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Art by Laurie Thomas





September, After Colony 189

The first time she saw him, she thought he was a movie star. Blue coat perfectly situated on his broad shoulders, blue eyes matching, soft hair pulled back into an equally soft ribbon, not a single hair out of place. Colonel Treize Khushenrada was perfection.

More importantly, he was a way out of the walls and past the doors of St. Angela's Home For Girls.

He was looking at the younger girls, the younger girls were always inspected first. Parents wanting children wanted girls with less emotional baggage. Army personnel, like Khushenrada, wanted slave labor with no prior political leanings that would be hard to erase.

At thirteen, Une was the second oldest girl in the place.

So when he gave the older girls a shot, sliding past them peremptorily, Une didn't smile or preen or flutter her eyes. She cleared her throat, "Your maneuver at the Battle of Hedgerow was quite unique. I would like to learn to think in that way."

It stopped him, which was half the battle.

"My maneuver?"

"Your decision to forego guerilla tactics in favor of modifying machines and using them to surround the enemy, rather than infiltrate it." Une smiled then, but it was real. Gadgets, machinery, Gundams, those were her things. Things the Colonel got to play around with every day, and she had to settle for reading about.

"What's your name, little tactician?"

"Une."

"Une." He said the name shortly, but clearly with the expectation of more.

"Just Une. It was the sound I used to make as a child. I was given to the Home at that time without note or identification."

"As a child, hm?" The quirk on Khushenrada's mouth proclaimed him to still think her a child.

She allowed him his misconceptions. "I have no family name."

"And what is it about my strategy that fascinates you, my Lady Une?"

Une knew better than to be charmed by anyone, but the title sent a small trill of pleasure nipping at the base of her neck. "It shows honor."

The blue of Khushenrada's eyes flashed to a color that clashed with his ensemble for all of a second. When he offered, "How would you feel about training to be my personal assistant?" they were back to normal, every detail of him sliding back into perfection.

"Nothing would please me more." Une straightened her back into her own, somewhat pitiful, imitation of perfection.

*

"Did they use corporal punishment at St. Angela's?"

The question was a non-sequitur and it took Une's brain a moment to catch up. "Yes, sir."

Khushenrada's face remained blank as he continued, "And does this mean you have a high-tolerance for pain?"

Une's eyes darkened. "I will not be disobedient, sir."

Something in his demeanor shifted, although she could not determine what. "That wasn't what I asked."

"I…it's not easy to make me cry." Having nothing with which to compare it, she really had no idea whether or not she had a high pain threshold.

He took pity on her. "One of the skills you shall have to learn is resistance to torture. I am merely trying to assess how difficult our job is going to be."

Une allowed herself a moment to consider whether she had just gotten herself out of one bad situation into a worse one. She knew it didn't matter, though. If she had, she would get what she could out of it, keep her focus forward, and look for another way out. The key to survival was forward motion. "I will try my best."

"I'll expect no less, my Lady."

The words themselves were frightening, but Une couldn't help being soothed by his even tone, the respectful title tacked on at the end. The only thing Une had ever been called outside of her name were curses, "wretched creature" and "little whelp" and "bothersome snit." Une supposed she was lucky that the nuns didn't curse like some of the girls who had gone in and out of St. Angela's between the underpaid jobs that were given to children too old to be adopted and too long in orphanages. Jobs that Une would soon have been farmed out to perform. Jobs that killed most of those children before the age of majority, when they could rightfully leave whatever factory or farm or mill to which they had been indentured.

Khushenrada picked up one of her arms, examining it. His fingers wrapped around her wrist with ample room to spare. "You're far too skinny."

Une shrugged. "Younger kids have more chance of adoption. They get all the best food and care so they look better for visitors."

"How much younger?"

Une locked her eyes on the hand with which he still held her wrist captive. "Younger than four, preferably."

"And you're…" the hand was taken away and there was some rustling of papers, "thirteen?"

"As of June 27th."

"What kinds of food do you like?"

It was a question Une couldn't answer at the time. Food was food, and so long as it wasn't rotten or infested, it was an item of interest to her. "Um. I guess I like fruit. Sir."

"You guess?" He prodded.

"It's not something I've had very often, but, well, there was this one time when St. Angela's had a whole bunch of apples donated because there was something wrong with them, I think maybe the spray on them was bad, or something. They let the older kids have'em because it was too risky for the babies. They were," Une risked a tiny smile at the memory, "juicy."

Khushenrada's eyes were pinpoints of anger. "I see."

Une quickly straightened her face. "I could try other things. I'm not a picky eater at all, I promise."

He cocked his head, "The ability to read others is only useful if you know what you're reading, little one. We'll have to work on that. You're right, though. You can try other things. You will. My assistant will need to be someone with knowledge in all areas including minutiae such as food and drink. She needs be able to dance as well as shoot, small talk as fluently as she speaks other languages."

Une worked not to blink. "Teach me."

*

The table was long, possibly long enough to have sat all the girls -- and the nuns -- from St. Angela's. Une felt dwarfed. Despite Khushenrada being at the head, one spot to her right, she was worried about being heard.

A salad was served first. At least, she was pretty sure it was a salad. It was more colorful than any salad Une had ever seen. Salads at St. Angela's meant the rare appearance of lettuce and nothing more. Une kept her eyes down, secretly watching out of her peripheral vision as Khushenrada picked up the fork farthest to his left. She copied the action. Assuming none of the utensils were reused, there were only five more to muddle through.

When Khushenrada spoke up, Une had never been so glad to hear what was clearly the start of a lecture in her entire life.

"We start from the outside," he hefted the fork he was holding demonstratively, "and work our way inward. This is the salad fork. It has one less tine than the dinner fork and is slightly smaller. The soup spoon, to the right of the one set in case we should need it for dining, is rounder, larger than its counterpart. While there is only one knife set on the table this evening…"

Une touched each utensil as he spoke, storing the information for later. If there was one thing that had never failed Une, it was her memory. Once she had heard or seen something, it clung to her mind until she purposely jettisoned it. Even then sometimes.

The courses seemed unending. A cold soup that Khushenrada fluidly pronounced to be Vichyssoise followed the salad, ushered out by chicken roasted with lemons and feted with sprigs of rosemary. Accompanying the chicken was aromatic asparagus -- something Une had never heard of, let alone seen -- and baby potatoes that had been roasted in the chicken's sauces.

Just when she thought she was finished, one of the fleet of men and women who had been serving them all evening, silent and nearly invisible, whisked in with a cake.

"Torte," Khushenrada corrected her errant thoughts. "A flourless chocolate torte, to be precise, draped in a raspberry glace. I asked for the glace. I mentioned you liked fruit and Cook was going to whip up a compote but I was feeling a bit selfish, and this is my favorite."

Une wasn't about to ask what the difference between a cake and a torte was, or admit that she'd never had chocolate, or inquire as to what, exactly, made up a compote. She sat, hands neatly folded in her lap, and waited to be cut a piece. Anxious to show off her new knowledge, Une reached as gracefully as she could for the small fork lying horizontally above the plate. She cut a tiny piece from wedge of torte she'd been given and placed it on her tongue. She was determined to choke it down regardless of her own preference. If Khushenrada liked it, she would learn to as well.

It took all of a second for her to realize that learning wasn't going to be a necessary component in this case. The chocolate, just bitter enough to accentuate its sharp sweetness, molded against her tongue and slid down her throat, too fast for her taste. It was only a sense of tight discipline, learned at the paddles and birches of the nuns, that kept Une from cutting off a piece larger than her mouth. Rather, her second sliver nearly matched the first. Nearly. She wasn't a saint.

The raspberry sauce danced in her mouth, a not-exactly-spicy companion to the silken bite of the torte.

Khushenrada threw off, "Do you like?"

Une couldn't restrain her, "More than anything. It's my favorite."

Khushenrada laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling ever so slightly. Une was startled by the extent of his youth revealed in the gesture. He challenged her, "You're just saying that to get on my good side."

She gave back, "Introduce me to more food and we shall see."

Une wasn't even sure exactly what she'd done right, but it was something, because what had been a good-natured chuckle roared into a full-bellied laugh.

*

Une proved a natural at hand-to-hand combat techniques, picking up quickly on nearly everything she was taught and displaying an eagerness to practice and perfect each move, stance, trick. Inside, when the sensei was talking to her about the proper use of each kick, the correct way to position her body, the expected path of thought, it felt like the key to a door she had waited so very long to open was being given to her. The movement was freeing, the intent reassuring. Nobody would ever touch her without her permission again.

Excepting of course, Khushenrada. He didn't fit into any of her blanket statements.

Dancing was slightly harder to learn. Her sense of rhythm was underdeveloped and each step was dependent upon someone else's choices, someone else's whims. While this was true of Une's life in general, she had grown to second-guess other people's motives. Trust was not among the qualities with which she was imbued. After the fourth dismal lesson, her teacher, a man much older than Khushenrada but with the same bearing, the one that announced money and class more than any title or well-known name could, sighed, "I cannot lead if you will not follow, little one."

Une, terrified of failing at any of the tasks Khushenrada had set for her, bounced on her toes. "I'm sorry, sir. Truly, I'll try harder."

"That is what you say every time. Yet you do not trust that I will not run you into walls, or drop you. If I did that, then I would be a poor lead, and I will teach you how to spot poor leads so as not to have to dance with them, or, failing that, to recognize their weakness and compensate. What can I do to gain your trust?"

Une floundered.

"The Colonel would never have hired someone less than qualified to teach you. He would never have let anyone who might accidentally hurt you in the same room with you. You are his, and he never treats his own with anything less than respect and care. Do you not know this?"

Une knew, had known even before he had come to St. Angela's and carried her away. His reputation had preceded him in more ways than one. She wasn't, though, had never been, able to think of herself as something other than her own. She was the only person who had ever cared enough to make sure she woke up in the morning, and managed something to eat during the day, and caught some sleep before the next day of drudgery. She was her only constant.

Khushenrada had been constant since taking her with him but it had only been a little over a month, and that wasn't that long.

"I…know that," Une hedged.

"But you don't understand it," the teacher filled in for her.

"Please," Une begged, "I will try harder."

"Perhaps, if we danced outside? The ground is less even, and we will have to relearn things eventually, but there are no walls out there. You would be safe."

Safety was a myth, Une knew, but she was willing to compromise. "It's beautiful out there."

Her teacher grunted, "That all depends on you now, doesn't it?"

Always.

*

She'd seen pictures of the Leos, what kid on Earth hadn't? "The Guardians of the Sky."

Her first glimpse of one without the aid of photographic devices came when Khushenrada took her to the base, mainly to test how well she'd memorized its lay out. He repeatedly blindfolded her and left her in rooms, instructing her as to where she could find him. In turn, she repeatedly found him, taking the easiest path and once, a short cut he hadn't previously realized was there.

It was her reward, getting to see the Leos.

They were huge, ever so much bigger even than Khushenrada, who seemed a giant to her underfed child's eyes. Technicians peered out of their bowels, maintenance crews clung to their sides, cleaning 'bots polished their torsos. Une whispered, "Do they really fly?"

Khushenrada looked away from the machines, peering at her in consideration. "You like the idea?"

Une didn’t meet his gaze, still too captivated by the scene before her. "Who doesn't?"

"A lot of people. People who are afraid of heights, people who get motion sickness…it's not for everyone."

Une twisted her nose up. "I bet everything looks different from up there. I bet the whole world changes."

"Yes, but it’s all an illusion," Khushenrada reminded her, somewhat gently.

"No, it's a matter of perspective," Une corrected, too enraptured to be worried about the consequences.

Khushenrada grunted. "I suppose it could be seen that way."

Une came to herself and flushed. "No, you're right, of course."

"Don’t back down unless you’re actually wrong, little one. It's a sign of weakness."

Une felt the criticism poke sharply at her ribs, but squared her shoulders. "Will I be taught to fly? Is that part of my training?"

"It is not required-" Khushenrada pursed his lips. "It would be most useful to have an aide versed in space combat as well as that of hand-to-hand."

Une fought to keep her face carefully blank, the way she had been learning day in and day out. A trick of negotiation, an art in which she was also expected to acquire skill. "I would be happy to oblige."

*

Khushenrada required that Une perfect her Japanese and learn English but she chose to study French, Chinese and Arabic on her own. Japanese and English were the languages of the first two colonies and the ones that were most actively engaged in warfare with Earth at the present time. Une's intuition told her it wouldn’t stay that way.

Khushenrada's compound was festooned in satellites, bringing in stations from all over the world. At night, before she snuck in four or -- if she was lucky -- five hours of sleep, Une would watch the news reports from L3, L4, and L5, looking up the words she couldn't understand on the computer with which her room had come equipped. Khushenrada had taught her the basics with the promise that, "Someone far more knowledgeable than I will be in charge of your education regarding this little machine."

She hadn't learned the art of hacking just yet, but she could name every part of a computer piece-by-piece, and she could most certainly use it to find any and all manners of information.

At first, this way of learning was frustrating. Even with her memory being as clear as it was she could only pick up a paragraph's worth of information from each program. With each week, however, her fluency increased. She made sure to discuss what the anchor was saying, sometimes yelling at the TV, sometimes expressing worry, sometimes, rarely, pouring out relief. This way she made sure she could speak the language as well as understand it.

She picked up less academic words by paying attention to conversations in the compound. Citizens from all the colonies, even L1 and L2, worked at the compound, and a variety of languages could be heard in any corridor, office, or utility closet.

She enjoyed understanding. It was like listening in on a secret code, only not nearly so hard to unscramble as the types of encryption she was being tutored to unravel.

Khushenrada called her his little overachiever with a smile and a look of contemplation Une didn't quite understand. She had heard the words "job security" in five different languages, though. She was pretty sure that's what she was providing for herself.

*
June, After Colony 190

Une woke at six every morning. She stood in front of her bed and took herself through five levels of katas, spending no more than thirty minutes on the wake up refresher before stepping into the shower, standing under the abundance of hot water that she had yet to take for granted, having for years known only cold showers when there was enough water for the older kids to take a shower at all.

She allowed herself fifteen minutes under the spray of heaven before drying herself off, pulling her hair up tightly into the elegant and yet efficient up-do that the stylist whom Khushenrada had called in to redo her look had taught her. She dressed in the junior Oz uniform that Khushenrada had tailored to fit her smaller frame, laced up her boots, and walked down the hallways to the conference room, wherein she shared a cup of orange juice and a light breakfast with Khushenrada.

It was at this point that he told her what was expected from her that day, whether it be lessons or a sit-in on one of his conferences or something that she couldn't predict. If nothing prohibited it, they would meet in Khushenrada's dining room at seven promptly and share a dinner together. Most of the time, the dishes the staff brought out were still new to her. She tried everything without second thought.

At eight there was often more business to attend to, calls to be made, lessons that couldn't be fit at an earlier time in the day. Unless it was a spectacularly busy day, Une generally made it back to her quarters (her own space, something once as undreamed of as hot water or fresh fruit) around ten. She spent a couple of hours watching the news broadcasts and working on her fluency in all her languages and curled up in the bed that was far too large for one tiny teenage girl with sheets of the finest cotton and blankets so heavy she was always surprised at being able to move them. Even when she felt lonely without twenty other girls in the room or woke from nightmares that caused her to scream involuntarily, the bed, with its solid comfort and warmth, its evidence of quality items being left in her care, the bed calmed her. It was oftentimes harder than she would have admitted to anyone to leave it in the mornings.

She woke up clutching at the sheets and still one morning in the summer and thought, Another hour, just one before voicing, "I'm awake," which was her alarm clock's cue to silence itself. She slipped out from underneath the sheets and walked around the foot of the bed, standing with her feet slightly apart. With three breaths, she had centered herself enough to bring her arms up, form her body into the first kata. Without changing the pattern of her breaths, moving more than she had to, or any breaking of concentration, she flowed from one position to the next. She held the final position for the length of another three breaths and let go, making her way to the shower.

When she was dressed and groomed she made her way to the conference room, a little bit earlier than usual for breakfast. Her hair took less and less time as her fingers became more used to the folds and twists and pins necessary.

Khushenrada was waiting for her despite her being early. She wasn't surprised. She suspected the man never actually slept. "'Morning," she greeted him.

His smile contained a note of mischief. It was hard to recognize but he had been teaching her to read everything from the tiniest twitch of a knuckle to the different raisings of an eyebrow for nearly a year now. "'Morning, my Lady."

Une poured herself a glass of orange juice from the decanter sitting on the sideboard. "Mightn't I be privy to the agenda for today?"

He seemed to consider this. "No, I think not."

Une fought with equal ferocity to keep the orange juice she had just swallowed down and her own panic out of her voice. "Oh?"

"You see, I've planned something of a birthday surprise for today and I don't feel inclined to give it away."

Une frowned. "Forgive me, Colonel, I was unaware this was your birthday."

Khushenrada laughed. "Haven't been paying any attention to the calendar have we? That's all right, it happens sometimes when things become busy."

Une's mind briefly flashed to the smell of heat whenever she'd ventured outside of late and the full bloom of the trees around the complex. "Oh, you meant. Ah, it’s my birthday."

"Indeed."

"That's hardly a reason to set aside the normal activities of the day."

"I take it that you've never had reason to see the day as anything special." Khushenrada sipped at coffee, his breakfast beverage of choice.

Une shrugged. "The nuns didn't particularly believe that individuals should be celebrated, let alone their births. I didn't even realize there was a custom of celebrating the day until a girl who had lost her parents to military action at the age of nine came to the home. I felt a bit sorry for her, but really, as far as the rest of us went, you can't miss what you never knew or you don't remember."

"I'm going to give you something to miss, and then make sure you never have cause to miss it."

There was no arguing with him when he affected that tone of voice. "If it pleases you to do so."

Une had to admit though, if only privately, to a thrill of pleasure when Estelle brought in breakfast, one of Cook's morning specials, only served on the rarest of occasions. A myriad of tropical, hard-to-attain fruits topping a spread of sweetened cream cheese smeared over a pastry crust. She cut into the breakfast treat and politely handed Khushenrada the first serving. He shook his head. "The birthday girl always eats first, didn't you know?"

She hadn't.

*

Birthday or no, it became apparent that Khushenrada had planned her "surprises" around the things he needed to accomplish that day, which put her considerably more at ease. After breakfast, he led her to the air bay and his private jet. Despite her fascination with air flight, the best Une had managed so far was the simulator flights that all Leo trainees are required to go through before climbing into a cockpit.

She climbed the fold-out stairs in Khushenrada's wake and managed to ensconce herself in the plush leather of the chair facing him without squealing or anything equally unworthy of being Colonel Treize Khushenrada's aide. She discussed Romfeller-OZ relations with him fluently without once taking her eyes off the window as they flew over fields, cities, bases, and bodies of water alike. He politely did not say a word.

They landed on the airstrip of Darlian Palace and were greeted by Darlian's aides who walked them up to the Palace proper. On the expansive front lawn a gaggle of girls no more than four or five years younger than Une were playing with skipping ropes and expensive-looking dolls. Khushenrada whispered, "Third one to the right, long blondish hair. She's Darlian's daughter."

The girl in question was quite obviously instructing the others how to play. None of them seemed to mind. Une thought she'd probably had something of the same role in the home, but it was usually in reference to organizing around possibly getting more food or figuring out a way not to have to work outside in the middle of February. Her followers had never looked quite so happy to follow her instructions. Une folded the mental picture of Miss Darlian into a "for later" area of her mind and turned her concentration back to what they were here to speak with the urchin's father about.

Une had very carefully never spoken to Khushenrada about his beliefs in regards to the colonies. It was clear to her that his loyalties for the moment (she was well aware of just how transient everything was, regardless of oaths and supposed honor) were with Romefeller and its attack dog, OZ. It was equally clear that his loyalty only extended as far as OZ's techniques didn't get in the way of his personal beliefs in the arenas of conflict and human involvement therein. Because of this, Une was thoroughly versed in each side of the colony conflict issue but loyal to none. Khushenrada was her point of loyalty. She would go where he did.

Darlian waited for them to come to him in his conference rooms. Khushenrada approached him without giving credence to the small slight, as if the head of Romefeller's military forces weren't worth coming to the door to greet. Still, given Darlian's unease at current military policy, Une supposed she could understand the gesture.

Khushenrada introduced her, "This is my new aide, Ensign Une."

The rank had been granted her ceremonially so that there was status to attach to her name, if not terribly much. She shook Darlian's hand, "Such a pleasure, I've seen much of you on the telecasts."

"Most of it blatantly negative, I'd imagine. My views aren't overwhelmingly popular these days."

Une came up with an expression calculated to put him at ease. Khushenrada hadn't brought his newly fourteen-year-old female aide for nothing. She knew how this worked. "Only a fool believes everything she hears being cast at her."

"That statement, my young Ensign, suggests that you are willing to listen to what I have to say."

"Neither he nor I would be here if we weren't. We're not the kind to waste our time."

Over her head, Darlian addressed Khushenrada, "She's perfection, Colonel, my compliments."

Khushenrada bared his teeth. "She's still in the room."

Une could see the step that Darlian just barely kept himself from taking backward. She pushed down at the roil of her stomach, the flood of don't protect me, shit did he just say that, don't protect me threatening to overtake her mind. Darlian offered, "Please, be seated."

She followed Khushenrada's lead and settled into one of the chairs surrounding the conference table. She crossed her legs neatly and listened as the volley of politically encoded chat began to fly.

*

Une emerged from nearly an entire afternoon of negotiations through which she was relatively sure the two men had reached no conclusions feeling a bit weak in the knees. She drew herself up to her not-all-that impressive height (Khushenrada had reassured her that if she kept eating regularly it would eventually compensate for the earlier stunting) and followed another one of Darlian's aides down a series of hallways before being shown into what were obviously guest housing quarters. When the aide had left, she allowed some of her confusion to show. "We're staying the night?"

The mischief from earlier was back in Khushenrada's eyes. This time it seemed as though he was struggling not to allow it to infect his whole face. "No, but it is considered courteous to allow one's guests a place in which to freshen up before the evening's activities."

Une knew what that statement entailed. "You didn't tell me there was a ball." Political balls took many forms: fundraisers, inaugural, merely as a confidence boost for a party, but they were all alike at the root, formal and an arena for different factions to further their own aims. "I didn't bring a dress."

"I thought that might be a concern of yours." Khushenrada walked to a box perched atop the small table suitable for dining in the room. He gestured for her to come closer. "A birthday gift, if you will."

Une ran her fingers around the rim of the box and, finding no tape, separated the two parts to open it. Khushenrada had ordered her to be fit for several formal occasion dresses. She owned three, two of them black, one velvet, one silk, and the third a deep evening green. All were sweeping and impressive and something she could never have imagined herself owning, not given all the space in the universe to dream it up. The dress lying in the box in front of her was something altogether more magnificent than any of the other three put together.

Une lifted it out carefully, cautious that the long, sweeping skirt should not brush the floor. It was a deep rose-hued burgundy. The bodice part was a high quality velvet that would sweep up to her neck in the back and dip into a slight V-neck in the front, so as to make it feminine without accentuating her underdeveloped body. The skirt was a concoction of satin and tulle that would swing with her gait and twirl every so slightly when she danced.

The crowning glory, however, was not the dress, it was the small box on top of it that opened to reveal nearly twenty rose petals of all hues preserved in a sheer satin. "From your garden?" She asked.

Khushenrada's garden, with its abundance of roses, all sizes and colors, blooming in every direction, was his pride and her favorite place of escape.

"The summer blossoms," he said. "For your hair."

Deftly, she folded the dress back into the box. "It's magnificent. Unnecessary, but magnificent."

"Having the woman on your arm be the talk of an event is never an unnecessary occasion."

Une exhaled pointedly through her nose but left it. "Dinner before the ball?"

"Seven o'clock sharp, cocktails and small talk."

Une gave a wry twist of her lips. "Unfortunate that the weather is so temperate here."

Khushenrada's tone was ironic, "Indeed."

*

The men -- or maybe they were women, whoever they were, they were bigger than Une, and more numerous than Khushenrada and herself, and were carrying quite a few more weapons than the two of them -- ambushed them as they climbed off the plane in the early hours of the morning. It was still dark, the attackers were dressed in the uniforms of OZ soldiers, and it wasn't until her hands were being pulled behind her back and Khushenrada was next to her, kicking and fighting, that she understood -- enemy.

She brought her ankle up into the groin of the person holding her and wrestled free, kicking and dodging and chopping and generally doing her best to stay unpinned, to get to Khushenrada, make sure Khushenrada was safe. Khushenrada, Khushenrada, Khushenrada. The name was still a mantra in her head when she felt the slight prick at her neck and the corresponding wooziness that meant she'd been hit with a tranquilizer.

She awoke naked and cold. Before even bothering to check out her surroundings she took a deep breath and reviewed the most simple of the torture-resistance rules she'd been taught. It's all head games. They want what you know. You're the one in power. For extra measure, she added, And a naked girl isn't anything they haven’t seem before, it's nothing to be ashamed of.

She made herself stand and walk the length of the cell, for warmth, if nothing else. The cell was small, six by six, she guessed, iron or steel on all sides. It was too dark to tell which. If there was a door, she couldn't find it by touch, although she imagined there had to be one somewhere. It was damp on the walls and the floor but there weren't any rodents, or, if there were, they were being ridiculously silent and staying well out of her way. That seemed unlikely.

Where did they have Khushenrada? Somewhere close? Was he the main target of this action? Most likely. She didn't really know enough to figure herself worth the trouble. It wasn't particularly reassuring. If they didn't need her, it was all that more likely that they would allow her to waste away in this pit.

Don't think about negative outcomes. Wait until they come, find out where the exit and entry points are, figure out if the water on the wall is drinkable, in case they don't bring anything. Survive. That's not so hard, you've done that for years without anybody bothering to care whether you did.

Une stuck her tongue out against the smooth metal of the wall. The water was brackish but not salty, and it didn't seem toxic. She'd know in a bit. Truly polluted water would make her sick.

She curled back up on the floor and deepened her breathing. So long as they weren't actively trying to deprive her of sleep, it was probably best if she tried to get as much as she could. The after-effects of the tranquilizer made all her muscles tight and uncomfortable and her mind more fuzzy than she preferred in situations wherein quick thinking would probably be necessary. She closed her eyes and began counting backward from ten. She never reached one.

*

She woke up needing to pee. The room was level and there was nothing with which to contain it so she waited. She played vocabulary games in Japanese, then French. She sang songs she had picked up around the complex, trying to remember all the words. The ones she'd heard the soldiers singing were raunchier, easier to remember. The ones Khushenrada would murmur under his breath in the mornings and in his garden were harder.

By the time she started in on Chinese vocabulary games, the pain from her abdominal area had her curled on the floor, straightening out alternatively as she thought it would help.

Three words into Arabic, she let go. It comes from inside you. It's not a big deal. You can take a shower when you get out of here.

She stood after that. She worked through the katas, particularly careful not to slip. She rested against the wall, working not to slide down. She listed the people who could want the information to which Khushenrada was privy. She stopped when she had listed over thirty and concentrated on her top five and where any of those groups might be holding two prisoners.

Her hunger, when it finally came, was sharp and caused her to clench her teeth and think The American Waltz has three counts, the hard beat is on the downbeat, through the Argentinean Tango, the Bolero and the Fox Trot.

She knew how to be hungry though. Her memory was a little blunted by nearly a year of regular meals but thirteen years previous had been one very advanced tutorial in ignoring hunger, and she was still rather skilled.

Eventually her eyes began to droop again. Desperately, she fought the tide of exhaustion, working the katas once again, having an entire conversation with herself, half in Japanese, half in English. Her body was insistent, however, and she eventually gave in, sitting with as little of herself on the ground as she could manage. Luck was with her and she fell asleep as soon as her eyelids met.

The cell smelled when she woke and she concentrated on breathing through her mouth. She chose a corner to relieve herself in this time, confining anything solid to that area and hoping that the rest would spread as little as possible. Moving to the other side of the cell, she considered doing another round of katas, but the lack of food was starting to get to her, and she figured it was best that she conserve energy at that point.

She closed her eyes and visualized the controls on a Leo, calling each button and panel and control by its name, proper and nick. She replayed the sensation of flying in Khushenrada's jet, imaging up the miles of land and the miniature animal, vegetable and mineral littering said land.

She was about to see if she could remember the names of each of Khushenrada's roses when a noise startled her into pushing further back against the wall. She took a deep breath, and watched as one panel of the wall opened.

*

The light from outside her cell was intense in its suddenness and she worked not to close her eyes, to pay as much attention to the mechanics of the "door" as possible. It was becoming quickly evident that the only way to trip the system would be electronically, and hacking wasn't Une's best area even given the most high-tech equipment. She turned her attention to the man in the doorway. He was dressed in plainclothes, jeans and a t-shirt, in his late thirties, possibly early forties, approximately six feet tall and well-built. The physique suggested, even if the outerwear did not, that he was military of some type.

