Gio triumphantly tossed another card on the pile in front of her and smirked at her partner.
"Ha! I win again!" she exclaimed, leaning back in her chair. "That means it's your turn to check the perimeter - again."
Rodney shook his head, rose and headed towards the shack's door. "I swear you cheat, Gio, but I honour my bets. That Rashid guy sure picked a good spot for us. I haven't seen signs of anything other than a lone hyena since we got here." He stepped through the door and called back, "Oh, check the power supply on the plane's cloak, will ya? We should be good, but it doesn't hurt to make sure..."
As the door closed behind him, Gio booted up the laptop, humming a jaunty tune.
**Excellent,** she thought, scanning the data in front of her. **Power enough for a week with that extra solar battery... more than we need. Duo, you're a genius...** The email icon popped up on the screen and she frowned. **The only reason for an email would be if the plans changed or something went wrong...**
She opened the email and her brow wrinkled as she read the contents.
'Ghada, Rabi -
I just want to let you know that there has been a minor change of plans. Your cousins' safari has been put off for two days, so their arrival home is also delayed. I know you are planning the welcome-home party, so please change its date - we wouldn't want to have their party without them, after all. Don't worry, they are all fine, though Daoud seems to be missing everyone terribly.
Also, your father has just informed me of his new granddaughter, Maja. My heartfelt congratulations to you and the rest of the family on the new addition! Another reason to celebrate!
Gio reread the email a few more times, puzzling her way through the cryptic message.
**Okay, I get that we're to wait two extra days, and that everyone is all right. Duo misses us... but what's this about a granddaughter...**
"Oh, my God!" she exclaimed out loud, just as Rodney walked back inside.
"What's happened?" he asked, rushing to her side. "Is Duo okay? Did something go wrong?"
The woman started snickering, shaking her head at his questions, and pointed to the 'granddaughter' line in the email. Rodney read it a few times, then scratched his head.
"Okay, maybe I'm slow. I get that 'father' is Howard, but who is his granddaughter Maja?" he asked, raising an eyebrow at a now laughing Gio.
"Oh, god... think about it, Rod? What little girl on that base has a name that starts with 'M'?"
Rodney thought for a moment, then smiled widely, grabbed his partner, pulled her out of the chair and danced her around the room.
"Hey Gio... we have a niece!"
Wufei sighed as he secured the bandage around Duo's chest and helped him on with his shirt.
"I have to admit, Duo," he said, settling himself on the bed behind the long-haired teen, "I am slightly concerned by the blow you took to the chest and the bruising on your neck." He picked up the brush from the table and began carefully brushing through his friend's hair for the second time that day. "You may be healing rapidly, but your surgery wasn't all that long ago. It takes more than a couple of weeks for a punctured lung and broken ribs to heal... even for you."
"Mmm," Duo replied, relaxing slightly. "Honestly? I really don't feel all that great. It *does* hurt a bit more when I breathe, much less take a deep breath or cough. Raising my arms is a no-no right now. And my throat... well, it felt like it was on fire this morning, but it's more of a dull ache now... like the rest of me. I'm still tired and a little shaky, but I think *that's* because I'm sort of out of shape right now. One tortuous week in a dungeon and a couple more weeks of almost total inactivity, broken only by an idiotic - if successful - day of mass mayhem will do that to a guy," he continued, grinning over his shoulder at the Chinese teen behind him. "I *was* okay for this mission, but now that the adrenaline rush is over, I'm feeling it. I sort of expected it, though..."
Wufei nodded and began braiding the mass of chestnut hair in his hands. "Thank you for being honest, xiong di, and not trying to hide it."
"It's not like you couldn't tell, 'Fei," Duo said, handing over a hair band. "I'm moving stiffly, breathing shallow, can't put my own shirt on without groaning and nearly spilled my coffee in my lap because my hands started shaking so much. It was kind of obvious, don't you think?"
"True," his companion replied, smirking slightly as he tied off the braid and pushed the other teen to lie on the bed. Rising, Wufei pulled the blankets over Duo and continued. "However, it would be a very 'Maxwell' thing to do if you were to attempt to hide it, even if it was obvious, no?"
