by Dev-Aki Basaa
Heero stood hard against the knocks and jumbles of the over-crowded auditorium. The flow of people had bustled him in with the crush through the foyer. Who would have guessed so many people would turn out for a late morning speech? It seemed to be the social event of the moment, complete with fancy dress and a catered brunch - and he didn't even know what Relena planned to speak on. Every government official and social dignitary he'd ever met was here, toasting themselves with their glasses of mimosa and triangle cuts of cheese danish. Gods, he hated these things, but this was far worse. Couldn't it have been a forgotten event?
Everywhere he turned there was a face he knew, a face that should know him - if he were worth knowing today. He was, but they didn't know why yet. He pushed the dark glasses he wore up higher on the bridge of his nose and saw Zechs do the same. Reth had laughed at them both for the added accessory. Reth had no qualms about walking into the auditorium, head held high, smiling a twisted grin for everyone to see and dismiss. For now. He preened for cameras and surveillance recorders, mocking them, knowing that in three days he'd be the most popular face to see - the world's most wanted. This was too easy. Heero wanted to curse at them all - from the heads of State to the relaxed security personnel - shout at them for their complacency as they unwittingly laugh their way towards a tragedy. Smile pretty for the camera, you may never forget this day.
Heero sighed at that thought. So much would change from this day forward; Preventer's could never let this level of infiltration be so simple again. He and Zechs had first hand experience and a perspective no other agent would have - it would be his new mission when he got back.
If he got back.
He looked up to see Zechs leaning towards him, his movement restricted by the crowd and the strong arm wrapped around his waist. Heero cringed at that sight. He hadn't realized the extent of the relationship between Nodin and Reth and now wished he hadn't pushed for the intimacy. There may have been other ways to get inside the organization - other ways to have leaked the message without risking so much of Zechs. But now Reth displayed Nodin like a newly won trophy or cherished doll - but like a possession, nonetheless. It made Heero ill, and sorry with guilt. Zechs gave a nod and then directed his gaze towards the front of the auditorium, saying, "04."
Heero followed his lead, turning to peer over the heads of smiling, laughing officials.
He couldn't mistake that head of blonde hair anywhere. But... He looked around scanning every face in his line of sight with careful precision. No Trowa.
Trowa hated these things worse than Heero did. Which meant Quatre had come alone as he typically did for political functions, which also told him the speech would be regarding business relations with the Colonies. But wouldn't the Preventers have warned a fellow operative of a possible threat? Not unless they didn't have time to - or they didn't know at all. Heero tensed, feeling his heart pound in his chest. They *had* to know, they *had* to have gotten that leak - there wasn't another option. If he had no choice but to follow through... Or if chose not to... Either way led to death and more innocent blood on his hands. So many unacceptable options.
Filtering in from a distance, Reth's voice drew Heero's attention back to task.
"Do excuse me, Nodin," he heard Reth say. "I have a few rallying words for our man of the hour."
Heero grimaced. Wonderful. That was just what he needed.
Reth came to Heero's side and put his arm around his shoulders, leading him towards a door marked 'Authorized Personnel Only.' Following behind was the only other member of the group to join them inside the auditorium (the other two, and final members of their little crew, were waiting in a 'borrowed' vehicle for their quick getaway). It had been planned that Reth would fire the additional shots to escalate the confusion, but at the last minute he announced that another - Hartley - would be responsible for that assignment. Heero didn't quite yet know what to think of the alteration, but Reth was known for quick mood changes and faster decisions. It may be nothing. It may be everything.
They stopped just before the door, Hartley - tall, lanky and wearing a dark gray cap low over his eyes - hovered just behind him. Reth then leaned close to whisper in Heero's ear, his lips so close they brushed and teased his lobe full of rings and balls. Duo's cross fluttered with his breath.
"I had the most fascinating conversation with Idande before we left," Reth began. "She said that neither you nor Nodin were to be trusted, by your own admission. I found this quite interesting after all both of you have gone through - as outsiders - to gain the trust of our group. And, though, for as fascinating as it is, I don't have the time right now to analyze it. Which brings me to this." With a death grip on his shoulder, Reth turned Heero to face Hartley and the sneer directed at him. "Hartley, here, was our greatest sharpshooter before you came along. He will be positioned here," and Reth pointed to a nook in the joint between the wall supporting the door and a column encircled with fancy fake green garland. "That gives him a direct shot to you up there." This time he pointed to a hanging catwalk, high in the rafters above the auditorium stage. His fingers squeezed tighter, piercing Heero's skin, hard enough to bruise, but Heero didn't flinch. Wouldn't give the bastard the satisfaction. He always knew Reth didn't trust him, but he had just been waiting for the right slip-up to make his suspicion official. Fuck.
"I can't have an untrustworthy member of my team, now can I?" Reth continued. "If you miss, if you hesitate for just a moment," his words hissed through his teeth, "Hartley has orders to kill you like the traitor you are and then attempt the job himself. But that won't be necessary, correct? He'll be able to let you live like a trustworthy and committed member of our little faction. Sounds like a simple deal, doesn't it?" He gave Heero a mocking shake as if they were old friends catching up on the times.
