Over the Edge
AN: This is for Lizz, who watched Endless Waltz with me and then interrogated me on what I had planned for this story. I didn't tell her much, but she did motivate me into finishing this chapter. With a few carefully veiled threats, she could probably make me finish the story in its entirety. She does know where I live, after all.
The air smelled of old dust, a musty smell that reminded Relena of death and the family mausoleum in Sank. It was a dry scent of collapsed cement, bent metal and an odd mixture of smoke and fear. The crowds of people were running towards her, away from the bridge, and Relena was having trouble keeping her feet. There were a few, like her, who were trying to get through the throngs of people and to the waterfront. Relena wondered if any of them were also looking for a loved one, or if they were simply the type who enjoyed observing tragedy.
Relena's heart pounded in her ears, and she coughed against the dust and smoke in the air. She knew that despite the slow speed she was moving at that she was getting close, just by the thickness of disaster in the air. Right after the phone had gone dead in her ear, she had heard the screech and groan of metal buckling, and there was no doubt in her mind that once she reached the bridge, she would find it gone.
Heero, she thought, please be alive. If he was, she knew he would kill her for coming towards him instead of fleeing like his last words had told her to. Relena was not a foolish person, or at least she didn't believe herself to be, so she really couldn't understand why she couldn't move away from him.
You love him, that voice in her head informed her again.
The crowd was thinning, and she emerged from it with what seemed like a literal plop in her ears. Suddenly, she was out of the mass of bodies moving against her, no longer swimming through limbs of people running in the opposite direction, and she found herself suspended in space for a moment as she tried to adjust to the lack of resistance. There were still people in her range of view, but she was finally free.
Relena broke into a dead run, a sweat breaking out along her forehead, trickling down her back and beneath her breasts. She couldn't see the bridge yet, or what remained of it, and knew that if she just rounded the next corner it would be right in front of her. No traffic was on the street, and she knew without seeing anything that it would be bad. The situation felt apocalyptical, though she knew that even if there was a high death toll it wouldn't be the end of the world.
Though, it might mean the end of hers.
The sound of screams and panic was a soundless roar in her ears as Relena rounded the corner, coming into full sight of the bridge. It was chaos and death. A thick dust coated the air, half the bridge had disappeared, and the water was full of debris, people swimming to shore, and bodies floating down-stream, lost in the current. Relena stopped dead and stared. A man staggered beside her, blood dripped from a wound on his forehead. A teenage girl pulled herself from the water, thick black mascara trailing down her face. Somewhere, a baby howled. She took this all in, seeing and hearing it in a tableau of a single moment that seemed to stretch for eternity.
Slowly, she made her way down to the edge of the water, staring in disbelief at the tragedy in front of her. She had been in the middle of war zones, visited the scene of natural disasters hours after they happened, but never had she experienced something so devastating and shocking. "Heero," she croaked, in the process of calling his name. Her voice didn't seem to want to work, and she didn't think it was because of the dry dust coasting the insides of her mouth with a foul, sour taste.
Relena swallowed, realizing she was on the verge of panic. Her heart was racing, and her vision was tunnelled on the water. There were heads bobbing against the current, but she couldn't tell if they were his. "HEE-" she started to call again, the act of screaming his name so familiar and heartbreaking that she had to break it off.
Suddenly, her brain went click and she realized that she wasn't supposed to be calling him Heero anymore, and hadn't said his name with any degree of emotion in a long time. What was his name, she wondered. What was his name? She couldn't remember.
Who was he now? And if she called, would he hear her? Would he be able to hear her voice through the muffling water, hear it like a clarion's call and realized he had a reason and purpose to come back to her? If she could call to him, would he listen like he had the time with the parachute at the Alliance hospital? Would it make any difference if she screamed for him and he was already dead?
Relena shuddered, breaking out of her trance. Heero wasn't dead. He couldn't be. This was the man who had walked out of an explosion with only minor bruises. The boy who had self-destructed his gundam and lived to tell about it. He was the closest thing to invincible that she had ever seen, including one or two mythical comic-book heroes. The bridge falling out from under him and the car plunging about thirty feet into the water would be nothing for Heero Yuy.
She would see him again, Relena was suddenly confident about. With this newfound conviction she saw the devastation around her in a new light. Everything wasn't as hopeless as it seemed, it just needed someone to help through the chaos. She was the Foreign Minister, and she was far more equipped to handle this sort of tragedy than most the people here. With resolve, she pushed up her sleeves and went to help who she could.
