The Purpose of Friends
As quietly as he could, he pushed the metal grid off its hinges, hoping the scraping noise wouldn't alert any nearby guard. He had listened intently for sound cues of approaching soldiers, had heard none - and two minutes of inertia was more than enough. Only his stubborn determination had gotten him this far, there was a limit to how much fighting claustrophobia anyone could bear.
The long, thin wire he'd thread through the grid first came in handy now. He lowered the chunk of metal to the floor with a minimum of clatter. Crawling forward and falling to the floor was tougher. Unlike a cat, he couldn't come out the airduct and land on his feet. Palms and a follow-up roll had to suffice. Quatre got to his feet, raised himself up on the balls of his toes to put the grid back where it belonged after retrieving the wire and tucking it back in his small toolbelt.
He studied his surroundings, tried to recall the blueprints, made his choice and went down the left hand side, turned right at the first crossroads, pleased to find an emergency stairway soon after. It didn't seem OZ had refurbished this little lair of theirs since they built it - at least not this part. That much was good. He dared risk a smile, pushed on.
There weren't many soldiers down at this level - they had been plentiful on the surface, outside. It was a warm, sunny day - and even Ozzies took the occasional break when chance presented itself. The few who remained in the large bunker complex were those that could not escape their duties easily - nor the heat that had built up inside.
It would seem their air ventilation system had suffered a malfunction earlier that day.
Quatre had waited impatiently for the soldiers on duty to notice and start evacuating the complex. His career as a tunnel rat started as soon as he deemed no further repair crews or eager helpers would show up. Four of them were sound asleep in the main airshaft by now - stun grenades aided by chloroform saw to that. With luck, they wouldn't be missed for a few more hours. More, if the weather forecast happened to prove accurate.
He wiped his clammy forehead. At least he'd decided to dress light, after planning his way in. Heero's wardrobe had never seemed more comfortable. It wasn't a perfect fit, not even on their original owner - but this was a good thing. Spandex was elastic, tank tops baggy. One size truly did fit all but the more illustriously shaped.
His knees, wrists, palms and elbows weren't exactly mint condition anymore, but that was tolerable. It was a minor inconvenience compared to what he was attempting to prevent.
Another turn. Another deserted corridor. For a moment, he thought he saw something, only to dismiss it as a mirage soon after. Not for the first time, he wondered if perhaps he'd done a bit too good a job on the ventilation system.
At least he was in the right area. On the blueprints, these rooms seemed the most likely candidates. This compound was not an interrogation center, just what was left of a military outpost after an earlier raid - but the place did have what looked like holding cells deep down.
He took a deep breath, then went as silent as he could, closing his eyes to focus all his attention to his hearing. Thirty quiet seconds later, he breathed again. Nothing. Nobody anywhere close - at least not right now.
Quatre went to the first metal door. It was ajar, and easily dismissed. The second was not. He tapped the door, waited, moved on to the next, repeated the process. The fourth door was wide open, the cell empty short of a puddle of long-since dried blood. He gritted his teeth, taking some comfort in knowing he would have seen fresh blood if-
He momentarily pressed his eyes closed, pushed the thought aside, tapped the next door. Nothing. He moved on-
And froze, halting even his breath. For long seconds, he waited, listened.
There it was again, two soft thuds in reply to his knocking. He made his way back to the door he'd just passed, tapped again, waited. A response. Daring a weak smile, he reached for his toolbelt, retrieved a set of lockpicks and set to work. While slower than his teacher, he made steady progress. An eternity of minutes later, the latch gave in, and the door slid open, revealing the dimly lit room behind - as well as his target.
"Duo!" He rushed over to his friend, his eyes sizing up his friend's condition. The band of OZ troops stationed here most likely did not include an interrogation unit, or even a single specialist. Yet, they evidently contained plenty of brutes, judging from Duo's generous bruises - though some of those probably came from his crash landing with Deathscythe. Heero had managed to retrieve the suit during his retreat, but wasn't aware the pilot was absent until he was back at their hideout. The comm system was down, the hatch loose, the straps torn. Heero had not taken the slip-up very well.
Duo blinked, staring straight ahead at the light from the corridor. "Quatre?"
