Author: Maldoror
Disclaimer:Gundam Wing belongs to its owners (Bandai, Sunset, and a whole host of others, none of which are me) and I'm not making any money off of them. Not a single peanut.
see chapter 8 for warnings

The Arrangement + Chapter 14
Chi, Part I

It takes hundreds of reincarnations to bring two people to ride on the same boat...
Mandarin Proverb

---

Wufei woke up in darkness, but unlike all those nights in Hangzhou he knew instantly where he was. A thin line of yellow light drew the separation between the window's edge and the plastic taped to it, evidence of a streetlight outside. It was a rod of luminescence hanging in darkness, illuminating nothing. He waited several minutes but his eyes couldn't get used to so little light. No matter, he remembered where every object in the sparsely furnished room was. He got out of bed, felt for the wall, walked silently to the door. The wave of harsh neon in the bathroom momentarily blinded him. He made as little noise as possible; Heero would be curled up in the sleeping bag in one of the spare rooms and the man napped like a cat.

He felt for each step in the dark, aiming for the grey slice of light at the bottom of the flight of stairs. Streetlight shone from the high-placed plastic windows, furnishing the big space in blue and grey shadows. Hunting around near the entrance he found the main switch and neon crackled to life. The big room flickered into existence by chunks, each as practical and unlovely as the next.

As the kettle started to boil, he glanced over the open laptop on the table. A note hung on the screen when he clicked a key.

'Test with Foxwood at 13:00 local. We'll go in to the office at 10:00 local to get papers signed and a medical. Here's a link to our charter and the essential rules and regulations you need to know before we can be out on the field.'

It was 4AM. Wufei scowled unhappily at the bags of foul-tasting black tea then prepared his cup, sat at the counter and clicked on the link. He glanced over the information as he sipped the bitter liquid as quickly as possible. He had a few hours before Heero would wake up, might as well put them to good use.

But first…

He tossed out half the tea, rinsed out the cup and put it on the sink's small metal draining board. Then he went over to the training area, which he thought of as the dojo, though it wasn't enclosed, well oriented or particularly venerable. He smiled with pleasure at the feel of the springboard beneath his feet; Yuy must have spent ages setting it down and getting it just right, but it was a job worthy of a pro. It's edges were ragged and bare, showing the construction details of the floor beneath, and Heero hadn't bothered to cover it with matting, or anything other remotely aesthetical, but it was infinitely better than concrete. During their bout yesterday it had almost been a pleasure to be slammed down on it. Repeatedly. He winced slightly, a few bruises recognizing the floor too. He had to get back into shape. He stood at the centre of the area, arms hanging loose, body poised.

Breathe. In. Out.

He felt the air travel through his body, relaxing it, cleansing. It seemed to move his arms by itself, up into fists at his side, then flowing into first form.

Now…

---

Heero didn't give him a tour of the ‘other' office, the ops center as he called it. It was mostly underground and didn't look like much even from the inside. Wufei was whisked through the lobby ­ Une had done her work on his authorization ­ and shunted into a small windowless box-like office to wait for the clinic's head to see him, and fill out forms. It took longer than either had anticipated ­ Heero giving the paperwork a well-remembered death scowl, which impressed the secretary but didn't cause the paper to spontaneously combust, much to Wufei's disappointment. He was still slipping on his t-shirt after the medical, jacket clutched in one hand, when Heero dragged him from the building, hustled him into a jeep borrowed from a guard at the ops centre, and drove off across the wasteland of the Weapons Disposal Unit grounds.

After five minutes of dirt track and potholes, Heero pulled up in a squeal of breaks at a big building with a dome-shaped roof. Further buildings could be seen several hundred meters away, surrounded by a low wall and large freight containers. Wufei spotted an open shooting range, and a depot with a removable roof, like those used for Aries.

"Training centre." Heero grunted, shoving Wufei inside the building where they'd parked. It was two minutes to one. "Stay here and I'll go get the weapons."

"Weapons?" Wufei asked the door that had just shut behind him. What kind of test was this going to be?

He looked around the empty building. It seemed to be a gym. Training and weight-lifting equipment sat unused off to one corner. A central area with a lot of matting had charts of strike points and blocks on the walls. Probably an arena to teach hand-to-hand combat.

He turned quickly at the sound of footsteps on the dusty path outside. It wasn't Heero's light tread; the steps were heavier, and thumped down with authority in thick boots, the kind of footsteps that made Wufei's hackles rise and his hand creep to his belt, not that he was armed yet. He faced the door and straightened from the defensive crouch he'd automatically adopted. The war was over.

"Good god...I thought they drew the line at recruiting them out of kindergarten."

The man who'd entered was actually not that much taller than Wufei, though he was probably three times his age. He was barrel-chested and thick around the waist but his legs and arms under the Preventer uniform were more muscled than flabby. He stopped a few feet away from Wufei, legs apart, head titled to the side. His skin was the rich dark of coffee grounds, his eyes were even darker, swimming with red veins and yellow spots. His nose was strong, the nostrils well-defined as if stuck in a perpetual sniff. He had a small scar on one corner of his upper lip, a dark stain on his skin. Pockmarks shadowed his cheeks. He was almost entirely bald, bar a slight grey ghost of hair lingering around his crown.

