Part 2 - Snowball
The howling night winds shook the notched log walls of the cabin, vibrations spreading sufficiently to rattle Duo out of his slumber. He opened his eyes drowsily, vision slowly focusing out of the blur of sleep, taking in the view of the log wall. As he was closing his eyes to continue his rest, the wind outside gave its disapproval, shaking the wall - and, in turn, the bed. Again, Duo's dull gaze met the wall, finally noticing the dancing shadows there. The fire had been lit again. It wasn't until then he noticed the absentee 'hot-water bottle'. Duo turned around, stretching his arms out and above the layers of warming quilts and blankets. Over by the fireplace, he saw Heero straddling a chair, arms on the back of the chair, chin resting against the folded arms, staring into the fire. Even with the flames heating the room, Duo just couldn't imagine how Heero could keep warm with nothing but underwear and a T-shirt on. Duo yawned, stretched again. "Good morning," he said.
Heero didn't reply, merely nodded, not taking his eyes away from the fireplace.
"So, what time is it?"
"About 03:30 AM. We should be leaving in half an hour."
"Guess we'd better get ready, then. Do we have time for breakfast?"
Heero turned to face him, and nodded towards the table. There, in all their splendor, two standard ration packs had been prepared. "I finished packing our equipment while you slept. I figured you'd demand we'd have something to eat before leaving."
"Yeah. Wouldn't you want something to eat before heading out on a mission?"
"Not if we were pressed for time."
To that, Duo had no answer. He dressed quickly, adamant not to let any sensation of warmth get wasted.
Heero took point. Around his right wrist, wrapped outside of the thermosuit, he carried a compass. In the featureless landscape, that was the only way to navigate. No electronic device could be used, as they represented a tracking risk - and their mission depended on stealth, above all. His hood was drawn tight to keep as much of his face away from the wind hurling directly at them. Ski poles and snowshoes. That was their form of locomotion. Skis were out of the question in this weather - besides, neither of them had any significant experience with skiing. One foot in front of the other, using the ski poles both for support and thrust, fighting the wind constantly throwing snowflakes in their faces. It got monotonous real quick. Talking was impossible. The hoods, combined with the wailing wind, ruined any hope of being heard without stopping and facing each other. Duo couldn't stand it. Forced to listen to his own rhythmic breath and heart beat, not being able to speak, sing or even hum without being rewarded with a mouthful of tiny white crystals - not that anyone could have heard him anyway. The only thing visible on this endless white plain was Heero's back. Heero kept their pace steady, but it still took a lot to keep up. The boredom of it all was worse than the physical exhaustion, though.
Daylight had come, sunshine dimmed by the thick cloud layers above, but still making the landscape brighter. No matter where you looked; white. Snow covered everything, and the only things in sight not covered in snow, was also colored white. Snowshoes, ski poles, thermosuits, backpacks - even the compass on Heero's wrist - all white. All for reasons of stealth. At least, Duo found comfort in seeing motion in Heero - the bothersome snowflakes were the only other thing moving. For a long time, he focused on Heero's backpack, which dark lines and shadowy folds created at least some contrast. Keeping his head upright against the wind like that turned tiresome after a while, and he let his gaze drop. Heero's legs were still pumping along in the same rhythmic pattern as when they first set off. If he was tired, he gave no signs of it. Duo didn't want to show any signs of tiredness either, but they had been walking for a long time, and they could both use a rest. He lifted one ski pole and tapped Heero on the shoulder. Heero turned instantly. Finally, there was some colors other than white to look at.
"How long have we been walking?"
"For about six hours. Another four, and we should be there."
"We need a break. Definitely lunch time."
"Prolonging the mission is-"
"Unacceptable. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We still need food - can't fight on an empty stomach." The argument was sound enough. They took off their backpacks and sat down in the snow, thermosuits providing some insulation from the cold surface. Heero dug out yet another two standard ration packs; 'all the energy and vital substances the body needs'. Unfortunately the palate usually has completely different preferences than the body. Duo's taste buds were no different. He took out a thermos, and was immediately questioned by Heero.
