The sudden sound of warning claxons echoing throughout the subterranean complex beneath the Federation's base abruptly woke the fifteen soldiers in the barracks on lower level four from their sleep.
"We're under attack," one of the older pilots shouted as he jumped up from his bed. Bright red emergency lights blinked came to life above the doorway as the muffled, booming sounds of battle resounded through the layers of earth and concrete that separated the small troop from the battle above.
The ceiling lights were turned on and the experienced soldiers rushed the greenies into dressing quickly. The ten fumbled with clumsy fingers with the fasteners of their new uniforms, rushing to obey the command to dress, just as Captain Dunstan ran into the room already dressed for action in his flight suit. "Pilots to your suits," he ordered, then turned to his newest soldiers and spoke to them in a rushed and urgent voice. "You greenies are to stay here until all sound of battle has ended. If the base is captured, escape and make your way to safety. If we beat the bastards off, do what you can to help out above and report back here by nightfall."
Just when they thought that was the last of his orders, the young captain turned to Heero who was standing next to Duo, both still in their tee-shirts and only Heero had managed to get on his pants at that point. "Yuy," The young commander called the messy haired teen to attention. "There's an extra suit fueled and ready. I know you don't have much in the way of battle experience," he continued, his face looking and voice sounding grim. "But after yesterday's incident, I think you're the only one of this group that we can count on for this fight. I won't order you to pilot the M.S. if you think you can't do it because of your inexperience, but we're pretty desperate here after losing so many pilots yesterday. We could use your help."
Heero turned and grabbed hold of his new flight suit that had been laid out in readiness the night before at the end of his bunk. "Show me where it's located." he replied, showing his clear intention to fight.
"Good man," the captain said with a tense smile on his worried looking face.
A thunderous sound came from above and the barracks trembled. The lights above the group of men and boys went out and dim emergency lights flicked off and on several times. Heero turned quickly to Duo, their eyes immediately fixed on each others. /Be safe while I'm gone,/ he said, taking in the pale, worried face in front of him. Suddenly Duo looked so young and vulnerable to him and Heero's resolve to fight in the battle above faltered a bit, but that moment of weakness passed as he received Duo's reply.
"Whip their butts, Heero." A shaky smile came to the long-haired teen's handsome face. /Come back to me,/ he added, with feelings of sad resignation mixed with fear and pride that coursed from him to Heero through their connection.
Heero nodded and tried to give Duo a reassuring smile, but knew he failed in the attempt. He quickly took off his pants and replaced them with the blue jumpsuit that designated him as a pilot. He sat down on Duo's bunk and quickly put on his shoes and boots, noting that Duo was just finishing putting on his fatigues. Turning his head, his eyes shifted to Wufei, completely dressed in the desert camouflaged uniform, as he came to stand by Duo. Dark brown eyes met deep blue. "In your care," he told their Chinese teammate, knowing Wufei would take the responsibility of watching Duo's back seriously.
Wufei accepted the task Heero had requested of him with a nod of his head, then bowed to the Japanese boy in gratitude for the other teen's display of faith in his ability to keep Duo safe.
With a quick glance at the others and a brief word of goodbye, Heero turned and left with the experienced pilots flanking him. Captain Dunstan was bent towards him, quickly telling the new pilot as they went out the door of the things he'd need to know when fighting along side himself and the others against the pilots of the Allied Forces.
The nine young soldiers that were left behind huddled close together. The realization that this was really war they were suddenly caught in and not a drill or a practice session on the training field was just hitting home. The emergency lights flickered then went out completely as the barracks shook from something impacting above ground, possibly even their own building. The emergency lights flicked on again but this time even more dim.
"Shit!" Duo uttered in a shaky voice. He felt an arm go around his shoulders and turned to see it was Quatre offering him comfort. His quick glance at the blond showed, even in the dim light, the blue eyed boy's face to be a reflection of his own feelings of fear.
"What do we do now?" Chen Chow asked nervously, his usually slanted eyes were now wide open, giving him a whole new appearance.
"We obey orders," Zechs spoke up clearly, no sound of fear in his appearance or voice. "Let's sit down and wait until the sounds of the battle ends, then we'll go up and see what we can do to help, just as the captain ordered."
Trowa, Quatre, Duo and Wufei chose to sit close together on Duo's bunk, the other five settled on the bunk across from them. All nine sat in relative silence in the apparently abandoned lower level of the underground structure as they listened to the deep booming sound of the battle above vibrating through the walls and watched the emergency generator lights flash on and off periodically.
Wufei's hand snaked up Duo's back to come to rest on the braided boy's shoulder. "Can you tell how Heero's doing?" He asked in a whisper.
Duo nodded slightly and Trowa and Quatre leaned in to listen to his answer.
"He's in a white mobile suit that he says is far superior to the ones we used on the training field at school," he answered quietly, then a smile came to his lips. "He can't wait until we all get a chance to experience it. He's in flight." He paused a moment and his eyes widened for a moment. "It's fast," he added, a touch of awe in his voice. Then suddenly his forehead wrinkled and a troubled look came into his eyes.
"What is it?" Wufei asked, still keeping his voice low so the others across the room couldn't hear the conversation. Seeing a look of consternation come across Duo's fair features, he brought his hand up and began of rub Duo's back in a soothing motion.
"Enemy suits, everywhere," the braided teen whispered in a tense voice. "The sky is filled with them. They want this base badly."
"What's he talking about?" Zechs stood from his bunk and walked over to confront the four. His hands were balled at his hips and he wore a deep frown on his face.
The four remained silent. Quatre, Trowa and Wufei looked from Zechs's forbidding face to Duo, whose eyes seemed dazed. Losing his patience, the tall blond began again. "Look, I'm the oldest here and the ranking senior. I'm taking temporary command," he said loudly and boldly enough so that the other eight in the room would hear and not doubt his position. "I want to know what's going on with Maxwell."