"So I guess they don't even make uniforms this small, uh? You are my 1 o'clock, right?" The man was looking dubiously at a page on a flipchart and toying with a pencil.

"Yes." Wufei replied shortly. Letting the other choose which question that answered.

The man slowly raised his eyes again and this time the look was very sharp and weighing. Wufei stood perfectly still in his borrowed clothes - the commissioner had indeed taken one look at him and not even bothered checking through his racks of uniforms, grabbing a tape measure and a special order's form instead. Wufei was dressed in his black top under a thick jacket, and a pair of fatigues he'd borrowed from Heero that morning. The latter had told him he didn't need a uniform for the test or indeed for their job, which was for the most conducted in street clothes or anonymous fatigues. The uniform was necessary for court appearances and funerals, and Heero had pointed out he'd rather Wufei avoid either for now.

The man snorted softly and scratched the pen against his scarred cheek.

"Name?" He asked as if he doubted it would match the one on his clipboard.

"Chang, Wufei."

"Hmmm. You here to do a preliminary inscriptions test?" His voice was gravelly and rich with what sounded like a British accent. It was made for annoyance and world-weary cynicism.

"I'm not sure." Wufei shrugged. Heero hadn't actually told him much of what he'd be tested on, they'd been too busy trying to fill in the paperwork creatively ­ avoiding too many mentions of the past year's activity for example, following Une's recommendations, and trying to get in touch with his uncle Wai on L5 for a few signatures as his legal guardian. Wufei had read most of the ground rules this morning, memorizing them with the ability to retain loads of useless information that he'd mastered back in his school days, so he should be able to answer any questions if he was tested on that.

"Doesn't say much here." The man grumbled as if this was Wufei's fault. "Well I don't see what else…I have a score of cadet hopefuls coming in two days from now, don't know why this had to be done today…And I have the full assault team standing by…waste of time…and made them skip lunch…" his mutters kept fading to low grunts. "Right…Chang?"

"Yes."

"I am a consultant for the Preventers." The man said, and Wufei immediately understood that the word ‘consultant' had been used just to get the man out of the hierarchy and the official chain of command but that he was firmly ensconced in the black ops section. "In case you're wondering why this still allows me to order you around and call you a newbie or a kindergartener, keep in mind that I spent more years than you've been alive working in the London Met Police Armed Division and Specialist Operations team, both as officer and as CO." Ah, a cop, Wufei thought; authority but not military, his guts had been telling him.

"My name is Sam Foxwood. Note that is short for Samir, not Samuel, though of course you will address me as Foxwood or Sir. The only people who can call me Sam are people my age who have several decades of service under their belt -"

"Hello Sam."

"Or Yuy here, who's a bit of an except-…ion…Yuy? What the blazes are you doing here?"

Heero put down the cases he was carrying on a table to one side and glanced back at Foxwood. "I'm here to assist Chang for his tests."

"Assist?! A newbie?! What-…"

Foxwood's dark eyes went from Heero to Wufei and then back again a couple of times, then he said: "Oh. Right."

Wufei kept the smirk off his face.

"So…" Foxwood was scowling as he flipped through the papers clipped to his chart. "I guess that means you can fire a weapon and handle a suit…"

"Can we go straight to the combat test?" Heero was rapidly field-stripping a gun in the background ­ the Yuy equivalent of twiddling his fingers in boredom. Wufei felt a prickle of anticipation. Combat test? But Foxwood scowled.

"Let's do this properly. If putting teenage ex-terrorists in charge of public safety can be said to be in anyways proper." He added with a sniff. Wufei's widened eyes flicked towards Heero but the latter did not react.

"So, guns, we'll give you that one. Suit controls and simulation, ditto. Endurance-"

"If we do an endurance test, we won't be able to take the combat test afterwards, not today." Heero pointed out crisply.

"We do things in order, Yuy." Foxwood responded sharply while still looking at Wufei. "Hope those boots are comfy, kid, I'm going to have you running laps until you start to slow down. If you're too tired to do the combat test after the endurance, we'll-"

"He won't be too tired, but by the time Chang drops half his speed in an endurance test, it'll be closing time for the training facilities." Heero snapped impatiently. "Besides the sun sets at around five, he'll run out of light."

Foxwood looked like he wanted to challenge that but then he glanced sideways at Wufei, assessing, and grunted. "I'll give you that; he looks pretty weedy but then so do you, Yuy, and I know you'd be here until tomorrow morning. That leaves-…hand-to-hand."

"He can take me down one times out of two." Heero said matter-of-factly as he started going through the ammo.

Foxwood stared at his clipboard fixedly for a few seconds then drew a careful tick. "Moving right on…" He muttered.

"Is there anything left?" Heero tossed a gun at Wufei who caught it with a frown. It wasn't like Yuy to be careless with a weapon. Then he looked at it a bit closer, checking the charger.

"We're going to be playing a game of paintball?" He asked in some disgust.

"You prefer we use real bullets?" Foxwood's laugh was more like a bark. "No, don't answer that." He added, sobering suddenly. He leant over his clipboard again. "Well I guess we can go straight to the combat simulation, Chang, since your buddy here is raring to go. Get into position, Yuy, you got ten minutes."

