Heero growled, "I *so* don't think so." He spun the suit as quickly as he could-
Tallgeese was closing quickly, its beam sabre gleaming menacingly, while the Taurus hefted its rifle
"Zechs, get down." It was all the warning Heero gave as he quickly aimed and fired off the buster shield at a new target.
Zechs pulled up sharply as the suit exploded violently. "You'd better have another one of those, 01 "
"Both of you clear out. I'm incoming," Trowa signalled.
Deathscythe and Tallgeese danced out of the way as Heavyarms shot overhead, and launch warnings blared in both cockpits-
All four suits sped away as a fireball engulfed the base. "Mission accomplished."
Four pilots smiled as they re-engaged their cloaking shields and disappeared into the night.
Treize watched, relieved, as the tension drained from the braided teen at his side. Duo sagged back onto his pillows, closing his eyes and trying not to wince as his aching ribs protested the movement. "They're okay."
"O, ye of little faith," Treize teased gently as he took the laptop away. "Of course they are! What were you expecting? Now settle down before "
Duo grabbed weakly for the man's arm. "No! Hey - don't take that! I need to assess the damages and "
"And call Heero, I know." Treize pulled away and resolutely placed the computer on the other side of the room. He returned and gave Duo the sternest look he could manage while the teen gave him puppy dog eyes. "You promised to be good and follow orders, young man! He who is disobedient gets a visit from his unwanted guest."
The injured teen froze in his fussing and stared. "You wouldn't *dare* do that to me! If she comes in here, I'll I'll smack her with a bed pan!"
Treize couldn't help his laughter. "Trust me, I'd help. Lord, if she wasn't my Zechs' sister "
Duo grinned. "Sure, Mr. Try-to-Sidetrack-the-Injured-Guy. Gimme back my computer!"
Treize shook his head. "We need to try and keep communications to a minimum, both for their sakes and for ours. What would we do if Oz found us out and we had to run with you in this condition?"
"Touché." Duo cocked his head. "D'you have any idea how freaky it is to hear *you* talking about Oz like that? You're Mr. Oz, himself!"
Treize gave a rueful smile as he sat in the bedside chair. "It ceased being awkward for me the moment those mobile dolls became an accepted policy."
The fierce glint of Duo's eyes returned. "Yeah, well our guys totally killed that base - it should set them back at least a few weeks and give us the time to really evaluate those things."
Treize studied the teenager next to him carefully. It was so easy to forget just who and what Duo was, just bantering with him. "Your friend Howard wants in on that, as soon as you're up to it."
Duo gave him a confused look. "Me? Come on - Kevin or someone else should be the one to "
Treize shook his head. "He will have his hands full with suit maintenance for six Gundam-class suits if we are to keep up operations. Lady Une, Quatre and myself will need to make our political moves soon, and the others will be resting when not on a mission."
Duo clenched his good fist. "Treize, buddy, look- I know some stuff, right?" But I hell, I've barely been to school! I don't think I'm the right guy for this kinda thing."
"I think you can handle it, but we won't force you to if you don't want to," Treize replied, patting Duo's shoulder. "At any rate, not today. Now get some rest - it's almost eleven. Sally will undoubtedly want to check up on you early in the morning, and I don't want to be blamed for keeping you awake too late."
All Duo could do was groan and glare as Treize carefully tucked him back in. "So do I get a bedtime story?"
Treize rolled his eyes.
Quatre gasped as Deathscythe fell to its knees and the other mobile suit raised the rifle again. Une, crammed beside Noin behind the pilot's seat, bit her knuckle, stifling her own gasp of fear.
"Shit! C'mon Heero..." Noin snarled softly, wincing as her elbow smacked into a console for the third time.
Walker and Howard were crouched on the open hatch, watching the action on the laptop that Quatre had hooked up to Sandrock. Walker grabbed the older man's arm as Deathscythe raised its arm and fired the buster shield. As the other suit went down, Howard sighed in relief and patted the younger engineer's arm.
"Kid, I may need that arm at a later date... damn, remind me to fix that damage before they let Duo out and about. He will *not* be happy with that..." he added as the feed from Heavyarms' camera showed the minor denting and singing on the dark suit's back.
"I think he already knows, Howard. He has the same feeds we do..."
