Author: Sunhawk

Directions (cont.)

I needed... a tool. Something I could use as a tool. A nail or screw or needle or... something. I could pick the damn locks on the cuffs if I just had something I could use as a pick. It was unbelievably frustrating to have my head working again, and still be stuck. I felt kind of stupid, really. Ought to know by now that just the desire to do a thing is not enough to get the thing done. My wanting to get myself loose and go kick some ass, was not going to suddenly give me the strength to break free. Buff damn hamster disdain, or not.

Not that I was planning on giving up.

I opted to explore the wall on my right again, carefully running my hand over it in a sweep pattern, just in case a nail or something might be protruding where I could pull it out if I could just find it. There was nothing but cold stone from as high as I could reach, down to the bed, where I was thwarted. I was fairly sure I could reach the damn floor, if the bed were not sitting right against the wall. Unconscious thought told me to move it, before conscious thought snorted derision. Yeah... if I could move the bed, I would not be cuffed to the bed, and I would not care to move the bed.

Or... could I move the bed?

I gave an experimental rock of my body and found that the thing didn't seem to be all that bleeding heavy. Ok, maybe I could move the damn bed. I had to be careful, I wasn't quite ready to resort to tipping myself over, not just because of the puddle of urine on the floor that I did not really want to find myself lying in, but I didn't much want to risk breaking a wrist or an ankle either. Might, as a last resort, but I wasn't quite there yet.

It took some experimentation with, basically, jouncing my body up and down while pushing against the wall with my free hand, but I eventually managed to shift myself several inches out from the wall. It was damn hard work, work that I was almost sorry for when the sweat I'd worked up began to chill on my skin.

I was lying there trying to rub warmth into whatever I could reach when I suddenly heard a noise. The creak of someone moving around overhead again.

I could cheerfully have screamed. If the bastards found me with one hand free, they were sure to replace the fucking cuff and make damn sure I didn't slip out of it again. I briefly considered trying to get the cuff back on, but I already heard them near the door at the top of the stairs and knew I'd never make it in time.

I wanted to curse a blue streak, but bit my tongue and stayed quiet. I heard the rattle of the latch and tried to think what to do.

Why were they back, anyway? Not like they'd shown any concern for my comfort so far, so I doubt they'd come to feed me or any damn thing. Was this the 'dispose of the evidence' trip? Had they gotten to Relena and didn't need me anymore? Finally come to taunt the fallen good guy? All of the above?

Whatever. Probably didn't bode well for me in any case, and I wondered if the last of my life was being measured out in minutes.

Well, fuck them. If that was how the dice were going to fall, so be it. But I would do my best to go out fighting.

As the hinges at the top of the stairs made their protest, I lifted my arm up and tried to look like I was still securely fastened in place. Closing my eyes, I let my head roll awkwardly to the side and tried to look dead. If somebody would just come close enough, I'd be taking the son of a bitch to hell with me.

I really hoped it was the homophobic bastard with the Mt. Dew hatred.

I took a couple of deep, quiet breaths while I listened to stair treads creak, oxygenating my blood. The flare of the flashlight beam was darting mostly around the stairs themselves with no sunlight from above to guide them, and I dared to continue breathing deeply until they reached the basement floor. Then I went still.

I heard the scuff of a shoe on the concrete, felt the burn of the light through my closed eye-lids and then there was a sudden rush of footsteps. I almost grinned.

Gotcha, sucker!

When the fingers touched the side of my neck, checking for a pulse, I knew right where the son of a bitch was and I had him by the throat, fast as a striking snake. The next few minutes might well see me dead, but I'd be damned if I didn't take the mother fucker with me.

My eyes had snapped open, but the glare of the sudden light had me just as blind as I'd been in the dark. I kept expecting the man to bash my brains out with his flashlight, but he only had me by the wrist, trying to twist free.

I meant to crush his windpipe before he had the chance.

I think I was very damn close to achieving my goal when suddenly Heero's voice cut through to me and I let go like I'd been doused in scalding water.

'Duo! Stop it! Let go... it's us!'

The next part was something of a nightmare of wildly flaring flashlight beams and a lot of yelling. And... Wufei falling to the floor.

'Oh my God,' I whispered, and knew a terror unlike anything I have ever quite felt before. I've killed men a time or two in my life, but... but... Wufei was my friend. My brother. And I'd just... just...

When I heard the sound of breath rattling harshly into his lungs again, I thought I would weep. 'Oh God... oh God, Wufei...'

I don't think Heero knew which of us he should be seeing to. I couldn't see a damn thing, my eyes so accustomed to the dark, that all I could make out was shapes and movement, but I could see Heero trying to attend to his partner, while his attention seemed to be turned my way.

'I'm fine!' I snapped. 'Check Wufei!'

'Hold this!' he snapped back, and gave me his flash-light while he grabbed Wufei and pulled him up into a sitting position, leaning against the bed frame and the wall. I did my best to hold the light steady, but my hand was shaking so damn bad, the light was all over the place.

Out of the blue I wondered if Wufei was sitting in my puddle, and I almost fell prey to the whole hysterical thing again, but... didn't.

'Duo,' Heero had to ask, even while he was checking Wufei's vitals. 'Damn it... baby, are you all right?'

Absurdly, I almost corrected him. Almost told him not to call me that, and it was such an inane, asinine thing to even be thinking about, that somehow it brought me completely back into focus.

'Shit,' I growled, and really listened to Wufei. He seemed to be breathing, even if he was still out, and if he could breathe... not likely that he would suddenly stop after the fact. 'Listen, Heero... forget about us and listen to me. You're doing exactly what those guys wanted, they were never after me, they...'

'It's all right,' he soothed, turning away from Wufei to look at me. 'Rackham is in protective...'

'No, damn it!' I growled, getting frustrated. 'They're after Relena! I don't know what, but Rackham and I were both just... decoys! You have to...

'Relena?' he asked, giving me his whole attention. 'What do you know, Duo?'

'I'm trying to tell you, damn it!' I shouted at him, adrenaline having no other outlet. 'I heard them talking. Rackham isn't in on it, near as I can tell, but was just a convenient distraction. They took me specifically to screw with your concentration. They have something planned against Relena... but I don't know what. You have to alert somebody...'

