The Arrangement

by Maldoror


Part Nineteen: Infiltration, Part I

Wufei was a warrior. He would probably be so for the rest of his life. He slept with one eye open, one ear on alert, and a part of his brain always attuned to his environment. During missions, his sleep was light and fitful.

When he was in his room in the converted workshop - the 'safe- house' - he slept better, knowing instinctively that, with Heero's security system and his partner's fine senses also on alert, he was Safe. His sleep was deeper, restful. The small part of his awareness that kept watch, even here, even now, analyzed all noises but rarely saw fit to wake him.

So he was aware of the steps coming up the stairs but they didn't disturb him. Slower and heavier than normal; Heero was still hampered by his injury, but Wufei had grown used to the different tread in the three weeks his partner had been back and walking again... Way ahead of schedule of course, stupid doctors... Wufei had warned them, but they didn't listen... better off seeing a faith healer than those quacks... his thoughts drifted back into dreams as his brain processed the information without any fuss: Heero. Safe. Sleep on.


"So this door's to the master bedroom? Your room?"



Because he was Safe, the first words, in a voice that was not Heero's, did not make him bolt awake reaching for his weapon. Heero's voice further helped to keep him under; his partner would never allow anything like an enemy near Wufei while the latter was asleep.

Sound of a door opening.

"And this is the study. Cool."

Voice nearer... In his sleep, Wufei's brow wrinkled. His brain registered the voice approaching, though the only footsteps he could clearly hear were Heero's. Safe was one thing, but there were limits; his brain upped his awareness levels. Even in sleep, Wufei now had both ears pricked, seeking further information.

"Nice, nice. Ah, and this will be the spare bedroom then, right?"


Several things hit him at once. The voice - at his door. But - familiar. Doorknob - turning.

Wufei was awake and staring at the door when it popped open. His fingers were on the Luger's hilt, but the familiarity of the voice kept him from snatching it from the bedside table and aiming.

"Oh- Ow!"

The figure outlined against the brief flash of light was hauled back - accidentally jerking the door closed - on that last exclamation.

"Baka!" Heero's voice, a hiss. "Why did you- I told you Chang was sleeping upstairs!"

"Well... yeah. But I thought-... you said you had a master bedroom and a guest room, and I asked you if the room at the end was your room and you said yes... " The meanderings wound down into a shrug that Wufei could almost feel through the door.

" room? What?"

Heero's voice indicated he was confused. Wufei, despite his brutal awakening, was not.

The owner of that unexpected voice had meant, 'your room', as in, Wufei's and Heero's. He had assumed they slept together.

The rush of emotion in response to that thought was blurred by the sleep still clinging to the corners of his mind, but he was pretty sure he was annoyed.

There was a soft knock on the door. Wufei was already sitting up in bed, but didn't answer. No need to.

The door opened and a familiar tousled head was outlined against the light.

"Chang?" A whisper. "You awake?"

"What do you think?"

" ...Sorry."

"Yuy, what the fuck is Maxwell doing here?"

" ...It's complicated. Go back to sleep."

The door closed softly. Wufei stared at it.

"Hey, sorry man." A whisper in that oh-so-recognizable voice, somewhere near the stairwell. "I didn't realize... say, where am I gonna sleep?"

"Couch." Heero growled softly.

"Oh. Well, okay. It looked comfortable-" the voice and footsteps faded down the stairs.

Wufei stared at the door, then shook his head once, violently. Unfortunately it appeared he was indeed already awake.

No way in hell was he going to back to sleep before finding out why Maxwell was setting up house on their couch.

He was dressed and coming down the stairs a few minutes later. His last hope it might have been an illusion born of exhaustion faded. Duo Maxwell was sitting at the counter, large as life, sipping the instant coffee Wufei and Heero kept for their rare guests.

"Wufei! Hey, sorry I woke you, buddy. Didn't know which room you were in." Duo waved at him cheerfully.

That's one way of putting it, Wufei thought darkly, still furious at Duo's blithe assumption about his relationship with Heero.

Heero had stood as soon as Wufei had come down the stairs, refilling the kettle and setting it to boil again. Duo's eyes, curious and alert, went from Heero's back to Wufei, who was hesitating at the counter.

"Use my stool," Heero said without turning around.

"Oh, sorry guys, didn't realize you only had the two! This yours, Fei? Here, siddown. Least I can do. Heero tells me you were out all last night, following a suspect?"

"Yes." All last night, and the night before. It was now early afternoon and he needed his sleep, but more than that, he needed to know what Duo was doing here. Maxwell's voice rang too loudly in the big, empty space of the workshop's floor. He was perched on the counter near the kettle now, finishing his coffee and giving Wufei his well-remembered grin, which was too bright and vibrant to bear after only four hours of sleep.

"Find anything good? Did the guy have loads of guilty secrets?"

"Actually it was a woman, and no." Wufei muttered, rubbing his face, his interrupted sleep clinging like grime to his skin. Heero was still preparing the tea but his head suddenly tilted slightly, indicating he was listening; he'd done some hacking and ID checking on the case. It was to him Wufei was speaking as he continued, though he didn't look in his partner's direction. "Turned out to be a false lead; Armand's team came back with the contact, their tail tried to close the deal last night. All settled and passed on to ESUN services."

Heero nodded minutely - Duo, missing the whole silent part of the interchange between the partners, looked puzzled. Wufei didn't really care if he followed the conversation or not.

He nodded in thanks as Heero put a cup of tea in front of him before returning to his own stool with a protein blend drink from the fridge. Wufei took a sip, then another. Duo was beginning to fidget.

Feeling sufficiently awake to be able to cope, Wufei put down the tea. Heero immediately started talking.

"Maxwell is here to test the defenses of Ops Centre."