"Why did you bring that? It has no relevance to-"
"I know it's not necessary equipment, but I'm the one carrying it, the extra weight is my problem."
"If you collapse because of excessive stress, it would become my problem."
"Gee, thanks for caring, Heero - and to think I was about to offer you a cup of this..." Duo rummaged around in his backpack, finally pulling up a small bag filled with brown powder.
"Dehydrated cocoa. That's why I brought the hot water."
"The nutritional value-"
"Isn't great, sure. But it sure warms up the body."
Heero returned his attention to the ration packs. If he wanted some of that cocoa, he hid it well. Duo took out a plastic cup, and mixed some of the powder with hot water. He looked over at Heero, who was still busy unpacking the rations.
"Sure you don't want a cup? I'm sure it'll feel good - especially in this weather."
Heero glared back at him, eyes defiant. A few seconds later, he nodded, gave one of the ration packs to Duo, and got a cup of hot cocoa in return. Already before the first sweet, warm drops trickled across his tongue, Heero knew Duo was right - the heated beverage would do a great job warming the body.
They ate quickly. Neither of them wanted to stay put for long in this weather. As they were mounting their backpacks again, Duo turned inquisitive.
"Didn't it feel good with something to warm you up inside?"
Heero hesitated to answer, but eventually did so, if abruptly.
"Yeah. Thanks." Duo lit up instantly.
"Hey, don't mention it! - Wait, that's got to be the first time I've heard you say thanks for anything."
"All the more reason you should value it," Heero muttered into the wind, voice so low Duo never heard him.
Once they got close enough, the Oz base was easy enough to spot. The four guard towers, one in each corner of a squared, fenced-in compound, stood tall, grasping for the darkening sky above. Within the fence and in front of the main gate, most of the snow had been cleared away. Only one of the towers were manned, though - coincidentally, the only one which was glassed in, protected from the cold outside. Perhaps they counted on the blizzard to prevent infiltrators. Perhaps they counted on their anonymity and secrecy in building and maintaining this base. Pure chance had led to the knowledge of the base, after all. Someone at the base, probably a low-level employee, had ordered a case of beer without asking permission. Unfortunately for them, the case was thus not erased or accounted for in the shadow paper trails covering all other shipments to this location. The discrepancy had been detected - and now, whatever required all this cover-up and secrecy, risked being revealed because of one sloppy action. There is no leeway in warfare. 'Kill or be killed.'
The manned tower was by the main gate. No patrols could be seen within the fence. No internal checkpoints, either. Just a few windows in the buildings of the compound. Sneaking in would be easy enough. Heero headed for the fence on the side of the base opposite to the gate and manned tower. The building mass would prevent the guards from seeing them there. After hiding the snowshoes and ski poles, they scaled the fence. Even in the fading daylight, the blizzard would make it difficult for anyone inside the complex to spot two white-clad people sneaking around outside.
They made their way to a side entrance, picked the lock and went inside. The temperature change was abrupt. The corridor they had entered, was eerily empty. Not a sound could be heard. One of the white neon lights further down the hall was malfunctioning, blinking unrhythmically. This section of the complex was obviously rarely visited. Carefully searching the adjoining rooms as they went down the hallway, they came across what they sought; a computer connected to the internal data networks of the base. There wasn't even a password protecting this system - but the reason for that became clear soon enough.
The mainframe housing the data they were there to retrieve, was separated from the general-purpose net of the base. The only information the no-security net could give, was the location of the mainframe; smack in the hub of the research complex. To further complicate matters, the mainframe was clearly heavily guarded - if not monitored by soldiers, then scientists and engineers. They'd require access and identity cards, and even with those, someone near the computer would probably wonder what a kid would want from the mainframe's data storage.
"We can't assault directly," Heero stated. "We need to maintain stealth."
"Well, there's another possibility..."
"With a computer as big as that, with information of such critical importance, they'd have to have backup systems, right?"
"And the backup systems wouldn't be located near the mainframe, right?"
