Duo's eyes went wide in shock and pain as a blow connected with his chest at full force - he hadn't even seen it coming
He fell to his knees brokenly, clutching at his chest - he could feel a coughing fit coming on, and he just didn't have the strength to hold it off any longer. He began hacking hard, feeling as though his entire chest was on fire, and a part of his mind raged. He knew Bravo was closing on him, and he was powerless to do a thing about it
A rough kick to his back sent him sprawling, and he struggled to get back to his knees, rolling to the side weakly. He bowed his head. "Heero " He waited for the last blow to fall.
"Ugh!" Duo's head came up in disbelief as he heard a fist connecting with flesh, but felt nothing.
Rad's eyes bugged out as he took the hit. He wasn't certain, but he could have sworn he heard Duo mumbling Heero's name as he knelt there, trembling
Grimacing, he struck back as hard as he could, trying to ignore the fact that he was hitting a girl. If this was who he thought it was, there was no room in the battle for chivalry!
The woman had one of Duo's throwing knives in her hand as she turned to face him - Rad drew out knives of his own. "You wanna play, little girl? Bring it on!"
Quatre scrambled to Duo's side as quickly as he could, dodging through the knife fight to reach his friend. The braided teen was pushing himself up from the ground, wiping blood from his lips. The blond hauled him up. "Are you okay?"
Duo was still gasping for air, grimacing in pain, but he forced his legs to work and support his weight. "I will be. We need to get out " His words ended in a string of coughs.
Quatre nodded. "Right. You'll be okay. Sure. And when will that be?"
Duo shot the blond a sour look. "The fucker's not here."
"Yeah, we kinda guessed that, kid," Rad shouted back, grimacing as one of Bravo's knives sliced along his torso.
Quatre drew his gun and cocked it. "Let's toast this bitch-"
"NO!" Duo caught Quatre's arm and yanked it away. "You don't get it - I think that's Bravo!"
Blue-green eyes snapped. "What?"
Duo pulled his last knife from its sheath on his chest armour and casually flipped it in his hand before throwing it. Quatre watched as it whizzed through the air, and the butt of the knife slammed into Bravo's temple, dropping her unconscious at Rad's feet.
The braided teen was practically shaking with the effort of remaining on his feet. "That's Bravo. You know, Heero-take-two?"
Rad tripped to their side and handed Duo his knives back. All three could hear running footsteps heading in their direction. The taller soldier took a firm grip around Duo's slim waist. "We need to get out of here. Now."
Quatre nodded and turned on his heel, sprinting out ahead of them. Rad followed more slowly, clutching Duo firmly to his side.
The braided teen protested, "Hey! I can "
"I don't want to hear it, kid," Rad cut him off curtly. "If anything happens to either of you, Heero and Trowa will kill me, and I'm kinda attached to living, so shut up and accept that you need some God-damned help, okay?"
Duo was uncharacteristically silent as Rad hauled him down the hallway.
Quatre snarled as he came face-to-face with yet more soldiers. Aiming a high-kick at the leader's head, Quatre threw himself into the newcomers without reservation. **It was a trap- a damned trap! We should have known But who did they expect to catch?**
He panted as he dropped the last of his attackers to the ground and quickly stole some extra ammunition. "I'm going to have *such* a headache when we get out of here."
Rad came up quickly behind him. "You okay, Blondie?"
"Just great." Quatre shot the two behind him a smile before turning to run on towards the dining room.
Gio was standing at the door, a gun drawn in either hand as she waited. "Did you get him?"
"He wasn't there. Let's go," Quatre said, brushing past her. Gio's eyes landed on the next pair, and she gasped. "Duo, what hap-"
"We'll explain later, Auntie, I promise. Now move," he said, as Rad hauled him past her and out the door.
Gio stared after them, before her eyes hardened in anger. Someone had hurt *her* Duo? She grinned to herself as she pulled a timer switch from her pocket and activated it before dropping it to the ground and grinding it beneath her heel. "House needed some re-decoration, anyway." She ran after them.
