2-1-2006

Title: A Silver Lining
Part 41-49 + Epilogue
Pairings: Eventual 1x2, 5XS, 4XR, 3XOC, 6X9
Archive: http://www.mizunoamy.bravepages.com
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 41

[If everyone cared and nobody cried
If everyone loved and nobody lied
If everyone shared and swallowed their pride
Then we'd see the day when nobody died]
-Lyrics to `If Everyone Cared' performed by Nickelback

Sighing deeply, Noin reached up and rubbed her red, dry eyes. After working without pause through the early hours of the morning immediately following their long night of recovering the data chip, exhaustion was beginning to set in. Still, with Heero missing and being as close as hey were to finally putting an end to the White Out Organization as they were now, she did not dare allow herself to slow down.

In the small computer room long with her were Trowa, Quatre and Anna as they sat at the other corners of the space. Each showing the first signs of their own fatigue, the young pilots' fingers continued to type hastily over the keyboards at their stations. Pausing in his efforts, Quatre sat forward in his chair and blinked a few times to focus his cloudy vision. "Okay," he announced, "I ran into another snag."

Trowa quickly rose from his seat to walk across the room to his friend. Peering over his blonde friend's shoulder to examine the problem in the link, that he was decoding, the Latin pilot quickly found the source of the issue. Pointing to the break in the code, he said, "Try the F-stop buttons. It's a trick that might help reveal whatever the programmer was trying to hide. After that, look for similarities within the symbols that you found up to now."

Following the tall Preventer's advice, Quatre keyed a few F-stops and watched with wide eyes as more code began to appear where there had been none to link the broken pieces of code together. "Nice," he grinned as he looked up to his friend. As he looked up to the tall agent, his grin turned sheepish as he told him quietly, "Thanks for the help. Sorry I forgot about that little detail."

Gently patting the smaller pilot's shoulder, Trowa smirked and reassured him, "Both you and Noin had to take in a lot of information in a short period of time to help out. You're both doing great. Just don't be afraid to ask for help if something doesn't seem right. Better to get it right the first time than to have to fix a mistake." Nodding gratefully, Quatre turned back to his work as the tall pilot returned to his own station.

At the soft knock at the door, the four pilots kept their eyes on their screens and called in unison, "Come in."

Bearing a carrier with four tall, steaming paper cups, Wufei entered. Her deep blue eyes widening when she looked up to him, Anna breathed, "Oh my God. Is that what I think it is?"

With a smirk, the Chinese pilot chuckled deeply, "I thought that the four of you could use a little pick-me up, so I picked up some cappuccinos."

The first to rise to her feet and all but run to him, Anna beamed with excitement as she took up one of the warm cups. Now having a chance to get a good and close look at the red-head's scratched face, Wufei shook his head and snorted, "You get to have all the fun, Anna. Wasn't getting hit by a truck enough for you?"

As she took a sip of her hot drift, the braided young woman's blue eyes narrowed over the rim of her cup. Bending her free arm at the elbow so that the back of her raised fist faced him, she slowly extended her middle finger. Wufei's head fell back as he laughed at the gesture. The other three pilots laughed along as they gratefully accepted their own cups of much needed caffeine.

The door opened once more as Lady Une entered with a bag in each hand. "Breakfast is served," she grinned. The eager pilots went through the bags of doughnuts and breakfast sandwiches with their delight and relief evident.

Heading back to her desk with her cappuccino and a couple doughnuts, Anna sighed deeply, "I'll be writing the two of you a really kick ass Christmas card this year." Taking a bite from a custard-filled pastry, she closed her eyes and hummed in bliss.

With a firm nod, Noin said sincerely, "This was really needed. Thank you." That said, she returned to her own station with her meal. Quatre smiled at the commander and his Chinese friend, his own appreciation evident in his eyes as he went through the assortment of breakfast options before quietly going back to work.

As Trowa came close, Lady Une asked quietly, "How is progress?"

Sighing deeply, the tall pilot rubbed the back of his neck and answered just as softly, "Slow. But steady. The encryption used to cover the transcripts is one of the more complex pieces of work I've ever come across."

"That's good," Wufei smirked. "It only proves that whatever is on that card was worth their efforts to secure the information."

His emerald eyes gleaming with mischief, Trowa smirked, "Exactly."

Lady Une ran a hand through her bangs and sighed deeply, "Thank God. We finally have a solid lead." Gently patting the tall pilot's shoulder, and smiled, "Good work, all of you. Keep me posted."

With a firm nod, the Latin pilot replied, "Of course." Turning on his heels, he walked back to his corner of the lab.

As she faced Wufei, Lady Une suggested, "We better go and check on Tim. I don't like leaving him alone with Zechs for very long. We need him in one piece in the event that someone actually does come after him. If the chip is decrypted before that happens, all the better."

Snorting, Wufei shook his head in amusement, "So little faith in Zechs?" The corner of his mouth tugged up in a smug grin as he commented, "Besides, he wouldn't kill Tim if he did do anything. He'd just have a little fun."

Her brown eyes narrowing in a half-hearted glare, the commander frowned deeply, "That's exactly what I'm afraid of. There will be plenty of time for `fun' once we know we've gotten everything we can out of that son of a bitch. Once he's worn out his usefulness, then I promise that we'll discuss how to handle him best before going through the motions of a trial for treason against him."

Slowly taking a deep breath, the Chinese pilot sighed deeply, "Well, I suppose that I can live with that."

At the quiet knock on the door, all eyes turned in its direction as Duo peeked his braided head inside. "Sorry to interrupt," he winced. Scanning the room until he spotted Quatre, he nodded to his blonde friend, "Rashid and Abdul are here."

His eyes widening at the announcement, the Arabian pilot quickly rose from his chair. Bowing his head to his team, he excused himself, "Please pardon me, everyone. This should only be a moment. I have something that I need to take care of." With that, he quickly followed Duo out of the room.

In the lobby, its windows shielded with black lenses, Relena was looking after Rachel as the child busied herself with Yuuki. The small pup managed to knock the girl playing with her onto her back in a lunge to lick her face. Laughing as she was attacked, Rachel giggled, "Okay, okay, Yuuki. You win."

The pregnant young woman chuckled deeply at the sweet scene just as the sound of footsteps approached from the hallway. Looking up, Relena's blue eyes widened at the sight of the two men entering. "Rashid. Abdul," she smiled widely as she slowly rose from to her feet.

Rashid approached quickly to embrace the young woman as she opened her arms to him. As he pulled back, he sighed deeply in relief, "Miss Relena, we've been worried about you ever since Master Quatre informed us of what happened at the safe house. I am relieved that you were unharmed."

Yuuki barked excitedly at the tall man's feet, her tail wagging excitedly in recognizing the gentle giant. Chuckling deeply, Rashid bent down to pat the furry dog. Rachel remained hidden behind Relena as she watched the frightening-looking men. When the smaller of the two smiled kindly and waved at her, she smiled back and came out of her hiding place.

Waving her hand, Relena grinned, "Oh, I'm fine." Walking over to Abdul, she gave him a tight hug and stated, "But it is wonderful to see the two of you."

The two Arabians eyed each other anxiously before Abdul asked the young woman, "You mean, Master Quatre did not tell you that we were coming for you?"

Taken aback by the question, the politician's eyes narrowed slightly as she opened her mouth to speak. Before she could speak, Quatre and Duo quickly entered. Biting his lip, the blonde pilot gently took his lover's hand in his own and whispered to her, "Can we talk about this alone?" He squeezed her hand for reassurance.

As she took a deep breath, Relena squeezed his hand back and nodded. Gently, Quatre led the way out into the hall. When the young couple was out of earshot, Rashid glared at his sheepish-looking comrade, "Smooth." Loosening his suddenly tight collar, Abdul chuckled nervously.

When they were alone in the hall, Relena folded her arms over her swollen belly and declared firmly, "I'm staying here. I know that your intentions were good in wanting me to be looked after by Rashid and the others, but I am not about to leave you behind. Not with everything that's been happening."

Shaking his head, Quatre frowned deeply in concern, "Relena, I hate the thought of you being away, but you've been in danger twice already by being involved with this investigation. The incident at Heero and Duo's house being destroyed should have been enough for me to come to this decision. Instead, you were nearly killed last night as well. As close as we are to finally solving this case, I'm not about to take the chance that things are just going to start winding down."

Gently resting a hand on her stomach, the blonde pilot bit his lip and whispered, "The two of you are my world, and I don't want to risk ever losing either of you. As much as I want you close, neither of us can afford to be selfish anymore. There's another life counting on the two of us to look after them."

Tears filled Relena's eyes as she rested her hand over his. Gently kissing her forehead, Quatre rubbed the back of her neck and locked their gazes as he reassured softly, "You won't be too far. Should anything happen, Rashid will be able to reach me and I'll be with you before you know it."

Reluctantly agreeing with her love's logic in seeing that their child was protected, Relena finally nodded and breathed, "All right." A few tears ran down her cheeks as she bit her lip. Her sadness fading for a moment to show her firm resolve, she ordered, "But I want you to keep me posted on everything."

Smiling warmly, Quatre reached up to gently wipe away her tears and reassured her, "I will." Slowly kneeling before her, he grinned to her swollen belly as he ran a hand over it and whispered, "You take good care of mommy while I'm gone, little one. I promise I'll be back soon." As if understanding his words, the baby kicked excitedly. Leaning in, he placed a soft kiss there before rising back to his feet.

With the last of her resolve to keep from falling apart, Relena wrapped her arms around her lover's neck tightly. Biting back a small sob, she said brokenly, "I love you, Quatre. Please be careful."

"I love you, too, Lena," Quatre breathed, fighting back his own tears as he returned the embrace. As they pulled back, the young couple shared a long and fierce kiss. Only parting their lips at the need for air, they took each other's hands and walked back to the lobby.

The small group gathered in the open room looked up as the pair returned. Forcing a smile, Relena nodded to Rashid and Abdul, "I'm ready to go whenever you are." The two men smiled in relief at her acceptance of their offer for protection.

"Very well, Miss Relena," Rashid replied with a deep bow. "We already took the liberty of having your belongings taken to the estate. We were just explaining to Rachel, here, that she will be residing with us as well. That is, until Trowa and Anna can reclaim her when this is all over."

As he mentioned the child, the tall man smiled down to Rachel as she continued to hug his leg with a wide smile. "You do remember them telling you that now, little lady?" Her smile growing, the girl nodded excitedly. Relena couldn't help but grin at seeing how the two Arabians gained the child's trust in such short order.

Clearing his throat, Duo stepped forward with Yuuki in his arms. Sadly looking down at his wiggling pet, the braided pilot asked, "Would it be too much to ask if you could guys look after Yuuki for me?"

At the thought of the braided pilot having to part with the pup at such a difficult time, Relena swallowed past the lump that formed in her throat. Quickly nodding, she grinned, "Of course, Duo."

Biting his lip as he carefully handed his puppy over to Abdul, the American ran a hand over her furry head. "You be a good girl, now, Yuuki," he whispered. Fighting the tears that shimmed in his eyes, he kissed her furry head as she licked his face.

Gently scooping Rachel into his arms, Rashid grinned, "And now, little princess, your chariot awaits."

With a bubbly laugh the little girl wrapped her arms around his thick neck. Waving over his shoulder, Rachel grinned, "Bye, Duo. Bye, Quatre."

"See `ya soon, kiddo," the American grinned as he and his Arab friend waved her off.

As Rashid and Abdul led the way from the lobby, Relena threw her arms around the braided pilot's neck and kissed his cheek. "Be careful, Duo," she whispered in his ear as he wrapped her in his own arms. "I need you to stay in one piece to keep an eye on my `husband' and to give Heero a hug for me when you get him back." With a snort, Quatre laughed and shook his head at the comment referring him.

With a watery smile at that, Duo chuckled deeply at her attempt to lighten the air. Sighing deeply, he replied softly, "Thanks, Lena." Gently cupping his cheek, the blonde politician smiled warmly at him before allowing Quatre to lead her from the room by the hand.

Left alone in the lobby, Duo sunk into one of the couches heavily. Being alone in large rooms like the white-walled one that he was in was beginning to play on his nerves again. And now, feeling more alone than ever, he wrapped his arms tightly around his small frame as he shuddered at the chill sinking in.

* * * * * *

Later that afternoon…

With a smug grin on his face, the President of the Earth stepped into the office of the building designated for his special meeting. As he entered the room, the seven people within rose from their seats around the long table. Raising his hand, the aging man chuckled deeply, "Please, be seated, everyone. We have a great deal to discuss and I have little time before I must return to the Earth." That said, he took a seat at the head of the table.

Isis, at the opposite head end of the table, remained on her feet as her associates took their seats. "Mister President," she began with a friendly smile. Raising her right hand, she revealed the small chip in her possession and commented, "As I advised, our elusive chip is finally back in our possession. I already examined it closely and found it to be unharmed."

"Good," the gray-haired man sighed deeply in relief, "And not a moment too soon. With the election coming around the bend, I was beginning to worry that everything we had been working for would be for naught." His eyes narrowing in contempt, he inquired in a deep growl, "And Heero Yuy?"

Her smile growing, his second-in-command answered, "I have already made arrangements for his collection. Tonight, he will be moved to one of our transport ships to be held there until we dissolve the organization all together once we've carried out our plans. Just as Maxwell experienced, the highest bidders will have their chance to do as they wish, just short of killing him before we kill him."

At that, the President smirked, "Excellent. I see that I made the right decision in moving you up in Kent's place, Isis." The six other guests, three sitting on either side of the table, made sure not to show their contempt for the young woman show as they turned to watch her.

Bowing her head, Isis grinned, "Why thank you, sir." As she straightened, her smile faded as she spoke of the serious matters at hand. "I assume that you have already come up with a team to decrypt the data that we had obtained over the years."

With a nod from his gray head, the tall man answered, "They are anxiously awaiting the return with it. And with the passwords and access codes used to hack into the accounts of the Colonies, they will be transferring the funds to our assassin of whom I have also picked out. I am not going to take any chances with the acted attempt on my life. My next public appearance will be in less than a week. I want this all carried out at that time."

Isis smirked, "It's all too perfect. So your `assassin' is captured and interrogated. The feds find that he had been paid heavily through a wiring system that comes directly from the secured account of the joint Colony Senate account. Then the witch hunt begins until the Colonies fight amongst themselves for the guilty party to come forward."

One of the young men seated beside the orange-haired woman grinned mischievously, "When no one comes forward, the Earth declares war on the Colonies until the people responsible are brought to justice."

Nodding, the President chuckled deeply, "The war will end as it should have, with the Earth the sovereign power in space. With the Presidential election taking place in six months, I will be guaranteed my reelection. My drop in popularity will be a thing of the distant past by then."

Still smirked, he leaned forward and commented, "Because, as history has shown us time and time again, a President at war time -no matter how many mistakes he had made while in office - has never been removed from power."

As he sunk back into his seat, the gray-haired man shrugged, "And of course, you will all be repaid for your services. The idea of making a slave trade business was a brilliant cover up to transfer the information that we needed for the grand picture. The money made from that, alone, will be more than enough to support you all for the rest of your lives, and the next generations of years to come."

A few faces around smirked, knowing that he was well aware of their involvement of creating the White Out Organization. Sighing deeply, the President frowned, "I just wish that we could have captured the remainder of those Gundam pilots for you before having to end the operations of the trade service."

"Oh, we'll eventually have our shot at them through other means," Isis commented nonchalantly. Rounding the long table, she held out the small chip to the President. "Speaking on behalf of everyone here," she began, "It has been a pleasure doing business with you, sir."

Carefully taking up the data card, the leader of the Earth appraised the seemingly innocent piece of metal. "Oh, no, my dear," he whispered. "The pleasure has been all mine."

* * * * * *

At the conclusion of the meeting, Isis ran to her car and began her brief ride back to her residence. As she rode through the winding roads and barren surroundings, she couldn't help but smile to herself in the anticipation of surprising the President once more when she announced her successful strike against the Preventers by leveling their headquarters.

With a quick glance at her clock, the orange-haired agent made a quick assessment that Angie would not be far from making her way into the facility. She needed to check the tracer that she had put on the unsuspecting pilot. There was a brief moment where Isis almost felt bad for having to mislead Angie to her death after everything she had done.

Knowing how handsomely she would be paid for doing so quickly erased that guilt.

It was going to be a busy evening. The team that Isis had called for was going to be arriving shortly to take Heero into their captivity. Her smile grew at the thought of the treatment that awaited the formerly known Perfect Soldier. At the end of their partnership with the President, Isis and her collogues would rapture in witnessing Heero Yuy's death to join the friends that he would lose that evening.

Finally rounding the large hill that hid her small residence, Isis parked her vehicle and all but ran up her porch stairs. Her excitement building, she fumbled with her keys a few times before removing the one to open her front door. As she stepped in and flipped the lights on, she went straight for her desk just beyond the door.

Impatiently waiting for her computer to come to life, the young woman's green eyes narrowed as she muttered, "Come on. Come on." When she was back into her system, she quickly typed her access code into finding where her messenger was.

A few keystrokes and the command to find the tracer, Isis waited as the program searched. With the blinking letter of bold red blinking `SEARCHING,' she tapped her fingers against her desk top. The wording changed to announce "FOUND" just before pulling up the coordinates of where Angie was.

Her smile fading, Isis spoke quietly to herself, "This can't be right." Her fingers typed quickly to try the search once more. After another short wait, the same results appeared on her screen. "I set that transmitter, myself. It shouldn't be acting up like this," she growled in frustration before trying yet another search.

Again, the results showed that the tracer was within her residence.

The sound of a pistol pump slicking back and forth into place behind her proved that the results were accurate.

Frozen straight and stiff in her desk chair, Isis paled several shades. "Looking for something?" a familiar voice asked. Slowly, the orange-haired agent turned in her seat to peer at the hallway entrance.

Her brown eyes narrowed heatedly on her commander, Angie raised the small tracing detonator that had been placed on her with the hand that did not hold her gun trained on the shocked young woman. "I never would have looked for it if Yuy hadn't made me second guess you," she hissed darkly.

Swallowing hard, Isis pleaded with her wide eyes, "Angie, I can explain." Slowly, she moved her right hand on her lap to reach for her own weapon at her belt.

Quick to catch it, the fallen Preventer fired three rounds into the orange-haired agent's chest. With only a brief gasp at the initial shot, Isis's body jumped at the bullets riddling her before sagging lifelessly in her chair. Her wide green eyes, even in death, stared up in shock at her killer. Her eyes still narrowed, Angie lowered the smoking pistol to her side as she watched the still body as blood began to pool at the dead woman's feet.

As she turned on her heels, Angie quickly moved down the hall and replaced her weapon at her belt. As she passed the armory closet, she took a rifle and shotgun to strap over her shoulders. Rounding the corner, she reached the cell at the end of the corridor and threw open the heavy latch. Opening the door, she watched as the pilot sitting across the room looked up at her in surprise.

Quickly closing the distance between them, the dark-haired woman reached into the pocket of her black pants and told him flatly, "Get up."

Not having much of a choice in the matter, Heero rose to his feet. Pulling his bound wrists towards her, Angie undid the steel cuffs. "There is a shuttle on its way to collect you. You don't have much time to have an advantage on the guards."

Blinking his wide cobalt eyes, Heero tried to get his wits to understand everything that was happening. When Angie removed the rifle from her shoulder and shoved it into his arms, she growled deeply, "You can tell me you told me so later. Let's move."

At that, the Japanese fell at ease. Strapping the gun onto his own shoulder, he smirked, "Lead the way."

 

Part 42

[I don't want to be the one
The battles always choose
'Cause inside I realize
That I'm the one confused]
-Lyrics to `breaking the Habit' by Linkin Park

"Angie Grayson."

Adjusting the collar of her grey uniform blouse, the dark-haired agent looked up as her name was announced. As the crowd gathered applauded, she smiled and rose from her seat. A few of her fellow graduates patted her arm as she passed along her way to the front of the auditorium, towards the podium there.

With a wide, proud smile, Lady Une stepped down from the pulpit to hand the young woman her new badge and certificate announcing her completion of training. Taking the new agent's hand with her own free right one, the Commander shook it firmly and grinned, "Congratulations, Agent Sleet."

Carefully accepting her badge and returning the firm handshake, Angie smiled and replied quietly, "Thank you, Lady Une."

There was a loud whistle from the crowd followed by a shouted, "Way to go, Angie!" Looking over, the young woman smiled brightly and waved to her braided trainer. Sitting at either side of Duo with looks of amusement were Heero, Trowa and Wufei along with the other higher-ranked agents.

On her way back to her fellow classmates, Angie appraised the shining badge in her hand. The interrogate detail of the silver oval with the small star engraved in the center with her name and title glistened under the bright lights. Her chest swelling in pride, she silently wished that her parents were still alive to partake in the moment. They had always wanted her to do something worthwhile with her life and now, she was finally accomplishing that.

Nearly a year later, Angie removed her magnifying glasses and sighed deeply in relief as the bomb was finally disarmed, its timer blinking on :57. Calling back to her team, she announced, "All clear!" There was a relieved cheer among the other agents as she climbed out of the air shaft where the nasty little present had been hidden.

Carefully lowering the device after her, the agent held it to show the young woman who called in the bomb threat to her growing insurance agency. "Thank heavens," the orange-haired woman sighed deeply. She turned her green eyes to the remainder of the team and bowed her head with a sincere, "You've all been amazing. Thank you so much for your help."

Once all of the red tape was taken care of an hour later, the agents were finally able to return to Preventer headquarters. The last to pack her gear into her car, Angie looked up as the relieved client approached with a wide smile. "You were quite impressive back there," she complimented the dark-haired agent.

With an embarrassed chuckle, Angie shrugged and closed her car's trunk as she replied, "Just doing my job. I'm glad that everything turned out well, Miss-"

"Isis," the young woman grinned, completing the sentence for the other young woman and extending her hand. "And personally, I think you're far too talented to be wasting your talents for a thankless organization like the Preventers. I certainly could use someone as resourceful as you with my own business. I think that you would find it worth looking into."

Quickly removing a card from her pocket, her green eyes smiled along with her lips as she put it into the Preventer's right hand. "I would love to talk to you in the future about possibly working together. I think that we would make a great team."

Shaking her head as she exchanged a firm handshake, Angie stated, "Well, thank you, Isis. I certainly do appreciate the flattering offer, but I really am quite happy with what I am doing right now."

With a small hum, Isis nodded, "Yes, working alongside the same pilots responsible for your parents' deaths during the war, must be quite the endeavor." When Angie's head quickly rose with wide eyes, she raised her hands and chuckled deeply, "But I certainly am in no position to judge you for your choices."

Unable to breath as her face paled, the Preventer breathed, "H-How did you know…" Shaking her head, her eyes narrowed as she hissed, "Those Gundam pilots did not intend to kill anyone innocent. The fire caused during the attack was an accident that killed a lot of other innocent people as well."

"Ah," Isis grinned, "But had those pilots not been there at all, then all of those innocent souls would still be alive, am I correct?"

Slowly approaching the orange-haired woman, Angie warned, "Look, I don't know how you were able to learn anything about me, or my family, but this conversation is over. You can go to hell with what you think of me and my choices."

Just as the dark-haired agent was about to round her car, Isis grabbed her arm in a surprisingly strong hold. "If that is how you really feel," she spoke lowly into the pilot's ear as she pulled her close, "Then why are you still holding onto my card?"

Angie's brown eyes widened as she looked down to her fisted right hand, the card still there. With a deep growl, she pulled herself free and quickly entered her car, slamming the driver door after her. As she drove off, Isis smiled and waved her off. As she watched the orange-haired woman disappear from her rearview mirror, the young pilot tossed the crumpled business card into the passenger seat.

