Chapter One – One Tree Too Proud to Bend
Hazy streaks of pink and purple, the lingering remnants of day, lit the sky to the west as two silhouettes broke free from the shadows surrounding the outer wall of the military compound and made quick their entry to the grounds. Leaping from shadow to shadow, they danced through obscurity, concealing themselves within the darkness the camouflage of empty weapons crates and vehicles offered. Pausing in the gloom beneath the outcropping of a protruding gun turret, the two exchanged covert gestures and then silently parted ways.
Heero watched as Duo slunk away, melding into his surroundings with an almost unnatural ease, and then turned and began to sneak his own way into the base that was holding one of his comrades prisoner.
Wufei had been out of communication with them for three days before they had begun to understand what had happened. It was true that Wufei often went out on his own to do solitary missions away from the other pilots, but he had always alerted them to when he was leaving and the general area in which he’d be operating. Wufei was also always punctual when returning from missions he had completed. The New Brighton munitions factory that he had been sent to destroy had been levelled nearly four days ago, and when the first day went past with no sudden arrival from the Chinese pilot, slight concern that he may have been injured entered the minds of the other pilots. When the second day came and went and there was no Wufei the concern eased somewhat. After all, chances were that he’d been forced to lay low by the large influx of military personnel and mobile suits investigating the area. When the third day arrived and there was still no communication from the missing boy, nor any mention of a captured Gundam and its pilot, the search for the absentee began.
As Heero quickly worked his way into the heavily guarded compound, keeping to the shadows and edging beyond the range of the security camera’s that maintained their piercing mechanical watch, he thought over how easy it was to locate the Chinese pilot. Searching for him through the media had turned up nothing, as was expected. Whatever OZ allowed to be exposed to the public was always carefully worded and absent of any details concerning most of the more current situations, and therefore was no help at all towards alerting them if the enemy had their pilot or not. What had also turned up no results was the Internet search for a land or air transport of Mobile Suits over the past four days – all which had been listed were transports in areas and countries that were too far away to have contained anything like the mobile suit that they were looking for. What had given them a trail to follow, however, was a high-intensity Internet search of any recent log entries within the last four days that had mentioned an entourage of a manned escort of OZ soldiers supporting an armoured vehicle of any sort heading towards a near-by base. There had been only one result. The result had lead them to hack into the Mount Jonah OZ Research Facility’s computer systems, log entries, and personal communication files to uncover what they were sure to be the information they were looking for. Their missing pilot was located, and was being held in a secure, heavily guarded research facility 800 miles away from the last point he had been verified at. Heero and Duo had been chosen to retrieve the captured boy. Or remove him, depending on the circumstances upon their arrival - If Wufei had compromised their mission in any way, orders were to eliminate him and destroy all files and documents concerning his capture and treachery. Heero just hoped it wouldn’t come to that. But if it did he would not hesitate to follow through with the orders. After all, Wufei would be a traitor, wouldn’t he?
Slipping into a large, dimly lit hanger, the Japanese boy crept up quietly behind a soldier making his rounds in the spacious depot and deftly broke his neck. The quick jerking of his hands as they twisted the man’s head suddenly to the side elicited a sharp, dull crack as he killed him. Quickly stripping off the dead soldier’s clothes and pulling them on over his singlet and tight shorts, he grabbed the small black backpack he’d brought with him and stowed the man’s weapon’s and credits into it. He dragged the man’s body behind a small pile of crates, and satisfied that the small shadowed area would keep the body from being noticed for an hour or two, slipped back out into the main hall and continued on further into the base unmolested. Although he was young and just barely reaching five foot three, he was in OZ uniform and many of the soldiers that walked past him in the halls didn’t even spare him a second glance of curiosity. Perhaps they were recruiting men younger and younger if the sight of a fifteen year old in uniform was nothing to draw attention. It was concerning how easy this was. The likelihood of this being a trap was becoming more and more a definite possibility in his mind.
The sharp crackle of the radio in his backpack as it suddenly came to life gave him a small amount of warning, and without hesitation he smoothly ducked into the nearest room, checking to make sure that the small office he’d just entered was vacant of any personnel. He swiftly shut the door and locked it.
<<01, this is 02, come-in.>>
Heero slung off his pack and withdrew the small black, custom-made communications radio. “01, here. Report 02.”
<<I’ve located the area where 05 is being held. It’s in the north end of the third level medical block. The Quarantine section.>>
Heero paused for a moment, mentally working out the quickest route to the quarantine area with the map he’d committed to memory just before leaving for the mission. “Is it in lockdown?” He asked, quickly memorizing the desired route that would take him an estimate of five minutes to complete and through areas not likely to be densely populated or heavily guarded.
“Ryoukai,” He replied. “Have you encountered any difficulties?”
<<Nah.>> Duo’s voice sent back. <<It’s been pretty quiet. Worrying, actually.>>
Heero nodded to himself, his suspicion growing. “Head to the surveillance facility and alert me if any large groups take corridors 31, 33 and 41. I have not been discovered as yet, but I will be if I’m caught out up there.”
<<Acknowledged. Will do, 01. 02 out.>>
Heero switched the radio to receptive band only before the static of an incomplete relay could start up again. Slipping the communicator back into the pack and securing the straps keeping it closed, he listened for a moment for footsteps out in the hall and then carefully edged the door open. Quickly inspecting the hall beyond and discovering it empty, the Japanese pilot pulled the door open the rest of the way and continued on down the corridor as he had before. Only this time he had a conclusive destination in mind as opposed to just aiming towards the detention sector.
Reaching the end of the long stretch of corridor unnoticed and uninterrupted, he turned right into the intersecting hall and headed down towards the barracks and personnel chambers, taking the first stairwell he came across and ascending the necessary two stories. Now he was on the same level as their captured pilot. A couple of empty passages, their windows facing out into the deepening indigo sky, brought Heero out into corridor 31, and noticing it to be as scarcely populated as he had assumed, continued on down the bare-walled hallway. A similarly dressed soldier nodded to him as they approached each other mid-way down the corridor, and Heero returned the greeting, tensing up minutely as they passed each other, relaxing only when the sound of the other man’s footsteps had faded away beneath the tapping of his own. He was beginning to think that perhaps it was a holiday on the base, the compound only attended by a skeleton crew when Duo’s sudden hissed warning through the radio had him halting before the corner where corridors 31 and 41 intersected.
<<Large group. Eight soldiers. I think they’re heading for the mess hall.>>
Heero waited patiently, his right hand close to his hip where the dead soldier’s gun was holstered. He listened to the voices as they approached, counting the footsteps and coming up with eight men, five of them quite tall judging by their strides, and one with a serious-sounding limp. Abruptly, the voices were dulled, and then Duo’s voice came back over the radio.
<<Yep, the buggers were hungry. You can relax now, Titanium Soldier, they’ve diverted down 32. As I said – heading to the mess hall. Sometimes I’m just too good.>>
Heero grunted, fully aware that the other pilot could not hear him, and slipped around the corner into corridor 41. He strode past the 32 which the group of hungry soldiers had passed down, and receiving no further warnings from Duo in the surveillance room, turned into 33 which held the entrance to the Quarantine where Wufei was being held.
Heero steadily approached the medical blue door, noting with a critical eye the current state of awareness of the two soldiers guarding either side of it. They both looked bored, disinterested, one more so than the other and Heero chose the more aware of the two for his first target. With even steps he drew closer to them, making it seem as if he was going to walk right past them, and then with a sudden, swift move he spun to the side and thrust the heel of his hand into the first soldier’s nose, breaking it and sending the shard of bone up through the skull and into his brain. Without either slowing or stopping his momentum he carried on through with a quick, low spin, withdrawing his gun and sending one accurate shot through the forehead of the other soldier before the man could even close his fingers around his own weapon.
Heero glanced back down the corridor, checking for any personnel that may have heard the gunshot and then turned back to the medical blue door with the plaque ‘QUARANTINE’ set above head height. Kicking it open, he immediately fell into a crouch. When an empty hall greeted him, he turned back to the dead soldiers and grabbed each of them by one arm, dragging them into the hall and quickly shutting the door closed behind him. He frowned when the saw the twin smears of blood that stained the floor, then passed it off as inconsequential. By the time the absent guards and the blood outside the door was noticed he’d be long gone – either with Wufei, or with Chang dead.
It didn’t take him long to find the quarantine cells - the small area they were contained within was decorated a standard military grey instead of the widespread hospital white the rest of the sector was painted. There were four cells, and with three of them standing empty with their doors open, there was only one Wufei could be in. Heero didn’t hesitate to hack his way past the electronic lock keeping the door bolted, kicking the heavy titanium door open with the toe of his boot.
The first thing the Japanese pilot noticed about the cell was that it was dark. The second; was that the air smelt. It was a sickeningly sweet smell, like stale peppermint, and it hung in the air with the weight of poor ventilation and the prick of something medicinal. Heero also noticed, as his eyes grew adjusted to the dark gloom of the cells interior, that there were no furnishings. His cobalt eyes quickly scanned the space within the room, and that was when he noticed the Chinese boy sprawled in one of the corners furthest from the door. As he approached, the smell grew stronger, and when he bent down over the boy whom he now saw to be unconscious, his brows furrowed with the thickness of it. Slinging his pack off of his shoulders, he knelt down next to the boy, and took in the state of the one he had come to either rescue, or destroy.
