by RazorQueen
Author's note: Many thanks to Roo for her collaboration on the story idea and for her contributions to pages 1-6. A huge hug and thank you also to Gaby Maya for her excellent editorial advice.

MindWebs

He sold me. The goddamn bastard sold me.

Deathscythe rocked with the continuous barrage of blasts from OZ suits. They couldn't outgun him, but they sure as hell outnumbered him. Where had OZ been hiding all those damn suits? Must be a whole fucking brigade. Leos surrounded him, row on row like tombstones waiting for his name.

Duo struggled to keep his Gundam on its feet, but his arms didn't want to obey him and his vision began to blur. He was losing, and he knew it.

Stupid. But how the hell could he have known he was walking into a trap? He just followed orders. Yeah, like a good little toy soldier. Fuck them all.

He fought the controls, his hands shaking uncontrollably. His body protested the constant abuse, but he couldn't afford to give in to the darkness that threatened to close down his consciousness. Shit, this was not how he planned to go out. He'd never expected to be betrayed by the very people who'd made him a pilot in the first place.

A sheet of flame covered his Deathscythe like a second skin. Sweat stung his eyes, making it all but impossible to see the data readouts. Didn't matter, anyway. He knew what they told him.

Duo battled unconsciousness as fiercely as he fought his OZ enemies. He reached toward the self-detonate button but it seemed impossibly far. Another salvo rocked his Gundam, slamming his body in too many directions at once.

Deathscythe stumbled. Duo's stomach flipped as they fell together. He made a last desperate grope for the self-detonator, but the gargantuan suit crashed to the ground. His face smacked the cockpit wall and the world went red, then black.

+

Darkness rose up around Duo, solidifying into walls of concrete block. He blinked, unsure if he'd returned to consciousness or not. Then cold and pain hit him like a sudden wave and he knew he'd awakened. He sprawled on a hard surface that chilled him through his clothes. Cautious, he squirmed slightly and discovered that restraints held his arms and legs to the table. He closed his eyes, willing back the rising tide of panic in his mind.

OZ had captured him.

But they hadn't killed him. Yet. He didn't want to think about why they might have spared him, focusing instead on the kernel of hope that somehow he'd bought some time.

Time so that he could get himself out of this mess and get back to the others with what he knew. Not long, though. They'd figure out pretty quick that he hadn't died. Who would the scientists send to get rid of him, now that OZ had failed to kill him? Not one of his friends. Duo knew God ignored his prayers if he heard them at all, but he prayed anyway. Don't let them think I let them down... or worse, that I screwed them over on purpose. He drew a sobbing breath. I had to look in G's lab. Just had to...

Duo shook his head to try to clear it, then decided he'd made a mistake as nausea threatened him. Lying still, he let his eyes adjust to the darkened room. Blank, bare walls surrounded him, throwing the cold back at him like knives. Light outlined a door in the opposite wall. The corner of a gleaming metal table jutted into his line of sight. Other than that and the table on which he was confined, the small room seemed empty.

He tugged uselessly at the cuffs on his arms and legs. They held him spread-eagled on the table, which apparently had been designed for a taller person. The restraints stretched him as if they bound him to an ancient torture rack. He felt exposed, helplessly vulnerable.

Footsteps outside the door brought him fully alert. They paused, then a heavy bolt drew back, and the door opened. Duo squinted into the brilliant light of the hallway beyond. He saw several OZ soldiers, weapons drawn, before a man in an officer's uniforms entered and the door shut behind him.

Light glared from an overhead fixture, hurting Duo's eyes. The man stood silently observing his prisoner. Duo didn't recognize him from any intelligence reports. He was tall, with dark gray-peppered hair, and pale, almost colorless eyes. A hawk-bridged nose above thin lips gave a predatory look to a face that otherwise would have been distinguished, even handsome.

"So. Here's our little test subject." The dark-haired man moved close to Duo's side, looked down at him as though he were a specimen on a laboratory slide. Duo glared back at him rebelliously. The man smiled, apparently amused by the pilot's token resistance. He had a dangerous smile. "Duo Maxwell, pilot of Gundam 02."

How did this guy know his name? Confusion flashed across Duo's face. He schooled his features back into blankness, but not before the man had seen, documenting it as plainly as if he'd made an entry in his journal.

"Your profile suggests you'll provide excellent field test data." The man looked down at him, studying him, nodding as though he liked what he saw.

"We've tested under laboratory conditions, of course, but volunteer subjects do not have the level of genuine resistance necessary to judge the drug's efficacy." The dark-haired man stroked Duo's cheek with his gloved hand. With a snarl, Duo jerked his head away. The man nodded, obviously appreciative. "Ah. You're quite spirited. Perfect."

