Author: Maldoror
Genre: Action, Adventure, Humour, AU
Pairings: 3x4, 2x5, eventual 1x2x5
Rated:NC17 - for language, lots of violence, yaoi, sexual content
Feedback: Please! Particularly what you like/don't like about the fic.
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

This chapter is dedicated to the people who poked and prodded me to get off my rear end and write the next chapter. Thanks for reading and encouraging me! This chapter is all yours.

The Source Of All Things + Chapter 40
Catalyst

Chemistry was easy. Heero had no problems with chemistry. You added two elements and they reacted. Sometimes, a catalyst was needed. But other than that, the reaction was always the same, always controlled, always predictable.

Link up a few atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen together into chains of ribonucleic acids, and suddenly things were infinitely more complicated than they needed to be.

In Heero's opinion, that was where the universe of matter had started to go wrong. This new chemical reaction called Life had a will of its own; it played poker with the laws of physics and probability, and always tried to cheat.

And humans were the worst of the lot.

Take this one, for instance...

The fist thudded against Heero's armoured forearm, and he retaliated instinctively. Wufei's eyes widened - he jerked his head sideways and Heero's riposte whistled past his right ear. Heero's moment of satisfaction was brief; Wufei's knee had already impacted into his thigh. Heero staggered, which placed him within striking range; he wrenched himself out of the way and fell back a step.

Though the two warriors were made from the same chemical components, Heero's design was forty-seven percent more efficient, giving him added strength and agility. They both wore Dragon armour, but Wing was superior to Shenlong. And Wufei had flaws in his concentration. Heero was possessed of a concentration that could chew rocks.

Yet Wufei was surprisingly close to Heero's level.

The man seemed driven by the need for revenge. Heero didn't understand revenge. Killing someone who had harmed you so that they wouldn't do it again was as logical as two oxygen molecules hooking up. But Wufei wanted to avenge people who were already dead. Juusan could no longer harm them. So Heero really didn't see the point. But this exercise in futility seemed to be what was giving Wufei the burning energy to keep up with Heero.

Normally, Heero didn't care about concepts that did not affect the Mission. But in this instance, and very annoyingly, Wufei was in fact part of the Mission. Heero's Guide had explained how using others was a way of increasing your own strength; a form of weapon. It made sense, until you actually had to work with a bundle of temper and contradictions like Chang Wufei.

"You look hot, Wu."

Wufei froze, his fist raised, his eyes going wide.

Heero frowned at the interruption. Yes, the day was warm. The fact didn't deserve a comment. Neither did it deserve Wufei's sudden distraction.

What was strange was that Duo himself suddenly looked flustered; he scrunched down a bit on the rock he was sitting on.

"I meant, it's sunny," he muttered, after clearing his throat abruptly. "And you guys have been at it for an hour. Don't get heat-stroke."

It hadn't deserved one comment. Heero couldn't imagine how even Duo could believe it deserved two. The Jishin wasn't meeting their gaze. He was examining one of the rocks that had strayed from the sanctuary with something like hostile intent (as far as Heero could see; when it came to understanding human emotions, he only had a set of very rudimentary concepts to work with).

Wufei's glare was downright poisonous. He did look a bit hot, now; his face was flushed. And he'd forgotten he was in the middle of a fight with Heero, the latter groused inwardly.

"I told you to keep your comments to yourself, Maxwell. Go away and play with that disrespectful stone creature that's always hanging around you," Wufei sneered, glaring pointedly at the pocket where the small golem usually resided.

"Can't," Duo drawled, his eyes dangerous. "It's taking a nap. It gets downright grouchy when it can't get its fifteen hours of sleep a day. Almost as cranky as you can be."

"Max-"

"Come on, Wufei. You've had your fun. Why don't you go have a drink, stick your head in a bucket of cold water or something, and let me have a go with Deadly over there. I need to practice too."

Heero started to look around for something 'deadly'. An annoyed glance in his direction from Wufei's hot, black eyes told him who Duo had meant.

Duo was even harder to understand than Wufei, and not only because few of his words actually made sense. The magic-user was a knot of screaming contradictions in Heero's view of the universe. Duo was also fuelled by this 'revenge', even more than Wufei. His aura was a maelstrom. But the actions that resulted from this chaos were coldly calculated and finely manipulative. That was like turning lead into gold, as far as Heero was concerned. Heero would have avoided this strange, incomprehensible man if he could; Duo was a distraction. But Trowa had said he had to fight alongside Duo as well.

