'Unisex Bonding Rituals'
"I don't believe he just went off like that!" Heero seethed, pacing up and down one end of the common room. "Of all the impulsive, irresponsible--"
"He's starting to repeat himself," Dan noted, pulling a pack of cards out of his pocket. "Poker, anyone?"
"For all he knows, we'd rather be helping the other side!" Wufei snarled, passing Heero as he paced. "We haven't had a chance to discuss--"
"He started repeating himself ten minutes ago," Jay sighed, looking bored. "I'll play. Strip, stud or regular, what?"
"As if that manipulative maniac bitch will really keep him safe!" Heero almost yelled.
"Oi!" Mel snapped, glaring at him. "Watch it! Christy may be a homicidal maniac, but she's one of our homicidal maniacs! And she's not manipulative!"
"I am not a maniac," Asuka growled.
"You are so," Jay said absently, picking up one of the cards and scowling at its back. "You're not manic. No second 'a'. Your Firman is a little imprecise sometimes... Dan, when are you going to stop marking the cards? It isn't cricket."
"I'll stop marking the cards when you stop reading our minds during games," Dan informed her, plucking the card out of her grasp and adding it to the pack as he shuffled.
"Fair enough, I suppose." She turned to Trowa and Quatre. "Are you two lovebirds playing?"
"Um--" Quatre started.
"Oh, for Tane's sake, stop pacing!" Mel groaned, rolling her eyes at Heero and Wufei. "Look, if you're so bloody worried, we do have a radio in here. You can listen in to their communications, if you'll just sit down and stop snarling to yourselves!"
"There won't be anything to listen to for at least two hours," Jay whispered out of the corner of her mouth as Heero and Wufei paused, considering their options.
"I know," Mel whispered back, "but even if they sit down for five minutes, it'll give my eyes a rest. It's like watching a tennis match!"
Wufei sighed, unclenching his fists. "I may take that offer," he said grudgingly.
"I have a better idea," Heero snarled, stalking towards the door. "I'm going after them."
"Le Gundam hangar, she eez locked," Dan drawled, putting on a heavy, and very fake, Gaulish accent. "Tu ne peux pas entrer."
"We'll see," Heero snorted and slammed the door behind him.
"Heero is very good with locks," Quatre said nervously.
"So are we," Asuka replied. "Forget the fancy shuffle and just deal, Dan."
"Radio's in that cupboard," Mel told Wufei, pointing as she pulled her chair up to the table. "Switch to band 32, make sure the 'track' button is in, and hit 'scan'."
"Five card stud, jokers wild, jacks or better, trips to win," Dan announced, starting to deal. "In deference to our visitors, we're playing for jellybeans. Somebody hit the canteen for stakes."
Half an hour later, Quatre and Jay had most of the jellybeans.
"Okay, you two," Asuka said coldly, pulling out a knife and starting to clean his nails as Trowa shuffled. "Quit reading us."
"I don't think I'm reading anyone," Quatre protested. "I'm certainly not doing it on purpose if I am!"
"And I'm not reading you, so what's your problem?" Jay asked.
The door slammed back against the wall and Heero stormed in. "Fine," he growled, "the locks are good. I want--" He broke off, staring at the table. "You... what are you doing?!"
"Playing poker for jellybeans," Dan informed him with a forced grin.
"How can you sit here playing cards when Duo's out there going into a firefight without us?!" he yelled, glaring at Trowa and Quatre.
"Not much else we can do," Trowa pointed out calmly, starting to deal. Quatre winced, rubbing at his chest, then determinedly ate a few of his jellybeans, trying to look unconcerned.
"We can get in our Gundams and take care of it!" Heero shouted. "You! Open the damn door!"
"No," Asuka said flatly, picking up his cards.
"Look, mate," Mel said icily, "I don't know how you do things where you come from, but around here we don't use mobile suits against infantry. That's what the Theos do, not us. That's an infantry battle the medevac mission's gone to, with a few tanks and light APCs mixed in. No mobile suits, so we-- and you-- are going nowhere near it. Now siddown, shut up and listen to the fucking radio!"
