Dermail, Wessex and Barton stared down at the bedraggled, bloodied figure that had been dumped in a heap at their feet. Soldiers had found her - miraculously still breathing - in the remains of Dermail's Boston mansion, and brought her immediately to their new location in Albany.
Barton nudged Bravo with the toe of his shoe. "Disgraceful. Wake up, you piece of shit!"
Bravo grimaced and groaned as a hard kick connected with her side. She quickly forced herself up on shaking knees and looked up-
*Slap!* She reeled backwards again as a sharp slap across her face knocked her off balance, and cried out as her sore, bleeding body hit the ground again. Her head was throbbing in time with each beat of her heart, and it hurt so bad...
Wessex sneered down at her. "In need of more training, *much* more training. My dear Barton, it would give me great pleasure if you would accompany me and *this,*" he said, giving Bravo a sharp dig with his foot, "to Canada. We can try your product out in a more... controlled environment. And you can oversee our training. I understand you specialised in training, yourself."
Barton nodded, staring down at the girl who was still struggling to breathe. "Indeed. I admit I'm a bit disappointed, Wessex. She has let her target escape her twice now. Alpha might have been too emotional, but he never missed a target. You have been too soft with this one."
Bravo shivered, but kept her eyes down. They didn't seem to know -Alpha was still alive, and she was the only one who knew!
She forced her breathing to even out and appeared to calm down on the surface, but behind her facade, her brain was racing. Whoever she had fought with back at the mansion knew who she was. He had been well-trained (very well-trained, she secretly admitted), deadly, and looked about the right age...
He knew Alpha, she was sure of it.
She needed to find him. He could lead her to Alpha, and she was certain Alpha would help her, if she could make him see...
But how to find them?
The room was crowded and everyone was talking at once.
Duo was once again ensconced in Heero's arms on their joined beds. Sally had given him a thorough check-up and grudgingly pronounced him not much worse for the wear. She'd rebandaged his chest, dosed him with antibiotics, put a light splint on his arm, and allowed everyone in. Now, they were all yelling at him at once.
Duo winced, his head aching, as Howard's voice rose above the others, berating Gio for her part in the escapade. He turned his head into Heero's chest and sighed. He just wished they'd all go away and let him sleep. They could yell at him tomorrow, couldn't they?
A sharp whistle interrupted his thoughts and he opened his eyes to watch Lady Une stalk to the bedside, and winced. **Here it comes...**
"Duo Maxwell," the formidable Lady said, coming to a halt in front of him and putting her hands on her hips. "I believe I speak for all of us when I say if you ever pull a half-assed stunt like that again, you're going to wish you hadn't been born. Oh, we 'understand' the motivation behind it," she said, raising her hand to stop his defensive reply, "but going off half-cocked, with little or no plan, while seriously injured and still ill was about as stupid and suicidal as taking a running leap into a pit of starved alligators! You're not stupid, so don't act like it!" Regaining her composure, she sighed, and unconsciously tucked the blankets tighter around the two of them.
"You worried Howard. You worried Wufei. You worried Heero and Trowa... we were all worried. Do you realise all the things that could have gone wrong? What could have happened? How we all would have felt if..." Her voice broke, and Walker stepped forward to wrap his arms around her and lead her out.
Duo watched after her for a moment, then his face crumpled, all of his defiance bleeding out of him. Grabbing Heero's shirt in his good hand, he raised tear-filled eyes to his lover. "Hee- Heero, I'm sorry... so sorry..." he whispered brokenly. "But I *had* to..."
Heero stared down into the sad eyes begging him for... something - understanding, acceptance - and, not noticing the hush that had come over the room, ran a gentle hand over his lover's cheek.
"I know," he said softly. "It's okay, Duo... I'm okay. *We're* okay. Just go to sleep..." He gently pressed Duo's head back onto his chest, hand cupping the injured boy's cheek. "We'll talk about it tomorrow. It can wait. Just sleep... I'm here..." he kept saying softly, finally relaxing as Duo's breathing evened out into the pattern of sleep.
"Is he...?" Treize asked very quietly, leaning forward to try and see the braided teen's face.
Heero nodded. "He's exhausted, both mentally and physically. It's happened a couple of times," he whispered, shaking his head. "He pushes himself until he has nothing left... then pushes some more."
"Not the smartest thing to do," Sally snorted, "but I can't say I'm surprised. Okay people, it's very late, and I think we could all do with some sleep. Especially since it's already - " she glanced at her watch and groaned - "after midnight. I suggest we reconvene tomorrow - "
"Late tomorrow," Heero said firmly.
