Author: Sunhawk
Warnings : 2+1, R+1, angst, OOC, Duo POV, 'Relena Finds Out' cliché challenge fic.
Thanks go to Calic0cat and Plaiddragon for quickie betas and tense smacking.
Do not own, do not make money.

Epiphany

You know, looking at Heero Yuy, you would really not expect him to be as heavy as he is. He's fairly lean, but my God the man must have some dense bone structure or something. After almost a half an hour of schlepping his ass around in a fireman's carry, I was more than damn ready to put him down. I had a feeling I was really going to be wishing for the use of a hot tub, a masseuse, or at least a couple of aspirin before the night was out. Hell... maybe a chiropractor.

But I was still a long way from that point, especially having to go at a pace a somewhat pampered young lady could keep up with. If I hadn't been carrying Heero, I'd have had Relena tossed over my shoulder just to make better time.

Will somebody freakin' explain heels to me? What is the God damn point? I'd have made her kick them off if I hadn't realized that she'd probably never walked on anything but carpet in her bare feet before, and it would have just made things worse instead of better. Especially once I decided our best hope of escape lay in losing ourselves in the massive construction site less than a klick from the installation we were escaping from.

That whole hide in plain sight thing? Or at least, hide in the last place they'd ever expect... right under their noses. It wasn't long term; I'm not dumb enough to think trying the obvious would protect us for long... I was just hoping to get out of sight long enough for the shit in Heero's system to wear off so that I'd have his damn help.

I was going to be hard-pressed to protect them both once the alarm went up and the pursuit began in earnest.

And was it some kind of twisted karma that caused the klaxons on the base to choose the exact moment of that thought to suddenly go off?

Somebody either finally noticed the good Princess was not still in the holding cell they'd left her in... or they'd found the body in the toilet stall.

Relena let out a little sound of distress, and squeezed my hand tight. I'd started out trying to get her to just follow me, so that I'd have at least one hand free to hold my damn gun, but she just seemed to need to hang on. Every time I let go, she started getting... wound up. And then she'd start babbling apologies for her little part in getting Heero zapped with the sleepy juice. So I'd just given up and let her cling.

Not like I was going to stand much of a chance in an all-out firefight anyway... not with Heero slung across my shoulders. And there wasn't any way in hell I was going to unsling him.

'S'ok Princess,' I muttered for about the millionth time. 'We've got a good lead, but you really need to pick up the pace if you can. I want to get under cover as fast as possible.'

'I'm sorry,' she replied, also for about the millionth time. 'I'm trying, but I'm just so tired...'

I was half dragging her anyway and, to be honest, was kind of afraid she was just going to sit down right in the damn dirt and give up. 'We have to get Heero somewhere safe,' I said and, as expected... as it had the last couple of times I'd used the ploy... she gave it that extra effort and came up even with me.

'Of course,' she agreed. 'We have to save Heero.'

I was able to refrain from rolling my eyes only because I was too busy scanning the shadowed landscape for threats.

'This way,' I urged, and pulled her toward the nightmarish labyrinth of heavy machinery, half formed buildings, and mountains of building supplies.

'Here?' she almost squeaked, and I swear there was a hint of 'are you crazy?' in it.

'I'm hoping they won't think that we'd hide this close to the base,' I told her and her silence spoke volumes about her doubts. It made me a tad defensive. 'Look... I know it's not the best possible idea, but Heero is damn heavy and you're about to give out... we have to find someplace to rest.'

'Oh!' she said, just as though it had never occurred to her that what I was doing was the slightest bit difficult. And hell... maybe she'd just been around Heero too long. Mr. Perfect Ass Soldier probably wouldn't have even broken a sweat if he'd been in my place.

Though... I highly doubted that, had Heero been in my position, he'd have had me tossed over his shoulder. He'd have probably left me to ensure that the mission of getting Relena out succeeded. That knowledge stung just a little, even tempered with the fact that, when he woke up, he was going to be flaming pissed that I hadn't just left him behind.

But I had my own set of priorities, and they were a little different from his. Sure, Relena and the peace were important. Probably second on my list of things to be taken into consideration when making major decisions. Right after Heero Yuy.

Not that he knew or would ever know that, thank you very much.

The site turned out to be some sort of expansion to the base, if I was any judge. It had that regimented feel to the design, and not a lot of care taken for esthetics.

I took us in and up and through and around until I was sure Relena was lost, and wasn't too sure about myself. But I finally found a small room up on the third... uh... I'd say floor, but it wasn't that finished. Third level? A room on the third level that was far enough along that it had some floor, and there I finally was able to get Yuy the hell off my back. Relena was right there at his side, clutching his limp hand to her bosom and gazing at him with wide shimmering blue eyes...

Ok, I'll stop.

Relena sat the hell down next to him and took his hand, all right?

I understood the inevitability of it all; the Princess and the Knight... but fuck me if I couldn't be bitter about it in my own mind.

I checked Heero's pulse and straightened him out a little, so that he wouldn't wake up sore and uncomfortable, and then I took off my jacket and covered him with it.

Relena did this very weird thing where she glanced at me, blushed furiously and looked quickly back at Heero. I'll admit, for two damn seconds, I thought she'd just checked me out... I was wearing a skin tight black t-shirt after all, and Quatre had told me once that black was my color... but then I realized I was also wearing a Smith & Wesson on my hip, a bowie knife on my arm, and four slim throwing knives across my chest. Guess it wasn't the pecs she was looking at. Weapons and pacifists, apparently, don't mix. I sighed and finished tucking the jacket around Heero. I wondered, not for the first time, how she could be so infatuated with a guy whose mentor referred to him as 'the perfect weapon'. Did she not get that part?

