With a slight frown Treize leaned back in his seat as he studied the chess board. His white pieces were still in the majority, but things were not progressing as he had expected. None of the traps he had set so far had really worked; all they had gained him were some black pawns and a bishop, but none of the truly important pieces. And at the same time the black queen had been veritably slaughtering his own pawns.
"Your strategy has definitely become more aggressive lately," he remarked as he carefully shifted a rook into place to put a finishing touch on another little trap that should guarantee him the taking of the remaining bishop.
Dorothy smiled as she watched his move. "I do not like to become predictable. Besides, aggressiveness is always a good strategy. If you do not attack, you will always be at a disadvantage."
Treize raised his eyebrows a bit at hearing this; apparently she was reading the old treatises on warfare again. Dorothy's interest in fighting had never ceased, not even after being in the middle of two wars. And it seemed to increase every time she was about to go visit the young Queen of Sank, as far as he could tell. Perhaps he should have been expecting comments like this, considering that Dorothy would be leaving for Sank the next day.
"Being in the defensive position gives you more time to react. I would not call it a disadvantage."
Moving her bishop to the front, Dorothy looked at him. "You always play for time."
"And so far I have been the winner." Treize took the bishop with his knight and set it on the table next to the board, in a row with the other black pieces.
"So far," Dorothy agreed. "But I wonder..."
Her words were interrupted by the sound of the comm unit.
"Excuse me please."
"Certainly," the young woman said with a smile. "I will be thinking about my next move until you are finished." Of course Dorothy would not show any inclination to leave the room if she was not asked to do so. But Treize was by now used to this, and while he did not always appreciate her curiosity, he figured that it could hardly do any harm if she listened in on a phone call. The only person he was expecting to contact him right now was an antiquary who was hunting down old furniture for him.
Leaving his seat at the low table in front of the window where they had set the chess board, Treize went over to his usual work desk and sat down in front of the comm. A quick check of the identity of the incoming caller had him frown in surprise. It was Zechs, which was highly unexpected since the younger man was supposed to be in a conference in Sank right now. They had agreed that Zechs should call in the evening when everything was over so they could discuss the results of that meeting.
Quickly Treize accepted the call, and couldn't help gasping with shock when the image of Zechs appeared on the screen. His hair ruffled, without his formal jacket and in just a white shirt with large dark red spots down the front that could only be blood.
Just what had happened?
"I'm alright," were the first words the younger man hurriedly said before Treize's mind could provide him with possible scenarios of what could have happened and how Zechs could have gotten hurt.
Treize breathed a small sigh of relief. "Thank God," he murmured, still feeling the adrenaline rushing through his body. Zechs was alright, was apparently not hurt... But Zechs had assured him that he was fine, and that meant that something had to have happened. And there was all the blood on Zechs' shirt. "Milliard, what is going on there?"
Running a hand through tousled blond hair, Zechs closed his eyes for a moment before looking at Treize again. "Relena has been shot."
"What?" Treize was not quite sure whether he could trust his ears. "But who... How is she?" That was the more important question right now; the 'who' could always be found out later. The thought suddenly crossed his mind that Zechs had not said yet whether his sister was alive still or not. But surely nobody could have eliminated her, not now that the world needed her so urgently still to regain its balance...
"She is being taken to hospital right now," Zechs explained, and Treize could see the tiredness in his lover's face. "The shot hit her in the arm..."
"Then she should be alright," Treize said, trying to assure himself as well as Zechs. The younger man looked so shaken, something that could only be expected in a situation like this. He had been protecting Relena for so long, and to see her get shot now... Treize knew how much she meant to Zechs, and what it had to do to him to watch this happen.
"Yes, she should be..." Sighing softly, Zechs rubbed his hand across his face for a moment. "Noin is with her. And some other agents too, they're securing the hospital."
"And you will go there too?" It amazed Treize somewhat that Zechs had not gone with them in the first place, but surely there had to be reasons for that.
A slight nod from Zechs was the answer. "I will as soon as I can. But Relena's press spokesman suggested that I should give an explanation for the situation."
Treize considered this for a moment, and deemed it a reasonable advice. Sank's sovereign had just been shot, so the people needed to be assured that everything would be alright. And as Prince of Sank, Zechs was the most logical choice for the announcement. Of course it was another matter altogether what it would take to appear calm and collected when he knew that someone had just attempted to kill his sister and that this someone might try again.
"It makes sense to do that," Treize said before another thought crossed his mind. "Pardon the question, but has the assassin been caught?" If that person had been eliminated, then the next attempt would take some time, at least according to Treize's personal experience.
Zechs nodded once again, and a look of frustration crossed his face. "Relena's secretary. One of the guards shot her before she had the time for a second try." For a moment a humorless smile appeared on his lips. "Une was right in demanding thorough background checks of that woman, it seems. I should have pressed Relena more to do it."
Treize silently agreed with this, but he doubted that it would do much good if he said so right now. After all the trouble with her first assistant, Relena really should have known that people close to her had to be above suspicion. But she had claimed that the young woman she employed was trustworthy, and nothing Zechs or Une had said could change her mind.
Well, she knew better now, and hopefully she would learn. Treize had no wish to see Zechs as tense again as he had been in those days. The next assistant would be scrutinized closely, that much was sure. No matter whether Relena approved or not.
"You know she would not have listened to you, no matter how hard you tried," Treize offered as consolation. "It is not your fault that this happened."
Zechs sighed. "How can you be so sure?" he asked.
Because your sister is too stubborn for her own good and old enough to take responsibility for her own actions and mistakes. Treize really wanted to say this, but refrained from doing so. Zechs would probably agree with it, but it seemed wrong right now to say negative things about Relena.
"Nobody could have foreseen this," he eventually said. "Relena knew the woman, and she trusted her. If anybody could have noticed, then it would have been the people around her, but apparently nobody was aware of anything out of the ordinary." Treize paused for a moment, not really wanting to discuss this further. "When will the press announcement be?"
Zechs glanced down at his watch. "In some minutes. The news channels will be broadcasting."
Treize heard Dorothy rise from her seat and watched as she walked over to the small television set on one of the small tables placed against the wall. She turned it on, then muted the tone and remained standing in front of it, her expression one of concentration.
"Do you think you can come back here during the next few days?" The original plan had been that Zechs would return this evening, but of course everything had changed now. But still Treize wanted to have his lover back to make sure that he truly was not hurt and that this all was not effecting him more than necessary.
"I don't know." Zechs raised a hand to brush long blond bangs out of his face. "I wish I could come home, but it all depends on what happens now."
"Of course." For the moment Treize ignored the small pang of joy he had felt at hearing Zechs refer to Kiev as home. It was the first time since the wars had started that his lover had used this word again. But right now there was no time to linger on this, no matter how welcome it was.
Zechs looked at his watch again. "I should change my shirt and then make this announcement... I promise I will call again."
"I will be waiting, beloved."
A sad smile from Zechs, then the connection was closed.
With unease Zechs shifted in his seat, trying to find a position that would feel comfortable for more than a few seconds, but the desk in front of him was preventing this. It was too low, and the front cover that prevented people from seeing his legs also prevented him from properly stretching them. The young man in the seat to his left, Kristensen, did not appear to have this problem, but as Relena's press spokesman he probably had quite a lot of experience with situations like this.
Zechs could not remember a moment when he had been more aware that a great number of people was watching him. In the past he had made speeches to an audience larger than the one that was currently assembled in the press room, but this time there were all the cameras and microphones that would not let him out of their scrutiny. When he had been with the White Fang, there had only been one single camera to record what he had to say. But here there were dozens, and they were making Zechs very aware that what he was going to say would be broadcasted all over Earth and the Colonies.
Another group of reporters was entering the room and looking for seats without much success. He watched them, glad about the small distraction. He was not exactly nervous about this; it was more a feeling of uneasiness about giving a press conference when he could be more useful in other places. He wanted to be at that hospital to confirm with his own eyes that Relena was alive and that the injury was as unthreatening as Noin had said when she had called him five minutes ago.
"Your Highness?" Kristensen was touching his arm lightly to get his attention. "We will start in some moments. Do you know what you are going say?"
Stupid question, Zechs thought. If he didn't know what he was going to say, then he would not be sitting here.
"That the Princess has been hit by a shot in the arm." He sighed softly, fighting the urge to run a hand through his hair to vent off some tension at least. "That she has been taken care of, and that the injury is not dangerous."
"And remember please not to use 'assassination attempt' or anything like this," Kristensen reminded him.
This time Zechs' sigh was one of exasperation. "There is no need to tell me every minute," he said.
"It is better to be sure, your Highness. The press will call it a failed murder anyway, but we should not decide on a definition for it quite yet."
Zechs glared at the man for a moment, wishing that they were not in a room full of people so he would not have to keep his voice down to a whisper. "Relena's secretary tried to shoot her and only missed because Relena was bending down to pick up a pen she had dropped. And you think this can possibly called anything else than an assassination attempt?"
"Lady Une has requested that we give as little information as possible. And as long as we do not know the background of this all, it would be unwise to label things so definitely. It could cause problems later."
Just like it could cause problems if they were not concrete enough just yet. Zechs knew that practically every Sankian citizen would be watching, and in his opinion they had a right to know what had happened to their leader.
"How much longer until this will start?" Zechs asked, watching the assembled reporters and trying to pick out familiar faces. He could remember some of them from OZ' press conferences, and all those he recognized were also those he had in mind as especially nasty. One of them, a kind-looking elderly woman who sat in the first row, had even managed to ruffle Treize's temper once with her questions.
Kristensen glanced at his watch. "We could as well begin. There is nothing speaking against it, and we are right on time for the hourly headlines too. Unless you prefer to wait still?"
Zechs shook his head. Better to get this over with now; he was not feeling comfortable at all, and the sooner they were done with this the better. All he wanted right now was to see with his own eyes that Relena was fine. Noin had said that everything was as good as it could be, and Zechs was rather certain that she would not be lying to him. But she also had that tendency to try and protect him if she thought something would be unsettling him.
Switching on the microphone, Kristensen cleared his throat and everybody's attention focused on him immediately, the sound of ballpens being popped into working order clearly audible from all over the room.
"Can we begin?" the young man asked. The question was apparently directed at the camera men, because they all were gesturing for him to go ahead. "Good. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is his Highness Prince Milliard Peacecraft of Sank, and my name is Peter Kristensen, press spokesman of Princess Relena."
Frowning inwardly at hearing this name used, Zechs focused on Kristensen's words and tried to ignore this. He could hardly protest right now and say that he was supposed to be called Zechs, and that Milliard was a name reserved for Treize alone. There lay a certain sense in announcing him as Milliard Peacecraft now, but that did not have to mean that Zechs had to like it.
"This press conference concerns the most recent events in Sank." Kristensen paused, taking a sip of water in a move that looked entirely calculated. "I therefore ask that you do not question the Prince about any of the other issues that may be of interest to you for now."
Clever move, Zechs thought. He had disliked Kristensen ever since he had met the man, but it could not be denied that he knew how to handle situations like this. Zechs was not informed in detail about the other developments in Sank, and so it would have been difficult to react to questions concerning Relena's policies. Of course he knew what was happening, more than the media knew, but the day-to-day politics were Relena's field and he was not going to mess with them.
Kristensen was clearing his throat again. "Your Highness, if you would be so kind..."
A nod, then Zechs looked at the reporters as he concentrated on what he was supposed to say. "Princess Relena is currently in hospital and undergoing treatment of a bullet wound," he started, almost amazed at how calm he sounded. "Her condition is not serious, and the doctors in charge of her are confident that she will be recovering quickly from this injury. Her life has never been in danger." Zechs paused for a moment, looking at all the expectant faces. They were listening and scribbling down notes, but he doubted that they believed what he was saying. After all he did not even believe it himself.
"There will be regular updates on the condition of the Princess," Kristensen picked up smoothly. "I ask that you refrain from trying to gather information at the hospitals, since it would only serve to make their work more difficult. Surely it is in the best interest of us all to make certain that the doctors can do their work in peace."
As if they were going to listen. The only advantage right now was that none of the reporters should be knowing at which hospital Relena was currently staying, and hopefully it would remain like this for at least a little while.
"Her Highness," Kristensen went on, "is well enough to be performing all her duties as the leader of Sank. There will not be any delay in issues and decisions concerning the wellbeing of our nation. Her duties as Vice Foreign Minister will be taken over by Foreign Minister Bourienne for the time being."
The Foreign Minister and Relena's advisors had decided about this; Relena was not aware of the decision yet, and Zechs was quite certain that she would not be pleased with these plans. They implied a definite hierarchy in her duties when she had tried to balance her position in the World Government and the leadership of Sank. Noin knew of the plans, and she had agreed to break the news to Relena once the girl was in a condition to be bothered with something like that.
"I am sure that you all understand that Princess Relena's public appearances will be canceled for the next week so her fast recovery is assured. Her Highness apologizes and sends her deepest regrets."
Zechs felt Kristensen's foot lightly nudge his ankle, and he quickly cleared his throat to say the second issue he had been told to address. "Let me assure you again that Princess Relena is safe and well. This accident will of course not have any effects on the Sank Kingdom. Everything will continue in the normal way, and the Princess will not allow her injury to discourage her from doing her work for the good of our country."
Those words sounded so hollow to him that it almost hurt to say them. That assassination attempt could very well change the policies of Sank once they found out who had been behind it. And right now Zechs had no idea whether Relena was truly only lightly injured, and whether she was really safe in that hospital. Everything was so insecure still...
Kristensen spoke up again. "Questions?" he asked, and immediately hands rose everywhere in the room. "Yes, Miss Cook?"
A black-haired woman in the front row briefly smiled with satisfaction. "Who fired the shot?"
"We are currently investigating the accident," Kristensen answered. "The gun may have been accidentally fired."
"Whose gun?" the woman pressed on.
"I am not in a position to give you this information yet. Mister Andersen?"
Zechs sighed inwardly. There was no way that anybody would believe that this had been an accident. Those reporters were experts after all, and they knew how to read between the lines.
"Is it true that the Princess had to be reanimated?"
"Her Highness has been conscious all the time, and her life was never in danger."
"What about the trade meeting next week? Will it be delayed?"
"The Princess will attend if her doctors permit it. If she is not in the condition to do so, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will lead the discussion. But we all are confident that Princess Relena will recover quickly."
"Who was with her when she was shot?"
"The usual personnel."
"To which hospital has she been taken?"
"It is in everybody's best interest that her current whereabouts remain secret."
"Where did it happen?"
"In the palace."
"Prince Milliard, were you there when she was shot?"
Zechs frowned a little wearily; he had hoped that they would all continue focusing on Kristensen, but apparently his wish was not coming true. "I was present," he said. Maybe if he did not appear talkative, then they would get discouraged. Or they would all write stories about how shaken he was because of this incident.
"Your Highness, will you step in for the Princess until she recovers?" a woman in the back row asked after she had stood up to be seen.
"Princess Relena will not interrupt her work. Of course I will help, but she wishes to stay in charge of everything." Zechs truly wished that Relena was well enough for this; he knew that he would be a bad replacement for her and that he would cause more harm than good. But he would hardly be able to say no if Relena needed a break. She was his sister, and he had left her alone so often already...
"How did you feel when you saw her being hit by that bullet?"
Kristensen stepped in before Zechs could answer. "I ask that you do not bother his Highness with those questions now. He is understandably distressed, and it is kind of him to even be here for this press conference."
"Prince Milliard, were you injured as well?"
Zechs shook his head. "The Princess is the only one who has been hurt." And of course her secretary had been shot by the guards, but he could not mention that now. He still saw that scene in front of him whenever he closed his eyes. Relena lying on the floor, impossibly pale as she held her injured arm, the blood welling up between her fingers. And her secretary's body crumpled against the wall, blood everywhere around her unmoving form...
"Prince Milliard, did you see who fired the gun at your sister?"
Once again Kristensen spoke before Zechs had a chance to do so. "The Preventers are investigating already," he said. "I have just received the information that General Une will be here in some minutes to give an update on the situation. She will be able to tell you more."
Une was coming here? And Kristensen still thought that the media would believe his story of an incident if the leader of the Preventers was taking a personal interest in this?
"So the Preventers think that it was not an accident?" the next question almost immediately seconded Zechs' thoughts.
"Ask Lady Une. She will answer these questions."
Zechs definitely did not envy her for having to do this. He at least had the excuse that this all had unsettled him and that he could not be expected to answer disturbing questions. But Une was going to have to deal with a pack of reporters that had just smelled blood. And while her old personality would have easily dealt with this, Zechs was not quite sure yet how she would react to the situation in her current set of mind.
"Is there an update on the condition of the Princess?"
"She is conscious, and the injury is not threatening," Kristensen repeated once again. "The doctors are confident that she will recover at a steady pace. We will of course keep you informed on this once we know more." He stood up, and Zechs quickly copied his move. "Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for your attention."
They both got off the podium, and Zechs concentrated on not turning back to look at the assembled people and at the cameras. Things had gone as well as could be expected, but the feeling of uneasiness had only increased with every question that had been asked. Hopefully he could leave here without any further delay and see how Relena really was.
Once they had left the conference hall through a side door and entered a smaller room, Zechs allowed himself to relax at least a little. Nobody was watching anymore, so he could stop concentrating on keeping his face calm. He had almost missed his mask; nobody would have seen then if he had frowned or shown his worry.
"That went quite well, your Highness," Kristensen commented calmly as he leaned against the wall. "The Lady will hopefully throw them some other bits and they won't be bothering us for the next hour or so."
Zechs did not bother to comment. In his eyes this charade had served no purpose at all; the reporters could easily put the pieces together and guess what had happened. And Une would give them additional information so their pictures would fill out. All they had achieved through this was that tomorrow's papers would bring dramatic interpretations of what had happened. Surely speculation would serve no purpose, would it?
He wished that Treize were here; his lover had far more experience in dealing with the media than Zechs. The older man had certainly seen the press conference, and Zechs yearned to talk to him about it all to see how much could be read between the lines. And he also needed the reassurance that everything would be alright eventually, and that he was not alone in this. But it would take a while until he could be back in Kiev; first he needed to see Relena, and there might be other things waiting for him too.
There were no outward signs that the palace had suffered severe damage during the war. No visible ruins of side buildings, no blackened areas on the smooth white surface of the walls. It was almost amazing to look at the building and think that in the last fifteen years it had partly burned down, had been left to go to ruin, and had been under attack of Mobile Dolls. No signs were showing of all the damage done to it.
Noin had said once that the Sankian citizens had insisted on restoring the palace before taking up the rebuilding everywhere else. According to her, they had needed to see their symbol rise again to prove to themselves that things were returning to the way they had been before war and destruction had hit.
Sally understood the motivation that had been behind this. The people who had remained in Sank after the occupation by the Alliance had lost part their national identity when the Peacecraft monarchy had been dethroned. And the military regime that had followed had been more than a little restrictive, so restoring the palace once it was possible again had to be as strong a signal of peace and freedom for them as possible. And they even had a princess living in the palace again.
It was an impressive landmark, both due to appearance and the symbolism. But still Sally would have preferred to get to see it under different circumstances.
"The press conference should be over by now," Une remarked as they walked up the steps that led to the main building, accompanied by some agents. "Did you agree on a meeting place with Zechs, or are we going to have to search for him?"
"I didn't really talk to him," Sally replied. "But they're hardly going to hide him from us. Besides, he'll probably be wanting to get to Relena, so most likely he's waiting for us anyway."
"You sound as if you think that he is predictable." Shaking her head, Une gave her a small smile. "Remember who you are talking about."
"Right, Peacecrafts are not reasonable enough to be predictable." Sally turned to one of the agents who flanked her. "Linhart, go and find Agent Wind. Tell him the Lady and I are waiting at the entrance."
They stopped at the top of the stairs, a little to the side of the door so nobody would stumble on them or be too aware of their presence. Most of the reporters ought to be at that conference hall still and wait for Une's announcements, but that did not mean that some stray journalists would not be roaming the rest of the place.
"Are you sure that you want to do this on your own?" Sally asked once their guards had stepped aside a little at a gesture of Une. Press conferences were never easy on her lover, and this one would probably turn into a rather nasty one.
Une nodded. "There is no need for you to be there as well. I need someone to coordinate the agents at the hospital. Noin is there, but she has to be replaced as soon as possible so she focuses again."
Sally could not say anything against this; Noin had been completely shaken when she had called to inform them of the assassination attempt. She had been in the room when it all had happened, and even though she would not have been able to do anything she was now blaming herself. Sally would have to speak to her once they found a calm minute. The only problem was that the secretary should have been searched for weapons before she was allowed near Relena. But there never had been problems with the young girl before, so the guards had been understandably negligent in the matter. Everybody had thought that the girl could be trusted, but that assumption had proved to be wrong. And although not even Une held Noin responsible, the dark-haired woman could have prevented the incident if she had followed the prescribed procedures. Noin knew this, and right now she had to be feeling terrible.
"I'll go with Zechs then. It's probably best if it's me who takes over."
"Yes, do that. And make sure that he does not expose himself too much." Une looked thoughtful for a moment as she watched the Sankian Prime Minister and his escort leave the palace. "I doubt that he will be targeted, but I won't risk it."
"One injured Peacecraft is enough," Sally agreed. The comm unit in her jacket pocket began to vibrate and she quickly took it out, but it was only a text message and not a call. Glancing at the sender, she frowned a bit. "That's from the hospital."
"What does it say?" Une asked. "An update on Relena's condition?"
Sally briefly glanced through the message. "Yes, they're done now and have patched her up as well as possible. Condition is stable, and they sent along a list with the injuries." Une looked expectant, so she went on, reading aloud. "The bullet hit the tuberostias deltoidea of the right humerus, the nervus medianus, vena basilica and arteria brachialis as well as the musculi biceps and triceps."
The only reaction she got to this was a pair of raised eyebrows.
"Sometimes the medical babble is a bit much, I know. What that means is that the bullet impacted here," Sally indicated a spot at about the middle of her right upper arm. "It went through the biceps and triceps, hit some nerves and blood vessels on the way and also chipped off a bit of bone."
"It could have been worse," Une said with a shrug.
"That's for sure..." Sally pocketed her comm again. "There should not be any permanent damage." Besides, Relena was young and healthy, so the healing should be quick. It really was a minor injury; Sally had seen people survive far worse during the war. But those had been soldiers, and in some way they had been prepared for injuries. Relena, on the other hand, shouldn't have to go through this.
Another group of people left the palace, but this time Sally did not recognize any of them. But when she looked at Une, she saw the other woman's eyes narrow as she watched the group. Sally returned her attention to them, but she still could not see anything unusual. Just a few young businessmen in suits, briefcases in their hands as they descended the stairs and got into two cars that were waiting for them. Probably members of that delegation that had been supposed to meet Relena this morning.
The cars drove off, and once they were out of sight Sally turned to her lover. "Who were they?" she asked, hoping that those men had not been too important. She had a very good memory for faces and was sure that she had not seen them before. But at times like this she was acutely aware that she still lacked connections in what she considered high society.
"The small blond is the son of Baron Sternfeld, and the older one with the silvery hair is the Count of Austerlitz." Une sighed, running a hand through her hair wearily. "Romafeller members."
"Maybe it is just a coincidence that they are here," Sally offered as an explanation, even though she did not really believe it herself. In her experience the Foundation was never innocent; the last year had seen enough cases in which members had been involved in some way or other. Most of the time they were just good at hiding their roles.
"Maybe," Une agreed. "I certainly hope so. Their families are heavily involved in trade with Sank so it would make sense that they were at the meeting today."
"You don't believe that, do you?"
Une shook her head. "No, I don't. But I only met them in the past, when I... when I was not who I am today. And that may be clouding my judgment."
Stepping closer, Sally touched her lover's shoulder. She wanted to hug her and take those thoughts of her old self away, but she knew that Une would not like it right now, not in public.
"Shall we start an investigation?" she asked. Maybe Une did not quite trust herself, but Sally had faith in her, no matter what personality had been in charge at the time. The vicious Lady had been quick to judge, but most of the time her instinct had proven right. The same could be true in this case.
"No, not without any leads. We will first wait for the results of the examination in the study and the background check of that secretary, and then we will decide about our next steps."
Sally nodded briefly. "Alright," she said, raising a hand to tighten the hair fastener on her left braid when she became aware that it was beginning to slip.
"We cannot afford a mistake on this mission," Une said quietly, and for a moment she seemed tired. "Relena is too important for the World to loose right now." Looking into Sally's eyes, she managed a little smile. "And besides, if I was not allowed to kill her, then nobody else will either."
Laughing softly, Sally wanted to reply, but Linhart's return interrupted them.
"You were supposed to find Agent Wind and bring him here," Une said, disapproval plain in her voice. She never took it lightly when orders were not executed properly, and she clearly was not making an exception this time.
Linhart swallowed nervously. "Madam, Agent Wind is waiting in the garage. He says that he will drive himself."
Une sighed softly, then turned to Sally, a smile on her lips. "Good luck with that experience, Doctor Po," she said, raising a hand to adjust the collar of her blazer.
"Good luck?" Sally was getting the feeling that she should be suspicious about this.
Her lover shrugged. "I have been in a car with Zechs once. It is an experience that should not be missed. And not be repeated." With those words she turned and walked through the door that Linhart had quickly opened for her, disappearing in the halls of the palace.
Until now, hospitals had seemed like a very good place. People were being healed there, and the doctors saved them from death and pain. There was help and sympathy, and everything became better in these places.
So far Relena had only been in hospitals as a visitor, and she had always marveled at the efficiency with which things were done. Nothing seemed to be wasted, and all the doctors and nurses had appeared to her to only have the best intentions for their patients. She had never understood why anybody would have objections to medical treatment. The family doctor who had administered any injections she had needed as a child, and who had checked on her when she had fallen seriously sick, was a wonderfully kind man who had always given her sweets when he had come. And it had never stung when he had injected her, so she had not been able to comprehend why some of her friends would almost panic at the thought of going to the school nurse for an examination.
But all that had been before she had been taken into a hospital as a patient for the first time, and her opinion was changing rapidly right now. She had been poked and prodded and x-rayed, and a nurse had been sent to help her change into a hospital gown with ties that kept coming undone. Then a doctor had been sent in and had injected her, and this time it had hurt. He had claimed that it would take away the pain, but that had obviously been untrue, because the throbbing and burning in her arm had kept growing stronger. The only thing the injection had achieved was that she had started to feel sick on top of it all. And looking at the little plastic bag with blood that was hanging right over her head and slowly flowing into her veins did not make that feeling go away.
Another nurse had come and had given her a second injection, and this time her arm had really started to go blessedly numb with the anesthesia. Relena had thought that they would leave her in peace for a little moment at least, but after some minutes two doctors had appeared, along with the nurse. They had taken away the bandages around her upper arm, had fussed about it for a while and had then told her to look the other way. Relena had done so, but she had involuntarily turned her head back when she felt something cold touch her arm. And had seen one of the doctors stick a forceps right into the wound without any warning, which had been the last straw needed to make the world spin wildly around her.
And all this in front of three Preventer agents with stoic faces, and a pale Noin who was telling her every two minutes that she was sorry for what had happened.
In the end the doctors had announced that the bullet had been extracted and that the wound was cleaned, and had left it to the nurse to bandage Relena's arm again while they had congratulated Relena to her luck. They had tried to leave a good impression, but moody as Relena had already been at the time, the impression was going to be a lasting but not necessarily positive one.
Once the nurse had finished dressing the wound Relena was taken out of the operating room and into a private room. The agents constantly stayed around her as her bed was being wheeled along the hallway. She had tried protesting that she could very well walk and that this was ridiculous, but all she had received had been some indulgent smiles from the doctors and a nervous curtsey from the nurse. Apparently people thought that since she had been shot in the upper arm, it had to be affecting her mind.
The private room was an improvement at least. The only agent who stayed with her was Noin; one of the others had taken up position on the small balcony while the other two guarded the door.
It all seemed so unreal to Relena still. Only one hour ago she had gone through papers for a meeting she had been preparing for a while. She had drunk her morning tea and had chatted a little with Dorothy over the comm. Noin had come to collect her and together they had entered the small meeting room next to her office. Some people had been waiting there already, and Zechs had arrived a moment behind them. He had even smiled when she had greeted him. They all had sat down and had begun talking about some of the minor issues. Natasha, her secretary, had claimed to want to get some papers and had left her seat. Everything had been perfectly normal until the moment when Relena had dropped her pen, had bent down to pick it up. A loud bang and she had lost her balance and fallen to the floor. And only then she had become aware of that terrible burning pain in her arm.
She still was not sure what had happened next. There had been a second bang, and then Zechs had been at her side. He had said something about stopping the bleeding and had touched her arm, and then suddenly it had all hurt so much. The next thing she could remember was waking up in an ambulance as the car arrived at the hospital.
At least Noin had been around all the time, even though the dark-haired woman was making her nervous with her pacing and her constant apologies. Relena wanted to tell her that she should calm down and that everything was alright, but whenever she tried to do so, Noin interrupted her and said that it was her fault. This was calming down a little by now, but it was not improving Relena's mood at all.
The nurse who had been present during the treatment came into the room and fixed an IV in Relena's left arm, then told her that she would get another infusion with a low-level anesthetic to keep the pain down. Once she was gone, Relena settled back against the pillows with a small sigh and closed her eyes for a minute until she became aware that a strand of hair was tickling her cheek. She tried raising her right arm but stopped that attempt immediately when a stab of pain shot through it. And the left one was not supposed to move either.
The young woman jumped up from her seat at the bedside immediately. "Yes?"
"Can you please get those hairs away from my cheek?"
Noin seemed startled for a moment but complied, carefully tucking the errant strand behind Relena's ear.
"You are welcome..."
A tense silence filled the room until Relena spoke again. "How long do you think I have to stay here?" She had asked the doctor before, but he had only given evasive answers.
"I don't know," Noin said, sounding apologetic. "Surely the doctor will tell you when he comes to check on you again. Or you ask Zechs... Maybe some days?"
Relena froze at that speculation. Some days? She had expected to be out of here tomorrow morning, or maybe even this evening. As soon as the doctors were done with their poking. She couldn't stay for some days! There was far too much work waiting for her. There was that trade conference to prepare for next week, and she was supposed to go to L4 over the weekend to meet Quatre Winner for discussing some investment plans. They couldn't keep her here for so long!
"Do you need something?" Noin asked.
Relena mutely shook her head, still aghast at the prospect that this might be taking longer than she had expected. Couldn't she have been shot at a more convenient time?
She frowned at herself for that thought. Dorothy would call her a fool for thinking like that, and the other girl would be right. She had been shot, and she should be glad that it had not been fatal but just a minor injury. And instead she was sitting here and fretting because they would not let her out of the hospital now.
"Are you sure? Maybe something to drink..."
"Noin, I'm fine. Really. I promise I will tell you when I want something."
"Alright..." Noin nodded somewhat unhappily, and for a moment Relena contemplated sending her on an errand so she would feel useful. But most likely Noin would only have told one of the agents in front of the door to get whatever Relena wanted and it would not have helped at all.
Sighing softly, Relena flexed the fingers of her right hand when she began to get pins and needles. "What happens now?"
Noin shrugged lightly. "They will keep you here. Check on you. And try to keep everybody else away as much as possible so you have some rest."
