"You gonna make it?"
"Affirmative," Heero replied to the voice that crackled over his intercom. "It was your suit that took more damage," he reminded the other pilot tersely. Forget battle damage, his biggest problem right now was the power cell. OZ lacked the technology to rebuild it properly and the damn thing hadn't been holding a decent charge since then. He glared at the power gage again. It continued flashing red back at him. He'd barely gotten through three battles since the last recharge. He was in trouble at the moment, which was why instead of making a clean get away, he was following pilot 02 to coordinates that seemed altogether too close to the smoldering base in Johannesburg that they were currently fleeing.
"Yeah, I took more body damage, but you've got a fuel problem, don't ya?"
Damn it, was it that obvious?
"You were getting sluggish at the end there, 01," the lightly taunting voice said.
"And I still took less damage," Heero snapped before punching the button to close the comm link. That idiot had to make everything a competition between them. Really, using a close range weapon and being so reckless, it was amazing that other pilot took as little damage as he did.
Heero searched his computer database for a map of their destination and any other relevant information. Wing's self-destruct mechanism had made sure there was nothing left of the original computer, so OZ had only been guessing when they reassembled it. They'd given it the highest level mobile suit ‘brain' they had, but it was still nothing compared to the original. And neither, he thought disparagingly, did it control the fine workings of a Gundam as precisely. They had rebuilt it to the specifications of the Gundam prototype, so it was better than the operating system of an Aries or a Cancer, but a lot of technology had gone into his Gundam that hadn't been around when the prototype was built. Not surprisingly, the operating system and interface of Gundam 03 were almost identical to Wing's original configuration, so he'd downloaded it from 03 as soon as possible, but he still had a bit of tweaking to do to personalize it to Wing.
Apparently, Gundam 03 had been given a similar database of information about Earth, and a simple coordinates search popped up everything he needed to know about their island destination. It was July, which meant winter in the southern hemisphere. However, this close to the equator, daytime temperatures would still reach 37 degrees Celsius. It looked like winter was also the dry season. Summer would have been even hotter and raining almost constantly. Rainy seasons, dry seasons, winter, summer, equator and poles - the complexity of Earth's weather was baffling if one was used to the regulated environmental conditions of the space colonies. How did people stand such unpredictability? Heero continued reading the file and noted that at least there were no large predators or poisonous animals to be wary of. Though, in terms of diseases, this place had just about everything Earth could throw at you. Heero had been vaccinated against most diseases during his preparation for Operation Meteor, but he would have to remember to dig the anti-malarial drugs out of his med kit. If Oz had been thoughtful enough to outfit him with such a thing, he reminded himself.
He studied where the given coordinates fell on a map of the island. They would be about 50 kilometers south of a northwestern port city where Maxwell claimed there was an abandoned Alliance base. Heero frowned. OZ was still fighting to get control over East Africa but they had strongholds in Nairobi and Mogadishu. There was ongoing turmoil in Dar es Salaam and that was only across the Mozambique Channel from their proposed heading. They would be hiding in plain sight, so to speak. He hailed Gundam 02 once again.
"You're sure this place is secure?" he asked for probably the third time.
"I told you, I'm sure," Maxwell replied. "I've been hiding there for almost a month and not seen any OZ activity. OZ is still having trouble in some of sub-Saharan Africa and this island is last on their priority list. They don't care about this place, trust me."
Heero would, as a matter of necessity, be trusting him, but he certainly didn't like it. Staying anywhere for almost a month was foolish. The only thing that had kept Heero in one place for that long was a coma.
The terrain of their landing area was good, Heero had to admit. Ideal, even. They were approaching a low spot with rolling hills on all sides, the kind of hills that sent radio and satellite signals bouncing all to hell. As they got closer, he saw that not only was there a low spot, but there was a natural water drainage area that looked like it had been badly eroded and washed out during the previous rainy season, leaving them a crevice wide enough to hide their Gundams if they maneuvered them just right. He watched approvingly as his GPS unit's accuracy plummeted. While he remained skeptical about OZ's reported lack of presence on this island, he was becoming more confident that his Gundam would be secure. He transformed his Gundam out of flight mode and began to negotiate the suit into the crevice. Mean while, Maxwell was removing whatever device he used to make his Gundam flight-capable so that it would fit in the crevice.
