Author: Maldoror
see 'two percent - dynamite' for warnings, disclaimer

Two Percent
Countdown

Seven.

Eight.

I glance at my watch as I also count seconds. Thirty second before the H-6 charges blow.

Ten.

Stop.

/... /.

I check Duo's pupils, his pulse, satisfactory. He will come to in about twenty minutes, I estimate. I will reapply pressure in the meantime, but I have to be careful. The drugs might make permanent brain damage more likely.

/... ?/

I take a deep breath.

Mission. Primary mission partially successful.

Mission. Primary objective modified. Extract data, pilots 01 and 02 from situation.

/!!!/

Fallback objective. Eliminate 02, escape alone with data, destroy Gundam Deathscythe.

/... /

But failure at primary objective is to be avoided at all cost.

/... Confirmed./

The bombs blow, a distant rumble. The first instant of the blast makes the guards jump, my bullets take them in mid-surprise, and the muted gunshots, the crumpling of their bodies and the clash of their weapons hitting the metal floor are covered by the dying echoes of the explosion.

I gather up Duo, fling him over one shoulder and, gun drawn, start running towards the service elevator.

/Timing on self-destruct devices ­ sixteen minutes./

Blueprints flash through my mind. The accountant's office is near the elevator. I will reach it with nearly ten minutes to spare if there is no interference; I will be able to see if I can access his terminal, he has a privileged connection. If not I still have time to complete the fallback objectives, climb up the elevator shaft to the ground-level complex by myself and hack into the landline through the network hub in the service conduit nearby to set the delay again.

By then the base will be going into lockdown mode, despite the hacking, so I will have to accomplish part one of the fallback objectives before I climb the shaft; there are too many chances in coming back down it for Duo.

/Confirmed./

I grunt as I shift Duo's weight. He's gained a few pounds of muscle since he's been training and sparring with me. His braid hits and twists around the ankles of my boots.

I hope the accountant has an accessible terminal.

*

I can feel seconds hissing past me like tracer fire as I hammer codes into the accountant's computer. Someone smart has finally reacted at the mainframe level and has started disabling my hack. Fortunately he's working on damage control, he's still far from locking out my backdoors and overrides. The viruses are hampering his efforts as well.

But I have a feeling that next time I enter that code, I will be blocked unless I do it from my own system, which is in Wing's cockpit, which is a very long distance away.

The self-destruct is once more reset, but I can't relax. Plans and blue-prints flash through my mind, but even my superior tactical training is finding it hard coming up with many options now.

I check Duo. Pupils good, pulse strong. He's starting to stir.

I put pressure on the artery again, the blood squirms beneath my fingers before I cut off the flow.

... Nine, ten.

Ok that's enough.

Eleven.

I try to loosen my fingers.

Thirteen.

/Neutralize - reduce parameters-/

Primary mission! Fifteen, sixte-

/Elimin-... primary mission... /

I tear my fingers away. Air burns my lungs as I gasp and teeter to the door on legs that are suddenly shaking. I check the hallway outside, still empty. My vision is blurring...

/Unacceptable!/

I grab control of my own functions and steady them, wasting a few precious seconds as I slow my heart-rate and breathing. My centre is more elusive.

This is no good.

I find I've taken two steps back to Duo. With my hand on my gun.

We can still make it out alive!

/Probability will not compute though./

Probability may not compute but it's getting lower the longer I try to-!

Stop.

The chances are already stacked against us. Carrying an unconscious Duo is only slightly better than a seizing and suicidal one. If I add my own indecision to the mix we're both dead.

In that instance of clarity I take the decision.

I have to use one of the weapons Dr J implanted in my head. I'm putting myself at risk, but if that's what it takes to get both Gundams and both pilots, however damaged, out at the end of the next twenty-seven minutes that is acceptable.

/!!?/

/Basis of this decision? Reducing variables and using fallback objective would be-/

I've already decided. Code: Lockdown.