Une racked up points for this conclusion when he addressed her in Japanese, "Good evening, Ensign."

For the moment, she chose to believe that he could have no motivation to lie about what time of the day it was. It was nice to know, if not particularly useful. Still, not nice enough to enter into conversation with the man. What she estimated as roughly three days without food, fresh water or a place to pee had not lent her a chatty disposition.

The man didn't seem terribly put off by her silence. He nodded at something she couldn't see and before she had a chance to process the fact that another person had appeared at the doorway she was being hit by high-paced streams of chilled water.

Breathe, the thought echoed even as she screamed in surprise and pain, you cannot forget to breathe. It was hard, the shock of impact driving oxygen from her lungs, the sharpness of the water spray complicating any thought past, stop, please.

The cessation of the barrage was abrupt and Une concentrated on fixing a new pattern of breathing, not allowing herself to hyperventilate despite the attraction. She clamped down on her teeth and worked on moving her arms, trying to avoid tensing her muscles in an attempt to alleviate the severe cold.

"Feel better, Ensign?" The man's voice wasn't cold but the concern wasn't all that deep either. Une appreciated the latter fact, it meant that he probably wasn't into mind games. Not that she could rule out there being someone else in the facility who was.

She met his eyes. "Quite refreshed."

Another movement of his head and hose-boy was on her, sans hose. She considered trying to overpower him but there was still the man to consider even if she managed hose-boy in her somewhat weakened condition, and after the both of them there was a facility with which she was unfamiliar and countless other personnel to get past. She decided to conserve her strength.

Hose-boy hooked sets of chains to both her wrists and her ankles and then connected the two, insuring her immobility as much as possible. He nudged at her back, pushing her forward slightly. The man began to lead them out of the cell into a hallway that looked to be every bit as barren as her cell. Une suspected there were other doorways along it, hidden in the smooth design of endless steel.

At the end of the hall, before the door was opened to whatever lay outside, hose-boy wrapped a blindfold tightly, expertly, around her eyes and hoisted her stomach-side down over his shoulder. The man informed her they had, "Places to go, Ensign. You understand."

The worst part was, she did.

*

Une was pretty sure there was a rhyme and a reason to the way they were doing things, just like the simple questions that they always began with, "What's your name? How old are you?" were meant to catch her off guard, get her talking. Une had a strict policy of only opening her mouth to scream. She would have denied herself that but sometimes it just wasn't possible.

The first time hadn't been so bad. Hose-boy had hooked her up to machines, nodes lining her sides, her face, her feet, her genitalia. When she hadn't given them what they'd wanted, they'd pumped electricity into her at varying intervals, changing intensities until she'd been able to smell the skin under the nodes burning. In between shocks Une had concentrated on visualizing the pain, minimizing it. When that had ceased to work she had focused on breathing the pain out. It was convenient, not needing to pay attention to what they were asking her, it gave her more time to work through the coping mechanisms.

They had returned her to her cell and while Une was hardly grateful for the impromptu shower from earlier, she could admit that it had helped with the smell in the room. She curled up to try for some sleep but soon realized, with the intermittent blaring of noise and blasting of light that they weren't going to allow her much. She concentrated on grabbing what she could in the minutes between each waking technique.

She lost track of how long this went on. It could have been days. They weren't feeding her and there was only so much condensation on the walls, so her body's need to empty itself lessened until it was of nearly no use in figuring passage of time.

When the man came for a second round, she fought to stand up, finding her efforts a waste.

There were heated needles and neural pain-inducers the second time, and those were harder to breathe past, the pain more lingering than shock-torture. Une writhed in the restraints, sobbed and screamed and thought, Khushenrada, to remind herself that her loyalty was no longer solely hers. The thought came with notions of regularly served edible food and knowledge laid out at her fingertips and her own space with a bed so comfortable she sometimes wondered if the whole scenario wasn't some elaborate escape she had cooked up in her mind.

They threw her back into the cell for another period of sleep and food deprivation. She wasn't sure how long this time, she thought it may have been shorter than the previous one.

He used a whip in the third session. The pain, like that of the previous session, was intense and lingering and, even more mortifying, terribly personal. The whip crashed against her skin with ten times the force of the nun's paddles or birches or switches but it had the same emotional impact, carried the same weight of shame.

Une took deep breaths and retreated further into her mind with each one. Retreated into a rose garden, into a bed, into a Leo. She would peek out at times, when they moved her from the restraints holding her for the whipping, when the man began breaking her fingers, when he obviously felt he'd had enough fun for the day and had her tossed back into her cell.

She thought the intervals in the cell were getting shorter but she had no real way to judge. The pain became endless, one long blur of hurt, and she gave up trying to do anything other than breathe and pretend she wasn't there. She never let herself hear the words being said to her, let herself realize there was a way to stop this. The man talked on and she didn't listen, too intent on her own world, where things were just fine and she was allowed to sleep and eat all she wanted.

Her mind was feasting when the pain stopped and didn’t start again. She nearly missed it.

*

She passed out at some point while being carried down endless sets of corridors. Aware that something was different, that they weren't taking her back to the cell she'd come to attach a possessive to, she'd struggled to stay awake, but in the end, her body's weakened state won out over her strength of will.

The bed she woke up in was not her own but it was a bed; a bed surrounded by a room that featured lights and windows and a vase filled past the brim with multi-hued roses. She took a cautious breathe in and no pain accompanied it. Her glance flickered to the multitude of IV needles in the hand that wasn't completely bandaged and hanging in a sling. Wherever she was, her caretakers were pumping her full of the good stuff. She glanced at the roses once more and tried to assess if this was a mind-game on her captor's part or if she really had been extracted from that hellhole.

Too tired to worry about it, she allowed herself to be pulled back under into a haze of drug-aided dreams. When next she awoke, a large figure was sitting next to her bed, flipping through a morning newspaper. He looked up at the rustling caused by her slight shift in position. "Hey."

It sounded like Khushenrada, looked like him, and there was no doubt in her mind that she wanted to believe that it was, but she couldn't rule out the possibility of genetic alteration or hologram technology being used to lure her into a false sense of security.

He folded the newspaper and set it aside. "Ask me something only I would know."

Une bit her lip. She trusted this man as much as she trusted anyone other than herself but that wasn't saying very much. She hadn't told him much that couldn't be found out in public records, except, "What would I name a Leo, if I had one for myself?"

Khushenrada's eyes closed to a sliver in that way they did when he was trying to figure something out, or remember something. She knew the moment he had succeeded, the color of his irises darkening. "Granny Smith."

She fought to hold onto the sob that wanted to reveal her relief. She just managed. "You're safe."

Something she couldn't pin down flashed over his face before he could manage a smile. "Perfectly."

"Who were they?"

He took her non-broken hand in both of his. "Une. I was safe this whole time."

Une worked her way through the words. The soldiers who had been there to greet them when the plane had landed. Not dressed in OZ uniforms, or least, not just. Her mind reeled and for a second she clawed into Khushenrada's readily offered flesh, doing her best not to throw up. "A test."

"Please believe me when I tell you I had to. All personnel must be tested before being given top-level security clearance. That's not a rule I was prepared to fight, even for you. It's kept our intelligence where we want it for more years than you or I can lay claim to combined."

It was cruel of him, taking away her sense of righteous indignation, the sick cling of betrayal, but she knew the words to be truth. She'd even run into certain oblique references to such tests in her early days of striving to understand OZ and Romefeller as best she could. She forced her hand to slacken in his grip. "Did I pass?"

"Une-"

"Did. I. Pass?" Logically, she knew she should forgive him. Emotionally, he was going to need to give her a bit more than three minutes of silence.

He extracted one of his hands and lightly pushed aside the right shoulder of her hospital gown. "Look."

Une tilted her head to where she could see the brand-new OZ insignia tattooed right at the edge of her shoulder. She recognized it from one of the books on the history of the organization. It was an inner-ranks tattoo. Only one person in the world knew how to create the colors necessary for it and the design itself was kept in a vault. The reproduction in the book, Une could now see, had been a poor second. The secret of the insignia was passed on from the selected tattoo artist to another, one chosen by that artist and the upper ranks of OZ when the time came.

"If this could have been any other way, I'd have made it that way," he said into the silence. "I'm sorry to have betrayed you, particularly knowing how rarely you give your trust. I shall endeavor to make it up to you."

"I stayed silent because of my belief in you," she told him, cruel in her exhaustion and her need to strike back.

"And if I ever give you reason to doubt me again, I shall fully expect a betrayal at your hands. But please, give me one last chance."

Because nobody had ever asked before, because he was ten times as powerful as she was and yet had used the word "please," because she was fourteen and still needed to believe in something, she said, "Only one more."

His smile was pure this time. "That's all I need."

*
February, After Colony 192
*

Une paused at the door to the dining room, assessing the situation. It was rare that there was ever anyone else in that room besides her and Khushenrada at breakfast. The moment she entered she was used to putting up locks and double-checking that the sound-proofing measures were in place so as to be able to talk freely about the latest political upsets or technological advances weighing in OZ's favor or against it.

This morning, however, there was a visitor. Une knew him, or rather, she knew of him. For a fighter pilot he had something of a conspicuous style, with his lengthy silver-blond hair and the mask that he never took off. She approached silently on the carpet. "Good morning."

The blond pilot stood and held out a hand. "Zechs Merquise."

Une took the proffered hand. "The Lightening Baron, I've heard tell of your exploits. I'm the rather boring Lieutenant Une."

The corner of Merquise's mouth quirked. "I'd imagine whatever tell you heard was far more grandiose by the time it reached your ears than it ever was while my fingertips were carrying it out. And if I know Treize at all, which I flatter myself into believing that I do, I sense your self-modifying adjective is more a case of intentionally charming self-deprecation than truth. Or perhaps you're hoping I'll underestimate you."

Une never minded being underestimated so she gave the barest hint of a smile and went off to put a plate together for herself. When she was sitting and had arranged her napkin over her lap she asked, "What brings you our way, sir?"

"Zechs," he corrected lightly but not without a firm insistence behind it. "Oh, I'm currently disobeying orders and jaunting out for a bit of fun."

Une didn't doubt that for a moment. "What orders would those have been?"

"To telecomm Treize information about the latest intel we have on the Barton family's technological stockpile and then fly directly to L4 and 'check in' on the Winners and their cadre of 'hired help'."

"Well," Une said in a smooth, co-conspiratorial whisper, "this is more of a detour than a true defiance, in that case, is it not?"

Zechs flashed a look at Khushenrada, who didn't even pause in buttering his English muffin. "Boring, huh?"

Une took a sip of grapefruit juice. It was freshly squeezed, harder to get than orange juice. She wondered to what purpose it was that Khushenrada was buttering her up. She laid out the facts: Zechs taking a detour to relay a message that very easily could have been encoded and telecast, Zechs sitting at the breakfast table with them, Zechs leaning slightly in toward Khushenrada when he spoke-

Oh.

"How long have the two of you been lovers?"

Zechs choked on his tea. Khushenrada favored her with a flicker of a smile, followed quickly by a disparaging shake of his head, as though he realized he shouldn't be encouraging such untoward boldness. She always took his first reactions to heart, though.

It wasn't exactly that she had considered Khushenrada asexual until now. She herself was a little in love with him in the way that all girls are in love with the fairy tale princes who save them from the lonely tower and their wicked stepmother figures. Even given the warts that Khushenrada's prince had turned out to have over the years, Une still carried that small torch of devotion, the one that assured both of them that there was nothing she wouldn't do for him.

Fairy tale princes weren't the type to have sex though. They married and lived happily ever after but they did not indulge in fantasies of a corporeal nature. At least, Une realized, she had been happy to think that up until now. Zechs was beautiful, though, chiseled and exotic and mystifying, and she didn't have to wonder for a second what Khushenrada thought about when he took the other man into his bed. Nor, if she was being completely honest, did she have any queries as to Zech's thoughts were in the matter.

"Since before he put on the mask." Khushenrada recovered first, answering her. There was something significant in that answer, hidden information that Une wasn't privy to, nor was she ready to ask after it.

"Yet I've been with you for over two years, and this is the first time I've met him."

"We're circumspect," Zechs said, the calm words carrying a warning that Une had understood without it having to be verbalized.

Une sipped the last of the grapefruit juice and palmed the microchip that Khushenrada had passed to her at some point during the meal. She stood. "Enjoy your stay, Zechs."

"Lovely meeting you."

She turned at the doorway and nodded. "Somehow, I imagine we'll be seeing more of each other."

*

The chip contained schematics for a new mobile suit. Nothing new there, Une had seen hundreds of schematics. A few had actually translated into working fighting machines, most had gone the way of the incinerator so that nobody could find the erroneous plans and perfect upon them. The minute an MS was built, though, there was always room for improvement.

Which was why, of course, Zechs had been sent out to spy on families like the Bartons and the Winners. While neither had shown any particular interest in international politics, both had the money to seriously upset military balance at this point, and both were colonials, something of which OZ did well to be wary. Besides which, Dekkim Barton was too power hungry at home, there was nothing to say that it wouldn’t spread. The head of the Winner family was a harder read. He didn't seem to be interested in much beside raising his heir, the sole male child among the hundred and twelve he seemed to have spawned. Well, that and insuring said heir would take over Winner Industries. Industry wasn't really OZ's worry, though. If somebody had to be concerned over such issues, Romefeller could take care of it.

Une scanned the schematics, looking for any serious alterations to this newest design. It was unlikely that Khushenrada would have given her plans for a change as small as the size of the bolts in the weapons bay (the concern of the last three updates in an attempt to lessen the weight of the entire structure.)

She caught it on her second run through. "Holy shit."

It had Khushenrada's finger prints all over it. In a time when OZ was splitting itself apart with in-fighting over the issue of necessary human casualty, this was the ultimate guarantee that humans would take part in warfare.

Khushenrada's belief that humans were absolutely essential to war, that the battling of machines was a worthless exercise without meaning or honor, was constantly under fire by those who only saw the fact that use of automated Leos would save lives. Khushenrada maintained that it was of no use to save lives if all that those lives were being saved for was to watch their cities and homes be destroyed over conflicts that nobody understood anymore due to the human disconnect from the fighting itself.

If humans felt the need to fight war, that was fine but let them take responsibility for it.

Personally, Une didn't feel she had enough context to care about the larger issues of humanity here. Khushenrada was pro-human involvement, and she would back that until he changed his mind.

The plans for the MS in front of her required human consciousness to bring it to full potential. She wasn't entirely clear on how it worked, the diagrams were ridiculously complicated and there was a ton of biomechanical jargon being spewed, but one thing was clear: this MS actually melded on some level with the human mind.

At the bottom there was a note from Khushenrada: "Ridiculously theoretical at the moment, we're not particularly sure it can even be done. Thoughts?"

Une had thoughts, though she wasn't sure they were of any use. To her it seemed somewhat presumptuous, the assumption that technology at that level could safely combine with human psyche and not have anything go terribly ridiculously wrong. Then again, Une was willing to admit that might be the Catholic upbringing in her speaking, the one she had tried to wipe completely from herself, falling just slightly short of the mark.

Une keyed down and added the words, "Who knows about this?"

She hoped she was wrong about the suspicion that her and Khushenrada were now participating in a little bit of inter-organizational treason. She suspected she wasn't.

Une ejected the chip from the machine and looked at the time. Half an hour until she was needed to take notes at Khushenrada's meeting with the head of L2's Colonial Council Board. Time enough to poke at her own resources, do a little research, find out if there was anything more to add to her tentative question before passing the schematics back to Khushenrada.

She made a call, ordered herself a double espresso, and used it to swallow down any feelings of unease this latest pet project brought up. It wasn't her job to have moral quandaries.

*

The Council member's handshake left Une with the intense desire to find the nearest sink equipped with a bar of soap. At least, she mused, the meeting was being held at HQ, not on colony. The arrangement was a power play on OZ's part, she knew, but she couldn’t help being glad of not to have to visit L2 again. Last year a plague had swept the entire colony, killing off nearly thirty percent of its populace. By far the most poverty stricken of the five colonies, it was hard to move on L2 without being approached by starving children begging for pennies, or equally emaciated teenagers willing to trade themselves for a snack. They were always dirtier than Une ever remembered being but underneath the dirt were faces that Une knew far too well. After all, it wasn't like she had been deprived of mirrors those thirteen years in the nun's clutches.

This Council member was no different than any of the others Khushenrada had met with over the years, interested in nothing besides what was good for him. Une bit her lip and reminded herself that Khushenrada didn't have the option of being interested in anything besides keeping the peace. Plus, it was hardly like war would help those orphans. Still, Une found the closest bathroom as soon as the doors opened and talk turned small.

Beneath all the currying for favor that had been Council member Varta's main goal, there had been mentions of real news. Her back to a locked stall door, her breathing consciously even, Une tried to sift through everything. Somebody was controlling the colonial troops. Somebody that looked like OZ and wielded power like OZ, but was not OZ. She would know if Khushenrada or one of his colleagues was ordering churches and schools burned to scare off insurgents.

Unless there were crime lords that nobody had yet accounted for -- a possibility, Une was willing to admit, if a small one -- this was a Council member, one who had enough other members under his or her thumb to be running the show. Not Varta.

Une replayed the whole conversation bit by bit in her head. Ornan had enough of a land base but was an unlikely candidate as he tended to be more concerned with his off-colony investments than anything that happened in his own backyard, often to the point of neglect. Neither Lacarre nor Fomn nor Bennett had the population base (or the personality) to carry it off. Which left Kern and Anwir. Kern was so deep in black market trafficking that Khushenrada suspected he was running a cross-colonial ring. The man had a head for power and numbers and a poker face that even Une had to respect.

Even so, between the two of them, she suspected Anwir. Anwir, with her face and public attitude of Florence Nightingale On A Mission To Heal L2. Only, L2 had gotten steadily worse since Anwir's appointment and whenever Une was in the same room with Anwir, her skin crawled with the same wariness that she had known at the hands of the nuns. Anwir was smart and fantastically polished and she wouldn't blink at having someone else do the dirty work for her.

Assuming it was Anwir -- Une had every intention of laying out all the options before Khushenrada -- that still left the question of how it was that fully trained OZ Colonial Corps Troops were being seduced away from central command and into someone else's skilled hands. That equation only had three possible outcomes, which made things easier: money or lies, or both.

If it was one of the last two, Une needed to figure out what those lies were.

Une stepped out of the stall and began washing her hands. Cleaning out the area beneath her fingernails she made a promise to herself to attack the second, possibly more pressing, issue later that evening.

Who exactly were these insurgents, and what were they planning?

*

Khushenrada came to her rooms that evening, something he rarely did. He held up a bag of freshly-baked cookies and said, "Bribery by way of baked goods."

Une flicked off the news reports. "And what do you intend to bribe out of me?"

"Your thoughts on the events of today."

Une moved to the desk and motioned for him to sit down. "You pay me to tell you my thoughts. Over breakfast, generally."

"Une." He took a cookie and broke it in two, handing half to her. "I can't sleep."

"Then perhaps it is time for you to tell me what you're thinking." She accepted the cookie.

He was silent for a moment. "Things are unraveling."

"Things are always unraveling. Did you bring milk?"

One look from him told her he hadn't. She went to grab the quart from the small refrigerator she kept in her quarters for just such events as this.

"Glasses?" he asked.

She took a chug from the quart. "Be plebian with me."

He picked the quart up and gulped rapidly, never removing his eyes from hers. "It's different this time. Slower, in some ways, more disparate. It feels like nobody's paying attention."

"At the risk of sounding impudent-"

"I believe you've well passed that point, my errant protégé."

"Then I've nothing to lose. We've nobody but ourselves to blame for the current state of affairs. We build machines to do our work for us, and then wonder why it isn't done right. We create self-sustaining worlds, and then wonder why they don't want to depend on us for everything. A bit nonsensical, wouldn't you agree?"

Khushenrada took another cookie. "Given the power to do anything, what would you do?"

"In OZ?" Une sat on the corner of the desk.

"With the world. I give you supreme dictatorship." He motioned generously with one hand.

"I'm fifteen years old. I'd buy myself something sexy and order my latest celebrity crush to be my consort."

Khushenrada smiled. "And when you were adequately sated with said crush?"

"I'd wipe out all governing structures and start again."

"Everything?" He raised an eyebrow.

She grabbed a second cookie. "The councils are infested with greed, Romefeller with infighting, both with crime networks so intricate it takes a graphic designer to work it all out. How else would you clean house?"

"Something good has to exist."

"Within the structures, I'm sure it does. I like to think we're not sheer evil. Darlian's misguided but he's not malicious. There are spots of…things that aren't bad."

"Which suggests those things aren't good, either."

Une took a sip of the milk and held it out to Khushenrada, offering him the last. He pushed it back toward her. "I think we're beyond the point where anything is allowed enough simplicity to be merely good or bad."

Khushenrada sealed up the cookie bag. "It doesn't bother you? To work in a system you've so obviously given up hope on?"

"You don't pay me to think about those things. So I don't."

His expression flickered, barely covering a flinch. "You're so excellent at what you do. I've always assumed you believed in it."

"You're so observant, I've always assumed you understood the subtleties of the situation."

Une wasn't sure if her assumption had been correct or not, as he nodded, wished her a good night, and sauntered out the door. Une turned the TV back on and didn't bother trying to sleep.

*
June, After Colony 194
*

She was going to kill Treize. Feed him acid that ate his heart slowly so that he would have time to rue the day he had messed with her alarm clock. The numbers were now laughing at her in that particular neon green way they had of doing, showing off the fact that it was well over three hours past when she had intended to wake. The fact that it was her birthday was no excuse for her boss to completely throw off the schedule for everything she had planned.

Sighing in irritation, she got up and did an abbreviated kata workout, cutting her shower time by a good three minutes and taking the time to do up her braids only because she knew they were three-fourths of her intimidation power over the other aides and people with which she ended up conferencing.

She skipped the breakfast room and headed down to Treize's office. Letting herself in by way of a priority code, she stepped inside and glared. He looked up from his computer screen and grinned. "Good morning, Une-chan. Happy birthday."

"And I suppose you're going to be the one to get all the work that I had planned for these last three hours done in my stead?" She kept herself from tapping her foot. The floor was carpeted and the motion would be wasted.

"Of course not, I delegated."

She pursed her lips. "Over half of it required top-level security. I suppose you have tons of people lying around who were willing to have themselves cut and burned and broken for the sheer honor of working for you?"

"You wound me."

There was enough truth in his tone for Une to back down. "I don't mean to, but it's not like there are that many hours in a day to begin with."

"It used to be that having you work as many of them as I have for these past five years would've been illegal. To my thinking, it probably still should be. Even for girls of a terribly ancient eighteen years. Everybody deserves a day to sleep in."

"May I take that to mean turnabout is fair play?"

The corner of his mouth quirked. "How I would love to see you deal with the consequences of that action. Rather, how I would love to see everyone else dealing with you as a consequence of that action."

She shook her head. "You're forgiven."

He affected a look of panic. "Not yet. I haven't presented you with the reason for which I so richly deserve to be forgiven."

There wasn't much that could scare Une, but Treize's gift-giving abilities happened to be one of those things. He had an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what she wanted almost to the point of need but not quite. After last year, when he had taken her out to the most exclusive restaurant on Earth's surface and quietly suggested, "I would like it if you'd call me Treize. My last name can be quite cumbersome and you have to use it more than most people," meaning, you need a friend more than you need a boss and I need a friend more than I need an aide, she hadn't been entirely sure he could ever find another gift that would more completely suit her. "I have transcripts of Council meetings held on three different colonies to pick over and notes to finalize for a presentation at the OZ seminar this weekend, not to mention the meeting this evening with your fellow Colonel, which I think we both realize is going to be an open field of war for possible slips of the tongue, and I haven't even eaten anything yet. Could it wait till tomorrow? I promise to give it all of my attention then."

"I sent the transcript for the L3 meeting to Zechs. He's OZ's liaison to the colony anyway, I figured it would be of use to him, and that he could report back to me on anything I might need to know. I consider him trustworthy, you?"

Une could hardly deny that Zechs seemed the type to cut off his own limbs before betraying those he considered his own. "Is that what they're calling it these days, a liaison?"

Treize's smile was sharp. Neither of them was fooled into thinking Zechs was anything other than an infiltrate to make sure Dekkim Barton's activities were kept well in hand. "So I figure that with that out of the way, there is the time you would have spent taking care of that to go look at my present."

Une gave up. "All right, but can we go now? I really am a bit anxious about tonight, we're not as well put together as we usually are, and you can't deny the amount of momentum he's brought into the movement for automated Leos is somewhat incredible."

"Tonight isn't a battle, it’s a discussion, Une. They are, sometimes, two different things."

"It's a declaration of battle, and if you're choosing to believe anything else then we're in more trouble than I had formerly believed."

Treize stood up. "We'll grab some food for you on the way."

"I can get something later."

"You can but you won't if I'm not there to see that you do."

Une held back a growl. It wasn't dignified, and, what was more, he was wholly correct. "You’re the bane of my existence."

He lead the way out the door. "At least I'm important."

*

The ship was small, sleek, even more modern than the recent designs Treize had sent her on personal travel options. The interior was lush and yet classy, a good place to entertain people she wanted to impress, and an even better place for her to be alone. The controls were tuned to the newest specifications; they would respond to both voice and touch. Best of all though, was the painting at the nose of the ship. In shiny black it announced her to be the class A personal carrier Granny Smith with a perfectly rendered green apple punctuating the words.

"Trying to tell me you don’t want me in your space on our voyages anymore?" Une asked, too overwhelmed by the gesture to simply say thank you.

"Now that you mention it…"

Une cocked an eyebrow. "I think you're forgetting the immense power I have to do damage to your position in millions of ways so tiny nobody would know what had happened until you were merely a forgotten figurehead and I was, in deed and word, the true ruler of the Universe."

"When did I get promoted?"

"I'm working on it." She ran a finger lightly over the hull of the ship, cool in its resting state. "She's gorgeous Treize. Truly, I can't- Thank you."

"I'm not being purely selfless here. I'm going to need you to start liaising for me rather than with me on a somewhat regular basis."

She wasn't thrilled at the idea. Nor was she surprised. "You do find such nice ways to break bad news."

His smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "Happy birthday, my Lady."

It was the final clue in a series she'd received so far that morning. "Say whatever it is you're not saying so we can all get on with our lives."

"Think you know me so well," he taunted.

"There's no thinking going on. I have a ton to get done, and you're hiding something that's most likely important. I reserve the right to be unamused."

"It's not like you're thinking," he said. "It's not politics-related."

Suddenly, Une laughed. "Oh, for fuck's sake. You're talking about the contract."

Treize's shock flashed on his face for a second before he got it under control. "You've read it?"

"You must think I'm a blithering idiot. Of course I've read it; it pertains directly to me."

"Then you know that it only binds you to me until the date of your eighteenth birthday at which point-"

"I'm free to pursue my own whims and desires, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Yes, I know. It's illegal to bind anyone after their eighteenth birthday not of their own signing, as it is considered slavery over the entirety of Earth's surface."

"I've kept a savings account for you, in case you did decide that you would prefer to try your luck elsewhere. I would understand. There's a war brewing, almost inevitably at this point, and you have more than enough skills to make it in any number of fields that aren't military-related."

The savings account was news to Une. There was nothing of it in the contract, and he had never mentioned anything up until now. Though it was a tempting offer, and the idea of exploration calling to her in a vague, ephemeral way, the fact that he had thought to provide for it made her say, "That was very generous of you, and I appreciate your presenting me with my options. For now, however, I will be staying here. I've been told I'm quite good at what I do, and there seems to be very little reason for me to try my hand at something else."

Treize was silent for a moment, his mouth drawn, before saying, "Right. Good."

Une nodded. "I'll see you this evening then. Be sure to wear the cravat his wife sent you as a birthday gift, I recognize that it's just about the ugliest thing one could ever hope to avoid but honestly, we're trying to foster good will here."

"Yes, yes."

Une took one more look at her ship, grinned unrestrainedly at Treize, and began power walking back to her office and all the work that awaited her.

*

"The colonies are up to something."

Une successfully fought the instinct to say, "Duh." She picked up the folder Treize had slid in front of her while stating the obvious. There were five pictures inside, each of men. All of the men were in their mid to late forties. Each picture supported a profile of information garnered on the back. "All doctors?"

"Of engineering. Technical geniuses. Many of them with OZ at one point."

Une narrowed her eyes. "Several defectors at that level?"

"You have no idea. Gundam engineers."

She was suddenly rather glad she hadn't started eating the breakfast she'd culled for herself. "How, exactly, did that happen?"