"You'll want to throw some things in a bag, we won't make it back here tonight," the other pilot's voice told him over the open comm link after they'd both wedged their suits into the crevice.
"What do you mean, we won't make it back here?" Heero asked, irritated.
"Relax, there are plenty of safe places to crash for the night, it's just that getting to the base isn't exactly quick. We'll probably get to the base tonight and be fixing our suits tomorrow while it's light."
"Roger that," Heero acknowledged.
"Don't forget your teddy bear!"
Heero squeezed himself behind the cockpit seat and opened the storage compartment, muttering to himself, "Doubt OZ gave me one of those."
His supplies were paltry at best. Clearly, OZ was not intending to help him out any in his attempt to, well, destroy them. He found a backpack and first stuffed a headlamp and two bottles of water in it. The computer report had explicitly said that visitors would not find the well-water potable here. He then threw in a small toolkit, a handgun, clips, and some heavier clothes. The medkit lacked any sort of anti-malarial drugs and the antibiotics it did have were not strong enough. He backed out, sealed the compartment shut, and sat back down in the seat to remove the portable computer from its dock in the console. After stuffing that in his bag, he released the cockpit hatch and stepped out. He could see that the cockpit of Gundam 02 was open, and the pilot was still inside.
"Ready when you are," he called over.
"Almost there, just adjusting the screen's dimensions to include your suit," the other pilot replied absently.
"What?" Heero asked. He realized he could hear a very faint, low humming noise.
Maxwell looked up with a grin. "Walk out about 15 meters," he said, waving a hand.
Heero shrugged and climbed down to the ground. He started walking away and immediately noticed the ‘screen' Maxwell was talking about. The farther he got, the more blurred their suits looked. About 15 to 20 meters away, the Gundanium suits were completely obscured by a blur that matched the grey of the sandstone drainage they were in. It was clear something was there, but from far away it would blend in.
"How's it look?" came a shout.
"Everything is covered," Heero confirmed. A moment later, Maxwell came walking out from behind the blur, bag slung over his shoulder. "Neat trick," Heero said as the other pilot caught up to him.
"It's an extension of the hyper-jammers," Duo explained, leading the way through the waist-high red grass. "Pretty simple, really. It's just a flat projection field that can be programmed to absorb or reflect light depending on what color you want it to appear. Not good close up, but suitable for hiding in the bush."
"Does it use much power?" Heero asked.
"Negligible, even for days at a time. If you want a copy of the program, I can easily give it to you, though it requires some kind of external projection device, like my jammers. I didn't see one of those on your suit."
"I would take a copy of the program anyway, I may be able to rig something up in the future," Heero said.
"Sure," Maxwell shrugged.
One hour, and only one argument over their position on the topographic map, later they came to a paved road and followed it north a short distance to what Heero imagined passed as a village in these parts. It could hardly be called such; it was simply a cluster of seven or eight small huts. The walls were mud or grass and the roofs were thatch. A couple of them had scrubby palm trees or fences made of sticks in the yards. Rangy looking chickens roamed freely, pecking for scraps in the dirt. Old tires were stacked up here and there for reasons Heero could not deduce. He had the unnerving suspicion he'd walked into the page of a book or one of the videos he'd watched when learning about life on Earth. It couldn't possibly be real. People lived in this way still?
Maxwell was instantly mobbed with children, laughing and shouting in a language that definitely was not Universal. Universal Language had been instituted almost two centuries ago. Endemic languages were still spoken on Earth and in the colonies, but Heero had not been anywhere on the planet yet where he had not been able to understand what was being said. The children seemed much shier around Heero, but they dragged Duo over to one of the houses and adults appeared in the doorways, waving and smiling. Heero followed silently. Maxwell was conversing with the women and had apparently learned a bit of the endemic language.
"You brought someone else?" the woman Duo had been talking to asked in accented Universal. She was tall and thin and looked to be in her thirties. She wore a colorful wrap and her black hair was set in thick cornrow braids. One of the smaller children tugged on her skirt and she scooped him up, never taking her intelligent dark brown eyes off of Heero.
