3-19-2004

Hello. There have been a lot of stories posted lately but I hope you can find the time to read one more. Please enjoy your reading and have a good evening. Hugs. Karen, The Huntress.

Disclaimer: I do not own Gundam Wing or its characters.
Title: A Reason for Living
Author: Karen, The Huntress hickman@rockbridge.net
Rated: R
Warning: AU, angst, violence, language, adult situations
Pairing: 1x2, 3x4
Part: 1-11/21+Epilogue
Feedback: Always appreciated
Archive: http://www.angelfire.com/ab7/shadesandechoes/gwarchives/karen/karen.html

Summary: After Heero Yuy, Agent 01 rescues Quatre Winner, Agent 04 events are set in motion that finally give Heero a reason for living.

A Reason for Living

 

Part One: Temping Fate

Footsteps stuck hollowly along the stone walkway. The compound's lights glinted off the sentry's rifle. A vague silhouette flattened against a perimeter wall trying its best to blend with the midnight shadows. A brief flash of filtered light danced along an automatic's cold steel barrel as the weapon was held close to the black-clad man's cheek

The nearly full moon had been unusually bright but now its luster was subdued by streams of wispy clouds and the hidden figure hoped that it would remain that way awhile longer.

One more open space, one last dash. The sentry's footsteps faded.

A relaxing sigh escaped over Yuy's lips. Listening for the slightest sound he cautiously moved forward again...staying low, crouching like a cat. The lateness of the hour had aided his undetected movements but he was not so foolish to think that he was the only person stirring around in the dark.

Squares of light, copying a window's contours, flooded the ground below one of the occupied rooms on the first floor. Yuy's objective lay just three more beyond his position.

Faint voices carried into the night. Someone lit a cigarette; the flame momentarily pulled a face from the darkness less than twenty feet away. Muscle tensed, Yuy froze in place. Finally the last obstacle between 01 and the desired window stepped back inside.

Taking a moment to regroup Yuy checked the clip on his Beretta. Commander Une would have had a fit if she knew her agent had once again forsaken HQ's standard-issue regulation weapon.

While more firepower would have been preferred 01's arsenal had to be light that was an important key to getting in and out quickly. Smoke and flashpoint grenades would also, no doubt, be put to good use sooner or later.

The moon peeked out flickering through the drifting clouds. Its shimmering beams touched Yuy's piercing blue eyes raising tiny sparks within their widened pupils. Then as if frightened by the brooding glare the silvery orb of heaven retreated back into the cloud's misty veils.

Once more he listened then breathed in deeply before letting out a slow, steadying exhalation. Allowing a brief encroachment of nervous tension, just enough to sustain the edge that heightened his senses, Yuy maintained the alert state that could mean the difference between success and failure.

Laying his pistol at his feet, Yuy's hand traced up the windowpane stopping above the inner latch. From his belt pack a suction cup fitted with a glasscutter was attached to the dirt-dimmed glass. Carefully he turned the hardened tip until a full circle was completed. A gentle pull freed the severed glass creating a hole large enough to allow access to the latch. The window slid up smoothly.

With a similar fluid motion 01 took up his pistol and silently slid over the sill then the window came down as easily. "Maybe no one will have cause to hold ground's inspection tonight." Yuy thought to himself as he checked the directional indicator built into his watch.

Listening through the micro-receiver pressed inside his ear he tried to isolate 04's tracking band signal. A door to the left seemed the most promising. The door eased open, twin pinpoints of blue stared into the vacant corridor.

So far the building's layout matched the mental blueprint secured in Yuy's memory. A long hall stretched out to the right and, if his memory served him correctly, Yuy knew that the darkened passage led to the basement.

It had been six days since 04's last communication, before that daily reports as ordered, then nothing. Une has allowed for equipment failure but there had been more than sufficient time for 04 to find an alterative contact.

Finally it was decided that the agent's halted transmission meant that he had been discovered or, worse yet, was no longer alive to send the signal. Now 01's assignment was to find out exactly what had happened.

Quickly Yuy covered the length of the hallway. In the eerie silence an irregular beep-beep sounded through the micro-receiver. However the anticipation created by the weak but audible signal was tempered by the uncertainty of its origin.

Was the band still on 04's wrist? It could possibly be laying off to itself far from his fellow agent. If so Yuy knew that there was a good chance that he might never learn what happened. And what if the wrong people had discovered the band's real purpose? Was the signal true or a trap?

There was a distinct possibility that 04's name had become part of a thick file locked away in Une's office and that Yuy, too, could join many other agents to become one more unsolved case with his fate unknown.

But he didn't want to think about possibilities or lists or fate. He knew that no matter how thoroughly a plan had been put together that luck was often the deciding factor. "Lady Luck" had been on his side in the past but like many women he had known, luck could be fickle. He hoped that now was not the time or place for the "Lady" to decide that desertion was her best option.

"The Lady can be a bitch." 01whispered in the darkness.

A door slowly materialized from the dusky gloom. Again the layout matched the mental map. A pleased smile crossed Yuy's lips as he squatted beside the door at the corridor's end. It was unlocked.

"Maybe it's a good omen." he mumbled to himself as the door softly closed behind him.

Narrow steps parallel to the rough stone wall reached down to the damp, chilled sub-floor. A single bare light bulb showed the last tread. Another door. This time it was locked.

Back to the belt pack. A pick effortlessly rearranged the tumblers inside the knob until it turned in his hand. Light gleamed off the small but deadly pistol pressed against 01's chest. Steadily he pushed the door back with the toe of his boot ready to drop into a defensive position at the first sound or movement.

Muscles constricted, ears strained as the space widened. Eyes darted from side to side surveying every inch of the room revealed by the opening door. Thin shafts of moonlight poured through a window on the opposite wall. Dust swirled between the window and the illuminated pool produced on the gritty floor. Musky odors wafted from every chilled corner.

01's eyes gradually adjusted to the limited light to pick out a form curled against the stark stone wall. The gun's barrel redirected its aim at the indistinct outline...his finger drew back the trigger enough to save that fraction of a second needed to finish the pull.

Closer...no threatening movement. Closer...a face began to emerge from the gloom. The barrel drooped lower as 01 rested one knee on the damp floor and leaned forward. It was 04! He was bloody, bruised but the rapid rise and fall of his chest confirmed that he was alive.

Yuy's tender touch produced a sluggish flinch. With obvious effort 04 responded turning his head toward the warm sensation on his arm. At first no change registered in the captive agent's expression then his eyebrows drew together in a puzzled frown.

"Heero?" Yuy's name rose weakly from a raspy throat.

Fighting to focus on 01's wavy image through eyes that were partly swollen shut, 04's voice repeated the question in an almost inaudible murmur. "Heero?"

"It's all right Quatre" Heero replied trying to put a tone of reassurance in his voice. "I'm here to get you out." he promised.

"How?" 04's faint voice wondered before it lost the last of its strength.

01 carefully slid his arm beneath his friend's battered body lifting him gently but quickly, "Don't worry," he answered in a labored whisper, "I have a plan."

It took most of 04's remaining energy just to pull his feet under his sagging body. His knees were rubbery, his legs heavy, reluctant to respond. Heero straightened Quatre's left arm across his shoulder then slid his other arm around 04's back coming up under his right side.

As Heero half carried his fellow agent toward the door doubts began to plague his thoughts. As hard as Quatre was trying to help he was in no condition to look out for himself. Retracing the route back up the stairs, through the hall and off the grounds would take three times as long under present circumstances and the chances of being discovered were multiplied tenfold.

01 stopped at the door to catch his breath and collect his thoughts. "There has to be an easier way." Then as if guided by his very words the moon slipped from her cloudy cover and the patch of light on the floor brightened.

"Forget the stairs." Heero's inner voice ordered. Of course they were in the basement, the window opened on ground level.

Mentally berating himself for missing the clear solution 01 cursed under his breath. He had been trained to explore every possibility, to use every resource available. The relief of finding 04 alive had temporarily sidetracked what should have been second nature.

Ever so often something happened to remind Agent 01 that he was indeed human, not some infallible machine. That he had emotions no matter how hard he fought to suppress his feelings. This was one of those times.

Resting Quatre against the outer wall Heero's fingers closed over the window latch. The initial pull did little to move the aged catch. Another, more intense tug broke the rusted seal. Suddenly the latch popped free, the panel fell forward with a shrill squeak. Only 01's agile reflexes kept the frame from a loud crash with the wall.

Heero cut his eyes down at his fellow agent, shook his head in a relieve manner then cautiously let the window hang down on its hinges. "Ready?" he asked kneeling beside Quatre.

Quatre nodded. Stringy stands of dust-dulled blond hair slipped over swollen eyes and bruised cheekbones but 04 did his best to stand.

Struggling under Quatre's mostly dead weight Heero hoisted the injured agent through the open space rolling him clear. Pushing his pistol into his belt, 01 clawed his way over the sill coming to rest by his counterpart. Heero chest heaved in winded pants filling his lungs with fresh night air.

Quatre's breathing was heavier, thick with fluid and pain. Heero could only imagine the punishment 04 had suffered. He was afraid Quatre's injuries were serious and he knew that the wrong movement could aggravate them further but he had no other choice but to take that chance. If they both were to get out alive he could not afford to be but so careful.

Quatre lay on his back. He stirred then moaned as he blinked to chase away the spinning stars overhead. "This is crazy." he declared still staring at the whirling traces of starlight.

"Shhhh!" Heero ordered knowing how easily sounds carried on the constant currents whipping around the garden.

01 gathered his feet under him squatting by a thick shrub. "We're all a little crazy to be in this business." he stated sarcastically. But deep down in his soul he knew that "this business" was more sheer insanity than being just a little bonkers.

After years of driving himself to the limits, Agent 01 knew all too well. Traveling alone, never being able to fully trust anyone, always suspicious, always ready. There were nights he couldn't sleep for the nightmares. Many other nights he would collapse too exhausted to care. Heero Yuy was tired and now more often than not, angry.

He had lost friends and colleagues on both the colonies and the Earth. The job had ruined every relationship he ever had. Heero had begun to wonder if he had become callous, hardened by so much evil and senseless killing. And he was so discouraged...for every evil vanquished another rose to take its place.

How often had he heard, "They knew the risks." That knowledge didn't ease the frustration and certainly didn't dull the heartsick pain. Heero looked over at Quatre. 01 had done a lot of things in the name of justice but right then none of that righteous indignation was worth a damn. This was no longer an assignment this was personal!

Heero set his jaw determined that this time 04 wasn't going to become another statistic filed away in Une's office. Yes, Heero Yuy might very well be crazy but he was getting his friend out tonight and heaven help anyone who got in his way.

"Come on!" Heero barked with a sharpness that surprised him.

04 winced but took hold of Heero's hand and pulled up. Calling on the last of his reserve power Quatre followed his rescuer across the garden to the perimeter wall. Several times he staggered, Heero shored him up.

Almost to the wall...almost to freedom.

Then the sound that 01 had been dreading since his arrival at the enemy's lair echoed through the crisp night air. The unmistakable snap of a weapon being armed put every nerve on edge.

Instinctively Heero froze. Again his ears listened tensely to give him a direction, a target. 04 dropped to his knees cursing his weakness and his inability to help.

"HALT!" a voice ordered from beyond the tree line.

A burly man supported by a modified version of a double-barrel shotgun stepped from the shadow's fringes. The end of the convincingly nasty weapon leveled off at 01's middle. Reluctantly Heero raised his hands in a posture of surrender.

Face to face with the phantom voice Heero studied it owner's demeanor. The man didn't appear to be in any mood to mess around. Even though Heero still held his Beretta securely in his hand, it did little to make the odds come down on his side. If he had been alone he might have chanced it, counting that his reflexes were better and faster than the guard's but he was not alone.

Without a word the shotgun totting man gestured with the business end of the barrel. Heero understood the silent "request" bending slowly from the waist and allowing his pistol to drop to the sandy soil.

The odds were shifting rapidly, moving further away from any hope of escape. On the ground 04 moaned...the guard took notice. "Good." Heero thought.

The shotgun's barrel dropped as the guard shifted his weight for a closer look. 04 groaned again.

"Get up!" the man snapped near Quatre head.

04 didn't move.

The guard reached for Quatre's arm with the clear intension of making the blond man comply with his curt command.

"Can't you see he's hurt?" Heero stated starting forward.

The gunman straightened sharply. "Stay where you are." he growled. The shotgun rose to emphasis the order.

Heero tried to display one of his practiced concerned expressions. "I was just going to help him." he answered calmly as to not arouse any doubts about his sincerity.

"I'll help the trespassing bastard!" the shotgun's owner announced.

The stubby weapon pivoted in the guard's hand, the butt aimed downward, full force, toward the base of Quatre's skull. Heero coiled his muscles ready to spring into action in his friend's defense.

Suddenly Quatre rolled up slinging a handful of gritty soil in the advancing man's face. That was all the opening that 01 needed.

Shooting the guard would have been the quickest way to resolve the matter but shots make noise and noise attracts attention. 01 certainly didn't want the entire compound's population joining the party so he opted for the next best solution.

Heero lowered his shoulder planting it squarely in the stunned man's midsection. A whoosh of air was quickly followed by a gut-deep groan. The contact drove the guard backward but the force caused his finger to tighten on the trigger. The shotgun discharged with a deafening blast.

"DAMN!" Heero swore through clench teeth. Now 01 knew that he had only minutes to finish the fight.

Recovered from the initial impact the guard swung the shotgun like a bat. Heero dodged and sidestepped the wild swing. His vision still clouded and anger dictating his actions, the shotgun came around again. This time when 01 ducked he plowed into the raging man's knees knocking his opponent off balance.

Mustering up all the strength he had Heero landed a right uppercut aside a jutting jaw. The guard grunted once then went over like a felled tree. 01 staggered backward shaking his throbbing hand and checking his knuckles for damage.

"That bastard has a hard head." he stated as he knelt next to his partner.

"Heero let's go." Quatre yelled, "This whole place is going to be down on us any second."

As if on cue spotlights flared on transforming night into day. Alarms blared and voices rose to an excited pitch. Heero retrieved his gun and pushed Quatre in the right direction. "Move!" he shouted above the sound of gunning engines.

04 suddenly found that his physical reserves were still in force as both agents scrambled for the outer wall. As 04 clawed his way up the wall Heero caught Quatre around the waist to expedite his partner's passage to safety.

A muzzle flash exploded in the shadows. 01's answering fire came in quick bursts of two sets. The painful yell that followed confirmed that at least one shot must have found its mark.

Heero caught hold of Quatre again this time boosting 04 over the wall's rim, how he landed on the other side was his problem. One leap and Heero's hands folded over the top. Pushing the toes of his boots into the stone's rough mortar seams he pulled his body up and laid over the top.

He heard the bullet at the same instant it struck sparks beside his head. The near miss was more than enough encouragement to slide his chest the rest of the way over. Grabbing the rim with both hands Heero centered his body landing feet first on the opposite side just as a burst from an uzzie ripped over his head.

Wrapping his hand around a smoke grenade Heero's thumb flipped the arming switch. With a perfect sidearm fling the gaseous bomb catapulted over the wall. Blue-gray smoke belched up thickly in spiraling columns.

Beyond the compound's boundary Heero could just make out choking and gasping. "They really should cut down on their smoking." he informed 04 with a satisfied smirk.

A hundred yards separated the agents from a four-wheel drive Range Rover that Heero had hidden by the road. 04 collapsed in the passenger seat barely able to fasten his seat belt. Heero turned over the engine and almost engaged the gears before the clutch was completely depressed.

The compound's lights faded, the private road leading out would soon be a memory. After checking the rearview mirror to see if anyone had taken up the chase 01 took one hand off the wheel and laid it on Quatre's shoulder. "How are you doing?" he asked not bothering to hide his concern.

Quatre was breathing roughly and his color was paler than usual. A sheen of sweat shone across his forehead and his cheeks were clammy to the touch. 04 braced his hands on the seat and managed to straighten up a bit, "I'll live." he sighed but it was evident that he was in a good deal of pain.

"We're going to make it." Heero promised before returning his attention to the road.

Quatre sighed and moped back damp hair from his pain-dulled eyes. "Yeah we always do."

Heero was about to congratulate himself on another successfully completed assignment. "Almost home free." he muttered with an optimistic sense of relief. But the relief was short-lived.

The brief respite from the pressures of his job ended as the Rover rounded a curve. Headlights flooded the windscreen. A hard-topped jeep and a car parked side by side effectively blocked the agent's intended escape route and backing up the solid blockade six soldiers bearing automatic assault rifles took aim at the Rover.

Heero's foot went to the clutch ready to shift into reserve. At that point, he decided, retreat was the only option. Out of the corner of his eye to the right Heero saw an overgrown path, probably the original way into the compound, following the ridge of an embankment.

The route rose some thirty feet above their present position until it disappeared over the hill's knoll. Without a second's consideration 01 jerked the wheel at a head-spinning right angle, climbed the embankment and skirted the grassy road's rutted lanes.

The shocked troopers scrambled for the jeep and car except for one man who mounted a motorcycle. Gunning the motorcycle's engine he took off over the same rise to the upped road. With the bike being lighter in weight and more maneuverable the lone rider soon caught the speeding Rover.

"Hold on!" Heero warned through clench teeth as he shifted gears. The tachometer's needle climbed steadily.

04 winced with each rut and pothole but said nothing. Heero was doing the best that he could and "Besides," Quatre told himself, "he would rather be jolted than be dead."

Pistol fire spat red flashes in the darkness. "I think he wants you to stop." 04 observed dryly with a good amount of sarcasm in his weak voice. Heero hoped that Quatre's attempt at humor would help him fight the threatening faintness of his injuries.

A hint of a smile crossed Heero's lips. "Do you think I should?"

The motorcycle's single headlight reflected closely in the rearview mirror and neither 01 nor 04 had to venture a guess as to the intensions of the rapidly approaching vehicle.

An occasional break in the tree line let Heero see the main road as it weaved back and forth below. At its curves and bends its width widened but in the straighter sections the cross-measure was acutely slimmer. A glance in the driver's side mirror showed dust pluming up in thick clouds as the jeep and car sped along to catch up.

It suddenly occurred to 01 that he had no idea how long the road ran and that, at any moment, it could literally dissolve into the surrounding forest. In that case the term "dead end" could well apply to both fleeing agents.

"Time for some relocation." Heero announced as he studied the road ahead and the parallel path below. His lack of knowledge of the road's length, the muffled throbbing of the motorcycle and their quickly diminishing space to the pursuing vehicle's dust cloud offered him no other alternative.

Further breaks in the wooded border gave Heero fleeting glimpses of the opposite bank. From his angle of sight he mentally figured, no, guessed that the sporadic gaps matched but whether or not the alignment was perfect...01 gripped the wheel, made one of his gut decisions and hoped for the best.

To 04 and the bi-wheeled pursuer's surprise Heero turned hastily to the left. The rear tires spun then momentarily grabbed hold of the grainy surface before they lost contact with the ground. The Rover launched off the bank, sailing over the lower road just as the jeep passed beneath. Several seconds of whistling wind then the Rover landed on the far bank with a scraping thud barely slipping in between two broad tree trunks.

The tailing motorcyclist was so absorbed in the chase that he blindly followed the Rover's "flight path". It wasn't until the bike was airborne did the rider comprehend what he had done.

Unfortunately the man on the flying motorcycle was about to learn a brutal lesson in aerodynamics. His machine's lighter weight that had allowed him to close the gap was now a definite disadvantage. Instead of copying the Rover's successful landing both ride and rider flew squarely at the branches of a massive oak. Clamorous crunches of metal and the sonorous snap of tree limbs attested to the lethal conclusion of the rider's ill-fated flight.

One bounce over the embankment put the Rover back on track but not with the comfortable lead Heero wanted. Accelerating as much as he dared did little to increase their separation time from the doggedly determined soldiers. Tires squealed around a curve, the Rover shuddered but held to the slippery surface.

04 sucked in a centering breath and pushed up straighter in his seat. "Give me your gun." he demanded even though his face was ashen and pain was evident in his eyes.

"Can you manage?"

04 held out a halfway steady hand, "Just give it to me dammit."

Heero chanced taking one hand off the steering wheel long enough to slap the Beretta into Quatre's outstretched palm.

04 lowered the window, "Let them get closer, I'll aim for the tires." he yelled above the whining wind. As the Rover slowed the jeep came up fasted that Quatre expected. The din of racing engines and rushing air muted the keen crack of two shots.

"Damn!" 04 cursed loudly, clearly upset with himself. Although speed and the Rover's weaving were the main contributors to the missed shots, 04 knew that his weakened condition was just as much to blame.

Heero glanced over at his frustrated partner, "Wait a minute, if I'm not mistaken..." the sentence trailed off as he pulled a mental roadmap from somewhere inside he head.

01 picked up the pace. If he remembered correctly about a mile ahead a side road intersected with the one the Rover now traversed. Heero's well-practiced driving skills kept the space separating the vehicles within acceptable limits and soon the distance to the crossroads was covered.

At the intersection Heero abruptly turned the wheel and applied the brake and clutch in unison. The Rover's rear end came about as the adjoining road allowed for the sideways slide. The momentum carried the rest of the rotating vehicle with it until the Rover faced the way it had come.

"I've had enough of this shit." Heero hissed as he shifted into forward gear. Smoke poured from spinning tires before they caught with a lurch. 01 could imagine the lead driver's bewildered expression as he realized that the Rover he had been chasing was now bearing straight for him.

Heero narrowed his eyes until they were blue slits, "Take your best shot."

Without warning the jeep's windscreen erupted into a spider web of cracks and ragged lines. Whether or not the bullet struck the driver could not be determined but the effect was the same. Skidding along the road's edge the jeep clipped the bank, careened back over and fishtailed sideways down the center line.

Heero jerked the wheel hard to the right skirting the marginal measure between the road's shoulder and a considerable drop into a rushing creek. Stones and loosened dirt tumbled over the fragile fringes as the Rover's tires fought to hang on.

Friction sparks spewed in a starburst spray as the jeep's front end gave way plowing into the pavement. The driver of the car reacted too late to the out-of-control barrier blocking its path. The car struck off-center. Air currents caught the undercarriage lifting the hurling "missile".

For a brief moment the occupants experienced the sensation of free flight then both vehicles hit hard. The impact rolled one on its side. Metal sheared off. Window glass bowed and burst outward in a forceful shower of splintered shards.

Heero guided the Rover back onto the solid surface well out of the way and stopped in time to watch the jeep's completed roll that ended with the still spinning tires pointed toward the sky. The car plowed into the inverted mass of twisted steel. Flames licked up the sides belching out hot, wavy vapors.

Heero protectively covered Quatre as an exploding fireball sent a surge of superheated air over the Rover. Staying low, shielding their eyes from the fiery brightness, the victorious agents thanked the fates for delivering them yet another time.

04 leaned heavily against the passenger door pressing an arm across his aching ribcage. Shallow breaths rattled in his lungs and sweat glistened on his pale face. "Looks like we pulled it off." he declared watching fire-tinted smoked boil blackly and orange fingers of flames claw into the night.

"Yes we did." Heero agreed being certain to put the emphasis on "we".

 

Part Two: The Hamburg Connection.

"You look better." Heero commented as he entered room 204.

Quatre Winner sat propped up by pillows in a single-size bed. An IV line ran from a suspended bag of clear liquid to the needle taped to his hand. A wide bandage wrapped around his upper left arm and smaller sterile dressings covered minor cuts and scraps. His blue-green eyes were still puffy but most of the bloodshot redness had given way to a pinkish tinge and the bruises had begun to fade.

Beneath his rumpled gown elastic bindings protected two broken ribs. Just that morning the attending doctor had taken the recovering agent off of oxygen declaring that his lungs were clear enough to breathe on his own.

A tray of half-eaten food set on the bedside table and judging by the color and texture of the standard hospital swill Heero didn't blame Quatre for refusing to finish. Now Quatre happily munched on a turkey and cheese sandwich.

Agent 03, Trowa Barton, had employed his stealthy skills to smuggle the forbidden treat past the "food patrol" (aka: grumpy Nurse Smith). The aforementioned spy used his lean but muscular body to hide a twenty-ounce bottle of Dr. Pepper that had also been declared contraband by the dietary staff.

