Two out of Three
Chapter 9: Burn a Bridge or Two
"Thank you for inviting us to dinner, Miss Mariemeia," Quatre told our young hostess. "I think I speak for everyone here when I say we're finding it greatly enjoyable."
I glanced away from Quatre's charming smile and Mariemeia's slight blush to check on Heero and Wufei. From the wooden expressions on their faces, I was pretty sure what they were feeling was a helluvalot closer to greatly annoyed.
I could relate.
So far, all we were doing was sitting around and slurping our fancy-schmancy cold soup. The hell, right? It was only a matter of time before somebody frickin' snapped. And, as it just so happened, that fateful moment was fulfilled by none other than Wufei "I Have No Patience With Dithering" Chang.
"Why. Are we here?" he demanded and I had to clutch my silver spoon to keep from applauding.
"You're here," Mariemeia answered smoothly Christ, was she an actual 12-year-old or a seasoned politician masquerading as one? "because you accepted my invitation."
"I wasn't aware that one had been extended," he retorted with enough snootiness to do me proud. His comment also made me wonder what Howard had done or said to get everyone else's asses on a shuttle. It must have been a helluva line.
"Oh, yes," Mariemeia replied, smiling. "And I'm very glad you all came. I hate how the people of Earth have treated all of you."
"And just how have they treated us?" I said a bit snarkily, as if it were a sore point. Which it was. So, I wasn't trying to hide it.
"That's obvious," our 12-year-old hostess answered. "After the five of you saved the planet, the people of Earth threw you away."
Well, that wasn't entirely true. Euthanasia was a better example of throwing us away. What they were doing, however, was using us, taking advantage of our guilt complexes, browbeating us into servitude. Oh, yeah. I'd figured it out ages ago. I let Quatre and Wufei handle this rebuttal, though.
"That was partially at our discretion," Quatre admitted, attempting to deflect the implication that we'd been helpless, which we most definitely had not been. We had been complacent, though, and that chafed like a sonuvabitch.
"We have not been discarded," Wufei added stiffly. "We still serve a purpose."
"Hm, yes." Her tone was the verbal equivalent of wadding up Wufei's words and chucking them into the garbage can. "As important as that purpose may be" Gee, facetious much? "you can do much more here."
Uh... huh. We were back to the uncertain and slightly-mythical Here. I knew for a fact that schools and towns and entire freakin' colonies were being rebuilt thanks in part to the funds WEI generated. Hell, Wufei knew it better than the rest of us as he'd been stuck in Accounting for the last four years. I wasn't really sure that Here had the same kind of potential to offer. The glimpse I'd taken out our bedroom window had revealed a small, grassy courtyard surrounded by what looked like more suites just like the one Trowa and I had been given. Looking up, I'd seen the metal dome of the colony "sky" but for all I knew nothing else had been developed or maintained in this tin can. I could tell the others were thinking the same damn thing.
"What do you propose?" Heero finally asked, cutting through the thickening silence.
"Stay here and help us establish true equality for the colonies."
She made it sound so freakin' simple. Her impassioned tone even tickled my fancy, inviting me to believe that such a thing were possible. It wasn't, of course. I didn't need Trowa's restraining hand on my knee to tell me that, but it was a nice gesture nonetheless. (And hell yeah, I was thoroughly enjoying it!)
Quatre posed a question about Relena's most recent trade policy amendment and I just had to take a time-out and have a moment. I could not freakin' believe that we were sitting here, ignoring our bowls of soup that would never go cold, talking politics with a child. How could we seriously talk about our collective fates and futures with this girl? But I knew the answer to that just like everyone else here did: she was the front. We were gonna have to go through her to meet the real mastermind behind whatever the hell we'd been sucked into. It was possible that we hadn't met the bastard yet because he (or she) was waiting to see how desperate we were; he/she was watching and studying us, hoping to figure out just what kind of carrot to dangle in front of our noses in order to ensure our cooperation. Or maybe the guy (girl?) was just plain too busy plotting a hostile takeover of the known universe to stop by and shake hands. But I was assuming we hadn't met this very important person yet, wasn't I?
It was possible the head honcho was in this very room. Perhaps he was the server with the white towel over his arm. Maybe he was one of the two guards standing by the door and within easy reach of the comm. unit. If it were me, that's how I'd do it. I'd grab a smart disguise, toss some disarming young kid at the group of trained assassins I was trying to flatter, and then shake – not stir – and see what poured out.
"Seems to me," I interjected as Mariemeia paused for breath in her lecture on how the colonies are kept subjugated to the resource monopolies on Earth, "that you're doing to us pretty much the same thing that the people on Earth did: you're trying to tell us what we should do with our lives."
Silence echoed. Whoo yeah. Point to me for being crass and obnoxious. See, that was the balance I knew I'd have to juggle if I wanted these bozos to trust me enough to let me into a mobile suit preferably my ol' buddy Deathscythe because then it'd be all over for them. Attempted revolution and/or coup d'état status: squished. Former Gundam pilots' collective street cred with the whole damn world: awesome.
Yeah, I was out to turn us into heroes. That's the plan. Happy now? Only, in order for us to come out smellin' like Khushrenada-red-roses, we needed a bad guy to defeat. Which was pretty much why I'd gotten on the damn shuttle in the first place. The guys backing Howard and as it turned out Hilde had to be packing some serious heat, otherwise Howard wouldn't have bothered sending that email. Back when things had started snowballing south on the road to Hell for the five of us, I'd told Howard that the only way we'd ever get our lives back was to fight and win a second damn war.
"Whoever you get to bust us outta wherever the hell we're goin' had damn well better be planning to take over the freakin' planet," I'd growled.
"You got it, kid," he'd replied.
