With the mental blocks functioning better with every passing day, Heero and Duo were able to resume their former daily routines. Through trial and error they found that it proved most effective if one of them kept their shields up while the other had his down in case there was a need for them to communicate with each other. That system seemed to work for the most part. Following the incident in the rec room, when Heero kissed Wufei, there had been several days of awkwardness between the five. Yet to Wufei's relief, none of the other four mentioned anything in regards to what had happened during any of their discussions in the days following and before long, the familiar camaraderie they had enjoyed before fell back into place and life at the military training center went on in a normal manner.
Duo wiped the sweat out of his eyes with the back of his sleeve then hit the control board of his A.M.S. and growled at it in frustration. "You stupid piece of shit, don't you dare break down on me now." He lifted his right leg and gave the console a firm kick with his booted foot; it was a last ditch effort in hoping to jar the faltering systems back on line.
/Duo, hit the ground, target at eight o'clock./
With his visuals gone, Duo reacted immediately to Heero's warning and pushed the levers in both hands forward, causing his suit, shorting out from weeks of constant abuse, to fall into a forward position, missing the swing of the other suit's weapon. His flickering motion sensors showed a laser stick swinging in the exact position where his suit's more vulnerable target spots were located moments before, and such a strike would have disabled and forced him to drop out of the battle and his position on the battle board to drop. He took several seconds to study his fading sensor panel and saw a ghost of a power shadow just where Heero had indicated. Knowing the other suit would have to reposition itself after the last attempted blow in order to deliver another, he spun his own trident-like laser staff to a point behind him and gripping the end with both mechanical hands, he forcefully lunged the lance back into the region that could be considered the other suit's metal groin, a strategic area that not only scored him points in the battle, but also unbalanced his opponent and sent him staggering backwards. Then, doing what no other had done before, he planted the newly freed trident into the ground and hit the thrusters of his failing and protesting battle machine upward and back, causing it to flip up and over and crash feet first into the other A.M.S.
The impact on both suits was tremendous, and Duo, along with his downed adversary, was tossed with the force of the attack against the pilot's restraining straps, designed to hold the pilot in his seat. He ignored the static yelling from the command center as well as Heero's frantic voice in his head as bright sparks flew out from the control consoles.
Duo used his aching right arm to protect his face and cover his mouth as smoke began to fill the cockpit. He knew the procedure for such a situation required that he evacuate the suit immediately and Heero, still yelling inside his head, was stating that fact as well. But he hadn't won the battle yet. The rules called for one of the two battling suits to remain standing or the contest would be considered a draw. That was something he couldn't settle for as the nil score wouldn't improve his ranking on the battle board.
/Duo! What the hell are you doing? Get your ass out of there./ Heero's voice was loud and clear within his mind, but instead of following his other half's strong admonition, Duo put up his mental shields and went back to work.
Sparks flew over the exposed skin of his hands that were once again gripping the controls. His arms shook from the effort it took to push the big fighting suit up from its prone position on top of the other suit. Now he had an excellent excuse to give Heero and his instructor for continuing to stay in his suit and get it upright as he realized he had been blocking the other pilot's exit from his own smoldering suit.
Wiping the sweat from his eyes by rubbing them against the upper sleeve of his green jumpsuit, he cursed the broken air conditioning system for at least the fiftieth time since it shorted out in the beginning of the battle. Warning lights and claxons beamed and blared at him in warning to get out of the cockpit and he coughed again as smoke irritated his eyes and throat.
He fought the controls and slowly brought his A.M.S. to its knees, and with its metal hands bracing the ground, he pulled back on the command sticks with all his might, bringing all remaining power to push the weapon up onto shaky legs. He set the suit's metal legs to stand apart in order to stabilize its stance and felt the balance of the large metal suit shifting as the systems began to blink out one by one.
'Five seconds,' he told himself. The rules of the battlefield stated that the winning suit had to remain upright for five seconds after the other suit had been defeated to show a distinct victor.
"Three, two, one," he counted aloud, then hit the button that opened the hatch door. A large racking cough bent him over, his eyes tearing up from the effort it took and from the smoke he inhaled. Looking up once again, he saw with dismay through eyes that were watery and almost rendered nearly blind by the smoke that the hatch was still firmly shut.
