Authors: TB and Marsh
see part 1 for notes, warnings

2.7 Kelvin + Part 7

I hadn't realised it had been quite so long since we posted for Kelvin. Sorry for the wait!After Duo barricaded himself in his cabin, there wasn't very much for Zechs to do but sit still and feel helpless.

He ought to have acted faster. He ought to have dragged Duo out of the cockpit and watched him, at the very least, or tried something to treat him. They'd both been lax on that, far too passive, too willing to believe it was something that could be overcome easily when Une gave them the right clue, when Barton finally came up with the right answer. That was the division that ruled their lives, in Preventers; command, field agent, medic. They were trained to leave the duties of each to their own, never imagining what might happen if one point on the triangle failed.

There was no way to redress his past failures, but he did what he could, now, grimly carving out a daily, hourly routine that he forced Duo to obey. He made Duo demonstrate that he couldn't read, until Duo yelled with frustration and then went quiet and pale and drawn. When speech came next, Zechs tried to coax it out of him, word by word, trying to understand as Duo's bright mind tossed out sound-alikes and related words without ever quite finding the right thought. He spoke his final word to tell Zechs to go; and then he didn't speak again. He didn't eat, and he barely drank enough water to survive, so Zechs unpacked their precious few intravenous drips and placed the catheter in Duo's thin hand himself.

It was the hardest thing he had ever done, just watching as Duo faded out of life. In the blackest of his thoughts Zechs even began to be grateful when Duo stopped rising from his bed and only lay still, dull-eyed and unresponsive. At least Duo no longer knew what was happening to him. It was a horrible kind of premonition, watching Duo lose control of his body and finally even his mind, and to know that when it happened to him, one day very soon, there might not even be a witness.

They would be alone at the station, until, or if, Trowa Barton arrived. Barton might or might not have answers. He might or might not be too late. There were the bacteriophages in their cargo, and those might be the answer-- if the answer was something that Zechs could manage alone, and before he became incapacitated himself, assuming the disease followed the same course in him that it had in Duo. Zechs had only the most rudimentary knowledge of medicine, the ability to carry out simple operations, field operations-- stop-gaps until the real help could come. He'd been indifferent to the short briefing about the supplies they were carting to Mars, had barely glanced at the inventory. But even when he did have the better medical equipment on Zebra Tango to work with, there would be little he could do. Bacteriophages had to be designed to attack a specific disease. He didn't know how to do that, or how to find out what Duo had, if the computer couldn't identify it for him. It was no advantage at all.

So he filled the silent hours preparing for the worst. He made a comprehensive list of Duo's symptoms and sent it to sources he trusted-- to Relena and Heero Yuy in Sanq, to Barton's last signal, to Noin. He wrote a detailed brief of their mission progress, sparing nothing, even their sexual relationship-- even the confession he'd made that had driven Duo over the edge. Anything might be useful. It was mentally, emotionally exhausting, but he drove himself through the night cycles, determined to do it while Duo was quiet, while there was time to concentrate properly. The last thing he did was update his will with terse personal statements to the few people he called friends, and the one woman who had once been his family. He didn't try to explain to them; he didn't know if his messages would ever reach them, truly. It wasn't the first time he'd ever made such preparations, but it was the first time he had felt a real uncertainty about the possibility of his death. The only person he truly worried about leaving behind now-- would likely beat him to it.

He sat silent vigil with Duo for the entire cycle before Zebra Tango. Duo was silent, now, dull-eyed as he stared at nothing. They would have to transfer to the cockpit to dock, but Zechs had already decided he wouldn't try to move Duo until it was time. They would complete that together, if Duo was lucid; he could do it alone, if not, but Duo would still have to be suited for safety, and that would not be easy or comfortable. He made Duo a final nutrient shake, spooning it slowly past his lips. When he dressed Duo that night, the grey stretchsuit hung off his skeletal frame, only a few shades darker than his waxy skin.

He carried Duo to the airlock, and left him propped against the wall as he raised the computer to full power for the first time in five months.

"Lights," he commanded first. "Raise internal temperature to 25 Celsius. Computer," he said then, "prepare for docking procedure."

"Authorisation required from both agents on duty," it answered.

Zechs had anticipated that. Duo's weight was slight even before he brought him over the transition into zero-gravity. "Agent Maxwell is incapacitated," he said. "I am in command of the mission now."

"Authorisation level four required."

