As she studied his face with an appropriately blank, rapt expression, she decided that he wasn't bad-looking. He was even handsome, if in one of those classical senses. Perhaps a neat beard in the future, like his father's, might firm up his chin and lend him a bit of dignity. He had clear skin and good teeth, at the least. And impeccably groomed blond hair. Nothing like that wild, inviting mess that sat on top of Heero's head...
She masked her small sigh as a dainty exhalation across the surface of her tea to cool it. She could entertain her notions about her white knight all she liked, but it was obvious to her that Heero was going to be one of those highly proper knights that would never even think of touching her that way. Maybe the sort that sighed over some secret dream, but never pursued it because of the duty that bound him to his lady. Oh, that was depressing, to have them both caught in an unrequited limbo. Better perhaps to release him from his obligations so they could both be free to move on.
But since when had it been she that had caught him in the first place? No, as she recalled, it was Heero that had taken up the gauntlet on his own. He had swept into her life and arbitrarily decided that he was going to protect her and her ideas. That was hardly her fault, right?
Alright, so maybe she was still a little miffed at her knight. His words had haunted her since their meeting, mocking her decisions at every turn. He had such power over her, to be able to completely uproot her values and her convictions in five easy minutes. It was like she was nothing, and she felt weak and vulnerable in the face of it. Dorothy's admonitions the next day had hardly helped.
Two against one. The odds were in their favor, not hers, and they were two people that she had always respected for having the strength of will to get things done. Perhaps it was time she resigned herself to the fact that they spoke true. How else could she ever expect to be strong enough to let Heero go? He would never leave if she continued to require saving.
Karl paused in his narrative of thai silks, surprisingly attentive enough to figure out that her attention had wandered. "Lennie, dear, what's wrong?"
She grit her teeth, and hid it with a smile. Ugh, she hated that name, and she'd told him it didn't agree with her. He had nodded sympathetically and continued to use it. It had spawned the day after their engagement had been finalized, and he pulled it out far too often, as if he could assert ownership of a sort by using a name only he had the right to use. But it was terrible, she thought. It made her sound like a used car salesman, or maybe a bail bondsman. Had he no sense of decorum? Even in private, that was not the sort of name one called a fine young lady. "Nothing, Karl. Nothing. I'm sure the texture of the silks will contrast marvelously with the upholstery."
He was like a child, and easy to please. It used to be one of his more charming traits, but now.... she was far from the child she used to be. She had changed, and he had not. This new version of herself could get tired of speaking frivolously of curtains and paintings. Once again, it would seem that her two wise advisors had been correct. She missed clashing political swords with Dorothy. She missed reading articles from the newspaper aloud to Pargan. She missed sitting in on the Senate sessions and keeping track of what was shaping the world around her. She missed being able to do something about even the small things people brought to her attention in the marketplace. But that didn't mean that it was her place to do those things anymore, or that she had the strength to do them anymore.
"Lennie, are you quite certain that nothing is the matter?"
There that wretched name was again, and it tipped a scale somewhere. "Karl, I've asked you not to call me that before," she said mildly. If she could do something about this one small thing, then maybe, just maybe she might start believing in her own power again. She was tired of being tired and helpless.
Karl blinked at her, slightly taken aback. It seemed a little startling to see no real comprehension in his eyes. "Lennie, my darling, I don't know what you mean."
"It's simple enough, Karl. I've told you that I don't like that name. I've asked you to stop calling me that. And yet you persist. Why?"
He stammered for a moment before finding his answer. "I... It's just a pet name, dear. I'm just trying to show my affection for you. Are you saying that you don't want me to show my affection for you?"
"I'm saying I might appreciate a little respect, Karl. I hope you have enough affection in you to respect my wishes."
"Well, of course I do, Le-- Relena. Don't say such ridiculous things. I love you. I want to make you happy."
It occurred to her that she had never once said or even thought such things about him. "Then stop calling me that."
"I'm afraid I really don't see what you find so offensive about it, Relena. You're imagining slights where there are none."
