Looking at the pile of papers in his “out” box, a neat white stack that towered over the black boundaries of the box, Wufei realized that he was finally done. His head hurt, his eyes were sore and the fingers of both his hands were cramped. The boy took off his glasses with a sigh and rubbed slow circles on each side of the bridge of his nose. He set the thin wire frames down on the desktop in front of him and slowly let himself setting back into the creaking, generally uncomfortable chair that he’d been spending Monday through Friday, and the occasional Saturday, in for quite nearly a year now. He loosened his tie a little and peeked his eyes open at the black screen of his desktop terminal. A single movement of his hand knocked against the computer mouse on his desk and ‘woke’ the monitor. The clock told him that it was exactly two minutes until five, which meant that it would only be moments until his worthless excuse of a “partner” showed up.
Wufei shot a murderous glare towards the stack of papers upon his desk, as if by will alone they would burst into flames. It wasn’t the paper’s fault that he was stuck doing them, of course, and so the stack sat there, mockingly snow white and pristine. At least they finally had procured a “file boy” who would come by once the office had emptied a little and take all the paperwork where it belonged. He didn’t envy that kid his job—but Wufei also understood it was a part of the intern’s duties.
Leaning back a little further in his seat and ignoring the protest of the chair Wufei looked through the open “door” space in his left cubicle wall so that he could see into the corridor beyond. He had been given a cubicle directly by one of the windows that ran along the outside wall, butted into the far back-left corner of the spacious room that the field agents shared when they were in the office. He’d never have thought that a field agent would be stuck in an office as much as he was… but there was just far more paper work to do than there were assignments which needed a personal touch. And, he noted somewhat bitterly, there just weren’t enough agents to handle the legal tape that the Preventers were hedged in with.
Most of a year had gone by before the world had begun to settle into the new Alliance. There had still been some protestors, mostly among those who had never once raised a hand in the war but now felt it safe to state their opinions, whom had had to be dealt with peacefully and politely. After that had come the political war, with politicians from all over the globe and the colonies jostling for position within the new order. Some had been ousted, some had been glorified, some were cast into the gutter and others still had even been assassinated. It was the last which had fully underscored the need for a group such as the Preventers. While they technically weren’t an army in and of themselves, they were the closest thing which the Alliance would allow to there being one… which was how it should be… he supposed.
It had taken the Chinese boy a long to admit that he’d had a hard time settling into this new order as well. He was a soldier, a warrior, what place had he in an era of peace when his first instinct was to strike at whatever gave him problems? When Lady Une had found him, lost and hopeless and searching for something to do, she had offered him hope. Where would all the soldiers go? They would come here.
True, Wufei wasn’t allowed to use a firearm for any reason other than in strict, dire situations, and, true, he did not have as much freedom in his path as he’d once had as a Gundam Pilot. This didn’t bother him as much as he’d thought it might. Shortly after beginning work here, nine months ago, he’d found himself settling with ease into the routine of things. Every so often he would be sent across the globe or into one of the colonies in order to root up some information or take in a bad guy, but for the most part he spent his life as a nine-to-five office man. He was even beginning to like living on the Earth.
As the clock hung over the door across the room struck five heads began to sprout like daisies above the cubicle walls. Wufei didn’t move; he watched as his fellow Preventers collected their properties and began to make their way for the office door. They were laughing and talking amongst themselves, possibly even making plans for the weekend; the Chinese boy didn’t even know half their names. All were faces that he felt familiar enough with and it wasn’t merely for the fact that they’d been sharing an office for several months. No, many of these faces he was certain he’d seen at one point or another during the war—an Oz soldier here, a White Fang member there… possibly even a Federation soldier once or twice, or a guerilla terrorist. He wasn’t the only person to have sought refuge in the white-washed, yellow-taped organization which housed the only military-style existence left in their known world and somehow that made Wufei feel a lot better about himself.
Now if only one person had been left out of this…
“Hey, ‘Fei!” Duo Maxwell had crept up to him in the blind-spot offered by the right wall of his cubicle and was now leaning over the corner of the flimsy wall-structure to grin down at its occupant. Wufei tried not to twitch at the “nickname” he’d been assigned within a week of having known the other boy. Well, no, that wasn’t quite fair. Technically, he’d known Duo a lot longer—it had already been over a year since they’d met on one of the beginning battlefields on Earth when the boy had been re-introduced to him by Lady Une as his new work partner. Just thinking about that day made Wufei long for a punching bag. “You ready or what?”
When he’d first joined the Preventers they’d only been a month into operation. Things were rocky back then; there’d only been five of them, Une included, and it had taken quite a lot of speeches (known in more uncouth circles as “bitch fests”) from her, Ex-Luitenant Noin and the new Vice Foreign Minister Darlian before the funding for the Preventers had moved out of Darlian’s pocketbook and into government checks. That had allowed them to hire many more hands, secretaries, rent office space and eventually find a place to actually train their agents. In those days none of them had had “official” partners—you went with whoever was available for the mission, or you went alone. Most of the time you went alone.
The good old days were over. Two months ago Lady Une—or, as she was known now, “Director General Une”—had informed them that the days of solo missions were over. Not that he blamed her entirely; many of the agents that they had working for them were morons. They’d been hired before they could be properly trained and the soldiers of the various organizations that had been in place during the last war weren’t used to running solo operations. Because of this there had been quite a few “accidents” in the field, especially during the transitional period when they’d been busy trying to track down pockets of rebellion and fleeing assassins. Yet Wufei couldn’t help but feel that certain exceptions should have been made.
