“Record message,” Duo said. “No visual.”
“Message recording,” the computer answered.
“Hi,” Duo said to the thin air, feeling slightly ridiculous, talking almost to himself like this. “Hi, Trowa. It’s Duo. Just checking in, I guess. I hope you’re well and that everything at work is too. Don’t fight with Wufei too much. I’m not there to break it up if it gets too physical.” He chewed on his lower lip. “I’m all right. We’re getting on, me and Zechs, more or less. Not a lot to do but get on, yeah?” He discovered a tiny hole in the arm of his stretch suit and pulled his hand inside his sleeve to stretch it over his thumb. “I’m learning a language,” he remembered to say. “When I get back I bet I won’t even speak English anymore. You won’t be able to understand a word I say. Though I guess you’d tell me that’s already the way of it.” He dropped his head back to the chair rest. “This is a stupid question. I just—never mind. Anyway, I hope—look—did you ever think that I choose who I sleep with because they’re going to hurt me? Someone—someone I know said that. I guess I was just wondering if you thought it too, that I do that to avoid having to give anything ‘real’ to anyone else. I mean, we were real, right? Sure as hell not true love or anything, but we did all right, so I guess you’re as qualified to judge as anyone. I trust you, anyway. I mean, I trust you to tell me the truth. I mean—I mean I know you lie to me a lot, but never about the important things, or the really unimportant things, and this is totally one of the latter, so, you know, don’t even bother with an answer, it’s nothing. Hope you’re well. Probably it’ll be a while before I send another message, so just tell the others that I rang and that everything’s on schedule. Ta.”
His face was hot. He was glad he’d cut visual. The computer took his silence for a command, and softly informed him, “Message sent.”
“So it is,” Duo muttered. He pressed his hands to his cheeks to cool them. “Thanks, Computer.” He fixed his sleeve and stood.
And sat quickly. His head was swimming and a wave of black spots broke over his vision. He sucked in a deep breath and another quickly, gripping the arms of the chair hard.
Slowly the faintness cleared away. He was more cautious, this time, getting up. He felt a little light-headed still, but he could see, at least. He kept a hand on the wall for safety and walked the length of the hall, hoping it wouldn’t recur. He was relieved when it didn’t.
Zechs was asleep. Duo checked on him to be sure, even turned on his light and made a little noise, but the movement of his eyes under his lids said he was deep in REM. Duo carefully closed his door almost to latching, and went back up the hall to the galley. It didn’t have a door, short-sighted construction, but they’d worked out a blanket taped over the portal for when one of them wanted to exercise in a little privacy. Duo hung it now, and kept the light low, too.
There were basic medical facilities in the galley. Duo hauled out the suitcase and opened it on the floor; it was too heavy for him to lift on his own without emptying it first. There was a phlebotomy kit inside. Duo tore open one of the packets and donned the latex gloves. He used his teeth to tie the rubber band around his upper arm. It was a little hard to manage the needle one-handed, but with a few painful tweaks, he filled four vacutainers of blood. He folded a cotton ball into his elbow and worked quickly to connect the centrifuge to the power supply. If Zechs stayed in bed to his unofficial ‘morning’, then Duo had several hours, but only if he was quiet enough to prevent any interruptions.
“Computer,” he said. “Switch to Medical Aid.”
“Medical Aid engaged.”
“Agent Duo Maxwell,” he said. “Reporting symptoms.” He balanced the rotor with his vials and set the controls. The centrifuge began to spin his blood. “Headache. Stomach ache and vomiting. Nosebleed. Newest symptom is dizziness.”
“When did you start experiencing these symptoms?” it asked him.
“Headaches before boarding, so maybe two and a half months,” he said. “Stomach, about the same, two months maybe. I don’t think before I boarded really. Only two nosebleeds at different times, one about two weeks ago, and one last night. Woke up with blood all over my pillow. Dizziness, the last half hour.”
“Please rate severity of symptoms.”
“I don’t know,” he said, frustrated. “Nothing I couldn’t deal with.”
“The preferred scale is—“
“One to ten,” Duo finished. “Fine. I don’t know, a four on the headaches, maybe, and the puking too. Four for all of it.”
“Noted. A case file has been created. Please add any further information now.”
“Right.” The centrifuge slowed to a halt. Duo freed his vials, and set up the lab console according to the picture taped to the inside of the suitcase. He followed the instructions for dividing the blood sample, and sat back on his heels. “Ready.”
“Testing to commence. Results to be analysed and referred to the Zebra Tango Midway Post.”
“No!” Duo glanced to the blanketed portal, embarrassed by his exclamation. “File access restricted on voice command.”
“Medical Aid may be unable to complete the analysis with expected accuracy—“
“I don’t give a damn about the disclaimer. We’ll deal with it when it happens. Access restricted.” Duo checked his cotton ball; the bleeding had stopped. He gathered the remains of the phlebotomy kit for discard. “How long will this take?”
“Estimated two point seven hours.”