Trowa looked up at Zechs and with a straight, serious face answered. "Duo can read Heero's mind. He's hearing Heero's thoughts as he goes into battle."
"This isn't the time to joke around, Barton," Zechs said, unhappy with the answer he'd gotten.
Duo gasped, then said, "Red is being overpowered by several suits, no one can get to him. Oh, God!" Duo cried out, obviously voice Heero's words in his head. "Watch out for the for the laser sword. Behind you." Duo was breathing was rapid and he blinked his eyes as if realizing where he was. Wide, shocked eyes met his friend's. "Red's suit was just cut in half and has just gone down under enemy fire." His voice reflected the horror Heero was feeling at the sight of a team member being ruthlessly struck down. "Oh God, they're severely outnumbered," he whispered hoarsely. "They don't have a chance."
A loud crash sounded above them and they each believed it was Red's suit that had just fallen violently into the base above..
/Get out of there, Heero. Hurry, get away!/ Duo's panicked thoughts screamed to his partner, not realizing that he also vocalized his message.
/Duo, things are really bad out here. Get out of there, escape!/ Heero called back, his voice sounding urgent just as the link between the two was cut off.
The long haired teen gasped. "He cut me off!" he cried out in disbelief.
"He just needs to concentrate, Duo," Wufei said, trying to reassure his frightened friend. But after the scene that Duo had described of the base above them, he too was fearful for not only Heero's safety, but for their own as well.
"What the hell?" Zechs's face bore the look of shocked disbelief. "You can really read Heero's mind?" he asked.
"Yeah," Duo answered, obviously shaken as his eyes stayed focused on his clenched, trembling fists that were firmly pressed down onto his thighs. "And from the descriptions he gave me, we're sitting ducks. Our forces are severely outnumbered. Heero gave me the impression the other remaining pilots were circling him, trying to offer some protection from the onslaught because he's a greenie." Pained blue-violet eyes looked up into the tall blond's face. "We're going to lose this battle," he told him in all seriousness. "We should be planning our escape."
Maps were retrieved from their lockers and laid out on Duo's bed and every teen's new flash light was shone onto the paper. The map depicted the base in its entirety with the large runway located in the center of it. The many buildings that comprised the base offices and housing and set back a safe distance, lined both sides of the tarmac. Around the base's perimeters the land was flat and open desert. The map extended to show several miles to the north and to the east to where the parched desert floor rose up abruptly to meet a long stretch hills and mountains.
"There's too much distance and open space for us to escape before daylight," Trowa observed while staring at the watch he was shining his flashlight on in order to see the time. The display reported the time. "It's four thirty-seven a.m.," he told the others. "The enemy no doubt hoped to surprise and confuse the base by launching a battle in the middle of the night, causing pilots on both sides to rely on computer guidance systems instead of their eyesight."
The nine nodded, grimly agreeing with the auburn haired boy's remark.
Duo looked at the map then to his own watch, the beam of his bright flashlight going swiftly from one to the other. It had been forty minutes since Heero left the barracks with the other pilots and fifteen minutes since Duo had last heard from him. He took in a shaky breath as his worry increased, then slowly let it out as he allowed his instincts to kick in. "We'll probably need to hide amongst the ruins of the base and either avoid the enemy or try to blend in amongst them. Then when night falls again, we can steal a vehicle or try to get out by catching a ride on top or underneath a troop land transport or wait until night comes again and hope to slip out into the desert undetected and hide in the hills."
He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering using such tactics when he lived on the streets. After finding Heero and discovering he was engineered to be not only a soldier, but part of an inseparable team, he thought he'd left the streets and all the fear and anxiety he'd felt as a homeless child behind him forever. He found it odd at that moment that he was once again, despite all his education and training, in a position of running and hiding in order to try and stay alive. 'It must somehow be my destiny,' he thought sadly to himself. Well, his method of running and hiding had worked for him when he was a child on the streets, he didn't see why it wouldn't work for him now that he had several years of training behind him.
Wufei stood and addressed them all. "I think we should split up into smaller groups or as individuals in an effort to escape the base. If we walk around in this size of a group, we'll only attract attention."
Everyone nodded their heads in agreement.
"Alright, let's pair off," Zechs said, his voice taking on the tone of giving an order.
"I'll go with Quatre," Trowa spoke first.
"And I with Duo," Wufei looked to the long haired teen for his approval and received his answer by way of a short nod of his head, bringing a great deal of relief to him. He had given his silent vow to Heero that he would protect Duo, and he couldn't very well do that if his friend went solo or teamed up with someone else.
Chow and Anderson paired up as did Kamwansa and Nadil; that left Zechs without a partner. "I'll follow Chang and Maxwell until I deem it necessary to go it alone," the blond announced. "Remember," he looked them all in the eyes. "If captured, you know nothing, understand? We've never fought in a battle so we have no information to give. Tell them the truth as much as you can without compromising anyone else. State your I.D. number and evoke the rights of P.O.W.'s under the International Agreement."
The eight sober faced teens nodded their agreement to Zech's instructions.
"Alright." The tall blond looked satisfied. "Let's split up so that if any one of us is caught, the others still have a chance to escape. Do what you have to in order to get out of here, but kill only if you have to, if your life depends on it." He then turned to two of his fellow trainees. "Chow and Anderson will go first. Use your map and hide in the rubble until you deem it to be safe." He extended his hand to the two. "God speed you to safety," he said formally.
The two boys looked frightened but resolved and shook the offered hand, wished their other fellows well, then with flashlights and maps in hand, they quickly left the room.
"Kamwansa and Nadil, you're next." Zechs announced. Again, he shook their hands and the two turned and shook hands with the four behind the tall blond. With a quick look back, the two left the barrack, their footsteps receding quickly.