But Heero was swearing and starting to look... distinctly distressed. 'There's no damn cell reception out here. Duo...' he looked positively anguished, and I instantly saw the rock and the hard place he was between.

'Go!' I yelled at him, giving him a shove in the shoulder. 'Send someone for us! But you have got to get word through!'

He knew what he needed to do, but I could see it was killing him. I saw him get that stubborn set to his jaw and he grabbed hold of the cuff still holding my left wrist and gave the chain a wrench, but it held fast. It... pleased me. Somebody had thought enough of me to buy the good stuff; probably Gundanium laced if Heero couldn't bust them.

'Go!' I shouted again, and the noise he made then was an animal sound of pure frustration.

'Duo... damn it, Duo. I... I'll... send a squad,' he finally told me, his voice intent, but somehow still laced with defeat. A man having to follow his head instead of his heart.

'Go,' I told him again, more gently. 'I'm fine, I swear.'

He didn't trust himself to speak again, just looked at me long and hard for a moment, then turned and ran for the stairs. At least he left us a flashlight.

It was weird as hell hearing the pound of his running steps overhead and listening to them recede. Knowing he was leaving.

I heard his car roar to life and I imagined him growling curses at the night; it made me feel better. I wondered how far he'd have to go before he either found a phone, or managed to pick up cell reception. Wondered where in the hell we were.

Twisting around so that I could see Wufei, I wished I'd thought to have Heero dump him on the bed with me before he took off. I wasn't exactly in a position to help him even if he had needed me. I was able to reach his face though, and I gently patted at his cheek the way you see them do in the movies.

'Wufei?' I called softly. 'Hey... come on man; wake up.'

Weirdly, it made me remember our time trapped aboard the Libra, and I shivered again. I wished like hell Wufei's breathing didn't sound so... audible. He rolled his head away from my patting, so I stopped and called him again.

'Wufei, hey... Wufei?' he wasn't going to be happy when he figured out what had happened in the few minutes he'd been... unaware. I wondered if Heero would have made him stay with me if he'd been awake. Or would Heero have taken the opportunity to stay, and sent Wufei?

Maybe it was just as well Wufei had been momentarily out of the loop; they might have wasted precious time deciding the issue. As long as... as long as I hadn't hurt him.

'Wufei?' I called again, embarrassed by the faint twist of fear that found its way into my voice. I could see him struggling to come back though, so I shifted the flashlight from its spot on the bed so it wasn't shining on his face any more.

He made a noise then that was... unclear. Might have been a question about the situation, or maybe a curse on my ancestors. Or just a complaint of pain. I really couldn't tell.

'It's Duo,' I told him, probably unnecessarily, but I just wanted to be clear on that in case he came around thinking he was still under attack. 'I'm really, really sorry man. I thought it was the bad guys come back to ax me. I couldn't see and I swear to God I didn't know it was you and...'

He made a sound then that was more... directed at me, and it came out sounding so rough and hoarse and... irritated, that I just wanted to shrivel up and die. 'Oh God... Wufei, I am so damn sorry...'

He leaned forward then, bringing himself more in a line with me and tossed an arm over my shoulders where I was twisted around trying to see him. 'Hush,' he managed to croak out, and I thought that Guilt would just eat me alive.

I couldn't help clutching one handed at his shoulder and he shifted on up to his knees to be able get closer to me. 'I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm sorry...' I found myself crooning at him while he leaned down to try to hug me.

Maybe it was just his experience being a Preventer, and dealing with people in... stressful situations, or maybe he was still getting his own head together, but he just let me go for a bit, holding me and letting me babble.

I couldn't stop running the scenario through my head where I'd actually... killed him.

It was the feel of his body heat that made me start shivering uncontrollably. Only that. He pushed back then, and stripped out of his jacket despite my protests, wrapping me in it as best he could. Then he cast a look over his shoulder that seemed... annoyed.

'Yuy?' he wanted to know then, voice barely a whisper, and I realized he'd probably assumed Heero had gone to their car for tools or something.

'He... he had to go,' I confessed, and he turned to stare at me like I'd just told him Heero'd been abducted by aliens. I rushed on, wanting to spare him the effort of questioning me, and spare myself the sound of his voice. I wondered if I'd done permanent damage, and tried not to think about it. 'I was just a damn distraction, Wufei. I over-heard them talking... it's all some plot that has something to do with Relena. The whole plan was for you guys to get reassigned over my disappearance. Heero said there's no cell reception... where ever the hell we are. He said he'd send help.'

He picked up the flashlight from where I'd had it lying beside me and turned it on the spot where the one empty handcuff hung. Just seeming to accept my explanation, focusing in that way he has on one thing at a time. 'How...' he started to ask, but then turned his attention to my free hand and didn't have to finish the question. He shone the light on my still trapped hand and I could see him dismiss the idea that I might get my other hand loose the same way.

'If you could find me something,' I told him. 'A... a small nail, or wire or allen wrench or something, I'm pretty sure I could pick these.'

He nodded, but just kept sitting there looking at me. I wasn't sure if he was thinking, or was just reluctant to leave me. Then he smiled and stood up to fish something out of his pocket. I couldn't help grinning back when he pulled his badge free from his wallet and undid the pin on the back before handing it over.

It was almost depressingly easy to get my hand free once I had the tool to do it with. Probably didn't take me ten minutes. Proved that had I just been able to find something earlier, I could have gotten my own ass out of the fire. Or at least out of the frying pan.

Once both my arms were loose and I'd worked my shoulders free of some of the ache, Wufei helped me sit up and scoot forward until I could reach my feet. It probably shouldn't have been such a shock how dizzy it made me, not being prone any more, but somehow it was. Wufei sat behind me while I worked on the other two cuffs, helping support me, and sharing his heat with me. I felt like I'd never lose that vaguely clammy chill. I had a million questions, but felt guilty making him try to talk; it obviously hurt him to do so, or he'd probably be questioning me up one side and down the other.

He held the flashlight for me while I worked, and wasn't a hundred percent steady himself. When I was free, he wouldn't let me try to stand up immediately, but had me swing my legs off the edge of the bed first and just sit for a minute.