"Damn... you have a point. Poor Heero," Howard answered, smirking.
Both leaned back instinctively as the base erupted into a fireball, then grinned at each other.
"Impressive," Walker said calmly, smirking.
Howard snorted. "And the kid wanted me to upgrade his rockets... like he needs them upgraded after that show."
"Demon-five to Hades, I repeat, mission accomplished. Rendezvous with the Horsemen in two hours," Wufei's voice came over the radio.
"Hades to Demon-five," Quatre replied, grinning over his shoulder at the women behind him "Roger that. Hades to all Demons - Good job! And Demon-one?"
"Yes, Hades?" Heero's voice was clear and calm.
"Better have that apology ready. Death is not going to be happy about his baby's dings. Hades out."
Noin and Une snickered at Quatre's comments, then wiggled their way out of the small cockpit as the connection was closed.
Quatre set Sandrock's comm controls to forward to his laptop, in case of emergency, then joined the four on the hatch. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, that went better than expected, actually," the blond said with a smile, retrieving his laptop. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I believe I'll head to Duo's room and fall down from exhaustion."
Une patted his shoulder. "That sounds like a very good plan, Quatre. Get some rest. I believe Treize is planning to start some more detailed work on dealing with Romafeller tomorrow."
Quatre nodded, climbed down the ladder, and waved goodnight as he walked out the hangar door. The air outside was cold, and a moderate wind blew snow across the base, but the blond stopped outside the infirmary and looked up at the sky, offering a silent prayer for the other pilots' safe return.
"Good evening, Mr. Winner," the short black woman said, coming to attention as Quatre arrived at Duo's door.
"Good evening, Sergeant Murungi, Sergeant Santelli," the blond pilot replied, smiling at both. "Is Duo asleep yet?"
"Well, sir, General Kushrenada only left about ten minutes ago, so I doubt it," Santelli replied with a grin, opening the door.
"Good, I'd hate to wake him. Goodnight," Quatre said, stepping through the door. Then, he turned back to the two bodyguards and smiled again. "And Sergeants? It's just Quatre. G'night!"
"Quatre?" Duo's asked softly as the door closed behind his friend.
"Hey, Duo, you don't mind if I bunk with you, do you? I figure you need the company as much as I do."
"Yeah, Quatre, I think I'd like that," the injured teen said tiredly.
Quatre carefully made his way to the bed, the compound lights outside the window giving him just enough light to see by, and stripped to his boxers and undershirt. He climbed onto Heero's side, pulled the blankets snugly over both of them, then rolled over to lie on his stomach, resting his hand on Duo's shoulder.
"I warned Heero to have his apologies ready when they return," the Arabian chuckled softly. "I said you wouldn't be happy that he dinged your baby..."
Duo snickered slightly then sighed. "I'm just glad he's okay, you know?"
"Yeah, I know. I'm glad they're all okay... But it won't hurt him to sweat a little," the other pilot said with a snicker. "Goodnight, Duo. Sleep tight..."
"Don't let the bedbugs bite," Duo finished, voice slurring slightly as he drifted off to sleep.
"Sir, one moment! This has just come for you, sir!"
Dermail turned to find Marianne rushing in his direction. "A letter? At this hour?"
She gave him a curtsy before handing over the envelope. "Delivered by special courier, my Lord."
He waved her away as he took the note, smiling, but the smile quickly gave way to white-faced shock. "Marianne!"
"Sir?" She turned and rushed back to his side as she saw him falter. "Are you alright, sir?"
"Who..." He leaned heavily on her shoulder. "Where did this note come from?"
She shrugged. "A courier just arrived with it, my Lord. I could see if he has left the property yet..."
**He wouldn't have been stupid enough to pass this on in person.** "No, that will be just fine," Dermail said, straightening. "You may go now."
"Would you like a cup of tea, my Lord?" Marianne insisted. "You frightened me, sir."
Her concern brough a slight hint of a smile back to his face. "I am fine, my dear, I assure you." She curtsied and left.
Dermail carefully walked back to his desk and sat down, as though he expected his legs to give out from underneath him. He would have recognised the handwriting on the envelope anywhere.
Treize Kushrenada's handwriting.
