Footfalls thudded heavily on the floorboards as Quatre pounded up the hall, skidding to a halt to tear the door open.
Immediately the boy slumped over the desk snapped upright, sighting and aiming his gun directly at Quatre's head. Awareness slowly seeped into Heero's eyes as his and Quatre's breath trembled through a suspended moment, then he lowered the gun, turning back to the computer where he'd fallen asleep.
Quatre was still panting a little from the mad dash he'd made. "Heero—"
Heero's eyes had returned to the computer monitor, still blank, the net silent. His face was expressionless.
"Heero we just got a short-wave scrambled comm from an operative in Mercy and Wufei just decoded it—" Quatre's words tumbled out one over the other, "and we have to get out now and do it quickly before OZ soldiers start swarming all over—"
"Shut up," Heero interrupted the flow of words, face impassive. "We didn't get new mission orders." His face was closed and cold, eyes half-hooded as he continued to watch the blank green monitor.
Quatre frowned, gulping as he recovered breath. "That's the thing, Heero – the message was explicit, the net is corrupted! We can't accept any missions over the net until it gets debugged. The comm was indisputable, even Wufei agreed – the codes are all in order. C'mon let's go do it we've got no time—"
"Do what?" Heero interrupted coolly, eyes flicking involuntarily back to the dead screen. It wasn't for the mission orders he still half- expected to see; he was keyed to pick out a name, just a single name.
Quatre stared, not believing that Heero wouldn't instantly jump up to respond to even this slim chance, then realized he hadn't gotten his main point out.
"Hello!" Quatre chirped brightly, smiling up at the nurse as innocently as he could. "I'm looking for my brother... he was brought in from the explosion...?" Quatre puckered his face up in a little frown of worry.
The nurse eyed the young golden-haired boy critically, then turned her searchlight glare on the three young men behind him. Two of them looked like complete and total juvenile delinquents. She sniffed disapprovingly. They should be in an institution somewhere, especially the boy in the green tank top. His eyes positively glittered with youthful rebellion and angst that she could smell a mile off. The one with razor-sharp looking bangs, too – he was trouble. A quiet sort of trouble but she wasn't fooled. The other one, the Chinese boy, looked like he had a stick shoved up his ass. She sniffed again. Kids these days. Reluctantly she flipped through her charts.
"I'm sorry but we don't have any names for any of the victims – and some of them were DOA," the nurse informed him, and saw the tank-top boy's jaw clench as he speared her with a glare. She returned it icily. "Could you give me a physical description?"
"Oh, about our height – you can't miss him, he's got long brown hair in a braid."
She frowned, pursing her lips as she examined the charts. "I haven't seen any of the victims, and none of them would necessarily be described in that manner. There were quite a few people brought in, you know – we're flooded. I'm sorry."
"Can't you help us?" Quatre sniffed, widening his big blue eyes at her. A tear formed in the corner of his eye.
The nurse narrowed her own eyes at him, suspicious. "Well—if you can identify him, you may as well go through the victims and find him. That way we can get him out of this ward as soon as possible – free up the bed, and you can take care of the insurance, I assume?"
Quatre nodded vigorously.
The golden-haired pilot turned back to his companions. "Split up," Trowa suggested. Heero was already moving off down the wide emergency room corridor, towards the direction the nurse had indicated.
Heero glanced into each room as he passed, a single flick of his eyes enough to verify that none of the groaning, bloody, burned wrecks on the beds were Duo or anything faintly resembling the American pilot. Each room was crammed with cots, overloaded with the grievously injured, the whimpering shattered ruins, the dying...
Heero ignored them all and kept moving. He passed a roomful of sheet-draped bodies and was about to move on when he stopped stock-still.
His pupils pooled open on the sight of a partially-unraveled, long brown braid, snaking along the curve of the sheet pulled up to cover the face.
Everything rocked to a halt.
"Idiot," Heero muttered, ignoring the stinging sensation in his eyes as he wove through the sheet-covered bodies. Each step was an echo against eternity as he crossed the floor. He wished for some absurd reason he could be back in that sun-drenched afternoon by the pool, to shake Duo and tell him to stop playing dead.