"Not really my department but I would imagine they were offered something we couldn't give them."

Une's eyes scanned statistics, age, home territory, family facts. "Which rules money right out."

Treize made a noise of disagreement. "We think Barton may have bought one of them. It's possible that Winner's holding on to another, although we're less sure on that issue. But yeah, the other three, something else."

"Political ideology?" Une asked.

"You make it sound so unlikely." Treize sounded amused.

"I've found that when most things come down to being between creature comforts and people's morals, the former almost always wins."

Something flashed in Treize's eyes but he didn't say anything other than, "It's J, actually that we're most interested in."

Une sorted through to the profile and frowned. "Why? He wasn't one of ours."

"We suspect he's been dabbling in more than machine technology. There are reports of him experimenting in…biological engineering."

"Genetics?"

"Perhaps. We're not sure if he's actually altering genetic structure or working with an unaltered one, but the suggestion coming out of the labs that he uses as his home base is that of practical soldier-building."

"Soldier-building? As in, human programming?" Une knew that certain humanitarian sector groups considered what she had been through to be similar. She oftentimes dreamed about telling them they were on crack. Training was one thing, brainwashing was another.

"High-level conditioning at a young age. Just able to walk type of young."

Une very carefully kept up her construction of apathy. "Who's funding?"

"That's where we come back to the colonies. As far as any of our people can tell, we have five terrorist cells being built up around these doctors. Whether they're of the doctors' doing or the doctors were brought in as part of the project, nobody knows."

"And the plans?"

"Romefeller's skittish. The cells move frequently, too frequently to guarantee that any type of hit would be met with success. And there's a lot of pro-colonial freedom sentiment on Earth's surface. Most people don’t care enough to be fighting a war over the issue. There's a complete dearth of understanding in regard to the economical implications of loss of control."

Une was all too aware. "They're going to wait it out, then?"

"It's looking that way."

Une gathered up the papers. Cautiously, she took a sip of cranberry juice. When she didn't feel the need to send it back where it came from, she took another. "L1, then?"

Treize smiled. "I thought you could use a…vacation."

*

Une settled herself in the bungalow that Treize had reserved for her "vacation" and for the first time in a long while thought, it'd be nice if there were no contact. If I was just here to be here. She mixed herself a mimosa, despite it being late afternoon, and went to sit on the porch, watch the waves crash in front of her until it was time to meet this contact of Treize's.

L1 was the first of the colonies, and given the amount of beach and the tendency of nearly the entire northern half the colony to be warm year round, Une had always thought that somebody had suggested constructing it as their own private getaway spot. It had morphed into more than that, of course, hosting millions of people as well as factories and other businesses. Much of the profits that the Earth-bound government made off of it were from tourist revenue, though. The payoff from L1 was enormous, and growing every year, far more than any of the other four colonies.

When the sun began to sink onto the water, Une glanced at her watch. Reluctantly, she went in, showered, changed, and left for the happy hour hosted up at the main bungalow. Once there, she chose a seat at a table that wasn't precisely in the corner but far enough over not to be in the center of things. She ordered a soda for herself and sipped it, wincing at the resort's version of entertainment.

"Surely there's a law against a woman so gorgeous spending a night like this by herself?"

Une had rolled her eyes when Treize had told her the line that would be used as the code greeting. "And nobody's going to notice this guy's off his rocker?"

Treize had said firmly, "Everybody's going to wish they had gotten up the guts to ask first," and that had been the end of that.

Une looked up at the contact. A scientist, with the look of someone who spends too much time bent over a microscope, but attractive enough in his own way. The last part was reassuring, as even having no practical experience, Une was pretty sure she wouldn't flirt it up with someone carrying the obvious traits of Ugly.

"Save me from the imminent peril of arrest, please." Une couldn't deliver the response in any way other than dry, and the contact blinked, as though unsure he had found the right woman. Une motioned at the seat across from her, "Sit."

He obeyed. "I've seen your picture before."

Une wasn't surprised. Treize was constantly getting caught on film, and as she was often standing slightly behind his right shoulder, well, Une thought of her appearance in a multitude of those photographs as an occupational hazard. "No doubt. Enjoying your stay?"

The scientist grimaced, and Une knew she'd found her man. Whoever he was, he was still loyal to Earth. He'd made it clear that he was only living colony-side due to the fantastic job he'd been offered in what he'd thought was a purely bio-environmental research lab. Une was relatively positive the information he had for her wasn't even stuff he was supposed to know about, let alone be handing over to her.

"L1 is lovely but I miss home."

"It is hard, being away from everything familiar." Une reached her hand across the table to cover his in a gesture that would most likely come off as either sympathetic touch or invitational flirting to anybody watching.

He nodded, surreptitiously passing her a microchip. "It's nice to meet someone who understands."

Une withdrew her hand. "Still, I am enjoying my stay. These beaches are magnificent. Would you be willing to walk along one with me? Perhaps escort me back to my rooms?"

The contact stood easily. "A walk sounds refreshing."

Une walked slowly, careful to keep him at her side at all time, not in front of or behind her. When they reached her bungalow, she mounted the first step, looking slightly down at him. "Thank you for keeping me company."

She slipped her lips to his in a quick gesture of appreciation and as a bit of show in case anyone was still watching. He leaned in for more but she pulled back. Une was saving her first kiss for someone who wasn't more interested in her intelligence connections than her favorite foods.

"Right, then. I have to be at work early tomorrow, so I'm off." He turned to walk back down the beach the way they had come. Une watched until he was well gone and then did a quick security check on the perimeter of the bungalow. When she had reassured herself that nobody was waiting to pounce, she double-checked that the chip was still in the patch on her lower palm that smoothed over to look like a small scar.

It was, so Une took one more long look at the nighttime abyss of ocean, and turned inside to get some sleep.

*

Une shut Granny's controls down, one by one, checking that everything was in a state of powering down before disembarking from the ship. She had stayed on L1 for another four days, enough to give the appearance of a quick getaway and to give her time to sort through all the information the contact had provided. Having left early that morning, and being that L1 was set to function on the same time schedule as Earth's Eastern Hemisphere, she only lost two hours, making it back to the base by three in the afternoon.

She made her way to the first open computer terminal in the base and pressed the five fingertips on her right hand to the screen. The computer greeted her, "Welcome back, Lieutenant."

"Nice to be back, Shiva." The creator of the interactive voice program OZ used had been a Hindu with an odd sense of humor. "Do you know where Colonel Khushenrada is?"

"He left a message that if you return before five p.m. you are to be informed that he is in his garden."

"Thank you." Une logged out. She turned back the way she had come, walking past the ship bays, through the mess, into the housing quarters. Treize had a separate home. An ancestral palace, as Une thought of it, having seen it before and declared it far too large to be considered just a house. He spent so much time at the base, however, that he had demanded quarters adjacent to the outside of the base, with some ground that he could use for a smaller rose garden than the one he kept at his home, the one he reluctantly left to his servants to tend a large part of the time.

Personally, Une liked the smaller one better. It was more crowded. The fragrance in the summer could be overwhelming, and the sense of design was mostly lost due to the space issue but Une enjoyed the way the colors blended and grew together; the way one had to be careful not to get tangled in the roses natural defenses; the way she seemed to fit in the garden rather than being dwarfed by it.

She let herself into Treize's rooms and walked to the back where a set of sliding doors led straight into the garden. Sure enough, he was holding the stem of one plant carefully, clipping shears in his other hand. Fall was in full swing, and the roses themselves were done for the year but the plant had to be maintained all year round if it was to reach its full glory in the spring and summer. Early on, in her first year with Treize, when he had shown her the garden and she hadn’t understood what drew him to spend his time taking care of the plants when there were so many other things to be done, Treize had told her, "Roses are very forgiving."

She was quite sure he had meant in the way that roses can be cut heavily or lightly and they will rise again in the next year regardless, but over the years it had come to mean something more. Sometimes, when she was forced to work with other military personnel who would sooner eat her alive than hash out issues of military code with her, or smile at a dignitary who repeatedly made crude comments about her, she would cut herself a rose, orange or red or magenta, and place it somewhere about her person. There was reassurance in knowing that something in the room was willing to forgive her, no matter who she was, what she did, or what was said.

She was glad they were in the garden when she opened her mouth to say, "The information is very thorough but they've cleaned out all the labs that were named. Nothing there but conservation research anymore. Somebody knew there was a leak."

"Nice to have you back," Treize said. "Enjoy the bungalow?"

Because he wouldn't stop until he'd gotten what he wanted, Une said, "The quiet and the scenery were both lovely. The child's code name is Heero Yuy."

She'd paused when she'd come to that, unsure of from where she'd known it. A little research had done the trick, though, and then she'd had to stop to get the weight crushing down on her chest under control. A fourteen year old little boy, held -- so far as their information was concerned -- since the time of his birth, tortured in the name of training, trained to be a weapon, named after one of the most influential peace activists of recent generations. A peace activist killed far before his time.

"Ironic little buggers." Treize snipped decisively at the end of a branch.

The cutting sound was loud in Une's ears. "We're going to have to kill him, aren't we?"

"I assume your intelligence doesn't negate what we've been told regarding his creators' terrorist intentions?"

If anything, it furthered it. "No."

"What else would you have us do?" Treize asked.

Let go of the colonies. Steal him away and deprogram him. Start over again. Forgive. "I can't imagine what else we could do."

She turned to leave, to go to her office and catch up on what else she had missed while she was away. Her hand rested on the handle of the sliding doors when Treize said, "Liar."

She nodded in acquiescence and stepped through the door.

*

Things settled into an eerie calm around the time that the third faction of OZ, made up mostly of ex-Romefeller sitters who had crossed into the military sector, popped up. The faction that didn't want this war, and was willing to make quite a few concessions to avoid it. Short of giving up the colonies, of course.

Une wisely kept the opinion that they were all fools to herself.

She was only mildly surprised when Zechs showed back up at this time. The surprise came from the rumors she'd been hearing, rumors of which she was positive Treize was aware. Rumors involving a pretty new graduate from OZ's flight and officer training program -- Nori? Noin? Noni? -- and the Lightening Count himself.

He showed up despite the rumors though, and Une was left to conclude one of two things: either the rumors were just that, or the two men weren't precisely monogamous. Neither one seemed terribly unlikely, and Une greeted Zechs with a smile and an offer to pour him a coffee.

"Thank you, but no. If I drink it at this point I'll only have to deal with the caffeine crash later, most likely when I least need it. If I may commandeer some of your juice?"

Une poured both of them a glass, filled her plate and said, "You keep Treize up late last night?"

"I just arrived an hour ago." Zechs picked a branch of grapes off the fruit plate and went to work denuding it.

Une frowned. It was unusual for Treize to be later than her. It happened, but not often. "What news do you bring?"

Zechs pursed his lips. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. You would think we were in a period of one hundred percent contentment on every side."

"Calm before the storm, I believe they say."

The door opened just as Zechs was saying, "Whoever 'they' are. Oh, good morning."

Treize spared Zechs a small smile and Une thought, not monogamous. He grabbed a plate for himself and greeted the both of them, "Sorry I'm late. The head of L5's Council filed a complaint about a military action taken on the surface of the colony. I was up half the night trying to figure out who ordered it."

As conflicted as OZ was right now, that didn't sound like something that would have come down official channels. "Renegades?"

"Of some sort," Treize confirmed. "I'm relatively sure this was meant as a framing device to spark anti-OZ sentiment."

Zechs snorted. "There needed to be a spark?"

Personally, Une agreed. "So much for the calm."

Treize said, "Sorry?"

Une waved her hand. "Nothing. So, are we in charge of finding these people or is it someone else's team?"

Treize took a bite of toast, chewed and swallowed. "Whoever gets to them first, really."

Before she could stop herself, Une asked, "Were there casualties?"

Treize caught her eyes. He looked away quickly. "I'll send the reports to your office, you can look them over there."

Une consciously resisted the pull to cross herself, send up a small prayer for those who had been killed. She turned to Zechs. "Plan on staying a bit, helping out perhaps?" It was an old joke between them, one where she made out that he was lazy and he didn't do much to dispel the myth.

"I'll see if I can work it into my schedule." Zechs's smile was sharp and fond all at once. Une scraped the last of her breakfast off her plate and into her mouth. She stood to leave, peering back once, just as she was at the door, to watch Zechs make his way around the table and stand with his hands placed gently on either one of his lover's shoulders.

*

The question was, what looks like OZ, and moves like OZ, and acts like OZ on bad drugs but isn't OZ? To which Une's automatic answer would usually have been Romefeller. But this action made no more sense for them than it did for OZ. If L5 couldn't be convinced that this had been the action of a small separate party and not the larger organization, this meant war. Both Romefeller and OZ were perfectly seated right now. While there was argumentation all over the place as to how best to handle a war, nobody on their side actually desired one.

Which left somebody who did want a war, the most obvious choice being the colonies. Une was hard pressed to imagine, though, that they were so desperate at this moment as to attack one of their own. A civilian part of one of their own. She closed her eyes, hiding from the images on her computer screen. Most of the pictures were of children. Children younger than her. Most of the pictures showed them torn apart by the force of the explosion.

She flicked the screen off and stood up. "Shiva, where is Colonel Khushenrada?"

"Briefing room six, Lieutenant."

"Is he with anyone?"

"Not at this time."

Une made her way through the halls, stopping at the room usually reserved for meetings between dignitaries. She stepped inside. "Were you entertaining someone?"

"Darlian. He's positively chomping at the bit to find out who caused this."

Une could only imagine. "Treize. There are three parties in this world that we know of who benefit from a war. One is the colonies, and, unless given further proof, I'm hesitant to believe that even their guerilla leadership is this heartless. Not to mention, if it was them, then we'd best be watching our asses, since they're far more organized and better funded than we had previously believed."

"All right, let's say we take them out. Who are the other two?"

"Those who defend automated warfare, and us."

"Are you suggesting that somebody would have attempted to spark this war merely to prove a philosophical point?"

Une stared at Treize.

Treize tightened his jaw. "Une. I swear it wasn't me. I would've at least had the humanity to find a base or a cell. Not a fucking playground."

Une released a breath, glad she'd been right about him, at least in this. "Can you tell me for certain it isn't one of your supporters, someone more fanatical than you?"

Treize grimaced. "No, not for certain."

Une nodded. "All right, I'm going to start looking at the fanatics on both sides of the argument, see if I can drum something up. If it is a supporter of yours, though, there will be a court martial just as there would be if it is someone who opposes you, and I swear Treize, if you so much as think of testifying on his or her behalf-"

"One would almost think I worked for you, and not the other way around."

"There is a reason I work for you," Une hissed. It wasn't as controlled as she normally prided herself on being, and any other time she most likely would have drawn back at that realization, but the limbs of children sprawled over miles of ground was too thoroughly formed in her head to do anything of the sort at that moment.

Treize met her eyes. "I know. Some days I think that's all that keeps me honest."

It was what she needed to hear. She bowed her head slightly. "I'll go find our culprit."

"Thank you, my Lady."

*
February, After Colony 195
*

Une watched the news report despite the fact that it was all old news to her by the time it aired, watched the mobile suit -- Gundam -- jettison into the ocean, ferociously gorgeous in its own way. The footage didn’t show the boy extricating himself but Darlian's daughter had run to her father with news of the boy pilot washing up to shore wherein evidently -- this was where Une had to shake her head to clear the slight swimming sensation -- another boy had shot him.

The boy they had in their hospital, silent on the topic of where his Gundam (if it was even salvageable) lay, was definitively Yuy. Une thought she could pick him out of a crowd of hundreds.

Factions of OZ had wanted the boy deprived of pain meds in an attempt to wear him down, get him to give up the information without having to send out OZ's teams to start the thankless -- and most likely useless -- task of sweeping the ocean's floor. Une had told Treize, "He won't break, not even under torture, but certainly not under med deprivation."

Treize had given the order that he be treated as one of their own would have been. Which was how they figured out that meds didn't exactly affect him as they would any other person, either. Given enough sedatives to put down a small elephant, Yuy was slightly groggy but still awake, eyes focused firmly on the door.

Une wondered for what he was waiting. Or maybe for who.

Which brought up another question. "Who’s the kid who shot Yuy?" Une tried asking it aloud, just in case it jogged something. It didn't.

According to the report filed by Darlian, relayed to him by his daughter -- whom Une had no reason to disbelieve, despite her somewhat hormonally-charged description of Yuy -- it had taken a moment for the girl to distinctly identify the second boy as a boy. His hair was braided in a long braid.

More importantly, he'd evidently been in possession of his own Gundam.

Despite the fact that all the evidence led to the conclusion that they were on the same side, boy number two had still shot Yuy. Non-lethally, Une would grant, and she was pretty sure that if he could pilot a Gundam he could make a point-blank shot. According to the girl, they couldn’t have been more than ten feet from each other.

Which meant that she was missing something, or possibly a lot of somethings.

The doorbell to her quarters rang. She said, "If you're not bringing refined sugar, go away."

Treize entered and threw her a box of Thin Mints. She caught them fluidly. "Tell me you have information that makes any of this logical?"

"It seems that She Of The Fluttering Eyelashes, commonly known as Relena Darlian, forgot a tiny detail."

Une popped open the box and poured herself a handful of the round treats. "Tiny like Thin Mint tiny, or tiny like something gigantic that I'm too tired to be clever about tiny?"

Treize stole a mint from her palm. "Yuy threatened to kill her."

"Huh. I thought the fluttering was crush related."

"I'm pretty sure the omission stems from her desire to protect him, so I don't think you're all that far off on that one."

Une chewed slowly. "Okay."

Treize smiled tightly. "Right. Oddity aside, it at least gives us a little more of a clue as to why our mystery shooter felt the need to take Yuy on."

"Technically, then, they could be working for the same thing."

"If they are, it's for different cells. Relena said neither gave indication of knowing the other."

Une flipped a mint into the air and caught it in her upturned mouth. "Unless they've been warned not to betray knowledge of other pilots."

"Pilot number two's got absolutely no allegiance to Relena, and what's more, she's distinctly an Earth figure. Seems like a lot of work, to shoot a colleague to keep up appearances."

"On the other hand, what if Yuy's a loose canon? Say the training failed. After all, killing teenage girls only martyrs someone. And that does Yuy and Two's cause no good. Assuming that it is the same cause."

Treize stole another few candies. "Well, now that we’ve spent some time talking in circles, I'm going to pretend to sleep for a few hours before I have to get up and see if I can get anything out of Yuy."

Une smiled sympathetically. "Good luck. You can tell me about it at breakfast."

"Where I'll make you work for your salary and make sense out of all of this for me."

"You're gonna need even better luck for that."

Treize gave her a knowing look. "You're the best kind, my Lady."

*

Une took a sip of cranberry juice. "In summation, pilot number two cracked into our base and took out our most heavily guarded 'visitor' without so much as a scratch to show for it?"

Treize didn't look any more amused than Une felt. "He did have the help of Yuy on the way out."

"Which should have been negligible, given his injuries."

Treize sat down. "It wasn't. The security logs should already be in your computer when you get to your office. You'll see. He might as well have never been shot, and as far as the leg goes…broken bone? What broken bone?"

Une had a pretty high pain threshold. She knew how to put duty ahead of herself, having once worked a week straight through a bout of viral pneumonia before finally keeling over. She was relatively sure, however, that had she ever broken her leg and reset it herself, she would not be running from pursuants on it no more than a day later. Make that very sure. "I know all our records indicated was mental and physical training, but you know they had to have done something to him. People don't heal like that."

"Even so, Two was no small threat on his own. To state the sickeningly obvious, that area is not meant to be penetrable."

"You've seen the records, did they look as though they've been trained in the same way?"

Treize shook his head. "Practically polar opposites. In fact, it doesn't really look as though Two has been trained so much as…given explosives and pointed in the direction he's supposed to go."

"Don't give me that. It takes knowledge and understanding of that knowledge to get in here, I don't care how good you are. It's beside the point, in any case. Obviously they weren't trained by the same people, or even the same organization; there would be more similarities if that were the case. So now we have one pilot with superhuman abilities and a second one who can't seem to decide where his loyalties lie."

"All I can figure on that is that somebody higher up than Two must have given him the order to spring Yuy. I can just imagine how those instructions were received."

The cranberry taste was abnormally sharp in Une's mouth. "Yuy went with him, and unless they're feeding orders directly into his brain -- which I'm not entirely sure I'm going to put as beyond this situation -- he couldn't have known that Two was suddenly on his side."

"Two was providing a way out of here, why should Yuy care whose side he's on?"

Une shrugged. "Sometimes the devil you know really is the more attractive of the choices."

"Interesting theory coming from you."

"I did say sometimes." Une gave up on the juice and went to go pour herself some water. "All right, let's say he did go with Two just as a way of escape. Where does he go from here? I can't imagine he'll go back to his trainers having lost their rather expensive toy and needing to explain his vacation at Chateau d'OZ."

"You think he's gonna try and find the Gundam?"

Une took a sip of the water, washing the bitterness of the juice away. "Each girl at St. Angela's was given a pen for her lessons. When I was seven, I lost mine. Suffered one of the worst beatings I've ever been given. Practically made that little test of yours when I was fourteen look piddling. Children who are owned know better than to lose things they don't necessarily see as belonging to themselves. He won't go back to them without the Gundam."

"We'll be needing to find him, then."

Une didn't say anything.

"You don't think we can."

"He was here this morning, and now he's gone. No traces, no mistakes, not even any blood. He's perfect."

Treize scowled. "Everyone makes a mistake sooner or later, Une."

"If that's true, you’d best hope it's sooner with him."

*

Yuy was fifteen. So far as Une could tell, the other pilots -- all five that had appeared on the scene -- probably were as well. If not, they were close.

They were children.

Children who were blowing up bases with no regard to civilian casualties.

Another word for that, Une knew, was a terrorist.

Une also knew that when she had signed on with Treize at thirteen she hadn't been planning on this; hadn't been planning on fighting an enemy she wasn't sure was in the wrong. Most days, the only thing she felt assured of was that Treize cared about her, cared about the people he was responsible for, cared about the fate of Earth.

Treize wasn't always right. Une had lived through too much, cerebrally fought through too much, both with him and against him, to have any illusions (or delusions, as the case may have been) on that front. He always tried to do right, however, and that counted for a lot in Une's opinion. He was the first person she'd ever met with the integrity to bother.

She'd spent a lot of time thinking of late, mostly when she should have been sleeping.

She couldn't go after these boys as she was. No matter what the wrong done was, they were still children and it wasn't beyond Une to think that maybe they had their own reasons. That maybe somebody had come to take them from an orphanage where they were beaten and starved and neglected and maybe they would have said yes to any improvement. It didn't make the killing right but Une couldn't condemn it. She wasn't hypocritical enough.

They would have to be taken out, though, this she knew. Which left her with two choices.

The first was to leave. To take Treize up on his offer of funds set aside for her, to pull the salary she'd been making since her eighteenth birthday and to figure out a new life for herself. She didn't doubt she could do it. She was better than the proverbial cat at landing on her feet and well aware of it. Not that that awareness made it any easier for her to want to leave everything she had known and everything that had been good to her since she was thirteen; rather, since she was born.

The second option was to ruthlessly discard all notions except her loyalty to Treize. To frame all decisions within that body of understanding. Treize needed to protect Earth, he needed peace kept and, barring that, he needed a human run war. Une could provide those things for him if she gave over and ignored the part of her mind that questioned his aims. His motives Une trusted. She didn't doubt that he was doing the best he could with the situation he had been given and that he viably cared about the other humans involved in that same situation. She just wasn't entirely sure that his motives lead him to places as pure as they were in themselves.

The question was, if she put herself aside for him for the duration of the war, would she be able to reclaim that self at its end? More importantly, would she want to?

On the other side of the argument was the fact that she did owe the person she was to Treize. It was a fairly large debt to merely renege on once things got a bit sticky. Une didn't like to label herself a deserter.

Then there was the final issue. Leaving OZ was no small deal, regardless of how Treize made it sound. Perhaps the lower grunts could get out easily, but the tattoo on Une's shoulder branded her as in possession of a fair amount of sensitive information. OZ would most likely require a memory wipe that could go perfectly and leave her with everything except the memories important to OZ. It could also go awry and leave her non-functional.

Une thought about writing out a pros and cons list, but in the end, she knew which way the columns would lean. There had been a time when everything in her universe had depended on one thing: her loyalty to Treize. She was pretty sure, given a little time and a few personal brainwashing techniques she could regain that pure confidence in him, the desire to do nothing other than make sure his goals were achieved.

Une flipped through the pictures of the Gundam pilots, memorizing the stats and information OZ had managed to collect. Then, with the clicking of a few buttons, she changed the screen to a picture of Treize. She let it subsume the pictures that had come before it, covering the landscape of her brain, sinking into the area she thought of as her soul.

Resolutely, she promised not to worry about recovering those parts of herself until much, much later.

*

Treize slid the small electronic device across the breakfast table. Une looked up from her eggs. "A gun would be easier, that goes off and you're not getting out of here either."

"Ha. Ha. It's not set to detonate. That'll be your job."

Une took a deep, steady breath in. She worked for Treize, she took orders from Treize. "Job?"

Treize obviously didn't feel up to answering her immediately. "What will happen if we kill all the pilots and destroy the Gundams, assuming we even have the capability to do so?"

From a logistics point of view, the answer was obvious. "New children will be found, new Gundams will be built and we'll be back at square one."

"I propose a more permanent measure."

Une wasn't sure she wanted to know. She squashed the resistance down. "I take it I have to kill someone to accomplish your ends."

"Darlian."

Une kept chewing purposefully, swallowing with intent. "Darlian wants nothing more than peace."

Treize looked away from her. "I know."

She almost asked, almost made him tell her why war was necessary, but she knew. She knew it was a choice between giving up the colonies and going to war with them to stop the constant tension, the threatening violence. The irony settled coldly in her throat as she said, "You would have me kill the Vice Minister to keep Earth's best interests in the forefront?"

Softly, "He's only one man."

"He's a father, a husband, and there will be others." It was no good following Treize blindly if he himself was unseeing. She would do anything he asked but not without him being aware of what his requests meant.

"Many," Treize said, a small dip of his head the only acknowledgment of how this truth affected him.

"All right." Une made herself eat some more toast. "What, then, is the plan?"

"There's a conference in Sanq. Him and several other government officials. They will all…pose difficulty to the furthering of the war cause. The cause of eventual peace. You are to attend as my liaison but your name will later be wiped from any registries it may have appeared in. They will not allow you into the actual meeting, only to hear the aftermath, so you are to escort Darlian to the room and leave the device somewhere inside of it. Central is best but it's a powerful little thing, anywhere will do."

Powerful enough to kill those outside the room? How does this make us any different than the children that we intend to wipe out as a part of this plan? Une reached out and pulled the device to her. "I assume it's a simple A-14 sequence to set up?"

"Yes, but there is no failsafe."

Une frowned at the insult. Treize smiled sharply. "Not that you would need one, of course."

Making sure that her plate was completely empty, Une stood and left it on the side bar for the base staff to come and remove. "I'm to Sanq, then."

Treize hesitated. "Those colonies support hundreds of thousands of families living on the surface of this planet. We depend on them for things that most people take so for granted we don’t even realize we use them."

"I don't need justifications." Une nearly winced at the half-truth.

"You deserve them."

Briskly, Une walked out.

*

Treize found her curled over the porcelain base of her toilet, throwing up everything she'd digested in the last six years. She felt him there before he could do anything to make his presence known and snarled, "Get out."

"Une-"

She would have reiterated her "out," but her body, evidently sensing this and feeling the need to go traitor, started in on a batch of dry heaves. His hand came down on her back, large and steady, and when she was done she slumped against the bowl, as far away from the touch as she could go.

Miraculously, the hand disappeared, but Une stopped feeling relieved abruptly as she heard the tap running from the other room. He reappeared with a warm washcloth and some cool water, considerately handing them both over to her. She rinsed her mouth and reached up to flush the toilet. Hauling herself up, she put the seat cover down and sat, placing the glass on the nearest available surface and running the washcloth over her face and neck. When she was finished, she threw the cloth in the nearby bath. "The daughter knows."

It was very few words for the facts that were screaming in her head, the truth that the mission had gone so completely wrong that Une wouldn't be surprised to find out it hadn't been accomplished despite the strength of the explosion, the shattering of glass, the fire and the screams, the girl's screams.

"I know. Luckily, I had already wiped the registries by the time she got herself together enough to point this out. It has the effect of making her look like a grief-ridden, irrational fifteen year-old girl."

Une forewent mentioning that if he left out one adjective in that description, he'd be accurately describing the girl. "It nearly killed her."

"It didn't. You stopped it."

