DISCLAIMER: I do not own Gundam Wing, not its characters. I just like playing with them!

Title: A Silver Lining
Part 21-30
Pairings: Eventual 1x2, 5XS, 4XR, 3XOC, 6X9
Warnings: Angst, LOTS of it, mentions on NSC, sap, gore at times, strong language, possible lemon… Lots of flashbacks to give more info on event leading to the present
BY: SkyLark
Beta Writing By: Deb



Part 21:

After opening one of his few boxes marked `FRAGILE' in large and red letters, Duo began to removed the newspaper that he used to protect some of his most precious belongings. It was still hard for him to believe that he was now living in an actual house, as opposed to the apartment-made-office that he had shared with Hilde for the last few months.

Even more amazing to the braided pilot was the fact that Heero had called him to live with him in the large estate. Just to be on the safe side, Duo had waited out a few of days to see that the living arrangement would, in fact, have a sense of permanence before really making himself at home. After a week of having lived at the beach house, the American now felt comfortable enough to remove his more personal items.

With a warm smile on his face, Duo unraveled one of the large, silver frames that was just one of many in the box. It was one of the rare pictures he managed to take during the war. This image was one of the five Gundam pilots, taken by Sally during their stay on Peacemillion. The five teenagers in the image were lined up before one of the high railings. Just behind them, the head of Wing Zero made a perfect background.

From left to right, the younger selves of Wufei, Quatre, Heero, Duo and Trowa were displayed. The braided pilot chuckled deeply in recalling how Sally had patiently waited until everyone had at least some kind of smile on their face. Trowa and Wufei finally relented. Of course, Heero opted to refrain from that, compromising to allow the braided pilot beside him to drape an arm over his shoulder, instead. It was a fair trade as far as Duo was concerned. it was one of the only group shots he managed to get of all of them.

Heero stepped into the living room as Duo was still admiring the framed photograph. "What do you have there?" he asked in a rare display of genuine curiosity.

Looking up, Duo smiled and handed the frame over to his friend. "Look familiar?" he grinned. While the other pilot gazed to the image, Duo went back to his work of uncovering his other pictures from the box.

With a half-smirk, Heero snorted, "How could I forget this? You wouldn't stop singing `I'm Henry the Eighth, I am' until I finally agreed to getting into this shot." He raised an eyebrow and peered at his comrade. "Purposely out of tune, no less."

Duo laughed, "Hey, whatever it took." Taking up a couple smaller frames of other images he had taken of his friends, and a few of himself with Deathscythe, he chuckled deeply, "I could have resolved to even worse tactics as far as my song choice." Carefully, he began to set the frames atop the large mantel over the fireplace.

Mentally cringing at some of the other songs that the braided pilot had used to get his way at other times, Heero focused his attention on the silver metal that served as the frame. With wide, cobalt eyes, he gasped quietly, "This is-"

Looking over his shoulder, Duo smiled and nodded, "Gundanium. I had taken some large parts from Deathscythe before having to destroy him."

A small grinned tugged at Heero's lip. It all seemed too fitting a thing for Duo to do, keeping a part of his beloved suit around and giving it a new use. It just gave the picture, something already sentimental in itself, that much more meaning behind it.

In studying the photograph for a bit in silence, Heero frowned to himself. He was the only one of the group without some kind of smile on his face. "We should take another picture like this some time," he said quietly.

The surprise was evident in Duo's widened eyes as he suddenly halted in his work. Blinking in shock when he turned to face his partner, he asked, "R-really?"

With a small nod, Heero looked back to the photo and replied, "Only this time, I think I'll smile in it." His eyes met his partner's again and a small smirk fell on his lips. "You can still drape your arm on my shoulder if you want."

At those words, Duo's heart jumped in his throat. A broad grin broke on his face that could have lit the room on its own. "We'll have to arrange that with the others some time."

Carefully taking the photo back, Duo's smile never wavered and he carefully settled the large frame in the center of the smaller ones as the focal point over the mantelpiece. Stepping back to appraise the display beside his friend, he sighed deeply, "There. Now this place is officially home."

Beside him, Heero couldn't help but smile slightly with a nod and a quiet, "Agreed."

(End Flashback)

* * * * * *

"Duo… Duo! Wake up!"

The voice that had seemed so distant for what seemed like ages finally broke through the darkness of unconsciousness. With a deep groan, Duo slowly blinked his violet eyes opened. One of the things that he noticed already was that he was lying on his back. The second realization, due to the texture of the ground under his hands, was that he was lying on sand.

Duo's vision burring in and out of vision, his gaze finally focused on his two, very concerned friends kneeling at either side of him. In finding recognition in the braided pilot's eyes, both Quatre and Relena sighed deeply in relief, their shoulders sagging.

"We've been trying to wake you for some time now. You've had us pretty worried," the Arab smiled. With a small whimper of concern, Yuuki slowly walked up to her owner and licked his hand.

Still a bit dazed, Duo reached up to rub his aching head when Relena's hand quickly stopped his wrist. "You have a pretty bad gash on the side of your head, Duo. We managed to stop the bleeding, but it shouldn't be agitated."

Finally, flashes of memories came flooding back to Duo as his last conscious thoughts returned. With a sharp gasp and widened eyes, he sat up abruptly. The moment he managed to get upright, his head began to spin. Forcing himself to focus, he did not hear the concerned voices of his friends trying to get him to lie back down.

The sight that awaited him caused tears to spring into Duo's eyes and every inch of his body to go numb. Where the large, beautiful house that he and Heero had once stood, only a crater, and a fraction of the skeletal frame of the house, remained.

All around, shards of glass, wood, metal and other items were scattered about for what seemed many yards. Unable to breathe, his mouth opening and closing but unable to find his voice, the braided pilot simply stared in shock.

There was nothing left. Nothing left of the place that Heero and Duo had called their home. What had taken years to make the secluded house a livable haven and all the memorandums that had been store there… everything was just… gone in an instant.

A hand falling on his shoulder with a tight squeeze snapped Duo from his thoughts and he turned to face Quatre. The blonde pilot's eyes were shimmering with his own unshed tears and he breathed, "I'm so sorry, Duo."

Swallowing hard, Duo closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This was not a time to grieve. They just narrowly escaped being killed in that blast. He forced the tears back and focused on his friends, asking in a thick voice, "Are you both all right?" The young couple nodded.

"We managed to get just far enough to miss the blast and most of the debris," Relena reassured him. "If anything, just some scrapes and bruises. You got the worst from the explosion." Just as Duo's mouth opened, his eyes still filled with concern, she answered before he could ask with a warm smile, "The baby's fine."

Finding relief in that news, Duo let out a deep sigh, only to look up in alarm with a pair of headlights pierced through the night. A familiar, red Civic peeled down the road that led to where the house once stood. Coming to a sudden halt, the driver's door opened and Lady Une came running to the huddled group, shouting, "Is everyone alright?" She was relieved to hear three confirmations.

Quickly, the Commander knelt before Duo, who clearly was the worst off of the group. She nearly winced at the sight of the gash that ran down the right side of his forehead, ending just at his eyebrow. "I didn't want to call for an ambulance and risk having the person who did this think there was a chance anyone got out alive. But we should have that wound looked after."

With a nod, Quatre added, "I'd like to make sure that the baby is all right, too." Just as Relena was about to protest, he met her gaze and reassured her, "Just to be safe."

Quatre knew Relena's concern. Seeing a doctor meant that there was a chance something could have hurt their child and it was something that the young woman would have a great deal of difficulty in coping with if it were true. Finding all of the understanding and support in her lover's eyes, Relena bit her lip and nodded.

* * * * * *

Having moved to a secluded meeting room, Zechs paces anxiously. Sitting at the round table in the center of the room, Noin watched with a deep frown of worry. Across from her, Scott Daily sat with his head lowered. In the center of the table was a large vid phone. The scene was all so simple and yet so complicated at once, thanks to the rise of emotions running through everyone gathered.

"She should have called by now," Zechs sighed deeply. Turning on his heel, he hit his flatted hands on the desk with a loud slam that caused Scott to jump. The tall man leaned towards the frightened, white-haired Preventer and yelled, "So help me, if anything happened to my sister-!"

Desperately, Scott fell back in his seat and cried, "I swear that I had nothing to do with this! Had I known that Agent Maxwell was still on the Earth, at his residence, I swear I would have warned you sooner!"

Rising to her feet, Noin placed a hand on her lover's back and spoke soothingly but firmly, "Zechs, if Scott is the reason we knew to warn Duo and the others of their endangerment in the first place. He's already shown that we can trust him."

With a deep sigh, Zechs lowered his head a bit and straightened. With his fists tight at his side, he asked in a deep growl, "What was it in our mentioning of that sixth agent that alarmed you into asking of Agent Phoenix's whereabouts?"

The white-haired Preventer swallowed hard and licked his lips. "When I was approached by Jessica to join the White Out Organization, she had said that if all else failed in their plans to get the Gundam pilots, she and the other leaks could always just find ways of knowing where they live," he answered. "Now that they know the last leak left, I figured that it would be their next move if they felt desperate enough."

Suddenly, the screen on the vid phone blinked on and Lady Une's image appeared. Quickly, Zechs's eyes widened and questions were about to course from his opening mouth when she smiled, "Zechs, you can stop worrying, as I am sure you have been. Relena and the baby are just fine. We are at the hospital now."

Physically relaxing with sheer relief at the announcement, the tall man nodded his appreciation, unable to quite make use of his voice for a moment. Shaking his head to snap out of his thoughts, he asked in sincere apprehension, "And Quatre and Duo? Were they able to get out safety?"

"They're both fine as well," the Commander reassured. "Duo needed a few stitches to close a head wound, but that's the worst of the injuries between the three of them." Her frown deepened, "But Heero and Duo's house was completely destroyed. They were lucky to get out alive."

Palling, Noin brought a hand to her mouth with a quiet, "My God." She swallowed the lump that had grown in her throat over the gravity of the situation. With a deep breath, she asked, "What is our next course of action?"

With a deep sigh, Lady Une rubbed the back of her aching neck and stated, "I have already taken all precautions in seeing that the records of their visit here at the hospital are removed from records that can be tapped into. I want whoever did this to think that they accomplished their task." The two Preventers watching her nodded their agreement to her quick decision.

In the closed off waiting room of the hospital, the Commander leaned her back against the wall behind her and folded her arms. A decision needed to be made and quickly. In this game of chess, every move counted, lest the game end before they were able to move ahead.

A plan in motion, Lady Une stated, "Quasar is the safest place for our leak's targets right now. I am going send Relena with Duo and Quatre in one of our intractable shuttles later this night. Since those shuttles are used regularly for missions where stealth is required, this leak won't think anything is out of the ordinary if one of those crafts missing from the hanger."

Taking a moment to appraise the third Preventer, Lady Une raised a thin eyebrow. With a hint of unease in her voice, she asked him, "Are you certain that this is the last leak within the Preventers, Agent Rain?"

Quickly straightening in his seat, Scott nodded firmly, "Yes, Commander. I can tell you that with all certainty." At the young woman's nod, he added, "If I might suggest, I think it would be wise to keep the Gundam pilots out here until they can all be relocated from their current residences. If this person was able to find one home, they know where the others are."

Her brown eyes slightly losing their edge, Lady Une nodded, "Yes, of course. Over the next few days, I am going to work on relocating all of the pilots to a remote location where they can stay together. It is going to take some time, but I'll feel better in knowing that they won't be separated until we find who this last leak is."

Both Zechs and Noin were satisfied with the plan at hand. It was best not to take any unnecessary chances at this time, considering how close their luck had just come to already running out.

"With where Quasar is drifting, the shuttle carrying the others will be arriving about this time tomorrow," the Commander informed. "I already notified the crew to continue on an uncharted course as to stay out of any possible radar pick up. They will not be returning to the Earth until I give them further notice."

Lady Une focused on Noin and Zechs as she stated, "I want to be informed the moment you learn anything more." Two firm nods replied. With a tired smile, the young woman said gently, "Now, get some sleep, all of you. It's been a long day." At that, the connection was cut off and the vid phone's monitor went black.

Lowering his head, Zechs frowned deeply, "It's been a long five months."

* * * * * *

"You did what!?" he shouted over the vid phone. "We need those pilots alive! What part of that order did you not understand!?"

"Sir, forgive me. I just-"

"I do not want your excuses! I have to be the person to explain to him what you've done." A long pause and a deep sigh before calming. "You said that they had tried to escape just before the explosion?"

"Y-yes, Mister Henderson. I had put motion detectors at each door in the event that they tried such a thing." A rough swallow. "The area has been closed off for the police and Preventers to investigate. I can't get anywhere near to see, myself, if there were any survivors."

"Survivors or not, the other pilots will most likely be moved from their own residences. You had the opportunity to hold onto some valuable information and you wasted it in such a foolish act."


"For your sake, you better pray that they somehow made it out alive. And you had better get your head on straight. You may be the last, but we can get more agents where you came from, should we ever find the need. I would hate for you to suddenly face an… unfortunate accident."

"I assure you, sir, I will not make such a mistake again."

"For both of our sakes, you had better not."

* * * * * *

The following morning, Trowa and Anna were walking down one of the many long stretches of hallways of Quasar. The ex-Heavy Arms pilot frowned in worry and nervously clutched at the large, raggedy brown teddy bear in his hands. "I hope that she likes this," he thought aloud.

Anna smiled and peered at him from the corner of her eye. "She'll love it," she reassured him. Turning, she adjusted the large, purple silk bow that she had added around the bear's neck. "There's a lot of history behind this little guy. You sure you're ready to give it up?"

With a small smirk, Trowa nodded, "Yea." There was nothing more to be said in the matter. It was time to finally let a lot of things go. With his free hand, he took Anna's and squeezed it as they made the rest of their journey in silence.

The double doors at the end of the hall opened to them and the young couple entered. Biting her lip, Anna scanned the room filled with children that had been recovered in their last rescue. Trowa's hand around the bear in his grasp just tightened.

Eighteen children total, all orphaned thanks to the White Out Organization. They varied in race and sizes, aging from five years to ten.The groups of children were all laughing and playing with their new toys that had been donated to the Preventers over the years for those missions involving children.

From coloring books to a wide range of stuffed animals, action figures and other playthings to entertain the youngsters certainly came to use now. The four Preventers watching after the young ones laughed and partook in the festivities. There were smiles and nods exchanged between those agents and their visitors when their gazes met.

Alone in the furthest corner of the colorfully painted room sat Rachel. The little girl hugged her legs to her chest, and her back was to the group gathered, her gaze focused to the ocean of stars past the window where she was perched. Cleaned and in new clothes that were not tattered in any way, it took a moment for Trowa and Anna to recognize her.

"She's kept to herself like that since she was brought her yesterday," one of the agents advised the young couple with a sad smile. She ran a hand through her long, black bangs and sighed deeply, "We've been trying to get her to interact, but she just pushes away even more."

Anna gave a small nod and replied quietly, "Thank you, Karen. You guys are going a great job in here."

Trowa was already walking over towards the secluded child.

Rachel couldn't remember the last time she saw so many stars, even from the few memories she could remember her life on that Colony. Looking down to her new, purple shirt with pretty pink flowers sewn in that wrapped around the hem, she was still in awe at how good it was to be in clothes that did not have holes in them.

Along with her new jeans and white sneakers and a purple headband to match her shirt, Rachel had one of her first full outfits since… she couldn't remember when. Her hair was clean and smelled like lavender-she thought that was what that nice Preventer named Karen said the shampoo smelled like. It all still just seemed too good to be true.

…But with it all, her nightmares never left her. Her pain over losing her mother was still there.

"Hey, little one," a voice broke through Rachel's thoughts and she spun around. Her brown eyes widened in recognition of the tall man standing before her with a warm smile. Trowa's smile grew a bit and he chuckled deeply, "I hardly recognized you for a moment."

Slowly, the ex-Gundam pilot knelt before the child, keeping their gazes locked, and he spoke in a kind voice, "I never got to introduce myself before." He extended his hand still smiling as he stated, "I'm Trowa Barton. And I believe your name is Rachel?"

Blinking her wide eyes, Rachel blushes lightly. A wide smile spread across her face and she nodded enthusiastically. Trowa chuckled deeply again and gently patted the top of her brunette head. "You're a very brave little girl," he told her sincerely. "What you did back on that ship saved all of us. Do you know that?" With a breathy, tiny giggle, Rachel's blush grew just a hint and she shrugged shyly.

His hand tightening around the bear in his right hand, Trowa frowned a bit and said gently, "I… I know that it's not much but-" Slowly, he raised the raggedy bear with the purple silk ribbon around its neck up to the little girl. "I wanted to give this to you."

Rachel gasped sharply at the sight of the teddy. Never before had she owned a toy of her own. All she ever wanted was a teddy bear, like she had seen other children in nicer homes carry around. And this Preventer was going to give her one for herself.

Clearing his throat, Trowa explained softly, "Anna's the only other person who knows that I had this bear from the time I was about your age. I hid it so no one else saw it. But when I needed it, it was always there. It helped we get through a lot of difficult times."

With small tears filling her eyes, Rachel whispered in little more than a breath, "W-were you hurt, too?"

Not having expected that question, and what it implied of the two of them, Trowa's own eyes shimmered a bit. Taking a deep breath and whispered, "Yea." He reached up and wiped his eyes before the tears fell on their own accord.

Sniffling, Rachel was a bit surprised, not only at the gesture by Trowa, but at easily she came to like him. Men always frightened her, ever since she and her mother were taken away from their Colony. But this man saved her life. He was nice to her and took her from the bad men. She didn't want to see him upset.

Licking his lips, Trowa smiled slightly and pointed to the silk bow and stated, "The bow is from Anna. Some time, I'll have her explain what it is from, since that's not really my place." He looked back up to meet the child's shimmering gaze and offered, "We wanted you to have this."

In a flash, the little girl jumped from her perch and threw her arms tightly around the neck of the man who saved her. Taken aback, Trowa's emerald eyes widened in initial shock, then relaxed while a renewed grin played on his own lips. Carefully reaching up, he embraced the trembling girl tightly.

Swallowing past the lump in her throat a few times with tears running down her cheeks, Rachel tried a few times before finding her voice to whisper brokenly, "T-thank you."

Trowa closed his eyes and replied just as softly, "You're very welcome." When the little girl pulled back at last, the tall pilot lightly tapped the tip of her nose and spoke in a friendly tone, "You take good care of him for me, okay?"

Rachel's smile grew and she clutched the brown bear tightly to her when it was handed over. Lightly patting the top of the bear's head, Trowa smiled wistfully, "Good bye, old friend."

Having to dry her eyes before being seen, Anna stepped into the scene and knelt beside her lover. At the sight of the pretty lady who helped her after she was saved, the child's smile brightened anew and she hugged her neck tightly. It had been a long time since Rachel could remember being so happy.

* * * * * *

Sally seemed to be in an even-happier-than-usual mood this evening, Heero noted. In realization of that, he was thankful once again that his pain medication was no longer needed and he could think clearly again. While he would still be restricted to a bed for a couple of days on account of his abdominal wound, it was less unnerving now that he did not have to deal with the side effects of being on medication as well.

Considering he had set his shoulder on his own the moment he was alone, despite the braided woman's wish to have it heal on its own, Heero was surprised that she did not give him a longer lecture over the matter than she had… Something was going on.

"What are you hiding?" Heero finally asked just as the tall woman removed the IV from his bedside.

Sally's grin just grew all the more at the question an she shrugged, "Oh, you'll see in about a minute." Heero's mouth was opening in protest when the braided woman's pager went off. Quickly glancing at the small window, Sally mentally sighed in relief. As she walked towards the door with the IV bag, she called over her shoulder, "Just try and take it easy, okay? I would hate to have to break you away from your guest."

"Guest?" Heero repeated with a confused look on his face. The door slid open and his cobalt eyes widened with a sharp gasp. In little more than a whisper, he breathed, "D-Duo?"


Part 22:

[And it comes to be
That the soothing light at the end of your tunnel
Is just a freight train coming your way
It's coming your way… It's coming your way...
Here comes.]
-Lyrics to `No Leaf Clover' by Metallica


Waiting in the hallway just beyond the closed door leading to Heero's room, Duo paced anxiously while Sally examined his injured partner. After arriving on Quasar only a moment ago, Sally was the first person that the braided pilot sought out. Leaving Quatre and Relena to their reunion with a relieved Zechs and Noin, he made his way through the ship in his hunt. Much to his appreciation, Sally had been very patient with his drilling of questions regarding Heero's condition when he did find her.

As he continued to wait, Duo mentally went over the assessment of everything that Sally had gone over with him. The last two days had been agonizing for him in his worry over how the other pilot was faring from his injuries. He still had yet to get the details as to how Heero was shot in the first place. Somehow, he was certain that he was not quite ready for that bit of information.

The concern that he had for his best friend was only amplified by the loss of their home, all that Duo wanted was to be with Heero more than anything. His hands found the end of his braid and fidgeted with it as he continued to pace across the floor. It was all he could do not to interrupt Sally's examination early.

Finally, Duo heard the doors beginning to swish open and he quickly went to them. When the doors finished sliding clear away, his violet eyes instantly began to sting with tears when they met the widened cobalt waiting on the other side of the room that he had been longing to see since the last time he gazed on them.

Lying in his hospital bed, Heero's right arm was bandaged, the gown sleeve having been ripped away so that the healing bones could be splinted properly. His right side had less covering from blankets, obviously as not to add pressure on his healing colon that had been nicked. Thankfully, there was no further damage than what could heal with rest and staying off his feet for another week. Still, seeing his partner in even this state was enough to shake Duo to his core.

Vaguely aware of a smiling Sally walking past him, Duo had to strain to hear Heero's voice breathe, "D-Duo?" With a stifled whimper, the braided pilot sprang towards him just as his koi's left arm opened to him. Carefully settling into the tight embrace- and being certain to avoid the injuries- he buried his face in the other pilot's shoulder and sobbed, his eyes squeezed closed.

Sniffling, Duo leaned his head up to trail soft kissed all over Heero's face as tears streamed down his own. When he pulled back and opened his violet eyes, they widened with a soft gasp when he found tears now running down the other pilot's cheeks. Smiling lovingly up at him, Heero cupped the side of his koi's face and whispered brokenly, "God, I've missed you, Duo."

His tears springing up anew, the American whispered back, "I've missed you, too, koi." At the mention of his new title, Heero's smile grew before he pulled the other pilot's head down to kiss him deeply. Eagerly willing to participate, Duo returned the sheering kiss with as just much fervor and need.

When the need for air finally caught up, Heero pulled back with a bright smile still on his face. That smile faded when he spotted what looked to be a bandage under his partner's long bangs. Reaching up to brush Duo's bangs back just at the other pilot's eyes widened when he realized what he was doing, his own cobalt eyes widened.

Duo swallowed hard as he felt Heero's gaze burn over the large bandage that covered the line of stitches that spanned just below his hair line. He had honestly forgotten about the wound dressing, having grown accustomed to it over the last day. Before he could say anything to put his koi's mind at ease, Heero's concern-drenched voice asked quietly, "What happened to you?"

Biting his lip, the braided pilot reached up to take his partner's hand in his to place a soft kiss on the back of it. His violet eyes shimmered with unshed tears as he whispered brokenly, "Our house…" At the mention of their residence, the ex-Wing pilot's widened further. Shaking his head, Duo tried again, "Someone destroyed our house."

Heero paled and his jaw fell slightly slack, silently hoping that he misheard. "W-what?" was all he could manage.

With a small whimper, the American replied, "It's gone, Heero. Everything…" Instantly, the other pilot sat up as far as he could, the desperation clear on his face while he moved to inspect the rest of his love's body for any other injuries that he may have been hiding.

Stilling the trembling hands that moved over his shirt, Duo forced Heero to meet his gaze and reassured him, "I'm all right, Heero." Gesturing to the bandage in his forehead, he stated, "It's just a gash that needed stitches. That's the worst of it."

Heero fell back until his back rested against the raised mattress. Still shaken by the news that their house was gone, he ran a hand through his unruly hair. There was a long silence between the two Preventers, the graveness of the situation in their current mission sinking in. Squeezing the hand in his own, Duo frowned deeply, "What are we going to do, Heero?"

