“ So I'm just never to be allowed near them again?” Trowa repeated. “With Noventa's bully-boys standing between me and the door, I take it.”
Sally glanced frowningly at him from her perch over his propped-up leg. She crisply sealed the fresh gauze with medical tape and patted it into place. “If Duo had died, or, for that matter, if Duo and Zechs had died in that reactor together, you'd be facing a court martial and a hefty serving of jail time.”
“But they didn't,” Trowa repeated, again. He swung his leg off the pile of pillows. “Besides which, I think we're in the definition of war-time. You want to try me, you'll have to wait and see who wins.”
“Maybe.” She washed her hands slowly with a damp cloth, as he watched her from the corners of his eyes. Their shuttle was considerably more cramped than the one parked next door holding Merquise, and their two bodies just about filled it. With the light gravity they had from dock they were stuck grounded by their bunks in only six-by-four walking space mostly occupied by the bedframes. It added to the tension between them. That and an aching leg made him sharper than it was smart to be, but he wanted back on the station, back where he could see what was going on, and Sally was the most convenient punching bag. Punching bag who'd shot him, even if she had managed a through-and-through.
“Maybe,” Sally said, and tossed her cloth onto its tray. “But what I can do right now is recommend the Board revoke your license to practise, here and on Mars. And if there's no convening authority left anywhere at the moment, then you can consider yourself barred by me.”
That was unexpected. He'd been sort of thinking he would argue her around once she blew off her steam and threatened him a while. That was no bluff, though. That was the announcement of someone who'd stopped respecting him-- someone who'd just lost the trust they'd built over years as mentor and student, colleague, friend.
It took him a minute to fire back with the rejoinder he'd been planning. “Duo and Merquise are cured. And no longer infectious, which Noventa will be glad to hear.”
“We'll never know if the 'phages would've worked, but using friends as guinea pigs is not something I can live with. And not something Preventers is supposed to do. Maybe Une meant it as a hail Mary, but Duo was too far along.”
"What you did as a friend and a soldier I'm not disputing. I'm saying, and you failing to understand further demonstrates, that what you did as a doctor was an ethical failure." Sally stood with the tray. "If you can't live by that, then I won't endanger any other patients by putting them under your care."
"It worked,” he said slowly, deliberately. “That negates any supposed ethical failure."
"No. It doesn't. And I genuinely wish you could recognise that." She stowed the tray in a closed drawer, and turned to climb up the ladder for the hatch. "Your license is revoked. If there's a council left, you can appeal."
"My patients wanted it.” He grabbed her ankle, stopping her rise. “Damn it, Sally. Stop this."
"You can have a supervised visit with Duo when you've got yourself under control."
He released her so hard she almost lost her footing. "Fuck you."
He heard her sigh. She twisted about, agilely clinging to the ladder with one arm behind her. “Maybe this is my fault. Not addressing this with you. I went into military medicine after school-- I was a doctor before I was a soldier. The priorities are different. It's people, then mission, Trowa.”
“You're really going to lecture me about being a doctor?”
“Who else is going to be straight with you? Merquise? He's just like you. You practise medicine the same way you fight wars, Trowa, you throw everything you have at the problem until you mow it under. Being a doctor, you have to know there's a line. Your patient is supposed to be on the other side of it.”
“I did what I thought I had to do!”
“And you've never had a problem before with sucking up and dealing with the consequences.”
That brought him up short. He didn't have an answer for that one.
After a moment of silence, Sally nodded. “Rest for a bit. Matwari is finishing up Duo's tests. I'll get you when you can sit with him.”
“Yeah.” He had to clear his throat. “Okay. Thanks.”
She nodded again, and left him alone.
"Supervised," Sally repeated flatly. "Take it or leave it."
"May I ask why?" Zechs demanded.
"Is there something in the water?" She examined a red patch of skin on his arm, and noted it in her log. "Before you settle too deeply into this feeling of moral righteousness, consider something. Do you know what radiation sickness is?"
"Yes, Sally. I flew mobile suits for most of my military career. I've been exposed to radiation scores of times.” He yanked his arm away as soon as she let him go, to scratch at the spot. Skin was already flaking, and half his arm, the half that had been exposed by a rolled sleeve, was pebbled with a rash-like spread. He had similar patches on his throat and cheeks, both hands. He ached, and that was not the worst of it. The nausea was a constant battle, but he refused to show weakness. He had dealt with it when it was the spores. “At least this has come to me by my own actions. My choice. Live and die fighting. And Duo's choice.”
"No. No, Zechs, you and Trowa chose for Duo. He was well past the point of consent to any treatment. And we're not talking minor exposures from behind shielding. You, you personally, exposed yourself and Duo without his fully informed consent to a massive full-body exposure.” She ticked the points off with her stylus. “Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, headache, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, inflammation of the mouth and throat, tooth and gum disease, hair loss, dry cough, heart inflammation with chest pain, burning, bleeding spots under the skin, haemorrhage. And that's all assuming he survives the next two to four weeks. That you survive them. And considering you've wound up on this station because you were exposed to a disease without your fully informed consent, I have to say I find it more than a little hypocritical that you're so blasé about having inflicted it on Duo again."
"Duo wasn't going to survive another day without risking the reactor."
Sally's jaw was tightly clenched. “You're anaemic,” she said finally. “I want to start you on blood transfusion. And a round of antibiotics to prevent infection of the sores. You took the potassium iodide and the Neumune?”
“All of it,” he replied frostily.
“I'll have to return to the clinic for the IV. I've asked Matwari to sample Noventa's crew for a donor.” Sally hung her stethoscope about her neck and packed her medical bag. “I'll be back when--”
Zechs didn't let her finish that sentence. He stood. “I'll go with you. I can pass the time waiting with Duo.”
"I'm firing you as my physician,” he said. “I want Barton."
"Too damn bad," she replied in much the same tone.
"I don't trust you."