...but I'm your idiot.
His hand moved to push aside the sheet and he hesitated. Suddenly gripped by the conviction that he didn't want to see this, that staring at the blank monitor was better than the surety—
He twitched the sheet back.
Duo's face was calm and peaceful, unmarked except for crusted blood from a cut over his eyebrow. It wasn't immediately apparent what had killed him.
"Damn you," he muttered, clenching his fists. "Damn—"
The corpse's eyes popped open.
"Hunh—" Heero started back in surprise, a wordless cry escaping his iron-hard control.
Duo sat up, wincing as he did so. He plucked at the disheveled mess of his braid, wide blue eyes blinking at Heero. "You guys got here pretty quick! I'm flattered! Hey, Heero, my hair is a mess!" he griped.
"Duo, you're dead," Heero told the corpse with conviction.
Duo scooted to the edge of the stretcher, a little exclamation of pain leaving his lips and automatically Heero reached to steady him. "No I'm not," he contradicted, giving him a pale smile. "Although I sure do feel like living hell. Why Heero... did you miss me?"
"..." Heero's fist closed around the end of Duo's braid, the other hand digging into his uninjured shoulder. He pulled him closer.
Duo's eyes widened. "Heero! You did miss me, didn't you?"
"Shut up, stupid," Heero muttered, then pulled him forward. Duo half-fell, half slid off the stretcher into Heero's arms and he made a muffled exclamation of pain, biting his lip. "Why the hell did you play dead?"
"Did I give you a scare?" Duo murmured against his ear, then flinched at the sharp tug on his braid, Heero's non-verbal retort. Heero's arms closed around him, hard/gentle at the same time. "OZ soldiers, stupid. I knew they'd be coming – they'd probably waste any unidentified 'victims' of the crash, figuring those would probably be from the opposition..."
"How badly are you hurt?" Heero demanded, tucking him into his arms more securely.
"Not as bad as I could have been," Duo responded evasively.
"Can you walk, or am I gonna carry you?"
Duo was silent. Then, "I think I can walk..."
They walked out of the room of the dead together, Heero putting his arm around the American pilot's waist to steady him. His face was stony, and Duo's carefully neutral.
Quatre spotted them and dashed up, his whole face lighting up. "Duo! You're alive!"
"And kicking," Duo added, giving him a wide grin. "I feel ready to tapdance."
"Hunh," Heero snorted.
Wufei and Trowa skidded around the corner. "It's time to go," Trowa told them calmly, chest rising and falling quickly with his breath. "Before the soldiers find our flitter. They're here."
They began to walk out, putting Duo protectively in the middle of their huddled group. Doctors were bustling all around them, along with an ever-increasing number of soldiers. Heero's hand itched for a gun.
The doors ahead were fixed open to accommodate more incoming wounded. They were in the clear—
"Hey! You! You heard me, boys! Where do you think you're going, get back here! You haven't filled out discharge papers!"
The shrill voice of the hatchet-faced battle-axe filled the air and Heero cursed silently.
"Hey! Get back here! You haven't filled out the insurance forms!" she yelled furiously, her voice spiraling upwards. "Stop them! STOP them!"
They broke into a run, Heero scooping up a feebly-protesting Duo into his arms as they beat a hasty retreat. A few uniformed soldiers began to run after them, but rather half-heartedly, apparently not considering them much of a threat. They ran faster, towards the transport Wufei and Trowa had tried carefully to conceal in the thicket outside the hospital parking lot.
"Hahaha!" Duo yelled, making some sort of obscene gesture over Heero's shoulder. "Can't catch us!"
Heero thinned his lips, wishing he had a hand free to smack the mischievous pilot. "Duo, damn it, don't give them a reason to chase us!"
"Beeda!" Duo continued, braid flying over Heero's shoulder as he pulled at his lower eyelid, sticking his tongue out.
"Duo, shut up!" Quatre yelped, looking over his shoulder at the enraged soldiers.
Trowa had sped up ahead of them to reach the flitter first, for power-up.
The soldiers shouted as they saw the flitter, and drew their guns to open fire. Heero put all of his energy into a burst of speed, stumbled and swore as he felt a sudden burning pain in his shoulder, and ran even harder, reaching and shoving Duo into the capsule, ignoring his pained exclamation, and scrambling in after him.