Reaching up to gently wipe the tears that coursed down his love's face, Heero carefully pulled him down with his good arm as he whispered, "Come here." Not needing further invitation, Duo carefully situated himself to lie beside his partner and clung onto him.

With a deep sigh, Heero placed a soft kiss on his koi's forehead, holding him as tightly as he could. "We keep fighting," he said at last. "We never were ones to fall apart before, and we can't allow ourselves to do that now. Until these people have whatever it is they want, they're just going to continue to come after us." Duo nodded against the nook of his neck, sniffling slightly.

Gently lifting his partner's head so that their gazes could meet, Heero smiled lovingly, "I'll build you an even better house than the last when this is all over."

This was where his real home was, Duo realized as he felt the strong arm wrap around him while soft kisses feathered over his face. After being nearly devastated by the loss their house to come to this place, he realized that that was all they lost- a house. A house was only a place of wood and stole that could be rebuilt. This place in his Heero's arm, however, this was his home.

His breath hitching in his throat at the intensity devotion gazing down on him, Duo smiled and whispered sincerely, "I'll make home wherever you are." Heero's smile grew, his relief evident in seeing that the other pilot understood what he was trying to get across. Slowly, he lowered his face until their lips met in a deep kiss.

Once they pulled away, the braided pilot yawned widely, his eyes drifting closed. After the long trip to reach Quasar, and the emotional train wreck that he had been through over the last couple of days-to say nothing of his inability to sleep peacefully while Heero was away- Duo suddenly couldn't find the strength to open his eyes. With a deep chuckle, the ex-Wing pilot maneuvered their bodies as best he could to pull the covers over the two of them.

Running a hand through his love's bangs, Heero frowned deeply at the sight of the dark circles under those closed eyes. He wasn't there when Duo needed him the most… again. While the circumstances and the outcomes were widely different, the fact remained that Duo was subjected to great harm after Heero had left him behind on both occasions. A sharp stab of guilt coursed through him and he had to suppress the shudder that threatened to wrack his body.

The ex-Wing pilot continued to brush through the American's hair, eliciting a low moan that sounded like a contented purr. "Can I stay here with you for a while, `Ro?" Duo mumbled sleepily, still unable to muster any strength to move from where he lied against the other Preventer. "Missed you."

Smiling warmly, Heero replied quietly, "I would be upset if you didn't." Lightly kissing over the bandage that protected the stitched gash, he whispered, "I love you." As he drifted off, Duo smiled and replied the same. With a deep sigh, he gave into the looming call of peaceful slumber at last.

For a long moment, Heero kept a silent vigil over the precious creature in his arm. Satisfied that nothing would be disturbing either of them for some time, he finally allowed his guard down and his eyes drifted closed.

* * * * * *

The following day…

"Where is he?" Wufei growled deeply, his eyes narrowed as he stalked down the long hallway of the opposite side of the ship. His steps were quick, but determined, each one echoing down the empty corridor.

Sally strode in her pace beside him, peering out of the corner of her eye as she answered, "Noin and Zechs are with him in the third conference room." There was a brief pause and she glanced over just as her lover's teeth clenched in his closed jaw.

In seeing the thin restraint that the other Preventer held over his rage, it was Sally's turn to glare. "Don't hurt him," the braided woman ordered in a tone that left no room for argument. "He is all that we have right now as far as finding more out on White Out."

The Chinese pilot just nodded firmly, his hands clenching into tight fists while he mulled over what they just came to learn of a certain resident aboard the ship. As he steered himself around another corner, Wufei asked, "Trowa and Anna have been informed as well, then?"

With a nod, Sally replied, "Quatre and Relena should be on their way there, as well." She frowned deeply, her head lowering to gaze at the floor. "I still think that we should be waiting until Heero and Duo are up for meeting with him along with all of us. They were the most directly effected by all of this, after all."

"You can wait if that's you want," the Chinese pilot replied, trying keep the heat from his tone. "I'm not leaving until I have some answers." At finally reaching the door, he punched the access code on the small panel.

When the doors slid open, Sally took in the scene that awaited them. From the moment she could almost feel the air around her crackling with the bridled energy and tension that hung around them. Their backs leaning against the wall just beside the door were Trowa and Anna. At seeing the narrowed eyes and hated scowl on the ex-Gundam pilot's face, the braided woman's eyes widened.

In all the time Sally had known him, Trowa never was one to allow his emotions to show so plainly in his expressions. Now, his arms crossed and eyes glaring to the center of everyone's attention, he looked as though he were about to rain down the wrath of something unholy at any moment. Beside him, Anna seemed to be in her own reserved anger, one hand on the back of her lover's arm, most likely to restrain him as best she could.

Sitting before the large table in the center of the conference room were Quatre and Relena, their back to the door. As she and Wufei took their places to stand on the opposite side of the room to where Trowa and Anna were, Sally could gage their expressions better. The young blonde couple had their seats relatively close together.

With a hand resting comfortably over her swollen belly and the other holding the hand of her lover, Relena face was one of calm. Quatre was much the same, neither of them bearing as much anger as the other couple clearly was. That did not mean that they felt any sense of compassion towards the person sitting across from them.

Finally, on the other side of the table sat the young man who everyone had come to see the moment they learned of him. Peering through the bangs of his short, white hair, Scott Dailey assessed the three pairs that watched him silently. His arms folded on the table, the young Preventer gave no air of worry for his current situation, silently awaiting whatever came with an almost eerie calm.

At either side of that table stood Zechs and Noin, their bodies straight and their arms at their sides to make the image of two guards for the young man. Sally wondered silently if they would be enough to protect Scott if things spiraled out of control. She stood close to her own partner, opting to stand rather than lean or sit, staying close should she need to help her friends watching over the gathering.

There was a long moment of silence before Scott nodded to everyone present and began, "I imagine that you are all here because you have some questions for me." A statement more than a question.

Wufei took the invitation first, hissing, "Why the hell did it take you so long to come forward? The information that you withheld cost the lives of those lost to the White Out organization! Not to mention you knew that myself and the other Gundam pilots have been their primary target!"

Raising a hand as he turned to the Chinese pilot's direction, Noin kept her voice calm, yet stern when she stated, "Remember that Scott did give us the information needed to save Duo, Quatre and Relena. If it had not been for him, we would never have known that there is another leak in the Preventers." Scott never showed any acknowledgement to the statement, his face remaining emotionless as he simply sat and listened.

Quatre took a slow and measured breath, the only sign that he was dealing with his own frustrations at that moment. Both he and Relena shared a glance before the Arab looked back to the Preventer sitting across fro him. "We do owe you our lives," he spoke sincerely. "And for that we're grateful. However, you can understand our hesitance to trust you after you've been holding this vital information."

With a shrug, Scott replied simply, "And if the situation had been different- if it were you in my shoes and your fellow Gundam pilots acted as my friends had- you would have willingly exposed them? I was merely looking out for the only family that I had. Along with that, had I known that the situation would reach the scale that it has, I would have come forward sooner, I assure you that."

Quatre's eyes widened as he seriously considered the white-haired pilot's words. Since the war, Heero, Duo, Trowa and Wufei were more family than friends to himself. If he had heard any one of them making comments and notions that he did not agree with, if he truly thought them to be harmless, would he have acted as Scott had? The same thought seemed to be running through his friends minds and even Trowa seemed to lose some of his edge.

His cool gaze turning to the redhead across the room, Scott stated, "I was the only person they felt they could come to for a long time ever since they learned that you were sleeping with the enemy where they were concerned." At that, Trowa growled deeply as his rage returned full-force.

Stunned only momentarily, Anna placed a hand on her lover's shoulder and glared at the other Preventer. "That's one of the many differences between us, Scott," she replied. "Jessica, Mark, Sara, Brian and Andrew all kept some of OZ's ideals when the war ended. It took time for me, but I had a chance to see the wrongs in that way of living. You never made it clear to anyone where you stood."

The redhead's eyes narrowed further as she continued, "I may have fought along side you before, but that did not prevent Andrew from shooting at me when we came close to discovering him. That brotherhood you speak of certainly runs pretty thin."

From the corner of his eye, Trowa gave his love a brief glance, silently asking if she was alright. Placing a hand on his back, she wordlessly gave him an affirmative. Her past as an OZ soldier was never one of pleasant memories for her.

Raising a white eyebrow, Scott smirked, "Yet, you were one of us. It was a slap in the face of those who you fought alongside to suddenly find interest in someone they considered one of their greatest enemies."

The interrogated Preventer leaned back in his seat and his smirk grew and he quoted quietly, "Sic semper tyrannis." Aside from Zechs and Noin, all eyes watching him widened and faces paled. "That was what is now engraved in the walls of Jessica's quarters aboard this ship. It is the motto by which they lived as one unit, one profound belief that they all shared. Years of built up anger and hatred are not easily erased."

"My God," was all that Relena could manage in little more than a breathless whisper. "How any one person could allow such rage to overtake their lives…" her words drifted off and she shook her head. When she found her voice again, she frowned deeply, "I don't understand how anyone could become so driven to vengeance that they disregard all life in order to obtain it." Quatre removed his hand from hers to place it gently on her back, rubbing soothingly.

Folding his arms again, Trowa growled, "I still don't see how Lady Une expects us to feel comfortable working with you. For all we know, you could be working for whomever is calling the shots from White Out." He tilted his head and smirked, "What makes you think we'll be so willing to protect you from any… unfortunate accidents?"

Unshaken by the tall pilot's words, Scott chuckled deeply in amusement, "Then you will have quite a time in figuring out who this last leak is that attempted to kill your friends. I am not asking you to trust me, however, you certainly do not have much of a choice in the matter. You have my agreement to cooperate in the investigation in return for your protection from anyone who may think I know too much."

Wufei began pacing, his dark eyes glaring at the floor as he sought everything out in his mind. "How much worse does this situation have the potential of becoming?" Sally asked at last. "How much does this man, whom your dead friends feared so much, actually wield?"

Meeting her gaze calmly, Scott replied clearly, "While I know little, I can answer this without question." Leaning forward, towards the braided woman, he in a near whisper, "What we have already seen is only the beginning. A floodgate to Hell has been opened. He will stop at nothing until his enemies are crushed and he has what he wants."

The soft words and the intensity behind them send a chill up the spine. Even Wufei paused in his pacing steps to look to Preventer rain with wide eyes. Taking a deep breath, Zechs was the first to find his voice and announced, "If you're all finished with your questioning, then I should tell you of what Lady Une has planned when we return to the Earth."

Once he had everyone's attention, the tall man stated, "For all of your protection, Lady Une is finding a remote location where you will all be staying until this investigation is over." Gesturing to the pilot sitting at the table, he added, "Scott will be staying with all of you as well."

Snorting, Wufei huffed in a voice dripping in sarcasm, "Well that's just wonderful." Scott merely smirked at the Chinese pilot, welcoming the challenge. Zechs and Noin, on the other hand, however, shot warning glares at the raven-haired pilot. Despite the fact that they were orders with which they needed to abide by, not even Quatre seemed entirely comfortable with the idea of staying with the agent across from him.

Sally assessed everyone in the room, silently breathing a sigh of relief that this meeting had not turned out to be the nightmare that she had played out in her mind. Heero and Duo would have to be informed of the things that had been shared during the meeting. It was pretty safe to say that they, also, would be less than thrilled in having to share living quarters with the same person who could have prevented a great deal of trouble for them.

Life certainly was going to be interesting when they returned to Earth.

* * * * * *

Biting her lip, Rachel wandered down the long hall of the large ship that she had been staying on since the night of her rescue. After sneaking out from the large space where she and the other children were watched after, she searched aimlessly for any signs of Trowa and Anna. It wasn't that she didn't like the nice people watching her and the other children. She just felt… safer around that brave man and pretty lady.

Tightly clutching the teddy bear that the tall man had given her to her chest, Rachel hoped to find some sign of him. A door only a few feet away suddenly swished open, causing the girl to jump. Two black boots and two long legs covered in a pair of black jeans stepped out into the hall, coming to a halt just in front of Rachel. Looking up slowly, the child looked up into eyes that looked like they were… violet?

A long, braided rope of hair swung behind the tall man's back when he tilted his head and smiled warmly down on her, "Hey, there kiddo." His voice was friendly, like his smile so Rachel was not alarmed right away. But those eyes… and that hair! She never saw eyes like that, or hair that long before!

The braided man knelt down so that their eyes could meet the same height. Stretching out a hand, he continued to grin and greeted, "I'm Duo. Are `ya lost, little one?" Nervously clutching her teddy bear tighter, Rachel nodded.

Pulling his hand back, Duo lightly patted her head and asked, "Well, maybe you can tell me who you're looking for. I can probably help you find them, since they can't exactly step outside for some air." Rachel giggled at that, causing the nice man with strange eyes and long hand to smile even wider.

Now that it was clear he was a nice man, the girl said quietly, "T-Trowa?" At that, the man named Duo's eyes widened and Rachel thought that she said something wrong.

Instead of hurting her, the nice man smiled again and chuckled, "Well, I think that I can help you there. He's a good friend of mine." He reached out his hand again and this time Rachel took it. As Duo led her around the ship, Rachel smiled in thinking of being back with the man who saved her.

* * * * * *

"Rachel?" Anna gasped, blinking her wide eyes after opening the door the quarters she shared with Trowa. Her slack jaw closed and she grinned, "And here we were just talking about you." Her eyes met the other pilots and she nodded, "Good to see you, Duo. How's Heero?"

Standing in the doorway, Duo smiled warmly in greeting, carrying his little companion in his arms. "Hey, Anna," He greeted. "Heero's resting right now, so I thought that I would stretch my legs after being in that room for a day." He turned to smirk at the girl in his arms. "Seems this little ankle biter was looking for you and Tro." The girl in his arms giggled lightly at the nickname he gave her.

Trowa appeared from the depths of the room, his green eyes widening then smiling along with his lips as he greeted, "Well hello, Rachel." The girl smiled brightly at the sight of the pair, her teddy bear still held tightly in her free arm.

With a warm smile, Anna smiled to her partner, "Looks like we have a sleepover guest tonight." Trowa chuckled deeply and nodded. Carefully taking the girl into her arms, the redhead grinned, "Well, we have a spare bed in here so let's get you set up, kiddo." Stepping into the room, she gave the two ex-Gundam pilots some time to catch up alone.

"Thanks for bringing her here," Trowa said sincerely to his braided friend. "We had a feeling that she might try to find us again."

Duo waived his hand in a dismissive manner and grinned, "No problem. She's a cute kid." His smile faded and his gesture mask fell. Meeting his friend's emerald gaze, he frowned, "Trowa, I need to know what happened to Heero during that mission."

Having expected that, Trowa sighed deeply and nodded, "All right." He gestured back to his quarters and said quietly, "We better discuss this inside." With a nod, Duo followed him in as the doors closed behind him.

* * * * * *

Whack! Whack!

So it was an other leak… another person that they thought they could trust. And she'd come inches away from killing Heero.

Whack! Another swift hit to the punching bag.

He'd reached the end of his rope. After all that they had put him through, after having lost so much, it was finally time to start striking back.

Whack! Whack! Whack!

Duo rounded the swinging punching bag again, his taped fists raised. Delivering more furious blows, he grunted from the effort. His white tank top was drenched with sweat, as was his face. His violet eyes narrowed on the bag, he imaging the faces of those traitors who were already illuminated.

Only one more… Only one more to go…

Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack!

From where they watched their friend from the gym's entrance, Wufei turned to face Sally. A sinister smirk tugged his lips. "The God of Death had returned."


Part 23:

[If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall
And the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry, no I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me]
-Lyrics from `Stand By Me' by Ben E. King


"You know what I miss more than anything right now?" Duo sighed deeply from where he lied on his back, staring up at the high ceiling of the cell that he and Heero had shared for several days now. If anything, he did not mind the captivity so much since he had someone else to talk to. The fact that that someone else was his best friend just made the situation that little bit more tolerable for the time being.

Rolling his shoulders as he adjusted himself in the corner where he sat, Heero snorted, "A few things come to mind." Rubbing the back of his neck to relieve the creek there, he smirked, "The refrigerator, the television, the leather recliner, shall I continue?"

Duo chuckled deeply, his gaze still turned up to the ceiling, and he replied quietly, "No. I miss being able to see the stars at night." Genuinely surprised by that answer, Heero blinked his slightly widened cobalt eyes. Without even having to look back at his friend, the braided pilot grinned, "Never saw that one coming, huh?"

Heero stretched his legs out from under him and admitted, "I never pictured you as the star-gazing type." When he really thought about it, the ex-Wing pilot did note to himself that there had been several nights when Duo would disappear for a while after they settled into their new house. He never thought to ask what the other Preventer had been doing in that time.

The braided teenager finally sat up to turn and meet his partner's gaze. "It's kind of been a habit of mine ever since I was a kid," he stated with a wistful smile on his face, seeing and yet not really seeing the other pilot. His eyes regained their focus on his friend and he grinned, "You should try it when we're finally out of this place."

With a shrug, the Japanese pilot commented, "I've seen enough of space since the war and over the years to feel the need to gaze on it in my own time." Had he not been watching his partner as closely as he had been in the faint light that peeked under the door to their cell, he would have missed the quick flash of hurt in those violet eyes. Duo's mask fell back into place and he just shrugged before lying onto his back again to stare at the ceiling.

Realization set in and Heero mentally winced at how badly he had come across just then. Over the course of the last few days, he had come to find that Duo was the only person who really understood who he was beyond the `Perfect soldier' persona that everyone else had labeled him to be. He was the only person who seemed to really care to look past all of that.

As it turned out, the ex-Wing pilot came to learn that he was not the only person who was given a character that everyone expected him to live up to. Duo suffered from his own label in being the jester, always with a smile and a way to lighten any situation. Heero had become the first person to see through that, and the first who the American ever shared his other side with.

In recalling the stories that Duo had told him of his life on the streets of L2 and in the Maxwell Church, Heero could only imagine that stargazing was one of the few things that gave his friend any peace at those times.

The images of a much younger Duo watching the stars with Solo and the other children that he came to know as his only family filled his mind. Perhaps there were other nights he would gaze on the heavens with Sister Helen and Father Maxwell in the short time he was able to live under their care.

Suddenly, Heero felt very small in thinking of how harsh his statement must have been. He basically brushed off Duo's one and only joys in life as if it were some foolish thing, a waist of time. That was where the flash of pain had come from when he watched the other pilot's eyes…

He felt very small, indeed.

Clearing his throat, the sound echoing off the walls of the silent cell, Heero said quietly, "Then again, I never did actually watch the stars from a distance." It was difficult for him, this trying to communicate beyond mission tactics and escape plans. However, somehow, it seemed to become easier for him every time he tried to make that little bit of effort.

His words seemed to be making the desired impact and Duo's head turned to face him-his violet eyes wide with disbelief that he had heard him correctly. With a small, nervous smile, Heero stated, "The next time you go stargazing, maybe… well-"

"You'd keep me company?" Duo spoke for him when he realized that the normally stoic pilot was struggling with the words. He couldn't keep the hopefulness tone in his voice from carrying over, nearly echoing off the walls.

Silently grateful that his friend once again had come to his aim, Heero nodded, "If you'd like." In that moment, he knew that he would never be able to deny Duo anything as long as he had that pleading look in his eyes.

A sincere, warm smile of appreciation tugged at the braided pilot's lips as he replied softly, "Thanks, Heero." Looking back to the ceiling, he commented, "Who knows, maybe you'll get something out of it, like I do."

From where he sat in his corner, Heero couldn't help but grin to himself. Somehow, he was pretty sure that his friend was right in that assumption. More and more, he was looking forward to when they would finally be freed from their captivity.

(End Flashback)

* * * * * *

Peering through the hospital room window out to the endless sea of stars, Heero's reflection mirrored off the glass as his mind drifted off to that memory of so long ago. At the sound of the door opening, he turned just as Duo entered, pushing a wheelchair. Grinning from ear to ear, his braided partner announced, "I personally tested every chair in storage and this is by far the best of all of them."

The ex-Wing pilot chuckled deeply, "Well, knowing your test process for anything on wheels, I'm certain that you made the right choice."

Duo winked at him before steeling the chair beside his partner's bed. As he watched the other pilot set about his work of prepping the seat, Heero sighed quietly in relief of knowing that he was finally going to see more than the same four walls he had been staring at since he woke following the mission. Sally had reassured him that he would no longer need to be monitored as he had been the last few days.

As if reading his koi's mind, Duo smiled, "I'm just as anxious to have you out of this place as you are to be free from it, pal." Heero give him a small grin of his own. It never ceased to amaze him at how easy it was for the other pilot to read him. Looking back, he supposed that they always had that connection between them.

"I'm more anxious to get into some normal clothes as opposed to these damned hospital gowns," Heero admired with a slight grumble. Duo chuckled deeply and nodded in understanding, having been in the same situation on several occasions in the past.

After brief moment of silence, Heero said quietly, "You know, I have yet to keep that promise I made to you." At the confusion in the eyes that looked up to him, he clarified, "About stargazing with you one."

The shock was evident in the wide, violet eyes as Duo sputtered, "Y-you remember that?" When Heero just smiled and nodded, the braided teenager brightened, "Well, there'll be time when we get back to the Earth, if you still want to try it."

With a firm nod, Heero answered, "I'd like that." Returning the nod, Duo went back to his task of fixing at few adjustments, his posture and his movements much lighter now.

Finished with his work at last, the American opened his arms and carefully assisted Heero in sitting up and off the side of the bed so his legs could dangle towards the floor. "You're chariot awaits, my love," he grinned. With a small snort, the ex-Wing pilot leaned his right side against the other teenager when he went to his feet.

With little difficult, Heero settled himself into the wheelchair while his partner placed a blanket over him. Placing his hands over the large wheels, he rolled the chair back and forth a few inches for a feel of the traction. With a satisfied smirk, He nodded up to the expectant face watching him, "Not bad."

Duo beamed and replied, "Cool. Shall we, then?" Heero didn't even wait to voice his answer and began moving his chair towards the door. With a fit of laughter, the braided pilot had to run to keep up, calling, "Hey, wait for me!"

* * * * * *

Two days later…

"Finally," Lady Une sighed deeply in relief, falling back in her desk chair. Looking over the layout of the large estate that she had found, she smiled to herself. It had been more of a challenge to find a secured location than even she had estimated.

The accommodations needed to house more than a dozen people played a large part in that challenge, considering there was no telling how long they would all have to stay there together. Along with that, this was an interesting dozen to have to throw together for an uncertain amount of time.

She removed her thin wire glasses and rubbed her weary eyes. "Hopefully, it's big enough that it'll give them enough space to keep them all from killing each other before this is all over," she commented to her empty office.

Patching up her connection to Quasar, she tapped into the radio of the cockpit that she alone had from her station. The male voice that answered greeted politely, "Good afternoon, Commander Une."

With a small grin, the brunette woman answered, "Good afternoon, indeed, Agent Sheer. I am happy to announce that you have clearance to land Quasar early this morning. I will have a crew awaiting your arrival in our hanger at 0100 this morning."

She was grateful when the young pilot did not ask for the need to land at so late in the evening. Obscurity in moving the Gundam pilots and those staying with them was vital. From the hanger, she would lead them, herself to the new residence as not to risk having anyone they did not want learning of the location.

"Understood, Commander," Agent Sheer's voice replied. "We will be docking at that time, then. I will advise the crew and guests."

With a nod, Lady Une smiled, "Very good, soldier." With that, she cut the connection through her laptop. Not allowing herself a moment to rest, she set about looking through her files in alerting the placement agency that had been working closely with the Preventers in finding work and homes for the people rescued from the White Out Organization.

Set in her work, the young Commander resolved herself to the tasks she needed to oversee for the next few hours. Rest was for the weary. And there was a great deal of work that needed to be done before Quasar landed back on the Earth.

* * * * * *

Anna laughed loudly as she watched Duo play `giant' and carrying two armfuls of children while other kids piled onto his back. All shouting and laughing in their game, the orphaned youths were having their time of their lives. Yuuki yelped excitedly as she ran around the room, chasing her owner and the swarm of children following him.

Over their stay on Quasar, Duo had latched onto those poor children orphaned by White Out. He made regular visits with the youngsters and was more than happy to have Yuuki stay in their large quarters during the duration of their journey through the vastness of space. The pup certainly seemed to be enjoying it as much as the little ones.

