The Arrangement
Chapter Twenty-Six

by Maldoror

Knowledge, Part II

You will never lose a battle if you know your own situation as well as that of the enemy.
Chinese proverb

Heero carefully opened the door and the partners split up without another word. Wufei headed up the stairs and Heero cautiously started checking doors along the hallway.

The mission took Wufei over. His focus came easily; he'd found his center again, his fierce pride in his own strength, and he wouldn't let anyone rip it from him again, not even- not anyone. He would need it and more to get through the tender attentions of his friends in the near future. And he needed it now, to make sure he was alive to fend off their well-meaning questions later on. Plus he needed to punch Trowa, just once. He wasn't really all that angry with his friend - not after living with Mr Die-For-Your-Mission for a year - but it would relieve the tension that would undoubtedly exist between them after this, and besides Trowa was no doubt rather expecting it.

Five minutes after they'd broken out, an alarm went off, short high whistles like a very, very loud and obnoxious car alarm. Wufei tensed, quickly taking shelter in an empty storage room, but if the alarm was because of him, there was no indication of it. He heard shouts from several directions...and a lot of movement from outside. He frowned; the alarm was getting annoying-

Shots! Nearly covered by the alarm - and shouts!

"Fuck," Wufei muttered; the shots had come from above. He was on the third floor, deserted as far as his cursory examination had been able to determine. The gunfire had come from the fourth- more shots, and what sounded like a submachine gun spitting out death. Shit shit shit! So much for the hostage. Sorry, Sam, we're going to be getting our arses roasted after all. Still, he had to go and make sure. And mete out justice to the man's murderers.

The sound of running footsteps in the stairwell next to his door kept him in the small storage area. An armed man - Bruckheim - passed him at a run. Wufei leapt after him, grabbed him by the throat, tumbled him, put a knee on his spine and quickly snapped his neck. All in all, it took less than a minute. He threw the body in the room he'd been hiding in, and then he ghosted up the steps. They lead to the uppermost floor - the stairwell gave way to iron steps up to a roof access. Wufei's cursory examination showed him a short hallway, with four doors on either side and one at the end, leading into what looked like a big office taking up most of the front of the building. Two men were crouching on either side of that door. One had a shotgun, the other was pointing a machine gun at an invisible target. They were shouting at someone to surrender before they came in and made him, or something; the noise covered Wufei's approach. He killed them both with neat efficiency, a bullet each as he walked up to them. He cast a cautious eye into the room; guessing from the way the thugs had been behaving, someone inside who was presumably not on their side had been firing back. Maybe Wufei had misunderstood the plan. Maybe Trowa had come to secure the hostage himself.

"...Who is that?"

The familiarity of that voice stunned Wufei into silence for a few seconds.

"...I'm coming in." He finally warned, not sure - what with all the undercover stuff going on around him - how he was supposed to identify himself any more. A soft gasp from inside the room indicated that the speaker had recognized his voice as well.

Wufei poked a cautious head around the doorjamb, then came in slowly. The room was U-shaped, an open office area curving around a small room, probably reserved for photocopying, or a management office. The man with the machine-gun had really been stupid. The four bodies lying around showed that all he'd hit were his friends, while his target was safely behind the corner of the U-bend, out of sight. Not that the machine gun had done the fatal damage. Wufei was conversant enough with bullet holes to disregard the wild strafes that had peppered the walls and bodies, and concentrate on what had been the killing or incapacitating shots, neat holes from a small calibre weapon, as precise as if they'd been delivered on a shooting range.

He was feeling off-balance again but this time he had a bloody good excuse! He'd expected to have to fight his way into a heavily guarded room with a terrified executive or politician cuffed to a chair. Or, worse, with a bullet between the eyes.

Well, the important executive was there alright. He was crouched around the corner of the U-bend, holding the wounded boss at gunpoint. Wufei checked the other bodies quickly, making sure no-one was faking, and knowing that wasn't the case. Quatre would have already made sure. Reluctantly but without hesitation, the core of steel encased in the real but deceptive gentleness.

Quatre was looking at him in amazement - though the HK pointed at the boss didn't waver. Neither did Quatre's other hand, as it applied pressure to the gunshot wound in the man's shoulder. The boss was on the floor and had twisted painfully to glare at Wufei; he was no longer distant and indifferent.

"Uh..." Quatre glanced down at the boss, then, quite casually, gripped the man above the ears with deceptively strong fingers. The boss stiffened and squirmed in alarm, but Quatre was pinning him down with one knee in the stomach and he couldn't get away. Finally he slumped, unconscious, and Quatre relieved the pressure.

"There, that should give us a few minutes. I don't want to hurt him, though. We went to a lot of trouble to get him. Wufei, what are you doing here?" He'd turned slightly. One of the room's three sets of neon lights had been shot, dangling from their holder. The other two cast a sickly glint on Quatre's pale face. He had a nasty bruise and a cut over one temple, with a trickle of blood running down the angle of his jaw, but he appeared otherwise unhurt. "Did you come with- I can't believe the Preventers are here already! That was fast. I only called them five minutes ago." Quatre glanced at his watch. Wufei absently noted the cell-phone still gripped in the boss's right hand and guessed that when Quatre had said he'd called for help, he had meant he'd forced the boss to do the honours at gun-point.

"We..." Wufei looked around. Most of the people present were dead or unconscious, but still he was cautious in his explanations. "We were captured and brought here. Heero and I. By a Syndicate mobster named Nash." Quatre's pupils dilated slightly but he gave no other sign of recognition. "We managed to escape though. Heero is checking for data, anything he can find."