"Simply because you don't understand is not a sufficient justification for ignoring my wishes." She had a flashback to the war, to lecturing to a classroom full of young girls sent to her academy to learn about pacifism. She remembered Dorothy sitting at the back of the class, making each day an interesting challenge. And the conspicuous, powerful presence of Heero, and the strange paradox of Quatre Raberba Winner. Alas, the academy had dwindled away into nothing long ago. But the principles stood. "The first step to communication and understanding is acceptance of equality."
Karl puffed himself up haughtily. "There's no need to lecture me, Relena dear. I believe just as strongly in the principles of pacifism as you do."
Then he could prove it by engaging in a meaningful dialogue with her right now. "My feelings are just as valid as yours are, Karl. I dislike the name. Whatever my reasons, that alone should be enough to cause you to rethink your position. If you truly wish to exist in harmony with me, that is."
"Well, of course I do, Relena. There you go again making these silly statements."
"You think pacifism is 'silly'?"
His eyebrows furrowed in annoyance. "Of course not. Now you're just twisting around my words. What I meant was that it's obvious--"
"Yes," she cut him off smoothly, getting a strange little thrill out of it. "Everything I've said is obvious. But there is a world of difference between believing something in theory, and putting those beliefs into action. If you know that you should be respecting my opinions, then you ought to be doing so, don't you think? To fail to do so is simply blind ignorance of one's own actions."
"Relena, what's gotten into you today?" Karl huffed crossly. "It's just a silly nickname."
"I know it is, Karl." But this wasn't just about a 'silly nickname'. It was about Karl using it. It was about the name itself, and it was about the person using it. It was about being reduced to a pet name, and it was about Karl asserting his, his ownership over her at every opportunity. It made her sick to think about it, and she set her tea cup down upon her saucer with a little more force than she had intended. Oh, it smarted that Dorothy and Heero had been so right, but it smarted good. It was the pain of sweet revelation. They were right. They were absolutely right. There was no way she could live like this for the rest of her life, enduring pitiful pet names and talking about upholstery with a man that couldn't even appreciate a good cup of tea.
Between one breath and the next, she calmed and centered herself. With deliberate fingers, she straightened her tea cup so that the handle was in the right place, and with the last thing put into order, she spoke. "I don't think this will work out, Karl."
He flinched in surprise. "Wha... what do you mean, you don't think this will work out?"
"I mean I've been thinking about this. This upcoming marriage of ours. And I simply don't think it will work, on neither a personal level, nor a political level."
"But... But that can't be." He looked a little pale.
She lifted her eyebrows at him, wishing she could do only one of them at a time. She always felt properly chastised when Heero did it to her. "Presuming for the moment that we worked well together on a personal level. Politically, I think the people could benefit far more if we were to pursue other avenues. They don't need more speeches and pretty smiles right now. What they need is relief. What they need is help. They need people on the ground, supporting them, encouraging them. They need to attract investors. They need--"
"No." It started out a little weak, but it strengthened by the end. "Absolutely not! You don't know what you're talking about, Relena. The people need hope. You can give them hope. That is what you want, isn't it? Don't you think--"
"I think that there are many ways to rejuvenate the people, Karl, some of them more useful than others. I'm simply trying to propose an alternative plan."
He spluttered. "But think of the people, Relena! It would be demoralizing now. Think of what they'll think if you call this off!"
Maybe they'd be proud of her. She knew at least two people that would be. Three or four, or even five, maybe. They were a good start. "Well, I'm not saying that we would do it in any fashion fit for the tabloids. And we don't need to do it immediately. Perhaps we could simply postpone the wedding, and in the meantime, work with the people to--"
"But then why call it off at all?" he pleaded. "We can be married and you can still do all these little things you're talking about. We should do everything we can to help the people, not take little baby steps, one thing at a time. They need bold, decisive action. Please, Lennie, I--"
"No, Karl," she repeated firmly. He'd almost had her, up until he'd dragged out that ridiculous nickname again. If calling this off wasn't bold and decisive, then she didn't know what was. She was done with small, ladylike steps. It was helplessness that had made her agree to this union in the first place. "I'm afraid I no longer see how the people will be encouraged by a marriage of convenience."
He stiffened. "Convenience? Relena, darling, don't you... don't you love me?"