Wufei hesitated, his hand hovering over an apple in the basket on the counter. "Because you're out of commission... ?"

Heero nodded. He tried to break in to Ops every so often, to test their defenses. It wasn't a very serious attempt - the guards were warned he was coming; it was mainly a test of the wired security and computer system. But he still had to be physically able. And he wasn't quite up to that level just yet.

Heero's recovery, in the past four weeks since being shot, was nothing short of amazing, and had their clinic's head, Dr Hampton, completely flabbergasted... and his staff mightily relieved. In the few days Heero had spent in the Ops clinic, he'd been just about as impossible a patient as Wufei had expected. The bone-like alloy that had been injected into Heero's vertebra and ribs was even more solid than the skeletal structures it held together, so the fractures were no issue, but his muscles and nerves had been damaged by the shot and the surgery, and bed rest had been indicated for at least two weeks, followed by intense and thorough physiotherapy to regain lost mobility.

The so-called patient had rearranged his room in the clinic on the first day - all by himself, despite strict orders not to move - to get a better view of the doorway and have his back to the wall. He'd broken out of the clinic on the third night to filch some supplies and power tools from the mechanics division; the next day the staff had found a metal bar bolted across a corner of his room at head height, and Heero doing minimal pull-ups and stretching 'to keep his back muscles fit'. When a nurse changed his bed and accidentally found the Glock he'd stashed at the head of the mattress, Hampton had called in Wufei to 'help deal with it'. Wufei had pointed out that Heero would have to be a good deal more weakened than he was for Wufei to be able to disarm him. Hampton had stared at him as if they were both insane.

Finally, Heero had only spent five days in the clinic before being kicked out as being way too healthy for the staff to deal with. He had returned to the converted workshop and promptly ignored all appointments for physiotherapy, since he knew better than anyone the limits to which he could push his body and he wasn't going to stand for some worrywart physician telling him what he could and couldn't do. Wufei had wisely said nothing.

He was making tremendous progress but he wasn't up to breaking into Ops yet. But that didn't mean he had to call on Maxwell! Wufei looked at his partner from the corner of his eye. While Heero was recovering, Wufei had been doing a few solo missions or helping out other teams - pretty boring work for the most part, but nonetheless necessary. He wasn't that busy though, he could have done the test in Heero's stead. The annoyance he'd felt since he'd woken up - been woken up actually - increased. Apparently his abilities to break into a stronghold were not comparable to the 'perfect soldier's'.

Heero caught the loaded look with an even one of his own; he was probably used to Wufei's thought processes and his hyper-sensitivity to any suggestion that his skills were being disparaged.

"I would have asked Maxwell here even if I was fit," Heero's voice was neutral, but a minimal hand gesture told Wufei to calm down, he wasn't being taken lightly. "It's been a year since we set up Ops's defenses. I want to put them through a thorough run."

Wufei paused with the cup near his lips. "Thorough... "

"He wants me to crack the joint!" Duo chuckled, finally unable to contain himself. "Cold!"

The teacup rattled against the counter in alarm. "You don't mean-"

"It's the only viable test." Heero explained. "No warning of the personnel; Une is the only one who's been informed. Duo will go in knowing nothing of the system as it is set up, as if he were really trying to infiltrate the base."

Wufei's eyes were wide as he stared from Duo's grin to Heero's calm eyes. "He's going to get shot."

"Don't diss the man, Fei. They won't even see me!" Duo snorted.

"He'll be going in with a flack jacket, and strict orders to surrender if caught without trying anything stupid." Heero's eyes were like twin blow-torches, melting even Duo's indomitable grin a fraction.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Just remember to bail me out of jail, in the *very unlikely event* that that happens." Duo sniffed.

"So, when are you going to do this insane stunt? Tonight?" Wufei asked, wondering where their couch came into the equation.

"Nah. 'Wing' said to go in cold, not blind! I'm tackling this like a regular job. First I case the joint. That'll take me one or two nights, depending on outer security. Then I'll probe, see how far I get. Then I get serious and-"

"How long are you going to be here?" Wufei interrupted; the skin of his neck felt like someone had pressed cold metal to it.

"Best guess, two weeks. Depends on how fast the final phase goes."

"Or if you get arrested on your first attempt," Heero murmured, finishing his protein drink.

"Not gonna happen, Yuy, not gonna happen."

Wufei barely heard their banter. Two weeks... or more... with Maxwell? That much time on a mission with Duo wouldn't be a problem, but... but here? In their house? Something within Wufei reacted with an immediate No! and from the way Heero was slightly hunched over the empty bottle and watching him, he was rather expecting that reaction and not really looking forward to it.

"And you're planning on staying here the full duration of the mission? I mean, here with us?" Wufei's shoulders were tense as he glanced at Heero. His body language clearly said: Have you gone insane?!

"Huh-uh!" Duo said brightly. Heero caught Wufei's glance, and he let his fingers twitch away from the bottle, a little flick, and an eyebrow curved slightly. Wufei could read the gesture and the reasoning perfectly, as if Heero had actually said the words. Duo's doing me a favour here; what was I supposed to do? Tell him to fuck off?

"Ah." Wufei's nails rapped against the counter. *Yes!*

Heero's eyes hooded fractionally. Well you try then.

Fine! Wufei's back informed him as he twisted on his stool to fully face Duo. "You might be more comfortable staying in a hotel than on our couch. Une would cover the expenses."

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Heero move languidly to lean his chin on his fist, body language contemptuous. He'd probably already tried that line of argument, and many others. Heero would be just as reluctant as Wufei to let someone stay in their sanctum for any length of time, especially someone as energetic and... overwhelming as Duo.

"Hey, no probs, Fei! I'm used to bunking out. And I hate being lonely! Couch is fine."

Wufei smiled tightly. "You'll be doing most of your work at night, right?"

