Usual disclaimers apply.

R for language. Consider language underlined -- there's quite a bit of it this time around.
Angst, post-EW, newtypeness, 1X2X1.
And please, in most humble supplication, let us know what you think, even if it's to fling a tomato! We are insecure and needy authors to whom feedback is as ambrosia to the gods.

Twelve-word summary: The pilots discover the side effects of being Gundam pilots without Gundams.

Long Odds
9.  Tracking Causality
by Saro and Merellia

Heero snapped his toothbrush in half, broke the bottle of aftershave, and twisted the knob off his closet door before he even finished packing.  When he bent and then cracked the pull-tab to his bag's zipper, he sat down beside it on the bed and stared at the warped piece of metal on his palm.  He tossed it aside.  The tab landed on the floor; he heard it bounce once as he stared at the carpet in front of him.  Slatted sunlight broke across its nubby surface, casting it into an uneven tan landscape and spangling the dust-motes drifting through the air with gold.  They hadn't yet bought a carpet cleaner: the dust would accumulate until they did.

Inefficient. Just because Duo was pissed didn't mean he had to lose control of himself also.  J had had years more with him than G with Duo; he'd become accustomed to more extensive interventions than an injection or two.  That one was going wrong now -- if one were going wrong: would J have even desired a tool to outlast its purpose? -- shouldn't be a... surprise.

He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes, a momentary refuge from the midmorning light in his bedroom.  He could hear Duo in the other, angrily stabbing at his laptop's keyboard. It sounded as though he'd stopped typing and was simply attacking the keys with stiff-fingered prodding.

He was as certain as Duo that the scientists were involved somehow, but what had J done? Why had he done it? What had he intended? Insufficient data was the only answer that Heero had, and that wasn't an answer at all.  There was no purpose to this that he could grasp, no way that this made him a better soldier.  Civilian. He paused, resting in the darkness of his closed eyes, and considered the thought.  All of his training, all of the interventions, had been to make him a better soldier.  But he wasn't one anymore; couldn't be, if they were to have peace.  Was that it? Had he really overrun his course?  He inhaled slowly, the scent of soap and skin from his hands filtering through to him.  He didn't even smell like himself.  No cordite, nor the machine oil he used in Wing, nor even the pervasive tang of Gundam hydraulics fluid.  His breath hitched as a wrench of queasiness twisted in his gut.

No.  Fingers curled into fists; he forced his heartbeat and breathing into a smooth rhythm, ignoring the chill that wanted to creep along his skin. This served no purpose.  One couldn't make decisions at this point; one could only plan, and who knew if Duo had gotten farther than leave and get to G.  Dropping his hands, he stood, took the haversack, and left the room.

Duo's faded black duffel bag sat in the middle of the floor where the futon would be laid out in the evenings; he himself sat in front of the battered table that served them both as a computer desk, his laptop showing a cascade of windows and lines of text too small for Heero to read from the doorway.  Without turning around, Duo said tersely, "1500 credits is the cheapest I can get for here to L2 for us both, leaving today. One way."

Heero thought of the narrowness of the distance between commercial shuttle seats, the way that Odin's knees had poked into the aisles when the man had tried to fit himself into their confines.  First-time flyers sick from the inner-ear imbalance of zero G. Tourists.  Layovers.  Lost luggage. He eyed the gun tossed next to the duffel on the floor, and an all-too familiar pouch next to it.  Port security.  "No."

"Fuck! How do you expect me -- you got any idea what chartering -- " Duo cut himself off mid-rant.  "I'll charge it to one of the asshole's accounts," he announced.  Heero could clearly picture the tight-lipped smile and narrowed eyes that accompanied the satisfied tone.  He'd seen the expression more than once on Wing's com screens.  Duo flexed his fingers and began typing again, leaning towards the laptop in his intensity as a sheaf of windows collapsed and others opened in their wake.

"Check to see if the account's still open," Duo muttered. Heero decided it was the beginning of Duo's self-narrating monologue, and tuned him out.  Picking up a few twist-ties from the top of the dresser by the door, he sat down next to the duffel on the floor, tucking his feet under in seiza, and began to braid the ties.  He hadn't yet asked why all the twist-ties from their garbage bags and bread bags ended up in Duo's room; maybe they were intended as emergency hair ties.

He threaded the braided wire through the zipper loop on his knapsack, bringing the ends together and twisting them around each other. A tug -- firm, but more cautious than his previous pulling of it had been -- made sure that the improvised tab would hold.  The white and orange paper wrappers around the wires already looked dingy and worn from the handling, but the purpose would be served despite their appearance, which was all that mattered.

Setting the knapsack aside, he took up Duo's gun, ejecting the clip and giving the gun a swift once-over to verify its condition.  He didn't expect to find anything amiss -- its matte finish identified it as the 9mm Duo kept under his pillow, so would be in perfect shape -- but nothing was hurt by the activity.