When the announcement came that they would be returning to the Earth that night, Duo rushed to the children's quarters with an invite to his friends to join them.

Rachel was lying on her stomach between Heero's wheelchair and where Anna was sitting. On occasion, the little girl would look up from the coloring book that she was wrapped up in to watch the scene and giggle. "He certainly has a way with children," the redhead smiled, shaking her head in amusement.

Contenting himself to just watch his partner with a warm, wistful smile on his face, Heero nodded, "He always did." He chuckled deeply when Duo suddenly cried out in false agony, collapsing onto his back to be tackled by the army of youths.

From where he was leaning against the wall with his arms folded, Wufei shook his head, "I still can't believe that he brought and managed to train that damn dog up here, too."

With a sharp gasp, Anna covered Rachel's ears and glared at the Chinese pilot, "Not around the kids, Wufei." The little girl just looked up at the red-haired Preventer in wondering why she covered her ears.

Blushing slightly at his slip, Wufei cleared his throat and gave a small nod in apology with a sheepish grin. Removing her hands from Rachel's ears, Anna smiled and watched the little girl in her efforts of coloring a scene of `Cinderella' with her magical coach.

As he spun his chair to meet his friend's gaze, Heero frowned and asked, "You would rather he leave the puppy without either of us to watch after her for days? She'd be scared to death."

His dark eyes widening, Wufei blinked in shock before huffing, "I should have a talk with Sally on the drugs she used on you. These last few days, you've been… different."

"It's called love, Wufei," Relena chuckled deeply. She, Quatre and Trowa were at one of the tables enjoying a game of Michigan Rummy. Looking up from her cards, she winked over at a wide-eyed Heero.

Trowa, Wufei and Anna all looked to the Foreign Minister with shocked faces before turning to the Japanese pilot. With a deep sigh, Heero nodded, "All right, Duo and I were going to announce it over dinner; but, yes-Relena's right."

Quickly lowering his hand of cards, Trowa asked insistently, "How long ago did this start between the two of you?" Both Anna and Wufei nodded their own wish to know the answer to the question.

With a raised eyebrow, Heero answered, "The day before we left for the mission. Why?" Instead of answering, the trio of shocked pilots instantly reached into the pockets of their pants and feverishly unfolded papers that had been store there.

The blonde Arab just chuckled deeply to his friends, "I already checked, everyone. Wufei won the pool." Looking over to his lover, he sighed deeply, "Relena and I were off by a week." The young politician frowned in dramatic disappointment as she nodded.

As the others confirmed the announcement with their own sheets, both Trowa and Ana sighed deeply, their shoulders slumping. Smirking triumphantly, Wufei ordered, "Everyone pay up." With grumbles, the two couples reached for their wallets. As each of his four friends handed over a twenty dollar bill, the Chinese pilot gave a gloating, "Thank you."

Shaking his head in amusement, Heero asked, "You all had a pool as to when Duo and I would get together?" Five enthusiastic nods answered.

Normally, something like this would normally infuriate him- the fact that all of his friends could sense something between him and Duo before even he could-and their not bothering to fill him in, Heero couldn't help but laugh. The situation really was quite humorous.

"Well, we had to have something to occupy ourselves while the two of you continued your dance around each other," Trowa smirked as he returned to his seat at the table. "It's about time the two of you got a clue."

Pocketing his winnings, Wufei nodded, "No shi-" He stopped himself just in time, Anna and now Trowa's fiery glares already on him in warning. "No kidding," he corrected, earning a relieved smile from his friends before they returned to what they had been doing. I thought that eventually, we would have had to order an intervention for the two of you."

The Chinese pilot raised a dark eyebrow and smirked, "At least I can rest assured in knowing that your change in behavior is not due to your pain medication." Heero just rolled his eyes with a snort. In all honesty, he was thankful that he apparently had the support of his friends in regards to his relationship with his partner.

In the middle of the room, Duo's face was red from laughing so hard under the tickle attack that he was receiving from the children all around him. "All right! All right! I give up!" he yelled in between his fit of hysteria. "You all win!" The kids cheered in victory and finally allowed the braided pilot to sit up while he tried to catch his breath.

One of the younger of the children, a little girl with blonde hair and green eyes, sat in the American's lap. Looking up, the child asked, "Mister Duo, will we see you again at the orph- orph-"

A little boy, only a few years older than the girl in Duo's lap, helped her by saying, "Orphanage, Megan." His own brown eyes looked up to the violet watching all of them. "Will you visit us there, Mister Duo?" he frowned.

Gently hugging the girl in his lap and rubbing the top of the dark hair of the boy as he ginned, "As soon as I get the chance, Megan and Jordan. Somebody has to make sure you little ankle biters stay out of trouble."

At the nickname that he came to use for all of them, the children all laughed-the relief clear on all of them in knowing that this would not be the last time they would see the nice man that came to play with them.

Rachel swallowed hard, knowing that she would be sent off to the orphanage with the others. A hand gently ran through her hair. Looking up, she met Anna's sad smile. Both she and Trowa had told Rachel that it was for her own safety that they had to have her go with the other kids. She knew they cared about her and only wanted her to be safe. Maybe some day, she would find a new home with a new family that could be hers. Still, it would be hard to say goodbye to the nice Preventers that had been taking care of her.

A red-haired girl who could not have been more than eight shouted, "And Yuuki, too?" she was already gently petting the collie lying beside her, panting happily.

Duo laughed, "Yes- and Yuuki, too, Bridget." With that, she children all cheered again and piled onto him to hug him fiercely. From under the pile, the pilot's laughter was muffled. However, he could hear the loud laughter of all his friends from where they were watching the sweet scene.

* * * * * *

At 0100 that morning, the Gundam pilots along with Zechs, Noin, Relena, Sally, Anna and Scott were rushed out of the ship first. Three unmarked cars awaited just beyond the parking lot. Lady Une led the way to take the drivers seat of the lead car while Zechs and Duo took the others. After everyone piled in with their belongings, the lead car pulled off with the other two following closely behind.

During the four hour drive towards the mountain ranges to the northwest, Lady Une communicated with everyone via radio in the cars as to how she wanted everyone to stay at the residence and work from there. No chance in risking anyone commuting to and from the safe house and headquarters and adding to the risk of someone picking up on their course.

The Gundam pilots, for their part, had been extremely impressed in the Commander's precision in seeing that there was no way anyone would be able to follow them, let alone guess where they had been moved.

One thing that could never be said was that Lady Une was not efficient in anything that she oversaw. She made sure that no stone had been unturned in seeing that the location that they were heading to stayed secured. The roads that they were taking had already been blocked and those that were not, they took the back roads that few people knew of. The vehicles had been scanned thoroughly to be certain that a tracker had not been placed in any of them.

In the car that he shared with Zechs, Noin and Sally, Scott felt safest in being away from the Gundam pilots for the trip. Heero and Duo had been the most standoffish towards him, not even so much as looking at him when they had learned of his involvement with those who had turned against them. The white-haired pilot couldn't blame either of them, considering they had been the most effected by the White Out Organization and those helping them.

Taking a deep breath in the backseat of the car that he shared with Heero and Duo, Trowa reached over and squeezed his quiet lover's hand. Neither of them had an easy time of parting with Rachel when Quasar landed. At least now the little girl had a chance of starting a new life with a new family.

"We did the right thing," Trowa reassured quietly.

Tight squeezing his hand back, Anna nodded, "I know." She turned and gave him a small, forced smile. The puppy curled in her lap sighed deeply in her sleep. With a deep chuckle, the red-haired Preventer gently brushed her fur.

Finally, the cars pulled up to the hidden estate in the side of a low mountain range. The only light that they had to go on were the headlights and moonlight pouring through the clearing in the trees to try and make anything out. Everyone was far too tired to really pay any mind to what the cabin looked like to really pay any mind. When everyone got out of the cars with their bags and shuffled into the house single-filed. With a farewell to the guest of the large cabin, Lady Une returned back to the city.

The first to enter the estate, Quatre sighed deeply, "Well, home sweet home away from home."

Scott pushed ahead of the pack and moved to head upstairs in seeing to which room he would claim as his. As his friends entered behind him, the Arab frowned, "Hopefully, these arrangements won't be needed for too long." All around him, the others grumbled their agreements to the sentiment.

* * * * * *

"So what do you think?" Duo asked quietly after about an hour of companionable silence as he nestled closer into Heero side.

A small smile played on the ex-Wing pilot's face and he replied sincerely, "Actually, it's kind of nice." Turning his head, he placed a soft kiss atop the other teenager's braided head. There was another long pause before he breathed, "It puts things into perspective… It reminds me of just how small we are in the grand scheme of things."

With a small grin of his own, Duo nodded, "Everyone gets something different out of it."

It had been a pleasant surprise when Heero had asked if they could watch the stars on the first night following their first day at their haven. Lying on the roof of the large estate just beside the window that led to their bedroom, the young couple made a comfortable perch for themselves.

Considering how serene the entire scene was, it was almost ironic when they thought of the storm that continued to brew and swelter around them.

Looking up to the star-filled night through the round clearing in the trees that surrounded them, Duo commented softly, "For me, it gives me a sense of peace that I never had before." With a deep chuckle, he looked back up to his partner and added, "Well, before I met you of course."

"You mean when you shot me? Twice for that matter?" Heero smirked. "You know, you were closer to me than Jessica was when she shot me and her two hits were much more effective than yours." He laughed when Duo lightly hit him on his good side.

As he settled his head back against his love's good shoulder, he grinned, "Yea, well, I wasn't aiming to kill you, remember. You were too damn hot in those spandex shorts for me to take you out." The chest beneath him rumbled with the chuckle that bubbled from the other pilot.

Propping himself up, Duo captured his partner's lips in a deep kiss that was returned with just as much fervor. When they finally parted, the braided pilot smiled and whispered, "Thank you for keeping your promise. This has been nice."

"Yes, it has been," Heero replied with a warm smile of his own. "I think that I could get used to this." At that, his best friend's violet eyes lit up, shimmering from the moonlight that reflected in them. Swooping his head up, Duo pulled his koi's head down to kiss him fiercely.

From within the house, Wufei's voice shouted, "Who the hell used up the hot water in this wing of the house!?" Their moment broken, Heero and Duo parted with heavy sighs.

Shaking his head, Duo smirked, "Yep. We're back to being one, big, happy family."


Part 24:

[Fear's a dangerous thing
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It'll take your God filled soul
Fill it with devils and dust ]
-Lyrics from `Devils and Dust' by Brice Springsteen'


The sex was great.

If there could be anything that Angie could say about her relationship, it was that. Smiling to herself, she pulled the sheets up over her naked body. With a contented hum, she closed her eyes and lied back in her queen-sized bed. The sound of the water running in the shower reminded her that she had not dreamed up the unexpected visit from her… friend with benefits.

There would be time in the future to build the relationship into something more… eventually. There was not any rush. Until then, Angie was more than happy with the occasional meetings and fucks.

Lost in her own blissful thoughts, her eyes opened when the running water in the adjoining bathroom was turned off. As her lover stepped into the bedroom with nothing but a white towel wrapped around his trim waist, Angie sat up. With her black, shoulder-length hair falling around her oval face, she smiled, "Any chance of seeing you again before the weekend, Kent?"

The crew-cut brunette raised an eyebrow and smirked, "You know that I never plan these things. My schedule is too unpredictable to say for certain." With a wink, Kent stated, "But you'll be the first to know the next time I'm in town again."

Satisfied with that, Angie removed the covers and rose form the bed, slowly moving to where her silk negligee had been tossed away the moment they entered her bedroom. Slipping it over her thin body, she replied, "I'll take what I can get."

Kent chuckled deeply behind her, removing the towel from his waist and twisting. Cracking the towel with a sharp snap on her ass, he laughed when she yelped with a startles gasp. "You certainly will," he grinned mischievously when she turned to him with a mock glare.

Angie just rolled her eyes, unable to hide her smile, as she went to slip into her black pants. Without needing the aid of a mirror, she pulled her dark hair into a tidy ponytail with practiced ease. Looking over her shoulder, she slipped into her blouse and asked, "Do you need a ride back to the shuttle port?"

"No. I have a few things I need to take care of before I need to head back," the young man replied, pulling on a black pair of briefs.

With a nod, Angie walked towards the bathroom and announced, "I need to freshen up before I head into work, then." Grinning over her shoulder, the young woman told her lover, "Don't go disappearing on me before I can give you a proper send-off." At that, she closed the bathroom door behind her.

Quickly buttoning his brown pants, Kent turned to the closed bathroom door and waited for the sink water to start as he called, "I wouldn't dream of it." When the faucet was turned on, he slipped his way over to the wooden dresser. Opening the third drawer, he removed the identification card that he knew was always hidden there.

Smirking to himself, he removed a small scanner from his pocket that was no thicker than a couple sheets of paper. With a lock of his lips, the young man scanned the card to store it into the small device's memory.

They certainly were clever, he had to admit. His little visits were only a couple of weeks apart and yet every time the card was different to heighten security. Too bad he was one step ahead of them in their efforts.

Kent heard the sink water turn off and quickly replaced the card into the drawer, covering it as he had been. He just finished closing the dresser and picked up his white blouse when Angie stepped back into the room. The young woman was still smiling when she walked up to him, placing a rough kiss on his lips before pulling back.

Sauntering over to her dresser, Angie recovered the card that she hid there and secured it in her wallet. From there, she went to her closet and took out one of her Preventer blouses. With a hum of content, she slipped her arms in the sleeves and buttoned the front of the shirt up. Looking up to the clock, she sighed, "I better get going if I hope to beat traffic."

Two strong arms wrapped around the dark-haired woman's slender waist. Chuckling deeply, Angie turned and returned the kiss that suddenly fell upon her. When they broke for air, she said, "Make yourself at home here as long as you need before you have to leave."

Giving her lover a wink, she pulled out of his embrace and waved, "Until we meet again." And with that adieu, she stepped from the room, her steps much lighter than they had been the day before her unexpected surprise.

At the sound of the apartment's front door closing, Kent removed the scanner from his pocket. "Thank you for your hospitality, Agent Sleet," he chuckled deeply to himself, the sound rumbling from deep in his chest.

* * * * * *


Heero looked over across the office from where he sat at his desk. It had been one year and two months since he returned back to the Earth following the failed mission that ended up leaving him captured along with his partner-his best friend.

A new thin layer of dust was beginning to line Duo's desk and his belongings. It just made his disappearance all the more real.

Lowering the file that he had been glancing through, Heero rose from his desk and removed a handful dust rags from one of his drawers. Walking over to his partner's desk, he went through his routine of cleaning it. Starting by removing the frames of various sizes, shapes and metals, Heero set everything aside to clear the desktop.

Taking one of the yellow rags, the Japanese pilot began wiping the wooden surface clean. Just as he was about to move to the belongings that he had set aside, the sound of footsteps from the hallway approached the office doorway. When he looked up, he found Wufei leaning against the entrance with his arms folded. The expression on his face was unreadable.

"You heading out for the night?" Heero assumed before returning to his task. Something about this ritual seemed to act as therapy for him, his concentration centered around his work of carefully wiping every trace of dust from his friend's desk.

After a moment of silence, Wufei took a deep breath and pushed off of the doorframe to enter the room. Instead of answering the question, he commented, "I don't know why you see the need to clean his desk like this."

The fact that the Chinese pilot did not refer to Duo by his name-or last name for that matter-somehow struck Heero into realizing that something was wrong. "Duo will appreciate coming back to work at a clean desk."

Wufei looked to the floor before turning his gaze back to his friend and asked quietly, "And what if he doesn't come back?"

His hands stilling in their wiping, Heero looked up through his dark bangs to meet the eyes watching him. So that was why Wufei was not using Duo's name. It was easier to write someone off if they didn't have a name, a connection. Never before had anyone dared suggest that their search for the braided pilot may be futile. This was turf that had not been treaded on before.

Straightening himself, Heero never tore away from the dark eyes that stayed on him. It was his turn to take a deep breath before replying honestly, "That possibility has not entered my mind yet."

The Chinese pilot sighed deeply, running a hand over his dark hair as he turned away. With his back to the other Preventer, he found it easier to say what it was that he needed. "I wish that I thought the same, Yuy," he began. "Six months, I can see a chance in finding him. Hell, ten months, there's a slim possibility. But a year…" The back of his head shook from side to side.

Slowly, Wufei turned back to focus on his friend. "I'm pulling out," he said at last in a firm voice. There was no need to elaborate on what he was referring to.

For a moment, Heero remained still as he watched the other pilot. His expression never changed from its neutral state as he calmly nodded, "I see." He moved to pick up one of Duo's penholder dusted it. "Are any of the others considering the same?" he questioned, never looking up from the item in his hands.

Swallowing hard, Wufei nodded, "A few. Lady Une knows how grim the situation looks. Trowa is becoming doubtful. Quatre and Relena are still holding some hope, but that is beginning to wear."

Finally, his dark eyes narrowing, the Chinese Preventer voice rose and took a desperate tone as he shouted, "There is no shame in giving up now! We did everything we could!" Somehow, the words seemed to be as much of a reassurance for Heero as they were for Wufei in the decision that he had made. Quitting was something that never came easily or him.

Heero replaced the cleaned penholder onto Duo's deck and took up one of the frames. As he continued to dust his partner's belongings, he considered his friend's words. When he spoke, the resolve in his voice remained, "Then if I must, I'll just keep looking on my own." He was not about to allow any doubt to creep in. He was not about to allow the hope that he was holding onto to fall apart.

It was obvious that Wufei had not been expecting that response as his eyes widened, his mouth falling a bit slack. He quickly recovered to sputter in frustration before he was able to yell,"What are you trying to find?

Slamming the frame in his hand onto the desk, Heero fixed him with a heated glare and shouted, "I want answers, Wufei! Even if they're not the answers that I want!"

His voice rung through the air, soon followed by a deafening silence that lasted for a brief eternity. Time simply seemed to stop, as if holding its breath to see what happened next.

"All right, Heero," Wufei nodded at last, one of the few times he ever referred to the other pilot by his first name. A true sign of understanding and respect. "All right," he repeated in a softer voice as his head lowered.

For a brief slip of guard, Heero allowed his saddened frown to show when he lifted the frame that he had thrust onto the desk and inspected it carefully. The relief was clear in his eyes when he saw that it had left the impact unscathed somehow. His unreadable mask went back into place and he resumed his cleaning.

Wufei turned and began to head out the door. Pausing in the entrance a moment, he looked over his shoulder and said quietly, "You know where to find us if you need to talk." He paused before declaring, "Like I said, there would be no shame in letting it go."

Again, it was brought up to reassure the Chinese pilot. Heero realized that, and so he did not retort. He just continued with his dusting. With a deep sigh, Wufei slipped from the office without another word.

Slowly, Heero's arms fell to his sides and he sunk into Duo's seat. "I can't," he whispered to the empty room.

Things were never going to be the same now, he knew that. There would always be an underlining resentment that he would feel towards the others for abandoning Duo. After everything that the braided pilot had done for all of them, to have them walk away from exhausting everything until they had answers was inexcusable. He certainly had no intention of doing the same.

Suddenly, as he sat there at Duo's desk, Heero felt more alone than he ever had in his life.

(End Flashback)

* * * * * *

Heero moaned deeply as his injured shoulder was massaged deeply following another day of therapy. His eyes closed, his back almost sank deeper into the bed mattress. Duo chuckled deeply, continuing to ease the tension in the recovering right shoulder as he sat up beside the other Preventer. "Feeling good then?" he asked, laughing quietly when his partner nodded enthusiastically without opening his eyes.

There was a companionable silence between the pair for a moment. Reaching over with his good arm, Heero took Duo's hands into his one, squeezing them. Even now, after all of these months, he still needed his reassurances that his best friend really was back. There were nights he feared to wake up to an empty bed, or back in his office and cleaning Duo's desk.

Opening his cobalt eyes, he smiled warmly up to the braided pilot and spoke quietly, "Thank you."

With a shy smile, the American shrugged, "No need for thanks." Appraising the injured shoulder, Duo commented, "You're mobility is coming back pretty quickly." He raided an eyebrow, "No shock there, considering how well your body usually tends to recover."

The smile faded from the braided pilot's face when he looked to his partner's bare chest. Gently, he ran a hand over course scar that ran a few inches just over the waist line of Heero's black shorts.The remains of other scars ran different lengths and angles along the firm chest. "Another close call," Duo sighed deeply, his voice little more than a whisper.

Shaking his head, the long-haired Preventer looked away and over his shoulder to peer out the window behind him. "I'm getting tired of close calls," he commented softly.

As he watched Duo in silence, Heero considered his words. The only reason that Duo had signed with the Preventers was because he had asked him to be his partner. The ex-Wing pilot never even considered whether or not it was something that his friend really wanted to do.

It was because of the fact that Duo was with the Preventers that he was captured by the White Out Organization to begin with. Still, he would never be the one to ask to step down for his own sake. How much more would they have to sacrifice? What more *could* they sacrifice?

"Hey," Heero urged quietly, sitting up and placing a hand over the other Preventer's arm. When his partner's violet eyes met his own, he smiled slightly, "When this is over… maybe we can see this is the last close calls we have to suffer."

With a sharp gasp, Duo's eyes widened. The fact that Heero was even suggesting what he was suggesting left him questioning that he heard correctly. "You really mean-?" he couldn't even finish his own train of thought, afraid that perhaps he had been dreaming up the offer that he thought his ears picked up.

Slowly, Heero's small smile grew and he nodded to the unspoken question. Lying back on the bed, he kept their gazes locked and frowned, "We've sat by each other's hospital beds too many times over the years. We've had to help each other recover from injuries like this more than either of us have liked. I would be more than willing to lower my sword if it means that we would not have to endure it further."

In hearing himself talk so much and so easily, Heero couldn't help but smile at his own change over the years. He never would have opened himself like this to anyone during the war. The more he thought of the idea of no longer having to continue on with missions and near-misses, the more he actually liked the thought. The last couple of years with the Preventers had helped him make the transition into peace time.

Now it was time to move on.

There was a hint of disbelief still in the violet eyes locked on the Japanese pilot. Heero's grin grew again and he stated, "So, yes, I am suggesting the possibility of leaving the Preventers when this is behind us." Removing his hand from Duo's arm to use his hand to hold up a cautionary finger, he said firmly, "But we'll have time to discuss it more when we take care of the White Out Organization."

It was a struggled for Duo to keep the small tears from stinging his eyes. With a stifled sob of relief, he carefully threw his arms around his partner's neck, refraining from putting pressure on his injured shoulder. "Thank you," he whispered brokenly into Heero's ear. "Thank you so much."

Satisfied that the prospect of living a normal life suited his partner, the ex-Wing gently rubbed his trembling back with warm smile. As relieving as it was that he was able to make the teenager in his arms so happy, there was also a pain in knowing that this was something that Duo wanted to badly, but would not let onto that.

When he pulled back, Duo laughed quietly as he dried his eyes of their unshed tears. He respected Heero's wish not to discuss the matter further. There would be time for that. just knowing that the once stoic teenager was willing to make such a drastic change in his life for both of their sakes was more than enough-even if they did end up staying with the Preventers in the end.

Gently placing a kiss atop Heero's forehead, the American announced, "I'm going to take a shower before dinner." With that, he jumped from the bed and all but ran to their adjoining bathroom.

Still smiling to himself as he watched his partner's happy departure, Heero sat up and rolled his shoulders, taking his time with the right. Sally had been quite satisfied with the improvement in his injury over the last couple of weeks. Rising from the bed, the Japanese pilot bent down to replace his grey T-shirt.

Fully clothed again, Heero stepped downstairs and into just one of the large estate's living rooms. Relena was sitting in a wooden rocking chair, contenting herself with continuing the knitting that she had picked up over the last couple of years. The image of the very pregnant young woman smiling to herself in seeing the tiny sweater that she was making coming together brought a small grin on Heero's own face.

Sitting at the long couch before the flat panel television, Wufei, Trowa and even Quatre were engaged in a playing some video game involving guns and space aliens. Anna was laughing quietly in one of the further corners as she played with Yuuki, the pup enjoying their tug-of-war game with her toys. Scott was nowhere in the room, but that was to be expected, considering how he usually chose to distance himself from everyone.

Looking up from his game, Wufei smirked, "So where is your `ball and chain'?" A few voices chuckled deeply.