Before Maxwell could get antsy, Wufei surged from his chair to his feet and pulled his jacket from the peg that held it on the wall in the same fluid motion. He threw the coat around his shoulders, arms sliding easily into the warm leather sleeves. At least they’d gotten better, and more protective, uniforms from what they’d been wearing in the beginning. Without a word Wufei retrieved his reading glasses from the desk and put them into their hard case that he then slipped into his pocket.
“Maxwell.” Wufei dropped the other boy’s name like a statement as he spared him the first look he’d given him that afternoon. To his credit the braided boy didn’t even flinch at the fire Wufei was purposely attempting to throw into his expression. Wufei knew that it was there, he’d practiced this look a hundred times in the mirror to make certain that he was getting his point across, and yet Duo never seemed to mind it. He just continued to smile that idiot smile of his.
Wufei pointed at the stack of innocently stacked documents in his out-box, “This is called paperwork.”
“You’re supposed to do it.”
“It seems you’ve beaten me to the punch there, buddy boy.”
Wufei’s left eye twitched. Once. Twice. Three times it twitched. Wufei’s eye had never twitched before he’d met Duo. No, the boy corrected himself once again, once he’d become re-acquainted with Duo. The difference that proximity to the braided ex-pilot made was astounding. “When I arrived this morning there was a stack of papers half this size on the desk in your cubicle,” he tried to keep his voice as even as possible, “yet when I returned with my morning coffee there were no papers on your desk.”
By this time the office had emptied, save the poor bedraggled head of Jake The File Boy (it had taken Wufei three weeks to remember his name) who was going around picking up and sorting out the files for the various agents. At the sound of their voices Jake The File Boy raised his head and then promptly ducked it again upon seeing the expression on the Wufei’s face. Duo remained unperturbed at this and simply tilted his head to one side of his broadened shoulders. “I seem to remember something about that, yeah.”
“Do you remember how and why your stack of paperwork chose to migrate to my in-box?” Wufei asked with the silkiest of tones that he could manage.
“That… would be a secret.” Duo stuck his tongue out at him, winking, and flashed the boy a peace sign. Unable to help himself, Wufei growled, teeth grinding slightly in frustration. He couldn’t hit Duo, no matter how much he would want to. Hands forming into fists, Wufei fought to keep them at his sides as he glared murder at his ever-cheerful partner. It would be severely dishonorable, not to mention illegal, for him to assault Duo in any place other than the sparing ring that had been set up in their training facility. Much to his annoyance, Wufei had yet to talk Duo into meeting him on that “battlefield.”
Finally it seemed to break through to the braided man that Wufei was angry about the entire thing. Duo gave a faint sigh, bottom lip jutting out in a pout which would have made any woman weak in the knees. There was little denying that even after a growth spurt and a seemingly late-arrived puberty that Duo Maxwell was a beautiful man-child. The baby fat on his cheeks had finally begun to slim down and there was the faintest red-brown trace of a three-o’clock shadow along his jaw now that the day was almost half over. Though they’d been similar in height a year ago, Duo now stood at least three inches taller than him and more was likely to be added to that. That feat was all the more amazing when Wufei took into account that he’d managed to spring up a measly three inches himself, bringing Duo’s total up to six. Genetics told Wufei that he wasn’t liable to get much taller than this or, were luck to fail him completely, he’d stay this short for the rest of his life.
That pair of large baby blue eyes half-hidden under Duo’s wild tangle of bangs were as sparkling and vibrant as ever; there were no few people who had merely handed Duo the information he’d been after once encountered with those eyes. The first time Wufei had witnessed this he’d been too shocked to register it properly, and the time after that it had become funny… but by the time that they were on the fifth or sixth instance of this (Wufei had begun to lose count) it had just become sad. Had humanity sunk so low that no one could resist the “puppy dog” eyes of a seventeen-year-old boy? Wufei was determined that he wouldn’t give in.
“Ah come on, ‘Fei. I had other shit to do and you’re better than I am at this mumbo-jumbo.” Duo cast a sullen look down at the pile of papers. His eyes didn’t raise from the damning articles and Wufei was happy to note that the pout was also directed there. It seemed as if the braided idiot knew that it wasn’t going to work on him.
“Better to do than your job?” Wufei snorted; typical.
“What? Oh come on man!” A frown; so Wufei had touched a button? Duo’s eyes suddenly jerked themselves away from the documents to meet Wufei’s full force. “I was teaching the trainees. I’ve been on roster with them the past week and there’s a few who need extra tutoring. The paperwork is for both of us so I just thought—“
“Eh-E-Excuse me,” a soft voice spoke up from behind them. Both Duo and Wufei startled, and the taller boy turned to find Jake The File Boy was standing right behind him. The sheepish-seeming excuse for a male had his head hung and Wufei could just barely make out a pair of green eyes peeking out from under his unkempt blond mop of hair. Just looking at this kid made Wufei wonder if he himself was really just seventeen; according to the office birthday calendar (of which neither he nor Duo had chosen to take part in, yet were fully aware of) and coffee-pot gossip, Jake The File Boy was actually two months Wufei’s elder. The boy could hardly bring himself to whisper more than ten words a day; it was a rare day when he had the courage to actually interrupt a conversation.
