When Barton’s message finally came, the computer woke them to hear it.
"I didn't ditch you,” Barton said. “Hang on. See you at Zebra Tango."
Duo turned to look at Zechs, his expression bewildered. "Une said he'd been transferred,” he said. “What in hell are they doing?"
Zechs didn’t know anything Duo didn’t. Barton he believed. Une was a different story—an entirely different genre, he suspected. She had never answered the message he’d sent demanding why Duo’s case had been transferred. He didn’t believe she meant to, not if Barton had abandoned post to help them. The Gundam Pilots were known as loose canons—well, Chang and Barton were, and Duo, to a lesser degree. Known for controverting command decisions when they disagreed, known for wild antics and disobeying rules. But going AWOL? That would be worth more than a slap on the wrist. That was a courts martial offence. Or was it? If he knew Une, and he was one of very few who could claim he did… what kind of deep game might she be playing? Maybe she knew exactly what Barton was doing—if she hadn’t sent him herself. But why? Who would she have to deceive?
Duo hadn’t made the same mental leaps of logic. He wore a confused frown. "Can't possibly leave a message that actually tells us anything?"
"Do you think every transmission in or out of here isn't monitored, Duo?"
Duo gaped at him. "Who's monitoring it? Why would they bother?"
"I don't know. I don't know. Whatever's happened to you can't have been planned. People will have to account for it."
"Planned?" Duo fumbled to climb over him off the bed, as if he could escape the shadow of conspiracy too. "What would anybody have to plan for?"
"We test weapons, Duo.” His shirt draped over the desk chair where he’d undressed earlier. He put it on against his nakedness and swung his feet to the floor. “Do they ever really tell us what we're playing with? No, listen to me. Would we care if they did? Of course we trust them."
Duo scowled at him from the doorway, but to Zechs’ eye he appeared worried, too. “You think someone exposed me to something?"
"I'm not saying they meant to." He wanted to replay Barton’s message, but knew he wouldn’t glean anything new from it. Certainly no reassurance. Until Barton messaged them again—or someone trying to find Barton did—they were in the dark.
"This is the kind of thing that ruins careers. Or poison," he said, as it all the dire possibilities occurred to him. “I was ill after drinking that nutrient shake of yours, wasn’t I? And you’ve been drinking them all along, relying on them, and anyone on the flight team who went near your paperwork would have known your dietary plan from the minute you submitted it back in November. And how better to hide a murder than to put the victim on a ship for another planet?”
It was sinking in, for both of them. Duo hugged the bedsheet closer, but he couldn’t disguise the paleness of his face.
"Barton's coming,” Zechs said. “He'll have answers." He rose, and folded Duo into his arms. "Barton is coming,” he repeated.
"I'm calling Une.” Duo stubbornly resisted him and slipped away. “I want answers from her."
Zechs controlled his exhale through gritted teeth. "Do you really think she'll give them to you?" He turned to follow Duo’s progress back to the computer screen. Duo keyed the message queue for the call they’d had from Une a week earlier.
"She'll tell me the truth,” Duo said. “They wouldn't-- they wouldn't abandon us out here, they wouldn't-- Preventers wouldn't do that."
"Christ, you're naive."
Duo ignored that. "She'll clear everything up. Trowa might be in trouble, who knows. This could all be routine. Computer, record reply."
Zechs threw up his hands, but didn’t protest further. Duo would do what he had to, until the truth inevitably outed. For Duo’s sake, he hoped he was wrong, but it made too much sense. Preventers could abandon them, and had.
"I got your call,” Duo was saying. “Hoping you could add some information. Wondering why Barton got dropped from my case. Please advise."
They were silent after the computer sent the message. Duo pulled the sheet over his shoulders and scraped loose hair away from his forehead. Zechs watched him until it became clear Duo was avoiding his eyes. He wasn’t surprised when Duo dressed quickly, agitatedly, and left him without saying another word, including an invitation to follow. Of course.
He gave Duo, in the end, two hours of privacy. It was in short supply and he knew Duo’s moods intimately by now, knew when a tantrum welcomed coddling and when it rejected all comfort. But he could hear Duo pacing in the other cabin, hear him fiddling with the air controls. The flow from the vent became noticeably warmer. When he heard the furniture moving and music blaring a heavy Latin beat, however, he gave up giving Duo time alone and went up the corridor to see what he was up to.
He was, as it turned out, stacking his chair on the desk to clear extra floor space. He sat on his duvet on the floor, stretching for exercise.
