Getting it Right
The access codes worked, he was in. They had thirty minutes by his watch, and he planned to be long gone well before then. The control room was quiet, its only light coming from the bank of monitors set within the control panel. He only needed one and its keyboard. Within two minutes, he was in the system. Within five of breaching the building's security, he had his answer.
"Oh fuck," he breathed, his ass nearly dropping to the floor. Immediate action won over the shock, and he was moving even as he thumbed open his com link - the hell with radio silence.
"Heero! Wufei! Get the fuck out now! Abort! Get out of the building!"
Ignoring the demanded inquiries, he sprinted down the hall. Alarms sounded, loud, blaring and overriding all thought but the need to move faster.
"Shit! Shit! Shit!" He was swearing, bounding up the stairs two and three at a time. "No time!" he was shouting, not caring no one would hear him. Slamming the third floor door open, he began to run down empty and dark halls. He slid around a corner, bounced off the far wall and was off once again. Urgency and gut-wrenching dread were whips cracking at his heels.
There! The laboratory Heero was to search was just ahead. He ducked into the room, and glanced wildly around. The large room was divided into two parts by a glass and brick partition; one appeared to be more clerical, with file cabinets and a desk shoved against a wall. The other, and larger space, was filled with stainless steel cabinets, counter tops, glass beakers and laboratory equipment of every shape and size.
Heero was at the glass door separating the room; his eyes were as wide as his lips were thin. His appearance grimness resigned.
"Heero!" Duo shouted, skidding to a halt, his hand reaching for the handle. "You got to get out of there!" He jerked on the handle, but the door didn't move. "The gas is going to be..." Duo sucked in breath, pulled on the handle again. "Shit! It's locked!"
It was then that he realized Heero was just standing there. He noticed the destruction and wreckage of a hurried search on the other side of the glass partition. He saw the body in a white lab coat lying prone behind Heero. He then saw bloody streaks from the cuts on Heero's hands - he'd already attempted escape.
Duo pounded a fist against the thick, tempered glass. "Heero!"
The man lifted his hand, held out his com link and motioned for Duo to activate it. Duo scrambled to secure his earpiece.
"The door sealed as your call came through." Heero's voice was distant, though Duo could see his lips moving. "Wufei's on his way"
"There's got to be a key…," Duo cried out desperately. He nodded to the body behind Heero. "What about him?"
Heero ducked his head and shook it at the same time. "She was dead when I got here. She's what took me so long to respond when… when you gave the warning." He jerked suddenly and looked behind him at the bank of canisters. "It's started." A misty, fog like substance appeared to be oozing from the bottle looking necks. It crawled down over the sides, spread over the tiled floor like translucent tentacle fingers.
His pistol in his hand, Duo shouted into his com, "Get back!" A shot rang, and ricocheted off the steel locking plate; the recoil barely noted and Heero was shouting in his ear.
"Duo! Stop it!" Heero was pounding on the glass, blood smeared with each hit. Duo stared at him, unwilling to put his gun away. "You won't be able to open it that way." Heero leaned his forehead to the glass. "Besides, you break the seal and more than…more people will die. Civilians will be endangered. I can't let you do that."
Dropping his gun, Duo stepped up to the glass and placed a hand over Heero's. "Heero…" he was whispering, his voice threatening to crack. "Heero…"
Heero raised his head and looked at him. His hands flattened against the glass, mirroring Duo's - palm to palm. Heero licked his lips and glanced behind Duo to the doorway and back. "Duo."
His name was all he was going to get. Heero began to cough roughly, bending over double. Duo started to shout, to pound on the glass again. Heero's com link dropped to the floor and he staggered backwards, fell against a rack of bottles and glass containers and turned away, vomiting to the side.
A hand clamped on his shoulder and Duo shook it off. He didn't bother acknowledging Wufei's existence; he didn't take his eyes from the man hunched over in the other room. "Heero…" he mumbled, lips numb, limbs nerveless.
Heero sagged to the floor, knees splayed open and head lulled to one side. His chest rose and fell in rapid, violent motion. He opened his eyes and struggled to look toward the door. Duo's eyes locked onto Heero's, and Heero mouthed words unseen. His eyes slid shut. He gave a gasping breath, and his chest stilled.
Jerking upright, Duo gasped in the darkness. As recognition that it had been just a dream flooded his awareness, his breathing slowed to normal. His head was pounding in a steady throb as though he'd been studying program code for far too long; his mouth was dry and cottony, and his legs were weak and trembled when he stood.
