That is the only thing he could do. It was the only thing that he had desire or energy to do. With Heero's collapse, it seemed as though the fire that had once burned within had set ablaze some inner supporting structure - his faith - which now lay in ashes. A feeling of hopelessness now consumed him in the absence of that flame. He couldn't fight down the nagging realization that, no matter how fortuitous his efforts, he was destined to lose the ones he loved. It was a bit humorous in its irony, actually... being blind-sided by one's own emotions. He loved Heero so deeply, that he had ignored his own history. Now the painful realization had settled with him. It was pointless. His own past had made that abundantly clear.
Why should the present be any different?
Duo heaved a burdened sigh as he gazed through the observation window into the examination room where Heero lay. His tear streaked face barely reflected in the thick, glass containment seal separating them.
Duo spoke his name for, what had to be, the hundredth time in as many minutes. His voice sounded weak and empty in his own ears.
Duo stiffened and jerked his head around to find Dr. J. standing in the doorway. Seeing who it was, his shoulders fell again and he turned his attention back to the prone form in the next room. He was silent for a long moment. "What the hell do you want?" he asked, his voice thin and reedy.
Not receiving a response for several seconds caused Duo to look over his shoulder again to see if the doctor was still standing there.
"WHAT?!" Duo said it much louder than he had intended.
Dr. J. didn't flinch - didn't move - wasn't moving. There was no shifty grin - no nervously clacking metallic claw. There was nothing.
It made the hair stand up on the back of Duo's neck. "Doc?"
The doctor took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Well... at least I know he's alive, now.
"How did you do it?" the doctor asked simply.
Duo jerked. Whether it was a response to the sound of the doctor's voice or to the question itself, he couldn't be certain. "How... what?" Duo asked, a bit stunned.
"The behavioral matrix - how did you defeat it?"
Duo suddenly looked irritated and confused.
"Don't play dumb with me, boy. I know your trainer. I want to know what you did!"
Duo gave the doctor a long look before looking back to the figure in the next room. He had no qualms with saying exactly what was on his mind.
"I fell in love with him," Duo admitted quietly.
Unseen to Duo, the doctor thought for a moment before nodding his head slowly. "That would definitely do it."
"WHAT?!" Duo voice rose considerably in pitch, this time.
"Those feelings weren't programmed into him. Without instructions on how to adapt to those feelings, his 'real' mind took over, giving him instructions instead." The doctor sounded like he was giving a lecture to a student.
Duo flung his head around and glared at the doctor with pure, unadulterated hatred. "He's nothing but a fucking experiment to you, isn't he?!"
Despite the heatedness of Duo's question, Dr. J. pouted his lower lip and shrugged calmly. "I suppose you're right."
Duo whirled his head back to the window. He could see his own angry expression reflected in the glass as he ground his words between his teeth. "If I didn't need you right now... I'd kill you." Duo caught himself breathing quietly and deeply... which is a habit he had picked up when he actually had intentions of killing someone.
Ignoring the boy's threat, Dr. J. moved into the room and pulled a stool up to the observation window, right next to Duo.
Duo watched the doctor cautiously without ever averting his gaze from the boy in the next room.
Dr. J. considered Duo's profile for a moment. "Oh, come now, surely you can't hate me that much."
Duo looked at the doctor as though he had just stated that the moon was made out of cheese.
"The behavioral matrix..." Dr. J. nodded toward Heero, "... it was my crowning glory as a scientist. Making machines act like humans is simple. Making humans act like machines... that's another thing entirely."
Duo exploded. "You son-of-a-bitch!! I can't believe you can be so... so..."
"Yeahhh! Detached! He's a human being, for Christ's sake!!"
"Do you deny being detached while you were out doing your job, Duo Maxwell?"
Duo's tirade ended abruptly. Dr. J. may as well have backhanded him, the words stung him so deeply. He turned his head away from the doctor. "I didn't ask to be a murderer."
"Ahhh... but you can't deny detachment. I believe you may even have gotten a certain... perverse pleasure out of it."
Now Duo came at the doctor. He was almost in tears, he was so angry. "How fucking dare you!! How dare you! I never wanted to kill anyone, God damn you! I did it 'cause I had to!"
The doctor gave a single nod.
Duo gasped and he stared at Dr. J. in silence. It never occurred to Duo that the good Dr. J. was simply doing his job. "You had to," Duo said more to himself than to the doctor.
The doctor gave another single, solemn nod. "And I can't deny getting a certain perverse pleasure out of it," he admitted.
Duo stayed calm, this time. He didn't like what the doctor was saying, but he couldn't deny the truth. "You... you hated it as much as we did," Duo said, seemingly mystified.
"Nonsense, boy!" the doctor scoffed. "I enjoyed every minute of it! Do you have any concept of the magnitude of scientific development during times of war?!" Dr. J. asked almost fanatically.
Duo gaped. This man has got to be out his mind.
"Now!" The doctor paused and looked back toward Heero before lowering his head. "Now, Duo... I hate 'having' to do it. It's a shame as much effort does not go into peacetime development. Why, this project with Heero alone could be the pre-work for cures for innumerable behavioral and intellectual dysfunctions."
Duo was still gaping. Who is this man?
The doctor was starting to look excitable again. "And the work I'm doing right now on Earth is an offshoot of the nanites."
Duo opened his mouth, but nothing came out for a moment. "Na... nanites?" He was quickly turning an unhealthy shade of off-white.
Dr. J. suddenly looked slightly ashen as well. "Ahhh... you... you didn't know about those, did you?"
"Nanites?!" The veins leading to Duo's temples were beginning to show.
"And what, pray tell, do these... nanites do?" Duo asked dangerously.
The doctor cleared his throat. "They are programmed to rebuild damaged tissue," he stated a bit too matter-of-factly.
Well, needless to say, you could have knocked Duo over with a feather just then. "Damaged tissue?" he repeated, already having a good idea of what was coming next.
Dr. J. nodded. "Organ tissue... bone... muscle. They rebuild more efficiently, too, making them stronger."
Duo was in wonderment of how many questions the doctor had just answered. "Well, I'll be damned," he said quietly. "Nanites." It occurred to Duo that those nanites had undoubtedly saved Heero's life on more than one occasion. "So, that's how he survived when he self-destructed."
