pleasant. Wilder made a small sound, long fingers tightening on the arms of the chair, but he made no effort to break free. When Zechs slipped a questing tongue into his mouth, Wilder permitted it. His wide eyes drifted shut and the tension melted from him.
Zechs released him at last and Wilder remained where he was, breathing hard. Zechs smiled at the look of utter astonishment. He walked around the chair and extended a hand.
"Duo isn't the only one who needs to be tucked into bed, I think."
Wilder sat up, awkward in his confusion. "Will it be your bed?" he asked disingenuously.
Zechs stroked some of the dark red hair from Wilder's eyes. "If you wish."
Just that, but it was enough. They walked together, not touching, down the corridor. Zechs' blood was afire and he wanted that innocence with a ferocity that scared him. Inside the private elevator, Wilder lifted his eyes.
"You are very beautiful," he told the king. "I understand why someone would want to make more of you."
Zechs choked and after another grim day, the laughter that bubbled up in him felt good, too. Wilder's mouth twitched into an answering grin. A swift step and Zechs had the alien against the paneled elevator wall, kissing him again. After a moment, Wilder's arms came up around his neck and held on tightly.
It was some few minutes before Zechs realized the elevator had stopped. He released Wilder, the two of them standing together, breathing hard. Wilder's hair was silky against Zechs' jaw.
"Are you afraid?" he asked quietly, feeling the slight tremor.
"I think so." It was a half-laugh, surprised.
"Don't be." He stepped out of the elevator, Wilder at his back. "Although I have to admit," the king added with a wicked grin, "you'll be my first virgin."
Wilder blinked and thought about that as he followed Zechs down the hall to the royal bedroom. "You don't usually sleep here, do you?" he asked, startled when Zechs threw wide the tall, double doors.
"No, but tonight deserves special honor, don't you think?"
"I have no experience."
It was a huge room, imposingly ornate. From their gilded frames, generations of Peacecrafts stared disapprovingly down at their rebellious descendant. The bed, however, was what had decided Zechs. It was enormous, with a tall canopy of deep blue velvet stitched with rampant lions. He couldn't remember the last time he'd actually slept in it.
Wilder's pale cheeks turned faintly pink. He watched Zechs light the two tall candles on either side of the headboard. The dark receded, leaving the bed in an island of golden light. Zechs extended his hand. Wilder hesitated, then took it. Zechs kissed the other man until he felt some of the tension fade.
"Take off your coat and stay awhile," he invited.
Wilder nodded and shed the raincoat. Underneath he wore a loose v-necked sweater over tight jeans. The dark hair fell into eyes that glowed like pale jewels. His expression was solemn and just a little apprehensive, so Zechs kissed him again. Wilder kissed back with a vengeance, demonstrating that he was a very quick study indeed.
This time it was Zechs left breathless. He leaned away at last and met a shy smile.
"Not bad," approved the king and went back for more.
His hands slid up under the sweater, smoothing over the hard muscles of Wilder's back. The alien gasped, head falling back, shivering. The sweater was discarded in a single, smooth movement and Zechs pushed Wilder backwards to sprawl across the bed.
Three and a half years of abstinence was too long, Zechs thought dimly. The flesh under his lips and fingers heated. Wilder moaned, the sound as wanton as any Treize had ever made during their precious, infrequent trysts. His tongue found Wilder's nipples.
"Ahh!" The alien's eyes flew open and a shudder wracked the lean frame under Zechs. "W--what...?"
Another tremor as Zechs' breath cooled the small, wet buds. He felt Wilder's fingers dig deep into his bare shoulders. A part of his mind registered discomfort; another part exulted in the sensual pain. Wilder moaned. "This --- this is ...OH!"
Smiling, Zechs drew kisses over the alien's ribs and down the flat belly. Then he slid from the bed and removed the other man's jeans.
The docs had outdone themselves. Zechs stared in delight at the large, heavy sex. Wilder, overwhelmed by the unexpected rush of sensation, seemed barely aware of him, reaching between long legs to grasp himself.
"No," Zechs said gently, bending to catch those shaking hands and pull them away. "Mine."
"What do you want?" Zechs' smiled at the wild eyes.
"I don't know!" wailed the young man. "ZECHS! Damn it!"
He reached again for his cock and again had his hands knocked away.
"So impatient," Zechs murmured. He nudged Wilder's legs apart and took the weeping cock into his mouth.
What happened next was entirely unexpected. One moment, Zechs was running his tongue around Wilder's penis, the next moment ----
Warmth, heat, light, ecstasy -- wave after wave of sensation crashed into him. Not mine, thought Zechs dimly. He got a sudden, dizzying image of himself kneeling between Wilder's legs. The hot flesh of Wilder's organ burned against his tongue yet, at the same time, he felt the effects of his attention in waves of pleasure every bit as intense as if they had been his.
"Wilder! What . . AH!"