Barefoot, in the boxers he slept in, Duo padded down the hall and into the kitchen. He drank a glass of water from the tap, standing over the sink. Thoughts on the dream he kept at bay; it was still too fresh - so much so, he still smelled the acidic flavor in the air.
By rote, he rinsed his glass, wiped it dry and put it away, his eyes attempting to focus on the familiar everyday things. Heero's kettle sat on the back burner, waiting for the morning tea. The potholders Hilde had bought him on her first visit, hung from hooks above the stove; she had issues with him using the length of his tee shirt to pull the lasagna from the oven. His ears twitched and he caught the sound of the clock ticking away above the dinette table. Somewhere in the distance, he heard an engine turn over and the motor was revved to warm faster.
He moved to the living room, and parted the curtains of the large window that overlooked the park three stories below and across the street. The clock chimed, and Duo didn't have to count the deep bongs to know it was three in the morning. The dream and its lasting residue had occurred often enough that it was a scheduled event now.
The first time he'd dreamed that scene had been more than three weeks prior, when the assignment had first come down. He'd been too late to find Heero still alive, then.
Hearing Heero's quiet inquiry didn't startle him, although he hadn't heard his approach. This too was becoming a regular event. Instead of turning, he dropped the curtain, smoothed its panels and took a deep breath.
"Yeah, thinking about the job." It wasn't a lie, really.
Heero had come into the living room proper, had come to stand by his side. Duo turned to look at him then, and hid the lurch in his chest. Heero was alive. Heero had never been in danger of dying. Duo raised a hand, and redirected it to scratch at a nonexistent itch on his ear, aborting the attempt to make sure Heero was okay.
"We've been through the specs. We have the logical evidence. We only need the physical evidence." Heero's voice was still low, but held an undercurrent of concern. "It's a solid plan, Duo. It will be executed by the best."
His lips twitched only a fraction; the best were Wufei, himself and Heero. Their chance of success had been calculated in the ninety-eighth percentile. He wouldn't have an issue with either the plan, or believing in their success - if it hadn't been for the dreams.
He let his eyes trail over Heero's face, and hoped his real worry was hidden enough. He appeared not to have aged much in the intervening years, losing only that slight boyish look to his cheeks. He trimmed his hair a little closer, and had gotten taller. Given that he had an inch or two on Heero, Duo had grown some himself.
"Hey," Heero tilted his head to peer up at him, his hand on Duo's arm. "You okay?" Duo nodded, and resisted the urge to step within those arms. "You sure?" And Duo nodded again, opening his mouth to speak. "You don't second guess yourself like this, normally." Heero's lips clamped tightly together.
Duo drew a deep breath and pulled away, moving to sit on the couch. "I'd like to go over the plans again in the morning." Heero didn't protest. "There's still a day before launch, and I want to make sure we have all avenues covered."
"We have time, though I don't think you'll find anything new." Heero sat on the easy chair, arms bent on his knees as he leaned forward. "Equipment check is at fourteen hundred hours. Final run-through at twenty-three thirty."
"I know." Duo scrubbed at his face, and ran a hand up over his hair to rub the back of his neck. "I can't help but think there's something we're missing, some piece to this puzzle that's slipped by us."
From his expression, Duo knew Heero was considering his comments, but didn't see it himself. "We have been monitoring the building by twenty-four hour surveillance for a couple of weeks now. Every supply truck going in or out we have the manifests for, and counterchecks shows there are no discrepancies." Heero sat back staring at the ceiling. "Personnel files have been reviewed and checked again. Backgrounds have been researched. There is no outward appearance of any wrongdoing."
"Which is why we're about to B&E to find it." Duo was all but rolling his eyes. "I know all that, Heero. But my gut is telling me there's more to it than inventory sheets and office clerks."
"But no proof otherwise." Heero's comment dropped into the silence.
Duo stared hard at the hangnail forming on his big toe and didn't answer. The lingering effects of the dream still prodded. He jumped to his feet and stalked to the window.
"Why did you join the Preventers?"
"Huh?" Duo craned his head back, his hand still gripping the curtain. "Join the Preventers? Why do you want to know that?"
Heero shrugged. "Just curious. You seemed... happy where you were."
He gave a bark of laughter, short and sharp. "The scapyard? Don't make me laugh."
"I already did." And he smiled.