/*Code: Lockdown. Heart-rate increase 25%, respiration increase 15%, blood-pressure increase 20%, adrenaline increase, epinephrine increase, endorphin stabilisation.*/

I grab Duo and heft him up without feeling his weight. I slide out of the door, gun ready, but the corridors are still empty. My opponents are fanning out from the interrogation room, and blocking my entrance route. I can see them as if they were slowly moving chess pieces on a board. They have not yet computed the possible exit routes though. I do. We have a chance. The corridor is haloed in cold clarity as I sprint down it effortlessly.

/*Twenty-six minutes*/

I haul Duo up the elevator shaft, the rope from my pack rasping against the metal edge. I'm back on ground level now, but the clatter of boots on concrete echo like gunfire outside. I grip my weapon. My mind calculates just how many of them I can fight/kill before I am delayed too long. Not enough. I have to get out without a fire fight.

/*Twenty minutes*/

I leave one of the last two H-6 charges in the elevator shaft on a five minute delay and drag Duo to a window. It's locked with a steel frame. I rip it open like paper. I throw Duo through and crawl out carefully, we are hidden from view by a military truck just outside.

/*Fifteen minutes*/

The H-6 goes, sweeping the building's core with fire from basement to roof. The men at the small northern checkpoint are distracted by the explosion. Fatally. My bullets take each of them down precisely, one shot apiece. Two of them have time to return fire. I barely note the damage to my upper arm before they go down. I'm still functional. I feel no pain. 

/*Thirteen minutes*/

I gun the truck through the checkpoint and point it towards the tunnel. It will take them a few minutes to realize the checkpoint guards are no longer responding. Duo is tossed around the back of the truck as I jump the curb and head towards the forest road. I should make it in less than ten minutes. The Gundams are less than a minute inside the tunnel.

/*Eleven minutes*/

I feel no panic at the closeness of the call, I merely start computing all parameters I can possibly put into play to reduce the time it takes me to get to Wing.

/*One minute ten seconds*/

Duo slips from my shoulder with a thump and I run towards Wing. I hit the button on the pulley lift, then climb up the rope hand over hand as it starts to pull me up towards the cockpit. My fingers are a blur on the keypad as I enter in the complex code I know better than my own code name.

/*Twenty seconds*/

The cockpit hisses open, I squirm inside, bruising my ribs. I hurl myself over to the open laptop, my fingers precise as I call up the program-

/*Sixteen seconds*/

- and input the cancellation code.

/*Fourteen seconds*/

/*Fourteen seconds*/

/*Fourteen seconds*/

I run a quick check to make sure the program is not lying to me, and, when the self-destruction abort command is confirmed, slowly collapse to my knees, panting.

/*... ?-/ No, not now, I need to get us out of here first. I burn some more adrenaline and keep myself in lockdown mode by sheer willpower.

I slip my foot in the lift's stirrup, hit the down button, and jump half-way to the ground, landing in a crouch on the old cracked concrete of the disused tunnel. I run to where I'd let Duo drop, a few meters away from Deathscythe.

"Duo, wake up!"

I don't have perimeter alarms or anything, soldiers could be on my tracks and closing even now. My gun is already in my hand, covering the tunnel entrance.

"Duo!" I give him a rough shake and he groans, his eyelids fluttering.

I slap him. "Wake up, pilot! We have to get the Gundams out of here!"

"... scythe... " his lips barely move. Knocking him out twice has added to the effect of the drug load in his system, and his shoulder is bleeding again, he's worst off than before.

"Duo, it's Heero." I snap, as I haul him up by the waist and drag him towards Deathscythe, gun still swinging towards the faint streak of light that is the beginning of dawn beyond the tunnel entrance. "We're going up to Deathscythe's cockpit. We are in a hostile situation, we are going to extract our Gundams from it now. I'm taking the lift to your cabin, hold on." He's only half-conscious but I keep talking. Duo's in a great deal of pain, drugged, and a killer with deadly reflexes, that's not a good combination. I don't have time to take precautions while handling him, I have to hope that the sound of my voice and the presence of his Gundam will stop him from injuring me if he wakes up too suddenly.

"H'ro?" I can feel him mutter against my chest as I enter his code into Deathscythe's lock.

"Yes, Duo. Wake up. We need to get going."