"Patti, this is Heero. He's a... colleague. And a friend, like it or not," Duo introduced them and threw Heero a grin over his shoulder.
"A pleasure," Heero said in his usual tone, the one which certain people with long braids had informed him didn't sound at all convincing.
"We need to get to the base," Duo told her.
"Suatalava and the men will be back by dark," she replied. "They got work in town today. Day labor."
"That's good, we'll wait for them," Duo said.
"You and your friend will eat with us before you leave," she decided.
"More of Patti's cooking!" Duo exclaimed. "Heero's not gonna wanna leave either! Do you need anything done around here in the mean time, Patti?"
"The solar power is out again. Please, if you don't mind," she asked, shifting the child on her hip.
"I'd love to," Maxwell said. Heero dogged his steps as he walked around the house and through a line of taller trees. "Mango trees," he said, "no fruit at this time of year, though."
Heero didn't reply. He had to admit that the scenery was nice, at least. The grasses were burnt yellow and red, and the few trees a brilliant green. The sky was a dramatic blue and the clouds seemed to go on forever. It was so different from a space colony, where when you looked up all you saw was more colony. On the other side of the trees were the solar panels.
"Fucking Alliance," Duo swore as he dropped his bag next to them and began to rummage through it. "You know, I came to Earth to protest the way they treat the colonies and I get here and discover that they treat their own people just as bad! Especially in these poor countries that don't have a lot of resources the Alliance is interested in."
Maxwell had dug out his toolkit and got onto his back with a grunt. He used a screwdriver to open the maintenance panel on the base of the solar unit. "They set these things up out here in a vain attempt to look like they're helping people, but there's no one to repair them. The locals don't know how they work. They're poorly refurbished military cast-offs half the time anyway. Damn things hadn't worked in over ten years when I got here! They were using them as a communal chicken coupe! It's like that all the time out here.
"It used to be a little better, from the sound of it," he continued, as he set the panel aside, "Patti grew up in this village but she got a decent education. Even went to a few years of high school in the city. When she couldn't afford it anymore, she came back here and got married. Had two kids by the age of twenty and a couple more after that. Now there's no schools for her kids to go to." He paused as he soldered wires together with a soldering pen. "The Alliance abandoned their bases here within hours of Kushrenada's spectacular little stunt. The least OZ could do is bother to fucking show up here," he grumbled.
Heero took it all in with out saying a word. He wasn't sure why he was being told all this, other than because Maxwell liked to ramble while he worked - which Heero already knew all too well.
"These fucking things," Duo swore. "Every time they crap out I gotta find a new way to patch them back together. Cheap pieces of shit. These things are ancient, that's why the Alliance didn't want ‘em. I'm running out of ideas here... I think this converter board is finally fried." He sighed. "Add that to the list of things we need to get from the base."
"How are we getting to the base?" Heero asked.
"They've got a truck in the village that I brought back last time. We'll pile in that and then bring another one back with us, depending on how much stuff we need to bring back."
Heero frowned. "We can't bring much back, we have no way to get it to the suits. You can't drive on that terrain. I just need to check the base's security and make sure they have what I need for the fuel cell, then I'm flying to the base."
"I told you not to worry, they have what you need for the fuel cell. They have an entire mobile suit repair hanger. It's no Lake Victoria Base, but it'll be enough to fix our suits. And it's secure."
"Then why didn't we go straight there? Why stop here?" Heero asked, annoyed.
"Because I had to see if they needed anything. And they know the base, they've helped me find things there all the time."
"They're coming with us?"
"Of course! Besides, they'd do anything to help me. When they found out I was fighting the Alliance, they were all too happy to help."
"This is stupid, we should have gone straight to the base and not involved all of these people."
"Sure, we could have, but when was the last time you had a home cooked meal?" Duo grinned.
Heero had to think about that.
"When was the last time you even ate properly?" Duo added.
Heero had to think about that too. Antarctica, probably. "Two days ago."
"Exactly. And we're getting dinner in about an hour," Duo said smugly. "So try not to complain too much about people taking care of you."
Heero glared but didn't say anything.
"Look, if you're worried that you don't have enough fuel to get to the base, you can steal a transport plane. It's really not a big deal," Duo tried to assure him.
