Chapter Seventeen: The Dragon and the Unicorn
by Casey Valhalla
"My point being," the taller of the two men said with a defined sniff, "that if the trade agreement should go through the Veritas council, then Catharta stands to lose a quarter of its main exports. Rewriting the documentation is *not* going to change that."
"Which is why we write a *new* treaty," the shorter man replied, passing his identification over the console to a uniformed guard. "And that is *precisely* what I was trying to tell you, you old coot. Now, if Veritas can be persuaded-"
The tall man snorted and snatched his own card back from the glowering guard. "Veritas cannot be persuaded to do *anything*, not without bribes and favors. Trust *that* from a nation founded by pirates."
"Yes, but the agreement is not in their favor," the short one added, waggling a finger at his companion. "And they *are* clever enough to realize that. The bribe, my snide friend, will in fact *be* the new treaty."
The first man looked to be considering this for a moment as he polished his glasses on the hem of his tunic. He spoke again only after replacing the spectacles on his beak of a nose and adjusting them to his liking. "It will never work."
"Is that what you think, now?" the second replied with a harrumph, as the two set off along a corridor. "Might I remind you of the Sverlio Agreement of twenty years past? I do believe Representative Ogawa outbid the Galgadion syndicate in the initial establishment of a uranium trade route in much the same manner."
"And ten years ago the Veritas council turned down a perfectly good treaty on the grounds that they 'didn't like the looks' of the representative." The tall man sniffed and nodded to a knot of soldiers passing in the opposite direction. "Pirates. There's no getting around it, Glave, so drop the subject."
"Have it your way," the fat man shrugged, and paused at another guard station. "Pardon me, good sir, which way to the bridge?"
The soldier looked them over and provided a few quick directions before his attention was diverted to a troop of pilots heading for the docking bay. The two dignitaries continued on in silence for a few minutes.
"What about that Ilivero Writ, then? Now *there* is a piece of diplomatic work," Glave chuckled in a rumble that shook his belly. "The council will be in histrionics for months after it's presented."
Halberd let out a long-suffering sigh. "Ilivero can stir up as much trouble as she wishes. It still won't pass."
"Have I ever expressed to you just how upliftingly optimistic you are?" the fat man drawled. "You light up my life on a daily basis with your positive political wit."
"Sarcasm doesn't suit you, Glave," his companion replied with narrowed eyes. "Why? What makes you think that outrageous proposition would ever have the remotest chance of passing?"
"There's this concept called 'faith', to begin with," Glave sniffed. The pair drew up side by side facing a large set of automated doors. "And besides that the idea of democracy appeals to my sense of self-worth."
Halberd shook his head and pressed the control button, and the doors slid open with a soft whoosh. They stepped into the somewhat chaotic bridge, just as a low-ranking communications officer scurried out. Once the doors closed behind them the tall man surreptitiously attached a small device to the metal paneling. "I refuse to acknowledge your lofty ideals."
"Lack of acknowledgement fails to erase their existence, nonetheless," the fat man replied with a grin, and the two ambled towards the central chair. "Admiral Runair, it's a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, my dear."
A sharp face turned to greet them and assessed both men with cool brown eyes. "You are the representatives from Whitesnake, correct?"
"Quite so," Halberd offered. "The syndicate received your request."
The admiral paused, staring at the two as though waiting for more. "Well? The circumstances should be perfectly clear, if you look around."
Glave's round face brightened. "Oh yes, this reminds me of the Dubrerian incident, what was that now, my dear Halberd - thirty years past?"
The tall man rubbed his temples. "We were TE-2's in a remote base on Cain. You read about the damned fight on your computer, for Kami's sake."
"True," the fat man shrugged, "but it was a jolly good mess, wasn't it?"
"Silence!" Runair snapped.
The two dignitaries peered at her, looking not unlike chickens whose feathers had been ruffled. "What can we do for you, Admiral?" Glave asked, his eyebrows steadily rising up along his forehead.
