"Okay, kids, let's go get you settled," Howard called stepping into the small passenger section. "Grab just what you need and leave the rest. The guys'll take care of it, including your suits. Duo, I assume you boys are going to bunk together in your usual spot?"
At the long-haired teen's smiling nod, Howard continued. "I thought so. I'll let you get the boys settled then. We'll put Dabrowski in with Toi and his crew, which leaves only you, Cricket."
Holding out his hand, he waited while Mariemeia wiggled through the teens, and slipped her hand into his.
"What about me?" she asked, looking up as he led her off the plane into the hot and steamy island climate.
"I think we'll stick you, Ines and Gio in one of the spare bungalows in the cove, not too far from the boys. Duo loves that spot. You'll be able to swim, build sand castles, play with the fish - heck! Sometimes even dolphins show up. First, though, we'll have to find you some more appropriate clothes..."
The older man's voice trailed into the distance and the three teens heard a jeep start up, then move away. Duo stretched and grinned at his friends.
"You guys might want to lose a few of those clothes," he said cheerfully, digging into his duffle and pulling out a t-shirt and what appeared to be a pair of dark boxer shorts. "We're talking 'hot' here, at least outside the base itself. The Chop Shop is actually climate-controlled." He paused, removing the sweater and jeans, and replacing them with the shirt and shorts. Glancing at Quatre and Wufei, he nodded his approval as they followed his example, then continued.
"It would sort of have to be, considering what goes on in there. No way could we work on suits and stuff in this weather."
"Won't we be staying inside the base?" Wufei asked, voice muffled as he pulled a tank top over his head.
"Nah, no room," the long-haired teen replied. "As you saw, the island is small, and the volcano and runway take up the majority of the space. And considering what gets done in the Chop Shop, they didn't put living quarters in..."
"Duo..." Quatre said hesitantly, "why do I get the feeling that we'll be living in tents on the beach?"
Duo laughed brightly. "Not that bad, Q! Weren't you listening to Howard? He did say bungalows, you know! 'Though, from the outside, they look more like large native huts."
He picked up his duffle, waited for the others, then led them out of the plane to the sand-coloured tarmac below.
"Come on, guys. Damn! Howie took the jeep, and the guys'll need the truck to move out the supplies, so it looks like we're walking," he grumbled, stepping onto a path leading into the heavy-looking jungle.
"Ah, Maxwell, while I don't doubt you, I have to ask," Wufei said carefully, glancing up at the heavy canopy over their heads as they walked. "Are you sure this is safe? Living quarters outside the base? What about Alliance surveillance craft? Satellites?"
A loud screech above them, followed by many more cut off his words. Startled Quatre jumped backwards and would have fallen if the Chinese teen hadn't steadied him.
"Native wildlife?" Wufei added, looking around them warily.
"What the hell was that?" Quatre exclaimed, clutching his duffle as if it would protect him.
Duo stopped, turning to face them, and broke into chuckles.
"That, my dear Blondie, was only a king parrot. Not some giant monster out to eat you for dinner, I promise," he replied, stifling his laughter. "As for safety, Wufei, this place is pretty secure. We're outside shipping lanes and flight paths. From satellites, if any even passed over us, we look like a small native island with very little worth noticing. Add in a slightly smoking volcano... well it's really not worth bothering with." He picked his duffle back up and started through the jungle again.
"The native wildlife is pretty harmless. There are a few venomous bugs, spiders and such, but none really deadly or anything. And of course we get the occasional shark, but the big ones stay out of the coves. Mostly it's birds - various parrots, sea birds, things like that - monkeys, some small lizards and lots of brightly coloured fish. So nothing to really worry about on that front..."
Duo broke off as he stepped out of the shade of the jungle and into the bright sunlight shining down on a white sand beach.
"Annnnnd... here we are!"
"Remember, the guns will be firing on anything that moves, including you, so you have to stay alert," Heero reminded Trowa, crouching on the open hatch of Heavyarms.
Trowa nodded soberly, but couldn't help a small feeling of elation. There was just something about being back in the cockpit that, he knew, all five of them felt. The smile finally broke through his reserve. "I'll be plenty alert, Heero. I'll be fine."