They were both distracting. Working with them was difficult; it demanded a mental agility Heero didn't have or particularly want to gain. He was also afraid that their strength could become necessary to him; their presence might become something he had to rely on. The thought wasn't as abhorrent as it should have been, strangely enough, but he couldn't afford it. By necessity, he would be finishing the Mission alone after all.

As for relying on them…taken singly, they were powerful fighters. But putting them together had rather alarming consequences. Wufei's finely honed obsession seemed to dissipate into meaningless flares of annoyance. And Duo's cold focus wavered, leaving him unreliable and prone to wild changes in behaviour.

If either of them had had that effect on Heero, he would have killed them, or gone away. That was the logical course of action. Well, not only did these annoying heaps of carbon and water not bother with the logical, they seemed perversely drawn to follow each other around, aggravating the effect (and each other). Duo would reliably show up to watch Heero and Wufei practice. Wufei would frequently go and check the Jishin's progress when the latter was working on the sanctuary's defences, in preparation for Juusan's arrival.

Either they'd ignore each other. Or they'd cooperate passably well. Or one or the other would let loose some kind of barb, as if deliberately trying to attract the other's hostile attentions, and suddenly they were glaring at each other, words drawn like daggers, locked in an argument full of sarcasm and half-worded insults directed at each other's ancestors. So far, Heero could not see any difference in the chain of events that led to one conclusion or another. It was like adding sodium to water and ending up with salted water one time, and an explosion the next, with no visible cause.

What was stranger was that despite repeated clashes, they never killed each other. And the next day, they'd be at it again.

Heero had heard Svale talk to Trowa the other day. She'd described them as 'two cats in a bag'. That was the first time in his short life that Heero had actually understood a metaphor (he'd been both somewhat proud and a bit disturbed at the fact).

Maybe it was like oxygen and hydrogen. Maybe they just needed a spark, an explosion, and then things would stabilize.

+

Wufei glared at the annoying Jishin specimen that was trying to interrupt his practice. Fighting with Heero was exhilarating; the man was a machine. Physically he had no flaws. And mentally, he was learning how to use Wing's defences in leaps and bounds, as if he'd been waiting for this kind of tool all his life.

The Dragons admired strength, and respected it more than the ties of race and country. It helped to ease the pain of seeing one of his race's armour on someone else's back. Wufei could think of few, even in the ranks of the Dragons, more worthy of wearing Wing. It was an honour and a privilege to hone this warrior into an even greater weapon.

He didn't want any interruptions, particularly this one!

"Yuy and I are busy preparing for Juusan's arrival, Maxwell. Do not interrupt."

Duo's eyes narrowed. "Chill, Dragon. I haven't forgotten about the Scourge, trust me. But I'll be fighting him too. Or had you forgotten that."

"You'll be on the sidelines, blocking his magic while Heero and I do the fighting," Wufei corrected him coolly.

"Since I don't think you two will do more than slow him down, I better practice my fighting as much as I can," Duo retorted in a biting tone.

"We'll slow him down," Wufei whispered menacingly. "We'll slow him down dead. Have no fear of that."

He glanced automatically at Heero, to include him in that statement, and realized that his erstwhile opponent had turned away and was heading towards the edge of the bowl-like depression where they trained.

"Yuy?"

"Sort it out between the two of you."

Wufei and Duo both stared at the retreating back. Heero barely paused at the lip of the depression.

"You are distracting each other, and wasting time and energy. I need you focused. Do whatever it takes to disperse this tension between you before I return, then we will continue training."

An interesting little silence lingered in the training ground after the stomp of Heero's boots had faded.

"...did Heero just tell us to sort our shit out by having a match?" Duo finally asked, his voice strangely cautious.

Wufei nodded shortly. The gesture probably looked a great deal more certain than he felt.

"At least, I hope that's what he meant..." Duo muttered, voicing Wufei's own slight apprehension..