'Not... going anywhere,' he told me, gravely voiced and sparse with his words. I didn't tell him that I just wanted the hell out of that basement so bad I could taste it. We sat quietly while feeling came back into my extremities and my head regained some equilibrium.

'Don't know what they gave me,' I told him while his attention was on putting his badge away. He didn't ask how I'd managed to get myself drugged, and I didn't volunteer the embarrassing 'dumb ass' part.

'Hurt you?' he finally asked and I shook my head.

'Not to speak of,' I sighed, working my ankles and knees. 'Some scrapes and bruises is all.' I felt him nod behind me, and I felt the gnaw of Guilt again.

'I am so sorry, Wufei,' I had to tell him, too damn aware of what might have happened if Heero hadn't been right there with him. Knowing that Wufei himself had practically let it happen because of his reluctance to hurt me.

'Idiot,' he grumbled, affection plain in his voice despite the gruffness. 'Don't apologize... for defending yourself.' He was quiet for a minute, I'm not sure if considering words, or just regaining his breath. 'You did yourself proud.'

I just hung my head. His words... eased a feeling that was far from proud, but I didn't know how to even begin to explain what was in my head. 'Can we... get out of here?' I finally asked, and there was a sigh from him, but nothing more.

I thought I would fall on my damn face when the standing up part happened, and Wufei supported me, though I can't say he was completely stable himself. The stairs were daunting damn things, open on both sides and rather steep. We clung to each other on the way up, until we were high enough to reach out and steady ourselves against the floor joists. I couldn't help turning to look back at the last minute, letting the flashlight beam play across the place where I'd spent the last... I didn't even know. I shivered and huddled deeper into Wufei's jacket. It looked like a damn crime scene. The thought would have made me laugh if Wufei hadn't been there... it was a damn crime scene.

He touched my elbow then in a gentle, understanding sort of way, and urged me on.

We emerged into what had probably once been a kitchen, though there weren't any fixtures left. I immediately saw how Heero and Wufei had found their unerring way to me once they'd entered the house; the trail of footprints in the dust led straight from the front door to the basement. The rest of the place appeared relatively untouched. It was rather creepy, to be honest, and we ended up going outside to sit on the steps of the place to wait for help to arrive. It really wasn't any warmer inside the house, and even out in the open air was warmer than the basement had been. I had just wanted out, and when I'd moved that way, Wufei hadn't argued with me. Just settled me on the steps, sitting one step behind me so he could shelter me as best he could. I'm not even all that ashamed to admit that I let him.

I still had not a clue where in the hell we were. The house was all but falling down, the windows broken out and boarded over, completely empty from what I'd seen as we'd made our way out of it. From what I could make out of the area, it was wooded and overgrown, the drive up to the house nothing more than a rutted path with grass growing down the center of it. Literally in the middle of nowhere, I realized that there probably would never have been a chance of anybody just stumbling across the place.

'How in the hell did you find me?' I finally had to ask, despite my resolve not to make Wufei talk any more than he had to.

He made a funny little noise that I suspect was an attempt to chuckle, but made us both wince. 'Clerk at the deli,' he began, voice changing pitch as he tried to find a comfortable range. He settled on a breathy whisper that I had to concentrate on to hear. 'Rather taken with you. Saw suspicious man leave right after you. Security cameras.'

He had to stop for a minute and I pieced it together while he just breathed. The cashier at the deli flirted with me rather blatantly, but I had just assumed she did all the customers. It was weird to think she might have some kind of... crush on me? But, a suspicious man? I thought about the crowd that day; there hadn't been a lot of men and one of them had been with a wife and kid. The other one though... I remembered thinking that he was playing with his cell phone too. Could he have been texting Dietcoke guy? Alerting him to my movements for the set up? Probably. I tried to remember what he looked like; had he been the second man that had come into the basement? No, definitely hadn't had hair long enough for a ponytail. I stopped trying to dredge his face up when I realized it didn't matter; they'd gotten his picture from the deli's security camera anyway.

'Did you catch him?' I wondered out loud, and Wufei just nodded. And somehow traced him back to the property where our butts were currently chilling, I reasoned.

I felt Wufei make a tight little sound that made me think he was trying to clear his throat. 'Stop,' I whispered, my own voice lowering in sympathy. 'I'm sorry; I'll stop asking questions. Stop trying to talk before you hurt yourself worse than I already did.'

He cuffed me lightly and gave me a look that was meant to chastise me for the guilt I'm sure he could hear in my voice. But I noticed he didn't try to reply.

Partly because I didn't want to be tempted to continue questioning, and partly because I was starting to feel like a puppet with its strings cut now that the adrenaline was draining away, I leaned into him and tried to relax. I hoped I was returning at least some of the body heat he was sharing with me, because he'd completely refused to take his jacket back, making sure I was wrapped up tight in it.

'Thanks for coming to bail my ass out again,' I mumbled and was surprised to find that I was suddenly very damn sleepy. He answered by giving me a squeeze and we settled down to wait.

And wait.

I was kind of appalled that I was having so much trouble keeping my eyes open, and I wondered about it. Not really used to sleeping through things like kidnappings, intrigue, and mystery. I suppose there was some lack of nutrition and fluids at work there, I'd been without for... awhile; God knew how long. Suppose Wufei did too, but I didn't want to make him talk by asking. It seemed to be the wee hours of the morning, with false dawn hinting at the sky, but I couldn't have told you what morning. Hell, maybe it was left over from the drugs. I yawned hugely and Wufei reached around me to rub briskly at my arms, generating warmth even through the jacket.

I somehow didn't think it was a good sign that it was taking so long. I wondered where Heero was and if he'd gotten through yet. I wondered about Relena and hoped to God she was all right. And not just for Heero's sake; she was a good kid, and didn't deserve for those guys to hurt her.