"I know, but " The Japanese teen spared his friend one last long look. "Be careful out there, okay? I know you will be, but I had to say it."
Trowa reached out and snagged Heero by the sleeve of his jacket, pulling him further into the cockpit for a hug. "Thanks, Heero. You just look after yourself, okay? Don't let Her Royal Pinkness get to you."
Heero lifted an eyebrow. "Her royal what?"
"Duo called her that - it suits her. I hope she behaves." Trowa shot his friend a concerned look as he began attaching the pilot's harness. "Are you sure you're okay with this?"
"I have to be," was Heero's short reply. "Have fun with your new toys."
Trowa short him a grin. "I will. See you, Heero." He sealed the cockpit shut as Heero leapt down to the hangar floor.
Sally's face came up almost immediately on the right viewscreen. "Okay, Barton. After we get Une's shuttle off, I'm scramming out of here, along with just about the entire base crew. The guns are set to go off as soon as the external sensors are tripped, and they will fire on everything "
"Everything that moves, including me, I know," Trowa finished for her. "I'll be just fine. Where's the rendezvous point?"
Sally squinted down at a map. "Can you join me in Lisbon? I can arrange us a tanker transport from there."
"And I can practice my Portuguese. Sure," Trowa replied, grinning as the stealth system came online. "I'll give you two days to get there - you have your comm. pack?"
"Sure do," Sally said, quirking an eyebrow. "Out of curiosity since when do you speak Portuguese?"
"I said 'practice,' Sally, as in needing lots of it."
"Ah, of course." Sally gave him a worried look. "Are you sure you're up to this?"
"Definitely." Trowa stopped his preparations, holding his helmet in one hand, and gave her a smile. "Good luck, doctor."
"The same to you, Trowa. See you in Portugal." The window blinked out.
Trowa took a deep breath, and his smile became something more predatory. "Alright, OZ. Come and get it." He slipped the helmet on.
It was a tribute to the Sweepers' technology that the incoming troops never caught wind of the departing shuttle.
Heavyarms stood in the middle of the now-deserted camp, snow gathering on the suit's massive shoulders. Trowa's mind snapped to full attention, though, as the first of the external sensors was tripped. His eyes glinted as he activated the cloaking system. "Commander Po, the candles are lit. See you after the party."
"Roger that. Good luck, pilot."
"Hm." He watched as the guns began to go off. "Leos incoming from the north-northeast, full company strength. Sortie of fighter jets out of the south and ground troops? Did they actually think they'd be *arresting* someone?" He flipped the comm. link to the enemy's frequency.
He hit the thrusters, Duo's words running through his mind. The cloak would be active until he fired his main weapon wasn't conducive to stealth operations, after all and then he would fade back into a full cloak following the shots. It meant he'd have to time his shots well while he was uncloaked, the SAMs would track on him, as well. Then again, he could use that to his advantage, if he could just get close enough to the enemy.
Lifting off, Trowa veered south. Easy targets first he'd get rid of the fighters. They were still just beyond the sensors, but that could be fixed with very little effort. He brought the suit up behind them and brought the cluster missile system up as he gunned the engine-
Every pilot in the sortie felt his blood run cold as the tracking tone signal flared. "Welcome to Transylvania," a cold voice called.
"Shit, enemy right behind us!"
Trowa launched several missiles, and backed it up with a little machine gun fire, just to add to the melee before him.
Few of the pilots could react fast enough as the submunitions blew. Trowa buzzed through the explosions, cloak already active once more. He darted forward past the remaining jets, who were all turning to assess the enemy at their rear.
"Jesus Christ where the hell is it?!"
"Where is what? I didn't see a damn thing "
Trowa laughed out loud. "This is so cool. Poor bastards." He landed once again right outside of the deserted mess tent and lifted the gigantic machine gun on the Gundam's left arm.
The first enemy Leo's appeared on his sensors, and he fired. Trowa had a short moment to watch as several suits fell to the incoming fire, but then launched Heavyarms into the sky as incoming fire tore his previous position to ribbons, the surrounding building exploding and raining concrete all over the doomed camp.
"What the fuck was that?! What the "
Trowa chuckled under his breath. "What, indeed. Can't you tell?" High above the site, he fired off several missiles.
"OOOF!" he was thrown in his harness as one of the passing fighters caught site of him and fired- he spun immediately and rained machine gun fire on the passing aircraft, not watching as it exploded in the sky. He gripped the controls tightly as he steered through the SAM fire. Setting down in the old parade grounds, he fired off another volley of missiles.
"Shit!" Heavyarms staggered as several suits fired on his location at the same time, and he returned machine gun fire, tearing several suits to shreds before they could reach him, beam sabres gleaming through the heavy smoke from all the fires-
Heavyarms pulled back at the last possible moment-
Shooting into the sky, Trowa launched yet another set of missiles straight down into the cluster of suits.
The explosion actually blew him backwards, and he wrestled with the controls, panting heavily as he managed to pull the suit out of its spin. "What the hell was that "
Proximity alarms blaring, Trowa was forced to fire several volleys against the approaching suits, and he grunted as he was tossed forward in his seat. The SAMs were pounding the sky, and several Leos were closing on him fast-
"Oh my God, it's a Gundam!" Trowa heard a pilot scream. He laughed as he dropped to the ground and fired straight back up into the melee, cluster missiles exploding and showering the area with a phosphorescent glow that was quickly eclipsed by a violent explosion that turned the sky white.
Trowa yelled as he launched himself right back up into the fight-
Explosions and screams.
As he sent off one last rocket, blowing the medical facility miraculously still standing to smithereens, Trowa took a deep, calming breath.
It was over.
"Damn," he muttered, pulling his helmet off and running a gloved hand through his hair, "that was one hell of a ride."
Cloak firmly engaged, he turned and plotted a course West.
Lucrezia Noin started awake, automatically reaching for the automatic pistol under her pillow. Relaxing slightly, she glared at the slim laptop at her bedside, whose beeping had disturbed her sleep. She grumbled and rubbed at her eyes as she opened the computer and typed in the right security code.
A scrambled screen quickly cleared to show a tired-looking, pale-faced Lady Une. Luca sat up straight, her fatigue vanishing. "What happened?!"
She watched as a hand extended onscreen to pass Une a cup of what looked like coffee Heero appeared only for as long as it took to wave a 'hello,' then vanished back to wherever he came from, probably the shuttle controls. Une took a sip. "Noin, we're inbound to your position, estimated time of arrival at "
"Just a moment," Noin said, holding up a hand. "You're headed here?! What about Barge? Where "
"Let me try this over," Une interrupted. "The first shuttle launch was successful, so Treize, Zechs, Kevin, Jason and crew are already off-planet. But Dermail's people managed to trace and triangulate the launch signature. We had technical problems with the catapult, so we didn't have the time to try a second launch before we had to evacuate. Po directed us to join you in Sanc and wait for further instructions."
"Us, meaning yourself and Heero?" Noin asked, running both hands back through her hair.
Une nodded. "Barton stayed to take care of the incoming force. I don't know what plans he and Sally have made. I do know he was successful. The battle lasted mere minutes."
Lucrezia grinned. "Good for Trowa. I'm sure they'll both be fine. Wherever they go, a Sweepers ship should be able to pick them up. What's your ETA?"
Heero spoke up from off screen. "Three hours, twenty-six minutes. It would be best if we were not seen. Can it be arranged?"
"What kind of bird are you flying, Heero?"
Une turned the camera so the pilot could be seen.
Heero caressed the control panels with a reverent look on his face. "Sweeper shuttle 'Buddy.' Skycrawler class, equipped for full stealth. I've never flown one before, but I like this."
Noin's eyes went wide. "A Skycrawler? Cool the hover jets are operational? I can't believe the Sweepers have those "
Une shot confused looks back and forth from the monitor to the pilot. "Hover jets? What's so special about a Skycrawler?"
Lucrezia smiled. "I'm surprised, Une OZ repeatedly tried to buy a fleet of their own, but couldn't because the things are so expensive. Not the fastest of planes, but it's highly manoeuvrable, has hover capability very cool. I'll be in the Tower, Heero. We can bring you in a back door, so to speak, and no one need be the wiser."