"Hm. I hope he doesn't do anything...imprudent." Quatre looked worried. "Can you contact him?"

"No." Wufei sighed. The thugs they'd initially taken down hadn't possessed a cell phone and their own had been confiscated.

As if in answer to their thoughts..."Chang?" The familiar voice sounded from just outside the door.

"Yuy? You can come in, safe." Wufei poked his head around the corner of the protective U-bend and looked towards the door, surprised. "What are you doing here?"

Heero's eyes were flicking over every corner of the room. "I heard shots - Winner?!"

"Hello, Heero." Quatre had leaned over the boss again, checking his wound and his pupils. But he flashed the soldier a brilliant smile over his shoulder. "Glad you could join us. We need to defend this location for a few more minutes. The Preventers should be arriving soon."

"How would they know this address?" Wufei asked suspiciously.

Quatre grinned and gestured at the boss with his HK. "Well, I asked him for it, for show, but I didn't need to. I had a locator surgically inserted into my abdominal cavity a couple weeks back, when we were preparing for this op. We set up several redundancies in case I couldn't the information from-"

"Wonderful," Wufei ground out. "Any reason why you didn't tell us what was going down?"

"Security." Quatre shrugged. "Ah, thanks, Heero." The latter had ripped a shirt from one of the bodies and had applied a rough padding to the boss's shoulder. The man's eyes were half open but still rolled back in his skull. Heero frisked him, then moved him a bit so that they could go to the door while keeping an eye on him. Quatre came with them, his HK still loosely pointed at the boss. He glanced at his watch again.

"Well, if you're not with the rescue team...then we have a few minutes. This area is apparently off-limits to all but the boss, the sub-division commander Corazon, Nash, Vielle, and a few of their men. They're paranoid about leaks in their own forces. And I think...I should imagine that there might be some confusion in the ranks right now. And I bet their comms have mysteriously gone down, and someone has apparently tripped the motion detector on the outer perimeter fence. Although fortunately they've cut off that annoying alarm now..."

Quatre explained this all smoothly, though Wufei doubted he'd had more than a few coded words from 'Nash' before Trowa had left to sow the confusion, allowing Quatre to take out these men and capture the boss. A few words were probably all that was needed for the tactician. Even without those, he's probably able to follow Trowa's movements and tactics the same way I can follow Yuy's, Wufei guessed.

"So with any luck we'll be undisturbed for awhile. Why don't we tell each other what we're doing here?" Quatre concluded, looking at them curiously.

"What a wonderful idea," Wufei ground out. He glanced out the grimy window, where a dirty dawn was starting to taint the night. Men were moving, fairly calmly, from the fence and the gate back to the building and the hangars. He could still see a few people running though, and he thought he caught glances up at the fourth floor. He wasn't sure they weren't going to be disturbed. Surely someone on the second floor would have noticed the gunshots. The alarm would take some time to spread if someone had turned on the scrambler though...He took up position beside Heero, each on opposite sides of the door, and kept a close watch on the stairwell.

"You both know that Ops and every level of ESUN have been compromised," Quatre started to explain further, his eyes and HK on the boss's slumped form. Heero and Wufei exchanged a charged glance.

"We were aware of it," Wufei confirmed, acidly.

"This was obviously a serious problem, and Une did what she had to do to deal with it. She sent someone we know under very deep cover several months ago, to infiltrate the organization. But the Syndicate were being careful. Our spy couldn't get any kind of information about who was selling us out. So we decided -yes, I was in on this. Une wanted help from someone who could do this kind of job but who wasn't a Preventer," he added as Wufei looked at him sharply.

"And why, in the name of all the philosophers of the six dynasties, did you decide not to inform us of this operation?" Wufei uttered between clenched teeth.

"We couldn't take the risk. Of the entire ESUN and Preventer organization, there were four people aware of this operation. Me, Grecko, Une and...our undercover agent. We couldn't even communicate extensively between ourselves, much less find a way of bringing you two, or Duo, in." Wufei found himself nodding glumly. If Quatre had shown up at their doorstep, or if Une had talked to them in her office, and told them something was going on...with the monitoring devices listening to every word, it would have been Trowa's death warrant.

"Besides..." Quatre looked slightly embarrassed. "Erm, though you are both admirable agents, I understand that you're not exactly, well, let us say, infiltrators."

"Is that so." Wufei muttered.

"And they already knew who you were, so-"

"Go on." Heero said, conceding the point in the face of all evidence. "What are we doing here?"

"I have no idea." Quatre confessed, visibly puzzled. "As I said, communication between me, Une and- and the others was minimal. She may have decided to send you in- though how she managed that is beyond me...Or it might have been a mole-test."

"A what?" Heero glanced away from the door.

"We wanted him." Quatre waved a hand at the boss. "And his information, and, eventually, his colleagues. But we also really wanted to determine who was selling us out."

"Do you know who it is?" Wufei gripped his stolen Magnum, intensely interested in the answer.

"Several people." Quatre sighed. "When Une constituted the Preventers, she used men and women from old Romefeller and Alliance bureaucracies. She was careful but those organizations had been heavily compromised by the Syndicate. There was a war on, a criminal organisation was a minor concern to them...we inherited the results of their carelessness. There are dozens of moles, small timers, very discreet - each only giving the little bit of information they have access to, not taking any risks."

