He'd been trying to keep his coughing quiet, but the hacking sound was sharp enough to turn my head. "Are you all right?"
He grunted. "For God's sake, Yuy, I'm fine. Don't fuss."
I frowned, though I doubt he saw it in the semi-darkness. There was no way that fussing had ever been a behavioural trait of mine -- whatever the context -- but I didn't challenge him on it. Instead, I looked up at the small slivers of indigo light that sneaked in through the gaps in the ceiling and estimated that it must be around 2.20am. I stretched my legs as best I could without drawing attention to the manoeuvre: I dismissed the pain above my knee likewise.
"I thought you were getting some sleep?" His voice was a low grumble.
"I don't need the sleep, Maxwell. I told you I was fine to take this watch."
This time, his cough sputtered out because he tried to laugh at the same time. "Hell, thanks for the cover-up, but it's pretty obvious that you're taking every watch at the moment. Though not even you can keep that up 24-7."
"I'm fine," I repeated. A small puff of steam appeared in front of my mouth. The temperature was dropping more swiftly than I'd calculated, and I swallowed down a fresh burst of concern.
He shook his head. I could feel the vibration in the air beside me; hear his matted hair brushing against his stiff uniform collar. "No, you're not fine. Eventually you'll crash like any other member of the human race would. You'll crash and burn like the other guys who didn't make it this far." There was a small silence -- a rasping breath as he obviously struggled to go on. "You're human too, Yuy, however much you scorn belonging to that particular club, however much you feel you have to prove there's not the slightest stink of human weakness clinging to you --"
"That's enough!" It sounded a lot sharper than I'd intended it to. "Pull yourself together -- you're rambling. We're of equivalent rank, so I expect you to match me. If and when I crash, I'll pass the watch over to you. Does that satisfy you?"
He coughed again, and there was a weak thread of laughter in his voice. "Sure. Guess that got a response at last." He shifted, awkwardly. "I'll be ready for that, raring to go, OK?"
I sighed and didn't dignify that with a reply. I leant my head back against the cold wall, feeling a trickle of rusty water drop on to my shoulder. My head itched from the dust that lodged in my hair: there was a dark, irregular silhouette in the corner of the room, the rubble from where one of the walls had broken in the last blast. It was difficult to find any position that was comfortable for very long, and I calculated that we had already been here for a substantial length of time. My limbs were starting to cramp with the cold. I'd tugged my jacket around me as closely as possible for protection, but neither of us had expected to end up here -- we weren't adequately prepared. The mission had been a failure almost before it started. We'd been both outnumbered and outmanoeuvred -- they'd known our positions within seconds and the whole team had been trapped like a lamb to slaughter. I felt a surge of anger and frustration rush through me.
I grunted. Maxwell's incessant conversation was tolerable in daylight hours, diluted by the babble of others around us, but surely inappropriate now. And yet I hung on his every word. That was very disturbing on many levels.
"Yuy, there's been no sound up above for a while. That last explosion probably scared the last of 'em off. They won't keep searching if there's a risk of losing their own fucking lives under a ton of rubble. You could make a break for the outside now."
I bit my lip. "That last explosion brought the whole damned building down on top of us and trapped us down here. We don't know what the status is up above."
"Heero... but you gotta get a message back to base. Some serious shit went down here. You listening to me?"
I sighed: what other choice did I have, but to listen? Duo Maxwell was nothing if not persistent. It was an irritating characteristic of his, albeit it had its advantages in the field. "It's too risky, Duo. I shouldn't need to remind you that the only reason we've avoided capture so far is because this basement doesn't appear in any of the building plans. If we break cover, we'll lose that last advantage."
He grumbled, shaking his head again. "Shit, if this were any other time, I might believe that strategic crap of yours."
I turned to face him -- his eyes were glinting fiercely back at me in the dimness. "Maxwell, I don't lie."
"No. I guess you don't." His agreement was grudging. "But there've been no footsteps; no voices. No more explosions. Seriously doubt there's any of the bad guys left now. But it could be hours before anyone from the good guys comes to find us. Besides, you stand the best chance on your --"
"Enough." I cut off his rambling again.
His curse was muffled. "It's your call, I guess."
"Yes," I said. "It is."
He coughed, a shallow sound this time. "So in the meantime, you wanna play I-Spy?"
For a moment, I wondered whether I was hallucinating. It can happen, in times of great physical duress. "I'm sorry, was that a genuine question?"