Relena shook her head. "I did not mean with me, but in general... I have things to do after all."
"You should not think about that right now, Relena. You must concentrate on recovering."
"I would feel better if I know what will happen."
By now Noin looked decidedly uncomfortable, and Relena was beginning to become suspicious. The woman knew something, she was sure of that. And Relena had the feeling that it was not going to be something she liked. But certainly it could not be more than temporary replacements for some days until she was fit enough again to return to her duties. Maybe someone would be doing the public appearances for her, because she felt sure that she was able to handle the administrative aspects.
"Noin, I want to know."
"But I don't know anything for sure yet," Noin tried to protest.
"Then just tell me what you know, and someone else can give me the details later." Patience had never been one of Relena's strong sides, and the day had been trying enough already. She had been shot, she was in pain, her head hurt when she moved it too quickly, and the hospital smell was almost nauseating. Relena was not in the mood for dealing with excuses, and hopefully Noin was realizing that.
An expression of resignation on her face, Noin leaned back in her seat. "The Foreign minister is covering for you so you don't have to worry about that, and everything concerning Sank will be brought to you if the ministers can't deal with it on their own. Any public issues for next week have been cancelled."
"Great." Frowning in frustration, Relena closed her eyes for a moment before glaring at Noin. "And nobody considered asking me? Did that thought even cross anyone's head that I might mind?"
"I'm not a child, you know?" Relena interrupted, her voice bitter with anger. "I can decide for myself what I do, but nobody seems to believe that. What gives them the right to say what I am allowed to do and what someone else has to take care of? Surely it makes no difference to my recovery whether I worry about Sank or the World Nation!"
"Please, Relena, calm down... I can understand that you are upset, but if you get so agitated you help nobody."
"It helps me," Relena said darkly, but took a deep breath and tried to push the anger away a little. It was not Noin's fault, so she shouldn't be talking to the dark-haired woman like that just because she was the only person available right now. "I just hate this," she said, trying to sound apologetic.
Noin looked away. "I'm so sorry this happened," she said quietly, words she had been repeating regularly over the last hour.
Relena tried not to get too exasperated with these apologies. "Noin, it was not your fault. Just ask the Lady or Zechs. They will agree with me on this." And hopefully Zechs could have a talk with Noin to make her stop fussing so much. He always had such a good influence on her, surely he could make her feel better at least a little. "Will Zechs come here?"
Nodding, Noin smiled a bit as she calmed down. "Yes, he said he will try to come as soon as he can. He was so worried for you..."
Wonderful, another person who was going to fuss over her. But Zechs maybe had a right to do so; he was her brother after all, and he had been there when she had been shot. Still, as a former soldier he should know that this was hardly going to kill her. Noin had told her about Zechs quite a lot, and Relena knew that her brother had lived through worse injuries than hers. But then again, so had Noin, and the dark-haired woman was not likely to stop her hovering anytime soon.
Relena sighed softly. She had thought that getting shot was bad, but having everybody worry about her and treat her like she was on the brink of death was certainly worse.
Watching the press conference had been unsettling. At first sight it had been an announcement meant to reassure, but Treize doubted that it would have this effect for long. Every news channel was broadcasting an analysis of the events, and most of them reached the same conclusion: Relena Peacecraft had barely survived an assassination attempt. And it was not surprising that they would figure it out. If Zechs had not told him before what had happened, Treize would have known after the press conference. It was so plain to see that all the information that was being left out pointed in the same direction, and anyone with the slightest bit of practice could read between the lines of what was being said.
Lady Une's speech had not added a lot of new facts; she had more or less repeated what had already been said by Zechs and that press spokesman. The only news she had been able to give was an update on Relena's state, and even that was being kept deliberately vague. Treize did not believe for a moment that after more than one hour they would not know the extent of the injuries, and to him it did not quite make sense that something like this would be kept from the public. Taking into account that Zechs had said that the shot had hit Relena's arm, she could not be badly hurt. It would only be reasonable to tell this to the people.
Unless, of course, the plan was to keep everybody thinking that things were worse. But combined with what Treize knew of what had happened this did not quite appear logical. He would have to ask Zechs when they talked again.
The newsman announced another repeat broadcast of Zechs' press conference, and Treize reached for the remote control to change the channel. He had seen this three times by now, and it hurt to watch his lover struggle through the questions. Before he could pick up the small device, though, Dorothy took it and switched off the TV.
"I do not want to watch this any longer," she said, shifting on the couch so she was facing Treize and not the television screen. "They never say anything new."
"Probably there will be an update around..." Treize paused, trying to remember the time when the central European channels broadcasted their main news and convert that into the local time. "Around two. If anybody with some sort of sense is around, then they should try to have it ready for the main broadcasts."
Dorothy raised a wildly forked eyebrow. "I would not count on that," she said simply.
Treize considered this for a moment. "And why not?"
His niece flashed him a smile. "Because it seems to me that nobody knows yet what they will do. And until they figure that out, they are not going to say more than they have to in order to keep the media content."
"It makes sense," Treize conceded. "But only if you assume that they will not be able to decide upon a course of action within the next two hours. With Milliard and Lady Une there, it would be unlikely that they remain undecided for so long. They both are aware that it is important for them to decide on what to do." And at least Une had quite a lot of experience with these issues; she had been in charge of delicate situations rather often and had generally handled it well. Zechs had not made public appearances during his time with OZ - it would have been foolish to draw anyone's attention to him and risk discovery of his true identity. But he was far too intelligent not to see the need for a definite course.
"That, Uncle Treize, only is reasonable if you assume that Milliard and the Lady manage to agree on what to do."
"They will. They know that they have to, and that has always been enough to make them cooperate."
"If you say so..." Dorothy returned, obviously amused by the thought, but then she sobered again. "What do you think they will do next?"
Treize sighed softly. "That is the great question... Milliard has never been predictable enough to answer something like that for sure. As for Lady Une..." Treize would have easily been able to guess what the old Lady would have done; there had always been patterns to her actions that had repeated. But he was still working on getting to know all these new aspects to her personality. "I truly cannot say for sure."
Dorothy looked smug for a moment, almost as if she had expected this answer. "And if you were in charge, what would you do? I know that we do not have all the information that Milliard and the Lady have, but I should think that it is enough to speculate."
Shifting his position on the couch a little, Treize briefly closed his eyes to consider the facts. "I believe it is clear that this was an assassination attempt. They caught the assassin, but unless she was a madwoman, the mind behind this is still around and perhaps able to try again. It would be logical to get Relena out of sight until that person is caught, or until the Preventers have some suspects under observation."
"I thought the same," Dorothy agreed. "Relena will have to hide, and that most likely is the reason why nobody gives any details on her condition. Who knows, they might even claim that her injuries are worse than they are so it is justified if she is not seen for a longer while."
"OZ would have acted this way... But I am not certain whether Relena and her advisors would do it too." Of course, right now Lady Une and Zechs were in charge of things, and they had been two of the highest-ranking OZ officers. Treize definitely considered them able to do something like this and convince Relena too that it was necessary.
"Relena likes to be honest. She has never been good at lying." With a small smile Dorothy paused for a moment. "She might have learned by now, but normally she speaks her mind and does what seems right to her."
"And would it seem right to her to deceive the media into thinking she needs to recover when in reality she needs to hide?" Treize asked, though the question seemed rather rhetoric to him.
Dorothy shook her head. "Of course not. It means that she is lying to her subjects and to the entire world."
Something that she would have to learn to do if she wanted to pursue a career in politics, Treize thought. Honesty was a virtue, but anyone in a leading position had to know how to use the dirtier tools too in order to achieve goals. Relena was young enough still to figure this out, but she would have to do it soon, or her idealistic attitude was going to be the end of her. Maybe this assassination attempt would shake her awake a bit more and at least make her more careful and cautious.
"Milliard will make her see reason," Treize said, even though he was not entirely sure whether Zechs would be able to do that. Relena was more than just a little stubborn, and while Zechs certainly was not lacking determination it was impossible to predict the outcome if the two Peacecrafts decided to disagree with each other. Hopefully Relena was going to be tired and exhausted from her ordeal.
"Perhaps he will. If this has shaken her enough..." Dorothy trailed off, and at a sudden she looked insecure, a truly rare sight. "But Relena is strong enough to cope with this and not get frightened," she said, then stood up abruptly. "Excuse me please."
Treize politely rose too and watched with some surprise as his niece left his study without any further explanation. He could not see any obvious reason for her to become unsettled, but something seemed to have upset her. How strange... all they had been doing right now was wonder whether Zechs or Relena were more headstrong.
He would have to wait until he saw her again, and then try to speak to her. Dorothy was complicated when it came to these things. During Treize's recovery after the war they had often talked, but he never had quite managed to understand her motivations to do things. It had been almost shocking to realize how little he knew one of his closest relatives. Treize had tried to remedy this, but Dorothy often remained a book with seven seals to him. And whenever he encountered a situation like the current one, he wondered why he had never taken the time to truly know her.
The hospital's underground car park was almost empty. Only a few scattered cars in the area designated as personnel parking space, but otherwise the place looked absolutely unused. Closing the garage had been one of the first things the Preventers had done; it was a strong hint about Relena's whereabouts, but it was absolutely necessary as a security measure.
"I don't really see why anybody should have problems with your driving," Sally commented as she got out of the little Porsche and pushed the door shut.
Zechs shrugged lightly as he closed the door on his side as well and locked the car. "There are some people who claim that my style makes them nervous." Like Une, who had fiercely refused to ever again let him behind the steering wheel after he had driven her across the Victoria Airfield once. That had been almost five years ago, but apparently the Lady still had not quite gotten over it.
"Nervous?" Sally wondered as she stretched a bit. "They just don't appreciate little speedy cars, that's all."
"Maybe," Zechs agreed with a tiny smile. He was feeling more rested by now; driving always helped to calm him, and Sally's assurances that Relena was not badly hurt had helped a lot too. Hearing something like that from Sally was different than getting the message from an unknown doctor. With her Zechs knew that she would not be lying to him in an attempt to make him feel better. "Remind me to call you whenever I feel like going on a drive and need some company."
Sally's eyebrows rose. "You mean he finds it too fast too?" she asked, grinning when Zechs nodded. "Who would have thought... I'd have imagined that Mobile Suit pilots shouldn't mind speed."
"There are some who get uneasy."
"Hard to believe."
Nodding, Zechs pocketed the keys to the car. "Noin never minded having me at the helm of a shuttle, but cars apparently are another matter." And that when they were so much slower... To Zechs it did not quite make sense. He was a good driver, and the speed of his beloved little Porsche was nothing out of the ordinary. Treize, Noin and some other people seemed to disagree with this though. Sally was actually only the second person who had told him that it was fun to have him as a driver. The other one had been Treize's father, the old duke, who had been delighted to find out that Zechs shared his love for everything fast. The Porsche had actually been a present from him.
"Well, don't listen to any of them if they say you are a bad driver. Come, the elevator is over there."
Together they crossed the spacious area, winding their way between small cars that were parked right in front of the elevator. The nurses and doctors apparently knew very well where they had to leave their vehicles to keep their walking time to an absolute minimum. The elevator arrived almost immediately and they got inside.
Zechs watched with some relief as Sally quickly pushed the button for the seventh floor. Apparently she knew where they were supposed to go; he had not thought that nobody had said where exactly Relena was. But fortunately Sally was more focused on these things right now. Zechs was glad that she had accompanied him; she had managed to distract him for some moments at least, and now she took care of everything he had not considered.
The elevator stopped at a lower level and two women got in, one with her arm in a cast while the other looked alright. They only briefly glanced at Sally and Zechs and talked quietly about an accident. The one with the cast kept repeating that she hoped that 'he' was alright, whoever that was, while the other one reassured her and tried to calm her down. It made Zechs nervous to watch them; he did not feel comfortable at all to be in such a small space with strangers right now. He never had considered himself claustrophobic - Mobile Suit pilots could not afford to suffer from that - but being in an enclosed space with someone he did not know always unsettled him.
On the fifth floor the two women got off the elevator. The one that did not look injured glanced at Zechs briefly, and for a moment he saw recognition on her face. Wonderful... hopefully she would be too preoccupied with other things than to tell the media about this. Maybe he should not have come here... they would hardly have recognized Sally if she had been alone. It was his fault if the reporters found out Relena's whereabouts now.
Once again the elevator stopped, and this time Zechs was greeted by the sight of two Preventer agents that looked vaguely familiar. They immediately saluted when they spotted Sally, but she just waved her hand dismissively and went on without any further ado. Zechs followed her as she walked along the hallway to the left, and noted with relief that there were two other agents in front of one of the doors. At least all necessary security precautions had been taken now; it seemed impossible that anyone would reach Relena without being thoroughly checked.
"Do you want to go in alone first?" Sally asked, her hand already on the handle of the door. "I can wait outside if you want."
Zechs shook his head. "Come in. No need for you to stay here."
Sally nodded, then knocked at the door briefly. "It's me, Noin!" she called, then pushed down the handle and entered the room, holding the door open for Zechs.
After taking some steps into the room Zechs closed the door behind him again, then stopped to look around. A typical hospital room, maybe a bit larger than the usual ones. Everything was white apart from a painting in garish colors on the wall that immediately caught his gaze. And there on the bed was Relena, and with relief Zechs saw that she was conscious again and seemed aware of her surroundings. She had fainted in the palace and had not woken until they had taken her away, and somehow he had not been able to believe that she had regained consciousness again. But now she was here, blue eyes open and looking far too dark and wide in the pale face as she told Sally that she was better.
"Relena..." he whispered, slowly stepping closer to the bed.
She smiled a bit, straightening against the pillows. "Hello Zechs..."
"I am sorry that I could not be here sooner." And that he had not been able to prevent this from happening, that he had not managed to keep her safe. That she was lying here on that bed, her right upper arm thickly bandaged. That things had not been different.
"You are here now, so never mind. I am glad you could come." There was a ring of real relief in her voice that made him feel a bit better; his sister wanted him to be here, and she seemed content that he had come. At a sudden Zechs realized that he had not been entirely certain whether he would be welcome here.
Zechs slowly reached out and brushed his fingers against her cheek carefully. "You are my sister... I would not have left you alone." Not anymore... he had done that far too often in the past. "How is your arm?"
Relena grimaced. "It hurts. Whatever they call painkiller must be a placebo, otherwise it surely would have a stronger effect." She shrugged lightly, and Zechs inwardly flinched when he saw her wince at this. "But I am alright."
Nodding slightly, Zechs briefly glanced at Sally and Noin who were standing in the corner and talking quietly, then returned his attention to Relena. "I am glad," he said quietly, feeling a bit awkward. He did not quite know what to say; it seemed wrong to talk about her injury, but at the same time it appeared disrespectful to speak about anything else.
"Can you do me a favor?"
"Of course." This was better; if Relena needed him to do something, then at least he would have something to say and to occupy himself.
"Give me that glass of water please?"
"Yes..." Zechs turned to look in the direction of Relena's glance, but when he had spotted the glass, Noin was already there and held it in her hand. She stepped up to the other side of the bed and carefully held it against Relena's lips, tilting it a bit. With some surprise Zechs watched, then noticed the IV in his sister's left hand that was connected to a small plastic bag above her head that contained a clear liquid. He wanted to ask what it was, but Relena and Noin were occupied, and Sally was just glancing through the doctor's notes, and so he stayed quiet.
The glass was set down on the table again and Noin moved back almost immediately. Zechs was grateful that she was trying to give them some freedom, but at the same time it made him feel anxious. He was probably expected to tell Relena that she would feel better soon and that it was not as bad as it seemed. But Zechs knew how painful bullet wounds were and how long it took for them to heal completely. Medicine today was advanced enough to prevent any permanent damage to the muscles and nerves, but still it took time for them to knit together again.
Sally put the patient file down on the small table again. "I'd like to talk to the doctor in charge," she said, making a small note on a piece of paper.
"Is something wrong?" Noin wanted to know, sparing Zechs from having to ask the question.
"No, don't worry." With a small smile, Sally pocketed the slip of paper. "The guy and I knew each other at university, and I haven't heard from him ever since. And I want to ask him about the pain medication because it's a new one that I'm not familiar with." She looked at Relena briefly before meeting Zechs' eyes. "Think you will be alright on your own for a moment?"
Zechs nodded lightly. "Yes, of course."
Smiling still, Sally grabbed Noin's arm. "Come, the two of us are going to find some coffee on the way."
"But Sally!" the dark-haired woman protested as she was pulled towards the door. "I have to stay here..."
"You have to take a break," Sally returned determinedly. "You are far too wound up, and you know Zechs and the other agents have this under control."
"Don't make me give you an order, Noin, please."
A soft sigh, then Noin nodded. "Alright, you can let go of me. I'll come." Sally released her arm, and Noin reached into her jacket. A moment later she held a gun in her hand, and Zechs could not help tensing. He had gone through a situation today that had been so familiar... But Noin did not fire the weapon, of course. Instead she stepped closer to him and held out the gun. "Here. Just in case..."
Zechs shook his head. "I did not come unarmed. But thank you."
"You are welcome." Noin smiled a little, then followed Sally, who had already left the room. The door closed again, leaving Zechs and Relena alone.
The feeling of awkwardness was still there as Zechs turned towards his sister again. Her eyes were closed and she lay still, making him wonder whether she had fallen asleep. There was no reason for her to stay awake after all, and surely she needed the rest. Sleep always helped in recovery, he knew that from personal experience even though he tended to ignore that advice when it was given to him. But whenever he had been hurt, the situation had not allowed for rest. This was different; Relena did not need to go anywhere and could take all the time necessary.
"Noin said you would know how long I have to stay," Relena broke the silence.
"Yes... Sally and I talked about it while we came here." But they had not been able to fix any of the details yet; the only thing they had agreed on was that the Preventers would investigate and that Relena should be out of sight for that time.
"So when will they let me go home?"
Zechs hesitated a moment. "You can leave the hospital at any time, provided that there is a doctor close," he said carefully. Relena could indeed leave, but Zechs, Sally and also Une had agreed that it would be unwise to take her back to the palace yet. There was no way to know if there were other potential assassins among the people there.
Relena's face brightened at his words. "So it really is not that bad," she said with a satisfied smile, and Zechs didn't have the heart to tell her that without the painkillers she would see things very differently.
"It could have been worse," he cautiously agreed.
"Then please tell Noin and Doctor... Doctor Hansen that I would like to leave here at once. I don't want to stay here for longer than necessary."
Sighing inwardly, Zechs tried to think of the best way to explain to her that she could not return home right now. Maybe it would be best to just tell Relena the truth: that they suspected that there were other assassins still at large and that the risk was not acceptable.
He looked down at her, meeting her eyes. "You cannot go home, Relena."
"You just said I could!"
"I know," he answered. "And it is true that you are in a condition to be leaving. But..." For a moment Zechs paused, trying to find the right words. "There is the risk that whoever was behind this will try again. Your secretary worked for that person, but there might be others too."
Relena put up a firm expression. "I am not afraid of those people."
"But you should be. They are a threat... and they have shown already that they can get you." And that really should not have happened; Zechs had thought that the security measures would be enough, but now they had the painful proof that there always were gaps, no matter how thorough the precautions were.
"They were not successful," Relena insisted stubbornly.
"Because you were lucky! If you had not moved in that moment, we would not be talking now." Frustrated, Zechs sat down on the chair Noin had previously occupied. He wished that Relena would listen to him and let him take care of these things, but his sister simply was too stubborn for that.
"Natasha... she was shot, wasn't she? The guards killed her..." Relena paused and only continued when Zechs nodded. "So the threat is gone."
"That particular threat, but there will be others."
"What makes you so sure?" There was a hint of annoyance in Relena's words by now.
Zechs frowned at her. "I have seen this happen before," he said, trying not to linger on the memories of the times when someone had tried to assassinate Treize. "There is almost always a second assassin in case the first gets caught. And they always hope that the victim will be careless after the first try."
"Relena, you have to listen to me," Zechs insisted, ignoring her attempt at interrupting him. "Lady Une has already started an investigation. But until she has results, you are in danger if you act in predictable ways."
Relena scowled at this. "That investigation will only make them more reckless! If there even are more assassins around."
"Of course there are!" Zechs sighed in frustration, closing his eyes for a moment. "Relena, this was planned. And they will try again, believe me. They will try until they either are caught or they accomplish their goal. Do you think I would keep you from returning home if I had no good reason? I would gladly let you go back! But that is too dangerous right now, and I just don't know how to make you see that!"
"Maybe you're the wrong person to do that! You just decide that I cannot return home now! Would you have told me why not if I had not asked? Would you? Or would you just treat me like a child and make my decisions for me?"
Zechs met her eyes, seeing the anger in her face. "I would if it would mean keeping you safe! I have seen Father and Mother die, but I won't let that happen to you, Relena! Not to you too..." His voice failed him as the memories of the attack on Sank came back. His mother lying dead on the floor of the hallway, her dress full of blood. The smoke that had been everywhere and that had stung in his eyes and made him cough. The sound of his father's voice, talking urgently until a shot had torn the air apart. Soldiers everywhere, soldiers and flames... He had not been able to go back and help his parents; his mother had told him to take care of Relena and he had done that, but surely he could have done more...
"Zechs?" Relena's voice was tentative as she spoke his name.
Taking a deep breath, Zechs ran a hand through his hair as he tried to calm himself again.
"I am sorry," she said softly.
"Don't be," Zechs returned quietly, wishing that he sounded less shaky. He was supposed to keep a cool head, and he had been shouting at his sister...
For a moment Relena closed her eyes. "You want to help, and I shout at you." She looked at him, and at a sudden it was like so many years ago, when things had been so simple and when there had been no awkwardness between them.
"I shouted back," he said. "I am sorry too, little sister..."
Relena smiled for a second before she turned serious again. "I will listen to you. And do what you say."
"Noin, stop thinking that it is your fault," Sally repeated once more, hoping that her friend would listen this time. She was getting tired of hearing the same self-reproaches over and over again, but so far she had not found a way to stop it.
"If I had followed the protocol, then it would not have happened," Noin insisted stubbornly. "I was careless, and that's why that girl managed to get a weapon near Relena."
Sally frowned, annoyed that the other woman just did not listen. "Natasha Kubin has made herself trustworthy. She's been there for months and there was not the slightest problem. How should you have suspected that she'd suddenly turn into an assassin? And could we at least stop standing in front of this door?" Noin had refused to move once they had been in the hallway outside Relena's room, claiming that she needed to stay close in case Relena or Zechs needed something.
Noin shook her head. "Where should we go? The coffee here is horrible, and those waiting room chairs are as uncomfortable as everywhere else. There's no need to move. Besides, I would like to go back inside anyway. Relena might need something."
"What she needs is to rest," Sally commented, but gestured for Noin to go ahead. She had done all she could in making the dark-haired woman feel less guilty about it, and perhaps some of the things she had said had even registered in that stubborn head. Maybe she should try again later, or have Zechs attempt it too. Noin tended to listen to him, so it might be helpful in this case. Even though Zechs really was occupied with other things right now.
What had surprised Sally was the ease with which Noin had accepted being relieved of being in charge of the hospital securities. There had been no protests at all, only a nod of understanding and a brief report about the current safety measures. It almost seemed like Noin knew that she was in no condition right now to think clearly enough for it, and Sally was relieved about that. She wouldn't have liked to order her to take a break.
Closing the door behind her, Sally smiled as she looked at Zechs and Relena. There seemed to be no tension between them for once, a rare and welcome sight. The two Peacecrafts normally did not openly disagree anymore, but somehow Sally always got the feeling that they were just on the brink of an argument and only avoiding it out of politeness.
"Good that you are back," Zechs said, rising from his seat and offering the chair to Noin, who declined, and then to Sally, who shook her head too. With a small shrug he remained standing, but did not move away from the bedside.
Sally winked at him. "Missed me already?"
Zechs acknowledged this with a small smile before his face turned entirely serious again. "I have talked to Relena," he said, looking at his sister briefly, "and she agrees that it is too much of a risk if she goes back to the palace right now."
Noin nodded. "Did you decide on what to do?" she asked calmly. "And don't worry, this room has been swept for bugs twice. It should be reasonably safe."
"Still it's better if we stay careful," Sally commented, leaning against the windowsill. She did not doubt Noin's searches, but it always was better to be safe than sorry. "Well, ideas yet?"
"No." Zechs sighed softly. "Most of the places Relena and I thought of are out of the question. The summer residence, the chateaus, those simply are too obvious."
"I agree. Those would be the first places where anybody would look for her." Running a hand through her hair, Noin watched Zechs expectantly. "Did you consider other locations too?"
Relena spoke up this time. "I suggested that I could stay with Grandfather... Marquis Weridge," she supplied with a glance at Sally that made her feel uncomfortably patronized. "But Zechs said it would be too easy to find out."
"Everybody knows that you are related to him," Zechs said, and Sally heard the hint of impatience in his voice. Apparently the usual tension was beginning to return again.
"What about a Preventer base?" Noin asked. "That would take care of the security problem."
"But it would hamper business on that base." It was not pleasant to kill her friend's idea, but Sally knew that having Relena on a base would cause problems. The girl would certainly be safe there, but all the personnel would be excited about her presence. Besides, Relena would hardly get enough rest with so many people around.
"That depends on how many people know about her presence there. Just think of some of the more secretive departments. Hardly anybody knows about their locations either."
Noin had a point here; the Preventers had certain departments, mostly intelligence, that officially did not exist. Only the top level Preventers knew about them and their exact locations. Most of them were in the Brussels headquarters, disguised as some minor departments, but almost on every base there was at least a small office.
"It would not work," Zechs said, giving Noin a regretful look. "Hardly anybody looks for the departments, but if word gets out that Relena is on a Preventer base somewhere, everybody will try to find out which one it is."
"And someone would definitely begin to suspect," Sally commented with a sigh. "Other suggestions?"
"Perhaps a house could be rented for the time?" came the hopeful question from Relena. "That would be an unpredictable move."
Sally smiled at the girl encouragingly; it was good that Relena was not being moody right now, or this would be a lot harder for them all. "I like the idea. Nobody can possibly monitor all real estate agencies worldwide." It really sounded like a useful suggestion to her; they could rent several places and rig up security systems, and keep Relena in one of them.
"I think it's a good plan," Noin agreed, but there was a bit of doubt in her voice. "But it would take a while until we set up the security."
Relena attempted to shift into a more upright position, and Sally was about to come over and assist her when Zechs reached out to help her settle back against the pillows. "What exactly are you thinking of?" the young woman asked a bit impatiently. "You keep saying that this won't work, and that won't be enough... what will be enough then?"
Noin ran a hand through her hair. "A place that is illogical for you to stay at. Preferably with an existing good security system that we can expand without too many problems. It should not be in Sank, though, because that is too easy to find."
There was nothing more that Sally could have added to Noin's list. The conditions for the choice were hard enough already, and any further demands would have made it close to impossible. Not that it was easy now, of course... Sally was beginning to wonder whether they would manage to agree on a place today. There appeared to be something wrong with every suggestion that was being made, and they simply could not take risks in this matter. Relena getting shot in the arm was bad enough already. If anything more serious happened to her, it would be a catastrophe.
"I know a place," Zechs suddenly said, with so much conviction in his voice that Sally couldn't help smiling.
"Where?" she asked, pushing herself away from the windowsill a bit.
Zechs looked at her, then at Noin. "I know that you were thorough with your check," he told the dark-haired woman apologetically. "But I don't think I should be saying the name. The risk is too great that someone overhears and tries to threaten either Relena or him."
"Him?" A suspicion rose in Sally's mind. "You don't mean... _his_ place, do you?"
Nodding, Zechs offered a small smile. "I do."
Treize's place? Surely Zechs could not be serious...
But he looked so determined about it that Sally did not bother to ask whether he was just tossing around ideas or not. The mere thought of sending Relena there was making her uncomfortable, though she could not quite put down the reason. The one time she had met Treize, he had seemed a quite agreeable and friendly person. But still Sally could not help the feeling of uneasiness. Maybe she was just reacting like this because she hardly knew the ginger-haired man personally.
Noin looked thoughtful. "You believe that Relena would be safe there?" she asked, her voice absolutely serious. Apparently Sally was not the only one who had some doubts about this.
Even though she knew it was impolite, Sally ignored Relena's question. "It certainly is unpredictable. But what about safety measures?"
"The existing system is one of the best, and it would not be a problem to increase the security." Zechs hesitated for a moment. "The only difficulty is that he probably will not want Preventers in the house because of... discretion."
"Understandable," Sally commented. Treize had not been about to make his survival known when she had seen him three months ago, and she would have been amazed if that had changed so quickly. And while Preventer agents could probably be trusted to keep something like this silent, there was always the risk that the temptation to talk would become too great.
Noin cleared her throat. "But the three of us could be there. Une too. And Nichols... How many agents would be going? I shouldn't think that we would have sent more than two or three anyway."
"So you agree with the idea?" Sally asked her.
"I think it is the best we can come up with right now," the dark-haired woman answered. "I am not entirely comfortable with this, but somehow I doubt we will find a better one quickly."
"We won't. Any of the other possibilities would take at least one day to prepare, and it would hardly be as safe as this one." Zechs paused a moment, meeting Sally's eyes. Apparently he considered her to be the one who had to be convinced that the plan was a sound one. And she knew well enough by now that once Zechs' mind was set on something it was practically impossible to make him let go of the idea again.
Better to agree with him and save them the trouble. "Would he allow it that she is there? And make the necessary changes for her security?" she asked the last question that was on her mind. If Zechs could be certain of that, then there really was nothing speaking against it.
For a moment Zechs remained thoughtfully silent, but then he nodded. "He will keep her safe if I ask him to do so."
"Then I have no objections," Sally said firmly. "Noin? Do you agree?"
Her friend nodded. "Yes, but under the condition that I go with her."
"We'll have to settle those details, but I'd feel more comfortable that way too. It's not that I don't trust him, but still..." Sally trailed off, not quite certain how she should describe the feeling. She was just a bit uneasy about it. That Zechs seemed so convinced that it was a good idea helped; after all he was Treize's lover, so he should know the man well enough to be reasonably certain of him. "Zechs, when you speak to him, tell him that Noin and Nichols will probably go with Relena. It won't be a problem, no?" Noin and Nichols both knew about Treize's survival after all, and Sally was certain that neither of them would talk.
"He probably will not like it," Zechs said, a thoughtful expression on the handsome face.
Sally shrugged. "Convince him then."
"Convince whom?" Relena was sounding quite indignant by now, and Sally shot Zechs a hopeful look. His idea, his sister, his lover. It really was his duty to explain to Relena what they were planning.
Zechs apparently understood, because he sat down on the chair next to the bed again and turned to his sister. "Relena, I cannot tell you here. You must understand that."
The young girl met his eyes, frowning. "You expect me to agree to this when I do not know what you plan to do with me?"
"I would never allow this if it could harm you," Zechs told her quietly. "I wish you could believe that."
Relena did not answer immediately; she just studied Zechs' face, searching for something, and then she nodded, making Sally wonder what had happened between them when she and Noin had been out of the room.
"Thank you," Zechs said, and the tension that Sally had not been aware of until now was suddenly gone.
