AN: The apologies get old after a while, don't they? 

Readers: *glare*

Rose: MEEP! I'm sorry, I'm sorry!  Stella and I are both very very sorry for the delay.  Have a cookie? *extends virtual cookies in a Christmas tin*


By Stella and the Black Rose


If in the hour of death the conscience is at peace, the mind need not be troubled. The future is full of doubt, indeed, but fuller still of hope.

 John Lubbock

A single light bulb hung like a beacon in the center of the underground room.  Mold clung to the jagged stones; and patches of green moss carpeted the floor in clumps.  A shadowy figure known only as "Darlian" inhaled the stale air and fought the urge to shiver.  This place would have to do – a basement, cold and damp; it smelled like death. 

That's only fitting.  What we discuss here could land all of us in our graves. And will, if we fail.

            Old chairs creaked and groaned; bodies shifted in the darkness.  Darlian's eyes traveled over the barely discernable faces who gathered around the table for what would be the last time.  They were a varied group indeed; comprised of doctors, clergy, bookkeepers, and farmers; old men, young men, some of them still children.  There were members of Europe's oldest noble families.  Others were soldiers in Hitler's own army.   Their backgrounds didn't matter, though.  Titles and occupations were of little concern.  They were family now - all tied together with a bond of death in the secret world of The Black Orchestra.   

Darlian's gloved hand pushed a stack of documents into the dim light.  The bulb's yellow glow caught on the swastika emblem boldly printed on the first page and a hush fell over the room.

            "This, my friends, is the final step of 'Valkyrie.'  German communications that we've intercepted, confirm that the Führer will be in Rastenburg on the twenty-first of July.  Several of the top SS officials will be there as well.  This is the best chance we have of ridding the world of these murderers in one strike - forever."

            The silhouettes around the table nodded.  Some sat up straight, as if prepared for the mission that lay ahead.  Others bowed their heads, some wept.  For them, Darlian knew, this was vengeance.  For the rest, it was an act of conscience.

            "How will we do it?" a voice spoke up from the dark.  "Certainly Hitler will be well protected."

            "We have an operative close to the Führer who will carry out his execution.  A messenger was dispatched to the Sanq Kingdom with the details, so I must return there."  Darlian rose and leaned forward on the table.  Shining eyes stared back.

            "Be ready on the twenty-first.  Your instructions will arrive shortly." The speaker looked at each person in turn.  "Pray for our success and for the souls who have been lost.

"Ask them to watch over us.  Ask God to grant us victory, if for nothing else than their sakes."

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

            Quatre wrapped a bandage around Hilde's wrist and glanced up at his fellow soldiers.  "I haven't seen Miss Relena all morning.  Or Miss Sally, either.  Come to think of it, she hasn't been in the medical ward since she sewed up Heero's wound two nights…" He paused when he finally took in his friends' appearances. They were still wearing yesterday's clothes; faces unshaven and their complexions ashen.  The medic frowned. "…ago."   He looked back at Hilde's bandage long enough to fasten it.  "Were you guys up all night?" 

Trowa nodded.  "We've been trying to decide on the best course of action," his tired eyes fell on Hilde, "given this new information."

            The girl pulled her hand away from the medic and stood to face the much taller communications officer.  The deepening flush in her cheeks was difficult to miss, and when she spoke, the words came through clenched teeth.  "You will not try to stop us.  If you do, you're no better than the Nazis.  So many people have risked their lives to--"

            Quatre moved and tried to put himself between the two of them, but Duo beat him to it.  The braid-wearing soldier stepped forward and put a hand on Hilde's shoulder. "We're trying to figure out how to help you.  Calm down. You won't get better if you don't." He glanced at Quatre and shook his head. "Sheesh, what a temper."

            "There's nothing wrong with me," Hilde said.  She clasped the injured limb and held it to her chest.  "It's just a sprained wrist."

            "This is a wasted effort," Wufei said.  "There have been other attempts on Hitler's life over the years.  And obviously, not one of them succeeded.  Why should we believe this plan will be any different?"