Apparently the boy’s courage ended when he had two Preventers agents giving him their full attention. For a long moment, as the time slowly ticked by on the clock across the room, both ex-pilots merely watched as that glassy green gaze descended back towards the Jake The File Boy’s unpolished and patched brown leather shoes and his loud, raspy breathing became the only sound in the room. “Can I help you?” Wufei was finally forced to ask.
One shaking hand bent its white knuckles from around the papers he was already carrying and extended a single digit towards Wufei’s cubicle. “Uh…” Jake The File Boy replied helpfully.
It took Wufei a moment to register just what it was the boy was getting at and much to his surprise Duo beat him to it. “Oh!” His (unwanted) partner exclaimed and bent over the top of the cubicle wall to pick up the carefully stacked pile of outgoing paperwork. Duo handed it to Jake The File Boy and there was a terrifying moment when it seemed as if the boy was going to drop the entire load as well as what he’d already collected. Then he seemed to right himself, tucked the papers onto the back of his current stack, and shuffled away towards the file room on the other side of the office.
Both Wufei and Duo watched him go, their fight pushed to the side in lieu of the marvelous display of awkward they’d just witnessed. Then Wufei snorted, shut his computer down for the night and grabbed his keys. It was time to head home.
Ever since they’d been assigned to one another, Duo had insisted upon walking the five blocks they had in the same direction when it came time to leave. Just five blocks, Wufei kept telling himself as the braided idiot continued to ramble beside him. To be perfectly honest, Wufei had little to no idea what Duo was saying—after two months of torture he was beginning to learn to tune out the sound of Duo’s voice, no matter how close it was. If it weren’t for the fact that this route was legitimately the shortest way to both their apartments Wufei might have objects. As it was it would have been foolish to do so and more than a little damning for their already jilted “work relationship.” Still quite a bit angry over the fight they’d been having in the office, Wufei was trying to pretend that Duo didn’t exist. He pulled out his cell phone and checked for messages. There was something from Sally as well as a few calls from her he’d missed. The boy doubted that it was anything important; if she’d really wanted to reach him while he was at work she would have called his work phone or else taken the time to take a quick trip to the other side of the building. He’d probably hear enough about whatever it was in the morning, anyway. There wasn’t anything else, but he hadn’t expected anything else.
Just then his idiot partner grabbed his shoulder and pointed at something to Wufei’s left. It was hard to miss the pointing, really, what with Duo’s finger being shoved underneath his nose. Wufei tried hard not to roll his eyes as he turned towards the poster Duo was currently indicating. “… Barton.”
“I had no idea their circus was coming back to Earth!”
“Well it is,” Wufei said with a shrug of his shoulders. All in all that didn’t seem terribly important to him, but his partner was certainly excited. Looking back up at Duo, Wufei was very aware of the slow, creeping horror settling into his bones. Somehow he knew exactly where that maniacal grin was going. He didn’t have to wait long.
“We should go see it.”
Clearly that was not the reaction which Duo had expected. The boy’s grin wavered and then faded, his face contorting into equal amounts of disappointment and curiosity. It was truly amazing how much of an open book Duo was; Wufei had to admit that the boy was an incredibly wonderful subject for people watching. It took little more than a glance to know how he was feeling about something or to realize that there was an exceedingly low amount of thought going on behind those pretty blue eyes. “Ah, c’mon, ‘Fei.
“No.” Not inclined to argue about it, Wufei turned from the boy and continued his way down the street. He stopped at the corner where they had to wait for traffic before crossing the street. The braided idiot caught up to him soon enough, stopping to his left and not looking down at him. At least Duo had dropped this subject faster than he had others in the past. For the life of him, the Chinese boy didn’t even understand why Duo would care to go see the circus Trowa Barton performed in anyway.
After crossing the next street their paths split in silence. Wufei turned left and Duo continued on down the street in a strange silence.
Home was a tiny apartment over a noodle shop in the “Asian district” of the city. It smelled constantly of food, often had steam leaking through the floorboards, the walls were thin and the rooms cramped… but it was home and, more importantly, it was his. Wufei closed the door on the noise of the shop below, though the thin wood did little to muffle it, and hung his jacket up on the peg beside the door. His shoes went below it and then he crossed into his hole of a kitchen to set water to boil for tea.
When the beaten bronze kettle was settled above the flame of his gas stove he turned to slide open the window above the sink. It was built in something resembling a Chinese fashion, though it wasn’t entirely accurate—like most things in this part of town. Rather than a widow pane covering it, the shutter was entirely wooden and slid to the side to reveal a bare hole in the wall. He leaned his head out, arms resting upon the sill, and looked past the dangling red banners that hung from the extended rafters to the busy street below.
Compared to the business district where he worked, the Asian district was like living in a different world all together. Most of the people who lived in this area, himself included, used bikes, vespas, or their own two feet for transportation, and for good reason. Hardly any cars ever came down here for the roads were so crowded with people that the cops had long since given up on keeping them to the sidewalks. Though the speed limit was thirty miles an hour, like any other street in the city, cars were forced to crawl at five or ten in order to keep from hitting the people.
Almost every building was both a business and a residence; restaurants had apartments above them, like his own, people ran (illegal) laundry businesses out of their homes, there were a few herbal clinics, massage parlors, all sorts of clothing shops… no one really cared. So long as that business wasn’t drug or weapon traffic Wufei wasn’t about to do anything about it. These people needed their businesses to survive and they weren’t hurting anyone.