"No, it's not a ‘big deal,' but it's inefficient and we are wasting time," Heero replied.
Duo's eyes narrowed. "Unlike you, I don't think giving myself time to relax with friends and eat a good meal is a waste of time."
Heero didn't say anything. He already knew he wasn't going to win here. It was clear to him that Maxwell had already invested himself in this place. You couldn't argue against that, even if you were right. He just turned and walked away. He found a shady spot under one of the mango trees and sat down to analyze the diagnostic report he'd run on his power cell. As his computer booted up, he watched children ambush Maxwell. He figured his presence had been the only thing keeping them away before. He opened up the report and tuned out the sounds of laughing and Duo saying all the names of the parts of the solar panel for the kids to repeat.
He might have thought he was immune to the attention, but it wasn't long before one of the children came over and sat down not a meter from him and just watched him intently. He tried to ignore it, but a moment later an even bolder child came up behind him and watched over his shoulder. He tried to tell them to go away, but they didn't understand him, or pretended not to. It was the last straw when a third child all but crawled in his lap. He jumped up in surprise and held his computer up out of the way as the children laughed and tried to get him to play with them.
Luckily, Maxwell was coming over to rescue him. "Oh, sorry, looks like you got childrened," he said, making the word into a verb. He had his own gaggle of children hanging off of him. He said something that Heero didn't understand and the kids backed off a little bit. "They're used to everyone being really friendly," the other pilot explained, "they want to meet you."
Maxwell then spoke to the kids in their own language and Heero could hear his name. Duo was stressing the ‘hee' and the rolled ‘r.' The kids laughed and tried to roll their ‘r's. The little ones who couldn't do it just shouted "Hee-do! Hee-do!" as they bounced around. The bigger kids all insisted on shaking his hand and telling him their names in syllables he hadn't a prayer of ever remembering.
"Where do all these children come from?" he asked Maxwell warily.
Duo grinned so big Heero thought his face might break. "Well, Heero, let me explain. When a man loves a woman - "
"Not that!" Heero snapped. He already knew all that. "I meant where do they live? There's only about eight houses in this village. And don't they have school? Or chores? Who is watching them?"
"They all live in this village. Families are big here. There are a couple houses a bit farther from the road, too," Maxwell explained. "Patti says there hasn't been an elementary school here in about five years. These little ones aren't old enough to work with the adults. Their big sisters usually keep an eye on them, but I guess they're kind of free-ranging. Some of them herd the goats and cattle, but they're home by this time of day."
There was giggling from the tree and they looked up to see a kid on the branch above them. "You little monkey!" Duo exclaimed. He reached up and began to pry the boy off the branch, causing much squealing and laughter from the others. Eventually, Duo was holding him upside down by the ankles, and then of course all of the children wanted to be held upside down by their ankles. Heero took the opportunity to go a little farther away and sit back down with his computer.
Eventually, the kids wore Maxwell out and he herded everyone, Heero included, back to the huts. The men had not yet returned, so Duo went to help the women and Heero found yet another out of the way place to try and get some work done. It was just before 1800 hours and already getting dark out, he noted. As predicted, the men returned after dark. Heero wasn't much closer to figuring out his fuel problem, but regretfully had to put his computer away. He watched impatiently as the men met Maxwell with handshakes and loud greetings. It bothered him all over again that they hadn't gone directly to the base. What was Maxwell thinking, getting all of these people involved?
Heero endured more introductions and shaking hands with more people whose names he couldn't pronounce properly. At least they could speak in UL. The men went to get cleaned up at the well and the women started unrolling straw mats in a big square on the bare ground in front of the houses. Heero noticed Duo go to his bag by the wall of a hut. He quickly followed when he saw Duo with a white pill bottle.
"Malaria meds?" he asked, squatting next to Duo.
"Yeah, you have some?" Maxwell looked over his shoulder.
"I used to, but they were destroyed along with everything else. Oz's restocking wasn't so generous," Heero told him.
"Oh... Right, when you..." Duo remembered. He fell silent and was fiddling with the cap of the pill bottle. It looked like he wanted to say something - and not about the meds. Heero decided to head him off.
"I did what I had to do," he said simply and without any hint of regret.
