The edge in his voice as Duo gently slapped my face brought me back to awareness. I moved my head, trying to get out of range, and the action brought me sparkles behind my eyelids and the unpleasant recognition of a dull, throbbing ache on the side of my head. ::Zero? How are you doing in there?::
My thought triggered his dormant thread and brought him back online. ::Initializing...::
I stayed to watch for a few milliseconds to make sure everything seemed to be proceeding without error before cracking my eyes open.
Duo's worried face greeted me. "Heero? You okay?"
I queried my internal clock, but it wouldn't be realigned to the proper time until I looked at my watch or Zero was finished with his start-up procedures. I couldn't have been out for more than a few minutes, though. I was still in the lab. I could see the observation and control platform above me. And Duo looked worried, but not panicked or scared. I smiled for him. "You're never letting me on another field mission again, are you?"
"Shit, Yuy." He hugged me tightly, trying not to jostle my sore head. "What the hell? I thought for sure you'd gotten shot!"
"I'm fine. I have a very thick skull, remember?" He released me with a glare, obviously wanting to shake me, if only he weren't interested in keeping me out of pain. I sidetracked him in self-defense. "Did you get him?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah." He waved his hand toward the platform, and this time I noticed that Wufei had arrived on the scene. He appeared to be trussing up our unconscious suspect for transport. "Bastard. Oh, wait, hey, Chang! He's okay!"
My memory of the gunshot came trotting out belatedly, and I swept my eyes over Duo's body. "Did he get you?"
"Hm? Nah, I'm good. What the hell happened, Heero?" He scrutinized my face carefully, looking for signs of concussion, I'm sure.
I'd had concussions before. This wasn't one of them. "Where's Kapasi?"
Duo growled, but Wufei respected the question enough to answer. "Our friend the security guard has him."
"And that guy's boss just got here," Duo added, a glint in his eye.
::Start up complete. Beginning internal diagnostics.::
I put my hand on top of Duo's and squeezed. This was hardly the boss' fault. I started to get up, and Duo was there to assist, both reluctant and eager to see me back on my feet. I gave him a reassuring half-hug, hiding a wince behind his head as I noticed that I must absorbed some of the impact with my shoulder. I'd no doubt have a bruise there that Duo would no doubt notice, but that could come at a later time. "Sorry."
"Don't give me 'sorry', you asshole," he answered irritably, though he in no way attempted to escape my embrace. "Tell me what happened."
I shrugged it off. "Lost my balance for a second there, I guess."
"You don't just 'lose your balance' and go falling off ladders, Heero. I mean, yeah, sure, not the first time you've gone tumbling from a huge height, but that's usually because you friggin' jumped."
True enough. "Well, it's over now." Zero was still running through his systems check, but nothing seemed amiss so far.
"Are you crazy?" Duo insisted. He seemed as protective of me now as he had been when he had first volunteered to help me with my recovery five years ago. The timing may have been inappropriate, but it warmed me nonetheless. "If you--"
There was a loud groan, and we looked over to Wufei, who was coming down the stairs. The suspect he had slung over his shoulder was regaining consciousness. Wufei quickstepped down the last few stairs and set his burden down on the ground again. "We can discuss this further when we get back."
Duo gave me a glare, warning me not to expect I could get away with this, but he followed Wufei's firm suggestion without protest.
The trip back to HQ was a long, quiet one. They weren't going to let me drive, and Duo wasn't going to sit anywhere but right next to me, so Wufei sat with the prisoners in the back while Duo drove. Refusal to show weakness in front of the enemy kept our mouths shut.
It took a while for us to get our guys processed and squared away. We planned on letting them stew for a while before interrogating them. It would help us to put together the right set of questions, as well. We surmised that we had managed to arrive in the middle of a business meeting. A thorough inquiry of the security guards by their boss informed us that the unexpected guest probably entered through one of the small side entrances. They were locked from the outside, but Kapasi could have let him in. We had taken the man's wallet and identification and were running his name through the system. Something was sure to come up.
When we finally got back to the conference room we had annexed as the new base of our expanded operations, Trowa was waiting there for us. He'd left us yesterday to investigate rumors of growing unrest out in Barcelona. Also at the table sat an unexpected guest.
Duo greeted him. "Hey, Quatre, what're you doing out in our neck of the woods? Finally get sick of all that government action?"
Quatre smiled and nodded a greeting to us all. "I'm done testifying. Thought I'd take a little breather before heading back, unwind a little."
"This is what you do to unwind, Winner?"
"Sure. I heard there were some people that had been brought in for questioning."
Maybe Duo was right about Quatre. I chose not to examine that statement too closely and turned to Trowa instead. "Find out anything interesting in Spain?"
He turned easily to business. "There's definitely a cell down there. There were five small civil protests around the government buildings. Three arrests. Someone gave me some information that I followed to the organizer behind the protests, but I'm pretty sure that there's a more radical group behind her, and that they're barely keeping the lid on things."
"The reports out of Brisbane were the same," Wufei mused. "Civil protests with a radical wing bubbling underneath."
"There was someone outside the Senate house today, too," Quatre put in. "Saying he was going to file a class action suit against the Earth Sphere government over that medical database that was hacked last month. Claimed that the government wasn't doing their job of protecting the people when they centralized so much information like that."
"It's true," I responded. "Well, I'm sure that the government is trying to do their job, but honestly? Not that I want more red tape, but sometimes it should be a little harder for me to access the information in certain databases. Once you get in through one point, you can get to a lot of different systems. Nothing's quite as isolated as it should be. I profiled a sample of the security flaws for Une about eighteen months ago, but I don't know what came of that after she passed it along."