Wilder moved with incredible speed and strength, dragging Zechs across the bed, twisting around until it was Zechs under him, Zechs who trembled in anticipation as Wilder tore feverishly at his clothing. The king was dimly aware of fabric shredding, of the hot, fierce mouth coming down on his, Wilder's weight pinning him to the bed. Panic touched him, then whirled away in an every increasing crescendo of feedback.
"Wi -- WILDER!!!"
Again came that instant of vertigo and the sight of himself, writhing in helpless abandon, his silver hair spread in a shining fan across the bedclothes. Wilder was deep in his mind now and Zechs could do nothing more than submit to the accelerating onslaught of stimulation and emotion.
"More..." he heard through the rushing in his ears. It was his voice. "More...." Afterwards, Zechs would never remember how the bottle of lotion got into his sweaty hands, who put it on or -- was it him inside Wilder -- or Wilder in him? Dear God! Was it possible to die of pleasure?
The end came with shattering swiftness. One moment he was being hurled upward, the next his soul broke apart in a shower of brilliance. Perhaps he forgot to breathe. When he came to, it was to find himself back in his own body, lying on top of Wilder, his muscles twitching. He slid off, barely able to summon even that much strength. Silence fell around them. The air cooled the sweat from their bodies.
Unexpectedly, Wilder rolled onto his side and wrapped his arms and legs around Zechs. "Holy shit," the alien murmured. "That was .... that was.... Was that really what you call fucking?"
"I have no idea," Zechs admitted hoarsely. "I've never experienced anything like that before."
There was a quick, proud grin. Wilder hugged him tighter, burying his face in Zechs' tangled hair. With a monumental effort, Zechs swept the rumpled bedclothes around them, wrapping the pair of them up in a cocoon of warmth and comfort. He drifted, content for the moment to remain where he was. He was half-asleep when Wilder spoke.
"I'm an outlaw," said the alien quietly. His fingers traced a line down Zechs' chest. "The Typhus was stolen. I was running from the Dzril when I found the transient temporal anomaly."
Zechs caught his breath. He covered the slim, strong fingers with his own.
"If I hadn't gone into the TTA, they would have had me. Almost any other fate was preferable."
"They have ruled our galaxies for longer than any of the Vassal Races can remember. There has been peace for four thousand years, but its price is freedom. I thought the price too high."
Wilder sighed and rolled onto his back. He stared into the canopy at the lions. "I don't know how far away my galaxy is. None of these star formations are familiar. Maybe this is the opposite end of the universe. I hope so. Chaotic and violent as your world is, I much prefer it to mine."
"You have no family?"
"We don't have families, not really. We have Lineages to which we owe allegiance. Each Lineage has a Talent. I am of the Protectors. We are, ironically, warriors. Or, rather, we were. Our battles are only tales from ancient history. It has become our lot to enforce the law of the Dzril. That's how I got my hands on the Typhus in the first place. I stole it."
Zechs propped himself up on one elbow, staring down at Wilder in amazement. "You're a cop turned rebel turned thief?"
Wilder smiled faintly. "Yes," he said finally, "I suppose, in a way, that's quite true."
"It just so happens. . ." murmured Zechs, leaning forward to brush his lips along Wilder's shoulder ". . .that I'm looking for a personal bodyguard. Someone with your qualifications would be ideally suited for the position. If you get bored working with the docs, you could always work for me. I'd have to insist, however, that you disavow larceny."
Wilder grinned. "What would be my duties in such a position?" he asked.
"They're many and varied. I can promise you that you will stay busy."
"Are you flirting?" Zechs' eyebrows lifted. "Learning fast, aren't we?"
"The Lineage of the Protectors," Wilder informed him, "is superior in every way."
Zechs could not agree more.
Quatre woke Duo the next morning. Cursing Wilder for doing it again, the long-haired youth rubbed sleep from his eyes and made a clumsy grab for his shirt lying on the chair next to the bed. He missed and it slid to the floor.
"J is here," Quatre said, retrieving the shirt and handing it to him. "Everyone's waiting."
Jumping to his feet, Duo followed the other boy to Zechs' study. The king was there. Wilder stood at the tall window looking down, sunlight glinting off his dark red hair. He looked grim.
"Duo!" J hurried forward.
"What's going on?" Duo demanded, looking straight at the doc.
"Sit down, Duo," J said. "All of you."
"No!" Duo realized he was shaking. He clenched his fists. "Who is White Rose, J? It has something to do with the Brannigan experiments, doesn't it. DOESN'T IT?"
The old man, grim, faced Duo's anguish without flinching. "Sit down."
Duo sat. Trowa walked to the couch and joined him. Quatre sat on Duo's other side. Their proximity comforted.
"So -- you know about the Brannigan affair."
"Only what we've read," Zechs said calmly. "Why you don't you tell us, J?"
The old man looked at them and sighed.