What the hell is going on? Who is this guy? What drug is he talking about? Duo's stomach constricted with fear. Perfect--for what?

"Are you surprised that I know your name?" The man watched him, a small, self-satisfied smile playing at the corners of his thin lips. "I know a great deal more about you than that."

Sounding as though he lectured to an attentive student, he continued. "You grew up on the L2 colony--which is in itself a miracle and attests to your strength of will. Street urchin, survivor of the Maxwell Church incident... your profile is a bit vague about the next few years, but apparently you made yourself quite unpopular with the local authorities--something about vice code violations." The man raised an eyebrow in cool speculation. "At that time, you found it prudent to stow away on a scavenger ship. Trained for three years to be a Gundam pilot. Sent to Earth to destroy OZ, a mission you have failed. I've been personally assured that you're exceptionally resistant to authority figures. We should be able to collect very strong data from you."

OZ knew all that about him? But how? No one knew all that except... oh God. Professor G knows it. Duo swallowed against the sourness that rose in his throat. This was even worse than he'd thought.

Duo bit his lip, listening to the man talk about him like he couldn't understand, like he wasn't even there. Like he was a guinea pig, and he couldn't do a damn thing about it. And if Professor G was somehow connected with this, and not just the ambush itself, he couldn't even hope that one of the other pilots would kill him before this guy could make him talk. Tremors started deep in his belly, spreading to his arms and legs. He concentrated on trying to control his shaking limbs.

The man smiled again, almost sympathetically, but no less dangerously. "Shall we begin?" he asked Duo, as though his objection might make a difference. "Colonel Zechs insists on timely results."

The man crossed to the metal table, and Duo heard a cabinet door open. When the doctor returned to his view, he held a syringe. Duo's eyes widened. He hated needles.

The man--a doctor?--spoke again in that detached, lecturing voice. He must be recording, Duo guessed. "HSS-L Field test number one. Subject, Duo Maxwell, male, exact age unknown, adjusted age 16 years. Height, 156 centimeters. Weight, 43 kilograms. Physical condition, excellent. Preexisting conditions, multiple minor contusions and lacerations sustained in battle."

He pushed up Duo's sleeve and swabbed his arm with alcohol. "HSS-L is a hemisphere-specific suppresser. Left-brain functions are inhibited, right-brain functions correspondingly enhanced. Early tests indicate subjects experience confusion, retardation of logical, linguistic, and numerical abilities and order/pattern perception. Heightened emotional response is common."

Duo clenched his fists as the doctor tied a strip of rubber around his arm, then felt for a vein. He bit his lip when the tip of the needle pricked his skin. Then the hypodermic pierced his arm, and the drugged burned into his veins.

He stared up at the white metallic beams supporting the ceiling. Like crucifixes. Or bare bones. His arm stopped burning. It opened to a gushing, heavy coldness that flowed through rivulets of blood vessels twining within his arm. He quietly whimpered, frightened at how quickly the drug consumed him.

"Cold... "

Duo shivered. He could stop his lips from begging, but he couldn't keep the pleas for non-existent mercy out of his eyes..

Let me go. This isn't how a soldier should die. If you're going to kill me, at least do it fast.

He moaned and screwed his eyes shut, trying to breathe through a clenching fist of ice.

"Subject shows initial response, relates feelings of discomfort, coldness," the doctor said into his recorder. He tightened the restraints as Duo struggled against them, the straps cutting into his wrists.

"I'm not... some fucking... guinea... "

Duo's vision blurred, and he started to pant. The ice fist squeezed him, and suddenly everything smelled foul, like the charred bodies of Maxwell Church. He tried to reach them... he tried. But someone wouldn't let him. Someone took them away and he couldn't see.

Father, Sister, don't leave me, I'm coming...

He lurched upwards, screaming, "Bring them back!"

Did his voice really make the table rattle? Or were those the bones of all the dead, waiting for him in the corners?

"Subject experiencing sensory hallucinations--"

"Fuck you, you cock sucker!" Duo snarled, struggling in vain against the restraints.

"--and extreme emotional fluctuations."

Saliva slid down Duo's chin. He felt his face burn with shame, and he tried to curl up in a ball and hide, but he couldn't make his arms and legs move. His chest heaved with sobs even though his eyes remained dry.

His fading eyesight fastened on the rapacious eyes that watched him. Through swollen lips, he forced a small-voiced, "Why?" He swallowed a heaving breath and asked again. "Wh-why are you... d-doing this to me?"

"Feel honored, little one. You are going to help us win the war."