And, he had to admit, that as different as this place was from his own colony there was still a certain amount of familiarity in it. The people around him spoke a lot of Chinese, though Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, and other Asian languages were also mixed in. There was something about being able to find a place where he didn’t have to mentally translate everything for himself which helped to put his heart to rest. He could have stayed at the window listening to that wonderful clamor for the rest of his life…
The tea kettle would have none of that. Soon enough it screamed until Wufei turned around and took it from the stove. He poured the hot liquid over a cup and added the leaves, then covered it and set it aside to steep. The window was left open to the cold breeze from outside as he crossed the two paces it took to reach the other side of his dining room and opened the door to the bathroom. He stripped his clothes off and folded them neatly, leaving them on the floor outside of the bathroom. There really wasn’t a single space to put them inside of it without them getting soaked.
Wufei stepped into the ceramic tiled cubicle and closed the door behind him. As usual the entire place was damp from the steam and hit in the restaurant below. He turned the water on, narrowly avoiding slamming his shin against the toilet as his foot slipped a little. Not for the first time Wufei swore that he was going to get one of those “non skid” mats for the floor of the bathroom. He never remembered to do it.
Despite the general heat of his apartment, the hot water still felt good. Winter was slowly receding form the city; the snows had finally stopped but had been replaced with icy rain and impromptu sunlight. Eventually spring would take over but for now they were stuck with the broody battle between the seasons. As such, one never knew which days would be freezing and which would be moderately warm—today it had been fairly chilled.
Just as he was working the shampoo suds out of his hair he heard the phone begin to ring from the other room. Wufei frowned, finished in a hurry and shut the water off. He grabbed one of the (slightly damp) towels from the shelf built almost at the top of the wall, quickly wrapped it around his waist and managed to catch the phone before she hung up.
“Well, well, well… This is almost worth being ignored all day.” The screen of the vid-comm clearly showed the woman on the other side of it, blond and resplendent in her after-work clothing. Wufei’s lip twitched at the tone; Sally’s teasing had been hard to get used to at first. A smirk lilted the woman’s red-painted lips and she leaned her cheek upon one hand as she gazed cooly at the half-naked agent, “You never returned my call.”
“I just walked in the door, what do you want from me, woman?” Wufei replied, one dark brow arching in question. He then added, unable to help himself: “Calls. Plural.”
A little laugh came from the vid-comm speaker, “Yes, calls. You still didn’t return them. Did you check the voice mail at least?”
Wufei glanced to the side at the spot where he’d folded and stacked his pants on top of the rest of his discarded clothing; the phone in question was still in the pocket. “No, I didn’t.”
On her side of the line, Sally scoffed a little and shook her head. “What am I going to do with you? It might have been something important you know!”
“It wasn’t,” the boy replied with a smirk as he returned his attention to the woman. Wufei ran one hand through his wet hair to comb a few of the knots out, “or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. What did you want, Sally?”
“I want you; or rather we want you, to come to the Circus with us tonight.”
More than a little surprised at the request, and the coincidence of having been asked twice in the same day, Wufei couldn’t help but pause after her request. What was it about people and circuses? “Who is ‘we’?”
“Une, Noin and I,”Sally replied without hesitation. Her smile broadened just a little and Wufei knew she’d seen the roll of his eyes. He sighed, considering it. Most of his time was spent alone these days, either in the office or holed up in the library when he had free time. Tonight he’d planned on doing nothing save read through a few more chapters of Xingshi Yinyuan Zhuan; he still had to return the borrowed novel to his neighbor down the hall. Of course, Chou Zhu wasn’t expecting it back any time soon as it was a hundred chapters long…
As much as it went against his grain, Wufei nodded, “Fine. What time?”
“Eight,” the blond replied promptly and sat back in her chair. “I can pick you up at seven-thirty?”
Nodding a second time, the boy suddenly felt the need to ask it, “You know that this is the circus Trowa is performing with?”
“Of course!” Sally got a good laugh at that, “Why did you think we’re going?”
The shuttle from L4-RS01 entered the Earth’s atmosphere with the usual fireworks and heat. Quatre could feel some of the heat even through the air conditioning in the shuttle, but unlike the man three rows behind him he did not consider it to be a life threatening issue. Then again, he’d likely been on and off more shuttles, mobile suits, and various other space-worthy vehicles than that fat business man had ever seen in his life. Regardless it was annoying and Quatre couldn’t help but feel the need to rub one of his temples slowly to try to relieve some of the pressure.
The laptop placed on the small, fold-out table in front of him had the current news RSS feed in a window directly in the middle of it. The boy’s solemn blue eyes remained glued to that feed, despite that his vision had begun to swim. This wasn’t just any news that he was waiting for, but a very specific article he knew would soon be published, though he hadn’t any clue who the reporter would be or the source.
“Master Quatre.” A teacup appeared at Quatre’s elbow. The blond looked up with a weary smile for his constant companion and assistant.
“Thank you, Rashid,” the boy replied faintly and took the cup from it. One long draught was taken from the steaming liquid as his eyes immediately sought the RSS feed once again. Yet another update ticked and it wasn’t the one that he was dreading.