            "For all these years, they have planned it."  Hilde returned to her seat across from Quatre.  The medic felt his heart grow heavy when the stricken expression once again reached her face.  "The resistance would devise a scheme, but then… members would be found, killed, or forced to flee.  This is our last chance."

            Quatre noticed Duo's hand still on the girl's shoulder.  The young man gave her arm a light squeeze; it seemed to make her smile.

            "And I haven't yet said thank you."  She raised her eyes and looked up at each of them in turn.  "You've been very good to take care of me."

            "We're only returning the kindness that's been given to us," Quatre said.  "Though I do think it's time we introduce you to Miss Relena.  Now that the SS is gone, it should be safe enough.  And Heero… Has anyone told Heero about all this yet?  Every time I checked on him yesterday, he was asleep."

            Trowa rubbed a hand over his face and took a seat next to Quatre.  "No.  We agreed to let him rest."

Duo let out a whistle.  "What's it been now – a whole day without him getting beat up?  I think it must be a personal record for the guy."

  "But we should discuss it with him today – perhaps before we make it known to the princess," Trowa continued.  "It might be easier for her to hear if it came from him."  The medic suppressed a grin at his friend's last comment, which was exceedingly difficult with the sound of Duo's snickering echoing through the room.

            Hilde's forehead creased into a bewildered expression.  "This Heero… he's one of you?  And he knows Princess Relena well?"

"I'll fill ya in later on," Duo winked.  Wufei shot the other soldier a withering glance, but the grinning man ignored it.

            Trowa clasped his hands together and leaned in towards Hilde.  "Before we talk to Heero, or the Princess, or try to get in touch with the Allied forces, what we really need now is more information – from you.  You keep mentioning a person named 'Darlian.'  Who is he?"

            "I have never met Herr Darlian in person," Hilde confessed.  "My involvement with him is mostly by communications sent through operatives in Berlin.  It is my belief that he was a friend of my father's."

            "Let me ask you… Do you know for sure that Herr Darlian is – is really a man?"

            Hilde's eyes were wide.  Quatre's gaze flicked between them both and finally settled on his comrade.  "What are you talking about, Trowa?"

            "I don't think I told you how I decoded the papers she was carrying," the communications officer said, gesturing towards the lone woman in the group.  "I found the code book in the medical wing."

            "One of the patients?" Duo ventured a guess.

            Trowa shook his head.  "No, I don't think so.  I'm pretty sure it belonged to the doctor."

            Wufei sat down across from Trowa and sent the other soldier a hateful glare.  "She wouldn't be that foolish.  She would know that if she were caught, this kingdom would be overrun by the Reich faster than she could blink."

            "Perhaps she doesn't see it as foolish.  Or maybe she thinks she'd only be risking herself," Trowa said.  "But think about it.  It makes the most sense."

            "Are you sure it's not the princess?" Wufei countered with a snarl.  "She could be trying to fool everyone into thinking she's a pacifist by keeping the country neutral while having a brother in the SS the whole time she's involved in a plot to kill his boss."

            "You heard her talking to Merquise," Trowa said.  "It's not her.  She couldn't lie to him."

Quatre opened his mouth, but couldn't find any words.  Thoughts spun around in his head at light speed – ideas that had never occurred to him before, suspicions that never would have crossed his mind.  He pursed his lips together and waited for the others to continue.

 Duo moved forward and crouched beside Hilde's chair.  "If I can put my two cents in…  What if there's just an actual guy named Darlian?"

            Wufei snorted.  "Nice try, Maxwell."

            "I'm serious.  We don't know how far this thing goes.  Hilde said herself that it's been in the works for years – it's not impossible."

            The German girl sat up straighter in her seat.  "There was a diplomat – an emissary of Germany several years back.  His name was Darlian.  It was well known that he opposed Hitler's rise to power.  He disappeared shortly before the Führer was elected.  Most people believe that he was assassinated by Hitler's men.  It's possible that he may still be alive. But I can tell you that no one involved in the Black Orchestra really thinks the one we call Darlian is truly him…"

 "Maybe he thinks he's fooling them by using his real name," Duo added.  "You can't hunt a dead man."

