6-5-2004

Disclaimer: I do not own Gundam Wing or its characters.
Title: A Reason for Living
Author: Karen, The Huntress hickman@rockbridge.net
Rating: R.
Warning: AU, angst, violence, language, suspense
Pairing: 1x2
Part: 12-Epilogue/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 gives Heero a reason for living.

A Reason for Living

 

Part Twelve: More than Darkness in the Forest

Heero, attired in his favorite all-black outfit, stared passed the roadside into the forest's gloomy fringes. "You stay here with the car while I have a look."

"Wait a minute I thought we were in this together?" Duo refreshed Agent 01's memory.

"We are. I'm only going to scout out the perimeter. I'll be back in half an hour. Here is my cell phone if anything goes wrong call Wufei; the number is on speed dial."

Duo lips parted to protest. "I'll be careful." Heero promised running his finger gently across Duo's mouth to quiet his questions.

********

Earlier that evening:

By the time Duo returned with the "appropriated" directions to the lodge, the quartet of IPB agents had decided that forty-eight hours didn't give them any hours to waste.

Even though it was already eleven o'clock Heero insisted that a reconnaissance of the route and the area surrounding the lodge be carried out that night. Quatre had purposed a double survey reckoning that separate teams could cover more territory.

Wufei augured that too many people roaming around increased the chances of discovery. "We can't give Dorothy any reason to become suspicious."

Trowa agreed, "If she has the slightest notion that the operation is not secure she will clear out the merchandise or, worse yet, she might destroy it altogether."

"At least let us act as backup." Quatre pressed his belief that 01 and the inexperienced civilian should not go alone.

"No, there is too much at stake." Heero stated emphatically. "I won't attempt a deep insertion, just far enough to get reliable estimates so we can plan the next phase."

********

Now Duo stood by the tree line watching Heero disappear into the shadowy darkness. "Hurry back." he whispered. Suddenly he felt very much alone.

The nearly full moon peeked out between the junction of twin mountains. Thin shafts of moonlight filtered through the treetops producing pale pools among early spring flowers, vine-tangled underbrush and exposed roots.

Heero had decided to forego a flashlight because even a small amount of light could be seen in the dark. Unfortunately the limited light did little to illuminate the nonexistent path forcing him to prod along at a frustrating pace.

The occasional far off call of a night bird was all he heard as he moved deeper into the dense woods. Dewy dampness glistened on the leaves and soaked through his trousers then cooled quickly in the night air.

After ten minutes travel the gloom lessened. Another five measures of time and the trees thinned out. A grassy clearing materialized from the overgrown forest floor making it easier to see but it also put Heero well out into the open. The obscurity that the broad trees had afforded moments ago faded away leaving only waist-high plants to conceal the agent's presence.

Heero stood still studying the exposed space then he noticed that the clearing paralleled an unfinished gravel road that common sense told him lead to the lodge. The gray, gritty surface twisted sharply to the left then, just as abruptly, turned back on itself. The width narrowed almost vanishing behind a stand of tall evergreens but deep ruts told Heero that the road had recently seen a lot of use.

Skirting the road 01 stayed inside the large pines' protection feeling less naked in the moon's leering Cyclops gaze. The road wound around once more. Beyond the bend a hill climbed steadily and steeply and atop the flattened mound, starkly bathed in moonlight, the lodge loomed up against the midnight sky.

Darkened windows stared down at Heero with a hallow vacancy. No visible exterior lighting gave the bleak facade every appearance of being empty but two vehicles parked in front betrayed it supposed abandonment.

Fifty yards to the right showed an indention in the building's side. One dim light mounted above a set of double doors disproved the lodge's deserted image. "The mirage could use some work." Heero declared under his breath as he slipped from his shadowy concealment and employed what cover a group of lean saplings could throw up against the silvery light.

He rounded the trees careful not to disturb even the smallest branch. The lodge's high-peaked roofline, crisscrossed with heavy timbers, broadcasted a full adumbration ending where the road's last curve snaked up the hill.

This dim foreshadowing, Heero decided, would cover his route almost to the building's front door but glancing over his shoulder made him realize that his investigative inspection had carried him well beyond the perimeter's border.

His promise to Duo and his singular status made further advancement impractical, not to mention downright dangerous. Heero had been trained to handle himself in any situation and now that training told him that reinforcements and more firepower were required.

No accurate ground layout plus an undetermined count of personnel called for every available assistance to be utilized. Also the lack of a detailed floor plan opted for sneaking in rather than a headlong frontal assault. Backtracking, Heero reversed his course making for the murky center of the forest and the most direct path back to Duo.

*******

Wispy clouds drifted in no particular pattern playing hide and seek with the moon. Duo sat his hip against the BMW, crossed his arms over his chest and tried to display a casual attitude. All by himself, with nothing but dimly shaded woods and unidentified night sounds, Duo's imagination began to work overtime.

Wind rustling the leaves conjured up visions of wild beasts slinking through the forest. Amongst the trees he swore that glowing eyes shone with malice and that the skeletal branches move in an unearthly fashion. Ghost stories and tales of a headless horseman were involuntarily recalled as if his thoughts were being guided by unseen specters.

Then, if his fantastic mental fabrications weren't enough to deal with, he began to wonder what he would do if a vehicle, especially of the enemy variety, happened by. His only option would be to hide in the phantom filled forest and pray that none of the bad guys would be alerted that something was wrong.

Duo paced beside the car then stopped to study the road in both directions. He checked the time span between Heero's leaving and his returning. "Ten more minutes." he mumbled to himself and any disembodied spirits that might be listening.

********

Flickering light brought Heero's return journey to a halt. Ahead, in the vacant space that he had traversed just minutes before, irregular shadows slipped across the clearing and danced over the underbrush. It seemed that a jeep had materialized from somewhere along the gravel road. The flame from a fuel-fed lamp sitting on the hood glinted on the jeep's windscreen and shimmered over its front end.

It didn't take a genius to know that the jeep and lantern had not come to be there on their own but Heero saw no movement and heard nothing but the wind whistling through the trees. Cautiously he made his way nearer to the mysterious machine.

Crouching among a stand of spruce he remained motionless figuring that the driver and possibly one or more passengers could very well be wandering about in the woods and that at any moment either his or Duo's presence could be discovered.

Suddenly getting back to Duo took on pressing importance but first he decided to disable the vehicle and any communications equipment. Cutting off contact with the lodge could give he and Duo the few precious seconds required to make their escape hopefully unseen and unscathed.

The Beretta slid from his holster, 01's finger caressed the trigger. Eyes and ears concentrated sight and sound into a single, sharp focus. Slowly he inched from his leafy concealment and scooted around the jeep's bumper. A Khushrenada Electronics parking permit was fastened to the windscreen and that was all the conformation Heero needed to know that the mission was indeed on the track.

In the lone lantern's limited light it was difficult to pick on many details of the jeep's interior accessory panel. Once inside he would rip out any wires connected to a mobile phone or radio device and also pop the hood latch for phase two of his disabling duty.

The stealthy spy scanned the immediate area, listened once more then reached for the door handle. Just as Heero's fingertips touched the cold metal something came down hard across the base of the skull. The stunning strike slammed his head into the side window, for a split second 01 lost his bearings and an opaque cloud settled over his senses.

A forceful intake of air dispelled the foggy images swimming inside his head. With a stagger Heero spun around leveling the Beretta's barrel at the unseen attacker.

A man dressed in a dark brown uniform was drawing back a beefy fist preparing to deliver a second blow. The automatic's trigger engaged, a loud BANG fractured the night-shrouded silence but the hurried shot went wild.

Heero took an unsteady step forward; his finger drew back for another shot. Strong arms wrapped around from behind. One forearm came up under Heero's chin pressing in on his windpipe, the other pinned his arm to his side misdirecting the bullet harmlessly into the ground.

Heero gritted his teeth and fought the choke hold but the harder he tried to wiggled free the more his lungs begged for oxygen and his legs refused to hold him upright. The arm crushed harder cutting off his air supply, the Beretta dropped from his weakened grasp. Taking advantage of the restrained stranger's vulnerable condition the brown uniformed man followed through with his punch plowing a tightly curled fist into 01's stomach.

The punch further compromised Heero's restricted breathing. The dim cloud returned dazing his perceptions and tangling his thoughts. Dots danced over his eyes and his knees went rubbery. Still the IPB agent was determined not to go down without a fight. Digging in his heels he threw back his shoulders exhausting what little strength he had left.

The cold "business end" of a 357 Magnum automatic was shoved into Heero's temple. "Move again and I'll blow your brains to hell." a hot, husky voice hissed in his ear leaving no room for misinterpretation.

Begrudgingly 01 gave up his struggle not to save himself but for Duo's sake because as long as he was the men's focal point they would not be wandering about the forest. Heero hoped that Duo would soon realize something had gone wrong and call the Lone Dragon but until help arrived his cooperation was the key to his survival.

At Heero's clear sign of surrender the Magnum's owner asked. "What now?"

"We follow orders." the brown uniform answered, "Hold him." he instructed as he seized Heero's right arm and pushed both his jacket and shirt sleeve up at the same time.

A hypodermic needle flashed in the lamplight. Heero tensed but did not resist. A sharp prick, a burning sensation, a low moan then murky numbness covered over like a suffocating curtain. The surrounding forest telescoped, each distorted image fell in one on the other as the black tunnel collapsed.

Heero's lungs heaved in painful pants against the heaviness in his chest. As the enveloping darkness won the battle shallow puffs replaced the labored expirations, muscles relaxed and joints went limp.

In his fuzzy, half-conscious state Heero's muddled perceptions vaguely recorded the jarring shock when he was roughly dumped on the ground beside the jeep. The brown uniformed man picked up the discarded Beretta and shoved it in his belt. With a victorious sneer he jabbed Heero with the toe of his boot. A faint groan affirmed 01's total incapacitation.

"I think this needle business is crap." the man with 01's gun declared, "A good knock on the head works every time."

The second sentry nodded in agreement. "But you remember what happened with the last guy, what was his name?"

"Baines."

"Yeah, Baines. He didn't have enough mind left to answer any questions. No, better to do it the boss's way. I'll call up and report what we have."

Standing inches from Heero's prone body the caller was confident that the tranquilizer had done its job. He glanced down at the captive's ashen face, unclipped a mobile phone and punched in a number. Voices floated over Heero but the distant echoes jumbled into indistinguishable bits and pieces of white noise.

"He said to sit tight." the caller reported.

The brown uniform snorted, "Well I'm sure as hell ain't gonna sit here all night."

********

Duo squirmed restlessly in the front seat. He got out and looked his watch, more than the allotted time had passed since the Japanese agent had taken off. Nervously he paced beside the bordering tree line then checked the time once more. Heero was long overdo.

His instincts continued to nag, to insist that something was wrong. It took all of his willpower to resist the disquiet feelings as he struggled with disobeying an order that he really wasn't bound to in the first place.

A distant sound reverberated then a second keen crack bounced off the trees. "Heero!" Duo cried out loud. Now his instincts were screaming inside his head. Without pause, disregarding the cell phone and the call to Wufei, Duo started off vanishing into the forest at a frantic speed.

********

The two sentries relaxed. Sprawling back against the same board tree trunk, encouraged by their belief that the drugged intruder would be out for some time, they had lessened their alertness. They didn't seem worried about watching and they hadn't deemed it necessary to secure Heero's hands.

One turned up a bottle allowing a full swallow of the cheap brew to warm his throat. The other took his turn wrinkling his face into a horrid frown. "Where did you get this shit?" he wheezed as the strong spirits burned all the way down.

********

With extra effort Heero rolled onto his back. Overhead branches blurred, their leaves gyrated wildly. He shut his eyes to stop the spinning. A numbing buzz filled his head; his mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton. On his inside forearm a bruised welt had formed at the needle's contact point and a black crust had sealed off the blood oozing from the puncture. Stiff soreness radiated in ever-widening circles and ran the entire length to his fingers.

Again he blinked to chase away the oscillating images. "Fight!" his mind ordered.

The uniformed man and his drinking buddy passed the bottle again. The lull in their observation, their misjudgment of the drug's potency, was working in Heero's favor. Each inattentive moment, each swig of whiskey allowed Agent 01 more time to recover.

********

Heero continued to fight. Hard gasps for air gradually gave way to less constricting breaths. The replenished oxygen levels eased his aching lungs and helped clear his head.

He forced himself to think of names, numbers, silly bits of gibberish, anything to bring his scattered senses into some order. The opaque film thinned out, his vision slowly began to improve. Concentrative inhalations then focused exhalations, over and over again in a rhythmic pattern.

However, an attempt to sit up proved futile. His muscles were too weak to bear his weight, a nauseous wave washed over and clammy sweat beaded on his forehead. As much as his condition had recovered, Heero knew that he was still a long way from saving himself. Reluctantly he resigned to the faintness and the gray haze floated over once more.

********

Duo was becoming more frustrated by the minute. He had been wandering through the woods for what seemed like forever trying to figure where Heero might be. The thought that Agent 01 had returned to the car, found him gone and struck out again to find him kept tugging at Duo's mind.

He paused, twisted to his left then right then back down the direction he had just come. "Heero is going to be mad." he sighed. But he couldn't give up, not since the nagging had turned into urgent prodding bordering on panic.

********

Heero's eyelids fluttered then flew open with a start. How much time had passed? How long had he been asleep? The lamplight streaked in orange reflections along the jeep's side causing Heero to squint against the brightness.

Formally numb extremities seemed more inclined to cooperate and the buzzing in his head had abated to a tolerable level. Voices a short distance away registered clearer, their clarity carried on an increasingly gusty breeze.

A reddish spot danced in the darkness as the uniformed man lit a cigarette. "Now much longer to we have to baby sit this guy?" he wondered blowing out a curling puff of smoke.

"I don't know." the second man shrugged, "The boss said he'd call when he wanted us to bring him up."

The smoking man drew in deeply then expelled a stream of bluish haze, "Why do we have to stay here anyway?" he complained. He looked up at the massive lodge and the silver-haloed moon resting between the twin mountain peaks. The fact that it was warm in the lodge and chilly in the woods didn't make the waiting any easier.

"Maybe he's entertaining some hotshot or maybe he's got a whore up there." his partner reasoned.

"It's gettin' colder. I ain't waiting forever."

"Hey maybe that blond, what's her name...Catalonia...would come down to keep us company."

"Yeah its about time she did something besides give us orders. She should haul her pretty ass down here and help us keep warm." the smoker proclaimed with a lustful grin.

Turning up his collar and the bottle against the falling temperatures, the temporary minder of Heero's Beretta rocked forward, "If something don't break soon I'm gonna waste the guy myself," he announced pulling the pistol from his belt, "and I'm gonna do it with his own gun."

Heero shifted over on his side and drew his knees to his chest. He managed to push up on one elbow to see the disembodied voice's face. "Come on and try it you bastard." he swore under his breath.

********

Duo guessed he was halfway back to the car, if he hadn't been traveling around in circles. Muted light filtering through the trees caused a smile to bloom over his lips. The road had to be nearby and hopefully Heero would be there, too.

Hurried strides carried Duo along the overgrown "path". His anxious anticipation of a reunion with Heero precluded his usual cautious nature. His mind was so preoccupied that he didn't notice the clearing or the jeep until he was almost on top of it. Skidding to an abrupt halt Duo ducked behind a low branch and sucked in a startled gulp of damp night air.

Two men, washed over in artificial lamplight, were so near that Duo swore he could hear them breathing. Suddenly the realization of how close he had come to charging headlong into the enemy's camp sunk in. A nerve-wrenching shutter ran up his spine and his heart pounded bringing on momentary faintness.

"You almost blew it this time." he chided himself then drew deeper within the branches as one man dressed in a brown uniform stretched and stood up.

"I've had with this shit!" the man declared tossing aside a used up cigarette. "If someone wanted to question this guy they should have come on." He took the Beretta and started forward with a weaving gait.

"You'd better wait." his partner cautioned as he caught up part the way to the jeep. "The last person you want to cross is Paul Carter."

"I ain't afraid of Carter," the gunman announced, his cockiness bolstered by the liquor's false courage, "or that damned bossy bitch. I'll fix them just the way I'm gonna finish off our nosy visitor."

His partner put his restraining hand on a brown-clad arm. "But Septum is backing them up. I don't think you want to tangle with him."

The inebriated sentry reeled around jerking free, "Septum ain't going to find out, is he?" he stated tottering backwards several steps. The Beretta swayed dangerously in the air as he motioned with the weapon toward the lodge.

It was apparent by his slurred speech and rocky balance that the fermented brew had a good hold and the other man knew from past encounters that his partner's mood, altered by alcohol, could quickly change becoming unpredictable at the best and highly volatile at the worse.

Septum was a formable force to reckoned with but if it came down to choosing between a fight with the hired henchman or his drunken colleague he would take on Septum any day. Wisely he backed off and stayed in place.

Duo cautiously eased to the right putting himself in a better position to see the jeep. At first the wobbly advancing man blocked his view of the person curled up on the ground.

"Move aside dammit." Duo whispered. The same disquiet feelings had returned stronger and more imploring.

The gunman stopped by the jeep, the shadows thrown up by the lantern parted to reveal the fetal form's face. Fear triggered panic.

"HEERO! NO!" Duo screamed as he gave up his woody protection.

Now Duo stood completely exposed staring into the barrels of a borrowed Beretta and a 357 Magnum and the glaring eyes of two men who would not hesitate to fire.

 

Part Thirteen: Two Against the World

Septum joined Dorothy inside the lodge's front entrance. "We got a problem."

"What?" she sighed starting down the hall.

"An unauthorized person has been accessing your terminal."

"That's impossible!" she exclaimed then lowered her voice to a more secretive level. "I'm the only one with the code."

"You might think you are but I caught one of your trusted partners transmitted a message not two hours ago. I brought him here."

"Who?"

"Marquis Welige."

Dorothy stopped short. "Where is he now?"

Septum leaned over, his eyes drew into narrow slits, "Waiting for you." he smiled the kind of smile that made Dorothy's blood run cold.

********

Marquis Welige slumped in a wooden chair encircled by silent machinery. His hands were bound behind the chair's straight back and his head hung at an odd angle. Blue bruises, tinged with dried blood, covered his face. At the sound of an opening door he slowly lifted his head and struggled to focus his blurry vision through swollen eyes.

"Marquis I would have expected better of you." Dorothy chided in a mockingly cold tone. "I must say that I'm very disappointed but we both know that you don't have either the brains or the guts to set up this double-cross by yourself. Who are you working for? Who gave you my code?"

Septum grabbed a fistful of Welige's hair jerking his head back sharply. "Answer the lady." he growled.

Welige drew in a raspy breath. The glare from the overhead lights sent pain shooting through his head. He tried to swallow but there was nothing but dried blood coating his teeth and tongue.

Septum cocked back his fist. "Let me see if I can refresh his memory."

Dorothy raised a hand to halt the fist. "Marquis tell me."

"Carter." The name formed haltingly on his cracked lips.

Dorothy's face flushed red. "Carter! I knew it...all this time...if he has been transmitting in the clear." she paused with a puff of air and glanced over at Septum then at Welige.

Everything had gone as planned, the entire process was on schedule. She had pulled off the scam right under Treize Khushrenada's snobby nose, had used his resources and manpower. The disruptors, using the lodge, the deal with Hoffman, she had done her part.

She saw that the operation ran smoothly and all Carter had to do was supervise the job. There would have been more than enough profit to go around, more than enough to set Carter up for life.

Whirling around Dorothy leaned closer to make sure that Welige fully understood the next questions. "What's the deal? Who has Carter contacted?"

"I don't know." Marquis' chin dropped to his chest.

Septum's fist drew back again ready to help Welige remember and again Dorothy raised her hand blocking his persuasive intentions. With a disappointed scowl Septum relaxed.

"Tell me Marquis." she coaxed to spare him any further painful physical persuasion.

Welige looked up sucking in another labored gasp. "You have to...believe me...I don't know. Paul gave me information, told me where to send it, what time to pick up messages." A strangled cough fought to loosen thick fluid gathering in his throat, "He transferred them by computer...never said anything...about a...code."

Dorothy shook her head in pure anger. "Anyone tapped in at the complex could trace the relays here. If Carter's greed had done anything to mess me up I'll..." Rage cut off her words.

"Want me to find Carter?" Septum spoke up certain that her answer would be "yes".

"No, not yet."

Dorothy had some serious thinking to do. Hoffman was coming to the lodge in less than forty-eight hours. How he perceived the operation could make a difference in the negotiations. Hoffman's initial contact had been with her, Carter and Septum and "The Fox" would expect all three people to be at the meeting.

If Carter wasn't included there might be questions that she couldn't satisfactorily answer. No, the risk was too great...for now they had to present a united front. "Since we know what Paul is doing." she thought to herself.

"I want you for watch Carter like your life depended on it." she ordered Septum, "He is not to get within ten feet of any computer here, you understand? We'll meet with Hoffman as planned then after that he's all yours."

Septum pointed a thumb back at Welige's sagging body. "What about him?"

Dorothy shrugged, "Do what you have to." She paused at the door for one last question. "By the way Marquis how much money did Carter promise for your part?"

Marquis Welige was surprisingly calm to be so near the end but then he had known it was over the moment he had been discovered by Septum. He was also painfully aware that Dorothy wasn't the only person that Carter had betrayed. "Forty percent." he wheezed.

"I can't give you any better price."

Septum pushed a green button labeled "START" bringing a large machine to life. The razor-edged blade of a (1) Wakizashi flashed in the overhead lights. Welige's anguished scream rose up mixing with the mechanism's rumble and whine then fell suddenly silent as the door slammed shut behind Dorothy.

********

Heero lay perfectly still. His eyes were closed but his ears and instincts were working overtime. His best hope for survival was to let the man intent on doing him harm come as close as he dared then do what he could to stop him.

Footsteps rustled in the tall grass. 01 tensed every muscle and prepared to release their power like a recoiling spring. One chance was all he had and that chance was dependent on how near the uniformed man was willing to get. But Heero had no unrealistic expectations of his odds of winning because the shooter could stay well out of his reach and still deliver the lethal shot.

The steps grew louder...closer...then stopped. Heero held his breath. The snap of a bullet being cocked into the chamber made its fatal pronouncement.

"HEERO! NO!"

The intensity of his name being shouted out in alarm caused Heero to flinch. Confusion battled through his brain; his hearing joined in the puzzlement as it tried to make sense of the sound. His inner council proclaimed. *It's Duo.*

"No." he argued with his internal voice. "He shouldn't be here."

The apprehensive silence that followed was more deafening than the shout. Heero opened his eyes franticly searching for the phantom caller. His cobalt orbs widened when they saw Duo standing in the tree line. He sucked in a troubled gasp realizing that both sentries' weapons were aimed squarely at the terrified civilian.

Automatically Heero's training took over. Vanquishing the confusion and ignoring the pain he raised up on his hands and knees. Like a tiger stalking its prey he blended with the night and moved in for the kill.

At a precisely measured moment he sprung forward and latched onto the closest man's ankle. The brown uniform went down with a startled yelp. Heero knelt behind the shocked man and wrapped his arm around his throat with a reciprocal pressure designed to cause cobwebs to form in his head.

