Chapter 34: "The Noose Tightens"

Wufei slapped a hand to his back as if he'd been stung by a bee, glancing over his shoulder on reflex.

Owen, halfway under the tank, didn't notice.

Wufei rubbed carefully at the slight burning sensation on his lower back, frowning uncomfortably. He couldn't remember his Mark ever reacting to nothing like this. Usually only another's touch could set it off. And while now it was just an irritating sting, it still bothered him. He glanced around uneasily. Had something caused it? Or was it some fluke, a result of his nearing "coming of age"?

His eyes were already lifting towards Wing in sudden suspicion when the alarms went off loud enough to wake the dead, causing him to jump in surprise. Owen, similarly startled, hissed an oath as he banged his head on the underside of the tank.

"What the hell is that?" Wufei demanded, already on his feet and looking around a bit wildly.

"It's the attack alarm," Owen grunted, sliding out carefully and wincing as he touched his head gingerly. "Time for your buddies to gear up. They're the only real defense we have."

"'Buddies'..?" Wufei looked quickly at the convered Gundams. Of course a mechanic's ship would be poorly equipped to handle a full-out attack. Gundams were a nice safety net. Perhaps that was part of the reason Howard had agreed to give them a lift?
Wufei dashed to Wing's feet, hesitating with his hand reaching for the zip cord. His free hand strayed towards his Mark again as he peered upwards. He cupped his hands around his mouth. "Yuy!!"

There was a long pause, then Heero's head popped out of the cockpit.

"What's going on?" Wufei shouted. "That alarm--" He gave a sharp intake of breath as a figure swayed into view over Heero's shoulder. He couldn't tell who it was.

Their face was in ruins, covered in blood.


"Behind you!" Heero barked in warning.

Wufei whirled, ducking at the same time. He narrowly missed the heavy wrench that swung at him, and without pause drove a punishing fist up under his attacker's ribs, driving the breath from his lungs.

Owen dropped the wrench with a clang, struggling for breath, and Wufei hesitated in surprise. What the hell--??

The hangar doors were sliding open, and the rest of his friends were running in, faces grim as they headed for their Gundams. Duo, up front, skidded to a halt, immediately sensing the tension in the room.

Owen hadn't noticed them yet, and was already recovering, lashing out at Wufei with a meaty fist.

Wufei dodged nimbly and slammed his elbow into the other man's nose savagely, snapping his head back. Owen gurgled, staggering.

"Wufei!" Duo shouted, racing towards them.

Wufei thrust out a foot and tripped the older man neatly; Owen fell with a crash just as Duo drew up. Duo's gaze lifted automatically towards Wing, and his eyes widened as he spotted the bloodied mess of a man in the cockpit with his friend. "What the hell is going on?!"

"Not now," Heero snapped down at them, and Wufei turned to watch him shouldering the whimpering man impatiently out of his cockpit and onto the walkway around the ceiling. "What's the alarm for?"

Trowa and Quatre had come over, Quatre looking anxious and confused, Trowa's eyes sharp with suspicion as he peered down at Owen.

Duo looked from Owen to Wufei, then to Heero. He threw out his arms in defeat. "You two have some explaining to do later!" he shouted back. "But for now we got problems-- Milliardo's hot on our tail, man! Or at least, a whole group of his MS's are. I dunno if they just followed you guys or what, but I doubt he's here to borrow a cup of sugar, if you know what I mean."

Wufei abruptly moved forward and seized the zipcord, giving it a sharp tug.

"Wufei, we don't have time for--" Trowa made a grab for him, and missed.

Heero reached out to steady him as Wufei came to a bouncing halt alongside the cockpit. "What's going on, Heero?" he demanded in a low voice, glaring at the other boy.

"Later," Heero said firmly, looking him right in the face. "We have to take care of those Suits. While we're gone, stay on the main deck with Howard. Stay away from the other men, and don't go anywhere alone with Mariemaia. And don't let on that I told you anything, or that you know anything about what just happened."


"Wufei," Heero cut him off impatiently. He took a deep breath. "You're just going to have to trust me."

Wufei hesitated, gaze flicking from one hard cobalt eye to the other. Finally, grudgingly, he nodded. "I'll be waiting for that explanation," he insisted, scowling faintly. "If you don't go out there and get your stupid ass killed."

Heero offered a tight, humorless little smile , but hesitated, hand still gripping the cord. Something akin to confusion flickered in his eyes as he studied Wufei's face. Wufei reached out abruptly in a moment of childish mischief and squeezed both of Heero's cheeks quickly, pulling his mouth in a forced smile.