            "They're trying," Hilde said.  "The Gestapo.  They're looking for him.  I saw telegrams when I worked in the offices back in Berlin, and then at the homes of other resistance members – orders we've intercepted.  After all these years, they're still looking for him.  But they've followed leads all over Europe.  No one has seen him, at least not that the SS can document."

             Quatre turned to Trowa.  "But, other than the book you found, Trowa, why do you suspect Miss Sally?"

            "She has a military background.  And the princess granted her sanctuary here, but I don't know why."

            "She was caught helping Jewish families flee Germany and Austria."  All eyes in the room turned to Wufei.  He let out a sigh and leaned back into the chair. "Her husband was a doctor, too; they worked at a hospital in Strasburg.  A lot of their colleagues were Jewish and they didn't want to sit by and watch their friends be slaughtered.  He paid for it with his life, and they were going to send her to a camp, but she escaped."

            Hilde let out a gasp.  Quatre's chest tightened.  He had still been a child back in Chicago, arguing with his sisters and going to movies when this was happening.  "How did you find out, Wufei?"

 "She told me.  Shortly after my brother was buried.  That's why… " He stood up and pounded a fist on the arm of his chair.  "She knows the risk of something like this.  I can't believe that she would—"

            A light shuffling sound drew Quatre's attention.  When the medic looked up, Heero was already making his way towards them, his eyes locked on Hilde.  Quatre jumped to his feet and rushed to Heero's side, but the injured soldier shrugged out of the blond man's grasp and steadied himself on his own.

            "Hey, buddy," Duo hailed him.  "Long time no see.  You feelin' any better?" 

            Heero barely acknowledged his friend's greeting and kept his stare fixed on the stranger.  Trowa scooted over from his place on the sofa and made room for the new arrival.            The documents Hilde carried had since been spread out on the table, and Quatre could see his friend's gaze settle on the swastikas that were stamped on the pages.

            "What is all this?"  Heero's voice rapsed.  He picked up one of the now worn sheets, a map, and held the document up to the light of the window.

            "Heero," Quatre said, gesturing towards the dark-haired young woman.  "There's something we have to tell you."

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

The door closed softly behind him and she could hear the tap of footsteps that marked his slow progression across the room.  Relena didn't have to look up to know who was there; she had been expecting him.

"How are you feeling today, Heero?"  Her eyes found his from across the room and she gave him a smile.  "You're looking healthier.  There's even some color in your--"

"Where were you?  Yesterday.  We were supposed to discuss—"

"I'm sorry.  But Quatre said you'd fallen asleep, and then I had…"  Relena drew in a deep breath and turned back to her paperwork.  "I still have duties to attend to within the Sanq Kingdom, regardless of the war.  It was always my hope, and still is, to keep my people as untouched by this devastation as I can."

Quicker than she thought possible in his condition, he was standing directly in front of her desk with fists clenched on the dark wood surface. "It's not possible.  Relena, certainly you're not so blinded by your brother--"

            "I'm not blinded by anything.  I think I'm looking at things more clearly than you."

 He leaned in closer until she could feel the light touch of his breath on her bare arms.  The weight of his stare was making the air around her desk feel heavy and stifling.  "The only way to protect your country is to join--" 

The princess shot up from her chair.  "By joining the Allies, I place this nation directly in the path of Hitler's army.  We have no weapons, no standing military.  We'd be completely dependent on your forces. I hardly see what use the Allies would have for us."

            Heero shook his head.  "It's a matter of strategy. By having a stronghold in this kingdom, we will have gained ground against the German army occupying France.   And you have a national guard."

            "But what guarantees do I have that my men will be treated fairly? What assurances will your government give that my kingdom will be a matter of priority in your defense? And can you make such an agreement?"

            The American pilot straightened his posture and crossed his arms.  Relena could see the sweat beading on his forehead.  He began to move around the desk.  "What guarantees do you have with Hitler? Will he treat your men fairly, when he invades this nation and kills them? Will he consider you, or your people, when he bombs it, when you surrender, when he conquers?"