They'd been our parting words, so I was pretty sure the ol' geezer still remembered ‘em. It was too bad I couldn't confirm that with him at the moment. Both he and Hilde were conspicuously absent. I figured I'd better assume they were in a holding cell somewhere, having completed their assigned tasks of delivering the five of us. Before the final phase of my mission blasted off, I was gonna have to make sure they were safe and secure.
"I'm not telling you what to do," Mariemeia finally answered. "I'm giving you another chance to do some good for the colonies. It's my hope," she continued in a dreamy tone that almost reminded me of that creepy Dorothy girl. God, I hoped she wasn't the one behind all this. Mariemeia's schpiel did sound eerily like her bullshit during the war, though. Not a comforting thought. "It's my hope that we'll be able to work together to realize a greater vision."
And whose might that be? I didn't ask. I cued Trowa by tapping the back of his hand which was still resting on my thigh.
"Perhaps if you shared it with us...?" my partner suggested in an intriguingly neutral tone. I sensed a sudden sharpening of attention around the table: all of us wanted to know what the game was here. I was pretty sure none of us were gonna wanna play it, though.
But we were gonna be playing. It was a given. Yeah, Heero'd freakin' bought into all that shit about us not deserving a second chance, but he wasn't the type to roll over and let someone stomp all over him. Not really. The last week or so had been an aberration, not the norm. Hell, even Mr. Perfect had his limits. I was also counting on Wufei to come on board (for frickin' once Mr. Shut-The-Fuck-Up-I-Can-Handle-It-Without-Y
"It really comes down to the issue of sustainable biodiversity," Mariemeia answered. "We all know that the colonies depend on Earth for its agriculture. Livestock, crops, even the bees used for pollination all come from Earth. But, within a few generations, those creatures die out."
I was aware of this problem. It was one of the reasons L2 had been in such bad shape when I was a kid. The die-off of plants and animals was a serious problem and one scientists hadn't been able to solve yet; by the third or fourth generation, livestock birthrates nosedived, plants took longer and longer to sprout and mature with each growing cycle, bees quickly lost touch with the artificial magnetic field generated by the colony, making them incapable of finding their way back to the hive. It was as if each generation got simpler and slower until the species sabotaged its own existence.
Mariemeia summed it up nicely with, "We mean to even that score."
"How?" Heero demanded. It was a risky question to ask at this stage, dangerously blunt. We might push our hostess and her invisible puppeteer too far and end up making enemies out of them before I could get all of us in a position to kick their asses with style. But that's Heero for you. If he'd ever backed down from a fight or a challenge, then I certainly didn't know about it.
"That's why you were invited here," the girl seated like a queen at the head of the table responded smoothly. "The colonies will always be dependent on the Earth, but that's no reason to take advantage of our position. What do you think we should do?"
Spoken like a true politician. Or a 12-year-old being coached via earwick.
"Have you contacted Relena Darlian?" Quatre inquired. "It's my impression that she is very eager to assist the colonies."
"Yes, we're in the process of negotiating with her now."
For some reason, I really didn't care for the way that sounded. Heero didn't like it much, either; he kind of tensed before he forced himself to lift his soup spoon and take a sip.
Still speaking to Quatre, she proposed, "Perhaps you would consent to being our representative, Mr. Winner?"
"Vice Foreign Minister Darlian represents the colony's best interests," Wufei pointed out harshly.
Mariemeia wasn't the slightest bit cowed by his gruff tone and icy stare. "Relena Darlian is from Earth. She doesn't understand what it's like to be a colonist. She can't."
I figured this was where I came in. "So... you're gonna appoint your own rep and defy the whole United Earth Sphere." I was kinda proud of how that came out. It cut through the bullshit piling up in the room rather nicely.
Unfortunately, she ignored the direct attack. Smiling, she mused, "I think you could also help us, Mr. Maxwell. Until the Earth governments change their ways, we'll need to find a way to renew our resources at a fair price."
Wow. What a nice way of asking me to consider dealing with the black market and arranging smuggling routes for the betterment of the colonies. If it hadn't been so blatantly obvious that she was sucking up to me, I would have been a teeny tiny bit flattered. I leaned back in my chair and commenced with looking wary but pensive.
"You know I wanna help the colonies," I replied, playing on my reputation for being a rebel. I was dangling a carrot of my own out there just to see who'd go for a bite. "I'm just not sure that what you're proposing is the best way to go about it. Seems to me we might all be old and grey by the time negotiations make any headway."
Trowa's fingers dug painfully into my thigh in the wake of that little bomb, but I ignored the inherent warning he was attempting to convey. I knew what I was doing; I was taking the enemy's eye off of the others and painting a nice, big bull's eye on my forehead. Whoo yeah. Bring it.
Still leaning back in my chair, I propped my elbow up on the back of Trowa's and plopped my chin into my palm as I waited for the response Mariemeia was gonna deliver.
"Duo..." Quatre began hesitantly.
I cut in before he could publically declare his undying resistance to what I was implying. "I'm not saying we should charge in with guns blazing or anything. Been there, done that... and it didn't work out so well in the end, did it?" I readily admitted. "But this ain't no war. It's just, y'know, the colonies are the underdogs here. We fought to change that last time, but we kinda blew it. If we could somehow gain the upper hand over Earth, though..."
Quatre looked horrified. Wufei looked ready to run me through with his fancy sword, wherever it was these days. Heero's trigger finger was twitching against the table cloth. Hell, Trowa was probably arranging for my early retirement at a mental ward.
Mariemeia, on the other hand, looked delighted with the progress she'd made with me. She was two steps further along on her (or her controller's) plan to wage a second war: she'd gotten a former Gundam pilot to admit that the colonies still needed defending and propose something other than bureaucratic negotiation as a solution.
Too bad it looked like I'd just signed my own death warrant.