"Twenty years ago, I worked for the Brannigan Corporation in research and development. Most farm labor is automated, of course, but there have always been some crops that are simply too delicate to entrust to machinery. These crops require human labor and human labor was becoming more and more expensive. The corporation bosses wanted an alternative and so we were mandated to come up with one. Several different projects were initiated. One was adult cloning -- Mike Shields' project. Another was the creation of completely synthetic humans. I worked on that one. It was a race to see who would succeed first, with a fortune in bonuses from the company awaiting the winner. I won. The synthetics were a success.."
He was silent a moment. "Shields did manage to create his adult human clones, but as is always the case, the brains of his subjects were no more developed than those of newborns. Nothing he did could accelerate the kind of neuronal growth he needed to make his clones truly mature. For all practical purposes, he had developed uncoordinated imbeciles.
"Then, not long after the company authorized the mass creation of my synthetics, he discovered, quite by accident, that there was a special protein in Synth blood that could accelerate brain development in his clones. He was still perfecting a serum when the shit hit the fan.
"Word of what we were doing had reached the press and there was a storm of controversy. Brannigan stock dropped like a stone. Eventually, both projects were abandoned. We were fired and all our test subjects destroyed."
"Destroyed? Do you mean killed?" Zechs sounded horrified. J nodded.
"I had almost a thousand Synthetics. All of them were euthanized -- except one, my prototype. I stole it -- smuggled it out of Rumania. After all my work, my sweat and heartache, there was no way I could destroy it, too."
J's mouth tightened and his artificial hand clicked open and closed. "After the Brannigan debacle, I lost track of Shields. The Alliance had begun closing its fist around the colonies and I got involved with the rebellion. There were rumors that Shields had gone to work for Romefeller -- still working on perfecting his clones -- but I never saw or heard from him again. In fact, I'd not even thought about the man until Heero sent those samples. Naturally, I recognized the protein in them at once. Shields must have smuggled out the remaining supply of serum when he left the company."
"And Heero?" Duo asked, stomach turning, even though he knew.
J turned. The lenses flashed, reflecting the dying sunlight that came in through the windows.
"Heero," he said, "is my prototype."
Heero's eyelids fluttered open. He stared into a white ceiling without comprehension. A tangle of wires and tubes made a web over him. Some of the tubes were filled with bright crimson fluid. Blood, he thought dimly. Mine. Not human.
He tried to move, but weakness held him as surely as the leather straps that bound him to the table.
Une's mocking voice came to him in echoes. He saw again the look on her face when she had told him what he was and why they wanted him. To be honest, he hadn't been surprised. Since seeing J's picture in the old news article, he'd suspected something like this, but hearing the words said aloud made the bitter truth of it impossible to ignore.
With great effort, Heero turned his head. Now that consciousness was back, so was the pain of the iv lines sprouting from his arms, pain from muscles being slowly starved of oxygen as the machines leeched his life away.
He was so thirsty.
"That's enough!" someone called. "Take any more and we may kill it."
So. They didn't want him dead. That was something to be thankful for, Heero supposed. As long as he was alive there was a chance of escape.
The bright light was suddenly blocked by two bodies bending over him. Pain made him hiss as the i.v. needles were withdrawn. He felt the sting of alcohol on his punctured flesh. Too weak from blood loss to hold them back, tears leaked from the corners of his eyes.
"Jesus," muttered one of the technicians. "It's so goddamned real!"
"Shields says it's a molecular facsimile. It's only when you get down into the subatomic level that there are differences. Careful -- it's supposed to be really strong."
"Yeah?" came the other voice. "Well, it gives me the creeps."
Another needle. More drugs..
"I heard that it didn't know what it was. It thought it was human!"
Laughter. He was lifted off the table and onto a gurney. Straps were drawn tight.
Duo, Heero thought as the drug crept through his aching body. His thoughts, already confused, started to splinter apart. I'm sorry.
And the darkness took him again.
They found Dunn's body washed up under a pier down by the docks. His throat had been cut. Calls to Beijing revealed that Une hadn't arrived for the conference.
"They got her, too," worried Noin. Zechs had called everyone together after the discovery of the corpse and they faced their dwindling supply of clues.
"Perhaps." Zechs wasn't convinced.
"You don't think Une had anything to do with this?"
"I don't know. Maybe it was Dunn acting alone and the White Rose did double-cross him, but we shouldn't assume anything." The young king looked over at Duo. The boy was calm enough, although the strain showed in the set of Duo's mouth and the circles under his eyes.
"You know we're runnin' out of options," Duo said now. "I think we should put my plan into operation."
"No!" Quatre cried at once.
"Too risky," Wu Fei said with a dark look at Duo.
"It's been almost a week!" Duo's voice cracked. He took a deep breath and looked from one person to the next, fierce. "We may already be too late!"
"If it is Shields," J said. "He won't kill Heero. Don't forget -- when Brannigan closed down the operation, Shields had only just started to see success. Arcane is clearly defective, which means his serum was not perfected. By now, he'll have run out of his original supply. He needs Heero alive to make more."
