Chapter 22: A Meeting of Equals
by Casey Valhalla
"Nanashi tells me you're interested in switching sides."
The blond cadet shifted in his seat on the hard prison cot, his eyes raking over the small confines of his cell before returning to rest on Wufei. The Dragon had taken a chair outside the bars, reclining comfortably with one leg pulled up on the opposite knee, his arms hanging limp behind the backrest.
Chea scratched his nose and ran his fingers idly through his sandy bangs. "I've considered the option, yeah."
Wufei's features were drawn into a sharp, calculating expression. "I'm not certain if I trust a man who claims he has no loyalties. It's far too easy a thing for you to change your mind at the drop of a hat."
"That's true," the cadet shrugged. "But the Interstellar Government was never particularly. accommodating." Chea tilted his head back and grinned brightly at the ceiling. "I dare to make the conjecture that I might be able to cut loose once in a while, around here."
"Cut loose?" Wufei was completely motionless save for his eyebrows, which crept up slightly. "I'm not sure what you mean by that, but the command structure is somewhat looser, if that's what you're getting at."
"Let me be perfectly straight with you, Mr. Dragon, if I may." The blond leaned forward and settled his elbows on his knees. "I'm a pilot. That's all. I don't necessarily work for the highest bidder, I just go where my fancy strikes. Right now, I'm rather fond of this organization you've got here, and I'm willing to throw in my lot with you for the long haul. Especially if that's what it takes to keep me from being spaced or shot full of holes."
The corners of Wufei's mouth twitched slightly, but he suppressed the urge to smile. Nari forbid laughing. "I suppose that's a valid point."
"Is it a deal?" Chea peered at him between the spaces of the bars, and in the dim light Wufei studied the color of his eyes, realizing they were sky-blue with a sunburst of tawny gold around the pupil.
"It is not my decision, ultimately," the Dragon replied, relaxing into his position and flexing his shoulders against the back of the chair. "It's up to Operative Sandrock. If he agrees, you'll be placed on probation, possibly with one of the elite operatives, until the Resistance is sure of you."
"I have a condition," the cadet muttered, eyes suddenly darting away and to the side, toward the female cadet's cell. Wufei tracked the motion and noted it. Chea puffed out his cheeks and let out a long breath. "Let Janus go. She's not going to turn, and I won't stand by and see her killed."
Wufei blinked but kept his stare level, waiting for the cadet to turn back and meet his gaze. When he finally did, after another cursory examination of the bare cell, the Dragon allowed a small, knowing smile. "Not completely without loyalties, after all."
The door to the cell block opened with a squeak, and an operative in a flight suit poked her head in. "Operative Dragon?"
Wufei straightened and adjusted his coat. "Yes?"
"You're wanted on the surface, sir."
Heero felt more than saw someone approaching, but didn't relinquish his hold on Duo. He raised his head slightly to take in the slight form of a golden-haired boy, no older than sixteen by any stretch of the imagination. The boy's movements, however, spoke deeper, of training in battle and social niceties, and the certain amount of arrogance present in any member of the aristocratic clans. His clothes were simple and functional, but the tunic he wore was a dark, brilliant violet, and he carried a staff strapped to his back. Heero could barely see the seams in the wood that indicated a deadlier weapon hidden inside.
The boy came to a halt, poised, a few feet away. "Operative Wing, I presume?"
Duo stiffened in his arms at the sound, but Heero nodded without drawing away. The boy touched his fingers to his forehead briefly in a clan salute. "Quatre Winner, Operative Sandrock. It's a pleasure to finally meet you."
Heero frowned, his eyebrows drawing together. "You're the Prime Operative?"
"Yes." A glint of something gold passed across the boy's sea-blue eyes, so quickly Heero wondered if he had imagined it, then Quatre's attention landed on Duo. He closed the distance between them quickly and pulled the demon gently out of Heero's arms, turning Duo to face him. "You're still wounded."
