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fic - additive identity part 19 [novella] - the turnip patch
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turnippatch
turnippatch
fic - additive identity part 19 [novella]
Title:  Additive Identity
Part:  19



Additive Identity
sequel to axiomatic
Part 19


"Heero?"  Quatre's voice wasn't as sharp and urgent as it had been a few seconds ago.  "You with me?"

I nodded weakly, blinking hard as the room settled into a fuzzy semblance of itself.  Trix hovered nervously behind Quatre's back.  I batted at his arms, and he let me go.  My thoughts were still running on an adrenaline high, unable to come to a halt quite yet.  I reached out, grabbed one of them, and wrestled meaning into it.  "Status?"

"I've got men taking care of all the presents you left us.  One of them confirms that we've gotten all the bombs.  Except for the one in this building, of course."  A corner of his mouth tilted up.

I flopped my hand toward the computer console.  "Done.  The, uh..."  Too many things tried to get out of my mouth at once, and I stopped, swallowed painfully with a mouth that was suddenly dry and uncooperative.  "The... men here... still alive... approach with caution..."

He nodded calmly.  "We know.  We're taking care of it.  You can stand down now.  Your job is done.  Duo, take him home."

What?  Something about that made no sense at all, but then I finally noticed Duo standing in the background, flak jacket on, gun out, watching the door.  He turned, and something else bent and strained inside of me.

He wiped the vulnerable look off his face in a moment's time, making me wonder if I had imagined it.  "But--"

"He's still a rogue agent," Quatre told him firmly.  "And he needs somewhere safe to crash, and someone to watch over him while he does it.  Now get him out of here before IAB shows up to arrest him."

"What?"  Trix, this time.  "After all this?"

Quatre turned to her and cranked the intensity down just a notch for her sake.  "They have their orders, and they'll follow them until instructed otherwise.  Which I unfortunately haven't had the chance to finish taking care of yet."  He turned back to Duo and spared him no such mercy with his tone.  "Now take him home and keep him there until I give you the okay, Duo, and if I hear any nonsense about it out of you, I will feed your entrails to the lions myself.  Is that clear?"

That look flashed across his face again, and just as quickly, he smothered it with sarcasm.  "Yes, sir, Mr. Winner, sir."

Trix protested as he approached me.  "What?  You can't make him go home with that loser!"

"Stay out of this," Duo snapped, dragging me upright and bracing me against his side.  The warmth and solidity of his body nearly shocked the breath out of me, and I swayed, sliding one dizzying step closer to crashing, but I managed to move my hand in a way that was supposed to tell Trix that it was alright.  I wasn't in any condition to go back into hiding by myself.  And we took care of our own.  Even if we weren't speaking at the moment.

They exchanged barbs once more, but Quatre shut them both up and shooed us out the door, saving us all.  Duo supported me as I stumbled out of the room, muttering as we passed Quatre by.  "Since when are the lions yours to feed, huh, Blondie?"

Quatre just smirked and turned his attention back to Trix for a report.

The next thing I knew, I was jerking back into my state of almost-consciousness when the car stopped in our apartment's parking garage.  "Still with me?" Duo asked tensely.

I forced myself to keep my eyes open and nodded.  "Barely."

"Let's get you taken care of."

He pulled me out of the car and half-carried me up the stairs and into the apartment.  I leaned heavily on the sofa as another wave of disorientation swept through my exhausted body.  Home.  How long had it been?  I almost didn't recognize it, but that was probably the withdrawal hitting me.  I flexed my fingers on the semi-familiar fabric covering the cushions and refused to fall down on them.  Once I was no longer upright, I wouldn't be getting back up again for a long, long time.

Duo ran his hands over my body, doing a routine check for injuries.  When he didn't find anything requiring his attention, he squeezed my shoulder.  "You okay?"

"Just coming down."  We'd all gone through it at some point, when we spent all our focus and energy on getting the job done and then suddenly it was done and we were left drained and scrambling to get ourselves centered again.

"You sure?"

I nodded, using the sofa for support as I fumbled with my bootlaces.  Duo made an impatient sound and finished the job for me.  Once my shoes were off, I pushed myself away from the sofa.  I staggered a few steps back, recovered my balance, and headed for the kitchen to take care of the first of my necessities.  I chugged a glass of water, and then caught myself on a doorframe just a moment before I would have run straight into it.

Duo guided me away from it.  "Shit, Yuy, let's get you flat before you hurt yourself."

I shook my head, resisting his attempts at guidance.  "Gotta clean up."

"That can wait," he said impatiently, but not trying to alter my course.

I shook my head again and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.  "Can't rest yet..."

"Dammit, Yuy," he muttered under his breath, helping me toward the bathroom anyway.  No doubt he thought it was just my usual penchant for good hygiene.  There was a little bit of blood on me from getting up close and personal with a few broken noses and split lips and such, but it was negligible.  Under other circumstances, maybe I wouldn't care, but Zero was still humming in the background, disengaged, but coming off his own high.  If I didn't get the reminders of the rough day off of me, Zero would never settle down.

Duo hesitated at the bathroom door, and I shut it behind me.  I beat my mind into yielding up a checklist for me, and then I followed it.  The water went on first.  I managed to get out of the clothes I'd left the apartment with, what, nearly two weeks ago? and almost stepped over the rim of the tub with my socks still on.  Grand.  I would have liked nothing -- almost nothing -- more than to stand under the hot spray and let it wash the week away, but I knew I wasn't long for consciousness.  I did my business and got out of there, pulled a towel off the rack with a little more force than I had planned, and found myself teetering.  I planted a hand on the shower door for balance and found an abrupt seat on the stack of clothes I'd left on top of the toilet seat cover.  Not good.  I had to get out of there now.  If only I could do that and keep myself in one piece.  All I could do was stare at the bathroom door like I could will myself there with what little I had left inside me.

