Completed: May 24, 2003

Title: Strike Force Five
Author: Karen, The Huntress
Disclaimer: I do not own Gundam Wing or its characters
Category: AU
Pairing: 1x2, 3x4, Wufei all by himself
Warning: Yaoi, Lemon, language.
Part: 11-20/20
Feedback: Always appreciated

Strike Force Five
by Karen Hickman

Part Eleven: Exorcising Demons

The fateful day dawned cloudy and drizzly. While Wufei hoped that the precipitation would remain light he was not going to complain about the cooler temperatures. He woke up optimistic about his and his comrade's chances for victory. He reminded himself that OZ had fortified the compound against a large assault force and, although the enemy soldiers far outnumbered the Strike Force Five, the united quintet had the advantage of surprise on their side.

OZ was so sure of its untouchable status that the camp Commander had made many serious errors in security. Like rats invading the panty the five freedom fighters had no doubts that they could slip passed the "traps" and gnaw away at the complex until the entire enemy operation came to an explosive conclusion.

There was one order of business that Wufei wanted to complete before the hour for leaving was at hand. He was a few feet from Quatre and Trowa's east wing bedroom when Trowa stepped into the hall.

"Good morning." Wufei greeted his brother-in-arms. "How is Quatre?"

Trowa was a bit surprised to see his Chinese comrade standing in the hall. "It took him awhile to get settled last night, we had a lot to talk about." Trowa replied keeping his voice low as to not disturb his still sleeping lover. "I want to let him sleep in as long as he can. He is going to need all his strength to get through the upcoming mission."

Wufei nodded in agreement. "May I speak with you about an important matter?"

"Concerning what?"

"Did Quatre tell you what he and I talked about last night?"

"Yes and I want to thank you for encouraging him to tell me what has been bothering him. You are a good friend."

"You are welcomed." Wufei accepted Trowa's appreciation with a humble bow.

"What is it you need to discuss?"

"Quatre told me about the proof you have that Treize Khushrenada issued the order to kill his parents. I would like to assist you in reopening the search for the murdering bastard. I believe that together we can bring the Colonel to justice and free Quatre from his fears."

Trowa took a moment to consider Wufei's request. He had been frustrated in his attempts to find Khushrenada. His duties as Head of Security had limited his time to pursue the investigation. Wufei could lend a great deal of help both with his piloting skills and his varied contacts. A partnership could prove beneficial and would also provide extra support for Quatre's fragile emotions.

"I think that you and I would make a good team." he gratefully accepted Wufei proposal. "We will begin as soon as we complete the mission."

"If you don't mind I would like to get started now. Would it be possible to see your investigative files this morning." Wufei asked anxious to at least get an idea of what had already been done.

Trowa quietly reentered the bedroom, paused to watch his angel sleep, retrieved the files and joined Wufei in the hall. A quick stop in the kitchen to pour two cups of coffee then Trowa and Wufei went into Quatre's office for a private discussion.

Trowa sat down behind the desk handing Wufei the thick file folder. "Here is everything I have compiled so far." He took several sips of coffee while he waited for Wufei to review the data.

Wufei laid the folder on the desk and thumbed through the first few pages. There were lists of contacts, times and dates that the information had been received. The Colonel's personal credentials including his college and military service records, all of which Wufei was certain had been obtained illegally, proved that Trowa had been thorough in his research. A detailed physical description of Khushrenada right down to the scar on his left cheek gave Wufei a mental picture of the Son of Satan.

In an envelope Wufei found surveillance pictures that had been taken with a high-powered lens. Unfortunately most the photos were of poor quality and it was hard to make out Khushrenada's features. One picture that had been cut from a newspaper was clearer in its facial details.

Wufei intensely examined the black and white representation. Staring into Khushrenada's eyes that, even in shades of gray appeared to be icy blue, Wufei had a nagging feeling that he had seen the Colonel somewhere before. But where would he have come into contact with the ruthless son of a bitch?

Trowa took notice of Wufei's thoughtful posture, the way he was scrutinizing the newsprint image. Leaning forward in his chair he asked, "What has you so puzzled?"

Wufei shook his head causing his ebony ponytail to swish across his neck. "I am not sure. There is something familiar about his man but I can't pinpoint the familiarity."

Wufei turned toward the window hoping that even in the overcast light that he could get a better look, a hint or clue that would help him in his recalling. Then it was as if a light went on inside his brain. "The Communications Center." he mumbled under his breath. "That's it." he spoke up facing Trowa.

"The what?" Trowa asked having trouble following Wufei's fractured sentence.

"When Heero and I were carrying out our part of the compound surveillance I took a peek in the Communications Center's window. While I was watching an Officer stormed in barking out orders left and right. I couldn't hear what he was saying but he had the operators doing everything but jumping through hoops. The Officer was Colonel Khushrenada."

Trowa straightened in his seat, "Are you certain?"

Wufei took second look at the newspaper photo. Every aspect of the picture matched the man he had seen through the window. "I am certain." he proclaimed without a doubt in his mind. "The man was Colonel Khushrenada."

"No wonder so many leads ran into dead ends." Trowa stated settling back in his chair with a heavy sigh. "I was looking everywhere but right under my nose. Of course it makes sense now. Who better than Treize Khushrenada to supervise setting up the compound and be in charge of the daily operations?

Wufei I believe you have given me a specific mission target on which to set my sights. Yes the victory will be sweeter when favored with revenge." Trowa declared as a wide smile spread across his face.

The smile faded when Trowa realized how close Khushrenada had been to Quatre all this time. A somber expression reflected his concern. "We can not let Quatre know that Khushrenada is in the compound." Trowa walked around the desk sitting his hip on the corner. "I know that I can not convince Quatre to stay behind so we will have to be very vigilant once we begin the mission. Wufei, will you promise me something?"

"Anything."

"If we do managed to find Khushrenada promise me that you will keep Quatre safe while I deal with the devil. And if something should happen to me that you will stay here with Quatre. I know that is a lot to ask but I have to be certain that Quatre will be all right so I can direct my full attention to avenging his loss."

Wufei stood offering Trowa his hand, "I pledge by my ancestors, my Clan and my sword that I will not allow any harm to come to Quatre. I also pledge myself in your service in whatever battle you undertake."

Trowa shook Wufei's hand then they both bowed in humble respect as warriors and friends. "We will not fail." Trowa declared now certain about the path he had to take.

Wufei nodded in agreement. "Now let us begin the ruin of OZ and all those who have made their beds in hell."

********

Duo paced in his room. His abbreviated trek across the plush carpet was spurred by nervous energy, a rush that he always experienced before an assignment. As he went over the mission details, putting together a mental map, he found that last night's encounter with Heero was interfering with his focus.

"Damn!" he swore pulling up in mid-stride. "I have to talk to Heero, to make him understand or I will endanger the entire operation."

Duo checked in the kitchen then the dining room where the maps and sketches had been spread out again. It was obvious that someone had wanted a last look as the zero hour was quickly approaching. He glance out several windows and even stepped out onto the patio but Heero was nowhere to be found. Finally he inquired of a servant if he had seen Mr.Yuy."

"I think he is in the exercise room." the servant politely answered, relieved that the young man with the braid had settled down since his overly enthusiastic arrival.

Duo made no attempt to creep down the stairs as he had no wish to spy. He didn't intend to sneak a peek but walk in with the attitude that neither Heero's glaring nor growling would keep him from his self-imposed mission.

He found Heero dressed only in a pair of loose-fitting silky pants. Heero's tousled hair framed his face hiding those bewitching blue eyes. His bare feet were cushioned as he used the padded area for "shadow boxing". As Heero fists aimed jabs and uppercuts at his invisible opponent the overhead lights glinted over his muscular arms and golden torso that were damp from his exertive exercise.

This time the scars on Heero's back that were accentuated by beads of sweat held no horror for Duo. He was not awestruck or repulsed but accepted them as part of his brother-in-arms. They were physical evidence of dreadful cruelty but they did not define who Heero Yuy was or change his dedication to duty.

Duo walked nearer clearing his throat so Heero would realized that he was not alone. True Duo stood outside the Japanese man's attack range but he knew from pervious experience just how fast he could move and Duo did not want to find himself on the flat of his back again.

Heero straightened up from his dropped-shoulder defensive posture then turned to find Duo standing a calculated distance from the padded area. He pick up a towel and moped his face before draping the terry-cotton cloth around his neck.

Heero fought to suppress a smile as he remembered Duo being betrayed by his braid the first time he had ventured downstairs but the amusement was quickly overcome by tension as he recalled the scene in his bedroom. A bittersweet aftertaste still lingered on his lips but he would be damned if he would give into the temptation.

"What do you want?" he glared putting as much intimidating menace as he could into the question.

Duo moved closer apparently not intimidated at all. "We need to talk." There was no doubt from his firm tone that there would be a conversation.

Heero stepped off the mats keeping his own measured distance from the braid boy with the bedroom eyes. "Get to the point, I have mission to prepare for."

"It's about last night." Duo began suddenly seeming not as self-confident.

Heero raised a hand cutting off Duo before he could continue. "I don't want to talk about that. There is nothing to discuss." he stated moving passed Duo on a straightway path to the door.

Duo stood dumbfounded at Heero's rude dismissal but the shock lasted but a moment. He was not going to give up as easily as he had the night before. "I don't give a damn what you want." he declared starting off after the exiting soldier.

Employing several long strides Duo quickly caught with Heero. "Hey don't walk away from me!" he exclaimed reaching out to grab Heero's arm.

Heero saw the blur of motion in his side vision. Acting on his instinctive training Heero whirled around throwing up an arm block, knocking Duo's hand aside. But Duo had anticipated Heero's reaction to the grab. He countered the block with his forearm followed by a knife hand chop.

The look of surprise on Heero's face was worth risking his anger. Duo let a sly grin flicker across his lips as he slid into a defensive stance raising his hands to intercept his comrade's next strike.

Heero tilted his head studying his stubborn challenger who was determined to be defiant. "As I said before I do not have time for this...this nonsense." he stated even though he saw the confrontation as a way to measure the man who would not take "no" for an answer.

"All right I will make you a deal." Heero stated to see just how far Duo was willing to go to have his way.

Duo nodded and the grin expanded into a cocky smile. "A deal, how interesting."

Heero ignored the goading, "We will (1)kumite right now. If I win you leave me alone until the mission begins then I will tolerate you but only for the other's sake."

"And if I win?"

"Then I will listen to what you have to say." Heero promised as he stepped back onto the padded area, flowed into a back stance and waited.

Duo toed off his shoes, removed his socks and faced his rival with a steely stare of determination. He was not going to lose, he couldn't. There was a possibility that they might not survive the upcoming mission and Duo could not go into the next realm without making things right between he and Heero.

"Take your best shot." Duo issued the challenge.

Both men took a moment to size up the other, to fix a plan of attack and counterattack in their minds. Sparring was like a chess game. Not only your first move but subsequent strikes had to be considered in advance. Add second-guessing and one could find themselves in a threefold contest of body, mind and spirit.

Heero began the game with a swift front snap kick. Duo sidestepped the well-aimed foot answering with a horizontal side kick and a loud (2)kiai to put Heero on notice that the contest would not be easy.

Back and forth, blow for blow, each man traded tags and some stronger hits. Once Heero connected with a center punch that sent Duo reeling backwards but he managed to keep his feet under him.

Duo got in his own solid blow when he caught Heero with an elbow jab. Chest heaving and skin glistening golden Heero temporarily retreated from the fray. "We seem to be well-matched." he announced using the brief reprieve to catch his breath. Neither Heero nor Duo was about to admit defeat even though the match had gone on for thirty minutes.

Duo was doing some winded panting of his own. "Do you want to call a draw?" he replied bracing his hands on his knees while still keeping a watchful eye on his sexy opponent.

Heero nodded "no" and with a guttural growl charged forward. Duo decided that he had played fair long enough, that bending the rules was acceptable to end this farce of a fight. He stood his ground waiting until Heero's roundhouse kick almost made contact then with a upward sweep he caught hold of Heero's ankle, twist his grip and return the favor of throwing him flat on the mats.

With a grunt and a wheeze Heero went down hard. Now it was his turn to gaze up through floating dots at Duo's dizzy image swimming before his eyes. Duo wasted no time in pinning Heero's wrists over his head while he kept his straddled weight centered on his chest. Whether Heero wanted it or not Duo was declaring a draw.

"You are going to listen." he ordered as Heero struggled to get free.

Standing upright, toe to toe, Duo and Heero were evenly matched but now Duo had the upper hand, controlled the situation and called the shots. Heero gritted his teeth forcing a hiss of air from deep in his throat. At least Duo didn't have a hand clamped about Heero's windpipe as a deterrent to keep his struggling in check. Gradually Heero's muscles began to weaken from the strain of the lengthy fight and his fruitless struggle. Slowly exhaustion overruled his resolve.

Duo, sensing that his Japanese opponent had about reached his limits, cautiously lessened the pressure but stayed alert in case his comrade decided to try to reverse the circumstances. "Will you listen?" Duo pleaded loosening his grip on Heero's wrists. "Please." he added not at all ashamed to beg.

Heero looked up through chocolate bangs plastered to his forehead and found his sight captured by Duo's soulful violet eyes. There was an alluring attraction in the odd-colored orbs that Heero could not dismiss. "I will listen." he sighed finally giving into his fading determination.

Duo rolled off shifting into a cross-leg seated position. Stringy stands of damp hair clung to his flushed cheeks and his braid hung over his shoulder like a frayed rope. He, too, was drawing in hard gulps of air and there was visible trembling in his arms.

Heero sat up opposite his Strike Force partner doing his best to lessen his own panting puffs. "Perhaps I was too hard on you last night," he admitted, "but I did not like having my personal space invaded." he finished the explanation for his actions.

Duo let out a steadying sigh. "I had no right to touch you." he expressed his regret taking full responsibility for starting the ugly incidence. "Will you accepted my humble apology?"

Heero leaned nearer brushing back hair from Duo's expressive eyes. "Yes and I apologize for my attack, I should have practiced more restraint."

"Then let's forget anything ever happened." Duo replied offering his hand.

Heero took Duo's hand giving it a firm shake then allowed his fingers to linger as he savored the enjoyable touch. It had been a long time since he had allowed anyone to get too close. As hard as he tried he could not open himself up for fear that he would be hurt.

This fear was not for his physical protection as even the brutal whipping he had suffered in the South American prison had not defeated his willpower. It was his heart that Heero was guarding for it had been broken before and he knew that if it was shattered again the pieces could not be put back together.

********

After Heero's rescue from his imprisonment, while he was recovering at the Winner estate, Heero came to think of Quatre as more than an acquaintance. Heero had foolishly allowed his feelings to cross the line. He found himself in love with the gentle angel who had willingly given his kindness to a callous soldier who did not care about anyone or anything.

Each day Heero grew more attracted to Quatre but he could not voice his feelings partly because of pride but mostly from fear of rejection. Then one evening when Heero had healed enough to share dinner downstairs Quatre sat beside Trowa Barton and with his face beaming announced that he and Trowa had become lovers. Quatre was so happy and for the first time since his parents died seemed to be at peace.

Heero swallowed the lump in his throat, put on a false smile and lied as he congratulated the happy couple. After that he excused himself stating that he had done too much that day and needed to rest. When he was alone in his bedroom with the door locked against any intrusion Heero Yuy, the soldier whose loyalty could be brought for the right price, collapsed and grieved as if Quatre had also been lost in the plane crash.

That night Heero promised himself that he would never again expose his heart to the pain of lost love. He also vowed that Quatre would never know that he was the cause of that pain for as hurt as Heero was, for once in his life, he would put someone else's feelings before his own.

********

Duo repositioned his grip until his fingers laced through Heero's quivering fingers. Then without warning he planted a soft kiss on the hand's upturned palm.

Heero's immediate response was to pull back but his mind and his body did not seem inclined to cooperate. His mind was warning him to withdraw, retreat back into the fortress that he had built around his heart but his soul ached for the contact.

Maybe if he settled for lust and not for love he could ease the dull pain there always lingered just below the surface. If he felt with his body and not his mind perhaps lessening the loneliness would be worth the risk. Heero closed his eyes sucking in a ragged breath as the wet warmth from Duo's lips spread up his arm and across his bare chest.

Duo, too, was experiencing a rise in his temperature level. The quivering of Heero's hand against his lips triggered an unexpected response. Like the previous evening Duo wanted to comfort Heero but he suddenly realized that he was repeating the very mistake that he had just apologized for.

"I'm sorry." he begged Heero's pardon. Letting go and sitting back he fully expected to have Heero lash out either verbally or physically. Duo braced for the reproach that he admittedly deserved.

Heero sat still staring at Duo with an odd expression that had him wondering what was going on in Heero's mind. The trembling had increased encompassing Heero's entire body. Without a word as hard breaths rattled in his chest Heero leaned forward until his face was inches from the his puzzled comrade.

"Duo I'm hurting." Heero whispered, the breathy words tickling over Duo's chin.

"Where? Were you injured while we were sparring?"

"I hurt in my heart." Heero confessed reaching to caress Duo's cheek, "Please Duo make my heart stop hurting?" he asked as his lips deliver a brushing kiss.

Now Duo considered drawing away. Even though he had initiated the prior kiss he was not certain that he could follow through. Before the kiss was an act of solace but now Heero wanted, no needed, more. "Heero I...." he began but Heero's anxiousness cut off the words.

"Please save me." Heero implored sliding his hand to cup it behind Duo's head.

"Are you sure?" Was Heero asking for comfort or merely physical release?

If Heero heard the question he chose not to answer. The kiss deepened with an urgency that was completely opposite of Heero's insistence that no one touch him.

Heero broke the kiss but his lips continued their quest to make Duo comply his passionate overtures. He moaned against Duo's neck as his tongue lapped at the salty moisture left behind from their sparring.

Duo hands moved to Heero's strong shoulders, kneading the taunt muscles. Sliding further over Heero's back his fingertips traced the raised welts that marred the golden flesh. Heero tensed at the touch afraid that Duo would find the scars disgusting. "Its all right." Duo reassured using feathery strokes to sooth the tension. "These scars are the proof of your strength." he declared flattening his palms and tightening his hold. "They are beautiful."

Heero paused locking his cobalt sight with Duo's shimmering eyes. "How could they be beautiful?"

"Because they are a part of you." Duo proclaimed easing Heero over until he laid back on the mat. "Let me show you how beautiful you are."

Heero closed his eyes surrendering the last of his heart's protection. Whether it was pity or lust or love all he wanted right then was for Duo to take control. He was so drained from his battle to constantly keep up his guard. His longed for a time that his numbed senses would be awakened, just one moment when he didn't feel so empty.

Duo took over letting his tongue tease over Heero's nipples. Sucking and licking he soon had his comrade writhing not in pain but in pure ecstasy. When both nipples were at full attention Duo redirected his lavishing on Heero's stomach as his tongue slithered like a snake over washboard abs and the cutest navel he had ever seen.

Heero groaned then whimpered proving that he was indeed human after all. He mumbled something that sounded like Duo's name but the word was slurred as he struggled to catch his breath.

Snagging his fingers in the silky pant's waistband Duo tugged both pants and underwear over Heero's wigging hips until the constricting material freed his willing partner's erect manhood.

"Beautiful." Duo repeated his praise eyeing the rigid arousal with a renewed appreciation of the male anatomy.