While the comment was just meant in good humor, it was just one of many that had been made over the two weeks by the group since they arrived at their `safe house.' Had those comments been made to the `Old Duo,' prior to his disappearance, they would have rolled off his back. However, while the braided pilot forced a smile and took it gracefully, Heero knew that his partner was becoming… edgy about having their relationship in such a spotlight.

Really thinking over the course of their newly blossoming relationship, Heero only recalled Duo saying `I love you' to him once-and that was when he thought he was sleeping in his hospital bed on Quasar.

After facing his hell from the White Out Organization, it was understandable that the American would have his apprehensions in starting a relationship. There were times when kisses and touches became hesitant on Duo's part, even more when those comments started.

It was something that Heero had hoped to discuss with his friends when Duo was not around… No better time than the present, he realized.

Clearing his throat, the Japanese pilot addressed the group, "There is something that I needed to tell all of you." At that announcement, the video game was paused, the knitting was lowered and the dog toys set aside as all eyes turned to him.

Yuuki yelled excitedly when she heard her owner's voice and ran to his feet. Taking a moment to smile down at the puppy as he bent at the waist to pat her furry head, Heero straightened again and met everyone's gaze. "I know that you all mean well when you all joke and poke fun about our relationship," he began, "but if you could please refrain from that around Duo, it would be appreciated."

A few gazes turned wide-eyed. Both Relena and Anna seemed to be the least shocked of the group as they shot their significant others with glares that yelled, `I told you so!' The three young men on the couch remained stunned before Quatre spoke up at last, insisting, "We didn't mean any harm. It's just… joking is something that Duo always did."

Heero frowned at the statement. They didn't know. None of them knew what Duo had been through at the hands of their enemies, and the trust that had been placed in the ex-Wing pilot in the American's allowing him to know those things was something that he was not about to ruin by telling them the terrible details. They didn't realize… Duo might never be the same again after his nightmare of an experience.

More than not understanding what Duo had gone through, none of their friends would ever truly understand what Heero had gone through. They were not the ones who devoted time to make sure that Duo's desk was clean for his return. They never stayed hours after their shift to continue on with the search for him. While all of these things had been discussed and forgiven, they would never be forgotten. And those were realities that led to a great deal of misjudgments.

Ever since that conversation with Wufei in his office more than a year ago, Heero had been correct in his prediction of how different things would always be between all of them. Forgive but don't forget. There were too many differences between him and the others now to be able to forget if he wanted to.

Shaking his head, the ex-Wing pilot reassured his Arab friend, "I know that you're not intentionally hurting him Quatre. But, Duo's changed. He may smile at your comments, but has he ever retorted with a smart comment back-as he normally would?"

There was a moment of silence as the faces watching him really considered his question. Realization took its hold soon and eyes widened anew. "You're right," Trowa said quietly. "He never has responded the way he used to." There was silence again as those faces turned grim in facing the reality that their friend's ordeal had changed him more than they were even willing to admit.

Biting his lip, Heero took a deep breath before admitting, "There are some subtle changes in him that I have noticed over the last few days. I just… I want this to work out between us." He was not used to being this exposed. But this was important to him. Lowering his gaze, he shifted on his feet in an uncharacteristic show of his unease of being virtually naked before his friends.

Still, Heero did keep back what he truly wanted to add, though the sentiment was not lost to anyone present. `You all failed me once. Don't let me down in this.'

As she placed her knitting in her lap, Relena smiled warmly and nodded, "Of course, Heero. No more joking of that nature." Anna shared the same smile and nod before the two young women focused glares back on the three pilots on the long couch.

Swallowing hard, Wufei was the first to nod in agreement, soon joined by Quatre and Trowa. With a small smile of sincere gratitude, Heero replied, "Thank you."

Yuuki whined at his feet, stretching the top of her body up his leg in wanting to have her master's attention. Grinning as he patted the top of the dog's head, the Japanese pilot said, "If you'll excuse us." With a gesture of his head to the dog, he led Yuuki to the front door of the estate, the pup's tail wagging happily as she followed him outside for a walk.

Five stunned faces turned to each other. "I don't know what I have to get more accustomed to," Wufei spoke up at last. "Yuy's changes or Maxwell's." His friends all around him nodded in dumbfounded agreement.

* * * * * *

Kent worked tirelessly at his laptop eve since he entered the information that he was able to encrypt the information from Angie's card. Very clever of the Preventers to encode an entry into their database in what appeared to be no more than an access card.

It was a clever disguise that he nearly missed. Had their last leak with the Preventers been killed along with the others, Kent would never have known who had these little cards in their possessions. Too bad that leak was a fool enough to go and destroy one of the few knows residents of the Gundam pilots, ruining their chance to take them out in more subtle ways.

As it turned out, that leak had informed Kent that Angie was one of the few who owned such valuable information. It certainly was a good thing she was so… accessible.

After hours of hacking and looking for the few cracks into the system, Kent smirked to himself when he finally found that his efforts paid off. His laptop had several folders displayed with the large letters in red, "CLASSIFIED' over the icon of each folder. The cat was getting ready to pounce on the mouse.

"Well now," he sneered to himself. "Let's see where you all have been hiding."


Part 25:

[When I see you smile, I see a ray of light
I see it shining right through the rain
When I see you smile
Baby when I see you smile at me]
-Lyrics to `When I See You Smile' by Uncle Sam


The six-month old fetus kicked against Relena's stomach, causing the young woman to chuckle deeply. At the sound of footsteps approaching the living room, she sat up from where she lied on one of the couches. Her fiery redheaded friend entered the room, her long rope of a braid swinging with her movements. Smiling brightly, she greeted, "Hey, Lena."

With a grin of her own, the blonde politician nodded, "Good morning, Anna." Looking to see if there were of the others going to be making an appearance after the sassy Preventer, she asked, "Is anyone else awake?"

Anna fell onto the opposite couch to stretch her arms out along the top cushions behind her as she sighed, "No. I searched all four wings of this place and everyone is still sleeping." Gazing out the window, she commented, "We've been cooped up in this place for over a month now. Even with the assignments that Lady Une sends us to work on from here, I'm really starting to go stir crazy."

Whole-heartedly agreeing with that sentiment, Relena nodded, "Sally just left to get some food supplies. Maybe the others will wake up by the time she returns so we can start breakfast. That'll at least give us something to do."

Pulling her long braid over her shoulder to run a hand over it, Anna raised a red eyebrow and smirked, "Well, Trowa will be… out of commission for a while so I don't expect him to be getting up anytime soon."

Relena laughed, her head falling back. She loved that Anna was such a free spirit. Her impish personality reminded her so much of Duo at times. The fact that the redhead had pulled her hair in a braid that passed her waist only reminded her more of the American. She had to fight a bitter sigh in knowing that the Duo she knew and came to love dearly would most likely never be same carefree person that he had been prior to his ordeal.

Not wishing to dwell on that matter, Relena went down a path that Anna had treaded before her. Returning the smirk, she asked, "You didn't hurt him, I hope."

The redhead shrugged, "Not in any ways that he didn't ask to be." At that, Relena just laughed again, her eyes closing as she tried to contain her control. With a satisfied smile, Anna fell back to lie flat and stretched out on the couch. "I love sex in the morning."

Seeing no need to change the subject, the blonde politician was actually enjoying a chance to `girl talk' in such a way. After always having to act so proper when in the public eye, Relena found it quite enticing to let her hair down for a change. She knew that the Preventer was also testing her own bounds, trying not to overstep too must and make the Vice Foreign Minister uncomfortable.

"Well, Quatre really enjoys candle light, so we tend to prefer it at night," Relena stated without so much as batting an eye in embarrassment. The look of shock in the blue eyes when her friend's head snapped in her direction made it difficult for her not to laugh again.

As she sat up, Anna smiled, "Really?" Folding her arms, she inquired, "So does he need any urging? Somehow, I can't see him being very demanding when it comes to such things."

Raising an eyebrow, Relena smiled wickedly, "Oh you would be surprised." It was absolutely liberating to her to be partaking in such a personal conversation now. Were any other her fellow politicians to overhear her, she knew they would fall over from shock in learning how their `Little Lena' was unabashedly discussing her sex life. Just for good measure, she continued, "He can be quite domineering in the bedroom. He has some quiet interesting moves as well."

Anna clapped her hands as she laughed, "Quatre!?" When Relena nodded with a wide smile, she shook her head and chuckled deeply, "Well, it's usually the ones you would least expect." The free spirit that she was, she said with an impish grin, "Speaking of moves, Trowa's life in the circus certainly helped him become quite flexible. I would be a fool to leave him."

Relena's head fell back again as she laughed in response. When her friend's smile faded a bit as she lowered her head, the blonde young woman's laughter faded and she frowned. "Something wrong, Anna?" she asked gently.

Snapping out of her thoughts, the Preventer's head snapped up to meet her concerned gaze. With a dismissive wave, Anna forced a smile and replied, "Oh, just silly girl thought, that's all. I have too much estrogen in me not to have those thoughts on occasion."

Not meaning to, Relena thought aloud, "You think of his more than a friend with benefits." At the hurt that flashed in her friend's blue eyes, she gasped and covered her mouth before sputtering, "Anna, I am so sorry." As much as she hated the term `friends with benefits,' she was shocked that the words came from her mouth.

In the hallway from where he had been listening, Duo winced and frowned deeply to himself. Looking to the doorway, his eyes suddenly lightened with a thought. Quickly, he ran off without making a sound.

During their stay at their summer house, Heero had told Duo that Trowa was terrified of commitment. While the others might have referred to Anna as his girlfriend, the tall pilot never did. The relationship was more one of convenience for the two of them and their circle of friends knew it, never wanting to interfere.

Trowa and Anna ended up staying faithful to each other when their affair began and eventually moved together. For nearly two years now, Anna `knew her place' as she always called it and it seemed to be enough. Somehow, that obviously had changed.

Yet another forced smile tugged at the pilot's mouth as she waved her hand again. "Don't worry, Lena," she reassured her as she closed her eyes. "It's not like I really have any right to complain. Like I said, just silly girl thoughts of playing house-nothing more."

Quickly rising from the couch, the Preventer readjusted the drawstring on her black running shorts. "Well, I am going to get my job in before the others get up." Looking back to her friend over her shoulder as she stepped from the room, she winked with a wave of her hand, "I'll be back in a little over an hour."

"Anna," Relena called after her, frowning deeply in worry.

Just then, Duo appeared in the doorway carrying a large, covered box that was covered in dust. Anna stopped just before him. With a bright smile, he greeted, "Top of the morning to you, ladies. I was wondering if one or both of you could help me with something."

A small quick of an amused grin tugged the right side of the redhead's mouth. Folding her arms, she asked, "And what can we do for you?" Her eyes fell back to the box as she gestured to it, "What do you have there?"

With a shrug, Duo answered, "Some stuff I found in the basement a few days ago. See, I'm bored. And I need one of you to help me wake the others up." As he had hoped, Anna's blue eyes came alive with interest, the same shimmer of interest that he knew his own eyes once had. At the familiar sight his smile grew a bit.

The sound of a car pulling up the dirt driveway brought Relena to her feet. "Sally's back just in time," she announced happily. Having caught on to Duo's intention, she offered, "Anna, why don't you help Duo out while Sally and I get breakfast started?" Just before Anna turned to her, she mouthed to the American, `Thank you.' He gave her a wink.

Looking from Relena to Duo and back again, missing their exchange, the redhead brightened and nodded excitedly, "All right." As Duo shifted the box to carry it under one arm with a cheer, his free hand took one of Anna's as he led her upstairs.

Relena stepped out into the hallway to watch the two pilots disappear upstairs. Smiling to herself, she whispered, "The old Duo is still in there." Still grinning in relief, she moved to the open the front door for Sally before she stepped up the porch.

* * * * * *

Tugging on one of the ropes to test how taught it was, Heero smirked to himself. Walking back to where Anna and Duo stood a few feet down the hall, out of the maze of crisscrossed ropes tied to each of the bedroom doorknobs, gave them a firm nod. He was all too happy to assist in this little prank when his partner had woken him to quickly tell him what he was doing and why. It was very like the old Duo to do something like this-not only for his own amusement but to help a friend of his.

After working on their little stage for the last fifteen minutes, even the once stoic pilot had to admit to himself that it would be quite amusing to see how this prank turned out. Both Heero and Duo had been quite impressed with Anna's efficiency in knots. Her training as an OZ soldier in such things was coming to good use.

"Everything is in place as it should be," Heero announced quietly when he stood beside Duo. Wrapping an arm around his love's waist, he smirked, "Ready when you are."

Turning to the redhead on his other side, Duo grinned and handed over the foghorn to her. "Would you do the honors?" he asked quietly as not to alert the sleeping people within the four rooms.

Her deep blue eyes glowing with amusement, Anna smiled back, "I'd be happy to." Accepting the fog horn, she waited until both Heero and Duo covered their ears with smirks on their faces. Raising the foghorn to point out to the hallway, she pressed the trigger.

The near deafening sound bounced off the walls, only making it louder as the sounds of startled cries was almost lost. Finally releasing her finger and ending the piercing cry of the horn, Anna could hear movement within the rooms as the people within scrambled for their doors. The first to try to pull their door open was from Scott's room.

At that same time, Wufei's door started to pull in and tugged Scott's door closed with a slam at the force. Even when the door that was tied to theirs was not tugging against them, there was not enough slack in the ropes to allow more than an eye to peek out. The layout could not have been set up any better.

Trowa and Quatre's door began their own tug of war, neither door able to open more than an inch or two before the opposing door tugged its tied partner closed. Duo and Anna broke out into hysterical laughter, crumbling to the floor as they doubled over. Folding his arms, Heero leaned against the wall and shook his head with a deep chuckle. From within the rooms, the four voice within screamed, "Maxwell!"

"I am going to kill you when I get the hell out of here!" Wufei shouted. "Same to you, Yuy and Dawson!"

The trio only laughed all the louder as tears filled their eyes. The tug-of-war between the four doors continued as the growls and shouts of frustration went on. Just when one door began opening, its connected opponent pulled it closed. As stubborn as the four trapped people were, there was no ending the tug-of-war.

As he continued to laugh, Heero turned to watch his partner rolling on the floor in his own fit. It was wonderful to see that full, bright smile again. It was wonderful to hear that laugh again, cutting through the dark clouds of what loomed around them and in the distance.

Wiping at her eyes after watching the funny scene for several minutes, Anna turned to Duo and asked, "How long should we put them through this before we decide to cut the ropes?"

The braided American looked up at her from where he lied on his back and replied, "Cut the ropes!? Why when they know the windows in their rooms are?"

Downstairs and in the kitchen, Sally removed the last of the vegetables that she picked up at the market and asked, "What on earth was that foghorn for?"

Just as Relena turned to answer her, the two young women turned to gaze out the large window when a long scream from overhead filled the air. The scream grew louder and they watched in shock as the blur of Scott falling into the tall shrubs filled their vision.

The white-haired Perventer growled deeply as he rose from the leaves. Brushing himself off with a deadly glare, he stalked off, still dressed only in his night pants. Wufei fell into the same shrubbery moments later, also in his pajamas. Almost mimicking Scott's movements exactly, he stalked off to round the estate with a fierce glare.

Out of their view, two more cries filled the air followed by the sound of leaves thrashing. Both Relena and Sally turned to each other with slack jaws and wide eyes.

Being the first to break from her stunned state, Sally raised her hands and smirked as she chuckled deeply, "Forget it. I don't even want to know." Laughing, Relena went back to the pancakes that she was cooking.

* * * * * *

"Goddamn it!" Kent hissed. Slamming his fist on the table, he panted heavily as his bloodshot eyes glared at his laptop's screen. He had been staring at it for the last three days. The results were the same as they had been when he first work at breaking the code...he hit another brick wall.

Running a hand through his brown hair, he shouted, "There has to be something here that I can use!" His fingers tapped furiously at the keyboard, the keys' insistent clicking filling the small room that he had been staying in.

After trying a new approach, Kent's eyes narrowed further when he was sent back to where he started in breaking the code. Slamming his laptop closed, the brunette rose from the desk with a loud cry of rage.

With hands shaking in anger, he picked up his pack of cigarettes and removed a stick. Lighting up, he took a long drag and slowly released the stream of smoke. "I missed something," Kent told himself in a deep growl as he paced the floor. "There must be something in that apartment that I missed."

Somewhere, there had to be information on where the Gundam pilots had been moved.

Needing to find reason in his situation, Kent nodded to himself, "That has to be it. She has access to all of their records. Something has to show me where they're hiding." Wiping at his mouth, he silently thought on his next move.

With a smirk of satisfaction, the tall man went over to his cell phone and dialed. After only a couple of rings, Angie's voice answered with a pleasant `Hello.' Sluts always answered with a pleasant voice. She was little more to him when it came down to it, and he had used that to his advantage.

Forcing himself to smile that she could hear it in his voice, Kent spoke huskily, "Hey, baby. Listen, I am going on a business trip for a month after the weekend. I was hoping maybe I would be able to meet up with you in a couple a days before I leave."

* * * * * *

That evening, Heero and Duo closed their bedroom door after them when they and the others finally decided to call it a night. "Well, I am glad that Quat and the others are talking to us again," the American smirked as he went over to the dresser.

Moving into the adjoined bathroom, the Japanese Preventer turned on the sink water as he chuckled deeply, "Good thing for us Relena and Sally are so disarming. It would have been a challenge to fend off the four of them ourselves." Taking up his toothbrush, he went into his evening routine.

"Aw, I think we could have taken them if we needed to," Duo laughed. The braided pilot moved to change into a pair of mesh shorts with a deep sigh of relief at the feel of the cool material. He watched in silence as his partner moved from the bathroom. Taking Heero's place, he went about brushing his own teeth.

When he finished, the violet-eyed pilot moved back into the bedroom to stretch out on his side of the bed. Looking up, he found Heero at the end of the bed, his back to him, in a pair of boxers as he slowly removed his shirt.

Biting his lip, Duo suppressed a moan, unable to look away from the near naked backside of his partner. Thoughts of the conversation between Relena and Anna that he had listened in on came back to him. From the first time during the war that he realized he was attracted to the ex-Wing pilot, the American had always wondered what it would be like to be intimate with him.

Out in the hallway, Duo could hear Anna's voice giggling as she ran into the room that she and Trowa shared. The footsteps of the tall pilot followed her brought them both to stop just outside of the room that he shared with Heero.

It was difficult to not hear the quiet laughter die down into deep moans and soft gasps along with whispered words that he could not make out. The sound of the young couple's bedroom door across the hall clicked closed with a sense of urgency.

Chuckling deeply, Heero looked over his shoulder and commented, "Sounds like Trowa decided to forgive Anna as well."

As sorry as he felt for Anna in her position of confusion in her relationship, Duo envied her for being able to enjoy such a primal urge as sex. Straining his trained ears, he could hear the slow and rhythmic sound of the headboard began to thump from Trowa and Anna's room.

Duo's heart rate elevated as he continued to watch Heero's perfect body move to the window as he adjusted the fan there. His partner went on in his actions unaffected, obviously not able to hear what the braided pilot was forcing himself to listen to. But Duo needed to hear those sounds… needed something that he might be able to use to gain courage.

When Heero moved to lie beside him, his cobalt eyes locked on his and concern filled them. "Are you all right, Duo?" he asked gently.

He had to move now, lest he lose his nerve. Duo crushed his lips against his partner's with a sharp intake of air as he held his breath and closed his eyes. God he wanted this. Heero gave a startled gasp and tensed. Taking control of the situation, the ex-Wing pilot placed his hands on his love's shoulders, kneading the tension from them as he softened the kiss, deepening it.

Moaning deeply, Duo pulled back and removed his own shirt in his want to feel their skin pressed together. They were both panting heavily following their intense kiss and even Heero's reserve had faded as he pulled the lithe body of his partner into a crushing embrace. Their hands began to roam as the kisses became even more urgent and heated.

Duo forced his hands downward and finally, they cupped Heero's ass and squeezed as he grounded his erection against the other pilot's. The ex-Wing pilot gasped and moaned deeply as he moved their hips together all the more. "Gods, Duo," he whispered breathlessly, huskily as he began to lose himself.

Kissing his way down Heero's chest, Duo took a hardened nipple into his teeth as he sucked hard. The Japanese teenager hissed and his head fell back into his pillow. Giving the same attention to the other nipple, the braided pilot moved further down the firm abs, now covered in a thin coating of sweat as Heero panted heavily beneath him.

His hands trembling, Duo began to remove the boxers around his partner's hardened length. Biting his lip and closing his eyes, he whimpered when he felt the fabric come down from those strong hips. When he looked up to see Heero's face, he found himself looking at the barrel of a gun aiming between his eyes.

Green eyes glared down on him as the bearded soldier that owned those eyes smirked, "You better make this good, you little bitch. I would hate to ruin the fun for the others that are waiting in line."

With a sharp cry, Duo pulled back, crawling back to the edge of the bed with wide eyes and nearly falling off the bed. Heero's startled and worried voice cried, "Duo!"

Closing his wide eyes, the American hugged his legs to his chest tightly as he buried his head, sobbing violently. Gentle hands fell on his shoulders and pulled him into a tight embrace as he was rocked soothingly. A steady hand rubbed circles along his back.

Several minutes passed before Duo was finally able to calm his breathing and Heero's soft voice of reassuring words broke through his haze of terror. Slowly raising his head to test that he was not back in his cell with that soldier, he met concerned cobalt. Taking a shaky breath, Heero cupped his partner's face in his hands, never breaking their eye contact as he whispered, "It's me, Duo. It's Heero."

Everything came crashing down at that point and Duo's eyes filled with tears, a small whimper escaping him. Throwing his arms tightly around the ex-Wing pilot's neck, he clung on tightly as he sobbed into his shoulder. "I'm so sorry," he whispered brokenly, his voice shaking as badly as his body was.

Heero placed a soft kiss atop his head and replied quietly but firmly, "Don't. You have no reason to be sorry." Only when the body in his arms began to relax did he pull back enough to lift Duo's face with a finger under his chin. When their eyes met, he smiled, "Duo, there is nothing I would like more than to be able to make love to you, but you're not ready."

"But I want this, too," Duo whimpered, his body shuddering as if freezing. "I have wanted this for so long now."

Gently placing a finger over his love's lips, Heero repeated softly, "But you're not ready. And that's all right, Duo. I will wait however long it takes, and not a moment sooner." Running a hand through the long, sweat-covered bangs so that he could look into those saddened violet eyes, the Japanese Preventer whispered, "I would never be able to forgive myself if I ever hurt you in this."

Leaning down, Heero pressed their lips together in a chase, reassuring touch. When he pulled back, he gently wiped at the tears that trailed down his partner's face. Finally able to calm his tremors, Duo bit his lip and smiled that small, radiant smile that somehow said that everything was right in the world again. It made Heero's heart skip at the sight of it, in knowing that he put that smile there.

"Thank you," Duo whispered at last. Resting their foreheads together, he closed his violet eyes and whispered all the quieter, "Thank you."

With a small smile of his own, Heero squeezed him and replied just as softly, "No need for thanks, koi." Carefully moving them back, he brought their embracing bodies to lie comfortably on the bed. As Heero turned and reached over behind him to turn the light out, Duo noted that the ex-Wing pilot had already pulled his boxers up over his hips again.

Silently cursing the bastards that had scorned him out of being able to enjoy intimacy with the one person that he loved and trusted over all others, Duo fell back into Heero's arms when he turned back after turning the lamp off. Lifting his head, the braided pilot placed a soft kiss on his partner's lips in silent appreciation.

In the darkness, the smile in Heero's voice could be heard as he whispered in an affectionate voice, "Good night, baka."

At the much needed sentiment, Duo chuckled deeply. How was it that Heero always knew just what to say when he needed it? Perhaps there really was something to say about soul mates, in kindred spirits that just understood each other.

Finding comfort in that, Duo sighed deeply as he rested his head against his best friend's chest. "Good night, Heero," he whispered back. With a kiss falling against his forehead, he drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

* * * * * *

Kent smiled and waved when Angie approached him at the bar. Wrapping her arms around his neck, the dark-haired young woman greeted him with an intense kiss. When she pulled back, the Preventer smirked, "I will have to send your boss a thank you card for at least giving you an extended weekend before your trip." Kent just smiled his best smile for her.