"Tomorrow afternoon," Sally agreed, "and go over the 'mission' in detail. We need to know what happened and exactly what Quatre found."
Wufei nodded, then brushed some hair off Duo's face. "If you need us, Heero, you know where we are," he said, then turned and towed his lovers out.
Howard stepped to the bedside and stared down at his sleeping 'kid'. "Duo, you infuriating brat... sleep well," he murmured, then spun and stalked out of the room. Gio paused long enough to press a quick kiss to his temple, then surprised Heero by kissing *his* forehead.
"Don't worry, Heero. It'll be fine - I promise." With a wink, she was gone.
"Heero," Sally said, pausing at the door, "Farley is bedding down in the large conference room with the door open. If you need him, just call out." She shut the door silently behind herself.
Heero sighed and gazed down at his sleeping lover. **Oh, Duo,** he thought, stroking his hand over Duo's hair, **you didn't have to go through that...**
Duo stirred restlessly, a frown growing on his face.
"I'm here," his lover murmured, holding him just a little tighter. "It's okay... just sleep."
**Papa, where are you?**
Wherever she was, it was pitch black and very cold. Suddenly, her grandfather was in front of her, glaring.
"Foolish child... do you really think your father sent someone for you? Why would he want a naughty child like you?"
The little girl burst into tears and curled up on the floor. "Papa..." she whimpered -
Marie shivered and sat up on her makeshift bed in the small conference room, tucked under a pile of blankets. Beside the couch, she could hear Ines' soft breathing and felt a wave of relief.
**It wasn't real,** she thought, sniffing quietly. **Papa does want me...**
Wiping tears from her eyes, she climbed off the sofa and tiptoed past Ines, then slipped out into the hallway.
"Papa?" she whispered, looking down both corridors. Thinking back, she remembered seeing everyone in a room down the right hall, and slowly padded her way there. The door was shut, but she could just reach the handle... and with a quiet *click* it opened, then she walked inside.
The room was dark, but she could just make out a person-sized lump under the blankets, so she walked to the bed and climbed onto the chair beside it.
Une woke slowly - someone was stroking her back very gently, speaking to her in a low, soothing voice...
"Kevin..." She rolled over to find him, propped up on his elbows, watching her carefully.
He brushed some of her hair back from her face. "Sorry if I woke you - you were tossing and turning again..."
She sighed and relaxed back onto the bed. "What time's it?"
"Hell if I know," Walker replied-
Une squeaked as strong arms surrounded her and she found herself pinned beneath her boyfriend. He smoothed her hair back and kissed her forehead. "I'm sorry I wasn't here for you - you were terribly worried."
Une reached up and cupped Walker's face in her hands. "No -you were needed where you were. And you're here now," she added, threading her fingers into his hair to pull him down for a kiss.
Heero woke as he heard the door open, but lay still, waiting for the intruder to make their move. He heard them move closer, then climb onto the chair -
His eyes shot open, and he could see Marie beside him in the dim light from outside.
"No, Marie, it's Heero. Your papa is in another room," he said softly. "Is something wrong?"
The little girl sniffed again. "Grandfather said Papa didn't want me... then I woke up," she said sadly, lip trembling.
Heero winced, knowing how bad Duo's nightmares of not being wanted could be. "It's all right, Marie. It was just a nightmare. Your papa wants you with him very much... we all are happy to have you here."
"Really?" the little girl asked. "Even Duo and Qua... Quat..."
"Quatre," Heero supplied with a slight smile. "Yes, even Duo and Quatre want you here. Duo was very anxious to see you... but then he had to leave before he could. He's very sad he missed you."
Duo stirred, hearing the voices, and slowly opened his eyes. "H'ro, wha's hap'ning?"
Marie giggled. "Uncle Heero, why is Duo in your bed? You're big. Big kids don't need someone to sleep with them. Only little kids do... That's what Nanny says."
Heero nearly choked. "Ah... well..." he stuttered slightly, mind whirling to find an acceptable answer for the little girl.
"Uncle Duo is hurt, Cricket," Duo said, coming to full awareness and saving Heero from having to answer. "Uncle Heero is taking care of me."
"Oh!" Marie exclaimed, nodding wisely. "Like when I'm sick or have nightmares."
"Very like," Duo said, smiling at her in the dimness. "Why are you out of bed?"
Marie looked down at the blankets and twisted her hands.
"She had a nightmare, Duo," Heero said. "She's afraid we don't want her, and doesn't want to be alone."
Marie looked up and nodded.
