Chapter Eighteen: The Fall of the Azurmala
by Casey Valhalla
For hours the only sound in the cell block was that of two sets of steady breathing. Dorothy watched as the Relic outside her cell slowly slid to the floor and curled up around himself, and listened as his breath deepened into sleep. Only then did she sit up in her cot, leaning back against the wall and quietly observing the sleeping figure huddled against the bars.
Runair cannot live forever, she thought with a sigh, fiddling with the lacings of her heavy boots. When she dies, little demon, you will belong to me. And I will take care of you the way my mother should have.
The command ship groaned softly as its hydraulics malfunctioned again. In the space of a heartbeat, Mishide shot out of his position on the floor and pinned himself against the far wall, fully awake. Dorothy started and stood quickly, peering through the bars at the demon. He trembled where he stood, his arms spread across the wall with his palms against the metal, fingers splayed and twitching. Round, glowing eyes watched the door to the cell block, and his voice came out in a strangled cry. "No."
Dorothy approached the limits of her cell cautiously, though she wasn't able to get anywhere near the frightened boy. "What is it? Tell me."
By all appearances Mishide was unaware of her presence. The Relic choked on a sob and continued watching the door, his trembling turning to infrequent shudders.
Something's happened, Dorothy realized, casting a glance at the door.
Immediately the door burst open and the guard stepped in. He cast a quick look around, as though expecting enemies, before leveling an annoyed stare at the demon. "What's the racket about?"
Dorothy started to answer, but the guard abruptly stiffened, his face going white. A moment later he fell forward, landing on the floor with a thud, a knife sticking out of his back.
The Relic moaned and attempted to press himself further into the wall. "Nooooo."
The young woman raised her eyes from the guard's body to see a pair of men in white uniforms pushing their way into the cell block, followed by two more who were dragging someone along with them. White uniformed soldiers, Dorothy thought, and smiled to herself. The Dragon is here.
Her eyes fell on the prisoner. "Mother?"
"Silence, girl!" Runair spat, struggling against her captors and the shackles around her wrists. "This is all your fault, you hear me? *All* of this, every last drop of blood spilt - is *your* fault."
Dorothy's expression closed and she tore her eyes away from her mother when Mishide let out a loud shriek. The demon had slid to the floor and was literally trying to push himself into the wall, his feet scrabbling uselessly at the metal tiling. His arms were crossed over his chest, his hands rubbing up and down along his shoulders. He shook his head frantically, his voice rising slightly with every breath.
Runair settled her gaze on the Relic. Her eyes narrowed as her posture straightened and she stopped struggling. "Mishide."
"No," he sobbed.
"NO!" His voice rose to a squeak, cracking sharply as it echoed against the metal walls.
"NO! NO! NO!"
Dorothy backed away from the bars of her cell as Mishide let out one final shriek.
Then all hell broke loose.
Two columns of green flame shot along the length of the cell block. The fires passed on either side of Runair like a fierce gale that whipped her hair out of its regulation tail and fanned it out around her sharp face. The four soldiers let out simultaneous screams and vanished into clouds of ash. Dorothy dropped to the floor and covered her face as the blast passed by her cell, only looking up when she heard Mishide crying.
The demon remained in his place against the wall, curled into a ball with his arms around his knees, rocking back and forth with his face buried in his shirt sleeves. Runair approached him cautiously, one hand out in supplication. Her voice was soft. "Mishide."
He shuddered with a sob but neither moved nor replied. The admiral raised her voice slightly. "Mishide!"
The Relic's head snapped up and the locks on all the cells exploded, the doors swung open with force and slammed with resounding clangs against the iron bars. Mishide gritted his teeth in a grimace, his backlit eyes ringed in red, tears falling steadily down his cheeks. "Don't touch me!"
Runair dropped her hand and took a step back. "Come with me, Mishide."
"Please." His fingers raked against his arms and he shrank back against the wall.
"Come with me, now."
Dorothy slipped quietly out of her cell, keeping a safe distance from the admiral. "Mother, the ship has been taken. You should leave while you still can."
Runair's voice was laced with ice. "No. Mishide!"
The demon moaned and dropped into a heap on the floor, squirming against the tiles as though in pain. "Please, no."
"Don't make me." Mishide jerked to his feet as though he'd been yanked by the collar and stumbled forward, body trembling, his voice still a low, pleading whisper. "Don't make me kill them-"
"Mother!" Dorothy's patience was wearing thin. "In the state this ship is in, the Resistance will blow it as soon as all their operatives are off-board. How far do you think you'll get?"
Runair turned slowly to face her daughter, her face an impassive mask, her eyes brimming with a burning fury. "With him?" she asked, jerking her head at the demon. "I don't think there's any question."
Dorothy closed her eyes for a moment, quelling her exasperation. When she opened them she was looking at Mishide, his eyes glimmering softly in a silent plea. She smiled faintly.
