Protection from You
Chapter One: Mission Failure
"Dinner's ready! Time to eat!"
At the sound of Quatre's voice, my fingers paused above the computer keys, my eyes never leaving its screen. I waited for the usual scramble from the American pilot, and when it never came, I raised my eyes to see Duo staring - at me. His forehead puckered and his eyes, usually alight with the next joke or prank in mind, were dark and broody. As I waited for him to speak, it suddenly dawned on me he'd been quiet for most of the day.
What are you thinking of, Duo? What are you planning? What do you want from me? I narrowed my eyes and was about to snap at him when Quatre appeared in the doorway.
"Hey, didn't you guys hear me? Dinner's ready." Without looking at the desert pilot, I could tell he was puzzled. He hated fighting, especially when conflicts arose between the five of us.
"Guys?" he asked again, quiet and bewildered. Neither Duo or I had said a word, neither of us had looked away from the other.
Without breaking eye contact, Duo answered, "Yeah, we heard you, Quat. We'll be right there." I could have smacked him as that smart-assed grin of his climbed up his face. "Won't we, Heero?"
"Hn," I managed while glaring at him. Already I could feel my stomach churning. I wasn't looking forward to eating, and wasn't looking forward to Duo watching me throughout dinner -- like he had for the past few nights.
"Uh.. Well, okay. I'll... uh... see you in a minute then." I could hear Quatre's quiet steps moving to the kitchen and I flicked my gaze to make sure. Not that it was likely to happen, but if Duo got me to talk, I didn't want anyone else to hear.
"What's wrong?" his quiet inquiry surprised me. Even though I knew it was coming, even though I was expecting it, he still caught me off-guard.
My eyes snapped back to his and the emotion locked in them nearly made me squirm. "Nothing," I said neutrally. His eyes darkened and his mouth, which was usually turned into a grin, tightened into a hard line. Hn, I think I pissed him off. To head off the torrent of unwanted abuse that I knew was coming and didn't want to deal with, I quickly added, "It's nothing, Maxwell. Nothing I can't handle." His mouth twitched but he held his peace. "Go ahead. I'll be there in a few minutes. I need to finish up this research for tonight's mission."
Duo sat for a heartbeat or two, continuing to stare at me. It appeared he was judging the truth in what I said. After a minute, he rose saying, "All right, I'm going. But if you're not there in five minutes, I'll be back in here to haul your ass to the table." He rounded the couch, and pausing at the livingroom door, his hand on the jam he asked without looking at me, "You would tell me if something were wrong, wouldn't you, buddy?"
I let out a silent sigh. He wasn't going to leave it alone. "If it were something you could help with, yes Duo, I would tell you."
His shoulders slumped slightly. "That's all you're going to say, isn't it?"
"Hn." I went back to my computer, pecking at the keys as though I was really typing or doing something. I couldn't tell him, I couldn't tell anyone; the fact I knew I was dying I wouldn't reveal to anyone.
When I was sure Duo had left, I stopped pretending and shut my computer down. I had all I needed for that night's mission, and had only to wait for the time to pass. My fingers dug the small bottle of caplets from my pocket and I pried the lid open. Hn. Only three left. No matter, I'll walk to the store after dinner and get more. I popped all three into my mouth and crunched down solidly, turning them into a mushy bitter powder.
I closed my eyes briefly before stashing my laptop away in the pack at my feet and steeled myself for what awaited.
Entering the kitchen, I saw my usual place next to Duo was empty. Ignoring the unvoiced invitation, I stepped down to the far end of the table. Wu Fei occupied the seat on the other side, spread out as he usually did, and was a bit disgruntled when I nudged him over. I didn't look in Duo's direction, but could feel his eyes on me. Quatre broke off from his quiet talk with Trowa to look between Duo and I. His clouded expression becoming even more downcast than usual. Damn it. I didn't want this. I just wanted dinner to be over with.
Ignoring my companions, I grabbed at the serving bowl in front of me and dished out a spoonful of its contents. Mechanically I added a spoonful of each dish, not looking at what it was, not caring. Food is food. Trepidation bloomed somewhere low in my gut as the food smells hit me. Swallowing against the bile wanting to rise, I began forking in mouthfuls with quick hurried movements. Food done, I finished off my milk in a couple of long swallows and rose.
