My first strictly 2xH story. I'm starting to get into in-universe, old-school style canon all over again. I'm such a 1xR fan that these couples who are so old for me feel brand new. It's exciting!

Warnings: This takes place just after episode 45, "Signs of the Final Battle," so there are some spoilers. Also contains minor spoilers for a couple previous episodes and Duo's Episode Zero. Kind of messed with the end of the episode, but I don't think you'll mind. Rated for a bit of language.

Disclaimer: I do not own Gundam Wing and am making no profit from this story.

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Much Better

By Nessie

"She's out of a critical state, but she needs rest. She has an admirable will to live." Sally Po lowered the medical report and gave the braided boy hanging on her every word a tired smile. "You should be proud of her, Duo."

The pilot known as 02 nodded without meeting the doctor's eyes. "I know." Something in his throat made it hard to speak, a rare thing for Duo Maxwell. He usually had no trouble at all when it came to blabbing away. "Is she… I mean, does it hurt?"

Sally stuck her file under her arm and looked at him seriously. "She's battered, and she lost a lot of blood. The transfusion kept her alive. Fighting against two Mobile Dolls like the Mercurius and the Vayeate would be a life-threatening experience for any normal kid, and your Hilde risked herself to help us out." She paused. If she were entirely truthful, the girl had really risked herself for Duo alone. Sally refrained from saying this, not wanting to make the American youth any more uncomfortable that he already was. "She's in good hands."

Duo crossed his hands over his chest, an expression of consternation making his jaw firm. He looked like he was fighting defeat even though he was not in the battlefield. "Thank you," he managed. "Really."

"I just did my job." Sally patted his shoulder. "You were the one who saved her life."

Duo's violet eyes widened. "I—"

Sally walked on before he could finish, waving casually as she went in the direction of Peacemillion's bridge. The hem of her white medical coat floated in the low gravity of the ship.

Duo felt suddenly alone in the empty corridor of the medical wing. An observation window gave a view of the dark, star-speckled endlessness of outer space, and it gave him a sense of being incredibly small and unimportant. He felt confined in the black piloting suit he hadn't yet bothered to remove, but at the same time the closeness of the protective material was a comfort. Time had slowed in his mind. It seemed like an eternity had passed since he had defeated the Mobile Dolls fashioned after Heero's and Trowa's fighting styles, but in reality he had only brought Hilde in an hour ago.

She'd been a wreck; Duo had thought he'd seen the worst of it over the vidlink in Deathscyth Hell's cockpit, but he had been greatly mistaken. Libra's Mobile Dolls had really left damage on Hilde's petite body. Duo couldn't help wishing, somewhat meanly, that it had been Quatre's data that had fought her. At least then she wouldn't have faced the total ruthless precision of Trowa Barton or Heero Yuy's deadly skill.

Duo balled up a fist, feeling leashed. It wasn't right. Her battle experience had been minimal enough that she had easily adapted to civilian life after defecting from Oz. Suddenly coming to the very heart of the war was suicide!

What if they hadn't gotten her SOS?

"Peacemillion, do you read me!"

The restrained fear in the voice had been like a knife slashing through her heart, and he still could feel the blood running.

"Please answer me! DUO!"

And the flood of panic upon being attacked had nearly sent him reeling. He had been so damn grateful to Quatre for urging him to go and find her. He would have to thank him later. Without Quatre's kindness, Hilde could have been…

He literally hovered in the medical wing, floating back and forth in front of the door to Hilde's room. Part of him wanted to go in and check on her, but Duo feared seeing her. What if she was angry with him? What if she now regretted venturing into Libra or even regretted meeting him? What if the data she had collected turned out to be useless and she'd gone and gotten hurt for nothing?

"Jesus," he murmured. He had told Sister Helen that he didn't believe in God, but he was beginning to feel compelled to pray. He had stayed alive this long and if that wasn't a miracle…

His melancholy thoughts were suddenly ripped into by a loud, long, high-pitched sound that came without pause through the door. The heart-monitor inside his friend's room was flat-lining!

A wordless cry of panic tore from his throat, and Duo punched the lock button on the door. It slid open on command, but the movement was still too slow for him. He half-launched himself into the hospital room, gravity knocking him to the floor. "Hilde!"

A long pale arm shook gently as the weakened Hilde Schbeiker returned the plug in her hand to its rightful place on the heart monitor, and the machine released a normal pattern of slow, equal beeps once more. The black-haired girl managed a half-hearted chuckle, and then said in a voice that rasped, "I thought you'd never come in."