            Relena had to look away.  "He…he may not.  We have remained--" 

"You can't stay out of this, Relena.  You took us in, and look what happened.  The whole east side of your palace is gone.  And that's with your brother's protection.  Without it, you're lost.  The only way I can protect you is to side with us."  He was beside her now.  She could feel the warmth of his body mere inches away. 

Relena squeezed her eyes shut.  It would have been so easy to lean into his embrace, to feel his strong arms close around her.  She tried not to imagine uttering the words of surrender or allowing herself the comfort they might bring.   

"Will you stay then?  If I agree to join the Allies, will you stay here to protect this kingdom instead of returning to the Western Front?"  It was a selfish request, she knew.  But she feared and was sure she already knew his answer.

            "No. I can't do that."

            "I see."  She wrenched herself free from his grasp and stepped away.


            "Then…will you come back?"  She whirled around to face him again.  Her voice was shaking despite her attempt to keep it mellow and even.  "When it's over?  When the mighty Allied forces have saved the world from certain destruction… Will--will I see you again?"

            He wouldn't meet her gaze.

            She choked and turned away again.  The air became think and tangible in the silence.   "I have to think on this, to have some time, alone, to consider every consequence.  I will give you my answer before dinner."


            "Do not be concerned that my emotions will cloud my judgment."

            She heard his hand turn the knob on the door; it was opened.  "You'll be a queen."

            Relena squared her shoulders, but refused to turn around.  "Yes. Yes, I will….  And so I thank you for your service and personally recommend that you go back to your room and rest."

            The door shut behind him, and she felt the last of the strength leave her body.  She leaned back on the desk for support. 

Determined footsteps sounded an instant before he grabbed her arm and spun her around.

            "Don't treat me like an invalid, Relena. If you have something to say to me, just say it."

            "And what do you want to hear?  That you're right? That I can't love you and therefore don't love you.  That you'll never be worthy of my affection or anyone else's for that matter… What do you want me to say, Heero?  Because I'm not going to lie and say those things just because you believe them to be true."

            "Why?  How can you possibly--  I can't love you, Relena. I can't be what you want, no, what you need! You need a man that can be a king."

            "How dare you be the one to decide that for me.  My whole life…" She stopped.  He wouldn't understand.   Relena sank back into her chair and pretended to study the papers there. "Just go… Please…Go back to your room and rest."

            "It's what's best for you and your country, Relena." He started towards the door. 

            Her hands trembled at her sides, and she had the childish urge to just pick up the vase on her desk and throw it at him. 

He paused at the door, his head bowed as he spoke to the floor.  "It…" He stiffened and looked up at her from across the room.  "I'm sorry." 

            Without another word, he turned and left.
            *                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

            The chalet was tucked into the side of a mountain, the rooftop barely visible over the flourish of trees and a craggy overhang of grey rocks.  The place itself was a massive structure, built of the same grey stone; flowering vines crawled up its sides and met the latticed windows on the floors above. It seemed a castle, really – hidden away from the world.

Zechs scanned the horizon and found the small turret on the eastern side that overlooked a wooded valley.  He had stood there once with Treize and other SS commanders while they watched the first rays of a long ago summer sun filter through the mist and give way to the bluest of skies.  Then he had been handed his orders along with a half dozen other young officers who were present and sent to out to kill the inhabitants of a ghetto in Poland.  That day the blue skies had faded into darkness.  Upon leaving the Sanq Kingdom for this place, a part of his heart had been frozen and lost to the shadows.  It was years past - the terrified faces of his targets were now nothing more than ghosts in his mind.  But he remembered the feeling.

            This is wrong, this is murder.  I am a traitor to my name.

            But as time wore on, the Reich became his new family; a replacement for the one who exiled him.  His superior officers were strong where his father had been weak.  All who opposed them fell.  They were not afraid of using weapons and men to their fullest potential.  They believed in something other than foolish, unachievable philosophies of pacifism.  The men of the Reich were something tangible.  And he had become one of them. They accepted him and praised his strength, when his father had told him to change his ways of thinking and stay his hand.  The officers were grateful for his company; they  clapped him on the back and told him how they'd always wished for a son… like him.  Even after another had sent him away.