Months later, the card remained where she had tossed it. For whatever reason, Angie just could not bring herself to throw it away.

(End Flashback)

* * * * * *

Her brown eyes narrowed on the road as she recalled her first encounter with the one person she thought that she could trust, Angie's hands gripped her steering wheel. The vile woman had managed to stir a buried bitterness over the death of her parents. Little by little, her resolve was beginning to break down and her building rage managed to undo all reasoning. her anger was misdirected and in the end, she worked against the very morals that her parents had worked to instill in her.

Friends quickly became enemies in Angie's mind. Right was wrong and vengeance was the only thing that she craved. Her actions and choices were her own to answer for and she was more than aware of that now.

Now, wishing more than ever that she had just thrown Isis's business card away those years ago, Angie cursed her weak self for believing the false sense of community that Isis convinced her to being a part of White Out. With the organization, she found others who were just as filled with rage and loss as she was over the deaths of loved ones during the wars. They were connected and determined to see that vengeance was finally reached.

When she had searched herself before leaving the colony on Isis's last mission, the dark-haired agent was stunned to find that she had been planted with an explosive. After all of her services and sacrifices to the White out Organization, Angie was still nothing in their eyes. Everything that she had brought herself to believe came crashing down in mere heartbeats.

…More than that, one of the very pilots that she made the focus of her hate had been the one to open her eyes enough to save her. The entire world was going mad and she had been instrumental in that.

Beside her, Heero kept a cautious watch on Angie as she drove through the night, his hands tight on the rifle that she had given him. There was a time when they had been colleagues, comrades in arms. With all that she had done to him and his loved ones, she could not blame him for the smoldering rage in those cobalt eyes that threatened to cut her down.

Taking a deep breath, the fallen agent was finally tired of the uncomfortable silence between them. "For what it's worth," she began quietly with her eyes focused on the dirt road ahead, "I am truly sorry for everything that I've done, Heero."

"Save it," the Japanese Preventer snapped in a deep growl. With a quick glance into his narrowed eyes, Angie decided to wait before speaking up again. Were there any other options present to him for an escape, she was convinced that he never would have gone off with her. She could not begin to blame him for his hostility in the very least. Her actions called for no understanding or forgiveness.

Finally, the dark-haired pilot tired of the unease and frowned deeply, "I just want to make it know that when I joined the Preventers, I signed up with nothing but good intents." At that, Heero snorted in frustration, his hands clicking the safety off from the weapon in his hands.

Glancing out the corner of her eye, Angie stated more than asked, "You still don't trust me. I never would have freely given you a gun if I didn't mean for you to use it in your way out of this place."

His eyes narrowing further, the ex-Wing pilot replied, "So you think that your helping me will get you a lighter sentence when we return to the Earth and you're turned in for treason? You really believe that this one good deed will make up for all of the lives that you've helped destroy over the last two years?"

Swallowing hard, Angie could not answer him. He was right in thinking that she had hoped maybe she could make a plea bargain. Now that her intentions were thrown back at her, she saw just how foolish and selfish she continued to be. Regardless of his contempt for her, she still intended to see that she righted one of her wrongs.

"What was on that chip that had been implanted in me?" Heero suddenly asked.

The dark-haired young woman let out a frustrated sigh as she shook her head and answered honestly, "I don't know. Those of us working under Isis and her associates are given very little to what all of their actions have been building to. All that we knew was that your capture was the utmost concern of theirs. We learned never to ask questions."

As she turned her head to meet the unimpressed gaze watching her, she pleaded, "Please believe me. If I knew more, I would be more than forthcoming with the information." Her brown eyes were turned back to the road as she frowned, "It wasn't supposed to be like this… never like this."

Small tears filled her brown eyes and she quickly reached up with one free hand to wipe them away. At the unexpected sight of Angie's tears, Heero's eyes only lost the slightest bit of their wrath. "Like I said," the dark-haired young woman managed at last, "I never had ill intentions when I joined the Preventers. Whether you believe me or not doesn't matter, since I know the truth of that at least."

Taking a deep, long breath, Heero sighed deeply before asking flatly, "So what was it that made you decide to turn?"

Angie took a hand from the wheel to run it through her long bangs as she answered, "Isis had implanted a small explosive on my back. Had you not made me second-guess her intentions with the mission she had sent me on, I never would have thought to inspect myself to find it." With a small snort, she commented, "All things considered, you're probably disappointed that I did find it. I'm certainly not anyone you would miss."

When Heero made no remark at that, his glare still in her, Angie knew the truth of her accusation. Her freeing him had been a convenience, but one that he would have worked on without any assistance. Thinking of the other pilots and how they would treat her when she was brought in was enough to send a chill down her spine. From this point forward, she no longer had anyone that she could call a friend.

In the distance, the bright lights of the hidden shuttle port were finally in sight, breaking through the darkness of the barren desert. Silently grateful to focus on something other than the young man beside her, Angie reached for the semi-automatic in the back seat while navigating the car as she released a slow breath and muttered, "Here we go." Preparing his own weapon, Heero turned his focus on the approaching lights.

With her own knowledge of the terrain and the assistance of the dim glow from the port lights, the fallen agent turned the headlights of the car off and approached slowly. Once they were close enough to look within the glass-enclosed facility, the ex-Wing pilot announced, "I don't see any signs of the shuttle yet."

Nodding, Angie sighed in relief, "Good, then we beat them here. I was hoping we would have time to snipe a few of them down before we have to deal with the whole of the team that Isis sent along with the light crew that already works there." With a firm nod of his own of acknowledgement, Heero reached to the back seat for the ammo to his own rifle.

Slowly driving onto a tall hill of sand that rose several yards before the shuttle port's main doors, Angie parked the car behind the cover of the rise. As the two pilots climbed to the top and lowered themselves onto their stomachs to watch the large building from their perch, they prepared their sniper weapons.

As they finished their preparations, Heero looked up to the skies just as the beacon of red lights below a landing shuttle descended towards the facility and smirked, "Not a moment too soon."

The top of the shuttle port opened up as the large craft approached. As the front search light of the shuttle scanned just a few feet behind the two agents, it slowly landed within the large building. Once the engines of the shuttle began to die down, the steel panels of the hatch slowly closed once more.

His cobalt eyes narrowed, Heero peered into his sniper scope. Angie followed suit as they watched and waited. Several minutes that felt like an eternity, two crewmen opened the large front doors, pulling them back as a car engine from within roared to life, its deep groan echoing through the desolate stretch of desert.

"I'll take the staff out," Angie suggested quietly. "You take care of the car before it gets away. That'll have the rest of the crew gearing up before." With a small grunt of acknowledgement of the plan, Heero remained still as he trained his focus on the entrance.

There was not a second to breath after that agreement before a deep grey car peeled out of the shuttle port's doors and turned onto the dirt road approaching the pilots at the top of the rise. Jumping onto his feet, the Japanese pilot fired a spray of bullets into the hood of the vehicle, taking out the driver and passenger before the car went up in a deafening explosion just as it was nearing the top of the hill.

With the bright flames that rose just feet before her, Angie quickly rose to take out the two stunned men that were in the midst of closing the glass doors of the facility. Their bloodied bodies did not even fall to the ground before the men within the facility could be heard screaming frantically and others shouting orders.

In the confusion, Heero grabbed the car keys from his accomplice's pocket before she had time to react and aimed his rifle at her. His eyes narrowed fiercely, he gestured to their car and ordered, "Get in. I want to keep my eye on you at all times."

Only able to blink in shock, Angie scrambled into the black vehicle. As he took the drivers' seat, the Japanese Preventer did not bother closing his door as he turned on the engine and slammed his foot into the gas.

Slamming head-on into the burning remains of the gray car to clear the path, he steered for the half-closed glass doors of the shuttle port. Shards of glass flew into the air as they plowed through and the car wheels spun on the metal floor as Heero spun it to face the nose of the shuttle that had been docked.

Bullets flew as the two pilots dove from their car, narrowly escaping just as it burst into flames. Quickly rising to his feet, Heero took aim with his rifle and took out three blue-uniformed men running towards him. His brown eyes narrowing, Angie focused her semi-automatic on two men stationed above the shuttle on a catwalk.

With only a small handful of crew remaining, Heero ran towards the shuttle's side entrance just as its engines were revving up. As he climbed the rolling staircase that had been secured to the closed door, he took out a couple challengers along the way. Quickly opening the hatch, he ran to the front of the craft, kicking in the cockpit door.

The lone, terrified pilot looked up just as he was about to call up the last commands for an emergency take off. The white-haired man raised a shaking arm to aim his pistol. Without blinking in his charge, Heero batted away the gun with his own. As the frantic pilot rose to his feet, the ex-terrorist gripped his head in both hands and twisted his neck.

Just outside of the shuttle, Angie took aim of the last two crewmen that desperately tried to take control of their port again. With a smirk as she took cover behind a metal beam, the dark-haired pilot spotted several tanks of flammable gases below the balcony that they were firing from. Caution to the wind, she stepped out from her hiding place and rained bullets into the tanks, setting off a massive explosion.

With the first combustion starting a chain reaction, the storages of flammables went off one after another, beginning a slow but steady progression around the whole of the facility. Her brown eyes widening, Angie quickly made a run for the controls to the roof. Punching in the `Open' button, she looked up as the steel panels opened to the star-filled sky. At the sight, even with the building around her being engulfed with flames, she laughed in relief.

The door to the shuttle opened as Heero ran onto the stairwell as he tossed the body of the pilot aside. Finding the dark-haired woman, his cobalt eyes widened as he shouted, "Angie, come on! We have to get out of here!"

At the cry, Angie looked up to the ex-Wing pilot with wide eyes. Her senses regained, she ran up the stairs, only to slow and stop half-way up. Blinking in surprise, Heero yelled over the nearing explosions, "Angie, we're out of time! What are you-"

Shaking her head, the dark-haired young woman looked up and smiled sadly at him, "I'm already dead, Heero. If a member of White Out doesn't come to take me out, I'll face life in prison for treason-if not death. I've done all I could to make up for my mistakes."

Her hand reached to her belt to remove a pistol had been resting there. "A word of advice. Tim knows a great deal more than he and Isis have been letting on. Good luck," she grinned as she raised the barrel to her right temple.

"No, Angie, don't!" Heero screamed, his cobalt eyes widening in shock as he ran towards her. He was too late as she pulled the trigger, her limp and bloody body falling back and down the stairs in a heap.

With the explosions closing in, the Japanese pilot took his wide eyes from Angie's body to the approaching wall of fire. Turning quickly, he ran back into the shuttle and locked the hatch. With the engines already on and ready for lift, he jumped into the pilot seat and punched in the commands for take off.

"Come on," Heero muttered through gritted teeth, sweat rolling down his face. "Come on." As quickly as he was working, it did not seem to be fast enough as the deafening crashes came all the closer, threatening to engulf the craft. Finally, the shuttle responded and he pulled back on the joystick. The whole ship shook between the rough takeoff and the pressure of the explosions rolling around it.

Tightly closing his eyes, the ex-Wing pilot growled deeply as he pulled back with both hands on the stick, using all of his strength to get control of the craft. When the sounds of the blasts around him died down, he panted heavily and opened his eyes. As he peered out the window, he looked down to see that he was miles above the burning shuttle port as it was consumed by balls of light and smoke.

Sagging into his seat, Heero's eyes drifted closed as he continued to catch his breath after his brush with death. "I'm getting too old for this," he sighed deeply as he wiped the sweat from his brow.

As the events of that evening came rushing back, the Preventer took one last look to the burning remains of the shuttle port. With a deep frown, Heero whispered, "Thank you, Angie." Turning his head to gaze up to the starry heavens that awaited him, a small and relieved smile slowly tugged at his lips. With his hand gripped on the joystick, he pointed the nose of the ship upward and aimed it for the Earth spinning in the distance… home.

When he was several miles deep into space, Heero took up the radio. "This is Agent Yuy with the Preventers. I am trying to reach shuttle port number five-seven-three."

There was a brief pause for the call to reach the requested destination when a female voice greeted, "This is shuttle port five-seven-three, Agent Yuy. What is your approximate arrival time for landing?"

"Approximately twenty minutes," he answered. "But I need someone there to deliver an urgent message to Lady Une for me."

* * * * * *

Moments later, Lady Une was quickly walking down the hall of the Preventer headquarters. Massaging her hands anxiously, she searched the break areas. When she spotted the braided pilot she had been looking for curled up and sleeping on one of the sofas, she smiled in relief.

Cautiously approaching the couch as not to startle the ex-Gundam pilot, the Commander whispered, "Duo." His nose wrinkling in his slumber, the young man sighed deeply and wrapped himself tighter around his small form. Her smile growing at the sweet scene, Lady Une gently touched his shoulder and spoke a bit louder, "Duo. Wake up."

With a small moan, Duo's violet eyes blinked open as he looked up and yawned deeply. Stretching, he mumbled sleepily, "Hey, Commander. What's going on?"

As she trained her face to lose any trace of a smile, Lady Une answered, "I need you to come with me for just a moment. We may just have a break in finding Heero." His eyes widening, the American quickly got to his feet and followed after the young woman without another word.

His stomach churning in anticipation to what seemed to have his Commander convinced that there was finally a lead to where his lover was, Duo paced anxiously in the waiting room of the shuttle port. It was all that Lady Une could do to keep from spoiling the surprise early as she watched him from where she sat at one of the white couches.

"Private shuttle landing confirmed," a young woman's voice announced through the speakers overhead.

Unable to help her smile, the brunette young woman rose to her feet and nodded, "That would be them."

Swallowing hard, Duo looked to the double doors that led from the dock to the waiting room. When the doors finally opened, his heart stopped at the sight that walked through. Haggard and stained with blood, Heero slowly walked into the room. His weary cobalt gaze brightened when it fell on his lover. His voice cracking, he breathed, "Duo."

Unable to breathe, the American's mouth opened and closed as he remained stiff. When his best friend's arms opened, tears filled his violet eyes and with a sharp cry he ran to him. Locking each other in a fierce embrace as they nearly fell over, the two lovers clung onto each other as if afraid the other would disappear. Fighting his own tears, Heero rained kisses on his partner's braided head as the smaller pilot sobbed his name into his shoulder.

As she folded her hands together, Lady Une wiped at her own eyes at the endearing picture that they painted. With a wink to the Japanese pilot when he looked up to her, she stepped from the room to allow them some time alone.

When he pulled back, Duo examined his lover, the concern evident in his shimmering eyes at the sight of the blood on him. Gently cupping his face in his hands, Heero smiled reassuringly, "I'm fine. If anything, a little tired, but I'm all right."

Biting his lip, the braided pilot whispered brokenly, "God, Heero I was so scared." Throwing his arms around the Japanese Preventer's neck, he held on tightly as he trembled. Carefully breaking away enough to kiss him, Heero moaned deeply in the feel of the simple exchange as Duo melted against him to meet the chaste press of their lips.

Regretfully ending the kiss, the ex-Wing pilot caressed the side of his love's face and frowned, "I'm sorry, but we have to get back to headquarters. We'll have to catch up better later."

Duo swallowed hard, but nodded in understanding, "You have something to help solve the case?"

"Not really," Heero growled deeply as he looked away with narrowed eyes. "But Tim does."

 

Part 43

[On broken wings I'm falling and it won't be long
The skin on me is burning by the fires of the sun
On skinned knees I'm bleeding
And it won't be long
I've got to find that meaning and I'll search for so long]
-Lyrics to `Broken Wings' performed by Alter Bridge

Lady Une smiled as she took a glimpse in her rearview mirror to the two pilots lounging in the backseat of her Sedan. Heero laid stretch out to take up more than half of the seat as he leaned against the car door with Duo nestled in his arms and sound asleep.

The emotional strain that the braided pilot had endured while his lover was in captivity left him exhausted and despite his best efforts to stay awake, he drifted off not long after they pulled out from the shuttle port to return to headquarters. Lady Une couldn't help but smile all the more at recalling how hard the young man tried to stay awake after reuniting with Heero after fearing for him.

With a small smile as he looked down at his partner, Heero gently kissed the forehead resting against his shoulder. There was a soft sigh in response as Duo snuggled closer to him, seeking reassurance even in his sleep that he was still there. Gently squeezing the smaller pilot in his arms, the ex-Wing pilot rested his own head against the window of the door as he closed his own eyes for a moment.

The endearing scene brought another smile to Lady Une's face as she focused on the road again. Despite the fact that Heero looked worse for wear, himself, he certainly seemed renewed in being reunited with his lover. There would be time to ask what had happened while he was held and how he escaped later. The fact that her best agent and good friend had returned safely was all that really mattered to the Commander at that point.

Based on the rage determination that was in the ex-Wing pilot's cobalt eyes when he mentioned Tim, there were more pressing matters to be attended to. Her hands gripping the wheel at the slimy young man being held, Lady Une's own brown eyes narrowed on the road.

From the moment that he was brought in, the little coward had all of them convinced that he did not know anything. To now know that he was withholding possibly vital information threatened to snap every shred of composure that the Commander was holding on to. If he wanted to play games, she was more than willing to join in.

All bets were off now.

Opening his eyes slowly, Heero noted that they were nearing headquarters. As much as he wanted his partner to get the well-needed rest that he only began to catch up on, he needed him alert. Gently brushing the backs of his fingers over the other pilot's cheek, he urged quietly, "Duo. Wake up, love."

With a small hum, the American blinked his violet eyes open and peered up to his partner. His vision focusing, he smiled and muttered, "Hey. Are we back already?" A hand reached up to rub at his eyes.

"Almost," Heero replied softly. Frowning deeply, he said quietly, "I'm going to have to ask something of you."

His eyes opening fully in anticipation, the braided pilot nodded firmly in his resolve to do whatever was to be requested of him. In seeing how his lover was willing to carry out his wishes, regardless of how tired he was and without knowing what those wishes were, the Japanese pilot felt his heart strings tugging at him.

With a quick kiss to the smaller agent's head, Heero told him, "I need you to channel Shinigami for me. If we're going to get anything out of Tim, we can't afford to be hesitant to use whatever means necessary to get the answers we need. I know that you've been through a lot, but we can't afford to wait. I need this from you." And just like that, just because he asked, the violet eyes watching him changed in a blink.

There was a cold, piecing calculation behind them. It was a gaze that made the hairs on the back of Heero's stand, as they had whenever he saw that look during the war. Duo was no more as only the God of Death remained. With a dark and chilling smirk, the smaller pilot nodded firmly, "Done."

Squeezing his lover tightly in appreciation, Heero grinned in relief. Silently, he looked forward to when the nightmare of White Out had been eliminated so that Duo would never have to revert to his frightening persona. `Soon,' he told himself. `Very soon.'

As much as he looked forward to his partner finally leaving Shinigami to rest, the ex-Wing pilot was certain that the braided agent wished the same for him in leaving the Perfect Soldier behind for good.

Peering into the rearview mirror once more, Lady Une met the cobalt gaze that looked up when she offered, "I'm sure that you would want to get cleaned up before dealing with Tim." She made a small gesture to the bloody state of his gray T-shirt and blue jeans. "You could use the shower while I look for a change of clothes for you."

Heero shook his head, "No. I'll be going in like this. You said that he intimidates easily, so I want to use everything to our advantage when we deal with the little shit."

Slowly, a smug grin tugged the Commander's lips as the notion of a bloody ex-Gundam pilot handling her prisoner. "Very good," she remarked with a firm nod. "If it is all right with the two of you, I would like to be present. I don't want to miss a damn thing by having to sit back in the observation room."

With a mock air of authority as she straightened, Lady Une smirked, "Besides, I have to be there to be certain that the strict guidelines of proper interrogation are followed and that the prisoner's rights are not violated."

Chuckling deeply, Heero replied, "Of course, Commander Une."

* * * * * *

"You're shitting me!" Anna exclaimed as her jaw dropped at the sight of the very young man that she and her friends had been working tireless to find stepping into the room. While Trowa, Quatre and Noin remained still in their own shock with wide eyes, the redhead threw her hands in the air and laughed, "Aw man, you took away all the fun of a kick ass rescue mission!"

As he embraced the young woman when she rose from her seat and approached, Heero chuckled deeply, "Sorry to be a killjoy, Anna, but you were all taking your dear sweet time and I was getting bored waiting." He winked at her as he pulled back when she lightly hit him in the arm with a bubbly laugh.

Duo and Lady Une remained in the doorway of the computer lab as they watched the reunion between their friends. The Commander chuckled deeply and shook her head in amusement during the exchange. The braided pilot, on the other hand, remained still as he focused on the task he had at hand.

Trowa smiled widely as he shook hands with his disheveled friend and pulled him into a one-armed embrace. "Not even a souvenir for any of us from your trip?" he smirked. Rolling his cobalt eyes, Heero was rewarded with another round of laughter as he was tightly hugged by Quatre.

As she approached, Noin shook her head with a lop-sided grin as she commented, "Somehow, I am not the least bit surprised." After sharing a brief embrace with the Japanese pilot, she smiled, "Good to have you back in one piece."

Sighing deeply, Heero nodded and replied sincerely, "Thank you, Noin."

At that, Lady Une entered and announced, "Sorry to keep this short, but we're going to need the four of you in the observation room while Duo and Heero interrogate Tim. He's hiding something and be can't afford to miss anything when he finally does talk. With any luck, something he says will be linked to what you're deciphering on that data chip."

A relief washed over the four agents at the news. Quickly taking up a notepad from his desk, Quatre grinned, "Right behind you."

* * * * * *

After their brief reunion with their missing friend, Wufei, Sally and Zechs stepped into the observation room that looked in on the interrogation room. Smirking, the Chinese pilot folded his arms and leaned against the wall beside Trowa. "This ought to be good," he chuckled deeply, watching the young man sitting in the next room.

"I was half tempted to make popcorn to pass out," the Latin agent remarked. At that, Wufei sputtered in laughter.

Zechs moved to sit beside his wife as he sighed deeply, "I just hope that they spare some of him for the rest of us." With a small, sympathetic grin, Noin patted his leg in consolidation, fully understanding his frustration at not getting a shot at their smug prisoner yet.

Peering over her shoulder from where she sat at the table in the center of the room, Anna raised a hand and announced, "I believe that a friendly wager would be more than appropriate for this occasion. I have twenty bucks that says Heero and Duo will have that asshole crying for his momma and spilling everything in five minutes."

At that, Sally laughed, "That long? I'll see your bet. It'll only take them three minutes." Gesturing to the prisoner in the other room as he nervously rubbed the back of his neck as small sweat beads appeared on his brow, she smirked, "He's already panicking and he's just sitting and waiting for whatever is coming."

Quatre snorted, "Two minutes. Did you see the look on Duo's face? That alone will have Tim wetting himself." The others all laughed at their normally proper friend's choice of words as the betting continued.

Out in the hallway, Lady Une grinned to her two pilots as she walked to the holding cell. "Ready?" she asked with her hand on the door.

Just as she began to turn the doorknob, Heero told her, "Wait." When the Commander straightened, he walked up to the door and stated, "I don't want him to have a moment to prepare himself for what's coming." Reaching to her belt, he removed a pistol from its holster. As he held the weapon up, he explained, "And I'm not about to waste any time playing games."

More than satisfied with that, Lady Une nodded, "Very well." With that, she stepped aside as Heero looked back to his lover. With Duo right behind, the ex-Wing pilot turned the doorknob and quickly stepped inside.