"So she is going to be okay?" Mariemeia asked, looking at him with wide blue eyes.
Treize nodded. "The doctors are taking care of her," he told her reassuringly, tightening his arms around her a bit when she leaned closer and rested her head against his chest. They were in Treize's study, on the same couch where he and Dorothy had been watching the newscasts just two hours ago. "She will be alright soon."
He had not been planning to tell Mariemeia immediately about what had happened, but when his daughter had come home from school she had been so upset that it was obvious that she knew about it. At first she had not wanted to speak about it, but after some coaxing came the explanation that she had overheard some parents talk when they had picked up their children after school. And to make things worse, Mariemeia had misunderstood them and had thought that Relena had been killed. After hearing that, Treize had taken her aside and had set out to explain what had happened, and to assure her that Relena would be alright.
Mariemeia had calmed down rather quickly once he had told her that Relena was not dead. Treize was not entirely certain how things stood between his daughter and Zechs' sister, but the events of the Second Eve War fortunately did not seem to affect them much. Une had told him that Relena had been visiting Mariemeia a few times and that they had gotten along rather well. Treize was glad about it; he wouldn't allow anyone to hurt the girl who was right now sitting in his lap and who still looked far too unsettled about what had happened.
"It hurts when you are shot, you know?" Mariemeia said quietly.
"I know, yes. But the doctors will give her something against the pain."
Frowning a little, Mariemeia looked up at him. "They did that with me too, and it did not help at all."
Treize sighed softly, gathering her more closely to himself. He loathed to be reminded that Dekim had almost killed his little girl. "I am sure that they have tried their best. You know that doctors only try to make you feel better."
"Aunt Sally can do it. She never hurts me."
Smiling a little at this, Treize hoped that she would keep thinking like this until the next round of injections was due. Mariemeia was developing an attitude towards medical treatment lately that was highly reminiscent of Zechs, although she was slightly less stubborn still than his lover. But Doctor Bolkonski, who had been the family doctor for the last twenty years, had already pointed out the parallels to Treize when the elderly man had encountered Mariemeia for the first time.
"She would never harm you, Marie. Surely you know that."
"She never lets me see what she does. And she gives me candy."
Briefly Treize wondered whether that sort of system could be applied to Zechs too. Perhaps not with chocolate as reward, but of course there were other ways to convince Zechs that fretting over medical examinations was not necessary.
"I am glad you think that she is a good doctor," Treize said with a smile. He wanted to ask how school had been today, but before he could voice the question, the comm unit on the table started beeping, and he had to set Mariemeia down. "Excuse me."
Mariemeia nodded, then slid off the couch completely and walked over to the door. "I'll be in the stable," she announced.
"Alright. Just don't stay too long, it will be time for lunch soon." Treize waited until she had left the room and closed the door behind her, then quickly checked the number of the incoming caller. Zechs. Well, that was not something unexpected.
Sitting down at the desk, Treize accepted the call, smiling when the face of his lover appeared on the screen.
"Hello Treize." Zechs looked better already, he noticed with some relief. There were traces of exhaustion on the handsome face still, but at least the haunted look was gone.
"Milliard... it is good to see you. I was a little worried after that press conference."
Zechs sighed softly. "I don't like to do those things," he said, frowning for a moment.
"I know. But you did well, beloved." Well enough to leave even Treize to wonder what the motivations were for some things that had been said.
"You are welcome. How is Relena doing?"
"Better already," Zechs replied, relief relatively plain in his voice as he raised a hand to tuck some stray blond strands back behind his ears.
Treize bowed his head lightly. "I am glad to hear that, Milliard," he told the younger man. "Did you decide yet how to proceed in this matter?" There were so many possible ways now that could be taken, and Treize was curious to watch how this would unfold. It was almost tempting to involve himself again, but he suspected that both Zechs and Lady Une probably would not be too glad about it if he interfered in their work with suggestions without being asked to do so.
"That is the reason why I am calling," Zechs said, and to Treize's surprise there was a hint of hesitance in his eyes at a sudden. It was almost the same expression Zechs had been wearing when he had told Treize about rebuilding and hiding that Gundam.
Leaning back in his seat, Treize waited for the younger man to continue.
"We will keep Relena out of sight until the Preventers can find out a little more about all this."
"I see... where are you going to take her, if I may ask?" Treize inquired. He could not think of any places that would be suitable for something like that. A Preventer base perhaps, though there would always be the risk that secrecy would not be maintained.
Zechs gave him another of those strange looks. "Treize, I need to ask a favor from you," he said quietly.
Treize raised an eyebrow. "What is it?" he asked, trying not to be too obviously puzzled. What favor? Zechs was so obviously focused on Relena right now, so this probably had something to do with the girl. But what?
"Do you remember that I asked you once to help me to keep Relena safe?"
That confirmed his speculation. "I gave you my word that I would watch over her," Treize stated calmly. He had made the promise the night before Zechs had left to hide the Wing Gundam, the last night they had spent together before the war had torn their lives apart.
"Does that promise still stand?" Zechs asked, looking at him blankly. There was no hint of pleading on his lover's face, but Treize knew the younger man well enough to make at least a good guess what was going on in his mind.
"It still stands. But that does not matter, Milliard." Treize held Zechs' gaze levelly. "If what you wish for me to do is within my possibilities, I will not say no." And if it seemed impossible, then he would at least have to try. It was a rare occurrence for Zechs to ask for his help, and Treize was not going to disappoint him.
"Thank you," Zechs said quietly.
"You are welcome," Treize returned almost automatically. "Milliard, what is it that you need?"
Zechs closed his eyes for a moment, then looked directly at Treize. "I need to hide Relena in Kiev."
Treize was not certain whether he had heard right. Hide Relena? Here? How could Zechs possibly have gotten that idea?
"Treize? I will understand if you say no..."
He vaguely shook his head, waving his hand dismissively. "You have managed to surprise me a little with this," he said slowly, his mind racing. Zechs had to have a good reason to ask something like that. And he certainly also had considered the potential sources of trouble. And had still deemed it a good solution to whatever concrete problem they had been facing. But still...
"I am sorry for startling you," Zechs apologized, his voice full of anxiety and a hint of resignation as he lowered his gaze. And Treize suddenly realized that his lover seemed to expect him to deny his request.
"There is no reason to apologize, beloved." Treize decided to focus on putting Zechs at ease. He had questions, but those would have to wait until he could be reasonably certain that Zechs was not blaming himself for even asking for something like that. "When would she be coming here?"
Zechs looked at him sharply, azure eyes wide. "You agree?"
Treize smiled a little. "Of course I do. Surely you did not really think that I would say no, did you?"
His lover returned the smile, a bit tentatively. "I had to ask," he offered, looking far more relaxed at a sudden. "Thank you, Treize."
"No need for that," Treize waved off. "If you think that this is the best way to deal with the situation, then I trust your judgment. You know you can count on my help when you need it."
"Will you come here with her?" The question had been on his mind ever since Zechs had called, and now there was the additional reason that they would have to arrange everything for Relena's stay.
Zechs nodded. "I will accompany her to Kiev," he said. "There is no need to send a normal agent to go with her."
That information let Treize be a little more at ease; he was not comfortable about the idea of having Preventer agents snoop around in his house. It would be easy enough for him to stay out of sight for some days, but if there was nobody here whom he had to avoid, then things would naturally be easier.
"There are some questions I would like to ask you. Do you think we can do this over the comm?"
"The line is secure," Zechs answered. "What do you need to know?"
Treize quickly ran a mental checklist. "Is Relena supposed to know about me?" was the question that was foremost on his mind. A bit selfish considering the current circumstances, but he needed to know in order to plan the next steps.
"That is your decision to make," came the quiet reply.
It was more or less what Treize had expected. "I believe she ought to know. It will make this run more smoothly, and I trust her to have enough sense to see the need for silence." Or rather, he trusted her to know that if his survival became known, it was a potential risk for peace. The girl would never gamble with that, and it was the best insurance he could hope for. "Perhaps it is better if you tell her before she comes here, then it will not be so much of a surprise when she sees me."
"I will do that," Zechs said, and Treize could tell that he was not entirely happy about the prospect of dropping the news on Relena. But it really would be better if the girl got to know one step at a time. "Your other questions?"
"The security measures. I assume you will want to increase the current ones."
Zechs shook his head. "Not the system itself. There isn't much to improve it. Sally has suggested having the Kiev base keep an eye on things from the distance."
The system at the manor was good, Treize knew that. But still it did not sound quite enough to rely on it, along with standard coverage from a Preventer base. And certainly Zechs knew that as well as he did. "What else do you have in mind?"
Once again Zechs was looking hesitant, making Treize wonder whether his lover had another surprise for him. He doubted that it would be anything as big as sheltering Relena, though. "We were thinking of sending Noin and Nichols to guard her directly."
Closing his eyes for a moment, Treize thought about this. The two knew that he had survived, and he trusted them to stay silent. Having them here would mean a need for adjustments, but a far smaller one than the presence of Relena would cause.
"I agree with that decision." And I wonder what else you will require of me, Milliard...
"You are certain?" Zechs asked, studying his face thoughtfully.
Treize nodded. "It is the best way to handle this. And both Lucrezia and Lieutenant Nichols will not be surprised to see me alive, so they will hopefully focus on the more important issues."
Zechs watched him, azure eyes unreadable for once. "To me it is important that you survived," he said quietly.
Briefly bowing his head, Treize looked at the younger man apologetically. "I am sorry about my unfortunate choice of words, Milliard."
"You know how much it matters to me, don't you?" Zechs' voice was deathly calm, but Treize was not fooled by it. He had known the blond man for what now amounted to fifteen years, and recognized Zechs' moments of self-doubt when he saw them.
"I know, Milliard, do not doubt that. And I am glad that for you it makes a difference." Pausing for a moment, Treize moved closer to the screen for added emphasis. "I love you, and I know that you love me. You never gave me reason to doubt that you do not care that I survived. And I thank you for that."
He wanted to hold his lover close and assure him that there was no reason to brood. It was an approach that almost always worked with Zechs. Touches were the best way to put the young man at ease. Zechs reacted strongly to them because they usually were a sign that everything was calm and safe. But right now that was not possible, so Treize would have to hope that what he said would be enough, at least until Zechs was back again.
"Sometimes I think that it is not enough."
Treize shook his head. "It is more than enough, Milliard, far more," he returned softly.
Zechs took a somewhat shaky breath, appearing to try to put this out of his mind. "I think we are going to be at the old military airport in Kiev this evening," he said, sounding more or less calm and settled again.
"I can send someone to collect you," Treize offered, going along with the topic change and making a mental note to work on assuring Zechs some more once he arrived.
"That would be helpful..."
"Just let me know when you will arrive so I can arrange it."
"I will do that." Zechs sighed softly and a small smile crossed his face. "Thank you... I don't know how to make it up to you for all this."
Treize returned the smile warmly, wishing that he were face to face with Zechs right now. "Never mind it. You are giving me something to do, so it is me who should be grateful. May I ask one more question?"
"Of course," Zechs said, waiting for him to go ahead.
"Do you want me to do something about Dorothy? Shall I tell her to leave, or should I let her stay?" It would probably be possible to politely send her somewhere else, but the girl was incredibly good at guessing the reasons for actions like that.
Zechs thought for a moment. "I suppose she can stay... she would not tell anyone, would she?"
"No, she would not," Treize stated firmly, absolutely convinced of it. His niece liked to play games, but she knew very well where to draw the line.
"You are right." Zechs glanced at his watch briefly, then gave him an apologetic look. "I need to start organizing," he said quietly.
"Go ahead, Milliard. I will see you tonight?" He couldn't help asking for the confirmation once more.
Zechs nodded. "Yes. Goodbye..."
The connection closed, and Treize sat still for some moments before he rose from his chair and left his room in search of Mariemeia. It would not be a problem to have her stay quiet about it, but she really needed to be told. And by now Treize knew that she tended to pout when she was not the first to know.
It was strange to not be in a big car with shaded windows, as usual. And sitting in the passenger seat was unusual too, since people normally would insist that the back seat was safer and also more appropriate for her. But Sally had suggested the front seat because it would give her body more support. Besides, the back of Zechs' car was far too cramped anyway.
Somehow it was interesting to be in a sports car for once. So far Relena had only seen them from outside, and she had thought them to be uncomfortable and loud. But it was surprisingly nice, although it also was a bit frightening to know that the ground was so close beneath her seat and whizzing by at such high speed.
"Do you think Pargan will be alright?" she asked eventually, more to fill the silence than because she really wanted to know. The old man had been sent to drive her regular car to the main airport, with a young Preventer agent on the back seat serving as a double to Relena. Apparently Sally assumed that it would distract whoever would be interested in knowing where Relena was going. At least that was what she had said, though she had not specified who might want to know. Relena had decided that she wanted to think of those interested people as reporters. The other possibilities were too unsettling.
"He has got enough Preventers around who take care of him." Flicking on the blinker briefly, Zechs took a sharp turn to the right and got them off the main road.
Relena relaxed a little. "I wonder if it will really distract anyone," she said. "That agent looked not at all like me."
"It will be enough," Zechs assured her calmly. "And once they realize that you are not in that car, you will be safely out of reach anyway."
Nodding a little, Relena looked out of the window. She was not entirely sure where they were going; she knew the main roads in Sank fairly well by now, but the smaller ones were a bit of a mystery still. The countryside looked familiar, though. There was that small river where some local towns wanted to set up a hydroelectric plant further downstream. And somewhere in the vicinity was the old military base, mostly destroyed by now. She would have to discuss the plans for that place with her ministers soon; the suggestions by now were ranging from a memorial park to an industrial center, and they would eventually have to make a decision.
"When are you going to tell me where we are going?" she asked eventually. It was making her highly uncomfortable to not know what would happen now. There was no reason for her to assume that Zechs would have lied at her when he said that she would be safe where they were going. But they probably had somewhat different ideas of a good hiding place.
The road was narrowing, and Zechs slowed the car a little. "I could not do it at the hospital," he said, a hint of apology in his voice. "Your room could have been bugged."
"But you can tell me now. Surely nobody can be listening to you here." Relena attempted crossing her arms without really thinking, and a sharp stab of pain reminded her that this was definitely not a good idea. The doctors had given her a strong dose of analgesic that had reduced the pain to a dull throbbing, but attempting to move the arm nevertheless hurt horribly.
"Are you alright?"
Puzzled, Relena looked up in time to see Zechs glance at her for a moment, a worried expression on his face.
"You should not try to move your arm," her brother said reasonably, concentrating on the road again.
Relena scowled at the obvious statement. "I am not doing it on purpose. Now are you going to tell me where we are going?"
Zechs sighed softly, then nodded. "I am taking you to the old military base. A plane is waiting there."
"And where will it take me?" Relena pressed. Apparently Zechs had decided to make her drag each tiny bit of information out of him, and she really was not in the mood for that sort of game. "Zechs, I have the right to know."
"You have the right," Zechs agreed quietly. "But I need you to promise something first."
Looking at him expectantly, Relena waited for him to continue.
"I need your word that you will not talk to anyone about what I tell you." Zechs sounded serious enough that Relena did not immediately question the reasons for this. Still, it did not make much sense to her that she was not supposed to talk about this. As if she was going to make a big announcement about her hiding place.
She nodded, even though this was not making much sense right now. But then again, Zechs' actions had never seemed logical to her, and still they tended to work out somehow. Sometimes at least.
"Once we are on the plane, we will be going to Kiev. I have a... a friend there, and he has accepted to let you stay."
A friend? Relena had to concentrate not to show her surprise too much. She had been seeing Zechs on a rather regular base lately, but he had never mentioned having friends in Kiev. Of course, he had not talked a lot about things that went beyond daily duties and official issues. But even if Zechs had not spoken about it, Noin would have mentioned something. The dark-haired woman always was amazingly well informed about Zechs, and she was Relena's first source of information about her brother.
Neither of them had said anything about Kiev. Never. So how could Zechs have a friend there whom he apparently trusted enough to send her there?
"Who is he? Do I know him?"
"Yes, you do. You have met him once or twice." For a moment Zechs sounded so reluctant that Relena almost prompted him again, but then he continued. "Relena, I know this is going to be a surprise for you..."
She hated it when people started a sentence with that. "Just say it, Zechs. Who?"
He glanced at her, then nodded as he appeared to surrender. "Treize Khushrenada."
The first thought that crossed her mind was that Zechs was joking. Then she remembered that her brother never did that.
This couldn't be true. That man was dead. Everybody knew that. He had died in that horrible, cruel battle in space. He had died, and the war had been over because there had not been anyone left who had wanted to fight after they had all seen him die.
Everybody had seen it.
Zechs had to be hallucinating. Yes, that probably was it, Relena decided. She knew that he had had some sort of connection to Treize Khushrenada, though she had never felt quite comfortable with trying to find out more. Noin had occasionally dropped hints that Zechs had been staying with that family for a while, but that was all.
"Relena, I know how this must sound to you..."
"You cannot be serious! Zechs, he died! Everybody knows that, so why are you saying something like that?"
Her brother sighed softly. "Because it is true," he said quietly, his eyes fixed on the road.
"But it cannot be true," Relena insisted. "There have never been doubts that he died. Not even rumors that he is alive still. I have even been at that memorial service..."
"... that was held for him and for me. Does that prove to you that I am dead too?"
Something about Zechs' voice stopped her from replying to this. It was true that everybody had believed for a year that her brother had lost his life in the explosion of the Libra. And yet he had survived, and he was here with her now. Noin had explained to her that with the way Zechs' Mobile Suit had been constructed, there had been a small chance that he could live through something like that. The dark-haired woman had never stopped believing in this possibility, and in the end she had been proven right.
For once Relena regretted not knowing enough about mobile suits to judge whether the same could be true for Treize. She had seen records of the explosion of his suit, and it had always looked very final to her. But she was aware that she was no expert on this, and that looks could be deceiving. Nevertheless, why hadn't anyone else mentioned the possibility? Not even Dorothy had talked about it during the few times when she had mentioned him.
Besides, if Zechs knew about this, then why had he not done anything about it? He had fought Treize. Why had he not ended their fight now? Relena did not really want to think that her brother could kill someone, but she had seen him do it. She knew what he was capable of, yet something had stopped him from ridding the world forever from this threat to peace. If Treize was alive and not just a figment of Zechs' imagination.
The talk between her brother, Sally and Noin at the hospital came to Relena's mind. How Zechs had avoided saying a name... Relena had thought that it was all for the sake of her security, but maybe that was not correct. And both Noin and Sally had seemed to know what he had been talking about. So unless they had misunderstood each other completely...
"You were serious about this, weren't you?"
He nodded briefly. "Yes."
Had he a reason to lie to her about this? Relena could not really think of one. Over the last few months Zechs never had given her any reason to believe that he might want to do her harm. And when she added to that all that had happened today... Hazy as Relena's memory of the shooting was, she was quite certain that he had been the first one at her side. Adding to that the things he had said at the hospital about needing to protect her...
"You are sure that this is a wise decision?" She couldn't help the question. If she was supposed to go along with this, then she at least wanted to know what made Zechs think that it was a good thing to let his former enemy take care of her.
"I am sure," Zechs stated as he flicked on the blinker for a moment before taking a turn to the right, where the airport was coming into sight.
"Relena, I promise that I would never harm you. I can understand if it is difficult for you to believe, but you have to trust me on this..."
She sighed in frustration. Somehow Zechs was incredibly good at misreading her intentions behind the question. "I told you that I trust you. And I'll believe for now that he is really alive. All I want to know is why you trust him."
Zechs remained silent for a while, and she was about to repeat her question when he spoke. "He has given me his word that he will do anything to keep you safe."
"And that is enough?"
"With him, yes. You will be safe, Relena, I am sure of that. He has never broken a promise in all the time I have known him."
Relena raised her eyebrows questioningly. "But you were only working with him for a short time... Noin said so..."
"But I have lived with his family for thirteen years. And I never had any reason to think that Treize or his parents would give away my secret. They kept me safe for all that time, and it was not always easy... I will never be able to repay him for that."
This time the surprise made her gasp lightly. "You stayed with them all the time?" There had not been anything in the files she had read about her brother that would have indicated such a thing. And Noin had only vaguely mentioned that Zechs had been acquainted with the Khushrenadas. Why hadn't anyone informed her about this?
Zechs glanced at her, puzzlement clear on his face. "You did not know?" he asked, slowing down the car as they came near a plane. "I thought someone would have told you..."
Relena shook her head mutely.
"They took me in after... after Sank had been destroyed. They protected me for all this time... That's why I trust Treize. He has been my friend and so much more for all those years. Do you understand?"
"Yes..." She understood why he was taking her to Kiev. But at the same time so many questions were rising in her mind, questions that she wanted to ask him, but at the same time she was almost afraid of the answers.
With a satisfied sigh Sally closed the door to her office as soon as that annoying press spokesman had left. He had been trying to get her to tell him where Relena had been taken so he would have something to tell the reporters. It was a bit of a mystery to Sally why the man hadn't realized that the exact purpose of all the fuss they were making over Relena was to keep the press, and the rest of the world, unaware of where the girl was. Sometimes it was amazing how dense people could be.
So far they had not encountered any problems. Relena was safely on the plane to Kiev; Zechs had called a while ago to inform Sally that everything had gone smoothly and that they were expecting to land within the next hour. Noin and Nichols had arrived there already and were checking on the security at Treize's place, so everything should be safe. And the reporters were currently following a hint that Relena had been seen in a small hospital a bit outside the town, where Une had had some agents posted to cause a distraction.
Step one of their mission appeared to have gone well so far.
The comm on her desk beeped twice, the signal that it was her secretary who was calling, and then connected automatically. "Lady Une is here to see you, Madam," the young agent informed her.
"Let her in." With a small smile Sally ran a hand through her hair and got up from her chair just as the door opened, admitting the leader of the Preventers into the room.
"Am I interrupting something?" When Sally shook her head, Une turned to poke her head out the door. "Agent Dirlik, make sure that nobody disturbs us for the next few minutes. If anyone should be looking for me or Doctor Po, tell them to wait until we are finished with our current business."
"Yes Madam!" With some envy Sally watched as Dirlik snapped to attention and saluted. She never was very firm on formalities, and the people around her knew it and acted accordingly. Normally she appreciated it, but sometimes it was nice to know that she was respected. For Une it all seemed to come naturally. Although her reputation certainly had a lot to do with that. People remembered what she had been like in the past and tried to stay on her good side most of the time.
Une firmly shut the door and the stern mask slipped from her face, replaced with a tired smile. "He's obedient at least," she commented, a hand reaching up to loosen her tight collar a bit. "Is everything alright so far?"
Sally nodded. "No need to worry," she told Une. "Everything is working according to the plans."
"Good..." Without much ceremony Une settled down in Sally's chair and toed off her high heels. "You were right about the shoes. My feet are killing me."
"My poor Lady..." Coming closer, Sally knelt down next to the chair and drew her lover into a brief hug. "I guess you are going to listen to me the next time I tell you it is a bad idea to wear new shoes when there's a lot of running ahead?"
For a moment Une leaned against her, then disentangled herself from Sally's arms again. "Probably. Though most of the time I don't know when a day will get as busy as this one." She sighed softly, meeting Sally's eyes. "Do we have any clues yet who was behind this?"
"None that point in special directions." Sensing that this was going to stay a business conversation for at least a while, Sally drew up another chair and sat down. "We know that the gun was not registered under Natasha Kubin's name, but that does not help much with all the weapons currently around."
"It is going to take years until we have any control on that again," Une sighed. In the aftermath of the war, weapons had been destroyed in masses, but there were so many left still that it was impossible to keep track of at least part of them. People had gotten used to owning them, and during the war it had been so easy to obtain them that hardly anybody had bothered with registering. The Preventers had an entire department working on correcting this, but progress was depressingly slow. "So the gun does not help. Did the background check bring up anything new?"
"Nothing at all," Sally answered, reaching for a thin folder on her desk and flipping it open. "She came from an entirely average family. The father an engineer, the mother studied anthropology for a while and then became a housewife. No extraordinary connections. Normal school, and she was working as a secretary for a small export firm for a while before she applied for the job as Relena's assistant."
Une frowned a little at this. "What was the source for this?" she asked.
Sally checked the last sheet of paper in her folder. "Records from the police and from some other administrative sources. The information on her job comes from the ministry of finance, everything on her family is based on the last census information from two years ago." Everything looked quite neat on paper, and there was no real reason to question the material. Sally had sent some agents to inquire further, but until they returned with information, she had to work with what she had.
"To me it seems strange that she would get the position as Relena's secretary with so little practice," Une said thoughtfully, running a hand through her hair slowly. "The girl has no references... surely there were people with better qualification who applied."
"I wondered about that too, and I already sent an agent to fetch her application. Once I have it, I can probably tell you more."
"Hopefully." For a moment Une closed her eyes before she looked at Sally again. "You should delegate this matter."
Sally met the deep brown eyes somewhat defiantly. "This needs attention," she said firmly.
"Of course it does. But I need you to focus on other things too. You are the second highest person in the entire organization. You cannot only deal with one issue. Put some agents in charge of this, give them an efficient leader, and have them report to you regularly."
There was truth in Une's words, of course, and Sally knew that very well. She could hardly argue that this was the only case that required her attention. But at the same time she was not willing to let go of this. Supervising a greater number of missions and setting importance and resources for them was something Sally had gotten used to by now, but she still tried to stay in touch with one or two cases in detail. It helped her to keep a more individualistic perspective on things.
"This is important enough to get my attention, don't you think so?" she asked Une, still not breaking eye contact. It was something of a power play between them whenever they disagreed on something, and had turned into habit by now.
Une accepted the challenge. "It is important. Just like the other things we are currently dealing with. And they all need to be supervised, and that is your duty."
"I am not neglecting the other missions." And Sally knew very well when she had to cut down on the time she spent on dealing with her special projects in order to maintain an overview.
"Watch this one like you monitor the others. You will still stay updated, and at the same time there is no danger that anything gets overlooked because you are focused on Relena alone." There was something in Une's voice that told Sally that they were getting to the main reason for this. Une had not objected to Sally taking interest in individual missions in the past, but she was questioning it now.
"You are concerned that I spend too much time on this... why?" Sometimes the direct route was best when it came to the Lady.
"Because we cannot risk that anyone accuses us of concentrating on Relena and letting other things slip." Une paused for a moment as she leaned back in the chair, looking suddenly more exhausted than before. "And I need you to montitor more other missions. I cannot do that alone, it is getting too much."
Sally felt a pang of guilt at this. She should have realized that if she did not do something and did not delegate it either, Une would end up having to deal with it. By now she really should have gotten the hang of being high up in the hierarchy of an organization like the Preventers, but sometimes old habits still interfered with her work.
"I will put someone in charge of this," she said, closing her eyes for a moment and smiling a little.
"Good." Une sounded relieved, and Sally told herself to apologize once they were off duty again for having opposed her over something that worried her as much as this. "Maybe one of the Gundam pilots will be interested."
"Maybe... I'll offer the mission to them. And there are some other agents too who could deal with this."
"Tell them to report to me too. I need to remain updated." With this, Une seemed to put the matter out of her mind. "You don't happen to have any comfortable shoes around, do you?"
Sally laughed softly. "None that would look well with your uniform at least."
Une sighed, then slipped into her shoes again and stood carefully. "I have to make other people do the running."
"My poor Lady..." Sally rose as well and gathered her lover close for a brief kiss, smiling when she felt the slim body relax against her almost immediately. "Would you feel better if I promise to pamper you tonight?"
"Probably... The thought certainly is distracting enough to keep me from thinking of my toes." A last kiss, then Une stepped back and walked over to the door. "Thank you for agreeing," she said, and then left the room.
Just as promised, a car had been waiting at the airport already when they had landed, and they had been safely whisked away as quickly as possible. Zechs was feeling more relaxed by now. Everything was running smoothly, and there were no signs that this would change anytime soon. Sally had been keeping him informed on how things were progressing; none of the media agencies had any realistic idea where Relena currently was, and it would stay like that for a while. Wild rumors were starting to fly, but as long as none of them involved Kiev, Zechs did not mind at all.
Relena had been mostly quiet for the flight, though he could tell that she had a lot of questions on her mind. Perhaps she had figured that it would be better not to distract him while he was piloting. Or maybe she had not felt comfortable enough to ask. They were not close enough to talk about just anything, something that Zechs regretted deeply. But there never had been the chance for them to get close; he had always been somewhere else, had always had to do something else.
And it would be the same this time. Zechs knew that he should stay with his sister and guard her, but he just could not sit still while the person responsible for hurting her like this was out there. He needed to do something about it; this was a personal issue, and he was not going to leave it to any Preventer agents. There had to be a way to convince Une that she should let him do this. And if she did not, then Zechs would just have to work on his own.
"We are here, Sir," Alexei informed them as the car left the road and slowly rolled into the driveyard.
Zechs gently touched Relena's uninjured arm. She had fallen asleep almost immediately after they had gotten into the car, probably due to the painkillers she had taken just before the plane had landed. "Relena? Wake up..."
"Mhmm?" Sleepily she blinked, then looked up at him. "Are we there yet?"
"Yes, that's why I woke you. We have to get out of the car."
Relena frowned slightly. "And you are really certain that I should do this?" she asked. Zechs wished that he had managed to take away the doubts she had about this, but he was realistic enough to know that it would not be so easy. He knew that Treize was the best choice right now to keep her safe, but that knowledge was based on years of living with the older man, first as his friend and then his lover. All Relena knew about Treize was what the public knew, along with some more informal bits of information from Dorothy and Noin.
"You will be safe here," Zechs stressed once more, waiting until Alexei had opened the door at Relena's side before he got out of the car. It felt good to be standing here again, to hear the familiar sound of the gravel beneath his shoes as he walked to the other side of the car to help Relena out. He had only left some days ago, but it had felt almost like an eternity to him.
There were no problems in getting Relena out of the car; Alexei remained close in case his help was needed, but she just leaned on Zechs' offered arm. So strange to have her this close at a sudden, Zechs thought as he adjusted his hold on her to steady her more securely. It reminded him of that moment on the Libra, when he had embraced her and Relena had been holding herself so stiffly in his arms as if she was only waiting for him to let go again. But now she was leaning against him a little, accepting his support out of some reason.
They took a few steps towards the house, and Zechs kept an eye on the door. Treize was aware that they had arrived, he was certain of that. So he was probably waiting for the best moment to greet them, and that would be just about now...
He was not disappointed.
The door opened and Treize quickly came down the stairs, a polite smile on his face that intensified a bit when his eyes met Zechs'.
At his side, Zechs heard Relena gasp softly as she saw the confirmation of what he had told her in the car and during the flight. It had been clear that she had not been entirely convinced that he had been telling her the truth, but now she could not doubt any longer. At least he had been able to prepare her a little for this, Zechs thought as he remembered how he had discovered that Treize had survived.
"Welcome to Kiev, your Highness, Milliard," Treize said, executing a very formal bow in front of Relena that made Zechs raise an eyebrow. Apparently Treize had decided to remain within the borders of formality for now. A polite and respectful thing to do in the presence of a Princess, of course, but Zechs had seen Treize use this tactic before. Usually when he wanted to subtly make it clear to someone that this was his playing field and that the other person ought to realize that going along with what Treize did was the wisest choice.
