9-4-2002

"Domino" Episode 2

A Gundam Wing AU by Anne and Raletha

Feedback:

Anne: anneo @ paradise.net.nz

Raletha: geekpuella @ yahoo.com

Disclaimer: Gundam Wing belongs to Bandai, Sunrise and Sotsu Agency. We are not making any money from this, though we do admit to having fun and losing a lot of sleep.

Summary: Quatre attends Relena's party, while Trowa joins the circus. Heero attempts to retrieve Wing before Zechs and the Alliance can get their hands on it. Meanwhile in the ocean another Gundam appears.

Rating: PG13

Pairings: Eventual 3x4x3, 1x2x1.

Warnings: Angst, mechanical violence, gunplay, language.

Archives:

Anne: http://www.angelfire.com/ab7/shadesandechoes/domino.html

Raletha: http://www.angelfire.com/gundam/serendipity/Domino/domindex.html

Notes: Just a reminder, the premise of this canon based AU is answering the question, "What if Quatre had made a different decision and not become Sandrock's pilot?"

************

Opening Credits

 

The room is quiet; all that can be heard are the first few bars of "Just Communication", as the other pilots attempt to peer over Duo's shoulder. He's glancing around nervously, and reading what appears to be a script.

Duo grins, and winks at Quatre. "At least you're getting some fun in this episode, Cat. Rather you than me though."

Quatre leans over and grabs the script, running his eye down the pages quickly. He turns pale, before passing it to Trowa.

"This is a much worse scenario than facing down a squadron of OZ mobile suits," Trowa comments, placing a comforting arm around his lover. "If this is indicative of what they have in mind, maybe we should start trying to influence them sooner, rather than later?"

"Grease them up?" Duo nods. "Good idea. What do you think, guys?"

Before the other three pilots can give their opinions, Lady Bast enters, followed by Anne and Raletha. "Hi boys," she greets them. "I hope you're behaving."

Wufei, Heero and Trowa exchange glances, while Duo attempts to appear innocent. Quatre is busy leafing through the rest of the script, then looks up and notices the writers after Duo gives him a nudge. He quickly hides it behind his back.

Bast leans over and whispers to the boys. "Remember I know what you're capable of, and in my capacity of beta reader for this series, I am on the look out for signs that you've been tampering with the." She coughs, giving them a meaningful look. "Script."

"So in other words, stop greasing," Anne interrupts. "Bast has already warned us about your tactics, and if you two." She gives Trowa and Quatre a glance, "want 'you know what', I suggest you co-operate."

Raletha smiles benignly at them, the seemingly innocent action reminding them that their fate is very much in her hands, then brings out her secret weapon. Duo's lower lip trembles, as he notices exactly how big the scissors are that she is holding.

"Thank you, Bast, for beta reading," he says sweetly. "And we promise to behave, really we do. Right guys?"

All the Gundam pilots nod vigorously, then Wufei interrupts. "How did you manage to get most of the dialogue for these opening credits?"

Duo's reply is smug and matter of fact. "Because of the title. /The Gundam Called Death." /

Enjoy the episode!

************

~previously~

She felt inside her bag again, this time in the side pocket and handed him an envelope. "It's my birthday tomorrow. I'd really like it if you could come. Please say you'll try."

Quatre slipped the envelope into his pocket. "I can't promise," he said. "But yes, I'll try."

"I suppose that's all I can ask."

He held out his hand. "Nice to have met you, Relena Darlian." She grinned at the formal farewell and took his hand in hers.

"The pleasure is all mine, Quatre Raberba Winner," she replied, matching his tone, before turning to begin her journey home.

/Take care, Relena,/ he thought. /I get the feeling we haven't seen the last of each other./ His fingers curled around the thin invitation in his pocket, his thoughts drifting back to the phrase her father had used on the shuttle.

Operation Meteor.

"Master Quatre?" The familiar voice made him jump. He'd been so focused; he hadn't heard the approaching footsteps. Thank Allah, Rashid had made it after all.

Quatre turned to greet his old friend, aware of the huge grin on his face. "Rashid. It's been far too long. I'm so pleased to see you again."

************

The human race has ventured out from the Earth, seeking to build a future in the space colonies. But under the banner of justice and peace, the United Earth Sphere Alliance has seized control of these colonies, using its superior military power.

It is the year After Colony 195.

However, a few colonists rebel against this oppression and send new weapons to the Earth, disguised as shooting stars. But the Alliance has discovered the existence of Operation Meteor.

************

EPISODE TWO - THE GUNDAM CALLED DEATH

************

As they entered the school gymnasium, dressed and armed for the afternoon's fencing lesson, Heero decided he did not like the other boy walking beside him. The boy, Ken, had approached Heero in the locker room with an air of such arrogance and condescension when he'd suggested they spar together, that the young pilot had been tempted to punch the boy then and there. Unfortunately, satisfying though it may have been to have taken the boy down a peg or two, Heero knew he could not afford the repercussions of such an action. He had tasks he needed to accomplish, and he was running out of time. Further exacerbating the situation, their gym instructor had been nearby and had interceded with the enthusiastic suggestion that Heero allow the magnanimous Ken to take the new boy under his wing and show him around.

However, there was nothing friendly or magnanimous about Ken as far as Heero could discern; the other behaved as if Heero posed a serious threat to him, or his status. Fortunately neither was there anything even remotely dangerous about the sheltered rich boy. Heero had accepted the challenge with a nod and now they stood facing one another. Ken donned his facemask and saluted as he spoke, "Hey, Heero" he began casually, "I heard you ripped up Relena's invitation yesterday. Why'd you do that?" Ken punctuated the last with an overly dramatic flourish of his foil and assumed an /en garde/ stance. [1]

Head bowed and eyes closed, Heero remained still for a moment. /You're my enemy./ He donned his mask without directly acknowledging his opponent.

"I'm her classmate, so it offends me that you'd treat her that way." Ken's tone held a note of derision now, and he nearly surprised Heero with a sudden lunge and passé attack.

Heero's head snapped up as he parried the blow almost reflexively. He'd spent enough time training with assorted weapons and firearms that the /riposte/ he followed with required no conscious thought.

Ken was undeterred and overconfident. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself as a gentleman?" he mocked, pressing forward with his own /remise/.

Indulging the boy for a few more seconds, Heero traded several blows with Ken, but soon tired of the supposed sport. He retreated, allowing the cocky boy to believe he had gained the advantage before suddenly lunging forward, catching the tip of his opponent's blade with his own, the concentrated force of that impact causing both blades to bow and snap. Without flinching, Heero followed through, ending just as the remnants of his blade struck Ken's faceguard, shattering the clear surface of the mask.

/Idiot,/ he thought. Stepping back and removing his mask, he spoke, pitching his voice in a dangerous tone, "I wish you'd told me sooner. I would have given it to you." With that Heero turned and walked out, heedless of the way Ken stumbled and fell behind him or of the tittering that ran through the other students and onlookers.

************

"We're under enemy attack. An unidentified enemy has." The OZ soldier's broadcast finished abruptly as Duo sliced through his suit with his beam scythe.

