Heero was waiting. Propped in the hangar doorway, he had positioned himself in the most strategic location to achieve his objective, but his quarry was late. He shifted impatiently, easing the weight from his still mending leg.
A year ago he would certainly have fought like this, ignoring his injury until the mission was completed, but Quatre had changed all that. By bringing the five of them together, he had taught each pilot the merits of teamwork, as well as the sacrifices. Heero felt needed now, a part of something important, so he no longer felt justified risking himself so recklessly. If he were killed, it would hurt the team, and he would not allow that.
Thus, Heero was remaining behind while the others executed the next mission. The specs required four attackers, and as Heero was in no shape to be piloting, he, Wufei, Duo, and Trowa had finally agreed to let Quatre back into battle. His wounds had healed, and their aftereffects were lessening every day, but most importantly, the fact could no longer be avoided that they needed him.
Still, before they left Heero was determined to have a word with Quatre. The blonde had been avoiding him since the mission report had come in, but he could not escape forever.
Heero straightened as Wufei turned the corner, heading for Altron. He passed quickly with a small bow which Heero returned. Duo was the next to skid around the corner at a full out sprint. "Hi, Heero!" was tossed over a shoulder as he passed.
'Down to two,' Heero thought, even as he saw his target come into view. Quatre hesitated for a split second as he caught sight of Heero, but quickly covered his misstep with a smile and confident stride. He was nearly past when Heero reached out a hand to stop him.
"Quatre, we need to talk before you leave." The blonde covered his apprehension well and smiled, almost convincingly.
"Of course, Heero. What do you need?" His head tilted slightly, the calculated image of innocence, but Heero found that the more attention he paid, the better he could read the man in front of him, and despite the disarming smile, Heero could still see the roiling unease beneath. The problem was, he had no idea why Quatre would be so afraid . . . yes, afraid . . . of him.
"I need your word to something."
That was it! He could almost feel Quatre's muscles straining not to bolt for the door, but why?
"Give me your word that you will not use ZERO, no matter what happens on this mission." Quatre blinked, then smiled, and suddenly the tension was gone.
"I promise, Heero," he said softly, bowing slightly as he did. With another gentle smile, as though they shared some wonderful secret, Quatre vanished into the hangar, and Heero was left wondering exactly what he had missed.
He was snapped from his musings by a lanky hand on his shoulder. Trowa's cool eyes held foreboding concern. "Keep a sharp eye. You'll be able to see things we can't." Heero nodded, intending to do exactly that. As Trowa entered the hangar he called behind him.
"Be careful." Trowa just smiled and continued on to Heavyarms.
Crutches clattered against the wall with unnecessary force as Heero sank with relief into the soft leather of the console chair. A loving smile spread over his features when callused fingers brushed gently over the keyboard. One quick click brought up numerous questions and challenges, layer after layer of protection, but within a minute he had satisfied them all and was free to establish communications.
The four Gundams were nearing their target when Heero finally made contact, zooming low along a mountain range, just below radar height.
"Hey, 01! How's it hanging?" Duo's face was the first to appear on the view screen.
"02, 04, you are approaching surveillance range."
"Copy, 01. Keep an eye out for anything unusual."
Heero turned up the base's defense frequency, listening as bored soldiers confirmed at regular intervals the complete lack of outside activity. A smirk plucked at his lips, pitying their woeful lack of preparation. Four Gundams were knocking at their gates and they were completely oblivious.
"Unidentified suits entering the northwest quadrant."
The fledgling smile vanished as the radio leapt to life. Urgent voices crowded over one another as orders were barked and reports given. Though the din was nothing short of chaotic, a familiar phrase was clear. "A Gundam! It's a Gundam!"
"You've been spotted."
"Oh, you think?" Over the recent months Duo had started timing his more sarcastic outbursts to times when Heero was well out of reach. The Japanese pilot had to give him credit. Had Duo been nearby that remark would have earned a quick smack to the back of the head.
"Affirmative, 01. Keep us informed." Quatre's voice was completely focused, but Heero did not miss the slight smile lifting his features.
