It was precisely five twenty-three a.m. and relatively dark outside when the commander, still in his bathrobe, pajama bottoms and slippers and carrying a blanket wrapped Duo, stepped out of his office. Heero walked closely to his left, keeping his hand on top of Duo's head to maintain contact and their connection while Quatre used his good arm to help support him as he endeavored to keep up in his weakened condition.
Wufei flanked the other side of Treize, his gun concealed in the waistband of his pants, within easy reach and ready in case of any trouble.
Treize followed Wufei's whispered instructions as to the direction in which he should walk. It the horizon was greying as it was the hour before dawn as they made their way towards the rubble of a demolished building. They cautiously skirted the edge of what was left of the building's exterior, stopping to wait until the lone guard posted at the far corner turned his back to them, allowing them to move around a large chunk of concrete and slip in between its cracks. Encased in total darkness, a click and a bright beam of light emitted from an object in Wufei's hand.
"This way," he whispered in a tense voice and led those behind him to a partially collapsed stairwell. Careful of their footing, the four slowly made their way down the crumbling stairs, with their backs pressed against the cool and broken walls as they cautiously stepped over debris and avoided the jagged, broken sections of the shattered stairs that would cause considerable damage or death to any who, by even a small misstep, fell off the broken edge to the descending floor far below.
Two storeys down, the stairway and adjacent corridors appeared to be in surprisingly better shape in contrast to the upper floors. Treize, feeling sweat forming on his brow and trickling down his back from his exertions of holding the dead weight that was the blanketed boy, found it much easier to execute his duty of carrying Duo and following the only beam of light when he didn't have to crawl over large blocks of concrete, metal beams or sections of plaster that had fallen from the ceilings and walls. He was more than a little grateful that the next set of stairs seemed to appear more solid and had less debris strewn about. Those obstacles had caused him to stumble more than a few times as he struggled over them with his self-imposed burden. Gratefully, Wufei's hand on his elbow steadied him every time.
At last they reached the utility closet on Lower Level Five and Wufei moved without hesitation to open the door. As he did, the distinct click of a gun being readied to fire echoed throughout the hollow corridors.
"What took you so long?" Another bright light from a flashlight shone in their eyes as a deep, familiar voice asked the question with a tinge of annoyance to it. Wufei lifted his own light, shining it on Zechs standing not ten feet ahead of the closet's door.
Treize's eyes widened at the trim and tall young man with the attractive face and long white hair that looked ridiculously handsome to him. He looked more like a rock music star than a soldier. "What's with you guys?" He asked the newcomer and the four Federations soldiers turned to look at him questioningly. "Is the Federation a guise for male fashion models or something?"
The tall blond looked at the commander with his eyes traveling from his head to his feet, "Guess we could ask the same question," he replied sourly and, hating his years of training to be equated to a frivolous occupation. A long moment of awkwardness stretched out in the dim lit space after his comment.
Quatre cleared his throat and answered the commander's question. "Umm, no," he said answering Treize's question, then looking to Zechs with a slight, humorous smirk on his face. "For myself, I saw some pretty ugly Allied soldiers and nurses while in the medical ward."
Wufei snorted and a reluctant twitch of Zechs's lips showed his amusement at the smaller blond's comments.
"So," Zechs continued. "Is he a prisoner, sympathizer, or someone from our side in an enemy's uniform?"
"All of those, I guess," Heero answered as he moved to stand in front of the base commander. He put out his arms indicating to the man that he should hand Duo over to him.
Treize nodded and carefully set his light burden into the teen's arms. Duo instinctively melted into Heero's embrace and his blue-violet eyes slowly opened to look into his lover's stoic face. He smiled faintly, then closed them again and appeared to fall back to sleep.
Treize turned to Quatre. "Its not for me to tell any of you what to do at this point, but for those two," he indicated with his head towards Heero and Duo, "I would put in a request to whoever is in charge of the base you call home to carefully review their situation. They should be considered F-4, unable to serve due to health concerns. Their genetic deposition and circumstance will make normal service, especially during war, nearly impossible."
