She sighed discreetly, trying not to move too much as the seamstress adjusted the fit of her bodice. She could hear the faint buzz of a crowd outside the store. Any person reading the life and times section of the paper would know where to find her. It was nothing compared to the paparazzi present at a political event, but she still had to curse the soul that had thought it would be harmless and morale-boosting for the public to know who was designing her dress.
She could use a morale-boost of her own right about now. How far had she fallen that her worth was now measured by her marriagable status? She used to be able to buoy the spirits of people with a sweet smile and a stirring speech. Now all she could do was get married and give them a reason to party. But if that was all she could do, then that was what she would do.
On the other hand, there wasn't as much conflict in the world now as there had been five years ago. The marriage was only a bit of a pick-me-up to help the Earth Union pull through some rough economic times. It comforted her to remember that the world had been at peace since the end of the Barton conflict. A few small skirmishes and rebellions had flared up, as was to be expected, but nothing the government couldn't handle.
Those had been nerve-wracking times, sitting on the sidelines unable to help, but her advisors had been right. It was a good idea to stand back and let the new guard step forth and assume responsibility for the peace and prosperity of the new age. It was only fitting. The wars had in large part been about bearing the burden of one's own freedom. The world needed to be weaned off of its reliance upon the old symbols of past conflict.
She missed the others. It was only proper that they had been separated. All of them together created a stir that made it impossible for things to settle down. They were catalysts, even when the reaction was spent. She understood that; it was why she didn't begrudge Heero and her brother's final duel amidst the wreckage of the Libra. She didn't approve of it, but she understood the reasoning behind it.
Heero. She hoped he was happy somewhere. Surely he wouldn't be sighing and moping around in obsolete uselessness. After the war, he had been filled with such a, well, 'joyful optimism' wasn't really a term that well applied to Heero Yuy, but the impression stayed with her all the same. Maybe it was just the barest sparkle in his eyes, the faintest tilt of his lips. He had looked forward to peace, to the chance to lay down his arms and be someone new, to stop his whirlwind of a life and finally take a deep and cleansing breath.
She envied that. He and the others had been allowed to fade into obscurity, but the former Queen of the World had no such luck. She was far too recognizable, even if the government and her responsibilities had allowed her to escape the limelight. There hadn't been much of a choice. Earth and the colonies had needed a familiar, reassuring face after the Barton conflict, and she lent hers willingly.
'Gave', perhaps, rather than 'lent'. Her face, her image, her life was no longer hers to claim all her own.
Jerked back from her thoughts and into reality by the murmured instructions of the designer, she did as she was told and suppressed another sigh. If Heero were in this situation, he wouldn't be sighing, she reminded herself. With his powerful sense of duty and honor, he would bear the burden of the entire world upon his shoulders and still stand up straight. She shut her eyes briefly and held that image in her mind, vowing to find comfort and strength from it, just as she always had during the wars. Heero was so many things that she had always wanted to be, that she still wanted to be. She had far yet to travel down that path, but she would try.
When she opened her eyes again, she was confronted by the image of herself in her wedding gown. Not how she had imagined it, really. The dress itself was a lovely thing, as might be expected for a designer of this renown. It was elegant and flowing, subtle and sophisticated, and yet rich as befitting her station. If only it hadn't been commissioned for and by a man she had nothing but a passing fondness for.
At least she and Karl were the same age. They had been schoolmates for a time, so there was some common history as well. He wasn't what she would have readily termed 'handsome', but he was not unattractive. His behavior was tempered by training in gentlemanly arts, though he had yet to lose much of the arrogance that had marked his teenage years. It was no more prominent than that of the others in their generation, of their standing, herself included, so she supposed she could not fault him for that. Perhaps age and experience would work their mellowing magic on him.
See, it wouldn't be so bad. And he respected her, listened to her ideas and wanted her for more than simply being a trophy wife, so smile, she told herself firmly, testing a small one out in the mirror above the seamstress' bowed head. Heero would-- well, he probably wouldn't smile, but he wouldn't frown, either, and no one wanted a mopey princess.