"They hacked into Ops security monitors." Wufei snapped. "They don't need moles, they-"

"Camera surveillance was a recent addition - thanks to this Nash person, among others." Quatre said smoothly. "Before, they had to rely on little bits of information from many different moles, which they'd collate together...typical Syndicate MO. They couldn't get massive details from the system this way - which is good, because it allowed us to keep at least one- one of our undercover operatives hidden. We...hoped."

For just a second, Quatre lost the remote calm of the tactician. Wufei could sympathize; when Trowa had gone undercover, they couldn't have known if he'd already been compromised or not. For months now, 'Nash' and little pieces of information on Trowa could have come together somewhere in the Syndicate, and the first thing Quatre would have known about it would be when he was called to identify his best friend's body at the morgue. Anger and heart-sick anxiety twisted Quatre's usually benign mask before he hid them, as expertly as Trowa could.

"But you both know the damage those moles were causing. They sold out your location to those terrorists in Berlin; warned that L3 criminal you were coming; and many other Agents have had their operations blown or lost their lives because of those...those traitors." Once more anger shone, ugly on the round curves of Quatre's face.

Then it was gone, replaced with a smile, and his eyes warmed with admiration. "We were rather helpless...until this absolutely wonderful woman came to Une with the break we needed!"

"Who?" Wufei blinked; had Sally or Lu been in on this too?

"Her name is Anthea Stenhelz." Quatre murmured with visible adoration, and Wufei nearly fell down. It had been a long, a very long night. He wasn't in the mood for any more astounding revelations, and this one was almost surreal.

"What?!" Heero barked, visibly just as taken aback.

"Anthea." Quatre glanced at them, as if vaguely surprised by their reaction. "You know her. She works in-"

"We know her." Heero ground out.

"That's right, I'm sorry." Quatre rubbed his bruised temple gingerly. "Of course you do, you were the ones who gave her the information that prompted her to look into the matter."

Gave her the information...?

Wufei, mind buzzing, remembered the ugly scene in Anthea's tiny cubicle of an office a while back. Heero, leaning over her desk as if he wanted to vault over it and grab her, snarling in uncharacteristic fury and waving the secret record Duo had photocopied for them, as if he were one second away from making her eat it. Anthea, shaking, her thin face twisted in anger and distress, papery skin pale, angular pink glasses askew, had been valiantly trying to defend herself and her procedures, her voice piping like that of a furious little mouse. And that was nothing to the way they'd torn into her when they'd come back from L3 with evidence of serious leaks. Ahh, good memories. Or so he had thought.

"Winner, start making sense, now! What the fucking hell does that bitch have anything to do with this?!"

"Wufei!" Quatre gasped, and glared at him reprovingly. "Anthea's performance was above and beyond the call of duty. When you and Heero gave her evidence of the leaks, she took it upon herself to trace them. In her own spare time, I might add, so as not to not arouse suspicion, and by herself, since she didn't know who had been compromised. Do you realize the kind of laborious tracking this entailed? It took her hundreds of hours, sleepless nights...fortunately she had help, or she could have had a nervous breakdown! Your supervisor, Mr Grecko, figured out what she was doing. Those two spent long hours together collating all the information they had, all the leaks they were aware of, who had access to what information...Actually, I suspect the time spent together wasn't all that onerous to them; I think a small romance may be blooming there." Quatre dimpled and Wufei refrained himself from gagging with considerable effort.

"So they figured out who the leak was?" Heero ground out, as if he was trying to move on and forget everything Quatre had just said.

"No, but they narrowed it down to very likely candidates, and gave this list to Une. Fortunately they did this all very discreetly - Grecko was aware of how badly compromised even Ops might be. Une then set up a series of tests-"

"Feeding information to those people they suspected might be moles, then seeing which bits trickled down to the Syndicate and which bits did not. Deducing who the traitors were from what was passed on," Wufei finished through clenched teeth. "Real information, so no-one would realize it was tests. Information like our address and-"

"What?! They broke into your house?" Quatre stared at them, shocked.

"Yes. Some time ago. They-" Wufei licked his lips, unwilling to just blurt out-

Heero suddenly moved, crouching, lifting his borrowed gun and squeezing off three shots. Screams from the stairwell - it sounded like two men. Sounds of bodies tumbling back down the stairs. Wufei crouched near the other doorjamb and kept an eye out as well. Trowa must be doing something to the troops below, sowing massive confusion in their ranks, because so far they'd been remarkably undisturbed.

"I think Une may have deliberately sent us here, in case you needed a hand, Winner. Our orders tonight came direct from her. She must have hoped we'd end up in the thick of things," Heero analyzed absently, his eyes and gun riveted on the stairwell. "I assume your location and presence here this week was another piece of entrapping information she fed some of the possible moles?"

"I have no idea!" Quatre replied brightly. "As I said, communication was minimal. I know I was supposed to come here this week and be bait. Get in here and do, well, this." Quatre nodded to the boss, who had come around though he still looked bleary. Wufei didn't bother to ask how Quatre had gotten loose. He was sure that, forewarned, and considered an easy target, the angelic-looking killer could have smuggled in any number of means of freeing himself and spreading havoc.

"I guess Une thought I might need backup," Quatre concluded. "Or she was testing some more moles...we'll find out eventually, she should be with the Preventers showing up right about now, if that is what I think it is."

They all recognized the noise of a chopper approaching.

Wufei let Heero guard the door and once more prudently approached one of the windows facing the entrance to the yard.