Aware of the closeness of the four remaining boys, Zechs stood back and allowed them a moment of privacy knowing their parting would be difficult for them, with none of the teens knowing if they would ever see each other alive after this day was over. Zechs watched the exchange of well wishes, watched the four close friends take their final leave of each other.
"Be safe," Quatre said firmly, embracing Wufei and then Duo before reluctantly standing back, his face pale and grave in the dim light.
"We'll meet again," Trowa said with confidence, giving Wufei and Duo the same quick embrace Quatre had given them. He then turned to Zechs with his eyes fixed on the older teen. "Take care of them," he said in parting.
Zech's nodded. "Get going you two," he told them and nodded towards the door. "I think our time is running out." It was becoming clear to the five still in the barracks that the battle above them was diminishing as the sounds of explosions and hits to the base above them lessened considerably.
"See you soon," Quatre said with a forced smile and fake optimism as Trowa took his arm and pulled him quickly out of the door into the dark hallway.
Zechs took out his gun. "Keep your weapons in your hands. With the decreased fighting above, the foot soldiers will be advancing to take over the base and search for prisoners and the injured."
"This is a hell of a way to start your first real day of military service," Duo grumbled as he pulled his gun out of his belt holster. He shoved his flashlight into his belt. "You shine your flashlight for us Wufei," he said to his friend. "I need to have a least one hand free to fight if something comes up."
With a curt nod, the beam of Wufei's flashlight lit up the doorway. "Let's go then," he said. They made it to the door just as a loud crashing sound reverberated from an area directly above them and the walls of the underground compound shuddered and the ceiling above them cracked. They huddled together within the safety of the doorframe and looked in shock as chunks of plaster and dust fell from the ceiling of the long hallway. The dim emergency lights located at each end of the long hallway blinked out for the last time, leaving only Wufei's lone flashlight to beat back the darkness and their growing fears.
"Shit!" Duo gasped in alarm and coughed in response to inhaling some of the fine dust and stepped back into Wufei's chest as Zechs's flashlight came on to join the other boy's. The two beams took in the black hallways with dust still raining down from above and chunks of walls and ceilings littering the floor.
"Quick, this way," Zechs called out as he pushed himself through the two smaller teens and darted off towards the known stairwell at the end of the hallway.
"Duo! Stay behind me," Wufei ordered as the braided boy bolted after the tall blond.
"No way, Wufei," Duo called back over his shoulder as he ducked and dodged a falling piece of plaster. "Just shine the light forward and keep up with me. I'm a better shot than you are and I used to do a lot of finding my way in dark places before I landed in the training center."
Wufei caught up to his friend and grabbed hold of Duo's upper arm and held it tight while bringing them both to an abrupt halt. He pressed the other boy's body up against his side. "Listen, Duo," he spoke in a quiet but serious tone of voice. "Heero put you in my care and you're going to listen to me and do as I say. I fully intend to protect you and get you out of here." Wufei glanced forward and hoped that Zechs, whose footsteps and receding flashlight could still be heard and seen in the distance, couldn't hear his words.
Though the light was dim with his flashlight being pointed towards the floor, Wufei could see a flash of anger come over Duo's face. "Now you listen to me, Wufei," the braided teen hissed. "Just because I'm submissive to Heero doesn't mean I'm that way by nature, just genetically to Heero. I don't like being told what to do by anyone but him; I never have and I never will. It would be a good thing for you to remember that."
Wufei was stunned by his friend's words and burst of anger. Bristling before him stood the person who had the hearts of two soldiers, himself and Heero, and, Duo looked, at the moment, to be anything but the vulnerable boy he sometimes appeared to be in the past. It only now registered in his mind that Duo had only appeared vulnerable because he'd been dealing with Heero at his dominating worst. He'd known it before, had been told by Quatre of their unique and complicated bond, but now, it was as if a light of understanding went on his head. Duo was genetically designed to be submissive to Heero, he couldn't help it. But looking at the young soldier in front of him, without Heero being anywhere nearby to influence his actions, he now glimpsed an almost feral look on the other boy's face. There was a lethal gleam in his eyes that Wufei had rarely ever seen before. Duo was anything but vulnerable or needing to be protected. He realized that the boy that stood glaring at him was unquestionably dangerous. And damn, if that didn't make him all the more appealing. With adrenaline pumping through his system, he forced back the sudden impulse to follow the strong desire to roughly pull the other boy into his arms and thoroughly kiss him. However, the voice of reason and his sanity reigned. Zechs was, after all, just up ahead and calling for them to hurry up. This was neither the time nor the place for such a display of spontaneous bursts of emotion. Besides, the look on Duo's face was anything but inviting. If he tried to give the impromptu kiss to the other boy as he had once before in his room, he didn't doubt that Duo would knock him into next week.
"Then let's go and work together to stay free," Wufei said in a way of conceding, now looking at Duo with new eyes, reaffirming his knowledge that the braided teen was more than just someone to protect at all cost, he recognized him as a more than capable comrade at arms who would watch his back also.
Duo nodded, his face expressionless. He then unexpectedly reached out and took hold of Wufei's arm and gave it a slight, reassuring and grateful squeeze before quickly releasing it. They then turned together and ran to join Zechs who was impatiently waiting for them at the stairwell.
The three carefully picked their way up two levels, avoiding the crumbling edges of the stairwell and climbing over large chunks of drywall. They finally arrived on Level two only to find the stairs leading to ground level was completely blocked by rubble from the floor above. Hearing faint footsteps off to their right, they went to the left, not knowing if it was friend or foe wandering the dark hallways. Pausing only to check their position on the map they'd brought with them, they were forced to go back down another debris strewn corridor to find another marked exit, as indicated on the map. The second stairwell they found was also blocked. The three turned to each other with identical looks of concern and worry on their faces.