By now the enemies had realized they were facing not one but four of the feared Gundams and were forming their defensive strategy. Heero glared intently at the screens, but could find nothing out of the ordinary. He watched as Deathscythe and Sandrock dove immediately into the fray, drawing heavy fire and allowing the other Gundams to split to their respective targets.
Wufei split directly south toward the power plant, blasting through the narrow line of dolls and heading straight for his target. Power for the entire base was supplied by eighteen massive generators. Once Altron took those out with his dragon flame it would leave only the mobile suits.
Meanwhile, Trowa and Heavyarms were marching southeast to the mobile doll factory and storage. If they could fire a few well placed missiles before all the dolls could be activated it would greatly improve their odds. This success would rely heavily upon the confusion of surprise and a healthy dose of luck, but Trowa had never found any difficulty in placing his life in the hands of capricious fates. Besides, he trusted Duo and Quatre to cause all the turmoil he could possibly need. He knew firsthand just how much trouble those two could instigate, and some humorous part of his mind felt quite sorry for the enemy.
Still, thoughts of Quatre drew him back to the task at hand, destroying the doll factory without getting himself killed in the process. He finally had something to fight for and he would be damned if a doll would take him from all that.
Quatre could hear Duo cackling as Deathscythe disappeared amid a storm of explosions and chuckled as his own twin cutlasses caused several more. It was rare to battle a force comprised entirely of mobile dolls, and Quatre was incredibly grateful for the relief. He could scarcely recall the last battle during which he had not been forced to experience painful deaths, and however small the number, every life was an excruciating loss.
Sandrock spun in a graceful flip, a maneuver truly worthy of Trowa's teaching, and landed in the middle of a pack of dolls, ignoring the concussive blasts as he ripped them to shreads.
Still, however thankful he was for the lack of manned mobile suits, Quatre found their absence equally disturbing. He had studied the base as he planned the attack and knew they possessed at least a substantial squadron of Leos. Where were they? Surely an attack by four Gundams would merit the use of every available weapon. Why were they holding back? What were they hiding? These thoughts were abruptly interrupted as Heero's face appeared on a corner of Sandrock's viewscreen.
"02 and 04." Quatre blocked a forceful punch and deflected a rocket as he listened. "05 requires immediate backup."
'Oh shit.' Quatre mentally cursed as he brought up Heero's transmission of the battlefield. Not only was Wufie massively outnumbered, he was surrounded as well. The blonde's muscles ached as he drew from Altron's first serious barrage of hits, lessening Wufei's pain.
Without a backward glance Deathscythe and Sandrock began sprinting to their friend's aid, only to be cut off by the previously absent Leos.
"What in the hell?" Quatre heard Duo cursing over the com as the Leos split and some sort of projectile flew straight into Deathscythe with a resounding clang. Only the split second warning gave Quatre time to deflect the second shot away from Sandrock's breastplate. Deathscythe, however, did not appear to be damaged in any way as he began a swift slaughter of the Leos. Quatre ignored the dull ache in his chest and sudden roiling nausea as he took off toward Altron. He had only gotten a few steps and had the time to say, "01, can you tell what those things were?" when a sudden blinding pain crackled through his entire body.
For an immeasurable moment he was deaf, dumb and blind, completely incapacitated by the scalding pain, but a steady voice slowly worked its way into his consciousness.
"04. 04, respond. 04! Let it go. You're not hurt. They need you."
Quatre painfully lifted his head to see Sandrock's view screen. Wufei was in trouble and Duo was not moving. White hot electricity seemed to be singing every cell of his body. He couldn't fight like this, and he couldn't seem to block it out, but there was another option. Yet, as his fingers reached for the keyboard he remembered his promise to Heero. His mind spun like a flash through every scenario, quickly adapting and discarding one idea after another, finally leaving him with only one option. Heero wasn't going to like it.
"01, send 02 after 05." Before Heero could even respond Quatre took a deep, steadying breath and concentrated on the electricity coursing through Duo's body. He pulled, straining his empathy far beyond anything he'd ever attempted before, drawing every jolt of pain meant for his braided friend. Sweat broke out on his pallid skin as his thin frame jerked with tight spasms. The blinding pain smothered all his senses, leaving him only barely conscious of Heero's orders to a remarkably recovered Duo.
