Disclaimer: I don't own Gundam Wing, its characters or its story line. But I do enjoy writing about them!

Pairings: 1+2+1, 1x2x1, 3+4
Rating: PG-13 (for language for now)
Warnings: A double serving of action, spiced with intrigue, with just a hint of angst, and topped with drama

A/N: Originally I wanted to write this chapter in a third person POV, jumping from character to character to tell the story. It wasn't working, so I had to go back and rewrite it a couple of times to correct the flow. A very special thanks to Alba and Hans - thank you again for all your help and encouragement!

Protection from You
Chapter Three: Mission Gods of War
By Merith

It always amazes me how quiet Wing is when the need to be is paramount. We came from the north and east, surprisingly quick for something that large. Beam shield in place, I powered the Gundam's beam saber to life. A gun turret and most of one side of the fencing was gone before the alarm was raised. Never stopping, speeding forward with saber slashing and buster gun firing, we left a path of death and destruction in our wake.

The alarm ringing out was the signal for the three other Gundams to appear. Heavyarms was in the lead, as the plan outlined, and he worked his weapons as he knew how. The pilot and his Gundam plowed through flanking troops bent on joining the foray with my adversaries. On one side of Heavyarms, the gray and black Gundam, Deathscythe, harvested a crop of screeching metal and screaming soldiers. On the other side, the black and tawny Gundam, Sandrock crushed all resistance it ran into.

Taking down another opponent, I paused to note where the other pilots were, and if any seemed in need. I saw the base scrambling, as figures ran to their Leo mobile suits. Sudden flames erupted, brightening the night and taking all by surprise. Painful screams and terrified shouts were heard, joining the confusion. The blue, gold and gray Gundam, Shenlong, strode forward, removing the North parameter fencing and fired a cannon shot at the last remaining gun turret. That target removed, the pilot turned his Gundam to the storage yard filled with Leos.

I jerked my attention back in time to catch a Mobile Suit in mid-swing. Blocking the blow, I delivered a short sweep of my beam laser, cutting the suit in half and killing its pilot. Turning, I faced a contingent of MS's that had escaped Shenlong's flames. My focus narrowed, and I blocked all distractions.

As in most attack missions, radio silence except for absolutely necessary communications had been initiated. These standing orders didn't mean a thing to Pilot 02, however. Duo Maxwell was never quiet unless it was a stealth mission, and then pity those of us stuck with him after it was over. As though he saved all the words he would have said until after the mission, and once completed, he would unleash them all at once, many times over.

Music blared from his outside speakers; the heavy guitar and bass sound added to the confusion and noise. By this time, all the Gundam pilots had long gotten used to operating with the clamor, and it seemed to disorient the OZ ground and mobile troops.

Firing off a Vulcan missile at one of the warehouse targets, Maxwell's voice shouted through the com link, "Woohoo! Take that you sons-of-bitches! You have just met the God of Death! How does it feel, assholes?" He grunted as an MS slammed into him, and the com went quiet as he fought the suit off.

"Fuckin' A! Think you could take me down, bastard," his voice sounded more terse than jubilant. Noting this oddity, I risked glancing at the monitor aimed in his direction. I saw the scoring across his Gundam's chest; the MS must have caused some damage. 02's cockpit vid showed his face wearing the customary manic grin and fevered light in his eyes; he seemed to be in normal Shinigami mode. I turned my attention back to my opponent.

The music changed, and raucous clashing metal sounds rang out of Deathscythe's speakers. "Get the hell back! Run for your fuckin' lives, you losers! We are the Gods of War, and you're all going to die!"

I grunted trying not to waiver in my concentration.

"01, 05," Chang's voice sounded intense with fury over the com. "Request permission to kill 02."

A rare grin flashed. I almost felt the anger rolling in waves through the air. "Negative, 05. Pilot 01 will take care of Pilot 02."

"Make it quick, 01."

Toggling a lever, I switched from open com to a single burst. "Maxwell, cut the chatter."

"Ah, Daddy, but I wanna play with ‘em." Was that laughter in his voice?

"02, if you do not cease the banter, I will be forced to remove you from the mission."

"Ooh! I love it when you talk rough to me!" This time, I did hear the laughter. He grunted and I heard a gasp. My glance flickered over his monitor again, and I could see he seemed startled by something.

"Status, 02!" I demanded.

"Going stealth. Watch your back," the quiet reply came and he disappeared from my sight.

My proximity alarms rang, loud and obnoxious, demanding my focus back to my immediate area and away from pilot 02. I spent the next several seconds clearing out the MS's that had made their way behind me while I was distracted.

Deathscythe reappeared almost in front of me, close enough that I saw Maxwell through the cockpit window, his usually congenial face tight and drawn. Already swinging his scythe beam, he sliced through several of the mobile suits that had surrounded me. Automatically, I turned my back to his, and fought within the arc in front of me, trusting 02 to not allow any to break through his defenses.

Flipping to an open com, I demanded a status from all the pilots. We'd been fighting for over ten minutes, and time seemed to be slipping through our fingers. OZ would have surely sent backup troops any minute, and we still hadn't completed the mission.

"02 fine and dandy!" Maxwell quipped his usual response.

"03 check," Heavyarms' pilot replied.

"04 check," Winner's voice was strained, but determined.

"05…" there was a long pause without sound. "Check."

"05, reconfirm status."

Another long pause was heard. "05 will have to withdraw. There has been a…" a muffled noise sounded. "Complication."

"Explain," I demanded. Without Chang's support on the North side, the mission could have been in jeopardy

"Extraction necessary," his mysterious response surprised me.

I grunted. "Proceed, 05. RV in 00 – 1 hours, safe house 13. Confirm."

"Acknowledged. 00 – 1 hours, safe house 13, confirmed." Already I heard his Gundam firing the launch sequence to remove him from the fighting.

The area surrounding Wing and Deathscythe was littered with the metal remains of a good number of Leos, more than I wanted to think about. Alternate plans flitted through my mind on how to cover both sides of the base, while 02 and 04 infiltrated the buildings to complete the mission.

"02, 04, commence plan."

Maxwell's voice sounded a touch strained, but still in good humor. "Nothing doing buddy, too many baddies out here to leave you to all the fun. Give it another five. We'll make it, it'll just be tighter."

"Negative, 02. Stick to the plan." I had already moved away from Deathscythe, striding towards the abandoned North quarter. "03, change watch parameter to target five. Defensive watch and distraction."

"01!" Deathscythe's pilot yelled through the open com. "Don't be an idiot! Both of you cannot hope to hold off all these guys on your own. Just wait!"

Turning, I leveled my buster gun at his Gundam, and demanded, "Move, 02, or I will be forced to use this."

Deathscythe stomped back to Heavyarms' side. Through the private link, I heard normally over-exuberant pilot cursing me, but I ignored him, and continued to cover the northern quarter.

When it came, the sudden silence was almost a shock. The music stopped, and all chatter was cut short. Knowing that could only mean 02 had done as he was told, and the mission moved forward, I concentrated my focus on those in front of me. A unit of ground troops, on foot, attempted to target the knee joints on Wing. A well-aimed HE unit could disable my Gundam and allow other injuries to be made. Clamping my jaws tight together, I swept through the ranks, blocking out the blood and the sound of their screams.

Time both sped and crept along. Urging 02 and 04 to hurry and set their charges, I wiped my brow. I could feel the stiff fingers of pain clawing from the inside, and resisted the compulsion in my limbs to shake. Dredging up aspects of my training, I ignored the pain, ignored the signals my body was sending me. I pushed all thoughts and feelings from my mind to complete the mission. I could not fail as I had the previous night.

My concentration was so intense, so focused on taking out the Leo suits, it came as a complete shock to hear both 02 and 04's voices over the open com. It hadn't seemed as though enough time had past for them to complete their directive.

"On my count, ready to launch," Maxwell commanded. My fingers automatically keyed the sequence series to lift off. "Oh, shit," his voice was quiet. I paused, and glanced at his monitor. His head was down, bangs hiding his face, but I saw he was biting his lip.

"Status, 02," I demanded.

"Fucked up the ass," he growled, and looking into the vid, he added, "The detonator's busted. I'm trying to bypass its broken grid." I heard an alarm sound from inside his cockpit, and he ripped his attention away from me. "Goddamn son-of-a-bitch! Can't fuckin' leave a guy alone for a minute can you?" I watched as his hands danced over the controls in his Gundam.

"04, report. Can you cover 02 while repairs are being made?" All business, I kept the wave of frustration from my voice.

"Check," Winner's reply came, serious and quiet. "I-I apologize… I shoul..."

"SHUT UP!" Maxwell shouted. "Just get that bastard so we can blow this popcorn stand."

I glared at the vid. Something had happened, but now was not the time to discuss it. I had been monitoring OZ's communications and knew we had less than ten minutes before we had company. Lots of company. "02, provide ETR."