Quatre hadn't expected the extra tone of surprise in Duo's voice, and for some reason, it irked him very much. Even so, he smiled as he knelt beside Duo, sizing up his injuries and tattered clothing. It didn't appear Duo's jacket had survived the landing, being nowhere in sight. His pants were torn in many places, and the white T-shirt barely hanging on his shoulders had gotten big smudges of matted gray, wet brown and crusty burgundy, as well as quite a few new holes and tears. "What, expecting someone else? I'm here to get you out, Duo."
Duo grinned, relaxed as Quatre went over him, checking his cuts and larger bruises with one hand, the other fetching thin strips of quick-wrap gauze from the toolbelt. "I'm glad... And I'm sorry, Quatre."
Attending to an incision on Duo's upper arm, Quatre asked "Why?"
Sigh. "For getting caught."
Frown. "It wasn't your fault."
Weak snort. "Right... I suppose that's why you are here, and not Heero. Man, he must be so pissed at me for fucking up the mission."
Quatre pursed his lips. "Heero is many things," he finally said, "But he's not angry with you." In truth, the Wing pilot was probably worrying himself sick back at their hideout. With Wufei and Trowa gone on missions elsewhere, and Heero obviously not currently capable of making a cool, rational decision regarding one potential aspect of this mission, Quatre was all that was left.
He was also more than enough, and they both knew it. This was one time Heero could not be allowed to live by his emotions.
It didn't matter, though. Those fears were unjustified. Duo had suffered a good pummeling, most likely both during and after his fall from the cockpit - but he seemed fit enough to make his own way back. It was - to Quatre's great relief - a rescue mission, not an assassination. Done with the worst visible scrapes, Quatre went to work on the archaic chain linking Duo's right ankle to the wall. "I'm so glad it's you and not him, though..."
Quatre paused, staring at Duo.
"I mean... if I'm gonna die, better that it's because of a clean shot to the head from a friend than from whatever the Ozzies were going to do when they transferred me out of this cozy hellhole - and I'd really prefer it not be Heero pulling the trigger, even if that would be oddly ironic after all we've-"
Quatre grabbed a firm hold of Duo's shoulders. "Duo, we're going to get out of here, together. Nobody's going to-"
"Q, don't you see?! I'm blind!"
Mouth still agape, Quatre locked eyes with Duo, realized they weren't focusing on him at all, instead staring off somewhere over his shoulder. While his eyes were dim, Duo's fear and frustration was easily visible on the rest of his face. He pushed Quatre away.
"The bastards poured something in my eyes. Don't know what. Burned like hell for a minute, and then, nothing. Knew my eyes were open, but couldn't see shit." His mien grew bitter. "I could hear their laughter just fine, though..."
Quatre clenched his teeth, muttered a curse to himself.
"Exactly," Duo sighed.
The next curse remained mental. He knelt beside Duo, took a firm grip of Duo's head. "Keep still, just like this." He picked up a tiny flashlight from the toolbelt, forced Duo's eyelids apart and lit against his eye. Duo's eyes didn't focus, but it did respond, contracting before the light. Quatre shifted the flashlight, studied Duo's eye as best he could. "I'm not an expert - but your eye looks fine. I think what they gave you was some form of nerve inhibitor. It's probably not permanent."
Duo showed little enthusiasm at the news. "Whoopee... Doesn't matter, Quatre. You and me both know it won't wear off until the guards are back, and your entry to the base is discovered. I'm sure the guards have a refill for me and some extra for you, too. I might as well have turned permanently blind."
Quatre considered this. Duo's admittance certainly complicated matters. If he couldn't see, and considering all his other injuries, the climb back up the airchute Quatre had come down would be nigh-on impossible. They had to be beyond quiet along that route, and Quatre had seen more than one loose panel or patch of debris that could make suspicious sounds if they were disturbed. There was no way he could guide Duo out that way, if he had to hold his hand or talk him through it.
"I have a knack for getting caught and playing the damsel in hopeless distress, don't I?"
Quatre frowned at his friend. "Duo, we're getting out of here."
"Wish I could, Quatre. really wish I could." He took another deep breath. "Damn, it's hot in here... Your doing, right? Then you know it's impossible..."
"We'll find another way." He reached for the ankle chain again, forced a smile. "Now I finally think I understand what he meant..."
"Heero - before I left, he told me that with you, I shouldn't plan the escape until I found you."
