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Lions and Hyenas

Nettie Roe

The wind carried a promise of colder days ahead as it hurried bright autumn leaves along the sidewalk.  It teased the girls waiting at the bus stop, flipping their skirts up to make them squeal then brushing their legs with the dry leaves to make them laugh.  Like a mischievous sprite it made tangles in their hair and whispered secrets in their ears.  It twisted the leaves into upward spirals then released them to cascade down like a rainbow shower only to send them dancing once more down the sidewalk.  But as the wind moved past the girls its mood seemed to shift from playful to predatory.  Gathering its strength the wind stalked its chosen prey with a silent, invisible grace.  Its strike was faster than thought and the black cap was snatched into the air to join the dancing leaves.

"Damn it!"  Duo lunged and caught his straying cap then crammed it back down on his head.  He ignored the giggles of the female students and hunched his shoulders against the chilling wind.  Duo hated waiting for buses.  He hated waiting for buses in cold, windy weather.  Suddenly a drop of moisture landed on the sidewalk at his feet.  Most of all he hated waiting for buses in the rain.  The girls squealed again and quickly pulled out brightly patterned umbrellas to hide beneath as more drops began to fall.  Duo simply turned up the collar of his dark jacket and shoved his hands back into his pockets.  A little rain wouldn't kill him.  He smiled grimly to himself at that thought.  No, a lot of things might end his young life but rain was definitely not one of them.

"You could catch your death of the flu standing in the rain."  A man's voice spoke from behind Duo.   The words were casual, the tone conversational but they caused Duo's breath to catch in his throat and sent an icy spike of fear down his spine.  His eyes widened with the shock and he swallowed convulsively before turning to look over his shoulder.  Looking past his bangs he saw the one face he had really hoped never to see up close again.

 There was no mistaking the uniform or silver helmet of Zechs Merquise. Zechs was standing halfway between the Gundam and his plane.  The sunlight glinted off his helmet and a slight breeze stirred his long blond hair.

 "Gundam pilot, I would like to speak with you as one warrior to another.  I will offer you a trade, your life and my plane in exchange for your Gundam and a few answers.  It is a fair exchange and better than you will get from the soldiers on their way here now."

 "You want to deal, OZ?  Fine, I have a counter offer.  You turn around and walk out of this valley right now and I don't blow us both to Hell."

 "So?  I see that you are not so eager to die. Very well, I will make you another offer.  You say that you cannot just give me the Gundam or willingly answer questions so I will suggest this.  We will have a fight.  No weapons of any kind.  Just the two of us.  If I win I get the Gundam and you.  If you win I will walk out of this valley and leave you my plane, which you can fly away in after you destroy your Gundam.  In either case one of us wins without the other having to die."
Duo felt the muscles in his stomach tighten with the memory of the painful way in which that fight had ended.  He quickly brought his thoughts back to the present and focused on his would be captor.

Zechs smiled slightly as he read the emotion in the young pilot's wide, blue eyes.  He watched them travel over his face and up to the black cap that he wore happened to be an exact duplicate of Duo's.  No accident there since it had actually belonged to the boy just a few weeks earlier. When Heero had made a surprise appearance to rescue his unconscious  partner, Zechs had claimed the hat as a  souvenir. Duo's eyes noted the cap, traveled down to take in Zechs' smile, then dropped lower to see one hand holding the curve of an umbrella handle and the other hidden in a coat pocket.  Still reading his eyes the older pilot guessed Duo's line of reasoning and drew his right hand into the open.  He held it up and watched as Duo's shoulders visibly sagged in relief although he still maintained a wary stance.

"I am not fond of surprise attacks or unfair advantages."  Duo's disbelieving stare challenged Zechs to defend his statement.  "Oh, I've made use of opportunities given to me but not without some regret."

Duo tried to keep one eye on Zechs while he scanned the street for hidden troops. He couldn't believe that the OZ officer was alone. Zechs was either oblivious to the boy's concern or simply chose to ignore it. He slid his hand back into his pocket and nodded to the girls waiting at the corner.  "I am surprised that you are not sharing an umbrella with one of the young ladies.  Surely one with your looks and charms could find shelter from the rain."

Duo blinked in confusion. His mind raced as he tried to make since of what was happening. Why was Zechs just standing here making idle conversation? Was it a delaying tactic? Was he waiting for reinforcements? Hidden in his jacket pocket Duo's hand tightened on his gun. He did not want to have to shoot his way to freedom, not with innocent people around that might get caught in the crossfire.

"The one in blue seems especially nice." Zechs continued talking as if he and Duo were old friends or even classmates. Duo sighed in resignation. This war was going to drive him insane, provided it hadn't already. For now he would go along with whatever game Zechs was playing and hope he learned the rules before it was too late win.

Duo looked over at the group of girls that he had been trying to ignore for the last half-hour. He snorted and shook his head.  "You've either forgotten what it's like going to a private school or you never experienced it first hand."

Zechs watched the girls from beneath the brim of his cap and noticed how they darted glances in his and Duo's direction then whispered excitedly amongst themselves.  He also noticed the sparkling accents of jewelry and the book bags with designer logos.  "I take it you are referring to the social pecking order that money tends to create."  He looked down at his reluctant companion's unadorned black attire and felt compelled to make a small confession.  "Trust me, age and education do not change that particular status quo.  But I did misinterpret your solitude.  I should have realized that it was by choice."  Zechs smiled and with a wicked glint in his eyes raised his voice slightly, "You're right of course cousin, older girls do tend to be more mature, more rounded in their ... experiences."  Muffled gasps assured the pilot that his voice had carried the desired distance.  Duo hunched his shoulders once more and turned to glare up at the unrepentant OZ officer. This was too much.

"Look, are you here to arrest me or just make my life Hell?"  Duo hissed at the young man who was supposed to be an enemy soldier but was acting more like an annoying classmate.  "If it's the second don't bother, I've got friends that do that for me."

"And if it's the first?"

Duo glanced away then back.  "The flu isn't the only thing one can die of from standing in the rain."  Zechs heard the implied threat and looked down to where Duo's hands were still hidden in his pockets.

Zechs had taken a few moments to study his prey before approaching. He had guessed that the young pilot was carrying a gun but had decided to not let that stop him. "I think you might have problems if I were to catch a sudden case of lead poisoning."

Duo shrugged his shoulders and looked around nonchalant. "I can run and I can hide."

"But you don't lie.  Stretch the truth a little, forget to mention certain facts but never an out right lie."  Duo knew that Zechs was referring to the 'deal' from their first encounter and he winced slightly at the memory.

"You realize that I did win that fight and part of the prize was to have been the answers to a few questions."  As he finished speaking he saw Duo's expression turn grim and there was an audible, metallic click that Zechs instantly recognized.  "So Duo Maxwell, only survivor of the Maxwell Church incident, do you keep your word as well as you tell the truth?"

The bus arrived at that moment and the waiting girls jostled to get onboard with their umbrellas.  Duo seemed not to notice the departing bus as he studied Zechs' face.  "I won't tell you about the Gundams or betray the other pilots and the people I fight for."  Looking away Duo watched the bus turn a corner and disappear.  "I just had a feeling that one way or another I wasn't going to leave that valley alive with you or any other OZ soldier."  He shrugged an apology and took a step away from his tormentor.  "But today I am walking away and you're not stopping me. This time I don't have a damaged Gundam to destroy or a friend to protect."

Zechs Merquise thought about Duo's words for a moment.  He noticed the young Gundam pilot edging away and realized he was preparing to run.  The rain began to fall a little heavier and another gust of wind flung icy drops against Zechs' face.  "You agreed to answer a few questions if I won but I didn't specify what questions or how many."  He saw hesitation in the blue eyes, a slight blend of curiosity and doubt.  "I would still like a few answers but I promise you the questions will not concern military secrets.  I would also like you to listen to a story and give me your opinion."  Zechs motioned down the street to a waiting car.  "I could drive us some place warmer and drier where we could talk."  Duo frowned and took one more step back while looking around nervously.

Zechs freed his right hand from his pocket and held it out.  "My word as a gentleman and a Gundam pilot, today you will not be taken prisoner and I will not attempt to make you answer any questions you do not like."  Duo's eyes finally met his and their gazes locked, each searching the heart of the other. The older pilot waited while Duo examined the offer and weighed his options.  The boy finally looked away and shook his head but in resignation, not refusal. He ignored Zechs' hand and walked passed him to the waiting car.  "Damn, my curiosity is going to get me into serious trouble one of these days."  Zechs turned to follow him and felt it best not to agree out loud.

The city of West Haven was relatively small and on such a dreary afternoon there were not many people out on the streets.  Duo had been attending classes at the West Haven Academy for only two weeks but he had used all his free time exploring the layout of the city.  He directed Zechs to a small coffee and pastry shop called Caffeine Dreams.  It was a favorite meeting place for upper-classmen and not really Duo's style but he had developed a fondness for their cream filled pastries.  He had actually been planning to make the little store one of his stops during the day.  Of course, he had also planed on being alone. He felt his muscles start to relax a little as he entered the busy shop. The brightly-lit store with its noisy patrons gave him a false sense of security that he badly needed after riding alone with an OZ officer.

He led Zechs inside the pastry shop and toward his favorite booth, near the emergency exit at the back of the building.  Zechs noted his choice of tables and approved the reasoning behind it. Duo took the bench against the wall so that he could see the door and everyone who entered.  Zechs removed his trench coat and cap placing them on the back of his seat.  His pale blond hair was still held back from his face by a simple cord tied just below his neck.  Instead of his uniform he wore a brown sweater and dark slacks.  To the other patrons he probably looked like an ordinary college student.  Even Duo had a little trouble matching this Zechs with the one he fought in the desert just three weeks earlier.

While Duo took in his companion's appearance, he in turn was being studied.  Unlike Zechs, the Gundam pilot hadn't changed much from their first encounter.  Beneath his dark nylon jacket he wore the same odd style clothes that Zechs remembered so well.  Beneath a long sleeve black shirt Duo wore a high collared white shirt.  At first glance the combination had a very minister- like appearance.  Through extensive research Zechs had discovered the Maxwell Church incident and guessed that the tragic event played some part in the boy's choice of wardrobe.

After removing his own jacket and cap Duo rolled up the sleeves of his two shirts leaving the white shirt sleeves showing just above his elbows.  His brown hair was even longer than Zechs' and he kept it woven into a neat braid that actually fell below his waist.
The two pilots settled into their booth and were instantly descended upon by a radiantly cheerful waitress greatly endowed with . . . personality.  Personality that seemed on the verge of falling out of her waitress uniform.  "Good afternoon!  Welcome back Duo!  I see you finally brought a friend with you!  And such a handsome young man!  Would you like your usual?  And what would you like sir? The French Vanilla coffee is especially good today and it goes very well the cream pastries which I'm sure Duo told you all about!  Two for each of you right?  And I'll put a couple more in a bag for you Duo for later!  Be right back!"

Duo smiled at the slightly stunned look on Zechs' face.  "That's Rose.  I met her the first time I came here.  I think she's the reason that so many of the male students come here."

"But not you?"

"She's a little old for me don't you think?  Besides, I prefer girls that have more on the inside,"
Duo tapped the side of his head, "And don't end every sentence in either an exclamation point or question mark."

Zechs waited until after the exuberant Rose made her delivery to reply.  "I think then that you and I share similar tastes in women.  Not surprising really since we are both Gundam pilots."

Duo swallowed his bite of pastry and quickly washed it down with some coffee.  "What has being a Gundam pilot got to do with it?"

Zechs settled back into his seat and sipped thoughtfully at his coffee before speaking.  "Ever since the colonies realized their ability to be independent there has been conflict between the colonists and the earth government.  It was the first of these wars that saw the creation of the first Gundam and so the first Gundam pilot.  Throughout the years of conflict there have been many Gundam designs but they all shared one thing in common, the need for a human pilot."  As he spoke Zechs' eyes took on a faraway look.  The pastries lay forgotten on the table as Duo fell under the spell of Zechs' words. In his mind he could picture the first Gundam's and their heroic pilots. He had grown up hearing stories of those great warriors and their epic battles.

Zechs' words seemed to echo Duo's thoughts as he continued speaking. "But for the greatest of the Gundams not just any human will suffice. Some may consider it destiny or duty but I think the Gundam's choose their own pilots.  Gundams are like hollow shells, empty suits of armor that can only be filled by the strongest of warriors, the noblest of hearts.  These warriors must be strong because their heart becomes the Gundam's heart and their soul the Gundam's soul. So piloting a Gundam is not all that sets us apart from the rest of humanity.  Our hearts, our minds, our every action separates us from the masses but not from our fellow pilots.  We have more than our Gundams in common and I hope that someday we may all unite and fight for the good of all humans combined."

Zechs fell silent and continued staring off into a possible future that he saw very clearly. Duo looked down into the cup of coffee between his hands seeing his own past.  Words like 'honor' and  'nobility' were fine for soldiers like Zechs who fought their battles in the open with cheering crowds urging them on to victory.  But Duo was little more than a terrorist.  A hit and run artist that used a Gundam to destroy and kill.  There was no honor in striking an enemy from behind.  There was nothing noble about planting explosives and then setting them off from a safe distance.  "Ah, my poor Deathscythe.  If it did choose me then I suppose it regretted it in the end."

Zechs looked at Duo's bowed head and spotted the small drop of moisture that fell to the table.  Reaching a decision he leaned forward and placed his cup back on the saucer.  The motion and the sound of the cup settling roused Duo who quickly wiped his cheek with the back of his hand. He looked up at Zechs and something in the man's expression caused him to sit back warily.
"I have decided not to ask you any questions.  Instead I am going to ask for your help."  Zechs reached over and pulled a folded piece of paper out of a coat pocket.  He handed it to the confused looking pilot who slowly unfolded it and quickly scanned the writing.  He had to read the list twice as his mind dealt with the sudden change of topic. "It's a list of various weapons, ammunitions and explosives.  Each item has a quantity out beside it."

"The items on that list were stolen from an OZ military base."

Duo looked at Zechs over the top of the list. "So? Do you think I can tell you who stole them?"

"Oh we know who took them.  Or more precisely, we know what organization took them.  You are familiar the ETO?"

"Earth for Terrans Only?"  Duo gave a derisive snort. "That's a radical group that thinks people born on colonies are all aliens and not humans.  They've been doing most of their recruiting among the older, richer families."  He read over the list again.  "They could cause a lot of damage if they could reach a colony with these things."

Zechs nodded in agreement.  "True, but they can cause almost as much damage politically by targeting innocent Earth bound people and blaming it on the colonies."

Duo crumpled the paper in his fist.  "Shit.  Why tell me this?  Why aren't you out stopping these idiots and retrieving the weapons before they can use them?"