I can feel him revive slightly at the familiar hydraulic hiss of the opening cockpit. I sling him down into the command chair and his hands are on the controls before his eyes are even fully open.

"Wh-what- how did we-"

"Later!" I snap. "Are you lucid? We need to extract now!"

He blinks at me, his body is starting to shake again. The hands on Deathscythe's commands are as firm and solid as gundanium.

"Duo, we have to get out of the tunnel and through the woods. Once we're clear, I'll assume jet position, you hook your Gundam to the handles and we'll pull out." I don't think he's going to stay conscious all the way to the safe-house.

"Enemy air resistance?" Duo asks automatically, while his fingers start the boot-up sequence without any conscious input from his fogged mind.

My mind computes probabilities with the cold clarity of a scalpel. If they've re-established comms at the hospital complex then we might be met by a fleet of Leos and Virgos or dolls in the next ten minutes.

"Unknown. I'll check. I'll take on anything that shows up, you just get Deathscythe out of here and hooked to Wing." Which will reduce our fighting capacity considerably. If need be I can fly low, dump Deathscythe and clean up the opposition.

Back in Wing's cockpit I open the commlink to Deathscythe and bully and badger Duo into getting his Gundam out of the tunnel. He's OK while we make our way through the woods, but I can feel that he's hanging on with all that he's got.

So am I.

Wing takes off, curves back while folding into jet position, and Deathscythe nearly misses its grab as I pass over him low. Still, he makes it, latching on to the handles we've installed below Wing for just such an emergency extraction of another Gundam. Wing and I automatically compensate for the extra weight and drag, while my fingers and part of my mind are analysing data from my laptop and onboard computer.

"The comms are still down in the base." I am too remote for relief. "There is no enemy air resistance. Enemy activity on the route to safe-house: null."

"Oh good." And there's a small thunk.

"Duo?"

No answer.

"02, status?"

No answer. He's passed out again.

My hands slow as I verify the computer readout again, re-check the data.

I glance towards the unengaged Zero system which would make the task easier, but...

But considering what is coming, that could be very dangerous...

I'll only need the zero system if enemy aircraft are spotted. I input the appropriate alarm programs. I realize my hands are trembling.

"Duo?" I don't know why I say that, but suddenly I feel the need to hear his voice. I don't hear an answer but then my blood is starting to ring a steady pulsing beat in my ears, drowning out even Wing's comforting engine roar...

My hands are shaking as I lock in auto-pilot, set up more alarms, try to remember what else-

Suddenly I'm dropping like a rock from the edge of the world.

/**********!!!/

I gasp as I instinctively check my stabilisers, then I wrench my hands off of the controls. Mustn't interfere. Wing is OK, he'll take us-

/$£$$?###################!/

-"take us back to the safe-house, the alarms-" I gasp as my muscles clench. "The alarms are set for enemy movements."

/**Confirmed$££./

"I extracted both pilots and both Gundams."

/&&&Probability of success uncalculated. Unacceptable!!/

"Destroying Deathscythe also unacceptable!" My teeth catch on my lip and I taste blood though I feel no pain. My whole body is numb. The double-shock of losing lockdown mode and regaining my conditioning is sending me over a dangerous edge.

/Does not compute! *****/

"I got us both out!"

/Unacceptable risk to Gundam! Compromising mission!/

"Mission successful." My voice claws its way back from the edge, but the mental turmoil is not done with me yet. I clutch the disk of data in my pocket but it's not enough.

/Risk was unacceptable!/

"Risk wasn't computed."

/Risk not computed -Unacceptable!/

"If I'd computed the risk I wouldn't have had time to extract us."  I bite out, angered by the catch once more.

/Unacceptable!/

"I didn't have the data to calculate the risk anyway." I know this will probably only make it worse, but it's the truth. "Too many variables. I opted for-"

My skull crashes back against the command chair's head-rest as my muscles seize, in tactile memory of the agony of my training sessions which feel close to unravelling.

/Unacceptable decision!/

"Extraction of Gundams-" I choke.