The door opened.  Had Duo been waiting somewhere near by?  "Holy hell, Heero," he sighed.

I stared blankly at him, knowing that I should have been able to read something into those words, that look, but failing completely at it.  The sense of loss echoed in the emptiness.

He hauled me to my feet again, attached me to his side and walked me out of the room.  "Okay, that's it.  Enough pushing yourself past your limits.  It's like it's a hobby of yours or something.  Time for you to crash."

Gladly.  But I balked when standing in the doorway to the bedroom.  Something about the bed and how neatly it was made, my erratic thoughts making the leap to reminding me that probably no one had slept in it for almost two weeks.  I tried to turn around, but was rather ineffective at it.  "I can... if you..."

Duo took firmer control of me and compelled me to the bed.  "I'm not getting turned into lion chow, Yuy.  Now lie down before you fall down."

I was out before I finished doing either.



It was dim when next I opened my eyes, the dimness of early evening.  I waited patiently for recollection to catch up with me.  Home.  My side of the bed.  And Zero before that.  I pinged him and got a green back from him.  I asked for a time next, and determined that I had been sleeping for the last twenty-three hours, twenty-two minutes.  I still felt worn out, but at least I felt capable of carrying out my bodily functions without collapsing in the middle of them, so it was an improvement.

I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed.  It was then that I realized that I'd been tucked neatly underneath the blankets, which I certainly hadn't had the presence of mind to do myself when I had fallen onto the bed.  My first thought was that I had been handled in my sleep and I hadn't even noticed it.  My second thought was that Duo had handled me.  What was it he said to me, right before I went blank?  Lion chow?  Was he following Quatre's orders?  Or...  I sighed, not wanting to think about it.  I needed to save my strength.

Leaving the warmth of the bed behind, I remembered that I hadn't managed to get dressed after my shower, so I paused to push my mind into telling me where I could find some clothes.  Dresser, I finally figured out.  I trudged over and found some briefs, wincing at the protest of strained muscles as I pulled them on.  I stretched a little and took inventory.  A few aches and pains, and some nice bruises, but nothing I wouldn't get over in a few days.

To keep things simple, I decided to relieve my bladder before putting any more clothing on.  I didn't want to think about the complexity of zippers twice.  While I was there, I brushed my teeth and got rid of that sour taste in my mouth.  Feeling a little more alert, I opened the door and spied Duo sitting in the living room, reading a book.  Had he been there when I'd entered, and had I failed to notice?

No matter.  Our eyes met awkwardly.  He looked away first, toward the kitchen.  "I figured you'd be waking up soon.  There's some warm grub for you."

I felt a lot more exposed than I had just a few seconds ago.  It'd been some time since I'd last had to consider the social niceties that came with living with someone.  My arms wrapped around myself defensively without my command.  "...Thanks.  I'll... get dressed first."

I put on the first things I found in the dresser, some sweat pants and a t-shirt, and tried to enter the kitchen as if I didn't feel like a stranger here.  A plate of asparagus, beef, and rice waited for me.  A cleaned plate perched on the drying rack told me that I wouldn't be having company for my meal, so I took my dinner to the dining table and reminded myself to eat slowly.  The food was simple, but it'd been a while since my last meal, even longer still since my last real meal, and even longer than that since my last home-cooked meal.

The tenuous silence between us unnerved me, as I ate and he sat in the living room with only the occasional turning of a page marking his presence.  I broke through the quiet compulsively, sticking to a neutral topic.  "Any news?"

He didn't answer for a few seconds.  "Nothing's blown up yet, so I guess we got all the bombs.  No new threats have been identified."

"MinFa?"

"What?"

I'd obviously been out of commission.  I wondered if Trix had been pressed into reporting on my behalf.  "Have any government systems been hacked?"

"Oh.  Yeah, a couple.  Nothing major.  Dunno whether that's because the major ones were unplugged or because they just weren't targets."

"Either way, I'm glad."

"Yeah."

I pushed rice around my plate, my appetite having seeped away after the first few bites.  I felt a headache creeping up on me.  There was still room in my stomach, and I knew I needed the nutrients, but I found myself lacking the interest to lift a fork and chew and swallow.  I did it anyway.  They were mechanical actions.  I tried distracting myself from them.  "Did Trix get in trouble?"

"Trouble?" Duo asked, looking up from his book again.  "What for?"

"Hanging out with a rogue agent?"

"Oh.  Yeah, I guess that could be a problem.  No, Quatre got her squared away, I guess.  You, too, mostly.  The APBs on you have been canceled, but Quatre says you might want to keep a low profile for a while and avoid the political fallout for a bit."

"...'Political fallout'?  What has Quatre been doing?"

"Heh."  He marked his page with a bookmark and set the volume aside, leaning back in his chair in preparation of a good tale.  "He told Mommy on them."

"Excuse me?"

"Turns out Une didn't know what was going on.  Busy babysitting all the government types and all that.  Her ADs figured they'd do her a favor and give her one less thing to worry about."