“Perhaps it won’t leak,” Rashid offered helpfully as he retook his seat beside the boy. Taking a commercial flight, even one that was first class, had been something of a gamble but Quatre knew that they would attract more attention, rather than less, if he’d opted for a private shuttle. He really didn’t want anyone to know that he was going to be on Earth for a few days—that was what a vacation was all about, really. Rashid had drawn the line at allowing Quatre to take coach.
“Mhm,” he responded absently and tapped the touch-pad once to keep the screen saver from going up. His back ached but no matter how hard Quatre tried to keep himself sitting upright it simply didn’t happen, not today. Instead he rested his elbows on his knees as he continued to watch the feed and ignore the bellows of the man three rows back who was now arguing with one of the poor stewardesses. The news still ticked by. A new policy in Asia about chicken feed, a power plant laying off employees, a new business deal between two major corporations, a new study about the—Quatre’s eyes flickered down to the business deal and he moved the cursor quickly to catch the rapidly disappearing link. The laptop thought about it for a moment and then the browser jumped to life.
He bit one thumbnail as he waited for the coding to load. The connection was always slow in the atmosphere and they were still twenty minutes from touching down. Finally the page righted itself and Quatre was able to skim the article beneath it. He groaned faintly and let his tea cup settle upon his leg.
The merger being planned with Telecorp wasn’t something that was supposed to have hit the airwaves yet; in fact, it wasn’t something that was even in its final stages of development yet. When he’d allowed Rashid and his sisters to talk him into taking a holiday it had been with the understanding that the deal had gone in for a revision of terms and the next meeting would be put on hold until he returned. That had remained true until he’d received a distressing phone call at four that morning informing him that one of the copies of the old contract which was supposed to have been shredded once the new draft had been made had somehow gone “missing” before his lawyer’s aide had gone to shred them. It wouldn’t have even been noticed except that the woman was in the habit of double checking her counts.
All of that meant that someone who wasn’t supposed to had taken a copy of the contract and, in turn, had taken that information directly to the press. Just as he’d expected, “breaking news” was now informing the entire System that Winner Corp was cutting out over two hundred thousand jobs.
“Rashid,” He began in a quiet tone.
“Master Quatre, this is not your fault,” the man interrupted before the boy could get more than that single word out. The blond raised his head to look at the man who had been protector, brother and second-father to him for past three years. From the scowl across Rashid’s face it was obvious that the man wasn’t going to be argued with, “and if you insist that it is, I will insist upon calling a limousine to pick you up at the terminal. Neither are you canceling your vacation.”
The boy winced a little; he knew that Rashid would do it, too. Were he to call a limo, Quatre’s little amount of cover would be effectively blown. He’d managed to keep the paparazzi unaware of his departure from the colonies and thus far it seemed as if they were entirely unaware that he was heading towards the Earth. That was a relief. This past year had been taxing, and it wasn’t only because he’d had to fight tooth and nail with the board of directors over every single decision he’d been trying to make regarding the Winner Corp.
“You’re doing the best you can to see that this merger doesn’t drop anyone,” Rashid said softly, to keep any prying ears from hearing, “They’ll see that in the end.”
“I hope you’re right, Rashid,” Quatre replied with a faint smile. He picked his tea up before he spilt it and sat back in his seat. The boy closed his eyes on the headache that was still roaring in his left temple and sipped at his cup. That man behind him had finally stopped complaining after being bribed with a complementary wine. In the sudden quiet of the cabin he could now hear the faint “tick” coming from his laptop at each new bulletin the RSS pulled up. He knew he would have to deal with the repercussions of this sooner or later. For the first time in his life, he chose later.
Quatre opened his eyes and reached out to dismiss the RSS feed. He got the laptop shut down and tucked back into its case just in time to hear the pilot announce that they would be landing in the next few minutes. Still sipping quietly upon his drink, the Arabian resource prince turned to look outside the window at the brilliant blue sky beyond. It would be nearing sunset, were he grounded, but from up here the sky was still filled with light. It had been so very long since he’d last seen the Earth; especially like this… he’s almost forgotten how beautiful it was.
Their luck with the press continued after the shuttle landed. No one spotted them coming out of the terminal and the employees who checked their passports were intelligent and well trained enough to keep the identities to themselves. Within a decent amount of time they had collected their baggage and a rental car and made their way toward hotel.
Halfway there, Quatre’s cell began to ring. Digging into the pockets of his slate-grey slacks, the boy almost missed a large billboard announcing the arrival of the Three-Ring Circus. He twisted in his seat to get a better try and get a better look at it even as he found his phone, flipped it open, and pressed it to one ear. “Quatre Winner speaking.”
“Fluff ball!” A familiar, smile-inducing voice rang out from the other end. Quatre felt his cheeks grow a little hot at the strange nickname he’d long since been given; he wondered if Duo was ever going to forget about that disastrous clothes dryer incident. Giving up on the billboard, Quatre dropped back into the passenger seat. “I just got your e-mail. How long you going to be in town for?”
“Mm my itinerary has a week cleared.” Quatre couldn’t help a glance at his assistant as he said that. Though Rashid’s eyes never left the road he grunted in response to indicate that “yes, Master Quatre, you are staying the entire week if I have to steal your wallet and lock you out of your bank accounts to enforce it.”
“That’s great! My weekend is pretty clear so we could hang out whenever you want,” the voice replied. There was a strange sound beneath the voice and then he heard Duo hiss, “Damnit, Rattrap…”
“Duo? Are you ok?”