"Fuck! I don't know, Yuy. This bastard's being a bitch, and I don't exactly have the tools necessary to do the job right."

Wiping the sweat from my brow again, the gnawing pain flowered from my middle. Blowing a deep breath out, I toggled the switch to private mode, and asked quietly, "Can you do it, Duo? Is it possible, or are you wasting our time?"

Something in my voice must have caught his attention, or my use of his name did; I hardly ever used a name over a com. He stopped working and raised his head to stare at the vid screen. "Yeah, Heero, I can do it. But it's gonna take some time. The board's cracked, and without a replacement, I've got to rewire the connectors, jumping the broken circuits. With only my fingers, and this shitty pen-knife, it's not impossible, but I'll need a few minutes."

I glanced at my watch again. Less than seven minutes now. Not enough time. Switching to open com, I drew a deep breath and began. "The mission has been compromised. 02, 03, and 04, retreat. Less than seven minutes until reinforcements arrive, and I will have to complete our directive. Bug out now."

Silence followed my announcement, and not waiting for anyone to say anything further, I made my way to the prime objective, building four. Ignoring my heart hammering in my chest, the tightening of my gut, and the sensation of wanting to vomit, I typed in the series of commands to self detonate Wing. I blocked out all noise, all distractions as I worked, occasionally wiping the sweat from my brow. From a distance, I heard the other team members' voices shouting, but I couldn't spare a moment to see what they were doing. I had given them their orders; it was up to them to accept them or not.

"God damn it, Heero!" 02's shout finally jerked me from the haze of concentration I'd fallen into. "You are not going to do it! Give me a minute!" I glanced up at his monitor and saw his face was red, angrier than I'd ever seen it. He seemed frantic, his movements spastic and not his usual graceful, fluid motion.

Quietly, not quite sure why I spoke, I told him, "I have to, Duo. I have to complete the mission. It is the only way."

He heard me for he started shouting again, "No! You do not have to do this! I'm almost done, just give me another minute!" I saw him raise his head to look up at the vid, visibly shaking as he said in a low deadly voice, "You are always looking for some stupid excuse to self destruct. Well, you can just go fuck yourself, this time, Yuy." Waving a flat piece of plastic and electronic circuitry in the air, he announced triumphantly, "I did it, asshole, so back the fuck off. Now."

I stared at him for a moment, anger, resentment, and borderline hatred wavering. I had wanted to die. I wanted to end it, to stop the pain, to stop feeling. Now, with his efficiency and skill, that option had been taken from me. Startled, I realized Deathscythe was actually positioned behind me. Feeding the frustration and anger I felt, I ducked Wing low, and spun around, sweeping out with one heavy arm. Wing shuddered with the impact. But it had accomplished what I wanted. Deathscythe faltered and fell to one knee.

"SHIT!" Maxwell yelled. "What the hell are you doing?"

Wing was already up and posed. I hadn't drawn my beam weapons; I didn't want to hurt him, I just wanted to… hell, I don't know. I just wanted to let some of this anger out and he was there. 02 was quick, and I almost didn't see his attack. As it was, I was barely able to block the blow, and missed the move he made to ram into Wing's middle. My Gundam went down hard, crushing the building behind me.

"Stop it!" 04 commanded through the com. "02, back off now. 03, get 01 out of there. Enemy reinforcements ETA minus 4 minutes."

Heavyarms appeared in my sight, and offered a hand up. Brushing him aside, I commanded Wing into a launch from the ground, and shot into the air. Shame flooded through me; I nearly let my personal feelings interfere with the mission. Transforming into flight mode, I flew from the area, trusting the remaining pilots to complete the mission.

I switched off all links, not wanting to communicate with anyone. Hearing the heavy boom and feeling the shock wave slam into Wing's underside, even as high as I was flying, I knew our objective had been achieved. Tuning all else out, I plotted a distant coordinate into Wing's autopilot, and let it take over. My hand shook as I dug the small bottle of aspirin out of my pocket. I closed my eyes while crunching down on the bitter tablets; they dissolved on my tongue, and began to ease the pain lodged in my stomach.

What the hell was wrong with me?

Fighting with Maxwell was the last thing I had wanted to do. I let my emotions take control, and in the middle of a mission no less. Focusing inward, I ran through my recent actions to determine what I could do in the future to prevent the loss of control again.

A flare of pain flashed, and spots danced before my eyes. If this pain didn't stop, I would lose more than my control. With a cry, I convulsed in my chair and only its restraints kept me from falling to the floor. My head lulled to the side, and my breath came in ragged gasps. The pain was eating through me, sending waves of it along each nerve line, burning fire throughout my body.

Clutching my middle, I keyed one-handed the command sequence to halt Wing. I needed to find a place to wait this ride out; I could not trust myself in this condition to pilot my Gundam. Accessing local area maps, I determined a likely spot not too far from where we were. I maneuvered Wing through the trees, and came to rest under a mountainous overhang. It was night, and hidden deep in the shadows of the mountain, with no moon out, an OZ soldier would have to be pretty damn lucky to stumble upon us.

Wing now safe and shut down, I released my harness, and fell to the cockpit floor. Still holding my abdomen as if that would help keep the pain at bay, I crawled across metal plating. Pain tightened its hold, and I fell flat, rolling onto my back, shouting in the grip of its intensity. Nausea, hot and acrid, rose in my throat, and I turned my head, retching.

Feeling as though nothing were left to vomit, I rose to my knees and continued to crawl to my bag strapped in its place near the door. Fear spiked seeing how weak I'd become in such a short time. My hand shook badly, almost to the point I couldn't work the zipper. Items tumbled from the bag, and I let them fall, intent only on seeking relief. Finding the first aid kit at last, I fumbled with the latch, nearly spilling its contents to the floor as well. A shot of morphine would kill the pain; I didn't plan to use the whole dose, just enough to take the edge off and allow my body to function without fighting itself.

As the static needle poked its way through my epidermis, I could feel the tiny tendrils of relief already soothing my overtaxed nerves. My breathing slowed to a more normal rate, and the claws stopped its raking, wanting to break free. My head swam a little, and I cursed silently, believing I'd allowed too much of the painkiller to enter my body. The edges of my vision swirled in gray, and slowly faded to black. I slept.

I jerked awake, cold and shivering on the metal floor of Wing's cockpit. Confusion hung heavy for a moment; spotting the empty e-med syringe, and the spilled contents of my bag, memory crashed back to me. Hurriedly, I checked my watch. Letting out a sigh of relief, I still had time to make it to the RV. I'd be late, but not so late the other pilots would send out a search party for Wing.

Picking up my clothing and equipment, I spotted my sweater and held it in my hands for a moment. I would have to apologize to Duo; he hadn't deserved my anger, and fighting with him was pure stupidity. A finger traced over one of the doves, and for a moment I almost saw the longhaired boy sitting in front of me, grinning that idiotic grin of his. An innocuous thought crossed my mind, and I paused in pulling the sweater over my head; I hoped the doves meant peace.

As though it had never existed, the pain had faded, leaving me able to clean the mess I'd made in the cockpit, and climb back into the command chair. Taking a deep breath, I keyed the start up sequence to Wing's ignition, and waited while the engines hummed to life. My training took over, and I reviewed the monitor recordings of our immediate area. Nothing and no one had come near. I took a read out of satellite surveillance, and discovered there didn't seem to be any activity in Wing's surroundings; though just to the south appeared to be teeming with vehicles and MS's.

Almost ready for flight, I did one last necessary procedure. The switch flipped, I stated in a flat emotionless voice, "Base, 01," and waited for the expected reply.

"Base, check," Winner's voice responded instantly. He must have been waiting by the com link.

"01 ETA to 13, 0100."

"Acknowledged 01," I heard the hesitation and knew he would ask. "Are you all right, Heero?" his voice was soft. He must be worried; Winner never broke radio protocol.

I sighed. I would have to make apologies to more than just Duo. "Yes, I am fine."

"Good. We're all worried about you, and Duo's…"

Scuffling noises sounded through the link, and suddenly 02's voice came through, "You'd better get your ass back here right now, Yuy. No, scratch that. You'd better find a good place to hide ‘cause I'm going to kick your ass all over the fuckin' place! What the hell did you think you were doing? Where the hell have you been, asshole?" I heard a loud yelp, a thump and a door slamming.

Winner's voice came back on, sounding breathless. "Sorry ‘bout that. Duo's been rather upset since we arrived at the RV, and you weren't here. He wanted to go search for you immediately." Pounding in the background could be heard, and I almost grinned, envisioning his antics.

"04, 01 will be at 13 in 45 minutes. I will debrief at that time. Until then, I suggest radio silence." I paused before adding, "And, please, don't let Maxwell near the com. I-" Swallowing hard, I continued, "I don't think I could listen to him at this moment."

"Acknowledged, 01." I envisioned Winner nodding his head, grinning at the implied whine in my request.