/No! Should have eliminated variable in equation! Illogical decision!/

"I judged the situation-"

/Secondary opinion negative as well!/

"Duo... " I mutter with a groan, remembering the flash of light on a twisting, turning blade. He had been pretty sure of what the risk was... Deadly sure. My mind feels like it's on fire, a roaring flame crackling in my ears, charring my skin, burning the world.

/Unacceptable compromising of mission./ Facts and habits crash into me mercilessly.

"I thought-" it escapes me without volition. Damn. "I thought I could make it. Duo could have been wrong."

/No data! Elimination of variables should have insued./

"I'm not giving up on Deathscythe." Or Duo, though that had been only a minor consideration in the whole. Hadn't it? A feeling of slowly rising panic chokes me.

The pain and stress of my body climbing down from the fighting edge to which I had forced it in lockdown mode cannot begin to distract me from the chaos in my mind as my conditioning tries to ascertain the extent of its failure. Had I misjudged the situation? Had I taken an unaceptable risk, compromising the mission? Had Duo played any part in it?

Yes to that last at least. I respect Duo and his opinion. His quick intuition allows him to grasp a situation before I can compute it sometimes.

And Duo had tried to self-destruct.

The enormity of life-loving Duo trying to shove a blade between his ribs rather than let me try to get us both out alive is shattering.

My mind is racked as parameters and decisions are caught and dissected, split apart and analysed down to the component atom. Through the ringing in my ears I can hear my voice continue to whisper argument and counter-argument, as if saying it out loud can fasten down the spinning tails of my self-control.

But when it came down to it, I had taken a decision on insufficient data, and actually ­my body thrashes, my grip convulses on the chair's armrests- broken my own conditioning, first by getting Duo to take down my defences, then with the panic mode, to take a decision that every aspect of my training should have countered. But I had succeeded. Luck had played a part but still I had-

The inescapable conclusion drags itself out of the depths of my mind.

"I don't know. I can't compute how likely this successful outcome was. How can I resolve this when I don't have the data to resolve this?"

/Third opinion necessary./

I know what that means. A spike of associative fear and pain slams through me, my body shakes. But that's nothing, my emotions are such a minor part of my decision process that they will not affect me.

"I cannot analyse this. I cannot tell if my judgement was at fault. Impartial analysis of my actions by a third party is needed." My whisper confirms my decision, stabilising me. My fingers reach for the laptop, compute what I need for the trip I must take.

/Acceptable./

My mind calms now that I have a decision, an anchor. The situation will be resolved.

"That will take Wing out of combat for a month. At least."  That's the only negative aspect of this plan I can see.

/Acceptable. Pilot performance cannot be compromised./

"If pilot judgement was at fault, retraining must be undertaken to rectify failure." Like last time... my mind shies away from that. I'd rather contemplate the pain that awaits me at Dr J's hands than remember the cause of my last retraining. At least this time, no innocent died. But I have to be able to trust myself. Or someone will.

One of my alarms chirps.

The world immediately refocuses, and I'm once again behind Wing's controls. My body is trembling slightly and I'm covered in sweat, but my mind is clear.

It's the safe-house beacon. We made it.

/Confirmed. Analyse and compute next moves./

While my mind sets up a list of tasks I must accomplish before I can leave again, my fingers fly over the controls.

"Duo?"

No answer.

"Pilot 02, respond."

I hear a sigh, ending in a groan.

"Pilot 02, respond, we are approaching the safe-house, we need to disconnect our Gundams."

"... why, ‘think ‘scythe likes havin' Wing by the short handles... "

I frown at the commslink. "02, are you lucid?" It certainly doesn't sound like it, but then again this is Duo.

"Yeah yeah, I'm awake, Mom. Can I have pancakes for breakfast?"

"02, say my name and state your status. Now."

Duo sighs over the commlink. "I'm up, Heero. Glad to see you still can't take a joke. Did we make it? Stupid question, we're not smeared over the countryside I see. Are we there yet?" His voice sounds weak but I think he's not delirious.

"Yes. Are you capable of disconnecting?"

"Yep."

"OK, from my count. Five, four, three, two,-"

"Bombs away." Duo mutters and I compensate for the shift of weight as Deathscythe drops to the ground and makes his way to the prepared clearing full of camouflage tents.