All in all Heero thought that Agent 04 looked remarkably well considering the abuse he had suffered. Quatre was certainly healthier than when he was brought in five nights ago. Then Heero and 03 had anxiously paced in the waiting room lending each other support and hoping for the best.

After Quatre drifted into a comatose sleep as Heero raced to the rendezvous site and the awaiting helicopter, 01 had serious doubts of 04's recovery. Visions of internal bleeding, punctured lungs or a dozen other injuries continued to plague Heero's thoughts.

Two days of touch-and-go and thankfully the third afternoon 04 woke up. Although he had a dull headache that matched the equally dull ache across his ribs, Quatre was alert and obviously hungry.

"What's this?" Heero smiled using a nod to indicate the concealed bottle.

03 lifted his green eyes to meet the inquiring tilt of Heero's head. "He really wants a beer but I thought that might be tempting the fates."

Quatre took another bite of the bootleg goodie and wiped a trace of mayonnaise off his chin with the back of his hand. "A beer is not all I want." He licked his lips in a very suggestive fashion.

Trowa offered one of his rare smiles, "I know but unfortunately that is going to have to wait awhile."

The "that" to which Trowa referred was Quatre's wishes to engage in a passionate love session. Agents 04 and 03 made no secret of their involvement. In fact they had threatened to tender their resignations when the Minster of Internal Affairs questioned the legitimacy of a same sex relationship.

Luckily Commander Une intervened on their behalf stating that their life choices was no one's business and strongly suggested that the Minster spend more time on his job and less time stirring up trouble.

Heero had readily accepted the pairing; after all he had been friends with both agents long before they became a couple. While 01 personally avoided any entanglements of the heart, he believed such emotions interfered with his missions, he had to admire Quatre and Trowa's commitment.

The sandwich consumed and the Dr. Pepper drained dry, Quatre wasted no time in trying to persuade his partner to take on one more secret assignment. "I'm craving chocolate chip cookies."

Trowa sighed, "Quatre I swear...you and your chocolate addiction."

"Please." Quatre begged. To be a highly trained agent, one who could be extremely ruthless when dealing with the bad guys, Agent 04 could turn on the charm.

"I give up." 03 feigned surrender. He bent over for a kiss, "You know damn well that I can never refuse you." he whispered huskily. Tucking the empty bottle inside his jacket Trowa gave his lover a saucy wink, "Let me get rid of the evidence and I'll see what I can do."

When Trowa had disappeared down the hall, Quatre leaned back with a satisfied sigh. "Une has already ordered at least a week of R&R when the doctor finally cuts me loose. I will certainly show Trowa my appreciation then."

"I have no doubts of that." Heero stated from previous experience. When Quatre and Trowa weren't on assignment they would disappear for days and with their abilities to literally vanish without a trace the cunning agents defied all attempts to seek them out.

Heero checked his watch, "I have been summoned to Une's office." he declared with a shrug of apparent apathy.

Quatre winced a bit as he rearranged his propped-up posture, "Don't tell me you haven't checked in yet."

"Not officially."

"One day you are going to push the Commander too far."

Heero placed his hand on 04's shoulder, "I'll worry when that day comes along. You rest up now, I'll see you later."

Trowa stepped aside to let 01 exit the room. Heero paused and leaned close to 03's ear. "You take good care of him."

"I intend too."

As Heero walked to the lift Quatre's delighted voice drifted down the hall. "Chocolate!" The single word told Heero that another mission had been successfully completed.

*********

Une paced impatiently then glanced again at her watch. She was about to buzz her assistant for the third time when her office's mahogany door opened. Agent 01 greeted his boss with a sly smile.

"Its about time 01." Une announced pointing at a chair by her desk.

"Sorry Commander." Heero replied as he slipped into the seat.

Before Agent Yuy could offer a half-believable explanation for his failure to "officially" report in, Une reconsidered her impending reprimand. "You did well with the retrieval of 04." she praised but tempered the compliment with a no nonsense tone so that Heero would not get the foolish notion he was off the hook.

"Thank you."

"How is 04 doing?"

"He's mending nicely. He should be out of hospital by the first of next week."

Une nodded then reached across the desk and handed Heero a file folder. She paused a few minutes to give 01 a chance to look over the folder's contents. "This is the debriefing information supplied by 04. He didn't learn a lot but at least it gives us a starting point."

Heero's eyebrows raised with interest. "What is this about guidance systems?"

"According to 04 someone has developed a device capable of disrupting the electronic guidance systems on anything from missiles to public jetliners and shuttles. I don't have to tell you what it means if such a system does exist."

Heero nodded in agreement. "It means that missiles could go astray and planes could be brought down in the wrong places."

"Or at the wrong time." Une added. 01 frowned as he realized the catastrophic events such a device could create.

Une opened another file. "Have you heard of Treize Khushrenada?"

Heero's eyes widened as he made the connection. "He owns the second largest electronics company in the world. Do you think he's involved?"

"All we know is that 04 saw his name on several documents before his cover was compromised. Khushrenada would certainly have the resources to finance and construct such a system."

Heero sat silently taking a moment to digest the troubling information. His thoughts were interrupted when Une's intercom buzzed. Her assistant's voice announced. "Mr. Quinze is here."

"Tell him to come in."

An older man with salt and pepper hair and glasses joined Une and her agent. Quinze had an "all business" look about him as he took a seat next to Heero.

"This is Quinze." Une indicated with wave of her hand, "He is with the Central Intelligence Division. Mr. Quinze this is Heero Yuy."

"Oh yes, Agent 01." Quinze replied wrinkling his nose in a fashion that Heero did not perceive to be flattering.

"I asked Quinze to look into this Khushrenada matter." Une explained.

Quinze began his report. "Our files show that Treize Khushrenada was born in Germany but has been living outside of London for the last eight years. It seems that he made most of his fortune working with NASA and the Colonial Shuttle Line. He is owner and president of Khushrenada Electronics. There are nine offices on Earth with many smaller support complexes on the Colonies. My division has turned up nothing unusual concerning Khushrenada's business dealings or activities however..."

"If he is involved in what we think he is," Heero interrupted, "I don't expect he would be broadcasting it, would he?"

Quinze shot an annoyed glare in Heero's direction. As 01 prepared a verbal retort Une narrowed her eyes and squinted through her glasses. Heero thought better of his curt reply and remained silent.

"As I was saying," Quinze continued displaying a stiff posture as if he had a rather large pole rammed up his backside, "we can find no cause to suspect Mr. Khushrenada but that doesn't mean we will not look into this further." he announced with a self-satisfied smile.

"In your opinion, " Une inquired, "where would be the most likely location for such an operation?"

"Only two sites have the developmental capital and manpower to produce the necessary electronic circuitry. The largest branch is in Hamburg. We have already checked it out and found nothing out of the ordinary. However we do have a man on the inside who is conducting an ongoing investigation.

The second company is the Altron Corporation, a research firm located in Montreux, Switzerland. Khushrenada deals exclusively with Altron for all his subcontracting requirements. It is rumored that the German owns controlling stock but the paper trail is so full of dead ends and dummy holdings that we have no sure proof."

"Doesn't sound like you have much reliable information, a lot of questions but no answers." Heero stated impatiently. He was quickly growing tired of Quinze's babbling on about nothing.

If Quinze took notice of the edginess in 01's voice or his irritated body language he gave no outward indication. "There is one fact of which I am certain," he proclaimed, "Treize Khushrenada arrived in Switzerland six weeks ago and he is still at his chalet in the Bernese Alps."

"Switzerland." Heero repeated in his mind. The last time he visited the "Playground of Europe" winter frosted the valleys and a mantle of snow coated the mountains.

He fondly recalled a single night spent in a ski lodge with an Italian double agent named Andrea. A flickering fireplace had warmed the room and Andrea had warmed his bed. An ever-so-slight smile poised on Heero's lips as he remembered.

"01 are you listening?" Une's voice abruptly brought him back from the pleasant memories.

"Yes...Switzerland."

Une cleared her throat more out of habit than necessity. "01 I want you to go to Montreux. Your cover will be a businessman representing a Japanese software company called Aero-Tech. Tell Khushrenada that your employer is interested in a possible long-term contract. See if you can turn up any specific information, especially about Khushrenada's dealings with Altron."

Une stood and leaned over her desk. Heero also stood as she handed him a thick folder. "Here is the dossier on Herr Khushrenada. Learn everything you can about him. He has a reputation for being an egoistical ass and will certainly be insulted if you don't encourage his high opinion of himself.

Another person you need to pay particularly close attention to is Zechs Merquise. He has been the Chief Engineer on all of Khushrenada's larger projects."

"Merquise has also done quite a bit of traveling between Hamburg and Montreux in the last few weeks." Quinze added as he was determined to convince Heero of his informational importance.

"I've arranged for you to leave in two days time." Une informed Agent 01, "I realize that it hasn't been long since the matter of 04's rescue but my gut instincts tell me that something is about to happen and that time is running out."

Quinze nodded in agreement. "And that "something" can be bad if Khushrenada is implicated."

"Stop by Technology and Development before you leave." Une ordered as she walked around her desk. "I'm sure that Mr. Howard has a whole array of gadgets that might come in handy."

"Yes Commander Une."

Une extended her hand, something that she rarely did. "Good luck 01."

As Heero shook Une's hand he felt a bit uncomfortable with the degree of familiarity. "Thank you."

As a parting gesture Heero bowed slightly, "Mr. Quinze."

"Mr. Yuy." Quinze reciprocated in kind with a nod of his head.

The office door closed leaving the Commander and Quinze alone. Quinze shook his head and puffed out an obvious snort of disapproval.

Setting her hip on the desk's corner Une inquired, "Something wrong?"

Quinze pulled off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "01 is a cocky bastard." he replied before replacing his glasses. "Are you sure his attitude won't get in the way?"

A thin-lipped smile showed the Commander's amusement at Quinze's assessment of one of her best agents. "Mr. Quinze I do not think you want to question 01's attitude when it comes to a mission." she advised, "Count yourself lucky that Yuy is on our side."

**********

On his way to the lift Heero decided that he had time for a detour. Turning left down an intersecting hall he entered the first of five Physical Training rooms. The whoosh of hydraulic exercise equipment and the clank of weight machines mixed with the thuds of bodies colliding with padded mats. Various pitches of voices echoed over the stark white walls along with grunts and numerous loud shouts.

Men and women practiced offensive and defensive techniques singularly or with a partner. Bodies became lethal weapons, hands and feet blurred in a flurry of strikes and kicks. Bos and bokkens and nunchakus slashed through the air at deadly speeds.

Heero leaned against the wall with his arms folder across his chest. To a casual observer the action would appear to be merely a frenzy of activity, a lot of bustle and commotion. But to the trained eye the katas and sparring was an integration of the discipline of mind and body and the dignity of the spirit.

In a far corner, away from the machines and the people, an isolated figure dressed in a black gi engaged in his private practice. Shoulder-length hair as black as his silky garments was pull into a tight ponytail. Bulging muscles demonstrated strength. Long legs moved with the grace of a crane and the quickness of a cat. Powerful fists punched an invisible opponent with lightning movements suggestive of a swallow in flight.

Chang Wufei, Agent 05, had originally been "loaned" from the Hong Kong Bureau for a temporary assignment but he reckoned that after a year temporary had turned into permanent.

The Chinese agent had mostly kept to himself when he first arrived and he still valued his privacy to point of frequently being standoffish. While Chang's solitary behavior was often viewed as rude Heero understood it to be an expression of self-reliance and also an efficient way to manage his emotions.

Although Heero was part European and part Japanese his Asian ancestry still influenced every part of his life. Chang, too, had a lineage that manifested itself in Clan pride and a warrior's spirit and destined him to be a Lone Dragon.

Heero and Wufei had established an odd form of friendship. They had been partnered on several missions and even though their surveillance methods and fighting styles were totally opposite, they shared a mutual respect and appreciation for their differences. And 05 was one of the few people who could stand toe to toe with 01 in a sparring session.

Heero pushed off the wall and skirted around a rack of dumbbells and weights. 05 stood motionless in a back stance poised like a tiger ready to pounce. Both hands, fingers straight and pressed tightly together with the thumbs tucked against the palms in the Sword Hand Formation, were centered in front of his breastbone.

Ebony eyes were focused with the steely glare of an eagle. A light sheen of sweat glistened on his tanned skin and Heero could barely see Chang's chest expand from his perfectly controlled breathing.

Heero had no doubts that 05 knew he was near. Chang had finely honed his senses until he could "see" in the dark and "hear" the slightly sound. Yes, Chang Wufei was a flawless combination of strength and speed with a goodly amount of primitive animal instincts added just for the hell of it.

A faint hiss was all the warning Heero received before the Dragon unleashed his impressive power. In the first second Chang shifted his weight to his forward foot. In the next briefest measure of time his hip pivoted and his right leg came around in a reverse roundhouse kick.

01 never flinched as a rush of air feathered his hair a nanosecond before a blood-curdling "KIAI!" exploded in his ears. Chang's outstretched leg hovered a fraction of an inch from Heero's face. Wufei held the form in an unwavering defiance of gravity. His bare foot was flat, heel and toes in precise alignment and his raven eyes shone like two highly polished gemstones.

With a relaxing exhalation Chang slowly lowered his leg and slid back into a formal Attention Stance. He ended with a bow of courtesy then addressed his fellow agent. "01."

"Chang." Heero responded with a matching bow.

********

"Did you ever report in?" Wufei shouted above the forceful spray from the shower in the men's locker room.

The stall's short dividing wall gave Heero a clear view of 05's broad shoulders, muscular chest and washboard abs but barely hid his equally firm buttocks. Heero was particularly amused by a red dragon tattoo on Wufei's right bicep that danced each time he flexed his arm.

"About an hour ago."

Through the steamy mist Heero watched the Dragon unite his hair and shake it loose. Wufei turned around and tilted back his head letting the stinging spray smooth out his lengthy locks. Soon water soaked the thick strands causing silvery bands to sparkle in the overhead lights.

Wufei soaped up, rinsed off and proceeded to lather up his hair. The shampooing completed he shut off the water and wrapped a towel around his slim waist. "How long before your next assignment?"

"Two days."

Using a second towel to dry his hair 05 raised his eyebrows but didn't seem surprised. "That bitch can be stone cold."

Heero grinned at Wufei's appraisal of their tough Commander. "It looks like there may be trouble brewing in Switzerland."

"There is trouble everywhere." Wufei stated from his knowledge of people's inabilities to get along. He dug through his locker and retrieved a pair of cotton boxers. This time Heero did get a fascinating glimpse of Wufei's trim ass as the boxers replaced the towel.

Wufei wiggled into faded jeans and a light blue pullover shirt then combed out his hair, once more the tight ponytail reigned in his heavy ebony mane.

05 sat on a bench, put on socks and laced up his ankle-high black leather boots. "Is it a solo mission?" he wondered as he stuffed the silky gi into a duffle bag.

Heero followed Wufei into the hall. "Une didn't say anything about a partner."

"If it can be arranged would you like a partner?"

"Are you volunteering for the job?"

01 and 05 stopped by an exit that led to the parking garage. "If I don't see some action soon I going to get my katana and go ninja all over the place." Wufei declared.

Heero nodded in agreement. Assignments either fell into the feast or famine category, either you were too busy to catch your breath or bored out of your mind. "If you can talk Une into being my partner I will be glad for the company."

Wufei sighed, "All she can do is say no. I'll go up and talk to her."

As 05 headed back down the hall Heero called after the Chinese agent. "Just don't call her a bitch."

Wufei didn't slow his pace but he did twist around just enough to flip Heero a middle-finger salute before disappearing around the corner.

********

Heero took the lift to Sub-Basement Level 2. As the lift door opened a multitude of strange sounds met his ears.

Snaking his way through a labyrinth of cables, switching boxes and endless collections of odd parts Heero surveyed the room for the rather eccentric man who insisted on being called "Uncle" Howard.

Heero paused to watch as the master inventor explained his latest creation to several techs gathered around a workstation. There was always excitement in Howard's voice and he took pride in knowing that his work had saved numerous field agent's lives.

"01," the man dressed in a gaudy Hawaiian shirt waved in Heero's direction, "I want you to see this."

Holding up what looked like an ordinary ballpoint pen Howard depressed a hidden trigger. A dart shot out and stuck in the wall. "These darts are can be fitted with three different tips that are stored in this cigarette holder.

The red tip contains an explosive charge powerful enough to make a sizeable hole. The yellow tip delivers a strong sedative that will put a person out for an hour or so. Finally the black tip is coated with a quick-acting poison. Be particularly careful of the black one." he cautioned.

"Uncle" Howard left the techs to test the deadly pen's delivery system and joined Heero at another table. Firstly Heero praised Howard's craftsmanship, "The tracking band signal worked perfectly."

"Found 04 right away...good."

Howard pushed aside layers of clutter littering the tabletop then opened a leather briefcase that neatly held his latest handiwork. Another dart-firing pen and cigarette holder was included in the special package he had assembled for Agent 01.

"This watch contains the same tacking device that 04 was wearing but I have improved on the design. This one is coded with your own personal signature signal."

Heero put his watch in his pocket, buckled the new timepiece around his wrist and held up his arm for inspection.

"You must wear this watch at all times." Howard ordered, "We can't help you if we can't find you."

Heero acknowledged the instructions with a nod.

Howard picked through the clutter once more. "Ah here is it." he muttered. "I think you might find this useful. This mini-camera not only takes pictures but it also holds a cartridge of T4 plastic explosives. Set the countdown timer, adjust the focus to maximum range and make sure you're well away when it blows.

Do you have any questions? 01, are you paying attention?" Howard asked when he found the space beside him vacant.

Heero's attention had wandered and was now absorbed with an oblong container that looked like a protective case for eyeglasses. But Heero knew from previous experience that where Howard was concerned nothing was as it seemed to be. He turned the interesting item over and over in his hand then bounced it on his flattened palm; it seemed heavy for its size.

Howard reached around snatching up the object of Heero's curiosity in mid-bounce. He caught the case's curved end and thumbed a hidden hinge. With a soft click a panel set flush in the side retracted to reveal three compartments.

"You are already familiar with the Universal Key; it will open about ninety percent of locks." Howard confirmed.

The second space contained a spool of thin wire. The last section housed a knife as long as the case. Compression at the base of the handle flipped out the blade and locked it into place. As the overhead lights glinted off the razor-edged steel surface 01 could only imagine the damage the blade could inflect.

Howard pushed the knife back inside and closed the side panel. "Take this, too." he ordered placing the case in the briefcase. "As always the briefcase is double walled so you can get through those annoying scanners at the airport." he added with a sly grin.

"You know," Howard continued as he accompanied Heero and his new "toys" to the lift, "I'm required to issue you a regulation pistol."

Heero's lips parted to protest but Howard cut him off. "I know you won't use it, you're too attached to that damned Beretta." he shook his head in frustration, "Oh what the hell I'll sign the issue voucher anyway."

"Howard you're a good man." Heero stated sincerely.

"Well I hope you'll be as good when we get a proper dressing down from Commander Une. You know she'll find out sooner or later what a bad influence you are on me."

"I won't tell if you don't"

"Be careful," Mr. Howard called after the exiting agent, "and remember to wear the watch." he reminded.

 

Part Three: Two for the Road.

It was nearly 8:00 pm when 01 arrived at his residence. After a late dinner of reheated vegetables and rice and a mug of herbal tea, Heero poured a glass of Chardonnay and stretched out on the sofa to read over the dossier on Treize Khushrenada.

Zechs Merquise's name did turn up quite a few times but the one person that most interested Heero was a man named Duo Maxwell. It seemed that Mr. Maxwell had popped up out-of-the-blue four months earlier. His job description was listed as Electronic Engineer. What exactly Maxwell did for Khushrenada was not known.

Like Merquise, the mysterious Maxwell had also made several trips to Switzerland including one extended stay just three weeks ago. There was a single wide-angle surveillance picture attached to the data sheet and that didn't show much detail. There was no mention of his whereabouts at the present time.

Heero took a slow sip of wine allowing the "kiss of the grape" to warm his throat. "Duo Maxwell." he repeated lowly.

Running his thumb along the photo's edge he studied the grainy image. The only feature he could pick out was what appeared to be a long braid hanging down Maxwell's back well passed his waist. "Yes," Heero decided as he traced the braid with his finger, "Duo Maxwell would require a closer, more personal, study."

*********

Heero had retired for the night when the ringing telephone put his plans for sleep on hold. Commander Une's voice was toned down more than usual no doubt reflecting an exhausted end to a busy day.

She explained that as soon as the matter of the guidance disruption device came to her attention she had contacted Frederic Weisman the Bureau's undercover agent in Hamburg and put him on alert. "I just received a dispatch from Hamburg." she stated, "There is new information that might have a bearing on your assignment."

According to the message one week prior to Merquise's last trip to Switzerland he met with a man named Baines. Two days later Baines showed up in Hamburg. Agent Weisman had been keeping tabs on the comings and goings of a tramp steamer suspected of transporting contraband. On two separate occasions Baines was observed meeting with the steamer's Captain.

The day after Baines' second meeting the ship offloaded enough cargo to fill three trucks. Wiseman tailed the trucks to a heliport where the crates and boxes were transferred to a long-range helicopter with the Khushrenada Electronics logo printed on the side.

"I want you to stop in Hamburg first and see what connection, if any, there is with Baines, Merquise and the shipment. Come by for your tickets, falsified passport and identification documents first thing in the morning." Une ordered.

"How soon is "first thing"? Heero asked knowing Une's habit of coming to work at ungodly early hours.

"Your flight leaves at 10:00 am. I have scheduled a briefing at 8:00. In light of this new information I've decided to also assign 05, you two work well together." she stated, "I will see you at 8:00 and, Yuy, don't be late."

Heero's hand lingered on the phone a moment after the call ended. "I guess Wufei must have asked nicely." he smiled as he switched off the bedside table lamp.

Just before Heero drifted off into welcome slumber he recalled an interesting encounter he once had in Hamburg but he couldn't remember her name.

********

Hamburg was one of Heero's favorite cities especially since the unification between East and West had eased the job related tensions but 01 and 05 didn't plan an extended stay in the city by the Elbe.

Later that evening while Wufei nosed around the docks, Heero was to meet with his Hamburg contact. Over the years Frederic Weisman had developed a network of informants ranging from the wealthiest hotel owners to the saltiest dockworkers. There wasn't anything that went on in the city that he wasn't privileged to or could get the lowdown on.

A photo and an address on the seeder side of the harbor were 01's only guide to Weisman. Heero had been informed that it would be useless to set up a meeting any earlier than 11:00 pm or midnight, which was when Weisman did his best work.

After checking into a modest but comfortable hotel Heero and Wufei shared lunch at an outdoor cafe. The streets bustled with shoppers and businessmen and needless to say the many representatives of feminine beauty made the noontime meal much more enjoyable.

Afternoon passed, dusk added a new atmosphere to the busy streets. The nighttime crowd was certainly a different breed. Young men and women meandered along the sidewalks or cruised the boulevards. Music and laughter floated from doorways. And of course the ever-popular Ladies of the Evening strutted their best selling points up and down the avenues.

As the midnight hour approached Wufei and Heero agreed on a meeting time and place then 05 headed off for some stealthy sneaking around the dockside. Heero checked his new watch...11:45.

Traffic noises and voices faced, the streets became emptier and darker as Heero traveled further into the lower waterfront area. The air was scented with a fishy mixture of water-soaked wood and musty storage bays filled with cargo from all over the world.

Out of habit Heero lit a cigarette shielding the flickering flame of his lighter against the stiff breeze blowing off the water. He inhaled deeply then let the exhaled smoke drift out of his nose in a wispy puff. With a disapproving frown he took another short drag before crushing the bad habit under his boot. Smoking was one vice that Heero had decided he needed less of in his life but stopping altogether had proven to be a formidable challenge to his discipline training.

Straining to read the street number under a poorly lit lamppost Heero noticed a shadowy shape moving just outside the dim pool of yellowish light. That was the second instance that the figure had copied 01's movements. Out the corner of his eye he could just make out the long black coat that helped to conceal the persistent pursuer.