"And that's supposed to make me feel better, you old bastard?" Duo growled. "Thinkin' about Heero gettin' his blood drained out bit by bit?"
"Even so, Maxwell, what you are suggesting is foolish. There is too much room for error." Wu Fei turned an impatient glare on Zechs "You aren't going to let him do it, are you?" he demanded
Zechs met Duo's defiant stare. Abruptly, Duo rose. He looked around the table. All of them were his friends. He trusted them with his life and had faith in their judgement, but Heero was his life and Duo would do anything to see him safe.
"I'm goin' up to my room and check medical supply warehouses," he announced. "If these fuckers are doing cloning research, they're gonna have to buy supplies. You guys talk it over. You come up with a better idea than mine, you let me know."
And leaving an unspoken threat hanging in the air, he left them.
Duo. Violet eyes wide and laughing. Knowing hands finding all Heero's sensitive places, making his heart sing.
Duo. I want you. Will you still want me?
Mouth like honey. Arms tight and strong around him.
I'm not human; I'm a thing.
Hair brushing over Heero's skin, the silk strands like hundreds of tiny caresses. Mouth teasing his, tongue dancing over Heero's lips, slipping deep inside to taste and taste again.
Will you still want me, Duo? Please, please -- love me anyway.
"He's coming out of it."
"Damn -- this Janssen guy knew what he was doing when he put this thing together. It metabolizes our strongest drugs in half the time of a real human. Give me the hypo."
A sting. A spot of cold spreading outward, heading for his heart. Not again. Please, not again.
It was late. Duo moved quietly across the balcony of his palace bedroom. Fifteen feet below was soft flowerbed, the ground recently watered. He vaulted over the marble rail and dropped noiselessly. A high wall shut the little garden away from the street. He was up and over it in no time.
His friends were right, of course. This was complete madness. Even now, the hair rose on the back of his neck when he thought about what he was doing. There was no guarantee that he would be successful -- quite the contrary. As J had pointed out, Arcane was defective. Heh.
Duo banked on the theory that Arcane continued to watch him. The man might not have Yamada's far-flung criminal organization upon which to call, but he doubtless had his connections. He'd claimed he'd been watching White Rose from afar -- that took help.
God, let him be telling the truth.
The streets were empty, streetlights throwing circles of illumination on the pavement. Now and then a car swished past, indifferent. His feet took him toward the rougher part of town, a place where outlaws might be comfortable.
He found a diner at the edge of a big factory yard and had bad coffee and a stale bagel. The only other patron was a drunk nodding over a plate of eggs and bacon. Overhead, the lights were bright and harsh, making it hard to see out into the street for the reflection in the glass. Duo drank his coffee and tried not to imagine what was happening to Heero.
It was almost dawn. He left the diner at last and started walking again, eventually reaching the docks. A dull red line marked the horizon. A storm was coming. The wind had stiffened, blowing in from the sea. He stood at the edge of the pier where Arcane had first approached him, and stared blankly out at the water.
Heero was synthetic. Even now, Duo could scarcely believe it. Everything Heero knew about himself was lie. He had never had parents. That smooth skin wasn't the product of human evolution but of human creativity.
Duo closed his eyes, remembering what J had told him later.
"The Synths were designed to be disposable farm equipment, cheaply bred and maintained. The strength and endurance designed into them for long hours in the fields was transformed easily enough into a warrior's power."
"And his so-called guardian -- this guy, Odin?"
"That's a long story and one I'll keep to myself awhile longer, boy, but by the time we found Yuy again, we discovered the Lowe had actually done us a favor. He'd essentially run the initial tests on our new weapon, providing Heero with the basic training needed to become a perfect soldier. Thanks to Lowe, we knew our experiment was a success."
Experiment. Oh, Jeezus.
"Why didn't you tell him?" Duo had demanded, angry and hurting. "Don't you think this is something he deserved to know?"
"It was essential during the war that Heero believe he was human. That way, we could be sure of maintaining his emotional attachment to our species -- his need to protect us. But Duo, many things about Heero have surprised me, including his love for you. In the end, for all his origins, the boy is as human as you are."
Oh, God. Heero...
"Looking for me?"
Duo jumped, dread washing through him in an icy tide. He forced himself to turn slowly, to pretend every hair on his body didn't stand on end at the sight of Arcane standing right behind him. How the hell had the creep managed to sneak up like that?
"I'm surprised to see you running around without your watchdogs. Feeling brave, little one?"
"You're a day late and a dollar short," replied Arcane cooly. He brandished his bandaged hand. "And I didn't appreciate being shot."
He stopped next to Duo and looked out at the brightening ocean. The wind ruffled his short, dyed hair. For a second, Duo saw Zechs in the aquiline features and thoughtful, remote gaze.