"Er, Mel," Jay said uncertainly, fiddling with her cards, "perhaps this isn't exactly the best time to mention this, but isn't it a little unfair for you to be mad at him," she pointed at Heero, "when what you're really mad about is the fact that he exists?" This time she pointed at Wufei. "You're sort of letting it spill over onto the rest of our guests, I think, though I can't tell why you're so angry at--"
Mel didn't move, but her eyes lifted to glare at Jay over her cards and a muscle in her jaw jumped.
"--himmmmm-oooooh I think I'll just stop reading you now."
After Jay and Quatre won the last few jellybeans, the poker game broke up. Faced with some more time to kill before there would be anything more interesting than the occasional progress report coming over the radio, people turned to alternate forms of entertainment.
Heero and Wufei discovered that most of the chairs could be made to recline. Commandeering the two nearest to the radio, they both leaned back as far as possible and ignored the rest of the room. Wufei closed his eyes and seemed to be meditating; Heero counted the little holes in the acoustic ceiling tiles. He counted pencils, too, since somebody had apparently thrown a lot of them point-first at the ceiling until they stuck.
Mel brought a tubular steel bar out of her room, screwed it into a socket high in the wall, hooked her legs over it and swung upside-down, reading a book.
Asuka shut himself in his room, got his gun and knife collection out of the lockbox, and started cleaning and sharpening them.
Dan messed with Heero's pencil count by alternately throwing more at the ceiling and knocking others down.
Jay pulled a massive photo wallet out of the pocket of her bathrobe and showed the contents to Quatre and Trowa.
"This is my brother, Lucas," she said happily, pointing. "He built Dyscalculia. Mother was really not happy, don't'cha know, since my family has a long-running tradition of pacifism-- oh, you too? Interesting parallel-- anyway, Mother told him to destroy Dyscalculia, but he hid it instead. Jolly good thing, too. Then the Matriarch sponsored the Gundam project, and Mother had to grin and bear it. Er... not exactly, come to think of it," she said sheepishly. "It was more like 'look icily disapproving and ignore it', really, but... nevermind." She flipped over to the next picture and continued.
"This is Xavier, he's the oldest. He looks a lot like Father..."
"...this one's Diego..."
"Um, Miss Vencedor--" Quatre started.
"--Jay, I'm sorry... how many brothers do you have?" he asked, eyeing the thick wallet with some trepidation. I have a hunch I already know the answer...
"Twenty-nine," she said cheerfully, then blinked and looked at him. "You too? All sisters? And older... wow, you were all incubator babies too?! By Jove, Luke old boy, the correspondences between us are positively creepy, what? I say, Mel, did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Mel said absent-mindedly, turning a page.
"This absolutely delightful young man has a surprisingly similar family situation to mine," Jay burbled, bouncing excitedly. "I think he and I are nearly counterparts. Oh, frabjous day, the research I can do! The papers I can write! This could be very interesting, you know, shed light on the whole question of exactly what similarities exist between our world and the world Appearances come from--"
"Except for the fact that you'll never be able to publish anything," Mel pointed out, swinging gently.
"--eh? What? I say, you aren't casting nasturtiums, are you? I mean, I can buckle down and finish a paper or seven if I want to! I've just never wanted to before."
"Your research subjects arrived with Gundams, Jay," Mel said dryly. "That means they're classified up the wazoo, just like us, and you won't be allowed to publish."
"Oh poop," Jay said, deflating abruptly.
"Never mind, Jay chčrie," Dan said, taking aim with a tennis ball at the cluster of pencils over Wufei's head. "Things might get declassified once the war's over. And even if they don't, you can always work things out for yourself."
"It's no fun if I can't gloat," Jay pouted.
"Ah, well. Can't help you then," Dan said cheerfully, and threw. The tennis ball smacked into the center of the acoustic tile, starting half a dozen pencils plummeting towards Wufei--
--who swiped a hand through the air above his face, catching several and swatting the rest aside. Opening his eyes, he raised an eyebrow at what he held, then looked over at Dan. "Do you mind?" he said, in a surprisingly mild voice.