How she missed him. Things would be so much easier if he were here. He would understand. He would tell her she was doing the right thing, even if he didn't always agree with her. Heero was a man of principles. He knew what it meant to put the interest of others before one's own self. Even if he didn't have to any more. She exhaled, careful not to let it turn into another sigh. No, maybe it was better to leave him out of this.
When the fitting was over, she graciously thanked the seamstress for all the hard work and detail that was going into her fabulous gown, and then she fled with dignity back to the dressing room to shed the banner of her upcoming union. When it was done, it would accentuate her elegant curves. In its primordial form, its unfitted bodice had been drafty and reminded her of her less than ample bosom. It wasn't something that had ever bothered her before, save for a passing comment she had overheard from her charming fiancÚ, as spoken to one of his companions the previous week. She made a note to insult his manhood some time. Subtly, of course. After all, sparkling repartee was a key factor in the communication that kept couples together longer.
Once she was finally back in her street clothes, she took an extra minute for herself in front of the mirror, trying to recompose the sweet face for the cameras. Her smile looked pained to her eyes. She frowned and turned away from the image. She'd never liked practicing in front of mirrors anyway.
Delivering the dress back to the seamstress with care, she took one peek around a screen out the front window and immediately withdrew. The swarm of cameras was still out there, patient as ever for the appearance of their star. She almost pitied the two she had left out there, but the bodyguard she had excused as a man in the middle of women's affairs, an excuse he seemed grateful to grab hold of. Her 'personal assistant' was honestly more like a public relations lady taken on at the insistence of the Jurgensen family, so it hadn't taken too much to convince the woman to stay outside and spin to the crowd. In some other circumstance, perhaps Relena would have appreciated the company of another lady, but not this time, and not this lady. Shirley reminded her of an old nanny she'd had when she was eight.
The building had a back door leading to an alley of other back doors, which reconnected to the road in front some six doors down. She decided to go that route to the car, which was parked behind the herd. From there, she could safely signal her companions that she was ready to depart, then hide inside the car until they got underway. A small, genuine smile blossomed on her lips at the thought of possibly outsmarting the vultures.
She looked carefully in both directions before emerging from the door, but saw that no rear guard had been placed to prevent her escape. No one would suspect a fine lady such as herself to be stepping delicately over puddles and around garbage bins.
She was just about to bypass one such large garbage container when she realized that there was a figure leaning against the wall beside it. He looked like a scruffy miscreant with his hands in his pockets, head bowed, eyes hidden beneath the rim of a hat. There was scant comfort to be had from the fact that he looked more like a drug dealer than a rapist or mugger. Reflexively, she took a step away towards the other wall, but remembered what she had been taught. Show no fear. Move as if you are sure of your actions. Act like you belong. It wasn't too different from what she might do at any 'social' gathering.
Head up, eyes forward, she strode confidently past him, though not without sneaking a wary peek at him out of the corner of her eye. When he looked up and met her gaze, her next step slowed before it could stumble, and she turned her head fully to further investigate, and very nearly gape at, the sudden appearance of two sharp blue eyes above a narrow nose and lips quirked at a familiar angle. "Heero?" she whispered.
"Relena," he answered calmly, as if the two of them meeting in a back alley on a colony that was neither of their homes was mere routine. Absently tossing his hair out of his face, he pushed himself off the wall.
She waited a few breathless moments to make sure he was real before she let out a soft squeal of delight and threw her arms around him. "Oh, I can't believe it's really you! What are you doing here? And... is that Duo, too?" she asked, catching sight of the other's stealthy return from scouting only when he was already close enough to hear the question.
He greeted her with only an amused glance before turning back to watch the head of the alley. They had never really gotten to know each other more than passingly during the wars. There had been a brief period of acquaintance afterwards, while things had been sorting themselves out.