Cutting the open channel to the receive position, I worked the sequence code into Wing's navigational system, and braced for lift off. I kept command of the flight, but allowed Wing's system to do the actual flying. As the dark landscape below me flowed by in shadows, I kept my mind focused; watching the minute reports as they flashed across the screen.

I arrived at the safe house a lot sooner than I thought I would. Set on the outskirts of a small mining town, the Gundams were safely hidden in an abandoned iron works building. We were to use the old foreman's house to bunk down in for a few days before separating. It had been deemed we needed to stay out of sight and out of action for a few weeks; our activities had been many in the past couple of months, and OZ was more alerted to our presence than we'd like. After the furor died down, the team would split into two or three groups, each group heading in a different direction to hide out and wait for the next mission. I planned to be on my own during the next downtime period.

Barton met me after I descended from Wing to quietly explain the parameter defenses and to tell me where the proximity alarms were set. I absorbed the information while finishing up the shut down procedures ingrained in me, making sure Wing was secured before seeking my own rest. 03's pilot grabbed my arm before I left the building. Surprised, I glared at him.

Dropping my arm, he stated in a flat voice, "I know you had a good reason to do what you did, and I will not say anything against it." He looked away for a moment before turning back to face me. His lips set into a tight line as he said with more venom than I'd ever heard from the quiet mercenary, "However, if you ever again disrupt a mission, and threaten another pilot's life like you did tonight, I will kill you."

We stared at one another for a brief minute. I sighed and looked away. "If I pull another stunt like that again, I hope you do kill me." Barton grunted but did not speak. I left him standing in the middle of the empty factory, still smelling faintly of the raw ore and acids used to extract the alloy.

The short walk to the house did nothing to bring clarity to my thoughts; I had no idea what I would say to the others or how I would apologize to 02 for attacking him. I entered the house through the front door and came face to face with the very pissed off American pilot. Seeing the anger in his eyes, I nearly turned back the way I'd come. Taking a deep breath, I squared my shoulders and took a step forward, only to be punched in the middle.

Not expecting such an action, I bent double, the breath knocked from my lungs. Though my ears were pounding with the blood rushing through them, I still could hear Maxwell yelling at me, none of it making sense, and only seemed to be a jumble of noise.

"Duo," I gasped, I straightening up and reaching for his arm. I had to stop his torrent of abuse.

He jerked away from my hand and slammed his own against my shoulder. "God damn, fuckin' idiot!" he was shouting. "What the hell did you think you were doing? I can't believe you'd just destroy yourself like that!" His other hand fisted and hit my chest. Keeping my eyes on his face, I knew this was the only way he could release the emotions he harbored. His hits were hard, but not the full strength I knew he had; he wanted to hurt me, not injure.

"Did you think no one would care, huh? What do you know? We all care, you asshole. But that's just like you, isn't it? Thinking only of yourself and not of anyone else." As each line was delivered, a punch landed on my chest, shoulders or arms. "What about me? Did you think about me at all in your oh-so-terrific plan? What do you think I would have done, knowing my failure caused you to fucking self-detonate?"

His voice had changed to a degree, and I stared hard at him. He ducked his head, hiding his eyes behind his bangs. But his hands grabbed my shoulders, and he started to shake me. "You're such a fuckin' idiot, Yuy. Why do you want to die so badly?" The last came out in a whisper as I finally had enough and wrapped my arms around his body, locking his to his side, and pulled him close. His face pressed against my sweatered shoulder, and, a touch awed, I could feel his warm tears soak through the material. Duo was crying, for me.

I could see Winner and Chang hanging back, one at a door to what I assumed would be the communications room and the other standing by a rickety old chair. Giving a slight nod, I turned away ignoring them, and spoke only to the boy I held. "I'm sorry, Duo. I-I didn't … I shouldn't have…" I still wasn't sure what to say to him. Of all the pilots, he was the one I felt the closest to, and our friendship was dubious at best. I trusted him with my life, as Wing's back up, and to complete his mission with the utmost of his abilities. But I could not find it in myself to be able to tell him what was on my mind.

He sniffed, and pulled back a little. His face was blotchy, but calm, and after a quick glance at me, he averted his gaze, a faint tint coloring his cheeks. "Yeah, you shouldn't have." He grinned suddenly, and shoved on my shoulder, almost tenderly this time. "For the Perfect Soldier, you sure fuckin' suck at self destruction."

Shaking my head, I could only give him an answering grin. He turned, and we both walked from the entryway together. I still had to debrief Winner, and fatigue, laced with the lingering dregs of the morphine shot, weighed heavily. It must have been apparent, for our tactical leader dismissed me almost as soon as I started to speak.

With an airy wave, he commanded, "Get some sleep, Heero. You'll have to do plenty of talking tomorrow, and nothing is so important it can't wait until then."

Maxwell nodded at my side, and, grabbing my duffel, headed down the hall. "Come on, buddy. I made your bed, and guess what?" He tossed a grin over his shoulder. "You lucky, son of a bitch, you're bunking with me!" He opened a door and waved me inside. "Listen, you get settled. I'm going to grab a shower before Barton comes in from parameter check." Turning away, he hesitated and, without looking back, he asked, "Could we talk? When I get out, I mean?"

Narrowing my eyes, I stared at his back. I thought I knew what his "talk" would entail, and it was the last thing I wanted. But, believing I owed him at least an ear, I grunted. "Hn."

His shoulders lost some of the tension I'd seen in them as he quipped, "Be right back then." He was gone, and I heard another door open and close down the hall.

Running water sounded as I did a quick equipment check and unpacked a few items I knew I'd need for the night. I drew off the sweater, and replaced it in my bag. My Glock went under my pillow; my laptop on the nightstand next to my bed. Its message light blinked, and quickly scanning the inbox, I deleted the three from Maxwell, skimmed the contents of the next one from Doctor J letting me know the success our mission had been, and put the computer in alert mode.

Though I would have liked a shower as well, I knew I wouldn't be able to last long enough to take one and listen to whatever the idiot would have to say. I reluctantly settled for changing clothes, and pulled on a pair of sweat pants, leaving the drawstring loose. Ever since that punch, my stomach had started its little dance, and the tentacles of pain made themselves known. As a precaution, I chewed on a few more aspirin and washed them down with the rest of the water in my ration bottle.

The water shut off, and the longhaired pilot appeared at our door a short time later. His hair wrapped up in a towel, I could see his gold cross gleaming brightly on his bare chest; he wore only a pair of shorts with his dirty clothes clutched in one hand. "Woot!" he exclaimed while tossing his clothes to the floor before clambering onto his bed. "Don't stay in the shower too long," he said, grinning at me. "The water turns awful cold, pretty fast!" The towel now draped around his shoulders, he shook out his hair before grabbing his brush.

Strangely, watching Duo in his nearly nightly ritual added a level of normalcy to my life that had never been there before. I don't let him see that I watch, though. I can't imagine what I would say, how I could explain my fascination with his hair if I was ever caught. I pretended to type out a report onto my laptop, waiting for him to speak; my eyes focused more on his actions than the screen in front of me.

His hands fairly flew through the brushing of that long tangled mess, and his fingers followed suit in weaving the braid so much a part of him. He yawned, suddenly, and shook his head. "You know, Yuy, how ‘bout we put off our little discussion ‘til morning. I need some shut-eye."

I looked directly at him over my laptop's monitor. His eyes drooped even as he tied off his braid. "Hn," I grunted, not offering more than what he was used to. He flashed me a lopsided grin before bending over to pull out a T-shirt from his bag under the bed. I quickly shut down my computer by putting it back in alert mode, and made ready for bed myself. "Good night, Maxwell," I said softly, turning my back to him.

The gentle rustle of his shirt sliding over his head sounded, and he sighed loudly. I almost rolled over to find out why, but didn't want to encourage his little discussion -- not tonight. I only wanted sleep. Darkness followed a loud click, and I heard Maxwell settle under his covers.

As much as I wanted to, sleep eluded me. Thoughts of tonight's mission kept running through my mind, and the words of an uncharacteristically pissed off God of Death haunted me. What did he mean by them? Did he mean anything? I had to admit he did take on an almost excessive amount of guilt for the deaths of those in his life. If I had self-detonated, I wouldn't doubt he would have slung that burden of guilt over his shoulder, adding its weight to the others.

"You sleeping, buddy?"

Speak of the devil. "No," I answered quietly.

There was a rustle, a quiet step, and my bed creaked and shifted under his weight. He climbed over my knees and sat against the wall, his legs drawn up to his chest. "I can't sleep," he said in a low voice.

Sitting up, I looked at him, waiting for more to come, and resigned myself to remaining awake. Not that I had been sleeping anyway, but at least it had been quiet.

Almost as if he were struggling internally, he finally brought out a shiny plastic bag. "You did give these to me, didn't you?" he asked.

This was so not what I'd thought he'd say or ask. I nodded, looking at the bag. "Yes."