The heft of the metal, the snick and clicks of pieces sliding in and out of place, the familiar routine of the check relaxed Heero as nothing else had since Wing Zero's detonation had removed its more extensive inspection needs from his routine.  He'd always meant to fix Wing's alternator master toggle; it liked to stick in more humid weather.  Had he taken that switch panel off entirely, he could have rewired the alternator controls to eke a little more output from them... He sighed, tension fading from his shoulders.  If he closed his eyes, he could picture every light, display screen, switch, and indicator on the avionics stack.  A little warmth crept through him at the thought.

"Yes!"  Duo's triumphant whisper cut through Heero's small slice of quiet; his hands tightened involuntarily around the gun before he caught himself and consciously relaxed his grip, thumbing the safety and setting the Beretta aside.   "Bastard's still using the account, and the pretty baby is full, full, full.  Plenty for us."  Duo's vicious delight quieted into a few more taps on the keyboard.

Heero eyed the pouch next to the duffel; it was obviously full, judging from its rounded sides.  "Duo."

"Bet it's stuff I transferred to him from OZ to begin with, so it's sort of... mine already.  I'm just repossessing it. Yeah," muttered Duo.  Turning to look up at him, Heero saw Duo's fingers twitch over the keys.  "Heero... "  His tone was speculative, halfway to cajoling.

"No."  He spoke over Duo's sigh, "Why the explosives?"

Fingers flickering, Duo completed a transfer and closed the connection.  His reply, when it came, was casual, absent-sounding as he opened up a new series of windows.  "Never know what you might need on L2."  But the pause, as naturally arranged as it seemed, caught Heero's attention.  Duo didn't need to concentrate that much on a hacking job of this caliber; he could manipulate silence like it was a cloaking device.


"Shit, do you really need to ask? The fucking bastard -- addicted to some drug," Duo spat, slapping his hands down on the tabletop.   Anger seethed from him, jaw and shoulders and fists wound tight as he spun in the chair to pin Heero with a furious look.

Despite their proximity, despite the similarity of whatever it was happening to them, Heero abruptly felt every inch of the distance between them and more.  He wouldn't have -- couldn't have -- loaded that single word with as many nuances as Duo packed into it.  Half of them he couldn't even identify.  He couldn't guess what Duo was thinking, or was likely to do, and they didn't have the time to ask.  He looked down at the pack of explosives, the gun: familiar tools, from a familiar time, familiar interactions.  "I -- " he started, stopped, and tried again. "What's the -- mission?"

"The mission," Duo said with scathing disbelief, then shut his eyes tightly before he could see Heero's flinch.  He inclined forward the slightest of degrees, fists resting on his thighs.  Whether the movement was from tension or apology, Heero couldn't tell.  "No. Sorry." He inhaled slowly; Heero counted fifteen before Duo blew his breath out in a measured release, lifting his eyelids. His gaze was steadier as he returned the look Heero gave him.  "Have to talk to him first," he said at last, grudgingly.

Heero frowned.  Duo considered that a plan?  "Too imprecise.  How are we going to get there? What are we going to do before that?  Do you know anything about the area he's in? What security does he maintain?"  What kind of assignments had Duo's scientist been giving him?  He should know better just by the models they had provided.

"You're the one who wants a plan, you decide," Duo retorted, brows lowering.

The one time they'd stayed together in the boarding school, they'd been given the same assignment.  But Duo had spent time after that finding schematics for the base and the destroyer which had been their target; his mission details, unlike Heero's, must not have included specifics of attack route or timing, or else the schematics would not have been needed.  He thought back to the conversations he'd heard between G and Duo. G had seemed almost as casual about things as his housemate.  There'd been only "get to L2," and nothing about how or when or where.

Heero moved the pack of explosives, putting it down beside the Beretta. Maybe Duo needed to learn about planning missions.  "You know L2. You know G," he said, and kept quiet until he knew the silence would be gnawing at Duo, unzipping the black duffel.  He put the dark gray pouch inside.  The hardness of a sock-covered weight announced the presence of Duo's handheld inside already, but nothing else met Heero's grasp; Duo hadn't even packed before he'd charged ahead into checking on shuttle flights.

"Fine," Duo snapped. "Back up, then.  Obtain a shuttle, head to L2, call him and get his location. Secure the shuttle.  Scout -- ?"  At Heero's nod, he continued. "Scout the area. Meet him and interrogate the bastard. Then decide."  Sourly, he finished, "That suit you?"