Heero returned the embrace awkwardly, patting her a couple of times on the back before letting his arms hang loosely in her general direction. "I heard you were getting married."
She should have expected it, but it stole her breath for a moment anyway. Slowly, she unwrapped herself from him and took a step back. His typically inscrutable expression gave away little. It was grave as always, though, with no little twinkle in his eye to belie a light jest, so she had to assume there were no joyous congratulations to be offered. She straightened her back and squared her shoulders to answer with dignity. "I am."
"What the hell are you thinking?"
That was completely, utterly unexpected, and yet it, too, managed to steal her breath away, and for more than a moment. "I-- I... What do you mean? I have to marry him."
Heero's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Why? Is he forcing you to?"
"No," she answered immediately, taken aback. "Not-- I mean... I thought you'd understand."
He folded his arms over his chest. "Feel free to explain it to me."
"I have to. It's my duty. My people need this right now. The world needs this."
That sounded a little too much like something repeated too often. He snorted. "There are a lot of other things this world needs that I would put higher on the priority list." Just because he no longer felt driven enough to put that list into effect didn't mean that he couldn't come up with it all the same.
"But..." She nervously smoothed out wrinkles in her skirt that weren't there. Using that as a cover, she glanced down, breaking the eye contact. "But that's all I can do," she confessed. They waited for several seconds in that silence Heero carried around with him, the one that others perceived as a gentle prompt, even if it was more like an impatient demand in this particular case.
Relena exhaled audibly. "We have peace in the world, but that doesn't mean that our job is over. We're in the middle of a global recession, one that we've been sliding into for years. Some areas have never recovered from the war, others never from the Alliance years. The push forward in technology that was brought on by the conflicts has caused downsizing across the board, particularly in manufacturing. The people that have been laid off are suddenly finding that their skills are obsolete. We've started re-education programs, but that will take time, time that these people often don't have. They need to make a living now. And the money they make is often at a starting salary that is not sufficient to maintain their lifestyles.
"We have companies whose business was disrupted. Assets were destroyed. Debts went unpaid. A startling number of businesses had to declare bankruptcy. Investments fell in value. Pensions and retirement funds are threatened. Governments are too busy putting their money into rebuilding their infrastructures in order to sustain a renewal of the market that they can't devote an equal number of resources towards public assistance programs. They have to think long term." When she stopped to gather breath for another burst of rhetoric, she studied Heero's unchanged expression and deflated.
He took the opportunity of a pause to ask a simple question. "So how will you getting married change anything?"
She deflated even further. "It can't." It hurt to say that, even if she had known it all along. Heero's penchant for brutal honesty spread itself forth in a compelling aura. "It's just going to take time for everything to stabilize. In the meantime, all we can do is keep morale up. Widespread cynicism and hopelessness would only make things worse."
Heero mulled over that for a while, scratching at his elbow while he thought about it. In the end, he came up with one word to sum up his conclusion. "Bullshit."
Not even her fears and anxieties collected into nightmares could be this cruel. "Heero..."
"Who's been feeding you this crap? Is it him?"
"Him? Who? Karl? Of course not. I would never have agreed to it if I thought it was such an insane idea."
"You 'agreed to it', which means that it wasn't your idea to begin with."
For a moment that unfortunately extended into an instance of action, she understood the need to strike back, to attack rather than defend. "What hole have you been hiding in, Heero? I expected you of all people to understand what I'm doing. This isn't about me or you. It isn't about whether or not I love him, or what I ever wanted for my future. This is about everyone else. The leaders of the world have to be united right now. It reassures the people to see that the government is stable and confident."
"So you don't love him."
She stiffened, realizing that she had brought up the issue on her own. "It's not like he's some stranger, Heero. I've known him for years. Our families have known each other for years."
The sidestep of the issue was confirmation enough. "You're right. This isn't about whether you love him or not. This is about you feeling powerless and running off to do some idiotic thing to try and feel like you have some sort of control over the situation."