Wu Fei stopped his deliberate concise motions to gawk. Trowa paused mid-sentence and Duo stared. I could see he'd barely touched the food on his plate. I couldn't help the slight smirk I gave him before dumping my dishes in the sink. Heading for the door before anyone could say a word, I tossed out, "I'm going to the store, there are a few things I need for tonight's mission."
Grabbing my jacket on my way out, I heard Wu Fei ask, "What's wrong with him?"
What's wrong with me... if I knew that, I'd be a lot happier. Well, if not happy, at least I'd know. I've lived with the fact I most likely would be killed before this war is over, but I never thought I'd die of some unknown illness. A soldier didn't die that way. I wasn't going to die that way. Not if I could do something about it.
I jumped the back steps while shrugging into my jacket. I made my way down the alley behind the house and cocked an eye to the sky. A few low clouds scudded, casting a false darkness but didn't look threatening. There was a chill in the air - nothing I couldn't handle and the likelihood of it turning to a cold I couldn't handle wasn't apparent. Quickly, I lengthened my stride, putting some distance between me and the safe house. Knowing Duo, I wouldn't put it past him to be out the door to follow me.
What had started as sort of a competition game has become a way of life for Maxwell and I. If he knew something I didn't, I worked around him to find it out. If I had knowledge I wanted to remain hidden, he pestered the shit out of me til I caved in. I've often thought Duo could be put to better use by the resistance in dragging secrets from enemies. I knew it was only a matter of time before he got this secret, and, for the sake of my sanity, I hoped I was dead before that happened. Looking at the sky again, I thought tonight just might be the time.
At the end of the street, I rounded a corner and looked back. I didn't see anyone following me but I waited a minute or two just to make sure. A quick scan of the area showed no one about and nothing seemed out of place. Continuing, I began noticing the little details of the neighborhood we were currently in. Most of the safe houses we're shuttled off to are more remote, in less populated areas. This house was in the middle of a suburban city, complete with lawns and flowerbeds. Well, we wouldn't be here long. Tomorrow, if we were lucky, we'd be on our way to another place and another mission.
If I lived through this one, that is.
The thought of tonight's mission set me on edge. I could feel my body steeling itself, honing its reflexes and sharpening its awareness. Though my mind drifted, the body acted automatically as it was trained. Distant noises became clearer, kids playing. A park, maybe? Surely it was well beyond school hours. I closed off the idea of investigating and turned down another street.
Food. The manna for life, and the recent bane of my existence. Even as I walked I could feel the churn start, the slow tentacles of pain elongating to hold my stomach in its vice grip. An empty stomach hurt, caused a weakness I hated, but an empty stomach didn't hold me hostage to the pain. Over the past couple of weeks I discovered that eating lightly and taking aspirin took the sharp edge away, allowing me to function. Though the safe house held many types of pain relievers, some of the strongest doctors can supply, I couldn't become dependant upon them. Most were too strong, dulling my wits and relaxing my awareness. Besides, someone would notice and begin asking questions.
With a start I realized I'd been standing in front of the small market for several minutes glaring at its doors. Smart, Yuy, real smart. Way to blend in and not stand out. Shaking the 02 pilot's phantom voice from my head, I followed a chatting couple into the store and ducked down the first aisle.
Scanning the exits quickly as well as locating all employees and patrons, I noted any with the potential to cause a problem. It seemed as it appeared, a small local convenience store with normal everyday people shopping and working there. Taking one of the aspirin bottles from the shelf, I made my way up to the counter. A small display caught my eye and I stopped. I held one of the bags in my hand a tendril of some feeling - wistfulness? - curling its way up to settle in the base of my throat. It wouldn't hurt and if tonight went as I thought, it would be a way... Shoving those thoughts down deep, I made my purchase quickly and left, both items stuffed inside my jacket hidden from sight.
Once outside, I pulled the aspirin out and breaking through the safety packaging, I shook out three of the tablets. I swallowed these. As used to the bitter aftertaste as I was getting, I still preferred to swallow the whole tablet. At the rate they dissolved, I was sure I'd need that pain breaker by then.
Out of habit, I used a different route back to the safe house. Feeling the last lingering bite of pain abate I became aware that almost of their own accord, my feet had taken the path that wound through the park. Shit. Not what I needed before a mission. Taking a deep breath, I tried to bring my heart rate back under control. This was not the same. Nothing would happen to anyone just because I walked through their park. I leaned against a tree, fighting the weakness that had threatened to overcome my legs.
"I bet you could run faster than that if you tried!"