Dr. J. nodded his head. "Undoubtedly... but barely, I'd venture. He's not entirely indestructible."
The body lying on the examination table made the doctor's statement painfully apparent. Duo suddenly realized that Dr. J had actually managed to distract him for a moment. Now, his heart fell again as he peered through unshed tears at Heero's wakeless form. "He's not going to be OK, is he?"
"Actually, that is why I came looking for you. To be honest, Heero would be a complete basket case were I to awaken him now. He would show all of the signs of any number of split personality disorders."
Duo looked at the doctor with wide, hurt-filled eyes. "That's what you came to tell me?!"
"Oh!" Dr. J. chuckled and shook his head. "No, no. You see, in my initial analysis of the data, I noticed something strange. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I looked at it again and again and I still didn't see any anomalous data. That was just before I told all of you about his condition."
Duo's heart was beating triple-time. He better have some good news, or I may kill him just for getting my hopes up.
"I've been looking over the data for the last few hours and I found nothing..."
Duo gritted his teeth.
The doctor continued. "... Where I should have found some-thing."
Duo was silent for a long moment before realizing that the doctor was waiting for him to figure it out. Duo caught on almost immediately. "Missing? Something's... missing?"
Dr. J. nodded. "I wasn't looking for something to be missing, which is why I... eh... missed it initially. A very complex part of Heero's mind is missing."
"Where?! How?! Why?!" Duo, wasn't sure which question to ask next.
"You know where and you know how. Just think about it."
Duo thought for a few moments, making a face that revealed his efforts. His look of concentration oh so slowly transformed. His eyes gradually became wider. His jaw audibly creaked as his mouth slowly fell open. Duo sounded almost breathless when he finally said it.
The doctor grinned and tapped his metal claw against the palm of his hand, applauding Duo. "Very good. Any suggestions for treatment, Dr. Maxwell?"
"Remove the diffracting grating thingy and then expose him to Zero System! Err... no can't do that... " Duo's eyes scanned to and fro as he searched his own mind for other possibilities. He suddenly stumbled across another thought. "What good is all of this going to do? He's still unconscious."
"You've figured out most of it, so I'll give you the details. First of all, where are the gundams?"
Duo hesitated. Was the doctor really trying to help or... I don't care! This could save Heero and the war is over! "They're somewhere in Montana... one of Quatre's ranches."
"We must go there, immediately. I will give Heero an injection that will break down the diffraction grating just before we put him in the gundam His mind will interact with that part of him that is being held by Zero System. The grating will dissolve during the interaction, essentially trapping a copy of that part of his mind in his own head."
"I... I still don't see how this is going to help." Duo truly wanted to understand.
"It will topple his behavior in favor of the matrix."
Duo, once again, sat with his mouth agape as the full meaning of that statement sunk in. "That means... that means he wakes up just like he was?!"
The doctor shrugged. "More or less. With the diffraction grating removed, his emotions will undoubtedly be exposed and raw for a while, but he should adapt with a little help from you and the others."
Another terrifying possibility occurred to Duo. "Isn't their a danger of trapping part of Zero System in Heero's head?"
"No. Over time, Zero System continues to etch certain behaviors out of one's overall consciousness for its own use. It doesn't work the other way... although, I do have to admit, I was unaware that it actually extracted those behaviors in their entirety." The doctor looked pensive for a moment. "Perhaps the diffraction grating has something to do with it. Fortunately for Heero, the removal of the diffraction grating will give me a means of trapping those behavioral waves back in his head. I am a bit disappointed to find such a flaw in Zero System. It wasn't my intent that it should have any long-term pseudo-physical side effects. Fortunately, it is the only flaw I can detect."
"How can you say that?! Quatre destroyed an entire colony because of that thing!"
The doctor was shaking his head before Duo completed his sentence. "Quatre almost destroyed an entire colony because of Heero."
"The computerized model of Heero's brain served as more than an analysis tool. It was also used as the framework data for determining the initial state of Zero System. How it 'evolves' is dependent upon the pilot that is using it. It is a non-biological symbiosis, in a manner of speaking. In Heero's case, I would guess that it took the two much less time to adjust to one another, seeing as how it was his own behavior he had to contend with. Zero System would have eventually adapted itself to Quatre's behavior as well, but it would have taken considerably longer. It was Heero's behavior that influenced Quatre's actions, not Zero System."
"But... but Heero wouldn't do something like that!"
"If his mind somehow perceived the colony as a threat, he would not hesitate to destroy it. Quatre is kind to his very core. Being an empath made him even more susceptible to..."
"What did you say?!"
"An... empath. You didn't know that, either... did you?"
Duo couldn't speak, but he managed to shake his head very slowly.
"Yes, well, he has an implant in his chest... an amplifier of sorts. He's naturally empathic - everyone is to some degree - but, Quatre's abilities were more.... well, let's just say 'more'. That coupled with the effects of the amplifier made him hypersensitive to Heero's behavioral output."
Duo was still too stunned to speak.
So, Dr. J. continued. "As I was saying, overlaying Quatre's behavior with Heero's is what caused Zero System to behave erratically, giving the... illusion that Quatre was the one who was behaving erratically. It's very much the same way Heero would act if I were to wake him now, only... not to such an extreme degree."
Duo's attention was immediately drawn back to Heero. "So, this isn't... like... gonna make 'im wanna go out and destroy a colony... or anything... is it?"
Dr. J. laughed out loud. "Hardly. Most of the behaviors that Zero System borrows during its evolution come from deep within the conscious mind. Most of those things one wouldn't do, under normal circumstances. Zero System extracts and amplifies those untapped behaviors, making them accessible to the pilot, who becomes accustomed to using them to his benefit. Those behaviors were a part of Heero to begin with, they are just naturally... latent. They will be again, once they are back where they belong. Not to mention that Heero still has his conscience to deal with."
Duo nodded. "He's always had that." Duo stood and moved close enough that his breath fogged the observation window. "Saddle up, Heero," he said softly. "Montana, here we come."
"Yes, Duo. Lots of it," Quatre explained.
"How much lots?" Duo hadn't seen a good snowfall in years.