Duo's hand jerked, rattling the drape. "Yeah, you did." He looked away, staring out into the darkness and the one lone light shining on the playground. "I was bored. You know how it is, move a pile of junk here one day, move it there the next." It was the truth, if not all of it. "What about you? I thought you were going to school to do something different."
"Yeah, so did I." Heero's response caused Duo to turn. "I think... I needed a break. Set some priorities." Heero looked up from the floor to watch Duo walk back to the couch. "I thought getting a degree would open new windows, let me do some good."
"But..." Memories, focused in clarity as though he were reliving them again, bludgeoned him. "You were - without the degree."
"I guess I was."
"So, why the Preventers?"
It was Heero's turn to look away. "Because I believe I can do some good with them." He stood suddenly and almost glared down at Duo. "If you're only in it because you were bored, then people are going to get hurt or killed."
Duo pushed back the climbing resentment and shook his head. "There's more to it than that..." Heero's hands unclenched, and the rigid way he stood seemed to relax somewhat, to not be so menacing over him. "I thought that by my being involved... things would be different. That..." Duo studiously avoided looking at Heero. "that I would one day be at the right place at the right time."
"Okay, that's fair enough." Heero stuck his hand out. "There's still a few more hours before we have to be at work." Accepting the help up, Duo was suddenly bare inches from Heero. "Let's go back to bed."
He let out a breath slowly, and nodded. Heero turned away; Duo closed his eyes trying to find balance. Seeing Heero walk around their apartment in his boxers wasn't new. Being kissably close to the man was tempting. It was a temptation he didn't need.
Heero had been right. Nothing in the manifests, the employee research or the company financial records indicated anything was amiss. But the dread lingered. It snuck up on him, pouncing with vicious claws as he ate breakfast, as he washed his hands in the men's room, as he followed Heero to the war room.
He had fourteen hours to figure it out, fourteen hours before the mission was deployed.
Dragging the list of known chemicals over the table with the Preventers' scientists' analysis on what could be concocted from them, Duo flipped through the components again. Common industrial chemicals, for making glue, was the conclusive write-up.
It had been noted that in and of themselves, mixed or separate, chemicals could be hazardous. But that didn't make it illegal to own in massive quantities. Laundry bleach, when mixed with ammonia, creates a toxic gas that can kill. Household chemicals have been found to cause many deaths, most all accidental.
Why would a manufacturer of mining equipment want to create a toxin strong enough to wipe out cities? Duo leaned back in his chair, drumming his fingers on the tabletop.
The investigation started simple enough - an anonymous note had been sent to the Preventers public email address. Its origin had come from the city library out of a free email service. The note had stated Crater Chemical had developed a biochemical weapon, and had an interested buyer.
No links to subversive groups, past or present, had been discovered. By financial auditing, the books looked solid, and the company in the black for legitimate profits. But, there had been a blip on the radar. An interview with the owner had been cut short abruptly; the agent processing the interview recognized the waiting visitor.
Focus intensified, and material was shifted through time and again. The noted visitor underwent investigation - there appeared to be no justifiable reason for him to be there. Two days before, the need for hard and fast evidence flamed; a mid-level employee, the manager for Crater Chemical's IT department, became the victim of a hit and run.
Another anonymous message arrived from the same library minutes prior to the man's death. The message stated the sale was taking place the following Monday. The manager was returning home from a library visit with his son.
Wufei unrolled several large sheets of paper, tacking down their ends with domed paperweights to hold them flat. Duo didn't have to look to identify the contents - floor plans for Crater Chemical.
"We have a half hour window to get in, get the evidence and out." Wufei looked at him first, and then Heero. "Jennings will be monitoring communications and intercepting electronic traffic if there is any." Duo nodded. So far it's what they'd discussed before.
"Duo," Wufei said turning his attention back to the layout. "You have the control room. Reconnaissance places mainframe and IT operations in these three rooms, here, here and here." Duo glanced at the plans and back up, nodding. "If our unknown informant came from the IT department, find out how he got his information."
The sheets were shuffled. "Heero, your goal is the laboratory on the third floor. Gain access through the stairwell..."
A light sweat broke out over his forehead, and Duo wiped it away with his fingertips. He was struggling to keep his breathing at a normal rate, keep his heartbeat steady. Dread had its grip on him again.
As Wufei outlined the lab, Duo's head started to shake, drawing both of their attention. "What is it?" Wufei's eyes had narrowed.
