"Even the odds..ne?"
Heero glanced curiously at his partner at the murmured words. "What?"
"Mm." Trowa shook his head, looking over the paper in his hands without much hope. "Nothing. Something Duo said."
Heero snorted, obviously dismissing it as another of the braided pilot's warped jokes, and returned his attention to the window, eyes scanning the yard outside for the security guard making his half-hearted rounds. Their attempts to gain information on students had been thwarted earlier that day by a stone-faced Vice Principal who'd told them firmly that the records were private. He'd left them with little choice but to find the information another way.
Trowa could not seem to concentrate on the roster in his hands. His mind kept replaying the strange conversation with Duo, his mind playing with the puzzle like a kitten with a ball of string. Three boys. Not an even number. 01, 03, 05. All odd numbers. Added together-- still an odd number. Duo had said he was missing a number. How could he be missing a number? Three boys, three odd code numbers. What other number was there--
"Chang-" The name came out in a breathy whisper of surprise.
Heero's eyes flicked from the window and landed on the paper. For the first time in weeks he looked more alert and focused. "Where?" he demanded.
Trowa pointed in triumph. "He wasn't up here with the C's," he murmured. "He's down here, with the transfer students because he enrolled in the middle of a semester..." he frowned, running his finger across the typed name, 'Chang Wufei'. "Someone scratched it out," he mused, indicating the red line someone had run through the text. He returned his attention to the main roster. "There's a couple other students crossed out." He stared at the names for a moment, thinking to himself. He could sense Heero's tension and frustration. So close, yet so far.
Placing the papers back in the file cabinet exactly how he'd found them, he slid the drawer shut and began opening the ones below it, rifling through the folders. Heero's eyes darted from him to the window before he edged closer, a small frown tugging at his mouth. "What are you looking for?"
Heero had probably never gone to a school, Trowa reminded himself as he tugged free the folder he was looking for and offered his partner a reassuring glance over his shoulder. Trowa himself had attended a public school for a few years, before he'd been old and strong enough to really start helping the mercenaries. He still remembered the secret surprise he felt when the rough, seemingly callous men that had taken him in had acted so disappointed at his choice to disregard an education in favor of menial labor and weapons tactics.
Trowa opened the folder and flipped through the papers within until he found the one he was searching for. Heero paused in his scrutiny of the moonlit lawn outside when his friend held up a document for his inspection. "I thought so," Trowa said quietly as Heero reached out and took it from him to read. "The students crossed out on the list no longer attend the school. Drop-outs, failures, arrests, transfers, and the like." He reached over Heero's shoulder to point out the information by Wufei's name. "It says here he left the school because of a family emergency."
"Wufei has no family," Heero grunted, eyes skimming to the bottom of the page. "The contact information must be fake as well."
"L3," Trowa confirmed. He gave a barely audible sigh and returned the paper to its folder. Heero turned his attention back on the window with a grunt. Trowa put the folder away and shut the drawer with a squeal of rusty metal that made them both tense and freeze. After several moments, when there was no sound from the hall, he carefully pushed the drawer the rest of the way closed and tested the handle, making sure it had locked automatically. He retrieved the picks he'd used to unlock the cabinet and slid them back into his pocket, nodding silently Heero's way. They'd gotten what they'd come for. At least they knew Wufei was no longer on the colony, and they could move their search on to the next. Heero opened the window and glanced around, checking for the lazy security guard, before slinging a leg over the sill. The university's office was located on the second floor, but it was a short enough fall for the both of them. The tree growing along the wall had made their ascent simple enough, but an escape would be quicker with a freefall.
Heero had just started to lean forward to make the leap when the lights flashed on.
Heero pivoted on the sill, hand flying to the small of his back where his gun was. Trowa had already turned, hands up in the air, to face their ambusher. He kept his face blank and calm, carefully hiding his surprise. How had someone managed to sneak up on them? They'd left the door open a crack so they would be able to hear an approach... yet this man had managed to come through the door without them hearing or sensing his appearance. The few seconds they had presented their backs to the door had been enough for someone to come in-- but certainly no ordinary security guard.