The thought kind of surprised me as it filtered down through drowsy senses that were trying to shut down now that the tension was draining out of me. A good kid. She was, you know? Just a kid, really. Maybe roughly the same physical age as the rest of us, but you do a whole different kind of growing up when you have to fight for the right to eat from day one. Maybe things started off rough for her with the fall of Sanq and the death of her real parents, but she'd admitted it herself... she barely remembered it. She'd grown up not even knowing she was a Peacecraft. She grew up as the pampered and adored Relena Darlian. How does that kind of upbringing compare with growing up on the streets? In a mercenary band? In Gundam training? Her experiences during the relatively brief period that was the war, just couldn't compare. Yeah, we were all in our twenties now, years on down the line and all 'grown up', but...she was still just a kid, relatively speaking. Poised, and prim and proper and so very damn naïve. And she sure as hell didn't deserve to be hurt because some idiots wanted to use her to further some bloody damn cause.

Didn't deserve to die. She had spirit and she had ideals and she had earned the right to grow into her potential. She didn't do bad, for all her rose colored views on life, but she could be so much more, given half the chance. She could make changes, and she could make this peace that we'd won, grow wings.

Somehow, for the first time, I think I caught a glimmer of what it was Heero saw in her. That... potential.

And for some damn reason, it made me think of Wufei's Meilan. Potential lost. It made me ache, and I prayed to Father's God to let Heero get through in time.

No more lost potential, God. No more lost dreams. Lost beauty. Lost innocence.

Are you listening?

'She was beautiful, Wufei,' I heard myself saying. 'I'm so, so sorry you lost her.'

We'd been sitting quietly, each thinking our own thoughts and maybe he thought I'd dozed off, because I felt him flinch when I spoke. 'What?' he asked after a moment, voice just a ghost of sound.

'Meilan,' I confessed, a bit appalled at myself. 'I... looked her picture up in the census records. She had...' I struggled for a word that fit, and finally settled on, 'a warrior's spirit, didn't she?'

He was quiet for so long that I started to realize just what I'd said. Started to realize that I was drifting on the edge of... something. Sleep? That my mouth was working somewhat without the inclusion of interaction with my forebrain. I lifted my head and looked up at him, trying to work out an apology, but he was staring at me with such a look of weirdly open... wonder, that I stopped. And we just sort of stared at each other for a long moment.

'Yes,' he finally agreed. 'She did.'

'What would you have me paint for you?' I asked, and I'm not sure if I was whispering because I was afraid of breaking the moment, or if some part of me was trying to make me shut up.

He couldn't seem to tear his eyes away from mine, and even though there wasn't much light, I could still see a look of utter longing well up in him. 'Home,' he replied, and I think it would have come out ragged and breathless even without the bruised throat. He looked vaguely shocked that he'd said it, almost like I'd tricked him somehow.

I'd have promised to paint him the world in that moment, was opening my mouth to tell him so in fact, when his look suddenly changed and he seemed to shake off the mood. He made a noise that sounded... not happy, and he was suddenly pulling me to my feet. 'Walk,' he commanded, and started doing so, hauling me with him. He touched my face, and slipped his hand into the jacket to touch the center of my chest. 'Too cold,' he explained, and I thought about arguing; it was spring after all, not the dead of winter. It wasn't that damn cold, but I suppose my metabolism had already taken a couple of cheap shots.

'I'm just a little tired,' I reassured, then felt bad when I thought he hurt himself trying not to laugh. I was saved from having to defend my point of view when we both heard the sound of distant sirens coming up the hill through the woods.

His lips moved without sound, but I knew the feel of 'About fucking time,' without having to hear it. He moved us back over near the porch, perhaps wanting to make sure we weren't run over by some overly enthusiastic driver in the dark, and we waited.

They came in like a damn swat team, locked and loaded and looking for bear. Three squad cars, some kind of van, and a damn ambulance. I am very sure I looked like a deer in the, for a change, very literal headlights. I almost raised my damn hands, but Wufei was immediately gesturing in a way that was trying to look commanding instead of like a weird-ass game of charades.

A tall guy wearing a flak jacket and Preventer insignia came striding right up to us, and I wasn't surprised that Wufei seemed to know him. 'Agent Chang!' he barked, and stalled a gesture that wanted to be a salute. 'Situation, sir!'

I wondered just what in the hell Heero had told them. Wufei opened his mouth and the guy blinked at the croak that came out. 'Stand down, Agent Morgan, the...'

His voice broke from him pushing it too hard, probably not wanting to sound wussy in front of the fellow macho men, so I cut in. 'It's pretty much over now, man,' I informed him. 'No bad guys to nail; just the mop up and the boring statement stuff.'

The guy blinked at me while Wufei worked his throat and looked... either amused or pissed; I had trouble telling. 'Uh... Agent Maxwell?' Tall-n-armored asked hesitantly, looking me up and down like he'd expected... something.

Almost, I corrected him and told him 'Captain Maxwell', but then remembered the 'not any more' part and floundered around with names for mechanics before finally just letting it go. 'Maxwell,' I confirmed. 'Yeah. If you have a medic, Wufei needs somebody to look at his throat...'

I was surprised to find that Wufei could still make a growly kind of noise that was pretty intimidating, considering. It got Agent Morgan's attention back, anyway. 'Get the damn medics,' he whispered, giving up and just going with wussy sounding. 'Maxwell's bordering on hypothermic.'

Morgan looked at me and I just gave him a shrug that clearly stated I was tired of arguing the point. 'This way,' he told me, I guess figuring they'd need the light inside the ambulance to work anyway. Might as well take me to them, instead of the other way around.

'Not without him,' I stated calmly, and prepared to get stubborn if I had to.

'Damn it, Maxwell,' Wufei ground out, and I let him see the stubborn.

'I almost killed you, asshole,' I told him. 'Humor me.'

There were some hand gestures then, that expressed exasperation quite nicely, but still managed to border on rude. I held my ground, but then kind of wished I hadn't once we were settled in the lighted ambulance and the nice medic lady had Wufei's shirt open.

His throat was already an alarming shade of black and blue and you could clearly see the crescent imprint of my fingernails where I'd... where I'd... almost...

They wrapped me in blankets when I started to shake and I just let them think I was cold. Or maybe I really was... I wasn't even sure any more.

It got kind of chaotic after that; there was somebody checking my vitals and somebody else working over my wrists, a third one looking at Wufei and talking to him in low tones that I couldn't really make out over the people in my personal space. Morgan was waiting to pounce on me, his notepad already in hand, exchanging comments with Wufei in between the medic's questions.