As she caught up, Duo asked, "What took you so long, Gio?"
She grinned. "You'll have to wait and see, kiddo."
"Wait how long?" Duo grimaced as he nearly tripped and fell.
Rad froze and spun as a loud explosion went off behind them, a fireball clawing into the sky. Gio's grin was sinister in the red-tinted light. "Cool."
Duo laughed, clutching at his mid-section as he did so. "When d'you have the time to rig that?"
"You're not the only one who knows his way around an explosives pile, shorty. Now, move!" Gio growled, still grinning.
Rad shook his head as he bodily lifted Duo and took off after Quatre. "Yes, ma'am."
Treize knocked on the door, then stuck his head into the conference room. Ines was just handing Marie a pair of shoes and both looked up at his entrance.
"Good morning, sir," the young woman said with a smile. "We're almost ready for you, aren't we, munchkin?"
The tall man stepped inside and smiled at them. "I can see that. I hope you're hungry, Mariemeia. The mess sergeant said he had a surprise for you."
Marie slipped her feet into the slightly impractical shoes, and glanced between her father and Ines.
"Yes, I am... is Ines coming with us?" she asked hopefully.
"Nope," Ines said quickly, winking at Treize. "I have a lot to get done this morning. The most important thing," she continued, holding the little girl's jacket out and helping her into it, "is to find you some 'real' clothes. We can't have you building snowmen and changing sparkplugs in frilly dresses, now, can we?"
"Nope!" Marie said with a giggle, "I need blue jeans and sweaters and overhalls..."
Treize laughed out loud and joined the two, kneeling to zip up Marie's jacket. "I think you mean 'overalls', little one."
"General," Ines said, standing up, "I can send someone into town to pick up some clothes and other things for her. She has very little that is appropriate for here..." She waved her hand at the light loafers on Marie's feet.
"Yes, please do, Ines," Treize said, scooping Marie into his arms with a flourish. "What else do you want Ines to get for you?"
"Umm..." the little girl said with another giggle, "what do I need to have snowball fights and set engine torques?"
Treize raised an eyebrow at Ines. "Sergeant Santiago, are you planning to turn my daughter into a greasemonkey?" he said loftily.
Ines blushed and shrugged. "Well, ah, she wanted a story, and all I had was an old diesel manual, and..." she said nervously.
"Hmmm... I guess they'd better get you a few pairs of 'overhalls', then, eh Marie?" he said with a wink to the little girl, ignoring the surprised expression on the older woman's face, and started out the door.
Marie nodded, then patted her father's cheek and said seriously, "I think you mean 'overalls'..."
"Hey Ines!" a short man called as the woman wandered into the huge tent that served as the motor pool and garage. "I hear you ended up with babysitting duty for real this time..." he said, grinning widely.
"Yeah, demoted from Gundam pilot-sitter to - "
"Don't even finish that though, Spotted-Horse," Ines said, glaring at the extremely tall, copper-skinned man leaning on a truck. Her expression cleared and a slightly evil grin appeared. "Tokala," she said sweetly, stalking over to him, "do you have any daughters?"
"No, you know I'm not married. Why?" he asked suspiciously.
"Five of them, aged four through nine," he said proudly, puffing out his chest. "I gave them each a horse for their birthday..." His voice trailed off as he saw the gleam in her eyes. "Sarge... what are you planning to do to me?"
"You have a new job. As the only one I know of with young female relatives, *and* that I trust... *you* get to go shopping for the General's daughter."
A look of horror crossed his features. "No way, Sarge... I don't know what to get - "
"Here," the woman said, handing him a piece of paper. "It's called a shopping list. The correct sizes are there. Just buy exactly what it says, take the money out of the platoon kitty, and the General will reimburse us."
"Yes, Sarge," Spotted-Horse sighed, then headed toward the makeshift office, reading out loud. "Three sweatshirts, three sweaters, wool socks... 'overhalls'?"