Zechs calmly retrieved the abused piece of paper and returned it to his coat pocket.  "Because that is not my job.  I am a military officer and my job is to lead troops into battle.  This is a security matter and as such is really none of my concern."  He calmly took a sip of his coffee and settled back into his seat.  "However, certain facts have come to my attention which do concern me."

"Such as?"

"Such as the ease with which the theft occurred.  It seems that no soldiers or guards were killed during the robbery.  I also find it very difficult to believe that a transport of the size needed to carry such a haul could just drive away without any witnesses."

Duo started to ask another question but was suddenly interrupted.  "Why Duo, you haven't finished your pastry and your friend hasn't even touched his!"  Rose quickly refilled their coffee cups while continuing to scold them.  "Now you don't want to insult our chef by not eating do you?  When I come back I want to see empty plates!"

Zechs smiled in amusement and watched Rose hurry to another table.  When he turned back he was startled to see an intense look of anger on his companion's face.  He noticed that Duo's eyes were focused past his left shoulder and he slowly turned to look in that direction.  All he could see were four boys that looked to be a couple of years older than Duo but they were definitely the target of his hostility.  "I take it you know those students."

Duo nodded and met Zechs' gaze.  "I had a personal run in with them right after I enrolled myself in the school.  You were asking me what I knew about the ETO?"  Duo motioned with his chin to the table where the older boys had settled.  "Well, there's some supporters of the group if not actual members.  I found them beating up a kid that spoke out for the colonies."

"So you stepped in and showed them the error of their ways?"  Zechs rested his chin in one hand and considered this new bit of information.  Yes, it all tied together rather well.  Without a doubt the older boys as well as their parents were members of the ETO.  Duo's aggressive encounter with them would keep him from infiltrating the organization, which had been his first plan.  Ah well, a good military leader always has a backup plan.  Now the trick would be getting the young pilot to cooperate.

"I had a suspicion that the stolen weapons were headed in this direction.  There are several families in this city that strongly and openly support the ETO.  I also discovered that there were sightings of large vehicles traveling in this direction. It just happens that those trucks belong to a circus."

"Circus?"  Duo blinked in surprise.  'No, it couldn't be.'

Luckily Zechs misunderstood the boy's reaction.  "I don't know if the circus as a whole is involved or if someone is just using it without the owner's knowledge but it does make a perfect cover."

"Wait a minute, I thought you said it wasn't your job to track down these weapons?  Why are you here and why are you bothering to tell me all this?  Do you expect me to do something about it?"
Duo leaned forward and tapped himself on the chest.  "I don't even have a Gundam right now thanks to OZ.  The ETO is your problem and defending Terrans your responsibility."

"And yet you defended that boy who was being attacked by possible ETO members."

Duo fell back and crossed his arms in front of his chest.  He shook his head and refused to look Zechs in the eyes.  "I just don't like bullies.  Especially the kind that run in packs like hyenas."

"I see.  Well, to answer your questions, I am here partly because of you.  Which reminds me; that was a very clever trick you pulled.  Just how many schools now have a Duo Maxwell on their records?"

The boy smiled and gave a small shrug, "Oh, only a few thousand, I thought that would be enough."

"It probably would have been if this school hadn't been in the same city that the circus is stopping in.  Once I discovered your duplicate records I did not bother tracking you any further.  But this time I had, what do you call it, a hunch?  Once I knew the destination of the circus I checked the school records and of course there was a Duo Maxwell.  This time I called to confirm your presence before visiting the school."  Zechs ignored the shocked look on the boy's face and hid his smile with a bite into one of his pastries.  "You're right, these are very good."

"A hunch?  You found me on a hunch?!"  Duo felt insulted and sputtered for a moment but could find nothing else to say. The whole day had taken on a surreal feeling and he felt like he was trapped in some kind of dream or nightmare.

"But you are only part of my reason for coming here.  What I said earlier is also true, recovering the stolen weapons is not my job.  But just like you hate bullies, I dislike corrupt officials who accept money for favors."

"Like arranging for weapons to be easily stolen and looking everywhere for them except where they actually are."

"Exactly.  I was originally planning to make friends with some of the ETO members here and discover their plans but that would take time that I no longer have.  I received word just this morning that I am urgently needed elsewhere."

Duo stared at him in shock. "But, you can't just leave without doing something!"

Zechs smiled slightly and narrowed his eyes.  "Oh?  But I have done something.  I've told you all about it."

"Damn it.  What do you expect me to do?  Beating up bullies in a school yard is one thing; uncovering an ETO plot to kill civilians is entirely different." Duo's hands knotted into fists on the table.

Zechs reached back into his coat pocket and this time pulled out two brightly colored tickets.  "You might want to start with the circus."  He slid the tickets across the table.  "Since those young men now know where you stand politically; infiltrating the organization is too risky.  I suggest you simply concentrate on finding and destroying the weapons before the ETO have a chance to use them."

"Bastard!  The OZ will be just as guilty as the ETO and you want me to clean up your mess?"  Duo eyed the tickets like they were snakes preparing to strike.  This could not be happening. His inner voice of caution was screaming at him to grab his cap and jacket and run for the door. Why was he sitting here listening to Zechs? Worse yet, why was he actually considering taking the job?

The OZ officer had one more card to play and he did not hesitate. "You're looking at it from the wrong perspective.  You're not helping us, you are thwarting a secret plot to blackmail the colonies.  You are still fighting for your own people."

That was the proverbial straw. Duo snarled and scooped up the tickets.  He slid out of the booth and quickly pulled on his cap and jacket.  "Fine, I'll take care of your problem and probably do a better job of it than you.  I really don't think you're suited for espionage anyway."

"No?"  Zechs leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table feeling very pleased with himself.  It had been easier to convince the young pilot than he had hoped.

"No. Your problem Zechs is that you're too damn dramatic. If you don't like getting your hands dirty then just say so."  Duo pulled the brim of his cap down a little lower. He started to reach into a pocket for some money but had a better thought.  "Oh, and you won't mind paying for this will you?"

Zechs did a fair job of feigning surprise.  "On the salary the military pays?"

"Has to be better than what I make and besides, I still have to buy school supplies."  Smiling grimly Duo lifted two fingers to the brim of his cap in a small salute and headed for the exit.  Rose accosted him at the door with a small paper bag and Duo motioned back towards Zechs.  They both laughed and Rose hurried back to her other tables.

Zechs sighed and turned back to his coffee.  He took another sip but looked up quickly when he heard the waitress' voice raised in anger.

"Hey!  You can't leave without paying!  Jase!  I know your father and he won't be happy when I ask him to pay for this!"

Zechs saw that Rose was addressing the same four boys that Duo had pointed out earlier.  They ignored the waitress and hurried out the door.  'So?  Duo handled them once before, I'm sure he can do so again.'  Zechs looked down at his remaining pastry for just a moment then stood and picked up his own cap and coat.  'Still, even hyenas have been known to bring down a lion.'

Duo eyed the darkening sky and decided it was time to head back to his dorm.  In his arms he carried a bag of school supplies, a couple of books and the bag from the pastry shop.  In his back pocket was a map of the entire city and the surrounding area with a circle marking the location of the circus. The first performance would be the following night so he would have plenty of time to scout around the place during the day.  Provided of course he skipped his classes.  'Ah well,'  Duo thought to himself as he hurried down the sidewalk, 'I was getting bored with the routine of it all anyway. Maybe that's why I was willing to listen to Zechs and take this job. Until my new Gundam is ready I'm pretty much out of the war.  Heh, I even miss Heero's depressing face.'

The street lamps flickered to life as the sun gave up its own battle against the clouds and the encroaching night.  There were still a few people out on the sidewalks but most of the shops were closed for the evening.  Duo walked past a small church and crossed the street to the next block.  He decided to take a short cut through an alley to be sure of reaching the bus stop in time. As he stepped to the mouth of the alley he caught sight of movement towards its center.  He paused at the entrance and was shocked by what he saw.  There was no mistaking the four boys he had fought with earlier but this time they weren't harassing a fellow student.  A muffled scream goaded the boy into action.

"Shit!  These guys are lower than I thought."  Duo set his purchases on the ground then stepped to the center of the entranceway.  "Hey!  I thought you bastards preferred boys.  Are you sure you know what to do with a woman?"

Duo expected the boys to do one of two things; either run away or come after him.  He was surprised when they gathered up their victim and ducked into a small cul-de-sac that branched off from the alley.  He had used this alley before and knew that space was just a loading area for a hardware store.  The doors would be locked at this time of day so the boys had just trapped themselves.  "Idiots.  Do I call the police and let them handle it or give them another lesson in manners?"  A terrified scream answered his question.

Duo charged down the alley and skidded to a stop in front of the loading area.  His battled-trained reflexes let him assess the situation in seconds.  Two of the boys were holding the woman down at the back wall while the other two were guarding the entrance.  The two on guard duty were brandishing wicked looking knives and trying to look menacing.  Duo snorted with contempt and launched himself at the two boys.  It was painfully obvious that neither bully really knew how to use a blade as a weapon.  Duo easily ducked their wild swings and downward slashes.  He quickly dropped one with a knee to the groin and the other with a fist to the stomach followed by a blow to the back of the neck.  The bodies hit the ground at almost the same moment.

Duo stepped pass the first two to confront the ones still guarding the woman.  She had stopped struggling and was huddled on the ground with her shoulder resting against the brick wall.  Duo recognized one of the boys standing over her as the leader of the small gang; a boy named Jase.  He also held a knife but looked a little more comfortable with the weapon than his cohorts.  His partner was also armed but instead of a blade his hands clutched a metal pipe.  They both grinned evilly at Duo and waited for him to approach.

The young Gundam pilot felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise as he studied his two opponents.  It suddenly occurred to him that they were not really acting surprised and upset by his sudden appearance.  "Damn, you guys actually planned this?  I'd be impressed but even morons get lucky occasionally."

"You little shit!  You're the one who got lucky the first time."  The one with the pipe stepped forward and used it to point at Duo's chest.  "We're going to beat you within an inch of your life then cut off that braid and make you choke on it."

"You can try."  Duo crouched and waited for the bully to come to him.  He blocked the first swing with his left arm and drove a powerful uppercut into the boy's chin.  Jase took that opportunity to step in and make a stab at Duo's unprotected right side.  He dodged back but felt the tip of the knife catch on his jacket.  Jase laughed and followed his prey with an upward swing that just missed his face.  "Oh, we'll do more than just try.  And after we're through with you we'll finish up with your little alien lovin' friend."  Duo dropped to the ground and the pipe narrowly missed his head.  He rolled to his feet and blocked another strike by Jase.  But instead of just stopping the blow he grabbed the larger boy's arm and used the momentum against him.  Jase's body effectively stopped the metal bar aimed at Duo's spine.  The air rushed from the boy's chest and he collapsed in a quivering heap on the ground.  The pipe welding bully backed up a step and froze in shock.  "Jase!"

Duo grinned and slowly leaned down to take the knife from Jase's unresisting hand.  "Now, what were you saying earlier?  Something about cutting off my braid?"
"Bastard!"  Raising the bar high into the air he ignored the knife in Duo's hand and charged directly at the smaller boy.  Duo could easily have driven the knife into several vital areas but logic prevented him.  A dead high school student who was also a friend of the ETO would just make additional complications.  It was the same logic that had kept him from using the gun in his jacket pocket.  Instead, Duo waited until the last possible moment then stepped to the outside of the downward swing.  Raising the knife in his hand he brought the end of the handle down with all his strength just behind the boy's ear.  The bully's momentum carried him staggering forward to crash headfirst into a garbage canister.  The dull crash echoed in the confines of the alley.  As silence returned Duo became aware of the quiet sobs of the woman still huddled in the shadows.

"Hey, it's all right now."  He kept the knife in his right hand and a wary eye on his fallen opponents as he kneeled beside the crying woman.  He reached out with his left hand and patted her awkwardly on the shoulder.  "Are you hurt?  Can you walk?"  One of the two bullies at the entrance stirred and Duo focused all his attention in that direction.  As if sensing his distraction the woman moved with a speed and determination that belied her role as a victim.  Duo cried out in pain and surprise as he felt the steel blade penetrate deep into his leg.  He looked down in horror at the woman's smiling face and saw the cold hatred in her eyes.  "My brother was right, you are a tuff little brat."  Her eyes narrowed and her hand tightened on the hilt of the knife as Duo moved to grab her wrist.  He cried out again as the knife was wrenched free of his flesh with an additional twist.

Duo staggered back away from the woman and clutched his left hand to his thigh.  He could feel the blood running down his leg and soaking through his pants.  He gritted his teeth against the pain and nausea that blurred his vision and kept backing.  When his shoulders came up against a wall he used it as both a support and anchor as the first wave of dizziness struck.

The woman stood up and continued to smile cruelly at Duo as she watched him slump against the wall.  She laughed as she tossed back her wavy auburn hair and held up the bloody knife in her right hand.  "That was fun.  I've never stabbed anyone before.  I think I'll ask my brother to let me do it again."  She turned her back on Duo and walked over to where her brother Jase was being helped to his feet by the first two gang members.  The one Duo had sent crashing into the garbage can was still out cold and they left him lying in the fallen trash.

"What about it little brother, will you hold him while I cut him some more?"  She leaned up against Jase and rubbed her head against his chest.  Growling he snatched the knife from her hand and pushed her roughly away.  "Go back home Lynn!  I'm going to finish off this little shit personally."

Lynn caught her balance and glared at her brother.   "Look at you!  You're all bigger than him and even with four against one he still beat you."  She sneered at the boys and taunted them.
"You wouldn't have him now if it weren't for me."  Lynn suddenly gasped as Jase's open hand struck her across the face.  "Shut up!"  Lynn stepped back from her brother and slowly raised a hand to her stinging cheek.

"I said go!"  Jase turned his back on her and stepped towards Duo.  "You can tell father I'm going to be out late tonight."  Lynn glared at her brother's back for a second then tossed her head proudly.  "Fine, just don't expect me to play decoy ever again."

Duo listened to their conversation and wasn't sure which was making him feel sicker; the hole in his leg or the thought of how stupid he had been.  He could feel the blood seeping out between his fingers and running down his leg into his boot.  He watched as Jase's sister stormed away and was glad to see her leave.  That just left the three bullies to deal with and Duo was sure they would back off when he pulled out his gun.   Waving an automatic would pretty much blow his cover but he didn't have a choice.  He had been injured enough times to know when a wound needed quick attention.

Jase and his cohorts began closing in on the injured pilot.  The two flanking Jase moved apart to come at Duo from either side.  Obviously the plan was for them to pin his arms while Jase did the carving.  Duo calmly transferred the knife to the fingers of his left hand while keeping the palm pressed against the wound.   He reached into his jacket pocket for his gun and was very surprised to discover it missing.  'Shit! Not again!' He felt the torn fabric and suddenly remembered the tug of Jase's knife on his jacket.  Looking past the older boys he spotted the gun partially obscured by trash and lying just a few feet away.  But as close as it was it might as well have been on a colony.