"Shootin' you wasn't my idea, okay? Tell me where the White Rose is and I'll take 'em out for you, just like you wanted."
"You? You're nothing special. Without your Gundam you're just an ordinary punk. Only a professional assassin has a chance against the White Rose. Most of them are old warriors themselves."
"Don't underestimate me," Duo warned. "Besides, what have you got to lose?"
Arcane smiled and Duo's heart-rate increased, recognizing that look all too well. He clenched icy fingers.
"All right, but my price has gone up."
Duo's jaw tightened. "I figured it might. What?"
"You. For twenty four hours, whatever I tell you to do."
Duo saw Elion again, saw Yamada's room, felt the ropes cutting into his wrists, felt the stomach-wrenching dread as he waited for them to use him again.
"Twenty-four hours," Arcane repeated.
Closing his eyes briefly, Duo fought blind panic. "All right," he whispered. "It's a deal."
"We have to go now!"
Zechs heard the fear in Wilder's voice.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "Duo said..."
Before Zechs could stop him, the alien was out of the car and running down the dark street.
"Tell the others," the young king ordered his driver, then he threw open his own door.
"Majesty!" cried the driver in alarm. "You mustn't risk..."
But Zechs was out and running after Wilder.
Rain spattered from low, swift-scudding clouds. Wilder skidded around a corner and disappeared temporarily from sight. Zechs ran faster and saw him crossing the street, heading for a building with a faded sign that read, "Bayside Hotel."
A car appeared at the end of the street. It pulled over to the curb, disgorging the three Gundam pilots. Zechs waved at the hotel and they scattered, surrounding it.
Inside, an old man was trying stop Wilder, dragging on him as the alien strode toward the elevator.
"Hey! Stop! HEY!! Ain't no visitors allowed!"
Hearing Zechs coming up fast behind them, the old man whirled around, face creased with anger -- and recognized the king immediately.
"Lor' It's Peacecraft!" He stumbled backwards.
Zechs looked over his shoulder. Noin was here! Good. Back-up. "Watch this man," he ordered, and ran to the elevator before Wilder could take it up without him.
"You wait for back-up, too," he snapped at the alien. "That body of yours isn't indestructible!"
Wilder gave him an angry look. "We shouldn't have been so far away."
"We couldn't risk being seen by Arcane -- or anyone he might have working for him. If Arcane knew we were following, he'd never risk approaching Duo."
Wilder said something under his breath. Aloud, he exhorted the rickety old elevator to hurry. Zechs drew his gun. "As soon as you know where he is, use your telepathy to tell the others."
The elevator stopped. A dingy hallway stretched before them, lined with doors and smelling of disinfectant and urine. Wilder started forward, eyes darting from door to door.
"Here!" he cried.
So much for the element of surprise. Zechs kicked in the door. A tall, dark-haired man whirled around and the former Oz pilot found himself momentarily paralyzed. Hair length and color not withstanding, Zechs was looking at his own reflection. The reflection snarled.
"DUO!" Wilder shouted, pushing past Zechs, running toward the boy who was picking himself up from the floor.
Zechs had no time to see more -- Arcane was on him, raging, steel flashing in the low light from the hallway. Twisting aside, Zechs avoided the blade. His powerful blow sent Arcane staggering into the corridor to crash against the far wall. Leaping after him, Zechs knocked the bastard down.
Wu Fei was there suddenly, bringing the butt end of his gun down on Arcane's head. The clone went limp. Zechs stepped back, shaking hair from his eyes. Trowa and Quatre appeared from opposite directions, running toward them down the corridor.
"In there," Zechs said. He and Wu Fei dragged Arcane back into the room. Trowa slammed the door and leaned against it. Quatre joined Wilder in helping Duo up. The help was not appreciated.
"Damn it!" Duo was raging. He was white as a sheet and shaking, whether from fear, anger, or both, it was hard to say. "I said to wait for my signal!!! He hasn't told me anything yet!"
Arcane stirred. Zechs and Wu Fei hauled the doppelganger up and threw him into a chair. Arcane sneered at them and spat blood.
"And I won't!" He looked over a Duo with a smile filled with malice. "I'll die happy knowing I've taken my revenge on you both."
Duo would have leapt on him except that Wilder was suddenly there, pushing him back into Quatre's arms.
"Help him," the alien ordered Quatre shortly. "Damn it, Duo! You IDIOT! THINK! Who am I? What can I do?"
Violet, tear-drenched eyes widened. Duo's mouth opened and closed. Quatre wrapped him in a blanket and held him as he stood, shivering.
Wilder turned and looked down at Arcane. The clone stared back, the beginnings of unease stirring in the cold, blue gaze. My eyes, thought Zechs, and felt slightly sick.
"Who the hell are you?" Arcane sneered at the alien.
"The last sight you'll ever see," promised Wilder softly. "This is for Duo and for all the street kids on Elion -- all the ones you killed when you were looking for me."