"I don--don't wanna... " Intelligible speech deserted him, and he closed his eyes and cried.

+

"Subject lost language capacity after 20 minutes at present dosage. Voluntary muscle control appears to be inhibited. Further testing will be needed to determine optimum dosage for prolonged interrogation."

Dr. Garrick Erling noted Duo's vital signs on a chart. Although the boy had lost the ability to communicate rather too quickly, the results nonetheless satisfied him. This test was only a starting point, a way of measuring the boy's parameters. So much resistance... Dr. Erling smiled almost fondly at the boy, who still wept silently, hopelessly. He crossed to the recorder and removed the disc with his own verbal notations, as well as a video of the experiment. He looked forward to making a closer study of his subject's responses.

He stepped up to the intercom next to the door. "Guards to four-eleven for prisoner transport." He turned, leaned back against the wall to watch the boy. He hadn't lost consciousness, but he now existed in a world created by his own mind, where emotion and imagination became reality. From the way the boy tossed his head, moaning and whimpering, his imagination must be an unpleasant place.

He hesitated, tempted to record the symptoms of overdose. Then he shook his head, a little sorrowful. He would have to schedule another test for that, later, after he'd calculated the correct dosage for interrogation.

But just now, he needed to show these results to Colonel Zechs. He slid his charts and the disc into a folder. Results this promising, he'd deliver in person.

+

Someone lifted him off the table. Duo felt heavy and weighted, his arms and legs useless. He offered no resistance as the soldiers scooped him up and took him away. They left him in another place--at least he thought it was another place. Dark and cold, like the other room, but quiet. Like the church at night.

White crucifixes stared down at him, unrelenting in their apathy.

I'm the God of Death. Have you come for me, Jesus? I didn't think you'd want me back...

Swirling mists and violent sparks danced across his vision. It was worse than zero-g, the nausea. He felt as though rough hands abused him everywhere. Even his insides felt bruised, his stomach painfully twisted. But the worst was his head. Spike-footed spiders clawed through his brain. It seemed to him that a door had slammed shut in his mind, that he stood abandoned outside an impenetrable gate, unprotected, vulnerable, with no weapons to fight them. Tears leaked out of his eyes as sadness beyond remedy engulfed him. He had no words for it, only the soul-ache of loneliness.

What's my name? I knew it... I knew it a minute ago. They took it from me, those doctors. Have to tell Heero about them... but what's my name?

He tossed on the narrow bunk, grasping for some hint of sanity in the churning chaos of his mind. The bruise of gravity jolted his body as he rocketed to the cold, metallic floor of his cell. The chill contrasted with a fleeting recollection of his mother, of the warmth of her breast and the safety of her arms. His mind didn't truly recall, but his body remembered and ached for it.

"Mama... "

+

Zechs looked up from his desk as one of his aides entered. "Yes?"

"Dr. Erling is here to see you, sir."

"Erling?" Zechs thought quickly. Oh yes, that biochemist Trieze had foisted off on him. As if he had time for scientists in the first place--and now the man felt a need to inform him every time he broke a test tube. In the last few weeks, Zechs had stopped even skimming the seemingly endless reports, signing off and shuttling the paperwork to one of his overworked assistants.

Zechs sighed and glanced at the clock. "All right. Tell him I have ten minutes. And show him in."

Zechs didn't stand as Dr. Erling entered his office, although the man's demeanor made it seem as though he expected it. He couldn't recall if he'd met the doctor in person before. Probably not. I'd have remembered those eyes. There's nothing there--nothing except calculations. Zechs assessed him immediately. I don't trust this man. Not at all.

Zechs twined his gloved fingers together and rested his hands on his desk. "Doctor?" he prompted, his voice cool.

Dr. Erling's response seemed even cooler. He laid a disk in front of Zechs. "I think you'll find this interesting, Colonel." A knowing smile curled his lip. "More interesting, I presume, than my reports--which I am aware you've stopped reading."

Zechs felt the merest hint of warmth in his cheeks, but he let Erling's observation pass without comment. "Very well. I'm pressed for time, but--"

"Yes, so I heard. I think this will be worth your ten minutes, Colonel Zechs."

Annoyed by the man's arrogance, Zechs inserted the disk into his computer and opened the files. His hand froze over his keyboard as he recognized the face on his screen. That's one of those pilots, the one who escaped from us months ago. For a moment, he didn't register what was happening in the recording. How did we capture a Gundam pilot--and I not know about it?

Then a tiny noise, like a smothered sob, drew his attention back to the screen.

