Notes: So I woke up with the idea that, you know what? All these faceless Ozzies in fic who beat on the Gundam Pilots-- where do they come from? Where do they go? And what are the odds that none of them ever show up again? So I told Marsh, who leapt aboard, and we came up with this story. Don't run from the OC warning. We're better than that.
“You’re killing him,” Will said, when blood spattered his boots like live sparks.
His father was a butcher. That was the memory that kept threatening, the sound of his father crunching bones with the big cleaver, the huge slabs of meat landing with dull smacks on the chopping block.
The boy on the floor squirmed weakly. The grunt that left his lungs was a mindless release of air and noise when Sig kicked him in the ribs again.
Will glanced down the dark corridor behind him. It seemed insane, unreal, that no-one had heard the racket and come to stop them. His skin crawled, his imagination painting a horde of officers, even Commander Une herself, running down the hall with pistols drawn to arrest them all.
One of the boy’s white hand was open, reaching for something, fingers like sticks out of the big magnetic cuffs. Tucker crushed them under his boot.
“You’re going to kill him,” Will repeated. The mantra was a deafening scream in his own mind, but his traitorous voice emerged in a helpless whisper. “Ortiz, for Christ’s sake…”
The boy tried to curl away. His eyes locked with Will’s.
Sig stepped up, and lifted his foot over the boy’s face. He stomped down, hard.
Everything stopped moving. The men were panting from exertion. Will felt his vision blurring in the darkness, the tight knot of terror in his stomach constricting his chest.
Sig took out a lighter, and lit a cigarette between his lips. “Gundam scum,” he said. “Get him back to his cell before anyone notices.”
“Welcome to the first training session of Preventers Special Operations Team X-09,” Commander Whelan greeted them. The clerk beside him flicked off the lights, and the white screen on the wall lit up with the first slide of a presentation. “You are all carefully selected representatives of your various companies. You are here because you excel at a particular skill, because your own commanders have highly recommended you, and because you have exceeded all expectations in your past missions. And as of this minute, you will be treated as greenhorns. I don’t know you from Jake, boys, and so I will be testing you stringently to ensure that this team will perform to perfection.”
Whelan gestured, and his clerk brought up the next slide, an aerial map. “We are headed to the Sri Lankan border. A group calling themselves the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have claimed responsibility for the assassination of a prominent member of the Cabinet and her family. They have also issued this videoed statement in which they threaten three cities with suicide bombings and attacks on civilian institutions, including the University. They have named specific targets and given us a timeline.” The clerk ran the video on silent on the screen. “Mills. You’re our military history buff. Tell the team why we’re concerned ourselves with the Tamil Tigers.”
“Sir.” One of the men stood from the third row of desks. “The Tigers disbanded in 2049, pre-colony, after regional forces killed their leadership in a standoff. They’re an obsolete organisation.”
“Correct.” Whelan waved for the next slide. “Which is why their sudden reappearance after centuries of inactivity is notable and problematic. We cannot assume that the new Tamil Tigers have the same objectives as the original organisation, which means we cannot assume whom they represent, nor who the individuals responsible for these acts are or where they come from. Our task is to—“
The door opened, spilling light into the room. Everyone turned to look at the intruder, a young man slipping in quietly.
“Sergeant Maxwell,” Whelan said coolly. “You join us at last.”
Maxwell closed the door behind him and saluted into the soft glow of the projector. “Sorry about the time, sir,” he answered.
“Any excuses?” the commander pressed.
“Would you accept any?” Maxwell said cheekily. He tacked on, “Sir,” a beat too late.
Whelan was frowning. Then he turned back to his team. “Your pilot,” he told them all shortly. “Sergeant Maxwell is the man responsible for your safe passage into and out of combat situations. This makes him the least dispensable man on the team. Without a pilot, you are grounded in enemy territory.” He waited for Maxwell to take the open seat beside Stanley, and, only when Maxwell was seated with his own copy of the mission briefing, resumed his presentation. “As I was saying, our task is to locate the cell calling themselves the Tamil Tigers. Once we have done so, we will lead a sting operation, with the objective of destroying their facilities and eliminating their leaders. You have fifteen minutes to study the information we’ve collated for you. We’re meeting on the track. Before we can act as a team, we will train to be one. We have three days before go.” He gathered his papers, and nodded to his clerk. “Lights on. Let them read.”
The lights brightened. Maxwell thumbed quickly through his report, then turned to the man he shared a desk with. “Call me Duo,” he said, holding out a hand. “I was just out running a diagnostic on the new Radar EH-230. She’s a freaking whale. They’ve got to stop letting some idiot general design planes, right? More firepower than wings, which I guess explains why I’m here.” He said it unabashedly, as if he fully expected his reputation to have preceded him. “Stanley, right?”
“William, sir. Will.” Stanley pressed Maxwell’s hand quickly and with a damp, nervous palm.