Relena nodded in response, and Zechs could feel her body tense a little against his side. "Thank you, Duke Khushrenada."
Treize gestured dismissively, the smile still firmly in place. "No need for titles. Please, just feel free to call me Treize. I am finding that while titles are appropriate sometimes, this is hardly a situation that would require them, Princess."
"Ah... of course." Relena seemed a bit flustered, and Zechs could not help thinking that the first round had gone to his lover. A quick glance at Treize's face confirmed this; there was a hint of satisfaction in his gaze that reminded Zechs a lot of the small arguments between the older man and Dorothy. Well, if Treize had decided to take the same approach to Relena as to his niece, then things would hopefully stay safe between Zechs' lover and his sister.
Another small bow, very carefully measured and accompanied with a slight wave of a hand. "Perhaps we should continue this inside? We shall be more comfortable there, and I believe that there are some people who wish to speak to you, your Highness."
Once Relena had agreed to this, they followed Treize inside. Noin was already waiting for them there, and Relena relaxed visibly when she saw the other woman. A quick exchange of greetings and pleasantries, then Noin took Relena aside to inform her about the security measures and to give her an update on the entire situation. They disappeared in the parlor, and Zechs suddenly found himself alone with Treize.
"I am glad that you are back, Milliard..." The words 'missed you' hung in the air, but Treize did not say them just yet. "Did everything go as it should?"
Zechs nodded, feeling the last hours catch up with him at last now that he no longer had to concentrate on staying calm and alert. "No trouble at all..." he said, not managing to keep the weariness out of his voice entirely.
"Good to know." Treize's arms came around him, and with a soft sigh of relief Zechs rested his head against his lover's shoulder. Being held like this always gave him a feeling of security, that there was nothing to worry about, and he really needed the reassurance after all the exhaustion and tension of the day.
They stayed like this for a while, not saying anything, just relishing each other's closeness. Zechs could feel his body relax slowly, and tiredness was spreading through his limbs. Sleep would probably be a good idea once he had made sure that everything was safe; Noin and Nichols had been checking the house for the entire afternoon, but Zechs wanted to do a quick inspection nevertheless. He needed the feeling of confirmation that everything truly was as it should be.
"What are you thinking of?" Treize asked quietly, almost as if he had sensed the direction in which Zechs' thoughts had been wandering. "You seemed so absent at a sudden..."
"I need to make sure everything is safe," Zechs replied, raising his head from Treize's shoulder again to look into the older man's eyes. It was hard to resist leaning that little bit closer that it would take for them to kiss, but he had too much on his mind still.
Treize evenly returned his gaze, though there was no challenge in the deep sapphire eyes. "Nichols and Lucrezia have gone through the entire procedure already. I am sure that they would have noticed if there were a problem."
Zechs sighed softly and felt Treize's arms tighten around his waist a little, drawing him closer. "They would... but I need to confirm it for myself."
"It is quite late already. And you look exhausted."
This made Zechs' eyes narrow. "That does not matter," he said firmly, trying to look more awake than he felt. Such a little thing as tiredness was not going to keep him from making sure that he could keep his promise to Relena. He had told her that she would be safe, and he had to see to it personally.
"I would dare to disagree with you on that, Milliard." Treize was getting that look in his eyes that always meant he was going to try and approach something reasonably. It made Zechs sigh inwardly; he knew he was not up to countering his lover's logic right now. And just being stubborn about it always seemed such a childish thing to do. "If you are tired, then the only thing you will achieve is that you are going to wear yourself even more. You would not notice flaws in the safety measures, if there even were any, which I doubt. The entire system has been checked all day, and you know that it was very thorough to begin with."
"Yes, I know that." Zechs did try not to sound annoyed, but he was not entirely sure whether he had managed. "It would make me feel more at ease if I have a look," he offered as an explanation.
For a moment it seemed that Treize would attempt to argue this as well, but then the ginger-haired man merely nodded. "I see... In that case we should better get started."
Zechs shook his head lightly. "You do not have to come." It would be nothing more than a trip through the entire house, and deep inside Zechs knew that he did not expect anything to be wrong.
Treize smiled at him. "I believe I will keep you company through this. Besides, I know what has been changed and can give you an introduction to those things."
"Do not mention it." Leaning closer, Treize brushed his lips against Zechs in a kiss that gradually deepened until the security check was the last thing on Zechs' mind. He was just glad to be back home.
"Goodnight!" The door closed behind Noin, and Relena sat down on the bed with a small frown on her face as she surveyed the room more closely. She had to admit that it looked quite nice. A little larger than her own bedroom, and the placing of the finely made furniture made it appear even more spacious. The colors were rather pleasant too; the furniture was held in a reddish brown - cherrywood, if she remembered correctly - while the otherwise dominant color was a pale yellow and the occasional light blue. It all looked like a lady's room; everything seemed a little too delicate to be that of a man. Relena briefly wondered whose room this was, then dismissed the thought again as she got up to open one of the two doors in the wall.
It turned out to be a walk-in closet, empty save for a few dresses in a corner, carefully wrapped into protective covers. They were beautiful, even though they were a little old-fashioned. Relena could remember seeing her mother wear similar clothes to balls some years ago. Strange to find such similar things here without knowing who had owned and worn them.
Relena shut the closet again and opened the door in the other wall. It turned out to lead into a small bathroom that had the same air of intricate elegance as the bedroom. Fluffy white towels had been laid out, along with a robe and a small assembly of soaps, shampoo and other necessities. Almost like in the hotel suites she usually stayed in, with one difference. Here the atmosphere was far more personal; hotels never gave her the impression that someone was trying to make her feel welcome. Relena could not quite say what made her feel like this. Maybe it was because nothing was in her room that was obviously there to impress her. In hotels there always were so many fresh flowers and small presents of candies and similar things, but it was something that would be given to any person of importance. Here those things were missing; there were plants in the room, but they were potted and looked like they had always been here. The paintings on the walls were not following any theme; instead they looked like they had been chosen because someone had liked them and not because they fit well with the general colors of the room. It all felt so personal. This had been someone's room, and she was allowed to stay here.
Probably it had been a decision of politeness; perhaps the room was better than those usually reserved for guests. Treize had very obviously been trying to treat her respectfully, so the choice of rooms could be part of that.
She was not quite sure what to think of it all. Just the thought that this man had survived was confusing Relena more than she liked to admit. She hadn't quite believed it until she had seen him. Until then she had been able to pretend that Zechs was making this up, that he maybe wanted to believe that Treize had lived. Why he would want to think like that, she didn't quite know, but there were a lot of things about her brother that didn't make a lot of sense to her.
Zechs had assured her that Treize could be trusted. She would have to hope that he was right about that; Relena knew that Zechs would not endanger her willingly, but he had strange ideas sometimes about the best way to keep her safe. Like locking her up in a cabin on Libra... Was the same going to happen again here? Relena couldn't quite suppress a shiver as she suddenly remembered being kidnapped by Dekim Barton. What if something like that was happening again? But no, Noin was here with her, and Relena trusted the dark-haired woman. Maybe more than anyone else in the world right now. Noin had always kept her safe, so she would not play along with something like that.
But still it did not quite make sense to her that Treize would have agreed to help hiding her just because he was feeling charitable. Relena did not know him well, but the two times they had met before, he had not given her the impression that whatever he did was because he wanted to help. The first time he had ridiculed her and completely warped the meaning of what she had wanted to tell the Romafeller Foundation. And the second time he had taken away her one chance to stop the war and bring peace to the world. No, he would not involve himself in this because he wanted to be nice. Relena knew people like him; she was dealing with them every day. They always had plans of their own, and those were what mattered to them.
Certainly Treize had his own motivation for helping. She would have to figure out what that was.
Relena had decided to remain upstairs for breakfast, claiming that she was not feeling well enough to get up, and Noin was keeping her company. Nichols too had excused himself, claiming that he had already eaten and that he needed to check the gardens. It was not really surprising for anyone, and Zechs had told himself not to worry that Relena had chosen to remain in her room. Most likely she was trying to avoid Treize, and he was willing to let his sister do it at the beginning. She would have to come to terms with the current situation during this day, but Zechs did not see any reason to push her into it already. It was better to allow things to settle rather than watching Relena lose her temper or to let Treize test her patience.
Zechs was well aware that Treize was not at ease in Relena's presence. It had shown clearly last evening, when he had practically been the incarnation of cool and charming politeness. Treize was trying to keep her at a safe distance while evaluating her, and Zechs had the suspicion that his lover's opinion of Relena would not be entirely favorable. But so far Treize had avoided all topics that concerned Relena in more personal ways, and Zechs did not want to press. He only hoped that his lover and his sister would get along for the duration of Relena's stay. When it came to Treize he was fairly sure that there was no need to worry about provocations; Treize liked to tease, but he knew where to draw the line. Relena's impulsiveness was what worried Zechs; while she was more restrained already than she had been during the war, she still lost her temper occasionally.
Breakfast was going well; Dorothy and Mariemeia had joined them like they did most mornings, and the talking centered mostly around normal topics, like the birthday party one of Mariemeia's friends at school was having tomorrow. The girl was currently doing her best to convince Treize that it would be a good idea if she stayed there overnight. Treize did not seem too fond of the idea, but in the end he had to give in. There was not really anything he could say against it, and Mariemeia could be incredibly good at getting her way.
The discussion then shifted to Dorothy's travel plans; the young woman had been staying in Kiev quite often during the last months, but she regularly made short trips to visit acquaintances and relatives. She had been planning a trip now too, but had decided to postpone it in order to keep Relena company. The two young women got along surprisingly well, and Dorothy's presence would probably add some balance to Relena's visit.
Inwardly shaking his head at thinking of Dorothy and balance in the same sentence, Zechs returned his attention to what was going on around him.
"Of course it is likely that there will not be any difference at all," Treize was saying. "And as long as your excuse is not too obvious..."
"No need to worry about that, Uncle Treize. I know how to do this in a polite way."
Treize's eyebrows rose a fraction, but he did not comment on it, instead taking a sip from his tea.
"So, Milliard, I hope you will not mind my company here." Seeing that Treize was not quite in the mood for bantering, Dorothy turned to Zechs instead.
"Why should I mind?" he asked even as his mind presented him with several reasons for it. Starting with the fact that Dorothy had an uncanny talent to keep him on edge.
Dorothy shrugged delicately. "I would not know... but you seem to be not entirely at ease around me sometimes. Although after so many years it really can be expected that you know I do not bite..."
"I would never accuse you of that."
"You are very sure of this, aren't you?"
"If you say so, then I believe you."
"Oh, really?" Something in Dorothy's voice told him that she was not pleased with his answer. Zechs sighed inwardly; he was not in the mood for her teasing right now. He just had too much on his mind. There were so many things he needed to deal with... arguing with Dorothy was not high on his priority list.
"Really. Could you pass me the honey please?" Hopefully she would get the hint - well, there was no real doubt about it that she would get it. The question was whether she would decide to acknowledge it.
Dorothy reached out and handed the small porcelain pot to him. "But of course."
"While we are talking about travel plans... How long are you going to stay here, Milliard?"
Zechs managed not to drop the honey at Dorothy's words, but it was a close call. He had hoped that a question about that would not come up, and that he would get the chance to tell Treize in private about his plans. Those behind the attack on Relena were still out there somewhere, and Zechs simply could not sit still and wait for Une's teams to discover them. For them it would be a job like any other, but for him it was personal. He needed to take care of this himself.
And he knew very well that Treize would not like the idea. Zechs was confident that he could convince his lover why he needed to do it, but it would have been far easier if they had been alone.
"I have been meaning to ask about that as well. According to Lucrezia, your sister will be here for at least three or four more days. Surely you will be staying too for that time, won't you?"
"Treize... I don't think I can."
Two pairs of forked eyebrows rose as Treize and Dorothy looked at him.
"But why are you leaving again?" It was Mariemeia who asked, and that made it only harder for Zechs to find a way to explain why he needed to leave. He looked at the young girl for a moment and then glanced at Treize, hoping that his lover would understand his reluctance to talk about it in front of her.
"I need to take care of some things," Zechs told Mariemeia, giving her a small smile.
"Concerning Relena, I assume." Even though Treize's voice was perfectly calm, his eyes narrowed when he met Zechs'. "Maybe we could discuss the details later?"
Nodding, Zechs sighed inwardly. He would have to convince Treize as soon as they were alone.
The rest of breakfast was a somewhat strained affair. Dorothy and Mariemeia kept some sort of conversation going, but it centered mostly around a school friend that Zechs had not heard of yet. All he could do was listen and at the same time try to figure out the best way to tell Treize that he needed to leave to hunt down the ones responsible for the attack.
Once Mariemeia had left the table to get ready for school, Dorothy too excused herself. It was surprising for Zechs to see her go; he had expected the young woman to try and stay so she could see what would happen. But apparently she had decided that this time it would be better if she were not present.
As soon as she was gone, Treize put down his tea and leaned forward in his seat, looking into Zechs' eyes. "I assume you are planning to take part in the Preventer investigation that concerns Relena," he said calmly.
"Yes," Zechs confirmed. He was not going to let himself be talked out of this, no matter what Treize would say.
"I see... but why?" There was a hint of confusion in Treize's voice for a moment, and it puzzled Zechs. He had expected Treize to have at least considered the possibility that he would do something like this.
"If there are other assassins, they have to be found. And we need to figure out who was behind all this."
Treize shot him a mildly curious look. "I never thought you would be interested in that sort of investigation. After all it is just a matter of examining facts over and over again and trying out hypotheses. Unless, of course, it is not the detective work you are after." He seemed back at his usual self now, testing out possible scenarios and hypotheses.
Zechs briefly nodded in confirmation of this. "That girl won't have been the only assassin. Not when it is so obvious that this was a long-term plan. She has been in place for months, so there probably are others."
"And they will get nervous when the Preventers start examining backgrounds, and might attempt to run..."
"Exactly." It was a little puzzling to see that Treize was apparently willing to agree with him for now. Zechs knew very well that his lover was not happy about his plans to leave for this mission, but so far the opposition was missing. "They might leave a trail that leads to the person they work for."
"So you would want to try and find the ringleaders by pursuing the assassins while the Preventers work at it from the other direction." Treize sipped at his tea again, and Zechs recognized the gesture for what it was - a way to vent off some uneasiness. "The Lady won't like it... did you talk to her already?"
"She will hardly let you go."
"But I need to do this."
Sapphire eyes narrowed slightly. "Why?"
"Because it is personal. This was an attack on Relena. I can't just sit still and watch."
"Milliard, when did you last do something like this? The Preventers have special agents for these missions. For them it is routine..."
"I can do it as well as they can, and you know it," Zechs returned sharply, trying not to get angry at the calm tone of the older man and the apparent ease with which he was making Zechs feel a pang of doubt.
Treize looked at him, then nodded slowly. "I know. But you cannot expect me to stay silent when you do something like that. I loathe to watch you take risks like that. And you know that there are risks involved."
Zechs sighed softly. "I know. Treize, you don't have to remind me of that. But you cannot expect me to not do this. This is Relena who is in the center of it all. She is in danger, and I need to take care of that myself. I have protected her for all those years; I am not going to stop it now that there clearly is danger. She needs whatever protection I can give her, and if it means that I have to take risks then she is worth it." Zechs stopped, not sure whether this would help at all. Part of him wanted to tell Treize that he had reconsidered, that he would leave this mission to the Preventer experts. But he knew that he needed to do this, if only for his peace of mind.
For a long minute Treize said nothing, his face entirely unreadable as he leaned back in his chair. Zechs held himself still as his lover studied him; the entire situation suddenly reminded him of the times when they had disagreed on something while they still were with OZ.
Finally his lover shook his head slightly. "I hope that your sister appreciates what you do for her," he said.
Zechs bowed his head slightly. "I hope so too. But even if she doesn't, I have to do it. Simply because she is my sister."
With a soft sigh Treize looked at him. "I suppose that there is no way to convince you not to do this?" he asked quietly.
It almost surprised Zechs to see how easily Treize had given in. He had expected it to be more difficult to convince the older man that it was necessary for him to go. And Zechs had not been looking forward to that at all; arguing with Treize could be interesting as long as it centered on harmless topics that would not last long. But when things were as serious as this, Zechs wanted to have the confirmation that Treize thought of it the same way, or at least understood his point of view. They had disagreed about major issues in the past, had not talked about the differences, and it had led to a time in his life that Zechs wished he could forget.
This time, however, it had not turned into an argument at all. It would have quite quickly turned into a fight if they had talked about something like this before the war. Back then they both had been willing to defend their points of view with whatever it took. But things were still somewhat tentative between them at the moment, and they had been trying to avoid arguments as much as possible ever since coming back together. Still, Zechs had almost expected this to become the first real fight of their patched relationship.
"I need to do it," he said once more, looking into deep sapphire eyes.
Another sigh from his lover. "I wish you would not go," Treize spoke, his voice almost a whisper.
"I wish I had no reason to go." Zechs smiled sadly at Treize. "I really wish so."
A deep frown on her face, Une rose from her chair. "Zechs did what?"
"Go to check any potential assassins that might still be left," Sally replied calmly. She had spoken to Zechs an hour ago, and he had informed her of what he was planning to do. And while Sally had not been entirely content with it, she understood his reasons for needing to go. Besides, she was well aware that if she had denied him Preventer support, he would have gone off on his own, and that would have been a much greater risk.
"I can't believe he did that. And that you let him do it!"
"Une, you know exactly that nothing could have stopped him from going ahead with what he wants to do."
"You could have stopped him! He is one of our agents, he has to follow orders!" Une's voice was sharp with anger by now.
Sally shook her head lightly. "He would have disobeyed this time."
"And that assumption was enough for you to not even try?" Une snapped, stalking over to one of the file closets in the corner of her office.
"It was not only an assumption. He's disobeyed you before, and back then the reasons were nothing like the ones he has now." It was getting difficult not to really fall into fighting with Une. So far Sally was managing to remain calm, but she was ready to defend her position if Une did not see reason soon.
The brown-haired woman rummaged in a drawer for a moment, then took out a folder and held it out to Sally. "Zechs' file. Look inside and you will see that he never disobeys orders. He didn't do it even in OZ."
"He rebuilt Wing Gundam, and he had orders not to do that," Sally returned, not taking the folder. "You can't have forgotten that incident."
"That was an entirely different situation. It was the Romafeller Foundation who told him to destroy the Gundam remains, and he had no obligation to listen to them. Treize and I were his commanding officers, and he did what we told him to do."
Sally raised an eyebrow. "You gave him the order to destroy Wing Gundam, and he did not pay any attention to that. The only reason why he didn't disobey in the end is because you took it back again."
Une looked at her. "How would you know about that?"
"Noin told me. But even if you count that as not ignoring orders, this is different. Don't you see it? It is his sister who almost got killed. You can't expect him to sit still and wait until the Preventer teams find out something!"
"There is no reason why not! He has responsibilities and he is not keeping them! Maybe he is Relena's brother, but he is also a Preventer agent. He has sworn to do anything necessary to maintain peace, but what he is doing right now is the opposite!"
"Don't you think you are exaggerating a little bit?" Sally asked, sitting down on the couch she had insisted to be placed in the office in an attempt to get Une to take at least small naps occasionally. She was starting to worry about the direction of the argument; Une could take unsettlement and resistance far better now than a year ago, but when things got too heated she still tended to get upset about it. And that had let to the personality switches in the past. The current stable personality would then step back and leave it to either the peaceful or the nasty one to take charge of the situation.
"Exaggerating? He is interfering with the investigation, he's in the way of the regular agents, he's an unpredictable factor! I am definitely not exaggerating!"
"He could always coordinate his efforts with those of the teams," Sally suggested, spotting an opening. "Then he would not be in the way, and he might find out things that the teams would overlook."
Une met her eyes, still frowning. "It complicates things," she said, but she sounded less upset already.
"When have things ever not be complicated?" Sally returned with a small smile. It seemed like they could return to the more reasonable and rational aspects of the issue again.
Walking back to her desk, Une sat down again. "Get him integrated into the team. If he wants to stay involved, then he will have to cooperate. I won't let him endanger the mission just because he thinks that he can do it better than the agents."
Sally nodded. "I doubt that he will follow the team leader though," she said. The man who led the mission was competent, but he was a former White Fang officer. That alone would be enough to make it difficult for him to cooperate with Zechs. The blond man was not easy to cooperate with in general, and especially with the former White Fang soldiers he tended to be more than a little reserved.
"Whom did you put in charge anyway?"
"Alenichev. He was free, and he has quite an impressive record with investigations like this one."
Nodding, Une closed her eyes for a moment. "In that case tell Zechs that he is to report either to you or to me. I don't want trouble on that team."
"Alright." Sally leaned back, making herself a little more comfortable on the sofa. Now that Une had calmed down again, she didn't feel the need any longer to maintain a stiff and formal position. "You know, I do think that it is a good idea if Zechs takes part in this just so he'll see what the team is going to overlook."
"That is exactly the reason why I wanted to keep him out of there," Une said, raising a hand to briefly comb her fingers through her hair. "He knows his way around Sank, and he certainly is the one who is most likely to spot people with an interest in getting Relena killed. But the last time he was so obsessed with something personal, he shot the man who was responsible for the fall of the Sank Kingdom. And while I can't say that I disapprove, we'll need a trial in this case if possible. We can't go around just shooting criminals any longer." There was a hint of wistfulness in her voice as she said this.
"I will remind him of it," Sally assured her. "Surely he'll see reason in this case."
Une looked at her, a small smile on her face that lacked any humor. "You don't believe that yourself, do you?"
Sally sighed softly. "Not really. But I do not see any way to stop him either, so I'm trying to make the best of it."
A knock at the door made Relena look up from her inspection of the bookshelf at the side of her bed. She was not entirely sure who would place Anna Karenina and The Wealth Of Nations next to each other on the same shelf, but somehow she got the opinion that whoever owned these books had at least been interested in a variety of subjects. Relena was equally sure that the books did not belong to Treize. While she could picture him reading Adam Smith, she doubted that he would be interested in some of the more romantic novels that were on the shelves.
"Come in," she called after settling back into bed. Noin had strongly suggested that she should rest, and Relena did not wish to argue with her just now. It would only be a futile effort, since Noin had turned amazingly persistent and stubborn ever since Zechs had asked her to keep an eye on Relena.
Noin entered the room, followed by a white-haired man carrying a bag. His whole appearance - from the sensible clothes to the calm expression on his face - just screamed doctor. Besides, Noin had mentioned the day before that someone would come to check on her.
"Miss Relena, this is Doctor Bolkonski. He will be treating your injury while you are here."
"Ah, welcome," Relena greeted him, watching a little warily as he sat down his bag on a nearby chair. Noin had told her that she would have medical surveillance and checks on a daily basis, but she had not given any details. It would be necessary to trust the dark-haired woman's examination of the man's background.
"Good morning, Princess," Bolkonski said, seeming not at all impressed by talking to her. "It is a pleasure to meet you in person too. Your brother speaks very highly of you, and so does His Excellency. How are you feeling today?"
"Not too bad," she answered, trying not to let his words flatter her. "Better than yesterday."
"Well, that is to be expected. Did you have a regular breakfast?"
"Miss Relena has eaten less than usual," Noin cut in before Relena could say anything.
"I was not so hungry," Relena added nevertheless, casting Noin a poignant look. She did not need to have someone else answer questions for her.
"As long as you have eaten something, there is no reason to be concerned. The pain medication is most likely keeping your appetite down. A normal reaction." The doctor gave her a smile, then reached into his bag and took out a blood-pressure gauge. "Would you mind a brief examination?"
Relena shook her head. "Of course not," she said, holding out her arm.
"The attitude towards examinations definitely does not run in the family," Bolkonski commented as he measured her pulse. "Very comforting."
"What do you mean?" Relena asked, looking over at Noin for an explanation. Noin, however, just shook her head and went to stand at the door.
"Your brother is not overly fond of doctors," Bolkonski said, winking at her. I never met a patient with a greater dislike for anything medical. There were times when I was almost chasing him around the room to give him injections."
"A lot of children don't like them," Relena said, vaguely feeling the need to defend her brother.
"You are right, of course. But Zechs hasn't disliked it only as a child. I have treated him often enough over the years, and I believe I can safely say that it has become worse. It has gotten so bad that I practically need His Excellency inside the room every time as a distraction." With a smile he put the blood-pressure meter aside again. "May I have a look at your arm?"
Relena held out her injured limb. "How long do you think it will take to heal," she asked, watching as he undid the bandage.
"Usually about six weeks until all the tissue has had enough time to knit together again. You will be able to use the arm again within two weeks or so, though, if you take the medicines and rest properly."
"What medicines?" The doctors from the hospital had only given her some painkillers and had said that either Sally or someone else would explain the rest. Relena was definitely not going to swallow anything if she did not know why it was necessary.
"You see, you have a bullet-size hole in your arm that goes through most of the important sinews and arteries, as well as a bit of the bone. I don't think that the entry angle could have been much worse. Those salves are going to speed up the healing process a little. They stimulate the mitosis. And in two weeks the worst damage should be undone."
"But I cannot wait for two weeks! I have so many things to take care of!"
Bolkonski laughed a little. "It seems that I was too quick in thinking that you are an easier patient than your brother. It will take two weeks, Princess, and if you try to use your arm before that, it will take longer. I suggest that you take things easy for a while." The bandage came off, and Relena winced slightly as the last bit was removed. "This looks good enough. No infections. Good to know that today's young doctors still know how to put in stitches after all that genetical babble they are learning. Proper needlework is always important... Does it hurt?"
"A throbbing pain?"
"Yes... mostly that."
"I will give you an injection against it and leave you some mild painkillers so you can sleep well during the night. I suggest that you remain in bed for today. No activities, or your circulatory system might complain. Tomorrow you can get up a little, but nothing strenuous." Bolkonski gave her a critical look. "Some fresh air would do you good too. You spend too much time inside."
Relena frowned at the remark. "I am working."
"A little too much, it seems. I have treated businessmen long enough to know what a pale face means." Bolkonski reached into his bag again and drew out a sealed plastic bag with bandages. "I am sure that His Excellency will gladly provide you with something to keep you from becoming bored."
Relena agreed with that. Treize was probably willing to do anything to keep her from becoming too interested that went on around her in the house. She just could not believe that he was not doing anything to endanger their hard-won peace. Someone like him would not sit still. Not after having had his kind of influence.
"Hold your arm steady please."
She complied, watching as Bolkonski redressed the wound with practiced motions. "You will come again tomorrow?"
The elderly man nodded. "Doctor Po has asked that I check on you every day. Quite honestly I think that your wound would also heal with less attention, but it won't hurt to keep an eye on it. And I have got enough time to come here regularly." Cutting off the rest of the bandage, he fixed it all into place with a fastener. "I have not been here a lot lately anyway, and I should catch up with His Excellency's horse breeding again. I heard that he has bought some very good horses."
"Ah... yes..." Relena vaguely agreed. Horses were not an area where she knew her way around. She could ride, but beyond that she had never been very interested in them. Not like some of her classmates, who had gone crazy when they had seen a saddle. But it seemed that it was one of Bolkonski's passions. And since she saw no use in disgruntling her doctor, she just kept making the occasional agreeing noise as he talked about his successes and took a blood sample. After all she would have to be able to get along with him for as long as she would stay here. Hopefully it would not be more than a few days; she did not feel at ease in this place, and she also had so many responsibilities and so much work to take care of that she simply could not afford more than a few days of rest. It would just be a matter of convincing him that she was well and that further rest was unnecessary.
"I will have the test results tomorrow," the doctor said as he stored the blood sample away.
"Could you also test for the Nordstrom syndrome while you are at it? Noin asked at a sudden. "You know Zechs has it, so Relena might have it too."
Bolkonski nodded. "Of course," he said. "Thanks for reminding me."
Nordstrom syndrome? What was that? Relena was sure that she had never before heard the name of that illness. And how could Zechs be suffering from it? He had never mentioned anything to her at all. Surely this had to be a misunderstanding. Her brother couldn't be sick. She would have known.
After a few more polite exchanges Bolkonski got up from his seat and reached for his bag. "Until tomorrow, Princess."
"Goodbye," Relena ventured.
"Would you like me to accompany you downstairs?" Noin asked.
The doctor shook his head. "No, thanks. I know the way."
Once he had left, Relena turned to face Noin. "What was that about?" she demanded. "What were you talking about? What syndrome?"
Noin gave her an incredulous look. "You mean Zechs hasn't mentioned it to you?"
Relena shook her head. "He never talked about any illness." But apparently he should have done so.
"I thought he would have told you for sure... it is a risk for him, so it is only reasonable to keep the people closest to him informed in case it becomes necessary."
"But what is it? That sounds dangerous."
"It is a reaction he shows to a certain kind of antibiotic. His blood cells cannot deal with it and start dying. As long as he does not take any medicine that contains these particular ingredients he is perfectly safe, but in case he cannot say so himself, he has told some people about it." The expression on Noin's face was strangely unreadable. "When he told me about it, we both were still at the Academy. He said that those whom he trusted enough should know."
"And why did you ask Doctor Bolkonski to test me for it?" Relena asked, for the moment brushing aside the implications of Noin's words. At the moment it worried her more that there apparently was the possibility that a medicine she took could make things worse instead of better. But she had taken antibiotics before when she had been ill, and there never had been any trouble. Somehow it didn't make sense.
"Because you might carry it too. It is dormant in women, so you are not in danger, but your children will most likely inherit it. I just thought it would be better if you knew, and since Doctor Bolkonski can be trusted with something like that, I figured that we could as well use the opportunity."
Relena frowned at that. "What makes him so safe?" She had been wondering about it, and this was a nice time to ask.
"He has kept Zechs' survival a secret for thirteen years," Noin explained calmly. "And he hasn't told anyone either that Treize didn't die in that battle. He has been the one who treated His Excellency during recovery. That alone would make him safe. In addition, Treize has asked him for his silence, and Bolkonski owes the Khushrenadas a lot."
"He owes them?" Somehow that sounded suspicious.
"They sponsored his entire career. Let him tell you that story one day, it's quite amusing."
"I will..." Relena murmured, sinking back against her pillow a little.
"We can trust him, Relena."
Noin sighed softly. "Because of what I just told you. But mostly because he promised Treize."
"And what makes you think that Treize can be trusted?"
When the older woman's face went blank, Relena realized that she had asked the wrong question.
"You don't know His Excellency," Noin said quietly. "But I have worked with him for years, and he never did anything that made me doubt that he would keep his promises. I don't agree with a lot of things he did. He can be an incredibly infuriating bastard at times, but he is honorable. If he gives you his word, you can count on it. But you should ask Zechs if you want to know more. He knows Treize far better than I ever could."
Another knock at the door interrupted their talk, and a moment later Nichols poked his head inside. "Noin? We should go and inspect the garden."
"Sure," Noin returned with a smile. "I will be back later, Relena." With those words she left the room, leaving Relena to her thoughts.
Closing her eyes for a moment, Relena lay still, then reached up to take off the small band-aid which Bolkonski had placed on the tiny puncture wound of the injection. It was itching, and since there was no bleeding Relena saw no sense in keeping the sticky thing on.