Heero wanted to punch him, grab at his throat and rip into his flesh for his jugular. That was blood on his hands he wouldn't mind having. And if he had known for certain that Preventers were there, he may have just done that. But the point was the catch them - stop them all and he needed this trap to go off without a hitch to do it.
But one question caught in his brain. His voice low, not looking at Reth, he asked. "If you have such little faith in me, why don't you just send Hartley up there?"
He felt Reth laugh more than heard him; there was irony in this situation. Heero knew it, but he wanted to hear it.
"Because you *don't* miss," Reth answered.
Exactly. The one person he didn't trust was the only person he had confidence enough in to do the job. Heero considered laughing himself; everything was so twisted.
"Hartley's just a touch of security, that's all," Reth went on, his fingers over Heero's shoulder tightening again. "There's no room for failure today. None whatsoever, understood?"
Heero clenched his teeth and nodded.
"Good," he clapped his shoulder with a touch of brute force, then released him and gestured toward the 'Authorized Personnel Only' door. "A little insider's luck got the door unlocked for us, I think you can figure out the rest," he said. Heero looked up at the metal catwalk as Reth turned and walked away. He heard him give one last taunt, boldly yelled aloud amidst the noisy din of the auditorium. "I do hope I get to see you at the victory party, Keb. Nodin will be so dead if you're not there."
Heero looked back down. An inkling of prescience and the evil way Hartley was glaring at him, idly tapping the soft gun case strapped to his belly, hidden under his shirt - just like Heero's - told him he may be too dead to attend that party regardless. Something said that Hartley didn't like the competition too much and was only too eager to take this assignment.
'He hesitated,' that was all the explanation he'd need to give. Would Reth really care? He already considered Keb a liability. His association with Nodin was probably the only thing that had kept him alive this long.
Heero tapped down his dark glasses and looked back for Quatre. He had lost him in the move towards the door and still couldn't find him now. He gave the room another sweeping visual search - up, over, across, hidden in shadows, milling about in plain sight - any sign of Preventers would do, anything reminiscent of a tell-tale braid.
With another, more resigned sigh, Heero pushed his glasses back in place and shouldered past Hartley. He claimed a piece of the wall, leaning there, next to the door and waited for the opportunity to slip though it without notice. With a chuckle, Hartely moved into his own position and disappeared from Heero's sight.
When Relena took the stage, Heero found his chance to move.
"Are we all set?"
Reth had been treating this whole day like a damned party. To him, it seemed that setting Heero on his way up into the rafters was the equivalent of giving a pep talk to the headwaiter of a fancy soiree. Zechs wanted to rage at him for his smugness. There was a gentle man hidden beneath this cold, calculating exterior - someone who could be more to society than their enemy. But that's the role he'd chosen and nothing Zechs could do - especially now - would have any lasting influence. He needed to accept that.
"Everything is in order," Reth grinned his broadest, curling his arm around Zechs' waist. Zechs didn't want to think about how good that felt. "Here," he said then, pointing to an open standing room only spot in the middle of the crowd. "Let's stand over there."
Zechs shook his head. He didn't want to be that far away from Hartley. The unexpected addition of the gunman to their entourage unnerved him terribly and he could only guess at the extent of his role. Heero had complained that Reth suspected too much about him, now Zechs realized he was probably right and today's risk was that much greater for it. "No, let's stand closer to the wall. It gives us better access out."
He had to keep Hartley at a safe distance; he'd interfere if he had to.
"Shhh, she's already begun. This way," Reth began to direct Zechs towards the center of the room. Jerking out of his grip, Zechs stood his ground.
"No, it's just the introductions. Let's stand over there."
The man just to Reth's left looked over and glared at them. They weren't fitting into the event's 'perfect society' picture and - more to Reth's concern - they were drawing a little too much attention. Reth gave the man a placating smile and then turned back to Zechs, breathing an exasperated sigh, but still grinning.
"Do you know you're beautiful when you're demanding?" he said, then turned to lead them to the garland encircled column, just a few paces from where Hartley had stashed himself.
Finally comfortable with their position, Zechs looked up over the rim of his glasses to find Heero. There he was, already in place and assembling the gun, well hidden in the shadows. If he hadn't been looking for him, he never would have really seen him. Will Preventers?
Goddamn, where were they?
The perimeter search took too long. Both Duo and Wufei were on the far side of the building when they heard the applause that probably announced Relena's presence onstage. They looked up from their surveillance and their panicked gazes met, speaking easily for them both. Shit. The leak gave no clue of from where or when the shooting would actually take place. If it was planned for anywhere near the beginning, they may already be too late.
