by Cassima
see part 1 for warnings, notes, etc.

Absolute Zero + Part 2

He began to pick at the lock again, just for something to do. What had possessed them to hide in the freezer? Heero wondered again. And, of course, the damn handle was only unlocked on the *outside* of the door. Hadn't these Oz clowns ever heard of public safety? There were regulations against freezers that locked people up together, the sadistic bastards.

Plus, that damn Maxwell was acting funny again.

But, enough of that baka. He'd already thought too much about the long-haired--

Resolutely, Heero began to calculate the placement of the knife. He had ignored the coughing fit Duo had burst into as soon as the door swung shut. He had ignored Duo's whining about the temperature. (Of course it was cold in here! It was a freezer, damn it! That was its design!) He could ignore him now that he was just sitting quietly. Wufei was due to swing by and pick them up in--he checked his watch--two hours, three minutes, and twelve seconds. Perfect. Two hours with a bored Duo Maxwell. Wonderful.

And so, Heero worked at the lock to the sound of Duo shaking and shivering back in the corner. For the love of... it wasn't that cold!

After a while, the noises stopped. Stupid attention-seeking American. Hadn't he learned yet that Heero could steel himself against such dumb tactics?

But now there was no sound coming from the corner of the icy meat freezer, except for some slow, shallow breathing that began to worry Heero's conscience, small as he liked to pretend that conscience might be.

"Duo?" he broke the silence. There was no answer.

With a sigh of exasperation to cover up his concern, he turned. "Duo?" He stopped at the sight of Duo's still body, pale face, and blue lips. Walking over, he shook Duo once, nice and hard, and considered smacking him across the head. "Duo!"

The other boy's lids slowly opened, and violet eyes struggled to focus on his friend's. "Heero?" came the strained voice from before. His dark purple lips managed a small smile. "I'm not cold anymore."

"Hn." Heero grimaced, somehow unnerved.

"I'm warm." His eyes began to slide shut.

Warning bells chimed the hour in Heero's head. "Duo?"

Duo's eyes paused halfway down. "Hn?"

"Duo, don't fall asleep."

"But I'm tired." The voice lacked the usual plantative whine those words would have brought forth. And, in fact, the normally strong voice was breathy and faint.

"Don't fall asleep." There was an uncharacteristic note of pleading in his voice. "Please, Duo. I need you to stay awake. Talk to me."

Duo's eyes struggled back open, but they looked a bit glassy. He was trying to focus; he could sense Heero thought something was wrong. "But I annoy you."

"No," Heero denied, propping him up and pulling him away from the vent the other boy had collapsed next to.

He positioned himself behind Duo, trying to share body heat. Duo's body was like ice. "I'm not annoyed."

"Even Quatre's annoyed."

"Quatre's never annoyed," Heero told him, unsure of how to comfort someone. "He doesn't get annoyed."

Duo began to cough, the sound wet, tight, deep, and painful. Holding him, lending support and balance to him seemed surreal to the Japanese boy, who frowned uneasily with worry. And when the attack ended, Duo's breathing was shallow and thick, as if every breath was a struggle.

What could he say? "Are you okay?" "You're sick"? "Duo no baka"? He finally settled on, "What's going on?"

Duo chuckled briefly. "Enjoy the ride... Heero-my-man. I don't have a fucking clue."

Heero pulled the shivering body closer to him, frowning at the beads of sweat freezing on his temples and neck. "Symptoms?"

"Cold--" he began coughing again, eyes clenched shut tightly in pain. Heero wrapped one arm around his chest to keep him from collapsing, the other hand wrapped tightly around the cold braid. When that fit was over, he lay back gratefully onto Heero's strong chest, listening to the other boy's heart beat and his own wheezing breath.

"Symptoms?" Heero asked again, though he'd mostly figured them out by now. He had to keep Duo awake. Duo's voice was strained, his words a little slurred. "Cold. Dizzy. Can't... breathe. Cough... hurts..."

