"Howdy," Duo greeted the national guardsman that came to inspect their vehicle. "What's all the fuss about today?"
The grizzled man, late thirties or thereabouts, peered in through their windows, failing to note the blanket-covered lump that was Relena huddled on the floor of the small, dark back seat with a duffle bag on top of her. "Oh, just some mess going on up near the capital. There was a bit of trouble up there today."
"Today, huh? Hey, does it have anything to do with the Princess' wedding? That was today, yeah? I wanted to go watch, but then they changed everything around and no one was allowed anymore. Dude, that sucked."
The guard turned away from the back and squinted at him. "You were interested in the wedding?"
"Aw, come on? Who isn't? It's *the* big thing that's supposed to change the sociopolitical landscape of our time, or something like that, isn't it? I think that's what they said on the news, anyway."
"You're not from around here. What was your business in the city?"
"Heh, honestly?" He scratched at the back of his head with an amiability that could have made Heero swallow his tongue, if only he hadn't seen it long ago, during the war. It was a little unnerving to witness it now that Duo's usual demeanor was so different from what it had been before. "See, I got this girlfriend... who's kinda got the itch, if you know what I mean. I might not be a free man for much longer. And, well, she's a chick, and chicks are all over this stuff, right? I mean, it'll be my luck that she goes and wants a wedding exactly like the Princess', yanno? So I thought it'd be handy if I got to see it firsthand. Yanno, to know what I'm talking about when I tell her she's out of her friggin' mind, or that she doesn't really need flowers shipped in from England or something." He sighed dramatically, prompting a very quiet clearing of the throat in warning from Heero. "Well, I guess that plan was a bust, yeah? I hope they televise it at least or something. Otherwise, I'm screwed."
The guard chuckled at his predicament. "Try proposing some way special. Take her on a sweet honeymoon after. The ladies, they like this stuff. And it lasts longer than just the one day. What about your friend over there?"
Duo glanced over at his buddy, tempted to make a joke that would be entirely counterproductive in this situation. He kept the story short and simple instead, spying another guard emerging from their post. "Extra set of eyes. You know, easier to worm out of things if it's someone else that's seen it for himself, too, yeah? Not that it matters anymore."
A junior guard came up to the first, handed him a printout, whispered something in his ear. The first guard glanced at the data, glanced at them, and took a step back. "I'm afraid you're going to have to step out of the vehicle, sirs."
"What seems to be the problem?" Duo asked, readying the gun he had set up. Bulletholes in the panel of his door would be a sure giveaway, but they could always steal another car later.
"We need to check your vehicle. Please exit, both of you, and keep your hands in sight."
Duo turned to his companion with a wry look. "I told you this wasn't going to be easy."
"Now, sirs," the guard repeated, his hand loosening his sidearm in its holster.
Relena couldn't take any more of it, knowing exactly who was going to win this confrontation. "Stop it," she cried softly, struggling to get the blanket off her head. When she finally shook it free, she maneuvered herself into a position visible from the outside. "Stop it. As your princess, I ask you to stop this at once and... and just let us go. Please."
The guards faltered. "Your... Your Highness?"
"Yes." She knew she didn't look it, with her hair mussed and now out of the wedding dress and into the pair of coveralls that Heero had gotten from the Sweepers. "I'm Relena Peacecraft. I understand that you're doing your jobs, but I don't want any of you getting hurt. Please. Let us go."
"You're... you want to go with them?"
"Yes. They're not in any way coercing me. They're my friends, and in fact, they've just kept me from making a terrible mistake, so please, I know I'm asking a lot, but could you please just pretend you never saw us and let us through?"
The first guard scratched at his chin, thinking the matter over while the two pilots in the car sat in tense silence, still ready to strike if things didn't go their way. The guard looked thoughtfully down the road in both directions, then towards his comrade, before shrugging. "I never did think the wedding was a great idea, truth be told. Begging yer pardon, of course, Your Highness."
The second, younger guard's eyes widened comically. "Brock--"
"Cool it, Marsden," he ordered with a mellow amusement. "Get on back to the post, if you're so worried."
Marsden hesitated before deciding quiveringly to stand his ground. "I... I didn't think you should marry him, either, Your Highness," he whispered, averting his eyes shyly.
She laughed, trying to make it a reassuring sound, though it probably came out somewhat nervous. "Then you're far wiser than I, I'm afraid."
"Who issued the orders for the roadblock?" Heero cut in.