The enveloppe bore no stamps and was closed with sealing wax, stamped with the distinctive mark of Treize's signet ring - he knew it well.
He somehow managed to stop his hands from shaking as he broke the seal and pulled out a single piece of paper. He read:
'My dear Duke,
'Such a shame that you've taken not only my mother's home in Luxembourg, but also my father's in Rivne. Since I can't go home, I suppose I will have to take full advantage of my freedom and remain at large. Maybe it's better this way.
'To think of replacing me with one so *nekulturniy* as Tuberov! For shame, Dermail! No matter how great your plan (and I am always watching you,) your chances of success are greatly diminished by his presence in your inner circle. As a final gesture of friendship, perhaps he will be the first of your Lieutenants to die at my hand.
'Consider yourself lucky.
'Blood on the fields of Russia. Such a pity.
'T. Kushrenada, graf Rivnenskogo oblasta.
Dermail sat back with a frown. It *had* to be a hoax! Some fool's idea of a practical joke, or even an attempt by Zechs Marquise to unnerve him. Zechs was certainly capable...
The phone ringing at his elbow jolted him from a dark reverie. He lifted the receiver. "Yes?"
"General Tuberov, sir."
He frowned. "Yes?"
Tuberov's voice was shaking. "Sir, we've had a... situation. At Baikal."
Dermail's blood ran cold. **Blood on the fields of Russia. Such a pity.** "Status?"
"I don't know what hit it, but it's gone. Completely," Tuberov replied. "They didn't even have enough time to tell us what the problem was. Christof went offline twenty minutes ago."
**My suits...** "Get a crew out there immediately!" Dermail barked into the receiver. "I want a full report in four hours, Tuberov, and it is to go to no one but me, do you understand?"
"Yes, sir!" The line went dead.
Dermail pinched the bridge of his nose as a growing throb in his head made itself known. "Marianne!" he called, pressing the intercom button by his phone.
A minute later, the door opened softly. "Sir?"
"I think I could use that cup of tea now, my dear," he replied, his face pale.
"No problem, sir."
The door closed securely behind her, he picked up his letter again. "Blood on the fields of Russia..."
He put it back down and stood, pacing to the window to stare out into the evening haze. "Damn you, Kushrenada!"
Quatre started awake and immediately turned to his friend at his side, but Duo was peacefully sleeping, a light smile touching his face.
"For the last time, I'm not letting you in there! I didn't let you in yesterday, and I'm not letting you in *today*!" he heard a muffled voice yelling as softly as it could outside the door.
Quatre sat up and stretched gingerly before looking at his watch. **Who could possibly be trying to get in here at 5AM?** He frowned -he knew precisely who it would be.
Standing, he stalked across the room, picking something up off the table along the way. He took a deep breath to steady himself before he softly opened the door and looked out.
Relena was at least making a good show of it. Her eyes sparkled with tears. "... I'm tired and cold and scared, and NO ONE will tell me what's going on!" she cried, wringing her hands. "I just want to speak with my friends..."
"*You* have never been a friend to Duo, Miss Relena."
She spun to him as he closed the door securely behind him. "Quatre? But... what are you..."
He stepped forward and took her arm, leading her a short distance away from the room and its sleeping occupant. "Miss Relena, I'm sure someone has told you that Trowa, Wufei, Heero and your brother left on a mission early yesterday. That mission went off successfully very late last night. We are all *very* tired. Is there a good reason that you're at this door this early?"
She bit her lip. "Quatre, please. I'm tired of all this. Help me -get someone around here to give me a real room, let me see Heero, and..."
The blond teenager clenched his left fist angrily. "Relena, I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that I can talk with you as I would with any other reasonable human being. You are on a military base with very limited resources. If Doctor Po could have housed you in one of the permanent buildings, I have no doubt she would have.
"As for your other complaint, I'll be honest," Quatre continued. "After hearing about all the things you've said to and about Duo, you're *lucky* no one's let you near Heero. We're keeping you separated for your own safety."
"Heero would never hurt me!" Relena protested.
Quatre rolled his eyes and yawned. "I wouldn't be so quick to test that theory if I were you. I'm going back to sleep. I'm sure we can get someone to escort you back out to your tent safely..."
"I don't *want* to go back there!" Relena said with a sobbing sound in her throat. "It's dark and cold and..."