Heero nodded sharply and left without a backward glance, grabbing goggles, helmet and a flak jacket on the way out. He used a small side door that lead towards the distant hangars and wall.

"Know how to use one of these?" Foxwood was unwrapping a comm unit from a plastic bag. Wufei gave him a heavy ‘of course' look.

"Good. Calibrate it to 180." He felt Foxwood's eyes on him as he set up the unit and then clipped it to his belt, fitting the small earpiece into his ear and the throat mike around his neck. "Right, here's the situation. Yuy and you have been tracking some gunrunners. Intel says there are ten of them. They are in those hangars over there."

Wufei nodded, looking out the window at the hangars a few hundred meters away. They were surrounded by low stone walls and big metal containers and boxes. Not much cover, but once inside the area…

"Armament?" He asked, weighing his approach.

"The usual."

"What's the usual, Tauruses, Leos or dolls?" Wufei asked a bit acidly.

Foxwood was silent for a moment. "I meant, submachine and handguns, Chang."

"Oh."

"They might have grenades. Plaster ones of course, since we don't want to blow up our own operatives before they get out on the field."

"Anything else?"

"Yes." Foxwood was glaring at his clipboard as if it could be blamed for all his grief. "You and your partner have found the gang, and your intel is that they will leave within two hours via shuttle. Let's hear your plan of attack."

"Go in on either side under cover, get into the farthest hangar ­ " he'd spotted what looked like a fake runway over there " ­ keep them from the shuttle until reinforcements arrive." By killing or wounding every one of them preferably. Simplest way. Someone who can't walk can't run away either.

Foxwood was ticking things on his clipboard again. Wufei reined in his impatience and temper. The man was just doing his job. The scowl on Foxwood's face was not regulation but Wufei did not require him to be pleasant. He probably had something against Gundam pilots. This would be an attitude Wufei would meet time and again, might as well get used to it.

"Okay. What happens if your partner gets shot."

"Yuy? Get shot?" Wufei asked a bit sarcastically. When Foxwood glared at him he shrugged. "Cover for him, inasmuch as possible."

"What…" Foxwood said after a few seconds of silence. "You wouldn't evacuate your partner?"

"Eva-! Do you know Yuy? If I dropped the mission and tried to evacuate him he'd shoot me himself!"

Foxwood's eyebrows arched, pulling the faded skin around his eyes upward. "You know this for a fact?"

"I've partnered him before if that's what you mean."

"Have you now? I thought you boys worked solo during the war."

"No." Wufei answered shortly, not wanting to go into details for this stranger.

Foxwood shrugged and made a further tick. He was looking almost as cross as Wufei by now. The L5 ex-pilot ­ who'd seen more fighting than this man even if he had been Special Ops ­ was hoping that whatever negative report Foxwood made, Une would know his real worth.

"One final question." Foxwood growled, as if setting the last nail in the coffin. "A first approach indicates the runners have half a dozen hostages, the crew of the factory where they've gone to ground. What do you do?"

Wufei stared at him, bemused. Then he crossed his arms over his chest and bit off: "I'd call the police."

Foxwood's pencil froze over the clipboard. Old eyes slowly rose towards Wufei's.

"I'm not a goddamn hostage negotiator." Wufei snapped. "I'd rather shoot the bastards than talk with them anyway. I'd call in the special intervention squad from the local district, that's their job! If they need a hand taking the enemy down after the hostages are released, then I can-"

"You…" Foxwood cleared his throat. "Are you going to be partnering Yuy? Is that the idea here?"

"Yes." If you don't fail me.

For the briefest instant, a smile flashed across Foxwood's face and he looked older ­ his grin pushing the wrinkles up into his eyes and across his forehead ­ but a good deal more approachable. The look was gone in an second but it left Wufei startled and off-balance.

"From what I know of him, you won't be helping the squad, you'll be sitting on your partner to stop him from charging in and risking the hostages' life like last time he took this test ­ " Wufei stared at him wildly " ­ but that's real life. In this test, you do not have access to the police. It's just you and Yuy. So, what do you do?"

Wufei ground his teeth, his arms tightening across his chest. "Go in, secure the hostages, take down as many of the enemy as possible-"

"We prefer the term perpetrator, or suspect even. We also prefer them alive." Foxwood slipped in smoothly, but his former aggression seemed to have evaporated, he looked like he was willing to let a few casualties slide.

"- and let Yuy stop the shuttle from lifting off." Wufei added.

Foxwood looked at him for a good ten seconds, his pencil tapping his lip. Then he nodded slowly and made a tick.

"Okay, grab a jacket, helmet and goggles. These are high velocity dum dums with a paint pocket to mark impacts, so needless to say, don't aim for the head, aim for their flak jackets. You ever do this before?"

"Do you mean shoot people? Or pretend to shoot people?"

"Use this type of bullet."

"No, I can quite honestly say I never have." Wufei sneered, automatically voiding the charger, checking the ammo, the chamber, flicking the pieces back together again once he'd made sure no live bullet had snuck in by mistake.

"Well trust me, they do more than sting if you catch them somewhere you're not protected. I will fail you if you remove those goggles or helmet. Got that?"