Trowa sat back in his seat and folded his hands in his lap. "Seven inches, so far."
Duo looked a bit disappointed.
"What? You want more than that?" inquired Quatre, noticing Duo's mild brooding.
"No... it just made me think of Heero again." Duo looked truly saddened.
The compartment became so silent, one could hear the atmosphere rushing past the fuselage of the shuttle.
Duo suddenly looked up with his eyes wide and his jaw hanging slack. He was met with a similar expression from Quatre. "I did not just..."
"Yes you did," came Wufei's voice. "I heard it."
Kaylin sat next to Wufei, trying not to laugh, forcing his eyes to brim with tears.
Quatre sat back in his seat and crossed his arms, giving Duo a skeptical grimace.
"What?" Duo asked.
"Seven inches? Duo, we've all seen him naked."
Kaylin cleared his throat.
Duo reached over the seat and swatted him on the knee.
Kaylin rubbed the stinging spot. "Ouch! I didn't say anything!"
"No, but you thought it!" Duo turned a smile back to Quatre. "Heero's got what'cha might call... a surprise package."
Trowa arched an eyebrow. "Big surprise," he said quietly.
Another moment of silence and the shuttle compartment rattled with laughter.
Trowa waited for the effect of his well-placed comment to wear off. "As I was saying, A bit more than half-a-foot has fallen. The weather predictions say up to three feet may fall before the storm passes."
Duo suddenly wore a look of concern. "What about Rashid and the others?"
"They are gathering our things from the Montgomery estate and will arrive later tonight. The hardest part of the storm is supposed to start about midday tomorrow."
Duo gasped and covered his mouth with his hand.
"What is it, Duo?" Quatre asked with great concern.
"I... I left the lube on the night-stand!"
Trowa actually started snickering.
Quatre rolled his eyes and fell back into his seat. "Oh, please, Duo... like they haven't seen that before!"
Now everyone snickered... except for Duo. He simply sat with his arms crossed and pouted. "I still don't understand why Dr. J. put Heero in the cargo area. He's not a piece of luggage."
"Because, Duo," came Wufei's voice from the seat directly behind. "The doctor insisted on refining his data. The cargo area was the only place onboard with enough room for the portable scan equipment."
Duo pounded his armrest. "Damnit! I wish he'd quit treating Heero like some damn lab animal!"
Wufei sat forward and peeked around the edge of Duo's seat.
Duo jumped to see someone's face appear so abruptly and so close. All Duo could see of Wufei was from the top of his head to the bridge of his nose.
"It will help Heero as well," Wufei explained before disappearing. "Miss Relena is keeping a very close eye on the doctor. Heero should be fine."
Everyone fell silent for a while, giving Duo a chance to do something he hadn't taken the time to do in the last few days. Think.
It's weird, how situations change the way you look at things. Like, with Treize - he ended up not being such a bad guy except for his insane ideas about how to establish peace. The idiotic thing is, it might actually work! I actually hope it works, now that it's over. It's a hell of a way to go about doing things, though.
And then there's the Wufei and Treize thing. At first I was so mad at Wufei, I could have killed him. I think we all were. But when I saw him actually break down in tears... that made me realize just how lonely he must have been. He knew he was endangering our secrecy and, therefore, his own life... but he risked that to be with Treize. I think it may have made me and Heero realize how lonely we would be if we didn't grab the chance to be with each other.
Then, of course, there's Relena. Talk about doin' a one-eighty. I hated that bitch and never really understood why. When I saw her with her arms wrapped around Heero's neck after the peace talks... that's when I understood why. I was ready to tear her lungs out. And then, all of a sudden, she's this really cool chick who wants to play big sister to Heero. Unreal.
And now, on top of all that, I find out that Dr. J. is not only out to save Heero, but the world as well.... Nanites for Christ's sake! I can only imagine the look on my face just then! Definitely not your standard fare of revelations... And Quatre! Yeesh, an empath with an implant! Who'da thunk it?! Anyway, I guess the doctor did reveal a bit about himself, too. I don't suppose he could have avoided reminding me about that part of me that enjoyed the war... enjoyed the fights... enjoyed the killing. But that's a part that I have put safely away. Now, all that's left is the guilt, the images of dying soldiers... It turns my stomach to think about it now. Maybe the doctor was just trying to tell me... he feels the same way.
Finally... there's Heero. Talk about a bagful of contradictions... but I suppose that's what initially drew me to him. He seemed so... so passionate and dispassionate at the same time. Man, he used to tick me off sometimes! I'd try to talk to him and all he could do was grunt or tell me to keep quite. Of course, I wouldn't keep quiet and that would usually get a book or pencil thrown in my direction. But, Heero... he never really seemed angry - just impatient. As it turns out... he may have been listening after all. Now. I'm so in love with that mop-head, that I'd sooner die than live without him.
God, please let him be OK. I'll treat him like gold. I'll do everything I can to make him happy. He deserves the chance to experience the things he's missed in life. I'm begging you, please, just... just don't take him away from me.
Duo, suddenly felt a warm hand on his shoulder. He opened his eyes, which he didn't realize had been closed. His shaking hands were so tightly clasped, that his fingers and knuckles had turned white. Silent tears trickled down his pale cheeks. He had been praying - something he hadn't done in many years. It had never done him any good before, so... why now?
"He's been saving a miracle for you, Duo," Quatre said, seemingly reading Duo's mind.
Duo looked around the compartment. Everyone else was in a state of slumber. It freaked Duo out for just an instant before he mentally scolded himself for thinking any differently of this kind hearted man.
"He heard you," Quatre added softly. "I'm sure of it."
Duo patted Quatre's hand and nodded before trying to get a few minutes of sleep himself.
"Duo, wake up! Duo!"
Duo suddenly sat up in his seat and quickly took stock of his surroundings. He was clearly disoriented for a moment. "Whadaya want?" he asked, rubbing his tired, irritated eyes.
"We're here," answered Quatre.
"Already? Damn. How's a guy s'posed to get any shuteye 'round here?" he asked pulling himself out of his seat. He looked tired and beaten.
"That is the point of a shuttle jump," explained Wufei. "They are not terribly cost effective, but they are extremely fast."