Duo gaped at her, his childish eyes large as saucers. "So you decided to scare the hell out of me!"

"It got you in here, didn't it?" The energy it took for Hilde just to show amusement was great, and as she giggled again she moaned. "It hurts to laugh," she murmured, speaking softly.

He hated seeing her like that. As he moved closer, he saw how small she really was, no more than five feet on a bed designed for a fully-grown man, her skin only a few shades darker than the pure white sheets around her. A paper gown kept her decent, and the only bit of color on her was the deep indigo of her eyes. A bandage was still wrapped around her forehead; pieces of gauze were tapes to various patches of skin, which was bleached by the harsh lights above her bed. Hideous gray-blue bruises decorated her like unwanted badges.

She was smiling though. Duo thought she was beautiful just because of that.

He sighed and leaned against the wall. Feeling awkward, he pretended he hadn't heard her comment about pain. "Yeah, I'm here. What, d'ya I'm so mean that I wouldn't come see you? Jeez, Hilde, you really don't expect much from me, huh?"

"You were so angry with me earlier. I thought you might have given up on your stupid fool." Her tone was light, but Hilde didn't look at him as she said the words. A coat of shame was on her face.

Duo's eyes narrowed. "If you believe I'd do something like that, then you really are stupid."

"Huh?" Hilde's eyes snapped back to his. "What?"

"Look, this isn't easy, Hil." Giving in to his body, which all of a sudden felt terribly heavy, he went to the chair next to the hospital bed and plopped down. "Seeing you this way, all banged up. I shouldn't have to go through that! Like I don't have enough on my plate already, now I gotta worry about you and—"

"Moron," she muttered, but the easy-going sound was back in her voice. She closed her eyes and for several moments said nothing. Duo thought she might have gone to sleep now that she'd seen him; he set a hand on the guest chair's armrest, preparing to haul himself up when—

"Hold my hand, okay?"

Duo glanced down at the mattress to see the German girl turn over her right hand. Fortunately, the IV was pumping painkillers into her through her left arm. Or perhaps that was unfortunately, because Duo had absolutely no excuse for not taking her hand, other than that he suddenly felt very warm.

Dry in the mouth, he could only reply. "Okay," he said, feeling dumb as he reached out and slipped his fingers beneath hers.

He was shocked by the cold of her palm, and he started. "Hilde!" It felt as though ice water ran through her veins rather than blood. Duo's heart quickened with concern, only to slow again as the initial surprise wore down to a heavy feeling of guilt. "Oh, Hil…"

"Don't, Duo." Her fingers flexed beneath his as though she might pull them away, but her hand stayed connected to the braided Gundam pilot's. "Really, don't. I don't wanna hear that this was your fault or that you're sorry or that you wish you'd done whatever. Alright? I've thought it out, ya know." Duo pressed his lips together. He had to forcibly tell himself to shut up, even when he met her eyes and saw the determination there. "Everything that happened was because I chose to let it. I told you that back in the Taurus."

The thing was, he wanted to say all of those things. He wanted to…

Duo shook his head. "Hilde, I just wish you had come to Peacemillion first."

She snorted. "Why, so you could have me peel your damn apples for you every day? If you had it your way, I'd have never gone near the battlefield."

"I would've—" Duo stopped short. He realized that his grip had tightened on her fragile hand, and he hastened to lighten it. He hated that she was always so freaking right. He searched for words that wouldn't upset her. "Is it so wrong to want you safe?" he asked at last.

Hilde smiled and tapped her index finger against one of his knuckles. "No. But trying to keep me safe all the time…it's sweet, Duo, but it isn't what I want. If you can go out and risk your life every day for the whole world, why shouldn't I do it just one time for one person that I really care about?"

He froze. His eyes moved back and forth between hers as he struggled to comprehend the meaning of those words. Why was it when he was around people like Howard or Noin or even Professor G he felt as mature as them, but Hilde had the ability to make him feel like a kid even though they were the same age? Realizing how utterly ridiculous his feelings were, he laughed aloud.

"Nothing," he said softly. "There's nothing wrong with that."

Seeming satisfied, Hilde nodded. "So. Is my disk worthy?"

His face changed as he suddenly recalled just why she was like this in the first place. "Uh, I don't know…Heero's analyzing it now, I think."

Hilde's eyes widened. "That's right! Heero. Relena told me she knew Heero!"

"Whoa, what? Relena?" echoed Duo.

"Relena Peacecraft," Hilde elaborated. "I met her today."