"No, actually," Dan replied, applauding. "Good reflexes."
Whatever Wufei might have been about to say was lost forever as the radio crackled to life.
< < Firehawk One to Firebase M, our ETA is eighteen minutes. What is your situation, over? > >
"Now we're getting somewhere," Mel said, kicking out and somersaulting to the floor. "Yo! Asuka! Action!"
"I heard," the Glacin teen said, opening his door.
"How-- oh, right. You've bugged the common room again, haven't you?"
< < Firebase M to Firehawks, can you make it ten minutes? > > a strained voice asked. Gunfire could be heard in the background. < < We're under heavy fire and taking casualties fast, our reinforcements are nowhere to be seen, and we think we've been flanked, but can't get a scouting party out to confirm. If you don't get here fast, there won't be anyone alive to evacuate, over. > >
"Oo-er," Jay said quietly.
< < Roger that, Firebase M. Revised ETA, eight minutes, out. Firehawks nine and ten, stick with the medevac choppers as escort; Firehawks two to eight, kick it up. Let's move, people! > >
"Which one are they on?" Wufei asked quietly.
Dan shrugged. "No idea." His voice was calm, but he was leaning forward in his chair, fingers knotted.
Asuka leaned over and picked up the phone handset, punching in a number. He waited for a second; the others could hear the faint insect-like buzz as it rang on the other end, then a tiny voice squawked.
"Three here," Asuka said coldly. "Which Firehawk did Two and her friend go with?"
There was a pause, then a nervous squeak.
"It should be on the mission board, fuckwit," Asuka returned. "Go look. If it's not there, ask someone. Or do I have to come down there myself?"
"You know, it's amazing how nasty you can sound, Asuka old bean. Without really trying, too," Jay chirped. "You don't even get loud."
"I hate dealing with morons," Asuka muttered. "I-- yes? ...Right." He hung up. "Firehawk six," he announced, dropping into a chair.
"You wouldn't have to deal with so many morons if you didn't keep scaring people out of their wits," Dan pointed out. "And thanks."
"I don't know why they're so scared. I haven't killed anyone on base."
"Yet," the local pilots chorused.
The radio crackled as one of the Firehawk pilots whistled into his microphone. < < Bloody hell, > > he said, hushed. < < We're sending medevac choppers into that? > >
< < That's why we're here, > > Firehawk one's pilot replied. < < Let's cool it down a little before they arrive, okay? > >
< < Armoured column, three o'clock low, > > another voice snapped. < < Our colours... IFF confirms friendlies. > >
< < Firehawk one to Firebase M, reinforcements sighted, ETA approximately thirty minutes-- > >
< < I'm getting movement flags at eleven o'clock, > > another voice cut in.
< < --and you have been flanked, over, > > the lead pilot continued smoothly. < < Hawks seven and eight, peel off and go for thee flanking force. > >
< < Got it, > > a woman said cheerfully. < < Let's do this thing! > >
< < Katadikazo, > > Christy swore. < < It's gonna be a bumpy ride! > >
< < No shit, > > Duo answered, sounding surprisingly cheerful.
"The ground column is thirty minutes out, and the choppers will be there in about four?" Trowa asked, lifting an eyebrow. "What sort of engines do you put in your tanks? Or should that be, what sort of engines do you put in your choppers?"
"Option B," Mel told him, starting to assemble the first story of a house of cards. "Firehawks are a sort of hybrid between jets and helicopters. You heard 'em kick the jets in when they left; those things are faster than Dan's Starthrasher over a short distance."
Dan sniffed. "Only on overboost. And only just."
< < Going to rotors, > > the lead pilot announced. < < Three... two... one... and cut! > > A faint whine that had underlaid his words wound down; then he swore. < < Mierda, Four, pay attention! Pull back and stay with the formation! > >
< < Sorry, > > a sheepish voice replied. < < My finger slipped off the button. I hate these gloves-- WHOA! > > A noise like hail on a tin roof blasted out of the radio for half a second, then cut off.
* * * * *
"Here endeth the history of Firma, as according to Christina Stepanopolous," Christy finished, leaning back against the wall between the gunbay and the pilot compartment. "The End. Or 'to be continued', if you prefer."
Duo quirked an eyebrow, considering. Christy had spent the first ten minutes of the trip making sure that the minor differences between the helicopter's guns and the ones he'd seen in his own world wouldn't cause a problem when he had to use them; then she'd turned off her microphone to avoid disturbing the pilots, settled down, and delivered a detailed history of the last ten years... including eight years of war, with the Alliance steadily losing ground.
"Interesting," he said finally, noncommittal.
She snorted and grinned, stretching. "Ah, I'm not expecting you to leap to your feet and declare undying loyalty to the cause. Like I said, that's just my take on things. I think we're the good guys, but I'm sure a lot of Theos feel the same way about themselves. They say they've got perfectly good reasons for taking over the world, and we say 'fuck off'."
Duo snickered. "That's a pretty good battle cry."
"For Hades' sake, don't tell Jay... actually, do tell Jay. 'Fuck off' sure beats 'Kill enemy shiny things!'"
"Is she always like that?" Duo asked, twisting his head around to look at the Theran pilot. "I mean, I'm considered pretty flaky by some people, but she's... um..."
"Whacked out? Not all there?" Christy suggested. "She's not really. She just... how should I put this... She has a laugh track running most of the time, okay? It's a coping mechanism. Underneath the nutty Vaterean-Albion exterior, there's an excellent brain. Dan's fairly similar, except that he's got a lecherous, incompetent Gallic exterior. Mel has a lazy, spoiled-aristocrat gig going... well, she is lazy, but it doesn't rule her life. Asuka is a borderline sociopath who's found his niche-- don't tell him I said that-- and I'm clinically insane." She smiled cheerfully at him.
"So... split personalities are your coping mechanism?"
She shrugged. "Well, according to the shrink, there's either two-and-a-half or three of me in here. Personality A, the real me, is in control most of the time. Personality B is basically me with a serious case of PMS. Personality 2B... eh, let's not talk about her."
"Ah. Persephone," he said.
"You know, Mort, you're smarter than they treat you."
Duo grimaced. "They've got a point. I kind of wigged out over the whole Bermuda Triangle-Appearance thing. Heero and Wufei are just trying to look out for me. I think I scared them."
"You seem to be holding together okay now."
"Like you said, it's stress relief," he sighed. "Besides, being in imminent danger of getting shot at kind of distracts you from the whole 'AAAAHHHH! I'm in the wrong world!' thing."
< < Firehawk one to Firebase M, our ETA is eighteen minutes-- > >
"Whoops!" Christy said, unhooking her safety harness from the ringbolt next to her. "Lights! Camera! Explosions!"
They flicked their microphones back on and rolled up the gun doors, letting in the buffeting wind and jet noise. Duo clipped his safety harness to his gun and began running through the checklist Christy had shown him, only a fraction of his attention on the radio chatter coming through the earphones in his helmet. He had nearly finished when he heard Christy swear and glanced back to see her leaning out the door, looking ahead.
< < It's gonna be a bumpy ride, > > she sent as he glanced out his own door and raised his eyebrows at the storm of tracer fire and explosions ahead.
< < No shit! > >
* * * * *
"What happened?" Quatre blurted out as the hail-on-metal noise cut off. That was gunfire, of course, but I'm used to Gundams-- were they shooting or being shot at? "I wish we had camera feeds, or a tactical map, or something," he grumbled.
"Firehawk four cut its jets too late and overshot the group," Dan said absently, taking off his glasses and biting at the end of one earpiece. "They ended up in the hot zone without support and got shot at."
"Small calibre weapon," Asuka sniffed dismissively. "It wouldn't've got through the armour."
< < Get back here before they hit you with something bigger, > > a disgusted voice said.
< < Eh, I'm in a good evasive pattern now, > > Four's pilot sent back, sounding a little shaky, but cheerful, < < and I'd have to go back past the big stuff to rejoin formation. Why don't you come and get me? > > Short bursts of fire could be heard behind his words, a deep chugging noise this time.
"That's his guns," Jay noted.
"Large calibre, rapid fire, armour piercing rounds, yadda yadda," Asuka said, looking bored. "They're reasonable, but they still use shell cases. Old technology."
"Our Gundams and some mobile suits are the only things out there with caseless ammo," Mel protested. "Everything else uses shell cases!"
"Like I said. Old technology."
< < All right, Firehawks, form up on the macho twit-- > >
< < Hey! > >
< < --circle clockwise around the firebase and concentrate on artillery kills. Don't just make 'em keep their heads down, or they'll pop up again when the medevacs get here. If it's got a launcher and you see it, I want it gone. > >
< < Gotcha boss. We know the drill. > >
< < Who's got the CD? > >
< < Four. > >
< < So why isn't he playing it? > >
< < I'm dodging stuff here! Gimme a minute! > >
One by one, voices came over the radio as the Firehawk crews started singing.
< < Dan da da da da, dan da da daaa da, dan da da DAAA da, dan da da daaaaa... > >
"Duo should be feeling right at home," Trowa said dryly.
< < Hurry up with the CD, Four, > > a laughing woman said, < < these bastards couldn't hold a tune to save their lives! > >
< < All right, all right, sheesh! Angus, you get it-- it's in the map compartment... there. Happy now? > >
'The Ride of the Valkyries' blasted out of the radio, and, presumably, across the battlefield.
"Is everyone in this world a little crazy?" Quatre asked despairingly.
Surprisingly, Wufei smiled. "This war has lasted... how long? Eight years, isn't it?"
Mel nodded. "About that," she said, carefully adding another card to her construction.
"After eight years, I think soldiers would have to find amusement wherever they could, even in battle," the Chinese boy said quietly. "Otherwise, they have nothing to live for except battle."
"Oh, I say," Jay said, awed. "That's rather poetic, y'know."
Blushing slightly, he folded his arms and looked away. "Of course, I still think you are all far too frivolous for Gundam pilots."
Dan whooped with laughter, nearly falling off his chair. "Really?" he sputtered. "What, even Asuka?"
A knife suddenly sprouted in the seat of Dan's chair, between his legs.
"Yikes! Er-- that is to say, in that case, I'm sure you approve of Asuka!"
"As if I care about approval," Asuka snorted. "Give me my knife back."
Dan leered at him. "Come and get it."
* * * * *
< < Okay, this formation has officially gone to shit, > > the lead pilot announced. He was right; the Firehawks had managed to keep in a large circle for barely thirty seconds before it had begun to break up as pilots evaded fire or turned for a better shot at a target. < < Go random, people. Take your targets as they come and at least try to back each other up! > >
< < Don't we always? > > sent another pilot, plaintively.
< < No. > >
< < He's got a point, > > Christy said. < < We heard about what happened on your last recon mission. > >
< < What did happen? > > Duo asked, curious. < < I've got a couple of tanks over here, > > he added, and fired off a burst as the pilot obligingly turned the chopper to give him a better angle.
< < Well-- > >
< < Don't tell him! > > Four's pilot begged.
< < It's all over the base, Rico, he's gonna find out sooner or later, > > Christy sent.
< < Ah, maldición. Go ahead, tell him. I'll just go die of shame now... > >
< < It's that bad? > > Duo asked.
< < Not really, > > Christy snorted. < < Launcher at eight o'clock... got it. Rico and a few of his friends were out scouting for Theos-- > >
< < Friends? What friends? > > Rico said dramatically. < < I am shunned in the mess hall, I tell you, shunned! > >
< < Only until you buy us enough rounds to take the sting out of the memory, > > someone replied.
