by Razorqueen

Playing With Fire + Part 3

Sleet rattled against cracked windows, cold wind creeping through rattletrap wooden frames. Duo shivered.

"Of course I expect them to attack," Treize Khushrenada said, his words clipped and angry. "That is why every possible entry to this base is under surveillance."

On the communication screen, Duke Dermail frowned at Treize's hostility. "My boy, I begin to wonder if you are clear about your duty."

Don't peddle it here, old man, Treize thought. He was no one's "boy." "My duty is to the glory and honor of OZ."

"Precisely," the Duke said. "And this project will increase that glory and honor a hundredfold. No, none of your arguments." He raised a veined hand, cutting off the protest he saw gathering on Treize's lips. "I've heard them quite enough. The mobile dolls will be developed, and you will protect Tsubarov and his team while he completes his work."

Part of being a soldier, Treize had always been taught, was to know when to abandon a hopeless battle. Still, he didn't have to like it. "Have no fear, Duke. I will follow your orders. You may assure the Foundation that not even the Gundams will disrupt their plans. Our security is more than adequate. "

Duke Dermail lifted a white eyebrow. "Excellent. I shall communicate your confidence to the Foundation. Good night." The screen darkened before Treize had a chance to respond, which was probably just as well, he realized.

When had his ideals and those of the Romefeller Foundation diverged? If Tsuberov succeeded, war would lose all the qualities that Treize loved, the choreography, the honor, the chance to rise above the mundane and grasp the larger truths of existence. Mobile dolls would make war nothing more than a bloodbath. Where, he agonized, was the beauty in that?

Treize stood, as if by moving away from the computer screen, he could move away from the doubts that had begun to haunt him. He paced the confines of his office in a rare display of restlessness, finally pausing in front of a highly polished credenza. For a moment, he ran his fingers over the fine antique, appreciating the grain and finish, but the mere contemplation of beauty did not soothe him. The deep brown of the wood reminded him of something...he had seen that color elsewhere recently. He did not have to sift deeply into his memories to find the one he sought. Weeks ago, in the city. The young man on the bridge, the one with the extraordinary eyes and wounded voice. His hair was this color, and had felt as silken. Treize closed his eyes, remembering. They had talked for a long time, but only barely touched. He didn't even know the boy's name.

Stop! his mind ordered. Don't try to go back. You can't ever go back.

But Treize was no longer sure he could go forward, either.

+

Duo tugged the hood of his coveralls a little farther over his face, scrunching his body back into the most inconspicuous corner of the transport. Cold wind sliced across the open bed of the carrier, making him wish he'd asked Quatre to dig him up some thermal underwear as well as a maintenance worker's coverall. In the distance, a mountain loomed, a black cutout against the early morning sky. Apprehension prickled up the back of his neck. He'd boasted that getting in would be easy, but now he wasn't so sure.

The transport slowed as it approached what appeared to be a checkpoint. Two guards in OZ uniforms advanced on the cab, while two more watched from the gatehouse. One of the soldiers left the driver to walk around the back of the vehicle, scanning the workers who huddled around their coffee in the chill dawn. Duo shoved his hands into his sleeves, hunkering back away from the suspicious eyes of the guard.

"What's the matter with you?" The man sitting on Duo's right looked curiously at his neighbor. "It's just the routine."

"Nothin's the matter. Just cold." Duo shifted slightly, turning his head away from the man. He didn't want to give anyone a chance to become too familiar with his face.

"This your first day?"

Duo shot the man a startled look. Jesus God, was he that obvious? "Why?"

"Kid, you got no gloves and no lunch. You're either gonna freeze or starve." The man shook his head. "Don't know what you were thinking. 'Course, you weren't thinking, were you?" He laughed, then slapped Duo on the back. "But I was a kid once and wanted to get out of where I was, no matter what. Would've done any work, back then."

Duo began to understand why his own chatter annoyed his fellow pilots. He grunted, hoping the man would sense that he didn't want to talk.