That was true.  We hadn't heard much from Une.  She had her job and we had ours.  Would recent events make her job more, or less, easy?  "They were acting without her permission?"

"Well, more like 'on their own recognizance', since it's not like she ordered them not to go after any of her top agents or anything.  So when mommy heard what was going on, she, well, she's on your side, anyway.  Be glad."

"Heads have rolled?"

"Not officially.  They were just doing their jobs, technically.  But I wouldn't be surprised if there were a few reassignments coming up."

"Oh."  That felt really strange.  Not that they had just been doing their jobs, because Sherwood had never seemed personally motivated to me, but that the whole thing was so easily... dismissed?  What was I looking for?  Vengeance?  I hoped Sherwood would discover a new found phobia of the taser, but I didn't feel enough animosity toward him to warrant a greater punishment.  I shivered as Zero started assessing the ranks for enemies.  "So what was that?  Wrong place at the wrong time?  I think I'd feel better knowing that there was someone gunning for me."

Duo laughed grimly.  "Funny you should say that.  Not to say that everyone wasn't just doing their jobs.  But also not to say that the whole thing wasn't inspired and escalated by a personal motivation or two."

"What are you talking about?"

"You know, it was AD Minchella that put you up for that promotion two years ago."

Minchella?  Interdepartmental affairs Minchella?  AD with a chip on his shoulder, to whom I had to report occasionally?  "Why would he do that?  He doesn't even like me."

"Apparently, in large part because you turned down the promotion."

"You're kidding, right?"  Why would anyone take that personally?

Duo shook his head.  "Nope.  Trowa did a little digging around.  Not that you aren't the best guy in the department, but it seems Minchella thought he might earn himself a favor or three for putting in a good word for you.  Was always a little miffed with you for cheating him of that."

"But..."  This was not what my tired little brain needed right now.  "What kind of favor could I possibly do him as chief of Tech Support?"

"Oh, come on, Yuy.  Everyone knows you've got Une's ear.  Of course an enterprising guy like him's gonna try and capitalize on that.  And get annoyed when it falls through.  An indirect line to Une's pretty big.  Not big enough to put him out there gunning for you, but certainly big enough to make him, hm, quick to judge against you?  When you find yourself sitting on a bit of controversy."

"But..."  Humans.  What in the world were they thinking sometimes?  I gave up eating to rub circles over my temples.  I was almost done with my plate anyway.

::It would make sense strategically, if you were like other humans.::

If I were like other humans.  I sighed and stood to bring my plate to the kitchen.  I cleaned it up, then decided I could use a cup of tea to settle my stomach.  If I were like other humans.  Hn.  At least it presupposed that I actually was human.  A strange human, perhaps, but human all the same.

I took my tea to the sofa and sat down gingerly before realizing that maybe Duo had wanted the space between us.  He had a seat on the one-person armchair to the side, obviously not inviting company.  His book was open again.  Oh well.  I wasn't getting back up.  If he wanted to get away from me, he could do it his own damn self.  We'd been civil enough to each other so far, though.

The tea brought warmth, and a loosening of the knot in my throat and down my belly, but no relaxation.  I recognized the pattern I was seeing in the potentials being drawn in the reflections of my tea's surface when I realized I had to loosen my grip on my mug.  "Une's going to call me to her office, sooner or later.  She's going to want to talk to me."

"Of course," Duo answered matter-of-factly.  "You're one of her top agents.  She's going to want to --"

"--use me," I finished softly, cutting him off.  "Doesn't matter that I..."  Zero had been on their side since I joined up five years ago.  Zero had been working on their behalf all that time, with me as the intermediary, but now they knew it, and suddenly I wasn't there anymore.  The computer was all that mattered.  It was all they'd see.  The weapon.  The tool.  That was all that mattered anymore.  "It's just like Sherwood, or Minchella, or whoever it was.  Maybe she doesn't want to lock me in a box, or...."  I needed to stop, but I couldn't help looking around the walls of the apartment.  This was, what, my third? fourth? prison in the last two weeks?  Maybe Zero was a little prison I just toted around with me everywhere I went.  Okay, I needed to stop that, too.  Maybe it was time to leave.  The last week had proven that I could still do what I needed to do without Preventer resources.  There was nothing compelling me to keep my job with them.

"Hey, no sense in worrying about that now," Duo said, obliviously dismissing my concerns.  "Take Quatre's advice and lie low for a while, recover.  You're still looking pretty wiped out.  Where have you been hiding out this last week, anyway?"

I shot a quick glance at Duo and sensed no duplicity in the question.  Quatre hadn't told them?  He'd said he wouldn't, but it hadn't been the easiest thing to believe.  "I... went to where we were.  Five years ago.  Quatre's place."

There was a short, awkward pause.  "Oh," he said finally.

It was the closest we had come to 'us' so far.  I tried to work past the moment with some banal chatter.  "It's not quite the same anymore.  Some new furniture, some more amenities.  New curtains.  Not... quite the same anymore," I concluded, a little ruefully, I thought.  Maybe a little sadly.  I hadn't been trying to make a point.  I fixed my eyes on the surface of my cooling tea and wondered where we were going to go from here.

"Did Quatre know?"

I considered sparing him for a moment, given that he had kept his promise to me.  But I had no intentions of lying, and Quatre was a big boy.  He could take care of himself.  "He got an alert when I broke in."

"Oh," Duo said again, unspoken thoughts rolling through his mind.  He started up conversationally once more after a few seconds' silence.  He was trying.  Was that a good sign?  "Well, you sure chose some nice digs to crash in, didn't you?  Should have had yourself some good nights' sleep in that place."