Before the fireworks could start, a soft beep from the comm. unit sounded. In the tense silence, it was more like a freakin' gunshot than an electronic chime, but I refused to acknowledge the looks I was getting from the others. I blithely splashed around in my cold soup, still leaning nonchalantly against Trowa's chair.
One of the guards picked up the handset and took the call. An indistinct but affirmative-sounding murmur later and he was striding forward on a direct course to the head of the table and the little warmonger who sat there.
"Excuse me, Miss Mariemeia," the officer politely began. "Your presence is requested in the communications room. You have an incoming call from Earth."
"Thank you." She turned back to us and smiled apologetically. "Please excuse me, gentlemen. I have to answer this call. It might be about the Vice Foreign Minister." She returned her napkin to the table and the officer pulled out her chair for her as she stood. "Enjoy your meal. Someone will escort you back to your rooms when you're finished."
I cockily waved goodbye and watched her leave. As soon as the door slid shut behind her, however, remaining guard or no remaining guard (not to mention the lingering server who was waiting for us to finish our soup course), Wufei just freakin' exploded.
"What. Are you thinking?"
Heero just glared at me, doing his damnedest to bore a hole through my skull with his gaze.
On my thigh, Trowa's fingers were now tapping in a thoughtful gesture as he worked through the implications of what I'd both said and tacitly agreed to consider.
"Relax, guys!" I chirped. "It's not as if they're asking us to, I dunno, lead a frickin' army or"
"hand over our Gundams," Trowa smoothly and skillfully inserted. I had to mash my lips together to keep myself from kissing him right then and there in thanks for backing me, even if it was out of blind faith. Still, Tro was a damn smart guy. He knew me well enough to probably guess where this was going.
"Exactly!" I continued. "I mean, Howard and Hilde are working with them."
"As well as Relena."
Trowa, you are my hero, I didn't say, but I was thinking it. Oh, how I was thinking it.
"I haven't agreed to anything," I reminded them. "And neither have any of you."
"Precisely," Wufei said, tossing his napkin on the table and standing. "Which is why we ought to thank our hostess and return to Earth."
"Aw, man. Don't be like that," I cajoled.
Yet again, Trowa backed my play. "Are you so ready to go back to data entry?" he challenged in a deceptively neutral tone.
"People ain't afraid of us out here," I pointed out. Turning to Quatre, I pointed out the obvious, "We have a second chance to really make a difference for the colonies. I mean, hell, they'll find people to replace us at WEI." A monkey could do my damn job just as well. "But what if we're needed out here? What if the colonies need us, not some random office drones."
A flicker of speculative interest, a spark of curiosity crossed Quatre's face.
Heero, however, had apparently heard enough. Without a word, he stood and stormed from the room. Wufei, after flashing a glare at me, followed after him.
I wasn't worried, though. Trowa and I had already outlined the mission objectives of which there were four points that had to be confirmed: first, whether or not there actually was an army here; second, if they somehow had access to any Gundams or were stockpiling arms and mobile suits; third, determine what Howard and Hilde's status were; and fourth, check on Relena. I wondered if the guard or server (or whoever might be listening in or watching us) had picked up on that. Even if they had, it wasn't gonna stop us. We five were the masters of the "self-guided tour" and we'd be seeing to that separately once things settled down for the night-cycle.
But, we still had the rest of this damn dinner to get through.
"So," I drawled, watching as my nearly-empty bowl of soup was taken away and a plate of roast chicken took its place, "was Howard the first guy through your door, too?"
Quatre nodded, a slightly embarrassed smile tugging at his mouth. "Yes. And a good thing, too. I was still in my pajamas."
"Winner!" I scolded him. "Sleeping in on a work day?"
"My alarm didn't go off."
It was a lame excuse and we all knew it.
"What did he say to convince you to come?" Trowa asked next as I sampled the main course.
With slight frown, Quatre told us, "He said the world needed the Gundam pilots again and both you and Duo were already outbound."
"Huh," I remarked. It sounded like he'd told us only what he thought we needed to hear in order to get us to agree to the extraction; there was no way in hell Quatre wouldn't have come after us after hearing a line like that from someone he could trust. So, if Howard had fed Q a line of bull, then there was hope that Deathscythe was still secure right where Howard and I had hidden it. I felt the knots in my gut unwind and my organs settle down to where they ought to be.
"Did you ride out with Heero and Wufei?" I asked.
Quatre nodded and I could only imagine the joy that flight must have been.
"With how many goons?" I pressed. Beside me, Trowa snorted.
"There were ten that I saw," Quatre replied, his lips twitching with humor.
"Ten?" I squawked. "Damn." I turned toward Trowa and observed, "We were shortchanged, babe."
"Q and the others got three and a third goons per pilot."
"We just got three apiece," I muttered and topped off the petulant tone with a juvenile pout.
Trowa gave me a glittering green sidelong glance. "I know."
"You know a lot, huh?" I teased.
The smile he gave me in response to that was disturbingly sly and suggestive. I found myself mesmerized by it and the temptations I sensed behind it.
Quatre cleared his throat and I almost jumped outta my damn skin. Right. Trowa and I weren't alone at the moment. Damn.
"Yeah, Win-meister?" I coughed out.
"Who got you and Trowa out?" he asked idly, but the little smile he was trying to hide behind a forkful of chicken totally gave him away.
"Howard got us outta WEI. Hilde met us at the spaceport hangar. She wouldn't let me pilot, though," I groused.
"She's a fair pilot," Trowa observed blandly.
"Hm, yeah. True," I reluctantly agreed. "She might even have her commercial pilot's license an' everything by now." It occurred to me than that I'd been more or less standing still for the last four years. The world had gone on turning while I'd clicked my way through emails begging for Winner money. Damn. What a freakin' waste.
"How was Howard's piloting?" Trowa asked and Quatre groaned expressively.
I snickered. "Yeah. He's better at the helm of a ship."
"I certainly hope so," Quatre grumbled and I cackled with glee.
"Have you heard from him since you disembarked?" Trowa pressed.
Quatre shook his head.
I sighed. "I haven't heard a peep from him, either," I confessed. Or Hilde, for that matter, but I wasn't sure if I should be contacting her. "I'll see what I can do about that after dinner."
And that's exactly what I did a mere thirty minutes later. The response I got from the operator was not what I'd hoped for, although I couldn't say I was surprised.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Maxwell, but he's unavailable. Would you like me to pass on a message?"
I pretended to think about it for a moment. "Hm... nah. It can wait," I made myself say in an unconcerned tone. "I'll try him again later."
When I hung up the handset, though, I was fighting the urge to frown. Trowa strolled up behind me and put a hand on my hip. I took a half step back and leaned a bit against his chest. As he nuzzled my hair, I let out a long breath and felt myself relax. It'd do me no good to tense up now, not when Trowa and I would be reconnoitering this place in a few hours.
"Your eyes are bloodshot," Trowa observed.
I grunted in agreement. Yeah, they freakin' felt bloodshot.
"Let's get some sleep."
"It's only seven-thirty," I complained.
Trowa chuckled. "I think I can come up with a way to tire you out."
"Oh my God," I moaned, disbelieving. "You are insatiable." This I said as I turned to confront him.
He leaned forward and kissed me gently but at great length and in spine-tingling depth. "Yes," he agreed. "I am."
But we didn't end up naked and sweaty again. After brushing my teeth, I really was exhausted. It's embarrassing as hell but true: I was out like a light even before Trowa finished up in the bathroom and slid into bed. I woke up in his arms to the sound of his voice whispering my name.
I knew we had to get up. I could sense it was late – when I blinked open my eyes, I confirmed that the pattern of dim lights blinking through the windows was typical for mid night-cycle – but I put off acknowledging it. I stretched languidly and snuggled a bit further into Trowa's embrace. I pressed my nose to his neck and inhaled as my hands squirmed around his waist.
"This is your wakeup call," he continued laughingly into my ear.
"You've got the wrong room."
"Oh, is there some other long-haired, Deathscythe pilot on this colony?"
"Har har. You make me laugh."
"Up an' at'em, soldier," he crooned, "or else."
"Or else what, Sargent?" I grumped, closing my eyes again.
He nipped my earlobe. "I start licking."
Whoo-K! "I'm up!" I announced, giggling a bit maniacally at the double entrendre. It was certainly true both ways now that I had that lovely image of Trowa's tongue lapping at my skin to torment me. But, alas, Trowa had achieved his objective: I was well and truly awake now. Damnitall. I glared at him over my shoulder. "You. Are evil," I informed him, using my best Wufei Tone.
Sprawled out on the rumpled bed sheets, Trowa grinned that sly little smile of his up at me. Somehow he made it look both unabashed and bashful. "I learned from the best."
Grumbling, I pushed myself off of the mattress and located my pile of discarded clothes in the dark. By the faint light of the slumbering colony outside, I could see Trowa doing likewise on the opposite side of the bed. Even in this low light, his pale jeans stood out like freakin' neon signs, but I didn't suggest that he see what kind of clothes we had hanging in our closet that might fit him. For all we knew, those "thoughtfully" provided items might be tagged. It was easy enough to plant a tracking chip in a button.
Luckily, my clothes were considerably darker than his. There wasn't anything I could do about the shiny, metal zippers on my jacket, but it'd still be smarter for me to lead while Trowa took advantage of my shadow and brought up the rear.
Buttons done up, zippers zipped, and bootlaces tied, we were as ready as we were ever gonna be. It was now or never. Come tomorrow, I'd have to get more insistent about seeing Howard. I'd been complacent today because our mysterious host (or hosts) hadn't done anything flagrantly hostile. When they denied me access to one of my known allies – and I was sure they would; it seemed to me there was a lot Howard could tell me about this place and these people that they probably wouldn't want me to know – that'd be the sort of thing I just couldn't afford to let go. I'd have to get serious. And then they'd have no choice but to toss my ass in a windowless cell with all the comforts of monastic seclusion.
Speaking of which...
I stepped around the end of the bed and reached for Trowa. He grunted softly as I tugged him close for a long, thorough kiss. God, in the days to come, if the absolute-worst case scenario became reality, I wanted to have the imprint of his taste, his scent, his heat to draw upon, to give me strength should Shinigami falter, to remind me why I was fighting just in case the concept of peace proved to be too abstract or impossible to believe in. Trowa would be my new faith if that happened, and I embraced him fully.
When I reluctantly pulled back, Trowa refused to give me that bit of space. He followed me, brushing my lips with his as he confessed, "Sometimes you scare me."
My heart tripped and stumbled, hearing that. "I thought you were fearless," I joked thickly.
"So did I."
Well... damn. I guess I was being maudlin enough to freak anybody out. Even a war-hardened soldier like Trowa.
I pressed a quick, confident kiss to his lips and drew my fingers along the braided length of his necklace. He never took the damn thing off. Well, not that I'd noticed. I was thankful and humbled by that. I brushed the onyx pendant and then made myself move away. I kinda wanted to say something to him, but I just couldn't think of anything else that needed to be said. And besides, we had a job to do.
I headed for the door, Trowa matching my every step. Even inside our suite, we kept to the shadows, moving silently with neither haste nor hesitation. We each took up position on either side of the main door. This was going to be the trickiest part. If the door opened – and I half-expected it wouldn't at this time of night; just because it had opened readily earlier in the day didn't mean we weren't under an enforced curfew or some damn thing – Trowa and I would be at a major disadvantage. The hallway beyond would be blindingly bright compared to our rooms. And, oh yeah, there'd probably be guards stationed outside. Fighting hand-to-hand combat when light was stabbing your brain and making your eyes more or less useless was a serious pain in the ass. Y'know, FYI.
But what choice did we have? On the off chance that whoever was watching us in our room wasn't paying too close attention, we had to keep the lights off as long as possible. Having the security monitor flare with light would definitely distract a guy from his idle game of solitaire. So, no lights. No prep. If the door opened, we were out, the enemy was down, and we were frickin' movin' our asses.
I drew in a deep breath, held it, let it out, and reached for the door release. I looked at Trowa, waited until I saw the indistinct shadow that was his head nod once, and then I pressed the button.
My first surprise came as the door actually slid open. The expected bright light spilled across the threshold, searing across my vision. My second surprise occurred when I blindly spun through the doorway and into the hallway.
There was nobody there.
I glanced over my shoulder in time to see Trowa make the same discovery.
There were no guards whatsoever in the utterly and completely deserted corridor.
I know: you'd think this was a good thing. It wasn't. Not really. There was no way they could be this freakin' confident of our cooperation to just let us loose inside their installation so, either we were confined in an empty, useless building and nowhere near their base of operations, or we were in the heart of their HQ and they wanted us to scope the place out. And, in my experience, scoping never revealed many good surprises.
Given our two options, I was betting on number two. It was an interesting way to get our reactions to their setup. I was wondering which reaction they were expecting, though.
I gritted my teeth and swallowed back all the colorful swear words that rose to the occasion. This was no time for airing out my vocabulary; we had a secret military base to reconnoiter.
I signaled our direction to Trowa and he fell into step behind me as I glided down the neo-steel-lined hallway. Colony layouts were roughly similar from one place to another thanks to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of thought, so I could make an educated guess as to where we were in relation to the shuttle bay and other useful features like ductwork and access tunnels. I wasn't sure how much experience Trowa had with that kind of infiltration, but I was guessing it wasn't much, not if he'd chosen to interview his way into OZ rather than squirm in.
But maybe I was being unfair. Maybe he knew colony layouts like he knew a Beretta. I still figured I had him beat. Hell, I'd spent years of my childhood running and hiding out in places most colony maintenance workers didn't even know existed.
So, the first order of business was to locate the umbilical that connected this building to the main air supply. For a structure this size, there'd have to be several, and they'd have to be large enough for repair workers to move around in. I blazed a tense but silent trail toward the nearest emergency stairwell. At the very next intersection, I looked to my left and there it was. Glowing neon sign an' all. Bingo.
With a pinch of my fingers, I shorted out the sensors on the door and we slid inside. I didn't kid myself thinking we had all damn day. A computer somewhere had probably just started beeping, alerting somebody to the fact that an emergency door security system was off-line. Did I dare hope the guy in charge of that was taking his time reading the colony news in the john? No. No, I didn't.
I hurried up to the mid-floor landing where an inconspicuous door stood flush with the wall. The access panel had been capped with a metal case, so first that had to come off and then the keypad had to be dealt with. A few crossed wires later and the door slid open. I nodded for Trowa to go first while I stuffed everything back together and snapped the cover back on.
Once I was through, the door slid shut and I paused beside Trowa on the platform overlooking the twisting labyrinth of tunnels, ducts, and pipes.
"Next stop, fifth floor, women's cardigans, pink umbrellas, and fuzzy house slippers," I quipped brightly.
Trowa raised a brow at me. With a wry smile, I motioned to a long shaft which ran all the way down into the abyss below us. "What? Would you prefer the bargain basement?"
He didn't answer verbally he just kinda gave me a little look and I could hear the faint, slightly amused echo of "oink oink" in it but that was OK; he didn't complain and that's what made me grin in earnest. It was nice being on a mission with someone who didn't mind when I started rattling on like a mental patient.
Still, just because Trowa was tolerant of my, er, eccentricities, that didn't mean we could afford to hang out on this little service balcony and shoot the breeze indefinitely. "You ever been in the guts of a colony before?" I asked him.
"Once. For repairs," he replied.
Just to be on the safe side, I pointed out all the stuff he shouldn't touch. No matter what. "Electric conduits," I narrated, pointing as I moved along the balcony. "Boiler exhaust vents. Waste chute. Any questions?"
"OK. Now comes the fun part." Fun, indeed, for a former thief and a retired acrobat. I swung a leg over the balcony railing and eyeballed the distance to the access ladder which ran along the wall of the abyss. And "abyss" really was the word for it. Some of these maintenance areas encircled the whole damn colony. If you slipped and fell, you'd make one helluva splat when the colony spin finally led you to a flat surface.
Facing off with my target, I wasn't at all surprised when I felt Trowa's hand on my arm, anchoring me as I sized up the considerable leap. Actual maintenance workers would be suited up for this with climbing gear. Trowa and I just had our amazing selves and each other.
"Three... two... one..." I counted down and on my mark, he pushed and I jumped. I grabbed for the rungs and hooked my boot tread onto the footholds. Heh. Distance acquired. Sweet. I reached back for Trowa and, although he probably didn't need any help, he took my hand so I could guide him to a safe perch.
"We're lookin' for a big-ass air duct," I told him as I started descending down the ladder. "At least a meter and a half across. Since cargo holds and hangars are pretty much the only rooms that much air has to get cycled through, if they've got an army in this tin can..."
"We'll find their mobile suits and weapons there."
Knowing what you were looking for and actually finding it were two totally unrelated mission items. I'd learned this a long time ago, so I took nothing for granted as we started our search. A couple of levels down, I spied an access tunnel that looked promising and it took a fair bit of climbing and a dicey moment balanced over the yawning maw of the colony on a water line pipe to get over there and check it out. Of course Trowa didn't have any trouble whatsoever. Well, other than watching me windmill my arms a couple of times when a burst of air blasted me and broke my concentration. After that, he was practically stepping on me, he stuck so close.
"Relax!" I hissed on a chuckle as I swung into the tunnel we were heading for. "I wasn't actually gonna"
Trowa squeezed in beside me and pressed a palm over my mouth. I blinked at him over the edge of his hand and watched as he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, took a deep breath, and then sighed it out. "Dammit, Duo," he mouthed.
When his eyes opened again, I wiggled my brows at him and contemplated licking his palm. He glared a bit at me before slouching against the metal at his back. "You'll give me grey hairs," he predicted in a defeated tone.
I reached up, pulled his hand away from my mouth, and impulsively pressed a kiss to the inside of his wrist. "Well, babe, I guess that's why God invented hair dye."
Trowa actually snorted. "God?"
"Everything is full of gods," I quoted. I couldn't think of who'd said that originally, but I knew it was ancient. "Therefore, everything had to be made by one."
"Your logic is disturbing," he mumbled.
I couldn't argue with that.
"But not as disturbing as your lack of balance. Take my hand next time."
And pull him down with me if I were to fall? Yeah, right.
He must have seen the refusal in my expression despite the gloom of the tunnel because he grabbed my shoulder with one hand and reached inside his turtleneck collar. I glanced down as the onyx pendant I'd given him was pulled out, the leather necklace caught around his thumb. That's all he said. And, honestly, that's all he needed to say.
I huffed out a breath. "Holdin' onto your hand will wreck my balance," I stubbornly insisted.
"How would you know?" he fought back, letting the pendant drop to his chest. His tone wasn't cruel, but it cut through my bullshit like a Beam Scythe.
He was right; I'd never reached out like that to anyone before. Oh, I'd accepted help when I'd been down and out, but to take the initiative and ask? No, that wasn't my style. Well, not until recently. I'd asked Trowa for his help when I'd asked him to marry me. Even then, it wasn't an equal partnership, and that's what he wanted. That's what he was asking for.
He wanted my trust, not to pick me up and dust me off after I'd fallen but to keep me upright, to prevent whatever tumbles lurked in my future before they actually happened.
It was a helluva realization to be having in the guts of a colony that might become our new prison before too long. We didn't have time for this, but there was no gettin' outta this moment, so I made time for it.
"It's only fair," Trowa pressed, daring me to abandon my double standard.
There were so many thoughts, both tangent and directly related to this, bouncing around inside my skull—
Trowa watches my back and I watch his!
—that I couldn't sort through them all—
It's my mission, dammit!
—but I knew this kind of baggage was gonna be a hindrance rather than a help—
We're both playing roles, here!
—and Trowa was counting on me. Hell, all the guys were counting on me—
But there's no way I can do this by myself!
—and this was just... just... just...!
"Duo," Trowa whispered, crowding me and pressing his forehead against mine. "Darling," I imagined he said. "I can't watch you fall."
Well. How could I fight that? I couldn't. What's more, I didn't really want to. I reached for his hand and hooked my thumb around his in an unbreakable climber's grasp. My mouth felt dry, my tongue large and sticky, my throat too narrow for words, but I forced myself to croak, "Then help me stand."
He let out a long breath and, smiling softly, told me, "We'll stand together."
That sounded pretty cool. "OK," I said.
"Hmm," he answered and I grinned. Trowa and his little non-comment hums.
"C'mon, baby," I coaxed, squeezing his hand. "We got a weapons cache to uncover and a plot to foil."
The first turned out to be not so difficult. About an hour later, Trowa and I found ourselves gazing out at a massive hanger packed – wall-to-wall – with some type of mobile suits. We had to head back into the ductwork maze in order to circle around for a better view. When we did...
"Shit," I hissed. "Mobile dolls."
"Yes," Trowa agreed grimly.
Dozens – just over a hundred, by the looks of it – of the cockpit-less mobile suits stood at the ready, waiting for the wireless uplink that would awaken them and their hellish potential. I could only wonder and dread if Mariemeia's handler(s) had gotten ahold of the version of the system that the White Fang had used or if they'd added bells and whistles of their own.
Right. Threat assessment complete. Oh-Shit! level: high.
"They don't need an army if they've got all this," I pointed out.
"But egomaniacs usually insist on having one, anyway," Trowa retorted, making the same assumption that I had about the sort of person we were dealing with here.
"Riiiight. Because guns and mobile suits don't applaud on cue." That cynical observation won a soft snort from my mission partner as we retreated down the duct and returned to our search.
"Could it be this easy?" I hissed over my shoulder at Trowa when, after two turns, I heard the faint echo of a man speaking in the distance. He sounded fairly self-important droning on as he was. There was either a microphone involved, a captive audience, or this was a dress rehearsal for a victory speech. (And if the latter was the case, then he was in the process of jinxing himself. Hell, everybody knows that if you start crowing before you've won, you're gonna get your ass kicked but good.)
"Apparently," Trowa murmured into my ear as we crept close enough to glimpse the room beyond the vent grate. He rested his chin on my shoulder as we both tallied up the rows upon rows of khaki-uniformed soldiers standing at attention and in awe of what appeared to be a lone man pontificating upon a stage against the far wall.
"... the people of Earth will be made to understand their true position in the grand scheme of...!"
Well, hell. Mobile suits: check. Army: check. Warmongering egomaniac: check. Yippee fuckin' skippy.
Well, that's a wrap, I almost said. I would have, too, if I hadn't spotted a very familiar set of tense shoulders and a tuft of shaggy, brown hair peeking out from under an X18999 soldier's cap.
"Damn," I hissed, pointing. Trowa leaned against my shoulder, peering in the direction I indicated. I knew the moment he ID'ed Heero because he chuckled and gave my other shoulder a squeeze.
"Looks like he'll be able to fill us in on the specifics."
"No kidding." Damn, he'd just waltzed into the midst of a fuckin' army like the war was yesterday. The guy was all mission, no doubt about it. Shaking my head in baffled admiration for Heero's sheer gumption, I almost missed the motion up on the stage. Almost, but not quite. Someone else was up there, standing behind the past-middle-age scary guy in the military dress uniform, someone small and slight, someone with short, wavy red hair...
"Shit," I croaked, noticing Mariemeia posing beside the grandstanding guru. She was just as luminous as she had been before but the green dress was gone. In its place she was wearing a feminine version of the khaki army uniform. Well, damn. Damn damn damn.
My mind was whizzing a hundred kilometers per second with the implications, with plans and contingencies, so when Trowa tugged on my arm, I almost jumped right outta my skin.
"Do your plotting elsewhere," he advised. "The speech is winding down."
"Er, right," I agreed, finally noticing the We-are-gonna-kick-ass! tone that often concluded these kind of pep rallies. "Let's get Heero outta there and meet up with the others."
We had just enough time to wiggle and scramble our way through the ducts toward a second set of emergency stairs. I took care of the door sensors, cracked it open, crouched down and we both watched for our quarry to come into view. We didn't have to wait long. After about five minutes, I spotted three soldiers marching self-importantly off on some assignment or other and Heero was trailing unobtrusively behind them. The guys on a mission stomped past. I signaled to Trowa to edge the door a bit more. I checked the hall and then, with a nod from me, we struck.
As Heero moved by us, Trowa opened the door, I grabbed Heero's arm, and then I was being pancaked against the nearest flat surface.
"Back off," Trowa growled at my hostage-turned-attacker as I gritted my teeth and focused on not passing the hell out.
Heero blinked and – noticing just who he was choking with his forearm – lowered his guard with a grunt of acknowledgement.
"You gotta head back out there?" I whisper-wheezed. For all I knew, we'd just interrupted his task of finding out what those three guys were up to.
He shook his head. "Quatre's on it."
"Right," I replied, not surprised in the least that he and the others had managed to pull together a coordinated mission of their own. "Rendezvous?"
He nodded. "Follow me."
And it was just like old times. The thought made me grin wryly. Yeah, this was Heero "I'm In Charge" Yuy. Hell, the guy wouldn't know what to do with a partner if he had one. Well... I guess that's not true. He'd dictate instructions and then trust him not to fuck up. Trowa, on the other hand, he wanted to participate in the ongoing task of nobody fucking up. If you get what I mean.
It made me twitchy to leave the comforting anonymity of the maintenance tunnels, but Heero wasn't the type take detours unless they were absolutely necessary. Biting back a sigh, Trowa and I fell into step with him as he quickly took us up a level and down a hall that I suspected was the one outside the dining room. Heero pivoted and disappeared through a seemingly random door which turned out to be the entrance to a conference room. The lights were already on and Wufei was sitting at the long table, scowling at the dark video phone screen in front of him.
No one said anything. There was no point yet as Quatre was still finishing up his end of things. I plunked my ass down in a chair with a sigh and started swiveling back and forth at a speed that was bound to make Wufei blow a gasket. I grinned as I imagined it. Trowa ruined my fun by nudging my knees deliberately as he took the seat next to mine. The result was our legs were almost entwined so I couldn't spin around aimlessly until Wufei's jaw clenched and the vein in his forehead pulsed. But I was still restless, so I bounced my knee up and down, jarring Trowa's leg. He had to notice it, but it didn't even phase him. He just placed his hand on the back of my chair and, out of sight of Wufei and Heero, rubbed random patterns against my back and shoulder. Surprisingly, it helped.
I wasn't nearly as relieved as I expected to be when Quatre slid through the door. He was also dressed in one of the army uniforms. It clashed with his coloring, though.
"Inventory of threats first," Heero ordered and I nudged Trowa who went ahead and described the cache of mobile dolls we'd found.
"And they have an army," I added for the sake of summing up. "How many, Heero?"
"Approximately five hundred."
And if they managed to get their hands on as many military-grade mobile suits, they'd be a serious problem.
"There's more," Quatre told us. "It looks like they have Zero."
I let my head fall back until I was staring up at the ceiling. On my shoulder, Trowa's hand stilled and clutched tightly. "Well, fuck," I observed.
"Is it Zero?" Heero pressed.
Quatre sighed. "The room... the setup and system hardware are similar. Obviously, I couldn't activate it to check the system itself."
"Why did that old Sweeper bring us here?" Wufei growled, clearly pissed off to the Nth degree that he was right smack dab in the middle of a brewing rebellion and threat to the peace.
"Because we're needed," I replied flatly and earned a moment of contemplative silence. Once everyone tested my logic and came to the same conclusion themselves, I asked, "Any news on Howard and Hilde?"
"I saw Hilde among the ranks of the soldiers. She's sworn allegiance to Mariemeia," Heero told me but not for one minute did I believe it. Hilde was on the inside where she might actually be able to help us out. How she'd gotten there, though , I couldn't begin to guess.
Wufei told me, "Howard is being held upstairs, third level, in the detention cells."
I squeezed my eyes shut and swore. Hell, maybe Hilde'd given him up in order to earn her place amongst the uniformed masses.
"Near the laboratory," Wufei continued.
"The fuck!" I coughed. "What laboratory?"
He glared at me. Trowa's hand squeezed my shoulder a second time. "If I may, I'll tell you what I found out about it."
I thought thoughts of engraved invitations and silver platters but forced myself to keep my mouth shut.
"The lab is reminiscent of our training facilities. They may be developing a pilot training program."
"Did anyone find any pilotable suits?" I checked.
No one had. Well, OK. There was that tiny ray of hope, at least. Of course, I was pretty sure they'd find a way to get their hands on suits for their troops which may or may not need training to pilot them. Maybe their army had been recruited from war veterans exclusively, in which case, all they'd need is the actual mobile suits and ammo and they'd be ready to divide and conquer.
"There's something else," Heero said, breaking the uneasy quiet. "I discovered a recent transmission in their communications history. They've sent a force to Earth and have taken over the Vice Foreign Minister's offices in Brussels."
"Relena?" Quatre asked before I could screech the same thing.
"Hostage," Heero reported grimly.
"What are their demands?" Trowa inquired in a very calm, business-like tone.
"Unsure. The Preventers are attempting to make contact."
"Meanwhile, they've got us up here with their damn army..." I mused. And it was gonna look like all of us were in on their plot, too. Damn these bastards. If I didn't get things turned around, we weren't gonna come outta this smelling like roses. We'd come outta this looking like we'd taken over the whole damn operation and were about to rain wrath down upon the innocent people of Earth.
Some days, I really do hate my life.
"OK, look, guys. Just chill. Lemme see what I can do."
Quatre blinked at me. "Duo, what makes you think you can negotiate with these people? They have Howard locked up!"
"And I'm sure they want something from me in exchange for his safety," I replied confidently but with a dark frown.
"Deathscythe," Heero summed up.
I nodded. "Bingo."
"No," Trowa whispered, but I don't think the others heard him. He knew then what I was prepared to do, what I'd end up asking him to do. Dammit, I had not wanted it to come to this, but there was no avoiding it now. I had to hope that in giving up my Gundam, these bastards would be happy enough with that. I had to hope they wouldn't press the others for the same. Hell, if we were very lucky, they'd just lock us up to keep us the hell outta their way and provide a handy herd of scapegoats if things went south.
Trowa knew where this was going and I could tell he was somewhat horrified. I wanted to answer his breathed denial. I wanted to tell him I'd known the risks back on that building roof, back when I'd asked him to marry me. I'd always known it might come to this. I supposed I could apologize for it, but being sorry wasn't gonna change a damn thing.
Quatre broke the blanketing silence, but he wisely contained his remarks to: "I don't like this."
"Join the club," Wufei muttered.
"Hey, a little faith here, guys," I chimed in with a cocky grin. "I mean, yeah, sure, those people are braced for war, but it's not gonna come to that."
"So we're staying," Heero decided and, until that moment, I hadn't realized anyone might actually be considering a strategic retreat.
"The colonies need us," I agreed.
"Indeed they do," a new voice a voice I recognized said from the comm. unit speaker on the wall. We all stood up as the door slid open and there stood Mariemeia in her kid-sized uniform, and behind her was the talkative general from the pep rally, and behind him looked like a cool dozen armed soldiers crowding the hall. "As do we," she continued. "Allow me to introduce General Dekim Barton."
Beside me, Trowa stiffened.
The general noticed the motion and gave Trowa a creepy smile. I did not like that smile. Not one bit. Shinigami grinned so hard his teeth looked more like fangs as he eyed up his prey.
"Yes," the general drawled, "I thought you might recognize my name. I certainly recognize yours."
There was a wealth of history there, I could tell. For the first time in my life, I really wanted to sit through a lesson. I didn't think I'd be given the chance, though.
"And while we're on the subject of introductions," Dekim Barton continued, gesturing to the girl at his side. "May I present Mariemeia Khushrenada, daughter of the late Treize Khushrenada and future queen of the Earth and colonies."
She curtsied politely.
I could not freakin' believe it. Damn.
"What do you want from us?" Heero demanded flatly.
"The same thing you want," she replied sweetly, looking directly at me. "To help the colonies."
I felt Trowa's hand fist beneath my leather jacket, against the small of my back. Yeah, it was that kind of moment, a defining moment, an everything-is-about-to-go-bugfuck moment.
I grinned. Widely. "Yeah?" I mused and dared to rock back on my heels, letting Trowa know I was relying on him to catch me because I was about to take one helluva leap. "Looks like we've got somethin' to talk about, then."
Trowa's hand flattened. His palm rubbed against me in reply. Yeah, he had my back.
"Yes, we do!" Mariemeia agreed, and then she giggled.
Holy hell. Did it make me a bad person if I thought this was gonna be fun?
Yeah. I kinda thought so.
X18999 is the actual name of the colony featured inEndless Waltz.
You may (or not) remember that Wufei joined Dekim Barton's forces inEndless Waltz.As you can see in this story, Wufei isn't all that interested in being a soldier in Mariemeia's army this time around. I guess he's mellowed over the past 4 years... or something.
Thales, a philosopher (arguably one of thefirstclassic philosophers) of ancient Greece, is credited as saying, "Everything is full of gods." For more about the ancient philosophers, I highly recommend "From the Presocratics to the Present: a Personal Odyssey" by David Kolak. He really explains where the ancients were coming from so their genius can be properly appreciated. (And yes, Iama former philosophy major.) (^__~)
Pet names and endearments can start out as a joke and then evolve into something more (they certainly did inmycase, so beware). In this chapter, Trowa calls Duo "darling" (although Duo doesn't believe his own ears, the dunce) and this comes from Chapter 6 in which Trowa (possibly jokingly) called him "darling Duo" at lunch. Yup, it was all downhill from there. Duo has been officially Endeared. Heh.
Finally, I can't believe I haven't mentioned this yet (looking back over my notes, it's clear I haven't) but my inspiration for Trowa's character comes from two main sources: first, Reily's Trowa in "Arcanum" (a discontinued WIP, originally posted under the username Retep) and, second, Sunhawk's Trowa in "Rain" and also in both "Guidance" and "Directions". I loved those Trowas so much I had to get one for my very own. (^__~)
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