"But for what?" Maxwell burst out. "So they wouldn't get a hold of your suit? They collected the pieces and rebuilt it!"
"But they didn't get the computer technology, the mission directives, or anything else stored on the mobile suit hard drive," Heero countered.
"Yeah, but are those things worth your life?" Duo asked emphatically.
Heero looked him dead in the eye. "Of course they are."
Maxwell looked away and drew a deep breath. "God, you're fucked up," he shook his head. "Jesus, couldn't you have just wiped the drive or something?"
"And it was a statement. As a Gundam pilot, you should understand all this," Heero added impatiently.
"Yeah, just... watching you do that..." the other pilot trailed off. He looked back at Heero. "I just wonder if I would ever do that. If there will ever be a time when I'm that desperate."
"This war is far from over," Heero grunted.
"Yeah, there's still plenty of time to feel like there's no other way out," Duo agreed cynically as he tossed the bottle of pills to Heero. Heero caught it in one hand and shook a pill out before tossing the bottle back.
They brought their own water to the mats where everyone was sitting down. They sat down together and Heero was dismayed when all the kids clamored over to sit by them. Patti was dishing up food into bowls and passing them around. "This one is for Duo," she said and gave the bowl to the nearest person to be passed over. She dished up Heero's bowl next and it also got passed around until it reached him. He couldn't see exactly what it was, but it smelled good.
"Lentils and rice," Duo told him. "Lots of rice here. It isn't a meal unless it's on rice."
Heero nodded and tried it. He wasn't much of a food connoisseur, food was just fuel for his body, but this was really good. It was indeed very tasty lentils over rice, and it also had chunks of beef. He didn't want to admit to Maxwell that this was much better than his idea for refueling tonight, which had been raiding the packaged rations at the base. However, in his opinion, it still would have been better to go directly to the base, home-cooked meal or not.
"She did it again," he heard Maxwell mutter. "Did you get meat?"
"Yes," Heero replied.
"She gave us meat and no one else. I told her to stop doing that," Duo sighed, but was then distracted by talk of what people wanted from the base. The conversation had switched into UL since this seemed to have surpassed Duo's ability with the native language. Heero just listened and ate as they planned. When he'd finished, he started to get up so he could go back to his computer, but Duo grabbed his arm.
"So what are you going to do about that power cell?" the other pilot asked.
"I need to find out for sure what's wrong with it first," Heero told him. "I ran a diagnostic on it on the way over here and I've been looking at the results, but I haven't found the problem yet."
"What do you suspect it is?"
Heero sat back down on the mat. "It's possible it was just a bad charge to begin with. It could also be the computer's power distribution algorithm, which would be simple enough to fix."
"Faulty fuel gage sensors?" Duo offered
"Could be. That would also be easy to fix. The cell itself could be bad, but that can be replaced. Worst case scenario is that there's a drain or weak spot somewhere in the power delivery network."
"That would be a bitch," Duo agreed readily.
Heero nodded. A ‘bitch' is exactly what that would be. It could take him days just to find the fault in the power grid, and then there was the matter of accessing the right area in the suit and repairing it.
"Do you think that OZ compromised your power supply on purpose?" Duo asked.
"I wouldn't put it past them," Heero had to agree.
"Then it's probably the cell, right?" Duo asked. "So you don't have to go and play on your computer and avoid everyone, you can stay here and help us plan.
Heero narrowed his eyes. He didn't like something about Maxwell's tone. "I'd rather know for sure than play guessing games with OZ," he said gruffly as he stood up. "And if you have time to sit around chatting, then it's time we got going. Let me know when you and your friends decide to leave." He went back to his computer, determined to figure out the problem.
It was a little less than an hour before he heard truck doors slamming and Maxwell's voice shouting his name. He quickly packed up his computer and ran to the truck. He grabbed Maxwell's offered arm and was hauled into the truck bed. It was a very windy ride in the back, but at least he wasn't expected to talk to anyone. He managed to get his second shirt on and then held on for the ride. He watched sky as they drove, wind whipping through his hair. No where on Earth had he seen more stars.