"I'm sorry, mother."
She darted forward before Runair had time to blink. A split-second later the admiral slumped to the floor, unconscious. "Daddy taught me that," Dorothy quipped, almost to herself. "Which is probably why you never approved of him, isn't it?"
Mishide's eyes went wide as he looked down at his controller, then raised his gaze to Dorothy. "I'm still-" he started, his voice cracking. "I can't control it."
"Stay close to me," the blonde replied, smiling gently. "I'm going to get you out of here." She frowned when the demon's face screwed up in contemplation. "That's what you want, isn't it?"
Mishide dropped his eyes, his mouth opening to let out a squeaking breath. "I - I can't ask you - I can't even consider asking you to do what I really want. And you wouldn't, anyway," he smiled a little, his dark gray eyes glowing warmly when he looked back up at Dorothy. "Would you?"
The young woman tore her gaze away, dropping her chin to regard her mother's state. "I can't leave her here, now," she said after a moment. "And no, I couldn't do that, not even for you."
The corridors of the Azurmala were deathly silent. Dorothy didn't see any operatives as she slipped out of the cell block and away towards the escape pods, and prayed silently that she wouldn't. Running into a member of the Resistance with Runair slung over her shoulder and Mishide in tow would only raise suspicion about her loyalties.
Hell, even *I'm* questioning my loyalties right now, she thought, and shook her head. I'm rescuing my mother. Fuck the inconsistencies.
Mishide followed her without speaking, his eyes trained on the floor. Trickles of sweat trailed down his temples, marking the effort of restraint he was placing on himself. He startled at the slightest noise, and pressed himself, shaking, against a wall whenever the ship listed to one side or the other.
The hydraulics are completely gone, and the thrusters, she noted silently as they moved on down the empty halls. What the hell did Nanashi do to the wiring, I wonder? She smiled slightly. I may have to ask him for lessons, the next time we meet.
The whisper was the only warning she got before one of the doors in the corridor behind them exploded. She jerked around, nearly dropping Runair in the process, to see the demon hunched over his knees, panting.
Dorothy shifted the weight on her shoulders and reached out to rest a comforting hand on the demon's shoulder, but he shrank away from her, his breath stuttering. "D-don't."
"Just relax, kiddo. Breathe-"
The ship balked suddenly and listed sharply to the right in a series of tremors, tossing them both against the wall. Mishide yelped, and a series of bursts shattered the floor tiles along an adjoining corridor.
He shivered. "I can't, Doro, I can't."
"Fuck," Dorothy swore under her breath. "Yes, you can, Mishide. Just breathe, and focus on that and follow me."
The escape pods were located in a small bay near the hanger that housed the fighter ships, and the sounds of gunshots echoed through the thin metal walls. Dorothy sped up her pace, wanting to get her mother and the Relic on a pod before she attracted any attention. A few bodies littered the corridor, mostly dead ISG pilots and a few guards. She only saw one white-clad soldier, and no one who might be identified as a Resistance operative. Mishide silently followed her into the bay, looking over the corpses without registering their presence.
Dorothy wrenched open a hatch and deposited Runair into the pod before turning to the demon. He was still as a statue in what she had come to think of as his pose of attention, ramrod straight with his arms folded, his fingers gripping his sleeves, his eyes turned to the ground. She memorized that stance, his tousled hair, the way his black clothes hung like rags on his tiny frame, the dim glow in his lowered eyes.
"You'll be okay, kiddo."
His gaze flickered up, his mouth drawing into a frown. "You - aren't coming?"
"I have to go join my friends," she replied in what she hoped was a comforting tone, and added a soft smile for good measure.
"Get in. I'll find you later."
Mishide's face twisted into a look of pain for a moment, then he shrank back into himself. The glow in his eyes dimmed to a faint flicker. "No," he replied flatly, turning to the hatch. "You won't."
Heero was floating in a void of darkness.
It was soft and comfortable, like lying in a deep feather bed. On some level he was aware that he was half-naked, lying in the dark in nothing but thin cotton pants. Consciously he focused on the distant sound of wind blowing, and the subtle air currents that moved around him, thin wisps like warm fingers brushing his skin.
He settled into the dreamscape, closing his eyes and relaxing into the folds of darkness. There was comfort here, rather than the tension and anxiety of the previous dream in this place.
And Heero knew, instinctively, that Duo was here, somewhere.
The air currents shifted, and he sensed a presence to his right. He didn't move from his sprawled position on the cushion of darkness, but waited, until the scent of fire and blood wafted over him. He opened his eyes slightly, but as before, there was nothing to see but an unending black. His voice was a whispered question. "Duo?"