"I..." Duo began, his throat closing on the words. "Nothing. Just..." his hand waved in the air briefly before settling back on the tabletop. "...déjà vu."
Wufei grunted and went back to the plan. Heero watched him for a moment; Duo refused to meet his gaze.
He tuned them out. It was the plan they'd devised the day before, and would go over again later that night. The metric ticking of the wall clock was suddenly too loud, its hands running too fast around its face. He was no closer to finding a clue, and had only twelve hours remained.
Their equipment was laid out on the table's surface - normal gear for an early morning co-op mission. Three seemingly identical handguns, matted black to leave nothing to shine, all forty-five magnums with a sixteen-cartridge magazine, low impact recoil and near silent report. But all three were as different as their handlers. His was the heaviest, for he liked the weighted feel. Heero's was the lightest, and its bullets gas-packed. Wufei preferred a standard issue weapon, and the slight adjustments to its sight and firing mechanism wouldn't be noticed by any but the most expert of gun specialists.
Com links had been sorted, all set to the same low frequency and wrapped in protective insulation to keep from being tapped. Each held an earpiece linked to a receiver; each had a microphone to attach to a glove. A piece of his dream flashed, and they hadn't been wearing gloves even though Duo knew for this mission they would. Wearing gloves was standard procedure.
Each of them would be equipped with tasers, special lock picks, and night vision lens. Duo would carry a specialized disc pack with a jump-enabled jack to pull, store and send tera-bytes of data in nanoseconds.
They were set to rock-n-roll. Wufei was rolling the building plans back into its cylinder. Heero was collecting his gear, double checking his weapon before storing it in its holster and then in his bag. Picking up his gun, Duo mimicked Heero's motions, wondering why, if they were so ready, he felt something vital was missing.
One of best parts about sharing an apartment with Heero were the shared rides when they worked on assignment together, Duo had always thought. That day had been no exception, and Heero's offer to drive had been quickly accepted. Stopping at the grocery store after the planning session concluded was part and parcel of those free rides.
Heero scowled at his short list, checked it against the items in his cart and turned to Duo. "Could you go grab some shampoo?" Duo nodded and started down the aisle. "Pick up the large bottle. I want it to last."
Giving a short nod, Duo rounded the corner. He wants it to last... In twelve hours, his dream would have Heero dead. Duo found the right shampoo brand, and hefted the large container in his hand. It was heavy. Last a hell of a lot longer than two-three weeks... Duo pictured Heero pouring an amount on his palm. Maybe a couple of months depending on how much he used.
And then he wondered how much shampoo Heero did use. If he washed his hair first or waited to wash it last. He wondered what it would feel like to lather his hair, to watched it rinse away with suds sliding over his skin. And he knew he'd never know. He looked at the bottle in his hand. It was time itself. Two more months of use, two months of hope.
Finding Heero, he handed the bottle to him, but still held onto it. "This will last a long time."
"Yes, it will." Heero glanced down at the bottle and back to Duo. "About two and a half months worth." Duo still hadn't released his hold. "Everything okay?" he asked softly.
Duo was left nodding again. "Yeah, great." He let go of the bottle, watched Heero tuck it down in between the dish soap and a gallon of milk. Two months.
"I thought we'd pick up some lunch meat and hoagie rolls for the weekend," Heero was saying. "Since we don't know what will happen tonight."
"Tonight..." Duo mumbled, fear sloshing through his limbs. Heero spoke as though he'd be there to eat those sandwiches. Spoke about time he didn't have. Duo leaned against a shelf and closed his eyes. It is only a dream.
"I think I'll go wait in the car," Duo said straightening and pulling out his wallet. He had no cash and cursed.
"Don't worry about it. I've got it covered this time." Heero grinned at him. "You can take care of the groceries next time."
Duo's wallet fell from his suddenly lax fingers. He hit his head on the cart bending to retrieve it; his face was pale and his stomach rolled. Heero still wasn't aware there wouldn't be a next time. Duo nearly ran from the market. Leaning with a hand against an awning support, Duo closed his eyes and sucked in several long breaths of air.
Sitting inside the car was out of the question. His chest felt tight and unable to breathe without the additional feeling of being over enclosed. He found a place to lean on the front fender. It was a dream. It was only a dream.
A child approached the store, clinging to his mother's hand. He was attempting to drag her off to the mechanical rides and even from where he stood, Duo could hear the boy pleading. His success was rewarded, the coins dropped and the fiberglass and steel horse moved. It ran in place at a steady speed, ignoring the cries of its rider to go faster.