Zechs dropped into a crouch to hold Duo’s ankles for him. "Planning to wear yourself out?" he asked.
"She'll call," Duo answered flatly.
"It could take days." At least a day cycle, if she replied immediately. Twice that, if she took time to think it over. And twice that again before Duo accepted she didn’t mean to call at all. “Are you going to calm down at any point between now and then?"
Duo’s arms tensed above his head; then they fell limp on his thighs. Oh, he knew, Zechs thought. Duo didn’t hide from the truth. He just tried to outrun it, sometimes.
“When I think of how long I kept begging them for a promotion.” Duo’s eyes dropped. “I interviewed six times. I told them I believed in the mission. That I thought if people thought they could be better, then it wasn’t enough to just go on thinking about it. We had to make it happen. Preventers is about doing, not thinking about doing.”
“Yeah, well, now they’re thinking about doing me in.” Duo ground his teeth. “I don’t know what’s worse. Feeling like a fool for not guessing why I got offered this flight, or feeling like a fool for taking it.”
He couldn’t help himself. He curved a hand to Duo’s cheek. “I took it, too,” he said. “And I can’t say that I regret that.” He got a reluctant smile for that, and brushed Duo’s nose with a knuckle. "Can I bring you something to drink?"
"Any alcohol on this boat?" Duo managed a thin note of humour.
There were a lot of things they’d been discouraged from bringing aboard, perhaps ridiculously. Alcohol was top of that list, as they were technically on duty for the entire nine months of travel. But Zechs hadn’t made a career of following the rules, and books weren’t the only thing he’d brought with him. It had been intended as a gift for the Mars Colony commander. Ping would have to content himself without it.
Duo was flat on his back on the floor when he returned carrying a half glass. He opened his eyes when Zechs resumed his crouch and held it out. "What's that?" he asked curiously.
"Vodka,” Zechs said. “And that's all you're getting, so don't ask."
Duo sat up quickly. "You brought juice on this trip? How'd you get it past the baggage inspection?"
He shook his head.
Only another second passed. Duo reached for the glass. At the first sip, his eyebrows shot up.
Duo was the one to shake his head this time. "You shouldn't waste that on me. I know the difference between good and bad, but..."
"You don't have to drink it if you don't want it, but don't refuse it because you're not good enough. That's just stupid."
Duo hesitated. But he did drink it, sip by sip, and shot the last swallow back with a grimace. His hand shook as he wiped his mouth.
"You're to tell me if you feel ill." His fingers knew the path through Duo’s plait, the silky braided hairs, the whispery tuft beneath the elastic. “They're not going to leave us twisting in the wind."
Duo nodded minutely.
"You're white as a ghost."
He looked up from the glass in his hand. He said, "I wanna fuck."
He was not in the least surprised. "All right, love."
He helped Duo to his feet. Duo was pulling his shirt from his trousers before he even bent his head for the first kiss. Duo returned it, but with a hard pressure of the lips, teeth biting into his lower lip. Zechs held him still with firm hands on his head, trying as he could to gentle things, but he knew already it was futile. He knew Duo’s moods too intimately. Maybe one day there would be time to teach Duo that there were other ways to comfort the spirit than the physical—but it wouldn’t be this day. He wasn’t sure how far he ought to let Duo drive them, though. He was so fragile now. He could hardly weigh ninety pounds, and he was so warm he felt feverish. The pitch of intensity in the kiss worried him.
They hit the wall. Duo pressed him stationary there, and all but ripped him out of his shirt. Zechs did the best he could to slow the process, deliberately clumsy as he worked the buttons on Duo’s cardigan, bumping Duo’s impatient hands off their course. They were both shirtless when he thought he risked Duo’s irritation with him boiling over, and he began to move them toward the bed.
Duo erupted into a wrenching cough. The force of it bent him over, and Zechs grabbed him by the elbows to support him. The move pulled Duo’s hand away from covering his mouth. Duo tried to turn away, but it was too late. Zechs jumped when something warm and wet spattered his bare chest. Blood.
Duo jerked free, and ran.
He was shaken. Too much too quickly, he told himself—break it down and deal with the easiest first. He was calm by the time he’d wiped himself clean with his bathing flannel. He dressed himself and collected Duo’s things, too. There’d been no sound of Duo after his flight, but the door of the accommodation was shut. He knocked gently.
“I can’t get one damn minute?” Duo said hoarsely.