Outside in the yard, the forensic people were swarming like ants, hauling out equipment, taking pictures and setting up lights even though it was already obvious the sun was starting to come up.

I had this bizarre moment of... distance. All the sounds kind of receded and left me alone in my head for a minute. Probably more likely that I just got over-whelmed with it all and shut it out. I remember watching one of the forensics guys go into the house and having this weirdly territorial flash of not wanting them to go down into that basement. It seemed a... a too personal thing, all of a sudden. I didn't want them to see that bed that probably bore the imprint of my body on it. Didn't want them photographing the cuffs with my blood on them. Didn't want anybody seeing the damn obvious puddle on the floor and knowing what it was.

I watched them take pictures and study the dirt like they'd never seen the like before, and I was just... very embarrassed.

All those people were there because I'd screwed up.

I wondered where Heero was, and if they'd tell me if I asked. I wondered if Relena was ok and if he'd gotten through to somebody in time.

It had been so long that I was kind of afraid he hadn't. It was frustrating, because if he hadn't... if something had happened to Relena, then damn it... he'd need me and I ought to be there with him instead of sitting out in the middle of nowhere while people poked and prodded at me.

It made me mad. Made me wish that DietCoke was right in front of me and I could get my damn hands on his throat like I'd intended. I wanted him to call me a fag to my damn face when I wasn't incapacitated.

When I was able to... respond.

I blinked, watching, but not really seeing a guy taking shoe imprints from the ground. Something sliding into place in my head and I suddenly knew where I'd seen that smirk before.

'They've been planning this since before Heero and I moved,' I told nobody in particular, and maybe it's because I'd been so still up until that moment, it made the whole ambulance get quiet.

'What?' whispered Wufei and it drew my eyes back to the present and I looked across at him.

'You remember the big argument we had in that pizza place across from our old apartment?' I asked and he nodded even while he looked faintly uncomfortable, as though worried that I was going to go into the details of the fight. 'The guy... he was there. He's been stalking me at least that long.'

'You sure?' Wufei wanted to know and I nodded probably a little more emphatically than was necessary.

'It's been nagging at me,' I told him. 'He was familiar, but I couldn't place him. It was... something he said. It just clicked.'

He inclined his head, accepting the information and I could see him adding it to the equation, fitting it in like a puzzle piece to see if it made a difference. I wasn't even sure it really mattered. It only verified that it hadn't been a spur of the moment thing, which I thought was pretty damn obvious anyway.

The nice medic lady approached Wufei with a syringe then, and he questioned her before giving his consent. Something about swelling. It made me look at the damage I'd done again, and he caught me staring, but only sighed.

I dropped my gaze to my own lap, avoiding his frustration with me, to find my hands back in my own possession again. Wrists wrapped in pristine white gauze, making it look like some sort of lame suicide attempt. I realized the other medic was preparing to put an IV in my arm and I couldn't help frowning at him.

'You're fairly dehydrated, Agent Maxwell,' he explained, voice patient like he was talking to a little kid or the impaired. It made me frown harder and I turned to Wufei to finally get around to asking just how long it had been, but he'd taken himself back to his duties while I hadn't been looking. Jerk.

'You're the boss,' I sighed, figuring there wasn't much point in fighting it. The nice medic lady, having finished with Wufei, moved up on my other side with all the stuff I was more than aware was used for taking blood. I sighed again, and just held my arm out. 'You're looking for traces of something that was ingested in liquid form on Monday at noon,' I told her, letting her figure out the timing. 'Fast acting. Caused initial disorientation, thirst, and loss of muscle control. After affects of headache, vertigo and...confusion. I think they used chloroform on me too.'

She gave me a surprised little look. 'You're in there after all,' she smiled, and bent to work.

'The hamsters aren't in accord yet,' I told her. 'But I'm working on it.'

She traded a look with her partner and I chuckled to let them know it had been a joke. Didn't need to end up going in for a psyche evaluation too. I might not come back out.

The ambulance bobbed slightly, and I looked over to see Agent Morgan climbing in to sit in Wufei's vacated spot. 'Can you answer some questions now, Agent Maxwell?' he asked, and I couldn't let it go any more.

'You can drop the agent stuff,' I told the group in general. 'I'm just a damn mechanic in the motor pool.'

I'd figured that there had just been some assumptions made, but there was a moment of hesitation all around that made me wonder if I'd been billed as such somehow.

'You get bonuses for field work?' the IV guy asked while he worked, and I had to look at him to realize he was joking. I grinned at him for the effort.

Morgan seemed to take it in stride, but I guess it didn't much matter to him what I did for a living... he just wanted his questions answered. And answer them I did. Guy had me going over it and going over it, pulling details out of me that I hadn't even thought about before. Clothes and cars and positioning and timing and witnesses. Where had the car been? Had DietCoke guy shaken hands with his right or left? Did I remember seeing the second guy follow me out of the deli? Did I remember seeing what he ate for lunch? Did I see anything in the car before I blacked out? I answered him as clinically as I could, though it got tough when he started in on the earlier incident that I'd mentioned to Wufei. He and I were both blushing by the time I got through the whole 'fag' thing.

Then he closed up his notebook and spoke a command into the radio clipped to his flak jacket before turning back to me. 'Now, Mr. Maxwell,' he told me. 'If you think you're up to it, we've got a sketch artist...'

I couldn't help but laugh, and was still doing so when Jones stuck his head around the edge of the open ambulance door to stare in at me.

'Oh for fuck's sake,' he growled, looking terribly uncomfortable in a flak jacket that was too big for his frame, and clutching a bundle to his chest that I was sure contained his sketch stuff. Looking at him, I suspected that he didn't get out into the field very often; it seemed to be a new experience for him. It made me feel kind of bad again, at the same time I couldn't quite help thinking it was probably good for him.

Morgan managed to look scandalized that their resident sketch artist was cussing at the witness/victim, so I gave Jones a 'gimme' gesture before Morgan could start in on him.

'Hope they didn't get you out of bed, man,' I drawled and he just snorted, dragging out his sketch book and a pencil, passing them to the nice medic lady to hand to me.