"Well, we do want you," Duo said emphatically, shifting over and making a space between himself and his lover, then raising the blankets. "Come on Cricket, climb over your Uncle Heero and snuggle in with us for the night. We'll keep the nightmares away, and everything will look better in the morning."
"Really? Can I?" the little girl asked shyly.
Heero nodded and reached out to lift her onto the bed. "Just be careful of Uncle Duo. Remember, he's hurt."
Marie's face brightened, and she clambered over Heero, quickly - and carefully - settling between them. Leaning to Heero, she kissed him on the cheek.
"Thanks Uncle Heero, Uncle Duo," she giggled, then snuggled up to Duo's side, laying her head on his shoulder and wrapping her arms around his good arm. One deep sigh and she was sound asleep.
Heero rolled towards the pair, putting his arm over them and resting his hand on his lover's hip. "Duo... are you sure? What if she bumps your ribs, or..." he whispered worriedly.
"It's okay, Heero," Duo replied just as quietly. "I know how she feels... I've been there... I know..."
Heero moved his hand and stroked the braided teen's cheek. "I know, Koi... and just remember - you're not unwanted anymore. Howard, Wufei, Trowa, Quatre... lots of people want you. But most of all, *I* want you..."
Duo flashed the Japanese pilot a look so full of love that it nearly took his breath away.
Sally stopped at Duo's open door and glanced inside to see how he and Heero were doing. She blinked... then looked again, eyes widening.
Une turned the corner and seeing her friend, she said, "Sally?"
Sally raised a finger to her lips and gestured the other woman forward. Une joined her and looked inside.
Duo was lying on his back, splinted arm resting on a pillow. Heero was lying on his side, his arm stretched out and resting on Duo's hips. And between them...
Marie lay curled up to Duo, one hand clutching his good arm like a teddy bear, her other wrapped around the arm Heero had over her.
'Oh, my God...' she mouthed.
Sally nodded and with a 'wait here' gesture ran to her office, returning minutes later with a small camera.
The clicking of the shutter as the doctor took a few photos woke the Japanese pilot. Raising his head slightly, he glared darkly at the two women.
'Do not wake them,' he mouthed carefully, making sure that they clearly understood. 'Close the door.'
Sally and Une backed away, stifling their laughter, and closed the door quietly behind them. They walked into Sally's office, snickering.
"How long?" Une asked between chuckles.
"I'll have the intel guys print them..." Sally replied, removing the disk from the camera and picking up her phone. "Give them thirty minutes..."
"I can't wait to tell Treize..."
Trowa grumbled as he forced himself to get out of bed. Quatre was still dead to the world - not wholly surprising, considering he'd been running on emotion-charged adrenaline for a little over a day. The taller teen stared down at his lover and ran gentle fingers through the boy's hair before turning and heading for a hot shower.
He smiled to himself as the water poured down his body - he'd been so nervous for both of them - he actually felt vaguely guilty that he'd been more worried for Duo than for his own lover. But Quatre had been in perfect health, while the other teen **He adopted me into his little family, and he didn't have to do that. He did it because he really does care about us all and there was a very real possibility he wouldn't come home to us again **
Strong arms wrapped around him from behind, and Trowa tensed until he heard Quatre's voice, asking tiredly from behind him, "You okay? I could feel you were upset."
He relaxed immediately, threading his soapy fingers with the blond's. "I was just thinking We could have lost Duo very easily on this one."
Quatre nodded against his back, and his voice was muffled against Trowa's skin. "You have no idea. If it hadn't been for Rad "
Trowa turned and caught Quatre in a tight embrace. "It's over now, Quatre. You all made it back, so try not to worry too much."
Quatre looked up at his lover, his hair plastered against his face by the steady fall of water. "But I should have "
Trowa brushed water-soaked bangs from Quatre's eyes. "I don't want to hear it, love. Should-haves and could-haves can't change the past." He leaned down and kissed the blond gently.
Trowa pulled back and leaned their foreheads together, smiling as he watched shampoo suds begin tracing their way down Quatre's face. "You want to tell me about it?"
Quatre reached up playfully and began rubbing the shampoo into Trowa's hair in soothing, gentle motions. "I think Duo and I should both explain to everyone at once. We owe it to all of you. Does that sound fair?"
"Yes " Trowa was going to say more, but the smaller teen pushed him back under the water to rinse his hair at just that moment. He squeezed his eyes shut, feeling a smile spreading over his lips as Quatre giggled.
"You know, Trowa, you look quite ridiculous with all that hair in your face."
Trowa made a show of wiping his long, soggy bangs back and out of his face. "You asked for it, Raberba!"
Quatre laughed outright as Trowa's good arm snuck around his waist and pulled him full under the water.