'Look, I'm going to go back out and make sure we didn't leave any signs we came this way,' I told her, ignoring the blushing. 'I promise I'll be as quick as I can.'

She nodded, and gave me a shaky little smile. 'We'll be all right.'

It was my imagination that painted in the possessive tone to her voice.

I slipped back out, feeling just a twinge of unease about leaving Heero so defenseless... wasn't this the point in the movies where the patented 'bad things' happened? But I didn't have much choice. Going to ground wasn't going to do us much good if we'd left signs all over the place.

Without Relena and Heero in tow, I was able to make use of the scaffolding and ladders, getting back to the ground in a third the time it had taken us to get up to our little sanctuary. There were a million places that allowed me to see for a good distance over the surrounding area, and while I saw the play of lights off in the distance more than once... nothing very near to us.

Which turned out to be a very good thing, since it took me some time to erase Relena's tracks from the dry dirt of the construction site. My own trail blended in with the thousands of other boot tracks, but there was no mistaking the marks of a woman in high heels.

When I was done, I scouted the area just a bit; never hurts to know the lay of the land... and then headed back up.

I chalk up my reaction to finding Relena with Heero's head in her lap, to being on edge. God, they looked like the makings of a bad fairy tale.

You notice they never show what happens to the cute side-kick after the last reel? Assuming, of course, he survives to the end of the film.

I suppressed the heavy sigh, calling out softly instead to let Relena know it was just me.

'How's he doing?' I asked when I'd gone to join them.

'No change,' she said, unconsciously keeping her voice down to match mine.

I did sigh then, just for a different reason. 'Well, I'm hoping his legendary resistance to drugs will help him throw this off faster than normal. This would go a hell of a lot easier if he was awake for the rest of the trip.'

'Oh yes,' she agreed, her voice carrying an odd dreamy tone. 'Once Heero wakes up, everything will be fine.'

I snorted, not really meaning to, but I couldn't help it. 'I was talking more about not having to carry him the rest of the way.'

She looked up at me and began, 'Oh Duo... I'm so sorry...' but I cut her off, not really needing to hear it... again.

'Come on, Princess, don't worry about it,' I teased. 'Everybody can't be trained in hand to hand combat, or us pilots wouldn't look as good!'

She smiled, though it seemed forced. I could tell she dropped it because I wanted her too, and not because she felt any less to blame. Which was fine, because frankly... she had been to blame, if you asked me. When the guy who is defending you yells at you to duck, you fucking well duck and ask questions later. You do not stand there staring at him, blocking his shot, thus allowing him to be gassed.

But we didn't really need to talk about that. Again.

I made it plain the subject was dropped by pulling out a penlight and leaning down to check Heero's pupils. 'Come on Heero buddy, snap out of it.' I murmured, not sure what prompted it; some silly ass wish that he'd respond to my voice, I guess. Hey, even Gundam pilots can have fairy tale dreams, ok? I felt kind of silly until I noticed the smudge of lipstick at the corner of Heero's mouth. Guess Relena had a fondness for Snow White. Or was that Sleeping Beauty? I wasn't sure; my own experience with fairy tales runs more toward the Brothers Grimm.

'If he'd just wake up,' I told Relena, half to cover my embarrassment over calling out to Heero, 'I think we could make it out of here. But I just don't think we stand a chance if I have to keep carrying him.'

Something kind of weird came into her eyes then and I remembering thinking that I ought to be scared.

'Leave him with me, Duo,' she said suddenly, gently stroking Heero's hair from his forehead and giving him a look that I could only describe as adoring.

'What?' was the best I could manage, since Are you fucking crazy?! didn't seem like the right thing to say to a bona fide Princess.

'I'll take care of him,' she said, and something in my stomach kind of turned over, 'while you go for help.'

I thought about asking her just where she thought I was supposed to go for this vaunted 'help', but then she probably still thought the local law enforcement was trust-worthy. Like the locals were going to buck the Federation.

'And you're going to guard him too, Miss Pacifist?' I asked, not really able to believe the fluffy dream-world she lived in. I would have thought that watching her father murdered would have blunted the edges of that naivety.

'He'll be safe with me,' she declared and I was able, with a supreme effort of will, not to roll my eyes.

'And what are you going to do if one of those squads of soldiers finds you?' I snickered. 'Ask them to have tea and discuss the situation?'

She finally took her eyes off Heero and turned to look at me, obviously getting angry. 'They won't hurt him, he's unarmed...'

I snorted, I couldn't help it. 'Don't kid yourself sweet-cheeks... if the Federation finds pilot 01 unconscious and helpless, you can bet your ass they're going to shoot him. He's only alive now because that guy who gassed him didn't have a gun.'

She looked genuinely shocked. I wondered briefly if at my language, or my ideas. I kind of felt sorry for her in that moment. Maybe I'd had things rough in my youth, but at least I wasn't a blind idealist.

'I love him,' she suddenly told me breathlessly, just as though this declaration would sway me. I wondered what scenario she was envisioning? Heero waking up to find himself alone with her and declaring his undying devotion? I couldn't decide if I wanted to laugh or cry. 'I... love him more than you do.'

I have to admit, though it pains me a little, that she caught me totally flat footed. Because she dared question the depth of my feelings for Heero? Because she'd figured out those feelings in the first place? I don't know.

'You love him enough to set aside your beliefs and defend him if it comes down to it?' I growled, and she just kind of blinked at me, as though she'd never even considered that possibility. I honestly don't think she could conceive of the tale having anything but a happy ending. It didn't look like she was going to come up with a reply, so I just brushed it all aside. 'Doesn't matter; there's no place I could go for help anyway. Our best chance is in sticking together.'