Starting with the teenage girl who had pulled herself out of the water, now sitting dripping wet in a growing patch of mud with tears trailing down her cheeks as she sobbed. Relena could see her shivering, and soundlessly she peeled off her jacket and handed it to the girl.
The girl stared at her with vacant eyes, not really seeing Relena or the jacket. Carefully, trying not to startle her, Relena wrapped the jacket around her shoulders and staggered up the embankment, suddenly realizing how much territory she had crossed in order to arrive where she was standing. In the distance, the wail of sirens from emergency vehicles came closer to their location. Across the river, Relena could see that the medics had already arrived and somewhere in the back of her mind she remembered that the closest hospital to this position was almost immediately over the bridge. The people on this side would have to be transported to a facility almost fifteen minutes away.
Another chill went down her spine, and it wasn't from the cold. How many lives were in danger, she wondered, just because no one could get the closest hospital? Relena put the question aside in her mind, moving towards the closest calls for help.
By the time the ambulances and emergency personnel arrived less than five minutes later, Relena had already helped a woman pull her unconscious husband from a car. It had surprised her to find her movements hindered by the stupid fake stomach, and for a moment she considered shedding the disguise. This was bigger than her personal safety, and Relena was never one to hesitate to sacrifice herself for others, but it took time to remove the stomach, and that she didn't have.
Relena moved on towards the epicentre of the confusions, the apex where the road met the bridge and the ruins started to incline until drastically dropping off into air. Cars were parked and abandoned along the side, people gathering just below as they searched for missing relatives and friends they lost in the confusion. She couldn't see anyone left in the water. The current had already washed away the debris and bodies, and those who were alive had already found their way to safety. In the distance, there were boats searching the drifting wreckage, and on the other side of the river she could see a rescue team had already been out into the water once and had returned.
Duo surveyed the scene in front of him with a professional sort of detachment, seeing yet another scene of destruction, more innocent lives lost, all in the name of thankless and thoughtless cause trying to garner attention. "Do we have any intel on who is behind this?"
"No sir," one of his aides answered, a portable computer strapped to his left arm like an over-sized watch as he scanned through the information available. "No one has claimed it as theirs yet. We do have approximation reports, with about 38 dead, 56 injured with about 11 of those critical, and another 23 people are missing."
Duo stared at the bridge, picturing it whole again in his mind. He could see the rapid movement of cars sharing the three lanes of traffic, husbands and wives coming home from work, children on their way back from after school activities chatting in the back seats. He could imagine the public transit buses filled to capacity, the people crammed in like sardines without any room to even stand. Then he could see them all screaming and knocking together as they plunged into the water. It made him sick to think of it. "Those are only preliminary," he said with a sigh. "We can expect those numbers to rise as people don't make it home for supper, or neighbours notice that the Smiths' van isn't in their driveway. We're going to start diving soon for recovery, and you just know that we'll find bodies still strapped in seatbelts."
The whole thing made him sick, but usually he wasn't bothered so much by death. He had seen so much of it over his years that he was usually able to walk through scenes like this and still crack a joke at the end of the day. When had he become so depressed?
Probably around the time his two best friends disappeared, and he was left without information as to whether either of them were alive, or traitors to the cause Relena had almost single-handedly kept intact. Every permutation of the possibilities has entered his head over the last year and a half. Both of them were alive and hiding out somewhere, slowly gathering evidence and material they needed to bring down whoever had drove them into hiding. They were both dead, bodies incinerated, sent into space, or sunk to the depths of the ocean where no one would find them. He also thought that maybe Heero had actually killed Relena, used the trust that had been between them for a decade and stabbed her in the back with it. It chilled Duo's heart to even consider the possibility, but he couldn't forget his last conversation with Relena before she went missing, when she told him that Heero was possibly their enemy. The only thing keeping him sane was the fact Heero had never been located either.
And here he had thought that the idea of love was pretty much based off Relena and Heero. The princess and the war hero. It was pretty much legendary.
Now, the only thing keeping him sane was a dwindling belief in Heero Yuy, a man he called best friend (but not to his face) and one who would make the worst of enemies, and his job. The job he had barely managed to keep when the Press decided to turn their collective backs on Relena and everything connected to her. The changing political clime didn't help, either. He was distrusted by his superiors for being close to both Relena and Heero, and the missions he was sent on became more and more meaningless and unimportant.
Like this one for instance. As if a local terrorist group who collapsed half a bridge was worthy of an agent who had once piloted a Gundam and called himself the Great Destroyer. Pfft. He was being wasted, quite deliberately, while the world went on and he could see if being moulded, oh so subtly, by unknown fingers. It made him want to throw up some nights. Other nights it was just the booze.
"Sir? What do you think? Terrorism?" One of his junior agents/aides asked.
Duo bit his tongue against the immediate sarcastic response that came to mind, reminding himself he was basically relying on his charm and name alone these days to keep his co-workers respectful of him. Even his rank, handed to him by Relena Peacecraft herself in a ceremony that had both of them in sentimental tears and shared smiles at the symbolism of her endorsing him as a Peace Officer, was under question, even though she had simply been the symbol head and guest presenter.
"Either that or some architect out there seriously failed," Duo said instead, grinning inanely to show he didn't mean the comment as any sort of criticism. "We won't be able to investigate this fully until they clear the scene," he said, turning to address the men and women trailing behind him. "Look guys, and I mean that in a colloquial way and not as a gendered term, we're going to be here for a while. Forget about setting up camp for now and get out there and help people."
"But Sir!" The keener from the front broke into his speech. Duo silenced her with a wave of his hand.
"Now I know what you're all thinking. So calm down, we won't be breaking protocol or anything. Nothing says you can't do your interviews with witnesses while handing out blankets or manning telephone lines of people reporting missing loved ones. I want you, you, and you to go offer your help to the hotline, and you four over there to go canvas the area looking for puppy dogs and hurt people you can help. The rest of you are with me." Duo looked at the three people he had left, relieved that his basis of criteria was that if they were annoying, they went away.
The three stared at him evenly with varying degrees of expectancy. One of them was right-out looking disinterested. Duo thought he might like her best, so long as she turned out to be good at her job. "We're going to go integrate ourselves with the medic team and make them send everyone we treat for an interview. Set up camp, you, the one looking at me like I'm the most boring piece of scum ever."
"My name is Agent Tulle."
"Yes, and I AM a boring piece of scum, so good catch. I also did just send two thirds of your team off to do gruntier work than usual. You know why?"
No one answered.
"Not rhetorical," Duo sing-songed.
"Because you observed that the local authorities require aide?"
"Nope," Duo said, popping his P. "Because the best way to get the information people never tell us is to become one of the people people give information to. There's a trust and camaraderie that happens in the trenches, when you're sloggin' through with your fellow man, and hopefully the little baby preventors will be able to figure out how to use that to their advantage."
"Like undercover work?"
Duo was seriously reconsidering the idea he had sent the annoying ones away. He was also wondering if he was becoming a bitter old man at the age of 26. "Exactly." Duo suddenly stopped walking, turning in a circle and making a square with his fingers and holding it up in front of his eye as he judged the distance between himself and the emergency tent. "We'll set up here. Get me my tent and a box of tissues, stat."
"Do you want some chairs, too?" Agent Tulle asked, but since she said it in a sarcastic voice, he took it to be less of a stupid question and more of a mockery of his request. He liked that.
"Sure, and some coffee while you're at it."
He really needed the coffee. Duo turned around once he was alone, finally observing the scene as himself and not a Preventor. It was a shame, a damn, fucked up the ass side-ways with no lube shame what had happened to those people on the bridge. He had seen worse, way worse, during his years, but seeing something like this outside of the war always made his stomach clench in fury and the part of him who was influenced by the nuns and the old priest yearn to say a quick prayer for the dead.
And at the same time he recognised the scent of despair and death, crumbling mortar and stale dust that had settled on the air and for the first time in months he felt like he could breathe. This is what his lungs were accustomed to. He had grown up breathing air like this, had killed his first man as bombs shuttered and pulsed around him, and though he had no control over this situation, he knew how to get things done in an environment like this one.
As the tent went up behind him, Duo struck a deal with the medics to send over anyone who wasn't seriously hurt and who could possibly bear witness to the event. Duo would believe it when it happened, as he knew for a fact that medics were usually so involved with helping people that the outside world didn't penetrate into their thought process – and he couldn't exactly condemn that, now could he? He also knew that medics usually were a cautious lot, and most of these people might be patched up and let go during the first wave of the emergency, but they would all be strongly encouraged to make their way to the hospital.
Maybe he should loan out his SUV as a shuttle. That would get him information.