"Could you open the trunk for me?"
Heero was standing in front of him, plastic bags hanging by their handles from his hands. A quick nod, and Duo scrambled to hit the release button and moved to take part of his burden. After a quiet thanks, Heero glanced back at the child he'd been watching before opening his door. Duo shot a look in that direction, but the boy's mother was drawing him almost forcefully into the store.
He was smiling as he sat down and buckled up.
It was as if the soles of his shoes were being sucked into the hall flooring, holding him back, keeping him from running faster. The hallway lengthened; he wasn't going to make it. The laboratory entrance was just ahead, he ran through calling Heero's name, only to see the glass door close with a snick; Heero was on the other side, carrying the body of the lab tech.
Duo smacked the glass with the palm of his hand. "Damn it! Heero! Look for a key!" he shouted into the com link even as he pulled the special kit from his pouch. He had to break him out. As he worked on his end, he could hear breaking glass, a tumble of shelves and Heero breathing hard through his earpiece. His fingers flew over the miniature keypad controls.
"Nothing! There's nothing here!" Heero shouted.
Three loud pops were distinctive over the com and Duo stopped to look. Heero was frozen in place, a handful of papers clutched in his grip, he stared at the bank of canisters on the back wall. "It's started."
"No!" Duo pounded on the door. "A gas mask! Find an oxygen mask, Heero!"
Heero looked frantically around the room, and turned to face him. He jerked his chin and Duo looked. Beside the doorway entrance, hanging from utility hooks, four or five masks dangled - on Duo's side of the divider. He placed his hands on the glass and stared at his friend.
Already he was coughing, his lips a faint blue shade. "Dizzy..." Heero whispered and touched the glass. "Duo..." he turned his head and coughed roughly, almost dropping to his knees with the violence of it. "Duo... I..." A hand clenched in his shirt and he went down, gagging, vomiting.
Lowering himself to the floor, Duo watched the spasms wrack his body. He was barely aware of Wufei's presence crouching down beside him. Heero turned his head from where he lay, opened his eyes. And his chest stilled.
Heero's bedroom door was closed. Duo hesitated a moment only before moving on; no matter what, it was still a dream. The hall clock chimed the ninth hour and he headed for the kitchen. It was almost time to start getting ready for the night. Only... Heero sat at the dinette, building plans spread out on the table before him.
"Couldn't sleep?" Duo asked from the doorway.
"Not really." Heero slid his chair back and looked at him. "You? That was a short nap."
Duo shrugged and went to the stove. Turning on the burner under the teakettle, he commented, "Still going over the plans? Who's second guessing now?"
A grunt and papers rustled. "You're still not satisfied. I was trying to determine why."
"Why?" Duo turned, holding a tea bag from his fingers.
He didn't answer immediately, and the kettle whistled softly. Duo was spooning sugar into his cup when Heero finally spoke.
"Your instincts are unusually sharp. When you are uncertain, things happen."
"Yeah," Duo said nodding. He continued to stir his tea. "I kinda noticed that myself." He took a seat across from Heero, blew on the steam in his mug and tested its heat. "Just wish I had a clue why or what to do about it."
Heero didn't reply, but went back to looking through the plans. From his side of the table, Duo watched Heero's eyes track hallways and doors throughout the building. "Heero," he started in softly. "What would you say to adding another piece of equipment to your pack? A gas mask?"
His hands had stilled on the paper and Duo raised his eyes to see Heero watching him. He was quiet, but Duo had the idea Heero was thinking the suggestion through. Finally Heero turned back to the plans, shaking his head.
"There shouldn't be a need and isn't part of the standard equipment issued."
"They deal in chemicals, Heero." Duo clutched his mug. Only a dream.
"Normal chemicals in controlled environments, for production use." Heero rubbed at his forehead. "I don't think there'll be a need, but I can check to see if one is available."
Relief was instant. "Th—thanks, Heero," Duo fumbled. Heero gave him a brief nod, holding his gaze for a moment. Duo was nearly finished with his tea when Heero spoke again.
"How come..." his voice was low and hesitant. "Why didn't you marry Hilde, settle down and have kids?"
Duo swallowed quickly. "Why the fuck would I want to do that?"
"It's obvious you love her, and she loves you." Heero looked up at him then. His eyes were dark and his expression unreadable.