Une would have laughed if thinking about doing such a thing hadn't caused the desire to start vomiting again. "I was the one who set it to detonate in the first place, Treize. Let's not play coy here. Or worse yet, hero."

Treize didn't push. "You need to sleep."

Une threw him a look before rising on shaky legs. She made her way to her kitchen where she set water to boil over the stove. Rummaging around in one of her many miscellaneous drawers -- the kitchen was one of the few places Une didn't feel the need to be meticulously organized and she often went to the other extreme merely for the pleasure of doing so -- she found the box of Valerian tea packets she had bought for nights such as this.

Sensibly, Treize asked, "Think it's a good idea to be putting anything stronger than water inside you?"

Une knew that the immediate shock reaction which had caused the need to vomit, the reaction she'd held inside for over six hours as she got herself to a safe place, was over. All she said was, "The worst it'll do is make it so I'm not empty if it happens again."

He fidgeted. Treize never fidgeted in the way most people Une had witnessed did. His fidgeting always looked purposeful. In this case, he was organizing her knife drawer. Une knew it for what it was. Annoyed, she said, "I'll see you at breakfast then? You can tell me all about your next plans for world dominion. It'll be like old times."

Treize frowned at her flippancy but closed the drawer. "You could take tomorrow off, you know. The next part, well, it has to wait a bit anyway. And I suspect it might rely more heavily on my participation than yours."

For once. Une would have winced at the uncharitableness of the thought but she was too tired. She promised herself a raincheck in the morning. "Pineapple. And mango."

Treize pretended not to notice the sudden change of topics nor that he had just been given an order. "Of course, I'll speak to the cooks."

The water boiled. Une let it for a while; the shrill screeching of the kettle was soothing to her nerves.

*

Coldly, Une admired the plan. "With Pilot One in the trigger position at the death of Noventa's camp there's not only nobody with enough power left to oppose the war, but even those who desired peace will see the colonies' actions as an initiation of hostilities."

"We have two weeks before the conference," Treize said. "In that time I need media reports tweaked just enough so there can be no doubt that the colonies are what the Gundams are loyal to."

Since Treize generally didn't talk just to hear the sound of his voice, Une assumed this was what he needed from her. "That's going to take a considerable amount of untraceable funds."

"There's an account at a family owned bank in Geneva. I'll give you all the information you need via computer."

Finishing up her apricot, Une went back to the sideboard. Cereal was one of the offerings this morning and as that was pretty rare, Une tipped a considerable amount of the plain cornflakes into a bowl and drenched it with just enough milk to wet every flake. "Why don't we talk about my big part in this? Since really, a little strategic lying isn't such a big favor to ask and it's hard to get apricots this time of year."

"I need General Ceptim to see things my way. I'll need him to make a statement after all is done and over."

Une crunched down loudly, satisfyingly on her cornflakes. "Ceptim hates you and everything for which you stand."

"I imagine it will take no small amount of persuasion." Treize didn't look at her as he said it. "He doesn't hate you."

Une thought she should probably be laughing at herself, at her surprise. There was no reason to assume that killing someone would be the most Treize could ask of her and yet, somehow she had fallen into the false security that it would. She didn't discount the possibility that Treize didn't know what he was asking. She had gone on several solo missions, she was nineteen years old, it was entirely possible that he thought he was asking her to practice something she already did at a more mercenary level. Une chose to believe this. "And when he has made the announcement? You can hardly expect me to stay at his side. I'm not his."

Treize acknowledged the unspoken, I'm yours by saying, "Of course not. We'll discuss that closer to the time."

Une ate more quickly, the cornflakes growing soggy. "No, discuss it now."

Exasperated, Treize asked, "Do I really need to? What good is he to us once he's made his statement?"

Une reflected on how much of her life she had spent hating to be proven right. "What good is anyone to us, Treize? We don't go about killing people because they aren't helpful, we do that to mitigate harm."

"You are beautiful, Une, and no doubt everything a man could want in a woman, but you can't keep him off guard forever. Given the chance, particularly seeing the manipulation behind your attentions, he will become harmful. There is wisdom in proactivity."

There was also wisdom in leaving well enough alone but Une knew she had lost this fight, so she declined to mention it. "Where is Ceptim now?"

"At the base in Sicily. You'll like it there. The weather's quite nice."

Une wondered if they had vineyards in Sicily or if that was another part of Italy. She had a feeling getting horrifically drunk on indecently high-priced libations at Treize's expense might be deserved at some point on this trip.

*

A week after Une shot Ceptim at point-blank range and discovered, much to her distaste, that as awful as placing a bomb in a roomful of living people was, taking a person's life while looking in his eyes was worse, Treize said, "What are you taking?"

He timed it right, Une having passed the point where she was strictly sane. Too brittle to lie she said, "Street shit, so I don't sleep."

"You have to stop." The command was firm but Une knew him too well not to hear the small betrayal of panic in it.

Une held a small internal debate as to whether her vow to follow him in all things and all orders applied here. "Give me a why."

"Because OZ law states that any person having gone without sleep for over 72 hours be declared insane and institutionalized until the problem is fixed."

An institution where they would want to talk to her about all the things she couldn't talk about. "Have it your way."

Treize sighed. "The nightmares will get better."

Une knew that. All nightmares got better. She rarely ever had nightmares about the nuns and all their rules and their hypocritical hatred, or the men who had beaten and tortured her for the sake of determining loyalty. They were rare but when they came they still came full force, leaving her wet and sick and hoarse in the morning.

These nightmares were worse; she didn't have the luxury of believing they were over when she woke up.

"Une."

Une looked up. "Treize."

"I want you to go to New Edwards for a bit. Zechs and Noin are there. They're clamoring for me to visit and see something. Go for me and check it out, yeah? Should be easy."

"No doubt, I've heard Noin makes everything easy."

Treize gave her a stern look. It wasn't stern enough to hide the faint shadow of amusement. Une didn't exactly dislike Noin, she was just…mildly jealous. The woman had been raised by the perfect family, flown through OZ's academy with a record that Treize could envy, and was now the darling of at least half the top military brass, regardless of political views. Une was also uncomfortably aware that she shared far too much in her relationship to Treize with Noin's relationship to Zechs. Sympathy wasn't something Une was comfortable with in coworkers, excepting Treize, and even there it could get sticky.

Noin for her part did dislike Une, that much was obvious. Whether the sentiment stemmed from all of Une's issues or from the fact that Une was connected to Treize and an easier target to vent her ire over Zechs's relationship to the man than Treize, Une couldn't tell.

"It's nice out there, pretty. You can get out, take some time off."

Une narrowed her eyes at the vaguely soothing tones. "Worried your trained viper will turn?"

"You're not a viper."

Une noticed he didn't refute the trained part. "I kill on command. Vipers, at least, kill for survival. You're right, I'm not a viper."

"Things will come right, my Lady."

She was still able to say, "I believe that you believe that."

"And you? What do you believe?"

Une thought about the dreams she was avoiding, the dreams that always ended in waking, alone, scared out of her mind. "I believe we all have to have something to hold onto."

*

Une was used to situations falling apart even as she was mending them, so it shouldn't have even made her look twice when Yuy showed up at the base. She looked twice anyway.

The second look was more thought-filled, more strategically inclined, more, "What's my plan, here?" Her plan was Treize's plan, though, that had already been decided, so her plan was to get this over with, colonies safely in Earth's possession, and barring that, spark a war.

Quickly she accessed what she knew about New Edwards. She wasn't overwhelmingly familiar with the place but she was pretty sure she could count on it to be stocked with standard OZ missiles, which meant she should have enough fire power to back up any threat she could think up.

She barked orders and negotiated with Heero and finally threatened the lives of thousands of people. Determinedly, she didn't think about each life individually, she thought about how it equated to the thousands Treize was so insistent were depending on those colonies. She thought about Treize's insistence.

Despite Yuy's resistance, Une allowed herself to think she hadn't miscalculated until the moment the Gundam was destructing in front of her, taking with it not only valuable technology but the fifteen year old child she'd just made responsible for so much more than his ability to handle.

She stood the missiles down, not even sure if she would have fired in any other outcome. Working for Treize, even killing for Treize, was not quite the same as massacring for Treize. Semantics, she knew, but war was about defining sanity in the best way one could.

Noin approached her. Noin, who had the right to shake in sick disgust at Une's actions, while Une would just have to wait until she was closed away from the eyes of others to let so much as a hint of weakness slip. "Colonel Khushenrada asked that I give you a message."

Une's heart beat irregularly. She was wearing three devices that gave Treize the ability to communicate with her. There was no reason to relay a message through Noin, no reason beyond humiliating Une. "Yes?"

"He says you ought to have handled the situation more elegantly."

Une fought down her instinct to kill the messenger right then and there. She stepped around Noin without deigning to answer and made her way quickly to Granny. There was no point in her staying at Edwards. She had seen the latest mobile suits, still not Gundam technology but creeping ever closer. She could report what Treize wanted to hear.

Elegance.

The last dance lesson Une had ever been required to attend had been a recital, so that she could show Treize all she had learned. By then she had learned to trust the subtle hand of her lead as much as was possible for her, to glide and dip and flow as was necessary. At the end of the presentation, her teacher had brought her up from her finishing position on a tango. She had straightened to her full -- not very impressive -- height, lifted her chin, and laid her eyes carefully on Treize, not daring to actually ask for his approval. He had strode over, drawn her into a waltz position, and began waltzing to his private beat. "My elegant little lady," he had called her, before spinning her until she nearly fell.

Would he have her fight wars the way she tangoed? Until now she had followed his lead, his hand on her hip, his backwards step, his change in tempo. The trip to New Edwards had seemed as though he had loosened his lead, allowed her to freestyle. Perhaps it had been, and she had merely been clumsy.

From the console she typed him a message, knowing he would receive the text immediately on his comm. "I just work for you."

It was more and more the truth. He wanted everything of her but nothing from her. For months now she had been his well-calibrated gun and now he wanted elegance of his weapon. Une supposed it was possible. There were weapons she preferred to others for their trajectory, their silence, their speed. Obviously, Treize wanted that type of performance from her.

It was what she had promised him, of course, at least to herself, but he hadn't been there at New Edwards and so far as she had known, she was following through on that promise. He couldn't be there all the time. The realization threw Une. Unquestioning obedience was ideal only if there were orders not to question. It wasn't always that way with Treize.

The return message, "I need you to be better than me," flashed across her console.

Une often thought that Treize had come looking for innocence the day he had breezed into St. Angela's. In this light it confused her as to why he had chosen her but it seemed to have worked, because six years later he still believed in her ability to balance him out. "Don't send me messenger girls."

Despite the fact that all she received were words glowing in electronic green, Une heard the apology in, "I was mad. Disappointed."

Une still was. The computer felt too much like an intercessor however, and she didn't answer him until she was back in his presence, when she said, "You should know me better."

The words were bitter and inelegant and, most painfully, lonely.

*

"Fuck." Une tore the First Aid kit down from the emergency supply cabinet on board Granny. She toted it to the bathroom where she stripped, throwing her clothes aside. They'd have to be thrown out anyway, which annoyed Une. She didn't buy herself legions of extra clothing, didn't particularly enjoy shopping for apparel at all.

She tampered with the shower water until it was just a tad too hot, hopefully enough to kill anything swimming in the wound where the bullet had grazed her. She stepped under the spray and repeated, "Fuck," with the addition, "fucking hell."

She applied soap to the wound, hissing when it stung and rinsing it out. She dried the area thoroughly and tipped some hydrogen peroxide over it. Picking the kit up again, she made her way to the small refrigerator/freezer unit kept on board. She took out an ice pack and slapped it over the wound, which was still bleeding, albeit sluggishly. When her perception of the area had been dulled enough, Une sat in front of the mirror and stitched herself up, obscenely grateful that ambidexterity had been one of Treize's requirements of her.

She slathered the area with antibacterial spread, wrapped it in gauze, and cleaned up after herself. She forced herself to drink some tea, check Granny's trajectory (she hadn't been in the best state of mind at lift off), and eat a little bit of toast before she went to lay down.

She closed her eyes only to get a picture perfect shot of Relena Darlian's eyes behind the barrel of a gun. Une said to nobody in particular, "I get it, I deserved it, let it go."

The wound throbbed. Une considered taking something for it but decided that would mean getting up and would probably only make the guilt worse. Treize's orders or no, eventual good or no, she had killed that girl's father. As Treize was the closest thing she had to such a parental unit, she sensed the full magnitude of that truth was probably lost on her.

Still, Une would kill anyone who dared to touch Treize. She would chain that person to moldy walls and take them apart bit-by-bit until he or she was way past screaming or crying or even insanity.

All things considered, a bullet grazing seemed like getting off easy. Then again, Relena Darlian wasn't her. In fact, if rumor was to be believed, the girl was most likely building a power base (somewhat haphazardly and as-she-went-along) on the precepts of peace. For the moment, the fifteen year old answered to nobody. It wouldn't last long but despite her evident soft-spoken ways (which Une would ashamedly admit to mistaking for ditziness) there was a girl who knew how to take advantage of any situation.

Une wondered if she would have been less of a threat if they'd kept Darlian Senior alive. Either way, her damage to that family was through. If Treize wanted Relena out of the way, he'd have to find someone else to do it, loyalty or no.

Sensing that sleep wasn't residing anywhere near, Une reached out to her sideboard and left Treize a text message. "Sure you've heard crazy things. Am fine. On my way back."

The answer was so quick it nearly came atop her typing. "Took you long enough to say something."

Une gritted her teeth. "Damage control."

"I'll bring cookies to your place."

Une didn't have any burning desire to see him at the moment but she knew her chances of dissuading him were a step below none. She put the palm device back in its resting place and shut her eyes again. If nothing else, she could pretend she was escaping into unconsciousness. There was nobody around to know or tell her any differently.

*

The smell of cookies was heavy in her rooms. Une fought down nausea at the overwhelming sweetness. Treize met her at the door, took her bag from her arm and walked her to the chair. She slumped into it, having made her way down the halls ramrod straight, every inch of her radiating the utmost authority.

Slowly, precisely, he unpinned her hair. It fell in silken twists around her face. When he'd found all the pins and set them on her coffee table, he ran his fingers through her hair, straightening and getting rid of the snags as much as possible.

If she hadn't been so tired, she thought she would have been amused by how apathetic she was to his touch, considering how often she had craved it throughout most of her time with him. It wasn't that what she wanted of him was sexual. For the most part, her desire to be touched had nothing to do with that. She just yearned for contact that didn't hurt. She'd had precious little of it in her life and it seemed that with each year the deficit grew inside her.

She didn't even notice when he drew his fingers back.

"I think, perhaps, a new plan of attack is called for."

Une fixed tired eyes on him. "In the morning, Treize."

"You'll like this." The command was gentle but it was a command all the same.

Which didn't mean there wasn't room for negotiation. "Quickly, then."

"I want people thrown off track."

Une took the bait without even making him work for it. She was too worn out to play games. "In what way can this be accomplished?"

"I think you should start talking peace."

Une waited for a few seconds, until she was entirely sure the last sentence hadn't been overactive imagination on her part. "As a decoy?"

"Of sorts. I'm not entirely opposed to peace, could it be managed without the loss of the colonies."

Une still felt that peace deserved a bit more enthusiasm than a vaguely non-negative approach to it but what was was. "And what will you be doing while I'm out pedaling lies?"

"Omissions of the truth. You're going to campaign for peace between the colonies and Earth, which is our eventual goal, you're just not going to mention our conditions."

Une pressed her hand gently against the wound. "You didn't answer my question."

"It's a play for time."

Une would have hit him if it hadn't required movement. "Time for what, Treize?"

"Our technology to catch up, for one thing."

"And the other thing?"

"I'm hoping to use this to manipulate just a few more of the sectors into my faction."

Une was pretty sure she would have seen that coming any other time. She hoped so. "Get them to agree while they're not entirely sure what they're agreeing to?"

"They'll figure it out."

Eventually, Une knew, and that was the catch. By that time, Treize would have long gotten what he wanted. "Okay. We'll talk about this more tomorrow."

"Wednesday," Treize corrected. "You're taking the day off tomorrow."

"I have-"

"I couldn't care less. Twenty four hours bed rest. I'll reassess at that time."

Une's eyes were heavy. "You win. Feel better?"

"Battles and wars, my Lady." He began to leave, turning before the door. "You should wear your hair down more, it's quite stunning."

Une mumbled something that not even she understood and began to think seriously about how she was going to get herself into bed.

*

Une felt unbalanced at the sensation of breeze blowing through her hair. No doubt she would have to brush it out again when she got back to the base. It was so untidy. Unmilitary.

Which, of course, was exactly the point. Someone who wanted to convince other people that she wanted peace had to look like she wanted it, and regardless of the fact that Une sincerely desired resolution to the current conflict, she doubted that her bulletproof-and-ready-for-action look was going to work.

She had gone shopping for the most Relena Peacecraft-esque dress she could find. This had ended up being both easier and harder than expected, as Relena was evidently quite the rage of late. There had been countless dresses modeled after the girl's sense of schoolgirl-cum-peace-activist style. In exchange for not having to look far, Une had been forced to decide between nearly twenty different dresses. In the end she had picked the two that showed off her legs the best. Innocence and sweetness were all well and good, but most men thought with their dicks a good two minutes before their hearts and minds ever caught up.

Une shopped her Peace Minus Absolute Passivism idea to any diplomat, military head, and lobbyist she managed to run into, all the while watching the papers and listening to everything Treize wasn't saying. She chose to believe he was leaving her the out of plausible deniability.

He broke his silence over an English muffin slathered heavily in raspberry jam. "I need you to put your braids back in for a bit."

Une sipped at her ginseng tea. "Finally about to lose your epic personal battle and give into your overwhelming temptation to ravish me?"

Treize choked on a bit of muffin. "That too."

Une's face clearly said, yes of course, I've always known. "Braids it is. What was the other reason?"

"We need one of the doctors. I don't care how you do it, what's more, I would prefer not to know. They have a lock on Gundam technology and we need for that to change."

"Even if I have to throw elegance to the sharks?"

Treize sighed. "You're never going to forgive me for that, are you?"

Une didn't think she would ever forgive herself for that. Treize was just a side-factor. "No, probably not."

"Anything you need to do, Une. To get them and to get the information from them. I've told you it and I'm not going back on my orders to you."

"So I'm to cast aside my rather juvenile career as diplomat?" Une asked flippantly, not wanting him to see how much she had begun to feel reassured by it. Even knowing it was lies, there was a kernel of truth in her desire, and of late that seemed like a rather large thing to hold onto.

"Not entirely, I have a feeling it's usefulness will arise again. I'd prefer that you were able to take care of this quietly for that reason, not to mention the obvious fact that our information on the doctors is gained by less than savory means and is most likely not available for release unto the public unspun."

Une looked at him. "Why are you doing this again?"

He opened his mouth, exasperation evident until he met her eyes. He drew back a bit. "Because the alternative option is to watch Earth collapse in the wake of its support system being taken from it. Or watch as war is fought by technology and humanity's time passes with us still sentient and observing."

She nodded. "And who am I?"

He was cautious. "To me or to yourself? Who have you begun to see yourself as?"

"Not who, Treize, what. A weapon, a convenience."

Treize stilled. "Perhaps you should-"

"If you even begin to recommend that I leave at this point, when the damage is too much to be undone and nothing will work outside of here, I will poison your next drink with something so slow-acting and debilitating you will be calling me Nurse for the last three years of your existence."

Treize stood and came to her side of the table. There he lifted her onto her feet. She was still shorter, but not by much. "Do this for me, Une. I need it."

The emphasis placed on the "it" was unmistakably substitution, and Une knew better than to discard a sentiment just because it wasn't everything she wanted. "Never said I wouldn't."

"Gundam technology," he said softly.

The spark of heat that lit in the base of her spine suggested just how well she understood.

*

Une had become so used to contingency plans being necessary that it always came as something of a shock when her original plan actually worked. However, unlike the child trained by the so-called Dr. J, the doctor himself came when his colony was threatened. Granted, going in with an actual attack force was a bit more tangible than merely pointing cannons at the colony's surface, but Une sensed that the doctor had a bit more pragmatism in him than his trained soldier boy.

Which meant she could begin the real games rather quickly, without wasting time on preliminaries.

Although somewhere in her heart she never would forgive either herself for losing control nor Treize for reminding her so forcefully to regain that control, there were times when a pinch of elegance would go limitlessly further than a pound of force.

As words went, Une knew that people weren't fond of the one "blackmail" but in her mind it was infinitely better than "torture."

The true art of blackmail was the ability to calmly wait out another person's accession to her demands. She was in the waiting process, spreading smooth peanut butter over whole-grain toast, eyeing the bananas in consideration as to whether she wanted to add them to her breakfast sandwich or not, when Treize took her mind from the situation entirely. "Zechs will have to be taken from the picture."

Une was expending too much patience on the doctor to spare any for Treize. "You're talking about a man whom, until very recently, you considered a lover." She added a bit of emphasis on the last word for flair.

"Personal connections can be very damning in the midst of war. I suppose I ought to have known better." His voice was quiet, bitter.

Une tore open the banana. "This isn't necessary. Leave him alone, his influence is just one among several."

Treize fixed her with a look. "He is the Lightening Count, my Lady. You know that as well as I. One among several, but one with the power to truly affect the shifts of power. We're too far into this to turn back now. Peace at this point will only be a consistently fractured peace. Nothing has been solved, not even the vagaries of the war itself."

Une decided to try another tactic. "What you suggest is tantamount to treason, marching on one of our own."

"Tantamount to?" Treize raised an eyebrow.

Une chopped at the banana. "If you know every argument that I will bring up and plan to disregard all of them anyway, why even bring this up? It's not like my opinion has any bearing, you outrank me."

"Because you always surprise me," Treize said gently. "Because it's a good thing to know what somebody else is thinking about your actions. You keep me in check."

"Yes." Une dropped the bananas onto the peanut butter, crammed some of the toast into her mouth and chewed. She swallowed. Working against the stickiness in her mouth and throat she said, "Madly successful at that, I am."

Treize's smile was more a flicker of amusement than anything else. "More than you know, really."

"Obviously." As was her custom, though, she gave him the benefit of the doubt and chose to believe him. "You'd kill him, then?"

"I would prefer to contain him, but if need be, yes, I will."

"And if-"

"If things do not go according to plan," the irony in his voice was practically a verbal wink, "then I trust you to act in my stead. Of course."

Une finished her breakfast. "Of course."

*

The higher ups had made her avow her loyalty to OZ rather than Treize practically simultaneously with locking him up. She swore on whatever they needed her to swear on, lying through her teeth. After all, it wasn't as if she had any particular allegiance to them.

She wished he was around to childishly taunt with a little, "I told you so." Mostly she just wished he was around. Treize had never encouraged her to socialize among the others of OZ. Une realized this had most likely been a move intended to keep her as much his property as possible but didn't bother regretting it. Nice though it would have been to have a social circle, when things came to the core of the issue, Treize had saved her life and made her what she was, and if he wanted all of her for that then he probably deserved it.

Still, when the intel came that Pilot 02 was sitting in their interrogation cells, Treize's ability to make the hard decisions would not have gone amiss. Without giving into the luxury of too much thought, Une boarded Granny, and headed to the base where 02 was being held.

Even having been informed that 02's self-destruct mechanism had failed (Une was beginning to think she'd have to look into having that bit of technology improved given its evident success rate among the pilots), she was surprised OZ had managed to catch him. Of all the pilots, 02 was the roughest around the edges maneuver-wise but he was clever, and more unpredictable than anyone Une had ever fought against. Also, he seemed to put more of his heart into it than the others. It was always evident that an attack had been perpetrated by 02 because the damage was invariably more devastating.

She arrived at the station and requested a briefing on the way to his holding cell. She learned that his name -- at least his code name if not his real one -- was Duo Maxwell but other than that they'd been able to get absolutely nothing out of him.

For a treacherous second Une thought, good boy.

Then she thanked her escort and stepped into the cell.

She ordered the lights, currently off, up to their full capacity, and was pleased by Maxwell's, "Shit," as he blinked the affects away.

"'Morning," she said.

He smiled, which had to hurt, his face being three-fourths bruises overlaid with a decent latticework of cuts. "Is it? How 'bout some breakfast, then?"

"I'm afraid you've just missed it. Quite a good one too, eggs and pancakes."

Maxwell didn't seem too worried. "Ah well, there's always tomorrow."

"You sound quite sure of that," Une said lightly.

"If there isn't, there'll be something else. Hell has to be more fun that this place. Better company at the least, I'd suspect."

Une tried to decide what Treize would want to know most. Probably about the technology. Seeing as how the kid wasn't budging on the names of his co-pilots, however, the likelihood of him giving that up immediately on the sheer tactic of surprise seemed unlikely. She figured out what she most wanted to know. She found it less probable to raise awareness flags. "What do you want?"

"For breakfast? Almost anything would be marvelous, the food in here isn't quite up to the luxurious standards I've become-"

"Out of this war. What's your end goal?"

Maxwell grinned at that, the cut on his lip opening to bleed sluggishly. "You're asking the wrong guy, lady."

It was a start. "Why is that?"

"Because I just wanted off my hellhole of a colony. Fuck the politics."

"Is that why you won’t tell us anything?"

"Know anything about the way loyalty can be utterly and completely bought?"

Une knew everything about it, which was why she knew he was lying. "I'll come back a bit later, when you're ready to play."

To her great shame, she was endlessly relieved when Yuy broke Maxwell out mere hours after their meeting. Hurting him would have been too much like strapping herself down, and applying all her knowledge to the end of extracting information from herself. Her younger self.

She didn't want to find out exactly how far her loyalty to Treize extended.

*

It wasn't that the battle was that different than any that had come before it. Une was used to sliding her hands over controls, managing firepower alongside movement. She had killed before and had always assumed that she would most likely kill again. She had even seen the Gundam pilots fight both live in front of her and in news releases. She had fought the pilots.

She was in rote when the thought came, barking orders, making sure what needed to happen played out, being the good little officer that she had always been. The thought was simple, enormous, and perhaps even a bit traitorous.

I want peace.

For a moment, Une didn't even have to push back at it, it went automatically unnoticed. Une had suborned her wants and needs to Treize's for so long that it was mildly shocking for one to come through so clearly, but nonetheless, unimportant.

White heat exploded in front of her, one of the Leo's center screen catching a blast. The thought came back, this time more forceful. Une quieted it, silently explained to it that she didn't really care.

Deathscythe cut its way through the fast growing wreckage of OZ's forces, and the tactical doll Treize had created ordered a strike she was pretty sure the teenager wouldn't expect.

When the mobile suits were busy getting decimated anyway, Une remembered that Maxwell always expected the unexpected, as he was the king of it himself. Or, if the rumors were true, and he did think of himself as Shinigami, the god.

Still, in his fervor, he had separated out from the other pilots, in fact, they were all scattered at this point, much more vulnerable to attack than before. Une clenched at the idea of Treize so tight she gave herself a headache and quickly started formulating a plan of attack.

Treize's visage wavered in and out, replaced by a boy with a split lip, a black eye, and two swollen cheeks telling her he just wanted the fuck out, the picture of a teenager who was more trained puppet than child. Dedicatedly, Une replaced the images with Treize. Treize as the giant he had been when she was thirteen; Treize who introduced her to strawberries; Treize who was locked up and counting on her to take care of things.

Orders flew from her mouth, words she could only hope didn't contradict each other as the imagery in her mind twisted out of her control. Treize who had waltzed with her; Treize who had given her her first birthday present; Treize who had looked fondly at Zechs. Treize who had gone after Zechs for disagreeing with him. Treize who had allowed her taken and tortured on the same birthday he'd celebrated with her.

The downed mobile count was climbing. There was no backing out of this confrontation, not for Treize's ends to be accomplished. There was the destroy or be destroyed option. Une had weapons at her disposal that most likely could not completely take the Gundams apart but would probably disable them completely, killing the chil- sold- terrorists inside.

Deathscythe did an odd little flip, like a child who hasn't yet learned how to somersault well, and took two more mobile suits with its laser scythe. She didn't need a viewing screen to know that Maxwell was grinning, perhaps screaming wildly, drunk on the small victory.

Une opened her mouth to order the cannons be fired. She said, "We should be working toward peace."

*

Barton (not, so far as she could tell, of The Bartons) reminded her of herself. Well, a less desperate version of herself. A less desperate, more black and white version of herself.

His appearance at her headquarters was maybe just a bit too convenient, her needing someone with the kind of focus he possessed, but Une was tired of second-guessing everything.

Barton listened to orders and carried them out and didn’t ask her to care by either betraying emotion or asking questions. She didn't think Treize would really approve of her handing off the dirty work to someone else but recent events suggested she needed a break if she was to continue handling her erstwhile boss's operation in his absence.