'And what if...' she began, but I cut her off, suddenly hearing something and not sure what it was.

I signed for her to stay low and quiet and then realized she didn't have a clue what I was doing with my hands, so I leaned in and whispered, 'I hear something; stay quiet and don't move.'

Her eyes got impossibly wide and she clutched at Heero, but she nodded her understanding.

I shifted around until I had my feet under me and crept closer to the door. The noise came again, a scuff and a metallic sound. Then a voice muttered a curse. There was the sound of more movement and then that voice spoke again, this time not sounding like it was talking to itself. 'Hey Banner, where the hell are you? There ain't nothin' in here but damn rats and raccoons.'

There was the crackle of a radio, and a return voice, sounding tinny and small. 'I'm over... I guess it'll be the executive offices. There ain't shit here either.'

'This is worse than a waste of time,' the guy standing not twenty feet from our hiding place said. 'What kind of moron would stop and hide out here? Those guys are half way to Utah by now.'

'Tell me about it,' Banner grumbled back. 'Finish that section and meet me by the bull-dozers... we'll catch a smoke.'

'Gotcha,' the first guy said and there was a noise that might have been him pinning his radio back in place.

Well fuck; this was not good. Not good at all. I found it hard to believe they'd only dispatched two guys to cover this whole site, but they both seemed to think it was a waste of time, so maybe it was like a formality? Maybe the powers that assigned them this little jaunt thought it was a waste of time too?

Didn't know... didn't really care. But it meant I was going to have to deal with it. I pulled my bowie and moved to crouch by the door. I needed to take the guy down as fast and quietly as possible. Then... I didn't know. Go take out the other guy, I guess. And then we'd have to run for it, somebody would miss them sooner or later.

I was still as a stone, breathing shallowly so I could hear the guy's every move, watching as his flashlight played around outside, making it's way toward us. All my attention was focused on my quarry.

I should have spared some for Relena, because I never once thought to warn her not to look at me. But that's what she was doing when the guy finally got to our doorway. It gave him just that much warning and he had his gun out when he came through. I cursed and had to move fast to get in close, grabbing on and pulling us around as we struggled, to make sure Heero and Relena weren't in the line of fire. It lost me the advantage of position and surprise, but I'd be damned if I'd let the guy shoot Heero.

Damn woman was going to be the death of me.

The guy cursed right back at me, and his gun went off just about the time my knife rammed up under his breast bone, angling for his heart. I felt the impact of the bullet in my side, but refused to let go, shoving my knife all the harder. All I could think about was how helpless Heero was going to be if I let myself get taken out.

The guy was a lot bigger than me and we staggered sideways, falling almost on top of Heero and Relena. Relena gave a little squeak of sound and didn't seem to know what to do with herself. I ended up lying across a dead body, lying across Heero's legs, gasping in pain and praying for a miracle.

Yeah... that kind of shit happens just that damn fast.

No matter how much of a waste these guys had thought this trip was, no way was 'Banner' going to miss something like a gun shot. I shoved myself up off the guy and spared a glance down at the blood spreading all across that tight black t-shirt I'd mentioned earlier. 'Fuck,' I muttered, and two things happened...

The radio crackled a bad word at me and Relena took a really deep breath.

I was pretty sure what the breath was for, so I said, 'fuck!' again, just a little bit louder, and clamped my hand across her mouth. My blood covered hand.

It did not win me any brownie points. I was kind of surprised her eyes didn't bulge right the hell out of her head. She'd passed horrified already and was heading toward hysterical like a rocket on speed.

Even while I made damn sure the good Princess did not alert the entire county to our location, I snatched up the radio with my free hand and barked, 'Fucking rats!' into it.

Hey... it was worth a damn try. If my guy's buddy was lame enough to take the time to curse his partner, and freaking ask what was going on instead of coming to find out... I was well within my rights to make a lame attempt at mimicry and evasion.

'You asshole!' Banner yelled, and I was only surprised he wasn't loud enough to be heard without the radio. 'You know what kind of trouble you're going to be in for discharging your weapon at a God damn rat?'

'Fuck off,' I snapped; keeping things short, hoping the guy wouldn't realize the voice wasn't quite right. Somewhere in there, I became aware that Relena was shaking like a leaf, her hands clutching at my arm.

'Fuck off, yourself, you idiot!' I was told. 'Finish the hell up, without shooting at anything else, and get down here!' I didn't bother to answer and it didn't seem to matter.

And that was about where Relena went limp.

Uh... ooops?

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure if it was the shock of the whole thing or maybe my inadvertently cutting off her air that did it, but just to make things that much more fun... Relena fainted.

When I realized that my sparring buddy from downstairs wasn't going to come tearing immediately up to level three to finish us off, I took a moment to hug my knees and snicker hysterically. I was shot, Heero was gassed, and Relena was passed out. Oh... and I had a corpse laying across the love of my life with my best bowie knife sticking out of its chest.

I wondered if it constituted mission failure?

I'm ashamed to admit that it took me a good minute to get my shit together, because there was a small part of me that just wanted to call it quits and admit that I'd fucked up royally.

I should never have tried to get Relena and Heero out of that installation. When Heero went down and it was obvious that he was out of the race, I should have concentrated on the mission objective and gotten out of there. Relena and I, without the burden of carrying an incapacitated Heero, would have gotten to transportation before the base had even alerted to our presence, or lack thereof. But I'd tried to eat my cake and have it too.

And now look where the hell we were.

But it wasn't any more than a minute. I'm still not quite sure what got me moving again, maybe imagining Heero giving me hell for fucking up, or the understanding that giving up was the same as sticking a gun to his head.