Without warning Duo's hot mouth engulfed the throbbing member. All Heero could do was claw up fistfuls of the mat to steady his shaking. Heero spread his legs granting Duo better access to the center of his sexuality. Duo wasted no time in his oral stimulation. Base to tip and back again, over and over, Duo worked his magic. Every third trip he would flick the tip of his tongue over the swollen head then return to his rhythmic routine.

Despite his body's trembling Heero planted his elbows and bowed at the waist into a partly upright posture to gaze at the heavenly vision kneeling between his legs. Duo's braid had slipped over one shoulder allowing the end to tease over Heero's thigh. The overhead lights danced along the chestnut hair highlighting the reddish hues.

Realizing that Heero was watching Duo paused in his masterful manipulations to wink at his erotic colleague. "Are you ready?" Duo asked then lapped over the penis's tip to trigger Heero's climax.

All Heero could do was nod "yes" as a hot sensation gathered in his groin. Gritting his teeth he threw back his head and hissed as a sturdy shudder coursed through his body. Weakened arms gave out as he flopped back on the mat. Aftershocks tingled like a thousand tiny needles pricking his damp skin as his softening member pumped out the last of its seed.

Duo braced his hands leaning over the sated soldier. "Is the hurt gone?" he whispered.

Bathing in the afterglow Heero looked up at the gentle man that was nothing like his nickname. Shinigami might be the God of Death but Duo was a savior of hearts and spirits. Heero knew that the pain had not been exorcised completely but in the future whenever his heart ached Heero would remember the time when someone looked passed his fleshy scars and saw an unblemished soul. And maybe, just maybe, he could believe in love once more.

Heero sat up lifting his hand to caress Duo's creamy cheek that was blushed from his excitement. As he prepared to thank Duo for helping break down the wall around his heart Heero noticed the prominent bulge straining against Duo's frontal region. "Now let me help you." he stated stroking his hand across the tight material.

Duo eyelids fluttered as Heero's fingers fumbled with the button on his pants. He reined in his scattered senses long enough to make a suggestion. "We don't have much time until we leave so why don't we finish this in the shower."

A steamy cloud enfolded around two bodies locked in a passionate embrace. Spraying water muted the moans. Both men knew that war was fate's cold-hearted bitch who made no promises concerning their safe return. The only thing that Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell were certain of was that as comrades against OZ, whether the mission ended in victory or defeat, they would not face the future alone.

Part Twelve: Mission in Motion

Everyone gathered in the dining room for the final mission briefing. Heero and Duo had reverted back to their "assignment attitudes" putting what had happened between them in proper perspective. There was no relationship, no star-struck lovers only two soldiers who could not afford for emotional entanglements to interfere with their attention to duty.

There was definitely a sexual attraction but satisfying hormonal urges was more akin to lust than love. An hour before the mission was not the time to debate vice verses virtue. When they returned from the devil's den then they could consider the next logical step or as logical as human emotions could be.

Four backpacks filled with assorted explosives, fuses and remote detonators were given out. Duo had instructed each team member on the dos and don'ts concerning the volatile materials. "Treat them like a lover and there will be no problems." he declared. "But abuse them and they will blow your fucking head off." he had added with the eccentric enthusiasm that explained why he had been nicknamed Shimigami.

Once the team reached the OZ compound they would divide into two groups. Trowa, Quatre and Wufei would penetrate the interior planting their seeds of destruction along the way. When all the charges were in place they would fire their fatal salute to OZ's glorious sendoff.

Heero and Duo dressed in their deceptive OZ camouflage would ride the SCATs to a wooded area bordering the Laser Cannon and wait for the go-ahead signal. Hopefully when the compound began to burst apart it would draw the sentries away from their posts creating an unobstructed path for the tower toppling.

The next order of business was weapons. In addition to everyone's pistol preferences Duo shared his collection of knives. "Guns make noise and noise attracts attention." he announced as he handed on the bladed weapons.

A grin flickered across Heero's lips as he reminded his braided comrade that "Crossbows are also silent."

********

Packed and ready the Strike Force Five stood by the "Lone Dragon" watching windswept gray clouds bloom over the horizon. Quatre, Trowa and Wufei, dressed in black from head to toe, blended perfectly with the shadowy surroundings.

Like cunning chameleons Heero and Duo had donned the black leather windsuits decorated with the enemy's Crossed Swords insignias. The matching helmets, the explosive laden backpacks and the SCATs were securely onboard waiting to fulfill their role in OZ's elimination.

There were no memorable statements, no morale bolstering orations to sustain one's courage in the heat of battle. No one had any unrealistic notions of standing defiantly together in the face of their foes. There would be no brave charges into the fray. No, the siege would come in the form of stealthy infiltration...namely... sneaking in behind their backs.

The only discourse coming anywhere close to a speech was Trowa's order that everyone repress any urges to act impulsively. "You have keen senses use them."

Wufei's aerial beast beat its "wings" against the wind raising like the Phoenix. Perhaps the Strike Force Five was fated to become the embodied immortality of the mystic flaming firebird. But the team knew all too well that unlike the Phoenix's miraculous rebirth they might not rise from the ashes.

********

Duo and Heero decked out in their camouflage pushed the SCATs down the trail leading to the tower. Duo pulled on his pack snugging it against his back. Heero tied his crossbow on one side of his bike's gas tank; his quiver of arrow was secured to the other side. In honor of the special occasion he also sported a pistol on his hip. The weapon's weight felt odd but he was more than willing to get use to it.

With a parting "good luck" from their brothers-in-arms the pair of OZ pretenders put on their helmets and mounted their motorized steeds. The SCAT's engines roared to life. As bright violet sparks flashed in his eyes Duo gave everyone the thumbs up sign then his wide smile was covered up as he lowered his face shield.

Heero slapped his shield down and with more confidence gunned his engine. They picked up speed rolling pass the tree line and disappearing into a cloud of dust.

********

Activity was sparse at the motor pool. Wufei hid in the dusky shade beneath a stout tree's low hanging branches. From where he crouched at least a dozen different means of transportation were bunched together forming a visual blockade to anyone on the other side.

Wufei wondered as he squatted in the shadows what possible reason the Transportation Coordinator had for the closely nestled arrangement. He knew that space was limited but why not put the vehicles in several smaller groups on assorted site? "But," he told himself, "the staging orders were not his responsibility and the "nesting" configuration suited his destructive chain reaction purposes quite well."

Staying low he scurried over an exposed grassy patch pulling up at the end of the first row. Drawing his pistol he darted from one truck to the next finally stopping at the third row. As far as he could tell four or five maintenance techs and three general purpose Assist Drones were the total sum of the evening workforce.

Unlike the Security Drones' nasty disposition, the AD's easy going temperament poised no threat to life or limb. The one instant when someone might find themselves at risk would be if a fifty pound heavy-duty unit malfunctioned and ran amuck. In that case a "stun shot" to the right side panel was your best bet to halt the runaway.

Luckily all the AD's that Wufei could see were the standard square, dumpy GPD models whose only fault was poor depth perception. That design flaw did make them cut their corners short usually causing them to bump into objects including your shins if you didn't keep a sharp lookout.

One stubby workhorse rolled on its cleat-treads between the next row up from Wufei leaving twin rippled tracks in its wake. Creaking with a grating noise, no doubt caused by sandy grit in its gearbox, the shortsighted mechanical kept straight to its task never aware that a vengeful renegade had invaded its territory.

Lying his pistol by his boot Wufei removed the backpack undoing the front flap. A medium sized magnetized "scatter pattern" disk was tucked neatly inside the exhaust pipe of the nearest truck. A red glowing activation light confirmed that the connection was open. The disk would now sit patiently awaiting the remote signal that would unleash its demolishing power.

Carrying his pistol and pack Wufei's next stop was the last row. There the procedure was repeated as blue sparks arced from behind a jeep just yards from him. While a jumpsuit clad tech supervised the repairs an AD was hard at work mending a broken weld spot.

Wufei had no qualms over the tech's soon to be shortened life. The oversized machine pistol the man sported on his hip and the fact that he would not think twice before using it to send Wufei to his final reward was a good enough reason not to care. Gathering up his weapon and pack Wufei reversed course. He would stay well within the tree line's protective borders until his rendezvous with Quatre and Trowa.

********

Much like their Chinese comrade Quatre and Trowa wove in and out of the wooded perimeter. At the start of their journey Trowa has set up four maximum cluster charges. Two were attached midway up separate tree trunks. The third fitted neatly within an outcrop's flowing creases and the last found shelter in a clump of willow grass on the compound's west side.

The cluster's fuses would not be activated until Trowa was ready to blow the charges. That way the transmission signal would not be picked up at the Communications Center and traced, at least not until it was too late.

The OZ personnel had been considerate in erecting light poles, stacking cartons and leaving any number of other items piled everywhere. Their untidy habits made the pair's secretive travel much more convenient.

Quatre carried six disks; Trowa had only four leftover. Even though they would combine the remainder of their charges the scant count made limiting the target placements a necessary but difficult choice. Of course the infiltrators would have been delighted to stick a disk in every crack and crevice along the way if they had an unlimited supply.

One location that did beg for Trowa and Quatre's explosive intervention was the fuel depot. If one wanted to take out as much OZ real estate as possible with a single blast the highly unstable mixture would do the trick. Trowa tucked two disks in his belt leaving the rest in Quatre's safe keeping. Quatre kept company with his lover until they reached a large rectangle crate. Drawing his sidearm for backup Quatre gave Trowa's cheek a good luck kiss and sent him on his way.

The fuel depot consisted of six long oval cylinders set side by side on supports above the ground. They had been put off to themselves but not nearly far enough from the surrounding buildings to spare the structures from what was to be Trowa's grand incendiary send off.

Voices could be heard from a narrow walkway running between the cylinders and two adjacent storage units. Ducking behind the first pair of tanks Trowa could see the boots and legs belonging to the voices. He couldn't pick out many words but what he could understand sounded so much like the same old complaints that he and Quatre had heard on their previous visit.

Trowa lay on his back sliding under the far right support. It was a snug fit but he had enough room to attach one disk on either side well under and out of sight. Hopefully the activation light's red reflection on the white tank's surface would not be noticed by any patrolling troopers. But it was reasonable to assume that no one would have cause to be crawling under the tanks anyway, not in the short time before the first team finished their assignments.

Picking up his partner along the way the trespassing pair moved on. Next target, the Communications Center. There would be more obstacles to navigate closer inside the complex, more people and drones thickly amassed in a centralized area. Fortunately the same rules held true, as the charges only had to be in the vicinity of whatever one wished to go boom to carry out their deadly destruction.

********

Wufei stood sideways with one shoulder pressed against a large round pole holding an inner-complex transformer. In the backwash from a nearby spotlight his black clothing blended with the pole's dark surface. His covert stance was kept in total silence and with a perfect stationary alignment. The motive for his statue imitation was a Sentry Drone standing not more than ten feet on the pole's opposite side.

Wufei's companions crouched in the woods hopefully well out of the Drone's sensor range. All had gone well in their reunion. Wufei had traversed the compound playing a game of fox and geese with the inept employees. He was almost clear, within sight of his comrades when the Drone had made an unexpected appearance.

Wufei's surprisingly calm composure, unlike is jittery counterparts, allowed for a tolerant wait as the Drone proceeded in its predictable start and stop patrolling. Its ribbed sole "feet" counted off a systematic series of steps then it would pause to "sniff" the air as Trowa described the Drone's odd head tilting. A short pause to process the information and the series would start again. Each series, however, took the Drone nearer to Wufei.

One last graduated sequence, a single step, the Drone paused again. A low hum from one servomotor cocked its head. Now standing a few feet from the Chinese intruder the deadly apparatus craned its neck for a better viewing angle.

Trowa raised up on one knee calculating the number of inches before the Drone would come within Wufei's visual range. "Ten." Trowa mouthed out the count. Wufei nodded. "Nine." Trowa continued the countdown. "Eight, seven, six, five." Wufei shifted his weight ready to the spring his unseen trap.

Quatre's hand closed with an anxious grip on Trowa's arm. "Can he do it?" he whispered not at all certain that Wufei was in full command of his senses.

Trowa shrugged never missing his count. "Four, three, two...now!" he nodded hoping that he was not about to witness his team mate's gruesome demise.

A blur of black streaked under the spotlight. With practiced speed and accuracy Wufei's arm sprang out. His strong hand seized the Drone's thin linkage between its head and shoulders. In a single fluid motion Wufei gripped his other hand over the first and lifted straight up.

Servomotors whined. Useless gears rotated in a vain attempt to move forward on feet that had lost all traction with the ground. Before the mechanical sentry's weapon systems could power up one violent twist severed the neck connection. A brilliant burst sent pinpoints of bluish-white light spraying in all directions.

The sparking starburst shot a flash memory of beam-lanced soldiers crying out in agony across Trowa's mind. The writhing image's unexpected and terrifying pictures caused a quick breath to stab inside Trowa's chest. The catching quiver shook his torso hard enough for Quatre to feel the tremor.

"Are you all right?" Quatre asked lowly touching his lover's arm. "You look like you just walked over someone's grave." he observed noticing that Trowa face was pale and his brow moist.

Trowa locked his shaken sight with his partner feeling their intuitive bond grow stronger. "I think I just did." he sighed heavily with a shiver in his voice.

Wufei walked passed the pole holding up the now totally relaxed Drone. Swinging the fully flexible skeletal frame, arm and legs dangling loosely, Wufei proudly showed off his victim. Trowa could have sworn that despite Wufei's martial arts proficiency in the Drone's neutralization that his team mate displayed an almost haughty attitude as if he had enjoyed the termination.

Quatre eased up beside Trowa staring wide-eyed at the defunct Drone. "Promise me you will not try that again." he requested of his Chinese comrade.

Wufei dropped the metal corpse with a clatter as the wiggling appendages folded in on the equally lax body. "All that practice did pay off." he stated shoving his boot into the middle of the twisted pile and causing tiny sparks to arc inside.

********

Duo and Heero rolled the SCATs guiding them through the trees. Sometimes they had to lift the machines over rotting logs, tree roots and those annoying rocky outcrops. The zigzag pattern among the natural detours took longer but the forest was the last area the tower's sentries would search.

A blue-gray glint under the powerful spotlights shone above the forest ceiling. The tower's flattop roof emerged growing larger until the top section could clearly be seen through the treetops. From their distant observation point at the clearing's edge the tower loomed like a hulking steel leviathan. Using the magnifying lens on his night vision scanner Duo could pick out a wide ramp spiraling upwards around the base looping along the outer support beams like a giant armor-scaled serpent.

The ramp ran out of sight about one-quarter from the top platform where the tower's dimensions narrowed considerable. Some form of shaft connected at that junction. Also a ladder was fixed to one outside column running the entire length to the narrowest section under the platform.

Finally atop the manmade obelisk a ratio-grade reinforced gunport cradled the Class Four Turbolaser Cannon in a protective crossbeam cage. A concave tracking dish protruded from the right support. The tacking dish itself was not important, if the first team's planned end for the Communications Center was realized the dish would cease to function anyway.

"Now what?" Heero asked shielding his eyes from the spotlight's glare with his gloved hand.

Duo shrugged, "Trowa said to wait for the signal so I guess we wait."

Heero stood quietly but only for a moment. With a puff of air his snorting commented on Trowa's instructions. "Wait." he repeated with another curt puff, "I don't like to wait." he announced laying his hand over the pistol on his hip.

Duo shook his head fully aware that long suffering especially in silence was not one of Heero's greater virtues. He also knew if "the signal" didn't come within a time period that Heero deemed reasonable that a fit of pacing and mumbling and, most likely, cursing would have to be endured.

Duo stared up at the massive horizontal girders and vertical spires making an extremely uneducated guess at its bulk weight. For the first time since bringing the tower down had been decided Duo was struck by the magnitude of the job. He had seemed self-assured that his appropriated explosives could do what was asked but now standing in the colossal framework's long shadow it was too late to ponder the outcome. The commitment had been made and he and Heero were going to see the mission through to whatever completion the fates dictated.

********

Quatre slipped a circular charge into the mortar gap in a foundation block. Sitting by the Communications Center's rear wall he scooted his trim bottom along the wall carefully hiding the last disk before joining Trowa and Wufei at the corner.

Trowa had not said anything aloud but the mission so far had gone more smoothly than he had expected. Not wanting to temp the fates with any negativity he decided to keep his thoughts to himself. Still he couldn't shake a disquiet nagging in his mind.

"Ready?" Quatre asked glancing back at his handiwork.

Wufei checked his watch, "Almost show time." he grinned. "Let's get back to the forest, find decent cover and contact Duo and Heero."

The trespassing trio formed a single file slinking to the border. Just as the last of the trailing shadows disappeared into the forest a pair of patrolling troopers accompanied by a Security Drone rounded the corner.

The guards stood shoulder to shoulder visually surveying the dim border. The mechanical sentry tilted its head as it also scrutinized the immediate area. Only the low hum of an overhead transformer and distant voices disturbed the deceptive peacefulness.

"I told you there was no one here." one guard grumbled resting an SR42 on his hip.

The second sentry narrowed his eyes straining to see inside the tree line. "Do you pick up any readings?" he inquired of the Drone. Receiving a negative nod the human sentry took one last look and turned to leave. "I guess my senses were playing tricks on me." he supposed.

"More like that shit you've been smoking has rotted your brain." his partner surmised as the Drone followed close behind the exiting pair.

Part Thirteen: Settling the Score

Wufei, Trowa and Quatre stood at the forest's edge gazing across a grassy clearing. On the opposite side, midway from the explosive rigged fuel depot, a man in a crimson uniform with knee-high black boots and a hip-length black cape was talking to two soldiers. Seeing how the men stood stiffly at attention it was easy to tell who was in charge. Judging by the Officer's exaggerated hand motions and tense body language it was obvious that he was not pleased and was taking his displeasure out on the underlings.

Trowa was about to suggest that they end the haggard soldier's tongue lashing by setting off the first explosions when Quatre suddenly went pale and Wufei had to grab him as his legs turned rubbery beneath him.

"Quatre what's wrong?" Trowa asked anxiously as Wufei eased him down to sit on the grass. Quatre didn't respond.

There was an angst-ridden energy flowing between him and Quatre that took Trowa by surprise. "Quatre." he repeated kneeling at eye level with Quatre whose widened azure sight was locked on the OZ troopers. "Quatre talk to me."

Please...no." Quatre murmured so lowly that Trowa and Wufei could barely make out the words.

Trowa put his hand under Quatre's chin redirecting his eyes to his face. "Tell me what's wrong." he ordered with a gentle shake.

"Father...mother...no."

"Quatre tell me what I need to do."

"Kill him."

"Who?"

"The murderer." Quatre whispered shifting his sight and breaking his empathetic trance.

Trowa did not need any further inquiry as to the meaning of his lover's words. He knew as surly as Quatre did the identity of the Officer. "Khushrenada." Trowa hoarsely hissed out the vile name.

Wufei sucked in a startled breath, "Are you certain?"

Trowa drew his pistol, "Yes I am certain." he confirmed. "I am going to end this nightmare now. Quatre you stay here with Wufei."

Quatre's eyes, misted with tears, locked on his lover. "No Trowa it is too dangerous. I can not bear to lose you." he pleaded grabbing a fitful of Trowa's jacket.

With firm persuasion Trowa untangled his lover's fingers. "You will not lose me I promise." then he sealed the promise with a kiss. Turning to Wufei Trowa reaffirmed another promise. "Remember your oath to keep Quatre safe." he reminded his comrade.

"On my honor as a warrior I pledge my protection." Wufei swore wrapping his arms around Quatre to keep him in place.