Duo settled easily into his chair. His eyes drooped, and his shallow breaths turned deep as he dozed. Zechs strapped him down, and pressed a long kiss to his warm temple.

"'Let them eat cake'," he intoned. "Prepare for docking procedure."

"Acknowledged. Activating view screen and navigation comm."

It didn't really require two people, but everything about this only called to memory how he and Duo had instinctively divided the work between them, last time. Duo hadn't looked at him then, either, not any more than necessary. But just as Zechs had decided internally that Duo, renowned pilot that he was, would probably want to navigate the launch, Duo had never raised his voice to supply any of the necessary command sequence, a part of the procedure Zechs was always loathe to leave to others, who couldn't be counted on not to skip steps. They'd found the tandem without half knowing each other. As if they were meant to.

"Computer," Zechs said. "Display--"

The perimetre alarms went off. Duo barely stirred, but Zechs jumped and his heart pounded. "Computer," he barked. "Display!"

His mouth dropped open in shock. There was an entire fleet of Leos surrounding the Midway Station, and seven zooming through Space at Zechs' small ship, spreading in a wide 'vee' to surround him.

"Evasive maneouvers!" He gripped the navigation in palms that sweated suddenly. "Computer, retreat to--"

"Incoming message."

Their tiny transport ship was no match for even a single mobile suit, much less the firepower that swooped above, below, and behind faster than he could even turn the ship. They were trapped.

Duo slept obliviously, one hand floating in the air, palm up.

Zechs swallowed dryly. "Acknowledge message."

It was visual. His view screen divided to halves, the bleak sight of the blockade to the left and the vaguely familiar face of a man in a militaristic uniform to the right.

"Agent," the man said, and inclined his head politely. "We've been waiting for your arrival."

Blonde hair, darker than Zechs', and a solemn, narrow face with thick level brows. Oddly familiar. Zechs let none of his anxiety show on his own face. "I am Agent Merquise of the Preventers," he snapped. "Identify yourself."

"Horatio Ambrose Noventa," the man replied. "Commander of this fleet. It is my duty to inform you that Preventers have been disbanded, and to instruct you to stand down your weapons."

"Disbanded?" he repeated, disbelieving. Then the name sank in. "Noventa?"

"Yes, Agent." For a moment, just a moment, something dark flickered in the courteous gaze that never left his eyes. "I believe you knew my uncle."

God.

"Stand down your weapons, Agent. You are vastly outnumbered. We have no intention of firing at you, but provocation will not be ignored."

There was no possibility of outrunning them. And no question of even attempting to fight them. They'd be blown out of the air.

"Agent Maxwell is in need of medical attention," Noventa added. "Quarantine facilities have been prepared for him."

That snapped him out of his hesitation. Duo would be just as visible to Noventa as Zechs was, a vulnerability that had never occurred to him-- because he'd never imagined there would be a need to hide it. Cautiously, Zechs said, "You're aware of our situation?"

Hell; they'd probably passed the ship, flying to get here before them. It was a five month journey in their little scow, but it could be accomplished in just one, in the best of shuttles. In mobile suits, even less, if you were willing to risk the pilots, if you could cart sufficient supplies--

Obviously they had been.

Preventers disbanded. His stomach churned.

"We have no intention of interfering with Agent Maxwell's treatment," Noventa was answering him. "You may proceed to docking when ready." He inclined his head again, curtly, and his transmission ended abruptly. Zechs' screen expanded to show the Leos banking wide and drifting back to a respectful distance.

He took Duo's hand. It fit like a child's in his, so thin now. But it gave him strength. "Hold on," he whispered tenderly. "I will help you, Duo.

"Computer. Engage docking with station."

"Docking engaged," the computer agreed.

+

There were more surprises waiting. Trowa Barton and Sally Po met them at the airlock.

"We're contagious," Zechs shouted, a knee-jerk reaction to the sight of two un-suited humans only feet away him.

It was Sally, her long honey hair spilling over her shoulder with her quick shake, who stretched out a hand to him, gesturing him through the airlock. "We're ready for you," she called back. "Come on. Hand him out, we've got him."

He never even thought of handing Duo over. The transition between the dock and the normal-grav interior of Zebra Tango took far longer than on their little ship. Duo sagged in his arms. Zechs had tried to lift him, but dizziness forced him to set him back on his feet, as much as possible. He could feel wetness trickling from his nose to his upper lip, but there was no way to wipe it inside his helmet. He hugged Duo closer as the airlock door rolled open, and the chamber flooded with oxygen.

"I didn't expect you to beat us here," he told the doctors gruffly.

Barton said, "I told him I wasn't ditching you."

Sally wielded a wheelchair. She bumped Zechs in the knee with it, and he reluctantly released Duo, easing him down to the seat. It was far too large for him, but she lifted his feet to the saddles, and Zechs helped her with his helmet. Wedged against his hip, it would keep him in the chair.

"Is he catatonic?" she demanded.

"No. Just-- He's been like this for the last few days." Sally took a small flashlight from her coat pocket and peered into Duo's eyes, open now, with it. Zechs stripped his helmet as the airlock shut behind him. Barton knelt at Duo's side, taking his pulse. "Please tell me," Zechs said, "that you know what this is and how to treat it."

Barton released an impatient breath. "We're working on it."

"Let's get them inside," Sally said. She stepped behind the handles of the chair before Zechs could, and set a brisk pace up the curving corridor.

He had been in Zebra Tango before, but not since the research quarters and medical bay had been added to the bare bunks and mining facilities that had once been the whole of the in-system ring of satellites. It was still empty, almost ghost-like, and the chilly metal walls echoed with their progress. Zechs pushed damp hair from his forehead. He was both overheated in his suit and cold from the clammy atmosphere of the station. His stomach was decidedly upset, now, protesting every step.

"You look rough too," Barton observed sharply. "When did it start?"

Zechs lifted one shoulder, to block the sight of the shorter man. "Duo first." He knew he sounded cranky and difficult, but his nerves would not allow any false congeniality. "What's going on out there?"

Sally spoke over her shoulder as they met a cross-hall and turned to the right. "There was a coup on Earth."

The explained the unusual uniform on Horatio Noventa. The dozens of Leos. Zechs pressed his palm to his stomach, but the warmth didn't penetrate the thick layers of his suit.

"The President is dead. The Vice President is likely on the run. So is Une. Preventers are officially disbanded."

"Officially?"

"Look," Barton interrupted. "We've got time for that later. Right now there are more immediate priorities."

Zechs couldn't disagree with that.

The hospital bay was ready, as promised. There were two beds arranged together, a console of computers perched nearby. The screens of the computers were all lit, information on a slow scroll. Sally and Barton moved faster than Zechs, again, lifting Duo from the chair to one of the beds and stripping him quickly. Sally did glance back, long enough to say, "You, too."

It felt strange. Oppressive, almost, the new voices, the new human presence. He didn't like how they cut him off from Duo, and knew they would be right to deny that they were even trying to. They were doctors, they were the doctors he'd been waiting for. Zechs tried to centre himself with a deep breath, and bent to remove his boots.

"There's a gown there," Sally told him. "Lay back and just drape it over your lap, Zechs."

He obeyed. Duo didn't get even that modesty. They arranged him on the bed like a stringless puppet. Barton moved into his eyeline, then, bent over Duo on the bed. Sally startled him by appearing on his other side.

"Arms over your head," she said. She stuck a pillow behind his neck as he did so.

Barton was being entirely clinical and appropriate in his examination of Duo. Mostly. Duo's eyes were open, but he didn't respond to his name, and his head didn't turn to follow the progress of Barton's touch on his bare arms and chest.

Zechs said, "He was already sick when we left."

"Yes," Sally agreed. "But he didn't give it to you. You were sick, too." Her fingers, icy against his skin, probed his armpits, palpating his lymph nodes.

"How?" he asked her. "We both tested fit before we left. How can you know that?"

"You were tested, yes. I've seen the file. Both of you showed normal." She brushed over his neck, and then moved quickly, professionally down his sternum. She pressed stiffly on his abdomen, expertly seeking his internal organs. "Any pain?"

"Pain, no." She dug into his stomach, and he had to clench his teeth. "Nausea, yes."

"One to ten, one lowest?"

"Six."

She tapped his cheek. "Honesty helps us. Honesty will help Duo."

"Six, damn it." He breathed carefully. "He had a seizure three days ago."

Barton looked up. "Seizure?"

"It began like all the other hallucinations, and ended in tremors. Then he passed out. I'd call that a seizure. Wouldn't you?"

"Lose the attitude, Merquise. We came here to help you."

"Duo's notes said moodiness might be a symptom."

Sally's thoughtful interruption embarrassed him. But he didn't apologise.

Barton turned his back again just as Sally lifted the gown from Zechs' lap. Zechs stared at the low dark ceiling as she reached over his groin to depress his thigh, following the big femoral artery. He went red-cheeked when her cold fingers casually tossed the gown further aside, leaving him bare to the air. She didn't apologise, either.

"Swollen," she told Barton.

"Duo as well. How long has he been febrile?"

Zechs said, "Off and on for weeks. Usually when something else is wrong, too."

Sally had him sit up, and stopped him from reaching for the gown by tapping his knees with a rubber mallet. "Any dizziness when you stand?"

"Just in the last week. And not all the time." He twisted to look over Barton's shoulder. Duo looked dully at the undecorated wall. It wasn't so different from the ship. Did he even realise he'd been moved? "How bad is he?" he asked the doctors.

"We'll know better if we can judge what the path of the disease is," Sally said. "Which we can know better if you answer all my questions."

"I'm not hiding anything, damn it." Duo's head moved. Zechs tried to catch his gaze. Then, warned by his body just in time, he pushed Sally out of his way as he left the bed and hurried to a waste can he'd spotted. He bent over it to vomit.

Barton's voice, dry as ever, went on at his back. "Looks like stress exacerbates the symptoms."

Sally brought the gown. She draped it over his shoulders, relieving at least that humiliation. She offered a bottle of water.

"You need to stay hydrated, Zechs."

"I'll only throw up again. Believe me. I know the pattern." His hand was shaking. He pressed it against his mouth, and found the small crusty line of blood from earlier. He'd forgotten it. And it was dim enough in the station that it had gone unnoticed. He wiped it away quickly. "Just give me a minute."

She rubbed his back, at that. Her hands finally felt warm on his shoulders, squeezing with just the right amount of pressure. It was the first touch from her that reminded him they were friends.

"Why aren't you masked?" he asked her hoarsely.

"You aren't contagious. Not yet." She crouched beside him, her hand lingering on his back. There was kindness in her eyes, now that he looked for it. "You were infected by direct contact with the source."

"How?" He seized on that. It had occurred him that he and Duo might have been exposed to the same thing, but Duo had sickened so quickly, and Zechs was just starting to. It hadn't seemed possible. "We discussed it. I don't remember anything that--"

"Two months before you left for Mars, you participated in an experimental mobile suit manoeuvre. The upgraded Leos."

Yes.

"You had two targets. You were testing the suit's weapons' capabilities. You fired twice."

They were modelled on Tallgeese. He had been proud of that. They were modelled on the Tallgeese, the oldest, the original design. He hadn't known Duo had tested it, too. They'd been in orbit over Japan. Duo hadn't even come in from the colonies, yet. It was months ago. Almost-- no. More than half a year.

"It's a biological weapon," Sally said. "You know how Alliance was with biologicals. Nothing was off limits. Treize gave it the axe when OZ was going through the old files. But nothing's ever completely destroyed, I guess…"

"No, nothing was ever disposable if there was even a shred of potential left in it." He said it with much bitterness. It was, after all, Treize's favourite policy. But once that shred was gone, Treize had no difficulty at all in 'disposing' of anything problematic. The Federation Doves had died the moment Treize was ready to move on Alliance. Septem had disappeared that same day. And when Zechs had rebelled just a little too much, Treize had ordered his suicide, a grand stageplay of pageantry, the lone Lightning Count against a hundred mobile dolls. He often wondered if Treize had even imagined he might survive. He'd at least been useful one final time.

"It's a naturally occuring fungus found in the tropics," Sally was saying. "Usually it infects insect populations, but it applies in principal to humans rather too neatly. If Duo hadn't had the antibiotics, I think he'd be dead already. It at least slowed the spores down."

Spores. It sounded like something out of one of Duo's childish science fiction vids. He couldn't even conjure an image of it. "This-- fungus-- it's responsible for everything wrong with Duo? With me." He lowered his voice, not entirely voluntarily. His throat felt closed and pricklish. "You think it's too late, don't you?"

Barton heard. "No," he snapped at Zechs. "We fucking don't. You're--" Barton would have said more, but at that moment something happened that startled all of them. Duo's hand rose from the pillow. It was clumsy, but his fingers brushed Barton's face, and his eyes focussed. Zechs heard Barton's shaky inhale from across the room.

