6-8-2006

Title: Kindergarten Heero
Chapter: 11-17/?
Author: Calic0cat <calic0cat@fastmail.fm>
Story Started: June 8, 2003
Genre: Shonen Ai/Yaoi, Drama, Romance, Fusion
Pairing: 1x2, 13x6, 5xM, TxH
Rated: R(?)
Warnings: AU, OOC, Swearing, Death (*not* one of the guys)
Archives: At Lev's Lair http://www.gwaddiction.com/levlair/ and at http://calic0cat.freeservers.com/ (my site) and at Mediaminer.org under Calic0cat. Anyone with archive permission for my other fics can help themselves.
Disclaimer: Duo and Heero and the rest of the GW gang aren't mine. This story is. Nuff said.

'Thinking'
"Speaking"
*** Time passing or scene change

Author's Notes: This is a fusion with the movie "Kindergarten Cop". Blame that pic of Heero with a ferret and the fact that the "Kindergarten Cop" DVD was on a sale rack and caught my attention. Feedback is appreciated.

#################################################

Following the sound of a child in distress, Heero ran down the street and around the corner. He took in the scene at a glance. Alexia had her arms wrapped around a parking meter and was gamely resisting her father's attempt to drag over to the open car door.

"You said Mama was here! I want Mama!" Alexia wailed.

"Get in the car!" the tall dark-haired man snapped, forcibly breaking her hold on the post.

"Mama said..."

"I don't care what that bitch said! I'm your father; now do as I say and get in the damn car!"

The backhanded blow that accompanied the angry roar never got a chance to strike the girl's tear-streaked face. Heero blocked the blow easily with an outstretched arm. With icy calm, he warned the man, "Mr. Mueller, you are in violation of a restraining order. Release Alexia and leave at once or I will be forced to call the police." He couldn't arrest Mueller himself; this wasn't his jurisdiction. 'I really shouldn't be getting involved at all; I should have just called the police when I realized she was missing and that her father probably had her...' But he couldn't stand by and allow a child to be put at risk.

"Mr. Yuy! I want Mama!" Alexia strained against her father's grip, reaching towards her teacher.

"It's alright, Alexia. We'll call your Mama in just a minute," Heero promised gently. Sternly, he ordered her father, "Let her go, Mueller."

"Mind your own fucking business," the taller man snarled furiously. "The brat's mine; I'll do whatever I damn well want. She's coming with me."

"No!" Alexia shouted rebelliously. She turned her head, swiftly, and sank her teeth into the hand clutching her shoulder.

Her father yelped in pained shock and involuntarily released his hold. "You little bitch!"

Alexia darted away from him, hiding behind Heero. "Leave her alone!" Heero snapped, turning his body to block Mueller's attempt to recapture the girl.

"Stay the hell out of this!" Mueller bellowed. He swung wildly at Heero.

'Perfect,' Heero thought with satisfaction. Quite deliberately, he let the first punch connect. His head rocked back with the force of the blow but it wasn't enough to make him stagger. Just enough to leave unmistakable evidence that he was forced to fight back in self-defense.

The second blow didn't even come close. Heero caught Mueller's fist in one hand and slugged the man in the gut with the other. Mueller folded up with a grunt as the breath was knocked out of him. In a single smooth motion, Heero shifted his grip on Mueller's fist to the wrist. He twisted the arm behind the man's back, spinning him around and propelling him up against the side of the car with somewhat more force than strictly necessary. Despite Mueller's furious struggles, Heero held him in place easily, ignoring the gasping curses and threats spilling from his mouth.

A frightened whimper from Alexia drew Heero's attention. He reined in his anger, tamping down the temptation to give Mueller a chance to take another swing at him and thereby provide himself with an excuse to hit back. Turning his head, Heero assured Alexia, "Everything's okay now, Alexia. You're safe." He spotted a red mark on her cheek and a trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth and twisted the arm in his grasp a bit more tightly. Alexia flinched away from him and Heero made a conscious effort to wipe the furious scowl off of his face and soften his voice. "Go get Principal Une, sweetheart," he urged gently. "Tell her what happened and that your father and I are waiting for her, okay?"

Alexia nodded silently, eyes wide, then turned and fled back to the school. Heero knew that Une would see to it that the police and Alexia's mother were called then he was certain she would be out here herself to see just what was going on.

'K'so. This is the last thing I needed - getting involved in an arrest completely unrelated to the case I'm here for...' Heero thought grimly, ignoring the increasingly angry words and violent struggles of his prisoner. Chief Jaye was going to be furious. But it couldn't be helped. Heero just wished that he had his cuffs. In their absence, he was going to have to stand here and hold Mueller pinned against the car until the local police showed up.

And try very, very hard to remember all the reasons why he *couldn't* simply pound the abusive bastard into the pavement while he was waiting...

***

Heero sighed wearily as the police cruiser pulled away, carrying Mueller off to the police station. He'd given his statement to one of the officers but he would have to drop by the station at the end of the school day in order to check it over and sign off on it. Turning, Heero started back towards the school. He walked inside and turned towards his classroom. He made it three steps before a stern voice from behind him halted him in his tracks.

"Mr. Yuy."

"Principal Une," he acknowledged, looking back over his shoulder.

"My office."

"My class..." Heero protested weakly. He didn't like the sound of that summons.

"*Now*, Mr. Yuy." Une did not wait for a response, heading towards her office immediately. Her heels rapped an angry staccato as she stalked down the hallway.

Only the faintest flicker of trepidation crossed Heero's face as he obediently turned and followed. He had a bad feeling about this. A very bad feeling.

That bad feeling was confirmed a few moments later as Une quite firmly closed her office door and pointed towards a chair. "Sit."

Heero sat, abruptly feeling a great deal of empathy for every student ever called into this office by this woman. Une circled her desk, standing behind it and glaring intently over the top of her glasses. Heero dropped his gaze and apologized, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have hit the man. Especially not in front of his daughter..." He *could* have subdued Mueller after blocking the man's attempt to strike Alexia. He'd let his desire to give the man a little taste of his own medicine get the better of him and had deliberately allowed Mueller a chance to start a fight. Satisfying as the scuffle had been, it had been a completely unprofessional thing to do, both as a police officer and as a teacher.

Une didn't say a word, merely pursed her lips more tightly and pushed her glasses up. She removed a folder from a drawer and slapped it down on the desk in front of Heero. His own name was written across the top of it. "Mr. Yuy," Une intoned grimly, "I checked you out. There is no record of you ever having been a teacher at any public school in California. Or anywhere else."

Heero winced. The jig, as Hilde would say, was up.

"Mr. Yuy," Une remarked - far too casually, in Heero's opinion - as she began to pace, "you have no teaching credentials. No teaching *experience*, whatsoever."

"That's not *entirely* accurate," Heero interrupted defensively. "I've taught classes at the academy."

Une raised one eyebrow and conceded archly, "Very well. No experience teaching at anything other than the post-secondary level."

Heero muttered under his breath, "So you finally noticed..." He shut up again as Une directed her glare in his direction again.

"A ferret in the classroom seemed to be a recipe for disaster. But the children adore it." Une paused in her pacing. "And as for your police whistle..." She shook her head and pursed her lips.

"It was all I could think of..." Heero protested, once again on the defensive. He knew that he hadn't been doing a very good job but he'd done the best he could, despite the fact that he had absolutely no idea what the hell he was doing.

Une ordered icily, "Let me finish."

Heero subsided unhappily. He could see where this was headed. Une was going to pull the plug on his position here. 'This shouldn't bother you, Yuy. You've already asked to be pulled off the case so you'd have to leave within a day or two anyway.' But it did bother him. He hated to fail and the principal's obvious disapproval of his methods was a pretty damn good indicator of failure.

"...but it *worked*." Une moved a few steps closer to Heero, pulling off her glasses as she continued in a slightly warmer tone, "I have no idea what kind of police officer you are, Mr. Yuy... But as a teacher, you are - quite adequate." She nodded sharply in emphasis. "Odd, but adequate."

Blinking in surprise, Heero managed to murmur, "Thank you." He was fairly sure that was what passed for a compliment coming from Une.

Une dragged another chair over beside Heero and sat, leaning towards him conspiratorially. "So, tell me... What did it feel like to hit that bastard?"

Caught off-guard again, Heero gaped for a moment before answering, "Good. Very good."

The principal sighed in satisfaction. "Good," she nodded. Then, quite abruptly, she jammed her glasses back on her face and stood. Moving swiftly, she crossed the room and opened the door to the main office. "Well, that will be all. See you tomorrow morning, bright and early."

Tacit acceptance of his continuing to teach. That was more than he'd dared hope for from Une once she found out the truth. "Tomorrow morning," Heero agreed, hurrying to leave before the woman could change her mind.

***

Heero read through the typed version of his statement carefully, marking a couple of minor clarifications. He turned it over to the arresting officer, then leaned back in his chair to wait for the corrected copy. Once he signed that, he could go pick up dinner and head off to Duo's. 'Chinese sounds good... I remember Duo mentioning that Fong's had really good Chinese, so I know he'll like it... But what about Helen?' Hmm, he wasn't too sure that most children would even try Chinese food. Maybe he'd better pick up a pizza too, just to be on the safe side...

"Yuy. Or should I say, *Detective* Yuy?"

The cool voice broke into Heero's musings. 'Meiran Chang...' he recognized uneasily. 'So she knows who I am...' "Yuy is fine," he answered cautiously.

"You *are* a bit out of your jurisdiction, aren't you?" Meiran's smile wasn't the least bit friendly. "Astoria must be rather dull and boring in comparison to L.A. I'm sure you can hardly wait to head home."

"It is definitely a real change of pace," Heero admitted. He had the distinct feeling that he was picking his way through a minefield. Meiran had been rather distant when they'd met previously but nothing like this. *This* was barely-veiled hostility. "But I certainly wouldn't call Astoria boring." 'And as for heading "home" - Astoria already feels more like home than L.A. has in years...'

If anything, Meiran's voice became even cooler and more unfriendly. "Not boring? I gather that you've found something to - entertain you - while you're here."