Duo gave a hoarse chuckle. Quatre reached for a tiny bottle trapped between his back and the toolbelt, thrust it into Duo's hand. He grinned, undid the screwcork and took two sips of the water, then coughed. "Not quite what I was hoping, but... Good enough, I suppose..." He whetted his lips, struggled to say something.
Quatre noticed. "What?"
"You know, kiss me, then kill me. You have to agree that's better than the other way around."
Quatre raised a brow at that, then smiled, thinking of two others. "I won't kiss you, Duo. Or kill you. I might be reckless sometimes, but I'm not suicidal."
Duo frowned. "Sheesh. It's not like I'm diseased or anything... And here I thought, if I'm to have a last request in life, at least that would be in your power to do at the present. You know, a going-away present other than a bullet. Would have been nice to go out with my first kiss, instead of my first bullet, is all..."
Sigh. "Duo... I don't have a gun with me, so stop talking like that."
Almost wistful, Duo tilted his head in Quatre's direction. "You don't?"
Voice wavering, "Some strong poison?"
"Only the water."
Gulp. "A knife? You've got a knife, don't you? If I slash my wrists right now, maybe I'll be dead before the guards get back, and-"
Quatre took a firm hold of Duo's shoulders. "Duo, you're not going to die here. Besides, if I don't bring you back alive, I won't survive it."
Duo frowned. "You think old man pestilence would be that pissed if he lost a measly pilot?"
Quatre shook his head, gave himself a conspiratorial smile, well aware Duo couldn't see his face. "No... But someone else would be."
Duo could hear the tone of Quatre's voice just fine, though. Still, he didn't dare go with his first thought of hope. "You're not thinking suicide, are you? Look, don't feel guilty - just hand me the knife, and I'll do it myself. You get out of here before you're caught. My gracious hosts will probably be back in half an hour or so. They seem to show up regularly, but I've started losing track of time, and-" He coughed.
"Duo, stop. You're rambling."
He grinned, rolled his head, stared up at the ceiling. "Yeah... maybe I'm finally growing delirious from the blood loss..."
"Blood loss?" For a moment, a mild panic seized Quatre, and his eyes roamed Duo's body once more. He thought he'd spotted all the major injuries-
At that moment, Duo shifted his seat, gritted his teeth and groaned a pained "Yee-aah-ah..." as he rolled over on one side. "Slash," pant, "at the back," pant, "of my thigh," he explained - as if the sight revealed to Quatre needed a comment. "Hurts like hell," Duo wheezed, "When I move."
Quatre glanced from the slowly drying pool of red Duo had sat in to the gash itself. Duo's movement tore at the crust, fresh blood starting to run. Immediately, he picked at his meager first aid kit, attempted to clean and patch up the gash. The last bit of antiseptic made Duo clench his teeth as it was applied, but he didn't cry out. After that, Quatre did what he could to make a makeshift bandage from the supplies left and straps torn from Duo's ragged pants. Another former piece of pants went into making a tourniquet.
"Still intent on saving me, aren't you?"
Quatre huffed at him, managing a weak smile. Duo's condition was not good. This wound, if none of the others, needed better care than he could give here to heal well. The danger of infection was definitely present. "That's what friends are for, Duo."
Soft snort. "Friends, huh..." He sighed, pained grin remaining. "And still you wouldn't kiss me..."
Quatre looped the strip of denim around the top of Duo's thigh. "I don't have to. I'm not going to kill you."
"Spoilsport... Didn't think I was asking for that much - I thought you were into guys."
He made a knot. "Oh? What makes you say that?"
Duo's grin grew to something more like normal now, more than a little mischief promised in it. "If only you could see yourself when you're around Trowa... I swear, puppy dog-" Grin fade to contorted discomfort. "Ow! That hurt!"
Quatre gave a lopsided smirk. "It needs to be tight, Duo."
No reply other than a quick scowl of disagreement. Duo knew when to keep his mouth shut, though.
With what needed his immediate attention past, Quatre concluded it was high time to think of their escape from this place. "Duo, what did you say about your guards?"
"Show up fairly regularly, from what little I can tell," he said, closing his eyes. "They'll probably come back in half an hour or so. Probably less. I don't really know."
Duo tried to remember. After the special eye drops, how many voices had he heard? How many footsteps? How many fists had connected with his body, and in what frequency? How many guys had he pissed off with his mocking jokes? "Three, I think..."