Ines flew into Sally's office, nearly in a panic.
"Dr. Po... Marie is missing! I woke up and she was gone! The General is going to... kill..." Her voice trailed off as Sally pushed a photo across her desk without comment.
Releasing a snort, the mechanic shook her head. "The little minx. I wonder when, and how, she sneaked out. Not to mention why." A snicker escaped her. "They really are too cute though..."
"Good morning, Sally, Ines," Treize said from the doorway, Wufei and Zechs behind him. "I was looking for my daughter. You haven't misplaced her already, have you?" he said, humour audible in his tone.
"Not exactly, sir, though she *did* manage to sneak past me last night," Ines admitted, dropping her gaze to the photo again. "I'll understand if you'd prefer to have someone else look after her..."
"Nonsense, Ines. She's a child," Zechs said, squeezing past his older lover into the room. "I used to sneak away from my nanny all the time when I was her age. Besides, I'd guess you know where she is now, right?"
Ines nodded and held out the photo. Zechs took one look and burst into laughter.
"Who'd have thought Heero..." Another chuckle, then he continued. "Though, to be honest, given his protective streak, I'm not surprised."
"What are you... Ah," Treize said, he and Wufei joining their blond lover. Wufei smiled as he glanced around Zechs' arm.
"Typically Heero," he said succinctly. "Give him someone smaller or weaker than himself, and his protective streak goes into overdrive."
"Definitely," Sally said chuckling. "If you could have seen the glare he gave Une and myself... I really don't want to think of his reaction if we had woken them up."
Treize stared down at the picture, then raised bright eyes to Sally. "Please tell me you have a copy of this..."
"Certainly. I have plenty of them. Here," she said, handing him a couple. "Now, go get your daughter. It's late enough, and they should all have some breakfast."
Wufei, Treize and Zechs stood outside the door, just listening to Marie's bright giggles and Duo's deeper chuckles.
The Chinese pilot shook his head. "Poor Heero," he said with mock sympathy, "forced to babysit *two* kids." Raising his hand he knocked, and at the terse 'Come' from Heero, the three of them walked in.
Treize stopped short, wishing *he* had a camera as he took in the scene on the bed.
Duo was still on his back, sweatshirt raised to the top of his bandaged ribs. Marie and Heero were sitting beside him, calmly playing tic tac toe with bright-coloured markers on his bandages. From the look of things, Marie was winning. They looked up when the door opened, and the little girl smiled brightly at the newcomers.
"Hi Papa! Hi Uncle Zechs and Uncle 'Fei! Look! I'm beating Uncle Heero! Again!" she called cheerfully, waving her red marker.
Duo winked at Treize and stage-whispered, "There, Cricket," He pointed to an empty corner spot on the grid. "Put your 'X' there, and you'll beat Uncle Heero again."
Marie did as instructed, then put a line through her three squares. "See? I win again Uncle Heero. Maybe you should let Uncle Duo show you how to play," she said innocently.
"Hn. Perhaps you're right. But now, I think you need to go get dressed and have breakfast."
"Okay," she said, carefully scooting to the end of the bed. Treize met her there and picked her up.
"Good morning, Marie. I see you're having fun already," he said, smiling lovingly at her. "But why are you in here? Ines was worried when she woke up and you were gone."
The little girl ducked her head. "I'm sorry, Papa. I had a bad dream, and I couldn't find you. Uncle Duo said I could stay with them and they would keep the dreams away." She raised her head and grinned at her father. "It worked, Papa! No more bad dreams!"
Treize raised grateful eyes to Duo, and the braided teen shrugged self-depreciatingly.
"Go on, feed her," he said with a grin. "She's a growing Cricket - "
"Chirp, chirp," Marie cut in, giggling.
"Cricket, eh?" Zechs said, ruffling her hair and pushing Treize towards the door. "I like that one."
Marie twisted in her father's arms and looked back at Duo and Heero. "Can I come back later?" she asked.
"Of course you can. Any time you want," Duo replied. Heero nodded.
Wufei stayed behind as the others left the room, then walked to the bedside.
"You are an amazing man, Duo Maxwell," he said gravely, and reached to squeeze his hand. "I'm proud to call you 'brother'." He bowed deeply, then hurried out of the room, leaving behind him a stunned Duo and a smiling Heero.
Zechs felt his body tensing up as he watched how the pilots looked at each other. As they went in, Wufei had given him and Treize a sad, small smile and walked right over to Trowa's side, giving the taller teen's hand a reassuring squeeze. Now both were watching Quatre, who was having some sort of silent conversation with Duo, while Heero watched the two concernedly.