Heero might have had a point about staying focused, but he'd made them both sound equally guilty, Wufei thought, bristling. Wufei wasn't the one who started the arguments. He'd been making efforts with the Jishin. Despite repeated provocation, Wufei had kept to their unspoken agreement to not escalate any baiting into a full-blown fight, or even a shouting match. Wufei tried to ignore the bastard's innuendos and implied insults. Of course, Wufei's own behaviour was irreproachable ­ the stupid Jishin just couldn't seem to handle criticism, or even constructive advice, which was just one more moral failing of his, in Wufei's eyes. Duo Maxwell was a planet-sized irritation, but-...

But?

Wufei shook himself abruptly.

Heero might have been abrupt, but that was his way. Who cared anyway? What Heero had actually done was hand Wufei the perfect excuse to take this bloody Jishin down a peg or two under the pretext of a training bout.

Was there even the slightest downside to this?!

A glance at the Jishin showed his thoughts reflected in the suddenly cruel smile. The disguise of worn leather rippled and slithered into a new configuration; the mage's battle-suit, sleek and black, buckled tight with no loose cloth to grab, the long gloves open at the palms to not hamper the lethal bursts of energy. The material over Duo's weak points solidified further, hardening like chitin over his crotch, abdomen, upper torso and forearms.

Wufei met and matched the darkness in those blue eyes and fell into a defensive stance.

The breath of uncertainty that Heero's words had first caused disappeared in a flare of fighting spirit, anticipation and adrenaline.

Duo held himself loosely. He looked relaxed, but Wufei spotted a familiar flicker at the Jishin's back; the end of the braid, now roped in dark leather, was dancing back and forth, alive with excitement.

"We haven't done this in awhile," Duo purred. "You don't mind, now, do you, Dragon?"

"No," Wufei answered, keeping Duo in his sight as his opponent slowly started to circle him. "It will be good practice. Juusan will also use magic and sly tricks. I might as well get used to it with you, first." It was a wonder he'd never thought of this before.

"I can't say it will do me much good, since you're nowhere near the Scourge's level of power," Duo yawned. "But hell, it'll be fun. Let's dance."

That was the only warning Wufei got, not that he needed any. He dodged under the first hurled energy bolt and sent a surge of power to Shenlong's energy field to counter another. The bolt fizzled in a burst of light; Wufei darted forward instantly, hoping to catch the Trickster momentarily blinded and off his guard.

Duo danced backwards; distance was to the magic-user's advantage. Wufei pressed him, not letting him get away. A swipe of energy from Shenlong's wrist clamp sent Duo dodging off to one side. Wufei hadn't been trying to hit him- merely corner him-

He sent a surge of power into the rear plate of his armour, propelling him towards Duo.

The slim, black shape twisted and leapt backwards, somersaulting gracefully out of reach.

Fast and slippery as a snake, Wufei growled internally, whipping around and sending another beam of power flaring out. He had the gratification of seeing Duo's eyes widen. The Jishin's dodge was clumsy - Duo stumbled-

The black-gloved hand smacked into the ground, in a move that looked too ungainly to be anything other than - a bluff!

Wufei cursed and leapt aside, but too late; the rock and soil beneath his feet had twisted and turned to some sticky quicksand, sucking at his boots. He staggered- the sand turned to concrete in an instant.

"You don't mind if I use a bit more magic than the last time we tangoed," Duo drawled, "I was only using a fraction of my power back then, to stay off of Juusan's radar. Oh, did I forget to mention that?" He stood up and brushed off his hands, not even bothering to press home an attack against the pinned Dragon.

"I don't mind, Jishin," Wufei growled. "In fact I insist you use your magic. Go ahead and do your worst. You can teleport, too. No need to jump all over the place like a flea."

"I decided not to. I want to give you some sort of advantage," Duo murmured, lazily examining the tips of his glove for remaining dirt. "Won't be any fun for me otherwise."

Wufei would have cheerfully murdered him at that point.

He focused the anger. It cut him, it burned; it turned into a weapon. Shenlong hissed and powered up. The thrum of energy that rippled through Wufei loosened the rock holding him; he ripped him away from the trap and hurled himself at his enemy.

Duo twisted away from the grab- and then fell back under a flurry of blows.

Strike- parry- blow- dodge-

The rhythm of the fight was a riotous heartbeat.

Magic clashed against energy field. Fists smashed against black armour like glass.

Wufei felt whole. He was one intent. Duo filled his world, became the goal. No longer an annoyance Wufei had to force himself to ignore; no longer an irritation - always there, always dragging his attention to blue eyes dark soul mocking grin- always always- always challenging, always demanding- always always-

Duo's fist - glass and razors - brushed his cheek, a savage punch that did not fully connect.