"Today?" Surprised, Duo tilted his head. Being Duo, the unexpected news made him forget events. "Where?"

Hilde gave him a you're-an-idiot look. "Libra, dummy. Where else?"

"Sorry. But what's she doing there?" Try as he might, Duo couldn't think of any reasons for Relena Peacecraft to be in outer space…unless there was some unannounced change within the Romefeller Foundation that Peacemillion didn't yet know about. If that was the case, then he should tell—

"So what's their story?" Hilde asked, throwing off Duo's train of thought. He had to struggle to get it back.

"Whose?"

He had always suspected that Hilde had an unlimited amount of tolerance unless he did something really, really bad and at those times all he could do was get away as fast as he possibly could. Hilde's eyes darkened, and she grit out the names, "Heero and Relena," with all the savageness of a leashed bulldog.

Duo's heart swelled. He was so proud of her for being able to get that angry in her condition. It showed her true strength. "You're sick, Maxwell," he told himself. She seemed to forget her terrible state because her irritation with him briefly brought back her old self, and she started to crush the bones in Duo's hand. He yelped.

"Hey, hey!"

Hilde released him and panted, the normally effortless action of squeezing leaving her spent. Duo grabbed another pillow from the chair beside him and helped to gently lift her so that he could place the second pillow beneath her. She could now sit up a bit, and he hoped that breathing came a bit easier.

Wanting to take her mind off her pain, he hurried to say, "Yeah, I don't know either, babe. Heero and Relena – nice ring to it, huh? – they've been a mystery to me since I first met the two of them. They were together though." He hesitated with this next part. "See…I sort of shot Heero in the leg…"

"You what?" She raised an eyebrow at him. "You're so clueless."

"Hey! He had a gun pointed at her, so I thought I was saving her life by shooting him." He realized for the first time how ridiculous the story sounded. "Anyways, that ain't the point. She went all worried for him. She even tore off a piece of her dress to use as a bandage for his leg, and that thing had to be expensive. She digs him." With Heero, I'm not too sure." He reached back with his free hand and scratched his head, thinking of his quiet, violent friend. "You wouldn't think they'd make the best pair, him being a Gundam pilot assassin and her an advocate of pacifism."

"Kind of warped," Hilde agreed with a smirk. "Cute though, don't you think?"

"I guess. If nothing else, he'll be surprised to hear that Relena's on Libra. From what I've heard, he has a certain amount of protectiveness for her. Heero needs a girlfriend. Needs to get laid too but—yow!" The God of Death pulled his hand back and rubbed where she had smacked it. "Nice to see you're still up for hitting me."

Hilde was nearly cat-like in her grin. "Always."

With the lightheartedness of the word, Duo suddenly went sober. He couldn't place the cause for the attitude change; maybe it was just how she had to struggle to speak, or how the light burned so brightly as it glared on her wounds. All he could think about was the way she had been hurt, how he had reprimanded her and the whole time she smiled, despite her pain…she just smiled…

All at once exhausted, Duo hunched forward, bending at the waist until his forehead, still heated from the crazy events of the night, touched the frigidness of her hand. "Where did you come from?" he murmured.

Hilde didn't reply any more than he had really asked her the question. Her fingers, trembling with the strength needed for the minor action, shook as they threaded through Duo's matted bangs. It hurt – God, did it hurt – to be so close to her suffering. It only made it worse to know that she'd done it for him.

He didn't know what he could do, if there was anything that would possibly extend his thankfulness for her. Not for what she had done but for her. She had saved him and sheltered him, but that was nothing compared to the fact that she had been a friend when he had been without any for a time.

"Friends, Duo?"

The braided pilot replied mutinously. "Shut up, Quatre."

"What?"

"Nothing," Duo added. He wasn't about to tell her that the voice in his head sounded oddly like one Raberba-Winner.

Hilde gave him a stare of curiosity but it quickly turned into an expression of something deeper. "Duo. Don't beat yourself up."

"I'm not," he lied. "It's just…babe, I keep thinking that you might've died out there if I hadn't—"

"But I didn't," Hilde interrupted. "And you did. I'm here. I'm fine."

Good Lord, how the hell did she manage to talk about surviving a mobile suit battle as though she had simply escaped a mugger? Frustrated, he stood up. "Would you just let me talk!"