She had not liked those talks at all. Why had everybody else been informed about that syndrome? If her children could be carrying it, then she should have been told about it far sooner, even if it was just a possibility. Noin had said that Zechs had told everyone who was close to him. As far as Relena could tell, that meant Noin and probably Treize. But Zechs could have spoken to her after the war had been over. She was his sister, so surely she too was someone who could be considered close to him.
Unless, of course, he had not wanted to worry her.
That thought made her uncomfortable because it reminded her how little she knew about Zechs' reactions. Relena simply could not tell whether he would think it better if she knew or if she did not. But it seemed that Noin would know the answer. The dark-haired woman was such a close friend to her brother that it made Relena wonder why they were not yet a couple. They would look so well together... But today Noin had said during breakfast that she and Zechs would always be friends, but never more. Still, she knew him so well... and apparently Treize did too. Relena could not understand why Zechs would open up to him, but not to his own sister. It simply did not make sense.
With a frown Zechs laid down the sheet of paper he was holding. According to this, three of the regular servants and employees at the Sankian Palace had left since the shooting. The Preventers were already running checks on them, but Zechs was certain that they would not be bale to find anything. It was just too obvious; surely any potential assassins would not have run so quickly. The problem was that the other possibility was checking all the people who worked at the Palace on a more or less regular base, a truly considerable amount of persons. It would take too long to do that, even though the Preventers would probably try.
No, there had to be a better solution for this, one that would sooner produce results. It was unnerving to wait like this, without knowing what to do. For a while he had contemplated calling Treize to discuss all this with his lover and get another point of view. Treize had been involved in enough conspiracies to know how they worked. But Zechs had eventually dismissed the idea. Treize very clearly was not approving of all this; it had been one of his points that Zechs did not have the experience necessary for a mission like this. Asking him for suggestions would be tantamount to admitting that he had been right, and Zechs was not going to do that. Not yet, when there still were a few other possibilities, unlikely as they might seem.
He had been spending most of the day hunting down little hints, but none of them had been anywhere near useful. There was only one last source of information left. If that one did not yield anything useful either, then he would have no other chance but to ask Treize and maybe also Une before he managed to completely frustrate himself.
"Anything new?" a voice directly behind his chair spoke.
Zechs flinched before automatically tensing and reaching for the gun that would have been at his side if he had been wearing a uniform. Theoretically nobody should be able to get into the Preventer Headquarters who was not authorized to do so, and much less should they be able to get past all the security measures that had to be passed in order to reach the top Preventers.
Theoretically. But it might just be possible for some persons.
"Thank you for coming," Zechs said, forcing himself to relax a little and not turn around.
"There was the sound of steps at his side for a moment. "I am not doing this for you," Heero said, though his voice lacked some of the brusque tone that had been so significant for him just a short while ago. He still looked the same, Zechs noticed with some surprise. Somehow he had not thought that Heero Yuy, the way he had been during the war, could last once peace was reached. But the young man in front of him was the same whom Zechs had been fighting in Antarctica, in whose strength and honor he had believed so strongly. Still the same...
"But you have come for her. That is enough for me." Zechs looked up to meet the dark blue eyes. "She needs your help. And you know it, or you would not be here." Asking this from Heero was different than asking Treize. The former Gundam pilot was not involved in this, and to Zechs it held a vastly different meaning. He had been relying on Treize's help and guidance for so many years that he needed to sometimes prove to himself that he could do things on his own just as well. But Zechs knew that in the end he and Heero had been equals. It was not a matter of depending on him, it was asking for his help while knowing that he could easily return the favor when the occasion came.
"I know," Heero confirmed. He was not asking about Relena, something that did not surprise Zechs at all. Chances were that Heero already knew where she was and how she was. It would have worried him with any other person, but he instinctively knew that Heero could be trusted with Relena. It remained to hope that the former Gundam pilot would not take a closer look at just who was keeping Relena company at the moment.
"Did you have time to look through the information I sent you?" Zechs asked, gesturing for a seat opposite his own at the small table he was using as a makeshift desk. He didn't like his normal office at all; it reminded him too much of administrative duties which he rather avoided. His private room at
the Headquarters had been transformed into a working space; it didn't bother him at all, considering that he hardly stayed there nowadays.
Heero sat down. "I had a look. And I found some things." He drew Zechs' laptop towards himself without asking, then produced a disk from the pocket of his pants and pushed it into the drive. "The assassin has come from Earth. She had no connections to the colonies."
"At least something..." Zechs murmured, feeling somewhat relieved. If the colonies had been involved in this, things would have been far more complicated. Of course there was always the possibility that the connections were just very well hidden, but for now he was content to believe in this small favor.
"What the Preventers already have on her is almost the entire information available on that person. There is not much they have not figured out yet."
"Almost all of it?"
"I estimate that they will find the remaining facts within a day if they look in the right direction."
Zechs raised an eyebrow. "What did you find?"
"Her bank accounts. There is nothing interesting about the normal ones. But there is one that has officially been closed two years ago. Standard checks won't show up the activity, but when you cross-reference with the bank's main accounts, the movements become visible." Heero briefly typed some things, then pushed the laptop back towards Zechs. "The left column is the date, then comes the amount of money transferred and the account from where it came."
Zechs studied the tables for a moment, then nodded. "Quite a lot of money... Did you find out why she got it?"
Heero made a noise that Zechs interpreted as an agreement. "Whenever one of the larger amounts was transferred, an assassination happened two days later."
"A professional? Have you any proof for that?"
"But it would be too much of a coincidence." Zechs frowned, then pointed at the last date in the row. "Why is there no entry two days before Relena was attacked? This one already was five months ago."
"She might have used another account."
"Of course... it would be unwise to use the same for too long if you want it to remain secret. Did you find the new one?"
Zechs sighed softly. "So there is no trace yet of who is behind this."
"There might be one." Heero pushed another button, and a photograph of a tattoo appeared on screen. "That is the sign of a group of professional assassins on Earth. The corpse carried it at the nape of her neck."
"What does it mean to you?" Zechs asked, refraining from questioning how Heero had gotten to see that corpse when it was under strict surveillance. There were some things he did not want to know. "I have never seen it before."
"The members of that group are good," Heero said. "And they are expensive. It would have been cheaper to use someone from the colonies."
"That does not narrow the search down much... I can think of a lot of wealthy persons who might gain something by getting Relena out of the way and who would want to avoid involving colonists." Mostly for the reason that they did not think anyone from the colonies could do proper work...
"I will have the other account until tomorrow. We will know more then."
"Thank you." Leaning back in his chair, Zechs looked at Heero. "Relena will surely be grateful for your help."
Heero shrugged. "Maybe. I am not doing this for her gratitude." Dark blue eyes narrowed. "Just like _he_ doesn't do it for that reason."
Zechs held perfectly still. "I do not know what you mean," he said sharply. His mind was racing; how had Heero found out? Had hiding Relena in Kiev led him to discovering who else was there? Hearing that information... he would have to tell Treize immediately that he was no longer safe.
Heero did not break eye contact. "Everyone has the right to survive. You, me, him... in the end it does not matter."
"There are people who would disagree with you," Zechs returned, sighing. "I must ask for your silence."
The young man nodded once. "I have no reason to let anyone know as long as he does not do anything to endanger peace. If he does, I will take care of it personally." There was no hint of threat in his voice; he was merely making a statement.
"And I will do anything to stop you," Zechs answered in the same tone. If anyone dared endanger Treize, then he would be there this time to protect his lover, as he should have done before. He was not going to fail again, no matter what it took. And he knew that Heero too was aware of that.
Sally frowned as she looked at Zechs' report one last time. At the first moment it seemed like a completely ordinary account of a mission that made not much progress. Nothing unusual was mentioned, no further steps seemed to be planned apart from following a few more not too promising hints. And yet she couldn't help the feeling that there was something he was not including. She had been trying to read between the lines, but all that she could gather from there was that he had spoken to someone and was now following clues which that person had given to him. It was, quite honestly, frustrating that he was not sharing this with them. Zechs seemed to be the only one who was making any progress on this mission, and he had decided to keep the rest of them in the dark.
Une was not going to be happy about this when she heard of it. She would get angry at Zechs and tell him so when he came back. And Zechs in turn would be calm and annoy her even more. Or worse, argue with her. He seemed to have gotten quite a lot of confidence back lately, and it had led to frequent disagreements between him and Une. Sally loathed seeing those fights, mostly because she could never quite agree with either of them. Une usually would be right where proper proceedings and protocol were concerned, while Zechs would have his points when it came to efficiency. Sometimes it even was obvious that Une would have agreed with him too, but that she felt she had to remind him of their limits.
Those arguments always made Sally wonder how things would have turned out if Zechs were in charge of the Preventers. He would have been good at leading, she was sure of that. The potential was there, and since he was back with Treize, he had also become balanced enough again to do well on the missions he was leading. The groups working under him had lately usually reported that they considered him a very good commander, even if a little taciturn.
What made Sally consider Une the better leader after all though was that she was the better player at diplomacy. She did consider it a waste of time usually, but she knew that it sometimes was necessary to please those with the power to dissolve the Preventers or cut their budget and abilities. Bringing Zechs into those meetings had in the past proven to be a catastrophe waiting to happen. He just did not seem to see the reason for wrapping enough words around any question or argument so it would all seem more harmless than it was.
Strangely enough, those roles had been completely reversed in the past. Une had been the one lacking patience for political intricacies then, and Zechs had quite successfully played the diplomat for a while. Afterwards they both seemed to have figured that their previous approach had not been successful and were now trying out the opposite.
The intercom on her desk crackled. "Madam, Chang Wufei is here to see you," Dirlik informed her. Sally had to smile at the nervousness in his voice; meeting a former Gundam pilot face to face still tended to put some of the younger Preventers on edge. And Dirlik was easily awed by any even slightly unusual visitors. Sally had been toying with the idea of getting another personal assistant for quite a while already, but Dirlik was so enthusiastic and putting so much effort into his work that she didn't have the heart to replace him. He was always struggling to improve after all, and she couldn't blame him for never having had the chance to do this particular job before. She had not picked him because of his skills in administrative work anyway, but for his talent in finding quite creative solutions to most of her more complicated problems. Watching him find documents that everybody else had sworn didn't exist really made up for the occasional chaos he created in her schedule.
"Send him in," Sally replied, getting up to pour two mugs of coffee from the can in the corner. Coffee was another thing Dirlik hadn't quite mastered yet, so Sally had resorted to doing it herself and making sure that it would be as she wanted it to e.
She had just poured milk into one mug and was measuring out the sugar when the office door opened.
"Nice of you to visit, Wufei," she said when she heard the door close again. The two mugs were picked up and she turned back around again, smiling when her eyes met Wufei's.
She always liked it when he stopped by, though it usually was because he wanted or needed her to do something. Still his visits always reminded her of the time they had fought together, and it was comforting to be in the presence of someone who had stood on her side during so many things. The other pilots sometimes visited her to; especially Duo liked to drop in for a mug of coffee and a chat. But it was not quite the same as with Wufei. He just had always seemed special to her out of the five young men. Maybe because of the ethnical background they shared, even though Sally herself was such a mix of cultures that it would have been hard to decide which was her dominant one. But the more likely reason was that they both had managed to get along during the war. Sally had struggled hard to get Wufei to listen to her and not see her as just a foolish woman who had no idea what fighting really meant. She had won his respect, and it still was lasting.
Wufei nodded a greeting, then accepted the coffee she held out to him. "You are working too hard," he said.
Sally raised her eyebrows. Coming from him, that statement really was more than unexpected.
"You are far too tense. You will be weak in battle if you keep this up."
"Why so concerned?" she asked, motioning for him to sit down in her chair while she leaned against the desk. "Is there a battle coming?"
Wufei regarded her calmly. "There can always be one. And if one happens, then you will be of no use to anyone. If you do not have the strength, then you should not be here."
Sipping at her coffee, Sally relaxed a little. She had thought that Wufei would be over this phase by now, but at least she knew how to deal with it if he brought up the topic of warriors and strength. Normally he was at least a little less direct with it, though, but he still had moments when he would lapse back into his old ways.
"Surely you have not come to tell me that I am weak, have you?"
He shook his head. "No. But you looked as if you needed to be reminded of it. You are trying to do too much."
"I am doing my work. And I don't think it is too much." Something she had told Une just a day ago...
"Of course it won't seem so to you. But you are going to lack strength if you keep on like this." Wufei drank a sip of coffee before continuing. "I do not want to see you fail."
"Well, thank you," Sally smirked. "Someone has to do all this. And there doesn't seem to be anyone else."
Wufei looked at her. "I have heard a women say similar things to me before," he said quietly. "And what she did was honorable. But in the end it was too much."
They both were silent for some moments. Sally felt uncomfortable about this; when Wufei remembered Meiran, she almost always was at a loss of words. They had spoken about her once, when Wufei had told Sally about her and about Nataku, and why he was fighting. It had given Sally a deep insight into the young man, and it had made her more accepting of his ways. But still, when he spoke of Meiran she always knew that she could not possibly measure up to that proud young woman in his memories.
"I hope my actions can be considered honorable too," Sally said, hoping that it was the right thing.
Wufei thought about it, then nodded slowly. "You are doing what you can."
Another nod, and a small smile appeared on his face. "It is good to know that at least one competent person is around."
Sally laughed softly. "Don't let Une hear that."
"I am still making up my mind about her."
"But you would not be here if you did not at least think her worth the effort," Sally concluded, putting her coffee aside. Une and Wufei seemed to share a mutual doubt about each other's suitability for the Preventers, though it was beginning to turn into a grudging acceptance. Sally was always glad to
see signs of that development.
"Probably not. But I haven't come to discuss her with you." Wufei reached into his pocket, then took out a disk and gave it to her. "I think you will find this interesting for you."
Sally accepted the disk. "What is it?" she wanted to know.
"Something that Heero has come up with, concerning Relena."
Carefully laying the disk aside, Sally looked at him. "I did not know that he was working on this," she said slowly. Though they probably should have known, she added for herself. Relena had a personal guarding angel in Heero, who always seemed to be aware of any trouble she could run into.
"He was asked to do so. And it is better if you know about the results too."
He had been asked...
"Damn it, I should have known he would do something like that. Of course he would ask Heero!"
Wufei watched her with a bemused expression. "So why haven't you asked anyway?"
"Because Heero supposedly is on another project..." One that needed someone with his kind of experience. "Who is in his place now? Duo?" It would be the most logical guess that Heero would have asked his lover to cover for him.
"And just why do you know about all this?" Sally asked, but then smiled and shook her head. "Sorry. Stupid question. Anything else you all are aware of and that you would like to share with me?"
"I'd tell you to keep an eye on Zechs, but you are already doing that anyway. Apart from this, there is nothing. For now."
"Well, in that case, thank you... but if Zechs already knows about this, then why are you telling me?"
Wufei shrugged. "You know as well as I do that the world seems to need that girl right now. Heero thinks that Zechs can deal with it on his own, but in my eyes it would be safer if he is not the only one who works on the case. I have no reason to think that Zechs is capable of this."
That made sense. Wufei had never fought on the same side as Zechs before; not in a battle. The other pilots had worked together with the blond man during the rebellion of Dekim Barton, and it seemed to have been enough for them to convince themselves of his quality as an ally. Wufei, on the other hand, lacked this particular experience and was till maintaining a certain wariness around
"I have some more trust in him, but still I think it good that you are sharing this information with me."
"The group you set on this is going to find out in some hours, or so we think. But that might be too late already."
"So you are all involved in this?" Sally wanted to know. With Heero it had to be suspected. But Duo and Wufei were something of a surprise. She had not thought that either of them would go out of their way to help Relena if the entire world was not threatened at the same time. But maybe they were not doing this for Relena's sake, but for Heero's.
"We are doing what is necessary. That's all."
"You all have done a lot already."
"And maybe something more is necessary." Wufei sipped at his coffee once more, then put the mug down on the table. "I don't know for sure, but there might be more to this than what meets the eye."
"I wish I could disagree with you on that, Wufei," Sally returned with a sigh. "But you are right, I'm afraid." They still knew so little about it all; it was frustrating to think how much might still be waiting to happen.
"That's why I was worried that you exhaust yourself." Wufei looked at her, a serious expression on his face. "You must be ready to fight if it becomes necessary."
Sally held his gaze. "I am ready."
"Forgive me for interrupting, Princess," Treize said with a polite smile as he stood in the open door to Relena's room. The girl had been reading through papers and files all afternoon, and nothing Noin had said or done had resulted in getting Relena to stop this and rest. Treize was starting to see a family trait emerge. Noin had apparently felt the same, because she had asked if Treize would give it a try to make Relena rest, since he had always been so good at it where Zechs was concerned. Treize had his doubts that most of the methods he had used with Zechs over the years would work with Relena. Besides, he was certainly not going to use the more persuasive solutions that almost always worked with his lover. But he had agreed to give it a try, if only to put Noin at ease a little.
"Treize..." Relena quickly put the sheet of paper away that she had been reading.
"I was wondering if there is anything you require?"
"No, I'm fine."
Thank you, Treize mentally added to what she had said.
"But it would be kind if you could send Noin to me."
Treize's smile didn't waver. "I am afraid that Miss Lucrezia is currently not available. But perhaps I can be at your service?"
Relena shook her head. "No. These are matters concerning Sank that I need her to deal with."
A country I probably know more about than you do, Treize thought. He had told himself to be nice to his lover's sister, but Relena was not making it easy at all. Arrogant, aloof little Princess who seemed to think that the world revolved around her. If she behaved like this all the time, then Treize would seriously have to wonder how people could be so fond of her. During the course of the day he had re-evaluated his opinion of her from intelligent, charismatic leader personality to impolite brat. He was willing to believe that it was the medication and her previous dislike of him that made her so insufferable, but if this continued for much longer, he would probably come to regret his promise to Zechs about keeping her safe.
"In that case, Princess, I believe you will have to wait a little while, until she is free again."
Sighing, Relena appeared to consider this for a moment. "Is Zechs back again?" she asked. "Perhaps he can be of some help."
"I am sorry to disappoint you, Princess, but your brother is not here at the moment. Has Miss Lucrezia not informed you?"
"She said that he was going to take care of some things," Relena answered, looking not so happy about it. "He shouldn't have gone."
"I fully agree with you on that." Zechs shouldn't be on that mission; Treize new his lover's talent of getting into dangerous situations. And Zechs would hardly let himself be kept from anything in this case just because there was a potential risk. Not where his sister was concerned. A sister who did not even care to find out where he had gone and what exactly it was he was taking care of.
"When he is back, tell him and come to see me." Picking up her papers again, Relena started to study it intently. Apparently she expected Treize to consider himself dismissed.
Treize, however, was not going to let himself be pushed around by her. If she meant to annoy him with her attitude and show him that he ought to consider himself glad that she had honored him with her presence, then he would just have to show her that he could play that game too.
"I can tell him for you. But he will not be hack in the near future, so I suggest that you find another solution."
Relena looked up again, her expression becoming a little colder. "There is no other solution. My ministers want a decision tomorrow, and I need to discuss this with either Noin or Zechs. It would be very kind of you if you told either of them to come and see me."
Treize raised an eyebrow. Noin apparently hadn't told her what Zechs was doing. Either that, or Relena had absolutely no idea how missions like that one worked if she expected her brother to interrupt his work and come whenever she wanted him to.
"Princess, I believe we have a misunderstanding. Your brother will not be coming here very soon. His mission has absolute priority at the moment. And considering that Lucrezia is patrolling the grounds and checking the security, I suggest that you do not interrupt her either, for your own safety."
This time the look Relena gave him was full of suspicion. "Just what are you planning to do? Isolate me here?" She scowled, putting her paper aside. "I shouldn't have listened to Zechs. I shouldn't have come here."
"I did not know that getting killed is preferable for you than to be in my company and in a safe place," Treize returned calmly.
"A safe place?" she echoed incredulously. "I certainly don't feel safe here!"
"What would you have preferred? The Sankian Palace?" Treize asked, holding her gaze. "I daresay that you would have been dead within a few days. And you would be amazed how obvious a lot of hiding places are if the one who looks for you thinks in the right way."
"Noin could have found another place," Relena returned stubbornly. "One that would have been just as well."
"But it would have taken time. And until then you might have been dead. But she has come here. Do you think that your loyal imperial guard would willingly endanger you?"
"She wouldn't. But maybe she does not know you as well as she thinks she does."
"I think her judgment has always been rather accurate." Accurate enough to guess who Relena was after she had heard of Zechs saving her from that rebel years ago. Zechs had said that he had never let Noin know, and yet she had found out by the little clues she had gained from watching the blond man long enough. And she had decided that Relena was worth being protected, for Zechs' sake and for her own. As long as he was not in the girl's immediate company, Treize was bound to agree with her. "If you think she was wrong, then what about Milliard? he wanted to take you here."
"He says that he knows you... but perhaps he only knows what you want him to know."
"An interesting argument," Treize acknowledged. And partly true... there were a few things he'd rather not have Zechs find out. But he was sure that the same was true for Zechs as well. Everyone had some secrets to keep. "Your brother has known me for a large part of his life. Do you really think he is so bad at judging a person?"
That seemed to give Relena food for thought. It was something Dorothy had mentioned before to him, that talking about Zechs was an area where it was easy to unsettle Relena's balance. Treize saw it for the first time, and it seemed strange to him to watch the young woman's conviction waver when only moments ago it had been so difficult to make her feel insecure. He was not certain where this came from, but he made a mental note to use this whenever she had to be deterred from a topic.
"Zechs thinks that you are his friend," Relena said, her voice amazingly calm again. "Are you?"
"Yes," Treize returned, not even needing to think about putting conviction into his voice. "And when he asks for something, then I try to help as much as I can He has asked me to keep you safe, and I gave him my word to do so." For a moment he hesitated, not quite certain if it would be wise to go ahead, then decided that Relena should hear this. "This is not the first time he has asked for that, Princess. I doubt you would have made it through the wars alive if it had not been for him. And for the assistance I gave him."
Relena looked at him sharply. "It were your soldiers who put me in danger in the first place!"
"And it was me who called them back," Treize returned, hoping that she would not linger on this particular point. The ground he was standing on was not overly firm here. "Who do you think sent Noin on a mission that basically consisted of watching your back? And let me also tell you that there were more than a few members of the Romafeller Foundation who would not have minded at all to eliminate this upstart Sankian Princess who suddenly dared to upset some of their plans."
"What do you want me to do? Thank you?"
"It would be a start," Treize told her. "Though this is not what I really want you to do."
"Stop doubting your brother, stop doubting Noin. Consider the possibility that maybe they have not lost their mind, but that they have a reason why they trust me. Believe it or not, but we are all trying to make sure that you get out of this crisis alive. And you are not making it any easier for us." Bowing a little, Treize turned around and headed for the door again. "A good afternoon to you, Princess," he said before he left.
He was not quite content with the turn that little talk had taken, but some things had just needed to be said. And maybe Relena would take the hint and think about it all a little, and hopefully revise her attitude before she really started to grate on everyone's nerves.
It still mystified him that all that was necessary to unsettle her was a mention of Zechs. Somehow it seemed a sore spot for her to talk about her brother. But why? Zechs had not mentioned any arguments with his sister lately; quite the opposite. The two Peacecrafts were getting along amazingly well at the moment, with neither interfering in the other's work. That couldn't be the source of unrest. The only hint Treize could detect from Relena's words was that she did not appear sure whether she could trust Zechs' judgment in this matter. She seemed to doubt that Treize really was his friend and that he was not pursuing any sinister plans.
And that when things would become so much easier if she would finally get around to stop her silly wariness and her whining that she wanted to leave.
Well, if the problem only was that she had no idea whether her brother knew him well enough, then Treize could think of a solution for it. There were some issues she ought to know about anyway.
Dinner had been a quite pleasant affair. The food had been good, and someone had been considerate enough to choose dishes that did not require both fork and knife for eating. Dorothy had been keeping her company. Out of some reason neither Noin nor Nichols had been there, leaving the two girls alone. Relena had been worried at first, but Dorothy had dropped some hints that it might be a good idea to let the two Preventers have dinner on their own. Relena wasn't entirely certain yet how to interpret that, but she had decided to try and get some information out of Noin at the next opportunity that presented itself.
"Would you like some more juice?" Dorothy asked. "Or maybe something else?"
Relena shook her head. "No, thank you." She doubted she could have eaten more, though the dessert might just be tempting enough for her to eat another portion. Relena had no idea who had informed the cook that she liked crepes, but she definitely felt thankful for it.
They chatted a little, waiting until the maid had cleared the table in Relena's room again. It was the same woman Relena had seen several times during the day. Apparently there were not overly many servants at the estate; so far she had met the driver whom Zechs had called Alexei, the maid, whose name she did not know yet, and an old man who strangely reminded her of Pargan and who apparently was called Dimitry.
She missed Pargan. He was a familiar presence, and with him she was always certain that he would do exactly as she wished. He was predictable, and that in itself was comforting. Here she just could not be certain of anything. Sure, people like Noin or Dorothy would not endanger her. But she did not know Nichols well enough to be sure. And Treize's presence alone could make her uncomfortable. She had never really met him before this time; only two brief encounters, when he had made her feel like a child that had stumbled into the world of adults. He hadn't been mean then, but he had let her feel that it was his turf she was trespassing on. And in some way she was getting the same feelings now, though it was subtler. He was perfectly polite, but at the same time she had the impression that she was being evaluated and tested.
"Well, Miss Relena," Dorothy's familiar drawl interrupted her thoughts. "I think it would be better if you rested. You look tired." There was the usual amount of teasing sarcasm in the blond woman's voice, but something told Relena that this time she should not argue. She was feeling a little weary anyway; not quite enough yet to sleep, but she was not adverse to lying down a little and rest. During the day she had managed to get at least some things done, and it was a pleasant feeling of accomplishment that had spread in her body. She had done less than usual, but she had not been idle either. Therefore she hopefully could rest without feeling guilty.
She exchanged some more pleasantries with Dorothy before the blond girl left, promising to be back for breakfast and maybe bring Mariemeia. It had been a little surprise to learn that the child was here too, although Relena had to admit that it was only logical. After all Dorothy was her legal guardian, and her father was living here as well. Relena wondered what it had been like for Mariemeia to meet Treize. The girl had grown up hearing of her father as a remote figure, who in the end had supposedly been dead. Dekim had glorified Treize in order to make Mariemeia believe that she was the rightful heir to the world nation and that it was for the best if she continued what he had started and what he had been unable to complete. Relena was curious whether Treize could live up to the expectations, and if he was even trying. As far as Une had known, he had not been aware of Mariemeia's existence. It remained to be seen whether he felt obliged to act as a parent towards her.
Relena briefly headed for the bathroom to wash, once again getting frustrated at how difficult it was to get the toothpaste onto the brush with just one hand. It were mostly times like this when she really got annoyed; the shot arm was not hurting at all any longer, but she hated to try and do something only to discover that the limb simply would not respond. At least it had been the left arm and not the right; otherwise she would have gone crazy with the inability to do something.
When she came back into her room, she found a small stack of books on the bedside table, with a note on top. Curiously she picked it up.
My dear Princess, it read, just a little something to prevent you from becoming bored. It is my hope that it will also keep you from wondering even more whether Milliard has been right in trusting me. Sincerely, Treize Khushrenada.
With a small frown Relena read the note a second time, then laid it down again and picked up one of the books. Flipping it open, she discovered that it was a photo album. Why it was supposed to keep her occupied and increase her faith in Treize, she did not know, but she was well aware that he would hardly do something like this without a really good reason. One that went beyond wanting to bore her to sleep by showing her family pictures. She could not imagine that he did a lot of things without having an ulterior motive.
But she also had nothing else to do, and as long as she kept in mind that she was doing something that Treize wanted her to do, she figured that it would be fine. She just wouldn't let herself be sidetracked and it would be fine.
She took a closer look at the first page. There were no pictures, just a handwritten note of two dates, probably the time in which the pictures had been taken. But when she turned the page, she was suddenly looking at a photograph of her brother.
It was unmistakable. A small boy with fairly short light blond hair and wide azure eyes who stared at the camera with a scowl on his face. She had seen that particular expression so often on Zechs that it would have been impossible not to recognize it. The caption beneath the image confirmed it. The same handwriting that had dated the entire album had also noted that this was Zechs, and that the picture had been taken on a day almost fourteen years ago. He had to have been seven at the time, Relena thought after calculating for a moment. But his eyes were making him look much older than that.
She had never before seen pictures of Zechs at that age; Noin had not had any, and in the palace none had been left. It felt strange to look at this one and to be reminded that she only knew a few things about her brother's life. He was wearing something that looked like a school uniform, but Relena did not know which institute it belonged to, though she dimly remembered having seen it before. The picture seemed to have been taken on one of his first days at school if she interpreted the date correctly.
Slowly she turned the page. There were some more pictures of her brother in those clothes, one in front of a large old-fashioned building that probably was the school he had attended. In one of them there was also an older boy in plain clothes, whom the caption beneath the image identified as Treize. He did not look older than ten or eleven, something that startled Relena a little. She had never asked his age, but she had assumed that he would be around thirty. That he was only a few years older than her brother was surprising. He looked almost cute on the photo.
Telling herself to not think of Treize in those terms, Relena turned to the next page. The pictures here were different; it was no longer an autumn scene but winter. Zechs wasn't in the images, but there was a small version of Dorothy, wrapped into a thick coat, a scarf and a cap, sitting on a sleigh. Amazing how smug she had managed to look at that age already. Another image showed her together with a man Relena did not know, and whom the handwriting called Luis. Maybe her father... the picture showed them build a snowman. Had General Catalonia been the type of person to do something like that with his daughter?
There was also a picture of two women on horses, laughing as they rode through the snow. Marie and Jeanne. There was not much to see of their faces, so Relena did not linger there for long. The opposite side showed Zechs again, holding an ice-hockey stick in his arms and standing in front of what looked like a frozen lake. Relena wondered where the picture had been taken. The capture said only that it was two days before the Christmas of AC 182. Zechs looked happy and ready to turn around and play. She had never before seen him so eager to do something.
The next pictures were from a family Christmas party. Zechs and Treize were there, along with the Marie from some of the previous pictures, who apparently was Treize's mother. She looked similar to him, and it was obvious from whom he had inherited the ginger hair and most of his features. Those three dominated the pictures; Relena could see no other people. Apparently Treize had no siblings, and perhaps it was his father who had been taking the pictures. There was a man on one of the photographs, kissing the Woman Relena assumed was Treize's mother. He looked familiar somehow, though Relena couldn't remember ever having met him. But something made her feel like she had seen him before.
Relena continued looking at the album. It was so strange to see those images of her brother. Almost like discovering him, and the life he had led. There were so many things in the pictures that she realized she had not known about him. Apparently he was a good rider and had had a pretty light gray horse with a dark mane. There were several pictures of him that showed him on horseback, looking as if he were enjoying himself. There also was a dog - Relena was no expert, but she believed that it was a Shepherd. Zechs was playing with the animal, laughing. Treize was also in those images sometimes, looking amused at the scene. The rest of the album was full of such images; there were a lot of pictures of people whom Relena assumed were relatives or friends of the Khushrenadas. But again and again there were photographs of Zechs. A young Zechs, who looked happy at what he was doing, though there almost always was an air of seriousness about him. Still, she could not deny that he seemed to be content with where he was.