I made a wry sound.  "I was working.  You know how that goes."  Again, the words came out before I gave them much consideration.

And yet again, I stole the words from him.  It took him longer still to recover.  "Well.  No wonder you crashed so hard.  You were so running on empty that Quatre had to talk you down from it."

I caught myself this time from making a comment alluding to something we didn't seem ready to talk about yet, only this time, it wasn't about us.  It was about Zero.  And suddenly I didn't care too much anymore.  If one of Duo's main complaints about this whole thing was that I hadn't been honest to him about Zero, then I would give him honesty now.  I was tired of sparing his sensibilities and working around his issues.  Letting him stay willfully blind to certain things had gotten us where we were today, and if I wanted any hope of the two of us working things out, he was going to have to accept all of me.  "Actually, that was my sync ratio."

"Sync ratio?"  He made the query automatically, but I could see him realizing what I meant, and not liking it.

"Adrenaline accounts for the physical exhaustion.  The sync/desync accounts for the mental exhaustion.  My sync ratio was high, and I desynced too rapidly at the end.  That's why I crashed so hard."

"How high?" he asked, caution staining his words.  I gave him credit for asking a question he clearly didn't want to know the answer to.

"Seventy-eight or so."

He blinked at me, looking both disturbed and puzzled.  "Where are you normally at?"

"Upper sixties, seventy."

He looked at me some more, then subsided with a bland 'Oh' and buried himself in his book when it didn't seem like the conversation was going to go anywhere else.

::He has not turned a page for six minutes, thirty-six seconds.::

True.  Since I was feeling so 'what the hell' about things, I decided to push him.  "Is that high or low?"

He didn't look up, but I could see his muscles tense.  He disappointed me with an evasive answer.  "You tell me, man."

Normal for me.  High for anyone else.  I assumed, anyway.  Data from other users during the war had been lost.  Maybe Quatre had gotten pretty high marks.  "He should have known better," I murmured to myself.

"Huh?"

"Quatre.  He should have known better than to have come up behind me like that.  He broke my sync, making me pull up short like that.  I'd have come down just fine on my own, once there weren't any more targets."

"I told him he was crazy," Duo mused, shrugging slightly.  "But he seemed to know what he was doing.  Maybe it would have taken too long or something?"

::Maybe he wanted to put you out of commission for a little while.::

::Quatre's not an enemy, Zero.::

::You can't be sure of that.::

::Quatre may be cooking up some devious things inside that head of his, but I wouldn't classify him as an enemy.  He's... like me.  He sees a different picture than the rest of us and acts accordingly, sometimes in ways we can't understand.::

::That does not make him not an enemy.::

::Nor does that make him an enemy.  I trust that he has our best interests in mind.::  I tilted my head from side to side, feeling my neck muscles whine in protest before I got very far.

"What's the highest you've ever been?" Duo asked me, breaking me out of my thoughts.

"Hm?  Sync, you mean?  Seventy-eight or so, I guess."  Maybe higher during the war, but that had been a different system, and I didn't have the stats from that time, anyway.  I doubted it, though.  The limited interface wouldn't have allowed for such a close sync.

Duo studied me, guarded thoughts dancing behind his expression.  I felt like holding my breath to keep anything from breaking.  He was getting at something, possibly something in my favor if he hadn't shown any upset yet, but I probably wouldn't be let in on what it was.  In the end, one corner of his mouth quirked upward in a partial sneer, half playful and amused, and half... something else.  "That's like, what, a C plus, Yuy?  Substandard."

I shrugged, resigned to not knowing if that was good or bad.  "Man was not meant to sync so closely with machine."

"What happens if you do?  Get up into B territory, A."

"It's not recommended that you go over eighty or so.  You'd... probably have a tough time coming back."

"Tough like that Stewart guy?"

I didn't recognize the name immediately.

::Stewart, Mario.  Assistant director of technology, biomechanics department, Meridian Biotechnologies.::

::Ah.  Thank you.::  That Stewart.  The one that had been found in Bonn in a permanent vegetative state after his mind had been blasted by a bad experience with Zero.  I didn't recall the name off the top of my head.  I wouldn't have expected Duo to, unless he'd been thinking about the man recently.  Or thinking about his fate, rather.  "Stewart had an unfortunate accident, a combination of being unprepared, unsuitable for the interface method, and of Zero being improperly configured.  Hoffman killed Stewart, not Zero."

It was the first time we'd mentioned Zero by name, and Duo didn't like it.  I shouldn't have done it in such a negative context.  That was a strategic error on my part.  I overrode whatever protest Duo might have had by continuing my answer to his question.  "The human brain isn't made for that level of interface.  To achieve that sort of sync ratio, some things would probably have to be rearranged.  It's conceivable to bounce back from that, put everything back where it belongs, but it would probably take a while.  So no, I don't spend all of my time as one with the machine, or even some of the time.  If I did, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you right now."

I hadn't meant to get snippy there at the end, but I'd just realized why the numbers may have been important to him.  I was proud of myself for figuring it out, but still frustrated that it was even an issue.

Duo's eyes narrowed at me, but he didn't retreat to his book, so it looked like we were going to have it out again.  I braced for impact.  He took a breath to begin, but then deflated a little before saying a word.