< < Who's telling this? Huh? Anyway, Rico thought he saw something, a loooong way from their planned search area, and went to take a look. All by himself. > >
< < I found Theos! > > Rico protested.
< < Yeah, and nearly got your butt shot off. So two of the other three choppers went to save his ass, > > Christy continued, < < and while they were gone, the fourth chopper ran into a Theo patrol and nearly got his butt shot off. > >
< < Nearly? What's this 'nearly' crap? They haven't taken the stitches out of my left ass cheek yet, I'm flying sitting on a pillow here, and that cheapskate Rico still won't buy the beer! > >
< < Flying by the seat of your pants again, Stan, > > one of his crew members snickered.
< < Nah, Rico's flying by the seat of Stan's pants, > > someone else replied.
< < Alcohol slows down the healing process, > > Rico sniffed. < < It's for your own good, I told you. > >
< < Yeah, right. You-- > >
< < Launchers at three o'clock, > > Duo sent. < < Lots of launchers-- DUCK! > >
* * * * *
< < *FZOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!* > >
"What the hell was that?!" half the people in the room chorused. Trowa and Asuka just sat up and narrowed their eyes, and Quatre and Jay were busy clutching at bits of themselves (Quatre : chest, Jay : head) and going 'erk'.
< < Holy shit, > > Christy said, shakily. < < Somebody shoot them... please? > >
"That was a rocket," Trowa said slowly. "Small diameter. About two inches, I think."
Asuka nodded. "Stinger. Shoulder launched."
"And it went straight through the gun bay," Jay said faintly. "Oo-er."
Quatre nodded. "That about sums it up."
"Are you okay?" Trowa asked, concerned.
"Oh, sure. At least, I will be once my heart starts again."
* * * * *
< < Fuck, > > Duo said, disbelievingly. < < I think that prick singed my hair! > >
< < I know he got mine, > > Christy replied. < < I can smell it. > >
< < Ewwww! Burnt hair. > >
< < You two all right back there? > > their pilot sent back.
< < Shaken, but not stirred, > > Duo replied. < < Damn, I wish I was in my Deathscythe! Deathscythe does not have great big holes for rockets to come in and attempt to puree me! > >
< < Whoa, that was so cool! > > Rico yelled. < < You should have seen that from this angle! > >
< < Say what?! > > Christy sputtered. < < Rico, you fuckwit, I saw it from this angle! > >
< < Like I said, > > he chuckled. < < I bet you'd rather have seen it from over here, eh? > >
< < As soon as we get back to base, you are a dead man, Rico, > > she growled, pulling herself up to crouch behind the gun again. < < I mean that. > >
< < I'll help, > > Duo promised. < < Hey, maybe we can just shoot him down now and not have to wait? > >
< < Much as it pains me to say this, > > the lead pilot drawled, < < better not. We might need him. Besides, his copilot and gunners are slightly better than he is. > >
< < Gee, thanks boss, > > a new voice cut in. < < Damning us with faint praise again, huh? > >
< < Anything more and your heads would swell until you couldn't get your helmets on. Heads up, people, it's getting hotter around here and the medevacs are about two minutes out. > >
* * * * *
"Far be it from me to interfere with another man's amusements," Jay said, Albion accent sounding rather strained, "but are you aware that you just bit through your lip?"
"Yes," Wufei growled.
"Oh, good. Just checking."
All the pilots were starting to show signs of the stress as they listened to the radio. Some showed it more than others. Asuka's expression was a little too blank to be believable; the muscles along Trowa's jaw were just a little too tight. The others were fidgeting or tense, Mel's house of cards kept collapsing... and the arms of Heero's chair were creaking in his white-knuckled grip.
End 'Warped Mirrors'
 Tu ne peux pas entrer: Gaulish (French) "You can't get in."
 frabjous: Reference to Lewis Carrol's poem 'Jabberwocky', used as "o glorious day" etc.
 Katadikazo: Theran (Greek) "Damn!"
 Mierda: Vaterean (Spanish) "Shit!"
 maldición: Vaterean (Spanish) "Damn!"
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