The choice had been simple. Deathscythe was faster and Sandrock had the most shielding. The massive golden suit was already crouched in a defensive stance, doggedly withstanding round after round of enemy fire as Deathscythe shot to Altron's aid.
The stress was incredible, but Quatre fought the waves of darkness edging their way into his field of vision. He had to stay strong for the others. This plan would never succeed without Sandrock.
After a seeming eternity of white hot fire, Heero's sharp voice sliced into his blurring mind.
"04. 04. Respond, 04." Quatre tried valiantly to speak, look up or give any form of recognizable response, but found his entire body rigid with pain. Heero's razor-edged voice became a steady litany, wrapping itself around his abused mind and forcing the physical pain back just enough to let him breathe. "04. 04, respond . . . I know you can hear me. 05 is safe, but we need you now. 03 needs you. Let go. Come back to the fight. We can't do this without you. Come back, 04."
The monotonous string of words slowly wove their way through the pain and began to make sense. Duo had reached Wufei in time, but Trowa was in danger. He lifted his aching head to take in the battle data. Yes, the Leos surrounding Altron had been destroyed, but Heavyarms was surrounded by dolls, running low on ammunition and Deathscythe Hell and Altron were half way across the compound. His lover needed help and he needed it now. With a mental apology and promise to make it up later, Quatre slowly released the pain he was drawing from Duo. His conscience balked as Deathscythe stumbled and slumped to one knee, but the desire - no, the need - to protect Trowa was stronger, driving through the guilt to bolster his resolve. He pushed, hard, trying to construct thick walls to keep the alien emotions out . . . but he was failing.
Heero was talking at him again, saying something about Deathscythe Hell being vulnerable, but it was lost beneath the blood pounding through his ears. Quatre could feel his heart rate increasing. He could feel the pressure squeezing his chest, as though a giant rubber band were wrapped around his ribcage, growing tighter and tighter with every shallow breath. Still, he pushed, using his mind to force the pain away. If he could just block the others for long enough to reach Trowa, surely the pilot of Heavyarms could make it to Duo in time, but it just wasn't working!
He couldn't breathe, and the more strength he put into his empathic shields, the less air he got. His friends quite literally seemed to be the air he breathed.
A rather vulgar obscenity rolled clearly over Trowa's communications channel and Quatre knew he had run out of time. He was a man of his word, but promise be damned. He was not about to let his honor endanger his friends' lives. Without hesitation he typed the four condemning letters into Sandrock's console and waited for the system to boot. He took a deep steadying breath as waves of soothing numbness washed over him, providing the freedom he needed to think and act on his friends' behalf. With ZERO shielding him from his own space heart he could concentrate on what was really important, protecting the other pilots.
After only a few steps, however, ZERO shorted out entirely and his nice protective shell crumbled around him.
It was like standing in the fury of a hurricane as his shelter was ripped up around him. Everything spun in a nausea inducing slow motion dance. The rage, terror and pain of every soldier on the base slammed back into the willowy frame, crushing him with their sudden weight. Each of his friends, four exceptionally strong spirits, each magnified by his close relationship, pounded atop the already unbearable strain. Quatre noted with a kind of clinical detachment that his heart might actually burst from this kind of strain, if his mind didn't abandon him first. He was also aware of Sandrock crashing forward into the dirt and of Heero speaking rather frantically in his ear. The amused thought arose that he'd never heard Heero frantic about anything before, hell must have frozen over.
The distance between himself and the battle seemed to grow and Quatre could see dark spots overtaking his vision. The soothing oblivion of unconsciousness rose up to take hold, but another pinprick of pain drew his spinning mind back to the battle. It had not come from the battlefield and Quatre's clear sea colored eyes snapped open with the unshakable knowledge that something vital had changed.
Heero was no longer talking to him, but to Duo. Deathscythe Hell's pilot was using all his strength just battling for consciousness against the violent stream of electricity flowing through his body and was completely vulnerable to the gargantuan beam cannon being leveled at him byt three of the remaining Leos. Without ZERO there was only one thing to do.
