Three feet of ice does not result from one day of cold weather.
The two bokken crashed and rasped, wood on wood.
Wufei pushed against his opponent's blade - took a step forward -
No! He'd moved too soon-
Heero's bokken lunged - a bent wrist wresting it from the deadlock with its mate - and hammered into Wufei's shoulder.
Wufei tried to spin -
The sword promptly swept from his shoulder to his knees.
Wufei swore as he tottered and tumbled to the tatami. His furious glare hid the acid bite of shame. What a stupid mistake! Stupid!
Heero let his bokken rest on his shoulder and lifted an eyebrow. The first time he'd managed to catch Wufei out, he'd been rather pleased with himself. The second time, he'd been mocking. This time - the third - there was only that eloquent eyebrow asking Wufei just what the hell he thought he was doing: knitting?
This was humiliating. Heero was a good fencer, but that didn't translate to other sword forms such as Chinese sabres. Wufei had been teaching him for the past few weeks.
My timing and my balance are off...The words squirmed like vermin eating away at his confidence, his pride in his ability.
Heero turned towards the sword stand on one side of the room to put away his practice sword - to find his way blocked by Wufei's bokken.
"I thought you'd have had enough." Heero commented dryly, glancing at his partner.
Wufei didn't say anything. He glared his challenge, took a step back, and swished the bokken up in a brief salute.
Heero did the same, with a cool indifferent movement that Treize would have envied. Wufei normally admired his partner's composure. But today, he found his fingers squeezing the bokken hard enough to make his bones ache. Bad. He forced himself to relax, or Heero would disarm him at the first touch. He steadied himself. Breathed. In. Out...Looked for his centre...gave up that attempt quickly; he'd not found it in weeks. He threw himself into a furious attack.
Crash! The bokken bit, wrestled, swept away and crashed together again, barking wooden insults at each other. It went wrong almost immediately. Wufei felt like he was stumbling from one movement to the next, perpetually off-balance.
He was tired. And he shouldn't be, his mind countered ragingly, a second on the heel of that thought. Heero wasn't tired! They'd been working furiously for the past month, ever since that stupid mission on L3. But did Heero show any signs of being affected? Oh no, not the perfect soldier! Fresh as a fucking daisy.
The first two weeks back from L3 had been immediately and insanely busy, and considerably dangerous. The partners had been at the forefront of several offensives to break Syndicate operations - weapons factories, drug manufactures, suit depots. They'd arrested a lot of the Syndicate's small fry, netted from Exeter's information. But the big fish were harder to catch, even with those resources. After their first frantic round-up of criminals - and a few truly vicious fights - they'd spent the last two weeks in Brussels, looking for more leads on the others, interrogating the men they had already caught, and building their cases.
No cleansing fights, no all-consuming battles, no real life-or-death situations in two weeks - the look on Heero's face as he easily dodged the blow aimed at his shoulder seemed to contemptuously underline the fact that he certainly wasn't in any danger now; he looked almost bored. Wufei whipped the sword towards the hand so lazily holding the bokken, and staggered as his own practice blade bit air. He wrenched a few back muscles stabilizing himself, and jerked out of the way of Heero's counter, avoiding it by the breadth of a hair that had been previously quartered.
They worked sixteen hour days at Ops, following their leads, then, when Sally, Sam or Une chased them away, they went back to the safe-house and worked some more. Once the interrogations were done, they both opted, of a common, silent accord, to work from Heero's place all the time and avoid all interruptions. The patterns of their lives for the past week or more had been endless repetition, sitting at the kitchen counter for the most; hacking into accounts, chasing leads, directing and analyzing satellite surveillance. They'd get up, work for twenty hours, sleep...wake up and repeat. Hours drifted by like hungry ghosts. The only relief was these moments of practice, and the occasional quick, efficient fuck.
Heero's sword darted - a feint! Wufei barely recovered in time to parry the counter-slash that nearly ripped the bokken from his tired hands. Heero had been about to call the fight to a close, but since Wufei had decided to go another round, the soldier was going all the way, and showing absolutely no mercy. Of course.