"Anything else?" Noin asked.
Une shook her head. "Not right now. We'll be able to talk in person soon enough."
"Very well. See you in a bit, then. Noin out."
Shutting down the laptop, Noin yawned widely as she dressed and slipped out the door into the darkened palace corridor beyond. She was going to need one other person's help to make sure nothing unfortunate happened. Someone to distract Relena just enough
She stopped off at the right door and knocked softly before walking in. "Dorothy, wake up. It's me, Noin."
A blonde head peeked from beneath a heavy blanket. "You have to the count of ten to offer me chocolate or leave." Noin's sharp ears caught the sound of a pistol being cocked.
She laughed, though the laugh faded into a yawn. "How about something even better?"
Dorothy groaned, but dutifully sat up. "Such as?"
Noin stepped closer, seating herself in a nearby chair. "They had to evacuate early, and the last launch didn't happen. Lady Une and Heero Yuy are inbound to us and likely to be hiding here for a little while."
Dorothy's fatigue seemed to melt away as she smiled broadly. "Heero Yuy? The famous 'love' of Relena's life?" She squealed as she threw back her covers. "I finally get to meet Mr. Buns-of-Steel!"
Dorothy laughed as she reached for her dressing gown and quickly pulled it on, then reached for her hairbrush. "Oh, come on! You've never heard Relena call him that? She apparently saw him in his workout clothes, once when she was telling me about the pilots, she couldn't stop talking about Heero in a tiny pair of spandex shorts "
Noin grimaced. "She would fixate on that."
"Is the view as good as I've been told?" Dorothy asked, with one brow raised.
Noin blushed slightly. "Well "
"Is that a yes?"
Lucrezia shot a half-hearted glare at the younger girl. "I won't say it's not a nice butt. He obviously works out quite a lot."
Dorothy laughed. "Well said, Contessa! What do you need me for?"
Noin sighed deeply. "Relena control. You didn't see what she did in Transylvania, but I just need to keep her away from Heero. He was unhappy with her when they last saw each other, to say the least."
"Was it something to do with Maxwell?" Dorothy asked, turning towards her closet.
Noin nodded, though the other girl couldn't see her. "It will be better for all involved if you could keep Relena as busy as possible until I can get our fugitives out of here. She's not on good terms with Lady Une, either."
"So I gathered." Dorothy popped out of the closet, straightening the green sweater she'd pulled on over a pair of almost obscenely-tight black jeans. "How far can I go?"
Noin groaned. "Just Dorothy, don't make me regret this."
The girl flashed a devilish smile. "Maybe not regret, but I'm sure you'll enjoy it. Now lead me to The Butt!"
Noin rolled her eyes, but dutifully lead Dorothy into the corridor. "Whatever you do, don't call him that to his face, okay?"
Treize nearly jumped out of his seat as the secure comm channel Heero had set up began to beep. Reaching to the co-pilot's seat, he shook Zech's lightly to wake him.
"Zechs, wake up," he said urgently. "The secure comm. is activated. Something must have gone wrong..."
Zechs nodded, instantly awake and unbuckled his restraining harness. "I'll get Walker and Farley. If there's a problem, they should know about it," he said as floated to the door between the cockpit and the small crew section. "Walker, Farley, get in here," he called, and seeing them unbuckle their restraints, he floated back to his seat.
Moments later, the two men pushed themselves into the cockpit.
"What's up?" Walker asked, leaning over Zechs' seat.
"The secure comm," the ex-general replied, leaning forward and pressing the button to accept the signal.
"Come on you guys... pick up the damned line!" a scratchy female voice said impatiently through the speakers. "Of all the times for you two to be screwing around -"
"Ah, Sally? We're here. We were just a little surprised to be contacted at this early point," Treize said calmly, totally ignoring the 'screwing' comment. "I'm assuming there was a problem on your end...?"
"You bet your general's stars there was," Sally replied, frustration evident in her voice. "The launch malfunctioned just after you left. That wouldn't have been so bad, but the bad guys caught the heat signature from your launch and pinpointed its origin. This minor glitch has precipitated a major change in plans, as you can imagine."