"It will do," Heero said, rocking back onto his feet and standing up smoothly, the black duffel in his hand.  A flicker of confidence chased away the last of the chill on his skin. They had a mission. Objectives. Roles.  He looked down at Duo, who stared at him with pinched brows and a jutting chin.  It wasn't his housemate or lover or co-worker whom Heero saw; it was his occasional partner, and a fellow pilot.  "I'll get your gear together while you finish arranging the other."

When he spoke again, Duo's voice was brisk, professional, the edge of irritation gone.  "Right," Duo said, acknowledging the offer.  With the push of a toe, he swiveled his chair around to face the laptop again.


When Wufei didn't see Durstang at his desk as soon as he arrived, he headed straight for his own and set the small sword-plant down atop it. He'd picked it up at the corner market near his apartment, thinking that could use the cheerfulness of greenery; but completing his first assignment as an agent, even if partnered to a woman, struck him as something deserving commemoration.  So he'd reassigned the plant to permanent desk duty.  Better it than I, he thought with a sudden twist into humor.

The vibration made by the weight of the pot as he put it down jostled the sensitive computer out of standby; with a flicker, his monitor warmed into color, password entry window blinking.  A moment's consideration had him moving the plant to the left side of the monitor instead, tucking it back beside the cheerful red of Sally's card with its calligraphed message of good health for the Chinese New Year, only a few weeks past.  The veined shades of dark and light green contrasted well with the scarlet, white, and black of the card, he decided, and sat down, satisfied.

Still no Durstang.  Not even the deliberately noisy scraping Wufei elicited from his chair as he pulled it closer to the desk brought the older man out of hiding, though it drew a creak as Noin leaned back in her own seat to check out the interruption. "Morning, Chang," she said briefly, before turning back to her own business.

The buzz of activity at Wufei's back, where the analysts worked, seemed scarcely diminished from its weekday levels, though the other side of the room, with its unfilled desks and agents' stations the quiet seemed to demand attention. It was Maxwell whom he'd been called in to replace, but the lack of greeting from the occupant of the other desk on the far side of the partition in front of him suggested that Yuy, too, was absent.  Wufei debated whether to bother asking the woman or not only for a moment.  His curiosity won. "Yuy?"

Noin leaned back again and Wufei tried to interpret the expression on her face.  She was hard to read -- all foreigners were, really, with their too-colorful eyes and hair and pale skin to distract from the subtle nuances of expression.  Even Sally, Chinese as she was, fell into that category for all that they'd spoken Mandarin almost exclusively during the past week's assignment.  "Out," Noin said.

Wufei gave a grunt of acknowledgement as he turned to his own computer.  He shouldn't have expected more detail from her, but he frowned nevertheless.  One brief message from the Director left while he had been occupied in the shower had informed him only that he was called in to partner with Durstang in Maxwell's stead this coming week, and should present himself this morning to begin briefing for the assignment; but that Yuy was gone as well... He called up the meeting software; it had already been updated to reflect his absence with Durstang in the week coming.  Yuy and Maxwell were likewise flagged as out of town, but no other agents were, not even Noin who should have been with Yuy as his mentor.

Another one of the frivolously colored rectangles on the schedule grid caught his attention.  His frown deepened.  Sally had been rescheduled for office presence today, too?  He took a moment to listen, stretching for the sound of activity from her desk; without Nicolov or Maxwell intervening, he should be able to hear her at work; he wouldn't demean himself by doing something so obvious as going to the break room -- he didn't drink coffee, anyway -- or standing up to look over the intervening partitions, if he even could; he was scarcely taller than they.  Sometimes discretion had benefits.  But he heard nothing over the background of the others in the office, not even the faint click of a keyboard.

Collapsing the window, he glared at beige cloth of the cubicle surface, then checked his messages.  His filters had flagged and opened the morning's world events synopsis mailed by Ngebe, the most senior of the analysts, but none of its headlines looked like they would have warranted the sudden attention of two ex-Gundam pilots, let alone two Preventers agents who were scarcely more than raw recruits.

Maybe they'd sent him a message.  They would have known to keep him informed of what involved him.  He closed the events mail and clicked on his in-box, scanning down the list of senders.  There were a couple from Nicolov which he could safely ignore without opening; the man seemed to take an unhealthy delight in mailing odd and intrusive questions at any opportunity. These were only more of the same, and reading or replying to them would only encourage him.

Martje had sent a message about supplies; he could ignore that for now... The name below hers caught his eye then, pulled him in and made the space between his shoulders itch as if sighted in the crosshairs of a gun.  He let his eyes follow the pixelated characters, the familiar side-by-side with the strange.  Chang Lin-hui.  The subject line was blank.

He clicked on it, his irritation and incipient concern gone under the wash of apprehension which swept through him.  Esteemed nephew, greetings and blessings upon your New Year... He skipped to the end of the mail and took in the lineage block she'd attached as a signature file.  Not aunt; great-aunt. Honored Grandfather's sister who had married off-colony, into the Su clan of A01832.  Circumstances might have made him the heir, but even living in another family she was still an elder of his own.