"Can you hear Heero yet?" Wufei asked as he and Duo stood quietly by as Zechs busied himself clearing away a space on the floor, then laid the rolled up map down and began to go over it once again.
"No," Duo whispered, and Wufei could see by the look on his friend's face that he was obviously distressed at the thought that Heero, the other half of his soul, could be hurt or dead.
"If you can't feel him, he's conscious enough to keep his shields up," Wufei suggested, hoping to keep Duo's spirits up.
"Or unconscious, or too far away, or dead," Duo said glumly.
"Look!" Zechs whispered in excitement as he studied the map in his hands. "I didn't see this before, but this looks like an exit, maybe hidden on purpose. It's a back door."
The other two boys ended their conversation and knelt down on the dusty linoleum floor that was liberally littered with dirt and rubble, to look at the area Zechs was pointing to.
They both saw it at the same time and, as Zechs had stated, it was obscure enough to not be seen at first glance as an emergency exit. There was a very faint dotted line, just a touch of a shade darker than the bland color of the map, that began from the barracks on lower level five in an area designated as a janitorial closet. From that point, the barely noticeable line stretched out from the closet, going through the building's outer wall, extended under the tarmac in the center of the base and out to the desert and ended short of the mountains beyond.
"If we'd gotten a proper orientation when we arrived," Zechs said as he re-folded the map, his voice echoing in the large empty space around them, "we would probably have been told of this as a possible escape route. I'll bet all the buildings have this type of back door."
"Where is it?" Wufei asked.
"It's one floor beneath the barracks," Zechs answered. "If we hurry, we might be able to get into the escape tunnel and make it to the desert before sunrise. If we do, we have a good chance of escaping."
The sound of something large moving above them, of earth shaking footsteps that grew louder suddenly stopped, paused, then the scrape of metal against steal on concrete not far from their own position was heard and caused the building to shake violently once again, and the three young soldiers flinched and look anxiously at the unstable ceiling above them.
"I think they're using a M.S. to begin clearing away the rubble above us." Zechs stated. "The enemy will be to this level soon."
"Then let's get the hell out of here," Duo said nervously.
"This way," Zechs called out and confidently took the lead. Turning, he quickly led them back the way they'd come. They ran, with the single flashlight beam that was held in Zechs's hand as their only guide, down the corridor through the complete and oppressive darkness that surrounded them. The other two flashlights remained off in order to conserve the batteries as they had no idea how long they'd have to spend time in the underbelly of the base.
The three went down the stairwell guided by the small beam of light that flickered unsteadily caused by their haste as the sound of excavation continued above them. They descended the staircase with the flashlight lifting from the rubble strewn path to shine on the wall of each landing until they saw the letters LL4 that indicated they were back on the lower fourth floor where they had begun their escape. Knowing they had one more floor to go, they continued downward through the tomblike stairwell. Though they didn't speak of their apprehension, each of the three young soldiers found it difficult to descend deeper into the darkness of the subterranean building. The blackness surrounding them was complete, the air they breathed in was thick with the fine dust from crumbling plaster and it was silent, the work above stopping, and the only sound was their nervous breathing, occasional coughing, and the unsteady fall of pieces of ceiling or wall to the linoleum floor. The atmosphere they rushed through was almost suffocating and a feeling of claustrophobia seeped into each of them.
Zechs brought them to a halt at the end of the stairwell marked LL5 and checked his map again. He then led the two following close behind him half way down the unfamiliar corridor until they came to a room labeled Maintenance Room. "This looks like the place," the blond said, unrolling the map that was tightly fisted in his hand to confirm his statement. After shining his flashlight on it, he then neatly folded the map so he could put it in his pocket. With that done, he cautiously moved forward and opened the door, shining his flashlight into the dark room. After looking at all corners of the small space, determining it was empty, he entered and motioned for the two behind him to follow.
Once the three were inside, Zechs flashed the beam of light more carefully around the room's interior once again for closer inspection to see that the walls were covered with shelves and they contained all types of cleaning products and supplies. The light meticulously searched each shelf, above and below them and came to a stop when Zech recognized a door handle hidden underneath a shelf of paint cans. "Hold this here," He held his flashlight out to Wufei who took it and kept the light pointed on the place it had been when Zechs had made the request. Crouching down, Zechs put both hands on the hidden handle and gave it a strong pull downward. The clicking sound of a metal latch pulling out of a lock was heard and the row of shelves slid forward and out, revealing behind it, a door large enough for two men to pass through shoulder to shoulder.
"This way." Zechs unceremoniously grabbed his flashlight back from Wufei and moved through the opening, quickly disappearing into the dark and cool temperature of the escape tunnel. Duo and Wufei were quick to follow, neither wanting to be left in the all-enveloping darkness as the flashlight moved away from them.
Once the three stood inside the smaller space, the light of the flashlight showed them their escape path. Surprised, the three were shocked into silence as they took in the rough hewn dirt walls that were held up apparently by thick pieces of wood. It resembled the coal mines in old movies from centuries before, only smaller in scale.
"Did they carve this out with their dinner spoons?" Duo asked, trying to let his humor override his fear.
"It's not properly built." Wufei said, frowning. "It could well have collapsed further down the way from the battle above."
"As far as I'm concerned, it's a god-send," Zechs said curtly, then marched ahead of the other two, knowing they had no choice but to follow.
They walked cautiously for a short while before Wufei spoke up. "Hear anything from Heero?"
"No," came the quiet reply.