"You!" Arcane whispered, eyes going wide as saucers. "The alien pilot..."
Wilder's hand come down on Arcane's head. The man's mouth flew open in a silent, agonized scream. His body convulsed as if caught in a violent seizure. Zechs winced, hearing bones snap and ligaments rip. Then Arcane was a limp bundle sliding from the chair, blood trickling from his mouth, nose and ears. Duo made a small sound and sagged in Quatre's arms.
"Rumania," Wilder said then, calm and cold as ice. "About fifteen miles from the old Brannigan labs."
Duo sat, hands clenched between his knees. The helicopter dropped slowly toward an open field, the grass bending wildly before the wind from its blades. Ten miles to the east, the fortress was halfway up a mountain, right where Arcane's memory had placed it. Subsequent Preventer intelligence claimed there were roving patrols of paramilitaries scattered over the countryside.
While Zechs and Wilder remained behind to organize an official raid, the four Gundam pilots headed for Bavaria, the initial assault force. Their helicopter swung around. Duo automatically adjusted his balance, hand tightening around his gun.
Arcane was dead. The thought kept popping out of nowhere. Wilder had exploded the blood vessels in that twisted brain and now the monster was gone forever. Duo had lived in fear so long, he was having trouble believing it was finally over.
"You okay?" Quatre asked.
Duo nodded. The helicopter touched down, jolting him.
"Let's go!" shouted Wu Fei.
The dark-haired youth jumped from the helicopter and with the rest of them following, bent low and ran across the field toward a nearby road. A truck was parked under the trees. It bore no markings, but Duo knew it had been sent by the local Preventer branch on Noin's orders. Inside was the latest in individual tactical transport -- four small anti-grav scooters, quick, maneuverable, and ideally suited for rough terrain.
While Quatre talked to the truck driver, the others mounted up quickly. With the exception of Duo, they'd all had some experience with the scooters, and Duo managed to embarrass himself straightaway by accidently throwing his into reverse. Still, that was the only mistake he made. He was, after all, Duo Maxwell, Pilot Extraordinaire. When Quatre joined them they headed off and Duo kept up with them, no problem.
We're coming, Heero! Hang on!
Arcane was dead.
"Duo! Watch out!"
Duo grinned and evaded the big pine tree ahead. The four of them zipped up through the trees, crossing the miles in a handful of minutes. Passing Chang, Duo roared over a hill, then stopped. The others stopped beside him. They faced a rolling, grassy hill and beyond, rising above dense woods, a cliff and a castle.
"That it?" Trowa asked.
"That's the place," Duo said grimly. Hefting his rifle from one shoulder to the other, he got off the scooter. "We go on foot from here."
They put Heero in a heavy silicone-steel cage resting on a two foot platform in the middle of the room. The tough, transparent material was electrified with enough charge to put him out flat. He'd tried it only once.
He had a thin, foam sleeping pad and, in the corner, a molded sanitation unit -- the extent of his prison's amenities. "It's all something like you needs," Shields had said.
Outside the cage stood banks of computers and cameras that monitored every move he made. The room was cold -- probably to spare the equipment. Heero had only thin hospital scrubs against the chill, but he was getting used to it.
Lying on his side, Heero stared across the white floor of his cage to the room outside. They would bring food soon, heavily impregnated with vitamins to restore his blood volume. It would be awhile, though. Shields had taken so much that even eating it was enough to exhaust Heero.
He wiggled his fingers. His captors had tattooed the inside of his left wrist -- a bar code.
"The organization has decided that our new leaders will need bodyguards they can trust," Shields had told him. "We're going to start making more of you. You'll be the first of a proud new race of warriors."
Slave warriors. Fancy mobile dolls. There was an ache in his heart and when he thought about it, his stomach hurt. He sat up slowly, hugging his knees to his chest.
The White Rose's plan was simple enough -- replace Zechs, "discover" Treize still alive, and the world would be once more in Romefeller's hands. Une would back them up, of course. Furthermore, Earth Sphere government had a number of prominent ex-Oz leaders who would add their support. Those closest to Zechs -- like Noin -- would be eliminated. The plot was so bizarre, it actually had a chance of succeeding.
He had to get out of here!
And then what? Suppose he got out. Suppose he warned the Preventers of the plot and it was foiled. Did he go on with his life? Would J reveal what he was to the others? What would Duo do? Would it matter to him that Heero wasn't truly human.
I look human. I feel human. Surely it won't matter? Not to Duo. His heart is too generous.
But still Heero was afraid.
He wanted to stand up and start walking, to get the strength back in his legs, but at the moment, it seemed smarter to hide how much he'd recovered. So Heero stayed where he was, not moving, head against his knees. If he could get his captors to underestimate the threat he posed, they might lower their guard. All he needed was a couple of seconds.
Suddenly the silence in his prison was shattered by the screaming of an alarm. Red lights flashed overhead. Heero lifted his head, startled. A moment later, the door burst inward. His pain and fatigue were gone as if they'd never been.