"Cold... "

Zechs watched in horror as the pupils of the boy's eyes dilated, became unfocused. Perspiration slicked the pilot's forehead, beading into droplets that ran down his face like tears. His body arched as though he fought the drug's onslaught. Erling's recorded voice narrated, the hint of satisfaction in it giving the scene a surreal, macabre quality. Pilot 02--it seemed odd to know that he had a name--obviously tried desperately not to show fear, which made his single, tiny whimper all the more pitiful.

This is wrong.

Zechs felt a cold fury building in him, like the rage he felt in battle against those who took advantage of the small and weak. He almost ordered the man out of his sight immediately, but a memory stopped him. Treize... Treize sent him here. On the screen, the boy cried out, his words meaningless but conveying his terror all the same. Tell me you didn't order this, that you didn't know this was happening. Tell me, Treize, or you're not the man I thought I knew.

Zechs forced a bland smile as he closed the file. "This is certainly interesting information, Dr. Erling." He made a show of checking the time. "I'm out of time at the moment, but I shall give your report my full attention as soon as I have the opportunity."

As though he heard Zechs' suspicions, the doctor frowned faintly. He seemed about to protest, but Zechs buzzed for his aide, who immediately appeared to show the man out. Dr. Erling pressed his thin lips together and bowed shortly, then turned and exited. Zechs smothered the urge to sigh with relief as the doors closed again, leaving him alone.

He took the disk out of his computer and held it in his palm. Something trembled deep inside him, shaking the foundations of his soul. I have to ask Treize. I have to know what he knows.

Zechs tapped the disk with his finger, staring thoughtfully at the closed door. But I can't question him if all I've seen is a recording. He opened a drawer, lifted a concealed false bottom, and hid the disk. He would take this up with his General, but first, he'd have a look at the boy himself. It can't be as bad as that recording made it seem. Nothing could be.

Could it?

+

Duo fought a battle with his own perceptions.

Guards surrounded him, or maybe it was the monsters that hid under his bed. Time flew out the window, which was strange, because there was no window, and that was bad because if there was no window, nothing could grow without sunlight, and he was so sick of dead things. The monsters sang to him, lullabies about fire and blood. They rocked him to sleep and pinched him awake but if he lay very, very still they wouldn't know he was there and they would leave him alone and bother someone else.

Maybe they'll go to that doctor... doctor... have to tell Heero about the doctors... but who is Heero?

+

Zechs heard the screams as he entered the detention area. He started running, gun drawn, wrenching open the door to Duo's cell. Who the hell left this unlocked?

The heavy door swung open, and Zechs entered the cell. Four men--guards, from their uniforms--held the boy down. He was naked, and his hair was loose. A fifth man knelt between the boy's spread legs, his pants unzipped.

Duo Maxwell had stopped screaming, and lay with his eyes squeezed shut, biting his lip, tears dripping down his face. What did they threaten him with to make him stop screaming? Whatever it was, it had terrified him more than rape.

Enough. Zechs leveled his gun at the kneeling man's back. "Get off him now."

The men holding Duo looked up and paled. Only one of them tried to speak.

"Sir... I... we... "

Zechs said nothing, silencing them with a cold, dangerous stare. "All five of you. Against the wall."

The guards released Duo and scrambled to obey the Colonel. The boy scurried back the moment they released him to crouch silent in the corner. Zechs had known fear, but never the mindless horror that he saw in the Gundam pilot's eyes. He wanted to obey his instinct to help the boy, but the matter of the guards would not wait. He turned back to the men who also cowered from him in fear.

The man who'd been about to rape Duo shifted uncomfortably. "Sir--"

Zechs' voice turned icy with rage as he spoke to them. "You'd be better off to say nothing. "

The man fell silent. Zechs glanced back at the corner where the boy had crouched. It was empty. The door to the cell still stood open, and Zechs swore as it became clear the boy had run. Have to find him before he gets too far--before someone else sees him.

Zechs slammed the cell door shut behind him, locking the five guards inside. I'll deal with them later. Right now, I've got to find that pilot. He scanned the corridor, but it was empty. The door at the far end, leading to a stairway, gaped open slightly--certainly enough for a slender boy to dodge through. Zechs swore again as he started running toward the stairs. How will I find him on my own? Christ. But I don't dare call for help--not until I understand what's going on here. The fewer people who know about this, the better.

The stairs emerged a floor above the detention cells. The corridor appeared as regular and unremarkable as the one below it, but the doors that lined the hall seemed less sturdy. Storage. Zechs tried the first door to his right. Locked. So was the next. He approached the third door when a sound from one of the closets across the hall stopped him, a small, scraping noise. Cautious, he crossed to the door and paused, listening. Yes, something definitely moved in there. I hope to God it's not rats. He opened the door.