Stunned, Heero stared at her for a moment. What the hell... 'K'so. She thinks I'm toying with Duo. Amusing myself with him while I'm here...' He was torn between anger that she would think so poorly of him and satisfaction that Duo had such a protective friend. With forced calm, he replied, "I would not be planning to relocate my 'home' simply because I found Astoria - entertaining."

Meiran was sufficiently startled by Heero's response that her stern expression faltered for an instant. 'Relocate? He's planning to *move* to Astoria? Because of Duo?' If that was true... She still didn't like the fact that he was here under false pretences in the first place - but if he really did care for Duo, maybe things would work out eventually. 'But if he's lying... if he hurts Duo...' Well, she'd given him fair warning. Duo had friends, good friends. Friends who would be quite willing and able to make life very, very miserable for anyone who hurt him. Or Helen, for that matter.

She inclined her head very slightly and told Heero, "No, that would not be wise. If you do indeed have good reason to do so, then we will be pleased to welcome you." And they would be. If Heero didn't hurt Duo, if Heero genuinely cared for Duo, if Heero continued to make Duo as happy as he'd been lately, then he would be more than welcome amongst their group. If.

The return of the officer with Heero's statement prevented any further discussion from taking place, much to Heero's relief. He didn't know exactly how detailed Meiran's knowledge of his assignment was so he was wary of revealing too much. And he couldn't reassure her that he would not hurt Duo. Not yet. He certainly didn't *want* to hurt Duo and if there was any way to avoid doing so, he would - but he had a whole lot of confessions to make once that became possible and the odds were very good that he *would* hurt Duo in the process. Hopefully, Duo would forgive him and give him a chance to make up for that hurt - but he couldn't be sure of that. No matter how much he wanted to be.

***

Jaye scowled darkly as the Medical Examiner uncovered the corpse's face. 'Noin. Dammit.'

"That's her," he confirmed disgustedly. "So much for the case." He shook his head in frustration. "Damn junkie," he muttered, "just had to get a fix." Motioning for the M.E. to cover Noin back up again, Chief Jaye strode out of the room.

Without Noin's testimony, the charges would have to be dropped and Khushrenada would walk. Time to call Yuy and Schbeiker back from Oregon. They hadn't located the wife yet and he couldn't justify their continued assignment to the investigation now that the case against Khushrenada was shot all to hell. There were too many other cases waiting to keep wasting time on one that wasn't going anywhere. 'Time to cut our losses and move on...'

Especially since Yuy had asked to be pulled anyway. Jaye scowled even more darkly as he made his way back to his office. 'Yuy asking to be pulled from a case due to "personal involvement"? Definitely time to get his ass back here and back to work. Obviously he's had too damn much free time if he's actually developing a personal life...'

Part 12:

"Well *damn*." Hilde scowled at the results of her latest research. The thin stack of yearbooks from Leia Barton's high school had just - *finally* - arrived by courier today. They proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Duo Maxwell had attended the same high school as Leia Barton. And that "Elisa Maxwell" had not.

Which still didn't prove that Leia Barton and Elisa Maxwell were the same person. But combined with the fact that she couldn't find *any* proof that Elisa Maxwell had existed prior to a few short years ago... And that Elisa Maxwell's death had occurred *after* the alleged sighting of Leia at Astoria Elementary...

Well, the evidence was piling up pretty heavily in support of the theory. But that still didn't explain where the millions of dollars stolen from Khushrenada by Leia had gone. Duo Maxwell simply did not have that kind of money. Nor was it held somewhere under either Mariemaia's or Helen's name.

Hilde shook her head and leaned back in her chair. "It just doesn't add up," she muttered to herself. "Where the hell is all the damn money?"

***

Wufei followed his wife into their bedroom, closing the door behind them to ensure a few minutes of privacy. He waited while she locked her service weapon safely away, then asked quietly, "Did you find anything else out about Yuy?"

Meiran's shoulders slumped slightly. She closed her eyes and nodded silently.

When no further explanation was forthcoming, Wufei put two and two together, came up with an ongoing investigation that could not be discussed, and said simply, "Oh."

In a flash of temper, Meiran flung her belt and cuffs across the room. They struck the wall and fell to the floor. "Sometimes I hate this job!"

"And the rest of the time it satisfies something deep inside you," Wufei reminded her quietly. Enforcing the law did not, unfortunately, always mean that justice was served for everyone involved. Meiran never accepted those instances very well. He stepped close to her and slid his arms around her in a gentle embrace. "Duo has plenty of friends, good friends. We will be here for him, no matter what happens."

Meiran leaned her head wearily against her husband's, slipping her arms around him as she accepted the offered support. She could never right all of life's injustices but she would always do her best to fix those that she could. Especially when her friends were involved.

Firmly, she vowed, "Yes. Yes, we will."

***

Duo carried another armload of wood into the house and piled it beside the fireplace. It was just barely cool enough to justify lighting a fire tonight. He built the fire carefully, making sure to use enough kindling to get it going nicely. Glancing at his watch, he decided that he should have enough time to get changed before Heero arrived; he really didn't want to greet him while wearing clothes smudged with dirt and covered with bits of bark.

Hurrying upstairs, he took a quick glance into Helen's room to make sure that she was ready for their guest. "All set, kiddo?" he asked. "Need help with anything before I get changed?"

Helen shook her head in response to the query. "I'm ready." She'd tidied up her room in case her teacher came upstairs and she was wearing clean, comfortable clothes. "You'd better hurry up, Uncle Duo. It's almost time for Mr. Yuy to get here," she warned, pointing at the clock on her nightstand.

"Don't worry, I've got time," Duo assured her.

"Wear that really soft purply shirt," Helen suggested. "Mommy always said it brought out your eyes."

Duo grinned and ruffled Helen's hair. "Alright, my little fashion consultant. Any other instructions?" he teased.

Helen tilted her head thoughtfully, then nodded firmly. "Leave your hair down. It's your c...cr..." She frowned, trying to remember what her mother had said.

Swallowing hard, Duo offered, "My crowning glory?" He'd offered to have it cut to make a wig for Leia when her own hair had fallen victim to the treatments she was taking. She'd been horrified at the suggestion; she'd called his hair his crowning glory and made him promise not to cut it.

"Yeah! That's it. Your crowning glory." Helen nodded again, glad that Uncle Duo had recalled the right words. Sometimes she had a hard time remembering things that her mother had said and done; she didn't like forgetting. It made her afraid that, someday, maybe she'd forget her mother entirely.

"Well, it's kind of a pain to leave it down but I'll see what I can do," Duo told her. His hair really was too long to leave loose. Maybe a ponytail instead of a braid would be a good compromise. He *did* want to look attractive for Heero, after all.

***

Holding the phone a cautious distance from her ear, Hilde said, "Yes, sir. I understand, sir. But we *are* very close, sir...

"In fact, I believe that we've found Leia and her daughter." 'Of course, Leia's dead and buried so she's not much good as a witness...' Hilde qualified silently. She wasn't about to tell Jaye that particular piece of information just yet; he was already threatening to pull them off the case.

"What about the money?" Jaye demanded.

"We're looking into it..."

"Have you located it?"

Hilde frowned darkly and admitted, "No, we haven't found the money yet." And she wasn't too sure that they were going to. Something about this whole thing just felt - wrong.

Chief Jaye instructed sharply, "Tell the woman that Khushrenada knows where she is and that we're letting him go. If she wants police protection, she'd better come up with the money. Otherwise, I want you and Yuy on the next flight back here."

***

Holding the door open courteously, the grey-haired attorney apologized, "I'm sorry it took so long, Your Excellency."

Treize gave a dismissive wave of his hand in response to Pargan's words. He was distinctly displeased with the length of his incarceration and if it were not for the fact that the attorney's family had been in his family's service for generations, he would have made that displeasure quite clear. Under the circumstances, however, he was prepared to be gracious. "See to it that future problems are dealt with in a more expeditious manner and we will not speak of it again."

"Of course, your Excellency." The attorney halted at the top of the stairs, leaving Treize to proceed down them alone.

"See to it," Treize ordered without looking back. The legal system had been distinctly less than cooperative but surely Pargan could have done *something* to obtain his release sooner.

He smiled in satisfaction as a tall form unfolded from the driver's seat of a gleaming silver convertible. Pargan might not have been able to handle matters efficiently but Milliardo had taken care of things quite neatly. "Milliardo," he murmured, clasping the hands extended to him. He brushed a kiss of greeting over first one, then the other, side of his lover's face. "My beloved Milliardo... My thanks to you."

"It was my pleasure, my dear Treize..." Milliardo responded. "Your private jet is on standby. Shall we be departing tonight? Or," his voice lowered, becoming more intimate, "might one persuade you to - celebrate - your freedom and your imminent return to fatherhood before we depart?"

Treize shivered at the sultry tone and hooded gaze. He was eager to reclaim his daughter but after all this time, one night would make little difference. It had been much too long since he and Milliardo had been together. Still, it wouldn't do to appear too eager. A persuasive Milliardo could be *very* creative. "I could, perhaps, be persuaded... If one were to find the right incentive..."

A soft, sexy chuckle and a toss of platinum blond hair as Milliardo turned to open the car door greeted his words. "Oh, I'm sure that one could come up with *some*thing..."

***

Pulling up to the gate, Heero rolled down the car window and pressed the buzzer, conscious of the security camera pointed in his direction. A few moments later, the intercom crackled and a cheerful, "Hi, Heero. C'mon up," was heard. The gate swung open slowly and Heero pulled through, heading up the long driveway. In the rear view mirror, he could see the gate slowly swinging closed again.

'The security here is good. Very good. Not perfect by any means - but very good...' Which maybe wasn't all that surprising, considering who the estate really belonged to - but still, it seemed like serious overkill with just an elementary school teacher and a kindergarten student living here. So many of the pieces of the puzzle that was Duo Maxwell came so close to fitting yet didn't *quite* match the pattern that seemed to be correct. Was Elisa Maxwell really Leia Barton-Khushrenada? If so, where was the missing money? Did Duo even know about the money?