'Hell yes, they did!' he grumbled, though he didn't seem to really be all that upset about it. 'Nobody sane is up at this hour by choice!'

I flipped open the book and started right in while Morgan tried to figure out if he should be bemused or annoyed, and settled on shaking his head and giving over his spot to Jones when Jones poked at him for it.

'Let me know when you have it ready to fax,' he told Jones. 'I'll be checking in with Agent Chang.'

Jones was already hunched over, watching me work intently, and only gave the guy a distracted wave.

'Sorry they dragged you... where ever the hell we are,' I apologized. 'If I'd thought about it, I'd have done this to start with.'

'Well if somebody would have told me who they wanted me to work with, I'd have just laughed at them and rolled over and gone the hell back to sleep,' he snorted, and I couldn't help but grin. Guy had a pretty decent sense of humor; it was something that hadn't come out in our last encounter.

'We're ready to transport, Agent... uh... Mr. Maxwell,' the nice medic lady interjected gently, watching me work right along with Jones. 'As soon as you're done there.'

I couldn't contain a snort that bordered on derision. 'I really don't think I need a hospital for some scrapes and bruises.'

'If you weren't a Preventer employee,' the IV guy told me somewhat gleefully, 'you'd actually have a choice.'

'Great,' I muttered, blocking in the eyes and eyebrows of DietCoke, trying hard to maintain a sketch artist type of decorum and not letting myself give him that sneer he'd had there at the end of our... conversation. 'Well, Chang is in worse shape than I am if you ask me, so we're not going anywhere without him.'

There was an odd little laugh from the third guy, the one that had looked Wufei over. 'Good point,' he said, and climbed down from the back of the ambulance, grinning widely. 'I think I'll just go find him and point that out.'

The other two shared a rather sadistic grin and I wondered if it was a medic thing, an agent thing, or just a Chang thing.

'You're good at math, aren't you?' Jones suddenly asked, ignoring everything else in favor of watching me draw like he was going to see the secret formula for turning lead into gold appear on the paper under my hands.

'Uh... yeah,' I confessed, pausing to look up at him, a little alarmed by the raptorish look in his eyes. 'Why?'

He waved a hand at my sketch and I wasn't sure if it was to encompass it, or to urge me back to work. 'You're very... exact. You have a precision that shows through in your composition. Your base layout suggests an understanding of mathematics that borders on genius. It's part of what makes your pieces so strong even when the finished work flows beyond...' he stopped suddenly, perhaps feeling the wide-eyed stare of everybody left in the ambulance, and blushed darkly. 'What?' he asked defensively. 'I went to your show, ok?'

'That's good,' I heard myself say. 'For a minute there, I was afraid you were getting ready to hit on me.'

It was one of those moments where you wish you had a rewind button on your mouth and I'm sure my face turned every bit as red as his was, but he took it right in stride. 'Just buttering you up for a job offer,' he quipped, and got points for brass, even while my blush crept up a bit higher.

I bent back to work, muttering, 'I'm still thinking about it,' when the IV guy chuckled in a way that felt unrelated. I glanced up to see him looking out the back of the ambulance with a grin on his face, so I followed his gaze to see Wufei striding across the grounds with Morgan in tow, with a scowl on his face like a thunder cloud.

'Here comes the pissy dragon,' muttered the nice medic lady, so we were all sitting there staring right across the yard when all of a sudden people came boiling out of that house just like those ants they'd reminded me of earlier.

Somebody shouted 'Fire in the hole!' and everything just went to freaking hell in the most hideously slow motion manner.

Or maybe it just seemed slow to the adrenaline that I suddenly seemed to be mainlining.

I beg forgiveness for thinking of Wufei first. I had people closer at hand who fell more on the 'civilian' side of the fence than he did, but...

Screw it; I make no excuses; he is one of 'mine' and I looked to him first, but he and Morgan had both already dug heels in and were running hell-bent for the nearest squad car.

The nice medic lady had the good sense to look horrified, but Jones and IV just looked kind of... confused. When I lunged for the back doors, I actually had to almost climb across Jones to reach them. Judging our time to be short, based on the utter panic going on all around us, I just took the time to jerk one of the doors shut, grabbing Jones and hauling him bodily across the ambulance to be behind it with the rest of us, shouting 'Get down! Get down! Get down!' the whole damn time.

The explosion, when it came, rocked the whole damn vehicle, blowing dust and dirt through the open door in a tornado wind rush that stung and left me tasting grit.

You ever just had one of those days?

There is a moment after a major explosion that is just this weird thing of... near silence. Which, of course, is impossible, but it exists all the same. Perhaps it's just the contrast after the explosion itself, or perhaps it's the human ear shutting down in shocked disbelief. The first thing I was conscious of hearing again was the sort of panicky sound of Jones' breath in my ear as I still had him clutched to me. The next was the strange ting of the lighter weight debris as it rained down on the roof of the ambulance. Then was the shaky cursing of IV as he sorted himself out.

And then we all started to hear the sounds of the wounded outside. The nice medic lady was the first to get it in gear and she pulled herself up from the floor and began gathering her kit with hands that were not altogether steady.

'Wufei...' I muttered and I'm afraid I wasn't that gentle shoving Jones off to the side.

'You... ripped your IV out,' he told me inanely, and I glanced down to confirm it, but the damage didn't look that bad.

'I think that's the least of our problems,' I said, and shoved away to follow the nice medic lady outside. I was not reassured to find Wufei and Morgan still on the ground, though it looked like they'd partially made the dubious safety of the squad car.

I was relieved that the nice medic lady headed that way without my having to drag her there, because I think I would have.

Before we got to their side, Wufei had pushed himself up to hands and knees and I saw him look toward the ambulance, but when he saw me on my feet he turned his attention to Morgan; I can not convey the relief that flooded through me. Maybe it was already having come so close once that day; a second near miss was just too much to deal with. Wufei seemed to forget himself for a moment and called out to his second in command, his voice nothing but a dry croak.

Then he started to cough. I realized at the same time the nice medic lady did that all the dust and smoke in the air was wrecking havoc with his already constricted airway. She hesitated, as though thinking to head back to the ambulance, but then shook it off and turned to me. 'Tell Paul to bring an oxygen mask!'