“Duo,” Maxwell reminded him. He released Stanley’s hand when it tugged away, but a thoughtful frown was pulling his brows together. “We work together before?”
“No, never.” Stanley looked to the opposite side of the room, but it was blank-walled, a simple classroom devoid of any decoration.
“But we’ve met somewhere.” Maxwell stared openly. “You’re familiar.”
Silence met his statement. It was Maxwell who broke it. He shoved his chair violently back, abandoning the desk as if launched from it. Stanley flinched away from the noise.
“Commander,” Maxwell said. His voice broke through the murmurs of the rest of the team, who regarded him with surprise. "Permission to leave."
Whelan turned from his clerk. "What? You just arrived, Pilot."
"And I'm just leaving. Permission to be cut from this exercise, sir."
Whelan’s mouth dropped open. Behind Maxwell, Stanley drew a deep breath, and came to his feet.
"Sir?" he said. "I think I'm the problem here. If you'll excuse me from this mission, Maxwell won't need to go."
Maxwell turned to glare at him. "I don't need your charity, asshole," he snapped.
Whelan slapped his brief to the podium. "No-one's leaving. If you two have a problem with each other, deal with it on your own time."
"With all due respect, sir,” Maxwell said, “like hell."
Whelan narrowed his eyes. "You're one step from insubordination, soldier."
"Sir, please." Stanley broke in. He was red-cheeked himself, a fair-haired boy with sandy blond hair and pale brown eyes, downcast now. "I volunteered for this. I'd like to rescind that."
"Neither one of you is going anywhere!" The men were staring. Whelan levelled a long look about the room, until heads dropped back down where they belonged, busy with the briefs. Whelan waited a moment more, then gestured both Maxwell and Stanley close. They came, Maxwell in a straight-backed stance that all but hummed with fury. Stanley met his commander’s eyes with difficulty.
"I was warned about this when I took you on, Maxwell,” Whelan said finally, quietly. “If this is some Gundam Pilot crap about OZ, I'm not having it."
Maxwell turned red as if he had been dropped into boiling water. He said nothing in his own defence. He simply turned and stalked to the door. It bounced off the wall from the force of his opening it.
“Maxwell!” Whelan yelled.
Stanley licked his lips. “Sorry,” he said quickly, and hurried after Maxwell.
“Get your asses back here!”
“Sorry, sir!” Stanley saluted from the doorway, and then took off running down the hall. "Maxwell,” he called. “Wait. Please."
Maxwell had longer legs and he was making good progress. He didn’t slow when Stanley called him—if anything, his steps sped up. He cut a quick detour through one of the theatres, Stanley hard on his heels calling vainly for him. The theatre exit put them at a stairwell, and Maxwell clattered loudly down it, and threw himself through the double doors of the men’s locker.
Stanley followed him in, and made sure the doors shut behind them. He caught his breath, and said, "Please, just... could we talk for a minute?"
Maxwell whirled on him, making him jump. Hands connected flat with his chest and shoved him back. "You take another step and you're talking to my fist!" Maxwell snarled at him.
"Okay. Okay.” Stanley put his own hands up, palms out and open. “I probably deserve that. But there's no point getting yourself into trouble over this. Please, just—just go back there. I'll get out of the assignment."
"I don't need you watching my back." Maxwell’s mouth was pressed into a thin, grim line. He stepped in, this time, slowly crowding Stanley back into a row of lockers. "Go back to the big boys. They'll protect you. You people always protect each other, huh?"
"My people?" Stanley’s back touched metal, and he stilled.
"Yeah. The ones you were with while they were beating the living shit out of me." Maxwell was in his face now, close enough for Stanley to feel the heat radiating off him, unable to look away from malevolent eyes glaring him down. "I remember you,” Maxwell said. “You were the one at the door. The one who watched the whole fucking time without lifting a finger."
"That was ten years ago,” Stanley protested weakly. “There's... the war is over. We're not enemies any more."
"I am so sick of hearing that. The war's over. Free pass on everything. No-one accountable for god-damn anything because we're all best friends now, right?" His exhale was shaky. "They weren't handing out memory-wipes on my side at the close of hostilities."
"I remember," Stanley said. "I'll never forget that day. Or my part in it." He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I am. Please... Let me make some kind of amends."
"Amends?" Maxwell repeated sceptically. Suddenly he gave up crowding Stanley. He backed away, stripping out of his jacket as he moved. He ripped the lock off one of the lockers and threw his uniform into it. It clanged loudly when he slammed it shut. "You want to make amends? Start with this. Go fuck yourself."
Where it might have gone from there, neither would ever know. Whelan had found them. Both of them straightened automatically when the commander came storming in, winded from chasing them. Whelan surveyed the distance between them, and Maxwell’s state of undress. Stanley saluted awkwardly; Maxwell stood still, his expression mutinous, his arms defiantly stiff at his sides.