The guards waved the transport on and it lurched into gear, rumbling closer to the mountain. The noise of the engine made conversation impossible while they were in motion, and Duo's nosy neighbor left him alone.

An hour and two more checkpoints later, the transport chugged to a stop at the foot of the mountain. Workers climbed out, stiff with cold, moving as a group toward a brightly-lit entrance. Duo moved forward with them, but as they began to form a single line, he started to worry. One by one, the workers passed through the last checkpoint, each laying his hand on a glowing pad. ID scanner, Duo guessed. Heero said they'd have something like this, so he'd added Duo's handprint to their database. Still, doubt niggled at the back of his mind. It'd be easy for Heero to get rid of him right here, considering he still obviously saw Duo as a liability. But that would jeopardize the mission, he reminded himself, and Heero wouldn't ever do anything like that on purpose. Would he?

"C'mon, kid," a voice behind him growled. "You're holding up the line, and I'm about to freeze my nuts off."

Taking a deep breath, Duo placed his hand on the scanner. Imitating the other workers, he let it rest there for a minute, then pulled back. Nothing happened. No sirens, no warning shouts.

"Hey, new kid! Good luck!"

Duo turned to see his nosy neighbor from the carrier waving. Giving an abbreviated wave in return, he turned back to the entry. He kept walking as if he weren't expecting to be shot any second, following behind the line of workers entering the mountain fortress. Then the entrance shut behind him and he was inside.

"That wasn't so bad," he congratulated himself. "Maybe you aren't such a screw-up after all." But, he had to remind himself, there was more to this mission than just getting inside the base. Now he had to learn what was going on here. Why had OZ gone to the trouble and expense of building a place this big and this protected? Whatever it was, Duo was sure it spelled trouble for the colonies.

Falling to the back of the group of workers, he slipped away from the well-lighted access corridor unnoticed. The service corridors branched off in all directions, seeming to run for miles underground. Without directions, he could get lost forever. Hope Heero's map is a good one, he thought, pulling out a tiny hand-held display.

The blueprints flashed on the screen, but Duo's vision blurred as he thought about Heero. Why couldn't he just forget the son of a bitch? Because, he told himself, Heero is strong. And Duo wanted someone else to be strong, just once. He was so tired of being the survivor. He only wanted to lean on someone else once in a while. Was that such a terrible wish? If he could prove to Heero that he was worth it, maybe then...maybe. Yeah, but not if he didn't do this job right. And hiding in dark corners wasn't accomplishing anything.

Noting his position, he clicked off the display and slipped it into the pocket of his coveralls. Better start with the lower levels. They'd be hiding it there, whatever it was. Duo looked down the long, semi-lit corridor, ignoring the fear trickling down his spine. Look out, OZ scumbags, he thought. Shinigami's comin'.

+

Readouts from a dozen locations glowed eerily in the dim light of the security post. "Sir, I think you'd better have a look at this." An OZ officer frowned at the anomalous reading on his screen.

"What do you have?" The lieutenant leaned over his subordinate's shoulder. He frowned, as well. "Have you ever seen that happen before?"

"No, sir. It could be a glitch in the system."

"I don't know about that. It would have to be a pretty selective 'glitch.'"

The lieutenant studied the report intently. "Which gate?"

"West. I was doing a routine review, and everything checked out except this."

"No warnings on site?"

"No, sir. Whoever this print belongs to checked out with the system. There's just no profile to match it."

The officer again ran a search for the employee's profile, but with the same null result. "I guess it's possible that someone forgot to enter that information when they entered the profile, but..."

"But it's highly unlikely. Let me see this person's timeclock."

The security officer quickly entered the correct commands. The information blinked on the screen, and he glanced up at his lieutenant. "Now that's interesting."

"Indeed it is. Our mystery employee is brand new. This morning is the first time he's ever clocked in."