Though he kept his voice low, trying not to disturb any of the others who would be asleep close by, I could hear the command to answer in it. "Because." I paused, unsure on how to proceed. "I- I… it seemed like a good idea at the time," I finished lamely.

"Was it because of that mission on L3?" His question hung between us for a breath or two.

I gave a short nod without speaking.

Sighing, he laid his head down on his knees, facing me. "I thought so." He began to blink rapidly, and jerking his head up, he looked away. "You asshole. You expected to die last night didn't you?" His voice though low, was rough.

Shifting uncomfortably, I nodded again.

"Why, Heero? Why do you keep expecting…" he shook his head, "…no, wanting to die?" He was watching me now, his eyes bright in the darkness.

My gaze moved from his face to the bag he held in his hand. I took it from him, and opening it, I held up a cookie. Too dark to really see its shape, I guessed by the feel of it to be a camel. "I don't want to," I answered no louder than a whispered breath. He took the cookie from my hand, and I watched as he bit down on it making a soft crunching noise in the still room. Taking another cookie from the bag, I could make out that it was white, and other than it being smaller than the previous one, I couldn't tell what it was. My teeth sank into the iced animal cracker and I was instantly transported back three months…

Our mission had been to infiltrate the command post OZ had set up on L3. The resistances against OZ's command continued and a call for help placed. Doctor J sent the message to my laptop, insisting 02 assisted in this mission. We flew out in a courier shuttle with faked papers and credentials, and left it in an out of the way hanger a sweeper friend of Maxwell's knew about. The price to hide our presence had been high, but not too excessive given the nature of our need.

Gaining access to the command post was much easier than expected causing us to worry more than relax; a quick, whispered discussion and we changed the plan. Maxwell flitted his way deep into the bowels of the weapons room, leaving the rows of computer banks and mainframes to me.

The computer room was nearly empty, only three techs had been plunking away at their keyboards. Too many to eliminate without one of them able to raise the alarm, but not too many to keep me from accomplishing my mission. No one took note of my movements as I crept along the cooling floor of the mainframe room, looking for an access panel to tap into. Spotting what I needed, I pulled a remote terminal port into an empty cupboard, and, closing the doors, I plugged it into my laptop.

Cracking the security access system wasn't as easy as I had originally thought it would be. After nearly a half an hour's work, I was in, and pulling up the mainframe's program library. Scanning through the list of files, I selected several I'd heard J express interest in, and copied them down to my laptop's hard drive. In edit mode, I pulled down another set of files, and slipped in my own version of command parameters in each. It was fail-safe; looking much like a normal com, alarm and security breach program, it sat dormant until specific triggers keyed it into action. I coded the bug to fit inside most programs after one too many times of a routine systems check found I'd disabled the OZ alarm and communication programs at the facility I was infiltrating.

I pulled the small com link from my pack, and tapped the agreed upon signal. Not waiting for a response, I began the disruption plan, and went back to the mainframe's library once again. The Colony's life support and environmental programs held additional protections, but after some fancy keying, I was able to gain entry to the file I sought.

Areas within the colony were being held hostage for their resistance to the participation and acceptance of OZ's rule. OZ had been using the environmental controls by weakening the air supply, adding more heat, and less rain to the holdout sections of the colony. The Resistance had contacted Doctor H to assist, and he in turn had asked Doctors J and G for their help. They sent us, Maxwell and I.

Several minutes passed as I scanned seemingly endless lines of code, looking for those particular sections I needed to concentrate on. The idea was to hide code with code, making OZ believe their program was working, while in fact a hidden set of commands would negate the program running. I paused in my work, and wiped my brow; it was getting cramped and hot in the cupboard despite the cooling floors underneath the cabinet. One last program change and I'd be done. I could send 02 the next set of signals, and work my way out of the complex to meet him at the prearranged spot several blocks away.

The VSAM file I wanted was currently in use. I risked peeking out the cupboard door to check on the techs, and wondered how to take control of that program. The clicking from their keyboards could still be heard over the low hum of the system boxes housed on the floor. While normally VSAM files were usually down for maintenance for very short periods of time, I didn't have a lot of it left, and didn't want to waste a minute more if I could help it. If Maxwell had been doing what he was supposed to be doing, I had less than an hour to finish up and get out. Pulling down a copy of the VSAM's program, I found an input source file that would work for my purpose. A small grin twitched at my lips as I wiped my brow again and went to work.

I'd finished bypassing the production implementation procedures inherent in most mainframe systems by installing the new program in an emer package – overriding its older version. Checking my watch, I realized I had time to send Doctor J the copied files, and logged into the systems com program. The files had taken less than five minutes to transmit, and I was in the middle of backing out of the mainframe when one of the techs noticed an oddity.

Cracking the door open a slit, I watched the tech stand, and begin speaking loudly while gesturing at the large monitors hanging on the wall.

"My program crashed. Systems check shows no abnormalities save this one source file." He pointed to a flashing green line on the middle monitor screen. "Which one of you changed the source?" The two others shook their heads, and it seemed to dawn on all at the same time.

Screens flashed and sped up on the high monitors as I watched the techs hunting through the program files trying to find where and who had made the alterations. As in the environment program, a little hidden code went into the changes, and it could take them hours to find it, if they ever did. I planned on being well on my way back to Earth before they discovered exactly what I'd done, and how to reverse it.

One of the techs grunted and shouted, "It was accessed from this room just a few minutes ago!"

My eyes widened, and I mentally reviewed the process I'd used to modify the program. Closing my eyes, I resisted the urge to punch the wall; I'd forgotten to wipe out my traces. The program would still run; it had been found quicker than I wanted it to be found. I tapped out the execute and evac command to Maxwell, and shut down my laptop, disconnecting the remote port access link. Peering out the cracked-open door, I spotted one of the techs on a com link –- trouble was about to commence.

"Yes, sir. We will begin the search, sir," I could heard one side of the conversation. Disconnecting the com, the tech said, "Martin, the general says to run routine scans on all main programs, and find out what the changes were made to HANSPIA program. Nelson and I are to search each remote site for recent activity." After pointing a path direction to the tech standing, he added, "The general's sending guards down to check for any security breaches."

The techs split up then, one going to the far side of the room, and the other one row over from my aisle. He would find the terminal I used if I didn't act immediately. The three techs were civilians, colony civilians, and my directive stated to kill civilians only in the direst of circumstances. Easing out of the cupboard and replacing the terminal wasn't too hard. But now that the three had been alerted to an unknown presence, I would have to wait for Maxwell's distraction, playing hide and seek with them before taking action.

Keeping a low profile, I listened carefully to where both the wandering techs stopped before moving. The third tech seemed entirely focused on his job of running diagnostic checks and scans to pay attention to anything else in the room. I could hear the tech named Nelson approaching my aisle, and looked around quickly for an escape. Looking up, I nearly grinned -– Duo would be surprised, I think. Technology had come a long ways in the past couple of centuries, but the kind of power and storage needed to run a colony required massive equipment, and the room was filled from near floor to ceiling with mainframe boxes. There were breaks every third box or so, for terminal ports and monitoring equipment. But for the most part, you could not see one end of the room to the other because of the mainframes.

I hurriedly climbed on top of the remote counter, and used the monitoring equipment to give me the extra height needed. Quietly, I slid my pack on top of the mainframe, and using my arm strength, I pulled myself up. From this vantage point, I was able to watch the techs, stay out of their sight, and make my way towards the door. My progress was slow; the metal casing of each system box picked up and projected sound, hampering my movement.

When I had passed beyond the second tech, leaving the two behind me in one of the middle aisles, I dropped soundlessly to the floor. Picking up my pace, I hurried to the door, and felt myself being tossed as the computer room's floor buckled. I landed hard on my back, hitting my head against one metal corner. Ignoring the pain, and shaking my head to clear it, I was instantly on my feet, charging for the door. Maxwell's mission had just completed, and I was behind schedule.

The first set of doors, I cleared, and sprinted down the hallway. Ahead, I could see the double doors leading to the main room of the sublevel. I'd have to take the stairs up four flights to the ground level, and hoped the explosion hadn't caused structure damage. My weapon already in hand, I pushed my way into the main room, scanning as I ran. Only one guard seemed to be present, and giving a shout, he pulled up his weapon. I fired a single shot, not stopping as I went. I knew my communication and alarm program would be running –- it had to have been triggered by now. My presence would still be unknown to the upper levels; I still had a chance to make it out without discovery.

I ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Running into a pair of civilians, admins by their look, I silenced them with a couple of quick punches. At the main level, I paused for a breath, and peered through the glazed window. The place was crawling with soldiers.

Wanting to curse, even under my breath, I fell back to take stock of the situation. I couldn't walk through that many soldiers believing I could make it out alive and not be captured. Hastily made plans were considered and discarded as I calculated my chances at making through the main lobby. I needed a distraction, and with that, my thoughts turned to Pilot 02. Frowning, I wondered where the braided idiot was at that moment. Most likely at the RV like he should be, waiting the requisite hour before evacuating.