Treize leaned closer to Zechs and whispered, "Are you as curious as I am?"
Zechs just nodded, squeezing Treize's hand gently.
The door opened - all heads came around as Sally and Une slipped inside, quickly followed by Farley. The doctor closed the door firmly behind them. "Okay, we should not be disturbed for at least the next half hour. Howard is getting Rad and Gio's side of things, and Cosmo is watching Marie."
Quatre and Duo exchanged looks before the braided teen wiggled to sit up straighter and spoke up. "First of all, I want to say sorry to you all. I know you were worried, and I let you all down as a team member. Quatre would never have run off like that, if I had been able to keep a handle on "
Quatre shook his head. "No, I should have been able to control it better, myself. Duo, you had every right to be angry, and I don't think anyone would question that."
Heero tore his gaze away and stared down at his feet.
Duo almost flinched, but somehow managed not to, and instead turned to Sally Po. "I was very rude to you, Sally, and I'm sorry. I shouldn't have threatened you, and I know that."
Sally could see the sincerity in his eyes, and was vaguely annoyed to find that it was hard to remain angry and tough in the face of it. "I realise that, Duo. We all do. We can talk about anger management later - why don't you two tell us about the mission now?"
Quatre nodded. "Dermail, Barton and everyone else were not there - I don't think they knew what to expect, but they somehow knew we would be coming back. The place was just about deserted. We went in, anyway. Gio stayed outside to guard our retreat.
"Duo took point - he was doing just fine, with only a very small limp and no coughing," Quatre said, looking down at his friend for a moment. "We went towards the area of the house Trowa and Heero had told us about - Dermail's office. The place was booby-trapped."
"Booby trapped?!" Une asked worriedly. "What do you mean "
Duo glanced her way. "They left someone behind to guard the place. I'm pretty sure it was Bravo - she didn't answer me when I asked."
"You talked to her?" Trowa asked.
Duo met the taller teen's eyes for a short moment. "And then some - she attacked me, and we got into a little hand-to-hand."
Heero finally reacted. "Duo no baka! In *your* condition?!"
Blue-violet eyes flashed in defiance for a short moment. "I knew what I was doing, Heero. In case you've forgotten, I've beaten *you* with my knives, too."
"Not while you were still convalescing, you haven't," Heero snapped back. "And what would have happened if "
"Heero, please let us finish," Quatre said, one hand clasped tightly in Trowa's.
Heero nodded, his eyes still riveted to Duo's downcast face, and Quatre continued, "I made the decision - it was too risky trying to get between Duo and Bravo - we got past them and slipped into the office."
Wufei looked down at the blond, stunned. "You just *let* it happen? Winner, please tell me you're joking!"
"What did you expect me to do? Ask her politely to wait until we'd gotten what we came for, then we'd finish the fight? Anyway, Duo was doing fine, so we went into the office, found some papers..."
Wufei reached out and tilted Duo's chin up to look into his eyes. "Did she hit you?"
Duo grimaced. "She I was able to avoid most of it, but I knew I was slowing down, and she got me eventually."
Quatre patted Duo's shoulder. "I could feel it happening, and Rad caught on right away. He dashed back out again. Duo had taken a hit to the chest and was down, coughing hard. Rad intervened while I extracted Duo."
Treize asked, "Should we assume that Bravo is dead, then?"
Duo and Quatre looked at each other, silent.
"Duo? Did you kill her?" Treize asked.
Duo shook his head. "No, we knocked her out and left her there."
"You left " Heero pulled back from Duo, his eyes wide. "I can't believe you left her there."
Duo looked up, pleading with his eyes for understanding. "Heero, please We weren't thinking too straight I was having trouble breathing, and Rad moved to help me. Quatre needed both arms free to run ahead and clear the way for us "
The blond fidgeted a little. "It was a trap, Heero. She was supposed to keep us occupied long enough for backup troops to arrive and take us out. It was almost successful. If we had stopped to try and bring her along, we never would have gotten out, all of us in one piece. It was a gamble, anyway. We made it out, and Gio blew the place behind us."
The room went silent.
After a very uncomfortable pause, Trowa cleared his throat. "Well, if she's anything like you, Heero, she's alive."
Heero looked up with sad eyes. "Alive and in their hands. I *know* what that means for her - it means retraining. And if Wessex is as much of an animal as Barton was "
He shuddered and looked up at Quatre. "Please tell me that *something* went right on your mission." Duo took hold of his hand and was alarmed at the coldness of it.
Quatre gave him a small smile. "As a matter of fact, something did. Trowa, could you pass me my bag, please?"