'No. I'm not going to think about that. Not tonight. Tonight is for *me*, the man, not the cop...' With an effort, Heero turned his thoughts away from the case. He'd already turned off his cell phone; he'd called and left a message for Hilde warning her that he would be out of touch for the evening. As far as he was concerned, he was off-duty. Tonight was personal, not police business.

The house's door opened in welcome even as Heero parked his car. Helen raced down the sidewalk and demanded, "Mr. Yuy, did you bring Zero?"

Heero chuckled and opened the back door to reveal Zero's pet carrier. "Yes. Hilde doesn't like ferrets very much so I try not to leave him with her very often. Go ahead and take him inside but don't let him out of his carrier without asking your uncle first." He didn't think that Duo would mind but he didn't want to make any rash assumptions.

"Okay!" Helen picked up the ferret's carrier and headed inside, handling it very carefully.

Heero closed the back door and went around to the passenger side to get the food out. Duo joined him, holding his hands out to help. "Fong's?" he said, noting the distinctive boxes. "Great, I haven't had Chinese in... well, in ages." Since Leia died, actually. Helen wouldn't eat anything other than the fortune cookies and it wasn't much fun ordering Chinese for just one. He liked lots of variety when he had it and leftover Chinese food really wasn't very good. "Umm, Helen's not too fond of Chinese; I'll just fix her a burger..." Duo's voice trailed off as Heero smirked and triumphantly retrieved a pizza box from the back seat.

"I thought that maybe she wouldn't like Chinese," Heero explained. "She does like pizza, though, right? I didn't get a lot of toppings on it..."

Duo grinned and assured him, "Oh yeah. She *loves* pizza. As long as you didn't get anchovies or pineapple - stuff that leaves its flavour even after it's picked off - on it, she'll just pull off anything that she doesn't like and eat the rest."

"No, no anchovies or pineapple. Just extra cheese and a couple of different kinds of meat."

"Perfect," Duo assured him as they headed into the house. '*Really* perfect, in fact,' Duo thought happily. Despite the fact that tonight was supposed to be a date, Heero hadn't treated Helen as an unfortunately necessary participant. Instead, he'd taken Helen's wants and needs into consideration when making his plans. 'He accepts that we're a package deal and he's still interested...' Yep, it was definitely time to make a few careful admissions and see what happened; time to find out whether Heero's interest in him could survive even a fraction of the truth about Helen, Leia, and himself.

Part 13:

"Sorry, Uncle Duo. But I need the colour to be... red!" Helen slapped down a Wild Draw 4 card and giggled.

Heero leaned over and reminded her in a loud whisper, "How many cards do you have left?"

"Oops! Uno!"

Duo gave Heero a mock-scowl. "Now, what'd you go and do that for?" he grumbled as he picked up four cards from the draw pile, adding them to the single card already in his hand. "Now she's going to win..."

Heero just grinned. "Who reminded you last time, Helen?" He'd been a bit surprised by just how little prompting the girl had required. But then again, the rules were pretty straightforward, just basic colour and number matching really. And Helen had been positively scornful of his suggestion that they should play one of her games instead. She'd loftily informed him that those were only played when little kids came to visit. *She* played grownup games.

"Uncle Duo did!" Helen bounced a little in her chair and urged, "Your turn, Mr. Yuy!"

Shaking his head, Heero surveyed his cards. "You said red, right?"

"Yep!" she nodded.

Heero played his red 7.

Helen cheered and added a red 2 to the discard pile. "Yay! I won this time!"

"Yep, you sure did, sweetie. Now, let's see who has the best score..." Duo quickly added up the points for the three hands they'd played. "Uh oh, kiddo. Your teacher beat us both. He's got 125 points, I've got 112, and you've got 97."

His remark was greeted with a huge sigh. "Oh well. Maybe we should play another game..."

Heero smothered a snicker at the oh-so-innocent look that Helen directed at her uncle. It had been agreed before they started that they would play three hands or until her bedtime, whichever came first.

"Nuh-uh. No changing the deal, young lady." Duo ruffled Helen's hair affectionately as he gathered up the cards. "Nice try but it's almost your bedtime anyway. Say goodnight to Mr. Yuy and go get ready for bed. I'll be up in a few minutes to tuck you in."

Helen pouted and opened her mouth to protest. She was having too much fun to want to go to bed *now*.

Her uncle raised one eyebrow and pointed towards the stairs. "Bedtime. Now."

"But Uncle Duo..."

"Helen."

Uh oh. That was Uncle Duo's "Don't make me say it again" tone. If she pressed her luck, her trip to the funfair might be in serious jeopardy. With the sigh of one greatly abused, Helen muttered, "Goodnight, Mr. Yuy." On her way out of the room, she took a slight detour to crouch beside Zero's cage and whisper loudly to the napping ferret, "Goodnight, Zero."

"You're very good with her," Heero observed as Helen trudged up the stairs somewhat more loudly than necessary.

"She's a good kid." Duo closed the Uno box and set it aside. "Like all kids, she likes to test the boundaries once in a while but as long as I'm firm and consistent, she doesn't give me too much trouble. That's the way that her mom and I were raised and I think we turned out okay."

"You certainly did. More than okay, in fact," Heero responded with a warm smile.

Duo ducked his head slightly and murmured, "Thanks."

"Knowing you and Helen, I'm sure that Elisa was pretty special too." Despite his determination that tonight was just for Heero, the man, not Detective Yuy, Heero couldn't resist the temptation to find out a little more about the elusive Elisa. Not just because of the case but also because he genuinely wanted to know all about Duo and his young charge.

"Yeah, she was," Duo said with a wistful smile. "We both miss her."

Mindful of his determination to be as truthful as possible with Duo, Heero offered quietly, "I was a teenager when my father died and an adult before my mother passed away. I still miss them. I can't imagine losing a parent at such a young age. Even though Helen has you, it must be very difficult."

"Yeah, it is. I love her and she loves me but I can't take the place of her mom. And I wouldn't want to. I know Helen worries about forgetting her mom. But Elisa knew that she was dying. She made videotapes, wrote letters, bought and wrapped little gifts. There'll be something from her for Helen at every birthday and Christmas and special occasion right through till she starts college. And then there's the engagement and wedding and first child things too. Elisa was determined to be there for Helen as much as she possibly could under the circumstances. Some of the stuff's in safety deposit boxes, some's stored with friends. We didn't want it all in one place. This way, if anything happened, like a fire or something, it wouldn't all be lost."

"That's... amazing," Heero said, stunned by the woman's forethought. It sounded like a wonderful, loving legacy for her daughter. Unfortunately, the detective part of him was also wondering whether those stored items held the answer to the missing money.

"It's not the same as having her mom here but it's the best Elisa could do." Duo shrugged. "And it's certainly better than nothing, which is what Elisa and I had from our parents." Glancing at his watch, he said apologetically, "Listen, I need to go tuck Helen in. Be back in a few minutes."

"Take your time," Heero assured him. He had plenty of things to think about while Duo was gone.

***

Helen sulkily rolled over, turning her back towards the door, when her uncle entered her bedroom. She didn't want to be kissed and cuddled right now; she was too busy being mad at Uncle Duo. They'd been having fun; she didn't want to go to bed!

Duo sighed and crouched beside the bed. He hated to end Helen's evening this way; she'd been so happy... Firmly, he squelched the temptation to give in and let his niece stay up later. She had school tomorrow, albeit only a half day due to the funfair. Besides which, they'd had a deal and he made a point of always following through on things like that. Whether a promise was one of reward or one of punishment, he always followed through on it. Empty threats and inconsistent rules inevitably led to trouble; he'd seen it again and again in his time as a teacher. So he stuck to his word, even when it meant one very unhappy little girl. "Don't I get a goodnight kiss?"

An indignant sniff was the only response Helen gave.

"Don't *you* want a goodnight kiss?"

Helen pulled the covers right up over her head, still giving him the silent treatment.

"I'm sorry you're upset, sweetie, but a deal's a deal. Goodnight and pleasant dreams, kiddo. Love you..."

Duo patted a blanket-covered shoulder gently as he rose from beside the bed. He was almost through the door when a quiet, still sulky voice muttered reluctantly, "Love you too." A rebellious face popped out from under the covers and added, "But I'm still mad at you! And I'm not going to sleep!" before disappearing again in a flurry of bedding.

The "And you can't make me! So there!" was unspoken but clearly implied and Duo just barely managed not to laugh. He suspected that, beneath the covers, there was a saucy tongue stuck out at him.

***

"Helen set for the night?" Heero asked as Duo returned to the livingroom.

"Yeah, she's safely tucked in. Still pouting and bound and determined not to actually *sleep*, mind you - but she's in bed on time," Duo chuckled, joining Heero on the couch in front of the fireplace.

Heero gave a quiet snort of amusement. "So I take it I can expect one tired little girl in class tomorrow."

"Yep."

Cautiously, still torn between his genuine desire to know more about Duo and Helen for their own sakes and his need to know more due to the case, Heero ventured, "When you were talking about Helen's mother earlier, you didn't mention her father..."

"No. I didn't."

The flat tone was almost enough to make Heero back off. Almost. "When I first started teaching Helen's class, I tried to get to know a little more about the kids. You know, who their parents were and what they did for a living. Helen was quite emphatic that her biological father didn't matter... I gathered that the divorce was somewhat... unpleasant?"

Duo closed his eyes and leaned his head against the back of the couch. 'I promised myself that I'd tell him a few things and see how he reacted. Guess the time's arrived...' Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes and began, "Yes - and no.

"See, Elisa wasn't exactly divorced. Just separated. Her husband's a walking nightmare. Of course, she didn't know that when she married him. She had no idea what he really was like. She just saw the charming, debonair aristocrat who swept her off her feet.

"She was doing her internship as a nurse and he was in the hospital - car accident or something, if memory serves." Duo waved his hand dismissively, "Whatever. Anyway, before she got sick, Elisa was gorgeous, really classy. She could wear something she'd picked up on sale at Walmart and look like she'd just stepped out of Sak's Fifth Avenue. So I guess it was natural enough that he flirted with her. Sent her roses and all that crap. Bought her clothes for a single occasion that cost as much as she'd make in a damn month. She'd never had that kind of stuff before and she never questioned where the hell all that money came from. So when he proposed, she was..." Duo spread his hands and shrugged. "She was overwhelmed. Said it was like something straight out of some fairy tale; the prince choosing the pauper as his bride. But 'happily ever after' didn't last very long."