Heero leaned against the jeep's bumper for more leverage not wanting to give the guard any less then he deserved for his pervious attempts at asphyxiation. Wildly clawing at the agent's vice-like grip, the struggling, strangling man managed to roll his shoulder upsetting his and Heero's balance.

Both bodies sprawled on the ground as each man fought to gain the advantage. Elbows and fists flew in every direction. One blow caught Heero across the ridge of his cheekbone. Tiny dark dots danced over his eyes. With pure instinct 01 struck back landing a right hook squarely in his opponent's nose.

The second sentry stood to the side tentatively taken aback by Heero's sudden recovery and subsequent attack, however he soon regained his wits. The Magnum aimed down at the two men grappling in the grass, the barrel swung from side to side trying to line up a shot and the only thing that kept him from firing was his fear of hitting it partner.

Duo watched tensely from the clearing's fringes. At first he couldn't make himself move. Fear for Heero and the unaccustomed raw violence unfolding before his eyes kept him frozen in place. Then the gravity of the situation hit with full force...if he didn't do something, take some action, Heero could die.

Duo recalled his promise that he would not fail Heero no matter what the cost. With firm resolve he grabbed up a heavy length of broken tree limb. Drawing on his reservoir of inner strength he centered his courage and charged into the clearing.

Gradually Heero gained the upper hand. Rolling up on his knees he shoved the heel of his hand up under his challenger's chin. The man's head snapped back at an odd angle then he tumbled to one side.

Heero staggered to his feet, fastened his hand around a fistful of brown uniform, steadied the teetering body and demonstrated a flawless uppercut. The unconscious loser jerked from Heero's grasp landing bonelessly on his back with a thud.

Unaware of the gunman behind him, Heero rested his hands on his knees and sucked in short, stinging breaths. As the drug's residual affects seized his battered body a queasy wave washed through his stomach. The adrenalin rush that had sustained him ran out forcing Heero to fight to keep the icy fingers of unconsciousness at bay.

Now the vengeful gunman had a clear shot and it didn't make a bit of difference if it was a bullet in the back. "Heero look out!" Duo screamed as the sentry sighted down in line with 01's head.

The calling of his name caused Heero to turn around just in time to see the pistol's barrel spit out an explosion of fire. A vague silhouette shone through the blue smoke then the outline disappeared into darkness.

At the same moment Duo swung the tree limb as hard as he could. The impact splintered the wooden "club" off at the base of the shooter's skull. A keen crack resounded over the clearing then bounced and repeated its sickening noise throughout the forest.

Blood and bone erupted in an overflow of crimson. Without so much as a groan the gunman's body dropped like a felled tree. Duo stood motionless stunned by his actions. The scene before him seemed somehow detached in the same way that the morning light defined dreams and reality. A scarlet tide flowed near his feet and he felt as though he was being swamped.

He didn't know if the man was dead but he was certain that he never wanted to feel that desperate again. His quivering fingers went limp, the limb dropped from his hand. Finally he was able to turn his eyes away and unlock their horror-struck gaze.

As he looked passed the bloody body Duo sucked in a shocked breath. 01 lay on his side, his face tuned away and he wasn't moving. Panic tore through Duo's mind as he raced to Heero's side.

Dropping to his knees his trembling hand reached down then faltered above Heero's shoulder. "Oh God please don't let him be dead." he prayed. Tears filled his eyes and fear stabbed through his heart.

Gently his fingertips slid over the rumpled fabric of Heero's jacket. Hesitantly he bent over but his tears blurred the contours of the agent's face making it difficult to see clearly. "Heero? Please." he whispered.

Without warning, without a flinch or shudder, 01 reared up. Roughly clutching Duo's wrist his free hand cocked back to deliver an answering punch.

"HEERO!" Duo yelled terrified by the primitive rage in Heero's eyes and actions.

Heero checked his arm's forward motion, his fist quivered in the air less than an inch from Duo's panic-paled face. A perplexed _expression flickered across his eyes then the puzzlement pulled his eyebrows together in a deep frown.

"What in the bloody hell are you doing here?" he shouted hoarsely, "I told you to stay put and dammit I will not be disobeyed!"

Heero's tone cut Duo like a knife. Renewed tears spilled from his eyes and tracked down his cheeks. His chest heaved with the catching sobs of heartache.

Then something in Duo's gut flared hot, his hurt boiled into angry resentment.

"You'd bloody well thank the fates that I didn't listen." he sternly informed the Japanese agent.

Shaking with confused emotions Duo tired to put his feelings into proper perspective. On the one hand he was relieved and extremely grateful that Heero was alive but the ungrateful bastard's lack of compassion...his stubborn, presumptuous bearings pushed Duo's tolerance level to the edge.

"Why you pompous, egotistical ass!" he hissed jerking his wrist free.

Heero planted his elbows in the dew-damp grass and with extra effort sat back against the jeep. In the fluttering lamplight he could see Duo's tear-tracked face, see the hurt in his eyes.

Bit by bit the sequence of events played out in Heero's mind. He remembered the drug-induced lethargy, the confusion, the struggle, the pain. He recalled the frightening snap of an automatic being cocked and someone shouting his name. During the fight the second gunman had been forgotten but gradually the reality of Duo's saving actions sunk in.

Duo had been the ghostly image seen through his dazed perceptions. His warning cry had given Heero the precious seconds needed to drop below the bullet's path.

Heero looked around. The brown uniform remained where his punch had left him. The other man's prostrate form, head and shoulders soaked with blood, laid only a few feet away.

Then the stress of mind and body took its toll. "Duo I'm sorry." he began before succumbing to the resulting faintness.

Heero's shoulders slumped; the off balanced momentum made it hard to remain upright. Duo sat down and eased him over until Heero's back was against Duo's chest and his head lopped on Duo's shoulder.

Tacky blood oozed from a cut on Heero's forehead. Another scarlet stream traced a thin line from his right nostril to the corner of his mouth. Licking his dry lips produced a salty taste.

Duo moped back stringy bangs from the quivering agent's eyes and carefully inspected the damage before lacing his fingers through Heero's fingers. As the resentment faded a relieved smile poised on his lips. "It's all right, lean on me."

Heero attempted to return the smile then winced from the effort. Tilting his head, he gazed up into Duo's shimmering eyes. "Thank you for not listening to me." he whispered.

Duo sympathetically twisted his mouth mirroring Heero's discomfort. "You're welcomed." then showed his appreciation with a brushing kiss. He would have preferred more passion but Heero's swollen lips would not cooperate.

A crackling pop of static from the jeep's radio caused Heero and Duo to jump. "Mac come in." A short pause. "Mac come in. Can you hear me?" A longer pause. "Are you there?"

"I can't raise anyone."

"Send someone down and find them." a voice ordered in the background.

Duo straighten up quickly, "We have to get out of here."

Heero nodded in agreement. "We can't leave the bodies here." he declared pushing against the jeep to stand up.

Duo offered his hand and pulled Heero to his feet. This time the agent's legs seemed more inclined to support his weight.

Heero took a moment to survey the scene then stated. "If the sentries are found like this everyone at the lodge will know something is wrong."

He searched around the uniformed man and with a pleased grin gathered up his Beretta and shoved it in his belt.

"What can we do?" Duo wondered.

"Help me." Heero instructed dragging his bested opponent to the jeep. Duo opened the door and Heero propped the limp body behind the steering wheel. Duo forced himself to ignore the jagged hole and congealed fluid and helped load the recipient of his handiwork in the opposite side.

The remaining liquor was sprinkled over the driver and passenger adding to the already strong smell of intoxication. The empty bottle was deposited in the front floorboard.

Heero released the parking brake. A concerted push put the jeep in motion. The unrestricted vehicle bounced along the gravel road's uneven surface, banked sharply to the right then careened down the hill. With a deafening crescendo of shredding metal and bursting glass the jeep crashed into three board trees and tipped over. The sudden stop sent the driver through the windscreen and left him hanging halfway out of the splintered hole.

"He should have been wearing his seat belt." Heero commented dryly. "Let's hope their boss believes they got drunk and had an accident."

********

The moon's luster was overlaid with wispy clouds making the gloomy forest even darker. The lamp provided much needed light and proved quite useful in aiding Heero and Duo's return to the car.

"I'm driving." Duo insisted. Heero offered no argument and handed over the keys.

The traffic was light as the BMW entered Montreux. It was well passed midnight when Duo and the drowsy agent reached the intersection that led to the Preventer Bureau's Headquarters. Duo kept straight through.

"Where are you going?" Heero questioned aware that Duo had missed the turn.

"You are in no condition to meet with Wufei. We're going to the safe house."

"But I..." Heero began to protect.

"I'll call once you are settled and let him know what happen." Duo promised, "It's too late to do anything tonight. Besides I won't hurt the Lone Dragon to wait for awhile. Now no more arguments, that's an order."

Heero gave a mock salute. "Yes sir."

Duo unlocked the door and switched on the lights. The sudden change from the outside darkness to inside brightness stabbed at Heero's bloodshot eyes.

As the light revealed the fight's aftermath Duo offered a good-natured appraisal. "You look awful."

"Yeah I do." Heero admitted upon catching a glimpse of his reflection in a wall mirror.

Duo slipped his arm around 01's waist and guided him across the room. "Sit before you fall down." With a worn sigh Heero inched down on the sofa.

Helping Heero out of his jacket was a slow process. The injection site on his arm was now a distended welt that ached every time he flexed his arm. All of his muscles were taut and strained and his head throbbed dully.

Heero handed the Beretta to Duo who held it out at arm's length before placing it on the coffee table. Duo knew that carrying a gun was a necessary part of Heero's job but he had never liked guns and was not at all comfortable with them.

"What's this?" Duo declared pointing at smeared bloodspots that had stiffened Heero's shirtsleeve.

"It's nothing, don't fuss."

"Nothing. Let me see." Duo insisted tugging at the shirt's hem.

"I'll be all right."

Duo shook his head hard enough to make his braid flop against the sofa cushions. "There you go with that damned macho attitude. Can't you just for once in your life let someone help you?"

"I can do for myself." Heero replied with edginess in his voice.

Duo leaned closer and locked his expressive eyes with Heero's cobalt centers of sight. "If you're concerned about the scar I've already seen it."

"When?"

"The other night you had a bad dream and I had to untangle the sheet."

Duo decided not to mention the incident with the gun. Since Heero didn't seem to recall what happened he didn't want to add any more upset to the situation.

Heero adverted his eyes from Duo's concentrated sight. Putting a finger under the lowered chin Duo lift 01's bowed head. "The scar doesn't bother me. It is a part of you and you should wear it like a badge of pride. Lie back while I get something to patch you up."

With an involuntary moan Heero eased back on the sofa. For the first time in days Agent 01 allowed himself to relax and let down his guard. He was exhausted and sore and tied of keeping up the pretense that everything was all right.

Duo returned from the bathroom with a warm, wet washcloth, a towel and a first aide kit. Carefully he dabbed Heero's forearm. The moist heat soothed the puffy wound and calmed his fretful mind.

Disinfecting pads cleaned away dried blood on his arm. The cut on his head was treated in the same manner and both wounds were covered with sterile gauze held in place with wide strips of adhesive tape. A second pad was applied to the tacky residue clogging one nostril.

The skin over Heero's stomach was tender and the slightest touch caused him to cringe. "Sorry." Duo apologized but kept to the cleaning. Soon Heero looked a bit more human and a lot more content.

"You need to drink water. You don't want to get dehydrated."

"I'd rather have something stronger."

Duo nodded "no". "Alcohol might not mix well with whatever that bastard gave you. You better stick to water." He gathered up the soiled pads and blood-tainted washcloth and towel. "I'll get a glass."

Duo headed back to the bathroom, put the washcloth and towel in the sink to soak and set the first aide kit on the shelf.

Heero winced as he sat up. "All I want is sleep."

"Water first then sleep."

"Stay put a few minutes more." Duo urged. He made a brief detour to the bedroom before going back to fetch Heero.

********

Heero announced he needed to "piss like a racehorse". Normally Duo would have let him take care of his business in private but the agent's unstable balance precluded his need for privacy. Also Duo wanted to be sure there was no blood in the urine that might indicate internal bleeding. To his relief the fluid was clear.

"Easy. One step at a time."

Once inside the bedroom Heero discovered that Duo had pushed the twin beds together. "I don't want to have to get up to check on you." was Duo's reasonable explanation for the furniture arranging.

Heero didn't argue. He wouldn't have admitted it but he really didn't want to be alone and a warm body in close proximity to his would be especially welcomed. 01 sat on the bedside. Duo squatted down, unlaced Heero's high-topped boots, removed his socks and helped the weary agent wiggled our of his dirty, blood-spattered trousers leaving only boxers to keep the his modesty in tact.

The sheets were invitingly cool and the pillow felt like heaven beneath Heero's head. Duo sat on the opposite side, quickly divested his cloths down to his underwear and scooted in next to his bedmate.

Duo raised up enough to see in the muted moonlight gleaming through the window. A bluish bruise tinted the ridge of Heero's cheekbone, an equally dark discoloration traced along his stubble-coated jawline.

Heero gazed up into Duo's face that seemed to glow in the moonlight and inwardly thanked the fates for the braided man's compassion. "I'm sorry I put you in the middle of this mess."

"You didn't put me anywhere I didn't want to be. Sleep now." Duo urged.

"I can't sleep."

"Sure you can. Relax, close your eyes and you'll drift off in no time."

Heero drew in a steadying breath, "I can't dream." he confessed giving up the last crumbling traces of his macho facade.

Duo brushed back bothersome bangs so he could better see Heero's eyes. "I can't promise that you won't dream but I promise that I will be here when you do. You once asked me to trust you. Now will you trust me?"

"Yes." The answer was barely audiable over the hiss of air as Heero finally let go. His eyelids blinked once then closed in sweet surrender to sleep and Duo's pledged protection.

Keeping his promise Duo called Wufei and reported on his and Heero's harrowing encounter with the sentries. "Heero is bruised and sore but he will be all right."

"Do you need me to come over?" Wufei wondered.

"Heero is asleep and I soon will be. We'll come to the Bureau in the morning, fill in the details and start preparing a plan."

********

Drained physically and emotionally Duo gave himself permission to also let go. Watching the steady rise and fall of Heero's quiet breathing he ran his fingers lightly over the scar on Heero's chest. "You look so peaceful." he sighed, "I wish it could always be this way."

The moon silently slipped behind a cloud casting long shadows over the exhausted pair. Duo placed a brushing kiss on 01's swollen cheek and tucked the coverlet tighter. "Good night." he whispered then snuggled nearer and hoped for calm, dreamless sleep.

(1) Wakizashi: A Samurai sword with a seventeen and a half inch blade.

 

Part Fourteen: Promises and Plans

Slim shafts of sunlight streaked over the bedroom. In gradual degrees Heero's senses began to wake up. Warmth radiating over his arm was the first sensation then his hearing registered soft breathing near his ear. His nose picked up a second scent reaffirming that Duo was still sharing the bed.

His eyes, however, were a bit reluctant to cooperate. Eyelids squeezed together tightly in protest against the sunrise's unwelcome intrusion. He cracked open one cobalt orb just enough to watch random patterns of light flutter on the ceiling. Then the other eye cautiously took a peek and decided that the brightness wasn't too harsh.

Heero's initial effort to roll from back to side was defeated by stubborn, inflexible muscles that caught along his spine and caused him to cringe. He braced one elbow and tried again. Finally the change of position was accomplished by painfully slow, deliberately calculated movements that allowed him to see his bedmate.

Duo was curled up on his side. An exposed shoulder's creamy skin was tinted pink by the dawn's rosy rays. One hand was tucked under his chin. His other hand barely touched Heero's arm but his fingertips generated enough heat to be keen felt.

Feathery bangs caressed Duo's forehead and tangled in his long eyelashes. The lower half of his braid snaked over the coverlet in a frayed rope of chestnut. His face mirrored utter contentment and a small smile tugged at his mouth.

For a several long minutes Heero did nothing but gaze at Duo's serene countenance which caused him to wonder if his braided bedmate was having a pleasant dream. Without thinking he reached over and bushed stray stands from Duo's cheek. The gentle contact widened the smile. A sigh escaped over Duo's parted lips then his eyes opened and Heero found himself drowning in a sea of violet.

Heero stared for a moment more before blinking to break the captivating trance. "Good morning." he whispered so as not to disturb the comforting quiet.

Duo took his own adjusting moment to wake up. "Mornin'" he replied in the same softly whispered tone. "What time is it?"

The simple lifting of Heero's arm to see his watch caused him to wince as more muscles expressed their objections. "6:45." he announced then carefully lowered the sore extremity.

Duo yawned and rubbed his palms over his eyes to chase away the remnants of sleep. "Good it's not too late."

"Too late for what?" Heero questioned the odd statement.

"Last night after you fell asleep I called Wufei." Duo explained, "I told him we would come to the Bureau this morning and I didn't want to be rushed."

Heero moved again and paid dearly for his efforts. Duo frowned in sympathy at 01's obvious discomfort. "You need a hot shower to relax your muscles then a good breakfast. Wufei can wait awhile." he decided leaving no doubt that the morning routine would not be a topic of discussion.

For the first time in over a year someone's reaction to Heero's scar was not considered as he issued an invitation. "Would you like to share the shower?"

"Can I trust you?"

Heero leaned closer, blue sparks flashed in his eyes. "I'll be a perfect gentleman."

*******

Steam hugged the walls and fogged the bathroom mirror. Twin silhouettes encased in misty vapors moved behind the shower curtain. True to his word Heero demonstrated proper decorum and thus earned the privilege to help wash Duo's hair.

Heero stood behind Duo and took great care with the shampooing. Duo backed into the shower spray and rinsed. Of course this maneuver gave Heero an excellent view of both Duo's frontal and rear attributes. The trustworthy agent then followed up with a generous amount of conditioner and the rinsing process was repeated.

But to Heero's surprise it was Duo who proved to be cunning. Squeezing out a large dollop of shower gel the freshly shampooed man rubbed the soap into a lather and smeared frothy bubbles all over Heero's chest.

Although drenched in pleasantly warm water a slight shiver tingled through Heero's body and in spite of the increased humidity goose bumps popped up on his skin. Duo's flattened palms moved in compact circles, his slick fingertips made a point to trace over first one nipple then the other until both nubs became rigid.

Opposite of Heero's adherence to his promised gentlemanly behavior Duo made no pretense of his lustful intentions as he turned his attention to his own chest. His hands followed the same patterns but he let them explore further over his stomach stopping just short of his rapidly rising manhood.

Heero stood motionless transfixed by Duo's wandering hands, his eyes were held spellbound by the sensuous scene unfolding before him. With a glimmer of violet Duo locked his sight on Heero's face and studied his reaction. "Do you like what you see?" he purred stilling his hands to gauge the change in Heero's _expression.

All Heero could do was nod "yes" and swallow the lump in his throat.

"Then you will enjoy this." Duo declared. He stepped closer, wrapped his arms around Heero's waist and decreased the distance until his and Heero's bodies were pressed together. Using the soap's lubrication to his advantage Duo moved against Heero's equally slippery skin.

Even devoid of the usual friction Heero quickly became hard. He closed his eyes savoring the sensation of skin against skin. Then his eyes opened with a start and a hiss of air punctuated his surprise as Duo's hands slid down his back and cupped under his ass.

01 was held hostage by gripping hands on his trim buttock and a fully aroused penis on his front. Duo guided Heero backward until the wet, warm tile wall met his back. Now there was no escape but Heero wasn't certain that he wanted to flee from the overwhelmingly powerful urges pelting him like rain during a thunderstorm.

Duo raised up and captured Heero's slightly trembling lips. The kiss was forceful and demanding and the grinding of manhood on manhood added fuel to the fire. Heero slipped his arms over Duo's shoulders and answered the kiss with feverish reciprocation.

"Hummm." Duo's lips vibrated against Heero's lips before breaking the kiss that left the Japanese agent breathless. Heero's legs became wobbly causing him to use the wall and his grasp around Duo's shoulders for additional support.

There was a devilish gleam in Duo's eyes that clearly showed his intension to take the foreplay to the next level. His tongue flickered over his lips and his enlarged member twitched in anticipation.

Heero lost his virginity long ago and had engaged in many sexual encounters with women and a few with men but he had never been brought so close to pure ecstasy as he was right now. This was not merely going through the motions for duty's sake or an exercise in stress relief. Now his heart hammered, his knees were weak and labored breaths pounded in his chest.

Suddenly Heero experienced something as near to having an attack of conscience as he had in a long time. He was not questioning the ethics of Duo's copulative connotations and he certainly had not turned into a saint but this time something was different.

This time Heero actually cared about Duo's feelings. This time...he didn't want sex with empty emotions that was ruled by animal instincts. "Duo wait." he begged pushing to put some distant between him and the beautiful man.

Heero had to think and he couldn't make his brain cooperate as long as his blood supply was rerouted to his lower regions. With a shaky sigh he raked wet hair from his eyes then sucked in a centering breath.

A mixture of puzzlement and disappointment showed on Duo's face but he made no attempt to encourage Heero by any additional actions. "What's wrong?"

Heero opened his mouth then closed it. He didn't know what to say or how to explain his shift in attitude from willing desire to confusing compassion. His mind raced to put his feelings into understandable language but how could he express emotions in words?

He debated whether to use a chaste kiss to tell Duo how he felt but that would be even more bewildering. No, sending mixed signals was not the answered. "I'm sorry." was all he could offer in explanation.

Duo tilted his head and took a moment to study Heero's face. There was sadness in Agent 01's eyes that was perplexing. Duo had only been with Heero for three days but he had already witnessed the IPB agent's resolve and fearlessness in the face of danger. Heero had not hesitated to kill in self-defense and there was no doubt that he could take out a target without remorse if the mission dictated such an action.

"Tell me what's wrong." Duo insisted then added to the urging by gently stoking Heero's arm.

Heero slumped against the wall then slid down until he was sitting on the shower floor. Duo turned off the stinging spray and squatted down in front of Heero. "Tell me."

"As much as I want to love you it's not fair." was Heero's odd reply.

"Fair?" Duo questioned, "If we want the same thing how can it not be fair?"

Heero gazed up and tears joined the moisture on his cheeks. "I don't know what will happen when we get to the lodge. I can't promise that I will survive this mission. I can't promise..."A heavy sigh interrupted the words. "promise you a future with me."

Duo ran his finger lightly down Heero's cheek and let it linger on his chin. "The past is gone and the future is beyond our control, the only thing we have is the present." He lifted Heero's face until he could look lovingly into shimmering cobalt eyes. "Just promise me this moment, that's all I want."

"Would you hate me if I asked you to wait?"

Duo leaned closer and placed a brushing kiss on Heero's quivering lips. "I could never hate you. I don't know if what I am feeling now is love but I do know that I care for you and your happiness. If you want me to wait I will for as long as it takes you to be comfortable."

Heero choked back a renewed urge to cry. "Thank you for your understanding. I promise I won't make you wait too long."

"We will not speak of this again until you are ready." Duo answered then sealed the promise with his own consoling kiss. "I'm going to get dressed and braid my hair then fix a decent breakfast. You take your time and join me when you're ready."

Duo stepped out of the shower, put on a cotton robe, wrapped a towel around his hair and handed a second robe to Heero. With an empathic nod he closed the door and left Heero to ponder his place in Duo Maxwell's life.

********

Heero Yuy, Agent 01. 0...zero...the sum of nothing. 1...single...solitary...alone.

Heero huddled on the shower floor like a child lost in the darkness. The robe creased as he hands curled around the white material and the soft fabric muffled his sobs as he gave up his solitary charade that he didn't need anyone else.

Over Heero's many years with the International Preventer Bureau he had purposely chose to be alone. He wanted it that way or so he believed, then it made sense. By himself he didn't have to acknowledge his feelings. Alone he could do his duty without being concerned for another person's safety or happiness. He could guard his heart from the entanglements of love and use sex for nothing more than a few hours of distraction.

Now Heero's singularity was being challenged, his unaccompanied concerns for self suddenly seemed so selfish. "Damn you Duo." he cursed the man who had turned his entire world upside down.

But Heero knew that the blame for his weakness rested solely with him. It was his fault that he had allowed Duo sway over his carefully guarded emotions. He had no one but himself to blame for the bittersweet pain that ached in his heart or the fact that he didn't want that pain to go away. After so many years he finally felt something besides utter bareness in his soul.

"Duo why did you force me feel? Why after so long?"

Pulling on the robe 01 wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and steeled his emotions. He promised Duo that he would soon decided if he was willing to surrender his heart but first the present assignment called for his undivided attention. If he and his fellow agents failed to plan properly, the mission would also fail then his and Duo's future could very well be decided for them.

********

Heero braced his hands on the sink and stared into the mirror. The bruises on his face had begun to fade. The injection site on his arm was still tender but the swelling had gone down leaving behind a tattletale puncture mark and reddish discoloration.

"I'm getting too old for this shit." he thought. But then he reckoned that the odds of reaching retirement age probably wouldn't improve anytime soon.

Dark stubble made Heero look rougher around the edges than usual and dark circles gave him a worn appearance. "You really are pathetic." he mumbled before spreading on an even coat of shaving gel.

A razor made quick work of his emerging beard. As Heero rinsed off the razor he wondered what he would look like with a beard. Once he had started a mustache but the growing out stage was so itchy that he gave up after a week. Clean shaven...yeah that was the way to go.

While Heero dressed in the bedroom tempting aromas wafted from the kitchen. Coffee was the predominate smell but he couldn't quite identify the rest. He combed his hair and grinned because he knew the combing was an exercise in futility. No matter what his style his hair had a mind of its own.

Duo turned from the stove and smiled. Heero, wearing black trousers and a sweater in soft gray hues, looked more confident and certainly more at ease. Duo had donned navy trousers and a light blue pullover shirt that complimented his eyes.

"Sit down." Duo motioned to a chair. "Drink this." he ordered handing Heero a large glass of orange juice.

Duo set a glass of juice at his place and poured two cups of coffee. Cheesy omelets the size of the plates were the main course. A plate of toast rounded out the balanced meal.

"Be careful the eggs are hot." Duo cautioned then blew on a forkful to emphasis his warning.

Heero laced his fingers through the coffee cup's handle to steady the slight quiver in his hands. The steam felt good against his lips as he tested the heat level with a careful sip.

"This looks good, I didn't know you could cook." he praised Duo's culinary efforts.

Duo buttered his toast. "I can't fix anything fancy but I have mastered eggs."

Heero took a moment to savor the omelet. "You can cook for me anytime."

Duo laid his hand on Heero's hand. "I would like that very much but let's get through your assignment then we will discuss my gastronomic genius."

********

"Duo Maxwell this is Quatre Winner and Trowa Barton." Heero made the introductions. "You remember Wufei." he added with a grin. Handshakes were exchanged then the IPB quartet and their new ally started their strategy session.

Heero debriefed. He detailed the previous night's events, including the "accident" used to cover up the sentry's downfall. He supplied rough renderings of the lodge's exterior and a crude outline roughly representing the grounds, complete with the infamous grassy clearing. Roads leading in and out were more clearly defined but only suppositions could be made concerning the building's internal layout. Finally he suggested the best insertion routes.

"If what happened last night makes Dorothy or Carter edgy, if they believe that security has been breached they may decide to move up the shipping schedule." Heero stated.

Wufei nodded in agreement. "We go tonight."

Quatre came down of the side of caution. "I understand your reasons but if they don't buy into the accident idea the entire place will be locked down."

"Dorothy has already set up a meeting with Hoffman and that will be the only time that all the players will be in the same place. If we want to eliminate the jackals it has to be tonight." Heero insisted.

"We have no manpower estimation." Trowa declared, "If we go tonight we won't have enough time to arrange for backup."

Heero stuck to his convictions, "The lodge sits on a hill with an unobstructed view in all directions. A large squad will be too easily spotted no matter how careful the approach. It would be next to impossible to hide a standard team. No, too many people will just get in the way."

Throughout the tactic debate Duo had remained silence. He knew the agents were trained in such matters and were better qualified to make decisions but the had to wonder if there was a safer way. "Why couldn't you send in helicopters armed with missiles and level the place." he offered an alternative solution.

As usual Wufei's reply was based solely on logic. "If we were certain all the blueprints and working specifications were at the lodge that idea would be practical. I don't think that Carter is foolish enough to run the operation without backup copies kept somewhere else. If we don't have everything then he could just set up at another location and start over again.

We need to get one of the disruptor's control units. The men at the Bureau's lab can pull it apart, see what make it ticks. If they know how it works they can develop a counter-device."

Duo couldn't argue with the Lone Dragon's logic. Still he felt that the operation was more than a small team could handle alone. "I don't know." he replied, "the idea of us against the world sounds a little crazy to me."

Trowa offered one of his rare smiles, "We've been called crazy before."

Quatre picked up Wufei's train of thought. "The trick will be finding one of the disruptors since none of us has seen one."

"That's why Duo is going along." Heero announced.

Wufei didn't mince words, "A civilian and a green one at that." he declared, "The risk factor is too high."

Heero came to Duo's defense, "Duo is the only person who knows what the control unit looks like. Once we are inside we won't have the luxury of unlimited search time, we don't have another option."

"Maxwell will be your responsibility." Wufei stated reverting back to the use of Duo's last name for emphasis.

Duo scowled at the Chinese agent, "I can take care of myself. You worry about your ass and I'll worry about mine."

Heero held up his hand to cut off any further heated exchanges. "We don't have time for bickering. We are a team so let's act like one. The mission is set for tonight. We will assemble here at nineteen hundred hours. Any questions?" When no additional discussions were forthcoming 01 adjourned the session.

*********

"Looks like rain." Duo commented as he stood by the bedroom window.

Heero had decided that a quiet afternoon and a hot meal at the safe house would be their best mission preparations. He squinted up at the gray clouds looming over the mountains. "A solid cloud cover will hide our activities at the lodge." he stated matter-of-factly.

Duo fought off a shudder, "I don't want to think about that awful place."

"I don't have a choice. If something isn't done about the disruptors the whole world will suffer."

"We all have choices." Duo stated resting his shoulder against the window frame. He closed his eyes to hold back the tears. "I don't care about the world I care about you."

Heero stepped up, braced his hand on the wall and leaned closer. "There is more at stake than what you or I want." A trace of sadness tempered his reminder. "Besides I thought you needed to know what happened to your friend."

"I do but storming the lodge is too dangerous."

"Some things are worth fighting for."

"Is this mission worth your life?" Duo hissed feeling helpless to stop the madness.

Heero knew the risks. Sooner or later every field operative had to make decisions without regard to their safety or their lives. As he reached for Duo's hand, an unexpected peacefulness attended his next statement. "Some things are worth dying for."

Duo jerked away. His eyes hardened under their watery glaze. "We both know what Robert was investigating and why he disappeared. We both know that he's..." His hand went to his lips to stop their quivering. Despondent tears flowed freely.

Heero pulled Duo into a consoling embrace. Duo buried his face in Heero's chest and clung to him like a lifeline. "Damn them all to hell." he mumbled as salty droplets dampened Heero's shirt.

Discouragement and anger had been bottled up too long. Duo needed to cry, too weep out all his pain. Heero wished that he could make everything all right but he knew, at that moment, nothing could cure Duo's heartache but cleansing tears. He curved his hand behind Duo's head, stoked his silken hair and simply let him cry.

When the tears had finally run their course, when the uncontrollable trembling had given way to catching sobs, Heero put his thumb under Duo's chin and lifted his swollen eye to meet his. "We need each other to get through this." he whispered letting his fingers trace the tear's tracks.

Duo nodded as he gazed up into twin pools of cobalt blue. Heero's mouth closed over Duo's lips and he tightened their entwined embrace. The kiss was gentle without a hint of any expectation other than comfort.

When the kiss ended a worn smile replaced Duo's tears. "I still think this whole damned mission is insane." he announced before leaving the window and flopping down on the bed.

Heero sat by down beside his newly established partner. "You're drained. Why don't you take a nap?" he suggested. "I'll tend to dinner."

"Will you stay until I fall asleep?"

Curled up against Heero's chest, Duo finally surrendered to serene slumber. Outside the cloud-shrouded sky had darkened the afternoon and encouraged evening to come earlier than it should. Inside dusky shadows were soothing and light rain tapping on the windowpanes was the only sound.

Reluctantly Heero eased off the bed. As though Duo missed the contact he sighed and shifted in his sleep but settled down when Heero spread a coverlet over him.

Standing by the window Heero studied his rain-warped reflection. The flame from his lighter momentarily cast a yellow glow across the glass then the weeping panes once again converted back to their damp dinginess.

Cigarette smoke drifted in no particular fashion. Heero continued his silent contemplation. An occasional wind gust splattered the droplets adding another layer of distortion.

"Wait a little longer." Heero whispered glancing back at Duo's sleep form.

 

Part Fifteen: Treasure Hunting

The rain had stopped but a smooth cloud cover conveniently veiled the moon. The moisture-laden forest rose up like a woody canyon and the trees, their gnarly branches entwining overhead, resembled skeletal sentries.

Tires crunched on a gravel side road barely disturbing the night's stillness. Under its own momentum a Range Rover, headlights and engine switched off, rolled around the last curve and drifted to a stop. Several low pine boughs helped hide most of the vehicle; the darkness would have to conceal the rest. Since the lesser-used path was too narrow to accommodate larger trucks Heero hoped that it would remain void of traffic.

Six black-clad figures grouped together at the road's edge. The variety of weapons in the spies' extensive arsenal addressed each person's defense preferences. The standard regulation Walther and a handful of six-pointed throwing stars were Wufei's weapons of choice.

Quatre, too, favored the Walther but strapped a sheathed dirk(1)to his outer thigh as added security. Trowa checked the clip on his Colt .45 then further shored up his protection with steel bladed throwing knives.

The contents of Howard's briefcase were also put to good use. Dart pens, darts and extra ammunition clips were dispensed along with a hefty amount of C4 plastic explosives and fuses. Lastly everyone was fitted with communication headsets.

Heero shoved the oblong case in his jacket's front pocket. His Beretta already rested snuggly against his back. With a sly smile he slipped the Walther into the holster on his chest. Yes...Howard was finally getting his way.

Throughout the team's preparations Duo leaned his hip against the Rover's fender and observed the "arming to the teeth" in stunned amazement. "It's a wonder you don't rattle." he commented to no one in particular.

In answer to Duo's remark Heero decided that the braided civilian should not be left out. "I want you to have this." A silver-plated Derringer rested in his flattened palm.

Duo stared at the miniature pistol but made no attempt to take it. "Here." Heero extended his hand.

"I really don't like guns." Duo insisted.

"I'd feel better if you had it."

Duo hesitated. Heero took Duo's hand, placed the small weapon in his grasp and folded his fingers firmly around the grip. "It's simple; here's the safety. At least put it in your pocket." he urged.

Even though Duo was not completely comfortable, he finally complied with 01's wishes. "Aren't you afraid I might accidentally shoot you?" he asked in all seriousness as a slight shiver ran down his spine.

Heero didn't seem the least bit worried. "Just don't point it in my direction."

A brief conference to coordinate last minute details then two teams started through the forest. Agents 05, 04 and 03 made up the alpha team. Their assignment was to make sure the disruptor shipments didn't leave the lodge. Heero and Duo would search for a control unit and any blue prints or computer records they could find.

Just before Wufei disappeared into the forest's gloomy fringes he glanced back over his shoulder "I still think you two need a chaperon." he called softly.

"I think Quatre and Trowa need one more than we do." Heero replied in a similarly hushed tone, "I've heard Quatre can be kinky as hell."

********

Duo kept a few steps behind Heero giving him room to maneuver along what could loosely be defined as a trail. Their rambling route was not as direct but it did bypass the grassy clearing. It wasn't that Heero wished to avoid bad memories but he reckoned that his recent activity might have cause increased observation to be put into force.

"Better to strike where the lodge's security is less vigilant." he thought as he ducked under a low-hanging branch. "Mind you head." he cautioned Duo.

Their journey ended where the tree line's shelter thinned out. From the pair's distant vantage point both the lodge's front entrance and the longer side section were perceptibly deceiving. The dim lighting combined with the absence of moonlight made a clear view difficult.

In this case, however, the diminished illumination was to 01's advantage and a distinct drawback to the lodge's employees but Heero had no delusions that the security inside was as sparse as the seemingly vacant landscape.

Hopefully in the short time span since Heero's pervious visit the previously purged guards had not been replaced but if he and Duo handled everything just right the remaining watchers could be dealt with. If not then the exact personnel count wouldn't matter anyway.

At Heero's silence hand signal he and Duo advanced quickly and settled quietly side by side behind a rocky outcrop. To their far left a jagged mountain peak erupted from the darkness. To their right the main gravel road snaked up the hill. Two cars crowded into the limited space by the lodge's front entrance.

Now Heero could see an indentation in the building's side. The recessed segment was lit by three low wattage bulbs mounted over wide double doors that were almost as tall as the wall. The extra width and height, no doubt, was needed for the trucks that Dorothy and Septum had talked about at Khushrenada Electronics.

"That must be the loading bay." Heero indicated with a nod.

He activated his headset. "05."

"Go ahead."

"Located your objective. West side, fifty feet. Beware of watchers."

"Affirmative."

Satisfied with alpha team's response 01 turned his attention to his phase of the mission. "Let's find the lab." Duo matched Heero's pace as they melted into the darkness.

********

Three stealthy silhouettes inched through a stand of white pines until an unobstructed view was presented for their scrutiny. Indistinct noises, muffled by the lodge's thick walls, floated on the stiff breeze blowing down the hill. Vague voices also followed the chilly currents to the agents' lower location.

Five well-armed men milled about outside. The sentries' distant conversations were muffled but Wufei could understand enough to know that the words were spoken in German

It was evident by the guards' slack posture and generally easy manner that they were maintaining a poor level of vigilance. Perhaps Catalonia or Carter or whoever was running the show believed Heero's "accident" or perhaps they had unrealistic confidence in the obviously untrained squad.

But whatever the reason the IPB agents were going to take every advantage of the lax indifference. The trespassing trio skirted the tree line then crouched in the moonless shadows like tigers stalking their prey.

The Lone Dragon's ebony eyes studied the lazy watchers then refocused on Quatre. "Can you whistle?"

"Can I...what?" Quatre asked not certain that he understood the whispered question.

"Whistle."

04 cut his eyes at Trowa who merely shrugged in reply. "Yes I can. Why?" he wondered even more certain that he might not like the answer.

Kneeling together in the dimly reflected light instructions were exchanged. Quatre's lips stretched into a smile then he and Trowa noiselessly slipped away.

Wufei pulled out his pen and three yellow-tipped darts leaving two in reserve. Heero's account of the sedative's successful testing on the dog at Khushrenada Electronics left no doubt of its identical effectiveness on Homo Sapiens. Loading one dart he transferred the rest to his other hand.

Under the circumstances the darts were the only way to assure a silent strike, the only alternative to keep the spies' outnumbered and outgunned odds as even as possible.

Like a ghost the Chinese agent slipped through the underbrush without disturbing a single leaf and moved as close to the border as the natural camouflage allowed. Counting down the progressing seconds Wufei hoped that he, Trowa and Quatre were synchronized in their calculations.

Right on time a high-pitched whistle pierced the breeze. A guard standing by the double doors raised a quieting hand and aimed an inquiring ear toward the forest. The shrill call sounded again catching the other watchers' attention as well.

More curious than cautious one brown uniformed guard left the protective sanctuary of the group. Wufei kept a parallel course matching the sentry's speed and movements. The relocation gave him a plain view of the swarthy man and the high-powered assault rifle held against his chest.

05 swore under his breath knowing that the rifle's firepower could easily reach his fellow spies' position without the man coming within the dart's scope. He could only hope that inquisitiveness would overrule sensibility pressing the guard's continued encroachment into the dragon's den.

"Stay down." Wufei mentally projected the warning. He didn't dare use his communicator for fear of being overheard.

With an unexpected pause the gunman pivoted sideways. His eyes narrowed probing the border just beyond where Wufei squatted in night-shrouded obscurity. Angling the rifle away from the forest fringes the guard started off in the opposite direction from 05.

Once more Wufei sent out cerebral commands to turn the straying man around. "Come on you son of a bitch." he mumbled lowly.

A second sudden stop was not in response to Wufei's telepathic urging but to a perfectly executed wolf-whistle. The man tiled his head at an inquiring angle. A perplexed expression that poised somewhere between skepticism and bewilderment contorted his face. From a bushy thicket ten feet from Wufei's hiding spot a silky black shirt dangled seductively on the end of a slender index finger.

One had to admit it was highly unusual to see the phantom garment waving about like a flag and Wufei was certain that the guard had to be questioning the correctness of his eyesight or the soundness of his mind or any number of sensory malfunctions.

But the baffled bastard's thought process didn't matter to Wufei...all he was concerned about was that the display of discarded clothing was getting the job done in short order. Curiosity was indeed winning out. The rifle drooped in the man's hands as he moved in for a closer inspection.

An amber-tipped projectile zipped through the air with a muted whine expertly hitting its mark on the guard's neck. Without a sound the man dropped like a stone. His surprised facial aspect was still fixed in place as Wufei dragged the inanimate body into the thick shrubbery.

Unfortunately it didn't take long for the fallen sentry's comrades to notice his vanishing from sight. Two uniformed men headed downhill retracing the first man's inquisitive path. Midway the pair split up. One kept a straightway line to the forest, the other walked along the building surveying the shadowy nooks and crannies created by the irregular lighting.

As the next man yielded to the fashion temptation 05 copied his downward course. Soon the tangled undergrowth concealed another limp body. Wufei decided that two with the same trick was sufficient and that trying for a third would be tempting the fates. Besides the rest of the watchers didn't seem brave enough to venture too far from the lodge's security.

Slinking through the trees Wufei quickly joined his counterparts. Quatre hadn't had time to fully redress and his unbuttoned shirt bared his muscular chest. Wufei grinned not bothering to hide his interest. "You know," he stated in a husky tone, "you could have lured the entire squad if you had performed a striptease."

"Really?" Quatre replied. He buttoned up and tucked in the hem. "You know I usually don't make a habit of waving my clothes at strangers but the next time a similar situation arises I'll try to remember your advice."

Trowa wrapped his arm around his lover's shoulders and pulled him closer. "The only person you'll be undressing for is me." he ordered then established his authority with a passionate kiss.

Wufei rolled his eyes at the public display of affection. "You can snog after the mission." He reloaded the pen. "Let's eliminate the rest of these bastards and see to the shipment."

The lone guard, made uneasy by his comrades' mysterious disappearance, hastily rejoined the pair by the double doors. The remaining trio, consumed with many unanswered questions, engaged in an animated conversation accented with twisting heads and pointing fingers.

No doubt the debate centered on whether to stay outside where they might also fall victim to the invisible creature that had snatched their fellow squad members or to abandoned their post and seek reinforcements inside the lodge.

But whatever the worried watchers' conclusions the IPB spies had decided to waste no more time setting up another diversion. The guards were outside, alone and that was where they were going to stay. No, the straightforward method of pest removal would be employed.

Blurred outlines dashed from cover to cover. The rapid relocation brought Wufei, Trowa and Quatre within fifteen feet of the quarreling guards. Three consecutive darts laid out one man after the other. Each spy gathered up one target and made quick work of hiding him away.

********

A single door further down the building's side offered the easiest entry. Wufei took out his throwing stars, Trowa his knives and Quatre unsheathed his dirk. Firing their pistols would be the last resort, as they had no wish to draw attention to their unlawful insertion.

Wufei stood to one side with his hand on the doorknob. Quatre and Trowa scanned in opposite directions for any patrolling personnel. The door cracked back a fraction of an inch. Everyone held their breaths in anticipation of an alarm but silence was the only reply to their intended intrusion. They waited, listened then collectively peered into the room's dimly lit interior.

Alongside an elevated platform four quarter-ton trucks lined up bumper to bumper. The lack of crates or other containers told the agents that the trucks had most likely already been loaded.

Even the agents' softest footsteps echoed eerily throughout the bay's vast, almost vacant, expanse. Chilled dampness flowed from the stone walls and overhead a current of stale air whined through a ventilation shaft. A round hole in the opposite wall housed a wobbly fan that turned in halting fits as the intermittent draft struck the rusty blades.

The fan's poor circulation failed to discharge the musty odors of moldy stone and accumulated dust causing Quatre to wrinkle his nose in disapproval. "Remind me to call housekeeping and register a complaint."

Coming around the last truck's end Wufei unlatched the rear door. "Let's see what we have."

Hinges groaned in protest then caught with a grinding screech. The shrill reverberations set Wufei's nerves on edge. He frowned at the door's uncooperativeness and cursed lowly before a harder tug accomplished his goal.

Cartons stamped with the Khushrenada Electronics logo filled the space from floor to ceiling. Balancing on the bumper 05 laid his throwing stars within easy reach. He picked out a box, tore back the sealing tape and pulled up the freed flap to reveal stacks of standard design circuit boards.

Trowa shook his head negatively. "Those are common switching plates." he stated with disappointment. The next box yielded the same contents. "We have to be on the right track," 03 declared, "there is too much evidence in our favor."

"We are right." Quatre replied to his partner's anxious statement. His inner voice was speaking clearly and his gut feelings were too strong to ignore. "Keep looking."

Removing a few front boxes Wufei discovered a row of rectangle wooden crates. Using the point of a throwing star he popped loose metal staples holding the lid. With an extremely pleased grin he reached into the shredded packing material and extracted a fully assembled disruptor with all internal wiring intact.

"That's it!" Quatre exclaimed fighting the urge to shout with excitement then shook his head in disbelief. "I can't believe Carter is sending out the disruptors with a regular shipment."

"Often the most obvious way is overlooked." 05 declared from experience.

Trowa pulled out another disruptor and turned the deadly device over in his hand. "Damn this doesn't look dangerous."

"The smallest viper can deliver a lethal strike." Wufei repeated one his elder sensei's favorite lessons.

Quatre nodded in agreement. "A single grain of sand can kill if propelled with enough force."

One disruptor was slipped into Wufei's backpack. The second was returned to the carte, the lid sealed and the truck door secured to hide the thievery. "Whatever happens," Wufei announced, using his supple fingers to soften a lump of C4 plastic explosives into a pliable piece, "these trucks are not leaving tonight."

While Wufei molded a long string of C4 along the seam where the platform's wall met the floor, Trowa pressed a length of wire into the explosive line. At the end he attached an electronic firing fuse.

Quatre uncoiled the thin metal wire running from the fuse and carefully guided the almost invisible strand from the platform, under the lead truck's bumper and tied it to a conveniently placed eyebolt protruding from the opposite wall. If the trucks were moved or if someone tampered with the wire the trigger would be tripped and it would be over in a heartbeat.

"All set." Quatre stated as took Trowa's offered hand and was pulled back on the platform.

Wufei took one final moment to review his fatal handiwork. "We'd better not tempt the fates any longer."

Like wisps of smoke the spies slipped through the outer door and evaporated into the shadows. When they were again concealed in the forest's shadowy seclusion 05, 03 and 04 knelt side by side.

Wufei activated his headset. Static hissed through the opened channel. "01." He waited, the unbroken static hissed louder. "01, do you copy?"

"Dammit," 05 cursed the uncooperative equipment, "I told the techs that these things wouldn't work in this hilly terrain."

"Maybe Heero turned his unit off." Quatre offered a possibly explanation.

Wufei snorted, "The reason doesn't matter now. All we can do is wait."

In the surrounding silence that was only disturbed by the wind, Wufei, Quatre and Trowa knew that before the sunrise the mission would be over. But they also knew that Heero and Duo were still inside the ticking time bomb and that 01 and his civilian companion no longer had control over the fates or whatever destiny ruled their lives.

"Heero find what you need and get the hell out." Wufei whispered into the unforgiving darkness.

Holding Trowa's hand Quatre closed his eyes and lifted up a prayer to Allah for his comrades' safe return.

(1) Dirk--a dagger with a medium length blade

 

Part Sixteen: Honor among Thieves?

Heero pressed the Beretta to his chest and dared a quick peek around the corner. A nod of his head started he and Duo down the connecting corridor. Their footsteps tapped on the dusty tile floor. Their shadows rippled along the unfinished walls that had obviously been abandoned when the construction funds ran out.

Heero's hand tightened on the automatic pistol and his eyes constantly scanned the dim hallway's vacancy. There were no rooms on either side, no place to hide. The lack of suitable cover did not suit Agent 01 but he and Duo had little choice but to continue.

At the narrow passage's end a paint-worn wooden door was the only exit. Heero eased it opened and again took a quick look. "Stay close." he ordered to his civilian counterpart.

A brighter, better-maintained hall stretched out some fifty feet ahead. The improved state told Heero that he was heading in the right direction but it also meant the possibility of increased activity and more opportunity for detection. A steady hum, probably from electrical equipment, confirmed the close vicinity of the enemy and reaffirmed the danger.

Duo grabbed Heero's jacket sleeve, "Aren't we heading the wrong way?" he wondered. In the emptiness his whispered question bounced off the walls. He glance nervously over his shoulder down the hall, "Wufei has the explosives set by now and soon this entire place will be history."

"I know but we need to find the lab."

"Why?"

Heero paused in mid-stride and locked his sight on Duo."We still need a control unit in case all the disruptors aren't here. We can't be assured that leveling the lodge will put an end to the threat."

Duo sighed. Heero was right they couldn't assume anything. He also knew that when Heero made up his mind there wasn't any point in arguing with him. "All right let's find the lab."

Two more turns...one to the right, the next to the left. Duo hoped that Heero was making a mental map of their deeper invasion into the lodge because he sure as hell didn't want to get lost.

A window set flush in the wall caught Heero's attention. Using his sleeve he wiped off a patch of dusty film large enough to see inside. "I think this is it." An adjacent rust-blotched metal door was the logical entry point but there was a problem. This time the "universal key" was useless.

Instead of a standard, conventional lock the door was protected by an encoded keypad and most likely backed up by an alarm. Heero studied the pad...ten numbers, thousands of combinations. Carefully he ran his finger around the outside casing but found no exposed wires or connection points only a flat feeder cable extending from the bottom.

"There has to be a way to bypass the system without activating the alarm." Heero muttered as he continued his examination. He certainly didn't want the security force along with every other undesirable person in the place alerted to his and Duo's unlawful presence.

Finally Heero stepped back and nodded at the problem pad. "You're supposed to be the electronic expert."

Duo raised an eyebrow in response then a slight grin tugged at his mouth. "What's wrong spy boy are you stumped?" The grin grew wider.

"Can you do something or not?"

Letting his fingers slid along the cable Duo followed its path down the wall. "Since this system had to be added later." he reasoned aloud. His fingers moved sideways, traced parallel to the floor for about ten feet then stopped where the wiring disappeared into a base plate.

As Duo reached into his jacket pocket his hand brushed over the Derringer. The fleeting contact sent a chill through his fingers. Ignoring the tingling contact he unzipped a long pouch, extracted a small screwdriver and undid the plate's cover.

Inside the cable divided into four colored wires that were twisted together then connected to two breaker switches. "The trick is to disconnect the correct set of wires." he announced without a hint of apprehension.

Heero already knew the answer to his next question but he asked anyway. "And if you're wrong?"

"Then we'll have unwanted company."

After taking a few minutes to study the cable's multi-color quartet, moments that seemed to stretch on forever, Duo selected the green and the yellow wires and pinched them between his thumb and forefinger. He cut his eyes up at Heero who had no choice but to trust his electrical knowledge.

Receiving a "go-ahead" nod from the Japanese agent Duo sucked in a steadying breath, then let the expelled air carried away a bit of tension. He shut his eyes in anticipation of an activated alarm if he had chosen wrong then gave the gathered wires a sharp tug.

Blue sparks cascaded onto the floor and bounced in a bright starburst display before fizzling out. The keypad sizzled then a muffled pop spewed out another shower of sparks. Mercifully silence replaced the sizzle and the door slid smoothly aside.

Duo raised both eyebrows and gave Heero a smug smile. "No problem." He couldn't help but engaged in some good-natured bragging. "Needed me after all, didn't you?"

Heero quickly came to his own defense, "I would have figured out eventually."

"Ah did I fuck up your ego?"

"Don't make references to fucking if you don't intend to follow through with your promises." Heero replied in a husky tone that caused Duo's manhood to twitch.

Duo leaned closer and lowered his voice to the same breathy pitch. "When this is over I'll show you how I keep promises." he declared then swiped his tongue over Heero's lips to emphasis the point.

*******

"I was hoping to find specifications or blueprints as well as a control unit." Heero stated as he surveyed the lab's totally gutted interior.

"Yeah looks like Dorothy and Carter were planning to leave as soon as they meet with Hoffman." Duo replied as he wandered among the evidence of the bad guys' imminent departure.

Most of the equipment had been packed away. Six or seven sealed boxes covered the floor's center. Dorothy's now infamous computer sat off to itself. Its blank monitor screen mockingly mirrored Duo's reflection.

"How ironic," Duo thought to himself, "Dorothy put her trust in an inanimate object to guard her secrets and because of human greed her plans had been betrayed."

"What do you think a disruptor looks like?" Heero asked examining a box imprinted with the Khushrenada Electronics logo.

"When the entire system is assembled I would guess it would be about the size of a laptop computer but it won't be worth a damn without the control unit."

Duo's eyes widened, "Do you think the disruptors are have already been loaded on the trucks? If the shipment leaves here do you know how much damage they would cause?"

Heero knew the grave meaning. He knew of the destruction and misery. He also knew if Wufei, Quatre and Trowa had completed their phase of the mission that the trucks and their deadly cargo would be eliminated in a final, fiery blast.

Duo studied the glare of determination in Heero's eyes and suddenly he, too, knew that the end would come soon. His own instincts were telling him that time was short and prompting him to leave. "We have to go." he insisted, his tone reflecting his fear.

Heero thoughtfully considered Duo's request. He hated that they hadn't found a control unit or blueprints. He hated the implications that the disruptors could still rear their ugly heads at some future date.

He had no doubts that his fellow agents had done their duty, that the loading bay could blow at any time or that the explosion would probably swallow up a large part of the lodge in its blazing consumption. But he couldn't leave, not without completing one final mission, not for the Bureau but for himself.

"I can't leave." he proclaimed knowing that Septum was still stalking about the lodge.

"What! Why not?" Duo dared to raise his voice, "You are insane, now I'm sure."

"I have personal business but I will make sure you get out and back to the forest's safety." Heero promised.

Duo shook his head so hard that his braid whipped over his shoulder. "It's Septum. It's that fucking vendetta again. Don't you care about me at all?"

"I care that's why I'll get you out before I do what I have to do." Heero reasoned with his usual logic.

Duo took Heero shoulders, tightened his grip and gave them a sturdy shake. "You're a damn fool, Heero Yuy. Don't you realize I can't lose you now? Don't you know that I...."

Duo fingers slipped free. His body trembled as much from rage as from fear. "I love you." he whispered so lowly that Heero barely heard the heartfelt declaration.

Heero stood stunned. He couldn't move, couldn't think. It was as if all his training had deserted him. "Love me?" he muttered in disbelief, believing that he must have misunderstood.

"Yes you bastard I love you." Duo blurted out over quivering lips. Tears tracked down his cheeks.

Heero's next actions were not spurred by duty but by an impulse stronger than anything he had ever experienced before. Without any thoughts of what was right or proper or of his mission obligation Agent 01 wrapped Duo in a comforting embrace. Then holding on as if his life depended upon the contact Heero allowed himself to weep.

"Please don't say you love me." Heero begged, "I'm not good enough for your love."

Duo pushed back against the embrace until he could look up into Heero's glistening eyes. "You are good enough for me. I want you the way you are. I promised you that I would wait until you were ready but you can't send me away. No, if you stay, I stay."

Heero stared back into twin pools of misty violet. "Don't force me to make you go."

Duo's eyes hardened beneath their watery glaze. "I would sooner die than live without you. The only way you will force me to leave is to kill me." Duo's tone, his absolute defiance left no room for misinterpretation. Duo Maxwell was not going anywhere.

"Please Duo this is something I have to do alone."

"No."

Now Heero was shaking from his own mixed emotions. He sucked in a breath, cocked back his fist and prepared to do the hardest thing that he had ever done. If he had to carry Duo's unconscious body back to his counterparts' care then that was how it was going to be.

Duo stood stiffly. His expression was fixed in resolve as if he dared Heero to hit him. Heero's bicep tightened, his fist quivered in midair. His targeted hand came forward but the intended blow was never delivered. Instead Heero's hand cupped behind Duo's head then he captured Duo's mouth in a searing kiss.

Heero poured all his passion into the demanding kiss, let a lifetime of loneliness and pain flowed through their united lips. He didn't want Duo to leave because he was afraid that his heart couldn't bear the severance. But how could he ask Duo to share his danger? Could he put the revenge that had haunted him for over a year aside or would it continue to eat away at his soul until he had nothing left to give Duo? Would one day resentment ruin their love?

Heero broke the kiss. Breathlessly he gazed at the one person who could give him the courage to let Septum go. "Let's leave now."

Duo gently brushed his fingers over Heero's kiss-reddened lips. "Don't do this for me, please, do it for yourself."

"I'm doing this for us." Heero answered sincerely. "You have given me a reason for living and I won't give that up for vengeance."

********

"When is Hoffman arriving?" Dorothy wondered as she watched Septum balance the point of a long, wicked knife on the desktop.

"Soon." he answered then twirled the blade back and forth between his fingers.

Dorothy checked her watch for the third or was it the fourth time? "I'll be glad when this is finished. Do you think Hoffman will deal?"

"I can't think of any reason he wouldn't. We have the only game in town; he has to deal with us." The blade flipped up and over, the handle coming to rest in Septum's hand. "What about Carter?" The polished steel flickered in the overhead lights adding a menacing gleam to the hired assassin's grin.

Dorothy wasn't comfortable with the way Septum played with his toy. She didn't at all like his fascination with anything long and sharp and she certainly didn't trust his anxiousness to use it. "As soon as the deal is set not before."

Septum glanced at the door. "Where is he anyway? How do you know he isn't off pulling a double cross?"

Dorothy's annoyed stare centered on Septum. "I have someone watching Carter, he's won't do anything without my knowledge."

Septum replaced the knife in a sheath attached to his belt. "I'm gong to the loading bay and wait for Hoffman. Maybe I'll run into Carter on the way." There was an ominous tone to his voice that was disturbing.

"You stay clear of Carter, understand?" Dorothy warned, "It's still not too late to ruin everything. You bring Hoffman here; the sooner we settle this the better."

A thin-lipped sneer was Septum's only response.

Dorothy checked the time once more then lifted her arm and tapped a charm on her bracelet. She tilted her head and watched it swing from side to side and wondered if putting up with Septum was worth the irritation.

********

A length of lead pipe sent Paul Carter's watcher into a black void. He grabbed up the formerly loyal Khushrenada Electronics employee's pistol and pushed it in his belt far enough around to be hidden by his coat. He stuffed the limp body in a storage closet and started off for Ms. Catalonia's office.

Carter had become increasingly distrustful of Dorothy since she had brought in that self-proclaimed soldier of fortune...a mad mercenary was more Carter's description of Septum.

His misgivings grew stronger after Welige failed to pick up his ticket. He knew how anxious Marquis had been to leave and it wasn't like him to disappear without a word. Deep in his gut Carter knew something was terribly wrong. That was all the warning he needed.

Never mind his plans to cut his own deal with Hoffman. Even his bad judgment that had allowed Dorothy to involve Septum in the double-dealing alliance didn't matter any more. Carter decided it was time to look out for his own interests. The meeting with Hoffman was going to pay off even if it meant bargaining with the business end of a gun.

********

Traces of a dark substance was smeared along the hall in irregular patterns. The last sticky splotch ended at a partly opened door. "Don't step in the grease." Duo cautioned, sidestepping a tacky pool.

Heero leaned over for a closer look at the mysterious matter. "This isn't grease."

"Then what..." Duo began before Heero's silence signal told him to flatten along the wall.

Angling the Beretta across his chest Heero stood sideways on the door's latch side. He pushed with the toe of his boot expanding the crack between the edge and the doorframe then loosened his stance ready to drop into a defensive position at the first sign of motion.

Duo pressed against the door's hinged side and held his breath. Bit by bit the dim hall lights invaded the room chasing away the gloomy darkness. The improved brightness also pulled an oddly contorted outline into view.

A pair of legs, bent at the knees, impeded the door's progress. An arm was twisted backward and at its end a hand was washed over in a coagulated pool of blackened blood.

In Heero's many years as a field operative he had witnessed unimaginable scenes of death but the sight of a body so mangled that it no longer resemble anything human sent shock waves rolling through his insides. With a shaky intake of air he turned away from Welige's sightless eyes, fixed wide in terror, staring out of the shadows.

His curiosity peeked by Heero's strange reaction, Duo moved to peer inside. "Find anything interesting?" he asked over his partner's shoulder.

Heero quickly stepped back blocking Duo's view. "Don't." was all he could say.

Duo pressed further. "But why can't I..." His hand went to the mouth as a horrified gasp cut off his words. Color drained from his face. His legs became wobbly.

Afraid Duo might faint, Heero rushed to his side. "Easy now."

Leaning on the wall for support Duo shook uncontrollably. "I'm going to be sick." he mumbled as cold sweat beaded on his forehead.

"Duo look at me." Heero demanded to redirect Duo's attention from the sickening sight. "Take a deep breath," he instructed, "let it out slowly. Again. Keep looking at me."

Still trembling from shock, weakened by disbelief and pain, Duo buried his face in Heero's chest. Wrenching sobs shuddered through his body. "Marquis. No."

"Are you sure?" Heero hated to ask but he had to be sure that the horridly mutilated man was Marquis Welige.

"Yes." Duo answered, tears choking his reply. "I recognize his signet ring."

Fighting the dizzying hyperventilation Duo leaned back freeing his face for another deep breath. "Why?"

"I don't know." Heero replied truthfully. There was no reasons, no circumstances to ever warrant such an evil act. There were no words, none at all, strong enough to comfort Duo's shock and sorrow.

Then to Heero's surprise Duo straighten sharply. "Who could do such a despicable thing?" he hissed. His tone was hard, each syllable bitter with hatred. Now anger tempered his grief.

"He crossed the wrong people." Heero didn't see any point in softening his answer.

"How could this happen? Marquis was a good man. He had a promising future, so much to live for."

"People change." Heero stated once more being blunt with the truth. "I'd say that greed might have gotten the best of him"

01 knew that fact all to well. He had time and time again seen the ugly results when the desire for money made logical men maim and murder. He had seen counties brought to the brink of destruction by an unquenchable thirst for power.

Duo literally exploded. "Damn them all to hell! That whoring bitch...they all will suffer the retribution they deserve." he growled charging off in blind rage.

Heero caught his arm."Duo! Wait!"

Gritting his teeth Duo fought to free himself. "Let me go!"

Taking Duo firmly by the shoulders Heero made him listen. "As much as I want to stop Dorothy and Carter, to put an end to Hoffman's international network and send Septum to hell, we have to keep our wits together and not run off half-cocked." His eyes reflected an unyielding reassurance."We are going to get every one of them."

The emotional roller coaster ride finally took its toll. Duo went limp. Since his arrival in Montreux he had known in his heart that Robert Baines was dead. Now Marquis Welige had also fallen victim to that insatiability hunger called greed.

"You're right." he sighed. "I have to believe that justice will prevail."

Heero brushed damp bangs from Duo's puffy eyes then gently ran his fingers over his tear-streaked face. "I promise all this insanity will end tonight."

 

Part Seventeen: Reap What You Sow

"Where's Septum?" Paul Carter asked noticing that Dorothy was alone.

Dorothy's startled reaction affirmed his suspicions that she had given the order to have him followed. It also confirmed his reservations concerning his part in the upcoming meeting. He locked the door against unwanted interruptions. It was time for a full account.

Dorothy shifted in her chair trying to hide her surprise at Carter's unexpected appearance. "He's gone to the loading bay to meet Hoffman. They should be back any minute."

"Why do I have the feeling I wasn't to be included in your deal with the German?"

"As soon as Hoffman arrived I was going to send someone to find you."

"Is that why you were having me followed?" Carter sneered.

Dorothy opened her mouth to reply but Carter cut her off. "No more lies! I'm asking the questions now and I want the truth." he stepped forward then stopped a few feet from the desk. "Did you honestly think you could fool me as easily as Khushrenada? Did you believe I am that stupid?"

Dorothy's eyes flashed, "Treize Khushrenada deserves whatever happens to him and his precious business. I've put five years into this company. For the last two years I've virtually ran it while he flew all over the world partying and skiing or spending weeks on that damned sail boat.

"I've done all the work, took care of all the problems. Never once has that arrogant ass offered the praise my efforts merit or given proper acknowledgement or thanks. This year, ever since he starting whoring with Merquise, he hardly notices me at all."

Dorothy leaned forward, her voice tight with resentment. "He even had the nerve to take full credit for a multi-million dollar development agreement with the Colonial Shuttle Line that I personally handled from its conception until the signatures were penned on the contract.

So I decided that it was time I got something for myself. Don't you think it's amusing?" Her eyes brightened with satisfaction. "I used Treize's resources, his connections. Even the trucks sitting in the loading bay belong to him. I developed a system that makes anything else that Khushrenada Electronics ever produced outdated and obsolete and I did it right under his pompous nose."

Carter displayed a furrowed frown. "Then somewhere along the line you decided you didn't want to share the wealth with Septum or me." he stated hoarsely, "Remember, darling, you didn't put this plan together alone."

"Septum?" Dorothy laughed out loud, "I only brought him in for his muscle, to keep the workers in line. He'll get his promised percentage and that's all."

"Don't give me that shit." Carter declared, "The only person who's coming out on top in this deal is you. What were you planning to do let Septum get rid of me, then get rid of Septum and keep everything for yourself?"

Dorothy's temper flared to the boiling point. "You men are all alike, "she hissed through clenched teeth.

Below Carter's line of sight she slowly pulled back the desk drawer. "Men think that the whole world revolves around their whims and wishes." She reached inside the drawer, her hand closed around a small but deadly revolver. "Paul you are no better." she declared sliding her finger over the trigger.

"You think because you have a cock that you can work with Hoffman better than I can. Hell, you even thought you could set up a deal on the side. Yes, I know about the double cross you and Welige were planning."

Carter's eyes widened. "Marquis and I? How? Who told you?" he asked in rapid secession. Carter had a bad feeling something had indeed happened to Marquis and that same sinking feeling was telling him he could be the next person slated for a mysterious disappearance.

Nervously he glanced back through the door's glass panel expecting Hoffman and Septum to appear at any second. He swallowed to push down the dry lump caught in his throat. Secretively his hand slid under his coat.

Dorothy had come too far to lose now. The revolver's barrel rose over the desk's edge. The hollow end centered on its target, firm and steady. "How do I know about you and Marquis?" There was an unnaturally calm tone in her voice. "Why, darling, he told me just before he died."

The gun came forward aimed at Carter's blind side. As it cleared the desktop Dorothy's bracelet struck the side. The charms, each one marking a significant event in her life, clanged loudly in the tense silence. The jingle multiplied, its ringing in Carter's ears prompted him to pivot in place.

In the same instant Carter saw the revolver, the pistol sprang from his belt. A shot spilt the air with a shattering blast. The deafening bang reverberated through the room repeating its deadly burst then faded away into a fatal echo.

Dorothy's body sat upright. The motion wasn't a violent jerk, more of an altered displacement. Her arm when limp, her hand hit the desk dislodging the unfired gun. Then she slowly settled into a slumped recline as if she was merely resting. The only hint that something was wrong was the scarlet suffusion staining her blouse.

Carter went pale. Trembling hands covered his face. "Dorothy," he whispered as he fought the urge to be sick. "I never meant for it to end this way."

Carter wrapped his arms around his quivering body and closed his eyes. He remembered how Marquis Welige wanted out of the increasingly dangerous situation. He recalled how Marquis had come to his office terrified of Septum and begging him to intercede with Dorothy. When Carter talked to Dorothy he had only suggested that Marquis be watched. He never believed his colleague would be harmed, never dreamed he would be killed. Now Carter held himself responsible for two lives lost.

Suddenly panic replaced the remorse. Septum and Hoffman were surely on their way to the office and Carter knew that he couldn't be discovered there.

Knowing Septum's wicked nature Carter doubted that Dorothy's death would cause any concern. Septum would simply view her demise as one less person with which to share the spoils. But Carter was also positive that the murderous mercenary would not think twice about improving his earnings by eliminating one more partner in crime.

Now nothing matter but getting out alive. The deal...the money...nothing was more important than Carter's survival. He paused for one mournful glimpse of Dorothy's ashen face and the bright crimson seeping down her front. "I'm sorry." he sighed then unlocked the door and ran for his life.

********

A black limousine parked by the loading bay doors. Headlights went dark. Hoffman stepped inside and quickened his pace. The ever-present bodyguards followed after their boss.

Septum met the trio beside the first truck. "Herr Hoffman." he nodded to "The Fox".

"Is everything ready?" Hoffman inquired not wanting to waste any unnecessary time.

"Ready when you are."

"Where is Fraulein Catalonia?"

"Waiting in her office but something tells me she'll be waiting a long time." Septum declared stepping around the truck. His foot slipped under the bumper dangerously close to the explosive's trip wire. "She believes the meeting is set." he finished, moving away from the unseen trigger.

Hoffman walked along the truck casting a fleeting glance at the Khushrenada Electronics logo painted on the side. "I still think she and Carter should be out of the picture permanently, they both know too much."

"They know nothing." Septum growled, "Besides who can they go to when they find themselves as betrayed as Khushrenada? They can't tell anyone without having to explain their part.

Septum threw his head back and laughed, "My only regret is not being able to see the bitch's face when she finds out we made off with her property. I've sent for the drivers. It won't be long now."

Hoffman lit an expensive cigar. The blue smoke clung to the stale air. "Did you ever discover who was nosing around in Hamburg?" he wondered but only as an afterthought. The entire incident didn't seem important now, not so near to finalizing their plans.

"I tailed the man to the waterfront but he went into a tavern before I was able to clearly see his face." Septum answered with the same trivial attitude. "The guy met briefly with a local resident then they left together. I began to follow but a damn drunk got in my way. Later there were rumors about trouble on a tramp steamer but nothing was substantiated."

Hoffman blew out a wispy column of smoke that mingled with the cloud floating above his head. "My contact reported that an IPB agent named Heero Yuy was seen in Hamburg about the same time as your mysterious stranger."

An odd grin flickered over Septum's lips then he shook his head negatively. "Yuy? No, I killed him last year in Bolivia. It wasn't him unless your contacts have started seeing ghosts."

"First that reporter then the stranger in Hamburg and maybe a ghost but it makes no difference." Hoffman declared, "Neither the living nor the dead will stop us now."

Septum sighed impatiently and checked his watch. "Where are the drivers?"

********

The distant noise grew louder. The steady hum seemed to originate from a door at the corridor's end. Heero's right hand tightened on the Beretta, his left hand closed around the doorknob. Duo took his usual position on the hinged side, a move that was accomplished with practiced ease.

Dim light crept into the hall. The shaft widened as the door opened back. Keeping low Heero inched his head through the crack. A quick scan then a silence signal for Duo to follow. Once inside the chilly concrete room the agent and his partner found the source of the monotone drone.

Occupying most of the floor space, a large rectangle transformer sat beside metal stairs connected to a platform that rose twenty feet above the vibrating collection of electric circuits.

A wire mesh "cage" protected the high voltage machine. Six round insulated lines were attached to exposed conductors mounted on the side. A massive trunk cable snaked up from the transformer's top to two transfer boxes on the platform. At the room's opposite end a single square of light reflected across a narrow access hall.

Heero thought he heard voices but the transformer's din made it difficult to be sure. Side by side Heero and Duo made a dash for the stair's nearest side and took advantage of the limited cover.

From their shadowy location they could see a door at the hallway's end. "Shipping Bay" was imprinted in large red letters. "I think we have come full circle." Heero whispered, his voice barely heard over the constant hum. "Stay here." he ordered.

Duo nodded that he understood. 01 started forward. Duo crouched by the stairs feeling more anxious the further Heero move away. A loud pop caused Duo to jump.

The sound was surly a shot. Where it came from was unclear but it didn't seem to be directed at him or Heero. Then nothing, not another keen crack. No shouts, no voices raised in anger or alarm, just the steady hum of raw energy.

Heero dropped to one knee as the square of light wavered on the wall. The door suddenly burst opened. Paul Carter rushed forward so absorbed in his need to flee that he charged into the room's center before catching sight of Heero. In blind panic Carter's pistol discharged twice before he had time to aim properly. Heero rolled to his left dodging the wild shots. Both bullets traveled harmlessly over Heero's head. However, the solid projectiles' lofty flights ended in the transformer's heart.

A thousand brilliant points of energy and light flared up from the connectors. Wires sizzled; the stench of burnt circuits filled the air. A reddish glow brightened where the cable's connection had blown apart.

********

In the bay Septum and Hoffman noted the dimming lights. A backup generator counteracted the browning affect but the cause in the power drop remained a mystery.

"You two," Hoffman called to his bodyguards, "go see what's happening with the lights." he ordered.

Both burly men nodded "yes" and started off across the bay.

********

Spewing sparks forced Heero backward. Before he could recover his bearings Carter made a straightway path for the stairs. Heero sprang to his feet and caught up to Carter just as he started up the steps. He aimed the Beretta but the transformer's far corner shielded his intended target. Running around the massive machine that continued to belch out hot starbursts, Heero found that his upward gaze was fixed squarely at the pistol's hollow end.

Carter leaned over guardrail leveling the pistol's blackened barrel in line with the pursuing agent's head. Heero skidded to an abrupt halt. Ignoring the sparking and heat Heero flattened against the protective cage and did his best to become the smallest target possible. But at that close range, even with Carter's inexperience, Heero doubted that he would miss.

Every nerve ending tingled awaiting the pistol's report. Carter used a double-handed grip to steady his shot but the depressed trigger only produced a sharp click. Whether the weapon had run out of ammo or was jammed, it appeared that Agent 01 had been given a temporary reprieve.

Carter pulled the trigger again in a vain attempt to correct the misfire. Again the hollow click caused Heero to flinch and pray that he had not become an unwilling player in an impromptu game of Russian Roulette.

Heero always believed that a person made his or hers own luck and he had often bolstered that belief at the gaming tables. But the longer he had participated in the unpredictable game called espionage, the more he's realized that Lady Luck had a will of her own.

The trigger struck once more with the same fruitless results. Carter's lips drew into a scowling frown. In one last desperate act he hurled the useless gun at Heero hoping that it would somehow compensate for the weapon's failure to secure his escape.

Heero ducked. The discarded pistol clanged on impact with the floor. Advancing two steps at a time Heero quickly closed the distance to the retreating gunman. Atop the platform his fingers snagged Carter's coattail digging in enough to get a firm fistful of fabric.

Carter felt the catching tug seconds before a jerk stopped him in his tracks. The Beretta leveled off and Heero had no dispute concerning its firing condition. Unfortunately Heero's grip was tenuous at best. Carter twisted sideways. His fist, glancing off Heero's shoulder, broke the agent's hold and made both men unbalanced. Weaving wobbly they bumped the wall then spun together towards the guardrail attached above the hissing transformer.

Heero's back struck hard against the railing's center support post. Below circuits sputtered and crackled. One severed wire twitched wildly in the air. His back bowed painfully as the post's top pressed into his spine. His boots dig desperately for some resistance on the smooth concrete floor.

Carter's forearm fell across Heero's chin and pushed backward. His free hand formed a fist. Heero threw up a high block successfully repelling the punch. Folding his hand over the Beretta Carter slammed Heero's hand down on the rail.

The stinging impact jarred the automatic loose. The dislodged gun disappeared into the transformer's glowing core which, it turn, belched out showers of blue sparks.

"Damn you Carter." Heero hissed as he straightened against impaling post, "That was my favorite gun."

********

Duo stood a measured distance away from the arcing currents jumping from wires and spiking from the trunk cable like feverish lightning. With each disrupted discharge hot bits of molten metal and other ignited particles erupted with a deafening bang.

But his concern was not the unleashed raw energy or its lethal voltage. Fear for Heero's safety and the panic-stricken feeling of helplessness made him oblivious to the danger. He rushed to the stairs set on joining 01 in his fight but another powerful explosion sprayed through the air causing Duo to reel backwards. His boots tangled, his shoulder smacked the mesh wire and the odor of singed hair invaded his nostrils as he hit the floor.

********

Carter continued to push raising up on his toes for better leverage. By degrees his forearm slipped to Heero's throat. And to add to the ugly situation the bolts holding the top rail in place began to warp and groan under the blistering heat's assault. With each jolt from Carter and Heero's struggle the threads stripped further. The holes enlarged with each tearing twist.

Carter pushed again. Pressure wrung the damaged fasteners to the breaking point. The rail gave with a grating creak then caught with a sickening snap. How much longer would the bolts hold? Could the stressed rail endure much more punishment?

Heero planted the heel of his hand under Carter's nose. Ligaments stretched to their limits and muscles burned but gradually 01's opponent began to lose ground. Heero steadied his balance, braced his back and landed an elbow along Carter's cheekbone.

Both combatants stumbled towards the wall just before the weakened bolts gave way. The railing's crosspiece wrenched free. The metal rod struck the platform with a sharp ring then flipped over the side. Deep inside the transformer's smoldering circuits a muffled explosion split an insulator. The crimson glow intensified. Orange fingers of flames curled up from the hellish depths.

Infuriated by yet another failure Carter threw a wild punch that barely brushed Heero's chin. 01 answered with a more solid strike to Carter's jaw that sent the stunned man teetering back several steps.

Heero's blow had the desired effect. The physical pain heightened the gnawing agony in Carter's soul. Pangs of remorse over Marquis and Dorothy's deaths triggered the total derangement of his tortured mind. The all-consuming guilt culminated in seething madness. His dazed eyes reflected the fiery flickering from below but they also displayed the crazed glare of uncontrolled rage.

Heero sucked in a labored breath. As a combination of hot air and choking smoke seized his airway, his chest wheezed. Watery eyes blurred his vision of his angry adversary. He shook his head to clear out the cobwebs clogging his brain.

With a guttural growl Carter mounted a headlong charge. All Heero saw through his compromised sight was an indistinct outline seconds before a wrathful fist tried its best to decapitate the Japanese agent.

The powerful punch snapped Heero's head sideways. His shoulder brushed along the ragged edge left by the rent railing. His jacket and shirt ripped and the unprotected flesh beneath was cut as cleanly as a knife through butter. Pain also sliced along the scarlet gash sending queasy waves crashing inside Heero's gut.

At the last moment Heero rotated his torso and managed to throw an arm around the unstable support post but the smooth surface offered no handhold to halt his toppling over the platform. His hip slammed into the post's base, his legs slid through the gap in the railing.

Heero franticly clutched at the post, clawed at thin air, reached for anything that would check his plunge into the portals of hell blazing below. Heero's dead weight drew out his muscles until they felt as if they would tear in two.

The pressure pressing his arm against the post was quickly diminishing the blood flow and rapidly deteriorating his sensory responses. A tingle spread down his arm to his fingertips and he didn't know how much longer he could withstand the impairing numbness.

Heero's arm slipped from the bent of his elbow to his hand. Finally, with great effort, his other hand clasped over the first to reinforce his tenuous hold. For a fleeting moment he had a good grip but the platform's painted walls had no toeholds to help him gain the advantage over the fire licking at his heels.

Sweaty hands refused to stick to the slick post. His knuckles went white as he pulled harder. Now his boots dangled dangerously near the swirling flames and funnels of bluish smoke snaked around his legs. The superheated air surged over him, tearing his eyes and searing his lungs.

Carter leaned over the struggling agent. His madness-enlarged pupils mirrored Heero's terror. A maniacal smile curled up his lips. He could read the distress on 01's face, sense the pain and panic running through his body.

Carter gazed down into Heero's horror-struck eyes. "What a pitiful end." he sneered with satisfaction, "I would have expected you to mount more of a challenge."

Heero gritted his teeth as he fought to save himself from a fiery death but he would be damned if Carter would hear him beg for mercy. A thousand curse-laden responses rippled across his mind but his over-heated confusion refused to translate the replies into words.

It seemed that Paul Carter had won after all. He might have lost his part in the deal with Hoffman but he had punished Dorothy for her betrayal and now he would also send the interfering IPB agent into the Grim Reaper's deadly embrace. He picked up long spanner wrench that weighted at least three pounds and proudly took on his role as judge, jury and executioner.

Raising the assurance of his victory over his head Carter narrowed his insane sight. "Prepare to go to hell!" he yelled.

The overburdened lights grew dimmer as his shadow elongated over his prey.

 

Part Eighteen: Reconciled by Fire

Duo struggled to sit up. His back protested and his head felt as though it was stuffed with cotton. A gulp of smoke-laced air sent him into a coughing fit that stung his lungs but also served to jar his sluggish senses.

The overhead lights had dulled to a yellow glow and, even though the emergency lamps had automatically switched on, the thin beams could not compete with the thick smoky haze nor could they shine as brightly as the tentacles of fire groping in the air.

As Duo stood up he staggered like a sloshed sailor. "Easy." he whispered to his uncooperative legs. Slowly some semblance of orderly thought began to stir in his brain. He recalled the bang that he had assumed was a gunshot. Then he remembered Carter running across the room and Heero in pursuit.

"Heero!" Duo's mind screamed just seconds before his eyes caught sight of a smoke-shrouded body swaying above the transformer and a second equally hazy figure standing on the platform's edge.

Duo didn't have to clearly see Heero to know that it was his partner dangling a few feet from the raging flames. Duo didn't have to consider his next move or tell his body to break into a full run. It took mere seconds to bolt up the stairs and the briefest measure of time to stop short in stunned disbelief at the scene unfolding before him.

Paul Carter had a length of something metal raised over his head. His shoulders were taut and his muscles poised to use the improvised weapon to smash Heero's head and drop him into the hungry flames.

"CARTER!" Duo shouted to be heard above the hissing transformer and the crackling fire.

The "club" quivering in midair. The muscle tension eased a bit but Carter didn't seem inclined to change his mind, however, his head did turn towards the calling of his name.

Duo sucked in a startled breath as his eyes locked with Carter's malevolent glare. There was not a single hint of lucidness in his enlarged pupils, no trace of anything resembling rational thought process.

"Paul, please, don't do it." Duo begged fighting to display a calm facade even though his heart hammered and his body trembled from fear.

For a long moment Carter stared at Duo as if he was an apparition borne of smoke or maybe one of devil's minions send to ferry the slain agent's soul to the nether regions. Then a spark of recognition flickered in his unfocused eyes.

Carter tilted his head in an inquiring manner. "Duo?" the single word was as slurred as his eyesight.

Duo inhaled and, despite the stinging in his chest, held the steadying breath for several seconds. Inwardly he prayed that Heero could hold on until he convinced Carter not to follow through with his murderous plans. He pleaded with the fates or whatever higher power ruled men's lives to spare his newly pledged lover. He even gave strong consideration to making a deal with Lucifer if that would save Heero.

"Paul you don't want to do this, I know you don't"

Duo hoped to plant the seeds of doubt in Carter's mind. He had to make the madman re-evaluate his reasons for wanting Heero dead. But could simple logic break though the barrier of insanity surrounding Carter's mind? What could Duo say or do to alter the outcome?

Carter glanced back at Heero's pain-etched face. He took too long to study his sweat-drenched body that had all but succumbed to the blistering heat and the overwhelming weakness.

Then he returned his vague sight to Duo."I can't...let him...stop...me." he stammered, "I have to get...away."

"We can get away together." Duo reasoned, "Heero and I can protect you." he promised then dared to take a step forward. "Just let me help him up."

"STAY BACK!" Carter exclaimed. The wench hovered again to emphasis the warning.

A violent explosion rocked the platform. A dense puff of fire-tinged smoke belched over the Heero and flowed as high as Carter's knees. Now Duo's instincts demanded that Carter be stopped then and there. They proclaimed a definite end for Heero if no immediate intervention was forthcoming.

Before Duo realized what he was doing the Derringer rose in line with Carter's chest. Without pause his finger tightened on the trigger. "Help Heero now or I will shoot you."

An odd grin stretched over Carter's mouth. An unreadable expression contoured his features. "You don't have the guts to shoot." he challenged Duo resolve.

Duo hardened his sight and by his body language left no room for misinterpretation. "If you force me to choose between Heero and you," he growled, "then you ARE a dead man."

"Let's see if you're a good enough marksman to stop me. Even if you shoot I can still take this loser with me."

Duo's inner voice gave him explicit instructions. "A head shot will stop him cold."

"Merciful saints guide me." Duo prayed the redemptive entreatment.

The trigged drew back, the hammer quivered. Duo wanted to close his eyes, to keep a permanent picture of what he was about to do from being forever imprinted in his mind but he had to take careful aim...the shot had to be sure.

A deafening bang caused Duo to flinch. Every nerve ending jumped under his skin. Breath caught in his chest and it felt like his heart skipped a beat. Then the comprehension that he had not completed the trigger pull slowly seeped into his brain's subconscious regions. No smoke drifted from the Derringer's barrel. There was not evidence at all that the pistol had been fired.

Was there really a shot or had Duo finally fallen as far into the maddened abyss as Carter had? He raised his eyes to Carter's face searching for some sign to tell him what had happened.

Carter stood stiffly. His arms went limp at his side allowing the wench to hit the platform with a shrill ping. A garbled noise rose through his throat then a thin stream of blood tricked over his lips.

Gradually his eyes lost their light and a sightless glaze settled over their fixed pupils. His mouth opened allowing more blood to stain his lips and form red droplets on his chin. A broader bloody stream gushed from a jagged hole in the base of his skull to clothe his shoulders in a crimson cape.

Duo more read the words than heard his voice as Paul Carter relinquished himself to his fate. "Forgive me." He mouthed out his final request for absolution as his vacant sight reflected a strangely peaceful aspect.

Carter's body went slack. His legs wobbled, his hips shifted to the left then his torso pitched forward. For a heartbeat he seemed to hang suspended between the platform and the hellish pit below then his body fell straight down. In an instant Paul Carter was gone.

Luckily the tumbling body missed Heero as it dropped soundlessly into the smoke and disappeared into the flames. A blinding flash of light erupted where the last shattered circuits ruptured. The sickening odor of burnt flesh drifted up. A full blaze followed.

Duo stared at the spot where Carter had vanished. He couldn't make any sense of what had just happened. His eyes told him that Carter had been shot but if not by him then by whom?

An outline moved among the swirling smoke on the platform's opposite side. Duo aimed the Derringer still prepared to do what he had to do to save Heero. Love pressed him to Heero's side and no one was going to get in his way.

The hazy shape came closer. Zechs Merquise stepped into view. He, too, was dressed entirely in black. His silvery hair was tied back in a loose ponytail. His face glistened and his sweat-soaked bangs were plastered on his forehead. A smoking gun was griped firmly in his hand.

Duo didn't have time to question the man who had seemed to materialize from thin air. The Derringer was shoved back into his pocket as he ran to where Heero was barely holding on.

Zechs knelt beside the braided man and reached over to help haul Heero over the edge. "I had to for Treize." he stated flatly. There was no emotion in his voice, no indication of either remorse or regret.

Duo nodded that he understood and leaned over as far as he dared. "Hold on Heero." he urged as his hand closed over Heero's wrist.

********

Heero couldn't feel his hands on the post. All sense of direction was lost in the suffocating cloud encircling him. He felt himself drifting away as the unbearable heat consumed the last traces of his consciousness.

Was he moving? Falling? Closing his eye he wished he could see Duo one more time. He wanted to tell him how much he cared...that he was ready to commit his heart and share his soul.

Heero's strength gave out. He had nothing left to fight the overpowering faintness."Duo." The name was raspy as it floated over his cracked lips.

From above a hand folded over a fistful of Heero's jacket. Another set of fingers closed around his wrist and a second hand took hold of his arm. In one fluid motion he was lifted over the platform's rim and came to rest on his back.

Focusing through the sweat stinging his eyes Heero gazed up into an anxious angelic face that compassionately beheld the wandering spirit who had recently entered the land of the dead. A reddish halo glowed around the kind countenance and a long braid lay over the angel's shoulder. A braided angel? Was this fate's final cruel joke?

"Heero can you hear me?" the angel asked. Duo wiped his watery eyes and squinted down at Heero's pale face. "Heero please."

The lilt, the tone. There was a familiar comfort in the voice. Only then did Heero realize that he had not fallen victim to the fire. Somehow a miracle had granted him a second chance to share his life with his soul mate.

The air was suddenly cooler. The smoke not as intense. Several shallow inhalations urged Heero's foggy senses to come around. The next gasp for air shook his body awake. His eyes cleared and he took in Duo's worried face.

"Duo?" Shakily Heero reached out.

Duo intertwined his fingers with the searching hand. "Stay still."

"How did you..."

"Shhhhh. We'll have plenty of time for questions later but now you have to recover enough to get out of here."

********

Duo turned to thanks Zechs for his help but found that the taller man had merged back into the haze. He looked across the platform and caught a glimpse of black blending into the shadows. Zechs paused, gave a knowing nod to the man who understood what he had done for love, then it was as if he had never there at all.

********

You're arm...its bleeding."

"I'm all right." Heero insisted even though it hurt like hell every time the jacket material scraped over the long cut.

"Can you stand?"

Heero pushed up on his elbows and surveyed his hellish surroundings. A shiver coursed up his spine as the realization of how close he'd come to dying hit with full force. He had faced death before but this was the first time he had been afraid. Before he merely saw himself as a disposable unit. Life was cheap, especially his, he believed.

But the possibility of being separated from Duo, not seeing his smile or hearing him laugh was no longer acceptable. Heero had a new-found strength and it flowed from his reason for living. "Let's go."

Duo put his arm around Heero's waist to lend support and guided him carefully down the stairs to avoid the blistering heat and the hand railing that was so hot it glowed. The smoke that had been denser at the top lessened as they descended.

An implosion deep in the transformer's belly launched a ball of orange flames over the platform's rim. A pulsating WHOOSH shuddered through the room. Then the scorching heat was sucked back like fire through a dragon's gullet leaving the area the pair had just vacated badly charred.

********

Twin shadows, enhanced by the fire's radiance, rippled along the wall. "Over there." Heero motioned to the narrow hall. He hoped that the concrete walls would offer a margin of protection from the inferno's fury that, for the moment, was contained by the lack of combustible materials.

Hurrying down the corridor Heero and Duo's curiosity was drawn to a partially opened door. Heero attempted to see through the door's glass panel but a ruddy reflection defeated his clear view. Easing the door back the agent and his civilian counterpart peered inside what was obviously an office.

"Dorothy...no." Duo whispered. Heero nodded in agreement, took Duo's hand and stepped inside.

Dorothy's blond hair shimmered with crimson-tinted sparkles as bright as the firelight that caused wavy shadows to dance on the walls and ceiling. Her peaceful repose was somehow more bearable than the tortured contours of Welige's mutilated remains. The scarlet spots staining her blouse were less troubling than the black congealed pools of blood that had permanently bonded Welige to the floor. Her eyes closed in perpetual sleep were so contrary to the horror mirrored in Welige's vacant stare.

This time the view of death came a little easier---as easy as it ever gets.

Now there was no doubt where the original shot had been fired and that Paul Carter had been the shooter. The nagging question was why. What had prompted the former Khushrenada Electronics employee to commit the unpardonable sin? Unfortunately the answers died with Carter.

Duo hesitated then moved to the desk. He stood, head bowed, in silent contemplation. There was nothing he could do, nothing left to say. He had no parting prayer to guide her journey into the afterlife.

*Forgive me.* Paul Carter's penitent plea echoed his Duo's mind.

"I can't." Duo sighed. He lifted his head to gaze at Dorothy's pale countenance. So many hearts had been broken by betrayal. So many lives destroyed by greed and there was no guarantee that the evil would ever be vanquished.

Something shiny lying on the floor caught Heero's attention. He picked up Dorothy's bracelet and suspended it from his index finger.

There were six charms attached to the golden chain with the broken clasp. The first was a flower, perhaps a poppy, with a ruby gemstone in its center. Next came a cloisonne` cat with emerald eyes, a crescent moon hanging by the pointed end and a ballerina forever poised in a perfect pirouette.

The fifth sentimental trinket was a Celtic cross intertwined with ivy vines. Lastly a heart decorated with delicate filigree trim made Heero feel as though he was intruding on a private moment. The initials D.C. + T.K. were engraved on the heart's smooth surface.

Did the inscription hint at a pervious relationship or was it just wishful thinking on Dorothy's part? Just like Carter took his secrets to his grave, now Dorothy also utilized death to guard her confidential memories.

Heero moved his hand. The charms jingled bringing back memories of Dorothy Catalonia. He recalled her saying that she never took the bracelet off. "I'm sorry but it won't go back together." Heero declared sadly. He carefully forced Dorothy's death-constricted hand open, placed the bracelet in her palm then closed her cold fingers to keep her secret safe.

Duo touched Heero's shoulder. "We have to go."

"Goodbye." he whispered then closed the door to give Dorothy the serenity she deserved as she waited for the office to become her private crematorium.

*******

Duo matched Heero's speed, stride for stride. A bellow of smoke snaked passed as Heero opened the hall door then its escape route was cut off by the metal portal's closing. Persistently the stubborn smoke began to filter under the door. Thin wisps of bluish haze crept along the floor.

Another long hallway stretched out before the apprehensive spies. "Damn." Heero mumbled under his breath.

"Are we heading in the right direction?" Duo wondered hoping against hope that he and Heero were not running around in circles.

There was no way to know how long they could stay ahead of the rapidly advancing flames. How long before the fire spread along the ceiling fixtures to find more flammable resources to feed its all-consuming appetite and hasten it's lethal trek.

There were too many unknown factors. Maybe the concrete walls would be sufficient containment, maybe not. At any rate Duo and Heero didn't have the luxury of unlimited time to hunt for an exit.

The constant changes in the lights, their spasmodic dimming and flaring were a sure sign that the electrical systems were losing the battle. If the power failed and plunged the retreating pair into total darkness then they, too, would become fodder for the ravenous flames.

But they had no choice but to keeping moving forward. Going back was not an option; that fact was made quite clear by the increasingly thick smoke wafting down the hall.

"Take my hand and don't let go." Heero ordered.

Duo took hold of his lifeline and trusted Heero to find their way to freedom. It was not over yet, not while they could still had breath in their bodies and hope in their hearts.

 

Part Nineteen: The Final Payoff

05, 04 and 03 flattened against the chilly, damp wall. After waiting a reasonable time for Heero and Duo to join them in the forest, it was decided that personal intervention was in order.

A progressively nagging feeling that his comrade and the braided civilian could be in trouble had bothered Quatre for some time. As long as Trowa had been with his intuitive lover he had never quite figured out what triggered Quatre's insightful sensory perceptions but he did know that they were not to be ignored.

Wufei held his Walther in a defensive posture and took the point. Trowa and Quatre assumed the rear guard position. Double doors to their right invited a quick peek inside. Three rows of silence machinery took up most of the floor space. Four chairs sat around a wooden table covered with scrapes of stale food, empty beer bottles and several ashtrays filled to overflow with crushed cigarettes and gray ashes.

Of course Trowa couldn't leave the machines to their solitary conditions. "Give me a minute to plant some charges." he begged. His supple fingers kneaded the C4 for its deadly duty. There was no chance that the fuses would detonate before Heero and Duo were located, only an encoded signal from a remote control would set off the blast.

Wufei took a lump of the plastic explosive from his belt pack. "It will go faster if we both do the job."

Quatre reckoned that his counterparts were entitled to enjoy their playtime. He pulled his pistol and headed down the corridor but his independent exploration would be limit to the corner. He paused to listen at the next door, heard nothing and moved on.

Reaching the corner he cautiously peer up then down along the intersecting hall's dim vacancy. Since the "bad guy's" various vehicles were parked on the building's other side it was unlikely that anyone would be wandering around but it always paid to be careful.

Long, wavy outlines floated across the wall. Quatre turned back up the corridor towards the sound of footsteps striking the tile floor. A smile curved up his lips. "It's about time you two caught up." The smile faded and the uneasy feeling returned as an unfamiliar face emerged from the shadows.

********

Wufei and Trowa secured the last fuses, activated the signal units and started down the hall to rein in their wandering comrade. Midway they came to an abrupt halt. Motioning with a silent gesture the Lone Dragon signaled for Trowa to listen.

The shuffling of shoes bounced over the walls close at first then became fainter as the footsteps moved away. Circumspectly the agents started again, this time with shortened steps. They had no desire to suddenly come up on the wrong person. Rounding the corner their abbreviated pace came to another complete stop.

Hoffman's lackeys were roughly "escorting" Quatre in the opposite direction. One swarthy man with 04's pistol tucked into his belt had a firm grip on Quatre's arm. The other encouraged Quatre's cooperation by means of a steel-plated revolver poised at the base of his skull. A third male, dressed in a sentry's brown uniform, used an assault rifle to further encourage their captive's cooperative behavior.

Tagging along a few feet behind a taller man with auburn hair and a bushy mustache didn't appeared to be armed but Trowa and Wufei had learned that appearances were often deceiving. Besides the assorted weapon's combined caliber more than made up for the last man's apparent armament deficiency.

It took the IPB spies less than a minute to assess the situation. They didn't want to startle the already jittery gunmen but they couldn't allow the enemy quartet to make off with their fellow agent.

Wufei and Trowa stepped out and braced for a fight. Wufei cleared his throat loudly enough to be heard. "Excuse me gentlemen." He used the term "gentlemen" loosely. "I believe you have someone who doesn't belong to you."

Silence stretched out for several strained minutes. Each side studied the other. Trowa's hand firmed up around his Colt but its useful potential was negated by the revolver's fixed aim. Even with his best reflexes in force Trowa knew that he could not outdraw the already targeted weapon.

The man holding Quatre raised a single eyebrow, "Who are these men?" he wondered in German-accented English. He leaned closer to Quatre. His breath reeked of cheap whiskey and cigarettes, "You're too pretty to share."

Quatre gritted his teeth to keep from commenting on the man's questionable lineage and said nothing.

"Yeah," the redhead joined in the taunting, "the pretty one must be a good fuck, he's got two boyfriends chasing after him."

Trowa's mind raced. His thoughts sprinted between three scenarios. Quatre's fate could hinge on a single persuasive word or be lost in one misinterpreted action and sooner or later someone would move the trucks setting off a chain of catastrophic events.

"One wrong move," the revolver's owner warned, "and I'll blow his head off." Quatre was the only trump card the man needed to take the trick.

"And you two will follow." the mustached man announced pulling a sawed-off shotgun from his long overcoat. "I don't think Herr Hoffman will care whether you come along peacefully or we leave your bodies to rot."

The conclusion, for the time being anyway, was clear. Knowing that the gunman's ultimatum was not open to debate, neither agent wanted to give any indication of resistance. In unison Trowa and Wufei dropped their side arms, raised their hands and by their submissive body language signaled their surrender

Trowa's mind and instincts continued to debate at an accelerated pace. One option...making the "wrong move" kept resurfacing in his thoughts. A headlong charge might be the only way to save Quatre. If he could shove him free the diversion would give Wufei the few seconds he needed to drop the shotgun-toting walrus.

Trowa knew it could mean taking a bullet and he knew Quatre would blame himself if the shot proved fatal but at least his lover would be alive to feel whatever he felt. But could 03 risk failure and the deadly consequences if his plan went wrong? Nothing less than total surprise would work. If the gunman had even a hint of his plan...no...Trowa pushed the idea into the back of his mind as a last resort if all else failed.

Wufei's figuring took a different direction. Somehow he needed to convince the thugs, despite their questionable intelligence levels, that letting Quatre go and leaving the lodge was in their best interest.

An understated trace of smoke filtered through an overhead vent telling 05 that something was burning somewhere. He had no way of knowing the smoldering haze's source, nevertheless, his intuition confirmed that it was not normal. But he couldn't concern himself with unknown factors, the immediate situation was real and that was where his attention had to be focused.

Wufei sucked in a centering breath to help shore up his arguments. It was imperative that he chose his words carefully. "I don't know if you are aware but the lodge is on fire." he stated putting every bit of sincerity he could muster in his voice.

The two men flanking Quatre stared blankly and Wufei couldn't tell whether or not they were even considering his statement. Finally the revolver's owner sniffed the air then rolled his eyes up to study the white wisps puffing out at a regular rate. As he redirected his inquiring sight his pistol eased back and the space between Quatre's head and the barrel widened.

"You know," the sniffing man said to no one in particular, "he might be right."

Wufei cuts his eyes at Trowa who nodded ever so slightly, "I suggest that we forget this posturing. You release him and we go our separate ways before the fire get worse." 05 followed up with a logical conclusion, doing his best to put the half-witted man's thinking on the right track.

The "brain trust" with the shotgun shook his head in the affirmative. Wufei was inwardly relieved but continued to display his authoritative facade. He was not so smug to think that he had done anything more than win the hand, winning the game, that hadn't happened yet.

"We'll leave but you won't." Hoffman's bodyguard proclaimed. He pressed the gun into Quatre's head hard enough to make him flinch. "We ain't taking the chance you will follow along and make trouble."

Quatre drew in a troubled breath. His fearful eyes pleaded with Trowa and Wufei to do something.

Trowa stepped forward with his hands held high, "If you let us go I swear we won't follow."

The gunman glanced at his partner then back at Trowa. The man's sluggish brain activity and the way the revolver quivered against Quatre's head made Trowa anxious. With each passing moment he could sense their chances for an unscathed escape growing slimmer.

It was apparent that the man didn't have a keen grasp on decision making. In fact this was probably the first time he'd ever had to think for himself and that made him even more unpredictable.

"No, you have to die."

"I'll make a deal." Trowa declared hoping that it was not too late to alter the outcome. "Let my friends go and I will come along as a hostage. They won't follow if they know I'll be in danger if they do."

Quatre fought the urge to shout out loud, "TROWA! NO!" Instead he carefully shifted his stance. His hand drifted under his coat and down his side. No one took notice, especially the man with the revolver.

Now bluish haze hugged the ceiling in compact curls. Thin spiraling coils gravitated towards the cooler air near the floor. It was only a matter of time before a choking cloud would fill the hall.

Wufei, too, was anxious. There were better than average odds that the worsening conditions would cause Hoffman's hired help to panic and the results would proved extremely unhealthy for everyone.

Trowa, convinced that the confrontation had reached an impasse, tensed his muscles He decided that the "wrong move" was a gamble he had to take. He shifted his weight and prepared for a forward lunge. A discreet nod of Trowa's head and the redirecting of his sight at Quatre's assailant was all the warning he gave Wufei. The extrasensory exchange was understood. Wufei answered with a quick nod of his own.

Meanwhile Quatre brought his hand up at a painstakingly slow rate. Trowa and Wufei were so engrossed in setting up their surprise attack they were unaware of the stealthy movement. Luckily the watchers were also ignorant of 04's protective plans.

Trowa made his final mental commitment. Wufei sensed his counterpart's readiness to spring into action. A deafening BANG fractured the air. The nerve-wrenching noise recoiled through Trowa's body causing a contorted, bone-jarring spasm.

The reflex reaction momentary scattered Trowa's thoughts and physical control. A few seconds passed before he realized that he had not started forward. Another nanosecond sped by before a knot twist in his stomach. A shutter struck as his disjoined senses returned to Quatre. Dread washed over. He fully expected see his lover's body crumpled on the floor, his life gone or swiftly bleeding away.

In the short time span that Trowa's mind and body used to recover their functions, a gut deep wail bounced off the walls. Trowa's terrified sight was drawn down, not to Quatre but to the gunman writhing at his feet.

Fresh crimson saturated the man's inner thigh where Quatre's dirk had been buried all the way to the bone. The knife was stuck just inches from the groin...a little over to the left. The possible castration caused Trowa to cringe.

Clutching his leg the wounded man twisted from side to side, yowling and cursing in broken phrases of German. The revolver, that had fired harmlessly into the air, landed somewhere along the far wall.

Taken aback by his partner's sudden collapse, Hoffman's other watchdog stood dumbfounded. Wufei took full advantage of the man's astonished distraction. A throwing star zipped from the Lone Dragon's hand. A silver streak sliced through the smoky haze. A shrill whine was all that registered before three of the star's six points embedded in the stunned man's throat. An odd gurgle, followed by a hiss of escaping air, was the only sound. Stock transfixed his sight then the man dropped bonelessly to the floor.

The sentry didn't even have time to raise his weapon. In rapid succession one throwing knife penetrated his breastbone and another found its mark in his stomach. Still clutching the rifle, the sentry slipped soundlessly down the wall and slumped over like a loose-jointed rag doll.

The mustached man's reflexes were not as adversely affected by the sudden chaos. As Quatre scrambled to recover his pistol, the shotgun's barrel swung in line with his head. This time Trowa decided that the "hands on" method was his best choice. A solid uppercut not only dislodged the shotgun but a couple of teeth as well. A fine spray of bloody saliva speckled the wall. Trowa finished the job with a roundhouse kick and the last foe collapsed with not so much as a whimper.

Quatre struggled to stand, his shoulders sagged and his knees wobbled. He was pale and a sheen of sweat glistened on his face. In less than a heartbeat Trowa was by his lover's side. He wrapped an arm around Quatre's waist holding him up against his leg's shaky frailty.

"Damn." was all Quatre had the strength to utter as he leaned heavily on Trowa.

Trowa pushed back blond bangs and looked deeply into Quatre's eyes for any sign of shock or injury. "Are you all right?" he asked tensely.

Quatre nodded "yes" against Trowa's shoulder.

"What a mess." Wufei proclaimed as he surveyed the bodies scattered haphazardly over the hall. He retrieved Quatre's pistol and handed it to his comrade.

With the immediate crisis behind them the trio of victorious agents suddenly noticed the accelerated concentration of noxious vapors. Now the fumes not only wafted from the overhead vent and crept along the floor but a dense cloud had begun to seep out around the ceiling panels.

Wufei wiped his watery eyes."We need to leave....now." he coughed.

Quatre took a moment to scan the various bodies. The man with the dirk in his thigh appeared to be the sole survivor. He had stopped flailing but an occasional faint groan told Agent 04 that he was still breathing.

"We can't leave him." Quatre decided in spite of the mounting evidence that the lodge was indeed on fire.

"Quatre..." Trowa began but was cut off with a wave of his lover's hand. Quatre knelt by the lone loser. "I'm sorry but this is going to hurt." was his only warning before the dirk was extracted with a quick pull. The man flinched; a loud moan flowed over his ashen lips.

Quatre wiped the blade off on the man's pants, no use in staining his own clothes then returned the dirk to its sheath. He applied a pressure bandage and secured it in place with several wraps of gauze. He slipped his arm around the fallen foe's shoulders, the other arm slid under the small of his back.

"I'll carry him." Trowa announced since his taller frame permitted an easier lift. Trowa hauled the man over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, ignored the tacky blood that brushed across his shirt and started off down the hall.

Wufei took the lead, Quatre lagged behind to cover the rear movement and to also admire the view of Trowa's trim ass trapped in his tight trousers. "Mmmmm." Quatre voiced his approval of the seductive sight.

Trowa turned his head just enough to see around his limp bundle, "Do your hormones always have to rule your senses?" he muttered.

********

The drivers lounged lazily by the trucks waiting for Hoffman and Septum to complete their lucrative transaction. One man leaning against the last truck noticed odd fog creeping under the bay's rear door. Soon a pungent odor caught up with his nose. A confused frown pulled at his eyebrows as he left to investigate.

********

Three IPB agents, with their rescued adversary, struggled to stay below the thickening smoke while not wasting a moment in their quest to outrun the advancing fire. As their trek lengthened the space separating them from the smoke's worse effects, the fleeing men found themselves between the proverbial "rock and hard place".

They couldn't go back and their hurried pace was rapidly diminishing the distance protecting them from the "time bomb" awaiting activation in the bay. And even if they successfully reached the bay they knew that Septum, Hoffman and an undetermined number of henchmen stood between them and their ultimate freedom.

"How did we get in the middle of this shit?" Trowa wondered aloud before shifting his human burden to relieve the stain on his shoulders.

Wufei glanced back at his comrades. "We came in here looking for Yuy and that tagalong civilian." he stated staring at the soupy mixture pooling around his boots. "When we find the strays those bastards better have a good excuse."

*******

Whiffs of gray seemed to boil from every crack and crevice in the doorframe. The inquisitive driver stood stupefied before the entrance or exit, depending on which side one found himself.

Not once did the lackey's limited intelligence tell him that the smoky haze swirling over his shoes was not logical. Without so much as a millisecond's deliberation or consideration of the outcome, the idiot opened the door.

The vaporous buildup surged forth engulfing the startled man in a strangulating flow. Renewed by an ample supply of fresh air, choking fumes rolled over everything in their path. Franticly waving his arms to ward off the encompassing cloud the panic-stricken driver fled leaving the fire's envoy unchecked.

********

Wufei and Quatre eased the last few feet up the hall then turned around to watch Trowa prop the gunman against the wall. "He didn't make it." he said softly as he joined his lover and the Lone Dragon.

Quatre gazed back at the lifeless figure slumped at an odd angle and sighed. "At least we tried." Trowa nodded in agreement.

********

As the bay door flew open, the exiting agents froze in place. Each pistol sprang forward. The open space created a sucking vacuum that partly cleared the hall but it wouldn't take long for the improved oxygen levels to reach the blaze, feed the flames and quickly decrease their safety margin.

Taking advantage of the improved visibility, Wufei cautiously peered into the bay. On the opposite side four trucks patiently sat in a row. Septum and Hoffman stood by the double doors, no doubt completing last minute details. Three restless men milled about apparently not as willing to tolerate the delay.

"Herr...Herr Hoffman!" a fourth man yelled as he ran across the bay.

Septum and "The Fox" pivoted to watch the lone man rush just ahead of a swell of mysterious haze.

"Herr Hoffman!" the runner screamed racing beside the trucks, "Smoke!"

"From where?" Septum demanded. He could see the churning cloud but could not find the source.

"The door...to the...back." the breathless man stammered while flapping his arms like a flightless bird bound to the earth by gravity.

"Dummkopf!" Septum exclaimed shoving the man aside. "We have to get out." he called putting his shoulder to the double door's seam and thrusting both outward at once. "Pull out now!" he ordered, "I'll follow in the car."

Hoffman yelled instructions in both German and English. He shoved the lead truck's driver across to the passenger side and climbed under the steering wheel. He personally wanted to assure the proper handling of his newly acquired treasures. The second, third and fourth drivers manned their vehicles.

Engines roared to life. Gears were hurriedly engaged, literally jammed into position. The first truck rolled forward. The trip wire caught and stretched to its limits.

"Damn!" Wufei shouted just before everything went to hell.

 

Part Twenty: Retribution

Heero and Duo knelt in the dim corridor. A subdued hush proceeded the careful opening of the door that revealed the loading bay. "We must be on the opposite side of where we started." Heero whispered as a hint of smoke drifted to his nose.

Nothing stirred beyond the shadowy portal but Duo was certain if anyone was on the other side they could surly hear his heart hammering. Satisfied that no hostile action was forthcoming, Heero signaled for a prudent advancement. The wary pair inched nearer to the doorframe fully expecting some form of opposition.

Alarmed voices echoed over the bay then the distinct sound of gunning engines overpowered the panicked shouts. Through the thickening haze a blur of motion gave Heero and Duo little warning before the lead truck rolled forward tightening the trip wire.

"HIT THE DECK!" Heero yelled. He pushed Duo down and flattened out beside him.

Side by side Heero and Duo covered their heads and held their breaths awaiting the anticipated explosion. Time stood still. For a split second, one that seemed to go on forever, an eerie silence hung in the air then the entire bay broke loose with a deafening roar.

The detonation was more of an implosion that caused the bay's width to fall in on itself. In the same deadly instant, in the space of a heartbeat, the lead truck burst apart. The reverse explosion spewed metal, glass and fire in all directions. Windscreens and side windows shattered. The heat instantly crystallized the shards into diamond hard missiles.

A thousand razor bits of shrapnel riddled William Hoffman's body as he twitched in the splintered fragment's death throes. His equally perforated front seat passenger also convulsed wildly from the vicious assault. The only saving grace was that death took both "The Fox" and the driver before superheated air seared their skin leaving behind two charred skeletons.

The ravenous firestorm quickly enveloped the second and third trucks. Flames engulfed the cabs. Black smoke poured from ignited tires. The stench of hot metal and burnt flesh mixed with bellows of suffocating gases.

The last truck in line was spared the brunt of the blast but the raging fire would soon claim it, too. A very lucky driver rolled out and managed to scramble through a rupture in the wall seconds before the hellish inferno consumed his vehicle.

Septum tumbled backward through the bay's double doors as though an unseen hand had slammed into his chest. Surrounded by the cooler night air, he sat up in stunned in disbelief. Swearing madly he watched helplessly as the deal of a lifetime went up in flames.

********

A powerful "whoosh" of dense smoke and hot air surged across the bay covering Heero and Duo with an opaque blanket of swirling fumes. A subsequent explosion violently hurled glass and flaming debris through the door.

"We can't stay here!" Heero screamed above the loud crackling of fire and the whine of fatigued metal. "This way!" he shouted as he pulled Duo to his feet.

Duo took Heero's hand knowing how easily they could become separated in the rapidly decreasing visibility. Staying low under the thick cloud they skirted the wall as closely as they could. But where could they go as they found themselves sandwiched between the wrath of hell and the solid wall? This time, it seemed, both men would have to rely on divine providence if they were going to outrun the Devil's claim.

An iron ladder affixed to the wall could barely be seen through the blinding smoke. Heero wiped his watering eyes and squinted at his and Duo's possible means of escape. "Here." he motioned with his free hand.

The metal rungs reached the ceiling then disappeared into a narrow access shaft. Had divine intervention interposed itself between Heero and Duo and their fiery fate or was the ladder just an alternate path to hell?

"Stay here." Heero instructed. As frightened as Duo was he offered no rebuttal. He had asked Heero to trust him, now it was his turn.

Heero climbed up until his head vanished inside the square opening. He rapidly retreated, forced back by unbearable heat. "There's a hatch," he coughed out his findings, "but its so hot up there I don't know if we can get through."

"I'll try." Duo announced planting his foot on the first rung.

"No...wait." Heero took hold of Duo's jacket, "I'm the strongest, I'll do it." He started up again before Duo could register a protest. Reluctantly all Duo could do was crouch on the floor and pray that Heero would be all right.

Sweat beaded on Heero's forehead stinging his eyes and blurring his vision. Scorching air burned in his lungs, depleting his already limited oxygen supply. Gritting his teeth he put his shoulder against the hatch and concentrated all his physical and mental resources into a single firm push.

The strenuous effort and lack of oxygen sapped his strength. Dots floated over his eyes that the sweat and tears could not wash away. One more try was all Heero had left, if that wasn't enough...he refused the idea and pushed again.

Footsteps on the ladder told Duo that Heero's best attempts had failed. Agent 01 dropped to the floor and collapsed with a labored wheeze. His hair was wet and his face was cover with a thin layer of soot. "Its stuck tight." he informed Duo panting to catch his breath. "We'll have to find another way."

"We can't give up now, we won't." Duo declared rejecting the notion that all hope was lost. Sitting side by side, "another way" was considered and studied but, much to Heero and Duo's chagrin, their figuring was defeated at every turn.

The loading bay had ceased to exist. The choking smoke and rising temperatures came at them like a charging tiger. No, the shaft was their only alternative and their opportunity to use it was deteriorating rapidly.

Then a light shone in Heero's eyes, a small glimmer of hope. The dart pen that had sent both dog and human into a twilight sleep would now carry a more destructive power that would be the bearer of their salvation.

A red-tipped dart was clicked into place. The pen was aimed up the shaft. "Turn away." Heero ordered.

Duo stood as far to the ladder's side as the escalating heat would allow. Heero shielded his face with his free hand from what he hoped would be the complete deterioration of the stubborn hatch.

The red dart found its mark dead center. A muffled report sent dust and small chunks of steel plating raining down the shaft. Before the last bits hit the floor, Heero was climbing again.

Carefully avoiding several ragged-edged, glowing holes Heero centered his shoulder and determined that, this time, he would not fail. Rusted seals along the rim were sluggish to give up their grip. Scraping and grating, they fought back. Appling more pressure, the hatch finally began to lift giving him the encouragement he needed. One concerted push and Heero won.

The hatch popped back striking the roof with a heavy thud. Chilled night air hit Heero's face and chased away the smoke-laced tears. With a sigh of relief he savored the fresh air. However, it was only a moment before the cooler currents began to suck up the heat and smoke. Now the shaft acted like a chimney and would soon refill with dangerous levels of lethal gases.

"Come on!" Heero called down to Duo then poked his head above the hatch to gulp in a lungful of fresh air.

Duo proceeded the smoke up the ladder. Heero knelt on the roof and offered a helping hand. Duo grabbed hold and was fluidly extracted. As soon as Duo's feet clear the rim, Heero slammed the hatch shut cutting off the thick gray, swirling flow.

"Thank you for trusting in me." Heero whispered then placed a kiss on Duo's soot-strained cheek.

"I never doubted you." Duo replied before brushing his lips over Heero's lips.

"Let's get the hell out of here." Heero declared.

Powerful explosions rocked the lodge. Windows blew out releasing trapped pockets of smoke and fire. Flaming fingers clawed up the building's sides. Blistering air currents boiled through ventilation ducts shooting sparks and ignited materials into the scarlet-tinted sky.

A second ladder curved over the roof's edge and down the side. Fortunately there were fewer windows belching out hot, noxious gases but extremely caution still needed to be in force. Heero started down, Duo followed a few steps behind. Their descent was uneventful. Except for two holes in the stone wall that had to be avoided, the rest of their route to freedom went smoothly.

Heero and Duo hit the ground running. When they were a safe distance away they collapsed in the welcome coolness of the dew-drenched grass. Shielding his eyes from the brightness, Duo exhaled a shaky breath. "Look at it burn." he said then drew back in shock as flames shot through the roof where he and Heero had just been.

The sky glowed. An orange aurora arched across the rooftop like a hellish rainbow. Deep red hues washed over the trees and glistened on the wet grass. Smoke funneled in tight tornadic columns from every fire-breathing breach. And even with Duo and Heero's considerable separation from the blaze the intense heat could be keenly felt.

Duo leaned back against Heero's chest. "I hope Wufei, Quatre and Trowa are all right."

Heero wrapped his arms around Duo to allay his fears. "They're safe. Don't ask me to explain it but I know they're all right."

A shudder tingled along Duo's spine. He eased back to gaze into Heero's eyes that perfectly reflected the fire. "Did you know greed is one of the seven deadly sins? Do you suppose that's why not one of Dorothy's thieving team survived?"

"Someone did." Heero hissed straightening sharply.

Duo twisted his head to stare in the same direction as Heero. "What?" he asked searching for what had spurred 01's acute interest.

Silhouetted in the crimson glow, Septum was steadily making his way to a car parked at the road's edge. Ironically the vehicle's isolated location, that had spared it from the fire, placed it within fifty yards of the Range Rover that had delivered Heero and his brothers-in-arms to the lodge.

"Stay here." Heero ordered in a no-nonsense tone. "I mean it this time."

Duo grabbed for Heero's arm but missed as he ran out of reach. "Heero? Wait!"

The Japanese agent neither reacted to Duo's plea nor slowed his pace. A single desire drove Heero on...Septum would not escape his retribution...not this time.

Duo had a good reason to be alarmed. Heero had suddenly come into Duo's life... his heart...and now he was rushing headlong in pursuit of a man with no conscience when it came to killing. A madman skilled in the art of termination.

Duo closed his eyes and prayed that Heero's need to even the score would not cloud his judgment, that 01's oftentimes quick temper would not cause him to take unnecessary chances.

"Amen." Duo whispered as he fought with all the willpower he could muster not to follow Heero.

********

Septum paused by the car. Watching months of hard work burn away, he shook with rage. Slowly his angry sight fixed on a lone figure emerging from the blinding brightness. Puzzlement etched frown lines on Septum's brow as his eyes strained to project a sure picture for his bewildered mind.

Although Heero's features were clearly defined by the firelight as solid and substantive, it was a ghostly image that moved in the fiery brilliance's backwash.

Unexpectedly, forceful scenes from the past crashed over Septum. The Bolivian jungle, the air saturated with heat, so close he couldn't breath. A seeping stream of blood. An ashen face, a contorted body laying at his feet. Past and present merged. Welige's face, crusted over in a black death mask and the present hauntingly pale countenance combined into a single coalescent picture.

That day in the jungle, a little more than a year ago, Septum had dismissed Heero Yuy from his thoughts. But ever since that fateful day he had experienced the disquiet feeling that something had been left undone...a recurring sense of a soul not put to rest.

Septum shielded his eyes from the fire's glare and told himself that his overloaded mind was playing tricks. "The past is dead." he muttered.

The figure came closer and suddenly Septum fully saw Heero's face. Then, with this enigmatic apparition, the reason for his vexation became all too obvious. Agent 01 was alive! Now Septum saw in Heero's mortal presence his own mortality, a frightening finality to his life.

But the startled vacillation held Septum momentarily in place. He jumped into the car and gunned the engine. Heero leveled the Walther just as the vehicle sped off raising clouds of dust and spewing gravel in its wake.

"Not this time you bastard." Heero growled as he raced for the Range Rover.

********

"Duo." Wufei called as the cloud of dust swallowed up Septum's speedy departure.

Duo turned to see Wufei, with Quatre and Trowa on heels, running from the forest. "Where's Heero." 05 demanded as the glowing fire painted bands of red over his ebony hair.

"He went after Septum." Duo replied in a tense tone.

"Which way?"

Duo pointed in the direction where had Septum vanished. Before Wufei could make any further inquires a Range Rover skipped up over the bank, bounced on the road and took off in the same direction.

"HEERO!" Duo yelled ever though he knew that 01 couldn't hear him.

Without a moment's pause Wufei caught hold of Duo's arm and began towing him towards the woods. "Come on."

Before Duo had time to register a complaint or question the Lone Dragon's motives the IPB agents and their civilian comrade stepped into an open space in the forest. A helicopter, with a Khushrenada Electronics logo imprinted on the side, sat in the clearing that was barely large enough to accommodate its rotor spread.

Duo stood stunned before the unpredicted discovery. "What in the hell?"

"A helicopter." Quatre answered even though he was certain that Duo could identify the flying machine.

"I know but where did it come from?"

"Zechs Merquise flew it in then disappeared without a word. Later we saw a motorcycle speed from the lodge and, judging by the rider's long, silvery hair, we assumed it was Merquise.

Duo shook his head in sure knowledge that Quatre was right. "It was, I saw him."

Trowa slid back the helicopter's side door and stood aside."What was Merquise doing here, betraying Khushrenada?"

"No, he was defending Treize."Then in answer to Trowa's perplexed expression Duo added. "I'll explain later."

"No more time for discussions." Wufei declared giving Duo a sturdy shove, "Get in."

Duo and Quatre settled in the rear seating area. Wufei occupied the pilots' seat and Trowa took the "shotgun" position beside the Chinese agent. Wufei put on a interior communications headset. The remaining passengers follow suit.

Duo studied the surrounding forest, first one way then the other. "Can you get us out of here?" he shouted into the headset's microphone as the rotors kicked into motion.

"Of course." Wufei yelled back above the blades whirling howl. Without warning of his impending actions 05 firmly gripped the pitch stick, pulled back and shot the "copter" straight up through the crowded vegetation.

Revolving airfoils battered the encircling trees. Leaves shivered and shook, fluttering violently in the artificial windstorm. The helicopter quivered as strongly as the trembling tree line. Duo squeezed his eyes shut in response to the sudden ascent and mentally considered asking Wufei to land again so he could find his stomach which felt as though it had been left behind. He cringed at the sound of splintering branches and the pelting of dislodged twigs striking the fuselage.

Just as quickly as the bombarding clamor began, it stopped and was replaced by the steady, thump...thump...thump of the rotors. Slowly Duo opened one violet orb at a time and dared to look out the side window.

Above the forest's canopy, the helicopter whipped the dense smoke. The higher altitude provided a frightfully panoramic view of the lodge. Not one part of the stone building had eluded the blaze. Hungry flames boiled, their fiery fingertips spiraled and spiked in every direction. Most of the roof had collapsed allowing the superheated updrafts to shoot fireballs into the sky.

"Merciful saints." Duo muttered at the terrible sight.

Wufei banked sharply to the left angling away from the all-consuming blaze. He pulled in line with the thin dark ribbon of the road and flew off to find Heero.

********

The steady glow of taillights foiled Septum's vain endeavors to lose Heero in the darkness. The road downhill was narrow, too narrow for the speed that both cars now maintained. Septum fishtailed around a curve. Heero gripped the Range Rover's steering wheel and slid along the gravel grooves left by Septum's tires.

It took only minutes for Heero to catch up and seconds more to close the gap to the retreating vehicle. 01's headlights shone brightly, reflecting back from Septum's rearview mirror.

Heero counted that his driving abilities were better and that if he pushed Septum hard enough that the murderous madman would make a mistake. And, at that point, it didn't much matter to Heero if the mistake proved fatal to his foe.

At the hill's bottom the road widened. Septum took the last curve too fast. Loose gravel and grainy soil spewed from beneath his tires throwing out a pelting spray. His car skidded sideways and that was all the opening that Heero needed.

Coming abreast, Heero jerked the wheel to the right. Sparks erupted as the side doors scraped, bounced apart and hit together again. Septum's hand emerged from the lowered window. His reply to 01's "tagging match" came in the form of a 357 Magnum automatic.

Flooring the accelerator, Heero moved ahead just moments before the Magnum's muzzle spit fire. He continued to put more distance between Septum and himself, but only the distance required to turn about. Suddenly the Rover spun around lengthwise, blocking the road. One way or the other, 01 determined, Septum was going to stop.

Brakes screeched. Heero jumped out the opposite door and braced for the inevitable collision. Once more Lady Luck came down on Heero's side. Septum's car somehow "threaded the needle" slipping between the Rover's front end and the roadside. However, the car soon ran short of enough width and sideswiped several pine trees before plowing into a stout oak.

Septum rolled out the driver's side door then raised above the front fender and fired off two rapid shots. The Walther's answering blast, that struck sparks near Septum's head, cause him to reconsider another shot.

Septum stay low and scrambled for the forest. He had decided that the congestion of trees and thick underbrush would provide decent concealment and a suitable site for an ambush. Another discharge from the 357 covered his withdrawal into the shadowy woods.

At his enemy disappeared into the darkness, Heero cursed hoarsely and threw caution to the wind making a straightway charge into the tree line. Just as he reached the border Septum blended into the forest's black recesses.

Flattening his body against a rough-barked trunk, Heero drew in a smoke-tainted inhalation then let it flow smoothly through his nose. "If it's a game of fox and goose the bastard wants, I'm more than ready to join the hunt."

 

Part Twenty One: Closure

Heero crouched behind the wide tree trunk to get his bearings. He checked the Walther's clip, snapped it back in place and cocked the next bullet in the chamber. The storm clouds had thin out and the moon shone in varying degrees of luster. The intermittent light filtered through the leaves and branches illuminating the forest in patchy shades of gray.

Agent 01 crept cautiously along ever mindful of the danger lurking among the wood's shadowy silhouettes. Each bough and branch tricked the vision, created the illusion of false movement. The hallucinatory mirages of light and shadow mingled into delusive shapes that stayed just out of reality's reach.

Readjusting his fingers around the Walther, Heero stopped beside a growth of shoulder-high shrubs. His ears listened to pick out various noises, to separate the calls of nocturnal creatures and the whistling wind from the human sounds of breathing or footsteps...anything that would reveal the object of his hunt. Now one united thought and purpose prodded 01. An unfinished agenda pressed him for a terminal judgment. Slowly he started again.

Septum, too, listened. Moisture beaded on his forehead. Swallowing repeatedly did little to relieve the nervous dryness in his throat. The Bolivian jungle had been as smothering. Suffocating. Claustrophobic. Cutting his eyes left, right then ahead he carefully planted one foot before the other covering each inch of the forest floor in slow, watchful steps.

********

The helicopter followed the snaking road, its flight cutting back and forth above the forest's heavy canopy. "Do you see anything?" Duo asked anxiously.

Wufei shook his head in a negative response. "It's like looking for a gain of rice in a bamboo hedge."

"There!" Quatre exclaimed into his headset pointing down at the recently vacated cars.

The first flyover revealed nothing but the apparently abandoned vehicles. Circling lower reaffirmed the pervious conclusion of desertion. "Where could Heero be?" Quatre wondered aloud.

"And that son of a bitch depraved psychopath."Trowa finished his lover's thought.

Wufei reset the descent controls. "We're going in." he announced as the helicopter dropped from the sky.

********

Don't ask Heero to explain how he felt Septum's presences. The feeling was more an intuitive perception than actual physical or conscious awareness. *An operative's sixth sense.* Howard often called the instinctual connection.

Heero stopped short. Just ahead an indistinct outline took on a substantial form. He straightened his arm; the Walter became a natural extension. The figure moved in halting steps, paused then started forward again. Thirty feet. The moon silently slipped from her cloudy veil. Twenty feet. Heero's finger constricted on the trigger.

Septum froze. Something inside his head was whispering, too. His own well-honed instincts were calling for caution. In Septum's peripheral vision a glint of moonlight on metal flashed to his right. The discharged Magnum shattered the tense silence. The shot reverberated keenly over the trees and repeated until its deadly echo faded into the obscure darkness.

Heero dropped to one knee as shredded leaves rained around him. The Walther returned the favor. The muzzle's flare momentarily lit up the night but in that instant Septum had again vanished into the diffused gloom.

No movement. The wind held its breath and the moon ducked back behind her fluffy curtain of clouds. The jungle had been hushed like this.

Agent 01shook off the nightmare memories. His strides were deliberate and focused. Each step, he was certain, reduced the separation to his objective. Septum wasn't far beyond his reach, he could feel it.

********

Duo exited the helicopter leaning low to avoid the slowing blades. Quatre and Trowa, their pistols drawn and ready, flanked the worried civilian.

Wufei pulled an M16 rifle from under the pilot's seat and climbed out. "Stay here while I check out the area." he ordered.

Duo sank against the door. One last swish of air brushed over his head before the rotors clicked to a full stop. Any moment Duo expected to see Heero standing beside the cars that were wedged tightly between the road and the trees. He longed to see 01's reassuring smile and know that the awful mission was finally finished.

Then Duo sucked in a hard gasp and his heart pounded as the horrid vision of Septum, suddenly springing up from the bowels of Sheol, caused a numbing chill to race up his spine. "Wufei, be careful."

Wufei's search around the vacated cars was fruitless, then the Lone Dragon's observation training spotted a freshly trampled path disappearing into the forest. He waved to his counterparts, signaling for them to join him.

********

A blur of motion ran across Heero's side vision. Fluidly he threw up a forearm just in time to block Septum's arm and deflect the Magnum's aim. The shot exploded harmlessly in the air.

Palming the Walther, Heero brought the automatic aside Septum's chin with sufficient force to knock him off-balance. A downward chop glanced over Septum's hand successfully tearing the 357 from the madman's grip.

Septum tottered backwards then regained his composure. A high sidekick, targeted squarely for Heero's face, whistled through the air. Heero twisted his torso managing to dodge the brunt of the impact but Septum's boot raked down his arm and jolted his wrist. The Walther flew free and joined the Magnum somewhere among the ground's thick, tangled vegetation.

Both men withdrew a few steps to regroup. "I thought I had rid myself of you." Septum panted as he struggled to slow his irregular breathing.

"It appears your thoughts have misled you," Heero stated displaying a thin-lipped smile. Cobalt sparks flashed over his enlarged pupils, " but we will finish this tonight." he promised.

Like twin cobras each man slid into his fighting stance, tensed his muscles and prepared to deliver a lethal strike. Septum sprang into action. His fist grazed Heero's cheekbone opening a gash just below his right eye, however, the "bloodletting" resulted in an opposite consequence and was quite contrary to Septum's intent.

Heero's repayment in kind split Septum's lower lip and sent sharp pain racing from his jaw line to his brain in less than a heartbeat. Septum swore in German and attempted a second kick but, this time, Heero was ready.

Ducking under the flying foot, Agent 01 rolled his shoulder then popped up to deliver a fierce blow to Septum's stomach. Not allowing a moment's recovery, Heero followed through with an uppercut designed to tear the homicidal psychopath's head from his body.

Septum grunted then went down like a felled tree. He hit hard on his ass and sat stunned while blood oozed from one nostril and a renewed flow of starlet stained his chin.

********

A pistol's keen report caused the investigative quartet to jump in unison. There was a single shot then apprehensive silence. Allowing the M16's barrel to precede his observant action, Wufei peered around a tall pine. "Careful." he whispered so low that Quatre, Trowa and Duo more read the Lone Dragon's lips than heard the words.

"We have to find Heero." Duo declared tensely.

Wufei nodded, "We need the helicopter, there's no time for a lengthy ground exploration."

********

The moon peeked out painting pale bands over the brownish leaves littering the ground. Like a thousand diamonds, droplets of dew shimmered on the grass. The Magnum's polished plating also glistened in the renewed light.

Simultaneously Septum and Heero scrambled to reclaim the lost weapon. Septum's hand touched at the same instant that Heero made a diving grab. As Heero leaped forward Septum drilled his shoulder soundly into Heero's midsection.

The powerful thrust caught under 01's ribs and drove his head into a tree trunk. Rough bark tore at Heero's scalp, his diaphragm forcefully expelled its air and his lungs collapsed like a deflated balloon. Septum planted his feet and shoved again.

There was a barely auditable "pop" along Heero's ribs then a flash of pain and white light exploded through his entire body. Sharp, hot fingers stabbed at his side. This sudden disruption of nerve endings and the crushing pressure precluded any countermove on Heero's part, instead the injured agent felt himself steadily slipping away into the black void of unconsciousness.

Heero's inner voice screamed, ordering him to move, urgently demanding some response, some reaction. However Heero was rapidly losing the battle to reclaim any measure of alertness. Dizzying dots floated before his eyes. His feet entangled in the tree's exposed roots and further hindered his fight to remain upright. Involuntarily, Heero felt himself slowly sliding into a seated position. Bending at the waist aggravated the piercing pain. Tightness wrapped around his chest. Each endeavor to inhale produced raspy wheezes deep inside his lungs. Restricted breathing depleted the oxygen flow adding to his queasy lightheadedness. Cold sweat soaked his body and chilled him to the core.

Heero had no delusions concerning the severity of his injuries. The faintness, he knew, was graver than the drugged stupor he had experienced that night outside of the lodge. He knew that he could not "sleep off" the debilitating lethargy. A gradual recovery was questionable at best and neither Duo nor his fellow agents would be there to help.

A seizing cough rattled through Heero's chest but his pain-dazed senses were beyond any stimulated reactions. Gazing up through watery eyes, he saw Septum standing over him. The diabolical sneer that Heero remembered from the jungle was fixed in place. .

The Magnum's hollow end took deadly aim, ready to deliver a final, fatal shot. "You are correct Herr Yuy, everything will be finished tonight." That same sadistic smile that haunted Heero's dreams spread across Septum's bloody mouth.

Septum's declaration held a cryptic promise. The sneer disappeared and an expressionless mask, complete with viciously cold eyes, stared down at the vulnerable agent.

Septum truly believed that Heero Yuy was at his mercy, helpless to delay the Grim Reaper's claiming. Unlike a cat, 01 had only one life and, in spite of Septum's previous failure to take that life, the opportunity was now ripe for the Japanese agent's termination.

A laugh laced with malice rose from Septum's throat. "But this way would be too quick." Heero's executioner stated, nodding at the pistol. "You have my word," he continued the terrifying taunting. His free hand moved to his belt. "I will do the same fine carving job on you as I did on Marquis Welige." he proclaimed as a long bowie knife cleared its sheath.

Heero's hand was also moving. It clumsily slipped into his pocket, groping for his last hope of redemption. Septum shifted his weight and leaned forward. The moonlight sparkled over the knife's razor-sharp edge while the 357 held it deadly vigil.

A throbbing percussion shivered through the forest. Abruptly an erratic wind rose up trembling the trees and churning up dust and dead leaves. Septum's head jerked upward, his eyes squinted through the thrashing turbulence. Then as quickly as the uproar began it faded away leaving behind an unnatural calm.

Heero's basic survival instincts kicked in. His training roused him into action. The oblong case was extracted from his pocket. Thumbing the latch release, the steel shaft locked in place.

Heero flattened the narrow knife beside his leg to hide it from Septum's view. Bracing his elbows in the sandy soil he pushed to stand up. Trauma from the sudden movement restricted his mobility. With extreme effort 01 reined in his wobbly legs and, with the tree's support, managed to remain upright.

Renewed sweating made Heero's skin clammy and his blurred vision threatened to return. "Concentrate." his mind ordered. "Remember how Wufei taught you to move outside of yourself. Let go and focus."

As the trees stilled and the forest floor settled back to normal, Septum returned his malevolent attention to the Japanese agent. Judging by the German's insane smile, he was obviously pleased by what he believed was Heero's futile attempt to stop his impending death.

Yes, 01's pathetic posture made the prospect of his demise even more appealing. "Come on, Herr Yuy," Septum taunted, "Can't you mount a better defense than that? You will make it too easy to kill you." he concluded in a hallow tone.

Disdainfully Heero locked his eyes with Septum's demented sight and offered no reply to the deranged barbs. He was determined not to give Septum one moment's satisfaction. There would be no pleas for mercy, no show of trepidation. By his silence Agent 01 proudly displayed his utter defiance.

"You may be silent now but you soon will be begging for a quick end."Septum declared with such diabolical delight that the words made Heero's blood run cold.

Septum lunged. Heero tensed, his muscles ached and his ribs registered painful objections. He had only enough strength to parry one attack...a single counterstrike was all his injuries would allow.

A large black shadow slipped overhead. Again thunderous currents whipped the branches and something akin to a pulsing heartbeat vibrated the ground beneath Heero and Septum's feet.

Once more the murderous maniac's interest was hastily redirected towards the treetops and the mysterious shape that blotted out fire-torched sky. Septum reacted too late to Heero's unpredicted charge. He never saw the knife, only a streak of silver.

A centered upward thrust set the elongated blade deep into Septum's chest. Astonished eyes stared in perplexed disbelief at the realization that fate's retribution for his lifetime of heinous crimes had been delivered.

A peculiarly odd smile flickered over Septum's pale lips as though there was some amusing aspect to his life ending in such a retaliatory manner. "Sic transit gloria mundi" he muttered. (Thus passes the glory of the world.)

A raspy gurgle rose through Septum's throat, scarlet seeped from his mouth then a sightless glaze clouded over his death-dulled pupils. A strangulated cough ejected a gush of blood and Satan's bastard-child pitched forward.

The last of Heero's internal reserves gave out. Exhausted, he dropped to his knees and shivered in a pain-induced cold sweat. He raised his head and his shocked-altered mind mistakenly told him that Septum's tottering was a second attack.

Heero defensively covered his head and tumbled sideways moments before his seemingly immortal foe's lifeless body struck the ground with a nauseating crunch as if all of Septum's bones splintered at once. Septum eyes held a frozen glare as his vacant sight gazed hopelessly at the unforgiving heavens.

Septum's knife that had been his preferred tool in his sadistic fascination with torture and death was gripped in his constricted fingers. Heero's blade that was the instrument of Septum's punishment remained embedded in the madman's cruel heart.

********

Heero had been physically drained before but, this time, the overextended demands on his body and mind had a good hold. Winded, he willingly gave into the debilitating heaviness in his arms and legs.

Dull aches ran from one temple to the other. A warm, moist sensation gathered at his crown. An investagative hand came back tainted with sticky scarlet. The harsh wheezing in his chest was more acute and it hurt to breathe. Despite Heero's best efforts to coax his overtaxed system to cooperate, rolling onto his back was all he could manage.

The clouds had evaporated and bright pinpoints of starlight dotted the sky. A cool breeze, laced with a hint of smoke, gently fluttered through the treetops and feathered the leaves. The soft gusts touched his head and helped to soothe the throbbing. The unidentified rumbling was gone as well as the shadow that, like a great bird of prey, had commanded the night. Now all that Heero was aware of was the wind's peaceful whispers and the occasional hoot of an owl.

Heero lay perfectly still. Carefully regulated breaths eased the catching spasms in his lungs and loosened the tightness in his chest. For that moment, anyway, he was content to do nothing but gradually unwind his body, mind and spirit.

To Heero left the leaves rustled and he immediately knew that their shaking was not caused by the wind. A sharp crack proceeded the parting of branches. His first thought was to reach for the Magnum that lay next to Septum's bloody body.

Pushing up on his elbows sent pain racing across his ribs and a sickening wave quickly followed. Now Heero's second thought was to hope that whoever or whatever was advancing through the trees was friendly.

Chang Wufei burst from the tree line waving the M16 in what Heero considered to be a dangerous fashion. Trowa Barton and Quatre Winner, also acting in a reckless manner, flanked the Long Dragon. Cautiously Duo emerged, keeping a measure of safety behind the wild man with the rifle and the charging lovers.

Skidding to an abrupt halt, Wufei surveyed the scene before him in shocked surprise. "Damn!" he exclaimed, then added with a cocky grin, "I can't leave you on your own for a minute."

"What in the hell happened here?" Trowa wondered as he stared down at Septum's prone body.

Heero wanted to respond with a reply worth remembering...some cleaver retort but all he could muster was a grimaced smile and a moan.

Duo's breath caught in a startled gasp at the awful sight displayed before him. Was his eyes telling the truth? Had Septum really been sent to his final reward and his madness vanquished forever?

Hesitantly Duo walked towards Septum afraid that, at any moment, he would rise up once more like an exhumed vampire. But his concern for the correctness of what he saw and felt and the fear it inspired was swept aside as his stunned sight met Agent 01's pain-glazed eyes.

Duo more dropped than knelt by Heero's side. "Are you...all....right?" his voice quivered. He was both upset and relieved at the same time.

"I am now." Heero answered in short gasps for air.

Quatre stepped up beside Septum, "You are determined, Heero, I'll give you credit for that." he stated then gingerly prodded Septum's contorted body with his boot.

Heero turned his head and took one last look at the man who, for so long, had been the central figure in his quest for revenge. Septum...who had been the driving force to put matters right and patch the hole in Heero Yuy's soul.

Not only had 01's choices been guided by his private promises and, even though his objective to protect the lives of innocent people had been momentarily misdirected, Heero had never lost sight of his redemptive goal.

Duo also looked at Septum. He also recalled Heero's intuitive insistence to return to the lodge. He had asked Heero if what he deemed so necessary was worth his life. Heero's answer now burned in Duo's memory. "Some things are worth dying for."

Recent events had taught Duo all too well the meaning of those words. Money and power had been the "things" that Dorothy and Carter had decided were worth dying for. For Robert Baines, the need to know the truth had taken his life. And Marquis Welige, who finally saw the error of his actions, paid the ultimate price for his transgressions.

Lastly, pure evil...an all-consuming blackness of the soul, had driven Septum headlong into the final moments of his wicked existence.

With a weary sigh Duo eased down beside Heero and gently touched the gash on his cheekbone and traced the bruised welts along his jaw. "Is it over?" he whispered.

"It's over." Heero proclaimed. He had kept his promise to himself and to Duo.

 

Epilogue: A New Beginning

"Come in." Une responded to a knock at the door.

The Commander had been in Montreux for only a few hours. She was thankful her agents had returned in relatively good condition but she was curious as to why Heero Yuy had requested a private meeting.

"You're supposed to be on medical leave." Une stated.

Agent 01 closed the door behind him. Without a word he handed Une a plain white envelope. "What's this?" she wondered running her finger over the unsealed flap.

"My resignation." Heero supplied the necessary information not wasting any words on further clarification.

Une's brown eyes widened at the agent's unexpected announcement. "Sit down." she motioned to a chair at the conference table.

Obediently the Japanese agent followed what was, perhaps, his last order from the International Preventer Bureau Commander. Une slip a folded sheet of paper from the envelope. Silently she read over the page's brief contents. Exactly like her very efficient agent, the letter of resignation was precise and to the point.

Finally Une took off her glasses, laid them and the letter on the table then leaned forward not bothering to hide her confusion. "You gave no reason for your request to be released from duty." she stated then took a long moment to study Heero's unreadable _expression.

"My reason is personal." Heero replied with the same undecipherable tone in his voice.

"I think you owe me some form of explanation." Une insisted.

For the first time since sitting down, Heero seemed uneasy. Uncharacteristically he lowered his eyes away from the Commander's concerned sight. His fingers opened and closed in nervous aggregation then clenched into two white-knuckled fists.

Heero's behavior, so opposite of his usual confident demeanor, was as disturbing as his intensions to leave the Bureau. Une, too, was experiencing an alteration in her sense of control. As surprising to herself as to Agent 01 she reached across and lightly laid her hand on Heero's arm. "Talk to me."

Suddenly the expertly trained, unemotional field operative resurfaced. Heero straighten in his seat and locked his cobalt eyes on the IPB Chief Officer. The abrupt change in Heero's deportment caused Une to withdraw her hand.

"I have conflicts in my private life that would interfere with my ability to properly do my job. I feel that my mission performance would be compromised and thus would endanger my fellow agents and myself." Heero answered without a hint of hesitation in either his tone or his body language.

Une leaned back in her chair and folded her hands on the tabletop. "Have you thought this through? Resigning is a drastic step." she replaced her glasses and reverted back into her strict role of Commander. "I want you to take the remainder of your leave and think about what you will be giving up."

"More time won't make any difference," Heero stated firmly, "I've already made up my mind."

Une's practical nature took over in the argument to get Heero Yuy to change his mind. "The Bureau has invested a lot of time in your training, not to mention a considerable monetary output."

Heero's determination in the battle of wills was not about to wavier. "I will uphold the secrecy contact I signed when I joined the Bureau but I will not stay." he declared. Heero stood and turned towards the office door. "It has been an honor to serve under your command."

The sliding back of Une's chair caused Heero to pause just before reaching for the doorknob. He could sense the Commander moving around the table and coming up behind him.

"Heero, wait...please." Une had never made a request of her agent and she hoped that 01 would be shocked enough to at least hear her out.

Heero pivoted in place and gave Commander Une the respect she had earned from her many years of Bureau service. "Yes, Commander."

"I have a proposal that will benefit both you and the Bureau. What would you say to accepting a position as a training instructor?" Before Heero could answered Une added logical persuasion to her offer. "You would be able to share your extensive knowledge and experience with the trainees and the Bureau would retain a damn fine agent."

A mixture of surprise and relief ran across Heero's face. Without a second thought he nodded his acceptance to the solution to what seemed like an insurmountable problem. "When do I start?"

Une was also relieved by Agent 01's positive reply. "Finish your R&R, you've certainly earned the rest. When the doctor gives you a clean bill of health I'll put the paperwork in order."

Une extended her hand, Heero shook it gratefully. "01." she called as Heero stepped into the hall.

"Yes, Commander."

"Give my best regards to Mr. Maxwell." she said, knowing full well that Duo was Heero's "personal reason" for no longer wanting to be a field operative.

********

International Preventer Bureau employees were not permitted to accept gifts or rewards for their duty, no matter who was grateful for whatever reasons. But when Treize Khushrenada decided to show his gratitude to the agents who saved his company, he used his considerable influence to persuade Commander Une to blend the rules.

Feeling quite hospitable indeed, the owner of Khushrenada Electronics offered Heero, Quatre, Trowa and Wufei an all-expense paid trip to anywhere in the world they wished to go. Herr Khushrenada's appreciative generosity was also extended to Duo Maxwell. In addition to the free travel arrangements, a promotion along with the matching salary increase was liberally bestowed on his loyal employee.

Quatre Winner and Trowa Barton chose the French Riviera for their romantic destination. Sunny beaches and Mediterranean-kissed nights were the perfect prescription to put the stressful mission behind them.

Chang Wufei wished to return to China and spend time with his Clan. It had been a year since he had seen Hong Kong, translated as fragrant harbor. He deeply missed the sight of Victoria Peak silhouetted against the clear, blue sky and longed to visit his family in Kowloon (Nine Dragons).

After lengthy consideration, Heero and Duo decided on the Bahamas. When Treize learned of their plans, he insisted they stay at his house in Nassau that was nestled among palm trees on a private beach. "Just the right place for the restoration of Agent Yuy's health." Treize declared with great pleasure.

Knowing Heero's reputation for not always following orders, Une wondered whether 01's recovery should be under a staff physician's supervision. But his injuries were not serious, three cracked ribs and nine stitches on his upper arm. The numerous scrapes had healed and the bruises had faded to barely noticeable discolorations. And since Heero was on official leave Une couldn't really dictate the terms of his rest and relaxation.

Duo pointed out that he was certainly able to monitor Heero's health so Une finally agreed to the travel arrangements with one stipulation, the debriefing reports that all her agents hated writing up were to be completed in a reasonable length of time. However, the IPB Commander wasn't going to hold her breath waiting.

Lastly, Treize decided that time away from the rigors of running his company was necessary for both his and Zechs' well being. Zechs had always been prone to alcohol addiction and his drinking had reached dangerous levels under the strain caused by Paul Carter's threats to harm Treize. A prudent period of recuperation, in an undisclosed location, would go a long way to heal the lovers' minds, bodies and spirits.

Treize would never know of Zechs' sacrifice of one more part of himself. Zechs' killing Carter, ironically done in the name of love, would only be revisited when Zechs laid beside his lover in the midnight darkness and silently wept for both their sake's.

********

The cloudless, azure sky touched the furthest horizon. Turquoise surf stoked the pure white sand with a repetitive rhythm as old as time. The balmy air was perfumed with tropical flowers and flavored with the tangy taste of salt spray.

Dressed only in pale blue lounging trousers, that left little to the imagination when the sun shone through the gauzy material, Duo leaned on the railing encircling the bungalow's veranda. A sheen of coconut scented sunscreen glistened on Duo's bronzed skin. The gentle breeze blowing off the ocean ruffled his bangs and feathered his unbraided ponytail as he quietly watched the wave's frothy bubbles wash in and slide back out to sea.

Heero, wearing a tan cotton kimono, sat behind Duo in a rattan chase lounge. As Agent 01 reluctantly filled out his post-assignment reports he cursed under his breath over what he considered to be poppycock.

Before he and Duo left Montreux, Heero had addressed every point, answered every question and accounted for his time and expenses, so why was it so damn necessary to spend his vacation writing up papers that would be tucked away in a dusty file cabinet never to see the light of day again?

And if the pointless reports weren't difficult enough to deal with, Duo's teasingly transparent outfit was a constant interruption of Heero's concentration. Sunlight filtering through the veranda's thatched roof shimmered over Duo's muscular shoulders, trailed along his hair in russet bands and traced sensual patterns over the sheer fabric that clung to his trim buttocks like gossamer butterfly wings.

Duo could sense Heero's acute interest even if he couldn't see the gleam in 01's cobalt eyes. Duo smiled to himself, pleased that he was the cause of the Japanese agent's distracted inability to keep to his task.

Finally Duo took mercy on Heero's divided attention that was prolonging his distasteful chore. With a soft swish of fabric, Duo joined Heero. "How's the paperwork coming along?" he inquired, pouring a glass of red wine.

Heero sighed, "Not too good. Come here and rescue me."

Duo carefully settled on the chase lounge beside Heero being mindful of his mending ribs. Leaning back so he could see passed the roof, Duo contently observed a lone seagull gracefully gliding on the warm updrafts. The gull's shrill cry carried on the breeze then faded into the sound of breaking waves and the music from bamboo wind chimes suspended from the ceiling.

The lonesome song brought about contemplative thoughts. Over the past months Duo's convictions concerning right and wrong had been turned upside down. His confidence in people had been challenged. His naive belief in the sanctity of human life had been ruined and his ability to trust was damaged almost beyond repair.

Now the only positive meaning in Duo's life was Heero Yuy but their future together was uncertain. Duo knew that Heero was in no position to make a commitment, that soon the IPB agent would be called back into service. It was only a matter of time before Heero would take his next assignment and although the mission might carry him halfway around the world, Duo knew Heero would never be far from his mind and heart.

Duo decided that what time he and Heero did have together would be put to proper use making memories that would ease the loneliness and quiet the dark dreaming that his severance from Heero would surely generate.

Heero laid his report forms and ink pen on the floor. "What's on your mind? You seem miles away."

"Nothing, just thinking." Duo lied not wanting to spoil the peaceful moment. He took another sip of wine and tried to relax.

"Tell me what you're thinking." Heero insisted.

Duo sat down his glass and offered Heero a sad gaze."About how long we might have before your next assignment."

Heero eased up favoring his sore ribs and slipped his arm around Duo's bare shoulders. "I met with Commander Une before we left."

Duo eyes widened, "When did she arrive in Montreux?"

"The Commander flew in two days ago. I'm not going on any more missions. I offered my resignation but...."

"You did what!" Duo interrupted, "You can't resign. Being an IPB agent defines your life."

Duo's shocked sight softened and his tone lowered to almost a whisper. "If I'm the...reason," his voice trembled over the words, "I won't be the reason, I can't be."

Heero drew Duo closer. "I'm not leaving the Bureau entirely. I've agreed to become a training instructor but I will not be a field operative, the mission is not worth the risk."

Heero shifted until his eyes locked on Duo's fretted countenance. "For the first time in my life I have something to live for, someone to share my life. I asked you to wait but I don't want to wait. Stay with me, I won't be complete without you." He leaned nearer, brushed stray hair from Duo's misty eyes then let his hand linger on Duo's tanned face."I'm yours if you'll have me."

Duo leaned into the touch."I don't want to spend another moment alone. Yes, Heero Yuy I would be honored to stay with you."

"There's going to be an adjustment period," Heero warned, "I've guarded my emotions for so long I'm not sure how to let go."

Tears of elation pooled in Duo's eyes and a single salty droplet slid down his cheek. "We both need to learn how to trust again but together, with love as our guide, we can overcome any obstacle."

Heero Yuy always had an unshakable sense direction; he always instinctively followed the correct course. Agent 01 never acted without a precise plan but now the path to happiness was shrouded by the fog of uncertainty and like a frightened child he was helplessly wandering in search of a saving ray of light.

Duo Maxwell was Heero's light, his beacon and anchor. It didn't matter if he stumbled along the way, not as long as Duo was there to lift him up. Without hesitation Heero surrendered to Duo's guidance and trusted him to bring them safely home. "How do we begin?"

"Like this." Duo answered before cupping his hand behind Heero's head and guiding Heero's mouth to his mouth.

The wine-flavored kiss was tender. Empathy for Heero's pain was conveyed in that gentle caress of lips on lips.

Heero wrapped his arms around Duo and clung unashamedly. Melting into the kiss he gladly gave up his doubts and fearlessly let the wall around his heart crumble like a sandcastle swamped by the tide of love.

Duo ended the kiss with a satisfied sigh. "Please, let me show you how much I love you?"

Heero nodded "yes", stood up and held out his hand. Duo entwined his fingers and hand in hand the liberated agent and his civilian lover took their first step to becoming soul mates.

********

The sun hovered above the horizon like a huge dragon's eye. The waning rays painted the sand pink and reflected in a thousand glittering pinpoints over the ocean. Shore birds and gulls gathered under the palm trees to watch the sunset dissolve into the tranquil water.

Heero stretched out on the bed. Duo straddled his hips and slowly untied the kimono's sash. As Duo opened the kimono, his fingertips brushed over Heero's stomach and the light contact caused Heero to shiver under the tingling touch.

The parting material revealed several layers of supportive bandages swathed around Heero's sensitive ribs but they barely concealed the ragged scar. "We need to be careful. I don't want to hurt you." Duo declared.

"I'm sure we can find a way around this minor hindrance." Heero nodded down at the encircling bands.

"I can be very creative." Duo replied huskily. The breathy statement produced another bout of completely involuntary chills that raised goose bumps all over Heero's body.

"Let me do all the work." Duo ordered then captured Heero's mouth with a more demanding kiss.

The kiss quickly turned into many kisses that trailed along Heero's chin then up to his ear where Duo used his lips to tug at the lobe. Soon tongue and teeth united for a volley of sensual assaults. Bracing his hands on the bed to keep his weight off of Heero's chest Duo licked and sucked his way down his lover's neck.

Heero's tried to relax and let the varied sensations flow over him but his body was rapidly being overwhelmed to the point of losing control. A low moan rose through his throat and Duo smiled as the sound vibrated against his lips.

Duo pushed the kimono off Heero's shoulders and took a moment to drink in the golden skin that was exposed. Fingertips teased Heero's nipples until the dark nubs were firm. While one hand fondled the left side, Duo's tongue encircled the other nipple then he blew on the wet spot to send additional chills over Heero's overheated body.

Heero tangled his hands in Duo's hair and pulled off the elastic band. Silky stands cascaded over both lovers and slid smoothly between Heero's fingers. A tug on Heero's underwear signaled for the completely captivated agent to raise his hips high enough to be divested of the last barrier to Duo's investigative intensions.

"Mmmmm, lover, you ARE happy to see me." Duo purred at the sight of Heero's rigid manhood. "Let's see if I can make you even more ecstatic."

Heero could only groan and close his eyes in anticipation of Duo's lustful declaration. His eyes popped open and he blew out a hiss of air as the tip of Duo's tongue tickled along the hardened shaft.

Heero used twin handfuls of hair to keep Duo's attention centered on the sensitive organ that begged for more. "Damn! Duo!" he exclaimed as his manhood was engulfed by Duo's very talented mouth.

Duo ignored the loud expletive and concentrated on his task. Base to tip and back again. Repeat until Heero turned into a trembling mass of breathless sounds alternating between whimpers and indistinguishable words.

Then when Heero's control was brought to the brink, Duo pulled back with a soft pop as his lips let go.

"No...please...." Heero beseeched his captor to grant him release.

Instead of complying with Heero's urgent pleading Duo carefully guided his leg over 01's hips and slid off the bed. "Duo?"

"Be patient for a minute." Duo replied as he searched through his suitcases. A glint of silver shone in the sunset's fading light that cast purple shadows on the bedroom walls and ceiling.

Before Duo climbed back on the bed he slowly lowered his trousers to add to Heero's already anxious expectation. As the thin fabric slipped down, Duo wiggled his hips in sensual circles designed to further entice his Japanese lover.

"Utsukushii" Heero whispered, "Beautiful" he repeated in English.

Duo straddled Heero and used his legs to brace his body just inches above Heero's full-blown erection. A generous dollop of lube was squeezed into his palm then rubbed between his hands to warm up the slick gel. Duo reached between his own legs and inserted one finger then a second into his anal opening.

After stretching and loosening the outer ring of muscles Duo used several strokes along Heero's length to make certain that the "soldier" stood at attention then raised up, centered his hips and began to cautiously lower himself on the enlarged member.

Heero's eyes wanted to slide shut but he forced them to watch until his manhood was totally sheathed in Duo's sweet heat. He couldn't tear his sight away from Duo's face and his toned body that was damp from exertion. Duo's head was thrown back and his lips were parted in soundless affirmation of their bond.

Duo rocked his hips, lifted up until Heero's manhood was halfway out then descended once again into the depths of pure ecstasy. The lovers soon settled into a regular rhythm, a metered stoking of the embers until a fire ignited between their bodies and burned deeply in their unified souls.

Heero gripped Duo's hips and encouraged him to accelerate the fiery pace then tunneled one hand around Duo's erection and expertly applied pressure to encourage his climax.

"Now lover, come for me." Heero hissed and with a final stroke drove Duo to a breathtaking release.

"Ahhhh." was all Duo could mutter in response to the shudders that ran up his legs and the shivers that gathered in his groin.

With a guttural grunt Heero also willingly gave up his control spilling his seed and claiming Duo forever.

They remained united until Heero softened enough so Duo could ease up without causing either one any pain.

Comforting night shadows folded around Duo and Heero as they shared the afterglow. The ocean kept to its timeless vigil and the ageless moon rose silently over the horizon. The haunting call of a nighthawk wafted on the fragrant breeze that billowed the curtains and cooled the impassioned lovers.

Duo pulled up the coverlet and snuggled in the steadfast security of Heero's embrace. "Tonight is a new beginning." he whispered.

As a stream of moonlight sparkled over Heero's bright blue eyes, he nodded against Duo's chest. "Our first night of eternity."

The bamboo wind chimes sang a lullaby and the serene lovers drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

********

~Love enkindles in my heart like fire that paints the dawn.

As I wake in your arms the stars melt into morning.~

********

End Epilogue

A Reason for Living--Karen Hickman---June 2004

Thank you for reading!!!