"Yeah, but..." Duo held Heero's gaze. "...not like that. There's only one I do care about... like that."
The hall clock chimed the half-hour, and Heero looked away. "We should start getting ready. Two hours 'til final check." He stood and began to gather the papers he'd spread out.
Duo rose and downed the rest of his drink. As he passed, Heero touched his arm. "Duo, when this assignment is over, we should talk."
His mouth suddenly dry, Duo nodded and gave a ghost of a smile. "Sure," he more croaked than said. "After this gig. Talk. Got it."
Heero's hand was still on his arm, and he continued stared at him. "I... like the way you cut your hair." His eyes had rose.
There were times he forgot he no longer wore a braid, no longer had the length of hair he once did. It'd been gone for nearly a year, and this was the first time Heero had said anything. Heero had given a measured look, but said not a word. Duo touched the ends. "It needs another trim." He moved away, went to the sink and rinsed his cup. "Funny how shorter hair always needs to be cut. Never bothered with it much when it was long."
By the time he'd put his mug away, Heero had his papers packed up. They stood facing one another, a brief awkward silence between them. Duo shifted on his feet, began to head out of the kitchen, looking away. "Just..." he paused at the door. "Be careful tonight, okay?" He looked back in time to catch Heero's nod. "Otherwise a couple of months worth of shampoo will go to waste."
Wufei lead the way into the building with Duo following and Heero bringing up the rear. Once they'd left the surveillance van, radio silence became mandatory. The faint smell of something chemical, almost acidic, was strong, but expected in the warehouse. Duo blinked several times in the darkness, trying to adjust his eyes to the night lens. In their dark clothing, without the night vision he wouldn't have been able to see more than three or four feet.
Their equipment had been packed away earlier that afternoon, and the van didn't carry masks. Heero shrugged it off. Wufei insisted they stick to the plan - it was too late to make changes without delaying deployment.
Once on the main floor, Wufei gave the all-clear sign, and the signal to split. Duo watched as Wufei headed out, gave him the count of twenty and dashed to the next blind spot on the opposite wall. He was halfway to his destination; the picture of Heero climbing the stairs to the third floor inched its way into his head. His legs became leaded.
Attempts to keep his focus on the job at hand were failing. He brought out the card reader bypass, and began the series to open the control room door. Only a minute had passed from separation; Heero would be near his floor now. The green light clicked, and the door swung open - he was in. Duo licked his lips, sweat dotted his brow and he was panting in an instant.
"No," he whispered. "I ...can't..." and he was running down the hall, thumbing his com link as he went. "Heero! Get out of there now!"
He took the stairs two and three at a time, blocking out the similarity from his dreams. He was going to make it this time. Heero wasn't going to die. Wufei's voice was in his earpiece, demanding to know what was going on. Duo ignored him and ran. On the third floor now, he could hear Heero telling him he'd found someone.
"Don't! No time. Leave her!" he shouted, and slid around the corner. The laboratory doors were just ahead.
The alarms startled him into a misstep, but he regained his balance and pounded on. Entering the room, he instantly spotted Heero carrying the lab tech. The glass doors were sliding shut. "Fuck!" he was cursing and turned up the speed. His arm flashed out, grabbing as he flew through the doors. He stood for a moment only, gasping for breath, staring at Heero.
"Here." He thrust a mask in Heero's direction, and worked one on over his head. Three loud pops, much clearer and even more ominous this side of a dream, sounded. Duo shuddered as he watched the gases combine, oozing out of their containers.
"Idiot." Heero was there, rapping knuckles upside his head.
He couldn't help the grin. "But you're alive."
Heero nodded. "Yes, I am." He'd turned to look down at the woman he'd been carrying. "She was dead when I got to her. Not sure what happened."
A muffled pounding noise was heard and they both turned to see Wufei standing on the other side of the doorway. Duo had never seen him looking as bad as he did. He looked gray.
"Get HAZMAT out here and have the area evacuated," Duo said into his com link. "We're okay for now. There's," he checked the dial, "forty-five minutes of air in each." Wufei nodded from the other side of the glass and pulled out a cell phone.
A hand slipped into his, and Duo turned to Heero. Heero smiled and squeezed. Duo returned the squeeze, his knees suddenly weak. It was too damn close.