Jase noticed Duo searching his jacket and taunted the younger boy.  "What's the matter?  Looking for your cell phone so you can call your mommy?  Or maybe you were going to offer me money to let you go."  Jase licked his lips and grinned viciously.  "Yeah, I'd like that.  I'd like to hear you beg. C'mon alien lover, get on your knees and beg me to let you go."

Duo took the knife back in his right hand and glared at Jase.  "I'll see you in Hell first."

Jase's partners froze at the sudden savagery they could sense in the young boy.  They hesitated and looked back to their leader in confusion.  Jase was too caught up in his own imagination to realize his danger.  The pack of hyenas had not only wounded their prey; they had it cornered.  With his back literally against a wall, Duo had no choice but to fight for his life.

"What are you waiting for?  Get him!"  Jase screamed at his cohorts and urged them forward with a wave of his knife.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Duo's face showed as much surprise as the three bullies but for an entirely different reason.  He recognized Zechs' voice immediately and could not deny the feeling of relief that threatened to overwhelm him.  He looked past the older boys to see Zechs standing at the entrance with the girl Lynn in front of him.  He had one arm wrapped around her shoulders and his other hand held her throat.  Her face was contorted in fear as she gasped out, "Brother, help me."

"You shit!  Get your hands off her!"  Jase turned to face Zechs leaving his friends to watch Duo.
"You hurt her and you'll have to answer to our father, Reginald Barrister."

"Oh?  That name should impress me?"  Zechs tightened his grip on the girl's throat making her gasp.  "Brother..."

"He owns most of this city and has high connections in the military.  You hurt her and you'll have an army after you."  Jase gestured wildly with his knife and grinned maniacally.  He froze as he heard a quiet laugh from his sister's captor.

"An army?  I don't think so."  His fingers dug into the soft white flesh eliciting another strangled call for help.  "Please...Jase...."

Snarling with frustration Jase threw down his knife and motioned his friends aside.  They also dropped their weapons and looked almost relieved as they backed to the other side of the small loading area.  Duo kept a firm grip on his blade as he pushed himself off the wall and limped forward.

Moving towards Zechs, Duo kept one eye on Jase and the other on his still unnoticed gun.  He would have to somehow retrieve the weapon without the others seeing it.  Stepping past the older boy Duo tensed his muscles in anticipation of an attack.  He was not disappointed.

Yelling, practically screaming in anger, Jase leapt forward to tackle the wounded boy from behind.  Rather than duck or defend himself, Duo let the larger boy slam into him and carry them both to the ground.  Duo's left hand was pulled away from his thigh as they struck the pavement and rolled.  They came to a stop with Duo on the bottom and Jase straddling his hips.  Grinning in triumph Jase held the boy's right arm pinned to the ground and cocked his fist back to punch his face. The blow never landed and the grin quickly disappeared to be replaced by a look of shock and then pain.  Howling, Jase fell back clutching his right thigh with both hands.  Duo pushed himself upright and returned the knife back to his right hand.

While all the attention was focused on Jase, the young pilot scooped up his gun with his left hand and stuck it in his jacket pocket.  As he struggled to his feet Duo kept a close watch on Jase but the older boy was a pathetic sight as he lay on the ground whimpering and clutching his injured leg.  Duo limped towards Zechs who still held the girl in his arms.

"My car is just around the corner."  Zechs spoke softly as Duo slowly moved past him.  The boy did not even nod or look up but Zechs heard a very faint, "Thanks."

Zechs waited what he thought would be long enough for Duo to make it to the car then released his hold on Lynn.  She immediately rushed to her brother's side and cradled his head in her lap.  Zechs caught the attention of the other two boys who were just staring at their fallen leader.  "I think you should get him to a hospital and then decide on a different after school activity."

Jase roused himself at the sound of the officer's voice.  "You bastard!  You and your little friend are dead!  My father..."

"Your father will be very angry at you for letting this happen.  You are an embarrassment and will be very lucky if he does not send you off to join the military in which he has such high connections."  The young OZ officer smiled slightly but without humor.  "You can give your father a message for me.  Tell him that he should be prepared to repay his debt to the family Peacecraft.  The day of reckoning is fast approaching and all debts will be paid, in full."

The siblings stared at Zechs in confusion.  They had no idea what he was talking about but the way he spoke sent chills up their spines.  Without another word the pilot turned and left them staring after him.

Night had truly arrived when Zechs began walking to his car.  The street lamps and an occasional light in a window illuminated the sidewalk.  At irregular intervals he could see small, dark colored splotches on the concrete.  Quickening his pace just a little, Zechs followed the drops of blood to his car and then past it.  At the corner they disappeared into the darker asphalt of the street.  He looked around at the silent buildings for a moment then gave up with a sigh.  'Well Duo Maxwell, I hope you are better at hiding than running.  I am still counting on you.'  Zechs returned to his car and drove slowly away.

Watching from his vantage point Duo sighed with relief as he saw Zechs' car finally disappear into the night.  He realized that Zechs had probably saved his life and would have continued to help but a part of him was still distrustful and very much afraid of being taken prisoner by OZ.  It was that frightened inner voice which had driven him past the waiting car and down the street to the silent church.

Duo had found the doors to the church unlocked and slipped inside after first peeking through to make sure no one was in sight.  Just inside the door were two small rooms, one on either side.  Picking the right one at random Duo found himself in a small cloakroom where choir robes hung from the walls.  Grabbing one off a hook he carried it with him to the window.  As he watched the alley for Zechs and the others to emerge he began cutting strips of cloth from the bottom of the robe.  By the time the OZ officer had driven off he had a makeshift bandage ready.  He waited a little longer and then saw his assailants emerge.  In the dark he couldn't make out faces but the movements gave each person away. His sister and one of his friends supported Jase while the boy that had head butted the garbage can was helped away by the final member of the group.

Duo didn't bother watching them out of sight.  By the way they moved he knew the danger was past.  Turning from the window he braced his back against the wall and slid to the floor.  He laid the knife on the floor then moving quickly but carefully he fixed a thick pad of cloth over the hole in his leg and began wrapping cloth strips tightly around it.  He hissed in pain at the pressure against the wound but knew it was necessary to slow the bleeding.  Even though it was very cool in the small room Duo was sweating by the time he finished.

After tying the last knot Duo leaned his head back and moaned quietly.  He closed his eyes for what he thought was just a moment but snapped them back open as his head struck the corner of the windowsill.  Duo scooped up the knife then used the sill as a handhold and pulled himself to his feet.  "You can't go to sleep here idiot.  You'll be dead by morning or very close to it if you don't get the leg taken care of."  Duo had an unconscious habit of talking out loud to himself but now he did it intentionally to help focus his thoughts.  "But where do I go from here?  I could go back to the school and call up the resident nurse but she would just send me to the hospital, which I could just go to from here.  But that would raise too many questions, take too much time and I would have to find a place to leave my gun."  Duo limped over to the door and checked to make sure the church was still empty.  "School is no good, the hospital is out, and even if I wanted his help I have no idea where Zechs is so what does that leave?"  Duo spotted a man's trench coat hanging amid the choir robes and decided to make a swap while he tried to think of a solution.

The coat would be warmer then his light jacket and he could place his gun in the right pocket.  Duo tucked the knife into the top of his right boot and hung his jacket up on the empty peg before donning the much larger coat.  The bottom of it hung down to his ankles and the sleeves drooped past his fingertips but it was definitely warmer and the length hid the rough bandage on his leg.  Duo rolled the sleeves back twice and hooked the first few buttons.  Satisfied with the fit he reached into the pocket of his torn jacket for his gun.  As he pulled the weapon free the bright, fluttery movement of the falling circus tickets caught his eyes.  Stuffing the gun in his pocket Duo leaned forward and retrieved the tickets from the floor.  As he straightened up he was forced to lean against the wall as a wave of blackness took his sight.  When his vision returned he looked down at the tickets clutched tightly in his hand.  "Is it you Trowa?  Could I be so lucky?  God, I hope so."

Catherine hurried to reach her trailer before the rain started again.  She clutched her sweater tighter around her neck and shivered as the wind tousled her hair.  'I can't wait until this tour is finished.  I hate cold weather, especially when it rains.  But just two more towns and then it's back to the coast for the winter.'  She quickened her steps a little as she felt a stinging drop of rain land on her cheek.  She wouldn't have left her trailer at all that night but Madam Sella had stopped by earlier to tell her that some fresh oranges had arrived from town and were being handed out at the supply trailer.  Catherine just knew Trowa would like the fresh fruit so had hurried out while he was still in the shower.  She cradled the oranges in her left arm and felt a little warmer with thoughts of her partner.  'Oh Trowa, half the time I want to be your big sister and half the time I want to be your girlfriend.  If only you were a little older or acted a little younger, either one would help me decide.'

"Excuse me."  The words were hesitant and spoken softly but they startled Catherine enough to make her jump and gasp in alarm.  Two of the oranges escaped her grasp and landed on the muddy ground.  Going from surprised to annoyed in two heartbeats Catherine stomped her foot and angrily glared into the darkness between two empty trailers.  "Who's there?  Show yourself right now!"  One of the oranges rolled into the darkness and came to rest against the mysterious person's foot.  "Well?  The least you can do is return my orange since you made me drop it."

Catherine was not afraid of the stranger.  She was surrounded by her own people and knew one call would bring every roustabout and fellow performer to her location in seconds.  She squinted into the darkness but could only make out a shadowy form that seemed to be leaning against one trailer.

Losing her patience she picked up the orange closest to her than stepped forward for the other.  As she moved closer she began to make out more details regarding the stranger.  The person was wearing a long dark coat that fell almost to the ground and the turned up collar and a dark cap obscured his or her face.  As she moved nearer she decided that the coat was too big for the body and that the person was probably shorter than herself.  The height was a little harder to judge since the stranger was leaning heavily against the trailer.

She stooped to pick up the second orange and looked up into a pair of very large, very blue eyes. What little bit she could see of the face surrounding the eyes was very pale and stood out in sharp contrast with the collar and cap.  Her own violet eyes widened as she realized that this stranger was nothing more than a boy.  Suddenly feeling very irritated she quickly stood up and turned her back on the silent figure.  "Outsiders are not allowed among the trailers or behind the tents.  Tickets are on sale in town.  If you're here looking for a job because you want to run away from home you're out of luck.  Those kinds of things only happen to children in stories.  If we took you with us we would be kidnappers.  Go back home before you catch your death of the flu."

Taking only two steps away Catherine suddenly stopped as she heard a quiet laugh.  It was sort breathy and had an almost sad note to it.  Turning slowly she regarded the boy once more as he finally spoke again.  "You are the second person that has said that to me today.  Was it today? It seems like ages ago."

Catherine frowned at the confusing words.  "What do you want boy?"  Her sharp tone seemed to snap him back to the present and he pushed himself up a little straighter against the trailer.  "I'm looking for a friend that I think works here.  His name is Trowa, Trowa Barton.  Do you know him?"

Catherine felt her heart beat a little faster.  She had already met two of Trowa's 'associates'.  Was this a third?  She knew what Trowa was and what he did and accepted it even as she feared it.  Whether it was from a sisterly love or something more serious she felt a deep need to protect Trowa and even defend him.  She stared at this new boy and felt a growing resentment.  Was he here to take her friend away from her?  Would his presence at as a catalyst just like the wounded Heero had and cause Trowa to risk his life in some meaningless gesture?  Catherine backed away from the boy and was relieved when he didn't move to close the distance.  "Like I said, outsiders are not allowed back here.  If you want to see Trowa perform you will have to buy a ticket and come to a show.  If you leave now I won't have the roustabouts catch you and call the police."

Catherine turned smartly and started back to her trailer.  She hesitated for just a second as she heard the boy call out plaintively, "Why do I always have to be the bad guy?"  Clutching her sweater once more she hurried away.

Duo listened to the girl's receding footsteps and let his chin drop to his chest.  She knew Trowa, he had seen it in her eyes.  He had also seen the look of protective determination and was not surprised when she hurried off.  Moaning with both pain and resignation Duo decided to follow the girl and pushed himself away from the trailer.  He was surprised to suddenly find himself sitting on the ground with no idea of how he had gotten there.  He raised his head and let the cold rain strike his face.  It drove the darkness in his mind back a little but did not banish it completely. He settled back against the wheel of the trailer and tried to think positively.  "Well, at least I made it this far and now I know that Trowa is here.  I'll just rest for a few minutes and then find someone else to ask."  Duo felt the chill of the ground soaking through the coat and a sudden shiver knocked his teeth together.  "But only for a few minutes; I wouldn't want to catch my death of the flu."

Trowa looked up from his cup of tea as Catherine burst into the trailer breathless and glistening with rain.  Standing with a fluid grace he silently moved to close the door behind her then brought her a towel from the cupboard.  "Thank you Trowa!"  Catherine let the oranges fall unto the small counter next to the sink.  Though very small the trailer had its own little galley style kitchen, a full bathroom and a combination living room/bedroom thanks to a fold out couch.  It was a closeness that Catherine found very comforting, especially on cold or stormy nights.  Especially when strangers threatened to steal her Trowa away.

Removing her sweater Catherine began briskly drying herself off.  "I almost beat the rain back."  She was very careful not to meet her companion's eyes and tried to sound cheerful and casual.  "Madam Sella stopped by while you were in the shower and told me about the oranges.  I thought you might like some for breakfast in the morning."  Catherine sneaked a quick peek out from under the towel.  Trowa was standing at the counter and holding one of the oranges.  For the first time she noticed the mud covering the fruit.  Snatching it from the boy's hand she dumped it and the others into the sink.  "Oh, I was in such a hurry I dropped a couple of them."

"Dropped?"  The sound of disbelief in Trowa's voice brought the young woman up short.  She realized exactly what he meant by that simple one word question and just how lame her excuse sounded.  Catherine did not 'drop' things.  Nothing ever 'slipped' from her fingers or 'fell' from her grasp.  She was a skilled artist with a wooden target for her canvas and sharpened knives for brushes.  She tossed blades through the air with a precision that defied the laws of physics.  She had to be good because it wasn't just her career on the line, it was also her partner's life and currently her partner was Trowa.  He was the one who stood with his back to the target and calmly waited until all the blades were embedded firmly around his body.  The important word being 'around' his body and not in.  To so casually say that she had dropped the oranges to Trowa was unheard of and therefore untrue.

"Oh, well, I was actually startled by someone."   Well all right, perhaps a partial truth would suffice.  Catherine tried to remain upbeat and nonchalant.  "It was just a boy hiding between two of the empty trailers."  Catherine couldn't help the guilty thought, 'Actually he was about your age.'  "I told him to go home and come back tomorrow night to see the show."