Heero stared silently at the skin bleached a sickly tan beneath the fever spots that burned high on his cheeks, noting dispassionately that the Chinese boy’s dark hair was loose from its ponytail and laying matted and oily around his face. He reached out and grasped at Wufei’s hand. His limp fingers were icy cold and wet with feverish sweat. Slipping his grip up to his wrist, he felt for the pulse that fluttered steady, but very fast beneath his fingertips. Heero frowned. Releasing Wufei’s wrist he pressed his palm against his forehead, and once again his skin was met by chilled, wet flesh. Fever, definitely, he decided, but of which kind he was uncertain. Kneeling closer to his head, Heero ran a perfunctory check of all the visible injuries, running a critical eye over the split on the pale lower lip, the darkened purple bruise on the jaw, and the three, very suspicious-looking blue discolourations on his right upper arm. Deciding that there seemed to be no serious external injuries, he felt it safe enough to risk moving him.
Slipping his hands behind the prone boy’s neck and shoulders, feeling the slick skin cold with sweat, Heero pulled Wufei up into a sitting position and rested him against his shoulder. Wufei’s dark eyes flickered briefly open and then closed again as his body twisted for a moment before going limp.
“Wufei!” None too gently, the Japanese pilot shook him. “Chang! Status?”
“Hot.” He repeated dutifully, his eyes still closed. His voice was a pathetic croak, a mere thread of sound. “And drugged.”
“Open your eyes.”
“Too bright.” The Chinese boy replied, the words slurring and grating through the throat that worked to get them out.
“Do it, Chang. I need to assess.”
Heero felt the shoulders under his hands tense as the black brows made stark against the pallidness of Wufei’s face creased, drawing down together to a point above his nose. The black eyes slitted open slowly, obviously expecting pain, and blinked furiously when it arrived. Heero bent down closer to look into the dazed boy’s eyes as he blinked away pained tears, and once again a deep frown commandeered his features when he noticed that the liquid tracking its way down the pale cheeks was not clear in the way that tears should be.
“Look at me.” Heero ordered, and without word Wufei obliged. Bending his head for a closer look, Heero noticed almost immediately that half of the whites of Wufei’s eyes had been stained red from ruptured blood vessels. “Hn. I think you’ve been unconscious for a while.” He told him. “You said you were drugged. With what?”
“I don’t know. Two different kinds.” The words cracked over the parched dryness of his throat. “Truth serums. I think one was experimental.”
“You were interrogated?”
Wufei nodded, then squinted his eyes shut and pressed back further into Heero’s shoulder. “Twice.” He husked. The movement had obviously pained him.
“Did you tell them anything?” Heero demanded.
Wufei shook his head minutely, keeping his eyes still closed. “I don’t remember. Only my age, I think.”
Heero grunted, then pulled out the communicator from the small pack that had been strapped to his back. “02, come-in.”
There was a brief spat of static, then Duo Maxwell’s voice called back with false cheer; <<02, here. What is it, oh great and fearless leader?>>
“Hn. Located 05. Need video surveillance of two interrogations.”
<<Two?>> The voice on the other end of the relay sounded momentarily startled. <<Well… sure, no problem. What sector were they in?>>
“SEU laboratory three.” Heero relayed once Wufei had given the information. “Copy the footage and delete the primes.”
<<Got it.>> Duo’s voice returned. <<The munchkin’s aren’t puttin’ up much of a fight, today. The surveillance room wasn’t even guarded. Is it some kinda holiday or somethin’?>>
“Hn. Just get the footage, 02.”
<<Roger. …Is 05 okay?>> Duo’s voice held a obvious thread of concern as he asked the question.
“Uncertain. He’s awake and coherent.” Heero looked down to see Wufei’s eyes open and an expression of startlement pass briefly over the Oriental’s face. “Full check once we reach the safe house.”
<<Roger!>> The braided pilot replied, sounding more cheerful. <<02 out!>>
Heero quickly returned the radio to the pack. Rummaging around, he pulled out a bottle of mineral water and held it against Wufei’s mouth. The dark eyes flicked up to stare at him in confusion.
“It’s water, Wufei. Drink it.”
Wufei nodded and parted his lips, accepting the water gratefully. After a few deep swallows he pulled his mouth away and returned his eyes to Heero’s.
“You’re going to wait to view the footage before you kill me.” He stated, confusedly. Despite the water his voice was still like gravel.
Heero frowned. “It will depend on what they have extracted from you, as to wether we will need to kill you or not.”
Wufei nodded again, very carefully, and tilted his head back further onto Heero’s shoulder. “Can I have some more water?” He asked after a moment.
Heero grunted and replaced the sipper. A minute passed slowly filled only with the sounds of air bubbling up into the bottle. Beneath his hands and shoulder Heero began to feel the small, faint tremors that shuddered through the other boy’s body as he drank. They were barely perceptible to begin with, but by the time Wufei drew his lips back from the bottle they had all but taken over his body. He was visibly shaking now, panting for breath, and as Heero bent closer to the Chinese boy’s face, it was plainly obvious that he was about to lose consciousness. His eyes were barely staying open, the pupils dilated so that only a thin rim of smoky grey iris glistened in the light cast through the door, and with a sharp inhale that caught and reverberated somewhere in his throat, he passed into unconsciousness. A moment later Heero’s radio crackled.
<<01. Shinigami has the footage.>>
Heero immediately paid attention. Duo’s voice was angry, sounded almost furious, and for as long as he’d known the American he had never heard him sound this close to Shinigami outside of his Gundam. He’d even just referred to himself in third person as the Angel of Death.
<<I’ve also copied film footage from four days ago of 05’s capture. All primes are deleted. You’re not gonna believe this shit-->>
Heero quickly reached for his radio. “05 is unconscious. Have you all the film there is?”
<<-Hai. Is he all right?>>
“Then we’ve done all we need to. Rendezvous at site B in fifteen minutes. You can judge 05’s condition for yourself then.”
Wasting no time, Heero stowed away the radio and water, slinging the pack back on his shoulders and gathering the Chinese boy further into his arms. Folding the limp body over his left shoulder, he brought his left arm up behind his knees, keeping the unconscious boy in place, and keeping his right arm free to handle his gun should he need to use it.
He left the Quarantine facilities at a light jog, barely sparing a glance at the two dead soldiers sprawled on the floor just inside the doorway – they were casualties of war, a thing that could not be avoided when one was a soldier, and even if they were discovered while he was trying to leave the base, it would make absolutely no difference. If he was caught with the captured Gundam pilot over his shoulder inside the base it would be no less the same.
He didn’t go back the way he’d come, instead he turned to the left and continued on down the corridor, further past more medical blue doors to the elevator at the full extension of the hall. The steel doors of the elevator opened as soon as his fingers pressed the button, and Heero wasted no time in shooting out the camera once the doors had parted enough to give him a clean shot. Duo had said that the surveillance room had been unguarded, but there was no telling if there was someone up there now, and he’d rather his face not be seen if he could help it. Pressing the pad on the inside of the elevator that would take them down to the ground floor of the Research Facility, the doors shut with a quiet _whoosh_ and Heero moved to one side of the door, crouching down as much as he was able to with Wufei over his shoulder. A smaller target was harder to hit, and if that target was not where someone expected it to be, it brought him more time to take out anyone that happened to be there when the elevator doors opened.
There was no one waiting for them with rifles aimed when they arrived at the ground floor, the doors opening to an almost empty reception hanger with only a few mechanics over on the far side working on a small personnel transport. Shooting a piercing glance around the interior of the hanger, he was immediately suspicious of the lack of reaction the elevator doors opening had on the mechanics. After a minute of their continuing ignorance, however, he grudgingly accepted that the noise of the repairs they were making were more than efficiently blocking out any other sounds and that their nonchalant haze of activity was nothing but just that.
He kept to the shadows as he edged around the interior circumference of the hanger, avoiding the moving camera’s mechanical eyes by timing his movements and keeping close to the walls. The thought that this was too easy passed through his mind again. OZ was never slack in defending what was theirs. Nor were they ever slack in taking what they thought should belong to them. The skeleton personnel, the exhausted-looking guards, the lack of any defence in the surveillance room were all just too convenient for his comfort, and just too out-of-character for OZ, especially when they had in their possession a highly-dangerous terrorist. Drugged or not, there should have been more soldiers watching Wufei than there had been. OZ was being suspiciously lax.
Heero encountered nothing more than the same easygoing atmosphere as he slowly skulked his way out of the military compound, finding that as he made his way carefully towards the outer wall his muscles were winding themselves tighter and tighter. He didn’t like the inactivity of the base, the carelessness of the soldiers; all of it was screaming ‘Trap! Trap!’ in the small place at the back of his mind he never neglected to listen to. As he scaled the wall with his unconscious burden a few meters from the place where he was to rendezvous with Duo Maxwell, he almost expected to be surrounded by the alert guards that had been missing within the base. Instead, as he dropped down to the ground on the other side of the high concrete wall, there was only a slim, almost indiscernible shadow waiting for him. Nodding to the American and signalling with his free hand, they both began to stealthily make their way towards the town whose lights glittered orange on the dark horizon, once reaching the road keeping to the ruts that ran along the side of the Mt. Jonah highway. Upon reaching the small picnic/rest area a few miles from the base where they had left their transportation, Duo spoke.
“We have to blow the base.”
Heero shot a quick glance at the braided boy striding noiselessly beside him. His voice had been low, deadly - a clear thread of menace beneath the dulcet tones. The face mellowly highlighted by the pale light of the gibbous moon overhead was stiff, and as still as porcelain. But in the dim his eyes flashed. Shinigami was the one who had spoken.
“Why?” Heero asked as they approached the black utility vehicle parked in the U of the turn-in. “There was little to no activity at that base at all.”
“It has to be destroyed, Yuy.” Shinigami’s voice reiterated.
“It isn’t necessary.”
He stopped by the driver’s side of the Ute. “Get in the car, Duo.”
The braided boy hesitated on the other side of the vehicle, then threw open the passenger side door, slamming it closed behind him as he jerkily yanked on his seatbelt. Heero watched him cautiously out of the corner of his eye as he opened up the door to the back seat, laying Wufei’s heavy limp form along the length of the upholstered vinyl. Catching another strong whiff of the sickly sweet smell engulfing the Chinese pilot, he fought the urge to sneeze and quickly checked the other boy’s pulse. Both satisfied and displeased that there had been no change in its stability or speed, he withdrew his fingers and pulled back out of the car. Folding Wufei’s legs slightly so that he fit completely on the length of the back seat, he closed the door firmly and slid in behind the wheel. He shot another glance at Duo’s face, but the impassiveness of it told him nothing that he didn’t already know. Duo was angry.
Twisting the keys in the ignition, Heero shifted the Ute into gear and swerved out onto the road, keeping the headlights off until he was sure that they were out of range of being spotted from the OZ base. They drove for five minutes in charged silence, but when Heero flicked his fingers and switched the headlights on to low beam, Duo broke the tension and ordered him to stop.
“I said pull over, Yuy. Now. I want to turn the light on and I won’t do that while you’re driving.”
Heero grunted low in his throat, but slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road. Leaving the headlights and engine running, he turned in his seat and watched as Duo released his seatbelt and clambered over the back of his chair, reaching up in mid climb to switch on the interior light. He kept silent as Duo followed the motions he had made earlier, pressing his fingers to the base of Wufei’s throat and running his fingers down his torso checking for broken ribs. Checking his temperature, the American boy pulled back his hand, rubbing his fingers together and lifting them up to his nose.
“His sweat smells like peppermint candy.” He said, looking over at him.
“It does.” Heero agreed. “I believe it’s the drugs.”
Duo frowned deeply and turned back to the unconscious boy. Returning his hand back under his shirt, he reached around under Wufei’s body and slid his hand down lower, slipping it under the waistband of Wufei’s pants.
“What are you doing?” Heero demanded, rising up suddenly and kneeling stiffly in the driver’s seat.
“Checking,” Shinigami replied, face like an effigy but eyes burning like St. Elmo’s fire.
Heero felt a sudden cold steal over him as he watched Shinigami’s hand slip lower beneath the Chinese boy’s body, the chill freezing through his skin and settling deep into his bones. It burned like a chunk of ice in his gut. He didn’t know what it was, didn’t know how to identify the unfamiliar feeling, but it left him feeling… shaken. And slightly sick.
“--Did they?” He asked after a moment.
Duo withdrew his hand and sat back. “I can’t tell.” He replied. “I don’t think so, but… I can’t tell.” Doing another once-over glance of the boy sprawled on the back seat of the Ute, he quickly unbuttoned his stolen OZ jacket and slinked it off, laying it across Wufei’s chest in hopes of keeping him warmer. “He’s so damn cold.” He muttered. Turning and sliding back into the passenger seat, he switched off the light and redid his seatbelt. “Can we go home now?” He asked, facing forwards.
Heero glanced again between them, his eyes flicking from Duo’s profile to Wufei and back again, before he shifted the vehicle back into gear and pulled out onto the road. The gibbous moon drifted in the sky almost directly above them, casting distorted tree shadows across the fields to either side of the road, following them as they made their way back to the safe house, the only testimony to the glances that were sent back to trace the form of the Chinese boy laid out on the back seat of the car. The trip was speedy, and silent, and neither boy knew what to say.