"I'm fit to serve," Heero stated defiantly, having heard the commander's voiced comments.
Treize gave the boy a doubtful look. "If either of you is captured, I doubt a reunion would be as successful as it was with this venture. I'm sympathetic to your plight, Heero. I don't know of many other Allied commanders who would be. Duo could have died if you were unable to find him and come to my trailer; he nearly did."
"We're soldiers," Heero retorted stubbornly. "If we die in defense of our country, then we die."
"Duo didn't want to die, Heero," Treize said softly. "He looked to you to come for him. Even now, he put his trust in you to see him safely home. He'll follow your obviously more dominant personality as I assume he was genetically engineered to do, wherever you lead him. Will you lead him to a future fraught with more agonizing, near death separations, or will you lead him to a life more normal and safe?"
"We're not normal," Heero answered sadly, looking down on the face of his mate, seeing the teen's eyes were half open again, taking in the conversation but too weak to speak up in his own defense.
"The scientists were evidently trying to invent the perfect soldier team when you two were created," the sandy haired man continued. "Why they would give you a crippling Achilles' Heel by attaching your life with another boy is beyond me. But Heero, you don't have to be what they designed you for. You and Duo are sentient beings, two souls who feel pain, hate, joy and love. You are not mere tools created by insane men; you are two boys who deserve to live and find your own happiness. Did you risk so much to come for him only to ease your suffering or because you truly care for him?" Treize paused for only a moment, but seeing that Heero was not going to answer him, he also dropped his gaze down to the boy in Heero's arms, he added, "My advice, though unsolicited, would be to tell you to seek out what makes you both happy, not settling for doing a job or living as you are told merely because you were designed to do it."
Heero listened to the enemy commander address him as he continued to study the beautiful but pale face of the boy in his arm. The words the other man spoke resonated within him. Duo wasn't just a need or necessity to sustain his life, he cared about his other half, loved him. He needed him, and not just to connect with, he needed Duo to make him feel whole. The intensity of the feelings that surged through him at that thought made him feel week kneed. He truly was in love with Duo Maxwell, heart, body and soul, and he didn't think anyone could have engineered his DNA to make him think that way. He nodded his head in agreement even as Duo looked up at him with searching eyes. "I'll think about what you've said," he said out loud.
"That's all I ask," Treize said with a small smile and tightened the sash of his robe around his waist.
"We need to go," Wufei said, bringing a halt to the conversation between the two. "Time is growing short."
"Without me?" A quiet voice echoed slightly from the darkness behind them.
"Trowa?" Quatre questioned, recognizing the voice the same moment that the missing auburn haired teen stepped into the dim outer glow of the flashlight beam.
Seeing it was his good friend, Quatre launched himself at the tall, slender body of his best friend, giving him a fierce hug. "Have you been down here the entire time?" Quatre asked, then noticed Trowa was wearing a green jumpsuit that he noticed was worn by all Allied ground crews.
Trowa shook his head, then with their full attention on him, he went on to briefly detail the time he'd been separated from his friends. "After the wall collapsed on us, I managed to get out with only minor injuries, just bruises and scrapes. But I found you half buried and semi-conscious. I tried to get the rubble off you, Quatre, but it became apparent that I couldn't do it without hurting you further. I don't know if you remember, but I stayed with you until I heard soldiers coming in our direction and had to scramble over the rubble, going in the opposite direction of the approaching soldiers, and hid myself at a safe distance until they cleared out. I stayed down here in the dark for several hours, evading the remaining search parties."