Her hand was flying through the air before she realized it, and it smacked against Heero's cheek with a startlingly loud sound. "What gives you the right, Heero?" she snapped while his eyes were still wide with surprise. Alleys were really turning out to be unkind to him. "What gives you the right to suddenly drop in on my life out of nowhere and tell me with your overwhelming arrogance that everything I'm doing is wrong? That our government is heading in the wrong direction? That... that..."
The fact that her anger quickly evaporated, leaving her only gasping for words, in no way kept Heero from noticing how Duo was doing only a barely decent job of muffling his snickers. When Heero turned a sour glare in his direction, Duo waved his hand in apology and turned around to take a few steps away from them, shoulders still shaking in laughter. With a silent sigh of annoyance, Heero returned his attention to the woman in front of him, the slap already excused and forgotten. He had a feeling that the proper thing to do would have been to pat her on the shoulder or something, but he wasn't so into that sort of thing. He decided he was lucky that Relena wasn't the sobbing type and decided to just keep on slogging forward. "I have the right because I've been through one of these government programs of yours, and I've got to say, it kind of sucked."
She blinked at him, trying to process his words through the turmoil in her mind. Things that she had counted on were being pulled out from beneath her, and she had a terrible sense of foreboding that things were about to change. "What do you mean, Heero?" she whispered, not wanting to hear the answer.
"I think it's great that everyone has the same goals these days, but it's as pathetic as ever that they all still can't come to an agreement on how to proceed. That's what's causing this mess, Relena. You can't get anywhere without deciding on a clear course of action and following through on it. And you have the power to help make that happen. Why don't you do that, instead of trying to pretty up the problem. There may be little you can do in the face of the obstinate foolishness of others, but it has to be better than putting on a nice white dress and smiling for the cameras and playing along with their inane plans."
He had one last thing to say. "You went and granted all of us citizenship after the first war. As a citizen of Sanq, I expect more from my princess."
It wasn't often she was left speechless. Without a response at the ready, she recovered by merely seizing upon her last coherent thought. By fortunate coincidence, it felt important. "...What do you mean, it 'sucked', Heero? What have you been doing these last five years?"
He stared at her long enough to determine that she wasn't just brushing off his words, only leaving them for another time, before he answered succinctly, his usual brevity restored. "Nothing."
Not for the first time, she cursed the reasoning that had severed the connections between all of them. Despite the missing years, however, she correctly recognized that Heero was being merely concise, not uncommunicative. "But... you were going to start over. Try new things. Find yourself."
Now resigned to his unproductivity, he shrugged. "Hard to do when you're living under restrictions and guidelines."
"But those were..." For their own good? For the good of everyone else? She choked on the thoughts with a shiver. She labored beneath the same rules, and understood that things hadn't turned out as easy or as well as they had all hoped.
Things started shifting before her eyes. Heero was just sloppily dressed before, or maybe he was hiding from the media, much as she often did, but now, oh now she realized that it took time for hair to grow shaggy, that his slouch hadn't gone away once they started talking. She looked over towards Duo's back, and even though she had never known the other pilot well, she thought that he seemed even harder than he had during and immediately following the wars. That cynical look in his eye had only gotten worse. She suddenly saw something else she had missed. "Heero... why are you here? How are you here? With him? Here, in a back alley behind a dress shop?"
With a thoughtful twist to his lips, Heero shrugged again. "I needed to talk to you."
"I heard you were getting married."
She had thought that perhaps this had only been small talk, as all matters of marriage had been with others for the past month. She should have known better. Heero Yuy did not do 'small talk'. She glanced over to where Duo was still standing.
As if sensing the eyes on his back, he turned with a smirk over his shoulder to answer the unspoken question. "I'm just along for the ride, princess."
When he turned back to his lazy scrutiny of the entrance to the alley, she thought that maybe they weren't hiding from the media. "Are... are you supposed to be here?"
"Not really," Heero answered blandly. "Contact between any of us is discouraged, remember?"