"It didn't hit me until you two had already left the restaurant," the dark-haired man drawled, leaning against the wall by the lightswitch, arms crossed as he gazed at the both of them with smug amusement. He was enjoying the fact that he'd caught them off guard. "When I realized who you were, I figured you would come here."
"You're that teacher," Heero said flatly, eyes narrowing suspiciously.
Trowa's brow arched, and he flicked his partner a glance as he dropped his hands by his sides. He could think of only two other men who had the instincts and the talent to sneak up on either of them. One of them was back on L4 tending to a certain blond empath.
The other was currently missing.
Trowa studied the man before him in silence, eyes starting to narrow in a growing suspicion. The man was Asian, possibly chinese. He'd snuck up on them as silently as an assassin-- or someone trained in martial arts. And hadn't the students said he'd been related to a "Chang"..?
The professor seemed to read his expression correctly, and his smirk widened, though it looked a little bitter to Trowa. "You're looking for him," he said shortly. It wasn't a question. "You're looking for Wufei."
Heero stiffened in surprise, his hand still behind his back, gripping the butt of his gun.
"Bai Ling." The man straightened abruptly, cutting off Trowa's quiet inquiry. "Wufei's cousin, that's right. Distant cousin, anyway." He snorted, shaking his head as he looked from one boy to the other with a touch of disbelief to his eyes. "You have to be Gundam pilots. And I think I'm starting to get an idea about what was bothering Wufei so much." He sneered. "You're wasting your time. You're the reason he came here, and you're the reason he left. He must have known you were coming."
Trowa's mouth tightened. "Those documents say he left almost three weeks ago. We've only been searching for him for a couple of weeks."
Heero's eyes bore into the professor like lasers. "You're lying," he intoned in an unfriendly voice that had made bigger men quail.
Bai Ling scowled darkly at them, hesitating. Trowa recognized the expression on his face. Ling's eyes were telling him he was talking to two skinny teenage boys. But his instincts as a fighter were telling him he had just put himself in a room with two dangerous killers. As an adult confident in his own fighting ability, he was having difficulty deciding which instincts to obey. Trowa had seen the same look of confusion and anger on countless OZ soldiers.
Trowa began to circle him slowly, eyeing him from under hooded eyes. "Why did he leave?" he demanded calmly. "Where was he going? I think you know."
"I don't know where he is," the man growled, turning to glare at him. "Even if I did, what makes you think I'd tell you? I didn't lie about why he came here. I didn't realize what it was then, but now that you're here, I can put two and two together. Some of the things he said-- and didn't say --are beginning to make a little more sense."
Heero had slid from the window as smoothly and silently as a jungle cat, his entire focus directed on the man by the door. He dropped his hand from his gun. Trowa, observing this from the corner of his eye, judged that Heero had decided this man was not a threat. He stopped circling the other man, leaving Bai Ling trapped between the two of them, with Trowa blocking his way to the door.
Bai Ling seemed unconcerned as he arched a brow Trowa's way. "You don't look too surprised," he noted. "Did you drive him away? You're regretting it now, aren't you?" His sneer had a shadow of pain, but he was taking his pain out on them. "Find another whore for yourselves, Wufei's not for you. I won't let you hurt him again."
Heero didn't recognize the words as a barely veiled threat-- an attempt to protect. He only heard the harsh tone and that word. He was across the room in a flash, a hand wrapping around the pale throat. Bai Ling looked startled for all of two seconds, then he bared his teeth in a condescending smile. Whatever derogatory comment he was about to say concerning the obvious fact that a small wiry boy ten years his junior had just had the gall to touch him in a threatening manner, was destroyed as his feet left the ground and he was slammed against a wall. Arrogant amusement was washed away by shock and the first light of fear in dark eyes as he reached up to claw at the hand around his throat. He managed to utter a strangled protest, huge eyes shooting frantically from the stone-eyed boy pinning him to the wall with terrifying ease, to the unflinching gaze of the taller pilot a few feet away.
"I don't think he meant to bad-mouth Wufei," Trowa murmured to his partner, still gazing calmly up at the gasping professor. "Though I am beginning to suspect you are the reason Wufei left this colony. I suggest you tell us what happened."