"A boy?"  Trowa regarded Catherine with questioning green eyes.  She shrugged her shoulders and placed the oranges in a small bowl.

"He must live in town and just came up here to look around.  Maybe some friends dared him to do it.  I'm sure his half way home by now."  Catherine headed towards the bathroom and called over her shoulder, "I hope you left me some hot water.  I'll be out in just a minute."  She was just about to step into the tiny bathroom when she heard the door of the trailer open.  Turning quickly she saw Trowa step outside and close the door behind him.  "Trowa!"  Catherine grabbed her sweater as she hurried to follow.  'Please, oh please let him be gone.'

Catherine stepped out of the trailer then quickly back in just long enough to find an umbrella.  Holding it low against the gusting wind she ran to catch up with her friend who was nearing the deserted trailers.  A particularly strong blast of wind sent locks of hair into her eyes obscuring her vision.  Brushing them back with her free hand she looked for Trowa but couldn't see him.  Hurrying forward she finally reached the sight of her earlier encounter and was relieved to see Trowa standing alone in the darkness.  "See, he must have gone back home.  Trowa?"

Catherine finally noticed that Trowa seemed to be studying something at his feet.  Stepping forward to stand next to him she looked down and drew in a sharp breath.  The strange boy had not gone back home.  In fact from the looks of him, he would not be going anywhere on his own.

Catherine knelt down next to the sprawled and lifeless form.  Reaching out a tentative hand she touched the boy's pale, cold cheek.  Moving her hand to brush lightly across his lips she felt a warm breath against her fingertips.  "He's alive but what's wrong with him?"  She moved to one side as Trowa also knelt and quickly unbuttoned the long coat.  The thick, tattered bandage was instantly recognizable even if it was too dark to see the bloodstains.  Visions of the wounded Heero returned to haunt Catherine.  "You wait here and I'll go get some roustabouts.  They can take him to the local hospital."

"No."  That was all Trowa said but it answered all the questions that Catherine had dreaded to ask.  Standing back she watched as Trowa gently lifted the boy in his arms and headed back towards their trailer.  Catherine fell in beside him and tried to hold the umbrella where it would block most of the rain.

When they reached the trailer Catherine held the door open for Trowa and his burden then followed him in. He placed the boy on the couch and Catherine watched as he kneeled down and removed the dark cap to reveal light brown hair.  When Trowa opened the long coat again she noticed the thick long braid draped across the boy's chest.  She also took note of the strange shirt and collar that seemed to resemble a minister's attire.  Leaning over her friend's shoulder Catherine looked at the bandage and was horrified to see the dark, rust color stain that covered most of the cloth.

Trowa quickly scanned the unconscious body looking for additional injuries. He spotted the hilt of the knife sticking up from the top of the right boot. Sliding it free he noticed the dark stains near the base of the blade. He tested the edge and found it acceptably sharp. Catherine watched closely as Trowa shifted his grip on the knife and began carefully cutting away the bandages.  The boy moaned and stirred on the couch and one hand moved down towards the injured leg.  Catherine reached out and caught the hand between her own.  She squeezed it gently and made soothing noises as she brushed locks of damp hair from his forehead.

"Catherine, I am going to need some towels and the first aid kit I used with Heero."  Trowa had finished cutting the strips of cloth but after taking one quick look beneath the blood soaked pad he had quickly pressed it back down with his hand.  "Is it that bad?"  Trowa simply nodded and Catherine flew to fetch the things he had requested.

Trowa studied the unconscious figure before him.  'You must be Duo Maxwell, the one I haven't met yet.  I wonder what story you will have to tell me.'  Catherine returned with the towels and medical kit.  She followed Trowa's instructions carefully and assisted him as he treated the injured leg.  Catherine was still amazed by her friend's ability to treat wounds even after seeing the miracle he had managed with Heero.  Trowa calmly cleaned then sutured the knife wound with a natural skill that would have made trained surgeons jealous.  The boy remained unconscious throughout the ordeal and Catherine couldn't decide if that was good or bad.

When Trowa finished he went to the bathroom to wash his hands and returned as Catherine finished packing away the remaining medical supplies.  Together they removed the boy's blood stained clothing then covered him with several blankets.  Catherine felt a deep pang of guilt as she looked down at the pale face and remembered his large blue eyes staring at her in the darkness. "Why didn't you tell me?" she moaned softly.

"What?"  Trowa looked at Catherine who covered her mouth with her hand.  She hadn't meant to say that out loud and meeting Trowa's eyes she knew she would have to tell him the truth.  When she finished talking he merely gave her a sad little smile of understanding.  "You cannot protect me from my own life, but I thank you for trying."

Catherine blushed deeply and looked away.  From lover to sister and then mother; why couldn't she get her feelings sorted out?  "Do ... do you know him then?  Is he like the others?"

Trowa thought about the questions for a moment as he settled down on the floor next to the couch.  "We have not met in person but his name is Duo.  I know something about him from talking with Heero but I am not sure how much of that was fact and how much was Heero's personal opinion."  The boy bowed his head and closed his eyes wearily.  "Is he like the rest of us? I think the only thing we really share in common is our Gundams.  After meeting the others I am not even sure we are fighting the same war even though we target the same enemy."

Catherine sat down behind Trowa and wrapped her arms protectively around his shoulders.  He accepted the embrace and they both kept watch over Duo through the night.

Catherine woke with a start and for a moment couldn't remember why she was curled up asleep in a chair.  Trowa was leaning over her and it was his hand on her shoulder that had awakened her.  He held a steaming cup of tea for her as she straightened up and pushed the blanket down into her lap.  "Thank you."  Accepting the cup she looked over to the couch and was surprised to see Duo awake and also sitting up.  Understanding her startled gaze Duo smiled and greeted her. "I've had worse injuries than this and managed to live.  I may not be as tough as Heero but I get by."  He reached up to accept the cup of tea that Trowa handed to him.  He quickly reached up a second hand to help support and steady the amazingly heavy cup.  Catherine made a small sound of doubt and Duo ducked his head sheepishly.  "I think that I was very lucky that I found you last night. Thank you for your help."  Catherine blushed slightly and was glad Duo was looking down at his cup.  Feelings of guilt swam to the surface once more as she studied his pale face.

Trowa interrupted the silence by returning with his own cup of tea and took a position on the floor with his back resting against a wall.  "So, I had heard that your Gundam was destroyed."

"Heero?"  Duo leaned back into the pillows and winced as he shifted his leg.

"Quatre told me.  He also mentioned something about a fight with Zechs Merquise."  Trowa was looking down at his tea and missed the sudden coloring of Duo's pale cheeks.

"Ah, yes, well...I was pretty tired from the battle..."  Duo shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. 'Damn Quatre and his big mouth.'  Catherine listened to the exchange and marveled at the casualness that the two boys spoke with.  They were talking about fighting and killing like other boys their age talked about school and homework.

"Of course.  I assume you are waiting for a replacement Gundam?"

"Yeah.  It's going to take a few more weeks to get it ready and then I'll have to arrange a meeting point."  Duo took a sip of his tea and thought sadly of his Deathscythe.

"But you have been keeping busy I take it?"  Trowa's question was an obvious attempt to learn the story behind Duo's present condition.

The injured pilot sighed and closed his eyes.  "Actually I was taking a kind of vacation until yesterday.  I was enrolled in the local school and playing the typical student."

"What happened?"

"Not what so much as who."  Accepting Catherine's presence Duo quickly related the day's events and finished with his taxi ride to the circus grounds.  "It was just luck that the first person I found was . . .?"

"Catherine.  I am her partner."

"Pleased to meet you Catherine."  Duo smiled warmly at her and gave her a small bow with his head.  "What is it you do here besides taking care of Trowa?"

Catherine smiled innocently.  "I throw knives at Trowa."

Duo blinked at her then looked at his fellow Gundam pilot who kept a straight face as he explained.  "Around me actually, I would be in worse shape than you if she actually aimed at me."

"Hmmph."  Catherine stood up and stretched then moved to the bathroom.  "Well, I am going to get cleaned up and then fix us some breakfast.  Glancing at a clock on the wall she amended her statement.  "Make that lunch."

The boys were silent for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts.  But Duo was never one to stay silent for very long.  "So, anything strange or out of the ordinary happen within the last two weeks?  Anything that might be related to the missing weapons?"

Duo drained the last of his tea from the cup and almost choked when Trowa said, "Yes.  I think your weapons are definitely here."

"What?  How can you sound so positive?  Have you seen them?"  Duo gritted his teeth against the pain and pushed himself upright on the couch.  Trowa frowned at him and motioned with his head towards Duo's leg.  "If you move around too much it will start bleeding again and I don't think you can afford to loose any more blood."

Duo couldn't reply right away because he was too busy just trying to remain conscious.  When the darkness receded and his vision finally cleared he found himself lying back on the couch once more with Trowa standing over him.  "If you promise to just lie there I'll tell you what has been happening with the circus."

Duo nodded weakly.  "You're the doctor."

Trowa returned to his spot on the floor and began telling Duo about the lions.  "At about the same time the ETO were stealing the weapons we were performing in the nearest town.  On the morning before our final performance Ferren Oglase, the lion tamer, made a terrible discovery.  It appeared as if someone had poisoned over half of his trained cats."

"They were dead?"

Trowa shook his head.  "No, just very sick.  We have our own veterinarian but she could not discover the cause of their illness.  They did not respond to any kind of treatment so it was decided to send them on ahead to the winter camp site which has much better facilities."  Trowa frowned thoughtfully.  "The cats were sent in their cages by train which means the truck they normally travel in should be two thirds empty."

"Or two thirds full of high explosives and heavy power fire-arms."  Now it was Duo's turn to frown.  "I've got to get a look in that truck.  Can you take me to it?"

Trowa shook his head and stood up.  "No."

"No?!  What . . . what do you mean no?"  Duo watched as Trowa silently picked up both empty cups and carried them to the kitchen sink.

"Just what I said, no."

Duo craned his neck to see Trowa over the counter top and tried to reason with him.  "Look, I promise I won't blow them up here at the circus.  If the weapons are on the truck I can simply drive it away and then dispose of it."  When the boy began washing out the cups without replying Duo huffed in frustration.  "I'm not stupid.  I'll wait until this Ferren Oglase is busy with his act and then take the truck.  I may not have my Gundam but I still have a gun."  Duo suddenly remembered the coat and looked around quickly for it.  "I think."

Trowa finished putting the cups away and was walking back to the couch when Catherine emerged from the shower.

"Wow, I feel much better."  She smiled happily at the two but then became aware of the tension in the air.  "Did I miss something?"

Trowa settled back down on the floor and rested his arms across his knees.  "I was about to explain to Duo that he is in no condition to search for the stolen weapons."  Duo opened his mouth to protest but Trowa cut him off.  "Further more, if Duo did find the weapons stored in a truck here he would not be able to work the clutch with his left foot."

Catherine felt a sinking feeling in her stomach and sat down heavily in the chair.  She knew what her partner intended and could not stop the flare of anger she felt towards the injured Duo.

Trowa must have sensed her feelings because he stood and moved to put a comforting hand on her shoulder.  He leaned down close and Catherine could feel his warm breath on her cheek.  "I told you that you could not protect me from own life."  She looked up into his green eyes that never showed fear or doubt.  She studied his face looking for something that would tell her his true feelings towards her but saw only his usual sad look of resignation.  "Trowa . . . I . ."

One corner of his mouth lifted just a little and he brushed the fingers of one hand lightly across her cheek.  "But I do thank you for trying."

Duo shifted uncomfortably on the couch as he kept his eyes focused on the blanket in his lap.  Touchingly romantic scenes always set his teeth on edge and for some reason made him feel nervous.  Maybe if he ever met a girl he felt really strongly about that would change.  But right now he really wanted to get Trowa's mind back on the problem at hand.

As if reading his thoughts Trowa straightened up and turned back to his fellow pilot.  "I will make it a point of wandering over to Ferren's truck while he is rehearsing in the tent.  He is having to re-work his act today since he has fewer lions."

"Excuse me, but I think I missed something."  Catherine looked from one boy to the other.  "Do you think Ferren has the weapons in his truck?  But he's been with the circus for years.  And he would never hurt his own animals!  He loves them."

Trowa nodded his head in agreement.  "Yes, but if you stop to think about it the cats were not killed and they were not all poisoned.  He still has enough good ones left to justify remaining here and putting on a show."  Catherine thought about that and had to agree it was true.  "Also, one's occupation seldom interferes with one's political beliefs.  I see no reason why Ferren can not enjoy being a lion tamer and also a supporter of the ETO."

Catherine sighed and slumped back into her chair.  A circus family was a close knit group; often closer even than real families.  Finding out that Ferren was smuggling weapons was like hearing a favorite uncle being accused of the crime. "But you still don't have any real proof.  And what if Ferren is innocent?  What if someone is forcing him to do this?"

Trowa looked at Duo who was toying with the end of his braid as he seriously considered Catherine's questions.  "It is possible for him to be an unwilling participant but not very likely.  The persons forcing him would have to stay close to him 24 hours a day to make sure he didn't warn somebody.  But it's also possible that he's not working alone.  There could be someone else in the circus that is also a conspirator."

Duo looked up at Trowa who nodded in agreement.  "I will have to be careful when I check the truck to make sure there are no guards."

Catherine stood up quickly and threw her hands in the air.  "Fine.  I'll help you sneak into the truck and keep a look out for Ferren or anyone else who looks suspicious. We had better do it before lunch while he is in the main tent rehearsing."   She grabbed her sweater and marched to the door then looked back at the two boys who stared at her in shock.  "Well, Trowa?"  She turned and left the trailer with the door standing open behind her.

Duo grinned up at the other boy who stood staring at the open door.  "I like her Trowa.  I think I may ask her out on a date."

"What?"  Trowa looked at Duo in surprise.

Duo's grin got even bigger as he made himself more comfortable on the couch.  "Sure. When this is all over and I can walk again. Do you think I'm her type?" Duo yawned and closed his eyes not really expecting an answer to his question.

"Her type?"

Duo cracked one eye open and smiled innocently. "Yeah. Do you think she could go for a long haired, blue eyed Gundam pilot with a great sense of humor?"

Trowa realized that he was being teased and turned to leave but paused at the door to answer the question with one of his own. "Depends. Would you be willing to stand still while she throws knives at you?"

Catherine stood outside and waited for her partner to emerge.  'Get a hold of yourself Catherine.  Trowa and Duo are experienced in this kind of thing and your not. What can you really do except get in the way or make this more difficult for them?'  She took a deep breath and turned her face to the sun. The sky was a beautiful shade of blue and dotted here and there with large white clouds that drifted slowly by.  The previous night's storm had cleared away leaving behind a perfect autumn day.