I used one of my throwing knives and divested Relena of the bottom three or four inches of her oh-so-proper length skirt, then used it to bind pads made from my own t-shirt to my leaking self. I had entrance and exit in a place that I was hoping like hell contained few vital organs, but nothing I did next would matter a rat's ass if I bled to death doing it.

I'm not real sure what prompted the next bits. I work... somewhat unconventionally when under pressure. Maybe it was the influence of Howard and his damn love of mystery movies. Maybe it was desperation. Maybe it was knowing I probably wasn't going to stand much of a chance against 'Banner'.

Hell... maybe it was blood-loss and shock. There had to have been some amount of shock in there somewhere, or I wouldn't have managed what I did next.

With a great deal of effort, I took hold of my dead buddy, whose name tag proclaimed him to be 'Ross', and I dragged him out of our hidey hole, down what there was of the hall to the first unfinished staircase I found, and pitched him over. Not removing my knife until just before the drop, so that I wasn't leaving a lovely little blood trail. Then I made my laborious way down to the ground to meet him, rolling him into position and shoving a piece of broken board into the knife wound.

I climbed about half way back up the stairs, shouted, 'Shit!' in my best Ross voice, and kicked one of the wooden stair treads out. Almost screwed the plan up when the resultant shock of pain about sent me tumbling after the guy, but it kind of helped me with the fake scream.

Then off I scuttled to wait in the shelter of a pile of lumber.

Nobody needs to tell me what a lame-ass plan it was, but I figured I could always shoot the guy if I really, really had to. This way, if he bought the whole stupid 'accident' scenario, I bought myself just that little bit more time. Time was the only thing that was going to save Heero; no way in hell could I carry him out of here now. Especially not if we had to do it in a hurry.

If I killed both these guys, it wouldn't be long before somebody realized they'd stopped responding and came looking, in force and expecting trouble. If they truly thought it was just a dumb accident, they might conceivably deal with the body and not even think about searching further.

Come on... the guy had already gone for the stupid rat story... he was obviously a bit on the simple side. If there's one thing I've learned through my oh-so-many years, it's that people have a tendency to take things at face value. I was just hoping I'd provided enough value on the face of my... uh... whatever you want to call it.

It didn't take Banner long to come running, and I held my breath, gun out and ready, watching his approach. I really didn't want to have to shoot, a second gun shot was going to be impossible to explain. Especially with no one left to do the explaining.

Banner moved in at least looking a little nervous, gun drawn and looking around. He knelt down next to his buddy, and shook at the guy's shoulder. 'Ross? Hey man... what the hell happened?'

I felt kind of bad for the guy, to tell you the truth, I was starting to suspect he was pretty green. After a moment of no response from Ross, he finally rolled him over and kind of gasped at the whole staked through the heart thing. I saw it the moment he took the bait, his attention was wholly on the body, and after a minute of looking things over, he went so far as to holster his weapon.

I decided the two of them hadn't been all that close when he let the body fall back, and stood to shine his flashlight up the stairs, stopping on the place where it looked like the step had given way.

'Fucking moron,' he muttered to himself, and I swear I had to stuff my hand in my mouth to keep from laughing. He stood around for a few more minutes, just kind of looking at the body, like he wasn't sure he believed it, but then sighed heavily before starting to walk away.

'Sampson? You on the desk?' he said to his radio, and there was a crackly affirmative. 'You are not fucking going to believe this...' was the last thing I heard as he left the vicinity.

I wasn't going to have long before they came with the body bag and I needed to get moving on the second part of my ingenious master plan. It took some work to get my sorry ass back up off the ground and then I headed up to the third level, knowing from my earlier poking around just where the stuff was I wanted.

Dry wall is wondrous and somewhat nasty stuff. The embodiment of dust looking for a place to be. Heavy as hell too. There was a pile of it just down the unfinished hall from where my partners in crime were taking their respective naps. There was also an unfinished bottle of soda pop that some construction worker had left behind at the end of shift. I used it to clean the blood off my hands and then began relocating building supplies.

I say that rather flippantly, but it wasn't exactly that easy. I honestly did not think I was going to manage it, and I'm not ashamed to admit that by the time I was done, I had tears tracking down my face, making a muddy mess out of the sweat and drywall dust. I was staggering, coughing, and panicking by the time I got enough of the stuff moved to lean against the wall where I'd dragged Heero and Relena, and hide them from sight. I moved a couple of saw horses while I was at it, and when I was done, it looked like the room was being used to measure and cut the stuff for installation.

Last thing I did was shave the hell out of the end of a piece and spread the dust liberally all over everything as I retreated to hide with Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, carefully only leaving tracks around the doorway.

I hope to God Relena never finds out, but I took the time to cut another chunk out of my t-shirt and used spit to clean the blood off her face. I figure she'd be pretty grossed out, but probably not as grossed out as finding blood all over her. She seemed to have an aversion to it.

Besides... it had always been good enough for Sister Helen.

Then I curled up in the tiny 'lean-to' that I'd sheltered us in, right between Heero and Relena so that I could shut either of them up if need be, and did my best not to pass out with them. It was stuffy, dusty and dark in the narrow little place and it wouldn't take much more than a bump to bring it all tumbling down, but I hoped it would fool whoever Banner brought back to the scene of the 'accident'.

At rest at last, the adrenaline sort of left off pumping through me and I had a long couple of minutes of thinking I was dying. Well... feeling that I was dying, because I'd kind of already figured out the odds of me getting out of this one were slim.

My side hurt like a bitch, and I couldn't keep the bleeding completely stopped with all the work I'd been doing, and I was starting to feel it. Like I said... pretty slim odds.

Assuming that my incredibly clever ruse actually held water when looked at by somebody with more smarts than Banner, and assuming that Heero came back to the land of the awake and aware before it was too late, it was not likely that he was going to waste his time dragging me along.

