4-18-2003

Title: Strike Force Five
Author: Karen, The Huntress
Disclaimer: I do not own Gundam Wing or its characters
Category: AU Pairing: 1+2 (1x2 will come later) 3x4, Wufei alone for now
Warning: language
Parts: 1-10/?
Feedback: Always appreciated.

Notes: Hello everyone. Here is part one of a multi-part story entitled "Strike Force Five". I am experimenting with a slightly different writing style so please bear with me. I hope that you will enjoy your reading. Let me know if I am on the right track. Hugs, Karen, The Huntress.

Strike Force Five
by Karen Hickman

Part One: Enter the Dragon

A lone man stood on a second story balcony. Raising a hand to shield his eyes from the afternoon sun he studied a vague shape skirting the eastern horizon. Like a distant heartbeat a steady thump, thump, thump resounded off the pastel tile walls. As the flying form dropped below the sun's glare it was clear that it was a helicopter.

Bracing his hands on the balcony's railing the man leaned into the artificial breeze created up by the approaching "copter". "I should have known he would be the first to arrive." he thought reading "Lone Dragon" printed in bright crimson on the side door as the helicopter whipped the palm trees, cleared the estate's wall and settled down on the perfectly manicured lawn.

For a moment the silver-gray aerial machine set quietly as the engines wound down and the rotor blades slowed. The tinted viewport stared back giving no clue to the activity inside the cockpit then a side hatch popped open and the pilot climbed out.

The emerging man was dressed in loose-fitting khaki pants, a tee shirt and a black leather jacket that was too heavy for the warm climate. He carried a large duffle bag in one hand and a long, slender hard-sided case in the other. Coarse black hair feathered over his shoulders as the aerofoils made one last whoosh overhead. Sunglasses guarded the pilot's vision but the man on the balcony knew that the dark lenses concealed eyes that were as black as the mane and held an intense gaze that could stab straight into your soul.

Long graceful strides quickly brought the pilot through the side garden until he stood directly under the balcony. Sliding the sunglasses down on his nose the piercing ebony orbs were revealed. "Hello Winner." he greeted in a husky baritone as he gazed up at his friend.

"Chang." the man acknowledged sweeping back silken blond bangs to better see his Chinese comrade. "Come in the front entrance." he called before turning to go inside.

Chang Wufei paused in the foyer that he decided was large enough to hold his helicopter then cast a sideways glance at the servant who had opened the door. The male employee knew from previous experience that Mr. Winner's "guests" were often protective of their possessions and always independent in their actions so he made no attempt to take either the duffle bag or the case.

"I will show Mr. Chang to his room." Quatre Raberba Winner instructed as he descended the wide staircase.

"Yes sir." the servant replied leaving his employer and his guest alone.

"Nice place." Wufei announced as he surveyed the grand hall that could double as a hanger. " Do you really need all this space?" he asked peering into the equally grand formal receiving area.

Wufei preferred wherever he called home to be only big enough to accommodate his immediate needs, any more he believed was wasteful. But then he had always lived a Spartan lifestyle unencumbered by "things". All he needed was his helicopter and occasional work to pay the bills.

Quatre shrugged, his blond hair slipping over one eye, "If I hadn't inherited my parent's estate I would have chosen something smaller." he honestly replied as a lingering sadness clouded over his azure sight. After nearly two years Quatre still missed his parents and there was not a day that he didn't think of them.

Wufei took notice of his friend's melancholy recalling the night that Quatre's mother and father died in a plane crash. Remembered how inconsolable he had been and how long he had grieved. How finally Quatre moved to the estate using the massive mansion as a hiding place from the world.

Wufei still worried that Quatre would slip back into the deep depression that almost cost him his life. That the daily routine of taking pills to go to sleep and more pills to wake up would start again.

Forcing the memories aside Wufei tried to keep the worry at bay as he craned his neck to see up the stairs, "Just as big up there?" Quatre nodded "yes".

"Don't you get lonesome?" Wufei wonder hoping that his friend had found some measure of solace, that time had helped to heal his wounded heart.

At the concerned question Quatre lowered his eyes and shuffled his feet. His body language and the rosy blush on Quatre's cheeks told Wufei that there was something about the inquiry that demanded further investigation. "All right what is going on?"

After taking a moment to compose himself Quatre raised his head but didn't make direct eye contact. "You remember Trowa Barton?"

"He's the man you hired as Head of Security after you moved here last year." Wufei recalled.

Quatre nodded, "Well for the past six months he has been..." His voice trailed off and the blush deepened.

Wufei didn't need anyone to paint a picture for him. "More than an employee?"

Again Quatre nodded sending more blond bangs into his eyes, "Yes." he whispered.

As a grin tugged at his mouth's corners Wufei couldn't hide his relief. "A lover." he stated allowing the grin to blossom into a full smile. "Quatre has a lover." he repeated feeling some of the worry vanish as he realized that Quatre was no longer alone. Then placing a hand on Quatre's shoulder he asked, "Are you happy?"

The glow of pure peace on Quatre's angelic face told Wufei that yes, indeed, his friend was very happy. "Where is Barton, I want to meet the person who has rescued your sad soul."

"He went to town but he will be back soon. Come on let me take you to your room I'm sure you would like to freshen up." Quatre offered his hospitality to his faithful friend.

********

"Let me know if you need anything." Quatre reminded as he closed the bedroom door.

Bedroom...it was a suit done up tastefully in peach and green. Double French doors opened onto a balcony that offered an excellent view of the gardens. A king-size bed, triple dresser and huge armoire took up the left side. A sitting area complete with two over-stuffed chairs, a sofa and a wall unit with a TV and more electronic equipment than Wufei's helicopter occupied the right side. The bathroom was also over-sized with twin mirrored wash basins, a huge shower and a separate bathtub that could hold a least three people.

Wufei stood in the center of the room shaking his head. "All these things and not one could make Quatre happy." he mumbled to himself. "Might as well make myself at home." he reasoned knowing that Quatre would be upset if he didn't.

The leather jacket was draped on a chair, his modest belongings put away in a single draw and his pistol placed with easy reach. His toiletries set on one bathroom sink. After washing his face and tying back his hair in a ponytail Wufei unlaced his high top boots, pulled them off and sat cross-legged on the bed.

Opening the hard-sided case he took a minute to admire his katana then removed it from its red velvet cradle. Holding the sword up to eye level he marveled at the way the light glinted off the finely honed blade. The gold handle was formed by entwined dragons, claws bared and fangs exposed in a manner that promised swift retribution to all those who dared to challenge the sword's owner. A blood red cord with a matching tassel had been tied in a ceremonial knot by Wufei's Sensei the day that he was given the title "Lone Dragon" and left the dojo to make his way in the world.

Now personal memories came flooding back. Days of sitting at his Master's feet studying and learning the ancient lessons passed down through generations of his Clan. The endless hours of katas and sword practice until his sensei deemed his student fit to represent his family.

Wufei remembered the day he said his farewells to his father knowing that they might not see each other again. He and his father did meet one last time as his father lay on his deathbed and whispered his final goodbye before traveling to join Wufei's mother and other ancestors that had gone on ahead.

The sword had been tested in battle four times since his lessons had been completed. Each time it had tasted blood and each time it had been victorious. Wufei held a deep respect for the powerful weapon employing his blade only when the dispute was a personal pursuit for justice.

The bedside telephone interrupted Wufei's recollections. It was Quatre saying that dinner would be served in half an hour. "No need to dress up." he added having long ago given up any formality at the evening meal. It was just as well because Wufei had never owned a suit and certainly not a dinner jacket and didn't intend to in the future.

Wufei did change his shirt opting for something a bit nicer than a tee shirt. As he retied his boots the sound of tires crunching on the pebble driveway drew his attention to the opened French doors. A dark blue SUV pulled around the circular drive parking just beyond the front door.

Keeping a discreet distance from the balcony's railing Wufei watched as a tall man got out of the vehicle and retrieved some packages from the seat. Long brown bangs hid one side of the man's face adding more mystery to the person Wufei assumed was Trowa Barton.

With several questions fixed firmly in his mind, Wufei made his way downstairs. Another servant guided him to the dinning room through a series of intercepting halls. "It's good that I have a keen sense of direction or I might not ever find my way out of here." Wufei thought as he traversed the corridors filled to overflow with the Winner family treasures.

Quatre set at the head of a long table. Three place settings were grouped at the same end for more intimate conversation. Gold rimmed plates and glasses sparkled under a multi-prism crystal chandelier.

On Quatre's left the tall man leaned over tucking stray stands of hair behind his lover's ear. Wufei thought that Quatre's color was not as good as it should be but a lot better than the last time he had seen him. Then it had been less than a week after an overdose had put him in the hospital. But that was a time better forgotten, the present and the future were all that mattered now.

"Wufei please join us." Quatre motioned for his friend to take the seat on his right. "This is Trowa." he introduced the man that had given Quatre a reason for living. A firm handshake and a "Nice to meet you." then dinner was served.

Quatre insisted that all the food be placed on the table so they would not be bothered. The servants were use to Master Quatre doing for himself knowing that if they were needed they would be called.

The odd trio engaged in small talk. Wufei asked a few prudent questions about Trowa's background and training. Trowa was ex-military having served with an elite unit during the Colonial War. He didn't want to go into precise details concerning his training or his duties but those facts made little difference now.

Trowa was more forthcoming when the questions turned to his and Quatre's relationship. If Wufei had any doubts concerning Trowa's devotion they were quickly dispelled. It was clear that loving Quatre was as vital to Trowa as breathing and that body, mind and spirit would gladly be sacrificed for his beloved soul mate.

Satisfied that his friend's heart was safe the questioning detoured to the real reason Quatre had asked Wufei to come. Through contacts developed during his military service Trowa had learned that influential politicians and disgruntled military leaders who didn't like the way the war had ended were planning a revolt. Their goal was to overthrow the present government and set up a dictatorial system keeping the citizens in line by force and intimidation.

"I can't let that happen." Quatre stated determined to use every resource at his disposal. "That is why I asked you to come. I want you to join a special Strike Force to fight against these traitorous factions that have reestablished OZ."

Wufei leaned back in his chair suddenly feeling quite insignificant in the overall plan. "Quatre I admire your willingness to commit to this cause but a force of three against an army as powerful as OZ is not feasible."

"What about a force of five?" Quatre countered Wufei's argument.

"Five." Wufei declared shaking his head harder. "What more can five do against trained troops?"

Quatre let an ever so slight grin flicker across his fair face. "That all depends on which five make up the force doesn't it?"

Wufei was about to register another protest when Quatre's raised hand cut off his words. "What I purpose is a force of five, a tightly knit group that would use infiltration and sabotage to undermine the core effort of OZ.

I have the financial resources; Trowa has the inside contacts and special training." he proclaimed, "You are the best pilot I know and can certainly take care of yourself in close combat. I have asked two men known for their skill in underground operations to meet with us. They will be arriving tomorrow." Quatre declared seeming to have no doubts that his plan would work.

Wufei swallow a sip of wine letting the fermented liquid warm his throat as he mulled over Quatre's proposal. True, he was an excellent pilot and Trowa an excellent soldier but the odds of success were still higher than Wufei would have liked. More information was in order before he could commit to Quatre's plan.

"Who are your other recruits?" Wufei inquired willing to hear the full extent of Quatre's strategy.

"I am sure you are familiar with one man." Quatre assumed, "Heero Yuy."

Wufei eyes widen at the name, "Heero Yuy!" he exclaimed, "How in the hell did you find him or, better yet, how did you persuade him to come here?"

"So you do know of him."

Wufei nodded, "Yes by reputation and if Yuy is half as dangerous as people say he is I wouldn't want to end up on his bad side." he readily admitted, "You must have made an unusual offer to get him to even consider a meeting."

Quatre cut his eyes at Trowa, "All I will say is that Heero owes me a favor." he answered but offered no further explanation.

"It must have been a bitching big favor. Do you think you can deal with Yuy?" Wufei wondered knowing that Heero Yuy always took solo operations and was almost impossible to control.

"I believe we can reach an understanding."

"Dare I ask who is the other outlaw you believe you can handle?" Wufei asked taking a gulp of his wine to fortify himself for Quatre's next announcement.

"Duo Maxwell. Do you also know him by reputation?" Quatre grinned in anticipation of Wufei's reaction.

"That's it you have finally lost you mind." Wufei declared reaching for the wine bottle to refill his glass with liquid fortification.

"I am surprised at your lack of faith in me." Quatre responded clearly enjoying his friend's struggle to follow his line of reasoning.

Wufei sighed finally giving up any attempt to make logical sense of anything, "All right Maxwell is one of the best explosives experts but from what I have heard he can be eccentric and just as hard to handle."

Leaning across the table Wufei locked his ebony sight on Quatre. "If you can get those two loose cannons to cooperate then I will never question your sanity again." he pledged, "But my friend I think you are asking for a lot of trouble." he proclaimed hoping that Quatre would give his choice of team members further, more serious, consideration.

"I suppose that tomorrow we will find out if I am indeed out of my mind " Quatre answered his friend's concerns.

"Tomorrow." Wufei repeated with another sigh, "Tomorrow is going to be interesting."

Part Two: Yin and Yang Come Together

Wufei slept in until 8 a.m. which was late for him. He usually rose with the sun and had practiced his katas for at least an hour before the solar giant fully bloomed over the horizon.

After a quick shower he secured his damp hair into a neat ponytail berating himself for wasting part of the morning. Dressed in navy blue lounging pants and a pale blue sleeveless tee shirt his soft-soled footsteps brushed along the carpeted staircase. Several servants, engaged in their daily routine, nodded to Master Quatre's guest as he paused by the foyer window.

There was a lot of activity outside as the grounds keeping staff trimmed and raked. "There can't be a blade of grass out of place." Wufei thought shaking his head at what he considered a foolish misuse of manpower.

Across the front garden Trowa was talking with two armed guards posted at the double-gated entrance. Another pair of well-fortified sentries patrolled along the walled perimeter accompanied by a large, burly guard dog.

"Quatre has always been pragmatic in his personal life and business management," Wufei continued with his thoughts, "but holding up in this fortress goes beyond reasonable precautions. When did you become so unsure of yourself?" Wufei sighed realizing that apparently even Trowa's protection could not put Quatre's mind at ease.

As if on cue Quatre walked down the hall, "Did you sleep well?" he inquired glancing out the window. Wufei couldn't help but notice how quickly Quatre's sight centered on Trowa and was happy to see that some sparkle had returned to his azure eyes.

"I was comfortable enough to oversleep." Wufei replied checking his watch. 9 a. m...if he wasn't careful the entire morning would be gone.

"You would not have slept in if you hadn't needed the extra hours. Now that you have caught up on your rest a good breakfast is in order." Quatre announced nodding toward the kitchen.

Wufei fell into step with his genuinely concerned friend knowing that skipping breakfast was a battle he could not win. Moments later special blend coffee dripped from the custom designed coffee maker and an array of freshly baked muffins were set out for Wufei's inspection.

"Sit." Quatre motioned to the informal kitchen table where he preferred to eat.

Wufei complied settling into a chair near the door. Quatre placed the assorted muffins on the table, poured two cups of coffee then joined his visitor.

"Did you give up your tea?" Wufei asked carefully sipping the steaming cup.

Quatre shook his head, "Not entirely. I like to share coffee with Trowa but only in the morning."

Wufei chose a blueberry muffin spreading on a thin coat of butter. "So when are the "loose cannons" arriving?" he wondered not certain he was ready to meet the odd pair.

"Heero should be here soon. Maxwell will come when he decides to show up. He is a hard person to pin down."

"Quatre I'm still not sure if this Strike Force idea will work." Wufei had to be honest about his feelings.

Quatre fiddled with his napkin thumbing at the edge, "I may be wealthy but I can not afford to outfit an army," he declared with a heavy sigh, "but I can put together the best underground unit my funds will allow. Will you answer one question for me?" he asked pulling at the napkin's frayed corner.

Wufei nodded "yes".

"Truthfully?"

"Of course."

"With five specially trained people how much damage to you believe we could do if we used hit and run tactics to eat away at the core of OZ's operations?

Wufei considered the question, studied at all angles and probable courses of action. "If we could keep OZ off balance and minimize our exposure time I believe we could give the bastards a run for their money."

"If I can persuade Yuy and Maxwell to join Trowa and me will you take up the cause?"

"Without hesitation." Wufei pledged to fight at his comrade's side.

********

Wanting his mind focused for the upcoming meeting Wufei was in the east garden doing Tai Chi as a form of meditation. His concentration was interrupted by the approach of a hard-topped Jeep. The white vehicle halted at the sentry station as the driver spoke with the guards. A quick conformation of the pre-registered name and license plate and the gates swung open.

Wufei finished stretching, slipped on his socks and shoes then crept to the garden's edge to spy on the new arrival. A young man whom Wufei guessed was about his age stood by the Jeep taking a moment to study the mansion. Golden skin tones and high cheekbones showed possible Asian decent. Windswept hair, not as black as Wufei's but definitely dark brown, gave the guest an untamed appearance but tinted sunglasses provided no clue as to whether the eyes behind the darkened lens were as wild as the tousled tresses.

It did appear that the man traveled as simply as Wufei. A single duffle bag and laptop case were extracted from the trunk. A third item, securely zipped up in an odd shaped carrier, sparked Wufei's curiosity. There was something familiar about the outline but he couldn't quite recall what it was. Another mystery but why not, nothing had been "normal" since Wufei set foot on the Winner estate. One recognizable shape was the tattletale holster bulge under the visitor's shirt. Clearly the man carried a pistol and probably various other weaponry hidden about his person.

Wufei moved closer using a rose trellis as cover. As the man started up the semi-circle front steps Quatre opened the door. Trowa stood in the foyer choosing not to follow his partner outside.

"Hello Heero." Quatre said with an underlying tension that hinted that Quatre and Heero might not have parted on the best of terms.

Heero Yuy nodded to his host without slowing his stride. "Winner." he acknowledged pausing on the top step. Then catching sight of Trowa, Heero took off his sunglasses tucking them into his shirt pocket, "So you did decide to stay." he stated matter-of-factly.

Trowa tilted his head down at the shorter man, "You knew I would." was all he said before stepping back to let Quatre and Heero come inside.

As the front door closed Wufei retraced his steps to a shale stone patio and went inside. He quickly made his way across an intersecting hallway using the trio's footsteps striking on the hardwood floor as a guide. A servant hauling the visitor's bags upstairs recognized Wufei's searching expression and nodded in the receiving room's direction before continuing his climb.

Quatre and Trowa had taken a seat on the sofa. Heero was just sitting down in an embroidered armchair when Wufei appeared in the doorway. "Wufei come in." Quatre invited.

Heero locked his sight on the Chinese man. Blue eyes, not nearly as slanted as Wufei's, showed a European influence. Wufei was correct in his earlier assumptions; those brooding cobalt orbs were as wild as he supposed. They also reaffirmed Wufei's opinion that Heero Yuy was going to be a pain in the ass to work with.

"This is Chang Wufei." Quatre made the introduction. Heero neither replied nor offered his hand as he watched Wufei take a seat opposite Trowa.

Wufei couldn't decide whether Heero's indifference was deliberate rudeness or poor people skills or a combination of both. In a way Heero's aloof attitude was a relief. Wufei did not want to become any more involved than he had to with the independent soldier. All he had promised Quatre was that he would work with the man and that was all he intended to do.

Certain that any attempt at small talk would be a waste of time Quatre got right to the point. "I want to offer a deal," he began explaining his plan as succinctly as he could. Quatre knew that Heero had little patience with long, drawn out speeches and even less tolerance with anything that would not benefit him in some way.

Heero focused mainly on Quatre but still studied Wufei out the corner of his eye. There was something sinister in Heero's glare that made Wufei uncomfortable. The Chinese man was ever so tempted to marched across the room, grab Heero by his shirt collar and use his fist to put a permanent end to the unsettling attention. The only incentive keeping Wufei halfway calm was that he was a guest in Quatre's home and that bloodstains would be very difficult to remove from his friend's expensive Persian rug.

Of course the fact that if threatened the sinister stranger might go into defense mode, totally disregard Quatre's abode and possibly beat Wufei within an inch of life never entered his mind. No, Wufei would wait and if Heero did accept the deal he would measure the man by his own standards of combat.

Wufei was so intent on resisting his urge to do the staring soldier bodily harm that he didn't realize Quatre had ended his proposal and was awaiting Heero's response. As Heero contemplated the plan Quatre tried not to appear too anxious and Trowa displayed his usual attitude of indifference.

"If I agree my acceptance will cancel my debt to you." Heero stated refocusing his attention on Quatre.

"Do not accept because you feel you owe me." Quatre responded leaning forward in his chair, "I do not want you on those terms. This is not between you and me," he continued wanting the deal clearly understood, "you will be joining a team and I will expect you to perform as a team member."

"Will Chang be part of the team?" Heero asked aiming his glare again at Wufei.

Once more it took all Wufei's willpower to keep his seat. His hands tightened on the armrests but he gave no outward hint of annoyance. "You have an objection?" he wondered sending out a good glare of his own.

A slight grin tugged at Heero's mouth and Wufei swore tiny sparks danced in his blue eyes. "No objection." he replied lowly, "I just want to know all the players."

"I have asked one more person to join." Quatre spoke up with a bit of reluctance. He knew that Heero would have heard of Duo Maxwell's expertise but didn't know how he would feel about working with someone not as disciplined in his duty.

"Maxwell." Heero declared.

Quatre's eyes widened at the name. "How did you know?"

"I have my information sources." he stated allowing the grin to stretch further across his mouth, "If I was choosing an explosives man Maxwell would be at the top of my list."

"Then you have no problem?" came the next logical question.

Heero tilted his head glancing first at Trowa then back at Quatre, "As long as Maxwell doesn't try to tell me my business I will endure him but I can not guarantee what will happen if he gets in my way."

Quatre sighed as he wondered if he had taken on more than he had bargained for. "Duo should be here this afternoon then we will see if we have a team."

Heero stood stretching the kinks from his back, "If you will point me towards my room I'll keep to myself until manic Maxwell gets here and begins to turn this place upside down."

After Heero followed a servant upstairs Trowa relaxed from his protective posture, "That was fun."

Wufei nodded in agreement, "Are you sure about this?" He had to ask seeing how worn out Quatre was just from the meeting. "This will get harder."

Quatre shifted sideways leaning heavily on Trowa's chest, "Please Wufei don't be difficult. I have to make this work." he declared with another sigh, "I will need both you and Trowa." he admitted taking his lover's hand.

"You know we will be here for you." Trowa promised for him and Wufei. "Now let's take it easy until Maxwell thunders in." he advised.

********

Three hours later:

The roar of a powerful engine punctured the estate's peaceful atmosphere abruptly ending Wufei's reading. Going to the library window he watched the reason for the ear-splitting racket tear through the gates.

Like a jet breaking the sound barrier a black motorcycle raced up the pebble driveway sending up a dust cloud in its wake then the mechanical terror fishtailed around the circle throwing up a spray of tiny stones.

A slender leather encased figure set astride the loudly purring beast. A black helmet with a tinted shield hid the person's face but it didn't take a genius to know that the wild rider was Duo Maxwell.

Mercifully the cutting off of the engine stopped the window's vibrations and eased the ringing in Wufei's ears. The helmeted figure scanned the area causing the sun to glint off the face shield. The obscured eyes studied Wufei's helicopter mentally noting its size and firepower for future reference.

Sliding long legs over the seat Duo dismounted and pulled off the helmet. A long braided rope of chestnut hair uncoiled and flopped down. As Duo undid the elastic cord securing a backpack to the seat the braid swung back and forth across his trim black-clad backside. Wufei had to admit that the unusual hairstyle was not only interesting but sexy as well.

Duo took the front steps two at a time bouncing by the servant who had been brave enough to open the door. Dropping the backpack on the foyer floor he used the helmet to point first ahead then up the stairs to the exposed hall above. The helmet's wide range of motion prompted the attending staff member to move quickly between a valuable 15th century porcelain vase and the swinging headgear.

"Hot damn this place is impressive!" Duo exclaimed as bright lavender eyes darted about trying to take in all the splendor at once.

The servant shook his head in silence then muttered under his breath something about "a bull in the china closet". "May I take your bag sir?" he asked politely willing to endure the brash houseguest for Master Quatre's sake.

"Yeah, sure." Duo responded picking up the backpack and handing to the household employee but decided to hold onto the helmet putting the servant on notice that there could be other treasures that would need protecting. "This Winner fellow must have done good for himself." the review continued as Duo wasted no time looking around. "Damn good."

Quatre intercepted Duo's self-guided tour as he came down the hall. "Hello Mr. Maxwell." he said offering his hand.

Completely opposite of Heero's unresponsiveness, Duo grabbed Quatre's hand in a strong grip and gave it an enthusiastic shake. "Call me Duo." he instructed smiling at his host, "You really have some house here." he commented as the helmet came around again to emphasis his point.

Always diplomatic Quatre tried to figure a way to relieve his houseguest of the helmet without being rude, "That is an interesting decoration," he declared nodding to the helmet, "may I see it?" he requested then breathed a sigh of relief as Duo handed him the hard-shelled menace.

Turning the helmet in his hands Quatre studied the single word imprinted on either side. "What does this mean?"

Duo seemed please at his host's interest, "That word is Shinigami, it means God of Death or something like that. A friend tagged me with the nickname years ago and it sort of stuck. I have it printed on my motorcycle's tank, too."

Quatre eyebrows raised at the explanation, "That is a curious title. Does it also describe the proficiency of your work?" he wondered trying to figure out this enigma that called himself Shinigami.

"Haven't had any complaints so far." Duo answered with a hint of hardness that gave Quatre the distinct impression that behind the easy-going smile and carefree appearance Duo was someone who needed to be dealt with seriously.

Despite his casual attitude Duo was dangerous to anyone he perceived as an enemy making Quatre hope that this "God of Death" would be as dedicated to an employer as he was deadly to those who made the mistake of opposing him.

In the upstairs hallway a shadow slid along the wall betraying the fact that the exchange between Quatre and Duo was being observed. Heero stood just out of sight scrutinizing the new arrival. "So that is Duo Maxwell." he whispered under his breath, "I'll have to see if he is as good as his reputation." he decided before returning unseen to his room.

Part Three: Questions and Answers

Quatre and Trowa sat on the dinning table's left side; Wufei occupied one of three chairs on the right as they waited for the other houseguests to join them. Quatre had decided that a leisurely meal would provide an opportunity for everyone to get better acquainted. After dinner the organizational work would begin.

Quatre did not delude himself that his purposed team would come together smoothly. He knew that there would be tensions, "bumps in the road", but he hoped that once the seriousness of the situation was understood that the odd assortment would at least agree to disagree. The fear that Heero and Duo would not see eye to eye was pushed aside for Quatre could not afford to dwell on anything but positive thoughts.

Duo was the first to make an appearance. He sauntered in with an easy stride quite the opposite of his bouncing over the threshold upon his arrival. He had shed his leather cocoon for a pair of black jeans and a tee shirt that had "Damn but I'm good!" printed across the front. Nodding to the others he took a seat next to Wufei.

"You do have a nice place." Duo commented leaning back to stare up at the chandelier.

"Thank you Mr. Maxwell" Quatre replied pleased that Duo seemed at ease.

Duo straightened up leaning his elbows on the table. "Please call me Duo, Mr. Maxwell sounds old. Besides if we are going to work together we don't need to be so formal."

Quatre nodded offering Duo an understanding smile. "Is your suite suitable?"

Duo continued his inspection this time studying the table settings, "Suitable," he grinned, "I could get lost in all that space. I certainly will be comfortable." he declared. "If you don't mind me asking who else is on the hall?"

"Wufei's suit is next to yours. Mr. Yuy's suit is directly across from your room."

"Where do you sleep?"

"Trowa and I share a room in the east wing. Why, is that a problem?"

"Nope just wondering. I like to know where everyone is in case we have to get out of here quickly. If something did break loose we might have to back each other up."

"I don't think we have to worry about any outside threats." Quatre declared laying his hand on Trowa's arm. "Trowa has assembled a top notch Security Unit. He is sure of the estate's protection and I have complete confidence in him."

Duo shook his head, the grin faded away. "That might be true but I keep my own council when it comes to my safety. I hope there will be no hard feelings." he directed his remarks to Trowa.

"Your personal security is your business but in matters of estate security I am the boss." Trowa stated putting Duo on notice that he would not tolerate any interference.

"Fair enough." Duo agreed.

Quatre was about to change the subject when Heero walked in. As per usual he barely acknowledged the others seated around the table. Without a word he slipped into the remaining chair next to Duo.

"Heero this is Duo Maxwell." Quatre made the introduction.

Duo offered his hand. Heero made no move to take it. "Maxwell." Heero coldly replied to the friendly gesture. But he did take immediate notice of Duo's unusual lavender eyes.

Duo raised an eyebrow, "The shy type." he proclaimed trying to goad some response from the stoic soldier. Then to push the taunting a bit further he added a saucy wink to his verbal attack.

If Duo's words hit the target Heero didn't react to being struck. There was no outward change in his steely blue sight or the focused glare he had centered on the braided bigmouth. With a sigh Duo gave up but only for the moment. He was not one to surrender that easily and he had a lot more ammunition in his sarcastic salvo.

Dinner was served. Quatre spent most of the time keeping the conversation on an even keel and away from anything too personal. He didn't want the evening to deteriorate to the point that there could be no planning session afterwards. Occasionally Trowa would touch his lover's hand to sooth Quatre's obvious nervousness.

"This has to work." he whispered to Trowa as the servants cleared away the desert dishes.

Trowa tucked blond hair behind Quatre's ear, "It will." he whispered back his encouragement.

********

The strategy meeting began without a hitch, as it became apparent that everyone was willing to put personal disagreements aside for the team's sake. Trowa repeated what he had told Wufei earlier concerning the traitorous officials and the newly formed OZ organization. Soon the tabletop was covered with rough drawings of an abandoned warehouse area that OZ had converted into a Base of Operations.

Trowa readily admitted that most of the information, although from reliable sources, was sketchy and that the details were fuzzy. In response to the doubtful facts Wufei stated that the only way they could be certain of anything was to get a closer look. Heero carried Wufei's statement a step further saying that infiltration was the best way to be certain of anything.

Duo agreed, "We have to have real info and a more detailed layout if we have any hope of succeeding. I am willing to stand in the front lines but I will not take any more unnecessary risks than I have to."

"We need the most accurate information we can obtain." Quatre declared, "As much as I want to destroy OZ I will not ask anyone to go on a mission without the best plan we can put together."

"Then the first thing we have to do is get up close and personal." Duo proclaimed glancing around the table for conformation.

"I will contact my informants in the morning and get the latest details," Trowa announced, "then we will proceed from that point."

"We should call it a night and get some sleep." Quatre instructed, "We are going to need all the strength and alertness we have if we are going to win this fight."

As everyone filed into the hall Duo paused watching Heero ascend the stairs. "I don't suppose you need someone to tuck you in?" he teased adding another wink for good measure.

Heero again glared at the smug man. "I would suggest that you concentrate on your responsibilities." he made the strong suggestion then stopped to peer over the upstairs railing, "Maxwell." he called down.

Duo cocked his head upward a sly grin plastered across his face. "Yes Yuy." he shot back.

"I will watch your back for the mission's success but do not mistake team loyalty for friendship. I will not hesitate to take you out if you push me too far." Heero warned before disappearing from sight.

Duo' smile widened as he stared at the empty spot where Heero had been, "I'm getting to him, I knew I would." he chucked under his breath.

********

Quatre," Wufei turned to his friend before starting upstairs, "Yesterday you said that Heero owed you a favor and the subject was brought up again this afternoon. I couldn't help but notice that there is tension between you and him. Under other circumstances I would not ask but if I am going to work with Heero I need to know if you believe that he is joining us only out of obligation to you and not to the cause. I can't take the chance that he isn't sincere in his commitment."

"That is a fair question." Quatre replied glancing around to make sure that he, Wufei and Trowa were alone. "Last year," he began, "Heero was doing some troubleshooting for an industrialist in Central America. I don't know what happened but he was charge with spying, arrested by the local authorities and locked away in a local prison.

I financed a rescue operation and used my connections to secretly fly the extraction team into the area. When they broke Heero out of the government owned hellhole he was in bad shape. It was obvious that he had been tortured, no doubt to try to force a confession. I had him flown back here, hired a private nurse and took care of him until he got back on his feet. I suppose the tension as you call it stems from Heero's dislike of owing anyone for anything.

But I am sure that he would not have agreed to join if he was not totally committed. He has a soldier's soul and a strong code of ethics. I would trust him to back me up anytime." Quatre declared truthfully.

"Then some good did come of your generosity after all." Wufei stated, "We have a much better chance of victory with Heero on our side."

Quatre nodded smiling up at Trowa. "Something else good happened." he added, "That is how I met Trowa. He headed up the extraction team and escorted Heero back here. By the time Heero was well enough to leave Trowa had decided that he didn't want to go. So yes I would say a lot of good came from my generosity."

******

Duo stripped down to his boxes and tee shirt and slipped between the hunter green satin sheets. Stretching out he let a satisfied sigh escape over his lips. "Nice." he proclaimed, "I could definitely get use to this." Switching off the bedside lamp he laid on his back watching the moonlit patterns of breeze-tossed branches dance on the ceiling.

Even though the house was cooled by central air conditioning, Duo preferred to breathe fresh air while slept so he had turned off the vents and opened the windows.

Outside a nocturnal bird, probably an owl, sang out its hauntingly beautiful call in time with the shadowy outlines of the trees. Low voices of patrolling sentries and the distance barking of a dog filtered though the windows. In the stillness Duo slowly became aware of another, more muffled sound, invading his otherwise peaceful bedroom.

A steady tap, tap, tap seemed to be coming from the hall. Duo knew Heero's room was across from his and he also knew that the monotone noise was not going to let him sleep. "Damn Yuy!" he exclaimed tossing the top sheet aside. Not brothering to pull on his pants Duo made a beeline for Heero's door.

The tapping stopped moments before Heero answered Duo's insistent knock. He didn't appear pleased to find the brash, half-dressed man standing in the hall. Heero hid his surprise as he took notice of the silver cross hanging around Duo's neck. Duo didn't seem like the spiritual type but Heero had learned long ago that no one knew what was in another person's heart.

"What in hell do you want?" came the curt question.

Duo ignored both the abrupt tone and the annoyed glare aimed squarely at his face. "It's almost midnight," he informed his Strike Force counterpart shooting back an equally acid stare, "I am normally a night person but it has been a long day and I need my beauty sleep." he informed trying to peek into the room to get an idea of what made Heero tick. In spite of Heero's body blocking most of the view Duo could make out a crossbow leaning against the foot of the bed.

"And I should care." Heero stated never lessening the piercing look in his gorgeous cobalt eyes.

Duo dared to lean forward as the ancient weapon captured his interest. Heero cleared his throat folding his arms over his chest. "Maxwell." he called raising his voice for emphasis.

Duo blinked refocusing on Heero's frowning face. "There is an irritating tapping coming from your room," Duo replied standing his ground, "and unless you are practicing for a dance marathon I would appreciate you holding down the noise."

"I was using my laptop." Heero explained then wondered why he felt he owed Duo any explanation at all. Then realizing that staring into Duo's oddly colored but quite alluring eyes had distracted him Heero snapped out of his trance. "If you leave I will stop." he promised willing to do anything to make Duo go away.

Duo couldn't resist the urge to get in one last parting barb even if it meant ducking a free-flying fist. "You sure you don't want me to tuck you in?" he teased shifting his weight in case a speedy retreat became necessary.

"Leave!" The door slammed shut.

True to his word no more noise came from Heero's room. Duo curled up on his side tucking the sheet under his chin. Visions of the crossbow played over again in his mind as he wondered why Heero had chosen that particular form of defense.

Clearly there was a lot more to the man hiding behind Heero's stoic facade. His curiosity peeked Duo knew that he had to find out more about the mysterious soldier that called himself Heero Yuy.

As sleep tugged at his eyelids Duo accepted the challenge, "You will keep no secrets from me." Duo pledged and Duo Maxwell always kept his word.

Part Four: Good Reasons for Spying

Duo used his nose to find the kitchen. Quatre had given instructions that his guests preferred to serve themselves so the cook had left bacon, French toast and a heaping plate of baked goodies in a warming oven on the counter. Freshly brewed coffee mixed with the assorted aromas to create a marvelous temptation.

Wufei, having completed his early-morning practice, felt less guilty as he relaxed with the newspaper, a muffin and a second cup of coffee. He looked up as Duo paused to savor the delightful smells. "Good morning."

Duo wasted no time piling up a plate. "It is indeed." he answered pouring a cup of coffee. "Have you ever seen so much food?" he asked taking a seat opposite Wufei.

"Quatre does have a tendency to overdo." Wufei agreed.

"Where is everyone?" Duo wondered as he sprinkled his French toast with powered sugar.

"Quatre and Trowa have already eaten and I believe Heero is on the lower level working out."

Duo took a bite, "Mmmmm." he hummed, his mouth too full to talk. After swallowing he took a careful sip of coffee then asked, "Is that your helicopter?"

Wufei nodded "yes".

"That is a damn fine machine. Maybe you could take me for a ride later." he stated not bothering with a polite request.

"I think we are going to be busy later." Wufei replied folding up the newspaper. "In fact," he continued checking his watch, "we have a planning session in an hour so I suggest that you use your mouth for eating instead of asking so many questions."

Duo wrinkled his nose at Wufei's bluntness, "Obviously your are not a morning person." he mumbled as he chewed a mouthful of bacon.

"One hour." Wufei reminded before disappearing into the hall.

Duo leaned over his plate, "Yes sir Mr. Grumpy."

"I heard that." Wufei called back over his shoulder.

********

It took half an hour for Duo to satisfy his hardy appetite. Being a gracious guest he put his dishes in the dishwasher. "Wufei said that Heero was working out." he thought cleaning up crumbs from the cinnamon raisin muffin that he could not resist.

"I should do something to work off the extra "muffin" calories." he grinned as a scheme hatched in his mischievous mind. What better way to observe Heero without looking like he was watching than to engage in some exercise? The logical reasoning fixed firmly in his mind Duo headed for the basement.

Stealthy footsteps carried Duo down the back stairs. Quatre had used all of the basement space for a home gym. A variety of equipment, shower stalls and a hot tub to sooth overstressed muscles provided for everyone's exercise needs. He had also constructed a padded area for sparring and hand to hand combat practice.

Easing up to the opened door Duo peeked around the frame. He drew in a quick breath as his eyes centered on the most erotic sight he had ever seen. Heero was laying on a bench press wearing nothing but a pair of jogging shorts. From the bulge of his biceps Duo guessed that Heero was lifting a considerable amount of weight. And judging by his muscular chest and washboard stomach Duo knew that Heero had taken excellent care of himself.

The weight bar rose, muscles flexed. A hard puff helped Heero lift the rest of the way then the bar hovered in the air. A slow exhaling matched the lowering of the bar then the sensual scene was repeated.

Duo let his eyes wander down the toned chest glistening golden in the overhead lighting. His further optical review took in the flat stomach before aiming for the spot below the short's waistband. It appeared that Heero's arm muscles were not the only bulging part of his anatomy.

One more puff and Heero set the weight bar in the cradle. Sitting up he turned away from Duo leaning over to retrieve a towel from the floor. Again the light sparkled over an equally well-developed back and strong shoulders but marring the shapely contours long, thickly raised scars ran in crisscross patterns across Heero's entire back.

Duo drew in a startled inhalation at the shocking discovery. "Oh God Heero what happened to you?" he whispered recognizing the tattletale markings left behind by a whip. "No wonder you avoid personal contact." he declared as the horrid picture became etched in his mind.

Heero straightened up mopping his face then pushed back sweat-damp bangs from those beautiful "bedroom" eyes. "Enjoying yourself?" he suddenly inquired glaring squarely at the opened door.

Duo jumped at the unexpected detection.*How did he know I was here?* his mind asked as his heart hammered in his chest. *Should I try to sneak away?* the mental conversation continued momentarily making him forget Heero's scars.*He couldn't possibly know its me.*

Heero draped the towel around his neck and stood up. "Maxwell." he growled the single word echoing in the empty room.

"Shit." Duo mumbled berating himself for getting caught on his spying mission. "Heero." he grinned stepping from his hiding place. "Ah...Wufei said that we had a meeting and I came to remind you."

*Do you think he believes you?* Duo's inner voice asked. "No." Duo answered, "Great now I am talking to myself."

Duo froze as Heero quickly closed the distance between them. Locking his brooding eyes Heero leaned near but was careful not to touch Duo. The mere inches of separation completely captured Duo's attention. "You can tell Wufei that I will be there." he stated in a husky tone that sent a shiver through Duo's entire body.

All Duo could do was nod, swallow hard to force down the lump in his throat and hope that his rubbery legs would support his weight. The doorframe was the only thing keeping Duo standing as he watched Heero start up the stairs.

Heero's husky voice murmured in Duo's ears. The heady scent of musk lingered in the air. Taking a deep breath Duo forced his scattered senses to respond at least long enough to ask a final question. "Heero." he called just before Heero disappeared from sight."

"Yes."

"How did you know it was me?"

Heero pivoted tilting his head to gaze down the hall, "I could see the tip of your braid dangling around the door."

********

Heero walked into the dining room with five minutes to spare. He found Quatre, Trowa and Wufei leaning over a map that covered half the tabletop. Two dozen aerial photos were laid out in sequence order in the remaining space. Duo slouched in a chair his long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. He glanced up from writing on a legal pad but shied away from making eye contact with Heero. It was embarrassing enough to be caught spying but to be betrayed by his braid was downright disgraceful.

Quatre looked up as Heero paused to study the map. "This is a map of the OZ Compound. The warehouse is here," Quatre pointed to the largest structure, "and this is the only road in or out." he indicated tracing the winding dark line with his finger.

"How did you get this map?" Heero wondered noticing that the government's Interior Mapping Department logo was printed in the lower right corner. "This is supposed to be classified."

"I have my sources." Trowa replied deciding that was all Heero needed to know.

Heero nodded. How the map found its way into Trowa's possession was not important, what mattered now was using it to its fullest extent. "OZ knew what they were doing when they chose this site. With all this open space and a clearly visible perimeter any infiltration will have to be exact."

Quatre sighed, "A daylight mission would be impossible unless we had OZ uniforms and proper identification and even then it would still be extremely risky. A night raid would be more feasible but the compound's entire border is ringed with spotlights and probably motion sensors as well. There are eight heavy gun emplacements, a pair on each side. Now do you understand why I wanted a small force?"

"Nothing is impossible with the right plan." Duo spoke up still writing on the yellow pad. "There are blind spots all around the outer border and plenty of smaller buildings scattered throughout the complex. It is just a matter of playing hide and seek with the troopers." he grinned as if penetrating the enemy compound was child's play.

Wufei picked up a recent recon-photo turning it in his hands to study it from different angles. "I would judge by the large number of support structures that there are at least four or five units of soldiers but I could be way off the count."

Heero's eyebrows pulled together as he noticed what appeared to be some kind of tall building sitting north of the compound. "Any idea what this is?"

Trowa shook his head, "That wasn't there when the earlier pictures were taken three weeks ago. OZ must have built that since they took over the area. Its purpose...well...your guess is as good as mine is."

"That is another reason we have to check everything out." Duo declared putting down his pen. "Here's the list you wanted." he said handing the pad to Trowa.

Trowa eyes widened as he read over the equipment that Duo had determined he needed. There were two kinds of plastic explosives, an assortment of fuses and six remote control detonators. And, as if thrown in for good measure, two motorcycles. "This is a shit load of stuff." he declared not bothering to put his observation in polite language.

"Quatre wanted to know what I needed. What's wrong can't afford it?"

"It is not a question of money, "Quatre replied reading over the requested items, "but a matter of time. I can't walk into a store and buy any of these off the shelf. The explosives can only be obtained from the military and I think they might ask questions we do not want to answer. Even the motorcycles couldn't be shipped out here in less than a month.

"I might have a solution to part of your purchasing problems." Duo stood up making his way to stand beside Wufei. "Did anyone notice this interesting detail?" he asked pointing to a building sitting off to itself surrounded by a high fence.

Heero took a moment to examine the precise structure. "I can't say what it is but I do know that it is important or OZ wouldn't have segregated it like that. That is definitely an investigative target."

"I bet I know what OZ is hiding." Duo announced with a hint of smug confidence.

"Enlighten us." Wufei snorted as a dull ache had begun to grow along his temples.

"Explosives."

Quatre leaned between Heero and Duo. As he did his arm almost brushed against Heero who stepped back to avoid the contact. Duo noted the evasive maneuver recalling Heero's aversion to touching. It was clear that Heero had a well-defined personal space and that he would not allow anyone to invade his territory.

"There could be anything in that building." Quatre's voice redirected Duo's thoughts.

Duo kept to his assertion regarding the mysterious structure. "It is not the communication's center, that is the building with the transmission disk on the roof. And I would guess that this long one here is the barracks, so what better reason for extra security and the separation than a building filled with something that makes a big boom." he came to the logical conclusion.

"We don't have enough verification to be certain of anything." Wufei stated rubbing his throbbing head. The entire meeting had been frustrating, too many questions and not enough answers. "What if you are wrong and there are no explosives?" He had to ask.

"There are." Duo stated sure that his instincts, honed by years of experience, were faithful in their guidance. "If anyone has a better suggestion I am all ears." he threw out the challenge.

Because an exact enemy count could not be confirmed or their firepower figured precisely, estimations and guesses were all Quatre and his coconspirators could manage. The lack of accurate recon-statistics made formulating a decisive plan unattainable.

After several suggestions were submitted and their implications batted back and forth, an abbreviated course of action was tentatively decided. Everyone agreed nothing substantial could be done until they could get inside the OZ complex.

Duo's indisputable confidence that the one structure's seclusion meant he was right had now become an obsessive reason to search the compound. Not only was verification of its contents necessary for Duo's sanity but his intended "appropriation" of his desired explosives would give the Strike Force's scant armaments, as well as their confidence, a much-needed boost.

The right charges, planted in the right places, would provide Quatre and his fellow saboteurs with the means to deliver an ample dose of death and destruction. True Duo's extralegal retrieval would be limited to what he could carry but quality was better than quantity anytime.

Quatre and Trowa considered their options which were restricted by the lack of concrete information, assessed the team's strengths and weaknesses then handed out each assignment accordingly.

Quatre put everyone on notice that he was not going to stay behind. He admitted that he had the least experience but he felt it would be less stressful to accompany Trowa and share the danger than to wait on the estate and worry for his lover. Even though Trowa would have preferred that Quatre remain safely at home he did not want to add to his partner's already strained emotional state so they reached a compromise.

Trowa and Quatre would scout out the support units on the compound's border. The invasive prying need not be extensive, just a quick look to identify the building's functions.

It would have been ideal if they could survey the barracks and from the sleeping area design gotten some idea of the number of soldiers they housed. Such quarters, however, were always designated to the inner region's security and since the spying duet had imposed on themselves strict conditions concerning the scope of their insertion range the border marked their limit.

Wufei, Heero and Duo would make the perilous journey into the hellish bowels of OZ. Although dividing the team might put undue strain on the group's sparse supply of luck they felt that they had no other choice. Wufei and Heero would try to get as accurate personnel count as they could. Also the weapons systems, especially the gun emplacements, would be evaluated as to their firepower. Lastly they would pick out suitable spots for Duo's explosive "kiss of death".

Duo, of course, would head straight for the puzzling building and prove that his instincts were on target. Using his expert knowledge he could acquire the most lethal substances to unleash a little hell of his own.

The mission code named "The Tour" would be accomplished with getting in and out undetected the absolute rule. If OZ had a hint that anything was amiss the entire complex would be put on full alert crushing any hopes the infiltrators would have for a surprise assault. Under the cover of darkness the Strike Force Five would put into motion events that could mean the difference between their countrymen's freedom or living under the cruelty of a despotic government.

Only a few hours could be allowed for the mission. Hopefully after its completion the trespassing terrorists would have a workable plan of action. Then the partners-in-crime could forge their final diagram for OZ's termination and pen the ending chapter in their harrowing undertaking.

"Promise me one thing," Quatre requested as the meeting came to an end. "that all of you will be careful."

A pledge was made...they all would return safely.

********

Swirling mist touched by sparking pinpoints of heat boiled into a dense cloudbank. Hanging in sheets like opaque curtains the gathering storm raged over the dusky horizon. Deep rolling waves of thunder rumbled overhead and flickers of lightning danced inside the angry clouds.

From his position on the balcony outside his and Trowa's bedroom Quatre was almost eye level with the frightening but strangely fascinating forces of nature. The gusting wind swept back his blond bangs freeing his sight to watch the impending storm. Bellowing clouds continued to thicken, dark and fitful. The smell of moisture was carried on the whipping wind telling Quatre that it would not be long before the heavens would cry.

He took in a shaky breath feeling as though all the forces of evil had come together in one place. Was the turbulence an omen of things to come? Would their hopes for freedom be dashed against the rocks of failure like drowned sailor's bodies or like flowers renewed by the rain would freedom be reborn stronger than before?

Trowa watched Quatre through their bedroom's French doors. Even though he could not see Quatre's face Trowa knew how concerned he was about the upcoming mission. With each forceful squall Quatre's shoulders would tremble and Trowa could sense his anxiety.

Quietly he opened one door and stepped up behind Quatre wrapping his arms around his lover's slender waist. A fine spray of rain pelted the couple as they stared into the storm's fury. "I love the rain." Quatre whispered leaning his head on Trowa's chest.

Trowa turned his partner around and bent over for a passionate kiss. "Come inside and I will love you while we listen to the rain."

Part Five: Touring the Devil's Den

The rumbling storm had spent its sound and fury in a brilliant lightshow but had failed to produce much rain. Now the night sky was shrouded in mist. The fine droplets did not fall straight down but swirled about in a soupy fog.

The estate's security lighting paled in the concentrated vapors causing Wufei to curse as he performed a safety check on his "Lone Dragon". He would have preferred higher visibility for the flight out than the fog allowed. Thankfully there were no massive mountains that could unexpectedly rear up from the murky atmosphere or a maze of cityscape to navigate through.

Wufei had flown in worse conditions shuddering in storms that had threatened to tear his "Lone Dragon" apart. He had zigzagged among bursting shells and ground fire so thick that he couldn't see for the smoke. Tonight he would fly his teammates within a mile of the OZ compound before tucking his "copter" into a narrow ravine. They would make the rest of the journey on foot using the dense fog as cover.

Finished with his pre-flight checklist Wufei joined the other Strike Force members assembling on the east patio. The team, dressed entirely in black, was a formidable sight. Trowa checked his pistol's clip before sliding the automatic weapon into a hip holster. Extra clips were attached to his belt.

Copying Trowa's preparations Quatre, Heero and Duo confirmed that their side arms were loaded and ready for action. A slender knife sheathed snuggly against Duo's right thigh added to his fortification.

Heero shouldered the odd shaped case once more triggering Wufei's curiosity. Duo followed the Chinese man's gaze to the mysterious holder. "Did you know that Heero has a crossbow?" he shared the information tucking an empty backpack under his arm that upon his return would be packed with volatile revenge.

"I knew the shape was familiar." Wufei replied relieved to have the puzzle solved.

Trowa started toward the helicopter, "Let's get going." he ordered. Everyone fell in line. "You you sure." he asked Quatre before climbing aboard.

"Yes. I will not leave your side." Quatre declared leaving no room for doubt.

Certain that his teammates were strapped in and all their gear stowed away Wufei started the engines. As the rotor blades engaged the "Lone Dragon" came to life with a powerful whoosh. "Welcome aboard Chang Air Services." he made the mock announcement.

Increasing the power a steady thump, thump, thump pounded against the air. Jerky vibrations traveled through the awaken beast then lessened to rhythmic quivers before the helicopter lifted off at a speed that made everyone feel as though their stomachs had been left behind.

Watching the ground pull away at a rapid rate Duo muttered under his breath. "Now I remember why I hate flying."

Trowa, his usual deadpan expression in force, nodded toward the side hatch. "Would you like to get out?"

Duo nodded "no" the lump in his throat preventing any verbal reply.

Wufei wasted no time clearing the treetops and charging headlong into the opaque haze. Condensation quickly covered the viewport but the wipers dispersed the clinging moisture. Soon the estate's security lights were swallowed up and the helicopter and its passengers were surrounded by deep darkness. The rotor's fog-dampened beating was reduced to a stabilized sound as Wufei banked left and headed for the devil's den.

Everyone traveled in contemplated silence. Each member of the crucial spying operation struggled with emotions as individual as the person. Wufei's mind was occupied with keeping on course. The swirling fog had cut visibility to less than a mile forcing him to rely strictly on his pilot's instinctual knowledge.

The navigational computer's programming was fine for routine flying but even its mechanical brain could not "think" through the fog. And the instrument readings were no help at all. It was just as well that Wufei was distracted by his piloting duties. There would be plenty of time to fret over the mission once they landed safely.

Trowa worried for Quatre more than he did for himself. He knew that his lover could not possibly comprehend the danger or the brutality they would face should they be caught. Someone once said that love is blind. Trowa knew that Quatre's devotion to him, while not misplaced, made him think with his heart and that could prove to be a deadly mistake.

Trowa did not need the extra stress, the mission was already complicated enough. Even though he and Quatre were not going to engage in deep infiltration having to watch out for his partner was an added risk factor. But if he had forced Quatre to stay behind the strain on his soul mate's emotional stability would have been a greater risk. No, Trowa in good conscience could not jeopardize Quatre's well being just to lessen his stress level.

Quatre, contrary to Trowa's beliefs concerning his unrealistic comprehension of the peril they would face, was all too aware of the danger. Not only was he experiencing an acute case of trepidation but overwhelming pangs of guilt as well. He knew that by insisting on coming alone he put Trowa in more danger.

While Quatre's coaxing heart had encouraged him, his head was fully aware that he was putting his partner at risk. If something happened to Trowa, if he was hurt or, heaven forbid, killed while defending him Quatre knew he could not live with the horrible consequences. As Quatre held his lover's hand and leaned his head against Trowa's strong shoulder he made a personal pledge. He would defend Trowa even if it meant losing his own life. There was nothing more precious in Quatre's world than Trowa and he would not live in that world without him.

Duo nervously fumbled with the latch on his safety harness. He was more concerned with the flight than what would happen once they touched down. He had always been fearful of heights to the degree that he avoided high places whenever possible. In fact he had decided as his heart pounded and sweat beaded under his bangs that playing a game of fox and geese with the OZ soldiers was much preferred to bouncing around thousands of feet above the ground enveloped in a murky mess.

Amazingly Heero appeared totally at ease. His head rested on the seat's back, arms folded across his chest and eyes closed in a state of complete calm. Duo leaned closer watching the steady rise and fall of Heero's chest and wondered if he had actually fallen asleep. In the same way he had been aloof since he arrived at the Winner estate Heero Yuy was in his private space, solely to himself and perfectly content to be there.

Suddenly Duo couldn't stand Heero's placid posture one minute more. Dammit there was no way in hell that Heero was going to remain this relaxed not while Duo was suffering a full fledged anxiety attack.

"Hey Heero." Duo called watching Heero's face for any sign that he heard.

A few seconds passed, no reaction. "Heero" Duo repeated leaning closer.

The eye nearest Duo cracked opened enough to show a hint of blue.

"What?" the single word hissed.

"Are you asleep?"

"No."

"Is it true you have a crossbow?"

The crack expanded, more blue shone through. Slowly Heero turned his head and opened the other eye. "So what if I do?"

Duo dared to let a slight grin grace his lips, "That's not a lot of firepower." he stated then began to expound, quite boastfully, on the superiority of his large caliber pistol.

Heero leaned an elbow on the seat's armrest locking his cobalt sight on the bragging bigmouth with the braid. "That may be true," he conceded giving the impression that he might agreed with Duo, "but if you want the enemy's numbers diminished without alerting the entire compound then my crossbow is the only means to carry out the "silent hunt"."

Duo could not argue with Heero's statement. He reluctantly had to admit there was some truth in Heero's declaration concerning the crossbow's discrete removal qualities but Duo saved his pride by stubbornly upholding his claim that a pistol still commanded more respect. "Just aim a pistol in someone's general direction and watch them scatter."

Heero nodded sinking back into a comfortable position, "If you are close enough for someone to see your pistol then you are close enough for that someone to shoot you." he declared, "I don't have to get that close." With that pronouncement Heero shut his eyes and by his body language told Duo that the conversation was over.

********

Several hundred yards from the secluded ravine Wufei switched on twin landing lights tucked under the helicopter's belly. Slim shafts pierced the gloom illuminating circular patches of the landscape below. The mist-muted light slid over glistening treetops, reaching between their branches to pick out scrub bushes and a line of rough rocky outcrops. Then the yellow beams broke over the outcrop's rim almost disappearing into the ravine's murky depths.

"Hold on." was the only warning before Wufei began his descent. The instrument readouts indicated that the ravine's width would accommodate the helicopter's body but the rotor blades extended beyond the body's breadth. Once more Wufei had to rely on his pilot's "eye" to sight in the landing.

Briefly cutting his eyes back to the passenger compartment Wufei shouted over the increased noise of rotor-whipped air beating on the outcrop. "Are you certain about the width?" he directed the crucial question to Quatre.

Quatre straightened in his seat. "Yes I am sure."

Wufei shook his head as he mentally estimated the distance across from one side to the other. "If you say so." he took Quatre's word, "If not you are going to buy me a new helicopter." he stated easing the control stick forward.

Duo closed his eyes, drew in an optimistic breath and held it for luck. The engines cut back sending shivers through the "Lone Dragon". The landing lights pooled on what Wufei hoped was sandy ground minus any jutting points that might rip into the fuselage. By deliberate degrees the helicopter eased between the ravine's russet walls.

There was a slight bounce as the left landing gear hit first then the right gear leveled off. On solid ground Wufei switched off the engines and waited until hub rotor and tail rotor momentum stopped. Releasing his harness he pivoted in his seat looking back at his black clad comrades, "It's a smug fit but you were right." he admitted to Quatre.

Trowa stood stretching his back, "I want you all to wear these." he stated pulling five nylon bands and five small black boxes from his jacket pocket. He handed one to each team member.

Heero silently studied his band focusing his attention on the thin metal disk on the band's underside. "A Tracker Band." he announced to no one in particular.

"A what?" Duo asked turning the strange device in his hands.

Trowa held up his band and a box, "This is a Model 354 Tracker Band," he began, "It is a simple but effective unit that will allow all of us to be linked during the mission. The Band operates from a narrow bandwidth chip housed in this round signaling disk. You wear the disk positioned over your wrist's pulse point.

The disk registers heartbeat and nerve responses. The readings are broadcasted to this belt pack receiver and enables the unit to locate anyone that might become separated from the group. It is especially helpful if someone should be injured." he paused giving everyone a chance to digest the information.

"There is also a communications chip that will allow us to speak to each other. The unit is virtually indestructible so if the Band should cease its transmission it usually means that the wearer, unfortunately, has expired."

"Expired...you mean like in dead?" Duo got to the point not bothering to sugarcoat Trowa's reference to "expired".

Trowa nodded, "Distance or terrain can affect the signal's range and strength but this was the best I could do considering the short time span we had for planning."

Heero slipped his Band over his left wrist and tightened the strap until he felt the shiny metal disk pressed into his pulse point. "I am not going to ask how you got these." he proclaimed recalling the classified maps back at the estate.

As everyone gathered their gear, Wufei opened the side hatch and climbed out. He turned on a flashlight then stepped aside to let his teammates exit the aircraft. Trowa and Quatre came next. Heero shouldered his crossbow case and jumped gracefully to the ground. Duo moved on shaky legs thankful he was leaving the "Lone Dragon" behind for awhile. Five flashlights flared into the soupy haze as the Strike Force warriors started off in single file to tour the devil's den.

********

"There it is." Trowa declared.

From the crouching intruder's hilltop vantage point the OZ compound borders were clearly defined by a ring of security spotlights. Although its actually size had only been supposed the warehouse complex dimensions covered a surprisingly limited portion of the overall area.

Two large structures sat to one side. One flat roofline supported a gold-toned disk betraying the Communications Center and sealing its fate as a prime target for the team's intended destruction. Many lesser building, probably support units, were scattered haphazardly within the compound's circular confines. The random site selections offered proof that the complex had been hurriedly thrown together over a short period of time.

An elevated armored gun emplacement was positioned at each corner. The team couldn't make out the kind of artillery that guarded the compound but judging from one protruding barrel's circumference the defensive weaponry packed a lot of firepower.

A single structure that Duo reckoned was his objective occupied a space well away from the other buildings. Coupled with the fact that it was encircled by a high fence further fostered Duo's belief that the building had a special use.

"Of all the buildings," Duo declared, "it was the most likely to house his explosives." With that declaration he spent the next few minutes expounding on his planned usage of the powerful charges once they were in his possession.

Again Wufei had to ask, "Suppose there are not any explosives?" He did not intend to play the devil's advocate or in any way dampen Duo's fervor but he felt the question needed to be asked. He didn't want Duo to get his hopes up then have them dashed if his instincts were proven wrong.

Duo adamantly refused to even consider any other line of thought sticking steadfastly to his convictions that the explosives were there. "Well if they are not there," Wufei sighed, "then you will have come a long way for nothing."

"I will make you a bet." Duo responded to Wufei's doubts, "If I return empty handed then I will buy you a beer but if I come back with my treasure, the brew is bought by you."

********

There was one other structure located outside the far border that peaked the trespasser's interest. Beyond the enemy camp the baffling outline stood bathed in bright light. It appeared to be more of a tall tower than an actually building. A large square platform rising well above the fog sat atop four massive support "legs"

Pressing night vision binoculars to his eyes Wufei could just make out what seemed to be a long extension projecting from the platform's top. As he increased the binocular's magnifying levels he growled out something in Chinese.

Even with his naked eyes Trowa had a pretty good idea what had prompted Wufei's low guttural grumbling. "That looks like..." he began then paused hoping that his assumption was wrong.

"A Laser Cannon." Wufei finished confirming his comrade's worse fears.

Heero shook his head letting out a weary sigh. "Damn." he swore, "I guess that identifies the mystery structure." he stated recalling the recon-photos.

No one had deluded themselves with unrealistic expectations of matching OZ's armaments and the Cannon was sure evidence that their wise thinking was on the right track. But the Strike Force believed the scales could be tipped in their favor if secret infiltration allowed the upper hand.

Designed to defend against an aerial attack or large invasion forces the Laser Cannon, sitting snuggly on its lofty perch, was of little use against a covert operation. And even though the enemy's artillery and field rifles could be just as deadly, one on one combat was still preferred by the determined insurrectionists especially if the odds were reduced by quietly taking out as many OZ employees as possible before the final charge.

Duo raised up nodding toward the compound below, "We're wasting time." he announced anxious to get to his explosives hunting. Extracting his pistol Duo checked his watch, "Let's meet back at the helicopter in two hours. That should be enough time to finish the tour."

"Two hours." Quatre agreed.

Heero unzipped the case taking out his crossbow. A quiver of steel-tipped arrows was secured to his belt. "Wufei, Duo and I will take the inside inspection. Trowa, you and Quatre scout the outer perimeter" he confirmed the team's plans.

At the bottom of the hill a trio of trespassers took off to the left. The remaining twosome kept to the edge of the forest that backed up on the compound's east side. Two teams...double trouble for OZ.

Part Six: Treasure Hunting

Three elongated shadows rippled along the irregular ground. The border spotlights further increased the blue-gray outlines stretching them out passed the tree line. As the three, more solid, forms responsible for the ghostly images drew up side by side Wufei, Heero and Duo squatted down reining in the lengthy gray tagalongs

Hidden by a narrow stand of sapling the trespassing trio stayed low within the mist-blanketed branches. Activity was light beyond their vantage point. It was certainly safe to assume that the concentrated action would be found nearer the compound's center but none of the encroachers were either brave or stupid enough to volunteer to find out. One fact was certain...the compound never shut down.

"Doesn't look like much security for a complex this size." Duo observed leaning closer to Wufei.

All the uninvited interlopers had been somewhat surprised by the lack of patrols, human or otherwise. Of course they hadn't discounted electronic sensors that could easily be concealed anywhere. Then there were the ever-popular Security Drones left over from the war. OZ never went as far as the next sector without the efficient killing machines.

Wufei tightened the night vision binocular's radius fine tuning his view. "Knowing our hosts," he stated lowly, "they think they are so invincible that they don't need much security. They believe they are untouchable." he declared changing the range level again. "Yes OZ thinks no one would dare go up against them."

Duo grinned. The light glinting off his pistol reflected in his violet eyes, "OZ is dead wrong this time." he proclaimed putting a hard emphasis on "dead".

Duo shifted his position straining to see around a tall crate that someone had rudely placed in his line of sight. "I am going on my treasure hunt now." he announced with just as deadly determination.

Heero craned his neck checking the surrounding area. "Can you get there from here?"

Duo raised up figuring the distance to be covered, "There seems to be plenty of things to hide behind. I will meet you at the helicopter in two hours and don't anyone be late." he issued the stern order. "And Wufei don't forget about our bet."

"See if you can complete your hunting without inviting the entire compound to dance." Wufei whispered, "Remember your Tracker Band." he reminded as Duo began to slink off.

"And the Drones." Heero added to his Chinese comrade's warning.

Duo gave Heero and Wufei the silent "thumbs-up" sign and vanished into the fog.

********

Muffled voices floated on the fog as Trowa and Quatre knelt outside a spotlight's wide circle. Resting his shoulder on one of several portable storage units Trowa peered between the shiny metal containers. Now he could see the disembodied voice's owners.

"How many?" Quatre whispered settling his back against another unit.

Trowa dared to lean further into the pale mist. "Two." he replied before withdrawing back behind the container. Going against his own insistent instructions that everyone stay linked together, Trowa ran his thumb across his Tracker Band's switch lowering the communication channel's volume.

"Trowa?" Quatre questioned his partner's actions as Trowa made the same adjustment to Quatre's band.

Trowa figured as they crouched only a stone's throw from the pair of guards that all he and Quatre needed was one of his comrade's loud voices popping over the channel.

Even though the two OZ soldiers were not hired for their astute sense of reasoning, a phantom voice calling out in the night might just stir something in their dull brains. The mysterious sounds could possibly spur the lackey's limited intelligence and encourage their inquisitive nature prompting them to come looking for the source.

Once he and Quatre were clear and on their way to the rendezvous point Trowa told himself to remember to turn the channel up. But for now, he reckoned, the silent mode was the best way to go.

"What to we do now?" Quatre asked locking his azure eyes on his lover.

Trowa eased down bracing one knee in the sandy soil. Taking a moment he studied the men's uniforms. "They're wearing sentry uniforms so they won't stay in one place too long." he reasoned, "We wait."

One patrolman rested the snub-nosed barrel of an SR42 over his knee. The Sonic Rifle Model 42 had been banned since the Advanced Weapons Act deemed the model unsafe. It seemed that the rifle had a nasty habit of slipping into overload and blowing up, usually claiming a body part or two as its prize.

After a high percentage of dismemberments and deaths were reported the unpredictable firearms were taken off the distributor's lists and their manufacturing prohibited. Yet there were still plenty of the unlawful weapons available on the "black market" and it seemed that OZ had managed to acquire most of them.

The second sentry propped his rifle against a wall then lit a hollow rod filled with some foul smelling leaf or, most likely, a synthetically produced illegal substance. He drew in deeply and held his breath for a moment before letting bluish smoke drift from his nostrils. The hazy cloud mingled with the mist churning in the spotlight's illuminating shaft.

Trowa's thumb nervously traced over his pistol's grip. He was beginning to realize that he and Quatre had ventured closer than his comfort level allowed. But they were concealed for now and moving about to feel more at ease could very well get them shot.

The red spot on the slim cylinder's burning end glowed hot once more. A curse-laden comment followed the inhaling as the guard crudely articulated his displeasure with the length of his watch period. "If that damned Captain thinks I'm going to waste all night out here he can kiss my ass." he declared frowning at the smoldering rod.

"You'd better keep your voice down," his patrolling partner warned, "or you're going to get us in trouble."

The complaining guard mumbled something in reply lifting the rod to his lips. One last, long drag shortened the spent rod to almost nothing. With a flicking motion towards the storage containers the finished product was tossed away. The rod hit the ground spraying out fragmented bits of its contents. The remaining embers landed so near to Trowa that tiny sparks bounced off his boot.

"Yeah a little too close for comfort." Trowa repeated under his breath.

A final curt comment concerning the irate sentry's opinion of the Captain's questionable breeding was expressed with noticeably slurred speech. The apparently stoned soldier muttered to himself as he picked up his rifle and trailed his watch partner passed the pool of light. The voices faded.

********

Wufei and Heero crept along. Each step was carefully calculated, every stride designed to minimize their exposure on route from the forest fringe's relative security to the enemy's playground. Luckily dim areas between the light poles created blind spots making it easy to dodge detection until they reached the Communications Center's rear wall. Unluckily the wall was void of windows. Wufei and Heero couldn't simply have a quick look and blend back into the woods. No, like everything else on their transitory trek the spying was going to have to be done the hard way.

Drawing his pistol Wufei checked around the corner. A constant hum touched his ears. Various pitches of voices mixed with a number of mechanical thuds and clangs. A sharp ping repeated over and over in a measured rhythm. Five men unloaded plexi-plate cartons from a truck. The flare from a micro-torch sprayed white-hot starbursts creating wavy images on the buildings across the narrow "street".

To Wufei's left a square pool of light copying a side window's contours flooded on the ground. Shapes moving about inside continually disrupted the yellow glow.

Heero pulled an arrow from his belt quiver laying it flush with the guide etched in the crossbow's shaft. Pushing the arrow's notched end into the bowstring he slid his thumb over the trigger set. A soft snap confirmed that the arrow was locked in place. Keeping close to the ground Heero took the point moving forward into a cover stance. He centered his weight, pressed the crossbow to his shoulder and nodded the "go-ahead" to Wufei.

Staying low Wufei inched between the lighted pool and the windowsill. Casting a glance back at Heero the Chinese insurrectionist raised up slowly. Four men and two women sat before consoles ablaze with flickering lights and adorned with numerous switches and readout screens. A fourth man worked at another station on the opposite side.

Wufei ducked as an inside door opened. When he peered over the sill again a Security Officer had joined the techs. Judging from the insignia on his black uniform Wufei determined that the Officer's rank was advanced. From the man's body language and serious expression Wufei perceived urgency in the orders the Officer barked out at the harried operators.

"They are in the middle of putting something on line." Wufei made an educated guess as he knelt beside Heero. "The equipment is buzzing and a Security Officer is about to burst a gut."

"Could you hear anything?" Heero asked keeping his eyes glued on the corner.

Wufei shook his head "no". Checking his watch a frown pulled at his eyebrows, "We have enough time to scout out the surrounding buildings before meeting the others. When we leave I want to do a flyover and see if we can get a better look at that tower."

Two shadowy silhouettes darted back the way they had come. A pistol and crossbow aimed ahead to greet any personnel that might cross their path. Gradually the shapes bended back into the fog and left no trace of their presence behind.

********

Duo made a series of quick dashes, a transversal trek that covered only a few yards at a time. This "eating away" of the compound's acreage bit by bit could work on the nerves of a less patient man. But taking on larger chunks of OZ real estate was not feasible as Duo fought his way through the ever-thickening fog. The further inside the compound's territory Duo dared to invade the more compact the white vapors became and the more obstacles planted themselves squarely in his path.

Duo wasn't sure how far he had traveled or how long it would be before he might stumble, and he used the term literally, onto anything remotely fulfilling his explosive requirements. As the opaque fog filtered in behind and all but obliterated his escape route, Duo found it took all his concentrative powers to maintain his sense of direction.

"Getting in," he told himself, "was easy." Finding his way out especially if his hurried retreat was dispatched by gunshots could prove to be the greatest challenge to his navigational skills.

There was one other compelling reason for Duo's successful exit and return to the helicopter. After his stern orders, his insistence that all parties reassemble at the appointed time and place, any tardiness on his part would most certainly be met with such taunting reproach that not returning at all might prove to be the least painful of choices.

Duo strained his eyes but the effort had only a marginal affect on the clammy blanket of mist. Instead of clearly defining the vague shapes just beyond Duo's position, his narrowed vision only lent a wavy view through the soupy moisture.

With a hard sigh, one borne of waning physical stamina and the pressing urgency of time's rapid depletion, Duo ran a hand over his face trying to make his mind stop racing from one splintered thought to another. All his mental powers and instincts had to converge into one central perception. His time for hunting was running out and he would be damned if he would return empty handed.

Closing his eyes Duo surrendered his senses allowing his consciousness to find its own path. Slowly a pattern began to assemble, scattered images pulled together. A picture formed, bits and pieces arranging themselves from nowhere. Duo felt himself moving but his sense of motion did not come by contact with the ground beneath his boots but was accomplished by gliding above the damp soil.

Then as quickly as the movement began it ended leaving behind a strange, almost euphoric, sensation. When Duo opened his eyes a gray shape had mysteriously materialized a short distance ahead. A single light bulb above the structure's main door blurred in hazy contours, its light fractured by the fog.

Staying low Duo eased up ever mindful that the entrance could be protected by guards. He hoped that the dampness would interfere with any sensors clouding the electric "eye". A quick check of the immediate area revealed nothing. Recalling Wufei commentary on how OZ believed itself to be invincible and therefore was lax in its security, Duo flipped his braid over his shoulder and started forward again.

A sly grin curled up Duo's lips. His eyes grew wide as they read a sign posted on the eight foot, mesh wire fence that encircled the building.

WARNING!----EXPLOSIVES!----NO FLAMMABLE MATERIAL OR SPARKING DEVICES BEYOND THIS POINT!

"Hot damn!" Duo almost shouted aloud as his depressed mental state suddenly improved. "Chang Wufei you owe me a beer."

Duo knelt by the fence pausing to ponder the percentage of OZ hirelings who could actually read and understand the warning sign. Knowing that the majority of troopers were drafted for their brawn not their brains his supposition concerning their illiteracy ratio caused a moment's amusement. The grin broke into a full smile as Duo envisioned a single uneducated soldier leveling the compound with one carelessly discarded smoking rod.

Some ten yards from his pondering point a gate as tall as the fence was locked up tight. Duo extracted his knife from its sheath and carefully touched the blade to the woven wire. The absence of sparks or a jolting kickback showed that no voltage ran along the metal enclosure. Returning the knife to its place on his thigh, Duo pulled a lock pick from his pocket. One twist to the right, then a counterclockwise action and the latch gave way with a snap.

A second survey before Duo gave the disengaged barrier a push. The infrequently used hinges caught then broke free with a shrill squeak, the raw scraping setting Duo's teeth on edge. After squeezing through he set the gate back in line using the matched placement to cover the entrance violation.

Satisfied that he would not be discovered Duo pressed his body into the recessed doorframe taking an encode-scrambler from his backpack. In seconds the scrambler had sufficiently confused the locking codes that secured the door. The false signals interrupted the circuit feed and the doorknob turned in his hand.

His pistol held against his chest, Duo inched the door open with the toe of the boot holding his breath in anticipation of an activated alarm. When none sounded he slipped inside shutting the door after him.

Once more Duo had to restrain himself from shouting out loud. There before him in perfect order were crates and cartons protectively holding the objects of his quest. And to add bliss to his delight a few boxes were stamped with a C5 rating telling him that the contents were particularly volatile.

Duo knew that what he could carry out would be limited. He briefly considered contacting Wufei and Heero for more manpower but he didn't want to take the chance that the transmission might be intercepted and traced. The best alternative was the careful selection of the items that could do the most damage. Besides if too many "things" turned up missing even the most simple-minded employee might take notice. No, better to "appropriate" what could deliver a potent punch and leave the rest to cover the larceny.

" OZ get ready for a taste of hell." Duo proclaimed as he loaded his backpack.

Part Seven: Close Calls and Acquisitions

Trowa and Quatre were doing their own "dancing in the dark". Their advance came in cautiously measured steps. The line of light poles woven throughout the perimeter did shed more light, however the adjacent buildings were grouped tighter, their closer proximity producing greater activity.

Odd sounds and noises mixed with voices raised above the din that whined just beyond the pair's position. An occasional heavier thud accented the constant hum of whatever machinery was being put to use.

Quatre peered around a light pole's wide base. The spotlight's concentration, unlike the pervious glows dampened by the fog, radiated well passed its point of origin. The increased brightness made it clear that he and Trowa would have to choose an alternate exit route.

"Which way?" Quatre wondered as he strained to identify a shape silhouetted in the bright backwash flooding the way ahead.

Trowa shrugged, "We retrace our path until we find a safer place to cross the border."

Quatre leaned forward trying to get a better view of the puzzling outline that appeared to be moving in their direction. Suddenly something attached itself to Quatre's jacket jerking him back with enough force to plant him squarely on the seat of his pants.

It took only a moment for Quatre to figure that Trowa's hand was responsible for his swift contact with the ground. The surprised blond twirled around poising his lips to harshly demand Trowa's explanation for his actions and to also question his partner's state of saneness.

Before Quatre could register his protest Trowa's hand covered his mouth. "SHHHH!" Trowa hissed squatting down beside his lover. Cutting his eyes sideways Trowa emphatically underscored his insistence of silence with a hard nod of his head.

Straight ahead, almost close enough to touch, the dull gray armor plate of a Sentry Drone blended perfectly with the haze. The only betrayer of the Drone's presence was the scarlet gleam of its twin video-optics.

Quatre sucked in an involuntary breath so hard that it caught in his chest with a painful stab. He became pale and uncontrolled tremors shook his entire body.

"Steady." Trowa whispered wrapping his arms protectively about his trembling lover.

The mechanical sentry stood fixed in place seemingly in shutdown mod but its piercing stare told Trowa and Quatre that the lethal machine was undeniably operational. Likewise they had no reason to doubt that its weapon's system was just as active as its crimson orbs. Trowa also knew that shooting at the Drone would be as ineffectual as trying to stop a raging bull with a slingshot.

OZ's deadliest defense system, the bipedal Security Drone tracked an intruder by body heat and movement then zeroed in on its target with gut-wrenching speed. Its power capacity could burn through ratio-rated steel plating or damage the body's functions so badly that the resulting disruption left little or nothing behind to identify as human.

Both trespassers froze; their breathing reduced to the minimum necessary to keep from passing out. Quatre and Trowa hoped that the clammy mist would inhibit their body heat and lower their temperature levels below the Drone's sensor range. They prayed that the nearby noise would interfere with the Drone's audio input so the merciless machine would not "hear" each time they had to draw in a shaky breath.

All Quatre and Trowa could do was remain motionless as every nerve ending tingled and jumped under their skin. The lovers clung to each other fighting the overwhelming urge to bolt, to flee certain death if they were discovered. But the odds of outrunning the Drone's electronically enhanced reflexes never came down on the human's side. The hideously twisted skeletal forms of soldiers who tried were a picture forever etched in Trowa's memories.

Those nightmare images from the war came rushing back with such sickening suddenness that Trowa felt himself recoiling, drawing up to merge with the shrouding fog. Chills seized his body, a shudder raced inside before finally coming to rest as a knot in the pit of his stomach. Visions of needle thin beams slicing through flesh and bone sent cold sweat beading across his brow.

Oddly Quatre's reaction to his possible impending doom was peculiarly opposite of Trowa's gripping terror. His quivering had stopped and, as he simply closed his eyes, there was a surprisingly serene countenance on his fair face.

Quatre had long ago accepted his fragile mortal condition. If the end was at hand he wanted no warning. If these were to be his last moments then spending them in Trowa's arms was all he needed to make the peaceful transition from this world to the next.

His inner harmony had come reluctantly at first but the fear had gradually given way to the sure knowledge that the fates or whatever deities ruled man's destiny would sound the final retreat. For Quatre this was not so much an apathetic view of life but a resigned acceptance of his limitations. Contentment with his circumstances especially after his parent's deaths had become his soul's redemption.

The Drone's rigidity suddenly loosened, the unexpected motion causing Trowa to flinch and further withdraw into the shadows. His partner's movements caused Quatre to open his eyes.

Tilting its head off-center, mimicking the posture of a listening human, the Drone appeared to rearrange its audible ports attempting to overcome the background noise, the clangs and thuds. Next it rotated its upper torso in an effort to isolate any resonance different from the machinery's clamor.

With its shift in attitude Trowa swore that the Drone looked directly down at him and Quatre. Now all they could do now was stare back into the merciless killing machine's glowing "eyes" and hope against hope for some miraculous deliverance.

"I love you." Quatre whispered before relaxing against Trowa's chest.

Trowa kissed the top of his precious soul mate's blond head taking a second to breathe in the fresh scent of Quatre's Green Tea shampoo. "I will love you forever." he replied cradling his lover as close as physically possible.

One time in his life Trowa must have done something right. Perhaps the fates had indeed forgiven his sins and his reward was more moments with Quatre. The Drone emitted what could be described as an "electronic sigh" then swiveled about facing forward. Trowa guessed that the mock-human sentry must have finally given into the confusing racket and static produced by the operating machinery.

Walking away on servo-motors so quiet that Trowa was once again reminded just how easily one could fall prey to the walking demolition device the frustrated Drone smoothly traveled back towards the light and noise and voices.

It was not until the Drone had completely disappeared from sight that either man dared to believe that they had been delivered. "Are you all right?" Trowa asked pushing Quatre's golden bangs from his eyes.

Quatre pushed against Trowa to stand up. "Yes."

"Are you sure?" Trowa insisted checking his partner's eyes for signs of distress.

Quatre caressed Trowa's lips with a brushing kiss. "I am always all right when I am with you." he assured his concerned partner.

With their close call fresh in their minds, the grateful pair slipped beyond the shadowy border and faded into the fog.

********

Heero and Wufei stood shoulder to shoulder squinting at a wooden building. Wufei whispered his opinion that the use of wood, in contrast to the surrounding stone architecture, indicated that the building was not an original part of the warehouse complex but that OZ had constructed it for a specific use.

Heero agreed that the structure's contrariness was not the design quirk of an eccentric planner and therefore needed to be investigated. "Let's have a look." he stated leveling his crossbow. Wufei just shrugged and fell in behind his Strike Force comrade.

Grimy film streaked all the windows running along the building's length. Also the absence of any internal light was equally cooperative in restricting Heero and Wufei's view inside. Pressing his pistol to the chest Wufei paused at the corner for a quick peek. Double doors were set in the building's front. One bare light bulb mounted above the doors cast an eerie glow on the white mist.

"Pitifully poor security." Wufei muttered to himself as he observed the almost useless light. With a wave of his hand he signaled for Heero to cover his back.

Heero braced his shoulder on the wall raising the razor sharp steel-tipped arrow in line with the double doors. A nod told Wufei that he was clear to proceed. An electronic scrambler quickly unlatched the left door. Heero, his crossbow still in force, slipped in behind his partner-in-crime and close the door.

Wufei switched on a flashlight being careful to keep its yellow beam from bouncing off the cloudy windowpanes. Heero's flashlight, aimed at the floor, showed only a portion of what lay directly ahead. Picking their way between boxes stacked well above their heads each man took a side pausing to read the labels. Neither was sure exactly what they were looking for but both felt confident that there would be a few useful items stored away in the dusty gloom.

On Wufei's right a long rectangular tarp was draped over an odd outline. The bumps and ridges under the tarp's irregular surface made for some interesting guesses as to what it concealed. He checked his stride and backtracked for a better look.

"Help me with this." Wufei requested tugging at the brown sheet's hem. With some exertion from both men the trap slowly began to reveal its secrets.

Even in the dim light Heero could see the excitement in Wufei's eyes. "Do you know what these are?" Wufei asked pointing towards four black and chrome motorcycles lined up end to end.

Heero stared down the row allowing his flashlight's beam to dance over each motorcycle's shiny metallic finish. "Well," he paused studying the machines, "they look like motorcycles." he replied wondering if Wufei was seeing something different from what was clearly apparent to him.

Wufei threw his arms about so wildly that Heero had to step back for fear of being struck. "These are more than motorcycles." In a frenzied display of delight Wufei declared, "These are SCAT Models 2250Z." he proclaimed so winded from his exhilarative state that the last of his words trailed off breathlessly.

Heero stood quietly. His perplexed expression reflected his surprise at what he believed was Wufei's overzealous reaction to a few mere motorcycles. "So." he stated after a moment's recovery from his comrade's overly enthusiastic performance.

Wufei spun around so fast that Heero took another step backwards in self-defense. "So!" he glared at Heero. Then accenting his exclamation with a second series of wild hand waving Wufei proclaimed, "These are the most highly advanced vehicles ever made."

Heero found a certain amusement in Wufei's ecstatic fascination with the collection of engines and circuits. He was even pleased by the obvious pleasure that Wufei received from his newly discovered "toys" but he also had to question if such feverish passion on Wufei's part bordered on mental derangement.

Heero paused for reflection before asking, "What exactly is a SCAT?" he wondered then took one more step back for good measure.

Wufei looked down the row, let out a calming sigh then returned his attention to Heero. "SCAT is an acronym for Speed Calculated Adjustable Traction." he explained, "Each motorcycle is fitted with an onboard computer that calculates the lost of traction when taking a curve then the computer automatically adjusts the speed control to allow for a stable turn."

Wufei drew in a deep breath then continued, "When the curve is completed the computer returns to full throttle as you pull out. This allows the rider to run wide open and still be able to take the turns at the highest speed possible." he finished with a gasp for air and a self-satisfied grin.

Heero let his eyes rest on the SCATs seeing them in a new light. They were nice looking machines and, if they could do all that Wufei insisted they could do, they were certainly a fine example of mechanical engineering. Still he couldn't quite understand what significant importance the SCATs had to their mission.

Wufei's avid admiration, Heero supposed, was reasonable but it did nothing to aid their immediate cause. He took the chance of setting off Wufei's temperamental fuse when others did not share his point of view. "All right." Heero agreed, "These SCATs are technological wonders but they are not helping us find something that can create enough havoc to properly vex our enemies."

Wufei sighed running his hand over the first bike in line, "They can cause a lot devastation if they are used right. Just think how quickly we could get in and out. And what better way to deliver the charges that Duo acquires than from one of these. We can get in close and away before the bastards know what hits them."

Heero had to agree that Wufei's logic was sound. The bikes could lend a great deal of support. He could find no arguable flaw in Wufei's reasoning however one doubt kept tugging at his mind. "Do "we" know now to ride these?" He believed the question to be a perfectly legitimate concern.

"Have you ridden a TX3?"

Heero shook his head "yes".

"A SCAT is not much different in handling, only faster. You will just have to use a lighter hand."

"So you are telling me that what we have here are bikes that running at maximum speed take curves at the highest possible velocity and all I need is a light hand?" Heero recounted trying to make sense of Wufei's statement. "What about brakes?"

"If you need them." Wufei declared flashing a sly smile.

"All right," Heero conceded, "they can go fast and hopefully stop but I have one last question...how do you purpose we get the SCATs out of the compound? I don't think that OZ will just let us have them no matter how nice we ask."

Heero's line of thought must have been addressed in Wufei's mind before its last syllables turn cold in the night air and Heero's attempt at sarcasm either missed the mark completely or was ignored. Wufei had a ready reply.

"We're not that far from the compound's border. Of course we can only take two." he stated the obvious, "We take them out of gear and roll them out. Once we are far enough away that the engine noise won't carry in the fog we can ride them back to meet the others at the helicopter. Now if the bikes are here," Wufei declared turning his thoughts to the next logical step, "then there must be riding suits."

"Riding suits?" Heero asked starting off after Wufei as be began searching among several nearby boxes.

"Yes you know windsuits, or better yet, leather." Wufei replied still searching, "And helmets," he rambled on, "there has to be helmets."

Heero decided that it would be easier to help Wufei look then to try to follow his loosely jointed sentences.

"I told you!" Wufei exclaimed pulling back one box's lid, "Helmets."

With a wide smile Wufei held up his newly found prize. The helmet was colored black to match the bikes with two parallel silver-metallic stripes running from just above the tinted face-shield across the top to the rear base. A solid jaw and chin guard finished the circular protective ring. Centered on either side OZ's deep crimson Crossed Swords insignia glared with prominent clarity.

While the helmet was impressive with its glossy black finish and shiny stripes the best advantage was that the tinted face-shield's design gave total anonymity to the rider. With the gray shield in place one became just another unknown entity.

In a larger carton Wufei's wishes were fulfilled...two piece black and silver-gray leather windsuits with twin silver diagonal strips on the jacket's front. Unfortunately the same Crossed Swords emblem of OZ's tyrannical rule was embossed on the jacket's left side, the placement centering the hated symbol directly over the wear's heart making it a prime target site.

Wufei made a cursed-laden vow. "Once the damned insignia's deceptive usefulness was no longer needed the circular patch was coming off immediately." Wufei had no wish to fall victim to any friendly fire mistakenly leveled at the despised design.

The leather outfit was finished off with black leather gloves and knee-high black leather boots. Six adjustable buckles on the boot's outside seam added strength to the ankles. Flex-form overlays across the boot's front guarded the shins from road debris. A helmet, leather windsuits, gloves and boots...the perfect package. What more could anyone want?

"We put these on," Wufei announced holding up his new apparel, "and we could ride straight through the main gate."

Heero didn't share Wufei's optimism at the ease of their escape, "I think it would be wiser to sneak out." he stated flatly.

Wufei nodded in agreement, "I know but doesn't the idea of pulling off something like this right under the bastard's noses get your blood pumping?"

"My blood is pumping just fine." Heero replied coolly tucking his bangs inside a helmet as he pulled it on.

The double doors opened slowly and a helmeted head poked out into the dim twilight. The ground crunched under motorcycle tires as a pair of leather-clad figures pushed two SCATs silently along the building's side wall. As the strange silhouettes reached the far corner the first stopped short checking the way. The thieving pair and their pilfered modes of transportation were visible momentarily in a pool of light then vanished into the encompassing mist.

When Heero and Wufei were some distance away Heero, keeping his voice low, spoke up, "It just occurred to me that it will be passed the meeting time when we get back to the helicopter. If we go riding into the area dressed like this," he stated pointing at the enemy attire, "our comrades will probably shoot us."

Wufei flipped up his face-shield unveiling his brooding ebony eyes, "Then we won't wear our helmets and walk the bikes in," he paused, "and hope they look twice before they shoot."

Heero secured his crossbow behind the seat and mounted his bi-wheeled steed. "I hope so because if they do shoot then we will have gone to a lot of trouble for nothing."

Wufei gunned his engine. The quivering pulsations rumbled with a deep throb that the enshrouding dampness could not quell. He slipped the powerhouse of raw energy into gear. A steady rhythmic hum replaced the shaking. The single headlight flared on.

Slapping his face-shield down Wufei increased the tachometer's digital counter to near overload levels again reviving the engine to a deafening crescendo. With one fluid motion he opened the throttle and popped the clutch. Sandy ground sprayed from the spinning rear tire seconds before it caught hold sending the bike into a fishtail skid. Wufei skillfully corrected the sideways slide and with a second blast of power shot off down the narrow path leading from the compound.

Heero was not as melodramatically inclined. Reminding himself that his skill and experience was far below Wufei's he carefully put the bike into first gear. Steadily he increased the speed until he moved out with a firm grip on the ground.

"Use a light touch." he remembered Wufei's instructions. "Somehow though," he thought, "in Wufei's clutch popping, dirt spraying exit, his fellow Strike Force fighter had not taken his own advise."

Part Eight: Friend or Foe?

Trowa had insisted that he and Quatre wait in the helicopter for Heero and Wufei's return. In spite of Quatre's reassurances that he had recovered from their close encounter with the Security Drone Trowa decided that Quatre was still too shaky and that the chilly dampness was not the best environment for his lover.

Trowa's arms encircled Quatre's body using their shared body heat to keep each other warm. As his partner's blond head rested against his chest Trowa whispered his promises of love and protection hoping that the soothing words would lull Quatre to sleep.

Some distance from the "copter" Duo stretched atop a pitted outcrop, one of several adjacent to the ravine holding the "Lone Dragon". Spiny ridges pushed up through the sandy crust for forty or so yards then slid back below the surface. The symmetry, the flowing in and out, reminded him of a glossy serpent boring its way along the ravine's edge. He smiled as he playfully wondered which end was the serpent's head and which was the tail.

His backpack nestled snugly in an angled crevice at his feet. The woven material strained against its tightly packed contents. The seams, too, were taut as they held in what Duo prayed would be the Strike Force's avenging retribution.

Many times during the war Duo and other men and women sworn to rid their world of OZ's strangulating grip had stuck what they believed to be the final, lethal blow. In the Colonies and on Earth, with each conquest, he and his fellow freedom fighters thought the reign of terror had been ended. But the vile viper's mere decapitation had not been enough to stop the beast for each time the venous head was severed two had grown again in its place.

Now Duo knew that not until the serpent's total annihilation would the evil be destroyed. He held no delusive expectations that the small but resolute Strike Force could deliver the terminal strike. But if they could cut off one limb, slice through one artery, the resulting trauma might so weaken the one part that the whole would be critically debilitated. If each pocket of resistance could cut away one piece perhaps the entire body would bleed to death.

Duo told himself as he stared into the white mist that as much as the prospect of OZ's dismembered demise appealed to him the appendage amputation could not begin while he was waiting. Checking his watch he figured that the time for Heero and Wufei's arrival was about used up. The dense fog was closing in fast and the night chill was becoming more insistent in its attempt to convince Duo to join his comrades in the helicopter. Again he glance impatiently at his watch realizing that dawn might beat them back to the Winner estate.

A distant echo prodded Duo from his watchful state. Far off, yet definitely somewhere on the path leading into the forest, the repeated droning grew louder. A few seconds more and the hum took on a rumbling quality. It didn't take much intelligence to figure that whatever was coming Duo's way was motorized and therefore it couldn't belong to anyone he was expecting.

Grabbing up his backpack Duo pulled it and his trailing braid after him as he scrambled over the outcrop. Kneeling down behind the rough rocks Duo unsnapped his holster's safety strap freeing his pistol. All the while the echoing oscillations evened out to a steady, thunderous roar.

As Duo braced his body on the outcrop's pitted side and checked his pistol's ammo clip his prior contemplative reflections concerning the slow chopping away of OZ's body parts were renewed for consideration. What better place to start the surgical pruning than right then and there for even the simplest dissections would add up sooner or later. Like a tumorous growth eating away at his adversary's flesh, Duo saw the foe's approach as a suitable starting point to begin his revenge.

Laying another full clip by his knee just in case a small army was heading his way Duo mentally prepared himself for what he had to do. Soon the motor roar bounced over the tree line as two SCAT bikes raced into the clearing. Stopping abreast headlights flooded the area forcing Duo to duck for cover. As each headlight was switched off the concealing gloom blended again around his hiding place.

"Only two." Duo whispered pleased to see that the odds were in his favor.

The leather-clad riders cut the engines pulling the bikes back on their mounting stands. Swinging his leg over the seat one rider dismounted then crossed his ankles setting his hip against the gas tank. His partner leaned his body off center resting on the seat's raised back support.

Duo folded his right hand around the pistol's grip sliding his trigger finger through the guard. Wrapping his left hand over the first he steadied his wrist on the rocky rim. Easing up, bracing one knee against the irregular surface, he sighted down the pistol's slender barrel. With his thumb he moved the agreement lever until the front and back cross-hair circles lined up one with the other.

It wouldn't make much difference if the alignment was not exact. Duo knew that at such close range he could drop his quarry, in turn, with a pair of carefully placed bullets. Even in the swirling mist the silver stripes on the rider's jacket fronts reflected more than sufficient light to be certain of the targets. Two quick shots and justice would be metered out.

The riders talked casually unaware that their executioner was lying in waited to free their souls from their fleshy bonds. The men were too far away for their conversation to be clearly heard; only muffled voices flowed through the shiny black helmets that guarded their heads. The one leaning on his bike flipped back his face-shield but it did little to improve his voice's clarity or give Duo a hint as to the man's identity.

Duo took a deep cleansing breath then relaxed and relaced his grip on his weapon. With balanced pressure the front sight moved up one living target until the barrel's black hole centered on the Crossed Swords patch over the man's heart.

Slowly, firmly, Duo's finger drew back on the trigger. A soft click confirmed that the bullet was engaged. Sweat beaded on his forehead causing his bangs to stick in the salty moisture. With one concentrated effort Duo brought his mind and body and spirit together as the Grim Reaper's perfect partners.

As the anguished cries of those men and women who had paid the ultimate price for freedom screamed in Duo's mind, the trigger tightened again. Long ago a solemn pledge had been made...promised compensation for their suffering and loss. The time of recompense was at hand, the sights were set and there was no turning back.

The condemned rider undid his helmet's chinstrap and with a single fluid motion began to free his head from the protective covering. "Good." Duo growled as the tension on the trigger sent a shiver through his hand. "A head shot will make a nastier impression when the bodies are found."

The helmet came up; the pistol's marker scope matched its lifting. As soon as the head was cleared, the face in full view, the fatal shot would be delivered. And if the man's eyes mirrored the horror of his impending death, if only for a second before the end, so much better. Duo's finger tensed once more.

"Prepare to return to hell you bastardly son of Satan." Duo hissed with malevolent delight.

Then in a fleeting instant, one no longer than a human heartbeat, Heero's facial features materialized through the cross-hair target. Instinctive responses overruled Duo's reflex impulses. With a forceful exhalation, as his heart skipped a beat, Duo threw up the pistol's barrel, the jolting action finishing the trigger pull. The consequential discharge sent the deadly projectile ripping through the overhead tree limbs. Shredded leaves and ragged bits of bark from the shattered branches showered down pelting Duo's panic-stricken body.

As Heero scrambled for his crossbow, Wufei drew his sidearm jerking into a stiff-legged defensive stance. Aiming squarely at the outcrop attack site Wufei's pistol became a natural extension of his body as he sighted down his outstretched arm.

There was no fear in Wufei's ebony eyes instead a hardened, cold-blooded glaze washed over his enlarged pupils. It took all of his willpower to control his automatic, battle-honed reactions, to repress his inherently primordial inclination to empty the pistol's entire clip at the anonymous ambusher. Oddly something beyond Wufei's stress-heightened readiness stayed his hand. His calm inner voice was speaking, no debating, several opinion points.

********

At the beginning of his training Wufei was not even aware of his inner voice's tangible sounds, at least none that he actually heard in his head. Until he began studying with his Sensei he did not sense anything out of the ordinary.

The first time the internal voice spoke he had dismissed the callings blaming the puzzling pronouncements on fatigue or some such ailment of his intensive training. It was not until his Master made reference to his own private counsel did Wufei disclose what he had experienced.

Wufei surmised that his "little voice" had been acquired through osmosis although he was not certain that humans were capable of such functions. His Sensei was not impressed with his student's reasoning since Wufei was but a man-child who was constantly expounding on universal truths that he was too young to understand.

As he matured in both mind and body Wufei stood by the belief that everyone had a inner guide but his Sensei warned that most people were either too busy or too prideful to heed its advise. His Master then determined that Wufei would heed and listen and so his life lessons began.

The learning process had come in gradual stages with Wufei's doubting, his unwillingness to let go and trust his feelings being his greatest hindrance. Learning to face his fears he had to overcome his uncertainty and to believe in something outside of his self-centered ego.

Initially Wufei's voice took the form of a nagging restlessness that proved to be more of a nuisance than a help. Over time, with careful attention, the bothersome whispers matured into reliable perceptions. Wufei could not recall the exact moment when he, by his free choice, acknowledged and accepted his private counsel but now it seemed that it had always been a part of him.

********

Wufei's self-debate continued. Two points vied for consideration and resolution. The shattered branches overhanging the outcrop attested to a weapon being fired but the questions were whether the shot had been a misfire or incredibly bad marksmanship on the shooter's part. Each theory was equally valid. While the malfunction hypothesis was the more plausible explanation, one couldn't dismiss the gunman's lack of skill. However both problems could easily be corrected and to drop your guard for thinking otherwise was inviting trouble.

Heero cursed under his breath as he pushed unruly bangs from his eyes then took a defensive stand beside his comrade...crossbow cocked and ready. All either man could see through the swirling haze was the outcrop's outline but no sign of the shooter.

"What in the hell just happened?" Heero whispered sighing down the loaded arrow.

Wufei shrugged, "Sounded like a shot."

"I'll take the left side, you take the right." Heero instructed, "Let's see if we can flush out the bastard." In the blink of an eye the space where the two leather-clad riders stood was vacant.

********

Duo sat on the ground hidden by the rocky projection. At that moment his mind was not on the splintered branches above him. Neither was his thoughts focused on his startled companions and the very real hazard they poised to his life should their alarmed sensory systems call for immediate retaliatory measures.

He could not think not while his wildly pounding heart bombarded his brain with throbbing pulsations. He covered his face with shaky hands giving into his body's uncontrolled trembling. Duo closed his eyes but images of Heero's prone, lifeless body, bloody and twisted, sprang out of their dark hollows. Pressing his knees to his chest Duo fought the seizing nauseous wave churning though his stomach. As the reality of what Duo almost did hit him with a bone-chilling shudder his coping mechanism shut down plunging him into mind-numbing lethargy.

********

Wufei held up a cautious hand silently signaling for Heero to stay alert. Taking a step forward he maintained a watchful posture. His muscles tensed ready to react to any menacing sound or movement that might spring up from the outcrop's opaque concealment.

This standing around, Heero decided, was not only time consuming but nerve racking as well. He further decided that someone was going to give up or give in and he had made up his mind that "someone" was not going to be him. It was time for action and if prodding on his part was necessary so be it.

Heero cast a sideways glance at Wufei to make sure he was backing him up, fixed his aim then took a calculated step. "I know someone is there." he announced in a loud bold voice. "Show yourself." he demanded in an equally defiant tone.

Silence was the only reply to what Heero had hoped was a display brazen enough to cause immediate and unconditional surrender. With a puzzled look at Wufei who offered no more than raised eyebrows in return Heero had about reached his tolerance level, "All right this is it." he mumbled under his breath. "Show yourself now!" he shouted out the direct order.

********

Heero's voice booming over the clearing stirred Duo from his guilt-induced lethargic stupor. Blinking his eyes he tried to reassemble his disjointed senses into one functioning unit. Pushing against the ground Duo was not even aware that his weapon was still clutched tightly in his quivering hand. Slowly he stood up not wanting to give a hint of fighting back.

Long shadows crossed Duo's face as he rose above the rocky rim. He hoped that Heero's impatience would not trigged his spontaneous tendency to charge ahead without prior deliberation. Duo did not want Heero's restraint for his own well being but to keep his comrade from the same near fatal mistake that he had almost made. To spare Heero from the shock of a close call and the anguish if the unthinkable did happen.

Heero's entire body tensed at the first sign of movement. His crossbow twitched as Duo's fog shrouded form rose from the rocks. An odd picture, one painted over in white mist, presented itself for inspection. Heero narrowed his eyes trying to clearly see the figure's face, to isolate the shadowy visage from the gloom. Then his eyes widened freeing Duo's full aspect from the overhead branch's dim veil.

"What in hell do you think you're doing?" Heero demanded bending his elbow aiming the razor-tipped arrow upward into a less lethal position.

Wufei joined in Heero's harsh inquiry, "Dammit Duo have you lost your mind?" he questioned Duo's sanity, "I could have splattered your brains all over the clearing."

Duo stood frozen in place taken aback by Heero and Wufei's overly stern pronouncements. Suddenly his violet eyes flashed and renewed trembling, this time borne of anger, returned as his comrade's impertinent scolding caused his high-strung nervous system to snap.

He was not the one, Duo told himself, who came speeding into the clearing perched atop strange motorized beasts and dressed up like gaudy peacocks adorned in OZ's pompous plumage. He was not the idiots who had evidently given little, if any, thought as to what kind of reception might await such an arrogant display of enemy colors.

Oh no it was not the time for Duo to explain, now was the time for teaching the bakas a lesson in common sense. Heero's brashness at what he saw as Duo's lack of proper vigilance was going to be tempered with an old fashion "dressing down". A hard frown tugged at Duo's lips. More sparks flared across his violet vision.

As Duo scrambled over the outcrop he retorted, "What do YOU damn fools think YOU are doing?" he demanded turning the question back on Heero and Wufei.

Wufei and Heero's jaws dropped at about the same rate and speed. Wufei tilted his head convinced his ears must have heard wrong. Duo ignored the Chinese man's confusion as he launched his angry counterattack.

"Look at both of you!" he exclaimed continuing his merciless tongue-lashing. "You two come riding in here decked out in this...this...OZ camouflage." he stammered, "And where did you get those SCATs?" he demanded as his already strained self-control reached the breaking point.

"I had your empty head in my sights." he informed Heero moving forward at such a rapid pace that he had the Strike Force soldier strongly considering climbing back on his SCAT and getting the hell out while he still could.

Then Duo turned his righteous wrath on Wufei, "You, my cocky friend, came very close to having your brains as you said "splatter all over the clearing"." he yelled waving his pistol about in a less than safe manner.

Duo pivoted about standing only inches from Heero. "You are not off the hook either." he proclaimed in a voice as shaky as his hand. With an exasperated nod of his head Duo slapped his sidearm back into its holster.

Duo took in hard breath determined that his temper was not going to get the best of him. Wufei cut his eyes at Heero only to find his partner in their foolhardiness directing his sigh at his knee-high boots.

"So much for letting everyone know it was us." Wufei half-whispered recalling his and Heero's pervious worries concerning their return reception.

If Heero heard the ironic statement he offered no visible acknowledgement. His eyes remained fixed downward; his shoulders bent under the weight of Duo's harsh but true words.

"Of all the damn stupid...." Duo was going on as the vision of Heero's head in his sights prompted another bout of swearing.

But Duo's words were lost somewhere outside of Wufei's comprehensive range. Suddenly the split-second between life and death now seemed shorter than ever. His and Heero's failure to hold their impulsive behavior in check had put them all at risk. Hard sighs punched inside Wufei's chest. It took all of his control to keep his quickly unraveling nerve endings from making threadbare what composure remained.

In his youth Wufei would have probably come back at Duo. Flew into an incensed fit at the very idea of being called on a mistake. It would have been everyone else's fault but his. This time, though, no quarrel would be forthcoming. Duo was absolutely right he had acted compulsively without any regard to the eventual outcome.

Heero shifted his weight as he, unlike Wufei, was clearly hearing every word. Becoming more and more uneasy with Duo's vocal condemnation he nervously looked down his jacket until the crimson Crossed Sword insignia locked with his sight. A chill crawled up Heero's spine dragging its icy tentacles along every inch until the cumulative mass numbed his body. He, too, sucked in a catching breath grappling with how one error in judgment could have forever vanquished a life.

"Well?" Duo snorted mercifully ending his justified reprimand. "What do you have to say for yourselves?" he finished with a winded puff accenting the question.

A silence followed, an utter stillness so acute that the lack of sound was, in its own way, as harsh as Duo's strident reproach. Heero dared to raise his eyes, to make direct contact with Duo's fiery violet gaze.

After a reflective pause Heero found his voice. "I guess saying that we're sorry wouldn't be enough." he reasoned, uncharacteristically humbled by Duo obvious disappointment. Wufei nodded as he, too, displayed a similar unexpected humility.

Convinced that his penitent companions had received the proper verbal chastisement, that some self-control would be applied to keep future sudden incitements to action in moderation, Duo drew in one more calming breath.

"One question." he stated. A content if not completely relaxed grin pulled at his mouth's corners. Heero braced for another barrage of admittedly well-deserved censure.

"Just exactly how did you two get all this...ah...booty?" Duo inquired allowing a full smile to break through.

Heero and Wufei related how the SCATs had come into their possession. Duo was impressed with his comrade's acquisitive skill but not wanting to undermine their recently learned humility he decided to save his praise for a later date.

Duo retrieved the explosive laden backpack and accepted congratulations from his Strike Force partners. Duo wasted no time in reminding Wufei that he had lost their bet for a beer. "And considering all the shit I have been through," he added for good measure, "I think you owe be a six pack."

As Heero and Wufei pushed the SCATs back to the helicopter the more at ease trio took turns recounting their precarious trek through the opposition's backyard.

When the retelling was finished and all the illustrative descriptions used up, Duo reconsidered withholding his praise. Again not wanting a few mistakes in judgment to overshadow their success he expressed his approval complimenting his partners on a job well done.

Heero and Wufei's accomplishments, carried out under perilous conditions, were to be admired. "You both did very well." Duo stated offering his hand, "But don't get too comfortable this is not over yet."

They did agree that the avenging time was at hand. The prospect that some advantage had been gained, that the odds had been altered in their favor gave them hope. With courage and a lot of luck the Strike Force Five would be victorious.

"When we get to the helicopter I think it would be best if I go in first and give Trowa and Quatre fair warning about you two and your OZ camouflage." Duo suggested wanting to avoid a repeat of what happened in the clearing.

Wufei shook his head in agreement, "It also might be a good idea if we don't mention the near fiasco. If the story were told the merciless mocking, no matter how good-natured, would be more than any of us should have to bear."

Part Nine: Comfort Levels

The return trip to the Winner estate was spent in silence. Wufei was relieved to see the first reddish rays of dawn tint the horizon. Condensation still clung to the front viewport but the fog had thinned in the rising sun's warmth.

Quatre slept with his head in Trowa's lap. While his fingers twirled silken stands of Quatre's hair Trowa absentmindedly gazed out the window. Duo and Heero sat opposite each other doing their best to avoid eye contact. There seemed to be an uneasy tension between the two soldiers but the source was not clear to Trowa as he observed Heero and Duo's fleeting glances.

The helicopter set down gently on the dew-damp lawn. Trowa didn't bother waking Quatre. "There will be a strategy meeting after breakfast." he informed his Strike Force counterparts before he carried his lover inside and upstairs to their suite.

Duo shouldered his heavy backpack watching Trowa and his precious cargo disappear through the front door. "I hope Trowa doesn't think breakfast is going to be early. I need my beauty sleep."

Heero and Wufei unloaded the SCATs storing them in the main garage next to Duo's "Shinigami" for safekeeping. "I suggest we get a few hours sleep." Wufei said as he locked the garage door.

********

Even though Duo was bone weary he decided that a quick shower would help him settle down. Stepping out of the floral patterned shower stall he uncoiled his braid that he had pinned up to keep dry then pulled on clean boxers and wrapped his damp body in the fluffy cotton robe that had been provided. He turned back the coverlet and top sheet more than ready to give into the Sandman's invitation to slumber.

He was about to ease in between the invitingly cool sheets when an odd sound filtered through the bedroom door. The noise did not come from the hall but it was close enough to be clearly heard. Duo's first thought was that Heero was using his laptop but he could not imagine, especially after their perilous "tour", why Heero would be typing and not sleeping.

Then the noise came again and Duo realized that it was not tapping but a series of thumps that were punctuated with a louder crash. "What the hell?" Duo wondered as the sounds suddenly stopped.

Cautiously Duo cracked open his door peering out into the vacant hall. He listened hoping that the noises would be repeated so he could identify the source. A second sound, one more muted in its volume, was definitely coming from Heero's room.

Duo momentarily considered returning to bed as he remembered that the last time he had inquired about noises in Heero's room the door had been slammed in his face. But something in the strange resonance told Duo that further investigation was imperative.

A soft knock produced no reply. The lack of either an oral or physical response made Duo more uneasy. A harder knock...nothing. "Heero." he called loud enough to prod Heero to answer. Still only silence.

Taking a chance Duo tried the doorknob and found, much to his surprise, that the door was unlocked. The fact that Heero had left himself exposed to unauthorized intrusion confirmed that something was indeed wrong. Duo opened the door just wide enough to take a quick peek but not enough to appear to be snooping.

The room was dark but the sunrise provided sufficient light to see Heero's silhouette facing the double French doors. He was dressed only in pajama bottoms. Appallingly even in the pale backwash of dawn the whitish scars crisscrossing Heero's back offered stark testimony of unimaginable brutality.

To one side the leather windsuit, gloves and boots lay in a heap like shed snakeskin. The helmet rested against the opposite wall. A deep indention marring the painted surface showed where the helmet had hit solving the mystery of the loud crash.

Duo debated whether or not to venture further inside but the stoop of Heero's shoulders and the way his entire body seemed to be shaking prompted Duo to come in and close the door. "Heero." he called again hoping to spur some reaction but Heero did not turn around.

Walking up behind his Strike Force comrade Duo paused not sure what to do. Once more Duo's eyes traced the disfigurement on Heero's golden flesh. A pang of pain pierced Duo's heart betraying his battle borne hardness. Forgetting that Heero was uncomfortable with being too close, without thinking, Duo reached out a single finger to touch the roughly healed wounds that were both repulsive and beautiful at the same time.

The slight touch, a mere flicker of sensation, was all it took for Duo to find himself flung flat on his back with ample force to jar the air from his lungs. He looked up, as his chest seized and dark dots floated over his vision, to hazily see Heero straddling him.

Heero's left hand was clasped around Duo's throat hard enough to push the chain holding his cross painfully into his neck. Heero's right arm was cocked back and his hand was balled into a tight fist that hovered dangerous near Duo's head. An indescribable look of deadly violence had transformed Heero's cobalt eyes into dark, menacing orbs as they focused on Duo's chalky face. Frighteningly Heero stared down at Duo's ashen features and pleading violet eyes with no hint of recognition.

All Duo could do under Heero's pinning weight on his chest and the strangulating grasp on his throat was struggle to draw in one gulp of air. He grabbed Heero's wrists trying in vain to break the death grip. Finally Duo managed to lessen the tight hold enough to choke out two words. "Heero. Please."

Heero tilted his head as the words gurgled from Duo's constricted windpipe. Slowly the ruthless scowl softened, the firm grip eased until Duo could suck in a wheezing gasp. Then as if Heero was seeing Duo for the first time a puzzled expression replaced the fierce glare. Clumsily Heero's hand slipped away. With the same unsteadiness he rocked back on his heals allowing Duo to scoot backwards until he was free from Heero's crushing body.

Duo lay on his back, heart hammering and lungs panting to refill with oxygen. Heero rolled onto his hip still staring at Duo as if the braided man had suddenly materialized from thin air. Gradually Duo recovered enough to ease up on his elbows and with extra effort to sit up.

Shafts of sunlight shone through the double doors glistening on Heero's damp skin. The dawning color washed across his flushed features and Duo could see tears clinging to Heero's long eyelashes.

As Duo raised up on his knees leaning closer to study Heero's red-rimmed eyes he recalled the aloof soldier who, upon his arrival, had put everyone on notice that he was there for duty. That outside of the mission there would be no interaction. Heero Yuy was a soldier, no a mercenary, whose loyalty could be bought for the right price.

Now the soldier facade appeared to be crumbling. But what could have effected such a change? Could it have been Duo's near miss earlier that night? Surely Heero had had many near misses. But the scars on his back were clear evidence that sometime in the past Heero had not been invincible. And Duo suspected that the scars went deeper than the flesh, that Heero's soul had suffered also.

"Heero are you crying?" Duo asked not bothering to hide his concern.

Heero blinked forcing several droplets to spill down his cheeks and although he did his best to ignore the salty moisture Duo could tell that he was losing the battle to keep the crying in check. His lips parted trembling ever so slightly.

"Soldiers don't cry." The words were barely above a whisper.

Duo leaned nearer using his thumb to trace the tear tracks. "Humans do." he declared sliding his hand around Heero's neck until it cupped behind his head. Then to soothe the pain in both Heero's eyes and heart Duo lips delivered a brushing kiss.

Heero tensed at the unexpected contact but Duo would not be dissuaded. His lips pressed with gentle persuasion. The kiss was not demanding, it was not Duo's intension to be lustful, he only wanted to offer comfort to a suffering soul. As the kiss deepened Heero suddenly found himself flooded with peculiar feelings. He closed his eyes drowning in the wetness of Duo's mouth and the warm sensation from his hand on the nape of his neck.

The robe had slipped from Duo's shoulders baring his heaving chest and his private regions hidden by thin cotton boxers. Heero's lifted his hand laying it lightly Duo's shoulder that was creamy in contrast to his golden skin tones. The touch produced a moan from Duo that added fuel to the fire.

For a moment Heero dared to let down his carefully crafted guard, to allow a spark of his humanity to momentarily shine through. But despite Duo's best efforts the spark soon faded and the darkness return. The memories of recent events and ones from the past merged to slam shut the gates around his heart. Heero could not afford to let go because if he did he was afraid that he would never regain his control.

"No." Heero muttered against Duo's mouth. Breaking the kiss he quickly stood up and turned back toward the double doors. He could still taste Duo on his lips, still breathe in the faint essence that lingered in the air.

Duo stood up but kept his distance not because he feared a repeat of Heero's startled behavior but to give the confused soldier breathing room. In his side vision Heero could see Duo pulling the robe tighter about his slender body covering up the enticing view.

Heero stared at his reflection mirrored in the sunrise. He was tired in both mind and spirit and he was having trouble fooling himself that he didn't give a damn about anyone or anything.

"What happened should not have happen." Heero growled now fully in control once more.

Duo tilted his head also studying Heero's image in the dawn-tinted glass. "I wasn't trying to make you uncomfortable. I promise nothing else will happen."

"You need to leave now."

Duo stepped closer resisting the strong urge to touch Heero. "Let me stay I don't think you should be alone."

Heero closed his eyes fighting the frustration. Why was it so damn hard to maintain control? "Leave now."

"But Heero I..."

"I said get out now!" Heero hissed clenching his fists so hard that his knuckles whitened and his fingernails dug into his palm.

Duo paused just before he stepped into the hall. "First you slam the door in my face then you slam me on the floor. Damn Yuy you need to work on your anger management."

********

Breakfast....no brunch came too earlier for Duo. He had lay awake for at least an hour after returning to his room wondering if Heero was right and the kiss shouldn't have happened. "You are such a fool." he berated himself. "You should have realized that Heero was already upset by what happened in the clearing and then you added to his distress by your lack of restraint."

At eleven a.m. Duo was still chiding himself when he joined Trowa and Quatre in the kitchen. Wufei, in spite of his limited sleep had been the first one up and was in the garden practicing whenever it was he usually practiced. Heero had stopped in long enough to pour a cup of coffee then had disappeared somewhere on the estate. Duo thought about seeking Heero out but he wasn't certain what he would say. No better to keep things on a professional level and put the kiss out of his mind.

Trowa had wisely decided to not schedule the mission meeting until late afternoon. As anxious as he was to get a plan in place he realized that a plan was only as good as the men who carried it out and right then his weary troops need extra R&R. But by nightfall, he had declared, every detail would be in place and the next morning OZ was going pay a very high price for their misguided alliance with the devil.

********

The strategy was held in the dining room. Maps, recon photos and rough sketches of the OZ compound were scattered about the tabletop. Each Strike Force member added to the planning. Every detail was discussed, debated and oftentimes augured with the passion befitting the seriousness of the operation. Heero had reverted back into his protective "soldier mode" outwardly displaying the same cold efficiency that he had shown since he arrived at the Winner stronghold.

Duo felt even more ill at ease as Heero all but ignored his comrade in arms. "What harm did I do?" The question kept nagging at Duo's thoughts making it difficult for him to concentrate. Finally Duo summoned up Shinigami's strength for he could not afford for his mind to be on anything but the upcoming assignment. He did make a promise to himself that at the first opportunity he would make things right with Heero.

The mission would be carried out in two phases. Trowa, Quatre and Wufei were to plant part of the explosives, "nuisance boomers" as Duo had nicknamed them, at locations around the compound where their destructive power would do the greatest damage. The Communications Center, the motor pool and the fuel depot were prime targets along with anything else they deemed worth blowing up.

Once the compound began to go up in smoke the resulting confusion would be more than enough distraction to allow for the tower toppling. If the assault raid was to be carried out with any hope of success the Laser Cannon would have to be silenced. From its perch on the tower's apex the powerful weapon could easily take out anything within its range and it range was considerable covering well beyond the compound's perimeter.

Duo and Heero would take the most potent charges, ride the SCATs out to the tower and destroy the massive structure. But to complete that assignment they were going to have to perform a little magic.

Their first trick would be reaching the tower undetected, a sizeable feat in itself since the cannon set in an exposed section with only one, clearly visible, road leading in. Then given the remote control's limited signal span once the charges were in place the detonation would have to be triggered "up close and personal".

Duo admitted that he had no idea how much force it would take to bring down the framework of crossbeams and cables. He did know that the tower had been erected directly on the ground and not anchored on depth-driven pilings as it should have been. He was also sure that it was top heavy judging by the height to width ratio. Both construction errors were in his favor. One main corner support was all that would have to be undermined to achieve the desired results.

Unfortunately the support base's density could not be determined beforehand. That meant that not until Duo was actually standing in the tower's shadow could he evaluate the blast saturation patterns and make the critical charge calculations. Then the second trick would be avoiding the flying debris, showers of ignited material and the tower's ground coverage when it pitched over.

The narrow margin for error made the SCATs the perfect means to get in and out in the briefest time period allow. Perhaps with the bike's maneuverability and speed and some reckless daring on Duo and Heero's part the freedom fighters might just make the magic happen.

Everyone would stay linked with their Tracker Bands and, if all went according to plan, the decisive strike would quickly be completed and OZ would be dealt the proper punishment for all their heinous crimes. With bravery, cunning and a goodly portion of luck the Strike Force Five would be sharing their victory by the next sunrise.

The session finished Quatre sent a servant to the wine cellar with instructions to select a bottle of his better stock. Quatre had intended to save the expensive vintage for their victory celebration but everyone's safe return from the previous night's spying mission and the cooperation among the often opposed team members was a good reason to partake now.

The tabletop was cleared, everyone sat down. Trowa popped the cork. Ruby liquid filled five glasses. Quatre stood raising his glass in a salute to his united soldiers. "I will admit that I had my doubts when I began assembling this team but each of you has exceeded my expectations. Now all my doubts have been put to rest. I am honored to call you comrades." he announced lifting his glass higher, "To our victory.

As the glasses were refilled and the fermented brew worked its relaxing magic, Wufei,Trowa, Heero and Duo took turns retelling their assorted past adventures. Of course it goes without saying that each story was colored by the storyteller's vivid pallet of words and presented with imaginative and quite dramatic scripts.

The male's crude tales of their many conquests, battle related and otherwise, were embellished with fanciful half-truths and enhanced with just enough liquor-inflated boasting to stroke their egos until they all the imbibers were feeling pretty good about themselves.

Throughout the revelry Quatre remained silent. The wine had put him in a melancholy mood. Although Quatre had appeared to be himself since returning to the estate Trowa sensed a remoteness that he had never felt before, a distant seclusion that he was not certain he could breach.

Gazing into Quatre's pensive eyes Trowa saw that a grievous shadow had subdued their ordinarily bright sparkle. At first Trowa blamed his lover's detachment on the tension that had affect everyone in one way or the other but now Quatre's eyes downward cast was strangely faraway.

His partner's self-imposed isolation disturbed Trowa. He had to wonder if coming so close to losing each other when they were almost discovered by the Security Drone had pushed Quatre's overworked body and overstressed mind beyond what he could emotional handle.

Trowa watched Quatre stare passed his wineglass and again wondered what he could do to help. As Trowa considered if he should intervene Quatre excused himself from his comrade's company and stepped into the hall. Trowa rose saying that Quatre was tired and needed some time alone then also left the room.

"What was that about?" Duo asked suddenly feeling less inebriated. Wufei shrugged as his somber gaze followed Trowa's exit but he offered no opinion for either man's abrupt departure.

Wandering outside into the east garden Quatre took up a secluded position behind a lilac hedge. Trowa paused on the porch thinking that maybe it would be best to leave his lover to himself, to give him the space required to have a private moment. Perhaps being alone even if his solitary station was only yards from the house would be the "down time" that Quatre needed.

But Trowa's well-developed intuition where Quatre was concerned told him unequivocally that his withdrawal as far more serious than just the need to sort out his feelings. Some deeply rooted trouble stronger than overwrought nerves and careworn spirits had altered Quatre's personality. The disposition alteration went beyond a mere temperamental shift or mood swing. Something darker plagued his mind. A black inundation of his soul that, this time, Quatre might not be able to overcome.

Trowa stopped a short distance from Quatre's side hoping that his lover would turn around. When no response was forthcoming Trowa spoke up. "What's wrong?" he whispered.

A tense silence followed. Trowa was prepared to ask again when Quatre's sighed. "Nothing."

Trowa knew better. "Don't lie to me." he replied fighting his frustration, "What's wrong."

"Nothing I said." Quatre snapped still not turning around.

Trowa moved closer, he was not about to be dissuaded by his partner's angry attitude. "Quatre." he called keeping his voice calm and even.

"I'm sorry." his lover finally answered with another worn sigh. "A lot has happened in a short time." he admitted turning to face his concerned partner.

Trowa reached out touching Quatre's shoulder. He was startled when the familiar contact produced a slight flinch. "I know everything is crazy now," he agreed leaning closer to his shorter lover, "but together we can face anything." he promised taking Quatre's hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze.

Quatre's shoulders sagged and he began to turn away again. In the gathering dusk it was difficult for Trowa to see his lover's eyes, to read their exact expression. But the exhausted stoop of his entire body told Trowa that Quatre did not need to be alone.

"What can I do to help?" Then for some reason Trowa's intuitive link with Quatre's core consciousness pressed him to be more specific in his inquiry. "Is it what happened with that Security Drone?" he asked point blank.

Trowa's question hit hard. It took all of Quatre's willpower to maintain his quickly crumbling facade, to keep in place the fragile emotional blockade thrown up against the all but overpowering guilt at putting his partner at risk.

"No." Quatre lied afraid that if he said any more that Trowa would read the falsehood in his reply. As he struggled to keep his breathing steady and his hands from shaking Quatre knew he was on the verge of breaking down.

Once more Trowa's natural connection questioned why Quatre's strong denial of any problem did not match his undeniably strained physical characteristics. Body language does not lie! Trowa was not at all satisfied with or convinced by Quatre's persistent refusal of his clearly apparent upset. Still, he decided, the dew-drenched garden was not the best location or atmosphere for any reflective discussion.