Duo sat on the floor of the closet, drawn up into an almost impossibly tight ball, his arms wrapped around his knees, his hair so long he sat on it. He stared up at Zechs, eyes enormous, apparently too frightened to run. Down one of the adjoining corridors, Zechs heard voices. "Come on," he said to the boy, offering his hand. The pilot watched him warily, but made no move. The voices grew louder.

"Sorry, but there's no time for discussion." Zechs reached down and grasped the boy's arms, hauled him to his feet. Duo struggled, but Zechs scooped him up easily, holding his arms and legs tightly. He paused only long enough to listen, then started back toward the stairwell, his captive still squirming in his arms.

"Stop that," he ordered, his voice quiet. "Hold still. I'm not going to hurt you, for God's sake."

Whether it was his words or his tone, something seemed to get through to the drugged pilot. He stopped struggling, giving Zechs time to think about what to do next. I can't put him back in a cell. He's still helpless--that disgraceful scene will only happen again if I do. I have to hide him somewhere. Zechs sighed. The only possible solution was to take the boy to his own quarters. At least I can keep him safe until I find out what the hell is going on.

He looked down at the boy in his arms. He'd stayed so perfectly still that Zechs wondered if he'd lost consciousness. But he hadn't--he watched his captor warily, his violet eyes wide, dilated with fear.

The huge eyes, the stillness, the softness of the boy's brown hair stirred a memory.

He's like... like a baby rabbit.

Zechs had once stumbled on a nest of the tiny creatures and picked up one of them. The rabbit had lain in his hand, too terrified to move, much less run away. He'd stroked the soft fur with his finger, amazed at the miniature perfection of the little animal, but no matter how gently he handled it, the panic hadn't left its round eyes. Finally, he'd put the rabbit back in its nest, a bit saddened by the way the animal flattened itself to the ground to escape him, even though he'd meant it no harm.

Duo's eyes had the same timid, helpless look.

Zechs managed the door to his quarters, kicking it closed before he carefully set down his silent burden. As soon as the boy's bare feet touched the floor, he darted away in a swirl of ivory limbs and flying hair, a wild little animal seeking shelter. Zechs reached toward him, but Duo scrambled underneath his desk. The pilot huddled there, panting, pressing himself into the farthest corner of the cramped space.

Zechs knelt in front of the desk. He could, of course, have dragged Duo out of his hiding place as easily as he'd pulled him out of that closet, but those eyes, so defenseless, waiting to be hurt again, stopped him.

"Duo, it's all right. I won't hurt you."

Enormous amethyst eyes watched him from within a caramel-colored tangle. Slim hands hugged trembling shoulders, ivory skin gleaming through the curtain of hair.

My God, he's a lovely little thing. He suppressed another surge of fury at the guards who'd tried to force themselves on the boy and at Dr. Erling, who must have known what would happen but left him alone and without protection anyway.

"Duo, truly, I don't mean you any harm."

Owl-eyes blinked, but the boy made no sound. Zechs sighed, leaning back on his haunches. How can I convince him to trust me? And why should he, after all?

Duo shivered violently, as though he were freezing. Zechs remembered from the recording that the boy had seemed acutely sensitive to cold after Dr. Erling injected him with HSS-L. Carefully, he eased himself away from Duo's hiding place, stood, and crossed to his bathroom. He retrieved his bathrobe and returned to his desk.

"Duo, you're cold, aren't you? Come out, and you can put this on." He held out the robe, plush and deep blue as the night sky. "You're safe now. I'm going to take care of you."

The pilot bit his lip, furrowed his forehead, as though he were considering something. Finally, he spoke, his voice little more than a whisper.

"You will?"

"Yes."

"I'm so scared." Tears filled Duo's eyes, spilled onto his cheeks. "Why am I so scared?"

"You were drugged. But it's going to be all right."

Duo sucked on his finger, watching Zechs through tousled hair as tears dripped down his nose. In those remarkable eyes, Zechs saw confusion and terror war with hope. He smiled at the trembling boy, offering him the bathrobe again.

"Duo, I'm not going to let anyone hurt you. I promise. But you have to come out so I can help you."

Duo shifted slightly. Hesitant, he inched forward on his hands and knees, hair sweeping the floor, quaking so hard his limbs would barely support him. Zechs crouched, motionless, still smiling reassurance. Come to me, little pilot. Just a bit more... you can make it. Finally, the boy hunched in front of him, reached out a quivering hand toward the promise of warmth and kindness.

Zechs slipped the robe over Duo's shoulders. The boy clutched the soft cloth to his body, dissolving into wracking sobs. Zechs gathered the weeping pilot into his arms and carried him to his couch.