“Of course.” He would have given it, too, except for what he heard next. He’d tutored more than enough young cadets to know the sound of stifled tears. He depressed the latch and let himself in.
Duo sat on the commode. He hastily wiped his blotchy cheeks, but missed a drip trembling at his jawline. Zechs wiped it away with his palm. “There’s no shame.”
“It’s the drugs. I’m all over the fucking place.”
"Should I really give you some space?" he asked softly.
"I've got nothing but space. I'm fucking out of time, it looks like."
He knelt at Duo’s knee and gripped his chin tightly. "Don't talk like that. We're not giving up."
Duo didn’t stay to be reassured. He pushed to his feet and slapped on the faucet in the sink. Zechs stood by as Duo washed his face and rinsed his mouth with a handful of water. He spat until it ran clear. It had lasted no longer than the nosebleeds, at least.
"’Yes, Zechs,’” Zechs said. “’You’re right. We're not giving up.’"
Duo met his eyes briefly in the mirror. "Fuck all of 'em."
“I want to emphasise this is in the past tense, and I need you to listen without blowing your stack,” Duo said. His fingers twisted anxiously in his shirt tail. “Four years ago, Heero got sick. He was getting really aggressive and strange, even for him. I was still his partner then. We were out after a mission, you know what it’s like, coming down, trying to relax, and I’m looking at him realising he can’t walk straight.” He paused to sip at his tea, his eyes roving the length of the wall, everywhere but back to Zechs. “So I bully him until he goes to Medical. Anyway, it turned out he had a tumour wrapped around his optical nerve, if you can believe it. It was benign, but it was huge. Pressing on his brain, you know?”
“My god,” Zechs said, mostly to fill the silence Duo left. “I never knew.”
“We kept it pretty quiet. Gundam hero gets brain boo-boo? No-one would ever work with him again.” Duo moodily played with the lay of his cup and saucer, rubbing an edge of honey from his spoon. “Anyway. Anyway, they were trying to figure out if he’d been exposed to something, or if it was genetic predisposition, or what, and they thought it must have been because he was floating out in all that radiation in Deep Space in his Gundam and there was inadequate shielding. And if Heero had got sick from that, it followed probably we did too, so all the rest of us got tested. Quatre had all these cysts in his colon, and Trowa was the worst, he had to have a kidney taken out, and I’m sorry, that’s just not natural– and Wufei, he came out pretty well over all, we think because when the docs were working on Altron at the moon base they added in some new shielding–“
“And you?” Zechs interrupted. It occurred to him, as it obviously had to Duo, that if he had been sick once—ever—it went a ways toward explaining his susceptibility to whatever plagued him now. Zechs found himself tense with the wait. “What did your tests turn up?”
Duo’s jaw was so tight Zechs could see the clenched muscles standing out against his skin. “I was fine,” he said flatly.
It was obviously a lie. Obvious because Zechs had never seen Duo lie before, and it could be nothing else. It was the first and only time he had ever found anything about Duo ugly.
Duo lined his saucer with the edge of the table to some precise mental measurement. “They cleared me for this mission. So either I was healthy when I boarded or it was something the tests couldn’t identify.”
“Or they knew and they just didn’t tell you. Records can be falsified. Test results switched.”
“Why?” Duo demanded aggressively. “To what purpose? I sign a waiver every time I test new designs, we all do. It’s not like I could sue them or make a stink if I got injured or ill.”
“That waiver isn’t airtight. It assumes good faith by the Preventers. You’re too well-known; a story like this would be picked up by the press. By Preventers’ political critics. By the people who want Une out of office and a President who will restrict our budget.” Unless someone wanted them martyred, and visibly. There was a lot to gain out of poisoning Duo, if one added up all the likely benefactors. But that flew in the face of hustling them onto an out-bound ship, didn’t it? There was no benefit at all in hiding Duo and his illness from the public eye. Unless it was personal— There were still men who would do anything to revenge themselves on a Gundam Pilot. And Duo was the most recognisable of all the pilots, the only one who had ever been pictured Sphere-wide on television broadcast. Except Milliardo Peacecraft.
“We’re the most visible faces of the war,” he said thoughtfully. “And probably of Preventers, because of that. Maybe it’s a thought. Someone wanted us quietly out of the way.”
“Because we remind everyone of something that happened practically a decade ago?” Duo was sceptical. “It’s not like we’re heroes or the people’s darlings.”