I bring Wing down quickly besides Deathscythe. We are near the cabin where we ­no, where Duo will recuperate. There's a radar alarm in it, I need to set it and link it to his comm frequency, I'm not sure he can do all this himself for awhile. Should I wait until tomorrow until Barton rejoins us?

/Negative. Efficiency potentially compromised. Must rectify./

Besides, I think Duo is going to be difficult about this, and possibly Barton will as well.

I jump down from Wing's cockpit. Deathscythe is still closed, though I hear Duo stirring over the comms. I'll have to get him out of there, I don't know if he can make his own way down, but security measures first.

The cabin is small, much like the one we left behind only hours ago, but at least it has two beds in it and they look acceptably clean. The radar is already set up and calibrated, Winner is efficient that way. I know that he will also have provided food and water, fuel for the generator, and a fully furnished medical kit which Duo will require. Barton should be here soon enough to help him from there on. I do what I need to do with the radar ­skies still clear, apparently we got away clean- check the place over for bugs or interference, then head back to the Gundams. I clamber up and pull the camo over Deathscythe. I do as good a job as I can alone; my arm is starting to ache, the bullet wound is bleeding and needs stitches. When Barton lands Heavyarms tomorrow he can check the camo, it should be safe until then. And I can take care of my arm on the trip. I drop to the cockpit.

I stare blankly at the empty command chair for a few seconds, adrenaline creeping up my veins again.

"Duo? Duo, respond. Where are you?"

I glance around from the cockpit's platform. There. A small figure dressed in black and bruises, crumpled on the ground near Wing. He must have woken confused and gone to fetch me. Baka, why didn't he just use the comms? He must not be as lucid as I thought, now that he's no longer behind Deathscythe's controls.

He's stirring as I approach, struggling up on his elbows.

"... there you are... thought Wing had swallowed you whole... you OK?"

"Functional. You?"

"Hmm, I'm alive, and in the kind of mental space where I'm rather regrettin' it. What happened, did the whole OZ base take turns jumping up and down on me?"

"Actually you are fairly intact, considering." I haul him up by the waist, his good arm over my shoulder, instinctively checking my reactions to another's proximity. At least that much of my control remains. "Come on, I'll take you to the cabin."

"Oh joy, another happy camper ad. When can we stay at the Ritz?"

"Never."

"Thas' pity cause I hear their penthouse suite is a real hit. You know, I bet Khushrenada stays in the penthouse suite every time. You know how many times Treize stayed in mouldy old cabins the last year we've been fighting him? ‘bout as many times as we've stayed at the Ritz-" I tune him out, my mind on flight paths, avoiding enemy contact and the best way to L1 and Dr J's new hide-out.

I drop Duo down on the bed and turn towards the door.

"Where are you going?"

I glance back. Duo is looking at me through his bangs. He's got the merry jester smile on his face, his eyes are like purple glass. It's a strange question; even if I were staying I would have a lot of things to do.

"I have a mission. I have to leave right away. Barton will be here tomorrow afternoon, you should be able to manage in the meantime."

"Oh, a mission, hmm? When did this happen?"

"It derived from our previous mission. It does not concern you. You can't help me with it."

"Oh you sure about that? What's it about? Where are you going?"

"I don't need to tell you that."

"Well no, but we're partners so it kind of expected, normally." Duo's voice is his usual casual lilt. His smile is jagged.  "Gonna be gone long?"

"Yes." I say shortly and close the door. In his condition, he won't follow me.

I'm halfway to Wing before my commlink crackles on.

"You know Heero, if something's bugging you, we could talk about it."

I feel a bit cold. Was my control so weakened that Duo realized something was wrong? Maybe I'm beyond repair...

/Irrelevant./

No matter. Really, no matter. I don't care what happens to me. And as for Duo... Deep down within me I guess I feel a small measure of sadness but little else, even though I realize that when I return ­if I return- I will probably not be able, mentally or physically, to continue our relationship on it's present footing. I doubt I will wish it after retraining. If Dr J determines that Duo is in any way at the root of my problems, then I will probably be ordered to never associate with him again anyway.