"So, all we have to do, is find the backup unit, and take what we need from it. I'm sure Dr. J and the others would accept data a day or two old."
Heero hammered at the keyboard, searching for the location and information about any backup unit. It took but a few minutes. Bringing up a map of the complex on the screen, he pointed and said "The backup computer is there, down the hallway. There won't be any guards. That's the good news."
"And the bad news?"
"The backup system is heavily encrypted - we don't have time to decrypt it here, even if we had the codes."
"So, what do we do about it?"
"You head down there, and copy the encrypted files. All of them. I'll go to that room."
Heero pointed at a remote room on the map, three doors sealing off the corridor leading to it, all indicated by the map to be electronically locked.
"If they've stored the codes for the backup unit anywhere on the site, my guess is that they're there."
"Won't that section be patrolled?"
"Probably. Fortunately for us-" He hit a few keys. The map disappeared, and was replaced by a worker schedule. "-it appears it's almost dinner time. This base is understaffed as it is, so I doubt they'll have double shifts for the backup system codes."
"Still - You're taking a big risk."
"If we don't get the codes, we'll waste a heck of a lot of time making that data readable - and we might not have that spare time."
"Okay, okay. Just don't get yourself killed on my behalf."
Still staring into the screen, Heero replied "That has never been a consideration."
Duo turned sarcastic. "Wow. Thanks for caring."
Heero didn't respond. Duo knew what he meant, though. Sacrificing oneself to achieve the mission was acceptable. To save the life of a comrade in arms, not. Standard protocol for Gundam pilots. Duo picked up his backpack.
"Okay, let's get started. We'll meet at the exit when we're done."
Heero nodded. Duo turned and walked as silently as he could down the hallway.
Finding the backup computer was easy enough. Downloading the data to the high-density storage disks Professor G had given them, was also quickly done. Erasing all traces of the fact that the entire backup system had been copied, took longer. By the time Duo was done, he was sure dinner time was up. Still, there hadn't been any signs of activity in this section of the complex since they had entered. That's probably why he walked a bit too fast and careless on the way back to the exit. He rounded a corner, and ran straight into two armed guards.
"Freeze!" the taller one yelled. "What are you doing here, kid?"
Facing two trigger-happy soldiers with machine guns, Duo immediately dropped the idea of attacking. He opted to try to talk his way out of it.
"I... I was just heading for the supply depot to pick up a spare part the boss wanted, and I got lost..."
The guards eyed him suspiciously.
"Look, it's my first week on the job - I just got transferred here. Could you guys do me a favor and tell me where the supply depot is - and not tell my boss I got lost?"
The short, chubby guard lowered his weapon. "Well, the supply depot is down that way and to-" The tall guy slapped him on the back of his head, hand making a loud noise upon contact with the bald skull.
"Idiot! This kid is a spy. There's no way he'd be that lost - besides, we're given notice of all new arrivals, and I certainly would have remembered someone with that pathetic appearance. What are you going for anyway, kid? Long hair make you get in touch with your feminine side? Trying to look more like a girl to make the boys like you more?" Seeing Duo's cheeks flush slightly, the tall guard smirked, continuing his taunts. "I bet that's it. Disgusting. We'll just have to throw you in a solitary cell, I guess - if you're allowed to live after the interrogation, that is." The guard continued much in the same way. The short chubby guard looked a bit bewildered, perhaps embarrassed for falling for Duo's story. Neither of them saw what Duo saw, and he made sure they didn't notice it by looking at him, either. One quick blow to the neck by Heero's elbow brought the tall guard down, the other followed his friend to the floor within a split second.
Duo grinned. "Thanks, Heero. Guess we should leave while we can, right?"
"No. They saw you. They'll be able to identify you. They know we did something here."
Heero pulled out his gun, removed the safety. Duo quickly put his hand on the barrel, pushing it away from its target.
"That wouldn't help much - even if we could conceal the bodies, they'd be missed. Security would be intensified, and they might guess what happened, anyway."
"What other options do we have?"