The fact that she didn't particularly approve of shuffling most of her directives off was something she only allowed to bother her when she should have otherwise been sleeping. Even then, after a while, she honored what she knew Treize would have asked of her and took a sedative powerful enough for someone three times her size. It allowed her eight hours sleep. She went back to just waiting for sleep to come naturally after that.

She was on three hours of sleep a night when Barton evidently decided he'd settled in enough to talk more than just logistics with her. She wasn't even entirely sure what order she'd given that gave way to his comment, "OZ is the perfect organization for people like us, wouldn't you agree, Lieutenant?"

Unsure of what was being discussed, Une blinked coolly, her blanket response to anything that she needed more information to actually discuss.

Barton didn't disappoint. "Its nature coincides with ours. The inherent…dirtiness of the organization."

Une carefully kept her frown to herself. Treize fought dirty and had taught her to do so when absolutely necessary, there was no denying that. It didn't mean that his aims were dirty, the way Barton was making it sound. He was still talking though, rhapsodizing about the basic components of OZ, how they gave vent to something needed in human society and Une thought, but this is where I learned elegance, not trickery. It wasn't completely true, she'd learned both but the former had always seemed more essential to her work. Not that it was really OZ that had taught her that so much as Treize, and Treize had been locked up by OZ, so actually the two were opposing forces.

Une didn't know how to understand things when she phrased them that way.

Treize had rescued her, Treize the OZ officer. Treize wasn't dirty. He…wasn't. Isn't.

Une thought she was going to have to cut Barton off, have to quiet him somehow, but he stopped, finally, just before her own panic overwhelmed his abundant emotion. Une hoped that her, "Yes, well, you certainly show promise," was an appropriate response to whatever he had said last, been saying all along. She knew she had missed most of it.

Barton gave her as much of a smile as she had ever seen the boy accomplish, a salute, and headed off in the direction of the shuttle bays, away to do her bidding. Une let her eyes slip shut for a second, just a second. She pulled herself together, reigned in the emotion that threatened her equilibrium and went to go grab herself some breakfast on the way to her office.

*

When she was absolutely one-hundred percent sure that she was still alive and that she could remember the last hour or so of her life, she turned to Zechs or Milliardo or Fucking Lightening Boy or whoever the hell he was today. "I'm not on your side."

Milliardo, who had for all intents and purposes just saved her life and then sweetly stood by while she thought about offing her lackey because he was doing his job a little (lot) more fervently than Une thought necessary, said, "Not really on yours either."

"Then what am I doing still alive?"

Milliardo looked at her for a long time. "Treize is."

Une wanted to swear for hours on end. "You're not on his side either. I could point out why but I think we both noticed the cause for the rift."

"It's not that simple. Not when two people have been-" Milliardo twisted his hand elegantly.

Une wouldn't know.

"And anyway, I've eaten breakfast with you for years."

"Personal ties can be messy in the midst of a war," Une paraphrased.

"Ridiculously so." Milliardo inclined his head in as much a gesture of embarrassment as Une supposed one time royalty was ever allowed to display.

"It is a debt," Une acknowledged.

"Perhaps on his part. He's the one who asked it of me."

"Let's just say that at the moment my life is still worth enough that I consider it worthwhile to add my 'if you need anything' to the exchange rate."

Taking far too much liberty, Milliardo asked, "Truly?"

Une's expression sharpened. "Take it or leave it, Ze-"

"Milliardo."

"Milliardo, then. It is your choice." She had enough of those on her hands without making them for other people.

"Perhaps I find you too unreliable to call upon. You did just try and kill one of your own people."

"It was persuasion, not intent."

"So you wouldn't have shot him?"

Une didn't allow the images of the first man she shot to slice through her head, she didn't. "Not to kill."

"I can’t tell you how relieved I am."

"Don’t get righteous on me. None of us have gotten where we are by playing clean."

Milliardo had the decency to look chastised. "In that case, if even your actions have double meanings, how can I know you mean what you say?"

"I suppose you'll have to trust what your own instincts tell you about me."

"They tell me you wouldn't know whether to trust yourself."

Before she could think about it, Une was saying, "Good instincts."

Milliardo smirked. "I'll call you when they change."

Une couldn't wait to hear from him.

*

It wasn't that Une trusted Barton. She didn't know what it meant to trust someone other than herself or Treize, and she was well aware now was not the time to start finding out. It was more that Barton was there, day in and day out, the only face she was at all used to seeing anymore with the constant faction warring and change in personnel.

It was that Une really needed to say to someone, "I've lost sight of what Treize would have me do, which would be fine except that my main objective is my loyalty to him."

It was risky, admitting loyalty to a traitor. She doubted she would have given into the need had Barton not been the one to deliver the news of Milliardo's safety, and had Milliardo not so obviously spoken with Treize at some point.

Something Une didn't understand flickered in Barton's eyes and she wondered if she would be locked up in a house of her own by the next morning. He said, "You were with him so long, perhaps loyalty to yourself is loyalty to him."

Une would have loved to believe that but she knew better. In all her years with Treize she was both his faithful servant and his faithful devil, always there to sit on his shoulder and disagree with whatever he proposed, even if only in theory. Part of her thought that it would be best to figure out what she wanted and do the exact opposite, but their dynamic hadn't worked in that way either.

"What did Treize want when he left you?"

Une flipped through the myriad of possible answers to that. Gundam technology, a war fought and controlled by humans, peace at the conclusion of that war, Earth control over the colonies. They were fighting the war, though, and so far, while automated mobiles were being sent into fights, humans still controlled over eighty percent of the military action. Gundam technology hadn't yet been developed within OZ ranks but certain wording choices in Milliardo's last communiqué before disappearing convinced her that they were well on their way. Which left weakening the colonies so that Earth could take control of the war once and for all, and peace could be achieved shortly thereafter.

Essentially, Une figured, all this meant that nobody else could be allowed access to Gundam technology, not even the fledgling version of it. As it was, the Gundams they'd been fighting of late had borne obvious experimental development. Anything more would need to be stopped if OZ was to have a prayer of defeating their enemies.

Une hoped it hadn't been an unreasonably long time in between his asking and her answering, "Basically what we all want: things to go our way."

"You just don't know what his way was?"

Une said, "Sometimes knowing and…"

"Finding it in yourself to admit that you know?"

Une ignored the chill of recognized empathy that pooled at the base of her spine. "Very different things."

"But your loyalty is foremost. So you say."

The ironic twist of his tone helped her to shoot back, "It's more than just words."

He didn't say anything. Barton wasn't much of a talker but Une knew when silence had a point.

*

Une had been Treize's action component, the person he went to so things would get done. In the time since he'd been missing, she hadn't adapted to having others do the work for her. It was why she went to the moonbase, despite the objections of several members of OZ, both equal and higher ranking.

It felt good at first, even with the too-close heat of all the explosions, perhaps even because of that heat. There was something novel in being suited up for battle, having a weapon at her ready disposal, being someone with whom people didn't want to mess.

Une barked orders even as she fought her way to the center of the base. The attack was all fine and good but it was really only distraction. The actual Gundam plant had to be destroyed or this action would only be a vain (and expensive) mark on her record.

It was telling that Une still felt that to be a reflection on Treize.

It was moments like these when Une was glad he had been so insistent on her learning to memorize maps and viscerally understand what any one-dimensional floor plan was telling her about a place. Une worked her way, sometimes easily, sometimes with more resistance, through the base, past the central area, where one would usually keep a facility as important as the one she was hunting, down lower, into the bowels of the structure.

The map that intelligence had managed to decode from an intercepted transmission didn't even have the actual room she was looking for marked, but in addition to merely being able to read maps, Une could read into them as well. Unless she was slipping, the plant was in a series of rooms that had been marked with other, entirely unimportant designations such as janitors closets and unused personnel offices.

In accordance with her theory, the amount of soldiers manning the base became more dense as she went further. Une abandoned the shoot-first-and-don't-worry-about-questions tactic she'd been employing for the I'm-a-mouse-and-you-can't-see-me way of going about things. It was hard, seeing as how the soldiers were all hyped up, being able to hear all the crashes and explosions going on above their heads, but it was also one of the things at which Une was best.

She made it to the assembly room with very little damage to herself. As soon as she was inside she worked her way from machine to machine, attaching the small nodes that, once she was off the station and hit the detonator, would destroy the entire room and most likely a better part of the base. She didn't allow herself a moment to think, all that brilliant technology lost, not once. Nor did she allow herself to think, fuck they're gorgeous, maybe if I could take one out?

It had been agreed, there was no safe way to smuggle anything out. This time, the technology would just have to be done away with. A better plan could be worked out for the next base. There were at least three more that they knew of producing these things, and there were probably some ones unaccounted for.

As she swung around the last machine, ready to dispatch her final bomb and retreat to her ship, she saw that Tubarov had entered the room, no doubt to check the base's most precious cargo. She considered ducking onto the other side of the machine for a whole second before she felt the dull thud of impact against her chest and couldn't think anything at all.

*

At first she thought it was still a dream, one of the endless dreams in the cycle from which she could not wake. There was too much white, and an antiseptic smell, and Treize, and all those things were familiar and at least one of them fairly impossible so she thought, dream.

It didn't dissuade her from reaching out and trying to touch Treize. She would take what she could get. DreamUne was evidently not very coordinated and sickeningly weak though, which made Une reconsider the situation. Déjà vu?

Treize must have seen the motion, because he wrapped his hand over hers. "Une? Are you awake?"

Une moaned, being unable to make her larynx muscles respond to a command for anything more substantial.

"Shh, okay, okay. Just rest." He moved onto the bed, cupping her cheek, looking into her eyes as though she were an apparition rather than a newly awakened person he had known for six years.

Then Une remembered. It surprised her a little that he wasn't staring at a ghost. She couldn't have killed someone more thoroughly had she done it herself. Although, obviously she could have, since here she was, alive and awake if not completely functional.

The sense that Treize shouldn't be able to be here nagged at her but she couldn't bring into focus just why that was. Nonetheless, she curled her fingers as tightly as she could around his, trying to confirm the fact that it was him. He must have understood her impromptu sign language, as he said, "It's really me, my Lady."

She blinked. It obviously translated itself either as "I'm terribly confused," or "Please explain," since Treize told her, "I was released. Some things have changed. You've been down for over a month. I'll brief you as soon as you're up to hearing it all."

A month seemed like a horrendously long time but he didn't seem surprised by it, so maybe it wasn't. Or maybe he was just staying calm in order to not let the situation get out of his control. That was one of his coping mechanisms.

Une wondered if she'd wake up feeling her body next time. That was probably an important step on the road to recovery. That, and actually remembering everything she needed to know. Right now she could practically feel where the gaps were.

"You're on a lot of meds. We're going to wean you off. That should help with the disorientation and the feeling of disconnectedness."

Une was curious as to when Treize had taken up mind-reading. Had he been somewhere where he'd had a lot of time on his hands? The thought nagged at her but she pushed it away, knowing it wouldn't help. For the moment, despite the fact that she was aware she had just woken up and she had no desire to leave Treize when he was so close, she was exhausted. She fought hard to keep her eyes open.

"Go back to sleep," Treize ordered, not unkindly. It wasn't even really an order, more a suggestion, but Une knew that sometimes -- this being one of those times -- they amounted to the same thing. "I need you back with us."

That kept her eyes open a little bit longer. She'd forgotten how his saying that sounded. She wasn't sure if this was due the lingering injury, or because it had been so long, but she knew that she'd needed to hear it. She let her eyes droop shut, willing to allow for sleep if it served the end goal of getting to where he wanted her.

That decided, she didn't plan on letting go of his hand.

*

Une stayed silent when Treize had finished explaining. She forced herself to order the points of everything he had just told her in terms of importance. "I'm to join with people we’ve been fighting this entire time?"

"Peace will be a completely unnecessary event should Earth no longer be around to enjoy it."

Une couldn't argue with that but, "Why would Ze- Milliardo do this? Earth is his home. He has more reason to be loyal to it than anyone."

"Humans used to have a saying. They would call each war as it came along, bigger than the last, 'the war to end all wars.' The sense was that if enough destruction could be caused, the race would warm to the idea that war is not a good thing and leave it behind altogether."

"Obviously that theorem failed."

Treize smirked. "Humans will always fight each other. Whether by war or by other acts of destruction I cannot tell you but we will always fight. What I desire now is to see peace for the rest of my lifetime, and hopefully yours. Milliardo, on the other hand, thinks, as did all those other humans, that if he can just destroy enough, he will see to it that peace is had for millennia ad infinitum."

"Having the Gundams on our side is really the only way to stop him, then?"

"Can you think of something else? Even Noin has been cooperating with them."

Une bit back a curse. Something sharp in her that might have been pity rose up at the thought of having to chose between the person she loved and the planet she identified as home. Une wasn't particularly familiar with either sentiment but she could extrapolate. "And where will you be in all of this?"

"Fighting. In a Gundam."

Une smiled at that. "Did we finally manage it, or is this borrowed goods?"

"We managed. I'll show you it as soon as you're out of bed. One of these days, I hope you'll get to pilot one, but I need you as my 'on-shore' crew for this."

"And when Milliardo has been taken care of and that concern is out of the way?"

"Then we return to the game plan as normal. I'm not sure where Noin is in all that, so you might want to keep that part mum."

Une didn't think about how fragilely she held onto her beliefs that what they were doing was the only way. Treize was here, he was telling her what had to be done. That was enough. More than enough. "Understood."

"I know what I've asked of you-"

"Don’t show weakness in your desire right now," Une said, calm, but every inch a commanding officer. "It's unfair to me."

Treize nodded. "That unclear?"

"Do you truly want me to be your conscience on the eve of an action that will most likely end everything, one way or another?"

"Why would I have you stop now?"

For comfort's sake. Then she remembered one of the reasons that she so diligently followed this man. He didn't take comfort where it wasn't his to take. "We are using their materials to gain peace on our terms. It seems…dishonorable." It was a low argument to make, knowing how seriously he would consider it, but it was the only one she had left.

"When the time comes to turn the battle back around, the only material we will have of theirs is your knowledge of schematics. I've sent you in on recon before, that's a valid act of war."

Sometimes it was even a valid act during times of peace. "I would've done it, even if you couldn't have answered that challenge."

"But I wouldn't have had the right to ask you to do it."

A slight heady feeling rose up through Une's throat and she thought, Hello belief, it's been awhile.

*

Somewhere in the middle of all the fighting, Une forgot for what side she was fighting. She knew that she would follow any orders communicated to her by Treize, and that she was in constant contact with Noin and Po -- who both seemed to know what side they were on -- but she wasn't sure that she was actually in league with them, or really of anything other than the fact that Milliardo had taken a shortcut to Completely Psycho and needed to be stopped.

If nothing else, it gave her something on which to focus.

Mostly, she concentrated on keeping Treize clear, warning him of any dangers, and trying not to be distracted by the other Gundams, by who was in them, by the way she kept thinking, what happens when all this is over?

None of that was important.

When one of the Gundams went after Treize's, for a second all Une wanted to shout was, "Wait, we're on you're fucking side, moron!" but she knew that wasn't exactly true. The enemy of your enemy was not always your friend, and they weren't friends with the colony Gundams. Not when all was said and done.

The Gundam -- Po was saying something about Wufei, low and urgent, so Une figured that it was the fifth pilot that had come to their attention, Chang -- fought like Treize did. The bearing, the skill, it was almost uncanny. As was the familiarity. Une wondered when they had met before, and what the reason behind Treize's not mentioning it was. Not that it mattered. All that mattered now was, "Watch your left, you leave it open and he sees weakness as well as you do."

"Encouragement was always such a specialty of yours."

Une smirked but without the laughter usually behind it. "Look to my teacher."

She didn't talk after that, not unless she had something to say about logistics. Treize and Chang were talking, she caught snippets of the conversation from Treize's end. It sounded like breakfasts conversations she remembered from back when Mil- Zechs had come to visit. Une bit her lip. Treize was the one who had taught her all about not sleeping with enemies.

Even though Une knew she had never looked away -- she wouldn't have, there was too much at stake -- it seemed like everything happened in a moment when she hadn't been looking. Because suddenly Treize's Gundam was floating away, dead in space and she was screaming, "Treize! Treize, I swear, if you don't answer me- Treize!"

Only Treize wasn't answering, and Une wasn't on Granny, couldn't just zip off after him and there was Noin in her ear saying, "He's dead, Une. He's dead. Wufei-"

Une frantically pressed at buttons to get the communications systems off. She didn't want to know what Noin or Chang knew. Treize was fine, he was floating, he was in space, he was-

Une choked on a breath. He wasn't answering.

Early on in her training, not even a few days after Treize had picked her out of all the girls at St. Angela's, Treize had noticed that Une would hesitate before asking anything, and only ask if it was absolutely beyond necessary. Over dinner he had said, "You should always ask your questions. Chances are they aren't stupid, and even if they are, I'll still answer them."

He had, too, every single one.

Une thought about screaming. She thought about calmly getting up, finding the airlock on the ship she was inhabiting and taking a nice jump out of it. She thought about crying silently, the was she used to at night, terrified that the nuns would find her and use it as an excuse for more abuse. She thought about trotting off to the bathroom and puking.

She keyed up the communications that she had shut down and put in a call to the Federation. She used Treize's codes to get past all the confusion that was their answering system just right then in order to talk to someone who would be able to relay the message to all of earth. "Colonel Treize Khushenrada has been defeated. I suggest, in relation to the colonial conflict, that Earth surrender immediately."

She ended the call and watched as the battle changed, slowly, almost imperceptibly, but Une knew for what to look. She watched as Peacemillion prepared to undo everything her and Treize had fought for in a misguided notion of what peace actually is, and she watched a Gundam pilot hurtle through the stratosphere and save everything that had mattered at some point.

She watched and thought, What am I supposed to do now?

Treize didn't answer.

*
January, After Colony 196
*

In the confusion that was the world after Yuy and the other Gundams's triumphant moment, it would have been incredibly easy to disappear, run from whatever consequences were imminent, take Treize up on his long-ago made offer to get out.

She couldn't be entirely sure the offer still stood, however. More importantly, she couldn’t imagine where to go. Instead she stayed, and waited for what was to come.

Surprisingly, when it came it was neither who nor what she had expected. It was Chang showing up at her doorstep, no order of arrest or even accusations, just, "We're trying to assemble a group of…peacekeepers. Trowa mentioned that we might ask you."

Une fought the urge to rip the child's throat out, knowing that if nothing else, he had given Treize the only death for which the man would have asked. It occurred to her that if none of this stood in their way she would like the way he didn't waste time or words or emotion. "In what capacity would you be interested in my skills?"

Chang's eyes widened ever so slightly. "Why would we want to limit what we're asking for? If you're in, we want everything you can do, everything you know."

Une realized he'd been expecting her to turn him down. "Most of that isn't any good for trying to avert conflict."

"One of the many reasons Noin was less than thrilled by the idea of inviting you in."

No surprises there. "What would the others have been?"

"Most significantly your lingering loyalty to Khushenrada."

Une's throat tightened. "You call him that while you were in bed with him?"

Chang hissed, "Why do you think I'm the one here, Lieutenant?"

"Not anymore." Any rank, any place she had once had in the world had disappeared with the remnants of OZ and the Gundam carrying Treize's body.

"What shall I call you then?"

"Une." It wasn't her first preference but being the only name she had there wasn't much of a choice.

"Khushenrada wanted peace in his own way. On his own terms. Much the way I think we all wanted it. These aren't your terms but I find it in myself to believe that you'll work within their confines regardless. You were at our side at the last, details aside, that's where you were."

Une swallowed. "Well, on the assumption that there is to be no trial against me," Une paused, waiting for Chang's small nod, "I suppose I owe your kind then. It's not like I have anything else pressing."

"My kind," Chang said. "You're not that different from us, you know, we all fought out of loyalty to something."

"You should tell Maxwell that sometime."

Chang sneered. "Duo more than any of us, just not the things everyone expects it to be." Then, more quietly, "I have been guilty of misjudging that one in my time as well."

Une nodded. "Where will you need me?"

"Sanq, by Monday morning." It was Thursday afternoon.

"The move will be permanent?"

"Bring whatever you need to make yourself comfortable for an extended period of time."

"Understood." She went to show Chang out. At the door she left him with, "Thank you," shutting it before he could acknowledge or question the appreciation.

*

Preventer work was less well funded and more grassroots than OZ had been but other than that Une couldn't much tell the difference. She was still given a fair amount of leeway in her decisions, still had people to answer to, (if not as many) and was still ignored by most of the people with whom she worked.

She was pushing through all the paperwork that had been deflected onto her by Noin in a passive aggressive move to make Une aware she was still unhappy with her being there, when a girl with sun-blonde hair and eyebrows reminiscent of cartoon demons knocked on her door. Une looked up. "It's open."

The girl stepped in and took the chair in front of Une's desk.

Une asked, "What can I do for you, Miss Catalonia?"

"I thought you'd recognize me. I told Quatre, but he said you'd give me a job anyway. He's awful at judging people."

In Une's experience the exact opposite was true. So far, Winner and Chang had been the two pilots to have any kind of adequate read on her. Of course, Maxwell was out on L2 playing Colony Repair Boy, Yuy was a case of Obliviousitis if she'd ever seen one, and Barton was avoiding her more thoroughly than he would Typhoid Mary. Not that she blamed him. "For what sort of job are you looking?"

The girl's eyes slid across the room, toward the window on the far wall. "My grandfather once negotiated peace contracts. I was hoping I could be trained to do something similar." She pushed a communications pad up on the desk, over to Une. "I have qualifications of a sort. I was schooled and trained by him up until his death."

Une pressed the pad on and skimmed it. "You're sixteen years old. I see that you already have the equivalent of a high school degree, but why not continue that education? There are plenty of colleges that would be thrilled to have someone with this resume on their student roster for the fall."

"Being on the side that tried to blow up Earth isn't a huge point winner with most people around here."

"L1 and L3 both support prestigious universities."

"With kids who barely know that a war happened, they were more concerned with getting their diplomas, their acceptance letters, whatever, at the time." Catalonia fixed Une with a glare filled more with intent than hostility. "You're not that much older than me. You could do all the things you suggest I do but you don't. Because you don't belong in that world. I don't either."

"What makes you think I belong in this one?" Une asked.

"I didn’t say you did. I didn’t say I did. Look at it this way, though, if you hire me, at least it'll be two pariahs against the Saviors of the World, rather than one."

As tempting as the offer was, Une made herself read the pad through carefully once to make sure that wasn't her only justification for hiring the girl. "Winner told you to come here?"

"Practically shoved me in the door. He's probably down the hall, spying on our brains."

Une was careful not to shift or display any discomfort with Winner's abilities. She knew he was responsible with them, or so all evidence indicated, but she didn't trust him, not the way she needed to in order to be sure in that belief. Still, nine times out of ten Winner knew what he was talking about, be it business, pleasure or war. "It seems then, Miss Catalonia, that you have yourself a job."

The blonde seemed to physically hold back a sigh of relief. "Honestly?"

Une nodded.

"Call me Dorothy, then? The last name gets a bit long."

The pragmatism of the sentiment gave Une the feeling that she'd done the right thing hiring Dorothy. The friendliness of it made her want to cry. "Dorothy it is."

*

Relena said, "Take some coffee with me," and it wasn't a request.

Relena wasn't in the Preventers and technically held no rank over Une, so refusal was possible but it didn't much do to go around pissing off people with a significant amount of power. "All right."

"There's a place a block over."

Une followed as Relena lead them to a café. She chatted with the guy behind the counter for a few seconds, cementing Une's suspicion that this was a regular haunt for the teenager who wasn't really supposed to be leaving her palace, ordered two Ethiopian blends and handed one to Une. "There's cream and sugar in the back."

The cream was cold and smelled fresh. Une poured a bit in, stirred and took a sip. "What do I owe you?"

Relena sat down at a two person table. "I've got it covered."

Une took the other chair. "What is it you need?"

There wasn't a trace of discomfort in Relena's bearing but Une could smell it on her. Relena said, "I believe in Absolute Pacifism. Really believe. I know you don't. Not you nor any of the other pilots save maybe Heero, and only when he's allowing himself to dream. Not even Noin really does, but I do."

Une nodded, waited.

"I regret trying to shoot you."

Une took too large a sip and grimaced as coffee burned over her tongue, down her esophagus. "I would tell you that I'm sorry about your father, and I am, but it won't change anything. I can't bring him back."

"How can I trust you not to hurt anything that gets in the way of your goals?"

Une took a deep breath. "Your conception of me is somewhat incorrectly drawn. I have no goals. I exist to accomplish others' goals."

"In other words, so long as we have you on our side I'll never have to worry?"

"Never might be hyperbolic but I cannot at this moment conceive of a reason why you would need to be concerned."

Relena turned her cup restlessly in between her palms. "You hired Dorothy Catalonia knowing she had once presented a threat to me."

"Yuy once presented a threat to you. If you truly believe in Absolute Pacifism then you must by extension believe in second chances. There can be no peace wherein only inflexible morality reigns. I promise you that."

"Heero was more of a threat to himself than he ever was to me but I see your point."

"Set your mind at rest, Noin will no doubt hound our steps within an inch to see to your safety and that of this world."

Relena grimaced. "I'll speak to her. There's history there that only you and her know of but she listens to me on most issues."

"You don’t owe me that. If anything-"

"I'm done with checking the plus and minus column every day, Une. I hate you for killing my father. I think I always will. Always. But as someone I see every day, you're brilliant, skilled and loyal. And hatred doesn't have much of a place in my life. So I've chosen to box it up and put it somewhere that I can take it out every once in awhile, when I need to. Not at you or anyone else, just for myself. In the meantime, I should like to call myself your friendly acquaintance, if not something more. You do handle issues regarding my safety. Smart on my part to make sure that you actually care."

"That's not a very human reaction."

"Maybe you just haven't known the right humans."

Une flinched. "Don't." She didn't understand why she added the, "Please," but it fell off her tongue clumsily and there was no taking it back.

"I'm forgiving you," Relena said, the vein of stubbornness in her voice so strong that Une thought it was her own for a second.

Une suspected she didn't have any choice but to accept.

*

It didn't particularly surprise Une when Noin showed up at her door no more than a day later. Une didn't invite her inside. "I don't plan on fucking with her head or her offers of…friendship. You can consider this errand run and be on your way."

Noin evidently didn't agree that things were that simple. She stepped in the door and shut it behind her. "Relena does as she will and gets hurt all the more for it than everyone else but that's not what I'm here about."

Une looked at her.

"Well, it's not the entirety of what I'm here about, though perhaps the catalyst."

"Then get to talking, because I have three calls I have to make this afternoon, all of which are going to end in screaming, mostly at me, and I'd like to be getting to that."

Noin said, "I'm sorry about Treize."

Une bit back the urge to throw up. "Right. Thank you, that's very kind."

"You were both my enemies. You because you were his and he because he was Zechs's. Or Zechs was his, I'm not sure. Either way, he was competition. But I couldn't openly hate him due both his rank and the fact that, as I'm sure you noticed, he was very likeable."

Une thought that Noin had no idea what Treize had been. "I, on the other hand, am not."

"You weren't then. You were brusque and harsh and always doing things that bordered on inhumane."

"I suppose that depends what side of the decision making process you're viewing things from." It wasn't as though Une had acted in a vacuum, either. In hating Une, Noin had chosen to despise the action part of Treize, rather than the diplomatic face he presented while Une was off taking care of what had to be done. Une had loved that part of Treize as well, though, so that didn't change anything.

"Killing people results in someone's death, Une, whether you do it for a self-defined righteous goal or not."

Une knew that Noin was being self-referential there, but backed into a corner she threw back, "I suppose Zechs would be the best person to talk to about that."

To her credit, Noin didn't stagger or pale or bite her lip. She did draw a breath so sharply Une waited for blood to flow out on the exhale. Noin said, "If I were ever to see him again, you can be assured that would be high atop my priority lists of things to say to him."

That Une could sympathize with, the way a person could strive for something that was no longer available to her, could plan for a moment that would never come for the sheer need of that chance. Une wondered how Po took the fact of Noin burying passion for her previous lover without actually exhuming it. Not that Une knew Po well but she suspected -- with no little jealousy -- that the woman probably held Noin when she cried, and listened to her list the things that would never be said, and kissed her when it was all over, and forgave. "I would ask Treize why his notions of right and wrong were more important than human life. I would ask him if he'd ever actually been to the colonies. I would tell him I love him, and that I'm sorry for not having doubted him more often."

"There are things that no amount of opposition can change, Une. The two of them were like mountainsides sometimes, possible to move but only with millennia and the aid of powerful natural forces."

Une said, "Given that, we would still try."