Oh dear. "Karl... you know I'm terribly fond of you, but..."
"Fond?" His voice rose to an unattractive level. "Relena, I *love* you!"
"I thought I was your white knight!"
Uh-oh. Where did he...? Of course. The maid. The maid must have gossiped about her conversation with Dorothy. She'd have to have a chat with her. Some things were meant to stay between ladies.
"You can learn to love me, can't you? Won't you?"
She was a bit taken aback by the quivering desperation in his voice. She'd been aware of his little crush on her in high school, but she'd thought it had mellowed out by now. Surely he hadn't forgotten the political motivations behind the proposal. She struggled to find the proper words. "Karl... Maybe I could. But why should we--?"
"It's him, isn't it?" he snarled, only it sort of sounded like a distressed whine as well, as he pushed himself out of his seat to pace agitatedly across the floor. "It's that Yuy, isn't it?"
"Hee--?" She stopped herself from completing the name. What did he know about Heero? She recalled that the two of them had met before. That was what had inspired Heero's little outburst at the end of their conversation behind the dress shop. It wasn't surprising that Karl would remember him; Heero was, after all, a rather remarkable character. But while there had been some disdain for his uncivilized manners, she hadn't known there was such venom behind it as well.
"It is!" He stopped to gesture at her wildly. "I knew it! I just knew that little creep would cause trouble after he got away!"
Little creep? she thought, eyes wide. Not a term she would have associated with Heero Yuy. The implications of the rest of his words caught up with her. Got away? "What do you know about Heero?"
"Well, he can't have you. You're mine. You're going to be my wife, and that's the end of the matter."
"Karl. Don't be ridiculous. You can't just decide--"
"Ridiculous?" His voice cracked on the higher register again. "'Ridiculous' is him thinking he can get away with this!"
"Karl," she tried again. "This has nothing to do with Heero Yuy. This is about you and me, and you can't have a marriage if I don't agree to it."
"All I need for you to do is say 'I do' in front of a minister, and it'll be done. Is that so hard for you!? Two little words! And then everybody would be happy!"
"Karl!" This was becoming vaguely horrifying. She hoped a servant might accidentally walk in on them and somehow defuse this embarrassing situation. "Is that what you really want to do? Do you really want to force me into marrying you?"
"What would be so terrible about it? Do I disgust you that much?"
"Of course not!" Wow, the world was getting very strange all of a sudden. She'd just wanted him to stop calling her 'Lennie'. It was supposed to be a first step, not a snowballing cascade of hysteria. "I only said I didn't think this would work out. You're getting far too carried away, Karl. We can work this out. Please, just sit down, and let's talk about this reasonably."
"Yes! Let's!" He rushed back to his chair and sat in it hastily, leaning over the table towards her and nearly knocking over his tea cup in the process. "You're going to be reasonable about this? Yes? Oh, Relena, you'll see. I'll be a wonderful husband to you. I'll do everything in my power to make you happy."
She laughed nervously. "Karl, I didn't say that I was agreeing to marry you!"
He recoiled again for a moment before leaning close again, laying a possessive hand upon the arm she had resting on the table. "Just cooperate with me, Relena! Just cooperate and everything will work out fine!"
"Cooperate?" she repeated, aghast. "What do you think this is, Karl? Some sort of... of..." Lord, she didn't even know what, but she was becoming more certain with each passing second that she wanted no part in this. She winced suddenly as his grip on her arm tightened. "Karl, stop it. Let me go."
"No," he asserted feverishly. "I won't let you go. You promised to be my wife, Relena. I'm going to hold you to that."
"You can't force my cooperation in this!" This... was getting worrisome. She didn't look forward to facing Heero again. He was going to be filled up to his independently moving eyebrows with 'I told you so's.
"Can't I? You'll say 'yes' at the altar, Relena. You'll say 'I do' or... or..." His eyes widened as he stumbled upon a suitable threat. "Noin!"
She jumped in surprise. "What? Noin?"
"Yes, Noin! Your sister-in-law! We--"
The door opened suddenly, and Karl fell silent immediately, the words just drying up in his throat as he gaped. Relena turned quickly towards the open door, looking in stunned relief for her savior, only to find one of the last people she wanted to see.