The three picked up the pace after Zechs looked at his watch and noted that sunrise was not too long away. They each took turns tripping over the uneven ground or chunks of earth that had fallen from either the wall or the ceiling of the long, narrow tunnel. Duo had never been more happy to be short, his head clearing the ceiling easily. Zechs, however, with his added height, looked downright uncomfortable, walking hunched forward so that his head wouldn't constantly be hitting the roughly hewn and uneven ceiling.
The tunnel, as well as the time they traveled through it, seemed almost endless, though it had only been about twenty minutes. It was noticed almost immediately after five minutes into their tunnel trek that the path they followed began to leveling upward, decreasing the depth of their path from the surface at a steady rate.
At last they came to an abrupt dead end of the escape tunnel, they found an attached metal ladder that led upward to a metal hatch located on the rock ceiling. Zechs reached up easily and pushed it open then motioned for Duo to proceed ahead of himself and Wufei. Duo was quick to scramble up the ladder and through the open hatch. He then turned and reached down for the flashlight. He directed the single light to the ladder while the other two climbed up, and together they surveyed the room the tunnel had led them into.
The three young soldiers stood in a large metal enclosure and Duo's flashlight quickly found a light switch on the wall. The bright lights that shone down from several hanging lamps caused the three to cover their eyes until they adjusted to the unaccustomed brightness. With their hands above their eyes as impromptu visors, they scanned the room that seemed to be about the size of a mess hall. The long and tall walls were lined with gray metal storage shelves that were filled with boxes that were clearly labeled. They each contained various emergency supplies that would be needed in the desert. Water, food packets, sun screen, blankets, uniforms and weapons were among the items listed on a few of the many boxes stored there, waiting there for such a need as they presently found themselves in.
After searching the contents of several boxes, they found one containing sand colored backpacks. The three teens each chose one and began to fill it with all other essentials they might need in case they found themselves out in the desert for an extended period of time. Each of them drank his fill of water and ate several protein bars, then quickly prepared to leave. There was a feeling of urgency in their movements now as the sunrise was fast approaching and their window of opportunity for escape was slowly closing as daylight loomed.
They moved to the next ladder that led upwards and hopefully out of the storage room. The ceiling was at least twenty feet high and had a square sliding hatch at the top of the ladder.
"I'll lead," Duo offered, shifting his backpack and rifle into place over his shoulders.
"No, I will," Zechs said firmly.
Duo shook his head. "If there's any light out, the moon or fire from the base, it will reflect on your hair. It's better if either Wufei or I go out first to see if it's safe."
"Then I'll go," The Chinese teen volunteered. "I've got darker skin and hair," he reasoned.
"I'm a better shot," Duo replied with a slight grin at the familiarity of the argument that he and his friend liked to engage in. He and Wufei were always competing, whether in a game or on the practice battle field. Wufei was better than he was at many things, but there could be no argument about him being the best for taking the lead this time, after all, Duo had, by a wide margin, surpassed Wufei in marksmanship, stealth and piloting.
Zechs moved to shut the overhead lights out, turning on his flashlight once again. "Go," he ordered Duo, and he and Wufei watched as the boy with the long braid and wiry body began to climb the ladder. He struggled with the door for a few moments, but after several grunts and pulls, the sound of metallic scraping across sand and metal could be heard a second before a shower of sand fell on top of Duo's head and down to the floor below, hitting the two looking upward.
Duo spit and spluttered in an effort to rid his mouth and nose of the sand that had rudely fallen on him, then with one arm hooked around the ladder, he used the other to try and wipe the dust of the desert from off his face, realizing he was probably now a dull shade of gray from his head to his toes. Once he was able to see and breathe a bit more clearly, he looked up through the opening above him. The deep gray sky foretold the slow approach of another day as the dark of night began to slowly dispel and give way to the new dawn that was quickly approaching. Cautiously climbing the last few rungs of the ladder, the now greyish brown head of hair inched up to the surface. His eyes came above ground level and quickly adjusted to the faint light. He turned his head around to view his position and surroundings and stopped suddenly, his eyes wide as a flickering red glow reflected off of his face as he gazed with a look of horror on his face back to the base. "Oh God," he gasped.
Hearing the bleak sound in Duo's startled voice, Zechs and Wufei scrambled up the ladder to get a look at whatever had shaken their teammate. Three bodies struggled to share a place on the top of the ladder while their heads turned and their eyes took in the smoky, burning remains of the nearly decimated base that had been their home for less than a day. Black columns of billowing smoke rose like the dark ash of a funeral pyre as several mobile suits circled over the devastation of the crushed base like vultures over carrion.
"No wonder we didn't encounter anyone else under the base," Zechs whispered, his voice choked with emotion. "Everyone must have been on duty and were killed or captured."
"Except us," Wufei said, blinking back the tears that threatened to spill over his eyes. The moisture there was not just for those men and women who died in defending the base, but for the fury he felt at an enemy who would kill so mercilessly. A sudden thought filled his mind that he had been spared from a similar fate as those dead or captured at the base for a reason and he vowed to himself that he would become the best pilot he could and take revenge for all those who at died at the hands of an unscrupulous enemy. His eyes continued to scan the horrific scene before him. Not only did it appear that the buildings that had marked the base on the flat desert were now broken skeletons of what they had been, but littered around the base were at least a dozen or more mobile suits that had been shot down, destroyed or made ineffective during the battle.
"Heero," Duo whispered in a half sob with his eyes fixed on the distant ruins.
Wufei's thoughts immediately turned from his righteous anger and thoughts of revenge to his friend. He made sure his right arm gripped the ladder securely before bringing his free arm around and hugged Duo to his side. "I'm sure he's not there, Duo. If he were killed or captured, wouldn't you know?"
"I d..don't know," Duo answered in a shaky voice. "He's never had either of those things happen to him before. All I know is that I can't hear him."
"Just have faith in him," Wufei whispered into Duo's ear, aware suddenly of the close proximity of Zechs who was still preoccupied with staring out at the flaming ruins of the base.