Noin's laugh was broken. "As many times as it took, as many times as we were given."

Une said, "I don’t like failing people's faith in me. Not even little girls who understand very little of the world, so little that they still believe it can be a better place. It's just that so very rarely does anyone bother to place any faith in my hands."

"She has."

"I will guard it closely."

Cruelly, Noin left her with, "I think you still believe too."

*

Une woke up after three hours of sleep to a noise that was not her alarm. It took her a minute to recognize the sound but then she got out of bed, padded out to her door, and opened it. "Barton."

"Have anything for breakfast?"

Une looked over at the clock on her wall. It was seven, which was a fair enough hour to expect her to be up and about, she supposed. "Pancakes from a box."

"Wufei's only offering was oatmeal."

Une let him inside. "I take it something's gone wrong?"

"Trade conference on L4 went awry. You and I are on emergency clean up."

It had occurred to Une that peace was more work than war ever was. The work was different and didn't haunt her quite so much, but it kept her up later than even her conscience had once managed. "Why not Winner?"

"We feel it might be a conflict of interest."

"And Chang's probably booked solid, huh?"

Barton shrugged. "I'd rather be here than taking over for him. Even temporarily."

Une headed into the kitchen. She found the box of ready-made pancake mix that only required eggs and water and a frying pan. She rooted through her refrigerator for the box of blueberries she had picked up at the grocery store and threw them on the counter. If Barton minded, he could starve.

"Practically gourmet," he said.

"Wait till you're eating it," she said, because cooking was something she was still learning. Every once in a while, she held long conversations with Treize about why he hadn't thought that an essential skill. Aloud.

Barton said, "The conference was dealing with technical imports and exports from L4 to both other colonies and Earth."

Une thought for a second. "Right, the Gadgets Conference."

"You nickname everything up at HQ?"

"All the conferences. Makes them easier not to forget. An average week holds ten conferences important enough to be put in our files as a 'to watch' scenario. Places range all over Earth's surface and each of the five colonies. When you consider the fact that this is one of the lesser priorities for me, nicknames become crucial."

"Did you handle things similarly in OZ?"

Une broke the egg that she was holding too roughly over the side of the bowl causing half the shell to crumble into the yolk. She swore and threw the contents of the bowl into the sink, rinsing the bowl out. Before she could get back to her refrigerator for a replacement set of eggs Barton was handing them to her. "You want me to do this?"

"Have any experience in a kitchen?"

Barton nodded but didn't elaborate. Une figured the worst he could do was be as bad as her. "I didn't have to think this much in OZ."

Barton cracked both eggs at once and tossed the shells over his shoulder into the sink. "Maybe not at first. When I was there, you did. Or did you spend so much time convincing yourself you weren't thinking that it took up the time you could've used making up nicknames and drawing up alternative plans?"

Une found Barton a fork and handed it to him. "What's your loyalty to Barton? If not OZ, and obviously that was something of a façade, then what?"

Barton poured in the pancake mix and stirred vigorously. He measured a bit of water in straight from the sink, which Une was mortally afraid of doing. She had bought a measuring cup for just such occasions. He stirred and stirred and when the lumps had gone from imperialistic islands to self-contained colonies, fleeing the rule of his fork, he said, "Freedom."

Une wanted to argue that he couldn't be loyal to something he couldn't touch or see but people were loyal to all kinds of things that weren't physical. Country, which was more concept than actual land, independence, divine beings, and yes, she supposed freedom was on that list as well. "What- What does that feel like?"

Barton found a stick of butter in the refrigerator and cut a chunk off with the fork, oiling the pan with it. He let the pan heat while mixing in a healthy dose of the blueberries. He rustled up a spoon from the same drawer she'd found the fork in, and ladeled a bit of the mix onto the heated pan. As it bubbled and browned he said, "Give it some time, you'll get used to the feeling."

Barton gave her the first helping of pancakes, and talked to her about possible compromises that might be used in the negotiations, and Une allowed herself to consider the idea that he might be right, this might be something she could come to understand.

*

Dorothy brought the files on the Free Speech Act that Une had requested down to her office personally. Une spared a smile for her. "Expressing them would've been fine."

Dorothy rolled her eyes. "We haven't seen each other in weeks."

Once Une had been sure she could trust Dorothy she had put her in charge of the Preventers segment that dealt largely with education and information dissemination, the theory being that the more people knew about each other, about war, about resources, everything, the less likely they were to want to jump into a fight. The job kept Dorothy moving from colony to colony almost constantly, which meant that there wasn't much time for her to drop by Une's Earthbound offices.

Une looked at the piles of Things To Be Done, stacked neatly and yet sprawled over every imaginable surface. "Smoothie?" she asked.

"I was hoping you'd say that."

They walked down to the juice bar that was (more than anything else) a truck that frequented the corner by the Preventers HQ with a juicer in the back. Une ordered herself a guava raspberry. Dorothy asked for an apple banana. Une picked up the tab, since Dorothy's salary was paid more in flight and travel expenses than cold hard cash.

The two walked across the street to a bench and sat down. Dorothy took a sip. She looked past Une, staring at something Une didn't care to search for, maybe even nothing. "You think Quatre's with Trowa?"

"Barton's with Chang."

Dorothy choked so explosively on the second sip she'd taken that Une actually put a hand out, preparing to pull the girl to her and execute a little Heimlich if necessary. Dorothy batted the hand away and recovered enough to ask weakly, "You're sure about that?"

Une gave her a look. Dorothy said, "Right, stupid question."

"Winner's single, if that's what you're asking. I think him and Maxwell were a thing for a bit, but they both seem to be over that."

"Duo, really? I thought for sure Duo was straight. He had that big thing with Hilde."

Une had noticed. Everyone had. It hadn't ended well. "Maxwell's kind of anything that comes his way."

"I was going to see if Quatre would consider…um, me, I guess."

Une looked at Dorothy, with her hair braided neatly into pigtails, almost clashing with the figure that was settling into womanhood. "He'd be a fool not to."

"Ah yes, because there aren't roughly three bazillion women and men battling to date one of the richest and cutest men on all five colonies and oh, right, Earth."

Une was out of her depth. She could tell someone how to run a conference, negotiate between two belligerent and even drunk parties, advise on a tactical maneuver, and play conscience to one of the most powerful military heads in the world. Being a friend, however, just someone to talk to, someone to say, "you're amazing," that wasn't her. "But he admires your…strength."

"He's just glad I'm not psycho sword-wielding girl anymore."

Une wouldn't deny that. "Dorothy. You should- You deserve him."

Dorothy cocked her head. "That was a compliment."

"I'm just not good about saying things sometimes." It was an apology.

"You really think that, though, don’t you? You wouldn't say it otherwise."

Une wrapped her hand around one pigtail. "Ask him."

"Yeah," Dorothy agreed, still somewhat dumbstruck, "okay."

*

To Une's severe discomfort, Chang and Barton were cute. It wasn't in the way that she had always expected cute to be should she ever run into it, but all the same, cute was the only word she could find when trying to explain the way Barton's were the only calls Chang would take regardless of where he was or what he was doing. Or the way Barton actually talked about Chang. Not at length, but more than he did about most things.

Po and Noin had an undeniable rhythm of working together, one that could be soothing when things got hectic, and they encouraged each other regularly just to be caring, but it wasn't exactly cute.

Yuy and Relena were both desperately in love with each other and every bit as desperately hesitant in all their moves, words, intentions. It threatened on cute, at times, such as when Relena would hang up the phone and hide her face because it wasn't very mature of such an austere governmental figure to be grinning. It never quite managed though, because there was too much worry involved in everything. Communication between the two of them was some sort of odd, mildly psychotic, ritualistic dance that only they could navigate. It leant everything much higher stakes than the type of courtship that could be referred to as cute.

Dorothy was too vulnerable and Quatre too aware for their fledgling dating game to be thought of as cute. Une suspected it would become so, given enough time, but it wasn't, not quite yet.

The worst part was, when she mentioned this to Noin, Noin laughed. "Seriously? Because I think they're kinda boring. I wonder how they even manage to get it up for each other."

Po shook her head. "I'm with Une. It's the way Trowa walks the long way around the conference table when we call full staff meetings so that he can brush by Wufei before leaving the room."

Which was reassuring, because Po was the only person in the room with a carnal knowledge of either of the subjects being discussed, and Une felt that gave her an extra leg on which to stand. Noin shrugged. "Whatever you say." She kissed Po and headed out to wherever duty called her to next.

Po reached out a hand to squeeze Une's. "Love is always different, you know?"

Une took her hand back. It wasn't that she didn't like Po. The woman was nice enough. She never threw Une's mistakes at her and always made sure Une knew if social events were upcoming. Une was just being careful about how much affectionate contact she allowed herself. It was easier to survive on none at all than only small bits, and since small bits were the only thing on offer, Une knew better than to take them. "Right, I know that."

"Then why do you watch all of us as if we're bionic and you want to figure out exactly how our mechanisms are assembled?"

"Treize and Zechs were different. I'm just learning, is all. I can stop. I didn't realize you noticed." Une wondered when she'd begun slipping and why nobody had told her about it until just now. She hoped it wasn't extending to other things.

"Treize and Zechs," Po said.

"They were-"

"I know, Luc does talk to me." Po waited for something, but whatever it was, Une wasn't supplying. "Haven't you ever…?"

"I'm not a virgin."

"No, I mean, more than sex?"

Une sought her coldest tone. When she'd found it, she said, "I seduced a man at Treize's orders. Then I killed him. That and what I observed of Treize's indiscretions are what I know of love."

To her credit, Po didn't flinch or even back up. She asked, "That's what makes Wufei and Trowa so good for you, isn't it? It's all under the surface."

"It's friendship," was what Une told her after a long, surprisingly comfortable silence.

"Oh." Po nodded. "Right."

She squeezed Une's shoulder before she left, uninvited and all too terribly welcome.

*

Noin was speaking too fast for things to be all right. Une said, "Stop, stop, I can't understand."

Noin's breathing was heavy. "They've. Taken. Relena."

Une inched closer to the wastebasket. The upsurge of nausea was unexpected but not something she couldn't handle. "Who's They?"

There was some muttering on the other end of the line that Une knew wasn't meant for her. She took several deep breaths. She'd negotiated hostage situations successfully before. Relena being the hostage didn't change anything. Her…friend being the person who was at stake in all of this was far less important than the fact of Relena's stature. She was still talking herself into this when Noin finally answered her. "The leaders of the group that's making demands seem to be Dekkim Barton and Mariemeia Khushenrada."

Barton was no surprise. "Treize didn't have any relatives."

"You should sit down," Noin said.

Une did, mostly because it got her closer to the wastebasket should the need to use it arise. "He didn't, Noin. I worked with the man for over six years, don't you think it would've been mentioned at some point?"

"I don't think he knew about this one."

Une wondered what it was about these people that made them lose and pick up relatives like buttons on a sweater. "Who is she?"

"His daughter."

"Can you give me a second?" Une pulled the phone away from her ear to go through every curse she knew, sparing no language and no thought to decency. "All right, how old is she and who's the mother and where the fuck did she show up from?"

"Eight, Dekkim's daughter, and I suspect he's had her the whole time and has just kept a lid on things."

"One impressive lid. Zechs was in and out of that place for years, so were several of our intelligence kids."

"Kids are easy to hide. Nobody thinks about them much. They never seem to present much danger."

Une knew all that, of course. She was the one who had become an aide-de-camp at thirteen for that very reason. Still, with this girl threatening at their figurehead, most likely in order to take over where Relena would leave off but with a lot less smiling and lot more gunpower, it felt like an awfully big thing to have missed. "We'll need the Gundams, before they reach the star."

"Wufei called Quatre this morning. Him and the Maguanacs are on it."

"Are you coming here or should I come there?"

"We're on our way to you, stay put."

Une hung up the phone, hoisted herself off the floor, and turned on every television she could to get a glimpse of this girl for whose biological line Une would have killed.

*

If Une had watched bad TV, she would have recognized the moment that Zechs showed up alive and relatively sane as the point at which the writers had just completely allowed the plot to run them over. Unfortunately for her, she had only seen a few episodes of sitcoms here and there, and all she could think was that a laugh track must be playing somewhere just out of her range of hearing.

She wanted to say, "If you've come to destroy the world, you'll just have to get in line," but they were a little short on help and the situation hung on the threatening side of things so she asked, "Got a couple of hours?"

He looked like he was thinking about it. Whatever had been on his mind he must have dismissed it, because he caught her eyes and said, "Tell me what to do."

Une wasn't entirely sure where to start, so a warning seemed as good a place as any. "Don't get anywhere near Noin."

"I have apologies-"

"Make them when she has time to listen and think it over and then go back to the woman that she's happily in love with. Clear?"

Zechs nodded. "Indeed. My Lady."

The pain was so sharp that she didn't feel it for a second. Then it took everything she had to stay standing upright. "I go by Une. You'll need to get in touch with Chang. He's coordinating with Yuy on the actual rescue action. I'm back here playing diplomat."

"Playing?"

"I want Dekkim dead, by my hand or any other. I think that end goal pretty much negates any true validity I hold as an agent of negotiations."

"And me, when this is all over?"

There was a knife at the small of Une's back that she could reach and throw and hit anything she wanted within the space of the time it would take Zechs to notice she was shifting positions. Between her shoulder blades lay the newest in the Glock line and nestled near her ankle was the tiniest of the Smith & Wesson line, both accessible with a mere flick of her body. Star blades were wrapped easily in her hair, pins that could be used to block important blood flow points stuck fashionably in her bracelet, poison blow darts patched on with a bit of "skin" to her neck. Even with all this, her hands were the deadliest weapon she had on her, followed closely by her legs. As he was still alive, Une figured she had a reason for wanting him that way. "You'll buy me a smoothie, any flavor I want, any time I want, and you'll tell me your side of it. If I can sympathize, or at the very least understand, I'll let you go. If not, well, I'll pick something creative that will satisfy the need I have to kill someone. Chang has turned out to be disappointingly… innocent." It wasn't the right word but it was the only description she could think of for the reasons why she hadn't killed him. The only description that she would allow Zechs to hear.

After all that, Zechs actually negotiated with her. "Breakfast, I'll buy you breakfast."

It was the right bargain. "You may have just saved your life."

"With me and him and the world, it was never about you."

It should have felt exclusionary, like she was being left out of something that she had every right to. Instead, it felt like an apology of just the right sort. "Go find your baby sister."

*

Une wasn't used to conflict being over practically before it had begun, but that was how the whole Mariemeia thing felt. It hadn't been. By the time it was all over she hadn't seen the proper side of a bed in nearly a week. Even when the immediate threat had been averted there was organizing to do. Mariemeia obviously couldn't be entrusted in the hands of the Bartons, which meant she would have to be put elsewhere, and Une positively refused to see any child of Treize's -- mildly psychotic or no -- put in an institution.

After a considerable screaming match for the two of them, neither of them really being the type to raise their voice much, Chang let Une off the hook. "Fine. You take care of the girl, I'll take care of Relena. Who is, let me just point out, still our priority."

Une rubbed quickly at her eyes. "You're perfectly fucking capable of dealing with the situation, Chang. You and the million other people who are going to want to lock her in a cage. I just want a couple of days to deal with a child that everybody is going to disclaim so that she doesn't end up in some place where child is another word for free manual labor and an object upon which aggressions can be taken out."

Chang looked at her sharply. For a second she thought he was going to say something unforgivable but in the end he only inclined his head. "Talk to Duo, all right? He spends a lot of time placing orphans. He might have some suggestions."

Even with the motivation of getting Mariemeia settled, it took her a good day to pick up the phone and call the boy that she had once almost tortured to ask for help in alleviating the sufferings of a girl who would have killed him and all he held dear. Her worry was wasted however, because when she said, "Maxwell? This is Une, Chang told me you might be able to help-" he interrupted with, "The girl? I've already been thinking about it. You willing to meet up? This isn't really a conversation I want to have on lines that could be compromised."

Une wanted to argue that she was too thorough for someone to be bugging them but there was always someone better, Une knew, so she said, "Lunch?"

Maxwell gave her the name of a place and insisted they go there, since he actually knew how to get to it. "Besides, they have these fruit tart things that are beyond belief."

"You like fruit tarts?"

"I like anything that goes down and stays down but I have it on good authority that you actually have favorites."

Une frowned at being made to sound bourgeois, because she knew perfectly well how it felt to appreciate anything and everything edible, thank you very much. The more immediate issue however was who had told him that. There weren't that many options. Chang and her were friends but not in a way wherein he would know things like that. Dorothy and Maxwell still weren't precisely on speaking terms, or at least not anything more than superficial speaking. Winner was never around, and Yuy was too busy concentrating on how to communicate with Relena to worry about anyone else. Which left Relena and Barton as the two people most likely to have spilled. Une took a shot in the dark. "Barton talks too fucking much."

Maxwell laughed. "That's probably the first time he's ever been accused of that. Besides, he just said you liked blueberry's in your flapjacks. I'm the one who read your files and deduced."

"My files are confidential."

"Yeah, well, maybe you should get yourself a better tech security system."

The security on the computers was just fine. Top of the line, even. Maxwell had roomed with Mr. Hacker Extraordinaire Yuy, though, and Une knew it to be the prerogative of every street rat to learn everything available to him. At least she had read his file as well, it leant a bit of equal footing to the situation. "I'll see what I can do. Noon tomorrow?"

"Don’t be late."

*

Une wasn't late. Maxwell was, but he made up for it by promising to pick up the bill. She told him he didn't have to, technically they were on Preventer business and the organization would pay for it, but he insisted. "It's not like they have much more money than either of us."

Une's smile was cold. "You'd be amazed what a bit of a threat to rather new stability and universal economy can do. In the last week we've had donors pouring in our doors. The UC," United Council, which had taken the place of the Federation as a governing organization liaising between Earth and the now independent colonies, "is looking into fitting us into their budget for the next year."

"Unsurprising," Maxwell said. The hostess approached and he asked her if they could be seated by the windows. Asked, cajoled, practically seduced. Une pretended not to make the distinction. When they were seated, Maxwell nearly apologized, "I don't like being in the middle of crowds."

Une didn't particularly either and it was always nice to be able to know what was going on in the surrounding environs, so she just nodded. "This is perfect."

"Should we talk about the girl, or dispense with issues that need dispensing first?"

Une surveyed her menu and made a choice. "Chang says that what I did then is exactly that."

"Which you tell me in a tone of voice that suggests you want to believe but don't, at all."

Une wanted to be cautious. She still knew that reading a person wrong was as useless as not reading him at all. "But you do believe it."

"If I had to believe that our past actions are all we're worth, and that nothing we do after them can affect anything, then I would have to define myself as a thief, a whore, street trash, and never anything more. Understand if my desire to broaden that definition is considerable."

A waiter approached and they both ordered, handing him their menus. When he receded, Une said, "So just like that, you forgive what I did."

"What you would've done, you didn't really have much time to start your games. Lucky for me you're a patient girl. But yes, I do. I think-" Maxwell cut himself off with a quick shake of his head.

Une considered asking what he thought but allowed him his privacy. "You said you might have a solution for Mariemeia?"

"One of Quatre's sisters is a regular at adopting kids who have been in the system already. I realize that Mariemeia hasn't but I sense she probably has a lot of the same problems those types of children usually do. Irina financed her own education since she came a bit late in the outpouring of girls and Quatre's father had begun refusing to pay for them all. She specialized in political science and spent several years lobbying for easier access for women in education and better paying jobs.

"She met her husband, Mal, at the capitol, he was also a lobbyist, but for working class rights. They were married and tried to have children. It never worked out and because they actually love each other, they skipped right over trying to place the blame and figured that there were more than enough kids without families to go around.

"Two kids in they both quit their day job and started a non-profit out of their house to help single-parent families financially and mentally, which is what they're still currently doing. At the moment there are three children in the house, two from L4, both adopted at an age older than five, currently fifteen and thirteen, and one from L2 that was shipped to them practically at birth and who is currently a little over a year old.

"Irina and Mal are fine with having another kid in the house, they've dealt with five at once in previous years, some of whom were half-way kids and are now with other parents but still visit, and many of whom are around Mariemeia's age. I think it'll be good for her socially and in every other way. Plus, she'll have the protection of older siblings and the responsibility of a younger one."

Une considered how much thinking taking care of every possible issue that could arise with Mariemeia had taken. "You do this a lot."

"This is about forty percent of my job. L2's drowning in unwanted kids of all ages. Another twenty percent is trying to construct adequate places to keep those kids in the interim of being displaced and finding homes, and another twenty finding people to finance things like vaccinations, proper nutrition, clothing, etc."

"And the other twenty percent?"

"Helping create legislation to protect the kids, both in the act of being displaced and while they're existing in that state."

"So, when do you sleep?"

Maxwell laughed. "I told Heero thanks for inviting me up here for this, it was like a nice little vacation."

"I'm surprised you're still here to talk to."

"Heero needs me. I keep him sane." He said it completely without conceit, as a matter of fact, just knowing who he was to the other man. "I miss the others. That's the worst part of it. When I get desperate enough I'm probably gonna start making shit up that causes Wufei to need to swing out my way. He'll kill me, but I'll die happy."

"Why don’t you hold off on that, see if I can find a better way for you to see each other more often?"

Maxwell caught her eyes for a second, trying to read her intentions. "Touching."

It was a test. Une kept her voice even. "I find the five of you to be just that."

One breath from Maxwell broke the tension and he asked her on the successive breath in, "You maybe wanna do this again?"

"Trying to place the severely damaged offspring of my former employee who's no longer with us and evidently never knew of said offspring?"

"I meant lunch but if you ever need me to take care of that, I suppose it's not a problem."

The food chose that moment to arrive and Une took a second to gather herself, poising her silverware perfectly over her dish. "Lunch? Like a date?"

"Not as much like as actually a date." Maxwell smiled. "You don't have to say yes. That's why it's considered asking."

"Nobody ever has," Une said, even though she hadn't been meaning to. Her thoughts weren't real keen on staying in her brain right at that moment. "I mean, yes."

Maxwell was kind enough not to say anything about the slip. "Awesome."

*

It was all well and good that Maxwell had asked for a repeat performance but in reality it was near impossible for the two of them to meet up. In the end, after a month and a half of trying, Maxwell sent Barton into her with the message, "I've been bribed to take over for you long enough to allow for an overnighter on L2."

Une wasn't about to turn down the opportunity but she also wasn't leaving without asking, "What'd he bribe you with?"

Barton barely managed to keep his one visible eye on her. "Nothing."

Which only made Une more curious. She gave him all her notes, talked him through things that had to be done within the next twenty-four hours, then walked aboard Granny and got herself to colony hopping. The "winning" side had impounded Granny as a spoil of war, and Une was pretty sure she had Chang to thank for her return, but it was one of those things she was afraid to ask. She preferred to just believe she was right.

She landed in the Preventers Yards on L2, since she had twenty-four/seven authorization to use those pads. Maxwell worked out of a government building that was about six blocks over. Une walked. The four hour trip there hadn't been quite enough time to control the chorus of panic that currently was her brain.

The six blocks didn't manage it either but if there was one thing Une knew how to do, it was to smile and say, "Hi," like it was seventy-five degrees and sunny and the only topic up for conversation was the weather. It was slightly more challenging with Maxwell wearing frayed jeans and a cotton blue t-shirt and looking like a guy rather than a demented religious death machine. She managed.

Maxwell pushed his bangs out of his eyes, wrote, "get hair cut" on the ridge of his thumb, and shook her hand while the ink was still drying. "Hey, you made it."

"What'd you promise Barton?"

Maxwell's smile was pure evil. "A little something to keep Wufei coming back."

"Chang would pick his heart out of his body with a plastic screwdriver before leaving Barton."

"You know this, and I know this, but somebody forgot to let Trowa in on that little secret, so in the meantime, the profit is all mine."

Une grinned, she could appreciate a little harmless profiteering as much as the next girl. Considering that she could at times appreciate harmful profiteering, she suspected it might even be a little more than the next girl. "I take it this is going to be dinner, rather than lunch?"

"Fate evidently wants us to move faster than we had planned. It's all right, though, I hear breakfast is the Real Thing when it comes to you."

Une wasn't sure there was any Real Thing, or at least not only one when it came to her, but the way he said it sounded comfortable and fun, so she nodded. "Strawberry crepes, no less."

"You might be slightly classier than I can afford."

"I might be good at settling."

Maxwell grabbed a jacket that looked as broken in as the rest of his outfit. He offered it to her. "The weather controls are on the fritz again."

She refused. "Takes a lot to get to me."

He pulled his arms through the sleeves. "I've noticed."

*

"You switched the control panel?" Maxwell paused with his drink half-way to his mouth.

Une considered this action wise on his part, as from the little that she had learned to read in him, he was about to crumble into hysterical laughter. "Seemed the most reasonable thing to do at the time."

The grin, the predecessor of all that mirth, came to Maxwell's lips. "If by reasonable, you mean devious and time consuming but likely to get him to pay attention."

Une shook her head. "Nah, there was a trick to the panels in most lower-level OZ bases. If you knew it, it didn't take more than ten minutes to dismantle and another ten minutes to put up a new one. Of course, the one you were supposed to put up would function correctly, rather than relaying the bawdy conversations one was having with one's fellow officers to one's superiors but I was once told that divinity lies in details."

Maxwell put his drink down and gave in to the giggles. Loud, racking ones. When he had regained his breath, he said, "I've been told that once or twice as well. Man, remind me never to piss you off."

Une fingered her silverware, used and neatly placed at the center of her plate. Maxwell said, "You weren't really pissed off then, just hired to do a job."

Because there was a slight note of nerves in his voice that hadn't been present the second before, and because Une found herself disliking it, she let the issue go. "All right, 'fess up. Nasty practical jokes played on colleagues."

Maxwell widened his eyes. "Where to start?"

It was a rhetorical question but because she had always wondered Une asked, "Was that what shooting Yuy was about?"

To her surprise the question occasioned another laugh from Maxwell. "No, I thought I was protecting 'Lena. Foolish me, not realizing that his threats to kill her were actually a sort of buried passion trained into a psychotic inability to express himself in a socially acceptable manner. I figured it out quickly enough, though."

Une envied him. She still had trouble reading Yuy, even on the days when he was willing to expend more than two words on anyone who wasn't Relena. "All right. You still owe me then."

"I hid Nataku once."

Trust him to find something that would beat her story twice running and still be doing laps. "And you're still alive to tell the tale?"

"I'm not sure Wufei has identified the truth of the matter to this day. So I've pretty much entrusted you with my life, here."

Une leaned into the table. "Why'd you do it?"

Maxwell tilted his head. "During the war…sometimes one or two of us would end up at the same safe house. I don't know if the others needed it as badly as I needed it but man, when one of the others would drop out of the sky-"

Une could sense the hesitation in his narrative, the pause about to come and she reassured him, "I know."

He said, "Maybe you do," and sounded like he was willing to entertain the possibility. "Anyway. Wufei was better than nobody but when things were just starting out, oh man, he could be rigid. I got used to it though, sort of figured out what was beneath the starch and then in the middle of things he would start emerging from missions in this funk. I couldn't explain it then, not until the end when…I'm about to put my foot in my mouth."

"When you realized that Treize and him had been sleeping together," Une said.

"When I realized that he'd been a little bit in love."

"That must've been hard on his own codes of morality."

"I think… I think Khushenrada got him to see that love doesn't come where we would will it to. For that, I wish I'd gotten to thank him."

"Despite everything?"

Maxwell said, "I rather love Wufei. Although I'd prefer if you didn't mention that either."

Une swallowed a breath. "So you hid his Gundam?"

"I just wanted to get him to think of something other than what he was thinking about. Something that would motivate him, not drag at him. I grew up watching out for other kids. Second nature and all."

"Did it work?"

Maxwell smiled but it wasn't an easy smile. It was a smile with its own special kind of knowledge, the kind that can't be explained but is still possible for certain people to understand. Une understood. Maxwell said, "He survived his next mission."

Une asked, "Where'd you hide it?"

Then the first grin was back, the easy, well-amused grin. "A gentleman has to have some secrets, doesn't he?"

"A gentleman might," Une said.

*

"Let me at least walk you back to your ship," Maxwell said, after Une had sweet-talked the waitress into letting her pay the bill. "It'll calm my raging masculine ego, so summarily dismissed by your actions."

Une was not impressed. "You just want to see Granny."

Maxwell didn't take getting caught too badly. "A boy hears things."

"And what has this boy heard?"

"That you know a thing or two about ships. That this one probably started out cool and you've made it a point to make it steadily cooler."