When the door opened, Tim turned in just enough time to see a blood-splattered Heero Yuy stalking towards him with a fiery glare with Duo Maxwell quickly walking ahead of him. His grey eyes widening in terror at the sight of the threatening pair, his mouth opened and closed but he could do little more than whimper.

One swift kick from Duo sent the chair under the prisoner flying out from under him. As he collapsed to the ground, Tim hit his lower jaw onto the metal table with a loud crack, biting his tongue with a sharp cry of pain. Before he could even react, the sprawling young man was gripped by the throat in a choking grip as he was hauled up onto his shaking legs.

Blood rolling down the sides of his mouth, the captive panted heavily with wide eyes scanning the two pilots glaring at him. "W-what the fuck are you doing!" he cried in a gargled voice as Duo continued to grip his throat tightly, sweat rolling down the sides of his face as he desperately tried to calm his trembling legs.

"A little birdie just told us that you're hiding something from us," the God of Death smirked with a deep growl. "We want to know what that is."

The panic in those wide grey eyes grew as he sputtered while trying to catch his breath, "I-I don't kn-know what you're talking about! I d-don't know anything!"

Stepping forward, Heero smirked, "Really? That's not what Angie came to find out." Tilting his head, he asked, "Now what could she have found out that would make her believe that you know more than you're letting on?"

At the mention of Angie's name, Tim swallowed hard as best he could with his constricted throat. His smirk darkening into a sinister grin, Heero answered for him, "You were the one that had told Kent that Angie might have information to our whereabouts when we were hiding at the safe house, weren't you? That was how he became involved with her."

His bloody mouth opening and closing, the prisoner struggled to control his quick breathing. "How would you have known to tell him that Angie was the one he needed to get close to, when we have dozens of data record holders working for the Preventers?" the ex-Wing pilot questioned in a deep growl as he folded his arms.

"That was just a just a shot in the dark," the held young man quickly answered. "Angie was trying to get back at me for that by telling you that I know something to help in your investigation. I swear I don't know anything more than what you know."

Shaking his head, Heero told him, "She took her own life. If she thought that she was getting back at you in any way, she would have seen to it that she got to see you getting what she thought you deserved."

As he reached into his back pocket, the `Prefect Soldier' removed a folded sheet of paper and held it up. "Angie had planted this note on me as she helped me escape. The note says that she searched Isis's computed before she returned from an important meeting. Most of her records had been erased, but your name came up more than twenty times in the classified folders. Now why might that be, Tim?"

When the young man refused to answer, Duo lifted him from his feet before he could blink, hurling his back into the stone wall with a loud grunt. "I'm not going to wait all night for you to decide to speak up, you little shit!" the braided pilot yelled as the stunned young man came back to his senses.

Frantic, Tim looked to Lady Une as she stood leaning against the wall with her arms folded. "You can't let them get away with this!" he yelled, his eyes narrowed with what rage he could build from his fear. "There are strict laws that protect prisoners from treatment like this!"

With a nonchalant shrug, the Commander replied, "What treatment are you referring to? That you simply fell from your chair and hurt yourself? I certainly don't see anything wrong taking place here."

Tim's face paled in realization that he no longer had anyone coming to his aid. With a wink, the young woman suggested, "Just answer the questions, Tim. It'll be a lot easier for you. We won't be leaving this room until then."

Having reached the end of his patience, Heero removed the pistol from his pocket as he announced, "And I'm tired of waiting." As he aimed the weapon at the wide-eyed prisoner, he removed the safety and yelled, "What are you not telling us!"

"I-I don't," the captive muttered, staring down the barrel of the gun pointing to the small space between his eyebrows.

With a nod from his lover, Duo released Tim with a rough shove. Slamming against the wall once more, the fallen agent collapsed to the ground as he couched violently and wheezed for a deep breath of air at last. Heero bent at the knees to grab a handful of the young man's shirt and pulled him up onto his feet once more.

The room spinning around him, Tim finally focused on the pistol before his face as the Japanese pilot warned, "You're going to have a hard time telling us what we want to know with the barrel of this in your mouth."

Just as Heero forced his jaw to open with one hand while bringing the gun to fill his bloody mouth, Tim screamed in a shrill voice, "All right!" In a rush of words, he stated, "Isis had me assist her in filling the pardon of a prisoner named Jack Collins.

"I was the one who arrested him years ago for possession of stolen weapons and links to several terrorists. Part of the pardon paperwork requires the signature of the presiding law enforcer responsible for brining the prisoner in, if they feel that they are fit to return to society."

Peering from one glaring face to the next, he cried, "That's all that I know! I swear on my life!"

Quickly, Lady Une stepped from the room and entered the next door. Looking to the team inside as they were about to move out, she asked, "You got that?"

With a firm nod, Trowa answered, "Yes, Commander. We're going to pull up everything that we can find on Jack Collins right now."

"Good," she nodded firmly. "I want to be informed immediately when you learn anything. Zechs, Wufei, I want the two of you to take Tim back to his holding cell." With that, she moved back to the interrogation room.

When the Commander stepped back inside, she found Tim lying sprawled on the ground and unconscious with several bruises on his face. With a deep sigh, she turned to the amused pilots. Duo, no longer in his God of Death alter ego, smirked and shrugged innocently, "What? He's still alive."

Unable to force herself to come down on the young agents, Lady Une found herself trying to keep from laughing as she gestured to the door. "Yuy, get cleaned up," she ordered. "Maxwell, look for some clean clothes for him."

Running a hand through her long bangs, the Commander thought aloud, "I have to alert the agents coming in to start the day that they are all on standby to leave on a moment's notice should we need to move them to catch this Collins. Once you're finished carrying out your tasks, you're to rest up until I call on you."

The pair nodded with their affirmatives before going their separate directions. As he stepped out into the hallway with Wufei, Zechs shook his head and chuckled deeply, "Easiest hundred bucks I ever made." Rolling his dark eyes, the Chinese pilot grumbled under his breath about the injustice of missing the win by a mere thirty seconds.

* * * * * *

Sighing deeply as he stepped under the warm spray of water, Heero wiped his face with both hands as he enjoyed the simplistic joy of a hot shower. Reaching for the soap in the small porcelain dish embedded into the wall, his senses came alert at the soft footsteps of someone approaching.

The white shower curtain was pulled back as Duo peered in with a timid grin. The warmth from the water almost enticed him as much as the naked beauty before him.... almost. With a little more confidence in his smile, he asked, "Mind if I join you?

With a grin of his own, Heero nodded, "Sure." His breath hitched in his throat when the American stepped in, revealing his own nude body as he began to remove the small rubber band at the end of his braid. His mouth going dry, he could only manage a quiet, "Gods, Duo."

"You ain't so hard to look at, yourself, lover of mine," the braided pilot winked as he freed his tress to fall against his dampening skin. Taking up the soap, he swirled his index finger in the air and told him, "Turn around."

Without a word of protest, Heero turned his back to the other young man as Duo lathered his hands. Gently massaging the tense shoulder blades as he cleaned his lover's back, the long-haired agent chuckled deeply at the deep moan that his menstruations brought out. "Good?" he asked quietly.

"Um hm," the ex-Wing pilot hummed as his head fell back. Once his backside was cleaned off, he turned with a sincere and soundly kissed his partner. After their tongues enjoyed a brief dance together, he pulled back and whispered breathlessly, "I missed you. And I've been worried sick about you."

Duo swallowed hard, unwilling to trust his voice at that moment as he nodded. Biting his lip, he looked down to his bare feet. Gently taking the soap away from the other pilot, Heero smiled and began carefully washing his partner off.

The remainder of the shower was finished in silence as the two young men cleaned each other off. Once Duo's hair was shampooed and conditioned, he was unable to contain the raw emotions that were threatening to drown him any longer. With a stifled sob, the long-haired pilot began to tremble as tears formed in his violet eyes.

His own eyes widening, Heero finished rinsing the long hair in his hands before turning the smaller agent to face him. Frowning deeply in concern, he gently lifted his lover's chin with a whispered, "Duo? What's wrong?"

Quickly wiping at his eyes as the shower water washed the remainder away, Duo shook his head and breathed, "God, Heero, I was scared to death that I would lose you. I was going crazy trying to do something, God, *anything* to help and there wasn't a damn thing that I could do. I just felt so helpless."

"Shh," Heero soothed gently as he ran a hand over his partner's head. "It's all right now. I know that you did everything in your power to help me, Duo. That's more than I could ever ask from you in that situation."

Biting his lip, Duo breathed, "I love you." With another sob, he held tightly onto the ex-Wing pilot as he continued to tremble.

With a sad smile, the Japanese agent kissed the top of his head and replied just as softly, "And I you." Tightly wrapping his arms tightly around his partner's shaking body, he gently rubbed his back and waited patiently until the tremors stopped. Once Duo seemed to get a hold of his composure again, Heero pulled back and smiled as he cupped the side of his love's face, asking gently, "Better?"

Inhaling a long and deep breath, Duo nodded and grinned back as he leaned into the touch. Kissing the other pilot's forehead, the once Perfect Soldier smirked, "Good. Now let's go and try to get some sleep."

Once they made their way into their shared office with their hands joined, Heero moved to the closet. Removing one of the two wide mattresses that he and Duo had invested in for the event that they needed to work into the late hours of the morning, he opened the cot and set it in the center of the room. Biting his lip as he watched, the American played with the end of his braid nervously.

With the sheet and light blanket pulled over the mattress, Heero turned back in time to be assaulted by a fierce kiss. Carefully pulling his partner back as he panted for air, the wide-eyes pilot sputtered, "D-Duo? What in the-?"

"Make love to me," the braided agent pleaded quietly. His stunned best friend's mouth fell open as he spoke, "I just want the world to go away for even a moment. I just want to feel you and love you and have you love me back."

Resting his hands on the other young man's shoulder's, Heero asked softly, "Are you sure? Believe me that I want this more than anything, but I also know that you've been through a great deal these last couple of days especially. I don't want this to be something that you might regret later."

Quickly shaking his head, Duo's eyes filled with determination as he reassured him, "I'm fine. And I would never regret this."

With a deep growl, Heero pulled him into a passionate kiss as their hands roamed to undo buttons and remove their clothes. With the last of their attire pooled on the floor around them, the Japanese Preventer lifted his lover into his arms before carefully easing him onto the bed as he lied himself out atop of him.

* * * * * *

An hour later, Noin's eyes widened as the results of her search scrolled across the screen. "That's him," she whispered to herself. Typing a few commands to confirm her findings, she smiled in elation, "That's him!"

All but jumping from her seat, the young woman shouted to the others that had been working alongside her for nearly a whole day, "We've got our asshole!"

 

Part 44

[Uncle Sam taught him to shoot maybe a little too well
Finger on the trigger, loaded bullet
He hit the stage so full of rage
And let the whole world know it]
-Lyrics to `The Side of A Bullet' performed by Nickelback

Lost to him was the soft droning of the television as he cleaned one of his many rifles. As he worked away the tarnish, the long, black barrel shined in the fading lights of sunset shining through the windows of his otherwise dark and dingy apartment.

The ratty couch beneath him, the only piece of furniture in the small living room, creaked and moaned as he leaned forward to inspect his handiwork in the dim light. A steady, slow stream of smoke rose from the cigarette tucked tightly out of the corner of his mouth.

Outside, the sounds of people yelling and laughing filled the air. The occasional blaring of a car horn and squealing breaks would chime in. Life in the slums never was dull. He was almost going to miss his colorful surroundings when he would finally be able to leave… almost.

"Baby?" his companion for the evening called quietly as she stepped into the room. As she moved from the bedroom, she carried the smell of sex that lingered heavily there. Dressed back in her short, black dress, she pulled her long brown hair into a ponytail. She never even flinched at walking in on him cleaning the rifle in his hands. Such things were never out of the norm when living as they did.

As she sauntered towards him, her long legs slipping into the black heels waiting by the front door, he smirked. Without a word, he reached into the pocket of his jeans that he had left unbuttoned and unzipped. Removing the small wad of cash there, he held it out.

Her brown eyes brightening, she gave a smug smirk of her own. The pretty little thing took the money and gave him another glimpse of her breast as she secured her earnings in her bra strap, sealing it with a snap.

With their business arrangement at an end, the young woman walked from the room without looking back. The bolt clicked lightly into place as the door was closed after her. Removing the cigarette from his mouth, he released a puff of smoke and admired her intelligence. No questions and no comments that would get her in trouble.

She certainly had been worth every penny.

Having spent the last four years in prison, the lack of female companionship had certainly left him… edgy. It was a risk to bring her to his place, but he would not have hesitated in killing the pretty little thing the moment he thought that she might be trouble. Fortunately, for her, that was not an issue.

As he snuffed the small butt that remained of his drag in the ashtray sitting on the arm of his couch, he looked up to the anchorwoman smiling on the television. In a small box beside her was the image of his latest client. "With his approval rating dropping over the last few months, all eyes will be on President Millard in his public address scheduled to take place in three days," she announced.

"Now, with the Presidential election around the corner, all eyes will be on him and all ears will be listening to him and how he will address his controversial four years in office as the leader of the Earth. It certainly would be a presentation that is not to be missed by those concerned for the future of the Galaxy Alliance, which had been created following the Eve Wars."

Chuckling deeply, he took up the opened bottle of beer waiting at his feet. With a long swig, he leaned back in his sofa. Wiping his mouth with his arm, he smirked at the screen, "Oh, it certainly will be quite the show."

The sudden, shrill ringing of his vidphone cut through the air. His blue eyes narrowing, he lowered his rifle before opening the small monitor on the coffee table before him. The screen came to life to reveal a young man with ice blue eyes that nearly blended in with his white eyeballs. The blonde young man nodded firmly and spoke formally, "Jack Collins, I must keep this brief as we have a situation."

"A situation?" Jack repeated with a deep, frustrated frown. Lowering the beer bottle to the floor, he ran a hand through his short, reddish hair. "What do you mean `we have a situation?'" he gritted. "Who the hell are you and where is Isis?"

Slowly taking a deep breath as if his patience were being tried, the blonde-haired man on the screen replied simply, "Dead. We found her body just an hour ago."

Well that was certainly not what he had been expecting. Jack's blue eyes widened as he sank back in his couch. "Now," the clear-eyed man continued, "I have filled in her position of second in command. My name is Blake. I will be the one working directly with you from this point forward."

His throat dry at the graveness of the situation, the hired hit man swallowed hard. If Isis had been killed, how close were they getting to finding him? Suddenly, a wave of realization and rage flooded him. "What the fuck are you doing calling me here?!" Jack shouted as he rose to his feet, fists clenched at his sides. "There's no telling how deep they've breached your security! If they have any way of tracing this call-"

Blake cut him off by raising his hand and shaking his head, "I assure you that I would not have called without being certain the line was secure." His own eyes narrowing, he warned, "I would strongly suggest that you refrain from second guessing us. We could always find another `assassin' should we find you… expendable. Don't give me a reason to have you taken out of the equation permanently."

Knowing the truth behind the threat, Jack dug his fingernails into his palm as he clenched his fists all the tighter. It seemed there were members of the White Out Organization everywhere. There was little doubt that there would be agents stationed throughout the slums that he had been hiding in. All it took was an order to have him removed.

No one would concern themselves with trying to find a missing convicted felon, even if he was pardoned.

Satisfied that his warning served its purpose in stilling the hired hand as Jack slowly took his seat on the couch once more, Blake smirked arrogantly, "Now, this was merely a call to advise you to keep your eyes open and be certain to keep low until I contact you with the orders for what we have planned. We are too close to reaching our goals now to afford anything further to go wrong."

"Do I have your word that the agreement Isis and I had will not be compromised?" Jack demanded to know. "No disrespect meant, but I did not agree to this arrangement just to be hung out to dry."

With a firm nod, Blake replied, "You have my word. Your arrest following the assassination attempt will only last a few days before you're broken out. The assisted breakout will serve to increase the speculations that one or more of the Colony leaders had hired you to kill the President. I will have your payment wired to your secured account, where it will wait for you to access it the moment you are safe to access it."

His nerves easing at that, the hit man nodded in returned, "Fine. I will be moving to L1 within the next forty-eight hours to scope out the arena where the President will be delivering his speech, then."

The blonde agent grinned, "Excellent. I am sending a team to secure your surroundings in the event you should have any unwanted company. You need not concern yourself with who they are, just be aware that they'll be watching."

In other words, they would be watching him as well, Jack thought to himself. Should he try to run for any reason, they would be ready to take whatever necessary action to see that he did not get far. One thing he did admire about these clients of his-they certainly knew how to cover their bases.

Blake took a deep and even breath before stating, "Within the next twenty-four hours, I will be forwarding you the laid out plan for the President's route to the arena. It does not matter where you try to take your hit, so long as it is before he makes it inside the stadium." His smirk returned as he commented, "And of course I do not need to tell you not to actually hit your mark, just make certain that it looks good."

Snorting, the red-haired man replied, "Don't worry. I wouldn't want to have everyone after my head by actually killing him."

"Well then," Blake smirked, "It's a pleasure doing business with you, Collins. Should anything come up, you know how to contact me. Otherwise, we best not keep in contact from this point forward. Best of luck to you."

At that, the monitor went black. With a deep sigh, Jack slumped in his couch. Gazing out of his living room windows, he listened to the noises that came with the night life of the dingy streets below. He smirked to himself in thinking of how things would be changed in a matter of days, and no one was any the wiser.

Bending at the waist, the hit mat took up his rifle once more as he returned to the task of cleaning it. Just as he worked the tarnish from his weapon, he knew that he was going to be rewriting history and life as everyone knew it.

What a glorious day that was going to be.

Suddenly, with a sharp gasp, Jack's blue eyes widened and the cloth in his hand fell quietly to the shaggy carpeted floor. The Preventers were going to be looking for him. And he had let a loose tie go freely. If the wrong person got to her…

Well that certainly would not do.

Lowering the rifle, his feet thumped heavily on the floor as he made his way to his room. A dark smirk tugged at his lips as he smelled the musty air and prepared himself for what he had to do. If anything, this would give him a taste of what he had missed even more than any female companionship-the hunt.

* * * * * *

Consciousness slowly tugged Duo from his deep slumber. Humming to himself as he tried to remain in the peaceful oblivion that he rarely got to enjoy, the long-haired pilot snuggled closer to the warmth wrapped around him. As his senses returned, he was aware of the sheet draped lightly around his thin, bare waist.

Even before his eyes opened, the ex-Deathscythe pilot was suddenly flooded by the events that happened prior to his falling into a restful sleep. Slowly blinking his violet eyes open, Duo looked up to find himself alone in the cot that Heero had opened in the center of their shared office. Pushing himself up on his elbows, he turned to the large windows that overlooked the city skyline.

His back facing the bed, Heero stood at the middle window as he looked down to the city far below. Dressed only in a pair of black boxers, the Japanese Preventer's broad back and shoulder muscles were etched in the colors of the sunset that poured into the room. Those muscles, normally tense in anticipation and preparation to be used in a moment's notice, were actually at ease.

Smiling as he silently watched his lover, Duo lowered his head onto his folded arms and recalled how they had just made love hours earlier. It still amazed him how one as strong as Heero could suddenly become so gentle and careful with another person.

The ex-Wing pilot had gone to great lengths to see that he did not cause any more pain than necessary. In the end, the slow and easy pace of their lovemaking had surprised both of them and left both of them breathless.

After all that he had endured at the hands of his captors, Duo had feared that he might never feel comfortable enough to be with another person sexually. But, after fearing that he had lost the only person he ever loved, he needed to experience that with Heero and he threw caution to the wind. He had not regretted his decision.

More than the enjoyment of finally knowing what it was to be intimate on such a level, the American was finally able to put his painful experience and the nightmares that came with it to rest. While he would never be able to forget the ordeal, what happened between the two of them certainly proved to be a step in the right direction to healing.

Looking down to himself, Duo noted that his chest had been cleaned of the remnants of his partner's semen. Thinking back to how sticky he had been and imagining Heero would have had to clean him as he sleept, the long-haired pilot felt his cheeks burning. The emotional release that he experienced must have been as taxing as the physical for him to be able to be cleaned without stirring.

The blush deepened when he regretfully reminded himself of how he cried when they both found their release. While under normal circumstances Duo would have crawled in a hole and never see the light of day after enduring that embarrassment, he instead decided to go lightly on himself…

After all, considering the circumstances surrounding the event, it was understandable that he would be emotional. Heero had been more than understanding of the incident. Instead, he only whispered reassuringly to him as he held him tight until he fell asleep.

Despite how much he would have been content to just lie there and admire his partner forever, Heero turned at that moment to meet his violet eyes. His own cobalt eyes briefly widening before at seeing his lover awake, the Japanese Preventer smiled warmly as his shoulders eased once more. With a slight rasp in his deep voice, he whispered, "Hey."

Every inch of Duo ached at that moment to be back in his strong arms again, his wish to simply watch no longer enough to satisfy him. Quickly closing the distance between them as he sat on his side of the cot, Heero gently brushed away the long and loose hair from his best friend's shoulder to cup the side of his face.

Leaning into the touch, the American turned his face enough to place a kiss in his lover's palm. His smile growing at the gesture, the once deemed `Perfect Soldier' asked quietly, "Are you all right?" Concern began to fill his cobalt eyes as he frowned, "I mean, you're not in any pain, are you? I didn't-?" Just the thought of causing any pain to the other pilot caused his voice to crack, leaving him unable to finish his question.

Duo sat up, shaking his head fervently as he reassured him, "No, I'm fine. Really." Biting his lip, he fought another blush as he grinned, "Actually, I'm better than just fine."

With a relieved sigh, Heero's smile returned as he leaned in and kissed his partner gently. Pulling back reluctantly, he breathed against the other Preventer's lips, "Duo, that was… that was wonderful. I've never..." Again, his voice trailed off as he searched for words that he could not find to express justly what he was feeling.

It was adorable to the American to see the slightly frustrated look on his lover's face whenever he was speechless like this. While their lovemaking was monumental to his own healing, he was reminded of just how significant it must have been for Heero, how it must had shaken him to the core with emotions that he had not been allowed to experience before. That realization sent a chill running down his spine.

Leaning in, Duo kissed his lover soundly as he poured everything that he had into it. His lungs filled with the air from the deep sigh of the other pilot as he returned the gesture while holding him close to his bare chest. They both panted heavily when they finally broke for air. Their eyes locked on each other, Heero ran a hand through his partner's long hair and told him quietly, "You've given me a gift and I am forever grateful to you. I only hope that I continue to be worthy of you and all that you've shown me."

His eyes misting at the soft declaration, the American chuckled deeply, "Shit, Heero. You're going to have me crying like a little girl again if you keep that up." As he reached up to wipe at his eyes, Heero beat him to it as he lightly wiped at the small tears that rolled down his heart-shaped face.

Swallowing past the lump that had formed in his throat, Duo leaned into the touch once more and smiled lovingly, "I'm just as honored to be with you. Don't forget that that goes both ways." Gently kissing his partner's lips, he stated softly, "I love you, Heero Yuy."

It was the ex-Wing pilot's turn to get misty-eyed as he grinned back and breathed, "Ashiteru, Duo Maxwell." Sealing their declarations with another kiss, they were interrupted with a soft knock on the door.

Both moaning and sighing deeply when they parted, the pair quickly rose from the cot to throw on their clothes as Heero called, "One second." Being the first to throw his shirt on, he moved to the door to open it enough that only his top half was revealed.

Standing out in the hall, Wufei gave him a firm nod and stated simply, "We have to get moving. There is a lead on Jack Collins." That said, the Chinese pilot turned and made his way back down the hall, knowing better than dwelling on details at that moment.

