by Bronze Tigress

Orange Sherbet

Apr. 9, AC197
Sanq Palace
[second day of the Epyon de Teros hostage incident; two hours before the deadline]

Trowa, having infiltrated the castle by the aerial route, made his way swiftly and silently - who better, after all? - to the room he and Duo had already identified as the one most likely to be the surveillance centre. It was. He loved it when military groups did the predictable thing, it made life so much easier. And it also meant that they either had a military trained strategist with the group, or someone who should be snapped up for strategic training... The guard outside the room is no problem to deal with; a minor distraction and a quick blow, and he is an untidy heap zipcuffed on the floor by the doorway.

The guard at the console, however - is a bit of a shock. "I was wondering how much longer it would take you guys to get here," the bass voice says from the chair. "You're cutting it pretty close; I was beginning to worry. Is it just you and the braid, or are there more of you?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Here - this monitor," a quick finger lands on a monitor, right over the image of one of the terrorists, "that's not one of the morons I've been leading around by the nose for the last month and a half; too small. I rather assumed it would be you doing that, Trowa Barton, since you're the infiltrations expert. But, since you are here, the hair colour says that's your braided friend, doing the same thing with his hair as I am - unless he's cut it, which would be a shame..." The broad shoulders hunch, and then the blond man stands, turning so that Trowa can finally see his face. A bandanna hangs about his neck, his hair has been tied back and the ends tucked into his shirt, and a pair of aviator sunglasses is clipped to his chest pocket, but the face is unmistakeable.

Trowa startles, then snaps, "Agent Wind? Or are you someone else again today, Peacecraft?"

A shrug, and a wry smile. "I deserved that, I suppose. Depends who you ask, doesn't it? They think I'm Milliardo the Mad. One of these days, I'm going to cut this hair and get out of the public eye for a while, but at the moment it seems to attract the more dangerous nuts, and that makes it easier to find them - and for Wind to deal with them. Hopefully, it can be done without levelling the Kingdom this time," he says, as he slips the dark glasses out of his pocket. "I'm assuming you've got some strategy in this; if you're here, it's probably time for me to go play shepherd again, right? I thought the old fallout shelter would be best to lock them into when whatever distraction you've got planned hits... They do know about that, right?"

He's not sure why, but suddenly Trowa is quite certain that things will work out. "Winner remembered it. Make sure Duo gets in with hostages, then, too, would you?"

"It's a good distraction, right?" Zechs asks hopefully.

"I don't think you'll be disappointed." A small smile lights Trowa's face. "Go, your sheep await. Don't leave any strays, hmm?"

"Of course not... I'm not leaving any of these idiots loose where they could get at my sister. And - comm channel 6 goes only to me, just in case." He is already pulling the scarf over his nose as he whirls out the door, heading for the main entryway, where excited noises show that the anticipated ransom appears to be being delivered.

The flurry of activity after that is brief. The tiny figure of the tall blond leader of Epyon de Teros on Trowa's monitor screen looks, and sounds, suitably enraged when one of the Preventers delivering the ransom is shot. He yanks the thin cord off a bellpull and wraps it around the perpetrator's arms before angrily escorting him to the drawing room with the hostages, "where he can't do any more harm with his stupidity."

Trowa follows their progress, and a moment later, identifies the screen that shows the drawing room doors, although he continues scanning all the others for motion. Yes, there is Wufei, already nearly in position, and Quatre as well. He pulls a small comm, transmitting on a different set of frequencies, out of his pocket and keys up line 4. "04, 03. I am in position, 05's headed your way, 02's being taken to the pen, and one of the wolves is a sheepdog in disguise. Confirm, over."

"Confirm that, 03, all in position, and inside help? Who?"

"You'll see when he brings the wolves to you. 03 out." He can't quite hide the smirk in his voice as he clears the line.

The doors to the drawing room are flung open, and two camouflaged terrorists nearly throw a third, smaller one into the room. The tall blond one snarls, "stupid ass! you want to screw it up for us, you can go down with the rest of the bomb fodder," and slams the doors shut again. The short terrorist stumbles once, twice, and then regains his feet. And then amazing things begin to happen.

The ropes wrapped around his arms and chest suddenly kink, twist, and then fall to the floor, and the young man pauses to rub gingerly at his wrist. Then, holding that wrist across his stomach, he uses the other hand to somewhat awkwardly pull off his cap, and then his face scarf, although he keeps his face somewhat averted. Finally, he reaches to the back of his neck, and then lifts, pulling free a braid that must be a good metre long, and then shakes his head as if glad to be free.