Une wondered who exactly was talking. She didn't think of herself as having any particular technical genius but she loved flying and she loved things that she could consider hers and as such, Granny was by far her most prized possession. She was assiduous in not thinking about the other reason why she clung so tightly to the ship. There was value in grieving, she knew, but only to a certain extent. "You can take a look. You might be disappointed after the hype I've evidently been getting."

Une turned to walk in the direction of the ship, Maxwell catching up to her easily.

"Heero's not really one to exaggerate. Not even when he likes you, and I'm not sure you've quite made that qualification with him."

Every once in a while something would happen -- like hearing that the Boy Wonder had assessed her ship with only one or two glances, since she knew that was all he'd had -- that would remind her how dangerous Heero Yuy was. In a twisted way, it reassured her. Relena was most likely safe so long as he stayed loyal. He didn't seem the type to change sides often. "He can be somewhat beholden to certain definitions of people."

"He actually has the ability not to think in terms of black and white it's just…he has to exert more effort than the average person. The doctor who programmed Heero -- and I know they call it other things, I know they say it was training and shit like that but it wasn't and we both know it so let's leave off the bullshit, right -- anyway, they completely fucked up his way of processing thought. You and me, if we want to answer a question, whether presented to us or thought up internally, we go through the possible answers that we can conceive of and settle on the one that we find the most likely or pleasing. Heero can't do that. His perception of what is possible is significantly blunted. The difference from where he started out is that he realizes it now, and is willing to turn to Relena or me or one of the other pilots to be told what the other options are. From there he can usually determine which is the correct one, although that took a long time and a considerable amount of 'retraining,' I suppose, as well."

They reached Granny and Une let her hand hover over the keypad. "That's a lot of trust he places in you, in the others."

She expected Maxwell to shrug it off, act blasé about the entire thing, or pretend to not understand. Instead he said, "An enormous amount. He's brave, Heero. A million things other than that but brave as all get out. I get jealous at times."

Une's hand fell on the keypad. The door hissed open and she said over the sound of the air release, "You?"

Maxwell smiled. "Not used to thinking of me as the jealous type?"

Une stepped onto the ship. "More not used to thinking of you as anything other than brave. I don’t imagine you ever saw Deathscythe in a battle but I generally got used to thinking of you as by far the most bold of the pilots."

"Bold and brave are two very different things. And it's not that I'm a coward, I just don’t have the depth of courage that Heero does. His spans both the emotional and the physical. May I come in?"

Une, who sometimes forgot what it meant to be paid simple courtesies, blinked. "Oh. Please."

Maxwell swung inside the door. Une had expected him to (feared that he would) take over the space in the odd way that such a relatively small man (boy) had of filling every place he went. Somehow, though, as if he sensed her worry, he held back in on himself. It wasn't unnatural, he just seemed to fit instead of bursting. His gaze traveled quickly around the immediate interior and he said, "Pretty little thing, isn't she?"

Granny had been given compliments before. People sometimes said things about her strength, her compactness, her maneuverability, even her design. What nobody had ever thought to mention was that she was pretty. Gorgeous even, if Une had been the one to say something. Une took a hard look at Maxwell and said, "Yes, she is. Very."

*
March, After Colony 197

"So," Dorothy smiled the way she did when she hadn't gotten enough sleep, which was generally all the time, "Duo's been calling you a lot."

Une made a concerted effort not to even pause in what she was doing. "I thought I paid you to do useful things."

"I suppose that depends on what you consider useful."

"Somehow going through your superiors phone records doesn't enter into that definition for me."

Dorothy smacked Une's arm. "Hey. I date one of his best friends, remember? Arguably the one he talks to the most. Or at least, actually tells the most."

"Winner talks to you about Maxwell?"

"No, Quatre talks to me about Duo." Dorothy emphasized both their names. "For fuck's sake, Une, you talk with him practically every day."

"We're colleagues, I talk with a lot of people practically every day."

"Yes, but you don’t talk to them."

"Well, as I'm not entirely certain what talking to as opposed to with someone entails, I couldn't tell you."

Dorothy sat back, away from Une. "Since when are you such a liar?"

Une's head snapped up at the accusation. "How does my discussing semantics with you make me a liar?"

"Because you know Une. Look, I don't know that much about what happened during the war, or before it. I mean, sometimes there were whispers about you, Khushenrada's little puppet, Khushenrada's little proto-Geisha, Khushenrada's little killer-robot, sometimes worse, sometimes said with a tone of hushed respect, whatever, they were all names that meant nobody really knew anything. So like I said, I'm clueless as to what we're actually fighting about right now. What I do know is that you're not stupid. Regardless of previous experience or lack thereof you know what's happening between you and Duo. Which means that either you don't trust me enough to discuss it with me, in which case I would prefer that you were merely honest about it, or you're avoiding it for other reasons."

Une, who could count the number of people who had wanted her trust in all her twenty years on one hand and still have fingers to spare, said, "It's the latter."

"Then what?"

Une tried to pay attention to the report in front of her, thinking this would be better if she could just have something else to think about while she talked. It wasn't working. "I've never… Well, I mean, I have of course slept with somebody but it wasn't really…not what I think I'd like to do with Maxwell."

"Duo. You're talking about having sex with him, Une, use his first name."

"Duo. It doesn't change anything."

"It changes everything. How can you expect yourself to do anything if you can't even relax enough to use a name that he's free in the giving of?"

"I didn't have to the time before."

"I think, from the small amount of completely uncontextual clues that I'm being given here, that the time before may have been a mistake."

"It was a mission, there's a difference."

Dorothy stilled for a moment. "Une. Une. Duo's not a mission."

"Why do you think I'm so terrified?" Une pushed the words out before she could erect the barriers that would keep them caught inside where she couldn't even say them to Max- Duo, who probably really needed to hear them.

"Maybe you and him are talking about all the wrong things."

Une thought about the things they talked about. About his secret love of weeds and the fact that even though he knew it was good for him, he really despised yoghurt, something about the idea of willingly putting live bacteria into his body, and that he wanted to name his first child Solo, regardless of biological sex, and that he was taking dance lessons with one of the girls that he hadn't been able to place yet, because it was the only way to get her to open up. About the way she had a hard time deciding whether she liked tangerines or pears better and this was a major issue for her, and she thought she'd make a good pet owner, and she was good at being active in the mornings but she'd really much rather sleep until noon and then lay abed for at least another hour. "No, I think we're talking about all the right things. We just haven't gotten to that part yet."

"Your mind has."

"Sometimes it gets ahead of me."

"Maybe you should mention that that's happened."

Une shook her head. "I don't have any clue what he's thinking."

"Trust me, Une, he's thinking about that."

Une was about to protest but Dorothy's eyes were secretive in a way that Une had yet to learn to be secretive. There weren't many of those left.

*

Une looked at the clock on her phone as she was picking it up. "It's three fifty-four in the morning. What are you doing awake at a time like this?"

"Thinking about you. What are you wearing?" Maxwell panted a little bit, heavy and overdone.

"Nothing to merit that response." Une laughed.

"You'd be surprised what gets me going. I've been trying to place a kid. There's a considerable time distance on Orchis Prime."

"You work with OP?" Orchis Prime, commonly thought of as OP, was a system over. The language couldn’t be translated by computer technology as of yet, so unless a person knew how to speak it, or was working with someone who could speak an Earthian/Colonial language, nothing was going to happen. There weren't many Orchidians who concerned themselves with anything outside their system.

"They're not a very virile people. It's easier to find adults in search of kids. Lack of religion helps keep the population down, as it turns out."

Orchidians didn't have any sort of social structures, at least not in the sense that humans viewed them. "Do you speak Orchidian?"

"Sorta kinda. The Orc I work with is much better at speaking English. Between the two of us we muddle through."

"So what are you doing calling me if you're supposed to be finding good little children homes?"

"I already found one, if you insist on knowing, and oh, I just thought you might appreciate a call. You never sleep, so I wasn't really worried that I'd miss you."

"What if I had been sleeping?" Une asked with a demanding tone to her voice.

"Hence my brilliant plan of calling your office."

"I've been thinking about calling you Duo."

"I've been thinking I would like that."

"Really?" Une frowned, sensing he would get the gist by way of her pitch. "Why didn't you say something?"

"I thought maybe you needed to sort things out on your own. I know people pretty well but you're kind of a hard read."

"Safer that way."

Duo said, "I'm not a threat."

Une said, "You're calling me at four in the morning asking what I'm wearing. How do you define threat?"

"Three fifty-four you big exaggerator. And threatening was if I'd shown up at your door at this point not caring what you were wearing."

"Maybe that would make it easier, actually," Une paused, "the having it over bit."

"Maybe I'm never gonna sleep with you ever if that's the way you feel about it."

Une rubbed a hand over her eyes. She was tired and achey and this was probably the last time she should be having this conversation. Then again, in exhaustion came truth, perhaps even more so than wine. It was heartbreakingly evident that a whole bunch of all three was probably going to be needed. "I didn't mean it like that."

"I should come see you."

"You're busy."

"I didn't say I would immediately be able to. I said I should."

Une pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her head on them, comfortable with nobody watching her. "I'd like that."

"That was what I needed to know."

*

"Duo has this quirk-"

"Duo has a lot of quir-" Une looked up to see Barton holding a bouquet of what appeared to be candy apples. "-ks."

"He doesn't trust the postal system."

"Not so quirky. L2's postal system is just now getting to where seventy percent of packages, letters and documents actually make it to the correct addressee. Their motto is 'when we do it, we do it well.'"

"If Duo's the one who told you that, he was lying."

"No, I hacked their intranet. It's an in-joke."

"What could you have possibly needed from the L2 postal system's intranet?"

"I was researching L2."

Barton didn't move.

"Treize was big on being thorough."

"There are days when my relief that you're on our side is so intense as to be well past painful."

Une evaded that issue. "Do you want to set that down?" She cleared a spot on her desk, wincing as she moved piles of comms onto piles of other comms. Barton set the array of apples drenched in all sorts of confectionary artery-blockers in the space and sat down across from her.

She waited for a few minutes, casually continuing what she had been doing until it became obvious that she was the one who was going to have to initiate conversation. "Is there something we need to talk about?"

Barton's lips tightened marginally. "Are you going to send him a thank you?"

"Not through the L2 post. Relena's doing a colony tour in a week and a half. I'll send it with Yuy. I wasn't raised by wolves."

Barton opened his mouth. Without looking up, Une said, "Don't. Not unless you want this to become about something other than you being protective of a man who can more than protect himself."

"It's not just him we're concerned about." Barton's voice was bitter and amused in a way that Une had heard before but never directed at her.

Une put the comm that she'd been working on aside. "Well there's not really anyone else- Oh."

"Don't illustrate my point for me, or anything."

"What can I say that will reassure you?" Oddly, Une found herself meaning it. It was hard to remember the last time she'd honestly considered the emotions of someone outside of herself and Treize. Even that had melded into self-interest after awhile.

"On what account?" Barton asked, but it was obviously rhetorical. "I've got a friend who had an awful, wrenching break up with his ex because she couldn't come to terms with his past in any meaningful way who's now wooing a girl who probably won't blink at that but will be practically batting her eyes apurpose at simple things like kissing. I want to approve and pretend that it's out of my range of polite interest but my relationship with Duo is far from polite."

Une said something that would never have worked with Treize, even though it had been the truth most of the time. "I'm trying my best."

Barton didn't exactly dismiss it out of hand. Not exactly. "If we didn't believe that we wouldn't be talking. Yuy'd have killed you first chance he got."

The abrupt pronoun change made Une ache, half with wistfulness, half with fear at what she was attempting. She chose to deal with the only concrete issue she had found in this mess. "Hilde couldn't deal with his past?"

"Hilde only had to make one decision in her life and it wasn't whether to peddle her ass for other kid's lives or not." Barton looked squeamish. "He mentioned that, right?"

Somewhere along the way Duo had but it had been long after Une had done all her research on him. The pilot whose history had been so nearly impossible to track down during the war was only slightly less so with some context clues to go on but she had managed it. "He's done more ethically questionable things."

"Not if you were raised a Protestant."

"I was raised Catholic."

"In the same way he was. With your tongue firmly lodged in your cheek and your fingers crossed behind you back."

"He believes."

"In a mutated way, I suppose."

"More than I do," Une said.

"Isn't that perhaps the whole of the problem?" Barton asked.

Which gave her what he wanted to hear, even if he didn't know it. "He's different."

"How?"

Une carefully extricated one of the apples from the bouquet. It was drenched in a dark caramel. She twirled the stick in her fingers. "When I was twelve, a man came and took me out of a life I thought I'd die in. He gave me some fruit and the implication that he believed I could fulfill the role he needed me to play."

Barton nodded slowly. "Which you did, quite admirably."

Une's smile was a tight flexing of her lips. "Duo believes."

"Amazingly enough."

Une huffed softly. She held the apple out to Barton. "Share?"

*

Une was asleep this time when she picked up the phone next to her bed but middle-of-the-night phone calls were nothing horribly unusual in her line of work and she was nearly professional at being awake by the first ring. "Une here."

"I woke you up."

If the words had been in any other tone she would have suspected they were apologetic or even amused. They were shaky, though, like someone coming off a high. Only Duo didn't do drugs. He never had, even when it probably would've been considerably easier on his day-to-day outlook. "Duo?"

"Needed someone to talk to," he said, and it was apologetic, if in a severely panicked sort of way.

Her first question was a rather overwhelmed why me? Not the why me of a why have you woken me up sort but of a there are at least four other people who would take a call from you right now without blinking sort. "You want me to talk?"

"Please."

Une ignored the spark of incipient heat that Duo's manners always sent licking at the tips of her fingers and the nape of her neck. "The only apple that I could get Wufei to partake of was the cinnamon one. Cinnamon's the only treat I know of at all that he'll even entertain the notion of eating."

"It's a heat thing. He likes chocolate covered chilies too."

"The L4 boys on the bases used to have a trade going in those. You would have thought they were in prison. The things you could get for just one were somewhat indecent."

"How indecent?"

"I only used my stockpile in emergency situations."

"And you never had to bargain for any yourself?"

Treize would have killed her. Using those boys was one thing, fraternizing something completely else. "I'm a very careful person."

"Does that extend to all things?"

Une thought about the question. "Give me an example."

"Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night unsure of where and even if where you are really is a place and not the dream that you're pretty sure you just left?"

Une wanted to ask where Duo dreamt about. It wasn't that she necessarily wanted the answer. In fact, she was relatively sure she didn't. She just desired the comfort level of knowing she was allowed to ask. "Sometimes I wake up entirely sure I never left St. Angela's."

"There's just one?"

"Just one that counts. The others…nothing's quite as scary as the thought of having stagnated at that point."

"I should know better than to envy you." His voice made it clear that he did all the same.

"What does it feel like to cuddle?" It wasn't exactly the question that she really wanted to ask but it would certainly do in its stead.

"Point taken."

"Answer me all the same."

"It's not something I can-" Duo grunted in frustration. "I'll just have to show you."

"It'd be different, waking up to you. You were never there at St. Angela's."

"My bed was never in most of the places I wake afraid to still find myself in."

That was usually how Une centered herself. "I imagine another human being is a whole level of different."

"You must imagine a lot at this point."

There had only been small points in her life when Une's imagination hadn't been a driving force, and even then, it had been a strongly mentally enforced choice on her part. "Keeps me off the streets."

"At least the real ones."

"Those."

"Une?" Duo asked.

"Yeah?"

"I'm sleepy."

Une grinned. "Good."

*

Duo's head popped around the door to Une's office, the one she kept open as much as humanly possible. He said, "I'm giving a grand tour, can I include your place?"

It took Une a second to gather her thoughts, as he hadn't mentioned any upcoming visits in their last conversation approximately four hours before. "Grand tour?"

Duo took a few steps into the center of her door. Behind him, a child of six or so followed, firmly attached to his right leg. Duo bent down, loosening the child with an ease born of long practice. "Ru, this is Une. She's my girlfriend. Isn't she pretty?"

Une wanted to ask when she'd become Duo's girlfriend and why she hadn't been consulted on her change of status. She even, somewhat ridiculously, wondered if that made him her boyfriend. She decided rather quickly that it did. Ru looked up at her before giving a quick nod and hiding her face in Duo's torso, now on a level wherein that was possible. Duo petted the small page boy hair-cut that framed the little girl's somewhat chubby face. "Une, this is Ru. We're here to meet her family."

Duo's eyes moved up slightly in a motion that Une had once asked Winner about. Winner had said, "Duo still prays."

Since Ru didn't seem very breakable, Une tapped her shoulder. "Do you like grapes?"

Ru brought her face up to consider Une. After several moments of deliberation, Ru nodded her head slowly. Une held out a hand. "C'mon, I'll show you where all the big kids go to have fun."

Seeing that Ru was firmly encased, one hand in each of theirs, Une took the back way out of her office and through the inner hallways that required just a little more access than Duo probably had in this building. She was breaking about thirty of the organization's rules just by letting him back there but he wasn't missing a step, so either he'd hacked their files and memorized the layout (not an unlikely argument) or someone else had taken him back this way before. Une would have bet good money on it being the latter.

They reached the staff lounge and Une lifted Ru up onto the counter, which delighted the little girl to no end. Une handed Ru the bag of grapes that Une had packed for herself that morning. Duo asked her, "You have more at home?"

"They sell them here, in things called grocery stores. We're working on getting you a few out on 2 in a bit."

"A real live grocery store? I'll believe it when I see it."

Une tried sifting through everything she wanted to ask. Some of it was about Ru, well on her way to having perennially sticky fingers, and making cacophonic thudding noises against the cabinets with her legs. Duo was always at his best when talking about the kids he placed. Placing one on earth was a major coup, Une knew, and not something that she planned on missing hearing about. Some of it was about why he hadn't told her he was coming. Some of it was actually appropriate to say right at that moment. "You seen anybody else?"

"Nah, we're tripling with 'Lena, Heero, Wufei and Trowa tonight. Nobody said anything?"

Shortly trying to figure out if she was the insane one in this conversation, Une said, "You didn't say anything, Duo."

"No, I meant, they were supposed to ask you out and not take no for an answer."

Something flashed in Une's head and she reached into the holster wherein she kept her main organizer. She keyed herself past a few screens, into her calendar. "I can't believe I forgot. Dinner with Relena, seven, Orchidia."

"Orchidia?"

"Organic place downtown. It's really good. Probably half of why I agreed to go with her."

"The other half having to do with her being your pseudo-boss and sometimes friend?" Duo moved to Ru, who was finished with the bunch of grapes and looked to be considering jumping from the counter. Instead he hauled her over to the sink and spent several minutes fighting her to clean the grime from her face and hands.

When they were done, Une said, "I'll take you back out. Then I have to do work. I have a dinner appointment to make."

"Sure," Duo said.

"It was nice meeting you, Ru." Une bent so as to shake Ru's hand without folding herself in half. "Good luck with your family."

Ru smiled. She had four teeth missing. "Thanks for the grapes."

"My pleasure." Une straightened up. "See you at dinner, boyfriend."

Duo met her challenge with an, "And afterward."

Une thought she might have to renew her skills at getting the last word.

*

"Transplanteds," Duo said, when Barton set aside his menu and said, "Placement of a six year old. On earth."

Transplanteds were colonists that had for one reason or another fled to earth and actually managed to settle on its shores. Une didn't think placing Ru with them was any less of a victory than with a native-born family, but she could see how the politics probably worked differently.

Yuy obviously agreed with her, though, because he stared Duo down. "Family is family."

"Save that startling and moving piece of rhetoric for someone who needs it." Duo kicked Yuy under the table. Not that Yuy acknowledged it, Une just felt the impact from where she was sitting, next to Duo. "I co-signed on the adoption."

Relena, who was looking tired and as though she was still fighting the cold that Une had heard her deny having at least four times through a series of coughs, said, "Let's talk about something other than politics."

Duo snickered. "Have any suggestions?"

"Quatre sends his greetings." Barton said it calmly but the timing of it gave the statement something of a rescue-type quality. "He wanted to be here but there was a meeting with a techno-magnate on 1 that just wouldn't wait."

Une fought a smile. "Plus, Dorothy somehow managed to get herself scheduled on 1 this week."

"Somehow." Chang didn't even bother looking in Une's direction as he said it.

Une wasn't taking the blame for this, though. "If I'd been told this was a party, perhaps I would have known how to fix the guest list. It's not something at which I've no practice, you know."

Barton pointed briefly at Duo. "He swore us to secrecy. With pinkies."

"Binding, that," Une said wryly, although in truth she wasn't entirely sure why it should be any less binding than the tattoo she didn't think she'd ever be able to remove from her shoulder. It was about who received the vow, really, less than how it was represented.

Yuy scowled. "He's very serious about his secrets."

The odd solidarity that observation made apparent forced Une to let all of them off the hook. She didn't understand what they were to each other, didn't think it was something possible for an outsider to conceive of, but she envied and respected it at odd turns. "And others'. I've noticed."

Relena smiled at her in response to that. Une could read the smile without thinking, read the way Relena often felt exactly the same in regard to the pilots, even having been allowed much further under the radar than Une had yet managed to get herself.

Chang said, "Habits are something horrid to break. Bad and good."

Une well knew that. "I suppose I'll just accept it in him, then."

Barton raised his eyebrow but didn't say a word. Relena laughed softly. Yuy looked at her, as if unsure as to whether to be unpleased or not. Chang narrowed his eyes. Duo said, "Bartering for a little bit of reciprocal acceptance?"

Boldly, Une hooked her fingers around his thigh underneath the shelter of the table. "I could probably use some."

Duo said, "I thought we were avoiding politics."

*

Duo walked Une to her car. He leaned up against it and didn't look at her as he said, "Lemme crash at your place."

"Trying to be thrifty?"

He snickered. "Trying to spend every last minute I get with you."

Une reached around behind him and manually unlocked the door. "Hop in."

Une lived in what natives of Sanq called The Garden District, or, for short, the gardens. Sanq in general was designed to leave space for nature but the gardens were an area where trees and flowers and grass were given precedence over structures. Une's place, one half a townhouse rented from the couple that lived in the other half, was so covered in ivy that it was hardly distinguishable from a mutant bush. As the sun hadn't completely set when she pulled up, Duo was able to get the entire effect. He asked, "How much you paying a month?"

"Not enough," she said, and parked the car on her side of the garage. It was true, too. The couple gave her a serious discount for all the work she had done starting up a rose garden on the back terrace. Une had argued, explained that it was a hobby and something she nigh needed to do, but they had been insistent.

Une was just glad she had taken care of Treize's roses for all the time that he was under house arrest. Growing them had come to feel like second nature. Also, Treize had been right: roses were extremely forgiving.

The inside of her place was only slightly less organic than the outside, if in a different way. Une had taken to collecting art that portrayed fruit in some way after Dorothy had given her a gorgeous photo of a vineyard at sunset for her birthday the first year of their friendship. Whereas Une's rooms at the base had always been Spartan, her décor neared cluttered in this home.

Duo wandered around, sometimes touching things, mostly just looking. He said, "This place makes me hungry."

"I have cherries."

Duo looked at her intently. "Really?"

She laughed and rustled through her refrigerator for the recently purchased bag. She threw them in a colander and ran them under the water for several minutes before sliding them into another bowl and setting them on the table. "Yeah, really."

Duo moved quickly -- quicker than she would have expected -- at her side before she realized he was coming toward her. He plucked one of the cherries from the bowl and wrapped his other arm around her waist. Une went still. Duo said, "sh," even though she hadn't made a sound, and, "open up."

Obediently, Une opened her mouth. Duo fed the cherry to her, placing it just inside her mouth, fingertips dragging over her bottom lip as he pulled them away. "Chew."

Une chewed. It was hard to concentrate on anything, between the intense burst of sweet-flavored tartness on her tongue and the sturdiness of his arm at her back, the lingering sensation of his skin at her mouth. She reached out to grab a napkin from the pile at the center of the table so as to have somewhere to put the pit.

Duo asked, "How are they?"

Une blinked. "I test them before I buy them."

"So, good, then?"

Before she could convince herself not to, Une reached out and grabbed a cherry from the bowl. "Open."

Mirroring Duo's actions of the moment before, she deposited the cherry in Duo's mouth. Duo, not playing by his own rules, clamped down on her fingers before she could extract them. She pulled back anyhow. He smiled around the cherry. "Yum."

"Don’t talk with your mouth full."

Duo swallowed with exaggerated motions and spit the pit out. He curved his free hand around the back of her neck. He pulled her up to him, steadily, but slowly enough that she could back off if that was what she really wanted. He pressed his lips to hers and Une thought, oh, yes, yum.

He was a nice kisser. Sort of…polite. Une hadn't the slightest clue as to whether he was actually good, not having much of anything to go on, but it was definitely working for her. More than the kissing she enjoyed the feel of his hands on her, one massaging at her neck and sometimes a bit lower, one slipping down to her ass, resting there, sometimes squeezing. He didn't press her into him or really even try to take over her space, despite their proximity.

He just held her.

Une couldn’t have said how long it had been when they stopped. She wasn't even sure who had pulled back. Duo asked, "Can I crash in your bed? I think you should know what cuddling feels like."

Une was starting to think she had some idea. "That sounds good."

*

Une woke up atop Duo with the fingers of one hand sloping over the curve of his bicep, and her mouth pressed into his chest. She rolled off to his side but he caught her and refused to let her go any further. He said, "I didn't fuck around with your alarm, you actually have thirteen more minutes."

It hadn't even occurred to Une to look, and now that he had said something she felt it a point of honor that she not look. She wasn't entirely certain she wanted to know if he was lying. "What time's your flight out?"

Acting like he was merely shifting their positions, Duo lifted her upper body slightly, and then, without a word of warning, whipped her pajama top off. "Une."

Une caught her breath. "Duo."

"Let me handle the pillow talk, okay?" He asked the question gently, the way he had pulled her into him the night before.

She had just barely said, "Um, okay," when she felt herself being flipped again, this time onto her stomach. Duo tugged encouragingly at her hips and she went along with the suggestion, her back now arching down into the mattress. Duo slipped the bottom half of her pajamas off so slowly that Une knew with one word he'd stop. Duo's hands were oddly soft for a man with so many calluses, though, and Une's curiosity (if nothing else) had definitely gotten the best of her.

Those hands, then, were at her thighs, sliding them ever so slightly apart, just enough to help her support herself.

When he curled himself over her she could feel that he still had his boxers, the only thing he'd gotten in bed with, on. His hand smoothed a broad path over her spine before his chest followed and then his hands found his way to her front, cupping over her breasts.

Une's breath stopped a little at the mass of sensation, the sense of the power that was balanced between them at that moment. His power lay in the way he handled her body, the fact that the threat of harm was so imminent and yet he chose not to indulge. Hers lay in the jump of his cock against her ass when his fingers had fallen into place over her breasts. Une knew perfectly well what that meant.

Slowly Duo pulled his body back, his hands content to stay exactly where they were. His tongue drew a line of retreat back down her spine where his hand had gone before. Only, it didn't stop at the small of her back. It continued down, bumping lightly over the crest of her ass, delving quickly - stunningly - into her vagina, and up to a spot that caused Une to bite her lip and then curse, "Shit, shitshitshitshit."

Une thought she could feel him laughing at that but the sensations were too intense, his teeth worrying over her clitoris, his breath colliding with her skin, his tongue refusing to stay in one spot, and his hands, his fucking hands, the thumbs deciding they had a right to some action as well, brushing past her nipples and then back again, the nails scraping at skin so sensitive Une wasn't entirely sure it belonged to her.

It was as Une was screaming, pushing her face into the pillow and sobbing Duo's name that her alarm went off and for a while she wasn't sure which of the two of them was louder. Duo's right hand left her breast and flicked the switch off, his left one moving, guiding her down to the bed even as her body crumbled.

She lay on her side, panting and blinking, working to regain her bearings. He pressed a kiss to her temple. "Okay?"

She wanted to laugh a little at that but thought he might take offense. "Mm. Fine. Good. Goooood." She had wanted another word, but the drawing out of her first choice would just have to do.

"It's shower time."

"But-" Une managed to force her eyes in the direction of a very unattended to Duo.

He grinned. "Shower time."

Oh. Right. "Help me up."

*

He wrapped her fingers over his cock when the water was pouring over them and her hands was still slightly soapy from washing her hair. She said, "I was going to-"

"This is what I want."

So she pressed him against the wall of the shower, underneath the faucet, her back feeling the light spray jetting off the main fall of water. She flattened herself against him and tightened her fingers and pushed and pulled and sometimes found his mouth with hers until he was pressing his head so hard against the tiles that she had to slip her free hand behind it.

Then she pulled him back under the faucet and got her hands soapy again -- this time with body gel -- and said, "I'm going to be late."

"Luckily your coworkers aren’t the type to make just-got-laid jokes."

"Dorothy is." Une soaped her breasts. "Good thing I sent her to the other end of this system."