Heero wrapped his arms around Duo, trying to keep the heat in. They couldn't leave the freezer; people were banging around in the kitchen. But, could they afford to stay? Duo's skin was pale and his breathing ragged. Small details began to pull themselves together, completing the picture. Duo's lack of breath throughout the mission. His odd speech lapses, as he muffled coughing. How he tired so easily while running. The strangeness that surrounded him. So he was sick... but with what?

+

He plucked the strings gently; the tuning was perfect, and he only had to wait for Trowa to finish assembling and tuning his flute. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the words "new virus" printed on the screen, and laid down his violin. With a frown, Quatre turned up the volume on the monitor.

The anchorman's voice rose into audible range. "...so far, the victims of this strange, deadly disease are residents or former residents of the L2 colony, though only a few people have been affected. Symptoms may include unusual sensitivity to temperature, sweating, nausea, coughing, fever, and excessive phlegm. Doctors say it is not contagious, but may prove fatal within twelve to twenty-four hours if the patient does not receive medical care. Doctors are strongly recommending former residents of colony L2 displaying three or more of these symptoms in severity to see a medical professional immediately. In other news, fires swept the once-prominent Chicago area over in the U.S.A. a few hours ago..."

Quatre turned off the screen, eyes sad. "How horrible. Do you think Duo'll be affected, Trowa?"

The man in question studied his flute with the one eye visible from underneath his bangs. "I'm sure he'll be fine."

The blond Arabian smiled gently and picked up his violin. "I'd like to start on measure 51, please. I'm having a little difficulty with the syncopation." Still, though, he wasn't sure. Something felt odd.

+

Wufei chewed on his lip to distract himself from his unease. Something was going on in that Oz base... Yuy had sent the all-clear signal, but an unauthorized takeoff from the landing bay left him suspicious. Oz was getting cagey; after this mission, it would be wise to take a vacation to a hidden valley or tucked-away retreat somewhere. Of course, that would mean being locked up for three months or so with that irritating Maxwell, but Wufei found he didn't mind the other gundam pilots so much as before. In fact, there were some he found rather--intriguing.

But, all the pilots had their good points. Yuy wasn't the cold bastard he liked to pretend he was. Maxwell was a bit hyper, but his antics were occasionally amusing. Trowa could be killer at poker, and accredited Wufei with a certain respect that the Chinese pilot found acceptable in a comrade. And Quatre, of course, under the weak facade, was an interesting conversationalist, and fairly knowledgeable. It could be a worse group of people, he supposed.

He was always a sucker for the wounded soldier, though; he would have to be on his guard. He couldn't afford to become attached to any one of the pilots. Wufei was the odd man, the loner. Wasn't he?

He frowned, and made a mental note to worship Nataku after the pickup.

+

Time had passed slowly. Duo's voice had become weak and lethargic, and Heero finally decided to screw the hideout. Something was dangerously wrong with the baka. He wasn't talking, or being a pest, or acting like a pogo stick on speed. He was lying still and quiet.

"Maxwell," he said shortly. "Get up."

"Wha...?" the other boy murmured sleepily.

"We're leaving."

"'Fei's here?" Duo asked as he tried to sit up. His eyelids drooped, and he paused to rest.

"Change of plans." Heero put his hands under Duo's arms and pulled him up, lifting one arm around his shoulders.

Duo didn't challenge this; his silent acceptance was scary almost by itself.

Heero shifted his grip down around Duo's waist. "Hold on," he warned. He felt Duo's arm tighten around his neck, and he easily took most of the other's weight. "Ready?"

"Not really," Duo mumbled, and allowed Heero to lead him out of the freezer, through the kitchen, and down the long hallway. It bothered him a little, that he couldn't hold his gun and support Duo at the same time, but Duo was incapable of holding one upright in his current state, and it only crossed his mind once to kill the boy and leave him behind.

It seemed his days of being a cold bastard were numbered.

In any case, the gun was close at hand in case of an emergency, and Heero was the fastest draw in an area far bigger than "the west"; it would have to do.

They waded through the hallways as quietly as possible, and neatly evaded the patrols--thanks to Heero. Duo continued to shake, and soon his body was covered in sweat, even as he whispered responses to Heero's demands for a "status report": "Cold..."

Heero had never been more pleased to see Wufei in his life.

They took off as soon as the pilots were inside, and, after strapping Duo in, Heero sat down in the co-pilot's seat next to the Chinese boy. "He needs to go to a hospital."

"What's wrong with him?" Wufei asked, but Heero could see him re-setting the course of the airship. "He's got some sort of virus," Heero replied. "Make sure there's a good doctor on hand."

"I know where Sally Po is," he responded. "We'll go there."

In the back left bucket seat, Duo began to cough again.

+

"Duo's from L2?" Sally asked, looking at the x-rays.

"Yes..." Wufei answered suspiciously. "Why?"

She sighed, and looked back at the test results in the folder in her hand. "Don't you kids watch the news?"

"Onna, if you don't tell us what's wrong with the damn baka--"

She bit her lip, trying to remind herself that Wufei was very stressed at the moment, worrying about his friend. "L2 is a very poor colony," she finally said. "They don't have a reputation for following health codes all the time. The Department of Human Rights has a certain set of regulations that a colony must follow to remain fit for human habitation; this involves flushing waste, water purification, and so on.

Recently, it has come to public attention that certain areas of L2--the more inner city ones--don't change the air filters regularly. A virus mutated in a few of these filters eight to ten years ago and caused a plague, wiping out a great deal of the population living on the streets before doctors could come up with a vaccine."

She sighed and set down the files. "A mutation of this virus has been incubating in Duo's lungs for quite some time. Cases like this have been popping up all over L2 recently; I had a doctor friend of mine there fax me a copy of all the information he has on it. It's not contagious, but that won't help your friend."

"Can you cure him?" Heero asked, mouth tight.

"I don't know, Heero," she responded. "Time and medication should be able to clear his body of the infection, but the virus is resilient. He'll probably have a few relapses." Sally pointed to a few spots on the x-ray. "You can see here and here that there's damage to the lung tissue; if you'd been half an hour later, he'd be coughing up blood right now."

"Prognosis?"

"He'll probably pull through. He's young and otherwise healthy."

+

Duo's chest rose and fell slowly, and Heero was sorry he hadn't rushed more. The oxygen mask covering the American's mouth and nose looked strange on the boy, as did the IV bags hanging around him, and the monitors behind the bed. The pallor of his skin, accompanied by the light sheen of sweat across his face, did nothing to allay the Wing pilot's fear that something was dreadfully wrong with this picture of the normally vibrant Shinigami.

He allowed one hand to touch Duo's bangs, brushing them off the boy's forehead; a tender look at the sleeping boy, just this once. Duo... Duo was special. Leaning over, he gave into his urge to kiss the waxy skin of Duo's cheek, right next to the edge of the oxygen mask.

It was a mere brush of the lips, but Heero felt something electric move up his spine. "Duo..." he whispered, and shifted the mask aside to get a better look at those lips.

Duo shifted a little, and sighed as the oxygen mask shifted. "Hilde..."

Heero froze. He could feel something inside him grow cold and hard, lodging itself in his stomach.

What an idiot he was.

Replacing the oxygen mask, he silently turned and left the room.

Right outside the room, he bumped into Wufei. Great. Someone to pity him.

"What's wrong, Heero?" the other boy asked quietly as they stood just outside the doorway to Duo's room.

"Get out of my way," Heero said, just as quietly.

"It is not weakness to have feelings," Wufei said. "Nataku taught me that."

Heero did not feel like learning about Wufei's baka gundam. "I'm not weak. Step aside."

Wufei, instead of listening, put a hand on Heero's arm. "Maybe, what you could not find with Duo, you could--perhaps--find with me." Heero swallowed and looked up from the hand on his arm to his eyes, into his eyes. Did he know the pain of loneliness, too? Was he tired of the cold? Could he and Wufei...?

With a sigh of acceptance, he took the other's hand from his arm and held it in his own. The feel of Wufei's fingers tingled slightly in his own; Wufei had pleasant hands. They were hardly a match made in heaven, but it would do to keep out the cold.

Back in the hospital room, Duo shifted uncomfortably in his sleep.

end

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