Peacecraft.  The name betrayed me first.

And although he was once again leaving that accursed name behind, it followed without invitation.  Peacecraft.  When he had seen Relena and the word 'brother' had tumbled from her lips, he felt again.  The kingdom that had once encased his heart in ice, had threatened to thaw it.  The sensation was painful in his chest, like life coming back to limbs that had fallen asleep and gone numb.  Then he had seen her, in the arms of that American soldier.  She had chosen to protect the enemy. 

Betrayal.  Again.

The car lurched to a stop and Zechs snapped out of his half-dream.  A hand gently brushed against his and he heard Noin's voice asking if everything was alright.  He nodded and stepped out into the blinding sunlight.

They followed a servant just as quickly into the dark, cool entrance of the structure.  The Kushranada family had kept this home for generations and it had the same stale, haughty air of antiquity that hung in some of the rooms of the Peacecraft Manor. After climbing two flights of stairs and winding their way through a maze of hallways, a door was opened before them.  Zechs and Noin stepped into an airy, circular room where a light breeze billowed through curtains that covered the tall windows.  They could see the figure of a lone man standing on the balcony beyond.  He turned when the door closed, and with poised, graceful steps, started towards them.

Zechs snapped his heels together and extended his arm.  "Heil Hitler."

"Heil Hitler," Treize returned in a cool tone.  "At ease, Colonel Zechs.  Good afternoon, Miss Noin."

"Good afternoon, sir."

Treize paced around an expansive Persian rug and settled into a leather armchair in front of the fireplace.  He gestured for his guests to follow suit.  The butler quickly flew to his master's side and poured the officer a drink.  Zechs and Noin politely declined, and the elder Peacecraft sat quietly as his superior swirled the dark red liquid in his glass and took a small sip.

"A messenger from your envoy to the Sanq Kingdom preceded your arrival.  I hadn't expected to see you until tomorrow at the earliest."

Zechs stiffened in his seat.  "There was little reason for me to stay.  It was unnecessary to prolong my presence there."

Treize inclined his head and raised the glass to his lips again.  "The messenger spoke of the American soldiers.  So your sister has sided with the Allies?"

A cold sensation washed over Zechs body.  "No.  The Sanq remains neutral.  She is a bleeding heart, though, taking in the wounded.  I believe she would do so for either side.  However, just in this case they happened to be Ameri—"

The superior officer's blue eyes flicked up from his wine.  "This will not sit well with Berlin."

"I am aware of that."

"You're sure they were American soldiers?"

"Yes.  I got a very…"  Flashes of his fight with the dark-haired pilot in the dining room rose in his memory.  "… A very close look."

Treize cocked an eyebrow, and Zechs could see the officer's gaze settle on his bruised knuckles, which were clenching the arms of the chair.  "I see."

"But they were wounded, sir," Noin offered.  "Miss Relena is a very kind person.  I feel certain that she means it as no affront to her brother, or to the Reich, which has been gracious enough to allow her kingdom to remain at peace."

Zechs's head started to pound at Noin's words.  'No affront to her brother…'  His fists tightened, opening the wounds on the back of his hands.

"Colonel Zechs."

"Yes sir?"

"Did you perhaps notice anyone else in your sister's home?  Anyone else that didn't belong there?  Or you, Miss Noin?"

"No, sir."

"No," Zechs answered.   "And neither did any other members of my party, at least to my knowledge.  If I may ask – why?"

Treize set his glass on a nearby table and rose to his feet.  He stepped over to one of the windows and clasped his hands behind his back.  "I've had several reports, mostly from Lady Une and her agents, of some… activity being linked to the Sanq Kingdom.  But we know how convoluted some of this information can be.  I'm sure I can convince the Führer that they are unfounded.  However…"

Zechs moved to the edge of his seat.  "Yes, sir?"

"I think it would behoove us to station someone there."  His eyes turned to Lucrezia.  "I'm sure you can convince your sister that as an act of good faith, it is in her best interests to allow Miss Noin to stay and keep a watch over the Sanq Kingdom – in case there happen to be further incidents that might require our attention there."