"Sergeants, would you please escort Miss Relena to the door?" Quatre said dismissively, turning back towards the room.
"It would be our pleasure sir... OUFF!"
Hearing rushing footsteps behind him, Quatre took a deep breath and turned, bringing his arm up-
Relena found herself nose-to-barrel with Quatre's handgun. Blue-green eyes glittered coldly. "I am tired and worried and now I'm angry, too. Do you wish to find out if *I* will follow through where Heero doesn't seem capable?"
"Good day, Relena." He watched as Duo's bodyguards took hold of either arm and turned her to walk her out of the building. She didn't protest.
As the door closed behind her, Quatre cracked a smile. "Man, did that feel good!" He yawned as he tucked his gun back into a pocket and turned for the door again, chuckling.
"Even if it *wasn't* loaded."
"Awake already, Chang? I thought you'd sleep straight through," Rodney said, glancing at the stretching teen on his right.
"With you hitting every single 'bump in the road', how could anyone sleep?" Wufei retorted, smirking.
"Well, Blondie, there, doesn't seem to be having any problems."
"That's because he's an old man. Old men can sleep through anything," the Chinese pilot said, smirking wider over his shoulder at Zechs.
"I heard that," the blond said, not even opening his eyes, "and I resent it. I'll show you who's old when we get back."
"I'll try and take it easy on you, then," Wufei replied dryly, and Rodney burst into laughter.
"Damn, Chang, we've missed your sarcastic humour!" Rodney snorted.
"Missed? You've only been graced with my humour... what... four or five times?"
"Five, I think, but believe me, they were memorable! You're one of the few who can give it to our kid as well as you take!"
"Hn. How long until we land?" Wufei said, stretching again.
"About six hours. We're making better time than we anticipated..."
"It must be all the hot air that Wufei is blowing out," Zechs said dryly behind them. "It's created a tail wind."
"Trowa, go back to sleep," Gio said over her shoulder. "We've got about four hours until we make the base."
"How did you..." Trowa asked, surprised she could tell he was awake.
"Kid, I'm 37 years old and female. We know these things," she answered smiling benignly over her shoulder. "Besides, I lived with Duo for over three years. I learned very quickly, trust me."
"What was he like?" Heero asked quietly.
"Scrawny, mouthy, tough, too old for his years... Pretty much the same as he is now," she chuckled. "Oh, and ballsy. Can't forget that. He *did* break into a Sweepers' ship... *and* at the tender age of 8."
"How did he do that?" Trowa asked, leaning forward.
"You know, Howard and the Doc are the only ones he told. I think it was the way he stood up to them that made them keep him around, at first," Gio snickered, then she sighed. "Half-starved and half-dead, he still mouthed off to them. Told them to 'go ahead and space me. S'better than starving to death', then he promptly passed out at their feet. He was very sick for a while, but once he recovered and started feeling secure... well, Tio was right about him being a penance. Not that any one of us would change a thing."
The older woman laughed out loud. "Every day was an adventure. From hour to hour you never knew which 'Duo' you were going to get. The happy little boy, the prankster, the studious one or the sad one. We loved each one equally, of course, but the prankster..."
Gio snickered. "One night, he snuck out of his bed, made his way unnoticed into Howard's cabin, and painted eyeballs on the outside of his sunglasses. Complete eyeballs - black pupils, blue irises - and Howard never said a word. Just walked around all day with them like that."
"That sounds like Duo," Trowa said, chuckling. "And Howard didn't do anything?"
"I didn't say that," Gio said, laughing again. "Howard snuck into Duo's room the next night and drew a pair of glasses on the kid... in permanent marker..."
Sitting at the end of a table, all by herself, Relena sipped at a cup of tea and frowned. Noin hadn't said a single word to her - not when she was 'escorted' back out to their tent and not when they finally stopped pretending to sleep and got up for breakfast. She had been the last one to talk to Relena at all. Even the soldiers were avoiding her, as though she was a Romafeller spy.
She didn't get it. She didn't do anything wrong. It was just Duo had them all fooled. Saint Duo who could do no wrong Was she the only one who could see it? Was she the only one who knew he was just using them all
"Mind if I sit down?" She looked up - a young man was standing at her side, brown-haired and wearing a set of fatigues. She recognised him. It was Doctor Po's assistant Farley?