He growled. "Don't shake your head like that, Yuy. Indulge me. If, as you say, there's nothing to do but wait, I sure as hell don't wanna do that in cold, damp silence. Besides, some mental exercise will keep us more alert, won't it?" He gave a sigh that rattled in the back of his throat. He sounded amused. "Kind of remember a training module that touched on that..."
I grimaced, for I also remembered that training module. I had been the tutor. It asserted the need to keep the brain active and the attention focussed whatever the external hardships. It was part of my 'Motivation and Effectiveness in the Field' series. It had received good feedback from most departments, though not everyone had absorbed its full benefit. Obviously.
"I kind of remember you fell asleep in the second hour of the lecture," I said, wryly.
He coughed again. The laughter was still underlying it, but the thread seemed weary by now. "Resting my eyes, that's all. Got bored, staring at you for half a day, barking out your orders. Hell, give a guy a tutor's badge and a pointed stick and he develops some kind of God complex..."
"I doubt that has ever impressed you," I said, and despite the situation, I smiled.
"Hey, Yuy, you're a witty one, aren't you?" He was grinning back, I could see the white flash of teeth. "Of course, I could tell you that yours was the only lecture I ever stayed awake in for that long, but I'd hate you to get a swelled head."
I frowned. "Arrogance is a two-way street, Maxwell. I may make that the subject of my next tutorial."
He laughed aloud then, and it was a strong, fine sound, a reminder of how he really was, of how he'd been before today, before...
I felt the concern bubble inside me again. It was a strange and sudden epiphany for me -- hunched there on the chilled floor, tensed up against potential danger, and arguing as always with my partner -- but I knew now why his laugh affected me: I knew why he affected me. It was something I hadn't admitted to myself before -- something I didn't know how to express aloud.
"So how were you proposing to play this mental game?" My voice was harsh, even to my own ears. He didn't answer and I repeated myself, a little more forcibly. "Duo?"
"It's important to concentrate the mind on a positive image," I said. My words sounded stilted in the chill air. My anxiety was hidden.
"Oh, but I am," he replied. His concentration rallied, and his eyes flickered up to mine. Now I could see a spark of mischief in them. "I was thinking particularly of you, Heero Yuy. The possible rewards of staring at you for half a day -- or more. Preferably in the communal showers..."
The back of my neck suddenly felt too warm, considering the chill, damp conditions. "This is no time for humour like that, Maxwell." I glanced over at him, catching a swift grimace that he tried to hide. "Duo?"
"I'm fine," he said, though his voice had dropped volume. "Just a joke. Right." He sighed and his body shifted again, rather sluggishly.
"I meant a positive image, such as the exit route," I continued, firmly. "You're correct in saying that the mind should be stretched; challenged. Especially when, for whatever reason, there may be restrictions on physical freed--" I let the sentence trail off.
"Right," he repeated, his voice too even to be natural. "And we've got those, of course. A shitload of 'em."
I cursed myself, silently. I also was cold and exhausted, but that didn't excuse such verbal clumsiness. I flexed the fingers of my hand on the side that was hidden from him. My knuckles creaked gently; the flesh was icy. No need to share the deteriorating conditions report, though. "So who will start off this game?"
He didn't reply. I peered at him, trying to gauge his status. He looked distracted, and my heart beat more insistently. "You suggested I-Spy. It'll be a short exercise, Maxwell. I fail to see what choices we have beyond these stone walls."
"Imagination," he muttered. "You have to use imagination. You build that into your lesson plans?"
"Maybe I do," I snapped back. Maybe my mind is imagining things far removed from a juvenile game... "If it bothers you, I suggest you review next term's curriculum when we get back."
"Does it involve the showers?" His banter was weak but I could appreciate the effort it took to maintain it.
"No," I said, firmly.
"Shame," he said, softly. "But then, you already know my feelings on that subject. After all, I'm stupid enough to tell you, every time I get drunk and can brave that sour-lemon look on your face. I tell you to take a break from that strait-laced corporate persona of yours, and then I volunteer to be the one to help you loosen up. I tell you I'd like to touch you beyond the clipboard and the oh-so-tightly buttoned uniform, and then I make some clumsy grope..."
"Maxwell," I admonished. "Don't let's go through this again." Some emotion tugged painfully in my chest. Hadn't I already been reminded of his persistence?