Wufei parried again, and was pushed back. This lack of focus on his part was all the more infuriating because he had been longing for this all day; the quiet of the house had been drilling into his nerves. Heero had been assiduously working for the past ten hours on his laptop, breezily hacking into a few highly secure Swiss bank accounts, following their leads on the Syndicate's financial setup. Apart from a few necessary breaks to keep his body working at peak efficiency, he had not moved away from the computer, or stretched, or talked, or even looked at Wufei all day.
The latter was a bit at a loss to figure out why this bothered him; this was Heero's usual attitude when he had A Mission. It had never annoyed him before. But by the end of the day, Wufei had been ready to grab that laptop and break it over his partner's hard uncaring head just for the excitement that would lead to.
It was because he was tired. And bored - this part of the mission wasn't all that interesting, for all it was crucial.
Heero's sword slammed against his, shoving him back again -
Yes, bored and tired.
And Heero, of course, wasn't.
And if he'd noticed Wufei's odd restlessness - of course he'd noticed it, it was about as hard to ignore as a pissed-off dragon in a bamboo grove. Wufei had caught a couple of nearly-curious looks thrown his way, Heero noticing, weighing, and deciding it was none of his business since it didn't affect Wufei's ability to fight against an average opponent.
- ...he didn't care.
Wufei's muscles screamed as he twisted, bent and straightened, right into Heero's guard, like a mine going off in his face -
- ...Heero didn't ask what was wrong, because...that wasn't the arrangement.
A shove of his shoulder - Heero staggered-
-...They shared their strengths, and they honed each other's edge, that was all.
His sword smashed aside Heero's defensive thrust.
- ...Heero didn't care that his partner was out of sorts for the last month, as long as it didn't affect his work. So Heero just -
A sweeping kick took out Heero's legs -
- didn't say -
Wufei landed astride him, bokken twisting downwards -
The sword slammed point first into the spring-board floor with a harsh bark of wood. His hands smashed into the tsuba which snapped clean off from the violence of the blow.
The small sound of the little handguard falling to the matting was the only noise, apart from their harsh breathing. Heero's wide eyes were on the white oak of the bokken that had been slammed point-first into the floor an inch away from his head.
Then those dark blue eyes fastened on Wufei.
So...you're looking at me now...
He found himself leaning forward, towards those wide eyes peeking through the rich brown fall of hair, the mouth softened and open in slight shock - they seemed further away. They were at the end of a long tunnel, darkness ringing his vision...From a distance, he saw Heero blink and glance off to one side.
Lips moved - blood, anger and faint stirrings of lust were boiling in Wufei's ears, it took a moment for the words to filter through-
Heero snarled and shoved. Wufei was tossed aside like a child.
Fury ignited and he scrambled to his knees, the oak of the bokken rasping along the floor as he swung it up.
Heero, who'd uncoiled from the floor like a snake and taken three steps towards one side of the dojo, stared back at him, startled and a bit annoyed. "Are you deaf?"
"What?" Wufei was on his knees, or he would have staggered.
"I said there's someone knocking at the door." Heero turned with a dismissive scowl and headed towards the front door. Wufei stayed on his knees. The sword had dipped, taking some of his weight like a crutch.
Heero's voice sounded distant.
"Yeah, hi, got something for you. What have you been up to, boy? You're sweating like a pig."
Wufei saw his own hand pick up Heero's fallen bokken, fingers like light copper against the ivory of the wood. He found himself moving towards the sword-stand, his back to Heero and Sam. Centre. He needed to find his centre.
It had eluded him for weeks now.
Sam grimaced as he sipped the ersatz coffee but was too polite to say anything. Or too tired. His rich brown skin had a yellowy, stretched quality to it, his eyes were red and swollen, and underlined with blackened bags like bruises. It had been a long month, and Sam was responsible - as directly as a 'consultant' like him could be - for most of the teams hunting down the lower echelons of the Syndicate on the strength of the information the partners had secured from Exeter.