“Huh? Oh… uh… hold on.” There was a moment of fumbling and then the noise on the other end of it grew distant. Quatre frowned and switched the phone to his other ear so that he could lean against the window.
Rashid cleared his throat, “That billboard said that they’d be in town starting tonight.”
“You caught that, huh?” Quatre couldn’t help but laugh. The corners of Rashid’s lips twitched faintly, he was obviously amused by his Master’s obvious interest in the group.
“Sorry about that!” Duo returned to the other line after some slight static. Quatre chuckled, whatever Duo had been doing it had obviously been taxing, the other boy was out of breath. Unable to help himself, Quatre risked being a little rude and cut off whatever Duo was about to say:
“How would you like to go to the circus?”
“Trowaaaa,” Catherine sing-songed as she walked through the “back area” of the circus set up, away from where the earliest of the customers and the crowd that normally came to watch the set up would be allowed to enter. It was less than half an hour to opening and she hadn’t seen the boy anywhere since they’d pulled into the arena grounds earlier that afternoon. At first this hadn’t been at all unusual; now that he was more experienced in their way of life, Trowa was expected to help with assembling the big top as well as the lesser tents which would house small shows and carnival booths. The last of those hadn’t been involved in the circus a few years ago. While they’d had a vendor or two of their own, it hadn’t been until after the war that they’d been able to expand their business into games and offering a variety of other food stuffs. As usual, there was already a small crowd gathered for these smaller entertainments and it ensured a large audience under the big top tonight.
For that Catherine was glad, but it was all for naught if she couldn’t find her fellow performer. “Trowa! Hm… where did that boy go off to?”
During the war Trowa had often disappeared entirely before performances; at first they’d all been a little unsure as to why. The Ring Master had been absolutely livid about it, when the boy had cut it too close to performance time before he showed up. Yet, he had been so good at his job when he was around that he’d never been fired. When his reason had finally been revealed, Catherine had wished at the time that she had been shocked by it. Horrified, yes, for war was a horrible thing and to see a boy fighting in one even more so… but not shocked. She’d have had to have been entirely brainless not to have realized that there was a pattern of destruction and terrorist attacks following their circus wherever it moved, or that quiet, gentle Trowa was toting a rather large package with him most of the way. It wasn’t something that they had ever discussed, even after he’d begun to regain his memories of it.
Losing him before a performance felt so familiar, though, in a surreal sort of way.
Just as she passed one of the storage tents she thought she heard a familiar voice. Catherine stopped, looking about for the speaker, and her eyes rested upon the tent flap that had been pulled back just enough to offer a small opening. “Trowa!” The woman put a laugh into her voice and pushed the tent flap open further as she took a step through it, “are you talking to the animals again—”
Two boys looked up at her as she entered and one of them put his hand upon a hard lump in his back pocket that could be mistaken for nothing but what it was—a gun. The one she had been looking for was sitting on top of an empty cage which normally held a few of the smaller poodles during transport. The dogs had been let out now that they were stopped, but there was still a lion in the cage beside them. Trowa turned his gaze from Catherine dismissively and shook his head at the other boy.
She knew the boy, though she’d not seen him in a very long time. He’d grown since the last time, in the way that most teenage boys did, and now stood a few inches taller than her. The spandex he’d used to wear constantly had been changed for jeans and though he still wore a tank top he’d thrown a denim jacket over it. Yet the messy hair hadn’t changed and neither had those eyes—those dangerous, damning eyes.
“Catherine, you know Heero Yuy,” Trowa spoke into the silence. Heero took his hand off the gun and allowed his jacket to conceal it once more. The Japanese boy nodded to her. Whatever the two had been discussing was obviously over now.
“It’s… nice to see you again, Heero.” The woman knew that her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. She extended her hand to him and he shook it and none of them thought that their meeting was pleasant. “Trowa,” she said, turning to him, “I finally finished the work on your new costume. It’s lying on your bed, so you don’t use the old one.”
“Alright Catherine, I’ll meet you at the tent in a few minutes.”
Catherine knew dismissal when she heard it. Heart racing and uneasy, she threw them both another false smile and turned to exit the way that she’d come. Whatever they had been discussing, Catherine couldn’t bring herself to believe that it was show business.
The sun had disappeared behind the city skyline by the time that Quatre found himself in a somewhat shabby apartment complex on the wrong side of the river. The orange sky beyond the dark sky scrapers was an eerie sight and he turned away from the open end of the hallway to face the door before him. Apartment B210 had a green door whose paint was beginning to chip and peel away. The numbers were tarnished metal fixed to the top of it, directly below a peephole. He’d knocked but no one had answered; perhaps he’d gotten the wrong apartment?
Just as he’d turned to walk away and call Duo there was a scrape of a chain on the other side of the door. It swung open then and was pulled open to reveal the smiling face of his friend, “Sorry about that, I was trying to dry off the ingrate. Come in a minute? I need to find a better shirt…”
Duo stepped aside without further ado and left the door open for Quatre. Though a little nervous about entering the place, Quatre stepped in regardless and closed the door behind him; it took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the gloom beyond.
The first impression he got of Duo’s apartment was one he hadn’t expected at all: it was clean. Meticulously so, in fact. Despite the unkempt appearance of the apartment building and surrounding area, Duo had managed to create a tranquil little haven for himself. The soft smell of cinnamon apples hung in the air and if the furniture was a little shabby and well-used, Duo had gone out of his way to make certain that the fabric was cleaned and surfaces well polished. Quatre thought that if he got close enough he would be able to use the coffee table as a mirror.