With unsteady hands, he blindly unfastened his seat belt and peeled the shoulder straps from off his shoulders. The small fires burning behind the systems panel now provided the only light he had to work by as the other systems blinked out completely. He was taken over again by deep, consuming coughing as his lungs struggled to find clean air, and as soon as he could, he threw himself forward searching with his hands, stinging from the burns caused by electrical sparks, for the emergency control panel. Finding the metal box, he pulled open the small metallic door and reached inside, taking hold of the handle that resembled a rip cord then pulled it with all his might, using both hands. The hatch made a popping sound at the same time that the A.M.S. began to teeter backwards. Fresh air and light came into the dark and smokey cockpit as the door to it opened and sunlight streamed in as the boy inside, still holding firmly to the emergency handle, opened his eyes wide with apprehension at seeing the distant horizon fall away and yelled loudly with fright as the suit continued to fall backwards.
"You idiot!" Heero scolded the braided boy in a harsh tone that bespoke his worry as Duo was being carried towards sick bay on a stretcher. "What in blazes did you think you were doing? You were supposed to get out of the cockpit the moment you saw flames or smoke. You disregarded the rules and endangered your life."
Duo coughed deeply, his lungs still protesting from having ingested the smoke in his suit's cockpit. The backs of his hands had small stinging burn marks covering them from where the sparks had hit skin and his face and hands were covered with black soot from the suit's internal fire.
/I won, didn't I?/ he looked up through blurred eyes to his partner.
/Is that what you were doing? What this was all about?/ Heero asked, his anger keenly being felt by the injured boy.
/I had to increase my position on the board. Now having defeated Zechs, Quatre, Wufei and Trowa, I only have you to take down and I'll be at the top./
/You could have been killed!/ Heero's eyes blazed with unaccustomed emotion as he spoke to his mate. /Remember, we promised we wouldn't take unnecessary risks with our lives. It's just a game, remember? At least that's what you're always harping to me about./
Duo closed his eyes and nodded. Now that he was coming down from his adrenaline high, he suddenly felt ashamed that he'd gotten so carried away with the idea of beating Trowa and advancing on the boards that he forgot that his safety was also Heero's. If he died, so would the person he couldn't live without. He loved Heero, enough to want him to live and have a happy life. His life partner would never have a chance to do that if he was killed because of his damned competitiveness.
/I'm sorry. That was stupid of me to endanger the both of us. I wasn't thinking about anything but making you proud of me,/ he said, looking apologetically up into Heero's face.
/Just don't do it again. Alright?/ Heero asked, his eyes pleading for the braided teen to comply with his request.
/Alright, Heero. You know I'll do whatever you want. You just have to ask./
/Status?/ Heero asked as he walked alongside the stretcher that was carried by their three friends and Zechs.
/I think I've broken or sprained my wrist and ankle and my head is pounding. Other than a sore throat, stinging eyes and a cough from hell, I'm fine./
Heero nodded, reassured there was nothing seriously wrong with Duo. They entered the very familiar infirmary where the good doctor promptly began to take x-rays and do a thorough exam.
Trowa was also checked out by Dr. Wainwright and was found to have a concussion and suffering from smoke inhalation. He and Duo spent twenty-four hours in bed within the sick bay, taking pain medication and oxygen and getting into as much mischief as the two of them could. Duo's wrist and ankle were found not to be broken, but greatly strained, and would need at least a week off from the battlefield to recover to the point of being able to fully function again.
Several weeks later, during yet another series of scheduled field games, four of the five friends watched from the observation platform as two Greens practiced with their mobile suits, squared off on the semi-mock battlefield.
"I'll wager my dessert tonight that Wufei knocks Zechs on his ass." Duo's voice was loud enough for the other sixty cadets also observing the battle to hear his wager clearly.
"No way," a vaguely familiar voice behind him and to his right called back. "I'll take that wager Maxwell, but let's raise the risk factor; make this a little bit more exciting. I'll wage my higher position on the battle roster for something of equal value from you."
Duo turned and raised an eyebrow at the taller and older red-headed teen who was willing to bet against him. As the other boy made his way through the crowd of boys, Duo noticed that there was something in the older boy's face he didn't like, a lascivious sneer that made his skin crawl. The wager had been spouted in fun, but 'Dead Red', as the older boy was called by the other Greens, obviously had something else in mind.
The boys standing on the observation platform, watching the battle in progress on the field, had all finished their training on the Sims. Everyone of them had their name placed on the rotating schedule for time in the mobile suits on the practice battlefield. This hands-on training was a time that all of the students in the upper ranks of Green lived, dreamed and breathed for. Fighting in the suits, their weapons being light lasers that scored points when they hit strategic points on the opposing suit they were pitted against, was the epitome of a reward to the trainees in return for all the work it had taken for them to get to this point in their training; into the suits and battling against each other for a place on the battle score board. Tallies were kept of each boy's score and they were ranked accordingly on an ever changing score board that was displayed in the mess hall with the top ten ranking boys being named. No one ever willingly gave up his spot on the roster as it could effect the trainee's score, making Duo wonder what game Dead Red was really playing. The older boy's turn to battle was slated for the next day and Duo winning that slot might just put him in position to take the number one spot without having to fight and beat Heero.