"Don't wanna cry," Duo whispered through his tears. "Boys don't cry. But... but I c-can't stop."

Zechs stroked the boy's long hair. "It's the drug. You can't help it." With care, he lifted each of Duo's arms in turn, slid the sleeves of the robe over them. The pilot looked even smaller swathed in Zechs' clothes. "Lie back and close your eyes. Try to rest."

"No!" Duo gripped Zechs' arm, his eyes wild. "Sleep's worse. The monsters come... and the dead... "

Zechs patted Duo's hand to soothe him, but his mind seethed. God damn them.

"All right then." He laid his hand on Duo's damp cheek. "What can I do for you? Are you hungry? Thirsty?"

Duo nodded. "Thirsty."

He fetched the pilot a drink of water. Duo reached for the glass, but his hands trembled so badly Zechs feared he'd drop it. Covering the boy's hands with his own, Zechs held the glass to Duo's lips, waited as he gulped the water as though he were afraid it would be taken from him.

"More?"

"N-no." Duo raised his eyes, studied Zechs for a moment, his forehead drawn as though thinking required physical effort. In a whisper, he said, "Thanks."

Zechs smiled and set the glass aside. "Do you need anything... Duo? What is it?"

The pilot suddenly pressed the heels of his hands against his temples, moaning piteously.

"Spiders... they're back. I can feel them, crawling around my brain... hurts... " He looked up at Zechs, his eyes wells of fear and self-loathing. His lips moved, but Zechs had to lean close to make out the words. "... self-detonate. Please... "

With a pang, Zechs realized what the boy was asking. Hardly realizing his tone had changed, he spoke to Duo as if the pilot were a small child. "No, no. I told you, I won't let anyone--or anything--hurt you. Come here, and I'll keep the spiders away."

He opened his arms and Duo crawled into them, huddled in their shelter, his cheek resting against Zechs' lapel. Wrapping his arms tightly around the young pilot, he wondered how he could possibly shield him from the forces that swirled around them. This boy seemed to be at the vortex of a maelstrom of intrigue that Zechs only dimly fathomed.

What in heaven's name have I promised?

Duo stirred, twisting and whimpering in Zechs' arms. "Brain's like mush, can't think. Something I've got to remember... something... " Tears filled his swollen eyes again as he struggled through the fog of his out-of-control emotions.

"Don't, Duo. Don't force yourself. The drug will wear off."

"But it's important!" Duo wailed.

"Hush. Whatever it is, it will wait. You can't do anything now, even if you do remember."

"... so fucking useless."

Zechs smoothed damp strands of hair out of the boy's face. "Shhhh. None of this is your fault."

"... got myself captured." Another smothered sob escaped him. "... makes it my fault."

Zechs felt Duo's slight body tense with the strain of fighting tears. Zechs petted the long, tangled hair as another round of shivers shook the fragile form. "Are you still cold?"

Duo nodded. Long, white fingers clutched at Zechs' jacket, and he covered them with his hand. As though the gesture reassured him, Duo snuggled against him like a kitten burrowing for warmth. Somewhat surprised at how quickly the pilot had apparently come to trust him, Zechs let the boy nestle into his arms. Duo rubbed his face against Zechs' chest, whimpering a little from the ache of his bruises.

"You're nice. Didn't know any of you were nice."

"I'm not always nice, Duo. But I don't torture my enemies."

The boy looked up at Zechs, tears glistening on his eyelashes like raindrops on a spider web. "Are we enemies? You don't feel like an enemy."

Zechs tightened his arms around the fragile-seeming body. Nor do you, little pilot. "What do I feel like, then?"

"Dunno." He cuddled closer to Zechs, as if the OZ colonel could shield him from the demons that crawled from his nightmares. "But you feel good. Strong. Safe."

Zechs felt a strange tug in his belly. How odd to think that a Gundam pilot should need his protection, should rely on his strength. "You are safe with me, Duo. I won't let anyone hurt you any more."

Duo sighed happily. He slid his arms around Zechs' waist, holding tightly to him, and looked up into his rescuer's face. His wide eyes and guileless expression made him seem much younger. "I like you. Are you going to keep me?"

Zechs frowned, perplexed. "Duo... "

Awareness, and with it, a sadness that aged the boy suddenly beyond his years, washed across his elfin features. "I'm sorry... I-I forgot. I'm not back there any more."

"Back where?"

Duo shook his head, pulling away from Zechs. "Doesn't matter. It's all gone." He bowed his head, and Zechs saw tears dripping down his cheeks again. A strangled sob escaped him, and he angrily wiped the tears from his eyes. "Fuck it all, anyway."