* * * * * *

After learning that they had a break in their search, it only took a matter of minutes for Heero and Duo to throw themselves together. The American could not recall a time that he managed to braid his hair so quickly. Just as they were making their way to the conference room, they ran into a few of their friends along the way.

Everyone took their seats at the large, round table at the center of the room as Lady Une stepped in last and closed the door behind her. Lowering the large stack of papers that she was carrying on the center of the table, she announced, "I have a copy of the mug shot and everything that we have on record regarding our friend, Jack Collins, for each of you."

While she continued to speak, the agents took up their copies of stapled reports from the table, passing them around until everyone had one. "Thankfully for us, his pardon was granted less than a month ago. Even if he is acting under an alias as of now, he had to move on under his actual name. That was how Noin was able to find him."

The short-haired Agent Fire smirked as her friends all smiled in admiration for her efforts. "We now know that Collins had flown to L6 following his release," the Commander informed. "Every shuttle port has photo identifications of every passenger, regardless of their registered name and after searching through their records, we know for certain that he has not left the Colony since he arrived there.

"I have informed all of the shuttle ports since then and forwarded his image with the orders that he is not allowed to leave the Colony. Like it or not, he is going to be stuck on L6 while our teams comb the area for him," Lady Une smirked.

Looking through his thick stack of reports on the young man that was now their only tie to the White Out Organization, Zechs commented, "Even if he is suck there, it would take days for us to snuff him out. L6 is considerably small compared to the other Colonies, but it is still a lot of ground to cover."

At that, the Commander nodded, "That is why I am in the process of getting three different squads together to assist all of you in this as they are spread in the different counties. Obviously, I am going to have the lot of you working together. There is no sense in splitting all of you up with the risk of having another incident where someone could be taken in."

Quickly looking over her own stack of papers, the brunette young woman held up the map layout of L6. A large, red circle wrapped around a designated spot. "This," she began, "shows the area that you will be covering. This area covers the ten miles surrounding the shuttle port that Collins landed in.

"While it's just a hunch, I think it is safe to say believe that he would not have moved on further than that. This is where I am sending you. The other teams will be working out from the only other three shuttle ports located on the Colony. From there, you'll all spread out until you meet in the middle."

All around, heads were nodding their understanding and satisfaction with the plan of attack. Taking a deep breath, Lady Une frowned deeply in concern, "Now, I know for all of you that you're running on little to no sleep over the last few days. You've all been through a great deal and you're only going to be putting yourselves at more risk by committing yourself to this mission."

Slowly scanning the faces watching her, the Commander told them, "There would not be any shame if you wish to sit out of this. And I believe that I speak for everyone here when I say that no one would think less of anyone that wanted to back out now. But, speak up now or forever hold your peace."

The agents all looked to each other with smug looks in their eyes. Finally, after a long pause, Trowa turned to his head forward to the young woman standing at the front of the room and smirked, "Pardon my language, Lady Une, but I also think that I speak for everyone here when I say that we don't want to rest until we get these fuckers."

Everyone laughed loudly, nodding their agreement. Raising her hand, Sally grinned from ear-to-ear as she exclaimed, "Amen to that!"

One-by-one, the agents echoed their own agreement to the sentiment. With a pleased grin, Lady Une nodded firmly, "I figured as much." Her smile fading, she ordered, "I want you ready by the top of the hour. You will be the first team to arrive on L6 and your shuttle will be leaving at that time."

That said, the agents all rose to their feet, backs straight and arms up and in a salute to the Commander. With a small smile, Lady Une told them quietly, "Good luck, all of you." Turning on her heels, she headed out of the room.

As she picked up her stack of papers, Anna grinned widely to her friends, "Time to lock and load, y'all." That said, she walked carefully on her healing leg without a brace as she and Trowa led their tight-knit group from the conference room.

Biting his lip, Duo stayed in the back of the group and moved to the large windows. With the sun finally under the horizon, the street and building lights broke through the darkness. Far below, the headlights of hundreds of cars moved across the maze of streets, bridges and highways. It was almost surreal to the braided pilot to realize that despite the trials that they were dealing with, life still went on.

Heero quietly walked up beside him, resting a hand on his shoulder and squeezing it gently. "You all right?" he asked quietly, the concern drenched in his voice.

Slowly turning his head to meet his partner's eyes, Duo nodded, "Yea. I just hope that this turns out the way that we hope it will." Shuddering, he looked back out the window and whispered, "I want this to finally be over."

A small smile tugged at the ex-Wing pilot's lips. Placing a soft kiss on Duo's temple, he reassured him quietly, "Soon. I promise it'll be over soon." Silently hoping that his words would be some sort of condolence, he was rewarded with a sincere smile that met his lover's violet eyes. Hand-in-hand, the two agents left the empty room together to prepare for the long flight ahead of them.

* * * * * *

She certainly was a lot heavier than he remembered when she had been straddling him mere hours ago. It was a bit of a struggle for him to pull the plastic bag along the riverbank while avoiding trees and shrubbery along his way. Finally, he reached his destination in the thickest of the wooded area.

With a deep grunt, Jack hurled the bag over the grassy ledge. On its way down the side of the short hill, the body thumped and a few sickening cracks of bone filled the air before the bag splashed roughly into the river.

Removing his work gloves, the hit man watched from the ledge as the heavy remains drifted off before they finally sank below the water. As he placed a cigarette in his smirking lips, he lit up and strolled away from the bank. Along his way to his black car, he appraised the wad of cash that he had retrieved from her bra strap after slitting her pretty little neck.

She certainly had been worth every penny.

 

Part 45

[Chances Thrown, nothing's free
Longing for what used to be
Still it's hard, hard to see
Fragile lives, shattered dreams]
-Lyrics to `The Kids Aren't All Right' performed by Offspring

She ran.

As fast as her feet could carry her, she ran as the planned rainfall began to fall. The tears running down her face melded with the drops that began to drench her. Without taking a moment to look back to see that she wasn't spotted, she darted through the empty street and into the familiar alleys that she had worked for years.

Her shoulder-length, blonde hair matted to the sides of her face as her mascara and make up was smearing along her pale features. Her leather, knee-high boots splashed through the puddle that began to form under her feet.

The short, grey halter dress that she wore did very little to protect her from the chill that now filled the damp air, but she was not even aware of the cold. The cool water only made the material stick to her slender form like a second skin.

With as dark as it was that night, the occasional lit window from the apartment buildings and shops at either side of her did little to light her way. Only her knowledge of the area kept her from running into anything as she fled through the narrow ways. When she had to charge across streets, she narrowly avoided the passing cars.

Panting and sobbing as she charged her way through the maze of buildings and the occasional cardboard box that housed the homeless as she neared the center of what was known as `Slum Village', her wide brown eyes hardly focused on what was ahead of her. All that she kept thinking of was the last image that she saw before she fled for her life.

Two hands appeared from nowhere, grabbing her shoulders and gripping on tightly. As fast as she had been running, the sudden attack left her to stumble back and she slipped on the wet ground. Falling backward, she cried in shock just before the wind was knocked out of her when she hit the cement with a wet thud.

Overhead, the only light source in the dark alley came from a single street lamp meant to keep the alley safe. Clawing at the soaked ground, she moved herself back into the light in hopes that someone would see her.

Even in her terrified state, she thought bitterly how the people living in the apartment complexes at either side of the alley would not come to her aid. Prostitutes were killed every day with no one lifting a finger to assist them. Why would anyone come to help her even if she could cry for help? Still, she moved into the lone and bright circle in what she could only pray were not vain hopes that she might be saved.

Desperately struggling to get her breath, she wheezed and whimpered while frantically trying to fight off the hands that now came towards her through the darkness. Finally getting a full breath, she did the only thing that she could… she screamed. As loudly as she could, she screamed until her lungs burned.

Through the haze of her panic, she felt the hands grip her shoulders once more and with an even tighter hold. "Dawn!" a voice cried out desperately. The face that belonged to the voice, framed by long black hair, drew close until it was finally lit by the street light.

Panting heavily, the young woman forced herself to focus on the concerned brown eyes watching her. All but instantly, Dawn recognized her friend and moaned as she choked back a sharp sob. "Jasmine," was all that she could manage in a whimper as she latched onto the other prostitute, shaking violently from her fear and the chill that was sinking in.

Quickly removing her brown, woolen shawl, the Hispanic young woman draped the damp, but warm fabric around her friend's bare shoulders. "Come on," Jasmine whispered reassuringly as she assisted the trembling blonde onto her feet. "Even the walls have ears around here." With her arms wrapped tightly around the frightened young woman's waist, she led down a couple more blocks of alleys.

Finally, the pair reached the cellar doors that belonged to an abandoned shop. It was one of the common hideouts for `the girls' when they needed a quick escape when avoiding the many dangers that came with their profession.

Roughly pulling open one of the heavy double doors, Jasmine urged her frantic friend down the stairs before her. Once Dawn was safely inside, the Hispanic young woman eyed the alley around her for any wandering eyes. Content that no one had seen them, she pulled the door closed as she descended into the darkness.

Moving with practiced ease that did not need the initial assistance of light, Jasmine reached the table at the center of the room. She found the box of matches just where they were last left and struck one of the sticks to brighten the room with its warm glow as it burned. Dawn was already sitting in the corner furthest from the cellar doors, shaking as she wrapped the shawl tighter around her thin shoulders.

Concern etched on her face, Jasmine quickly lit the five candles on the table before moving to the pile of blankets that `The Girls' stored in the metal shelves along the walls along with nonperishable foods and other needs. Life on the streets certainly was easier when one was prepared for anything. Such was the motto for call girls like themselves.

After grabbing the first blanket from the stack, the dark-haired young woman headed back to her friend. "Here," Jasmine urged in a quiet and soothing voice as she knelt down before the blonde woman, her black leather outfit crackling with her movement. Carefully, she removed her wet shawl to wrap the frightened prostitute in the dry blanket.

"T-thank you," Dawn whispered, her teeth chattering. Despite the fact that she was damp, the chill of the night was no longer what had her shivering. Still, she drew the blanket tightly around her.

Gently rubbing her friend's arms, Jasmine frowned deeply, "What the hell happened? You looked as if the Devil, himself, was chasing after you."

Having to think back to the incident that had taken place moments ago, the blonde call girl's eyes widened as her breath came in short pants. "C-Celeste. She was murdered! I saw it!" Dawn cried as tears filled her gaze.

Jasmine's own brown eyes widened at the announcement as the other young woman clung to her once more. Holding her friend tightly, she ran a hand over her wet, blonde hair soothingly as she rocked her.

"O-one of the Johns that took her in earlier came back," Dawn spoke through her sobs. "He slit her throat!" she shrieked. "I watched her gasping for air as blood sprayed out of her! When she was dead, he bagged her body."

Her body wracking with sobs, the murder witness shook her head and pushed back from the Hispanic young woman. Backing herself into the corner once more, Dawn whimpered, "He threw her body in the trunk. That was when I started running back here."

With her friend shaking violently once more, Jasmine tried to contain her own panic. Gripping the other prostitute's shoulders, she forced her to meet her steady gaze. "Dawn," she spoke in a firm voice. Brushing her blonde, damp bangs from her eyes, she waited until she knew that she had the scared young woman's full attention. "Did he see you? Are you sure that he didn't follow you?" she asked.

Swallowing hard, Dawn desperately tried to piece the fractured pieces of the events that had recently taken place. When she was reasonable certain, she shook her head, "No… I don't think that he saw me. I heard him start the car as I ran off, so he didn't follow me, but I didn't want to take any chances." As the realization that she was safe really sunk in, the startled young woman began to settle down a bit.

Mildly relieved by the information, the dark-haired call girl sighed deeply and nodded, "All right." She rubbed her friend's arms again and nodded again to reassure herself, "It'll be all right." Jasmine fought her own tears at the loss of her friend, Celeste, but the harsh reality was that their lifestyle came with dangers when it came to bedding with strangers.

There was a long and heavy silence that fell over the pair as they sat, lost in their own thoughts and silently grieving their `sister'. In the end, they dealt with the reality that they- the other girls in their small but tight-knit group- would be the only ones that really knew and understood their fallen friend.

Dawn ran through the events of the brutal murder in her mind again. Instead of fear, a building rage coursed through her, urging her to recall the killer. The dark alley that he had lured Celeste in had obscured the blonde young woman's vision until her friend began to struggle. As she tried to run, the lithe brunette ran into the abandoned street and under a lamp just as her attacker caught up and slit her throat.

It was the smug smirk on the tall man's face that the blonde witness focused on. Etching that grinning face into her memory, she forgot her original panic as she felt her blood boiling. He thought that he was going to get away with the act. If she didn't do something about it, he had every reason to believe that.

"We have to report this," Dawn suddenly spoke up as she lifted her head, resolve slowly filling her eyes and steadying her voice. Even her shaking had dulled a bit. "Jasmine, we have to do something about this."

At the thought of going to the police, Jasmine snorted bitterly and shook her head, "And how far do you think the officers that watch over these slums will take the time to investigate just another of countless murders involving a one of our own? Who would believe you or even care for that matter?"

With a deep sigh, she brushed back her dark bangs and looked back to the candles on the table. Quietly, she mumbled, "Even if prostitution is legalized on this Colony, it's only because more than half of the law makers and keepers come to us for our services. There is not a cop in the district that would take this case seriously."

Her brown eyes narrowing, Dawn rose to her feet. "If I have to go alone, then I will," she announced. "I can't just forget what happened. Every time I close my eyes, I keep seeing that man's face. And I keep hearing Celeste's screams in my ears."

Biting her lip, she rubbed her arms under the deep green blanket that was still draped around her shoulders. "I have to do something," she whispered as tears filled her vision again. "If it had been one of us, Celeste would have made sure that something was done. Somebody needs to know about this."

Jasmine silently regarded her `sister' as she remained as she slowly rose. Their brown eyes locked, she sighed deeply, "Okay."

Gently brushing away the few tears and mascara lines that rolled down her friend's face, the Hispanic call girl suggested, "Let's at least head back to my place so you can clean up a bit before we head to the station." With a quick glance down to their attire, she smirked, "And we better find something a little less suggestive."

A tentative, relieved smile tugged at Dawn's lips as she nodded firmly, "Thank you."

* * * * * *

Relena sighed deeply as she sat back in the soft chair that she had been sitting in for the last two hours. Between her kicking baby and her concern for Quatre and the others, sleep was difficult to come by. To fill the late hours, she busied herself with the knitting that she picked up not long after learning that she was pregnant.

At her feet, Yuuki kept her constant vigil over the blonde politician as she lay over her bare feet. Smiling to herself, Relena bent down to gently scratch behind the collie's ear. The pup turned her head enough to lick at her fingers.

Out in the hallway of the elaborate estate, heavy footsteps approached the one of five living rooms. Stretching his bearded head in, Rashid nodded to the young woman and asked, "Is everything all right, Miss Relena?"

With a wide smile, the Vice-Foreign Minister chuckled deeply, "Rashid, you and the others know that you can just call me Relena. We're all family, after all."

The last statement was not spoken lightly or with any trace of humor. Ever since she and Quatre announced their relationship, Rashid and all of the Maganacs treated Relena like one of their own. They were the first to welcome her into their lives with open arms and that was something that she was always grateful for.

A deep blush burned the tall man's face as he replied, "I am afraid that it is not as simple as you say, Miss Relena. I've known Master Quatre since he was young. And even with that and his insistence that I do not, I still would never feel comfortable calling him anything other than Master Quatre."

Her smile warming, Relena shook her head in amusement, "Very true." Lowering the tiny, light green sweater that she was making into her lap, she answered his earlier inquiry, "I'm fine, thank you for checking up."

Nodding, Rashid grinned, "Then, I'll bid you a good night. If you need anything, just let us know." That said, he tuned and made his way up to the second floor.

"Good night, Rashid," the blonde politician called after him with a small grin. With a deep sigh of content, she focused back on her little project.

Just then, the vidphone began to ring. Turning to the small received on the table before her, the blonde young woman frowned deeply, "Now who would be calling at this hour?"

Carefully opening the small monitor as she took up the vidphone, she gasped with wide eyes at the face smiling at her. "Quatre," she managed in a broken whisper as tears of relief filled her eyes at seeing her fiancé for the first time in days that seemed like years.

Waving at her, the Arab pilot grinned lovingly, "Hey, there, beautiful. I had a funny feeling that you would still be awake. How are you and our little one?"

As she wiped her tears away, the young woman broke out in a smile that threatened to split her face. "We're fine," she nodded. Rubbing her swollen stomach, she commented, "Just anxious to have you back home."

"Well, it's looking like that may be pretty soon," Quatre replied. "Heero has been recovered safely."

Relena's blue eyes widened in surprise as she took the information in. "W-well, that's wonderful," she sputtered as she laughed in elation. "How is he? Duo must be so relieved to have him back."

A shrill cry broke through the air of the shuttle, causing Quatre to jump and look to the opened door of his quarters. "All right! Who put Jello in my hair gel bottle!?" Wufei's voice screamed from the direction of the shower room.

The sound of running footsteps approached the quarters, fleeing from the direction at which the Chinese agent had been shouting. In a flash, the blur of a hysterical Duo and Anna sped past Quatre's open door. Shaking his head as he turned back to the monitor, the Arabian pilot shrugged and spoke over his lover's bright laughter, "Well, as you can see, Duo's back to his good old self."

Chuckling deeply, the ex-SandRock pilot commented, "They're both fine and they send their best. I had to call on a secured line and I have to keep this short." He chuckled deeply, "Duo's was hoping to tell you, himself, and thank you for your support. Once we're finished here, they'll be catching up with you personally."

Her head tilting, the politician frowned, "When you're finished?" Suddenly, she recalled what her lover had mentioned before and her eyes widened once more. Leaning forward, Relena tried to keep her rising hopes in check as she inquired, "What did you mean by saying that you might be coming home soon?"

Quatre grinned and his eyes sparkled with anticipation. "There is a new lead," he stated. "We just left the Earth an hour ago to follow up on it." Taking a deep breath, he leaned in closely to the screen. "This should be the one that will finally get us to the bottom of this case," he told her quietly.

Nearly dropping the vidphone from her lap, Relena gasped sharply as she gripped it tightly. "You're kidding me!" she yelled when she finally stabilized the small receiver.

Laughing, her lover shook his head, "Not at all. I can't give all of the details, even if this is a secured line, but I promise that I'll be in touch with you as soon as I can."

As she raised her hand covering her mouth with tears of relief ran down her face, Relena smiled and nodded, "Okay. I'll be waiting." She kissed her fingers and rested them on the screen as she breathed, "I love you and please be careful."

"I love you, too. And I will be," Quatre whispered back as he returned the gesture, resting his hand over hers. Fighting the tears in his own eyes, he said quietly, "Bye." With that, the screen went black as the connection was cut.

Biting her lip, Relena breathed to the blank screen, "Bye." Slowly closing the vidphone and replacing it on the table, the young woman sat back in the soft chair. A small kick pushed against her hand that was still resting on her belly. Chuckling deeply, she rubbed her stomach and whispered, "Daddy's going to be home soon, little one."

* * * * * *

Gazing out to the millions of stars ahead of him in deep space, Heero sighed deeply as he settled back in the pilot seat of the shuttle bound for Colony L6. Even at top speed, it would be at least another eight hours before he and his team would reach their destination. "Hey," a familiar voice greeted quietly.

As he turned, the Japanese pilot smiled warmly as he watched Duo float down into the copilot seat. "Hey," he replied softly. "Can't sleep?"

The ex-Deathscythe pilot snorted, "Are you kidding? I've been more nervous that a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs ever since we found out about this lead." Resting a reassuring hand on his lover's shoulder, Heero squeezed it in support. With a small smile, Duo reached up to rest his own hand atop his partner's to squeeze it back. "Thanks," he whispered.

Looking back out to the stars, the once proclaimed `Perfect Soldier' removed his hand and smirked mischievously, "I can try to help with that if you want." As he peered out of the corner of his eye, he stated, "Zechs is taking over in about twenty minutes."

Duo hummed and returned the sly smirk as he replied, "I'm open for suggestions."

Just beyond the cockpit, they could hear approaching footsteps just before Wufei's voice yelled, "Yuy, Barton, I am very sorry but I am going to have to kill Maxwell and Dawson the next time I see them!"

The steps moving closer, Duo winced, "Shit." looking around frantically for a place to hide, he opened the small storage hatch beneath the copilot seat.

Heero watched him in amusement. Shaking his head as he folded his arms, he chuckled deeply, "What did you do?"

"Just something to ease up the tension around here. I'll tell you later," Duo whispered with only his head peeking out from the storage space. His violet eyes blinking innocently, he begged quietly, "Cover for me?"

Meeting his partner's gaze, the ex-Wing pilot grinned, "Always do." With a wide smile, Duo winked at him before sinking into the bin, closing the hatch door after him.

As he fought the laughter building in his chest, Heero turned back to watch the stars again. It was amazing to him at how just a few years ago, he would have reprimanded Duo for his pranks. Now, it was a joy for him to see his partner gravitating to his jovial self.

It surely was a relief to have something to laugh about, considering the approaching storm.

* * * * * *

"So you got a good look at his face?" the young officer asked, his arms folded over his desk as he leaned on them. His badge flashed over the florescent lighting with his name `Dan Ashford' displayed proudly. As he scanned the two young women sitting across from him, he tried to contain the amused smile that threatened to tug at his lips.

Dawn looked over to her friend beside her for support. Meeting her gaze, Jasmine nodded firmly. As she swallowed hard, she nodded, "Yea. Thin face with a strong jaw line, short and reddish hair, and I'm pretty sure his eyes were blue."

Nervously, the blonde call girl adjusted the long, black skirt that her friend had lent her. Even with her conservative attire, Dawn couldn't help but feel naked when the dark-haired officer's grey and scrutinizing eyes fell on her. Jasmine lightly kicked her leg with a heeled shoe in a subtle gesture to remind her to stop fidgeting.

With a deep sigh, the young man nodded, "I see. Well, as I am sure you know, women of your profession are always at high risk for random acts of violence such as this." His hands flat on his desk, he pushed himself up unto his feet as he continued, "Best that I can do is call in the incident so that our patrolling staff can keep their eyes open.

Jasmine glared at him and frowned deeply, "You never even wrote down the description. A lot of good your call will do if you don't even remember what the killer looks like." To her right, Dawn shifted in her seat again.

Now giving into the smirk that he had been fighting, the officer Dan pointed to his forehead and told her, "It's all right here, sweetie." Straightening, he told them, "Now you two ladies better get back home for the night. We'll do what we can."

Reluctantly, Dawn and Jasmine rose from their seats across from him. The blonde young woman's eyes narrowed heatedly at the cocky young man. Gently resting her hand on her friend's shoulder, the Hispanic prostitute told her quietly, "Come on."

Turning slowly, the pair stepped from the small office. When he was alone, Dan laughed quietly to himself and shook his head. As he took up the few notes that he did make at the start of the interview, he sighed deeply, "Like I have time to be bothered with another one of these."

After crumpling the papers, he tossed them into his waste bin.

* * * * * *

"Okay, everyone, listen up," the Chief Monitor announced to the morning staff as they filed into the conference room. The attendants and shuttle port check in reps took their seats at the desk in the center of the room. "I know you just started your shifts, so you have not been briefed," the large man began.

Handing out the photocopies of the image and reports he received, the Chief stated, "If any of you deal with this gentleman, I want you to contact security immediately. He is wanted by the Preventers and believed to be hiding on this Colony.