Nothing to do but wait, then, and hope Zechs stayed put as long as he was supposed to. He stood carefully, fighting the disorientation. He tried to breathe evenly until the dancing spots faded. If he was lucky, it was a problem with the nutrient shakes, low blood pressure—just an unlucky flight. It happened. Never to him, but he’d known plenty of Sweepers who suddenly developed problems on long flights. They called it Sweepers Sag. And they got over it just fine.
Just fine. He’d be just fine, and Zechs would never have to know he’d even worried about it.
“God!” Duo exclaimed. He shook Zechs off with a violent shrug and turned his face into his pillow. “I said I don’t like that. We’re done. Why don’t you just go back to your own cabin?”
He retracted his hands, stung. He set the hairbrush on Duo’s bedside table, and slipped off the bed. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I suppose I ought to have remembered.”
“You try to touch me again like that and we’re done,” Duo repeated. He threw Zechs’ shirt at him. “You don’t have to fall in love with everyone you sleep with. You’re making a fool of yourself.”
He exhaled heavily. Duo had been running hot and cold by turns, cruel one minute and inviting, even affectionate the next. Not half an hour earlier Duo had teased him until he laughed and dragged him by the hand to his room.
“Go,” Duo said.
Anyone born in Space knew certain unalterable truths.
Number One. Nothing is certain. Not the ground under your feet. Not the air you breathe to live. Not your shelter, not your food, and damn sure not your water.
Number Two. Alliance is always the enemy.
Number Three. It’s colonies for the colonies, because no-one else knows. No-one else will ever know.
Duo had lived twenty-six years longer than a lot of colonials, and in all that time he’d never seen anything that shook him off those beliefs. Even spending time on Earth had only proven them truer, as far as he was concerned.
There were other things colonials knew that Earthers didn’t. Knew how to let go and have a good time, and watch each others’ backs while you did it, and as far as he’d seen there weren’t many Earthers who knew how to do that. People needed that, in a place where everyone had a job sustaining everyone else. Never trust anyone who wants to be a politician, that was another saying, because anyone who wanted to live off the work of everyone else without giving anything back had better have some damn good ideas to share. Everyone you knew in the colonies worked in Recycle or Hydroponics or Sewage or Diagnostics or something that ensured that some daily part of your own life was getting taken care of. Alliance had never understood that—wouldn’t let them congregate, would let them meet for the backyard weekender or the Sunday pub night. Didn’t get that it made people angrier, that it made them harder, shortened the fuse that much more. You needed that to reassure yourselves you’d all made it another month out there on the edge of all human existence. No complacency, not out here, just you and a lot of other people you had to trust to have your back. There’s your brothers and there’s Alliance, Solo had said, there’s death and those who bring it, said Father Maxwell. Twenty-six years and they were still right.
Father Maxwell had been born on Earth, even before Alliance had declared martial law, he’d been that old. Well, not that old, maybe, but Alliance had been in the colonies fifty years at least when Duo was born. But Father Maxwell was an Earther by origin, even if he’d lived on L2 long enough to walk like a native. He’d showed Duo all his old pictures from a place called Berlin that Duo had never heard of, all these places with mountains and fields and all this open sky Duo couldn’t, hadn’t, believed could be real. You’re shitting, he’d said, and Maxwell had rapped his knuckles and hugged him after, because Duo always made him laugh.
For Duo it had always been Space. Space even more than colonies, because the gangs knew how to use the infrastructure, the service passages that were bone-chilling cold but sustainable, if you had the know-how. There’d been real thrill in being that close to no-air and no-heat and no-up-or-down. After the Church he’d gone stealing onto the Sweeper ships, the only Space traffic Alliance let through because everyone needed scrap and fuel, even the Almighty Assholes—Father had always laughed at that one too, even though Sister Helen scowled. On the ships it had been something else. He got caught all the time—not a lot of place to hide on ships, not if you meant to breathe and stay warm. But Space was a tough mistress, that was Howard talking, and Space took as much as it gave, so there was always a berth that went empty on a voyage and work that needed a new pair of hands. By the time he was old enough to tick it off on three hands he’d been talking the language of the Deep Cold like even colonials couldn’t.
He knew the feel of Space with his eyes closed. Knew every fold and dimple, every gravity well by the whisper of it on his skin.
He knew before the alarm went that something was wrong.
Woke up in the dead of his night hours. Zechs was asleep, hogging the lion’s share of the bed and the sheet besides, mumbling inaudibly. Duo didn’t know what had got him spooked, only that, crammed to the wall and with his upper half gone to goose-flesh without covers, there was something outside the walls that wasn’t right.
Seven seconds later, the proximities went off.
It was Zechs’ shift, technically. But Duo was the awake one—well, they were both awake, once the siren started blaring—but Duo was the one who went vaulting over the side of the bed to the floor. “Got it covered,” he said, pausing to pat Zechs on the shoulder and shimmy into his stretchsuit.
Zechs went fumbling in the dark for the lamp and missed. “What is it?”