Heero leapt to his feet, not caring about the monitors. He heard the sound of weapons' fire elsewhere in the dungeon, and muffled shouts. The American flashed him a cocky grin, lowering his gun. He parked himself in front of the cage, his free hand on his hip. He winked.
"Hey, sailor! Whatcha say you and me go back to my place?"
Heero's heart sang. "Baka! The cage control is on that console to your left!"
"Yes, sir!" Duo bounced over to it, eyes moving across the array of buttons and monitors. He hit the release on the first try. The cage lifted silently toward the ceiling. Heero jumped from the base to the floor. Duo hugged him fiercely, then shoved him back. "You look like hell."
"You don't," Heero said shakily. "You look great."
Duo's smile wobbled. Heero kissed him hard, unable to say another word. Then Duo was pushing something into his hands. A gun.
"Figured ya might need this when I finally found ya."
"You have a plan?" Heero checked it automatically. It was fully loaded. He smiled. "You're kidding, right?"
"Ha ha," retorted Duo, rolling his eyes."C'mon!"
Out in the hallway they immediately met two of the black-clad soldiers. Duo took one out; he took the other. Then Heero sagged against the wall, overcome by a wave of weakness.
"Shit, Yuy! You gonna make it?"
Heero nodded grimly. Duo gave him a long stare. Someone was coming. The end of the hall lit with the sudden flash of an energy rifle.
"Lean on me," Duo ordered, slipping his shoulder under Heero's.
It was Quatre. The small blond paused, spun around and fired at something behind him. "This way!"
Duo, with Heero leaning heavily against him, got them both down the corridor. Trowa appeared ahead of them, waving them on. The building shook.
"What the hell?"
"Guess Zechs is here," Duo said. He jammed another cartridge into his gun. "Trowa! Give me a hand."
"I can walk!" fretted Heero, even as black spots swam in his vision. The gun was neatly plucked from his unsteady fingers and he was pulled along the corridor, Quatre running interference. They got to a stairs. At the bottom waited Wu Fei, standing nonchalantly in the midst of several dead bodies. Another explosion rocked the castle.
"It will not be long now," announced the Chinese youth. "There is a clear route to the stables and a car waiting. Get Yuy out of here, Maxwell; we shall finish this."
"No!" Heero cried. He made another effort to break free. This time he succeeded, then promptly spoiled the effort by going to his knees. "Damn!"
"Here's is a new one," Duo chortled, pulling him back up. "Me stronger than Heero!"
Then, with Duo's arm tight and reassuring around him, they got out of there.
Zechs walked swiftly down the corridor, boots crunching on shattered glass. Wilder was a shadow at his back, black coat swirling around long legs, lavender gaze unfocused as his telepathic senses searched their surroundings. The call from Noin promised Shields and Une in custody. With luck, Chang and Barton had managed to get to the computers before the bastards could wipe out the data on White Rose and its members.
Ahead was a doorway surrounded by Preventers and his own personal guard. They saluted him as he passed. Taking the stairs down two at a time, he strode into the brightly lit room with its computers and stasis chambers. Noin was standing by one of the latter. Nearby, under heavy guard, was Une and the man Zechs presumed to be Shields. Une gave him a cold, hard stare and looked away. Zechs walked on to Noin.
Looking down into the chamber beside her, he recoiled at the horror inside. When he looked up at Noin, her mouth was tight.
"Shields and Une aren't saying a word, but their techs are talking. According to several of them, this is a clone of your sister."
"Duo's monster," Zechs said quietly. He closed his eyes a moment.
Noin's voice was gentle with sympathy. "Apparently, she did escape that night. Badly injured, even more psychotic then Arcane, she must have gone to the one place her clouded mind thought she knew, the palace. When she saw the true Relena -- herself, in effect -- it probably pushed the poor creature over the edge."
"If J knows what he's talking about, there should be differences in the clone's DNA and Relena's -- subtle variations that might have been missed in the initial murder investigation. If we bring in some specialized equipment and re-run the tests, we might finally have physical evidence we can show the public to support Duo's acquittal."
"Good. See to it. And by the way -- consider yourself the Preventers' Acting Director."
She smiled briefly. "Yes, sir." Turning, she pointed to another chamber. "Your clone is right there. Not a bad likeness, if I do say so, Your Excellency. Much better than Arcane."
"Commander!" A Preventer arrived, saluting them both. He was out of breath. "Maxwell and Yuy are away and the transports will be here from Berlin in a half hour. In the meantime, ma'am, the computer guys want to know where they should set up?"
Noin was gone with a murmured apology. Zechs took a deep breath. He looked over at the third chamber. It required physical effort to force his foot forward. One step. Another step. His hands were clammy and his mouth dry. His heart banged against his ribs. Wilder appeared beside him. His hand slid into Zechs'. His fingers tightened then fell away. Zechs looked down into the container.