"Since they do not know where he is exactly, all of the shuttle ports, like ours, are on high alert. This man is not to leave the Colony under any circumstances. Now I will be filling you in on the steps that we will be taking in this situation before I open the floor to your questions and concerns…"

An hour later, the last of the ticket agents to leave the meeting ducked into the private restroom used only by the staff. Locking the door behind him, he wiped at the sweat that began to dot along his wide brow. Quickly removing his cell phone and using the speed dial, the young man gripped the report that he had been handed at the meeting in his other hand.

Swallowing hard when he heard the deep voice on the other end answer the call, he kept his wide, green eyes on the image of the wanted man. "Sir," he whispered gravely. "We have a serious problem."

 

Part 46:

[I'm worse at what I do best
And for this gift I feel blessed
Our little group has always been
And always will until the end]
-Lyrics to `Smells Like Teen Spirit' performed by `Nirvana'

"Shit!"

The pilots gathered at the round table laughed as Zechs threw down the cards in his hands. At his left, Wufei lowered his bare feet from where they were propped up on the table as he laughed, "Finally got him on a round."

Duo shook his head with a smug smirk, "My how the mighty fall." Looking to the pile of clothes beside him than included his black ball cap and shoes, he was silently grateful that he didn't have to remove his shirt yet.

Even though he did not believe his friends would make him uncomfortable, Duo still felt subconscious with the scars and abrasions on his chest and body that remained after his ordeal with the White Out Organization. Thankfully, no one gave him a hard time over the extra layers of clothing that he wore to the announced game of strip poker.

Sitting across from the tall blonde in a deep green bra and gray jeans, Sally wiggled her eyebrows and smirked, "Come on, Zechs. Shirt off."

Beside her braided friend, a fully clothed Noin chuckled deeply, "That's right, sweetheart. Rules are rules." With a quick once-over, she grinned, "Besides, that's the first hand it's not like you couldn't afford to lose anything."

With a good-humored snort, Zechs relied, "I just don't like losing." Raising a long eyebrow at his wife, he smirked and warned, "And I wouldn't be so smug. You're time is coming, lover of mine."

"Enough talk!" Anna, clad in only a violet bra and lack boy-shorts, ordered with a loud clap of her hands. "Strip!" Trowa, Duo, Sally and Noin nearly fell out of their seats laughing before their voices rose in chants of `Strip! Strip!'

Rolling his eyes, the tall blonde rose from his seat and removed his red T-shirt to reveal his muscled torso. As he dropped it to the floor while taking his seat, the girls cheered, whistled and clapped while the young men just laughed at finally getting revenge at the previously undefeated card player.

Across the large room, on the couch in the corner, Heero looked up from the book that he was reading. With an amused chuckle, he shook his head before focusing back on his reading. While another round began, Duo looked over his shoulder to watch his lover and grinned, "Hey, Heero, it's still not too late to join in if you want."

Their eyes meeting, the Japanese pilot raised a hand and smirked, "Thanks, but I think I'll stay out of this one. Thanks for the offer, though." Duo gave him a pout that just made him laugh again as he returned to his book.

"Okay," The braided pilot finally relented with a wide smile. "Your loss." That said, he turned back to watch his hand.

Heero was not a few lines further along before he heard Noin, "Goddamn it!" The room filled with explosive laughter once more along with chants of `Strip! Strip!' Just as she rose from her seat and reached up to unbutton her white blouse, the young woman stopped when the sound of static rang over the speaker system.

After the sound of a clearing throat, Quatre's voice announced, "Sorry to have to interrupt your game, everyone, but we'll be arriving on L6 sooner than expected. We will be landing in an estimated twenty minutes."

With a deep sigh of relief, Noin smirked, "Not a moment too soon." The others at the table grumbled in disappointment as they retrieved their piles of clothing.

"Next time, Noin," Sally warned with a deep chuckle as she threw her deep blue T-shirt back on. "We'll have to pick this up another time. I still want to find out who is wearing boxers and who is wearing briefs."

All around, heads nodded in agreement of a promised game in the future as the pilots laughed at the unexpected comment from her. Heero approached the table to collect his partner while Duo took up his sneakers and cap. As they dispersed into their respective pairs when they were in the hallway, the team went about their needed preparations for landing.

On the way to their room, Heero checked his watch. "It'll be about noon when we leave the shuttle port," he thought aloud. Lowering his arm, he nodded in satisfaction, "At least we'll have a better part of the day to start searching once we get there."

Duo nodded. Taking his braid into his hands, he fiddled with the end in his nervous gesture and inquired, "Any game plan as to how we're going to go about search?" With a deep frown, he raised his braided head and commented, "I took a good look at the satellite images of the cities we're responsible to look into. Their populations are also mapped out in that packet Lady Une passed out."

Running a hand through his long bangs, the American sighed deeply, "You do realize that we're going to be looking for a needle in a haystack, right? Even if there is a chance that Collins is in one of the areas closest to the shuttle port that he arrived in, we have one of the largest sections of the Colony to check out, compared to the other teams that are being sent in."

Gently resting a hand on his lover's shoulder, Heero squeezed it and said quietly, "Well, the fact that he won't be permitted to leave L6 works to our advantage. He won't be able to hide anywhere on the Colony that we won't eventually check out. Besides, you and I, alone, have pulled off searches in the past where we faced worse challenges than the one that we're dealing with here."

The `swish' of announced the door to their quarters opening and pair stepped into the room. With a deep sigh, Duo sat at the edge of their shared bed. His violet eyes staring out and losing their focus, he rubbed his hands together.

"I'm sorry that I'm being so negative right now in regards to this whole search, Heero," the ex-Deathscythe pilot began quietly, "But after all of the set backs that we've hade to endure throughout this investigation, it's very hard for me to be optimistic that this lead will pan out where every other opportunity he had evaporated before us."

Kneeling before his partner, Heero rested his hands on either shoulder and waited patiently until the other pilot's eyes focused and met his. With a small and reassuring smile, he whispered, "Yes, but we have to get lucky at some point, right? You said yourself years ago that all it takes is one good break."

At that, Duo swallowed hard and rubbed his arms. "I'm trying to think that way again," he managed in a small whisper. "Those words were from someone that I'm trying to be again, but it's hard sometimes."

Gently cupping his lover's face, the ex-Wing pilot frowned in concern and whispered back, "I know it is, Duo. And I haven't told you enough how proud I am of you for the leaps and bounds that you've made in recovering over these months. Having to deal with what happened every day we follow a lead like this can only make the progress more difficult for you, and I understand that."

Heero smiled sadly as he reached up to brush away a few stray tears that began rolling down the braided pilot's face. "But do you want to know what keeps me going in this investigation?" he asked softly.

Biting his lip, Duo nodded fervently, "What is it?"

"Our friends," the Japanese agent answered. "They've been with us in this every step of the way and put themselves in danger just as we have. And despite all of the close calls and set backs that we've been through, not one of them is about to give up yet."

His shimmering eyes widening in realization at that, Duo breathed, "You're right." Blinking his wide eyes, he gave a watery grin and wiped at the last of his tears away. When their gazes met again, he said sincerely, "I'm proud of you, too, you know. You've come a hell of a long way from how you were during the war."

Shrugging nonchalantly, Heero smirked, "I had some help. Even I slip up sometimes, though." Slowly rising to his feet, he placed a soft kiss on Duo's forehead and suggested, "We better get ready for landing."

With a firm nod, Duo took a deep and calming breath and rose from the bed. His movements were made with more confidence as he made his way to the small dresser to remove the few clothes that he had used to sleep in during the trip. Efficiently folding them, he packed them away with the rest of his attire. Watching him quietly from the corner of his eyes, Heero smiled to himself before focusing on his own packing.

* * * * * *

Jack was sitting on his rundown couch, watching the old television set in the grimy living room of his temporary living arrangements when there was a brief knock on the door. Sitting up straight with his blue eyes narrowing, he turned his television off with the remote in his hand and slowly turned his head towards the door. After a long pause, there was another brief knock, bit a bit louder this time.

Funny, he thought to himself.

With a dark smirk, the well-build assassin reached beneath the couch to remove one of the many weapons he owned. Licking his lips in anticipation, Jack quietly checked that the pistol was still loaded. Ever since killing that prostitute, he was hoping for a little action again. Life certainly was dull without it. His confinement to the small apartment since Blake's call certainly was making him… edgy.

As he stalked to the door, his footsteps never so much as made a sound. Knowing his surroundings, he avoided the parts of the floor that creaked. Pressing his back against the wall beside the door, he called, "Who is it?"

Instead of a voiced answer, a folded note slid under his door to stop at his feet. His eyes narrowing at the paper, he bent at the knees and unfolded it. The simple note, etched in black ink and written in bold letters read, `Blake sent us.'

Right to the point, Jack thought to himself in amusement, Just like Blake.

Since the Preventers would not have known the name of his new contact through the White Out Organization, he understood that Blake's goons would not want to draw any attention to themselves by announcing that they were sent by someone while in the hallway of a very crowded apartment building. Pity. His hopes of a little excitement were for naught.

With his free hand, he reached over to turn the door knob. From outside, a strong hand gripped the side of the door when it was cracked and roughly pushed it open fully. Three tall and muscular men in dark attire quickly filled the living room before all but slamming the door after them.

Each of the `guests' made an intimidating presence, but Jack remained tall and proud in knowing that these men needed him. A dark smirk tugged his lips as he lowered his pistol onto the small table beside him and asked, "So, tell me, how can I help you good gentlemen on this lovely afternoon?"

The first of the henchmen to enter the apartment returned the smug grin. Without a word, the two men at either side of him quickly grabbed the assassin by either arm. His mouth opening in a sharp cry at their rough grasps, Jack's voice was cut off before it even left his throat as a wide strip of duct take gagged his mouth.

Growling and swearing through the tape, Jack kicked out and tried to fight off the men that held him to no avail. Again, without a word, the man obviously calling the shots of the three moved into the kitchen and returned with a wooden chair from the table in there. Dropping the chair in the center of the floor with a loud thud, he stepped back as his accomplices dragged their struggling captive across the patchy carpet.

Roughly shoving Jack into the chair, the two that had held him quickly tied ropes around his arms, painfully tightening them to the armrests and his legs to the thin posts of his seat. Glaring fiercely up at the cocky man before him, he continued to shout and growl as he tried to shift himself in the chair.

Slowly bending at the waist, the brunette man ignored the muffled argument and warned quietly, "That's enough from you. We don't need the neighbors to call the police with a report of trouble here, do we?"

Warm sweat rolling down his brow, Jack swallowed hard and eyed the tall blonde to his left and the bald man to his right. The two henchmen had their arms folded with looks of amusement as they watched him. Either one of them could easily snap his neck with one hand and not even the slightest bit of effort on their part. Finally, he sagged in the chair that he was confined to and stilled.

The man before him smirked, "Very good. Now, I am going to remove the gag. Don't think that we won't hesitate to kill you if you give us any trouble."

His blue eyes widening, the frightened assassin nodded in agreement. At that, the brunette quickly pulled the tape away from his mouth. Despite the sharp pain as blood rushed back to his lips, Jack roughly bit his lip and winced back the cry that threatened to explode from him.

Once his eyes focused on the head goon before him, Jack glared threateningly up at him. "What the hell is all of this for?" he demanded in a low growl as he gestured to his trapped arms and legs.

Chuckling deeply, the blonde to his left answered with a deep voice, "Blake said that with the call he had with you yesterday, he got the impression you are a little too confident in your position. He said that this would be a good way of making you listen and remind you who is in charge here."

Jack was careful not to make his gritting teeth obvious as he turned back to face the man standing before him. Opening his hands in the best gesture of surrender he could make with his arms tied down to the chair, he nodded, "Okay. You made your point. Now cut me free."

As he folded his own arms, the brunette shook his head, "Not yet. You see, there is still something that Spence, Alton and I have to take care of. And you can call me Damien." Walking over to one of the windows, he looked down to the busy street below as people moved about in their daily routines. "You see," he spoke without looking away from the scene below, "we have a bit of a problem on our hands."

Finally looking back at his captive, Damien straightened and
announced, "The Preventers know that you are here on L6. They have
already notified all of the shuttle ports of your image and ordered
that you are not to leave the Colony for any reason."

It felt to Jack as if a train hit him. His skin turning pale as the
realization sunk in, he breathed, "Then they're coming here to find
me." Frantic, he looked up with wide eyes to the brunette and
cried, "What do I do!"

Raising a hand, the tall man answered, "We're going to take care of that." Slowly, the side of his mouth tugged up in a smile as he said quietly, "There is nothing that a quick change of identity can't fix. We can have a new driver's license and all other identification cards made up in a matter of hours before your flight to Earth in two days, the morning of the President's televised conference with the public."

His throat suddenly going dry, the assassin frowned deeply, "Identity change? But a change in name will only help so much. You just said that the shuttle ports have my picture passed along to their staff."

"Ah," Damien grinned with a wiggle of his index finger in the air. "And that, my friend, is precisely why we are here." Something about the way that the man spoke the word `friend' in such a callused way made the hair on the back of Jack's neck stand on end.

The brunette walked towards the captive and bent at the waist again. Taking hold of the assassin's chin, he turned his head right and left as he examined his profile highlighted by is long nose. With a satisfied smirk, he stated, "You know, the nose is a funny thing. It is one of the defining characteristics, yet so easy to change if broken and reconstructed the right way."

With a sharp gasp, Jack turned his head to meet Damien's brown eyes with his own wide ones. The cry that he was about to make was cut off when the tape was secured back over his mouth. Both Spence and Alton held down his already pinned arms to see that he could not shift the chair at all.

Lowering his left hand on the captive's shoulder to balance himself, the brunette henchman took the long nose in his right and grinned darkly, "Now, try not to make too much noise. With any luck, the pain will knock you out before I have to reconstruct the bones." Panting heavily, Jack closed his eyes tightly as he braced himself.

The air was filled with a sharp crack followed by a muffled and shrill cry.

* * * * * *

"Preventers, huh?" the apartment manager frowned deeply as he examined the badges and identification cards presented to him by the casually dressed pair. Looking to the agents after adjusting his glasses on his thin nose, the old man folded his hands on his desk and nodded, "Well then, what can I do for you? I certainly don't want to cause any trouble for you law enforcers."

At that, Trowa removed the image that he held securely under his light leather coat. Handing the picture to the manager and stated, "We're in search of this man, Jack Collins. He arrive on here on L6 recently and we were hoping that you might have seen or heard of him in these parts. Perhaps a client of yours here in this complex may be giving him residence at one of their apartments?"

Taking the picture in his hands, the old man carefully examined the finely framed face, reddish hair and blue eyes. Finally, he shook his head, "I'm sorry, but I can't say that I've ever seen this one before, and I certainly don't have anyone staying here under that name. But perhaps someone on my staff may have dealt with him if he came in to check our prices. I could pass this off to them. If anything, it'll keep their eyes open in case they happen to run into him."

Satisfied with that, Anna nodded, "We are trying to keep this search as quiet as possible. If you could only circulate that image to those staff members that you trust and not mention it to anyone else, that would be most appreciated." Reaching into her pocket, she removed a business card and handed it over.

Carefully taking the card in his possession, the white-haired man smiled sincerely, "You have my word." Raising the business card, he reassured them, "And I'll be sure to get in contact with you as soon if I find anything out."

That said, the pair nodded and extended their appreciation before stepping outside as the artificial sunset began. "Well," Anna sighed deeply as they walked towards their rented car, "At least the word is getting out there. We covered every hotel, motel and apartment for three miles in five hours."

Sliding into the driver's seat, Trowa waited for his lover to close her passenger door after her before replying, "Yes. It's a good start, considering the amount of territory that we have to cover." Taking up the transportable two-way radio that they brought, the tall pilot announced, "This is Barton. Anna and I have covered the residents from North Willow Street to South Fountain Drive. No luck yet."

After a brief pause, a familiar voice came over the radio to reply, "This is Chang. So far, none of our teams have come up with anything, but we're covering a lot of ground and quickly despite not even having a full day to dig into this. We're going to take a brief brake to eat before meeting up at the Carpenter's Hotel to catch up at 0600 to check out the map before moving on."

"Got it," Trowa responded. "We'll see you then." Turning off the radio, he ended the call and faced his partner as she examined her reflection in the small mirror of her blinder. As she removed her small compact from her pocket to reapply a thin layer of powder makeup to hide the long scratches that ran down her face, he smiled, "They're starting to fade away quite a bit."

With a small nod, Anna finished her touch up. Sealing away her compact, she commented, "Thanks to that ointment Sally gave me. I'll be happy when I don't have to wear this damn makeup anymore." As she leaned back in her seat, she sighed deeply, "I feel like I'm wearing a damned mask when I have this stuff on."

Leaning over, Trowa gently kissed her lips and whispered sincerely, "You're still beautiful, scratches and all."

The redhead chuckled deeply, "Aw, you're just trying to get in my pants as soon as we get a break in this search."

With a shrug, the Latin agent played along and smirked, "Is it working?" Her head falling back, his lover laughed and playfully slapped his arm. With a wide grin, Trowa started the ignition and pulled out into the street.

From the hotel that they just stopped at, a tall blonde woman in a suggestive dress ran through the front door and out into the street just as the car pulled away. With a deep frown, Dawn watched as the two agents that she had overheard as she made her way down towards the lobby disappeared in the traffic.

As quickly as she descended the stairwell and made her way outside, she was too late in trying to talk to them for help. Sighing deeply, Dawn made her way into the alley and walked back to her lonely apartment as she kicked small pebbles with her heels in frustration at missing an opportunity to have someone listen to her.

Regardless of all of the roadblocks she had come across, she never lost her determination in getting someone to look into Celeste's murder. Someone had to help her.

* * * * * *

Appraising himself in the mirror of the men's bathroom of the bar that he visited that evening, Jack still could not believe the change in his appearance, His once long nose was nearly half its original length. While there was a slight bump in the middle of his shorter nose now and his nostrils were a bit larger, he was still impressed with Damien's handiwork. Once the blood was wiped away and the pain subsided, it had all been worth it.

Between the new nose, the green contact lenses and his now black hair, the assassin could hardly recognize himself. He had to thank those bastards for their help in changing his appearance. He finally had freedom to walk about again, as no image that the Preventers had could be compared to how he looked now.

With a satisfied grin at his reflection, he turned and made his way from the bathroom. Along his way through the crowded bar, he lit a cigarette before stepping out into the cool night, enjoying the simple pleasure of being free of his apartment. With a long drag, he slowly exhaled a long snake of smoke into the air.

"Hey sweetheart," a sultry voice greeted as the clicking of high heels approached. Turning to face the young woman, Jack smiled warmly. She certainly was a pretty little thing. Asian features and long, dark hair swaying around her slender frame dressed in a short red dress that hardly covered her large breasts.

Tilting her head, she asked, "Looking for some company tonight?"

With an amused smirk, the assassin nodded, "Why, yes. As a matter of fact, I am." His left hand already in his black, long coat pocket, he made sure that his switchblade was where he left it. Already, the thrill of the hunt was pumping through his veins, his head thumping in his chest.

Cigarette in his mouth, Jack draped his free arm around the young woman's shoulder's and smiled, "Come with me." She smiled brightly and obeyed, taking his hand in hers as she giggled and followed him into the night. All the while, she remained oblivious to what he had in store for her that evening.

Oh, he certainly could get used to this.

 

Part 47:

[I feel my world shake
Like an earthquake
Hard to see clear
Is it me? Is it fear?]
-Lyrics to `St. Anger' performed by Metallica

Quickly running back into his small apartment, Jack slammed the door closed behind him. Turning the light on in the main room, he shed his dark coat and moved to the bathroom down the hall. Roughly lifting that light switch, he growled deeply as he inspected his gruesome face. The makeup that had covered the swelling and bruising around had been all but scratched off when his latest `friend' suddenly attacked him at seeing the knife he removed.

The long, bloodied scratched that ran across his face only aggravated the pain that came from the nose job that Damien was so kind to give him. Once the shock of the whole event began to ebb, the searing agony that came with the change hit Jack like a freight train. Having long nails digging into his nose certainly did not help.

Despite the fact that his nose had swelled even more than it had before, the assassin couldn't help but smile darkly at his image. He certainly did enjoy himself as he struggled with the little bitch. She had put up a better fight than he had expected. In the end, of course, she was not a match for him and soon felt his blade plunging into her over and over as she screamed.

The lovely thing about this slum of a city was that no one ever came running to help when there was a cry. If he was not expected to carry out the assassination attempt, Jack would have been more than happy to take permanent residence there.

When he started the sink water, he cupped his hands under the faucet and carefully splashed it against his face. After gently patting his dampened skin with a washrag, the assassin examined his cleaned face. The deep bruising surrounding his swelling nose were as grotesque as they had been before he applied the makeup that he had Damien and his accomplices pick up for him. And the pain… well, he could certainly deal with that. Pain was something that he had come to live with over his life.

"Certainly not going to win any beauty awards any time soon," Jack smirked as he turned his head from side-to-side to have a better look at his reflection. That certainly was not important. There would always be ways of covering up the dark bruising. The swelling could then be passed off then. And so, he could still have his freedom. He could still have his fun.

Making sure to carefully clean the thin scratch marks on his face, the young killer removed the crème makeup from the sink edge to apply a fresh layer to his face. Satisfied once the bruises could not be found after another inspection, he grinned and stepped from the doorway. Retrieving his coat from the floor in the main room, he slipped out of his apartment.

The night was still young. And with little over a whole day before he left for the Earth, Jack was going to make sure that he enjoyed the remainder of his stay.

* * * * * *

For the second time that evening, Dawn applied a fresh coat of shimmering lipstick on her mouth. It had been a busy night, at least busier than it had been in almost a week. Already, she managed to get two clients in and the night was still young. Maybe this time she might actually get her rent in on time.

As she pressed her shiny pink lips together, the blonde young woman took a close look at her reflection staring back. The bruise that her last gent gave her during their `session' was easily covered to match her pale skin. She couldn't complain about the young man hitting her as he had. She certainly had worse encounters before.

Her brown eyes were a bit sunken thanks to the dark circles under them, but she would still be able to attract someone. One thing that Dawn credited herself with was the fact that she could always get a wandering eye's attention. It certainly helped with business.

Quickly pulling her hair up in a ponytail that just brushed the base of her neck, the young prostitute practiced her most playful smile on her reflection. Adjusting the thin straps of her sequence-trimmed dress of deep blue, she slipped into her black heels and grabbed the matching blue clutch from her closet. With one last look at the whole picture she made in the wall mirror, she was satisfied and headed for the door to her small, rundown apartment.

Out in the hall, Dawn turned to close the door behind her just as she heard another door close at the opposite end of the hall. She heard the jingling of keys on a chain and from the corner of her eye, she watched her unknown neighbor lock his door before she did the same. His heavy footsteps made their way towards her on their way to the stairway that was located at her end of the corridor.

"Hello beautiful," a deep voice that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end greeted as the footsteps neared.

Slowly turning, she met the green eyes of the tall man walking past her. His black hair blended in with the dimly lit surroundings of the hallway. His eyes moving up and down her body, Dawn felt naked under that stare that continued as he walked on by.

There was something about his presence had Dawn frozen, her back pressed straight against her closed door, her brown eyes following her neighbor all the while he stalked past. Not wanting him to think that something was wrong, she flashed him her practiced grin as if to thank him for the compliment.

Then he smiled. All the while, his eyes were still on her as he gazed over his shoulder without missing a stride.

Dawn bit back the sharp gasp that stuck in her throat as her eyes widened when he finally looked away. Panting heavily, she felt the sweat beading on her forehead. Silently, the neighbor crept out of her sight as he moved through the doorway at the end of the hall. "My God," she breathed, her voice cracking past her dry throat.