He sighed, and his head was turned away from me so that I couldn't see his expression. There was a soft hiss of brick dust as another patch of stone settled over by the door.
"S," he said abruptly. "I-Spy with my little eye, something beginning with S." The sing-song tone to his voice was nothing if not bizarre in the brutal surroundings. "Come on, Yuy. My turn first: it was my idea."
"Stone," I said, hesitantly, feeling foolish.
He knew I did, and he laughed softly. "Nope. Give me some credit for originality. Guess again, but you only get three attempts. It's a... refinement... of the rules, a special case, just for today."
Just for today... "Socks."
He shook his head, but didn't answer. The pre-dawn light was filtering through, allowing me to see his face now. His lips stretched like a cadaver's mockery of a true smile. The shock gripped at my gut and twisted harshly. I watched the way his head was lolling forward slightly; I followed his gaze, seeping out through his lowered eyelids.
"Stain," I guessed. I had never wished so fiercely to be wrong. Against my will, my gaze ran down the bare walls, across to the rusted hinges on the thick wooden door. It was wedged shut, directly in front of us. On the stone floor at its base were dark, haphazard stains. They were dry, but they still held the shape of the liquid splashes that had caused them, maybe spilt over the course of years -- maybe more recently. We both knew that it was blood. I looked across at him and saw his head lift again. His eyes were glinting at me, and I knew that his thoughts were the same as mine. Despite our very different personalities, I realised how often that was the case. I treasured that; it supported me. Why the hell had I never realised just how much?
"Duo..." I wanted to tell him I was sorry, but for what, I wasn't sure. For guessing a stupid question right? Or for never telling him that I respected his intelligence, his courage, his determination? In fact, there were so many things about him to respect, even though everyone was fooled by that sharp, flippant wit.
"Lucky guess," he said, interrupting my thoughts. He tried to laugh, but the sound broke apart in his throat. "Stupid thing to think of, too. You're a bright guy -- it was too obvious. Hell, it's almost as if I can smell the damned stuff..."
"Maxwell?" I listened to his swallow, deep and painful. "Are you going to be sick?"
He shook his head, denying it. "I'm good."
"Yes," I replied, though it was patently obvious that he wasn't. I wanted my reply to reflect my determination. "You are."
His eyes closed briefly, then dragged open again. "Your knee," he said. He seemed to be struggling now to complete whole sentences. "Bad? 'S that why you don't feel up to making a run for it?"
"I told you why," I said, but gently. "Not yet. It would be a bad strategic move."
He still seemed distracted, his words slurring slightly. His eyes had moved from my legs up to my lap, but I couldn't tell if he was focussing properly. His gaze made me feel even more uncomfortable, though in a very different context. My back ached: I resisted the urge to massage the cramping muscle in my leg. Instead, I shifted around, moving our bodies closer together, trying to make it look accidental.
"You always were the best in the physical tests, Yuy." He wasn't looking at me now: he sounded wistful. "Run well. Watched you. Damned fine physique -- good looking guy all round. Probably told you that a couple of hundred times. Did I mention the communal showers?"
This time, I smiled. "Yes, you did. I'm beginning to think you have the place on surveillance."
"Damned good idea. Put it to the techies when I get back. Have my own personal movie of you at your best." The coughing returned, and his body shuddered each time. I wanted to move even nearer, to gather him to me. Then his gaze snapped back up and he must have caught the concern in my expression because he frowned. "Only you, Heero. Only interested in you. I'm not, like, aiming to start up some kind of casting couch scenario..."
"I know," I said.
"Pathetic of me, of course." He looked up to the ceiling. "Chasing's all I do, but you don't want to be caught. Keeps me out of mischief, though, eh? Reporting me to HR for harassment... no need. Doubt I'll be doing it again after today."
I was startled. "Duo, don't be ridiculous. I won't be reporting you for anything."
He grunted. "No matter."
"It does matter," I said. The words seemed to stick to the roof of my mouth; my tongue seemed to obstruct them, swollen against my dry palate. How to tell him what did matter to me? "I appreciate your attention. I may not have said it before, but I'm... flattered."
"Flattered?" He stared at me. "Right. Glad to be of service to your ego, Yuy."
I hadn't meant my comment to sound the way it did, and I'm sure he knew it. Despite that, the bitterness of his tone stung me as physically as the pain in my leg had -- at first, at least. "You expect everyone to be as expressive as you are, Maxwell. Maybe some people don't find it as easy to talk about themselves."
