[ Author note: It's now approaching a year since my writing partner, Marsh, passed away unexpectedly. I spent the weekend going through our old logs, and decided it was time to pick up some of our many unfinished stories. I'm hoping that in 2012 I'll be able to put more of them to the page, and finally post new chapters. Age Inappropriate and its sequel Advice in Old Age were really more 'me' stories-- something we worked on together but which came more from my side than hers-- but 2.7 Kelvin is thoroughly Marsh's. This chapter brings me to the last of the work that Marsh and I did on it before she died. It will be an adventure moving forward on it alone, but it was one of her favourites, and I will aim to finish the next few chapters in the spirit she intended. ]

Authors: TB
see part 1 for notes, warnings

2.7 Kelvin + Part 11

Duo woke when he felt the sheet move over his feet.

It was Trowa. Trowa smiled at him-- Trowa. Smiled. That was odd.

Duo cleared his throat; he was froggy. And achey. And itchy. What the hell had they been doing? He didn't have any clear memories to call on to answer that, which sort of indicated it had been crazy shit. They were getting too old for weekend benders. And since he appeared to be laying in a hospital gurney, they were definitely too old for acrobatic weekend benders.

Trowa tucked the sheet over Duo's feet, and sat on the mattress next to them. Looking straight into Duo's eyes, he leaned in and moved his lips. How you doing? he mouthed. You feeling okay? Stomachache?

Oh. Yeah, definitely. And he was fucking freezing. He shivered on realising it, and Trowa covered his feet with warm hands, rubbing gently. I'll get another blanket, Trowa mouthed at him, and was gone only a moment. He settled a thick folded sheet over Duo's legs. You thirsty?

'Yeah.' He could barely speak. His throat was sore. Trowa had a solution for that, too, coming at him with a spoon of something syrupy. It didn't seem to have much taste, but that was fine. It did help with swallowing. Duo got a cup of water for his reward, and he tried to pretend his hand wasn't shaking. Trowa let him have it, but scooted closer on the bed. He opened his mouth, but Duo pre-empted him. 'Why aren't you talking aloud? Did you drink a habanero tequila shot again on a dare?'

Trowa smiled again. Now Duo was getting concerned. That was more smiling than Trowa did in entire years. Duo fumbled his elbows under him, and got about six inches upward before Trowa firmly-- but gently-- pushed him back onto his pillows. Duo glared at him. Or would have, except he was cold and stomachachey and itchy. So he let Trowa take back the water and tuck him in and hold the cup to his lips.

Possibly more serious than a wild night out. And Trowa hadn't answered his question.

'Where are we?' he asked. 'Where-- where--' That was weird. He rubbed his ears. 'Where is--'

Trowa caught his hand. He held it-- gently-- and that was the moment Duo knew.

'What's wrong with me,' he said.

Trowa dropped his eyes. He stroked Duo's hand, and his shoulders moved up and then down, as if he'd let out a big deep breath. Duo didn't hear it. He didn't hear anything. Not his own breathing. Not anything.

There was a problem with your mission, Trowa's lips said. Duo read them, squinting to focus. You were infected. Do you remember any of that?

No. There was a big blank-- maybe. 'We were on a ship?' he ventured, or tried to, because he couldn't hear himself, either, and that was weird to experience. He licked his dry lips. 'I was. No, we. Who is we?'

Zechs Merquise. He's here, too.

'He's sick?'

Not as badly as you were. You were deliberately infected. We don't know the whole story yet. But it's connected to something happening on Earth. Trowa finally met his eyes again. There was a coup on Earth. Ianto Cameron. Do you know the name?

Cameron. It felt familiar. Hesitantly he shook his head. 'What's a coup...' It was too strange, not to hear his own voice. Trowa put the water to his lips, and he swallowed automatically. Feeling awkward, he decided to just forgo speech. He wasn't the only one who could read lips, and he didn't like the disadvantage. Then, too, that word, coup; it meant dark things, things he and Trowa knew all too much about, and what he didn't know he could fill in, couldn't he. Strange hospital. A mission with Zechs Merquise. A shuttle, he remembered a shuttle, and a shuttle meant Mars, these days, and Duo Maxwell and Zechs Merquise on a shuttle to Mars sounded like the opening line of a very grim joke. Coup.

So he moved his lips, and trusted Trowa to follow him. He mouthed, 'We're at war, aren't we.'

Trowa inclined his head a precise inch.

All right. All right.

He inhaled. Good enough for a start. 'Why don't I remember. Why can't I hear you. What was this-- infection.'

He didn't hear the approach, the footsteps, the conversation when Trowa suddenly turned his head. Caught by surprise, he fumbled it. Sally was standing right there on the other side of his bed. He hadn't even noticed her coming. And she was talking, he thought, but the angle was wrong, and he couldn't read her lips. Trowa twisted, and then was standing. Sally had his chart, and she tapped his knee for his attention, as if he wasn't trying to get her to effing look him in the eye already.

Good morning, she said, with a bright determined smile. Trowa says you're up and about today.

'Whatever today is.' Without hearing himself the words felt wrong, as if he couldn't form them right in his mouth. It took too much concentration, to both think of what wasn't working and think of what had to. 'My brain is fuzzy,' he muttered, and dropped his head back on his pillow.

Sally shifted around to bring a stool toward his gurney. She tapped his knee again, and he glared. Trowa, coming up behind her, compressed his lips down. Um, Sally said, or it looked like some monosyllabic not-apology. Duo braced himself. Are you hungry? she asked. It's a little early for solids, but we can hook you up with a very tasty banana bag.

'If you want to run tests, run tests.' He officially gave up on getting any information in the next ten hours, and closed his eyes on all of them. Sally tapped his knee again, and he gritted his teeth. 'What?'

You get five minutes to be grumpy, she said, and this time there was no sunny smile, only a raised eyebrow that promised punishment if he didn't obey. You scared the shit out of us. You don't have to like it, Duo, but we're going to do everything we can to help you. Am I clear?

That'll learn you, Trowa mouthed, and took off to get a kit.


**


The station was a bustling place, by morning. Noventa's men were moving out all the equipment they'd brought in, and there was a certain level of noise coming from the bowels of the reactor that Zechs took to be bad news, for whoever would need it in the future. On the other hand, Zechs was already more than ready to see the back of Zebra Tango. He couldn't say he would miss it.

On the third hand-- if Noventa were ready to be leaving, that meant that Zechs had to be ready, too. For whatever decision he made. And the deadline to make it was rapidly approaching.

His morning had begun with stress and the level was climbing. Duo was awake before he was, and he got no access. The medical team had him surrounded, and Matwari shooed him away before he even made it past the outer curtain. Barton didn't appear to be doing all that much better; in the brief time Zechs stayed to watch, Barton caught scoldings from both other doctors for trying to handle medical equipment, and was finally banished to washing catheters. Zechs tried not to be overly brightened by that circumstance. It wasn't particularly worthy of him. Nor was his decision not to tell the doctors that he'd spoken with Duo, even brought him out of bed, the night before. He might have told them, but after being ordered in no uncertain terms to scat, he just kept it to himself and left.

The radiation rash was worse again, red and raw. On Matwari's advice he showered in tepid water only, diluted his soap by half, and dried himself carefully with the softest cloth he could find. The itch was maddening. He chose long sleeves from his luggage, a simple tunic that folded across the chest and offered no buttons or zips to add irritation. His grooming took barely a third of the time he normally alloted, even with those extra precautions. He had no hair to dry and brush, no beard to shave. Even his eyebrows had vanished, and his eyelashes. His face was curious, alien, without those familiar features. Almost a deathmasque.

He dallied as long as he could in an empty shuttle, but ultimately his own impatience got the best of him. He wanted to see what was going on. And he wanted to speak to Duo. Their conversation, such as it had been, felt unfinished, and if Duo were awake, and perhaps more coherent, they might need to repeat some of what they'd said the night before. He didn't want to leave without confirming that Duo knew he was going, and where. And... good-byes should be said properly.

And with that he acknowledged to himself that he already knew what decision he'd made. He'd be leaving with Noventa. He didn't want to be trapped on Mars, unable to affect the coming war. The war that was already being fought. If he could find Une, if he could somehow convince Noventa to un-disband Preventers, then he'd have allies enough to turn the tide of conflict. He wanted Duo to understand, and agree, and send him off with a clear conscience.

They might never see each other again. If he went to Earth, his life was surely in danger. But if he went to Mars, they might all be, and they'd never know until Cameron arrived with weapons enough to wipe out a tiny, unarmed colony. A colony that was going to have Duo on it.

When he entered the station again, there was less movement. Noventa's men were gathered at their original security stations, engaged in quiet briefings. Zechs spied Noventa himself amongst them, and waited to catch his eye. At first Noventa seemed to dismiss him, but Zechs simply moved into his line of sight again. Noventa frowned the distance at him, and nodded once. Content that they would speak soon, Zechs left him at it.

The tests in the infirmary seemed to have run their course, and now Matwari and Sally stood on either side of Duo's bed, peppering him with questions. Zechs watched long enough to determine that the results weren't pleasing to anyone. Zechs helped himself to the tea that was brewing on a hotplate in the corner, and poured a second cup as well. There was a waterglass at Duo's bedside, which meant he was allowed fluids, and tea would be more welcome than plain water. There was no milk, of course, but someone in Noventa's group must have brought them the small supply of freeze-dried lemon. Zechs used it gratefully.

Duo was watching for him when he twitched open the curtain. Zechs allowed himself cautious hope at that. Duo flinched when Matwari leant over him with a scope to poke in his ear, and the look he cast at Zechs was equal parts desperation and doom. Zechs hid a smile.

He cleared his throat, and did it again when no-one paid him any mind. Sally's head came around, and Matwari followed her reaction.

Zechs lifted the cups he held. 'He can have tea?' he asked.

'Not caffeinated,' Matwari began, and Zechs interrupted politely.

'Mint,' he said, 'and not boiling.'

'That sounds fine.' Sally beckoned him near. 'And how are you doing today? Nausea? Anything worse than nausea?'

No, and he didn't deserve that amount of luck, if he was going to be stuck in a mobile suit for a long flight back to Earth, shortly. He shook his head. Sally let him get away with it. He placed one of the mugs on the rolling table positioned over Duo's knees, nudging the chart out of the way for it.

Sally spared him fishing for it, and simply provided him what he wanted to hear. 'No hearing,' she said. 'Too soon to tell if it's neurological or if there's been some kind of genetic deterioration from the spores. If you give your permission, I'd like to draw a sample from you as well, for further study.'

'Yes, of course.' He found a spot to stand near Duo, out of the way, but near enough to lend support. Duo had submitted to Matwari's examination, but he was clearly on edge. 'Anything else?'

'He seems to have lost some vision. We did a basic acuity test and he missed more than his file ever recorded before. Again, hard to tell if that's something that will pass or can be corrected. When we get him to Mars, he'll need glasses. Some inflammation of the oesophagus and gums. But he's alert. He complained of, quote, “fuzziness”, but I think we can safely say that's the coma and just missing out on what was going on as he grew more ill. He's out of immediate danger.'

That was a deep relief. He tried hard to keep expression from his face, but he gave himself away with a shaky breath. Sally squeezed his elbow.

'What's that?' she asked, nodding at his hands.

The book. Noventa's men had returned it the night before, apparently convinced it was harmless. 'We were reading it together,' Zechs answered. 'I would like for him to have it. I don't know if-- he'll be able to. But it came to be very important for both of us.'

'That's a kind thought.' She tilted it to the light. 'What language is that? Russian? That's right; you said you were teaching him.'

'Could I have a moment with him?' he asked then. 'His tea is getting cold. Maybe we could give him a few minutes.'

Sally blinked up at him. 'Oh. Of course.' She waved for Duo's eyes, and said, 'We'll dig on the computer. See if there's something we're missing. You want to lie down?'

Zechs was already anticipating Duo's forceful, and quite loud, 'No!' The scuffles and hustle outside the infirmary paused for a moment, and restarted reluctantly. Sally pursed her lips, but Zechs thought it was only to hide a smile.

Zechs made his own diffident contribution. 'Perhaps just a little break from doctors prodding him, hm?' he murmured.

Barton's flat affect spoke volumes of suspicion. Zechs met it with as mild a look as he could. But Sally rose, and Matwari was following, so Trowa went trailing after.

Duo peevishly threw his ice chips at the bin. He missed, and the cup rebounded off the rim, scattering flecks of water all over the floor. Zechs tossed a towel over the mess, but made no effort to clean it up. He hesitated over the book, and finally set it aside on the bedside table. He took the stool Sally had abandoned, and sat. 'Help any?' he asked.

Duo scratched at the vivid rash on his cheek, until Zechs reached to stop him. Duo's hands clenched into pointy-knuckled fists under his palms. 'What?' Zechs asked him. 'Tell me.'

Duo fixed him with a hard-eyed stare. 'How bad am I?' he demanded bluntly.

Already his voice sounded different. Hollow, and clipped, as if he were biting off the ends of the words. If he never regained his hearing, he'd lose that signature flippancy, that edgy habit of verbally disgracing his opponents with a sharp turn of phrase. But he was alive.

Zechs felt Duo's hands twitch, and released him slowly. 'You nearly died,' he said honestly, 'from the initial infection. The bacteriophages didn't work fast enough, and there's no way of knowing if they'd have saved you. The radiation... we don't know. It was an uncontrolled exposure. It may have stopped the infection, but the long range effects could be devastating.'

And more alert, yes, than even last night. Then Zechs had been unsure if Duo really knew where he was; now he was sure. Duo's eyes followed the movement of his lips, and the tendons of his jaw flexed and stood hard by the end of Zechs' recitation. But he didn't ask anything more. He didn't fight it or try to deny it. He accepted it, internalised it.

Zechs wet his lips. 'Duo,' he said, and wasn't sure what he meant to add. He sipped his tea, and put it aside. 'Duo, I-- I may have killed you by taking you in that reactor.'

That earned, at last, a flicker of shock. 'I don't understand,' Duo said slowly.

'You were dying.'

Duo shook his head. To clear it, not to contradict him. 'And this is about the war,' he said. 'Preventers.'

'Drink your tea.' He waited for Duo to do as he was told. When the cup touched Duo's lips, Zechs answered him. 'This infection wasn't accidental. You and I were chosen. And purposely infected.'

There was no temper to greet that. He'd almost expected it. But it was an interesting thing, a strangely sad thing, to think that the Duo who'd been his constant companion for five months was not, perhaps, the Duo who had been before they'd been infected. Or might not be the Duo who was left behind, after this awful illness.

So no temper. Duo accepted that as he'd accepted the news about his condition, letting it settle into place with no further comment. No argument, as there had been on board their ship when they'd first been discussing the possibility. No railing against Une or Preventers. No despair, even.

Zechs filled the silence, though Duo's eyes only came to his mouth when Duo realised he was still speaking. 'We were just important enough,' he said, explained, perhaps just to hear his own voice. 'Or infamous enough. For our deaths to make an impact. We were meant to die. If not in space, then on Mars.'

Duo sipped his tea again. 'So who are all the people here?'

'The woman working with Sally is Doctor Lena Matwari. A specialist in epidemics, I think. Trowa and Sally came when we called for help, and appear to have just escaped a lock-down on Mars. The men... they work for Horatio Noventa. Ultimately, for Ianto Cameron.'

'Trowa said that name too.' Duo shook his head again, twitched a thumbnail over his rash, and deliberately put his own hands out of risk. 'I want to walk around. Will they let me?'

Last night he wouldn't have been capable. He seemed stronger this morning. Strong enough? Duo's eyes were begging. Zechs crumbled.

'They don't have to know,' he whispered. 'Let me help you.'

Duo was already flinging his sheets aside. Zechs helped remove them, and tried to find the best way to negotiate Duo's trip down from the gurney. Duo did seem stronger, and one of the doctors had taken care of the problem of the cold air by dressing Duo in leggings and stockings beneath his gown. Zechs did wrap him up in a blanket, and Duo hugged it close, but he kept on his own feet when he landed on the tile. Zechs pretended not to notice how Duo sagged against his arm, but privately decided they wouldn't be going far. Just far enough to taste a little freedom. He did tilt Duo's face up to his, and said, 'It won't help if you push too fast. You're going to have to trust me.'

Duo succumbed to that with no protest. He really was different. Zechs tried not to feel a pang. Alive was the only state that mattered.

They couldn't go far without being seen. Zechs kept Duo within the screened area, but they paced it slowly, with Duo's fist gripping his shirt, and his own hands tucked as carefully as he could to Duo's heaving ribcage. They made two rounds on the circumference before Duo spoke again, so low Zechs almost didn't hear him.

Duo said, 'They're going to tell me this is permanent, aren't they.'

Duo's face stayed turned down. Zechs didn't answer. Duo already knew.

Zechs called a halt to their journey when he felt Duo's knee go out. He pulled a chair near, and set Duo into it, and pulled the rolling stool near for himself. Duo wiped his nose on his arm; his hand shook.

'You're bald,' he observed finally.

Zechs nodded. 'Radiation. You're losing yours as well.'

Immediately Duo grabbed for his braid. His stricken expression was painful. Zechs looked anywhere else but at him. 'I'm sorry. But-- You're alive. It will grow again.'

Both of Duo's hands were shaking. He pulled his braid over his shoulder, clutching it near. 'All of it?' he asked hoarsely.

'Probably, yes.' He had to raise his head to repeat it. 'Prob--' He gave himself a moment to breathe. 'Probably.'

He had time to wonder if he ought to call for Sally or even Barton. Someone who could offer better comfort. He'd thought brutal honesty was better, that it was what Duo wanted, needed from him, but now he was unsure. There was such a thing as too much truth, and that one could have waited. Duo would have noticed for himself, soon enough.

But Duo came to his own conclusions, as he always did. Haltingly, he said, 'I want to do like you. Don't want to wait for it all to-- to--'

Zechs managed a nod. 'Are you sure?'

'No. Yeah. Yeah. Before Trowa comes back. He'll argue with me. We always argue.'

'He cares about you.' The way Duo was shaking, he couldn't sit much longer. Zechs didn't wait for his own argument. He lifted Duo with one arm under the knees and the other at his shoulders, and carried him the short distance to the bed. 'I'll get clippers,' he said, and covered Duo's legs with the blankets again. He ransacked the drawers nearby, and tore open a plastic bag that held surgical instruments. Not as good as proper cutting scissors, but the small blades were sharp when he tested them against his thumb. He returned to Duo's side. 'Are you sure? We don't... we don't have to do this.'

Duo's eyes came up to his, dry as ever. Zechs traced the bare ridge of his brow. 'I don't want it to go piece by piece,' Duo breathed, and Zechs nodded.

The cotton cap shed loose hairs already. Zechs dropped it to the pillow behind Duo's head, so he wouldn't have to see it. Even at his tender touch, locks came loose, caught only for the moment in the plait. If he was careful, it would survive whole. He brought Duo's head low, until Duo's forehead rested on his chest. He rubbed Duo's thin shoulders for a moment, apology and warning in one. 'I'm sorry,' he said, knowing Duo couldn't hear him, and gathered a thick strand between his fingers. He cut, close to the scalp, and brushed it back. The next segment he chose from the temple, and then beside that, and finally just made it straight, following the hairline from ear to ear, and then working his way back. It took a torturous five minutes, the clippers snipping a quarter-inch at a time. When he felt the braid begin to fall, he cushioned it down, and tugged it gently free. It fell back against his knuckles like a limb being severed. Duo pulled it from his hold, cradling it in his lap. Zechs ran a palm over Duo's stubbled head, and kissed it. Duo hiccoughed soflty.

Zechs found the cap, and pulled it back on him. 'I've been promising myself it'll grow back,' he began, and couldn't finish.

'Yeah.' Duo clenched his fists hard, and then they went limp. 'No time.'

'Exactly.'

He'd been trying to hold himself back. Any thought of that flew out of his head. He ignored Duo's resistance and kissed him. He heard a sharp inhale, but Duo's wrists were too fragile to pull free from him, and he only pressed it for a moment.

And anyway, Barton had his own radar. Zechs let go when the curtain came wrenching back.

Barton stared at him angrily. 'Did you have him out of bed? He's not ready. You'll delay his recovery if you keep on--'

Zechs almost stepped back, and then decided not to. The clock was ticking down his remaining time. And he would have that time on his own terms. Barton would have plenty of hours alone with Duo to get whatever he wanted, but not before Zechs had his. 'Give us a moment, please.'

Barton noticed the hair, then. His outrage went from potential to dead rage. His voice went almost to a whisper, his spine snapping straight. 'What did you do.'

Zechs repeated himself firmly. 'A moment, please.'

'What did you do to him.' Barton couldn't shoulder him out of the way, not if Zechs didn't want to be moved, but he pulled at Duo from the back, not quite daring to touch the braid, but sliding off the cap instead. 'God. Duo. Did he ask you--'

'Barton. Now.'

Barton's head snapped up. It might have gone to blows, it had that feel about it. Zechs was bunching his shoulders, ready to defend himself or something more. But Duo stopped it. His fingers at Barton's chin defused the tension. Barton retaliated, but it was a small, almost petty revenge. He bent for his own kiss, a quick brush of his lips over Duo's. Then he stalked away, throwing the curtain wide and leaving it that way.

'Damn it,' Zechs muttered. He rolled his head on his shoulders, and held his breath until the head in his face found somewhere else to be. He made sure Duo was looking at him, and said clearly, 'Forgive me. I didn't mean to start that.'

Duo dropped back to his pillows. 'Why do I feel like I just fell into the middle of some bad blood?'

'Not dropped-into. You just weren't awake for a lot of it.' Zechs rested cautiously on the edge of Duo's bed. 'I'm pushing you. I shouldn't have. The hair could have waited.'

Duo's fingers trembled, touching the braid. 'It is what it is.'

'It's one more piece of your past I've robbed you of.' He took Duo's hands again, this time as gently as he could. 'You scared me so much, Duo.'

Already the shape of his face looked different, without his hair. His eyes seemed paler, more sunken, his neck so-- bare. But he said, 'I don't feel almost dead. Just kind of crappy.'

Zechs let out a bark that was meant to be a laugh. 'You're definitely looking better than you were.' He turned Duo's inner wrist to the light, to stroke it with his thumb. Duo's skin was papery and dry. 'We have a decision to make.'

'We do? About what?'

'We can't stay on this station for long. They'll send us to Earth, or Mars. And soon. This morning.'

'Oh.' Duo's hands were cold, and Zechs warmed them between his own. Duo let him, but his hands were limp, now, except for the tremors. 'Where are you going to go?'

Zechs hesitated, wondering how to answer that very reasonable question. 'I was hoping to follow you.'

'I don't think I know where I'm going.'

'Trowa is going to Mars.'

Duo's forehead creased, and smoothed. 'Probably I should go with him, then. He's my doctor.'

He wasn't making his point, and he was wasting time. Brutal honesty it was, then, and Duo would forgive him or not. 'Is there a chance for us, Duo?' he asked bluntly. 'You're speaking to me again, at least. After everything, I-- I'm going to consider that a good sign.'

'Why wouldn't I speak to you?' Duo said. 'You saved my life.'

That startled him. Was Duo offering a peace flag? Or had he somehow-- of all the memories to lose. It had been right before the last, worst stage of their infection, and perhaps-- but Duo had seemed plenty coherent for it. But if he had forgotten it, was it just another cruel swipe to bring it up again? And right after shearing him of that other, most important reminder. Symbol. Duo was a walking contradiction, sometimes, but not when it came to that hair. Because it's mine, that was one of the first things Duo had said to him, and it might be the truest he'd ever spoken.

But if Duo remembered on his own, it would be a double betrayal. The original blow, and the lie to cover it, even if it was only a lie of omission.

He already had Duo's gaze, puzzled pale eyes. Zechs swallowed, and said, 'We fought before you became ill.'

Duo blinked once. 'What about?'

'My presence at the Maxwell Church Massacre.' It was both easier and not, to confess it all over again. Duo only sat there, not reacting, but for the line between his eyes going ever so slightly deeper. 'I was there. As a cadet. It was the worst day of my life, and... I know it was the worst day of yours.'

Duo's eyes widened. They went unfocussed, away from Zechs, but that was it. No other reaction. Had he pushed too hard? Gone too fast? Last night Duo hadn't even been coherent, when he'd kept Duo up this long. But he had to say it now, because there wasn't time. He could hear Noventa's men out there. The electric hum of ships being brought back to full power.

'I'm sorry,' Zechs said.

Duo's lips parted, for a shaky inhale. That, at least, was emotion Zechs could recognise. He tightened his grip on Duo's hands.

'I believe you,' Duo said.

It was all Zechs could do to nod. He let Duo go, and pushed to his feet. He went no further than the gurney he'd been occupying, only days earlier. It was bare now, stripped of sheets, and the plastic mattress crinkled under his weight. He only sat for a moment, suddenly restless. It had almost been better, Duo's condemnation and anger and loss. That had felt real. This didn't, not really.

Duo's voice followed his prowl around the infirmary. He said, 'So, if I go to Mars, you'll come?'

'Yes. I'll come, Duo. I'd rather not lose you.'

'I can't see your mouth.'

He about-faced. 'I don't want to lose you. Duo-- please say it. Can you forgive me?'

Duo's head dipped in a nod. Not real. How could it be? No rage. No rigid impatience. This was the-- the nice Duo, the one who did do things like-- forgive. And the worst thing was that it wasn't the Duo he wanted with him.

'You couldn't have been much older than me,' Duo was saying. 'You were under orders.'

'Does that matter?'

'Doesn't it?'

He couldn't think about it. He dug his teeth into his lip, his nails into his palms. 'Cameron,' he started, and had to clear his throat. 'Cameron seems to be-- responsible. For the coup. Noventa, I don't know if he's ultimately a straw man, but he seems open to some compromise. He's asked me to go to Earth with him.'

'You said that last night.' Duo clenched his hands, and curled on his side, the braid pooling on his knee. 'I think I remember that.'

'Yes. He asked me-- told me. Mars or Earth.'

'It gives Cameron legitimacy. You being there.'

That sounded more like the Duo he knew, and he tried not to be frustrated, or not to acknowledge his frustration, that Duo could be the same in this and not in something that Zechs wanted from him. He made himself sit again. 'Potentially,' he agreed. 'I know. I'm trying not to lose sight of the purpose. I'm trying to decide if it's a worthwhile trade.'

'Double agents don't have high success rates.'

'So I shouldn't try?'

'He'll kill you as soon as he figures it out.'

'I'm aware.'

Duo's pale eyes went narrow. 'Then why aren't you aware this is stupid?'

'I'm aware of that, too.' He shrugged one-shouldered. 'It might be a risk someone has to take. Someone needs to find Une. She's been missing, from what I understand. Preventers is nothing until we know where our leaders are.'

Duo scratched his cheek, until Zechs pointed to it. He put his hand under the pillows. 'I can't argue with that. I don't see why it has to be you, I guess.'