"Hey-!" Heero sputtered, yanking away, flushed and indignant.

Wufei smirked. "Good luck," he said innocently.

Heero, unable to hide his blush, scowled weakly and gave the zipcord a hard yank, sending it and Wufei back down to the floor again.


The Gundams had alreay blasted off to take care of the troops hot on their trail when Mariemaia began to suspect something was amiss.

Wufei didn't storm around, fuming about his inability to help his friends. Instead, he went straight to the main deck, found a seat close to Howard, and watched the battle play out on the screens with a dark, intense face.

Then Sally Po was called to the infirmary for an emergency. Mariemaia stood in a corner of the control room, eyes flicking from the main screen to Wufei's face in gnawing suspicion. She didn't know how she knew. She just knew. Something was wrong.

Wufei could just look so tense because he was worried about his friends.

Sally Po might be taking care of... food poisoning. A broken finger. Something. Though the way she had rushed off...

Mariemaia nibbled on a fingernail in a nervous habit, eyes narrowing as she stared hard at the back of Wufei's head. Had Heero...? No. He wouldn't have been stupid enough to spill the beans. He knew the consequences. Besides, she doubted very much that a man like Wufei would have been able to keep his cool with that sort of information. If Heero had told him, Wufei wouldn't be glued to the screen like that. He would be wrapping his strong hands around Mariemaia's throat.

Still.... something was wrong.

She pushed herself away from the wall and headed briskly towards the infirmary. She had a strong suspicion that the answer to her uneasiness lay there.



"Duo." Heero frowned reprovingly as he darted between two mobile suits, slashing to either side with his plasma sword. "Keep it down. I want this finished quickly so we can put some distance between ourselves and Milliardo before he realizes his loss and tries to catch up."

"He's too close for comfort already," Quatre spoke up over the radio. "It worries me. We need to lose him or he could tail us all the way back home."

"We'll lose him," Heero said firmly. Even if he does catch up with Howard's ship, we'll be long gone by then."

"Let's just hope this trick works," Duo put in. "We're in for some bad shit if Milliardo manages to figure out where we're headed."

"At least Kushrenada seems to have fallen back for the moment," Trowa murmured, dipping past Duo's Deathscythe to fire his gatling guns at point-blank range at a cluster of suits. "Hopefully his troops are still tangling with Milliardo's."

Duo sliced a pair of suits cleanly in half with his scythe, voice unusually subdued. "Hopefully. It makes me uneasy that we haven't seen him in the rearview mirror the entire time, if you know what I mean. He has to have figured out by now that Wufei was Milliardo's captive."

"What I'd like to know," Quatre murmured almost to himself, elbowing a suit out of his way, "is what's really behind Milliardo's hurry to catch up with us. Is it just because we snatched Wufei away, or is he tryign to rescue his sister?"

"We're not sticking around to find out," Heero growled, burying his sword in the torso area of one of the suits when it was stupid enough to fly straight at him. "Just take them out as fast as you can."

"We need to get Howard's ship out of here," Trowa agreed.

"We need to get back to the ship," Heero corrected grimly. "Before things go from bad to worse."

"Does this have anything to do with the two men you and 'Fei beat the shit out of for no apparent reason?" Duo asked suspiciously.

"Can't this wait until we get back onboard?" Quatre interrupted, swinging his hand-scythes in twin deadly arcs. "There's still at least a dozen of these guys left."

Duo's face on the monitor twisted into a fiendish grin. "No problem."


Wufei spotted Mariemaia hurrying off and found himself torn. Heero had told him to stay away from her, and to remain close to Howard until he got back, but... something was up. He had a bad feeling about this whole mess.

Why had those mechanics attacked them in the hangar? Why did Heero think it was dangerous to be around the girl? Why hadn't he said anything sooner?? Obviously whatever was going on had something to do with his recent dark temper.

After a long moment of internal debate, he rose decisively to his feet. There was only one sure way to get the answers he needed. He strode quickly from the main deck in the direction Mariemaia had gone.

He caught sight of her just as she was turning a corner, and picked up the pace, keeping his steps light so as not to be heard. He turned the corner and looked around in surprised confusion. She was gone.

He looked left and right quickly. There were three directions she could have gone. Back towards the hangar, down to the infirmary, or through the workrooms the mechanics used for their craft. He hesitated, looking quickly back and forth, grinding his teeth as he debated.