Duo shook his head, but before Wufei could say anything else, Zechs turned to scan the area around them, then spoke up. "Come on. If we don't make a run for the hills now, we'll be dead too. The sun is about to rise and we'll be sitting ducks on the flat lands."
"If Heero's dead, then so am I," Duo said quietly so only Wufei could hear his voice and the sound resignation in it. "I'll take the lead."
"Duo," Wufei began, only to be silenced by Duo's finger on his lips.
"I'm the best shot and the fastest runner. It'll be okay, I promise." Even in the dim, pre-morning light, Wufei could see a great depth of sadness in the other teen's large eyes. "Please," Duo pleaded quietly.
"We'll be staggered about fifty feet behind you," Zechs said as he backed down the ladder to give the others more room to maneuver out of the hole.
Seeing the blond was occupied with getting down, Duo took the moment of privacy to look into his friend's eyes, then quickly leaned forward and pressed his lips against Wufei's cheek. Wufei felt his heart constrict with fear and sorrow, sensing that Duo was beginning to say his goodbye.
"Duo," Wufei whispered his friend's name softly, suddenly very much afraid for the braided boy's safety. In his heart he knew the true reason why Duo was taking the risk. When he and Trowa first learned about the two genetically linked boys, Quatre had said that if one of the two died, the other would most likely follow soon after. Having seen the pain Duo suffered in the past from being away from Heero for only a day, he had no doubt the boy he'd come to care for would die an agonizing death if Heero was indeed dead.
For a moment, he searched Duo's eyes, looking for any possible sign that the braided boy returned any measure of the feelings he had for him. But in searching the blue-violet depths, Wufei could only discern sadness, loss, and some token of affection. He knew in that very moment that Duo didn't love him. He only had room in his heart for Heero. Wufei consoled himself with the thought that yes, Duo did love him as a friend, but it was with the same level of affection that he had for Quatre and Trowa. With that knowledge, he also knew that there would be no last minute, heartfelt words of love given to him by the braided teen. "Be careful," he said in a small choked voice, and received a soft smile of gratitude from Duo, silently thanking him for not stopping him from taking the point position.
Wufei carefully backed down the ladder and glanced up in time to watch Duo leave the shelter of the metal building, even as sand came tumbling over the edge as the trim boy scrambled out. Closing his eyes, he muttered a brief prayer that Duo would be alright. Duo might not love him, but it didn't diminish what he felt for the other boy.
Then suddenly, the same boy's head reappeared in the open space above them, his braid dangling over his shoulder and into the hatch. "Darken you hair, Zechs. I can see it from here," he whispered as if speaking any louder would alert the enemy to their position. "You'll be an easy target if anyone sees it." With that said, the smaller of the three disappeared once again.
"Get in position," Zechs told Wufei. The blond then turned his flashlight back to the rows of boxes and began to rummage through the room to look for something to cover his head. He found a dark t-shirt which he pulled on in such a fashion that the neck became the band around his hairline and the dark material flowed down his back, hiding his white hair.
A small pebble came from through the shelter's opening and hit Wufei on the shoulder. "I think that's our signal that it's all's clear," the Chinese teen told the other.
"Go on up if it's clear," Zechs said and began to mount the ladder again as Wufei crawled out of the hole. It was easy to spot the gray shadow that was Duo, cautiously crawling on his belly across the cool desert sand. His friend was about sixty feet ahead and had opted to stay as low as possible in order to keep from being detected. Wufei followed his example, moving forward by using his elbows and knees, his belly on the cool sand. His progress was made awkward by the backpack and rifle sliding around on his back, not to mention that his hands and knees kept sinking into the soft, sandy surface. Every once in a while he would look up to see the shadowy outline of the distant hills grow larger, but they still seemed so far away, especially with the way the three were crawling in order to avoid detection. He looked over his shoulder to see the shadow of Zechs coming forward, about thirty feet behind him. With any luck, the three of them would reach safety and hide in the hills until help arrived. He moved forward, going as quicky as possible while trying to pace himself and his energy. His lack of sleep and frequent surges of adrenaline were catching up to him and he was becoming increasing tired.
Another ten minutes of the painfully slow progress brought the three together. Duo had paused to catch his breath and patiently waited for the other two to catch up with him to confer.
As Zechs lowered his aching arms, he looked to the braided teen.
"We'll never reach the hills at this rate," Duo said with a tone of urgency in his voice. "We've got to get up on our feet and run for it." He motioned towards the eastern horizon. "The sun is minutes from rising."
Both Wufei and Zechs looked over their shoulder and could see the evidence of a brightening above the distant horizon.
"Wufei, you lead," Zechs said. "On your feet and go!"
The Chinese boy did exactly as he was told, aiming for the distant hills that looked to be a little over a mile away. But because of their inexperience with the desert, that one mile proved to be a long stretch as shifting sands slowed the progress between their position and the sheltering mountains.
"Go!" Zechs ordered Duo, who also sprang up to his feet and raced after Wufei. Waiting fifteen seconds, Zechs also stood and followed after the two.
Despite his being the smallest of the three, Duo proved to be the better runner. He soon overtook and passed Wufei, reaching over to lightly tag the Chinese teen on the shoulder as he passed him by.
The ground was flat and the soft sand made their feet sink down several inches with each step, making it more difficult to keep running for a long period of time. The sky brightened, bringing the danger with it that they would be seen by any one looking for them.
The ragged slope of the hills that rose up from the desert floor were minutes away as the three approached the base at a slow jog, breathing heavily and sweating enough to dampen their clothing, despite the cool morning air. The arid climate made their throats dry and tongues thick, adding to the discomfort they felt at having heavy and gritty sand becoming packed into their shoes and socks.