Zechs and Wufei returned to the mess tent, after dropping off breakfast for Heero, Trowa and Howard at the hangar.
"Wufei, Zechs, over here!" Walker called, and the two pilots joined him, Une and Farley at a large table.
"We're expecting Treize and Marie any minute now, and Sally may join us," Farley said with a yawn. "'Scuse me. Long night."
"We just took breakfast to the hangar," Wufei said, taking a seat. "I doubt we'll see much of Heero, Trowa or Howard until Duo and Quatre get back."
Walker sighed and Une squeezed his hand.
"How are they?" she asked, pouring coffee from the pot on the table for the new arrivals.
Zechs and Wufei shared a glance, then Wufei sighed. "Not good," he said, wrapping his hands around his mug. "The three of them are sitting in front of Deathscythe, just staring at the damn thing. I almost expected them to set up an altar, complete with flowers and incense..."
"They didn't even notice us," Zechs added. "I doubt they'll eat what we brought, but..." His voice trailed off and he shrugged.
"How are you holding up, Wufei?" Walker asked.
Wufei slumped in his chair slightly, and Zechs wrapped an arm around his shoulder.
"I'm all right," he said slowly. "At least, I *will* be when they get back. It's like - "
"Uncle 'Fei! Uncle Zechs! Treize is getting me overalls!" Marie's bright voice called from the doorway. "And he said to call him 'Papa'!" A confused look crossed her face, and she leaned down to whisper in Treize's ear. The tall man whispered back, then cleared his throat.
"Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention?" he called. The tent quieted and he continued. "We have a new arrival at this base. May I present my daughter, Marie..."
The tent erupted into cheerful calls of 'Hi Marie!', 'G'day, Marie!' and 'Welcome, Marie'. The little girl blushed at the attention, but smiled and waved at everyone, then wiggled slightly in Treize's arms. He set her on the floor, following slowly as she wormed her way through the tables and raced to Wufei and Zechs. She slid to a stop at the Chinese pilot's side and clasped her hands behind her back.
"Good morning, Marie," Wufei said, forcing a smile. "It sounds as if you've been busy already."
The little girl nodded cheerfully, bouncing slightly, and reveled in the positive attention she was receiving. "Ines is going to make snowmen with me... and let me play with the engines. Papa says I'm going to be a... a ..."
"'A greasemonkey', Marie," her father said, coming up behind her. Placing a hand on Wufei's shoulder, he nodded warmly at the people at the table. "Good morning, Une, Walker, Farley."
Marie tugged at his pants to get his attention, then crooked a finger at him. Treize leaned down and ignored Wufei's snicker as Marie whispered - loud enough for everyone to hear - "Papa, who are those two men? I remember the lady, a little..."
Treize grinned. "Marie, this is Lady Une, Kevin Walker, and Jason Farley."
The little girl walked around the table to them. "How do you do? I'm Mariemeia Kushrenada," she said solemnly, then turned her head to grin at her father.
"I'm Une, your Papa's assistant," Une said, smiling gently at the little girl.
"Just call me Walker," the engineer said. "I work in the hangar, on the mobile suits."
"The dolls?" Marie said, apprehension in her voice as she took a step back.
The six adults shared a look, then Farley gently took her hand, pulled her toward him and lifted her to his lap.
"No dolls here, Midget. Just some big, shiny suits. Your Uncles each have one." He leaned over and stage-whispered, "And you should hear them argue over who's is the better suit. Just like big kids, I tell you. But I have to admit, your Uncle Heero's has the prettiest colours." The young man raised his eyes to Wufei and winked. "Maybe, if you ask them, they'll show you."
"Papa? Uncle 'Fei? Uncle Zechs?" Marie asked.
"Maybe later, Marie," Zechs said as Treize sat down on the other side of Wufei. "I bet you're hungry, right?"
At her nod, Farley transferred her to the chair at the head of the table, between himself and Treize.