"So," Angie grinned. "Shall we hang out here or move onto more exciting things?" She was just a slut, Kent confirmed to himself once more. Good thing such a characteristic was so easy to manipulate in his favor.

Stretching his arms out, the brunette young man answered, "It has been a long trip. I could go for a nightcap right about now." With that, Angie chuckled deeply as she took a hand in hers and led them away from the club.

As they headed out, Kent made sure to scan the crowd to see that no eyes followed them. This would be his last trip to Angie's. Whatever happened, he would get the answers that he was looking for.


Part 26:

[Another taste of the evil I breed
Will level you completely
Bring to life everything that you fear
Live in the dark, and the world is threatening]
-Lyrics to `Prayer' by Disturbed


Turning over the bed mattress, Kent growled deeply to himself, his eyes narrowed in rage as his search of the apartment continued to prove futile. After scanning every inch of Angie's place, he had yet to find anything that may lead him to finding his prime targets. He was not going to be pleased in finding that there was no luck in locating the Gundam pilots.

When he looked up to the clock, the young man hissed a quiet curse. Angie would be returning home in little over two hours, her shift nearly at its end. Straightening himself to see the shambles that he had left the bedroom in, Kent sighed deeply and ran a hand through his short brown hair. He certainly had been as thorough as he could possibly be.

Drawers in every dresser were pulled out, clothes and other items were strewn about the floor. If he came up short after eight hours of searching the entire apartment, there was nothing there to be found. He had spent the entire weekend and two more days only to come up short. Those Preventers certainly covered their bases this time, covering every track that might leak any valuable information to his targets' whereabouts.

It was now time to move on and come up with another angle, which was most frustrating at this stage in the game.

Time to make a quick departure as this once deep well of information had dried.

With another deep sigh, Kent set himself to cleaning the mess that he had made of the bedroom. At least it was the last room he had to do this for. Angie would never know that he had all but torn her place literally upside down while she was gone. Thankfully, the clothes in her dressers were never neatly folded and assorted, but thrown about haphazardly.

By the time he was finished with setting all of the young woman's belongings back to their rightful place, it was moments before he heard her voice calling his name from downstairs. Quickly straightening the last framed artwork, Kent stepped from the bedroom to head down the steps to the living room with his bag.

The dark-haired Preventer smiled at her lover's entrance, "There you are." Noting the suitcase in his hand, Angie tried to cover the disappointment in her voice as she smirked, "Taking off on me again?"

With a nod, Kent replied, "I have to be at the shuttle port in the next couple of hours."

No need to stay when it would not benefit him. He already ran a risk by showing up so close to his last visit. This would be the last time he would be making this visit. Keeping up with his cover, he lied instead with a reassuring smile, "I am sure my job will bring me back to the area in the near future again. You'll see me before again before you realize I am gone."

At that, Angie's smile brightened a bit and she nodded, "Well, I certainly hope so." She leaned in and took his lips in a hungry kiss. After a brief exchange of farewells and a wish for a safe trip, Kent winked at the young woman before stepping from the apartment, closing the door behind him.

Entering the driver's seat of his rented car, Kent took up his cell phone. As the speed dial registered, he maneuvered the steering wheel with his free hand. The deep voice that picked up on the other line greeted, "Yea."

His eyes narrowing, Kent hissed, "You listen to me, you little fuck. Because of your stunt in destroying that house weeks ago, not only were those pilots moved, but there is nothing recorded in the Preventer database to where they are now." His voice rose as he shouted, "Nothing!"

The sound of a rough swallow came over the receiver. "Angie was the only person that we could have gotten to that would have had any information. I swear I thought it was a lock in finding them," the agent stated, trying to keep his voice from shaking.

Swerving through traffic, Kent growled deeply, "Well, you are the only person within the Preventers that we have left. You will curse your mother for ever meeting your father if you fuck up again, I will see to that personally. Whatever it takes, you get to those pilots. Find them and get the location to me. Or so help me, I will hunt you down wherever you hide if you fail me again, Tim. Do you understand me!"

"Yes, sir," came the quick response. "I understand clearly. We'll have them," the Preventer added when there was a long, uncomfortable silence between them.

With no other choice but to be satisfied in that, Kent snapped, "We had better. There is too much at stake to lose another opportunity now. I'll be in touch to check on your progress in a couple of days." His thumb moved up to end the call. Lowering the phone and gripping the steering wheel with both hands, the brunette gritted his teeth.

Another mistake would prove devastating at this stage. With that fool as their only eyes and ears among the Preventers, there were too many things that could go wrong. Considering what Tim had cost them already, Kent was at unease in having to put their eggs into that one basket.

In the end, it was all that they could so for now, until another opportunity arose. It would simply have to be enough for now.

* * * * * *

"So does anyone want to play charades?"

"No!" eight voices chorused as one.

Duo lowered his head to rest on Heero's good shoulder again as he sighed deeply, "Killjoys. One of these times, you're all going to take up on the idea." His partner just chuckled deeply and squeezed his leg.

Looking up from the deck of cards in his hand, Wufei snorted, "Maxwell, as boring as it is being stuck here, it will never get so bad that I would ever partake in that game." Duo just closed his eyes, laughing to himself at just getting a rise from his friends. Lately, it was his only sense of entertainment.

Over the last few days, being in the same residence with more than a half-dozen others was beginning to wear on everyone. Had there been regular assignments to keep them busy, the novelty of their arrangements would not have tarnished so quickly. But after seeing the same faces for more than a month, cabin fever was creeping in… and quickly.

As he raised his head again, Duo asked, "How about twenty questions?"

"No!" came the chorused voices of his friends again. Heero smirked when his best friend lowered his braided head on his shoulder again. Wrapping his arms around his partner's shoulders with a squeeze, the ex-Wing pilot kissed Duo's head in a silent gesture of understanding his frustration. Even Yuuki jumped up to sit in her owners' laps, bringing a smile to the American's face as he played with her ears.

For Duo's sanity, for everyone's sanity, Heero certainly hoped that something happened soon.

* * * * * *

"I had higher hopes that you would pull this off," the voice on the other end of the line growled deeply. "This certainly is most displeasing news."

Running a hand over his short brown hair, Kent sighed deeply. This was the one call he had been dreading since returning to his place of operations the day before. "I assure you, sir, this problem will be handled. We still have our last leak within the Preventers looking into situation. We'll find those pilots soon enough."

There was a brief pause before the man on the other line commented, "I do not like having to rely on only one resource, especially that loose trigger." Kent could not help but snort at that, sharing the same concerns himself. "See that you find them."

Without hesitating, Kent replied, "Yes, sir." Opening his suitcase that he had not bothered with since his return, the young man went through his things and continued on his conversation. "They won't be able to stay hidden for much longer. I would not be surprised if-" he stopped short, his eyes widening and his hands pausing over his clothes.

In hearing the sudden stall, the voice asked urgently, "What is it? What's wrong?"

"Nothing, sir," Kent quickly answered, somehow able to keep his voice calm. "I will keep you updated on the progress of our search. I just remembered that I have something that I need to take care of."

Another awkward silence followed. Finally, he responded, "Very well. This is a very busy time for the two of us." Silently, Kent breathed a sigh of relief that his excuse seemed to have worked. That relief lasted for a very fleeting moment. "I will be calling you again after this evening's events." With that, the call was cut.

Kent was all too happy to hear the disconnected tone over his cell phone as it all but fell to the floor. His hands pushed his clothes around, along with the small devices that he had taken with him to Angie's apartment. "It was right here," he told himself, his blue eyes widening again.

Growing frustrated, he began throwing his things out of his suitcase. After going through anything and still not finding it, Kent's back arched and his eyes closed tightly as he let out a loud scream. Of all of the things to leave behind in his rush to get away, his data card contained an untold wealth on knowledge leading to him if the wrong people got their hands on it.

His hands shaking, Kent dry washed his face, forcing himself to focus. There was no choice in what he had to do. Quickly opening his laptop, he began opening his programs. Taking up his cell phone again, he waited for the voice on the other line to answer.

Not bothering with the formalities of greetings, the brunette man ordered, "I want you to assemble some men. You are being sent an email with an address not far from where you are now. My data card was left behind there and I want it retrieved. There is a young woman who lives there alone." With that, he pressed the `send' button to his message.

The professional response came, "Of course, sir." It was a good thing to have a reliable team at their disposal at every key location ready to follow out on their orders. "And what of the woman?"

"Kill her," Kent answered sharply without the need of consideration. "We cannot risk the chance that she may have seen something she shouldn't have. Make sure that no one sees you, and do what you must if anyone does."

He could hear the smile in the voice when it answered, "Understood. I just received the coordinates now. We'll move in well after dark."

At that, Kent stated, "I want to be reached as soon as you're done." With one last affirmative response, he closed his cell phone with a shuddery breath. Falling into his chair at his desk, his hands went up to his face again.

Questions and thoughts ran through his mind as he sat there. How could he have made such a mistake? He swore that he had checked everything before he packed his bag. As far as he knew, the card was never taken out. It must simply have fallen. Now, he could only wait, hoping that the team he sent reached the card before anyone else found it, Kent sighed deeply as he sat back in his seat.

What if Angie had found that card? Would she know how to decode what was on there? How was he going to make up for what this meant to the White Out Organization if that happened? What if `he' ever found out what happened?

It was going to be a long few hours before he would have any answers to those questions.

* * * * * *

The following evening, Angie returned home from another day at the office. Work was as challenging as ever, but it was what made her job rewarding for her. Working overtime over the weekend never bothered her, considering that there wasn't anyone waiting for her at home. After several devastating relationships in the past, she was not ready to have more than her flings from time-to-time. She was comfortable with her life.

At least, that was what she kept telling herself at the end of every day.

Sighing deeply in relief, Angie removed her black hair from its short ponytail. As warm as it was, she decided to close the windows and turn on the air conditioner. She paused to smile at watching the sunset over the mountainous horizon. Her apartment certainly had one of the best views for such splendors.

As her supper of leftovers was reheating in the microwave, Angie moved upstairs to her room to change out of her uniform. Stepping into her bedroom, she kicked her shoes off and slid them under her bed for a change instead of placing them by the door. As the edge of her blanket was pulled back, the light caught something metallic, causing it to catch her eye when it shimmered for a brief second.

Lowering her hands as they undid the first button of her blouse, Angie tilted her head as she looked down to the strange object. She lowered to her knees, picking up what she discovered was some kind of data card. "Kent must have left this behind yesterday," she thought aloud, just needed to hear something in the silence-even if she was stating the obvious as she never owned such a device. Turning it before her face, she examined the card punched with holes and small wires.

If it was something important, he would have contacted her by now that he needed it, Angie considered to herself. That was, unless, Kent didn't realize that it was missing yet. Biting her lip, the young woman considered what she should do. There was no way of contacting Kent, his number always showing as unlisted whenever he showed on her caller id. He never left a number for her to reach him.

There were many things about that man that were more or less hidden from Angie. The card in her hand, she knew by some of the punched patterns with her work in data entry and retrieval, he must have had a much more important job than what he led her to believe.

It was a very high-tech piece of information storage that looked to have very complex details, most likely for coding whatever was on it. Given that, whatever was on the card was something of great importance and Kent needed it back somehow.

Biting her lip, Angie weighed her options and the only logical way of somehow contacting her lover was to look up a possible phone number from the card. As much as she disliked the idea of `prying' into something so private, it was obvious that this was something very important and she wanted to help get it to its rightful owner. Kent would understand when she called him to tell him she found his card. Besides, she only needed his cell phone number. That was quick and easy to retrieve.

Finally decided on it, Angie nodded to herself and changed quickly into her long pajamas. Taking up the card, she left her room to enjoy her meal as she worked. She couldn't help but think to herself that it would be nice to hear her lover's voice again.

Kent would be thrilled to hear that she had gone through such lengths to help him.

* * * * * *

Lady Une was making a batch of tea when her vid phone rang. Stepping from her kitchen with her teacup, she moved to her desk and blinked in surprise at the name on the small caller id screen. As she lowered her cup, she pressed the accept button, her brown eyes widening at the tear-streaked face that appeared on her screen. "Agent Sleet?" she asked with a concerned frown.

With a choked sob, the young woman before her whimpered, "Commander, Une I am so sorry. I don't know what to do." Her body trembled with a near violent shudder.

Straightening in her seat, Lady Une's gaze filled with greater concern, but she kept her voice calm to reply, "Whatever it is, it'll be all right, Angie. Just tell me what happened and I will help however I can." Angie had been one of her hardest workers in the record holdings department. Seeing the normally happy young woman so distraught was unnerving.

It took a moment for Angie to force a deep breath to calm her wracking sobs. "I really made a terrible mistake," she began, her voice trembling. "And I think that I'm in danger now." Before Lady Une could ask what made her think that, the dark-haired Preventer lifted the data card that she had found.

"A man that I met a few months ago left this in my apartment last night. I've spent the last hour looking through it and-" she could not continue as her voice trembled with another spell of sobs. The Commander just nodded encouragingly to let her know that she was listening. Having to collect herself again, Angie managed, "I saw some things that I shouldn't have about him."

At that, Lady Une licked her lips and nodded, "Okay. I am going to see that someone comes to help you. Can just you tell me, quickly, what it was that you found that has you so upset so that I know what we're dealing with here?"

Shaking her head, Angie sniffled, "I don't even know. It took me so long to get into any of the data on this card. When I thought I finally got into Kent's personal contact information, I found that he has dozens of aliases." She wiped at the tears running down her cheeks as she recited from memory, "Lance Treas. Toby Haan. Richard Herbert. Terry Henderson."

Her brown eyes widening, Lady Une gripped the edge of her desk. "W-what was that last name?" she breathed, her skin paling.

Angie seemed to finally control her sobs at last. Swallowing hard, she answered, "Terry Henderson." In seeing the state of her Commander, she frowned, "Have you heard that name before?"

Unable to breathe, Lady Une cupped the sides of her face as the name ran through her mind. Terry Henderson. It was the only name that Duo managed to get out of Brian Hefner and the other leaks that had been interrogated. The name of one of the direct contacts to the head of the White Out Organization. And now Angie had the only tie to any information on him, not even realizing just how great of danger she was currently in because of it.

Quickly rising from her seat, the Commander bent at the waist to keep eye contact with the young woman. "Where are you now?" she demanded, her brown eyes narrowing in resolve.

Blinking her green eyes, Angie answered, "I am at my apartment at the Glenn Allen Estates. Should I go somewhere else?"

Lady Une shouted, "No!" When the Preventer flinched with wide eyes, she placed a hand over her chest to take a deep breath. Shaking her head, she spoke much more softly, "No, Angie. Your address is in my database, here. I want you to stay in your apartment. Lock your doors and windows. I am going to have a team sent there to get you out of there. Do not answer your door until they have called you first, to let you know they're there."

In sensing the urgency of the situation, Angie gave a small nod to understanding the orders. "I am being targeted, then?" she breathed. She began to tremble again as she sobbed, "Lady Une, I swear that I never meant to compromise the Preventers' security. I never knew-"

Forcing a reassuring smile, the Commander spoke gently, "It's all right, Angie. I know that you did not act maliciously. Right now, I am just going to see to it that you're brought to safety. We will go into this more then."

Angie nodded, biting her lip against the terror that coursed through her. "Thank you, Commander," she whispered brokenly. "I'll wait for backup, then." A sob broke through as she whimpered, "If anything happens to me-"

"Hush," Lady Une cut her off, not wanting to think of the possibility. "I will see you in a few hours, Angie. Just don't leave your apartment alone, okay?" When the dark-haired Preventer nodded, she concluded, "Now I don't want to risk the possibility that someone might be listening to your line. Help will be there shortly." At the last nod from her agent, she disconnected the call.

Quickly dialing on her vid phone, Lady Une took a shuddering breath as she closed her eyes. The image of a familiar face appeared at the answering of her call and before he could greet her, she bent down to the screen and stated, "Zechs, we have to keep this brief."

* * * * * *

The next few minutes were a blur of shouting and running around the estate when relayed the message from Lady Une. Being the closest to the Glenn Allen Estates, they had to assemble quickly to reach Angie before someone else did. Relena, Quatre, Sally and Scott stayed out of the way as they watched the exchange of weapons and words between the Gundam pilots as they prepared to move out quickly.

Opening the front door, Zechs shouted over the others, "We better move now! Let's go!" He ran outside with Trowa, Wufei, Noin and Anna on his heels.

When Heero was about to follow after, Sally moved before him with a halting hand on his chest as she told him, "Heero, I am not going to let you step out of this house." When the Japanese pilot moved to protest, the braided woman frowned, "Your shoulder is finally starting to mend properly. It would take months to repair it if it is damaged again now."

"She's right, Heero," Duo's voice came from behind him. Taking the gun from his partner's hand, he added it to his belt of weapons at his waist. "You should sit this one out. We don't have any time to argue over it," he stated flatly.

His cobalt eyes widened in concern, Heero asked, "What do you think you're doing?"

"I'm tired of sitting back and watching the rest of you take shots at these bastards. I'm going to have to face my demons at some point," Duo replied, his violet eyes narrowing. "And there is no use in trying to talk me out of this," he added just when his best friend opened his mouth.

With a deep sigh, Heero frowned deeply. He knew better than to try and get in the American's way when his mind was made up. Along with that, Sally was right in her assessment of his shoulder. Knowing his body better than anyone, further tearing to his healing muscles would set him back greatly.

Quickly pulling Duo close, the ex-Wing pilot kissed his lips and whispered, "Be careful." Duo only nodded before running out the door to join the others, slamming the door behind him.

As the sound of the two cars revving and peeling out of the driveway, Heero sighed deeply. In the blink of an eye, events had spiraled out of control and he had been left behind. It had been years since the last time Duo went off on a mission without him. Now, finding himself in that position again, Heero quickly remembered how unsettling it was.

* * * * * *

Adjusting his tie as he looked himself in the mirror, he smiled to himself. It was an important night for him and he certainly needed to be certain to look his best. There would be a great many people present at this particular event. Many of them included his more esteemed clients.

Despite the looming nuisance that the Preventers had covered his prized targets so well, he was assured that he had the right men working the channels to take care of that. The last phone call that he had with Kent was a bit reassuring. `Kent.' He smirked at the name, just one in a long line of aliases that the young man had taken up.

The fact that there seemed to be a hint of distraught in `Kent's' voice towards the end of their call did not worry him terribly. There were a great many more agents working for him. He could afford to lose several `Kents' before he became too concerned.

Business was good and growing by the day as word was whispered up the right chain of high buyers. As the man running the organization, he was the prime beneficiary of one of the greatest underground slave trades to exist.

There was little to be truly concerned with, when it all came down to it. Even if the Gundam pilots stayed in hiding for years, at least they would not be interfering with his business directly again.

There was a knock on the door and he turned from the mirror to call, "Come in."

A tall, suited man entered with a bow of his head, "The guests have all arrived and the podium is ready for when you are, sir."

"Very good, Robson." he smiled, buttoning up his black suit coat. "I will be ready in a few more minutes, then."

With a salute, the secret service officer replied, "Yes, Mister President." Turning on his heels, he closed the door after himself.

His smile widened. He certainly never tired of that title.


Part 27:

[Everything burns
Everyone screams
Burning down lies
Burning my dreams]
-Lyrics to `Everything Burns' by Anastacia

"We would have been there by now if we didn't have to take these back roads," Noin frowned deeply in concern as she peered out of the passenger window. Beside her, Zechs gripped the steering wheel tightly, his own discontent plain on his face. His right hand moved to turn on the headlights, no longer able to utilize the fading sunlight as they passed through their wooded surroundings.

In the back seat, Wufei continued to examine their range of firearms with practiced precision. "Best not to slip and make our whereabouts known before we make any headway in taking out our enemy," he commented.

Finished with his inspection of their weapons, the Chinese Preventer passed a couple of pistols over to Noin as he added, "Besides, Lady Une managed to get a hold of three other Preventers that live closer to the apartment complex to scan the area before we get there. Angie should be pretty well guarded by the time we show up. If all goes as it should, it'll just be an easy-in, easy-out escort."

The young woman made a quiet grunt of acknowledgement, not sounding the least bit at ease and repeated, "'If' all goes as it should." Shaking her head, she sighed deeply, "I just have a bad feeling, that's all." Placed her two pistols in her holster, she mumbled, "Three agents may not be enough if Kent realized what he left behind before Angie did."

Reaching over to squeeze his wife's shoulder, Zechs peered out of the corner of his eye to meet her gaze. "Wufei is right about jumping in too soon. This was the best approach that we could take," he tried to reassure her. As he pulled his hand back, he went on quietly, "But for what it's worth, I am no more thrilled in this situation than you are."

Wufei glanced at his watch and stated, "We're less than a half hour off now. "I'm going to contact Agent Bolt and his team. They should be at the apartment complex soon." His two comrades gave nods of acknowledgement as the Chinese pilot removed his small transmitter.

In the car behind them, Anna smirked to herself as she cocked the last of the guns that she had inspected and prepared. "Locked and loaded," she announced, her left eye closed tight and her right peering through the small aiming ring of the pistol after shifting the loaded barrel home. Carefully, the redheaded Preventer took up two guns to reach over the front seats to place them on the center consol.

Silently watching the two pistols, Duo swallowed hard. It had been years since he held such a weapon... It had been years that he had stared up into the barrel of such a weapon as opposed to wielding it.

`Why was this so hard?' the American's mind screamed. For weeks now, he had been waiting for the opportunity to finally take a strike against the men who were responsible for his hellish imprisonment.

Duo was finally just starting to regain some of the muscle mass he had lost thanks to his regular visits to the gym, favoring the punching bag to release his frustration. It seemed only right that he join the others for this mission… but now…

Tentatively, the braided pilot reached over with his left hand. Before his fingers could even touch the cold steel, his hand began to tremble. Another hand seemed to come from nowhere to fall over his, stilling it with a tight squeeze. When Duo looked up, he met concerned emerald as his friend peered over at him briefly.

"You don't have to go through with this," Trowa offered quietly, pulling his hand away to focus on the road ahead of them again. "No one here would think any less of you if you sat this one out," he spoke sincerely.

A smoldering rage began to boil in the pit of Duo's stomach at the quiet words. While he knew that his friend was only trying to help, the words that were implied but not spoken were what screamed in the braided pilot's mind. `You're still too weak. You're not ready for this yet.' It helped give him the resolve that he needed.

His violet eyes narrowed, Duo took up one of the pistols with a steady hand, cradling it with the other as he brought it towards him. When Trowa's green eye peered out of the corner to watch him, the American stated firmly, "I'm going in with the rest of you." There was no room for argument in his tone.

With that, Trowa's gaze turned back to the road with the hint of a smirk of satisfaction on his face. In the rearview mirror, the tall pilot noted that Anna had a similar expression. He was nearly taken aback to realize that his lover had caught on to his intention with his words to solidify Duo in their task. She seemed to understand him much more than he ever realized before.

The remainder of their trip was made in silence as the three Preventers set about mentally preparing themselves for anything that could be awaiting them.

* * * * * *

Pacing anxiously in her large living room, Angie brought her hands back up to wash her face again. After waiting for what seemed an eternity which could not have been two hours, it was difficult to keep her nerves in check. In her hands, she nervously fiddled with the data card that Kent had left behind. So insignificant at first glance, and now this small card held the balance of an untold number of lives.

Angie understood why she was ordered to sit and wait. If she was in danger and she went on the road, she could be followed, forced off the road and there would be no way of finding her. Lady Une had wanted to be certain that her teams would know exactly where she was.

In the end, the decision to make her sit and wait was the lesser of the two evils, Angie realized, even if it did make her a sitting duck should she suddenly have become a target. All that she could do now was hope and pray that should Kent have sent anyone after her, the other Preventers would get to her first.

When her cell phone rang, she jumped with a startled gasp. Placing a hand over her racing heart, Angie went to check the caller id. `Unlisted' flashed on the small screen, a small icon of an eagle appearing in the bottom left corner. It was the icon that appeared when the id was made by a Preventer agent. "Oh thank God," she whimpered with small tears of relief building in her eyes.

Despite her elation in knowing that she would hear a friendly voice, Angie's hand still trembled as reached for the receiver. "Hello?" she greeted quietly, all but hugging the phone to her ear with both hands to steady it.