"Them Jurgensens," the senior guard answered. "We've orders to use whatever force necessary to take the Princess back, just so's you know. Got me a bit of the feeling that they didn't much care who was harmed, even the Princess herself. And you boys, they got your pics sent out to every outpost. Are you sure you're not psychotic terrorists bent on disrupting the peace?"
Well, no, but they weren't going to admit that. "Psychotic? Is that what they're calling us?"
The guard shrugged. "You're armed and dangerous and they want you detained if possible. Mentally disturbed, maybe it was. And something about you having some sort of hold over the princess here. You sure you're not being forced?" he directed toward the back of the car.
"Quite sure," she answered, putting on a smile to cover the question of whether she might not be a little crazy herself right now.
"And you're sure they aren't crazy?"
"Absolutely." She didn't allow there to be a pause before answering.
"Because we'll stop them if they're kidnapping you."
Duo bared his teeth in a smile. "No, you won't."
"We should be going," Heero murmured before things could go any further.
"Thank you," Relena said earnestly as Duo shifted the car back into drive. "I'm sorry if you get into any trouble."
The guard waved her words away. "Nah, don't worry 'bout it, Your Highness. We can take care of ourselves. You just gave us your royal permission to let you go, and last time I checked, you still had more power in these parts than they did. You be safe now. I'd avoid Highway Thirty-three, if I were you, and maybe a bit of the Crossfield district. Office chatter says that that's where a bunch of government flunkies got their posts and such."
She thanked them again before the car sped away. Brockovich watched them go, waving amiably at their back window. She sure was a pretty young lady. No wonder Marsden had such a crush on her. Once they were a decent distance away, he stretched and headed back to his post.
Marsden trailed along behind him. "But sir... They're armed and dangerous. And unpredictable. And mentally disturbed. And a threat to Her Highness. And..."
"Didn't look like they were trying to harm her to me." A guy could never trust what came out of the mouths of bureaucrats. "Looked pretty normal, in fact."
"But... What... what should we tell our superiors?"
He settled back into his seat with a satisfied air. "What do you mean?"
"I mean... we let them go, sir."
"We were told to be on the lookout for a princess and her kidnappers, Marsden, two men that stole Her Highness away from the middle of her wedding ceremony, and I didn't see any kidnapped princesses here, did you?"
"Uh. No, sir, no kidnapped princesses here."
Duo kicked Heero's boot as he walked by on the way to the bathroom. "Watch your language, bitch."
Heero rose partially to throw a retort at his back, but he caught sight of Relena hovering uncertainly by the room's table and stopped himself with an almost shamefaced look. "Just ignore us," he said by way of apology, sitting up all the way. "When this is over, you can compare notes with Noin about how annoying the two of us are when we're together. And don't stand so close to the window."
She glanced reflexively at the window before pointing out the obvious. "But the curtains are closed."
He shrugged. "Still a point of vulnerability. I'm sorry you have to room with the two of us."
She sat down tentatively next to him and offered a small smile, pulling the ends of her sleeves over her hands in an old, shy habit. It was one of the reasons she had all of her suits tailored to the proper length. "It's alright. It's better than rooming with him, 'til death do we part."
He chuckled. "That's not saying much."
"How long are we going to stay here?"
A small sigh escaped him. Like everyone else, it seemed sometimes, she was looking to him for the answers. He was almost willing to disappoint her. Almost. "...For the night, at least. We'll have to take stock of the situation, figure out where we want to go from here."
Duo came out of the bathroom, distracting the two of them for a while as he stretched. "Bastards didn't give us enough towels or anything. I'm gonna go scrounge some up."
"There was a shop or something downstairs," Heero said. "We should see about getting Relena something different to wear." The coveralls, though practical, were not what a young lady would normally wear on the streets. Especially not with white satin heels. "Some flip-flops or something, if they have them."
He glanced at the footwear Relena was self-consciously trying to hide beneath the bedskirt. Even flip-flops would be more practical than heels. "Yeah. Okay. Anything else, master?"
"Don't tempt me," Heero murmured, one eyebrow tilted up in wry humor.
"Hn. Sounds like I should get out of here before things get out of hand. I'll just leave you lovebirds alone, then. I'll be sure to knock before coming back in."
"Just get out of here."
Duo saluted him mockingly before heading out the door.
The remaining two sat in silence for a while before Relena started again.. "So... Lu's really okay?"
"Yeah," he answered. "Apparently, she's friends with the Sweepers. They were transporting her back to Zechs in the L1 cluster when we left her."
"And the baby?"
"The docs checked her out. Everything okay, so far as we know."