Dawn was reluctantly creeping over the industrial zone, complete with the wail of sirens in lieu of birdsong. A slight morning mist folded the flashing lights back in on themselves, a kaleidoscope of blurred colour. The chopper was a few blocks away still, apparently circling with a searchlight, looking for anyone who might have broken away early before the block was surrounded and cordoned off.

Men were scurrying around the yard, setting up lines of defence. Wufei tensed as Heero fired more shots from the door. Looked like someone was organizing the men and trying to find the boss. Would they fight it out or surrender? On the one hand, these weren't OZ troops ready to die for Treize or some cause. On the other hand, men like Vielle could expect a life-time in prison, and so would make sure there would be considerable resistance, maybe even try to hammer their way through the forces encircling them. Wufei bit his lip, quickly assessing the situation.


"Not good." Wufei answered without turning around. "A lot more men than I had thought."

"Several teams came together here, to protect the boss, and bring me in - and you too." Quatre pointed out thoughtfully.

"...I'd say...sixty or seventy men, if they have as many out back and reserves in the hangars." Wufei reported, carefully keeping out of full line of sight of any snipers in the yard or beyond.

"How many on our side?" Heero asked.

Wufei stared through the faint mist from the canal. "Looks like thirty. And some of those will be making sure no-one gets a pot-shot at Une."

"So few?" Quatre gasped.

"Our resources have been badly stretched recently. A lot of our teams are out in the field." Heero explained from the door. Wufei heard shouts from downstairs. It sounded like someone was trying to mount an assault on this room.

"And they couldn't have mobilized too many people without warning the moles." Quatre concluded. He sounded merely analytical, but Wufei was ready to bet he felt more concern than he showed. "The cost will be high, I'm afraid."

"No it won't be." Heero refuted matter-of-factly. He leaned forward cautiously and scooped up the FN P90 and three spare chargers from the bodies of the men Wufei had killed earlier.

"Not if we kill everyone from here to the ground floor." Wufeis agreed as he turned from the window and also scooped up a rifle and a pack of ammo from the floor. He slipped the latter into his belt and headed towards the door. "If we attack them from the rear, that will disorganize them considerably."

Heero turned from his post to measure him with a glance. Then his eyes twitched towards Quatre.

"Winner can hold this position by himself." Wufei answered the unspoken objection calmly, chambering the next cartridge.

A minimal nod was the only agreement he expected or got. Entire strategies unfolded, discussed with a flick of an eye or a movement of a weapon. Something in Wufei started to sing, with excitement and the sheer rightness of it. Clear and sharp as the edge of a knife.

"I am quite capable of holding this area by myself. That was the original plan." Quatre, lagging a bit behind the unspoken planning, finally put in.

"How were you planning on getting out? With him?" Wufei turned towards his friend and jerked his chin at the boss, fully awake now and glaring at them now in a mixture of pain, anxiety and frustrated defiance.

"I gave them my location in the building when I called. A taskforce should evacuate him." Quatre put away his HK. He quickly went up to the boss and secured his hands with the sleeves of the man's coat, then used his own sports jacket as a crude blindfold. The boss started to swear and threaten, harsh words abruptly interrupted as Quatre used the sleeves of the jacket to calmly gag him, unruffled as if he did this on a regular basis.

"They should be landing on the roof with the chopper." Quatre continued, standing smoothly and taking his HK out of his belt again. "Once the landing site is clear."

Once more the partners exchanged glances.

"I'll clear the roof." Wufei muttered a touch sullenly. He wanted to go with Heero on the main assault of the enemy holed up in the house, to break the back of their resistance before the Preventers had to run that gauntlet. And he wanted to watch his partner's back. But the mission came first. "I'll join you as soon as the taskforce lands. Maybe you should just hole up here until I -" One look at Heero's set face told him to forget that brilliant idea.

"Don't go shooting up everything at random." Wufei grumbled in resignation, wondering what he could say to convince Heero to be cautious and knowing there probably wasn't anything. "Someone might get caught in the crossfire."

Heero glanced at Quatre, who'd understood this part of the conversation just fine.

"You're clear to do as much damage as you want." Quatre outlined deliberately, eyes piercing. "No-one you're likely to meet deserves to live." Then Quatre must have realized that, apart from telling them that they were not likely to shoot Trowa accidentally, his words had another, more immediate and decidedly unpleasant meaning. For all that he was an efficient tactician and a strong fighter, Quatre was not a bloodthirsty or merciless killer. "Erm...I meant-"

"We know what you meant." Wufei reassured him. Though at this point, so heavily outnumbered, the kid gloves were just going to have to come off. Wufei caught sight of Heero checking the machine gun. Well, Wufei's kid gloves were going to come off. He didn't think Heero had ever owned a pair.

A final glance between the two partners. Then Wufei smoothly stepped out into the hallway while Heero crouched and started to fire at the stairwell with the SMG.

They made it to the stairwell without any problems. Heero glared at Wufei to get going - the iron stairs to the rooftop access were behind them. Wufei glared right back. Not before he'd helped Heero clear out a defensible position downstairs. So many years on the edge had sharpened Wufei's warrior instincts. He could almost feel armed men moving around the floor below them, getting into position, ready to shoot at anybody coming down the steps.

Heero broke the contest of wills with a reluctant shrug of assent, then leapt down the stairs, almost catching Wufei off guard, as well as the men waiting for them. Wufei cursed in a way that would have made Maxwell proud and followed, picking off the two armed men who'd stood up from behind a fallen desk in the big open area, aiming at his partner.