"Good," Zechs continued. "There's a rumour going around that there's something special..."
"I heard there was a special little girl with us this morning," a grizzled voice cut in. The tough, older mess sergeant stalked forward, a large platter in his hands, and was followed by a few attendants. He stopped beside Marie and placed a plate stacked high with french toast and a steaming mug of hot cocoa in front of her. "There you go, Pixie. A special breakfast for a special girl."
Marie's face lit up and she looked up at the old man, eyes bright. "Thank you, Mr. -"
"Just call me 'Sarge', Pixie," he said gruffly, then nodded, turned and walked away.
The rest of the table was served, and the conversation turned to pleasant small talk, Marie's giggles bringing smiles to everyone's faces. After the dishes were taken away and the adults had their second and third cups of coffee, the light atmosphere was broken by one innocent question.
"Papa, where's Uncle Trowa and Uncle Heero?"
No one missed the look of worry and pain that crossed Wufei's features.
Rad hissed slightly under his breath as Quatre continued cleaning the slash wound on his chest. "Christ, kid, how the hell do you keep those blades so *sharp*?! That damned thing cut through my body armour like it was butter!"
Duo gave him a sad look. "They're gundanium best damned knives I've ever gotten my hands on."
Quatre shot his friend a sour look. "I don't *care* how good the knives are - you didn't belong in a close-quarters fight with someone you *knew* was that much stronger than you!"
Duo's jaw flapped open. "Hey! I've beaten Heero before with the knives..."
"Yeah, when you were completely healthy and well-rested!" Quatre shot back.
Duo grimaced as he tried to sit up better, but didn't back down. "I didn't see *you* objecting back there!"
Quatre stopped his bandaging to turn and spear the other teen with a sharp look. "I was just a little *busy*, Duo! And *don't* try to move - not until I check your ribs out!"
Rad stared up at the blond incredulously. "He did pretty good, Quatre..."
"That's not the point!" the blond teen snapped, his voice oddly contrasting with the gentleness of his hands as he continued to clean Rad's cuts. "He could have gotten himself killed!"
"I agree with Quatre," a voice floated back to them from the cockpit. "That was a boneheaded thing to do, kid."
"I'm a fuck-up, okay?" Duo shouted, grimacing as he fought down another set of coughs. "Jesus, I just did what I had to..."
"We know that, hotshot, we just don't like it," Rad groaned out, as Quatre finished his task and handed him a clean shirt to pull on. Sitting up gingerly, he smiled his thanks to Quatre, who nodded back and went to wash his hands before starting on Duo. "Going out in your condition was damned risky, and you were too damned hot-headed to see it. Both of you were," he finished, including Quatre in his impressively-dark stare.
Both teens shook their heads, and Quatre responded, "Yeah, we know."
His face was grave as he approached Duo - they had decided quickly upon getting back to the plane that Duo's injuries could wait until they'd checked just how badly Bravo had tagged Rad, but Quatre had been dreading this job. He knew precisely how tough Duo was, and it was completely possible that he'd been stretching the truth of his injuries by quite a bit. "Now just try to relax, Duo - this could hurt a lot..."
Rodney sighed and stared at Howard sitting in front of the looming black Gundam, Trowa and Heero flanking him. Grabbing three mugs and the coffee pot, he stalked forward, pressed a cup into each pair of hands and poured.
"If you won't eat breakfast, at least drink the damn coffee," he muttered, putting the pot on a nearby crate. "Howard, Cosmo and his crew will start working on the Gundams this afternoon. They need a little down time after the flight."
At his boss' absent-minded nod, he continued. "Ziggy strained his back loading the plane, but Doc says he'll be fine in a day or so. Gino's got the manifest ready for you to look over." When Howard still didn't respond, he ran his hand through his hair and crouched down in front of them.