His eyes jumped back to the message text, skimming through the first paragraph where she set out their relationship, and the second in which she discussed the history of her efforts on behalf of their family.  The third -- he hadn't even read the first half-line before the characters for visit and marriage jumped out at him like Tauruses from an ambush.

No, he said against the disquiet that curled in his belly.  I chose this.  I won't lose this time.

"Hey, Chang," Durstang said, draping his arms over the side of Wufei's cubicle.

Every nerve within him leaped to fling him from his chair in shock, but he prided himself on the control that had him doing no more than coolly flicking his gaze to the older man.  He closed the message window.  Even if Durstang wasn't literate in Chinese, if he were a newtype, that might be enough for him to read material better kept private.  Wufei'd rather be hauled into court on charges of war crimes than -- He stopped that train of thought. "Maxwell?" he asked in sharp inquiry.

Durstang's wide mouth turned down at the corners, his brow furrowing a moment before it cleared.  "Good morning to you, too, Chang," he said, and waited until Wufei murmured a greeting. He tried not to sound resentful in giving it.   "Why don't we move into the conference room. I've already laid out the facility blueprints there.  We can get right onto the briefing."

Wufei nodded, keyed in the command to lock his terminal, blanked its screen in standby, then pulled a pad of paper and a pen from one of his drawers.  Rising, he followed the more senior agent towards the corner room with its long table.

Durstang didn't say anything else until he'd closed the conference door behind them.  The morning's bright sunlight spilled through the polarized glass of the floor-to-ceiling windows and across the table and its burden of blueprints.  "The Director said that Heero and Duo are on a private assignment.  She expects them back in a couple of days -- not that it helps with this," he said, fingers tapping the schematics as he moved around the table.  "She called me in to talk to her just as Sally was leaving."

Sally again.  And a private assignment?  What did that mean?  The Preventers were a government organization, not a company-for-hire. Private for whom, then?  Maxwell and Yuy?  But if Sally were involved, too --   Wufei realized Durstang had been looking at him intently.  "I knew nothing of this," he said stiffly, not sure even as he spoke whether the words were accusation or defense.

"Ah.  Since Sally partnered you most recently, and you Gundam pilots seem to stick together, I thought you might," Durstang said with an easiness that Wufei envied.  He pulled out one of the tall, overly padded chairs and sat down.  "I guess we can just be in the dark together.  Shall we get started?"

"Yes," Wufei said curtly, taking his own seat.  A flame of irritation lit within him once more. They hadn't always worked collaboratively, but this time Wufei had been called in to substitute for Maxwell. Whatever the L2 pilot had involved himself in, he'd involved Wufei too, and should have had the courtesy to give some sort of explanation.

Opening an envelope, Durstang removed a series of photographs and passed them to Wufei.  They were satellite images, magnified and enhanced until the individual details of buildings and vehicles were available.  "These came to our attention at the beginning of the week.  Word from the ambassadors involved is that a splinter group in Karamoja has revived an old quasi-political banner and is stockpiling arms as the Lord's Resistance Army."

Karamoja -- the word rang in his memory, pulled his gaze from the photographs to look at Durstang. He'd been to Uganda once, on the way to attacking the Lake Victoria base.  The northern region had lots of savanna, a few scrubby trees.  He had avoided it as lacking any possible cover for a Gundam. Then he thought through the rest of what the other man had said.  "The Lord's Resistance Army?"

With a grimace twisting his mouth, Durstang said, "That's partly why the ambassadors asked for our intervention.  It's a Ugandan district right now, but word is the group's rhetoric identifies targets across the border in Sudan. Uganda and the Sudan usually have a fight and swap control over Karamoja every couple of decades.  They're trying to prevent that sort of escalation now.  But the group soliciting members -- and donations -- from both countries. So we've been told. They've not been able to prove any of this; they're going on rumors, a couple odd financial transactions, and suspicions drawn from sat images like these.  The main focus of the group's issues seem to be some recent laws passed broadening the number of religious groups recognized by Sudan."

Wufei snorted. "They don't care for the competition?"  A whisper of air brushed his forehead as the room's ventilation system responded to the light's warmth.

"Political recognition comes with financial support... so perhaps."  Durstang waved a hand at the blueprints. "What we've got here are sat images of their compound.  We have offers of support from both countries, either local law enforcement or through the ESUN."