"Let me think..."
"We're out of time."
"Don't push me!" Duo stated, slightly irritated. Then his face lit up. "Got it! Heero, help me move the guards into the storage room over there."
He gestured at the nearest door, room indeed having been marked on the computer map as a small storage area.
Relocating the unconscious soldiers took just a few minutes. Duo started taking down whatever he could find of fabrics on the shelves of the tiny room.
"Heero, could you sneak down to the mess hall and try to find something strong - something with a lot of alcohol in it?" Heero just looked puzzled at him.
"What are you planning?"
"There's no time to explain, just do it!" Duo insisted, throwing another rag in the pile of fabrics on the floor.
Heero walked out, carefully closing the door behind him. He had no idea what Duo was planning, but he couldn't think of any sufficient solution himself - better to go along with whatever crazy notion the braided fool had gotten.
The mess hall was empty. Dinner being over and dishes done, nobody were to be seen there. After finding a few bottles and cans with the desired substance, he returned to the storage room, almost dropping his loot on the floor upon what he saw there. Duo was sitting on his knees, bent over the tall guard, stripping him to his underwear.
"What the heck are you doing?!" He shouted, albeit muffled.
"Sssh, be quiet, Heero. Close the door." He did. Duo got up from his knees.
"Good, I see you found it - never doubted you would, though."
The grin plastered across his face was definitely a sign of a nasty idea. Duo took one of the bottles, gave the tall guard a mouthful, making sure the gag reflex could handle it, gave him another mouthful, and poured some of the bottle's content on the floor and on the man's chest.
Both guards had been placed on top of a big pile of fabrics taken from the shelves, and the clothing stripped of their bodies was scattered across the room. Duo was hastily repeating the pouring process with the other guard when Heero again got the nerve to ask.
"What the heck are you planning?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Seeing Heero's still confused expression, Duo stated "Guess not. Well, I got to thinking, we can't brainwash these two, or make them forget they saw me, right?"
"So, I figured the best way would be to make them doubt their own memories."
"Even when drunk, they would still remember, just not as clearly." Duo grinned from ear to ear.
"That's why I thought we should mess them up a bit more - look, the tall guy is definitely homophobic - his little speech in the hallway made that apparent enough. So, if I can get him into thinking he was involved in some 'naughty business' with that other guy, and make him think the alcohol did tricks with his mind, I'm sure he wouldn't be too keen to report seeing a long-haired spy, and definitely not at explaining how he got from that observation to his present situation. Better yet, we could leave the door open,. If someone else found them drunk and in a 'compromising situation', I'm sure any report they'd give, would be waved off as pure bullshit."
Heero considered all this for a moment. Duo's idea wasn't all that bad. By no means perfect, but a lot better at covering their tracks than simply killing the two soldiers.
"What about the other guard? For all we know, he could be-" Duo shook his head.
"I checked his wallet. One ugly wife and four or five kids. Make him think he's 'done the dirty', and he'll never think of mentioning seeing me in his drunken visions."
"What if they're the kind of people that never drinks? Wouldn't that be a bit suspicious for a teetotaller to go on a drinking bend?" Duo shrugged.
"There's a first time for everything, Heero - besides, once they are discovered like this - or wake up in this position-" He took the tall guard's hand and placed it over the other guard's barely clothed crotch. "-I'm sure they'll do anything to forget this day ever happened."
He emptied a few more cans in, on and around the guards, then stated to Heero "My work here is done. Let's get out of here."
Outside, the last remnants of daylight had faded away. The glow of a slowly turning searchlight at the main gate could be seen across the rooftops of the buildings. The other towers were still unmanned, and apparently no one had bothered to activate the searchlights there. Heero and Duo had reached the fence when a sound stronger than the lamenting wails of the wind could be heard. In the poor visibility, they were barely able to identify the source; a small mobile suit carrier landing by the main gate.
"Looks like they brought in reinforcements a bit late, huh?" Duo jested. Heero handed him his backpack.