"Look, they're going to be *fine*," he said emphatically. Leaning into Trowa's personal space and looking him in the eyes, he continued. "Blondie is smart, Trowa. He'll come up with a good plan... you know this! He's not going to take stupid chances." At the flash of... something... in the teen's eyes, he nodded to himself and moved onto Heero.
"Our kid is tough, Heero. Injured or not, he's the toughest, most tenacious bastard in the earthsphere." A slight quirk of the Japanese teen's lips was the only response, but Rodney knew he'd gotten through to him. "He *will* come back to us... to you, Heero."
"And Bossman... do you really, honestly think that Gio is going to let *anyone* hurt her 'babies' and get away with it? She's like a lioness with her cubs. Remember that time on XL158? She nearly beat that mech jockey to pulp just for *looking* at Duo wrong. Do you think this will be any different?"
Howard's lips twitched, and a slightly hoarse chuckle escaped him. "She did, didn't she? She can be one mean bitch when she wants to..."
Heero and Trowa both looked at the older man.
"Howard? What happened?" Trowa asked quietly.
"Well," Howard said, sitting up straighter and putting an arm around each teen's shoulders, "we had docked to drop off some parts and pick up supplies..."
Rodney stood and walked off a little way, then sighed again, this time in relief. Things were going to be all right...
*Duo, Quatre... hurry back. There are people here who need you...*
"Papa, where's Uncle Trowa and Uncle Heero?"
Zechs wrapped his arm around Wufei again, and Treize grabbed his lover's hand tightly. Une bit her lip, and Walker looked down at the table.
Realising something was wrong, Marie looked at her father and 'uncles'. "Papa?"
Farley winced, then, schooling his features, he held his arms out to her. The little girl slid off her chair and climbed onto his lap.
"Mr. Farley?" she asked, lip trembling.
"No 'Mister', just Farley," he replied, wrapping her in a hug. "You see, Midget, your Uncle Heero, Uncle Trowa and Uncle Wufei have two more friends that they care about very much. Their names are Duo and Quatre. Duo has been sick, but he had to go out on a mission, and Quatre went with him. Uncle Heero and Uncle Trowa are very worried, and they're out in the hangar with Duo's 'Papa', so he isn't alone while we wait for them to come back. Uncle Wufei is very worried, too, because Duo is like his brother."
"But why aren't they all here with us?" she asked. "We could wait with them."
"That's just the way they are. Some people react differently..." Farley replied, hesitating a bit.
"Why isn't Uncle 'Fei in the hangar?"
"Because your papa and Uncle Zechs are helping me," Wufei replied. "And we wanted to have breakfast with you. It's hard to explain, Marie. Duo is extra special to Uncle Heero, and Quatre is extra special to Uncle Trowa, so they're taking this very badly..."
"Marie, Uncle Wufei is extra special to Uncle Zechs and to me, so we are keeping him company while Duo and Quatre are gone," Treize said slowly, trying to put complex ideas into simpler terms for his daughter. "Do you want to help us, too?"
Nodding emphatically, she scrambled off of Farley's lap, climbed over her father and settled on Wufei's lap, wrapping her small arms around his neck.
"If Duo and Quatre are like your brothers, will they be 'uncles' to? Do you think they'll like me?" she asked, peeking up at him from behind her bangs.
Wufei smiled. "I think they'd like that... very much," he said softly, hugging her gently. "And I *know* Duo will adore you."
"What are they like?"
"Duo is... Duo is very nice. He's funny, and smart, and..."
Everyone around the table relaxed slightly and listened to Wufei tell stories about Duo and Quatre until the crackling of the P.A. system and an excited voice interrupted them.
"Howard! Come to the control room! Howard to the control room!"
"Dammit Gio! Of all the damn fool things to do - "
"Hold on Bossman!" Gio's voice replied over the radio. "If you think I was going to let my kids run off and do this thing on their own, you have another thing coming!"
Heero put his right hand on the older man's shoulder, forestalling his angry retort.
"Gio, team status?" he said calmly, left hand clenched nervously.