I don't know if it was something internal that got to him, or just an effort to stop our bickering, but I could do the same, couldn't I?  I used my mug as a distraction again, staring at my distorted reflection as I tried to put it away.  ::Duo is not an enemy.::

Zero wasn't so sure of that, but he claimed no responsibility for my spike of irritation.

Damn.  But I couldn't blame him for everything.  That would have put me on the same page as Duo, and while I did want to be there, I didn't want it that way.  It was easy to blame someone else.  Zero, Duo, Quatre.  We had to take responsibility for our actions, our emotions.  How could we claim them as our own, otherwise?  "I'm sorry," I said to my mug, needing to apologize for what I could, perhaps to make up for the things I could not and would not apologize for.  "About Sherwood.  He brought you in, right?  I tried to stop him, but... I probably just made it worse.  I'm sorry."

There was another long pause before Duo made the next offering, hesitant, though spoken with a good degree of confidence.  "I hear you tased the bitch pretty good."

I broke into a small smile.  Whether because of what Duo decided to bring up, or because of some inner satisfaction, I chose not to dwell upon.

::Sherwood is an enemy.::

::He was doing his job.  Well, maybe a little bit of an enemy.  But he was still doing his job.::  Satisfied with the concession, Zero subsided again, leaving me on my own to carry on.  "I heard he was okay."

"So I hear.  I wouldn't know.  I thought it'd be better if I didn't visit him in the hospital."

My smile widened fractionally.  "Yeah, I wouldn't have, either."  So my apology hadn't been acknowledged, neither accepted nor refused.  I would take the resulting banter as a positive sign.

"What did he do to you?"  The tone dropped a notch into something more serious as he finally shut his book.

RJ probably hadn't had all the details when he'd told the others.  I doubted that Quatre would have found out, being both too busy and too stonewalled.  And I was sure Sherwood wouldn't have been very forthcoming, both in the interrogation room and the hospital room.  So no one really knew.  "He..."

::I advise against revealing a weakness.::

::Noted.::  But Duo wasn't an enemy.  And there was no weakness that Duo didn't already know about or couldn't already figure out.  "He brought me in for questioning.  Took me down to Interrogation SE2."

"Ooh, special boy," Duo inserted with a slightly teasing tone.

No, just a victim of an IAB investigation.  "He started out asking me about five years ago.  Brought up my 'unauthorized possession of Preventers property'.  Moved on to my supposed perjury.  Expressed concern over my personal health.  And then expressed concern over the health of the people around me."  That was when things had really started to fall apart.  I'd been known to put myself in danger all the time, but it offended my moral fiber to suggest that I was willing to put others in harm's way, especially for pure selfishness.  On one level, I understood that that was the sort of person that Sherwood would normally deal with in his job.  But on another level entirely, well, he should have done his homework better.

I shook my head and moved on with the story.  "I tried to leave.  They didn't like that.  Someone pulled a gun on me.  I didn't like that."  Duo winced in sympathy.  Someone really, really should have done his homework better.  "Someone pulled a taser on me.  That really didn't agree with me.  Next thing I knew, I was waking up in Holding, D block."

Duo let out a low whistle.  "Special boy, indeed.  They don't use D block very often."

"Because it's inconvenient.  Too out of the way."

"Perfect for you, then."

"Because D block was embedded in the infrastructure of the building.  There were metal beams running through the walls and under the floor.  It allowed them to maintain a low level EM field in the room."

Duo stared at me, incredulity warring with horror and vying with outrage.  At length, he tucked it all away with another cool whistle.  "And I wondered how they managed to keep you prisoner against your will."

"Hn.  They let up on the field enough for Sherwood to come in and talk to me once in a while.  I'm not sure what he was trying to get out of me.  After a while, he figured out that I wasn't going to be giving the system back any time soon.  And then he... seemed interested in figuring out how he could use it.  Or the Preventers, anyway.  I'll concede that he never seemed interested in it for personal gain, at least.  In any case, I finally got my senses more or less in order and broke out of there."

He exhaled loudly.  "Wow.  We didn't know, man."

"I know.  And there was a terrorist threat hanging over the world, too, which just made the entire thing absurd."

"Well, you know those IAB guys.  You gotta be pretty devoted to your job to join the narcs.  But still."  He shook his head.  "Damn, that Sherwood guy.  He started out all normal.  But then he started up about Zero and going crazy and machines meant to be used and pretty much said they'd use you, with or without your consent...."

"And how much did you agree with?" I asked softly, unable, or perhaps unwilling, to stop the words.

"What?!  Are you crazy?  Of course I didn't agree with..."  He trailed off slowly as I stared directly at him.  His eyes dropped first.  "Aw, fuck, Yuy."

I snorted.  "I thought so."

"That's not what I meant," he snapped, pinning me with an angry look.  "You know I wouldn't turn on you."

Turning on me and turning his back on me were two entirely different things.  Duo wouldn't turn on a comrade.  He just didn't do that.  It had nothing to do with our relationship.  "That doesn't mean you can't share his views."

"I...  Fuck."  He ran his hands through his bangs frustratedly.  "Okay, so maybe I thought some stuff.  But never like that!"

I looked at him expectantly, but when he failed to elaborate, I gave him a prompt.  "Was it true, what Quatre said?  That they were interested in carving me up for science?  Or was he just exaggerating?"

Duo winced.  "Yeah.  Yeah, that was the gist of it.  You know I'd never think that, Heero."