A face appeared suddenly in the window, and my weapon was pointed at it before I realized just who I was seeing -- Maxwell. He grinned and winked before turning, showing me the back of his head. Creeping closer, I could barely make out the words being spoken from the other side.

"Sergeant Haase, take your squad of cadets and sweep levels two through five. Sergeant Cooper, take your cadets and cover the lower four floors. Wilson, Jenison and Daniels, you three come with me. I want this level searched inch by inch. The rest of you soldiers stand guard here. Nothing, and I mean nothing, gets out of this facility without my say so. Got that?" A chorus of "Yes sir!" followed.

There appeared to be a fumbling at the door, and as it opened, I allowed it to push me back against the wall. A tall, muscular man held it wide, standing in front of the window, and I noticed black uniforms at attention next to him, effectively blocking any sight of me from the doorway and stairs leading downward. I heard booted steps leading away, and the door was shut suddenly.

I found myself staring at Maxwell, dressed as a colony cadet in black fatigues and cap, his hair hidden from sight. He flashed a grin I knew well, and slammed his fist into the back of one of the cadet's neck, effectively silencing him. The other cadets cringed slightly, but said nothing before turning to take the stairs upward.

"Quick. We have a little time, but we need to hurry. Head for the fifth floor. There is rappelling equipment up there, and you should be able to make your escape from the roof," the large man I took to be Sergeant Haase whispered, keeping an eye on both the window and the stairs. He scooped up the fallen cadet and slung him over a shoulder as if he weighed near nothing. Without another word, he turned and began to climb the stairs.

Cocking a brow at Maxwell, I left the question unasked. He gave me a slug to the arm, and whispered quietly while following the big man, "He's on our side. One of the Resistance guys." I nodded without saying anything, and ran up the stairs after both of them.

As we climbed, I noted a cadet was stationed at each level's entry door. None looked at me as we passed; an oddity I filed away. Once on the fifth floor, I noticed none of the other cadets were present save the one the sergeant was lowering to the floor. "He is good lad. I hope this does not cause him trouble." Letting out a sigh unexpectedly gentle for such a bear of a person before turning away, he frowned and gestured for us to follow him again.

We climbed yet another flight of stairs, ending on the rooftop. The sergeant pulled us both to the side of the building, the wind blowing strongly as high up as we were. Pointing to the far side of the roof, he shouted above the wind, "The equipment is there. Make your way down to the lowest levels, down to the sub-streets before you find your way back to the transport station."

Maxwell had already started across, but I hesitated. Grabbing the man's sleeve, I pulled him close to ask, "Why?" I didn't trust in the kindness of strangers.

His dark eyes deepened and his face lost its solid strength. "For my beautiful Emperia and my sweet Sorsha." His jaw clenched tightly and his hands fisted. "OZ has got to go. Their tyranny has got to be stopped." Shaking himself, he looked intently at me. "You and the other pilot there, you both will avenge my family for me."

My brows darkened as my eyes swept up and down his uniform. You didn't become his rank overnight. "You are an OZ sergeant."

He nodded sharply and spit derisively to the side. "That is true, for the shame I will carry for the rest of my life. I joined years ago when the thought of war was rumor, and my belief in OZ strong. I did not want the war, did not believe the colonists should separate from Earth, or disagree with OZ's rule." A muscle in one of his cheeks twitched as he seemed to fight an inner demon. When he continued, he was no longer looking at me, but somewhere off over my right shoulder. "My home was in sector 73. It was used as an example for what would happen to those who disagreed, who rebelled against OZ's rule." Again his cheek muscle twitched. His voice became soft, almost inaudible over the wind. "I was away fighting on Earth when it happened. My wife, my daughter … my baby girl were killed when the life support for that sector was shut off."

I nodded, instantly understanding his support. "And the other cadets?"

Blinking, his eyes snapped sharply into a focused gaze. He glared at me and ground out roughly, "They are loyalist, Resistance fighters one and all, even Weber, the one who was hit. None will tell of your escape at our hands. All have lost family, and homes to OZ's rule."

Again, I nodded. Extending my hand, I shook his briefly. It was never a custom of mine to shake hands, having only shook the hand of one other man before in my life –- Zechs Marquis. I would likely never see this man again, and if things happened the way they normally did with OZ in the mix, this man, and his squad of cadets, would not last long.

"I will do my best to avenge your family, Sergeant," I vowed to him solemnly.

He nodded, and releasing my hand, he shoved me towards the other side of the building. Making my way there, I found Maxwell had already anchored the lines, and fastened a rappelling harness around his body. He grinned, and tossed me the other harness before leaning over the side of the building to judge the distance.

It didn't take me long to fasten the buckles, and loop my line through the locks and pulleys. At the edge of the building, looking down five ground level, and twenty sub levels, the street below could not be seen. A haze of some sort floated far below, preventing further sight.

02 struck my shoulder teasingly, and shouted, "Lets go! Last one down is a rotten egg!" and jumped.

Giving a grunt, I followed.

Rock climbing, rappelling, and hazardous terrain navigation had all been part of my training, but descending down that building with Duo was the first time I thought of it as -- fun. We leap-frogged each other, first one then the other, the longhaired pilot laughed the whole time. He made a point of "tagging" me as he passed, and as usual, he ignored my scowls in coming too close for safety.

We were about fifteen levels down when it happened. Maxwell has been in mid-leap when I heard the glass breaking, and I swung hard to the left, crashing into him as the first round of gunshots were fired. Disregarding his shout of alarm, my hand covered his over the braking lever, and squeezed, triggering mine at the same time. Our descent was fast; the wind howled in our ears, rushing through our clothing and hair as the windows flew passed.

Suddenly, the rope in my hands went slack -– someone had succeeded in severing it. Releasing Maxwell's line as I started to fall, I felt him grab for me, his hand slipping down my arm, and paused in a brief grasp of my fingers before they too slipped. Funny, I hadn't realized I'd been shot; the blood coated my arm already.

The fall was quick, but I had time to remove most of the harness before I landed. Or I should say, bounced.

In the lower levels, the government building became a housing project, and one tenant had constructed a canvas patio off a bedroom window. This contraption had originally broke my fall; it held for a moment, resisting the impact before the worn fabric gave way, and I crashed down below. I landed hard in the refuse that had been collecting in the alleyway below, and one slim, spiky pole now protruded through my thigh. My fall through the awning had pulled large chunks of loose concrete out of the window casing, and these rained down on me, pelting my chest and stomach.

I lay amidst the garbage and stinking waste, faintly wondering if I was alive.

"Heero!" I heard Maxwell calling from somewhere above.

Stifling a groan, I sat up and hissed in pain. One of the larger pieces of concrete had landed on my ribs, causing an unknown injury. I quickly examined my leg, and determined no bones had been broken. Luckily, the pipe had been thin as well as short. Grasping the few inches sticking out of my leg, I pulled upwards, and gasped. My eyes closed tightly, shutting out the sudden pain lancing through me.

A hand grabbed my foot, and my eyes flew open. Maxwell had climbed partway up the pile, concern plainly written on his face. "You okay?" he asked gruffly.

My leg bled, but I could tell it would stop as soon as it could be bandaged; a flesh wound, albeit an untimely one, but it wouldn't cause lasting damage. My arm continued to bleed freely, and from the sharp pain it gave off, I could tell that the bullet had nicked bone. More damaging, but better than it could have been. Taking a deep breath and gently expanding my chest, I analyzed the internal injuries: at least two cracked ribs, and deep subcutaneous bruising.

I gave a short nod, and pushed myself off the pile towards the edge. He backed away to give me room, and as my feet touched the ground, he caught my arm, my leg had given way. Frowning at him, I pulled away, and looked around us, trying to assess the situation.

"They'll be down to this level soon," I said. I glanced at him before turning up the alleyway. "Any ideas on how to get out of here?"

"Yeah," he was said, pulling a med kit from his pack. "Let's get those wounds taken care of first. Then we'll get the hell out of here." He quickly wrapped bandages around my arm and leg, tying them off.

Giving him a grunt of approval, it dawned on me how many times one or the other of us had to perform this same duty. I waved up the alley and waited for him to express his idea.

He frowned at me, putting the kit away. "We have to get out of this alley, first. If this is anything like L2's sub-level streets, we'll need to head east, but we should take the back ways. Too many eyes will be watching the main thoroughfares." He knelt and using a discarded bit of wood, he drew a rough map. "As close as I figure, we're about here, sublevel 22. We need to make it here, sector 14, level 10."

The distance between the two Xs seemed minute looking at them in the dirt, but I knew we had a trek in front of us. Maxwell had been drawing gridlines, and he pointed out the levels as he spoke, his tone surprisingly upbeat. "Being as we have to stay away from the access elevators, and are stuck using alleys, it should only take us five or six hours to get there."