Wufei twisted and kneed- Duo grunted and fell back.

A trickle of blood caressed Wufei's cheek, curved around his jaw like the touch of a warm finger- ignored. They hadn't set the parameters of the match, but it went without saying that it wouldn't stop at first blood.

Wufei grabbed his opponent- pinned one shoulder, missed the arm. Duo's harsh breathing rang in his ear. The cruel, delighted smile hadn't wavered. Wufei twisted the shoulder; bring him to his knees! Duo seemed to melt, to bend and twist and - Wufei had to let go to block a vicious short stab at his gut.

He caught the wrist- Duo kicked, managed to loosen his arm and struggle backwards. The black figure darted away, one hand rubbing distractedly at the spot where Wufei had held him. Wufei tore his eyes away from the long fingers curled around the slender black wrist, and wondered why he hadn't pressed forward and taken a decisive advantage.

A flash of anger banished the momentary distraction.

"Stop playing around, Maxwell!"

Duo had retreated to a prudent distance. He straightened and turned, relaxed and ready for another round. "What do you mean, Chang?"

"Come at me like you mean it," Wufei growled. "You have the magic of your entire race at your disposal. Why are you leaping about like a bug?!"

Duo's eyes narrowed, gun-metal blue. "You want me, Dragon? One hundred percent?"

"Definitely," Wufei hissed, ignoring the possible innuendo; that dangerous light in the Jishin's eyes hinted that for once, the words could be taken entirely at face value.

The answering smile was as bright and sharp as the beloved sword Wufei had lost over a year ago.

Duo dropped, lithe, cat-like, into an attack position, energy swirling in his palm-

- and vanished.

Wufei's mind triggered Shenlong's sensors instantly. A green-blue lattice covered the world in Wufei's vision-

- and a red ripple in the air appeared over his right shoulder-

Wufei spun and struck- his fist met a warm, pliant body.

Arms that had been reaching out to him scrabbled against Shenlong in shock; Duo managed to twist and ‘blink' away, reappearing ten feet away gasping and rubbing his abdomen.

Wufei stayed where he was; he crossed his arms over his chest and smiled slightly; maybe it was just a bit of a smirk.

"My race developed a very sensitive radar that can track disturbances in the ether, from a ship ripping out into normal space, down to the ripple of a teleporter reappearing. Oh, did I forget to mention that?"

Duo gave him a venomous glare and an amused smile, as if those two things went together perfectly, as if the man's entire being wasn't one single aggrieving, annoying contradiction.

"Nice. Very nice." Duo chuckled. The praise sounded perfectly honest. Wufei felt hot and irritated for no reason he could discern, and decided that the praise of a twisted Jishin was probably worse than an insult.

"Is this the best you can do, Trickster? Is your race that decadent and feeble?" he snarled.

Duo's eyes narrowed as his smile broadened. Maddening creature. "No. If I wanted to, I could blow a hole in this planet the size of your ego. Or the size of the moon. Whichever's biggest."

Wufei sniffed, though indeed he believed every word. Well, not the bit about his ego, of course, but-

"I'm restraining myself to the amount of power I think I'll have when I'll be busy spending most of it blocking the Scourge," Duo drawled. "It's important that I learn how to pace myself with the little left. And you know what, Dragon?"

Duo shrugged, a gesture that rippled across his body, like a black cat stretching lazily as it watched the mouse, sensuous and-

"You know what? It's still enough to kick your ass."

Wufei blinked at the empty space. His moment of distraction almost cost him the fight. It wasn't Shenlong's sensor that told him to duck, it was pure instinct.

He fell straight to the ground; Duo's blast - point blank right behind Wufei - glanced off his shoulder armour. Wufei used the momentum to roll away from the kick he knew was coming; knew it because that's what Wufei would have done, a warrior's reflex to press the advantage. Shenlong's damage indicator had flickered to orange. Minor cracks in the shoulder piece; the Gundanium was reenergising and repairing itself; the bolt hadn't been powerful enough to kill, but it would have knocked him down, and maybe out.

Wufei staggered to his feet, dodged left to avoid a punch, and then used his Dragon Scale's boosters to lift him straight up and vault over his attacker, giving him room to manoeuvre.

Duo was faster than a falling shadow. Wufei was defending himself before his feet touched ground.