Which way??

"Wufei? What's wrong?"

Wufei turned sharply, startling his friend. "Hilde. Where's Mariemaia?"

Hilde blinked, "I haven't seen her. I'm helping Sally Po. There's a couple guys in there pretty beat up. I only saw them for a second, but one of them looks pretty bad off. I'm trying to find the damned supply closet."

"Uh- that way, I think." Wufei pointed down the hall and started to turn away, then abruptly reached out and snagged her arm. "Hilde. Wait."

Hilde looked at her friend more closely and frowned in suspicion and concern. "Wufei, what's wrong? You don't look too good."

"I'm fine," Wufei said shortly. "Listen to me. And don't ask any questions, because I don't really know what's going on, either. But something's wrong. I want you and Relena to stick together. I don't want either of you caught alone with any of the mechanics on-board. And keep an eye on Mariemaia."

"What?" Hilde's eyes widened. "What are you talking about? What's going on?"

"Just do it, Hilde," Wufei said fiercely, hurrying off in the direction of the infirmary. "I'll explain later, when I've figured out what the hell is going on."

Hilde opened and closed her mouth, then decided it would be prudent just to be follow Wufei's instructions for now. Whether it was just paranoia or not, something about the look on his face made her agitated.

She hurried off in search of her friend, running across the supply closet by chance. Loading her arms with bandages, gauze, and blankets, she trotted in the direction of the kitchen, where Relena had taken to being tutored by the ship's cook.

The two of them were leaning over a bubbling pot, chatting cheerfully about the difference in taste certain ingredients could lend to a stew, when Hilde came bursting in. She nearly bowled over one of the cook's helpers, who steadied her just in time to keep her armload of supplies from spilling all over the floor.

"Whoa, careful now!" the man protested hastily, settling one of the blankets more securely in her arms. "Where's the fire, missy?"

"Oh- Kevin. Sorry." He was often in the kitchen with Relena when the cook couldn't help her, lending her his own tips and advice. Hilde was used to seeing the other girl in the company of either man. But as she stared up at Kevin's cheerful smile, she thought of Wufei's warning and felt a twinge of doubt. By 'mechanics', surely Wufei hadn't meant those who worked the kitchen. Kevin and Andre, the head cook, had been nothing but friendly and helpful to the girls, seeming flattered at Relena's confidence in their ability to help her become a good cook. She smiled back at the young man. "Sorry," she said again. "I'm just in a hurry."

"Ditto." Kevin checked his watch. "I have night shift tonight, making the midnight meal, so I need to get to bed now unless I want to be a zombie by midnight."

They slipped past each other and Hilde hurried over to her friend. "Relena, can I talk to you?"

"Just a second, Hilde," Relena answered without looking up from the two jars of herbs she was inspecting intently. "Rosemary or basil?"

"You could use both," Andre assured her. "The two won't clash in this soup. Their individual tastes and aromas will actually be a good combination for this, I think."

"Oh, okay." Smiling, Relena sprinkled a bit of both into the bubbling pot. "Hilde, will you try some of this when I'm done?"

"Later," Hilde promised, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other. "Relena--"

"Here, try one of these," Relena offered, reaching for a nearby plate with two cookies on it. "Kevin made them for me. I haven't tried one, yet, but you can have one. They're white chocolate and almond."

"Relena, I'm kind of in a hurry," Hilde said sharply.

Relena looked up in surprise, finally noticing her friend's strained expression. She set the plate back down and glanced up at Andre. "Um, can you watch this for a second? I'll be right back."

"Sure, kiddo." Andre took the spoon and began stirring the stew slowly while Relena snagged a cookie and followed Hilde to the door, out of immediate hearing range.

"Hilde, what's wrong?" Relena demanded in an undertone, nibbling absently at the cookie..

"Look, there's been some kind of accident," Hilde murmured. "Two guys were found in the hangar pretty roughed up. One of them was nearly beaten to death."

"What??" Relena's eyes widened. "Did they get in a fight?"

"I don't know. But I need to get back to the infirmary; Sally Po needs these supplies."

"That's horrible, Hilde, but... why are you here telling me about it if it's such an emergency?"

Hilde winced slightly. "Look, I know this is weird, and I don't really get it either, but Wufei says we need to stick together."

Relena took a big bite of her cookie, raising her eyebrows. "Oh, come on. Two guys get in a pissing contest and Wufei suddenly becomes all paranoid protective? Give me a break. ...These are really good, you really should have one."