The FN hacking out its deadly hail, Heero dodged, jumped and darted through a doorway at the bottom of the stairs, throwing himself on the ground and to one side. Wufei was a second behind him, crouching behind the protection of the doorjamb, trusting his partner to 'clean out' the room the same way Heero trusted Wufei to watch his back while he did so. Wufei's rifle punched two fat holes through the thin plastic of a few cubicle partitions that had been left in the big office area. He didn't wing anybody but from the shouts of alarm and the sudden scuffle as men crawled back to safer positions, he'd put the fear of ex-pilots and Preventers into them.

The SMG had fired just one round behind his back - Wufei had absently noted the noise of a body propelled against a wall by the force of the strafe, and the sound of a window breaking. Then he felt Heero approach him cautiously, moving around Bruckheim's body which Wufei had dropped there earlier.

"Go!" Heero hissed as he crouched by the other side of the door. A bullet bit plaster and the flimsy inner partition near his head. He didn't even blink.

Wufei groused and glared, but he went, waiting for Heero to let loose a volley from the FN and darting back up the stairs, towards the steps leading to the roof. The crashing staccato of the submachine gun accompanied him all the way up to the small door at the uppermost flight of the stairs.

He wasn't in the best of moods when he kicked the door open. Three people, at the edge of the roof. Shooting at the Preventers below. Another joining them - they'd used the fire-escape to get up to the roof.

They turned - the one on the fire-escape died immediately, catapulted over the handrail with a rifle shot. Another fired wildly. Wufei didn't even bother to move as he drew the pistol from his belt and shot him twice automatically, chest and head. Then he had to dodge as another hostile - a woman, long hair catching on a cheap flack jacket - fired at him with much better aim than her erstwhile companion. He smoothly stepped around the little concrete building which held the door to the roof and the end of the stairwell. Bullets spat as they hit the sidings as he reloaded the rifle.

The two remaining hostiles shouted at each other - and then just shouted, in alarm; the heavy beat of the approaching chopper drowned out their voices. Wufei walked around his defence and shot them both while they were gaping upwards. He hit their two jackets deliberately, pitching them back. The man fell with a sickened grunt, dropping his gun and clasping his ribs. The woman kept a hand on her sniper rifle but, faced with the twin muzzles of Wufei's gun and twelve-gauge, dropped it reluctantly and, with a groan of pain, sank back to the ground.

The chopper - a very light model, three-seater only, to insure the roof bore the weight - landed with a wash of wind and a furious noise. Wufei crouched and protected his eyes from the grit being blown up by the rotor, while keeping an eye on the last two hostiles. He was ready to throw down his own weapons, in case the men in the chopper didn't recognize him. But he needn't have worried.

Two people jumped out, leaving the pilot in his cockpit. One - Louis Armand, an excellent operative, Wufei noted with relief - ran towards the hostiles, holding them in his sights as he approached. The other man trotted towards Wufei.

"Thank god you're alright!" Even shouting above the noise of the helicopter's engine, Foxwood's relief was as audible as his slight London accent.

"Sam." Wufei nodded politely, as if they'd met at one of Une's office parties. He saw Foxwood roll his eyes and grin briefly, but then Wufei was being carefully examined.

"Where's Heero?" Foxwood's voice was suddenly taut over the noise of the slowing rotors.

"Downstairs. I need to go back him up." Wufei walked towards the door, keeping his head down.

"Okay. How's the floor beneath- no, don't tell me. Cleaned out." Sam was still shouting, though the noise was cut down when they closed the door access behind them.

"We didn't check, but there should only be Winner and your target, unless they got around Yuy." Which wouldn't have happened, Wufei thought fiercely. Not in a hundred years.

"Good. Can you cover me for a bit? I'll go fetch the git and then you can go."

"Okay," Wufei answered reluctantly. He went down the stairs ahead of Foxwood and cast a careful eye over what was visible of the fourth floor.

"I thought you didn't do this 'active shit' anymore." Wufei whispered, hearing Foxwood move up behind him and crouch stiffly. The old copper was holding his MP Heckler as if he was never going to let it go again, for all the administrative jobs in the world.

"Yeah, well, you know how thin we were stretched. Even the Lady's out there with that custom Viper of hers. She didn't tell me, Chang." The change of subject was abrupt and the words bitten out. "I wouldn't have sent you and Yuy in blind if I'd-"

"I know, Sam. We were okay. Someone was watching out for us."

"Yeah, so Une made me understand. I'm still fucking mad though," Sam growled. He was a cop, not a soldier. He didn't put any truck with the notion of sacrificing pawns to win the game. He just wanted, if at all possible, for 'his girls and boys' to do their duty but come back alive and enjoy their pension one day.

"Go get the target," Wufei murmured. "I'll make sure no-one comes up the stairs, or from the other rooms." They'd not had time to clean out this floor. He kept a careful eye on the doors and stairwell as Foxwood trotted towards the front office.

Five minutes later Sam was back, dragging the boss with him. He was muttering under his breath - reading the filth his rights, apparently, a habit Sam couldn't rid himself of even though the Preventers' mandate didn't require it. Wufei carefully covered their trip back to the chopper, watching with cold satisfaction as the man, whose name he still didn't know, baulked; the boss had realized he was going to be spirited away from the fight, and that whatever his men did, he was well and truly caught. Justice, Wufei had learned, was a nuanced and relative thing, not the absolute that Meiran had believed it to be, and he had valiantly tried to live for once. But that didn't mean it wasn't real; Wufei felt its shape and weight as he watched the criminal get dragged off by Sam despite his futile resistance. Foxwood shoved the boss into the helicopter, gun planted in his side, followed him and closed the door. Wufei, Armand and the last two hostiles ducked their heads as the blades caught and lifted it away.