Duo was a good twenty feet in front of Wufei when the brilliant sun peeked over the eastern hills. Wufei looked up at the hills that silently promised them shelter as the sun rose and its light extend over the far hill to light the valley. Then something to the right and half way up the hill in front of them caught his eye. It was a flash or a spark. He squinted as he ran in order to try and see again what he'd glimpsed a moment ago. He thought that maybe it was the morning light reflecting off of a piece of glass or something. Yet as he looked, he saw it again. Half way up the rocky, boulder strewn surface, came a bright spark of light. It slowly registered that what he'd just see was the glint of light reflecting off of something like metal, a gun.
"Duo, down!" he shouted. The boy in front of him stopped to spin around and question him, when the echoed report of a gun sounded. Instead of dropping face down to the ground as he and Zechs had, Wufei watched in horror as Duo's body was jolted and he fell to the side, the result of a powerful impact.
"On the hill, two o'clock." Wufei called out to Zechs.
"Go to Duo, I'll cover you." Zechs said as he as he pulled his rifle out from behind him and pulled clips of ammo out of the waistband of his pants and scanned the hillside with eyes narrowed, looking for anything out of the ordinary to spot the sniper.
"Cover?" Wufei growled back indignantly. "We're on a flat plain, we're sitting ducks."
"Just go," Zechs barked, his eyes still trained on the hillside.
"Like anything could keep me away," Wufei muttered, then scurried on his belly over to where Duo had fallen.
Blue eyes scanned the hillside through the scope on top of his rifle. There, the wink of dawn's light on a metal surface was clearly seen and Zechs quickly aimed and took a shot at the tattletale gleam. The sniper was partially hidden behind a large boulder and had to bring his gun out from behind the large rock in order to aim and shoot. Zechs was determined he'd stop the hillside coward before he could shoot anyone else.
Wufei was almost afraid to touch his friend for fear of hurting him any further. "Duo?" he urgently called out his friend's name, hearing the fear in his own voice.
"Heero, ...help me," Duo cried in pain, his voice labored and wheezing.
"Shh, I'm here Duo. I'll help you," Wufei said in an attempt to soothe the wounded boy. "Where are you hurt?"
The dark blue jumpsuit they wore hid any signs of a wound.
"My side," the anguished voice answered. "But my hip.. and leg hurt... like a... bitch."
Wufei's hand gently sought for and found the wet patch of material that was becoming saturated with blood. The wound was indeed in Duo's side, between his second and third rib. He bit his lip and choked back his anguish as he realized just how bad the wound was. He knew they were in dire circumstances, trying to make an escape in the desert with no real goal other than to escape the destroyed base and their enemy. With Duo gravely injured and the Federation far away, their only aid would come from the enemy who was presently trying to kill them. Fear and grief began to rise within the young Chinese soldier, and he fought the oncoming rush of emotions so he could be strong for his wounded friend.
The braided teen's breath hitched as Wufei continued his gentle probing with shaking fingertips, relying on them to find the injuries as his vision was blurred and clouded over by the tears in his eyes. He concluded that the bullet must have hit a rib and maybe penetrated Duo's lung, which would account for the way he was breathing. His hands moved downward, checking the other areas where Duo had complained of pain.
Another shot rang out, coming from Zechs this time. Wufei just hoped their teammate could cover them long enough for him to stop the bleeding. He found another hole in Duo's left pant leg with blood soaking the material around it. Since they'd heard only one shot when Duo went down, he assumed this was the bullet's exit wound.
Though even the slightest movement cause him extensive pain, Duo reached up and grabbed Wufei's hand. Breathless, he asked, "I'm pretty bad off, ...aren't I?" He then gasped as if he couldn't catch his breath. His tear filled and pleading eyes rose to meet his Chinese friend's only to find Wufei was losing his own battle with his emotions.
Wufei nodded, the double sound of guns being shot sounded and a bullet hit the sand no more than three feet away from Duo and himself. Lying down on the sand next to Duo to make himself less of a target, Wufei sniffed back more tears as he faced the beautiful boy in front of him, whose face was pinched tightly with pain. "You probably have a lot of internal damage from the bullet moving from your side down into your leg." He pushed some of the stray hair from the dirt and tear stained face before him and felt his heart breaking. "I don't know what to do to help you," he said, choking back a sob as his tears fell freely.
"Shh, it's alright," Duo tried to comfort him. "You need... to go and... get out of here." It was obvious by the gasps Duo took after every two or three words that it was a struggle for him to breathe.
"I can't leave you," Wufei said, already beginning his grieving. "I promised Heero."
"It doesn't... matter anymore... Wufei." Duo said with a sad, forced grin. "If Heero is... dead, I would... die anyway in a... couple of days. If I die.." His voice faltered and a steady of water leaked from his eyes as shots rang out again. "If you... see Heero,... tell him... I'm sorry. Help him... 'til his end... comes. Comfort him... for me. Hold him... and let him... know.. he's not alone."
Wufei could only nod, too overcome with his emotions to reply.
Duo nodded, satisfied with his friend response. "Thanks... Wufei," He paused to catch his breath. "You were... the best... friend I... ever had." He took hold of the Chinese boy's hand and raised it to his lips to place a brief kiss on it, then placed it over his heart, sending a silent message to his distraught friend.
"Now," Duo said, almost out of breath. "Turn me around... to face the shooter.. and give me... my gun and... extra ammo. I'm not... going out... without a fight." Each word the injured boy uttered appeared to cost him dearly and his lungs seemed about ready to quit.
Wufei understood what Duo wanted to do, and his pride in and respect for the other boy rose even higher. He leaned forward and brought his lips to Duo's forehead and kissed it, then moved to kiss each of his cheeks, leaving a salty taste on his lips from the wetness there. Unable to express in words to the wounded boy of his varied feeling for him, he held his piece, knowing that Duo would be thinking of Heero to the last, he rested his forehead against Duo's.
The braided teen seemed to understand his friend's emotional distress and nodded his head and tried to give Wufei one last, brave smile. "Now....go." Duo said.
Wufei removed Duo's rifle from off of the braided boy's back and checked to see that it was fully loaded. He then took the extra clips out and set them on the ground. He looked at Duo's pained face. "I'm going to turn you now," he warned him.
Duo nodded and visibly prepared himself for the pain that would come from the movement.
Staying low and being as careful as possible, the Chinese boy gently maneuvered his friend's wounded body around to face the hills that loomed before them. Moments before, the jutting of rock shooting up out of the desert had represented a hope of shelter from being discovered and captured by their enemy, but their hope of safety had proven instead to be an excellent shelter for a sniper who had taken away their hope and soon, Wufei's best friend.
Once the move was complete, Wufei became alarmed at realizing that Duo lay much too still. He reached down to check the boy's pulse and was relieved to find it still beating and decided Duo had passed out.
"What's going on?" Zech's shouted from behind them. "I can't hold this guy off forever. What's Maxwell's status?"
"Duo, wake up. Can you hear me?" Wufei ignored the blond behind him and called out into Duo's ear as he lay down again against the slender boy's back and gently tapped his friend's dirt smudged and tear streaked face.
The wheezing hadn't ceased in the few moments that Duo had been out, but unexpectedly, the wounded boy's body jerked. "Oh God," he moaned, then gasped for air.
"You okay?" Wufei asked anxiously.
"Hell...no." Duo struggled to say. He then grasped the gun that had been placed in front of him into his hands and received the extra cartridges from Wufei. Seeing that the wounded boy was going to have a hard time handling the bulky rifle while on his side and his head on the ground, Wufei gently removed Duo's backpack from off his shoulders and carefully placed it under the injured boy's head, just enough to help him aim.
"Prop...up...gun." Duo instructed in a voice no stronger than a whisper.
Taking off his own back pack, Wufei took off the rolled blanket and ducked as shots were fired, a bullet landing a foot from Duo's knee.
"Bastard!" Wufei growled in frustration, but moved to prop the barrel of the rifle up, hoping it would help Duo in some way.
"Good..." Duo gasped. "Go!"
After putting his backpack and rifle back in place, Wufei reached out to briefly and fondly touch the now dirty head of chestnut colored hair. He said a silent prayer to himself in parting that the maker of all would protect and aid the brave boy who held his affections. The wheezing coming from Duo's lungs and the shot from his rifle were the last sounds he heard from the boy as Wufei let the soldier within him surface. They'd said their goodbyes and there was nothing else to do but leave. Raising his eyes to Zechs, Wufei called out. "Duo's going to cover us while we make a run to the hills. Let's go."
Without waiting for Zechs to comment or protest, Wufei jumped to his feet and bolted for the foot of the hills and shelter. Behind him he could hear footsteps pounding into the desert surface and the sound of Duo's rifle being shot intermittently.
Bullets were aimed in their direction but went wide as the shooter was forced to withdraw as Duo's expert marksmanship came to their aid. Tears trickled steadily down Wufei's cheeks and the world became blurred as his heart broke a little more with each step he took away from Duo.
Three minutes of running as fast as they could on the loose sand brought the two remaining teens to the edge of the desert mountains. The hillside was steep and covered with crevices, boulders, shrub as well as small clumps of cacti. Hiding behind a large boulder, Wufei went down on one knee and lifted his rifle forward and brought it to bear on the area where the sniper was hiding. He looked through the scope and located the precise location and took aim. He might not be the crack shot that Duo and Heero were, but he was damn good, and the moment he saw a rifle barrel and attached arm come out from behind the stone shelter, aiming towards the spot where Duo lay wounded and alone on the desert floor, he tensed and judged where the man's head would appear. Without a second's hesitation, he saw movement and fired before the man could get off a shot. The sniper dropped from his hidden position, and rolled out from his hideout and down the steep rocky hillside to come to a stop near the bottom of hill. No movement came from him and Wufei knew from the odd angle the body lay that the sniper was dead.
"Got him!" Zechs said, his voice grim.
With tears still leaking from his eyes, Wufei looked back through his gun's scope out to the desert plain to see Duo's body in the distance. He wasn't moving, but it appeared the gun was still clasped in his hands. With the realization that Duo hadn't shot back when the sniper made his last move, both teens knew that the braided boy lying silently on the desert sand was beyond their help.
"I'm sorry," Zechs said sincerely, putting a hand on his teammate's shoulder in a gesture of comforting him. "I know he meant a lot to you. I can't even imagine how Heero's going to react."
Wufei hung his head. "If Heero's still alive, he won't be long in following Duo."
"What do you mean?" Zechs asked, puzzled by such a statement and agitated in realizing he was out of the loop yet again.
"It's too long of a story to go into now," Wufei wiped at his tears that didn't seem to want to stop. "I think we should leave here while we can. I don't want Duo's last efforts to have been wasted. We need to escape and survive in order to honor his sacrifice."
Zech's looked back out at the small outline of the boy laying on the heating desert sand and nodded. Both of them suddenly came to attention as the abrupt sound of powerful mobile suit engines being started came from the direction of the not so distant base. Two of the Allied Forces' large mobile suits that had been stationed as guards around the base were beginning to rise from the surface and slowly moved into the air, separating and moving in opposite directions. One of them was headed straight for their position.
With a last, longing and regret filled look at their fallen comrade, the two turned and scrambled to the nearest ravine in hopes of climbing up and over the top of the hillside and remain undetected by their approaching enemy.
On to Chapter fifteen
Back to Chapter thirteen