As the battle continued behind them, Dead Red continued forward towards the long haired boy who was flanked by his three friends curiously watching the interaction between the two. Duo looked up into the tall, burly red head and found himself feeling intimated by the difference in height and size. He knew from his time on the streets never to look defenseless to an opponent, regardless his size or weapon, so he squared his shoulders and glared up at the older trainee.
"What is it of mine that you want?" Duo asked, finding it hard to glare effectively at someone who was towering over him.
The clash of metal behind them brought the attention of the few boys watching the discussion to move away from the two boys engaging in a bet and unto the field where the white mobile suit Wufei was piloting was in hand to hand combat with the blue suit that Zechs was commanding.
Duo also turned to watch the two metal armored suits fight it out, but was startled a moment later when Dead Red leaned much too close from behind him and whispered into his ear. "A half hour in my room to do whatever I want with you is what I want." A hand from behind Duo suddenly grabbed his bottom in a suggestive manner and that was all it took for Duo to react. Spinning around with his fist clenched, he aimed for the smug face behind him. He barely clipped the taller boy's chin as Dead Red jumped back, laughing.
"So are you a betting man or not, Duo?" The red head taunted. "I say Zechs will pummel your sissy friend into the ground. Still want that wager?"
Duo went to launch himself at the older trainee when Heero cut him off, catching him just in time by grabbing him around the waist with one arm and hauling him against his side. "Not now," he hissed into Duo's ear while giving a venomous glare at the smirking red head. "He's just pissing green." The lowering one of the barriers in his mind he added, /We'll deal with him later when the cameras aren't watching./ He motioned with the movement of his head to the camera, semi-hidden in the corner of the observation platform.
"Get the hell away from me," Duo ground out between his teeth to the older teen. "And if you ever touch me again, I'll cut off your hand."
"Big threat from a little girly-boy." The red head mocked him as he laughed and slowly backed away, leaving Duo trembling with anger at the insult and Heero seething with his own feelings of frustration at not being able to smash the older boy's face in.
Duo wrenched himself from Heero's hold and ignored the curious and worried looks of his fellow Greens standing around him. The braided boy just hoped they hadn't heard Dead Red's proposition and his face flushed red just thinking about it. It seemed lately as if the other trainees knew about his and Heero's relationship because he received more and more unwanted suggestions and inappropriate touches or remarks from the older students, especially when Heero was absent. It made Duo very nervous, edgy and extremely agitated.
/Don't let it get to you./ Heero lowered his mental shields fully to reassure his mate. /We'll deal with him later./ Duo knew Heero's words were a promise, not an idle threat, so he mentally shook off the anger he felt towards the big red headed bastard and refocused.
Turning his attention back to the battle field, which was situated in the middle of the island that housed the training facility, Duo watched with the other trainees as Zechs, piloting the blue mobile suit, was poised and set in a defensive mode, the metal arms were up and stretched out, holding his only physical weapon, a long, solid pole with the tagging laser at the tip, deflecting for the moment the powerful and accurately placed blows Wufei was raining down on him with his own pole-like weapon.
The blue suit suddenly backed up and went down into a crouched position, then pushed forcefully upward, its head aimed like a torpedo at the center of Wufei's white suit. The white mech-suit spun up and to the side, avoiding the barreling suit and used the stick in its hands to knock Zechs's attacking suit face down into the dirt.
Zechs was up within a moment, again putting his A.M.S. into a fighting stance. The martial arts classes they'd all received instruction from over the years was more than evident in the moves of both pilots in attacking their opponent and in defending themselves. Wufei's superior ability in that particular class was being observed by all those standing on the observation platform.
The observing Greens watched for ten more minutes as Zechs continued to lift himself from off the ground where Wufei repeatedly put him. There seemed to be an end coming to the battle when it was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a warning alarm and all movement stopped on the field and in every building of the training center.
"Inside!" The instructor shouted, his voice controlled yet urgent, telling his students that this drill was not a scheduled practice drill, and the sixty boys on the platform quickly assembled in formation and jogged inside the building.
