Someone here on ffnet had a small request in the midst of a comment, and I figured, eh, what the hell.


Heero studied the booklet he'd been given by some bubbly-faced cadet, and tried to ignore Duo's too-obvious squinting. The young graduates were filing into the auditorium, a massive sea of dark blue uniforms marching -- for once -- in what seemed an orderly manner. Then again, they could've been hollering it up for all Heero might know; the piped-in music was deafening. Quatre looked a bit green when the speakers would crackle at some of the high notes, while Wufei seemed to be either genuinely memorizing his hands, or asleep. Trowa was definitely asleep.

"They're so damned young." Duo grumped, situated himself, tugged at his collar, and managed to neatly interject a strong jab into Trowa's ribs at the same time. "We never looked that young. They're too goddamn young these days."

"We looked younger," Quatre said. It would've been a murmur, perhaps, if he'd not been shouting down a thousand voices murmuring and an entire orchestral movement determined to stamp out the same five notes in droning progression. "I believe the Hand's in the B's?"

"We were younger," Trowa pointed out.

"Everyone looks grown-up in a Gundam," Duo replied.

"I found him," Heero offered, flipping through the booklet. "He's using his step-father's name now. Michael..." He checked the page number. "It's page five, halfway down. Michael Kirkpatrick."

"Why couldn't he have stuck with Baker? It's a good name." Duo neatly tore out the middle two pages from his booklet and began folding the papers idly, into no obvious object that Heero could determine. "Plus being earlier in line means you leave earlier." He held up a small paper frog. "That's reason number five my name had to come first in the hyphenation, Heero."

"If those were your priorities, you should've married Chang," Trowa said.

Wufei momentarily broke his concentration to lean past Quatre and give Trowa an annoyed look. "Better you than me."

"There's no--"

"I'm not giving up my chance to be at the head of the alphabet," Quatre interjected, and gently pushed Wufei back with his usual diplomatic aplomb. Heero caught a strange grin pass between them, and wondered if maybe Duo had a point. Sitting on a stage through the endless process did seem to boil brains. "Is Relena here yet?"

"Delayed." Trowa shrugged.

"Nicholas should be somewhere near the front, on one of the ends," Heero said, mostly because conversation kept Duo's mouth moving. It didn't change much, but at least it was entertainment. Enough years and he'd learned to -- if not actually skillfully provide an entire half of a conversation himself -- at least know what would keep Duo's half going.

"Why do professors get to stand around out there and we're stuck up here? We don't even have all those fancy badges and stuff." Duo tugged on the collar of his uniform, a stark black and badgeless ensemble that was entirely the fault of his and Wufei's combined efforts, and scowled at the academic and military big names seating themselves around the pilots. "We should at least get them for times like these."

"I want to be able to walk onto the stage without it collapsing," Trowa muttered.

"I refuse to glow in the dark," Wufei added, leaning forward again. "Don't you dare change your mind, Maxwell, not after all that bullshit you put me through."

"Put you through? You? You're not the one trying to live with the guy that's getting sixteen kajillion way-after-the-fact crap pieces of ribbon-ey bling from every Tom, Dick and fricking Harry with a--"

"It finally comes out." Trowa pitched his voice to be heard, though he made a show of only saying it to Quatre. "All this time, he was just jealous."

"That is so bullshit," Duo snapped. A final tug and the neatly trimmed mandarin collar gave way. Heero caught a glimpse of the single dark-metal button pinging off into the front rows of academy graduates. "For once, can you just not pull your usual shit for at least the duration of a public event?"

"It's not my shit you don't like," Trowa replied, never losing the equitable tone. "What you don't like is that I just point out your shit."

"Oh, there's Pinky! Wave, everyone," Quatre said, and gave a cheerful wave to someone off in the audience. "Guys," he added through gritted teeth.

Heero waved with a bare glance in the general direction. Trowa and Duo both waved, but didn't look away from each other.

"Look here, Barton," Duo said, "just because we've known each other for, uh, eight years--"

"Ten years," Wufei said.

"Yeah, whatever. Anyway, it doesn't mean you can--"

"Quatre," Heero said, and jerked on Duo's braid at the same time. It was a move sure to get Duo's ire up, and come back to haunt him later, but at least it proved a suitable means to gain abrupt silence. It was enough space for Quatre and Heero to stand up in unison, glare at their respective friends, and wait until Trowa and Duo begrudgingly slid apart to let Quatre and Heero sit in the middle. "Now," Heero said, although rather unnecessarily, but it seemed the moment required a final word.

"Hunh," Duo said. "I still say they're all too frigging young to be given any kind of responsibility."

"At least no one's hacked the sound system," Wufei replied.

"I don't think you'd be able to tell." Quatre winced when the speakers, just then, crackled particularly loud.

"The paparazzi's not nearly as bad this year," Trowa observed, and closed his eyes again. He stretched out his legs, and Heero could just feel Duo's hackles rising.

A hand on Duo's leg seemed to forestall the worst of it, and Heero gave Quatre a matching apologetic smile, however small. Wufei just sighed.

"Lieutenant Windsor was right," he muttered.

"Pardon?" Quatre looked puzzled.

"This is why we can't have nice things."

"There's the Hand," Heero announced, as Mike came to his feet among the rows of seated cadets to give the five former pilots a body-shaking two-armed wave. Heero frowned. Mike's gestures seemed awfully specific, though cryptic. The rest of the five looked at Heero, who shook his head, unable to translate.

"I wonder what he's hacked into now," Duo murmured, and even Trowa appeared distracted. Wufei settled his glasses more firmly and Quatre appeared to brace himself -- just as the music, and then the lights, cut out and left the entire auditorium in stunned silence... and darkness.

"One of these days," Heero announced a bit too loudly for such a breathless pause, "you're going to learn to stop asking stupid questions, Maxwell, because your stupid questions always get me into trouble." The cowed response from the crowd would soon turn into panic, he knew, if someone didn't act. Cut the generators on, bring up the emergency lights, something. Already he could pick up the confused and annoyed mutters of entering graduates who'd run into each other in the dark, though a few flashes of light here and there indicated some people still carried those tiny flashlights on key-chains or ID-badges.

"Fine, fine," Duo replied, and a clatter and thud and a sudden absence of his thigh pressed against Heero's was barely warning before Duo's full-throated shout came from about four feet or so above Heero's head. "ALL RIGHT YOU BASTARDS," he hollered, and Heero winced. Quatre laughed, softly, and it sounded like Wufei and Trowa might be struggling not to join him. "YOU PULL SOME SHIT RIGHT NOW AND YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS?"

Some disembodied voice hollered from the back. "YOU'RE GONNA MAKE US ALL RUN TWENTY HILLS?"

"NO, JUST YOU," Duo shot back. "FOR THE REST OF YOU, IT MEANS IF YOU'RE NOT HERE TO OVERTHROW THE EARTH SPHERE THEN DON'T WASTE MY TIME." Duo's barking laugh echoed in the massive darkness, an unnerving sound rarely heard in the past few years. "IF YOU ARE, THEN--"

A foot nudged Heero, and he got the point. Quatre would give him hell for it later, but just because Duo was loud didn't mean Heero wasn't flashy, as Duo always liked to say. Heero slipped his gun from the holster at the small of his back, thought for a split second of his recollection of the ceiling's insulation and basic layout, and fired straight up. The entire auditorium erupted into pandemonium.

Wufei's voice, a blend of annoyance and admiration, could just barely be heard. "Damn it, Yuy, when Une finds out, you are in so much trouble..."

Duo rode out the panicked shrieking for a few seconds, until it subsided just enough for him to use those impressive vocal cords one more time. "THE LONGER I GOTTA WEAR THIS FREAKING MONKEY SUIT, THE MORE PISSED I GET. AND I MIGHT GET PISSED, BUT SOMEONE ELSE HERE GETS CRANKY. DO WE WANT THAT?"

Light flared from the overhead screens, but instead of displaying the stationary cameras' upclose shots of the stage, it displayed a simple message. "We're very sorry, Deathscythe," the screen read. A few giggles sounded from the audience, though muffled. The letters paraded past. "We just wanted to remind two someones not to get too big for their britches."

The last word scrolled off, and even Duo couldn't seem to come up with a reply. Then the screen's dull gray blinked into colorful life, showing Mike Kirkpatrick and Canh Lee -- complete with full names and academy ID numbers -- in their former adolescent glory, huddled over a laptop in the small bartender-alley behind a bar. Multiple beers were piled in the picture's foreground, and both boys were holding additional beers; Canh was typing with one hand while drinking with the other -- and spilling half the beer on himself from the bad angle -- while the shot's angle gave the distinct impression that Mike was drinking with his free hand down his pants. The shot looked to have been taken by either a cheap digital camera or a low-grade cell phone.

The entire auditorium was completely silent.

"HEY!" A new voice hollered out. "THAT WAS NOT THE PLAN, YOU BASTARDS!"

"Sorry," the screen said.

"SORRY MY ASS," another voice shouted, but a third drowned them out, a deeper voice that could only be one specific technology instructor.

"YOU ASSHOLES! YOU SAID THE BARTENDER ONLY LET YOU HAVE ONE BEER!"