"That would be like the pot calling the kettle black, wouldn't it, Wufei?" Treize said from the doorway.
Wufei spun around, nearly falling as his sprained knee took too much of his weight, and Treize rushed over to his young lover, apologising profusely.
"I'm sorry, Dragon, I forgot - "
"Ai ya! I'm fine, Treize!" the Chinese pilot sputtered, waving the older man off.
Duo laughed. "I'd say that point goes to you, Treize. Pot... meet the kettle."
Rashid chuckled from the doorway.
Treize flashed a grin at the boy in the bed and wrapped his uninjured arm around Wufei. "Anyway, it's getting late. All good Gundam pilots should be tucked into bed and asleep."
The tall Manguanac slipped into the room and sat on his bed. "My men and I, aside from Abdul of course, will be leaving at dawn for the Mosque, then we'll wander around sightseeing to keep our cover intact. I will expect you, Master Duo, Master Wufei and Master Treize, to take it easy while we're out. We should be back for lunch, then I will re-evaluate the situation. No arguments, Master Duo," he continued, raising a hand to forestall the teen. "I refuse to take any chances with your welfare. That goes for you as well, Master Wufei. Am I understood?"
Duo sighed. "Yes, Uncle Rashid," he said petulantly and snuggled into his blankets. Wufei nodded sharply.
"Good," Rashid said firmly. "Now, Master Treize, if you would please take Master Wufei to bed, I will be able to get some much needed sleep, knowing my charges are all settled."
"Of course, Uncle Rashid," Treize said, smirking as he led the sputtering Wufei to the door. "Old men like you need as much sleep as possible..."
The door closed behind them and Duo burst into giggles. Rashid sighed heavily, laid down and turned off the light.
"You know, I think I liked him better when he was still the enemy and before you corrupted him, Duo..."
Bravo was already beginning to thrash against her captors as the team drove back towards the waiting plane. Heero watched for a moment as Ines and Rad tried to calm her, then reached out. "Here, let me take her."
His tone brooked no argument - they handed the girl over without a word, and Farley moved to Heero's side. "I'm surprised she's already coming out from the medication "
Heero cracked a rueful smile. "Sally didn't know - Duo figured it out, though. I came out from under the drugs much faster than she expected, too. There's very little that can keep me out of it, and I'd bet she's the same way." He cradled her against his chest. "I never thought about others going through that."
Farley had been checking Bravo out as best as he could, but he stopped and looked up at the Japanese teen. "It wasn't your fault, Heero. You can't save the whole world from day one, you know."
Heero's eyes blazed at the thought. **The hell I can't.** He shook his head. "I never went back. I ran from it like a coward."
"That's enough, soldier," Quatre almost barked from his other side, causing Bravo to stir in Heero's arms and shiver a bit. He immediately modified his tone. "I know you won't agree with me, but you were just a boy. You were hurting and suffering, yourself. You weren't ready to face it head-on, and you're probably still not ready for it now, though you're strong enough to deal with it and come out in one piece. Any way you look at it, it isn't your fault. It's the fault of the assholes who did it to you. To *both* of you."
Bravo was beginning to seriously shiver in Heero's arms, and he held her tighter. "I just feel guilty. Very guilty."
"Don't," Quatre said, reaching around to help Farley examine the girl carefully. "Don't even think about it like that. Try thinking about what will happen to Barton when we find him instead."
Farley paused in his work to look up at both young pilots. He looked away quickly. As a doctor, his job was to help people feel better, and it was clear from their faces that they were thinking about causing pain, rather than fixing it. It bothered him a little that he agreed with them completely. Then again, looking down at his patient, he decided that there was nothing wrong with it, after all.
Wufei woke slowly, wincing as sore muscles and his sprained knee made themselves known. He stretched gingerly, then his eyes flew open as his foot nudged something 'heavy' at the end of the bed.