“To the contrary. I’m the crazed madman who tried to plow a row in the earth with a laser, and you’re a terrorist rebel who was nearly executed on cable news. Haven’t you said you were always passed over for promotion? They were trying to keep you out of sight, Duo. Both of us. As long as we’re symbols, we’re controversial, and controversy threatens Preventers more than any armed force ever will.”
“The bacteriophages,” Duo said abruptly.
The new direction threw him. But even as he stuttered, he experienced a sudden shift of perspective, and he understood. More than half their cargo was comprised of medical supplies for the Mars colony. Including experimental bacteriophages for Sally Po.
Assume that Duo had been infected with something on mission for Preventers—assume he was offered the flight to Mars as a cover for getting him out of the public eye when he began to show symptoms. Could he assume that the bacteriophages were part of the plan? Send along experimental medicine on the off chance that Duo would survive long enough to be treated with them?
But then why Zechs? Une herself had asked him to take this mission. He’d thought at the time, immediately chiding himself for even suspecting it, that it was to get him out of the way of the rumours that some elements wanted him in her position. But what if she’d really chosen him because she felt him stable enough to carry on even if Duo were incapacitated? But—the Une he knew today might be a joyless woman, but she wasn’t the Une he’d known in the days of the war, capable of any darkness in her zealous service to their Treize. She wouldn’t send him or Duo on a suicide mission without giving them at least a hint of what they faced. They weren’t embroiled in a war any more, and that kind of action had no place in peace time. Why not tell them and let them take their chances, knowingly, willingly? Zechs wouldn’t have refused. But he would have told Duo. And if the intent had been to deceive Duo, as it must have been, then no, Une wouldn’t have risked that breach of confidence.
Duo vehemently denied that when he explained his reasoning. “Do you know how many people would have to be in on this? There’s the doctors, the flight command, the weapons design team—they’d have to warn someone on Mars—“
“And if this is something Preventers have developed, a biological weapon even, it would all be classified. They could do it.”
“And expose you to whatever I’ve got? Without telling you? I don’t believe that, Zechs.”
“You of all people honestly can’t grasp this? You’re a Gundam Pilot. And one of the first things you ever said to me was that I’d never make it in the colonies if I walked around with my head in the sand—or did you forget that?”
Duo had been all of seventeen when he’d said that. Zechs recalled it perfectly. It had been only three months since they’d crushed the Barton Rebellion, and Preventers had barely been able to catch a breath putting out the fires flamed by Mariemaia Khushrenada’s aborted revolution. Noin had been after him to join the infant Mars Terraforming Expedition. He’d been feeling cramped by all the attention of his reappearance, longing for the quiet he’d left behind when he’d decided to reveal that he had indeed survived the Battle of Libra. There had been Duo Maxwell, slouched against the office door in a battered leather jacket, a pert smirk on his mouth. He’d said the Mars Colony was doomed unless they got someone who thought to check where their funding was coming from. He’d been right. Zechs and Noin had arrived on the Red Planet just in time to lead a team against an illegal base secretly planted by a rebel offshoot. They’d found munitions stashed there from before Alliance had even declared martial law in Space.
“Not Preventers,” Duo said stubbornly.
“Why not? Because we’re all saints? Because you’re a Preventer?”
He’d incensed Duo. “Maybe you’re only looking for a conspiracy because you were OZ! Your lot spent so much time lying and covering up what you were really doing you forgot how to be like regular people!”
Zechs only barely leashed the angry retort that sprang to his lips. He ought to have known Duo would attack him if he perceived a threat. That was what Duo did. He confined himself to saying stiffly, "You’ve sufficiently made your point."
"That's how the people in power stay that way.” Duo barely paused to acknowledge his attempt. “It's right there in your book. Hide the monstrosities and what people don't know they can't rebel against. That was always how OZ operated, right from the start. You lied to us so we'd attack the Federation Doves and then you made it out like it was all our fault! And Une threatened to blow up colonies when it was just us who could hear, but then goes off as an ambassador and turns them against us five minutes later. And that demonspawn of Khushrenada's-- you know, at least she never lied to anyone. She wanted us all dead or under her thumb and she at least said it."
Duo had an unerring sense of where to stab. Zechs clenched his fists on the table, and forced himself to smooth them flat. He wasn’t in the mood to fight back; it wouldn’t do any good, and he knew it. In fact, he said as much. "I'm not going to fight with you about this."