Then the terrorist looks up, spots Relena in the front of the gathered crowd watching him warily, and smiles brightly, eyes flashing with amusement. And then the most unexpected thing of all happens. "Hey, ojousan," Duo's chipper baritone voice announces, "great party, girl! Not to worry, folks, help has arrived. You'll have to excuse my not dressing up, but you'll all be happy to hear that the Preventers are on the job. How is everyone holding up here? No injuries, everybody feeling well?" General sighs of relief and nods that all are well follow. A swirl of excited conversation fills the room and Trowa turns down the volume on that monitor.

Assured that all the guests are present, and that there are no serious injuries or illnesses, although several people are feeling the effects of the stress, Duo picks up his comm and keys up with, "02 to all units, I am in position. All hostages accounted for, no hostage injuries. 02 out." Then he snaps the small transmitter onto his belt, in easy reach, and begins speaking quietly with Relena, evidently concluding by asking to be pointed towards Une.

Duo spends a few moments talking to Une, who is sitting with a girl Trowa realizes must be Mariemeia, and at the moment watching her dozing. Some nods and motions later, and then Une is waving towards something in the corner, which is currently acting as Une's coat hanger. Duo walks over towards the object, takes a good long measuring look at it, then fumbles awkwardly in his coveralls for something.

Trowa notes with a start that Duo is using the wrong hand - and the way he's holding the other sets off a warning bell in Trowa's head. "No hostage injuries, Duo? What aren't you telling us?" He pulls out his own private comm and keys in Heero's channel. "03 to 01, move in. 02 is in position, repeat in position, but there may be another problem. Proceed with plan."

A moment later, Heero's "Roger, wilco, 03. Moving out now," comes back through his unit.

When he looks back, Duo is crouched beside the large vaguely obelisk-shaped object, and appears to be removing one of the access panels - still working with his left hand, and apparently muttering to himself and occasionally turning to speak quietly to Une, although their voices do not rise above the excited background noise.

//Frag, that's the bomb,// Trowa realizes then. //At least Duo's the demolitions expert.// Trowa might like shooting things up, but explosive devices were never one of his specialties. And this could be something a little worse than the C6 they normally carried; at least there hadn't ever been a concern about radioactive fallout from the Gundams self-detonating...

At that moment, Heero's voice crackles through the mock-Zero's speakers, calling out to the terrorists to "surrender now! I am here to bring you and all pests like you under control! You won't kill anyone else ever again!" A short pause, and then Heero's voice, twisted with what might be rage or grief, but which to Trowa sounds like terribly bad acting, "Do what you want! She was MY woman - I no longer have a reason to live, now that she is dead! Surrender now! Or I blow us all to Shinigami!"

The abrupt and loud arrival of Wing Zero throws all the terrorists into a panic - not that the nominally 'dead' body on the floor isn't causing them enough consternation as it is - and then they are running, their leader calling all guards from their stations to retreat immediately to fallback position. Duo's voice comes over the private comm - first a soft laugh, then, "Shinigami thanks you kindly!" Trowa notes that Duo is still poking carefully through what appears to be a nest of wires inside the access panel he has removed.

Trowa comms quickly to Quatre, "04, you have incoming; take cover," just in time for him and Wufei to duck around the corner as the first part of the horde comes tumbling pellmell towards the fallout shelter. He turns up the volume on that monitor so that he can hear what's going on. The terrorists' leader falls back without seeming to, urging the stragglers in. Suddenly, Milliardo snaps into his radio for the guards on the hostages to "get their fool asses down here unless they want to be the toast breakfast will be served on." Trowa blinks, surprised. Then the Epyon de Teros' leader pauses, looks around at the empty hallway, and then turns to the fallout shelter door and shuts it, closing the majority of the terrorists inside.

Then he slumps against the wall, tugging his scarf off before sliding a hand under the back of his collar to pull his hair free of its confinement. "Ah, that's better... I know you're here, at least, Winner. Come out and give me a hand locking these fools in, would you?"

As he speaks, the now-revealed Wind walks towards the corner where Wufei has happened to take cover, and nearly jumps when Wufei steps out. "He is not, but I am. Wind? What are you doing with this lot?"