"Unless you give all the guards really, really dark sunglasses, yeah."

"So you'll be here during the day, but Heero and I will be out of the house, you'll be alone... and we have no television or sound system to keep you from getting bored."

Duo blinked several times, while Heero suddenly relaxed, his eyes widening fractionally... .he had not apparently thought of that particular line of attack. Wufei's smile broadened a hair's breath as Duo looked pained.

" ...damn, you guys living in a monastery or something? You're not going to get me up every day at four for morning prayers, right?"

Wufei saw Heero's eyebrow twitch a fraction. He looked like he wanted to say yes.

"Oh well, it'll be tough, but... I can watch the tube another day. It's so rare to see you guys! I'll stay here."

Wufei's cup trembled slightly as his fingers clenched, and he glanced reluctantly at Heero. But the latter didn't look smug; strong shoulders slumped a bit. It was a good try... guess we're stuck though...

"You'll see, guys! We'll have loads of fun!"

The rather funereal response to his cheerful exclamation was, as usual, completely ignored.

The next few hours were, predictably enough, spent listening to Duo. That is, Wufei listened while idly finishing his report, and Heero ran some diagnostics on the Ops computer system, the lack of brutal 'shut up's as close as he was going to get to chatting.

Duo did not seem to mind the apparent lack of interest in what he had to say. He was fiddling around with his own laptop, probing the first line of Heero's defences in Ops, occasionally throwing little pieces of information, nuggets and dross, over his shoulder; they shaped up into a crooked mosaic illustrating the last year of his life and his contact with the other pilots.

If pressed - as in, interrogated by a professional, with the aid of the appropriate truth serums - Wufei would have admitted that he was interested in what Duo had to say. Otherwise he'd have gone to work in his room. He was curious about how the other pilots were doing since the war. The only contact he'd had with them had been through the Preventer grapevine, and their rally to his call four weeks ago.

Duo and Trowa were still working with the Preventers part time, when Une needed their special skills. Otherwise, Duo helped someone called Hilde - Wufei vaguely remembered a short-haired, unconscious girl being wheeled into Peacemillion's infirmary - working in a salvage business, and spent time with Quatre, presumably for the touch of luxury that would provide. Trowa was working at the circus. Wufei learned that Catherine had survived the war and was doing fine, though she still couldn't make a cup of coffee to save her life. Trowa occasionally stayed with Duo and helped out Hilde with the bigger salvage orders, when construction suit work was needed. According to Duo's little anecdotes, he and the others were doing well. Duo never lied, but he didn't always tell the truth either. In a way - a way Wufei had been completely oblivious of until the very end of the war - Duo was almost as private a person as he and Heero. He just hid himself in a totally different way, and Wufei did not know Duo well enough to be able to read him like he could read his partner. But it was not his place to dig; Wufei decided to take Duo's words at face value. He and the other pilots were 'doing okay'.

Duo tried to invite them out to dinner that night, to repay their 'generous hospitality'. But Wufei was too tired and Heero was, well, Heero. Duo munificently took care of the take-out, and they went to bed early. Wufei woke with a start at two in the morning at the faint sound of their front door closing - Duo, going to stake out Ops. It created a fissure in his mental safe haven. He... trusted Duo. With his life. He'd be able to sleep again, deeply but... Wufei felt the shape of something awry in his life, small but annoying. Something he couldn't define yet.

These would be a long two weeks.


For an instant upon waking up, Wufei wondered if it had all been a strange dream. When he was in the safe-house, he normally woke clear- headed and focused and ready for another day on the edge. Having Duo Maxwell invade their space was shaking his centre. Memories of the war blended with the twinges of a private man having to share his home territory. Wufei stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, trying to get used to the idea.

He descended the stairs, automatically timing his soft steps to the rhythm of Heero's exercises; he could hear his partner running through his usual morning routine on the weight lifter. Working his upper arms by the sound of it.

Duo was sitting at the counter with a mug of coffee in his hand. He was staring at Heero. His eyes were narrowed and his face looked older and marred by lines of anger as he watched Heero struggle at the weights. The expression lasted only long enough for Wufei to catch it; as soon as Duo realized someone was in the kitchen area with him the expression disappeared as if it had never been, replaced by the usual good humor. But Wufei had seen that look and knew what it meant. He'd have to have a word with Duo; Heero and Wufei had agreed that no further reprisals would be taken against Heero's aggressors, unless they were foolish enough to try again. Wufei would have to make sure Duo abided by this. That expression had been that of Shinigami looking for blood. Legalities and peace and the social contract could not quite banish this demon; those who wounded one of Death's few friends could not even hope for a swift demise.

Duo leaned his chin against his fist, turning his face towards Wufei.

'Should he really be doing this?' he mouthed, hiding the words from Heero with his hand.

Wufei shrugged. "No." He kept his voice low but he didn't turn away from his partner, who continued pressing the weights, ignoring them.

Duo stared at Wufei, eyes narrowing again; this time the anger was directed towards a visible target. 'Aren't you going to stop him?'

"War's over, Maxwell," Wufei said with an arrogant smile he didn't really feel. "I don't take suicide missions anymore."

The blue eyes were blade-thin slits, dissecting his words, his stance. 'You aren't going to say *anything*?' The last word was mouthed aggressively.

"He knows what he's doing, Duo," Wufei replied, voice very quiet but firm as he turned towards the kettle.

A disgusted huff was all the answer he got. Wufei listened with one ear to the sound of weights hissing. He knew why Duo was upset; could see in his mind's eye the trickle of sweat on Heero's pale face that came from controlling pain rather than effort. But his partner had been training his body into a fine-tuned instrument of death for over half his lifetime; Heero knew how to tread the fine line between pushing his body towards optimum recovery and harming himself.