The sound of the stranger's footsteps faded in their descent down the rickety steps. Biting her lip, Dawn moved after him as her legs shook. Quietly following the unknown neighbor from a few yards behind, the blonde young woman watched him slip into the parking lot beside the apartment complex. Hiding beside the building, she tried to keep her breathing calm and waited.

It was a few minutes before the engine of a car roared to life, its headlights piercing through the blackness within the parking lot. The black car that rolled out into the street with the mysterious man in the driver's seat moved past the unseen prostitute.

With a sharp gasp, Dawn covered her mouth in recognizing the vehicle, the missing piece to the puzzle. It was the same car that Celeste's murderer drove. As the car turned down the street, her brown eyes looked to the license plate before it rounded the corner and disappeared from sight.

Tears of panic filling her eyes, she stumbled back into the darkness of the alley behind her. Nearly falling when her heels slipped in her scramble, she braced her hands against the brick wall beside her for support. Her heart threatened to pound out of her chest as she panted heavily.

Swallowing hard, the blonde call girl knew that she had just looked into the eyes of the same man that had killed her friend. Despite the change in his facial appearance and the color or his eyes and hair, she knew that it was him. She would never forget the smile that he had on his face as he brutally took Celeste's life. Now she had seen the car and knew that she was not imagining the similarities.

Finally, Dawn had found her friend's killer… And all this time, she was living in the same building with him.

Unable to breathe at that realization, her shaking hands fumbled with opening her small clutch. When she finally recovered her cell phone, the frantic young woman entered one of the few numbers that she knew she could call for help. Her hand still shaking, she held the receiver to her ear as the phone rang.

"Hello," the familiar voice greeted, a security blanket wrapping around her.

Forcing herself to swallow past the lump in her throat, Dawn whispered brokenly, "Jasmine, I need to see you right away. It's an emergency."

* * * * * *

Spread out in the living room of a small hotel room, the small team of Preventers made notes as they silently went over the map of their section on the Colony that Lady Une had picked out for them. It was a much needed chance to take a break as well as catch up on their progress.

With a good start into their investigation after only a few hours, they were becoming realistically hopeful that they would have their portion of L6 combed through before long. That was, of course, as long as they kept their pace up.

After a brief discussion on where they were in the search, Sally asked the group around her, "Anyone too tired to keep this up tonight?" When there were no objections amongst the other pilots, the braided young woman sighed deeply, "Good. If we keep this rate up, we should have our area covered by this time tomorrow."

Stretching as he sat beside her on the couch, Wufei stated, "With any luck, we won't have to wait that long. Collins has been here for over a month now, so he had to take up some arrangements with a hotel or apartment complex. So, we just have to keep checking in with the staff working at all of the hotels and apartments."

The door to the hotel room opened as all eyes turned and watched Heero and Zechs entering the room. Once the door was closed after them, the tall man moved to stand beside his wife by the windows. Their friends were instantly, straightening where they were standing or sitting with expectant faces.

On the opposite side of the room, Duo pushed himself off the wall that he was leaning against when his lover approached and asked softly, "So what did Lady Une have to say?"

Something about the grim expressions on the two pilots had the remainder of their group on edge. Quatre looked warily from one agent to the other and inquired, "Did she hear anything from the other two teams that she sent after us?"

With a firm nod, Heero answered, "She said that they reached their locations about an hour ago. Their shuttles landed about an hour after ours." He smiled warmly when Duo returned after a brief disappearance into the kitchen to pour a fresh cup of coffee for him. Accepting the offered drink with a quiet word of thanks, he continued, "Progress for them is no different from ours-they're covering a lot of ground and quickly, but still no leads yet."

Anna wrapped her arms around her legs and hugged them to her chest as she sat on the floor. At the news, she ginned, "Well, at least they're moving. That's a lot better than nothing."

Sitting beside her, Trowa nodded, "So, we just keep up with our plan to talk to the hotel and apartment staffs that we come across when we break into our smaller groups again. There is always someone on staff at all times of the day, so we won't have to wait until morning to talk to a live person. At some point, someone will have to recognize Collins. He doesn't have any friends here that would just take him into their homes willingly."

Heero and Zechs shared a look from opposite sides of the room. Catching the exchange, Wufei frowned deeply, "What else did Lady Une tell you?"

There was another brief exchange between the two informants over who should be the one to give the remainder of the information. Finally, Zechs sighed deeply, "Unfortunately, Lady Une found that the few police stations she managed to contact have been withholding the information that she is giving them about Collins.

"Instead of working with the other district officers, they are treating them as rivals in capturing the biggest criminal staying amongst them in years. And so, they are keeping the knowledge to themselves so they can be the ones to bring him in for public recognition."

At that, Heero's eyes narrowed as he continued, "While a little friendly competition is not always a bad thing in a case like this, more than half of the police divisions in the section that we are investigating are not even aware of whom Collins is. They don't know that he is here and they do not know that we are looking for him."

Washing her face with her hands, Sally growled, "Great." As she lowered her hands, she shook her head, "And if they're making it a race between themselves and another district, they're going to be real happy that we're here."

Quickly taking a sip from the coffee Noin handed over to him, Zechs nodded solemnly, "Exactly. That in mind, we have to focus on visiting those stations that Lady Une has yet to reach directly before we look into the residential facilities." Holding up the small pad of paper in his hand, he announced, "We have the names and locations of those districts. Staying in the four smaller groups that we make up, there will be five stations between us to visit."

There was a mutual grumbling amongst the agents. "So much for all of the progress that we were making," Noin frowned deeply. "Now we have to police the police on top of everything else." All around, there were mumbled comments of equal frustration. This new tactic was going to bring their search to a crawl compared to how they were moving before.

Gazing over his friends, Duo felt his prior sense of doubt passing. As he straightened himself, he said, "Well, we can sit here and complain about it and waste more time, or we can just get back out there and work to find this asshole."

His cobalt eyes widening at the statement, Heero turned to blink in surprise at his lover. Slowly, a small smile of pride tugged his lips. When their eyes met, Duo grinned back and shrugged. With a small smile to her braided friend, Sally stated, "He's right. Let's just divide what we have left to search and get on with it." The other nodded and removed their notepads before dividing the cities and towns between themselves.

One-by-one, the miles of cities were assigned along with the police offices that were closest to those areas. When everyone had their appointed stations, Wufei announced, "All right. We'll check in with each other by 1400." Everyone nodded their affirmative before stepping from the room and breaking off into their smaller groups- Zechs and Noin, Heero and Duo, Trowa and Anna while Quatre teamed with Wufei and Sally.

As Zechs started the ignition of their rented car, Noin looked over the map in her hands and said, "Going by this, we'll be better off visiting the District Eight office since it's at the furthest end of the area we have to cover."

Pulling out into the street, Zechs nodded, "Sounds like a good place to start, then. Just lead the way."

* * * * * *

"I thought that you said that he looked nothing like the man you saw in the alley that night," Jasmine frowned deeply in confusion. "Granted, anyone can get colored contacts and dye their hair, but how can you be so certain that this was the same man if their faces have almost nothing in common?"

Dawn finished the tea that her friend had made for her. Not feeling safe at staying at her own apartment, she was relieved when Jasmine opened her door to her. Lowering the cup on the table between them in the small living room, she met her friend's gaze and sighed deeply, "I just know, Jas. I could never forget that smile of his. And the car he drove was the same one that he threw Celeste's body in."

She removed the small flyer from her clutch that she used to write on following her scare. Holding the green paper up, she stated, "I even have the license number."

Her hands folding before her as she leaned forward, Jasmine shrugged, "Maybe you just think it's the same car. You've been so determined in finding the actual killer that you're seeing what you want to see and not what's really there."

Glaring, Dawn rose from her seat and exclaimed, "It's him! And if you don't believe me, then I'll just have to find someone who will!"

At that, Jasmine raised a thin eyebrow. "And who are you going to go to for that?" she asked quietly. "Remember what happened when we went to the station together? How do you think they're going to take your story now when you tell them that in the matter of a day, the murder changed the shape of his face?"

The silence that followed screamed out as the reality of her words slowly sunk in. Slowly, her shoulders sagging, the blonde call girl sunk back onto the couch with a lost look in her eyes. "I don't know how it happened," she finally managed, staring out at nothing. "But I know what I saw."

Lowering her head, the Hispanic prostitute frowned sadly, "I know that you miss Celeste, Dawn, we all do. But you can't obsess over finding this guy when you know as well as I do that he's going to get away with this. No one with any authority around here is going to take you seriously."

Another lump formed in Dawn's throat. This time, she couldn't seem to swallow past it. "I-" she croaked. Forcing herself, she finally swallowed and whispered brokenly, "If you don't then you're right… no one will." Small tears filled her eyes and she bitterly wiped them away with a sniffle.

Jasmine quietly walked around the table to sit beside her friend on the couch. Gently wrapping an arm around her thin shoulders, she smiled, "Hey, why don't we just have fun tonight? Go see a movie, hit a bar or instead of working the streets for a change? Let's just not worry about anything for a change."

Wiping the last traces of her tears, Dawn resolved herself to believing that her friend was right. Maybe she was losing it. Ever since Celeste's murder, she did feel as though it was all she thought about. In the end, she had to admit that a normal outing did sound like what she needed. Taking a deep breath at last, she turned to face her friend and nodded, "All right."

* * * * * *

Zechs pulled the car up before the police station of District 7. All around, people were still walking about as they laughed and shouted, many of them swaying on their feet. Bottles were thrown and the blaring of car horns filled the air all to join in on the chaos. Several young men had scandalously dressed women on their arms as they headed for the hotels nearby.

With a deep frown, Zechs commented quietly, "I'll bet working as a law enforcer in this neck of the woods is a lot of fun. I could only imagine the kind of calls they get."

Looking up from the file that she was gathering up, Noin nodded and mumbled, "My sentiments exactly. In a short while, here, we'll be finding out for ourselves." She turned to face her husband and smirked, "So, just in case these guys give us a hard time, who gets to play `good cop' and who's `bad cop'?"

Unable to keep from smiling at the lighthearted question, Zechs chuckled deeply, "For their sake, I hope you're not the bad cop." That said, he removed his seatbelt and opened his car door to step out onto the street.

Noin winced slightly at the onslaught of smells that offended her when she opened her own door. Alcohol, oil, litter and many other unknown scents melded together to make the interesting aroma. Closing the door after her, she sighed deeply, "Lovely."

Side-by-side, the two agents climbed the short rise of stairs leading to the station's entrance. Holding the door for his wife Zechs followed after. With sure steps, Noin led the way to the front reception desk. The brunette officer there smiled with a firm nod to the guests. "How can I help you this, evening?" Her blue eyes widened with a gasp when the pair of plainly clothed visitors reveled their badges from under their long coats.

"Agent Fire and Agent Wind," Noin greeted with a warm smile. "We're just hoping to speak to the highest ranking officer here this evening."

Blinking her wide eyes, the receptionist fidgeted with her blue uniform and sputtered, "O-of course. Lieutenant is home for the evening, so Officer Dan Ashford is the highest ranking official here tonight. I'll go and get him right away." Even as she spoke, she pushed her char back from her desk to rise to her feet. Turning on her heels, she all but ran down the hall and around a corner.

Once she was gone, Zechs smirked at his partner, "I think we scared her." Before Noin could reply, they looked up as the desk clerk quickly returned with a tall young man. On the dark-haired officer's chest, the nametag `Dan Ashford' was shining proudly under the lights as he approached the two agents. While he gave the Preventers a wide smile in greeting, they could tell that it was forced.

Extending his hand, the tall young man nodded firmly, "Officer Ashford. This is certainly a pleasant surprise, having you here." After exchanging two brief handshakes, he waved his hand, "Let's go talk in my office."

Quietly following him, Zechs and Noin exchanged a look that said neither of them really believed they were welcome. They put on their best smiles when Dan opened his office door to them, grinning, "Please, make yourselves comfortable." The pair nodded to him as they stepped in to take the two seats before his desk.

As the officer took his own seat across from them, Zechs stated, "We hope to keep this pretty brief. We have quite a bit of work ahead of us this evening. However, we are in need of your cooperation."

His green eyes widening, Ashford replied, "Oh. Very well." His hands folding on his desk, he leaned forward and smiled, "And what is it that would give the all mighty Preventers enough trouble that they would come to us for help?"

Both agents bit their tongues at the way that the snide young man phrased his question. It was a verbal slap in the face and they knew it. Refraining from knocking his cocky smile from his face, Noin smirked, "Actually, we were hoping that you could pass this image and name of a man that we know is staying on L6." She opened the file in her hands and tossed it onto the desk. "That file has everything that you would need to know about him. His name is Jack Collins and it is vitally important that we get him into custody."

The image and reports of the felon spilled out before Dan as he sat back in his seat. While he would have complained at the way she had callously threw the file at him, he nearly paled at the image of the man they were after.

Red hair. Blue eyes. Thin face with a strong jaw line. They were all features of the man that the prostitute he spoke to used to describe the man that killed her friend. While it was very likely to be a coincidence, Dan was sick to the stomach that it may not have been.

Swallowing hard, he grinned widely and looked back up to the pair. With a shrug, he told them, "Can't say that I've ever seen the guy. But, I will be sure to pass this along to the other officers so that they will be on alert. If he's staying anywhere in our district, I can assure you that we'll find him."

Zechs returned the smile and nodded, "Good. Thank you for your time." Pushing their seats back, the Preventers rose to their feet.

"Oh, uh," Ashford sputtered as he quickly rose from his own seat. "Allow me to see you out." He extended his hand when the two pilots turned to meet his gaze.

Ignoring the handshake offer, Noin smirked, "There is no need for the trouble. We're fully capable of seeing ourselves out." She turned and followed her husband though the door with a flippant, "Good evening to you, officer. And very good job in the way that you and your men keep this city safe."

Ashford glared heatedly at his closing door as his face burned at the comment, hearing the sarcasm in her voice. His anger quickly faded as he held up the image of jack Collins for another, closer look.

Not a word was spoken between the couple as they made their way through the police station. The moment they closed themselves back into their car, Zechs's eyes narrowed on the facility. "He knows something," he stated firmly.

Noin nodded, "Yea." Taking up their radio, she announced into it, "Everyone, this is Noin. I think that we just got a break."

 

Part 48:

[Concrete shoes, cyanide, TNT
Done Dirt Cheap
Neckties, contracts, high voltage
Done Dirt Cheap]
-Lyrics to `Dirty Deeds' performed by ACDC

It was just past midnight when Jack returned from his last excursion. And what a great new day it was turning out to be already.

Humming to himself in content, he kept his bloodied hands in the pockets of his long, black coat as he climbed the stairs of the apartment complex to his floor. There was a smug grin on his face as he thought back to his latest pretty little victim. She certainly could scream. The sounds of her cries filled his ears as he chuckled deeply to himself.

That made three entertaining ventures in less than a week.

When he reached the seventh floor of the eight-floor apartment building, the young assassin stepped through the doorway and swaggered towards his room at the end of the hall. The first door to his right opened abruptly and before he could cry out in surprise, a strong hand gripped the front of his brown shirt and pulled him inside as the door was roughly slammed closed after him.

His green eyes wide, Jack panted heavily in fright from the abrupt assault. The fiercely glaring brown eyes that bore down on him prevented him from finding his voice, the thoughts of his last encounter with those eyes stilling him. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" the familiar deep voice gritted.

Swallowing hard, the hit man's mouth opened and closed a few times before he managed, "D-Damien. What do you mean-" The right fist slamming into his abdomen silenced him. Falling back, Jack doubled over as he wheezed in his attempts to catch his breath.

Quickly gripping the front of the assassin's shirt to straighten him again, Damien hissed, "I saw what you've been up to for the last few hours." Jack's face was pale and covered in sweat while he swayed on his feet, his green eyes still wide in terror. "You're a goddamned fool for trying to compromise your whereabouts for a thrill ride in killing some hookers!

With a smirk, the tall brunette roughly wiped away some of the makeup that the sweat dampened around his captives nose, causing him to whimper at the harsh touch. The dark bruises coloring the pale skin there revealed more of the swelling that had successfully been covered up. "Hurts, doesn't it?" Damien asked, his voice lacking any concern. He bit back a laugh as the usually smug assassin nodded in near panic.

Gripping the smaller man's chin in one hand, Damien's smile faded and his glare returned as he warned, "Maybe I should just-"

Finally catching his breath, Jack managed to pull back in a moment of frenzy and pleaded, "No! I-I've been careful! Besides, no one would recognize me like this! I don't know what has you so worried!"

"Keep your voice down," Damien hissed, the fire still in his eyes. Folding his arms, he growled deeply, "It only takes one person to see you attacking one of those girls. If they go to the police, even your new identity won't keep you from being brought in. A simple fingerprint or DNA examination will reveal who you really are."

Shaking his head, his face reddened and his voice rose as he shouted, "When the fuck were you going to think about that, you stupid son of a bitch!"

Unable to give a reasonable answer to that, Jack swallowed hard and slowly backed away from his accomplice. He had not taken any of that into consideration-he was simply enjoying his freedom too much to think logically. As careful as he had been in his outings, he was still taking a great chance every time he stepped outside. His face paled and sweat beaded on his brow once again at the realization of his recklessness.

Taking a deep breath, Damien released it slowly before snarling, "We only have to get through today. Tomorrow morning, you'll be on a shuttle to carry out what you're being paid for." Slowly, he walked towards the cowering young man. Whimpering, Jack backed himself into the corner behind him.

When he was close enough to the assassin that he was breathing on the top of his head, Damien's fists clenched at his sides as he spoke in a low and rumbling voice, "I think that you can manage staying in your room for a whole day and night. Don't you agree?" Jack's throat constricted, but he nodded fervently. Straightening, the taller man gritted, "Good. The car that you've been using is being taken care of by my men, just in case you try to sneak out."

The worry still in his eyes, the assassin looked around the small living space anxiously. "H-how many of you are there in this place?" he asked. "I know that Blake said that my surroundings would be protected at all times until I leave the Colony."

A small smirk tugged at Damien's lips and he nodded, "Don't worry. There are more than enough of us around to guarantee that you don't have any unwanted company. We are watching you at all times." Bending at the waist, he said quietly, "How else do you think I found out what you were up to?"

Suddenly cold from the chill that ran up his spine at that statement, Jack nodded numbly and whispered, "Right. You won't have to worry about my leaving again." Biting his lip, he all but squeaked out, "So, am I free to go back to my room, now?"

More than satisfied that he made his point clear, Damien grinned and stepped aside. With a wave of his hand, he stepped aside, held out his arms and bowed at the waist in a dramatic showing the way past him. All too happy to get away, the assassin quickly walked past the taller man. Quickly opening the door and closing it behind him, Jack ran down the hall for his room without looking back.

There certainly was no point in trying his luck.

* * * * * *

Looking into his rearview mirror, Zechs grinned as he watched a familiar car pull up behind his vehicle in the small alley where he and his wife had been staking out. "Good," he said quietly. "Some of the Calvary is here." Noin sat up in the passenger seat to look through the back windshield. A small smile tugged at her own lips as the doors of the car behind them opened.

The two agents that made the scene walked up either side of the car until they reached the front doors. Both Noin and Zechs opened their windows and grinned to their friends. "Glad you could join us," the young woman greeted to the braided pilot leaning through her side. Heero bent at the waist to peer in through the tall blonde's opened window.

With a shrug, the braided pilot replied, "We were only a mile away when you called for everyone to be on standby." Nodding in salutation to Zechs, he asked, "So what's going on?"

Zechs answered, gazing from one pilot to the other, "Noin and I were questioning Officer Dan Ashford." He gestured to the station just across the street that he and his partner had been watching since their departure. "When he was shown Collin's picture, he almost turned green, but told us he didn't know anything."

Nodding, Heero stated, "So we sit and wait here until he makes a move. Hopefully, he leads us to what we want to know." Noin nodded along with her husband. His mouth turning up in a smirk, the ex-Wing pilot chuckled deeply, "Knowing how neither of you would be waiting around like this unless you were sure you were onto something, we'll just stick with you in case you need back up."

Noin brightened at that and grinned, "We'd appreciate it." As she turned, her eyes widened as she shouted, "Shit! There he is!" Zechs quickly turned to the station to watch a pale officer Ashford quickly descending the front stairs of the station, his eyes scanning the area as he moved. Her eyes narrowing, she growled deeply, "This is what we've been waiting for."

Quickly straightening, Heero and Duo ran back to their own car. Both cars sat in the dark alley, neither driver turning on the ignition as to alert the officer running to his squad car. Only when Dan was peeling into the street to join the light traffic did Zechs turn his own vehicle on with Heero's car waking right behind him. Turning on the headlights, the tall blonde told his partner, "Hang on." With that warning, Zechs hit the gas to turn onto the street a safe distance behind the squad car.

An hour later…

Dawn sighed deeply in content as she and Jasmine stepped from the movie theater. Despite how reluctant she had been about going out, she was grateful that she had been talked into it. Gently squeezing the Hispanic young woman's arm in a friendly manner, she smiled, "Thanks for the talk earlier, Jas. And this was a really good idea."

With a wink to her blonde friend, Jasmine shrugged, "What are sisters for?" She led the way down one of the alleys that would lead them to their rundown shells that they called home. Alone in the darkened walkway, they quickened their steps and stayed close as was common practice for one who knew the streets.

As they neared the end of the alley, the pair froze when the headlights of a car suddenly fell on them from behind. Turning with wide eyes, the two call girls watched in shock as a squad car stopped just a few inches from them. Dawn squinted under the bright lights to read the officer's name tag as he stepped out of the car.

"I have been looking all over for you," Officer Ashford sighed deeply as he neared the pair with something clenched in his hand. Crying out when her arm was gripped tightly by him, the blonde prostitute looked with wide eyes at the image that was suddenly held before her. "Is this the same man that you saw kill your friend?" Dan shouted as he shook her roughly, causing her to nearly spill out of her small blue dress.

Crying out in pain, Dawn tried hard to focus on the poorly lit picture. Jasmine was shouting at the young officer, but she could not hear her over the blood that was rushing in her ears when the image became clear. Her brown eyes widening with a sharp gasp, she paled. "T-that's him," she breathed.

From the other end of the alley, two cars-one behind the other- stopped just short of them. Jasmine stopped just short of hitting the officer that was holding her friend to stare wide-eyed as four people came running from the vehicles. The first to reach the frantic officer, Zechs glared heatedly at him and growled, "Let. Her. Go."

His eyes widening, Dan released the thin arm in his tight grip. Noin smiled warmly to the two young women as she reached in her light coat with her free arm to remove her badge. At the relief that spread across the pair's faces when she revealed the identification, she wrapped an arm around the blonde's shoulder and grinned, "Why don't we leave these boys alone for a little while so we can talk?"

As the two prostitute followed Noin willingly, Zechs walked up to Officer Ashford. Behind him, Heero and Duo stayed close as they matched their friend's fiery glare on the dark-haired man. Folding his arms, the blonde agent hissed, "So you had no lead to Collins? You know that keeping information like this from us is a criminal offense."

Swallowing hard, the young officer glared back at the tall man and snapped, "I wasn't even sure that the criminal was the same man that she had described to me before. She came into the station two nights ago. I was simply making sure that I was not jumping to conclusions."

Heero's cobalt eyes narrowed further as he asked, "How did she come to run into Jack Collins that she would have turned to you with a description?"

Dan froze, his eyes widening anew at realizing that he said more than he had meant to. Noin stormed back into the light of the cars facing each other. Her face red, she shouted at the officer, "She witnessed a murder and you did nothing about it!" From just beyond the reach of the light, Dawn and Jasmine watched quietly. Zechs, Heero and Duo stared with shock-filled eyes before their threatening glowers focused on the pale policemen.