"You can inform me of your council's decision," the woman growled. Her fingers were wrapped tight around the ends of her armrests.
"Oh yes!" Glave exclaimed.
"Quite so," Halberd nodded.
The irritated admiral blinked at them for a moment. "Well?"
"I'm afraid your wishes and that of the Whitesnake council are somewhat. *conflicting* at this time," Halberd intoned, stepping slowly closer to Runair. "Due to several recent trade ordinances and a few well-placed treaties, it seems we find ourselves on opposite sides of this conflict." He stopped just as he reached her side. "One might go so far as to call us enemies."
Runair felt the cool barrel of a gun pressing against her temple before anyone in the room saw it. The click of the hammer drawing back drew the attention of the officers, however, and instantly a ring of firearms surrounded the scene at the admiral's chair.
Undaunted, Glave produced a semi-automatic rifle from within the generous folds of his robes. "If you would all kindly discard your weapons, it would be most advisable."
Wufei stood as still as a figurehead at the helm of his battle cruiser, at perfect attention with his arms clasped behind his back, his face set in a stern expression. He was dressed completely in white, from the lacings at his shirt collar to the bleached leather of his boots, the only exception being a long red coat lined in gold, brass buttons fastening the front.
Before him, the ship's viewscreen showed a panorama of Sabaku's atmosphere.
Captain Danoff turned from his control panel and silently ascertained his commanding officer's mood. His observation was carefully neutral. "They beat us here."
"Only by an hour," Wufei replied, a touch of irritation in his voice. "Halberd and Glave are onboard the ISG command ship. There's still time for us to play our part."
Danoff nodded in agreement and turned back to his station, pressing a headset to one ear. After another stretch of silence he spoke up again, more insistently. "I'm not receiving a response from Dorobo."
Only Wufei's eyes moved, darting a sharp look to his captain and back to the screen. "That is somewhat. disconcerting."
"Shall I continue to attempt contact, sir?"
"Yes. And raise Delta for me. I'd like to know who's leading the charge that we inadvertently arrived too late to join." A small twitch at the corners of his mouth was the only sign of his amusement.
"Right away, sir."
A crackle of static cut across the screen, then the image of another ship's bridge sprang into focus. A young woman stood in profile at the center of the screen, turned slightly away as she spoke to one of the crew. She was small, but undeniably sturdy on her feet, and dressed head-to-toe in military camouflage. Her hair was black, tied back into two messy tails that swished over her shoulders as she shook her head at the person she was talking to.
She had an AR-15 slung over one shoulder, and carried it like she knew *precisely* how to use it.
Wufei cleared his throat, and the girl's head snapped around to take in his presence. A line formed between her eyebrows momentarily as a pair of coffee-colored eyes looked him over, then she grinned impishly and leaned her hip against a console, adjusting the gun strap with one hand and batting a stray lock of hair out of her face with the other. "Well, well, if it isn't the Dragon. Being fashionably late for a soiree is one thing, operative, but this is a war."
The Mandate's expression never altered. "I have made my appearance in all due haste. I already have operatives inside the conflict. Are you commanding?"
The girl nodded once, curtly. "Operative Nataku, your Dragonship, and I already sent Jade to bail out Wing and Nanashi." She looked him over again and snorted, turning away dismissively. "Expect a soldier, get a fucking diplomat."
"I await your orders."
Nataku was two steps toward the door to the bridge, and stopped short, turning back to the young man on the other end of the link. "Excuse me?"
"If you're commanding, I await your orders," Wufei repeated, a wry half-smile settling on his mouth. "The ISG's command ship should be in our hands shortly."
"There's an operative onboard."
"I know. I sent her there."
Nataku's eyes narrowed, and she stepped forward to center herself in front of the screen. "I think you should tell me just what you've been up to, Operative Dragon."
The council chambers were in a far greater state of disarray than they had been the last time they were used. The large oak table was strewn with papers and half-rolled maps, and littered with the remains of a quickly-made dinner. Quatre sat at the head of the table, his ordained position, it seemed. He twirled a quill in his fingers, examining a satellite readout in front of him, and carefully ignoring the loud banter going on around him. Rashid and two other high-ranking Manganacs sat at his right, chattering, relaying information, and occasionally arguing with a string of five resistance operatives seated on his left, one of whom was Sally. Behind him, out of his sight but still tangible by presence alone, Duo stood leaning against the wall, coolly observing the proceedings.
The Minister closed his eyes on the scene and settled back into the silence of his own mental space. So much was happening, so quickly, and he needed time to absorb it all, calculate it, and devise a plan.
~*Not overwhelmed, I hope.*~ Zero's voice was soft.
~*There are too many holes,*~ he replied, rubbing his temple with the unoccupied hand. ~*Too many places where I don't know what's happening.*~
~*You can't always be standing on a clifftop, overlooking the grander scheme, young one.*~ Zero chuckled, and the sound was warm. ~*All these are pieces of a puzzle. Once you assemble the pieces you have, you can deduce the blank spaces by the patterns on the pieces surrounding it.*~
Quatre's face screwed up in concentration. ~*We need a final, unifying battle.*~ He pondered the options for a moment, then nodded slowly. ~*It will have to be on the ground.*~
Zero's voice radiated approval. ~*Now look to your resources.*~
The Minister opened his eyes and examined the room's occupants. "The Manganacs were trained for ground battle. They can take point."
"Sally will know which squadrons of the Resistance have the best hand-to-hand skills. Two squadrons to flank, and a center force of the elite operatives. We'll leave a small group on the walls to provide cover fire, and the rest of the Resistance forces can remain in the air and rally whomever remains in and surrounding Sabaku's atmosphere that is loyal to our cause."
Quatre didn't realize he was speaking out loud until he looked up from where his eyes had been focused on a knot in the polished table to see everyone in the room staring at him.
"You want to launch a ground attack?" Sally asked, her brow furrowed in thought.
The blond nodded decisively. "I will lead the central forces myself."
Rashid shot out of his chair. "Master Quatre-"
"No arguments, Rashid," the Minister replied, his jaw set in determination. "These are my soldiers, and I shall lead them."
Abdul raised and eyebrow. "Then who will lead the Manganacs in the frontal force?"
Quatre turned sharply to cast a narrow look at the demon behind him. "I do not think that would be wise, Duo. I planned on you being in the central group."
The Relic's eyes flashed. "In case you've forgotten, there's an army of fucking *demons* out there. I'm leading the front attack."
The Minister turned back to his acting council, his eyes settling on Sally in a silent request for assistance. The young woman gave him a knowing smile. "Would your controller approve of that, Duo?"
"Heero isn't here," the demon spat, kicking one heel against the wall behind him. "I'm leading."
"No," Quatre said without turning. One hand reached up to rub his temple again, and his eyes slipped closed, dismissing the argumentative demon in favor of nursing the steadily growing pain in his skull. "Rashid, I think you can handle the Maganacs on the front line. Sally, I'll need you to contact Delta. I'd like to have the majority of the elite battalion be mages if at all possible-"
A loud thump behind him interrupted the flow of his thoughts. He canted his head slightly to the side. "Drop it, Duo. You're being childish."
Out of the corner of his eye, Quatre saw the demon's features settle into a dark scowl. Duo's voice was grating. "I have more right than anyone to lead the charge." He jerked his chin in the general direction of the front walls. "Those are *my* subordinates out there, attacking us. I'm taking them down, every last one."
The Minister dropped his chin to his chest and squeezed his eyes shut, rubbing at the pinpoint of pain throbbing between his eyebrows. "I'm too damned tired to argue with you, Duo, so drop it!"