It took almost a whole heartbeat for my head to transition from 'Paul' to 'IV' and I went pelting back the way I'd come.

Paul, thank God, had gotten his shit together and when I commanded him in a voice that was probably pretty damn terse, he didn't argue, but hauled the requested equipment out and took off.

I trailed after him, part of my head thinking about evaluating and prioritizing the wounded. About looking for the other medic. About radioing in for backup and another ambulance. But I had to see them get Wufei's breathing under control first. Just... had to make sure I hadn't ended up killing him in the end after all.

Morgan was sitting up at least, when Paul and I arrived back at the squad car, nursing a head wound and having his pupils checked. Wufei was... making a sound that was turning my stomach wrong-side out; a sick sucking for air that echoed out of my own nightmares. Paul was beside him in an instant, slapping a mask over his nose and mouth, shifting him to lean forward slightly and I wondered if he was afraid he might get sick. The thought made me queasy just thinking about it; under the circumstances, the outcome would probably not be good. I knew it was bad just because Wufei was being so... docile.

I found myself almost panting in sympathy and made myself stop, hoping nobody noticed. It took a couple of long minutes, and I think it was as much Wufei's own will power as anything else, that finally seemed to settle the cough.

The nice medic lady finished with Morgan and caught my eye while she gathered her kit together. 'Stay with him and make him keep that on,' she commanded and I hesitated, thinking that I could better serve elsewhere. 'I don't want to be doing an emergency tracheotomy out here,' she added, and I think it was meant to scare me into complying. Or scare Wufei. I didn't have the heart to tell her it was actually a relief to realize there was something they could do if Wufei did stop breathing.

I looked out across the grounds and was kind of surprised to find that things were not... chaotic. It rather made me want to laugh at myself; I was in the middle of a squad of Preventers, be they medics or agents or forensics... they really didn't need me to help them get organized. I accepted my assignment with a nod then, and sank down to kneel beside Wufei while Paul and the nice medic lady took themselves off to be useful.

Morgan had been left leaning against the squad car with a wad of gauze that he was supposed to be pressing to the gash in his forehead. He grinned at me wanly through the wash of blood on his face. 'Ain't this just been a pisser of a day?' he managed dazedly.

'You have no idea,' I muttered in return, then stopped to think about that statement. 'Just what the hell day is it, anyway?'

'Wednesday,' he informed me and looked like he wanted to laugh at the expression on my face, but didn't have it in him.

Damn; I was missing a good chunk of time there. I tried to think back and piece the time line together, but just wasn't sure. There had been the ghost of some sunlight when my captors had come calling, and I had to guess that must have been some time Tuesday, but I couldn't even guess the particulars. No damn wonder I felt so generally whipped.

Heero... had to have been beside himself.

It sort of hit me then, in a weirdly delayed moment of clarity, that the sons of bitches had meant to blow me to kingdom come. The smoke and dust in the air, the blood on Morgan's face, the groans of the wounded... suddenly were very damn personal.

And it meant that whatever plan they'd had for Relena had passed some sort of make or break moment. No way, if that bomb had been set off by accident by one of the investigators, would there have been any warning. It had been on a timer. They had meant to hang on to me only as long as needed for... whatever, then the evidence and witness were supposed to get neatly disposed of. Or... not so neatly.

I wondered if we were far enough out into the boonies that nobody would have even noticed the explosion? How long would it have been before somebody even realized what it had been? They might not have ever found my damn body.

Beside me, Wufei made a motion like he was going to pull the oxygen mask away so he could speak, but I pressed my hand over his and kept it in place, frowning at him. 'Don't make the nice medic lady hurt you,' I warned, and he gave me a glare that was lukewarm at best, relenting and using gestures instead. He touched the center of my chest, then made a motion that clearly indicated drawing, it made me turn and look toward the ambulance. Jones was standing just outside the doors, staring around wide-eyed and tight-lipped, obviously not having a clue what he should be doing with himself.

'Hey, Jones,' I called, and felt guilty when he jumped a foot in the air. He turned my way and I swear I could see the whites clear around his eyes. 'Can you find the sketch book and bring it here?'

I thought for a moment, that the poor guy was in shock, because he just stood there staring at me like I was speaking a foreign language so bizarre he didn't even recognize it. Just when I thought that I was maybe going to have to go check on him, he turned around and climbed back into the ambulance.

'Poor guy,' Morgan muttered distractedly. 'I think this is the first time they've actually sent him into the field.'

'Baptism by fire,' I opined without thinking, but Morgan just chuckled.

It took Jones a few minutes and I can only suppose he had trouble finding the stuff. The explosion and scrambling bodies had done enough damage in there, but on top of that... I don't even remember where in the hell I'd thrown the sketch pad.

He reappeared eventually and came over to give it to me, unable to keep from staring across the yard as he came, either at the smoldering remains of the house, or the area where the forensic team was assembling the wounded.

'W...what should I do?' he stammered, as I took pencil in hand and tried to concentrate on getting the feel of the sketch back. 'Should I be doing something?'

I glanced up at him, where he was standing and I remember thinking the medics wouldn't thank me for sending him to assist if the guy up and fainted when he got there. Poor sap was as white as a sheet.

'Sit down here and help Agent Morgan,' I told him. 'His arm is getting tired.'

I thought for a second he was going to balk, but he dutifully sat and took over holding the gauze against Morgan's forehead. I only had to tell him once to press harder, though he apologized while he did it.

I spent my focus on my work then; it suddenly seemed even more important to get the likeness out. Though I know the urgency should have been there before, I guess there was just some part of my head that realized if they'd been willing to blow me up... it sort of made the likelihood higher that assassination was what was in the works for Relena. It all suddenly seemed more... immediate. I wondered at myself then, kind of wondered why I couldn't seem to get myself back in any sort of gear. Maybe there was more to that hypothermia theory of Wufei's than I'd thought. Or Paul's dehydrated theory.

Or maybe Morgan's pisser of a day theory.

Some guy in a flak jacket with soot all over it, came up while I was sketching, to report to Wufei that there had been no casualties, but there were a couple of forensic people who were going to need immediate transport and the nice medic lady, who's name turned out to be Sheila, wanted Wufei on the wagon for the ride.