"Locking 'em up! Shall we?" He gestures grandly towards the doors, but before Wufei has a chance to step past the edge of the wall, a crackle sounds from Wind's comm unit, then a tinny voice comes through, "channel six, we have two incoming in five, four..." Abruptly Wind grabs Wufei and pulls him around the corner again. "..two, one..." Two last Epyon de Teros members skid around the corner and head for the door. They are about to pound on it for entrance when they are interrupted by an astonishingly young voice coming from the hallway they just left. "Excuse me, gentlemen, but I don't think you should do that." They look up, then around to find the small blond source of the voice, and never see the two shadows that slip behind them to deliver them into unconsciousness. "After all, we don't want you to alert your friends, now do we?" Quatre's smile is bright as he produces a pair of zipcuffs from an inner pocket of his jacket.

Wind sweeps a bow towards him. "Thank you, Mr. Winner, that was very nicely timed. Alright, that's all of them, counting the one Trowa knocked out upstairs. Who's the demolitions expert? You, Chang?"

"Maxwell is better than I. Where's the bomb?"

"What luck, then. It's in with him, or rather he's in with it."

"Ah. Knowing Maxwell, he has probably already gotten started. Still, lead on; he might need a hand. And we need to get the hostages out in any case, call for evac, and some pickup cars for the morons in there." The three take off towards the upper levels of the castle, leaving two tidily wrapped lumps on the floor blocking the doors that were keeping their comrades confined. Trowa checks the camera inside the shelter, making sure the terrorists aren't trying anything silly, flips down the volume, and turns up that for the drawing room screen again. He takes a quick peek into the main foyer where Heero has hopped out of the mockup MS and is trying to check Sally for damage from the shot to the chest armour she took. Trowa is rather amused when she swats at him for checking lower down on her chest than necessary, and is tempted to listen in to that conversation, but sees that the other group has nearly reached the drawing room doors.

There is a sharp knock on the door, and then the three Preventers walk in, leaving the doors wide open behind them. The two uniformed ones move to flank the one still partially dressed as a terrorist. That Zechs (as Trowa still privately labels him) has taken the camo jacket off to show a plain uniform khaki T-shirt underneath, and is now displaying a long fall of straight, pale hair rather than the cap and scarf the terrorists favoured, is probably all to the good.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," Zechs says in a deep, calm voice. "We are with the Preventers, as I'm sure our other Agent has already notified you. We have the situation under control now. If you could please remain where you are for a few more minutes while we arrange for statements, medical attention, and transportation, we'll have you all out of here as soon as possible, and we deeply regret the inconvenience. Thank you all for having remained so calm during this trying experience, and for continuing to do so until we are certain nothing has escaped our attention."

That said, he turns to Wufei, pointing him towards the far corner of the room, and then he pulls a comm unit from his belt and begins speaking softly into it. "Three, this is six, come in please?"

Trowa sits up, keys the large console mike, and replies, "this is three, go ahead?"

"Three, there's an extra relay wired into the broadband underneath; if you flip it, you should get through to a secure line at PHQ. There's a code name taped to the back of the switch that you should give them, and mine, so they'll authorize you."

A brief check under the indicated panel, //pilot1?// and Trowa keys up again, "Code name of zero-one? Okay, I've got line out. What do you need, besides pickup for the trash?"

A short laugh comes over the line, then "yes, his full name; we're going to need a couple of medevacs for Sally, and the hostages, too, and probably someone to take statements. Once you've got that, see if you can get the rest of the landlines restored here? Thanks, three! Six out."

"Acknowledged, six; three out." Trowa turns to his work, still watching while he makes the requisite call to request ambulances and prisoner transportation, and then begins trying to solve the problem of how the main televid lines out have been rerouted, keeping half an eye on the monitor screens. While he watches, Zechs and Quatre begin circulating through the hostages, checking more closely for injuries and getting names. Wufei, however, strides briskly through the crowd, slipping easily around people, heading towards the back of the room.

The black-haired Preventer stops to speak briefly with Une, then gets himself pointed to where Duo is kneeling, peering into the guts of what is purportedly an ancient, but armed, nuclear bomb. He circles around to approach from the side, then kneels beside the other man. The two heads, one black and one copper, nearly touch as they confer, and then Wufei is reaching across to fish through the wiring, practically wrapping himself around Duo to do so. Trowa blinks, surprised, when Wufei casually drops his hand into Duo's lap, but the motion is explained a moment later when the hand returns with a pair of wire cutters. He snips carefully, at Duo's apparent direction. Then the two sit back, in unison, with a sigh of relief.

A moment later, Wufei is checking over Duo's arm, using one hand to hold his comrade's and the other to test carefully at the injured limb, before wrapping an arm under Duo's shoulder to help him up. The pair walk over to Une, speak to her briefly, and then leave the drawing room, heading for the main foyer. Once there, they gather Sally, sending Heero towards the drawing room, and turn towards the doors.

"03 to 05, you heading out?"