I'm pretty sure we were to the part of the tale where the side-kick took the gun, and stayed in the foxhole to hold off the bad guys, sacrificing himself so the hero could escape with his one true love. If I was lucky, they'd name a kid after me.

Though, come to think of it, Heero probably wouldn't leave me the gun.

Adrenaline is a funny damn thing. Can get you through a lot of shit. When it abandoned me however, it left me shaky and sweating and cold, feeling all the pain I'd been ignoring. But then I heard the sound of distant voices and it kicked back in... but only made the shaky and cold part worse. Damn unreliable stuff, really.

There was... talking I couldn't make out. Then a louder voice, pissed off and obviously used to being obeyed. I missed part of it, not the 'fucking assholes' part, but the bits attached to it. Then the sounds of men on the move. More voices, in a more conversational mode, unfortunately coming our way. I had my gun in one hand, the bowie in the other and was shivering so damn bad I doubt I was going to be able to do much with either one of them if it came down to it.

'...never was the brightest bulb in the box though,' a somewhat gravelly voice was saying, and I could tell it was coming toward us.

'Yeah, but what a way to go,' a second voice responded, making more of an effort to keep it down. 'Wonder what they'll put on the official report?'

The first guy chuckled and I could tell they'd stopped to check the room just next to us. It gave me hope; if they were carrying on a damn conversation, they couldn't seriously be thinking they were going to find anything. 'Died of stupidity?'

The quiet one made a sound that was disapproving. 'That ain't nice. The guy's dead, for Christ's sake.'

'And there's a reason for that,' gravel-voice guy replied and they were right there, stopped in the doorway, not twelve feet away, though I couldn't see them. I had to brace my Smith & Wesson against my leg to stop it from wobbling all over the place. I glanced at Relena to make sure she was still out; my luck with her so far would have her waking up at that precise moment, but she was still as a stone.

I glanced the other way and was shocked as hell to find Heero staring at me. There wasn't a ton of light in our cramped little space, but there was some filtering in from the site security lamps and I could see the glitter of his open eyes.

Something really weird happened in my chest then, a sort of 'oh thank God' kind of feeling and I felt a little sick as I suddenly heard Relena's voice in my head saying, 'Once Heero wakes up, everything will be fine.' It was a hell of a jolt to realize that somewhere deep inside, I felt the same damn way. It made something want to just let go and turn it all over to him, and it was not the best of times to be thinking something like that.

We just stared at each other. I thought about signing for him to be still, but he obviously pretty much had it figured out. Besides, both my hands were full. I wondered if my eyes were as wide as they felt.

Then Heero slowly reached out and wrapped his hand around mine... the one with the knife, and he squeezed tight, seeming to tell me not to fall the hell apart now. Telling me not to flake out on him. It was probably the shaking.

Flashlight beams were dancing around the room outside our little retreat and gravel guy snorted. 'Look at that dust... ain't nothin' in there. God, this is such a waste.'

The second guy, having forgotten the argument about speaking ill of the dead, concurred. 'Tell me about it. Those pilots aren't stupid. Only a total idiot would hang around after Ross fallin' down the damn stairs just up the hall.'

I wanted to laugh. It must have shown on my face, because Heero squeezed tighter, helping me stay focused.

'Come on,' Gravel said. 'Let's finish this damn hall and get out of here. They're long gone.'

They moved away and the relief was palpable. I couldn't believe it.

We sat like that for a very long time, listening to their voices fade as they went down the section. There were other voices in the middle distance, confirming that there was nothing to be found in sections 'C' and 'D' either, and eventually the sounds began to fade completely.

Heero didn't move until we couldn't hear them at all, twisting carefully around then to sit up beside me, never taking his hand off mine, but being very wary not to dislodge our cover.

'Status?' he signed to me with his free hand, and I wanted to laugh.

I lowered my gun and let him take the knife away. 'Down,' I signed back and tried to launch into explanations. 'Position unacceptable', 'objective compromised', 'mission in jeopardy'. Military signs are just not made for casual conversation, and my shaking probably wasn't making it any easier to follow what I was trying to say, because Heero suddenly reached out and caught my hands, stilling them.

'Stop,' he whispered so close to my ear that I could feel his breath. 'You're hurt... what happened?'

'Shot,' I whispered back, and his fingers tightened. 'You can probably wake Relena up, she just... I think she just fainted.' Probably not a good idea to tell him I almost smothered his Princess. 'Take the gun and get her out of here...'

'Shut up, Maxwell,' he muttered, sounding kind of odd. 'We're not going anywhere until there's no chance any of those men are still out there.'

I nodded, feeling like somebody had cut my damn strings. He shifted a bit closer, groping behind him and finding the jacket I'd covered him with, to cover me in return. 'Lean on me,' he whispered, tucking the jacket around my mostly bare torso. 'Rest. I'm on guard now.'

I didn't need any more invitation than that. Hey... I figured I'd earned whatever I got, and was probably living the last hours of my life anyway. If I got to lean against Heero Yuy as I died... who was I to question it? Though I have to admit I was a little surprised when I actually did fall asleep. Or passed out... one of those things.

I woke not where I had hoped to, but at least with a little more air than we'd been getting in the confined space behind the drywall. I'd been out long enough that Heero had gotten up and moved the stuff, but not so long that it was light out yet.

For a moment, I thought they'd already moved out, but then I realized that Relena was sitting not that far from me, huddled up next to the wall, her hand rubbing idly across her cheek. There was no sign of Heero, but I knew if Relena was still here, he'd be back soon.