"Sorry, I couldn't stay and chat," Duo told him, as the guy met the same fate as the other suits unfortunate enough to be in Deathscythe's path of destruction. "But I'm kinda busy right now." He glanced around, frowning. "Geez, you think Howard could be a bit more specific about what I'm supposed to be looking for here. Details help a guy, you know." /Go see what the Ozzies are up to, wreak some havoc, and retrieve whatever they're after before they do. Vague, Howard, real vague./

G's contact on Earth hadn't been quite what Duo had been expecting - nothing could have prepared him for Howard. The guy was cool, even though he did dress and talk like an extra from an old surfer movie, right down to the Hawaiian shirt and dark glasses. Damn good mechanic though, and able to take good care of Scythe; so really what more could he ask for? Apart from an idea of what the hell he was supposed to be looking for down here. Underwater wasn't his idea of fun, although wiping out the Ozzies' suits had been a welcome bonus.

Another enemy suit appeared on his right, heading for him at speed. /Shit, where did he come from?/ Different approach this time might be the way to go. Duo used his Gundam's arms to pull the Pisces apart, the titanium no match for his suit's superior strength, before bringing down the scythe for the crowning blow. Pisces and Cancer, yep those were the names Howard had called the new OZ underwater suits, though he didn't think his new friend had much in the way of info on them. /I suppose enemy specs aren't exactly available for public viewing on an all purpose OZ website. Roll right up, full tour of our new weapons here - Gundam pilots especially welcome. Yeah, right./

His radio cracked as it picked up a transmission between nearby craft. "I can hear explosions. What's happening?"

Duo stifled a laugh./ Hell, you idiot, and your worse nightmares, all rolled into one. /

The voice replying was probably that of an Ozzie superior; it carried a tone of command. "Be careful, the enemy appears to be close by." The rest of the man's message dissolved into static, and Duo almost felt disappointed; as he was curious to discover the effect his activities were having on the morale of the Ozzies. No point in having fun, if you weren't doing it properly.

/What the?/ Several torpedos hit the water, exploding around him, and Deathscythe lurched suddenly in the unexpected turbulence. /Time to pay those idiots above the surface a friendly visit, and remind them how to play nicely,/ he decided.

Duo hit his thrusters, and headed towards the surface, Deathscythe breaking through the waves in one fluid movement, before coming to land on the deck of one of the ships. He fired once, then twice, wiping out two of the vessels before they had a chance to retaliate.

He glanced around, deciding on his next move, bringing his suit close to the observation port as he tried to ascertain the soldier's reaction. Duo grinned - for some reason he felt like a kid staring in at rats caught in a cage.

The men on the bridge stared back at him, clearly panicked. Their captain tried to keep order, but his inferiors were too spooked. After all, Duo supposed it wasn't every day they were attacked by a Gundam. Their loss, not his.

He turned at a whirring noise behind him. Idiots - like a helicopter had any chance of stopping a Gundam? Duo fired his buster shield; the weapon launched from Deathscythe's left arm connecting the approaching craft at high speed, wiping it out in a fiery explosion.

"You'll all die," he told whoever was left alive. "Anyone who sees me has got a date with his maker."

Surrounded by the clouds of fire coloured smoke caused by the death and destruction he'd caused, Duo allowed himself a small nod of satisfaction. Yep, things were going exactly according to plan. All he needed to do now was find whatever it was Howard had sent him to retrieve and life would be sweet.

************

Grimacing, Heero worked the reins more firmly through his fingers, gripping tightly and shortening the length of the leather trailing between his hands and the uncooperative horse's mouth. The spirited animal attempted to toss her head, pulling at the restraint imposed upon her with a snort. The grey mare had given Heero a wild-eyed look of apprehension as soon as the young pilot had approached her in the school stables earlier; she wasn't any happier now.

/Riding a horse surely can't be this hard,/ Heero protested silently, focusing all of his attention on finding a way to maintain his balance on the creature who was most displeased to find him on her back. /It's just a matter of knowing which muscles to tense and which to relax,/ he told himself, trying to find some analogy from previous experience - both actual and simulated. Beneath him the horse bucked and then took advantage of his momentary distraction to canter away from the main group, heading for the wide lawns and manicured shrubbery of the school's grounds.

/Wrong way./ He scowled, gripping onto the saddle with his knees and relaxing his lower back as he leaned forward. /That's better,/ he noted, gradually discovering how to move with the native rhythm of the mare's gait. But his momentary ease was soon forgotten as the horse launched herself from the ground to jump a nearby, low hedge. Gravity temporarily abandoned the boy as the horse flew over the barrier, and he nearly lost his grip on the reins while his right foot lost its purchase in the stirrup. She landed back onto the ground with a jolt, causing Heero to lurch dangerously off-balance before he recovered his seat.

Ignoring the surprised gasps coming from the other riders nearby, all of their mounts behaving in a much more sane fashion, Heero struggled to reassert enough control over the horse to guide her in the direction he desired. The temporary loss of control over the animal would provide a good cover for him to get away from the lesson and take care of some business. Fortunately, the mare now seemed content to comply with the route she was taking her rider, and she finally yielded her attempts to unseat the boy.

Shortly thereafter, Heero had abandoned the horse (who was only too happy to spend the designated lesson time eating grass from the school's carefully maintained lawn) and had, with the aid of a tree and a drainpipe, successfully broken into a third story computer lab in one of the girls' dormitories.

The first thing was to find a means to destroy the Gundam before OZ or the Alliance successfully recovered the suit. He'd hacked into some encrypted OZ transmissions last night and discovered that there was an operation underway to salvage an unidentified object that had fallen into the ocean not far from the coast. It had to be Wing.

Scanning quickly through the listing of military facilities in the region, Heero's attention was caught by the designation: Alliance Marina Weapons Warehouse. /If they insist on advertising, it makes my job easier./ Now he needed to access their inventory to determine the best candidate for his mission.

It didn't long to discover the address of the server running the firewall for the base. Heero's hands flew across the keyboard as he initiated a discrete port scanning utility. Eyes narrowing as most of the packets flung at the firewall were rejected, Heero mentally cursed himself for having not been better prepared for this eventuality. With foresight, he could have employed far more elegant techniques to break into the base's data.

Ah, there was hope, however. A surge of adrenaline accompanied the recognition of a single port that had been left unsecured, and it looked as if it were only listening for an outdated file transfer protocol. He'd found his way in, but the door was only cracked - he needed a wider opening. Without pause - because who knew how alert the base's system administrators were? - Heero launched another application he'd written. It was designed to embed executable code into the wrappers in the packets he was sending to the open port, and establish a server on the other side through which he could gain full access to the data downstream from the firewall.

Soon he was able to connect through the system's vulnerability and after a cursory search through the warehouse database, he found listings of potential armaments: air-to-surface missiles, air-to-air missiles, surface-to-surface missiles, cruiser missiles, and finally - what he needed - deep-water torpedoes.

"These will destroy it," he whispered as he eagerly surveyed the schematics of the torpedoes. "Guiding functions installed... " All he needed to do was program the torpedoes with the coordinates of his Gundam - and he had already recovered that data from the OZ transmissions he'd monitored. With a sinister smile that would have unnerved any witnesses, had any been present, Heero ran a quick script designed to erase all traces of his activity from the base logs, and disconnected from their computers.