Wufei fumbles for his comm. "05 here. Apologies, 03; these two need to go to the Preventers' clinic to be checked over, but 02 and I will be returning after that. And I am to tell you - once the reinforcements arrive, turn your post over and report to Une."

"Roger that, 05, will do. Drive like a maniac, hey?"

Duo bounces, grabs the radio from Wufei, and keys up, "03! A sense of humour! The shock might kill me yet! Catch ya later - we're outta here!"

"03 out."

Trowa laughs quietly to himself as he busily continues restoring outside communications, while keeping an eye on the proceedings on the monitors. As he watches, a swirl of people clears, and there, centered on the drawing room monitor, are a pair of familiar faces. Two young blonde women are sitting off to the side; Trowa recognizes them as Relena and Dorothy Catalonia. From their posture, it appears that... //No way! Dorothy is... crying?// Indeed, as he looks, Relena is handing her a handkerchief. //Well, what do you know! Maybe she has learned something since I last saw her. I wonder what it was that taught her how to cry?//

Eventually, outside televid lines are restored and backup Preventers and medevac crews show up. Trowa radios down for someone to send up a replacement for him, and when a petite black woman in a neatly pressed uniform arrives, he gladly cedes his place to her. He makes his way easily through the corridors he has been scanning for the last hour and a half, and soon joins Une, Heero, Quatre, and Zechs in the drawing room.

"Well, now that you're here, Mr. Barton, I suppose I can start with you three. You know Chang Wufei is already working with the Preventers, and I understand that he was the one who suggested you come assist with this operation. I'd like to make that a formal, permanent offer. We don't get many terrorist threats, but you gentlemen have certainly proven more than capable of resolving one. I was thinking about setting up a special section for you six - for especially difficult fires. Agent Chang is wasted on the regular assignments, and Wind here... we will have words later about making reports, but it seems you have a knack for infiltration nearly as good as Mr. Barton's..." She pauses to look around at the four with an expectant expression on her face.

"Well, this is a bit of a surprise, Miss Une. I'm afraid I can't take you up on your offer right away - personal buiness, you know - but perhaps we could discuss this a little later on?" Quatre, ever the diplomat, is first to speak. No surprises there; Trowa remembers hearing about the stack of papers that Quatre left on his desk at home, and it is evident that some sort of arrangements would need to be made for the company in his absence.

Heero's reply follows much the same lines - it is impossible for him to take such a position without concluding some other business first, and considering the impact it would have on his current self-imposed task of keeping watch over Relena. Une is quick to reassure him that, if he wishes, he can certainly be part of the crew assigned to that duty, or that it could be written into his job, and Heero agrees to consider the offer.

Wind is only too happy with the idea of setting up a special section for particularly difficult fires, and agrees to drop by Une's office in the morning to go over some of the details of the past few months with her, as well as the proposed special task group.

Finally, it is Trowa's turn, and he surprises everyone there - including himself, to some degree - by accepting Une's offer, on the condition that he be given a short time to settle his affairs. He did, after all, promise Cathy he'd come back, and besides, he does need to collect the few things he left there before he moves to the Earth. However, he makes a point of noting that did enjoy working with Zechs again, and it was interesting how they had managed to reverse roles from previous encounters - usually, as Zechs had said, it was Trowa who did the infiltration.

Then, he asks Heero and Quatre to please pass on his farewells to Duo and Wufei, since he intends to be off as soon as possible so that he can discharge his obligations to Cathy and the Circus. He doesn't expect to be gone long, but he figures - winking at Quatre as he says it - that he'll save Duo some trouble in tracking him down, since they do have some catching-up to do as well. He leaves his uniform jacket with Quatre as well, since he won't be needing it until he gets back.

Finally, he picks his way across the still rather crowded room to where Relena and Dorothy are sitting, where he exchanges a few quiet words with each girl. To Relena, he extends his best wishes for a much happier and much less exciting year than this beginning to it has been. To Dorothy, however, once he has assured himself that she is well, he extends an offer of coffee and conversation, payable immediately upon his return to Earth, which he expects should be before the month ends. She is somewhat surprised, but agrees when he tells her, "you were crying; I wanted to find out why. I wanted to leave time for the whole story, which I don't have now. And - I thought you might like someone to talk to. I'm told I'm a good listener." He smiles, then, and walks the two young women to the folks with clipboards, suggesting that they could probably both use a rest, now that everything is under control again.

By the time anyone looks around for him again, Trowa has slipped out of the building, hailed a passing cab, and disappeared towards the shuttleport, and the Colonies.


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