"Here," Kaylin said, shoving a parka and a pair of boots in Duo's direction. "You're going to need them."
That was when Duo turned and looked out of the shuttle portal. "Holy snowly! I can't see a thing!"
Quatre chuckled. "That's because the window is already covered with snow. It isn't that bad... yet."
Duo wiggled his feet into the wool-lined, calf-high boots then stood and threaded his arms into the the sleeves of the down-filled coat. Once he was snug, he turned to the others. "Wufei! You look like an Eskimo."
"Yes, and you look like a loudmouthed American in an oversized parka. Now, let's go." Wufei turned, and headed for where the hatchway would be.
Duo stuck his tongue out at the back of Wufei's head.
Without looking over his own shoulder, Wufei flipped him the bird.
Quatre shook his head and smiled. Things are getting back to normal already.
"I'm freezin' my ass off!" Duo's teeth chattered noisily.
Kaylin wrinkled his face, looking first at Quatre and then Duo. "Duo, I'm perspiring under this heavy coat. It isn't that cold out here."
"It's only about three degrees below freezing," Quatre explained as they moved across the airfield to the car that would take them to the ranch house. "That's why the snow is so heavy and wet."
"I don't care what the damn temperature is! I am cold!" Duo snapped.
Wufei stopped in front of them and turned to face Duo. He closely scrutinized Duo's features.
"You are uncharacteristically agitated and you are pale. When was the last time you ate, Duo?"
Duo lowered his head. "Yesterday morning... at the lake."
Wufei turned and began walking again, following Trowa who was leading the way. "That is why you are cold... and it partially accounts for your irritability. I suggest you eat something... no, I insist you eat something as soon as we get to the house. In the meantime, remember why you are here."
It was at this point that Duo looked up. From where he stood, he could see Heero waiting to be loaded into a med-van about fifty yards away. Relena was standing looking down at Heero and Dr. J. was apparently inside, preparing for Heero to be loaded. A fairly heavy snowfall partially obscured his view, but Duo watched in horror as Relena reached down and pulled the thermal blanket over Heero's head.
Duo's shriek jarred everyone to the bone. They turned in time to find Duo already half way to the van, still sprinting..
"What are you doing?!" The snowfall almost completely absorbed the sound of Duo's distraught cry.
Relena nearly failed to notice the braided young man racing toward her. She gasped upon seeing the hysterical look on the face coming in her direction. She quickly realized her error and uncovered Heero's face just as Duo arrived, panting and panicking.
"What... what... " Duo was too out of breath to speak.
"Duo, I.... his face was getting pelted with snow. I was just trying to... "
Duo collapsed right where he stood, sitting in the snow. "Jesus... oh, Jesus. I thought... oh, God, I thought... " Duo couldn't get any more words out.
Relena watched as Duo's eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out. "Duo!" she exclaimed, rushing to his side.
As Dr. J. stuck his head out of the van, four more out of breath young men arrived.
"What is all the commotion?" asked the doctor.
Relena looked up. "It's Duo. He's fainted... I think."
Quatre and Trowa were already busy examining the limp figure lying in the snow.
Dr. J. glanced over his shoulder, looking back into the van. "Well... I can make room for one more, but I'm afraid that Relena will have to ride with the rest of you. You boys get him in here. I'll... see if I can't get one of the other tables set up."
As the doctor went about his business, Kaylin took it upon himself to easily scoop Duo out of the snow. He looked down with great concern and sadness at the unmoving figure that now lay cradled in his arms. Kaylin was again filled with nearly overwhelming guilt. Duo had been there for him in his time of need. Yet, throughout Duo's entire ordeal he, himself, had been able to offer very little in the way of assistance or comfort. He hoped that Duo would forgive him for simply not understanding any of this. Kaylin also hoped that Duo would forgive him for feeling a bit sorry for the man with the braid. The war was over... but the suffering would not let go. It just wasn't fair. It was in that moment that he came to a singular understanding - why Duo had very nearly given up hope.
Wufei moved forward and pushed the hair out of Duo's closed eyes, brushing the melting snow from his companion's forehead. "He will be OK, Kaylin. They both will."
Kaylin looked up, his blue eyes piercing against a background of almost pure white. "Will they, Wufei? Will they?"
Duo could hear himself muttering something, but he couldn't quite make out exactly what it was. He crawled back up through the levels of consciousness until he could understand what was being said. "Heero... Heero... "
Dr. J. shook his head and chuckled as he fussed over Heero. "He's got it bad, my boy. This had better work... or I may be a dead man."
"HEERO!" Duo, suddenly sat up, banging his head on the cabinetry directly above. "Ouuuuuuch!"
The doctor gently pushed Duo to lie down again. "Rest easy, son. Heero is fine."
Duo rubbed his head, which was now pounding, thanks to its recent impact with a poorly placed storage box. "Wha' happen'?"
"Well, nothing happened to Heero. You, on the other hand, have suffered a bump on the head... or so it would seem." The doctor knew that the metal of the box above Duo's head wasn't nearly sturdy enough to have seriously injured anyone... though Duo's head had left a sizable ding.
"Great bedside manner, Doc." Duo groaned.
"Also, your blood pressure went for an old-fashioned roller coaster ride and you are anemic from lack of nutrition."
Duo rubbed his face with his hands and rolled his head to the side so he could look at Heero. "How is he?"
"No change. He is stable and in perfect physical condition."
"That's good news," he said quietly and sincerely.
The doctor considered Duo for a moment before speaking. "Duo, may I ask you some questions? They may seem rather personal, but I must ask them before I can finalize any of my research."
The doctor's analytical attitude didn't even phase Duo this time around. "Sure, Doc. Go ahead."
"When did Heero begin acting abnormally... or... normally, depending upon how you look at it? What happened?"
Duo immediately noticed how the doctor had rephrased his question. They were coming to a mutual acceptance of one anothers actions. "Heero... he felt as though.... as though he couldn't or wouldn't live without the war. He said that it would leave him without purpose. I suppose I could have felt sorry for him - well, maybe I did to some degree - but more than anything it pissed me off."
The doctor arched an eyebrow.