"Because you can't,” Duo shot back. He was actually out of his seat, leaning over the table. “You can't defend a six-year-old evil genius with a God complex and you can't defend Treize Khushrenada either, which is why you left OZ, not that what you ended out doing was any better--"
"No. I can't defend any of that and I'm surprised you find you can defend your actions during the war. It was all just wanton destruction for the wrong reasons."
Duo reared back in surprise. "I don't think there's any comparison!" he said hotly. "It's not like we ran around murdering women and children, not like Alliance, and don't you dare claim to me that didn't happen, because I know. We fought back because it was fight or die, not because we wanted to take over anything or hurt anyone, not like you people!"
“You just pointed out that the Rebels have innocent blood on their hands. Are you that absolutely certain you were always in the right?”
He had long enough in the panting pause between their shouting to realise he’d started something that wouldn’t end well for either of them. Duo’s colour was bad and the stress of a fight couldn’t be healthy. But they’d gone into free-fall, and there was no coming back from it.
“I’m waiting,” Duo spat. “Can you offer me one single reasonable reason why I’m not entitled to hate all of them?”
“They were soldiers following orders,” Zechs told him immediately. “The same as I was, and the same as you were. The Rebels were no different except for the side you were fighting for--”
“Both sides killed! Both sides killed innocents.”
“We had our orders, yeah, but only in the beginning. Each of us had to find the—the moral awareness to choose to keep going on our own, and we did, alone, and that’s the difference between you and me, I’m not hiding behind another man’s ‘orders’, and I don’t think there should have been so much forgiveness for those who did!”
“So we should have all mutineed?” he demanded.
“You should suck it up and admit where you’ve got personal responsibility for what you did.”
“I live with what I did every day, Duo—“
“When you’re not blaming Treize Khushrenada. Oh, don’t you dare look at me like that. If you weren’t so desperate to believe you can find his shadow in your life still--"
The smack of his hand on Duo’s face shocked them both. Duo put space between them quickly. There was a red palmprint over his jaw.
"I was his prisoner,” Zechs said heavily. “Not his lover. Not his friend. Who'd go running back to that once freed?"
Duo touched his cheek. His chest heaved with each breath, but he spoke through clenched teeth. "You're the one obsessed with prisoners, Zek."
The hitting pissed him off the most, but it was hard to fault Zechs. With a mouth like he had, he’d earned his share of smacks and boxed ears.
He was looking at his favourite photograph in the book. It was two men from one of the prison camps. They had huge beards, like some of the weirdos who’d used to be in Romafeller. They weren’t smiling, and they didn’t look happy, wrapped up in these big grey wool coats and tall furry hats. He couldn’t have explained why he liked it, except that he did. He stroked the edge of the page, then sighed and opened it to his marker.
He rubbed his eyes, but it didn’t help. The longer he stared at the typefont, the less sense it made. He dug his thumbs into his sockets and released a deep breath. Maybe he was more worked up than he’d acknowledged. His jaw didn’t even hurt, though.
Zechs knocked at his portal. Duo quickly propped his hand to his eyes, pretending to be absorbed in the book.
“I know you saw me,” Zechs said. He set a mug on the desk at Duo’s elbow. "I brought your tea."
"I'm not thirsty."
"Please, let's not do this."
"I agree,” Duo said, and ostentatious turned a page. “You can leave."
"May I come in?"
Duo slammed the book shut and threw himself onto his bed. "Go head,” he sighed. “Say whatever you need to get off your chest that you didn’t scream at me earlier."
Zechs crossed his arms and stood looking down at him with an indecipherable expression. "I need to know,” he said, “that we can disagree and even fight and that our relationship can survive it."
That was not what he had expected to hear, and he wasn’t entirely sure it thrilled him. After Zechs had gone declaring his undying—or at least very presently at issue—love, and making a point of how Duo didn’t have to say anything, and Duo hadn’t, they hadn’t exactly been at their most comfortable. But Zechs stood there longer and longer and wasn’t going away. He was actually going to have to answer.
And when he actually had to think about what answer to give, he had to admit he couldn’t keep angry. So he scrunched his legs up and nodded at the end of the bed. Zechs took the silent invitation, and sat.
"Can we have a relationship if we both think the way we do?" Duo asked him quietly.
"I'd like to work towards one."
"I don't know,” he said honestly. “I can barely have a relationship with friends who agree with me completely."
Zechs reached for his hand, and Duo let him take it. “I’ve seen you with them. You make it work."
"Not in the bedroom. Not-- the way you mean."