Trowa looked up and gazed at Duo resting in Heero's arms. "I snuck outside some time after daybreak in hopes of stealing a transport during the confusion and escape the base. That's when I saw Duo being carried out of an AMS by a person I later learned to be the base commander. I decided I couldn't leave the base with the both of you in the enemy's custody. I did some reconnaissance, but you were both too heavily guarded. When you were transported from the medical building, I saw that you were too wounded for me to make a rescue attempt. So I hid in the shadows to bide my time, knowing that if Heero survived, he would come for Duo." He looked up to lock eyes with Heero. "I'm glad you guys are so predictable."
"Another weakness," Treize said quietly, not judging, just stating his observation.
"Lets get out of here," Zechs said, anxious to get going.
"I'm going to assume that you are going to keep your word and let me go," Treize spoke up calmly. " If so, how do I get out of here?" the young commander asked, his eyes searching the darkness around him.
"Turn left from this door and walk about two hundred and fifty feet," Trowa instructed. "You can feel for the air and it will lead you up the stairs and out of the rubble."
"No flashlight I presume?" From the sardonic look on the man's face, it was clear he already knew the answer.
Wufei turned to the man. "By the time you find your way out of here, we'll be gone. Your not having a flashlight will make it easier for us to let you go."
Treize nodded and looked at the young soldiers with a feeling of envy. There was such a strong bond between five of them. It was obvious the tall blond wasn't really a part of what was going on, but it was comforting to him that the two boys, who had been unnaturally brought into the world for use by a government, had found good friends. He hoped they would be strong enough to help the two find a normal life in or out of the military.
"Then I'll say God speed until we meet again," he said, keeping his farewell short, then turning, he disappeared into the darkness of the ruined building.
"Thank you," Quatre called out after the man, feeling the need to express his gratitude on behalf of himself and his comrades.
Wufei approached Heero. "Let me help carry him," he asked, looking down at Duo whose eyes had closed once again.
Heero paused a moment to gaze down on Duo's face once more. A slow smile grew on the face of the boy he held in his arms, and three of the four keeping an eye on them knew the two were sharing some form of communication. They watched as Heero lowered his head until his forehead touched Duo's for a moment before he straightened. The two flashlight beams picked up the brightness of Heero's eyes, glistening brightly with extra moisture as he looked up and back to Wufei, patiently standing before him. "We'd both appreciate your help," Heero finally replied to the other boy's request.
Wufei nodded and swallowed hard to fight back the emotions he felt in the show of trust the two other boys were extending to him. Taking a step closer, he said, "We'll carry him together and share the burden." Heero's eyes locked with his, and they gave each other a shaky smile, both aware their own emotions were easily read at the moment.
With their arms locked together, supporting Duo's back and catching up the back of his legs, the two boys, linked by the devotion each felt for the injured teen in their arms, carried him through the open portal to the tunnel within. The small troop was led in front by Zechs, his flashlight guiding them as they made good their escape. Heero and Wufei followed close behind him, carrying Duo, and they were closely followed by Trowa and Quatre. Trowa held Wufei's flashlight and shone it forward, aiding the two carrying their light burden in securing their footsteps in the blackness that surrounded them in the long tunnel.
At the end of the long, hidden passageway and up the first ladder, they met their new captain in the supply room just below the escape hatch that led to the desert above. Kahn quickly assessed Duo and Quatre's injuries and frowned. They were not in the best of help for the arduous task of climbing the desert hills that separated them from the transport that would take them to safety. They had come in under the radar screen the night before, in the darkness of a moonless night, but it was now sunrise and it was impossible for the transport to come to them and maintain a safety margin, keeping them and their position unknown to the enemy. It was quickly discussed and determined that the rescue team and the wounded soldiers had no choice other than to climb several of the hills to the hovercraft that was hidden in a deep depression between several hillsides.
"What of Anderson and Chow?" The Laotian captain asked as he watched the two Asian boys carefully set their wounded teammate down on the floor of the shelter then sat on either side of him. Both were obviously protective of the injured boy.
The braided teen, apparently awake but weak, leaned heavily to his left and onto pilot Yuy while Chang lifted the boy's shirt to check the bandaged wounds wrapped around his middle.