I shifted just a bit, thought about sitting up, but then decided that hurt enough that I'd hold off until it was really necessary. Relena looked startled and turned those wide eyes my way. 'Duo?' she asked softly, sounding almost as though she'd thought she was sitting watch with a corpse.

'Sorry Princess,' I murmured. 'Guess I'm not very good company tonight.'

She wanted to laugh, but couldn't, only making a funny noise and shifting to sit beside me where we could see each other better. 'How are you feeling?' she asked, and I imagined her repartee of polite things to say probably didn't extend to this sort of situation.

I smiled for her anyway. 'Less than stellar.'

'Does it... hurt a lot?' she said then, and the look on her face suggested that she realized it had not been the brightest thing she'd ever said.

I grinned at her; I couldn't help it. I could understand why Heero cared for her... there was just something kind of sweet about that strange innocence of hers. 'Only when I'm awake,' I quipped. 'Uh... sorry about the dress, but supplies were kind of limited.'

She tugged self-consciously at the shortened hem of said dress and ducked her head. 'It's ok... I understand.' But then she looked back up at me, and there was something kind of intense in her gaze. 'Did you really let that man shoot you?'

'What?' I asked, blinking at her.

'Heero explained it to me...' she began, and I cut her off with a roll of my eyes.

'Relena, Heero wasn't even awake, what could he possibly 'explain'?'

'He couldn't understand how you got shot,' she told me, lowering her voice a touch as though we were trading secrets. 'He said you wouldn't have made that kind of mistake. He asked me questions. He says you let that man shoot you to keep... us from getting hurt.'

I blinked up at her, surprised by all manner of things. The warmth I felt in my chest from that comment about Heero thinking I wouldn't have made a bone head mistake to get where I now found myself. The strange realization that they'd been talking about me. The almost shock that Heero had managed to piece together just what had happened from the little bit that Relena would have been able to tell him. But mostly by the really strange look on her face. Almost awe, almost sorrow, almost defeat, almost... I don't know. I couldn't catalog it. 'Well... I didn't exactly plan on getting ventilated.'

'But you did...' she began, and I thought for a horrified second that she was going to start crying. I really don't deal with that sort of thing well.

'Hey, Princess,' I blurted. 'It's ok! Heero will be back any minute and he'll get you out of here. Everything's going to be all right, just like you said. Heero will...'

She just managed to look more upset. 'What are you saying?' she whispered. 'Heero's going to come back and get us both out of here.'

I sighed, wished I hadn't ended up in a position to be teaching the good Princess so many of life's tougher lessons tonight, and told her as gently as I could, 'It would be a... tactical mistake... I'll only slow you two down.'

'Was it a tactical mistake for you to rescue Heero?' she snapped, getting a little angry over the whole notion. Maybe they don't let Princesses watch the movies where the side-kick dies at the end.

'Well... uh...' I began, but Heero choose that moment to reappear and he announced his presence with a snort of amusement.

'Yes, Relena. Technically... it was a huge mistake.'

She turned that spark of anger in his direction. 'How can you say that? He saved you!'

Heero only gave her a disdainful smirk. 'But if he'd left me, he would not now be trying to bleed to death, and you would not still be stuck in enemy territory.'

'Heero!' she gasped, the anger gone and the horror back, but Heero shook his head, dismissing it and came to kneel beside us.

'I didn't say I didn't appreciate it,' he appeased. 'I just said it was a mistake.' He turned his attention to me then, taking hold of my wrist and checking my pulse. 'The place is clear; do you think you can manage to walk on your own?'

The gentle tone caught me by surprise and it took me a minute to respond. 'I have no idea... I can try.'

Heero nodded, letting go of my wrist to slip an arm under my shoulders to help me sit up. I had to bite hard on my lip to keep the groan behind my teeth. Man, but things had gotten 'not good' while I'd gone off to la-la land. Made me wonder if I wouldn't have been better off without the nap. 'Shit, that hurts,' I finally muttered and had to confess, 'you may have to just leave...'

But Relena got irritated again and cut me off. 'We aren't leaving him, Heero Yuy! So don't even think that!'

Heero did this weird thing where he looked irritated and amused at the same time, and replied with a droll little, 'I don't recall that I ever suggested doing so.'

Shut us both the hell up, and he took me the rest of the way to my feet while I was gaping at him. Even let me hang on him for a couple of minutes while the room settled and the pain settled with it. I found myself wondering if maybe there'd been side affects to that gas he'd been hit with.

Relena came up off the floor with us, holding my arm and looking at me worriedly. She was... short, I suddenly realized and when I glanced down, saw that Heero had taken her shoes and broken the heels off. I blinked stupidly and muttered, 'Now why in the hell didn't I think of that?'

It seemed to confuse them and Heero took hold of my chin to turn my face up to his. 'Come on Maxwell... I'm counting on that damn tenacity of yours. We're running out of dark; we have to get moving.'

I found myself staring into his eyes and had to blink to stop. I nodded, hoping I wasn't going to get loopy, and he eased away to see if I could manage to keep my feet on my own. When I didn't fall on my face, he nodded tightly in return and moved to the door, presumably to check the corridor one more time. Relena stepped up next to me and offered her support. I accepted it gratefully and we began to follow Heero. I didn't think I dared put much weight on her, but it helped just having something to establish equilibrium.

'You're gonna get blood all over you, Princess,' I told her and she tried to look like it didn't matter.

'I know,' was all she said. It was extremely weird having her arm around my waist, and I thought I should make conversation to help ease things, but couldn't seem to come up with any words. It was taking too much concentration to keep myself moving.

Heero glanced back to make sure we were following, and I realized he had my gun in his hand. Just as well... he'd get more use from it at this point. He seemed surprised to find me leaning all over Relena, but also a little relieved.