"The former means personal connections between them and the group, I presume.  The second -- "

"No, neither country is pleased by the expense or the publicity they'd get from that.  Duo," Durstang paused, shuffled a building blueprint to the top, and continued, "suggested that we go in and see if we could get the documentation necessary to allow for local prosecution of the ringleaders. He said he wouldn't be able to recognize the materials, but since I could, he could bring me in with him.  I'd handle that while he set the magazine to blow on our way out. Local LE would pick up the ringleaders.  We'd set up with them for that -- we were just waiting for arrival on site to iron out some of the details."

Staring at the blueprint, its lines clear in the shadow cast over them by Durstang, Wufei said sharply, "We're not interchangeable.  I can't get you in like that, and I'm not an explosives expert."

Durstang raised his eyebrows, studying Wufei with a mild look that made him think of Master O.  Then the expression passed, and the other agent just gave him a grin. "Well, there goes my theory that you had overlap in your training."

"Piloting, basic weapons training, some strategy and tactics," Wufei offered grudgingly, feeling like he'd been reproved as Master O had done in the past, chiding by virtue of not responding to an error or rudeness. He didn't offer more, though; only if he judged it relevant would he share more with Durstang. Otherwise it was no-one's business but their own.

Durstang rested his chin on a hand, cupping that elbow with his other hand as he leaned back in the seat with the wheeze of thickly-padded upholstery, and studied Wufei. "You weren't taught to fight as a group?"

"We never met until we came to Earth, and didn't start to work together until later," Wufei said, holding back a scowl as a few other things occurred to him.  They might not have met, but they'd all been trained by scientists who had -- and who knew what they had arranged beforehand?  He and the others might as well have been pawns in the hands of chessmasters.

Durstang gave a bemused, "Huh.  Didn't expect that.  So, since you can't do what we'd planned, do you have any suggestions?  I'd like to salvage the arrangements with local LE if we can," he added, with a sudden chuckle that surprised Wufei.  "No sense in letting them know that the Preventers have a screw-up on their hands."

Damn you, Maxwell, why did you do this? Wufei swore silently, spreading the satellite images out between himself and Durstang. The other man silently handed him some profile sheets: presumably the ringleaders. A pat of his breast pocket, then his pants proved his reading glasses were not present.  Damn it, he swore again.  Need to get a pair to leave here in the office. He bent closer to the documents to study them more intently.

They tossed ideas back and forth until noon, when Durstang declared a break for lunch.  Wufei declined the man's invitation to accompany him, using the profiles as the excuse -- he could use the break to catch up on some of the reading.

But after allowing five minutes to pass, he stepped out and ducked into the adjacent communications room, where a bank of screens showing newscasts from around the Sphere took up an entire wall, where there were vid units and privacy.

He took a seat in front of one of those, setting his irritation aside and mentally composing a brief message to send to Maxwell's number. His good intentions lasted until, to his surprise, Maxwell actually answered the call in person.  "What the hell," Wufei blurted, taking in the background past Maxwell's shoulders, "are you doing in the spaceport?"

Maxwell paused, eyebrows raising.  He was wearing sunglasses again -- a rather underhanded trick to use when talking to another, in Wufei's opinion.  "Thought it was Sally, maybe, or -- it's Wufei," he said, looking up past the hand-held to speak to someone nearby.  He lowered his gaze to the screen once more.  "Hi, Wufei."

Heat spiked through Wufei in the face of the other's nonchalance as he made the obvious connection between Maxwell's addressee and the absent Yuy. "You're leaving Earth.  Why are you leaving Earth, Maxwell?"

Wufei watched as Maxwell tried to muster a grin. "You feeling okay, buddy? No need to get in such a twist. We'll just be gone a couple days."

"I'm not the one getting people called off downtime to cover their place on assignments," Wufei snapped, and had the satisfaction of seeing Maxwell flinch.  "What are you doing? Why couldn't it wait until you returned with Durstang? What is going on?"

The only foreigners whose expressions Wufei could read with any reliability were the other pilots; several shared hours in prison had made Maxwell the easiest of them all.  But the damn glasses made that impossible.  Maxwell said shortly, the typical breeziness gone from his tone, "It's complicated. We're not sure yet.  Wufei, could I -- could you let it rest until we're back? I'll explain then. Promise."

Wufei said nothing as he continued to look at Maxwell, whose mouth thinned unhappily as the silence stretched between them.  It was serious, whatever was sending them off-planet, Wufei acknowledged.  It wasn't something as clear-cut as an assignment, or a battle; even those you could go into in poor shape and the adrenaline would take your concerns and fears and angers and turn them into excitement, however tense.  There wasn't a shred of such on Maxwell's face as he waited patiently for Wufei's response.  "Fine," he said shortly.

Maxwell didn't even smile his relief.  "Thanks, man. Owe you one.  Things okay between you and Durstang?"