"No. Trowa...please." Quatre whispered but he knew that his beseeching would do no good. He knew that Trowa could no more let Khushrenada go than they could stop loving each other.

This time, though, love was a stronger force than revenge. For his lover's sake, for his own sake, Trowa had to extract justice and he had to do it alone. "I love you." he whispered kissing Quatre once more before he stood up.

Quatre's misty eyes followed Trowa's standing. "I will always...love you." he choked out the eternal pledge before burying his tear stained face in Wufei shoulder.

Trowa leaned over stroking his life partner's silky hair, tucking stray strands behind his ears. A bow to Wufei in respect for his promised protection. "Whatever happens don't let Quatre go."

Wufei nodded his head. "Do what needs to be done and return to your soul mate."

Trowa, holding his pistol at the ready straightened his shoulders, set his jaw and prepare for a confrontation that would forever exorcise Quatre's demons.

With love borne fortitude the lone extractor of retribution strode out into the clearing. He could feel his lover's strong intuitive connection but he didn't dare look back for fear that the ever-widening separation would be too much to bear. His sole concentration had to be on Khushrenada or he would surely fail in his promise to return to his soul mate.

"Excuse me." Trowa called loudly leveling his weapon at the OZ trio.

Khushrenada's head rotated in the loud voice's direction. The startled soldiers hesitated a moment then a pair of pistols were brought to bear on the brash stranger. The Colonel cut his eyes first at his men then ever so slowly came about to fully face Trowa.

Offering a disdainful smirk Khushrenada took on a well-practiced swaggering attitude. "Well who do we have here?" he wondered as a thin-lipped sneer pulled at his mouth. The cocky grin stretched into a smile as he calculated the two to one odds. "It appears that we have a counterbalance, as standoff one might call it." he announced. "What do you propose we do about it?"

"You can order your men to drop their weapons." Trowa answered the Colonel's mocking inquiry.

"First tell me who you are then I will decide if you are worth not having my men empty their clips into your sorry soul." Khushrenada taunted taking a step towards the lone man who dared to oppose his authority.

"Who I am is not important." Trowa declared. He couldn't resist some taunting of his own. "Why don't you tell me your name so I can give you the same consideration."

The Colonel tried not to show any outward reaction but Trowa could tell that the barbarous jab had hit its mark. "I am afraid that I have been remiss in my etiquette but this primitive environment is quite hard on one's social graces." the Officer replied with more than a hint of sarcasm. "Forgive me for not taking the time for a proper introduction. I am Colonel Treize Khushrenada." he announced with an arrogant bow.

"Khushrenada." Trowa repeated, "You are the bastard who is insanely bold enough to discount my resolve."

"Insanely bold." Khushrenada grinned, "I like that description. Is that flattery I hear?"

Trowa's reply came back in kind, "I should be the one who is flattered," he mocked bowing in a flourish of false humility, "because I have been given the opportunity to bring you to justice."

"Justice for what?" the Colonel wondered his curiosity sparked by his challenger's own brand of boldness.

"For ordering the sabotage of the plane carrying the Winner family."

Khushrenada displayed a puzzled frown. "That was so long ago. Why would you care what happened...." A strange expression alternating between confusion and clarity flickered across his face. "unless you are the heir I failed to eliminate." he finished the interrupted statement.

Trowa centered his emerald sight on the object of his contempt. "I am not the heir but the one who will avenge his parent's deaths at your hands."

"So the Winner's whelp is still alive. Unfortunately that fact has put an end to my deliberation concerning your immediate termination." the Colonel announced nodding his head towards the soldiers and their already targeted weapons.

Trowa showed no sign that the his possible impending death mattered, "I can easily kill you before your men have a chance to shoot." he pointed out the reality of their situation.

"And my men could as easily kill you." Khushrenada replied putting an opposite spin on the odds.

"My life for yours seems like a fair trade." Trowa bluffed never lessening his acidic glare of hatred.

The OZ assassin's face had an unreadable look that made Trowa wonder what was going on in the murdering bastard's mind. But whatever thought processes were being muddled around in Khushrenada's warped brain would not change the outcome. This hour Treize Khushrneada was going to pay for his crimes against humanity one way or the other.

"Would you like to yield or die?" Trowa dictated the terms of capitulation.

"I am glad to see that you still have some humor about you." the Colonel declared, "You're going to need it to get you through."

Now Trowa fought to hold back the puzzlement creeping into his face. *Through what?* he asked himself wondering from what black hole Khushrenada had pulled his statement.

********

Quatre had stopped struggling against Wufei's firm but gentle hold. Now both men sat in the damp grass watching helplessly as Trowa confronted Treize Khushrenada.

Quatre's breathing was ragged, his face pale. Wufei brushed back hair from his comrade's puffy eyes. "Trowa knows what he is doing." he whispered trying to reassure Quatre that everything would be all right even though he had not own doubts. Suddenly Quatre's lax body tensed and the fighting began again.

********

"DROP YOU PISTOL NOW!" a phantom voice loudly exclaimed.

The unanticipated notification was submitted by an OZ soldier who had suddenly materialized from the forest's gloomy fringes. The stern order was further backed up by an effectual SR42 that was centered at the base of Trowa's skull.

"I think you are the one who will yield." Khushrenada ordered stepping up beside the surprised stranger and holding out his hand to receive Trowa's surrendered pistol.

Trowa's locked his burning sight with the Colonel's less than lucid eyes as he slapped the pistol into his outstretched palm.

"Now that wasn't so hard was it?" Khushrenada sneered painfully jabbing the pistol's barrel into Trowa's chest. "It is a shame that you were so easily overcome. I would have liked more of a challenge, more sport for the hunt but I suppose it is just as well. I have a busy schedule and a prolonged execution would use up too much of my valuable time."

"This isn't over Khushrenada." Trowa growled never lessening his lancing stare.

The Colonel tilted his head and the unreadable expression returned. "Perhaps if I had a strong enough incentive I could be persuaded to spare your life." His free hand reached around to cup Trowa's trim buttocks. "I am sure you can think of a way to convince me." he whispered huskily as his fingers curved between Trowa's legs and squeezed.

"Are you a virgin?" Khushrenada's continued tightening his fingers over Trowa's crotch. Trowa remained mute, his steely glare fixed in place.

"Of course not, the Winner brat is your lover." Khushrenada realized, as the reason for Trowa's revenge became clear. "That is why you have dared to face me." He leaned closer until Trowa could feel his hot breath hiss against his cheek, "Where is your whore?"

Trowa's hands curled into angry-clenched fists at his sides but he stared straight ahead not giving the lecherous Colonel the slightest reaction. Even though something maddening boiled in Trowa's gut, something that wanted to wrap around Khushrenada's throat and choke the last of his lunacy from his lustful body, he did not give into the taunting.

But as much as Trowa wanted to extinguish the bastard's fiery depravity he knew that the dousing would have to be carefully put into motion. The madman would have to be handled with the utmost care because his rabid, quite dangerous, psychosis could erupt without warning causing the crazy Colonel to strike out with deadly results.

"There is no need to reply." Khushrenada leered giving one more painful squeeze before letting go and removing the pistol from Trowa's ribs. "When I'm finished with you I will find your paramour. I have many ways to make him show me the tricks he uses to keep you in his bed."

It took all of Trowa's willpower to keep up his defiant facade. In his mind he pictured Quatre's angelic face, the way that his soulful eyes sparkled in the early morning light as they laid in each other's arms and watched the sunrise.

Trowa had pledged to return to his soul mate but, surrounded by enemy soldiers being led by a lunatic who received great satisfaction from killing, he wonder if he had failed. Would the fates granted him one more chance to keep his promise?

"As I said before duty calls." Khushrenada proclaimed tossing Trowa's pistol to the nearest soldier. "Kill him but do it cleanly. I do hate a mess." he grinned with delirious pleasure as he began to walk away.

A dozen thoughts raced through Trowa's mind all swirling into a single sucking whirlpool. He knew that if he didn't sort on the correct answer, pull it from the watery depths, that the last saving solution would drown with him. Each weapon was trained as each protector of OZ's unquestionable supremacy was prepared to carry on their justified reprisal against the insolent rebel.

Trowa's heart hammered as he fought the urge to tremble but his eyes did not give away his fear. They gazed steadfastly ahead staring down death to the end. Faintly his inner voice surfaced above the overwhelming tidal surge and Trowa listened intently for he could not afford to misunderstand its council.

Trowa trusted his instincts, swallowed hard and found his voice. "Colonel." he called above the click of cocked weapons.

The Colonel paused in mid-stride then acting as if he might continue to walk away. Trowa heart skipped a beat; he had to make him stop. "KHUSHRENADA!" he yelled this time deliberately putting a demanding tone in his voice.

Maybe a little insolence would get the Colonel's attention. All it could do was make him mad but what the hell Khushreanada was already completely over the edge so what was the worse that could happen? If he didn't stop Trowa was dead anyway.

Treize Khushrenada spun around, his cape spreading out behind him like broad ebony wings. "What?" he growled rolling his eyes at yet another delay in his busy schedule. But he did move forward a few steps encouraging Trowa to at least believe that there was hope for his survival.

"If I am so insignificant why didn't you shoot me on sight?" Trowa asked trying to keep the Colonel's attention while he struggled to tread water.

As Khushrenada studied the question his eyebrows drew together in deep consideration. "Curiosity." he stated moving forward a couple of paces, "What I could not figure was why you would dare to come into MY compound alone? What possible reason could you have? What harm did you think you could do against my mighty forces? At first I reckoned that you were either very brave or very stupid but I finally decided that you are just crazy."

Trowa's mind was still swimming against the tide, still groping for a handhold, some kink in Khushrenada's armor.

"Yes," the Colonel continued, "I decided that you were just crazy enough to think you could challenge OZ all by yourself." he ranted on with an increasingly edgy tone in his voice. "Just crazy enough."

*That's it.* Trowa's voice spoke loud and clear. *A challenge.*

Treize Khushrenada, who needed constant validation of his leadership and fighting skills, would be more than willing to accept a challenge to fight especially if he knew that his surrounding soldiers would help to assure his winning. If Trowa could get him to go one on one and if Trowa could bring him down perhaps he could turn the tide.

Trowa narrowed his green sight and leaned forward. "Would you like to find out just how crazy I am?" he asked as seriously as he could.

Khushrenada's eyebrows pulled together once more. His mouth turned downward in a contemplative frown. It seemed that forever passed away before the Colonel shifted from his thoughtful attitude. "How do you mean to show me?"

"A challenge...man to man." Trowa announced loudly so all the soldiers could hear, so they would know that Trowa had flung down the gauntlet. Now Trowa had the upper hand because Khushrenada could not deny the challenge, not one issued by a lowly rebel who could never be his equal. Yes to save face in front of his men the Colonel had to accept the dare.

"Very well." Khushrenada finally agreed as a smug smile bloomed on his lips. "In fact I shall enjoy becoming your personal executioner. Then when you are finished your pitiful lover will have no choice than to become my pet."

Without pause Trowa stepped forward putting all his focus into the last chance he had to save Quatre and his Chinese comrade. "Whenever you are ready I will gladly send you to hell." he promised putting his plan into motion.

Part Fourteen: The Beginning of the End

Khushrenada made a grand performance of removing his cape, folding it nearly and hanging it over a tree limb. The Colonel also made an equally showy spectacle of unbuckling the holster that held a large caliber pistol that he no doubt carried to compensate for his undersized manhood.

Trowa used the interval while Khushrenada put on his one man show to plan his strategy and show up his nerve. He had to have a clear mind and centered concentration because anything less would assure his defeat.

With much fanfare the Colonel shrove into a patch of ground opened up by the soldiers circling aside. This moving apart not only formed an "arena" for the upcoming contest but put more space between the troopers, space that Trowa could possibly use as an escape route.

Trowa stretched to loosen his muscles, took up a defensive stance and waited for Khushrenada to make the first move.

"I am going to enjoy this." the cocky Colonel announced. "I would have liked

the opportunity to examine your sexual prowess, to find out if you are as good as you look but I suppose I will have to test your stamina in another, less satisfying, way."

Khushrenada had to do a great amount of posturing. Trowa hoped that his strutting about was more pompous exhibitionism than any actual substantive fighting potency. But Trowa was certain of one fact, there would be no rules...no congenial combat of tag and retreat. The OZ Colonel would use every means to win because nothing short of total mastery of his opponent would satisfy his inflated vanity.

********

Quatre had sensed the sentry seconds before he emerged from the shadows. He had "seen" the SR42 in his mind but could not warn his lover. It had taken all of Wufei's strength to hold his comrade in place, to keep his promise of protection.

Again Wufei's strong arms enfolded about Quatre as they both braced for the combat to begin. Quatre prayed for his lover's safety. Wufei called on his ancestors to lend Trowa guidance and aide just as they had helped their Lone Dragon in the past.

"Trowa please come back to me." Quatre whispered as Trowa and Khushrenada readied for their battle.

********

The combatants squared off staring each other down like a pair of game cocks. Trowa centered his sight then issued the invitation to fight. "Whenever you are ready."

Khushrenada made the initial charge aiming a side kick at Trowa's stomach.

Countering with a sword hand chop Trowa deflected the kick then followed through with a hammer fist punch to Khushrenada's shoulder. The aim was not perfect but it hit hard enough to knock him off balance.

Tottering backwards the Colonel swayed sideways. As he fought to keep his feet under him Trowa took advantage of his opponent's unsteadiness delivering a swift hook punch to Khushrenada's ribs. Sputtering and cursing Khushrenada struck out in a fit of rage but his wild punches missed Trowa completely.

The fighters moved apart each taking a moment to recoup and regroup. "You are quick I will grant you that much." Khushrenada wheezed. It was obvious that the Colonel had been lax in his conditioning as he sucked in shallow gulps of air.

Trowa displayed a thin-lipped smile, "I don't supposed you would like to surrender now and save yourself a lot of pain?"

Khushrenada straightened up and returned his opponent's coy smile. "I would advise you not to underestimate me." the OZ assassin warned, "I am full of surprises."

The smile vanished from Trowa's face. "Show me your surprises."

Khushrenada lunged forward throwing a right cross. Trowa ducked the punch but failed to avoid the elbow strike that followed. The pointed joint impacted Trowa's mouth then slipped up under his nose. Blood seeped from one nostril and oozed from a split in his bottom lip.

Trowa swiped his thumb across the cut then held up the sticky finger for closer inspection. "Is that the best you can do?" Flicking his tongue over the tacky blood-coated finger he savored the coppery taste. "The first blood a warrior sheds in battle is the most powerful," he declared, "and I will use that power to destroy you."

This time the Colonel had no cocky retort. A curt snort was his only answer as he launched his second charge with a front snap kick. Trowa heard the "whoosh" as the rapidly rising black boot barely missed his face.

In that brief instant as the retreating boot settled back on the ground Trowa, with a breathtaking display of strength and grace, leaped into the air and executed a perfect spinning roundhouse kick. Instead of a hollow hiss in the air there was a solid smack as the full force of Trowa's booted foot plowed into Khushrenada's head.

This time it was the Colonel's turn to bleed as red droplets sprayed in all directions. Bright starbursts flashed over his vision momentarily blinding him and opening him up to Trowa's fury. Trowa bent his lean legs into a cat stance, balanced his weight and landed the finishing blow sending the once mighty Colonel down hard on his haughty ass.

Khushrenada braced his elbows on the dew-damp ground. Watery eyes gazed up staring into Trowa's piercing emerald sight. "This fight is over." Trowa announced. "It was over for you long ago."

Khushrenada's face was flushed, swollen and bruised. Raspy breaths rattled in his lungs. "Over." he repeated huskily. Spitting out bloody salvia he hissed through clenched teeth. "Oh no this is far from being over."

Trowa pointed a trembling finger down at the now, not so cocky, Colonel. "This farce had gone on long enough. Get up you bastard!" Trowa ordered harshly leaning down to grab a fitful of the Colonel's scarlet uniform jacket. With a hard yank he jerked Khushrenada to his feet.

The defeated Colonel tottered on wobbly knees that threatened to give way. Trowa shored up his grip flexing his muscles to keep Khushrenada standing. "What's wrong used up all your surprises?" Trowa taunted running his tongue over his own dry, swollen lips relishing the salty aftertaste.

Khushrenada's eyes met Trowa's steely sight with a unexpectedly strong glare. A sneer curled up his lips. "One more surprise rebel." There was a sudden blur of motion, a glint of light then something cold and unyielding centered on Trowa's temple.

In his side vision Trowa could just make out the shape of a silver-plated derringer. The small weapon's accuracy range was limited but with the slim barrel pressed painfully into his temple Trowa knew that the mini-pistol was a very real threat.

A sharp click sounded in Trowa's ear confirming that the hammer was cocked and ready to deliver its single deadly projectile. "Impressed?" Khushrenada snickered increasing the pressure to empathize the question.

The derringer shook in the Colonel's hand as he tightened the trigger. The hammer quivered awaiting the final command to fire. "Now you know why I am such a valuable asset to OZ," Khushrenada boasted loud enough for his soldiers to hear, "and why you could never be my equal."

Trowa stared straight ahead refusing to give the bragging son of a bitch any satisfaction. Treize Khushrenada would not hear him beg for his life, there would be no pleas for mercy. He knew that there was on benevolence in the Colonel's black heart for the devil's bastardly stepchild had been spawned from pure evil.

Trowa drew in a breath and let it out in a faint sigh. He was not afraid to face death for he had long ago settled his debt with the fates. But his heart arched as the sorrow of being separated from his precious soul mate wound around like a serpent until it felt as though his heart was being rent in two.

In his last moments Trowa mentally called out to Quatre hoping that their empathic connection could be made one final time. He needed to tell Quatre how much he loved him and that they would meet again in the next realm never to be parted again.

*Quatre please forgive me for not keeping my promise.* his mind begged his lover's pardon for his failure. *If my sins are not too great and I am granted peaceful rest in heaven then we will be together again because I know that your angelic soul will not be turned away.*

Trowa locked his unwavering sight with his OZ executioner. "Go on shoot."

"What's wrong used up all your fight?"

Trowa didn't reply. He concentrated on Quatre and the mental link that he prayed his lover could feel. *This is not the end.* Trowa heard his lover's voice as clearly as if he was standing beside him.

Khushrenada leaned closer so that his hot breathe bushed over Trowa's face, "Have you made your peace?" he mocked with a tone drenched in sarcastic bile. His finger tightened...the hammer moved forward.

"Treize Khushrendada!" A voice shouted out his name. The voice did not call from anywhere around the Colonel but from inside his head. His finger relaxed at the unexpected noise. The hammer slowly eased back into the safety catch.

The OZ officer searched over Trowa's shoulder, across the clearing to find the phantom sound. A translucent outline bathed in a shimmering golden aura floated above the ground. Wisps of blond hair feathered about a face that projected an angelic countenance. The wavy shape appeared to be a person but the halo glow was so bright that it hurt his eyes to stare into the yellow light. Slowly Khushrenada's blinded sight adjusted to the brightness. Just as gradually twin pinpoints of azure blue formed wide expressive eyes.

Suddenly the Colonel found that he could not tear his eyes away from those glimmering orbs. Then to his horror he watched as the blue centers of sight began to darken like thunderclouds until they were as cold and black as midnight. The golden light also began to change growing darker, more sinister, by the second.

A numbness started in the Colonel's feet and slithered its way, inch by debilitating inch, up his spine until he was chilled to the core. Arms and legs began to tremble, lungs gasped for air and his heart pounded in his chest.

Trowa did not have to look around to know what held Khushrenada in such terror. He could sense his soul mate's mental connection so strongly that it, too, made Trowa tremble. "Quatre." he whispered out the dear name.

"Trowa finish this." Quatre commanded through their cerebral link.

Treize Khushrenada was made speechless by the frightening apparition. He could not think, could not move, having lost all his ability to make his body cooperate.

In less than a heartbeat Trowa pivoted and his hand closed around the derringer. In the same fraction of time the miniature weapon was aimed squarely between Khushrenada's mesmerized eyes. It wasn't until the gun's cold steel stung his flesh that the Colonel was freed from Quatre's mind-induced hypnotic trance.

Khushrenada's eyes widened at the realization that the tables had been turned. Now he felt the painful pressure, heard the hammer click into place and knew that the end of his life was at hand.

He tried to lift his arms but they were pinned to his sides. He struggled to shift his position but it was as if his boots had sprouted roots that were anchored in the ground. He attempted to speak but his voice came out as a pitiful whimper.

All the horror-struck Colonel could do was stare at the dark angel as black raven wings unfurled from the young man's shoulders and stretched out to embrace Trowa.

"Winner." The surname crawled up Khushrenada's throat and burned his lips as they formed the single word. Deep inside his gut the OZ Officer felt the heir's power as Quatre merged his consciousness with his father and mother's spirits that had waited so long to be free.

Then the multitude of souls slain by Treize Khushrenada joined the avenging spirits shrieking out in anguish to also be free. The shrill wailing resounded in the vile murderer's brain penetrating every cell until his mind splintered into a thousand crystallized shards.

"NOOOO!" Khushrenada screamed as insanity plunged his senses into perpetual twilight.

Mercifully the madness took over just before Trowa squeezed the trigger. The ghostly screeches muted the bang as the derringer spit sparks in the darkness. The Colonel's benumbed body didn't register the searing pain as the bullet tore through his brain and existed the back of his head.

Chunks of bone flew apart. Blood and rent flesh splattered from the exploding hole. An odd sound rose from Khushrenada's throat as his upper torso jerked violently. Streaming red currents covered his wide eyes frozen in a sightless stare, shutting out his last vision of Quatre's retributive glare of hate.

One wrenching, convulsive fit of agony snapped Khushrenada's head back with a sharp pop. The dislocating contortion sent him to the ground where he laid withering and twisting as his brain short-circuited. Little by little the tremors lessened until only his hands twitched. Then even the sightless shudders stopped fading away with his life force.

Trowa gazed down at Khushrenada's deformed features with no regret or remorse. He stared into fixed pupils filmed over with death's glassy glaze. He studied the Colonel's face encrusted with dirt and bloody congealed secretions with no outward sign that the OZ Officer's death held any more importance than putting down a rabid dog.

The nightmare was finally over. Quatre's father and mother had been given quiet rest. The countless souls ripped from their earthy home now had a sure path to cross the bridge into eternity.

"Trowa." a soft voice called followed by the familiar touch of his lover's hand.

Trowa's eyes met Quatre's clear sight. His hand reached out to touch his angel, to assure himself that the person before him was actual flesh and bone and not the phantom that had extracted Treize Khushrenada's deserved punishment.

Quatre melted into Trowa's embrace burying his face in his chest. Their hearts beat in unison. Their minds formed a bond that nothing in heaven or hell could sever. Then they sealed their everlasting union with a kiss so hot with passion that invisible flames leaped into the moonless night.

"I love you." Quatre whispered as their lips parted.

Trowa tucked several stands of blond hair behind Quatre'e ear. "I love you." he replied realizing just how powerful those three words could be.

********

Wufei had positioned himself off to the side employing his pistol to keep the OZ soldiers in their places but the stunned troopers had indicated by their discarded weapons that they did not intend to fight back.

Trowa turned to his comrade and offered his hand in appreciation. "Arigato for keeping Quatre safe."

Wufei took the extended hand and gave it a firm shake then he stepped back bowing in humble respect for his fellow warrior. "You have exiled Quatre's demons to dwell in netherworld. You were faithful in your promise."

Then he focused his ebony eyes on Quatre and bowed again. "You have the heart of a dragon and I am honored to call you my friend."

********

The trio of soldiers stood dumbfounded in shocked astonishment unable to turn away from the grotesque sight of their fallen Commander. The splintered gap in Khushrenada's partly missing skull, oozing out pulpy brain matter mixed with thick sappy fluid, held the men spellbound by the sickening sight.

Trowa understood the young men's terror. Gazing into their pale faces he knew how their world had been turned upside down. Whether they had volunteered or had been conscripted to join in the madness Trowa knew their tormenting nightmares would be as real as his and that their lives would be forever altered by the senseless cruelty of war.

As Quatre rested peacefully in Trowa's arms he turned to the shaken soldiers. "Get out of here!" he exclaimed angrily.

The surprised soldiers didn't immediately respond believing that they hadn't correctly heard the order. Wufei standing nearby also gave them cause to wonder if they should dare to move.

Wufie was caught just as off guard by Trowa's statement. "Trowa?" he questioned his comrade's motives.

Trowa bound up his embrace not ever wanting to let Quatre go. "There has been enough killing," he replied, "enough pain and suffering to last a lifetime."

He looked back at the bewildered troopers. "I said get the hell out of here!"

The former members of OZ's military establishment quickly decided not to give their liberator time to change his mind. Casting a wary glance at Wufei, who made no move to stop them, the freed soldiers scurried into the forest well away from the victorious intruders and the compound's impending doom.

Part Fifteen: Unleashing the Hellhounds.

Treize Khushrenada's body was left were it fell. Trowa purposed that the compound's fiery end would provide an appropriate funeral pyre. Quatre, with uncharacteristic cursing, expressed his judgment that any form of honorable rite was too good for the vile Son of Satan.

He believed that any benevolent gesture would be defiled by the Colonel's demoniac evil. It was, in his opinion, far more fitting to let the carrion eaters pick his carcass clean. But since the Strike Force's tight schedule could not allow the local carnivores proper dining time Khushrenada would have to be included in OZ's final sendoff.

********

After the third attempt to contact Duo and Heero was foiled by static, Trowa decided that the waiting period had run out. He knew when the compound began to burst apart that his teammates would have no problem figuring out what was happening. OZ's death throes would be a clear and unmistakable sign that no one could ignore.

The first order of business...the fuse activations. Trowa flipped the master control's remote switch. A green light told him that a strong signal was being transmitted. In a little more than a heartbeat the depressing of a single button would put into motion what promised to be a grand celebration.

********

At the Communication Center's monitoring station a quartet of perimeter warning lights blinked on. The light's red glow exhibited an attitude of urgency that prompted the attending operator to summon the Duty Supervisor.

In turn the "man-in-charge" motioned toward a Communa-Tech whose idle appearance caused him to draw the assignment. "Take two sentries and go out to the motor pool." the Supervisor ordered, "Call back when you find this signal's source."

The now moving, if not necessarily motivated, Tech walked outside. "You two," he waved to a pair of sentries who were lounging about in the same state of laziness, "come with me."

"What's going on?" one soldier wondered.

"C & C had picked up four transmit readings from the motor pool. We have to drive over and check them out. It's probably just some minor echoes." the Tech continued climbing into the driver's side of a jeep.

The troopers settled in, one beside the Tech and one in the backseat. "With all those reflective metal surfaces it's hard to tell what refract-projection images are bouncing around out there." the Tech finished starting the engine.

The trooper in front stretched out easing back in his seat. "Well at least we can get away from this constant racket and have some peace and quiet for awhile." he commented.

********

The mission's next phase would be the most rewarding. Wufei, Trowa and Quatre, each with a remote detonator in hand, counted down to OZ's moment of truth. With one unified act of liberation all three buttons were depressed at once.

A truck and a land transport flew apart. The implosion deep within their exhaust pipes created a reflux current sucking back the charge's power. The resulting fragmentation spewed out razor bits of the vehicle's metal-alloy shells. Penetrating shards and ignited fuel sprayed in an all-inclusive mixture as each adjacent vehicle took its turn in the deadly demolition.

The humans and mechanicals closest to the blast ceased to exist in an instant. Others, the unluckier ones further away, had a few horrifying moments to consider their place in the afterworld before their skin was peeled from their bones leaving only charred skeletal frames behind.

A mysterious wall of smoke masking an ever-expanding fireball rolled out in all directions as the superheated cloud swallowed up everyone and everything in its blistering path. Included in the merciless incineration's fierce appetite were three men in a jeep who had been innocently sent out to search for the source of an alluring signal and were hoping to find nothing more than peace and quiet.

********

Similar scenes of eradication played themselves out in every section of the compound. Trowa's disks tucked under the fuel depot tanks responded to their electronic directive. In the first seconds the disk's discharge split the tank's wall. Liquefied gas spilled from the gap running over the side. The flow pooled under the tank rapidly overspreading the area. The steep ground slope hastened its swelling surge.

In the same brief moments sparks and heat that were expelled from the explosion torched an oxygen generated combustion. Again the engulfing firestorm quickly claimed all it touched. Its enkindled stream carried the burning tidal drift to every surrounding structure. The only saving factor was that the stream's path could be seen from some distance away allowing more warning. This time less lives but more property fell victim to the river of fire.

The furious firestorm ripped savagely ahead. The cannibalistic infiltration, transfused with shredded metal, toxic fumes and blistering heat flared over Treize Khushrenada's body reducing even his bones of ashes. Then just as violently the superheated wind scattered the cremated remains so that the Colonel's lustful body and depraved soul could never merge again.

********

At the Communication Center men, women and mechanicals swarmed about the room trying to decipher the peculiar readings and confusing data flooding the consoles. Everyone was so absorbed in the muddled mess that no one bothered to look outside. It wasn't until a terrorized man burst through the door shouting wildly and declaring the end of the world was their disorder and distraction explained.

A few providentially blessed souls, either from fear or curiosity, had wandered into the street before the disks left behind by Quatre answered their destructive call. Foundation blocks pitched and slid off center. The radical realignment altered the building's vertical plumb line. Windows bowed, some inwards, some outwards. When their tension point reached its limits the splintering glass bombarded anyone with ruthless fury.

On every control panel electronic connections broke free. Burning wires and sizzling circuit boards sent up heavy black smoke. The odor and irritating fumes mixed with the dust and debris falling all around.

The Duty Supervisor mistakenly thought to himself, "At least the Tech I sent out to check on those strange signals is well away from the devastation."

Believing, even falsely so, that one life had been spared made his soul more peaceful as a warped ceiling beam gave way. When the solid chunks stopped falling and the air cleared no trace of the Supervisor could be found.

********

An odd resounding rumbled across the eastern sky. Tremors ran beneath the grainy topsoil with such force that even at Duo and Heero's considerable distance from the compound the quaking was sharply felt.

Dense dark smoke curled in columns swirling the hearted air into funnel clouds. In other locations the fuming smog rose at it own rate but everywhere the hazy smudge was colored with the reds and oranges of hungry flames. Especially in the area above the fuel depot the savage blaze lit the sky in boiling black waves that blotted out the stars.

"What in the...." Duo wondered as a stronger tremor stopped him in mid-sentence.

Heero faced his partner and pointed a thumb over his shoulder. "I think that is our signal." he reasoned. "Finished with the waiting wouldn't you say?" he stated nodding towards the east where a bright aura lit up the sky as if the heavens were ablaze with freedom's fire.

********

With the explosive laden pack pressed snugly against his back Duo pulled his SCAT off its mounting stand. Heero's loaded crossbow was cocked, locked and ready as he secured it and the quiver of arrows across his bike's gas tank.

"Its show time." Duo announced giving Heero a playful jab on his shoulder before his mischievous grin disappeared as his face shield fell forward.

Heero opened his SCAT's throttle to the maximum. "Let's give these bastards a taste of hell." he declared as he followed Duo out to meet their destiny.

Three storage units about four feet high had been conveniently stacked three-quarters of the way to the tower. Heero had previously decided that their location would provide suitable cover for a backup station to guard Duo's explosive placements.

Sandy grit spewed from Heero's rear tire at the brake's hard application just short of his shielding position. The crossbow's cord "sang" with a shrill zip as its steel-tipped shaft left the stock.

A black uniformed soldier was poised to fire at Duo. Suddenly he sprawled backward his mouth opened in a silent scream and his death-frozen eyes searching the darkened sky for a guiding light to the next realm.

Duo jumped in his seat not aware of the trained weapon until the soldier had been laid low by Heero's quick reflexes. Heero pulled forward until he and his bike were hidden behind the storage units. Duo pulled alone side flipping up his face shield. "Thanks." he shouted above the distant crackle of flames.

Heero shook his head in acknowledgement of Duo's gratitude. "Go on and don't be all night." he shouted back, "I know how you like to play with your toys." he stated as he dismounted his motorized steed.

Heero slid another arrow from the quiver. Leaning against the crates he loaded the crossbow listening for the reassuring "snap" when the trigger locked in place. Bracing his shoulder on the unit's plexi-form side he constantly shifted his eyes scanning for more threatening black uniforms.

********

Duo leaned over the SCAT making a straightway course to the tower's front base support. He looked neither left nor right trusting his comrade to keep the wolves at bay. He cut the engine and centered the bike sliding the pack off as he dismounted.

Duo drew his pistol seeing no harm in helping Heero out by providing some self-protection of his own. He stayed low scrambling behind the wide steel beam that sat atop the base support. Glancing up at the tower's full height his sight ran out well before the vertical length disappeared beneath the cannon's turret. The spiraling ramp, that offered a view of its bottom or side depending on the angle, intercepted the beam's straight line at regular intervals.

As he experienced a bit of vertigo Duo sighed, "Damn that's tall."

Lying his pistol by the square support Duo quickly unpacked his bag. Before leaving the estate he had "cross-tied" the fuses connecting each with the next forming a continuous charge line. Now all he had to do was connect the chain to the electronic detonator and encircle the linked arrangement around the base.

When Duo was safely away and the primed arrayal's blast dispatched, the firing sequence would be completed in a matter of seconds. Unfortunately this rapid fire method, while quite effective for the job, gave Duo only moments, and not many at that, to clear the blast zone. And while Heero's cover was adequate against pistols or rifles the flimsy storage units would be no match for the explosive's raw energy density.

As Duo tied in the last fuses a warning from his inner voice made him turn to look back at his teammate. To the left another black-clad trooper was making a silent calculated path easing up behind Heero. An SR42 was raised to targeting level aiming directly at Heero's head.

Reaching into the top of his boot Duo extracted a bi-fold knife that he had tucked in while suiting up. Now he had the perfect application for the thin bladed weapon. Gripping the hardened point he reached back and put all his strength and accuracy into sending the sharpened shaft spinning towards Heero's stalker. The soldier paused, no doubt to sure up his aim before sending the unaware rebel back to the phantom regions from which he came.

"HEERO! DROP!" Duo screamed above the rumbling of the compound's secondary explosions and the fitful wind that had begun to howl.

A confused expression momentarily floated over Heero's eyes as they met the imperative pleading in Duo's widened pupils. Then with a reaction borne purely out of an involuntary animating agent, Heero flattened out seconds before the long blade buzzed over his head finding its mark in the soldier's upper torso. If the man made a sound Heero could not pick it out from the thousand other pitches and tones dancing in the air nor did he hear the thud when the limp body hit the ground.

Flashing a "thumbs-up" sign Heero signaled his thanks to Duo before crawling to the soldier and scooping up the SR42. The rule of "Never Waste a Weapon" was also applied as with some effort Heero extracted Duo's knife from its stubborn attachment in the fallen foe's chest.

"Duo will want this." Heero told himself wiping off the bloody blade on the trooper's jacket front. "No point in messing up my windsuit." he continued his mental conversation.

Duo checked the fuse linkage one last time and flung the empty pack over his shoulder. Pistol in hand he scooted lowly away from the support and headed for his bike. Without warning a shot from an unknown site stuck close to Duo's leg spraying grainy soil over his boot. Before Duo could find the shot's origin Heero's crossbow sent yet another OZ employee crumpling into the dust.

"Son of a bitch!" Duo hissed growing tired of the constant assaults.

As Duo reached his SCAT the ground rocked beneath his feet, the jolt upsetting his balance that was only kept by grabbing onto the bike. Again the sharp shaking repeated but this time Duo verified the source...the Laser Cannon had suddenly come to life.

Once more the recoiling discharge shook the entire area. Duo squinted up trying to separate the cannon's smoky vapors from the smoggy gray sky. "Ready or not," he told himself, "got to do it now."

Straddling the SCAT Duo removed the remote control from his jacket pocket. Holding the pistol in one hand and the remote in the other he caught the device's repressed antenna with his teeth pulling it up to its full extension.

Duo heard Heero's bike roar by the storage units. Gunning his own engine he shot away spraying dirt from his tires. As he reached the remote's minimum range he hit the signal button with his thumb, dropped the remote and opened the SCAT's throttle as far as it would go. Duo came up beside Heero and side by side both men leaned forward over the bikes using leather and helmets and luck as their shield.

A thunderous rumble as loud and jarring as the cannon's report send shock waves out in all directions. The substantial force gathered momentum as each charge's shattering spilt multiplied the next one's impulse energy. Storage units, equipment and anything else that was not tied down were caught in the explosion's outward flinging. One wave unfolded from the base compactly at first then unfurled in a blasted broadcasting of stinging debris.

Another concentrated cloud climbed upward expanding into a lofty dispersion. Rapidly the support beam was enveloped in the coiling mass of sparks and smoke and fire. The rolling heat batted against the tempered metal, climbing and clawing its way to the platform. Most of the power would be spent before it reached the crossbeam cage surrounding the cannon but the goal was to undermine the base and let gravity do the rest of the toppling.

A previously unseen soldier staggered from the surging plume of flames. Only a smoldering outline...a few ignited fingers of fire still clung to the charred form as the man reeled several steps before succumbing to the shock. The blackened shape fell forward lying lifeless as smoke drifted from the body.

The swiftly encroaching surge, its force lessening in expansive degrees, overtook the SCATs. All Duo and Heero could do was hunker over, hold on and pray that the fully opened engines could carry them passed the explosion's unforgiving fury.

A billow of dense smoke swamped the fleeing riders. The encompassing cloud wrapped about their bodies in a stifling veil that choked off their breathing and crept under their face shields to overspread their vision. Relying on instincts alone Duo and Heero aimed for the forest determined to outrun the fuming mixture.

Then with a triumphant roar both bikes shot into the clear. As the explosion's fiery edge spread out into a thin haze Duo and Heero skidded to a stop and pulled off their helmets. Their faces were stained with sweat and grim. The same gritty residue clung in their hair and on their windsuits but their disheveled appearance did not matter as they waited to witness the tower's downfall.

The massive structure was embroiled in flames that curled out and upward. A torrid whirlwind whipped through the center sucking up the smoke and heat like a chimney. Sharp pops and creaks bounced over the ground. Gradually the smoke and heat smoothed out giving the Strike Force comrades an unobstructed view of the tower's last erect moments.

A series of groans rose from the gaping hole blown out at the base and the ground quaked with vibratory tremors. More moans of heat fatigued metal were carried on the hot wind blowing across the clearing.

Duo flashed a satisfied grin at his teammate. "It won't be long now." he announced sure that the tower toppling would begin at any minute.

Part Sixteen: Plan B.