'Who else is there?'

'Let them find someone on Earth. Let Une find herself.'

That was a cogent argument. But he was talking himself out of Mars one more time. And if he was divided now, he wouldn't be less so on Mars. 'Would you run from this if Noventa had asked you?' he said at last.

Duo's eyes gleamed in the dim. 'Noventa's not going to just forgive you for his uncle. You don't believe that either.'

'Noventa is a different man, I believe. And this is a different situation entirely.' Duo tugged at his cap, and Zechs looked away. 'How can I change anything from Mars?'

'But it's fine for me to go.'

'Would you come with me if it were allowed?'

'To Earth. On our own. Trowa and Sally, too. Just not with Noventa.'

'Those weren't his conditions. I can go back as his employee, or his prisoner. Or I can choose exile on Mars.'

'Fine. So you've decided. Why ask me what I think?'

'Maybe I need to know if you'll be waiting for me to come back to you.'

Duo didn't look at him for a long time, then. Just his hair, coiled now around his wrist. When he spoke, finally, it was so soft Zechs barely heard him. 'I don't know. What if you don't come back.'

'I don't mean this to be a suicide mission.' He had to wait for Duo's eyes, and said it again. 'I might have some input to that, you know.'

'Just because you think that doesn't mean it'll be true.'

'I know.' Zechs rubbed his tired eyes, and surrendered. 'Forget Noventa. I'll stay.'

Duo rolled to his back again. 'You'll hate me for making you stay.'

'I couldn't hate you.'

Duo's head followed him standing. 'You'd be surprised.' He scrubbed a knuckle over his ear. 'Just be careful. Don't trust him.'

'I won't.' He touched Duo's cheek, turning it toward him. 'Barton will try to take you from me. I'm jealous enough to worry that you'll let him.'

Duo knocked his hand away, but let him take hold of it instead. 'What?'

'While I'm gone. He still loves you.'

'He broke up with me a long time ago. Before he went to Mars.'

'It was a mistake.'

Duo frowned, expressing something visible about this conundrum, finally. 'I don't know. It's all a little fuzzy. I guess it does explain him kissing me ten minutes ago.' He twirled the tuft of his braid over the back of his hand. 'We had a-- relationship. You and me. On the ship.'

'We had a lot of debate about what it was.' A large group of men went past the infirmary, then, and Zechs turned his head to follow the noise. When he looked back, Duo was waiting for him. 'Yes. I don't want to pressure you. But it meant-- very much-- to me.'

'Promise me something.' Duo's eyes slid away, then back up, as his mouth scrunched to the side, chewed from within. 'Like, a real promise. Pinky swear and vows to the death.'

'If I can. Of course.'

'Find out who gave us the virus,' Duo said. 'And fuck them up seriously hard.'

Zechs cracked a smile. 'I promise.'

Duo sighed. He plucked at his sleeve, pulled it back. 'I wasn't sure what this was. I think I know now. It's yours, isn't it.'

It was the bracelet of his hair. He'd forgotten all about it. He had to give himself a moment, unable to get anything out of a tight throat. He nodded.

Duo pried at the wire fastener, and slipped it off. He held it out. 'You should keep it. For luck. I think you'll need a lot of it.'

'I'd rather you do.' Duo's lips twisted, and then he let it drop to the sheet. Zechs touched it, and then, not entirely sure he was daring enough, touched the braid instead. 'Maybe I... could take a strand of this. For luck.'

Duo didn't say no. Duo didn't say anything, but scratched his cheek. Zechs took that for cautious permission. He was as careful as if he were defusing a bomb, separating a thin strand from the plait, unweaving it slowly. And then, since he was stealing, he stole something else, too. He pressed his lips to Duo's.

Duo turned his head away. 'Thank you for telling me,' he mumbled, toneless, and Zechs didn't imagine it was solely because of his deafness. 'I knew you had some kind of weird secret. That lame story you told me, that truth or dare night. About running away to L2.'

'I've never lied to you, Duo.' He sat, turning the lock of hair over and over in his fingers. 'I've never lied,' he said again, so Duo could see him.

'So you really ran away?'

'I really ran away. I have a long history of running away from adversity.'

'Me, too, really.' Duo pulled his braid close. 'I stole my Gundam even, because I didn't like the orders they gave me. I used to steal a lot. Kind of a character flaw.'

'None of us are perfect.'

'I...' Duo dragged his lower lip through his teeth. 'It may take me a while to be completely cool about it. I'm sorry.'