"Sally, what's going on? Is everyone okay? Did you all get out? What about - "
Walker put a hand on Farley's shoulder in an effort to calm him.
"Easy Jason, we're fine for now. I just figured you should be informed of the interim plan," Sally said quickly.
"Did Heero and Une get off all right?" Treize asked calmly, only a hint of concern in his voice.
"Yes, Treize, they made it out fine. However, they're on their way to Sanc."
"Sanc?" Zechs blurted out incredulously. "Sanc? You're joking, right?"
"Nope. It's a good place to hide until things calm down a bit and they can manage a shuttle launch. Trowa held off - "
"But what about Relena? Heero? Duo? What if Duo finds out? He doesn't need that added stress... And Une! She and Relena... the shit is so going to hit the fan!" Zechs babbled, then dropped his head into his hands.
Treize stared incredulously at his lover. Jason was wide-eyed at the Lightning Count's display, and Walker seemed torn between humour and horror at the situation, but decided to go with humour.
"Zechs, I think you've been around Duo far too much," the engineer said, shaking his head. "My Une will handle it just fine. And you know Noin won't let things go too far. Besides, your sister seems to be growing up a bit. Even I noticed that. I doubt she'll chase Heero all over Sanc declaring her love and trying to get into his pants..."
"Walker! That's my sister you're talking about!" Zechs exclaimed, sitting upright and glaring at the young man.
"Yes, I know," he replied smugly. "However crude the comment may have been, it did manage to bring you back to the matter at hand, rather than worrying about something you had no control over. Now, as I'm sure Sally has more to tell us, perhaps we should give her our attention?"
Zechs nodded at his friend sheepishly. "Agreed. And thanks, Kevin."
The engineer grinned back, then turned to Treize. "Your show, sir."
"Thank you, Walker," the ginger-haired man said, then turned his attention back to the woman on the comm.
"So, Sally, what else do we need to know?"
Duo walked into the bungalow, picked a bed, and tossed his duffle onto it. Glancing around the large room, he saw Wufei do the same, but noticed Quatre was missing.
"'Fei, did we lose Quat somewhere between the trees and here?"
The Chinese teen chuckled slightly, walked back to the door and stepped outside. Laughter in his voice, he called for the long-haired pilot to join him.
"Duo, out here. You should see this."
Duo joined Wufei, then began laughing at the sight that greeted him.
Quatre had dropped his bag just above the water's edge, tossed his sock-stuffed boots beside it, and had waded into the ocean. He was staring through the water at his feet, giggling and occasionally jumping. Hearing the laughter from behind him, he spun around and grinned brightly at his two friends.
"Duo! Wufei! You have to come here!" he called exictedly. "I've never seen so many fish! And they're so bright! And -" He jumped and giggled again. "- And they're nibbling on me! Come on!"
The two teens on the beach exchanged grins and ran into the water, joining the cheery blond.
"Now do you see why I love this place?" Duo asked, alternately watching the fish swimming around his legs, and the happy and amazed expressions on his friends' faces. No, not friends, he thought, letting their enthusiasm and happiness fill him, my brothers. And I'm so glad I can share this with them. They really deserve it...
Quatre's voice broke into his reverie.
"This is so cool! What kind of fish are they? And there are so many different colours!"
The braided teen chuckled again. "I'm glad you like, Blondie. I have to admit, I never get tired of this place. As for the fish, I have no idea what kind they are, but they're very friendly and playful, if you can give those qualities to simple fish."
"I'd guess there are four or five different types at the moment Quatre, though I confess to no knowledge of what species they might be," Wufei added, seemingly just as pleased by his surroundings as the other two teens. "I know I've seen pictures of those small yellow and orange ones, but I can't remember their name."
"If you really want to know," Duo said, bending and waving his hand through the water as small schools followed his movements, "Toi could probably tell you. He grew up on an island like this one. Plus he has a degree in marine biology. He knows all that stuff."
Wufei blinked. "Toi? A marine biologist? Then what the hell is he doing with the Sweepers?"