"That's why you were in such a rush to get to that girl," the braided pilot sneered. "You wanted to cover up the fact that you looked the other way when you should have done something to find that asshole."

Backing until he felt the wall just behind him, Dan shouted back in rage, "Look, you have no idea what the fuck it's like trying to defend this place! We don't have time to investigate every murder case when a hooker is the victim. That shit happens nearly every day." His breath pulling out in pants, he yelled, "Those girls know the dangers involved in what they do!"

Slowly turning his head so that he could glare at the two call girls watching, he hissed, "Far as I'm concerned, anyone who sells themselves and gets more than they bargained for gets exactly whet they deserve. They're beneath the rest of society."

At that, Duo's mouth fell open with his eyes wide. Instantly, his surprise faded into fury as he growled deeply and lunged past Zechs before anyone saw him move. With a loud cry, his right fist flew into the side of the officer's face. Falling back, Dan yelled out in pain as he violently slammed into the brick wall behind him.

His cobalt eyes widening, Heero shouted, "Shit!" In an instant, he closed the distance between him and his lover to hold him back with his arms around his waist. Even as he was pulled back, Duo fought his partner to try and get at the man crawling on the ground. Zechs and Noin ran in to assist in keeping the American at bay until he calmed at last.

Stunned and on the ground, Dan reached up to touch the quickly reddening bruise on his left cheek. Turning to the agents watching him, he rose to his feet with an icy stare at the braided pilot that returned the same wordless threat through his gaze. "You son of a bitch," he growled deeply. "You just assaulted an officer!"

Zechs smirked, "Well, I wouldn't worry. That punch is certainly the least of your concerns right now. Besides, you won't be an officer for much longer." The dark-haired man's mouth fell open as he looked up to the blonde pilot in disbelief. Squeezing Duo's shoulder, he suggested to his friends, "Let's get out of here." As he and the other pilots ushered the scared young women to their cars, they ignored the shouts from the young man that followed them.

Sliding into the driver's seat of their rented car, Heero turned to face his best friend as they closed the doors after themselves. With a concerned frown, he ran a hand over his braided head and asked quietly, "Are you all right?"

Duo swallowed hard before meeting his lover's gaze. His violet eyes were filled with small tears of anguish. "That bastard has no idea what it's like to have to resort to that kind of lifestyle," he managed in a small, broken whisper.

A small, reassuring smile lit Heero's face as he gently wiped a stray tear away. "No, he doesn't," he replied softly. "What he said does not hold any truth to who you are. You have to know that." Biting his lip, the American nodded and leaned into his touch. The Japanese pilot's smile grew a bit as he leaned over the center console to kiss his partner's head.

The Preventers pulled slowly out of the alley and onto the street to begin the drive back to their small hotel on the other side of the city.

* * * * * *

"No," Dawn pulled the brown blanket around her tighter and shook her head slowly as she tried to bring back the image in her mind. "His nose was a little wider than that." Wufei nodded patiently and typed in the directions for the computer to change the image on the screen. Using the scanned mug shot of Jack Collins, the Chinese pilot changed the hair an eye color to match what their witness had seen in the culprit's changes.

Sitting away from the table on a small recliner, Jasmine turned to the braided young woman that was sitting on the couch beside her. With a deep frown, she asked, "Doesn't this seem at all strange that in a couple nights the guy that Dawn saw looked nothing the way he did when she first saw him?"

With a warm smile, Sally turned to meet her gaze and answered, "This is much more than a simple murder investigation. We believe the man we're after is tied in with people who would stop at nothing to stay hidden from us." She shrugged and stated simply, "Dawn said that she knows the man she saw in her apartment building was the same person that she saw kill her friend. She is the only witness that we have, and we believe her."

Jasmine bit her lip and whispered, "Simple as that?" It was still hard for her to believe that anyone would so willingly believe anything that she, or anyone like her, would have to say without any hesitation. These agents were almost treating them like… normal people.

Her smile growing, Sally agent nodded firmly, "Simple as that."

Blinking her brown eyes in surprise, the Hispanic young woman gave her a small grin of appreciation just as Quatre returned from the kitchen with a steaming cup of coffee. Loosening the blanket that had been wrapped around her bare shoulders, Jasmine fought a blush at seeing her own strapless, skintight snakeskin dress. She timidly accepted the offered drink and nodded with a sincere, "Thank you." The Arab pilot smiled back and took a seat beside Sally on the couch.

As she sipped her coffee, Jasmine looked to the other agents that had come to her aid. The ones named Heero and Duo were sitting on the opposite side of the table where Wufei and Dawn were working. The anxious looks on their faces as they waited spoke volumes of how badly they wanted to find this Jack Collins.

Noin and Zechs were speaking quietly amongst themselves just inside of the adjacent kitchen after making a call to `headquarters' as they referred to it. Not one of them looked down on her or her friend or made them uncomfortable. It was a nice change to be surrounded by people, dressed in a way that it was obvious to what she was, and not feel as if she was being scrutinized.

Walking into the living room to join the others, Zechs announced, "The other teams should be in the area within the next couple of hours." After a quick look to the clock, he said, "That would put us at about four in the morning." All but Wufei nodded in acknowledgement, his dark eyes focused on the screen of his laptop as he worked.

The silence that fell on the room lasted only a brief moment when Dawn suddenly gasped sharply. "That's it!" she exclaimed. "That's exactly what he looks like, now!" Smirking in satisfaction of his work, Wufei turned the laptop around to show his friends the new image of Jack Collins.

"Contacts, hair die and a broken nose," the Chinese pilot noted aloud. "They're all things that the can be obtained pretty easily when dealing with the right people. But the shape of the face, mouth eyes and brow are exactly the same from the mug shot."

Heero smiled in relief, "Great. At least now we know what to look for." With a nod to the raven-haired pilot, he told him, "Better forward that to the other teams before they get here." Wufei nodded and turned the laptop to face himself once more. His fingers flew over the keys with Dawn looking at the perfect image in wonder.

Slowly rising from his seat, Duo rounded the table to kneel before the blonde witness. Dawn loved his eyes. Something in them, the way that he looked at her and Jasmine spoke of an understanding that she only saw in her `sisters.'

"You said that you saw the room that Jack stepped out of tonight," the ex-Deathscythe pilot spoke reassuringly. "Do you know the room number of his apartment? We need this arrest to go as smoothly as possible without alarming the other residents."

Biting her lip, Dawn tried to recall the layout of her floor; but with all that had happened, she couldn't think. With a deep frown, she shook her head, "I don't know. I didn't see exactly how many doors down he was from me, but he is on the seventh's floor." Duo gave her a grateful nod and turned his head to his blonde friend on the couch.

At that, Quatre took up the two-way radio sitting on the coffee table before the couch. Turning on the small radio, he called into it, "Trowa, Anna, we need a confirmation with the owner of Chestnut Apartments of everyone staying on the seventh floor. Collins is staying in one of those rooms."

The Latin pilot's voice replied, "Got it. We're already outside of the owner's residence. I'll contact you as soon as we're finished."

Dawn looked from one agent to the other around her as she asked, "Can I go with you… when you move in to arrest him? I want to see for myself that he didn't get away." There was a brief exchange of glances between the pilots as they shared a silent conversation. Jasmine rose to her feet to stand by her friend, silently making it known that if she would be joining if their presence was allowed.

Finally, Duo straightened and grinned to the two young women, "Sure. We'll have other teams stationed a safe distance away in case we need them. We can have you and both stay with them." His friends nodded their acceptance of the offer.

With a wide smile, Dawn all but leapt from her seat to embrace the braided pilot tightly with a broken, "Thank you." His violet eyes widening, Duo smiled warmly and returned the heartfelt gesture. From where he watched, Heero smiled and winked at his partner when their eyes met.

* * * * * *

Grumbling, the old man moved through his dark living room to answer the insistent, loud knocking at his front door, mumbling angrily, "It's almost two in the morning." He ran a hand through his thin, white hair and carefully placed his glasses on his thin nose.

As he opened the door, the apartment owner hissed, "What the hell is this-" His words caught in his throat at finding the familiar pair of agents that he had spoken to earlier that day. Neither of them looked particularly thrilled at that moment as they stood on his doorstep, glaring heatedly at him.

The red-haired young woman lost some of her edge to smirk. She tilted her head and greeted, "Remember us, Mister Roley?" Without warning, Anna pushed past the old man with Trowa right behind. Together, they stepped into the lit foyer of the house.

His grey eyes widening further as he closed the door after them, the white-haired man replied, "Of course I remember you. How can I help you this early morning?" The niceties that he had played on them earlier were starting to slip as he could feel his frustration growing.

Folding his arms, Trowa answered, "We believe that you have known Jack Collins to be living in your apartment complex when you told us that you had never seen him." Mister Roley's mouth fell open and his skin paled. "We need a list of all of your residents on the seventh floor."

Unable to keep up with his act of politeness any longer, the old man's face burned and he glared heatedly at the pair. "You have no right to such information," he growled deeply. "You don't have a warrant to obtain my paperwork."

Easily matching the fierce glare, the Latin pilot snapped, "In other words, someone paid the right price to keep that information classified." Roley remained defiant, his head high and his back straight where he stood. His lack of response was more than enough to answer the statement.

Anna's smirk returned as she stalked over to the old man. "Okay," she began, "We can do this your way, go through the motions and get a warrant for the information. But if we have to go through all of that and we find any proof that you lied to us when you told us you never knew anything of the criminal we're after, you'll be an accomplice to his crimes." The redhead kept from laughing when she noticed the proud man swallowing roughly at that.

His arms still crossed, Trowa nodded, "And with the crimes that he committed, don't think that a judge would go easily on you just because of your age. It's a high offense to assist in hiding a marked man like Collins. You'll rot the rest of your days in prison."

Still walking around the apartment owner, Anna continued, "Oh, and you won't just rot." Chuckling deeply, she paused when she was standing behind the now sweating man. She leaned in to say lowly in his ear, "Where you would be going, the men have a certain fancy for someone… advanced such as yourself. You couldn't imaging the things that those men are capable of-"

Frantic at the thought of that horrific life, Roley's eyes squeezed closed as he shouted, "Stop it!" He ran into the living room, flipping the lights witch on as he passed with the agents hot on his heels. Opening his closet, he revealed the metal file cabinet that had been hidden there.

Using the key that was stored beneath the cabinet, the white-haired man opened the tip drawer and grabbed the file for the seventh floor. All but tossing it at the pair, he cried, "Here! Jack was not the one who called to have the room set aside for him. I have the name of the person that called and paid for him to stay there until Friday."

The pilots looked up from the report that they were scanning with wide eyes. "Until Friday?" Anna breathed. Swallowing hard, Roley nodded. With a deep sigh, she ran a hand through her long bangs and frowned deeply, "That's tomorrow."

Quickly scanning down the list of names and the rooms that they were assigned to, Trowa's green eyes narrowed. "Isis Cornet," he read aloud, pointing at the name on the sheet. "Room 706."

 

Part 49:

[Now I believe there comes a time
When everything just falls in line
We live and learn from our mistakes
The deepest cuts are healed by faith]
-Lyrics to `All Fired Up' performed by Pat Benetar

"There are only two staircases in the whole building," Dawn stated as she pointed to the sketch of the building layout that Wufei had drawn with her help. With her free hand that was not holding up the image, she pointed to the front door on the image and continued, "Through the front doors, you go straight down the hall and up one of the two stairwells. It's the one that's closest to Collins's room. On the exact opposite side, there the back door can only be opened with a resident card."

Pointing to the two sides of the image, she added, "And there is a fire escape on the west and east sides of the buildings. The hallways face north and south and there are two large windows at either end of them that do not open to the fire escapes. Those are the only ways in and out of the apartment complex." All around, the agents listening in nodded their understanding.

All eyes turned to Zechs for command, knowing him to be the best at arranging tactical recoveries in large facilities. Straightening, the tall man began, "Wufei and Anna, you both take the roof with the cables. If needed, you'll have to lower yourselves through the windows at the end of the hall where there's trouble.

"Heero and Noin, the two of you will be stationed in the middle of the north stairwell while Trowa and Sally take the south." Zechs then looked to the braided pilot and concluded, "Duo and I will go to room 706 for Collins."

The braided pilot's violet eyes widened at the suggestion, but nodded firmly. Heero did his best not to voice the concern that was building in his own chest at the thought of his partner going into the heart of the loin's den. Sighing deeply, the tall blonde commented, "With any luck, we're just being paranoid in taking so many precautions and we'll simply take into custody without any trouble."

Biting her lip, Jasmine asked, "If there is trouble and Collins has men crawling around the area, what should Dawn and I do?" Her blonde friend beside her nodded as she bit her lip anxiously at the thought of being left behind.

Quatre ginned, "I'll be watching after you both. We'll be moving another few blocks out of harm's way." He held up the radio that was strapped to his belt and explained, "I also have to keep communications open with the other teams that are moving into the area, in case they're needed."

Instantly, the shoulders of the two prostitutes relaxed and they smiled in appreciation. After a brief exchange of handshakes and well wishes to his friends, the Arab pilot led the young women from the alley.

With the diagonal scratches on her face in plain sight, Anna turned to Wufei and suggested, "We better get a good start in getting up to the roof with our gear." She looked up to the still dark sky and stated, "It's going to start getting light out before long."

Nodding firmly at that, the Chinese pilot gripped the large bags of cable as the redhead shouldered a heavy bag of weapons. They only gave a small nod to their lovers before quietly slipping from the alley where they had been hiding, two blocks away from the apartment complex. After giving the first team twenty minutes to get a head start, Trowa and Sally made their way out onto the street.

After another ten minutes, Heero turned to his lover and kissed him soundly. Resting their foreheads together, he whispered, "Be careful." Unable to trust his voice at the moment, Duo forced a smile and mouthed the words, `You, too.' Reluctantly pulling away, the Japanese Preventer smiled back before moving out of the alley with Noin at his side.

The long silence that followed in that alley dragged on for what seemed like hours. Looking to his watch, Zechs announced, "We have an hour before the Colony lights start going up. That's good. With any luck, if there is anyone looking after Collins, they'll still be asleep by the time we get to him." Duo swallowed hard and nodded as he checked the pistols at his belt for the umpteenth since arriving at the alley.

Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, Wufei's voice rang through their earpieces, "Agent Mist and I are in position and ready."

"Agent Water and I are at our station, as well," Trowa whispered over the transmission.

Then Heero spoke quietly, "Agent Fire and I are ready as well. The last team can move in when ready." At the lump that filled in his throat at hearing his lover's voice, Duo swallowed hard once more.

Zechs spoke into the small microphone resting against his cheek, "Roger that. We're moving in now." With a nod to his braided partner, he waited until Duo straightened and returned the nod before moving out of the alley.

When they reached the tall apartment building, the two agents walked quietly through the front door. As the building owner had promised after his interrogation with Trowa and Anna, there was no front desk clerk present to get in the way. Slowly as not to make too much noise on the old wooden stairs, Zechs and Duo climbed the northern stairwell.

Sally and Heero were waiting in the doorway that led to the fifth floor. Looking over their shoulders as the other Preventers moved past, they nodded to them that all was still quiet from what they had seen. Without a word to their friends, Duo and Zechs continued on their way up the stairs.

Their breaths held when they reached their destination, the two pilots stepped out into the hallway of the seventh floor. Halfway between them and the room that they were looking for, there was a tall man passed out on the floor-the only sign of life in the dim corridor. An empty beer bottle was lying just past his limp hand. Peering out the corner of his eye, Zechs nodded to the braided pilot that turned to him in question. Quietly, they headed down the hall.

In the stillness, the sound of a pistol safety clicking off was their only warning before the lifeless body suddenly jumped up before they could get too close. With a smug smirk, the tall man stated, "Never saw the likes of you around these parts. And what business do you have here this early in the morning?" Gesturing to the one of the doors behind him, he asked, "You wouldn't be trying to pay an unwelcomed visit, would you?"

His eyes narrowed fiercely, Zechs's hand moved swiftly to remove the gun at his hip. Before the man before them could blink, he fired a bullet into the tall man's forehead. As the still, bloody form fell back, several doors suddenly opened and bullets rained down at the two agents. Quickly diving into the opening of the stairway, Duo and Zechs narrowly avoided being hit by the stray shots.

"Everyone," Duo shouted into his microphone, "We need back up on the seventh floor immediately! We're taking fire!" His eardrum nearly blew at the sudden explosion that went over the transmission. He and Zechs cried loudly in pain as they quickly removed their earpieces.

From over the gunfire, Anna's voice shouted, "Wufei and I just took out the fire escapes so that Collins can't try to make a break for it! Duo, Zechs, let us know when there is a break in the gunfire so we can move in!"

Once their earpieces were back in place, they could hear further gunfire as Sally's voice yelled frantically, "We have gunmen that are climbing up from the lower floors! We're trying to hold them back so we can get to you!"

Immediately after the call, Noin cried, "These assholes are all over the place! Everyone's going to have to hang tight for now!"

Cursing sharply to himself, Zechs gripped one of the many guns strapped to him and turned into the hall, firing several rounds at the heads peeking out of the opened doors. Duo took over when the blonde pilot pulled back and together, they traded covering the doorway that was being blown apart around them.

Several minutes passed and only a few of their attackers had fallen. Growling deeply, Zechs gripped one of the grenades in his pocket and gritted, "We don't have time for this! Shoot to injure unless you're sure it's not Collins!"

Carefully leaning into the hallway, the blonde pilot hurled the smoke bomb deep into the hall with Duo following in suit. The smoke quickly filled the hall as the two agents covered their mouths with their shirts to the sounds of cries and rough coughs from the men that had been firing on them.

A gun in each of their hands, the Preventers stormed into the cloudy hall. Raising their weapons, they fired on the tall shadows stumbling through the smoke around them. When the men were close enough that it was clear they were not Collins, they were shot mortally. Just as they were making their way down the hall, a room to their right suddenly opened and the light from within spilled through the haze.

Damien raised his own gun and fired two bullets onto Zechs. Falling back with a loud cry, the blonde agent's blood sprayed in the air. Stunned, Duo watched his partner fall through the dark smoke to vanish from sight and shouted, "Zechs!" His eyes narrowed, he turned to the tall brunette and froze at the pistol aimed at his forehead.

With a deep growl, Damien hissed, "Drop it." Swallowing hard, the braided pilot raised his hands and allowed the gun so slip from his fingers. With the smoke lowering to waist-height, the only proof that the weapon was out of reach was when it clanged against the ground.

Footsteps hammered up to the floor from the northern stairwell. Both Heero and Noin stilled in the bullet-ridden doorway with wide eyes when they found the American at gunpoint. His eyes blazing on the two agents, Damien shouted, "Lower your weapons or he's dead!"

The last of the smoke dissolved to reveal the bodies lying on the ground. Hissing in pain, Zechs sat up so his back was against the wall as he put pressure to his bleeding right shoulder and left leg. Looking up, he glared dangerously at the tall brunette.

"I said lower your weapons now!" Damien screamed when no one moves. Swallowing hard, Heero finally raised his hand and slowly bent at his waist to lower his pistol. Noin followed the same actions, her eyes on her injured husband. Swallowing hard at the sight, she narrowed her gaze on the man responsible for harming him.

Slowly turning his sweat-dampened face, the braided pilot fought the whimper that filled his throat at the sight of his distraught lover. His voice little more than a whisper, Heero breathed, "Duo…"

His brown eyes widening, Damien laughed and looked to the pilot at the end of his outstretched pistol. "Duo?" he chuckled deeply. "So you're the one that got away." Glaring at the trembling agent as he met his gaze, the tall man yelled, "You won't be so lucky now!"

"No!" Heero cried, his eyes wide as he prepared to run forward as Damien began to pull the trigger.

Just before Heero and Noin, two figures crashed feet-first through the two large windows at their end of the hall. Smoothly landing onto their feet, Wufei and Anna emptied the guns into the stunned gunman while shards of glass flew around them. Wide-eyed, Damien stumbled back as the gun fell from the bloodied remains of his hand. His nearly unrecognizable body fell into a limp heap.

In the stillness that fell in the hallway once more, Anna raised her fisted hands into the air and cheered, "Fuck! I love my job!" Beside her, Wufei rolled his eyes and chuckled deeply. Noin and Heero ran past them and their jovial air quickly faded into concern as they watched.

Kneeling beside her husband to help put pressure on his wounds, Noin looked back to Wufei and Anna to suggest, "You better check on Trowa and Sally in the southern stairwell. We lost contact with them." With firm nods and worry in their eyes at the mention of their lovers, the two pilots charged down the hall and into the stairway.

Lost to the shock of everything that happened, Duo's legs gave out. As he crumpled to the floor, Heero caught him as he cried his name in concern. Holding onto the trembling pilot in his arms, the ex-Wing pilot carefully lowered him to sit on the floor across from Zechs. With his own hands shaking, he cupped the braided agent's face and kissed his lips soundly.

Reluctantly pulling back once more, he locked eyes with the stunned young man and whispered, "I'll be right back." Only able to understand part of what was spoken to him, Duo nodded.

Jumping to his feet, Heero ran down the hall and kicked in the door to room 706. Holding his pistol out with both hands steadying it, he stalked carefully into the tight living quarters. When he reached the hallway, his eyes widened at the sight of Collins standing in the center of the room as he raised one of his own guns to his own head.

Making his mark, the Japanese agent fired and hit the assassin's armed hand before he could pull the trigger to take his own life. Collins screamed in pain as his bloodied hand dropped the pistol. Closing the distance between them with a swift charge, Heero hit the butt of his gun into the side of the recoiling man's head. Knocked unconscious instantly, the hit man collapsed roughly to the ground.

His cobalt eyes narrowed on the still assassin, Heero opened the com to the transmitter and announced, "This is Yuy. Collins has been detained. Repeat. Collins has been detained."

* * * * *

Moments later, the remaining Preventer teams pulled into the parking lot beside the apartment complex. Ambulances lined the streets and police officers kept all civilian cars off the street. Sitting beside Zechs as his wounds were tended to in the back of one of those ambulances, Noin smiled to the agents that approached, "Great timing, guys. You missed all of the fun." Their eyes wide, the Preventers that just made the scene took in the hectic scene around them.

In one of the other ambulances, Heero smiled warmly as he sat beside his lover with a cup of water that he managed to find. Gently taking hold of his partner's hand, he said quietly, "Drink this."

When Duo took the cup from him, he wrapped his arm tightly around his shoulders. After the close call that they had, there really were no words to express everything that was going through them at that moment. The unspoken words were spoken through their embraces and kisses instead.

As Duo sipped from the cool water, the ex-Wing pilot kissed the side of his head. "It's almost over, love," he whispered reassuringly.

Lowering the cup, the braided agent turned to him with shimmering eyes. Finally, their investigation that had once looked grim after so many setbacks turned a corner. There was suddenly a light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. Duo smiled brilliantly at the realization that the White Out Organization was finally going to be brought to an end. Nodding, he managed a small, "Yea."

Inside of Collins's apartment, the assassin glared at the Wufei and Sally as they stared down at him. His wounded hand had been bandaged and he was cuffed to the chair that he was sitting in. "I already told you that you're not going to get anything out of me," he sneered.

There was a cheer from the bedroom and Trowa entered the room, a laptop in his hands and a pleased smile on his lips. "Oh, you won't have to tell us, anything," he chuckled deeply. The hit man paled at the sight of his computer.

"Looks like you forgot to destroy the files on your hard drive, here. This should tell us everything that we need to know without having to strike a deal." Turning to the pilot walking up behind him, the Latin pilot inquired, "How long would you say we could have this encoded message cracked, Anna?"