"So maybe you can use the pointed stick," he said with heavy sarcasm. "When you get out of here."
"When we both get out of here," I echoed. He fell silent. I listened carefully but there was no sound from the floors above. He was probably right -- the enemy had completed their search and left, leaving no survivors. None that they found, anyway. "We'll give it another hour, then whether the rest of the team have arrived to rescue us or not, we'll make our way out of here."
"Idea's full of crap." His voice was hoarse. "Doubt I'll make it that long. I reckon I've got several broken ribs and the risk of a puncture somewhere. Feeling like a stuck pig. Breathing's tough at the best of times. Best I just sit here and play some kind of endless I-Spy by myself until..." he coughed again. "Well, until the end."
I sucked in a breath. A small sound escaped me and he glared at me.
"Heero, don't do that frowning-down-your-oh-so-straight-nose-thing, where a guy's meant to feel like a lower form of pond life. You think I've got some kind of death wish? No way. Not looking to die here... just can't go playing the intrepid agent right now, scrambling over broken walls, pushing fallen girders aside..." His voice caught up on a wheeze and he frowned, more at himself than at me. "No, you're the one to go shake up the guys -- bring 'em back over here. I'll still be around, though kinda beaten up --"
"I won't go alone," I said. "I'm staying here."
He shook his head. There was a wary look on his face. "Can't make you out, Yuy. What do your precious tutorials say about procedures for bombed sites?"
"Secure the immediate area. Investigate the clearance and viability of exits. Evaluate strength of enemy threat. Assess the physical status of colleagues to prioritise exit strategy." I sounded like a damned manual.
"Three outta four ain't bad," he sighed. "But this colleague can't make it. Doesn't stop you from getting out on your own."
"No," I said sharply. The bricks by the door shifted again; a flagstone creaked under my legs. The ensuing silence was as thick and suffocating as autumn fog. "Maxwell! Answer me!"
I heard him then, growling in the back of his throat. "OK, OK, just chill. I'm here, I'm good. So, it's back to the game, then? Your turn, I reckon."
I shook my head. What the hell did he think was going on? "Duo, we'd do better to use our time in conserving strength and considering a more strategic move --"
"Heero!" His voice was sharp now, startling me. For the first time I saw the naked ache of pain in his eyes -- they were wide open with it, the pupils dilated, the lids stretched up as if he were straining to focus on something. "You're the one who's apparently too chicken to climb your way out without my help, right? So I think you should drop the control freak persona for one goddamned minute and fool about with my game instead. Despite what you think of me personally."
I swallowed carefully, loosening my dry throat. "What I think of you isn't an issue."
"Yeah," he said. His voice had been firm and clear, but his eyes still looked wild; his lips were pulled thin and tight. "'Course not. Never is. Let's not go there, though. My capacity for masochism is kind of tired at the moment."
"You misunderstand," I said. I shook my head again, suddenly determined to make my point. "What I think of you isn't bad, by any means. I don't know why you always assume the worst."
He laughed, but the sound wasn't warm any more. "Could be the grimace on your face when our names get drawn together on a mission. Could be the sneer when anyone mentions my pretty unfruitful love life. Could be the shudder when I put my arm around your shoulders..."
I felt a nausea that had nothing to do with injuries. "You've never said anything about this before."
He shrugged, though gingerly. His gaze dropped back to the floor. "Like I said, a guy can only take so much humiliation. I guessed I should take the hint."
"Is your I-Spy guessing as poor as your guessing of me?" I kept the words very calm, very clipped. Very cold.
His shoulders tensed. "Huh?"
"Your evaluation is far from correct." I felt a rush of emotion in my chest that was as liberating as it was hurtful. "I struggle being with you because of my delight, not because of disgust."
He gave a slight hiss but then fell silent again. I didn't dare meet his eyes. The floor felt colder than ever; the numbness in my legs was becoming restrictive. The light of the outside world was nothing but a pale sliver across the wall behind his huddled body. My words left an echo in the bare room as tangible as mist, yet I had to speak again. "Duo?"
"You're a bastard, Yuy," he snapped back, startling me. "That some kind of joke? Some kind of pity --"
"No!" I was sharp in return. "Never that!" I shifted awkwardly, trying to reach over to him. "It's always disturbed me, to be so close, yet to feel so different from you; to be so confused by my reactions. I just never thought... I never understood..."