"We're getting there," Wufei said, wanting to close his eyes in exasperation when he saw the ghosting of a familiar pressure against the other pilot's black jacket when the other shifted, and grinned in a way obviously meant to irritate.  He wasn't wearing the Preventers jacket, so he couldn't even be said to be in uniform. "Maxwell, please tell me you have your concealed carry permits on you."

"Not on me," Maxwell said, leaving Wufei biting his tongue to keep from rising to the bait.  "Oops, look at the time, Wufei, so sorry, got to go."  He didn't even bother to glance away from the screen to check an imaginary clock.  "Be well," he finished, the brief flash of humor fading even as he disconnected the call.

Wufei stared at the blank screen, mulling the call over and trying not to feel more irate than he had going into it.  Something was not only going on; something was wrong.  He played back his memory of the call, and -- Sally.  Maxwell had thought Sally might be calling; Sally had been with the Director before Durstang, too.

Calmly, he punched a shortcut code into the vid unit.

The main hall guard's face blinked onto the screen after a moment.  Their identification cards were electronically chipped, traceable; the guard covered that as part of his security detail.  "Has Agent Po left yet?" Wufei asked.  Getting the guard's negation after he checked his computer records, Wufei thanked him and sat back for a few minutes, then stood, checking the time on his watch.  He still had half an hour before Durstang was due back: time and plenty to see about finding Sally, ask her a few questions, and read a couple of the profiles.

With it opposite the conference room, he saw at once that her desk was empty.  Next door to him, the Director's office stood, door closed and the glass panels to either side dark.  So Sally wasn't there, either, and the Director had gone to wherever her home was. He'd heard she had Mariemaia living with her now.  The copy room -- he ducked around a row of empty cubicles, giving it an eye as he pretended a need to visit his desk.  Noin was gone from hers, too.  That added another possibility: both women might be at lunch on the twelfth floor, which served as a cafeteria.  Or the bathroom, for that matter.  But he'd check the infirmary, first.

He found her there at the desk, quiet in a thin white coat as she stared at something on the screen she faced. When he knocked on the open door, he saw the flicker from the screen shift across her eyes as her glance jumped up to him. "Wufei," she said after a moment's hesitation.  A smile of greeting followed before she leaned back and gave him a quick head-to-toe glance.  "Not feeling sick, are you?"

He snorted at the ridiculousness of the thought, and took a few steps into the room towards her desk.  Casually, in the gesture of a rote attempt to tidy things, she picked up the open folder in front of her and closed it, then tapped it and the folders and papers stacked beneath it into a neat pile.  But the move had also obscured from his sight the name written on the folders, or on any of the other documents at which she'd been looking. She caught him watching her, and knew that she knew he had figured out what she was doing; but she said nothing. She was going to make him ask, he thought crossly, but asked regardless.  "What's going on with Yuy and Maxwell?"

Sally didn't bother to deny the inquiry; it was one of the things he liked about her, when he had to consider that.  He appreciated her directness.  "I can't tell you."

"Can't, or won't?"

"It's confidential," she said, blue eyes resting evenly on his face as she looked up at him.

He caught the implications as she had meant him to, and stood there for a minute, considering his options.  She wouldn't tell him more, but whatever was going on was medically related.  Confidentiality wouldn't be an issue otherwise: instead, she would have refused to disclose details on the grounds of their being classified.  "Ah," he remarked noncommittally, then added, "Thank you," before returning to the elevator, the Preventers' floor, and the conference room.  He needed to consider this some more; he still didn't have an answer he liked. Going off-planet for health reasons? The only medical treatment the colonies excelled in was limb replacement, and neither Maxwell nor Yuy were in need of that.

He needed to let the information settle for a while before he could come up with a decision about what to do next.  There were still had a good twenty minutes before Durstang was due back, so he set those thoughts aside and sat down and pilfered a fruit bar from the break room to eat while he did some of the reading that he'd suggested was his purpose in declining to eat with the other Preventer.

These Lord's Resistance people were not going to climb high on his list of respected opponents.  Hoping to evade retribution by basing oneself across international borders in a world still jumpy and nervous about war seemed more likely to draw attention rather than defuse it, to Wufei's mind.  But, he conceded reluctantly, if your goals were strong enough, sometimes risks could seem minimal in exchange for achieving them.  He was more than familiar with that mindset, even if religion seemed an odd choice for bloodshed. That thought immediately called to mind three instances of China exiling clans and one entire city to L5 colonies for their religious persuasions or stances on the country's treatment of religious freedom -- including that truly odd incident in AC 53 -- so it was certainly not without precedent.

He heard Noin return first, exchanging greetings with Martje after she stepped out of the elevator.  Then Sally came, but only stopped by her desk briefly before leaving again; he imagined that she went home this time.   A few analysts passed in and out, mostly in groups. Last was Durstang.