They finally pulled to a stop in front of a giant steel security gate and Maxwell and one of the men jumped out. There was no guard, of course, so the two simply heaved the gate open. They jumped back in and the truck drove slowly into the base. The huge metal and cement buildings were a stark contrast to the natural construction of the homes in the village, like this base was clearly a foreign idea brought here by a foreign people. Most of the base was still dimly lit with emergency power reserves, probably from a generator somewhere, but other areas of it were completely dark. It was an eerie sight, Heero thought. He expected a Taurus corps or soldiers with machine guns to come running around a corner at any minute, but the place was completely dead. His instincts told him it couldn't be like this for much longer. The truck came to a stop and everyone climbed out. He jumped out of the bed, followed by Maxwell.
"You better get all your own parts this time," Maxwell said as he used his right hand to vault out of the bed of the truck. He landed with a grin at Heero. "Because if you ever steal anything off my Gundam again, I'm afraid we can't be friends anymore."
"Oh, is that all I have to do?" Heero asked flatly.
"Well would you listen to that! Heero Yuy, have you been moonlighting as a comedian?"
Heero ignored him.
"I can just imagine!" Duo was laughing. "If the audience doesn't laugh, I bet you go out back and get your Gundam and really bring the house down."
"Just show me where the mobile suit repair hanger is," Heero cut into his mirth.
"We're going to help these guys raid the medical supplies and then we'll go to the hanger," Duo said.
Heero shook his head and folded his arms. "You're putting personal business ahead of the mission. We go to the hanger first." He was not against stealing medical supplies for the village, but securing equipment for repairing their damaged suits should be the first priority.
"Relax, there will be time for both," Maxwell assured him.
Heero did not feel like arguing against more of this idiotic nonsense. "In that case, I'll go by myself. You do what you want," he bit out before turning in the direction of the landing strip he'd seen on the way in.
He just could not understand Duo Maxwell. That pilot could be so... infuriating. His training and skill were more than evident - his piloting was remarkable, even by Heero's standards. He knew his Gundam inside and out, he was competent with both planning and executing missions, he covered his ass on the retreat, and he knew how to hide himself. But then he went and did such wildly stupid things like get involved with people like this. It was madness. Heero was alternately impressed and appalled by him. The fact that Heero couldn't keep his feelings to just one of those two unnerved him.
The Alliance was never very creative with their base plans; mobile suit hangers were always fairly easy to locate and it was a small base, so he found the mobile suit repair hanger with little trouble. He got the lights on and began searching. It didn't take him long to find the equipment he would need. Whatever the problem with his fuel cell was, this place would indeed have everything necessary to fix it. When he was satisfied with that, he went to the general storage warehouses to pilfer anything he could fit in his backpack. He collected a new handgun and ammunition, an extra mobile computer, and several solar power converter boards and fresh wiring, in case Maxwell forgot about those. Both the warehouse and the repair hanger were well-stocked, which made it all the more clear to him that OZ would come to claim this place, and soon.
Heero's next stop was the infirmary, where he found Maxwell and the men loading stuff into another ‘borrowed' truck.
"Find everything you needed?" Maxwell asked tersely without looking up from the box he was labeling. He was clearly angry, but Heero did not care.
"Yes, I did. I will help you now," he offered.
"This is for you," Maxwell said flatly, tossing something at him. Heero caught it and looked at it. A bottle of malaria meds.
"And this is for you," Heero said, pulling his bag off to dig out the solar power converter boards. Maxwell finally met his eye, a surprised smile appearing on his face as he took the boards.
"Thanks, Heero," he said as he packed them into a box. "That saves us some time."
Heero nodded. They finished packing the second truck and Heero rode in the cab while Duo drove. He did not realize he'd fallen asleep until he woke up slumped against the door when the truck came to a halt back at the village. It occurred to him that he probably had not gotten any decent sleep since Antarctica. Actually, he hadn't slept very well in Antarctica, or even before that.
"Let's hurry up and unload these trucks so we can go get our suits," Heero suggested as he climbed out of the cab.
"We don't need to unload the trucks, everyone will divvy out the supplies tomorrow," Maxwell told him. "Let's go sit down, the guys are about to break out the rum to celebrate."
"What?" Heero asked, hoping he had misheard just now.