"Hey, baby," Barton whispered, with a tenderness Zechs would never have expected from the cynical young man. With gentle hands he smoothed back Duo's lank hair, and kissed his forehead. "It's me. I came, just like I promised."

Zechs had never felt the kind of burning jealousy that filled him like a sudden thunderstorm. He wanted to rip Barton away, throw him to the floor. He wanted to crush Duo to his chest and hold him there until it was his cheek Duo touched, his face Duo remembered.

Sally's eyebrows were raised when he realised he was glaring, and looked away. But she only said, "Can you come back to the bed? I'll move the can closer."

He'd let the gown slip. He hurriedly pulled it closed again over his nudity. "Yes. Thank you." He let her take it to the wall-insert disposal to be cleaned by aromatic sprays, and gingerly climbed back to his bed. Duo's head turned to watch, and Zechs tried not to acknowledge the ugly smirk it brought out in him, when Barton looked put out about it.

"Feeling better?" he asked Duo. He stretched out a hand. The distance between their beds was a little too great. Duo didn't match his attempt. There was no recognition in his blank gaze.

There was, though, a little gleam of triumph in Barton's, until he wiped it clear under Sally's silent censure.

"He's just responding to the stimuli," she said mildly, to the charged air between the two of them. "I don't think he's actually aware of his surroundings. Nor should we try to interpret his responses yet."

It was all well and good for her to say that. Zechs knew what he'd seen.

Sally dragged a small cabinet to Zechs' bedside and placed the waste bin on top of it. It put her squarely between Zechs and Barton, and Zechs was not so self-involved that he mistook that for anything but deliberate. "We'll want tests from you both," she announced. "Maybe you can help us with Duo? Help us keep him calm? He might object when we start sticking needles in him."

"I'll do whatever you ask, yes." Weariness slammed him. It was a struggle to keep his eyes level with hers.

He'd done it. He'd gotten Duo this far. He'd held himself together, held them both together until someone else could come and help. But if that had been what he wanted, why did he resent their new-found interference so much?

Sally began to tie up his gown. He was tired enough to let her, though it made him feel like a child, or an invalid. "I'd like that water now, please."

She handed it to him. "Still nauseated?"

"About a four, now."

"When we've done with the tests, we can give you something to alleviate it."

"I'm managing."

"If we alleviate the nausea you might be more aware of other ongoing symptoms. It's not just about being less uncomfortable."

That was fair, and he ought to have understood it immediately. Maybe she was right. Duo had been this snappish, in those early days before they'd known anything was wrong. Heavily, he submitted. "I'll do my best to cooperate."

She nodded. "Trowa. Let's get started."

+

With so much new activity and information to think about, he didn't remember to tell them about the cargo until Barton began to prep him for a heart monitor.

"Bacteriophages?" Barton repeated sharply. The small pad of sandpaper between his fingers pressed too hard to Zechs' chest, and he winced at the sting. "You're sure?"

"I didn't think it was anything more than research material until Duo made the connection."

Barton and Sally shared a significant look between them. Zechs, having already concluded what they were now discovering, did not interrupt them.

Barton released an impressive string of curses-- he sounded rather a lot like Duo as he did. "They knew from the beginning!"

Sally grimaced. "Lady Une is one conniving bitch."

"I'll get access to that ship. I don't care who I have to kill to get it." Barton dropped the monitor in Zechs' lap and grabbed Zechs' discarded suit instead. He didn't linger long enough to be called back, but neither of them tried, anyway.

"I should have tried to use them sooner," Zechs ventured, when he and Sally were alone.

Not alone. But if Duo heard them, there was no sign.

"Ohh, no you don't." Sally retrieved the sandpaper and finished buffing his chest, then began to attach the sticky nodes. "You did everything you could. You're not a scientist."

"Those men out there. The coup on earth. It's all tied in, isn't it?" The monitor beeped softly as she turned it on. She slipped the little plastic pad into a cotton sheath. It fit neatly into a pocket of Zechs' gown, rib-height, where he would barely notice it.

"There's time to talk later, Zechs. Why don't you help me with Duo? I want to take some blood and do an LP."

He slid barefoot to the floor. It was easier without Barton there, somehow. He rubbed his hands together to warm them before laying them on Duo, to lift the long silky braid out of the way. "Just tell me what you need me to do."