Duo felt a wave of frustration at the situation. He wasn't the local Preventor liaison here and didn't have the type of contacts that takes years of trust to cumulate. At best he would be seen as someone interfering with the local authorities, and at worst the enemy. He knew how this kind of thing worked and how territorial Preventors got about their territory, and here he was from the head office, taking over the situation.
As a punishment, not because someone higher up thought he was needed.
"I'm perfectly fine!" a woman protested from a few feet away, her hands clasped tightly around a protruding stomach. "I was just trying to help, I wasn't even here when the bridge collapsed. I just got dizzy from a moment. Exhaustion, nothing more."
No, Duo thought as he watched this exchange, it couldn't be. The dust from the bridge must carry an auditory hallucinogen, because unless he was mistaken, the woman sounded exactly like Relena. "Excuse me!" he called out as she was led into the medical tent.
"You can talk to her when we're finished, Agent Maxwell. We agreed." The doctor informed him with a stern look before following the lady and his aid through the flap.
Duo was left standing outside of the make-shift med-bay, seriously worrying about his sanity. He considered following them into the tent, but could also imagine coming face to face with some stranger who would then scream at him, and then he'd alienate the doctors who were reluctant to help him anyway. It would be an overall bad situation.
"We're set up for you to start interviewing people now," one of his aides said quietly at his elbow. "If you don't mind me saying, sir, you look like you've seen a ghost."
Duo snapped to attention, realizing that he was allowing every dark thought and impatient need flitter across his face. "I want to speak to the woman in that tent. I believe she has information which could be useful to our investigation. Make sure she is delivered to me as soon as the doctors finish with her."
"No!" Relena snapped, jerking away from the doctor as he pulled out a heart monitor. She gave him her best evil-eye as she backed away. "I just felt faint for a moment. I'll sit down and have something to drink, but I don't need to be checked out."
The doctor looked at her warily, and Relena could see that he was trying to formulate a response that would both calm her and put her at enough ease that she would allow him to do his job. What he didn't realize was that she couldn't let him check out her health, or she would be discovered. She was just grateful that the emergency response tent didn't have a full-body scanner like most hospitals had as a built-in function of the examining rooms. She knew that the first things those machines did was check for a DNA match so it could pull up her charts, and then it would scan her health. All this doctor had was a small hand-held device, and there was no way she was allowing him near her with the thing.
There were two things a machine like that would note right off the bat: one, that she was Relena Peacecraft Dorlian, the former Foreign Minister, former Queen, formerly missing news sensation, and two, that she was actually NOT pregnant.
Relena wasn't sure which revelation would be more shocking to the doctor, but she was pretty sure which one would get more media attention. And it was not the one common sense dictated it would be.
"Why don't you take a seat then," the doctor responded calmly, gesturing towards a chair. "My nurse will get you something to drink. While she's gone, why don't you let me check to make sure your baby is healthy?"
"No, thank you."
"Now dear, after a traumatic ordeal like this one..."
"No," Relena interrupted firmly. "I would rather not. Please excuse me." She turned on her heel, almost expecting to be stopped. She occasionally forgot that sometimes professionals were simply professionals, not enemies in disguise. The doctor let her leave without trying to convince her again to allow a check-up.
She was grateful.
Relena relaxed a bit, breathing easy for the first time since one of the medically trained aids had escorted her into the tent, worried that she looked pale.
Letting her guard down was a mistake.
A hand grabbed her arm, firm but not rough. Relena tried to jerk free, but the fingers tightened. "This way, miss," the man said, directing her to the left.
"No," Relena hissed. "I won't go with you."
"I'm afraid you don't have a choice," he told her, pushing her through the entrance of a nearby tent.
Relena stumbled, turning to face her abductor. "Get your hands off me. I don't know what you want, but I want to leave now." The bravado was for show. Inside her stomach was in knots, and her heart rate was rapid. She could feel her back break out in a cold sweat, and her mind was quickly going through escape strategies and places to run.
Why hadn't she listened to Heero? Why hadn't she taken off when the bridge collapsed with her false ID and enough money to pay some shady pilot to take her off world?
"What's this, Deroy? Taken up manhandling pregnant women? Haven't you figured out yet that next to young mothers, they're the most likely to kick you in the balls if they feel threatened?" This was all said in an amused tone that belied the steal of the reprimand beneath it. Relena would recognise that voice anywhere.
She just didn't know if this was her lucky break, or if her whole new and carefully constructed world just came crashing around her in two fell swoops – first the bridge, and then being tracked down and identified.
"Hello Duo," she said, turning and looking him straight in the eye.
RelenaFanel © 15/05/2009