The only response was the awareness of a body moving closer. Knees settled on either side of his hips, hands touched his shoulders, warm lips brushed over his briefly in greeting. The weight of the demon's braided hair felt lightly against his arm, and Heero reached up, his fingertips meeting soft skin.
He dropped his arms and opened his eyes fully. He couldn't see Duo, but could feel the Relic watching him, studying his face for a response. "Why are you doing this?"
He felt the demon's tongue touch his lips, and opened his mouth to allow a long, deep kiss. Duo's body settled over his, and he pressed back against the weight, wrapping his arms around Duo's back. His awareness descended into burning need, and he moaned lightly in protest when the demon pulled away from the kiss, trailing fingers down over his bare chest.
He could feel breath against his lips, and Duo spoke to him for the first time in this strange space of dreams, barely a whisper. "Let me."
All the air left Heero's body in a single assenting gasp.
He woke up.
Wufei stepped out of the shuttle and into a whirlwind of activity. The docking bay of the command ship Delta was teeming with operatives in mismatched flight suits, mixed with others in military surplus and camouflage. A small squadron of fighters were positioned at the exit, awaiting clearance to depart, while another squadron was arriving through another airlock.
Despite the constant movement and outlandish appearance of what was apparently the Resistance Army, he was able to detect order amidst the chaos. Operatives of rank wore white armbands and headsets, directing traffic and bellowing orders to the common soldiers. There was no clear arrangement as to who commanded whom, but it appeared that anyone who needed orders or assistance would get it from anyone wearing a white armband, and confusion would be dissuaded by the constant contact between the officers via their headsets.
In the control room overlooking the bay, he spotted a young woman with a red armband, and guessed that was a sign of an even higher ranking officer. She was dressed in surplus khakis, and had an odd haircut that was short in the back and long in the front. Periodically, she tossed her head to get the bangs out of her face, while talking animatedly into a radio. A pair of operatives in plain clothes were racing around her, working the panels.
Wufei pushed his way through the crowd towards that room, careful not to jostle any of the pilots. He passed a few of the operatives in white armbands, who nodded politely and muttered something into their mics, relaying his presence, no doubt.
Maybe I'll get my own squadron, he thought, and smiled to himself.
As more of the operatives became aware of Wufei's rank, they began scrambling out of his way, leaving a clear path to the control room. Holding in the need to laugh at the display, he turned squarely at the foot of the stairs and offered a deep bow to the room at large, as all movement stilled suddenly and the assembly turned their attention to him. Then, with a single sharp, black glance, he sent them all scurrying back to their respective tasks.
Wufei stared down at the metal stairs in thought as he climbed. There is no strict regiment here, he noted, no defined breakdown of rank or superiority. Few of these operatives have any military experience. They're saboteurs, smugglers, thieves, spies, assassins. Solitary soldiers. He smirked a little, hiding the expression in his collar. Yet here we all are, working together, somehow.
Reaching the top of the steps, he lifted his head, only to find himself nose-to-nose with operative Nataku.
The young woman narrowed her eyes, but didn't move a muscle. "Your Dragonship."
A muscle in his cheek twitched. "Chang Wufei, if you please."
"Admiral Long Meiran," she replied curtly. "You're on my ship now, Chang. I trust you will remember that." She spun on her heel abruptly and entered the control room without waiting for him to follow.
"It's Mandate Chang to you," he muttered under his breath. "Enough with the 'Dragonship' business."
The interior of the control room was another den of chaos, steeped in the cacophony of blaring monitors and crackling radio static, and the shouted orders and muffled curses of the operatives running the place. Only the girl in the red armband seemed to keep to one place, bent over the radio just as he had seen her through the window. As he got closer, he realized just how petite the girl actually was, despite the volume at which she was speaking. Nataku - Admiral Long Meiran, he corrected himself, was unsuccessfully attempting to get her attention.
"What do you MEAN there's no fucking air masks left?" the girl bellowed over the speaker, exerting a surprising amount of force from her tiny figure. "I told you - no, I said the WEST supply room." She rolled her eyes, then grimaced and waved one arm in frustration, jerking her head again to get her long bangs out of her eyes. "Yes, I *did*! I distinctly remember saying - would you SHUT UP and listen to me?" She dropped one fist on the panel in front of her, sending a shockwave through the machinery that made the other two crew members yelp. Whomever the girl was talking with must have taken the hint, and shut his mouth. "Yes, you do that," she continued after a moment. "Yes, that's right. I know, you're a moron. It's okay, there's nothing you can do about it. Call me back when you have a *real* emergency."
The girl dropped the mic and leaned heavily against the panel, running fingers through hair so black it reflected blue in the fluorescent lights. Meiran poked her in the ribs. "Will you talk to me now?"
"Only if you're here to demote me or decapitate me," the girl moaned.
Meiran's lips quirked, and she turned a leveling stare on Wufei. "Meet Operative Dragon, Chang Wufei," she said, and the girl looked up slightly from her hunched position. Meiran's expression was no less than menacing. "This is Operative Sapphire, Officer Hilde Schbeiker." She grinned. "Chang is here to relieve you."
Wufei raised one eyebrow slowly, keeping his face carefully neutral. His internal dialogue, however, was steadily becoming more colorful. "Is *this* why you invited me onboard?"
"Not precisely," Meiran sniffed. She shifted slightly on the balls of her feet and tugged Hilde away from the console. "However, need I remind you that you agreed to take orders from me, your Dragonship?"
That muscle in his cheek twitched again.
Hilde smiled warmly and patted Wufei on the shoulder as she passed him. "It's a shame for you," she commented, waving through the closing door. "You're gonna miss the show!"
Wufei blinked. "Show?"
A broad grin broke across Meiran's face, a pleasant expression despite the fact that he could tell her intentions were somewhat less than honorable. "We're going to blow the ISG command ship."
He frowned. "Is that necessary?"
"Unfortunately, yes." The smile dropped a few watts. "No doubt it would have been useful, but Wing and Nanashi must have done a serious number on it. It'll probably blow itself, or drop headlong out of the sky if we don't take care of it."
Wufei nodded slowly, rubbing his chin with a thumb. His eyes darted around the room at the various consoles, and the two operatives rushing around between them. "What do I need to do here?"
"Just take the radio. If someone has a problem, yell at them till they fix it themselves. If someone needs clearance, give it to them. The codes are just a formality. If someone needs orders, yell at someone else until they give them orders. Got it?"
"In other words, I'm running an army."
Wufei smirked. "I think I can handle it."
Trowa pulled the hood of his stole low over his face and crossed his arms, leaning back against the rough side of the manor house. The night was quiet and cold; he kept his breath shallow, minimizing the little puffs of frozen air that betrayed his position. Green eyes darted back and forth, ascertaining the manor grounds. Most of the enemy ships had pulled out, spooked perhaps by the communications disruption, but more likely they were needed in the planet's atmosphere.
However, he knew a battalion had been left behind, and that they were aware of the house's location.
He looked to the side and down, to where Naki had yet to so much as twitch. She was crouched in a shadow, frozen in a silhouette against the angled light of the moon's night sky. Her left hand rested on her knee, her right loosely closed around the handle of her gun, and she stared forward, unblinking, her cool blue eyes glowing dimly in the darkness.
"Can you smell them?" Trowa kept his voice low.
The silence stretched. After a time, Naki's thumb began fidgeting with the hammer of her gun.
Click. Click. Click.
"Stop that," the elf said suddenly. "You're making me nervous."
The Relic sighed and sat back, resting her arms loosely over her knees. Her gaze dropped to a point just outside the porch railing.
"So how's the old man?"
Naki shot him a sharp look, then returned to staring at the scraggly grass. "I don't know. He's got shutting me out down to a science."
"Oh?" Trowa shifted against the wall, adjusting the crossbow in his right hand, and waited for her to continue.
She let out a long breath that steamed around her face. "The last time he called me back was ten years ago, almost." She scowled and dropped her gaze to the gun in her hand. "He was being audited, so as a legal possession, I was required to be there."
Trowa frowned a little at that and continued scanning the grounds. "So? What happened?"
"I was there for two days," she spat. "He asked me if I had enough money. That was it."
"I see." The words were soft.
Naki snorted. "Yeah, well, we can't all have controllers like Heero fucking Yuy."
Trowa's eyes snapped back to the demon sitting next to him. He stared until she looked up to meet his gaze, then looked away.
"Drop it, Trowa." Her voice was weak.
He nodded slightly and returned to his task.
"So what about you, huh?" Naki asked after a moment. "Last I heard Enix had you on a refugee freighter out of Beynee. I didn't even know you were working again until Nataku told me to come bail you and Wing out."
Trowa chuckled lightly. "Enix never knew quite what to do with me."
"And?" She left the question hanging, blinking curious backlit eyes.
"I've been working for Operative Sandrock."
"That's the story," she said with a smirk. "And?"
He looked away.
"Are you blushing?"
"No," he snapped. "Elves do not blush."
Naki laughed, leaning back against the wall to stare at the sky. The laugh ended abruptly. "Trowa - look at this."
He stepped away from the wall and peered up into the dark. The atmosphere of Sabaku was bright in the sky, and at its edge were the streaking, smoldering remains of an explosion. "That must have been the command ship, to be that big," the elf said thoughtfully. "I thought it would be a few more days yet before it went."
Naki smirked at him. "What did you do?"
"One of my acid tricks."
"Gets 'em every time."
Trowa shrugged against his clothes, letting the hood fall back, and slung the crossbow over his shoulder. "That's our cue to rally. I'll go get Heero."