She nodded. "Please do."
He sat down, cradling a mug of coffee in his hands. "It looks like it's getting lonely over here. Care to talk about it?"
She shook her head. "I already know what you're going to say."
"Maybe you do, maybe you don't," he answered easily, taking another sip. "Doesn't look like anyone else is going to give you the time of day, though."
She stared down into the tea and ignored him for a long moment. "Everyone here hates me, and it's Duo's fault."
"No, it's *your* fault, Princess, and you know that's the truth, even if you don't want to admit it," Farley said. "Duo Maxwell can barely move right now, let alone cause the ruckus you've caused in such a short time."
She snorted. "He doesn't *have* to move. I know he's said things about me "
Farley reached out across the table. "Look, Relena, I didn't know either of you last week, so I think I'm about the closest to a neutral observer as you're going to get. You need to step back from it and try and think things through. You're allowing your feelings for Mr Yuy to blind you, and that isn't helping anyone."
She looked up at him accusingly. "You don't know either of them!"
"You don't, either," he countered, "Not if you think this is going to work out, with you insulting and belittling a perfectly good person because you're holding a grudge."
Relena bristled. "I looked into it - I saw all about Duo's past "
"Do you have proof?" Farley asked quietly. "You've accused Duo of some terrible things. Can you prove any of it?"
Relena blinked. "I don't have to prove it - he admits to living on the streets. He admits to stealing and begging "
"Can you prove that Duo Maxwell ever whored himself?" Farley asked quietly. "Can you, Relena?"
She stared up at him. "I don't have to prove anything. I know, I just know."
"Knowing isn't good enough," He said softly, "not when you are going to ruin a person's life based on it. L2 is a terrible place. I know - I've been there. People don't choose to grow up there, under those conditions. It just happens, and you do your best to get through it. He did. You told me you looked into his past, but I'm willing to bet you got as far as 'war orphan on L2; street child' and stopped. Am I right?"
She broke off their stare. "I don't have to prove anything to you."
"Thought so." He finished off his coffee and stood. "Just think on it, okay? Come and find me when you're ready to talk." He stayed put until she looked up at him again, then gave her a small smile. "Have a nice morning, Princess." He turned and left.
Duo looked up hopefully as a knock sounded at the door and Une walked in with Walker at her side. Walker smiled down at him as they approached the bed. "We just heard from the Tower. Both planes are due to land in about an hour."
Une leaned one hand on Walker's shoulder. "Gives us just enough time for lunch and to get you cleaned up." She smiled.
Duo swallowed his spoonful of soup and grinned as the two turned and helped themselves to the sandwiches on the countertop. "Perfect! Hey, um Treize ?"
The tall young man smiled as he dabbed his lips with a napkin. "Don't even think of it."
Duo blinked. "I don't think you get it - my Heero is coming back. I *have* to be there. Treize, I have to "
Quatre took a sip of water. "Duo we talked about this yesterday. We don't think it would be a good idea if you were there to meet the planes. You're still pretty sick, and "
Duo simply stared up at his friend. "Quatre, you gotta think about this "
"We already have, Duo," Treize said, moving to Quatre's side. "Sally Po agrees with us. I'm sorry, Duo."
The injured teen turned incredulous eyes on Lady Une. "Une-babe, are *you* in on this, too? I know *you* understand! How would *you* feel if it was Kevin, here, who was coming home "
Quatre laughed as he saw Une's face twitching towards a fond smile. "You never lose your touch, Duo! In case you're forgetting, Trowa *is* up there and coming home "
"And you're going to be there when he steps off that plane!" Duo complained. "Une, talk to them "
"Now, none of that, Duo!" Treize chided gently, handing the teen a glass of soda. Duo obediently took a sip of soda.
"Please, Treize. You're not going to make me beg, are you?"
Treize shook his head. "No, Duo. It's best for you like this. I know you want to see Heero. I'll admit to you - I can't wait to see Zechs and Wufei, myself. But the risks of your illness getting worse outweigh any of that. We need you back on your feet and mission-ready as soon as possible."