**What the... Not Treize...** he thought, noting his lover's arm around his waist. Raising his head, he looked at the object on the foot of the bed a blanket-wrapped lump, a foot poking out of one end, and a long, chestnut braid snaking out from the other end. Frown changing to a smirk, the Chinese teen glanced at his watch. It was already seven-thirty in the morning. **Ah, of course. He must have gotten lonely...**
Careful to not disturb Duo, Wufei rolled over so he was facing his lover and poked him in the arm. "Treize, wake up," he whispered, "you have to see this."
"Hm? What?" the ginger-haired man replied sleepily, cracking his eyes open.
"We have company - easy," he murmured as Treize tensed and prepared to confront any intruders. "No enemies. Look at the end of the bed."
The older man relaxed and cracked a grin as he saw the form curled up at Wufei's feet.
"Dragon, why is Duo sleeping on our bed?"
Wufei glanced fondly at the sleeping pilot. "I am assuming he woke when Rashid and Auda left, and didn't want to stay in the other room alone. Rather than wake us up, he chose to just sleep there. For all of our Duo's self-sufficiency, he hates being alone if he doesn't have to. He often bunks with me, when Heero is out on missions."
Treize nodded. "I can understand that."
Both men watched the boy at the foot of the bed for a few moments, then Treize chuckled.
"So, should we wake him? He can't be very comfortable..."
Wufei snorted softly. "I've seen him sleep in Deathscythe's pilot seat. This could almost be called 'luxury'." He cocked his head as muffled noises came from the main room of the suite and Duo stirred restlessly, his brow furrowing as he coughed slightly.
"Come on. Don't wake him yet," the Chinese pilot said, carefully climbing out of the bed and pulling on his robe, his lover following his example. "Don't make a big deal of this, or tease him either. His instinctive need for people embarrasses him. Just follow my lead," he finished, and moved to stand by his sleeping friend. He reached down, clasped the boy's shoulder and shook him gently.
"Come on, Maxwell, it's time to get up. I'm hungry, and from what Auda says, we *don't* want Abdul cooking. Since the last time we had to cook for ourselves *I* did it, it's now your turn." He smirked as the braided teen slowly opened his eyes. "As you would say, Duo... 'Feed me!'."
Duo's eyes shot open and he blushed furiously. He glanced apprehensively at the tall ex-general, as if waiting to be mocked.
Treize, taking Wufei's advice to heart and pretending that waking up to Duo sleeping with them was an everyday occurrence, grinned at the wary teen.
"Yes, Duo, breakfast. I am feeling a bit hungry myself," he said, taking Wufei's arm and helping him out the bedroom door. "I think I'd like eggs good morning Abdul. How's the leg...?"
Back in the bedroom, Duo blinked, then sighed with relief. He smiled slightly, despite his minor aches and pains, as he moved awkwardly to join the others.
"Yeah, yeah... that's all you want me for. My exquisite culinary skills. I'm gorgeous, sexy, I have a biting wit, I can demolish enemy bases in a single bound --"
It took the combined efforts of Rad, Ines and Heero to restrain Bravo by the time they reached the plane. Quatre took one look at them and moved to the cockpit without a word with Une at his side.
Marco stood back as Farley began ordering the treatment of his patient. The young doctor thrust a bag into his hands. "Take that on board, and help Heero get her strapped in. I want her securely strapped in before takeoff."
He followed Heero in and went straight to his supplies, stowed in a small cupboard under the bulkhead. "Heero, I'm going to need your help "
The Japanese teen nodded. "We know. Quatre's taking the con, and I think Une followed him up there."
"Good." He stepped closer, nudging Rad out of his way not unkindly. He pulled back her eyelids and quickly and efficiently checked her pulse and breathing. Farley frowned. "I don't like her breathing - it's like something is pressing down on her and limiting the amount of air she can take in."
Heero nodded. "I remember something like that. It hurts to breathe too deeply. It took months for Doctor J to to make it right."
Quatre's voice filtered back from the cockpit. "Pre-flight checks are done. We're ready to go."