"I'm-" The Relic started to protest, but Quatre was already unfastening Duo's coat. Duo sighed, partially in resignation, partially in irritation. "Look, Q, you don't-"
"Where is it?" The boy was staring, perplexed, at Duo's shirt, somewhat bloodstained but otherwise unmarred. The demon stepped back and pulled the hem of the shirt up slightly, revealing a thin white scar crossing his abdomen, already fading against the pale skin.
The demon's mouth quirked into a half-smile, and he tugged the shirt back down. "Told you it'd heal quickly."
Heero couldn't suppress a light chuckle at the incredulous expression on Quatre's face. The blond blinked a few times, and tugged at Duo's coat again. "There isn't even a rip in the fabric anymore!"
"Kaminari in heaven," Heero muttered, rubbing a hand over his forehead and down his cheek. He remained focused on Duo, noting that the demon was at least gleaning some amusement from the situation. "Did he have any idea what to do with you when you got here?"
Duo smirked. "He managed to find a few uses, eventually."
"Duo has been absolutely *invaluable*," Quatre replied defensively. "If he hadn't-"
The attention of all three of them was jerked back to the sweep of sand Heero's fighter hand landed on, where another ship was descending, kicking up particles into the air. Duo held up a hand in front of his face, although the wind caused by the thrusters didn't quite reach them. "Who's that?"
Heero snorted. "The elf."
Quatre went rigid for a moment, watching in apparent fascination as the ship's engines powered down. Then, just as the hatch depressurized, he let out a strangled yelp and darted forward.
The elf dropped lightly out of the open hatch, looking up in surprise, and was promptly tackled down to the sand in a flurry of arms and legs and golden hair.
Heero watched, detached, as the blond operative steadied himself on hands and knees over the prone elf. He said something that didn't reach the assassin's ears, and Trowa smiled, a slow, bright expression. The elf reached up to touch the fringes of Quatre's bangs where they dangled over his face. The pair kissed once, gently, before giving up and wrapping their arms around each other, not moving from the sprawled position in the sand.
I wanted that, Heero thought, and tried to dismiss the idea along with the sudden ache in his chest. He turned away from what was obviously a private reunion, to see Duo staring at the ground. The demon was less than a foot away, but suddenly it felt as though there was a thick stone wall separating them.
Duo lifted his head abruptly and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Orders?"
The assassin started, and blinked for a moment. He opened his mouth, but all that emerged was a long breath. Heero braced his hands on his hips and allowed his shoulders to relax. "There are none."
Duo looked dubious. "According to Ruby, the acting commander is sending out reconnaissance groups to the Niccon system. I could go with them."
Heero closed his eyes and began shaking his head, slowly.
"I'm gonna need a new cruiser, but I bet they'd requisition one for me if I had to go out alone."
"Or I could get the base coordinates and go ahead, do some scouting before Quatre comes through. Check security and all that."
"You're not going anywhere." Heero's voice could have bent steel. He opened his eyes to meet Duo's glowing gaze. "You're staying with me."
The demon's eyes widened a fraction. "After all that work, you're gonna drop my security class? Wha'd I do?"
"No. Nothing. You're staying with me. That's your only order."
"Here's another one," Quatre's bright voice spoke up. He appeared as though he might start glowing spontaneously at any second, and Trowa was at his side, brushing sand off his flight suit and looking smug. "West conference room, third floor, by the top of the hour." He offered them both a dazzling smile. "And I do mean *both* of you. Find something to eat first, it's shaping up to be a long night."
The Talmac was much larger than it looked from the outside, as Wufei learned quickly during his tour through the interior of the fortress, at the heels of a weary soldier in dark brown leather armor. It was one of the Grand Minister's personal guard, he recalled, and probably the only person available who could navigate the maze of corridors with ease. After a cursory glance around, followed by a passing attention to the rooms, halls and foyers they passed through, Wufei decided he liked the place well enough. It lacked the cavernous grace of Dirin Roth, but the overall simplicity lent a comfortable atmosphere to the fortress.
Finally, the soldier stopped in front of a broad, paneled door and rapped twice on the wood. "Master Quatre?"