The next album did not immediately show Zechs. There seemed to have been a family gathering several years later. Dorothy was in a lot of the pictures, maybe six or seven years old. Almost uncanny how little her face had changed over the years. Relena also spotted a few faces she knew from the Romafeller Foundation. There were no name written beneath the images, but she could identify most of the men and women. A lot of them had been her supporters during her brief time with the Foundation. She hadn't thought that they all would have been in contact with the Khushrenadas in some way.
A few pages later came images of Zechs again. Once more he was wearing a uniform, but this time Relena easily recognized it. OZ. It wasn't the red one she had seen him wear before, but that of a normal soldier. His look this time was one of determination, and it made Relena wish to know why he had chosen to enter that organization. Maybe there had been pressure from the Khushrenadas that he should do this? After all Treize had been with OZ for a long time too. She wanted Zechs to be here to ask him. Or demand an answer from Treize, at the moment probably the easier solution.
This album had fewer images of Zechs and Treize than the previous one had contained, and it was of little interest to Relena. She didn't know most of the people in the pictures, and she wasn't in the mind to figure it all out. She soon laid it aside and turned to the next one.
The handwriting had changed, one thing she noticed immediately. Obviously the person keeping the album was not the same anymore. And also the pictures were different. Zechs was the person appearing in most of them, along with Treize. That alone would not have been so surprising, but what startled Relena was that the new handwriting called her brother no longer Zechs but Milliard.
Curiously she leafed through the book. Her brother was older here again, perhaps sixteen or seventeen. And he looked content; there were a lot of pictures where he was smiling or simply looking relaxed and at ease. He had never smiled so much at her. Whatever had happened since those pictures that had shown him in the OZ uniform had been taken, it had made him happy. It was almost embarrassing that she did not know. Strange that there were so many things she had never asked about Zechs. Of course she had known the facts; that he had grown up in hiding, that he had later become one of the Specials' top officers. But out of some reason she had never asked why he had done those things and where he had stayed all this time. To her the Darlians had provided the safe haven necessary to allow her to survive and grow up. And as far as she could tell after the pictures she had seen, the Khushrenadas had done the same for her brother. It had been a little hard to believe when she had heard Zechs say this to her. But the pictures confirmed his words, and Relena could not deny that he looked happy in most of those that showed him at home.
The pictures she was looking at now were further confirming her impression. There was a difference in his body language compared to the more official images, something Relena had come to pay a lot of attention to lately. The tension that had almost always been there in the other pictures was gone.
Relena slowly turned the pages. There were a lot of pictures of her brother smiling, looking so much at ease that she wanted to ask him what it was all about. She had been looking at an image of Zechs in the sun, suddenly understanding why so many women were looking at him. But when she turned the page again, she froze.
Zechs and Treize. Together.
What was this about?
She looked at the picture more closely. It wasn't a trick of light; her brother was kissing Treize and looking absolutely happy about it. His eyes were closed, and he was leaning against the other man, happily oblivious of his surroundings. And Treize was obviously enjoying himself too.
Just what had they thought they were doing?
For a moment the thought crossed Relena's mind that it was a joke, that they had posed for this picture to tease someone. But she dismissed that idea again. It looked just too real for that. Besides, the two men would hardly do something like that.
Her brother. Kissing another man.
She definitely had not expected that.
Why had he never told her? And why hadn't she noticed? It simply didn't make sense. Zechs had to have been hiding it, because otherwise she would certainly have been aware of it. Her eyes strayed to the image caption. There was a date, the summer of five years ago. A few words. Thank you, Dorothy. Had she taken the picture? Or maybe she had played another role in this?
Relena frowned slightly. Dorothy had probably known of this. And yet she had never even hinted at it. Relena was not quite sure why, but she felt cheated. After all, Zechs was her brother, and she therefore deserved to know things like this. On the other hand it perhaps was good that nobody had informed her until now, because she had absolutely no idea what to think about it. She had always considered herself open-minded, but to find out that her own brother seemed to be interested in men rather than women...
But perhaps it really had been only once. Perhaps Dorothy had dared them to do it; Relena definitely would not put it past her. She returned her attention to the pictures in front of her. There weren't any more on that page that showed the two men kissing, but on the next page there was one that was, in a way, worse.
Treize was embracing her brother from behind, and Zechs was comfortably nestled in his arms. They were sitting beneath a tree, with Treize leaning back against the trunk. The position alone wasn't what had startled her, though. It were the expressions on their faces. Zechs had rested his head against Treize's shoulder, looking up at the older man's face with what was pure love and adoration. And Treize was returning that look. There just was no doubt about it.
Strangely enough she was not feeling as shocked at the discovery as she would have expected. For the most part it was surprise she felt, but maybe the unsettlement would come later, when she had had some time to think about this. But she didn't want to feel upset about it deep inside. She wished Zechs were here so she could ask him.
But what had happened with them later? These images were dated several years ago, and the album ended before the war had really begun. There was no hint of how long their relationship had lasted. And considering that Zechs and Treize had been willing to fight each other until death, Relena couldn't imagine that whatever they had shared had lasted through these battles. There had been so much anger in Zechs when she had been on the Libra. So much contempt for Treize. There hadn't been any love or friendliness in his words.
And yet they seemed to have made their own peace. Zechs had been talking of Treize like a good friend, and the same was true for Treize as well. There was no anger left; during all these political meetings she had been attending over the last year, Relena had learned to recognize undercurrents of tension between persons. And between Zechs and Treize there were none. Either that, or they were incredibly good at hiding their differences. She doubted that this was the case, though.
At least some things were making mores sense now. All those comments about how well Zechs knew Treize, and that his judgment was absolutely trustworthy when it came to the former OZ general. Considering how close they had been, they really would know each other well. Unless Treize had been deceiving her brother... Relena wouldn't put it past him to pretend being in love with someone in order to get his way. Maybe he had been doing just that with Zechs. Still, there were so many pictures where they were kissing or embracing, and in some they looked unaware that they were being photographed. Even for Treize it would be difficult to maintain that sort of façade.
She really had to talk to someone. Maybe one of the servants, or Dorothy. Someone who had been around the two men and who had known. Relena didn't want to wait until Zechs returned from whatever he was doing. She wanted clarity, the sooner the better. Because if her brother had really been in a relationship with Treize, then there were a lot of things she needed to consider anew.
Her mind was full of thoughts like this as she went to bed and switched off the light, and it was only thanks to the sedative she had been prescribed that she was able to sleep anytime soon.
The information Wufei had brought had proven more than just a little valuable. Sally had been busy all afternoon and evening, setting experts on the case to get all possible information out of the bank account data. They were filtering through the results as quickly as they could. The field team under Alenichev had reported too, saying that they could only find two of the three employees who had left the Sankian palace right after the shooting. Sally had issued an order to arrest the two who had been found as a precaution, though she was practically certain that they wouldn't have had anything to do with the entire incident. Still, their behavior was raising some suspicion, and she rather dealt with disgruntled investigators who had had to release the people again after some hours than with the knowledge that she might have let another potential assassin slip through her fingers.
For now the best lead they had was the third person. Peter Braun, Relena's adviser concerning public relations. He had been employed at about the same time as the secretary turned professional killer and was in a similar position, though his access to Relena was a little more difficult than it had been for the young woman. His background had checked out fine, and Sally had just spoken to a previous employer, who had been willing to swear that Braun was just a young man who was very good at his job. But the same had been true for the secretary as well, so Sally was not about to take any chances. She had dispatched a few teams to look for him. There was not much to do at the moment apart from this one issue, so a lot of Preventer agents were on standby anyway and, in Une's eyes, had to be occupied. After all they were getting paid.
Sally was also hoping that Zechs would share his information with her in the future. It was painfully obvious that he so far had not thought it necessary to do so. Thankfully Wufei had been more sensible, though Sally did not really want to speculate where he had gotten the files from. If he and Heero were cooperating, then things might be more serious than they all had thought, because so far Heero had only taken action whenever disasters of major proportions were on their way. That he was helping Zechs could be considered a dark foreboding. Besides, it was disconcerting that the former Gundam pilot thought Zechs the better recipient for the information and not the Preventers. Sally knew of the dislike of some of the pilots to cooperate with anything resembling governmental structures, but this was a bit much.
At least Noin and Nichols had not reported any trouble so far. Relena seemed to be safe; she had medical attendance and was also in what Sally considered to be good company. Sally didn't know Treize well, but from what Noin had told her and from her own impressions she thought it safe to say that he and Relena were going to have an interesting time together. She almost wished she were there to watch.
Still, as long as there appeared no other problems apart from a few disagreements, Sally was content to leave that particular issue in Noin's hands and concentrate on her own questions that needed to be answered. The most urgent one right now was discovering who had been behind all this. The Preventers had quite a lot of experience in solving such puzzles by now, but this one was more difficult than most. The greatest obstacle was that the data Wufei had brought only revealed the amounts of money and the recipient, but not the person who had transferred it to the account. Some of the Preventers' experts were working on it, but so far they were making little progress. As soon as they had that second name, they would have reached a breakthrough. Of course it would be too much to hope that the person behind it all had used a personal account, but they would at least know in what direction to look. And maybe that would be enough to bring the investigations to a proper end. The sooner that was possible, the better.
During the evening Une had received several calls from the World Nation's President, the Sankian Prime Minister and some other politicians. They all had demanded to be informed about any progress, and that this issue had to be given absolute priority. As if it were necessary to remind them of that... one didn't have to be a politician to know that Relena was one of the balancing powers in the government and in Sank, and that without her the stability of both would be endangered. Sally sometimes wondered if Relena was ever tired of the importance she carried. Girls of that age were supposed to be at school and have their first boyfriend, not be responsible for the welfare of entire nations. But so far Relena was doing well, and she wasn't showing signs of weariness yet.
"Madam? You said I should tell you when the new results are in..." Dirlik's voice hesitantly came over the comm.
"So they are there at last?" That would be far sooner than she had expected.
"Then bring them in." Closing the connection, Sally allowed herself a sip of coffee. She had been in her office all day, and to her it was a nasty habit to drink the stuff whenever she sat at her desk. The doctor part of her mind screamed at that sort of mistreatment of her stomach, though, and so she had compromised with herself and was rationing. Currently she allowed herself one mug every two hours, with extra sips if something extraordinary happened. Getting important reports sooner than expected rated a big sip. Or maybe even two.
Dirlik came in, looking more than a little tired. There were shadows beneath his eyes, and his whole face showed weariness. Sally glanced at the clock on her wall quickly and noticed with some surprise that it was past nine in the evening already.
"Here, Madam," Dirlik laid a bunch of papers on her desk. "I've also got it on a disk if you want to look at it on the computer."
Sally shook her head. "No, the printouts are fine, thank you." Far easier to make notes this way. Quickly she leafed through the stack, then looked up at her assistant again and smiled. "I really think you should go home," she said. "You look tired enough to fall asleep any moment."
Dirlik blushed a little. "But you are staying here still, aren't you?"
"I'll have a look at these papers, and then see if I can get some rest." Though if there was any important new information in them, then she would have to decide on the next steps, pick the right people, and monitor it all... it was somewhat doubtful that she would get much sleep this night.
"I can wait until then, Madam," Dirlik offered.
"Thanks, but that's really not necessary. I'm not going to do anything exciting for the next few hours. Just read these. Apparently everybody got a writing attack... It's going to take me a while to get through it all."
"Maybe I could help you in any way?"
She had to smile at his eagerness. "Normally I wouldn't say no to that. But you really look like you desperately need a break. Go and sleep. Doctor's orders."
"Yes, Madam..." The tone of Dirlik's voice made her feel like she was refusing to play with an eager puppy that was wagging its tail and looking at her with hopeful eyes. It practically demanded that she should think of an alternative.
"Have you been assigned a ready room yet?" she asked.
Dirlik shook his head. "The quartermaster said that there is no space for now, and since I'm never on night duty..."
"I see. Well, he must have some spares. Just give him a call and tell him that from now on you are to have one. And then give me the number of it so I can have you fetched if I need your help with something."
There was a quite happy expression on the young man's face by now. "Thank you, Madam!"
"Just don't complain if I wake you at two in the morning," Sally returned with a smile. It was cute to see that sort of eagerness in him. He occasionally had these attacks, and they always made her smile at his optimism and at the way he could enjoy even the most boring tasks.
"I won't, Madam."
"Good. Have a nice rest. And don't forget to give me your room number."
The minutes later Dirlik had a ready room, Sally had the number, and the quartermaster had apologized so profusedly for not assigning her assistant a room sooner that he had even added a parking space close to the main entrance without even having been asked for it. Sally thought it quite amusing, considering that Dirlik usually came to work by bike and had absolutely no use for a parking space that could easily house a limousine. But it was nice sometimes to be reminded just what sort of influence she had and what the mention of her name could do. She was certain that the people who had known her before would have found it hard to believe that she carried such power now. But to her it was a confirmation that people were taking her serious.
She got up to make herself a new cup of coffee. The old one hadn't been empty yet, but the coffee had turned cold and tasted terrible by now. She usually didn't mind overly much, but she had new files to consider now, and that demanded a new mug. Once she had it, she sat down at her desk again, drew the stack of papers towards her and picked up a pen to write her notes at the side.
Twenty minutes she still had not touched the coffee.
Treize was out of his bed and through the door, gun in his hand, before his mind even registered what had prompted his instincts and reflexes to do so in the middle of the night.
Someone had screamed, he realized once he was out in the hallway.
Someone who had sounded a lot like Relena.
He had known that something like that could happen, that even the safest and best hiding place wasn't completely secure against people who really wanted to get there. But he had hoped that it would at least be enough to deter them for some days.
The light went on in the hallway. Treize saw Nichols, still clothed. Apparently he had been on watch right now. The Preventer had his weapon ready and was slowly advancing towards Relena's room. Treize waited for a moment, then mirrored his movements. Whoever had gotten into the house had obviously gone there.
Another door opened, making them both flinch and point their guns at the noise. Fortunately Noin had enough sense to not move until they both had recognized her. She was only in a t-shirt and shorts, hair mussed from sleep, but looked absolutely alert and was armed.
Together the three of them advanced towards Relena's door. Noin gestured for Nichols to take the left side and signaled Treize to stay behind. He complied, knowing that the best number for securing a room was two people and that he was the one who currently had the least practice.
Nichols pushed the door open, pointing his gun into the dark room. Noin immediately took up position behind him, aiming around his side as he took the first step through the door. Nobody had fired yet, a very good sign. They had been perfect targets, standing in the brightly lit doorframe.
Noin now was inside the room too, and she reached out to turn on the light.
Nobody was there. Only Relena, sitting on the bed, pale and a little ruffled as she looked at them with wide eyes.
They relaxed a little.
"Is everything alright?" Noin asked, keeping an eye on Nichols when he went to check the windows.
Relena nodded, still looking somewhat bewildered. "Yes... why are you here?"
Treize couldn't help raising an eyebrow at the question. "We heard a scream, Princess," he said before Noin could answer and apologize for even daring to interrupt Relena's rest. "And we thought it better to check on you. It is good to see that you are not harmed."
"Relena, what happened?" Noin wanted to know, tucking her gun into the waistband of her shorts.
"I think I had a nightmare..." Relena said, sounding quite embarrassed about it. No wonder after causing three people to burst into her room, ready to shoot someone. Still, Treize by far preferred to be woken because someone had bad dreams than because there really was an emergency.
"Oh..." The mother hen in Noin seemed to take over. It was a side Treize had seen a little too often during the last twenty-four hours. He wondered whether this was what Zechs had meant when he had said once that Noin worried too much. "It's alright. Do you want something to drink? A glass of water maybe?"
"Noin, I know that it was just a dream. Don't worry about me, please."
"Alright... but still, is there anything you want?"
"A glass of milk would be nice."
"I'll go and get it."
Treize suspected that the request had mostly been in order to get rid of Noin for now, because as soon as the dark-haired woman had left the room, Relena relaxed visibly. She watched Nichols open and close the windows several times as he checked on the security system, then asked him to leave them open a fraction so she could get some fresh air. Nichols complied, then stepped back.
Treize turned around immediately when he heard the hesitant voice. "Yes?" he asked, going down on a knee almost automatically to get down to Mariemeia's eye level. During the day he didn't do that, but when she sounded as unsettled as she did now, he wanted to give her the feeling that he was close to her. "You cannot sleep?"
Mariemeia shook her head. "I heard a scream," she murmured, looking at him with wide eyes. "It scared me."
"You do not need to worry, Marie... Relena had a nightmare, that's why she screamed. I am sure she did not mean to scare you."
From Relena's side he heard a quiet agreement with that. Treize was about to remark on it, but then decided against it. Right now he had other things to worry about than playing games with her.
"I thought that maybe Grandfather was back..." Mariemeia closed her eyes for a moment, then came closer to him to rest her head against his shoulder. Treize immediately held his gun out to Nichols, waiting until the other man had taken it before he hugged the little girl close.
"He will not come back," he said quietly. "Those things will not happen again. I will not let them happen."
Mariemeia nestled closer, tucking her head beneath his chin. "Mama screamed like that too, and then she was gone..."
Hearing this, Treize didn't know what to say in reply. Such bits and pieces of memory sometimes surfaced when something startled Mariemeia enough to remember, though she had mostly been too young to really have a lot of memories of her mother. That she would remember something like that now... Treize tightened his hold on the small body a little, trying to show her that she was safe and that he was here.
"I don't want things like that to happen again," she whispered. "It scares me..."
Treize lightly stroked her back to soothe her. It was a gesture he normally used to calm Zechs, but he had found that Mariemeia reacted well to it too. "I promise that it is not going to happen, Marie. You are safe here."
She nodded a little, sniffling. "Okay... I just got frightened when Relena screamed..." Mariemeia looked at him with wide blue eyes. "Is she safe too?"
"Yes," Treize assured her, well aware that Relena was listening to this. "That is why she has come here. Because nothing will happen here."
Mariemeia nodded, then leaned against him once more. He could tell that she was tired and that she would probably sleep peacefully again once she was back in bed.
"Do you think you can go back to your room?" he asked her quietly. "You have to get up early..."
His daughter was still for a moment. "Yes," she said eventually, not making any move, though, to leave. Treize didn't mind; he just shifted his hold on her a little and rose to his feet with the girl in his arms. She made herself comfortable, then turned to look at Relena. "I hope you won't have any more nightmares," she said seriously. "I wish you nice dreams."
"Thank you," Relena returned with a smile. "I wish the same for you."
Treize nodded at the young woman, then left the room to get Mariemeia to rest. She was supposed to go to school tomorrow, so she would need the sleep. He only hoped that she would not wake again; reminders of Leia always unsettled her, and they made Treize feel strangely helpless. He could help with most issues that troubled his little girl, but he could not replace her mother. All he could do was try to be a good parent to her and hope that it was enough. Most of the time it seemed to be so, but sometimes there were moments when they both knew only too well that someone was missing. Mariemeia had lately taken to regard alternatively Dorothy and Zechs as a mixture of friend and part-time parent, which was improving the situation. it also made Treize more confident that Mariemeia indeed did not mind the fact that he and Zechs were lovers.
They reached Mariemeia's room, and Treize turned on the light before stepping inside.
"Can you stay for a moment?" Mariemeia asked as he set her down on her bed.
"Of course," Treize said, watching as Mariemeia found her way beneath the blankets. "Are you warm enough?" he asked. The window was open, and even though it was only early autumn, the nights were starting to be cold.
"It's okay," Mariemeia replied, watching as he sat down on the side of the bed, leaning against the headboard a little. "When is Milliard going to be back?" she asked, barely suppressing a yawn.
"I do not know," Treize said honestly. No word yet of his lover about when he would return; not surprising, considering how complicated the whole situation was. Still Treize would have felt better if he had any estimation on when Zechs would be back. They had spoken briefly today, but that short communication couldn't even start to replace his lover's presence at his side. He missed Zechs, and that feeling was growing worse with the knowledge that the younger man was on a mission, while Treize had no way to influence what was happening. In the past it had been so easy to keep an eye on Zechs, to give him some help without letting him necessarily notice it. To some extent Treize could still do that, but he was only too well aware of the limits he was facing now. Most of his influence had disappeared with his supposed death.
"Maybe he can come home soon," Mariemeia was saying. "I think it would be good. I miss him... and you miss him too, don't you?"
"I do... but you know he will be back as soon as he can." At least Treize hoped so; he had no real reason to think otherwise, but he had believed once before that Zechs would return to him after leaving, and the younger man had not done so. The situation now was different, of course, but the uneasiness never quite died down.
"Relena misses him too, I think. She doesn't say so, though." Mariemeia frowned, looking up at him. "She doesn't know Milliard well, does she? Or she would know that she should tell him that she would like it if he comes back."
Treize blinked at this; he hadn't thought yet of looking at the situation from this point of view. It would explain Relena's uneasiness wherever Zechs was concerned; if she hadn't gotten to know him yet, then it would of course be difficult to appear secure about talking to him. It was strange that after more than two years of knowing that he was her brother, she did not know him. Zechs wasn't the most talkative person, but he would hardly have refused to answer any questions Relena could have asked.
"She doesn't know the small things," Mariemeia said, failing to stifle another yawn. "And Relena doesn't like to hear it when I tell her about them. She gets uneasy."
This only confirmed the suspicion that had been forming in Treize's mind, but he didn't ask any further questions. That yawn had reminded him that it was in the middle of the night and that Mariemeia was supposed to be asleep.
"Certainly there is a reason for it," he said gently, making Mariemeia lie down properly. "But we can talk about that tomorrow. You really should be sleeping."
"I know, Mariemeia replied, though she didn't seem overly content about it. "Can you leave the door open?" she requested when Treize rose from his seat.
"Of course." It was something that always helped her to fall asleep if she had had a nightmare or had been upset by anything. "Good night," he told her, smiling as he bent down to brush his lips against the top of her head lightly. "Sleep well."
"Good night," she returned quietly, curling up beneath the blanket and closing her eyes.
Treize watched for a moment, then silently left the room, not closing the door behind him completely. Hopefully she would be able to sleep now. She had to be rested for school, and she also had a tendency to be cranky if she didn't get enough sleep.
When he walked back to his own room, he met Noin in the hallway. She had apparently just returned from the kitchen, with the requested glass of warm milk in her hands. She looked tired, but she nevertheless smiled when she saw him.
"Nice pajamas, Your Excellency," she remarked, winking.
"Thank you for noticing," Treize returned dryly. He was glad that he had even been wearing anything when Relena's screaming had woken him. When Zechs was at hope, pajamas usually were something they didn't bother with.
"Any chance that you would like some milk?" Noin asked, offering the glass to him. "Relena has decided that she'd rather not drink it."
"No, but thank you for asking."
Noin shrugged. "Can't be helped... Mariemeia is asleep again?"
"She is, and she doesn't like warm milk a lot anyway."
"Hardly anyone seems to," Noin said. "So she is alright? Nichols said that Relena woke her too." She sounded genuinely concerned about the small girl; the mothering side of her personality was coming to the surface once again. This time Treize didn't mind at all, though. When it concerned Mariemeia, he sympathized completely.
"She is fine, she was just startled a little," he told her. "I think she will just settle back into sleep now."
"Good to know. She's such a nice girl..." Noin smiled at him. "I suppose I can really congratulate you to that daughter. She's sweet... if I ever have kids, I want them to be just like her."
Treize raised an eyebrow at this. He hadn't expected revelations like that from Noin, especially at this hour. Besides, hearing her talk about children made him somewhat uncomfortable. When Noin thought about them, there was always a good chance that Zechs was involved in these ideas.
"Is Relena asleep yet?" he asked, hoping to change the topic.
Noin shook her head. "She's arguing with Nichols whether the window will stay open for the night or not. It's quite amusing to watch, though I pity him a little. I think it's the first time he sees for himself how headstrong she can be."
"Well, I sent Nichols to Barge as Lady Une's second especially because he can be stubborn and deal with people who are... headstrong, as you said." A decision that had turned out to be a wise one in the end, because it was most likely due to him that Une had survived and had returned to Earth. "It will be interesting to see whether the window will be open or closed in the end."
"It will be," Noin agreed. "We'll know tomorrow how it turns out."
Treize took that last line, and the way Noin said it, as a cue that she didn't want to keep talking for much longer. "Let me know," he returned, smiling politely. "But don't let me keep you any longer. Surely you must be tired."
"A little. And I think it will be best if we all get some more sleep."
"Of course. I wish you a good night."
"To you too," Noin said before entering her own room and closing the door.
For a moment Treize waited to see whether there was anything she might have forgotten to say, then he headed for Relena's room. He wanted to check on her again before going to bed too.
Too slow, too slow... the information was coming, but it was trickling at a speed that was beginning to drive Zechs crazy. He knew that Heero was working at an amazing speed and that it really was a miracle that they knew what they knew, but at the same time he got the feeling that with every minute that passed, the people they pursued were getting farther away.
By now the Preventer team was also catching up with them; someone had given them the results of Heero's first investigations, and now they too were working in the same direction. Zechs didn't care; he knew that they would make a good effort and take care of some details he simply had no time for. But they were also weighed down by having to stick to the red tape. Zechs was ignoring the official procedures; he knew Une would get annoyed at him for it, but that was nothing knew. He had no mind to observe formalities when speed was important. She would have to accept that.
Right now all they had was a company name that had served as a façade for the money transfers. Heero had wanted to check whose company it was, but Zechs had instinctively known that this would turn out a dead end. Instead he had asked the younger man to check whether there had been any similar transactions from that account. He was waiting for the results of that search now. Perhaps this was useless and there really was no second assassin, but Zechs had the feeling that the secretary had not been on her own. It had all been well thought out, and people who could arrange such things usually had a backup plan, just in case. There would be someone else. And he or she had to be found as soon as possible. Relena couldn't hide forever, and by the time she came back to her duties, this all had to be solved or she would be in danger again. They couldn't exchange the entire personnel in Sank and at the Ministry. Too many people were in daily contact with her, and all of them could pose a potential threat. Checking them all out would take far too long; it was necessary to work on this problem from the other direction. But that was also going so slowly that it was starting to wreak havoc on Zechs' patience.
Picking up the phone, he dialed Heero's number to ask whether there had been any progress. His call was ignored, though, an answer in itself. If Heero didn't pick up, then he was working. And if he was still working, then he didn't have anything new yet.
With a soft sigh Zechs leaned back in his chair. It was getting late, and his body was starting to remind him that rest and food were nice things and that it would be good to pay more attention to them. Zechs ignored the feeling. In his office at the Headquarters he would have had a comfortable sofa and a small supply of instant food in a closet that usually proved to be highly tempting in moments like this. He didn't know ho was putting those things there and regularly restocked the cupboard, but he strongly suspected Noin. It would be just like her to do something like that, even though she had denied that it was her when he had asked once. But here, in the small ready room he had, he had never bothered to take care of such things. He was hardly ever here anymore, and he just had never anything but spare clothes and other things he might need at work. He could as well have stored these in his office, but sometimes it was nice to have a private place to withdraw to.
He was becoming more and more frustrated by the lack of progress, and the tiredness was not helping at all. Sleep would be the best he could do until there was news, but Zechs knew that right now he would most likely just lie in bed and stare up at the ceiling. He could as well try to do something productive.
After thinking for a moment, he again opened the file on the company. It was obviously a letterbox company that had been set up to keep the money transfers anonymous. There was not much use in looking at the names behind it; nobody could be stupid enough to leave any hints there. And he didn't really have the time for it anyway.
But where had the money of the firm come from? Heero had included a list on this, but had not researched further in this direction yet. He was still trying to dig up more information on that company itself.
Zechs called up that list. There was nothing unusual at first sight, but he knew that he didn't have a lot of practice in these things. A basic course in accounting had been part of the education of OZ officers, but it was just enough so he could make some sense of the numbers he was looking at. Still, one thing he remembered was that every entry had to refer to a source somewhere, according to the law. Surely someone bothering to set up such a thorough letterbox firm would have been meticulous enough not to make the books look suspicious.
There were the references. Account numbers, along with names of other companies. It all looked as if the firm had been involved in normal business life. But still, something had to be there...
He first tried to make sense of some of the company names, but soon realized that this was a futile task. If it were to be of any use, he would have to cross-reference them all and look them up in the Preventer archives and at the registrar to check whether they were real. It would simply take too long, and he didn't believe that it would achieve a lot to do it.
Perhaps sorting through the companies in some ways could help. Zechs attempted ranking them according to the volume of their business contacts, if only to get a starting point for it all. He knew how much money the assassin had received, so if there had been a transfer, it would have to be at least as high as that amount. If it had come from one firm... He made a second list, looking for combinations of two or three companies whose dealings reached that amount too.
Far too many entries still. If he had a team, he could filter through them, but on his own it was too much. He needed other hints, or this would be a completely futile attempt. The names hadn't helped, but perhaps at least the entries could be narrowed down further. Zechs excluded those where the amounts transferred seemed too high to him. It didn't seem logical to him to send too much money to that letterbox company at once; from what he knew of conducting conspiracies, money was something that got sent in precise amounts, if only because the co-conspirators could never be fully trusted.
Again he wondered whether calling Treize would not be a good idea; his lover knew enough about intrigues and conspiracies to give him advice on this matter. Indeed, most Zechs knew about the issue came from things Treize had mentioned whenever he had been dealing with the Foundation. But even though is resolve to deal with this problem on his own was wavering, it was too late, or rather, too early to call Treize. It was tempting to do so, though. Zechs longed to hear the older man's voice and let him make things appear at least a little easier than they were. But he could as well wait two or three more hours for it and try to figure this out on his own.
Maybe he was looking in the wrong direction here? There was no guarantee that the money had even come from one of the other companies. It could as well have been among the equity capital of the firm, then there would be no traces of any transaction. The balance sheet they had here was only of the most recent accounts; it didn't range back far enough to cover all transactions and cash flows the company had ever been involved in.
Zechs sighed softly, remembering the reason again why he had loathed accounting. All those little numbers, where it was so easy to hide things and manipulate them into looking far more harmless than they actually were... He'd need an expert to really make any sense of this.
A small detail from those long past lessons came to his mind. Any incoming cash flows had to first be entered, then divided up into taxes and net revenue. It seemed strange to him to think that whoever was behind this had paid taxes on money which later was used to pay a criminal, but still... Death and taxes?
Deciding that he really ought to sleep a little, or at least find some caffeine to stop himself from thinking such nonsense, Zechs filtered the entries again.
And found a perfect match.
"Would you like something to drink, your Highness? Something other than milk?"
Relena looked up at those words. Treize was standing in the doorframe, somehow managing to not look as if he had woken just five minutes ago.
"Thank you, but no," she returned, forcing herself to smile a little as she hoped that he would leave her to herself. She wasn't quite sure whether she could go back to sleep immediately, but she would at least have some peace. Her dream had unsettled her more than she cared to admit; her secretary had been there again, shooting at her, but this time she had been absolutely aware of what was happening. She had seen the gun, had heard the bang just as she had felt that burning pain, this time in her chest. And then Kristensen had fired at her too, and Noin, and also Zechs had had a gun, and nothing she had said had stopped them.