"What happened?" Heero waited curiously for the response. He'd never understood why Khushrenada's wife would have settled for a few million, let alone taken the risk of stealing it from him. She'd have probably gotten just as much in a divorce settlement and Khushrenada might've just let her go since he'd already moved on to a new lover.

"Couple of things. She found out that he was having an affair. And she found out where all the damn money came from. Drugs.

"So she grabbed her daughter and got the hell out of there."

Heero frowned. Okay, this all agreed with what they knew about Khushrenada's wife. Except that there was still no mention of the money. "She just left? Why not turn him in to the police? Divorce him?"

"She had a child to protect, remember? No real hard evidence of his drug dealing connections, nothing to convince the cops. No money of her own to hire a lawyer or anything." Shaking his head, Duo said, "She couldn't take a chance that he'd end up with custody of their daughter; she didn't want Helen raised by a drug dealer. And she'd heard a few things about how he handled 'traitors'; she didn't want to die."

'Okay, I can understand wanting to keep her daughter away from Khushrenada. And without real evidence, there wouldn't have been much that the cops could legally do,' Heero mused. 'Khushrenada could afford far better lawyers; she'd have had very poor chances of keeping custody if she filed for divorce... Running was probably the only real choice she could see.' So - Duo's story made a lot of sense and was probably pretty close to the truth, albeit a rather vague version of it. But there were some definite flaws in the tale; gaps that were obvious enough that his questioning them shouldn't seem suspicious. "Her husband never came looking for her? Never tracked you down while hunting for your sister?"

Duo drew a deep breath. This was the tricky part. If he was wrong to trust Heero, revealing this could cause a lot of problems. Leia had done her best to ensure that he would have at least some legal claim to Helen but it was highly debatable whether it would hold up in court. "He had no reason to look for me. See, Elisa and I weren't related by blood. We're siblings by circumstance and by choice, not genetics."

Heero managed to give an encouraging nod as Duo hesitantly glanced over to check his reaction. He was simultaneously thrilled that Duo was trusting him with this information and tempted to stop the revelations being offered under such misleading circumstances. Allowing Duo to continue felt like a betrayal. But he had to find out as much as he could. This wasn't just about the case anymore, sending Khushrenada to jail would also help to ensure that Helen got to stay with Duo as her mother had wished.

"Elisa and I grew up in the same orphanage," Duo continued. "Her husband didn't like her to talk about her past so she didn't; it's unlikely that he'd remember the time or two that she mentioned me. So when she and Helen joined me, Elisa changed their names. It made sense for her to pretend to be my sister; everyone would expect her to make me Helen's guardian. And it worked; no one ever questioned that Helen would stay with me after Elisa died." He gave Heero a nervous look. "But I don't know whether I'd have any chance of keeping custody if Helen's father turned up. Elisa took every possible precaution but..." He bit his lip and shrugged. "I'd rather not have the issue ever come up. Best that this all stays a secret. I just couldn't let things between us go any further without you knowing the truth."

Heero stood abruptly and walked over to the fireplace, using the pretense of adding wood to buy a few moments to think. Duo had told him even more than he'd expected. His own duplicity was eating away at him; continuing to hide his own secrets was seeming more like a betrayal by the moment. He had an ominous feeling that the future of his relationship with Duo was being determined right here, right now. 'This is it. Time to choose.'

When Heero rose so abruptly from the couch, Duo was immediately uneasy. 'Oh god. Please don't let me have made a mistake... Either by telling him about Elisa and Helen or by reading too much into our relationship...' He swallowed convulsively as Heero failed to return after tending to the fire. Instead, the other man braced one arm against the mantle and gazed into the fire. Watching the tense figure, Duo queried anxiously, "Heero?"

Closing his eyes, Heero took a deep breath and made his decision.

Part 14:

Eyes closed, Heero maintained his position. Still leaning against the mantle, he said flatly, "You're right. It is time for the truth. The truth is..." He opened his eyes, gazing unseeingly into the fire. "The truth is that I'm not a teacher. I'm a cop."

'No. Oh god, no...' Duo shook his head sharply in denial. "No. You can't..."

Heero finally turned around and forced himself to meet Duo's wide eyes. "Yes, I am. I'm a cop, a detective on an undercover operation. I never..." He swallowed hard, throat tightening and chest aching at the stricken look on Duo's face. "I've done undercover work before and it's never bothered me to mislead the people I met while I was under. I've never met anyone that I wanted to know once the assignment was over, never wanted anyone to know the truth. I didn't expect this time to be any different. But it has been, right from the first day when I saw you in the main office. I wanted to get to know you, wanted you to get to know *me*. The real me. But I've never broken cover before and by the time I realized how badly I *wanted* to..." Heero swallowed again before forcing out, "By then, it was clear that I couldn't. That you were maybe involved with the case."

Frozen on the couch, Duo listened with a sense of almost - detachment - as Heero spoke. He shivered, idly wondering how he could possibly be cold when he was sweating. A fragment of first aid training popped up, pointing out that he was exhibiting signs of shock. 'Gee, I wonder why I'd be in shock. Couldn't possibly be because the guy I've fallen in love with just informed me that I don't really know him at all. Or because I just told a cop that I'm not a blood relation to Helen and that her dad doesn't know where she is. Or because probably the reason the cop's here is because her dad's looking for her. Nah, couldn't be for any of those reasons...' Duo fought back the almost irresistible urge to laugh hysterically. 'Well, at least I didn't tell him what Helen's original name was. If he doesn't already know, it'll take a little effort for him to find out. The name change itself is legal and official; we just didn't go through the standard official channels to accomplish it...' Oh god. He was going to be sick. He'd just put his promise to Leia at risk, put Helen's whole future at risk. And to top it all off, he'd fallen in love with someone who didn't really exist.

Clamping his hand over his mouth, Duo swallowed repeatedly, refusing to give in to the nausea. He was vaguely aware that Heero was still talking but the words were nothing but meaningless background noise. He had important decisions to make and he needed to make them *fast*. 'Think, Maxwell, *think*. Run? Or stay?

'Running's no good, we'd never be able to settle down. Can't do that to Helen; she deserves a stable home. Friends. Which means we have to stay.

'Gotta call Quatre. Gonna need money and a lawyer and I think he'll help.' He knew that Quatre had helped one of his sisters get out of a bad marriage and *that* help had involved hiring mercenaries - a number of whom remained in his employ as security - to sneak her and her kids out of the husband's homeland. He'd never told Quatre the truth about Elisa and Helen but Duo had a sneaking suspicion that the blond had guessed that there was more to the story than what he'd been told. He'd certainly made a point of emphasizing the house's security system to Elisa when he'd offered it for their use. 'Yeah, Quatre will understand and help. I know he will. As will our other friends.' They'd known Elisa, had known her wishes. They knew Helen, knew him. And Duo knew them. Knew that they would be prepared to help. He could trust them to stand by Helen and him.

'Of course, you thought that you knew Heero too. Thought that you could trust him. Thought that he'd fallen in love with you the way that you fell in love with him. Better hope you're not as wrong about the others as you were about him.' Duo pushed that thought away, unable to deal with the pain of Heero's betrayal right now. Helen's safety and happiness was more important than his own broken heart. 'Call Quatre. Now.'

"...Jaye will be furious that I told you all of this but I couldn't keep lying to..." Heero trailed off in mid-sentence as Duo, face pale and expressionless, rose from the couch and crossed to the phone. "Duo?" There was no response. Not even any sign that Duo had heard him. And he realized abruptly that Duo hadn't reacted to anything that he'd said since he'd admitted that he was a cop. 'Did he even hear any of it?'

Pressing the speed dial for Quatre's personal cell phone - only close friends and family had the number - Duo waited while it rang. He closed his eyes in resignation when it kicked over into voicemail. 'Must be a symphony night; that's about the only time he turns it off.' "Quat? It's Duo. I... I need your help. Helen too. I hate to ask but... we're... uh..." Duo stumbled over his words, finally forcing out in a humiliated rush, "We're gonna need money again. And the name of a lawyer who's... who's really good at custody battles. Tell you the details when you call back. Thanks."

Listening to Duo's phone call, Heero realized in dismay that Duo hadn't really heard anything that he'd said. 'He heard me admit that I'm a cop then he shut down. K'so. He doesn't understand that I'm not here about Helen.'

Standing with one hand resting on the phone, Duo tried to clear his mind enough to figure out what his next step should be. There must be something he should do while he waited for Quatre to call back... A hand tentatively touching his shoulder and the sound of his name reminded him of at least one thing he needed to do. Shrugging out from under Heero's hand without turning around, he said stonily, "Detective Yuy - or whatever the hell your name is - I think you should leave. Now."

"No. Duo, it's not what you think. You need to listen..."

Angry and hurt, Duo wheeled to face Heero and exploded, "Not what I think?!" Ever conscious of Helen's presence upstairs, he forced himself to keep his voice low as he hissed furiously, "I need to *listen*?! Listen to *what*, for god's sake! More lies? More bullshit aimed at tricking me into spilling my guts to you? God, you must've laughed your ass off at the gullible, naive schoolteacher who was dumb enough to believe that you were falling in love with him the way he'd fallen in love with you!" Despite his best efforts, Duo's voice cracked and broke, his throat closing off and his eyes burning.

Heero flinched at the bitter betrayal in Duo's voice. 'This was *not* the way I wanted to find out that he was in love with me too...' he thought miserably. Hopefully "was" did not turn out to be the critical word. "Please, Duo, you don't understand. It wasn't like that at all. At first, I didn't even know you had anything to do with the case. I was attracted to you and wanted to get to know you for *me*, not the investigation. I should have requested reassignment the moment I realized that you might be connected to the whole mess but I'd been after Khushrenada for so long that I didn't want someone else to be the one to finally put him behind bars. I did finally get my priorities straight and request reassignment but..."