"I heard from my brother yesterday," she said, trying to make it sound hopeful and not desperate. By virtue of their blood relation, they had managed to stay in touch. "When I first wrote him, he said he would be here before the wedding, but... life intervened, I suppose. He just let me know he wouldn't be able to make it. Oh, I so wanted him to be there. He... he said that he approved, though, and gave me his blessings, but..." It was so difficult to tell what a person was really thinking through his words alone. The phrasing had seemed a little stilted. Was there another reason he would not be attending? The brother she knew would have been there, hell or high water. It hurt to think that he could find the idea so distasteful that he could not bear to be present.
Since Heero thought that Zechs and Noin both would probably have some uncharitable thoughts about the matter, he wisely held his tongue and tried to find something else to say first. "Hm. I forget that Zechs was raised a prince. Maybe he would understand," Heero eventually offered half-heartedly. Milliardo was a prince. Zechs was just a soldier with an odd sense of honor, a sometimes annoying penchant for the grandiose, and a skewed idea of how one would go about establishing peace throughout the solar system, but just maybe Milliardo might understand.
Relena smiled weakly, knowing what Heero thought, and appreciative of the effort because of it. "And Pargan, too. He's been there for me for as long as I can remember, and now he isn't. He's already sent his regrets for being unable to attend. What a cruel world it is when even our lifelong bonds must inevitably be broken."
"He doesn't work for you anymore?"
"No, he retired to L4-Horizons two years ago."
"Not on Earth?"
"He had some trouble with his heart two years ago. Oh, I feel so terrible about it. It's my fault I didn't realize. He came with me to a summit in L1, and I just didn't think about how stressful that would have been on him. I was just so used to having him with me, and he didn't say a thing, bless his soul. But while we were there, his heart started giving him trouble, and the doctors recommended against re-entry..." She flexed her hand, probably feeling the pain of the slap more than Heero did, and was struck by the sudden fear of their connection slipping away yet again. "I'm sorry, Heero. I didn't mean to..."
He shrugged it off. "I probably deserved it."
She was unwilling to be forgiven so easily. "I just... I guess I expected you to..."
The sentence was cut off before it could be finished. Heero had recently fallen short of a number of old expectations, and it did not please him to be reminded of it. "Well, I suppose that soon, you'll be expected to look for support from your beloved husband, this Karl of yours. Who is this guy, anyway?"
Pushing rarely got anywhere with him. That much she knew. She let a short silence between them stand as another apology and a bit of a disapproving frown before she answered. "You've met him before, I think. He was a classmate at St. Gabriel's."
Heero scratched at his chin. This unshaven thing was annoying. "Jurgensen. Karl Jurgensen. Karl..." His eyes widened. "HIM!? That... that... that pansy! You're marrying him?! But he's...!"
"Psst, Yuy," Duo said, hustling back to their side with an amused look on his face. "Hate to break up the party, but the secretary lady just went into the store. It's time to get out of here."
"But he's... such a pansy!"
Duo choked on another laugh. "Um, yeah, okay. Listen, princess, it's been real, but we gotta get going." He glanced over his shoulder when he heard the buzz of the crowd out front change in tone. "Shit," he muttered, grabbing Heero's arm. "Let's move, Yuy."
Relena intercepted them and gave Heero a quick peck on the cheek before he could evade it, the very cheek that had so recently made the acquaintance of the palm of her hand. It would have to serve as one last hasty apology. She had so many more questions to ask, so many more things she wanted to say, but there was no more time. There would be serious consequences if they were found, and tying up some loose ends between them seemed insignificant in comparison. She set all of that aside and said the most important thing of all. "Take care, you two. I'm glad you came."
Heero had to let only eye contact say goodbye for him as Duo wrestled him back behind the trash bin a mere second before Relena's bodyguard appeared at the head of the alley. "Miss Relena?" he called out softly, heading their way.
With an aborted look back towards her old friends, she started walking towards the bodyguard, granting them a larger safe distance. "Schaefer," she said at the halfway point.