Blow. Counter-blow. Wufei's boots might have hit the stone; he couldn't tell. His body was a thing of energy and instinct, orbiting the crashing fury of his heartbeat. The flurry of attacks was faster than thought. He stopped thinking and let the dance take over.

Duo managed to nearly pin him against a rock; the spirit armour was cool to Wufei's heated body. He could feel it through layers of cloth where the Scale didn't protect him. Duo was breathing heavily. A faint smell, sun on warm rocks, tickled Wufei's nose. The Jishin was barely sweating, though.

Bastard's strong...

In the heat of battle, the faint admiration slipped through the net of Wufei's strict and disciplined mind.

Time to show him what I'm capable of. He can't dismiss me...

"What's the matter, Dragon?" Soft tickle of air against Wufei's ear; a breathless chuckle. "Is this the tough mechanists who were so sure they could kick our asses back during the Twilight?"

Keep laughing, Duo...keep laughing...

Wufei's mind, body and chi melded together with Shenlong. One harmony, one intent.

Duo yelped as he was tossed aside by the blast. Wufei was already on him.

Won't let you dismiss me...

A punch got through Duo's defences. He folded over, and Wufei grabbed the front of the sleek black cloth near the neck, twisting the tight material to get a grip. The Dragon felt almost light-headed from the burst. His body thrummed and purred, still wanting battle.

"What's this, bone-eater?" he parodied. "Is this the arrogant Tricksters who claim to be the oldest and strongest race?"

Duo's eyes twinkled despite the near-stranglehold on his collar. "Bone-eater? Are you mechanical apes still calling us those fairytale names? Do Dragon children hide under their quilts and fear us like the boogieman?"

"No, and I don't fear you, either," Wufei growled, twisting. Duo was off-balance, and Wufei's hold kept him that way.

"Maybe that's through lack of knowledge, my pretty Dragon..."

Suddenly the cloth Wufei clasped twisted under his hands, slithering free. And his wrists were gripped in a vice stronger than stone, lifting him away with deliberate ease and slowness. It interrupted the considerable rant Wufei had been about to launch into, regarding Duo's last words.

"...maybe you should learn what Jishin actually means?"

"Don't know, don't care, don't intend to learn," Wufei growled as he tried to rip his hands free, but it was like trying to move a mountain. He kicked - only to find his arms wrenched straight out, his body yanked forward by the wrists so that it slammed into Duo's, restraining his range of movements. His hands were held away from his body by a grip like the rock of ages, pressing the two opponents chest to chest. Wufei snarled and tried to step back, to regain his balance, but he was quite caught.

"In the old tongue, which was old long before your ancestors heard tales about changelings and Tricksters eating the bones of children -"

Energy started pounding around him in a tight circle. Wufei's warrior instincts mobilized, working on breaking the deadlock-

...He could feel Duo's breath against his cheek, even through the growing tumult around them. It caressed his skin. The spirit armour was cool; Duo's lips radiated heat as he spoke, his breathing quickened by exertion...

- maybe a head-butt right into that arrogant face- give Wufei the opportunity to rip his hand away and-

...the grip around his wrists felt unbreakable, but not bruising....holding him securely...

"In the old tongue," Duo whispered, tilting his head slowly, "Jishin means earthquake."

The ground screamed and cracked; a fissure twisted itself in the stone beneath Wufei's feet. The earth's growl rang in his bones, wild and dangerous and as exhilarating as fighting a sleek, black shape like a shadow-

Shenlong hummed; a deep, steady counterpoint to the chaotic rumble. Wufei was gathering up every ounce of power, every molecule of his energy- no choice, no question, no doubt- the forces around him ripped the ground, cracked a stone ten feet away, but he was not afraid. The build-up was phenomenal, rising up swiftly between them, in the air where only mingled breaths seemed to dwell-

- Duo's grip had loosened- they were grasping each other's hand like wrestlers. The unleashed energy tried to rip them apart - neither of them gave ground-

Until someone grabbed Wufei by the shoulder, and threw him several feet away.

He grunted as he landed hard. He growled, and then choked as Shenlong's warnings suddenly registered. He desperately tried to stabilize and disperse the massive amount of power running through the Gundanium structure. His processor was flashing a few numbers in his eye - actually, it had been printing out alarming figures for awhile now, blithely ignored. Wufei managed not to go critical, and stared at the gauge slowly creeping down again. He was dazedly impressed. He'd never realized he could get that much energy out of his armour.