The door opened to reveal a teenaged boy, well-manicured by all accounts despite the golden bangs that hung over his eyes. He wore a full-sleeved shirt of deep purple, probably silk by the way it caught the light, set off by a gold-embroidered vest of soft white leather, and close fitting pants of the same material. His black boots were polished smartly, and glimmered under the lamplight shining through the door. His eyes fixed on Wufei for a moment, a brilliant blue-green stare, then he nodded with a brief tug at his forelock and turned to the soldier, clapping the man lightly on the shoulder. "My thanks, Abdul. Now go get some rest."
The soldier bowed slightly and left, leaving Wufei staring across the hall at the boy whom he was certain was the Grand Minister, and the Prime Operative. He's far younger than I anticipated, Wufei thought, and smiled inwardly. But then, so was I when I took position as Mandate.
The Dragon straightened to attention, his left hand fisted at the small of his back, the right curled against his heart. "Operative Sandrock."
The golden-haired boy didn't respond, though his eyebrows twitched slightly either in surprise or amusement. He held out a hand.
After only a moment of thought, Wufei stepped forward and shook it.
"Grand Minister Quatre Winner."
"Mandate Chang Wufei. I hope I'm not late, Master Winner."
"My name is Quatre, if you please." His face was serous when he spoke, but afterwards he smiled. "Within this room tonight, there is no rank, and there is no ceremony. Please, come in."
The meeting chamber was sparsely furnished, a round oak table to one side, a pair of cushioned couches near a fireplace on the other, with a sweep of patterned rugs underfoot. The walls were hung with rich tapestries depicting ancient battle scenes, and heavy claret curtains hung over the windows, darkened now by the night and reflecting the scene within. Heero was seated on one of the couches, one leg up on his knee, examining a printout with his characteristic drawn expression. He was dressed again in his clan colors, the long panel tunic brushing the floor at his feet.
Trowa was crouched by the fireplace, coaxing a log to burn, in his standard brown outfit, a leather vest covering his chest. His stole was draped over one of the chairs surrounding the table.
Duo had his back to Wufei, standing at a window, leaning against the sill with his arms folded, staring out into the night, or perhaps at his own reflection. All that could really be seen of him was the fall of his black coat, and the neat tail of his chestnut braid. There was a small movement at his sleeve, and Yoko poked her head out over his shoulder, blinking sleepy green eyes at the Mandate.
Quatre cleared his throat, and four heads turned to him. He waved at the table and took a seat. The room shuffled into motion, the actions reflected dully in the windows.
Wufei sat directly across from the Minister, noting that Trowa automatically took the chair on Quatre's right. Heero sat at the blond's left, and Duo took position against the wall behind his controller, Yoko moving to curl on his shoulder.
Quatre noted this as well, and leveled a gaze at the demon. "Sit down, Duo."
He shrugged and started to slide to the floor.
"At the table," the Minister ordered, more forcefully, though his mouth was twitching with a smile.
Duo frowned and looked to Heero, who had twisted in his chair to acknowledge him. The assassin nodded slightly, and Duo dropped into the chair between Heero and Wufei, tossing his coat across the backrest and drawing up one knee. His arms were folded still, and he kept a petulant look on his face. Wufei smirked to himself. The demon was being sullen again.
"According to the various sources I have spoken with," Quatre began, settling his hands loosely on the tabletop, "besides myself and Trowa, the three of you are the best and most highly regarded operatives in the Resistance network." He smirked slightly. "Just in case you're wondering why I called you here, and not someone of higher rank."
Wufei kept his expression neutral, and noted that Heero looked dubious, while Duo - well, Duo was being his uncooperative self.
"To get right to the point," the blond continued, "what we are here for tonight is to answer two questions. The first being, what do we know," Quatre settled back comfortably in his chair, "and the second being, where do we go from here."
The Dragon raised an eyebrow. "You want us as your war council, then?"
"So to speak." Quatre motioned to him graciously. "Would you like to begin?"
Wufei shifted in his seat and leaned his elbows on the table. "I know that we've successfully sent the ISG running back to Niccon with its tail between its legs. They will have to regroup before they strike again, and ideally, at that time, they will strike precisely when and where we want them to." He shrugged slightly. "But I'm getting ahead of myself. Depending on how much Trowa told you, you may already know that my home planet Kaji was attacked nine days ago by an unmarked fleet of lesser demons, who later attacked here along with the ISG."