"Gone," Trowa answered the captain's question. "Shortly after Quatre was taken to the base commander's office, their holding container was lifted from the base by a large transport helicopter.
The Asian captain took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. "So this is all of what's left of your training team," he commented, looking at the six young men, now a little more experienced and less eager than when he'd first met them only a few days ago. He watched the three on the floor a moment longer, then turned his attention to their other wounded teenager. The blond and brunet boy stood close together and gave the appearance of hovering over the other three, definitely concerned and willing to help if asked. The taller boy kept inquiring in a soft voice as to how his blond friend was faring. Zechs stood a bit apart from the other five with a perplexed look on his face, obviously wondering, along with their new captain, what the undercurrents in the room meant.
Captain Knaphasey could feel the many emotions swirling just under the surface in the small metal room. Anxiousness, exhaustion, relief, curiosity and so many more. He shook his head; there was no time for him to analyze what was going on. They had to get out of the shelter and over the first hill as soon as possible. "Let's go," he told the six. "Get a drink of water as it's going to get very warm once we're outside. We'll all take turns carrying Maxwell."
"No." Wufei spoke up in a calm but firm voice as he looked to his captain. "Heero and I will carry him."
Yuy nodded his agreement and gave a small smile of approval to the Chinese boy. Interesting indeed, the captain thought as he watched the exchange.
"Alright, but call out if you need any help," he replied. He then led them out by being the first to climb the ladder towards the surface. Lifting and opening the hatch above, the brilliant light of the sun as well as sand spilled down upon him and into the room. He continued out, scrambling on his belly onto the sandy surface. After a quick glance around to get his bearings, he turned and looked down the hatch. "Hurry up!" he ordered urgently, scanning the desert area around them and hearing a discussion going on below.
Zechs was the next to come up, his handsome face was grim looking as memories of this last venture out of the hatch and into the desert was less than pleasant. As he crawled out, it became apparent that he was pulling someone out with him. The smaller, injured blond had his undamaged arm clutching the taller blond's waist, his hands gripping Zechs's belt as he climbed out onto the desert surface.
Trowa came up immediately after Quatre was pulled out completely, having made sure the injured boy didn't slip or fall back during the difficult task of climbing the ladder's rungs with a broken arm and clavicle.
The three teens and their captain lay on the desert floor waiting for the others, the sand already getting warm and seeping uncomfortably through their clothing. It was more than apparent that Quatre, not to mention Duo, would not be able to crawl or run because of their injuries.
Kahn moved closer to the three. "Barton." The teen looked up, ready to receive an order. "Go help the others get out. I'll take Zechs and Quatre with me to the hill and we'll wait for you there. Follow as quickly as you can, helping when ever the other two need it."
Trowa nodded, and with a quick glance at the smaller blond at his side, giving him a reassuring smile, he belly crawled back to the open hole in the ground.
"Let's go." Captain Knaphasey told the two blonds. He stood up and bent to help the smaller, injured boy to his feet by taking hold of his good arm in order to support him. Zechs came to his feet immediately and went to the other side of the injured boy and the two quickly ushered Quatre across the desert sand towards the foot of the dry hills that stood before them as the distant sun eased up over the eastern horizon.
Trowa looked down into the storeroom to see Heero place Duo's limp body into a piggyback position on Wufei's back and instructing the injured boy to secure his arms around the Chinese boy's neck.
Duo managed with Heero's help to bring his arms up and clasp his elbows with his hands, locking them in position. Heero then guided the wounded boy's legs up and helped Duo wrap them around Wufei's waist, locking his ankles together.
Prepared now to climb the ladder to the surface, Wufei cautiously and with some effort, began to take the first of twenty steps up the rungs of the ladder. After climbing three, he then paused to allow Heero to climb up and follow close behind them. The Japanese teen remained one rung behind the two and kept as close to Duo's back as possible in order to assist Wufei and to make sure the wounded boy didn't fall if his hold around Wufei's neck and body loosened.