"I know.  If only because you'd rather see Zero destroyed than studied."  He looked pained, but not hurt.  There was no denying the truth of it.  "Look, I know you don't like Zero.  I even kind of understand why.  But you don't like a lot of things, and this is the only one we're at each other's throats about.  Why is that?  What makes Zero so damn different?"

It should have been obvious, his look said.  "Heero.  You have a computer bonded to your brain on a nanoscopic scale.  You don't think that's a little bit... different?"

"Certainly, it's a little bit out of the ordinary, but so is blowing up your Gundam while you're still inside it and living to tell the tale."

He covered his face with his hand for a few seconds.  "Two wrongs don't make a right, Heero!"

My point was really that neither of them were wrongs.  "I don't know how many times I can say this, but once again, clearly, I am just as frustrating, annoying, ornery, and generally just as much of a bastard as I've always been, with or without Zero.  Why am I suddenly being defined by the little fact that I happen to have a computer bonded to my brain on a nanoscopic level?"

"Because it's your brain, Heero!" he shouted, a half-strangled sound.  He jabbed his hand at me in emphasis.  "It's not like it's bonded to your pinky finger and you can just ignore it when you're not using it or something!  It's your brain, and you can't ignore your brain.  You, especially!  You're always using your brain, dammit, and how much of that brain belongs to Zero?"

A legitimate question.  Sort of.  "Just some of the gray stuff I wasn't using."  I finally saw a glimmer of a corner of an issue here, and thought maybe I could address some of it.  Fortunately, that came quickly enough for me to use before Duo turned an embarrassing shade of red-purple.  "I know you say that Zero 'ate my brain' metaphorically, but seriously, Duo, all of me is still here.  This isn't like some... some zombie virus where I turn all soulless flesh-eater and you have to try to appeal to the last scrap of humanity inside of me..."

I trailed off as he stared at me, and then it was my turn to hide again and rub at my temples.  "This is really not coming out right."  I took a deep breath, gathered my thoughts, and set aside my near-empty mug.  "Okay.  Let's start at the beginning.  First things first.  Zero is just a complex neural network running on sophisticated, high-speed hardware, with a nifty interface, right?  That's all Zero has ever been."  I waited for his cautious nod before continuing, encouraged that he seemed willing to hear me out.  While I wasn't exactly volunteering to go through it all again, it seemed our forced two-week separation may have had some positive side effects.

Pulling together the progression of my argument, I got it all organized, and then moved on.  "At Olin, when you all got me out of there, Zero was installing itself.  It never finished the process.  Zero has three parts: hardware, data, and interface.  The hardware now is me.  My brain, specifically.  And the nanobots.  The interface is handled by the nanos.  But what really made Zero the Zero you knew during the war was the data.  It's the data that drives the predictions, the probabilities, the calculations.  The rest of it affects Zero's speed, Zero's level of complexity, but it's the data that produces the answers.  And I never got all of that.  Zero hadn't yet figured out a way to carry all of that data over to my system before you all came in and got me."

His expression was closed off, the rest of him held tightly in check as he considered my words.  "What's your point, Heero?" he asked, tensely and carefully.

I let out a puff of breath into my bangs.  "Zero restarted, practically from scratch, when I left Olin.  All of the data that Zero has collected since then to form its association matrices has come from my experiences.  It would be far more productive to ask how much of me is in Zero, rather than the other way around.  Zero values the things that I value."  More or less, but that was a detail I could bring up at a later time.  "And that's what all the calculations are based on.  And I am informed of those conclusions, and then it's up to me for how I decide to use them.  So if I have a point here, it's that... Zero isn't what you think it is.  And I'm hoping that, if we can clear that up, then..."

Then we could move on, rather than getting ourselves distracted by the fact that we were talking about two entirely different things.  I knew that there was more going on here than just a dispute about Zero, but we never seemed to get anywhere near it.  It was that kind of frustration that so easily escalated things on my side of the fence.

Duo licked his lips as if in ritual before responding.  "It's just data, huh?"

"Yes."

"But underneath, it's still running the same application, right?"

"Mm-hm."

"So it's still Zero.  Maybe the conclusions it comes to aren't the same, but it's still Zero.  That right?"

"Yes."

He shook his head.  "Then sorry, but I'm not just gonna take your word for it.  I gonna hafta assume you're biased.  If Zero still works in the same, fundamental ways, then... I can't take your word for it."

I nodded slowly.  Based on his experience with the system, I could understand where his doubt came from.  But Zero was like alcohol.  It didn't make a person do things that weren't already in him to do.  That was probably what made a bad Zero experience as frightening as most people found it.  And maybe, as usual, it was easy to place the blame for our actions while under the influence on someone or something else's shoulders.  "Okay.  Fine.  I can see why you might think that.  I hope I'll have the opportunity to prove you wrong, though."

A variety of unreadable thoughts flittered across his expression before he shrugged uncomfortably.  "Yeah, maybe."

A strained silence rich with possibilities stretched between us as we both withdrew to our own thoughts.  After nearly twenty-four hours of sleep, I was still feeling exhausted.  Though maybe that had more to do with the last twenty-four minutes than anything else.  I couldn't help the traitorous little thoughts that paraded through my head, claiming that maybe I'd been right to keep quiet all these years.  The course of the last two weeks would have been significantly different if I just hadn't had the impulse to tell Duo the truth, and we all would have been happier.  One little admission, and suddenly people were interested in cross-sectioning my brain before I was done using it.