"That will be enough of that, Karl," the tall man rumbled firmly.
"Father, I--" His eyes darted nervously around the room for a few moments before he realized that his hand had tightened once more on Relena's arm. He released it abruptly and stood.
"I apologize for my son's behavior," Friedrich said to her as she rubbed at her offended arm. "Could I ask you to stay here for a moment while I have a word with him?"
Uncertain of her position, she nodded hesitantly, glancing at Karl out of the corner of eye.
"Now, Karl," the Jurgensen patriarch said pointedly, and his son scurried to his side. They left the room with the door closing solidly behind them.
If she hadn't still been sitting, she would have collapsed into her chair. What had she gotten herself into now? See, this was what happened when she listened to Heero. The man was a born catalyst. Though she shuddered to think what she might have married into had she not listened to her knight. Judging from the voices outside the door, however, she wasn't out of trouble yet.
Friedrich's voice was deep, and carried through the door more as a vibration than as anything audible. The most she heard from him was the stern sound of her fiancÚ's name spoken in reprimand. Karl's voice rose and fell, giving her snatches of the conversation outside. "I love her! ... But she... like a child!... ruin all... Father..."
That did not sound good at all. She tried to compose herself, taking a deep breath and lifting her lukewarm tea to her lips. Her hand was trembling. She put the cup back down before she could spill.
The door opened, and only Friedrich came back inside, an apologetic smile on his face. He shut the door behind him and took the seat his son had recently occupied. "Once again, Relena, I apologize for my son's behavior. I'm afraid that, as a parent, I may have made life a little too easy for him."
Not quite in a forgiving mood, she failed to make herself dismiss the matter. Left with no other recourse, she merely nodded her head demurely in acknowledgment. The lack of acceptance failed to faze him. He simply weighed her with steel gray eyes. Unsettled by the studious look, she fell back to a hostess' role. "Would you care for some of the cake your son brought today?"
He shook his head without a glance for the table setting. "No, thank you." After a brief pause, he laughed. "You're strong, Relena. What a fine wife you will make for my son."
Relena cleared her throat nervously. "Friedrich... it seems that perhaps Karl didn't tell you what we were just discussing..."
There was no hint of doubt on his face. "You *will* make a fine wife for my son."
She hid a flinch, and tried stay reasonable. "Now, Friedrich, you know I've always been fond of Karl, but after some thinking--"
"Relena," he cut in quietly. "Dear, sweet Relena. You can't call off the wedding now. Think of the people around you that might be affected by such a hasty decision."
A small shiver ran down her back. There were questions floating in the air, and she wasn't sure she wanted to hear them. "It wasn't a 'hasty' decision, Friedrich. Something's... it just hasn't been quite right with me for a while now. And I'm sure the people will understand, especially if we give them something else to buoy them in these times. We can simply postpone the wedding at first, and then call it off for good after things have stabilized. In the meantime, we can continue working to start up the programs and projects that are just now getting off the ground. There's so much we can do for them."
"I wasn't really thinking about them, Relena." Friedrich leaned back comfortably in his seat, large hands cupping one knee as he crossed one leg over the other. "I was thinking about the people closer to you."
Her heart skipped a beat. "What... whatever do you mean? I know that my brother wanted to attend the wedding, even if he said he couldn't make it, but I'm sure he will understand my decision after we've had a bit to talk about it."
Friedrich's easy smile grew both edged and patronizing. "Ah, yes, Milliardo, our wayward prince. And let us not forget your erstwhile guardian, as well."
"Your charming knight, the former Zero-One. Where is he, Relena?"
She swallowed through a sudden constriction of her throat. "Heero? Why do you people keep bringing him up? I haven't seen him for years. Why would I know where he is?"
He knew. There was certain knowledge gleaming through in his eyes. "You met with him, Relena. You spoke to him in an alley behind the dressmaker's."
"I... I did no such thing." Stay calm, she chanted to herself. Just stay calm. And get rid of that ridiculous quiver in your voice! She didn't know what the game was, but she knew she didn't want to get caught out in some unintentional admission. "That's absurd. What would he be doing in an alley behind my dressmaker's?" Sometimes, the truth was stranger than fiction.