"'Course, given that it's me you're getting laid by, they might anyway, as revenge for all the things I've said over the years."

Une stopped with one hand on her knee. Duo tugged her up and kissed her. "It'd be good for you."

"Mockery?" Une didn't bother to hide her doubt.

"It's not mockery, babe. It's…people being happy for you. In a juvenile way." Duo shrugged and ducked under the water to rinse off his conditioning treatment. "'Sides, it’s not like you don't have adequate ammunition to come right back. For all their silence, Heero and Relena are doing it like the last two hummingbirds in the world; Wufei and Trowa are practically working their way through 'The Joy of Gay Sex' page by page, and Noin and Sally could make millions if they charged a nickel an evening. Seriously."

Une fingered one of the long strands of his hair that he wasn't currently working at getting conditioner free. "Do they tell you this stuff?"

"Well, somebody does. Maybe not in those words. Usually not the person themselves, but we all talk. We keep tabs on each other."

Feeling slightly emboldened by that, Une asked, "Quatre and Dorothy?"

"Role playing."

Une accidentally inhaled some of the water and had to work to breathe. "Really?"

"Don't tell me you thought those two were vanilla?"

"Um."

Duo pulled her into him, under the spray, slicking his hands down her sides to hasten the rinsing off of her skin. "Quatre's more imaginative than I could ever hope to be, and Dorothy more adventurous than anyone you'll ever know."

Une considered this. "You're pretty imaginative."

Duo turned her around so as to rinse the other side of her. "I try."

Une reached out to turn the tap off. "I'm pretty adventurous."

Duo shivered a bit. "Are you?"

Une looked him up and down. "I think so."

Duo shook his head slightly. "We have plenty of time to figure it out."

"Oh," Une said.

Duo wrapped her in a towel and dried her from top to bottom.

*

Despite Une's fears, it wasn't until a week later that anyone said a word. When somebody did, it was Chang, and of all the people Une had expected she might possibly have to face off with about this, he hadn't really been on the list. Chang wasn't much for teasing. Or heart to hearts.

Even more surprising was the fact that he said, "How's Duo?" while Po was still in the conference room, the three of them all having dawdled in getting their miscellanies together and walking out.

Une watched as Po tilted her head at Chang but decided against interfering. She didn't leave, either. Une felt Chang's question was straight enough. Chang was bad about returning Duo's phone calls, Une knew; Duo ranted about it sometimes when he was feeling cranky or petty. "He's having a string of lucky placements." She thought about adding, he misses me. She didn't.

Chang was silent for long enough that Po sighed. "How are you?"

Several things clicked for Une in those three words, not the least of which was why Po and Chang would have ever considered each other appropriate bed partners. "I'm…" There were a million answers to that question, all of them equally true and none of them having to do anything with what Po was actually asking. "I miss him."

Chang nodded. "We've been thinking about ways to centralize him. L2 does not support the only orphans in the world."

Une wondered if we meant him and Po, or him and Barton, or him and the whole damn gang. "It keeps the ones he's most concerned about. If Barton-" Une stopped herself. There were lines she hadn't yet learned to cross.

Chang didn't seem offended. Rather, the look he gave her was one of pure frustration. "Can't you see the difference in him? When he's here?"

Po laughed at him then, and it was reassuring to Une, a semblance of normality in what was rapidly becoming a conversation only Dali could have appropriately put to paper. "Why would she be able to, Wufei? The only references she has for Duo outside of their relationship are ones she would have read out of a file."

That wasn't precisely true but Une wasn't going to bring up the exception, not when it didn’t even really change the point of Po's question.

Po said, "He's different in the way that you're different when he's here."

Chang said, "He smiles."

Une said, "He always smiles," but thought that it made sense, in a Chang sort of way, particularly given what Po had said before him. "It's too early to be talking about this."

Unexpectedly, Chang laughed at that. "Trowa thought you'd say that."

"I don’t suppose he gave any credence to the fact that I might be right?"

Po and Chang shared a smile, a reference to something for which Une had no context. Po said, "Did you know that it was Trowa who wouldn't settle with Wufei?"

Une hadn't. She'd known that it had taken them almost a year to acknowledge that they were officially together but she had always assumed that was Chang's issues of tradition (specifically hetero-normative) wreaking havoc over the situation. "And?"

The look exchanged between the other two this time was less jocular and decidedly more uncomfortable. Une bit at her cheek to quell her impatience. Neither Chang nor Po was somebody she could really afford to piss off. All the same, "Just say it. I'm surprisingly unbreakable."

"No," Chang said, "you're slightly broken."

His tone was tense and it was Po who softened the statement by saying, "Which is unsurprising, given everything. Most people are and they haven't had to deal with half of what I imagine you've had to."

It was hard for Une to work up anger at a statement that was probably (at best) a downplaying of her emotional state. "But?"

Po kept talking, quickly, almost as if she were afraid Chang would try and jump back into the conversation. To Une's eyes, he looked pretty content to sit back and let Po handle things. "But people who are…fractured, whether that be in a mental or emotional or sexual sense, or even all three, can sometimes have a hard time seeing what's in front of them, or accepting it if they deem it good."

Une said, "All the same, doesn’t it seem to anyone else that asking either of us to make significant lifestyle changes at this point in our, um, relationship, is kind of-" Une sorted through her head for the word she wanted, "premature?"

"But if you nearly never see each other, what hope is there for a point in time where things will be mature?" Po asked.

"Because if it had been Trowa, the answer would have been never. He would have found excuses until the day one of us died."

Une winced at that assessment. Po made a small, indecipherable noise. "It doesn't have to be about love, Une. Not yet. It just has to be about possibility."

Une knew about possibility. It had been written all over her skin for days after Duo's visit, immutable and nearly overpowering. "How do you ask for something like that?"

"You don't," Chang said. "You create an opportunity he can't pass up."

Une thought she could probably do that. It was possible.

*

"Let me get this straight, then. The governing councils of all five colonies, the Sanq government and the UC are going to create a home for orphans throughout the system, to be sent to Earth to be raised with each other so as to foster understanding, in the meanwhile teaching them about their heritage in the hopes that they will return to their places of origin and pitch in with the whole peace effort." Duo paused. "Is that it?"

Une switched the phone to her other ear. "The UC's looking for good press, Sanq is hoping to indoctrinate Absolute Pacifism into these kids, and the colonies just want them off their streets, but yeah, I think you covered all the prose."

"And they want me to run it?"

"Well, no. Chang, Barton, Winner, Dorothy, Yuy, Relena, Po, Noin, and I want you to run it. But when you think about it, that's a fair amount of influence."

"Never hurts to have friends in high places. So they used to tell me."

He sounded so cynical that Une felt the need to remind him, "You don’t have to accept."

"What, a dream job that puts me on the same planet with the girl of my dreams? I'm not as insane as the press would have you believe."

"Sometimes accepting the good things is hard," Une said.

"Sometimes. You still have to do it. Else you'll get stuck with all the bad stuff."

"Then you're going to accept?"

"I get to pick the staff, right? And I have authority over hiring/firing decisions?"

"Think of yourself as the dictator of a small country filled with an abnormal amount of little people."

Duo laughed. "A kingdom of munchkins."

"Sounds to be your speed."

"Hey."

Une closed her eyes. "You're going to take it, then?"

"Do you want me to?" Duo asked.

"Duo-"

"It has nothing to do with my decision. I just want to know."

"Chang might have been the one to suggest coming up with something that might attract you to Earth's surface. Which I then might have worked into a plausible idea to present to Relena and Winner. But I'm not saying anything for sure."

"Then, hypothetically, at least, you had a vested interest in my being closer to you?"

"Hypothetically."

"I would have taken it anyway. It pays more than what I get now."

"I'm sure that was the crux of the issue for you." Une had never met anyone less concerned with financial affairs than Duo. As long as he had enough to keep himself off the streets and decently fed, the rest was just numbers to him.

"And I kind of like kids."

"How'd we ever miss talking about that earlier?"

"I was too entranced by your beauty."

"Fuck off." Une flicked him off even though he was a space flight away and couldn't see through phone lines. It made her feel better.

"Put your finger down. That's unladylike."

Une's stomach clenched at how well he knew her. She thought about breaking up with him. Instead she asked, "So, your first dinner in town, you already booked?"

"I'm pretty sure I can squeeze you in."

*
October, After Colony 197

Duo cancelled their first date since his move to Earth. He called and started to leave a message, "Une, I'm really, really sorry-" but she picked up mid-way through.

"I spent my whole weekend helping you move."

"Yes, I know, and you are a paragon among girlfriends, but I'm in a meeting deciding staff issues and I thought for sure it would be over by now. I can't get out, babe. Honestly."

Une looked at her clock. "It's seven right now." They had been planning to meet at seven-thirty.

"I swear I'll make it up to you-"

"Then do so. Be at my place at nine."

"Will ten do?"

Une thought about pressing for nine but it wasn't like she'd never been in meetings or actions that ran over and Duo sounded like he hadn't slept since the last time she'd seen him, nearly three days earlier. "You wanna stay at my place overnight?"

"Have any shirts you think I'd fit in to? The dress code over here is casual, but I think showing up in my 'size only matters when you haven't got anything else to show off' shirt two days in a row might call a bit of attention to myself."

Une wasn't exactly a saint and she had been looking forward to this date so she said, "You are the boss."

"Which is all the more reason not to be setting bad examples. That little fact is probably the only reason the dress code around here is casual. You should see what some of the donors show up in."

"I've seen it." Une had pretty much seen it all when it came to high brass and heavy donors.

"I've gotta get back. Do you have a shirt?"

"I'm sure. Just…if you're not gonna show, can you call before ten?" Une had set enough time for the date that if it didn't happen she had a shot at getting some sleep. She was pretty intent on having that occur if nothing else was going to pan out.

"I'll show. This isn't my normal M.O., I swear."

"Sure, we'll see. Now that I can be had at any time you'll be standing me up right and left." Une made sure there was just enough cool in her voice for it to be understood as a joke.

"Watch your mouth or before you know it I'll be stopping into your office, sitting on your desk, generally getting in the way." Duo's voice had a touch of the wistful in it, hidden behind his normal amusement.

"You wouldn’t believe what the security force in this building would do for me." It was one of the many places Une had made sure to secure alliances.

"Do you really think they could stop me?"

Une had forgotten that Duo could sound like that. She'd only heard that voice once, at their first meeting, and hadn't had any desire to hear it since. "Not a chance."

"Paragon among girlfriends," Duo said, sounding a little awed at her honesty. Une was a little awed herself. She didn't think she'd been planning on saying that.

"I'll see you at ten."

"I'll try to be early."

Une smiled. "I'll see you at ten."

*

"Look," Duo said as she let him in the door, "I come bearing gifts." He held up two sticks, one in each hand.

Where exactly Duo had found chocolate-covered frozen bananas at this time of night Une couldn't imagine. She wasn't about to ask. Part of Duo's charm was his…magic. Oddness, Une corrected her own thought firmly. She held out a hand. He placed one of the sticks in it. He asked, "You want mine?"

She was already taking a bite so instead of answering she rolled her eyes at him. He got the message, taking a large chunk off the top of his. Une chewed and swallowed. "How was the meeting?"

Duo walked to her sofa and sank into it. "Productive, I guess."

Cautiously Une lowered herself onto the sofa beside him. He was having none of that, and pulled her into his side with the hand that wasn't in charge of the chocolate-covered banana operation. She tucked her head on his shoulder making sure she had enough of a range of movement to still eat. "Well, it definitely could've been worse, then."

"I'm supposed to be the optimistic one in this relationship, y'know."

"I think you might be infecting me."

Duo spoke with his mouth full. "You sound like Wufei."

The statement, which was obviously meant to be derisive, sent an odd curl of pleasure through Une's sternum. "I like Chang."

"You would."

Une pulled back to look at Duo. "Duo. He's your best friend."

Duo shrugged. "I suppose there's no accounting for taste."

Une took another bite of the treat. Duo finished his off with one last large chunk. He stood up, making sure not to topple her off the couch, and went to go throw the stick away. He came back, only to stop in the doorway and look at her. "I missed you."

Une fixed her eyes on him. "We saw each other two days ago."

"Yeah, well, see, actually, that's what dating means, that you get to do stupid things like miss the other person for bizarrely short periods of time."

Une added this definition to the nigh sixty others he'd given her since a little before their official recognition of their dating status. "Okay."

Duo put a hand to his heart. "Man, cruel."

Une ignored him, concentrating on the last several bites of her dessert. She stretched over the couch and handed him the stick. He took it from her. "Just so we're clear, I only do these things for you because we're still sort of in the wooing stage. As soon as you're a sure bet, I go back to being an immature jerk."

Une called, "Do you want me to throw the stick away myself?"

Duo reappeared and walked toward her so quickly she hadn't even realized how close he was when she felt herself being swung up over his shoulder, stomach down. Une sucked in a breath and nearly, very nearly, reacted on her instincts. Luckily the awareness that she neither wanted to kill nor temporarily incapacitate Duo prevailed. Duo dumped her onto her bed and she was left looking up at him, saying, "Fuck, don't."

Something in her voice -- Une wasn't sure if it was the anger or the fear -- made him pause. "Oh, hey. Just playing."

"What would you do if somebody did that to you?"

Slowly, Duo said, "It would depend on who it was."

"I haven't developed the ability to make that distinction as of yet. I nearly-" Une clenched her teeth and refused to say anymore.

Duo collapsed down on the bed next to her, carefully reaching his fingers out until she made it evident that she wouldn't pull back. Then he pulled her to him, wrapped her up so that no part of them wasn't touching. "You can’t develop it if people aren't willing to give you the chance, babe."

"You scared me." Une wasn't used to admitting such a thing. She certainly wasn't used to not knowing exactly how she meant it.

"I know, and I'm sorry. But I'm not sorry I did it. I love touching you."

Une hated that he could always find the things to say with which she had no power to argue. "I'm glad you're staying."

Duo squeezed her tighter. She made herself fit.

*

Une pulled her head out of the pillows and sniffed at the air. She frowned, rolling out of the bed and stumbling to the kitchen. "'Morning."

"I know you're not into the coffee thing, but I ran out for orange juice. I thought that might catch your eye."

Une said, "I drink coffee." She opened the refrigerator and took out the juice bottle. "Less than I drink juice. Thanks. I ran out a couple of days ago, haven't had a chance to restock."

"There were all these really exciting flavors, things like guava-mango-spice and frangipore-berry-splash but I wasn't really sure where your heart lay and I thought I'd go with a classic."

Une poured herself a glass. "This wasn't…you don't have to be making me breakfast every time you stay here."

"Smooth, I enjoy that way of implicating that this won't be a last. It's reassuring and yet cool. And, to answer you, I know. But I sort of like you and you look like you could use some feeding up."

Une frowned. "You're one to talk."

Duo scooped a spatula under three pancakes, bubbling in a frying pan. He slid them onto a plate, set them on the table and then turned, placing himself in between Une and her breakfast. "There are strawberries in the fridge."

"I saw that." Une stepped back slightly.

"I'm going to say this once, Une, and from this point out you're going to need to understand all of our conversations in the frame of these words. You're the most gorgeous woman I've ever met. Compared to you, Relena is homely, Dorothy is merely bizarre looking, Noin is harsh, Sally is plain. There is nobody who walks into a room and makes enough of an impression that I want to look away from you. You are, quite simply, perfect. Even the things about you that should fuck that up only further it. And I've seen all of you. I've even looked closely. You are also intelligent and oddly, perhaps unintentionally, sweet, and interesting. I keep coming back because you offer something that I continually want to return to. Does that clear things up for you?"

Une turned and found her way to the refrigerator. She rooted through the bounty of fruit that had appeared inside to find the strawberries. She grabbed the maple syrup from the door. Straightening, she closed the door. "You ever listen to the things the guys sometimes say about you, when they're not really thinking about what they're saying?"

Duo tilted his head back a little. "We don't really talk about me, as it happens."

"Chang respects your opinion, Barton respects your instincts, Winner thinks you walk on water in general and Yuy makes moral decisions based on a system that you taught him. Now, I work with all of these guys, some more than others, but enough that I have some sense of what makes them tick. They're good guys. Sometimes great guys. By basic logical deduction, I have to assume that someone they look up to that much is pretty…well, amazing." Une shrugged. "I'm good at what I do, Duo. And I've spent my life trying to be someone that I can still wake up with in the morning. But I haven't always been successful. Not in the way I think you probably have."

Duo ran a hand through his still unbound hair. "Une. Did you miss that whole part of the war where I killed civilians for a cause that was only mildly mine? Yes, I mean, of course, freedom for L2, a better life, whatever, what I wanted was out. I did it all for me."

"And I worked to suppress freedom for the sake of a man who got me out. Did I see it differently at that point? Maybe, a little. I knew what I was doing. Don't think I didn't."

"Refer back to my diatribe of not five minutes ago, Une. I find you intelligent. I also find you to be a survivor. We both are. It's one of the reasons I think we'll work."

"You're just- Treize. I…loved Treize, all right? I mean, not romantically, although I went through that phase. But I loved him as a savior, a friend, sometimes a parent. And he loved me. I believe that. It was a love that depended on what I could do for him, though. That was why he got me, why he made me into what he wanted, why he kept me. And there were other reasons, I know, I know, but that was the big one. But at least he was obvious about what he wanted. He asked or told and there was never any question. With you… You make me pancakes and all you want is for me to eat them."

"I wouldn't mind you doing the dishes." Duo smiled then, soft, charming, but serious. "Une. I want the same things you want."

"I don’t know what I want."

"Yeah. Well." Duo reached his arms out far enough to brush his fingers against her hips. "C'mon, eat your breakfast."

"Eat with me."

"Planned on it."

*

As much as she had absolutely no interest in doing it, Une pressed her way through about a million security checks, into the inner sanctum of Peacecraft Mansion where Relena was talking on a comm to someone who most likely should have gone home hours before and Yuy was folded up on the floor, leaning back against the couch, frowning with threatened displeasure at a crossword puzzle. Une sat across from him. "Which one?"

"Seventeen across."

Une read the clue. Malaysian fruit-eating bat. She counted the spaces. "Kalong."

"I'm sorry?"

"Kalong. K-A-L-O-N-G. Came across it once in a search for new fruit gone horribly awry."

Yuy penciled the letters into the boxes. "Thanks."

"Do you approve?"

Yuy, to his credit, didn't pretend not to follow the thought. "Why should it matter?"

"Funny that you ask that. I haven't the slightest clue but somehow, for whatever reason, it does." Une could offer some ideas. She was mildly worried that she subordinated herself to Duo in the same way that she had to Treize. She had considered the fact that perhaps this was what a healthy relationship felt like. She thought it possible that everything up until now had left her with neuroses that would haunt her forever more. So yes, she had theories. She wasn't going to mention them to Yuy.

Yuy started to write something in one of the longer box rows but went immediately to erase. "I think you may not understand how it is between us."

"I don't pretend to have the first idea, but I know your opinion is important to him."

"That's a complicated statement."

"No, I think you pretend it is. I think he scares you as much as he scares me."

Yuy scowled but admitted, "Probably."

"You don’t scare him. He doesn't scare. Not at least, not this way."

"I know, which makes it hard to judge when somebody new comes into his life. It took us forever to realize Hilde wasn't a good thing."

Une pressed her hands to the carpet, trying to bleed out some of her frustration through the floor.

Yuy cocked his head. "Do you love him?"

"Now you're giving me too much credit."

"No, I think that was the answer I was looking for, actually."

Une played the words over in her mind. "I want him around me constantly. I like the way he bargain shops, and throws children high in the air but never misses, and the way his hands-"

"Feel at the back of your shoulders?" Yuy asked.

Une caught his eyes and wondered how she'd missed that plot point. She'd always noticed those things with Treize, always. "Oh, then. Ah. Yes, that is nice. Also, on my knees."

Yuy smiled then, a small smile, but one of the very few Une had ever witnessed from him. "He has nice hands."

Une nodded, helpless as to what else there was to do.

Yuy said, "He likes your legs. Says they last forever and he's still not tired of looking when he finally reaches the end. And he thinks that your eyes have words he's never learned in them but that would sound nice if he could ever figure them out. And he likes the way you fit into his hands. All of you."

Une considered that, thought about who was paraphrasing it back to her. "That's enough, isn't it?"

"It probably should be." Yuy looked up at Relena, still negotiating or contracting or just charming some diplomat from who-knew-where. "It's definitely a start."

Une had a good record with starts. "I'll take that as approval."

Yuy said, "Have any clues about fourteen down?"

*
December, After Colony 197

Une was in the middle of dinner and not expecting anyone, so when the doorbell rang, she seriously considered not answering it. Only, whoever was on the other side of her door was either an obsessive doorbell ringer or really wanted to see her, because said person would not stop. Une sighed, made her way to the door, and took a quick look at her security comm to check and make sure that she knew whoever it was before answering. She did a double-take when she saw Duo, throwing back the door. "I thought you were staying with the kids tonight."

"I threw myself on the mercy of Annabelle." Annabelle was a hire from L3. She looked like a soldier and acted like a mom and Une had yet to get past the disparity of this but the kids who were steadily piling into the place day after day loved her. Annabelle loved them right back. She was ex-colony militia who had lost a husband to OZ's ranks and a daughter in a skirmish that had caused civilian casualties. Une was pretty sure Annabelle would live at the Home if permanent staff housing were built there. Duo had talked to Une about trying to find funding for it. As it was right now, staff alternated nights of staying in-house and making sure nothing went wrong. This week was Duo's actual week, but he'd been working weeks in tandem with everyone else up until this point. Une wasn't terribly surprised he'd cracked.

"C'mon in. Have you eaten?"

"I took in about half of Suri's peanut butter sandwich to convince her to eat. That count?"

Because he sounded so earnest, Une turned and kissed him. "No, not really."

"Somehow, I'm not surprised."

Une pushed him into a chair. She pulled an extra plate from the cabinet and handed it to him, along with a fork. "It's from Areva's." Areva's was a hole-in-the-wall that made one thing and one thing only. Pizza. Une ordered the type with toppings piled so high it was more like a vegetable-meat-and-cheese tart than any kind of pie.

"I've been craving this." Duo slid two pieces onto his plate and carved into the V end. "Hey, so hi. I've missed you."

They'd talked on the phone every day in the past week but they hadn't seen each other in at least seven days, so Une said, "Me too. I thought my job was demanding."

"That'll teach ya."

Une smiled. Complaints or no, Duo loved his job. "How long's it been since you've seen your apartment?"

"Oh, that place I live in?"

Une shook her head and stood up to put her plate in the sink.

Duo said, "There's a box in my pack; it's for you."

Une raised her eyebrows but went to rile through the backpack that went everywhere with Duo. She found a small box wrapped in silver paper. She lifted it for him to see. "This one?"

"Merry Christmas," he said.

"Back when I was being raised by evil nuns, we celebrated that on the 25th. Were they lying about that, too?"

"I'm impatient, you know this about me. Also, you didn't get yourself a tree, or anything, so I didn't know if that was a bad time for you."

Une had never considered that he might even be wondering. "Not…not really. It's just not much of an anything time. I've pretty much gotten past thinking of St. Angela's as having anything to do with the way things are now, and Treize was secular, so I never really did Christmas. Not in the way it gets advertised."

"So you'd go to mass with me if I asked?"

Duo kept his tone so casual that Une knew her answer was of utmost importance. "Duo. I don't believe."

"I can believe for us." He didn't say it piously or with any type of fervor, just with the truth of bone-deep conviction.

"And that won't bother you?"

"Will it bother you?"

Une had never minded having someone believe for her, not if that person truly had her best interests at heart. "No."

"Then no."

"Midnight mass?"

"That's the best one." Duo dipped his head. "Open the present."

Une tore the paper neatly open. She opened one end of the box and slid out the chain and cross pendant inside. It took her less than a second to recognize the feel of the pendant in her fingers, the same one they had run across a million times while fitting herself against Duo. Her eyes flickered to his chest.

"Also," he said, "I didn't really want to give this to you in front of all the kids."

They were planning on spending Christmas morning at the Home, where there was a big tree and some lights, along with the accoutrements of several other holidays and more than enough of the place untouched for those kids who didn't identify religiously at all. Une looked at the piece of dented and chipped gold in her hand. "How long has it been since you've taken this off?"

"Since Sister Helen gave it to me when I was twelve. About five years."

"Why now?"

Duo concentrated on breaking off a piece of the crust for a few seconds. "Because Sister Helen gave it to me with the intention of making me part of something, and it worked. I thought it was worth a try."

Une closed her fingers for a short moment before dangling the chain from them, holding it out and asking, "Would you put it on me?"

*
Epilogue
February, After Colony 198

Une knocked on the kitchen door to the Home and Orlean, the nineteen year old chef from small-town Earth who had been willing to work for nearly nothing so long as he was given free reign with the menus, answered the door. "Hey Une."

"Hi. He's still here, right?" Une had rushed over from work which had of course run later than it was supposed to have. It was fairly rare that Une stopped by the Home unannounced so she wasn't used to having to worry whether Duo was still there or not, but she felt it was worth the effort to surprise him this evening.

Orlean smiled. "It's a party, he can't leave early."

"Where I work that's about the only thing we can leave early."

Orlean slid back around to the island of the kitchen and picked up something that looked entirely too pink to be edible. "Happy Valentine's Day?"

He handed it to her, and, on closer examination, it was a sugar cookie. A heart-shaped sugar cookie thoroughly trounced in pink frosting. "Thanks." She took a bite, "Oh, hey, strawberry."

"Something I was trying with the icing. Inspired by you, actually. Well, you and the Food Fight Incident."

Une snorted. "What hasn't been inspired by that?" The Food Fight Incident, started by two overly tired thirteen year old boys and ended by three-fourths the House, had taken nearly a week to clean up.

"There's fruit fondues upstairs. And bad music. And that guy I think you might be mildly interested in."

"Mm, maybe." Une walked to the door. "Thanks for the cookie, delicious."

"I'll choose to think that was an adjective used to describe me rather than my creation, although, that's nice too. See ya later. I'll probably be up. Just a few more batches to watch over."

Une pushed the door open. "See ya."

She made her way up the stairs and into what was normally the dining area but that the Home's staff had transformed into a ballroom of red and white and pink and sparkle for the occasion. The music filtering out of the room was the latest pop-tech-synth craze and inside was the expected chaos. The oldest kids were trying to dance with each other while those just slightly younger than them were frantically avoiding the other sex's cooties, and the youngest were running around creating havoc wherever they landed. It took three scans, but Une finally found Duo, pretty much in the middle of it all, watching the dance floor and looking supremely unconcerned.

Une found the buffet table and swiped a chocolate-covered apple slice before threading her way through children -- some aware enough to call out greetings to her, most not -- to get to Duo. When she had managed, she curved herself over his back and said, "Happy Valentine's Day."

He twisted his head to kiss her. "I see you've passed the test."

"Test?"

"I figured you were a woman of true worth if you could make it all the way past the cretins and into me."

"Ah."

"May I have this dance, pretty lady?" The words were formulaic, but Duo always managed to say things in a way that gave her pause, forced her to listen.

"Is it even possible to dance to this stuff?"

"Oh ye of little faith. I saved a song for us."

"You weren't supposed to know I was coming."

"You gave in too easily when I said I had to work late on Valentine's Day."

Une bit her lip in frustration. "You could at least act surprised."

"I'm happy, does that count?"

"I suppose it'll have to."

Duo laughed a little. "Come dance with me."

The song Duo had saved was little better than the rest of the stuff they were listening to, but it was slower and had a touch more rhythm. Une made it work. Duo said, "You're a good dancer."

Une said, "You're not," but she trusted him to lead and that made her add, "I worked for it."

She let him dip her at the end. It made the younger kids giggle and the older kids look on with a sort of unsure envy. When he righted her, she said, "I've a present for you."

"Well, duh. I've a present for you as well, but it's nothing that you're being given in front of this lot."

"Mine's evidently duller." Une fished the envelope out of her back pocket. It was a plain, standard size white envelope folded in half.

Duo took it from her. "Don’t go out of your way on the presentation or anything." He was quick to slide his finger under the adhesive anyway, and dig in to find the key floating around inside. Threaded through the top was a leather strap. Duo then found the piece of paper -- scrap from the recycling bin -- on which Une had written, you gave me something to which I could belong, I thought I'd give you somewhere.

Softly, Duo said, "You're forgiven the wrapping."

Just as softly, Une said, "Thought you might feel that way."

Though he had closed his hand over the key tightly and seemed unsure of how to let go, he said, "I might need some help putting this on."

Une pried it gently from his fingers, and stepped behind him. She tied the strap into a double knot. She stepped around to face him. "There, that should stay."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile