The newly build preventer's headquarters in Brussels was an imposing building. Half of it was underground but the rest was a gleaming peak of steel and glass, with the ESUN symbol emblazoned over two stories in marble and metal. There were uniformed guards at the door, though they stayed discreet since this was a force for peace, not repression. From the multiple heli- and MS pads at its apex to the pleasant if severely geometric gardens at its base, it represented the strong arm of the new world nation, the watchful eye kept over peace.
It was ridiculously easy to break into.
Wufei walked slowly and casually down the hall. The visitor's badge he'd lifted from the ditzy secretary hung from the belt of his jeans. He had an empty A4 envelope in one hand and a clipboard in the other, he wore his youth like a badge of innocence and the word 'courier' written all over him. He was all but invisible as he walked the hallways past cubicles and offices, all still smelling faintly of new carpet and wrapping plastic. He didn't like these subterfuges but he'd not fought a war alongside Barton and Maxwell not to be able to pull it off when need be.
Of course, a small voice at the back of his mind pointed out dryly, this might not have been a situation that called for it. He could have avoided all this hassle with one phone call.
He caught the scowl on his face in the reflection from a glass door and schooled his features to impassivity again. It wasn't that much of an effort to break into this place. And it was a phone call he'd been reluctant to make, for reasons he didn't even try to explore.
When he'd left Hangzhou, he'd found a few remnants of Sally's resistance group operating out of Beijing, more or less under cover and on the edge of legality out of force of habit and a lingering suspicion regarding the peace they'd also fought for. They'd offered him a place to sleep for one night and an unchartered flight out of China to the destination of his choice, with his weapons and his privacy, in exchange for the small favour of having saved all their lives during the war. It was when they'd asked him where he wanted to fly to that he'd been momentarily stumped.
Of course the logical course of action all along would have been to get in touch with the preventers, talk to Une or whoever they'd put in charge, explain his circumstances, sign on the dotted line...
He would join the preventers. He believed in their cause now and he was never tepid when it came to defending what he believed to be just. It was just that... he rather wondered where Heero was and if he was still looking for a partner. He'd had no news from the man, and he had no idea where he was, or even if he was still with the preventers himself.
Instead of resting that night, he'd spent it hacking into the preventer's database, to see if he could find a trace of his former partner. Their computer security was good, and Wufei was not a master hacker like some. He'd not made much progress by the time dawn had started spilling light on the bed he'd not slept in. Then he had the idea of checking for back doors. In the time he'd worked with Yuy and Maxwell, he'd seen their MO and knew their habits. Of course, the preventer database was not the same as an OZ system to be cracked and then left vulnerable for later needs...
He'd been rather surprised to find that it was.
It was one of Yuy's old back doors and passwords, the kind he'd put in discreetly so that the others could access an enemy system even if he wasn't available to help hack into it. The access didn't leave Wufei in super-user mode. He could get in to some lesser systems in preventers, but nothing crucial that he could see. But it did connect him to something interesting; an entry which was isolated from all other preventer functions, and accessible only through that login. A simple table with five entries.
That's when he learned that Heero was in Brussels. Yuy's entry was short and to the point; it had a cell phone number, a PO box (also in Brussels), and a curt line informing whoever accessed the table that he was working for the next two weeks in the IS dept of Preventer HQ. The entry had been updated a few days ago.
Wufei's hand had drifted to his cell but he found himself checking the other entries first, delaying the call.
Duo was apparently on L2. There was a cell number, an address, and a cheerful if rather cryptic message: "Hi guys! I'm back from that cluster, wasn't much to salvage after all. I'm hoping to go out again soon though, Hilde's got a good lead on some stuff on the moon base. I'll update this when I do, and warn her Ladyship. 427-fucking-E, right guys? Well, I'll be in touch. Call me, Yuy! Apart from your little love notes in this database we don't hear from you." It had been updated two weeks ago.
Trowa's entry was similar to Heero's, a cell number, a PO box on L3, and a list of colonies and dates, some of which were in the future. It looked like an itinerary. Wufei noted absently that two of the destinations were the same, Duo's address; Trowa had been there three weeks ago and would be there next week as well.
Quatre's entry was simply a phone number, and an address on L4. Wufei was surprised there wasn't more information, considering the previous entries. His own entry - he'd not been surprised to find it - was the same, his cell number and his address in Hangzhou. Nothing more.
"Hey kid!" A fist had slammed against the door. "Time to rise and shine! If you want to get a flight out of here today, you're going to have to tell us-"
Wufei had opened the door before the second knock.
"Brussels." He told the wide eyes behind the fist, and closed the door again to catch a few hours sleep.
He'd arrived in Brussels thirty one hours later. He stored his bag and sword at the station instead of taking a hotel room. Logically he should pause and take stock and illogically he wanted to charge ahead regardless. He headed into the centre of town, towards the newly constructed HQ.
He'd still not made that call.
He sat in a cafe on the other side of the Platz, his eyes going over the building. His cell phone was on the table, staring at him as reprovingly as such an object could. Just one phone call...
Using Yuy's back door and his own hacking skills, he managed to bypass the security cameras on the service entrance, then waited until some over-busy caterer wedged the door open behind his plates of sandwiches, and simply walked in, shaking his head disapprovingly. They'd not even put a checkpoint at this access, they were relying on the door lock and cameras alone. It didn't strike him as very serious security. He was disappointed that Heero would work in such conditions and not do anything about it. He'd detoured by a stock room to get the clipboard and important-looking envelope justifying his presence, nicked the visitor's badge from the secretary that tried to flirt with him instead of asking him what the hell he was doing there, then used the computer someone had imprudently left unlocked during lunch break to check the building plans for the systems room.
He walked casually down the halls, knowing that attitude was ninety percent of any disguise. Which was how Maxwell had managed to infiltrate so many objectives despite being a fresh-faced sixteen-year-old with a foot-long braid. No one looked at him, most of the cubicles and hallways were empty, people were at lunch.
He turned a corner leading to the IS department and found himself faced with a checkpoint. Well, sort of. A desk, a phone and a security guard who looked younger than he was; the young man stopped playing solitaire when he saw Wufei and looked up with the bored expectation of someone who is going to have to pay a minimum of attention to his job.
"Package for a Mr Yuy." Wufei said, walking right up to the desk. If Heero wasn't going by that name things would get sticky and he wanted to be in arms reach of the man.
"Okay." The guard sighed and held out a hand. Wufei shook his head.
"Hands only, I'm afraid."
"I have to deliver it to Mr Yuy himself. He needs to sign for it." He waved the clipboard at the guard like a talisman.
"Oh. Well, he may be at lunch, most people are." The guard - his badge said his name was S. Hewitt - looked longingly at his screen, then sighed and thrust a ledger at Wufei. "Sign here and I'll get someone to walk ya to the fridge. That's where he'll be, if he's anywhere."
Wufei signed 'Duo Maxwell' into the ledger while the guard placed a call, and looked up to find a portly sandy-haired man trudging up the long line of cubicles on the other side of the checkpoint.
"Yeah?" The man grunted at the guard.
Hewitt swivelled smoothly in his chair to look at him. "Courier for Yuy."
"He's in the fridge."
"Yeah, but the guy says he needs to sign off on this himself." Hewitt continued his smooth rotation until he'd made a nearly complete revolution that put him back in front of his game of solitaire.
"He hates to be disturbed." The fat man muttered, his look of annoyance tainted with a bit of reluctance.
The guard shrugged as he clicked away. The fat man glared at him, then gave Wufei a curt gesture to follow.
Wufei glanced at his watch. It was fifteen past noon. He'd been in the building twenty minutes. He'd brought the cameras down an hour ago. At some point surely someone would notice the security breach, and would ring an alarm. Then, assuming the checkpoint guard could tear himself away from his game of solitaire, he would be one of many checking his list of names against the building's entry records. Wufei's presence would be discovered shortly. He should have made that phone call...
"He's in here, unless he went to lunch." The fat man - his badge had been flipped the wrong way around, as had his tie, and he'd not bothered to introduce himself to a courier - stopped in front of a sealed door with a security keypad on it. He entered a few numbers - 48293, Wufei noted automatically, and rolled his eyes to the heavens - and opened the door a crack, with something like trepidation, as if he expected a feral animal to leap out at him.
"He's in here, he's working." He whispered, reinforcing the impression. Wufei fought to keep a smirk from his face. Looked like Heero still had it.
The fat man swung the door open, hesitated, coughed, and then took two steps inside. Wufei waited a few seconds then followed.
"Erm, someone here for you. Courier. Needs you to sign for a package."
The room was rich with the hum of dozens of servers and stacks, their fans whisking away and purring in the aggressive cold of air-conditioning, lights blinking green and red under harsh neon. Heero's back was towards the door, but Wufei caught the tail end of a movement from his swivel chair, he'd probably glanced up as soon as he heard the door open. His fingers were flying over the keys again though, and the line of his shoulders was unfriendly. Wufei and the fat man waited a few seconds until it was obvious that Heero was not going to turn around.
"Erm, he needs you to sign... " The fat man repeated.
"In a minute." Heero said. Once more Wufei had to catch his smile at the familiar cold, dead tones and the fat man's wince as he looked at Wufei, embarrassed.
"He doesn't like to be disturbed." The fat man told him in a stage whisper which Yuy would have been able to hear from the other side of the room, not that the man would know this. Wufei's escort hesitated, then when Wufei leaned against the wall and crossed his arms, visibly willing to wait, he left with a shrug and closed the door behind him.
Wufei glanced around the server room idly then rested his eyes on the familiar back. Heero was wearing grey fatigues and a khaki-coloured t-shirt, despite the coolant-scented biting air of 'the fridge'. His hair was a bit shorter in the back than when Wufei had seen him last. He wondered if he'd cut the bangs as well. Heero wasn't armed, as far as Wufei could see, though he could have a knife slipped into the steel-capped boots.
The fingers were flying over the keyboard in a clatter of noise to rival the hum and ratchet of the hard disks around them. Then the typing slowed and stuttered to a stop and the dark head came up, listening to the silence behind him that was not the one you'd expect from a normal person shifting around and getting bored fast.
"Yuy." Wufei said just as Heero started to spin around.
The back of the swivel chair bumped against the keyboard -
- which clattered against the screen. Heero stared at him and that's when Wufei knew why he'd not made the call.
"Do I even want to know how you got in here and why they think you're a courier?" Heero asked, recuperating his impassivity with remarkable speed.
- But in that instant of surprise...
"The security in this place is a joke."
- wide eyes, a face that suddenly looked sixteen when it usually didn't, the hitch in the shoulders...
"I know. I've informed Une of this fact on several occasions."
- the mouth that had lost its usual rigid line, the tone of the voice when it had gasped his name - his given name, Wufei noted with a shiver of curiosity and something like nervousness.
"Why don't you do something about it?"
Heero turned back towards the keyboard with a shrug. "Not my department. Give me five minutes." The clatter started again...
- that instant had given Wufei the answer he needed, to a question he'd been unable to ask even himself...
Heero's shoulders were locked and slightly hostile as he typed swiftly. He probably wasn't sure why Wufei was there, and the uncertainty was making him tense. There was no other indication that Heero was interested in seeing him after so many months or anything other than mildly annoyed.
- But for an instant, because Wufei had surprised him, had shocked him out of the steel core he wrapped around himself and his emotions, Wufei had seen what Heero himself could not have put into words. Or maybe he had, once, when he'd been nearly comatose from sleep-deprivation... 'I never thought training with someone else would be of any value at all, Chang... But you despise distractions and mistakes. I didn't understand it to start with, your pursuit of improvement, of excellence, but I do now. I have even integrated it into my own overall mission plan.'
Wufei wondered if he should mind that the only time Heero let him know his presence wasn't just another annoyance was when the soldier was exhausted past caring or shocked to the core, and realized that actually he didn't care at all.
That slight give in the mask, which would never be repeated in words, that might not even be recognized consciously by its owner... it was good enough for Wufei. His tattered pride that had survived the war, Treize, the banishment from his clan and peace, would not have allowed him to ask Heero to resume their partnership if there had been any chance that he was imposing his flawed strength where it was not needed or wanted. But his presence was not an imposition. Knowing that, he could ask Heero to allow them to work together. Hell, he'd plead if Heero wanted to make him pay for those few months' wait. The need was there and on either side, that was what counted.
Heero finally saved and turned again in his chair, leaning back against the small keyboard desk.
"Are you on a class break?" His eyes were cold and uncaring, running clinically up Wufei's frame to pin him with a stare.
Wufei took a breath, the cold air pinching his nostrils, the scent of plastic and air-conditioning flat and cloying.
"My clan has freed me from my obligations. I no longer have to study, I can choose my own career." He said simply.
Heero could have been carved in ice for all the effect that had, his control was absolute, as if to make up for the earlier slip.
"And you are here-... .?"
"To see if that offer you made me still stands."
They looked at each other, the silence humming around them.
"You want to join?"
"Yes. Do you still need a partner?" Wufei asked, politely framing the redundant question into words. He didn't think he'd have sensed what he had from Heero if the man had found an adequate replacement.
"... yes." Heero's voice was non-committal, but the lines of his shoulders eased slightly.
They weighed each other some more, in silence, then Heero nodded, once.
"Acceptable. Let me finish here and we can-"
"You!" The voice was faint, muffled by the sealed door and diluted by the hum of servers. "Have you seen an annoying kid with a long braid and a grin about this big?"
Wufei and Heero exchanged glances - the later definitely startled - and listened to the faint mutter of denial from someone else in the hallway.
The code on the door beeped and Wufei leaned back against the wall and moved sideways so that the opening door would shield him for a moment.
"Yuy!" A woman in uniform marched through the door, head swinging right and left in case any Maxwells were lurking around. "Did that infuriating friend of yours show up?"
Heero's eyebrows hitched and he glanced at Wufei in surprise, though the other person didn't catch the gesture. "Friend?"
"Maxwell. There can't be two Duo Maxwells in existence or else I'll resign. And retire to a nunnery somewhere. Him or someone using that name signed in a few minutes ago, said-" The woman finally glanced behind her, following Heero's gaze, and stuttered to a stop.
Wufei nodded once, trying not to appear overly defensive. The last time he'd seen this woman, she'd tossed him into a brig on the lunar base. Wufei wasn't sure of the sequence of events that had followed; he had a hard time believing she'd ended up being one of the motivating forces for peace, and head of the preventers despite the fact she had a career sheet many a war criminal would envy and, last he heard, a few psychological flaws that would not allow her to hold a job in a burger joint in most places on earth and in space.
"What-... Did you-... "
"We tend to help ourselves to Maxwell's name on occasion and I already told you the security on this building is ridiculous." Heero said dryly, figuring it out with his usual speed.
Une shot Heero a cold glance then turned back to Wufei. He found himself weighed down to the last atom. Well she might have become a fuzzy baa-lamb for peace but she was still as sharp as a butcher's knife.
"Did you break into this building, Chang?"
"Yes." Wufei shrugged.
"I dropped by to say hello to Yuy." Wufei said, like one moves a pawn forward on the board.
Une smiled, a sweet, mature smile. Her voice was pure acid. "And you broke into the building to do this?"
"Yes." Wufei said and waited to see what she'd shoot back at him. In the background, Heero had scooted his chair sideways a bit so he could see both of them and was looking on with the interested air of a spectator at a ping pong match.
Une's smile curdled for an instant then her eyes narrowed. The look became predatory. "Weren't you attending University somewhere in Asia?"
"So you just dropped by Brussels to say hello?" Une's eyes were unblinking and fixed on his pupils. The mature smile had returned. He wondered just how sane she was these days. "Decided to see how your friend's job was going?"
"Something like that." This woman was going to be his boss, but he'd spent too long thinking of her as an enemy and Treize's minion, and the conflicting reflexes this elicited were making him cagey.
"Well, then, maybe we could give you the grand tour. I think you'll like what we've been doing here, Chang. Our work here is important, and very fulfilling. And since we're still a very new organisation, there's no glass ceiling, plenty of room at the top in a few years time when people who've been in it from the start will look at consolidating a career."
Wufei's eyes flicked towards Heero's with a very obvious 'what the hell?'
Heero's lips curved. "Commander Une has been having a hard time finding a partner for me." He said, his dull voice interrupting Une's calculated spin. "I think she's trying to tempt you into joining."
Une glared at Heero. "Thank you, Yuy, but I'd think you'd be just as interested as I am in getting another of you pilots here on a permanent basis."
Wufei opened his mouth but wasn't allowed a say.
"Listen, Chang, let's discuss this, okay? I know you've got your future all worked out to your satisfaction - " she sounded very certain, as if she had been told this quite firmly before; Wufei shot Heero a glance but the later gave away nothing "- and we don't actually have to make this a permanent arrangement, you could continue to study in your downtime - I'd be ready to guarantee adequate sabbaticals for any scholastic program you're willing to aim for, it will delay your graduation by a few years but - "
"Really?" Wufei was surprised. They must be desperate for good agents.
"Yes!" Une pounced, misunderstanding his surprise. "And needless to say, the preventers would cover the costs of your education, partly or in totality if you're willing to work towards skills we could integrate later. I don't want to pressure you but maybe I could borrow a few hours of your vacation here to sit down and see if we could throw a few interesting ideas around. We can be very flexible. Barton and Maxwell have both come to satisfactory arrangements to-"
"Maxwell and Barton work for preventers too?" Wufei's eyes flickered towards Heero again. How come he wasn't working with one of them?
"Only part-time, or on requirement to be exact." Une smiled. It didn't reach her eyes. "As you see we're quite flexible. What's your schedule for today? Yuy, why don't you take the afternoon off, oh and tomorrow too, show your friend here around Brussels, maybe give him a tour of the HQ, and-"
"I'd rather have a mission." Heero said. His eyes flicked towards Wufei, an eyebrow lifted in a question.
Une turned fully to stare at him, puzzled. "I don't have anything in the works for a solo op, Yuy, you know that."
"He's not solo anymore." Wufei said quietly, deciding that the satisfaction he'd get from toying with her further would not be worth the creepy feeling of Une trying to be nice to him.
Une turned again, looked from one to the other, and then nodded slowly. Her eyes were calculating and Wufei thought she'd understood a great deal more than what had been said, and had figured him out faster and more accurately than his uncle Wai had. She caught on fast, he should not underestimate her.
"I see. Are you even going to ask me about salary package and health benefits or are you going to -"
"Skip straight to the part where you tell me what the mission is."
Une looked at him steadily then nodded again. "Good. I'm sure we'll settle the rest to your satisfaction. And I can see where you'll fit in to the organisation." Her eyes had flickered to Heero. Wufei was ready to bet Yuy had not inquired about salary either when he decided to work for her organisation. "Yuy, get the hell out of this computer room, that lazy tech we hired will have to do the job now, even if he takes four times as long. Why don't you show Chang here the *other* office, while I get the paperwork ready. Where are you staying, Chang?"
"With me." Heero said, slipping smoothly into the slight hesitation her words had caused. Wufei nodded, knowing that only Heero would be able to read the stiff gratitude in the gesture.
"I'll fax the stuff over then. I need to make you jump through a few hoops, Chang, sorry about that but this is an administration and there's only so much red tape I can cut through. I think I can slip you in to our evaluation tests tomorrow. Yuy will give you the rules and regs you need to know. I trust you can learn them as quickly as he did. You'll have a certification to pass eventually, and officially you'll be in Yuy's charge as trainee until you're done but that's only what it'll say on your tax return. Uniform, medical, one last chance to pull out, and you and Yuy can be in the field by this weekend."
Wufei glanced at Heero. The later did not seem surprised at the speed and slight taste of rule-bending Une was putting on display. The massive steel and glass edifice around them did not seem compatible with such alacrity. The marble ESUN symbol seemed too ponderous to cut red tape and get him out of what should be months of boring training.
"I think Yuy can give you a better idea of what to expect with us." He found Une watching him like a cat with its paws on either side of a single-exit mouse-hole. "It may not be quite what you expect. But I'm thinking you'll like it. If you have any concerns I'll be in my office, buried in paperwork and trying to perform miracles."
She spun on her heels and walked out. Wufei smiled slightly at the gesture; Une was no pushover. He'd have to ask Yuy how reliable she was these days though.
"Wait here a minute." Heero brushed past him. "I'll be right back. Try not to break into anything."
"I'll do my level best." Wufei told Yuy's back. He watched from the doorway as Heero caught up with his commanding officer, spun her around by the elbow - Wufei's eyebrow arched - and talked to her in a low voice. Last minute details, possibly. Heero's stance was intriguing; slightly menacing even. Une's eyes were like glass and her face was as impassive as her agent's.
Finally she left and Heero looked back at Wufei, a beckoning glance.
"What was that about?"
"Just making sure you have appropriate working conditions." Heero said curtly. "You didn't ask many questions."
"I didn't think I needed to." Now he was wondering.
"Don't worry about it, I took care of it. I'll show you around. Tell you what you need to know. Do you have a car?"
"No, I came by taxi."
"Good. Come on, we've got nearly an hour's drive ahead of us at this time of day."
"Where are we going?"
"To the office."
Wufei cast a quizzical look around them. Heero intercepted it and smiled ever so slightly.
"The other office."
Heero drove the non-descript car by the train station to pick up Wufei's sparse luggage, then headed off towards the outskirts of Brussels. Low-income high-rises gave way to industrial zones and cargo train yards. Wufei found himself hypnotized by the passing of one non-descript hangar after another. He couldn't even feel surprised that there was a second preventer office in Brussels, or that it was in this unlikely area. His eyes squinted against the sparse watered-down February sunlight, and he found them closing by themselves.
"You look tired." Heero was driving with serious attention, eyes darting to the rear-view mirror to make sure the -completely empty- road behind them was still free of enemy pursuit. Wufei was relieved he wasn't the only one for whom the war lingered like a bad habit.
"It was a very long trip." He acknowledged. "But I'll live. Where are we going?"
Wufei tried to keep awake and distracted. He observed Heero through the corner of his eyes. His one-time ally had looked a bit taller when he'd brushed by the Chinese teen in the computer room. His hair was slightly shorter but his bangs still fell over his face, hiding his eyes if he ducked his head just a little; Wufei suspected it was a defence mechanism that pre-dated his days as a pilot. Heero was tanned and his skin was rougher than before; most of his missions must have been on earth and out of doors. He had a puckered pink scar across the back of his knuckles that looked new. A non-descript denim jacket had been slipped over his t-shirt but no weapon holster. He wore a thick, ugly chain around his neck with a couple of metal disks hanging from it that Wufei was itching to examine; they looked like dog-tags that were trying to seem less than military. He guessed the preventers walked a fine line, being an armed force for peace, working in a world all too easily reminded of soldiers and take-overs and repression.
His intuition stirred. He'd been so intent on working with Heero - knowing that whatever Yuy would be doing would be worthwhile and certainly not boring - that he'd not actually thought much about the kind of work they would be doing. His uncle Wai's description of a policeman's job had been his vague template to date and though he'd not been enthusiastic about parts of it, he now believed in the cause and would put up with the boring as well as the intense. He was beginning to wonder if he'd not made a few false assumptions though.
He followed a jetstream streak with his eyes and realized the shuttle at its end was in approach position. They must be near the spaceport/airport. 'A tempting target' his sleep-blurred mind whispered, and he caught himself with an inward wince and glanced around to distract himself. For the last five minutes they'd been driving alongside a high barbed-wire-topped fence with nothing but empty lots behind it. In the distance he could see some low hangars. Just as he was about to ask what this was, Heero pulled in at a check point in the fence. Wufei glanced at the steel plate bolted on to a concrete pillar, but the name of the place was a meaningless acronym. Heero nodded to the security detail - three men in a little hut, one of whom nodded back. From the way the light was reflecting off their windows they were encased in concrete and plexiglass.
"Where are we?"
"Weapons disposal unit, for whatever hardware was not destroyed on return to MO2 at the end of the war. And there's a research block as well, to study any new things that might be developed. It's preventer controlled."
"Ah. And this is where you work?"
"Not quite. I work in the underground facility beneath it, the one that's not on any map of the site. The one only a few people in ESUN and even preventers know about."
Wufei leaned back against the seat and stared at the distant hangars. Heero didn't go through the checkpoint, he backed out and continued on down the road.
"Spec ops?" Wufei asked quietly.
"Of a sort. I think Une has it down as the Primary Intervention Division or such."
"You're right. I should have asked more questions."
"We're accountable." Heero said firmly. "And watched. And I watch." He added. Wufei found himself nodding. A black ops group could be the tool of tomorrow's oppression, but not on Heero's beat.
"What exactly is it that you do?"
"We take care of the fires."
"Undercover work - but that's not my specialty." Heero suddenly turned the car into the dirt off the side of the road next to the barbed wire fence and the pock-marked desolate terrain behind it and stopped the motor. His look when he turned towards Wufei was direct, serious. "The preventers are a responsible organisation, a policing force for peace. They are accountable to ESUN, and they have the legal authority to conduct arrests. The trials are held at the world nation's courts in Luxemburg and Mumbai. It's all above ground for the most part."
"For the most part." Wufei said, with a 'here it comes' voice.
"But before the young fresh-faced recruits go in and arrest people, before the detectives and forensics move in to do their job, before the lawyers and the right to remain silent... before all that we're facing all degrees of military level opposition and we're not a military organisation that can respond in kind. Une needs someone who can crack open a situation and allow the more conventional forces in. Someone-"
"-who's fought a war, knows what it's like to be heavily outgunned, and who's not afraid of getting his hands dirty."
"You in, Chang?"
"I already said I was." Wufei didn't hesitate. "I can't even say I'm all that surprised, you wouldn't be good with paperwork, donuts and public relations, Yuy."
"Well the last two we've managed to skip." Heero scowled at the road, where a pigeon pecked at something on the other lane. "But we're policed, and there's paperwork. Granted not many people have the security levels to look at it, but there's paperwork." His voice was as neutral as ever but Wufei had the distinct impression this was the least liked aspect of the job.
"Drive on, Yuy." Wufei leaned back against in the seat and put his hands behind his head. "Weren't you going to show me your office?" He added as Heero pulled away from the curb.
"We'll do a quick tour tomorrow. Une needs to get your authorisation through to them first. All five of us are on a watch list for any kind of secure installation and our prints and retinal scans are on file." Heero said as if this was perfectly normal.
"How did they get my retinal-... lunar base. They kept the OZ prison records."
"Hai. You won't get past the lobby without Une's direct approval."
Wufei made a small 'hmph' noise.
"Please don't try to break into this building." Heero added sarcastically. "You won't be able to."
"I try myself every so often and so far I've only gotten past the first level."
"There's not much to see anyway. I don't actually have an office, like most agents I spend most of my time in the field, or at home. There's five underground stories, most of them offices and IT systems for the surveillance division. For us field operatives there's a bunch of wired desks available if we need them, most of the time I work in the computer room though. There's a weapons depot - are you armed?"
"Luger in my duffel."
"It was when I took it off the corpse of some OZ officer on the lunar base, does that count?"
"We'll get you sorted with something a bit more legal. There's a huge information gathering service - Sally Po and Lucrezia Noin work for that branch, I see them occasionally. Then there's what you'd expect; a small clinic, holding cells, interrogation rooms - no, not that kind."
Wufei tried to release the sudden tension that had touched him like a live wire. "'Not that kind'... but don't tell me that you get the bad guys all the way into the great 'secret base' and then let them make a phone-call to their lawyer."
"We're not the police but there is a judicial representative present at every interrogation and we're not allowed to violate the constitution. Much. Actually it walks a fine line but we draw it at truth serums, and only with approval."
"The rubber hose and electric shock methods are passé, are they?" Wufei tried to sound sardonic but his voice was flat in his own ears. Memories lingered in his mind like the taint of bile in his mouth.
"I'll let you read our charter when we get to my place. If you have any concerns-"
Wufei interrupted him with an abrupt gesture. Part of him was not surprised, even reassured that the world still worked the way it always had. And a small part of him was disappointed.
"Where are we?" He glanced around as the car stopped again. They were in an area of small industrial lots backing up to the barbed wire of the huge base. There was a long-term storage facility taking up most of the lot, a small workshop that made prosthetics according to the sign on the wall, and an empty run-down hangar. Most of the buildings around them seemed deserted; the last year of war had hit all earth economies hard.
"My place." Heero stepped out of the car and went to grab his laptop's bag in the backseat.
"Where?" Wufei asked, nonplussed.
For answer Heero headed towards the prosthetics shop. Wufei belatedly got out of the car and followed, in time to see Heero unlock a steel door with what appeared to be very adequate locks on it.
The workshop was a big empty space inside, with a high ceiling. Dusty light fell through plastic windows high up on the walls. It had been stripped of any signs of its previous function. It didn't take Wufei any time at all to figure out why Heero lived here, apart from the fact that it was five minutes away from the gate they'd passed on their way over. The space had been sectioned off and each part was neatly and efficiently laid out.
The area closest to the door was a training centre. The concrete was covered in a spring-board setup that must have taken Heero a considerable amount of work, but gave a good, elastic surface to work on that wouldn't damage the joints. There were neatly ordered weights and a bench off to one side, a punching bag hanging from the high ceiling by a thick chain - Wufei looked at it with some sympathy, it was already lumpy and sagging at the seams and he had a feeling it wasn't the first one Heero had owned either. Outside of the spring-boarded area there was weight lifting equipment and a rower, with elastic matting beneath them.
"Don't the preventers have a gym?" Wufei asked as he followed Heero to the right hand wall.
"Yes." Heero said curtly. He didn't say anything else though; Wufei suspected that Heero did not like to show his superior training and skills where anyone else could see. Paranoia, or simply discretion and a desire for privacy. Wufei could understand them all.
Next to the slapped-together dojo, the floor was concrete that stretched to the back of the workshop where a big service door led to the loading area, Wufei guessed. There were several worktops and counters in this area, with engine parts and a bike which Wufei looked at it with interest. Tools hung in regimental order from the wall, it looked like a mechanic's shop. Wufei wondered if there was a Gundam lurking under a tarp outside the door.
On the right hand side of the space, what had once been a small lunch room had been remodelled into a very rough kitchen, with metal racks and a free-standing sink. An electrical cooking ring, a plug-in kettle and a microwave sat side by side on a crude metal-top counter. A small fridge had been placed beneath it. Wufei spotted a few cardboard boxes piled up next to the counter, decorated with a brand name that made him shudder; dry rations, the kind he'd have won the war just to avoid eating ever again. Heero pulled out the single stool at a second high metal-topped counter at right angle to the first, in an invitation to sit. Wufei did so, letting his duffel slip heavily from his shoulder. He was getting tired, he'd not had much opportunity to sleep in the last three days. He watched blindly as Heero plugged in the kettle, then glanced around. The ceiling over the kitchen area was half as high as in the workshop area, and some stairs led upwards nearby, there was probably a small second story to the place. Offices or storage rooms - probably where Heero now slept.
"Tea? No, you'll want to sleep soon." Heero was standing at one of the racks of provisions, fingering a plain mug he'd picked up and looking through packages. "I seem to recall you're not fond of energy drinks. I've got fruit juice-"
"Tea is fine." When he lay down, nothing was going to stop him from sleeping.
Two functional mugs were placed on the counter near the kettle. Heero leaned back against it and looked at him while the water started to hiss behind him.
"Are you hungry?"
Wufei gave the boxes of rations an unenthusiastic glance.
"I've got some leftovers in the fridge. Chanko nabe from the oriental deli downtown."
"That'll do." It was three in the afternoon but what the hell.
Heero moved to place a tupperware in the microwave. A few minutes later a cup of tea - the crude breakfast stuff - and an aluminium plate full of vegetables, fish balls and chicken were placed in front of him, with two plastic chopsticks. Heero went back to lean against the counter to sip his tea - there was only the one stool.
"Thanks. For putting me up, too." Wufei muttered as he picked up the chopsticks. His stomach felt hollow but his appetite was lacking. "I could have stayed in a hotel."
"There aren't any nearby." Heero said with a shrug. "And you'll have a busy day tomorrow. This is more practical."
"Hm." The leftovers weren't all that bad, but the tea was awful. Wufei sipped it anyway, too strung out to care much, his attention elsewhere.
"How was university?" Heero asked. Above his cup, his eyes looked faintly curious.
"I gathered that was what it was for."
"I didn't mean the classes. Those were mostly boring. Talking of which, how long am I going to be a trainee?"
Heero had been politely waiting for him to finish his meal before talking about more serious matters but Wufei wanted to deal with it while he was still more than half-awake.
Eyes on the rower in the training section, Heero shrugged. "Normally the technical and legalistic aspects take six months of training before the candidate takes a test. I'd estimate you'd be ready for it in three weeks, though you'll be out in the field with me until you do, we won't waste your time. Of course, if you'd-... "
Wufei looked up from his plate at the way Heero had abruptly interrupted himself. "Yes?"
Heero hesitated, then said dryly. "If you'd joined right from the start of the organisation, before any of the rules were set and the heads of ESUN were still desperate, you could have avoided a lot of crap. I was given the certification on the second day, along with some very illegal ID that says I'm officially Heero Yuy born on an L1 colony eighteen years ago, with no criminal record and a clean bill of health."
Wufei waited but nothing more was forthcoming on the subject. He didn't think his first refusal or any of the wasted months since then would ever be mentioned again.
"Is the fact I'm a sixteen year-old ex-terrorist going to be a problem?" Wufei finally asked.
"No, not much. Une will do what needs to be done, though the age thing might be annoying for a year or two. But she'll get you to work for her if she has to swear in court that you're her long-lost elderly uncle. She's been frantic about finding me a partner. We're meant to be watched and accountable so a partner is pretty much an obligation for some of the more delicate operations."
"And what? You, Sally and Noin are the only people working in this Intervention Division?"
"Oh no, there are many agents."
"They all ex-OZ?" Wufei hazarded, he'd been wondering if that would be a problem.
"Many are, but there are others. Une's been trying out a few as partners for me, but it was a waste of time."
Wufei looked at him in surprise over the rim of his cup. "Why?"
"They were inadequate."
Well that was a given, Wufei thought, but he was surprised that Heero had not made some effort to get along if this was the only way he could get out on the field. "Come on, Yuy, you put up with Maxwell for many of your missions during the war."
Heero stared back at him, body language expressing amazement. "Maxwell? Duo Maxwell was a good soldier, a dedicated Gundam pilot, and a reliable ally."
Wufei felt his jaw drop in surprise.
Heero's eyes narrowed, almost accusing. "You have no idea, do you."
"What, that you're carrying a torch for Maxwell? No, I admit I had no-"
"Baka! I meant, what it's like working with someone norm- who wasn't a Gundam pilot." Heero raked a hand through his bangs. "Maxwell was brash, and a distraction when we weren't on a mission, but that's in context. Compared to the people Une tried to get me to work with... there's no comparison."
Wufei thought back to his partnership with Heero during the war and had an inkling of what he meant. He would be an impossible act to follow for someone who'd not been cast in the same fire. Heero would not slow down now just because they'd won the war. It wasn't his nature.
It wasn't Wufei's either.
Blue eyes and black locked. For a few long seconds.
"There are two empty rooms upstairs, the old offices. You can use them as a bedroom and a study."
The abrupt statement would have floored anybody who had not had that eye contact previously. A whole understanding had been hammered out between them in an instant. They were back on Peacemillion, all extraneous matters and distractions and conventions cut out to leave the bare bones. It was more efficient for Wufei to live with his partner and near the 'office' so that was the way it would be.
There was just one last grey area, and Wufei actually wanted to have a verbal conversation on this one point because the question between them was hazy and unclear and this was something they both had to agree on. He pushed the half-empty plate from him, picked up his tea-cup, licked his lips... hesitated.
"There need be no other obligation to you staying here." Heero said. His voice was abrupt but Wufei noted the open-endedness of the 'need be'.
"Have you come to an arrangement with someone?" Wufei asked slowly, dragging the subject out into the open.
Heero glanced at him swiftly. "No. I've not had much time. Or need."
Wufei thought he understood that. It was the same conclusion he'd come to at ZJU. There were no more pressures of war. The need for sexual relief could be controlled and squashed, and the distraction it cost would not be life-threatening. It was simpler than the alternative. He found himself nodding.
"Well if ever the need does arise, we know how to take care of it." He said shortly.
Heero stared at him, weighing him. It reminded him of the look he'd been given so long ago right before the arrangement had first been suggested. A bit less sure of itself maybe.
"I thought you'd be more interested in a heterosexual relationship."
"Yes, I would be." Wufei said dryly, after a moment of reflection. "But I will not compromise myself, my performance, my goals for a piece of skirt. If I wanted a woman, or a family, I'd have stayed where I was. I want-... you know what I want. That doesn't work with a woman I'd leave behind for months on end, and I don't want an emotional attachment anyway. We're the same on this, Yuy; the battle comes first. No emotions, no distractions. That leaves me all of one option as far as I can see. Yes, I'd rather it be a woman, that's more my inclination, but unless you're willing to go through some rather complicated surgery that's not going to happen, is it?"
"Surg-" Heero nearly dropped his cup. Wufei smirked at the wide eyes, the startled face. Twice in one day, I better cut down or I'll give him a heart-attack, he thought dryly while part of him realized he liked this; he enjoyed catching Heero Yuy off guard, in the same way he enjoyed pinning him to the ground when they sparred, or surprise him with a particularly vicious move. It was their way. They didn't pull their punches; that was not how it worked. That was not how they wanted it to work. They stood back to back against the enemy, and when there was no enemy they were each other's rival, their reason to keep on striving to improve even more. There was no room for comfort, consideration, affection; they were traps in the same way as one's emotions.
"That... would not-... " For once Wufei had the rare privilege of seeing Heero Yuy hesitate and fish around for his words.
"It was a joke, Yuy." And it must have really caught you short if you didn't realise it, Wufei added mentally, giving the growing scowl a pleasant look in return.
"You finished with that?" Heero asked a bit sourly as he nodded towards the half empty plate.
"Yes, thank you."
"I'll let you sleep then. Don't worry, I'll clean up." He took the plate from Wufei's hands. "You need to rest if you're going to be evaluated by Foxwood tomorrow. I hope you haven't gotten soft sitting on a school bench."
"Shall I show you?" Wufei's eyes darted towards the spring-boarded dojo.
Heero looked like he was about to object but then he must have remembered the surgery crack because he put the plate in the sink with a thump and turned towards the practice mat with a smirk promising a dessert of pain and humiliation.
Wufei showered in the bathroom which Heero had obviously constructed himself from the old workshop's lavatory. The shower was cheap plastic and the water didn't run fast. Wufei soaped off the sweat - not much he could do about the bruises. Despite his katas he had lost a bit of his edge in his months at the university and Heero had obviously enjoyed showing him how much. He'd put up a good fight though. Heero would not have any doubts about taking him on as a partner.
He slipped on a pair of sweatpants Heero had tossed him - a burst of memory of a shower in Italy, but he put that thought back where it belonged. The arrangement... well, if the need arose they knew where they stood now but it was all still a bit too new, too raw for... Besides he was tired.
"I can use the sleeping bag, you know." He muttered for the third time, as he saw Heero come out of his room with the balled up sheets from his bed.
"It needs airing out. I'll use it tonight. I've got work to do this afternoon, I'll be downstairs." It was an innocuous sentence but it reminded Wufei of the old safe-house routine; sleeping in shifts, one to watch the other's back, making sure they knew where they both were in case of attack. Wufei shook himself mentally, that was the past. He'd been sleeping quite well on his own for the past four months. Well, fairly well.
The sheets and cover on the military camp bed were thrown back. He should probably consider himself lucky that Heero didn't sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag or a bed of nails for that matter, Wufei thought sarcastically, eying the rest of the room. He wasn't sure of its previous purpose, it was too big to be an office; maybe a main work area or a store room. Heero's small bed was up on one side beneath a window that had plastic sheeting taped to it, blocking out the sunlight. One corner was slightly lifted, probably to keep an eye on the back loading lot, Wufei was ready to bet, just as he was quite sure the whole place was thoroughly wired for security. There were metal shelves holding clothes, shoes, a few books, some odds and ends, and on one end was a cheap metal desk and filing cabinet, with a second PC, a small stack, a hub and docking station for the laptop. The other two rooms on this floor - Heero had given him a very brief tour - were empty, small offices, thoroughly cleaned by the present occupant and used for storage. They'd make liveable rooms, he judged. He was surprised Heero wasn't using one of them for a study, but he obviously found it more efficient to live all in the one room.
Wufei glanced out the window through the lifted corner of the sheeting. There was a wheel-less old car outside, resting on cinder blocks, either a wreck come ashore in this beaten down industrial zone or a project Yuy was working on. There was a conspicuous absence of Gundams though.
He slipped between the rough sheets as Heero came in to grab a keyboard and mouse from the desk. "Where's Wing?" Wufei asked on the steps of his last thought.
Heero stopped moving, staring at the wall, then turned slowly but didn't look at Wufei.
"I destroyed it." He said softly.
It was like a blow to the chest, like learning a friend's lover had died. Wufei found himself on the verge of giving his condolences, and managed to stop himself.
"Oh... I-... " I can't believe you did that. "Did Une make you?" The question slipped out before he could even think about it, reason momentarily mobbed by surprise.
"No, it was a conscious decision. We agreed that-"
" ...yes. Deathscythe, Heavyarms and Sandrock were also destroyed."
"I can't believe it." The words tumbled out numbly. In his shocked mind, a breath of fear... we're working without a net now.
"Hn." Heero turned swiftly towards the door, as if he didn't want to talk about the subject any more.
"We're still needed though. More than ever now. It's good you're here."
The door closed on those curt words. Wufei's eyes lingered on it until they started to close. His mind followed Heero's silent footsteps down to the rebuilt workshop, sitting at the kitchen counter, drinking tea out of the cheap mugs, working on his laptop.
He glanced around the bare room and found himself smiling slightly, letting the shock ebb. Just so... Yuy. Why did he feel more at ease in this- this shed than in the elegant apartment in Hangzhou?
Because it didn't pretend to be something it wasn't, like a home.
I'm out on the edge again, the thoughts drifted through his mind as it plunged into exhausted sleep. The slight exhilaration of the thought followed him down into the darkness. He was where he belonged.
End of part II - Wu Tao
On to chapter fourteenBack to chapter twelve