"Miss Relena, what are you doing here?" he scolded her not unkindly. "Are you alright?"
There was only the slightest hesitation before she donned a chagrined smile. "Yes, Schaefer, I'm fine. I'm sorry to have worried you. I'm afraid I just wanted to steal a minute for myself."
The man sighed. "In the future, please try not to do it in a dark alley. Someone dangerous could have been lurking back here..." Their voices trailed off as he shepherded her back to the car.
Duo removed his hand from Heero's mouth. It had been a somewhat unnecessary precaution, but it had amused him to do so. It had also amused him to let his other hand coincidentally find a hold on Heero's groin as he pulled them back into a sprawl under the cover of the garbage bin. His teeth had also just happened to find a playmate in the lobe of Heero's ear, which perhaps made the hand over Heero's mouth just a little more necessary.
Heero elbowed him in the gut for it all before twisting around. He would delay breaking cover completely until he was sure that Schaefer wouldn't catch a lucky glance of them down the alley as the limo pulled away. "He's a fucking pansy, Duo."
If things hadn't been so damned funny, Duo might have felt a bit put out by this little sidetrip. "Dude, who calls people 'pansies' these days?" He rolled his eyes when Heero pretended not to pout defensively. "Well, pansy or not, there you have it. The little lady is set on marrying the guy. Now can we get back to the whole, someone was trying to kill you, thing?"
Heero brooded for a few moments before shaking his head. "I want to talk to Pargan."
The story of Heero visiting each and every one of the Noventas came to mind. How the bloody hell had Trowa put up with it? Duo was tired of it after just one. "Well, fuck, are you going to go visit Zechs, too? Maybe the grave of her father? Both of them? Maybe she has a pet cat you'd like to speak with?"
"Hm. Zechs. That sounds like a good idea." He wouldn't be able to get any information out of headstones. Or cats.
Glare. "I thought you said you didn't give a shit."
With only a mild blink, Heero shrugged. "I didn't. I guess old habits are just hard to break."
"Yeah? Tactlessness counts as a habit, too, eh?"
"Shut up, Duo." He wasn't certain what habit this was all about, anyway. Protection? Completion? Survival was another habit he was just getting back into. "And why the hell are you so keen on getting me killed, anyway?"
"What, you think I signed on for my own health? I'm only here because there's someone out for your blood, and I want in on a little of the action. I'm not here so you can go chasing down your princess. Unless you want to get yourself slapped again, 'cuz yeah, that was fun."
Not the word he would have used, though he supposed he was glad that she still had that passion in her. He resisted the urge to lay his hand to the offended cheek and feel for heat, with a sudden surge of sympathy for Mariemaia. He'd heard the story. Relena really knew how to put her whole arm behind a swing. "Then don't come along. I'm going to see Pargan, with or without you."
"Goddamn, but you're one obsessed bastard." He let his head fall back against the cardboard boxes he was using as a seat and stared up into the colony sky in exasperation. "Get over the crush, man. It was years ago."
"I don't have a 'crush' on her, Maxwell."
"Yeah?" He lifted his head again to cock an eyebrow at him in challenge. "Then explain yourself."
"I just..." He had no explanations, really. Only a sudden, startling realization that he hadn't felt this interested in anything for a long time, and a sudden fear that, if he let go of it, he'd never be able to find it again. "I just care what happens to her, okay?"
"You heard the lady: she can take care of herself. And she proved it, too. She managed to sucker slap the great Heero Yuy." He chuckled. Now that had been one hell of a classic moment. "Now can we get back to trying to find someone to kill you?"
"If there's anyone after me that's worth a fight, he'll find me. I've got better things to do than wait around for this guy." He pulled himself free of Duo's entangling limbs and climbed to his feet. "Now, you in or you out?"
Though he sported a much put-upon face, Duo snorted in capitulation. "Fine, we'll do things your way. But after this much trouble, the guy that comes for you had better be good."
last modified : 1/7/2006 20:16:21 PST