Zechs laid a hand on the pilot's shoulder. "Duo, it's going to be all right."

"How? You want to tell me how it's going to be all right? When everyone I ever care about winds up dead, and I'm a prisoner, and even the bastard who trained me sold me out?"

"What?" Zechs dug his fingers into the boy's shoulder. "What did you say?"

"Huh?" Duo squirmed under his hand, fear returning to his eyes. "You're hurting me."

Zechs released him. "I'm sorry. But what you just said about the man who trained you, what did you mean?"

Duo's violet eyes sparkled with tears. "You said you wouldn't hurt me." The boy scuttled back away from him, to what he must have judged a safe distance.

Zechs bit his lip to keep from shouting at the boy in exasperation. He knew the mood shifts weren't Duo's fault. But for a moment, he'd seemed coherent, more like the fiery pilot than the shivering rabbit. The moment had passed; the boy looked as though he would bolt any moment. Still... something reached him. Perhaps the drug is wearing off.

"I'm sorry," he said again, once more speaking as though to a much younger child. "I didn't mean to hurt you, and it won't happen again. Did I hurt you very badly?"

"N-no." Duo's mouth trembled. "Are... are you mad at me?"

"What you said surprised me. That's all. Of course I'm not angry with you." I have to talk to Treize about this--now. But what do I do with him? Zechs thought for a moment, looking around his quarters for inspiration. His eyes lingered on the bathroom door. He stood and offered his hand to Duo. "I'm sure you'll feel much better if you clean up a little." That would at least get him out of the way for a few minutes. He led the boy through the bedroom to the bath and turned on the shower. "Everything you need is in here."

Duo stood in the bathroom door, his hands invisible in the long sleeves of the robe. His face remained immobile, but his eyes darted from Zechs to the shower and back. "... o-okay... if you want me to... "

"I think it's a good idea." Zechs tried not to sound eager to get rid of Duo for a few minutes, but he said firmly, "I'll leave you alone. I'll be in the next room if you should need anything."

Without giving Duo time to object, Zechs closed the door behind him, waited until he heard the shower door shut. Then he returned to his desk and put through a call to Treize. After a few moments, the dark screen illuminated, revealing the handsome General's face.

"Zechs?" Treize glanced aside, possibly at the antique clock that Zechs knew sat on his desk. "What's wrong?"

Zechs smiled slightly. Treize always could read him far too easily. Without pretense or preamble, he asked, "How much do you know about Dr. Erling and his experiments?"

"Erling?" Treize seemed genuinely puzzled for a moment, then recognition flickered in his eyes. "Oh yes. The biochemist." Treize looked aside a little, and Zechs though he seemed almost embarrassed. "I'm sorry about that... I ought not to have dumped him on you. He was so... insistent... and I--"

Zechs cut him off. "Do you know what he's been up to?"

"Still searching for his superior soldiers, I presume." Treize snorted with disdain. "Scientists. The whole damn lot of them can rot as far as I'm concerned."

"Do you know that he's using the pilot of Gundam 02 as his test subject?"

Treize's eyes narrowed, his jaw tightening almost imperceptibly. Zechs, who knew him so well, knew the information surprised the General. Treize Khushrenada did not like to be surprised.

"No. No, I didn't." All traces of indifference had disappeared from his voice, leaving it cold and hard. "I gave permission for volunteer subjects. Not prisoners--and certainly not a Gundam pilot. Capturing one of those boys would be too great an opportunity to waste on something--"

"Treize, do you know what that drug does? It turned that boy into a shivering, weeping puppet. It was--foul. Obscene."

Treize seemed honestly puzzled. He looked aside, as though he were checking something. "According to Dr. Erling's report, the drug is intended to be used on our soldiers to enhance their logical capacity during battle and reduce fear."

"That's nothing like what I saw. Just the opposite. I tell you, Treize, he was terrified." Zechs thought of the almost constant mood shifts of the boy he'd just bundled into the shower. "More than that, though... it seems like he has no control of his emotions."

"Where is he now?"

Zechs hesitated. Treize saw, and his brilliant blue eyes grew a little sad.

"Zechs, I swear to you by all I hold holy that I knew nothing about this, either that we had captured a Gundam pilot, or that Erling was conducting experiments on prisoners, any prisoners."

Zechs studied the image of the man who'd been his friend for years. Could he lie to me? Zechs knew the answer, but he decided that this time, at any rate, he could trust Treize. "I have him. He's in no condition to be left alone."

Treize nodded, obviously approving. "This may tie in to something I've been wanting to discuss with you."

"What's that?"