"Angie, this is Agent Bolt," a deep male voice answered. "I'm with Agent Night and Agent Torrent. We're scanning the surroundings now to see that all is clear by the time your escort arrives."

Escort? "Y-you mean you're not going to get me out of here now?" Angie nearly moaned. Gary, Agent Bolt, was one of her good friends, along with both Samantha and Robert who were assisting him.

It was killing her to see their friendly faces again, especially now knowing that they were so close. "I don't know how much longer I can just sit here waiting like this," she admitted with a trembling voice.

Gary's voice on the other end softened as he replied soothingly, "It's going to be all right, Angie. This is just for safety measures. We have another team moving in to get you out of there. They contacted us not long ago and they should be here in about fifteen minutes and we went to make sure the area is safe for them. Just hang tight a little longer, all right?"

Biting her lip, the young woman took a deep breath and answered with a firm nod, "All right." With that, she hesitantly disconnected the call.

Quickly, Angie went over to her window to peek pack the drawn curtains. There was nothing really to see beyond her secluded apartment. Surrounded by trees and nearly black darkness, the only thing that she could really see were the distant lights of the other apartments- spaced out throughout the wooded area.

Then she saw it, just off to the right back and in the woods about fifty yards, a car's low beam headlights turning off. Having to squint and use the pale moonlight for assistance, the young woman could just make out the shape of the car as three of its doors opened and closed while three shadowed shapes quickly moved to spread out across the area. Gary. Samantha. Robert.

With a deep sigh of relief I now knowing where her fiends were, Angie closed her curtains again. At least now she knew that help had arrived.

She could wait a while longer now, knowing that she was safe now.

* * * * * *

Heero's head snapped up at the sound of the front door opening. Yuuku jumped from his lap to run off towards the entrance, barking excitedly. Quatre, Relena and Sally rose to their feet along with the Japanese pilot as they quickly left the living room. Scott made his way down the tall stairwell to wait along with the others as their unannounced visitor entered.

Stepping past the door, Lady Une met their surprised eyes with a weak grin. The strain of concern was clear on her brow as the Commander greeted her house guests with a firm nod and announced, "I just came back from seeing that the back roads to here had been closed. I already informed Zechs which way to take on the way back so that no one follows."

At the excited puppy at her feet, Lady Une smile warmed a bit as she bent down to pet her. Straightening again, she scanned the room, only for her brown eyes to blink in surprise. "Where is Duo?" she asked.

Worry filled the Japanese pilot' cobalt eyes and he swallowed hard before answering, "He went with the others in my place. He insisted." Beside him, Relena rested a hand on his shoulder for support. The last hour and a half had been a quiet struggle for Heero in fearing for the braided pilot.

Still standing on the stairway, Scott snorted, "It's an easy escort mission. They'll be right in and right out again." He held his tongue when the others shot fiery glares at him.

"There is no such thing as an `easy' mission any longer," Heero commented quietly, his eyes unfocused as his head lowered. Haunting memories of the last `easy mission' that he had flown with Duo filled his mind.

Rolling his eyes, Scott waved with a hand and turned to climb back up stairs with an exaggerated sigh, "Next, you'll be fretting over someone nicking a vein while cutting vegetables while we're stuck in this place. Being cooped up here has made you all uptight and skittish. For your sakes, I hope that we won't be stuck here together for much longer."

"One can only hope," Heero growled deeply, his narrowed eyes focused on the back of the white-haired Preventer as he disappeared upstairs.

With a quiet snort, Quatre muttered, "Even then, it wouldn't be soon enough."

* * * * * *

It had been an easy kill. They were not counting on their enemies to have night vision, so he never saw him coming. It was almost disappointing to end it so quickly. He preferred to toy with his prey first. One of the perks of working for the President of the Earth, having some of the best equipment money had to offer. Taking up his transmitter, he called the remained of his team. "One down."

"There were only two others. They've been taken out as well," replied a young woman's voice from his team over the receiver of his earpiece. "No signs of any others."

As he thought to himself, he hummed quietly and licked the dead of the fallen body for something to give his feet to do. "Then there are more coming," he realized aloud. "Three Preventers this deep in the woods was merely to clear the way for another team to get the girl out of her place safely." That had to be it, he confirmed to himself.

Over the transmitter, the young assassin inquired, "Should we just kill the girl now and make off with the card before the other team arrives? You said that when Kent-" There was a brief pause before she grumbled, "If that is even his real name, called you earlier that his orders were to simply get rid of her and recover the data card he left."

Slowly, a smirk crossed his lips and he stated, "We have a team of ten. There will not be that many coming after her in the second team, thinking that this first ring was going to secure the area. If we're going to be disturbed to clean up after someone else, we best make some fun of it."

As he peered through the trees to the lighted windows of the house many yards off, he spotted the shadow of a slender woman pacing across the room. His smirk grew into an amused grin as he spoke in clear certainty, "She's not going anywhere."

He could hear the smirk in the other assassin's voice as she responded, "I was hoping that you would say that. I will pass the word to the others. A couple had spotted some trucks left behind carrying building tools for the new estate going up on the other edge of the grounds. We can make some use of the tools left there."

"Excellent," he chuckled deeply. "If the tide should turn on us, have some of our men blockade the house with the girl inside. Have the place burnt to the ground."

The smile in the young woman's voice grew when she answered, "With pleasure."

"Happy hunting, then." His deep chuckle returned as the call was disconnected.

* * * * * *

Fifteen minutes later, the two black cars of the escort team began to very slowly pull into the grounds of the Glen Allen Estates. Peering out the front window, Noin asked quietly, "Which apartment is Angie's?"

With a gesture of his head, Zechs pointed ahead to the lone estate on the top of a wooded hill, its lights just peeking through the dense trees and darkness. "That would be it," he informed with a deep frown as he watched the eerie sight.

"Figures," Wufei snorted. "It couldn't be out in the open surrounded by other people, and in broad daylight, so anyone could spot that something was wrong," he groaned.

In the other car, Anna sighed deeply as her arms flung in the
air, "No, it has to be secluded on a hill surrounded by hundreds of trees after dark, no less! It just figures." Duo couldn't help but smirk with a deep chuckle. The redheaded Preventer certainly reminded him of himself more and more.

Following Zechs's car, Trowa had a small smirk on his own face as he replied, "Relax, Anna. Agent Bolt and the others would have contacted us by now if there were any real danger. This should be just an easy pick up."

A shudder ran up Duo's spine at those words. The last mission that he and Heero had been on together was brushed off as an easy, routine fly-by that became a mouse trap set up for them to be handed over to the White Out organization. Ever since that day, he would never consider another mission `easy' before it was carried out.

The two cars began to make their climb up the winding road at the side of the hill leading to Angie's residence and the three pilots took up their transmitters, placing the small receivers in their right ears. The first to place his transmitter in, Trowa spoke into the tiny microphone hanging down to his shoulder, announcing, "This is Barton. Test."

Without hesitance, an affirmative response came over the small earpieces from the remainder of the team, including those in the other car. In now knowing that their communication equipment worked, Duo asked, "Any ideas for a game plan, guys?"

Zechs's voice answered, "Our search team is spread at three opposite points of the house, deep in the woods to check for anything or anyone unwelcome. Four of us can make a smaller ring around the estate while the other two go in after Angie."

"I'll go in," Noin offered. "No offense, boys, but I think it would be a bit more disarming for her if there was at least one woman present. Besides, Zechs and I have made appearances in the data room over the last few months. She would recognize me."

Nodding, Duo agreed, "Good idea. I'll go in with you, stand guard at the door while you get her ready to leave." He wasn't aware of the silent sighs of relief from the others. His elected job would be the easiest one to handle.

Trowa tried not to show his concern. Perhaps Duo really wasn't up for the task, after all. His suggestion of such earlier was merely to help solidify his friend in what he knew the braided pilot wanted to prove to himself.

Try as he might, it was so hard not to think of the American as anything other than the self proclaimed Shinigami when ever he took on a mission. These changes in his friend just became more and more unnerving and Trowa found himself realizing that he no longer knew this Duo.

Over the receiver, Wufei's voice broke though his thoughts. "Considering the front of the house is north, I'll cover the northwest corner," the Chinese pilot proclaimed.

"I've got the northeast side," Anna stated soon after.

Turning his head slightly, Trowa peered through the rearview mirror. Normally, his bedmate waited until he called a position to make certain that she was close to him, whether he thought it was in their best interest or not. It was hard not to hide the stunned surprise from his face in hearing that she was making her own choices with or without him this time. Something about that… hurt.

In meeting his gaze in the mirror with her own blue pair, Anna turned off her transmitter for some kind of privacy from the team in the other car. "Just giving you some space in the missions that we're sent on together, as you always wanted," she glared heatedly.

Duo winced, trying to cover it up from his tall friend seeing it. He thought back to the conversation between Anna and Relena that he stumbled on not long ago. After more than a year of having to settle as Trowa's bed warmer and nothing more, it was finally wearing on the young woman.

There was a flash of shock, realization and pain in Trowa's widened eyes. In an instant, that reaction vanished and his eyes narrowed while he turned off his own transmitter. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he snapped. "We agreed before getting involved that there were no guarantees that I would be ready for anything more than-"

"More than convenient fuck!? An easy lay!?" Anna shouted, finishing the sentence for him in much harsher words than he had intended. "At least I can relate to Angie in knowing how it feels to be treated like that!" Realization filled Duo's violet eyes. So that was the straw that broke her back, seeing someone else going through the same thing that she was.

Gripping the wheel, Trowa yelled, "Well, maybe you should have taken more consideration into this possibility before

His own violet eye narrowing, Duo turned to face the other pilots and shouted, "That's enough, both of you!"

Instantly, Zechs, Noin and Wufei's voices all cried out in protest and swearing at having the sudden outburst screaming in their ears. Wincing again, the braided pilot smiled sheepishly, "Sorry, guys. Forgot to turn my transmitter off." With that, he clicked the receiver off.

Running a hand through his long bangs, Duo sighed deeply. He truly hurt for both of his friends in this situation. Trowa always was like a brother to him, despite the rift that his time imprisoned had caused between them. Duo was the only person that the tall pilot had confided his past with, and so he understood Trowa's difficulty in committing.

On the other hand, while he did not know Anna for more than several months, she quickly had become a part of their family. She easily fit into a sister-like role for Duo. In hearing her heart-felt feelings for his friend, his heart ached for her position in this as well. He didn't want to see either of them upset like this.

"Look," the American frowned deeply as he eyed the young, confused couple. "I am not taking sides here, because neither of you have been very good at communicating with each other." Trowa swallowed hard and Anna lowered her head a bit.

They both cared for each other, Duo knew for certain now. If they didn't have sincere feelings for each other, they would have argued with him on that point. Instead, they had nothing to say in knowing that he was right.

A small, sad smile spread on the braided pilot's face. "Now I want you to know that I care for you both," Duo continued in a calm voice, "but you really need to talk this out between just yourselves, and preferably not when we're in the middle of a mission like this." He earned a small smirk from the other two Preventers for that, the tension in the air easing the slightest bit at last.

With a deep breath, Trowa turned his transmitter back on. "I'll take the southwest corner," he stated quietly while his teammates turned their own communicators back on.

Zechs nodded, "Southeast it is for me, then." He refrained from asking if everything was all right with the other pilots. It was quite a bit a dead air between them as they made their way up the hill. And Duo Maxwell did not yell at his friends without good reason. Silently, he hoped that the dust had settled for everyone to focus on their task.

The house was coming into view and the two cars came to a halt about thirty yards from the house, still well covered by the wooded area. As the cars were rumbled to a halt, the low beams of the headlights were turned off. Everyone sat in silence for a moment, waiting to hear that it was clear to move in further.

Opening his com to reach those Preventers' channels that were now in reach, Wufei began, "Agent Bolt, we are now in the area and facing the apartment's side facing the driveway. Where are the three of you stationed now?"

Silence lingered, the other end of the transmission fading in and out with static after a long pause. His dark eyes narrowing, Wufei tried again, "Agent Bolt, do you read me? Where are you stationed?"

Breaths were held in waiting for a response. There was none.

His voice growing in frustration, the Chinese pilot called quietly, "Agent Night? Agent Torrent?" Again, there was only a faint reading of static. "Fuck!" he hissed, moving to remove one of the revolvers from his holster.

As concerned as everyone was for the three Preventers who were not responding, they all took up their arms in grim determination. They were not alone. They were being hunted. And they had to get to that data card before their enemies did.

Quietly, Noin spoke, "Duo, we best get moving soon here."

"Right," the braided pilot replied with a firm nod. Squinting his violet eyes, he was just able to make out the dark shadow of someone on the first floor. "I think I still see someone inside the house."

Trowa reassured quietly, "We'll cover the both of you."

Zechs's voice took over, "Those four of us securing the area move out now."

No further exchange took place and the car door opened at the same time. Wufei, Trowa, Zechs and Anna ran though the wooded area, spreading out to reach their designated lookout posts. Being on the east side of the house, Wufei and Trowa reached their destinations first. When they were in place, both quietly announced that they were in place.

Having the most ground to cover, it took Zechs a bit of time to reach his place at the back of the house on the eastern side. "I'm in position," the long-haired pilot whispered into his transmitter. Eyeing his surroundings, he held his revolver out before him.

As she neared her destination, Anna's eyes narrowed when she thought she saw something moving in towards the house. With a startled gasp in seeing the movement again, only closer to the house's side entrance, her eyes narrowed and she sprinted out. Ignoring the sharp cuts that came from the twigs and branches that snagged on her, she pulled the safety from her revolver. Suddenly, she reached the edge of the woods, finding herself on the wide driveway that wrapped around the estate.

Frantically, Anna's widened eyes scanned where she could have sworn she saw someone running toward the house. A deep, bubbling chuckle came from back in the wooded area and a chill ran up the red-haired Preventer's spine. Even as she aimed her gun towards with both hands where she thought she heard the voice, the voice continued to laugh as it moved deeper into the wood. Slowly, Anna lowered her arms with grim realization in her eyes.

She just walked into a trap.

A flood of light suddenly engulfed the young pilot as an engine roared to life. Her blue eyes filled in shock as she turned into the source of the light, Anna didn't have time to cry out as a pickup truck's headlights neared her, tearing through where it was hidden between the trees.

In an instant, the world went black.


Part 28:

[I can't go on living this way]
-Lyrics to `Last Resort' performed by Pappa Roach

Something wasn't right.

The unsettling feeling came with a chill running up his spine. Anna should have announced that she was in place by now. Placing the small microphone on his shoulder towards his lips, Trowa spoke quietly, "Anna, are you in place yet?"

Only silence and the slight hint of static came over the com. His eyes widening in panic, the tall pilot tried again, the concern evident in his voice, "Anna?" The static on the other line was much more profound this time. Sweat beading on his brow, Trowa's emerald eyes slowly closed as he swallowed hard. There were a few quiet mutters of concern amongst the remainder of his escort team.

After another pause, Wufei inquired, "You still with us, Trowa?"

Trowa's head snapped up and he replied quietly, "Yea. I'm all right." His green eyes narrowed while his fists tightened around his pistol. His voice steady once more, he focused on the task at hand and stated, "Let's get this over with and get the hell out of here."

"Change in plans," Zechs's voice took over in firm, calm command. "Noin, Duo, get Angie into the basement of her residence until we make certain the area is clear. I don't want to risk having someone spotting you through the windows from out here. If you try to make a run for the cars with her before we know we have everyone, we can't cover you with this terrain. Keep her guarded there until we get back to you."

At that, Wufei announced, "I have the area in front of the apartment clear for now. "Best make a run for it before that changes. Once you're inside, I am going to move towards the location where Anna was heading to see if I can't find her. It's just a few yards off from where I am now."

Back at the cars, Noin nodded and replied, "Affirmative." Looking to the braided pilot beside her, she placed a hand on his shoulder. Despite their worry over their friend's disappearance, they had to carry out this mission. With a reassuring smile, she asked quietly, "Ready?"

Swallowing hard, Duo nodded firmly, "Yea."

With that, they sprinted past the cars and towards the large apartment's front door. The first to reach the residence, Noin was not surprised to find the door locked when she tried to use the doorknob first. Knocking loudly on the door, she called urgently, "Angie, this is Agent Fire. We need to get inside."

The sound of running footsteps approached on the other side and the two locks were quickly undone for the door to be pulled open. Angie's ashen, sweat-beaded face appeared to meet the Preventers' gazes as she sighed deeply, "Oh, thank God you're here."

Suddenly, the night was alive with the sound of shots ringing out just to the side of the house from the wooded surroundings-just out of Wufei's position. His violet eyes widening, the braided pilot shouted, "Get down!"

Quickly, Duo spun to throw himself over the two young women, forcing them into the house where they fell roughly to the floor. Just above his head, three bullets narrowly missed the braided pilot to embed themselves in the far wall behind them as he fell forward and inside.

With a deep growl, the American turned onto his back to kick out with his right foot, slamming the door closed after them. Scrambling onto her feet, Angie shrieked with wide, terror-filled eyes, "They're here!? They're coming to kill me!?"

Noin rose to take hold of the hysterical Preventer's shoulders. Giving her a rough shake, the short-haired pilot asked urgently, "Angie, where is your basement door? We have to get downstairs now."

"We have to crawl there," Duo was quick to add. "Whoever is out there will be able to see us in the windows."

The jolt from the shake of her shoulder was enough to help the frightened woman focus a bit and she nodded, "This way." She dropped to her hands and knees to lead the other agents following in suit across the living room towards the door at the far corner.

With the door closed behind them, Noin turned her com back on to announce, "We're in the basement. I am going to cut out connection for now until one come back to get us." Three affirmatives responded. Once the connection was cut, the short-haired Preventer moved to her braided partner still catching his breath from his perch on the bottom steps. "Nice save back there," she smiled sincerely.

Sighing deeply, Duo grinned sheepishly, "Just don't ask me where that came from. Old instincts die hard, I guess." Noin's smile grew a bit as she moved to squeeze the other pilot's shoulder. At the sight of a stunned Angie sitting atop a few boxes and staring forward. Taking a deep breath, she moved towards her in attempt to keep from having the young woman go into shock.

Back outside, Wufei cursed deeply to himself as he ran in the direction where the first shots had rung out. When he reached the side of the house, the Chinese pilots' pistol was already trained before his outstretched arms. His dark eyes narrowed, he removed his right hand from the gun to lower his night vision glasses to gaze over his surroundings with ease.

At the sight of a brush hedge moving a couple feet to his left, Wufei turned towards it in a sharp snap, firing two rounds. Something fell roughly to the ground behind the long stretch of shrubs, a deep groan following it on its way down. With light, quick steps that made little sound, the Chinese pilot ran towards the brush, keeping his weapon aimed where the body fell.

Gritting his teeth, Wufei held his gun to the back of the dark clad man lying on his stomach after kicking his weapon away from reach. Through his night vision glasses, he could see a dark puddle of blood growing from beneath the bulled holes in the fallen assailant's chest cavity.

"How many of there are you," he growled deeply, moving one hand to remove some of the equipment at the man's belt. His only answer was a deep chuckle that burbled with the blood that must have been filling the lungs. "I asked you how many," the Chinese hissed as he snapped his revolver's spring lock to snap the next pulled into place. Just then, he noticed slight movement from the assassin's body, where his right arm was crushed beneath him.

His dark eyes widening in realization, Wufei removed his glasses as he quickly ran ahead, narrowly escaping the large explosion from the grenade that that had been intended to take the two of them out in the assassin's last resort.

Within the flash of blinding light caused by the explosion, Wufei spotted two heads that until that moment had been hidden from him. While that flash would have near blinded him had he kept his glasses on, it revealed the location of another assailant that was now wide-eyes and caught off guard.

Running towards the stunned man that was now moving to quickly aim his weapon, the Chinese pilot fired four times at them. Two first two bullets pierced assassin in the head, while the remaining two pummeled his chest. The tall man fell dead before he could get a shot off.

His breath pulling in heavy pants and replacing his night vision glasses, Wufei searched the body. Finding their two-way transmitter, he looked to the number of channels and compared it to the transmitter to the first man he had killed. Both two-ways were opened up to accept nine possible communication links.

Hastily reaching for the small microphone on his shoulder, the Chinese pilot informed quietly, "We're dealing with ten of them total. I just took out two."

"Copy that," Trowa replied flatly. "Status?"

With a deep sigh as he replaced his clip of bullets, Wufei answered, "Clear. I am going to back track to finally try and reach where Anna should have positioned…" His voice trailed of when he turned to head back as he advised. Slowly, he approached a form that seemed out of place with the wooded surroundings, even through his aided vision.

In finding the prone, half-naked body that was nearly covered up by the forest brushes, the Chinese Preventer frowned deeply, his eyes scanning the grotesquely sliced neck. Carefully, he removed the long strands of hair to revel the wide, still eyes of the victim. Bringing the microphone Close to his mouth, Wufei spoke gravely, "I just found Agent Night."

With a deep sigh, Zechs lowered his head from where he found another body, also half naked and riddled with bullets where it had been tied tightly to one of the countless trees. "I located Agent Torrent," he proclaimed with a deep frown. His eyes narrowing, the tall Preventer suggested, "If we send our flares up at the same time, we'll be able to light the area for several yards, even if it's only for a few seconds."

Trowa reached for his flare gun while removing his glasses with his free hand nodding, "Good idea. Just give the count." Wufei gave his own affirmative that he was ready as well.

"On one," Zechs stated, his hand already on his flare gun's trigger as he aimed it upward. "Five. Four. Three. Two. One." Three flare soared up towards the tree tops, exploding before they could reach the highest branches and raining down the fire aftermath like rain.

In the glowing light, Trowa turned to the sound of branches snapping and leaves splashing together in a frantic attempt to escape. His green eyes narrowed, the tall pilot turned in the direction of the mad run, firing his weapon when the cover of the trees and bushes were not enough for the two dark-clad figures.

Shots were fired back, one bullet grazing Trowa's right shoulder with no effect in slowing him. Quickly climbing onto a low branch, the brunette Preventer sniped out the retreating forms below his perch and just a few feet ahead.

When the two bodies fell lifelessly, Trowa panted over his transmitter, "Two more down." Zechs gave an affirmative grunt just as the light faded. His lack of further response hinted that he was on his own trail of more assailants. The last of the flares' embers died out and darkness suffocated the area again.

In the pitch, several yards off, another firefight broke out form Zechs's station. For every shot that rang out from one direction, two replied from the other. Quickly replacing his night vision glasses, Trowa sprinted in the direction of the gunfire when something caught his leg, sending him to the ground at his loss of footing. Landing with a muted cry of pain, the tall pilot looked to his right, to what caught his foot. Two wide eyes met his.

With a startled cry, Trowa crawled backwards on his hands and feet, pulling back from the bloodied face. Panting heavily, he looked to the broken form to find that one of its legs and arms missing. As he forced a deep breath, he tried to gather his wits. The shots finally ended in the distance and Zechs's voice advised, "I just took out three."

"Good," Trowa croaked as he swallowed hard, his sense regained. Slowly climbing back to his feet, his eyes still gazing to the dismembered body. He frowned deeply, "Part of Agent Bolt's body is over here."

The other two Preventers cursed sharply over his transmitter. While the situation looked grim for the three agents when they seemingly vanished, there was a looming hope that they would be alright. For a moment, silence just hung in the air as the grave reality of what had become of their fallen comrades took hold.

Once again focusing the younger pilots, Zechs's voice steered them, "We still have three more to worry about. Let's just take care of them and get out of here."

Trowa finally turned away from the gruesome remains and spoke quietly, "Right." Gripping his revolver in tight fists, Trowa scanned his surroundings through his glasses. Desperately, he tried not to imagine what had come of Anna… tried not to think that she shared the fate as the three Preventers they had found broken and mutilated.

The still, eerie calm of the night was suddenly destroyed with a fiery explosion from back at the house. Zechs, Wufei and Trowa all turned in wide-eyed horror as a thick wave of fire washed up on the sidewalk towards the residence. "Fuck!" the Chinese pilot shouted. "They have order-less gas all around the apartment!"

Forcing Noin's channel to open, Zechs yelled, "Noin, Duo, get out of there now! There's a wall of flame heading for the apartment!"