Wufei didn't wait to see what Armand might want him to do. He had his duty. First, check that Quatre didn't need him to do anything crucial and mission-related, and it better be fucking important if he did. Then go see if Heero was okay. There hadn't been any more shots from downstairs while he waited for Sam, so Heero must have finished there and moved on. The noise from the line of resistance outside covered any signs of where his partner might be further down in the building.

He stopped suddenly, all senses alert. There'd been- he gripped his gun. The sound he'd heard was so faint he couldn't identify it but his instincts were telling him it was out of place, and that meant danger. It had come from the room where Quatre had taken down his captors and held the boss. A prickle of worry walked up Wufei's spine. He ghosted forward, ears pricked. Quatre should be in there alone. Wufei's senses were telling him this wasn't the case, and he prayed to his ancestors that he wasn't just about to lose a friend.

A quick glance - dart forward and back again to avoid any bullets - and Wufei leaned back against the wall, staring at the dirty paint on the other side of the large hallway, eyes very wide.

Oh. Okay.

Though he really didn't want it to, the brief image - Quatre, perfectly healthy, pinning Trowa to the far wall in a desperate kiss - kept dancing in front of his eyes.

Well. Well! No surprise there. He'd seen that one coming a mile away. Hell, he'd been expecting that to happen all during the war, but then that messy bit with Zero, and circumstances, and the solid friendship and mutual reliance that had sprung up between Quatre and Trowa, and Duo as well, while on Peacemillion...Wufei had felt - without paying all that much attention to things - that it had cooled off the physical aspect of- But apparently the end of the war had been the start of something else...

"I've got to go." Trowa spoke in a whisper, as if the habit of being hidden still clung to him.

"Yes." Quatre's voice was calm and matter of fact. But the next words weren't. They were tight with repressed emotion, and muffled. "Take. Care."

"Oof. Careful. I might need that spine you're squeezing."

There was something like a miserable chuckle from Quatre. "You sound like Duo."

"I wonder why." Then the voice dropped to a low whisper and Wufei, suddenly and to his absolute horror, realized he was spying on his friends in a moment of intimacy. "I'll be seeing you a few weeks. And I'll be careful-"

"No, you won't." Quatre sighed. "But...go. Before I change my mind and keep you here."

"No, you won't." Trowa countered softly. There was the sound of another embrace and Wufei crept away in absolute silence, back towards the stairs. This was really none of his business. Okay, it had been unwise for Trowa to come check on Quatre when he should be getting out. For that matter, Une probably expected Quatre to be on that helicopter instead of Sam, so he wouldn't get accidentally shot by the Preventers. But...he wasn't about to judge. If they'd managed to find something- some tenderness and comfort between them...well, he supposed he was happy for them. He told himself, ignoring the faint bitter taste of that thought. No matter. He should leave them to it. And...he didn't want to see Trowa. Eventually it wouldn't be a problem, once he'd meditated and accepted the inevitable but right now...

Besides, he needed to make sure someone was watching that idiot partner of his, since he'd apparently gone and stormed the rest of the building all by his stupid self!

He counted six incapacitated bodies on the floor below, plus a lot of bullet holes in the walls. Many were concentrated around the door where he'd left Heero crouching for protection, but he saw no traces of blood there. Every window had been shot out, and the echoes of distant battle sounded from below, but the dust and faint fumes of cordite hung in the air muffled in the enshrouding silence found in cemeteries. Wufei gripped his weapons and ran on - vaguely wondering how Trowa had gotten up here and how he counted on getting out again. But with Trowa's acrobatic skills and talents of making his lanky frame invisible, he'd have no problems. Wufei, in contrast, would probably have to fight his way out the hard way.

No signs of his partner on the third and second floor - well, plenty of signs actually, of the fallen body variety, but no annoying, suicidal, won't-wait-for-no-backup partner. There was no one on the ground floor. Apparently the fight had been carried to the compound outside. Wufei remembered the large area strewn with junk and clenched his teeth. It was not going to be fun, hunting the bastards out from that area, and even a cornered hare bit hard, as the saying from his ancestors' homeland went.

Wufei quickly resigned himself to not finding Heero in the chaos. Instead, he found Sunil and Gills, two of the special ops agents he knew, and he stuck by them to avoid getting shot by his own side. It was not an irony he would have appreciated.

Shrugging Sunil's borrowed Preventer jacket over his more slender frame, he inched around the upside-down body of a later-day ChevyFusion. He quickly glanced through the window of the garage then pulled back. It was at the back of the yard, a big brick building where the haulage company used to keep its machinery, and the present day criminals kept their exit vehicles. He hoped that Trowa had found a better way out than this - the garage and indeed the whole yard had been as efficiently sealed as the Preventers' meagre forces could manage.

Logic said the Preventers should wait until the thugs realized there was no way out and surrendered. A few had already come bolting out the back door, hands in the air, to be arrested by regular agents at the gate. Wufei should really wait but he'd seen Vielle head into the garage just as he rejoined Sunil and Gills, and that was one man he definitely did not want escaping.