"Let's go."  Catherine jumped at the sound of Trowa's voice coming from right beside her but quickly regained her composer.  "Right."

They went to the main tent first to make sure that Ferren was working on his act.  Along the way they past other performers and a few roust-a-bouts who all greeted them cheerfully.  Trowa acknowledged each greeting in his usual manner, which was with a slight nod of his head.  At first the other circus people had been put off by his quiet, serious ways but he did his job well and Catherine apparently liked him so he had gradually been accepted into the family.

As the two friends neared the back entrance to the tent they heard the distinct sounds of a whip cracking and a man's voice raised in anger.  "Back Laries, back!"

Trowa and Catherine stepped just inside the tent and paused to let their eyes adjust to the dimness.  Directly ahead of them was the performing ring, currently encircled by metal panels forming a circular cage. Surrounding the cage were the usual assortment of circus props, guide ropes and other necessary equipment.  Trowa moved a few steps further in and seemed to be searching the tent for something or someone.  Catherine also looked around but did not know what she was looking for.  All she could see besides Ferren and his cats were a few of the circus people checking their equipment and two roust-a-bouts working on a set of bleachers.  Trowa suddenly stepped back and gave Catherine's elbow a tug to draw her attention.

"I am going to go talk to Ferren.  I want you to keep an eye on everyone else in here and see if anyone moves closer or seems to be paying too much attention. Understand?"  Catherine nodded her head and watched him walk towards the cage.  As he moved within a few feet of it she began scanning the tent trying to catch a person looking suspicious.  She also tried to keep one eye on Trowa to see how Ferren was responding to the interruption.

The lion tamer actually seemed to welcome the break.  He did not turn his back on the big cats but he did move over to the side to speak with Trowa.  Catherine continued her scan of the tent but everyone appeared to be going about their business.  Within just a few minutes Trowa was headed back in her direction and Ferren was once more issuing commands to his animals punctuated with the crack of his whip.

Trowa stopped in front of Catherine. "Well?"  Catherine shook her head negative.  "Everyone minded their own business."  Catherine fell instep beside Trowa as they left the tent.  "But that really doesn't prove anything does it?  I mean, you've been with us several months, if some one was keeping an eye on Ferren they wouldn't give you a second glance."

"Maybe; but consider this; I don't go out of my way to talk with the other performers.  In addition the weapons are probably going to be handed over very soon which means the people involved will be very nervous right now and suspicious of every one."  The pace Trowa was setting as he talked was a casual one so that it would appear that he and Catherine were merely enjoying the day and each other's company.

"But if Ferren is guilty then he will be suspicious of you for both those reasons."  Catherine frowned in concern but Trowa quickly reassured her.  "I used you as an excuse.  You were concerned about his sick cats and sent me to see if he had heard anything.  You would have gone yourself but you are practicing a new routine as well so I volunteered."

"Oh, I see.  And he believed you?"  Catherine tried to keep the skepticism out of her voice.  Admittedly she was new to the intrigue of spying but that excuse sounded just like that, a lame excuse.

Trowa shrugged his shoulders.  "Hard to tell since he kept his back to me.  But if he does get worried and in a rush he may make a mistake in our favor."

'Or decide to eliminate the possible threat.'  Catherine kept her fears to herself as they finally approached the truck that transported the lions.  It was a long tractor trailer rig especially designed to carry the large cats.  Besides the two doors at the end of the trailer that would swing open to unload the cages there was also a smaller man sized door in the middle of one side.  Both panels of the truck were painted with bright circus murals depicting the performing lions.  The door had been cleverly painted to blend in perfectly with the art.

Trowa looked around carefully to make sure they were alone.  "I will go inside and look for the weapons or anything else out of the ordinary.  You move over to that stack of hay and keep watch.  If anyone approaches greet them very loudly and stall them."  Catherine nodded her head. "Got it."

Taking one more quick look around he moved to the door in the truck.  Catherine took her position and watched as Trowa did something to the door's lock to make it open.  He quickly disappeared inside and Catherine began her vigil.

Stepping inside the truck was like stepping into a cave.  There was only a little bit of light from a few small vents set high in the walls.  He could hear the low hum of an air unit that was currently being powered from a generator.  Trowa felt along the wall next to the door and was rewarded with a switch and sudden light.  He squinted against the glare at first but his eyes quickly adjusted.  Looking around he noticed the empty space to his right in the direction of the two large loading doors.  That would be where the cages for the remaining lions would be stored.  To his left were stacked the empty cages.

Trowa counted the number of empty cages and noticed how they were stacked two high, and two deep.  He also noticed how they formed a wall two cages long blocking that end of the trailer.  But he could also see through the bars and the trailer behind the cages was definitely empty.  Trowa frowned as he studied the layout of the truck.  Why stack the empty cages in the middle?  Had the weapons been in the truck but were now gone?  Trowa paced along the row of metal bars until he came to the opposite side of the truck.  The cages butted right up against the wall of the truck.  Shaking his head in confusion Trowa returned to the door.  It was a strange way to store the empty cages but the open bars made it impossible to hide weapons.

Trowa turned out the lights and then opened the door just a crack to make sure the area was clear.  He stepped down out of the truck and quickly closed the door behind him and made sure it was locked.  Catherine hurried up to him.  "Well?  What did you see?  Are they in there?"
Trowa shook his head and began leading her away.  "No, the only thing in there are empty cages."  He took a few steps then realized that he was walking alone.  He looked back to see Catherine staring at the truck with a puzzled look on her face.  "What is it?"

Catherine slowly turned and looked at Trowa.  "But, the sick lions were shipped home in their cages.  Why would Ferren have...?"  She did not get a chance to finish her question.  Trowa shot past her and had the door open in seconds.  "Keep watch again."

Without waiting for an answer he dove into the truck closing the door behind him.  Instead of turning on the lights he looked up where the grills made little patches of light on the trailer walls.  He noticed that he could only see grills on the right side of the truck.  The left side, where the empty cages were stacked, was completely dark.

Trowa turned on the lights and again paced the empty cages.  Finally he spotted the clever trick.  In his first hurried examination he had not noticed the missing grills or the lack of overhead lights at the left side of the truck.  He opened one of the bottom cages and crouched to enter.  Once inside he stretched out a hand as if to reach between the bars on the far side.  He was not surprised when his fingers encountered a thick piece of canvas.  Reaching down he pushed his fingers under the painted fabric and lifted it up just enough to see the side of a crate bearing an OZ insignia.  "Got it."

Trowa let the canvas drop and stepped out of the cage.  Making sure everything looked just as it had when he first entered he returned to the door and quickly exited.

Catherine could tell from his movements that Trowa had found something.  His face was still virtually expressionless but she knew him well enough to tell that he was pleased.  "They were there?"  Trowa simply nodded and led her back to their own trailer.

"So why don't we just call the police and tell them?"  Catherine frowned at the two boys who were just finishing the last of their lunch.  Trowa had explained the camouflage trick and given all the credit to Catherine for discovering the weapons.  She had blushed at Trowa's praise but concealed it by staying busy in the kitchen making sandwiches.  Now she felt her cheeks warming again as Duo grimaced and shook his head vehemently.  "Whenever the rich are involved in something illegal you can bet the police are paid off well in advance."

Catherine crossed her arms and refused to be daunted.  "Then call the military police!  The weapons belong to them.  Let them come and arrest Ferren."  This time Trowa spoke up.

"I am afraid that won't work either.  We know that there are conspirators working in OZ but we don't know who or how many.  Obviously though it is a serious problem since Zechs turned this over to Duo." Trowa carried his plate into the kitchen.  "We will have to deal with this ourselves.  The only question is how."

"Simple, we wait until everyone is gone to bed, steal the truck, take it some where secluded and blow it up."  Duo wiped his hands on his napkin and handed his plate to Catherine.

Catherine shook her head. "What about the lions that will be put back in the truck after the show?  Would you just blow them up with the weapons?"

Duo slumped back into his pillows. "In that case we have to take it now while the lions are in the tent."

"In broad daylight?!  Just starting the engine will bring half the roustabouts to investigate.  And then what would you do?  Shoot your way past them?" She glared at Duo who actually seemed to be weighing the odds.

Trowa took the plates from Catherine.  "I wonder how Ferren was going to deliver the weapons.  Catherine's right, a truck that size will cause enough noise to alert everyone when it drives off.  Even if some of the roustabouts didn't stop him or try to follow him he would still have a lot of questions to answer when he returned."

Duo nodded his head in agreement.  "If he planned to return. But his only other option would be a delivery right here on the circus grounds and that would draw even more attention."

"Not so much if it occurred during a performance."

"Look, why don't we just tell the others what he is doing and they can hold him while we take care of the weapons."  Catherine returned to her chair with a cup of tea.

Duo sighed. "Great idea!  Provided no one else in this circus supports the ETO and helps him escape.  And of course that's assuming he doesn't have accomplices or a way to defend himself. At least I might hesitate to kill any of your people that tried to stop me."

Trowa suddenly spoke up and Catherine bit back her next retort as she listened to his question.   "If we simply eliminate Ferren and the weapons what have we accomplished? After all, if you drain the venom from a snake's glands he simply produces more and can kill again.  But if you remove the head . . ."

"Let Ferren proceed with his plan and hope he leads us to the ETO based here?"  Duo rubbed his neck as he considered the possibility. "I suppose that would work. We could destroy the weapons
there and maybe put a scare into the conspirators.  Make them think twice about framing the colonies."

"I think we should watch the truck tonight and see what happens.  We don't know for sure he will try to deliver them himself but if he does it may make our job easier."   Trowa walked to a small dresser and pulled out a pair of his pants and a shirt.  He handed the clothes to Duo.  "These should fit.  I will help you get dressed and then go see if I can find you a cane or a crutch."

"We?"  Catherine eyed the reclining boy skeptically.  "Trowa, you and I have to perform and Duo is still recovering."

"Thank you."  Duo ignored Catherine and gratefully accepted the clothes.  "I'd prefer a cane if you can find one."

Catherine stood and stared at the two boys in shock.  "You can't be serious."

Trowa shrugged his shoulders in resignation.  "He will have the remainder of the day to rest and surveillance is mostly a stationary job.  We will also be able to watch Ferren and the truck part of the time so it should not be too much of a strain."

Duo cleared his throat and caught Catherine's attention.  "I know this is your home but do you think you could . . .?"

Catherine snorted and picked up her sweater.  "Who do you think helped Trowa undress you last night?"  She smiled knowingly and left the boys alone in the trailer.

Trowa looked down at Duo and a hint of a smile touched his lips.  "Heero didn't seem to mind having her around."

"Heero is a masochist."

The night was alive with the sounds of exotic animals, music and laughter.  The last of the clouds had drifted away with the setting sun leaving a clear and beautiful star filled sky.  Duo sighed wistfully and reluctantly returned his gaze to the circus truck.  On a night like this he could easily pick out the stars that were actually colonies.  And thinking of the colonies always pulled up the memories of his own tumultuous childhood on one of those manmade worlds.  Sighing again Duo shifted on his hay bale perch and gritted his teeth so hard his jaws ached.  At least the pain in his leg was keeping him awake.  The slow walk with Trowa to his current hiding spot had been sheer torture.  The cane had helped some but by the time they had reached the stack of hay bales Duo needed the help of the other boy to make it the last few steps.

Duo slipped a hand into his coat and lightly touched the bandage over the knife wound.  Just as he had feared there was a warm moistness to the bandage.  It wasn't a big spot, not yet, but it was a bad sign.  Duo pulled his stolen coat tighter across his chest and resigned himself to a long, cold and painful vigil.

Trowa and Catherine took their bows and waved to the loudly cheering crowd.  Even as they took their first bow the roust-a-bouts were rushing forward to set up the cage for the lion act.  By the time the couple had cleared the ring it was half erected and the ringmaster was starting his long-winded introduction.  Trowa and Catherine moved to a place behind the bleachers and watched as the large cats were wheeled forward.  Trowa spotted Ferren calmly waiting to make his entrance.  Catching Catherine's attention he nodded his head to the lion tamer.  "I am going to go check on Duo and the truck.  If he looks like he is going to leave the tent before I come
back . . ." Catherine nodded her understanding "I know, stall him."

Duo tensed as he heard the sound of quiet footsteps approaching his hiding place.  His right hand sought the gun in his pocket.  "It's me."  Trowa stepped closer and Duo was startled by the white clown face leering at him from the darkness.  Trowa turned slightly and Duo could see that the mask only concealed one side of the boy's features.  "I take it no one has approached."

Duo shook his head. "No, you're the first person I've seen."  He pulled his hand back out of his pocket and motioned to the outfit that Trowa was wearing.  "You have to wear that while she throws knives at you?"

Trowa shrugged his shoulders.  "To me it is a uniform just like any other."  He removed the mask and turned it in his hands.  "I can think of worse things to pretend to be."

Duo remained silent while Trowa seemed to contemplate some memory from his past.  He wondered briefly which colony his fellow pilot had grown up on and what had happened in his childhood to make him into a Gundam pilot.  But he knew better than to ask.  From personal experience he knew that such things were not easy to share.

"Catherine is watching Ferren right now.  I will return to the tent and follow him when he leaves the ring.  He usually keeps his animals near the tent until the audience leaves then puts them back in the truck.  He spends some time with them before going to his own trailer."  Trowa pulled his mask back over his face and turned to leave.  "As soon as Ferren enters the truck I will relieve you for the night."

"Right. Unless he decides to change that routine as well."  Duo rested one shoulder against a hay bale as he watched Trowa disappear into the darkness.

Catherine was very glad when Trowa returned. She had mentally rehearsed all kinds of questions and conversation topics just in case.  But luckily Ferren had stayed close to his lions after his performance. There were just a few more performers to take the ring and then the show would be over except for the final parade.  A few of the lions would be wheeled out in their cages for the trip around the ring with Ferren marching along side.  After that there would be a controlled frenzy as the spectators left and the circus people took care of their equipment.

"How was Duo?"  Catherine had watched the two boys head out into the night and had winced in sympathy every time she saw Duo put weight on his injured leg.

Trowa finished scanning the occupants of the tent before answering her question.  "I'm sure the walk did not help but he was alert.  Watch for him after I take his place.  He made need a little assistance getting into the trailer."

Catherine shuddered at the thought of what it must feel like to walk with an injury like that.  "Why is he doing this?"  She did not expect an answer to her question and was surprised when Trowa rested a hand on her shoulder.  She looked up to see that he had removed the mask and was staring at her intently.

"That is not the question you really want answered is it?"  He was all too aware of the confusion he caused Catherine.  Trowa knew she had strong feelings for him and tried not to encourage them.  But he had admitted to himself that a person needed a few friends at least, especially in the absence of family.  So if he could not allow himself to be loved by Catherine, he could at least accept her friendship.