That, he guessed, was the answer to all of his questions. Duo was who he was, and that had been enough to love once. It was enough to love now, even if he had to do it from Earth. 'I understand,' he said, and if he couldn't give it real voice, Duo didn't know. He stood. 'Are you hungry? I can find you something. Sally said regaining some of the weight you've lost is important.'

'Yeah. Okay.'

He went to the curtain, and was unsurprised to see Barton waiting right outside, eavesdropping shamelessly. Barton met his eyes coolly. Zechs turned back. 'Duo,' he said, and found Duo already watching for him. He lifted his chin, and said it boldly. 'I'll come back for you.'

Duo bit his lip, and then he nodded. 'I'll wait,' he whispered.

He felt a surge of hard elation. It was all he could do to contain himself a nod. He kissed the lock of hair, and tucked it into his shirt.

He brushed past Barton in the antechamber. He reached for the first man passing in the hall, a veteran he recognised from the chaos after the reactor. 'Please tell Noventa I wish to speak to him,' he said courteously. 'I know he's hurrying to leave, but he'll want to know my answer.'


**


Trowa lifted another spoonful of broth to his lips. Duo managed a final swallow, and waved the bowl away. 'Not feeling so good.'

You'll improve over time. Trowa set the bowl on the wheeled table and gave it a push out of their way. No more of those shakes. You'll have to have real food, as soon as you can handle it.

'Brown rice and fish for breakfast.'

Fish? Trowa cocked his head. It does have protein. We'll see what Noventa left us for supplies.

Duo didn't explain it. He wasn't even entirely sure where he'd had the joke from, but it felt like something involving Zechs. Trowa and Sally both assured him he'd get back more of his memories at some point, but the key word in that seemed to be 'most', and Duo didn't like maybes.

Didn't like laying around in bed, either, even if he'd only managed about two hours of wakey-time before he'd passed out. The station had been empty by then. Just him and the docs. A shuttle home. Noventa hadn't even left anyone behind to escort them. Why bother? They had a ship that couldn't land in gravity and they had no weapons even if they tried it. Whatever they would have tried. He kept trying to wrap his mind around it, and his mind didn't want to go. Coup. A whole new world order, again. For better or worse, for however long it lasted. If it even mattered.

Trowa was watching him when he looked again. That was something new. You could be in a room with Trowa for days and he'd find a way to look anywhere else. Gruffly, Duo told him, 'Did I grow horns or scales in the reactor? You're staring.'

Trowa's thumb rubbed over his knuckles. He only made that gesture when he was deciding something big. He nodded to himself. He said, Do you want a mirror?

That made his heart skip a beat. 'No,' he said flatly. 'I-- no. I don't-- why would I?'

So you'd have some damn idea why we're all acting the way we are.

'I don't want a fucking mirror.' Duo fidgeted with the bracelet on his wrist. Trowa was staring at that, too, but hadn't said anything about it yet. He gave up on the bracelet and pulled at his cap, instead. It itched and he didn't like it, but he didn't like what was under it more. His head was three pounds lighter, and he didn't feel-- anchored.

Trowa's mouth turned up at the corner. I got you something.

'What.'

Two somethings. Trowa reached a foot out, and snagged a duffel near. Familiar duffel. That was Duo's personal luggage, complete with the black makona patch peeling off the front flap. Trowa lifted it into his lap. Here.

He was almost too tired for it, but when Trowa put his neon pink bandana in his hand, he couldn't stop a smile. Trowa smiled too, just a little. Trowa took the cap for him, and helped him tie a knot in the bandana. It slipped in place like it always did, except for when he went to pull his braid out over the knot. But he took a deep breath and he didn't say anything. He'd get used to it.

Now you look better. Trowa adjusted the bandana for him, pulling it to just over his hairline. Here's the other thing. I figured we've got a long trip back to Mars. And I hear you like books.

It was an e-reader. It had 'TB' etched in the corner-- so it was Trowa's. But when he flicked it on, the title that appeared was clearly for him.

Learning Sign Language.

He coughed to clear his throat, and turned the e-reader face down. 'I don't know if I'm ready, Trowa.'

You will be. I know you. Look. Trowa lifted his hand. He put it to his forhead and moved it out a stiff inch. That means 'hello'.

Duo bit his lip. 'Show me that again. Think I missed it.'

Trowa lifted Duo's hand. He put it to Duo's forehead. Like this. Hey, look at that. You're already a pro. He grinned at Duo. I don't think that sign is in there. Not enough fingers.

'Thanks.'

No problem. He stroked Duo's hand. It'll be okay. Really.

'Yeah.' He held his breath, puffed out his cheeks, and let it out. 'Yeah. It will.'

[part 10] [part 12] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]