/Acceptable solution./

I accept that. Duo's presence and our relationship has made me, if anything, more efficient in a lot of domains, particularly in understanding the way people think and behave. But if this compromises efficiency I can do without.

"Heero, babe... Why do I get the impression you're not telling me something?"

I frown. He never calls me pet names over comms, or when not in intimate contact. But he doesn't sound upset, either. I'm not sure what he sounds like. Apparently my ‘improved' understanding of people and the way they think and behave is far from all that good yet.

/Irrelevant./

I reach Wing and put my foot in the stirrup of the lift.

"Heero, can you come back here, please? We need to discuss this."

I hit the up button. "There's nothing to discuss, Duo. There is something I need to do."

I switch the commlink off as I reach the cockpit. As I settle inside, the monitor in Wing turns on ­I'd forgotten to switch the link off I realize- and a visual of Duo, in front of the cabin's comm equipment, appears. He's looking at his watch, of all things. He doesn't look upset, though his jaw is firm. His eyes flick to mine as he lowers his wrist.

"I think there is somethin' to discuss, but I don't think you're willin' to. I'll just have to make you."

My hand hovers over the interrupt button but somehow... this is the last time I'll see him, probably. I'm somewhat curious to know what he means by that.

"Duo, you can't stop me. This communication will end in a few seconds. In the state you're in, you can't even make it to Wing."

"Tell me about it." He grumbles, glancing at his watch again. My fingers prep the startup sequence. "It nearly killed me getting up to Wing's cockpit the first time, I'm not risking a second go just to wrestle you out."

"I'm glad you're seeing sense, Duo." I look at the image one last time, reach to switch it off. "I'm leaving now. I hope-" Something about his last sentence didn't sound right.

/?/

"What do you mean, ‘first time'?"

"Five, babe."

"What?"

"Three, two, one."

There's a small ‘pop' sound behind me, one that is not part of the warmup routine of the engines. I glance around-

-my body jerks and drops like a puppet with strings cut, my nose, eyes and throat burn, my mind spirals into darkness.

Just as consciousness fades, I see the source of the sound, a small innocent looking tube attached to a timer and a tripwire, hooked to the command chair. The popcap has blown off...

*

I blink at the unknown ceiling above me. This in itself is not surprising, I've never stayed anywhere long enough for anything to become familiar.

The ache in my muscles and my head are not something I'm used to though.

/Analyse situation... /

I turn my head slowly, trying to see where I am.

Across the room is another bed. Duo is sleeping in it, face pale, shoulder bandaged-

/!/

It all comes back in a rush, and I jerk towards him in fury.

I'm brought up sharply by chains around my wrists. He's ­ I can't believe this, he's gassed me and chained me to the bed!

The clink of the thick chains ­the kind we use to harness loads into our Gundams, not the kind I can snap with a stretch of muscle- wakes Duo. He glances across at me, rubs his face and glances at his watch again.

"Five hours. Fuck, Yuy, you sure you're human?"

"Have you gone insane?"

"Good question. Well, to cut a lot of explainin' and recriminatin' short, no, I'm not the one who's gone insane, or at least, I'm not the one arguing with myself all the way to the safe-house. Does that answer the next few questions you were going to ask?"

"How- how did you-"

"You forgot to turn your comms off in Wing on the way back. And I may pass out from time to time but I get better real fast. I tried to cut into the fight a couple of times but no one was listening to me."

"You-" I glare at him, but I can feel that he's relieved me of my gun and other weapons. I jerk at the chains. The wound on my arm stings and stretches, I realize he's stitched and bound it. I throw myself against the chains.

"Oh relax, babe, I'll let you go in a minute."

"I wouldn't if I were you." I snarl.

"Do you realize that was an incredibly stupid thing to say, babe? I guess you're too upset for logic right now. But you'll bust out of those chains sooner or later, so there's no point letting you injure yourself. I just want you to listen to me."

"I can't believe you did this just to-"

"Well they don't have a couple's councillor available for teenage terrorists so I improvised, OK? Now shut up and listen, Heero."