He'd stopped talking and looked at me; I could only guess he was determining my condition. He frowned, and pulled off the black fatigue shirt. "We're going to have to find you something else to wear. Not only are you covered in blood, but you stink." I looked at the shirt in his hands, and raised a brow when he tossed it into the refuse pile beside us. He pulled out his pocketknife, and cut the short sleeves from the black Tee he wore. Catching my look, he grinned. "You will look odd on the streets, but a little blood, and smelly people are normal for the subs. A cadet uniform would stand out and cause trouble." He proceeded to hack and slash his shirt and pants, distressing them into looking much older and worn than they actually were.

I looked up the building, wondering when OZ would show, and why my companion thought he had all the time in the world to play around with his clothing. Snorting in impatience, I started limping up the alleyway, casting back over my shoulder, "Get moving, Maxwell. Your preparations will mean nothing if OZ reaches this level before you're done."

His laughter drowned out the sounds of his boots on the concrete as he ran. Catching up, he wiggled his eyebrows at me and grinned. "You slay me, Yuy. You know that?" At my grunt, he laughed again.

Our run through the alleys and back ways of the sublevels on L3 took on nightmarish proportions. Taking the lead, Maxwell would sprint the length of an alley only to stop suddenly and peer around each corner. I kept up, barely, and at each stop, my breathing was raspy and ragged. My head swam before long, my leg began to bleed again, and each intake of air felt as though a knife was being inserted into my chest.

In the middle of an alley, on what level I couldn't be sure, I stumbled and fell, landing hard on my palms and knees. The shock ran through me, forcing a short cry from my mouth.

"God, Yuy!" Maxwell's voice sounded muddled, like it came from a distance. "Why the hell didn't you say something?" I looked up, and he knelt at my side, his face scrunched up with worry.

Trying to focus on his features, I blinked, but two and three heads still appeared. I closed my eyes, gasping. "Too many of you."

"What?" he asked, his hands on my arms helping me to sit up.

I opened my eyes and tried to focus on him again. The alley, everything in it, and the multiple Duos began to spin. Nausea blossomed and pushed itself out and up. Turning quickly, I vomited.

His hands were on me, touching me everywhere; searching for what, I didn't care. I could hear him muttering under his breath, but couldn't make out the words. Leaving my eyes closed, trying to ease the spinning, I pressed a hand to my ribs; the retching had hurt them, and caused further injury. I needed rest, and time to heal before we could move out.

"Fuck!" Maxwell exclaimed. I gasped aloud, and clamped a hand to his arm. His seeking fingers had found a spot on the back of my head, reminding me of a pain forgotten until then. "You've got a frickin' scalp laceration, buddy. When the hell'd you get this?"

Staring at his face, I tried to remember where I had hit my head. I grunted. "Computer room. Explosion," I managed.

He narrowed his eyes. "You mean to tell me, you've been running all over the fuckin' place with a head trauma?" I didn't bother to nod. He growled, and I mean, he actually growled as if he were an animal. When he slipped his hands and arms around me, they were strong and gentle, helping me to stand. He drew my good arm over his shoulder, and wrapped his other around my waist, careful not to squeeze my ribs. "Come on. Let's find you a place to rest, and see what we can do."

I don't know how he did it; in fact, I don't remember much about the next few minutes. But whatever he did, Maxwell had found a neglected alley with the perfect hiding spot. A large, wooden crate lay hidden behind mounds of garbage and piles of broken furniture, appliances and unwanted items. It appeared someone had used it at one time, but nothing indicated it had been occupied recently.

It wasn't until he'd lowered me down that I realized he'd been carrying my pack as well as his. Funny, I didn't remember removing it. I tried to focus on him, he was talking, but the words made no sense. My eyes slid shut and I let my mind wander. A sharp stinging sensation on my cheek roused me. Looking up at the normally genial boy, I worked my mouth to ask why, but couldn't seem to do so.

"Don't sleep, Yuy. You can't right now," he'd said by way of an answer, worry etched in every line. "You've given yourself a classic case of concussion, buddy. So, I need you to stay with me, k?" He held my face in his hands, forcing me to look at him.

Licking my lips, I tried to speak again, "…afrmmed." My eyes drifted closed, and I snapped them open again.

He gave me a lopsided grin as he nodded. "Alright. First things first. I need to change your bandages cause it looks like they've all had it. Then I need to see if the hole in your head needs stitches." He cocked a brow at me. "I hope you don't mind a slipknot –- it's the only kind I know." I gave him a feeble scowl in response.

His hands worked over my wounds carefully, but it still took all my concentration to keep from making a sound, or at least hitting him in retaliation. As he worked, Duo hummed softly, almost sub-vocally. It was soothing, and if not for the jarring jabs of pain, I would have drifted off under its influence.

"You ever wonder what it'd be like to be a cat?" he asked quietly. I stared at his lowered head, wondering if he'd lost whatever senses that he might have had. "I think I'd like to be a cat. Sleek and agile, able to jump and run. Nature's stealthiest hunters." He flashed me a grin, and I was sure he had lost it. "A free-roaming housecat, having someplace to return to after I'd go out hunting, ya'know?" His eyes never left mine as he spoke, and it became clear to me he'd been trying to engage my thoughts, keep me from sleeping.

I grunted. "Cats can be nasty. They scratch and bite, even when you're being nice."

Another grin. "So do humans." He poked my uninjured shoulder for emphasis. "Take you, for example." I scowled at him. "No, I mean it. No matter how friendly I am to you, you're always growling at me." He twisted his lips, scrunching his face on one side. "Well, you're not as bad as Wu Fei. He has got some major issues, Chang does." Touching my forehead with a finger, he stated, "You, on the other hand, are just stubborn and don't know how or when to accept friendship."

Not knowing how to respond, I remained silent and turned away. He'd finished rewrapping my injuries and binding my ribs. After determining the cut on my head most likely didn't need stitches, he patched it up as well.

Moving back away from me, he settled his back against one of the side walls before commenting, "I'll have to get more bandages when I go out. I had to use all of my supplies, and most of yours."

"You're leaving?"

He nodded. "I want to do a little re-con, find out what OZ is up to, and determine exactly where we are."

I grunted and tried not to think of sleep. I don't think I'd ever felt so tired and worn. Not even during my training did I feel this rough. Spots danced before my eyes, and I shook my head trying to keep my awareness up. "Talk to me," I asked quietly.

Startled, he glanced my way. "Uh, sure buddy. What would you like to talk about?"

My eyes closed, and I forced them open, finding a point somewhere to the right of his face to focus on. "Anything. Just keep me awake."

His head nodded slowly. Licking his lips, he started speaking about some story he'd read. Something to do with ancient legends and mystical beings. I wasn't really listening to the words; I watched the way the muscles in his face changed as it came to life. Engaged in his story, his hands joined in the narration as he unconsciously accented his words with subtle gestures, sizes, and impact.

The pain in my chest tightened, and I shifted, looking for some relief. I lowered myself into a prone position, but was unable to rest my head on the crate's floor with the cut there. Lying on my side was impossible with the rib injuries and bruising. Sighing resignedly, I returned to my upright position.

Maxwell broke off in his story and scooted closer. "Here," he offered quietly patting his lap. I stared at him suspiciously, and he frowned. "Put your head on my lap, and brace your shoulders with your pack. It will elevate your chest cutting the pain in your ribs and allow you to breathe easier. And I'd have to say, my leg's a lot more comfortable than this floor."

His logic made sense and I felt the flush of embarrassment in my face for my doubt. He ignored my mumbled apology, and helped me lay in as comfortable a position as I was going to where we were. When I was settled once again, he continued with his story, no longer using his hands.

"…know how to approach is all." The words made their way through the haze surrounding my brain.

"What?" I think he switched subjects while I wasn't listening.

Looking at me, he grinned. "Cats. You just have to know how to approach ‘em, is all." He nodded for effect.

I frowned. "How did we get on this topic?"

"See, some cats are gregarious, friendly as anything, they'll let just about everyone pet them and will climb in any lap available." His eyes took on a strange light. "But some cats are loners, isolationist really. It isn't that they can't be friendly –- they don't trust as readily. You have to approach them slowly, taking your time and showing you don't mean them any harm. It can take quite awhile, but once you gain their trust, they'll be loyal to you for life."

"You've had a cat before?"

Maxwell blinked and focused his attention down on me. "Uh, no. I've never owned a pet."

He had been rambling like usual, talking about things he knew nothing about. His words, though, struck a chord; they'd touched a nerve I hadn't known existed. I think he'd changed subjects again, but I'd stopped listening. Instead, I worried that nerve, examining it from all angles to determine if it was a weakness.

"Enough time has passed, I think it would safe if you wanted to sleep." The cadence of his voice had changed, catching my attention.

I shifted my gaze to his face. He'd been looking at me probably noting how I still fought my lids from closing, and tried to stifle the yawns my body insisted on producing.

"Sleep, Heero. I'll watch your back."

No longer able to remain awake with his reassurances, I gave a short nod, and adjust my position slightly, moving my head a little further on his lap. Allowing my eyes to close, my consciousness slipped away moments later.