"Hey, Spandex Boy! We're all alive and kicking. Your boy-toy isn't very happy at the moment, but he'll get over it..."
"Papa, what's a 'boy-toy'?" Marie asked loudly, "And why does Uncle Heero have one?"
Heero and Treize blushed furiously, then both glared at Zechs as the blond replied, "I'll explain later, Marie..."
However, it did help to ease some of the tension in the room. Gio's strangled yelp also helped.
"Ah, um... you guys recruiting them younger these days?" she asked, voice squeaking slightly.
"That was Treize's daughter, Marie, Gio," Une called, not even trying to hide her amusement. "You'll meet her when you get in."
"Ah, right... Sorry about that guys. Anyway, gotta cut this short. Don't want any traces. Our ETA to base is about six hours. Will check back in before landing," Gio said, regaining her composure. "No worries, Heero, Trowa, Bossman... the kids are okay! Sweeper Three out."
It was hard to tell who was more anxious as the plane came to a halt and Quatre opened the door - Trowa and Heero both looked as though they hadn't slept in days, Howard was angry enough that he'd taken off his sunglasses, Une was barely being restrained by Walker, who was stroking a calming hand down her back, Sally and Farley were right at the foot of the stairs, medical bags in hand, Treize, Wufei and Zechs were just behind them, a small, redheaded girl in the ex-General's arms...
And back in the plane, a sufficiently calmed-down Duo was staring at the doorway, as though he expected some ugly, hairy monster to come through it to terrorise him.
Quatre Raberba Winner had the good sense to speak before anyone else got the chance. "We have a ten minute window before the satellite pass, folks. Let's get indoors, and *then* you can yell at us as much as you want to, okay?"
"Hn." Heero somehow slipped past everyone to dart up the small staircase and past Quatre into the plane's darkened interior. Sally and Farley exchanged looks before they began to climb-
Gio and Rad stepped out of the plane quickly, both blushing furiously. "Uh, yeah, you don't want to go in there right now, trust us," Gio said, a small smile curving her lips as she helped the injured soldier to the stairs.
Quatre shook his head and ducked back into the plane to grab his gear.
He re-emerged a few seconds later, carrying both his and Duo's gear and blushing furiously, and was followed out by Heero, who was carrying a somewhat dazed-looking, grinning Duo.
Sally started forward the moment Heero reached the bottom of the stairs. "Okay, what happened to hi..."
Quatre, wrapped in Trowa's arms, interrupted, "His ribs are strained, but he managed *not* to re-break them, likewise with his arm. I had to re-stitch his chest a little, though, and he was coughing pretty bad..."
Trowa scowled at the bundle in Heero's arms. "I can't *believe* you ran off like that, you moron!"
Duo's eyes went wide. "Hey! That's no way to greet the guy who went to beat the shi-snot out of that chick who shot you..."
Wufei couldn't help a small snicker as he approached, Treize and Zechs right behind him. "Shiznot?"
Duo blushed a little, looking at the little girl in Treize's arms. "I didn't wanna... there's a kid present, and ladies, too..."
Treize laughed. "As if that has ever stopped you before! Duo, this is Mariemeia, my little girl. Marie, this is Duo..."
"Hey- you're being carried around, just like me!" she said, staring at the long rope of Duo's hair.
He chuckled and handed her the end of his braid to examine. "Different reasons, though, sweetie. Treize is holding you because you're cute and huggable. Heero's holding me because I'm dumb and I'd probably collapse right now if I tried to walk. Nice to meet you!"
"You're not dumb!" she said, grinning at him. "Uncle 'Fei said you were really smart and funny."
"Did he?" Duo said, cocking an eyebrow at Wufei.
Une approached the group like a stalking tiger. "He may be smart, but he certainly hasn't shown it in the past few hours. Everyone inside. Now."
Even Heero bowed his head to her tone. "Yes, ma'am."
As they turned to go inside, Marie whispered to her father, "Geez - I think that Duo guy is really in trouble..."