"Shit," he hissed. "You never --"
" -- knew!" I finished, talking over him, my voice urgent, my mind racing. "You've always been there, Duo, always been beside me; prattling on; provoking me; always one step ahead of me in the action; always pulling me onwards."
His eyes were wide now, the blue colour more prominent as the daylight washed out the darkness. "And... " another cough wracked him, "and your point is? You'll appreciate that this is hard for me to take on board after months of scorn."
"I never meant that --" I interrupted, but he ignored me.
"Hell of a time for this, Heero." He was wheezing again. He sounded angry. "That's the only place I ever wanted to be, beside you. My idea of home -- my sanctuary. Hell of a time to change your mind and imply you want the same."
I stared at him, trying to project my feelings through my eyes -- I didn't think my words were safe with him; I didn't think they were convincing. What the hell did I think I was doing, stirring this all up now? I didn't even understand my own desperation -- except that I knew how I felt about him, and I knew exactly what that meant to me. I'd faced fear many times, but now I was deeply, deeply scared that I'd lose him, either to this dank prison that trapped us, or -- worse than that -- to his disbelief. I had kept him so long at bay that I'd entrenched myself behind the very same barrier.
"I haven't changed my mind," I said, slowly. "I just didn't realise what it meant, having you there like that -- expecting you there, every time. Disappointment when you weren't; worry when you were elsewhere without me." I'd never heard myself so hesitant, and my face flushed with embarrassment. "I didn't realise what I felt. That it was... care for you."
"Care." He just echoed the word.
The flush went even deeper, suffusing me. "Your jokes, Duo -- they can confuse as well as amuse. Your chasing, as you call it, never seems anything more than light entertainment for you. It's not... easy, to show emotion in front of you."
"You could have tried --"
"It's too late," I said, urgently. "I know it is. I should have tried -- many times."
We were silent for a moment. He was shaking his head, and there was sweat on his brow: I could see it glistening. "Just go, Heero. Get outta here."
"What? I told you that won't happen."
He glared at me. His eyes reflected a brittle slice of light; they seemed unfocussed. "Why the hell not? It makes sense, doesn't it? Leave me and go for help. Leave me and get out!"
"No." I wriggled my ass across the stone until my hip nudged at his, dragging my feet behind me, my bottom lip caught tightly between my teeth. I needed another deep breath before I could continue. "I'm staying. All I ever wanted is here. I want to help you; save you. I won't leave you alone, Duo. We'll get out of here together."
His gaze raked over my face, eyes narrowing in the way he had when trying to concentrate. His face was deathly white, the pain furrowing his skin like charcoal markings. "Bullshit," he said, but there was little energy behind it.
I drew a deep breath. "That's something beginning with 'B'," I said, softly, and smiled at him, willing him to accept it -- to accept me.
He caught at his breath, too. After what seemed like an age, he smiled back. "Yeah. Good call. Back to the game for us. So... bruises?"
I saw them on his neck; felt them on my own body. "No. Another bad guess, Maxwell."
He laughed and this time I was close enough to put a hand to his arm. His skin shivered under the coarse fabric. "You were right, Heero. Damned stupid game. You're a fair man to indulge me, regardless. Balls?"
I frowned at his coarseness but he still smiled back. Despite the critical situation we were in, I felt astonishingly happy. Things felt very different suddenly, as if words had new meanings; as if limbs were stronger; hearing was more sensitive. As if there was a new resonance between us.
"Burned uniform," he continued. "Bust radio?"
I smiled at him, shaking my head. "If you insist on the game, at least play properly, Duo..."
"Blood," he said, his voice suddenly sharp.
There was a moment's silence.
"You said... only three guesses, Duo." He wasn't listening to me. It seemed inevitable that we should both look down at the floor between us at the same time; horror has its own, chilling fascination.
It glistened there -- the slightest trickle of a thick, viscous liquid that I knew would be salty if I brought a drop of it to my lips. It hadn't been there a moment ago: I had hoped it never would. The wound should have been drying up. But then I'd been relying on my initial assessment of the depth of the shot and its position in my leg. An initial assessment that had been carried out too swiftly, in deteriorating light, in the face of shock and anger and with the knowledge that all our support had been ambushed and eliminated. And in the face of instinctive fear for someone else's condition above my own.
"You're bleeding." He sounded amazed: angry, too. "You stupid bastard."