The coffee cup - bought for Duo's visit a while back - clunked on the counter, and Sam picked up and leafed through a folder instead.
"I thought you boys might be rather bored doing all this number crunching stuff." He said, without further preamble. Wufei must have suddenly looked like a hound straining at the lead, because the Old Fox grinned. Then he grimaced.
"To be honest, actually...we're tapped out. Our resources in Ops are being stretched like Commander Une's nerves. That's why I have you guys doing the cyberspace hunting; we just don't have anybody else who can take up the slack, though we all know that's not where your true talents lie."
"So what do you have for us?" Wufei's fingers itched to grab the folder from him. The promise of getting out of the house and into a fight burned like a promise of salvation in his mind.
"It's one of the Syndicate bosses we're slowly closing in on. He's starting to feel cornered. We got word on the street that he's had this brainwave. He's decided to kidnap bigwig politicians and industrials, the ones close to Preventers; he's going to hold them so we can't attack him."
Heero's silent sneer was an assessment of how likely that was. Wufei stared from that expression to Sam, eyes wide. "You want us to do hostage rescue?!"
"Are you kidding me?" Sam let loose three short barks of laughter. "I wouldn't trust you guys to rescue my mother in law, and the old cow's bullet-proof! No, he's not put the plan in motion yet. You've got to realize, the people he's aiming his sights at are VIPs. They don't consider their day complete without the odd death threat or two. They know how to defend themselves. So unless one of them does something stupid, it'll take our bloke awhile to get his hands on them. But I'd rest the easier if you two lads could nip his plan - an' him - in the butt."
"Bud." Wufei corrected automatically, then rolled his eyes at Sam's small, cynical grin. Foxwood occasionally pulled out his 'just a beat copper, guv' routine from his repertoire. Wufei sometimes wondered if he'd developed it to fool the criminals he'd spent his life hunting, or the London politicians and senior management he'd had to navigate like an obstacle course while doing his job.
"What do we have?" Heero was, as usual, all business, and didn't show the slightest interest in semantics.
"Well..." Sam frowned as he flipped through the four pieces of paper contained in the folder. "Not much, strangely enough. I got this direct from the Lady, and she said to pass it to you right away - obviously this is urgent. Still, not much to go on. No informants, no satellite surveillance, no research...just a few leads, possible locations, and that's it."
Heero frowned, and his eyes darted towards his laptop.
"I know it sounds a bit low-key," Sam added quickly, "but indications are that there is a real threat here, and the leads are valid. And if this is in any way, shape or form a real plot, we'd get our arses roasted if any of these toffs get snatched and we only had a couple of cadets on the case. And cadets are all we have left in-"
"We'll do it." Heero cut him short, in a voice indicating that the soldier did not need justifications for his orders. "It'll be nice to get out of the house," he added with the swiftest glance at Wufei. The faintly sardonic tone had tagged a '-and my partner is feeling rather restless' to his statement. Wufei managed to return the glance, thinking, yeah, that was what was bugging him, he was restless. Getting out of the house sounded good.
Heero grabbed the laptop, started closing programs quickly and efficiently. Wufei finally snagged the folder from Sam's clutches and went through the information, which didn't take very long.
"They're in Brussels?" He asked, rather surprised.
"Sure. They want to hurt us. You can't kick a geezer in the bollocks without getting close. Besides, they, aaah, they have a cunning plan. A lot of their targets will be coming here next week for a conference, and some meetings with the Lady and the board of ESUN security. They think this will be a great occasion. Never mind that the whole Brussels police force will be out watching these VIPs." Sam sneered, obviously not impressed by their foe's strategy.
Heero surfed through the online information while Wufei read out the addresses in the folder. They were on the far side of Brussels, in the oldest industrial zone near the river, beyond the old train station, an area of mostly abandoned warehouses, docking bays and haulage facilities. A good place to assemble and house a group of armed nasties in preparation for an attack. Nobody would report them to the police over there; the muggers, hookers and pimps in that region hated anything with a badge.