He still needed a way to move the missiles from the Marina Warehouse to the wharf nearest the position of his Gundam. He'd left the ambulance hidden not too far from the school in case he required it again, but he still needed a way to get back to it. The coming and going of service vehicles was a persistent activity near the school's cafeteria. He might be able to stowaway on one of them.

But first, he had one last task. "Now for the minor revisions," he murmured, changing the data disk in the drive of the machine he was using. It contained the results of the password sniffer he'd run on the St. Gabriel administration computers that morning.

Logging in through the Bursar's account, he quickly found the file for one Heero Yuy. As his fingers nimbly changed data in each relevant field he spoke. "Heero Yuy. Entrance fees unpaid... cleared. Boarding unpaid... cleared. Bursary funds... cleared." And finally, "Financial check on Heero Yuy... no problem."

Heero glanced at his watch. Twelve minutes had passed. /Not bad./ Plenty of time remained to rejoin the dressage lesson and establish his alibi. Standing and peering out the window he was pleased that his horse hadn't wandered far.

************

Quatre took another sip from his glass, enjoying the slight bite of the cool fruit punch, before glancing around the room again. A small group of girls were standing in the corner giggling, and he was sure he'd seen them staring in his direction more than once. Obviously they were trying to work out who he was, and his connection to Relena. It was almost tempting to walk over, and put them out of their misery, although he was sure that wouldn't exactly be in his best interest.

He was under no illusions of what the girls' intentions were towards him. Quatre had experience as to what female hormones were capable of, from the few sisters who had still been living in the main Winner household. Part of him had always been relieved most of his siblings were residing elsewhere - he'd always been told they were on various resource satellites. The other part wished he could get to know all of them before the time came for him to take over from his father and run the family business.

He sighed.

Having the responsibility of being the Winner heir was something he could well do without at times, but he was still determined to make his father proud, to be the best he could - if only he could do it on his own terms. He and his father had never seen eye to eye on certain subjects; and Quatre knew it was only time before those differing opinions would lead to an argument between them. Hopefully the longer he could avoid that discussion, the more chance he had of winning the elder Winner over - but maybe that was wishful thinking, since the one thing they did have in common was their stubbornness to cling to the ideals they believed in.

"Excuse me," a high pitched female voice asked hesitantly.

/Uh oh./ It was one of the girls who had been eyeing him up for the past half an hour.

Quatre turned, fixing a polite smile on his face. "Yes?"

The blonde girl giggled, then held out her hand in greeting. "Hi, I'm Bethany." Her voice dropped to a near whisper, as she divulged the next piece of vital information. "I'm one of Relena's closest friends, and." She glanced over at the small gaggle of girls watching her, then continued. "Well, if you have any. you know, intentions towards her, I think you should be up front about them."

Quatre stared at her, unsure as to whether he'd heard correctly. "Intentions?" he repeated. The direct approach would be the best under the circumstances. The blond took the proffered hand, and shook it. "My name is Quatre Raberba Winner, and I assure you I have no intentions towards Relena apart from friendship."

Disappointment rolled off Bethany in waves. "Friendship? Oh." Her face brightened, and her demeanour changed as her initial response was replaced by something else entirely. "Good.um. I mean." The blonde girl blushed and Quatre inwardly groaned, as he felt several pairs of eyes scrutinise him carefully. Bethany hooked her arm through his and steered him over to the small group of girls who had been listening to their conversation with great interest.

"Quatre," gushed the blonde, her grip preventing him from politely slipping away, "these are some of the girls from St Gabriel's. Girls." and Quatre couldn't help but cringe as they turned as one, fixing him with their stare. A sudden image came unbidden into his mind of a pack of wild animals hunting their prey, and he knew full well the part he was expected to play in their carefully orchestrated performance. "Girls," repeated Bethany, a note of what could only be triumph in her voice, "this is Quatre Raberba /Winner/."

The glances they exchanged and their reaction to his name said it all. Poor Relena; if these were the type of people she mixed with everyday, no wonder she had been so grateful for his friendship and sympathy.

"How are you enjoying Earth?"

Quatre took a long sip of his drink before replying, taking care to keep his tone polite and interested. "The Earth is very beautiful, and yes I'm enjoying my time here, thank you." It had been wonderful to meet up with Rashid and the other Maguanacs again. Two years had been far too long, and Quatre had settled into their company as though the separation had never taken place. He felt comfortable with them - they treated him like family and in a way they were more of a family to him than his own had ever been. Rashid, Abdul and the others took pride in who they were, and in their association with him. Meeting them when his shuttle had been hijacked had been a turning point in his life, and he had no intention of returning to the way things had been. He had taken a step forward that day, and it was important to continue being proud of himself, to make the right decisions when needed.

"How long have you known Relena?"

"Not long. We met on the shuttle on her return to Earth." The girl nodded, and waited for more details, her disappointment obvious when he didn't give any.

/Operation Meteor./ He'd asked Rashid if he'd heard the cryptic phrase and was sure his friend knew more than what he'd been prepared to share.

"There have been rumours," Rashid had answered with carefully chosen words, "that certain factions in the colonies have been planning action against OZ."

"Do you think they could be building some kind of weapon?"

"Anything is possible, Master Quatre," Rashid replied, the slight edge of concern reflected in his voice seemingly directed at Quatre himself, although the blond wasn't sure why. Quatre had reached out empathically as his curiosity got the better of him; he didn't want to pry, but why the unspoken concern? To his surprise he came up against a proverbial brick wall. Rashid had managed to construct some kind of shielding against his empathy. Why? How? Quatre frowned. He knew his ability wasn't that strong, that there were certain people he couldn't 'read' but he'd never come across that problem with Rashid before.

"Is it possible these weapons could have been sent to Earth somehow?" he had asked, attempting to rid his thoughts of his new founded suspicions. For Rashid to consciously shield against him he must know about his, Quatre's, empathic abilities. But how? Quatre had never told him - in fact very few people knew outside of his immediate family. /Stop it, Quatre, /he chastised himself. /You shouldn't have been prying in the first place./

Quatre had then noticed Rashid watching him, so had made a conscious effort not to dwell on the subject, concentrating instead on his original line of questioning.

What he and Relena had seen must have had something to do with this Operation Meteor, or why else had her father used the phrase? "Do you mind if I utilise some of your resources to do some research of my own?" Quatre knew what the answer to his request would be, but he preferred to ask, rather than to presume.

"Certainly, Master Quatre. What we have is ours to share."

Quatre had nodded absently, his mind already working out avenues to pursue, people to contact, his fingers closing over the invitation in his pocket. Maybe attending Relena's party tomorrow would be for the best after all- as well as ensuring she was all right after the events of the previous day, it might be an opportunity to speak again with Vice Minister Darlian.

"What school are you attending?" The red headed girl paused then giggled, before adding, "Is there any chance it could be St Gabriel's?"

"I'm not attending school," Quatre replied, his musings interrupted by her questions. "My tutor travelled with me to Earth."