"Thanks," I muttered wryly. "But you've had all your guesses on that particular letter."
He lurched sideways into me, which must have been really painful for him, grabbing my shoulder and thrusting his face against mine. His breath was hot. "You never said you'd been hit! Wrenched knee... sprained... when we ran from the explosions -- that's what you said!"
"Injured," I said slowly. "I said it was injured. We had little time for a proper update." It wasn't wise to bring attention back to the wound; it made the pain more difficult to control. I should have pushed him away, but his fingers were fierce on my arm and I welcomed the heat and stability from whatever source. I was struggling to restrain the shuddering of my limbs: my head felt very light. My previous happiness felt a little like hysteria -- like hallucination. I grit my teeth. "I don't lie," I said.
He must have seen the grimace on my face because he grunted and pulled away. "Makes two of us, then," he said. "Like I said, you're a stupid bastard. You look like shit, too. Should've noticed that before, instead of whining on about my couple of sore ribs. How the fuck did you think you'd get us both out of here when you're spewing plasma all over the floor?"
I winced. "A little less of the melodrama would be good. It's not a problem. If you can tighten the binding round my thigh, it'll stop the slight leakage."
He looked at my leg properly, peering at it. "Heero," he said, quietly. His tone was so unexpectedly serious that I nearly laughed aloud. "Heero, you're sitting in a lake of the fucking stuff. How long's this slight leakage been going on? Dammit..."
"That's something beginning with 'D'", I muttered. I decided I didn't wish to answer his question. I think I was smiling, though it was strained. "D for Duo. D for demanding, D for disturbing. I'm fine. Keep up the game and that'll take our minds off it all."
"Shit." He sighed heavily. "You are a stupid bastard. I prefer H for Heero, though. H for harsh, H for headstrong. H for the hogwash you're talking now..." He fumbled a little with the makeshift bandage on my leg, his fingers slipping on the blood.
We both heard the noises above at the same time and froze. His eyes met mine. "Rescue?" he mouthed at me.
"Enemy?" I mouthed back, then bit back a groan. His body had spasmed with pain and he'd taken his weight on my leg, jarring the wound. He lifted a hand in apology. When he drew back, his smile was forced and the sweat sprang up on his forehead again; his pain had obviously resurfaced.
"Duo..." I hissed, but he shook his head at me to be quiet.
"I'll just go check it out," he muttered in my ear. His lips brushed my neck. "It's not too late, you know."
"Kiss for luck?" he whispered, and then his mouth pressed firmly against mine and I tasted the metallic flavour of fear and the unmistakable warmth of masculine desire. I'd never realised how rich that would be; how forceful. My lips opened eagerly for more, but just as swiftly, the touch was withdrawn. There was a reluctant sigh in the air.
"Stay here!" I hissed, but he was already stumbling up towards the door. "God's sake, Duo, you're too badly injured. Wait for me..." But when I tried to follow him, my injured leg was a dead weight. I'd sat too long in the cold; my muscles had cramped; my stamina had faded --
The failure swamped me with sudden, unfamiliar fear, and I slumped back down against the wall. He looked over at me with eyes that showed so many feelings. Pity; pain; a flicker of that desire that was still bright and robust, unlike everything else in our current situation.
"Guess it's gonna be a while before we're up to a roll in the sheets," he murmured, wryly.
"Don't go," I hissed through gritted teeth. "We don't know what might be out there."
He grimaced. "We can't hang around much longer -- you think I haven't noticed the state of this place? How long do you think the ceiling'll hold? That creaking isn't the dawn chorus -- it's the sound of bricks cracking into dust. We can't wait an hour for the guys, especially not now I've seen the state of you. I'll just go see if they're up there now -- just a look, that's all, to check out our options."
"Duo, it's madness!" He'd never taken just a look in all the time I'd known him. "You're a fool..."
"Yeah," he snapped back. "Guess I left out H for hypercritical." He leant against the door for a second, obviously fighting to regain his breath. "D for determined, Heero, that's me. Have to get us out of here. Get you out..."
"D for disobedient," I growled, and to my amazement he grinned back.