"You know, rum. Alcohol? Celebration? Fun and good times had by all?" Maxwell grinned at him.
Heero could only describe what he was feeling as ‘dumbfounded.' This was just beyond belief. "You want to drink alcohol before going to repair your suit? Are you insane?"
"Just a shot, it won't be more than that. They just want to unwind a little bit and socialize. They're big on that in this culture. We owe them at least that much. Besides we planned to fix our suits tomorrow while it's light, remember? You know, I heard Asmina saying she thought you had pretty blue eyes. Come on, I'll introduce you," Duo invited, clapping Heero on the shoulder.
"You're out of your mind," Heero declared as he brushed Maxwell's hand away from him. "We should get to work fixing our suits so we can get out of here. The sooner we leave, the better. For everyone," he said pointedly.
There was a knowing sigh from Maxwell, like he had Heero all figured out. "Man, are you really that terrified of connecting with other people?" he asked.
"You and I are not in a position to be doing things like that," Heero shot back. "Personal connections compromise your judgment and lead to bad decision making."
"You know, just when I start to think you might actually have a heart in there, you go being an asshole again," Duo snapped angrily. "These people have taken us in as their own, given us food and supplies when they have next to nothing for themselves. They readily put themselves on the line to help us steal from that base. And yet you feel nothing! This would be a good time to learn gratitude, pal."
"I don't feel nothing, I'm being realistic," Heero ground out, "you should do the same."
"Realistic," Duo spat. "Always thinking with your brain. That suit may as well have been programmed on autopilot."
Heero was quickly advancing toward Duo. He suddenly understood the meaning of the phrase ‘ticked off.' Something in what Maxwell had said had certainly ‘ticked' something inside him. "You really care about these people?" he asked heatedly. "You really want to help them? Then you should leave now and never come back here!"
"You're telling me to turn my back on them?" Duo growled, taking a step up as well. "The government barely functions, there's almost no aid, the Alliance abandoned them, and OZ doesn't even acknowledge their existence. I'm not walking away from this! These are forgotten people trying to scrape a living in a forgotten place. I know what it's like, I'm one of them! These are my people!"
"I understand how you feel, but you're letting your feelings cloud your judgment," Heero snarled back. "The political situation may be unstable and OZ hasn't made a presence here yet, but the greatest and most immediate danger to these people is YOU. Believe me, OZ will get here. They will not leave that base unmanned for long."
He didn't give Maxwell a chance to argue before he let everything out. "Did you ever stop to think about what they will do if they find out these people have been stealing supplies and helping a Gundam pilot? These are forgotten people, just as you said, so what's to stop OZ from wiping them out? OZ might even do something dirty like annihilate the village and blame it on a Gundam pilot, just to provoke you and draw you out. They held the colonies hostage, there's no limit to their tyranny. Can you expect these people to be able to protect you? You'll be sold out. All it takes is one man who decides that feeding his family is more important than keeping the secrets of a stranger, or one father who can't stand seeing his daughter tortured by OZ soldiers. And could you blame them?"
"Enough!" Duo cut him off. "I've heard enough!" he seethed and stormed off in the direction of the huts.
Heero had had enough, too. He had had enough of the awkwardness. He had had enough of the expectations. He'd had enough of being led around by the nose and plying by someone else's rules - rules he didn't approve of. He'd had enough of always being the one turning the cold shoulder. Friendships were burdens he did not need. Personal relations brought obligations and responsibilities he was in no position to take on. If that's what Maxwell meant when he accused Heero of being terrified of connecting with other people, then he was right. Heero's inclinations to put himself in unnecessary danger to protect Relena Darlian had scared him enough already, the last thing he wanted was more confusion.
But most of all, Heero had had enough of watching Maxwell do things he knew were foolish. Maybe Maxwell had never experienced it first hand, the way Heero had, how one simple mistake or miscalculation, or some unexpected freak circumstance could turn everything horribly wrong. A little girl and her puppy in an apartment building on a space colony could just as easily be a little girl and her puppy here in this defenseless little village of grass huts and old tires. If Maxwell hadn't yet experienced the horror, then it was still yet to come. And it would. Perhaps this lesson was one that could only be learned the hard way.