"Just say it if there is anything you need, Princess. You are my guest, and I wish for you to have anything you desire."
He could be polite, Relena admitted to herself. And this time it also seemed more sincere, as if he were not bothering with putting up an overly elaborate mask. It made him seem younger, and also more approachable at a sudden. Relena had seen that facet of his personality just now, when he had spoken to Mariemeia. Then Treize had not been the cool and smooth politician she had met before. He had just been a concerned father trying to calm down his child again after something had unsettled her. And what he had said had sounded absolutely sincere, as if he would never lie to the little girl. He had been believable.
Relena found that she wanted to believe him. She was tired, she was feeling weary of the whole situation, her arm hurt, and she simply wanted to have some measure of peace. She wished that she would be able to relax a little and stop being on her guard all the time. But that wasn't possible as long as she didn't feel safe.
"Did you mean it?" Relena asked, thinking of the exact words he had used when calming Mariemeia.
Treize gave her a somewhat inquiring look. "I beg your pardon?"
"What you said to Mariemeia. That you would not allow anything bad to happen to her." And he had also said that Relena would be safe here... would be lie to his daughter about something like that?
There was a moment of silence, then Treize nodded. "There is nothing I would not do if it means keeping those safe for whom I care," he said earnestly.
"Also my brother?" Relena couldn't help asking.
"Also your brother."
"I saw those pictures..." she trailed of, not quite sure what to say. She had not really meant to bring it up right now.
Treize met her eyes. "If you mean to ask whether Milliard and I are lovers, then the answer is yes," he said calmly.
"But what? But he is a man? If that is what you wanted to say, then I am really disappointed in you, Your Highness." There was an edge to Treize's voice as he spoke, a clear warning not to take this lightly. "I would have thought that a pacifist like the Princess of Sank would know about tolerance. Practice what you preach, Princess."
Relena frowned. "That was not what I was going to say," she protested, though she had to admit to herself that inwardly this had been something she had found hard to understand, and Treize's words had hit a nerve. She was always telling people to accept each other, to not mind differences in nationality, ethnicity and ideas. But she had nevertheless felt startled and awkward about finding out about Zechs. She believed sincerely that she could get used to the idea of her brother not being interested in women, but still Relena figured that it was only normal to be at least a little surprised and confused about that sort of news.
"My apologies for assuming," Treize said, though his face did not reflect the excuse. The expression he wore was more like one of accomplishment, as if he had been planning to say this to her for a longer time. It made her wonder why he would see the need to speak those words. And also why she could read him so easily at the moment. Apparently Treize was more tired than he cared to show, because Relena doubted that she would be able to see more than minimal changes in his expression otherwise.
The thought comforted her. If Treize was not quite up to playing his games, then she could relax a little and seize the opportunity to ask some of the questions that had been occupying her mind during the evening.
"I would like to know something," she said, watching his face carefully. Right now she was more willing to believe than she had been before. Considering that everybody around her seemed to think him trustworthy and sincere, perhaps she should give him a chance. She could always reconsider later anyway. And she wanted some peace of mind in this. She wanted the insecurity and nervousness to stop.
Treize was watching her in turn for some moments, clearly trying to figure out just what could be important enough for her to be discussed at this hour. "Of course, Princess," he said eventually.
"You said that you would do anything for my brother," she began, not quite certain of her words yet. "That you would keep him safe. I do not doubt that," she said quickly when she saw Treize's eyes narrow. "Not really. But I still do not understand why you are doing this, letting me stay here. Noin and Zechs have tried to explain, but I want to hear it from you."
"I see..." Treize said, his voice contemplative. "You do not have much reason to trust me, Princess. I know that our previous meetings have not been overly... fortunate."
Relena nodded, definitely not about to argue this. The first time they had met, he had made her look like an impertinent child, and at the second occasion he had quite effortlessly removed her from leadership of the World Nation. It was not something she would forget - or forgive - in a hurry.
"But when you think about it, I have no reasons to mean you harm. I do not see you as an enemy and a danger."
Not anymore, were the words that lingered unspoken in the air for a moment.
"So you think I am harmless?" Relena wanted to know, not quite sure whether to take this as an insult or not.
Treize shook his head. "Far from that. I consider you one of the most dangerous persons in the world right now. But you pose no danger to me, Princess."
"You are very certain about that."
"Why should you fight me? I am not going to threaten peace, not after what it has cost me. And I have no reason to make an enemy of you for personal matters."
"Well, I would not wish to be your enemy." Especially since Relena knew she could never be certain that she would come out victorious of that battle. She had seen what Treize could achieve once he set his mind on something.
"You would find it hard to be. Whom would you oppose? A dead man? Surely I do not have to remind you that it would tarnish your image to do so." Treize seemed strangely pleased by this fact. "You could not fight me, even if you wished to do so."
"Not as long as you are not giving me a reason."
"We seem to agree on that."
"So you would not move against me... but what makes you willing to cooperate here? And don't tell me that it is for my brother. I don't believe that this is the only reason."
A small smile of acknowledgement crossed Treize's face. "You have become better at reading people," he commented, abandoning his place near the door and settling down on one of the chairs grouped near the window. "I was hoping that you would learn those tricks."
"I had no choice but to learn," Relena said, shifting a little against the pillows behind her back. It was a strange admittance for her, but it seemed the right thing to say at the moment.
Treize looked at her. "You did not, no. And I was wondering in the beginning whether you would manage."
The comment made her scowl for a second before she schooled her expression into a mere displeased frown. There was no reason for him to rub it into her face that she had been a newcomer at a game he had been playing for a while already.
"What would have happened if I had not learnt?" she demanded to know, angry at the implications of his words. "What would you have done then?"
"I would have regretted it. But this is a moot question, without any relevance. You mastered the task, and that made you valuable." Treize paused to see whether she had anything to say on this.
There were indeed some comments burning on the tip of Relena's tongue, but they seemed to finally move at least in the vague direction of her real question, so she remained silent for now. She wasn't quite up to repeating her inquiry, if only because she had the suspicion that if she did, they would be sitting here until sunrise without any results.
"You have become important, Princess. Your influence cannot be denied any longer, and I daresay that without you, today's world would not be as peaceful as it is." The compliment was there in the words, though the tone implied that Treize was merely stating facts and not actively searching to placate her. "Which brings me to answering your initial question. You are necessary for the world to remain as it is. If you are taken out of the equation, then the situation will destabilize and result in another war. I am sure you are aware of this."
She was more than aware of this; people loved to remind her of it. Usually it came in the form of gratitude, with someone telling her that she was the one who had made the current peace possible with her actions. At first it had been a highly satisfying knowledge, but Relena had soon found that it was tiring to be constantly told the same. It was a burden she was not sure she wanted to carry. At the moment she could handle the awareness that the government was balanced on her shoulders, and that she was the figurehead of a new era. But she did not think that she wanted to have to deal with this forever.
"I know," she said, surprised that none of the weariness she felt showed in her voice.
Why did it have to be her? She was too young for this...
Relena firmly pushed the thought aside. Normally she didn't mind, but right now she felt tired and worn out enough to acknowledge that her energy had limits.
"Well, Princess... if you view this from my point of view, then the situation presents itself as follows: I have worked towards peace for years. I have sacrificed my career, I have sacrificed most of my life so far. I sacrificed your brother, and that was the hardest thing I have ever done." Treize paused for a moment before resuming a calmer expression that only made the previous tension noticeable. "You cannot imagine what achieving this peace has cost me. What it has cost those I care for. Right now I cannot do anything to protect it. But you can, because you personify peace in the eye of most. That is what makes me involve myself. If something happened to you, then the efforts of too many people would have been futile. I will not allow that to happen."
The words made sense to her, and there was enough honesty in them to keep her from doubting that she was being wrapped up into elaborate lies or half-truths. It was another thing Relena had been forced to learn, to discern between what could be believed and what had to be dismissed as nonsense. Besides, the fact that Treize had not even mentioned liking her, or feeling a need to protect her because of herself, was reassuring too. She knew he wasn't exactly fond of her, a feeling heartily reciprocated. If he had mentioned anything like that, she would have known that he was trying to feed her an answer she was supposed to swallow because it was tailored to her taste. That he didn't seem to care what happened to her personally as long as nobody destroyed any efforts he had made was calming.
"You couldn't have said this before, could you?" she asked.
Treize raised an eyebrow. "Would you have listened?" he questioned in return.
Relena knew the answer to this, and she was only too aware that Treize did too. Of course she wouldn't have believed him. What he had said wasn't enough to entirely take away her doubts. Only when considered with all the little things she had seen over the last two days did it all fit together and present her with a fairly reassuring image of the situation.
With a smile that made it obvious that he knew she would not answer, Treize held her gaze for a moment. "Perhaps, Princess, you wish to return to your rest?" he asked, smoothly changing the topic. "It is late... or rather, early."
Keeping herself from turning her head and glancing at the clock on the nightstand, Relena acknowledged the statement with a nod. "It is. I would like to ask one more question, though."
"But of course."
"Why do you continue calling me Princess? You said yourself that titles are not necessary, Your Excellency." She put emphasis on the last words to make it clear she was not pleased with it, now that she had picked up on it.
The smile this earned her seemed more genuine than the previous ones. "Merely a little... observation. I did not intend anything particular with it."
As if she was supposed to believe that.
"In that case I think we can agree that it's not necessary. Surely you don't call my brother Prince either."
"I do not," Treize said, quite clearly amused at the idea. "His reaction would be unpleasant, to put it mildly. What would you like me to call you then, Miss Peacecraft?"
"Relena will be enough." Enough to bring her on even ground with Treize. She had not been consciously aware of what he had been doing; there were so many people who had certain forms of addressing her that they all tended to blend together. There were so many names she reacted to, ranging from Relena over Miss Darlian to Vice Foreign Minister. It was difficult to notice when there were irregularities; she probably wouldn't have become aware of this one either if Princess hadn't been a quite rarely used address for her.
Treize considered it for a second, then bowed his head lightly. "As you wish," he agreed as he rose from his seat. "Is there something else you would like me to do, or shall I leave you to your rest?"
She shook her head. "Nothing for now, thank you. I would like to sleep a little more."
"Of course." Treize crossed the room, only stopping when he was almost out through the door. "Have a pleasant rest, Relena," he said before he left.
There were some things she would have to think about, Relena decided as she made herself comfortable beneath the blanket. But those would have to wait until morning; now that a lot of the tension had left her, she was acutely aware of the exhaustion that made her body feel so heavy. It had been a good idea that she had asked her questions now; she was more at ease, and would hopefully be able to sleep peacefully. The last thought that crossed her mind before she drifted off to nothingness was that Zechs would be pleased with this.
"If we start looking for who could have had a motive to shoot her, we'll be here all day." Shaking her head, Une met Sally's eyes. "It's not going to get you anywhere. Politicians have so many enemies. The list is too long. You get too many suspects, and you stir up too much dirt." She sighed softly. "We can't afford to be nosy around them, no matter how much you'd like to."
"Are you saying that I mustn't suspect some people because of what they can do?"
"You need to keep in mind that they will do anything necessary to protect themselves. Including dissolving the Preventers. So if you look at anything delicate, think twice about it before you decide that it is absolutely necessary. It would be best if you stopped your efforts altogether."
Sally was not sure if she wanted to believe what she was hearing. Of course she was not idealist enough to believe that the investigation she was leading would not lead to any disagreements and upset some important people. But she had not believed that she would ever have to be reminded that perhaps it could be wiser to not do anything, in order to protect what they had achieved. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
"But there are leads, and they all point in the same direction. And if I can take a further look at them, I will probably know who was behind this." It had to be in everyone's interest to solve this, hadn't it? Political opportunism was fine, but ceasing to pursue criminals definitely went too far.
Une seemed tired at a sudden, and Sally couldn't help wondering what was on the other woman's mind right now. "I know that your leads are important, and that they are promising. But try to imagine what will happen if you begin to follow them. It will go against the interests of someone in a high position, and that person will act against us."
"I don't believe it." Crossing her arms, Sally tried to keep herself from pacing because she knew it made Une nervous. Instead she went over to the window and looked outside as she attempted to tell herself that she was misunderstanding this entire situation and that there was no way Une was saying what she thought that the words had meant.
"You simply cannot be serious! This is a clear thing, and it can be over in a day or two. It's clear, it's easy, and there is no reason to think that it won't turn out well. And you tell me that it wouldn't be wise to continue? Just what changed your mind? Yesterday you still said that it's important that we solve this!"
Something had to have happened to cause this. Une didn't normally change her mind so quickly.
No answer came from the brown-haired woman, and Sally did not turn to look at her. This didn't make sense. Not at all. It almost was as if Une felt scared of something, but what could have brought that about? A threat that certain things would happen if the investigations continued? Sally felt herself tense at the thought. To imagine that it could take less than two years for the Preventers to turn into a mere tool...
"Just why are you doing this?" she asked, more quietly than she felt. "Why?"
At first Une remained silent again. Sally was just about to repeat her question when she heard the sound of something breakable shattering against a wall, and it made her spin around.
"Do you really think that I am going to let them take this away from me?" Une snapped as she got up from her seat and stalked across the room, towards the dark spot at the far wall where the coffee mug had hit it. "I won't let all my efforts go to waste just because a foolish girl can't keep her mouth shut and won't invest in proper security! If the choice is between keeping the Preventers safe and getting her out of the mess she got herself into, then I won't have to think twice about it!"
Keeping the Preventers safe? So there had been threats.
"Please, calm yourself..."
"What would you do if you had the choice? Stop investigating, or watch as they ruin all you have worked and lived for?" Crouching, Une started to pick up the shards from the floor, her movements more than a little erratic. "What would you do?" she asked once more, looking up when Sally began to slowly move towards her.
"We can talk about this, Une."
"And what is that going to achieve? You can't alter the facts by talking! Don't you think that I have been doing nothing but try to find a way out of it? It's the choice we face!"
"Beloved, please... calm down so we can think of a solution. Anger won't achieve anything..."
"There is no other solution!"
She wasn't getting through to Une, that much was clear. That in itself scared her; in the past, anger and helplessness had always been only a prelude to far greater unsettlements.
"How can you be so sure?" Sally tried to ask, pitching her voice as soothingly as she could as she knelt down next to her lover. If she managed to draw Une into a discussion somehow, then perhaps she could stop this situation from spiraling further downwards.
"Don't you think I've seen this happen before? Relena can be replaced. Peace doesn't depend on her alone. She's one person, so what does it matter if she is gone? Others will come and take her place, and maybe they won't be so incredibly stupid! But do you want to imagine what it would mean if the Preventers are gone? We're the only force in this world that can claim to be neutral and not under anyone's thumb most of the time. Do you want to lose that? Do you want to see all our efforts wasted just because that arrogant little princess has enemies?"
"Une... listen to what you are saying. You can't mean this..."
Brown eyes narrowed as Une looked at her. "What if I do? What if I think that peace mustn't depend on the fate of one person? Don't you see that there is no way out of this? If we continue trying to find the aggressor, then we lose everything that makes us capable of maintaining peace. I can't let that happen!" Her voice, almost hysterical in the end, suddenly went ice cold. "I won't allow it."
"The girl will have to watch out for herself. We cannot be bothered with that. We have more important things to do."
Sally knew that tone only too well, and she watched in dismay as Une reached up to impatiently brush her hair out of her face and began to braid it. It was happening again. For almost a year there had been no problems with Une's schizophrenia, but it was all coming up once more in face of the pressure this situation had put her under.
"They'll see that we cannot be controlled. They'll see that I won't let them take away all we have built."
Catching Une's hands in her own to keep her from continuing to plait her hair, Sally chanced a look directly into the narrowed brown eyes. She knew that it was something the Lady tended to react badly to because it made her feel insecure, but she needed to do something to keep her off balance and prevent the more violent personality from settling too firmly.
"No anger, Lady. You know it won't help." It was hard to stay calm and not show any signs of how much this entire situation scared and worried her, but letting Une notice would not help at all. The less scrupulous personality which seemed in charge right now had a tendency to try and exploit any weaknesses. "Let go of this."
"You have to. Let it rest, and we will find a solution."
"There is none other. The only way is to call off the investigation so nobody cuts our funds." Staring into Sally's eyes, Une withdrew her hands and cradled them against her chest. "I won't let them control us."
"But you give them control when you let them influence you."
The pained look that crossed Une's face almost made Sally regret her words, but she felt that she was justified in speaking them. Arguing with Une when her personalities were switching was something she hated, but in the past it had helped to simply repeat her points until there was no personality left into which Une could retreat and feel as if she were winning. It was a cruel method, but so far it was the only one that worked if Une did not cooperate.
"Don't you think I know that? Do you believe I am so foolish that I would not see that we are caught?"
"I think that you are worried because you cannot find a way out of this. But you won't let me help."
"Because it is my problem! Because I am the one responsible..." Une blinked rapidly, and her expression suddenly softened, the anger being replaced by something akin to sorrow. "I am responsible, and they have made me fail... why does nobody else see that we are needed? Surely everybody would agree that our work is important and that we must not be influenced."
Sally fought against breathing a sigh of relief when she recognized the most innocent of Une's personalities. This one was easier to deal with, though she too could be amazingly persistent sometimes.
"Unfortunately the world is not so nice, Une."
"But it would be easier then..."
This time Sally did sigh as she heard the desperation behind these words. "I know. But most people are too selfish to see that. All we can do is do our job the best we can, and not listen to them." She smiled a little, reaching for Une's hand again. "We'll find a solution to this, don't worry. Don't let it get to you so much."
"How can I not? My responsibility..."
"Not yours alone. Nobody expects you to deal with this on your own." Raising her hand, Sally lightly brushed her fingers against Une's cheek, relaxing a bit when she felt the other woman lean into the touch. "If only you'd realize that."
Une looked at her, tiredness in her eyes. "I am not meeting the expectations," she said, and Sally could see the timid personality lose its hold, hopefully to the stable one. "People are hoping for peace, and they trust me to help in giving it to them. And I can't..."
"You are too hard on yourself. And you are ignoring all the things you have done already. You have achieved a lot. Don't forget about it. But if you don't want to lose those victories, then you have to be strong now. You mustn't let those people beat you."
"There is nothing I can do that won't play into their hands."
"I am sure we can come up with something they don't expect," Sally said reassuringly, scrutinizing Une's face, somewhat relieved by what she saw. The desperation was fading at least, and the timid look was becoming firmer too, definite signs that the stable personality was settling again. "We'll just have to be inventive and break some rules. It's not as if they didn't do it too."
Une broke the eye contact, looking down at the floor. "I am such a fool," she said, sighing softly.
"You aren't. You just didn't know what to do."
"And that made me jump at conclusions. I really should have known better." A rueful smile crossed her face. "Sorry for shouting at you."
"Never mind. Are you feeling better again?"
For a moment Une thought about this, then nodded. "I think so. Just give me a moment."
"Okay." Sally waited, watching as her lover calmed down further. There were no real signs of exhaustion, but she was still tempted to send Une home to rest. The switches had proven trying on her energy in the past, and even though it seemed better this time, Sally did not want to risk having the other woman collapse with fatigue during the day. But she knew only too well that Une was unlikely to agree to it right now. There were issues that had to be dealt with, and even though Sally was confident that she could find a way out of the mess they were in, Une would hardly leave it all to her. No matter whether she felt tired or not.
The insistent beeping of his cellphone startled Zechs out of sleep, and it took him a moment to identify the noise and then locate the phone. Reaching for it, he wearily he glanced at his watch and frowned. Too early for this... He hadn't gone to bed until early this morning, and what little sleep he had gotten had not been particularly restful. Still, in a way he was glad that the call had woken him; there were too many things to do. He couldn't simply take the time he needed to be fully rested right now. After all he knew that for a while he would be able to function without it, and time could be essential right now.
"Wind," he answered the call, not bothering to look at the incoming number. Whoever called would hopefully have a good reason for it. Besides, if he had seen the call were from Une or Noin, he probably wouldn't have answered it, no matter how important it could be. Better to just see and deal with it.
"Sally here," he heard the familiar voice. "Good morning."
"You don't sound too happy to hear me. Why weren't you answering the vidphone?"
Zechs sighed as he looked at the laptop on his desk. "I switched it off," he offered. Right now he didn't want to bother explaining the reasons behind that. Sally would probably agree that taking a machine off any network connections was the best way to protect data, but if he mentioned it, she would want to know what data was so important. And that would lead to far more questions than necessary.
"I see. You're tired... did you go to bed before or after breakfast?"
"Before." A bit before, at least. The cafeteria wouldn't have served any food until half an hour later. "And I am not tired."
"Of course you aren't. Which is why you weren't yawning just now."
If Sally had been physically present, Zechs would have scowled at her. He really wasn't in the mood for friendly bantering right now. "Why did you call?" he asked, hoping to direct the conversation to the important things.
For some seconds there was silence, and Zechs was about to ask whether she was still there when Sally finally spoke. "It's not easy to explain," she said, hesitation clear in her voice.
Pushing away the blankets, Zechs sat up. "Try," he said as he got up and headed over to his desk to see if there was any coffee left. He wasn't normally fond of it, but right now he was willing to do anything that would make him feel more awake. Too little sleep, his mind told him, but he ignored that insistent voice. Sleep was secondary.
"The Preventers are abandoning the shooting."
"What?" Zechs had been reaching for a half-emptied glass of orange juice left from last night, but Sally's words made him freeze in motion. "But why?"
This didn't make sense... this didn't make any sense at all.
"It's a complicated story," Sally answered wearily. "Some people are getting nervous, and they knew just which buttons to press to get Une to call things off."
"Do you know who?" Zechs asked, still trying to wrap his mind around the news. He hadn't been overly happy about the Preventer investigation, but they had provided him with a safety net of sorts. They had been a guarantee that every little detail would be examined, which had allowed him to take greater risks and work more by intuition. It was unsettling that now anything he overlooked would not be picked up by them and find its way into their reports and from there back to him.
Sally sighed. "Not yet."
"Then get Une to tell you. She obviously knows." And had been intimidated enough to back down. Zechs didn't like to imagine just how much pressure was needed for that. On the other hand, it also angered him a bit that she had succumbed to it. After all, they were supposed to not be subject to any directives.
"I can't right now."
"Why? Sally, surely you can see too that this is important."
"I know, and I'll find out as soon as possible. But she isn't talking right now."
So Une was playing games again. Wonderful. Just what they needed right now. A mess was quickly growing around them, and the woman had to turn elusive about the reasons for it all.
"Tell me once you know. What is going to happen now?"
"As I said, the teams are being called off. I don't know what we'll say on the matter, but we'll probably have to give some official information."
"What about Relena?" If the investigation was stopped, then the Preventers had no real justification anymore to protect her... "Is Noin staying?"
Sally's next words calmed him a little in that regard. "They'll stay where they are for now. I'm not going to get Relena into danger, and this obviously isn't over yet."
"It isn't..." Zechs agreed cautiously. So at least his sister would be safe for now, though he knew only too well that she couldn't remain hidden forever. And if nobody pursued her attackers anymore, it could happen again only too easily.
He couldn't let that happen.
"Send me the files from the teams," he said, reaching to switch on his laptop and reconnect it. "I'll continue this. Put me on leave or something, but you can't expect me to sit by and watch. Not when my sister is concerned."
"I was going to do that anyway," came Sally's reply. It didn't really surprise him out of some reason; he hadn't expected her to say no, so it was convenient that she had planned for this already. "Just do us all a favor and keep a low profile."
This made Zechs frown a bit. "Sally, just what is going on?" he wanted to know. This whole procedure was not normal at all. It should have been Une who called him; she always handled such important things herself. Zechs wasn't entirely certain why she did it, but he suspected that she wanted to personally make sure that he received her orders and instructions. It wasn't at all like her to let Sally handle something like that.
And Sally seemed tired, he thought. He couldn't quite say what gave him this impression; it was mostly the overall effect of her words. She had so calmly informed him of the stopped investigation. It wasn't like her to behave like this.
Zechs didn't like this.
"I told you," Sally answered after some moments of silence. "The Preventers are no longer able to follow this. And you were more successful than the teams anyway, so it won't change much."
He asked again, but her explanations remained the same. Someone had managed to effectively silence the Preventers in this case, and for a reason Zechs could not figure out, Une was not able to counter the threat. Effectively it left him on his own, even though Sally promised that he would have all support she could give him in the current situation.
Just how suspicious could it be if he decided to look for whoever had attempted to murder Relena? He didn't need to be a Preventer for this. He was her brother, and that was justification enough.
"Would you like some more toast, Lucrezia?"
"No, thanks," Noin declined Treize's offer with a smile, instead getting herself some more coffee. She was having breakfast with him and Dorothy this morning, mostly out of a lack of reasons to decline the invitation. Treize had at first expected this to turn into a quite awkward affair at least for her, but was pleasantly surprised by now. He hadn't remembered Noin to be such a smooth conversationalist, but there was no reason why she shouldn't have grown in that area since the last time they had spoken leisurely. That they were no longer commander and subordinate officer seemed to be enough justification for Noin to drop formalities and relax a little. Even Dorothy's occasional stinging comments hadn't managed to truly annoy her, which made Treize's respect for the dark-haired woman increase by a significant amount.
"So your brother will marry?" Treize picked up the briefly interrupted conversation again. "I would ask that you give him my congratulations, but I think it would not be entirely appropriate to do so."
"It might be a little startling," Noin agreed, taking a sip of coffee. "Though I'm sure he'd appreciate it."
"Funny..." Dorothy's comment made them both turn to look at her. "I always thought he didn't like Treize." She flashed them an innocent smile. "But of course I am mistaken."
Treize didn't fall for the bait and remained silent; Noin's brother and he truly had not gotten along overly well, but they had only met a few times. Nowhere nearly enough to draw conclusions from it.
"I remember that he called you an obnoxious little girl once," Noin said in a sweet voice. "And still you two managed a civil conversation some weeks ago, if I remember correctly. Or am I wrong about that, Dorothy?"
The blond woman seemed unperturbed by this, though Treize believed he had caught a slight narrowing of the blue eyes. "Your brother can be a charming conversationalist. But he bored me."
"So you were just being polite?" Noin asked, looking smug at a sudden. "Or perhaps you were doing what is proper to do?"
Dorothy's smile widened by a very calculated fraction. "I would not want him to think I can't behave."
Treize breathed an inward sigh of relief when Dimitry came in. He didn't think that Noin and Dorothy would actually start arguing, but this exchange was starting to make him uneasy. It reminded him oddly of past meetings between Une and Noin, although there the hostility had usually been very clear, while in this case it seemed to be merely dislike.
"Your Excellency, I am sorry to interrupt you," Dimitry said quietly once he had come to Treize's side. "But I believe that the current news will interest you."
Raising an eyebrow, Treize looked at the old man. "What has happened?" he asked, not entirely sure whether he wanted to know the answer. If Dimitry thought it important enough that it could not wait until after breakfast, then it probably was something to worry about. "Is this about Milliard?"
"No. But there has been a press release from the Preventers concerning Her Highness."
How strange... Noin hadn't mentioned anything of it. Why would she remain silent about something that had hit the news already?
"Ladies, excuse me please," Treize said smoothly, rising from his seat. "There is something that requires my attention."
The look Dorothy gave him made it clear that she had listened and that she had no intention to stay here and continue to calmly eat her toast. Not that Treize had expected it anyway. And Noin was already standing and looking as if she were just waiting for them to get going.
"Is it correct for me to assume that you have not heard of it yet?" he asked Noin, trying to guess from her expression whether this had come as a surprise to her.
The dark-haired woman nodded. "The last I knew was that everything was going smoothly, yesterday evening," she said, sounding a bit puzzled about it. For a moment Treize entertained the thought that she had known and had been keeping it secret, but then dismissed the idea. Noin was not the type of person to do that.
"And you have not been in contact with anyone yet?" he wondered as they followed Dorothy into his study, the most comfortable place in the house to have small conferences and potential crisis talks. "I was under the impression that Doctor Po would contact you regularly."
"She hasn't called so far, but I wasn't expecting her to do so before today at noon."
Insufficient organization, Treize thought. Something was going on, something that might concern the safety of Relena, and communication was essential in a moment like this. Noin should have been notified of any news, not learn them from the press releases. It puzzled him a little that this was happening; the Preventers were supposed to know how to handle such situations properly. OZ would not have made such a blunder.
They only caught the general phrases at the end of a press announcement. A young Preventer agent was making it, and he did not look comfortable at all with his task. He kept giving off small signs of nervousness as he toyed with his pen and shifted in his seat.
"Apparently they didn't have time to pick someone suitable," Dorothy remarked. "The boy is fidgeting far too much."
"Not everybody is calm when making a worldwide announcement," Noin countered, though there was little energy behind it. "He'll learn. Though it's strange that Sally has him do this. He's her personal assistant."
"I thought that Nichols had that position?" The innocence in Dorothy's voice was more than a little suspicious.
Noin shot her a dark look. "He is more useful elsewhere."
"Working with you."
Dorothy was about to reply to this, but at that moment the broadcast switched from the press conference to a reporter who set out to summarize and comment on what had just been said.
"An unexpectedly quick conclusion to the case," the man said, putting on that particular look every newsman seemed to get whenever they announced something they weren't happy about. "Even though the Preventers are known to be efficient, the general opinion was that it would take at least a week to get to the bottom of this. It is both a relief and a source of worry to hear that the shooter was a fanatic and most likely has not had accomplices. Princess Relena has not made mortal enemies, but as every figure of public life she is attracting attention, also from unwanted sides. The withdrawal of the Preventers from the investigation can be taken as a sign that there is no immediate threat anymore. After a short break, we will have more news on this sudden development. Stay with us."
Treize turned to look at Noin as the commercials came up. "You truly did not know?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No. But I will call Sally."
"Perhaps it would be more productive to talk to the Lady," Dorothy suggested. "If Doctor Po hasn't said anything yet, then what makes you think that she'll suddenly tell you?"
"She has to be aware of this. Her assistant made the announcement, so it most likely was her who sent him to do that." Treize frowned slightly as he turned the few facts over in his mind. "Most likely she has reasons for not contacting anyone yet. Though I wonder whether it was wise."
"There is no need to take us by surprise," Noin agreed. "And she must have known that we'd hear of it eventually."
"It would make little sense for her to decide to let us know by that way," Treize said. "But she might have been too occupied with something else."
Noin considered this for a moment. "It would have to be something very important."
"You two might want to wait for more facts before constructing theories," Dorothy remarked, making herself comfortable in the armchair she always preferred as a seat. "All that has been said is that the Preventers have officially come to the conclusion that the motive was fanaticism and that the woman was on her own. So stop making assumptions as long as you don't have a basis for them."
"We were discussing the facts," Treize returned, though he had to admit that Dorothy was right. They did not know enough yet to figure out what was going on. He was certain that what the press knew was not the truth, not in its entirety; it would be illogical for the Preventers to tell the world all they knew and not reserve any knowledge for themselves.
Dorothy smiled at him. "Of course. I was merely suggesting that it will be easier to know what is happening if you wait a little longer."
There was not much Treize could say in reply to this, but the end of the commercial break saved him from having to admit it. The reporter from before was back, looking a little more settled. The break obviously had been there to give him a chance to organize his facts.