Wufei glanced back at Sam suspiciously, while his fingers hovered over the locked and reinforced cabinet where the partners kept their more serious artillery. "Is this another mission where we have to be circumspect?"
Sam snorted hugely as he stood. "Hell no. I have six other things I need you two and everybody else in Ops to do, I don't have the time for you to dance the foxtrot with these buggers. And you'll have no backup, lads, unless its regular police, and I'd rather not involve them. So you know what that means...if you actually find these guys, you have my permission to ventilate their arses."
"Perfect." Wufei muttered under his breath, the word covered by the beep of the code he'd entered. He felt his indefinable malaise vanish as his fingers closed around the stocky grip of the special ops Micro Uzi he used when he felt like taking names only to slap them onto the toe-tags at the morgue.
Of course, it was understood - confirmed by a glare from Sam's dark eyes as he left without any other form of farewell - that it was Heero's job to apply liberal doses of mayhem, and Wufei's job to insure that most of the suspects survived, albeit somewhat holed. Despite the Old Fox's brash statement, he was still very attached to proper police procedure, where killing was used only as the last resort, instead of a means of simplifying things; Sam knew that he and Wufei were somewhat on the same wavelength on that.
Wufei felt a distant prickle of pity for the Syndicate thugs as he slipped the SMG's strap over his shoulder and grabbed a thick long coat to cover it. Today...today he wasn't feeling in the mood to pull his own punches, much less Heero's.
It turned out that pulling punches was the least of their worries.
Wufei tightened the field dressing with a small hiss. It was a minor wound across his lower back. Small, but somewhat painful, stinging and bleeding again every time he moved, and he was moving a lot.
Stupid to have gotten injured...Heero, of course, had been rolling away and firing back before the first bullet clashed into the concrete floor where he'd been standing. Alerted by the sound of the trigger tightening, probably. The second bullet, an instant behind the first, hit Wufei, but he managed to mostly avoid it. They'd been aiming for his legs. That small boon and the fact they'd aimed for Heero first was the reason Wufei still had full use of his legs; he wasn't as quick as Heero when it came to avoiding fire and retaliating. No-one was.
Their attackers hadn't tried for fatal shots, strangely enough...they must prefer the partners alive. Wufei's grip tightened on the small SMG. He had no intention of finding out why, except maybe when the judge asked the bastards in court.
Heero was doing his thing - Wufei heard the Glock fire twice, each time followed by a scream and shouts. His partner was in his element. Hell, he was probably having fun, inasmuch as Heero understood the concept, Wufei groused inwardly. For Wufei, the enjoyment factor had dropped considerably when he realized how thoroughly they were surrounded, and how neatly the jaws of the trap were closing in.
Someone really knew what they were doing out there. This was no hide-out they'd stumbled upon. There had been no traces of occupation to warn them as they entered the docking hangar, still in use for the few ships navigating the canal. They'd thought it would be empty, like the first two leads they'd checked that night. Far from it. These people were here for one reason only, to capture the partners; they'd chosen their location perfectly, and had quite a few men waiting for them. No wonder they hadn't bothered with a head-shot, Wufei thought bitterly. They must feel pretty confident they'd get Heero and Wufei alive.
Time to rip shreds out of their delusions...
Wufei stood in one fluid movement, firing at a dark shadow - Heero was a pinpoint of light in his mind, he knew where his partner was and would be, as if they'd had hours to discuss their tactics instead of Heero hissing 'left and up' over a pile of old boxes before taking off. Without even checking if Wufei was seriously wounded or not, of course. He was working on the assumption that Wufei could stay conscious, if not mobile, and be able to cover his route as he tried to get around the shooters.
This was not going to be easy, Wufei estimated, ignoring the stab of anxiety as he listened, in vain, for further shots from the Glock. The men were surrounding them from all directions, even above - he'd fired at several people on the gangplanks over their heads, but the bastards had been shielded by the mechanisms of the cranes used to transport heavy loads across the huge hangar. He'd caught one of them out in the open - the SMG doing short work of him - but since then, the others had circled around him, staying out of sight. How many people were trying to round them up? A considerable number, he thought. They definitely knew what they were doing.