With a smug smirk, the redhead shrugged, "Oh, I'd say a couple of hours at the most." Both Sally and Wufei smiled darkly at their detainee.

Looking back to his friends, the Chinese pilot told them, "Do it. We'll see that he gets the proper medical treatment his hand needs before handing him over to the other Preventers. They can read him his rights." The pair turned on their heels to set about their task.

* * * * *

The following afternoon, the President of the Earth adjusted his long tie as he gazed upon himself in the tall mirror of his suite. He smirked to himself. This was to be the first of many days to follow that would be a defining moments for him- one that he had planned carefully for years. All that he needed to do now was wait for the limo that would take him to the arena where he was about to address the people.

Admiring himself in the reflection, he chuckled deeply, "Perfect look for the camera as they capture the attempt on my life." There was a soft knock on his door behind him and without looking back, he called, "Come in."

While the door opened, he turned and grinned, "You must be my escort to-"The white-haired man's eyes widened in shock and his skin paled as his voice caught in his throat.

His hands folded before him, Duo stood in his Preventer uniform and grinned, "Well, I am your escort, Mister President. Just not to where you thought you were headed." Glaring heatedly at the young man, the old man reached into his dress coat for the pistol he always carried. The braided pilot, however, was much faster in removing his own weapon and aiming it at the man before him.

Behind Duo, the door opened wider. Heero, Trowa, Wufei, Quatre, Anna, Sally, Zechs and Noin entered the room. All in their Preventer uniforms, the tight-knit group glared heatedly at the President as he stood with his mouth hung open. They made a line behind their friend and remained still while he did the honors that they only saw fit to give to him.

Stepping forward, Duo kept his gun still aimed at the man who conducted the organization responsible for immeasurable suffering. His violet eyes narrowed, he spoke in a clear and threatening voice, "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law…"

* * * * *

Lady Une smiled in relief as she spoke into the receiver of her cell phone, "That's wonderful, Agent Spark. See that they're all cared for and brought back to the Earth so that we can set them up with new homes and jobs so they can get on their feet again." After the affirmative over the other line, she closed the flip to her cell and sighed deeply as she sat back in her leather chair at her desk.

At the knock at her door, she punched called, "Come in." When the door slid open, she smiled brightly at the agents that entered. All looking as weary as they were happy to have finally reached the end of their trying case, the group of pilots grinned to their Commander.

His right arm in a sling and his right leg in a cast that he mobilized with a crutch under his good arm, Zechs smirked, "Just wanted to inform you in person that the ex-President is now in a holding cell and awaiting the pretrial for his case."

Rising from her seat, Lady Une moved around her desk to embrace and kiss the cheeks of the ex-Gundam pilots, Sally, Zechs, Noin and Anna. She gazed to the stunned group with tears in her eyes and whispered brokenly, "I cannot tell you how damned proud I am of all of you. This case would never have been solved had it not been for your efforts."

With a quick wipe at her eyes, she grinned, "I've been receiving calls all day of hundreds of people that we've finally been able to locate thanks to the data on Collins' laptop and the confessions of the White Out agents that we've already brought in.

"One man by the name of Blake has been particularly happy to assist in our finding his comrades that were not mentioned on the files, now that we have him in custody." A smirk tugged the corner of her lip as she commented, "Misery certainly loves company."

The relief and satisfaction at the news was evident in all of the pilots as they smiled to her. Waving her hand, the emotional Commander shook her head, "Now go home. Get some sleep. I don't want to see any of you for at least a month. I'll pay you for your time off."

She turned to Quatre and told him, "And you, get back to your bride-to-be and see that she is pampered with these last few weeks of her pregnancy."

Laughing, the blonde Arab nodded, "Yes, madam." All but running, he led his friends from the room as they hurried to get back to their everyday lives after their long ordeal. On their way out, the other agents expressed their gratitude to the young woman for her generosity.

Heero and Duo, however, remained behind. When they were alone with the Commander, they turned to each other nervously. Looking to the pair, Lady Une tilted her head and frowned deeply, "Is there something wrong, Heero? Duo?"

After exchanging another glance to each other, the ex-Wing pilot stepped forward and replied, "Duo and I have been talking quite a bit about what would happen when this case was finally over." He took a deep breath and kept his eyes locked with the young woman as he stated firmly, "We are giving you our resignation."

Much to their surprise, Lady Une blinked in surprise, but gave them a warm smile. With a firm nod, she said, "While I would normally be at a loss in knowing that I would be losing two of my best agents, I also agree with you that it's time you both moved on from all of this."

She looked from one pilot to the other as she continued, "Between the war and this case, you've both been through more than most people have to deal with in a lifetime; and I do not think any less of either one of you for wanting to have some sense of normalcy." The Commander's smile grew as she told them sincerely, "I want to let you both know that I wish you nothing but the best in life. I certainly hope that we can move onward as friends."

Both Heero and Duo smiled to each other. Looking back to her, Duo grinned brightly and nodded, "Thank you. That certainly would mean a lot to us." He swallowed against the small lump in his throat and extended his hand as he said quietly, "It's been an honor working for you, Lady Une." Heero nodded and exchanged his own hand as well.

Chuckling deeply, the young woman shook both hands firmly and kissed the pilots' cheeks. When she pulled back, she winked and gave her last order, "Now, get out of here and don't be strangers."

With a box of their belongings under one arm, Heero and Duo stepped out of Preventer headquarters with their free hands joined. The sun shown through a clear sky as a fitting start to their new lives as they walked down the street to the parking lot.

Somehow, everything just seemed new to them, not knowing what was in store for them now that they were freed of whatever obligations they felt they had in defending the peace that they fought so hard for. It was time that they finally got to enjoy it.

As they neared the silver Civic that had been sitting in the same spot that Heero had left it months ago, Duo chuckled deeply, "I almost forgot what our car looked like after all of this." His partner gave a light snort, but nodded his understanding. Carefully storing their belongings into the back seat, they closed the car doors.

The pair stood before each other. Sensing an apprehension in his lover, Heero gently rubbed the braided pilot's shoulder and asked gently, "Are you all right?"

Swallowing hard, Duo nodded but frowned deeply. He looked away, peering out to the city through the opening of the parking lot. "It just doesn't seem real, you know. The bad guys were stopped and we're moving on from everything that we were familiar with." Looking back into the cobalt depths watching him, he asked in little more than a whisper, "What are we going to do now?"

At that, Heero smiled and ran a hand through his long chestnut bangs to peer into his best friend's violet depths better. "We take up Quatre's offer to stay with him and Relena at one of his estates until we figure that out," he answered quietly. "We take one day at a time for a change. Personally, I don't care where we end up or what we do, I just want you there with me and I'll be happy."

A few small tears filled Duo's eyes at that, but his smile was brilliant. He launched himself forward to wrap his arms tightly around his lover and whispered brokenly, "Gods, I love you, Heero."

Holding the trembling ex-pilot in his arms, the Japanese youth kissed his cheek and replied, "And I you." They pulled back enough to kiss each other deeply. When they pulled back, Heero smirked, "Once we've rested, I plan on showing you just how much."

There was a mischievous glint in Duo's eyes as he hummed, "I'm going to have to hold you to that." With a deep chuckle, he kissed his lover soundly once more before moving around the car to slip into the passenger seat.

Closing the door after him as he started the ignition, Heero looked over to the braided young man beside him and grinned, "Ready?"

Duo leaned over to take the ex-Wing pilot's left hand in his own. Squeezing it, he smiled back, "Now I am." Heero pulled the slender hand in his own to his lips and with a wide smile that few ever saw, he moved the car out onto the street.

Almost an hour later, Duo looked back over his shoulder to look at the last glimpses of the city they left behind. Under the bright sun, the long stretch of the town shimmered brightly against the stretches of fields like a silver lining in the distance. At the thought, he smiled to himself before looking ahead to the unknown.

 

Epilogue

[Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten]
-Lyrics to `Unwritten' performed by Natasha Bedingfield

Adjusting the long, deep blue tie of his gray suit as he and Heero walked quickly down the halls of the courthouse, Duo said quietly, "I hope that we didn't miss it. That meeting ran a lot longer than I thought it would."

With a look to his watch, the ex-Wing pilot stated, "We're cutting it close, but we should make it in time." Nearing the end of the hall, Heero gestured to the court room coming up on their right. "This is the one," he announced softly as he tweaked his own, deep red tie to his tan business suit. Pulling one of the two wooden doors opened, he stepped aside for his braided lover to slip into the room ahead of him.

Inside, the visitor benches were nearly filled when the two retired pilots entered. Glancing around, Duo spotted Quatre's smiling face and waving hand in the front row. Beside the blonde agent, Relena looked up and beamed to her friends as she adjusted the tiny baby in her arms. Down the line, Zechs, Noin, Sally, Wufei, and Lady Une all looked back and grinned to Heero and Duo as they quickly made their way towards them.

The group slid down to make room for the couple to take the end of the bench. Quatre nodded in greeting to them as they took their seats beside him. "Just in time," he whispered. "They're just about to be called."

Smiling in relief at that, Heero and Duo looked ahead to the long table just past the wooden railing that separated the guests from the participants of the hearing. Trowa and Anna sat at that table, their back to the others until the redhead looked over her shoulder. Her face clear of the scratches she suffered months prior, her blue eyes brightened along with the wide grin that tugged at her lips in seeing that the remainder of their `family' made it in time. The Latin pilot peered back and grinned widely to his two friends.

"All rise," the tall bailiff called in a bellowing voice that filled he room. Everyone present followed the order as the judge's chamber door opened. A lovely, African American woman in a long, black robe with shimmering diamonds that lined the collar stepped into the court room. In her right hand, she held tightly to a thick file. "The honorable Judge Marissa Leon presiding," the dark-haired bailiff announced.

Trowa and Anna watched the young woman stepped up to the judge's bench. Their hands found each other and held on tightly as they held their breaths. As she sat in her tall leather seat, the judge addressed the small crowd gathered, "Please be seated." Moving as one, all present lowered themselves back into their chairs and benches.

Judge Leon turned to the couple that remained standing at their table. Her lips tugged up in a small smile as she greeted, "Trowa and Anna Barton. This certainly has been a long six months for the two of you, I know.

"Your cooperation and dedication through these procedures, along with your eloping recently to further simplify the process speaks worlds of how devoted you are to see this through." She nodded to the officer standing at the back of the room and stated, "That said, let's finish with the red tape so that you can move on."

At the nod, the officer opened one of the double doors at the back of the room. Stepping into the room was the gray-haired Sister Grace from the Saint Peter's Orphanage that had been destroyed by the White Out Organization. The aging woman smiled warmly at the familiar faces at the front of the room before stepping aside so that her little charge could walk into the room before her.

Dressed in a yellow sundress with multi-colored flowers printed around the material, Rachel walked down towards the swinging doors at the railing just behind Trowa and Anna. The young couple matched the child's brilliant smile as they gazed to each other.

Chuckling deeply, Judge Leon grinned warmly and gestured to the girl, "Come up here with me, Rachel. We need to have a talk." The brunette child bit her lip nervously before pushing the swinging doors open. Passing the table where Trowa and Anna watched, she scurried around the witness bench and up to the Judge's seat. With another deep chuckle, the young woman bent down to scoop her up and sit her in her lap.

Never losing her smile, the judge gestured to the couple at the table and asked, "You know why we're here today, child?" Small tears filled Rachel's brown eyes in anticipation. Without looking away from the pair, she nodded excitedly. "You know that Trowa and Anna are hoping to take you in as their own by adopting you then?" Leon continued as she gently stroked the girl's shoulder-length hair. "Would you like that?"

Quickly turning to look up to the kind judge, Rachel answered, "Yes, ma- I mean your Honor. I would like that more than anything," she answered brokenly. The band of friends at the bench chuckled deeply amongst themselves. Anna wiped a stray tear with her free hand as Trowa smiled from ear-to-ear in pride at the little one's answer.

"Well," Leon winked, "I am more than happy to grant that to you. After working with the two of them, I have no doubt that they will make more than fitting parents for you." Gently squeezing the child around her waist, she continued, "There are many others like you, children without their mommies or daddies to look after them. You're one of the few lucky ones to have found not just one, but two people who love you as much as they do." Lightly tapping a long index finger on the child's round nose, she told her, "I don't ever want you to forget that."

Shaking her head, Rachel met her gaze and replied sincerely in little more than a whisper, "I won't, Your Honor."

Gently kissing her charge's head, the judge smiled warmly, "Good little one." Straightening in her seat, she looked to the anxious couple and announced, "From this day forward, at her request, the Earth and Colonies will recognize this precious one as Rachel Barton, the daughter of Trowa and Anna Barton."

Duo was the first one to cheer out, quickly followed by his friends as they applauded excitedly as they rose from their seats. Rachel was almost trembling in the judge's arms as she bit her lip. "Go to your parents, child," the young woman spoke quietly in her ear.

With a sharp cry, Rachel jumped from her lap and down the stairs. When she reached the bottom, Trowa was right there with tears in his eyes as he lifted her in his arms, holding her tight as she wrapped her arms around his neck. Kissing her head, he whispered, "Welcome home, little one."

Anna was soon there to kiss her head as she rubbed the girl's small back. Pulling back with tears rolling down her face, Rachel held onto her red-headed mother's neck tightly. Back at the witness benches, the friends of the new family smiled as a few wiped their own eyes as they continued to applaud.

Smiling brightly at them, the judge nodded firmly when the new parents met her gaze. With an arm around his wife's waist and his free arm holding his daughter at his hip, Trowa led them past the swinging doors to their awaiting friends to receive their warm regards.

* * * * * *

Following the adoption hearing, the group of friends all stopped for lunch together on that beautiful May afternoon. Sitting between her new parents, Rachel was enjoying her ice cream sunday while trying not to ruin her dress.

"So you have enough to hang the President with when his trial starts," Duo asked anxiously, as Relena carefully handed her son over to him. When the baby cooed up at him, he peered down and cooed back, "Who's a good little Samuel?" The boy laughed and kicked his little feet as best he could while wrapped in the light blanket.

Lady Une nodded with a satisfied grin. "His associates don't want to fry alone and so nearly all of them agreed to testify against him," she stated. "We won't have any trouble getting a guilty verdict. The only question will be whether he gets life in prison or the death penalty for treason and the lives lost by his organization." The relief was evident amongst everyone at the round table.

Raising an eyebrow at the new family, the Commander commented, "Now, I have to replace two more of my best agents with Trowa and Anna leaving the Preventers."

The tall pilot chuckled deeply, "Hey, I'm a family man now." Lightly patting his daughter's head, he continued, "It wouldn't do Rachel, here, any good to have her parents running off and risking their lives."

Anna nodded and mock-glared at the young woman as she added, "Besides, when Heero and Duo retired, you didn't give them half the guilt trip that you've been giving us, Commander."

Laughing at that, Lady Une replied, "That's because I gained two new Preventers at their recommendation soon after. I have to go through quite a lot of work finding replacements like that for the two of you."

With a small smile on his face as he gave Samuel his finger to grip in his two tiny hands, Heero looked up and asked, "How are Jasmine and Dawn doing, anyway? Last I heard, their training went very well."

"They're coming along beautifully," Wufei answered after swallowing a bite of his sandwich. "I've been keeping tabs and they'll be ready for a mission before long. They're picking up a lot faster than a lot of our new recruits." Both Heero and Duo grinned at that news, grateful that the two young women were starting to get their lives in order.

Beside the Chinese pilot, Sally tilted her head and asked the couple across from her, "So will the two of you be returning to Mars anytime soon? I know that you said you wanted to spend time with your nephew."

Gazing over to her husband next to her, Noin smirked, "Actually, we both decided to take up residence here on the Earth." She addressed the surprised faces watching them and shrugged, "We both missed working for the Preventers and we're not in a rush to have children of our own, yet." She chuckled, "So, we'll get to live that through proxy with Quatre and Relena."

The said Vice-Foreign Minister raised an eyebrow at that and asked, "You intend to breastfeed as well, then?" She and the others laughed loudly at the shocked faces that her brother and sister-in-law gave her. "Sorry," she giggled, "Too much information."

Zechs threw a napkin at her and exclaimed, "Entirely too much! I don't need to know that about my little sister!" The loud laughter filled the room again. When everyone calmed down again, he shook his head in amusement and held out his arms to his braided friend in a silent request for his nephew. Chuckling deeply, Duo carefully handed the baby over.

After another sip from his water, Quatre folded his arms behind his head and grinned wistfully, "This is a pretty busy month for us. First Trowa and Anna elope quickly followed by Rachel's adoption. Relena and I get married the end of this month." He winked to his beaming lover at the mention of them. Nodding over to Wufei and Sally, he went on, "Then your wedding is finally coming up next month." The happy couple shared warm smiled and nodded at that.

Lastly turning to the happy couple near the end of the table, the Arab consultant asked, "And your big day is next weekend."

His smile threatening to split his face, Duo nodded excitedly, "That's right. The meeting went well this morning, so we're all set. You're all going to be there, right?" All around the table, the others gave their affirmatives. Heero gently squeezed his lover's leg with a small grin of anticipation of his own.

Anna and Trowa shared a glance. The tall ex-Heavy Arms pilot nodded to his wife. Turning to the group, the redhead beamed, "Well, since we're all here, we should let you all know." Gently resting a hand on her daughter's shoulder, she announced, "Trowa and I just found out that Rachel has a little brother or sister on the way."

Wide eyes, wide smiles and applause of elation surrounded the newlyweds as Rachel gaped up to them, "Really!?" Trowa chuckled deeply and nodded along with his wife to her. After a round of hugs, handshakes and congratulations for the expecting couple, the little girl looked up to her father and asked, "Um, Daddy?"

Looking down at her with a lopsided smirk, Trowa replied, "Yes, angel?"

Rachel tilted her head and asked, "Where do babies come from, anyway?"

Both Trowa and Anna turned to each other with horrified looks on their paling faces at the innocent question. Their mouths opened and closed with little more than `Uh's' and `Oh's' coming from them. All around, their friends burst into hysterical laughter at their first glimpse into parenthood.

* * * * * *

It turned out to be a beautiful spring afternoon for Heero and Duo's big day. His free arm wrapped around his lover's waist, Heero smirked into his ear, "Ready?" Meeting the cobalt gaze, Duo smiled excitedly.

Together, they pushed the handles of the large scissors together to cut the large, red ribbon as thunderous applause filled the air.

Stepping forward, the pair looked back to the large estate that Quatre had designed for their establishment. To the side, an extensive playground that was sheltered to be used at any kind of weather stood proudly.

The large crowd of children, press and the officials responsible for the opening walked about them. With tears in his eyes, Duo smiled wistfully, "It… it really is beautiful, isn't it?" Unable to put to words what he wanted to say, Heero could only nod.

Quatre was the first of their friends that was able to reach them through the crowd and hugged them both tightly. "This is wonderful, you guys," he grinned brightly when he pulled back. "I never would have thought that this is what the two of you would do with your lives, but it's more than fitting."

With their child in her arms, Relena walked up and nodded, "Between the children from Saint Peter's Orphanage and the little ones that have been recovered the last few weeks, those rooms are going to be filled pretty quickly with children orphaned by the White Out Organization."

At that, Heero nodded firmly, "We'll take them all." Gently kissing the blonde young woman's cheek, he told the couple softly, "And we cannot thank either of you enough for helping us fund this place." Beside him, Duo nodded as he swallowed past the lump in his throat.

Both Quatre and Relena smiled warmly. "It's been our pleasure," the Arab said sincerely. The remainder of their `family' pressed through the maze of people to exchange their congratulations to the owners of the new orphanage.

Sister Grace was wiping her eyes as she approached her new employers. Taking either of their hands into hers, she whispered brokenly, "This is far more than we could have hoped for these lost souls. Thank you both for giving us a place where we can care for them."

Heero squeezed his lover's hand when it seemed like he might lose his fight against the tears in his violet eyes at the nun's heartfelt words. Clearing his throat, Duo nodded and grinned, "No thanks needed." At that, Sister Grace bowed her head before ushering the staff of sisters towards the large, elaborate estate with their bags.

With Rachel in her arms and Trowa at her side, Anna smiled, "Well, everyone, let's go take a look inside." The others nodded and followed her lead into the building as Duo and Heero remained behind to wait for the last arrivals that were due to arrive.

Over the sand, a bus rolled up to the waiting couple. Turning to face it, Heero grinned, "Here they come." Duo's heart leapt in his throat as he watched the approaching vehicle.

When the bus stopped ahead of them, the doors opened. One brave, little face peered out before she ran out with her small bag of few belongings. At the sight of the large estate, she stopped and gasped with wide green eyes as she brushed her blowing blonde hair from her face. Behind her, a handful of more children stepped from the bus to gape at the orphanage in awe.

Running once more to stop before the tall adults, the blonde child looked up with outstretched arms and exclaimed, "Mister Heero! Mister Duo! Is this really where we're going to be staying!?"

Duo chuckled deeply and lifted her in his arms as he replied, "Sure is, Megan! And you can just call us Heero and Duo." Behind him, Heero grinned and nodded to the little girl that they came to know during their stay on the Preventer ship where he was recovering from his bullet wounds suffered from recovering the transport carrying the children.

An excited bark filled the air as a familiar collie bounded up the sand from the estate. Their smiles glowing, the children called excitedly, "Yuuki!" Running up to the growing dog, they played with her merrily as she yelped and licked their little faces.

The braided ex-pilot chuckled deeply to the children, "See, I told you all that we'd be back together again. Only, this is way better than just a visit." All around, the little ones nodded excitedly and hugged their saviors' legs. Stunned only for a moment, Heero smiled warmly and reached down to pat a few of their heads.

"Wow," "Cool," were among the many comments made by the awestruck children as they filed from the bus. Duo carefully lowered Megan to join her friends so that she could continue to stare at her new home.

Looking over to his lover, the braided American bit his lip and asked quietly, "Are you sure that you want this, Heero? I know that this is a lot to ask-"

Gently resting a hand over his partner's lips, Heero smirked, "Hush. Of course I want this. I told you that I'll be happy doing anything as long as I'm with you." He gestured to the orphanage and commented, "Besides, Quatre was right. Doing this is somehow... fitting. For both of us." Meeting his love's eyes, he concluded, "We're giving children the second chance that we never had." A brilliant grin tugged at Duo's lips at that and he nodded.

Carefully leaning in, Heero whispered, "I know that Sister Helen and Father Maxwell would be very proud of you. But even then, they couldn't be nearly as proud of you as I am."

"Heero," was all that Duo could manage brokenly. Tears in his violet eyes, he pressed his lips tightly against his partner's in a sound kiss. The exchange was quickly broken to a chorus of `Eeewwws' from the children around them. Laughing along with the ex-Wing pilot, the American mock glared to them, "All right, ankle biters, inside so that the sisters can get your rooms set up."

The children cheered loudly at that and with Yuuki, they ran to their new residence. Watching their little charges run off ahead of them, Heero and Duo shook their heads in amusement with small smiles on their faces.

As he held out his hand, Heero winked to his lover, "Ready to start this new life, love?"

"With you there, of course," Duo replied sincerely as he took the offered hand. Together, their hands squeezing together tight, they walked over the sandy stretch to their new home.

At the top of the massive residence along the shoreline where their house once stood, the bold letter of the sign read `The Silver Lining Orphanage' in silver letters that captured the bright sunlight.

The wording shimmered brilliantly to be seen for miles, announcing a safe haven for those who had none.

…Announcing where hope could be found when all had been lost.

 

 

The End