The Hazardous Materials team arrived within the half-hour, and through his com, Duo knew things were happening in and around the building. A confident voice relayed what the HAZMAT team was doing and why, how they had to seal off the area before extracting them. Plastic tent-like structures were set into place, sealing off the door. Men and women in hermetic suits worked quickly, but without the franticness Duo was beginning to feel. Their time was running out.
Heero had hold of his hand again when the team finally broke the seal to their prison and squeezed it quickly before dropping it as they were ushered through plastic tunnels, down the hall and into another large room. They were ordered to strip off everything but their masks, and hands helped when they didn't move fast enough.
In through another plastic doorway, makeshift showers were set up. A group of four tackled Duo, dragging him under a showerhead and squirting some sort of soap all over him. Through his facemask, he could see Heero being given the same treatment, and he grinned. As the team scrubbed and scoured his skin raw, as they sprayed him down, and nearly drowned him when the mask was removed, he was still grinning. Heero was alive.
When the HAZMAT team seemed satisfied they'd removed several layers of skin, Duo was led through another set of plastic doors and tunnels. He was handed a couple of towels and saw that a pair of sweat pants and a tee shirt had been placed on a chair.
He was handed a pair of paper slippers, and an agent Duo recognized from Internal Affairs was there to take him to another room. A scouring of a different sort awaited him.
Hours later Duo was dropped off at his apartment. He hadn't seen Heero or Wufei since he'd been led from the shower room. After his interview with the IA agent, and another debriefing with the division officer, he was taken to the medical facility. A thorough exam complete with fluid sample analysis came back negative. He was given a schedule of appointments for monitoring over the next six months - or at least until Preventer researchers discovered what exactly the gas was, and how it affected the human body.
Duo wondered if Heero had gone through the same routine, and if he hadn't been so tired, would have demanded to compare notes. As it was, he was sorely tempted to drop on the couch and not move. The apartment was silent.
"Heero?" he called, kicking off the badly scuffed slippers. "You back yet?" There was no answer.
The tee shirt he'd been given to wear was a bit small and smelt of a storing agent to deter bugs. It also scratched at his tenderized skin. He pulled it off over his head on the way to the kitchen, thinking one of those sandwiches and a glass of milk would taste pretty good. Just as his shirt cleared his head, Heero stepped through the kitchen doorway, a hoagie in one hand.
"Ah..." Duo dropped the shirt to the floor. "Didn't think you were back." His heart began to thump and his palms to sweat. Heero had changed into a pair of shorts and his own tank top, and Duo saw red patches and pink skin. But he was alive."Hungry?" Heero offered, holding up his sandwich.
Duo nodded and deliberately stepped closer. He bent his head and took a bite, watching Heero all the while.
"You have," Heero said moving even closer, "mustard right here." His thumb swiped over a spot just under Duo's lower lip, and even as he chewed, Duo watched Heero bring his thumb to his mouth and lick it clean.
He swallowed the rest of the bite and followed Heero's thumb. Their first kiss was of mustard, pastrami, pickles and lettuce. And later, Duo wouldn't have been able to say what happened to Heero's sandwich, but neither of them had eaten it.
"Idiot," Heero told him softly, tapping knuckles on top of his head. There was a curious quality to Heero's voice Duo hadn't heard before, and he opened his eyes. "You could have been killed."
Under his hand, Duo felt Heero near to trembling and he searched Heero's face. He felt like he'd shake apart himself. "And you would have been," his reply was just as soft. He pressed his lips to Heero's again, to his cheeks and chin. "It was so close. Too close."
Heero held his face between his palms and touched his forehead to Duo's. "Too close," he repeated. "Duo... about last night... about what I should have said - "
"Shh." Duo shook his head and kissed Heero again. "I think, for now, we should hold off having a talk." He yawned suddenly and Heero smiled. "I'm about ready to pass out on my feet."
"Okay, sleep first then." As though Heero didn't want to break contact, he slid his hand over Duo's shoulder and down his arm to grasp his hand. They walked toward the bedrooms together and outside Heero's, he stopped. "There are no words that I can say, but... thanks." Heero leaned into him, then, pressed him against the wall and kissed him.
"Just at the right place at the right time, is all."
Heero nodded. "Yeah." He stepped back, looked between his open door and Duo. "Stay with me?"
Duo glanced from Heero's room and down the hall to his own. Twelve hours before, they'd almost died. Twenty-four hours before, he thought he was seeing the last of his friend. Thirty-six hours, he had walked down the same hallway, parting at this same door. The countdown had stopped. He turned back to Heero and smiled.