Duo shook his head. "Not that I know of. Nobody shoved guns in my face after I was brought here. These guys were proud of their fists. No clubs or anything, just fists..."
Quatre touched Duo's shoulder. "Duo, I'm sorry..."
Half a smile. "Don't be. I'm tough, I can take a punch."
Quatre grazed a bruise at Duo's bicep, watched him wince. "One, yes - but not this many. You might have internal injuries, as well."
"I'm not coughing or pissing blood yet, am I?"
Weak chuckle. "I suppose not." He pursed his lips. "Duo, I have a plan now."
"We're going to take your keepers down when they visit next time."
Duo's face gave his answer for him. "Are you nuts, Quatre? I'm not exactly in the best shape to help you right now - and we're talking three pretty big Ozzies here. I only got to see one of them before the lights went out, but all three had pretty nasty swings."
Quatre frowned. "Duo, I might not be particularly big or brawny, but I do know how to fight."
He sighed. "I know... Just don't want to see you get hurt, that's all."
"And you can still help me."
Quatre looked around in the cell. There was precious little of anything in it, save a low wooden bench over by one wall and a small table in the corner. The latter caught his eye. It was an old steel table, rust red in many places. Judging from the appearance of the nearby wall, this cell probably had its own running water not long ago.
He kicked at the table, and it wobbled. Nodding to himself, he turned it upside down, pushed one end towards the wall and kicked at one of the legs. Two more kicks, and the table leg came off. The clatter was too loud for Quatre's liking, but it could not be avoided. Hastily, he put the table back up, leaning the legless side into the corner. The makeshift club he handed over to Duo.
"Here. Think you could make a decent swing with this?"
Duo measured the table leg, got a feel for its size, made a slow swing in the air, grinning. "Sure - if I know where to hit." He put the steel bar away behind him. "This good?"
Quatre nodded. It wouldn't be visible from the doorway lying like that. Not soon enough, at least. "Yeah, that's fine. How good is your hearing?"
Dry chuckle. "Never better. You could say I'm all focused now..."
Quatre dragged his fingertips against the uneven bricks and mortar of the wall. "Can you hear this?"
"Will you be able to recognize that sound over the chatter of the guards?"
Again, Duo nodded. "Now that I know what to listen for - yeah, I think so."
Quatre came back, put the chain to Duo's ankle into place again, although he did not snap it shut. "On my sign, Duo - then you swing as hard as you can, in as wide an arch as you can without losing your grip. With luck, you'll get one down while I deal with the other two."
To this, Quatre had to agree. Still, this was essential to his crazy plan. He decided to keep the rest of it on a need-to-know basis. There was no need to let Duo know the full extent of his madness if the plan failed here.
After making sure to pick up and reattach everything to his toolbelt, he went to the door, closed and locked it, and hid in the corner behind it.
But no more than minutes. Voices came from the corridor, dim at first, but steadily louder. Three voices bickering at each other, complaining about the heat and cursing the repair crews for not getting the job done. The rattle of a lock, a crude joke, laughter, a follow-up joke at Duo's expense.
Duo's one-handed grip on the steel bar tightened as the door creaked open. If Quatre had asked him to act scared, he had little to worry about. This was crazy. He heard boots to concrete, jeering, snickers, his keepers coming closer, stopping not far ahead. The bad breath of the pointman reached his nostrils.
And through it all, the faint brush of a thumb against mortar.
Duo didn't hesitate; his battlecry reached its height as the hard beam played the tune of bone cracking, a man screaming, another man joining him, but not from any effort of Duo's.
His first victim fell to the floor, cursing and shouting his condition. Duo imagined him cradling his broken shin, but did not linger. His other hand free from acting, he made for a double-handed return swing, had already begun raising the bar when he heard another man fall not far ahead of him, and Quatre yelling "Two down!"
Duo knew it didn't mean their current score. Instantly, he shifted from a horizontal to a vertical swing, plunging the beam down in the direction of his two o'clock. Again, he heard bone yield and flesh collapse under steel as he hit the man square over his back. Duo felt the body slump to the floor, the pained roar and consequent roar the last sound given into the fight. All that came after, was the soft shuffle of Quatre's feet and the clattering of Duo's steel bar as he dropped it to the floor.