Blinking through the red haze of the warning screen, he realized that Duo had also been tossed aside. The Jishin was on his knees, about ten feet away. He looked as bemused as Wufei. The tremors had subsided. Duo shook his head, blinking; the braid fell over his shoulder to thump into the rock with a noise that sounded loud in the crystallized silence.

The whole area was covered in a film of dust, shaken up from the ground. Heero rose out of the smoke like an angry god.

Like a bewildered and angry god, Wufei corrected himself, still a bit stunned.

"You..."

Heero clenched his teeth as if he wanted to bite the words to pieces.

"That was not what was supposed to happen," he finally growled. "You are not to injure yourselves."

Injure...? Wufei staggered to his feet. His reasonable side - which had apparently been taking a coffee break during the fight - informed him that the amount of power he'd gathered could have blown him and Duo to Hell.

The fact sat there, in his mind, but meant nothing to him. He hadn't been about to release that energy. He...hadn't the foggiest idea what he'd been doing, really. He wasn't stupid enough to let his grievance with Maxwell compromise his sacred duty of revenge- what...

What exactly had been happening here?

That was obviously what Heero was wondering. Or rather, not wondering, in that odd, blind way of his. He looked cross, but there were no questions, no attempts to understand, to mediate or inflame. Wufei was beginning to know Heero's fighting style well, but the man's thought processes were still mysterious to him.

"You will not do that again," Heero growled. "It is stupid to not focus on the threat. You will stop distracting each other."

Wufei wondered if he was imagining the note of befuddled exasperation in Heero's voice; apparently, the strange young man had learned there were limits to his powers. This was something even the mighty warrior couldn't fight, beat or control.

Wufei was damned if he knew what 'it' was. Still dazed and throbbing with exhaustion, adrenaline and excitement, Wufei discarded the question. This...hadn't happened.

In a move that was almost embarrassing it was so synchronous, he and Duo turned away at the same time and headed out of the bowl in opposite directions. Wufei felt, in a distant way, that he would spend all night glaring at the ceiling, reinventing that strange moment until it made sense, and worrying about what Duo- Maxwell would think- it was easier not to dwell on it at all.

There was an irritated growl behind him; Heero had probably just realized he'd lost both his sparring partners.

+

The plan had been only partially success. To say the least. Fortunately, Heero had shown up in time to stop the two annoying humans from killing each other and thus reducing Heero's overall fighting force.

But some success was measured by the fact that since yesterday, Wufei and Duo had been assiduously avoiding each other. The sanctuary had been remarkably calm and free of angry debates.

That meant the situation had stabilized, Heero decided. If it hadn't, he'd have them do it again, except this time he'd keep a closer eye on them.

He glanced at Duo. The Jishin was lounging in a chair near the dinner table, staring up at the ceiling. The little stone golem was blinking sleepily on his shoulder, and giving its master the occasional puzzled glance.

Wufei was leaning stiffly near the door, as far as he could get from Duo and still be in the same room. His arms were crossed over his chest, and he was glowering at nothing.

Heero realized he wasn't the only one scrutinizing the pair. Quatre was also looking from one to the other, with that deep, remote light in his eyes, a stare that seemed to see right through solid matter and into the Forbidden. Heero was expecting some dire prediction of the future; instead, Quatre just smiled. The healer leaned towards Trowa and whispered something in his ear. Trowa was leaning back against the wall, long legs sprawled out before him on the bench they shared. He looked asleep, but he still snorted softly and muttered: "You didn't need Zero for that".

Heero eyed the distance between Trowa and Quatre, measuring it down to the millimetre. For awhile, Heero had been honestly worried that his Guide was breaking apart; that the two units that composed it, Trowa and Quatre, would become unstable as-...as Wufei and Duo, for example. The idea had chilled him. His Mission was hard enough as it was. He had no idea if he was ready to meet the Thirteenth Aspect, but the confrontation was now inevitable, and he'd have to do his level best to defeat Him and then fulfil the Mission.