"Oh, a tutor, how simply wonderful. And how rude of me, you've been so polite and I haven't even introduced myself. My name is Prudence. Prudence Smythe, with an e. " The red haired girl held out her hand and Quatre shook it, before glancing around the room for Relena once more. He doubted he would miss her entrance; as this was her party, all eyes would be on her as she arrived.

"Pleased to meet you, Prudence Smythe with an 'e'." The gaggle of girls giggled again and Quatre sighed. Hopefully Relena would be here very shortly; he wasn't sure how much more of this small talk he could handle.

Bethany gave him a smile, deliberately brushing her fingers against his own as she took his now empty glass from him. "Would you like some more punch, Quatre dear?"

Quatre inwardly cringed. He'd always found it difficult to block out strong emotions at this close range, and wondered how Bethany would react if he told her he could pick up on her unspoken desires towards him. Maybe this would be a good time to mention the fact he wasn't really interested in girls? Quatre pulled away with more force than he'd meant to, and mumbled his apologies after noticing her hurt expression.

"Give the poor boy some air," commented another girl. "Honestly, Bethany, you're as subtle as a herd of elephants." The brunette linked her arm through his, and led him over to the punch bowl before dropping her voice to a whisper. "You'll have to forgive my friends. Sometimes they can come on a bit strong. It's just so nice to finally meet a young man with both manners and good looks." She blushed. "I mean.at least you accepted Relena's invitation. Not like a certain Heero Yuy who we won't mention. I still don't understand how he could possibly do something like that to poor Relena. She was heartbroken." Her voice dropped still further and she moved closer, bringing her hand to rest between his shoulder blades. "You'd never do that to someone, would you, Mr Winner?" The girl fluttered her eyelashes. "Or may I call you Quatre? Or is there something else you'd prefer me to use?"

A familiar voice saved Quatre from the dilemma of extracting himself without seeming to be as rude as whoever this Heero was, and he heaved a sigh of relief.

"Thank you all for coming to my party today. I'm so happy to see you all." Relena stood at the top of the staircase, every inch the perfect hostess. The blue dress she wore matched the colour of her eyes perfectly, and was set off by a simple but authentic string of pearls.

The girl beside him shifted her arm, to Quatre's relief, as she joined in greeting the birthday girl with loud clapping and shouts of 'Happy Birthday.'

Relena seemed pleased with the attention. "Thank you, everyone. " Her happy smile drooped slightly, her gaze shifting away from the crowd towards her parents, her mother's voice rising in pitch as she chastised her husband for his planned course of action.

"Do you really have to leave now, dear?" Mrs Darlian's voice broke through the sudden uncomfortable silence in the room, and Quatre felt a pang of sympathy for his new friend. "Can't you stay just a bit longer.for Relena?"

"Father." Relena's voice reflected her pain, and Quatre instinctively began moving towards her, knowing she would need a sympathetic ear once her father left.

Mr Darlian's response had the same tone of regret he'd used in the shuttle two days ago. "I'm sorry Relena.but."

Relena put on a brave face. "Don't be, Father. I'm no longer a child. I understand you are only doing what you have to." She leaned over the railing and gave him a quick peck on the cheek, the gesture of affection expressing more than her words could.

"Relena." her father repeated, the action flustering him to such a degree that he temporarily lost his grip on the thin document case clasped under his left arm. Several photographs slid from the case, scattering as they landed on the ground at the bottom of the stairs. Relena's eyes widened even as Quatre stepped forward quickly to help the Vice Minister retrieve them.

Four camera stills, each taken at different angles, but there was no mistaking they were of the same thing. At first glance they seemed to be contrails of objects entering orbit. Quatre frowned. Could they be of the shooting star he and Relena had seen two days ago?

The noise of the room had resumed its normal level again but the news bulletin blasting from the small radio cut still cut through the background chatter. The man sitting at the small table leaned over and adjusted the volume as the newscaster continued his report. "According to an announcement by the military, the four meteors expected to hit the Earth have all burnt up upon entry. The theory that they were manned spacecraft has been revealed to be a hoax. Now for other news."

Quatre's eye caught a familiar phrase written on the header of a document attached to one of the photos, and he nearly dropped them in his surprise. Operation Meteor.

/Four meteors?/ If the 'meteor' they'd seen was in reality a manned spacecraft, did that mean the others were too? Mr Darlian retrieved the photographs quickly, thanked Quatre, then left the room, after giving his wife a quick peck on the cheek.

Relena was still standing on the bottom step, her eyes wide as she whispered something to herself. Quatre strained to hear but couldn't quite make out her words. "Relena," he asked. "Are you all right?"

Bethany, Prudence and the girl who had cornered him before Relena's arrival, moved as one to greet their friend before she could reply. "Relena, why didn't you tell us you made a new friend."

"Relena, he's so cute, how could hold out on us like that?"

"Relena, what a beautiful dress. And I love the way your earrings match your eyes. Did you pick them out yourself?"

Didn't these girls have any depth at all? Even without utilising his abilities Quatre could see Relena's confusion and unhappiness, yet all they were worried about were the things which really didn't matter. Quatre coughed, and they giggled and blushed. "Oh Quatre," exclaimed the brunette. "I didn't see you standing there; you must think I'm so awful talking about you like that."

Relena sighed. "I'm sure he can cope, Daphne. Now if you don't mind I'd like to talk to him." The girls nodded, but made no attempt to move. Relena sighed again. "In private. "

"Sure, Relena." Bethany nodded and grinned, then gestured for her friends to follow her. "Let's go organise the presents and the cake, girls."

"Sorry, Relena." Prudence sounded anything but repentant, as she gave her friend a smile which suggested she had known full well that he'd been listening as they'd given their opinions of him. Daphne's earlier observation hadn't been too far off. /Subtle as a herd of elephants./ The only error she'd made was not including herself in the statement.

"See you later, Quatre." Daphne winked at him, deliberately brushing against him before she followed her friends as they went to mingle with the other guests.

"I'm sorry about that, Quatre," Relena apologised. "They mean well you know. It's just that."

"It's all right, Relena," Quatre reassured her. "I have sisters, I know what girls can be like." He blushed, realising his error. "Present company excluded of course."

She smiled. "I hope so. I'd like to think I would have more sense, at least where boys are concerned. "Her tone changed, as she glanced around the small courtyard, making sure her friends were out of earshot. "Would you like to sit for a while? There's something I think we both would like to discuss."

Quatre nodded. "Certainly," he agreed. "There's a free table over in the corner. Would you like me to get you some punch?"

"That would be lovely, thank you." She grinned. "Just watch out for the vultures."

He matched her grin, and gave a mock shudder. "Oh I intend to; once was more than enough." Quatre fetched the two glasses of fruit drink quickly; he wasn't about to allow the terrible trio another chance to move in for the kill, and joined Relena at the small table.

They sat, sipping their drinks in silence for a few minutes while Quatre decided the best way to broach the topic. "Did you get home all right the other day?" he asked in the finish. Sometimes it was easier to approach a difficult conversation sideways rather than directly.