The carpet had a few stains but was obviously vacuumed and there wasn’t a single spot of clutter left out. In fact, the room had something of a “minimalist” look to it—a single shelf of books was on the mantle above a soot-less fireplace, a single magazine on the coffee table with a television remote and the TV itself on a stand. If he hadn’t known any better, Quatre would have thought that the man hadn’t been living here more than a few days.
Something grey darted across the living room and dived beneath the couch. Duo came back into the room from what was probably his bedroom, grumbling something under his breath and holding a damp towel. Finally able to get a good look at his friend, Quatre finally noticed the red-welped scratches drawn along his forearms and hands, “What happened?”
“That happened,” Duo pointed at a scraggly wet tail poking out from beneath the couch.
“Is that a…” Quatre peered closer. He stepped off the square of hardwood that defined the entrance way into the carpeted living room. Dipping onto one knee the blond tried to look under the couch. A pair of wild green eyes glared at him from the darkness and a low yowl kept him from reaching out to the cat. “Oh.”
“Rattrap.” Duo sighed what appeared to be the cat’s name with no small amount of agitation. “Rescued the damn thing from some kids a few days back. I was trying to find another home for it, but when I found out the shelter was more inclined to kill it…”
“I don’t think cats like water, Duo,” Quatre couldn’t help but smile a little as he realized why the cat looked so odd—it was soaking wet.
“Well I’d have to agree with you there, buddy-boy.” A chuckle came from the braided boy as he dried his hands off with the towel instead. “Alright, Rat, just stay that way then…. I’ll turn the air off.” He headed back into the bedroom and a moment later Quatre heard the sound of a dresser opening.
“Why did you try giving him a bath anyway? Don’t cats clean themselves?”
“Yeah, but he desperately needed a flea dip. I think I got rid of most of the problem, though, and managed to apply the medication. I really don’t need an infested apartment.”
Nodding in agreement to that, Quatre couldn’t help but cross into the small alcove of a kitchen. There was a window through one wall of it that looked out into the living room and a swinging half-door over the entrance to it. The kitchen would have been cramped with two people in it but a single person fit comfortably. Just like the rest of the apartment the place was spotless and even the sink smelled faintly of lemons, rather than garbage or mold. There were signs of wear upon the pot holders and the sheer amount of cooking paraphernalia seen in the door-less cabinets indicated that Duo cooked… a lot.
He went back into the living room as Duo exited the bedroom, shutting the door behind him. Now changed into a dry shirt and pants, the boy paused to shut off the air-conditioner as he’d said he would. “Do you know where they set up?”
Quatre nodded, “I got directions for it before I left the hotel. I’m surprised Rashid let me go anywhere on my own. He actually trusted me with my cell phone.”
Duo laughed at that and stopped at the door to wriggle his feet into their shoes, rather than bother to re-lace them. Quatre crossed the living room and opened the door, slipping out of it to wait on him. “He’s right on that point. You’re too much of a workaholic sometimes.”
The blond rolled his eyes and smiled. Duo was another person who had been after him to take a holiday for the past few months; well they had finally got their wish. The braided boy slipped out the door and shut it behind him, pausing to turn the key in the lock. He tested the door before they moved to the downward stairwell. “Have you heard from Trowa at all lately?”
“No…” Quatre shook his head with a slight frown. “We had been e-mailing for awhile but… you know how these things go. He’s busy with the circus, I have the corporation.”
“Yeah,” Duo replied faintly, nodding. Of all the other Gundam pilots, Duo had been the one who had been the easiest to keep in contact with. Of course, Duo was the only one who also went out of his way to call or write at least once a week, if not more. The camaraderie they’d had in the war had grown into an actual friendship over time—one that hadn’t fallen away once the world was at “rights” again. Quatre was more grateful for that than he could, or would, express. Though he’d had the Maguanac Corp at his side for years now, he found it was nice to have a friend outside of their organization. “Have you heard at all from Heero?”
Duo actually laughed, shaking his head. “Who actually hears from that guy? Nah. He’s shown up once or twice, usually out of the blue, but never for too long.”
Quatre nodded. That sounded like his own experience with the Japanese boy. They’d not had much contact during the war and had only worked in cooperation for a short time before the end of it. Regardless, he’d gotten the distinct impression that Heero was keeping “tabs” on him, for the boy seemed inclined to show up at the oddest times and disappear again before you realized he’d even been there. It was good to know that Duo had had the same thing happen. “I heard the Preventers might be expanding again.”
“Mm wouldn’t know anything about that,” Duo shrugged, “but I wouldn’t doubt it. Une is rather insistent that we get real offices set up elsewhere to back up the local police forces, especially out in the colonies. Can’t really go into why but…”
“I understand,” Quatre flashed him a smile to show that it was okay. They both knew that Quatre could get whatever information he wanted from the General-Director, but it was best that he went to her for it rather than get it through Duo. The latter option would only spell trouble for the Preventer agent. Quatre lead him towards the pewter Mercedes he’d rented for his stay.
Duo whistled a low, soft note, “You sure do know how to travel.”
“Rashid picked it out,” Quatre replied with a laugh and clicked the button on his keys to unlock the doors.