The patrician features were the same -- exactly the same -- right down to the slightly arrogant tilt of those sensuous lips. The long, powerful body, so graceful in its induced reposed, was identical to the body he'd held, loved, and longed for. The clone's hair was longer, shoulder length and fiery in the bright light of the lab. Beautiful. Strong. Beyond dangerous.
"General," he whispered, shaken to the soul.
Here was the reason Une had betrayed them all. Even in death, she couldn't leave Treize alone. Even in death she would make him a tyrant, revive his pride and his ambition, set that powerful, brilliant mind once more in motion.
God! How well he could remember those hands on his skin, that red mouth on his own. Even now he could not smell roses without thinking of those stolen moments.
"Don't touch him!" Une's scream rose above the hubbub. "Leave him alone! He's MINE!!"
Someone shouted a warning. Zechs looked up sharply to see her flying toward him, fingers clawed, knocking aside a startled Preventer. He dodged her easily, catching her wrist and swinging her around. Wilder was there, touching her brow with strangely gentle fingers. She collapsed in Zechs' arms. Two Preventers hurried to him and carried her off. Wilder's hand was strong under his elbow.
"Your very capable Noin can handle things," Wilder said. "Let's go find Duo and Heero."
"I should stay and make sure this place is thoroughly searched."
Zechs turned around. Quatre stood there, Trowa at his shoulder.
"We're the Preventers," Trowa reminded him with a grin. He shook back his long bangs and, for an instant, Zechs was treated to the rare sight of both green eyes. "Let the professionals handle this, Your Majesty."
Zechs looked at the two young faces, then around at Wilder. The alien returned one of his beautiful smiles.
"All right," capitulated the king. He turned and with Wilder beside him, walked from the room, never once looking back.
"Whoa! Check it out!" Duo came to an unexpected halt in the doorway. Heero stopped in time to keep from running him down, but only just. Crepe paper streamers crisscrossed their living room ceiling and there was a huge bouquet of flowers on the coffee table. A slightly crooked sign proclaimed: "Welcome back, guys!" The place was immaculate.
Duo dropped his bag at once and ran inside, going straight to the flowers. "Sally and Hilde!" he called, waving a card. "Gotta remember to give 'em both a kiss next time I see 'em!"
Following the exuberant Duo into their apartment, Heero stood in the middle of the room, gazing around. The familiar surroundings were at once exciting and soothing. Duo vanished into the kitchen while Heero stayed where he was and reveled in being home.
"They left FOOD! Those babes!"
Duo knew what Heero was. J had told them all. No one had said a word about it, though. Everyone went on as if he was still Heero, still the same guy they knew - bio-engineered, but human. It wasn't true, but he was grateful that they pretended otherwise.
"We'd better keep this quiet," Zechs had ordered. "At least until I can figure out what Heero's legal status is."
Regardless of what happened to him now, Arcane was dead, so in the end it was all worth it, Heero decided. He'd made them show him the truth of that, made them pull out the drawer in the morgue freezer so he could see the corpse with his own eyes. Relief still made him dizzy. Duo was safe.
He walked down the hall to his bedroom. There were more flowers here, irises, the same color as Duo's eyes. He set down his bags and sat on the edge of his bed. The mirrored closet doors reflected his image, slender, wiry body, blue eyes flashing from behind the dark, heavy fringe of hair.
Heero looked up at Duo and smiled.
"Somethin' wrong? You're even quieter than usual."
Heero looked again at his reflection.
"You're human," said Duo with devastating perception. "So quit worrying about it already!"
He came into the room and sank to the bed next to Heero. Reaching over, he took Heero's hand and held it between both his own.
"You sure?" Heero asked.
Duo snorted and pushed him down, rolling over onto him. Heero lay still, shivering as Duo kissed the curve of his neck and began nuzzling under his collar.
"'Course I'm sure." Duo's answer was warm against Heero's skin. "Who's the baka now, eh?"
"You are!" Heero twisted like an eel, flipping Duo off and onto his back. Duo chortled, fingers tangling in Heero's hair, returning the kiss with equal fervor.
"You promise?" Heero whispered, mouth against Duo's ear. "You really don't care?"
He felt Duo's skin roughen and breath catch.
"Hell, no," whispered Duo, eyes shining up at him. "I love you, stupid!"
"You never tell a lie?"
"You know I don'....nggl!"
Heero closed his eyes tightly. Their tongues twined. He slid his hands under Duo's shirt, felt the familiar marks that were the many scars his lover bore, and the silk-smooth skin between. Duo sighed, flinging his arms out, surrendering to Heero's touch. Heero released those eager lips. He slid from the bed and knelt between Duo's legs. In the other room, the phone rang.
"Gonna get that?" gasped Duo as Heero began unzipping his jeans.
"Let the recorder take a message," replied Heero serenely. "This machine has better things to do."