"Tell.. him... to let...go of me," Bai Ling gasped. He reached up to find the nerve on Heero's arm in an attempt to forcibly remove the grip. Heero's free hand shot out like a snake, seizing the offending arm by the wrist and twisting it cruelly. Bai Ling gave a hoarse scream of pain.
"Let him go," Trowa murmured. "He'll tell us what happened to Wufei."
Heero slowly released the older man, taking a step back when Bai Ling sagged against the wall, cradling his aching arm and panting for breath. He lifted his chin to glare at the both of them, though his fury was tempered by wary respect. "Right, I get it," he muttered sourly. "I guess the rumors about the Gundam pilots have some truth to them. I don't know where Wufei went, and that's the truth. He didn't even tell me he was leaving; I came home and all his things were gone. No note, not even a phone number. I haven't heard from him since. All I know is he contacted the office at some point to tell them he'd had a 'family emergency' and had to leave. That's all I know."
"Why did he leave?" Heero demanded, voice as cold and unyielding as iron.
Bai Ling hesitated, glancing towards him a little warily. "..We got into an argument," he said at last. "It's private. Anyway, we didn't get to talk it out. Blows were exchanged. My little cousin actually managed to floor me.." The faintest hint of a smile, both rueful and proud, flickered and was gone again. "By the time I got home, like I said, he'd already moved out. He's always been a somewhat tempermental little bastard."
Trowa's facial expression never changed. "You have no idea where he might have gone?"
"You would probably know better than I would," Bai Ling retorted. He sighed suddenly, running his hand fretfully through his hair. "You could ask that woman," he muttered after a moment.
"Woman?" Trowa repeated, nonplussed.
"I don't know her name," Bai Ling admitted. "It's not even much to go off of, but..." He shrugged. "He must have gotten an e-mail or something. I walked in on him while he was at the computer a few weeks back. He was muttering something about stupid weak women and their pig-headedness." He cocked his head. "Anyway, when I asked about it, he didn't give me any clear answer. He just said it was an old acquaintance offering him a job that he wasn't interested in. He made her sound like a pretty stubborn chick. Sound like anyone you might know?"
The two pilots exchanged a quick, knowing glance.
"Aa," Trowa murmured at last. "We might."
Sally Po rubbed her temples in an attempt to forestall a headache. The boy standing before her glared insolently, just daring her to question his methods. Nearby, two others leaned on their rifles and watched out of the corner of their eyes. They knew what was coming. "Might I remind you, Wufei," she said tactfully, "that while we don't officially work for any form of the government, and therefore don't technically follow their laws, using brutality to question someone is still frowned upon by civilized people."
"Brutality?" Wufei repeated, looking offended. He placed a palm on the crate that served as her field desk and leaned in slightly to glare into her eyes. "I did not beat the truth out of him," he reminded her in clipped tones. "He started talking of his own free will. I didn't hurt him."
"Terror is another form of brutality," Sally murmured. "Even if you might not have gone through with what you told him you'd do to him."
Wufei snorted, straightening abruptly and crossing his arms over his chest. He was impatient to get the meeting over with; he considered it a waste of his time. And he wasn't making Sally's job any easier. "You can't lecture me for something I didn't do," he snapped. "I didn't hurt the coward. I barely touched him."
Sally clasped her hands together and gazed up at him steadily. "You grabbed him by the face and told him in excrutiating detail the many ways a man can be killed with just a piece of twine and a pocketknife. You enlightened all in hearing range. But your job is not to educate suspects-"
"'Suspects'," Wufei snorted derisively.
"-on methods of murder," Sally continued as if he hadn't spoken. "By the way, the man who had to mop up the man's urine is not happy with you."
Wufei scowled. "It worked, didn't it?" he pointed out. "He confessed everything and saved all of us a lot of time."
True. Two minutes- that was a record. Not that Sally was about to admit to this. "I think you should stick to the stake-outs and the retrieval of the suspects from now on, Wufei," she said firmly. "Believe it or not, I have someone to answer to, as well. And we have to keep a low profile. We can't risk your impatience and bad temper causing you to fly off the handle when dealing with these suspects. Word will get out. People will start asking questions. We protect the people, Wufei, but only from the shadows. Or have you forgotten?"