"I'm leading," the demon stated again.
Duo grinned devilishly at the blond's back. "You gonna stop me, Q?"
Slowly, the Minister pushed his chair back from the table and slid gracefully to his feet. He turned to focus a freezing, sea-blue gaze on Duo, his face and body completely relaxed save for the fists clenching at his sides. He stepped forward carefully, precisely, his vision focused entirely on the burning eyes of the Relic in front of him. Quatre didn't stop until he was nose to nose with the braided demon, then raised his hands slowly, and slammed them into the wall on either side of Duo's head with a sudden ferocity that made the demon flinch ever so slightly.
"You," Quatre said quietly, his voice running to a dangerous edge, "are an operative of the resistance, and therefore under my command." He paused and took in Duo's purple glower, sucking in breath past the tension that thickened the air around them. "In the absence of your controller, you are also under my command, by his orders. How, precisely," he hissed, leaning so close he could feel Duo's breath brushing over his lips, "do you intend to defy me?"
Duo froze in place and kept a scowl plastered over his face. Very few people had ventured this far into his personal space without his permission, and those few rarely had good intentions.
Judging by the venomous glare Quatre was boring into him, the Minister's intentions weren't leaning very far in the direction of 'good,' either.
The demon set his jaw and glared back.
Abruptly, the blond's expression went slack and his eyes lost focus, a touch of gold flashing across the pupils and vanishing. Quatre, still pinning Duo to the wall with unexpected strength, went completely, deathly silent.
The demon curled his fingers against the rough stone behind him and grit his teeth behind his lips, still locked in a cold stare with Quatre. At this close of a range, the scent of White Magic was thick, but Duo didn't dare move an inch.
~No matter who the enemy or what the situation, never, ever show fear. Nothing gives an opponent greater power than the knowledge that you fear him.~
Duo's knees were going to give out. His fingers trembled where they were pressed against the wall. His head was swimming with White Magic fumes, bile rising in the back of his throat.
~Why am I afraid of him? He's just a human. A boy.~
A flash of memory crept up on him unbidden; a white glowing net burning lines of agony over his skin-
~Quatre is a White Mage. He can cast Holy. Azrael.~
Duo shrunk further back against the wall, wishing there was a shadow nearby he could disappear into, some way to escape from those cold eyes. His scowl faltered slightly.
Quatre snapped back into focus, and the glare dimmed slightly. His gaze took on a contemplative quality for a moment, then he broke the stare and leaned away, sighing as his shoulders slumped a bit. "Very well."
The demon's expression dropped into an incredulous gape. "What?"
"You may lead," Quatre replied, his voice aggravated, as he moved away and back to the table. "Zero seems to think it's a good idea."
Duo frowned. "And you trust his judgment more than mine?"
The Minister folded his arms in front of him and looked sideways at Duo, through his long bangs. He no longer appeared to be angry, only deflated and exhausted. "I didn't say that, Duo. I've seen the possibilities now, and with that in mind I believe my initial decision was unfair, both to you and to the greater plan." He paused and blinked slowly, his expression unaltered. Then he let out a breath and dropped his arms to hang limp at his sides. "Be satisfied, my friend."
The demon opened his mouth to argue, and nearly did - but at the last moment he decided he didn't have the energy anymore. He held his hands out, palms up, towards Quatre for a moment, and nodded slowly in a strange, informal bow, a gesture of submission he'd forgotten where he'd learned. Then Duo retreated to his position, leaning casually against the wall.
The Minister took his seat and looked around the table, taking in the startled expressions of his council members. "With that settled," he said, turning his attention back to his paperwork, "we'd best finalize our plans, so we can all get some sleep. We attack at first light."
The power at the manor house on Dorobo was out. Heero found the severed wiring shortly before dusk settled over the moon, leaving the scraggly forest in a fading gray light. The house itself was just visible past the trees, but they couldn't get to it.
There was a battalion of demons in the way.