"You better believe it, H for hot and handsome!" He turned his back to me and started tugging at the rusty bolts on the door. His body shuddered with the pain the physical activity must have caused him: I felt the echo of it through my own body. Then there was a hideous groan from the splitting wood, and the door finally wrenched open -- the jolt made him stumble back and he gave a gasp of agony. A sudden flurry of dust and dead creatures descended like a cloud over him and I lost sight of his face. I could hear him coughing. I also thought I could hear the sound of footsteps on a distant floor; falling masonry; a man's shout. They had heard us down here -- they were coming.
I wouldn't let this happen! It was my watch, wasn't it? I dragged myself up, ignoring the stab of pain in my thigh and I waved the dust aside impatiently, it impeded my view of my partner. Investigate the clearance and viability of exits. The brickwork was straining around us, shaken into movement by the door's forced opening and the movements above. What viability? I thought, almost calmly. I didn't seem to be stable any more: my head swam and my knees buckled. My sight was darkening, yet I thought the light should have been getting brighter. I tried to wipe my eyes, just as I heard Duo's shout and a shower of crumbling stone knocked me forward.
I didn't register anything in the room after that.
I woke with a certain amount of surprise. I don't think I'd expected to be conscious again. The air was still foggy and my ears hummed. For a moment I wondered both who and where I was, then I remembered. My next thought was for him.
When I struggled to sit up, a strong hand pushed me back down. "Hush, Heero," came a familiar voice. "You're out of there now, you're safe. Stay still -- your leg is bad and you've lost too much blood. We need to get you a transfusion, and quickly." But I ignored the voice; I threw off the hand with a grunt.
An equally familiar voice laughed, somewhere behind me. "Trowa, he's as pig-headed as usual. Let him sit up!"
But I lacked the energy to get upright. Was I still buried? Sensation was gradually coming back to me -- the air wasn't foggy, but my eyes were misted. I could feel a bench under my body and the flap of torn fabric against my leg. There was a tight splint around my thigh. "Where's Duo?" I said, though it came out as a squeak. My throat felt drier than it ever had before.
"He's OK," came Quatre's voice, firm and clear, mercifully understanding of how I demanded to hear any news.
"He's got two broken ribs," came Trowa's wry comment. "Dislocated shoulder. Severe bruising to the left lung. Sounds very OK to me."
"He's OK," Quatre repeated earnestly, and I could see his face coming into focus in front of me. "You're in an ambulance. We're taking you both to hospital."
"We failed in the mission," I said. I sounded very hoarse. "We were the only survivors --"
"The mission was compromised, Heero," Quatre interrupted. "We've uncovered the betrayal -- the enemy have all been taken. Don't ask for details now, I won't give them to you. You only need to know that you both did what you could, but you're only human, after all..."
There was a strange, rasping noise from a third direction. "H is for human, Yuy. Told you so."
"Duo, shut up," came Trowa's weary voice. "I preferred you when you were unconscious. Then you only rambled on about showers."
I could hear Duo laughing again, and this time I pulled myself far enough up to look across at his bench on the other side of the ambulance. He lay there, his face white and his arm connected to a drip. His torso was strapped to the sides of his stretcher. But he'd turned his head and was gazing at me.
"D is for dangerous, Maxwell," I growled at him. "You brought the whole damned place down on top of us."
"I think not," he protested. "That was the fault of Trowa's hobnailed, special issue boots." Suddenly we were both smiling. Trowa and Quatre looked between us, bemused.
"Did you mean it?" Duo said, his eyes never leaving mine. "About your change of mind?"
"Yes," I replied. "About everything. I don't --"
" -- lie. I know," he said. "H is for honest."
"I thought you said there were only three guesses per letter tonight."
His curse was familiar and as colourful as ever. "As many as you want, Yuy. Dunno who the hell else would have played that stupid game with me --"
"No-one else needs to," I interrupted. "I won't hesitate to take part again. In anything."
His eyes sparkled and if he hadn't been restrained there, I think he would have tried to reach over to me. I did the reaching instead, and although Trowa started to protest, when Quatre glared at him they let down the side of Duo's stretcher. I touched his fingers -- I couldn't reach anything else, but it was enough.
"D is for delicious," I said softly. I licked carefully at my cracked lips. I didn't taste the dust and the damp. I tasted something that had rested there some time ago.
Duo sighed. I think he was close to passing out with the medication and the pain. "Took you long enough to notice," he grumbled, his words slurring. "Bury you under rubble more often. Got there at last, I guess."
"D is for destination," I whispered, as close to him as I could.
"Nah," he smiled, his eyes closed but his face relaxed. "H is for home."