"I told 'im he was an idiot and to think about how his friends would feel if he just checked out on life like that." Duo lowered his eyes and looked at his hands folded across his abdomen. "He thought no one cared, Dr. J."
The doctor thought about that for a moment. "That... that would have been a manifestation of his training... not of the matrix."
"I don't think so, doctor. I don't think it was either one. He's just a very stubborn, self-sufficient man. After all, Heero was trained to fight against hatred and evil... not love and friendship."
Dr. J. sat straight up in his seat with a look of utter astonishment. If realization could have shone in his eyes, it would have. He quickly recovered his composure. "I suppose I shouldn't be too terribly surprised. Neither of those things go directly against his programming or his training. Actually, his devotion to his cause is rooted in such emotions. No... I shouldn't be surprised at all."
"Well, it definitely surprised the rest of us, when he finally came around. I'm curious though, Doc - why did it happen so quickly? I mean... it was like... a matter of hours and this new Heero was suddenly emerging before our very eyes."
The doctor stopped to ponder Duo's question for a period of time. He spoke as though we were trying to reason it out as he went."Well... those feelings weren't being filtered, so he was subjected them in their untempered state. Unfortunately, as we grow and learn, some of the positive feelings can be associated with pain and loss. Even an unmodified mind tends to put up barriers of its own against such feelings. Heero had never experienced... well, he doesn't remember ever having experienced, any of the positive emotions. He has no frame of reference in which negative emotions may be associated with them. I suspect that he reacted to his new feelings very much the same way as someone with a suitable disposition might react to the discovery of drugs. He became addicted... quickly." Dr. J. furrowed his brow and looked at Duo. "Thank you, Duo. I think you may have given me the answer I was looking for. Fortunately for Heero, this is one addiction that isn't necessarily a detrimental one."
Duo leaned up on on elbow. "So, are you saying that he may be addicted to me... and not really love me?"
Dr. J. looked at Duo. "Has he ever actually said he loves you?"
Duo nodded. "Yes."
The doctor smiled. "I'm speaking in the very strictest terms of psychology when I say 'addiction'. If he said it, you can damn well rest assured that he meant it."
Duo watched as Dr. J. did something that took him totally by surprise.
The doctor placed his hand on Heero's shoulder and patted it gently, much as a father would do to an ailing child. "Insofar as his programming is concerned, you just managed to find his back door."
Duo squeezed his eyes shut. God, I hope he doesn't realize that what he just said... could be taken entirely the wrong way.
"Screw that, Doc! I'm walkin'." Duo's voice could be heard through the rear doors of the panel truck.
"But, Duo, I would feel much better if you would stay put and let us wheel you in."
Just then the doors flew open, revealing the rest of the coat-clad group. "Are you going to remain in here all day?" asked Wufei.
"He won't let me out!"
Wufei rolled his eyes. "Under normal circumstances I would tell you to be sensible and listen to Dr. J. However... " Wufei turned his attention to the doctor, "... there is almost nine inches of snow on the ground, so we will not be wheeling them anywhere. Kaylin can carry Heero and I... will carry Duo." The dark-eyed man wore a mischievous grin.
Duo watched and, as Wufei made a move to climb into the van, Duo dove past him, landing face-first in the snow. He rolled onto his side. "No way! You'll just dump me in the snow! I know you too well, Wu!"
Wufei just smiled. "Yes... you do." He moved into the van and gathered Heero in his arms. "Doctor, you missed a sensor."
Dr. J. reached up and plucked the probe from Heero's ankle.
Duo had finally managed to get himself standing. He stepped around the van and stopped dead in his tracks.
What stood before him was a good sized rustic home which looked to be built almost entirely out of small redwood and glass. It looked warm, inviting, and lived-in - a sharp contrast to the small palace that was the home in Montgomery. It drew the eye and the passerby, though there probably weren't too many of the latter in these parts. Set against a backdrop of majestic, snow-covered conifers, it was the type of scene one might see on a postcard and long to see in person.
It was perfect.
"You like?" Quatre looked at Duo with a small smile.
"Nice pad, Quatre. I just wish Heero were awake to enjoy the scene with me."
As the group trudged through the almost knee-high snow, Wufei talked with the doctor. "So, Dr. J., how long must we wait before we attempt to waken him?"
"We can begin any time, although I suggest we get settled in first. There is no need to rush."
Duo stopped and turned to face the doctor. "No need to rush?! I am frayed to my very last nerve. I can't eat and I can't sleep." Duo turned and began walking again. "No need to rush... hmph!"
Doctor J. smiled as he and the group continued to follow. "It was you I was thinking of, Duo. I may have made light of your condition in the van, but it is never a good sign when one passes out. We will not proceed until you have, at the very least, eaten. Heero can remain in his current state indefinitely, without being any worse for wear."
Duo once again turned to voice a protest when Relena interposed herself between Duo and the doctor. Her own features were becoming tired and care worn, but her sparkling eyes held a hint of understanding for what Duo may be going through. "Heero would tell you the same," was all she said.
It was all she needed to say. Duo clamped his mouth shut and the group moved silently through the pristine whiteness.
"Well, he certainly has not gotten any lighter," Wufei complained as he made Heero comfortable on the couch.
"I'll go make some stew," offered Trowa. "Quatre, you'll need to show me to the canned goods. I've not been here before."
"Right. Anyone need anything?"
Everyone politely declined as Kaylin made his way to the fireplace where Wufei stood. "I may as well make myself useful," he said as he went about the business of building a fire with Wufei's help. There was a tolerable chill in the air, but they both knew the soothing effect a warm fire could have on the mind and soul.
Dr. J. had quietly found a seat suitably close to the pending blaze.
Duo had, of course, seated himself on the edge of the couch, where his attention was now fully focussed on Heero. He almost hadn't noticed when Relena has taken up a similar position. He looked up a bit territorially when she placed her hand gently on Heero's cheek. "You still love him, don't you, Relena?" Mild accusation tainted Duo's question.
Relena wore a content smile. "No, Duo. I 'finally' love him." She spoke quietly. "What I felt before... it was... childish... adolescent. In retrospect I can definitely say it wasn't love. I just wanted him to jump my bones."
That caught Duo completely off guard and he began laughing. "Yeesh, Relena, you sure don't hold anything back!"