"I don't want a cookie!" Hilde snapped. "Please, Relena, he's not telling me everything, but he looked really tense. Just humor me, please. Come with me to the infirmary. Sally Po could probably use all the help she could get right now, anyway."

Relena hesitated, taking another slow bite of her cookie as she debated. At last she gave a little sigh. "Oh, all right. But this isn't to entertain Wufei's paranoid delusions! I'll come help you and Sally Po. Besides, with the boys fighting, they might get roughed up and she'll need even more help. Wait just a second, and I'll tell Andre."

Hilde shifted impatiently from one foot to the other as Relena explained Sally Po's situation to an understanding Andre. Nabbing the other cookie, she hurried back. "All right, let's go."


"Mariemaia, you shouldn't see this," Sally Po protested hastily, turning quickly from where she was rummaging through the cubpoards.

Mariemaia ignored her, striding over to the bloodied man on the first bed and staring down at him. One of hers. Damn it!

"Yuy?" she murmured.

The man couldn't speak, his mouth full of blood, his face one big bruise, but he managed a weak nod, breath wheezing painfully through his nose.

"So..." Mariemaia glanced towards the second man, who didn't look nearly as banged up.

He scowled darkly. "Chang," he mouthed.


Heero had finally snapped. The idiot had blabbed it all to Wufei, and they'd been stupid enough to retaliate.

It was the last mistake they'd make, she thought grimly, ignoring Sally Po and leaving quickly. They thought they could jump the gun, did they? Milliardo's attack couldn't have come at a better time. Heero was outside, fighting for his life, leaving Wufei, Hilde, and Relena behind after his one terrible mistake of defiance.

She made one quick stop, finding Kevin on his way to his room. "Change of plans," she growled. Did you dose her yet?"

Kevin hesitated, hand resting on the doorjamb. "Huh? Yeah, just now. She can't resist those cookies I make her. She's probably eating them already."

"Make another batch," Mariemaia snapped over her shoulder, already stalking off. "A stronger one. I want her vomitting blood by this afternoon."

Kevin frowned, scratching his scalp uncomfortably. "Are you sure that's necessary? I mean, she's just a kid..."

"Do it," Mariemaia ordered. "It's what I pay you for, isn't it?"

Kevin sighed, giving a shrug. "All right... you're the boss. Where are you going?"

Mariemaia sent an unpleasant smile his way. "To make a phone call."


There wasn't a day that went by that Chang Ling didn't think about her adopted son.

She had given him up, sending him off with those boys because she had known he would be safest with them. She had known the day would come when he would eventually be taken from her, but the pain was still almost more than she could bear.

Distancing herself from him with the knowledge of this, that one day he would leave her, had been impossible. The woman who had never had a child or husband of her own had fallen in love with the bedraggled little boy left on her doorstep. She had cared for him out of this love, not out of any obligation laid on her by relatives millions of miles away.

It had broken her heart to part with him and to put herself in hiding, but she knew deep down that it was the right thing to do. She must not let him find her again; it would give him an excuse to come back. And he had a greater destiny in store for him than the future he'd planned for himself. Her role in it all was over. But if that's what was best for him, then so be it.

So she had handed him over to the enigmatic Trowa Barton, packed a few belongings, and moved herself to the other side of the country. She had been on edge for the first week, but when no one came looking for her, she had finally started to relax. Her only concern was that if no one was searching for her, it meant all of the concentration was focused on finding Wufei. And so she worried and waited and hoped for word that he had arrived at his destination safely.

The small apartment she'd rented for herself was not cluttered enough to attract much dust, but she found herself cleaning it fanatically that day in an attempt to distract herself and keep her thoughts off of her son.

She was involved in her own thoughts that the sound of the doorbell was an irritating distraction instead of the warning it should have been.

Thoughtlessly she opened the door, curious as to who could be dropping by when she had made pains not to get involved with her neighbors.

The man outside towered over her, head nearly touching the top of the doorframe. He stared down at her grimly for a long moment, and she stood frozen in instinctive fear, unable to release her deathgrip on the doorknob.

"Ms. Chang," the man greeted in a rumbling voice. "I have a message for you."

And he reached for her with a large, calloused hand to stifle the shriek that tore itself from her throat.

Author's Notes: Sorry for the delay; have been drawing instead of writing, lately ^^;; But this chapter was fun to write-- and the next one will be fun, too, so it should be up fairly quickly XD

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