They wrangled over possible plans for another four hours before calling it off for the evening, and it took another agonizingly slow half-hour before Durstang left.  Then there was only Wufei and Nicolov, who had arrived for an evening shift, left.  After a winking grin and some brief chat, which practice with Maxwell made it easy to ignore, Nicolov moved to his own desk and his own business, leaving Wufei free to pursue his own.

Wufei'd had an idea, in between the debate over how to approach the Lord's Resistance situation and not make it obvious that the Preventers had experienced a sudden and unexpected change of plans.  Lacking knowledge was the worst position a person could ever be in; without knowledge, you were powerless even to assess your situation fully and rationally.  He didn't have the knowledge necessary to judge his current situation.  Waiting until Maxwell returned to redeem his promise was a possibility, but it was now that Wufei had been called upon to substitute for him.  Wufei had a right to know how long these circumstances might persist.

He was light-years from being the hacker Yuy was, nor was he close to Barton's or Maxwell's levels, but when he was already connected to the network, his little experience wasn't so great a hindrance.  It was one of the other aspects of their training which he suspected they all shared, though he had never heard Winner speak of a hacking job.  But Winner rarely discussed the details of his business if he could avoid it without giving offense, so that was not surprising.

A check showed that no logging software targeted the networked machines; there was such a security program running, but it recorded only the actions taken through remote connections.  It took fewer than a half-dozen minutes to locate the ops password file.

He only needed two more before he found Sally's folder system for medical documents.

Sally's password opened them; he started scanning Yuy's first.  A lot of the data he could skip, as it referenced nothing but the typical details of physical status.  His reading slowed as he came to an extensive paragraph detailing results from some soft-tissue scans, and resulting commentary.  Psychotropic dependence.  Neuroadaptation.  The words stood out, clearings in the thicket of abbreviations and jargon.

Wufei let his breath out in a slow hiss, and checked Mawell's records.  It was the same.  An addendum had been added under today's date on Maxwell's record alone: a notation of symptoms, a reference to G.

No wonder Maxwell had looked so subdued -- and under that, ill at ease.  How could he not, with his body betraying him?

No wonder they were leaving the planet.  They had to be going to the source.  Sources.

Perhaps Wufei's ancestors looked upon him more kindly than he had believed.  Soberly, he closed the files and spent the necessary time to ensure that there he had left no traces on his computer or the others to indicate that the files had been accessed.

He was going to have to think about this.

* ~ * ~ *

Heero sat down in a hard plastic spaceport chair, one chair removed from where Duo was baiting Wufei. His partner shot a grin at the miniature vidscreen of his portable -- not a happy expression, but a cynical, semi-automatic smile -- before firmly thumbing the end button.  "We're gonna owe him a hell of an explanation when we get back," he said as he put the portable away, then added wryly  "You'd think he didn't like good ol' Chas or something."

Heero made a noise to show he'd heard.  "Sally implied that Wufei wasn't exhibiting our symptoms."

"Y'know, Heero," Duo said with a sideways look, "if you're suggestin' we don't tell Wufei about this, then I'm willin' to listen to what you have planned, but I don't think he's likely to let this go."

"No," the Wing pilot returned, blinking.  He studied Duo's profile, and finding that blank behind the dark aviator sunglasses he wore, his body language.  Bony shoulders rolled forward, arms crossed over his chest, chin down and thin, flexible mouth twitching up at the corners.  It was a familiar posture, and one which normally meant Duo was waiting for something.  "I was only observing that it's quite possible that whatever is wrong with us, Wufei is not sharing our affliction."

"Aha."  It was a bare acknowledgement, then the sidestep.  "So what's the word on the shuttle?"

Heero didn't miss the quick change of subject, but he decided he could ignore it for the moment. "Twenty minute wait -- they're still fueling."


"It would have been longer if we'd taken the commercial flight," the Wing pilot pointed out, eyeing his companion.  If he hadn't seen Duo perform under more pressure than this, he might have suspected the other was in danger of behaving irrationally during the course of their mission.

"Yeah, but that was within budget."  He fired off another smile, this time Heero's direction.  "But no worries on that, I suppose, since the bastard is footing the bill."

Weighing his options carefully, Heero said, "My question?"

Duo turned toward him, his eyes barely visible behind the unyielding dark lenses of his sunglasses; his brows drew down in a crooked frown.  "What the fuck are you talking about?"

"Our contract," Heero explained.  "It's my turn to ask a question."

Duo reached up and slid the glasses down his nose with his middle finger, blue eyes fixing Heero above the frames.  "Our contract?  You mean that question for a question deal?"