"Too. Damn. Bad."
"That's exactly why I don't trust you."
"I feel exactly the same way toward you, Zechs." Sally blew out a deep breath. The bandage on her head lifted enough for her fingertip, to adjust the lay of the pad over her temple. She fluffed the honey-coloured fringe of her hair over the wrapping. "You can sit with him. Trowa will want to see him too.”
He grudging agreed. "I can live with that."
She gathered her log and medical bag and shouldered them. "Noventa authorised me to bring you back off your ship. You can go. They're escorting us everywhere."
Nothing joking. There was an armed man-- in a cobalt jumper and wearing a badge that proclaimed 'CC', which Zechs took to be the designation of Noventa and Cameron's corps. The man was easily two stone heavier than Zechs, and could have lifted Sally with one finger. There were more of the uniformed troops in his ship's tiny corridor, and four more in their quarters, overturning everything, tossing their limp mattresses into the hall, ripped open at the seams. One of them had found the vodka he'd brought along illicitly, his fencing foil, the book-- that, he had a hard time leaving in their hands. But it was only a book, and in itself it didn't mean anything, anymore.
The cargo bay was another question. The bacteriophages. There had been that. Was there more? Had there been anything truthful about their mission, even the manifest? He had, he was sure, no way of knowing.
“How many men does he have?” he asked Sally quietly, as they stood in the airlock waiting decompression. The wind of suction covered their conversation. He wondered what she would tell him-- if it would be the truth.
“I've counted twenty,” she answered, her lips not even moving, her eyes forward. “Assuming they're still manning their shuttle, if not their suits, there's got to be five more. And assuming they don't want us to see their entire strength, there's probably ten more on top of that.”
Thirty to thirty five. If he judged Noventa as well as he thought he did, there would be another thirty at a wider range-- a big enough force to hold off reinforcements from Mars, in case Sally or Trowa had managed to get a message out. Even if the four of them managed to get away in one of the shuttles, they wouldn't make it anywhere.
“They're not masked,” he noted suddenly.
“Matwari must have concurred. That the radiation killed the spores.”
“Neither you nor Duo show any signs of them, no. Matwari excised Duo's spore blister. It was dead tissue. Whatever it might have become, it's not now.”
“And Noventa's taking her word for it?”
“She's his expert. That's why he brought her.”
A new escort walked them from the airlock to the clinic. To add to his assessment, he studied each soldier they passed, covertly. They were not, he discovered, the type of young, fresh-faced recruits Treize, and himself for that matter, had always preferred. They were his age and older, a few even meeting what he might call 'grizzled veteran' status-- one with grey in his beard, another who might have been serving long enough to have been with Alliance before Treize had created the Specials Unit. Men who might have served under the original Noventa. He wondered if they were loyal first to Cameron, or his cousin.
Noventa himself sat at a newly installed security station just inside the clinic door. Interesting. Noventa sat stiff-backed on a plastic folding chair, deep in a murmured conversation over the comm, a man with lieutenant's stripes leaning over him to view their screen. Their talk ceased immediately when Zechs and Sally entered, both heads rising to stare. Zechs met Noventa's gaze head on, refusing to be bowed. He inclined his head briefly, a gesture between equals. It took Noventa a long time to return it, and then he immediately ignored Zechs, returning to his quiet discussion.
Zechs forgot him as quickly. He hurried past Sally to Duo's gurney. Duo looked the same-- which was both reassuring and strangely discomfiting. He had the radiation burn rash, too, over greater skin area; his arms and legs had been entirely exposed by his hospital gown. He was carefully propped on clean sheets, his limbs shiny with ointment. He was still intubated, a mechanical ventilator hissing with regular compressions that raised his chest in shallow breaths. But he didn't look too much worse than before-- even a little better, maybe. Better, at least, than when Zechs had thought him dead inside the radiation chamber. Anything was better than that.
Sally rolled a stool to his knees, and he sat. "He hasn't waked yet," she told him.
He was gentle lifting Duo's hand, to avoid disturbing the liniment. "I intend to be here when he does.”
“Doctor Po.” It was Matwari, who, Zechs noticed, was bearing the same undereye shadows as everyone else, now. The last twenty-four hours had exhausted everyone. “I have samples of A Positive ready for transfusion.”
“Here.” Sally placed two tabs in Zechs' palm. “Acetaminophen. To prevent transfusion reaction. This will take about four hours. Since you'll be sitting here anyway, that shouldn't be a problem.”
He swallowed the tabs dry. “No,” he said. “It will not. Why hasn't he waked?”
“He's still in coma.”
“But he was awake. In the reactor.”
“I know you think it looked like he was. But it's possible that was just the last stage of the infection. We really don't know. All I can tell you is that right now, there's no evidence he ever came out of the coma.” Sally pulled an IV tower near and strung it with line. Matwari joined her, carrying a cooler from which emerged a bag of blood. Matwari also prepped Zechs, placing the catheter and hooking it to the bag. “I'll be right here,” Sally said. “If you have any questions.” To his surprise, she touched his shoulder, with something that might have been sympathy. Inexplicably, it gladdened him to see that. He supposed they hadn't quite given up on each other yet. Then both women were gone, standing aside for their own low-voiced conversation. For the moment, he was alone with Duo.
He had really hoped, not nearly as deeply down as would be wise, that Duo would instantly be well, after their exposure in the reactor. Despite the radiation burns and a lingering headache, Zechs actually felt better, himself-- more alert, more attuned to small details than he thought he had been in some time. Faced with the direness of Duo's condition it had been easy to overlook the incremental encroachment of the disease; looking back he felt as though he'd been viewing the world from under a thick veil, the last few months. He was remarkably clear now. He'd been more affected than he'd known.