Men scurrying around him - on his right. The Uzi spat out bullets, but hit only a metal container. Damn it! He heard/felt his partner nearing him again; Heero had not found a way around their attackers. This was bad. The entirety of the hangar loomed around them. As soon as the first men had fired, someone had flipped on the overheads, and a grim, washed-out light now tracked the partners' attempts to evade the trap. Footsteps echoed in the huge space of the tall hangar, impossible to pinpoint. Stacks and stacks of metallic containers, faded blue and red, each higher than a man, formed a natural maze around them. This was really an exquisite setup for an ambush.
Heero was a ghost, drifting between two rows, heading back towards Wufei. New plan then, the latter guessed; they would hole up, back to back, and wait for their adversaries to come and get them, and pay the price. Hoping that their enemies didn't have stun gas. They already had a scrambler - the Preventers' cell phones had been useless from the moment the trap closed in around them.
Wufei heard the faint noise just as Heero was going to step out from behind a protective container. His body reacted on instinct; Wufei hurled himself forward and sideways, hitting the ground while he fired, up and to the right, both hands steadying the SMG - the man who'd moved out of cover on the gangway screamed as some of the bullet slammed into his thigh. The strength of the round swiped the leg out from under him and propelled him sideways. He crashed into the gangway's guiderail, then tumbled over it. It was one of the lowest gangways, a mobile platform only ten feet off the ground - but the fall had probably put him out of commission, if the bullets hadn't.
Heero had fallen back to a crouch at Wufei's move, protected by a container twenty feet away from his partner. He darted a look at the now empty space on the gangway, then leaned back, turned towards Wufei - his eyes widened in alarm just as the latter scrambled quickly to his knees.
The cold, hard touch of metal met the back of Wufei's head as he straightened.
On the battle-edge the partners' walked, the situation was immediately clear.
Heero was twenty feet away, Glock pointing uselessly towards the now empty gangway to one side.
Another attacker has appeared behind Heero - the blue eyes had flinched, he was aware of the danger.
But the man who had stumbled onto the scene had his shotgun pointing in the other direction, he'd been trying to circle them and gotten it wrong.
The person standing behind Wufei, who must have the weight and consistency of a shadow to have gotten behind him so quietly, had a gun to his head - waiting for Heero to throw down his weapon.
It was all beautifully unambiguous. Wufei, still on his knees, tensed - less than a second had gone by since the metal touched his head, but that preternatural clarity slowed time to a crawl, and cast his future as a series of stark probabilities, uncompromised by any emotions.
Heero wouldn't surrender. He would spin around and nail the man behind him, who had turned, shocked, towards Heero and was bringing his shotgun up at the speed of creeping glaciers. The person behind Wufei would fire in response. Wufei would have a split second to dodge, before the trigger was pulled but after it was too late for the man to correct his aim. A split second to live or die-...then Heero would kill the shooter.
The scene remained frozen...for a lingering second...
And then another.
Wufei felt his heart suddenly beat again, a ramming punch in his chest, as time regained its normal speed and Heero was still frozen in position, hesitating- Heero, hesitating! He was staring at the man holding Wufei at gunpoint. The thug behind Heero finally got his coordination right and the shotgun now had the soldier in its sights-
Three painful, confused heartbeats...then Heero leaned forward. The Glock touched the floor and skittered away with the flick of his fingers.
What- what was Heero doing?! Wufei felt a wash of disbelief and horror and-...well, mainly disbelief and horror. The twanging deadly tension in his body - coiling for that last spring away from the bullet a few inches from his skull - suddenly released and he slumped forward slightly. They were stuck; even if, by some miracle, Wufei managed to dodge the bullet and take down his opponent, Heero was now disarmed and - and putting his hands on his head - had they used gas after all?! Maybe all this was some kind of hallucination-
"Drop the gun," the man behind Wufei ordered.
Like a kaleidoscope, the scene fractured and reassembled itself into a much more rational picture.