"I have to see he's okay with my own eyes," Duo insisted, turning pleading eyes on Quatre. "He took a hit - you saw it, too. I have to know "
"Duo, he's fine. I know this is hard for you, but Treize is right," Quatre said, coming forward to take the glass from Duo's hand and set it on the table. "I'm sorry, Duo."
"Sorry for what " Duo slurred slightly as he sank back onto his bed. In a last-minute flash of insight, he turned mutinous eyes on Treize, ignoring the look of chagrin on his face. "I'll get you for this, Kushy. Dirty trick "
Une watched in shock as Duo's eyes closed. "I can't believe you *drugged* him? Treize!"
Treize and Quatre shared a look as the young blond straightened from tucking Duo's blankets around him. "He wasn't going to back down, otherwise," Quatre said. "Admit it, Une, he gave you one look and you were willing to let him out."
Treize stepped up in front of her and put his hands on her shoulders. "Stay with him for now, Lady. We'll bring Heero in with us as soon as he's on the ground, and Duo will be fine if the first thing he sees when he wakes is his lover."
Une smiled as Walker wrapped an arm around her from behind. "You've always been a romantic, Mr Treize."
"Always will be," Treize said, bowing to her gracefully.
Heero sighed audibly as the plane finally stopped on the runway and released his seat harness. Both he and Trowa stood and stretched, zipped their heavy coats up, and walked to the hatch.
"Bets on whether Duo managed to finangle his way out of his room to meet you?" Trowa asked with a slight smile, unlatching the door, pushing it open and dropping the ladder. They stepped back and waited for Gio to finish shutting down the plane.
"Hn, he *is* good, isn't he?" Heero said with a slight smirk. "I haven't decided if it's the eyes, or his amazing ability to cause guilt trips."
"Both, I'd say. And what's worse is that he doesn't do it on purpose. If it was intentional, it would be easier to say 'no' to him."
"True," Heero replied, leaning against a wall. "Lady Une would give in. Walker as well. Sally is rock steady, so she wouldn't. Quatre and Treize are the wild cards. Treize... I just don't know. One minute it seems Duo can wrap him around his finger. The next, the man is standing up to Duo. Quatre could go - and has gone - both ways. I wouldn't..."
"My money is on Duo," Gio said from behind them, grinning. "Hell, even the Professor fell for it a few times. Damn kid doesn't even understand the power he has... and god forbid he ever realises it! No one would be safe!"
She cocked her head and tapped her finger on her chin. "Hm... I wouldn't mind bottling it, though... Let's go, kids! We need to get those monsters out of my plane and stowed in the hangar before the next satellite pass... *and* before that imp decides to come up here and drag you two out by your hair!"
Both teens chuckled quietly and followed her out.
Heero stopped half-way down, and looked at the small group assembled on the tarmac. As his eyes scanned them, he noted, partially relieved, that his lover was not among them.
"Looks like Duo lost this one," Trowa said from behind him.
"Yes, and I'm not sure if I should be relieved... or worried that he's worse..." Heero replied, continuing to the ground.
Quatre rushed to them, followed by Treize.
"Now, Heero... everything's fine," the blond said quickly, cheeks flushed slightly. "Duo's fine. He's just... um... sleeping. We... um..."
"We drugged him," Treize said bluntly, raising a hand as Heero's expression darkened. "It was either that, or chain him to the bed. We decided that a little extra sleep was better than him crawling out here on his own. Sally concurred, especially since he had a minor resurgence of the bronchial infection after yesterday's excursion."
"Resurgence..." Heero repeated, anger replaced by concern, and he started to move past Treize towards the infirmary. The taller man placed a hand on his arm.
"Minor, Heero, and fully controlled. He's running a very slight fever, and is a bit more congested, but that's all. Sally says it's nothing to be concerned about, and won't delay his recovery. Lady Une is sitting with him, and won't leave until you get there. Go put Deathscythe in the hangar, and by the time you get to your room, he'll be ready to wake up."
The Japanese teen took a deep breath, nodded and rushed into the cargo area of the plane. Deathscythe quickly emerged and moved into the hangar, Howard and Walker jogging along behind. Minutes later, Heero re-emerged, noted that the others were unloading the rest of the suits, and headed to the infirmary.
He reached the door, took another deep breath, and caught a flash of pink from the corner of his eye.
"Heero! Wait... Heero!"