"There's no need to lie, my dear. Schaefer told me all about it."
"Schaefer?" She thought wildly back to the encounter in the alley, trying to see where her guard fit into the picture. Was it possible he had spied on them? But Duo had been watching over them. He wouldn't have let something slip through his guard. Would he? Maybe he was out of practice? "Schaefer met me outside and escorted me back to the car through the crowds."
"He was there," Friedrich persisted levelly. "This 'Heero Yuy'."
While Karl was familiar with him in the flesh, he and Friedrich had certainly never met. What would Friedrich know about him? Only what his son could tell him, perhaps, or what was in the files, neither of which would give him an accurate picture of the man. She took a little confidence from that thought. Overestimated or underestimated, surely Heero could take advantage of such misconception. And maybe she could talk her way out of this, too. "If Schaefer was there, and if he saw Heero, and if you want to find him, then why don't you already know where he is? Why did Schaefer let him go?"
A frown passed over Friedrich's face. "He was doing his job of protecting you, my dear. You know you shouldn't be associating with such subversive elements of society."
"Subversive?" Her laugh was a little breathy. "This 'subversive' element helped to save this world not once, but twice."
"He's a soldier," he returned flatly. "He goes against everything pacifism stands for. You're a symbol, my dear. You must take that into consideration. It's difficult, I know. You're young. You're idealistic. You're filled with bright dreams and hope for the future. You're lucky you have advisors to help guide you with their wisdom and experience."
"I have advisors," she conceded, a hint of something unyielding underneath. "And I appreciate all of the advice they have to offer. But ultimately, I am the one that must make my own decisions."
"And may you continue to make wise decisions, child, and not just for your own sake."
The ominous warning sat heavily in her gut. "I am well aware of my position, Friedrich." Which was why she was staying the course she had chosen. While she still wasn't quite sure what she had stumbled into, she already felt better blundering with her eyes wide open. If nothing else, the fear that gripped her at the thought of being drawn into such a thing unaware and being an unwitting accomplice to something would keep her resolve firm. If Heero was going to pop up out of nowhere, and with no particular provocation, then why couldn't he have popped up sooner? Her engagement had been all over the news. That had been the entire point of the engagement. What took him so long to show up and tell her what he thought? She was going to give him a good talking to, the next time they met.
"Then you should understand why you will be marrying my son."
"Friedrich, I mean you and your family no disrespect. Please understand that."
"Of course, child." She tried not to twitch. 'Child' was really no better than 'Lennie'. "And please understand that I mean you no disrespect when I say that you will be marrying my son."
She was getting past the fear and into frustration. It was like arguing with Heero, only Heero was much more pretty to look at. And at least she knew that Heero was just dense like that. Friedrich Jurgensen had never proven himself so unreasonable before. "I'm sorry, but I don't understand why you should want your son to suffer an unwilling wife."
"You will be willing, Relena. You will walk proudly down that aisle, and you will say your vows with the firm conviction for which you are known. You'll make a lovely bride."
"I won't," she rebutted immediately, immensely disliking the feeling that he knew something that she didn't. "I'll say no such thing."
"Your sister-in-law. Lucrezia Noin, right?"
This was the second time Lu's name had come up out of the blue. She didn't like it at all. Lu and Milliardo had taken off to Mars not long after the Barton uprising, but she supposed that Friedrich at least would have been familiar with her presence from Noin's tenure as head of Sanq security during the war.
"A lovely woman. And I believe she is with child. With such parents, I'm sure it will be a beautiful, healthy baby. How far along is she now? Five months? Did you know, I hear that she insists on remaining quite active for a pregnant woman. I hope she doesn't strain herself." He smiled, and it sent another chill down a back frozen in shock. "I would be delighted to have you as my daughter-in-law. I do hope you'll reconsider your decision, my dear. There are many that depend on you. I'm sure the people close to you would be hurt thinking that their princess was betraying them by not fulfilling her duties."
After he left, Relena tried to finish her tea. Her hand shook so badly that she could barely get the cup off the table.
last modified : 2/25/2006 00:20:18 PST