"Take this, get over the fence, and get ready. I'll take a closer look at the cargo of that shuttle. Anything that's important enough to bring in under these weather conditions, might be important."
He ran off, leaving Duo a bit perplexed. Duo did as he was told, though. No need for both of them to scout the unloading of that shuttle, and getting the backpacks over the fence would be work enough - not to mention locating the ski poles and snowshoes on the other side.
Duo had barely gotten one snowshoe on before he heard Heero coming over the fence. He had his usual glum expression.
"Spare parts. Some half-finished Leo suits, compact generators, capacitors, heat sinks and other assorted parts."
"Sounds like they're building a new energy weapon for the Leos."
"Could be. I'm sure the answer is in that database we copied. Better get it back to the scientists - they'll probably figure out what it is."
"And when they do, we'll get back here and level the place."
Duo laughed. He never tired of seeing Heero's slightly angered expression for his mentioning of action outside of mission parameters. Regaining the glum face, Heero put on his own snowshoes and backpack, looked at the wrist compass and started walking. Duo followed close behind.
The walk back home wasn't as exhausting. The wind was heading in their direction now, and the whirly white stuff wasn't even half as bothersome. Of course, this didn't matter that much to Heero. The weather didn't bother him much. While his body continued the monotonous walk, his mind was elsewhere. He kept trying to figure out exactly why he had been shocked, why he had responded so severely - for him - to walking in on Duo undressing the guards. He had been surprised, but that shouldn't have triggered... anger? Or even jealousy? And how had Duo come up with such an idea, anyhow? He was so caught up with these thoughts, he didn't hear Duo calling him.
Still no response.
Duo was tired. They had been walking for hours, and a rest was long overdue - but the machine-like being walking in front of him seemed to disagree. He yelled one more time, and still got no response.
"This calls for drastic measures," he muttered. Grinning, he stopped and scooped up a handful of snow, and shaped the projectile with his gloves. Fortunately for his little revenge plot, the snow wasn't of the powder type. Unfortunately, just as he hurled the snowball at Heero, the target had noticed the absence of sounds of motion behind him, and turned. The snowball, intended to hit the back of Heero's hooded head, now slammed into his temple instead. Heero fell.
Duo's grin vanished, a look of despair replaced it, as he trotted over to Heero. He shook Heero, and yelled at him. No response. He checked for pulse and breath. Both steady. Knowing how much pain Heero could endure, it would have been incredibly strange for him to die because of a snowball. Even the fact it had rendered him unconscious, was surprising. Duo calmed himself down. No point in trying to punish himself for his actions now - Heero was sure to do that when he woke up. When. There was no telling when that could be. They couldn't stay here, either. They'd freeze to death soon enough. He couldn't bring himself to abandon Heero, either. He took off his own backpack, opened Heero's, and took as many heavy items from it as he could fit in his own backpack. When done, he strapped his backpack on, carrying it across his chest and stomach rather than on his back. He took Heero's wrist compass and tied it on his own. Duo then took Heero's unconscious body - backpack, snowshoes and ski poles still strapped to Heero's body - on his back, the two masses acting as balancing weights. He started walking towards the cabin.
He had already been tired. Now, he felt about to collapse. For about an hour he had carried the extra weight. Heero had yet to show any signs of waking up. All Duo could detect, was the rhythmic beating of a heart against his shoulder blade, and steady breath passing his ear. Completely steady. It was not before then Duo noticed. No one could maintain a breathing rhythm that steady in unconsciousness - not even Heero. Heero might be controlling his body, all right, but he sure wasn't knocked out. Duo stopped, and put Heero down. He had seen those superior acting skills before. He cursed himself for not thinking of this sooner - of course such a puny thing as a snowball couldn't have hurt Heero. However, Duo wanted to get even, after having to carry his partner for so long. The question was, how? He had to think fast. Heero would suspect the game was up soon enough.