A faint air of ether permeated the cell.
The guards weren't dead, then. A pity, Duo thought to himself. He would have preferred it if Quatre's empathy hadn't extended to these three. Then again, given how fast they'd been taken down, they would undoubtedly be on disability leave for a good while. That thought was rather satisfying. All he had to do was survive to savor it.
He heard Quatre turn one of the bodies over, drag it over to a corner. "Okay, they're down. Well done, Duo."
Duo nodded, knowing the credit was all Quatre's. Not for the first time that day, he wished he still had his eyesight, to behold their triumph.
Duo gave a wry grin. "I only wanted a kiss, you know..."
The soft grunt told him exactly what Quatre's face looked like. The jacket tossed against his jaw and chest confirmed Quatre's feelings. He obediently removed what was left of his jeans, heard Quatre work on one of the stunned guards. "None of them make good fits for us. The one I put in the corner is too big, but the other two might fit close enough to avoid much attention."
Shimmy. "What, you're planning to just take a stroll out the main gate, or something?"
"Not quite. I suppose you didn't pay too much to the surroundings when they brought you here?"
Duo shook his head. "I wasn't exactly conscious at the time. Woke up here. Wish I hadn't."
Quatre put his hand to Duo's shoulder. It said more than his face could have. "We're going upstairs. I studied the blueprints of this place - there's a small kitchen two floors up."
"What, planning on raiding the Ozzie's fridge?"
Dark chuckle, a pair of pants dropped in his lap. "Yeah, sort of."
Duo sighed. "This crazy plan of yours keeps getting better and better." He kicked out his leg, nudging a sleeping OZ soldier. "It started out really well, though. Too bad brute force can't get us the rest of the way out."
With a wince, he managed to slip borrowed pants over the patched gash in his thigh. "Okay..." he wheezed, "we take a walk to the kitchen - and then what?"
"Then we load up on alcohol."
The mirth of Quatre's voice was clearly evident. Duo chuckled. "Going out with a party, huh?"
"Not quite." Quatre took a deep breath to close the shirt he'd stripped off his match-up guard. How a stick-figure midget had made a career in OZ, he didn't even want to know - but he was curious. "We need some to spill on your clothes, enough to make your breath match - you're going to pretend to be drunk."
"Hey, why pretend? Just get me to the booze, my friend."
A weary smirk. "Duo, I still need you alert. We don't know what might come up."
"Fine, so I'll be the drunk close to passing out, and you'll be my shoulder to lean on."
"Right - and If anyone asks, I'm carrying you back to the barracks."
Duo frowned, buttoned up his uniform as best he could, soon enough accepting Quatre's assistance. "You're taking us straight to the lion's den? Sounds better and better..."
Sigh of restraint. "I'm tempted to leave you here, you know that?"
Big grin. "Yeah... I get that a lot."
"We're going to the D company barracks. It's close to the chainlink fence, and around the back, there's a gap. I saw to that. There's some underbrush right beyond it. That should provide us with enough cover to reach the forest and our freedom."
"You snuck in that way?"
Quatre nodded by reflex. It wasn't until after he remembered the gesture was meaningless to Duo at the moment. "Yeah. But I came in-"
"Came in through the ducts," Duo finished for him. "Yeah, that I figured. Now, could we please get out of this baker's oven? I don't fancy being cooked to a crisp in an OZ cell. Do you?"
A weak chuckle. "I can think of better ways to go..."
Duo nodded firmly. "So can I, pal. Okay, ready. Lead the way, Q - I'll follow."
With some effort - and a little bit of help - he got to his feet. Quatre slung Duo's right arm over his shoulder, trying to keep the weight off Duo's bad leg. "Duo..."
"I'll give you a promise."
Quatre took one step forward, another, thankful Duo kept signs of his pain to a minimum. "If... if it looks like we won't get out of here after all..."
Wry grin. "In case your master plan fails, you mean."
Mirror image. "Yeah... I promise, you'll get that kiss of yours."
Dry chuckle. "Thanks, Quatre..."
"But I think you'll get one when we get back anyway."
Duo turned as if to look at him, waited for Quatre to continue, but knew he wouldn't. He smiled. "That would be nice... Thanks for feeding my dreams, Quatre."
As they shuffled their way out in the corridor, Quatre muttered "What are friends for?"