My eyes flew opened and looked quickly toward the voice. Damn. Duo was in the park. Whether he'd come on his own or had attempted to trail me, I don't know. But to leave from where I was, I would have to walk through an open expanse and he would see me for sure. At the moment, his attention centered on a small group of kids playing some sort of ball game. Duo had his jacket off and his arm cocked back ready to throw. The look of it caught my breath. He seemed so ...happy.
Crouching low on the path, I watched as he tossed the ball back and forth with the kids, calling out encouragement and gentle teasing. At one point in their play, Duo stopped to pick up a small boy and spin him around. Too young to play their game, the tot had sulked off to the side. Seeing how he handled those kids so naturally and without thought, I had a sudden flash of what he would look like, what the man he would be like in another ten years - with kids of his own. My heart began to thump loudly to my own ears and I looked around quickly to make sure no one noticed its change in beat.
I sat down hard with my back to the tree, no longer watching the group. What the hell's wrong with you, Yuy? You know what's going to happen, if not tonight then soon. Stop thinking of things that cannot happen, cannot be. I was surprised to feel a wetness on my cheek and wiping at it, I stared in appalled horror at the drop of moisture on my finger. Heero Yuy, crying? And over what? Something that will never be? Shit.
Doctor J's training kicked in and I could feel the muscles in my cheeks hardening, my jaws clenched in painful tightness, and my brows dropping into their accustom place. I shoved my fisted hands into my jacket pocket to keep from hitting something as I drove thoughts of a violet-eyed baka with long, braided hair from my mind and sealed them from my heart. They have no place in your life.
"No more! I have to go find the friend I told you about." I could hear his voice calling cheerfully.
Carefully, I peered over the hedge and watched the black-clad pilot give a friendly wave and meander off down the parallel path I was on. Waiting until he was nearly out of sight, I rose and followed, feeling the ironic humor wash over me. The hunter became the hunted, and I was a good predator.
It had gotten darker and the clouds rolled in thicker, adding more of a chill. I watched as he hunched further into his jacket and a ghost of a smile flickered on my lips, recalling Duo's frequent complaints about the cold. In order to keep him in sight, I had to slip in through the trees, getting closer to his path and always remaining a few dozen feet behind him.
Whether it was the cold or random thoughts, I didn't know but Duo failed to notice trouble in his way; failed to prepare. Three teenaged punks had him surrounded before I could call out a warning and their cruel game had begun. I held back, knowing him to be quite capable of handling civilians of this caliber.
Their leader I named Godzilla, for he had the appearance of huge raptorial beast, catcalled to him. I could tell the punk believed that by his looks Duo was effeminate but quite the opposite in actual fact. His cronies laughed harshly, and one of them pulled on that damned braid. I watched him with narrowed eyes; the rat-faced bastard had more than a little taunting in mind.
Duo tried where I wouldn't have. He held his hands out in a placating manner, talking to them in his good-natured way. The one unnamed punk slunk behind Duo and, darting forward, he shoved him into Godzilla. I heard the impact from where I stood as he landed hard against the larger teen.
"Hold the pansy," the leader issued the rough command.
The two grabbed Duo's arms and held him tight. Still I kept back. The American pilot had been in worse situations and escaped without a scratch, I didn't think these three could touch him. I was wrong.
Godzilla slugged his ham-like fist into Duo's mid-section, causing him to grunt with its force. Allowing the punch's momentum to assist in pulling one of his restrainers off-balance, Duo fell back into the rat-faced punk. Expecting the fall in a different direction, the other bastard tripped, releasing his hold on Duo's arm.
Because of the sudden release, Duo and rat-face stumbled backwards. The former street-brat regained his balance; his arm still trapped in rat-face's hands. Smiling his God of Death smirk, he grabbed the back of the punk's neck, and pulled downward bringing up his knee to connect with his nose. Screaming, rat-face clamped his hands to his face, freeing Duo.
Spinning before the other guy could move, Duo struck out with his fingers stiff into the punk's side. The slime bent double and, taking advantage of his position, Duo delivered a blow to the back of his head. Another punk down.
Dropping into a crouch, 02's pilot turned his smirk to the remaining gang member. Godzilla was in trouble.
The two circled one another warily, Godzilla still hadn't realized his mistake. The big teen swung a wide roundhouse punch which Duo dodge with ease. Coming up under the still swinging arm, he launched a double blow of fists to the punk's chin, knocking him back several feet. Stepping back, the cocky pilot did a little fancy footwork, and mocked a series of punches at his opponent. I shook my head in disgust. Just get it over with, Duo. Stop playing with him and get on your way before something happens.