A touch on my shoulder and his absolute stillness woke me. My eyes flew open and the first thing I noticed he held his weapon. He signaled to me the presence of four or five others somewhere outside our hideout. When I tried to sit up, his hand on my chest kept me still. With his eyes and a shake of his head, he forced me to stay as I lay.

Straining my ears, I could barely make out separate sets of voices. Words I could not understand, but by the clipped command tones, I could tell they were issued by someone military. Weariness and frustration could be heard, and I realized it was dark; hours must have passed while I lay sleeping. My eyes flicked to Maxwell's face. In the half-light from a distant street lamp, I could see it was a study of attentiveness; his focus lay entirely on the world outside our crate.

For what seemed an eternity, the voices and shuffling continued. Eventually, the sounds died, and nothing could be heard. Maxwell eased out from under my head, careful to not jar an injury, and scuttled to the crate's opening on quiet cat-like feet. He paused at the entry; the distant light caught his hair, reflecting its shine as he posed crouching down to present a smaller target, his weapon held in both hands at the ready. In a flash he was gone, and, though I tried, I couldn't hear one sound of his movements to track him.

He appeared a short time later, and returned to where he'd been sitting. "They're gone. I tracked three units on this street checking the alleys. It looks like they're mostly doing a parameter sweep -– not a very thorough one."

I grunted and couldn't help the gasp as he shifted me to lay my head back in his lap. My world swam for a moment, and fighting it down with the iron will of my training, I narrowed my focus to his face above me. "Does it look as though they'll be back?"

Shaking his head, he said grinning, "Go back to sleep. I'll wake you if they show up." Since my lids were trying to close again, I gave into his suggestion.

At one point during the night, I awoke, shaking and shivering. "I'm cold," I announced with some surprise, my teeth actually chattering. The elements hardly ever effected me; I usually dismissed them without thought. I determined it must be the injuries making me feel so weak.

Duo's hands raised me gently, and he shifted his position before pulling my back against his chest, wrapping his arms over my chilled ones. "I should have went out and got those supplies," he murmured. I couldn't answer; already my eyes were closing again, his body's warmth surrounding me.

When I woke in the morning, the braided haired pilot was crouched at the crate's opening. I had slept too soundly not aware of him moving. He turned his head and grinned at me, seeing me awake.

"'bout time. Thought you were going to sleep the day away," he chided.

I rubbed at my eyes and managed to sit up without causing too much pain. "What time is it?"

He cocked a brow at me, and looked at his watch. "Just about 0600." I flushed and ducked my head. For the moment, I'd forgotten I also wore a watch. "Listen, I'm going to head out, pick up a few things, and check on where the OZ troops are now. Will you all right?"

Warily, I nodded. "We need to move out."

Coming closer, he passed his weapon to me with an extra clip. "Take this, just in case." I started to push it back at him, but he moved away. "Keep it. I'll be out in the open and have a better chance of getting away if they find me. This will at least give you the opportunity to get out in the open." He picked up his nearly empty pack and turned to go. Looking back at me, he added, "If you do have to leave, head south, that way should be easier to run through." He flashed a grin and jogged away.

While he was gone, I busied myself with small activities, normal and routine. First, I checked his weapon, making sure the rounds were loaded, and ready. Next, I rose to my feet and reassessed my injuries. My legs were stiff, and my wound pulled as I stood. I needed to get my muscles moving, loosening them up and getting them ready for travel. The air still held a nasty chill, and the exercise helped warm me.

I had taken several laps up and down the length of the alley by the time Maxwell returned. He shook his head, though he grinned.

"You sure you're human, Yuy?"

Glaring, I took the bag he held out to me. "What's this?"

Another grin. "Clothes."

"Hn." I didn't quite trust him, for his eyes held that light I'd seen in them when he'd play a particularly ridiculous prank on Chang. Opening the bag cautiously, I peered inside; it contained clothes. I pulled the sweater out first, a heavy black thing with small dark gray doves. My eye twitched, but I pulled it on, reveling in its warmth. The other item a pair of tattered black pants similar to the cadet fatigues Maxwell wore. These I pulled on over my black shorts, and fastening them, I looked back at Maxwell.

He was now wearing a black jacket of a lightweight material. Still grinning, he said, "You should have let me change your bandages before getting dressed."

I shook my head. "We need to move out. Having not located us, it won't be long before all outbound shuttle launches will be delayed. I want to be gone before that happens."

His pack was already on his back, and he held out his hand to me. I looked at it blankly for a moment, and remembering, I flushed as I handed over his weapon. He must have noticed sometime the previous day that mine was missing. I'm not sure where or when, whether it was the fall, the landing, or the nightmare run down too many alleys, but somewhere along our path, I'd lost my Glock.

He led the way, not the full on rush from the day before, but fast, none-the-less. I followed, keeping up without too much difficulty, and soon we were out of the sublevels. The air quality was instantly better, and the hazy mist that clung to everything at the lower level was gone.

Maxwell stopped and whistled. Looking around, I couldn't tell what had attracted his attention. We appeared to be in a less populated area, filled with empty lots, and older housing. The streets had been quiet, with few pedestrians, and not a sign of a single soldier. Grabbing my hand, he pulled me up a driveway, heading towards a house.

Balking, I planted my feet and demanded, "What the hell are you pulling now, Maxwell? We don't have time for paying visits."

"Come on," he whispered urgently. "This guy'll help us." At my blank look, he pointed to the decal on prominent display in front of the house. "He's a sweeper."

As if that made sense. But the American's faith in his fellow Sweepers had saved us more than once; I trusted him to bring us through this time as well.

The old guy who answered our knock ushered us inside without question. He and Maxwell held a conversation in seemingly a different language. I sat in the chair offered, and waited, looking from one to the other.

Finally, Maxwell came to the point of our visit. "We need a ride. Can you manage it?"

Peering at him intently, the old guy barked, "What's in it for me?"

I grimaced, and stood. "Let's go. We're wasting time."

His hand on my arm, my longhaired companion said with his gaze still on the retired sweeper, "Wait. He'll do it. It's just a matter of bargaining, now." Sitting forward eagerly, he asked, "What do you have in mind?"

The grin on the man's face could have challenged Maxwell's for mischief. "Well, now, what would a couple kids on the lam have that a man of my refined taste could ever want?"

Instantly Maxwell's grin lengthened and, eyes gleaming, he opened his pack. Rolling my eyes, I stifled a groan and lowered myself back down. This could take awhile.

In a few short minutes, the old man sat back with a sigh and shook his head. I looked up from my focused study of the intricate pattern on the kitchen tile to stare at him. He was watching Duo with a strange light in his eyes, and I started to feel uneasy. My gaze flicked over to the Gundam pilot and back.

"There is one thing you do have I would like, if you're interested, that is," the old sweeper muttered in a dejected tone as if he knew he'd be refused.

Maxwell had been replacing the items back in his pack, stopping only to look up. His brows drew together. Apparently I wasn't the only one uneasy. "Oh? And what would that be?" his voice was soft, but deadly.

The old man rose and beckoned to him. "Come back here. I don't think your friend would mind." His eyes rested on me for a moment before sliding back to Maxwell.

Frowning, the subject of his attention rose and followed him as he shuffled his way down the narrow hallway, disappearing into another room. I stood, and after taking a step, I hesitated. Maxwell was a Gundam pilot. He was able to take care of himself, and anything the old man asked in exchange for the wanted transportation would be his decision. I returned to my seat, and the study of the tile pattern.

Not more than twenty minutes had passed when both Maxwell and the old man returned to the main living area. The old man smiled easily, almost tenderly. I narrowed my eyes and frowned. No matter how much I tried, 02 wouldn't not meet my gaze. His cheeks were flushed, and he acted nervous, almost uncomfortable in the retired sweeper's presence.

At the backdoor, the old man pulled on a jacket. "Come on, you two. We've a ways to go, and I like to be home before dark." He shuffled his way out the door, not waiting for either of us.

Maxwell slung his pack over his shoulder and followed behind me, unusually quiet.

The truck was old. More rust and body filler than original metal, but when started, the engine ran clean; not a stutter could be heard. The old sweeper indicated for us to settle down in the cargo area, and as soon as we did, our backs against the cab, he piled boxes, wood and junk to disguise our presence. It wasn't long before we were backing out of the driveway, and heading out to the main access roads. With any luck, our five-hour hike would be reduced to an hour drive.

I glanced at my companion. He hadn't spoke since sitting down next to me, and he seemed withdrawn, distant. "What did..." I started to ask, and when Maxwell looked up at me, I stopped. I didn't want to know. Not really.

As if he knew what I had been about to ask, his cheeks stained red, and he looked away from me. I noticed he hadn't released his braid, but held it tightly, staring at the end. The silence stretched between us. Normally, I wouldn't have minded. But this is Maxwell, and whenever he's concern, silence is not golden.