"Yes sir."

Foxwood tapped the pencil against his lip again. His eyes were deep and unreadable, and Wufei had had Heero to practice on so that was saying a lot. He wondered suddenly if Foxwood hadn't done his share of hostage negotiation during his stint as the special ops' CO.

Then the brief grin flashed again.

"Call me Sam. Get the hell out of there, Yuy will have started without you already. Here's a map of the area, and the cross here is your partner's starting point. Good luck."

---

Fools. It was running through Wufei's mind as his feet hit the dusty dry ground, torn up by jeep tracks, truck ruts and old bomb strikes.

Foxwood probably wasn't as bad as he first thought, though it was hard to tell, he was exceptionally hard to read. He suspected the initial hostility had been at the idea of ‘another teenage ex-terrorist' going into situations with guns blazing. Anger pooled in his mind, though he kept it carefully cauterized, concentrating on his surroundings. Nonetheless…Fools! The old man and, hell, even Une, they had no idea. They had the perfect weapon in their hand and they didn't even know how to use him.

His mind ran over what Foxwood had said and what he hadn't said. The mission, according to Foxwood, was to take down the gunrunners, stop them from leaving. The charter Wufei had read that morning stressed that there was no negotiating with terrorists, though all possible care should be taken to protect the safety of civilians.

They just never weighed the fact that to a soldier like Yuy, the mission and ‘all possible care' didn't balance out! Of course Heero went in there with maximum force and damn the hostages during his test if Foxwood had presented the mission in the same way as he had to Wufei. Heero had never let the presence of innocents stop him from doing his job, or he'd never have been able to do anything at all. Heero thought in straight lines, then and now. Mission first; reducing civilian casualties preferable but not essential. Black and white, no grey areas at all.

It was his strength, something that Wufei almost envied him. Heero walked with measured, determined, unhesitant strides - like Meiran had. Wufei…wasn't like that. He hesitated, or he threw himself in entirely to avoid his own inner conflicts. He didn't always know right from wrong, or care about mission success and failure, he just knew what was just and honorable, and these did not include making war on women and children, or unarmed factory workers who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But he also didn't want to let the murdering cowards get away…This inner storm, it wasn't logical, or efficient, or even very practicable sometimes. It left him at constant war with himself, unlike Heero's straight and rigid lines.

On the other hand it gave him the mental leeway to allow him to figure out what Foxwood really wanted out of this mission.

And it allowed him to do it. Wufei's temperament was such that he wanted to go in there and take out the enemy that were so weak they had to hide behind innocents; but he was also aware that saving those innocent was more important than his own satisfaction at wiping out the vermin. Foxwood had read that in him, and had been relieved to think he would be a balancing element to Heero.

...Fools...

He didn't bother with the comm unit. Neither would Heero. His partner must have started penetrating the base over five minutes ago and there was still no contact. There wouldn't be. Radio silence during an infiltration mission was an ingrained habit. Wufei knew exactly what Heero was doing and he felt no need to interfere. Heero didn't need someone to watch his back or lay cover fire for him anyway. In fact Yuy was so used to working alone that could be downright dangerous for Wufei to attempt. Heero didn't need backup; he needed someone who could take down the other half of the base without getting in his way. If Wufei left the enemy alone but concentrated on securing the hostages, then Heero would take down all the hostiles on that base and not notice Wufei hadn't done any of the work until they counted up the ‘bodies' later.

He had a feeling this was going to make for some interesting ticks on Foxwood's chart; no communication between partners, no coordination, each doing his own thing…but that was the way they worked and his superiors were just going to have to get used to it.

Wufei dropped to a crouch as he approached a broken jagged tooth of a ruined wall and saw a shadow shift nearby.

No more thinking.

He evened his breath, let the tension run once through his frame, a ripple of readiness, and then he focused.

The man shifted against the pile of packing crates he was leaning against and glanced around again. He was dressed in fatigues with the same flack jacket, goggles and helmet Wufei was wearing. The way he was moving spoke both of slight tension and much boredom. Foxwood had implied the combat test team had been standing by, maybe after another similar test this morning, so this man had probably been here for awhile. He was in his early twenties, with a rather weak moustache fighting to compensate a strong chin and losing, and a strong scimitar-shaped nose. He held a shotgun on his hip with one hand. The other was rubbing the red mark left by the collar of the flak jacket.

The Enemy.

Mustn't kill, of course. But neither was Wufei going to use his stupid paint gun and alert the ones inside to his location.

He could creep around the man...but it would be dangerous to leave a hostile free behind his back.

His fist twitched. Creeping wasn't much his style anyway...

He ghosted forward around the wall that had sheltered him when the man turned to look the other way for intruders.

His opponent was good...Wufei was still two meters away when he saw his target stiffen and glance around, alerted by the sixth sense any true warrior possessed.

He lunged forward - the target jerked his shotgun from his hip, took half a step back - mouth opened ­ tried to bring the weapon round -

Mistake. Should have used the shotgun as a club.

One of Wufei's hands covered the mouth, slamming the man's head back against the crates. A hard fist hammered the man's guts - stopping short of doing more than winding him slightly through the flak jacket.