The big top was packed with people, all happy and excited for the big circus. Trowa could never get enough of watching them. From his place behind the ‘stage’ he watched the kids’ faces through the gap in the curtain. Theirs were always the best; they were always filled with such innocent wonder at the world around them, for them everything was new, colourful and exciting. They hadn’t yet learned to see the world in black and white, though it’d surely be beaten into them over time… no matter how false that image was.
He settled his half-mask onto his face as the music signaled the end of the current high-rise act. He and Catherine’s knife show would be up directly after the trained poodles, and then he’d have his lion taming act. The others liked to say that he must have been born into a circus, for he seemed to be perfectly suited for just about any act they could come up with. Trowa occasionally wondered if they were right.
A female cleared her throat behind him. He turned, expecting Catherine, to instead be met with a blond in white. The changes in her since he’d last seen her in person were expected—hers was a face that was plastered all over the air waves and magazines, and all of her debates and speeches broadcast as special reports. She was the sweetheart of the solar system… and she was standing behind him with a small bouquet of flowers.
Relena Dorlian greeted him with a warm smile, the kind reserved for friends and family. She was resplendent in white, with her hair done up as if she were attending a formal function and not a lowly circus act. “Its customary, isn’t it, to bring your favorite actor flowers?”
“In the theatre, perhaps,” Trowa replied with an equal smile. Regardless he stepped forward to meet her and greeted her with a hug that was careful of her gift. “But they’re appreciated.”
“I wanted a chance to see you in person,” Relena explained, returning his hug briefly before they stepped apart. “Catherine would probably like these more, wouldn’t she?”
“Probably,” Trowa couldn’t help but agree. “For what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I have to have a reason to visit?” Relena teased. She took a seat upon one of the crates stacked nearby, despite the dress she wore. The flowers she put down beside her and she crossed her legs before her. The girl gave him a playful sort of look, legs swinging a little from her perch.
“I somehow doubt you came here just to admire my outfit,” Trowa replied as he leaned against a similar stack of crates behind him.
“The bare-chested look does suit you. Did Catherine design that?”
“She did. I wonder about her, sometimes, parading me around like this.” They both laughed at that and Trowa crossed his arms over his chest. It wasn’t that he was embarrassed, he told himself, but that it was cold out. “Are you staying for the performance?”
“No,” Relena replied with a regretful smile, “I’m actually on my way out of town, I’m afraid. Some business has come up on L4 and its imperative that I am there. I actually stopped to apologize; I know I told you…”
Trowa shook his head, “Don’t, Relena. You know I understand. Have you spoken to Quatre? I know he’d want to see you.”
“Actually I can’t seem to get a hold of him,” the girl frowned with a faint sigh. “When I realized I’d be heading up there I tried to call his office, but they told me that ‘Mr. Winner is not accepting any calls at the moment and his schedule is booked for the next week. If you would like a meeting, I can pencil you in two months from now.’”
Trowa’s visible brow raised in response to that, more than a little surprised to hear it. “They know who they’re talking to?”
“Yes; but that doesn’t matter, it seems. He’s not answered his personal e-mails, yet, either… but I doubt that I’ll return to an empty inbox when I next check it. Have you heard from him lately?”
The clown had to give her a wistful smile at that, “It isn’t often that I have access to a computer these days. He’s been rather busy.”
“Yes,” She frowned, “There was this horrible article released earlier today…” Before she could go further, the girl’s pager beeped. Taking it from her pocket, she sighed and hopped off the box. “I’m really sorry, Trowa. I’m glad you’re in town… hopefully I’ll be back before you pack up.”
“We should be here for a week. We’re doing a long tour on Earth, again, so there should be another chance.”
Relena nodded and flashed her friend a smile. They’d seen one another off and on over the past year, what with her constantly being on the move in order to handle the political repercussions of the UESA. The last time they’d met up, she’s promised him that they’d go out for dinner or a movie when he returned to Earth that spring. It seemed it would have to be put on hold now, but Trowa didn’t mind. He stood up straight to give her another, farewell hug.
He couldn’t help but feel sorry for her at times; no matter how much she gave, people always demanded more. Such was life, however. “I’ll tell Catherine you brought her flowers,” He told Relena as he released her. She laughed, and he was glad to see that she was still capable of doing so, despite the slight bags he could see under her eyes from stress and lack of sleep.
“Thank you. I’ll catch you when I get back.”
Trowa watched as Relena left through the flap she’d come in through. Another man might have offered her an escort, but by this point Trowa knew better. That was a girl who could very well take care of herself… nor did he doubt that a very specific sort of protection was following her every step of the way. Not a minute after Relena had left Catherine entered and stopped to look at the bundle of flowers.
“Relena thought you’d like them,” He answered and returned to his observation point to watch the hopping dogs and laughing children. Despite that, he didn’t miss the happy smile that crossed his friend’s face.
He watched from the shadows as she left the circus tent. This stop had been on her itinerary all day; he’d barely managed to catch the update in time to circle back around to the brilliantly coloured tents he’d just left behind. His eyes tracked her as she made her way through the back of the set-up unmolested. By all appearances the circus staff knew her and her association with their co-worker well enough that no one thought to question why she was back there. He followed her at a distance.
It had been three months since he’d last seen her at a conference in Beijing and he couldn’t help but not that as beautifully as she was dressed there was a certain strain upon her features that spoke of working too hard. The boy frowned to himself; it was one thing to work hard and quite another to work one’s self to sickness. Perhaps someone needed to teach her that.