He gestured us forward and we followed him down the corridor. I was trying for quiet but it was taking a back seat to simple forward movement. I could tell I was leaning way too heavily and tried to stop. 'God, I'm sorry Princess... I must be crushing you.'

'It's all right,' she told me, though her voice sounded a little strained. I wondered if she ever had to do any lifting at all, in her little palace bound world. Guess there was a first time for everything. I wondered how many firsts she'd had so far on this trip? Had she ever seen a guy get stabbed before? Shot?

I felt bad somehow. Like I'd sullied Heero's lady fair, or some damn thing. Sullied? Does that even mean what I thought it did? I wondered just how mad he'd be with me when he figured out she hadn't exactly fainted on her own.

'Duo?' Relena asked anxiously, and I realized that I'd been fading just a bit there. I forced my weight back on my own two feet and we continued following Heero.

'Sorry,' I muttered. 'Can't seem to stay focused...'

'You can make it,' she told me, not sounding like she was all that sure of it. I suppose it was just in her nature to do the cheer-leader thing.

'We'll... see,' I replied, and then we came to the stairs and I wanted to just toss in the towel. We hesitated at the top and I looked down to see Heero at the first landing, crouched low and scanning the next flight. He glanced back up and gave me a nod. I wanted to groan, but I nodded back and he made the turn to go on ahead.

I took a deep breath, at least able to let go of Relena now that I had a rail to lean on, and we started down. I felt like a total moron, going down one step at a time. Relena was keeping easy pace with me, and she was practically going backward, keeping an eye on me. 'You'd think I was three years old,' I grumbled and she gave me a look that came pretty close to rueful.

'You'd think you were shot.'

I snorted, but couldn't manage much else, all my attention on not falling down. We made the first landing and I was so far gone, I didn't even think to look for Heero to make sure we were still on track. The motion of stepping down was pulling at my wound and I became aware in there somewhere that I was bleeding again. I had this mental image of a gas tank inside me somewhere, full of blood, and I was riding that line right before the idiot light comes on and tells you you're about to run out of gas.

I sat down on the steps without any conscious knowledge that I was going to do so. One second I was stepping down and the next my knees just kept right on bending until my ass came in contact with something solid.

'Duo!' Relena gasped and was kneeling in front of me between one blink and the next.

'M'sorry,' I mumbled to her, really not liking to see her so upset about the whole thing. 'I... think I'm done.'

'You can't just quit now!' she blurted, and I was appalled to see tears welling up in her eyes. 'You can't! It's not right!'

'It's ok, Princess,' I tried to soothe. 'There's worse ways to go. Least the mission didn't fail...'

She looked kind of angry then, and those damn tears spilled over. 'You'll fail Heero.'

'What?' I asked, totally losing the thread.

'Don't you understand?' she said, taking my hands and squeezing hard. 'I couldn't have done... what you did up there. I was wrong... about... about what you feel. About... I think, about what I feel. You were right, and you can't take that away from Heero. It's.... it's such a gift to love someone that much. It just wouldn't be... fair.'

She was bawling in earnest, not in that coy little way that young ladies can manage, but with the runny nose and the blotchy face and the whole thing. I wondered if she was crying for me or herself. 'Relena,' I whispered. 'You gotta know by now... life ain't fair. What I feel... what I want... doesn't have much to do with it...'

'You can't just give up!' she hissed, pulling on my hands. 'It's not fair to Heero! He has to have a chance to understand...'

I just stared at her, wondering if she thought will-power could put blood back in the human body. If she thought love truly did conquer all.

'Please,' she implored through the tears, though she didn't even seem to know anymore what she was asking of me.

God knows what Heero thought when he came back to check on us and found us just sitting there staring at one another. He took in my situation pretty quickly and bent to unbuckling my knife harness. I nodded to myself, trying to help him get it off me. It was good to be dealing with somebody who understood the score. When he got it free, I bent to picking weakly at the buckles of my arm sheath.

'Leave it,' Heero told me. 'Too short... I don't need it.'

I looked up at him, totally baffled; it was the better knife, why would he leave it and take the throwing knives? But instead of putting my harness on, he was pulling the blades from it and... preparing to wrap the straps around my abdomen. 'What'n hell are you...?' I began, but he cut me off.

'This is going to hurt, but we have to get the bleeding stopped again.' Then he cinched the leather tight over my make-shift field-dressing. And he was right; it hurt like a mother.

I gasped and fell back against the steps staring up at him in disbelief. He worked while I panted and Relena tried to get her tears under control, and when I had the breath for it, I told him, 'Heero... this isn't going to help... I'm done.'

He stopped for a moment and met my gaze, staring at me so intently that it felt like we were the only two people for a mile around. 'No you're not,' he informed me firmly. 'I am not leaving you behind.'

There really just did not seem to be a hell of a lot to say to that, so I didn't try to form a reply, just letting him work. When he was satisfied that he'd done all he could to cork me up again, he bent and lifted me in his arms like I was nothing more than a rag doll. 'Let's get the hell out of here,' he growled.

'Tactical... mistake...' I remember mumbling to him and he snorted softly.

'Probably,' he whispered. 'But... I don't care. Now don't damn well die on me.'

'Try...' I promised, and that was pretty much it for a little while. I remember being a little amazed that I didn't seem to be straining him at all. I seem to recall Relena holding on to my hand as we went. I have no doubt of the pain. There were a couple of lapses of nothing at all, and then the sharp sense of being in a moving vehicle.

'Duo?' Relena asked, that fearful tone in her voice again. It took me a second of thinking about it to decide that she and I were in the back seat of some kind of car and Heero was driving. Or somebody was driving. I sure as hell hoped it was Heero, or it meant we were in big trouble.