One final distinctly audible POP reported across the clearing then nothing. No shrill bending of metal, no scraping as the corner brace gave way under the strain. A stiff breeze swirled up dust from the gorged ground around the pitted base support. The currents spawned a modified "twister" that spun up until its bumping into the first crossbeam section broke it apart.

Duo and his stunned teammate stared in a state of speechless astonishment. The tower, although blackened from fire and half hidden in smoky haze, stood fixed in place. There was only a slight shudder and that was only when the still functioning cannon recoiled catapulting another brilliant fireball somewhere within its vast target range.

Well I'll be damned." Heero finally spoke up in unbelieving amazement.

"SHIT!" Duo exclaimed angrily throwing down his helmet.

Heero shook his head, "I guess we go to Plan B." he declared with a halfhearted shrug.

Duo studied his comrade's statement for a moment then, with eyebrows drawn together until they touched, voiced his puzzlement. "What Plan B?" he snorted.

"I don't know," Heero admitted, "it seemed like a good idea to say something."

Duo lifted his head, his braid swinging over his shoulder and stringing bangs falling over one eye. "Maybe if we went over and pushed?" he surmised.

Another long moment of silence. Again the cannon's firing shook the quite stable platform. Suddenly Duo scooped up his helmet and slapped his hand on the silver stripe running across the curved top.

His unexpected animation made Heero flinch but before he could verbally respond to his comrade's angry action Duo pivoted on his heels to face the unyielding tower. "I'll give you Plan B dammit." he growled with a tightness in his voice.

"Give me that SR42!" he exclaimed poking his open palm at Heero.

"What?"

"The rifle you took from that soldier."

The snub-nosed weapon was removed from Heero's SCAT and placed in Duo's impatiently outstretched hand. Even though Heero had no idea of Duo's intensions, he was immediately certain that he was not going to like what Duo was about to do.

Heero knew that Duo's impulsive temper often overrode his sensibly. "What are you thinking?" he asked shaking his head in a negative fashion.

Duo took no notice of Heero's questioning attitude or misgivings concerning his impending actions. "Get your SCAT!" he began shouting out orders, "We're going in again."

"And do what?" Heero sternly inquired. He was not going to be drawn into any frustration-provoked plan without knowing all of the details.

Duo whirled around bringing his helmet with him. Heero jumped back as the black and silver headgear launched a direct assault at his head. "You just cover me and I'll do the rest." Duo hissed, clearly upset by Heero's cautionary stance in the matter.

"Duo!" Heero yelled this time determined that he was not going to be ignored.

Duo placed his hand on Heero's arm. "Something has to be done." he proclaimed tensely tightening his grip. "As long as that cannon continues to be operational Quatre, Trowa and Wufei will be in danger." he stated hoping that Heero would understand his reason.

Duo's hand slowly slid away then a single finger brushed across Heero's gritty cheek. " Together we can do this." he stated without a doubt in his mind.

Heero leaned into the fleeting touch then reluctantly nodded in agreement. "You stay close to me all the way." he established the mission rules.

Duo pulled on his helmet cinching up the chinstrap. Heero tucked his tousled bangs under his helmet and secured his trusty crossbow on his bike. Duo, with the SR42 slung over his shoulder, gunned his engine. "Let's bring down that bastardly tower and go home."

********

Dusty haze swirled and parted on either side of two SCATs as they made a single-minded run for the tower. Midway to the steel leviathan a troop transport carrying a squad of soldiers sped along the narrow road leading from the flaming compound. The truck bounced over the road's rutted surface as the driver's goal was to reach the tower in minimum time.

"Over there!" the soldier sitting beside the driver yelled pointing at the twin bikes racing across the clearing.

The driver, not daring to take his eyes off the road, nodded his head in the SCAT's direction. "Those must be the traitors." he shouted back being fooled by the OZ windsuits and helmets.

"Yeah," he soldier agreed, "those are the ones we came here to eliminate." he declared as the driver pushed the transport's engines to their limits.

********

Duo and Heero sped passed the damaged storage units just as the transport and its enemy passengers skidded sideways to a haul. The vehicle's black-clad contents spilled out using its horizontal placement as cover.

"KEEP GOING!" Heero shouted as he fishtailed his SCAT behind what was left of the units. Duo did not look back at his comrade nor gave any reply but to open the throttle as far as it would go.

Heero's knees hit the ground as the first volley of shots sprayed all around the twisted plexi-form that barely provided adequate cover. He jerked off his helmet giving up its protection for a clearer view of his adversaries. Heavy hair fell over his face making him wished that he had gotten a haircut. "No matter now." he thought pushing the tangled tresses out of his eyes.

Most of the enemy's hurried shots loss velocity striking the ground well short of their target. Some hit the units harmlessly defusing their "punch". A few, however, did manage to make a full run. One shot struck the middle unit's warped side, the bowed curve causing it to ricochet. Heero felt the bullet's heat and heard the hiss as it whizzed by his cheek. For a brief moment he reconsidered putting his helmet back on.

Heero crouched keeping a steadying knee centered and his shoulder braced on the side. It was clear that his "camouflage" no longer supported his impostor deception. He figured the longer he could draw the soldier's fire, the greater separation span Duo could put between their weapons range and the tower. And to insure that none of his foes would be tempted to lose interest in their killing quest, Heero would occasionally show his face just to keep the game on track.

He also knew that the taunting would, sooner or later, build up enough frustration that its prodding would lure one or more troopers to break formation. If they could be baited to leave the transport's shielding then he could pick them off one by one.

It wasn't long before Heero's seductive behavior bore fruit. A figure rose from behind the transport, paused, then straightened to get off his best shot. Heero's crossbow once again sang its lethal tune as the man crumpled over clutching his chest. The bringing down of one of their own would probably have a temporary reverse effect on Heero's tactical sparring session but knowing the OZ employee's short attention span they would soon be back in the game.

Two men pulled something from behind the transport's rear seat. A handheld pulse missile launcher balanced on one man's shoulder. His partner loaded a slender silver cylinder and stood aside. As the friction-charged shell was propelled through the hollow tube a shrill whistle announced its departure. The bright ignition flash and a yellowish "tail" whipping behind the screaming projectile made it easy to trace its flight path.

The missile struck just beside Duo's SCAT. A muffled pop was heard as the grainy soil muted the blast impact. The explosive contact gorged out the ground throwing sizeable chunks of dirt on both man and machine. The near miss caused Duo to flinch as he leaned closely over the gas tank. A fine spray of grit hit his helmet but the SCAT's speed quickly carried him beyond the flinging debris.

The pair's failure to hit the speeding bike pushed their willingness to endure such shame to the breaking point. The launched dropped off the man's shoulder and in unison both soldiers stood amassing their combined firepower at the fleeing SCAT.

Heero stuck two arrows in the ground by his boot, locked the third in place and let it fly. The "ammo-man" grabbed at his throat and disappeared behind the transport. Heero shoved in the next arrow. Its path copied the first's and the other ambushing soldier was laid low.

The last razor sharp arrow was loaded but Heero barely had it snapped down before it took flight. This time his hurried aim was off and the steel-tipped shaft stuck harmlessly in the transport's padded seat. Heero cursed curtly under his breath blaming his anxiousness for Duo for his failed shot.

Then for the first time Heero felt the weight of his pistol on his hip. "The hell with this." he growled laying the crossbow at his feet.

The pistol fit oddly in his hand but with a firm grip Heero folded a long supple finger over the trigger. Heero knew that his aim would not be perfect but like Duo had said that night in the helicopter, "Aim it in someone's general direction and watch them scatter."

Heero let loose a rapid set of shots. The zip and muzzle flare, replacing the silence of his crossbow, took the remaining soldiers by surprise. Caught the most off-guard was one trooper who had become too brave for his own good. Too late did he realize that his exposed position had opened up too much space between himself and the transport's refuge. A painful cry wailed with the wind. The trooper dropped to his knees bent over at the waist. The bowed posture was held momentarily then he pitched over face first in the dirt. A second man standing nearby took two faltering steps toward his last hope of sanctuary then stumbled once before going down with a bone crunching thud.

The squad, their numbers now cut in half, hid cowardly behind their wheeled fortress telling Heero that any more enemy reduction would not be easy. Resting his back on a shattered unit he took in a quick breath then exhaled with a hard puff hoping that the forced air would help carry away some of his tension.

Pushing damp hair from his smoke-reddened eyes Heero turned to watch Duo travel through the wind-blown dust stirred up by his bike. The billowing trail plainly showed his comrade's path as the last of the gray clouds filtered away just short of the tower's still intact base.

As the last traces settled Heero could see Duo sitting at the ramp's entrance. His helmet was tilted upwards as he surveyed the imposing height looming above him. Duo's head turned quickly, his shielded eyes looking back at Heero then he centered his sight on his objective.

"Duo be careful." Heero whispered taking in another hard breath before letting the expelled air blow slowly over his dry lips. "You have to come back."

********

Duo's tires spun skipping over the grainy soil before they caught hold with a lurch. The bumpy ground was rapidly replaced by the ramp's smooth surface. The firmer grip sent the SCAT and it rider forward at full speed.

"I guess I'm about to find out if this machine can do what its name implies." Duo told himself as he reached the first turn.

A low horizontal railing made up of three evenly spaced metal pipes was all that would keep Duo from a nasty spill over the edge should the bike not live up to all of its manufacture's advertised hype. As Duo leaned over to the inside to use every bit of the ramp's minimal banking his knee barely floated above the gray surface.

Keeping his power level at the maximum Duo put his trust in the machine vibrating beneath him. Without any adjustment on his part the SCAT's computer lived up to its reputation. Duo felt a slight cut back in power as he reached the turn's pivot point. The rear tire braked, ever so slightly, then with a quiver the engine's digital counter climbed back to its highest setting.

One curve successfully taken. Eight more lay ahead each gradually growing shorter and sharper as the spiral tightened about the tower's tapering frame.

All the while the cannon continued to hurl out metered blasts. Each release shook the tower's very foundations and each time the shock waves cause both the SCAT and its rider to fight for control. Leaning over the handle grips as far as he could Duo tried to cut the wind resistance and maintain as much balance as the tower's fitful shivering would allow.

In some spots the wind-whipped clouds of dust and smoke completely obscured the ramp. Duo reminded himself each time he entered the hazy visual obstructions that, "If he didn't keep alert." the term "dead end" could very well be applied to any split second of inattention.

The second turn was conquered. The third and the forth. The fifth called on the SCAT's computer to do some extra duty but once more it delivered Duo safely through the ever-tightening curves.

********

A glint of yellow tinted light was all Heero saw as he opened his eyes. Before he could analyze the brief reflection a dazzling streak soared upward on a collision course with the tower's midsection. Another trooper had taken up the missile launcher directing its explosive charge at the distant spot where Duo and his SCAT climbed the ramp's steep grade.

The launcher fell from the shooter's grip as his hands clutched his eyes there were blinded by Heero's shot. With blood soaking through his clawing fingers the man screamed in agony. The anguished shriek rose to an ear piercing pitch then became suddenly silent.

Heero had exacted punishment for the soldier's despicable deed but the payback changed nothing...the missile stayed to its deadly route. All Heero could do was watch in horror and pray that the racing projectile would veer off course at the last moment.

********

Just short of the sixth curve the pulse missile's yellow flare flowed in shimmering waves across Duo's helmet's face shield. Even with the darkened film's screening the flash stabbed at his eyes.

Considerable potions of the ramp blew apart. The ruptured invasion channeled out a fissure almost punching all the way through. Still blinded by the flash and pelted with the ramp's expelled material, Duo never saw the pit open up before him.

The SCAT's front tire hit dead center catching with such force that Duo felt the bike's rear end begin to pitch forward. Shifting his weight to stop what would be a fatal somersault, the rear end's loss of traction tipped the bike off-center. The tire's sidewall struck the ramp and bounced once sending the out-of-control machine into a sideways skid.

As the SCAT hydroplaned on a cushion of air Duo held tight hoping, at the last minute, to regain at least some degree of stability. His hip hit hard as the SCAT folded over. Thankfully the leather windsuit's insulation protected his leg from the slid friction. The tall boot kept his ankle in line saving Duo from a badly broken bone, or worse, a severed foot.

Somewhere in the milliseconds between the skid's beginning and his sideways slide, Duo decided that holding on was rapidly becoming a mistake. Pinned under the bike's weight he was quickly being carried along to whatever fate awaited the machine.

Amidst the screeching of scraping metal and in a shower of blue-white sparks Duo let loose of the careening mechanical "missile". The SCAT flew one way. Duo helplessly thrown backward, went the opposite way. His body slammed with a smart jolt that was powerful enough to expel his breath as he tumbled into the tower's inner brace-works. His head followed suit with only the helmet saving his skull from being split wide open.

The SR42's strap slipped from Duo's shoulder and wound about his upper arm. Pulling tighter the constriction caused some part of the rifle to smack across his face shield. The blow punctured the plexi-plate. Fine-lined spider web cracks etched ragged scars over the curved covering.

Black dots danced over Duo's vision. His deflated lungs fought painfully to refill with air. Sweat ran in soot-mingled streams over his face. It took several choked wheezes before his chest caught and he began to breathe again.

********

As badly as Duo was battered by the crash his bike took the brunt of the collision. It struck the outer railing raising up on its front wheel. The snagged handle grips caught, twisted the frame and spun it around. With a groan of tortured tearing it wavered, suspended in midair.

The gas tank hit the uppermost pipe with a spray of sparks and a dull clang. A thin line opened along the tank's side as the mangled machine teetered, rocking precariously on the rail's top. For a fractured moment of time a hushed silence fell over everything then, as if in slow motion, the front end gave into gravity. Duo's faithful motorized steed tipped at an acute angle then flipped over the edge taking a large piece of the railing with it.

The racket of its bouncing and crashing could be heard distinctly even above the cannon's report. Friction set off the leaking fuel adding a dramatic touch to the SCAT's final moments of freefall. The flaming twisted form's solid contact with the ground finished the tank rupture. The ignited fuel broiled in an orange fireball shooting smaller fiery orbs into the wind. Black smoke curled from burning tires joining the thick haze drifting from the compound.

********

Clumsily Duo unhooked his chin strap. His hands shook, stiff fingers were slow to respond. With extra effort he pulled off his helmet. A knot coiled in his stomach as Duo saw a wide breach in the helmet's shell, the crack going all the way through to the inner lining.

*That could have been your head!* his internal voice proclaimed as his gut tensed once more.

********

The glowing combustive remains of Duo's demolished SCAT hurdling from the tower's dizzying heights shone in stark contrast in the gray haze. Heero spun around at the sight of the plummeting machine and sank back at the terrible din of its collision with terra firma. His eyes frantically strained to see a body tangle among the warped metal. He couldn't pick out anything resembling a human form but, from his distant site, he could not be sure.

Desperately Heero redirected his sight up at the misshapen railing. Putting his hand above his eyes to soften the glare, he squinted through the fire-tinted haze for some sign that his comrade was on the high ramp and not mangled among the blazing wreckage.

Heero's frantic need to know of this partner's state, whether living or deceased, tore at his gut. Then the thought of Duo injured but alive, perhaps barely as his life force rapidly bled away, invaded Heero's mind so strongly that he momentarily forgot where he was. But why Heero had taken the position behind the ruined units was rudely brought back to mind as the soldier's fire jogged him memory.

A bullet skimmed some part of the top unit sending sparks and shattered bits of plexi-form scraping over Heero's face. He poked the pistol around the unit returning the favor as he pondered his next move. Maybe on the SCAT he could outrun the bullets. Maybe.

"The range is not that huge." he told himself, "I can cover that." he continued the self-debate running his thumb over the raised welt on his cheek left behind by the stinging material. With a worn sigh Heero rested his head on the unit's side. "This is making me crazy." he whispered lowly.

********

Flinging the useless helmet aside Duo untangled his braid then pushed against the framework's bracing awkwardly grabbing a spanning cable. His body ached from the overextended stretch it had to endure just to get his feet under him again. Knees wobbled, his vision jerked wildly spinning and blurring everything into wavy images.

More stress-produced sweat trickled over his forehead and flowed down to cloud his eyes. Wiping away the encroaching stream Duo found that the exerted moisture left a reddish tinge on his fingers. A long gash above one eyebrow stung as the wiping forced the salty mixture into the cut. Duo took in a shallow gasp at the stinging pain then another hard breath to chase away the dizziness from his head.

Swollen hands and numb fingers threatened to lose their grip. It took all the internal balance that Duo could summons to stay upright. The cannon let go again but Duo somehow managed to hold on. Another feeble gasp for air pounded in his chest.

In the past Duo had always found some reserve resource and arrogantly flaunted it squarely in his adversity's face. Now he had to believe that his inner reservoir had not been totally drained. Untangling the rifle's strap Duo centered his scattered thoughts on his goal to silence the cannon.

********

Heero lifted his gaze once more to the ramp's lofty section where Duo's SCAT had flown free. With a heavy sigh he pushed aside his continually intrusive hair that seemed determined to vex his vision.

*Duo was not on the bike.* Heero's internal council stated with certainty. *Duo can not do this alone.* it spoke again with an urgency that stabbed through Heero's heart.

"But..."

"GO NOW!" the voice ordered then whispered before it faded away. "Do it for love."

With his inner voice's anxious urging Heero decided with all swiftness to conclude his part in the OZ standoff. Something deep in his gut shoved him toward the tower. He centered his weight and checked the clip. "I think it is time to call their hand."

With resolved conviction set firmly in his mind Heero took in a steadying breath and stepped from the unit's shelter. The hidden intruder's sudden appearance must have taken the last of the soldier's by surprise but their indecision lasted only an instant.

Muzzle flares burst from behind the transport. Like angry bees the buzz of bullets could be heard well above the crackling of fire and the cannon's booming. Unflinching Heero leveled his pistol seemingly completely impervious to the lethal fire raining all about him.

One trooper thought that the lone man, standing flagrantly in the face of danger was either insane or had a death wish. "In the latter case," the trooper told himself, "that was one wish I will be more than happy to grant."

One shot from Heero's pistol threw bright sparks close to the trooper's head. The next shot blew out the transport's windshield. The soldier still studying Heero's surprisingly bold comportment reconsidered his role in the "wish" granting as he ducked behind the vehicle's cover. Now the odds had been reduced to one against one.

A loud click from the crouching soldier's rear sent a chill coursing through his gut. The OZ employee had mistakenly discounted his opponent's speed and agility. At the familiar sound of a hammer being cocked the sole survivor shivered once more then turned, weapon his hand, to find Heero aiming his pistol at the startled man's head.

"Don't try it." Heero warned as he read the soldier's body language.

As uneasy pause followed as the soldier was offered the rare opportunity of deciding his own fate. Wisely the "last man standing" chose surrender over what would have been a futile act had he not heeded Heero's advice.

"Drop it." Heero ordered nodding at the gun. The discarded weapon flung up gritty soil as it hit the ground.

Heero stepped up to the disarmed man. A thin lipped smile flickered across his face. "Good decision." he stated sarcastically. "But I probably can't trust you to walk away." he declared, "What should I do about that?"

The soldier shifted nervously as he debated whether he should have "gone for broke" and challenged the rebel with the gun. Now he was beginning to believe that his giving up had not necessarily insured his continued existence.

The pistol leveled off. The soldier swallowed hard. But this time Heero chose mercy over malice. His free hand curled into a tight fist that suddenly came around the soldier's blind side contacting his jaw line. The fist slammed hard sending the unconscious man to the same spot on the ground where his weapon had gone before.