Of course, that line did not take into account anything as trivial as excruciating pain. Wufei didn't turn around, kept his eyes nailed to the kettle. His mind ran through its frequent litany, the words repeated like a rolling prayer wheel. Lords of Hell, may J be rotting in your deepest pit, the one reserved for abusers of children, with the words 'the means justify the end' burnt across his body with a red-hot poker.

The ring interrupted his thoughts, the swish of Heero's weights and Duo's unarticulated grumbles of concern. Heero let the weights swing back carefully and slipped the phone from his pocket. All the way across the room, Wufei could see the way Heero's body tensed as he read the caller ID, and he guessed who was calling - though seeing how often she'd phoned in the last two weeks, it wasn't all that powerful a deduction.

Heero held the phone like he wanted to hurl it across the room but he knew Wufei was watching. Wufei leaned back against the counter and glared reprovingly. Stormy blue eyes flung a look his way - swift and lethal as shuriken - but Heero flipped open the phone without further procrastination.

"Relena." He snapped. "I told you to stop-... just a minute."

With another murderous glare at Wufei he stood and headed towards the stairwell, grabbing his towel in passing.

"Be polite, Yuy." Wufei reminded him sharply as Heero passed him with the phone muffled against his chest. Heero didn't even bother to grunt a response. It had already taken considerable persuasion on Wufei's part to get him to agree to answer and talk to her each time she called.

"Soooo... the Princess has his number?"

Wufei turned back to the kettle, dismissing Duo's inquisitive look. He nodded in response and poured hot water into his cup. The delicate smell of white tea rose with the steam.

"Huh, she's still chasing him, hm? Man that girl don't know when to quit! She's got it bad."

"No." Wufei answered softly, eyes on the stairwell. "She only wants to know he's alive."

There was a scrape against the kitchen's cheap linoleum, as if Duo had twisted around to get a better look at Wufei's back. "Know he's alive? What do you mean? From the way he's acting she's been calling for awhile now."

"The last time she saw him, he was lying on the floor with two bullets in the back, as far as she knew, and she was being dragged away from his body. She hasn't seen him since. I don't think a phone call is enough." Wufei's voice was even, he tried to keep the pity and annoyance out of it; they weren't completely deserved. After all, he'd been living with the proof of Heero's survival - fighting, arguing, refusing to stay in bed and pushing himself to the edge of exhaustion with typical Yuy stubbornness - for the last month. The only thing Relena had was a curt voice on the other end of the phone.

He turned towards the counter to find Duo scrutinizing him. " ...You think he should go see her?"

Wufei shrugged. "It would put her mind at rest. I know it doesn't make sense, but then logic has never been that woman's strong suit. But he won't."

"Oh?" Duo's eyebrows twitched up.

"That's why she's calling so often; he said he would never see her again and she's trying to change his mind."

"Whoa. Did a jealous lover ask him to give her up?"

Wufei almost spilled his tea, and glared at the joker. He'd been having a serious conversation here! Why had Duo-... oh, what else had he expected.

"No, Maxwell." Wufei ground out. "Yuy's reasons are as eminently logical as always, if you can get your head around that concept." Duo's grin widened. "She represents something important to him. He would die to defend that, and her. But as it turns out, the only time she was truly at risk in this last year was because someone was using her to get at him. His presence near her is a danger, and he won't allow that. End of story. She seems to have the same lack of basic understanding that you do, though, hence all those calls."

"So... it's not because someone close to Heero asked him to cut the ties?"

" ...there is no one close to Heero," Wufei answered, thoroughly puzzled now, by the question and the look in Duo's eyes. Playful, cheerful... calculating.

Duo's grin seemed artificial. His eyes had darkened at Wufei's response, to the color of deep pools. "Oh? Not even this guy I know who's been working with him and living with him and shooting people by his side for almost eight months?"

Wufei put his cup down with a click. "If there is something you want to ask, Maxwell, just ask."

"Okay. Are you two a couple?"

Wufei gave Duo a long, cold glare just for the enjoyment of seeing him edge back and adopt a slightly more defensive posture.

"No. We're partners." He finally said, with some relief. He had wondered if this question might come up, after Duo's strange assumption he and Heero slept in the same bed. He'd been ready to hedge or lie outright, but in this instance he could answer the question truthfully. Being a couple implied affection, love, mutual support. If Duo had used some other term - the word 'fuck-buddies' floated through Wufei's mind, in the L2 street-rat twang that seemed to vocalize his more inappropriate thoughts - he'd have had a harder time denying it, but a couple... ? No.

Duo was staring at him as if unsure whether to believe him or not. Then he slouched back against the counter.

"No? Really?"

"No, really. How on earth did you come up with that ridiculous theory?"

Duo's eyes twitched away from his. " ...You two have been awfully tight since the war. We were wondering-... "

Wufei snorted contemptuously and Duo bridled and glared down at the counter.

"So... you won't mind if I make a play for him?"

Wufei choked on his tea, and coughed a couple of times. "Wh-what?"

Duo's head was still bowed but Wufei caught a flash of blue through brown bangs. The voice was easy and sensuous. "Hey, the guy's probably horny. And he's hot. And he's available, if what you say is true." Duo finally lifted his head, leaned back easily against the counter, with that same grin painted on his face but his eyes were level and clear.

" work part-time for Preventers, right?"

"Yeah." Duo looked puzzled. "Why, is there some requirement that I have to work all-out for Une to be able to jump his bones?"

"No, I was just curious to know if part-time came with full medical coverage."

"Uh? Wh-oh I get it. Trying to tell me to lay off the stud?" Duo leered.

"Trying to warn you, but it's your health. Do what you want."