At the cry, both Duo and Noin shot to their feet. Alarmed at their stunned faces, Angie rose to her feet, frowning in concern, "What's wrong?" Upstairs, the sound of crashing glass filled the air. With a shriek, she secured the data card in her pants pocket.

"I just saw two of them jump in through the windows!" Trowa's voice yelled.

His violet eyes widening, Duo panted heavily while trying to calm his trembling hands in handling his pistol. Noin's own gaze narrowed as she hissed, "So this is how they planned on ending it." Grabbing Angie's arm, she shouted to her, "Stay with us!" The dark-haired Preventer bit her lip and nodded.

Smoke began to creep from beneath the door as footsteps thumping overhead searched the apartment. Duo followed Noin closely with Angie right behind. Holding her breath before reaching the smoke as not to alert the intruders, Noin turned to her braided partner with a nod to see that he was ready.

With a deep breath of his own, Duo forced himself to nod firmly, his hands still trembling as they fought to grip his pistol. Noin knocked the basement door down with a firm kick to its hinges and ran into the smoky, fiery scene. Covering her nose and mouth with her shirt, she held her gun forward, spinning as she moved through the living room. Duo followed her movements after covering his own mouth and nose.

Just outside, Wufei was the closest to the apartment as he ran into the scene. No sooner had feet touched the curb than the headlights of a utility truck fell upon him with the loud roar of an engine. His dark eyes wide, the Chinese pilot jumped back into the wooded area-narrowly missing the vehicle that sped past while losing several long metal pipes that it was carrying. The driver's door opened with the firing of three shots.

In his attempt to avoid the bullets, the raven-haired Preventer was merely nicked in his left arm and shoulder. The third shot, however, hit its mark. Crying our as a bullet tore into his right shoulder, Wufei lost hold of his weapon and transmitter as he stumbled to the ground in a wave of shearing pain.

As he struggled to crawl on the ground for his weapon, Wufei panted heavily in his frantic effort. The dark-clad man from the truck chuckled darkly as he stalked towards him. At the sound of the next bullet locking into place, the Chinese pilot froze- his left hand stretching for the revolver that was a couple inches too far for him to reach in time.

Slowly, Wufei looked up to the young man's thin face, his green eyes shimmering in the light of the flames to his back as they began to eat away at the apartment walls. Aiming his pistol for the injured pilot's head, he smirked darkly, "And then there were two."

His dark eyes closing tightly, Wufei prepared for the shot to ring out.

Just as the finger began to pull back on the trigger, the man stopped with wide eyes at the sound of a sudden, prolonged scream that burst from the trees to his left. Wufei opened his eyes just in time to watch as Anna, running up with a long, steel pipe that had rolled from the back of the truck.

Taking the pipe in both hands, the red-headed Preventer gave a sharp cry as she raised the weapon over her head. With a forceful swing, the pipe fell on the stunned man's arms, the loud snapping of bones filling the air.

With a scream of pain, the man lost his pistol. Quickly pulling the long rod around, Anna cried out with another forceful swing to the back of the assailant's legs. As the tall man fell to his knees, the injured Preventer stumbled a bit to handle the pipe as a bat.

Her eye narrowed and with another loud scream, she swung the steel weapon around to strike the back of the man's skull with a sickening crack as the tall man fell forward with blood oozing from the back of his head.

From the force of the blow she delivered, Anna collapsed in a heap as the adrenaline that drove her through her pain faded. Her blue eyes narrowed on the corpse of the assassin, she mumbled with a cut, swollen bottom lip, "Ain't so tough without your fucking truck, are you?" With a moan of pain, her eyes closed tightly as she her arm draped over her abdomen.

His eyes wide, Wufei scrambled to his feet as he cried, "Anna!" Nursing his injured shoulder, he reached his friend's side to examine her many cuts and bruises that shown through her tattered uniform. Gently, he ran a hand through her long bangs, taking a deep breath when the young woman's eyes opened to meet his concerned gaze.

Despite her cut and bleeding lip, Anna managed to smirk enough to ground out the words, "Words cannot express how pissed off I am right now." With a deep sigh, the dark-haired pilot chuckled deeply in relief.

The two pilots flinched at another explosion from the apartment. The top floor of the residence was quickly catching aflame when they looked up. Wincing in pain, Anna's eyes squeezed closed as she clutched her sides again. Her skin paling more than it already was in the light of the fire, Anna whispered, "What the hell have I been missing?"

Within the house, Noin and Duo quickly moved through the wide, smoke filled living room with their weapons held out before them. Shots suddenly rang out behind them, causing Angie to scream through the shirt covering her nose and mouth as she ducked to the floor. Spinning quickly with wide eyes the two Preventers desperately tried to search through the occasional flashes of flames and plumes of dark smoke.

Narrowing her eyes, Noin forced her ears to focus on the sound of running footsteps. Following the sound with her revolver, she waited five hastened, nearly inaudible steps and first three rounds. A strangled cry of a woman came from the darkness followed by a thud. Panting heavily, Noin smiled to herself, only to freeze with wide eyes when she something press against the back of her head.

"Drop it," a deep voice growled deeply in her ear. Raising her arms, Noin opened her right hand. The revolver slipped from her slackened grasp to bounce on the carpeted floor.

Only a foot away, his back to the scene, Duo picked up on the quiet order given Noin, the soft thud of the gun when it hit the ground. "You," the man called to the braided Preventer. "Drop your gun before I blow your partner's brains over the walls." With a whimper, Angie covered her head as she remained low to the ground.

Desperately trying to calm his heavy breathing, Duo felt his hands beginning to tremble as the smoke and fire continued to close in. The blood rushing in his ear to join every rough beat of his heart, the braided pilot knew that he only had one choice to see that he and the others made it out. Gritting his teeth and forcing his hands to steady in tight fists around his revolver, his violet eyes narrowed and he straightened his back.

There would not be anymore hiding. No more running.

Watching in silent shock Duo had not lowered his weapon yet, Noin moved quickly. Spinning in the arm of the man holding her, the tall young woman elbowed him in his firm chest with a sharp yell. Crying out at the sudden hit, the man stumbled backwards a couple paces. In her sudden freedom, Noin fell to cover Angie with her own body for protection should the assailant get his bearings.

The sound of the struggle alerted the braided pilot and snapped around, his gun aimed high as he fired four shots, all hitting their mark. With wide eyes, the bullet-ridden man fell back, blood coursing down the sides of his face before he collapsed into a burning wall.

As he held an arm up to shield his eyes, Duo couched roughly as he quickly ran towards the front door to kick from its burning hinges. Removing the top of his shirt from his mouth, he turned and yelled back to the other Preventers, "Come on!" Noin took hold of Angie's shoulders and forced her to her feet as she ran outside with her with Duo right behind to see them out safely.

By the time Noin and Duo reached the safe outdoors with their charge, Trowa and Zechs were just running into the scene. The relief evident in the blonde pilot's eyes, he ran up to his wife to hold her at arm's length. Panting heavily, Noin shook her head with a smirk, "I'm fine, Zechs."

Everyone's eyes widened like saucers along when they saw two figures stumbling into the scene as they leaned against each other. "Anna!" Trowa cried, running to the pair.

At the sight of his lover's injuries when he approached, the tall pilot instantly focused on the next step. When he gently cradled the young woman into his arms, Anna was almost unconscious as she moaned deeply, her eyes heavy and finally closing.

"We can't wait to get her back to the safe house," Wufei frowned deeply. "I'm going to call Sally to meet us at a hospital on the way there." Gesturing to the deep, bleeping gash on his tall friend's right shoulder, he suggested, "We best get our own injuries checked out and cleaned, as well. No sense risking infection while we take the long way back."

Angie ran up at that time after overhearing the conversation. "I know where the nearest hospital in the area," she stated, grateful for something to take her attention from her ordeal… thankful to be able to help do something. "I can show the way."

* * * * * *

When the phone rang, Sally was the first to reach it before the others. With anxious faces, Lady Une, Heero, Relena and Quatre watched and listed intently as the braided woman greeted, "Hello?"

Swallowing hard, the Japanese pilot tried not to dwell on the look of concern on Sally's face that she quickly masked during the long pause. With a farm nod, she replied, "I'll be right there." Lowering the receiver, the blonde agent looked to her Commander and announced, "That was Wufei. Angie is safe and the card is in tact. They're headed to the Saint John's hospital to check out some injuries."

"H-hospital?" Heero stammered, his cobalt eyes wide. Relena and Quatre quickly rose to their feet with concerned faces.

Sally turned to meet the ex-Wing pilot's eyes and reassured him, "Duo is fine. However, Anna, Wufei and Trowa have injuries that need to be examined that cannot wait until they get back here. They're all staying together as a group." Heading for her shoes, the braided woman continued, "I am heading over to the hospital now to oversee things."

Quickly taking up her cell phone, Lady Une commented, "We'll take my car. I'll inform the police force that we more need more back roads to be secured and blocked. Angie knows the area better than we do, so I can call her to get the names of those roads."

With a deep sigh, Heero washed his face with his hands. His great relief was soon replaced with his worry for his other friends. Turning just as Sally were headed for the door, he called, "I'm going with you." In a chorus, Relena and Quatre expressed their interest to go alone. Knowing better, the young women did not protest but signaled for them to hurry. Soon, they were all out the door.

* * * * * *

Pacing anxiously in his room, Kent growled deeply to himself, "They should have gotten back to me by now." At the sound of his vid phone ringing, the young man's eyes widened. Opening the screen quickly, he forced himself not to gasp in shock at the image that greeted him. with a smile, he greeted, "Hello, Mister President."

The white-haired man's eyes narrowed, "You're hiding something from me, Kent. You seemed quite worried about something the last time we spoke before my speech. And I had a file that you should have sent me from your data entries before I returned." In seeing the sweat beading on the young man's brow, he growled deeply, "Where is your card, Kent?"

Kent shouted, pleading, "I can explain, sir! It was an honest mistake! I just sent a team to recover the data card earlier this evening."

"And have they gotten back to you yet?" the President asked with a raised eyebrow. All Kent could do was swallow hard, unable to find his voice. Sighing deeply, the older man frowned, "I am sorry, Kent, but our relations have been compromised."

The connection was cut just as Kent leaned forward, screaming, "No!" The sound of three detonators that had been hidden in his secluded office beeping to life filled his ears. Closing his eyes, the young man reminded himself how he always admired the President's ability to cover every one of his tracks.

In an implosion of flame and a deafening crash, another one of those tracks was erased.


Part 29:

[It's you and me
and all of the people with nothing to do…Nothing to prove
And it's you and me and all of the people
And I don't know why I can't keep my eyes off of you]
-Lyrics to `Wild As the Wind' performed by Garth Brooks

The bleeding finally stopped.

With a quiet sigh of relief the last remains of Duo's fleece that had been torn into long pieces for swabbing over the long gash over the pale right shoulder. "You're lucky that it does not need stitching," he commented with a low growl that was intended for their captors. His braided friend, his only true friend that he came to admit to having, returned from his last `interrogation' in sad shape.

Lying on his back with his eyes closed, Duo managed a small smile, "I've been through a hell of a lot worse than this, Ro. No need to go all protective on me, now." Heero gave a small grunt, rolling his cobalt eyes. Slowly, the ex-Wing pilot lowered himself onto his own back beside his friend to gaze up at the ceiling of their small cell.

Carefully, with his good left arm, Duo reached over to squeeze his partner's shoulder with a quiet, "Thanks for helping me out, man."

A small smile tugged at Heero's lips as he replied, "What are friends for?" It only seemed fitting to use the same comment that the American had used to solidify their camaraderie. His partner chuckled deeply in clear appreciation of the sentiment.

In a long, companionable silence, the Japanese Preventer folded his hands together over his abdomen. "What was life on the streets like?" he heard himself asking aloud before he realized he was actually voicing aloud a question that had been on his mind for as long as he had known of the braided pilot's history.

How Duo had managed to survive on the streets of L2 was never brought up in his partner's retelling of his young years. In coming to terms with the fact that he now had a best friend, Heero found that we wanted to know as much about him as possible. It was still a wonder to him how a young child could fend for himself on his own in as rough a place as L2.

Turning his head, Heero found wide violet eyes watching him. To his dread, he realized that he really had asked that question aloud. His owned eyes widening, the ex-Wing pilot stated softly, sincerely "I'm sorry. I know that was a personal question. You don't have to answer that."

With a grunt, Duo slowly propped himself up a bit to face the other pilot better. Their eyes meeting once more, he smiled sadly, "It's alright. I don't get that much of a chance to come to grips with my past by talking about it. Trowa's the only person that I felt comfortable enough sharing my experiences with."

In hearing that Trowa had come to know such a private, personal thing about his best friend before he had, Heero felt a sharp stab of… was it jealousy? He supposed that it was. All this time, he thought that he would somehow be the first person that Duo would open up to on such a level in discussing his past.

As if reading his thoughts, Duo gave a sheepish grin and shrugged, "The two of us were just talking one night, during the war. He needed to vent about some things he had been through and I ended up doing the same."

"Ah," Heero responded quickly with a firm nod of understanding, trying not to let on to his embarrassment in being caught in his resentment. Sitting himself up, he turned to lean his back against the wall closest to him, watching his friend.

Wincing, Duo lowered himself down onto his back again. "I honestly don't remember much of how I survived before I met Solo," he began, his violet eyes focused on the ceiling. Heero nodded to himself at the mention of his partner's childhood friend-his brother.

As he closed his eyes, lost in his memories, the braided pilot continued, "One of the only things I remembered was finding a dry room in the sewer that I made my home. When I was hungry, I stole what I could to keep from starving. In a lot of ways, it was a lot easier fending for myself before I met up with my little `family.'"

Heero tilted his head a bit and frowned in concern, "How so?"

With a deep sigh, Duo opened his eyes again and replied quietly, "There were more mouths to feed. There were times when stealing just wasn't enough to take care of everyone." He swallowed hard before whispering, "Solo, myself and two others who were the oldest decided to resort to other means of getting what we needed."

A bitter snort broke through the air and the American stated, "So, the answer to your true question is yes, I turned tricks when I was a kid. With taking turns with the others, those times were few and far between with the money we made, but it happened on a few occasions for me."

Slowly, his braided head turned and in that movement before their gazes met, Heero could see a bright, dampened shimmer in his violet eyes. "But I wasn't about to have the smaller ones have to endure what the rest of us had to," he breathed. Clearing his constricting throat, he spoke brokenly, "No one that young should have to endure that."

Much to his surprise, the ex-Wing pilot could feel small tears filling his eyes. "You endured it," he breathed in a bitter tone. His hand shook as he reached up to dry his eyes.

In the dim light, he could see a small smile tug at Duo's lips as he answered in little more than a breath himself, "I had a family to take care of. It was a duty that I willingly took up to protect them. And any one of those kids would have done the same for me if I needed their help at any given point. It was just how we functioned."

Biting his lip, the braided pilot frowned deeply, "The hardest part of the whole thing was that for those kids, our efforts only spared them a short time in the end when the plague came and wiped them out." Clearing this throat against the lump that had sprung anew in his throat, Heero had to turn his head away.

Life was cruel indeed.

As he wiped a stray tear from his cheek, Duo looked back up to the ceiling and laughed quietly, "And you want to hear the craziest part of it all? If I had to do it all over again, I would have done the same thing again for any one of them." From the corner of his eyes, he watched as his partner just nodded to himself again, as if not at all surprised by the last statement.

Despite the pain, the braided Preventer sat up to face his best friend. "Do you think less of me now?" he asked in a soft, pleading voice.

Quickly Heero turned his widened cobalt eyes to meet his partner's gaze. Shaking his head, he whispered earnestly, "No. Of course not." Duo bit his lip with a small nod of appreciation before he looked back up to the ceiling again.

After a long silence between them, the Japanese pilot reached over to squeeze his friend's good shoulder. Taking a deep breath when their eyes met once more, Heero said softly, "I-I don't know if I would have had that kind of courage... that kind of strength. I have nothing but respect for you, Duo."

A small whimper escaped Duo's throat as he smiled, "Coming from you, that means a lot, Heero." He reached up to squeeze the hand on his bare shoulder with a small nod as he whispered, "Thank you."

Returning the small smile, Heero removed his hand and lowered himself onto his back next to his partner. As they both looked to the ceiling, their companionable silence returned. For the remainder of that night, until they drifted off to sleep soon after, no further words were needed at that moment.

(End Flashback)

* * * * *

In the waiting room of Saint James's Hospital, Noin sat beside Angie with an arm wrapped around her blanket-covered shoulder. After her ordeal and learning that three of her friends had been killed in their protecting the area around her apartment, the dark-haired Preventer nearly went into shock upon their arrival at the medical center.

Sitting across the room from the two young women, Zechs had his eyes closed and arms folded across his chest. Every so often, he would glance up to look at his wife, as if making sure that she was alright even though she was only a few feet away.

At the far end of the large room, by the windows, Wufei and Duo sat at either corner. The Chinese pilot's right shoulder was wrapped. Much to his luck, the bullet had gone straight through and only a few stitches were needed to close the wound. All things considered with their mission, they were all pretty lucky.

Biting his lip, Duo tried to still his trembling hands. Now that the adrenaline was slowly ebbing, the events of that evening came rushing back and the reality of how close they had come to a much graver end was setting in.

As he rose from his seat, the braided pilot announced, "I'm going to check on Trowa." Wufei gave a nod of acknowledgement before looking back out to the road for a sign of their others approaching.

Slowly approaching Noin, Duo gestured to the stiff, wide-eyed young woman beside her. "How is she?" he asked quietly. Angie just continued to stare ahead, her eyes unfocused as a small whimper escaped her throat. Tears sprang back up to roll down her face.

With a sad smile, the short-haired Agent Fire rubbed Angie's arm and answered softly, "She'll be alright. She's had a lot to have to take in for one night." With a saddened frown, Duo nodded and squeezed the silent young woman's shoulder in support before stepping out.

Before he could leave the room, Duo heard Zechs's voice call him quietly, "Maxwell." When he turned his head back, he was surprised to find that the tall man's intense gaze on him.

Rising to his feet, the blonde pilot gestured with his head for the American to follow him out into the hallway. His violet eyes widened, Duo followed obediently as he swallowed hard. Despite the fact that Zechs had made it clear that their differences during the Eve Wars were no longer existent, he surely was an intimidating presence.

When they stepped out into the empty hallway and out of earshot of those in the waiting room, the taller pilot turned to face his American comrade. A nervous smile tugging at his lips, Duo asked, "What's up, Zechs?"

Instead of answering right away, the blond-haired man took a deep breath. His eyes locked on the smaller pilot, Zechs finally replied quietly, "I wanted to personally thank you for protecting my wife back there. Noin told me what had happened in the apartment before you got out. I am in your debt for that."

Duo blinked his wide, shock-filled eyes and shrugged with a wide grin, "Aw, I'm sure she made it sound like a much bigger deal than it was. Besides, she would have done the same for me if I was in her place."

"There is no point in trying to brush what happened off as nothing," Zechs stated in a tone that bore no room for argument. Lowering his head, he frowned deeply, "I am sorry to admit that at first, I had my doubts in having you along on this mission. I thought that it was too soon."

Slowly, the tall pilot's head rose to meet the eyes of the braided pilot and concluded, "You proved me wrong. You're one of the strongest people I've ever come to know."

Looking away for a moment, the American cleared his throat, his hands beginning to shake again. When he looked back up, his violet eyes were shimmering as he asked brokenly, "Even if I'm starting to come apart now?"

A small, sad smile pulled the right side of Zechs's mouth up. Placing a hand on the smaller pilot's shoulder, he answered quietly, "Even now." With a gentle squeeze on his friend's shoulder, he commented, "Even the best of soldiers need time to cope with life at some point."

Duo cleared his throat and forced the few threatening tears back to smile sincerely, "Thanks, Zechs." Returning the grin, the blonde pilot extended his hand to exchange a firm handshake. As he walked past the braided teenager, Zechs gave him a friendly slap on the back before disappearing into the waiting room.

Having to take a deep breath, Duo ran a hand through his long bangs. With his resolve somewhat together again, he moved down the hallway. Around the corner at the end, he found his Latin friend alone in one of the smaller visitor room, slouched forward in his seat with his face in his hands.

With a gentle knock on the doorway, Duo greeted quietly, "Hey." Nearly jumping at the sound, Trowa's hands fell away for him to peer up with wide, shimmering eyes. At the sight of his friend in such a state, the braided pilot frowned and offered, "You want some more time alone?"

Quickly looking away to wipe at the intrusive drops, Trowa cleared his throat and replied just as quietly, "No, Duo, you can come in. I suppose I could use some company right about now" Biting his lip, the American took the seat beside his friend and the tension in the other pilot's shoulders eased a bit.

After a long silence between the two of them, the Latin Preventer raised his head to stare ahead as he began quietly, "I'm sorry that you had to witness that fight between Anna and myself earlier tonight. That should have just been between the two of us."

With a small smile, Duo shrugged, "You don't have to apologize, Tro. Besides, I've witnessed worse arguments between the five of us during the war over stupid things compared to that." Laughter filled his voice as he asked, "Remember the time Quat ruined Wufei's meditation rug when he washed it?" Trowa made little more than a small chuckle his friend's attempt to lighten the mood hanging in the air.

Silence loomed for another stretch of time before the braided pilot rubbed the back of his neck nervously. Quietly, he announced, "I have a confession to make." The other pilot straightened to turn his head, focusing his emerald eyes on the American in quiet anticipation.

Duo swallowed hard, lowering his gaze and stated, "I had overheard a conversation between Anna and Relena a few days back. It wasn't anything that I meant to listen in on, but I managed to hear some of the discussion." He fidgeted with the end of his braid and commented, "I just assumed that the two of you were dating all this time."

With a deep sigh, Trowa rose from his seat and walked towards the large window at the other end of the room. "We weren't supposed to get this close," he replied quietly at last. "You're the only person who knows why it's so hard for me to get close to anyone, because you understand my past more than anyone else."

The braided pilot frowned sadly, "So you never explained why to Anna, then?" The back of his friend's head shook in a silent answer. Sinking into his chair, Duo washed his face with his hands, sighing softly. When he lowered his hands, he frowned deeply, "There are things about our pasts that have a common ground, Trowa. Before Heero, you were the only person who knew about my life on L2."

Trowa turned to face him with wide, shocked emerald eyes as he gasped, "You told him!" A small smile tugged at Duo's lips and he nodded. Swallowing hard, Trowa's head lowered so that he could stare at his feet. "And he… he didn't reject you?"

"No," the braided pilot replied, shaking his head. "If Anna cares anything for you, Trowa, she wouldn't reject you for what happened to you. But if you don't trust her enough to tell her about your fears, then you're just stringing her along for the wrong reasons and she needs to know that." With a concerned frown, he asked, "Do you care about her?"

Without hesitating, Trowa nodded, "Yes." Sighing deeply, he ran a hand over his hair and admitted quietly, "I never intended to fall in love with Anna, but I did and it scares the living shit out of me. I didn't even realize how I felt about her until tonight when-" his voice cracked as his throat constricted.

Tears shimmered in the tall pilot's eyes as he looked up again. "I thought I lost her," he breathed. Gritting his teeth, he growled, "And it took this for me to realize it."

Slowly, Duo rose from his chair and closed the space between them. He gently rested his hands on his comrade's shoulders, causing their eyes to meet and said quietly, "Well, she'll never know unless you tell her."

"He already had."

Both Trowa and Duo spun quickly to the voice that came from the doorway. Pushing herself from the doorpost that she leaned against for support, Anna approached with tears in her eyes. With every step of her left leg, the metal brace that stretched from foot to hip clicked as it flexed with her movement. While she was able to get along on her own, the slowness of her steps gave light to the pain that she was trying to cover.

His eyes widening, Trowa whispered, "Anna." Quickly, he walked up to her to embrace her tightly. As the two lovers reunited, Duo smiled to himself and silently slipped from the room with a last glance over his shoulder to his friends.

Pulling back, the Latin pilot began quietly, "Anna, I'm so sorry. I never meant-" His words were cut off when she placed a finger on her lips.

"It's alright," she mumbled past her swollen lip, smiling as best she could with it. "I caught a lot of what you had to say before I reached the room." Clearing her throat as she fought more tears from stinging her eyes, she frowned, "I'm sorry for that fight earlier."