Wufei inched closer - then froze, instinct kicking in on hearing a horrified scream of protest from within the-

A flash of light through the windows and doors - and the walls of the garage suddenly bowed out as if heaving a deep sigh before giving up and resigning itself to gravity. Wufei, flung to the garbage-strewn ground by the concussive blast, saw the roof dangle for a seemingly eternal second before suddenly collapsing in on the wreckage soundlessly. Not soundlessly - Wufei swore weakly, his words muffled in his ears, and shook his head. He was peppered with fragments of wood, glass and concrete, and his ears felt about as healthy as the garage.

Gills helped him to his feet then walked Sunil, who'd been swiped in the knee by a bit of fallen wreckage, away from the remains. Behind them, a few Preventers in flame-retardant gear were doing their best for whatever survivors they could hope to find. None, Wufei surmised, pretty familiar with explosions and their consequences by now. Please, eternal ones, let Trowa have chosen another route...Vielle must have realized he was cornered. Either he'd been trying something clever and mishandled the explosives, or he'd taken the easy way out. Somehow, he doubted the piece of shit had the backbone for that last option...

Gills left him when it was obvious that Wufei was only shaken and recovering quickly, and walked his partner from the battlefield. The explosion had blown away whatever little fight there was left out of the criminals. Only a few more pockets of resistance, heralded by scattered shots, remained. Wufei glanced over at the gates to the compound as a flash of gold caught his eyes. Winner should really learn to cover that hair of his, Wufei grumbled internally. The former Sandrock pilot was near the armoured command car, talking to Une and Grecko. Wufei was just glad not to see Anthea hanging around. Damn, he and Heero had cowed the bitch for awhile, but now she was going to be insufferable. He watched morosely as Une, Quatre and Grecko got into the car and drove off. Probably going to explain all this fuss and mess in the heart of ESUN territory to the members of that particular organisation. Quatre's diplomatic abilities would definitely be called upon. Wufei turned again, looking for something else to do, but no-one seemed to have any need for him at that point.

He saw Heero from a distance, back turned towards him, and a small knot of tension he hadn't wanted to acknowledge suddenly loosened.

Well, there you had it. It had been circling him like a vulture all evening - hell, since they had gotten back from L3 where he'd had that little glimpse of...something. He could keep his head stuck in the sand or he could admit that-...that every time this past month that Heero and he had split up to fight, having his partner out of his sight had felt like a small piece of barbed wire slowly tightening in his gut.

He'd been trying to convince himself that it was just normal worry for Yuy, the man who brought out the best in him. As Heero's injury in Berlin had shown, either of them could get killed tomorrow, and then the partnership would end. It was normal to feel tense about the possibility of change, of losing what he had, he told himself repeatedly, and knew that he was lying, just a little bit.

He'd disembowel himself before he let Heero catch even the slightest hint of any of this; that was one fairly clear indication that this reaction was probably a bit outside the bounds of the arrangement they had.

Wufei stayed where he was, forty feet behind Heero. His eyes stayed fixed on his partner's strong back as he took stock, and he mercilessly analysed his own actions over the past few hours - how he'd cleared the roof, covered for Sam, went to check on Quatre first...He felt a measure of cold relief in concluding that a bit of worrying hadn't compromised his ability to operate as an agent, or as Heero's partner.

Heero was ordering the Preventers around and they were obeying him as if he were God. Wufei felt a little smile cross his features and quickly removed it. His partner wasn't hindered by anything as messy as...sentimentality or whatever. He was doing his job. For all he knew, Wufei was one of the bodies being dragged out of the burning wreck of a garage, but he wasn't even looking around to check. The man was dedicated, so focused. Wufei found a distant pride in that, cold and hard as ice, but pride nonetheless.

A young cadet neared Heero as if afraid of being bitten, and asked him a question. Heero glanced at his timid accoster, and then he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Wufei without even looking around. The cadet followed his gesture and nodded, then sped towards a startled and slightly confused Wufei. Oh, apparently Heero had seen him. When had he checked-...? Trust the perfect soldier not to miss anything. Or maybe he'd had Dr J put eyes in the back of his head. That would explain a lot. The cadet's arrival interrupted Wufei's internal grumbling.

"Agent Chang?" The cadet looked at him curiously, as if wondering how someone a year or two younger than himself could actually have earned that title. He hadn't looked at Heero with such insolence.

The cadet suddenly wilted as Wufei turned towards him slowly like a dragon contemplating lunch.

"Yes?" Wufei ground out. He did not need this newbie to add to his annoyance tonight.

"Mr Winner asked me to make sure you got this," the man yelped, thrust something into Wufei's hands, and ran off to the safer grounds of the battlefield.

Wufei glanced down at what he'd been given. It was a rumpled piece of paper, a torn print-out of a directory and file paths. And the root user name and password. Wufei smoothed it out slowly. The folder containing the files listed was titled surv0105. The files were in vid record format. Wufei swallowed painfully, and read the words scribbled across the bottom of the half-page. They were hurried but still graceful, Quatre's loose, flowing script.

'Wufei, someone gave me this for you. You or Heero can use this access. Do it in the next hour, before the system is impounded for evidence. Delete those files you think appropriate.

'Both silence and words are the gifts of friends. Please accept whichever you need, whenever you need them.