"Yes," he agreed, matching Duo's look.  "I wanted to know -- "

"It's not a fucking contract, Yuy," the long-haired pilot interrupted, stressing Heero's last name until it sounded like an epithet.  "It was a stupid bargain that we made over breakfast.  It's not -- it's... "  He trailed off, clenching his teeth so hard a muscle in his cheek jumped with the effort.  "Listen Heero, I am trying real hard to deal with your bullshit right now.  If you'd try to act human for the half a goddamn hour or so, it would really help."

Heero's throat went dry. "Behave like a human?  You mean fly off the handle and snap every five second?"

"You're in no position to bitch about me being a little fucking edgy," Duo shot back, his chin dropping dangerously.  "You're the one who freaked about me taking my own time at the fucking video store. At least I have a good reason to be upset."

"A good reason?" Heero's eyebrows arched, and he actually chuckled at that.  "You're upset that Professor G altered you somehow.  Frankly, I'm amazed you didn't assume as much already."

"And you're not upset?"

"I didn't say that; what I am not is surprised."  Heero shut his teeth on what he was about to say.  Duo seemed to be operating under the mistaken impression that he was guaranteed some level of somatic integrity.  That had not been in his agreement with J.  A low, angry burn warmed Heero's system, and his hands twitched.  The familiar pressure of a gun against the small of his back was strangely comforting.

"Fuck off," Duo snapped, turning away.  "I don't want to have this fucking fight right now."

"You've wanted this 'fucking' fight since you found out," Heero observed stonily.  "Don't take it out on me because Sally ruined your fantasy about the nice man who gave you a weapon of mass destruction."

"What part of 'fuck off' didn't you get?" There was a familiar growl in the other's voice. Normally that tone had been reserved for the Alliance or OZ; apparently, failing a mortal enemy, Heero would do. "Are you just trying to -- "

Duo broke off, turning toward the main corridor.  Heero followed his gaze and felt his face heat as he realized that they had an audience. Swallowing hard, the Deathscythe pilot suggested, "Think maybe we could move this somewhere a tad less public?"

Standing up stiffly, Heero grabbed his bag and stalked away.  He heard the shuffle of fabric behind him as Duo followed after.  Not sure where to go, Heero walked in the direction of the charter launch towers, away from the busier commercial gates. The banked anger continued to spark, looking for something to catch.  His mind went back over their brief altercation, realizing belatedly that he'd let himself be distracted.

He had a question, and they had a contract.  Only, Duo didn't see it that way.

Satisfied that they were well enough removed from the normal flows of traffic, Heero stopped, dropped his luggage, and faced his partner.  Duo pulled up short, surprised, then scowled. Milky light flooded the hall they were in through a bank of floor to ceiling windows, and nearly half of Duo's face indecipherable behind the shield of his glasses.

"So we don't have a contract.  What do we have then?" Heero demanded without preamble.

"What we had, emphasis on had, was a stupid fucking deal to get you to talk."  Duo's mouth made a hard line.  No more comedy mask.  "I didn't know you'd take it to heart."

"We had a deal -- "

"Sweet fucking Jesus wept, yeah!" Duo hissed, hands fisting at his sides. "A deal that bit me on the ass more than once.  Drop it. From now on, I'll answer your fucking questions as I damn well please.  Because I want to, not because I'm obligated."

Heero caught himself recoiling, tamping down the urge to pull away while his brain worked rapidly trying to assimilate the shift.  Could Duo do that?  There was no penalty in their agreement.  But could he step out of a contract like that?  If he could just change his mind at any time, what was to stop him from doing so?

The anger went out, leaving a curious numbness behind.  There had been no clause in their contract keeping Duo from abandoning it at any time -- and when he felt that it no longer suited him, he did just that.

"What?"  Duo taunted.  "Nothin' to say to that?"

What could he say to that?

"Didn't fucking think so." He looked out the windows; the light reflected off his glasses, white on black.

"We still have a mission," Heero said evenly, not sure if it was to himself or Duo.

"Yeah," the other replied, barking a quick round of laughter as his grin found its place again.  "We do have that.  Shall we see what's taking our ride so long?"

Nodding, Heero retrieved his bag from the floor and ran over the plan in his head.  First they would locate G, then run reconnaissance before meeting with the Professor.  Once they met him, they would proceed to interrogate with whatever means deemed necessary to discover the nature of their condition and whether or not the effects were reversible.  "Do you have a plan in mind?"

"Sure," Duo told him. "Just let me do the talking once we hit the L2 customs agents."

"We have Preventers' clearance," Heero pointed out.

"Yeah," Duo agreed blandly. "It'll take forever to get through with that shit."  This time Duo took the lead as they navigated to the rental hanger, his boots scuffing out an even rhythm on the linoleum tiles.  "We'll use the Sweeper's dock.  I'll have us through two hours quicker that way.  The sooner we're in, the sooner I can get my hands on that rat-faced little fuck."

to be continued

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