"I can't speak for her, sir."

"I feel fairly certain that she would choose Miss Noin's presence over a full scale military occupation. Wouldn't you?"

Zechs responded only by setting his jaw and nodding stiffly.

"Very well," Trieze nodded.  "Miss Noin, I will arrange to have your things shipped from your quarters in Germany.  I will need a short while to draft a letter to the princess and then you can be on your way."

Noin gave a slight bow and smiled, but her expression faded into a more serious one when the General spoke again.  "There is a name I want you to listen for, Miss Noin.  And report back to me and only me, immediately, if you hear it."

"Yes, General Treize?"

"The name is Darlian.  Do not forget it.  Darlian.  Now if you'll excuse us, Miss Noin. There is something I wish to discuss alone with the Colonel."                                   

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *                      Relena stared out the window; the natural, waning light of the day stole in through the glass to touch her hair and paint it the color of spun gold.  He felt a sharp pain in his chest when he remembered how it felt like silk….

            "I've made my decision."  Her voice was calm and clear, but very quiet.  He took a step closer, retracing his path from earlier that day.

            "Peygan said you did."

            "It's not an easy one.  Either way, I'm sending men to their deaths.  At least, if what you say is true.  And I have no reason to doubt your…assessment of the situation."

            He waited.  This was difficult for her, but he knew, from the way she spoke, whatever decision she had made, it was now firmly seated in her mind.  She spoke to the glass; he could just make out a dim reflection of her face in the window.  She'd been crying.  Blood thrummed loudly in his ears, but didn't drown out her voice as she continued.

            "I don't expect you to understand.  I'm sure my life must seem like…Something it truly isn't.  I wasn't supposed to be queen of this kingdom.  I was born the youngest child and merely a daughter of the king.  My elder brother was supposed to take a wife and they would rule as king and queen once our parents passed away.

            "He left home when I was ten – disowned, by my father.  I'd heard all the fairy tales about princesses and their princes, kings and their queens.  But they never had to choose to send flesh and blood people to go to war.  And I do."


            He wanted to reach out for her, to rest his hands on the slender shoulders that seemed to carry the weight of so many decisions – and so many lives.  Heero drew nearer and his arm moved of its own volition, but dropped back to his side when she spoke again.

            "I never wanted to be queen.  But when my father died…. I was sixteen when this burden, this service was given to me.  I started training when I was eleven.  I never got to go to school with regular children.  I was shut away to learn advanced subjects like geography, history, diplomacy.  I suppose your childhood wasn't much better…."

            "I was expected to do a lot of things, but never to run a country."

            "But losing your parents so young… Joining the army."  She sighed and rested her whole body against the wood that framed the glass.  "I can't imagine the things you've seen and done."

            His throat burned and he had to swallow.  "At least I had a choice."

            "Yes.  And the only choices I have are ones that determine the fate of others.  When it comes to myself, my own life….  It seems everyone else gets a say in that, but me."

            Her fist banged against the window pane in an uncharacteristic display of anger.  "And I'm tired of it." She whirled around, her eyes ablaze and the light from the setting sun glowed around her like a fiery aura.   His mouth went dry.

"I'm not a doll, Heero.  And neither am I a queen.  I feel lost and confused, and love - so many things a queen would not.  Queens sit on their thrones high above their subjects, making abstract decisions about the lives of people whose names they'll never know.  I have neither such luxury, nor such punishment. "

He stood still, rooted to the floor while she moved towards him.  "I know the names of the people whose fates I decide, I've seen their blood.  I know their pain.  And I will not seal myself away from that knowledge."

"That's your decision, then? To do nothing?"

"No.  I cannot sit by and do nothing, Heero.  Not in the lives of my people.  And not in my own life."

She lifted her head and smiled.  It was a sad smile. She wore that expression much too often. 

"If you don't care for me in a romantic way, that is your decision, and I cannot change that.  Nor would I have ever wished to.  I would have simply wished you happiness with my whole heart and remembered you fondly after you had gone. 