"A Preventer spokesman has announced today that the inquiries concerning the attempt on Princess Relena's life have come to an end. The results are kept secret for the most part. What has been told is that the assassin's identity is known, and that all facts point towards a single fanatic and not the speculated political motive."
"As if anyone is going to believe that," Dorothy interjected.
"The current whereabouts of Princess Relena are not known. It is likely that she will return to her duties only when she has recovered from her injuries. The doctors at the hospital where she has been treated estimate that it will take three or four days until the Princess will be able to fully resume her work. Her personal spokesman has informed us an hour ago that she is well, considering the circumstances, and that her temporary absence will not endanger any of her current projects."
The man then went on to talk about the negotiations Relena had been involved in and their supposed impact on Sank and the surrounding countries. Treize noticed with some interest that nothing was mentioned of her work in the World government; Relena had always been regarded more as a Princess than the Vice Foreign Minister in public, but it had rarely been so blatant before. People liked to think of her as a charming young ruler, and the press was going along with it. Royalty was more interesting than politicians, after all.
"That wasn't much." Leaning against the backrest of the couch, Noin frowned for a moment. "And it doesn't explain at all why the Preventers are pulling out. We know it wasn't a fanatic."
"There must be a reason. Lady Une would not have taken this step otherwise. Something has made her do it."
"New facts maybe," Dorothy suggested. "They know more than we do."
"Therefore we will have to read between the lines. Unless, of course, Miss Lucrezia is going to call Doctor Po now and ask." It wasn't the subtlest thing to say, but Treize wanted to have answers. And having Noin make calls was one of the easier ways to get them.
Noin glanced at him, then wordlessly got to her feet and left the room, closing the door behind her.
"She did not like this a lot," Dorothy said. "Probably because she has not thought of it herself."
Treize met her eyes. "She already said that she would contact Doctor Po. I was merely accelerating it a little. Besides, I am sure you will agree with me that the sooner we know what has happened, the better."
"True, of course. But I can remember times when you were not so direct." The smile Dorothy gave him was not harmless in the least, and it made him wonder whether it would be better to show less interest in this issue.
Involvement in the outside world was something they had discussed a lot during his recovery. At that time Treize had not cared enough to disagree with Dorothy when she had suggested that it would be better for him not to take too much of an interest in what was going on. He had changed his opinion in that regard lately, though he still was refraining from actively trying to affect anything. But it was getting more and more difficult to sit still and watch. The temptation was there to resume at least some of the influence he had carried in the past. And now that Zechs had actually asked him to help...
It was making things personal for Treize. Zechs was expecting him to keep Relena safe. The younger man probably hadn't had much more in mind than hiding her in Kiev for a while, but the least Treize could do was stay informed about what was happening so he could react if it became necessary.
"What will you do now?"
He almost skirted around the question. It would be easy to give an evasive answer and then direct Dorothy's attention to another topic so she would not wonder about this anymore. Treize did not feel overly comfortable to discuss it now; but at the same time he found it hard to keep Dorothy in the dark. She had been concerned about this issue in her own way, and it was rare to see her truly worried about something.
"I do not know yet," Treize found himself admitting. "There is so much we are not aware of."
"Has that ever stopped you before?" she asked, but didn't wait for any answer. "You could leave this to Noin."
Treize nodded. "I could."
"But you won't."
"Because..." Because he didn't want to. Because he was tired of having to watch. Because he knew that he could have an effect on this if he allowed himself to act. "Because I am not comfortable with the idea that others deal with it."
Dorothy did not look surprised at all. It made him wonder when he had become so easy to read for her. "Good," she said simply.
He raised an eyebrow, waiting for her to say more.
"Now I do not need to worry that this is going to turn into a mess."
"Your faith in me is touching," Treize returned, smiling a little. "But I am not intending to do a lot." At least not as long as things proceeded more or less smoothly; he still had to decide whether the current change in the situation could be considered neglectable or not.
It was getting easier to think about involvement in this issue. There was not really a lot speaking against it, and Treize figured that it would not do any harm if he were to help a little. He knew that Une and Zechs had a lot on their hands during normal times already, and that at the moment they were busier than usual. So if he could make their work easier - and he knew that he could - then why not do it?
The reason which had previously prevented him from partaking in anything official and public was that he had worried about the effect it might have if his survival became known. He wasn't certain whether the world could deal with it right now. But as more time passed, Treize had come to suspect that the dangerous bit was not the fact that he had survived. It would only turn into trouble if he should happen to try returning to one of his previous positions. People might get understandably nervous if he requested a position in the government, or with the Preventers.
"It does not matter how much you do," Dorothy said as she rose from her seat and got herself a glass of fruit juice from the tray Dimitry had discreetly placed on the small table near the door. "But there has to be some input from outside. Would you like some juice too?"
"No, thank you," Treize declined, mentally going over her words. Dorothy's comments were always worth considering in detail. "You sound as if you think that anything coming from a source not within the Preventers would be useful."
"They lack the distance to see what they are doing," his niece elaborated, settling down again. "They are blind when it comes to their own work, so it would be advantageous for them to receive suggestions from unrelated sources."
This earned him a surprised look. "Me? Oh, but Uncle Treize... I am not experienced enough for something like that."
When she batted her eyelashes too to complete the picture of innocent naivety, Treize could not help laughing. "Inexperienced is the last thing I would call you. Grandfather was worried about what you could do, and that was four years ago already." And Duke Dermail had thought the same, and had found out in the end that Dorothy truly was a force to be reckoned with. But Treize did not want to bring him up, since it was still a sore spot with Dorothy. "You would be more than capable to provide them with inputs."
"Perhaps... but I believe that it would take a while to convince Lady Une to listen to me. For some reason she does not appear to like me much."
Treize wisely refrained from commenting that the dislike probably came from the treatment Une had received from Dorothy over the years. His niece could make stinging comments with amazing accuracy, and Une had been an easy target most of the time.
"Certainly something like dislike would not stop you."
"Oh, of course not."
"So, if this is not a problem..."
"Maybe I do not wish to be considered a friend of the Preventers."
"Why would you not want to be seen as on their side?"
He could not answer this.
"I thought so." Dorothy looked satisfied that she had made her point. "Surely you agree with me that while the Preventers may be someone to be admired and supported for their work, it is better not to be too obvious about it. Some people might get the wrong impression."
The impression that loyalty had been transferred. That faithfulness and reliability would have to be reconsidered. It was something neither Dorothy nor Treize could afford, not with the sort of acquaintances and connections they had, even though they were dormant in Treize's case. People would get nervous, and nervousness had a high price in alliances that were often fleeting. The effects would last, and they would hardly be restricted to one or two persons. People sometimes had the tendency to think that such strange ideas spread easily.
Sighing, Treize shook his head. "I was foolish to think that those times are over."
Dorothy met his eyes, holding his gaze. "They never are."
"...unconventional, but nonetheless amazingly effective. I shall have to congratulate Doctor Po the next time I see her."
"I told you that Sally would know how to handle this. She's not stupid."
"Oh, I never thought she was. Merely that her methods were inappropriate, but I withdraw any objections to that."
Deciding that she had heard enough and that there was not anything to truly be gained from listening, Relena pushed the door completely open. She had been hovering in front of Treize's study for a minute, not entirely sure whether she really wanted to go inside and join him, Noin and Dorothy. The three of them had been in there for a while now, according to Nichols, who had been keeping her company for the last hour - part of her reason to want to get out of her room.
"You, taking back something you said? I didn't think I'd live to see the day." Noin sounded amused as she said this, but the smile on her face changed into a look of concern when she spotted Relena. "Miss Relena... is there something you need?"
Relena waved off, knowing only too well where Noin's thoughts were headed right now. But she was not up to spending another day in bed; it was boring, and she felt well enough now to try and be a little more mobile than yesterday.
"I am fine, Noin. Don't exaggerate."
"A good morning to you, Relena," Treize interrupted before Noin could voice any of her concerns. Relena was pleased to see that he had managed to remember about calling her by name. "Take a seat if you wish. We were discussing the recent developments."
Still trying to figure out what to think of the situation, Relena sat down next to Noin on the couch. The older woman was watching her closely, clearly searching for any signs of discomfort, but thankfully she did not say anything. It was growing more and more tiring to constantly assure Noin that there was nothing she needed to worry about regarding Relena's comfort.
"Recent developments?" she asked, accepting the cup of tea Noin handed her.
"Merely a move by the Preventers which we did not anticipate." Treize paused for a moment before continuing, making Relena wonder whether he was feeling a need to watch his words around her. "They have... rearranged their efforts and made some tactical moves. But the situation is firmly under control."
"As far as we know," Dorothy interjected.
Noin gave her a look that clearly implied that they had discussed this before. "Sally knows what she is doing."
"Did you not say that this is the first time she is faced with something like this?"
"It isn't something that happens on a daily basis so we all can practice. She is doing her best, and that is enough to keep this safe."
"I must agree with Lucrezia," Treize added. "Doctor Po has shown before that she is resourceful."
For a moment Dorothy looked as if she would argue his point, but then she merely nodded and reached for her tea. It was the first time Relena had seen the blond girl clearly back down in an argument. She hadn't expected this to happen; she was used to Dorothy twisting facts and her own opinions until she came out victorious from a discussion. At the very least she would try to reach an impasse. Letting somebody else have the last word was not a normal thing for her to do.
"So Sally is handling this now?" Relena asked, looking at Noin for confirmation. "What happened to Une?"
"We don't really know. Sally didn't want to say."
Most likely Une had tired of having to deal with this, Relena suspected. She knew that the leader of the Preventers was not overly fond of her, and it didn't surprise her at all that she would try and get out of this task. Relena liked Sally better anyway, and also trusted her more. It wasn't that she actively distrusted Une - not anymore - but she felt justified at being wary around a woman who had attempted to kill her several times. Relena had forgiven her for assassinating her father, but forgiveness did not have to include a lack of sense for self-protection.
"And I'm supposed to stay here still?"
Noin nodded. "For now, yes."
Relena sighed. "Noin, you know that I need to go back to work..." And the sooner she could do that, the better. There were too many things that needed her to be back in Sank and also at her ministry.
"It isn't safe yet."
"I thought you said the Preventers had everything under control?"
"So they still haven't made any progress, have they? Or you would not be keeping me here still." Relena didn't really expect answers to her questions, and Noin did not give any.
After a moment Dorothy spoke. "The Preventers would not have solved this in any case," she said, pointedly ignoring the glare Noin shot her. "They lack the necessary imagination."
"And who is supposed to do their work?" Noin asked sharply. "The Preventers are the only ones capable of that."
"Allow me to correct you. The Preventers are keeping a high profile. They cannot afford to solve this. Which is why Doctor Po has called off the investigations and delegated them to less obvious researchers."
"Less obvious? Hand it all to Zechs and Heero? You call that less obvious?"
"But of course. Who else would have a reason to pursue the matter privately? It keeps the Preventers out of this, and it is a way to ensure that nobody will hold Lady Une responsible if there are any political repercussions in the aftermath."
"If you figure this out, then what will keep others from doing so too?" Noin demanded to know. "Do you think you are the only one to see the connections?"
Dorothy gave her an innocent smile. "Not everybody shares my insights."
"Even if we assume for a moment that nobody else will notice that Zechs and Heero are doing Preventer work... It keeps the organization out of this, but it also makes it impossible to do anything against whoever is responsible. They can catch the bastard, but what then?"
The look on Dorothy's face was pleasant. "The bastard, as you call him, will be dealt with. In a manner far more effective than anything the Preventers could afford to do."
Noin shook her head. "I never understood why you aren't bothered by these things."
"It is merely a matter of realizing that not everything can be done by means that completely correspond to the laws politicians have devised."
"So you think Heero and Zechs will find any possible other assassins, find their employer, and eliminate them all? And nobody is going to connect this with the Preventers?" Noin sounded incredulous.
"That is exactly what I am thinking."
Listening to the two women was making Relena wonder how much she had missed during the last days. She had thought that Noin had been keeping her informed about what was happening, but it seemed as though the dark-haired woman had remained silent about some key points. This was the first time Relena heard a confirmation that they suspected a second assassin. It was also new to her that the Preventers had officially abandoned the case. And she had not known that Heero was working on this, and that he and Zechs were apparently cooperating.
She glanced at Treize, who had also remained suspiciously quiet while Dorothy and Noin had argued. His expression was as hard to read as usual, but Relena thought that she could detect a hint of a frown, as though he had heard something he was not pleased with. Relena wondered what it could possibly be. Surely not Dorothy's mention of the one responsible being killed without much ado. That wasn't something she thought he would be bothered by, so it had to be something else.
"You are assuming that there is a political connection to this?" Relena asked, looking at Dorothy. In a way it had been easier to assume that her secretary had been a fanatic or mad. "But what would that be?"
"That is what we have been wondering about for a while, among other things," Treize said quietly. "It must be something that has evolved recently... the assassin has been in place for months already, and there has been no lack of opportunities."
"So she was placed as a... a precaution of sorts? In case I did something that the one who hired her didn't like?"
Treize nodded. "It is not a very unusual move. Or rather, it was not. Times have lately changed a little in this regard."
"But what did I do?" Part of why Relena had been willing to believe that there was no logical motive behind this was because she hadn't been able to find a reason. Everything had been quiet lately; there had not been any important decisions, and she had not been about to make any public appearances of much importance.
"You must have done something," Dorothy said when Treize remained quiet. "What did you do during the last two weeks? And what were you about to do?"
"There is that trade meeting next week... I was about to meet some of the Northern European delegates that morning."
"Was that meeting not going to be only a preliminary talk?" Treize asked.
"Yes... all that was going to be on the agenda was getting a first idea of everybody's position."
"Then we can rule this out. It makes no sense to eliminate a key player so early in the game."
Relena shot him a dark look. "You would know, of course."
Treize held her gaze, seemingly unperturbed. "As a matter of fact, yes. What else were you going to do?"
Biting down an angry reply, Relena settled for another glare at him. "A few meetings with representatives from L1. But those were only administrative matters, mostly concerning new labelling systems for intercolonial transports."
"Unlikely," Dorothy said, shaking her head. "What else?"
"A few sessions with the president, a meeting of the parliament... but we had no scheduled tasks for these yet. It has been a calm week, and there has not been anything truly urgent to deal with."
"And yet you are still so adamant about going back to work?" Noin interjected.
Relena looked at her. "You know I cannot simply stay away."
"What about matters that do not concern the World Nation?" Treize asked. "Did you do anything that concerned Sank?"
Relena thought about this for a moment. "Minor issues. I was going to pass a few legislations this week... but they have already been worked out. All that is still needed is my signature."
Treize and Dorothy both looked interested at this. "Which legislations?" Dorothy wanted to know.
"Lowering the taxes on print materials by one percent... then there was a new regulation that the street signs should match the European standards. A requirement for trees in public parks to be replaced when they have to be cut down." She shrugged, immediately regretting the move when pain shot through her arm. "Small things."
"And nothing worth killing you for," Dorothy agreed. "You have been showing remarkable restraint in your activities, compared to what you usually do."
"Have you been planning to begin any larger projects?" Treize asked before Relena could reply to that snide comment. "Something that might cause a stir, but which you have only begun to work on?"
"Not for the World Nation."
"And for Sank?"
Relena went over the ideas she had been considering, but there was nothing that seemed likely to make someone want to kill her. "Nothing that seems likely."
"Did you mention any of these to someone?"
"I had lunch with Count Rasmus on Sunday and mentioned that I was thinking about abolishing the Sankian titles for nobility, and later I..." She trailed off when she became aware of three pairs of eyes suddenly staring at her.
"You were thinking about what?" Noin asked, sounding as though she had trouble believing what she had heard.
"You know I never liked the idea of a monarchy," Relena answered defensively. She had been thinking of converting Sank step by step into a normal democracy, and getting rid of the unnecessary titles had been the logical first move in her eyes. Once the nobility had been removed, she could work on converting the monarchy into some kind of representative presidency.
Dorothy obviously shared Noin's startlement. "Miss Relena... has the thought occurred to you that the nobles might have something to say about that?"
"But there hardly are any Sankian nobles left anyway."
"I could name at least twenty without having to think about it." Noin's voice was changing from surprised to slightly angry. "And half of them certainly know by now. Rasmus surely didn't stay silent about something like that."
"At least this saves us from having to look further for a motive," Treize commented.
Relena turned to look at him. "What do you mean? Surely nobody would be petty enough..."
"We are speaking of the Romafeller. What looks petty to you is a matter of high importance to them. Those titles and ranks define their place within the Foundation. Most of your Sankian nobles might not care about the country itself, but they do care whether they hold the rank of a Baron or a Count of one of your little islands."
"And they are capable of arranging an assassin in your personnel," Dorothy added. "As well as calculating enough to do that as a precaution that might never be needed."
It seemed so incredulous. If she had been shot because someone wanted to stop the trade meeting, Relena could have understood. But this made so little sense to her. She knew that titles and ranks mattered to people, but it was all just a hypothetical system! There were no benefits or obligations attached to them these days. And yet someone had been outraged enough about even a speculation whether the system could be abolished to try and kill her.
Confusion turned to anger at this thought. If these people were narrow-minded and blind enough to think that their stupid ranks mattered so much, then they clearly did not deserve them. How dare they cling to such outdated arrangements still!
"Sally should know about this," Noin was saying as she got to her feet. "Seems like Dorothy was right... a public prosecution isn't going to work in this case. Whoever is behind this, if he's Romafeller, he'll find a way to get away with it."
"I agree that Doctor Po needs to know... and Milliard as well. They should have these facts, and anything else we can give them." Treize rose from his seat. "If you will excuse me, Ladies, I shall be in the library and confirm some suspicions."
"I will join you in a moment if you don't mind," Dorothy offered.
"Your help would be appreciated." Treize held the door open for Noin, then followed her out.
Relena was a little startled at suddenly finding herself alone with Dorothy. The blond woman was watching her with an intent expression on her face, an eyebrow raised in that infuriatingly sardonic way that seemed to run in this family.
"Well, Miss Relena... I did not expect that you would do something like that. What were you thinking?" Dorothy's voice was teasing and smooth as always, as though it all was just a game to her.
"I did what is best for my country," Relena informed her, a little more sharply than she had intended. Dorothy had an uncanny talent to ruffle her nerves with just one comment, and this time was no exception.
"The best for your country... a dead princess?" Dorothy cocked her head. "In a way this would be good for Sank. So much world-wide attention, such a promotion for all Sank is working for... Milliard would have to be convinced to continue your work, of course, but surely that can be done."
"Dorothy, you know I was not planning to become a martyr."
"Really not?" Dorothy's eyes narrowed slightly. "Then why would you do something that so obviously invites others to take matters into their hands?"
"How was I supposed to know that there are some people who are backwards enough to care about something as stupid as titles?"
Dorothy studied her for a moment, then shook her head. "Did you not learn this, Queen Relena?" she asked, sounding almost as if she were chiding a child. "You have seen the Romafeller from the inside. I wonder how you could not have noticed something so fundamental."
"I did not notice," Relena defended herself. "And I am no longer Queen."
"And you will not become one again if you do not survive until you are old enough to be crowned," Dorothy countered. "Miss Relena, don't you see what you did?"
"I am sure you will tell me. Perhaps this all makes sense to you, but I do not see why anyone should be so unsettled by a mere speculation."
A slight smile crossed Dorothy's face. "You forget what matters to the Romafeller Foundation. They care about power and influence. And influence, Miss Relena, is partly constituted by the ranks they carry."
"This is nonsense, Dorothy," Relena protested. This was a system that had been outdated for centuries; it had absolutely no meaning anymore.
"It might seem like nonsense to you," Dorothy conceded. "But I assure you that it is not. Those titles might not have any meanings officially, but the same is not true for the Foundation. They still believe that they will be able to bring the old systems back to life. And once they achieve that, their power will be defined by these things."
"You mean they think society will agree to a return of aristocracy?" The idea seemed far-fetched, but Relena remembered hearing such comments during her time as the Foundation's figurehead. She had dismissed these things as purely hypothetical then, but it seemed that there had been more to them.
"Exactly!" Dorothy seemed pleased that she had understood.
"But that still does not explain why they would do this now. You all dismissed all the other meetings because you said preliminary talks would not have such effects. But this was not even a preliminary talk."
"Dangerous ideas are best stopped before they can spread." Leaning forward, Dorothy looked at her intently. "Nobody but you would think of something like this. But once you speak of the idea, a public discussion will begin and there will not be an easy way to prevent you - or your successor - from going ahead. It is only logical to eliminate you before you spread your enthusiasm about this."
Relena shook her head. "I do not know whether I should be worried or pleased that you all know so much about these things," she said weakly. "I have to admit that this makes sense... even though it is hard to believe."
"You should believe it, Miss Relena." Dorothy's voice was strangely serious. "We might be mistaken about this. But if we are right, then you must be careful."
Watching the information trickle in was beginning to become frustrating. Zechs didn't have nearly enough yet to make sense of it all, but everything he and Heero had found out over the last few hours matched with what they already knew. And the reports from the official Preventer investigations fit into the general picture too. But it still was not enough to begin guessing about the direction they should take, or even making a list of suspects.
Zechs wished he had at least a vague idea who could have been behind this. The possible trails the money transfers had left behind led in several directions, and examining all of them would take weeks, if not months. With a complete team this would be much easier to handle; he'd have the resources to take closer looks at more than just the most suspicious bits of information. The way he was working right now, he was running the risk of missing something important because it wasn't obvious enough.
But it was either taking that risk, or being thorough, patient and slow. If there had not been a growing pressure for Relena to return to her duties, time would not have mattered. But the public was beginning to ask about Zechs' sister, and her absence would not be accepted for much longer. At least not without a sufficient explanation, and that in turn would mean giving out more information than Zechs was comfortable with.
No, time was not something they had in abundance. And so he had to take risks and approach this matter in a way that would have had Une demand his head on a platter because of unprofessionalism. But she was not leaving him a choice with her decision to withdraw the regular teams. Zechs wished he knew what was behind that. If it was political pressure, as he suspected, then it might not be long until he too would be called off the case.
He was about to make another attempt at making some sense of the pieces they had by now when the phone on his desk rang. Sighing softly, Zechs reached out to answer. It was probably Heero, to tell him that another lead had turned out to be a dead end.
But instead of Yuy's face, it was Noin who smiled at him when he switched on the video connection.
"Good morning, Zechs," she said. "I suppose I didn't wake you?"
"Not at this time of the day," he returned, wondering whether she had guessed that he had hardly slept last night. "Why are you calling?"
She looked a bit surprised at this directness, but recovered quickly. Zechs was glad about that, since he was in no mood for small talk.
"We had a quite interesting talk with Relena, and we think we know now who was behind the shooting."
It took a moment for Zechs to register the exact meaning of those words.
"You know? Who? And why didn't anyone talk to Relena before?"
Noin looked a bit chagrined. "There was no time for it yet, and what we got out of her before was not really very informative. We did our work, Zechs. You know I would do anything to keep her safe. This... it just was not something that came up before."
"Never mind that for now," Zechs brushed the matter aside, even though he was not happy at all about this. If nobody had thought to really question Relena yet, then they might have missed vital information. He should have seen to that himself, he realized. If he had stayed a bit longer instead of rushing off immediately to work on his own... But Relena had not been in any shape for questions when he had left. It would have taken at least a day, and he hadn't thought he could spare that time. Perhaps he should go back...
"Anyway, we think that this is connected to Sankian nobility," Noin said. "At least it's the explanation that makes the most sense in light of what we know."
"What would give you that idea?" Zechs wanted to know, mentally going through the half-assembled puzzle and trying to find a fit for this new piece. "They all support Relena... and they have nothing to gain by killing her. Not after working towards restoring that monarchy for a decade. They'd ruin their own efforts."
"Well... your sister apparently was about to do something they'd not have liked at all," Noin began somewhat reluctantly. She clearly was not content with whatever Relena had told them, and it made Zechs uneasy in turn.
"Noin, what did she do?"
"She was going to bring up the possibility to abolish the monarchy, and eliminating the nobility was supposed to be the first step." Noin sighed. "She never told me about this, Zechs. I would have talked her out of it if she had, you know that."
"Yes, I know," he said absently, still considering this new turn. "So you think that the plan was to assassinate her before she could speak of this in public? And the assassin, why was she there?"
Noin nodded. "She might have been a precaution, just in case it ever became necessary. You know that wouldn't have been entirely impossible for some..."
Zechs frowned. "So this is all connected to the Foundation," he said, feeling tired at a sudden. He had thought that they had calmed down after their ruinous efforts during the war, but it seemed that they were not about to stay quiet. He could not even claim to be surprised that they were causing trouble again.
"Not the entire Foundation, but some members are probably involved. Those with ties to Sank. They might have kept quiet about it... Dorothy says she never heard of this, so perhaps the Sankians didn't mention their plans to anyone else."
"Solve the problem themselves before it could become embarrassing... and they certainly had the means to do that." Zechs cursed quietly. It all fit together, and it presented him with a picture he did not like at all. "Do you know any names yet?"
Noin shook her head. "No, but Treize and Dorothy have holed themselves up in the library. They said something about checking connections and relations to get an idea just how many people we might be dealing with here."
"I see. Call me again as soon as they come up with something, please. And tell them that they should focus on anyone with business ties to the British islands. That's where the money for the assassin seems to have come from."
"Britain? That is hardly going to narrow things down."
"I know. But tell them nevertheless. It might help."
"I will do that," Noin assured him. "And Zechs... take a break. You really look as though you could use one."
Zechs sighed inwardly. The last thing he needed right now was someone being concerned about these matters. He knew where his limits lay, and he would not push them. Not too much, at least.
"Take care of Relena," he said. "And call me if you find out anything else. Does Sally know yet?" This was only confirming his earlier suspicions that someone was putting the Preventers under pressure. The Romafeller Foundation was one of the few who could easily manage doing something like that. And they would know which buttons to press with Lady Une.
"I'm going to call her now. I just wanted to tell you first." Noin hesitated for a moment, then continued. "Zechs... be careful, whatever you do. Please."
He nodded. "I will be."
"I have the files you wanted," Dirlik told her, shooting the coffee machine a reproachful glance. "Madam, you really should let me do that..."
Sally took the stack of papers he was holding out to her and put them down on her desk. "Learn to make proper coffee, then I'll let you," she said, smiling a little to take the sting out of the words. "I just don't want to bother you about something like that. I need you to do real work, not press a button so I can feed my caffeine addiction. Did you find out whether we ever had someone assigned to Count Rasmus?"
Dirlik shot her a grin that was decidedly smug. "The Preventers never bothered. I found a file on him, but it only contained some basic facts that came up in an investigation. He wasn't important enough, apparently."
Not important enough to be noticed by the Preventers, but influential enough to trigger an assassination attempt on one of the world's political leaders. Sally sighed inwardly, wishing they had kept a closer eye on that man.
"So we have nothing about him?" she asked, wearily settling down on her chair.
"I wouldn't say that..." Dirlik rifled through the files on her desk, then drew one of them from the stack and held it out to her. "The Preventers never bothered, but OZ did. And they were quite interested in him. There's a lot of information on who he used to meet with, and some stuff about business connections and financial assets. And a list of exotic fish he acquired, though I'm not sure that's of a lot of importance to us."
Sally looked at the file with new interest. "Just how did you get that? The old archives are under restriction. You'd have needed Une's permission to research there. Or did you convince one of the archivists to look this up for you?" Even that seemed unlikely; the men and women administrating the more delicate information left behind by OZ and the Specials had strict orders not to give out anything without orders from either Sally or Une.
"You gave me clearance last month for the Kasper case. I just convinced one of the agents at the archive that this was related and that the clearance was still valid." Dirlik managed to look smug and guilty at the same time. "I know I should have asked, but you were in that phone conference and I did not want to bother you with that."
Sighing, Sally closed her eyes for a moment. She knew that Dirlik had a talent for finding information, but she wished he would do it by less questionable means sometimes. It seemed to be the price to pay for having a former colony rebel as her assistant.
"I'm revoking that clearance," she said. "Next time you get the idea to look into the archives, you come to me first. There is a reason why we put all these restrictions in place, and it applies to you too. Understood?"
Dirlik nodded. "Yes, Madam."
"Good work, though. Send copies of the OZ files to the Lady and to Agent Wind. And make sure that you use secure lines." She did not consider the information itself dangerous, but she did not want to let anyone notice in which direction their inquiries were going. Or even that they were still looking into this matter. Officially the case had been closed. If any of the political leaders, or even worse, the media, realized that they were still working on it, they would all have to face some unpleasant questions. And Sally had no intention to waste time with needless explanations when she could just as well do something constructive.
"There has also been another call from Agent Fire," Dirlik added. "She says they have not made much progress yet, but that some of the things they are looking into seem promising to them. She also said that she will call again as soon as they find something substantial."
Sally nodded, wondering what Noin and the others in Kiev were up to. The dark-haired woman had not said much about it when she had called. They had spent the larger part of that talk to discuss the possible involvement of the Romafeller Foundation, something that was looking more likely by the minute. Noin had mentioned that she and the others also were doing some research, but she had remained vague and had claimed that they knew nothing concrete yet.
Perhaps it had been wrong not to insist on being given more information immediately, Sally reflected. The rules Une had set for the Preventers would have demanded a full report so it could be judged whether Noin's suspicions were worth the resources it took to research them. But Sally was inclined to trust the woman when it came to these things. Noin was no fool; if she thought it necessary to look into whatever it was they were examining, then she certainly had reasons. Une would have to understand, if she ever found out about these activities before they were concluded. Sally had no intention to bother her with them just yet. She'd wait until Noin had results to show for her efforts; that way Une would still grumble about violations of regulations, but at least she'd see that it had been worth it.
The Lady had calmed down again after her almost-collapse in the morning, and was taking care of normal business as though nothing had happened. The only concession she had made was that Sally was now the one who received all information concerning Relena; Une only received updates and did not interfere directly with the proceedings. It had taken some convincing from Sally to get her to agree to that. Despite the pressure it had put on her, Une had been reluctant to let that issue out of her hands. In the end, the only thing that had helped had been pointing out to her that she had been insisting that everyone else learned to delegate matters, and that she should be a good example for that. Une hadn't been pleased, but she had relented.
Sally shuffled through the papers on her desk quickly, trying to gauge how much time it would take her to get a basic idea of what Dirlik had managed to find. She would need to at least know the basics in order to be able to keep understanding what the others were doing.
"Clear my schedule for the afternoon," she said with a sigh that was not entirely heartfelt. At least one of the meetings she was supposed to attend would have been boring and pointless, and she was glad to have an excuse. "Just tell them that there is some internal stuff I need to take care of. And be more polite about it than the last time. Agent Cortez is still glowering at me whenever she sees me."
Dirlik had the grace to blush. "Yes, Madam."
Sally watched him leave her office, once again wondering why she was not trying to find a more perfect aide. It would not be difficult at all to get someone who had been trained for that sort of position for years. The Preventers had dozens of such people, all of them secretaries and assistants of officers from all the different sides and organizations. They knew about proper behaviour. Dirlik, on the other hand, considered the rules and laws of the Preventers to be nothing more than guidelines at times, and he still needed to learn much about diplomacy.
Just like herself, she thought wryly.