Heero craned his neck searching the area under the platform where the broken railing left a gaping hole. "Duo where are you?" he sighed finding the space empty of everything but swirling vapors.

As he squinted through the airborne dust and fire-tinged smoke he could just make out a small speck of humanity that was silhouetted in the red-orange glow tinting the skyline.

"Duo!" he called as the cannon belched out its deadly discharge. "Hold on Duo I'm coming."

Part Seventeen: Ascension into Hell

Duo staggered backward, wildly cursing his body for its failure to cooperate. With a singularly focused effort he reached the rent railing where his SCAT had disappeared. Daring to lean into the smoke-laced currents Duo held on tightly not wanting to copy his bike's tumble over the edge. A relapse of dizziness drove him back before he could see anything to let him know what was happening with his teammate.

But Duo could not afford to dwell on Heero's situation for too long. Once more the tower shuddered and Duo knew that the time to act was growing shorter by the moment. Again he wiped away the stubborn flow of sweat and oozing blood tingling above his eyebrow. His sprained hand's sluggishness only hardened his resolve to finish the job.

With an obsessive, clearly defined convergence of mind and body and soul Duo made his way to the ladder leading to the platform. Pulling the rifle's strap over one shoulder and bringing it under his opposite arm the weapon hung at an angle against his back.

Drying he wet hands on his pants Duo reached two rungs overhead, planted his boots on the lowest rung and began to climb. It didn't take long before Duo found out how badly his dislodgement from his SCAT and his subsequent rude introduction to the tower's rigid framework had shaken him.

Twice he stopped to regulate painful heaving that had reduced his inhalations to fits of compressed panting. The combination of bruised ribs and the dense concentration of airborne irritants that were sucked in with each labored breath made the arduous journey frustratingly slow. Several times his footing slipped. Tension cramped hands fought to hold on.

Winded and hurting Duo's whole body struggled with each pull of the climb. And Duo knew there would be no compromise in his condition, no "second wind" to aid his ascent.

The original plan had been to ride the ramp until it ended then have a short climb. Duo had also intended to be in better shape. The yawning cavity in his SCAT's path and the adverse effect it had on his ride had certainly not been part of his besieging tactics. Now the lengthier haul, while not insurmountable, was one more added stress to overcome. He draped his tired arms over the rung above his head. His sweat-moist forehead felt cold as he rested it against the ladder's smooth metal surface.

Duo had never been particularly fond of heights preferring to keep both feet on the ground whenever possible. He had always felt a twinge of fear when flying but when Wufei had questioned the paradoxical contradiction concerning Duo's elevation phobia and his willingness to fly anyway Duo could not give him a definitive answer to his perplexing confusion.

In the Lone Dragon with the enclosed passenger compartment sealed around him Duo had no real sense of height or speed. But now as he hung on the ladder's crosspieces, the smoke-drenched haze whipped on the wind and the tower quivered from the cannon's power, now was not the time or place for Duo to form any hypotheses as to his incongruous aversion to high places verses his fear of flying.

No, Duo just knew better than to look down or from side to side for that matter. He closed his eyes taking in shallow, catching gasps then opened them setting his sight on the platform's bottom and started climbing again.

Two more spaces to the cannon. Duo fought through the tightness running down both arms and coiling about his chest. Gazing up through gritty eyes he could just make out a square access plate set flush in the platform's floor.

A thin seam line was attached on one side by duel hinges. On the other side an interlocking offset told Duo that was where the door was secured from the inside. Folding his leg over the top rung Duo let go with one hand lifting the rifle over his head and letting it hang from his shoulder.

The cannon discharged another burst. Unlike the lower lever shudder, although quite substantial, Duo's position directly under the turret's epicenter jerked with such fierce fluctuations that the jolt ripped at his grip. Overly stretched muscles tore as they fought the disjunction of Duo's body from the ladder.

"DAMN!" he swore gritting his teeth against the pain.

Something along his collarbone popped. Duo prayed that only a ligament had been wretched and that a full dislocation was not causing the hot throbs running down his arm. The shockwaves, just for good measure, also bounced his head off the ladder's upright support opening up a second, deeper, gash just below his hairline.

All Duo could do was cling to the metal rungs and hope that his rapidly fading fortitude would not totally forsake him. "What do you think you are doing?" Duo muttered the rhetorical question. His answer was a winded sigh and a negative shaking of his head. "What I have to do."

Duo slowly pushed back favoring the raw ache tormenting his entire torso. He raised his weakened arm wiping salty perspiration from his eyes. The same sluggish arm lowered until his hand stiffly closed around his pistol. Clammy fingers barely felt the weapon's cold steel in their tenuous grasp. Again Duo reached above his head. Again his shoulder burned.

Duo ducked, turning his face away from the door. A single shot broke the latch free and sent tiny metal filings sprinkling over his bowed head. Once more Duo asked his overstressed muscles for one last push. The access door moaned then detached with a snap.

Replacing his pistol Duo transferred the SR42 to his free hand. Forcing a smile through his pain he took what small victory he could from his situation. "It's good that those OZ idiots decided to keep these unstable rifles." he told himself bracing his body as best he could on the vibrating ladder.

Rotating a dial set in the SR42's side stock Duo felt it switch on. Moving the dial further the weapon began to pulsate in his hand. An ever-increasing whine could be heard as Duo set the power in the "red zone" well beyond the overload setting.

Pushing up the door just enough to shove the rifle over the edge Duo slid the intensely humming "bomb" inside and let the door slam shut. Even if the cannon's operators heard the door's closing they, most likely, would take no notice of the slim rifle's presence.

When the power cell blew its released energy, trapped in the cannon's reinforced steel cage, should cause enough damage to send the OZ hirelings to their just reward. Even if the blast was not sufficient to totally destroy the tower it would at least shut down the cannon.

Duo had no way of estimating how long the rifle's overload would take to reach the detonation point and he certainly wasn't going to hang around to find out. Unfortunately he didn't have his SCAT to carry him quickly away. No motorized help to outrun the "wild beast" that was devouring each fleeting moment to the fatal end.

Easing his cramped grip on the ladder he let his boots slide along the crosspieces. Duo skipped over the rungs hurling his body down at a dangerous rate. All the while he held an apprehensive breath wondering how much safety margin he would achieve before the platform and the massive weapon it supported came undone.

A deafening boom reverberated from above. A quaking more intense than the cannon's report rolled up and down at the same time. The rifle's explosion must have either carried more punch than expected or its discharge triggered a chain reaction in the cannon's power core.

The resulting split and splintering of the tower's vertex unleashed a fireball and a hail of shredded metal. Whipping cables lashed out like giant scorpion tails. Crossbeam spanners and a latticework of smaller bracing bans tore loose flinging out their connection bolts in a venomous circular spray.

Duo realized all too late that any distance short of ground level or maybe even the forest's edge would not give adequate protection from the violently hurling projectiles. This time fear-contracted muscles locked Duo's grip and his self-preservation instincts took over as he shut his eyes and pressed his body tightly to the ladder.

Two consecutive explosions, each as powerful as the next, rocked from the tower's top to its foundation. Backlash rippling ran down every column and crosscut girder. The pounding vibrations coursed over the terrified rebel. Showers of combusted material pelted from above. The falling wreckage battered Duo as he drew up trying to become as small a target as possible.

Rivets that attached the ladder to the main column groaned. Duo didn't feel the wobble amidst the tower's trembling as the fastener's shanks sheared in two. He didn't hear, above the thunderous clamor, the keen cracks as they tore through. Their disintegrating warped the vertical support. Three rungs below his feet the tearing completely severed the connections allowing the twisted frame to swing freely in the hellish void.

The abrupt "coming apart" jolted every never-ending sending queasy waves thrashing around in Duo's insides. Panic-stricken alarm overrode his acrophobia. Redirecting his eyes he dared to look down. With each sway of his precariously suspended perch the ground, far below, pitched and flowed in wavy oscillations.

Full-blown fright took over effectively shutting down his entire thought process. Fear-borne hysteria paralyzed every part of Duo's being rendering mind and body utterly useless.

Now all he could do was hold fast and try to somehow reestablish a measure of control. If he couldn't overcome his fear, if some restoration of his senses was not attained, then Duo's exposure to the rain of fiery debris would soon end his mortal terror and send him to the Afterlife's peaceful realm.

*There is no one to help you but yourself.* Duo's inner voice sternly declared hoping to rouse his stunned sensory system before its inertness killed him.

Hanging in limbo, submerged in the desensitized void, Duo grappled with the temporal frailty of his species. But as feeble as the humanistic organism could sometimes be the creature called man processed a persistent willpower, an inherent perseverance to endure and survive. Duo had to find that steadfastness, that tenacious inborn spirit inside his soul and discover how to harness its knowledge and mortal force.

Duo closed his eyes reaching deep within himself to centralize his concentration. Withdrawing outside of the dread he let go of his trepidation. Pulling himself from panic's sucking vortex he visualized sitting in the secure confines of the Lone Dragon. Instead of fear's murky veil clear blue sky surrounded his senses. A soft rush of air soothed his hearing that was impaired by the blaring explosions.

Feeling the domination of the Lone Dragon's powerful thrust Duo let its force have command. He was suddenly secure, enclosed in golden light. As the sun's warmth radiated through the helicopter it melted away his disquietude until all that remained was himself and the Dragon in a perfect harmony of peace.

*You will survive.* his quiet inner voice confirmed the peaceful sensations.

With a victorious exhalation Duo opened his eyes, set his sight on the ramp above him and began to climb. However each rung he crossed put the pressure of his added weight on the already strained brackets binding the ladder to the ramp's side. Each step bore the increased heaviness with loud and prolonged grating and scraping.

Duo let the Lone Dragon's illusory imagery block out the encroaching sights and sounds. Almost to the top. Almost. "FOCUS!" Duo ordered with a hard puff.

Sturdier vibrations, more deeply rooted than any of their predecessors, told Duo that the foundation undermining, the ruinous subversion that he and Heero had failed to accomplish was finally coming about.

Directly overhead something emitted a smart CRACK. Without warning the column sustaining the rickety ladder began to split. The division started beneath the ramp picking up speed as the fissure raced downward straight at Duo.

********

The tower's shearing apart expelled all manner of dislodged objects and combustibles. The broad dispersion threw ejected substances so high that they seemed to slam against the zenith of the horizon. Then, true to the law of gravity, the injurious elements fell in an extensive shower sparing no area below.

The mighty outburst knocked Heero backwards. The explosion's flashpoint stabbed at his eyes. Falling debris drove him to seek shelter behind the scattered storage units. Although brief in its dangerous down falling, the pelting leftovers managed to get in a few good stinging wraps. Not only did Heero suffer but his SCAT was also the recipient of many dents and scratches.

This marring of paint and polish brought forth a bout of bilingual swearing from the Japanese man. His scathing rebuke, launched at the entire turn of events, left no one or nothing untouched by his all-inclusive profanity.

But Heero's most vigorous denunciations were aimed at himself and his desperation as the tower's destruction cut him off from Duo. His last glimpse of his comrade had been of Duo climbing up an outside column then vanishing into the thick smog enshrouding the platform.

Now the spot where Duo was last seen no longer existed. The only thing that Heero could see was smoke and fire and the crumbling tangle of beams and bracing as the structure collapsed in on itself. Heero's body sagged heavily against the units. His head bowed with weighted care. Stringy hair curtained his face as if trying to hide his despair from the world's prying eyes.

"We wanted to bring it...down," he sighed the words coming haltingly in a grief-stricken whisper. "but dammit not like this."

Inside his anguish-numbed mind Heero's inner council was joined by a multitude of voices. *This is not over yet. We won't let it be.*

An uneasy silence followed the forceful decree. Heero's slumped posture and his ragged breathing made the voices wonder if he had heard anything that they said.

This lack of response seethed up in an angry reaction. *DID YOU HEAR US?* the phantom voices screamed giving Heero a verbal stove strong enough to stir him from his despondent stupor. Then as quickly as the impatient temper boiled up, it subsided with such draining withdrawal that it took Heero's breath away.

In his heart he united with the disembodied voices that belonged to each spirit that had been sacrificed for freedom. In his soul he felt their power, the very essence of what it meant to be human and drew from that will to survive.

Sharply Heero raised he head shaking back his tangled mane from his damp cheeks. Steadily he raised an acidic glare aiming it squarely at the tower. His darkened pupil's enkindled furor never lessened as they centered on the dense vapors enveloping the tower's apex.

"Duo is alive and I am going to find a way to reach him!" he hissed through clenched teeth. "With your help I will reach him." he humbly asked for the spirits aide as he sought their wise guidance.

Without another word Heero slid his helmet from the SCAT's handle grip. Holding it in trembling hands his incensed sight bore down on the Crossed Swords insignia then his determined gaze returned upwards to the tangled tower.

He pulled on his helmet, cinched up the chinstrap and straddled his bi-wheeled beast. "Hold on Duo I'm coming." he promised as he slapped down the face shield.

The SCAT roared to life and, in a streak of dust, it and its Strike Force rider sped toward the tower.

********

Duo stretched, distending his reach well beyond what he thought his burning shoulder muscles would allow. Awkwardly his right hand closed around the railing post's base. A feverish pang grabbed in his upper arm. Numbing sensations threatened his already unstable grip.

Duo's perceptions of his surroundings spun dazzled and confused. A heat flush surged over him seconds before a cold sweat shivered through making his entire body damp and chilled. He gritted his teeth fighting the overpowering faintness that his temperature's rapid fluctuations produced.

His moist hand began to slip on the pole's smooth exterior. Pushing off the ladder Duo fastened his left hand above his right easing the tautness in his shoulder's torn tendons. With great effort his chest gradually began to rise along the ramp's edge. Ignoring the weakness and the cramped spasms, he dragged his top-heavy torso over the rough rim.

A second push proved worthless. The ladder's stressed bolts let out a final mournful whine and gave way. The ladder rang out in a clanging clatter as it struck the next level then silently dropped away as its twisted, distorted outline dissolved into the murky currents.

One painful, overextended tug hoisted Duo's dangling hips onto the ramp's questionable stability. Limply he laid on his stomach shivering as a thoroughly exhausted feebleness shrouded him completely. At that moment Duo didn't feel like he could move even if his life depended on it but unfortunately, in his present environment, the dependence of his very existence hinged heavily on his mobility.

A clammy hand was all that kept Duo's aching head from the dusty, pitted ramp. That same sprinkling of fine ash and pulverized building materials were drawn into his lungs with each laborious breath but his system was too overloaded to cough out the foul air or irritating elements. Instead a congested wheeze struggled to clear his clogged lungs.

An attempt to swallow, to wash down the dry abrasive obstruction in his parched throat, did nothing but worsen the condition. Salty tasting blood from his cracked lips mixed with stringy saliva to form a phlegmy wad that refused to go down.

Finally Duo sucked in a single shallow breath that dislodged the phlegm. The stubborn mass caught in his esophagus triggering his gagging reflexes. With a stomach-churning heave Duo spewed up the rankled mixture. Raising his head high enough to spit out the expelled mucus Duo trembled as a nauseating wave crashed over him. The retching, while unpleasant, did clear his airway but did little to lessen the tightness in his chest.

Resisting his weary sense's urging to lay down his head, close his eyes and give into his drowsy lethargy, Duo's inner voice again reminded him of his solitary state...that his living or dying was solely up to him. *No one but yourself.*

Duo bent his knees and turned on his side curving his slumberous body into a modified fetal curl. He only allowed his overtaxed system's languor to linger but an instant before he pushed its sleepy interposal aside. A deep disentangling breath overrode the stupefied cobwebs clouding his brain and with renewed tenacity Duo set his mind on doing whatever he needed to do to insure his life's continuation.

A grinding quiver shifted the tower off-center causing Duo's grit slick windsuit to slide on the grainy particles. The "scooting" sent him down the ramp's banking towards the outside edge. Duo extended his legs planting his boots on the bottom horizontal rail to haul his slipping. Powdery grit, caught in the updraft funneling over the side, added another sooty layer to his already begrimed skin and clothing.

Holding onto the middle rail with one hand, the top rail with the other, he set his feet and slowly stood up. The tower's listing set the ramp's slope on an even steeper angular grade making Duo's boots continue their skidding on the pulverized film.

Hand over hand along the top railing Duo carefully eased his way down the acute incline. His progress was exasperatingly slow but given his unreliable footings the moderate shuffle was as fast as he dared to go. The railing vibrated as wave after fluctuating wave coursed over the crippling tremors.

"At this rate," Duo mumbled under his breath, "I'll never get down." Still his arduous descent was much preferred to a freefall and its unhealthy slamming into the ground.

*******

On ground level huge chunks of soft soil were ejected as the tower's right side buttresses kicked up from the gapping hole. The tipping set the uppermost sections critically off-balance. The radical pitch fretted the already brittle braces and crossties.

Duo did not see the thin line appear in the ramp's surface. He didn't take notice of its crinkled slit as the severed seam began to push apart.

The uprooted base rose higher its tottering escalating the dividing. Lending an additional slant to the vertical alignment the oblique angle buckled the crack. Opposing forces widened the breach. A large chasm replaced the bulge as the ruptured ramp caved in and an entire portion tore away. Steel reinforcing rods spiked up, their protruding ends offering a perfect place for a distasteful impaling.

The awry shifting produced a wobbly sway upsetting Duo's tenuous balance just before the ramp and everything on it began its deadly downhill sinking. Duo's boots dug into the glassy surface in a vain attempt to stop his inevitable tumble over the edge. But just short of his inescapable plunge an intense tremble completely shattered what permanence remained.

The entire section under Duo's feet dropped straight down. He grabbed onto a center post but it, too, ripped free. Among the dissected segments, while the heavens crumbled above him and the portals of hell gaped wide beneath, Duo suddenly lost all sense of falling. There was no up or down, nothing pointing the way to get back or move forward.

The giddy buoyancy created a sensation of false floating. This lulling relaxation made Duo's body feel light. His drooping eyelids were heavy with oxygen depleted somnolence. His mind drifted into tranquil obscurity then mercifully Duo blacked out just before he and the pummeling ruins hit the next level.

Part Eighteen: Dancing through the Devil's Maze

Heero stopped his SCAT short of the non-perpendicular tower hopefully well out of its path should it decide to come all the way down. The lower-side levels had begun to compact one on the other "sandwiching" each ramp in their downward crush. Thick clouds loaded to overflowing with every conceivably loatheful substance billowed from the fallen sections.

The tower's main vertical supports were more resistant to the compression so their reaction to the shifting lateral forces came in a spiral torsion. Deafening grinding and squealing rang out in one prolonged cry setting Heero's nerves on edge. The bending turned the normally upright columns into odd geometrical figures. The horizontal plane's parallel also was grossly misshapen making the contours totally indistinguishable from the original design.

This askew deviation was both troubling and frightening because Heero knew that somewhere inside the severed distortion Duo was trying to find his way out. With the frail framework folding about him, Duo would surely be so desperate that his frantic retreat would be carried out in a completely reckless manner.

Duo understandable panic told Heero that he needed to find his comrade before they both ran out of time. He had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that several deep breaths could not remove. There was also a nagging restlessness that he couldn't shake as the limited amount of time that he felt pressed to beat was quickly overtaking what seemed to be his best efforts.

"Can I reach him?" he wondered as he pulled off his helmet.

Gazing up through grimy smog touched by flickering fire-glows his sight centered on the area that was now the top section due to the tower's compression. Duo had outsmarted the Devil's Maze, Heero was certain of that, so that was where he needed to go.

"Up there." he declared pointing at the dark plumes pushed first one way then the other by hot air funneling from pockets of fire trapped in the rubble.

Carefully Heero picked a path to the tower. Every form of shattered rubbish overspread the area. Each inch was littered with razor-edged shards of metal. The ground was in a constant state of upheaval. Large clumps of dirt, grainy pebbles and every size in between made the very act of walking an uphill battle. An occasional "hot spot" of smothering debris made for an even more interesting trek.

After the vexingly slow pace Heero had an ample supply of nervous energy when he finally paused at the tower's dangerously unstable base. The two right side legs swayed and jerked each time the tower settled. The left side had dug into the soil creating shallow craters that offered no better support.

Far to his right what of left of Duo's SCAT lay in a smoldering pile. A few fingers of flame twitched inside the mangled middle and black smoke still drifted from the melted tires. "I bet Duo wasn't happy about that." Heero sighed.

The shrill groan of fatigued metal and warped crossbeams made a constant din so loud that Heero cringed at the noise. "I guess its straight up from here." he decided tensely as he watched the base's ends quiver.

With another centering sigh Heero closed his hands over a titled spanner, tested his footing and started what he knew would be a strenuous, risky and painfully gradual ascent.

********

Much like the deformed beams snarled in chaotic disorder all around him Duo sprawled partly on his side in an odd angular recline. One arm hung limply across his chest, its hand folded under at the wrist. The other arm was drawn out above his head resting unevenly on chucks of the disintegrated ramp. This distended posture put Duo's torn muscles in even greater distress.

On every side the same ravaged conditions showed that the razing of the tower was all but fulfilled. A continual sifting dispersed clouds of pulverized residue. The wind-driven distribution of powdery soot and odorous gases settled in a stifling overlay. Thicker, more suffocating smoke gave no heed to the eddying currents choosing instead to sink over everything in a suppressive fog.

The coarse coating of dust and ash could not conceal Duo's pallid complexion. His eyes were squeezed shut against the fire's bright glow and the airborne irritants. His elongated extension flattened out his chest. The compression on his partially deflated lungs made a full intake of air difficult bordering on impossible.

Shallow respirations failed to clear the obstructive inhalants. Not only did the choking dust and reeking fumes clog Duo's airway but strangulating fluid swelled in his throat accelerating the onset of asphyxiation. The rapid "filling up" triggered his body's natural defenses.

Calling on reflexive stimulus almost too drained to respond, Duo's lungs sucked in a forceful piercing breath. A fierce seizure shook his body. Raw biting pain shot through every nerve ending. Duo's back bowed and his limbs stiffened as a second tortuous contraction coursed over him. Then the rigid jerk suddenly let go dropping his lax form roughly on the jagged rubble.

Duo's eyes flew opened with a start but his optic nerves retracted in protest at the penetrating brightness and foreign elements. His eye's begrudged reluctance to adjust gave him only a blurred view of his surroundings.

The convulsive spasm quickly used up what fading endurance Duo had left. Flaccid invalidity took over. As hard as he tried all Duo could do was lay among the tower's traces and fight for each ounce of oxygen he could gleam from the poison atmosphere.

A second impaired attempt to flush out the pollutants shook Duo's battered body with racking coughs that hurt so much it felt as though his insides were being ripped apart. But the gripping pain did keep him from drifting into a comatose sleep...a morbid slumber that, this time, he might not awaken from.

This jarring of his senses, although violent in nature, snatched Duo from his stuporous unresponsiveness. He dared to force one more stinging cough. Ejected fluids caught in his throat. But unlike Duo's pervious position on his stomach his posture on his back prevented him from spitting out the strangulating blockage.

The gagging discharge further block his breathing making it clear that if Duo stayed in his present position he would most likely drown in his own fluids. A change in alignment was demanded. He had to take the pressure off of his chest and bringing his overextended arm back over was the first step.

Duo closed his watery eyes putting all his mental focus into moving his arm that felt cold, deadened by lack of circulation. "If it's broken." The possibility stabbed at his mind.

Duo augured back, "It can't be." he growled not giving the defeating thoughts time to take hold.

At first his numbed nerves did not even acknowledge his effort, then he found that he could move his fingers, then his hand. "Take it easy." he advised himself.

Ever so slowly the sluggish extremity began to cooperate. In small degrees his arm began to lift and come forward but each step came with an anguished struggle. Muscles knotted. His arrested breathing, combined with the raw pain, brought on another wave of lightheadedness. Duo pressed his eyes tighter trying to centralize his mind and body, to bring all his functions into one point of convergence.

Duo's arm more flopped than laid over his chest. A tingle prickled over his skin like a thousand hot barbs as the blood flow was renewed. Another tight but manageable breath did not rattle as deeply as his chest felt lighter and the raising fluid less intrusive.

At this point Duo was thankful for even a small victory. He opened his eyes blinking away the fuzziness. He blinked once more as his vision wanted to cloud over again.

Duo carefully tested his recently reclaimed arm. It was "lazy" but showed a markedly improved response. With a dirty, bloodstained hand he rubbed over his tacky eyes. As the sticky film thinned he found that a fresh streak of crimson had brightened the old smudges. He wiped off the new bleeding on his jacket and mopped over his face. Blood, grim and sweat added another layer on his bruised, stiff hand.

Gradually Duo began to take in the shambled setting that he had involuntarily become a part of. Off to the side and a little behind his harsh resting place ashy vapors billowed from a gaping crevice. The plume would thicken then with a compressed inrush of air be sucked back into the hole. Less than a moment would pass before the suction reversed belching out a strong gush followed by a throbbing whoosh. The air-enriched stream spat up sparks and long fingers of fire. The spewing, condensed jet hit the upper currents and flattened out surging over everything within several yards.

Duo rude site was not that far removed from the yard's meager measure. He threw up his arms covering his face as an issue of hot air rolled outward. The rotating drift loss most of its fury before reaching Duo but the heat was still potent enough to sting his skin.

Muffled pops and sputters under the surface told Duo that the violent eruption was not an isolated incident, that more backfire episodes would continue until the building pressure blasted out the entire section embracing Duo in its flaming farewell.

This knowledge of certain doom caused Duo to decide that a rapid relocation was in his best interest. He had not fallen victim to the raging eruptions and he sure as hell was not going to wait around for the final blow to take him out. However the desired execution of motion and actual movement was easier said than done as Duo's body was very much disinclined to any unnecessary mobilization.

"Mind over matter." Duo told himself as he mentally prepared to exit his hazardous habitat. "One step at a time."

Quivering arms pressed down helping Duo as best as they could to push his shoulders forward. He bent at the waist, centered his middle and finally raised his back until he sat up somewhat steadily on his own.

A deep breathe...a long easing release of air. Next Duo slid his left leg aligning it with his hip and curving it up to further prop up his shaky pose but his right leg refused to "follow the leader".

Until that moment Duo had not been aware that a portion of a bracing beam along with a stout pile of trash had his boot, well passed his ankle, trapped. He squinted down at the rubble relieved that he could still wiggle his foot. At first gentle tension was applied to the stuck extremity but when a sharper tug failed in his leg's extraction Duo seriously began to question his leaving.

Upon closer study it soon became frightfully clear that no amount of shoving or prodding would move the ensnaring debris. Even if he had been at full strength Duo could not have budged the pile much less lifted its considerable weight. This irrefutable fact upheld Duo's discernment of his deadly predicament. He knew the he would not be departing his dire quandary, at least not as living flesh and bone.

The total depletion of any hope of escape ravished Duo's will to go on. A heavy sigh was all he could offer his forlorn soul as he, in resigned acceptance of fate's decision, settled back in his final resting place.

"You always knew that you would die alone." Duo declared as another powerful whoosh sent up a stream of fire. "I just wish that I could have seen Heero one last time." he sighed as the tower shuddered in its final death throes.

********

Flammable gases and blue-gray smoke continued to ebb and flow from the nearby gap but now the opening had begun to glow as the accumulating fire gravitated towards the surface. The fire-flaunt would brighten then dim only to return to a deep ruddy hue just below the rim.

With each bellow of fresh air the confined heat was being primed to its overflow point. Duo turned his head to watch the seething thermal cauldron. Sultry waves, varying in density, created an optical phenomenon. The stratum of hot air caused a mirage of light, a shimmering liquid effect, resulting in an incongruous perversion of everything that it touched.

But this malformed misrepresentation was hardly noticed by Duo's severely altered senses. "If I am going to die," he mumbled running his dry tongue over his equally parched lips, "it might as well be in a blaze of glory." he proclaimed knowing that the incessant firedrake enkindled in its inferno lair could strike out any time.

"Are you going to give up that easily?" he berated himself for his lack of faith.

Then Duo's internal voice whispered softly. *As long as there is life there is hope.*

********

At first there was a minor tremble along the crevice's glowing edge. A few loose pieces rattled in place then rolled down the side. Duo made no more note of the breaking apart than he did of the escalating swell of smoke and the molten gurgle as the crevice widened. This incinerate casting of heat and the fusion of fire and air immediately ejected the entire section and its contents in an explosive outburst.

The violent regurgitation spat out a great rolling wave. The flinging out of combustive material left no area untouched. Most of the energy lashed outward slamming into anything in its path. Some power, however, shot straight up carried by the updraft into the already weakened superstructure.

The blast soon overtook Duo. Again he curled his arms over his face and turned his back even though he believed the reaction to be a foolish exercise in futility. A sweeping torrent of grounded stone, dense smoke and hot wind washed over. Shredded pellets scratched and dug at his skin. The odor of singed hair and scorched leather filled his nostrils.

Duo drew up further as bits of hurling debris dashed against his body then something larger joined in the collision. It struck across his back skimming his raised arms and this time Duo had no helmet to soften the blow. Although partly deflected by his shoulder the sizable block of "whatever it was" got in a solid strike.

A wall of blistering heat pounded against his back. The crevice was now a full-blown rift. Nearest the oxidized center the reddish-orange blaze jumped from every crack and crater. The flames swept up until their clawing, twitching fingers evaporated into their own private hell.

The torrid radiation surrounding Duo's form-fitting windsuit was rapidly raising his body temperature to a fever pitch making him feel as if he was being baked alive. Swollen fingers fumbled at his jacket's high collar sealed snuggly around his neck. The zipper slid down about six inches then stopped. Duo pushed aside the disturbing thought that its aversion to release was do to heat fusion and tugged again. To his relief the stubborn zipper finally opened the rest of the way but even with his jacket undone his body sweltered and his tee shirt was soaked through.

Duo had no doubt that the oppressive heat, even with the temporary respite, would eventually do him in so he decided that the nonporous jacket was going to have to come off. With his drenched shirt stuck over his chest and with more nonstop droplets adding to the soggy binding, Duo started to undo the shorter zippers on his sleeves and prepare to peel off the leather jacket.

As he extended his right arm to reach the left sleeve something stung the underside of his forearm. A closer inspection showed a long split in the leather and a new batch of scarlet seeping through. The hemorrhage discharge was more of a leaking rather than a gushing but the bloody tide was steady and showed no sign of stopping on its own.

"Shit now I can bleed to death." Duo muttered as each movement irritated the gash. "Fuck the fates." he cursed under his breath wondering what unforgivable crime he had committed to deserve this kind of suffering at the end.

Laying in his own sultry humidity, his arm smarting as salty sweat mingled inside the irregular cut, Duo had no more energy to remove his jacket or react to his waning reserves. This regression in his physical fitness, as well as morale, was quickly carrying him into a state of weary withdrawal.

In his half-conscious daze Duo could barely grasp what was happening around him. His interpretation of the devastated aftermath was inadequate to say the least and wholly deficient in understanding. Mercifully Duo's altered powers of perception and the clouded acuity of his vision did not tell him that, one way or the other, the end would come soon.

One by one his senses began to shut down. His ears did not hear the keen whipping as a cable broke. The earsplitting noise should have caused him to focus so when the spanning girder that the cable supported also let go the nerve jarring SNAP should have shook inside his brain. His eyes should have seen the steel girder's pendulous swinging overhead kept in its midair hover by only a few stress-worn bolts and a borrowed blessing of luck.

Then as if some outside agent was determined to ruin any hope of Duo's recovery, a high potency dose of ash-laden smoke triggered another fit of coughing. The raspy hacking sucked in the rankled sludge making his lungs burn. A stifling constriction encased his chest reducing his airflow to almost nothing.

Slowly Duo's soul became strangely tranquil. This serene release came as he quietly resigned himself to his pain and despair. With calm submission he deferred to fate's choice his hour of departure.

Much like Trowa's apparitional visions of Quatre when he faced death on the Intruder, Duo's shocked system reached out for some comfort in his last moments. Heero's features were flawlessly reproduced, clear and solid, in Duo's mind's eye.

By degrees the perfect picture slipped outside of his discernible coherency appearing to float projected on the dusky haze covering his eyes. In his dreamlike trance a faraway sound touched Duo's ears. He heard Heero's voice calling faintly then with increased volume.

But unlike the wavy phantasm mocking his sight, the melodious vocalization was drowned out by a high-pitched squall as one more bolt gave way allowing the overhead girder to slip. It stopped with a quivering jerk then groaned as the last of two slackened braces gradually sliced through with each grating joggle and sway.

Hard, willful breaths punched through the clogging phlegm that Duo's useless coughing was now too weak to drive away. Stubbornly fighting against his fading awareness he used the last of his strength to halt the rapidly dimming blindness.

As Heero's face retreated into a murky tunnel his gentle voice urged Duo to join him in the black void. Duo's parched lips parted. Gruff whispers struggled from his hoarse throat.

"HEERO! NO!" Duo wailed reaching out a trembling hand for some lifeline as the faint hint of Heero's essence drifted away.

Part Nineteen: Foiling Fate's Desires

"HEERO! NO!" Duo wailed reaching out a trembling hand for a lifeline as the faint hint of Heero's essence drifted away.

A firm grip took hold of his hand. "It's just my mind playing cruel tricks." Duo told himself.

Something cool touched his feverish forehead. The sudden temperature change caused a gut-deep shiver to course over his body.

"Duo."

Heero's voice? The timbre was familiar but was the distant sound only a mimicry... a vague recalling?

"Duo look at me."

Duo tried to open his eyes, to find the voice's source but his eyelids were too burdened with weakness to respond. Once more Duo's mind questioned his hearing as the voice called again.

It felt as though Duo was moving, his back lifting from its stony bed. His chest seemed lighter, his lungs more inclined to breathe but their marginally improved functions still came with a tight constriction and stabbing coughs still rattled his insides.

Duo pushed his waning residuum of strength as hard as it would go. Grudgingly his eyelids began to part spurred on by the insistent calling of his name. A dry film clung doggedly to his eyes. They stuck and hurt as Duo forced them to blink. Slowly they offered a glimpse of light and gradually the tacky coating thinned granting him a less hindered view.

Now Duo was certain that he had burned out his last few brain cells for when his eyesight cleared Heero's face, streaked with soot and sweat, looked back. Heero rested on one knee. He, too, had unzipped his jacket. Stringy hair was matted in the grimy moisture on his forehead and cheeks.

"Duo look at me!" he shouted to be heard above the grinding girder and the crackling fire. "Focus...tell me who I am." he ordered as his hand, which was twice as dark as usual, brushed back stiff bloodstained bangs from Duo's blurry eyes.

First Duo realized that he was being supported in a semi-upright posture. Next he tilted his head and winced as his stiff neck muscles painfully protested. But he had to fully see Heero's face, had to be sure that he was real and not a hallucination.

Duo swallowed with great difficulty and fought against his heavy eyelids wanting to close again. "Heero?" he wheezed praying that this was not a fever-struck nightmare that he would awake from to find himself alone.

"Fight to stay with me." Heero urged with a shiver in his voice as the shored up his embrace.

Every inch of Duo's body was wet inside his windsuit. Heero could feel the heat radiating from the humid flesh trapped in the leather encasement. He spread Duo's jacket wider for better circulation but with the surrounding air being just as hot the separation did little to relieve the overheating.

Heero pulled at the jacket determined to free Duo from his sweltering cocoon. A hard flinch, a sharp intake of breath and the painful wincing on Duo's face told Heero that he might be doing more harm to his battered body still he had to take the chance and remove the tight apparel before the elevated temperature caused permanent brain damage.

Heero moped back gritty, wet bangs from Duo's eyes then carefully untangle his braid. Gently he slipped one arm at a time from the sleeves then finally peeled the saturated garment away. Heero hoped that Duo's exposed arms would help with the cooling but as quickly as the wetness would ease another outbreak of sweating would take its place.

Heero carefully shifted his hold reaching for something beside his leg. "Drink this." he urged pressing a water bottle to Duo's swollen cracked lips.

The first taste of the lifesaving liquid washed over, running away at the corners of Duo's mouth. Heero elevated his shoulders a little higher and tried again. The second drink trickled inside gathering at the base of Duo's tongue. Heero slowly increased the flow until enough water pooled up to allow Duo to swallow. Again his throat burned, the amount being too small to wash away the dryness. It took two more attempts before the lukewarm water soothed Duo's scorched throat and put out the fire.

As the meager measure triggered his thirst response Duo's desperately dehydrated system begged for more moisture. Duo's hand coated with an oily film of grime, sweat and smoke closed around Heero's hand that held the container.

Shaking with frantic pleading Duo applied persuasive pressure to the bottle tipping it up too quickly and causing the water to course down before his impaired reflexes could cope with the flood. Strangulated contractions to keep the fluid from his windpipe seized Duo's body with fits of choking. The gagging retched through his stomach threatening to bring up the water that he had already swallowed.

Each gasp for air stuck in Duo's throat. His face was ashen, his eyes unfocused and his body limp in Heero's grip. "Dammit Duo don't do this to me." Heero lifted Duo's shoulders higher. "Come on breathe!"

Out of desperation Heero leaned Duo at an acute angle and hit the heel of his hand between his shoulder blades. He knew he might be risking further injury but if his comrade didn't catch his breath the risk wouldn't matter. Thankfully the centered strike produced positive results. Gradually the spasms decreased in their severity and Duo began to take in regulated respirations.

Duo took in a calmer gulp hoping to keep the gagging at bay. As his bruised head rested heavily on Heero's chest, he whispered through his still scratchy throat, "What in the hell are you doing here?"

"Where else would I be?"

"But you...."

Heero pressed a finger to Duo's lips cutting off his protests. " I don't have time to argue." he stated firmly. Nodding up at the large length of menacing metal dangling overhead he tried to press upon Duo the urgency of their situation. "I don't know how much longer that girder is going to stay there."

With a puzzled frown Duo directed his wandering gaze up through the smoky haze. All he could see passed the wind-swirled smog was a gray outline that appeared to be swinging back and forth.

But even though the danger was obvious Duo's confused mind could not comprehend the crisis. "I think my foot is stuck." he informed his partner as if his caught boot was their only reason to worry.

Heero didn't try to explain knowing that it would take too long to make Duo understand. "I'm going to have to lay you down." He folded Duo's jacket and pillowed it under his head then carefully let his arms slip from around Duo's ribcage.

Heero pulled off his jacket finding that his body was as drenched as Duo's. He poured the remaining water in his hand and washed down Duo's arms. He repeated the procedure out of desperation, knowing all along that it was pointless but feeling that he had to do something no matter how futile the effort. A discouraged sigh escaped over Heero's lips as his heart ached in an empathic response to Duo's anguish.

Duo settled down with his own weary sigh. His eyes stared up at the odd oscillating shape but they still failed to relay the hazard to his compromised senses. Then Heero's movement redirected Duo's addled sight to the immovable pile as his comrade crawled to where his foot was trapped.

The girder groaned as the hot currents continually assaulted it. Heero disregarded the ominous noise and began tossing aside crumbling chunks and splintered spikes of metal.

********

Heero would occasionally stop to rethink his tactics as each unearthed layer presented a new challenge. After one studying pause he wedged both hands under a piece of bluish metal that was protruding from the side. Muscles bulged with a steady upward pull. His hands tore on the rough, pitted surface.

And of course since Duo's luck had long ago decided to go AWOL the length of warped reinforcing rod would not budge. One end curled over Duo's boot while the other end was buried, no one knew how deep, under the rubble.

Heero raised up on his knees, braced his bleeding hands in the powdery grit and aligned himself with Duo's pain-dulled sight. "I need your help." he stated even though he was not certain that Duo realized he was there.

"DUO!" he shouted grabbing onto Duo's leg and giving it a hard shake.

Duo flinched as his deadened senses were rudely stirred back to life. He planted his elbows among the stony shards to sit up as best he could. "What?" he whispered hoarsely.

"I need your help." Heero repeated as he stood up.

Heero found a long piece of spanner and slid it under the unbendable rod. He wiped his blood-slick hands on his pants, refolded his grip and centered his weight. Looking back at Duo to be sure that he was listening he instructed. "When you feel the pressure ease up pull your foot free."

Duo nodded "yes" then braced himself for the pain he knew any movement would produce. "Go ahead."

Heero drew in an energizing breath, gritted his teeth and put his total concentration into lifting the rod but despite his best efforts the twisted metal refused to move in any direction. With each thwarted attempt Heero swore lowly under his breath not wanting Duo to hear his frustration.

But Duo knew of his comrade's failures. He could read Heero's defeated posture, the way his shoulders slumped and his chest heaved from exhaustion. Even through the thickness of his boot he knew that his leg was still pinned in place. And in spite of his muddled senses Duo knew that the rod had not given up an inch and was not going to no matter how much leverage Heero applied.

"Heero." Duo called trying to keep his voice as even as possible.

Heero paused to muster the most positive expression he could before pivoting to face his friend. When Heero finally did turn around he could tell by the grave distress in Duo's eyes that he already knew that his prospects for freedom were hopeless.

"I will think of something." Heero promised not bothering to hide his concern.

Duo shook his head slowly. "No you won't." he stated not buying into Heero's determination to grasp at straws.

Heero dropped to his knees and set back on his heels reexamining the situation. "Yes I will." he growled out tensely, "I have to." he finished in a heartbroken whisper.

Now certain that Heero Yuy would not be the deliverer of his salvation Duo steeled up his will and prepared to counter any forthcoming arguments. "We both know that nothing can be done." he declared as calmly as he could.

As the first rays of dawn filtered through the gray smog he ordered. "You have to leave me."

"Duo...no!" Heero exclaimed moving to his side. "I won't...."

Duo raised his hand. "Let me finish." he demanded. "If it has to be this way then so be it." He sucked in a labored breath. "I want you to get out of here now. I could not have a peaceful heart if you died because of me."

Heero shook his head defiantly. "There is still time." he hissed, gritting his teeth at the injustice being forced on both of them.

But Duo would not be deterred. Whenever his plight he would face it the same way that he had faced everything else in his life with piss and fire and an unshakable faith that there was a better place waiting for him.

Duo locked his watery eyes on his comrade's anguished features. "DON'T ARGUE WITH ME!" he shouted sternly letting it be known by his curt tone that the debating and haggling was over.

Heero bowed his head in a downcast gaze. A soft rush of air fluttered over his lips and when he looked up again tears glistened in his cobalt eyes. "Damn you Duo Maxwell I tried so hard not to care and then you pull something like this."

He carefully entwined his fingers around Duo's bruised hand. "I love you. Don't you know that I could no more abandon you than I could stop breathing?"

A smile caressed Duo's lips and despite his skin's grimy coating his face glowed. "I loved you the first time I saw you and I will love you forever. That is why your death can not be on my conscience for that would surely send my soul to hell and then we could not spend eternity together."

"Then I will stay with you in hell." Heero proclaimed leaning over to seal his promise with a kiss.

Overhead one more brace sliced in two. The girder groaned so loudly that its wailing could be heard above the crackling fire and mournful wind. Heero ignored the heavy beam's pronouncement of doom choosing instead to deepen the kiss.

Duo broke the kiss with a whimper then pushed weakly on Heero's chest. "Please...for my sake...go now." With his final plea Duo laid his head back and closed his eye for it would be too painful to watch his lover leave.

Heero's eyes flashed as he jumped to his feet. "I am not going to let fate defeat us!" he screamed aiming his angry glare at the erratic girder.

In two long strides he stopped beside the stubborn rod. He shoved the spanner in a far as it would go, flexed his muscles and drew on an internal strength that was multiplied tenfold by love. There would be no trying but doing. Duo would be freed or Heero would die in the attempt.

The scraping on Duo's boot was barely noticed as his fading senses answered the Grim Reaper's call to surrender then Heero's voice echoed in his head. "I love you."

Opening his eyes Duo felt the weight on his foot give up some of its influence. In a heartbeat the rod rose high enough to clear his boot. "NOW DUO!" Heero shouted as his arms quivered and his muscles burned from the strain.

Duo planted his hands on the grimy ramp and put every ounce of power he had into sliding backwards. An inch more and his foot would be out. Half an inch and Duo could see firelight shining through the narrow opening. One last scooting. "I'm free." he shouted triumphantly before he collapsed from total exhaustion.

Before the rod settled down with a grating clatter Heero was by Duo's side. Misty moisture sparkled across his dark pupils. A wide grin showed both relief and joy. "I knew we could do it."

But Heero's celebration was quickly cut short as a shrill whine told him that the last of the girder's bolts were about to break free. "We need to move now."

Heero knelt behind Duo slipping his arms around his sweat-soaked chest. Duo grimaced as his too long stationary body was dragged back. He flinched as his torn shoulder muscles and his badly sprained ankle painfully reacted to the sudden change in position.

Heero didn't stop his tugging until he reached the ramp's serrated edge. "The climb down is going to be rough." he wheezed as the foul air and dense smoke had already begun to affect his breathing.

Duo nodded as he peered over the irregular rim. "Shit look at my SCAT." he swore as his eyes caught sight of the mangled remains of his bike.

Heero couldn't help but grin at Duo's concern over his defunct SCAT. "Baka." he whispered gently running his finger over Duo's oily cheek. "Your Shinigami is waiting for you so let's not wasted anymore time."

Suddenly that was a shape creaking followed closely by a gut-wrenching quiver. The tower shifted violently almost knocking Heero off his feet. Duo clung desperately to his lover as the ramp trembled and clouds of dust and smoke blotted out the sunrise.

The pile of rubble that had formally held Duo captive began to disappear through an ever-widening hole. From the crater's center a pressurized jet spewed spark-drenched plumes in a condensed stream. Renewed fireballs sprayed from every unclogged crack and crevice.

White-hot flames hungrily tasted the infusion of fresh air in an unchecked feeding frenzy. Turning reddish orange the fiery tongues licked at the ash and smoke until their ascending tips flickered away into infinity. The hissing geyser buffeted the lax girder pushing it wildly to and fro. The rocking doubled in its intensity each time until the hard sway pitched it into a sagging support column.

Until that moment the taunting pendulum had been satisfied to stay in place as long as it believed there was no hope of Duo's escape. But seeing its intended victim free and leaving it decided with swift retaliatory vengeance to take out not only Duo but Heero as well for meddling in its termination plans.

With a travailing screech the girder declared its intentions to execute punishment for Duo's desertion. Heero grabbed Duo's arm and tugged sideways to remove him from the beam's plummeting path. "This is going to be close." Heero thought as his boots skidded on the ramp's powdery surface.

Color drained from Duo's face. A lancing chill clawed through the thermal blanket encasing his sweltering body bringing on bone-jarring convulsions. Duo closed his eyes and clenched his teeth as arms and legs shook in uncontrolled spasms of pain. He had nothing left, not one ounce of toughness to brace against the furious tremors. Nothing to overcome the mind-deadening faintness. Heero ignored Duo's pale features and profuse shaking and jerked again.

A deafening CLANG echoed. A swish of hot air surged over Duo as Heero draped his body over his lover. The massive slab of metal flew sideways. One end bounced putting it into an uncontrolled spin. Heero tightened his protective posture covering Duo's head with his outstretched arms.

Less than four feet from the Strike Force pair the girder's opposite end slammed into what was left of some tattered bracing beams. Blue sparks danced over the scaffolding and an ear-piercing squall set every nerve on edge. Then there was an eerie silence as the girder went airborne. A glint of the rising sun on scorched metal was the last thing Heero saw before the girder tumbled harmlessly over the edge.

Now Heero's face was as pale as Duo's, not from pain but from sheer fright. Heero raised up anxiously checking Duo for injuries. He stroked back stringing bangs then became lost in Duo's revealed violet gaze.

"Are you all right?" he asked as he allowed his tears free reign.

Duo lifted a trembling hand pressing it to Heero's damp cheek. "Arigato my love." he whispered before completely surrendering as Heero's arms encircled him in an unbelievably loving embrace. With a content sigh Duo let his sense shut down against the delirium and pain and drifted off into a perfect state of serenity.

********

Heero dared to lean over far enough to look over the edge. All he could see were puffs of smoke, lingering flickers of fire and jagged metal spiking out in all directions. "How in hell am I going to get Duo down from here?" The question nagged at his mind.

Duo must have sensed their dilemma even through the drowsy curtain shrouding his brain. "We are not going to give up now."

But before Heero could give any further consideration to the problem of his and his soul mate's dangerous descent an unexpected breeze stirred the smog. A rhythmic thump, thump, thump bounced off the tower's deformed framework.

Heero shielded his eyes squinting up through the parting haze. The Lone Dragon's familiar shape cast cooling shadows over the two battered but victorious teammates huddled among the tower's squalor.

The side hatch slid back. Trowa, with Quatre squatting beside him, peered down from their lofty perch. "We thought you two might like a ride." he shouted over the rotor's whine and the whipping wind.

Heero, pleased to see all his Strike Force partners in one piece, waved back signaling his and Duo's readiness to leave their hellish surroundings and join their friends.

"I'm going to lower a rescue basket." Trowa instructed as he activated the towline winch.

Duo glanced up at the helicopter then gave Heero a weak smile. "Let's go home."

********

It was decided that Duo would be more comfortable lying in the basket. Only when Quatre was sure that Duo had drank enough water to be properly hydrated did he allow his friend to dose off.

Heero sat by the window holding Duo's hand as he slept so soundly that he didn't stir when Trowa began to bandage his arm. While Wufei skillfully guided the "copter" away from the toppled tower Heero's stomach knotted as he saw just how close that he and Duo had come to dying.

The blackened patch of crumpling concrete that they had just vacated was no more than ten feet wide and less than that in length. A pair of spindly columns was all that supported the tiny piece of ramp. Spires of misshapen metal and hundreds of twisted reinforcing rods snarled into a maze that would have been impossible to maneuver especially with Duo injuries.

Tightening his hold on his lover's hand, Heero whispered a thankful entreatment for his and Duo's deliverance then rested his head on the seat, closed his eyes and drifted into a dreamscape of endless sunrises and sunsets with Duo by his side.

Epilogue (Part 20): A New Beginning

Six weeks later:

Wufei lounged in the kitchen enjoying a second cup of coffee. Although he still held to his daily discipline he had decided that his kata and katana practice did not necessarily have to done at the crack of dawn. Now he allowed a more flexible schedule for he had learned that life was to be experienced and not just lived.

The Lone Dragon's victorious comrades wholeheartedly mirrored his attitude. They, too, had decided that time was not merely a measurement of hours and days but a precious gift that should never be wasted.

The group of diverse but united men were also in unanimous agreement that they made a good team so Wufei, Heero and Duo had accepted Quatre and Trowa's proposal to live at the Winner estate and advance the Strike Force to the heightened level of readiness.

There was no doubt that their unique skills would be called into action again. True they had dealt OZ a devastating blow but the military madmen were still in command. The same traitorous government officials were still in power. It was only a matter of time before the tyrannical faction would undergo another {1}transmogrification and be reborn to threatened freedom once more.

But this time the newly spawned beast would face a fierce foe who had been tempered in the heat of battle and had risen from the ashes as a cohesive unit. A force of five sworn to protect the innocent, uphold justice and vanquish evil.

********

Quatre shifted in bed snuggling into Trowa's comforting embrace. Since that fateful night when Trowa had exorcised Quatre's demons he had slept peacefully next to his lover secure in the knowledge that his parent's deaths had been avenged and that the bastardly Colonel Khushrenada had been sentenced to eternity in Hell.

Now Quatre Raberba Winner was no longer a prisoner in his own home but the master of his fate. He had taken control of his life and taken his place as leader of the Strike Force Five.

Trowa was proud of Quatre and pleased with his lover's newly found independence. While he was not so foolish to think that all of Quatre's problems had been solved, Trowa knew that there was no trouble that patience and unconditional love could not overcome. Together he and Quatre would face the future as lovers and friends and nothing could stop them.

********

In a state of unashamed nakedness Heero laid on his stomach on the bed. Duo in an equally nude condition straddled Heero's thighs feathering kisses over each scar on his lover's back. This gentle caressing of the marred skin had become ritualistic in its regularity.

Duo knew that not all wounds were visible on the surface. He knew that everyone carried with them many roughly healed remembrances on their heart and soul so the simple act was Duo's way of reassuring Heero that what had happened in the past no longer mattered.

Returning from the tower Heero had used Duo's injuries as an excuse to move into his room. It was easier, he reasoned, to administer the proper care if he was constantly close by. Then Duo's restless sleep was his explanation for sharing Duo's bed. But now all "practical pretences" had been dropped since the first night that his and Duo's enthusiasm could be plainly heard by anyone who passed by their bedroom door.

Duo's unbounded hair tickled its way across Heero fully exposed bottom causing him to wiggle under the fluttering assault. Duo's mouth finished just above Heero's hips then he eased his weight to let his partner flip over on his back.

Now it was Heero's turn to show his intimate affection. He sat up placing a kiss on the perfectly reproduced pattern of Duo's cross that had been burned into his chest by the severe heat at the tower. Duo shivered as Heero's tongue traced the scar that had become just as precious to him as his scars had to Duo.

Life's cruelty had permanently marked both Heero and Duo but the disfigurements were not reminders of their failures but testaments to their courage and to the steadfastness of their commitment to freedom and each other.

Duo tilted his head capturing Heero's mouth in a persuasive lip-lock. His arms encircled his lover's neck before adding a subtle sliding to make certain that their growing erections brushed. All these besieging tactics were designed with one goal in mind...to make Heero respond favorably to his invitation to engage in a passion session.

The early morning light streamed through the French doors. Sunbeams glistened over Duo's flowing hair in brilliant hues of henna and cinnamon. Heero's swarthy hands were twice as dark against Duo's creamy skin as they slipped around Duo's firm buttocks to pull him as close as physically possible.

"MMMMM." Duo moaned into his partner's mouth as Heero's tongue slipped passed his parted lips.

For a few moments the Strike Force warriors engaged in a game of tongue-tag as hands wandered over excitement damp bodies. Heero pulled back just enough to gaze into the most stunning eyes that he had ever seen.

"Beautiful." he whispered as he tucked silky strands behind Duo's ear in the same way that he had seen Trowa do with Quatre.

There was gentleness in that caress that spoke volumes about the intimacy shared by familiar lovers. Heero wanted that closeness, longed for that oneness of mind, body and soul that only a few lucky people ever experienced.

Duo's sweet smile was more than enough reward for the simple act. For it, too, told of comfort and well being. "Have I told you lately how much I love you?" Duo sighed leaning into the tender touch.

Allowing his fingers to slid down Duo's cheek Heero answered, "Not since last night."

"And showed you how much I love you?"

"Not since yesterday morning."

"Then I should do something to remedy that situation." Duo proclaimed diving in for another kiss. Heero was suddenly lost in sensations that he never dreamed existed. Warm lips, wet mouth and a throbbing in his manhood that demanded immediate attention.

He clung to Duo as a drowning man would to a lifeline. After Quatre's unrequited love, even though the resulting heartache was never revealed to him, Heero had hid away his humanity deciding that it was safer to be alone than to risk rejection once more. Now he had dared to drop the barricade surrounding his heart trusting Duo not to break it.

Duo's husky voice whispering close to his ear brought Heero back from his painful recalling. "I think it's about time I taught you the art of {2}soixante-neuf."

"The art of what?" Heero wondered as Duo's sly grin put him on notice that the master was about to start the lesson.

The grin spread wider and mischievous sparks flashed in Duo's lovely lavender eyes. "Do you trust me?"

Heero nodded "yes". Strangely his ability to speak had deserted him.

Duo eased Heero over to lay on his side, pressed one more deep kiss on his reddened lips and then pivoted around until his own hardened length was in line with Heero's face. "Do what I do." Duo ordered as his hand wrapped around Heero's quivering manhood.

An involuntary hiss of air was all that Heero could manage before Duo began a slow, rhythmic stroking. Acting on purely primal instincts Heero followed suit allowing his hand to slid along Duo's full-blown erection.

Under the influence of Duo's masterful manipulations Heero was quickly being carried past the point of no return. His eyes glazed over and carnality clouded his mind so strongly that it took his breath away.

Heero's entire body jumped as Duo's mouth replaced his hand. "DUO!" he cried out loud not caring who heard.

"Yes lover?" The breathy response caused Heero to tremble as he tried not to come.

"Please." The pitiful plea struggled against the heat gathering in his groin.

Duo paused long enough to cast a heady gaze at his lover. "Do what I do." he repeated the erotic instructions.

Now it was Duo's turn to shudder. Letting his repressed sensuality take over Heero slid his lips over Duo's manhood from base to tip and back again. Now it was Duo who was begging for release while fighting to hold on a little longer.

The lover's fell into perfect step as they engaged in a dance as old as time. Heartbeats kept the meter and the muffled moans quickly reached a climactic crescendo before they came in unison with outcries of ecstasy.

Heero rolled onto his back, arms and legs sprawled and his golden body glowing in the sunlight. Duo crawled to his lover's side cradling his head on Heero's heaving chest. Heero's arms encircled his soul mate and together they shared the afterglow.

"Wow." Duo finally sighed as his breathing evened out enough to talk.

Heero nodded in agreement. "Wow indeed."

********

Time...the continuous passage of existence from past to present to future. Temporal in nature and forever changing. Seasons, tides, daylight and darkness...over and over again.

For five warriors the measured moments offer a chance for a new beginning. Pasts have been put to rest, duties put in proper perspective, barriers torn down and hearts and souls mended.

A wise man once said, "The only thing constant is change."

What lies ahead for the Strike Force Five is unknown but whatever the challenge they will face it together for no one stands stronger than when they stand with their comrades.

End Epilogue

********

Notes from Part 11:
{1} kumite is the Japanese word that defines a sparring session where the contestants adhere to rules of tag and retreat.

{2} kiai is the term for a loud shout that is added to a strike to startle your opponent and add power to the punch.

Notes from Epilogue (Part 20):

{1} Transmogtification: To transform into a different shape especially a grotesque one.

{2} Soixante-neuf: [French] A position called the sixty-nine where two people simultaneously stimulate each other's genitalia with their mouths.

End Strike Force Five--Karen Hickman--April, May 2003

Thank you for reading!!!