Now there was no doubt in 01's mind that he was being trailed. The full intensions of his "watcher" weren't known but in that dangerous neighborhood one could expect encounters with anyone from common street thugs to edgy conmen and smugglers.

As he crossed the gloomy street Heero hoped that his identity and his reason for being in Hamburg had not been found out. Slipping his hand into his jacket pocket his fingers encircled the familiar contours of his Beretta. If the secretive stalker was hell-bent on continuing the hunt then 01 was ready to meter out his own brand of street-smart survival.

In the middle of the next block a conspicuously bright blue neon sign brightened the sidewalk. Indistinct voices and the odor of stale beer wafted out the door as Heero stepped into the Blue Heron Tavern.

One large room passed for a bar or casino or whatever the patrons wished it to be each night. Tinny-toned music did its best to escape from an aged jukebox. Smoke hung thickly in the air and the single ceiling fan that had also seen better days did nothing to disperse the hazy cloud.

The tavern's clientele was an odd collection to say the least. It was clear the customers were not employees of the luxury liner or cruise companies. In fact most looked as though they didn't work at all or only when the price was right. One portly woman perched on a stool at the bar screeched out an off-key version of the currently playing song. It didn't seem to matter that she was a half a verse behind as she performed her rendition of a cat in heat.

Four men whom 01 reckoned poised the greatest threat of springing into action at the slightest provocation sat at a table against the far wall. Heero sat down at a table opposite the easily antagonized quartet and displayed a non-aggressive posture, as he really wasn't in the mood for a physical altercation. He particularly didn't want to tangle with the one large brute that had a thick, whitish scar running from the outer corner of his left eye to his chin.

The bartender wiped his hands on his dingy apron and in abrupt German asked for the lone customer's order. "Bier." Heero replied. He didn't bother requesting a brand name, in a place like that you took what they offered.

No faces among the gathered dregs of humanity matched Weisman's picture. Heero leaned back trying to position himself to watch his back and the front door at the same time. All he could do now was to sip his warm beer and wait for Weisman to show up.

Twenty minutes passed. No one left, no one came in. At least the inebriated songbird at the bar had fallen into a silent stupor that saved Heero's ears from further abuse. He ordered a second bottle and paid up his tab, he wasn't going to wait on Weisman much longer.

All the while the four men leaned closely together in confidential conversation. From time to time the big burly man would cast a sideways glance in 01's direction but the fleeting look was borne more from boredom than a desire for confrontation.

Finally at 1:15 Weisman made an appearance. The overdo German paused at the door scrutinizing the various people populating the tavern. Heero straightened making direct eye contact.

With the confidence of being in his natural environment Weisman joined Agent 01. "Herr Yuy?" he inquired in accent laden English.

Heero nodded in the affirmative.

"Been waiting long?"

"Long enough." Heero responded dryly. "You should know how to pick first rate watering holes." he declared still discreetly watching old scar face whose features were not improved by the neon sign's indigo tinted light shining through the front window.

"For the information you want this is where you come." Weisman stated as he waved a hand at the man behind the bar. "I understand you are interested in a fellow name Baines. What do you need to know?"

Heero waited while the bartender took Weisman's order. "Anything you have to tell but especially what you know about his dealings with the Captain of a tramp steamer registered as the Vagabond."

"The Vagabond." the German agent repeated attempting to pull the name from his memory. "I know that ship makes a run two or three times a month and she not particular about the cargo she hauls.

The Captain is Roger Witman. He claims to be from South America but I have my doubts...sounds more like an Aussie. Wherever he does come from he has connections in a lot of ports and a list of buyers and sellers that are not among the cream of society."

The bartender set down Weisman's shot of whiskey and asked if Heero wanted another beer. Heero nodded "no" as he was anxious to continue his discussion.

Weisman drank the shot in one gulp and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "The Hamburg Bureau has been watching Witman closely for the last six months."

"Then why haven't you shut him down?" Heero wondered.

Weisman rolled the empty glass between his palms, "Witman is a small fish and we're hoping if we give him enough line that he will lead us to a prize catch. What makes you think that Baines and Witman are trading?"

"Baines appears to be the middleman between Khushrenada Electronics and Altron. He has been seen in the company of Zechs Merquise too many times not to be acting as a go-between."

"You think that Khushrenada is linked to the guidance disruptors?" Weisman asked lowering his voice to barely above a whisper.

Heero shook his head "yes".

"That could be nasty business." Weisman agreed.

"We know Khushrenada has his own fleet of trucks and cargo helicopters." Heero continued, "He would have no legitimate reason to ship anything on a tramp steamer unless he has something he doesn't want routed through regular channels. I think Baines was setting up an illegal shipment, one that Khushrenada didn't want going through customs. Although there isn't enough evidence to make a solid connection I know in my gut that Khushrenada is dirty."

Weisman let a thin-lipped grin tug at his mouth, "As luck would have it the Vagabond is in port. Want to do some spying, maybe check out her cargo logs? Even crooks have to keep some sort of records."

"There is no time like the present." Heero declared. "I have a partner on this assignment. He is already at the docks. I'll call him and tell him to meet us. But there might be a problem keeping the spying confidential."

"How so?" Weisman wondered as they started to the door.

"I saw someone lurking about when I came in. Whether I was the object of his inquisitiveness, I can't be sure."

"A tail...you're not slipping are you Herr Yuy?" Weisman joked then took on a serious attitude, "If there is a watcher I think I can arrange a roadblock."

Weisman backtracked to the far table and spoke briefly with the scar-faced man. Some Deutsche Marks were handed over before the sizeable man moved with surprising ease to the door.

Heero gave the man a sideways glance. By his body language 01 left no room for mistaken provocation. He was just glad that, at least for that moment, the hulking mass of muscles was on his side.

"If anyone does try to tag along," Weisman observed as he and 01 stepped into the shadowy street, "they won't get far."

Heero called Wufei on his cell phone and gave him a location. "Fifteen minutes." Wufei confirmed his time to the rendezvous point.

********

Weisman fell into step as he and 01 hurried along the docks. Heero turned up his jacket collar against the chilly mist raising from the water. A buoy bell clanged, its sole note softened by the foggy blanket.

Few larger ships occupied the harbor. Weisman guided Heero behind a pile of crates draped with cargo nets and pointed across the way to a medium size vessel anchored in Slip 24. VAGABOND was lettered in faded red on her rusty hull. The steamer sat high, her waterline clearly visible above the dock.

"She must be between shipments." Weisman noted as he watched the line rise and fall on the constantly moving water.

Heero smiled, "Good...that means most of the crew is probably ashore."

The German agent pulled a Walther P38 from a hostler hidden under his windbreaker. 01 recalled Howard's irritation with him concerning his refusal to carry the regulation sidearm. He couldn't help but smile thinking how happy "Uncle" would be to know that at least one of the Bureau's operatives was in full compliance with the program.

"Cover my back." Weisman whispered, "I'll try to see how many crewmen are aboard."

"I think we should wait for Chang." Heero stated. The open space between their location and the ship had to be forty yards and he felt that the odds of detection would be reduced with two sets of eyes and ears on watch.

Unfortunately the detection debate became irrelevant when footsteps struck along the wooden wharf. Several fog-shrouded figures were traveling in the agents' direction and it wouldn't take long before they would overtake their position.

Heero's Beretta emitted a silver shimmer under the dim harbor lights. He nodded to Weisman sending the German on his way. Heero crouched close to a crate, braced his shoulder against the rough box, narrowed his blue eyes and brought his pistol up next to his cheek.

Three sailors dressed in Royal Marine uniforms passed within a few feet of 01 but continued on down the dock completely unaware of the darkness camouflaged spy. Heero still would have preferred to wait for Wufei but the fifteen minutes had ended and 05 was nowhere in sight.

Heero straightened enough to pick out Weisman squatting off the Vagabond's starboard side midway between the bow and gangplank. From his vantage point Heero had not seen any movement on deck and the only light visible was aglow in the pilothouse.

Weisman stayed low until he reached the gangplank, paused to look and listen then motioned for Heero to join him.

"Anyone stirring about?" Heero whispered. The German shook his head negatively

Two pairs of eyes peered over the railing. So far, so good. Twin silhouettes flattened on either side of the pilothouse door listening for any sounds from inside. Heero's hand slowly turned the knob and gave the door an easy push. Salt corroded hinges whined disturbing the otherwise quiet night. 01's face scolded at the unwelcome noise.

Weisman grinned at Heero's reaction. "Wasn't it nice of them to leave the lights on for us?"

Weisman served as lookout as Heero hurriedly searched for anything that looked like a logbook or shipping manifest. He finally found an inventory register and quickly thumbed through the pages.

A shipment was recorded on the day after Baines' last conversation with Captain Witman. No specific listing included Khushrenada's name although K.E. did appear in two entries and beside one the initials M.W. were circled in red ink indicating some importance. Other than those possible clues that was only a vague reference to electronic circuits and what Heero assumed to be an arrival date and time.

The M.W. did add another angle to the mysterious data. Heero made a mental note concerning the initials, his instincts told him that someone represented by the letters would become a player before the mission was finished.

"Not much useful information." Weisman commented as he read over 01's shoulder.

Heero shrugged, "It was a long shot anyway." he reasoned, "As long as we're here we might as well check out the cargo hold. After all the evening shouldn't be a total waste of time." he concluded.

Again the trespassing twosome were on the hunt. They moved to the port side letting the ship shield them from the docks. Halfway down the deck footsteps pounded on the metal stairs that led down to the hold below. A crewman swung back the hatch door just missing Weisman as he knelt in the shadows. The closing door placed the German in plain view. The crewman paused for an uneasy moment to look out over the harbor.

On the opposite side Heero's hand encircled the Beretta. He didn't want to shoot unless it was absolutely necessary. Slowly withdrawing the weapon he palmed the pistol intending to quietly knock out the man. Luckily the man kept his gaze on the water as he walked down deck until he used another door to out back inside.

Both agents let out a collective sigh of relief then Weisman took the lead. The same stairs transported the curious operatives down into the dark, dank cargo hold. Weisman switched on a penlight and swept the narrow beam across the storage space. Tiny feet scratched on the metal plating as an incalculable number of rats scurried away from the invading beam.

The Vagabond's hold seemed to be as uninformative as the pilothouse records. It did appear to be quite empty. A piece of paper lying a few feet from Weisman was exposed in the penlight's limited illumination. Weisman retrieved the sheet and focused the pen's thin shaft on his discovery.

The paper's crispness and lack of yellowing told the agents that it had not been lying there too long. It appeared to be a shipping label but its crumpled condition and ragged edges made a sure identification an educated guess. Along the top that was minus most of the right corner, the letters "tronics" were printed in boldface type causing Heero to reckon that "electronics" was the full extent of the word.

SWITZERLAND was stamped directly below the partial letters. That much, at least, offered circumstantial evidence that the label probably belonged to Khushrenada Electronics and the shipment's destination was most likely Montreux. It wasn't much information to go on but it was more than 01 and the German had when they came aboard. The scrap of paper did confirm the Vagabond's role in the illegal consignment and to some degree validated their suspicions concerning Witman and Baines.

"What now?" Weisman wondered as he handed the paper to Heero.

"I guess Chang and I go to Switzerland and you continue to keep an eye on Hamburg." Heero answered.

Mentioning Wufei's name made him wondered why 05 had not shown up on time. But the first order of business was getting off the ship then Heero would go in search of his missing partner.

 

Part Four: Easier Said than Done.

It was decided that the best exit route was a full circle back around the stern to the gangplank. 01 and the German's progress would be dictated by the absence of any wandering crewmen and a lack of activity on the dock. Their departure was moving along smoothly until, from somewhere behind or above the exiting agents, a stern voice bellowed out of the mist.

"HALT!" The order was accentuated by the cocking of a weapon that carried a lot of firepower.

"Deja Vue." Heero muttered as he remembered his and Quatre's similar situation during 04's rescue.

Boots hit heavily on a ladder then stopped close behind them. Both agents froze in place not wanting to give whoever issued the order any reason to do them bodily harm.

"Turn around slowly." the phantom voice instructed.

Heero had been correct in his assumption concerning the deadly quality of the assault rifle aimed in his and Weisman's direction. The rifle's owner never took his eye off the pair of intruders. "John come here and see what I found." Soon two equally lethal rifles bore down at the agent's middles.

"Drop them." John ordered using his rifle to indicate the Beretta and the Walther.

Heero gave every indication that he was cooperating. Slowly he bent forward but purposely positioned his body to block the gunman's view. Instead of depositing the automatic on the deck he slipped the sleek sidearm in the top of the boot. Weisman, to help hide 01's deception, dropped his Walther in an overdone gesture making certain the clang when it hit was clearly heard.

Back up." the crewman instructed. In what was a practiced response both agents complied with their empty hands held high.

"Looks like we caught a couple of snoopers." John commented with a thick Aussie accent. John's wide grin was suggestive of someone planning a most likely ugly end to the situation, "Should we wait for the Captain or deep six them now?"

John's shipmate shrugged in a noncommittal fashion. "I don't think Witman would care one way or the other."

Now John's grin had twisted into a vicious sneer of yellowed teeth. "Move." he growled motioning toward the railing.

Heero and Weisman found themselves staring over the railing into the black water lapping up against the hull. "Don't fret none about the cold water, mate, you'll be dead before you hit it."

Heero didn't find the promise of a quick death very comforting. He cut his eyes at Weisman whose only reaction was a thin-lipped smile.

One rifle's blackened barrel was aligned with Weisman's temple and even though 01 couldn't see where John had taken aim he was sure that it had to be in close proximity to the base of his skull.

Heero's mind raced as he figured angles and possible distractions. It wasn't over yet but it would be if he didn't find some way to intervene. "Don't you think shooting us will attraction unwanted attention?" Heero reasoned. He hoped that the question might detour the crewman's one track thought process.

John stepped up beside 01 and leaned near enough for Heero to smell his liquor-fouled breath. "No one around here cares what happens." he declared, "Besides this don't make no noise."

A double-edged knife came up by Heero's cheek. The port lights bounced off the slender blade casting a silvery glimmer across his eyes. *All right,* Heero conceded to himself, *a knife can be just as deadly but John will have to get a lot closer to use it.*

Unfortunately that fundamental logic didn't apply to the rifle pressed to Weisman's head. The weapon's length kept its owner well out of grabbing range and even if the German agent had excellent reaction time he still could not elude the already targeted firearm.

The blade flashed again. Heero discreetly shifted his weight. He would be damned if he was going down without a fight. His hands balled into tight fists at his side and muscles coiled ready to spring into action.

"Hey Johnny!" a voice shouted from the dock.

All eyes focused to find the disembodied caller. At the gangplank's entrance a ruddy complexioned man stood among three hookers who appeared to be helping to hold him upright. With an unbalanced swagger the man leaned back craning his neck to see the four figures standing along the railing.

"Johnnnny" he yelled again, Looky here what I found." he pointed a thumb at the girls who giggled not so much from embarrassment but from tipsy euphoria.

The man training the rifle on Weisman settled his weight on his left leg and leaned against the railing. His head bowed slightly toward the dock, his eyes refocused on the copiously endowed proportions of the female threesome smiling invitingly back. The rifle eased back until an acceptable margin of safety was created.

Weisman was took full advantage of the gunman's strayed alertness. An elbow jab to the ribs doubled the man over seconds before the ridge of Weisman's fist smashed simultaneously into his chin, teeth and nose. Whirling around the German landed a centered punch to the jaw that sent both the gunman and his gun into the murky water with a startled yell and a sturdy splash.

At the same instant Heero grabbed John's wrist. Now there was a battle of strength and willpower as each man was sure that he would not be the loser. Muscles burned from the strain and eyes locked with indomitable determination.

The razor-edged blade quivered dangerously close to Heero's face. With extra effort Heero slid his foot behind his opponent's heel snagging his ankle. A forward jerk upset his balance allowing Heero to gain the upper hand. A forearm aside the chin effectively finished the job and dislodged the knife.

An answering punch from John drew blood from one of 01's nostrils and caused spots to dance before his eyes. Leaning against the railing Heero puffed and shook his head to realign his scattered senses.

Believing Heero's retreat from the fray to be a sign of weakness John scooped up the knife and put all of his energy into a headlong charge. Heero recovered just in time to pull his Beretta from his boot and squeeze off a single shot.

John stopped in his tracks. As he clutched his bloody shoulder he staggered sideways then with a sharp cry of pain and surprise he toppled over the railing to join his shipmate for a swim.

Weisman snatched up the Walther making for the gangplank with Heero's at his heels. Having seen his fellow crewmen so handily dispatched the drunken sailor met the agents halfway up the inclined ramp. Weisman grabbed the gangplank's rail on either side, leaned back and planted a foot squarely in the advancing man's breastbone effortlessly removing the last obstacle to his and Heero's escape.

The resulting splash as the man somersaulted, arms and legs thrashing wildly, into the sea sent up a fine spray that showered over the exiting agents. The befuddled trio of whores parted with an alarmed squeal as Heero and Weisman bolted pass then stood dumbfounded watching the inebriated man and his enraged shipmate help their wounded friend swim to the dockside.

Pausing to catch their breaths the bruised but happy winners didn't bother to hide their amusement as the three Vagabond crewmen cursed the hookers for laughing and each other for their failure.

"Damn we should get hazard pay for this." Heero announced wiping tacky blood from his upper lip.

Weisman checked his knuckles for damage and gave 01 a disapproving frown. "You think it would do any good to turn in a voucher?"

Heero was about express his derogatory opinion on the Bureau's tight purse strings when the CRACK of a pistol sent both agents diving for cover. Heero and the Beretta surveyed the dock to his right, Weisman and his Walther scanned the opposite direction.

A strangled cry redirected the agents' attention to the Vagabond just in time to see a body with a laser-scope sniper's rifle still clutched in its hands flip over the upper level railing, drop lifelessly to the main deck and hit with a bone-splintering thud.

It took Heero only a heart-chilling moment to realize that either he or Weisman had been targeted in the sniper's sight then it took less than a moment more to know who had fired the saving shot.

Standing on unsteady legs Heero pivoted to see Wufei emerging from the shadows. His still smoking pistol dangled from his fingers and a look of relief played across his slanted ebony eyes.

Weisman also found it difficult to make his rubbery legs support this weight. He held onto a light pole gulping in the salty sea air to clear his head. When his legs were more inclined to cooperate he walked over to Heero and the Chinese man who had seemed to materialize from nowhere.

"This is Chang Wufei." Heero introduced his partner and friend. "Wufei this is Frederic Weisman."

Wufei bowed then offered his free hand. "So you are the man with your fingers on Hamburg's pulse." he commented with his usual dry humor.

Weisman shook Wufie's hand, "Thanks to you I still have a pulse.

Heero slipped the Beretta in his shoulder holster, he hoped that he wouldn't need it again that night. "Where in the hell have you been?" he inquired of his tardy partner.

"I arrived just as you and Weisman were boarding the ship. I figured since you didn't bother to wait for me that I might as well keep watch here."

"I don't suppose you figured we could have used a third man in the fight?" Heero stated as he clearly recalled the knife hovering near his face.

Wufei let a smile curl up his mouth's corners. "I had that knife-wielding bastard in my sights, if you had needed help I could have easily taken him out." he said matter-of-factly.

"I think we all could use a stiff drink." Weisman declared then winced as he flexed his sore fingers.

Heero licked his dry lips, "Why not, we might as well reward ourselves, no one else is going to." he stated from years of experience.

********

Two hours later 01 and 05 staggered into their hotel room. Several glasses of something stronger than beer had put a dull edge on Heero's painful joints and bruised knuckles. Wufei was unusually relaxed, as the fermented brew had also worked its magic.

Wufei threw back the comforter and more flopped than sat down on his bed. He mumbled in Chinese as he unlaced his high-top boots and tugged them off then launched into a louder tirade when his trousers hung up on his hips. Finally he wiggled the trousers free, pulled off his hair tie, curled up with his back to Heero and yanked the bedcovers over his head stating, "That damn light is too bright."

Heero went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face to get his wits about him long enough to dutifully call the Hamburg Bureau. He checked his watch realizing that the night operator's shift would soon be over. It would be less than two hours until dawn ushered in a new day.

He spoke with the Duty Supervisor and requested one more day in Hamburg before flying on to Switzerland. What he didn't state was that the extra day was not needed to gather addition information or investigate suspicious persons but to give him and Wufei time to recover from what he knew would be nasty hangovers.

He switched off the light and undressed in the dark. In the other bed Wufei snorted softly. Taking comfort in the fact that he and 05 had an instinctual connection Heero closed his eyes and drifted off into welcomed oblivion.

 

Part Five: Sorting Out the Players

01 cracked open one eye and squinted at his watch. Processed through his groggy brain the digital numbers blurred into a fuzzy red spot. Several blinks brought the readout into clear focus...10:15 am.

Rolling onto his back Heero closed his eyes, let out a heavy sigh then gradually opened them to allow the bloodshot orbs to adjust to the mid-morning light. Luckily the curtains were shut and the thickly lined material kept most of the brightest at bay.

With extreme caution he stretched his arms over his head until the extended posture produced a barely audible pop along his spine. Bracing his elbows on the bed Heero sat up slowly, which was the only speed his liquor-abused body could manage.

He was vaguely aware of certain scents wafting to his nose. The aroma of coffee and strawberry or maybe cherry was easily recognized but there was also an odd odor, a fusion of sweet and spicy there defied identification.

In his peripheral vision Heero could just make out wavy wisps of white that curled and swirled in no particular pattern. Redirecting his sight toward the ghostly images hovering in the corner Heero discovered that the source was three burning incense sticks in a holder on the floor.

On the floor beside the aromatic rods Wufei, dressed solely in his black hakama pants, sat in a lotus position...eyes closed and hands relaxed on his knees. His freshly shampooed hair framed his face in shimmering strands and his expression was a perfect picture of serenity.

"How can he sit like that?" Heero muttered under his breath. The imitation of a pretzel looked very uncomfortable.

Not wanted to disturb his partner's meditation Heero slipped out of bed and fumbled around for his trousers that had somehow found their way under the bed. He quickly learned that bending over with his head lower than his body caused his brain to shift off-center. With an involuntary moan he joined Wufei on the floor.

"Good morning." 05 said without opening his eyes. In his mind's eye he could see Heero sitting in his boxers, hair tousled and a shadow of dark stubble on his chin.

Rubbing his throbbing temples Heero gave an acknowledging grunt in response to his partner's cheery greeting.

Wufei breathed in steadily through his nose then exhaled over his slightly parted lips. His opened ebony orbs locked on his colleague who was definitely suffering from last night's alcohol aftereffects.

"The coffee is still hot." Wufei untangled his legs, sat up on his knees and blew out the incense.

Tying up his robe as he walked over to Heero the Chinese agent squatted down at eyelevel. "You need a shower then food." he declared offering his hand.

Heero took Wufei's hand and groaned as both his head and body protested the movement. "Sit." Wufei ordered as he guided Heero's boxer-clad butt down on the bed.

Wufei turned on the shower, tested the temperature then returned to retrieve his partner. With 05's encouragement Heero slipped out of his boxers and stepped into the steamy mist.

After making sure that Heero was stable enough to be left on his own, Wufei went to Heero's suitcase gathered boxers and socks then selected an outfit of navy blue trousers and a lightweight blue and white striped sweater.

Heero stood with his hands braced on the wall so that the warm water washed over his head and down his back.

"Have you drown?" Wufei inquired as he hung the clean cloths on a hook. Again some sort of fractured sentence was muttered from behind the shower curtain.

"Wash your hair and don't take all morning." 05 ordered.

This time Wufei was able to understand a few words of Heero's reply. "Fuck" and "Bloody Bastard" were the most complimentary of the obscenities aimed in his direction.

********

"Now you look human." Wufei commented as Heero emerged from the bathroom washed up, clean shaven and dressed.

Heero sat at a small table by the window. Wufei poured a cup of strong coffee. Heero sipped the dark liquid then asked. "Why don't you ever get a hangover?"

"Mind over matter, I tell my body not to get sick." Wufei answered, "I'm going to get dressed then we will see what sights Hamburg has to offer."

Two strawberry muffins worked wonders to improve Heero's hangover and his attitude. He was finishing his second cup of coffee when 05 came out of the bathroom dressed in tan trousers and a black long-sleeve turtleneck shirt. He hair was tied back in the usual ponytail.

As Wufei pulled on his ankle-high leather boots he declared, "I suppose we should call Commander Une with a status report."

Heero considered the suggestion, "Let's see...you hung around the docks while I went to a seedy tavern to meet Weisman. The crazy German and I snooped around a rusty steamer and found nothing but rats and one possible clue in the hold. Weisman and I were discovered, we got to play with two bad guys and their vulgar shipmate then you killed a sniper and all three of us got sloshed. Does that about cover the report?"

"A lot of action but no substance." Wufei agreed, "We could always make something up."

Heero wiped muffin crumbs from his lips, "We leave for Switzerland in the morning. After we arrive we'll call in and make something up then."

********

The next morning found 01 and 05 on a plane bound for Geneva, Switzerland. The season was late spring and the snow Heero so fondly remembered had melted away. Mingled patches in multi-hues of green lay out below as their flight descended into Cointrin International Airport.

After clearing customs the agents were approached by a man inquiring if Heero was Mr. Yuy from Aero-Tech. Heero slipped into his cover as naturally as if he did indeed work for Aero-Tech.

Mr. Yuy and his associate Mr. Chang were escorted to a helicopter for a flight that would put them in Montreux before noon. As the helicopter flew high above the gleaming waters of Lake Geneva, well out of earshot of anyone with a listening device on the ground, the pilot formally introduced himself.

"I'm Marty Ross, Central Division, Switzerland. Glad to have you both aboard."

Une says you're a good man," Heero complemented as he shook Ross's hand, "and a fairly good pilot." he teased.

"I suppose that depends on whom you talk to. Here is the latest recon information concerning your assignment." Ross said handing Heero two large envelopes.

One envelope contained the grounds layout for the complex currently being used by Khushrenada Electronics which included floor plans for all the main buildings. According to the enclosed map the complex sat outside of Montreux at the base of the Bernese Alps. Heero recalled that Khushrenada had a chalet in the Alps.

Wufei opened the second envelope and pulled out the most recent surveillance photos of Treize Khushrenada, Zechs Merquise and the mysterious Duo Maxwell. Of course Heero took a few extra minutes to study Mr. Maxwell's picture closely. Not only was Maxwell naturally handsome but from the list of colleges he attended it appeared that he had the intelligence to match his looks. One thing was certain, Duo Maxwell was not just another technology nerd with software for brains.

A fourth picture was of a large man known only as Septum. "We're not sure where this bastard fits in." Ross indicated towards the picture with a nod of his head.

Heero's fingers tightened around the photo's edge hard enough to wrinkle the stiff paper. "If Septum is involved it is not good." he stated from first-hand experience.

Septum had all the charms of a Southern gentleman and the lethal temperament of a pit viper. He had a morbid fixation with anything bladed...the longer, the sharper, the better. He also had a nasty habit of showing up just before someone turned up dead. But he wasn't the "company" type, as he preferred his jobs to be on a free-lance basis.

Septum and Heero had a long and violent history. There were warrants out for the madman in just about every country around the world. Last year 01 and an American Interpol agent almost caught Septum in Bolivia but the snake slithering away into the jungle. After that near miss, Heero swore that one way or the other, their next meeting would be their last.

"Yes," Heero thought to himself, "if Septum is connected with Khushrenada in any way it meant deadly trouble."

********

The Le Montreux Palace Hotel dominated a hillside overlooking the Grand Rue. The Rue followed the busy shoreline of Lake Geneva. The afternoon sun glimmered on the waterfront and glittered over the vividly colorful silken sails unfurled before the breeze. Pleasure crafts of the rich and powerful bobbed in their slips rocked by the constant ripples produced by powerboats, launches and water taxies.

As Heero and Wufei registered the desk manager confirmed that their reserved suite was ready and the car that had been requested was waiting in the parking area. The suite's sitting room brightened as the porter pulled back the satiny drapes to revealed a wide double window and a breathtaking panorama of the Grand Rue and Lake Geneva's azure water.

Pastel tones of beige and peach accented the tastefully appointed room. Amenities such as fresh flowers and a well stocked bar added to the gracious atmosphere of the Montreux Palace.

While Wufei gave a generous tip to the bellboy Heero organized his belongings on the bed. He opened Howard's briefcase wanting to be certain that everything was secure.

The gadgets were simpler this time, no laser beams or jet packs, but that suited 01. Instincts and street smarts were Heero's weapons of choice. But he ever turned down help of any kind especially where "Uncle" Howard's brand of assistance was concerned.

Wufei joined his counterpart looking over their new "toys". He noticed a tab on the inside lid and pulled. As the false top came down a wide grin filled 05's face. Nestled snuggly in its own space a Walther P38 gleamed silver against the black velvety lining.

"Howard you old devil," Heero shook his head as the regulation weapon was discovered, "still determined as ever."

After a quick shower Heero picked out a smartly tailored gray suit. A silky black shirt, a silver and wine striped tie and a wine pocket square completed the stylish outfit. He much preferred more casual attire, usually something not so stuffy but he had to put on the camouflage of a businessman for his meeting with Herr Khushrenada.

Once again Heero chose to ignore the Walther and slipped his Beretta into his coat's inside breast pocket. He stood before a full-length mirror to check if the gun interfered with the line of the suit.

"Nice." Wufei commented.

"Only the best for Khushrenada." Heero grinned.

Wufei checked the chip on his pistol and stored it away in the shoulder holster under his jacket. "I'm meeting Ross to go over the surveillance information and see where there might be kinks in Khushrenada's armor. Call me when you get back."

*********

Khushrenada Electronics sat in a flat plane framed by the rising foothills of the Alps. As Heero drove along the complex's private road he stopped the car in the last bend before the security gate to spy from a discreet distance. He picked out at least four main buildings recognizing each one from the layout supplied by Ross.

01 presented his business card and false identification for Aero-Tech to the security guard at the gatehouse. After a conformation call to the main office the guard issued him a visitor's pass and gave directions to correct building.

Activity picked up as Heero drove deeper into the maze of buildings, warehouses and access roads. The desired office was located in a two story gray stone building in the heart of the continuous action. Once inside he handed his card to a woman at the reception desk announcing his appointment with Herr Khushrenada then followed the woman to a receiving area down the hall.

Heero made a mental note of each exit just in case a hasty departure became necessary but he felt sure that there would be no need for a hurried retreat. He was standing by a large window watching a line of trucks roll by when a voice called from behind. "Mr. Yuy."

Turing around he found a slender woman in a form-fitting red dress standing in the doorway. She was put together nicely with a trim figure and long legs that seemed to go on forever. By far her best feature was the cascade of blond hair that hung well passed her waist and fluffed in wispy strands around her high cheekbones. The color was not bright but a pale shade of gold and Heero immediately decided that the shade suited her well.

"Mr. Yuy, I'm Dorothy Catalonia, Mr. Khushrenada's Executive Secretary." she smiled offering her hand.

Heero was a bit surprised that since Catalonia's job put here so close to the German industrialist that her picture had not been included in Khushrenada's dossier or the latest recon report.

"Ms. Catalonia." Heero replied. As his hand closed around hers he noticed the jingle made by the charms on her bracelet hitting together.

"Mr. Khushrenada is waiting." Dorothy informed as she guided Heero to the door. They stepped across the hall to Khushrenada office.

Treize Khushrenada was a tall, well-built man with platinum blond hair and ice blue eyes that instantly captured your attention and held it with a commanding gaze. He greeted Heero with an aristocratic accent that spoke of a lineage of wealth and power. Khushrenada had a certain charismatic charm but Heero's instincts told him that the German's genteel facade was as deceptive as quicksand.

The two businessmen wasted no time in getting to the particulars of their meeting. Mr. Yuy expressed his company's interest in a contract on electronic switching systems for communication equipment produced by Aero-Tech. Heero proposed an exclusive deal especially if the Altron Corporation was included as a subcontractor.

Heero continued to stroke Khushrenada's ego heaping praises on everything from his many successful commercial ventures to his reputation as an excellent skier and a champion horseman. Via his own brand of charm 01 wove a web of fabrication until Khushrenada was completely ensnared by the flattery.

The German promptly agreed that he and Aero-Tech could have a profitable arrangement and promised Khushrenada Electronics and Altron's full cooperation. Then he called in Ms. Catalonia and asked her to supply the designs and descriptions of their various products for Mr. Yuy's inspection.

Heero promised to look over all the information and contact Khushrenada as soon as his employer made the final decision. Mr. Khushrenada and Mr. Yuy parted with a handshake and a promise of considerable profit for each company.

As he walked down the hall Heero was left with three strong impressions. Firstly with Khushrenada's knowledge, technology and resources the guidance disruptors could easily be produced making the German and possibly Merquise his prime suspects.

Secondly if a potential buyer mistook Khushrenada's sophistication and suave manner for a lack of shrewd business savvy they would be in for a rude revelation. Treize Khushrenada knew his company inside and out and knew how to manage his numerous assets to the fullest degree.

Thirdly the German was not to be taken lightly in anything...business or personal. He was a ruthless competitor who would not let anyone interfere with him reaching his goals and a dangerous man who rewarded disloyalty with brutal swiftness.

01's inner voice told him that he was indeed on the right track but that the path must be tread carefully or the he, 05 and the mission could quickly come to a dead end.

Ms. Catalonia accompanied Mr. Yuy to the main doors expressing her expectations that a mutual arrangement could be worked out. But the flash in her blue eyes and the way her hand lingered on Heero's as he took the product profiles conveyed more than a mere interest in a successful sale. Even the inflection in her voice put Heero on notice that the blond was hoping to invest in more than just products and profits. Ms. Catalonia left no doubt about the kind of business that she hoped to become engaged in and no doubt that Mr. Yuy was her ultimate objective.

Before Heero turned to leave, Dorothy took a small white business card from her pocket. Her bracelet charms tinkled together as she wrote across the card's back: 7:00 pm--main conference room--tonight.

"What's this?" 01 wondered running his thumb along the card's edge.

Dorothy aligned her eyes until they locked with Heero's, "An invitation." she answered, "Mr. Khushrenada is having a reception tonight for his business colleagues and Division Presidents. I thought you might like to attend, maybe you can make some useful contacts. I'll leave your name at the front desk."

"And if I do show up," Heero smiled, "will there really be a reception or just you lying in wait?"

"Mr. Yuy, you don't truly believe I would be so brazen, do you?"

*Anymore so,* Heero thought to himself, *and she would be all over me here and now.*

Dorothy's words brought Heero back from his thoughts, "Please come tonight and enjoy yourself. Then we will see what might happen with the rest of the evening."

"Alright." Heero accepted as he figured the reception would be a perfect opportunity to observe all the players in one place.

Dorothy followed Heero to the outside steps. The sun shimmered over her golden hair while the gentle breeze stirred the lengthy tresses adding more sparkle to the silken strands.

"See you tonight." she offered her hand and the bracelet made music to the motion.

"Interesting bracelet." Heero commented as Dorothy's hand lingered in his.

The flirtatious female slipped her hand from Heero's hand. She raised her wrist at eye level. "Each charm is a symbol for luck and is designed to please the Fates." she stated with a twinkle in her deep blue eyes. "Perhaps luck will accompany you tonight."

"Perhaps." Heero responded with a respectful bow.

********

Just before Heero's car reached the gatehouse he passed a man walking around the curved sidewalk towards the main office. Immediately 01 recognized the striking features and the unmistakable long braid. Duo Maxwell was indeed as handsome as his pictures.

For some reason Heero wasn't surprised to see Mr. Maxwell, after all the entire afternoon had been a series of unexpected events. "One more player." he thought as the man's easy strides carried him effortlessly along the curved walkway.

Heero decided that he liked the way the braid's tip bounced on Maxwell's trim backside. "Duo Maxwell," Heero whispered, "I wonder what you are up to."

 

Part Six: Meeting Mr. Maxwell.

"Hello darlin'." Marquis Welige called as he leaned around the open door.

Dorothy seized Marquis arm and hauled him into the office. "What in the hell are you doing here?" She lowered her voice then glanced anxiously up and down the hall before closing the door.

Marquis leaned back on Dorothy's desk. "It's all right no one saw me come in. I used the back stairs."

"I've had enough of your recklessness. What do you want?"

"I thought that you might like to take at look at this." Marquis announced, proudly producing a square silver box from his pocket.

Dorothy's eyes widened, "Are you insane! You know better than to bring that here." she snapped grabbing the box from his hand. "I said nothing was to leave the lab and I meant nothing."

"Relax, I know what I'm doing." Marquis declared as he rocked closer to Ms. Catalonia.

Dorothy's nose wrinkled in a disapproving manner. "I think the only thing you've been doing is drinking."

"Just celebrating. In a few days we're going to be richer than Khushrenada.

"Well, it's not a few days yet." Dorothy stated. She sat down behind her desk. "The transaction could still fall through. Between you waltzing around with the merchandise and Septum bringing in all kinds of scum, it could very well go sour."

Marquis rocked forward again then slapped a steadying hand on the desktop. "You worry too much. The way you set up this whole deal right under the boss's nose you could end up running the company then we would be sitting pretty."

Dorothy's bracelet hit against the box's side as she nervously turned it over in her hands. "I wouldn't use the term "we" too loosely. If you mess up any part of this deal, you and Septum will dance" she promised, "Do you understand?"

Suddenly more sober Marquis nodded "yes".

"Take this," Dorothy ordered shoving the box into Marquis' hand, "and get back to the lab."

Clutching the silver box Marquis weaved as he began to leave. His lips parted, no doubt to issue some smart-ass retort, but the words came to an abrupt halt as the office door opened.

Duo Maxwell peered in, "I'm sorry, I didn't know you were busy." he apologized.

"It's all right." Dorothy smiled as she quickly moved to place herself between Duo's line of sight and the mysterious box.

Duo caught a glimpse of silver just before Marquis dropped the box in his pocket. "I have work to do." Marquis stated cutting his eyes back at Dorothy.

Duo stepped aside. Marquis swaggered pass being sure to brush against Duo as he left. "One day," Duo thought to himself sidestepping a groping hand, "Welige's habit of touching is going to get him punched out."

When Ms. Catalonia and Mr. Maxwell were alone, Duo handed Dorothy a thick folder. "Here are the diagnostic reports on the system modification."

"Thank you."

Duo paused at the door. "Why were you and Welige so chummy? I thought you didn't have much use for him."

"I don't...it was nothing." she lied. Her reply was halting and choppy and Duo sensed nervousness in reaction to his simple question.

"We were discussing the minor details of a new project." Dorothy added as if her answer needed more creditable clarification.

Duo nodded, "I declare you're getting as jumpy as Welige."

"As Welige? I don't know what you mean."

"I was working late last night," Duo explained, "Welige was in the main computer room and when I came in to pull up a file he nearly jumped out of his skin."

"He never was too steady." Dorothy stated. The corner of her mouth quivered slightly, "Do you need anything else?"

"Not unless you want to tell me what Welige is up to with his late night prowling."

 

"I believe he's experimenting with several new concepts but none have reached the developmental stage."

Duo raised his eyebrows but said nothing more. The silence seemed to last forever. Then finally to Dorothy's relief, Duo moved into the hall. "I'll see you at the reception tonight."

As soon as Dorothy was sure that Duo had left she punched up a number on the outside telephone line. "Welige was here with one of the control boxes." she informed the person on the other end, "When he gets back there I want him watched and I mean closely." she ordered, "He's getting too damned cocky for his own good and if he persists with his insolent attitude I won't hesitate to make him disappear."

********

"I hope this isn't going to become a habit." Ross laughed when he heard Heero's voice on the phone. "What do you need?"

"A car. The one I rented at the hotel is fine for cruising but I need something..."

"With more power and speed." Ross cut in.

"Yes, something like that."

"I'll see what I can do. Did you learn anything worth knowing at Khushrenada Electronics?"

"Not much but I did spot Mr. Maxwell as I was leaving. I don't have anything concrete to report but I do have an idea that might improve our information deficiency."

"You can fill me in when I deliver the car." Ross stated, "I'll be over in forty minutes."

********

Heero's next call was to Khushrenada's complex. He made a polite request to the switchboard operator to please ring Mr. Maxwell's office.

Heero and Maxwell's exchange was brief and to the point. Heero introduced himself then stated that he might be engaging in a long term contract with Khushrenada Electronics and thought that it would be a good idea if he met with someone from the Development Division.

"After all," he stated, "If I should have any problems your division would be the place to call."

Mr. Maxwell agreed to meet Mr. Yuy later that afternoon for a drink at a cafe near the complex. "I will see you at 4:00." Heero confirmed.

Wufei looked up from the book he was reading entitled, "How to Grow Bonsai Trees". "So you're finally going to meet the mysterious Maxwell."

Heero put on his jacket and checked his appearance in the mirror. "Maybe by this evening there won't be any more mystery."

********

Heero drove the BMW into the cafe's parking lot. Ross had really outdone himself in providing a car that met 01's power and speed requirements. His favorite mode of transportation was the Aston Martin but Une had not been so ready to issue another Martin since he had blown up the last one after a wild chase that ended at the Austrian border.

Being late afternoon only a few tables were occupied. Heero paused in the door sizing up the establishment out of habit. Mr. Maxwell was seated at a corner table looking handsome in slim black trousers and a red sweater.

"Mr. Maxwell, I'm Heero Yuy."

Maxwell stood and shook Heero's hand. "Please call me Duo, Mr. Maxwell is too formal."

Suddenly Heero found himself looking in to the most exquisite eyes he had ever seen. They were bright and expressive and the oddest shade of violet. Realizing that he was staring Heero reluctantly broke the spellbinding gaze. "Duo." he repeated as he took his seat.

Duo had already ordered a gin and tonic. Heero asked for whiskey. He was anxious to skip the polite chitchat and find out what he could about the man with the braid.

Heero began with a logical question. "How long have you been working for Khushrenada Electronics?"

"Just a few months in Switzerland but I have done consulting jobs for Mr. Khushrenada mostly in his Product Development Division."

"I would think in your position you would have firsthand knowledge of the latest projects." Heero stated, "Both public and private." he added then watched for any changes in Duo's _expression.

"I don't believe I know what you mean." Duo answered coolly.

"I have always believed that it didn't hurt to be on the inside track."

Duo straightened in his seat. "Mr. Yuy if you have asked for this meeting to pump me about industrial secrets I'm afraid you've chosen the wrong person."

"It's nothing like that." Heero answered quickly hoping that he had not pushed too far, too fast. "I just like to know how a business is managed. I may be investing a large sum of money and I can't afford to be too far out of the loop."

"I can assure you, Mr. Yuy, that Khushrenada Electronics is a sound company. Any investment you make in our equipment will be profitable."

Heero smiled charmingly. "Do I have your personal promise on that?"

Duo nodded, "Mr. Khushrenada is associated with NASA in the United States and has an excellent working relationship with the Colonial Shuttle Line. His record speaks for itself."

Heero made another attempt to steer the conversation in the right direction. "What other types of contracts does Khushrenada have?"

Duo didn't seem inclined to share much information. "I really don't know. My position does not include those aspects of his contractual commitments."

*This conversation is going nowhere.* Heero thought. Was Duo deliberately being evasive or was he being truthful?

*Let's go another way.* Heero's inner voice advised.

"You work mainly out of Khushrneada's British Division yet spend quite a bit of time in Switzerland. I am willing to bet that he has a few new projects on the drawing board." Heero continued fishing for facts.

Duo paused a moment as if he was carefully choosing an appropriate response then locked his violet sight on his inquisitor. "My reasons for being in Switzerland are my own." he stated with sharp indignation ringing in his voice.

"You will have to excuse me." Duo pushed his chair back from the table. "If you have any further questions you may direct them to the main office."

As Heero watched Duo leave he considered his abrupt manner, the blunt way he had ended the conversation. "It seems I might have struck a nerve. There is definitely something worth learning about." he decided with certainty.

********

Heero studied his reflection in the mirror and, for the second time, straightened his uncooperative bowtie. A black dinner jacket completed the outfit. He checked the Beretta's clip, placed the automatic in his left inside breast pocket then pinned a red carnation to the jacket's lapel for the perfect finishing touch.

Wufei stepped up beside his fellow spy. He had decided to forgo the "cookie cutter" formal evening fashion and opted for an Eastern styled jacket and pants in dark plum. "Are you sure I will be admitted?" he wondered as he combed out his ebony hair and tied it back in a ponytail.

"No one at the complex is going to care." Heero stated then frowned as the bowtie drooped to the right. "Damn tie, I hate these monkey suits."

"Let me see." Wufei took hold of the stubborn bowtie and with an expert twist of his wrist put it in exact horizontal alignment.

Heero leaned closer to the mirror and wiggled his shoulders, the tie stayed in place. "Is there anything you can't do?"

Wufei shrugged, "I haven't mastered astrophysics yet but I plan to as soon as we have a few days off."

********

A line of chauffeured limousines and private cars inched their way to the front entrance of Khushrenada Electronics. Attendants efficiently opened doors, assisted the wealthy and influential guests then, with the same skillful ease, deposited the expensive vehicles in assorted parking areas.

Heero parked in a space near the door preferring that the BMW be in close proximity should a quick departure become necessary. He gave his name to the reception hostess and introduced Mr. Chang as his associate. Once inside the two agents split up to "work the room".

A jazz quartet set a light mood. Women attired to catch the attention of the crowd or to outdo a rival female hung on the arms of boring businessmen discussing profits and bottom lines.

Heero stood to one side sipping a glass of champagne. "Nearly all the players are present." he observed. Occasionally he would catch a trace of plum moving among the varied shades of evening gowns and the catering staff's white uniforms.

Treize Khushrenada made his way through the maze of people who were sharing conversations or feasting at the buffet table. He smoothly employed his captivating charms shaking hands, kissing the ladies and displaying his flair for aristocratic sophistication.

Khushrenada spotted Heero. "Herr Yuy. I am glad to see you again."

"I am honored by your invitation." Heero replied with a slight bow.

"Do you need anything, another drink or perhaps the company of a lovely lady?"

"Thank you but I am fine for now."

"If you change you mind please do not hesitate to partake of my hospitality" Khushrenada indicted with a sweep of his hand.

Heero was about to thank his host again when they were joined by a tall slender man sporting a loose ponytail of silvery hair that reached his waist. 01 immediately identified the newest player from the surveillance pictures supplied by Ross.

"Herr Yuy may I present Zechs Merquise.

*What is it with these men and long hair.* Heero thought to himself recalling Duo Maxwell's lengthy locks.

"Mr. Merquise." Heero nodded his acknowledgment.

Merquise slipped his arm around Khushrenada's shoulders and moved his mouth close to his ear. Heero couldn't make out many of the confidential words but something sounding like "mon cheri" was picked out over the din of music and voices.

The Altron Corporation CEO whispered something else then took a gulp of the alcohol-laced drink that was undoubtedly responsible for his relaxed inhibitions. In fact Heero got the impression that Merquise had been imbibing for quite some time.

Merquise redirected his attention to Herr Yuy and was none too discreet in his ogling. His sky blue eyes started at Heero's head then leisurely traveled down to take in all of his finer features. "I am delighted to meet you." he stated in slightly slurred words.

Cutting his eyes at Khushrenada, Merquise leaned forward until he was merely inches from Heero's face. "Are you alone?"

"My associate is here."

"'Do you and your associate mix business and pleasure?"

"No."

A sly smile played across Merquise's lips, "Then would you be interested in a menage a trois?" he asked huskily cocking his head at Khushrenada.

Heero politely decline the lustful invitation. Merquise didn't bother to hide his disappointment. "Such a waste." He drank the last of his glass then winked at the German. "I'll see you later."

Khushrenada returned to mingling. A man wearing a Stetson and western boots who was puffing on a large, probably smelly, cigar had cornered Wufei. Shifting his vantage point Heero leaned against the wall and surveyed the room.

His observation centered on Merquise who had stopped at the bar for a refill. The Altron executive was absorbed in what appeared to be a tense exchange with a younger man.

Heero figured by their body language that the disagreement could have easily escalated into a physical altercation if the men had been in less public surroundings. Suddenly Merquise stabbed a finger in the other man's face then, with an irate gesture, broke off the heated discussion and stormed away.

"There is a strong undercurrent in here." Heero mumbled to himself. He finished his champagne and set the empty glass on a bronze planter.

Heero was about to change locations primarily to rescue Wufei from the stogie-smoking cowboy but also to monitor his German host when Duo Maxwell sauntered into the room.

A tailored pin-stripped suit accentuated his trim physique and a maroon turtleneck sweater had replaced the traditional white shirt and black bowtie. The overhead lights played over his hair bringing out shimmering highlights of cinnamon.

Duo's mood had lightened since he and Heero's earlier encounter at the cafe. He paused to shake hands with an elderly man in a conservative tuxedo and his twenty-something female companion who was decked out in enough gold and precious stones to warrant her own security guard.

Heero kept his place by the wall taking a moment to enjoy his view of the fascinating man with the braid. Duo stood sideways to Heero's vantage point. As he pivoted he must have caught a glimpse of Heero in his peripheral vision. Quickly Duo's head came around for a second look however he gave no outward sign of anything more than polite recognition of Mr. Yuy's presence.

Since no encouragement was forthcoming Heero decided to make the first move. "Good evening Mr. Maxwell." he smiled doing is best to warm Duo's aloof attitude.

"Mr. Yuy I didn't expect to see you here tonight."

"Last minute invitation."

"Are you still working on the inside track?" Duo wondered.

"I'm just having a look around." Heero answered in a matter-of-fact manner. "Mr. Khushrenada certainly has a large circle of colleagues."

Duo glanced around, "Not really. Most of these people were only invited because they have something that Khushrenada wants or they know how to get it. I bet he doesn't even remember half of their names. And what about you Mr. Yuy, why are you here?"

"Would you believe I was hoping to see you again?"

"No." The unyielding chill in Duo's voice was not thawing very fast.

Heero reckoned that he needed another approach if he was going to break through Duo's icy barrier. "I think that we started off wrong this afternoon." he stated sincerely, "What would you say to going somewhere quiet and talking out our differences?"

"I don't know..." Duo began then realized that Heero's attention had wandered. He redirected his sight to follow Heero's gaze.

Ms. Catalonia had arrived in a bedazzling evening dress of gold lame'. The formfitting gown's neckline plunged low to make sure that her ample anatomy was not hidden away. A diamond and ruby heart-shaped pendent hung from a golden chain long enough to call further attention to her considerable cleavage. Her blond hair was smoothed back in a French twist that enhanced her high cheekbones and showed off her matching diamond and ruby dangling earrings.

There was no doubt in Duo's mind what had distracted Mr. Yuy but his assumptions couldn't have been further off target. It was not Dorothy that held Heero's interest but her escort.

Heero's jaw tightened. Every nerve ending twitched like a hair trigger. "Septum!" he hissed under his breath. It took all of his control training to keep his hand outside his breast pocket and away from the Beretta.

Septum and Heero's last battle had ended in a steamy Bolivian jungle. The Bureau had lost two agents that day and Heero had lost two friends. If it had not been for Trowa Barton's saving intervention it would have been the end of 01 as well.

Heero had beaten death once more but it took nearly a month in hospital to cheat the Grim Reaper's claiming. A long ugly scar across Heero's chest, the produce of Septum's machete, was a constant reminder should he ever try to forget the pleasure that the assassin displayed as he stood over Agent 01 and watched him bleed out his life.

Heero wanted it finished between him and the merciless madman. Finished...one way or the other. But not there, not with so many innocent people. If he stayed, if Septum saw him, Heero knew from firsthand experience that Septum would not care who got in the way. The bloodier, the better, that was the vicious bastard's sick obsession.

"I suppose that we could..." Duo turned back to finish his sentence, "Mr. Yuy?" The place where Heero stood just moments before was vacant.

 

Part Seven: Things that Go Bump in the Night.

Wufei and Heero sat in the BMW that had been relocated closer to the chain link fence surrounding Khushrenada Electronics. Heero checked his watch, midnight. The complex buildings were dark except for an occasional illuminated window that was undoubtedly in a hall.

"A blind man must have designed the security system." Wufei commented on the ill-lit landscape and lack of proper wattage in the perimeter lights.

Heero grunted in agreement. He had long ago slipped off the uncooperative bowtie and unbuttoned his collar. A thin wisp of cigarette smoke curled in bluish spirals as he waited impatiently to do some spying.

The reception had finally broken up not more than an hour ago. It hadn't taken long for the crowd to thin out and for the last of the hired help to disappear into the night. Howard's briefcase had been retrieved from the boot. The pen and dart case now rested in Heero's jacket pocket opposite his automatic.

Both the Beretta and Wufei's Walther would only be used as a last resort. It was not that either spy was squeamish about shooting but a loud bang could be easily heard and a muzzle flash could plainly be seen in the dark.

Heero flicked the cigarette out the window. It hit smoldering end first sending out a shower of tiny embers. "Ready?" He had waited long enough.

Two backlit silhouettes made a straightway path for the fence. Crouching side by side Wufei pulled a voltage meter from his belt pack and touched the conducting rod to the fence. The indicator needle barely quivered telling 05 that there was no current running through the metal barrier. Heavy-gauge wire cutters severed the links, the trespassing pair squeezed through then realigned the fence to hide their covert insertion.

An entire back section of the grounds was hidden from view by several stacks of shipping crates embossed with the K.E. logo. Heero and Wufei decided that area would be the best point of entry. If the complex layout supplied by Ross was correct the building housing the main computer room was just across the way.

The stealthy intruders advanced cautiously a few steps at a time. They paused, listened and move again. The gradual gaining of real estate was time consuming but better the slow pace than being stopped dead in their tracks.

Footsteps striking the pavement halted the agents' progress. Two irregular shadows floated over the grass and bloomed up on the building's side. 01 and 05 froze in place.

Their preferred response to the approaching shadowy shapes would have been a quick shot but, in this case, a more carefully considered method was advisable. Heero used a silent hand signal to tell Wufei to wait while he advanced a few yards and positioned himself in a defensive posture to intercept the odd images.

The patrolling guard emerging from the darkness explained one of the questionable outlines but the second shape was completely unexpected. One of the largest German Shepherds Heero had ever seen tugged at his lead as he sniffed out a foreign scent. The muscular mongrel stopped, sucked in a good whiff then locked his angry eyes on the scent's source.

Before Heero could react to his sudden detection the sentry unleashed the beast. Moments before the burly dog lunged for the intruder into his territory Heero managed to scramble up one stack of crates. He pulled up his feet with only seconds to spare and swore that the canine's teeth scraped his heels as the dog jumped up after his quarry.

Frustrated by his unsuccessful grab, the dog paced at the stack's base. Hair bristled along his spine and a low guttural growl rose from deep inside the aggressive animal. And if the situation was not bad enough all the Shepherd had to do was bark and every guard on duty would be alerted. The dog continued to snarl curling back his lips in a mocking smile. Long teeth glistened in the limited light.

********

Meanwhile the sentry decided to engage in some target practice. What better way to hone his marksmanship than to pick off his target at fifty yards? He shouldered his rifle, sighted through the night-scope and tightened the tension on the trigger. "Hold still you son of a bitch." he mumbled as his intended mark wavered in the scope's focus.

A blur of motion was all the guard saw before a snap front kick dislodged the rifle from his grasp. The surprised man spun around just in time for a fist to shatter his jaw and a knee to crack his ribs. With a grunt the man joined his rifle on the ground.

The faint scraping of cloth over the grass was barely heard as the guard's limp body was dragged behind a shrubbery hedge. Then as silently the Lone Dragon melted back into the shadows like ink soaking through rice paper.

********

Another bound put the Shepherd halfway up the crate before his momentum ran out. This failure only served to further frustrate and anger the dog. It was only a matter of time before one of the leaps would succeed in sinking teeth into flesh and possibly hauling Heero down from his precarious perch.

Heero reached for the pen; carefully he loaded a yellow tipped dart. He moved with deliberate caution not wanting to do anything that would encourage the dog to make another attempt at crate climbing.

"This isn't permanent," he assured the cross canine, "but you're going to have a hell of a headache when you wake up."

The dart stuck midway along the dog's neck just above the shoulder. A sharp yelp preceded the Shepherd's eyes rolling back. A low whine carried on the night air as the now calm canine flopped over on his side panting in short puffs with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth.

Heero climbed down and hid the semi-conscious dog behind the crates. He checked his watch...12:25 am.

Nothing else impeded the agents' route to the correct building. Once a suitable entrance was in sight 01 and 05 had a brief tactical discussion. Wufei would remain on watch while Heero hacked into the computer files for any clues concerning Khushrenada's association with the guidance disruptors. He and Wufei would stay linked through headsets.

"If anything happens we'll meet at the car." Heero instructed.

Wufei nodded. "I'll be here." he promised. "Heero," he called just before 01 made the final dash to the door, "don't take all night, I need my beauty sleep."

********

Heero disabled the alarm system then used Howard's "magic key" to slip in a side door. "I'm in." he whispered into his headset's mouthpiece.

"All clear." Wufei reported.

A wide loading bay was filled to overflow with cartons, equipment and a least a dozen half-ton trucks. 01 stayed low using the assorted containers as cover. The bay was quiet and, after his unpleasant encounter with the sentry and his four-legged counterpart, Heero was happy to have the quiet. A speedy pace brought him to an exit on the bay's opposite side.

The door eased back until the crack was sufficient for Heero to peek through. Again he let his eyes and ears communicate the corridor's status concerning any patrolling watchers. The hall was vacant but there was no guarantee it would remain that way. Also he had to be aware that most halls were probably equipped with security cameras. Flattening against the wall Heero tried his best to be an inconspicuous as possible.

Recalling the building's layout Heero traveled down the corridor, turned left at an intersecting hall then counted the doors until he found the one labeled, "Shipping Department". Again the Universal Key effortlessly disengaged the lock. As the door closed behind him Heero made a mental note to thank Howard for his ingenuity.

The narrow beam from a penlight swept across six workstations. Heero took off the headset, put it in his pocket and settled down in front of the third computer consol. Most people would have chosen the computer closest to the door to facilitate a rapid exit but Heero required maneuvering room in case he was discovered. If his hacking was interrupted 01 needed the extra space to lure the guard further inside then he could utilize a more silence method of "watcher removal".

Just as the noise of a shot would have attracted attention outside, a keen pistol crack would be multiplied in the building's interior and then the idea of sneaking in would become a moot point.

Heero balanced the penlight to illuminate the keyboard and switched on the computer. A soft beep momentarily disrupted the eerie stillness then a low hum was all that was heard. The activated screen cast a blue tint across Heero's face.

Ross had provided a list of sequence numbers that were supposed to be the override codes to breach the computer's security system. Heero's fingers flew over the keys as he entered the first set of four-digit numbers. The computer efficiently scanned, digested and then rejected the series. A glaring ACCESS DENIED filled the screen.

Heero cursed under his breath then typed in the next five codes in rapid succession. Again the computer refused entry. He took a deep breath, let a relaxing exhalation flow over his lips and hoped that Lady Luck would not abandon him to failure.

Finally the seventh sequence clicked in and the computer cooperated. Spreads sheets filled with shipment dates and time schedules popped on the monitor. Heero advanced the list quickly reading several lines at once. Everything looked right, just routine records.

As the screen's blue light increased the intensity of Heero's blue eyes frustration began to set in. He knew that the German would have taken care to cover his tracks. He hadn't expected to find any entries on the Vagabond and her secret cargo, Khushrenada was too clever to make that mistake but Heero had hoped for a link, maybe some minor, overlooked detail to tell him that he was on the right path and not on a futile mission.

"Just how accurate was Quinze's report?" The question seeped into his mind. Had incomplete or faulty information sent him on the proverbial "wild goose chase"? At that point 01 was thinking up quite a few unsavory ways to go after Quinze if the question of flawed data proved to be true.

"You're not going to find out anything here." Heero mumbled as he sat back with a sigh. "Khushrenada's office, that's where you need to look." he continued the self-debate.

Heero straightened suddenly. The screen and the penlight went dark at the same time. Now the bluish tattletale "ghost aura" on the monitor was all that betrayed the computer's recent use. Footsteps in the corridor had put an abrupt end to Heero's unauthorized spying session. Holding the Beretta close to his chest, he pressed his body against the wall on the door's hinged side.

Someone worked the lock, slowly the doorknob turned. An outline silhouetted in a backwash of light moved further into the room. A hand reached for the light switch.

Heero held his breath.

The lights flared on.

The automatic became a natural extension of 01's hand as he sighted down his outstretched arm. His movement from the shadows caused the unidentified figure to spin around.

Without warning Heero found himself face to face with Duo Maxwell.

********

The night watchman put down his copy of Playboy and stretched. With an air of apathy he stood up to start his next inspection round. His indifference was borne from night after night of uneventful boredom. Between the patrolling sentries and their ill-tempered dogs and the interior alarm system's continuous monitoring nothing exciting ever happened.

The reception earlier that evening had given him a welcomed respite from his monotonous duty but watching the men and women with their fancy cars and expensive clothing had been an unpleasant reminder of how "dead end" his job really was.

But his dull life wasn't going to change, at least not tonight. "Better get to it." he sighed. He finished the last of his coffee, got his flashlight and headed for the door.

********

Duo drew in a startled breath. His eyes widened in shock at the sight of a gun pointed in his direction. Then his unusual violet orbs narrowed and a confused _expression played out across his face as he looked past the pistol to Heero.

"Please don't move." Heero ordered. 01 rarely made polite requests and never begged anyone's compliance but in this case he sincerely hoped that Mr. Maxwell would heed his warning.

Duo's shook his head "yes" but continued to tilt his head at an inquiring angle. "Mr. Yuy?" His baffled tone lent concrete credence to his confusion.

Heero relaxed but didn't lower his guard or his gun. "What are you doing here?" he demanded with a tenseness in his voice that made it clear he was not in the mood for playing games. "Lose your way home?" he added sarcastically.

The puzzlement immediately left Duo's face. "Me?" he stated with recovered resolve. "I work here." With an equal amount of mockery Duo turned the tables, "You were the one who disappeared."

"Answer my question." Heero insisted.

The light of insight flashed in Duo's eyes. "I understand now. You couldn't get any information from me this afternoon," he announced certain that he had figured out Heero's intensions, "so you left the reception and broke in here to see what you could steal." he boldly declared taking a step forward.

"Don't move!"

"Or you'll do what, Mr. Yuy, shoot me? Who are you working for, Welige?"

Heero's eyebrows pulled together in a perplexed frown. *Welige.* he mentally repeated. *Another player in the game*.

Heero went fishing. "Why do you think Welige sent me?"

"To find out what I know." Duo declared.

A defiant look was set on Duo's face. His shift in attitude, the unexpected fearlessness in his temperament took Heero by surprise. If Duo Maxwell was afraid he hid it well.

Now 01's inner voice, his instincts, joined in the strange conversation. One fact was apparent...Duo's presence was not due to devotion to duty or his employer, no one just happens to come by well after midnight.

No, Duo had his own agenda. However what was not clear was his reasons for the after hours visit. He had access to all of Khushrenada's facilities whenever he wished so why was it necessary to sneak around in the middle of the night?

More questions flooded Heero's mind. Who was Welige? Why did the possibility that he might have hired Heero cause such a radical change in Duo's disposition and what knowledge did Duo have that Welige needed to find out about?

One would think when confronted by a man with a gun that a reasonable person would be frightened or at least a bit rattled. Duo's firm resolve in the face of such a threat hinted at an underlying motivation stronger than his fear of harm.

There were too many missing pieces to the puzzle. Heero pressed harder, he was going to get some answers if it took all night. "We both know that you're not here to burn the midnight oil." he stated flatly, "Maybe your accusations of my thievery are closer to your own illegal intensions. Perhaps you are as guilty as you think I am."

Duo's eyes narrowed again. This time, though, an unyielding glare replaced the confusion. "Who are you?" Duo's tone told Heero that the braided man wasn't going to be intimidated by a stranger with or without a gun. "You are certainly not a businessman, not in any legitimate business.

Duo locked his eyes directly with Heero's eyes. Suddenly something else transfixed Duo's stare as if a shocking realization had taken hold. For the first time fear showed in his enlarged pupils and Heero swore that a pale wave washed over his face.

"You had something to do with Robert's disappearance." he whispered lowly. The firm resolve faded from his voice, his shoulders sagged.

Another player? Soon Heero would need a program guide to keep up.

"Robert?" Heero's voice inflection asked for further clarification.

"Robert Baines." Duo's answer came back with a tense accent on each part of the name. "What's wrong, didn't you bother to get his name before you..." A trembling halt choked off his last words.

Robert Baines, the name screamed in Heero's head. At last a tangible lead.

Now Heero studied Duo in a different light. Could his connection with Baines be what had Welige so worried? Was Duo's stubborn refusal to be swayed, even with his assumption of Heero's murderous capabilities, proof of how far he would go to protect whatever secret he kept? Did this revelation implicate Duo placing him deeper into the middle of the mystery?

Heero's inner voice augured, *Something isn't as it should be.* A puzzle piece was still missing. Duo Maxwell's involvement with Khushrenada was definitely not what it seemed on the surface.

That pronouncement left Heero in a sticky situation. He had come up empty in Hamburg; the computer records had yielded no substantially useful information. Whether deliberately or involuntarily on his part Baines had vanished and Duo was convinced that Heero was responsible.

Even though 01 could not be positive of Duo's alliances he was quickly becoming Heero's only hope, the last stitch holding his threadbare investigation together. Would it be unrealistic to expect Duo's cooperation? Was he now too fearful and unsure to trust a stranger or believe the truth? Could Heero risk compromising his cover and reveal his identity and purpose?

Heero's instincts spoke once more confirming what he already knew. 01 took a calculated risk. "You are correct, I am not a businessman."

"Really?" Duo's tone was drenched in guarded skepticism.

Heero moved forward. Duo retreated never taking his eyes off the Beretta. "Trust your instincts," he reminded himself, "Duo has to believe you."

Heero lowered the automatic and deposited it in his front jacket pocket. "My name is Heero Yuy but I don't work for Aero-Tech. I am an agent with the International Preventer Bureau."

Duo relaxed a bit but continued to keep a comfortable safety margin between himself and the apparent imposter. Confusion and uncertainty overwhelmed his ability to think; after all he had no cause to believe this man who had already misrepresented himself. Was Heero again being deceitful?

Yet something rang true in Heero's voice, sincerity showed in his eyes. Now it was Duo's turn to listen to his own council and he knew that his life could very well depend on his clear understanding of its advice. "So you're working for Preventer." he stated in a distrustful manner, "Am I supposed to be impressed?"

"I know you have no reason to believe me." Heero conceded realizing how Duo perceived his presence and that he had every right to questioned his purpose.

Duo shifted his weight mentally measuring the space needed to squeeze between the computer stations in order to escape. But he was not foolish enough to discount Heero's quickness and strength and he could not ignore the gun that, despite being stowed away in the jacket's pocket, was still within easy reach.

"Give me one reason why I should believe you."

Again Heero listened to his inner voice and made a decision that was as surprising to him as to Duo. "One reason." Raising his hands in a posture of surrender he slowly backed away creating an unobstructed path to the door. "You're free to leave. If I had been sent by Welige, if I had anything to do with Baines' disappearance, would I be so ready to let you go?

Heero gestured toward the door. "I only have one request. I hope that you will give me a decent head start before calling out the guards."

Duo stood firmly in place. "Right, I try to leave and you shoot me in the back. Was that how you took care of Robert?" he hissed with acidic sharpness.

An unreadable _expression settled over Heero's face. His hand moved to the jacket pocket. Duo's heart raced, "This is it. I've pushed him too far."

As the Beretta cleared the pocket's hemmed edge 01 pivoted the gun in his hand until the barrel twisted downward. The butt end rested lightly on his fingers. "Here." he thrust it towards Duo offering up his last line of defense.

Duo still didn't move. "There has to be another motive." his mind declared. Perhaps the act of submission was a calculated lure, a ploy to tempt Duo into closing the distance between him and the self-proclaimed agent. Giving up his weapon changed nothing. Duo knew that the Japanese man was still stronger, faster and certainly able to overpower him.

"Why?" the insistence question demanded. A hundred possibilities bombarded Duo's thoughts inundating every part of his mind with doubts.

"No." The single word was all he could force through the disconcerting tide of conflicting emotions.

As Duo's unequivocal rebuttal stretched Heero's already thinning patience, his fingers tightened on the Beretta. "Look!" he exclaimed struggling to keep his voice even, "This isn't the time or place to spar with one another. Either trust me or get the hell out."

 

Part Eight: Unveiled Secrets

Heero's tone and body language was absolute...this was as far as the match of wills would go. An uneasy silence filled the room. A tense, strained wave flowed between the equally obstinate opponents.

Heero's stress was fueled by the rapid deterioration of time. Duo might have a valid excuse for being there late at night but Heero was definitely where he shouldn't be and could be discovered at any moment. More importantly he now knew that theories had become facts and with each passing hour the world could be brought to the brink of chaotic upheaval.

Duo's hesitation was more an internal clash as he struggled with his own self-doubt. But he was certain of one thing, something had to give or someone had to give in. "You're right Mr. Yuy this isn't the time or place." he agreed without declaring total capitulation. "So why don't you tell me the real reason you are here?"

01 bent his arm at the elbow allowing the Beretta to slide back into his hand. As Heero lowered the gun to his side Duo wasn't at all comfortable with the stormy cast in his piercing blue eyes.

"You and Robert Baines were seen together in Switzerland." Heero stated fighting the urge to inflect physical harm on the irritating Mr. Maxwell. "Then Baines showed up in Hamburg and met with the Captain of a ship used for smuggling operations. A few days later Khushrenada Electronics cargo just happened to find its way aboard that same ship.

The IPB has reason to believe that Khushrenada is constructing a device that can disrupt electronic guidance systems and your Robert Baines appears to be the middleman."

Heero titled his body, leaned nearer and narrowed his eyes. Now Duo was extremely ill at ease with the agent's entire demeanor. "Since you claim that Baines has disappeared," Heero reasoned as he took a long stride forward," then you, Mr. Maxwell, are now my prime suspect so I strongly suggest that you tell me what you know about Khushrenada and his project."

A shaky sigh was Duo's unpredicted response. He flopped down in the chair by the computer. His shoulders slumped as he covered his face with his hands. His body was exhausted, his mind was numb and he had fought alone long enough. "It is time to trust someone." his inner voice proclaimed.

"Robert Baines and I have been friends since college." he began with a far-off look in his eyes, "For the last three years Robert has worked as an independent investigative reporter. Two months ago he came across what he called "strange information" concerning Khushrenada Electronics. He wouldn't give me many details, he said he wanted to get the whole story first."

Duo glanced around the room as if he expected to see a ghost lurking in the shadows then his unfocused sight met Heero's now softer gaze. "I didn't know that Robert went to Hamburg. The last time we talked he said he had several hot leads and was coming to Montreux to trace suspicious documents he had found but he still wouldn't give me a clue about what he had discovered."

Duo paused and took a deep breath before he could continue. "Robert disappeared five days after he arrived." he finished, his voice fading away at the end. Pain welled in his eyes and a misty violet glaze washed over his pupils.

Heero reached out to touch Duo's shoulder but he drew away. "I had to find out what happened so I cashed in favors that a friend owed me to get transferred to Switzerland. The local authorities claimed that they investigated the case but they either didn't find any evidence or they were persuaded not to."

"Have you found anything?" Heero asked even though he already knew the answer from the hurt in Duo's eyes.

Duo shook his head slowly. "No." he whispered then drew in another quivering breath.

Heero leaned against the computer table resting the automatic on his knee. "It appears that you may have found your way into an international beehive."

"I knew things weren't right," Duo declared feeling at least partly vindicated. "and I also know that Welige is mixed up in this mess."

"Who is Welige?"

"Marquis Welige. He is head of the Shipping and Receiving Department."

"Shipping...Marquis Welige...M.W...images from the Vagabond flashed through Heero's mind. The log entry found in Hamburg, the circled initials, they had to be more than a coincidence. Had Lady Luck finally decided to be sweet with him?

"What do you know about Welige's connection?"

Duo straightened in his chair and with an air of renewed determination replied. "Two week ago I was checking on shipping schedules for a job I had completed. I noticed several shipments that had supposedly been delivered were not listed on the receiving slips. Also components and parts that had been entered in the hardcopy data logs had not been recorded on the computer invoices.

My first thought was that someone was stealing from the company but most of the items were fairly common and would not make much money on resale. Then the other night I worked late. As I was leaving I noticed Welige in here and when I stopped to say goodnight he seemed very nervous, you know like he was doing something he didn't want anyone to know about."

Duo locked his eyes on Heero. A hardened glare had replaced the pain. "I didn't give Welige's reaction much consideration until this morning when I walked in on him and Dorothy Catalonia. Ms. Catalonia is Mr. Khushrenada's Executive Secretary." he explained.

"Ms. Catalonia and I have already met." Heero responded as he recalled long blond hair sparkling in the sun. Memories of the reception, gold and diamonds accentuating the lady's charms, replayed freshly in his mind.

Duo nodded, "Dorothy and Welige were in the middle of an intense conversation. Welige was holding a silver box about the size of a cassette tape and when he saw me he had the same rattled reaction and quickly put the box in his pocket.

Welige wasted no time leaving. Afterwards when I asked Dorothy about the box she gave me a far-fetched story about a new project that Welige was working on but said that it was still in the development stages.

The secretive conversation, the edginess, that was all the conformation I needed. New projects don't get off the drawing board without my knowledge. I review every design and always have final approval on all phases of production."

"Would you recognize the box if you saw it again?"

"Yes, I think so."

Heero stood up, "Before we met so out of the blue tonight I was hacking into the computer files." He grinned like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "When I came up empty I considered the possibility that what I came here to find might be in Khushrenada's office."

Duo shook his head in disbelief, "I can not believe Mr. Khushrenada knows anything about this."

"Do you think Zechs Merquise knows?"

"Zechs?" Duo's eyes widened at Heero's point-blank question.

"Merquise has been the Chief Engineer on most of Khushrenada's largest project," Heero declared, "I would say that puts him at the top of the suspect list."

"It is no secret that Merquise and Khushrenada are much more than friends." Duo offered a counter-argument, "Zechs wouldn't be involved in anything that would hurt the company. He couldn't betray his lover."

"Not even for a great amount of money?"

"I don't know, I...." Duo sighed at the implications of Heero's aspersions concerning Zechs' trustworthiness and loyalty.

Heero glanced over at the computer he was recently using, "I was hoping to find all the answers but I couldn't get anything from this bloody machine."

A sly smile flickered across Duo's lips. The sort of smile that told Heero his inner council might have been right after all.

Duo switched on the uncooperative computer. "Sometimes you have to know how to talk to the bloody machine." he stated as he entered his personal access code.

Suddenly the computer decided to cooperate. Duo's fingers gracefully moved over the keyboard. A multitude of data flooded the screen.

"See if you can find anything that looks like the mysterious box." Heero instructed as he read over Duo's shoulder.

More keys were depressed. Current Projects popped up but Duo was having little success finding the box. "Do you really think that Welige wouldn't have encoded the information?" he wondered after exhausting all the entries.

Heero shook his head, "It was worth looking anyway."

"Wait a minute!" Duo exclaimed. He leaned closer to the screen and grabbed the mouse to scroll back up the list.

"Found something?"

"This shipment, here, it's heading the wrong way."

"What?"

"This road doesn't go anywhere, well it does, I mean it used to." Duo stammered in confusion.

"Does it or doesn't it?" Heero frowned trying to follow Duo's rambling sentence.

"The road runs along here." Duo traced his finger over a curvy line, "There is a large building at the end. Last year an aspiring industrialist began construction on a ski lodge but ran short of funds and only completely a third of the job. The main structure has been sitting there empty ever since. Another interesting aspect is that the building is about thirty miles from Khushrenada's chalet."

Heero remained deep in thought for several seconds, "By itself." he muttered, "What better location for an illegal operation..."

"Than a secluded building everyone believes is empty." Duo finished the agent's line of reasoning.

A wide grin flooded Heero's face, "This might be the first reliable information I've found on this whole damned mission." he proclaimed. "Thank you."

Duo returned the smile. "We both want the same thing, the truth."

********

Trudging along the night watchman followed his repetitious routine. Every door was secure. Every corridor was vacant. As each strike of shoes on floor sent a sharp snap bouncing off the walls the echo of his footsteps were magnified by the stark emptiness.

The uninspired guard was about to return to his post when a thin line of light shining under a door abruptly changed his apathetic listlessness to a strangely stimulated response. Strange because his complaints of boredom had, without warning, been address.

However the opportunity to finally utilize his protective powers was not met with the zeal that he had expected. Suddenly the thought of a confrontation with an intruder made the doldrums of his work very attractive.

His first reaction was to call in the outside guards and their canine support but he reckoned that the Shift Supervisor would most likely consider that choice a dereliction of duty and as much as he hated to admit it, his job no matter how dull, was still paid employment.

Standing before the door in question he paused to summon up his courage that he hoped would be helped along up his drawn pistol. With a shaky breath and exercising extreme caution, he reached for the doorknob.

********

01 and his unanticipated ally's celebration was short lived. Footsteps in the hall put an abrupt end to their excitement. Heero retreated to his previous hiding place behind the door pressing the Beretta against his chest.

Duo gave the unseen agent an anxious glance and took hold of the doorknob. Heero nodded. "Go ahead." he mouthed out the words. With a centering breath and a well-mustered attitude that he had nothing to hide, Duo opened the door.

A shocked watchman stared in surprise. "Mr. Maxwell!" he exclaimed rattled by the braided man's unexpected appearance. Since he had prepared himself for a more dangerous encounter the startled sentry continued to gawk.

"Do you need something?" Duo asked with an air of authority.

"Sorry sir, I didn't know you were in the building."

"I needed some figures for a report." Duo lied, "I didn't get a chance to compute them before I had to attend the reception." Duo lied very well.

"It's a late hour for working." the guard stated as he tried to peer around the supposedly lone employee.

Duo put on his most sincere smile, "Yes it is late but Khushrenada needs the report in the first thing Monday morning. I couldn't finish it without the figures." He leaned forward adding a subtle, sexy tilt to his body. "I'll just be a few more minutes, I promise."

The guard's response was quite predictable in light of Duo's persuasive posture. "Okay I guess it's all right." he decided letting his eyes wander a bit, "You be careful when you leave." he cautioned.

"I will, thank you."

Duo went limp as the door's latch caught with a click. "That was close." he sighed visibly shaken, "I think you'd better leave before we both get in trouble."

Heero put his hand on Duo's shoulder, "I can't thank you enough for your help. Go to work Monday morning as if everything is fine and sit tight until I find out what's going on at the lodge site."

"Wait a minute," Duo jerked back from Heero's grasp, "don't you think you can come in here, get my help then pat me on the head and go on your way."

"You've done all you can for now. Leave the rest to me."

Duo nodded so hard that his braid whipped over his shoulder. "Not a chance, there is no way I'm staying behind. I've earned the right to know what's going on and I have to find out what happened to Robert."

"Things could get ugly." Heero warned.

"I know," Duo admitted, "but you still need me."

"In what way?"

"There are a lot of turns and cut-offs between here and the abandoned lodge. Without me you could wander around a long time before finding you way." he announced with a self-satisfied smile beaming on his face.

"You can tell me the way." Heero insisted.

Duo stood his ground, "I've been worrying over this for weeks. It's more my concern than yours or your damned Bureau's." His eyes adamantly locked on Heero. "I go along or you can go to hell." he hissed. "Besides I know what that silver box looks like and you don't." he added to reinforce the importance of his position.

Heero threw up his hands in defeat. "All right."

"We're partners?" The question rang with a serious tone...Duo would not tolerate any foolishness.

"I have a partner." Heero declared, "If you come along we all work together, agreed?"

"Agreed." Duo offered his hand.

Heero reconsidered sending Duo back to work, "Since the watchmen discovered you tonight he might say something to the wrong people. Perhaps it would be safer if you stayed with my partner and me, at least until I get a feel for the latest developments.

Its Friday night, make that Saturday morning," Heero corrected their after-midnight status, "we will have the weekend to make some decisions before Monday."

"Are you sure that is necessary?"

Heero reached for the doorknob. "Yes I think it is." Cracking the door opened 01 checked the hall. "Come on let's get out of here."

********

2:15 am. The nosy watchman as nowhere in sight as Heero and his civilian collaborator entered the corridor. The plan was to retrace the original route back to the side door, rendezvous with Wufei and secretly steal away into the night.

01, with Duo in tow, started across a loading dock. Heero hoped that no guards or dogs or native nocturnal creatures would cross their paths because he was in no mood for interaction with anyone or anything.

Midway to the outside door voices echoed through the bay's large expanses. Aware of their exposed position Heero motioned for Duo to climb a ladder to an elevated catwalk. Heero climbed up behind Duo and they both scrambled over the last step seconds before a pair of purplish outlines ran along the floor.

Crouching in the dim space behind an electric motor that operated a wench, Heero and Duo watched and waited. Overhead crisscrossed sections of pipe hissed and rumbled as they carried steam heat throughout the bay.

The two figures that were responsible for the elongated shadows walked down the center of the main aisle. Heero eased up just enough to see over the massive motor. Dorothy was immediately recognized. She had taken down her hair and tied the long tresses back into a golden ponytail. She had exchanged her revealing evening gown for a conservative but still stylish black pants suit.

The second member of the pair remained slightly to the side, just within the shadowy outer edge of light but from what voice quality that could be heard above the hissing pipes Hereo determined that the person was male.

At first Ms. Catalonia and the mysterious man were too far away from Heero and Duo's location for their conversation to be clearly understood but judging from Dorothy's body language she was not happy. Each word was punctuated with exaggerated hand motions and each time, despite the overhead interference, her bracelet jingled as the charms hit together.

They continued to walk and Dorothy continued her overdone gestures. But even as the pair paused almost directly beneath the catwalk the stubborn shadows still defeated Heero's effort to see the man's face.

"How long before we can get the trucks." Dorothy asked the unknown male.

"Three days."

Another animated emphasis of her hands, another jingle from her bracelet. "Three days!"

"It is the best that can be done without calling attention to the project."

That voice, that all too familiar accent. Raising up on one knee Heero improved his view. Gradually the figure withdrew from the shadows and a face emerged from the veiled fringes.

Heero's hand raced to his pocket. His sudden movement caused Duo to flinch. "Heero?" he whispered as he wondered what had provoked the aggressive activity.

Heero ignored his inquiry and brought up the Beretta in a white-knuckle grip. Heero braced his knee against a safety railing and raised higher. Now nothing blocked his sight line between him and the bastard who had left him to die in Bolivia.

"Heero what are you doing!" Duo exclaimed lowly. He didn't at all like the intense glare in Heero's eyes or the way his body had hardened into a solid mass of muscles.

01 didn't hear Duo, didn't sense the alarm that his actions produced in his baffled ally. Straightening his arm he leveled the automatic in his firm, steady grasp. The barrel never wavered as Septum's head was perfectly aligned in the forward sight. One squeeze on the trigger and all the anger and pain would come to an end. But at what cost?

Ever since the reception the knowledge of Septum's presence had eaten away at Heeo's sense of reason. Did he now need to question his motives? Was he crossing the line separating the assignment and his private vendetta? Could he jeopardize the mission to extract his personal revenge and could he live with himself if he did?

That evening he had traveled the same path but then he had put the safety of innocent people before his desire to extract justice. But now, just yards above his private demon, it would be so simple, so clean and it would be over.

Wufei's voice fluttered over 01's mind like the wind's phantom touch. The wise council he had offered during he and Heero's discussion in the BMW reminded him... "There is more at stake than your need to even the score."

"Damn you Chang." Heero mumbled under his breath. With a forceful exhalation the Beretta gave up its deadly duty.

Heero's steely glower was ablaze and the taste of retribution rankled on his tongue. His entire demeanor was transfixed by hatred that slowly consumed him. "There will be another time." he promised on his life and soul, "It will be sooner than you think."

"Three days," Dorothy confirmed, "and there better not be any delays."

Dorothy and Septum were gone. Staring into the empty bay, with Duo sitting mutely at his side, Heero rested wearily against the catwalk railing. The fact that he had made the right decision offered bitter consolation. "Soon." he promised.

 

Part Nine: The Nature of Conflict

"Duo Maxwell." Heero made the short introductions. "Chang Wufei."

Wufei nodded. "Maxwell."

Duo couldn't tell whether the Chinese man was being rude or if he was always that abrupt but he was sure that he didn't care for the agent's attitude.

Redirecting his attention to his partner Wufei frowned. "You certainly took your time." he commented as the trio hurried to the fence.

"We had computer troubles and had to deal with a nosy watchman." Heero began his debriefing, "We also saw Dorothy and Septum and they are definitely whoring together."

Wufei raised an eyebrow, "We? So are "we" a threesome now?"

********

One by one the gatecrashers squeezed through the fence's severed links. Wufei took a compact laser torch from his belt pack and touched the thin bright line to each cut. The metal merged into a molten mass then cooled quickly. The patch job wasn't strong but it was good enough to fool anyone who happened by.

Wufei slipped into the driver's side, Heero took the "shotgun" position on the passenger side. Duo sat quietly in the back seat wondering how in the hell he had fallen into the middle of the mess.

"Duo is going to stay with us until we have a clearer view of his status." Heero announced to his Chinese counterpart.

Wufei used the rear view mirror to look back at the braided man who had apparently been drafted into duty. Duo didn't notice as he stared out the side window at the night-shrouded trees blurred by the BMW's motion.

"It might be a good idea if you both laid low." Wufei offered up additional wisdom.

Heero leaned his head on the seat's back and closed his eyes. "Why?"

Wufei knew that despite 01's relaxed posture he was listening "Let's review your activities. You met with Khushrenada this morning. You went through the switchboard to call Maxwell. You met at a cafe near the complex so the encounter was probably common knowledge five minutes after you sat down. Finally you and Maxwell were seen talking at the reception."

Heero made a low "hum" in his throat to let 05 know that he hadn't fallen asleep.

Wufei cast a sideways glance and continued. "You and I had an unpleasant run-in with that sentry who may or may not make a report depending on how well he remembers the incident. And let's not forget that your nosy watchman knows Maxwell was keeping late hours."

The Japanese agent wondered if his "by-the-numbers" partner was done with his thorough review. "Your point is?"

"If the wrong people put the information together they may decide you and Maxwell know too much about their illegal behavior."

Wufei's frequent use of "Maxwell" was beginning to wear thin. Duo leaned against his seat belt and raised his voice for emphasis. "I have a first name." he declared, "Do you think your anal retentive brain can remember three letters?"

"Play nice children." Heero cracked one eye open to see Wufei's reaction to Duo well-aimed barb.

Wufei ignored the double goading then wasted no time stating what he considered to be an obvious need for concern. "It is no secret that we are staying at the Palace Hotel. If someone wants to start trouble you will be easy to find. I suggest that you and Max....ah....Duo stay in a safe house until we can fit more of this puzzle together."

Heero opened the other eye and sat up. "You're serious about this, aren't you?"

"Unfortunately both of you may be deemed guilty by association. I believe the stakes are too high not to take a reasonable amount of care."

Heero turned around and regarded the back seat passenger. "Wufei is right; we are a bit too high profile right now."

Duo nodded in agreement.

"Stop at the Palace. I'll get my bags then you can deposit us in the safe house." Heero acknowledge his partner's astute grasp of the situation.

3:30 am. Wufei parked beside the Palace's delivery entrance and waited as Heero took the back stairs so he wouldn't be seen going through the lobby. Soon the BMW was traveling on a winding road leading out of the city.

The modest house sitting on a hilltop provided an unobstructed view in all directions. A Range Rover, Heero's favorite "running full throttle" vehicle, was parked by the front door.

Wufei handed over the Rover's keys and the house keys. "I'll get in touch with Ross and bring him up to date. The phone line is supposed to be secure but for safety's sake we should keep our conversations general. If you need to pass on specific details use the encoded program on the your laptop."

********

Heero raised a hand of goodbye as Wufei drove away leaving clouds of dust in his wake. He unlocked the door and switched on the lights. The house had a combination front sitting area and compact kitchen. The only bedroom was furnished with twin beds and a full bathroom.

Duo wandered over the limited space feeling out of place. It occurred to him that he knew nothing substantial about this IPB agent or his tight-assed partner and even less about their mission to save the world. But he was "guilty by association" and Heero, it seemed, was the only person he could trust.

"You want something to eat or drink?" Heero asked as he examined the contents of the well-stocked refrigerator.

"No, thank you," Duo replied from the bedroom door. "just sleep."

Heero stepped up beside his hesitant ally. "Which bed do you want?"

Duo shrugged, "I don't care. I won't know where I am as soon as my head hits the pillow."

"Choose one." Heero insisted.

"The right will be fine."

Duo was pleasantly surprised to find that the bathroom had also been stocked with all the essentials...toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors and combs. Shampoo and conditioner in a fresh Green Tea scent sat on the tub-shower unit.

Duo used the toilet, washed his face and brushed his teeth then Heero took his turn at the bedtime preparations. Duo had already stripped down to his boxers and slipped under the quilted cotton coverlet when Heero switched off the bathroom light and made his way in the darkness that was made navigable by streams of moonlight filtering through the mini-blinds.

A rustling told Duo that Heero had also divested himself of most of his clothing. A muffled swish, a creaking bed frame and 01 settled down for hopefully a restful sleep. The digital clock on the table between the beds changed to 4:15 am but neither Agent 01 nor the braided civilian was aware of the advancement of time.

********

Duo sighed and shifted from his back to his side. His sleep-addled senses were vaguely aware of the thrashing sounds coming from the opposite bed. He blinked, listened and blinked again.

A purplish pre-dawn aura bathed the bedroom but even in the limited light he could see that the coverlet had slid to the floor exposing Heero's flailing arms, quivering legs and shivering body. Low groans accentuated the agent's clear distress and his face was twisted in agony.

There was no doubt that Heero was in the throes of a nightmare and Duo was immediately afraid that the agitated agent might hurt himself in his struggle with whatever demons plagued his dreams.

Two long strides carried Duo to the other bed. His hand hovering over Heero but he wasn't certain how to rouse this relative stranger from his troubled sleep. Laying his hand on Heero's shoulder, Duo squeezed gently and called Heero's name. When no response was forthcoming he increased the pressure, added a shaking motion and called louder.

Without warning the Japanese agent's eyes popped open and he sat straight up in bed. Just as suddenly Duo found himself staring at eye level into the Beretta's hollow end.

A startled gasp caught in Duo's chest moments before his legs attempted a hasty retreat but in his panic to get out of range his feet tangled and his rear end landed hard on the carpet.

From his lower observation point Duo looked past the Beretta into Heero's face that was flushed and drenched in cold sweat. A second shock came in the form of a thick, ragged scar running diagonally across Heero's chest from right collarbone to just short of his navel. The roughly-heal disfigurement was both frightening in its severity and fascinating in its primitive markings.

Stringy bangs barely concealed Heero's piercing eyes that cast a wild visage and mirrored the emotionless mask fixed on his features. As the pistol maintained its aim there was no recognition in Heero's stare, no sign that he was aware of his frozen posture or of the gun held in a double-handed grip.

Duo swallowed to force down the lump in his throat and fought through his fright until a single word whispered from his lips. "Heero." he called, his voice shuddering as hard as his body.

No reaction, not even a twitch. Duo crawled to the bed being careful to stay below the Beretta's barrel. Raising up on his knees he leaned closer to Heero. "Heero it's Duo." His hand dared to lie lightly on Heero's thigh. "I'm here." he reassured with all the sincerity he could muster.

Whether it was Duo's voice or touch or a combination of both that broke through 01's reactive training, a hiss of breath flowed over his parted lips and his eyes blinked back from their vacant gaze.

"Heero can you hear me?" Duo's voice was stronger, his resolve surer.

Like a spring had uncoiled in Heero's muscles his arms loosened up and his hands, still holding the Beretta, dropped into his lap. Duo inched his hand to the pistol, tugged the weapon from Heero's limp fingers and laid it on the bed.

Duo sat beside the clearly confused agent and mopped damp, tangle bangs from Heero's misty eyes. "Duo?" The name was muttered in a slurred manner as if Heero had just woke up from a sound sleep.

"It's all right." Duo scooped up the coverlet and wrapped it around 01's clammy body.

Heero flinched slightly as the downy material was tucked about him then he turned to his head to find Duo's concerned eyes looking back. "What..." he began as his eyes fought to focus.

Duo rubbed Heero's hands between his hands to warm up their icy flesh. "You had a nightmare. Can you remember anything?"

Heero drew in a shaky breath hoping that the exhaled air would calm his rattled nerves. "No...I..." Another breath to rein in his scattered thoughts and separate reality from the lingering traces of his dark dreaming.

"Don't worry about it now." Duo insisted. "I'll get a glass of water."

Heero nodded but Duo wasn't certain how well he was following the conversation. Duo started to get up but a hand on his arm stopped him. "Stay. Please." The two words spoke volumes telling him that perhaps the years of suspicion and violence had not completely decayed Heero's ability to trust.

Duo reached around to put the pillow back in its proper place, "I need to untangle the sheet then we'll concentrate on getting back to sleep."

Heero caught the pillow's movement out the corner of his eye and panic flared on in his brain. He began to tremble; he covered his face with his hands. "Gun...did I...." The quivering increased until it threatened to send him into convulsions.

Duo wrapped Heero in a tight embrace to prevent the strong contractions from straining his muscles. He ran one sentence into the next as he tried to comfort and reassure the confused agent. "You didn't know what you were doing. Heero are you listening?"

Duo wasn't sure how long he held Heero before the quaking ran its course leaving him too exhausted to resist being tucked into bed. Duo squeezed into the limited space on the single bed then rested his hand on Heero's scarred chest to gauge his breathing and to let him know that he was not alone.

********

A distant bell tolled. Gradually the chiming took on a shrill, hollow clang. The irritating noise wormed its way from somewhere outside Heero's head to center inside his subconscious.

The insistent telephone prodded Heero from his mercifully dreamless sleep. It took two misdirected swipes in the air before his hand closed around the receiver. "Hello."

Excitement rang in Wufei's voice. "I think we may have a lead."

As 05's enthusiastic declaration was processed through the dull headache that clung doggedly to his brain the drowsy agent winced. In his muddled mind Heero vaguely recalled a dream, at least he thought it was a dream, about his gun and Duo and warmth wrapping around him but when his searching hand found the Beretta under his pillow 01 promptly dismissed the hazy remembrances.

Heero pushed up to sit against the headboard then noticed that the opposite bed was rumpled but empty. However, the sound of the shower confirmed that Duo had shared the room. But his dream? He squinted his watch, 9:15 am.

"Heero?" Wufei asked for confirmation that his counterpart was listening.

Heero stretched the kinks out of his back, "Tell me." he mumbled hoarsely.

"Ross has had a trace on Khushrenada's phone line for some time," 05 began, "but recently the Bureau's hacking wizards were able to access the German's private computer.

There had been no unusual activities until a few weeks ago then the hackers began intercept bits and pieces of messages sent from the complex to an unidentified source. The data was always encoded and there was never enough time to unscramble before the link was broken.

Yesterday they got a break, several exchanges were sent in the clear. Since they didn't have a point of reference most of the information was difficult to piece together but there was one name that came up more than once. I think you will be very interesting to know who it is." Wufei announced.

Heero was in no mood for guessing games, "Who?" he asked with a lack of enthusiasm that disappointed Wufei.

"William Hoffman"

Suddenly Heero was in the mood for more than games. Hoffman was the region's main dealer in illegal contraband. He'd buy, sell or trade anything for the right price and he didn't care where, what or why.

"The Fox" had managed to stay one step ahead of the local authorities through a complicated organization of middlemen and protection from countries dependent on his services had kept him out of Interpol's grasp.

Now Hoffman's name connected with Khushrenada meant that Heero and Wufei's mission was definitely on the right track but where that track would end up was anyone's guess.

"What exactly do you know?" This time there was impatience in Heero's voice.

"Nothing concrete but I have an idea. If we could get our anonymous sender to respond to a supplied message we could get an accurate lock on his or hers location but the trick is finding out who is the sender."

Hissing on the opened line accompanied a long pause. "Heero?"

"Just a minute." Heero was studying the events of the previous night. The abandoned lodge, what Duo knew and didn't know about the mysterious box, the overheard conversation between Dorothy and Septum.

"I might have a suggestion." he finally responded, "Last night Duo told me about several puzzling encounters he had with a man named Welige. It seems that Welige and Ms. Catalonia may be keeping secrets and we may have a possible location for your mystery messenger."

There was a hint of amusement in Wufei reply. "You are using a lot of "we"," he commented, "do I dare ask what methods of persuasion you used to get Maxwell to talk?"

"It's a long story." Heero stated rubbing the nape of his neck where the muscles were unusually taut. "I'll meet you at HQ this afternoon and we'll come up with a plan."

********

As his freshly shampooed hair flowed over his shoulders and draped on the sink Duo stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. Dark circles under his eyes were testimony to stressful days and sleepless nights.

Keeping up the facade of a loyal employee while searching for clues concerning Baine's disappearance had taken its toll physically, mentally and emotionally. Heero's nightmare also served as a recent reminder of Duo's own dreadful dreams that had begun to occur with alarming regularity.

Duo figured that, just like his mind was reluctant to remember his dreams, that Heero would be as averse to recalling the Sandman's sinister visions. "If he seems all right this morning don't say anything." Duo decided for both his and Heero's sake.

********

The IPB agent sat at the kitchen table. The Beretta had been disassembled into various pieces and the contents of a gun cleaning kit were strewn over the tabletop.

Duo, wearing a cotton robe and a well-practiced smile, peered around the kitchen door. "May I ask a favor?"

"Of course."

"I don't mind putting on last night's clothes but I would feel fresher with clean underwear. Could I borrow a pair?"

"You're about my size. Why not change into something of mine?"

"Are you sure?"

"Pick out anything you like."

A few minutes later Duo entered the kitchen dressed in gray trousers and a black and white stripped sweater. He paused long enough to secure an elastic tie on his braid. " I really appreciate this." he referred to the borrowed outfit.

Heero took a moment for a fashion review. "I was right, a perfect fit."

Duo poured a cup of coffee and joined 01 at the table. "I didn't know you smoked." he declared as he stirred in a hefty spoonful of sugar.

Heero glanced up from his cleaning chore. A momentary puzzlement flickered across his face before he realized that Duo was referring to the cigarette dangling loosely from his lips. "I don't." He crushed the burning end on a saucer that served as a makeshift ashtray. "I'm trying to quit."

Duo leaned forward displaying a thin-lipped grin. "Everyone has a monkey on their back." Slathering a thick coat of butter on a piece of toast he added, "I'm supposed to be watching my cholesterol."

The Beretta was cleaned, oiled and reassembled. With the safety engaged a full clip was snapped into the butt. Finally Heero polished off his fingerprints until the weapon's silver plating shone like a new nickel then the loaded pistol was tucked neatly in its holster.

Throughout the rather complicated process Duo munched on his buttery bread and sipped his coffee in silence. There was a sense that something other than the cleaning commanded his attention.

Heero took notice of his new ally's wandering thoughts. "Are you all right?"

Duo finished his cup with a sigh, "Yes, it's just that everything has happened so quickly. I don't feel like I have had time to breathe much less think."

Heero nodded in complete understanding. "Wufei called while you were in the shower. New developments may allow us to warp up this mess sooner than we anticipated. I'm meeting Wufei at the Bureau's headquarters this afternoon and I want you to come along so you can fill him in on what you know."

"Anything for some sort of closure."

Heero leaned across the table, "Are you prepared for what you might find?"

Duo nodded, "I have to know the truth, whatever it is."

********

Wufei listened intently as Heero and Duo related how the order of events had progressed. Slowly pieces of the puzzle fell into place. The abandoned lodge would be the perfect location for a secret operation. Khushrenada Electronics certainly had the resources to convert the building into a working complex.

Dorothy and Welige were moved to the head of the suspect list. Wufei stated that his instincts told him Welige was the mysterious sender and that Welige's procession of the silver box reinforced his gut feelings.

05 further affirmed that the surest way to find out was to set up a false message but they needed someone to put the prearranged information in Welige's hands. "The logical choice is Duo." he finished then cut his eyes at Heero to gauge his reaction.

Heero had his misgivings. He questioned how much they actually knew about Welige's involvement; after all there were quite a few other dubious employees that could share top billing.

Khushrenada had the money, power and influence. Dorothy had access to every inch of the complex. Even Zechs Merquise could not be counted out as a coconspirator. And what was Robert Baines role? His disappearance had not been confirmed as foul play.

"With all the unknown factors I am extremely hesitant to put Duo that deeply undercover." Heero declared, "He is not an agent." he stated to add weight to his reluctance.

"Who else do we have?" was Wufei next logical question.

Duo was not about to be left out especially where Heero's doubts about Baines was concerned. "I am the best choice and you know it."

Heero was disturbed by Duo's willingness to act so quickly, worried that his heart guided his eagerness and not his head and that he hadn't considered all the angles or the dangerous consequences should his cover be compromised.

"I think...." Heero began but Duo would favor no argument.

"Heero I have to do this for Robert's sake and my own sanity." Duo narrowed his eyes until they became violet slits, "May I remind you that you are not my damn keeper."

Heero glanced at Wufei who wisely kept his opinion to himself. At that point, with time rapidly running out, Duo was their only option. Finally with his reservations still firmly in place Heero gave in but only after Duo promised his adherence to certain rules.

Since Heero might be easily recognized he would return to the safe house. Wufei would follow at a discreet distance and keep watch. Duo agreed to maintain minimum contact.

"Go straight to Welige's office and deliver this." Heero ordered handing over a plain envelope. "Tell Welige that Dorothy asked you to give him the memo and that the information needs to be transmitted right away. Hopefully Welige will not question the source or call Dorothy for conformation."

Heero leaned back with a heavy sigh. "Maybe this will turn the trick."

"When do I leave?" Duo needed to act before his courage deserted him.

"Now." Wufei replied.

As Duo, 01 and 05 stepped into the hall Heero put a hand on Duo's arm to command his full attention. "Do not stay any longer than necessary."

"I'll be in and out before you have time to miss me." Despite Duo's attempt to put up a confident front the raw edges of nerves frayed his words.

"Minimum contact." Heero repeated in a no nonsense tone.

 

Part Ten: Mixed Emotions

"What do you want?" Dorothy barely looked up from the paperwork on her desk.

Marquis Welige shut the office door with a firm push insuring a private conversation. "We have to talk." he demanded.

Dorothy didn't care much for the adamant man's tone. "Not now, I'm busy."

Ms. Catalonia's irritated attitude of dismissal only heightened Welige's stubborn resolve. He and the "lady" were going to talk. "Now!" he ordered.

Dorothy straightened sharply tiling her head upward. She fully intended to put the junior employee in his place, to inform him that his insolence would be neither accepted nor tolerated but something in Welige's demeanor caused her to reconsider. "All right, now." she conceded, "But make it quick."

Welige wasted no time getting to the point. "I want out."

"Out?" Dorothy grinned. Surely the statement had been made in jest but Welige's aspect, the acute glare in his narrowed eyes, told her that the declaration was no joke. "You're serious." The smile faded.

"In the beginning your proposal seemed simple." Welige stated as he began to pace, "Use Khushrenada's resources to develop a product, secretly sell it to an interested buyer, make a lot of money then the project would be over.

He paused but only briefly before his nervous energy once again put him in motion. "We agreed on the initial design and drew up the blueprints but somewhere along the way you changed the concept. The guidance disruptors...they are not what we started."

"Sometimes it becomes necessary to rethink a project, we've done that many times." Dorothy pointed out.

"Yes but never to make anything so dangerous." he countered Dorothy's attempt to lessen his concern. "Do you know how many people could be hurt or killed?"

"No one had been hurt and no one will be." she answered alarmed by the panicked rise in Welige's voice.

Welige stopped and slapped his hands on the desk. " Dammit Dorothy you can not be that native`. You knew what you were doing, you knew the moment that Hoffman became interested what could happen. The moment you brought in Septum..." Welige paused to catch his breath, "No...its gone wrong...all of it."

Dorothy stood up and leaned over the desk. "You think you can just walk out? When we entered into this agreement it was for the project's duration." she stated with all the authority she could muster as she felt her control slipping away. "Do you seriously believe that I will let you go?"

"You don't have the final word." Welige retorted with some authority of his own.

"No but Septum might make the final call."

"I don't care. I can't be part of this operation any longer. If you're worried that I will blow your deal, don't be." Welige tried to soften the excited tone in his voice. "I can't implicate you without making my part known." He added logic to his persuasion, "I won't tell anyone, I just want out."

Dorothy stepped around the desk. "Marquis I understand, everyone is tense right now but this deal with Hoffman is worth a lot." she placed a hand on Welige's arm. "Once its finished, once we have the money..."

"Damn the money!" Welige threw up his hands to dislodge Dorothy's grasp, "I couldn't enjoy it, not with a clear conscience."

"So you have a conscience now?" Dorothy seemed amused.

"Have you been so blinded by the money that you can't or won't see the danger?" Welige turned toward the door. "Do what you like but I'm leaving."

Dorothy had to think fast. She knew she had to do something, say anything to make Welige listen to reason. Personally she didn't care about his intended departure, one less man meant a larger cut of the profits but it was Marquis' blind panic that was the call for concern.

She had taken too many risks, made too many promises and she would be damned if her plans would be ruined by Welige's sudden attack of conscience. She could not end up in the middle between Hoffman and Septum because that position would prove deadly indeed.

"Marquis wait." she pleaded stepping up beside the exiting man. "Have you thought this through? Thought about what you are giving up?"

"You're not going to change my mind. I have already prepared my resignation and Khushrenada will have it today."

"Maybe there is another way, please listen."

Welige stopped with his hand on the doorknob.

"Resigning is not the answer." Dorothy declared, "Suppose I arrange a business trip somewhere far away? You can stay until the deal is finalized. Afterwards if you still don't want your share so be it but I think my way will save us both a lot of trouble."

On the outside Dorothy managed to retain an optimistic outlook, her posture encouraging Welige to see things her way. Inside her heart raced as she fled from the fear that everything was falling apart.

The long minute that Marquis Welige took to consider her offer slowed to an almost unbearable pace. Finally Welige pivoted around. "All right," he agreed thoughtfully, "but I want to leave before Hoffman arrives for the meeting."

"That can easily be arranged." Dorothy promised with a relieved sigh.

As Welige stepped into the hall she put a hand on his shoulder. "Could I ask one favor?" she requested after seeing that the hall was empty. "The last authorization order for the trucks needs to be transmitted."

"And you want me to send it?" Welige finished her thought.

"You'll have to wait until after hours we can't take the chance it could be intercepted on the inner office network. One last time." she confirmed Welige's limited involvement. "Get this done tonight and I'll have your travel arrangements ready the first thing in the morning."

After Welige's departure Dorothy quickly closed the door. Grabbing the telephone she hurriedly punched in a number on an outside line. Wiping a sweaty palm on her skirt she paced as the call rang through. Finally someone picked up on the other end.

"This is Catalonia. I need to speak to Septum."

********

Duo sat in his car a block away from Khushrenada Electronics nervously thumbing the envelope he was going to give to Welige. Since it was Saturday most employees were off for the weekend but Duo was sure that Welige would be working which would be to his assignment's advantage.

Also Welige would be less likely to call Dorothy to confirm the memo and by the time she might find out about the transmission hopefully it would have netted some useable information.

Wufei pulled his motorcycle up beside Duo's car. "You start out," he instructed, "I'll follow at an allowable distance. Remember limited contact, you don't need a lengthy conversation just keep the exchange short and simple. Understand?"

Duo nodded. "I won't take any chances. I want this to work as badly as you and Heero do."

When Duo stopped at the gatehouse 05 parked the bike and started off at a leisurely stroll as if he was enjoying the beautiful afternoon. But his relaxed gait and casual posture masked he readiness to spring into action at the slightly hint of trouble.

Pretending to take in the scenery he scanned the area for anyone or anything unusual. Satisfied with his negative surveillance he sat down on a sidewalk bench, leaned back and put his patience into practice as he waited for Duo's return.

********

Answering a knock at the safe house door Heero let Duo in. The exchange time had been short which was a good sign. "How did it go?" he asked anxiously as he followed Duo across the room.

Duo turned slightly aside, aiming his eyes away from Heero's face. "Fine." He kept moving toward the bedroom. "Excuse me."

Heero thought that Duo's mood was odd. While he certainly didn't expect bubbling excitement, he had expected some show of emotion, at least some sense of relief. But Heero needed to remember that Duo was not a field operative but a civilian who was only acting as a go-between.

Duo had to be nervous, he knew the danger and the serious consequences had the exchange gone sour. Heero wished that he could have accompanied Duo, even gone inside but it was vital to the mission's success that Duo go alone. One misguided glance, a single suspicious word could have easily given Duo's secretive circumstances away.

He couldn't decide whether to leave Duo to himself for awhile or to offer understanding and perhaps some small measure of comfort. The ringing telephone put his decision on hold.

The tension in Wufei's voice put him on notice that something was wrong the moment 05 spoke. Heero's eyes narrowed, "See you in a few minutes." was his only reply.

********

Paul Carter lit a joint. He sucked in the intoxicating smoke then held his breath until he felt a buzz in his brain. The fact that the marijuana was top grade was evident in both its expensive price and its immediate influence on his senses. "This is bitchin' weed." he mumbled as he drew in another lungful.

Carter was becoming irritated. Spending his Saturday waiting in the middle of nowhere was not his idea of a good time. Letting more grayish smoke drift lazily from his nose he braced his shoulder against a tree and glanced up the road in the direction he had just traveled. "Five minutes more and I'm leaving." he announced.

A distant glint of sunlight told Carter that his wait was over. A dark green Jaguar pulled up beside Carter's car. Zech Merquise's lean frame emerged from the driver's side.

Carter finished the joint, crushed the smoldering remains under his boot and met Zechs halfway. "Have you changed your mind about coming in with Dorothy and me?" he asked with a distinct slurring of his words.

Zechs met Carter's marginally focused gaze with a glare of contempt in his icy eyes. "No." The negative reply hissed through clenched teeth.

Clearly not pleased with the answer Carter tilted his head up at the taller man. "Then why in the hell are you wasting my time?"

"I am not going ignore your treachery anymore. I'm going to tell Treize."

A trace of amusement flickered across Carter's face but was quickly replace by an angry scowl. "You are either a fool or mad," he declared in an irate tone, "or has the booze finally killed what few functioning brain cells you had left?"

Zechs stood firm. "I'm sober and very serious. I will no longer allow you to betray Treize."

Carter's eyes flashed. "Your silence is the only thing keeping your lover alive."

"You can't touch him." Zechs declared with certainty, "He has a personal bodyguard and excellent security at the office and the chalet."

"Are you so sure that Khushrenada can be safeguarded? It would be awful if his brakes went out on the mountain or he had a boating accident. Unfortunately life can be hazardous and I don't believe you want to be responsible for making it more so."

Now Zechs was shaking, mostly from fear for his lover but also from craving a drink. He lowered his sight from the frightening determination in Carter's eyes. "I will keep silence but remember if something happens to Treize there will be nothing to stop me from killing you. Just as my silence protects Treize, his well being protects you."

Returning to his car Carter paused before opening the door and offered a thin-lipped smile. "Then I would say we have a stalemate. Let's keep it that way and no one will be hurt."

********

With some difficulty Zechs quivering hand uncapped a bottle of cheap whiskey. A long gulp burned all the way to his stomach but the fiery liquor couldn't still his fear or heal his wounded pride. The next full swallow did put a dull edge on his guilt but he knew from many previous attempts that the deadening affects were only temporary.

Sliding down the Jaguar's side to sit in the dirt the Altron Corporation's CEO, a man who made million dollar deals without breaking a sweat, trembled like a leaf in a gale. Zechs Merquise was heartsick and angry and ashamed. Heartsick over his disloyalty to Treize, angry at his feelings of helplessness but most of all ashamed for not having the courage to stop Carter.

He turned up the bottle again then used his shirtsleeve to mop the fermented dribble off his chin. "You are a damned coward." he chided the man he had become. Using the same whiskey-soaked sleeve he wiped away his pooling tears before they spilled down his cheeks. "Carter is right, you are a fool."

*You don't have to be.* a faint voice in his head proclaimed.

Zechs gritted his teeth and stumbled to his feet. With a roar of pain and frustration he flung the bottle into the forest. Like the shattered glass could not be made whole again, Zechs was afraid that his heart was also broken beyond repair.

"I will stop Carter." he promised himself. "Treize will know the depths of my devotion even if it means my life."

********

The bedroom door nearly jumped off its hinges then slammed behind Heero with a bang that sounded like a pistol shot. Heero covered the width of the room with a frightfully violent pace.

Duo sucked in a startled breath and hastily moved backward to put more distance between himself and the agent's raging fury. Three steps were all he took before the bed blocked his retreat.

Heero pulled up short, well aware of what he might do if he didn't hold his temper in check. "I just got off the phone with Wufei!" he hissed. It took all of his self-control to fight the urge to shout.

Puffing hard, constrictions in lungs aggravated by blinding anger tore at his chest. "Wufei said that the envelope was never delivered." His jaw tightened, "Where is it?"

"In the car but..." Duo began before the words caught in his throat.

"All you had to do was see Welige, give him the envelope and get the hell out." Heero stated tensely, "Was the assignment too difficult to carry out?" he asked as sarcasm choked off his voice.

Duo shifted his weight but the bed blockade wouldn't budge. "When I arrived Welige wasn't in his office. I went looking for him and overheard him talking to Dorothy in her office." He paused to study Heero's face hoping for some sign that the angry agent would hear him out.

"Go on."

"I was afraid what would happen if Dorothy saw me, if she wanted to know why I was there...afraid she would ask me about the envelope." Duo searched Heero's face again for some sign that he understood.

01's expression remained fixed in an incensed glare. His eyes never relinquished their icy stare.

Duo summoned up the courage to step forward. "I couldn't take the chance." he stated trying to convince himself as much as Heero.

The anger inside 01 boiled to the surface. "Whose side are you on?" he growled, the explosive outburst triggered by his perception of Duo's apparent betrayal. "How do I know that you haven't been lying from the start?"

Violet sparks flashed in Duo's eyes. His fist flew free. Grabbing Duo's wrist Heero intercepted the furious punch just inches from his face. Blue fire flickered in Heero's centers of sight as his hand vibrated against the raw power passing between him and Duo.

"You can question my courage." Duo snapped, bitter indignation resounding in his reply, "but don't you ever question my loyalty."

Both men stood motionless. Invisible sparks of raw emotional energy flowed through their quivering muscles. Duo locked his eyes with Heero's eyes to search for a trace of belief concerning the reasons for his failure or, at least, some acceptance of his decision.

Gradually the fire in Heero's eyes cooled, the muscles in his jaw relaxed. For his own sanity Heero had to give Duo the benefit of the doubt. The unyielding grip loosened and Duo pulled away.

Rubbing the reddish fingerprints encircling his wrist Duo stepped around the bed and turned to face the wall. As he struggled with his resentment of Heero's accusations his shoulders began to shake. Tears stung behind his eyes and threatened to spill over his long lashes.

"I'm sorry." Heero's more subdued voice spoke from behind, "We all have to make choices and you made the one you had to at that moment."

Closing his eyes Duo attempted to put his mixed emotions in their proper places. Tightly squeezing his eyelids forced a single tear to track down his cheek. He flinched and his eyes opened at the light touch of Heero's hand on his shoulder.

Responding to a persuasive tug Duo turned around. Face to face with Heero he saw that the raging flames had receded and had been replaced with a warm glow. Now Duo dared to hope that the change meant Heero understood his actions even if he could not condone or totally forgive his failure.

Heero used his thumb to wipe away the single salty droplet. "This entire mission has been hard on everyone." he admitted.

"I know." Duo whispered. His trembling fingers touched Heero's hand.

A sudden pang of guilt stabbed in the pit of Duo's stomach. He knew that Heero had not stopped, missing meals and sleep, since his arrival in Montreux and for the first time he saw how tried Heero was.

Heero's disappointment in Duo's failure to do one simple thing weighted heavily on his overtaxed body and weary mind. Duo slipped his hands over Heero's shoulders, taut muscle were hard against his fingertips. A drained sigh escaped Heero's lips as Duo's strong caress massaged his knotted neck.

"I'm sorry." Duo whispered. He rested his head on 01's chest. "I let you down. I know how important..." he couldn't finish. More tears streaked over his pale cheeks.

Placing his hand under Duo's chin Heero raised Duo's face to meet his. "It's all right."

"But I...."

"Shhhhh." Heero ordered gently. Then in a move that was as surprising to him as to Duo, Agent 01 brushed his lips over Duo's trembling lips.

Now there was an inviting glimmer in Heero's eyes. Duo's arms slid around Heero's neck. Heero's arms encircled about Duo's slender waist. Another brushing breath then a full kiss, hot with passion. Duo gave into the heady sensation, allowing his body to respond without question or pause.

When their lips parted Duo lowered his head under Heero's chin. At that tender moment all he wanted was to be held against a warm body, to be cradled in Heero's strong arms. The whole world was going insane and Duo was afraid if their embrace was severed that the madness would sweep over him like a riptide.

"What are...we...going to do now?" he sighed, the wondering words coming in choppy syllables.

"Don't fret, we will think of an alternate plan." Heero promised.

Another knock at the door. "That should be Wufei. You stay in here and get yourself together"

As the bedroom door closed Duo stared at the spot where Agent 01 had disappeared. With his lips still warm from their kiss he made a promise. He would not fail Heero again no matter what the cost.

********

"Just what I thought." Wufei declared as he surveyed the room. "Maxwell didn't come back. I had my doubts that he couldn't be trusted."

"He's back." Heero replied pointing his thumb toward the bedroom door.

"I bet he had a good excuse." 05 snorted.

Heero glanced at the door and lowered his voice. "Welige wasn't alone. He was with Dorothy Catalonia and Duo was afraid she might find out he was there and start asking questions that he couldn't answer."

"You accept that explanation?"

Heero had to believe that Duo had been truthful and that his faith had not been misplaced. "Yes, he was really rattled."

Wufei nodded, "You are an excellent judge of character so if you say Maxwell is sincere then I won't argue the point."

"We know Welige and Dorothy are partners in crime, we just have to provide the evidence." Heero reckoned.

"I might be able to help with that evidence." Wufei stated with a sly grin that showed extreme satisfaction. "On my way here Ross called my cell phone. It seems that our phantom sender is active again. The transmission was to set up a meeting for eight o'clock this evening at the Montague Vue Inn on the outskirts of town.

The message made a hard point to remind someone named Carter to keep the activities quiet."

Heero flopped down on the sofa. "Carter." he repeated, "the list keeps getting longer." He reached for his cigarettes, "Do you think the meeting could be with Hoffman?"

"That's the only name we have so far. I would say that the odds are more than even that Hoffman is our man."

"Maybe we can better those odds."

Wufei could almost hear the wheels turning in Heero's head. 01 drew in on the cigarette; the burning end glowed as brightly as the gleam in his eyes. "Hey Duo," he called loud enough to be heard in the bedroom, "how would you like a spying holiday? You can come too." He informed Wufei as he blew out a thin column of smoke.

******

Heero, Wufei and Duo huddled around the kitchen table. Heero had opted for coffee's caffeine instead of the cigarette's nicotine. Either way, he had decided, he needed a buzz to facilitate his focus. "Do you know a person named Carter?" he asked Duo.

"There is a Paul Carter who works in the Purchasing Department but I don't know anything about him. I did see him at the reception talking to Zechs Merquise. Is he to be added to your growing list of suspects?"

"Maybe."

Finally after lengthy debates and discussions concerning many minor details the finer points of a workable plan were coming together. Wufei sketched out a rough map of the area surrounding the Inn.

Heero figured angles and studied every conceivable way that something could go wrong. Even though Duo lacked his comrade's training he had cunning "street smarts" and a renewed determination that would not be compromised.