'Is he awake?' I heard Heero ask and it was almost enough to let me drift back off.

'I... think so,' she replied and I nodded to confirm it.

A roll of my head let me see Heero's eyes in a rearview mirror. 'You still with me?' he asked and I nodded for him too. That didn't seem to be good enough and it got me a faint frown. 'Duo?'

'M'here,' I told him, wishing there was something liquid to be offered. 'You nuts? Road blocks?'

Heero chuckled. 'Awake two minutes and already questioning my plans?'

I would have laughed, but I knew better, so I just smiled at him. He went back to driving then, and it was Relena who told me, 'We cleared the area before Heero stole the car.' I wondered how in the hell far he'd had to carry me, but figured it obviously didn't matter now.

'How ya doin', Princess?' I asked instead, and she got that pained look around the eyes again. I cringed, but she didn't break down.

'I... I'm not the one who got shot,' she managed, though she had to look down at her lap to get the words worked out.

'The Princess never gets shot,' I reassured. 'There's Fairy Godmothers and stuff to take care of that. And the white knight.'

She smiled wanly, and looked up from where her fingers were picking at the fraying edge of her dress. 'But... the knight isn't supposed to get shot either.'

I grinned. 'Well see, there's the problem... I'm not the knight. I'm the poor abused side-kick, and we always get the short end of the stick.'

'I wish...' she said softly, those damn tears welling up again. 'I wish I had a side-kick who cared for me so much, that they... that they would...' she began, eyes on my blood-stained 'bandages', but she suddenly seemed to realize what she was saying, and who she was saying it in front of, and she just shut up. I was grateful.

'It'll come out in the end,' I told her, though my eyes slid shut and I couldn't tell if the words were reassuring or not. 'There's always a happy ending in the fairy tales.'

Is it pathetic that I was almost glad to pass out again? These conversations were killing me... I couldn't work out who to feel bad for... her or me.

When I woke next, it was to a total change of scenery and situation, and I have to admit to having a moment of sheer panic as I tried to figure out where in the holy hell I was. Though I was feeling a heck of a lot better, if somewhat groggy.

I was on some sort of cot and there was a smell that spoke of hospital trappings, though it was painfully obvious I was not in a hospital. Not all that surprising; not like people don't ask questions when you go into emergency rooms with gunshot wounds in you. I had a scary moment of wondering if we'd been captured again, but I wasn't restrained in any way, beyond an IV that I could have pulled loose in a matter of seconds. But the room I was in looked more like... like some kind of storage room, than any kind of recovery room.

But then I spotted a second cot across the room and the tousled brown hair sticking out of the blankets made all my worries go away. I flashed back on my stupid little epiphany that I was as love-struck as Relena, and had to sigh. It really was true... just knowing Heero was there with me was enough to bring my blood-pressure down ten points without knowing anything more about what was going on.

That sigh was enough to disturb Heero's sleep, and he lifted his head to look my way. When he saw me awake, he threw back the blankets and came across the room to me, snagging a straight back chair that had been sitting to the side, and dragging it up beside my bed.

'Hey,' he said softly as he sat down.

'Hey,' I replied, suddenly feeling awkward.

He seemed to be feeling the same and looked down at his hands for a second. 'Can I get you anything?' he finally asked.

I couldn't help a snort. 'How about telling me where the hell we are first, before I convince myself we're back at square one?'

He glanced up at me, looking startled for a moment, and then smiling. 'You don't remember anything?' he asked, and when I shook my head, continued. 'We're guests of the Darlien's at the moment. Just... not openly. I don't think we could get any further into the basement and still be in the same house. They smuggled a doctor in... a sympathizer, and he patched you up.'

I thought about that for a minute and then met his eyes. 'But... we still shouldn't stay here long?'

'No,' he agreed. 'But don't worry about it yet. We're fine for a day or so; you need to rest. You... gave us a hell of a scare.'

And he did look a bit scared then, and it surprised me so much I couldn't reply. We just stared at each other, and after a moment, he reached out and brushed my hair away from my eyes.

'You shouldn't have risked...' I began, but he didn't seem to want to hear it.

'There was never a question,' he told me, voice so intense that it made me shiver. 'Not... for a minute.'

'But the mission,' I argued, not even sure why. 'You jeopardized the mission.'

He didn't even look contrite about it. In fact, he got a rather sudden look in his eyes that spoke of rebellion. Spoke of... something else. 'And you didn't?' he asked gently, reaching out to trace a finger along the side of my face. We were both pushing, I realized. Both of us trying to find the truth behind the words, the truth that we were afraid wasn't what we wanted it to be.

'I... I couldn't,' I confessed, knowing it for the question it was. 'What's the Princess without... her knight?'

He moved from the chair to sit on the edge of my cot and leaned down, his arms braced on either side of me. 'I was raised on Japanese tales, Duo... the knight never gets the Princess; he's her protector... nothing more.'

'Is there... a side-kick in these Japanese stories?' I whispered and wondered that he wasn't laughing at my wide-eyed expression.

'No...' he whispered back. 'But sometimes there's a partner.'

Close enough to that truth. Close enough to saying it out loud. Close enough, it seemed, for him as well. 'Partner,' I whispered, just before his lips brushed against mine.

No knights. No samurai. And sure as hell no fairy Godmothers. Just a couple of tired soldiers caught in a moment between battles. When Heero brushed his fingers over my face, there was the faint scratch of calluses. It made me think of Relena's tears.

Maybe fairy tales aren't so attractive after all. Feeling the touch of Heero's hand... it seemed that reality had a thing or two of its own to offer. 'Kiss me again?' I asked, and he gave me a smile that was pure magic.

End

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