"Sir," the officer said, still sounding hesitant. "It's remotely feasible that there's been an error, something that wiped his profile."

"And his timeclock, but not his print? An error that left just enough information for him to get inside, but not enough so that we can identify him? That's asking too much of coincidence for me. I think I'd better inform Colonel Treize that we have an intruder." The lieutenant started for the door, then turned back. "Pull the surveillance tapes on the west gate from 0800 to 0830. It looks like he was with the last transport. Find out who else was on that carrier, and question them about any new faces, anyone whose behavior might have seemed suspicious. And do it fast. The Colonel won't want to be kept waiting."

+

"An intruder?" Treize replaced the antique Limoges cup on its saucer, not pleased that his coffee had been interrupted, but even less pleased with the lieutenant's news. "Can you confirm?"

"Not yet, sir. But I'd rather not take any chances. I have my officers pulling the surveillance tapes from this morning now. They should have something shortly."

Treize appreciated efficiency. It had its own kind of necessary beauty. "Excellent." He glanced down at his own communication screen. "I think they have it now."

The lieutenant moved behind Treize, who had remained seated at his desk. Both men watched the security recording silently until one of the last workers in line passed through.

"Wait," Treize said. "I think we may have something." He watched as the worker, shorter and more slender than the others but otherwise indistinguishable, hesitated, then placed his hand on the scanner. Another hesitation, as if he expected something to happen, and then he moved on.

"That must be him, sir," the lieutenant said. "He expected to get caught."

"Yes. It's a pity we didn't get his face, though." Treize continued to watch the screen as the intruder moved more confidently toward the entrance to the mountain. Then the slight figure stopped and turned, looking back toward the carrier-and the surveillance camera. "Wait! Freeze that!"

The lieutenant obeyed, reaching over to the keyboard of Treize's computer. "I think I can bring this in closer, sir."

Treize watched as the image of the intruder's face dissolved and reformed on the screen. "It's still not clear enough. Can you do any better?"

This time, the intruder's likeness displayed in sharp detail. Only long years of practice at hiding any feeling saved Treize from crying out in disbelief. He recognized the features, despite having seen them only once. Just once in the flesh, he thought, but a hundred times in memory. He clenched his hands at his side to prevent himself from touching the image of a strand of chestnut hair that escaped from under the gray hood. Violet-blue eyes seemed to look into his own. Momentarily, they transported him to a still, cold night in the city, when his despair had nearly overwhelmed him.

He had stood on an ancient stone bridge, watching the black mirror of the river slip away into silence. Alone with his anguish, he'd noticed a slim figure at the far end of the bridge under the street lamp. Relieved to turn his attention from the dark oblivion of the water, he watched a young man, scarcely out of boyhood, idly tossing pebbles one at a time into the river. Treize wondered what thoughts preoccupied his unaware companion, when without warning the young man cursed and flung his entire handful of stones into the water.

Solitude suddenly became excruciating. The young man turned as Treize approached. No surprise showed on the boy's face, and Treize realized that he, too, had been observed.

"Alone?" Treize asked.

"Uh-huh." The boy looked up at him through a curtain of warm brown hair. "You?"

Surprisingly, the encounter hadn't ended in sex. Instead, they had talked until dawn and a fine, sleeting rain drove them apart. Treize found himself sharing the doubts that weighed so heavily on him. The boy seemed to understand, strangely enough. Perhaps not so strange, Treize mused, considering the fears the boy himself had confessed.

Reluctantly, Treize had forced himself to end the conversation. He allowed himself one touch, laying his palm against the boy's cheek, his fingers toying with a loose strand of hair. The boy closed his eyes and covered Treize's hand with his own.

"I have to go," Treize said.

"Yeah." The boy lowered his hand. "Me, too. Y'know, I don't even know your name."

Treize's smile brimmed with regret. "I think it's better that way."

"Prob'ly right." The boy shoved his hands into his pockets and walked away. He stopped, and without turning said, "Thanks."