"I had assumed they were backup," Quatre stated bluntly, "although yes, I was informed of the incident on Kaji."
"Were you informed of the implications?" Heero's voice was a mutter.
The Minister nodded. "Duo never checked in with security. I don't know how-"
"Hold on there, just *one* second," the demon interrupted, slicing one palm through the air. His eyes glimmered dangerously. "What the hell does this have to do with me?"
Trowa slid to his feet and produced an object from his belt, setting it carefully on the table. Wufei recognized it as the spear-handle from the battle on Kaji. At his right, Heero was sitting stiff as a board, and Duo was leaning forward curiously. The demon sniffed and wrinkled his nose, drawing back sharply, then leant back in, laying one hand on the table. Heero darted a hand out to catch his wrist. His voice was cold. "Don't touch it."
"I wasn't-" Duo started defensively, then stopped at sat back with a huff, crossing his arms over his chest. He sniffed again, scrunched up his face, and shivered. "Can't make out the smell," he muttered, so low Wufei almost didn't catch it.
Quatre picked the item up and frowned. "What is this?"
"It was being carried by a Drow assassin," Wufei offered. "Unwrap it."
The Minister slid the silk away from the round stone at the head of the spear, turning it in the light. At the same moment a sharp crack signaled a chair hitting the floor, and Wufei looked to the side to see Duo pinning himself to the far wall, and Yoko darting away under a couch.
The Dragon raised an eyebrow. "Is it that bad?"
"What the *fuck* is that thing?" Duo's fingers were digging into the cracks in the stones.
"White moonstone," Quatre breathed.
Heero aimed a cold glare at Wufei. "That wasn't necessary."
"He's made his point." The Minister wrapped the black fabric back around the stone. "Duo, someone is looking for you. Someone with connections to the ISG, and enough power to command an army of demons."
Somewhat subdued, the Relic stepped back to the table, stopping at Wufei's chair. He scowled down at the Mandate. "You're an asshole, you know that?"
"I excel at it. Sit down." Wufei smirked as Duo dropped back into his seat.
"Beyond that," Quatre continued, returning the artifact to Trowa, "what else can you bring to this discussion?"
Wufei leaned back and folded his arms. "Of late, I've had a thought, and have been tracing it as far as my resources will allow." Wufei nodded to the elf, ".in case you were wondering why I was tearing apart my library. It occurred to me that any one force must have a centralized leader, but during the entirety of my employment with the Resistance network, no one has ever identified just who it is at the center of the ISG."
"I've noted the problem as well," Quatre smiled, his entire person radiating approval. "Have you answered the question?"
"Unfortunately, no," he replied flatly. "I've only been able to narrow the search down to a general location. A record of the Resistances older trace programs showed a few secure links relayed from an unlikely planet. They were never transcribed, but I have a suspicion based on the frequency and the subsequent correlation of those links to several conflicts occurring at the time."
"It could have been a server relay," Heero cut in. "And if the data is already old, there's no proof the commanding officer is even in the same place."
"All true," Wufei admitted, "but if the server is still in place, there's a chance we can access other relays that could lead us to the actual location of the commander."
"And just where were the relays traced to?" Quatre asked, his eyes wide and curious. Hungry, Wufei noted, for fuel for the tactical fire.
The Dragon smirked. "Torreldaeo."
For a full minute the room fell into a silence so thick it could have solidified the entire scene into glass. Then, just as the minute ended, three rapid-fire statements shattered the tableau.
"Send me in. I'll find whatever you need." Duo's voice was low and stubborn.
"I told you, you're staying with me." Heero's tone brooked no argument.
"You just want an excuse to take a vacation," Wufei countered.
"No one is going anywhere," Quatre announced, standing suddenly and slamming the heels of his hands against the table. "This is not the time for a mission of this caliber. The matter will be discussed on base, plans will be made, and *then* a team will be sent out." Duo looked like he was about to protest, but the blond leveled a stare at him, his blue eyes flickering to gold and back. "The issue is closed as it stands. We are moving on."