"But for you to say that I cannot choose to be with you because of my…duties…."

Heero's hands curled into fists at his sides.  "It's the truth.  The sooner we can accept it--" 

"I will not accept it.  I can not accept it.  I've given everything else of myself."  Relena raised a trembling hand to her mouth and averted her eyes, as if seeking the strength to continue from the last rays of the setting sun.  "If I accept this, Heero, then there is nothing left of me, and I truly will be a queen.  An empty shell, a doll or puppet at the end of a string controlled by the phantom hands of destiny.  I've never been strong enough on my--"

He cut her off with a searing kiss, and she returned it with equal fervor.  His arms wrapped around her, cradling her close as they'd longed to do all day. Her hands tangled in the hair of his neck and she pressed her whole body against him. He tightened his grip on her waist and continued assaulting her lips in a greedy kiss. 

            After a long moment, she broke away.  His mind buzzed with a stream of thoughts that ran together into a steady hum – no one idea discernable from the rest. And his body hadn't the strength to disentangle himself, to push her away, to do what he should.  He was too selfish for that.… Heero buried his face in her neck and just held her.

            "You're strong enough, Relena," he whispered. 

            "Not alone.  Not without you.  Even if you don't…love--"

            He jerked his head up.  She hid her face in his chest.  He gently lifted her chin so he could look into her eyes.  "I…" His mouth was parched again, how could it be so easy for her to say, and so difficult for him? He pressed his forehead against hers and closed his eyes.

            "Please, stay with me." He opened his eyes at her words and started to speak. She put a finger to his lips. "Until you have to go."

            He nodded.  A small smile formed on her face; a genuine smile this time. 

"Thank you."

            "You don't need to thank me, Relena.  I meant to…I tried to…explain," he swallowed but willed himself to try.  "This afternoon…"

            "Let's not talk about it." She started to pull away.

            "It hurt me, too."  

            "I'm sorry."

            He let out a sharp breath.  "It was my fault."

            She smiled, but her eyes didn't ignite with the expression this time.

            He nodded.  "You have something else to say.   But there's something I should--"

            A finger came to rest over his lips.  "You came here for an answer."

            He nodded again.  She slipped from his hold and went back to the window.  He followed. 

            The sky blazed with orange-red fire, molten, like lava that dripped from the clouds onto the horizon.  It was fatally beautiful, the way tongues of fire would dance and  devour necessary sustenance.  He wrapped an arm around her waist and she laid her head on his shoulder.  They stayed like that for several minutes, just watching the sun lose another battle in its constant war with the night sky.

            "I've thought all day, reading various reports, my father's daily journal.  I wanted to know what he would do if he were alive and had to make this decision."

            Heero nodded and waited for her to continue.

            "I'm convinced he would say that the Sanq kingdom should stay out of it.  We're chiefly a pacifist nation.  To get involved is to go against everything this country stands for."

            Heero set his jaw. 

            "But pacifism shouldn't result in apathy or fear.  Nor should it be a symptom of frailty – perceived or real."


            She held up a hand.  "So, I thought about what my brother would do.  And it's not hard to imagine what his choice would be.  The fact that his decision would be different depending on whether he was in my position or his own makes it a very unreliable measurement."

            "What do you think is right, Relena?"

            "And that's the question I came to.  It doesn't matter what my father would choose, or what Milliardo would decide.  What matters is: what do I think?"

            He felt her tremble and she pulled away.  She stepped back into the middle of the room – her head bowed, her hands clenched into fists at her sides. 

She didn't look at him.  She just stood there looking like her heart was breaking all over again.  And it was like he saw her, really saw her, for the first time – not as his angel of mercy, or the image of leadership and strength.  She was right; she was no queen.  She was far more than that.

And she deserved better than a king – a knight that could find a way to rescue her, to save her from such pain. 

She raised her chin and stared at the far wall.  A single tear trickled down her cheek.  Heero felt like Zechs punched him in his wounded side, again.  He couldn't help her.  Not until she chose…

"I've delayed this long enough, but my decision never wavered once it was made.  Heero, I've decided that the Sanq Kingdom…."