"Yes, well, I've learned I have to be a bit more direct if I'm to be taken seriously. In any case, Heero played an enormous part in bringing peace to our world. You all did. Now, I have such a deep admiration and respect for him. Granted, my feelings may be different than yours, but it is still love, isn't it?"
Duo smiled and leaned forward, placing a kiss on Relena's cheek.
Relena looked a bit surprised. "What was that for?"
"Just for being here, Relena. Just for being here."
"More, Duo?" asked Trowa.
"No... thank you. I think I've eaten too much."
Everyone gave the braided man a playfully surprised look.
Wufei was the next to speak. "I have never heard you utter those words before. I shall have to mark this day on my calendar."
"Poo poo to you too! I ate six bowls of the stuff. I hope you're all happy, now!" Duo groaned and leaned back in his chair. "Feels like my belly's about to explode."
Kaylin took the opportunity to reach over and thump Duo's extruded abdomen a couple of times. "Sounds ripe."
Duo chuckled. "You're livin' dangerously, man."
Just then, what sounded like a body hitting the floor could be heard from the living room. Everyone looked at one another with that 'did-you-hear-that' expression before anyone made a move. Needless to say, it was Duo who moved first... despite his full stomach.
"Heero! What the hell happened?!"
Everyone emerged into the front room to find Duo trying to gather the unconscious pilot from the floor. After a bit of effort, he managed to get Heero situated back on the couch. "Doc! What the hell happened?!"
The doctor shrugged innocently enough. "He rolled over and fell off the couch, I would assume."
"Rolled over?! I didn't know he could still move!"
The doctor cleared his throat as though he were about to give another lecture. The gathered crowd was not left disappointed. "I thought you understood. Heero's current condition is precisely that of someone who is asleep. His conscious mind has shut down, but his subconscious is still quite active. He goes through periods of tossing and turning, just as any sleeping person would. He was probably dreaming."
Duo gasped an came to his feet. "Dreaming?!" Duo began moving in circles for a moment. He stopped and looked at everyone. "Well, don't just stand there, let's get a move on!"
"Duo, what are you going on about?" asked Wufei, calmly.
"He has really bad nightmares, sometimes. We gotta get his head fixed before that happens!"
The doctor began bustling about as well. "Nightmares, eh? I wasn't aware of that. Duo is correct. We must move quickly."
"Why the sudden urgency, doctor?" asked Relena.
The doctor stopped and looked at the crowd as though the reason should be clear, but he explained anyway. "Could you imagine being trapped in a nightmare from which you could not awaken? Think about your own experience. Most of your own nightmares end with awakening. If you couldn't gain consciousness, those dreams would become persistent and repetitious. Without a conscious mind to intervene, you would never even become aware that it was just a dream." The doctor shook his head and went back about his business. "It would be a horrible and terrifying thing, but it's far too complicated to explain beyond that."
No more explanation was really necessary, since everyone was now preparing to move Heero to the hangar... and his 'therapy' session with Zero System.
They moved quietly down the snow-covered walkway leading to the hangar. Out of necessity, they had had to transport Heero on an old fashioned medical stretcher. Duo, Wufei, Trowa, and Kaylin had taken up the corners and were now struggling through the snow, which had deepened a full two inches since their arrival here a mere hour and a half ago.
Duo had to keep reminding himself that he was not a pall bearer at Heero's funeral, though he certainly felt like one. He looked around and found the same grim expression on everyone's face. So, he decided to do what he did best - complain. "Quatre, why the hell don't you have a medical floater here?"
"I do!" Quatre said defensively. "It just... gets confused. It's not adjusted to compensate for the snowfall, yet."
Duo stumbled and fell to his knees, trying very hard to keep the stretcher stable in the process.
"Duo!" Everyone echoed as Heero slid a few inches toward Duo's corner of the gurney.
"I'm OK, I'm OK!" he said pulling himself to his feet. "I guess I'm not adjusted to compensate for the snowfall, yet."
Quatre snorted and shook his head before continuing to lead everyone to the hangar.
Duo looked around. People were smiling. 'Nuff said.
"Everyone, wait here," said Quatre. "I'll go get the floater. It will work fine in here."
Well, no one was going to move for a minute or two anyway as everyone stood admiring the five pieces of machinery that stood before them.
"Nataku... " Wufei whispered longingly.
"So many memories," said Duo softly and forlornly. "It seems like ages ago... and it... it seems like yesterday at the same time." Duo shook his head. "This is one reunion I could have done without."
Wufei shot him an agitated look. "Duo! I am shocked to hear you speak so! It is dishonorable to..."
"There is nothing dishonorable about it, Wu!" Duo bit back. "I can't focus on who I used to be!"
Wufei relaxed his expression and Duo calmed himself before continuing. Duo gazed up at the object that used to function as an extension of himself in times of trouble. "The war is over. Shinigami is no more." He looked at Wufei and grinned, despite his tear-brimmed eyes. "You said it yourself, right, Wu?"
Wufei nodded and smiled. "Yes, I suppose I did."
The hum of a medical floater could be heard before Quatre appeared, pushing the seemingly weightless contraption in their direction. The four men lifted Heero onto the floating ovoid, strapped him down, and stepped back.
"Going up!" Quatre announced as he manipulated a remote. The table smoothly lifted Heero to the level of the catwalk above them.
Everyone stood looking at the thing.
Dr. J. cleared his throat. "Gentlemen... and lady... we still have stairs to climb."
"Right, right," said Duo taking the stairs two at a time. Those damn things never cease to amaze me.
The table rose a notch as Quatre maneuvered it over the grating of the walkway on which they stood. He lowered it a bit so the doctor could begin preparing for what was to come.
Everyone watched every move the doctor was making.
Dr. J. made a quick scan of Heero with a handheld device, verifying his vital signs. Everything was in order. He then placed a device in Heero's mouth.
"What the hell is that?" asked Duo. He looked at the mechanism as though it might try to crawl down Heero's throat and eat him from the inside out.
"There is a small chance that he may suffer a seizure before he becomes fully aware of his situation."
"You didn't tell me that!" Duo complained loudly.