Almost against his will, Duo listened to Heero. He was determined not to be fooled again but he couldn't afford to ignore information that might help protect Helen. 'Sure, Maxwell, keep telling yourself that. You just don't want to admit that you're hoping he really can explain himself. That you're still foolish enough to hope that he's in love with you...' Abruptly, what Heero was saying sank in. "Whoa, wait a minute. Put Khushrenada behind bars?" he interrupted. "I thought..."

Relieved that Duo was finally really paying attention, Heero stated clearly, "I'm not here about Helen. We were looking for Leia Barton-Khushrenada in the hopes that she would testify against her husband. We knew that she'd been seen entering the school with her daughter a few months ago but that was all we had to go on. Khushrenada knows too but he's in jail awaiting trial for murder. The witness is - a little less than ideal - so we were hoping to nail him on other charges too, preferably with more solid testimony. We'd hoped Leia would be willing to testify in exchange for immunity and protection." He left the money that Leia had supposedly taken out for now; it would only confuse the issue. Heero was pretty sure that *if* the money even existed - and he had some pretty serious doubts on the subject - Duo didn't know anything about it. The phone call that Duo had just made had only strengthened his belief. Duo was worried about custody of Helen, not ill-gotten gains. The gut reaction of someone with ten million dollars squirrelled away would not be to stand his ground and make a distinctly embarrassed request for money from a friend. It would be to grab the ten million and run like hell.

"You're not here about Helen," Duo repeated disbelievingly. "But... you're a cop. After what I told you..."

Heero shook his head. "Khushrenada never reported his daughter missing. Her mother left her in your custody. Without her father making a formal, legal claim - it's a grey area."

"A grey area," Duo echoed. "He never even *looked* for them?!"

"That's not what I said," Heero corrected him. He didn't bother pointing out that until Duo had just confirmed his ID of Helen as Khushrenada's daughter, he really hadn't been 100% certain. He didn't think Duo would appreciate finding out that little fact. "He never reported his daughter missing. Just like he never reported the ten million his wife supposedly stole from him. Though since it was illegal income from drugs, it's quite understandable why he didn't report it to the police. He simply put out word on the street and offered an unspecified reward for information about Leia."

Still struggling to deal with the idea that Helen's custody wasn't in immediate jeopardy, it took a few minutes for the comment about the "ten million" to sink in. But when it did... "Ten million!" Duo yelped. "All Leia had was some valuable jewellery and expensive clothes that she pawned for a pittance. She didn't have any cash or a bank account or even charge cards; Khushrenada wanted her to come to him for everything. Sounded to me like he got off on the power trip. The last few things that she hadn't pawned before she hooked up with me, she dropped in a Salvation Army donation bin. She didn't want whatever cash she could've got for them; didn't want any part of the profits from that filthy business of his. Even if she could've somehow gotten hold of some of his money, she'd have never touched it. It disgusted her; knowing she'd lived on it made her feel dirty and tainted. She sure as hell never made off with ten million!"

Heero scowled. Duo's version of the story fit. Far better than the version that Khushrenada had spread around the streets; he'd always thought there was something a bit off about that tale. But... "If he wasn't after Leia because of the money..."

"Oh god," Duo breathed. "It's Helen. He's after her..."

***

Meiran's spin-kick ended when her foot thudded against the heavy bag. The bag rocked under the blow; she resumed her stance and prepared to strike again. Sweat trickled down her back and between her breasts. Her muscles quivered with exhaustion. Despite the lateness of the hour and her growing physical weariness, she continued her workout. Her anger and frustration still burned as fiercely as they had when she'd first discovered Yuy's identity. She wished that she'd pressed Chief Gee harder for details regarding the investigation that Yuy was involved in.

Despite Yuy's assurances that he was genuinely interested in Duo, she had an uneasy feeling about the whole thing. For one thing, if Yuy's interest in Duo was strictly personal, he couldn't be spending much time on the investigation he was supposed to be conducting. She doubted that his partner was doing all the work and letting him slack off; Yuy didn't strike her as a slacker and the woman didn't seem likely to let him get away with it if he was. Which almost inevitably led to the conclusion that, while Yuy might genuinely have a personal interest in Duo, Duo was also involved in their case.

Another blow rocked the bag.

A calm but firm voice spoke from the dojo's doorway. "Meiran. It is late. Enough. Come to bed."

Meiran shook her head. "No." She turned to face her husband. "Spar with me," she demanded.

One corner of Wufei's mouth lifted in a wry half-smile. "Not tonight, my fierce one. We learned that lesson the hard way, remember?" Early in their marriage, they had made the mistake of sparring while Meiran was upset over a case. The match had ended with a trip to the emergency room for them both. "Come," he urged, holding out his hand. "There are other ways to escape your thoughts for a while. Much more pleasant and successful ones."

Anticipation coiled in her belly at the promise in her husband's dark eyes. Yes, Wufei would make her forget, at least for tonight. And tomorrow - well, she would deal with it when it arrived; deal with it all the better for being relaxed and well-rested. Or relaxed and not-so-well-rested, for that matter. Gliding across the dojo, Meiran placed her hand in Wufei's in silent acceptance of the invitation. Side by side, they headed back to the house.

***

Hilde punched a number into the phone, stopping before she entered the final digit. Finger poised over the keypad, she grimaced then hung the receiver up again. 'No,' she decided with a sigh. 'I'll let him have tonight. Nothing we can do right now anyway; morning'll be soon enough to break the news.'

There was no point calling Maxwell's home number this late just to give Yuy the bad news. She already knew that he wasn't going to take any of it well. The loss of their only witness, Khushrenada's release, and the news that they were being pulled from the case unless they came up with the elusive - and, she was beginning to suspect, illusory - stolen money, were all going to be highly unpopular with her partner. He'd wanted off the case but not because it was being dropped. And if they were right about Maxwell's connection to Leia Barton-Khushrenada, Yuy was going to be *very* unhappy about Jaye's ultimatum regarding police protection. Very, *very* unhappy.

***

Standing beside Helen's bed, Duo gently stroked her hair back from her face. He didn't know what to do. 'God, Leia, I wish you were here. Wish I could share this mess with you; share responsibility for the decisions.' Besides which, if Leia was there, the chances of winning a custody battle against Khushrenada would be far greater. Right now - well, he wasn't sure what his chances were like. Without help from Quatre, they would likely be abysmal. With money and a damn good lawyer - it was hard to say.

Khushrenada's failure to look for his daughter through legal channels was a definite mark against him, as was his arrest for murder. Duo's own record was pretty squeaky-clean; his handful of childhood misdemeanours while he'd been living on the streets had been expunged from his record when he reached adulthood. He had plenty of good character witnesses and Helen's mother's wishes were also a strong point in his favour. The gay issue shouldn't matter since Khushrenada had an openly acknowledged male live-in lover. None of which guaranteed that he would get to keep Helen; it just gave him a fighting chance. He hoped.

Then of course there was the other problem he was facing. The problem waiting for him downstairs.

Heero.

Heero who, amongst all the lies and half-truths, had at least been using his real name. And, if Duo were to believe him, had been interested in Duo personally rather than professionally all along. He'd cut off Heero's explanation at that point, claiming a need to check on Helen. He *had* felt a need to check on Helen, to see that she was safely in her bed. But he'd also needed a few minutes away from Heero. Minutes to decide whether or not to give Heero a chance to continue that explanation. A chance to rescue the relationship that he'd just accepted as nothing but a foolish dream. He wanted to believe Heero, wanted to give him a chance. *God*, how he wanted that. But he was afraid too. Afraid of getting hurt, afraid of Helen getting hurt. Afraid of being betrayed again. Afraid to trust again.

'Should I trust him? *Can* I trust him?'

Tough questions. Questions that he needed to find answers for - and soon.

Part 15:

"...all the details when you call back. Thanks." A beep indicated the end of the message and the dark haired man frowned as he handed the cell phone back to its owner.

"Well?" the blond demanded. "Still think I'm overreacting, Trowa?"

"No, Quatre, I don't. I've never heard him that badly shaken. And for Duo to actually *ask* for money..." Trowa shook his head in disbelief. Just persuading Duo to live in the vacant Winner house had been a major undertaking. Quatre had ended up secretly offering early retirement to the caretaker in order to convince Duo to stay there in exchange for taking over the caretaker's job. And it had taken weeks to persuade their friend to accept monetary help during the latter part of Elisa's illness. Things had to be very bad indeed for Duo to actually request both legal and financial assistance. "Something's seriously wrong. You call Akilah; I'll take care of the rest."

***

Zero's chittering drew Heero from a restless doze. It took him a few moments to remember where he was and why. The dim morning light filtering into the room and revealing the half-empty beer bottles still sitting on the coffee table reminded him. 'Duo let me sleep on the couch since it was so late and we'd had a few beers over the course of the evening. Maybe not enough to be over the limit but we were both tired and stressed out as well. I really wasn't fit to drive. He could have insisted that I call Hilde to pick me up but he let me stay instead...' The semi-reluctant invitation had been a welcome sign that maybe - just maybe - he hadn't completely blown his chance with Duo.

The very fact that Duo had let Heero explain had been encouraging. Duo had been wary and distant but he'd listened. Listened - and questioned. Heero had done his best to answer openly and honestly, both about himself and about Khushrenada; Duo was at least giving him the chance to explain. Duo could very easily have chosen to simply write the whole thing off and - at least so far - he hadn't. On the other hand, he wasn't exactly opening his arms and declaring all was forgiven either. Not that Heero could blame Duo; the entire situation was a damn mess and his own actions - or inaction to be more accurate - had only made things worse.

Wearily pushing back the blanket, Heero swung his feet to the floor, wincing at the protest of tired, stiff muscles as he sat up on the couch. Glancing at his watch, he realized that he'd had less than four hours of sleep. Not nearly enough but it would have to do; he needed to get back to his own place early enough to talk to Hilde before showering, changing clothes, and heading to the school.

Heero had one shoe laced up and was reaching for the other when he froze, struck by the sudden realization that running off without talking to Duo this morning would probably not be a very smart move. Of course, intruding on his bedroom to wake him up at five o'clock in the morning probably wouldn't go over too well either.

'Okay, so much for Plan A. Guess I'd better go with Plan B.'