But according to Heero's observations in the past few days, the problem seemed to have resolved itself. The pair had spent a day and a night locked away, apparently in an effort to regain the balance in their relationship. Heero, armed with only rudimentary understanding on humans and their bonding, judged that they had not been entirely successful. Quatre still liked to wander off on his own sometimes, looking preoccupied; he'd give anybody who approached a long, blank stare until they left, even Trowa. And Heero caught Trowa watching the healer on occasion, as if he were cautiously circling something both essential to him, yet dangerous.

Hopefully they wouldn't drift apart- Heero caught himself. 'Hope' was not a word he used; until recently, it wasn't a word he even understood. He considered it a weakness. Things either were, or were not. The future arrived at its own pace, and you could only influence it from the present by your actions, not by wishful thinking.

There was no hope in the future. Heero knew it. There was nothing but extinction.

"Ah, I think I hear him!" Svale chirped, thumping her mug down on the table and nearly squashing imp, who'd wandered over to sample the cheese and biscuits the crone had laid out.

The windows rattled faintly, then the hum of Howard's spaceship became audible.

"Good," muttered G, who'd been observing imp with fascination since the little thing had poked its head out of Duo's pocket. "I hope he's got something for us."

The Wardens had been working together assiduously these past few days, trying to track down the last Hearth Stone the sanctuary spell required. G had rounded them up that morning, telling them that Howard had come across a clue, and was flying in to discuss it with them.

When Howard appeared, he was wearing a tight mauve space suit with big yellow and pink fish painted on it. Heero had virtually no aesthetical sense to speak of - he was barely aware of the lack - but something still made him frown as his eyes caught on that.

"Hi guys! How you doing, kid?"

"Okay," Duo answered; his voice was around five decibel lower than usual, Heero noted. In his corner Wufei scowled, as if Duo's single word was a provocation, but he'd tensed and hunched his shoulders almost defensively. Quatre snickered quietly, covering it with a cough. Svale chortled for no reason, and Trowa sighed. Heero decided they were all unreliable heaps of irritating carbon and wished, not for the first time, that his Mission didn't involve these distracting people.

"Good, good." The man in the loud, ugly suit hopped over to the table and grabbed an ale. "I see you were ready for me."

"Tell us the news first, you drunkard, or you won't get a drop!" Svale screeched.

"Drunkard? Coming from you, crone, that's more irony than I can handle sober," Howard growled, before taking a long pull at the liquid of fermented hops and barley, the attraction of which Heero couldn't begin to understand. He'd tried it once and found it bitter and nutritionally inadequate.

"What did you find?" Trowa asked, before Svale could attack Howard with her staff.

"Plenty. We have a trace on the power source we need. It fits all your specifications, G. The problem is finding it."

"What do you mean?" G asked, eyes narrowing. "If it's magical, H can divine it's location through a link with Gaia-"

"It ain't magical, that's why you guys couldn't find it in the first place."

"A techno item?" Svale spat. "What good is that? We need magic, not nuclear fusion!"

"It's not that kind of item," Howard growled. "It's an Ether-based Condensator. It stores power, whatever power you feed it, and it can absorb a certain type of magic. If we can find it soon, we can feed it magical power for a few months, and it will store it and release it steadily for a few years. I got in touch with J before coming here; he says it should work the same as the stones."

"You said you needed to find it?" Quatre asked.

"Yes," Howard sighed. "The Condensator was invented by this group of techno-holies; extreme religious Cabalists. Their community suffered some kind of disaster a while back. They're scattered around, and we're trying to find them, or preferably their invention."

"They don't sound like they'd give up their gizmo willingly," Svale muttered.

"Hell no. These guys are nutters, and I'm speaking as a Cabalist myself. They invented this thing, and now they virtually worship it. Even though it's useless if you don't feed it ether-carried power. They don't even call it a Condensator. They call it the Orb of Ophed, or something similarly lyrical-"

"The Orb of Ophed?" Quatre interrupted sharply.

"Yes. It's not big, and it's round, I'll give them that, but you should give things their proper scientific name, you know-"

"But...the Orb of Ophed..." Quatre's eyes widened. "Wasn't that that thing those men who attacked us months ago were looking for? The thing-"

"Baka!"

"The thing Duo said he'd stolen from them and pawned off for the price of a bad beer?" Quatre finished a bit weakly, with a glance at Duo who was banging his head against the table.

Humans, Heero thought with an internal sigh. They could make just about anything more complicated than it needed to be.

[chap. 39] [chap. 41] [back to Maldoror's fic]