"I'm not really sure, no one talks about it. Maybe something happened, or he was tired of it, or maybe he was just friends with Howie and decided to join him," Duo said quietly, with a shrug. "Howard's the only one who knows, and since it really isn't any of my business, I won't ask. We all have our own baggage and pasts, right?" At the agreeing nods, his sombre mood disappeared and he cocked his head, grinning at Quatre.
"Just wait until the dolphins come in. They really like to play with humans. Toi taught me a little about them. Did you know they're just as intelligent as we are?"
"Really?" Quatre asked, slight disbelief in his tone. "I know I've seen them do tricks in shows and things, but smart as humans?"
"Believe it, Quatre," Wufei said, rejoining the conversation. "Many studies have been done over the centuries..."
Howard sighed happily as he walked down the beach, away from the sounds of mayhem coming from Marie's new home in a cosy bungalow. The little girl had slept on the flight and was a bundle of energy, enjoying the new place and about a million new distractions.
He gave her about three hours before she remembered to miss everyone else.
He knew Duo and the other boys were only a short distance away, but he turned in the opposite direction. He'd give the kids some space, some time
He groaned and dug in a pocket of his cargo shorts before he came up with a communicator and flipped it open. His eyebrows went up behind the sunglasses. "Kaz, I thought I told you to bunk down and relax some, boy "
The man onscreen looked incredibly tired as he attempted to smile. "I swear, I was on my way out of the hangar when the new comm. started beeping. Barton's on the line and asked to speak with you, specifically."
Howard simply nodded. "Patch him through."
The transfer went through quickly, and Howard found himself looking at the serious face of Trowa Barton, unmistakably in the cockpit of his Gundam. "Hi, kid. What can I do you for?"
"Hi, Howard. I see you are back in your preferred location."
The older man laughed and waved a hand at the ocean to his right. "Bet your ass, boy! And I'm planning to party with native girls drinking pina coladas until I can't see straight."
Trowa laughed, but Howard could tell it was forced, and he immediately sobered his expression. "This isn't a social call," he said, reading it on the teen's face.
"Unfortunately not. Are you alone?" Trowa asked.
Howard stopped walking. "What happened?"
Trowa blew his bangs out of his eyes irritatedly. "We're all okay. We just The launch catapult malfunctioned after we launched Zechs and company, and someone in OZ finally got smart enough to triangulate the signal. They found us."
"Shit," Howard replied. "Did you get everyone out?"
Trowa nodded. "But there was a change of plans. I stayed behind with Heavyarms to cover the retreat and we sent Heero and Une to Sanc since we couldn't launch them."
"You did WHAT?!" Howard bellowed. "You Shit, I'm getting too old for this."
"There was no other viable option, Howard," Trowa replied. "We needed to get them to safety and we needed to do it fast. They won't be there long just long enough for OZ to calm down a little and for Heero to arrange another launch."
Howard nodded. "Fine, whatever, but if that stinking little harpy " He took a deep breath to calm himself down. "Has anyone told Duo and the others yet, or is that why you called?"
The green-eyed teen shook his head. "Sally's getting in touch with Treize and Zechs, and I said I'd call here - Heero and Une are necessarily out of the loop until they get in safely. I'd imagine Noin is making arrangements."
Howard groaned and snatched his sunglasses off his nose, rubbed them absently against his brightly-coloured shirt, then put them back on again. "Fine, I'll do it. You all owe me one, kid. God, he's gonna be pissed "
"I'm sorry to dump this on you."
Howard shook his head. "Nah - I'm his 'dad,' after all, I should be able to handle this Okay, I'm on it. Where the hell are you, kid?"
"On my way to rendezvous with Sally," Trowa replied. "We split up for safety "
"Right," Howard growled. "Well, take care of you, and I want to hear all about how well your new systems worked when we get a spare moment, you got that?"
"Got it. Goodbye, dad." The connection cut before Howard could respond.
He looked back over his shoulder. The three boys were in the water splashing at one another and, though he couldn't hear them over the crashing of the surf, he was sure they were laughing, happy. He found himself absently wondering if any of them remembered to put on sunscreen, and shook his head. "How many times do I have to say I ain't no one's frickin dad," he grumbled. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he turned and walked back to break the news.