Catherine placed her hand on top of Trowa's.  "You're right, that's not the question I want answered.  Tell me why you are helping him.  Tell me why you are willing to risk your life for some earth people and just as willing to kill others."

She felt Trowa's hand squeeze her shoulder before he turned away.  Her vision blurred slightly and she blinked to hold back the tears.  "Trowa?"

"Why? The question is always so much simpler than the answer. I don't know why. I don't think I am going to make any difference in this war. No matter who or how many people I kill, the war will reach a conclusion that others will determine."  The young Gundam pilot looked out into the crowded bleachers and saw the children with their parents laughing and shouting with joy. "But when a soldier dies in battle he is a casualty of war, when a civilian dies, he is a victim. On the colonies I saw too many victims."

Catherine stepped behind the young pilot  and wrapped her arms around his chest. She rested her head on his back and felt the tears slide down her cheeks. "Oh Trowa. One doesn't have to die to be a victim of war."

She felt Trowa's body shift and knew that he was about to pull away. She relaxed her arms to let him go and was surprised when he simply covered her hands with his own. "Thank you, Catherine."

Duo staggered and caught himself against the ticket booth.  He stood for moment in the shadows and waited for his head to stop spinning. "Damn it. Get a hold of yourself Duo. Just imagine what Heero would say if he saw you like this." He smiled grimly as he pictured the other boy's face, his dark eyes staring at him with disdain. "He would probably offer to blow me up with the weapons."

Taking a deep breath he looked around to make sure there were no circus people between him and Catherine's trailer.  Starting off again he stayed in the shadows as much as possible and fought the urge to yell each time he put weight on his left leg. He was surprised to feel a hand tighten on his wrist and  his right arm pulled up over a slender shoulder.  He blinked his eyes and looked over to see Catherine's face close to his.  She wore a look of open concern that he found very comforting even as her sudden appearance made his nerves twitch. "How did you sneak up on me?"

"Sneak?!  I ran straight up to you! I thought you were about to fall flat on your face." Catherine placed one arm around his waist and took as much of his weight as she could.

Duo sighed and leaned on her gratefully. "I probably was. I don't remember much about the walk here."

"Did Trowa tell you that Ferren had the cage rebuilt after the show tonight?"

Duo nodded and was relieved to see the trailer just a few feet away. "He said Ferren used the excuse of wanting to rehearse early in the morning so that his lions could rest for the remainder of the day."

Catherine half pulled Duo up the few steps into the trailer and guided him to the couch. He collapsed with a heartfelt moan that made her own leg throb in sympathy. She helped him take off the coat and stretch out on the cushions. "Duo! It's bleeding again."

The boy looked down at his leg and saw the dark stain about the size of his palm. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the pillows. "S'alright. Not too bad. Just . . need to . . rest." Catherine placed a hand on his brow and gently brushed his bangs to the side. He did not respond to the touch but his breathing was slow and even.

"Just asleep or unconscious?  I guess it doesn't matter as long as it keeps you off that leg for a little while." Catherine stood and draped the coat over the back of her chair. She felt the weight of the gun in the right pocket and shuddered to think of it being used. "I hope I don't see someone I know killed. Not even Ferren."

Trowa shifted impatiently in his hiding place.  Ferren was spending too much time in the truck with the lions. When Trowa had first arrived at the circus he had carefully studied the everyday routines of the workers and performers. Ferren's routine, which he had described to Duo earlier, never included a stay of longer then one hour. Trowa was sure that some plan had been set into motion. But without being able to see or hear what was happening in the truck he had no idea of what to expect. He once again considered going closer to the truck and trying to pick up some telling noise. He was saved making a decision by the opening of the side door.

Ferren emerged still wearing his lion tamer outfit. He was a tall, well built man and made an imposing figure in the military styled clothes. Trowa eyed the man carefully looking for any indication of what he might have been up to but saw nothing out of the ordinary. That is, nothing until Ferren cleared the last step. Following close behind the man was one of the big cats. The female hesitated for a moment at the door and lifted her head to sniff the night air. Trowa felt a sense of foreboding and eased back further into the shadows. In the moonlight he saw the lioness' head turn in his direction. Her eyes glowed with an unearthly fire as she seemed to stare right at him.

"Have you found him my lovely? Show me. Find Serra. Find the spy." Ferren's sharp command brought instant obedience. The huge lioness jumped from the truck and padded directly to Trowa's hiding place. The boy backed up against the wall of hay then stood perfectly still as the lion stopped within two feet of him. Trowa glanced down at the huge cat then looked up to watch Ferren approach with a gun in his hand. "So Trowa, I cannot say that I am surprised to find you here. Please raise your hands slowly above your head. Very slowly so that Serra will not get excited."

Trowa looked down at the lioness once more and slowly raised his hands. "Very good. But you do not really have to be afraid of Serra. She will not kill until I command her to. Serra, back. Let the boy step out where there is more light."

The big cat made a small coughing noise in her throat and her heavy tail brushed Trowa's knees as she turned. She paced gracefully back to her master and sprawled languidly at his feet. Trowa followed her out of the darkness with his hands still in the air.

Ferren studied his captive minutely. He grudgingly admired the boy's bravery. He had seen Trowa sometimes reach through the bars of the lion cages to stroke the huge cats. The boy either had an amazing control over his emotions or simply did not know fear. While Ferren found that intriguing it did not make him change his mind about killing the boy, it just made it more interesting.

"Next time you search someone's property, make sure you turn out the light when you leave." Ferren looked past Trowa's shoulder and gave a small nod. Trowa heard movement behind him and saw the blur of a man's arm just in time to shift his head slightly from the impact of the blow. The pain was still incredible and he staggered forward to his knees. "Serra! Stay." Trowa closed his eyes as the pain at the back of his head surged forward and drowned his senses. He was dimly aware of the side of his face striking the ground but even that sensation was lost in the darkness.

"Duo wake up. Duo!" Catherine shook the boy harder and lightly slapped his face. "Duo! We're in danger, you have to wake up now." Catherine looked back to the doorway where Ferren stood with his gun leveled directly at her. His cold smile sent a shiver down her spine but even more frightening was the sight of Trowa's key in his hand.

Finally Duo stirred and opened his eyes. He looked up at Catherine in confusion then followed her stare to the door. He froze at the sight of the gun aimed in his direction. 'Damn. Why don't I ever have a gun in my hand at times like this?'

"So, I had a feeling there was an instigator to all this. As strange as Trowa is I simply could not imagine him suddenly scouting for stolen weapons." Ferren motioned with his gun. "You will both come with me now.  Do not try to escape because I will not hesitate to shoot. No, not even for you Catherine." Ferren answered the unspoken question in the girl's eyes. He watched as Catherine helped the boy to his feet and handed him a cane.

"What have you done with Trowa?" Catherine feared to hear the answer to that question but thinking of her friend kept her mind off of her own danger.
"He is still alive, for now. Actually I am going to take you to him. It will be a nice little family reunion." Ferren saw Duo move towards a coat lying on a chair. "Leave it. You will not feel the cold for long." He stepped back in to the kitchen alcove to give the two young people room to pass. When Duo shifted his weight and brought his cane up to attack Ferren was ready for him. He blocked the strike easily and clipped the boy lightly behind the ear. Not enough to knock him out, just hard enough to let him know who was in control.

"Duo!" Catherine caught him as he staggered against her.

"Young fool." Ferren grabbed the boy's braid and tugged his head back to hiss in his face. "I have spent years breaking and training deadly hunters with nothing more than a whip and my voice. Did you really hope to take me so easily?" Ferren gave a jerk on Duo's braid for emphasis then released it to hand the cane back to him. Catherine steadied the silently seething Duo down the steps then froze as she saw who was waiting for them. "Carl?!"

The big roustabout ducked his head and seemed to be slightly embarrassed. "Miss Catherine, I'm sorry you got caught up in all this." The burly man glared at Duo then jerked his thumb towards the tent. "I can see putting him with the other kid but why not leave Catherine here?" Carl watched Ferren as he climbed down from the trailer. "I mean, we could leave her tied up here and she couldn't warn anybody."

"Idiot. What difference does it make if she dies now or later? Go ahead and make sure no one else gets in our way." Ferren motioned for Carl to lead the way but the big man hesitated. "What do you mean, now or later?"

Ferren gritted his teeth. "Nothing. Now move or we're going to be late. You do want to get paid don't you?"

Carl thought about it for a second then turned and started towards the tent. He wasn't happy about using Catherine but he also wasn't going to risk loosing the money he had been promised for helping Ferren smuggle the weapons.

Ferren watched the roustabout start for the tent  then turned to his two prisoners. "All right, straight to the tent, no noise, no calls for help," He pressed the barrel of the gun against Duo's head. "And no more attempts to escape."

There was one spotlight turned on in the huge tent and it's focus caused Catherine to gasp in horror. "Trowa!  What have you done to him?" Starkly outlined in the glare of the light was Trowa's body suspended by a rope tied to his wrists. He hung several feet above the ground directly in the middle of the giant lion cage.

Duo felt his stomach tighten in dread at the lifeless appearance of his fellow pilot. If Trowa was dead it would be his fault. And if Catherine died that would be his blame as well. "You bastard."

"No need to be so upset." Ferren pushed against Duo's shoulder to start his captives walking again. "I told you he was still alive. I just found it easier to work with him unconscious." He ushered his prisoners to the door of the cage where Carl was waiting. It was a sickening parody of gallantry when Carl held the cage door open and motioned for Catherine to enter. She did so willingly and rushed over to check on Trowa.

Duo stepped forward and grabbed a bar of the cage for support. Just as his right hand closed on the cold metal he felt the cane ripped from his left. His weight shifted to his right arm and he cried out as he saw Ferren raise the cane into the air. Duo moved his left arm to block the strike that he thought was aimed for his head. He cried out again as a bolt of pure agony lanced through his body. He collapsed on the ground clutching at the wound on his left leg that Ferren had deliberately targeted. Duo gasped for breath and writhed on the ground as his body tried to escape the pain. "Shit . . . bastard. . ."  He felt Catherine's hands on his shoulders as she tried to get him to lie still. She pulled his head onto her lap and wrapped her arm protectively across his heaving chest.

"Such a touching scene. I would really like to stay and see more but I have an appointment to keep." Catherine looked up at Ferren with tears of anger blurring her vision. She saw him snap a padlock onto the door of the cage and give it a quick tug. "There, that should keep you from leaving prematurely." Ferren turned to his accomplice and whispered hurried instructions, which sent the man out of the tent.

"You're just going to leave us here? After all that you're not going to kill us?"

"No, my dear Catherine, I am not going to kill you. But before you get your hopes too high, I must tell you that you will probably not leave this cage alive."  Ferren began walking along the circle of metal bars and stopped when he came to the special section that would open to admit the lions during a performance. "You see, I need a distraction. Something to give me time to drive away without worrying about someone following me." He began pulling on a rope that was attached to the sliding set of bars covering the lion's entrance. "I had all ready planned on using the lions as part of that distraction which is why I had them leave the cage up tonight. All I needed was something, or rather someone, for my lions to play with. Someone that would start screaming in pain as the claws raked their flesh and the jaws snapped their bones."  Ferren stared hard at Catherine through the bars. "Nothing personal you understand. It could just as easily have been Madam Sella or even Sebastian."  He smirked and turned to glance at the metal tunnel that lead to the lion's holding cage behind the bleachers. "It shouldn't take long. There are six of them and only three of you. Of course they will go for the boy first smelling his blood. Your screams of terror will draw them to you next. Trowa may actually live if help arrives in time. If not he should make an interesting piņata for my cats."

"You bastard. You had all of this planned in advance? How could you? How could you convince Carl to help you?"  The chill of fear was gone, replaced with a burning fire of anger and hatred. Catherine glared up at Ferren who smiled condescendingly down at her.

"Oh, I can't take all the credit. After all, it was the ETO that stole the weapons, I was just hired for transportation and delivery. As for convincing Carl, his motivation is the same as mine. Money. Enough money to start a whole new life of leisure in the tropical climate of my choice." Ferren smirked and ran one fingertip along his neatly trimmed mustache. "I chose Carl for his lack of imagination. I only needed one roustabout to help move the sick lions to the train but I had to make sure that the one I used wouldn't ask too many questions. You know the kind, 'What's wrong with the lions? What are those men loading on the truck? Why are we smuggling them into the circus?' Those kinds of questions."

"How about the question, 'What do you mean by now or later?" Duo's voice was hoarse but steady as he challenged Ferren. "I think Carl was a little concerned about that statement. I know I am."

"It's nothing for you to worry about but I'll be happy to explain. The ETO plans to use those weapons in an assault against civilians that will be blamed on the colonies. Since I am effectively retiring from the circus I suggested that they use one of its performances to stage their own show." Ferren shrugged his shoulders as he turned to follow the metal tunnel and disappeared behind the bleachers. Catherine could hear the snarls of the lions and the sound of metal sliding against metal. Ferren returned and stared through the bars as if admiring his handiwork. "So you see, your deaths are just the intro, the main event is yet to come." He left the tent but his evil laughter floated back to them from the darkness.

"Help me up." Duo's voice caused Catherine to look down and she was instinctively flinched at the anger she saw in his face not realizing it was a mirror of her own features. "Get me to the cage door. I might be able to get the lock open in time. Whatever you do don't try calling for help. That would probably make the lions attack even faster." He spoke through gritted teeth as he struggled to stand. Catherine once more shouldered his weight and half carried him to cage door. He gasped as he fell against the bars and used them to remain standing.

"What about Trowa?" Duo looked back once as he reached a hand to the top of his braid. His fingers came away clutching a metal pick, which he quickly applied to the padlock.

"Look in the top of my right boot. I've got a knife hidden there. Try to cut Trowa down and drag him over here." Duo did not look at Catherine as she moved to take the knife. He focused all his attention on remaining conscious and picking the lock.

Catherine slipped the knife out of Duo's boot and hurried over to Trowa's body. She heard a sudden noise from the metal tunnel and froze. "Move slowly and quietly." Catherine felt her heart start beating again as she heard the familiar voice. She looked up to see Trowa's green eyes peering at her from beneath his bangs. She glanced back once at the tunnel entrance then stepped slowly to his side.

Catherine looked around the cage for something to stand on so that she could reach the rope that bound Trowa's wrists. The platforms that the big cats stood on during their performances were specially built to remain stable under the several hundred pounds of surging feline bodies. Catherine did not think she could move one over close enough in time. "Catherine, the rope is attached to a pole to the right." Catherine turned and saw the coil of rope wound tightly about a brace on the support pole. "I see it, but it's too far away from the bars. My arms not long enough. If Duo can pick the lock in time . . " She turned to see what kind progress he was making and cried out softly. Duo lay crumpled at the cage door, his body partially supported by his right arm, which was still hooked through the bars.