Duo ran faster than perhaps he'd ever, his feet pounding into the ground and pushing off for that extra inch in his stride, that extra momentum of speed. Relena's office had supplied preliminaries that indicated a huge turnout for the event, which was to their advantage, offering greater cover. Duo had worked his best charm on Relena's secretary - there was nothing up, he told her, just a little spot-checking for Lady Une. She'd giggled and flirted back and didn't suspect a damn thing, which meant that fewer people could tip off this Reth person.
Duo braced one hand against the outside wall, catching his breath while Wufei gave further instructions to the outside crew. They had to slip in and start internal surveillance unnoticed and gasping for air might draw a little too much unwanted attention. They already had decided - Wufei would take the floor, Duo, the rafters - either had the possibility for hiding a gunman.
At Wufei's nod, Duo swept through the main entrance, followed closely by Wufei and then the pair parted ways. He slipped to the far right and followed around the exterior wall of the room. The auditorium was newly renovated, but the far right wall still had some unfinished sections and the access stairs weren't behind a locked door as on the other side - it was the more vulnerable area. He pushed aside the tarp and ducked inside, swallowing a cough as flecks of white talc dusted over him. Moving quickly, but as soft as possible, Duo drew his gun and made his way up the metal stairs. The room echoed with the crisp clear sound of Relena's voice.
"Today marks the signing of an agreement that will continue, enhance and celebrate the financial freedom of the Colonies. With no regional tariffs, clusters like L2 can work to compete with clusters, previously more financially stable, like L4. Today marks the day we bring competitive equality to all of the Earth Sphere Alliance and Space!"
The applause rang louder up on the catwalks than Duo expected, ringing against the metal mesh flooring and giving him a moment of vertigo. He was one level up and after a quick but thorough search, he could see nothing! No suspicious characters; nothing to indicate a gunman. Perhaps they had been mistaken; perhaps it would have been better if the turnout had been much lower. What was he losing to the crowd? Nothing below or above - either side - gave him pause. Then there was the issue of a decoy, this could be the dead duck. God knows what could be happening elsewhere!
Waiting for the applause to die and for Relena to continue, Duo then headed up the next level of stairs - a Jacob's ladder - under the cover of her words. Damn good thing he didn't have a problem with heights because this high up, pressed against the wall, was pretty damn freaky.
"And it is with cooperation of corporations like the Winner Conglomerate and Colony Services Ltd., and organizations like The Space Mine United Workers that have helped us achieve this momentous agreement. With their show of support, we can move forward and together bring up our struggling communities and clusters to a new era of equality and hope!"
At the next round of applause, Duo ran the length and back of the set of second story catwalks, not worried about the rattle of the metal under his feet. He was far enough up. Nothing! Goddamnit! He moved away from the stage and out as far as one of the catwalks could take him. Perhaps Wufei already had this all wrapped up. He scoped out his dark head moving swiftly and practically unnoticed through the crowd. But still moving, which meant he'd found nothing either. Damn. Duo glanced up at the catwalks on the other side, wishing for an easier way to get across. No catwalks connected to the other side and it was too shrouded in darkness over there to guarantee it being as clean as this side. He could probably go back to the main floor and pick the lock to the access door, even if it sucked up some time. He needed to make this as thorough a sweep as possible and he had to move fast. Time wasn't...
What was that!?
He almost could have missed it, but there'd been a flash - reflection of light off metal from the far side, deep in the shadows. Duo rushed back towards the stage and to the catwalk that took him out over the heads of the crowd and closest to where the flash of light had been. There. He could barely make out the figure, but someone was there, crouched down, taking careful calculated movements. As if beckoned by his thoughts, the person moved out into the light.
He was lying on his stomach, a slick narrow gun in his hands, lined up towards the stage, dead set for Relena. Fuck. Duo quickly scanned for Wufei, but couldn't find him. A prickling at the nape of his neck told him everything about this was wrong, too much was at risk and suddenly, nothing was certain. His gut said Wufei should be getting Relena off the stage instead of hunting down Reth. But more than anything, he wished he could see Heero's eyes - that would tell him so much of what he needed to know right now, that would tell him how to proceed.
Are you really going to do it, Heero? Koi?
Duo watched Heero check his aim in the site then glance over his shoulder and down. Duo followed his gaze. There, another man with a gun, hidden in the shadows. The real gunman? No, his aim was too high, it pointed elsewhere... It pointed up towards Heero! Double fuck, now it made sense. Kill or be killed. Duo's muscles tensed, heart pounding in his throat, as he watched Heero turn back to the site, checking the line up one last time. He *was* going to do it, he'd already made his decision. His arm tensed, his finger curled around the trigger.
'Are you alright, lady?' A ghost of his own voice echoed in his mind.
Christ, hadn't they been here once before?
Duo shook his head; there was no time and he was here to stop an assassination. As Relena's voice lilted through the rafters of the auditorium, Heero's finger tightened and Duo raised his gun. He yelled, breaking through the event's rose-colored veneer.
And he fired. A second shot rang right after it.
Then all Hell broke loose.