"Come on let's go to bed." Trowa suggested believing that a warm bed would encourage a productive and hopefully more honest dialogue. Even if Quatre held stubbornly to his dubious version of the truth, Trowa could at least get him to relax and perhaps sleep.

"You go ahead." Quatre answered trying to control the tremors in his voice. "I will come in a few minutes." he promised.

Trowa planted a quick kiss on his partner's silky cheek, "A few minutes." he sternly repeated putting Quatre on notice that he expected him to keep his word.

As soon as Quatre thought that Trowa was far enough away not to see or hear he let go of his guarded feelings. Using the lavender lilacs to shield his emotional collapse from any prying eyes Quatre covered his face with his hands, dropped his defenses and surrendered to his tears.

Part Ten: Past and Present

Trowa was not the only person who could read body language. From the east patio Wufei watched Quatre and Trowa's edgy encounter. Even though Wufei had not outwardly shown his concern he, too, had sensed the changes in his friend.

Seeing Trowa's departure as chance for his own probe into Quatre's mental state Wufei made his way to the lilac hedge. He found Quatre sitting beneath a palm tree. His legs were bent to his chest, his upper torso slumped over and his forehead rested on his knees.

With Quatre's internal resources depleted from his brave struggle to hide his guilt and pain and exhausted from his tearful release Quatre was not aware of Wufei's presence until the Chinese man knelt down in front.

Under normal circumstances Quatre would have been embarrassed to be caught in such an out of control condition. Right then, though, he didn't care. If someone other than Wufei had found him Quatre would have reverted back to his restrained composure but he and Wufei had been through too much for Quatre to deceive his friend's shrew judgment. They had known each other too many years for him to fool Wufei's ability to sometimes understand Quatre better than Quatre understood himself.

"Are you all right?" Wufei asked with genuine respect and concern sounding in his voice. Crossing one leg under the other he settled on the ground.

Without a hint of shame Quatre looked directly into Wufei's ebony eyes. It didn't matter if his face was wet, his eyes red and puffy or his voice choked with emotion. "I will...be." he sighed as a shiver trembled through his words.

"Want to talk about it?"

Quatre leaned back wearily against the tree. "I don't know where to begin."

"Is it something that happened while you and Trowa were at the compound?"

Quatre sat up sharply, "How did you know?" he asked, his eyes widening in surprise.

"I've known you long enough to figure that it would take something major to put you this far under."

Quatre wiped his eyes with the back of his hand before tilting his head to gaze up through the frilly palm fronds. In halting sentences interrupted by sobs Quatre related his and Trowa's close call with the Security Drone. He poured out all the guilt, "By my selfish insistence I put Trowa in jeopardy." he stated realizing that his lack of field experience could have gotten his lover killed. "That was not the first time that my foolish pride almost cost Trowa his life."

Wufei nodded to encourage Quatre to continue.

"I was so happy when Trowa and I became lovers. It was as if the fates had finally smiled on me. He was my saving grace during the darkest days of my life.

It was less than a year after my parents died, after Heero had been rescued and Trowa decided to stay. I didn't know it at the time but Trowa believed that the plane crash was not an accident. It was no secret that my father had supplied money and resources to the Colonies and therefore he had made many enemies.

Trowa's tedious investigation centered on a Colonel Treize Khushrenada who was the commander of an infiltration unit during the war. After two months Trowa found proof that Khushrenada had issued the orders to kill my parents. I will never forget the day that Trowa came to me with the evidence and my entire world fell apart.

Blinded by rage I swore on my family's honor to avenge my mother and father. Trowa urged me to let him put together a team to seek out and capture the murdering bastard then turn him over to the authorities. Trowa insisted that his evidence would be more than enough to have the Colonel charged with war crimes. But there was no court system civilian or military that could give me the satisfaction I desired I wanted the man dead.

Two days later Trowa's contacts learned that Colonel Khushrenada was preparing to leave for Earth and I knew that I couldn't wait any longer. Accompanied by an elite unit handpicked by Trowa we took out the guards at a private airfield and made our way to the hanger where a military transport was being readied to leave."

********

Flashback:

Standard three-dimensional block print spelled out "INTRUDER" across the transport's side. Identification numbers were also printed in the same red trimmed black letters. Condensed vapor droplets hissed from the enviro-system's cooling vents set at six foot intervals along the aft section. The fine clammy mist sprayed in measured bursts sending out a forceful stream.

Trowa and Quatre crouched behind a series of storage containers on the hanger's opposite side. "You stay here." Trowa whispered out the order.

"But I want..." Quatre began to protest.

"I need to see if the Colonel is on board." Trowa stated steadying his pistol on his bended knee. "Either you promise to stay here and wait or we will leave now. I don't have time to argue with you."

"I promise."

Trowa gave his lover a quick kiss, "I won't be long and if the Son of Satan is in there I will call for backup."

Trowa snaked his way among various equipment finally pulling up some twenty feet from the Intruder. He stayed low skirting the tri-alloy-plated hull to be as obscure as possible and to avoid the release jet's stinging expulsions.

The last jet marked the mid-section. Towering two stories the Intruder's Center Conning Shaft dwarfed Trowa. Three retracted beam cannons guarded either side of the towering protrusion. Shielding his eyes from the bright blue framing markers Trowa hurriedly studied the silver-gray fuselage for any sign of a hatch.

Pressing his pistol to his chest Trowa continued his search for a way inside the massive ship. Footsteps from somewhere behind him hastened his pace. Jerking his weapon into a ready position Trowa slid his back along the cold hull plating debating the best place to bolt, hopefully undetected, for better cover. A few more steps and he would be clear to make the dash.

Suddenly a sliding hatch broke the ship's solid side. Making himself as small as he could the trespassing "Guardian of Quatre's Heart" drew up under the limited space between the fuselage and the floor.

Two tech-support crewmen, their gray jumpsuits almost matching the ship, stepped down from the doorway. The pistol came up. Luckily for Trowa and the crewmen their paths did not cross as they turned in the opposite direction. It took only moments for the pair to reach the ship's blunt nose and disappear around its front.

Unfortunately the extra time spent waiting out the tech's exit closed the gap between the approaching footsteps and Trowa. The striking of boots on the concrete floor grew louder. Ending his debate over projected escape routes Trowa slipped his hand through the hatch's side grip gracefully swinging his body inside.

Vertical columns of indented light squares, dimmed to one-third shutdown power, ran from deck to ceiling at regular intervals. Their reduced capacity created "blind spots" half again as dark as the corridor's center. Trowa tucked inside one nook taking advantage of its murky shade waiting for the boot's owner to pass.

A male and female stopped even with the hatch. Their gold and crimson high collar jackets blocked the outside light lending Trowa additional gloom in which to hide. He couldn't make out many of their words but right then he didn't care what was being said. Right then it was all he could do to slow his racing heartbeat and pray that they would soon move on before other members of the Intruder's crew put him in the proverbial position between "the rock and the hard place".

Finally the pair started forward. "Good." Trowa muttered to himself. But his racing heart was given but a brief respite before it became clear that the pair intended to come aboard.

Retreating further into the ship was not what Trowa had in mind. As an uninvited guest the intrusion would not only be looked upon as incorrect etiquette but trespassing as well. The infringement of privacy, Trowa was sure, would neither be graciously accepted nor condoned by his hosts. Under the circumstances, however, he was left with few options. He managed to disappear down the dim passage just ahead of the crewmen.

Now Trowa's goal was finding the nearest exit. An intersecting hallway presented yet another problem. No matter which route he chose Trowa knew it would draw him deeper into the Intruder's bowels. If he could find a secure hiding place perhaps he could wait out the "parade" then double back the way he came.

The last thing Trowa wanted was to become lost in the labyrinth of corridors and dead end maintenance access tubes. No better to hold his ground while he still had his bearings. "But where to hide?" he asked looking first one way then the other.

A sharp click that sounded suspiciously like a triggering mechanism being set echoed from Trowa's right...or was it his left? The repeated snap bouncing off the bare walls gave no discernible direction as to its source. But the guessing over the exact site was overruled as the noise was immediately followed by a shout.

"Halt! Stay where you are!" The order boomed through the vacant hallway.

Trowa momentarily froze startled by the reverberating command but his immobility was short lived. Setting his weight on his left foot Trowa pivoted reacting purely on his battle-tempered instincts. Dropping to one knee he fired two quick shots. None found a mark. One struck against the far wall, the ricochet sparking blue-white in the gloom. The second bullet ripped down the corridor's middle expiring with a faint "pop" somewhere beyond his vision limits.

Trowa's defensive discharges must have had mystical powers for the outline of a Security Officer's ebony uniform and matching helmet abruptly materialized from thin air. The apparitional faceless form's stationary stance blocked Trowa's desired retreat path as its sudden metamorphic emergence caught him full exposed in the passage's barren vacuum.

The helmet tilted at an angle. Refracted light shone in distorted color bands curving over the smoky-gray tinted face shield. A steel-blue gleam glanced along the assault rifle's barrel as it was leveled into a firing alignment.

Fully aware of his absolute vulnerability Trowa also leveled his pistol's blackened end counting that his reflexes were better than the Officer's was. Even though the already sited weapon had the upper hand Trowa had to say the hell with the odds and play the hand through to the end.

The Officer's reciprocal response came as a nuzzle explosion filled the stark space with blinding brilliance. Dodging the flash Trowa slid to one side rounding the corner. Again the hall divided, Trowa darted to the right. The Security Officer's boots striking the metal deck plate encouraged Trowa along. He skidded up fitting clumsily into an alcove formed by the hull circle.

"How do you get yourself in these messes?" Trowa thought as he checked his pistol's clip. Four bullets were all he had left.

Suddenly Trowa was acutely award of the stillness. No sound traveled down the corridor. No footsteps. He knew that the Officer had not called off the pursuit. A troubling scenario was unfolding. A tense waiting game with no rules and only one winner.

Trowa inched, step by step, hugging the gradual curve where the mid-section hull rounded outwards. He was keenly aware that each step could be carrying him deeper into the Officer's lethal range but there was no turning back.

Stopping short where a narrow walkway followed the semi-circle bend Trowa reasoned the width change marked the section's connecting link with the main body. Taking a moment to regroup he paused to slow his rapid panting. He was sure his breath's throaty resonance rattled loud enough to give away his position, at least it seemed that way to him.

Each heartbeat hammered hard inside Trowa's chest. He took a chance and closed his eyes struggling to hear his inner voice. He needed it to tell him what to do, how to escape the Officer's deadly stalking. To give some direction, some way back to Quatre.

Trowa knew that his intuitive council had not abandoned its duty but that it was the blood rush roar from his throbbing heart that filled his ears making them deaf to its audio guidance. Tingling nerve endings under his skin radiated in an accumulative sensory reaction until a bone-chilling shiver encompassed his entire system.

In past tense situations Trowa had been jittery or nervous and, as much as he hated to admit it, sometimes frightened. But in this case something menacing had a good hold. And unlike his temporarily muted council the ominous message was loud and clear foretelling of immediate danger. The Officer was near, Trowa could feel him.

In the desolate void of the enemy's lair, in the severance from his lover's aide and comfort, Trowa was truly alone. His eyes flew open. His heart's deafening pulsations suddenly vanished leaving a soundless sensation as though every part of his body held an anticipative breath.

Then every nerve ending jumped at once. "WATCH OUT!" his inner voice screamed.

A muzzle flare tore through the corridor. Something with lightning force twisted Trowa's body slamming it hard against the bulkhead. Those merciful seconds while the nervous system decides what has happened gave Trowa time to wonder about the damage as the question of where the shot impacted slipped into his mind. Then the pungent coppery smell of rent flesh provided the answer.

Breath caught in his throat. White light flashed over his vision. His shoulder burned hot as a wave of nausea washed over. Resting his head on the cold metal surface wall, Trowa closed his eyes to stop the spinning. The attempt to halt the numbing lightheadedness took all of his concentrative effort.

For a moment everything went cold. Quatre's face floated just beyond Trowa's perceptive range. Fragmented, his lover's translucent countenance flowed in wavy images. His azure eyes held Trowa fast in a warm glow. Quatre's lips parted. "I love you." Trowa heard the words but not the voice.

A thud somewhere nearby produced an adrenalin rush. Trowa's eyes snapped opened reality replacing his pain-dazed visions. The surge gave him enough strength to push away from the wall. Retreating back into a group of cross-section support beams consumed what energy reserves were left. Staggering into the crisscrossed framework threatened to buckles his knees.

Carefully testing his arm to see if it would move Trowa realized that he couldn't feel the pistol in his right hand. He transferred the weapon to the other hand holding the barrel at the ready beside his clammy cheek. The butt was slick with crimson matching the steady stream gathering on his right fingertips.

Trowa did not have to look to know the extent of the injury as his arm hung limp at his side. Constricting tightness wrapped around his chest. Each labored breath came with reluctant hesitation. Twice his vision blurred; twice he blinked it back. Trowa knew he was losing the battle to stay conscious but, again, giving up was not an option.

A shadow elongated conforming to the corridor's bend. Trowa firmed up his grip on the pistol trying to control his shaking hand. A figure framed in a backwash of muted light hugged the turn radius with its body. Trowa drew in a steadying breath at a painful cost, set his jaw and waited.

The outline shape moved closer, paused, listened then cautiously started forward again. "Come on you bastard, just a few more steps." Trowa willed the ghostly figure to continue.

Trowa had to have a sure shot. In his condition he knew that one was all he was going to get. He shifted his weight forcing his rubbery knees to cooperate. "Come on." he repeated with the urgency of someone fighting to keep shock at bay. "Concentrate...don't lose it now." he ordered himself. as only sheer willpower kept him from succumbing to the blood loss and pain.

Facial contours emerged from the shadows. The Intruder's Security Officer had discarded his helmet to better his field of vision. His rifle's blackened barrel loomed just in front of his body as the Officer took one more final, fatal step.

"NOW!" Trowa's mind commanded.

With a tottering sideways motion Trowa sprang from the framework's concealment leveling off at the Officer's middle. The dizzy spinning returned completely upsetting what equilibrium remained. The pistol slipped from Trowa's grasp hitting the deck plate with a hollow clang.

Now all Trowa could do was prepare for a lethal blast from the Officer's rifle. Reconciling himself to his fate Quatre's fair features were envisioned in Trowa traumatized mind but this time his lover's angelic face brought an unexpected peacefulness. "I love you, too" he whispered knowing that somehow his lover could hear.

At least, Trowa consoled himself, the end would come quickly. The Officer took one more step; faint light danced on his weapon. Trowa showed no fear as his eyes met the victor's with an unwavering glare. At the end he wanted his burning stare to be something the Officer would never forget. He wanted his determined sight to be forever etched in the Officer's memory and revisited in his nightmares.

The rifle raised in line with Trowa's head. The Officer did nothing to hide his delight. "I am going to enjoy this." he sneered, "Are you ready to go to hell rebel scum?"

Trowa lips poised to answer but he decided that the Officer didn't deserve a reply. Stony silence was all that could be heard in the cold vacancy of the enemy's liar as Trowa stared down death.

A loud bang reverberated. A chill lanced through Trowa to wash the color from his face. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead before everything went black and he crumpled into a boneless heap at the Officer's feet.

********

Wringing his sweaty hands Quatre struggled with the memories. "Trowa didn't feel the thud as the Officer hit the floor. Trowa didn't see the man's ashen face, the blood seeping from his nose and mouth or hear the raspy wheeze as he was drowning in his own bloody fluids. And he didn't see me standing over the lifeless body holding my smoking pistol. But I could see, I could hear. I could...." Quatre's voice choked on renewed sobs.

Wufei leaned closer laying his hand on his friend's arm. "You don't have to finish."

Quatre shook his head sending stingy blond bangs over his reddened eyes, "I had never killed before that day. I had seen death during the war but there had always been a safe separation...a nameless, faceless division. I never had to watch the fallen bodies go pale, go lifeless."

Quatre sucked in a deep breath to slow his words, to keep his sentences from running together. "It hurt like hell when I did it but I had no other choice. Please tell me that I didn't have a choice." Quatre begged Wufei to confirm that he was not a cold-blooded murderer.

"I understand." Wufei answered moping back the hair from fretted friend's eyes, "You did what you had to do to save Trowa and you should not feel guilty about that."

"But you don't understand. Just like last night if I hadn't insisted on having my way Trowa would not have been put in that dangerous position. Trowa almost died became of my damned pride. Does the pain ever go away...Wufei...does it?"

Wufei didn't have a ready answer. In fact he had his own demons that had never been put to rest. All he could do was empathize with Quatre and let him know that he was not alone in his guilt and pain. "I'd like to tell you that in time you'll forget the past but I won't lie. The pain will ease and the guilt will subside but you will never completely forget. In all these years I haven't forgotten the lives I have taken." he said lowly with a heavy exhalation.

With cumbersome effort Wufei stood up then took Quatre's hand helping him to his feet. "We all have our demons to fight." he confessed.

"Khushrenada is my demon." Quatre proclaimed stifling back his sniffles. "I was supposed to be on that plane with my parents but my father persuaded me to stay behind. My fear is that one day Khushrenada will return to finish what he began with my father and mother's deaths.

*That explains why Quatre has turned his estate into an armed camp.* Wufei's inner voice unraveled the riddle.

Wufei locked his sight on Quatre's angelic face, "Have you told Trowa about your fear?"

Quatre nodded "no".

"Trowa already knows that something is wrong and he may very well think that "something" is his fault." Wufei stated, "You know how much he loves you. Tell Trowa the truth he can handle it." Wufei advised placing his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Go on and tell Trowa the truth. Who knows maybe confession IS good for the soul." he smiled to hide his own hurt. A somber expression replaced the smile. "Let Trowa help then the healing can begin."

********

Quatre and Wufei parted company at the top of the stairs. Wufei stripped off in the dark and crawled between the cotton sheets. Lying in the midnight silence he mentally replayed Quatre's tale concerning Colonel Khushrenada. "Tomorrow I will ask Trowa if we can reopen the file." he decided, "Together we will track down Khushrenada and put Quatre's demons to rest."

TBC

Strike Force Five--Karen Hickman--March and April 2003

Thank you for reading!!!