"Catherine, use the knife you took from Duo. It's not one of yours but try. If anyone can make the throw it's you."  Catherine looked down at the knife in her hand. She loosened her grip and bounced it lightly in her palm testing its balance. The knives that she used during her act were especially designed for throwing and penetrating the wooden target; bigger and heavier. She studied the rope wrapped around the pole and was relieved to see it was not one of the large cotton anchor ropes but a narrow twisted nylon. Straightening her shoulders she closed her eyes and slipped into her performance mind set. Turning gracefully to face the pole she flipped the knife in her hand to grasp the blade with her fingertips then walked forward until she was pressed against the bars. She stretched her right arm through the bars and sighted on the point where the rope met the pole.  Stepping back she bent her elbow until the blade was even with her ear. She took in a slow even breath and sent the knife spinning with the exhale. It flew straight to its mark and parted the strands of the rope. She grinned with relief and turned even as she heard Trowa's feet strike the ground.

"Stay very still Catherine." Trowa had his back to her and looking past him she could see the first lion emerging from the tunnel. The lion was watching Trowa closely as it eased into the cage. It was quickly followed by a lioness that seemed focused on the unconscious Duo.

"Serra, Karon." Trowa made no motions and kept his voice level. The two cats stared at him but did not move. Another lioness poked her head out of the tunnel but appeared to be waiting for the other two to make a move. "Laries, stay. Serra, Karon, stand. Stand Serra." Trowa's voice was firm as he issued the commands that Ferren had taught the cats. Catherine watched in amazement as the lions stared at Trowa and seemed to be listening to him. She knew that Trowa had been able to touch the great cats in their cages but she had never heard him give them commands. "Catherine, move slowly towards Duo. Do not turn your back on them but do not look them in the eyes. Keep your eyes slightly closed and focused on their feet."

Trowa did not change his tone of voice as he spoke to Catherine. He kept his eyes and his will focused on the cats. He had never been afraid of the giant predators and even now he could only feel respect and a certain amount of sympathy for the caged lions. Trowa had never like the idea of forcing an animal to perform, especially animals born to the wild. "Heh, Serra back. She is not for you. Stand Serra." Trowa watched the lioness as she focused on Catherine. He read the flick of her tail and the ripple of her shoulder muscles. He could see her whiskers twitch and knew what she was thinking. Trowa took a chance and stepped forward. Instantly three pairs of eyes were focused on him alone.

Catherine kept moving back to the cage door but hesitated when she saw the cats react to Trowa's movement. 'Trowa! Be careful.' Her cry was silent but no less intense. Finally her foot struck one of Duo's and she gave a small sigh of relief. Slowly she bent down and placed her hand on the boy's shoulder. Keeping her eyes on the bodies of the cats she gave Duo a quick shake. He moaned softly and stirred but remained unconscious. Thinking quickly she slid her hand along his shoulder to the base of his neck. Wrapping her fingers around the base of his braid she gave it a sharp jerk and held her breath.

Duo gasped and pulled his head back from the attack. He blinked his surroundings into focus and became aware of someone hissing at him to be quiet. "Catherine? What?"

"Shhh. The lions are here. Trowa is holding them back. You've got to get the lock open." Catherine whispered as loud as she dared. She felt Duo's body move beneath her hand.

"Got it. Help me stand."

Catherine slowly shifted her position until she had her right arm under Duo's left. When she felt Duo move she slowly straightened bringing his body up with hers.  "I need both hands." Duo whispered as he tugged his left arm free. "Just brace me against the bars." Catherine nodded her understanding and pushed her back up against Duo's. "Ow, not that hard."


Trowa watched Catherine's progress at the edge of his peripheral vision. He kept most of his focus on the lions and spoke to them whenever they appeared distracted by his friends.  He knew that another of the cats had moved up behind Laries but was hanging back. Luckily all of the animals had been well fed that night otherwise the smell of fresh blood would have made them uncontrollable. As it was the strangeness of the situation was making them nervous. Trowa was not sure how much longer he was going to be able to control them. He knew that his own chances of escaping were very slim but if Duo could get the lock open then he and Catherine could jump through the door to safety.

"Hah, Serra, stand."  It wasn't going to work. Duo was taking too long and the cats were getting anxious. Trowa took a deep breath and reached a decision. "Catherine, the lions are getting too nervous. I am going to try something. Stay calm no matter what happens. Keep Duo working on the lock. Understand?"

"Yes, Trowa." Catherine called back softly with a feeling of dread. She didn't know what Trowa had in mind but she prayed it would work. She felt Duo slightly shift his position behind her.

"Trust him Catherine. He won't let anything happen to you. He really cares about you." Duo's whispered words of comfort shocked her out of being afraid.

"He told you that?"

"I can run, and I can hide, but I don't lie." Suddenly he felt the tumblers fall into place in the lock. "I've got it."

But at that same instant Trowa put his own plan into action. Duo's whispered cry of success was drowned out by Trowa's ringing command. "Serra, up! Koran, up! Laries, hah, up!" Trowa snatched up the trailing rope still tied to his hands flicked it into the lion's faces. His voice carried through the empty tent as he ordered the lions to their platforms. "Up. Up Serra. Good, Koran. Good Laries. Heh, Tobo, up! Kasha, up! Freda, up!" The commands were ones the lions knew and understood. Years of training made them react to the sounds of the words and the tone of the voice. This they could understand. This they could accept. Trowa reeled in the rest of the rope and left just enough swinging free to use as a whip. It would not make a stinging crack like real braided leather but the motion was a fair imitation.

Trowa lined the cats up on their perches so that he could face them all with his back to Catherine and Duo. He actually smiled as he studied the huge cats snarling at him, waiting for his next command. They were beautiful animals and the more he watched them the more he came to understand them. Years of captivity had not broken their spirit, merely made them more cautious. Their eyes shown with not only ferocity but also a unique kind of intelligence. Trowa watched the great cats and felt completely at ease. The lions had a new master.

"Duo, Catherine, step outside now. Close the door behind you. Go to the door the cats entered from." Trowa heard the sound of the lock sliding free and the cage door slowly opening. There was a muffled sound from Duo then Catherine's voice calling softly to him.

"We're out Trowa. It's your turn now."

"Right." Trowa took a step back and carefully judged the animals' reactions. Satisfied he flipped the rope issued new commands. "Down Laries. Pace, pace. Tobo, pace, Kasha, good. Freda, down." He sent those cats circling the cage at a quick lope. It was wonderful to watch the
muscles shift beneath their golden fur. He used the rope to urge them on then guided them back into the tunnel. "Go Laries. Tobo, go. Freda, good. Kasha! Kasha, go. Go." That just left Koran and Serra. "Koran, down. Pace, pace. Good. Koran, go. Go." Trowa ushered the big male into the tunnel then called to Catherine. "Close it up."

"But Trowa, what about . . ?"

"You heard him, close the damn thing." Duo was sitting on a small round stage just to one side of Catherine. He spoke sharper then he meant too but at least she dropped the grill into place. Duo looked past her to watch Trowa approach the remaining lioness.

"Ho, Serra. Good. Down Serra. Down. Good. Pace, pace. Good. Stand, Serra. Good." Trowa reached out with his wrists still tied together and placed his hands on the great cat's head. "Good, Serra." He scratched roughly behind her ears and continued to murmur soothing words. She accepted his attentions and eased down into a regal recline at his feet. She lazily reached out one paw for the rope that still dangled from his wrists and drug it to her mouth. "Serra, stay." Trowa pulled the rope free from the playful lioness and finally turned his back on her.  He saw Catherine and Duo watching him closely as he calmly walked to the door and stepped through. As he closed the door behind him Serra uttered a questioning kind of chuff and padded over to the side of the cage. She kept her focus on Trowa as he moved to join Catherine and Duo.

"Oh, Trowa! You did it! You were wonderful." Catherine threw her arms around Trowa's neck and kissed him on the cheek. A growl from the caged lioness sent the girl skipping back a step and she blushed when Duo started laughing. She glared at him as he motioned weakly to the big cat.

"I think she's jealous of you."

Tossing her head disdainfully Catherine turned her back on Duo and began untying Trowa's hands.  Trowa caught Duo's attention and spoke to him over Catherine's shoulder. "Wait here with Catherine while I stop Ferren. I don't think he's left yet since the place still seems quiet."

"He said he was going to wait until the screaming started." Catherine pulled the rope away and sucked in her breath in dismay. Trowa's wrists were scored by angry red burn marks caused by the friction of the rope. "It's all right Catherine. Wait here with Duo. I won't be gone long."

"My gun is still in the trailer." Duo called to Trowa who was walking back towards the cage door.

"Thank you but I shouldn't need it." Both Catherine and Duo watched in amazement as Trowa calmly opened the cage door and tied one end of the rope around the lioness' throat. Serra rubbed her head up against the boy's leg then followed him out of the tent.

Catherine watched them leave then turned back to Duo who had slipped into a kind of dazed consciousness. She helped him settle into a more comfortable position on the wooden platform and then found a packing quilt to keep him warm. "Thanks." Duo spoke without opening his eyes as he felt the weight of the quilt settle on his chest. A sudden muscle spasm in his leg made him gasp and wince. Catherine sat down next to him and gently raised his head onto her lap. "I hope Trowa never gives me this much trouble."

Duo responded with a small coughing laugh. "Don't worry, he's a Gundam pilot, what ever happens he'll probably live through it. That seems to be our fate."

"Damn." Ferren tossed his cigarette to the ground and opened the door to the cab of the truck.
"I had less trouble getting the guns into the circus."

Carl grabbed the man by the shoulder and dragged him back from the truck. "But if we start the engine now the whole camp will hear. Someone's bound to follow us." Ferren shrugged free of the roustabout's hand. "Idiot. If you had been more careful Max wouldn't have caught you messing with the engines earlier and we wouldn't have to worry about pursuit. Now it seems that even the lions have let me down."  Ferren reached into the cab of the truck and pulled out an automatic rifle and thrust it into Carl's hands. "I believe the phrase is 'riding shotgun'. You can keep an eye out and stop anyone who tries to follow."

Carl looked down at the rifle in his hands. Suddenly he wasn't sure the money was worth the things he was being asked to do. Not asking questions was one thing, killing kids and people he had worked with for years was entirely different. He shook his head and started to hand the rifle back to Ferren. "No, I can't . . " Too late he saw the gun in Ferren's hand aimed at his chest. His mouth gaped open as he realized that he would be one of the first to die that night.

"Ferren, I suggest you both put the guns down and raise your hands." The words caught the men by surprise and they spun to see Trowa calmly regarding them from several feet away. "You!" Ferren glanced past Trowa searching the darkness for reinforcements. "You came here alone?"

Trowa shook his head silently. Ferren's eyes widened and his hand tightened on his gun as he heard a deep growl above his head. He slowly turned and stared up into Serra's glowing eyes. The lioness was crouched on the roof of the truck and it was apparent she was tensed to spring. Carl dropped the rifle like it was suddenly electrified. The noise elicited a louder growl from Serra. The roustabout raised his hands and began slowly backing away.

"Fool. She's my cat. I've spent years training her. She won't attack me at your command." Despite his confident words Ferren felt his hands grow slippery with sweat. His eyes never left the glowing orbs above him. "Serra, down. Obey me Serra, get down now." There was a dull thump as Serra's slashing tail struck the cab's roof. But that was the only movement the cat made. Ferren began backing slowly away from the truck.

"Your plan has failed. The ETO will be very unhappy about loosing their weapons." Trowa stood calmly with his arms crossed over his chest. "And I don't think Serra is too happy with you either."

"Damn you!" Ferren whirled to level his gun at Trowa's chest. He never got the chance to pull the trigger. Serra was moving even before Ferren completed his turn. Her front paws struck him in the back and his breath exploded from his lungs as he was crushed to the ground by her considerable weight. The gun flew from Ferren's lifeless hand to land at Trowa's feet.

"Oh god!" Carl fell back on to the ground and covered his head with his arms. "Please, I don't want to die like that! I'd rather go to jail! Please."

Trowa calmly reached down and picked up the fallen gun. "Then tell me where you were going to make the delivery."

"There's an old quarry about twenty miles from here. We were supposed to meet some people there who were going to pay us and give us a car. They were going to take care of the truck." Carl peeked out and saw Serra staring at him while she continued to stand on Ferren's back.  "Please, that's all I know. I swear. Don't let her kill me too."

Trowa took a piece of rope from his pocket and quickly tied Carl's hands behind his back. He then moved over to Ferren and gently pushed the lioness aside. "Good Serra, good lady." He pulled Ferren's hands across his back and tied them in place with another piece of rope. Carl watched in shock and finally realized that his partner wasn't dead. "I . . . I thought she killed him."

Trowa stood up and gave Serra an affectionate scratch on the head. "Ferren must have thought so too which is why he fainted." Trowa slipped the rope collar back around the cat's throat and started back towards the tent.

"Hey, what . . . what about us?" Carl sat dumbfounded as Trowa simply walked away. The Gundam pilot paused and looked back at the roustabout with a slight smile. "Wait here, I'll be back soon."

"Trowa, are you sure about this?" Catherine questioned her partner as he helped Duo into the cab of the truck. Instead of answering he helped the injured pilot adjust his coat and seat belt then handed him the rifle that Ferren had originally given to Carl. Trowa rested his hand on Duo's shoulder. "O.K.?" He simply nodded and began checking the rifle in the dim light of the cab. Trowa jumped down and closed the door then turned to Catherine.

"The drugs will keep him going for a few hours. His aim may not be that good but hopefully he won't have to shoot at anyone." Trowa lead Catherine around to the driver's side door and opened it for her. "Remember, when you get to the quarry keep the engine running and don't get out of the truck. If Duo's map is correct there should only be one road in so try to block it with the truck." He helped her climb into the seat and stood braced just inside the door while he finished talking.  "Heavyarms was made to fight mobile suites and destroy military installations. Rounding up individuals in the dark is too detailed. You will draw the ETO members out and provide enough of a distraction to let me get in close and give them a taste of what a real battle is like." Catherine silently gripped the steering wheel and stared straight ahead as she listened to Trowa's explanation.

"Catherine." Trowa gently brushed a lock hair from her cheek and she finally met his gaze.  "I would not ask you to do something that I thought was truly dangerous. These are not real soldiers and like Carl they do not have the training or the instincts to kill easily."

"But they are planing to kill hundreds during a performance!" Catherine grabbed at Trowa's hand but it was Duo who answered her.

"That's the point. They have this carefully laid out plan where they are the only ones armed and all they have to do is walk in and pull the trigger."