“I got it, hon,” he repeated. “Stay put.” He gave Zechs a light shove back to the mattress, and went out to the hall. They had the dims on for the night-cycle. Duo keyed them up to brights and opened the security cabinet by the airlock. The alarms were only Level One, approaching ship or wreck or something not empty void. “Computer,” he called out. “What’s out there?”
“Unknown mass,” it answered, unshakably calm.
Cockpit was in zero-g, separate from the rotating cylinder they lived in that had self-generated gravity. Duo hit the control for a fast oxygenation, but took a mask to be on the safe side. Suit, real suit, came next, emergency provision against the cold that was waiting on the other side of the door. With the swiftness of long practice, Duo was dressed and in the airlock only thirty seconds after the alarms had started. He locked it behind him right before Zechs made it into the hallway. He waved, just to be a prick. Airlock transfer took four minutes, and once it started, computer wouldn’t allow an interruption.
“Duo!” Zechs shouted through the glass.
The blast of the sucker started, peeling all the air out of the lock. And cutting off all sound. Duo watched all his loose hairs go shooting up above his head. He didn’t like the transfer, always felt in danger of getting pulled up into the vents with the force of it. He faced the cockpit, pitch dark, completely powered down, except for the blinking light of the proximities. It would be another minute getting all systems online. The alarms gave them two thousand kilometres, enough time to react if it was slower than an MS. If it wasn’t, Duo might get in there with just enough time to watch death catching up.
Wasn’t that a thought. His blood pumped a little quicker.
The airflow cut. A green light blinked over his head, three times, all the warning he got; and the lock opened on the pit.
Two steps put him over the rotational edge, and gravity ended, just like that. There was a moment of disorientation, standing at the cusp, where it seemed like the pit was moving and he was standing still. But he took the final step, and floated free into mid-air, and everything went normal again. He let his momentum sail him forward the few feet to the chairs. He strapped in, and booted the console to power.
“Screen,” he ordered the computer. It fizzed to live, unused for three months. “Show me what’s out there.” It wasn’t beyond possibility that there was some old colony wreckage out here. There was a lot of refuse from the war just floating its way through the Sphere, too, come to that. Sweepers were making a good job of cleaning it up, but stuff drifted, and they were still in A Sector, on the edge.
It was Zechs, stuck in the lock now, banging on the door to be heard over the transfer.
Duo keyed the airlock screens to life obediently, and sent Zechs the images. "Looks like some of the regular crap,” he reported. "I wouldn't bother coming in. I can handle it."
The mics were on now, picking up some heavy breathing as Zechs struggled to dress under the vents. "I'm not following you, Duo."
"I'm reading… five Leos and a coupla Vayettes." Coming in slow for hostiles. Duo switched over to weapons and guidance. This was what he needed, a nice bit of action, something to shake them loose from all the petty bickering they’d been doing. He was so tired of being down all the time. "IT'S A GUNDAM!" he shrieked, joking, and laughed when the comm crackled.
"Duo.” The lock released. Duo didn’t spare it a look. "There are no Leos out there."
"Relax, man,” he said cheerfully. “Engaging. Might wanna hold on. Evasive manoeuvers first, just like regulation." He carted sharply starboard. The lead Vayette fired first shot, and missed by a mile. This was going to be too easy.
A body hit, though, hit the chair next to him and scrambled slow-motion in zero-g to settle in. "Status report."
Duo glanced, and started. Zechs Merquise? "You?" he said.
"It's all clear. You got them all, Duo." Merquise covered his hand on the left joystick. "Look around you. Everything's dead."
Merquise. Something was wrong. He tried to free his hand, but Merquise held him, twice his size and stronger even without gravity. He looked at the screen. His throat was tight. He tried to swallow. "I'm reading Leos--"
Hand on his wrist went tight, too. Squeezed hard. "They're finished."
Zechs. He was almost clear, and then he—wasn’t. The Vayette was still coming, and he would have to engage now if they were going to have a chance in this tin bucket, it was hardly a real MS with sufficient shielding—
Zechs was staring at him, his eyes pleading in the flashing proximity lights.
"Disengage weapons systems," Zechs said.
Duo slapped the comm. "Heero, come in,” he called. “I'm getting confusing readings."
"Heero's not here, Duo."
No response. He hit the comm again, bashed his ever-loving hand on it so hard he thought for a pained second he’d broken it. "Heero?" he demanded.
Zechs grabbed him by the wrist and swivelled their chairs on the tracks to face. "The war's over, Maxwell."
War. War’s over.
Leos. And then just—space junk. There was nothing out there but metal a decade dead and lifeless. How had—how had he thought—
The pain hit in a stab to the temples. He clapped his hand to his head. “Shit,” he hissed. “Christ, it hurts.”
Zechs got him unstrapped, and he floated out of his chair. The proximity alarms went silent abruptly. They plunged into silence. The pain in his head went rolling on, wave after wave of nausea-inducing agony. His eyes teared and he shut them against even the faint glow of the screen showing black space.
The transfer back to the living area was hell. The noise of the vents was like an avalanche in his ears, and it was cold, except he was hot, he was burning up. And the pain in his head. Stroke, he thought muzzily, aneurism—except he wasn’t numb, weren’t you supposed to be numb? He was on fire. Back in gravity, and he couldn’t even support himself. Zechs was all but carrying him. The lights in the corridor were torture, searing torture even after Zechs turned them off.
“I’m sorry,” Zechs was saying. “It was my fault. It was my watch. Duo? Do you need to vomit?” He was stripping Duo out of the suit, and then right out of his clothes under that, naked in the hall. “Come lie down.”
"I fucked up,” Duo said. Shivers hit, and his teeth chattered. “Didn't I?"
No answer. Just movement, Zechs moving him down the hall. Lie down, he thought, go to sleep, this will all—better—
The next step just wasn’t there. Black hole under his feet. He stumbled. And then the floor came rushing up, and there was nothing.
"No. You responded to the alarms." Duo was flinching away, hiding his eyes. Lights, Zechs guessed belatedly, finally realising that when they’d left the pit they’d come back to the corridor lights on bright. He smacked the switch and plunged them into darkness. But he didn’t know how to interpret the rest of Duo’s distress. "Do you need to vomit?"
Only the emergency lights cast any glow on them. An odd, blue light, painting slats on the floor, over their skin. It made Duo look like a ghost—or a corpse. Zechs felt sick to his stomach.
"Come lie with me,” he said. “I'll get ice for your head."
Duo hadn’t responded to the last attempts to engage him. He moved when Zechs guided him by the shoulders. The airlock was closest to Zechs’ cabin, and that was where he aimed them, back to the bed they’d been sharing. Go back to sleep, he thought, and in the morning this would seem like a nightmare. There would be logic, and reasons. It would be—
Duo stumbled, and just like that, he went down. Zechs tried to catch him and nearly got pulled off his feet, unprepared for it. “Duo!”
Out cold. Burning with fever. Sweat dripping down his neck, when Zechs felt for his pulse. They were well beyond nosebleeds and tetchy stomachs now.
He carried Duo past his cabin and into the bath. He put the shower on cold steam and propped Duo upright in the corner of it. It came pulsing out of the walls, and he tried to stand out of the way and hold Duo up at the same time.
Hallucinations. And whatever this sudden headache was.
Cold pit of panic. He swallowed it down, and grimly kept it there.
It seemed to take forever, getting Duo cool enough to take back to bed, wishing constantly that he’d just wake and be fine. He was limp as a rag doll when Zechs carried him back to his bed, limp and chalky pale. He didn’t move, didn’t wake, while Zechs dressed him and covered him. He forced Duo to swallow two aspirin by pinching his nostrils shut and manipulating his throat to trigger an involuntary swallow. The computer recommended a compress, and he got that, too, his bath flannel dipped in water as cold as he could get it out of the sink.
Hours passed like that. It left him with nothing to do but the one thing he ought to have been doing since the day he’d joked about space sickness—think very carefully about the math. People didn’t just get sick on ships, not when they sat in quarantine for a week before travel, not when they underwent extensive physicals before boarding. People appointed to missions to the fragile Mars Colony did not dock if they showed the slightest sign of bringing bugs with them. If Duo hadn’t had it when he boarded, that meant—
It meant he either had something that batteries of tests hadn’t found, or, somehow, he’d been exposed to something once he was on their ship.
The math didn’t add.
“Computer,” he tried, on a flash that was half inspiration, half desperate guess. “Do you have any medical files for Agent Maxwell?”
“Voice access prompt,” was the obscure answer.
Voice access prompt. Password protected, that meant, which meant the files existed. Which meant the files existed, and Duo had locked them. Which meant Duo did not want him to know—either that he’d worried enough to ask these questions already, or to know the answers to them.
Zechs put the lid on his misgivings. Under normal circumstances he wouldn’t have had to spy on Duo’s communications, but they were no longer in normal circumstances. Zechs had been a soldier nearly all his life, and if there was one thing he’d seen proved time and again, it was that ignorance was deadly. If there was any information Duo was holding back, Zechs needed to know it.
“Computer,” he said. “Key the outgoing logs.”
“Seven outgoing messages,” it answered promptly, as if happy to be able to comply with a request at last.
He turned on the screen over his desk. “Show me.”
Three were his own. Two were confirmation messages Duo had sent within the first week of their trip, assuring the port they were operating smoothly and on course. There were two to Trowa Barton at Mars Alpha Base.
“Play Log 783.001,” Zechs said.
No image. It was Duo’s voice, alone.
“Hi,” it began. “Hi, Trowa. It’s Duo. Just checking in, I guess. I hope you’re well and that everything at work is too. Don’t fight with Wufei too much. I’m not there to break it up if it gets too physical.”
There was an unfamiliar note of self-consciousness in Duo’s voice. He sounded—more like the young man he was than Zechs was accustomed to hearing. A very normal young man making a routine call to a friend. Zechs felt guiltier for listening.
“I’m all right,” Duo continued awkwardly. “We’re getting on, me and Zechs, more or less. Not a lot to do but get on, yeah? I’m learning a language. When I get back I bet I won’t even speak English anymore. You won’t be able to understand a word I say. Though I guess you’d tell me that’s already the way of it. I-- This is a stupid question. I just—never mind. Anyway, I hope—look—did you ever think that I choose who I sleep with because they’re going to hurt me? Someone—someone I know said that. I guess I was just wondering if you thought it too, that I do that to avoid having to give anything ‘real’ to anyone else. I mean, we were real, right? Sure as hell not true love or anything, but we did all right, so I guess you’re as qualified to judge as—“
“End playback,” Zechs said quickly, not quickly enough. The wind had gone right out of him. He’d meant to—meant to shake Duo up, not hurt him. He’d had no idea. And of course Duo wouldn’t show that side to him, the man who’d—sadistically attacked his vulnerabilities. Relena, Noin too, criticised him for exactly that. He’d even felt justified in his anger.
“Next message,” he said quietly.
There was visual on this one. The computer supplied both Duo’s image and Barton’s. Barton was much as Zechs remembered, older; a handsomely carved face, fully revealed without that childish fall of hair to shield him. Golden stud in the left ear. Frown lines, at his young age.
"Still mad, huh?" Barton began.
It was a static-ridden connection, threatening to die at any moment. Duo slouched in the corner of his screen, a lock of hair between his teeth. They were far enough out that they would have had to coordinate times by email, get permission to direct satellites specially. This had to be important. Zechs leant forward unconsciously.
“I’ve got nothing to be mad about,” Duo answered. He played with the signal, trying to erase some of the visual noise and resolve Barton’s image, but he lost the contrast when he did.
“So you ran your blood?”
“Completely clean.” Duo shrugged. “I guess it was nothing.”
“You’re not a doctor. Run them again.”
“And you’re not my doctor. My doctor cleared me for flight,” Duo pointed out. “And you’re doing that constipated thing with your face.”
"You called me,” Barton said. “This isn't anything to fuck around with. Run the labs again, then call me when you're ready to stop being a bitch.”
“I wouldn’t have called if I’d known you were going to be a prick,” Duo muttered. “I’ve only got so much blood, I don’t want to be poking too many holes in myself.”
"You're going to call me, right?"
"Only if you say something nice to me right now."
Barton, two government satellites and hundreds of thousands of miles away, scowled at him.
"You look hot in that suit." It was grudgingly offered. Barton wanted those tests.
Duo chewed his hair ragged. "I'm not exciting or sincere?"
For the second time, Zechs lost his breath.
Barton grimaced. "Sincere?”
"I'll call you. Bye."
Snow obliterated Barton’s face. Duo cleared it with the dial and waited until it resolved. “Repeat,” he said.
It was choppy. Barton said, "What kind of mindfuck is Merquise pulling with you up there."
"It's not a mindfuck,” Duo said. He at least sounded surprised. “He's fine. He's nice. Ish."
"Are you fucking him?"
"Maybe you should stop until you get your test results." Barton paused too long, and Duo fought to restore the signal. “--fore you ask, yeah. I'm jealous."
Duo smiled slowly. "Thanks for the compliment. Finally."
"Those things you said-- "
"Look, it was a weak moment. Don't worry about it."
"There's nothing wrong with you. Okay? Whatever bullshit is going on with Merquise, don't forget I said so." Barton looked away from the screen. “Call me with the results.” He closed the line.
Zechs exhaled slowly. Those messages had been a font—or a minefield. Certainly—certainly a great deal that would require careful analysing.
He gingerly undid the knot of Duo’s bandana, moving slowly to avoid snagging loose hairs. He took his time, too, stroking each lock back into order. He bent to kiss Duo’s temple, and let his cheek lay against the base of the soft braid.
I’ll figure this out, he promised silently. Barton was right about one thing. There’s nothing wrong with you.
Duo was out through the end of his sleep cycle and a little more after, nearly fourteen hours. Zechs checked him—obsessively, maybe, afraid to go to sleep himself in case something worse happened. But all was quiet. They passed the space trash and went back into a clean route. He sat watching Duo; sometimes he lay down next to him, hoping each time he’d find Duo that much cooler, that much better.
All that, and he almost missed it when Duo finally woke. He was dozing at his desk, resting with his hand over his eyes.
“Where,” was the first thing Duo said.
He jolted awake. “Duo.” He rubbed his eyes to clear them. "Feeling better?"
Duo had matted hair and he was on the grey side of pale, but he responded to Zechs’ voice, and his gaze was clear. "I feel fine," he said cautiously. He cleared his throat with a cough. “… your cab?”
“My cabin, yes.” He had not expected that Duo might not have any memory of what had happened. He returned caution with his own rising wariness. "You had kind of a rough night." He could only hope Duo didn’t remember, if it came to that.
"I thought I dreamed that." Duo coughed again, dryly. "Or did I? You look like crap."