Marco nodded. "I need to get going, then. I'll ditch the van about a hundred miles west of here and join you back in camp."
Farley nodded. "Very well. The mission went well, Marco. Thanks for your help."
Marco nodded to the doctor. "My pleasure, sir." He shook hands all around before ghosting up towards the cockpit.
In the meantime, Farley checked the straps holding Bravo down and quickly set up an IV. He kept a running dialogue, half to set his own thoughts straight, half to explain what he was doing for the others. "She's probably slightly dehydrated, which would add to any pain she's in - we can at least take care of that pretty easily. Apart from that, the poison is in her blood. I'll have to review her dossier before I can really figure it out "
Ines nodded. "Makes sense. What can we do?"
They felt the engines starting up. Farley handed a stethoscope to Heero. "Watch her. We've got at least a little time to read up before she'll truly come out of the stuff I gave her. I need to use that time."
The Japanese teen nodded.
Farley took one final look at the frail-looking girl on a makeshift hospital bed before he picked up his printout notes and moved across the way to begin reading.
Heero was becoming increasingly worried, and he tore his eyes away from the patient to look across at Farley. "Jason."
The man didn't look up.
Farley's face was white, his skin almost as pasty-looking as his patient's, eyes wide and riveted as he read. Heero had never seen such a look of revulsion before.
He walked over and shook the man's shoulder, nonetheless. "Jason. We need to do something. I will not sit by and watch "
Farley looked up at him as though jolted back to reality. "Heero?"
"Jason, she needs our help. Now," Heero repeated himself, looking very nervous himself.
Farley's eye lit up. "Heero, how *exactly* did Doctor J make the pain stop?"
The Japanese teen blinked. "I don't know. I suppose it was more drugs "
Farley stood up. "Heero, you're a genius!" He stood and went straight for his cabinet.
Heero looked to Ines and Rad for some clue of what was going on, but both looked back to him blankly. Heero looked back to the young doctor. "Care to explain?"
Farley turned around with a light in his eyes. "Look, the stuff they gave her when we did our tests on you, we found it still in your blood today. And if it's still there, the antidote must be there, too, or you would be in immense pain, as well. D'you follow?"
Heero's eyes went wide. "You mean "
Farley nodded. "Yes. It's only a partial solution for now, but I think it will help her. If we give her a transfusion of your blood, it should begin to counteract the drugs in her system. Once we get back to camp, we can do a proper analysis and find out what the cure is, prepare it, and give it to her to stop it permanently."
Heero's response was a tense smile and a nod. He immediately began pulling off his jacket.
Ines stepped forward and began swabbing Heero's arm while Farley did the same for Bravo.
The Japanese teen watched dispassionately as his blood began to flow into the thin tube and over into his 'sister.' He clenched his left fist tightly. "This has better work."
Farley spared the young pilot a smile. "It will, I'm sure."
Sally rushed outside the command centre, intent on telling Zechs and Trowa the good news, then stopped short. She stifled a giggle at the scene in front of her.
In front of the infirmary stood five snowmen, which itself wasn't really unusual. What *was* amusing were their appearances.
The first one was the tallest, with large blue buttons for eyes. Small twigs made forked eyebrows and red leaves - where they had found them, Sally didn't know - gave the impression of red hair. Round, flat stones, pressed into the 'chest' substituted for medals.
The second one was slightly shorter with black stones for eyes. A short stick on the lower half of its face substituted for a mouth, and a square of black cloth made up its hair. There was another, long stick stuck to its side like a sword.
The third snowman was obviously supposed to be Quatre. The light blue button eyes, bright yellow yarn hair, and pink dress shirt gave it away.
The last two were slightly obscured by Zechs, Trowa and Marie putting the final touches on it. As they stepped back to admire their work, Sally got a view of the finished product.
Two snowmen, so close together that the bottom balls of snow were touching. The one on the right had purple-coloured paper for eyes. A bent twig made up a smiling mouth and Zechs' long brown scarf had been fashioned into the snowman's long braid. The end of the 'braid' was 'held' in the stick arms of the left-hand snowman.