Relena nodded, her fingers gripping the sides of her glass tightly. She took another sip, then placed it on the white tablecloth, the moisture from the ice seeping through the crystal, leaving a damp patch on the fabric. Her words were hesitant but clear. "Can I ask some advice.on a.. hypothetical problem?"

"Please do." He waited patiently, sensing her struggle to put her thoughts into the right words, suspecting that whatever this 'problem' was, it wasn't quite as hypothetical as she wanted him to believe.

"If you knew that that meteor we saw the other day, wasn't really a meteor, but a manned spacecraft of some sort."

Quatre interrupted her, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice. "What makes you so sure it wasn't a meteor?"

She gave him a strange look, her brow creasing into a small frown, and continued as though he hadn't spoken. "What if you'd met the pilot, and knew who he was.would you try and protect him, or would you go to the authorities?" Her voice dropped to the whisper. "What if he'd threatened to kill you?" Relena paused, glancing around the room to make sure she hadn't been overheard. "Keeping in mind this is all hypothetical of course."

"Of course." She'd met the pilot and he'd threatened to kill her? Allah, he /knew/ he should have accompanied her home. She was lucky he'd only threatened her; whatever his mission parameter's were, if Quatre's suspicions about Operation Meteor were correct, she had been in more danger than she probably realised. Quatre remembered the strange mixture of emotions he'd picked up from the pilot on the flight through the Earth's atmosphere. /Power, invulnerability, shock, followed by blackness./ Had the pilot crash-landed, before Relena found him? "Do you perceive this.pilot as a threat to your life? Hypothetically of course."

Relena shook her head quickly, denying the idea with her action, but he could sense the mixed emotions radiating from her. The actions and words of this pilot had confused her, but yet she was obviously fascinated by him. "He.He wouldn't hurt me. I just know he wouldn't. But I guess it's important to him that he completes his mission." She grabbed his hand, holding it tightly in hers, her tone suddenly deadly serious. "Quatre, what do you know about Operation Meteor?"

"Operation Meteor?" Quatre repeated the words slowly, trying to piece together a coherent answer. "Not much," he admitted. "But.I'd like to know more. If there is more to know.hypothetically of course." If she wasn't going to place all her cards on the table, neither was he. Relena knew more than she was letting on; hopefully if she thought he had information to trade, she might feel more inclined to part with the rest of what she'd learnt.

Relena stared at him, pulled her hand away, then let out a small laugh. "Touche. So you don't believe those lies about the so called meteors either?"

Quatre shook his head. "No, I don't. " He decided to go out on a limb, to trust her with a small amount of information. After all it seemed that if they pooled their resources it might be beneficial for both of them. "I believe they are some kind of space craft, as the rumours suggest." He matched her gaze, attempting to convince her of the seriousness of the situation. "Do you know where the pilot is now? I'd very much like to meet him." /I feel a connection to him, somehow, but I'm not sure why./ The empathic communication had been weird to say the least, and he knew he wouldn't be able to rest until he found the answers to the questions he was seeking.

Relena shook her head sadly. "I invited him to my party, but he ripped up my invitation." Her voice shook. "He wiped my tears, but then threatened to kill me. Quatre, what kind of person is he?"

"You gave him an invitation to your party?" Quatre couldn't keep the incredulous tone out of his voice. What on earth had she been thinking? Feeling concern for this mysterious pilot was one thing, even being fascinated by him. That he could understand, in the light of what he'd experienced himself. But inviting him to her party? Did she even realise the danger she could be exposing herself to?

"Relena, come and blow out your candles!" Prudence's shrill tone interrupted their conversation, the other guests focusing their attention on them, and Relena gave him an apologetic smile.

"We'll talk later, okay?" She rose to her feet, moving to take her place by the table her friends had set up in her honour. Quatre followed slowly, his mind trying to digest the new information he'd been given. /So the pilot has survived and is in the area? Will I be able to find him?/

/"I mean.at least you accepted Relena's invitation. Not like a certain Heero Yuy who we won't mention. I still don't understand how he could possibly do something like that to poor Relena. She was heartbroken."/ Heero Yuy? Could that be the pilot's name?

He glanced over at Relena, leaning over the richly decorated cake, as her friends tried to encourage her to play the birthday girl. She was hiding her pain extremely well; the incident with Heero, if that was his even his real name, had obviously shaken her considerably./ She's a brave girl,/ he thought. /Even if she is lacking somewhat in common sense. /

"Blow out the candles, Relena,"

"Go on Relena, blow them out and make a wish," Bethany and Daphne urged her, and Relena gave them a smile in return, playing the part of the hostess as though she was born to the role.

"Excuse me," a blond boy mumbled as he pushed past Quatre in his eagerness to reach the table. He was dressed in an expensive white tux - a rose in his buttonhole, and a small black bow tie completing the ensemble. The large bouquet of flowers in his arms was shedding fronds of greenery as he rushed towards Relena and attempted to catch his breath. "I've made it," he exclaimed. "Happy birthday, Relena." The boy glanced around the room, his mouth turning up in a smirk of triumph. "So Heero isn't here, after all. Maybe that was him I saw after all."

/Heero?/

"Heero?" Relena stopped, her eyes shining in excitement. "Ken, did you see Heero? Please, you have to tell me."

Ken's smirk grew wider. "You'll not going to believe this, but.I saw him on the Coastal Road.and he was driving an ambulance."

"An ambulance?" pondered Relena aloud. "It must be him!" Her voice took on a sense of urgency, and Quatre attempted to move closer, to prevent her from taking the action he suspected she was about to. Daphne smiled at him, pulling him towards her as he brushed past her, totally misinterpreting his intentions.

"Which way was the ambulance heading?" Relena couldn't seriously be considering going after Heero. Couldn't she see what danger she could be exposing herself to? If he was on some kind of mission and he perceived her as a threat.Quatre had heard enough about the tendencies of the military mindset from his father's lectures regarding the necessity of pacifism to know he couldn't let her do what she was obviously planning to.

Ken continued his story, totally unaware of the reaction it was creating. "I think it was heading towards the military port."

/Military port? Relena.no!/ Quatre nearly spoke the words aloud in his frustration. Daphne tightened her grip on him, and her two friends moved in to prevent his escape.

"I have to go. Enjoy the party. I'll be back soon." Relena made her way towards the exit, ignoring the worried, puzzled looks of her family and friends.

"Do you want me to give you a ride?" Ken asked, but Relena shook her head. His face fell - this wasn't the reaction he had been expecting. /You fool, all you've done is pushed her in the direction you didn't want her to go./ Couldn't the idiot see the effect his words had had on her? If he'd been expecting gratitude for his revelation he really didn't have a clue as to her current infatuation with the mysterious Heero Yuy.

"No!," she exclaimed, then stopped and modified her statement as she realised how harsh it sounded. "I'm going alone. Now if you'll excuse me." Her eyes met Quatre's and she shot him a quick look of apology before leaving.

Quatre groaned, absently aware of Mrs Darlian's words as he attempted to rid himself of his newly acquired 'fan club'. "Relena, stop! What's wrong with her? I've never seen her react like this before."

"Girls, I need to go, /now!/" Daphne removed her arm, and glared at him with a annoyed pout, but he ignored her, intent on reaching Relena before she followed a course of action she might regret.

Quatre skidded to a halt at the front gate of Relena's house, watching her pink limousine carry her into what could only be a dangerous confrontation. He cursed silently under his breath, frustrated that he hadn't been able to stop her.

/Whoever you are, Heero, you've certainly made an impression on her./

His thoughts went back to the shuttle once more. What on earth was Operation Meteor? Whatever it was, the cryptic codeword probably could lead to answers that could help explain everything that had happened. He only hoped he could find out in time to help Relena before she got in over her head.

Quatre sighed, and traipsed back towards the house, debating his next course of action. /I wonder if there's a vehicle I could borrow to go after her?/

************

The underwater suits moved cautiously as they extended grappling irons to surround the object lying face down on the ocean floor. Duo watched from a distance, waiting for the right time to move. In the meantime, it might be fun to observe these new craft in action; take note of some specs to pass on to Howard. The red Cancer seemed to be running the show - Duo wondered if they knew he' d hacked into their communications frequency. /Nah, probably not./ Those guys didn't seem to notice stuff like that, which was a shame, at least from their point of view. He grinned. Yep, watch and learn. /Hope you appreciate what I'm doing here for you, old man./

A loud noise permeated the small cockpit and he adjusted the volume control quickly. /Shit, what was that?/ Duo shook his head, trying to get rid of the ringing in his ears that had resulted from the unexpected cacophony. /Some kind of alarm, maybe? /

This was his signal to move. /Sorry guys, shows over, make way for Shinigami; it's time for the good guys to take charge./ He powered up the beam scythe, and then headed towards the Ozzies to join in the fun.

"What's that light?"

"Enemy attack, we're under enemy attack." Duo groaned. What was it with that phrase? /Seems to be the only one they freaking know./ By the time he'd finished his mission, it would be part of the Ozzie phrasebook for every occasion. Catch phrase number two - what to yell when you are attacked by a Gundam.

Both craft turned to attack him, but Duo sliced one in half quickly, not giving it the chance to go on the offensive. The other came to a sudden halt, and then fired missiles in his direction, which Deathscythe dodged effortlessly before sending the guy to follow his companion to a watery grave. "Play nice, guys," Duo chastised. "Or I might have to teach you some manners."

The radio crackled again, the tinny voice tinged with a mixture of awe and fear. "This isn't possible; a thermal blade weapon can't be used under water. Damn it!"

/Nope, but this isn't your average thermal blade weapon,/ thought Duo smugly. /You ain't seen nothing yet; I'm only just warming up. /

Duo lurched forward in his seat, as something hard rammed into his Gundam. "Damn, what the hell was that?" He hit the thrusters, gundanium alloy creaking under the strain, but whatever had Scythe wasn't ready to give up that easily. The sneaky bastard had him pinned between its pinchers, locked in what was obviously presumed to be a death grip.

Hah, more than one way to deal with this. Duo deliberately dropped his beam scythe, temporarily powered down the Gundam, and played dead, allowing his suit to float motionless. He stifled a laugh as he heard the triumphant report over the radio. /Geez, they fall for it every time. /

"I've defeated it, Lt Zechs."

"Zechs, huh? So that's your name. I'll remember that for later. No one messes with my Gundam." Deathscythe returned to life, firing his buster shield at the same moment - the remains of the Cancer, which a few seconds before had thought itself victorious, sinking to the seabed before the pilot had even registered that the tables had been turned.

Duo winced, rubbing his head as he checked his scanners to see what had gotten the other pilots' attention. /Note to self - not a good idea to fire up power and launch buster shield in one hit. Recoil's a bitch./

"So that's what they were searching for," he noted aloud, slowing his descent, and hovering over the object face down on the ocean floor. What the hell? Nah, it couldn't be. Duo moved nearer, to check that the information his sensors were picking up were correct. "Shit, it's identical to mine, right down to the position of the self destruct." Another Gundam? But G hadn't mentioned there were any other Gundams. Duo smirked. Sneaky bastard - he shouldn't really be surprised by anything to do with that guy by now.

Should I let it self destruct or..? "Nah, I won't destroy it. Why waste a perfectly good supply of spare parts?" Duo switched off the beam, then used the scythe to disable the self-destruct button.

"Time to go, before the bad guys decide to arrive, with friends." Deathscythe lifted the other Gundam into his arms like an injured child, then Duo headed off. Lugging this other Gundam was going to slow him down - unless he let good old Mother Nature lend a hand. He glanced at his watch, remembering the research he'd done on the tides in the area before he'd arrived. /Yep, this should all work out rather nicely,/ he thought.

************

The snow was rapidly thickening as Trowa wended his way along the highway north from Spain into Andorra. The road through the mountains was treacherous enough in the heavy vehicle he had procured for transporting his Gundam; the rapid onset of nightfall in conjunction with the precipitation was impairing visibility and thus making the trek even more hazardous. A few more miles should bring him closer to a town, if he could make it far enough. Beyond that, the young soldier was desperately looking forward to a hot meal and a bed other than the front seat of his truck.

Grumbling and lurching reluctantly as Trowa shifted gears, the vehicle slowed to a near crawl while its driver approached each new turn of the road with caution. Bloated, fluffy flakes flew past Trowa's field of view, illuminated in the headlights. If it were not for the road below, it would be easy to mistake the diverging stream of brilliant white flecks zooming past as stars against the inky blackness of space. But this was Earth, and this was snow.

Trowa sighed in impatience at his now sluggish progress; he'd been on the road for hours now, trying to find a suitable place to rest and hide his truck. Each of the past few nights had been spent eating little better than cold field rations and huddling in a thin blanket in his truck. /I'm getting soft,/ he chided himself, remembering how he'd once taken for granted the lack of comfort in his life. Working for the Barton Foundation, he had become pleasantly accustomed to a comfortable bed and regular, hot meals.

/If only I'd had more time to plan this voyage. /Again he found himself replaying the rapid string of events that had led him to this place - this road late at night, in the snow, back on Earth. Earth, the planet he'd forsaken... But, it had seemed like a good idea at the time. Once he'd learned what the original bearer of his name had intended, and had had the epiphany that led him to pilot the Gundam, everything had happened so quickly. In less than twenty-four hours he'd been leaving L3, headed back to Earth. His current priority was to find a good cover for himself, and perhaps the ability to indulge in the basic luxuries of hot food, a bed, and plumbing.

Leaning forward and peering into the snow-dappled darkness, Trowa slowed his vehicle further. Despite his best intentions, it looked as though he would be stuck in the truck again tonight, but first he needed convenient place to park. Dense forest lined the sides of the roadway so he sought signs of a trail leading off the main road. The snow would be, in a way, an advantage. In only a few hours, all signs of his tire tracks would be obliterated.

Then he saw it. Just as he crested a rise and saw the glow of the town on the horizon bathing the underbelly of the low clouds in a muted orange hue, he also spied the peaked tent. Its shape was highlighted dramatically by the twin spotlights angled to shine up into the night, their paths accentuated by the dense flurry of snowflakes that passed through the twin beams.

/A circus./

A slow smile spread unbidden across Trowa's lips as the potential of this discovery set in, his eyes scanning the terrain alongside the highway in earnest, looking for any means of taking his truck into cover. Presently, he found a track leading off into the woods, close to the circus ahead, but not too close. Taking this route, the truck shuddered and protested the more uneven terrain under its bulk. Eventually, he came upon a thinning of the trees and guided the truck deeper into the wilderness, through the patchy forest until he came to a clearing that would be out of view from either road.

Trowa turned the key in the ignition to shut off the motor, and shivered in anticipation of the outside cold seeping into the cabin, banishing the warmth of the truck's heater; and watching as the light from the headlights gently faded to nothing. All was silent and dark. Trowa shrugged on his battered flight jacket, pulled on a pair of woollen gloves, and fumbled in the glove compartment for a flashlight before grabbing his bag and kicking open the heavy door of the truck and sliding to the ground. He sank into the snow up to mid-calf and wished he had thought to obtain a sturdier, taller pair of boots. Turning he reached up and closed the door with a muted bang.

Flicking on his hand torch, he squinted at his surroundings. The truck would be difficult to find; he spotted no convenient landmarks puncturing the heavy, obscuring coverage of snow. Dropping his duffel bag, he rummaged through it quickly, grabbing his handheld computer. Holding the device under the shelter of his body he switched on the power to call up a GPS reading. Saving that data, he closed the device, slid it back into his bag, and stood.

In the darkness, aided by his flashlight, he gave each of the ropes securing the tarp over his precious cargo a careful examination before heading off at a jog, retracing the tire tracks of his truck before they became hidden by the precipitation. Once back to the main thoroughfare, he turned in the direction of the circus tent, orienting on the beams from the twin spotlights. He estimated it was about two miles away. Turning up the collar of his jacket and ducking his head into that shelter, Trowa began walking at a brisk pace, alternating hands between his torch and the warmth of a pocket.

It was strange to be back on Earth in a snowstorm. The silent crescendo of the falling flakes, broken only by the crunching of his footsteps in the thick powder, was unnaturally still after having been accustomed to the continual vibrations and whines of life aboard a space colony. Even on the most quiet of evenings in space, one could always hear the vague background thrum of the gravity generators and the air scrubbers.

/A circus,/ he repeated to himself, while experiencing a brief surge of anticipation. He was confident that with his acrobatic skills he'd be able to fit in easily - and even if they didn't need a performer, he could do maintenance on vehicles and associated machinery. The life of a travelling performer would be a good cover for him in the execution of his mission on Earth; being able to relocate every few days would be highly beneficial.

As his chilly journey brought him closer to the main pavilion of the circus, the silence of the snowy evening gave way to the thin, whimsical strains of the circus music and the intermittent swelling of the audience's applause. After a time, Trowa finally came to an unencumbered view of the sprawling campus of tents and trailers. He paused momentarily and switched off his torch, its feeble illumination now rendered unnecessary. He stood quietly for a moment, his breath condensing into small wispy clouds as he began to shiver in earnest, his lack of motion allowing the frigid air to permeate the thin barrier of his jacket. The gentle shroud of snow draped over the graceful peaks of the circus tents and the chubby humps of the troupe's trailers, while soft light spilled from partly open tent flaps, casting sharp triangles of golden light across the flawless, white surface. The warmth of that light and the sounds of the performance beckoned to the weary soldier, promising him comfort and respite from the cold mountain night.

Trowa made his way behind the central pavilion, searching for a performers' entrance. Ducking through a promising looking opening, he was met by a burly fellow in a yellow leotard.

"No spectators are allowed back here. Are you lost?" The man's voice was an intimidating growl, but Trowa remained unruffled.

"I'm looking for a job," he spoke in a matter-of-fact tone. "Where can I find the Ringmaster?"

The big man grunted, casting a skeptical eye over the slender boy, and shoved his thumb toward a curtained opening within the tent. "He's in there."

"Thank you." Trowa nodded his gratitude and moved off to the side to drop his bag, remove his coat and gloves, and shake the snow from his hair. He retrieved a copy of his quickly thrown together resume before going in search of the Ringmaster.

The Ringmaster was typically showy in both his grooming and attire, his brilliant red jacket and dramatic widow's peak serving to identify him immediately to Trowa as he approached the older man. Standing in conversation with another near a pair of cages containing lions, he looked up as Trowa walked over.

"Yes?" he inquired with a frown, his eyes running up and down Trowa, evaluating the newcomer.

"I'd like to join the circus, as a performer." He spoke to the Ringmaster but found his gaze being commanded by the mature male lion in the cage nearby. The powerful beast shifted restlessly in its small cage, growling. Trowa felt a surge of pity for the large cat. /Poor thing... you're so far from home. I bet you don't like the cold./

Observing Trowa's distraction the man's frown deepened. "You want to join? You have any experience?" The youth offered the man his resume, meeting the man's eyes evenly. Taking the paper from Trowa he glanced at it briefly before replying in an annoyed voice, "This doesn't tell me anything... mobile suit maintenance and repair?" While the man continued his perusal, muttering under his breath, the boy looked again to the lion, fascinated by the creature's feral grace and the indomitable spirit in his eyes.

Mostly ignoring the Ringmaster now, Trowa stepped closer the lion's cage, extending his hand through the bars in what he hoped was a non-threatening gesture of friendship.

"Huh? Wha..." the man managed while the lion crouched in an aggressive posture, snarling.

/It's okay. I'm a friend,/ was the sentiment Trowa willed into his voice as he spoke softly to the large cat, "Hello..." The beast hesitated, meeting Trowa's eyes, and relaxed. With a low huff, he padded close and leaned against the bars, permitting Trowa to sink his hand into the dense warmth of the animal's fur.

The wonder the young soldier experienced never reached his face, but rather was conveyed through the reverent way in which he stroked the rough fur over the lion's shoulders. Having come to stand next to Trowa, the Ringmaster spoke with a degree of awe in his voice. "How did you do that?" he whispered. The lion had closed his eyes in obvious pleasure, leaning into the movements of Trowa's hand.

Briefly, memories of injured birds Trowa had aided, wild dogs he'd fed, and an orphaned squirrel he'd raised passed through the boy's mind. "Animals are true to their feelings," he explained. "If you don't present yourself as a threat, they won't harm you or be afraid."

"Well, kid, you're hired. You can at least help take care of the animals, and we'll see if you have any other talents."

Before Trowa could answer, a new voice entered the exchange, a female voice. "Can he work with me? Since Miguel left, I've needed a replacement for the knife act."

"Think you can stand still while Catherine tosses knives at you?" The Ringmaster addressed Trowa.

"Yes," Trowa accepted with an inclination of his head, and turned to face the slight girl with bountiful red curls dancing about her smiling face. /Catherine,/ he repeated the name to himself to make certain he'd remember it.

"Oh, that's wonderful!" Catherine exclaimed happily, grabbing his arm in her enthusiasm. She leaned closer to him and confided, "I have very good aim, so don't be scared." Trowa shrugged, mystified by the friendliness of the brightly garbed girl. "You must be half frozen," she continued. "Why don't you come to my trailer - I have a pot of soup on the stove and a spare room... though to call it a room is a bit of an overstatement."

Trowa allowed himself to be led away, pausing only to collect his belongings. Following the girl as she picked her way delicately through the snow, Trowa wondered at her quick acceptance of him, not just as her performance partner, but also as a guest in her home. Still, she had offered him the two things he desired most on this inclement evening. She led him into the small trailer, flicking on the lights illuminating the main living area, which consisted of a small sofa, kitchenette and tiny dining table. A large pot simmered on the stove as she moved toward it while Trowa removed his outerwear and boots, arranging them neatly by the door.

"Sorry it's so cold in here," Catherine apologised as she collected a bowl from a cupboard. "Fortunately, it doesn't take long to warm up." Spooning a generous helping of a thick brown liquid into the bowl, she set it on the table. "I hope you like it - it's my own recipe." Turning, she grabbed a spoon and a handful of paper napkins, placing them on the table as well. "I'm just going to go change and put extra blankets on my spare bed. Make yourself comfortable, and help yourself to anything in the kitchen." She moved to the small hall at the back of the room before turning and speaking again, "I'm sorry, I've been rude. My name is Catherine Bloom, just call me Cathy if you want."

"Thank you, Cathy. I'm called Trowa. Trowa Barton."

"Okay, Trowa, it's nice to meet you. I hope you like it here with us. It's exciting to have a new member join the family!" She grinned enthusiastically before excusing herself again and leaving Trowa alone with the soup.

Despite his hunger, Trowa approached the bowl with some trepidation. It smelled odd. /Don't be daft. It isn't like she's trying to poison you./ He settled at the table and prodded the concoction gingerly with the spoon. He recognised potatoes and some sort of meat, along with barley, tomatoes, and green olives. /Olives? What cuisine is this?/ Shrugging, he began to eat.

The soup was... Trowa's brain struggled to identify any of the other flavours that constituted the spicing of the unique substance in his bowl. He wasn't certain it was an entirely pleasant combination. But not being in a position to be finicky, he ate it. Besides, the soup was hot.

************

Duo hauled himself over the side of the wharf, just in time to see a cute guy dressed in spandex and a green tank-top draw a gun on a good looking blonde girl. /Spandex in this weather?/ he wondered. /You have got to be kidding. /

The guy's finger tightened around the trigger. Shit, he must be serious. Time to do the knight in shining armour impression, and save the day. Duo aimed carefully for the upper arm, his bullet hitting its mark with practiced ease.

"Heero!" screamed the blonde, as the dark haired boy landed in an undignified heap, face down on the deck. She buried her face in her hands, seemingly unable to cope with the scene unfolding in front of her.

Hold up. Heero? Why the hell was she screaming over the guy he'd just taken out. It didn't make sense.

The guy in question, Heero, rose to his feet slowly, using his left hand to put pressure on where Duo's bullet had grazed him.

"Are you okay, lady?" Duo asked, as he pulled himself into an upright position. Heero glared at him, and the girl moved closer to the injured boy, leaning in to check he was okay.

Heero used the distraction to dive for the gun he'd dropped as he'd taken the fall, but Duo acted quickly, firing his own weapon to shift it out of reach.

"Isn't the one warning good enough for you? Take the hint already, and we won't have to take this round into overtime." What the hell did it take to convince this guy? Did he have some kind of death wish or something?

To Duo's amazement the blonde positioned herself in front of the guy who'd just been about to kill her, and used her body as a shield. "That's enough," she chastised. "Can't you see he's hurt?" She knelt beside Heero, ripped several strips of fabric from her expensive looking dress, and began bandaging his arm.

Yep, this was majorly weird, all right. Time to inform her of a few facts. "Huh, you call this gratitude?" She glared at him, and Duo decided to try another tact, though he doubted she'd listen to anything resembling common sense at this stage of whatever crazy game these two were playing. "I hate to break it to you, lady, but I'm not the bad guy here - he is."

Nah, he didn't think she'd be convinced and her decision to ignore his reasoning confirmed it. /Damn, what was that?/ Duo turned at the sudden noise to see the two Gundams breaking the surface like a pair of weird carnival floats. He glanced at his watch and frowned. "Oops. Guess I miscalculated the hide tide ever so slightly."

No way could he let these civilians see this - it would jeopardise his mission, to say nothing of placing them in more danger than they were in already. He reached inside his pocket, holding the retrieved flare high in his left hand, lighting it quickly to partially blind them and hopefully limit their knowledge of what was happening. "I can't let you see this, lady. I haven't a clue what's going on here, but you need to go home, for your own safety."

She shielded her eyes against the glare with one hand after glancing toward Heero as he did the same. Duo frowned - for some reason he suspected that had been way too easy, at least where this Heero guy was concerned. A second later his suspicions were confirmed.

Heero was on his feet, and diving for a nearby crane before Duo even had time to register he was on the move. What the hell were those torpedos doing there? /You idiot, this is probably what you interrupted in the first place./ The other boy knew about the existence of the torpedos because he was probably responsible for them being there. The sling acting as temporary home to the torpedos swayed dangerously from side to side, as Heero took shelter behind the three missiles, using them as a shield against Duo's bullets.

"Hey, what the hell do you think you're playing at?" Duo hoped the crane supporting its precious cargo would hold - if it didn't and they blew they could be in a shit load of trouble.

Heero glanced up, giving him another glare. /Shit, what the hell is wrong with you?/ "That's /my/ mobile suit," he told Duo before bringing his fist down on what could only be the timing mechanism.

"Your mobile suit? What the hell?" Duo attempted to pick his mouth off the floor; he didn't have time to speculate now, not with Heero following the missiles into the water.

Heero went limp, his final whispered words carried by the sudden wind, before he hit the surf with a loud splash. "Mission.complete."

The missiles exploded, displacing water in a large radius in a weird imitation of an atomic mushroom cloud. Duo groaned, as the suits he'd carefully gotten this far sunk again into the watery depths. Then he paused, his mind putting two and two together and coming up with six. "Oh shit, he knows the tolerance level of Gundanium." Heero must have known exactly what he was doing when he set those charges. "He /must/ be the other suit's pilot."

Unable to give Duo the answers needed, Heero instead floated limply face down in the water - the other pilot couldn't help but shudder as he thought of the calm way in which the dark haired boy had accepted what he obviously thought was the only way to accomplish his 'mission'.

The blonde girl edged closer to the edge of the wharf, her eyes wide as she tried to comprehend what had just happened. "Who are you people?" she whispered.

************

[1] I have had but a single fencing lesson in my entire life, and remember very little of it. I've done the best I can using various online resources to work out the terms that might make sense in this duel, so I hope it works! (Raletha)

************

~to be continued

************

Next on 'Domino'

EPISODE THREE - WORST CASE SCENARIO

Duo aids Heero in escaping an Alliance hospital, but can the two young pilots learn to become allies? Relena tries to learn more about the mysterious Heero Yuy while Quatre has his first encounter with a Gundam pilot. With the assistance of the Maguanac Corps, Quatre furthers his investigation of the enigmatic Operation Meteor. Meanwhile, Trowa faces his worst case scenario during an attack on a mobile suit factory in Corsica.

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