"A few injuries resisting capture. He was okay, too, last time we saw."
"And..." She struggled to find the next question burning in her mind. Although Duo was apparently Heero's friend, she felt the need to get a personal talk with Heero out of the way while Duo was out of the room. She could get back to the politics later. She kicked off her heels and set her feet on the bed, pulling her knees up to her chest. "How are you, Heero?"
That question wasn't nearly as simple as it sounded. "...Can you be more specific?"
"We didn't get the chance to talk much before you had to rush off, last time. I... I want to know how you've been. I want to know more about what you've been doing these last five years. You said things weren't... weren't..."
"Good?" He sighed and lay back down onto the bed again. "They weren't bad. They just weren't... good."
"But... they were supposed to help you," she said with an internal wince, hearing the painful na´vetÚ there.
"They didn't." It sounded too harsh to him, too final. He tried to explain without really going into it. "Maybe they started out with that in mind... We just found out that they planned it, though. The Jurgensens, EUW, whoever. They took over the program at some point, and then someone decided it would be better to keep us contained than to help us assimilate. They just wanted to neutralize us. And they did. They did it so well, we barely even noticed. They just... stopped us from getting anywhere."
She hugged her knees tighter to her chest, wanting in reality to be hugging him, but unsure of her reception. "Oh, Heero... But they failed, didn't they? In 'neutralizing' you. You're here, after all. You're still out and foiling their plans."
"Don't be so sure of that," he murmured. "They got me. They got me good."
"How... how can you say that, Heero? You saved me, you saved Lu, you saved Mil. How can you say that?"
"Because it's different in here," he said, tapping the side of his skull. "I didn't say my skills were gone or anything. I just..."
"You just what?" she asked softly, knowing she wasn't going to like the answer.
"I just... When you can't touch the world... the world stops touching you."
"I'm sorry, Relena," he apologized, feeling as if he had failed her somehow.
"No..." It started out as a denial that such an apology was necessary. It turned into a general denial shortly thereafter. She uncurled a little as she faced him, the better to confront him with. "No, Heero. Then why are you here? Why did come see me to begin with? Why have you helped all of these people that I care about? You can't mean all of these terrible things. You just can't."
He raised himself partially on one elbow. "Relena..."
She threw herself at him suddenly, burying her face in his shoulder and pushing him back flat against the mattress. "Why, Heero?" she asked, close to tears but not quite. It was more desperation and fear than anything else, maybe something that had been building up all day and all week and maybe even for months. She depended on Heero, needed him to be solid and unwavering. "Why do you always have to turn my world upside down? Why can't you ever just, just drop in for tea?"
Huh. What was the proper response in this situation? He patted her awkwardly on the back. "I don't really drink tea."
Her laugh came perilously close to a sob. She choked it down. "Did you know, Heero, I used to think about you. I used to think about what you'd do if you were in my position, or what you'd expect from me, and I'd try to live up to that--"
"Don't, Relena," he whispered in a pained voice. "Don't... use me as a guide. Don't look up to me. Don't respect me. And by all that's holy... don't try and be like me. I don't want you to be like me. I don't want you to end up like me."
"I don't understand, Heero." She pushed herself off of him to look down at him and try to figure him out. It didn't help much. "I don't... Why wouldn't I? You get things done. You motivate other people to be and do their best. You're strong--"
"No, Relena. I'm not. I'm really not." He let his eyes fall shut on the image of the blank ceiling and the distressed damsel, and tried to imagine a world where he was just another guy. A nobody, and not simply because there was someone out there trying to make him that way. They did it because he was important, and he didn't want to be important. Well, maybe important to just one or two people. He could manage that, maybe. But other than that... just normal.
When Duo got back to the room, Heero was still flat on his back. Relena had retreated to the other bed, arms wrapped around herself in a defensive huddle. Well, he thought to himself. This was awkward. But that wasn't his problem. He tossed a parcel onto the bed next to Relena. "There you go, Princess. It's all they had. A touristy shirt, some cheap flip-flops, probably for the pool, but no pants or anything. I think you'll just have to settle for tying the sleeves of the coveralls around your waist. It'll probably look better after you get out of the man's undershirt. And I asked for more bathroom stuff. They said they'd send someone up with some."
Relena glanced hesitantly down at the bag, then over to Heero before she picked it up and went to the bathroom to change and wash up. Once the door was closed behind her, Duo sat down next to Heero and poked him in the side. "Hey, I thought you were supposed to be all happy once you saved the princess."