"Maxwell, Stanley, you're on report," Whelan said. "Get your butts to Colonel Merquise's office right now. March."
The parade to Command was excruciating for Will. He’d never been on report before, certainly never so early in an assignment with a new commander. Even if he were reassigned, he knew, word would get out about the scene he’d been a part of.
If anything, the long walk with Commander Whelan through Headquarters, which seemed to take twice as long as Will remembered, gave Maxwell time to stew. He had never seen anyone so poisonously angry before.
Whelan went in first. He wasn’t long. When he came out to fetch them from the hall, he had settled into a severe silence that did not invite questions.
“Go in,” he ordered them.
Colonel Merquise was on his feet by the window, taking advantage of the morning light to read from a thick folder. He set it down when they entered, and gestured them to stand before his large desk. He surveyed them both, and fixed a cool gaze on Maxwell.
"What's this about?" was all he said.
"Requesting reassignment, sir," Maxwell answered immediately, stiff-backed. "Personal reasons."
"Not acceptable." Merquise folded his arms. "Not acceptable at all. Explain yourself."
Will could see Maxwell’s right hand, clenched into a white fist. "Requesting leave, then," Maxwell said.
"Denied." Merquise seemed to think he’d got all he was going to get. He turned to Will. "Let me guess,” he said. “You're requesting dismissal from this mission as well?"
Will nodded. "Yes, sir. Maxwell would be more an asset to the mission."
"Like I'm going to fucking go now," Maxwell muttered.
"Stay," Merquise told him shortly. He looked back to Will. "You're off the mission,” he decided. “Dismissed."
Will was relieved. He saluted, putting the proper snap into it, and turned to go.
But Maxwell didn’t budge. At volume, this time, he said, "I'm not going."
The look Merquise turned on him promised dire things. "You heard me,” he said, his voice deceptively soft. “Stanley's out. You're in.” He paused. “I think I can guess why the drama. It's unprofessional in the extreme."
"Unprofessional?" Maxwell repeated disbelievingly. "I'm supposed to trust a CO who thinks I'm pulling 'Gundam pilot crap'? Teammates who've worked with these two more than me? I'm the guy who just got their buddy kicked off the team."
"You are pulling Gundam pilot crap,” Merquise said. “Aren't you?"
The fist at Maxwell’s side spasmed. "You'll have my resignation tomorrow morning," he spat out.
"Stop this now, Maxwell," Merquise ordered, though not quite as roughly as before. Concern began to peek through his mask of indifference. "You're risking your career over ancient history."
"It's not ancient to me." Maxwell threw a burning glare at Will, but it encompassed Merquise, too, when his eyes returned there. "I'm so fucking sick of how everyone around here acts like we're all supposed to be friends. I'm not your friend. I'm not Whelan’s friend, and I'm definitely not his." He pointed at Will, and finally at himself. "What I am is not going on this mission."
"I see." Merquise stood in a tight-shouldered quiet for several moments. "Two week suspension,” he said then. “Effective immediately.”
That was a severe punishment. Will felt green. "Sir,” he tried to interrupt. “This isn't his fault."
"Not another word,” Merquise barked. “Either of you."
Will clamped his jaws shut to stop himself.
Maxwell said icily, "Anything else?"
It seemed Merquise almost answered. Whatever he wanted to say, though, he kept to himself. “Go," was all he murmured. Maxwell was moving almost before it was out of his mouth. Will waited long enough for a proper dismissal.
“Be careful,” Merquise told him, with the door swinging shut on Maxwell. “Let it end.”
“Sir,” Will said helplessly.
It was nearing noon. The sun was painfully bright outside, reflecting off the white walls of the three-storied Headquarters. The broad parkland that surrounded the compound was in full summer bloom, the lake blue and deep, the woods behind it full and green. Will had eyes for none of it. Maxwell was skittering down the front steps, the metal buckles jigging on his flightsuit sparking light in all directions.
"Wait," Will called after him, and took off down the steps.
Maxwell didn’t run from him this time. He stopped dead, and actually came back up three stairs, meeting Will half-way up. "I have nothing to say to you."
"I didn't know you were going to be on the team,” Will tried to explain. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”
"You know what I didn't mean?" Maxwell demanded. "I didn't mean to ever see your ugly face again. You know what else I didn't mean? I didn't mean for any of you to live through the war. So I guess it's my fault, huh?"
The bitterness of that hit Will like a physical blow. "No,” he said again, soundlessly. He cleared his throat. “It's... no. I'll leave you alone."
"Good start, genius."
And then, oddly, Maxwell hesitated. They both swayed, attuned to the same breath of breeze that blew out from the lake.
Then the momentary suspension broke. Maxwell turned his back. Will didn’t call him back this time.