"Have you been paying attention to the pattern of the Gundams' attacks recently?"

"Pattern? Their attacks are random, always have been. It's almost impossible to predict where they'll strike."

Treize nodded. "In the past, that was true. But in recent weeks, something has changed. Look at this."

Treize's face disappeared, replaced by a map dotting with glowing lights and legends marking the place, date, and time of each skirmish. Zechs mentally sorted them--Those are attacks from months ago, when they first came to earth. He recalled vividly his first encounter with a Gundam, a brief battle that had forced him to take the unprecedented action of bailing out. And those... those are more recent attacks.

Individually, it would appear that the Gundams still struck at random, but when all five pilots' moves were plotted together... "My God, Treize. It's like someone wants us to find them."

"So it seems." Treize fell silent as both men pondered what this meant. "They act on orders from someone, don't they?"

"I believe so. My experiences with 01 led me to believe that, and some of what Duo has said would confirm it."

"Duo, eh?" Treize sounded faintly amused.

"It's his name. I prefer it to using a number. Numbers make one forget that humans fight wars. That it's people who suffer and die."

"I'm in total agreement with you on that, my friend. But we both know from experience what... appeal... these pilots have. Be careful that you don't become too attached."

Zechs stiffened. "I have no intention of keeping him as a pet, if that's what you mean."

"Don't bristle at me, Zechs. I know you--and I've seen pictures of him." Treize sighed. "Can you question him at all? Is he in any condition to talk?"

"I can try. Earlier, it seemed that he was becoming more coherent. I was hoping that he would sleep, give the drugs a chance to wear off."

Treize nodded. "Do what you can tonight. Bring me the disk in the morning--and the boy. I want to see Erling's handiwork for myself."

Zechs heard the water shut off in his bathroom. "I have to go. In the morning, then."

"In the morning. Treize out." The view screen went dark.

Zechs stared at the blank screen with the sense that something vitally important hovered just beyond his grasp. Somehow, it all fits together--Erling, the scientists who designed the Gundams, Duo... but how? He'd gone over what he knew a dozen times, but there were too many gaps in his data. If only Duo could give me reliable information.

The bathroom door opened, revealing a cleaner but still lost-looking Duo Maxwell. His wet bangs drew chestnut slashes across his pale skin, framing his wide eyes and the shadows beneath them in a way that emphasized his fragility. He no longer seemed wary, but rather resigned, his shoulders sagging as though he were too tired to care any more what happened to him.

Clearly, Zechs was not going to get anything useful out of him tonight. With a sigh, he took a pillow from his own bed and a blanket from the closet into the outer room of his quarters, motioning for Duo to follow him.

"You can sleep here," Zechs said as he spread a blanket over his couch.

"On the couch?" Duo looked at the piece of furniture he'd been sitting on as though he saw it for the first time. "Where will you sleep?"

"My bed is in there." Zechs paused from fluffing a pillow to gesture toward his bedroom. Housed as they were in a palace that had belonged to some earlier regime, the officers had rather luxurious suites compared to some of the places he'd been stationed.

"Oh."

Zechs peered at Duo. For a moment, he swore the boy looked and sounded disappointed. But that makes no sense. Unless he's afraid out here by himself. Smiling reassurance, Zechs patted Duo's arm. "Don't worry. The door is locked, and there's a security system. You're safe."

Duo managed a wan smile in return as he crawled under the blanket.

Zechs pulled the cover over Duo's shoulders, tucked it around the slight body. "Good night, Duo."

"You tucked me in--don't I get a good night kiss?" Duo's expressive lips pursed in a little pout.

Zechs had to laugh. Apparently, the drug was having a new effect on the boy; he sounded remarkably like a coquette. Ah well, at least that's one effect he can cope with on his own. "Not tonight, I'm afraid. Sleep well."

Zechs turned off the light, went into his own room, and closed the door. As he dressed for bed, he mulled over his conversation with Treize. Gundam attacks had become more frequent, falling into definite patterns. Almost as if someone wanted their moves to be predicted, anticipated. Why, after creating such perfect weapons, would their creators want them destroyed?

Unless... unless they have another weapon.

The thought of a weapon more powerful than a Gundam chilled him deep inside. As much as he loved piloting his Tallgeese, he knew that the Gundams improved on his mobile suit. Speed, agility, weaponry--the suits those boys flew far surpassed his own prototype. And if there were something beyond that...

But why get rid of the Gundams? Unless it's something even these boys would object to?

Running his hands through his hair, Zechs sighed. There wasn't anything he could do tonight, except keep that pilot safe and take him to Treize in the morning as he'd agreed. He turned back his covers and climbed into bed.

[cont]