"Didn't get much sleep.” His neck cracked when he straightened. He wanted a shower badly. Even in the processed ship air, he felt clammy, stale. He rose slowly, all creaking joints. “Are you hungry? I could…”
Duo was slowly blushing. Humiliation. He’d remembered. Zechs didn’t stop him from leaving the bed in a rush. He tracked Duo’s progress by sound alone, and gave him time.
They’d been on ship for three months. More than three months. Whatever—virus, or infection—could it even be cancer? It was incredibly slow-moving. But it begged the question how much worse it would get. Steady escalation. Treize had always favoured it as a military tactic. Surprise, and steady escalation. Overwhelming force.
He had an inkling now what that would look like. And no idea at all if counter-measures even existed.
He lagged a few minutes until the noises retreated to the galley and stopped. He showered and took the time to shave away a few days of stubble. “Computer,” he said quietly. “Can we safely raise humidity again?” They had limited water resources, and moisture in the air could not be recycled the way their shower and sewage water was. If it came to humidity or drinking supply, there wouldn’t be a choice to make.
“To what specified degree?”
“Another five percent.”
There was barely a second’s pause while the computer ran the calculations. “Systems operations confirm humidity may be raised five percent for the term of two weeks, six days, seventeen—“
“Thank you, computer. Do it.” He hesitated. “Computer—switch to medical. Research the following symptoms. Hold report until I ask for it.”
Duo was still in the kitchen when he emerged. He was perched on the tabletop, one of his nutrient drinks in his hand. It was largely undrunk, though pale beige residue on the lip of the glass indicated one recent sip. He sat scowling at the wall. There was no mistaking that expression.
"Let me make you something to eat," Zechs repeated.
Duo noticed him abruptly. The glass finished its journey from rest to mouth, and he swallowed. "I'm not hungry."
"We've talked about those shakes."
"I'm not hungry,” Duo said. “I'm not gonna eat when I'm not hungry."
Maybe it was what had happened during the night cycle. Maybe it was the glass in Duo’s hand. Whatever it was, he looked. He really looked. And wondered how he hadn’t noticed it happening. Duo had been slender when they boarded, but he was thin as a rail now, his cheekbones sharp enough to cut. He was wasting away, but Zechs had been blind to the daily progress of it. Not processing the nutrients? He would have lost weight on a purely liquid diet, but the supplements should have provided a healthful balance. Never hungry. He would have to add to the list of symptoms he’d given the computer.
He took out the boiler and one of the curry packets. Duo had a pugnacious tone, but little as he wanted to risk an argument, he was determined to put real food down Duo’s gullet. Simple sugars and starches to start. Fruit. They still had a good store of dried.
In the silence, Duo said, "I know we can't pretend I didn't—whack out. But I'm not dying. Don't treat me like an invalid."
Dying. The word fell between them as if weighted in lead, and took Zechs’ stomach with it. He had to swallow before he could speak. "We don't know what's wrong with you."
Duo didn’t answer that.
He cooked a cupful of instant rice and dropped the curry packet into the boil atop it. It cooked no more than five minutes, but it was five minutes of welcome mindlessness. Emotionally battered numb.
“I think it’s done,” Duo minded him softly.
Yes. He’d missed the ding of the timer. He drained the rice and divided it between two plates, and cut open the curry. It smelled too strongly of lime.
"Try for me," he asked.
"I'm not hungry."
He put Duo’s plate on the table beside him. His hand shook. "Then tell me what is going on. Because I think I have a right to know."
"I don't know,” Duo said forcefully. “I'm never sick. I've never been sick in my life."
"You've been sick since we got on this ship."
"We don't know I was sick before launch." Duo overrode him. "I checked out clean or they wouldn't have let me come. We both checked out clean--"
He opened his mouth to argue. But there was no point.
Duo licked his lips. "I took blood samples,” he admitted, almost inaudibly. “Two weeks ago."
"What's Barton saying about this?"
It took a moment for both of them to realise where he’d stumbled. Duo’s eyebrows slammed together, and he slid off the table, forcing Zechs back a step, his back to the counter, to the fading heat of the stoveplate. "You read the logs," he accused.
“Yes, I read them, damn it. Someone has to take control of things here. You're—"
He just managed to stop himself from saying it. Hoped to God that Duo hadn’t heard it hanging there.
Duo hovered on the verge of explosion. He could feel it vibrating off him in waves. Zechs didn’t fuel it, physically restrained himself from baiting the issue.
"He said take more samples," Duo ground out.
"Did you exchange any emails, any private communications? He had no insights or advice to offer?"
"He said take more god-damn samples!"
"All right. Calm down." Duo looked away, sheer self-preservation. Zechs took his own deep breath. "Have you? Taken more samples?"
"I didn't get to it."
"We'll do it today."
Duo was still angry. Always so angry. Zechs was suddenly fed up with it. He hadn’t exercised his own temper, not once, on this ship, had confined himself to the most courteous behaviour he could manage, the way an officer, a gentleman did. And Duo took every opportunity to undercut him, to mock his restraint, his notions of honour and obligation. He knew Duo had issues with ‘Earthers’, with Zechs himself, but there was no call for this. He may have spied on private transmissions, but Duo had driven him to it by refusing to disclose a potential bombshell. There were two of them on a ship, and it had been Duo’s own idea for them to spend their free time engaging in every possible invitation to contamination.