Trowa nodded his head in agreement. "That kind of killing takes very little courage. When positions are reversed I don't think they will hesitate to run just like their intended victims."  He gave Catherine's hand a gentle and reassuring squeeze then jumped down to the ground. He closed the door and stepped back so that he could see Catherine through the window. She looked down and smiled bravely at her partner. Trowa gave her a small salute then turned and hurried away into the darkness.

"Right, ten minutes and we head out." Duo laid the rifle across his lap and gave Catherine a slightly lopsided grin. "You have driven a truck before right?" Catherine's answer was an exasperated sigh as she checked her watch.

"What's going on?!"

"Someone just drove off in the lion truck!"

"Was it Ferren?"

"He's not in his trailer."

"Boss!  There's a lion in my truck!"

"Help!  The lions are loose!"

"They're not loose, they're in the trucks!"

"Where the hell is Ferren?!"

"Hey! I found Carl and Ferren. They're in the cage in the tent!"

"What the hell are they doing there?"

"Nothing, they're tied up and hanging from a rope by their ankles."

"Will someone tell me what the hell is going on around here?!"

Catherine relaxed when she realized that they were not going to be followed from the circus. She gave up watching the side mirrors and concentrated on the road ahead. Following Duo's instructions they soon arrived at a dirt side road partially blocked by an old sawhorse with a 'Keep Out' sign nailed in the middle.  Catherine steered the truck around it and slowly eased down the deeply rutted road. She felt her muscles tighten and the start of a nervous flutter in her stomach. "I feel just like I'm about to give a performance."

Duo released the safety on the rifle and sat a little straighter in his seat. "That's good. Just do what you normally would to calm yourself."

Catherine took the good advice and concentrated on her breathing. "What do you do before going into a battle?"

There was a slight pause before Duo answered. "I talk to my Gundam."

"Oh? What do you tell him?" Catherine smiled in the darkness as Duo laughed. "I tell him dirty jokes. Want to hear one?"

"O.K. But just one."

"Once there was a bear and rabbit in the woods. . ."

Reginald Barrister looked at his watch nervously. The truck was now an hour late. He had never met the man Ferren Oglase but he had been assured by his contacts that the man could be trusted. But what if he had decided to double cross them? Maybe he was planning on selling the weapons to someone else. Reginald paced back to the two trucks and his limousine where his son and a dozen other ETO members waited.

"Why don't we just drive out to the circus and take the guns?"

"Shut up Jase. After yesterday's theatrics you're the last person to be making suggestions."  Reginald glared at his son in disgust. Jase shifted uncomfortably and gritted his teeth in anger as a couple of the men chuckled quietly at his expense.

"Mr. Barrister, look." Reginald turned and spotted the headlights through the trees. Everyone began moving away from the car as the truck drew closer. Even Jase hobbled forward leaning heavily on his crutch.

"Maybe he just had trouble getting away from the circus."

"Maybe. Walter, Kyle, have your guns ready, just in case."

Catherine shifted the truck into a lower gear as the trees gave way to a large clearing. "Turn to the right then back so that my side is to the clearing and we're sitting across the road." Catherine followed his directions and soon they were parked where Duo could look out his window at the men waiting near the vehicles. Two pole lights illuminated the area well enough that he could count the figures that clustered near the larger of the two cars. "Looks to be about thirteen of them, maybe fourteen."

Catherine leaned over Duo and peered out into the night. "It looks like some of them are coming over. What do we do if Trowa doesn't arrive in time?"

"Tell'em some jokes?"

Reginald frowned in confusion as he watched the truck stopped in front of the road. "Why is he parking over there? Kyle, Walter; walk over and check it out. The rest of you wait here."

Duo watched as two of the figures began walking towards the truck. He adjusted his hold on the rifle and placed one hand on Catherine's shoulder to ease her back into the seat. "If someone starts shooting, crouch down onto the floor board."

"What if you're the one doing the shooting?"

"Same thing but put your fingers in your ears."

As Kyle and his partner drew nearer to the truck they could see the shadowy form of one person sitting on the passenger side. The driver was lost in the darkness of the cab. They stopped several feet from the truck and waited expectantly. The truck continued to idle and neither person inside made a move to climb down. Walter shifted his weight from one foot to the other impatiently. Kyle looked back to where the others were waiting and saw Reginald raise his hand to motion in the direction of the truck.  "Mr. Barrister wants us to move in closer."

Walter nodded in agreement and pulled his gun out of his coat pocket but kept his hand close to his side. Kyle followed his example and the two men closed the distance to the idling truck.  Kyle suddenly paused as he had an idea. He turned slightly away from the truck and with his left hand he pulled a flashlight out of his other pocket. Walter had stopped moving at the same time as Kyle sensing that his partner was up to something. His hand tightened on his gun as he tried to divide his attention between the truck and Kyle.

Kyle turned to face the truck once more and swung his left arm up to shine the halogen light directly into Duo's eyes. "Shit, it's just a kid!"

"Damn it!" Duo squinted against the blinding light and threw one hand up to shield his eyes. "Get down Catherine!"

The men waiting by the vehicles heard Kyle's cry of disbelief and began hurrying forward. Jase leaned heavily on his crutch and stared at the truck. 'A kid?' An insane little giggle escaped his lips as he hobbled towards the truck. 'Oh yes, it has to be him. Now father, now you'll see. Now you'll understand.'

Duo leaned back from the door and brought the barrel of the rifle to the window. He couldn't see them but he knew the two men were moving closer by the intensity of the light. Duo gritted his teeth and his finger tightened on the trigger. "Now would be a really good time to show up Trowa."

As if in answer to his suggestion there suddenly appeared a bright flare of light in the sky above the clearing. Cries of shock and outrage were quickly drowned out by the crashing of trees as the Gundam Heavyarms broke into the clearing. The flare continued to throw a hellish light on the clearing and seemed to accent the huge twin gattling guns that were aimed directly at the frozen men.

"It's a Gundam! The colonies really are attacking!" A few of the men turned and began running for their trucks. The reports from the gattling guns were deafening in the enclosed space. The explosions as the huge bullets tore through the vehicles were only a little louder but made the ground vibrate.

Reginald Barrister could only stand and stare in shock at the chaos that surrounded him. His mind could not grasp that his carefully laid plans were utterly now destroyed.  He watched as his carefully chosen men began running in terror from the looming mobile suite. "No. No! This can't be happening!" The deafening thump of another explosion shook the ground below his feet and one small group of men disappeared in a cloud of dust and debris.  "How dare you?! Do you know who I am? I am Reginald Barrister!" The man shook his fist at the Gundam and spittle flew from his lips as he raged at the giant mobile suite. "Do you hear me?! I am Reginald Barrister! I demand that you . . ." Reginald's tirade ended abruptly when the metal fingers of a giant hand closed around his body.  He felt himself lifted high up into the air and shrieked with fear. He was brought face to face with the Gundam and held there as if being scrutinized. Reginald squirmed in the grip of the mobile suite and finally found his voice once more. "Wha . . what do you want? Money? Power? I can give you those! How much are you being paid by the colonies?" Reginald licked his dry lips and looked nervously at the distant ground. "I can pay you ten times as much. I've got connections in the army. . ."

"Who?" The voice echoed out from hidden speakers and for a delusional moment Reginald thought that Gundam was actually speaking to him.

"Wha, what?"

"Who are your contacts in the military. Who helped you get the weapons?"

This last question actually helped Reginald regain control of his fear. His captor wanted something. He wanted information. Here was something he could bargain with. Reginald tried a smile and cleared his throat. "Well, I suppose we could work out an arrangement . . .NO!" He screamed as the fingers tightened around his chest and the hand lifted him higher into the air. "I'll tell you! I tell you everything! I swear! Don't kill me!"

"Shit, I'm out of here."  Kyle stood up from where he had fallen to the ground as soon as the Gundam had appeared. The flashlight lay forgotten as he and Walter ignored the truck and began heading for the trees. The screams of their employer urged them on to greater speed. Several of the other men were also escaping into the surrounding forest while a few lay motionless on the ground.

Duo sighed and relaxed back into his seat. His hands shook slightly as he flipped the safety on the rifle and let it slide to the floorboard. The shot that Trowa had given him earlier was still keeping the pain at a tolerable level but it was also starting to make it hard for him to think.

"Is it safe to come up now?"

"Eh? Oh, sorry Catherine. Yeah, it looks like Trowa has things well in hand." Duo unlocked his seat belt and opened his door. He leaned out and watched as Trowa deftly maneuvered the mobile suite's hands to juggle a screaming man from one to the other. "Or should I say hands?" He grinned at his on joke and leaned back to let Catherine have a look. Her shoulder was pressed against his chest and he was instantly alert when he felt her body stiffen. He didn't need the additional gasp of surprise to know that something was wrong.

"It is you! I knew it. I knew it had to be you. I had a feeling, a . . ."

"Please don't say hunch." Duo looked down  at  Jase and the gun he had aimed at Catherine. The older boy was leaning heavily on a crutch and favoring his right leg but the gun was steady in his hand.  Jase grinned in delight at the pained look on Duo's face.

"Yes, that's what it was, a hunch. And now it's time for some pay back." Jase limped back a step and motioned with his gun. "Both of you, out of the truck now. And keep your hands where I can see them."

Catherine moved back to give Duo room to climb out. He glanced down at the rifle at his feet then sighed with frustration. 'Just once.' Bracing his hands against the doorframe he stepped onto the edge with his right foot then slowly began easing his left leg out of the truck. With his back to Jase Duo caught Catherine's eyes with his own and gave a small nod to the gun. Catherine swallowed and shook her head. Duo was asking too much of her. Even in self-defense she wasn't ready to shoot someone.

"Hurry up." Jase grew impatient and saw another chance to inflict more pain on his enemy. Balancing on his good leg the boy lifted his crutch and thrust it against the back of Duo's right knee causing it to buckle. Duo tried hanging on to the doorframe with his hands but his injury and the painkillers had sapped his strength. He landed heavily on his back and for a moment could only lie staring up at the stars overhead that blurred in and out of focus. Suddenly Jase was looming over him and the bright stars were replaced with the darkness of a gun barrel.  "Now I'm going to give you one more chance to beg for you life. And if you do a really good job I may actually let you live."

Duo glared up at the older boy. "That's a lie and we both know it. But what's killing me going to accomplish? As soon as the Gundam is finished with that guy . . ."

"That 'guy' is my father and we'll make that Gundam pilot pay as well." Jase's finger tightened on the trigger of the gun. "Now start begging."

"Drop your gun or I'll shoot." Jase staggered as he spun around to see the girl he had forgotten about with an automatic rifle in her hands. His mouth dropped open and it was his turn to stare down the muzzle of a gun. "I said drop it."

Jase's hand gave a convulsive twitch that Catherine misinterpreted. Closing her eyes she jerked back hard on the trigger on the rifle. It was hard for Duo to tell who was more surprised when nothing happened. Catherine stared at the rifle in her hands like it had suddenly turned into a mouse. Jase stood with his mouth hanging open and his eyes looked like they were about to fall out of his head. Not one to miss an opportunity, Duo kicked out with his good leg and sent Jase's crutch flying across the ground. The boy staggered trying to keep his balance on one leg and still keep his gun trained on Duo.  "You little shit! I'm going to kill you!"

"I . . .said . . .drop it!" Catherine's command was followed closely by the dull thud of the rifle butt connecting with Jase's head. The next sound was Jase's body hitting the ground. Catherine stood over him breathing heavily while clutching the rifle like a bat. Duo stared at Jase and then at his rescuer. "Now I know why Trowa lets you throw knives at him."

Duo grinned up at Catherine until she finally relaxed and lowered the rifle. "How can you just sit there smiling like an idiot? He was going to kill you."

"But he didn't thanks to you." Duo held his hand out for assistance getting off the ground. Catherine sighed and helped him stand. As she pulled his right arm across her shoulders she felt something bump against her thigh. She looked down and saw the bulge of the handgun in Duo's coat pocket.

"Why didn't you use your own gun when I had him distracted?"

"My gun?" Duo looked down and moaned softly in disbelief. "Damn, I forgot it was there."

"Catherine, Duo, are you all right?" Trowa's voice called out to them from the open hatch in Heavyarm's chest. The young pilot was standing in the opening watching them.  Duo waved his free hand to his fellow pilot and called out an affirmative.

"We're fine. Nothing Catherine couldn't handle." Catherine gritted her teeth and resisted the urge to give the boy's braid a good, hard yank.

"What about you? Did you learn anything?"

"Yes, quite a bit." Trowa eyed the unconscious form of Reginald Barrister still clutched in one giant hand. "I think the ETO is about to lose some of its military connections."

"Whew, I thought for a minute there he was really going to fire us." Catherine dropped into her chair grateful to finally be able to relax in her own trailer. Trowa handed her a cup of tea and took his usual spot on the floor. "Thank you Trowa." Catherine sipped her tea and gave a heartfelt sigh of relief.

"I don't think they could afford to lose someone as talented as you." Trowa took a sip of his own tea then continued. "And once I demonstrated my ability to control Serra and the other cats he didn't have much choice in keeping me as the new lion tamer."

Catherine smiled at her ex-partner. "That's true. But he still doesn't believe our story about being kidnapped and taken away with the stolen weapons in the lion truck."

"True, but he doesn't believe Ferren's story about me turning his own cats against him either." Trowa closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall. "And with the weapons gone and no one else coming forward with accusations there really isn't anything he can do."

"But it just doesn't seem right that Ferren gets to just walk away from this." Catherine frowned in annoyance but Trowa's quiet laugh caught her attention. "What?"

"Oh, I don't think walking is quite the right word. More like running for his life. The ETO is a huge organization and I am sure that word of his failure will spread very quickly."

Catherine felt a little guilty pleasure at that thought and settled even deeper into her chair. She looked over at the couch and the peacefully sleeping Duo who looked amazingly sweet and innocent in his unconscious state. He had passed out on the drive back to the circus and had  remained oblivious even through the excitement of their return. "How long will he be out like that?"

Trowa took a swallow of his tea and looked mischievously up at Catherine, his eyes glinting from behind his bangs. "Just long enough."

"Really Zechs, you are full of surprises."  Lucrezia smiled at her companion as he handed her a box of popcorn.

"Oh?" Zechs reclaimed his seat next to hers and settled back to watch the rest of the show.

"I mean I had no idea you liked circuses." Lucrezia offered him some of her popcorn. "It's a side of you I never would have expected."

Zechs shrugged his shoulders. "It's not so surprising really. Whether or not they are in an orchestra, a play or a mobile suite, it is a pleasure to watch skilled and talented people perform."

"I know what you mean. I really enjoyed the female knife thrower. And the clown that was her assistant was priceless. I could almost swear he was really terrified."

Zechs smiled as he remembered the unhappy clown with the brightly colored ribbons woven into his long braid. "Yes, well, in his position I might have been a little nervous too. Women and knives can be a frightening combination."

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