Their eyes met over Wufei's hand on the target's mouth. Shock turned into a glare, turned into surprise again as the man took in Wufei's youth, then the eyes behind the goggles grudgingly shut. Wufei felt a shrug pass through the frame before the man let himself slump forward. Good. If he was going to be playing this silly game, he was glad to see that at least everyone was abiding by the rules.

He grabbed the shotgun before it hit the ground, glanced over it, cracked it open. Plastic shells, big, red and ugly, with a paint-pocket at the tip as well he supposed. They'd still hurt like hell if he was shot anywhere else than the flak jacket. Well he'd just have to avoid that...

He continued around the compound, keeping out of sight of the windows and roof of the target building. One down. An unknown number to go. Intel said ten but he didn't think he should rely on that. Or on the scribble on the crude map that indicated the hostages were in the front office building. The instant that first guard had picked up his presence, he knew that Foxwood had set up a fairly good simulation with extremely proficient men; they would try to set up a realistic test for their recruits. That meant that, quite realistically, intel would be dodgy. In view of that Wufei used logic. It wouldn't make any sense for real criminals to keep their hostages that far from their exit route. The hostages would be near the end hangar. Not in it, though; too open, not enough cover. They'd be nearby though. Yuy would deduce the same thing. He'd be taking down as many of the enemy as he could in silence, to minimize the chances of discovery and having one of the criminals going in and using the hostages as shields. Good, but not good enough, not if the hostages were to have the best chance of walking out of this alive.

Wufei regretfully left the second man he found standing where he was, at a side entrance to the hangar. There was no way to get near him under cover, and he couldn't shoot him, not yet. Wufei used a series of big cargo containers for further cover, running along the side of the hangar, looking for another option. The place was huge. The hostages would probably be in the offices near his end. Heero would be operating on the other side, near the big open doors, clearing the men away from the shuttle bay, to keep them from leaving.

There.

In the office section, second story. An open window. And the containers and crates backed nearly up to the wall. Wufei measured it all with one practiced glance as he dropped the shotgun - too cumbersome. He took several deep breaths, concentrating his center. He'd noted the shooter on the roof as a matter of course but the man had turned and headed towards the other end thirty seconds ago, and the roof was very large. He had enough time.

Breathe. In. Out.

Now.

His feet found the balance between speed and silence. The first dash took him to a container higher than his head. Leap - catch the edge - he swung himself up as if weightless, rolling on the container and springing to his feet. Momentum hurled him up on to the second, smaller container stacked on the first. He crouched. Looked around carefully. Rooftop target still out of sight. No one else around.

Breathe. In. Out.

He was two stories up. The window was a good three meters away from the edge of his container, and slightly higher. He stood briefly to glance through the window, cutting his profile against the sky, a clear target he knew, but he had to make sure the room was empty. There was nothing in the room and the door was closed - hopefully not locked. Good, the sound of entry would be less likely to alert anyone who might be patrolling the second story.

He eyed the space between the container and the window, ignoring the drop between the two.

He could feel it come over him; the calm at the heart of the storm. He was aware of every inch of the compound around him, of the distant footsteps of the man on the roof, of the icy breeze blowing into the collar of his vest and the damp skin there, of the shadows in the weak sun cutting across the yard.

He could feel his heart beating, strong and steady. His mind calm, as only the intense focus of battle could make it. His breath was even and empowering, in, out, gathering his energy to bridge that space separating him from his objective. He could feel the blood rushing through his muscles, the air pool in his lungs. Alive.

His boots rang hollow against the container's metal as he threw himself forward. Air rushed past him, unheeded, all his focus on the window, oblivious of the drop below. He caught the edge of the window with inches to spare, even managed to get his feet against the wall before his body slammed into it. Less noise that way, but the clang of his boots against metal seemed to hang in the air like a luminous trail behind him. He could almost feel the man on the roof spin in surprise, trying to locate the direction of the noise -

One heave of his arms had him up and curled over the window sill in near total silence, just a groan of metal and the scrape of his boots on the wall outside. He landed like a cat with his gun drawn in the same movement, covering the door.

He paused in the bare room, letting his senses unfurl, taking it all in. No noise from the hallway outside. A scrape of boot from the rooftop shooter above as the man inspected the now empty side of the hangar. A distant shout from somewhere deeper in the building - not an alarm. Good.

Breathe. In. Out. Move.

Absently flicking his free hand - the edge of the window had been fairly sharp, leaving a red welt across both his palms - he approached the door, listened. Nothing from the hallway. And - his ancestors were giving him a break, for once - the door was unlocked. Good. It wasn't a complex lock, Maxwell could crack it in the time it took him to pop his gum, but Wufei wasn't quite that dexterous and time was getting short, he couldn't afford to lose even a minute. He knew Heero's capabilities - he estimated that at least four targets were down by now, in total silence - but his activities would be found soon and Wufei had to get to the hostages before that happened.

The hallway was empty and smelled of dust. It led to some stairs. He kept low - there were windows looking out into the hangar on one side. Other offices - empty, his instincts told him - lined the other side of the hallway. He made his way to the stairs as quickly as possible.

The smell of gunpowder - a faint taint in the air, not too recent - made him pause, slow down.