Above them, Trowa observed the slow but steady ascent of the three and as they neared the top, he reached down to help pull both Wufei and Duo up and through the hatchway together. Once out, the two lay on the ground, Duo still pressed flat and sprawled against Wufei's back as Heero came up and out behind them. Trowa quickly secured the hatch that had made their escape possible, and using his arms and hands, covered it over with sand.
"Are you alright, Duo?" Wufei asked, looking over his shoulder to the boy behind him. Duo's face was close enough that his warm cheek brushed up against his own. The feeling gave both boys a momentary sense of comfort.
Duo faintly nodded his head, his eyes remaining closed. "Thanks," he said in a weak whisper.
Heero pulled himself up along side the two and lay on his stomach, his face turned to rest on his arms as he watched Wufei carefully remove himself out from under Duo's slack body and raised himself up, resting on his knees.
Trowa observed the three, assessing their condition while thinking over what he'd learned. During their walk through the underground tunnel, Quatre had filled him in on what had happened while they were separated, of Duo's injury and being taken care of by the base commander, how he had been brought in to try and comfort the gravely ill boy, and of Heero and Wufei's sudden appearance, probably just in time to save both of the connected boys' lives. It was clear to him that Duo belonged in a hospital, not trying to escape through the desert. Heero, too, looked drained of all energy. He was unusually pale, as was Duo, but he still had a sense of good health about him. It was apparent that the lengthy separation and Duo's wounds had almost killed the two of them and had left them both dangerously drained of the energy needed if their escape was to be successful. It seemed to Trowa that the cards were stacked against them, and with that thought in mind, it became clear to him that the enemy commander's words made sense. His two friends had been designed from the beginning to be the future weapon for the Federation, but in being linked together, made to be almost inseparable, they had a vulnerability no other soldier had. One scientist's bizarre idea of creating a bonding as a strength to the near perfect, engineered team, had instead invented a condition that made them ineffective within the military they had been designed to fight for.
The auburn haired teen stood back and watched as Heero slowly pulled himself up and lifted the almost helpless Duo off the sand and placed him in position on Wufei's back. Arms and legs were again locked in place and Wufei moved to rise. "Is he secure, Wufei?" Trowa asked.
"I think so," The Chinese soldier grunted as he came to his feet and reached back with his hands to Duo's upper thighs and shifted the slight body, trying weakly to cling to his back, into a more comfortable position.
"You lead; I'll follow with Heero."
Without another word, Wufei then began his trek over the loose sand that shifted under his weighted feet. Trowa helped Heero to his feet and slung his arm over his neck and secured it. Using his other arm, he wrapped it around Heero's waist, hoping to lend his weakened comrade even more support. "Come on Heero," he urged the silent teen whose eyes remained on the two in front of them while trying hard to keep his feet under him. "Let's go climb a mountain."
The four traveled towards the sand covered rolling hills that were sparsely decorated with a smattering of cactus and brown, spindly shrubs. In the distance they could see the other three ahead with Quatre being aided by the two taller men. It was easy to see they were making faster progress than they were. Trowa led Heero along and kept as close to Wufei and Duo as possible, allowing the Japanese boy put his hand on Duo's back every once in a while for a moment or two of much needed connection.
It was nearly a mile long journey from the sub-level storeroom to the hills, but to the four lagging behind the other three, it seemed like ten. They finally reached the edge of the slope and were met there by Zechs, a frown of concern on his face. The four were sweating from both exertion and the heat of the desert sun that was very warm even in the early morning. Duo's arms and legs were slack, his weight held up against Wufei's bent over back only by the position of Wufei's body and hands, reaching back to hold the braided boy's bottom in place. The tall blond led them to a crevice where the Laotian commander rested against the side of a deep ravine with Quatre propped against his side. The blond teen was leaning heavily on the dark haired captain, his face drawn and pale, his eyes closed as his head rested against the uniformed shoulder. It looked like the injured boy was sound asleep.