"You don't mind if Heero and me hook up?" Duo clarified, enouncing each word; he was looking at Wufei as if examining every inch of his face for the slightest trace of hesitation. The man has the curiosity, the adventurousness and the hormones of an alley cat, and he better have every one of the nine lives that goes with that if he's even remotely serious, Wufei thought, suddenly amused.

"Mind? Not at all. In fact I wish you the best of luck, Duo. I think you'd both make a very cute couple." Wufei said loudly, since he could almost feel the glowering presence of the other half of the 'cute couple' somewhere near the stairwell, cutting into his back with a thermal-beam stare. Score one for Chang. Maybe there would be some source of entertainment out of Duo's visit after all.

"Hear that, Heero?" Duo tossed over his shoulder. "We got Wu's blessing! Want to go out tonight?"

"Did you scout out the Center already, as you planned?" Heero asked through clenched teeth. He must have given Relena all of thirty seconds to make her case again, as he was showered and dressed in jeans and a clean shirt.

"Yup." Duo turned and leaned back against the counter, looking Heero up and down. His pose was insolent, and just a touch seductive.

"Then we'll go out tonight, so you can make your first attempt at breaking into Ops." Heero snapped.

"A mission for two in the moonlight... how delightful." Wufei murmured. Duo twisted around and stared at him as if he'd gone insane, and it was true that Wufei rarely let anyone other than Heero see this side of him. He wouldn't if they were on a mission, but they were at home, between jobs, and he was too used to their baiting to be able to pass *that* one up, despite Duo's presence.

Heero had agreed, reluctantly, that he'd have to wait until fully recovered before they resumed their sparring, so Wufei was quite safe from physical retaliation, though the glare he got was the next best thing.

There was some surprise in Heero's deadly scowl... they never dueled, verbally or physically, in front of anyone else. It was too private; it was part of who they were. It wasn't always light banter; it could be hard and cruel, a tool designed to search and cut out the faults and weaknesses that they could see in the other, even if it hurt. Wufei shrugged minimally at Heero's questioning look and let his eyes flicker towards Maxwell. This was Duo. He was... 'a friend' was a vague term, 'an ally' was not strong enough; Duo had seen them in their darkest glory, their most murderous splendor, their weakest humanity. Duo, and the others... were close enough to be allowed to see some of what made the partners tick. Within limits. Besides, if Duo still had any mushy ideas about Heero and Wufei being a 'couple', listening to their put-down matches and score keeping would probably disillusion him quickly.

"Good. Tell me when you're ready to leave tonight, Maxwell. Chang will be going with us. Since he's feeling... playful." Heero ground out that last as if he was chewing glass. Duo twisted again, staring at Heero this time. Yes, that tone would have certainly taken the aforementioned mushy ideas, shot them in the back of the neck and buried them six feet under. Duo knew them both well but not well enough; he listened to Heero's words, winced at the cold look on his face, but he couldn't read everything else about Heero the way Wufei could. Heero's body spoke eloquently to the man who'd battled against it, treated its injuries, fought at its back, and, well, there was the sex too, of course. Heero was agreeing with Wufei's assessment of the situation, on that level where no words reached, where the partners operated, and he was playing along.

"Maxwell, I've taken the day off today." Heero turned the glare on Duo, who flinched slightly. Apparently immunity to The Scowl faded after a while, Wufei concluded. "You wanted to go into town to pick up your equipment?"

"Yeah, that's right." Duo jumped off the stool and stretched, recovering quickly. "I don't like getting the customs guys excited, so I shipped my B&E stuff over via the Sweeper route. Should be at the shuttle port by now. I also need a few things in town. You gonna be my escort?" There was the slightest purr in the question, which Heero completely missed, much to Wufei's leisurely disappointment.

"Yes. Car's outside. Drop you off at Ops on the way, Chang?" Heero asked, heading toward the door. Typically for the soldier, he'd apparently decided that the previous 'cute couple' conversation had simply not happened. He wasn't given that option for long as Duo, with a conspiratorial smirk at Wufei, ran to catch up to him and draped his arm over Heero's shoulder. That garnered the expected reaction, but if Duo minded the elbow in the ribs and the scowl he didn't show it. Wufei followed with a vague sense of amusement of his partner's obvious discomfort. Looked like peacetime hadn't changed Duo's dangerous sense of humor.


Wufei returned early, having finished up the odd jobs Une had lined up for him. Unlike a certain soldier they both knew, Une could assign a temporary partner to Wufei and the latter wouldn't chew him up and spit him out again. But neither one of them wanted to get Wufei involved in a long-term case with anyone else; Une shared his faith in Heero's healing abilities and knew he'd soon be on his feet and ready for the more deadly challenges she regularly handed to them. Wufei withstood the boredom with growing irritability, passing it on to the punching bag when he got back to the house.

Smash; the bag's chain clanked,

It was even worse today...

Thump-thump-thump-jangle; a series of quick uppercuts pummeled the bag.

Something about Maxwell being here, even if so far he'd been a fairly agreeable houseguest, as far as Wufei was concerned.

Step back, spin around - whack - high kick - the chains holding the bag groaned where they clung to the high ceiling and floor for dear life.

...Probably the lack of sparring... thump-smash!... and the lack of sexual relief; they'd agreed to postpone that too, until Heero was back into something like his usual shape. They were a bit too used to rough play to take a chance.

He stilled the quivering bag with one hand and looked up expectantly when he heard the car pull up outside. Duo's voice preceded the returning men.

"- didn't get much of a chance to explore, though, their security system was tops. As you'd expect from any bank, as well as a bank that's financing guerrillas. Une was happy enough with what I brought her, we had enough evidence to - does she give you bonuses when you ace a mission?"


Duo was carrying a stool, price tag still dangling from one leg. That sent something hot and spiky spiraling down into Wufei's stomach, though he couldn't explain why the idea of having three stools bugged him so much.