Heero looked at him tiredly before grabbing the front of his shirt and pulling him down for a fast, needy kiss. Duo wasn't one to complain, going so far as to thoughtlessly participate before he pulled away with a soft gasp to stare at Heero in surprise. Heero looked back at him, the weariness picking up an edge of intensity. "I know why you do it, Maxwell."
Shirt still held in a tight grasp, Duo blinked at him from only a short distance away. "Huh?"
"I know why you do it. You said as much yourself. To forget. If just for a moment. To forget. And to feel... feel like... you're nothing."
Duo jerked himself out of Heero's hold, an immediate denial on his lips, only staring at Heero, he couldn't bring himself to speak it. There was too much understanding there for plausible deniability.
There was a knock on the door, and he jumped, turning toward the sound with a snap of his head. "I have your towels and other amenities," a voice called.
Running a hand through his bangs, Duo got up and went to the door, studiously avoiding even a single look at Yuy. He was distracted enough that he almost forgot to check out their visitor through the peephole.
After accepting the items and shutting the door behind the delivery man, the bathroom door opened a crack and Relena peered through it timidly. "It's alright for me to come out, right?"
It was a sad day when even the pampered princess was thinking better about security than he was. He waved her into the room, startled again when the TV suddenly turned on. Heero had found the remote control and located a news channel.
The picture solidified into a weepy-eyed Karl Jurgensen, just finishing up his plea to the public. "--want Relena back safe."
His father pushed him gently out of the way and took his place in front of the microphones. "Of course, we are all deeply distraught by this disturbing turn of events. It seems inconceivable to us that certain discontent segments of society would feel it necessary to engineer this kidnapping of a world leader in the middle of her highly anticipated wedding. Relena Peacecraft is a strong, popular figure that is very important to the world community, who has dedicated her life to the cause of pacifism. We don't know what these terrorists think to accomplish by taking her away from us. What could they want that they did not feel could be addressed through peaceful channels? It pains me to think that we could have failed them so badly.
"These terrorists are mistaken if they think that they will get away with this. Pacifism does not equate to passivity. We will carry out whatever steps necessary to rescue the princess from their hands. A philosophy of peace means nothing if we are not strong enough to enforce it, and absolute peace will never be achieved if we give in to terrorism and extremism."
Relena listened to his speech in horrified fascination. "It... sounds right... and yet..."
"Well, Trowa did say something about them being pacifists, didn't he?" Duo remarked to his fellow 'terrorist'.
"Hm. Maybe that explains the weapon. Maybe they're building the power necessary to enforce their pacifist agenda."
"But that's not how it works," Relena whispered. "It isn't pacifism if everyone's peaceful just because all the power is concentrated in a single entity's hands."
Duo shrugged, falling to a bouncing seat next to Heero. Not exactly the person he wanted to be next to at the moment, but less weird than being next to Relena, especially since he refused to acknowledge any weirdness at all. "At least it's straightforward. None of this behind the scenes socio-economic manipulation crap they've been doing 'til now." Heero concurred with a slight nod of his head. Weaponry, they knew how to handle.
Unsurprisingly, that didn't sit too well with Relena as she stayed riveted to the newsfeed. The Jurgensen patriarch went on to spew more pseudo-pacifist rhetoric against these terrible men that had stolen the world's beloved princess away.
Since it was on, Duo listened, too, gaining some small sense of satisfaction at their instant notoriety, even if it was for something entirely incorrect. "Hey, I get it now. Now they have the excuse to put down any of the dissident factions."
Heero grunted blandly. "Hn. Oops."
"I wonder what they plan after that. I really don't get why anyone wants to take over the world, anyway. What do you do after you have it? Then you're stuck with all the little governance things, and how boring is that?"
Relena finally picked up on what they were saying. "What dissident factions?"
"Aw, come on, Princess, don't tell me your tower was that ivory. Unrest's been growing all over the place. There were, what, protests in India? A small riot in Zaire. Rising poverty in Sydney 'burbs. Unemployment somewhere or another. A bombing, where was it, San Francisco? The malcontents are everywhere, these days, and not by coincidence either, Quatre said."
"What do you mean?" Of course she had known about the unrest throughout the sphere, and she'd wanted to do something about it, but she'd never considered the civil disobedience to be outright dissent. The people were just acting out their frustrations.
"He said the whatsamacallem, um, that consortium. EUW? It's been stirring up trouble in these places, inciting and all that. Given what's going on now," he gestured at the TV set, "sounds like they're pretty happy to get a reason for them to go in and do whatever it is they plan on doing. Then again, it's not like the current gov's been all that shy about squishing people they don't like."