"I'm afraid," he said flatly.
Duo’s eyes flickered from their provocative stare. The set of his shoulders slipped just a bit.
Zechs exhaled. “We'll get through this." It took effort to gentle his voice, but he did it. He touched Duo’s cheek, and smoothed the tangled hair back into the braid. “Let’s take the samples, then eat.”
Duo moved free of him, twitching his hair over his shoulder possessively. "Yeah."
"Please come here."
"I need to touch you, damn it." He was unwontedly hoarse. Even he winced at the need it conveyed.
And Duo didn’t have it in him to be the one who came back, not even when he was needed. You could ask, and he would consider it, but if you pushed him, you missed everything that was Duo. Yuy was the one with the reputation for steel, but Duo was the most resistant human being Zechs had ever met.
He didn’t wait long. He took his curry with him, and he went back to his cabin, alone.
Zechs slept hard. Didn’t wake even when Duo scratched on his door, a courtesy they hadn’t been paying each other for a month. Duo stood over him for a little while, wondering if he ought to worry about the complete lack of protective instincts. But who was there to protect against, out here?
He took the book off the shelf, and sat at Zechs’ desk to read it.
"I want to say so many things to you.”
Hours later. Back into Zechs’ night cycle. Duo marked his page with a finger and turned to face the man.
“I wish you weren't unwilling to hear them," Zechs added softly.
Duo dropped his eyes to the book cover. There was something to that.
Zechs sighed, and sat up. "I'm sorry." He swung his legs over the side of the bed, but didn’t rise.
"Computer says try antibiotics,” Duo said. He traced the faded gilt title. “Broad-spectrum. Kill it off, whatever it’s likely to be, and it’s not sure. I've started a round." He forced his hand into stillness. "Probably should have done from the start."
Zechs nodded. “How you feeling?”
“Fine. Scared. But, you know, perky.”
Zechs cracked a smile. Duo returned it, glad to see it there.
“We should turn back,” Zechs said then.
“No.” Duo let the book close and put it on the desk. “No. The antibiotics will work.”
“And if they don’t?”
“I’m not inclined to be pessimistic about it.”
“I’m ranking officer.” Almost inaudibly posed. Duo set his jaw.
“We’re closer to Zebra Tango than we are to Earth, now. There’s a full medical facility there. If I need anything stronger than antibiotics, we’d be better off keeping course.”
Zechs couldn’t argue with that logic. Duo didn’t give him time to figure a way around it, anyway.
“Was thinking I’d shower,” he said, and if that was overly casual, it at least caught Zechs’ attention. “Tight fit for two, but…”
Maybe they had their differences. Duo might have said they were nothing but differences, except for that: the way any hint of proposition sparked this immediate electric current between them. Say anything about them, but they had chemistry. Duo rose from the chair, took the three steps across the little room, and carefully took hold of the shoulder straps of Zechs’ sleeping shirt. His knuckles pressed lightly to bare skin, and they both went to gooseflesh, instantaneously. And maybe it was stupid, but Duo took confidence from that. He knew how to speak in touch. He knew the right things to do, knew all the steps that led to peace and quiet and mutual satisfaction. He closed his eyes on any guilt, on any doubt, closed his eyes and forged on. That was what he knew how to do.
“Yes,” Zechs rasped.
He was set to lead the way to the shower. But whatever imp in him had to push the limit came up with an idea, and it dogged him. They made it all the way to the bath before he made up his mind to risk it. He changed direction with a step, and Zechs followed curiously.
“So, I’ve got these mags… comics, really…” He led the other man to his cabin. He had a moment of disorientation, realising he hadn’t been in there for—nearly a full colony day, by now. But he recovered, and opened his desk drawer to pull out the pages in question. “Private vice, if you know what I mean.” Gift from Heero, which he didn’t say, figuring they had enough unexplained between them without dropping that bomb. He flipped through until he found one he thought might work, and turned with it, trying to hide his trepidation.
Zechs took it from his hand and opened it. One moment became five, then ten, as Zechs paged through, expression inscrutable.
Then he slapped it closed. "Read it a week ago,” he said. “We can do better."
Duo laughed in delight. "I knew you had a hound dog in you somewhere."
Zechs bent low and bit him on the jaw. "Vanilla, my ass."
It was a tight fit in the shower, mostly thanks to Zechs’ bulk. He pushed Duo in ahead of him, and Duo didn’t complicate it by trying to face him. There was really only one way to do shower sex, in his experience. Zechs reached around him to start the steamer, and water expelled in droplets from all around them at a comfortably warm temperature. The door closed behind them, and Zechs moved in close, skin brushing skin from shoulders to bare feet. Duo spread his arms up and back. He encountered some wet hair that definitely wasn’t his, draping over his shoulder. He tangled his fingers in it.