"Calm down, Duo," Trowa's gentle voice came. "I'm sure the doctor has planned for this possibility, haven't you, Dr. J.?" He gave the doctor a look that said 'You had damn well better have planned for this possibility'.
"Of course," confirmed the doctor. "The injection I will be administering contains an anti-seizure component, making the chance that he could have one, extremely minute. The device in his mouth will insure that he doesn't bite off his tongue in the one-in-a-million chance that he does suffer one."
Duo shuddered slightly, remembering how painful it had been to almost have bitten off his own tongue. "Oh..."
The doctor nodded toward the open cockpit of Heero's gundam. "You boys get him into the harness."
"The harness?! Why?!"
Wufei crossed his arms and gave Duo a long look. "Duo, now I know you are not thinking clearly. The harness is designed to protect its wearer. It is the safest place Heero could possibly be. In any case, the floater will not fit into the cockpit... or would you rather we just dump him in the middle of the floor."
Duo gasped and looked at Wufei with wide eyes.
Wufei unfolded his arms. "I thought not. Come and help me get him situated."
With some effort, they managed to each get one of Heero's arms wrapped around their shoulders. His sneakers dragged noisily across the metal grating of the catwalk as the two boys quickly moved Heero in the direction of the gundam. When they reached the hatch, they stopped.
"It's going to get awfully cramped," Duo announced.
Wufei nodded. "You go first. I will need to be able to move about while I fasten him in. You just hold him in place."
They turned and moved sideways into the cockpit with Duo going in first. "I'll hold him from behind while you get his legs in."
Wufei relinquished his hold on Heero and went about the business of securing him in place.
"Is he up high enough? Can you get the strap around his foot? Don't forget to..." Wufei's face rising in front of him caused Duo to fall silent.
Wufei locked eyes with his friend for just a moment. "Duo, just... hold him," he said quietly before going back to what he was doing.
Duo clamped his mouth shut and held Heero tightly. He could feel the heat of Heero's body seeping through the thick garments separating them, reassuring him once again that Heero was indeed alive. He pressed his mouth close to Heero's ear and spoke softly. "Heero, if you can hear me, please, be well. I can't do this 'life' thing alone. I need you. I love you. So, just be OK. OK?"
Duo opened his eyes a moment later to find Wufei giving him a meaningful look.
"You finish strapping him in," said Wufei. "I will... wait outside."
With Heero's legs fastened, Duo could prop Heero's torso against his own body while he finished doing the job. He said nothing more, but when he was finished, he placed a small kiss on each of Heero's cheeks just below his eyes. Duo left the cockpit with his own head hanging and his hands stuffed into his pockets.
Next into the gundam's belly was Dr. J. He unzipped the top of Heero's coat and examined the ex-pilot's neck for a moment. He quickly wiped it with an alcohol swab, thumped it a couple of times with a finger, and poked the micro-fine point of the needle into Heero's jugular. Once the injection was administered, he stuck an absorbent pressure pad over the spot, and rushed out of the cockpit.
The gangway slowly moved away from the metallic monster and came to a halt far enough away that the hatch could be closed. Dr. J. pushed a switch on his remote station and the hatch sealed Heero off from the outside world.
The sound reverberated through the cavernous hanger and Duo's stomach churned at the finality of it. He wished he could sit down somewhere.
There was only one step remaining in the process - activate Zero System.
Dr. J. pushed the button and everyone waited in the deafening silence.
He awoke with such a jolt that it seemed to tear at every muscle in his body. He flailed about blindly, trying as hard as he could to get away from whatever it was that had a grip on his mind. He was so utterly terrified that he couldn't control his own actions. He violently lashed out and broke his own hand against the control panel of the gundam. He couldn't get his mental hooks into any single thought. Fighting, however, seemed futile. He stopped thrashing about only because it seemed safer to do so.
Gradually, like a box full of children's building blocks, reality seemed to snap into place.
My gundam. Why... why am I in my gundam? The war! I'm fighting the war! My mission... have I failed my mission?! No... wait... we... there are five of us. Duo... Trowa... Quatre... and... and Wufei. Why am I here, in my gundam? How long have I been unconscious? Was I injured? I don't feel hurt... except for my hand. Are the others... still alive?
Heero suddenly jerked as his fog filled mind continued to clear. Duo!! The war is over! And... I... I love Duo! That... that can't be! Was it all a dream? Did the things with Duo really happen? They... they must have! I couldn't make something like that up, could I? And what the hell was I so afraid of when I first woke up? I've never felt such intense fear before. Duo... I need to find Duo... but first, I need to get out of here.
And what the hell is this... thing in my mouth?! Heero spat the obtrusive device onto the floor, unbuckled his harness, and pressed the button that would open his hatch.
He activated the switch that would allow him to see his external environment. The screen crackled to life revealing... "The other gundams?! Where the hell am I?!" The view panned, no longer under Heero's control, to show... "Dr. J.?!" Heero's ceased breathing for a moment.
"Heero, my boy! How are you feeling?"
Heero could hear a minor scuffle going on out a his field of view. "I'm... scared... and I'm cold and confused."
"He's scared! Damnit! Let go of me!"
Heero could have picked that voice out of a full chorus of angels. "Duo! Are you OK?!"
Dr. J.'s face was replaced by Duo's as he not-too-roughly pushed Dr. J. out of the way. "Heero! Are you OK?!"
Heero shook his head. "No, I'm not, apparently. What the hell is going on?!"
"We'll explain everything once your done baking. You hafta stay calm and stay in there for..." Duo's face turned to the side as he addressed Dr. J. "How much longer?"
The view zoomed out to reveal everyone standing on the mobile gangway. Everyone that cared about him was standing there in their winter garb. "About another ten minutes," announced Dr. J.
"I feel really... strange. Like I'm... about to lose it."
"That's to be expected. You've undergone quite a bit of mental stress in the last day or so," Dr. J. explained.
"I... I don't remember anything," Heero confessed.
"That's b'cause you've been unconscious," Duo thought that should explain things.
"Then... how could I have been suffering from any type of mental discomfiture?"
Duo and the doctor looked at one another. Duo again looked at where the camera would be. "Just... relax," he said gently. "Trust me, Heero, it's way too complicated to explain right now."