::I advised against telling him.::

::Oh, shut up.  You didn't want me revealing a weakness to him.  Don't pretend that you predicted this whole fiasco.  I know that's beyond you.::

It was beyond me, too, apparently.  Maybe Duo questioned himself, wondered how well he really knew me, to have missed this part of me.  I questioned myself, too, to have imagined that things would go more or less smoothly.  Under what blind delusions had I labored, to have gone so wrong?  Yeah, maybe I understood where Duo was coming from now, just a little.  And from there, it was easy to question so much.

"Even assuming all that stuff," Duo started up again.  "Zero or not, it's still a computer, Heero.  I just... I just don't understand how you could choose to make that a part of yourself."

"I didn't choose this, Duo.  It happened.  And it isn't going to un-happen.  So I deal with it."  I stopped, not knowing what else I could say.  I wouldn't ask anyone to do what I wasn't willing to do myself, but that didn't mean that I would ask anyone else to do what I was willing to do.  This was my decision, my 'burden', and if I had to live with that alone, then so be it.  I wouldn't force it on anyone else.

"If you did have the choice," Duo said, clearly reluctant.  "Would you choose it?"

"...Between having Zero in my head, and Zero's complete destruction?"  Wasn't much of a choice.  I wanted it to be one.  I wanted to tell him what I knew he longed to hear.  But he'd hate me even more for the lie he would know it for.  "Yes."

His response wasn't immediate, but when it did finally come, it was a cry of frustration.  "Argh!  I don't get it, Heero.  Why does Zero mean so damn much to you?  It's like... it's like you're on this one-man quest to save the endangered Zero!"

Wasn't I?  One-man?  Check.  Endangered?  Check.  But I wasn't one to take up a cause based on its trendiness, or its lack thereof.  I'd always felt an affinity for Zero.  When we'd chased it after its theft, I'd often thought of the job more as stopping someone from abusing Zero, rather than catching the thieves before they had a chance to use the Zero system against the world.  "Well... I suppose there's the easy part.  The part about Zero being just some data and some hardware.  But still the only one of its kind.  I hate to see the world lose such a revolutionary piece of technology... And then... there's the hard part.  The part where... everyone keeps saying that Zero is just a weapon, a tool.  That it's not good for anything but war.  And... and maybe... maybe I've heard that before."

I had my eyes fixed on the hands I held in my lap.  Wow.  Duo was a fool if he thought that I had this whole life thing worked out.  I was a fool if I thought so, too.  Apparently I could be just as insecure about things as he could be.  The realization felt good, in that twisted kind of way, but I wasn't strong enough to leave the epiphany in a state with implications for my own self, so I looked up at him and tied it back to the point at hand.  "Zero's so much more than that, Duo."

I waited, wanting to hear him finish the thought, but it was Zero that did, eventually.  ::We are so much more than that.::

That stung.  Duo's silence drove me out of my seat, and looking for an excuse, I snatched up my mug and headed to the kitchen, an action that prompted a dizzying rush of déjà vu.  Hadn't this happened just a couple of weeks ago?  I scoured the inside of the cup, scratching away at tea stains that weren't there, and somewhere during the process I developed the urge to hurl the unoffending mug across the room and watch it shatter.  I wanted to smash something, destroy something in the way I hadn't been able to when I'd left Duo behind at HQ and ended up in a supply closet.  Given the option and a crowbar or something, I'd have happily pounded the frustration out of me, but such a tantrum at work would surely have caused more trouble than it was worth, and there was nothing quite like hiding in a closet to make a person really feel like he was scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Well, I wasn't at work now, but this was still my home, still a place I wanted to consider sacred.  There was enough breaking going on in here that I refused to add to it.  I put the cup down and tried to flee the kitchen and all of its breakables, but Duo was standing in the door.  Again.  Images of the present and the past and a future not set in stone overlapped themselves in my mind's eye, disorienting me.

He was still tense, but his stance wasn't aggressive.  I didn't know why he followed me in here.  I settled my gaze on him and waited for him to make the first move.

"Heero..."  He shifted his balance from one foot to the other, but then I guess I betrayed my impatience and his expression hardened.  "Hey, I don't think it's that out there to think it's kind of wrong to have a damn voice in your head talking to you all the time."

"No, you know what's wrong, Duo?" I snapped.  "'Wrong' is putting up with all the shit that I've put up with for the last two weeks, and the only person consistently being on my side and being there for me and offering sympathy and support was the damn voice in my head!  That's what's wrong."

We stared at each other for a little while, and then I stormed past him and retreated into our 'home-office'.  Crap, hadn't this happened, too, last time?  I guess there were only so many options in our apartment.  Which only reminded me of how I'd wanted to buy a house some time.  Granted, it probably wouldn't have been a very big house, but it would have been a house.  With a yard.  It would have been ours.  Ours to bang up and bruise, ours to embrace and love.  But Duo hadn't ever seemed keen on it.  He hadn't been ready, I thought.  Maybe he just... hadn't.

Aiming my butt at the chair by the desk just seemed too complex a task, and landing in the unanchored papasan chair by the window seemed to be a recipe for disaster, so I ended up on the floor against the wall, and now echoes and flashbacks from that damn closet started to come back and haunt me.  I squeezed my eyes shut and attempted to distance myself from that painful time, to keep the frustration from then combining with the frustration of now and forming something too terrible to escape from.