Naki cursed under her breath. Had she been alone, sneaking past - or better yet, destroying - the demon obstacle would have been simple, probably done and over with long before now. Unfortunately, she had two humans tagging after her, and humans could neither blend with the shadows nor cast fear with a look.
~Ah well,~ she shrugged mentally, with a little smirk. ~I could always kill the short one.~
As though sensing her thoughts, Chea edged slightly away from her side. Naki frowned, and snapped, "What?"
The cadet ducked his head and scratched the back of his neck. "Ah. you get this *gleam* in your eyes sometimes. rather off-putting, I suppose."
Naki's frown slowly turned to a smirk. "I'm a killer, you know."
Chea blanched. "Uh, yeah, I rather figured that."
She leaned in close to his ear, smiling to herself when the boy shivered. "Did you know," she asked in a husky whisper, "that there are ten different ways to kill a man with your bare hands in the span of a blink?"
The cadet's mouth hung open, and he shook his head slightly.
"Do you want me to show you?"
"That's *enough* already," another voice cut in, and Heero leaned over them both to grab Chea by the collar and haul him off the dusty forest floor. "Look, they're starting to move out. We can get inside the fence from the southwest corner."
Naki stood and brushed the dirt off her knees. "You two go ahead. I'll distract them and meet you inside in twenty minutes."
Heero nodded curtly. Chea looked like he was going to complain for a moment, but the blue-eyed operative grabbed his collar again and hauled him off into the brush.
The demon grinned in the darkness, checked her gun, and slipped away into the shadows.
Chea squirmed away from the body he'd landed on and found himself staring into narrow green eyes. He chuckled nervously. "Oh, sorry Trowa. You know us ISG cadets, shake a tree and one of us falls out of the sky."
Heero dropped lightly to the ground behind him. "I believe the adage 'look before you leap' applies to this scenario, Chea."
"I didn't expect to be using an elf as a landing pad, you know," the boy protested.
Trowa came to his feet in one fluid motion and spoiled the effect by reaching back to dust off his trousers. "I tend to blend in with my surroundings. No hard feelings."
Heero glanced around the manor grounds, assessing their location quickly. "Where's Tzumara?"
"Holding a gun to your head."
"I must be slipping." The assassin turned his head slightly to cock an eyebrow at Janus. "Put that away."
The female cadet scowled and opened her mouth to fire back a scathing remark, when a shriek sounded. It came from the southeast corner of the wrought-iron fencing that surrounded the manor, on the opposite side. Another cry followed it, merging into a chorus of shouts and screams that dropped to silence one by one. Trowa started towards the noise immediately.
Heero fell into stride behind the elf, motioning for the cadets to follow him. The sounds from across the fence fell into silence abruptly, and a moment later a shadowy figure emerged from the hedges inside the manor's perimeter.
Trowa started, his defenses up, but Heero stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "That's Operative Jade. She was distracting a party of demons so we could get inside." The assassin's voice trailed off as the Relic approached them.
Even in the quickly fading light, the dark stains covering Naki's forearms and spattering her face was recognizable as blood. She smiled pleasantly. "I don't think we should be having any further problems with demons tonight," she announced. "Good to see you, Nanashi. You're looking well."
"Naki," the elf nodded.
Trowa looked at the darkened windows of the manor house. "Somehow, I think not."
Heero darted a glance back and forth between the two, then ushered the cadets towards the door. He glanced back at the elf over his shoulder. "We should probably stay inside tonight, unless the both of you *want* to stay here staring at each other."
Naki's head turned quickly, her hair spinning into a blonde halo. "Implying something, Wing?"
The assassin raised his eyebrows with an innocent expression. "Not at all."
Trowa nodded towards the door, and the Relic spun away from him and stalked toward it. The elf smirked to himself in the darkness. "There's leftover omelets from this morning."
Ahead of him, Chea groaned. "Don't *even* mention that."