This one had dark blue 'eyes' and an old mop head - that looked to have been soaked in mud - made up messy brown hair. Trowa had obviously stolen one of Heero's tank tops for their creation and the toes of the Japanese pilot's old yellow sneakers poked out of the bottom snowball.
Sally had no choice but to give in to her laughter. Marie spun around and grinned, then ran to the blond doctor.
"What do you think? They look like them, don't they?" she asked, bouncing in place.
Sally nodded. "I think you did a fine job, Marie. I hope Trowa and Zechs helped."
The two men stood off to the side, blushing and looking everywhere but at her.
"Yup!" Marie exclaimed. "They did the snowballs. And Uncle Trowa stole Uncle Heero's shirt and shoes and Uncle Quatre's shirt. Uncle Zechs gave me his scarf to do Uncle Duo's hair!"
"So I see," Sally replied, then her grin faded to a soft smile and she looked at Zechs and Trowa. "Actually, I have some good news. Une radioed. The team is on their way back. The mission was successful, and there were no unanticipated problems or injuries. They should be landing here in about five hours or so."
"Thank God," Trowa said, slumping slightly with relief. Zechs placed a companionable hand on his shoulder and Marie hugged his legs tightly.
"Yay!" she said cheerfully. "They're almost home!"
Trowa ran his hand across her hair and nodded absently.
"So, I should go let Walker and Howard know," Sally said, and seeing that Trowa needed some time, held her hand out to Marie. "What do you think, Cricket? Shall we go tell Grandpa Howard the good news?"
The little redhead gave Trowa's legs another squeeze, then ran over to the young doctor and grabbed her hand. "Yesyesyes!" she squealed, pulling Sally along and away from the two young men. "And Papa should be home soon, too, right? And Uncle 'Fei..."
Her voice trailed off as they walked out of sight, and Zechs gave Trowa's good arm a slight tug.
"Come on, Trowa, I'll buy you lunch."
Trowa took a step forward and halted, a small smile appearing on his face as the good news actually sank in. The smile turned into a grin. "No," he said, walking forward again, "I'm buying..."
Une returned to the cockpit with a thoughtful frown on her face.
Quatre looked up at her for a short moment before directing his attention back to the controls of the plane. "What's going on back there?"
Une slid into the co-pilot's chair, still frowning. "Bravo's much calmer - I think Jason's idea just might have worked."
A light smile graced Quatre's face. "And Heero?"
She shook her head. "He's resting. I can't imagine what must be going through his head."
Quatre nodded, his eyes still on the controls. "I don't think he's even told Duo the full extent of what he went through when he was younger. He's been through so much "
Wrapping her arms around herself desolately, she stared out at the sky. "I wish Duo was here for him. He's just so "
Blue eyes narrowed. "He didn't talk to anyone, did he?"
With a shake of her head, Une replied, "No - Ines said she's tried to speak with him, but he ignored her completely."
Quatre snorted. "Typical Heero - 'show no weakness.' I hate it when he does that. I wish Duo was here, too."
Une shook her head sadly and offered, "Would he maybe talk to you?"
The blond teen shook his head. "It's possible, but not with an audience. When he's feeling vulnerable, he reverts to the Ice Man in front of outsiders."
"What can we do, then?"
Quatre frowned. "Nothing for now. Let him sleep we should be back on the ground in a few hours, and then Trowa and I will see what we can do. I know it sounds cold, but Heero wouldn't appreciate me making him talk when he doesn't feel safe about it. He'd clam up even worse, and only Duo would have a chance of getting through to him."
"And he's still not due in for a while, I hear you," Une said, grimacing a little. She stole a glance at the blond, only now realising how tired he looked, though he hid it well. "Can I take the controls for a while? I need something to distract me."
He smiled at her thoughtfulness and nodded. "Co-pilot has the con."
"Roger that." She smoothly took the controls, a light smile on her face.
Quatre yawned a little and managed a mumbled "thanks, Une" before he closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair.