MindWebs (cont)

On the edge of sleep, Zechs heard his door creak open, slowly, as though someone were trying to sneak inside without waking him. He sat up, fully awake, surveying the dark room.

Suddenly, a warm, bare body pressed against him. The clean smells of his own soap and shampoo reached him as two small, strong hands slid inside his top.

"Duo!" Zechs grabbed the boy's wrists, pushed his hands away. "What do you think you're doing?"

As soon as Zechs released him, Duo slid his arms around the colonel's neck. He crawled onto Zechs' lap, slowly rubbing his bottom against the older man's thighs. "I think you're really hot," he murmured, his voice husky and sounding far too experienced for Zechs' comfort. "And I really want to do it with you."

Duo's hands began to wander, leaving no doubt about what "it" he meant. Zechs felt his pulse quicken even as he again pushed the boy back, wriggling away from the small, determined hands. "Duo--"

"C'mon, I can tell you want it, too." Duo reached for him again, and Zechs barely managed to dodge his insistent grasp. "What are you waiting for?"

Zechs slid out of bed, then seized Duo's wrist and dragged him off the bed. His voice as stern and cold as he could make it, he said, "I am not sleeping with you, Duo." He tugged, almost dragging the boy out of the room, back to his makeshift bed. The blue robe lay in a discarded heap next to the couch, and Zechs gathered it up, less than gently dressed Duo in it again. He knotted the belt tightly around the boy's tiny waist, then said firmly, "Now, get back under your covers and go to sleep."

The eager, lustful look disappeared from Duo's eyes, and his expression crumpled. He blinked rapidly, and Zechs thought he saw the glitter of tears. For a second, he almost relented, then he berated himself. Good God, the boy is drugged. Taking advantage of him now would be no different than what those men were going to do to him in his cell.

Chin quivering, Duo crawled back under the blankets on the couch. Zechs tugged the covers over the boy's thin shoulders. "Now good night, Duo. I'll see you in the morning."

He was about to shut his door again when he heard a sob, muffled but unmistakable. Sighing, he left the door open. That way I can hear him if he has a nightmare.

Zechs got back into his own bed, waiting anxiously, but the quiet sobbing tapered off and stopped altogether, replaced by the sound of Duo's light, regular breathing. Satisfied that the pilot slept at last, Zechs gave himself over to his own restless dreams.

Out of habit, Zechs woke early the next morning, before dawn. Quietly, he slipped out of bed to check on the captive pilot. The boy still slept, clutching the covers under his chin. His face still seemed tight and drawn, but at least he hadn't wakened screaming during the night, as Zechs had expected. Perhaps the drug's effects are short-lived. If he can tell us what he knows, we have a chance to stop--whatever it is.

Returning to his room, Zechs laid out a fresh uniform and headed for his shower. He unbuttoned his top, shrugged it off his powerful shoulders, but then a memory from last night made his pause. Two hungry, little hands pawing at him, unbearably hot and eager--he looked down almost as if he expected to see Duo pressed against him. Zechs closed his eyes, took a deep breath. He could almost feel Duo's body rubbing against his own.

That little vixen knew exactly what he was doing.

Zechs had never understood the thrill that some men--like those guards, apparently--received out of forcing themselves on helpless and unwilling victims. He'd felt not the slightest twinge of desire for the boy when he'd been terrified. But if he were willing... the charge that jolted Zechs' body surprised him with its intensity. Fool! It was the drug, not him. With a deep, shuddering breath, Zechs stripped off the rest of his clothes and climbed into the shower. He hesitated a moment, and then adjusted the temperature to cool.

By the time he finished dressing, Zechs had managed to divert his thoughts back to the problem of the Gundams, more worrisome in some ways, but far less personal. He felt as though he were trying to put together a puzzle without knowing the finished design, or even if he had all the pieces. In the other room, he heard Duo stirring. Zechs buckled his gun belt, straightened his epaulets, and tucked his gloves neatly over his belt. The dull gleam of his mask winked at him from his dresser. He ran his fingers over the metal surface. He'd not been wearing it last night when he'd rescued the boy, but today... Today, I think it would be a good idea. He picked it up and settled it so that it obscured half his face.

Feeling fortified, Zechs returned to the outer room of his suite. Duo had neatly folded his blankets and piled them with his pillows next to the couch. The pilot himself sat in the corner of the couch, his knees drawn up, arms and chin resting on them. He looked up when Zechs entered, eyes widening as he saw the mask. His mouth opened slightly, a look of fear washing over his pale features. His knuckles whitened as though he'd suddenly tightened his grip, but he watched Zechs steadily, without cringing.

He didn't know who I was, Zechs realized. But he recognizes me now--and he's not trying to get away. He must be getting better.

"Good morning, Duo." Zechs stopped, keeping his distance.

"Morning." A frown creased the pilot's forehead, and he winced, as though thinking caused him pain. "You're Zechs Merquise."

"Yes."

"What are you going to do with me?"

The boy's voice, suspicious and wary, saddened Zechs. Last night, he'd gained the boy's trust, but it seemed that that, too, had been an affect of the drug. Now Duo watched him as though he waited for Zechs to hurt him. Just like the rabbits--I wouldn't have hurt them, or him either. But it doesn't matter, because we're enemies.

"I don't know. But you won't be harmed, I promise."

Duo said nothing. He looked down at Zechs' robe. "Where are my clothes?"

"In the cell you were locked in. The guards tried to... hurt you. Don't you remember?"

"No." Duo frowned again, pressing his hand against his temple as if he could physically force himself to recall. "Yes... yes, I remember some of it. I remember being scared." He looked away, as though the admission shamed him. "And someone taking care of me. That was you?" He raised his head, meeting Zechs' eyes.

Zechs nodded. "Do you remember anything else?"

Duo shook his head, slowly. Then his eyes widened, and his cheeks blushed deep red. "No," he said quickly. "No, that's all."

Zechs kept himself from smiling. Little liar. But he didn't challenge Duo's denial. "Ah, well. I don't suppose it matters. But I would like to ask you some questions about how you managed to wind up in Dr. Erling's laboratory."

Duo paled again. "I-I'm not sure. It's so hard to think... "

Zechs laid his hand on the pilot's shoulder, paying attention for the first time to how thin the boy was under the bulky robe. "It's all right. I didn't mean right this very minute." The robe itself fell open under the tightly knotted belt, revealing a pair of slim, well-muscled legs that threatened to be far too distracting for comfort. Self-consciously, he withdrew his hand. "Let me find you something to wear."

Zechs went back to his room to try to find something that would be less problematic than his robe. Digging through a drawer, he found some of his old workout clothes, a sweatshirt and a pair of shorts. He eyed them skeptically. Duo was so small. But then, his own waist was fairly trim, so possibly, he could keep the shorts on. There was nothing he could do about the length.

He stood in the doorway to the outer room, about to take the clothes to Duo. But the boy had moved from his spot on the couch. Zechs felt his stomach flutter uncomfortably at the thought that he'd run away, but Duo had gone no farther than the bowl of apples on Zechs' desk. The little pilot's glance darted from side to side, as if to be sure no one watched him. His small hand shot toward the apples, snatching one, then scooting back to the couch to sit in the same position, as though he hadn't moved at all. Zechs stepped into the room just as Duo stuffed the apple between the cushions.

"Here. Try these. I'm sorry--they're the best I could find."

Duo accepted them, but Zechs noticed how his hands trembled. "Thanks."

Zechs nodded gravely. "The bathroom is in there, through my bedroom."

"Yeah." Duo stood. "Yeah, I do remember that much."

"And Duo... "

Duo stiffened, his eyes going wary again. "Huh?"

"Enjoy the apple."

Duo's face flushed with red, but he reached between the cushions of the couch and took out the apple he'd pilfered. Without meeting Zechs' eye, he shoved it in the pocket of the robe, then gathered up the clothes and started across the room. At the door of Zechs' bedroom, he paused and turned.

"Zechs?"

"Yes?"

Duo looked down at the clothes in his hands. His eyes thoughtful, he briefly rubbed the lapel of the robe, then fingered the belt, the knot that Zechs had firmly tied after sending him back to bed. "Last night--I do remember something I said. And I meant it."

Zechs felt his heart skip a beat. "And what was that?"

Duo smiled, a half-crooked grin that made his chest tighten. "You are nice." Before Zechs could answer, the boy had ducked into the other room. He heard the bathroom door shut.

A few minutes later, Duo emerged, dressed in Zechs' sweatshirt and shorts. The shirt hung loose on his slender body, nearly to the hem of the shorts in the middle of Duo's thighs. His hair fell in a neat braid, obviously freshly brushed and plaited, past his waist. Duo's cheeks glowed slightly pink, as though he'd washed his face and dried it roughly with a towel. The ill-fitting clothes, his long legs and bare feet gave him a waif-like look that stirred Zechs more than he cared to admit.

Trying not to stare, Zechs redirected his attention to pulling on his gloves. "I have to go out for a while. I hope I won't be long, but you'll be safe. No one can get in--and besides, no one knows you're here."

Duo nodded, his glance flicking to the bowl of apples, but a shadow of fear touched his eyes again. Zechs cautiously patted Duo's shoulder. "You'll be all right."

He'd turned his back to Duo and was about to leave when he felt a tug at his sleeve. The little pilot stood next to him, looking up at him with wide eyes.

"Duo?"

Before he could say more, the boy had moved in front of him, standing close enough that Zechs could feel the heat of his body. Somehow, Zechs found it more difficult to push him away with those amazingly violet-blue eyes fastened on him. "Duo--"

"Please?" Duo reached up, slid a hand behind the colonel's neck. "Just a kiss?"

"Just a--" A pair of warm lips extinguished his protest as Duo, standing tiptoe, pulled Zechs' head down. Stunned, Zechs didn't resist either the embrace or the insistent tongue that slipped into his mouth, caressed his own tongue with expert strokes. The boy pressed closer to him, rubbing against his body, and without volition, Zechs found his arms wrapping themselves around the slight pilot. His hands slid down the boy's back, grasped his buttocks, lifting him slightly so that he could feel the pressure of Duo's arousal against his own.

Holy mother of God, what am I doing?

Zechs broke the kiss. "Duo, no--no, stop it." He pulled the boy's hands away, held him at arm's length, although he knew he sounded less adamant that he could have wished.

"You--you really don't want me?" Duo blinked, his eyes filling with tears yet again. "I-I thought--" A hiccoughing sob swallowed the rest of his words.

"Duo--it isn't that--not really--but I can't--" Zechs took out his handkerchief and dried the boy's cheeks. "Please don't cry--Duo--" Facing a quivering chin and a pair of mournful eyes stripped him of his courage more completely than any enemy ever had. "Duo, I have to go. We can--we can talk about this when I get back."

"I don't wanna talk, I wanna--"

"Duo!" Mustering his strength, Zechs firmly pushed the pilot away. "Later!" Seizing his opportunity, he made his escape. He locked the door behind him, drew a shuddering breath, and tugged off his mask, wiping his forehead with his handkerchief, still damp from Duo's tears.

+

Duo scarcely noticed the tears that rolled down his cheeks as he stared at the closed door. He tried to understand what had just happened, why Zechs had kissed him then pushed him away. But thinking still hurt. Feeling was so much easier.

I did something wrong. He's mad at me. What did I do?

Angry voices yammered at him from his memory. They told him he was a bad boy, that only bad boys did the things he did.

Father said bad boys go to hell... but Father said I wasn't bad...

Duo whimpered. His knees folded under him, and he sank to the floor. He covered his head with his arms, trying to stop the voices. Please, he reasoned with them, I was hungry and cold and I was all alone... but they didn't care. Didn't he remember, they said, what happened to boys like him?

Father, you were right about hell--but you were wrong about me, because here I am...

The voices told him about the spiders. The spiders were coming back, they said, and they would find the part of his brain that thought bad things, and they would suck it out, like a fly in their web.

No... no, the spiders can't get me here. He promised.

They laughed. But he's not here, they said. They told Duo he was all alone again. They told him that bad boys did bad things, saw things they shouldn't see, and that was why no one wanted him and he always got left alone and the spiders were coming for him.

Then he heard the noise. Like soldiers marching, but not the sound of human feet. The rhythm was all wrong... the spiders were coming for him, just like the voices said.

Duo tried to stand, to run away, but his arms and legs shook too badly. He forced himself to move, to crawl away from the marching spiders. Dragging himself on his hands and knees, he made it to the doorway of Zechs' bedroom.

If I hide in here, maybe they won't find me. Maybe he'll come back and help me... but I was bad, and he's mad at me. I was a bad boy, and bad boys go to hell where there are spiders who suck their brains, and no one comes to help them, and they're all alone, forever and ever.

Duo pulled himself onto Zechs' bed, burrowed under the pillows, hiding from the spiders, begging the voices to stop them. I'll be good. I'll never do bad things again, I'll never look or listen when I'm not supposed to, and I'll never, never tell secrets... cross my heart and hope to die.

Now he was being a good boy, the voices said. The spiders stopped their marching.

+

Zechs' pulse rate had returned to normal by the time he reached Treize's office. He sat down heavily in the chair opposite the General, his usual cool equanimity noticeably ruffled. He dropped Erling's disk in front of Treize without preamble.

Treize picked up the disk. "Where's the pilot? You were going to bring him."

"Watch this and then we'll talk."

Treize raised an eyebrow, but otherwise didn't react. He played back the images recorded in Erling's lab, and while Zechs couldn't see the screen, he could hear all too well. Listening to Duo was no less disturbing the second time, maybe even more so, now that he'd seen for himself what the drug had done to the little pilot.

By the time Treize finished watching, his face was hard and set, his eyes blazing. "There is more going on here than an unauthorized drug experiment. Someone is trying to use us to destroy these pilots, and I won't be an accessory to it."

"What makes you so certain?"

"I found out some things about Erling's drug, HSS-L. It's a synthetic neurotransmitter, a hemisphere-specific suppresser. It affects one side of the brain, preventing it from functioning properly. In this case, the left hemisphere."

Zechs frowned. Biology was not his area of expertise. "What does that mean?"

"It inhibits the side of the brain that produces logical, rational thought, language, decision-making... with the right-brain functions correspondingly uninhibited."

Zechs felt himself go cold. "Can he tell the difference between what's happening in his mind and what is real?"

"What's happening in his mind is real to him. And in addition to the hallucinations, he cannot control his emotional responses. Fear, sadness... anything he feels will be intense and obvious. He's totally at the mercy of his imagination, his feelings."

Zechs nodded. That much was clear.

"There's one more thing." Treize's mouth set with anger. "Apparently, anything that takes effect so quickly and so powerfully can cause permanent damage. Especially an overdose, which it seems Erling administered."

Zechs' throat closed in alarm. "You mean he might always be this way?"

"We'll have to wait and see how much control he recovers. He may get over the extreme responses, but they may have permanently inhibited his logic and emotional control. If so, they've lost themselves a fighter for good. And under no circumstances should he be given any more of the stuff."

"But Erling knew--" Zechs stopped.

"Knew what?"

"He knew all of Duo's vital statistics--he must have gotten them from those rogue scientists--and he'd done other experiments. He had to have known that dose was too strong. And he planned to give him more, to run additional tests." He looked at Treize with dawning horror. "They never meant him to recover."

Even Treize appeared shaken. "What does he know that they don't want him to tell?"

"I've been wondering that myself. But... I don't understand... " Zechs paused, puzzled. "Why didn't they just kill him? Much more certain, much neater."

Treize's brow furrowed with his effort to understand the situation. "Perhaps they got something in exchange for him, something they needed... "

Zechs looked up in dawning horror. "Treize, if there's a drug that can do that to one side of the brain... why not the other side, too?"

"Yes." The simplicity of Treize's answer held its own dread.

"If a soldier went into battle without the ability to feel fear, compassion, attachment, or self-doubt, then he would be as unstoppable as--"

"A machine."

Zechs nodded. "Do you think that could be it? Is that what they got from Erling in exchange for Duo?"

Treize nodded slowly. "It seems reasonable. Can you question Duo? Now that we at least have some idea of what to ask, it may be easier."

"I can try. He seems a little more lucid this morning." Zechs thought about the newest manifestation of the drug and his face flamed in spite of his efforts to control himself.

"What?"

Zechs closed his eyes and shook his head. "Just another of the drug's effects. It makes him... unpredictable."

"I see." A fleeting smile curved the General's mouth, but disappeared as quickly as it came. "Go back and talk to him, then. If we're on the right track, then those scientists must be destroyed once and for all. And Erling with them," he said, his voice unfeeling as a judge passing sentence. "I'll not be party to creating a race of human mobile dolls."

+

Zechs returned to his quarters, removing his mask and tossing it aside as he entered.

"Duo?"

Zechs looked around his sitting room, but the boy was nowhere in sight. "Duo?" he called again. This time, he thought he heard an answer, but from his bedroom. He took a deep breath, recalling all too clearly the boy's insistent advances.

Duo lay on his bed, his arms wrapped over his head as though he tried to protect himself from something. Even from the doorway, Zechs could see him shaking. Then he heard whimpers, tiny, terrified noises, like he'd heard on Erling's recording.

Swearing, Zechs sat beside Duo. He took the boy's arms, lifted him up and turned him over. "Duo, what's wrong?"

The pilot opened his eyes, though for a moment, he stared blindly. Then he blinked, and Zechs saw recognition--and a little sanity--return to them. Duo took a deep, shuddering breath, then whispered, "Zechs?"

"Yes." Zechs laid his hand on Duo's damp cheek. "What happened?"

The boy closed his eyes as though trying to shut out whatever horror played itself in his mind, and his hand stole up to grip the colonel's where it still rested against his face. "Like a nightmare--only worse--and I was awake. I-I... " His hand tightened on Zechs'.

"It's all right now," Zechs soothed. "I'm sorry--I should never have left you alone. You seemed so much better... I'm sorry."

Duo opened his eyes again, deep pools of rain-splashed violets. They still reflected the boy's confusion, his fear, and they searched Zechs' face hopefully, as though for answers or protection. He rubbed Zechs' hand with his fingers. "You're really here, aren't you?"

"Of course I am."

"I thought maybe... maybe you were just in my head, too."

Zechs smiled. "No, I assure you, I'm real."

Slowly, as if any movement were a struggle, Duo sat up. Zechs lowered his hand, but the pilot still gripped it, and he didn't try to pull away. Duo's fingers convulsed on his, so cold he could feel the chill through his gloves.

Panic crept back into the boy's voice as he clutched Zechs' hand. "How can I be sure?"

Zechs took his other hand, held them both tightly in his own. "Here. Hold on. Can you feel me?"

"No... " Duo whimpered, desperate. "... can't feel anything... I'm alone..."

Zechs pulled him close, held him against his chest. Duo's entire body trembled as though he were freezing. "There. You see? I'm here."

Duo shook his head, his small hands clawing. "... no... so alone... need to feel something... " He looked up at Zechs, eyes and voice pleading. "Please."

Zechs swallowed. Duo's upturned face, his wide eyes, his trembling mouth... they begged him for help. The kind of help that made a man sweat to think about.

Duo pawed at him, his hands roaming over Zechs' shoulders and chest. "Make me feel," he begged again. "Please..."

It might have been the eyes... or possibly the mouth. More likely, it was that hopeless little plea. Whatever made him utterly abandon caution, Zechs bent down and kissed Duo. He didn't mean for the kiss to catch fire, but it did, a sudden, wild blaze that made Duo groan.

"Can almost ... " Duo crawled onto Zechs' lap, rubbing against him frantically. "More," he whispered, almost as if he talked to himself. "Have to... "

Zechs made a half-hearted attempt to hold him back. "Duo, stop--"

"No!" His arms wrapped around Zechs' waist, clung desperately. "I can't s-stand being alone... in here. Inside. That's... that's when the voices... when the spiders... " He looked up again, the mote of sanity in his eyes in danger of being sucked into a vortex of lunacy. He struggled to speak, his voice breaking up as though from some internal static interference, but nearly sane, for all that. "... have to know what's for real, or I'll go crazy... for good. Can't do it... by myself... can't be sure if it's only me... "

"It's not... I'm here." Zechs felt himself weakening. He ought to push Duo away--but he couldn't. He couldn't shove Duo over the precipice into insanity. Against every measure of good judgment he possessed, he began to respond. He touched Duo, hesitantly at first, then with more assurance as some of the ravages of misery and madness left the pilot's eyes.

Even as Duo began to tug desperately at his uniform, and Zechs pulled Duo's T-shirt over his head, a tiny voice in the back of his mind whined that he was going to regret this. His hands skimmed over Duo's smooth flesh, and the pilot moaned, whispered, "More... please, more... "

Regret be damned.

And then it was too late, either for regrets or denials.

+

Warm... for the first time in so long... Duo pressed himself against the heat, hungering for it with his soul. "I'm so cold... inside," he whispered, his hands seeking the source of warmth. Warmth meant he wasn't alone...

Zechs. His presence blazed through the glacier of loneliness, the icy dungeon of fear. Famished for the touch, the closeness of another person, Duo sought the flames. "Please... " He knew he ought to care that he was begging, but he didn't. "Need you... "

Zechs didn't speak, but Duo felt his answer. He whimpered, both in relief and need, as strong hands banished the weight of isolation. Then another weight pressed him, and he wrapped his arms around the body that covered him. So solid... so real...

Duo lifted his hips, searching for that core of heat. Hot flesh rubbed against his own. Sparks leapt between them, flames spreading outward from his belly, engulfing his thighs, his chest. Then his awareness settled on Zechs' hands again, burning on his skin, cauterizing raw wounds of terror and isolation.

He lay still and passive, letting Zechs touch him, taste him. "Feels so good," he murmured as those hands--so gentle for all their strength--explored him. Involuntarily, his back arched as he felt a probing pressure open him. Oh yes... yes... .

No.

Caught, Duo whimpered, and the voices grew louder, berated him, belittled him. He was in trouble, they said, bad trouble. He lied when he said he'd be good. This wasn't what good boys did. They called him names, over and over, louder and louder...

Liar. Thief. Whore.

No... I told you... I was cold and hungry... and alone... I-I had to...

LIAR! THIEF! WHORE!

He tossed his head, biting back a sob.

No... please stop... it isn't true... Father will hear you, and Sister... and Zechs...

The voices surrounded him, shouting those hated names at him until he cowered from them.

"Duo?" Zechs' voice cut through the cacophony, but Duo was afraid to open his eyes.

"Don't listen," he begged, clinging to Zechs with all his strength. "Don't listen to them. I'm not what they say... please don't believe them... "

He blinked, trying to focus. Zechs' face solidified, eyes as blue as a cloudless sky watching him.

"I'm not listening, Duo." Zechs smoothed Duo's hair, brushing away the strands that clung to his perspiring skin. "I don't believe them."

Duo nearly sobbed in relief. "I'm not... bad... am I?"

"No." Zechs kissed away the tears that had leaked onto his cheeks again. "You're not bad."

Duo held tighter. "But... they say I am... "

"They're wrong." Zechs touched him again, in places that he liked being touched. "Don't you listen to them, either."

Duo closed his eyes. He wanted to believe Zechs, and to do what he said, to stop listening to the voices. He concentrated on Zechs' hands, on how they teased him and stroked him. In a very little while, the flames licked at him again, making him twitch and moan, pleading for more.

Zechs' mouth engulfed him, warm and wet and comforting. His awareness narrowed to his center, to the sensations that rippled outward from his core. Fingers of fire spread along his nerves, banishing the soul-chill. The daze that had swallowed him up began to dissipate, like a fog burning off in the morning sun.

Duo spread his legs, pushed himself toward the promise of clarity that Zechs' attentions seemed to make. Zechs' hands stroked his thighs, firm, tangible. Real.

"Yessss... " Duo's breath escaped in a little hiss as he clutched the covers under him, twisting, aching for more.

A fall of pale hair swept across his thighs as Zechs swallowed him, teasing his flesh like the faintest touch of grass blowing in the breeze. Or like brushing through an invisible spider web...

Duo stiffened.

No... no... it's not real, there's just me and Zechs and nothing else is real, there aren't any spiders...

But the spiders had found him. They crawled up his legs, spiked feet pricking his skin. They crawled over him, surrounded him until he cringed, naked and defenseless, before them. He whimpered, backing away, but they kept closing in, more of them on his arms, his legs. He could feel their feet sticking him, like needles.

No more needles, please... I'll be good, I promise... I promise...

LIAR!

He started to cry, and the voices snickered at him. He thought he'd gotten away, they said, but he was a fool. The spiders were here, and they would suck his brain because he was being so bad. And they'd get Zechs, too, and it would be all his fault.

"No... please ... " Duo sobbed, trying to push the spiders back. But they kept coming and coming, and he tried to crawl away. Something grabbed him and he screamed, struggling frantically.

"Duo!" Zechs' called to him louder than the voices, over the rustle of the spiders. "Duo, it's all right. The spiders can't hurt you, I promise."

Duo squirmed wildly, caught in their web. "Yes, they can... they can... get away before you're stuck, too... p-please go... " Duo's voice died to a whimper again.

"Shhhh... " Zechs leaned over him, protecting him from the spiders. "They're small and weak, Duo. They hide in dark places because they're afraid, more afraid of you than you are of them."

Duo wanted to believe... he wanted to, but the voices started yelling at him again. He covered his head with his arms, shaking violently. "They aren't... they aren't afraid of anything... especially not me... I can't hurt them... "

"Yes, you can." Zechs stroked his hair. "You can crush the spiders, Duo. Go ahead. They can't hurt you if you don't let them." He pulled Duo up to his knees. "You're a fighter, you have the strength. You can do it."

"I can't... not by myself... tried, but... " Duo sobbed again, crushed by fear and failure.

"Then we'll fight them together." Zechs held him tight, keeping the spiders away.

Duo nodded, frenzied with fear. He pushed himself back against Zechs' body. "Together... please... "

"That's right... together."

Zechs' hands rested on his hips. Duo squirmed backward, trying to find the warmth again, to take it for himself, to feel it deep within him. "I-inside... " he moaned as the spiders bit at him and the voices screamed louder. "Have to get warm... inside... please... "

"Fight them, Duo. I'll keep you warm, but you have to fight them." Zechs' voice steadied him, guided him like a lamp in the dark. "Let them know they aren't real and they can't hurt you."

Zechs' body nudged him, and then he was burning from the inside out. The flames scorched him, so hot... and it hurt, but only for a minute. Then the flames died down to a wonderful glow, and he knew he wasn't alone. His fears began to melt in the radiance of Zechs' presence, the spiders ran away and the voices faded again.

"You... were right," Duo gasped, feeling Zechs move inside him. "They hide... in the dark... don't like the light... "

Zechs' hands spread the warmth over his flesh, from his throat to his thighs. "You see? You made them leave you alone."

"No, you... " Like ice in sunlight, Duo's fears melted. He shivered, but not from fear or cold, and released a long, shivering breath. "Ohhhh... I can feel you... just you... "

Heat smoldered inside him, roiled like molten lava. He felt Zechs' hand on him, between his legs, and the fire began to burn hotter even than before, but this time... this time, there was no pain, only lovely, melting intensity that drove away the chill of madness. In the light, he began to see and think clearly, and he knew that the spiders had gone, maybe even for good, leaving only a few tattered wisps of their webs behind.

And then, there was nothing but Zechs, no voices, no fears... wildness, yes, passion, but... real... real...

Duo cried out, bucking against him, spilling his essence over Zechs' hands, the blinding light of release welding the bonds in his mind that had been broken by the drug and fear and loneliness. Zechs clutched him with bruising strength, filling him with liquid fire.

Duo's body sagged, and Zechs caught him in his arms, lowered him to the bed. For what seemed an almost endless moment, Duo clung to Zechs' arms as awareness returned to him--an awareness he hadn't felt since Erling's needle had pierced his arm. His eyes opened slowly, gazing at the OZ Colonel for what felt like the first time.

Holy shit. Holy fucking shit. What did I just do?

Duo bit his lip. He knew the answer. Christ. I just fucked Zechs Merquise. No, that's not quite it. Zechs Merquise just fucked me. Holy shit.

Duo shivered again, the warmth of orgasm deserting him. And not only that... He swallowed. I liked it...

He wanted to hang on to the glow that had lingered briefly, but all that remained was the knowledge that he and Zechs were, after all, enemies. That Zechs had been more than kind to him--but only because OZ needed him to be able to remember.

Remember... Duo winced at the memories of betrayal that lay behind the terrors of the last few days. He began to shake again, this time with rage. Bastards. Just because I wouldn't be their goddamn puppet... I fought for them, risked my ass for the colonies... and it wasn't enough... He turned away from Zechs, a sob of anger--and abandonment--squeezing his chest.

"Duo?" Zechs reached for him, touching his hair.

Duo pulled away, shaking off Zechs' hand. "You don't have to pretend you care."

"I don't understand."

"Look." Duo's voice shook, in spite of his determination to keep it steady. "I know you helped me... but I know it's ‘cuz you need me to talk. Not because you really liked me, or anything." He sat up, his back to Zechs, hunching over a little, his arms wrapped around his chest.

He was nice to me... and it sucks that it didn't mean a damn thing...

Feeling more alone than he had since Maxwell Church has been bombed to rubble, Duo huddled on the edge of the bed, as far from Zechs as possible, silently cursing the war and scientists and soldiers... all of them, including himself.

+

"Duo... " Zechs reached toward him, but let his hand drop without touching him. "I'm sorry... I--"

"Just... shut up. Okay?" Duo's voice broke, and his shoulders sagged, his chin almost resting on his chest.

Zechs fell silent, wishing he could say something comforting. But I can't... and I can't give you any more time, either. "Duo... Duo, forgive me... but I have to ask you... "

Duo lifted his head and looked at Zechs, his eyes dull and weary. "Ask me what?"

"Do you know why they set you up? Those scientists?"

Duo shrugged. "Guess ‘cause of what they're planning. I-I wasn't supposed to see... to know. They were just going to--do it."

"Do what?"

"Get rid of us. Guess we weren't working out--not even Heero. Too independent... hell, ‘s first time anyone accused me of thinking too much. But... I guess they're planning something else, something lots bigger than just Gundams. I dunno if they told any of the others, but I-I said no. I said I was tired... they just wanna use us... don' care ‘bout the colonies, or Earth, nothin' but what they want... " Weariness slurred his voice. "... no different from OZ... maybe even worse... "

"Do you know what they're planning? What is it that's bigger than Gundams?"

Duo shook his head, slowly, then frowned as he tried to remember. His face tightened in pain with the effort. "... drug, I think... " He laughed, but it had no amusement in it. "Pretty funny, huh? I told ‘em to shove their drugs... didn't need ‘em to fight." He swallowed, and the haunted look intensified in his eyes. "Maybe I should've let them... couldn't be worse than this, could it?" Duo hunched over, drawing into himself, his arms wrapped tightly around his chest, his face hidden.

"Duo--?" Zechs laid a hand on Duo's shoulder.

Duo lifted his head. His eyes were dry, and he even managed a faint smile, though it clearly took monumental effort. "I'm okay... just really tired. Can I go t'sleep now?"

Zechs pulled the covers over Duo. "Yes. Rest." He brushed his hand across Duo's hair as the pilot settled his head on the pillow.

Duo lifted his head a little, blinking again as though he struggled against the onslaught of sleep. "What... whatcha gonna do with me now?"

I wish I knew, little pilot. "Now? Now I'm going to let you sleep."

Duo smiled a little again, as though he understood and possibly even appreciated the evasion. Then he burrowed his head into the pillows, huddled almost invisibly under the covers. Zechs sat next to him a while longer. When Duo's breathing slowed to a regular rhythm, Zechs stood, finally, and left him to call Treize with the unfortunate news that they'd been right.

His conversation with Treize was brief and to the point. Treize had not been idle; Erling was already his prisoner. With the information learned from him added to Duo's, the General had pinpointed their target and sketched out a plan for attack. It took him only a little while to work out the details with Zechs.

After Treize signed off, Zechs sat quietly in front of the dark monitor, lost in thought. This campaign looked to be brief, just one decisive, destructive strike. And after that... after that, the problem of what to do with their prisoner would become acute. Treize had tried to mention it, but Zechs cut him off. Still, he knew his General's indulgence wouldn't last forever. And what then?

"Zechs?"

Zechs turned, startled. Duo stood in the doorway of the bedroom, hair mussed from sleeping, but his eyes were clear, and his hands clenched into fists at his side.

"I want to help."

"You were listening."

It wasn't really a question, and Duo didn't answer. When he did speak, his voice quivered with rage and hatred. "I want the bastards dead."

"I know you do, but--" Take you with us? Can I risk giving you back your Gundam? His face must have plainly shown his hesitation.

"You don't trust me," Duo said, his voice flat.

"Should I?"

"Dunno... guess I'd think twice if I were in your shoes." Duo's look turned fierce, stubborn. "But after what they did to me--and what they're planning to do--I want them dead. Not just dead. Destroyed. Gone." Then the anger in his eyes became something else, and his voice turned pleading. "Zechs... you said I could crush the spiders. I-I have to do this, if I'm ever going to... I just have to do this."

The memory of madness echoed in Duo's voice. But I promised him... I said I would help. Nothing else, not even Treize's wishes, seemed to matter much in the face of that promise. Once again, the little pilot defeated his good judgment. "All right. You're in."

Gratitude--and possibly more--flickered in Duo's eyes. Then he ducked his head, and Zechs couldn't see him to analyze the look any longer. But he whispered, "Thank you."

The intensity of that whisper made Zechs doubt his own sanity in putting Duo back in his Gundam. But he'd given his word and there was nothing to do now but watch the last act of this drama of betrayal play out as it would.

+

The buildings, connected by walkways and service drives, spread below Duo like a web. And in the center, the main laboratory crouched like a spider waiting for an unwary insect to blunder past.

Yeah, but I'm not a fly caught in your web. Not any more.

Duo slipped through the lab's defenses as though they didn't exist. With a single blow from Deathscythe, he cut the power main. Another swing, and the explosions started. Deathscythe lifted off with such ease that it seemed Duo's own grace inhabited the machine, and from his vantage point above the lab, he watched the explosions on his monitor as they hatched and multiplied.

Flames seemed to travel outward from the central complex along the web. As it burned and shriveled, he heard the spiders. Not marching this time, though. Running. Running away--and the voices were screaming.

They screamed at him to stop, they threatened him, told him the spiders would come for him. That he would go to hell for being so bad.

Duo laughed. Like hell can scare me. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. And the spiders can kiss my ass. They're frying, not me.

He switched off the monitor, and the screaming stopped.

+

Duo brought Deathscythe down in the middle of an open field, miles from the OZ base where he'd been held prisoner, even farther from the shattered lab of the scientists. At the far end of the field, Tallgeese waited, legs wrapped in the shadows of the trees that bordered the meadow.

Zechs' message had been short and cryptic, not much beyond "meet me." Heart pounding, Duo obeyed. Now that the scientists' lab had been destroyed, the uneasy alliance between Gundam pilot and OZ colonel would dissolve. Wouldn't it?

Zechs stood on the ground, a little distance away from his mobile suit. He was not wearing his mask, and his pale hair stirred with the faint breeze. He stood with one foot resting on a fallen log, hand draped over his knee, his coat a crimson splash against a hundred shades of green. Unmoving, he watched as Duo approached, his gaze fastened on the pilot's face.

And then they were close enough to talk, but neither said anything. The silence stretched between them, too heavy with memories of the last few days--for Duo, painful memories of helplessness and fear... for Zechs... God knows what he's remembering. Probably that I've been a pain in his ass.

Finally, Zechs spoke. He said something that sounded like Duo's name, but it was choked and mangled, and Duo couldn't be certain. Then he cleared his throat and started again. "Duo, I asked you to meet me here so that I could... apologize."

Duo felt his jaw drop slightly. Of all the things he'd half-expected, that was not among them. "Apologize?"

Zechs nodded. "For Dr. Erling... that was never... Treize and I, we don't believe in that kind of warfare. Had we known--had we paid close enough attention--none of this would have happened to you."

Duo shrugged. "Oh--that. It's not like it was fun. Shit, I'll have nightmares for months... " He shuddered, pushing back the dark wall of memories with a conscious effort. "But it is war... and we are enemies."

Zechs looked off, to the middle of the field where Deathscythe stood like a sentinel. "I'm very sorry for that, as well."

Duo swallowed hard. "Yeah." He turned away, scuffing at the ground with his boot. "Yeah, me, too." Another silence spread between them. "I guess... I'd better get going." Although where he was going to go, he had no idea. There weren't any orders to follow now, weren't going to be any more orders. What the hell am I going to do? Keep fighting on my own?

A gloved hand touched his shoulder. Duo stopped, stood unmoving, his breath catching.

"There's one more thing, Duo. What happened between us. I--"

"Don't." The word was out before Duo could stop it. "That's the one good thing I have to remember from this whole disaster. Don't... apologize... " If he says he's sorry--if he didn't want to do it--I'm gonna throw up.

"You'd been drugged. You didn't know what--"

"Bullshit." Duo turned and faced Zechs, having to tip his chin defiantly to look into his eyes. "Don't you get it? I wanted you, I just wouldn't have had the guts to say so if it hadn't been for the drug. But it didn't make me feel anything that wasn't already there."

Something flickered in Zechs' clear blue eyes--hope? "But... the drug... "

"Damn it, Zechs. It wasn't just because of the drug for me. Was it all just sympathy for you?" Duo bit his lip. He wasn't sure he really wanted to know the answer.

"No." Zechs spoke in a tightly controlled voice, as though he forced himself to separate the truth from whatever he was feeling. "No, it wasn't." Zechs seemed about to say more, but didn't. "What now?"

Another question to which Duo wasn't sure he wanted to hear the answer. He shrugged. "I guess I go on... I'll fight by myself if I have to. It's not like being on my own is going to be such a huge adjustment."

"You could fight on our side. On my side."

Duo blinked. In his memory, he heard a voice, like his own but not quite a part of him, whispering. You don't feel like an enemy...

"I don't know. I-I can't decide that. Not now."

Zechs nodded, slowly, solemnly, but as though he expected the answer. "I understand. But... it's possible... " He stopped, as though afraid to put into words what they both were thinking.

"Yeah," Duo answered. "It's possible."

"I don't suppose there's any more to say, then." Zechs seemed reluctant to go, despite his words. Tallgeese loomed in the background, waiting for him to return, but he made no move toward the giant mobile suit.

"I guess not, but, Zechs, before you go... " Duo took a step toward him. "I want you to know... this is from me. Not because of the drug, not because I'm grateful, just... because I want to." Standing on his toes, he reached for Zechs, pulled him down into a kiss. Zechs resisted, but only for a moment. Then his arms went around Duo, anchoring him against the tall officer's lean, strong body. The kiss went on a long time. It might have gone on longer, but Duo shuddered, and Zechs pulled back.

Blue eyes, a fine, tense line drawn between them, watched him through a curtain of sunlit hair. "What is it?"

"I...if we don't stop... I don't think I'll be able to... " Duo blinked furiously, his eyes burning.

Some of the strained look faded. Then Zechs looked closely at him, and the taut line appeared again. "Duo... are you crying?"

"Huh?" Duo rubbed his eyes, pretending to be surprised when his hand came away wet. "Guess the drug's not out of my system after all."

Zechs' hand, warm even through his glove, brushed Duo's cheek. "Apparently not. Good bye, Duo."

"Bye... Zechs. And--thanks. For... everything... " Duo's voice broke and they both pretended it hadn't.

Zechs said nothing more, but his hand lingered on Duo's cheek for a moment more before he stepped back and made a slight bow, then turned away. His shoulders squared and his spine straightened. Then he crossed the field toward Tallgeese without looking back.

Duo hesitated. Deathscythe would have to wait, just another minute anyway. But Zechs didn't turn, striding across the field as though it were the deck of his ship. A nameless pain squeezed Duo's chest. Just as he was about to climb back into his suit, the tall, blond figure turned. As clearly as if he had spoken, Duo heard his velvet voice. It's possible...

Duo hugged himself. Possible... don't know if I know how to hope, but I'll sure as hell give it a shot.

Duo turned and ran toward Deathscythe. He didn't see when Tallgeese took off, but he heard the rumble of the Vernier rockets as Zechs headed for space. Standing at Deathscythe's feet, he rubbed his cheek against the hard metal. He whispered, "It's just you and me, buddy. We've got some thinking to do... but we're gonna be okay. We'll figure it all out, and then... " A future that didn't end with his own violent, early death suddenly seemed imaginable. "Guess maybe that's what hope is." He looked up at his Gundam. "What do you think?"

A tiny white spider crawled across the gleaming black of Deathscythe's skin. Duo froze as the spider grew before his eyes, and fangs that dripped with venom slavered and snapped at him.

You can crush the spiders, Duo. Go ahead. They can't hurt you if you don't let them.

The nightmare withered and shrank, until the spider was only a tiny, harmless bug. He brushed it off with a flick of his hand, ripping the web it had begun to spin.

As if Deathscythe were hurrying him along, he muttered, "Yeah, yeah... I'm coming." Moments later, a second rush of rockets shook the meadow, and then faded as if they'd never been.

The End

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