"We don't have to define it that way. We don't have to define it at all. As long as we want it."
His fingers twitched, and he tried to hold them still so Zechs wouldn’t notice and think it meant anything. "I don't know." He dropped his eyes to a pulled thread in his duvet that ran clear across the surface. “It wasn't what I meant to have happen. And...” He heaved a deep exhale. “I'm not the kind of person who gets over things like this. We'll fight a few more times and I'll start to hate you for it."
Zechs squeezed his hand. "Maybe we'll work through it."
"Not even you sound very certain."
"I'm only certain of my intentions. I can't force what you're not willing to accept."
He had a moment of wishing Zechs just might. It would have cut through a lot of problems. But Zechs wasn’t Trowa, and that was turning out to be a pretty good thing. “Oh, well,” Duo said, and gave up being angry at all. He touched Zechs’ loose hair, then wrapped a hunk of it around his wrist, right over the bracelet he’d made of the bit he’d snipped. He used the leverage to pull Zechs down, and kissed him.
Zechs didn’t relax at all like Duo expected him to. “You don’t forgive me?”
“I was never angry with you.”
“I got a bruise says otherwise.”
“I shouldn’t have touched you.” Zechs curved a hand to his jaw, where he’d slapped Duo. “Give me a second chance.”
“At the kissing?” Duo wondered. “Or at life? Cards? You’ll have a second chance to make that tea, because I don’t think I’ll have a chance to drink it just now—“
“Shut up,” Zechs murmured, and kissed him hard. He wrapped an arm around Duo’s waist and pulled him close. “All’s forgiven then?”
“I am nice,” Duo reminded him. “Even you said so.”
“You’re nice, yes.”
Duo smiled. “Show me how nice you think I am.”
Zechs turned off the light, and Duo kicked down the duvet.
It was short. Zechs still seemed troubled, and if he was honest, Duo wasn’t concentrating at his best. He didn’t like to think Zechs might be right about his conspiracy theories. They settled for a sloppy exchange of blow jobs, and then Zechs shivered and pulled the duvet over them, clutching it close to their necks.
He ached, a little. More than a little, maybe. “I think I could use a shower,” he said.
“I think you smell good.” Zechs sniffed his hair to prove it, while Duo smiled. If Zechs could tease, maybe they really were going to be okay. The other man’s long fingers played against his skull, slow languorous strokes at the loose locks that didn’t quite stay in the braid ever. “You used to wear a fringe,” Zechs murmured, a few moments later.
“Not since I was twenty. It makes me look like a—“ He couldn’t remember the word suddenly. Then he couldn’t remember anything. “Bitty,” he said. It didn’t sound right.
“I don’t think it’s childish. You are young.” Zechs propped himself on an elbow, leaning over him. This close, in the dark cabin, Duo couldn’t see much of his face but a pale blur and lacy eyelashes, tiny exhales. The fingers brushed his face as Zechs pulled the strands into the old order, fanning them over his forehead. It was so long now they brushed the bottom of his lower lip, but Duo let him do it, laying so still that even his breath didn’t disturb whatever artistry Zechs thought he was involved in.
“Why do you wear it long?”
“Not for anything that matters, anymore.” Speaking had him eating his own hair, until Zechs moved it away. “The boy who asked me to keep it—he died so long ago I don’t even remember what he looks like, really.”
“Who was he?”
“Just a boy.” He was reluctant to share Solo, even now. What there was left to share. He admitted, “I think he was blond. I’m not sure. He looks a lot like Quatre, in my head.” He sat up slowly, giving Zechs time to trade him for the pillow. “Cold shower, maybe. Wake up a little.”
“Was he at the church?” Zechs asked.
Duo froze. “What?”
"We've talked about the church before."
"No we haven't." His heart had skipped beats, and re-started only reluctantly, as if expecting further shock. “We didn’t. I don’t talk about it. Why would you even bring it up?"
"You were talking about your childhood."
"Yeah, well, we're done with that. You don't talk about that. Not ever."
"Because it's mine." All his life he’d only carried one thing that couldn’t be taken away from him. His memories were his, his and no-one else’s, and they weren’t something he was ever inclined to share, not ever. He propelled himself off the mattress and tried to sit calmly at the desk; but he was agitated now, his blood up, and he couldn’t sit still.
"Please come back to bed," Zechs murmured.
"No." He spotted his towel hanging on his wash line, and pulled it down. “I’m going to shower.” But he only made it to the door before the thing tugging at his tongue came spilling out. He whirled on Zechs. "You knew what you were doing when you brought it up. I can tell."