"Why should I?"

For answer, he draws a key from his pocket and glances at the padlock keeping the chains fastened to the steel bed frame.

I flex my arms, use my legs as leverage, and haul at the chains. The frame screams alarmingly. The chains might not give but it will. Duo rubs his nose and grins.

"Guess I'll make it quick, then. OK. I got the gist of the argument you were having on the way back. You don't know if you screwed up or not, right?"

/Analyse./

I pause in my efforts to free myself. "I should have killed you." I growl.

"No, that's just hindsight talking, babe. And a neurotoxin hangover. In Wing, the whole point of the argument was that you were not sure."

"Hn." I jerk at the chains again. The bed frame gives a bit.

"So you're going to run to Dr J and get him to torture you back into computer mind-mode so you can be sure again, right?"

I glare at him. "This is my business, Maxwell!"

I think I see him wince slightly, but he's still smiling. "Yes, it is, Heero. Which is why I won't interfere when I let you go. You can run home to the good doctor and get brainwashed to your heart's content and I won't peep. I just want to point something out to you first. And no, I'm not going to whine or embarrass you or anything, I just think there's something you overlooked."

/Analyse?/

"Explain." I'm curious despite myself.

"Well, you were in doubt, babe. You didn't know which was the right course, because you didn't know enough to, er, compute it, right?"

"So I should have eliminated one of the variables." I snap.

/Confirmed!/

"Hmmm, eliminated the variable. That's the good doctor talking if I'm not mistaken. Well as the variable in question, mind if I ask you something? How many innocents out there were similar variables in your equations?"

The chain clanks as I stop pulling it. "What?"

"OZ may think you're a stone cold killer, Yuy, in fact you make me kinda chilly too sometimes, but I've never seen you kill an innocent when you could possibly work around it, and I've seen you practically destroy yourself when you have. Aren't they just variables too?"

"You're different. You're a Gundam pilot-"

"And perfectly able and willing to give my life for the cause if I need to. But that's not what I asked, Heero. At that point I was a variable in an equation. Maybe a different kind of variable than those guys we knocked out in the lab, but still, part of your calculations. Does that cold little computer in your head really care about innocent victims? And when it doesn't, do you still listen to it?"

He leans forwards into my silence, hand on his shoulder where the blood-stained bandage has not yet been changed.

"Heero, one of the greatest things I admire about you, besides your absolute dedication, is your instinctive knowledge of right or wrong. Didn't you tell me it came from Odin? Something Dr J didn't have to pummel into you, apparently. Didn't Lowe tell you to follow your instincts, your emotions? And weren't your guts telling you that you could get us both out of that base in time, and that it had to be worth a try to save our Gundams?"

"... Yes."

"And if you'd had no other choice, would you have hesitated to kill me at that point?"

"... No." I say, remembering the fallback objectives, the unquestioning certainty that I would have pulled the trigger on him without hesitation once I had run out of options.

"Glad to hear it."

/Negative. Control compromised./

"But I wasn't in control. Normally I'm absolutely sure-... " I can't express to him how I think. I know we are very different in that way.

"Yeah, I know. It was a close call, the whole base was about to crawl up your backside, the Gundams were wired to blow... talk about pressure. And then there was me. Didn't I maybe tip the scales a bit?"

"... Yes." I hate to admit it, I shouldn't be influenced by outside events or people, but still, Duo's wish had visibly been to die.

"Did it occur to you, in the midst of your meltdown, that though I'm normally a suave and brilliant guy-" I turn to glare at him "- I was also drugged up to my eyeballs at the time?"

"... We are resistant to most-"

"You are, Yuy! Me, I'm slightly more human. Sure, Dr G bumped up my resistance to a lot of things, but whatever they shot into my veins was obviously meant to bypass that."

/Analyse... /

"You're telling me your judgement was affected."

"My judgement was way out over the rainbow and fast approaching the land of Oz, babe. No pun intended. Because I'm still too sore and woozy. I'll remember it for another day though, shall I?"

"Please don't."