Heero identified the new energy signature a full three seconds before the computer. He knew the signs intimately, as it was a bastardized version of his own beam cannon. OZ had yet to perfect the stolen design and their beam cannon lacked the full force of Wing Zero's original model, but the blast still carried more than enough force to be deadly, even to the pilot of a Gundam.
His blood ran like ice as Heero realized where the deadly cannon was aimed. Duo was completely incapacitated by whatever new weapon was latched onto Deathscythe Hell's armor. There was no possibility of dodging the blast.
Trowa was surrounded, Wufei was trying desperately to fight his way back to the braided pilot's side, but the black suit's speed as he'd moved to aid Heavyarms had carried him too far too fast. Altron could not make it in time and Sandrock had not moved more than a few steps before collapsing back into the rubble. That had been his own doing. During Quatre's lengthy recovery Heero had installed a 'safety' program into Sandrock's computer functions surrounding the ZERO System. It was a special code that he could send, either from his own Gundam or from any secure communications link, that would override Sandrock's manual controls and automatically disconnect ZERO. Heero knew it was an underhanded trick, betraying his friendship and trust with Quatre, but he had been more concerned with the blonde's survival than the personal repercussions to follow.
Now, however, he had inadvertently murdered his lover. No one on the battlefield was close enough to help but Quatre, and he had taken the blonde pilot out of action with the punching of a single button. He had been momentarily shocked by the empath's severe reaction to the loss of ZERO, but that fierce twang of surprise and guilt had been quickly overshadowed by Duo's situation.
His friends were fighting for their lives and he was stuck here at the estate, watching it all play out through radar and video feed. Duo could be dead in a moment's time and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it! Seconds stretched into days as he watched the radiation from the beam cannon slowly increase, charging itself for the deadly blow. There were no plans, no sharp orders, no quick ideas to save the day. He was hundreds of miles away and completely helpless. As his last shred of hope fled all rational thought vanished as well, swallowed by an abyss of sheer panic. Heero had honestly never felt this particular emotion, never before having anything worthwhile to lose, and was completely unprepared to do anything but surrender. The entire world narrowed to the pained face on the screen and a single phrase ran through his mind and fell from numb lips.
"I love you, Duo."
By the time the course whisper crackled over the radio, Quatre was already pushing himself as fast as he could go. Sandrock shuddered and groaned as it slammed into Deathscythe Hell at full speed, grinding them both across the ground and just clear of the Aries' target. The huge explosion behind them, on the exact spot Deathscythe had been kneeling, sent them skidding even further, crashing over one another and finally grinding to a stop in a tangle of prone limbs.
As the blinding light faded from the sky Quatre groaned, forcing his eyes to open and focus on the screen tilted wildly below him. Every muscle and bone in his body hurt from that collision and Duo's electrified agony still ricocheted through him as he hung stiffly from his harness. He sniffed and put a hand to his nose as a drop of blood splashed on the screen. He would be paying for that high-speed maneuver later.
Deathscythe Hell was sprawled beneath him, still caught in the throes of electricity. Shaking his head sharply to clear it, Quatre scanned until he found the cause, a tiny metal box which looked remarkably like a battery, clamped onto the Gundam's chest armor. Sandrock's giant finger brushed at the speck, but it was too small for the bulky machine to dislodge.
A quick scan confirmed that Trowa still needed help, but that Wufei was guarding the two fallen pilots, so Quatre snapped open a tool compartment, grabbed gloves and a crowbar and released his harness. He fell to the slanted console on all fours, wincing as the short drop ached far more than he'd anticipated. A split second to regain his breath was all he allowed himself before smacking the hatch release and leaping down onto Deathscythe's Gundanium skin. He immediately felt the burning tingle up his feet and legs, but the main current chose the more conductive metal sheeting as its path. With a deep breath and a quick job the crowbar was lodged under the battery and the full electric current suddenly had a new path.
Notes: Huge thanks to anyone who is still reading this. I know it has been incredibly slow going, and I can't say that it's likely to speed up any time soon, but I promise to keep working on it, no matter how long it takes. This is my all time favorite project and I refuse to give up on it.
Special thanks to those of you who have reviewed any of my previous chapters. I love hearing what you think of my story and characters and they really do motivate me. Thank you so much for taking the time to write! Yours, Spencer.