***

Hilde's first blind grab for the phone missed entirely, sending the alarm clock crashing to the floor. Forcing her eyes open, she managed - after several fumbles - to grab it off of the nightstand. "H'lo?" The distant, muffled sound of a voice made her take a second look at the receiver in her hand. "Too damn early for this," she grumbled as she turned the handset right-side up. "H'lo?" she repeated, squinting at the clock where it lay face up on the floor. She scowled as she recognized the voice on the phone. "Yuy, d'you have any idea what *time* it is? This better be mighty damn important."

It didn't take long for her to realize that it was. Especially the "no stolen money" bit.

Jaye's ultimatum was *not* going to go over well with Heero. Nor was the news about their case dying along with the witness. And as for the fact that Khushrenada had already been released... Hilde winced at the thought. But Heero had to be told and unfortunately she was the one stuck doing the telling. Taking a deep breath, she interrupted, "Uh, Yuy - we've got a problem..."

***

Duo watched with itchy, aching eyes as the clock changed from 5:44 to 5:45. With a resigned sigh, he decided that he might as well get up. He wasn't sleeping anyway and lying in bed watching the clock tick away the minutes wasn't going to do any good. 'Funny Quatre never called back. Must've got home really late and forgot to check his messages. Either that or he didn't want to risk waking Helen up by calling in the middle of the night...'

Yeah, that was probably it. Quatre would likely call this morning so he'd better haul himself out of bed, tired or not, and get cracking. He should try to be ready for work before the call came, just to be sure that he didn't end up running late.

***

Hilde yawned widely as she pulled into the driveway. The yawn turned into a long, low, whistle of appreciation as she surveyed the impressive gates barring her path. "No wonder Yuy was so stunned the first time he came out here. Maxwell must be one hell of a good friend for Winner to let him use this place..." she muttered to herself. Rolling down her window, she reached out, pressed the security buzzer, and waited.

***

The strident summons of the gate security buzzer drew Duo downstairs. "Who on earth..." he grumbled as he descended the stairs. It was barely even six o'clock; he couldn't imagine who would be coming to visit this early.

Heero turned from the security control panel and gave Duo a guilty look. "Sorry," he apologized. "I called Hilde to bring me a change of clothes. And, well... she had some news that I think you need to hear."

"Why do I get the feeling that I'm not going to like what she has to say?" Duo muttered unhappily as he reached past Heero to punch in the gate release code.

"Because you're not," Heero answered bluntly. He certainly hadn't been happy about it and Duo was going to like it even less.

***

Duo struggled through his morning lesson plans. His concentration was completely shot; his mind kept returning to the fact that Khushrenada was free and probably on his way to claim Helen and he still hadn't heard from Quatre about a loan and a lawyer and then of course there was the whole issue of his relationship with Heero and whether or not he should even consider trying to salvage it... And of course the kids in his class were so excited about the afternoon funfair that their concentration wasn't any better.

The noise in the classroom rose above an acceptable level. Duo sighed and called the class to order yet again, reminding them that they couldn't attend the funfair unless they had their seatwork completed. Heads bent over notebooks and the sound of pencils scratching across paper replaced excited voices.

And Duo's own problems reclaimed his attention once more.

***

Finally released from a very long, intense meeting with Chief Gee, Hilde felt satisfied that the Astoria police would do their best to keep a close eye on Maxwell and his niece as well as on Khushrenada and his lover whenever they showed up in town. She'd even talked Gee into requesting that Jaye leave Yuy and herself in Astoria temporarily on the grounds that he wanted someone familiar with the way Khushrenada operated around to keep an eye on him and make certain that the man didn't try expanding his operations into Astoria. She hoped that Gee would be successful in persuading Jaye; Yuy had made it clear that he was staying, orders or not, but she couldn't afford that kind of insubordination. Yuy was willing to risk dismissal over this; she wasn't. Yet she liked Maxwell and the girl and wanted to see this through to the end.

A custody battle could drag on for months, in which case there was no way that Jaye would leave two detectives stationed here, but Hilde was hoping that it wouldn't come to that. Khushrenada might be cool as a cucumber when dealing with business but this wasn't business, it was personal. He'd already made one mistake by committing murder in front of a witness; maybe they'd get lucky and he'd make another one.

In the meantime, she had a partner to update and a funfair to attend. She could almost taste the cotton candy and caramel corn already...

***

"What would you like to do first, kiddo?" Duo asked, a grin tugging at his lips despite his worries. It was impossible to be too gloomy in the face of Helen's excitement.

"The pony ride!" Helen answered instantly, tugging on her uncle's hand.

"Okay, the pony ride it is." She released his hand and started to dash ahead of him. Duo lunged after her, "Helen, no!"

Heero lunged after her as well, just barely snagging her as she dodged through the crowd. "Hold it right there, young lady," he scolded as he swung her up into his arms. "What did we discuss this morning?"

"I'm not s'pose to go anywhere with strangers, even if they say they know my mommy or that they're my daddy, 'n' I'm s'pose to stay with you or Uncle Duo," she repeated dutifully.

"Which means you're not suppose to go running off by yourself," Duo interjected, having finally pressed through the crowd to reach the two of them.

"But you were both right behind me," she protested.

"That's not good enough; you have to hold either your uncle's hand or mine," Heero said firmly. In a crowd like this, it would only take an instant for her to vanish and Heero didn't doubt that Khushrenada would take advantage of any opportunity he might find. He wouldn't want to wage a custody battle in the Oregon courts; he would have a far greater advantage on his home turf.

Helen pouted. "But..."

"No arguing," Duo warned her. "Either you hold hands or you're going home." Frankly, he'd rather have taken her home. But she'd been looking forward to the funfair for weeks; he couldn't bring himself to disappoint her on the off chance that Khushrenada might show up and try to snatch her and take her back to L.A. where he would have the advantage in court. A custody battle could end up dragging on for months; they couldn't very well stay shut up behind the safety of their home's security system the entire time.

"Okay," she agreed grumpily.

"Okay what?"

"Okay, I'll hold hands," she huffed.

Heero set her down and she sulkily allowed her uncle to take her hand for the walk to the pony ride. He waited at ringside as her uncle lifted her into the saddle of a stout black pony; Duo joined him a moment later. Helen's pout turned back into a grin as the ponies began to walk around the ring and she waved happily. They both waved back.

An uncomfortable silence fell between them as they waited for Helen. The status of their relationship was still very much up in the air and Heero was being very careful not to pressure Duo for a decision. For one thing, he didn't want to give Duo the impression that his support and assistance in keeping custody of Helen was dependent on a relationship between the two of them; it wasn't. He was also taking hope from the fact that Duo hadn't come to a negative decision yet.

Duo leaned on the railing and gave Helen an absent wave as she circled the ring again. He was very aware - and, he admitted reluctantly, appreciative - of Heero's continued presence at his side. 'He isn't supposed to be here now; the money doesn't exist so he should be on his way back to L.A. But he isn't; he's ignoring his orders and staying here. With Helen and me.

'I don't think it's because of Khushrenada; a custody battle isn't likely to give him a chance to bust Khushrenada. I think he's staying because he meant what he said - that he's interested in me personally, not professionally, and he really does want me to give him a chance...

'Maybe I should. He told me the truth before circumstances would have forced him to. And... I can see why he acted the way he did. I wish he'd told me the truth sooner - before I told him about Elisa and Helen - but I do understand that he was in a difficult position and that he did the best he could... He's staying to help at the risk of his job. Helen adores him and he's really good with her; he accepts the fact that we're a package deal...

'I'm still angry and hurt that he lied to me, that he pretended to be someone he isn't. But... I'm still attracted to him... still in love with him, or at least the man I think he is...' And that, of course, was the problem. Even if he forgave Heero for deceiving him, the fact remained that he'd fallen in love with Heero-the-kindergarten-teacher, not Heero-the-L.A.-cop. How much of the man he'd fallen in love with was real? He didn't know. And there was only one way to find out - give Heero the chance to show him who he really was, the chance to make him fall in love all over again.

The chance to hurt him all over again. Was it worth taking the risk?

'If the real Heero is even close to the one I've gotten to know... Then yeah, it's worth the risk.' Decision made, Duo took a single step sideways, closing the distance between himself and Heero. "No more lies," he said quietly. "No half-truths, no evasions, no omissions. You've got a second chance to make me fall in love with the real you; don't blow it 'cause you won't get a third." He half-turned towards Heero and held out his right hand. "Deal?"

Relief rushing through him, Heero brought his hand up to meet Duo's in a firm clasp. "Deal," he agreed.

Part 16:

The school was utterly deserted.

"I knew that we should have left last night," Khushrenada said as he climbed sulkily back into the rental car. "Now we'll have to wait until school starts on Monday to find Mariemaia."

Knowing better than to remind Trieze that not only had he been *more* than willing to delay their departure last night, but that he'd also been the one to make them late arriving at the airport this morning, Milliardo instead looked around for some indication of why the school was closed so early today. Noticing a flyer posted on a nearby lamppost, he retrieved it and took it back to the car with him. "This must be where everyone is," he commented, handing the flyer to the other man.

"A funfair. How very - rustic." Trieze sniffed disparagingly. "One would hope that Leia has not sunk so low as to take my daughter to such a thing."

Cautiously, well aware of his lover's rather inflexible stance on appropriate behaviour for his social class, Milliardo suggested, "However, if, perchance, she *is* in attendance, the jet *is* on standby..."

"...and we would not have to spend the weekend in this backwater," Trieze completed. "True. Very well, then. To the..." He made a moue of distaste. "...funfair."

***

"Uncle Duo! Look, cotton candy!" Tugging her uncle's arm excitedly, Helen tried to drag him towards the nearby cart.

Reluctantly pulling his attention away from the low-voiced conversation taking place between Heero and his partner, Hilde, Duo tousled Helen's hair absently. "In a minute, sweetie." He couldn't hear everything over the noise of the funfair, but at least if he had some idea what was going on, he'd have a better chance of making sure that Heero filled him in on the details afterwards.

"Please..." she pleaded. "Please please please please please..."