Had Duo felt it coming? There had been so many things they hadn't talked about. Duo hadn't let him in. And he supposed he'd been distracted-- and couldn't blame the spores for that. He'd let sex and eventually love keep him from acknowledging moments that might have been important, moments of frustration and temper and waning interest in their one shared passion, the book. There were good reasons crew were discouraged from sexual relationships. If there were still a Preventers Command, both he and Duo would be up on disciplinary charges.
As would the young man who stepped to his side. Barton's quiet limp identified him, but Zechs knew who he was without that. There was only one other person who had reason, had need, to sit at this particular bedside.
Barton checked the screens and Duo's chart, and eased himself with a grimace onto the edge of the gurney. He at least chose the side opposite Zechs, where he wouldn't obstruct Zechs' vigil, but there was still something proprietary about the way he bent to stroke hair from Duo's face. Zechs let it pass. For the moment, at least, they had common ground.
"He'll live," Barton said finally.
"About that, yes."
"But in what capacity, you don't know."
"He'll be damaged. That's not in question." Barton stared down at Duo, his fingers twining slowly with a lock of long brown hair. His voice was just a little husky when he spoke again. "I don't know if he ever told you. The rest of us-- Heero and Quatre and Wufei and I-- we've all had major problems. Operations, treatment. I think it's what killed it for Duo and me, in the end. He never got over feeling guilty about it.”
“Why would he have been guilty?” Wait-- yes, Duo had told him about that. Heero Yuy had had a brain tumor. Barton had lost a kidney. “It wasn't his fault.”
“He never got sick. He never gets sick, ever.”
“He told me that,” Zechs whispered. “I thought he was lying.”
“Not even during the L2 Plague, not when the rest of us were down.” Barton scratched his nose, and closed his eyes tiredly. “Hell of a way to get yours. Anyway. It's what made me want to be a doctor. Getting sick. It gave me power over what was happening to me, I guess. At least I understood it. I knew the battleground. Didn't figure it had such a quick expiration date. Four years to find something I couldn't treat."
There was nothing to say to that. He understood exactly. "I'm grateful," he answered finally.
"You got him here." Barton hopped awkwardly off the gurney and slid backward into a chair, propping up his leg on the bottom shelf of one of the monitors. "If he'd been alone, he wouldn't have made it this far."
"And now we wait."
Their mutual silence didn't last long. He remembered Barton as a grim shadow to Yuy's stone-like non-responsiveness, but time or nerves had made him more talkative. Or Duo's influence. Zechs supposed he'd started to miss conversation, himself. Besides, the quiet only drew attention to the fact that Duo himself, on display between them, contributed nothing. What if this was it? What if they'd waited too long after all, and this was all that was left of Duo. A body that might as well have been a corpse. That would be the ultimate betrayal. Duo wouldn't want a life that was nothing more than mindless breath, a not-life that could last for years. Decades.
"They won't let us stay here,” Barton said. “Preventers disbanded. Sal's not sure what's going to happen about Mars. Not that anyone can get off planet. There won't be anywhere to land on Earth, no yards that aren't controlled by Cameron. So that just leaves the question of what they do with us next."
"They meant us to die out there,” Zechs answered. “Une, the President, whomever. The reasons probably don't matter now. But I'm not sure if I believe Noventa's promises about justice and a day in court."
"Noventa respects you."
"Respect may be too strong a word."
"I didn't say he liked you. But he respects you.” Barton rolled his chair to the cooler, and returned with a frozen gel pack for his wounded knee. “And what you did for Duo. It's scared the shit out of everyone else, too."
That surprised him. "What, the reactor? Why would it?"
"Most of these people jump at their own shadow," Barton muttered contemptuously. "People who work for revolutionaries tend to be paranoid. They all thought you'd lay down politely and die. Now they can't predict you."
He had only a harsh laugh in him. "Is it perverse that I'm pleased by that?"
"A little." Barton lapsed mute again. His fingers moved restlessly over the gel pack, as his eyes roved over Duo's body. "He say he loved you?"
It was probably inevitable that they would have this out. Barton was clearly chewing it over. It might have been Zechs who'd awed Noventa's crew with his actions, but Barton had risked himself, too, and his career and his friendship with Sally. And Zechs didn't kid himself that waiting outside the reactor had been any easier than waiting inside it.
"He hated my guts." It was an effort to get it out past the lump in his chest. He owed an honest assessment. "Hates."
"He fucked you an awful lot for hating you."
"He didn't do that out of love."
"Yes he does." Barton lapsed into a black frown. The stubborn jut of his jaw was so familiar Zechs had to look away. There was much of Duo in Barton's manners, these days. Or maybe more of Barton in Duo than he'd known. They really had been something to each other. "Maybe once. But he never goes back if there's not something behind it. He falls hard."
And never really got over anything, no matter what he pretended. Yes. Zechs knew that. And knew why Duo had resisted so hard what had been starting between them, beyond the sexual attraction, beyond the mutual temper, beyond their pasts-- until Zechs had pushed hard enough at a flimsy bond and shredded it.
"We have some substantial stumbling blocks between us," he said finally.
"I'm going to be one of them." Barton did not look at him. His eyes were locked on Duo's face. "Fair warning."
"You want him back in your life."
"However he'll take me."
"I don't mean to step aside for you, grateful or not."
"Ditto. That's all I'm saying."
"He's not a piece of property."
"No. He's my friend and he's been my lover and if we hadn't chickened out on each other we'd be more. I have years of history with him that you don't. All the pilots do. That means something."
"You're kidding yourself if you think I don't have as much history with all of you."
"No.” Now Barton looked at him, heat behind the rigidly still mouth, unblinking hazel eyes. “You're the one who's not in on the joke, Merquise. We fought you. We fought everything you represented. You made nice for Preventers, but you've hovered on the edges for years without making a real commitment. Duo's all about real."
"I won't defend myself to you." He set Duo's hand back in place beside his hip, leaving the fingers curled loosely to the sheet. "I don't have to. You don't know me at all. Not who I was or who I am now. Who I am now is someone in love with this man."