Zechs had sat up to watch him go. There was a mournful look on his face that didn’t make sense, didn’t compute to anything. He said, “There’s something I have to tell you.”
He was shaking. He was shaking, and he wrapped his arms around himself to stop it, but it wouldn’t stop, and he quaked head to toe like the frightened little boy he’d never been. "Some things are off limits,” he said hoarsely. “For always. Okay? I don't ask you to talk about Sanq or OZ or who the fuck knows, and you don't ever ask me about this."
Zechs stared at him in the dark. He was barely audible when he spoke. "Then maybe you should ask me about the Maxwell Church."
He went numb. Then hot. "What?"
Zechs shook his head.
"What do you know about it?" he demanded.
"I was there."
Crushing weight on his chest. He tried to deny it, but he couldn’t make his throat work.
"I was young,” Zechs said very quietly. “Just a cadet."
"No.” It was all he could manage, soundlessly. “You weren’t. You’re lying.”
"I was there. I'm sorry." Zechs rose, and Duo flinched away, forgetting the desk was directly behind him. Zechs reached for his arm. "I was a soldier. The beginning of my career. I was only fourteen, Duo, it was exactly as I told you, that I’d run away to L2. I turned myself in to the local base, and I got pulled in when the rebels seized the church. I didn’t understand what was happening, I had no choice, no chance to change it."
He avoided the touch of Zechs’ hand by ducking toward the door. He couldn’t breathe.
"It was-- the worst thing I could imagine."
"Worst thing you could imagine." That was his own voice, but it wasn’t his, guttural and hard like that. His head was pounding with every pulse.
"Yes. Duo, I swear, I’ve wanted to tell you a thousand times. I tried, that second day, the day after we slept together…"
"I'm going to be sick." He tried to find the door, but everything was spinning crazily. He flailed at the fingers that caught at his elbow, and stumbled to his trash bin just as his stomach rebelled wildly. He heaved an acid mouthful into the bin, then another.
Zechs had him by the arms. His head was swimming, and he fought on instinct alone, until the hands on his shoulders shook him, shook him until his head snapped back on his spine. “Duo. Duo! You have to let me explain.”
"I have nothing to say to you." He couldn’t free himself. Zechs shook him again.
"We're on this ship. Together. We're partners."
"You lied to me. Every minute from the beginning. We are not partners."
"You don't have to like it, but we are. Have you confessed every act you committed against innocents during the war?"
"Soldiers! I fought soldiers. Soldiers you trained to fire on women and children and churches!"
"No warrior gets through a war without killing innocents."
"Is that how you live with what you did? You repeat a lie until you think everyone shares your blame?" He was trembling so much he couldn’t support himself. Zechs caught him as he sagged and swung him onto the bed. “You knew it was me. You knew it was me.”
"I'm only-- do you think this is something I'm proud of?” Zechs held him by both cheeks, and Duo closed his eyes rather than look at him. “Do you think a day goes by that I don't blame myself for the things I've done? My crimes?"
"You should. You should."
"I have. Every damned day."
Even in the dark the room spun. “They were my family."
The hands on his face caressed, until he tried to pull away. “They're all someone's family."
"But they were mine. How could you never tell me, in all this time?"
"I've tried a dozen times, Duo. I was afraid. We both were." He pulled Duo to his chest, forced him flat against a rapid heartbeat. "I don't expect you to forgive me. But God, please, Duo, please try to understand."
It was as sharp as it had been the day it happened. He could smell the smoke, the greasy smoke, and hear the sirens, the shouting, the wailing. The bodies were etched on his eyelids, blackened husks in the burnt rubble. The trucks, the uniformed soldiers, hauling him off his feet as he screamed every curse he knew at them, then begged them to let him stay. Long hair the colour of honey clenched in his fist, and blue eyes, the same colour as the ocean sky he hadn’t seen yet, open and staring after him as they carried him away.
Blue eyes. He blinked, and so did Zechs, and that was when he noticed it. There was a thin line of red trailing from Zechs’ nose.
He finally found his voice. He said, "You're bleeding."
An expression of confusion turned the corners of Zechs’ mouth down. He wiped away the blood with the heel of his hand and stared at it. Then his eyes slipped closed. "Oh," he whispered.
His eyes stung. Duo viciously suppressed it. "You're ill."
“I'm not,” Zechs answered, with great dignity. He released Duo, and stepped back. “It's coincidental. Excuse me." He inclined his head, and left the cabin. Down the corridor, the accommodation light went on, and the sink ran water.
Duo stared about his cabin as if it were the first time he’d seen it. Had the walls always been bare plastic and steel? It was like a prison cell. A prison cell, and he was trapped here. Was going to die here, wasn’t he, and he’d killed Zechs, too, contaminating him with whatever was wrong with him. It was as good as a grave.
He trembled so badly he struggled with the seals on the vacuum suit, but he’d done it so many times it required no thought at all. The airlock opened when he keyed the pad, and though Zechs must have heard the noise, Duo was alone as he waited for the vents to suck the air out of the lock. When the cockpit door opened for him, he kicked off the deck plate and floated over the barrier into the absolute black of the zero-g. He found the captain’s chairs by memory, the very chairs he and Zechs had sat in five months ago for the launch, strapped down, exchanging no words that weren’t absolutely procedural.
“Computer,” he said, knowing his voice would carry through the oxygen mask. “Activate view screen on forward cam.”
It was brighter than the dark of the powerless control panels, but only barely. There were no stars in immediate view, only the glow of navigation brights on the outer frame of the ship. If he increased magnification, Zebra Tango Mid-point Station would be out there.
He floated in inertia, looking out at the black Space outside, alone with the only things that were his.
He didn’t even hear the seals, he was so absorbed in himself. He searched all over the living quarters before he noticed that one of the suits was missing from the locker by the airlock. Zechs did not follow him.
He was cleaning Duo’s trash bin when he found his hands were shaking. Reaction, he told himself. He’d carried that confession for so long, and when he’d decided after their fight that he had to make it to the one man who mattered, he’d only shifted his burden to Duo, not eased it from himself.
“Computer,” he said. “Record message to Trowa Barton.”
"Maxwell continues to deteriorate,” he told the murky sink water. He unplugged the drain, and overturned the tin to dry on the counter. “This evening I displayed similar symptoms. Please advise."
Duo stayed in the cockpit for three cycles. Zechs visited him twice, once to bring him a canteen of water and packet of dry crackers, and once with the book. Both times Duo ignored his intrusion, and Zechs made no attempt to speak to him, though he privately wondered if Duo meant to spend the next two weeks there, until they docked at Zebra Tango. He told himself several times he was going to draw the line and take Duo out of there, bodily dragging him if he had to— but he never did.
In the end, he didn’t have to. The seals woke him during the night on the fourth cycle.
He had time to heat water for tea. Duo came into the kitchen dragging his oxygen mask and the book. He sat, and Zechs put the mug in front of him. Duo seemed weary, a little wasted by his extensive float in the dark, but centred.
“Hungry?” Zechs asked briefly, unsure he ought to risk any real conversation.
Duo sipped the tea, but grimaced at the offer of food. "My stomach hurts."
He made a plate of biscuits anyway, and set it at Duo’s elbow. Duo pushed one around with a pale finger, then put his hands together in his lap.
“They were Catholic,” he said. “I think it would be important to them for me to forgive you. So I do."
It was a grudging effort at best, but he was grateful for it. "I appreciate that."
"I want to know what it had to do with you wanting to sleep with me." Duo’s voice had a hard edge now. His gaze was steely.
"Nothing, Duo. They're unrelated."
"You came onto this ship knowing you wanted to fuck around. I just want you to explain to me how that works out in your head."
"What are you talking about?"
“Ti takAya valnUyashaya,” Duo said flatly. “Ti takAya Iskrennaya. Ti takAya ocharovAtel’naya.”
Zechs swallowed dryly. "I wasn't thinking about the Maxwell Church Massacre. It's not some kind of penance... or conquest. I’d give anything to have had no part in the Massacre, but I did. I should never have touched you. Not without confessing it first. I'm sorry."
Duo’s eyes flicked away on 'massacre'.
"I'll stay out of your way as much as I can. You don't have to run to the airlock. It's probably not the best for your-- illness."
Duo was not looking at him now. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault."
"We have to work together, Duo."
“No, I don't think we do." Duo finished his tea and rose to put the mug in the sink. The teabag made a dull plop landing in the garbage.
"We're on this ship,” Zechs said. “We need to deal with each other."
"And I'm telling you that's less of an issue than you imagine." Duo shoved the book across the table at him. "I can't read anymore. So you're captain, and there's no reasons left for us to spend any time together."