Duo looked nervously at Heero. They'd only experienced the emergency signal twice before, other than in routine and scheduled practice drills. Both times the Federation's military had been put on alert as a result of a crisis somewhere in the world between the two ruling and often quarreling governments. The training schools were situated in various locations within the Federation territory and, because of leaks and informants, their positions were known to the enemy. There had been no doubt from the upper military brass that an attack on the training facilities was, in all likelihood, a very real possibility. The best and the brightest boys from the lands of the United Federation, being trained to protect and defend their country, would be one of the first targets if war should break out between the two super powers. In order to preempt such a strike, the bases were among the first to be warned when skirmishes broke out in order for the facilities to be prepared in case the enemy turned on them. The need for fight or flight was all too real of a possibility stationed on a lonely island far from other Federation protection.
/It's alright./ Heero's voice whispered inside Duo's head, as he attempted to calm the other boy as they jogged shoulder to shoulder with the other upper-level Greens to the main assembly hall that also functioned as a bomb shelter. As they entered the large capacity room, they saw Commander Reid standing on the three-foot high stage, his face looking stern and foreboding with a large white screen behind him that was usually used for showing movies to the students.
The students, grouped together in their rank-colored jumpsuits, quickly filed in and sat according to their ranks. The Greens always sat in the front rows, the place of honor, followed by the Yellows, while the seats at the back of the auditorium were delegated to the Reds. The teachers, military officers and trainers, all dressed in blue, were lined up against the walls on both sides of the auditorium.
Duo sat next to Heero with Quatre and Trowa beside him. With a quick hand gesture, the braided boy signaled for Trowa, sitting on the outside of the four, to save a place for Wufei. The auburn haired teen nodded and spoke quietly to the boy next to him, who promptly moved.
The auditorium would normally have been filled with the buzz of many hushed voices of the boys curious to know what was going on, but today it was as if they all sensed this wasn't just a drill. Something was going on and everyone in the room felt it was going to affect their lives. All eyes became focused on the commander, standing straight and stiff, his eyes watching the few stragglers enter the room and sit down. Wufei and Zechs were among them, still dressed in their gray battle jumpsuits as they rushed in. Quatre raised his hand to catch Wufei's searching eyes, and in seeing him, the Chinese boy walked with quick and sure steps to the seat saved for him.
When the commander decided he had everyone's undivided attention, he closed his eyes for a moment, as if saying a silent prayer for strength. When he opened them a moment later, it was with a strength of purpose that he addressed the assembly of boys.
"Soldiers of the United Federation," he began. "Today is a day that will long be recalled as the day the world turned away from common sense; a day that the egos of men with too much power sought to force their own will on all of humanity."
The pregnant pause that followed his opening statement was filled with the emotion of dreaded anticipation. Duo sat with his arms folded over his stomach to try and quell the aching in his belly. The words the commander spoke filled him with worry and tucking his hand further under his arm in order to conceal his movements, his fingers stretched to find Heero's sleeve and in finding it, gave it a tug. Heero quickly copied Duo's stealthy movement, letting their fingers touch and intertwine, both finding comfort in the warmth of their connection as silent spoken words passed between them in an effort to reassure each other.
"Today at eight a.m. Pacific time, our enemies made aggressive and decisive strikes against our citizens. Not only did they target military targets, but our civilian population also. Seven airlines traveling from San Francisco to the Orient were simultaneously shot down from the skies over the Pacific Ocean. Car bombs were also set off this morning near tourist sites having to deal with historical, political landmarks. The water supplies of several major cities have been deliberately contaminated by chemicals that have the potential to kill wildlife and make the water undrinkable. Our people are in a controlled state of panic, which is the enemy's sole purpose for these attacks.
Presently, our forces are fighting back. Our fleets of mobile suits are currently engaged in battle with the enemy, defending several bases located in the west territory. Other divisions of mobile suits are attacking the enemy at their home bases in order to prevent any further attacks or infiltration into our territory.
We are at a high state of alert. Our facility could and most likely will be a strategic strike target. In accordance with that alert, we will be taking precautions to defend this facility and the students. All Blues are hereby called to active duty. You will be either assigned to protect this base or sent out immediately to join the other forces to wherever your skills are most needed. Orders will be sent to your rooms within ten minutes. If you have family to call, you had better do it now while you have the chance. Blues, you are dismissed until you receive your orders."
The look on the faces of those who had instructed the trainees varied from grim determination to resignation, fear and uncertainty. Yet moving together, as a highly trained unit, all those standing at the sides of the room saluted their commanding officer, still standing officiously on top of the stage, then turned to the boys who had been their students and saluted them also. The trainee's stood at once; the sound of all of them rising from their padded chairs came like a dull roar that filled the large room, and all together, along with the commander, they saluted the departing men as they marched single file out of the auditorium, their steps sounding dull, like the walk of grieving men marching to the mournful sound of a dirge.