"Keep him calm, if the needles bother him. Talk to him. He knows your voice."

He doubted that, now. But he took a place at Duo's head, out of Sally's way. He traced the whorls of Duo's ears, the knobs of his jaw. Sally took blood first, her eyes flitting up to Duo's face as she slid the needle into the vein in his left elbow. If Duo felt it, it didn't show.

"Talk to him," she urged.

He couldn't think of anything. Rather--everything he thought of required more privacy than they had. He couldn't say love with Sally there; he couldn't beg Duo to wake up, not without looking weak or insane. No more insane than he would look if he blathered about the weather…

"Ti takAya valnUyashaya," Duo had said, so flatly. Throwing it back in his face. Why did you pick me, knowing what you knew?

He almost stumbled on the words. "Ti takAya valnUyashaya," he murmured, and stroked Duo's cheek, remembering it round and full, that first day, bent over the words as Zechs wrote them, already red with embarrassment-- anticipation. "Ti takAya Iskrennaya. Ti takAya ocharovAtel'naya."

Duo's lips moved. He was mouthing along. Zechs' chest went tight.

Sally set a filled vacutainer tube aside and started another. "What's that?"

"I was teaching him Russian. It was a way to kill time." He wanted to kiss Duo, but she was watching. He confined himself to an especially soft touch, thumbs brushing over Duo's eyebrows, to the tension points in the temples. "He-- Duo is a very apt pupil."

"I have no doubt." A third tube. "You should have just had him teach you to dance. This boy can shake ass like nothing you've ever seen."

"That would have been an impossible task."

"Why's that?"

"You've never seen me dance."

She was grinning, when he looked up for her reaction. He offered a small smile, all he could manage. She filled a fourth tube, and removed the syringe. "I think the spores have created a condition like toxic-metabolic encephalopathy. It's a catch-all for infections and viruses, but the neurological symptoms match, mostly."

"Is it reversible?"

"Controllable," she corrected. "Help me turn him-- like that. I want to curl him, like a foetal position-- there. Hold him like that. It depends on whether we're successful eliminating the source."

"Controllable isn't good enough," Zechs said.

"The bacteriophages could be good news."

"If they're even the right ones. If Novena lets us access them. If--"

"Then we'll think of something. We're pretty crack doctors, Zechs. We save the universe every other day. No big deal."

"I'm sure you meant that to be funny." His voice broke. "Or reassuring. It's been unimaginable watching this happen to him."

Sally sucked on her lower lip for a moment. She opened a new kit on the edge of Duo's bed, a larger needle, and smaller tubes than the phlebotomy kit. LP--it finally registered for him. Lumbar puncture. It was just as well Duo didn't seem to feel pains right now.

"Trowa mentioned you were sleeping together," Sally said suddenly, bluntly.

"If it's not medically relevant, then it's nobody's business but Duo's and mine."

"All right."

"I'd sacrifice quite a lot to insure his recovery."

"That's not how medicine works," she replied gently. "I'm ready here. Hold him." She set the syringe to Duo's spine, and Zechs, survivor of dozens of battlefields, found he had to look away. It was different, somehow, knowing it was Duo.

He was mindlessly petting Duo's hair, something he'd done so much lately he barely noticed it. He might not even have felt it, except that Duo was curled on his side, and Zechs was rubbing his neck, and happened to brush his fingers up under the thick braid.

"Sally," he said tensely. "What is this? It wasn't there before. I don't know if it was even there yesterday."

"Just a second--" She capped the little tube now full of pale liquid-- Duo's spinal fluids. She set it carefully in the kit, and removed the needle from Duo's back. She extended her free hand, and Zechs guided it to the lump he'd found. Her face went pale and still.

"What is it?" He expected her to shake her head, to put him off again, so he overrode her before she even said the words. "Damn it, Po. Tell me."

She didn't, not right away. She was as stubborn as any woman he'd ever met, including his own sister. She cleaned the kit with the same efficiency as before, and carefully propped Duo's head on a pillow to keep him comfortable. Zechs, unable to stop fingering the lump under Duo's hair, was finally convinced to sit by the realisation that her silence meant something truly horrible.

"Noventa out there gave us access to locked files," she said finally. He watched her back as she strode to the console of computers and lab equipment arranged before the beds. She labelled Duo's blood with a fine-point pen, and set the vacutainers in a plastic stand. "Une's files, and even some of the President's."

"How long has all of this been percolating?" With her back turned to him and Barton out of the room, Zechs risked a quick kiss to Duo's cheek, and then he followed Sally to the consoles. "The last I heard, Noventa was looking for a position on the Security Council."

"He's not the ringleader. He's got a cousin, from the mother's side. Ianto Cameron. This has all the old feel of Romafeller, all the inter-related families, the upper-class conspiracies, but it's not quite the same, something I can't put my finger on. It's almost as if…" She hesitated. Her braids brushed back and forth over her shoulders as she shook her head.

"Almost as if what?" But he suspected he knew what she meant. He was right.

"So many of us were unhappy with, oh, I don't know. Unhappy. Like the direction of things had just... changed. Not for the better. We all thought, maybe with a different President... maybe if Une could ever be convinced to step down... And now suddenly we have all that. Half of me honestly wonders why I'm resisting."

Except that she did know why. They both did. They'd already lived through, participated in, two hostile takeovers apiece. It wasn't in their blood to sit on their hands, not when they had a personal stake, and the personal ability, to be sure that was done was right.

He said, "It's easy enough to convince yourself that they're all the same, and it wouldn't matter who was at the reins."

Her expression was dark. "Easier than I ever thought."

"Does anyone know where Une is?"

"I don't know. When Trowa came to me about Duo's messages, we didn't exactly advertise where we were going. We stole the fastest ship on the planet to get out here and we were incommunicado almost the entire way. Noventa met us here-- that was the first we heard of anything. And now that fleet out there blocks our transmissions-- well, monitors them. Noventa did let us request some upgrades and a Medi-Comm link with Alpha Base. I worry about them, on Mars. They're completely cut off, Zechs."

"Is a resistance force forming?" Then, because it did have to be asked, he said, "Which side is the evil one, Sally?"

She looked at him for a very long time, searching his face for something; he didn't know what. Her lips pressed tightly together before she spoke again. "When I was younger and starting to realise Alliance wasn't the dream it was supposed to be... I always wondered how I'd know when it was time to leave. Treize wasn't above the biologicals, either."

"I know. I threatened to leave once over the issue."

"But we didn't go."

"There's no point in regrets now."

"I'd like to think Noventa's not sitting out there because he wants to use this weapon one day. But, if he ever does... We need to have a cure ready, or at least a vaccine. If we're lucky enough to come up with one."

"What is that lump, Sally? You know what it is."

She exhaled deeply. "When the fungus has infected an insect in the rainforest, the insect displays the same symptoms Duo did, over a shorter period of time, however. I think the antibiotics he took did slow it down. Just not enough. In the final stages of the infection, the insect seeks height-- physical distance off the ground. It-- dies. When it has, the fungus creates an outgrowth from under the exoskeleton. It's the way the spores are released from the host into the air, where they can do the most damage."

It was chilling. He found it difficult to breathe, for a moment. "It's the final stage. This will kill him-- and then it will kill all of us."

"Zechs--"

"I'm putting him back on that ship and we're leaving."

"If you do that, he is dead, Zechs. And so are you."

"If I don't, everyone is. Isn't that what you just said?"

"God, I forgot how frustrating you are. He isn't dead yet. And if you don't mind overly, I'd like to try to save both your lives."

"And if you can't, you'll give up before it endangers the rest of you?" he pressed her.

"Did you even notice the fleet of suits out there? No-one is leaving here."

He gave her the look that had frozen thousands of cadets in their tracks. "Then they'll just have to blow us out of the sky."

But Sally was a seasoned soldier herself, and she was impervious. The glare she gave back had equal fire for his ice. "That's exactly what they've got planned. And if we're all going to die then I'd prefer to go knowing I've at least tried everything to the last possible minute, so you can sit the fuck down and be grateful to me and to Trowa for what we're trying to do. You are not the only person in the Sphere who gives a damn about another human being!"

He restrained himself from retort only by massive effort. It left him drained. "Fine," he said finally, tersely. He inhaled long and slow through his nose, and tried not to notice his chest felt weak when he let it out again. "Thank you."

She nodded just as tensely. "We'll need to shave the area," she said gruffly. "See if you can find a razor in the stores."

"May I get dressed again?"

"Are you chilled?"

"I will be, if I go wandering around dressed in this."

"For now. I'll want the same tests from you, once we've finished with Duo."

[part 6] [part 8] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]