"He does that to people." Not much of a softening. But the agitation of the conversation was evidently too much for Barton. He flicked one of Duo's banana bags hanging from the monitors. "I'm going to change that,” he said brusquely. “Enjoy the quiet."
Alone again. With more to think about, and think, and think, until he was eating his own tail. Treize had loved the life of the mind, could sit alone for days and be perfectly fulfilled. Never Zechs. Not just that he'd preferred action over endless talk, though he always had. He detested the uselessness of hashing some topic to death when doing so brought no relief. Nothing would happen until Duo woke. The entire universe was stalled until Duo woke.
He rubbed the burn on his cheek and chin, then touched the back of his head. The spore blister was gone as if it had never been. But when he brought his hand away, a thick rasp of hair came with it. It had been happening for almost twenty-four hours. If it went on much longer, he'd have nothing left. With a sigh he wrapped the hair into a ball and dropped it into the waste bin beside the gurney.
A wad of fabric hit his elbow and rebounded to the floor. He bent for it. A cap; the kind of cheap cotton knit that one found in hospitals. Almost exactly the same appealing grey as one of Duo's protein shakes.
"Your head will get cold,” Barton said behind him. “It's not used to being naked."
"I'll adjust." He stood to tug it down over Duo's head instead. Duo's skin was papery. He tried not to notice that Duo's hair, too, came too easily separated from the scalp. He brushed it flat and made sure none clung to him as he retreated.
Barton had found the replacement bag. Zechs didn't know which soldiers had volunteered-- or been forced to volunteer-- so much blood for their consumption. Noventa's word was good that far, at least. Barton hung the bag and transferred the line to Duo's catheter. "He'll say the same thing. About the hair.” He touched it with just the back of his finger, then rested his hand against Duo's forehead. “It's okay to mourn it."
"It's a vanity I've treasured for too long."
"It's a symbol. Duo taught me about symbols." Barton let go with a soft exhale. "Going to talk to Sally."
"Is she speaking to you?"
"I've got a lot of history with her, too."
"Sally has a good head on her shoulders. Once she calms down, she'll forgive you."
"Once I apologise, I'll have earned it." He made a final press of Duo's shoulder. "He taught me that, too."
Under escort, he returned to his ship for a sleep cycle. It was a restless night. He could hear them moving, talking, yawning the hours away. After so long alone with just Duo on the ship, his nerves had him jumping at every little sound, even if Noventa's men did make a good effort to be quiet for him. He finally drifted in a solid three hours of REM, but still awoke tired and sandy-eyed.
He lost a double handful of hair to the shower, and collected it in his flannel for the bin. He couldn't bring himself to look in the mirror. He could feel bare patches-- large bare patches-- places that felt raw, but not burnt at least. He made the decision on impulse, but as soon as the razor was in his hand, all doubt vanished. He didn't even need a deep breath before he set the blade to his temple, and drew it back.
Barton was already at Duo's side when Noventa's men delivered Zechs to the clinic. Zechs ignored his raised eyebrows, taking the same seat he'd had the day before.
“Chic,” Barton said.
“Go to hell.”
“Sorry.” Barton's mouth made a minute grimace of annoyance before it smoothed. “Whatever. I didn't mean anything by it.”
“I'm sure.” No change in Duo. If he'd even shifted during the night, it didn't show. There wasn't even a wrinkle in his sheets. The radiation rash on his arms and hands seemed a little less painfully red, at least. “How's your leg?” he asked gruffly.
“Fine,” Barton said.
“It would be a pity if you limped for the rest of your life.”
“No-one cares about my potential limp.”
Zechs rolled his head on his shoulders, and rubbed the freshly shaved scalp at the back of his neck. “How's Duo, then.”
“No change.” Barton drummed his fingers on the chart he held on his lap. Unopened, but Zechs didn't doubt he'd been poring over it. He didn't look away from Duo's face.
"Should we have seen one by now?" Zechs asked him. “A change.”
"I don't know. I've never observed uncontrolled irradiation."
"But the radiation isn't our first concern."
"It's definitely stopped the spores. In both of you. But he was comatose before the reactor.” Barton's severe expression went even more still. “The longer it takes to come out of the coma, the worse his chances of recovery."
Even hearing it made his throat tight. "He's still fighting."
Barton shook his head minutely. "He's not anything." Suddenly he moved, launching out of his chair, tossing Duo's chart to the seat. Zechs watched him warily. "I'm going to talk to Matwari. We might get something out of aggressive narcotic therapy."
"Twenty-four hours ago we were allies.” Zechs didn't rise, did nothing challenging, but Barton reacted as if he had, stiff and thrumming with tension. “What happened?"
"You're the one with the history of changing sides."
He had a reaction of his own, then, but it passed indifferently. Arguing got them no-where, changed nothing. It wouldn't wake Duo. "I just want to help," he said neutrally. “That's all.”
"There's nothing to help with." Barton flexed his hands, then shoved them deep into his pockets. "Talk to him,” he added briefly. “Some people think coma patients can hear us."
Talk to Duo. It was easier to command it than to make it happen. Barton drew the curtain back for them, a little screen of privacy that lasted as long as it took for one of Noventa's men to call for eyeline. In their little bubble there was only the sound of the ventilator, the repetitive beeps of the monitors, the light breeze of air churning out above their heads. The kinds of sounds that could drive a man mad.
Talk to Duo. Zechs wet his lips, ran his thumb over a ragged fingernail on Duo's limp hand. “So,” he murmured softly. He pulled his chair closer to the gurney, his head even with Duo's, near his ear. “I'm not sure what to say. I don't think Barton believes you can really hear me. I hope so.” He wet his mouth again, searching for better words. “If I were a warmer man-- I'm not. I suppose that's obvious. Someone warmer would stretch out on the bed next to you, keep you safe. Make you feel me. You'd probably hate it. You can never stand being held. It makes me want to do it more.”
So much to think about. For maybe the first time in a decade, he missed Treize, the Treize who had been his friend and confidant, the Treize of his childhood who had seemed so wise and strong and right. Treize would have had the right advice. Treize might at least have told him he'd dug his own hole with Duo. Right to that moment in which he'd definitively lost Duo, by confessing what he'd known would, must, end their relationship-- his presence at Maxwell Church. Oh, yes, Treize would have understood that. He'd followed in Treize's footsteps almost exactly. Treize had guessed his identity years before he'd revealed himself to the world as the surviving heir of the Peacecraft dynasty and had gotten involved with Zechs anyway; or maybe because of what he'd guessed. He couldn't say it hadn't affected the web of decisions that had led to going to bed with Duo. Treize had known that the day would come when Zechs, when Milliardo, would have to leave OZ behind, and yet he'd done everything he could to keep Zechs with him, lied and tricked and controlled until it was impossible to stop it from happening. Zechs had known that one day Duo would have to be told the truth, and still he'd held it back, because he'd wanted Duo, and he'd been willing to pretend he deserved him.
He'd never reconciled with Treize. Treize's death had been an open wound he'd just ignored, hoping it would go away, a loss wrapped up in hurt and shame and hatred for things that maybe hadn't really been Treize's fault. If he lost Duo now, unreconciled, questions unanswered, that unresolved anger between them never forgiven, he didn't know if he would ever be a whole person again. Too many pieces would be gone and irretrievable.
Those were the words he wanted. He touched his forehead to Duo's cheek. "You're necessary,” he breathed. “You mustn't stop fighting."
Voices raised in an argument in the hall outside. Zechs looked up, recognising Barton's baritone. Two of the soldiers split off from the security station. Sally, at work at her console still, also disappeared through the door, and said something sharp and quelling. The arguing stopped, but no-one reappeared. Zechs shook his head at the distraction, hoping Barton wasn't getting himself into worse trouble with their none-too-happy new overlord.
When he turned back, Duo's eyes were open.
It took him several heartbeats to fully absorb that. Duo's eyes were open. “God,” he said, a thanks or a prayer, and shot out a hand to Duo's cheek. “You're awake. Duo.”
Duo's eyes went to him. No especial recognition, comprehension. For a horrible second, Zechs wondered if it was still the spores-- that waking sleep, nothing of Duo inside it. Then Duo breathed, breathed on his own, plucking at the endotracheal tube. He twisted his head to look at the ventilator, panic setting in suddenly and acutely.
"Don't fuss with it,” Zechs corrected him gently, drawing his hands away as they began to flail. “You need that. Needed. Barton!” He twisted himself, half standing as his mind leaped back to full awareness. “Barton, Sally! He's awake!”
A veritable stampede answered his shout. Not just the Preventers, but Lena Matwari as well, and just behind her came Noventa himself, a handful of his men arrayed at his back. He dispensed them on task with sharp orders that Zechs didn't listen to. Sally went straight to the monitors, and Zechs spared her a quick anxious glance as Barton bent over Duo, stethoscope finding the slit in Duo's gown to press to flesh.
“Arterial blood gas values are consistent,” Sally said over her shoulder. “PaO2 at sixty-two, PaCO2 normal.”
“Cardiovascular function stable,” Barton reported. He captured Duo's wrist firmly when Zechs lost hold of it, holding Duo's head in place. He spoke firmly, comfortingly. "You're in the clinic on Zebra Tango, Duo. You've had an infection, but we're taking care of you. I'm here."
“We should wait on extubation,” Matwari interrupted. “We don't know--”
“He's freaking out. Duo.” Barton was bodily holding Duo down, and Zechs contributed his strength by pressing on Duo's shoulders, keeping him in place on the gurney. “Sal, get me suction.”
“I want my objection on record,” Matwari said righteously. “It's too soon. The risk of having to re-intubate--”
“And if we don't do it now and he gets an oedema during his distress?”
“Duo.” Zechs slid back into place where he could be seen, taking Duo by the chin. “Listen to me. No-one can help you until you're calm.”
Whether it was just the commanding tone of his voice or that Duo was finally aware of himself, it worked. Duo stilled.
“That's good,” Sally praised him, leaning over with a reassuring smile. “Trowa, remember what we discussed. Step back. Step back,” she repeated, mildly, until Barton did, scowling deeply. “Doctor Matwari, if you'd prep for possible aerosolisation, and perform suction, I think we can try to extubate.”
It was painful to watch. Matwari inserted a new catheter through the tube, while Duo breathed slowly, deeply. Matwari stood by ready with an oxygen mask as Sally told Duo to cough, and yanked out the tube. But Duo kept coughing, unable to settle.
“There's ice chips,” Zechs said, grabbing for the cooler. He scooped with a paper cup and brought it back to the gurney. “Can he have these?”
“Great,” Barton said. He nicked them from Zechs' hand as smoothly as a pickpocket and stepped right in front of him to Duo's side. “There's ice chips, Duo. Here you go, swallow that. It'll help your throat.”
“Stats seem normal,” Sally observed. “Do you concur, Doctor Matwari?”
Zechs watched for her grudging nod. He thought she seemed a little miffed at having to give it, and silently wished her a long and unhappy life for wanting Duo to suffer just to prove her right. He walked wide around her to Sally's side of the gurney. “He's going to be all right?”
“It looks good.” Sally's relief was real, at least, and her smile restored his better humour. Yes. And hope. He smiled himself-- at least until he saw Barton tenderly stroking Duo's cheek.
Sally squeezed his shoulder. "Don't worry, Zechs," she said. "You'll get your time. He probably won't stay awake long. He'll be more aware over the next few days."
In actuality Duo didn't seem to be responding to Barton, not really. In fact, he hadn't really responded to Sally, either-- he'd been coughing before she told him to. He was looking around, but his eyes weren't focussed, didn't linger on anything. He seemed surprised by the spoon with the ice chips, each time, though Barton was talking at him constantly, trying to coax him along.
"Can he even hear us?" Zechs asked Sally. “This soon?”
She frowned at that. “His hearing shouldn't be affected. He might not be able to concentrate yet.” She moved closer to the gurney and waved; Duo's eyes followed her, though they skipped away after. Zechs watched her make a circle around the gurney, to the far side by the curtain, out of Duo's range. She clapped her hands loudly. Barton jumped, and Noventa's men-- but not Duo.
“Try again,” Noventa said suddenly. “Here.” He passed her a small mobile comm. “The top button.”
It emitted a piercing blast of sound that made everyone flinch. Except for Duo. He didn't even turn his head.
Barton abandoned the gurney. He shoved the ice chips into Zechs' hands and pushed past the soldiers toward the equipment pantry. Sally and Matwari were right behind him.
Noventa seemed as uncertain as Zechs. "He's deaf?" he asked tentatively. “Why would he be deaf?”
Deaf or not, Duo wouldn't be conscious long enough for further tests. His eyes were closing as if he couldn't keep them open. Zechs stroked his hair as his breathing evened out. He let out an explosive breath of his own. It was too much to process, and it had all taken barely ten minutes.
Duo had waked. That was something. That was everything. But he'd expected, wanted, the miraculous. This was not miraculous, this was... one more exhausting and demoralising event in a very long string of them.
Noventa, too, seemed to realise it was over. He dispersed his men with quiet instructions. "Agent Merquise,” he said then. “Perhaps we should leave the medical professionals to their work. Would you speak privately for a moment?"
There was nothing he wanted less. But refusing was patently futile. Noventa didn't have to ask him courteously. And he supposed he owed some return on Noventa's efforts to aid them. If Noventa wanted to talk, it was his turn to listen.
"I'll be back shortly," he announced, not that the doctors were listening. He repeated it, to Duo in a whisper, and left a kiss on his forehead. “Noventa,” he said, and gestured the man to precede him.
They went no further than the doorway. Noventa even stood so that Zechs would have a straight view of Duo, a kindness he acknowledged with a tight nod. “What did you want to speak about, may I ask?”
Noventa stood at parade rest, his arms clasped behind his back. What a life that man must have had, Zechs thought. How very much like his own. The finest military academies. Officership. And then suddenly the war had been over, the Alliance shattered, a Pacifist contract adopted by the new ESUN, obviating everything men like he and Noventa had ever stood for, ever been. Obliterating it. He at least had ducked complete obsolescence by joining the Preventers, a glorified police force, the occasionally underhanded, occasionally ugly dark side of Peace. If Noventa had spent the last ten years chewing his own gut and being goaded into open rebellion, then he'd had plenty of time to plan it down to the last details. Except for this.
"Now that Agent Maxwell is with us again,” Noventa understated, “I thought you might have some opinions on what ought to be done with him."
Some opinions? If there had been even a hint of a smirk in that he would have thrown a punch. As it was, he locked his jaw. "It looks as if it will be a long period of recuperation," he answered levelly.
"Agreed. Might I propose that he would be best served by a shorter trip to Mars Colony than a return to Earth space."
It took a moment to decide what might be meant by that. Zechs didn't for a moment believe it was purely consideration for Duo's health. "Are we under arrest?"
Succinctly, Noventa replied, "Not presently."
"Then we're free to go where we will?" he clarified.
"Within reason, yes."
He might throw that punch anyway. "So how is it anyone's decision but Agent Maxwell's and perhaps his physicians' what becomes of him?"
"I've heard much about both your intelligence and your temper, Agent Merquise. Just now, it would be much more sensible to display more of the former."
"Do I seem angry?"
"You aren't required to enjoy your situation." Now Noventa moved to block his line of sight, cutting him off from the clinic. Zechs squared his shoulders, pinning Noventa with his most intimidating stare, wishing he didn't feel so off his usual balance-- wishing he'd been allowed to dress in his uniform. "If you prefer to return to Mars with Agent Maxwell,” Noventa said, “you may. If you return to Earth, you do it with me."
"Now that Agent Maxwell's health is assured, I will be returning to Earth with all due haste. Preventers are disbanded. You return with me, or you go quietly to Mars. Those are the choices."
"Are you offering me a job?" Zechs demanded coldly. "Because you're speaking like a politician."
"Unless you turn me down. That is also a choice, but it ends with incarceration on Earth. There's nothing I can do about that."
That was laughable. "I'll be traveling to Mars with Agent Maxwell."
"You have my word that Mars will not be cut off from necessary supplies shipments, but I warn you now that no-one on Mars Colony will be leaving for some time."
That paused him. He looked around Noventa; Duo was still asleep. "I think we should discuss this further outside." He didn't wait for Noventa's oh so polite half-bow-- he just went. His boot heels clicked on the floor with the force of his stride, and the hollow metallic echo gave him a bit of extra strength. He chose the middle of the corridor, equidistant from two stations of guards where neither he nor Noventa would have the upper hand. He about-faced crisply and grimly. Noventa came in one extra step. He was some three inches shorter than Zechs, but he held himself as if he were a foot taller. It might have been an unkind comparison, but Zechs couldn't help but think that his uncle Field Marshal Noventa had at least topped six feet. If Noventa spent less time trying to live up to his uncle's name and more time distinguishing himself as a feeling, breathing human being, it would have been a little easier to respect him. And that thought sobered him. He knew more than most about living up to a family name. They would gain nothing by sniffing around each other like two dogs competing for alpha role.
"We don't need threats,” he said clearly. “No matter how oblique. If you've got something to discuss, please do so."
"There is nothing to discuss, Agent Merquise. I don't owe you an equal share in this conversation. I'm telling you outright that if you choose to return to Mars, you do it as a private citizen under martial law. If you wish to return to Earth as a political prisoner, you will be accorded the rights granted by the Geneva Convention. But.” Noventa raised his chin. “If you join me, you have the opportunity to influence events."
So it really was a job. It might have been an expression-- however oblique-- of doubt about Noventa's relations with Ianto Cameron, if he wanted to call in unexpected allies, a name with more shock value than he could get from other quarters. It might have been just a gesture of what Barton claimed was Noventa's professional regard for him. They were, after all, men who were very alike. Treize wouldn't have handed second chances to old enemies. But Treize had never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Would he be a fool to throw away a chance to have any influence?
"I understand,” he said finally. “Thank you for clearing that up. Are we finished?"
"Yes." Noventa stood aside, that abruptly. Zechs hadn't really believed that would end it, but it seemed it had. He took a cautious step, then another. At the third, Noventa stopped him. "I'll want your answer by 2300," he said.
Zechs turned back. "I've already given you my answer."
Noventa rasped his knuckles over his bearded chin. He inclined his head.
"You expected something different?"
"You've never struck me as a man who puts his own needs first."
"I highly doubt the world needs another political prisoner."
"Then join me," Noventa repeated flatly.
"In what capacity?"
"I need a right-hand man I can trust."
"You can't trust me."
"Then return to Mars where you can affect nothing at all."
"You don't know that, Noventa."
"Some men are born to change the course of events. But you still have to choose to do it."
He retraced those three steps, bringing him back to Noventa, bringing the soldiers at suspicious attention of his intent. He spoke in a low voice, to prevent them hearing him. "You make the assumption that I'll do nothing but languish on Mars,” he told Noventa. “That's both careless and dangerous."
Noventa's icy eyes dismissed him. "And what precisely will you do there with no mobile suits and no shuttles?"
"There are many ways of affecting change,” he warned. “Not all of them involve violence."
"Then nothing you'd be overly familiar with.” There. A job offer-- not a truce. Noventa definitely did not like him. “Go,” the other man said, with absolutely no inflection in his voice. “Agent Maxwell will be wanting to see you."
His blood was too high to return directly to a bedside where he'd have nothing to do but sit and wait. He trusted Noventa's offer about as far as he could toss the man who'd made it. He'd had more than enough of serving men he couldn't trust. But what balls for Noventa to so much as ask him! Ask-- as if it were even a preferable option. If he joined Noventa he'd be dead before the month was out. He'd be far too high profile not to attract assassin's bullets. And if Cameron didn't have him assassinated, he'd be trying to turn Zechs to his own advantage, and the circle of bribery and threats would never end. He knew better than anyone what happened when you conspired to betray.
Betray. No. That was it. Noventa was turning on Cameron, and he wanted someone who would signal to those disbanded Preventers that he was the better bet than Cameron. Zechs would make a very fine and very visible offering. Join me and have at least a little influence.
And yet. There was no better way to get a man inside Noventa's team than to have him invited in.
He stopped at the end of the hall, staring in at the clinic door. Duo was still out. The doctors were conferencing busily, and didn't look ready to break any time soon.
Zechs caught the attention of one of Noventa's guards. “Take me back to my ship,” he said.
It was deep into the station's night cycle when he emerged again. Noventa's men had let him exercise, closely watched, though his meal had come from one of them and he'd had to eat supervised as well. They at least let him shower alone. The nausea seemed a little better, but the open sores at his mouth still stung. He rubbed his hand over his shaved head, and didn't feel even the growth of stubble. With a deep breath, he left to dress.
He was unsurprised to find Barton already there in the clinic. It was possible he'd never left. Sally's prohibitions did not seem to have lasted long. He nudged the back of Barton's chair before rolling a stool away from the consoles to the gurney.
“He's vomiting,” Barton said. He had a day's shadow of beard growing in, reddish shades that only made the deep shadows around his eyes more pointed. “Started a few hours ago. High fever.”
“What about his hearing.”
“It's probably the auditory nerve. Most of the tests we can't do here, or at least not until he's orientated and responsive.” Barton rubbed slowly at his knee. “It could just be the coma. A lot of coma patients have long-term problems.”
Another wrinkle to think about. His head was getting overly full.
Well, he could purge some of it at least. He scratched at the itching rash on his arms, and jumped in feet-first. "Noventa offered me a position."
Barton looked him head on for once. "What's the punchline?"
"I'm not sure. But it might be important to find out."
Barton's mouth twisted as he chewed the inside of his cheek. He returned his gaze to Duo. "His people are packing. If you're leaving, it's early tomorrow. His pet doctor's the only one who's putting up fuss about whether Duo's safe to sign off clear."
"His pet doctor probably works for Cameron." If Matwari's job really was to delay Noventa as long as possible, she'd managed at least a few minor tweaks. But Noventa wouldn't stay behind if both Sally and Barton gave the go-ahead. "I want to know what's going on,” he said finally. “Why the Preventers were such a threat we had to be dismantled. This can't be allowed to stand."
"And you're singlehandedly going to bring it falling down from the inside? Not likely."
"No, but it'd be better than what we've got now."
"I've had that thought before,” Barton said. “And the only reason we're all still alive today is that there was a Preventers still operating to bring down Mariemaia's Army."
He'd almost forgotten that. Barton had gone undercover-- not quite successfully, as he recalled the tale. Or Dekim Barton hadn't, in the end, cared enough about the old grudge of his son's death when greater vengeance was just at hand through his granddaughter. As, he supposed, Noventa had decided he didn't care as much about his uncle's murder as he did about whatever was going on now that required Zechs at his side.
"Maybe there are enough Preventers left alive to re-form," he said.
"Without mobile suits,” Barton added. “Without Gundams."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
"If you didn't want me to argue you down, what did you want me to do? I'm fresh out of cake and streamers, so your good-bye party's going to be low-key."
He told himself Barton just needed to take his shots, but he gave himself a moment to keep a rein on his temper. "I'm asking if I can count on you when the time comes."