As if he could hear my thoughts, he suddenly closed the distance between the two. Using the ground as a pummel, he dove and planted both hands solidly only to swing his legs around as if on a vault to land a powerful kick to his attacker's chest, dropping him like a rock. Standing up, he dusted off his hands staring at the downed opponent.
"Fuckin' punk, I could have taken you out eight years ago. Pansy, my ass," Duo ground out in his pissed off way.
Neither of us saw the rat-face bastard move. He had disappeared from my peripheral and I'd believed him to be out of the action. One second he was screaming as if stuck, the next, he had Duo's braid wrapped around his arm and a knife at his neck.
I knew the punk was shouting something at Duo, but I was past hearing. Blood pumped and thrummed in my ears, and in three long strides, I was behind the attacker. While one hand grabbed and held the wrist welding the knife, the other fisted and slugged as hard as I could muster to his temple.
Another rock down.
Looking disgusted at the knife now clutched in my hand, I threw it out into the trees, and looked at Duo. A strange expression flashed through his eyes before his lips twitched and I knew he was about to say something smart-assed. A groan sounded behind us, and I spun, hand going for my Glock tucked in my waistband at my back. Duo's hand was there, and he stopped me from pulling it.
"Let go!" I snapped at him.
He leaned forward, pressing close against my back and said in a low whisper, "There are people on this path. You pull that gun and you'll have to shoot them all to get away. Not a good way to stay out of sight." I grunted and he let go of my hand. God, I hate it when he's right. Smug bastard.
And Duo was right. The sounds of the fight had brought several people to the area; most stood and gaped. One woman was on a hand held vidphone, calling for park security or some sort of authority. We had to leave before anyone got there.
Already moving forward, Duo put on his most innocent and charming fašade. "These guys jumped my brother and I, but we have to go home now," he addressed one man who bent over the fellow I'd dropped. "His knife is off in the bushes that way," he added with helpful guile.
A child, the toddler too young to play the ball game the others had, called out, "Didja find your friend?" His mother pulled him back closer to her, her eyes wide and frightened.
Laughing, Maxwell threw an arm around my shoulders and pulled me away with him. "Yeah, and mom's going to be mad if we don't hurry. So, I'll catch you in the park tomorrow if I can." We were already outside the crowd's circle and heading down the path.
Several hundred feet away, Duo dropped his arm and we both sprinted through the trees in a round about way back to the safe house. Pausing at the same corner I'd stopped at not two hours prior, we caught our breath and looked around for any disturbances. Seeing none, I turned to glared at him.
"Mom?" It wasn't what I wanted to say, but the best I could come up with at the moment.
Duo grinned but didn't answer. Jerking his head down the street, braid flying about, he took my arm and tugged on it. "Let's get back now. The others will be waiting."
Whether they were waiting for us or going about their normal nightly routine, the three other gundam pilots sitting at the kitchen table looked up in surprise as we came through the door bringing in the cold and the crisp autumn smell with us. Without saying a word, I hung my jacket on the peg at the backdoor and headed for my room. I wanted a couple of hours' rest before the mission; the nap would also serve to keep the others from asking questions.
When I woke, the room was dark. I hadn't meant to fall asleep. I usually don't sleep just before a mission. Naps can sometimes backfire and make you groggy.
I had the impression of footsteps on the stairs, doors opening and closing, quiet goodnights absorbed through the half sleep I used while in mission mode. Duo had come in, stripped quietly and climbed in his own bed without waking me fully. I was used to his coming and going, the noises he made during the night. We had shared a room for the better part of a year already and his movements were ingrained into my being.
Looking at the clock, I discovered it near midnight. I turned off the alarm, knowing I'd never sleep any more this night. I still had over two hours to reach and scout out my objective. I hated these types of missions. Assassinations. I would rather destroy whole fleets and bases with Wing. Slipping into a target's house, garroting them in their sleep and watching while they fought for their last breath wasn't what I enjoyed.
I shoved those thoughts away, scowling. Death was death, whether killing in the Gundam or with my own hands. I was a soldier. It was what I did.
In the darkness, I dressed. Remembering the chill and hint of more to come, I pulled on that ridiculous sweater Duo gave me while scouting a site on L3 a couple of months ago. At least it was black - mostly, warm and didn't restrict movement. If I didn't know better, I'd swear 02's pilot had it made especially for me; usable enough for me to not want to rid myself of it, yet quirky enough to cause him to laugh every time he saw me wear it. It didn't help that the damned thing had small dark gray doves stitched all over it. Doves? I shook my head. Whether he meant the joke to be doves of peace, or a play on my Gundam's name, I didn't know. Either way, he obviously thought the sweater and I belonged together.
Quietly I padded down the stairs and, reaching into my jacket, I pulled out the bag purchased earlier. When I went back up to our room, I paused, ready to leave, pack in one hand and the bag in the other. Using all the stealth I had, I crept to the edge of Duo's bed. I don't know why I bothered; he slept like the dead anyway. Looking down at him, I felt a grin tug at a corner of my mouth and resisted the urge to touch him. As small and compact as he was, he sprawled on his bed in complete abandon. He'd always been a restless sleeper, nightmares aside.
I set the bag down next to his pillow. He'd know who it was from; he'd know why if tonight went as I expected. Picking up the end of his long braid, I gave it a gentle tug and whispered softly, "Shut up, Maxwell." One last twitch of the lips, and I turned from him, putting him and all he represented behind me. I had a mission to complete.
Finding the objective wasn't hard; I'd already researched the net for the easiest routes, along with five alternate routes just in case. A little over three miles from the safe house, the target lived in a world far removed from that neighborhood. Opulence abounded; it seemed no expense had been spared for security. Locating exactly what that security entailed had taken me the better part of four hours that morning. My mission was to disable the security system, sneak into the residence, search for specific papers and any data files on the computer, plant bombs with timed detonation devices, and kill Representative Choy.
If this mission had been a simple demolition job or even a document retrieval one, Duo would be out here instead of me. But, for their own purposes, those in charge believed me to be the better assassin. In a lot of ways, I am. In a lot of ways, though, I knew the teen well enough to know he wouldn't think twice about removing this target. The man was scum in a five thousand dollar suit.
I'd already scouted the perimeter and knew where the guards were positioned. I also knew the best point of entrance to the residence and the best path to get there. Now I had to settle back and watch the guards, timing their schedules and routes. A small knoll gave me the perfect spot to watch the activity on the grounds without jeopardizing my position. Though I had night goggles with me, they weren't necessary at this point. The grounds and security fence were washed in light from lampposts every ten feet. It gave me more than enough light to see by.
Lying on my stomach, I situated my pack close, leaving only my binoculars out. The distant rumble of thunder almost caused me to curse. The storm was still far off enough I hoped to be long gone before it arrived. In spite of wearing the sweater, the chill made itself known. Ignoring the cold, I brought up my glasses again, watching the movement below, counting the steps, giving the guards names as they marched in and out of my vision.
Maybe ten minutes later, I realized I'd made a mistake. I'd forgotten to take aspirin before leaving. Sweat beaded on my forehead, and I started gasping for breath. I rolled on my back trying to take the pressure off my stomach. This wasn't good. My hand shook as I dug in my jeans for the bottle. Normally I take three; now I poured several directly into my mouth and crunched down on them swiftly before swallowing a small amount of water from my ration bottle.
Closing my eyes, I fought the sweats and flash fever, wishing I had the strength to pull off that blasted sweater. One hand pressed hard against the pain in my abdomen, the other reflexively ran itself through my bangs, pulling on them to distract from the pain and help stifle the groans threatening to erupt. My knees drew up and I rolled to my side, curled in a fetal position. Shit this was bad. I shook all over as wave after wave of pain wreaked havoc over my body. If I didn't have a mission, I would have used my weapon.
I'd lost sense of where I was and began to rock myself, drawing in gasping breaths, trying to cool the fire raging inside. Somewhere along the way, I drifted.
Water splashed on my face, running down the side of my neck to pool at my back. I blinked my eyes open, staring at the sky, disoriented. A few stratocumulus clouds hung low overhead, spitting a light shower but didn't quite block the dawning sun in the distance. I frowned, trying to recall what I was doing sleeping outside. The realization of just where I was and why I was there hit me. I groaned and rolled to my side.
Shit. I blew my mission.
Bile rose hot and acrid in my throat. Gagging, I retched and coughed, bringing it up and spitting it out on the grass beside me. Great. Thoughts of my weapon tugged at me. Wiping my mouth, I rinsed it out using the water from my ration bottle.
Picking up my equipment, I packed it silently. No. No use of the Glock today. I had to return and face the results of my failure.