"Really? You're getting screwed. Me and Tro get a nice little pile of cash whenever we exceed Her Ladyship's expectations. You need to talk to Quatre, get him to negotiate your working terms, babe. Hiya Wu."


Wufei stopped glaring at the stool to look at Heero, carefully measuring his partner's reaction. Heero looked like the usual block of ice but Wufei's life had hung on his partner's slightest movements, and they spoke clearly to him now. Heero appeared as startled as Wufei at the endearment. But not overly angry. Apparently he was giving Duo the same leeway he accorded to Wufei's sharp tongue. Wufei wondered if Duo appreciated the gesture, and thought maybe he did. And the L2 denizen's native astuteness would also know not to push it too far. That was good. It meant Wufei could stop worrying about Duo's health and enjoy the look on Heero's face as he contemplated a universe in which someone had called him 'babe'. That was even better. Wufei abandoned the hapless punching bag and went to shower, feeling a bit less annoyed at the world in general and wounded partners in particular.

The evening meal was... interesting. Duo and Wufei talked about work and Preventers they both knew, and occasionally Duo would drop a line Heero's way. The bland responses were probably better than the curt rebuttal he was expecting, and he looked rather surprised and pleased at that. Wufei, who knew his partner a whole lot better, was exceedingly amused by the fact that Duo thought he might actually be getting somewhere when in reality most his hints and innuendos were flying right over his target's head.

'Looks like I'm doing okay.' Duo mouthed smugly at Wufei while Heero's back was turned.

'You're standing still, Maxwell.' Wufei moved his lips in silence, smirking. 'Try to be less subtle.'

A series of emotions flickered across Duo's face; surprise, annoyance, and a definite 'you asked for it' as Heero sat down, putting some fruit on the table.

"Say... that couch is kinda soft for me." Duo said slowly, eyes fixed on Wufei. "Maybe I could sleep with you tonight, Heero?"

Wufei had to bite the inside of his cheek at the look on Heero's face. An acid glare hurled his way indicated that Heero hadn't missed his amused reaction.

"My bed is too narrow according to some," Heero answered, with a sidelong glance at Wufei, who'd complained about it before. "I suggest you sleep with Chang. He has a double."

Wufei almost dropped the pear he'd picked up. Score, Yuy. He spared a conceding glare for his partner before scalding Duo with a look that blasted away the words that were about to come out of the joker's mouth. "I already suggested you'd be better off at a hotel, Duo." He commented sharply.

"Trying to get me out of the way, Wufei?" Duo asked, coy and teasing.

Now he was getting double-teamed. Great.

"Will you be sleeping at all tonight, Maxwell? Aren't you going to try your break-in?"

Duo grinned then generously allowed the diversion. "That'll only take me a couple of hours. It's just a first probe. Speaking of which, I'm going to take one last quick look around the fence and pick my entry point. Heero? Come with?"

Heero had missed most of the 'flirting' previously and had probably not picked up much of a hint from the bed remark; the mention of the mission had put him into soldier-mode anyway. There wasn't the slightest hesitation or annoyance on his face as he nodded firmly and went to put on some dark clothes. Duo - who was, no surprise there, already wearing black - stayed sitting at the counter.

Wufei put the dishes in the sink and turned for the soap to find Duo leaning near him, close to his face. Wufei jerked back, reflexes screaming. Duo had been as silent as a shadow.

"Time to lay down your hand, Wu. If you don't want him, I'm going for it."

Wufei stared at the hard blue eyes.

"Want him-?... You're serious?" Duo could kid around but there was a limit he wouldn't cross and this... There was a look in those blue eyes that didn't belong to the joker's mask. Wufei wished he'd noticed it sooner. He'd been assuming this was one of Maxwell's little head games but-

"Yes." Duo smirked, it wasn't an amusing expression. "I don't steal from a brother, so if you're even remotely interested now's the time to holler, but if you don't, finders keepers."

"Max-... Duo... " Wufei tried to gather his thoughts. This wasn't so funny anymore. "I... Heero is not going to be interested, and... he's not subtle when he puts people down." Ask Relena.

Duo's expression went from a hint of 'oh so you are interested' to puzzled to outright amazed. "You're worried about me?!"

"Well... I don't think he'd try anything violent. And anyway, he's slowed down by his back injury so -"

"The only thing you have to worry about is losing your shot at him. Shinigami gets his guy." Duo's eyes had narrowed. "Watch what you're saying."

"Watch what you're doing."

"Why, Chang, I didn't know you cared."

"Only a very, very little bit, Maxwell."

Duo looked away slowly as Heero came down the stairs, slipping on his jacket. Heero looked puzzled to see them close together in front of a sink full of dirty dishes and no water. Duo smiled at him and nodded to the door.

"Let's ride, Tonto."


"Never mind." Duo fell into step with him. Close. There wasn't any of the previous, playfully blatant display to disarm the intentional approach into Heero's personal space. Wufei felt he was watching a mountain lion shadowing its prey. He stared at the closed door for awhile, wondering what Duo was up to. *Was* he serious... ? Yes, he was serious; Wufei's instincts might not be wholly accurate when it came to the multi-faceted mask of his more volatile friend, but he felt that Duo was definitely on the hunt. Shinigami gets his guy... But those same instincts warned Wufei that he was missing something... he could still hope this was an overly elaborate joke. He turned towards the dishes and washed them absently; his ears kept straining for the sound of returning footsteps at the door while his mind was lost in conjecture.


The October air was cool and damp. It smelled of nighttime and rain, with a faint chemical taint from the pharmaceutics plant upwind. The night clung to their skins, casually ignoring jackets and clothes. True to his word, Heero had insisted Wufei accompany them as Duo set out on his first attempt.