"You talk all the time," she pointed out matter-of-factly. Duo couldn't tell if she was trying to keep him from saying what could quite likely turn out to be too much, or she just didn't get his desperation. She dug fingers into the sheets, and he noticed even that tiny detail. "If you're going to depress me—"

"Hilde! Stop!" Duo reached out, but he managed just in time to not grab her. He clenched his fists and jerked away. "Damn it, Hil." He'd nearly hurt her. Just now, he'd nearly… "It's serious. Okay? All of this…" He gave an impatient wave of his hand, gesturing to her general state of insufficient health. "It's serious to me. Really? It scares the shit out of me."

Hilde looked like she badly wanted to stop him, but she bit her lip and said nothing.

Duo plowed on. "It may not be my fault, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't feel responsible. Hilde…I care about you. When we met, I remembered all over again what I was fighting for. You made me remember that. Every time I look at you, there's a reason there, a reason for why I'm in this war. If you died…" He had to take a breath. He wasn't entirely sure of what he was saying. There were gray spots in front of his eyes, blinking on and off. "If you died, my reasons would be gone."

She mouthed his name. She tried for words, but there were none. Shaking her head fractionally, she opened her mouth and then closed it again, as though power of speech returned to her, only to run away before she could make a sound.

Finally, she just turned her head away and watched her heart monitor like it was the most fascinating thing in the world. Duo choked as he felt his pulse in his throat. The seriousness of her wounds came back full-force, and he slowly lowered himself back down to the chair. Lifting a hand, he gently traced a finger over one, dark bruise, not quite touching, but he felt Hilde shiver and his head jerked up in surprise as he looked at her.

"Duo…" Her voice cracked. When she turned her face back to him, he was startled to see tears in her eyes. He thought his heart stopped. Duo had never seen his friend cry before. "I didn't risk my life…" She swallowed. "So I could be your reason for being in war. I did it to try to make the war end."

He didn't know whether she gained an unexpected surge of might or time slowed even more than before to allow her the difficulty of moving, but she gripped the wrist of his that still hovered over her arm. She pulled him to her with absolutely no effort, and his lips nearly fell upon hers like a well-placed shot.

It was a clumsy kiss; it was Duo's first and as Hilde had spent the most recent months of her young life with Oz, he could guess that it was hers as well. He responded with all the proper hormones of a teenage boy, but shock overrode most of them until he felt paralyzed. It wasn't until Hilde shifted – just the slight bit – that he could fully return the kiss. Her hands finally grew warm beneath his, and he lifted his fingers oh-so carefully to her face. Both of them made some odd sound in response to the new sensation and then—

The two fifteen year-olds were broken quickly and easily apart when a loud buzz from the intercom on a nearby wall tore through the silence of the room. For a moment, Duo and Hilde stared at each other in mutual disbelief, but Duo eventually broke away from her meaningful eyes to go answer the call.

His hand shook as he pressed in the talk button, and he winced when his voice cracked with his, "Hello?"

"Duo." Heero's voice came through in the same monotonous tones Duo knew so well, and it brought some sturdiness back into his brain.

"Yeah?" he said, clearing his throat.

"I've gone through the disk on Libra. Tell your friend that her mission was accomplished successfully. Over."

Duo couldn't repress his usual grin as he laughed. Swiveling, he called, "Ya hear that, babe? Translated right, Heero's saying you came through!"

Hilde smiled, but it was weak, and she half-collapsed back on the pillows. "That's good to hear, Duo."

The speechless moments that followed were awkward, and Duo felt his cheeks go red. "So, uh… I should really go, um, tell Heero that…uh…uh…" He knew there was news for Wing Zero's pilot, but his mind was a useless blank slate as of now, while he remembered what has just transpired between him and the girl he had previously considered just a friend.

"Tell Heero about Relena," Hilde supplied, humor in her eyes. "You better hurry, it's juicy stuff."

"Yeah, no kiddin.' Hey – Hil…" Duo reached for words, but they didn't come. "Who'd have thought there'd be a day?"

"Don't worry about it, idiot." She winked at him, then immediately winced as a twinge went through her skull. "Go be a soldier."

"Yeah. Right." Turning, Duo went to the door and pushed the release button. It opened for him and he stepped through. Looking back, "Hilde. Thanks for helping end this war faster."

"Thanks for saving my life." They looked at each other, simply looked, for a short minute. Duo started to go on again. "Hey, Duo?"

"Babe?" he answered, tossing her a lopsided smile.

Something crossed Hilde's face, and Duo felt his mouth go dry again.

"After you've talked to Heero, come back here. I want the gossip."

That may have been true, thought Duo as he went through Peacemillion to go find Heero, but he also got the feeling that gossip wasn't all Hilde wanted. He grinned.

She would feel much better soon.

Fini