Wufei leaned forward again to glare at her. "Have you forgotten?" he demanded in a low voice. "This unit was specifically constructed to take care of the dirty work. We're here because Relena's government won't stoop to this level; won't use extreme methods to capture the criminals and bring them to true justice. Their job is to play good cop. We're the ones who take care of the dirty work."
Sally gazed back at him, unintimidated. "These men are starting to respect you, Chang Wufei," she said quietly. "Some of the young recruits will look up to you, and use you as an example. Do you want, by your actions, to unintentionally influence these men and boys to become the same monsters they hunt down? You can control yourself. I know you can. But these boys might not be able to. They'll think they can get away with what you do, and they'll take it to the next step and the next. I won't allow that. Will your conscience allow it, Wufei?"
The young man jerked upright with a scowl blossoming on his face. He turned his back on her, shoulders stiff. "Your men are weak."
"Perhaps you're right. But I mean it, Wufei. Stop these tactics you're using and stick to the hunting part. We'll take care of interrogations."
Wufei didn't respond, but when she got no argument, she returned to the written confession she'd been handed earlier. "Go catch some sleep," she said in a kinder tone. "You've been on your feet for days."
"Hn." Wufei stalked towards the tent entrance, and the two men there quickly straightened and averted their eyes, feigning disinterest. They flinched at the scorching glare he sent them on passing.
When he was gone, the taller of the two turned to his commander with confusion in his eyes. "Excuse me, Miss Po, but... I don't see what all the fuss is about. He's just a kid, I mean."
Sally Po's eyes barely flickered in his direction. "I used to think that," she admitted in a low tone. "If I were you, I'd get over that assumption quickly, soldier. And try not to piss him off. I'd hate for you to have to take a leave of absence when he breaks your jaw with that gun you're leaning on."
They'd only been in the area a few days, but Wufei had already found the perfect place to get away from the other mercenaries and have a quiet moment to himself.
Hidden in the thick of a small grove of trees ran a small creek, and he sat himself down at its banks, crossing his arms over his knees and scowling at his rippled reflection.
He hated to admit it, even to himself, but Sally Po was right. He had to set an example for the weak fools that had chosen-- or been hired --to fight with her. What kind of honor would they learn from watching him use force to get a suspect to speak?
He irritably pushed these thoughts away, laying his sword beside him and arranging himself in the position for meditation. He didn't need to think right now. He needed to calm his mind and spirit, and think clearly. Closing his eyes, he drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He relaxed his body, clearing his mind and letting the soft sounds of the earth filter through him. Birdsong, running water, insects, the breeze in the trees overhead... these small luxuries that his ancestors must have enjoyed before space had been colonized. The earth had become something soothing to him, this planet he had inherited but never lived on. The firmness of the earth below him seemed to lend him strength; the wind against his cheeks calmed his temper. It was here, surrounded by the earth and far from men and their wars, that he felt most at peace.
Above him, a warbling bird abruptly cut off its song.
Wufei's expression did not change, but he tensed just slightly. There was a disturbance in the air around him. Someone had come up behind him, so quietly he hadn't even heard them. Breathe in, breathe out... Let them get closer.
There was a slight sound behind him, as if someone had sat in the grass.
Lightening-quick, he snatched up his sword and spun around, coming up into a crouch and holding the blade before him in a defensive move.
"You gonna kill me with that, Wu-man?"
Wufei's eyes widened despite himself, and his sword dropped a few inches. He stared incredulously at the boy sitting before him and wearing one of his shit-eating grins. "Maxwell! How did you--" His grip tightened on the sword hilt in sudden realization. "Sally," he growled ominously.
"Bingo!" Duo nodded cheerfully. He looked around appreciatively. "Nice place. Been awhile since I been to earth. Didn't get to see much of it last time... Too busy blowing things up, you know."
Wufei slammed the sword on the ground angrily. "Maxwell, what the hell are you doing here?"
"Looking for you, obviously," Duo snorted, leaning back on his hands. His eyes sparkled with mirth. "You're a popular man these days, 'Fei."
"Stop shortening my name," Wufei snapped. "What are you talking about?"