"But... what could they be planning? What could they gain? If they were the ones exacerbating the problems in the first place, then they can't be wanting to fix them. The problems wouldn't even be there if they hadn't stuck their fingers into it."
Duo shrugged carelessly. "Maybe they weren't bad enough by themselves to justify fixing. Maybe they just want to rearrange the world according to how they like it. People are like that, you know. Never satisfied with the way things are. Always wanting to try running it their way. Always think they can do a better job."
"That's..." She looked back at the TV. The news conference was over now, and the reporters had moved on to a special segment detailing the 'dissidents' around the world that may have been responsible for the attack on the day's ceremony. These people were innocent of any wrongdoing. "Heero, we have to stop them."
Before she had even finished the sentence, Heero was in motion, getting off the bed in one smooth, silent line and heading out the door. He snagged the ice bucket on the way out, letting that stand as reason enough to vacate the room.
Relena blinked at his sudden departure while Duo let out a low laugh. "Damn. I leave you two kids alone for five minutes, and you can't stay out of trouble." He lay down on the bed casually, one hand behind his head. His other lay on the blankets in the spot Heero had occupied, feeling the warmth already beginning to fade.
"I..." She stared at the door for a while, as if hoping that Heero might come back, or maybe trying to figure out the motivations behind the abrupt act. When Duo shifted slightly on the bed, her attention went back to him, and thus reminded, she went to the empty bed and perched nervously on the edge, facing him. "Duo... Is it true? Heero said... he said that, when you can't touch the world anymore, the world stops touching you. Is that... true? For you, at least?"
He laughed again, not giving much of a damn about how fragile she looked. "Poetic, ain't he? I probably wouldn't have said it half as nice."
"So... it is?"
"I'm getting the feeling you don't want it to be true," he answered wryly.
"I..." She nibbled on her lower lip, a bad habit that she had mostly abolished by use of lipstick, but unfortunately for her at this moment, her time in the bathroom had been occupied by not only changing, but also scrubbing off some of her makeup. "I don't understand."
"You didn't have it so bad."
"What? He's just Heero? He's not supposed to doubt? He's not supposed to not give a damn? Well, tough luck. He does, and he doesn't." And that was a good thing and a bad thing. At least Duo had one up on her. He couldn't believe Heero's change of heart sometimes, but at least he understood it.
"But... If there was something that helped me get through the first war, it was the thought of Heero, of all of you, out there, fighting against all odds for something you believed in, no matter what anyone else said or did. What's happened to that?"
"We haven't stopped fighting for what we believe in, Princess. We just don't believe in this anymore."
"Then why? I still don't understand why you're here, then. Why you came to see me. Heero said..." She trailed off, uncertain of whether or not Duo was privy to such things. After a moment's thought, she decided it was better to move on. If he knew, then he would know what she was talking about. "...but it doesn't make any sense. It doesn't explain anything."
Duo waved his hand in a negligent gesture. He didn't know what Heero had told her, either. "So the boy's got a thing for you or something. I dunno."
"You two have come so far, done so much, learned so much. How can you just stop here?"
He sighed. It was Heero's job to deal with idealistic young females. "Look. Whatever made him go after you in the first place, he went after Zechs because someone asked him to. He went after Noin because someone asked him to. If you really want him to save this good-for-nothing world, maybe you should just try asking him, too."
"What do you think I was doing? I was asking him to--"
"No, you were 'expecting' him to. And he's through with that."
"But... you live in this world. How can you not care about what goes on in it? What happens affects you. It doesn't matter how far you have your head buried in the sand. It affects you, and the world around you. How can you not care?" She shook her head in frustration as her fingers twiddled the corner of a pillow case. "When you can't touch the world anymore... Oh, I just don't understand!" She punched the pillow once before hugging it in a sulk.
"Hn. Good thing you don't. Heero'd probably go declare himself a failure if you did." And that poor boy really didn't need anything else to depress him. Duo sighed, not knowing why he felt the need to defend Heero. Maybe because in defending Heero, he was also defending himself. "Look. Maybe Heero's pretty way of saying things is just confusing. How about my way? The world screwed us over. We put in all this effort, and in the end, nothing really got better. And now they're saying we're psychotic terrorists or something, which is even worse than just being terrorists from the last war, and the world seems to be going along with that just fine. Now you tell me why we should be interested in doing it all over again."
She had no ready answers for him.
last modified : 1/19/2006 00:27:14 PST