"Helen..." Duo warned. He knew that she wasn't having as much fun as she'd expected, due to the precautions that he and Heero were insisting on, but the whining was starting to get out of hand. If she kept this up, he really was going to take her home and send her straight to bed. This kind of behaviour wasn't acceptable, and she knew it.

Heero's voice interrupted before Duo had a chance to lay down the law. "Why don't you two go ahead?" he suggested. "Hilde and I still have a few things to discuss, and just standing around waiting isn't very much fun for Helen."

Frowning, Duo started to protest, "I have a right to know..."

"You do," Heero agreed immediately. "And I give you my word that I'll tell you everything later." He'd promised honesty earlier, and he intended to keep that promise.

Duo hesitated. If he and Heero were going to have any chance of making a relationship work, he was going to have to trust Heero, to have faith that Heero wouldn't lie or hide things from him. If he couldn't do that, then he might as well call it quits right here and now. 'Can I believe him? Can I trust him not to deceive me, not to hurt me or Helen?'

Heero's heart sank as the silence stretched out between them. Though he couldn't blame Duo if he wasn't quite prepared to accept his word, Duo's obvious hesitation hurt. And it made him wonder whether they could ever really get past the damage that his initial deceit had caused.

"O...okay," Duo finally stammered out. The brilliant smile that Heero gave him in response was almost enough to erase his lingering uncertainty.

"Yay!" Helen cheered. Yanking enthusiastically on Duo's arm, she dragged him away. "Cotton candy! Come *on*, Uncle Duo!"

"Easy there, just settle down a little," Duo told her firmly. "Stop pulling and behave yourself." He tugged her back to his side. She heaved a put-upon sigh, but didn't resist. Joined hands swinging between them, they walked the short distance to the cotton candy vendor's cart. "Okay, kiddo, which kind do you want? Pink? Blue?"

"Both!" she decided, pointing to the multi-coloured cone on display.

"You're going to have to brush your teeth *twice* tonight, young lady," Duo warned as they waited in line.

Helen wrinkled up her nose but nodded in acceptance. If that was what it took to get her cotton candy, then she'd do it. At least she was finally getting to do *something* that she wanted to. Uncle Duo wouldn't even let her go in the maze with her friends; he'd made her go through it with him and Mr. Yuy, and that wasn't *nearly* as much fun. He'd even made her use the porta-potty while he waited outside the door, instead of letting her go in the park washroom all by herself.

The line moved slowly ahead, and it was finally their turn. "One multi-coloured, please," Duo requested. "And one blue." 'What the heck,' he decided. 'The funfair only happens once a year, and eating cotton candy's just part of the experience.' Besides, maybe Heero would share it with him.

"Here you go, sir," the vendor said, holding out Helen's treat.

Duo released her hand in order to take it and pass it to her. While the vendor was busy making his cone, he pulled out his wallet so that he would have the payment ready when his own cone was handed over. Money and the candy changed hands, and Duo turned away from the cart. "Okay," he began, looking down to see if Helen had managed to get all sticky yet.

She wasn't there.

'Just take it easy,' Duo told himself, firmly reining in his immediate panicked reaction. 'She was here just a minute ago; she can't have gotten far. Calm down and take a good look around.' But as minutes of fruitless looking and calling passed, the panic grew. Finally, he decided to go back and get Heero and Hilde. Three could comb the grounds more quickly than one. 'Besides, maybe she went back there,' he thought, hoping desperately.

***

After Uncle Duo handed her cotton candy to her, Helen moved a few steps away from the vendor's cart, so that she could see past the line-up behind them. Watching the crowd move by, she caught a brief glimpse of a brightly flowered shirt. 'Coach Howie!' Wanting to say hi, she darted off in pursuit of that familiar shirt. "Coach Howie!" she shouted as she lost sight of him in the crowd, but she could barely even hear *herself* over the noise of the midway, so she wasn't really surprised when he didn't come back. Halting abruptly, she started to turn to go back to her uncle, but the person behind her didn't stop quite so quickly and ran into her.

Helen tried to catch her balance, but she dropped her cotton candy, and when she tried to catch it before it hit the ground, she stumbled and fell hard. Afraid of being stepped on, she scrambled back to her feet as fast as she could. Knees aching, hands scraped and stinging, she sniffled and tried not to cry. 'I want Uncle Duo!' Struggling through the crowd, she headed back to where she thought she'd came from, only to discover that she'd gotten turned around when she fell, and now she didn't know *where* she was. Jostled along by the flow of foot traffic, she managed to find a narrow gap between two midway booths, and slipped into its welcoming stillness for a few minutes.

She'd lost her cotton candy, and *she* was lost, and her hands and knees hurt, and Uncle Duo was going to be mad 'cause she was supposed to stay close, and... Helen sniffled and curled up on the ground behind an overflowing garbage bin. "...and I want my mommy!" she whimpered as the tears started to roll down her cheeks.

***

Heero watched Duo and Helen walk off through the ever-increasing crowd. 'He's giving me a chance, *really* giving me a chance. He hesitated, but he still decided to trust me...'

"Earth to Yuy, come in, Yuy."

A hand waved in front of Heero's face, blocking his view just long enough for the crowd to swallow up those he was watching. Turning back towards Hilde, he gave her an annoyed glare. It didn't wilt her amused expression in the slightest.

"Oh man, have you got it bad," she chuckled, shaking her head.

"Keep your mind on the case, and out of my personal life," Heero growled irritably. Things between him and Duo were much too fragile at the moment for him to put up with teasing, no matter how good-natured.

Unfazed, Hilde just laughed and gave him a commiserating thump on the shoulder. "Ah, but your personal life *is* part of the case," she reminded him with a smug grin.

Unable to deny it, he scowled and changed the subject. "Where's Khushrenada now?"

Instantly sobering, she told him, "According to the flight plan filed by his pilot, he should have landed at the airport here in Astoria an hour or so ago."

"He's *here*?!" Heero hissed in disbelief. "And you just let me send Duo and Helen off on their own?!"

Hilde rolled her eyes. "Relax, Yuy. Chief Gee was assigning someone to tail him; he won't get a chance to try anything. Besides, he doesn't even know who Maxwell is or what the kid looks like, remember? Let alone where to look for them."

"I think *you* need to remember that this is Khushrenada we're dealing with," Heero snapped, eyes scanning the crowd in search of Duo and his niece. "Anything is possible."

Huffing in exasperation, she responded, "Yuy, I think you've been chasing this guy a little too long. He's not some sort of superman."

"No, he's just as wily as a fox, and slippery as an eel," Heero retorted sharply. "Not to mention having the killer instincts of a piranha and the social conscience to match."

Just then, he spotted Duo coming towards them, very clearly distraught - and very clearly alone.

***

Helen didn't know how long she sat on the ground and cried. Long enough that her hands had mostly stopped bleeding, and her nose was running and her eyes were itchy, but not long enough for Uncle Duo to find her. 'I wanna go *home*...' Well, if Uncle Duo couldn't find her, she'd just have to find him. Still sniffling, she wiped her face on her shirt, got back to her feet, and started to walk again.

Suddenly, someone blocked her path. "Well now, I do believe that this is the young lady we're looking for."

She looked up. And up. The man in front of her was even taller than Uncle Duo.

"What's the matter? Don't you remember me?" he asked.

Helen frowned at him. "No. And I'm not s'posed to talk to strangers." She tried to step around the tall man, but someone else was in the way.

"But I'm not a stranger," the tall man said very seriously as he bent and picked her up.

 

Part 17:

From the moment that Treize had spotted the child, there had been no doubt whatsoever in his mind. Even as appallingly dressed as she was,the resemblance to his mother was remarkable; the little redhead was undeniably his daughter. Once a quick glance around had confirmed that Leia was nowhere in the vicinity, he'd been more than prepared to seize the opportunity. The pains they had taken to lose their less-than-subtle tail before coming to the funfair had definitely been worthwhile. With a little good fortune, they would be halfway back to L.A. before anyone realized where the girl had disappeared to. Once there, he had no doubts as to his ability to retain control of his daughter. He would be in his own territory.

Possession really did amount to nine-tenths of the law. The other tenth was all about money and power.

"No, liebling, I am most definitely not a stranger," Treize repeated to the child in his arms. She squirmed frantically, as he began to walk swiftly back towards the exit. He was peripherally aware of Milliardo, a silent shadow at his elbow, eyes scanning the crowd, undoubtedly watching for any sign of Leia. Or of Detective Yuy, for that matter; Treize's sources had stated quite clearly that the man was currently *somewhere* in this backwater town. Quickly, to distract the girl before her protests drew undue attention, Treize exclaimed delightedly, "Do you know that are the very image of your grandmother?"

Helen stilled and gave the tall stranger a wary but curious look. "My grandmother? I don't have a grandma."

"Everyone has a grandmother, liebling," Treize assured her with a charming chuckle. "You have never met your grandmother - she passed on when I was but a boy - but there is a family portrait of her as a young girl, and you look exactly like her." He qualified silently, 'Aside from the dirty, tear-stained face and the dreadful clothing, of course.' Leia used to have exquisite taste; he could scarcely fathom that she had dressed his daughter in such a disgraceful outfit. "Shall I tell you about your grandmother?" he inquired, keeping Mariemaia's attention on their conversation rather than the fact that they were making their way towards the funfair's exit. He would prefer not to need to explain away hysterics to dozens of concerned bystanders.

Her classmates had grandmothers, grandmas who spoilt them rotten with birthday presents and special treats. She'd never missed having a daddy - Mommy said Uncle Duo was better, anyway - but she'd always kind of wanted a grandma to make a fuss over her. Helen nodded, wide-eyed. "Okay."

***

Meiran waved in response to her children's happy shouts as the child-sized Ferris wheel carried them up in the air, happy to be there with them. The Khushrenada case had left her previously-booked day off in question. She'd been called in for the morning briefing, but Gee had decided that her family's personal relationship with the Maxwells was too close for her to be involved with the situation, and had sent her off to join her family at the funfair.

She had mixed feelings about his decision. While she was well aware that being too close could compromise a case, it was difficult to accept that she couldn't be directly involved in something that affected her friends. Inaction went against her nature.

"The children are pleased that you were able to join us," Wufei commented, leaning against the fence beside her.