Dr. J. cleared his throat. "Heero, I will be disengaging Zero System very shortly. I want you to..."
"Zero System? Is that why I'm in here?" asked Heero.
"Yes. I want you to tell me when you feel any differently." Dr. J. leaned closer to Duo. "Keep talking to him, Duo."
"M'kay. Hey, Heero! Guess where we are?"
Heero rubbed his temples. "Someplace cold."
Duo chuckled. "Yup! We're in Montana! There's about a dozen inches of snow on the ground! It's sooo peaceful."
"I'll wager it is," said Heero, wishing his own mind could find a peaceful thought.
Duo nodded enthusiastically. "We're gonna get buried by a few feet before it's over!"
Heero said nothing for a few seconds. "Well, shouldn't we leave before we get buried?"
Quatre piped up just then. "Hi, Heero. It's me, Quatre."
Heero stifled a groan. "Yes, Quatre. I know who you are are. My memory seems to be... getting... intact."
"Good! Ummm... anyway, the roads should be OK in a few days. Believe me, they know what they're doing when it comes to snow removal in this climate. I know you're concerned about getting back to school and everything, but we still have a few days of vacation left. Dr. J. thinks you should rest while he observes your condition. "
"Observation? I take it my condition isn't entirely stable, just yet." Heero already knew his condition was unstable, but his old 'I-can-take-care-of-myself' behavior had already kicked in and wouldn't allow him to admit that he wasn't feeling at all well.
Duo looked saddened. "Well... not really. Dr. J. said you might experience a lot of... emotion once your head is back to normal."
Heero rubbed his eyes. Emotion was not normal for him. He wished someone would just explain what was going on. Then something strange happened. All at once the underlying chaotic whirlwind in his head seemed to settle to nothing more than a gentle breeze. He felt tired but at least he could think straight again. "I look forward to hearing the details. Dr. J., I am feeling... drained, again."
"Good! How do you feel otherwise?"
Heero shrugged even though no one could see him. "Still a bit scattered. Do you want full details on my condition?"
"Yes, please." Dr. J. nodded.
Heero complied. "I seem to be having tremors of some kind. My hands and legs are shaking - although not severely - I still can't control them. My vision continues to fade in and out a bit, as though I am going to pass out - even though I do not actually feel faint. I broke my hand when I struck out upon being awakened. I was severely panicked - terror stricken, actually - but, I have no explanation as to why. And now, I am... um... tumescent."
Dr. J. rubbed his chin as he processed the information. Everyone else was blushing or snickering. Duo was, of course, grinning ear-to-ear.
The doctor finally nodded. "Sounds about right. Heero, I'm going to open the hatch and..."
"What about Zero System?!" Duo asked with great concern.
Dr. J. chuckled. "Zero System has been deactivated for a couple of minutes now."
That was the piece of news everyone needed to hear. Heero could see a small flurry of excitement from the spectators on the platform.
Dr. J. continued. "I'm going to activate the hatch, Heero. Stay put until the platform moves into position." With that, the doctor activated the hatch on the belly of the gundam.
Duo shifted nervously from foot to foot as the platform moved with painful slowness to meet the lip of the hatch.
There was a moment of tense silence before Dr. J. gave the all-clear. "Heero, you may come out now."
When Heero shakily stepped into the light, he was welcomed with a small cheer... and a very excited Duo barreling down the catwalk in his direction.
Fortunately, Duo had the good sense to stop just short of running him down. They looked at each other for a long moment before Duo could find the ability to say anything. "Heero, I'm so..." He choked on the words as a large lump formed in his throat. He chose, instead, to take Heero's uninjured hand in his own until he was able to speak. "I'm so glad to see you," he said, barely able to hold back his tears.
Although everyone wanted to express their relief at seeing Heero, they began moving toward the stairs to give the two a moment of privacy.
Heero bore an impatient look. "I am under the impression that I almost died. Are you not able to give me a warmer welcome than that?"
Duo covered his mouth and laughed before throwing his arms around Heero's neck and kissing his face more times in the next thirty seconds than he had in their entire time together. "Oh, God... Thank you." Duo was very much in tears now as he hid his face against Heero's shoulder.
Heero used a curled finger to lift Duo's chin so he could look into his eyes. Duo looked very tired and emotionally drained. "I don't know what happened, Duo, but it must have been very hard on you," he said quietly and apologetically. "This is why I didn't want to fall in love with you..."
Duo looked so very hurt for just a moment.
"But, it is too late for that, now. I have... and, no matter what happens, I always will be."
And, like the proverbial phoenix, Duo's faith rose from the ashes. He sniffled and smiled. "My feelings go without saying... but I'll say it anyway. I love you, Heero Yuy. I found out that I can't live without you. I can't function. I can't think. You are... you are the answer to my prayers," he finished in a tremulous voice.
The tears forming in the corners of Heero's eyes communicated everything that remained to be said.
Duo used his little finger to wipe the salt laden droplets away. "Looks like the Doc was right. You're emotions are surfacing already."
Heero nodded. "I think it may be... a good thing."
Duo took Heero's good hand in his own and lead them toward the floater. "Climb on."
Heero stopped and gave Duo a well-practiced scowl.
"Your legs are still shaky and I'll not have you falling down the stairs!" Duo complained before softening his tone and giving Heero a doleful look. "Please... for me?"
Heero shook his head as he acquiesced and lay down on the small hovering table. "Leave it to you to be able to say the one thing to convince me."
Duo pulled the thermal blanket up to Heero's chin. "You must be hungry by now. Let's get your hand fixed up and get you something to eat."
Heero nodded. "And then you are going to get some sleep," he said, making himself more comfortable. "I'll wager you haven't done so since... how long was I out?"
Duo chuckled. "Since yesterday afternoon... but, shouldn't we deal with your... um... tumescence... first?"
"Actually, if I could just use the bathroom... sometime very soon," Heero deadpanned.
Despite having forced a hurt expression, Duo couldn't control the telltale tick of a hidden smirk. "Would you just... lay next to me, then?"
Heero smiled and snaked his arm around Duo's waist, pulling him close to the table. "Duo, it is comforting to know that some things... will never change."
To be continued...
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