Duo laughed and pressed his face against the thick glass, contorting it into the most horrible expressions at the infuriated soldiers as they continued to open fire, futilely. Trowa lifted the nose of the little craft and pushed the limits, ignoring the keening whine of the engine.
Duo turned back, chuckling insanely, then his eyes went wide as they fixed on Heero. "Heero, you're bleeding!"
Heero shrugged, pressing a hand roughly against his shoulder. "Am I?" he inquired indifferently.
"Utter idiot..." Duo scolded him as he rummaged around in the confined spaces of the craft, searching for a tourniquet or something to bandage him with. Wufei gave him an irritated glance as he was jostled rudely, but forebore to comment.
Heero leaned back into the seat and watched Duo fuss, the corners of his mouth twitching ever so slightly.
"Owowowowow!" Duo yelped as Heero tied off the ends of the bandage, tossing the remains of the old dressing into the trash can. "Dammit, the doctor was nicer! Can't you be gentle, Heero?"
"Hn. I didn't cut your leg off," Heero replied. "I think that's pretty nice."
Duo sniffed. "You're mean." Then he sighed and lay back on the bed, relaxing. "How's your shoulder?"
Heero shrugged. "It's fine."
Duo peered up at him, opening one eye. "You'd say that if it had gangrene and you had to excise it with a dirty penknife," he accused.
Heero shrugged again and moved to the other side of the room, sitting on a chair by the window. He crossed his arms and looked at Duo. After awhile the brown-braided pilot looked up, then around, then spotted Heero sitting in the chair.
"What're you doing all the way over there?"
"Watching you sleep."
Duo scowled at him. "Were you planning on sleeping in that chair all night? Get your ass over here, dammit!"
"Don't make me haul my sorry ass out of bed and over there to drag you forcibly," Duo threatened.
Heero smirked. "You couldn't."
Duo started to sit up, and winced melodramatically. Heero cast his eyes up, then got out of the chair, glaring at Duo. "Just so you know we won't be doing anything."
"Oh, of course."
Heero frowned, not trusting that innocent tone, and the way Duo batted his eyes at him. He laid down on the bed anyway and Duo started to wriggle over towards him, making little exclamations of pain. Heero sighed a long, frustrated sigh, and scooted over on the bed, gingerly pulling Duo up against him. The brown-braided pilot let out a long, contented exhalation of breath and put his head on Heero's chest.
"Say it again."
Duo smiled, and rubbed his cheek over Heero's skin. "I love you, Heero. I'll always love you."
They were quiet for a long time. Heero counted every single breath, could feel the gentle pulse of Duo's blood just beneath his skin. "Duo... you know..."
He tried again. "Duo, I l-lo—"
Duo waited patiently, but Heero could hear/feel the breath catch in the other pilot's throat.
"Duo-I-don't-hate-you," he blurted. Then immediately felt stupid. But he couldn't say what he really wanted to, he just couldn't.
Duo, to his astonishment, did not start laughing. Instead he stretched up and kissed him. "I know, Heero. I love you, too. Don't you think I know, every time you ask me to say it?"
Heero said nothing, just closed his eyes and held Duo. His soft, warm exhalations of breath stirred across Heero's neck. Eventually they slowed into an even, regular rhythm.
"I will not hate you," he repeated softly, so only the room could hear, "for the rest of my life."
Absently, he began to stroke the soft clean mass of Duo's hair. The American's excessive vanity about his most prized feature had made him insist that it be cleaned at once, so with the expression of the long-suffering, Heero had sat him in the tub and washed it out for him, carefully working out all the dried blood, dirt, and tangles. Duo snuggled closer with a little sigh, one arm snaking around his waist and Heero started, wondering if he'd been awake that whole time.
"I know, Heero," he murmured, pressing a kiss to the side of his neck. "Me, too. You made me promise, remember?"
Heero blinked, feeling frozen. After a long moment he shook free of the paralysis, and brushed his fingers lightly over Duo's back.
"I promise you, Duo... as long as I live..."
I love you.