Heero and Wufei sat against the car hood, on either side to keep an eye on the grounds behind the fence and on the road, normally deserted in the rundown industrial zone. Duo was dressed in black, his braid tucked away inside the flak jacket, and tackle like climber's gear around his waist and slim thighs. He had a pouch of various tools and lock picks attached to his belt and a small laptop in a slim case on his back and he still moved without a sound.

"Okay, guys, I'm off." Duo's voice was low but not anywhere near subdued. He stared at them, arms akimbo, and grinned. "Leavin' you guys behind to go and make my way into a heavily defended base, all alone against an unknown number of armed guards... just like old times!"

"Don't blow anything up." Wufei and Heero said at pretty much the same time.

Duo rolled his eyes and grinned. He walked up to the fence, climbed it with quick efficient movements, propelled himself over the barbed- wire section as if floating through the air, and dropped the three meters down to the other side with barely more noise than a cat. He stepped away and the darkness slipped around him like an old familiar coat.

Heero double-checked his cell phone, then crossed his arms over his chest. His fingers tapped his biceps; patience wasn't really his thing. Wufei settled down in a very light meditative state, keeping an eye on the road and trying to ignore Heero who was looking at his watch approximately every ten seconds.

"He should be breaking in by now," Heero muttered. Silence settled again, textured by the whoosh of cars from the nearby highway, and the faint buzz of streetlamps. Heero started to fidget against the car and Wufei sighed internally. And fought off the sudden, strange urge to go around to Heero's side of the car and sit nearer to him. He shifted, and decided he needed a distraction.

"So, have you fallen for Maxwell's charms yet?" He murmured. Wondering if Heero would tell him what had happened during their scoping out of Ops. If anything had happened.

"What?" The car creaked. Wufei glanced over his shoulder to find Heero in a mirror position, looking at him slightly bewildered.

"Maxwell. He's been flirting with you." Wufei stared, surely Heero had at least realized that much by now.

Apparently not. "With me? No. He was jerking around earlier but that was just Maxwell. He did the same during the war."

And we were both so young, self-centered and callow, we never even noticed it was teasing until much later, Wufei added mentally. Well, in Wufei's case, some sexual frustration may have made him take Duo's jibes a bit more seriously than they were intended. He'd been... rather resentful of Maxwell back then. Well, envious, actually; envious of the sure sensuality, of the ease of his mock flirting, of his attitude of getting what he wanted... without realizing it was as much a mask as Heero's steel facade.

Heero was looking at Wufei with a slightly raised eyebrow. "If anything, that was mild compared to what he was like when we first started hiding out together. The second time I met him, during the war, we'd been undercover in a school for two weeks when he approached me with two cans of green and purple spray paint. He suggested that since we were both going to attack the nearby base, we should each... 'tag'... the guards we stunned or killed. Whoever had the smallest number of hits afterwards would clean the other's Gundam with his toothbrush."

Wufei's lips curled despite his best effort to stop them. "And what did you reply to that interesting idea?" He asked.

"That I had no intention of attacking the base at the same time he did, and that if I had any more proof he was insane I would consider him a danger to my mission and terminate him." Heero's voice still held a trace of aggravation. "That actually shut him up for awhile."

Until he realized you weren't nearly as murderous as you made out to be, just as he wasn't nearly as frivolous as we thought. Wufei chuckled, though inside he was writhing a bit, embarrassed at other war-time memories. Duo must have had a great time at his expense; Wufei had fallen for every one of his teases. And what was worse... there had been times he'd feared Heero might have actually been attracted to the handsome, sexually mature Duo. But that, his partner would never, ever know.

"Why are you worried?" Heero's eyes had narrowed.

" ...He'd stopped teasing like this at the end of the war." Wufei said slowly. "When we were all aboard Peacemillion." When they were all about to die. When keeping the masks seemed trivial, a waste of resources. When it was almost a comfort to know that in the eternal night that was reaching for them, four other people had glimpsed the person behind the warrior/killer/joker/pacifist/mercenary. Four comrades had seen past the posturing and the lies and they were not ashamed to die side by side. Duo had still been the most light- hearted one of the lot, his cheeriness maintained as a relief for his friends and a slap in their enemies' faces, but he showed the other Duo too. Wufei had found the serious, focused, cheerfully bloodthirsty and driven young man to be... more than an ally... not quite a friend... something else. Duo's words came back to him. 'I don't steal from a brother'. Yes, maybe that was it...

The war was over and they'd reassembled their masks, to live in a peace they'd created and knew little about. But things didn't go back to the way they were before - thank the gods. The older Wufei knew himself and his partner much better now. He knew that Heero would never risk a commitment towards someone who could become emotionally compromised over him. Even if their job wasn't so dangerous, it just wasn't Heero's way. He'd been brought up in a world of cold choices and sacrifices, and it was where he thrived. He wouldn't compromise that for anybody. No, not anybody. And Duo... Duo had a deep core of loyalty towards his friends/family and his cause, something that was so deeply a part of him that he hid it almost by reflex, as if expecting from past experience to have anything or anyone he loved used against him.

Which was why Wufei had assumed Duo was joking, even when he'd seemed so serious. Wufei didn't think Duo would 'go' for a comrade, actively try to seduce one of them purely for lust, and drive right in to a sticky situation. It was tempting to think it was a joke but...

"Are you sure he's just teasing now?" Wufei asked softly, breaking the silence that had settled between them again. Heero still had the social instincts of road kill, even when it concerned someone he knew. Wufei didn't think he'd pick up the subtleties.

Heero snorted. "Certain, and I'm not the one he's teasing, Chang."

Wufei turned slowly on the hood of the car after a quick glance around. "What do you mean?"

"We had a chat while scouting around the fence earlier." Heero muttered. "He was talking about you."

"What about me."

"He said you looked lonely, and obviously needed to get laid." Heero's mouth was a hard, uncaring line, but he shifted uneasily, making the car's hood creak - a touch frustrated, Wufei thought with a slight smile. "He thinks you 'have the hots' for him. He said some fairly unflattering things about you being rather uptight, but that he might... " Heero frowned. "He said he might throw you a bone; I'm not sure what that meant."

"It means I will kill him when he gets back." Wufei ground out. But actually he was rather relieved. There was no way Duo was serious about-... no, he wasn't serious. It had been Maxwell clowning around as usual, and since Wufei had been the brunt of that joke, Duo had put on a grand show for his victim. Amazing, after all that time and all they'd been through, Duo could still fool him. He probably was too uptight, but somehow, Wufei thought with an inner sneer, he would learn to take that in stride... "What did you say to that?"

Heero shrugged easily, eyes still scanning their surroundings. "I said I didn't think you were interested, since you were preferentially heterosexual."

" ...Well I guess that shut up him."

"If only."

"These are going to be the longest two weeks since Einstein coined the theory of relativity." Wufei sighed, rubbing his eyes.

"If he annoys you, I'll kick him out." Heero's voice was suddenly harsh, catching Wufei by surprise.

"He's not annoyed me yet. Well, much." Except for the invasion of their space. The disruption of their comfortable routine. The presence of a stranger that demanded thought and understanding and explanations and words.

It occurred to Wufei later - when Duo melted out of the darkness and started clambering over the fence again, two hours after he'd gone - that they could have spiked this running joke completely if they'd just told Duo from the start that...

That what? That he and Heero were together? A couple? Boyfriends? Wufei sneered inwardly. That was why it hadn't even occurred to them. It was their private business, and besides, there were no words to explain what they shared. Having Duo listen to their explanations and getting it all wrong, and looking at the cold and clear-cut thing that lay between them with his cheerful blue eyes, would just make it all too... complicated. The weight of his gaze might disrupt a delicate balance that neither partner acknowledged.

Duo dropped down to their side of the fence with a wide grin. "All done for tonight, guys. Let's get this batmobile back to the cave."

It was past two in the morning, but none of them felt like sleeping. Duo was wound tighter than a spring, with a dangerous edge of eagerness and adrenaline. They sat down at the kitchen counter. Duo chugged back half a bottle of water, wiped his mouth, then jumped off his stool and made a showy bow in Heero's direction.

"Gotta hand it to you, Heero, the security on that place is pretty tight. I only got to the second level."

Wufei schooled his features into neutrality - a trick he'd learned from his partner. Heero's reaction was minute, in fact Duo looked a bit disappointed at the lack of response, positive or negative. But Wufei caught the slight clench of fingers... though Heero had set the system up himself, he'd never made it past the first underground level of the complex.

He was visibly itching to ask Duo how he'd managed it but he didn't actually have to ask. Duo spent the next twenty minutes telling them all about his attempt, the clever way he'd broken through the fire door separating first and second level, and the funny things he noted about whatever guard he happened to dodge.

"Well, he only made it to the second level, there's nothing too sensitive there." Wufei told his partner prosaically as Duo took a breather to chug down the rest of the water. Heero didn't look any happier.

"Yeah, well, I got further than that, thanks to some klutz in the secretarial pool." Duo wiped his mouth with a huge gesture, leaving the smirk in place.

"What do you mean? You said-"

"Physically I only made it to the second level, but here. Found this. I'm pretty damn sure it wasn't supposed to be lying around someone's desk, in a fancy red folder screaming 'steal me'. I think they put these to bed on the fourth level at least." Duo produced a paper from his laptop case.

"Maxwell!" Heero snarled. "You weren't supposed to steal anything!"

"I made a photocopy, and it's an object lesson to the person who takes care of paperwork." Duo said, archly. "It has the address and bank details of an undercover agent. Not something that should be left lying around-"

Heero threw back his head and laughed. It was a sound that many mobile suit pilots had heard before they died and it had sped them on their way to hell. Wufei glanced up, startled and Duo actually started to duck behind the counter.

Duo made a sound in his throat, then glared at Wufei - a somewhat more congenial target. "What's so fucking funny? That could have been your address some psycho stole. Or Trowa's. It's not-"

"It's serious, Duo, we don't underestimate that." Wufei murmured, his eyes on Heero, who was staring gloatingly at the paper he'd snatched from the former thief. "But the person in charge of the proper procedures and filing of all sensitive documents is... let's say, the manager of that department, Anthea Stenhelz, is an old acquaintance of Heero's. She, ah, hasn't endeared herself to either of us. Once your mission is finished, we'll be pleased to-"

"I will tell her." Heero ground out in a voice that even his sparring partner wasn't about to contradict. The smile hovering over his mouth wasn't pleasant.

"Always knew he had a vindictive streak." Duo told Wufei, fingers laced behind his neck and elbows up, a familiar gesture. "All that shit with Zechs... "

"We'll wait until you finish your mission, Duo, since we don't want to alert anyone in Ops until you're done. Then we'll drop it on her. It won't happen again." Wufei concluded crisply. "Still think you can get to the fifth level?"

"Is the pope catholic?"

" ...the last pope died over a hundred years ago."

"Okay, so he's dead, but he's still catholic!"

"I'm going to bed, suddenly I have a headache."

"Poor Wuffers. Want me to come up and massage your temples?"

Heero glanced up from his haze in which he'd probably been thinking of the various ways of laying into Anthea with the evidence, to give Wufei a 'told you so' look. But Wufei could read Duo's tone better. The offer had been entirely sarcastic.

"No thank you, Maxwell, I know you only want to steal my bed out from under me." Wufei shot back, and made it up the stairs before further comeback could occur.


End Part 19


On to chapter twenty

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