I was probably out of sync again.  And it scared me to consider the implications of the repeated movements.  Not many choices, maybe, or maybe the instinctive seeking of a comfort zone.  Or was it Zero, prodding me along on that instinctual level, perpetuating patterns that it had learned from past experience?  Was it the same as when I'd ended up at the flat where I'd spent my recovery five years ago?  Was Zero really driving my actions on some level beyond my reach?  Or was it really just Zero imitating humanity?  The human brain was a neural network, too, after all, also learning through patterns and experience.

In time, I became aware of a presence sitting down next to me.  I loosened the grip of the hands that had somehow found their way into my hair, but I didn't exactly uncurl from my huddle.  It was a classic defensive position, I recognized, but it was defensive for a reason.

"You're lucky a guy doesn't just fall out of love overnight," he said, offering it as an offhand remark, but failing to capture that feel with his careful, measured pacing.

I almost relaxed, almost felt relief.  "It's been a little bit more than 'overnight' by now."

"Don't get difficult with me, Yuy.  You think I want to be right?  Trust me, I don't want to find out I fell in love with a computer... any more than you want to be one."

I chanced a peek at him through the fall of my hair.  "Then let's not."

His smile was almost bitter.  "I know that works for you, Yuy, but it's never been that simple with me.  You know that."

"I know.  And I don't know why."

"You and me both, Yuy.  You and me both."  I spent the next half minute trying to convince myself to stop being so pathetic and sit up straight.  Apparently he spent it dwelling on pithier matters.  "Was it true, what Quatre said?  That... that you were ready to give up on me?  Or was he just exaggerating?"

That got me raising my head from my arms with a slightly peeved frown.  "Dammit, Quatre...."

Duo avoided eye contact as he shrugged self-deprecatingly.  "Yeah, I thought so."

"That's not what I meant," I said, unconsciously echoing our exchange from earlier, when our roles had been reversed.  "I meant... I meant that... things are clearly complicated right now.  If it would help you to remove one of the major sources of complication from your life... I'd do it.  I'd give you up."  It seemed to have worked these last two weeks.  Maybe our separation hadn't been voluntary, but my absence had apparently allowed Duo the opportunity to think about some things more clearly, in a way he hadn't been able to when we'd been shouting at each other every time we were in the same room together.

The tightness around his eyes softened with amusement and exasperation.  "That's giving me up, you self-sacrificing idiot, not giving up on me.  Big difference."

A corner of my mouth tilted up in a half smile.  I hadn't consciously been avoiding the question, but I'd chosen to answer with what seemed easier to say.  "That doesn't make what I said any less true."

"Hey, come on," he prodded, taking my lack of immediate response as further evasion.  "I answered your 'was he exaggerating' question."

"With, 'that was the gist of it.'  Not the most precise of answers."  I felt my smile widen fractionally.  We were bantering, sort of.  It felt good.

"Hey, that's just 'cuz it was all Sherwood crap, and who really cares what he said?"

"And you care what I said?"  It was just banter, a volley, a snappy response, but it had meaning.  Too much meaning.  I shook my head to expunge it from the record.  "Never mind that.  About giving up... I meant..."  I hesitated.  What we had here were things that lay at the crux of our problems.  I didn't want to put that kind of pressure on him.  But I needed to answer the question.  "I meant... that you're not happy, Duo.  You haven't been for years.  I really want that for you, you know?  Even if I have to give you up for that to happen.  I just want you to... be at peace with yourself.  And in an ideal world, I'd be there right next to you, and we'd be happy together.  But... this doesn't seem to be an ideal world.  Yet?  I don't know.  You pegged me as a dreamer, years ago, but... sometimes you have to let your dreams go.  Can't spend your life hanging on to... something that may never happen."

There.  I said it without saying it.  But it was clear he knew exactly where giving up on him fit into the equation.  His head hung low as he stared at his feet.  "I want to say you're wrong, Heero," he said, his voice barely above a whisper.  "That... you're crazy.  You don't have any idea what you're talking about.  I'm fine, happy as a clam, couldn't be better, disregarding these last coupla weeks... but... I don't know.  I can't say it.  So... I guess it'd be a lie.  Why is that?"

I bumped my shoulder against his, unable to really give him an answer.  I'd probably seen more glimpses of it than he had, with a more objective eye, but it wasn't something I could figure out without him to fill in the holes he didn't even know were there.  "Don't think I want to, Duo.  Don't think I want to... give up.  You know I hate doing that."

He made a little choking sound.  "I know.  That's why I know things have to have gotten really fucked up for you to even be talking about it."

My shoulder made contact with his again, and this time, it stayed there.  "Duo..."  I sighed.  "Maybe I should leave."

"What?"  His head snapped up.  "No, you can't..."

"You're... measuring yourself against me, Duo.  If you're looking at me, and using me as some sort of standard and deciding that... that you're not doing well, then... I don't want to be here.  Not if I'm just making things harder on you."

"You think I can't do that, even if you're not here?  You can't just leave.  Leaving wouldn't solve a thing!  Especially not when... when..."  His arm stole around mine and held on tightly.  "God, Heero... I know I've messed up a lot of shit in my life, but you?  You... are not one of them.  God, I hope not.  Not when you may well be the only one.  You can't just... just..."

I put my free hand on his arm and squeezed.  "Well, this is a mess, isn't it?"  I tried to force out a laugh, but couldn't.  Damned if I did, damned if I didn't.  "Looks like the only solution is to slog through this the hard way."

He managed a laugh, though it carried a faintly desperate edge to it.  "We're Gundam pilots, Heero.  We never choose the easy way."

"Ain't that the truth," I muttered.






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