Duo took off his backpack. He then got to thinking how Heero had reacted back at the base. He'd sounded angered, perhaps even enraged or disgusted. Perhaps Heero was homophobic. At the very least, uneasy with the thought. He probably accepted Duo's plan because it served the mission. Anything for the mission. Even sharing body heat. That must have been why Heero had done what he had done yesterday. They both needed sleep. He saw one solution to the potential problem for their mission, and went with it. He'd probably sneaked out of the bed as soon as Duo had fallen asleep. This was how Duo reasoned, anyway. From this standpoint, finding a suitable revenge against someone faking unconsciousness, was easy. If Heero was even the slightest homophobic, he should react to a kiss - or just the 'threat' of a kiss.
Duo kneeled next to Heero, checked his pulse again. He then slowly lowered his head against Heero's face. Closed eyes betrayed nothing. Not even a twitch could be seen. Duo came closer. Still no reaction. Closer. If Heero was conscious, he had to have figured out what Duo was planning by now. Heero's breath was still steady. Duo's was not. Perhaps Heero thought he wouldn't dare do it - but Duo had no such qualms. Still, he hesitated, hovering just off contact. He stalled. Then, Heero's eyes flew open. Duo felt a hand grab the back of his head, pushing him down, pressing his lips hard against Heero's. His own eyes were wide open with surprise, but that feeling faded, until he felt his lips parted by an intrusive tongue. Again, he adjusted quickly. Then, Heero pulled away his hand, at the same time flinging Duo back slightly, and rolled over and up at his knees. Not facing Duo, head faced down, he stated, almost nervously, "Sorry. I - I shouldn't have done that."
Duo put a hand on Heero's shoulder, silently asking him to turn around.
"Sorry for what? Faking unconsciousness, or the kiss?"
"Both." Duo smiled.
"Well, I had the first one coming. Sorry about the snowball. And I didn't mind the second. I was about to kiss you anyway - just didn't think you'd react like that." Heero looked confused.
"How did you think I'd react?" Duo's cheeks tinted, not from the cold.
"Well... Back at the Oz base, you reacted kinda strongly when-"
"I was surprised, that's all."
"No. No, I don't think so. There was something else in your eyes, too."
Heero didn't respond. He wouldn't admit it. Not yet.
"Anyway, thanks," Duo said.
"For what do you think? The kiss, stupid."
"You mean, you're not angry at me for-"
"Nah. Just be a bit more gentle the next time - letting me know in advance wouldn't hurt either." Heero replied with hesitation.
"...the ...the next time?" Duo grinned.
"Hey, I'm just saying 'if' - not pushing you into anything, Heero. Just wanted to let you know it's okay."
"So, you're not upset?"
"What did I just tell you, Heero? No, I'm not upset."
Heero still stared down into the snow, uncertain of what to say or do. Duo decided to remove that doubt. He placed his hands along Heero's cheeks, and gave him a soft, short kiss.
"There. See? No hard feelings at all."
The snowflakes were still dancing all around them. Heero got up on his feet.
"We should head back for the cabin. We can't stay here."
"What's the rush? We're both tired - well, I am, anyway - carrying you around isn't that easy. We could use a bite to eat before heading back." Duo was already fishing out rations from his backpack.
"Sorry about that. It was a dumb thing to do."
"Tricking you, having you carry me. I endangered the mission."
"That again? Heero, just forget it, okay?"
"Okay." Duo dug deeper in the backpack.
"Hey, I still have some hot water and cocoa mix left. Want some?"
They sat there in the snow, eating rations, sipping hot cocoa, in absolute absence of words for several minutes. Heero was clearly anxious to get moving again, but didn't do or say anything to rush Duo. After taking a long, loud slurp of cocoa, Duo asked "When we get back to the cabin, the fire will be out, right?"
"Well... Then it will be very cold there tonight too, right?"
Again, Heero nodded.
"Would you mind sharing a bed tonight too? I don't feel like freezing any more than I already do."
Heero looked him straight in the eyes, voice slightly uneasy.
"You wouldn't mind?"
"Not if you wouldn't." A faint smile came across Heero's face.
"No... I think I'd like that. I think I'd like that very much."
They finished the meal, and headed for the cabin.