Several thoughts wound their way through Wufei's mind. The risk, for Trowa to have gotten this information - 'Nash' would not have had access to the root user name and password...the fact that Trowa would never, ever tell Quatre about- about what he'd seen on that video feed, but that Quatre had obviously already been aware of it. And had said nothing. But had let Wufei know that he knew. The thought of his friends, breaking the Preventer chain of evidence in true ex-terrorist, 'above the law' fashion, for their sakes. No. More precisely, as Trowa - and Quatre - had given this to him...for his sake. And they were leaving him the choice of informing Heero of what he might do, or not. That was...a lot to think about. He would be meditating about all the edges on this startling gift in the days to come.

But one fact he didn't have to think about, because it was there like an offered hand as he struggled to rise up from a blow that had knocked him to the ground. His friends knew. In a certain measure, it appeared they...understood the complexities of the arrangement. And even if they didn't, they were not about to judge, or even talk about it, unless he needed them to.

...A gift of friends...

Would he tell Heero? About the files? His partner might not want to do anything illegal to hide something which he probably saw no reason to worry about.

His partner might ask him why this disturbed Wufei so much...

Wufei quickly folded the paper and slipped it into his pocket as he noticed Heero walking towards him; he was looking around, making sure there was nothing left to do.

In his mind's eye, the image of his partner was, as always, tinged with the memory of that hard, emotionless sixteen-year-old killer, staring at Wufei coldly and explaining that the other pilots did not posses the emotional detachment necessary to see sex as a need to relieve, a purely physical problem. Wufei remembered agreeing.

Quatre and Trowa embraced in his mind, their worry for the other obvious. Trowa had taken a big risk, coming back to check on Quatre. Quatre had taken a risk sticking around for him. They'd both taken risks, particularly Trowa, in getting Wufei this information.

Heero was right; affection, emotions, influenced your decisions, overrode the cold, hard rules of necessity. Wufei baulked at ever following Trowa and Quatre down that road; Heero would be appalled if he thought Wufei would take such risks and endanger the mission. Those times during the war, Wufei recalled, Heero had looked at him, weighed him...tested him, even, on some occasions, to ensure that Wufei kept the warrior's edge that made him a valuable partner as well as adequate sex relief. It didn't take much imagination to guess how Heero might react.

No...better not go there...

Heero examined him quickly as he approached, checking for injuries. Wufei nodded - after checking Heero himself, since the man could be missing a leg and wouldn't even ask for a band-aid until the mission was over - and then he turned to examine the battlefield once more. Counting the bodies, the greater number of men who'd surrendered and were being arrested.

He glanced back at Heero to comment, and found his partner still checking him over.

"Are you...alright?"

Wufei blinked at the uncharacteristic tone and hesitation in Heero's voice, and glanced quickly down at himself. Hell, maybe he was the one missing a limb and he hadn't noticed in the adrenaline rush. Sunil's borrowed jacket looked like it had been through a wash and rinse cycle with a couple of razor blades, and shrapnel had sliced up his coat and his skin beneath, but nothing serious, or missing that he could see. He glanced up to realize that Heero's measuring stare was concentrating on his face, and Wufei instinctively passed a hand over it.

"What? Do I have blood on my nose?"

Heero just stared. Wufei remembered him staring this way back in the room where they'd been captured, after they'd killed their guards. As if Heero was trying to ask him if he was injured without insulting him or calling his word into doubt.

"You have a few cuts." Heero finally said. His hand lifted towards Wufei, interrupted its movement halfway - as Wufei stared at it, wide-eyed - and then touched Heero's face instead, brushing the cheekbone and forehead. "Here and here."

"Oh. Stitches?"

"No, probably not."

Well who gives a shit, then, Wufei thought, slightly bewildered. The way Heero had been acting, he'd assumed half his face had been accidentally melted away by the explosion.

Heero looked at him carefully, then appeared to relax. An eyebrow lifted laconically. "You look okay actually."

"There were only four people on the roof. And you went and took out everybody else." Wufei added acidly. "These scratches are from the garage, I was nearby."

"I meant-" Heero shrugged. "Mission successful." He'd turned abruptly as if dismissing the subject, to Wufei's obscure relief.

"Yes." Wufei snuck a glance at his partner's profile as Heero surveilled the wreckage, looking satisfied.

This was what he had. And it was probably for the best. He had chosen to live his life for strength, for perfection, for this arrangement. This was what he had and he wouldn't lose it because of some...weakness of his, some vague want. The time on L3 would be ignored.

"It was nice of you to leave a few of them for your colleagues." He added, dryly. "They did come all this way after all."

Heero's lips twitched. "Hn. How about you? Are you still restless?"

"No, I think I worked out some of my aggression." Wufei answered sarcastically.

He expected it might become a regular thing; to worry just a bit when Heero went charging recklessly into battle; to feel short-tempered when he had too much time to himself, and the cold, hard edge of his chosen life pressed against him. But he was a warrior, he could keep himself under control, in the heat of battle or through meditation. Eventually this weakness would die, and Heero never need know.

"I will definitely whip your ass in a sword-fight tomorrow." He added pleasantly.

Heero merely snorted and walked towards Une. Wufei followed contentedly, fiddling with the piece of paper in his pocket. He'd lose Heero for a few minutes, get hold of a terminal and get rid of a few files. He couldn't count on Sally and the others to be as discreet as Trowa and Quatre, and he wasn't interested in friendly teasing or discussions about relationships that didn't exist.

He had all that he wanted, he told himself firmly.

And knew he was lying. Just a little bit. But he could live with that.

Find more of Maldoror at Maldoror's Fan Fiction.

On to part twenty-seven. Back to part twenty-five.