Wufei stretched his long legs and expressed his desire for a beer. As his head was shoved deeper into the refrigerator he mumbled. "Want one?"

"Thanks" Heero called over the telephone's ringing.

"You are a hard person to track down." Quatre's voiced declared.

"Quatre?" Heero questioned his hearing. "Where are you?"

Wufei raised an eyebrow at the unpredicted caller and handed Heero his beer.

"Trowa and I are in Montreux."

"I thought Une insisted you take time off after you were released."

"The Commander gave us three weeks but she didn't put any stipulations on where we could go so we figured that Switzerland was as good a location as anywhere else."

Trowa's voice sounded in the background. "We knew you and 05 missed us."

"As glad as we are to have you here," Heero told Agent 04, "shouldn't you be resting and recuperating, that is what R & R means or have you forgotten?"

Quatre's replied came in the form of a snort but Heero couldn't tell if the nasal puffing was from irritation or amusement. "I had enough rest during the weeks in hospital."

Trowa muttered something and Quatre actually giggled. "Trowa is begging you to rescue him from my fully recovered libido."

"Please?" Agent 03 implored with mock urgency.

"Anything to save a fellow agent." 01 came to the rescue. "Check in a HQ and ask for an Agent Ross. He can give you directions to the safe house."

"Don't have any fun without us." 04 teased.

"See you soon."

"That puts an interesting twist on the assignment." Wufei commented.

Heero nodded in agreement. "I would say that the bad guys are in for a rude awakening."

 

Part Eleven: "Bugging" the Enemy

Duo waited in the BMW parked across the street from the Montague Vue Inn. After counting at least fifteen stories he decided that the Inn more closely resembled a hotel. Leaning sideways his sight followed the vertical line of balconies reaching toward the waning afternoon sun.

The last story windows, reflecting the sunset's orange rays, stopped just short of ten multi-colored flags flapping along the rooftop. Beside its towering neighbor a lesser building was swallowed up the Inn's long, purple shadow.

Even though the winter-white slopes had given way to lush green hills the Inn was busy. Wealthy sun worshipers who didn't care for the cold milled around the lobby and mingled in the lounge.

A middle-aged woman in a dress tight enough to cut off her circulation fluttered her mascara-coated eyelashes in an "I'm available, are you?" look. Heero smiled at the flirtatious female but kept his straightway path to the front desk. Wufei caught up in time to watch his fellow agent sign the guest register. Soon 01 and 05 were taking the lift to the sixth floor.

"Do you think Maxwell will come through this time?" Wufei asked watching the bellboy unlock Suite 610.

Heero gave the boy a generous tip wanting him away before the conversation continued. Laying Howard's briefcase on the coffee table he stated confidently. "Duo will be all right."

Wufei wandered about the suite's sitting area wondering why more of his assignments didn't include expensive high-rises and posh rooms with spectacular views. But he had long ago resigned himself to boring stakeouts and mundane missions with an occasional fight or shootout thrown in to offset the boredom.

A bedroom and bath adjoined the sitting room. A king size bed, made up with a satin coverlet in pastel stripes of blue and green, dominated the spacious room. Lamps on the double vanity, the lounging chairs and carpet copied the same pattern. The color scheme was repeated in the bathroom that had a sunken bathtub large enough to accommodate two people.

"Cozy sleeping arrangements." Wufei winked. "Maybe you will get lucky with Maxwell."

Heero sat down on the sofa and opened the briefcase. "You are incorrigible."

********

Outfitted in a three-piece gray suit, black silk shirt and silver tie, Duo approached the front desk. Displaying a very official attitude he addressed the clerk. "I am Mr. Paul Carter's Personal Assistant and I wish to confirm his room."

While the clerk checked the reservation list Duo looked at his watch a second time to indicate that he was in a hurry. His "pressed for time" posture lent an air of importance to the performance.

"Mr. Carter has Suite 706." the clerk stated, "You might like to inform him that Ms. Catalonia had already checked in."

********

As Duo joined Heero and Wufei on the balcony he was also impressed with the suite's lavish appointments and the panoramic view. "Suite 706 but there's a problem, Dorothy has already gone up."

Wufei sighed, "I suppose that cancels the "let yourself in the front door" plan."

Heero shook his head then leaned backward over the balcony railing to study the next projecting platform's vertical upsweep from another angle. "I'll have to use the back door."

A perplexed frown pulled at Duo's facial features. "There is no back door." He was certain that Agent 01 had finally succumbed to the stress of his job.

Oddly Wufei had no trouble understanding the fractured dialogue. "Come inside."

05 retrieved a piece of paper from the briefcase and spread it out on the coffee table. Duo peered over his shoulder. "Floor plans...for this building. How did you get these?"

"Don't ask." Heero smiled sitting down beside his Chinese counterpart.

Suite 706 was located then each room on that floor was counted from side to side. A second calculation was done from the seventh level to the building's roof. All the while Wufei scratched numbers on a worn notepad. "It could be worse."

"Worse than what?" Duo asked even though he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

Wufei continued the computations. "How long? Fifteen minutes?"

"It shouldn't take any longer." Heero answered as he pulled off his jacket.

Duo was becoming increasingly confused at the Heero and Wufei's disjointed conversation. "Longer than what?" he wondered watching Heero toe off his shoes.

Between Heero's disrobing and Wufei's frustrating figuring Duo noticed that a dizzy sensation had begun to creep into his head. Finally he flopped down in a chair and gave up his informational quest before the mental complications produced by sorting out the agent's erratic behavior resulted in permanent brain damage.

********

"Do you think Heero has deserted us?" Duo wondered checking at his watch. He had swapped the gray suit for a comfortable pair of cotton trousers and a button front skirt.

"What?" Wufei was still figuring.

"Heero has been in the bedroom so long that I thought maybe he's gone missing."

Wufei paused long enough to glance up at the talkative civilian. "It takes awhile to get suited up."

"Suited up? Never mind I don't want to know."

01 finally emerged from the bedroom attired in a black bodysuit and carrying a compact backpack that sagged from its weighty contents. Duo immediately decided the tight outfit that accented Heero's muscular physique was very sexy.

Inside the black bag coils of thin nylon rope, clasps, metal rings and a miniature remote control unit were neatly arranged. A pair of black gloves had been added to the climbing gear.

From Howard's briefcase Heero picked out four flat microphone disks, each one about the size of a quarter. He deposited the "bugs" in his pocket and checked the clip on his Beretta. "Right on schedule."

Heero touched Duo's arm to command his attention. "I need you to do something."

 

"Anything." Duo replied.

"After Wufei and I leave wait ten minutes then ring up Suite 706. Disguise your voice, tell Dorothy you are the front desk clerk and that Mr. Carter wants her to meet him in the lobby. If she asked any questions tell her that was all the instructions you received. Wufei will be positioned where he can watch 706, when she leaves he will let me know. Any question?"

"Just one, where will you be?"

"On the roof."

Heero put on a matching black jacket, shouldered the backpack and headed for the door with Wufei close behind. Pausing with his gloved hand on the doorknob he looked back at Duo. "I'll be back before you have time to miss me." he repeated Duo's favorite phrase. "Give us ten minutes then make the call."

Duo stood in the hall as 01 and 05 started down the corridor. "Hey," he called softly, "both of you be careful."

Heero gave the "thumbs up" sign then he and Wufei disappeared through the stairwell door. Once on the staircase the agents parted company. 05 headed downstairs, 01 upstairs.

********

A spasmodic wind hit Heero's face when the rooftop access panel swung open. The flags spaced evenly along the three-foot high parapet-styled wall snapped keenly, cracking like whips as the surging air currents battered them.

From Wufei's vantage point on the opposite building's roof he picked out Heero's outline silhouetted in dusk's purple-gray backwash. Gazing pass his trespassing partner, Wufei had a breathtaking view of snow-capped mountains and lush green landscape.

Adjusting his night vision binoculars the Chinese agent brought the well-camouflaged figure into crisp focus. Twisting sideways Wufei redirected his line of sight upwards and to the left until the balcony of Suite 706 came into view.

Luckily Dorothy had not closed the curtains, however the low light from a single lamp greatly diminished the room's clarity. He reset the lens power enlarging the dim interior until the murky gloom lost most of its influence.

Anxiously Wufei checked his watch...7:20 pm. "You're cutting it short Maxwell." he stated under his breath watching the seconds slip away to the meeting time of eight o'clock.

None too soon Dorothy, wearing in a red dress, moved across the lens' circular panorama. She sat down at a table beside the balcony's French doors, crossed one slender leg over the other and dangled a scarlet shoe from the end of her foot.

Another time check. "Now, Maxwell." Wufei said out loud hoping that his verbally projected order would carry back to their suite.

As if on cue Dorothy reached for the telephone. After a brief exchange she gathered her purse and door key and switched off the light. A glow from the hall momentarily brightened the room then it was once again enveloped in darkness.

Wufei spoke into a wireless micro-transmitter. "All clear." Heero indicated he understood by tapping his earphone receiver twice. The tapping registered as sharp pops on Wufei's end.

Quick strides carried Heero the twenty or so yards to the short wall skirting the roofline.

"Five feet to the left." The pop sounded again. "Straight down from your position." Wufei confirmed.

Heero attached a guide ring around one flagpole's base, laced the rope through then jerked several times to test the sturdiness. The length of thin line arched over the wall shivering in the fitful gusts. The upper part went taut under Heero's weight. The remaining rope twitched, twisted and bumped against the building's rough stone side.

Heero only had to repel eight stories, usually a simple task, but the strong, erratic wind and the close proximity of the buildings added a greater measure of difficulty.

Wufei braced his elbows, leveled the binoculars and watched the shadowy figure slip silently over the wall's rim. Heero planted the toes of the boots in the mortar line, flexed his knees and push off. The rope slid through his gloved hands fluidly lowering his black-clad body along the side wall.

Heero used his knees to absorb the shock. His boots hit and he pushed again. Just before his boots made contact the third time the wind abruptly changed directions slamming his shoulder hard into the inflexible wall. The force jarred his entire body, his hands fought to keep their tenuous grip. The backpack also shifted lending an additional imbalance to his precarious position.

Suspended in the center of the twin structures' manmade canyon Heero swayed wildly in the buffering currents. Below his dangling feet people looked like insects and vehicles were the size of toy cars traveling along ribbons of avenues. All around lights and shapes were blurred by his dizzying spin.

Wufei tensed, "Hang on." he mentally pleaded as if by sheer willpower he could help his partner.

Muscles burning, Heero drew in a concentrative breath. Keeping his wits focused he swiveled his hips and gradually realigned his body. The parallel placement eased the strain on his arms and allowed his boots to make contact with the wall's solid surface. He paused to readjust the backpack and his scattered senses then started down again.

Three stories...two...one. The lower elevation cut off the currents, the wind gusts lost most of their intensity. The remainder of the trip went smoother. One last bounce put Heero directly above the desired balcony.

One outward swing then back. Lifting his feet over the wrought iron railing 01cleared the top and nimbly dropped to the floor. The rope's end was tied down in case he should need to return the way he'd come.

"For a moment I thought I had lost you." Wufei's relieved voice sounded through Heero's earphone. Heero nodded in reply and breathed his own sigh of relief.

The French doors' lock was easily bypassed. As a penlight's beam danced about the room Wufei had no difficulty following 01's stealthy movements. The "bugs' were efficiently placed in spots that experience had taught would be the most secure.

Returning to the balcony Heero aimed the remote control upwards. Pressing the proper button released the guide ring letting the rope slip free, the loosened line piled around his feet.

From the backpack Heero produced a pouch that unfolded into a duffle bag. The backpack, rope, remote control and gloves were tucked inside. Now all that might betray his visit was a single metal ring clanging against a flagpole and four electronic "ears" keeping an audio watch.

Heero brushed off, straightened his clothes and finger-combed his wind-blown hair. After carefully securing the French doors from the inside he listened at the hall door. A narrow line of light filtered from the hall as he slipped out.

In the space of less than twenty minutes 01's trip from rooftop to hall had been successfully completed but he wouldn't congratulate himself until he and Wufei were safely back in their suite.

On the opposite rooftop Wufei allowed a smile to tug at his lips. "Right on schedule." he whispered as he started down the fire escape.

********

Suite 706 sat midway down an opulent hall. Gold framed oil paintings, antique tables adorned with fresh flowers and crystal prism wall sconces supplied the perfect finishing touches to the grand corridor.

Heero stood beside a man in a tuxedo and a woman in an emerald evening dress. While the handsome spy and the elegant couple waited for the lift he hoped that the hidden listening devices would yield some useful information. The mission had already gone longer than he'd anticipated and his willingness to trudge along was rapidly expiring.

The lift bell dinged, the doors parted, the couple proceeded. Out the corner of his eye Heero caught a flash of scarlet. Dorothy raised her head just in time to avoid a collision with the stylish twosome. Unfortunately Heero was not so lucky.

"Mr. Yuy!" Dorothy exclaimed clearly surprised to see the Japanese businessman. "Well it is certainly a small world." she finished after a moment's recovery.

"Yes it seems to be." Heero replied equally startled by Ms. Catalonia's unexpected appearance. He had counted that Dorothy's wait for Carter would have lasted at least twenty or thirty minutes before her patience worn thin but he had obviously made a bothersome miscalculation.

"Are you staying here?"

"Just for tonight, I'm leaving in the morning."

An attempt to enter the lift was foiled as Dorothy latched onto Heero's arm. "You weren't going to go without saying goodbye? I was looking forward to you and I engaging in some business." She tightened her grip.

"Whether or not we do business is not my decision." Heero stated trying to move again, "I will present Mr. Khushrenada's proposal to my supervisor, he has the final say in the matter."

Dorothy was not about to give up that easily. "Since you won't be here much longer perhaps we can have a drink." Her hand folded over Heero's arm reinforcing her insistence that he should stay. "My suite is just down the hall."

"Thank you but I must decline," Heero stated firmly then offered an appeasement to Dorothy's apparent anticipation of more than a drink. "I have a meeting scheduled tonight but the next time I'm in Montreux I promise we will have dinner."

"One drink won't take that long." With a suggestive tilt to her body Dorothy begged, "Just one, please."

Heero couldn't see his watch but he knew that the meeting time with Hoffman was not that far off. The rapidly approaching eighth hour left him with two choices. Firstly he could continue to stand in the hall taking the chance that Carter and "The Fox" would walk off the lift.

Heero and William Hoffman had met once before and he was certain that the ensuing firefight had left a lasting impression in the German's mind. Heero also had no doubts if he and Hoffman came face to face that Agent 01 would be immediately recognized.

His second option was to go with Dorothy, have a drink and find an excuse to make a hasty exit. "All right, one drink." he gave in reckoning to make himself less visible.

********

"How much longer can he be?" Duo wondered out loud.

Wufei shrugged, "Not long. He should have been close behind me."

"Are you certain no one saw him?"

"I'm sure."

Duo shook his head hard enough to make his braid swing from side to side. "I don't like this. What if he ran into Carter or what if...."

"He's all right." Wufei interrupted. Now Duo's fidgeting was making 05 nervous.

"If he isn't back soon I'm going downstairs."

 

"Be patience," Wufei ordered, "he will be along."

********

"All I have is white wine." Dorothy announced.

"Wine is all right." Heero answered sneaking a look at his watch. *This is going to be close.* his inner voice declared.

Dorothy handed Heero a glass. "What should we drink to...a profitable venture?"

Heero nodded in agreement and took a sip.

Dorothy sat her glass on the bar and stepped closer. "I have been wondering something."

"What's that?"

Dorothy's eyes locked with Heero's cobalt orbs in an unmistakably enticing gaze. "What it would be like to be with you."

Her hands slid over Heero's shoulders clasping behind his neck. A jingle sounded near Heero's ear. "Don't you even take off that bracelet?"

"No but I could be persuaded to take something else off." she purred.

Ms. Catalonia was a beautiful woman and under different circumstances her sensual offer might have been tempting but Heero had to keep his head clear and his emotions in check.

The thought of Carter and Hoffman bursting through the door also made the fighting easier. "I don't believe we have time for more than a drink."

"We have all the time we want." she whispered. "Maybe this will change your mind."

Heero couldn't deny that he enjoyed the kiss but even if he and the lustful lady had taken the amorous action into the bedroom he would have merely gone through the motions for the mission's sake.

He reached up and pried her hands free, "This is nice but I have to keep my appointment."

Dorothy's lower lip poked out pouting like a spoiled child. "Are you sure I can't change your mind?"

Heero stood his ground, "I promise on my next trip we will have dinner." Then to keep up the facade he sealed the "promise" with a convincing kiss.

Heero left Dorothy breathing hard partly from the kiss but mostly because she didn't get her way. She ran her tongue over her lips where Heero's aftertaste lingered. "Next time, Heero Yuy, you won't get away."

********

Paul Carter met Hoffman in the parking lot next to the Inn. Two bodyguards with arms the size of tree trunks stuck close to "The Fox". Carter figured that the muscular protectors had been hired for their biceps and not their brains and he was also sure that they probably threw people around just for fun.

"Good evening Herr Hoffman." A brief nod from Hoffman was all the acknowledgement Carter received.

The quartet crossed the lot, the burly watchers dropped a few steps behind. "I hope Hoffman keeps his pets under control." Carter whispered under his breath as they entered the lobby.

********

Duo faced the balcony doors with his arms folded across his chest. Since he had made no attempt to join Heero and Wufei in the sitting area, much less make eye contact, it didn't take a genius to figure that he was not happy.

"He can't be that upset because I was a little late." Heero reasoned.

Wufei cocked an eyebrow and glanced over at Duo's inflexible posture. "Your tardiness is not the issue." He silently directed Heero's sight to the recorder on the coffee table. "This is voice activated you know."

Heero knew still he couldn't understand Duo's cold reception.

Wufei pressed the play button and turned up the volume. Dorothy's voice cooed through the speaker. Heero's baritone also picked up quite nicely as well. Even the heavy breathing and the jingle from Dorothy's bracelet had been flawlessly recorded on the disk.

"Did a good job with the bugs." Wufei teased lowly; he didn't want Duo peeved at him too.

"I didn't do anything." Heero insisted in his own defense.

"Tell him, not me." Wufei waited for some creditable response from his partner but Heero eased back on the sofa, copied Duo's crossed-armed pose and offer nothing but a snort in reply.

Wufei stood up and aimed another fleeting look at the chestnut braid hanging down Duo's back. "I'm going back to HQ and fill in Quatre and Trowa. Do you think it will be safe to leave you two alone?"

Heero grinned and patted the left side of his chest where his Beretta bulged under his jacket. "I'm carrying."

"Call me the minute the meeting is over." Wufei paused at the door. "I hope their voices pick up as clearly as your voice did." He winked then retreated before Heero could react to the good-natured taunting.

At the sound of the door closing Duo looked over his shoulder. "I don't know why I bother."

"Bother?"

"When you didn't come back after a reasonable time I was worried but from what I heard there was no need. You were obviously in no hurry to part company with Ms. Catalonia."

Heero hung his jacket it over a chair's back then unhooked his shoulder holster laying it and the pistol on the table. "She waylaid me not the other way around."

"It didn't sound like you were fighting too hard to get away."

"It was business."

Duo twirled around causing his braid to slap against the door. His nerve's already shortened fuse had nearly reached its end. "I'd hate to see what you do for pleasure." he snapped.

Heero couldn't resist his own bit of taunting, after all, he loved to play with fire. "Come here and I'll show you what I do for pleasure."

Duo threw up his hands. "You can be so frustrating."

"Me...frustrating...what about..." Heero began then decided that he was tired of debating business verses pleasure. "I'm going to change. Let me know when Carter and Hoffman show up."

Duo plopped down in the chair holding Heero's jacket. Trying his best to keep from exploding he grabbed the infuriating agent's garment, his fingers curled around fistfuls of fabric. If he couldn't ring the exasperating man's neck then his jacket made a good substitute.

A hint of Heero's aftershave lingered on the collar. With a defeated sigh Duo thought better of the material mashing and carefully smoothed out the wrinkles "Dammit it Heero," he whispered, "you know I can't stay mad at you."

********

The recorder started automatically. The sound of an unlatching door then footsteps and voices flowed through the speaker. Duo leaned nearer as the transmission gradually grew stronger and the voices became audible. "Heero, the bitch and her friends are getting ready to party." he called.

01 came out of the bedroom, his shirt flared aside as he walked. Duo caught a brief glimpse of the thick scar just before Heero buttoned up. "Anything interesting?"

Heero didn't hear the entire reply as his line of sight was drawn to where Duo was stretched out on the sofa. His elongated position caused his trousers to fit tautly over his hips and call further attention to his male attributes.

Heero had always appreciated natural beauty and in this case nature had surely worked overtime. "Not much yet." Duo's voice brought him back from his nature study.

Heero leaned over to make certain that the recorder was operating properly. Of course this necessary maneuver could not be accomplished without coming into close range of Duo's frontal region. He adjusted the volume then gave Duo a subtle grin.

Still peeved over Heero's "business" with Dorothy, Duo was not at all flattered with the agent's unsolicited attention and the fact that Heero did nothing to hide his interest provoked him further. With a nostril flaring puff of disapproval Duo slipped his legs off the sofa abruptly ending 01's flirtation.

Having recently been on the receiving end of the braided man's volatile temper Heero made the wise choice to keep any references to Duo's disposition to himself instead he forced his captivated senses to refocus on the meeting.

Dorothy and Carter's voices were easily recognized. The third, by process of elimination, was identified as Hoffman. "I understand you wish to do business." Hoffman stated in English hardened by a thick German accent.

"Yes," Carter replied, "our product is state-of-the-art. Top quality."

"That's remains to be seen Herr Carter. Do you have a sample?"

"We thought it was best to keep the product secure," Dorothy answered, "but we can show you the entire operation if you will come to the processing complex. It's not far from here."

"How close?"

"In the mountains."

"Everything is ready." Carter stated, "You can take shipment whenever you like." he added sweetening the deal with the promise of immediate available.

"Not so fast," Hoffman cautioned, "I make no purchase without a full inspection then there is the matter of payment." He deliberately showed the pace, "I will have a look then maybe we can negotiate a deal."

"We can take care of those details tonight." Carter pushed not wanting to give Hoffman time to change his mind.

"Not tonight."

"Tomorrow morning?" Dorothy asked quickly.

"No, Fraulein, I have appointments. Two nights then I will see what you have to offer." Hoffman's tone and the conviction of his words clearly signaled an end to the conversation. There was no mistake that "The Fox" was a man used to running the show on his own schedule and terms.

"Forty-eight hours." Dorothy agreed, her voice became fainter. The closing door's soft thud officially concluded the meeting.

"All right!" Heero exclaimed in excitement. "Catalonia, Carter and the disruptors all in one place and Hoffman thrown in for good measure. The lodge...it has to be the lodge."

"That is logical," Duo agreed. "but there is one disturbing question." He hated playing the devil's advocate but he had to ask. "How can a few people take the complex? I can't believe that Dorothy has anything less that a small army guarding the lodge."

Heero mentally reviewed several ideas for the "lodge storming". "The first thing we need to do is get a lay of the land. "he muttered to himself. "Can you find the way?"

"Sure but I will need the shipping routes that were on the computer."

"You get the routes. I'm going to HQ and brief Wufei, Quatre and Trowa so we can put preliminary plans in place."

"Tonight?" Duo questioned. The speedy sequence of events was making him feel as though he was being run down by time.

Heero didn't seem the least bit affected by the swift pace. "Yes tonight. Straight to the office and back." he repeated his now familiar instructions then gently touched Duo's arm. "Be careful."

"I'll be back before you have time to miss me."

********

Carter raised celebratory a glass of wine. "We have him! Hoffman can't turn us down." he boasted with a self-satisfied smile.

Dorothy's eyes flashed, her hands-on-hips posture conveyed the exact opposite response that Carter had expected. Anger quickened her steps as she headed for the door. "We don't have him yet."

She paused in the hall and pivoted in place. "And another thing you cocky bastard, the next time you want me to meet you be on time." she scolded then slammed the door leaving Carter standing alone wondering what in the hell he had done wrong.

End Part Eleven

TBC

A Reason for Living--Karen Hickman--March 2004