Or maybe Maxwell had experienced it already, maybe there had been that moment when he'd lost everything in a flash. Something he couldn't prevent. Something he couldn't protect. A piece of himself lost forever. Yet somehow he still carried on like this - opening himself to others and setting himself up for anguish and heartbreak. How could anyone withstand it? Heero forced himself stop thinking about it. He didn't know anything about Maxwell's history, nor did he want to. The other pilot and his circumstances were irrelevant. Heero ignored the little voice in his head that told him you didn't go and become a Gundam pilot unless you'd lost something.
He left immediately. He used his flashlight to walk back to the drainage where they'd hidden the suits. He knew he had enough fuel for 50 kilometers if he walked his suit, so he headed off in the direction of the base and finished analyzing the fuel cell diagnostic report on the way. The problem was indeed a bad cell, so he went directly to the repair hanger and positioned his Gundam next to the installation machinery. Everything was in working order and he was back in his Gundam, transforming into flight mode, in just over five hours.
+ + + + + +
Duo woke up after some really fucking weird dreams about being rescued from an OZ prison cell by none other than Heero Yuy. As if that would ever happen. He opened his eyes and found himself in a bunk in the back of a small shuttle. His head felt like it was full of molasses and he couldn't remember how he'd gotten here. The tousled head of coffee brown hair he could see in the shuttle's pilot seat jogged his memory. He remembered everything: Deathscythe not working properly in space and not being able to self-destruct. Then he got captured and it was Heero who came to get him after all.
"Well if that don't beat all," he croaked through his cotton-mouth. There was stirring from the cockpit and his savior appeared in the doorway.
"What are you doing awake?" he grunted.
"Not sure," Duo said, rubbing his head.
"We're still six hours from our destination. You need to sleep off those drugs before we arrive."
Duo remembered being held down as the OZ guards injected him with something. He squeezed his eyes shut. "Those assholes," he hissed.
"It was nothing damaging. Your tox screen was textbook for heavy sedatives, nothing more."
"When did you do a tox screen?" Duo asked, as he rolled onto his side to face Heero. He did not like that he failed to recall this incident. Come to think of it, he didn't recall getting in this bed, either. Hadn't he been sitting in the co-pilot's seat?
"The drugs finally caught up with you and I moved you back here as soon as it was safe," Heero explained. "This is a MedEvac shuttle, it has all kinds of medical equipment."
"Kind of like a flying ambulance," Duo reasoned.
"Man, what is it with you and ambulances?"
Heero ignored that. "You could still move, but you were saying really strange things. I figured you were drugged, but I didn't know what the hell they'd given you."
"What strange things was I saying?" Duo winced.
Heero shifted, looking uncomfortable. "Saying you wanted to be killed by me, absurd things like that."
"Come on, let's not pretend we don't both know," Duo said blandly. "Your original mission was to neutralize me, you told me yourself."
He could hear Heero take slow breath. The other pilot fidgeted, clearly trying to decide how to say something. "Do you remember what I said about personal connections last time we saw each other?" he finally asked.
Duo rolled over onto his back with a sigh. "Yeah, yeah. Let me try to get the wording right, here," he closed his eyes for a moment before speaking, "Personal connections impair judgment and cause bad decision making." Duo opened his eyes again and was damn glad he did because there was a smirk curling Heero's lips in a way he'd never seen before.
"Right," Heero grunted. "Case in point."
Duo chuckled and then started laughing so hard it hurt his poor abused middle.
"Go back to sleep before I smother you with that pillow," Heero huffed, but he looked more embarrassed than angry.
"Oh, Heero," Duo grinned, "who said you didn't have a sense of humor?"
"You," Heero replied dryly.
"Oh. Right," Duo grinned. As much as he would have liked to poke at Heero some more, it did feel like sleeping was unavoidable. "Why are you always stealing ambulances?" he asked with a yawn.
Heero gave him one last glance, pausing in the doorway to the cockpit. "Perhaps because they're useful and the people driving them don't expect it?"
"God, you're fucked up," Duo mumbled, eyes closing. He could hear a rustling as Heero sat down in the pilot's seat again and the click of his restraining belt. Duo smiled to himself as he drifted to sleep, knowing that this time, he had not been forgotten.