Disclaimer: I'm out of my head and know not what I do.

Pairing: a little 1+2 - very little
Rating: PG-13
Challenge: Flattery
Count: 1300 (more or less)
Warning: Shounen-ai (maybe?), AU'ish... (this series will have major angst but no main character death)

Author's Notes: Written for the GW500, this little ditty is a short ficlet only telling a brief tale. And bear with me in this; it became more than a one-shot...

What started as a quiet dream has sprouted a plot. This arc I'm going to call "To Find Meaning" and what's posted here is the third story in the series. Don't worry if some of the points make little sense... it will be told what's happening as Duo wants it to happen.

The Survivor
by Merith

"Take a breather here. I'll work my way to the top, then Wufei with Quatre, and Trowa with Duo." Heero announced, his hands working the buckles on the leather straps, checking the rope coils, and the pouches hanging from his belt.

Duo stood apart, hands loose at his sides, his preparations complete. He turned to look out over the treetops below, the distance they'd hiked astonished him. A hand on his shoulder, and he glanced around. Heero stared at him, assessing his condition. "I'm fine," he answered the unasked question.

A short nod, and Heero checked the harness. "Let Trowa know right away if you tire. This is for fun. No unnecessary risks." His eyes spoke more than his words imparted.

Suppressing the retort, Duo only nodded. After eight months, he was used the overprotectiveness of his friends. He didn't fail to notice no one else's gear had been checked. His hidden resentment didn't keep him from watching as Heero went to the cliff face and began to climb. With an ease that belied the effort, the man found handholds in cracks and minute protrusions, stopping every half dozen feet to set an anchor.

"It's a great view from here, isn't it?" Trowa had joined him.

He kept his eyes on Heero's progress. "Fantastic view."

Trowa followed his gaze upward, and chuckled. "Have you told him yet?" he asked softly, a hand shading his eyes.

Duo snorted. "Not fucking likely."

"Why not?"

"Trowa!" Duo almost whined.

"Duo!" Trowa mimicked.

"You know why. There wasn't ever time before, and now..." He gestured broadly. "There's no way I'm going to saddle him with this."

His friend regarded him calmly. "You do him and yourself a disservice with that thinking."

A call from above drew their attention. Heero stood at the cliff's edge. Dark bundles spun out and down; the thick rope unwound as it fell. Wufei and Quatre approached the ropes. Duo watched them ready their assent, dodging Trowa's questioning. It wasn't long before it was their turn to begin the climb. Duo started off, safety rope attached, followed by Trowa down to his right.

The climb was rough, though a year ago he could have made it without the use of the equipment Heero made him wear. But then, a year ago had been another life. He paused and wiped his brow, gauging how much longer the climb would be, how far they'd come. Securing his grip, he started again, leg extended for the next protrusion. His foot barely touched when it crumbled away; his palm instantly sweaty, slipped and he slid.

"Trowa! Give him a hand!" Heero shouted from above.

Before the other could react, Duo'd stopped his fall, and anchored his footing. He glared up at Heero and then at Trowa's hand on his harness. It was removed but not before a returned look was given. Catching his breath, Duo began again, taking his time. His arm smarted where it'd scrapped the rock wall. He could feel the pull in his leg and knew that would become a problem before this trip was over. It trembled already from the constant stress.

Duo clamped his harness to the anchor, and hung supported by the rope. He was almost to the top, but could feel his leg ready to give, could feel the strain in his arms. Grey dots swam before his eyes and he fought through the short spell. Now was not the time to give in.

"You okay?" Trowa questioned, nearby but keeping his distance.

Without opening his eyes, he nodded. His hand released the clamp, and he began again, his arm shaking visibly. He wet his lips and looked up, gauging the distance. Heero lay flat, leaning over the edge, hand outstretched for him. His mouth was moving, but no sound reached Duo. The roaring in his ears was too loud. He felt Trowa's hand grasp his shirt, saw Heero's face pale. Grey swirled with black and flashes of light. A painful wrench in his wrist, a bump against a hard surface.

And then sound.

Loud, curses, shouts and cries of his name filtered through the fog. Just as he realized he was in a freefall, he was pulled up short. A strong arm clamped around his chest, a pair of legs wrapped around his. "Heero," his voice a whisper.

"I'm here. I've got you," Heero told him soothingly.

Duo struggled for breath. He could only assume he'd bounced a couple of times in his drop, and Heero's grip wasn't helping. "Can't breathe. Ribs, I think," he managed.

The hold loosened and Heero's hand slid to grab the harness. "Can you reach behind you and fasten your clamps to my belt?" Duo nodded faintly, reaching for his tethers. Without letting go with his legs, Heero turned him around to where they faced one another. Duo felt Heero maneuver, locking the harnesses together and resisted the urge to rest his head against Heero's shoulder. "Okay. You're secured to me. Now I want you to wrap your legs around my waist and hold on with your hands. Can you do that?"

Heero's face wavered in his vision. Duo swallowed and blinked, trying to clear his head. His response was slow, sluggish, but he was able to make his limbs react. He heard Heero call up to the others, telling them they'd meet them at the start point, and to bring the jeep. The side of his face throbbed. His chest hurt. And his leg was on fire.

It was only when they were on the ground that Duo realized Heero hadn't been attached to the rope. The man'd come after him, held him, and carried him with his own strength. Ego banished, shame and guilt clouding his reason, Duo remained silent as Heero carried him down the trail. He'd tried to walk, but found it impossible after the first few steps. His pride had cost more than a few bruises, and it'd almost cost him more.

The sun was past zenith when they reached the checkpoint spot. Heero sat him carefully down on a log, and helped remove his jeans. Together they checked the damage and determined it to not be too bad. Discoloration along his ribs showed the bruising, but nothing seemed broken. And he'd wind up sporting a black eye in the morning as well for his efforts.

Silence settled between them. Duo continued to berate himself internally; Heero divided his attention between watching Duo, and looking for the jeep.

"I'm sorry."

Duo gaped. "What do you have to be sorry for? It was my own stupidity."

"I shouldn't have pushed this," Heero answered quietly. Their gazes met. "I-I'd just like things to go back to how they were."

A minute passed. Duo turned away. "It's not likely to happen," he said bitterly. "I'm not who I was before and I'm too stupid to admit it."

"Duo..." Heero's fingers touched his shoulder.

"I almost got you killed!" He jerked away violently, shouting out in his anger, and frustration. "You should have let me fall." He glared, wrapping his anger around him to stave off the fear.

Suddenly he was pressed against Heero's chest, the man's arms wrapped securely around him. "You are not stupid, just stubborn. Too stubborn to die, anyway. Too much of a survivor." His embraced tightened for a moment. "I've almost lost you once, I'm not going to lose you again if I can do something about it. Got that?"

As Heero released him, Duo could only stare in shock. Heero started to say something more when the unmistakable sounds of the jeep came from around the bend. Duo's stare followed him as he stood and went to wave down the others.

The jeep pulled into view and stopped. Duo shook his head and looked away, the barest hint of a smile on his face.


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