A grin spread across the Relic's face, slowly, and he leaned forward slightly over the table. "You gonna tell them about Zero, Q?"
The Minister's eyes widened fractionally, and he slid back down into his seat, folding his hands in front of him. "The matter would have come up eventually."
"Zero?" Trowa spoke for the first time, his voice soft and contemplative.
Quatre sighed. "Zero is an ageless being. I summoned it."
Heero frowned, and Trowa's eyes narrowed into green slits. Wufei noted the reaction, thinking that the elf must not have approved of the venture from the start. The Dragon cleared his throat. "Where is it now?"
The blond opened his mouth and closed his eyes, his head dropping forward slightly, but he didn't respond.
Duo's tone was scathing. "It's in his head." His voice dropped into a rasping whisper. "In your brain, Q, slinking through your subconscious like a rat, nibbling on the fringes of your most carefully guarded secrets. Stealing your thoughts, I bet, scrounging for tidbits of information, feeding off your deepest inner emotions. Bet it's having a grand old time in there, isn't it?"
"Be quiet, Duo," Quatre admonished, but his voice was low, carrying no weight with the statement.
"I don't like this," Trowa said flatly.
"It could cause serious complications," Heero agreed, raking his eyes over the Minister in assessment.
"I can dismiss Zero if it becomes necessary," Quatre replied, opening his eyes to take in the four operatives around the table. "Currently, I have a wealth of tactical knowledge at my disposal, and for the sake of the conflict, I'm not willing to give that up yet."
"Be willing to take our advice, Quatre," Trowa said after a moment of silence. "If one of us sees a problem and recommends that you dismiss this 'ageless being,' accept that we believe it would be in your best interest to do so."
The blond laced his hands under his chin and considered that. "Are we all in agreement?" Four heads nodded. "Then let's move on. Does anyone else have information to bring to the table?"
"To accompany Wufei's interest regarding the central commander of the ISG," Heero began, "I can add that I received a report from Dorothy Catalonia, Operative Opal. The commanding officer of the fleet attacking Sabaku was her mother, Seol Runair, a high-ranking admiral in the ISG. We believe she is still alive, and probably retreated with the remainder of the fleet. In any case," he waved a hand at Quatre, who had opened his mouth to intervene, "Dorothy informed me that her mother had been accepting calls from an unknown origin, and believed they may have come directly from the central commander."
"Pursuing that avenue would require an insider," Wufei commented, rubbing a finger over his chin.
"We have two prisoners," Quatre suggested.
"Yes, I spoke with Cadet Chea." Wufei offered a wry half-smile. "It was an. interesting experience."
The Dragon wrinkled his nose at his assassin and continued. "Chea, at least, is interested in switching sides. He's asked that his partner be released as a condition of his enrollment."
"We could play this dirty," Heero suggested, "but I don't think Tzumara would fall for it a second time."
"She didn't fall for it the first time, either," the elf commented with a smirk. "I doubt we could count on her as a sleeper, whether by force or otherwise."
"From the impression I got of Chea, he has no intention of going back, either," Wufei sighed. "It's a covert operation, we'll have to find someone else."
"No, Duo," Heero snapped just as the demon opened his mouth.
"Again, we'll bring this up at the meeting on base," Quatre stated to nullify the tension. "Which answers the question of what we do now."
All four operatives shifted in their seats, giving him full attention.
"We leave at dawn," the prime operative announced. "The Maganacs will remain on the surface. The Talmac will be abandoned for the present, to discourage any future attacks. No one outside the Resistance forces will know I have left the planet. Everyone in the force will be leaving in small groups. Trowa and Wufei, you will accompany the group transporting the command ship. I have a cruiser procured for myself, and Heero and Duo will act as my personal guard."
Wufei leaned over the table. "Yes, but where are we going?"
"I shouldn't have to tell you that this information is not to leave this room, but just to reiterate, the location of the Resistance base is top security." Quatre smiled. "Gentlemen, we leave tomorrow for Sen'Darven."