Trowa shook his head and responded sincerely, "I deserved it." Gently running a hand through her long, red hair, he said softly, "I haven't been fair to you." Sighing deeply, he closed his eyes and whispered, "I want to be able to tell you everything."

With an attempt to smile again, Anna cupped his cheek and replied quietly, "When you're ready. I can wait. And I promise that I won't go anywhere when that happens."

Small tears of relief filled Trowa's green eyes and he breathed, "I love you." It was the first time that he ever said the words to her. And in saying them, a huge weight had lifted from him.

Anna grinned lopsidedly, "'Bout time you said that, you jerk." The tall pilot just laughed and wiped at his eyes before ever so gently kissing her swollen mouth.

Their exchange was interrupted when a tall man in a while medical coat ran into the doorway. In his right hand was a file of papers and in his other was a two-way radio. His dark eyes narrowing on the young woman, he panted, "There you are."

With a sheepish grin, the red-haired pilot winced, "Uh, hi, Doctor Roberts. I take it you're finished with the diagnosis." Behind her, Trowa tried to contain his laughter. It was just like Anna to get tired of sitting around when she knew she was fine.

Sighing deeply, the young doctor eased his shoulder as he stepped in with a roll of his eyes. "After I call of the search party that I sent out to look for you," he glared, "would you be good enough to return to your room so I can give you the results of your tests. You're extremely lucky to not have suffered any internal bleeding from your injuries, but I would advise against pushing it right now."

At the last statement, Trowa frown deeply in concern while the reality of how close he came to losing his lover washed over him. Unconsciously, his arm wrapped around the young woman's waist in a protective embrace.

Her shoulders sagging, Anna sighed deeply with a swollen-lipped pout to the doctor, "Alright." As she headed for the door to follow the doctor out of the waiting room, Trowa too hold of her hand and held to it tightly.

When the doctor turned to meet his gaze, Trowa asked, "Would it be all right if I come along to listen in?" Smirking to his partner, "I'll get her to stay in place even if I have to chain her down to the bed." A small, sharp laugh bubbled from Anna's throat and she covered her mouth to prevent the urge to make a smart remark back.

Appraising the young pair, the doctor relented with a deep chuckle, "Very well. Lord knows I'll only have my hands full with her if I don't have some help along. You may come along, then." The tall man turned on his heels as the two pilots shared a private smile before following him out of the small waiting room.

* * * * * *

At the sound of footsteps approaching the room, Noin raised her head just as Lady Une, Heero, Quatre, Relena and Sally entered. A warm smile spread on her lips as she nodded firmly to their concerned faces. Sighing deeply in relief, the young Commander walked towards Agent Fire's charge.

Slowly, Angie raised her head and her eyes widened. "Commander," she whispered brokenly as the first word she had spoken since their arrival at the hospital. Rising from her seat, she stifled a sob as she threw her arms around the tall woman.

"Thank God you're alright, Angie," Lade Une sighed deeply as she gently rubbed the young woman's back in support. Holding her back at arm's length, she brushed the long, dark bangs from Angie's eyes with a smile of relief.

Wufei smiled warmly as Sally approached with a smile of relief of her own. Briefly exchanging a tender kiss and embrace, with her fiancé, the braided Preventer announced, "I'm going to meet with the staff here to get all of the reports they accumulated during this visit." At that, she and the Chinese pilot quickly stepped from the room.

Scanning the room frantically, Heero asked, "Where's Duo?"

Gesturing with a nod of his head to the door as he rose to his feet, Zechs answered, "He stepped out to stretch his legs just a few minutes ago. He shouldn't be too far."

Just as Heero turned to leave, the tall pilot took hold of his elbow to stop him. Discretely, Zechs whispered to the Japanese Preventer's ear, "You best get to him soon. He won't be able to hold himself together much longer." With a firm nod and quiet word of appreciation, Heero quickly stepped from the room.

All but running down the long hallway stretch and turning the corner, it did not take long for Heero to catch the swinging braid that followed his partner's retreating back. His cobalt eyes widening, he called, "Duo!" In hearing his name, the American froze and turned quickly with wide violet eyes.

Closing the distance between them in only a few sprinted strides, Heero pulled his partner into a fierce embrace. Wrapping his own arms tightly around his best friend, Duo allowed his resolve to fell apart at the seams at last. Burying his face in the ex-Wing pilot's shoulder, he sobbed and trembled almost violently.

Safe. Warm. Two things that Duo feared he might never feel while he was held captive for two years. They were only two of the things that he always felt when he was in his best friend's strong arms as he was now.

"Shh," Heero whispered between his raining kisses over his partner's braided head. "It's alright," he continued to soothe as he closed his own eyes. "You're safe now. I've got you."

Around them, nurses and other staff members stepped out into the hallway to stare at the scene with wide eyes. Not one of those individuals was minded by the two pilots as they clung to each other. "God, I've been so worried about you," Heero whispered brokenly as he fought his own tears.

The events of that evening came back in a flood of sights, sounds, smells, feelings that threatened to drown Duo in that moment. His eyes suddenly felt like lead weights as the last of the adrenaline that kept him on his feet dissolved. Leaning heavily against the other Preventer, he mumbled, "So tired, Ro,"

With a small smile, the Japanese pilot replied quietly, "Then sleep, love. I'll be with you when you wake up." Kissing the top of his frail partner's head again as he scooped him up into his arms Heero whispered, "I'll keep the nightmares away."

In hearing those words, Duo sighed as he allowed the pull of sleep to claim him in a deep, dreamless sleep at long last. It was the end of a very long day.


Part 30:

[Every time you hear the rolling thunder
You turn around before the lightning strikes
And doest it ever make you stop and wonder
If all your good times passed you by?]
-Lyrics from `Good Is Good' Performed by Cheryl Crow

At the early rays of light peeking through the cracks at the edge of the drawn shade, Duo's nose wrinkled as he stirred from his deep slumber. The heaviness of his eyelids at his first attempt to open them tempted him to just fall back into the great oblivion of sleep once more. He was just tired. He ached all over.

With a deep sigh, Duo buried the side of his face closer into the familiar firm chest beneath him. In suddenly finding that his head was not on a soft pillow, the sensation of the strong arms wrapped around him registered.

That was when the events of the previous night came rushing back in an overwhelming flash of memories. Duo's last conscious thought was seeing Heero just as he could feel his resolve crashing around him. Vaguely, he remembered falling into his partner's strong arms before sweet slumber took him at last.


Finding the motivation to face the world in knowing where he was, the braided pilot's violet eyes blinked open as he looked up. The warm, relieved smile that greeted him left him breathless. Without a word, Heero leaned down to press their lips together. Returning the gentle kiss, Duo moaned quietly as his eyes drifted back closed.

When he pulled back, the ex-Wing pilot's eyes slid open as he smiled and whispered, "Good morning." Humming softly, Duo mumbled the same as he smuggled closer in his embrace with a content smile on his own face.

After a lingering, companionable silence, Heero gently ran a hand over the other pilot's braided head. Opening his eye into a thin slit, the American peered up to find his partner watching him. Finally opening his eyes fully, he sat up and asked, "How long have you been awake watching me sleep?"

The small smile on the Japanese Preventer's face grew a bit as he shrugged, "I haven't really kept track." Reaching up, he brushed the back of his fingers along his love's cheek. "Zechs and Noin told me how you handled yourself last night," he whispered.

Just as Duo opened his mouth to object, only to be stopped when Heero placed a gentle finger over his lips. "Don't belittle it," the ex-Wing pilot frowned. "I know you." Reluctantly, the smaller teenager nodded with a deep sigh as he lowered his head back down onto his best friend's chest.

Gently kissing the braided pilot's forehead, Heero held him closer. "I'm so damned proud of you and how you handled yourself," he breathed.

"Even with my falling apart when it was over," Duo asked in a broken voice, the memories of that horrific experience returning.

His smile returning, the Japanese Preventer whispered back brokenly, "Even with that." With a deep sigh, Heero closed his cobalt eyes to enjoy simply holding his partner in his arms. The night before had been a trial for him, having to sit and wait for any word on how the mission went and if Duo was alright.

When he felt confident enough in his voice again after clearing the knot in his throat, Heero commented, "Hopefully with that data card that we have now, we can finally put all of this behind us."

Nodding against his love's firm shoulder, the braided Preventer replied with a deep sigh, "One can only hope." He chuckled, "Nobody wants to have this case of the White Out Organization closed more than I do."

At that, Heero gently lifted the other young man's face with a finger under his chin so that their eyes met. "That wasn't all I was referring to," he stated quietly. "I want to resign from the Preventers after this."

His violet eyes widening, Duo's breath hitched in his throat. "I thought that you wanted to take time to consider that when this is all over," he managed to whisper. As badly as he wanted to leave their life of fighting behind, he would never force his own wishes on his partner. If Heero wanted to stay with the Preventers, then so would he.

With their eyes still locked, the Japanese pilot frowned, "I had all the time that I needed to think last night while I was here, waiting for word on how you were. It's different when I'm the one who's away, but now I know what it's like for you when you're the one left behind."

Turning away for a second, Heero swallowed hard past the lump in his throat as small tears filled his eyes when their gazes locked again. His voice cracking, he stated, "I don't ever want to have to go through that again. God, Duo, you have no idea how scared I was for you while you were on that mission."

In finding the intensity in those cobalt eyes and in that voice, Duo to his own battle against an onslaught of tears as he breathed, "Heero…" Unable to find any words that would serve any justice in that moment, the braided Preventer leaned in to kiss him fiercely. With a whimper, the ex-Wing pilot returned the gesture as he tightened his hold.

Breaking finally for air, the two young men just clung onto each other as they panted to catch their breaths. "I'm tired of fighting," Heero confided at last. "I'm so damn tired of allowing myself to fight for a peace that I never had the chance to enjoy, myself."

With a shuddering breath, he continued, "Until recently, I was content with having life pass around me because I didn't have a reason to care." Running a hand down the length of the braid that had fallen and curled over the other pilot's shoulder, he smiled warmly, "But I do now."

Duo felt a warming grin tug his own lips as he replied softly, "That is the damned most romantic thing that anyone has ever said to me." At that, he took his partner's smiling lips again in a chaste kiss. "I love you," he whispered as his breath tinged the swollen mouth beneath his own.

His smile growing, Heero answered in kind, "Love you." Looking to the closed off windows, he sighed deeply, "I suppose that we best go and check-"

"You son of a bitch!" a voice squealed from downstairs, cutting off Heero's thoughts. Before either of them could reach, they heard the loud barking from Yuuki. Their eyes widened, the two ex-Gundam pilots sprung from their bed and ran from their bedroom to the source of the cry and their pup's excited barking.

Out in the hallway, Relena stepped from the room she and Quatre were sharing. Looking to Heero and Duo as they ran in her direction, she frowned deeply in concern, "That sounded like Angie." With nods of confirmation, the young men sprinted past her, their eyes narrowed in preparation for whatever caused the young woman to scream as she had.

Behind his lover, Quatre finished throwing on a simple, deep orange T-shirt over his black boxers before leaving the room with a kiss of reassurance on Relena's cheek. "Stay up here until we know what's going on," he called over his shoulder as he darted after his friends, joining Trowa and Wufei as they also rushed into the hallway.

The first to reach the living room, Heero and Duo nearly froze at the sight that awaited them. Backed into a corned, his hands over his head as Angie rained down a relentless siege of kicks and punches on him. From a few feet back, Yuuki barked and whined at the two Preventers as if asking them to stop.

Getting his bearings first, the ex-Wing pilot ran into the room to wrap his arms around Angie's waist from behind. As he pulled her away from her prone target, the young woman cried out in rage, trying desperately to break free as she squirmed.

"Angie, stop it!" Heero growled through gritted teeth at her as he continued to pull her back. Before any further strain was put on his recovering shoulder, Wufei rushed into the room to assist restraining the frantic agent.

Trowa and Quatre moved in to inspect Scott as the stunned, white-haired pilot staggered to his feet again. Raising his head, he revealed a large cut on his bottom lip that had split open with blood running down his chin. Along with other cuts and bruises that he sported on his face and exposed arms, the young man had his arms wrapped around his abdomen as signs of further injuries that were inflicted upon him.

Despite his haggard look, Scott glared at his restrained attacker and yelled, "Get that bitch the fuck out of this house! I won't stand for this sort of treatment!"

Slacking in her attempts to get away from Heero and Wufei, Angie snarled back him, "You don't have any right to be here, you bastard! How dare you hide here while the others risked their lives last night!"

Tears filled her brown eyes as she shouted, "Three good agents were killed while you stayed locked away here!" Her determination renewed, the dark-haired young woman began to try to struggle free again, only to have Trowa assist his two friends in holding her.

In their having to move at a less speedy pace, Relena and Anna finally reached the living room doorway, where Duo was sitting to calm the pup that had rushed to his lap. "What the hell happened here?" the redheaded agent blinked in shock.

"Looks as though Angie was just giving Scott a proper `Good morning,'" Duo smirked up to the stunned young women. The collie in his lap stretched up to lick the side of his face in her relief of having him home again. With a deep chuckle, the braided pilot continued to pet the little ball of fur.

With a sigh of relief, Relena commented, "She wouldn't have known that Scott was here until this morning. When she came to the safe house, she went back into shock and not very aware of what was going on around her." The politician smirked, "She must be doing better if she's giving three ex-Gundam pilots a time of holding her back." Beside her, Anna snorted in amusement.

Slowly approaching the young woman as she began to calm again, much to the relief of the three young men holding her back, Relena smiled warmly to her. "Angie, why don't you come with me to the kitchen?" she spoke soothingly. "You look as though you could use a nice cup of tea, and I could use the company."

Finally having caught her breath, Angie's shoulders slumped in defeat. With a small nod of gratitude, she replied to the politician, "I suppose I could use something to settle my stomach." Relena's smile grew as she ushered the agent from the room with Quatre at her side. All the while as they walked, the dark-haired Preventer glared heatedly at Scott, receiving the same treatment from him without flinching.

The moment his attacker had disappeared, the white-haired pilot wiped the blood from his chin and hissed, "I want her out of here."

Folding his arms, Trowa's emerald eyes narrowed on him as he stated, "Like you, she is in danger of being a target for White Out. She's not going anywhere, so you best get used to the idea of sharing this estate with her."

"Quite frankly, you're lucky we decided to keep her back," Wufei sneered. "The next time that Angie decides to take out her aggression on you, we may not be so quick to come to your assistance."

Duo had to bite his lip to refrain from laughing at the wide-eyed, stunned look on the injured pilot's face at that last comment. Anything that Scott might have had planned to say was lost in the realization that he truly did not have any allies in their safe house.

The front door opened to Sally, Zechs and Noin returning from their briefing with Lady Une. In entering the living room, they froze with wide eyes in finding Scott's state and turned with questioning looks to the other pilots. "What did we miss?" Noin was the first to ask as her eyes narrowed on the white-haired Preventer.

Gesturing to the three newcomers, Wufei answered, "Everything's been handled. I'll fill you in over breakfast." As they left the room with the Chinese pilot leading the pack, the three agents each gave a last glance to the injured pilot to satisfy themselves that whatever had taken place was indeed taken care of.

With a deep sigh, Anna unfolded her arms and pushed off from the wall that her back was leaning against. "I better go check on Angie," she announced to her friends. "I'm sure when Quatre and Relena fill her in on why Agent Rain is here she won't exactly be thrilled to here that he kept information on White Out from us and that he'll be staying."

The metal brace around the red-haired agent's leg creaked and clicked as its sockets flexed with every step of the red-haired pilot's left leg. Chuckling deeply from where he sat with Yuuki, Duo smirked up at her, "You sound like the Tin Man from OZ."

Her head falling back, Anna laughed, "No shit. How the hell will I be able to sneak up on anyone with this damn hunk of metal on?" She continued to move from the room as her brace hinges continued to squeak and moan. "Oil can. Oil can," the young woman mumbled like the famed character from the said film as she headed for the door with Trowa following. Shaking their heads, her friends laughed at the impression.

As he ran a hand through his unruly hair, the ex-Wing pilot sighed deeply, "Seeing how all is in order, I'm going to start my morning exercises before breakfast."

With one last squeeze to their puppy, Duo rose to his feet and replied, "I'll join you. I could use something to get out some aggression after last night."

Just before the four pilots stepped out of the room, Scott's quiet voice asked them, "Who were they?" Their eyes wide, Heero, Duo, Trowa and Anna looked up to the white-haired agent. Clearing his throat as he raised his head to meet their gazes, the young man questioned with a deep frown, "Who were the three Preventers that were killed last night?"

Trowa did his best to detach himself from the emotion in losing three of their own. However, he was unable to hide the grief in his voice as he answered, "Agent Bolt, Agent Night and Agent Torrent… Brian, Samantha and Robert. They were taken out while they were securing the area before we arrived. We found them dead during the mission. A recovery team was sent in a few hours ago to gather their bodies."

In hearing the names of the fallen pilots, Scott seemed to sadden, his head lowering again. Nodding slightly, he ran a hand through his spiky hair and replied, "Thanks." The other four gave small nods of acknowledgement of their own, each still taken aback by his sudden interest shown in knowing about his comrades.

As they stepped into the hall, Duo commented quietly, "Well that was unexpected."

"I guess there are some things that he cares about other than himself, after all," Trowa said as he looked back to the living room entrance. From there, the four agents parted ways to start the day on a better foot.

* * * * * *

Later that morning, everyone had had their breakfasts and went about their daily activities. Angie remained in the enclosed deck at the back of the large estate with Relena. In her learning of Scott's reason for staying at the safe house, she proved to be less than happy with the notion but she did reserve herself and promised that there would not be another outburst on her part.

Gazing out one of the large glass windows to the forest around them, the dark-haired Preventer frowned deeply, "I never should have allowed myself to become involved with someone I hardly knew. My foolishness could have cost the investigation everything."

From where she sat across from the young woman, Relena leaned forward as much as her swollen belly would allow. "But you did the right thing in the end, Angie," she reassured her. "You came forward when you realized what Kent was."

Quatre returned from the kitchen with a tray of three teacups as the end of his lover's comment. "What's more than that," he added as he set the tray down on the table between the three of them, "Had it not been for you, we wouldn't have that data disk to help our search." At the sound of the teakettle whistling, the Arabian quickly stepped from the room again.

Angie turned to face the young woman that she had confided her experience to. Biting her lip, she asked brokenly, "And you don't think little of me for what I did? You don't think of me as some kind of slut?"

Giving her a warm smile, Relena shook her head, "Of course not. Your choices are your own to live with. The only thing that I would say you were guilty of was not thinking through your emotions and letting them run away with you." Her smile grew as she shrugged, "But that is something that I had been guilty of, myself."

At that, Angie's brown eyes widened as she stammered, "R-really, Miss Peacecraft?"

With a deep chuckle, the young Vice-Foreign Minister shook her head, "Please, just call me Relena, as all of my friends do. I feel old whenever I am referred to by any other title." As Angie eased in her seat in now feeling more at ease in that announcement, Relena smiled, "I once thought that I was madly in love with someone who was terribly wrong for me."

In hearing such a startling thing, Angie's mouth fell open and the blonde young woman just laughed. Sighing deeply, Relena shrugged, "I was young and foolish. Teenage crushes are very to confuse with being something more."

Biting her lip, the dark-haired Preventer inquired, "How did you know that what you felt for Quatre was any different than just a crush?" Before stepping into the room with the ceramic teakettle, the Arab young man paused in the doorway. Leaning his ear towards the entrance, he bit his own lip in anticipation.

Relena seriously considered the question as she sat back in her seat. Finally, a grin tugged at her lips and she answered, "It's like an old saying that is so well known now. I wasn't willing to let go of this first young man that I thought I was in love with… because I knew that if I did, he would never come back to me. Even in knowing that, I held on to an idea that I was in love with and not the person."

Taking a deep breath, the blonde politician smirked, "When Quatre and I became reacquainted after the war, I wasn't looking for anything more than just a friendship because I was still holding onto that idea. But then, I found that the times I spent apart from him, I just looked forward to seeing him again. Without even trying, Quatre managed to replace the idea that I had with something real.

"Suddenly, the idea of what I thought I wanted paled in comparison to what he had to offer," Relena concluded. "That's the difference." Blinking as she took in the blonde young woman's words, Angie smirked and gave a grateful nod.

From where he waited listening, Quatre smiled to himself before stepping into the room again. Before setting the kettle down, he bent down to kiss his lover's cheek and was rewarded by her glowing smile in response. After filling their three cups, the ex Gundam took his seat.

Once her cup of tea was finished, Angie removed the small data disk from her pocket. Turning the simple chip in her fingers, she smirked, "If anything, I can put my anger to use in getting the information off of this." With a renewed sense of purpose, the dark-haired young woman rose from her seat. Calling back over her shoulder, she winked to the young couple, "Thank you, both, for everything."

When Angie stepped out of the room, Relena raised an eyebrow and smirked over to her lover, "You were listening in on me, weren't you?"

Knowing that he could never lie to her without making it obvious that he was doing so, Quatre grinned and shrugged, "Just for a little while." He laughed Relena playfully jabbed him in the ribs. Moving to sit beside her on the sofa, the blonde pilot kissed her soundly and whispered, "You know I love you, right."

"Of course," Relena smiled. Settling beside each other on the couch and enjoyed a rare moment of peace and quiet in the safe house.

* * * * * *

The hours bled into days as Angie worked diligently in breaking through the security locks on the data card. Finally, after nearly a week, her red-rimmed eyes widened at the scanned transactions that appeared on her laptop's monitor. "That's it," she whispered to herself in disbelief.

Her hands flying over the keyboard to confirm what she had found, Angie smiled in elation, "That's it!" With a sharp gasp, she quickly turned to the vid phone on the other side of the desk that she had been working at.

In hearing the line pick up in mid-ring, the dark-haired agent didn't even wait for a greeting and announced excitedly, "Lady Une, I found Kent's hideout!"

* * * * * *

The team was assembled within the same hour upon word of Angie's findings. On the secluded colony where the hideout was stationed, several Preventers were wrapping up another mission that they had been assigned to. Mobilized and off to the location, the five agents armed themselves in preparation for retaliation.

While the young men and women that had been given this assignment were given little background on their task at hand, they were also quite used to working under such circumstances. Whatever their Commander wanted, their Commander got. This would be no exception to their rule.

"Our orders are to bring our man into custody alive," the head of operations for the pick-up called back to his team as he drove their military vehicle through the rugged terrain of deserted wasteland. "If you have to shoot, shoot to wound."

From the back of the truck as they loaded their weapons, his ensemble of four replied with affirmatives. His eyes narrowing, the driver of the camouflaged transport picked up on an approaching rise. "Looks like we've found our asshole," the young man sneered.

His brown eyes widening, the young man at the wheel hissed, "What the hell…" Several yards from the remains of what looked to have been a single-layered building, the military truck came to a stop.

Slowly, the shock clear on all of their faces, the five Preventers stepped from the vehicle and approached the hideout. As they examined the concaved center of the stone building, the agents had to step over the large chunks of stone and other debris that had been blown out of the center of the residence.

The furthest sides of the building remained standing, untouched by the blast. The center of the hideout from front to back, however, was covered with rubble.

One of the young women on the team sighed deeply, "As far out from the nearest society as this place is, it's no wonder no one would have heard the explosion." Carefully brandishing their weapons, the agents moved around to assess the area.

"Everything has been charred to hell in here," one of the younger men called from where he examined inside what must have been the living room. Kicking some of the blackened debris around him, he gasped sharply in revealing the blackened, skeletal remains of what looked to be an arm. "Shit!" he cried out, holding out his semi- automatic riffle to the gruesome things that looked to be grasping upward from the pile of stone.

Running into the scene, the commander of the recovery team placed a hand on the younger soldier's shoulder. "Easy there, Agent Thorn," he reassured. Along with three of his other teammates, he bent at the knees to brush away the pile of rubble around the gruesome, exposed hand.

Before long, the remainder of the charred body was revealed. The skin had been melted off from more than half of the corpse, leaving the bone that was exposed broken and blackened. The smell drove some of those pilots closest to the body to their feet instantly as they covered their mouths and noses. "Damn it," the head agent hissed.

Looking up to his team, the young man ordered, "Contact Commander Une. Tell her that we were too late."