He turned to gesture toward me, but the guy was quick to report there wouldn't be room.

'I'm good, Fei,' I soothed. 'I'll ride down with Jones... I want you with the nic... with Sheila in case something happens that needs... uh... her expertise.'

His resistance was actually kind of token, and I decided in that moment that he'd scared the shit out of himself with the coughing fit. Couldn't blame the guy; I knew from personal experience just how much it messed with your head to suddenly find it difficult to breathe. Sort of an important function.

I finished up the sketch about then and Morgan was right there waiting for it, taking back his pad of gauze from Jones and struggling to his feet. He took the picture away mumbling about satellite uplinks and portable fax scanners. I watched him go and hoped he didn't end up getting blood all over the damn thing.

'How the fuck can you be so calm?' Jones suddenly asked, and I couldn't tell if he was awed or just disturbed. I didn't look at him, keeping an eye on Morgan instead, just in case the big guy fell over or something.

'On the inside I am gibbering insanely and wishing for a do-over,' I told him and got a funny little snort from Wufei, but Jones seemed to have lost his sense of humor about the time the 'fire in the hole' part happened.

Somebody was delivered to the ambulance on an actual stretcher, then Paul was coming for my charge. I thought Wufei was going to fight it, there at the end, but he just looked at me long and hard, conveying something with his eyes that frankly... went right past me. It was in the neighborhood of 'be careful' or 'take care' or 'don't do anything stupid', so I just smiled and squeezed his shoulder before turning him over to the medics.

I ended up riding with Jones, Morgan and an only slightly worse for wear agent who, thank God, drove because I thought for a minute I was going to have to. I even got shotgun. The guy seemed a bit daunted by ferrying the moderately wounded, and kept sneaking looks in the rearview mirror at Morgan, as though he was afraid of him passing out or something. We hauled out, just us and the ambulance, and probably made an interesting convoy for the birds and raccoons to watch go down the drive. Nobody even bothered with the sirens, and I had to wonder why they had, coming up. I didn't know who to feel sorrier for... the injured on the way out, or the guys left behind to sift through the debris looking for clues that were probably nothing but a memory. I watched the trees go by out the side window for a mile or two before I realized the driver might have more information than I did, and tried to strike up a conversation.

'So,' I ventured, feeling a bit awkward not even knowing the guy's name. 'Where the hell did they find the bomb, anyway?'

He cast a look at me out of the corner of his eye, trying to look like he was paying close attention to his driving. 'Uh... under the bed in the basement, sir.'

I blinked at him for a second, thinking about my jouncing the bed out from the wall. Made me wonder how close I'd come to bashing into the thing. Made me wonder if I could have set it off early. Well, I'd been looking for something to get me out of the cuffs... I suppose that would have done it.

I stifled the only slightly crazed sounding snicker because it made the guy look like he was having trouble concentrating on his driving.

'Does anybody know what's happening on the other end of this mess?' I asked then, deciding I didn't want to know anything more about the bomb.

'Sir?' he asked, hands working at the wheel while he followed the ambulance down the trail.

'Heero... uh... Agent Yuy,' I clarified. 'The catching the bad guys part?'

'I wouldn't know, sir,' he said, but I wondered if he really didn't know, or if it was more of that security clearance stuff. It made me sigh and drop the conversational ball, because I was pretty sure I wasn't going to find out much from the guy about the things I wanted to know. I turned my head enough to catch a glimpse of Jones in the back seat.

'You guys ok back there?' I asked, because he and Morgan were both being pretty quiet.

He glanced at Morgan before telling me, 'Just peachy, though if we pass a McDonalds or something, can we drive through for coffee?'

He got a laugh from me and Morgan both, but the driver just very seriously told him. 'Sorry sir; I can't do that.'

'Damn,' Jones mumbled and I suddenly wasn't sure if he'd actually been kidding or not. He gave me a rather direct look then and said, 'Just so all the cards are out on the table... if you take me up on the job offer, you are so doing all the field trips from here on out.'

'I'm not sure that's a selling point, man,' Morgan muttered and I craned my neck around a bit more to be able to see him where he sat behind me. Poor guy was still holding a wad of bloody gauze to his forehead, though it looked like it might not be the same wad of gauze.

I went along with his joke with a 'No shit!', but didn't bother to tell him that it kind of was. I couldn't imagine spending the rest of my Preventer career sitting in some office somewhere making paper airplanes and paperclip chains, waiting to be called down to the conference room to talk to various witnesses. It actually had been part of what had kept me from really thinking about the offer all that hard; it sounded like the epitome of boring.

'Just how often do you have to actually go into the field, anyway?' I asked Jones and he glanced down at his ill-fitting gear with a grimace.

'Well, this is the first time it actually qualified as 'field',' he explained. 'Usually they bring the witnesses to me. Or I meet them in some bank or something. You know... after all the scary shit is done and over with.'

I don't know which of his three car mates snorted the loudest, but the driver was the only one who looked embarrassed.

'Do you really have so much to do that you need an assistant?' I had to ask, just having a whole lot of trouble with the notion. I'd caught a glimpse of the guy's office; I couldn't shake the mental image of him sitting in there spinning in his chair most days.

Something kind of weird happened in his eyes then, and he was suddenly leaning forward to look at me while he talked. I realized we weren't just making idle conversation any more.

'An assistant?' he snorted. 'As if. Of the two artists in this car, I would be the one who has not had a gallery show at Expressions. It's not entirely the workload, though there are days. It's your damn ability. That piece you did for Miss Peters; you weren't even in the same room and you still managed to take that... that mish-mash of emotional vagueness and turn it into a closer likeness than I managed after working with the woman for two hours!'

'That one you did today was pretty good,' Morgan supplied helpfully and I wondered just how damn much blood the guy had lost, because he was starting to seem a little... spacey.

I chose to ignore Jones' blatant butt-sucking because I just never knew how to answer that sort of thing anyway. If you argued, you sounded like you were just fishing for more butt-sucking. But if you said 'thanks' did that imply some sort of agreement with the butt-sucking? And wasn't that just... self butt-sucking? It just made my head hurt trying to work it out.

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