Slippery fingers. Zechs had found the liquid soap. He widened his stance obligingly and braced an arm against the wall. Teeth pinched the skin of his shoulder in a teasing bite. There was no coaxing, no misdirection, no long flirtation; two fingers pressing deep, rubbing just enough to excite him past the discomfort as something larger replaced them. He breathed through the intrusion, focussed on the hands gripping his hips, on the shaky exhale at his ear, the blast of the steam against his cheek and eyelids. There was just a little pause in the urgency, then, and that was when he let himself feel it, splitting him wide, comforting and startling and amazing all at once.
It occurred to him, then. This was the point where they usually botched things. Hurt feelings. Insults exchanged that should’ve been flippant nothings. But everything was going pretty swimmingly, given what had brought them to it. They hadn’t even had to renegotiate.
Feel a little hope? That was something to worry about.
He caressed the nearest thigh humping up against him. Followed it back to the hand on his own hip. He twined their fingers, then slowly dragged upward. Zechs fucked slow and deep, not so hard he didn’t take a little direction. Duo brought a thumb that wasn’t his own to his nipple, guided it to press and then to fondle, then to twist. Damned good. The other hand curled around his cock and found it ready to go. Strokes to match the action backdoor, slow, determined.
He brought the hand he held to his mouth and licked the thumb, then closed his lips around it. He sucked gently, then harder, the pointer too. Zechs shivered against his back, and he growled. God. Duo shivered too, at that. Teeth again on the back of his neck, then the joining of his shoulder and collar, right at the nerve bundle.
“Fuck,” he said softly. "Again."
Zechs obeyed. Little nips made a path down to the upper muscle of his arm flung up against the wall while his fingers went back for some fresh soap. Everything went slick and fast.
He bit his own arm. "You want anything, you better ask for it soon."
"I'm where I want to be," Zechs whispered.
They were doing so well. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take a little—a cautious little—risk. He knew how Zechs felt about freaky sex. Cautiously. He said, "Can you..."
"Say it." Zechs lipped his ear, warm breath, wet tongue.
"Don't wanna freak you out." He laughed breathlessly.
"I won't, damn it. Ask me."
In for a penny. He asked it. "Can you get a finger in there too? Don't hurt yourself."
A pause. An outright pause in every movement, and his body felt the lack. "I'll hurt you," Zechs said eventually. Duo opened his mouth for an answer, but then, like a thrown switch, everything started going again. And the hand on his hip slid back, cupping, parting his cheeks.
Duo bit his lip, and closed his eyes. "Trust me."
He did it, no more hesitation than that. Pressed in the knuckle.
His back arched without his conscious direction. Fuck, it was tight. It was almost unbearable. Zechs pushed out and in, finger and cock together. Fucking huge. Amazing. Slow, at first, but when he didn’t complain, speeding up to pace. Duo panted into the crook of his own elbow. Pressure rising, and the itch had started, the slow burn, revving up for the finish.
"Oh, baby, tell me now if you need anything."
"Scream for me when you come." Zechs gave Duo another finger, knuckle-deep in a single plunge.
He was all but plastered to the wall now. It wasn’t usually in him to let go and make a big fuss of noise, but if that was what Zechs wanted from him, this was a good time to try it. He let out a groan when Zechs—felt like a fucking freight train—a groan was the least he could do, embarrassed as it made him feel. And it made a considerable difference. Zechs was wild, suddenly, just pounding him into the wall, like that was all he’d ever needed. Duo groaned again and got the breath knocked out of him. For a few golden minutes he forgot everything north of ground zero and just rode out the building heatwave. He hovered at the heights for just—aeons—it wasn’t quite a scream, but his throat was sore, after.
They rested against each other, silent and still.
Zex eased away at last, leaving a void behind and dropping kisses along his back as he went. Duo caught him by the hair belatedly, feeling like he was moving through wet concrete, lifting a hand that high. Open lips travelled his neck and his jaw, latched onto his mouth with inescapable force.
And then the water turned off.
That, Duo thought, was unfortunate. It was going to get cold fast. "We probably used out the recycler for the week," he said, the most protest he could muster.
Zechs laughed gently. "We'll live."
“I bet not. You're the cleanest guy I know." He tugged lightly on the pale blond lock he held, then let it fall. His head, entirely too heavy to be held up independently, drooped down to rest on Zechs’ sternum. He mouthed lazily at a patch of curly chest hair.
Zechs’ voice rumbled deep in his chest. "We should dry off."
“We'll get the bed wet if we don't."
“It'll dry." He pulled Zechs in for another kiss. He got it, but Zechs went fumbling around behind his back all through it, and trussed him up in a towel even when he whined against it. Mr Vanilla was obviously back in town. But Zechs had earned it. Duo knew he’d pushed the boundaries, but Zechs had been willing to go, and he deserved a little return consideration.
“I need a few more hours of sleep, I think,” Zechs murmured. His lips pressed to Duo’s temple. “Nap with me?”
“Baby,” Duo said, “just try to stop me.”