"Be seated," the Commander ordered after that last of the Blues had left the auditorium and the trainees' eyes moved back to the man standing at the front podium. Their seats resumed, the man in charge continued. "Because of heavy losses at the onset of the surprise attacks, we are to send the top ten scoring Greens to an undisclosed base to act as backups to our regular, trained forces. Will those ten Greens please stand."
Duo swallowed hard and turned his head to see Heero, Trowa, Quatre and Wufei rise from their seats along with him. From the morning stats posted in the mess hall, he knew Zechs, Anderson, Kamwansa, Chow and Nadil would also be on their feet.
The ten teenagers of various ages stood before their commander and their fellow trainees with a look of wariness displayed in their eyes and on their faces. Everyone present in the room observed the boys standing with varied emotions ranging from jealousy to relief, knowing these top ten were about to be put to the test, to see if their training and their skills would be enough to be of service to their country at its time of need and if their training was enough to save their lives.
The commander looked at each boy thoroughly before he spoke again. When he did, he focused solely on the ten standing. "You are some of the best this academy has ever produced," he began. "Take all that you've learned to defend the innocent and defeat the evil that threatens the welfare of our country. Remember, that our enemy is human. No man is perfect and they will make mistakes, as will you. Learn from those mistakes. Do not fear for fear in itself is an enemy. Be human. War can seem inhumane," he advised soberly. "Rise above the inhumanity of it. Remember not to leave it behind as you fight for freedom and justice. Be brave. Be honorable, and fight nobly."
Commander Reid then stood to full attention and his right arm rose slowly in a salute to the ten. The sounds of the other trainees rising to their feet sounded once more as they began to salute the ten that would represent them in battle. The commander's arm came down as did the trainees'.
"Gentlemen, you are hereby advanced to the rank of blue. You are dismissed to pack your bags and send any messages to your family that you wish to. They will be delayed for twenty-four hours after your departure for security's sake. Your launch will depart in thirty minutes. Good luck and God speed."
Wufei turned and led the other four out of their line of chairs and they marched out of the auditorium to the silent well wishes and pats on the arms or shoulders that came from many of the other trainees as they passed by.
Once alone in the empty corridors, the ten walked towards the section that held their rooms in silence. Each boy was lost in his own thought of what the future held in store for them.
The moment the bedroom door shut behind Duo, he found himself engulfed within Heero's arms, his head coming to rest on the strong shoulder he often found comfort on.
/I'm scared, Heero./ Duo's voice sounded in his partner's head. /What if what we are is discovered? What if they aren't as understanding as Commander Reid?/
With one arm firmly holding the slender boy against his chest, Heero's other hand came up to stroke the long braid in a gesture that was meant to soothe Duo. /We're going into this together, that's what's important. I'll keep you safe./
Burying his face into Heero's neck, Duo drew comfort from the familiar scent of the other teen and from the warmth and strength of his firm hold on him. "But this has been our home. We don't even know where we're going," Duo sighed unhappily. After not having a home for most of his life, the training facility and, for the most part, the boys he'd lived with, had become the home he'd always craved. It was in the Federation's institution for training young boys to become soldiers that he'd found shelter, food and warmth along with safety and purpose, and he would miss it.
"I suppose most military bases are similar to the training facility," Heero reasoned calmly. "But it doesn't matter much," he added with a sigh, then finished what he really wanted to say through their mind link. /You're my home, Duo. No matter where we go or where we end up, if we're together, it's home./
Duo pulled back enough to look into the deep blue eyes, his own face lacking its usual smile as he soberly answered. "You're my home too, Heero," he replied. "Just promise me we'll be okay."
Knowing he couldn't honestly give Duo such a reassurance, Heero quickly took his lover's lips with his own, kissing the other boy with a frantic passion and allowing Duo to cling almost painfully to him. When at last they parted, they both felt their bodies trembling with an emotion other than fear.
"All I can promise is to watch your back," Heero said, his eyes searching the unbelievably handsome and trusting face in front of him.
"And I'll watch yours," Duo said breathlessly, giving Heero a token, weak smile to assure the other half of his soul that he was alright.
"Then let's get packed or we'll be late," Heero said even as he released the braided teenager and they both turned to complete the task of packing their few possessions into their duffle bags.
On to Chapter thirteen
Back to Chapter eleven