"Trowa paid me a visit just a little while ago, looking for you," Duo said, cocking his head to the side and studying the other boy's fleeting expression of surprise with keen interest. "I'm sure Sally mentioned something about it to you, though, after I e-mailed her. So would you mind if I ask what the hell you're doing here?"
"Shouldn't you be with a couple brick faces right about now?" Duo arched a brow. "Or are you and Sally an item now?"
"Don't say stupid things!" Wufei snarled, jumping to his feet. "I work with her, you idiot!"
"Oh~" Duo drawled, though he looked up at Wufei through hooded eyes. "OK. No girlfriend. So why aren't you with Trowa and/or Heero?"
Wufei stared at him in horror. Just how much did Trowa tell him??
Duo read the disbelief on his face and rose to his own feet, patting the grass and dirt from his butt. "Don't give me that look, 'Fei, you look like I just kicked you in the nuts or something. Relax. Tro didn't say shit, I figured it out for myself. You still haven't answered my question," he added helpfully.
Wufei shut his mouth quickly with a click of teeth and glared at the other boy. "This is none of your business, Maxwell," he said curtly. "Or did you come all this way to poke your nose where it doesn't belong?"
"I came here to look after the well-being of the only buds I have," Duo corrected him, suddenly more serious. His smile vanished. "Is this a pride thing? This is a pride thing, isn't it?"
"Look, I don't know what's really going on here," Duo cut him off breezily. "And yeah, it's really none of my business. I just came here to tell you something. Call it friendly concern or whatever."
"Whatever happened," Duo said quietly, "Tro sure seemed damn determined to fix it to me. Whether it was a fight or a misunderstanding, he's willing to settle it. And if I know him, he'll be searching every colony right about now looking for the both of you."
Wufei stared at him, forgetting his angry rebuttal for a moment. He hadn't really believed it when Sally had mentioned that e-mail. He'd assumed it was some foolishness of Maxwell's. A random attempt to stay in touch. Were those two actually...?
"I don't think it'll take them to long to figure out Sally Po's still up to her old tricks, and connect the dots from there," Duo continued. "Now here's where you have a choice, Wu-man."
"Don't call me-"
"You can pack up your shit and move on. Convince Sally to move her miniature army somewhere else. Keep running from whatever it is you're running from. Or.." he held up a finger, raising his eyebrows, "you can stop being a little bitch and face them when they get here."
Wufei bristled at the insult, but bit back the furious retort on his tongue. He wrestled with his pride and finally demanded sourly, "What are you doing this for, Maxwell? Is this another one of your games?"
Duo's solemn attitude was gone as quickly as it had appeared, and he smiled brightly. "Game? Oh how little you think of me, Wu-man. No, no game this time. Just a little, hm, basic mathematics."
Wufei stared at him. "What?"
"Maybe you can help Tro find the missing number," Duo said with a cheeky wink. "If you stay, that is."
"Maxwell, what in the hell are you babbling about?" Wufei snapped impatiently.
Duo laughed, clapping the other boy on the shoulder and ignoring the instinctive flich at the personal touch. "Never mind. Anyway, I gotta jet. I didn't just come to earth to see you, you know. Got some other errands to do while I'm here. You think Sally will lend me a jeep or something? Rental cars cost an arm and a leg around here."
Wufei stared at him suspiciously. "What do you need it for?"
"Just a quick stop," Duo said evasively. "For a friend."
"A stop where?"
"Now who's prying?"
"You want the jeep," Wufei pointed out, crossing his arms stubbornly over his chest. "And if you expect me to hand it over to someone who's likely to crash it or steal it, I have the right to know what you want it for."
Duo's smile wavered for just an instant. "A doctor, 'Fei. OK? Nothing illegite. I promise."
Wufei frowned. A doctor? Why would Duo be searching for a doctor? He shook his head. None of his business. And he had a feeling he'd rather not know. "You'd better return it," he warned darkly.
"Yeah, yeah, no problem. Thanks, man. And.." Duo gave him the thumb's up, grinning widely. "Good luck."
"Feh." Wufei glared at the ground.
"See ya!" Duo called over his shoulder, already jogging off.
Wufei didn't respond. After a few minutes he gave up on his one-sided glaring contest with the grass and settled back into his meditation position.
He desperately needed a clear head right now.
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