Treize had wondered in the days since exactly what he'd been thanked for.

And now, here were those same eyes, that same heart-shaped face on his surveillance tapes. "Find the intruder, Lieutenant. He is not to be harmed, but I want him captured."

The lieutenant didn't appear to have noticed Treize's reverie. "Yes, sir. He's bound to try one of the ID scanners somewhere on the base. When he does, we'll find him."

Treize looked up from the monitor. "Notify me immediately when you do. Dismissed."

The lieutenant saluted and left. Alone, Treize leaned forward and traced the outline of the intruder's cheek with his gloved hand.

+

Shit, Duo thought, how many levels does this place have, anyway? So far, he'd seen nothing but storage facilities despite hours of tracing the cold, dimly lit passages. This corridor seemed identical to the dozens he'd searched already.

Ahead, the corridor split. Duo reached the intersection with an inward groan. How many more of these featureless passages would he have to search before he had some clue about what OZ planned? The path to the right sloped downward, wide doors uniformly spaced along the walls like sleeping sentries. Duo sighed. He supposed he'd have to look in every one of them--he'd yet to find a locked door down here. The lefthand path held even less of interest. Not even doors disrupted the smooth rock walls. Like the first, it sloped downward away from the main corridor, but unlike the other passage, it curved sharply a few dozen feet from the entrance. Duo could see nothing beyond the bend of the corridor, but the floor there appeared to be bathed in soft blue light.

Duo chose the lefthand passage. He paused at the entry, slipping his hand into his pocket, through the long slit he'd cut there, to reassure himself that his weapon was still firmly strapped to his thigh. Then he moved stealthily along the passageway.

Turning the corner, he found a set of doors like those in the other corridors. This one, however, appeared to be guarded by a glowing wall plate, similar to the ID scanner at the gate. What do you know, Duo thought, a door they finally thought was worth locking.

He placed his hand on the scanner, smiling as the door slid open. Drawing his weapon, he eased himself into the room. Someone's lab, he realized, and a damn well-equipped one, too. Worklights glimmered along the walls, illuminating benches covered with mechanical and electronic parts. Duo picked up one of the pieces, turning it over in his hand. He recognized it immediately. Only mobile suits required these parts. So what is OZ up to, he wondered. Designing new suits?

At the end of the apparently deserted lab stood a single completed suit surrounded by a lattice of walkways and ladders. A Taurus? Duo moved closer to examine the machine. No, not exactly a Taurus. Duo searched for the release that opened the pilot's hatch, but he found nothing resembling such a control. What the hell is this, he thought, running his hands over the cold metal surface. How did they expect a pilot to get inside?

Duo shimmied up the ladder and examined the suit more closely. After making a detailed inspection, he crouched on his haunches trying to assimilate what he'd discovered.

There was no place for a pilot in this machine. It was fully automated. Duo felt tremors begin in his midsection as he imagined fighting an enemy that had no human weaknesses. No wonder OZ had carved a fortress out of solid rock to protect these machines. Against an army of these, the colonies would be helpless, if it weren't for the Gundams protecting them.

All right, Maxwell, he applauded himself. Mission accomplished. Duo pictured the look on Heero's face, respect replacing scorn, as he reported what he'd found. He saw Heero reaching out to shake hands, their fingers touching finally. Then he remembered that he still had to get out of the fortress. But that, he was sure, would be the easy part.

+

"Sir!" A security officer called to the lieutenant. "We've got him!"

"Where?" The lieutenant scanned the schematic for an alert. There, on the lower level. "Damn! He got as far as the labs!" Whoever the intruder was, he was clever to have gotten that far without setting off the alarms. "Get down there on the double! Block all the corridors. I don't want him slipping away!"

Security teams scrambled to obey his orders. He turned back to his security board, tired of playing hide-and-seek with the intruder. Ready or not, he thought, smiling tightly at the red flashing light, here we come.

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