He crept down to the first bend of the stairs, ears and senses already alert to the slight shifting below, followed by a mutter.

"-in, Trent. Trent?" A click and a small crackle of static. "Looks like it's started." The voice murmured. Another crackle and click. "Men, we've lost contact with Trent. Karavo, go check him, maybe he lost comms."

Wufei nodded slightly. These guys were good, they'd obviously been in this situation - on the oppose side - before. Foxwood's crew knew that Heero and himself were attacking them, but the gunrunners they were impersonating would not be expecting an attack, not without sirens and sounds of shooting; they wouldn't panic because one man didn't respond to a hail, they'd investigate first, like these people were doing. But any minute now - if they stuck to the most likely scenario - the person on the radio would do a head count, or someone would find Trent's 'body'.

A quick glance below. The main office floor was one big space, empty bar a cracked desk on which the radio was sitting. The woman standing near it and using its mike was leaning against the wall between two windows looking out onto the hangar. She had a submachine gun, the standard small Alliance type, hanging from one hand, finger on the trigger, a gun at her belt, a knife in her boot top. She was tall and muscular. Short-cropped brown hair peeked from below her helmet. She was keeping a careful eye on the approach to the office door from the hangar. There was another door at the far end of the office leading outside - that was the entrance with a guard in front, which Wufei had avoided. That was the only way into the room, apart from the door leading to the hangar that the woman was watching. And, of course, the stairs leading straight down. He couldn't see the rest of the room but he was willing to bet the hostages were there.

The radio crackled. It was quite big and sophisticated for just communication.

//Sanji? Did you pick up anything yet?// The voice just confirmed what he'd guessed. The 'gunrunners' were listening in to all frequencies, to pick up police channels as well as possible attacks. Just one more curve-ball that Foxwood would have tossed at applicants who might not have realized that reality does not always conform to intel, or play nice.

"No, still nothing on the airwaves. Did they switch channels do you think?" She'd turned towards the back of the room for that question - another hostile was present.

"Well if they did it must have been a channel they decided on ahead of time." A familiar voice answered. Wufei frowned. What was he doing here?

//Who was that?// The voice on the radio crackled.

"The Old Fox decided to join us." Sanji answered with a small hard smile. Her eyes were back on the hangar around her, sweeping from side to side while she kept her body carefully shielded by the wall. A thought brushed the edges of Wufei's concentration, set aside to be examined later - if this was the caliber of people he could expect to work with, he wasn't too disappointed.

He ghosted down the steps in a low crouch - he was slightly behind her, and her attention was on the hangar, he had a small leeway before she picked up his presence. He glanced through the stairs' railings. A dozen chairs were lined up against the back of the room. Seven of them had dummies tied to them with steel cable, a few of them sagging sadly against their restraints. Another chair held Foxwood and his omnipresent chart. He had a cable looped loosely around him, symbolizing him as another hostage and not a criminal, though Sanji had visibly not dared to actually tie him up properly and what a pity. He was writing something on his damn paper again. There was no other hostile in the room, the others must be in the hangar, they'd be preparing for their escape in little over an hour.

Wufei crouched and descended a few steps, as low as he could without being visible through the hangar's windows. His gun was trained on Sanji. She was flipping through channels between checking the hangar outside. It whined and crackled and she frowned.

"Aren't these two guys even talking to themselves?" She muttered.

"They might be using a code of flicks and static." Foxwood surmised. "Didn't you find a live channel yet?"

"Well my scan indicates the only live channel around is ours and channel 180, but Fillmore has got that one on permanently and he'd have mentioned any noise at all." Sanji was puzzled but not distracted one bit. There was no way Heero would get anywhere near this office without her seeing him, there was no cover to speak of near the door and she wouldn't be caught out. Thank the gods for that open window upstairs.

"Well when they get here we'll ask-" Foxwood caught his breath as he spotted Wufei through the handrails. He tried to recover but Sanji had already spun around to see what had alerted him. She stiffened and her eyes widened in shock as she saw Wufei's gun centered on her chest.

"Put the gun down slowly." Wufei whispered, remembering the other guard outside the door, and possibly others nearby in the hangar.

Sanji hesitated. She had her finger on the trigger but the gun wasn't pointing in any particular direction, it would take her a precious second to swing it at Wufei or the hostages.

"Put. It. Down."

Sanji looked at his eyes, at the gun trained on her chest without a tremor, then she grimaced and leaned forward to put her weapon on the floor. She obviously estimated a real criminal would be sufficiently cowed by the gesture even if unimpressed by his age.

"Get on your knees, slide it towards me gently." Wufei murmured.

Sanji complied. The skitter of the gun across the broken linoleum sounded very loud in the silence.

"Now the revolver. Draw it from your belt with two fingers on the grip."

That weapon ended up a few feet away from the submachine gun.

"And the knife."

Sanji made a face but drew the knife from her boot carefully, fingers loose on the hilt, and slid it towards him as well.

"Turn your back to me, lie on the ground, hands on your head." That part felt weird. He normally just had prisoners standing around, knowing that if they tried anything he'd shoot them without compunction. Now he had to actually take steps to limit the risk to the enemy - the suspects that is, as well as the hostages. New parameters for a terrorist, but they weren't too foreign to him. He was a fighter and a warrior, not a killer. He'd never liked shooting unarmed people.