Grateful for the interruption to her thoughts, she turned her head towards him and widened her eyes. "Only the children?" Shaking her head, she clicked her tongue in mock disappointment. "And you, my husband, are not?" she teased.

He gave an amused huff. Stepping away from the fence, he swept her a courtly bow. "I, my dear wife, am delighted that you have chosen to honour us with your most exalted presence."

Meiran laughed and playfully slapped his shoulder as he straightened. "Idiot," she murmured affectionately. After ten years together, Wufei was very good at knowing when she needed to be distracted. And even better at providing that distraction.

"Chang!"

The sharp call had Meiran automatically reaching for the small of her back even as she turned. "Yuy? What's wrong? Where's Duo and Helen?" she demanded, her gaze sweeping the crowd for them even as she spoke.

"Helen's missing. We split up to search for her. Duo and my partner headed back towards the arcade; I'm checking the rides. No luck so far. Have you seen her?"

Meiran and Wufei both gave an involuntary glance towards their own children on the Ferris wheel. Even under the best of circumstances, a missing child was a parent's worst nightmare. "No," Meiran answered for both of them.

"Shimatta," Heero swore. "Chang, Khushrenada's flight plan had him landing in Astoria over two hours ago. Gee was supposed to have someone tailing him..."

The implication was obvious. At the briefing, Gee had been rather vague about the details but he'd made it clear that there was some kind of connection between Khushrenada and the Maxwells, a link that could put Duo and Helen at risk. "Have you called it in?" she demanded, pulling out her own cell phone.

Heero shook his head. "No signal," he explained tersely. So much for modern technology. "And the landline here is dead." If Khushrenada wasn't here and up to something, then the phone line being out was quite the coincidence. "I'll try the radio at the first aid station before checking the other attractions she was interested in." There was a faint chance that she'd gotten impatient and headed on without them.

Meiran checked her own cell, unsurprised to discover that she, too, had no signal. "Damn mountains," she muttered. Turning to her husband, she said, "Wufei..."

Anticipating her words, Wufei interrupted, "Go. The children and I will canvass the funfair, then return to the entrance to wait for news."

"Agreed." She gave his arm a quick pat of thanks and turned back to Yuy. She knew the first aiders from other community events; they'd be quicker to loan the radio to her than to Heero, badge or no badge. "I'll go call it in while you check the other sites, then meet you..." She gave him an inquiring look.

"At the front entrance," Heero supplied, impressed by the woman's very professional, no-nonsense response despite her obvious concern for her friends. "Helen had her hair pulled back in a braid and she was wearing light-coloured blue jeans and a yellow T-shirt. She was last seen at the cotton candy booth at approximately 14:30; Duo gave her candy to her and then she disappeared while he was paying for it."

Meiran couldn't quite suppress a shiver. Definitely a parent's worst nightmare. "Got it," she acknowledged, setting aside her parental reaction in favour of that of a cop. Yuy nodded once more and was gone into the crowd. She swept a last, reassuring glance over her own children as they disembarked from the Ferris wheel, gave her husband's shoulder a quick squeeze, and headed for the first aid station. Off-duty or not, she had a job to do.

***

"Shall I take you to see your grandmother's portrait, liebling?"

"No, but maybe Uncle Duo will take me to see it. What's a liebling? Why are you calling me that?" Helen demanded, her curiosity caught by the odd word.

Treize answered, "I have always called you 'liebling', my dear, from the moment that your mother first placed you in my arms after you were born. It means 'sweetheart', and that's what you are - Papa's little sweetheart."

"Papa?" Helen repeated, her eyes widening as she realized who this tall man who said he was 'not a stranger' must be. This was the man that Uncle Duo and Mr. Yuy had told her about, the man that wanted to take her away. Struggling frantically to escape, she screamed, "No... no! Uncle Duo! I want Uncle Duo!"

Thankful that the dreadful racket issuing from the nearby children's roller coaster was masking the child's shrieks, Treize frowned at his daughter's unladylike behaviour and tightened his grip on her squirming body. "Mariemaia Khushrenada! That will be quite enough of that, young lady! I am your father; you will behave yourself and do as I say," he ordered sternly.

"No!" Helen shouted. "I won't! That's not my name! I'm Helen Maxwell, 'n' Mommy says Uncle Duo's *better* than my daddy! Let me go! I want Uncle Duo!"

Treize's frown of displeasure turned to a furious scowl. As if it wasn't unforgivable enough that his daughter's mother had stolen years of his daughter's childhood from him, she had scorned the child's illustrious name and had encouraged this 'Uncle Duo' to displace him in his daughter's affections. It was absolutely intolerable. Something would have to be done.

"Enough!" he snapped sharply, placing his hand over her mouth and giving her a stern shake as her histrionics began to attract unwanted attention despite their noisy surroundings. "You are a Khushrenada, and you will comport yourself appropriately!" For the benefit of several too-curious passerbys, he added loudly, "You were warned not to throw a temper tantrum, young lady; the only place that you are going is home to bed!" Concerned looks turned to understanding ones, and their unwanted watchers shook their heads sympathetically and continued on their way.

Milliardo abruptly squeezed Treize's shoulder, hissing sharply, "Yuy!"

Treize followed Milliardo's gaze to discover that he was indeed correct. The man currently climbing the ladder to the maintenance platform at the top of the small roller coaster was none other than the police officer who had been the bane of his existence over the past few years. Realizing that, within moments, Yuy would have an excellent vantage point from which to spot them, Trieze cast his gaze around the area. He decided, "A distraction is required; you, my dear Milliardo, excel at that fine art. I shall take Mariemaia out of here while you lead Yuy on a merry chase." Even if Yuy happened to catch up to Milliardo, there would be no legal grounds to detain him.

"It will be my pleasure," Milliardo responded with a smirk. "Shall I see you at home? Or will we be... relocating?"

While contingency plans involving a move to a certain South American country with a great fondness for American money and a distinctly lesser fondness for the American legal system had existed for some time, Treize had never before seriously considered utilizing them. He had not been prepared to allow Yuy to interfere to that extent. However, it *would* rather drastically simplify the custody issue... "Perhaps a new residence would be appropriate to mark my daughter's return," he acknowledged, smirking wryly.

With an answering smirk, Milliardo turned sharply and strode away.

***

From his vantage point on the roller coaster maintenance platform, high above the crowd, Heero could survey most of the fair. Starting from the funfair's main entrance, where the arcade and the area dedicated to the rides met, he swept his gaze over the people below. Evidently finished checking the arcade, Hilde and Duo were making their way towards him. Continuing his survey, Heero caught a glimpse of a long-haired platinum blond moving through the crowd. "Peacecraft," he snarled darkly.

Where Peacecraft was, so, undoubtedly, was Khushrenada. The chances of Helen merely being lost had just plummeted to virtually nil.

Heero scrambled down the ladder and began to push his way towards where he'd spotted his target.

***

Helen had stilled, resting and listening carefully while the two men spoke. Now, as the tall redhead waited in the shadows beneath the roller coaster while Mr. Yuy climbed down the ladder and began to follow the blond man away, she resumed her struggles. She'd already broken the rule about talking to strangers, but there was no way that she was going to break the one about leaving with a stranger. She had to get away! Twisting desperately, she managed to free her mouth temporarily and began shrieking at the top of her lungs. "Help! Bad man! Help! Uncle Duo! Mr. Yuy! Help!"

Cursing quietly as Yuy froze in mid-step and began to turn, Treize covered the girl's mouth again as he hurriedly pushed his way across the walkway. Bypassing the 'On Break - Back Soon' sign in the entrance, he went inside the House of Mirrors. Hopefully, he'd managed to get out of sight before Yuy could spot them.

***

A brief flash of red hair caught Heero's eye as he turned in the direction that he'd thought he'd heard Helen's voice coming from. It *might* have been Khushrenada entering the House of Mirrors - but he was far from certain, and checking it out would mean losing Peacecraft, whose identity he *was* sure of. Torn, he swore under his breath, then plunged through the crowd towards the House of Mirrors. Duo and Hilde should be nearby; if he could spot them, he could send Hilde after Peacecraft while he searched the House for Khushrenada. Otherwise... well, he'd just have to risk letting Peacecraft go and hope that he'd really seen Khushrenada. The blond definitely had not had Helen with him; if the voice Heero had thought he'd heard had indeed been Helen's, then Khushrenada might.

***

Duo's heart raced as he followed Heero's partner through the funfair, his eyes sweeping frantically back and forth in search of his niece. His mind kept repeating, 'She was *right* *beside* me,' over and over while, out loud, he called Helen's name again and again.

Darting a sympathetic glance at the distraught man following close at her heels, Hilde noted rather grimly that they were now out of the arcade area and headed into Heero's assigned search territory. 'In fact,' she thought, 'I think that was him that I just saw headed this way.' "Yuy!" she called loudly, wanting to make sure that they didn't miss each other in the crowd. He surged towards them, forcing his way between people with little regard for courtesy.

"Keep going; Peacecraft is ahead of you," Heero ordered his partner sharply. "Try not to lose him. Khushrenada *may* be in the House of Mirrors; I didn't get a good look, but I'm going in after him." Hilde nodded once and darted away as Duo made a dash for the House. Heero grabbed his arm, preventing him from going inside. "Stay out here and watch the exit," Heero said firmly. "And keep an eye out for your friend Meiran; fill her in if you see her." The local officer should pass by on her way from the first aid station to the entrance; her assistance would be useful, and keeping watch for her should keep Duo out of harm's way.

Not wanting to delay Heero, Duo bit back his instinctive protest and nodded his acknowledgement. "Be careful and take care of her," he murmured as Heero released his arm and moved towards the attraction's entryway.

"I will," Heero promised. Drawing his gun, he slipped inside the House of Mirrors.

Several agonizingly long minutes later, a muffled scream of "Uncle Duo! Mr. Yuy! Help!" reached Duo's ears. After a moment's anxious hesitation while he looked around for any sign of Meiran, he swiftly dismantled part of the barrier fence alongside the lineup area. Hefting the solid metal post, he gave it a test swing, nodded in grim satisfaction, and entered the House of Mirrors through the doorway marked 'Exit'.

#################################################