"To do what exactly? Fight?” Barton arched a brow at him. “I won't promise that."
"To do whatever is necessary. You used to be good at that."
"What's necessary might be keeping my head down and making sure Duo keeps his down. And if that's the case, you can be damn sure I'll be doing that and not backing you up on some insane last stand."
That, Zechs decided, was close enough. "I expected nothing less."
Barton seemed to agree. He snorted softly to himself as if he'd just confirmed something trivial. "Don't write him a note. He hates notes."
"I'd rather not leave him behind at all,” Zechs answered moodily. “It's been done before and he never survives it completely. That's a sticking point. You know?"
Barton scrubbed his face with both hands and let his head fall back to the chair rung. "You're still leaving. So face up to it."
"I don't have a lot of choice."
"Tell it to him." Barton rose. He kicked his chair back toward the console. “Night.”
Face up to it. There was some truth in that. He appeared to have made a decision without consciously acknowledging it. It was time for an honest assessment. What he needed to--
“Barton,” he started, but it was too late. Barton was already gone. So he covered Duo's wrist himself, then wrapped their hands together. “Duo?” he said, before he remembered. Instead he put his palm on Duo's chest, over his heart. “Duo. It's all right. You're safe.”
Duo's head had rolled toward him. He scrunched his nose, his eyelids fluttering. Zechs didn't know how to read the monitors, but there were no alarms, no blips that seemed foreboding. “Wake up, Duo. You're all right.”
Duo kicked a little, a sudden movement that startled Zechs. But then Duo was opening his eyes. Zechs stood, leaning over the gurney. Duo blinked slowly up at him.
"Hi," he said.
Duo's mouth moved, soundlessly. He blinked again, as if it took great effort. He looked to either side of him, taking in the clinic. He looked back at Zechs for confirmation.
"You're in the infirmary on Zebra Tango.” What else to say? How much had Duo understood before? “You're very ill,” he said. “But you're improving. You're getting better. It's good you're awake."
Duo freed a hand from his sheet. He rubbed his ear. He coughed, but before Zechs could go for the ice again, Duo actually spoke. Zechs' heart seized in his chest at the sound. "What happened?" Duo whispered roughly.
He felt wild hope then. Just the act of speech, just those two words opened up the impossibility of-- recovery. It was real. "You were infected,” he managed. “We both were-- the treatment was rather extreme. Can you-- hear me?"
He thought it was stupid until Duo abruptly answered him. "Can't hear you," Duo croaked. Still rubbing his ear. A faint frown creased his forehead. “Something wrong.”
He made sure Duo could see his face when he spoke. "You were very ill. But you're mending."
Comprehension. He could actually see it as Duo understood him. Yes. Mending. Duo nodded. Duo looked at his monitors again, the oximetre on his finger, the central line catheter that stretched from his collar to his the IV tower. "Get up?” he asked vaguely. “Back hurts."
He had no idea if Duo was all right to get out of bed. Noventa's guards were far enough away not to hear the disturbance, and he selfishly wanted this time to himself, not shared with the crowd. That decided him. "I can help you sit. Come on."
Duo was still frail. He was barely a weight in Zechs' arms. He lifted Duo from the bed and into his chair, keeping it near with his ankle as he settled Duo into it. Duo shivered as soon as he was out of the bed, thin limbs shaking. Zechs ripped the blanket off the bed and wrapped it around him, rubbing his arms gently, then crouching to rub his bare legs and ankles. “Is this all right? Duo?”
Duo huddled in the blanket. Looking anxiously at him Zechs wasn't sure he really did comprehend where he was, but he was trying. "Zebra Tango?” Duo asked him tentatively. “The deep space station?"
"It was the nearest place with a medical unit. Sally met us here. And Barton." He cradled Duo's feet between his hands, warming them with his skin. "You were dying," he said, almost steadily.
He wasn't sure Duo followed that, either. "I'm thirsty," was his only response.
He found another cup and scooped it full of ice. He offered the spoon without thinking, but Duo only stared at it. He gathered a few chips in the bowl and held the spoon to Duo's lips until he swallowed. "Slowly. Like that."
Duo took three more spoonfuls before he pushed Zechs' hand away. He rubbed his ear again, but he seemed more alert every minute. "We were on a shuttle."
"Yes.” He brought Duo's feet back into his lap. “We were going to Mars. Mission, delivering medical equipment. You'll-- you'll continue on there as soon as you're stable."
Duo's head made a wobbly path down to stare at him. He said, "You're going somewhere else."
He should have called the doctors. He just wasn't sure how much Duo really understood him. And they would want, need to confirm what he was seeing, that Duo couldn't hear him. "I haven't decided,” he answered belatedly. “I hoped to ask you." He stroked Duo's frigid toes. "We're at war,” he said, wondering if it was even relevant. “Noventa, he offered me a position."
Maybe irrelevant, but it caught Duo's attention more firmly than anything else had. "War?” Duo repeated. “How long was I out?"
"Weeks. I--” He'd lost track, actually. The days ran together. “I was ill as well."
"War?" Duo's head tilted dizzily, and he rested it on his shoulder. "Where's Heero?"
It was ridiculous. He knew it was ridiculous, but it still stung, to hear Duo ask for someone else. "Nobody knows,” he replied huskily. “The Preventers have been disbanded."
Duo's eyes were drifting closed. “Tired.”
“Sleep.” He cleared his throat as he stood. He lifted Duo back onto the gurney. “I'll be back tomorrow. We'll talk more.” He tucked the sheet back into the foot of the bed and drew it over Duo. Duo's eyes were only slitted, barely open, but Zechs cupped his cheeks and kissed his mouth, carefully and gently. “I love you,” he said clearly, hoping Duo could read his lips. “I love you, Duo.”
Duo's lips moved, but he didn't know what words they were speaking. He covered Duo with the blanket, and turned away. Deep breaths. Deep breaths.