Sanji got to the ground with a small grunt and complied. Her body was alive with tension, if he got within arms reach she would make him pay for it.

He cast a quick glance out the windows towards the rest of the hangar. One hostile on the walkway off to one side, high up, looking over the empty space and the stripped carcass of a shuttle, symbolizing the runners' escape route. No other enemies visible. He waited until he was sure the man wouldn't spot his movements through the office window - keeping an eye on Sanji and the other door as well - and then darted down the stairs to put his back against the wall beneath the window. This put the table with the radio between him and the outer door, but he could still keep his gun on Sanji.

He caught a movement from Foxwood ­ the man had glanced at his watch - and frowned at the distracting scribble from the chart.

"Do you have anything to say to us hostages?" Foxwood asked him quietly.

Wufei scowled at what he thought of as 'the other, less talkative, dummies'. "I'm a Preventer. If you want to live, don't make a fuss. I'll untie you when we've secured the area." He muttered.

Sanji snorted against the floor, and Foxwood made a face and scribbled some more. Wufei could guess; Time to target: 35 minutes. Performance subduing hostile: Acceptable. Bedside manner: Atrocious. Well, he'd made it clear he was no hostage negotiator.

The radio crackled. //Sanji? Come in, Sanji.//

Sanji tensed against the floor.

//Sanji? You already do the headcount?...Sanji? Come in, Ravee, can you hear me?//

Silence.

//Fillmore? Can you get a bead on Sanji?//

//Sanji?...No. You don't think-!//

//Don't see how, I'm on the walkway, I've had the door in sight the whole time, and Ed's at the entrance and I talked to him thirty seconds ago. Sanji, if you can hear me but can't reach me, lean out the window and wave.//

A moment of silence. Then: //Switch.//

Wufei slid over nearer the table and motioned to Sanji with his gun. "Roll over, slowly, away. I'll tell you when to stop." If he could use the radio...it was sophisticated equipment, it would be able to pick up a live channel automatically if he programmed it, he would be able to find the enemy's new communication channel and follow their plans ­

- and it hit him that Sanji's second in command might ask the guard at the entrance to check on her half a second before he heard the handle squeak.

He reacted purely on instinct. He threw himself sideways away from the table, gun swinging up. The man didn't have time to do more than open the door; the shot rung out -

Fuck!

He'd forgotten - part of him had been back in the war, despite all his mental preparation. He'd made it a headshot without thinking.

The man's helmet went flying with the impact, he'd not tied the choker. He fell backwards with a thump.

"Dammit-" Wufei put his hand to his throat mike. Sanji had said Fillmore was listening on channel 180, he'd be able to get a medic here if-

"Ed, you okay?" Sanji hissed.

Ed lay still for two seconds, then lifted a hand and made a thumbs-up gesture. His arm was trembling a bit but he seemed okay.

"Sorry." Wufei muttered, trying to get back into the mind-frame of the exercise with some difficulty. The sound of Foxwood scribbling behind him wasn't helping. Ed turned the thumbs-up into a forgiving wave of his hand before lifting it further to rub his head, which must be ringing a bit. The helmet - with a bright blue paint mark on it - was still rocking back and forth like an overturned turtle a few feet away.

Wufei could almost feel the enemy making plans around him, alerted by the shot. He couldn't risk getting to the radio now, he'd be visible through the windows to the man on the walkway who would not miss the slightest movement. Wufei also had two doors to cover now, and Sanji to watch. How easy this would be depended on how many men Heero had taken down.

He tensed as more shots echoed through the hangar. He wanted to glance out the window but knew better. The man on the walkway might miss him, but if Heero was out there he certainly wouldn't. This was the most dangerous part of the exercise for the partners. For most of their war-time missions they'd been either fighting side by side, or each on their own with their own exit plans. They'd only had to meet up at a common target a couple of times. It had been easier then, because they were two teens in a base full of men in identical uniforms. Now they were dressed pretty much the same as the hostiles, and they both had quick trigger fingers. Wufei didn't want a friendly-fire incident to go on to Foxwood's chart with any other unorthodox thing they'd done.

Two more shots. Wufei crouched near the stairs, back to the wall, gun at mid-point between the two doors.

He barely heard the slight scuffle near the door. His senses told him who it was; he doubted anyone else could move like that. He trusted Heero's superhuman reaction times to stop him from shooting before he recognized Wufei, but it would be a close thing and he knew how that would look to Foxwood. Better take a small risk and avoid another black mark. He flicked on the comms.

"Yuy." No more. Heero would instantly guess where he was and what he meant to say, they knew each other that much. An enemy listening in would not be able to guess where he was from so little.

The nearly inaudible steps paused and then the door opened, Heero's gun swinging around cautiously. Wufei held his own weapon pointed at the door until he recognized the small frame in the flack jacket and helmet, blue eyes focused behind the goggles. Heero cast a glance at Sanji, Foxwood and Ed, assessing the situation in a flash, then slipped inside and closed the door quickly.

Heero crouched where Sanji had been, glancing out the window. He looked around the hangar outside carefully.

"How many did you take down?" He murmured without looking at Wufei.