Once in the shade, Wufei gently fell to his hands and knees, mindful of his burden and breathing heavily, feeling exhausted from carrying the extra weight on his journey through the loose, shifting sands of the desert.
Trowa eased Heero down next to them and moved to pull Duo from Wufei's wet, sweat-drenched back and set him down into Heero's waiting arms.
The other two, sitting in the near distance and observing the movements of the four, watched wide eyed as the two boys lay pressed together, taking solace in each other's arms in an embrace that suggested many things.
Captain Knaphasey turned his head away from them and took in the reaction of the other soldiers to the scene displayed in front of them. Wufei and Trowa wore twin looks of concern as they tried to make the two holding each other more comfortable. They didn't seem surprised at all by what was before them. A look up at Zechs's face revealed both his confusion and obvious discomfort at the intimacy of the embrace.
"It's not exactly what it looks like," Quatre's tired voice spoke up, surprising the man holding him. He thought the blond teen was asleep.
"Then what exactly is it?" Zechs snapped testily.
"Top secret," Trowa answered without looking away from the two bonded teens as he pulled a rock out from under Heero's shoulder. "They, and information about them, are classified."
"And as their captain I'm not entitled to know?" Kahn asked, frowning. He felt more disconcerted at the idea that he was in the dark about the situation than at the two boys' who were locked by their arms and legs in a physical and intimate embrace.
"Probably not unless you're ready for a desk job far away from the war front," Wufei answered, having caught his breath and, seeing Duo safely and comfortably resting against Heero, moved to sit down a short distance away with his back against a cool rock.
"But YOU know," the Laotian captain said accusingly.
"We've lived with them for years. We get classification by default," Quatre replied.
"Che," Zechs snorted, clearly unhappy because he'd lived with the two, gone to school with them, and still didn't understand fully what was going on between the two teens who had been an enigma to everyone in the training center.
When no one spoke further, Captain Knaphasey shifted his position, careful of the injured boy resting against him, and looked up the challenging slope. "Five minutes and we climb this hill," he ordered, letting go of the subject that the other greenies seemed adamant about keeping to themselves.
"How far to the transport?" Trowa asked moving to sit in a more shaded spot.
Wufei answered. "There's two more hills after this one before we reach a place flat enough for the hover transport to pick us up safely." His eyes rested on the two lying quietly in front of him. "You okay, Heero?"
The Japanese boy nodded, his worried eyes lifting to meet Wufei's. "Duo's unconscious," he replied in a subdued voice.
Trowa moved to their side and lifting the large shirt covering Duo, he observed the bandage around the boy's torso and saw that it was still clean.
"His leg." Quatre directed his next move.
Not seeing any other way to check it, Trowa pulled out the elastic waist band of the borrowed sweat pants away from Duo's pale waist and pulled the cotton fabric down slightly and studied the bandage encircling Duo's upper thigh. "Clean," he called out. He then moved to look into Heero's face that rested softly against the crown of the long haired boy's head that lay heavy on his shoulder. "I think he's just exhausted, Heero. He should be in a hospital bed recovering, not escaping through the desert. But all in all, I think he'll be okay."
Heero nodded, "We'll be okay once we get back to the base," he whispered and protectively tightened his arms around the limp body pressed against his chest, mindful not to cause any harm to his lover.
After several moments of catching their breath, getting a drink and wiping the sweat from their brows, the company of seven groaned almost in unison as they rose to their feet to begin the last and probably most arduous part of their escape. Wufei and Trowa shared a look of concern, each silently realizing their task would be more difficult to carry out with their wounded comrades, already suffering from the heat and strain. But there was no choice; they couldn't afford to fail, especially after coming so far.
On to Chapter nineteen
Back to Chapter seventeen