"Whatever." His eyes are studies in exhausted black, pained red and bruised purple, his whole face almost distorted by injury and fatigue. I reluctantly admit that he's making some sense though.

"So let's cut to the heart of the matter cause I want to go back to sleep and you want to get out of those chains.

"Babe, since we've become partners ­and I don't mean an item, I mean before even that- I've seen you go through a lot of changes. I didn't say anything because I was afraid you'd freak on me, like you're doing now, but we've all noticed. You weren't designed to work with a team. You weren't designed to live closely with people, or a partner. You were designed to come down to earth like an avenging angel on the heels of operation meteor ­ the real one, the original one- and subdue the survivors without pity or remorse. Well, looks like your design had a flaw right from the start cause you didn't do that. And you adapted to having us around, the team. And me.

"You actually unbent enough to admit that being with me helped you learn stuff. About interacting with a partner ­and a lover- and interacting with the team, with people. It helped you become more efficient, you said, which is probably the nicest thing anyone's said to me since Maxwell church burned down."

I was listening to him with all my attention, now I listen with something more as well. I know that he's said that because he's investing all his emotions into his words. He's still smiling but the jester's mask is like glass and he's letting me see straight through it.

"The thing is, Dr J didn't design you for all this. So, what's happening? One of two things.

"Either Dr J made a mistake, didn't hand you the tools you needed to survive, and you've managed to wing it anyway. Your training was going to break down sooner or later because you simply outgrew it.

"Or he's a lot better than I give him credit for, and has given you the leeway to do what a computer cannot; reprogram yourself. Modify yourself, fight with yourself if you need to, when it comes down to the edge, but in essence, work around your conditioning to do what you think is right, not just what is perfect in cold, clinical terms.

"Either way, you don't need to go back to J. Cause either the old coot doesn't know shit about you anymore, and will destroy whatever progress you've made because it won't conform to his image of what the perfect soldier is ­and in that case, his picture scares the shit out of me-, or else, well, or else you don't need him anymore, and it's time you started taking control over your own control.

"Stop me if I'm not making sense. That last sentence aside." He adds in a mutter.

/Analysing... Can this compute?/

He stands up in a painful series of movements and limps over to me. He stops short as I twitch, body sensing danger while being restrained. He grimaces and tosses me the keys to the padlock. I grab them and twist towards it.

"Well, that's that. I could keep you tied up all night, Heero, let you think it over, but you'd probably spend it trying to get free and strangle me. You might anyway. At this point, it'd be better than an aspirin, which is the only kind of painkiller we have besides morphine and I'd rather not go there. All I can say is, either stay here and think about it or go back. I think you already know which one you need to do, if I'm right about what Odin taught you. If not...

"Then go back to Dr J, tell him all that you've done, your so-called failure, and then blow your brains out and let him install a mobile doll system in Wing, cause it won't be much fucking different."

The chains clank as they fall to the floor. Duo stands near the door, leaning against the wall, face pinched with pain, staring at me, as if daring me to walk out on him now. I stare back. My decision has already been made.

/Objective clear./

I stand stiffly and head towards the door. His face hardens, but I can tell his resolve is crumbling. Not enough to stop me, not when he knows he's said all he could. Not when he knows he was right, the decision is mine, and if I leave, then there's nothing there that belongs to him. He stands away from the door stiffly to let me pass, eyes downcast and full of pain.

"I'm getting the medical kit." I say, since there's no point in making him miserable. "You've obviously busted the stitches in your shoulder, and I don't want to think what you did to your leg getting in and out of Wing. Don't expect any morphine though, or even any aspirin. I owe you that much for gassing me with nerve agent."

His smile is wide and his eyes are much more expressive still. "Payback? Geez, you may just be human after all." He takes a step towards me, lifts a hand carefully. I frown, I'm still angry, unsure, and really not in the mood for physical contact at this point. He merely picks something off my shoulder and steps back. "Run along then, I'll be waiting for you right here. In agony. Probably bleeding to death. From stitches I busted carrying your ass down from Wing and back to here. Yeah, on the brink of being toast. Shinigami about to meet his own maker-"

"Duo, shut up." I close the door behind me.

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