"Three." Wufei said as neutrally as he could.

That earned him a look of surprise ­ he was slightly gratified that Heero had expected him to neutralize more ­ then eyes flickered towards the 'hostages'.

"All unharmed." Wufei added, trying not to sound defensive.

"Hn. Nine down." Heero informed him. "All but one kill confirmed." Wufei winced at the scribble from Foxwood's chart.

"So that's twelve. Do you know how many there were?"

"No." Heero glanced at Sanji, as if remembering the novelty of a live captive. And its usefulness. "You. How many total?"

Sanji looked at him coolly.

Heero opened his mouth but Wufei cut in quickly.

"We're not letting you go, and your friends will have run if they're smart. A bit of cooperation now could mean a few years off later when the judge is doing his tally." This lawful approach would mean a lot less interesting scribbles on Foxwood's chart than Heero's method, which would have consisted in ‘tell me how many more while you still have enough fingers to count that high.'

Sanji looked at them carefully, then shrugged from her prone position. "Two more, if you guys took out as many as you say. It's a fair cop." She added with a sly grin at Foxwood as if this was a private joke. Foxwood grunted, eyes still on his chart.

Heero glanced at Wufei, a question in his eyes. And the slight longing of someone who'd been very, very bored these past few weeks.

Wufei struggled internally. They should stay here with the hostages, and damn the fugitives, let the police put out an APB. But Heero wouldn't accept that; the mission was to put them behind bars or in the morgue. So Wufei would have liked to be the one to do it! He had secured the hostages, he'd done his job and he'd been bored too back in Hangzhou. But…he gritted his teeth. When it came to pure mayhem Heero was just that little bit better than he was. And Wufei could see his duty to guard the hostages, where Heero only saw the mission of protecting the peace by defeating the enemy. It made sense...

"Go on, Yuy, I'll watch things here."

Heero gave him a curt nod and had ghosted out the door before he'd finished speaking. He was left alone with a hostile Sanji still on the floor, a dead Ed watching the clouds and scratching his nose at the door, and Foxwood scribbling madly and disapprovingly in his chart.

Ten boring minutes later Heero reappeared to tell him there was no trace of the runaways. They'd probably cleared out on getting no radio contact and hearing the shots. Foxwood called the simulation to an end, Sanji and Ed got off the floor with some relief, and Wufei stood, a bit lost, in the middle of the office, feeling let down by the whole exercise which had been a pale imitation of the real thing however proficient the opposing team were. It left him feeling unsatisfied.

Foxwood was still seated, though he'd thrown away the loop of cable. He was writing on his chart. Heero and Wufei drifted over but he didn't seem to notice them standing over him.

Finally he lifted his old eyes and looked from one to the other.

"I'll send my report to Une. Here, Chang. Fill this in, sign it, fax it in to head office." He stood, stretched with a creak of old ligaments.

"You pass." He grunted, before Wufei could ask or examine the paper he was holding. "But I warn you two. I'm keeping an eye on you. I know what kind of job you'll be doing. Finesse will never be your thing. I know you won't always have the choice of bringing them all out alive ­ the perps or the bystanders. But do your best. Or I will know about it. And I will make you wish you were back in the war." He spun on his heels and walked out, flanked by Sanji and the man from the walkway who had a bright blue paint-mark on his back. They all left without a word.

Wufei was left alone with Heero, holding what turned out to be a certification of field readiness. He felt even more let down, though he'd not been expecting a hug or a handshake from Foxwood.

"…what happens now?"

Heero shrugged. "Une has to read his report, the final decision is hers. She should contact us soon. Let's go back to the house. There's nothing more to do here."

After returning the weapons and protective gear, and picking up Heero's car at the ops center, they drove back through a sudden burst of wintry sunlight leaking through mid-afternoon clouds.

"Did Foxwood tell you to go for the hostages first?" Heero asked him abruptly after a few minutes of their usual silence.

Wufei took hold of every fiber of his body to answer as smoothly as possible: "The criminals were the first objective, the hostages were the secondary. I didn't think you'd need my help with a loosely scattered force though, and I was closer to the hostage location, so I decided to leave the first objective to you and secure the secondary." All of which was true, more or less; that was the way Foxwood would have given them the mission if he knew anything about soldiers, or, more precisely, anything about Heero Yuy.

Heero did not ask what Foxwood had said exactly. Wufei wondered if he suspected that his partner was, well, rectifying the truth, so to speak. If he did he made no comment, he was silent for a moment before he said: "When I took down the fifth target without seeing any signs of you, I thought that might be the case."

Which was why Heero had taken out all the enemy he could reach before even coming near the hostages. If Heero had been alone, he'd have made his way to the office sooner, if only to free them and take them out of the equation. Wufei knew this, by instinct. Though there had been no communication between them, and when it came down to it, they'd only worked together a dozen times during the war…they understood each other, their fighting styles meshed.

Damn Foxwood and his charts and his proper police procedures. Heero and Wufei were warriors, they breathed the same air, the rarified oxygen of an unforgiving battlefield. They might be sixteen but they knew what they were doing. They were two-fifths of a force that had taken down two armies. They could not be discounted.

[chap. 13] [chap. 15] [back to Maldoror's fic]