"Status," I commanded.

Startled, he shot me a glance. Shaking his head, he chortled before replying, "02 fucking hungry and tired."

The power of suggestion being what it was, my stomach decided at that moment to wake. It gurgled loudly, causing Maxwell to laugh again. "Looks like your status is the same, 01." His grin was back place. Suddenly animated, he dug through his pack and brought out a pink and white bag. "One thing I didn't get while I was out and about, is food. This should work though." Opening the bag, he offered it to me first.

Looking inside, I discovered white and pink iced cookies. Raising a brow, I looked back at him. "What are they?"

Another grin. "Circus animal, pal. Good stuff!" Whether to prove it to me, or his hunger couldn't wait, his hand darted inside, and he pulled out a couple. Popping them into his mouth, he crunched down on them, watching me while smiling with the pleasure of their taste.

Almost with reluctance, I chose a cookie, and took a tentative bite. I trusted Maxwell, but his taste in food could, at times, be hazardous to most people's health. And it wasn't that I didn't like cookies; my uncertainty lay in the appeal of a pink, iced sweet cracker covered in sprinkles in the shape of an elephant. Without a doubt, their nutritional value would be non-existent. I had to admit, while Maxwell took another handful of the colorful confections, the taste wasn't bad, and though the icing was more sweet than what I liked, I found myself reaching for more.

At his gleeful look, I glared and announced, "Food is food. Even if it's a childish cookie."

Later, when we were finally on our way back to Earth and our Gundams, I found myself nodding off in my seat. Maxwell had taken the pilot's chair, and for once, I wasn't annoyed. He was the better pilot, and with my injuries, I couldn't be sure of easily getting us out of any difficulties. I trusted Maxwell to do his job well, and bring us back to Earth safely.

"Sleep, Yuy," his voice sounded as if he were in another room, and not sitting two feet from me. "I've got your back." He grinned when I grunted, but I let my eyes close anyway. He was right; he had my back.

With a start I realized Duo had been staring at me in the dark, and the cookie I held had half melted in my fingers. I hastily finished chewing it, and handed the bag back to him. He pulled out another, and passed one to me, allowing the silence to hang between us. I took a moment to try and see him, see his expression, but in the semi-darkness, with merely vague moonlight peering through the thin curtains, I could only make out his eyes.

"What did the old man want in exchange for the ride?" The question surprised him. Heck, it did me. I hadn't realized it still bothered me; I thought I had filed it away, never to review again.

His lips twitched, and he swallowed the last bite. Though he was not looking at me, I could still see the heightened color in his face. He threw a glance in my direction and looked down.

"You don't have to tell me." He didn't, though I would have liked to know.

A quiet laugh. "It's not what you're thinking. It wasn't perverted." His gaze rose, and strangely bashful, he said, "The old guy had a daughter, once. He said her hair was like mine, and she wore it often in a braid. She was twelve when she died. He only wanted to brush my hair, and think of her."

"Hn," I grunted. I wasn't sure what to say. Duo had shown ...compassion in fulfilling an old man's wish. I let the silence envelop us again, thinking on what he'd said. He stirred, shifting his weight, and to keep him from leaving, I asked quickly, "What happened between you and Winner during the mission?"

Another flush flooded his cheeks and he dropped his gaze. He shook his head. "Nothing."

I frowned. "Something did."

When he faced me again, I could see his brows were puckered and his mouth tightly drawn. "If you must know, Quat didn't stay where I'd left him when I went to pick up the next set of EX's. He'd gone into the building. I didn't know what happened to him, and made a fool of myself."

Taking another cookie, I paused to ask before biting into it, "What did you do?"

His jaw worked before he answered me. "I ran right into an OZ soldier. I was too worried about Quatre getting caught, and I did. Well, for a second, anyway." His eyes flicked up to mine, and a musing smile replaced the frown. "He had his gun out, and I shot him." Falling silent, he reached for another cookie, but instead of eating it, he held it up, pretty much like I had earlier -- trying to make out its shape.

"I never thanked you,"

He nearly dropped the cookie. "Thanked me? What the fuck for?"

"For L3," I replied quietly.

I didn't see him move; he was next to me and a finger touched my arm before I knew it. "This should have been my scar. It could have been my death. You have nothing to thank me for, buddy." His voice was a strange mix of soft, tender, and hard with an edge. Flashing me a grin, he crunched down on his cracker loudly, and grabbed the bag for more. "Empty," he announced before crumpling it up.

A different kind of silence extended between us, then. I felt the tension from the day, and the failed mission the night before, fall away from me. Even though I knew it was momentary and fleeting, I let the warmth of his closeness seep into me. It was soothing sitting there in the dark, and closing my eyes for a moment, I almost heard him say, "Sleep, Yuy. I've got your back."

"You failed your mission last night, didn't you?" his voice said instead.

My eyes opened, looking into his. It didn't matter now; the point was moot. I nodded.

"Why..." he hesitated. "What's wrong with you? Are you sick, or something?" his voice was soft now, and if he hadn't been sitting next to me, I doubt if I would have heard him.

I wanted to tell him, but the words couldn't make past my throat. I didn't know what was wrong with me; I thought I was dying. I lived in daily pain, so much pain that I was becoming a danger, to myself, my fellow pilots, Wing, and most certainly, the mission. I should have been dead. I should have put a bullet in my head before something happened that doesn't turn out to be a moot point. But to have told him this, I could not do. I only stared at him mutely, and hoped he understood.

He sighed, and turned away. When he spoke, his voice sounded hollow, broken, "Promise me one thing, Heero. If L3 means anything to you, if you felt enough about it to thank me, you have to promise me." When he looked at me again, his expression was intense, fierce, and his eyes bright. "Promise me you will not deliberately kill or get yourself killed."

A painful pounding began in my chest, and I drew in a deep breath. He was asking me the impossible; I had no control over what my actions would dictate. When I didn't answer immediately, he lowered his head, and his shoulders slumped.

"I can't promise you that," I forced the words from my throat, dragging them up, out of the box they'd hidden themselves in. "I can promise that unless the situation warrants that kind of action, I will not deliberately seek my death, by my own or another's hand."

His head rose, and I saw him give me a rueful smile. "That's the best I'm gonna get, isn't it?"


He sighed again, and made to leave my bed. At the edge, he flashed me another smile: tired, sad, and wistful. "Thanks for the cookies."

I didn't reply, but had already laid back down, and stared at the ceiling, listening to him return to his own bed. In a few minutes, his breathing, even and regular, sounded in the quiet room. I rolled over on my side, and closed my eyes, willing myself to join him in sleep with the lingering taste of circus cookies in my mouth.

Sometime later, I woke to the pain raging in my stomach. Its intensity pulled me upright in my bed, instantly stifling a moan. I could not give into the pain, and closed my eyes as the room began to spin. Pain radiated out, forcing its way down into my intestines and up into my chest. My stomach spasmed, and I felt the bile rise.

Quickly I jumped from my bed, and hurried as quietly as I could, rushing for the bathroom. Habit made me close and lock the door before I fell to my knees at the toilet. Bile rolled out, thick with cookie clumps, and splashed into the water. Again, I vomited. Blood splashed into the bowl. Amazed at what I was seeing, not truly believing it, I continued to retch, no longer bringing up bile, or even remaining dregs of circus crackers, the blood flowed as though a vein had opened.

The compulsion to throw up stilled, and I rested against the cool porcelain of the tub behind me. The force of my retching ripped and pulled at my stomach; the pain had it firmly held in its grip. And it squeezed. I couldn't help or stop the groan that sounded; I couldn't move. Bile, mixed with blood, rose again, and I gagged on it, spitting it from my mouth as I lay.

"Heero? Heero, you okay?"

Maxwell. He must have heard me leave the room. I tried to rise, but fell back, too weak to hold myself up. "Go back to bed, Duo."

"Don't give me that shit. Just tell me if you're okay."

I gasped for breath, and started to reply. The retching started again. Rolling weakly on my side, I vomited, bringing up more blood. It wasn't in great amounts, but the red staining the white tile appeared to be a lot. And through it all, the pain raged on.

Faintly, I heard Duo outside the door knocking. If I could have, I would have let him in. The pain released it hold, briefly, only to clamp down more tightly. I cried out, unable to stop it. Curling into myself, my eyes closed. I wanted to sleep. I wanted the pain to stop. I wanted to die.

Warmth surrounded me. I heard a heart beating beneath my ear and felt a hand in my hair, touching my face. Someone was calling me, and for a moment, the pain eased.

I opened my eyes, and saw wide, frightened, violent ones staring down at me. The pain flared again, milder this time, and at such a level I was able to fight it off, push it down. Duo was talking; Duo was afraid. It didn't make sense to me. His braid swept in front of my face, brushing by my hand. Clasping it, I pulled on it.

"Duo, shut up,"

Seeing the flicker of confusion in his expression, I only smiled, and the pained suck me down with it again.

to be continued

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