Of course Heero wouldn't have surrendered for his sake...The quick conclusion felt oddly raw, but then he focused on the here and now.
Wufei carefully put his SMG down and laced his fingers at the back of his neck, mirroring Heero's pose. Footsteps, moving around him. He figured it would be normal to glare at someone who'd captured him, so glare he did, hiding any sense of recognition.
Trowa ignored the glare, and casually kicked the Uzi away.
For a nasty, quivering heartbeat Wufei wondered if he'd not made a mistake. He barely recognized his comrade. Trowa's hair was oily, the bangs ragged and messy and shoved to the side, far from his usual style. And that was just a small detail. His face was hard and bitter, and he managed to look at least five years older than he was. His whole stance was aggressive, ugly. He moved like someone who made a habit of killing and a point of enjoying it.
But the green eyes were all Trowa as they briefly caught Wufei's gaze, the moment hidden from the other attacker holding Heero at shotgun-point.
Then the killer's mask was back, as he crouched in front of Wufei.
"See? Wasn't so hard." He sneered, presumably at the man carefully approaching Heero. Trowa's gun dug painfully under Wufei's chin, shoving his head up and back. He looked like he longed to pull the trigger. The stance, the voice, the attitude, the murderous look - there was no flaw. If it hadn't been for that flash of quickly hidden acknowledgement in Trowa's eyes, Wufei would have believed his comrade had actually gone over to the enemy. In fact, despite the glance, and having been similarly fooled before on the Lunar base, Wufei still wasn't as convinced as he wanted to be, what with the gun digging a hole in the soft flesh under his jaw.
"Three men dead, Nash. Several wounded. Talby looks bad." The man covering Heero sounded reproving. Wufei wasn't surprised when Trowa sniffed scornfully.
"Three men dead to get these two alive? You should be on your knees with my dick in your mouth in sheer gratitude we got them so cheap, Bruckheim."
Wufei, looking over Trowa's shoulder, saw the thug's thin lips quiver with a very-much unvoiced 'Fuck you' aimed at Trowa's back...and he looked immediately scared at his audacity.
"Call in the others and get the truck around. And get some reinforced steel handcuffs." Trowa ordered, eyes still bright and deadly on Wufei. So he's in charge, Wufei thought, no wonder the trap was so good-
"Hold up-" Trowa had moved so fast it left Wufei blinking. He gasped when a hand gripped his throat and yanked his head back into Trowa's chest. The cold muzzle of the Browning pressed against his temple. "Keep your shotgun on that other one, Bruckheim. He's the worst. Jan?! Get your scabby ass down here, and tell Helena to cut the scrambler! You-" Heero straightened slightly, Wufei gathered Trowa was addressing him. "Don't try anything funny. Zero one. Or I'll blow your...friend's brains out."
Zero one...oh this wasn't good, Wufei thought, mind spinning. How much was Trowa in control of the situation? What was his mission and what was he up to? Would-
'...friend'? Wufei's mind lingered briefly over that mocking little pause between the words. What...had that meant? Well, Heero wasn't going to try anything. He'd always trusted Trowa implicitly, despite the rather strange situations they'd found each other in at times. Wufei, with the muzzle digging painfully into his temple, rather envied that confidence.
If this hadn't been Trowa, Wufei would have taken a gamble - this wasn't the best position to hold someone like himself. But Trowa's alter ego might not know that. Was he merely acting the part, or giving Wufei a break? Dammit! This was why Wufei hated undercover missions! You got so caught up in all the fucking lies you tripped yourself and your allies as much as the enemy! He tensed...was Trowa giving him an out? A chance to disarm 'Nash' and get Heero and himself away in a believable fashion? Or-
Trowa's fingers tightened on his neck, a ripple of quick presses. Their old code. Hold. Hold. Hold...
Okay, Barton. I hope you know what you're doing. Wufei relaxed slightly against the grip - saw Heero echo the unspoken submission.
And hoped they wouldn't regret it.
On to part twenty-five. Back to part twenty-three.