"Maybe it's time you did a follow up," Wufei suggested. "Considering how long it will probably take for anything to get done about it, it's a good idea not to let that slide."
Duo snorted. "There's another problem with this bloated government. Takes so freakin' long to do anything."
"Whose side are we on again?" Trowa murmured.
He smirked. "Just giving you material to use when you go sniffing around the baddies, that's all."
"There's a resolution in the Senate right now to be voted on this Monday," Quatre added to his earlier report.
I nodded. "Relena mentioned that. It was just a resolution though, wasn't it?"
"But a very important one that would signal a change in fundamental government philosophy if it was adopted. It may not mean much if the resolution is approved; saying that they support the preservation of national boundaries is easy. It's the follow-through that would be impressive. On the other hand, it means a lot if the Senate votes the resolution down. No matter how close the vote is, and no matter how much the senators insist that they support the spirit of the resolution but had problems with this technical detail or that, it wouldn't be taken well by its supporters."
And some of its supporters had a history of violence. "Relena said that there was going to be a lot of lobbying going on this weekend."
"Honestly, I don't think it'll pass." He shrugged somewhat apologetically. "There may be enough representatives that support it unofficially, but officially, I don't think there are enough people willing to stake their re-elections, their alliances, and their budgets on it."
"The budget hearings," Trowa pondered aloud, tapping a pen lightly against the surface of the table. "Would that be why there is so little about the issue in the media right now?"
"That's what Relena thought," I answered. "Everything's being overshadowed by the budget hearings right now. Bad timing. And once the hearings are over, the budget debate starts, and after the budget is approved, the Senate goes into recess. There's no opportunity to reschedule the vote on the resolution, not until next year, and no one wants to wait that long."
Duo scratched his chin thoughtfully. "So word is on the street that it's not going to pass, huh? And word is also that there are a lot of mumbles and whispers that imply people are going to be real angry when it doesn't, yeah?" He tilted his head in my direction. "People like your rebel cell?"
"They were ready to go. They had the supplies together, the stronghold, the manpower. They just hadn't chosen a target yet." Other groups allegedly had. The protests had been relatively tame so far, but there were reports of activists civilly sabotaging certain government programs, too.
"Why haven't we done more about this yet?"
"Nothing really illegal has happened yet," Wufei pointed out. "This is a democracy. People are allowed to speak their minds. And most of the troubles have been on a local scale. It's technically outside of our jurisdiction."
There was a knock on the door, and judging from the distorted image in the privacy glass window, it was Sally. Duo leapt promptly out of his chair to let her in. "Hey, Sally, thanks for coming."
Sally marched up to me with a no-nonsense look on her face and planted herself right next to me. Already I was regretting that I had turned in my chair to keep a watch on her entrance. "What's this I hear about you passing out on the job, Yuy?"
I blinked at her, then glared mildly around her at my oh so solicitous boyfriend. "When did you call her?"
"When you weren't listening, obviously," Duo answered, concern the only thing keeping him from smirking. "I knew this was the only way to get you checked out."
He was right. I had no interest in hiking down to the infirmary and dealing with their annoying questions, and I had an unfortunate respect for Sally that would keep me from rudely turning her away. "I'm fine," I attempted.
"What's this I hear about you passing out on the job, Yuy?" This time, it was Quatre that asked.
"I fell off a ladder. It's perfectly reasonable for a person to lose consciousness for a short period of time after falling off a ladder."
"But it's not reasonable for you to be falling off the ladder at all!" Duo growled.
I shrugged, hiding a wince from my bruised shoulder. "It happens."
"Not to you, it doesn't!"
Sometimes he thought I was really special, and sometimes he thought I wasn't special at all, and it was a little odd that the two times didn't seem to meet anywhere in between. "There was gunfire."
"You've done a bajillion and one things infinitely more complicated than climbing a ladder when there was gunfire whizzing around."
And yet he had told me on more than one occasion in the past to stop doing such damn crazy and stupid things. "It could have hit me."
"What kind of idiot throws himself off a ladder to avoid getting hit?" He stopped, took a deep breath, let it out, and then started again, level but obviously restrained. "Okay, fine, let's pretend for a second that you jumped off the ladder. You still fell hard, and you were still out for a minute, so you still need to be checked out. And that's still just as stupid."
I ignored that last part and presented myself to Sally. "I'm fine."
She looked vaguely amused by our little argument. "Let me be the judge of that, Heero."
"It wasn't the gunfire," Wufei said as Sally poked and prodded at me. "After I secured the doctor, I followed the two of you. I saw you on that ladder, and I saw Duo fighting with the other man. A second later, you shouted, and then two more seconds after that, the gun went off. You looked unsteady before that happened."
"How high of a ladder are we talking here?" Quatre asked curiously.
"Wasn't that high," Duo muttered in response, looking satisfied that he had gotten his way, but still grumpy that he had no explanation. "Five meters, tops. Well, Yuy? Not gonna say anything in your self-defense?"
It was a fact that I fell off the ladder, and there was little self-defense to be offered against that. "I just got a little... light-headed for a moment. It was just bad timing, that's all. Between concern for you and the gun and the speed of things, I just got disoriented a little and I landed wrong."
In another run-in with bad timing, Sally's hand just happened to be hovering over my bruised shoulder, and she squeezed me disapprovingly. "You told me you didn't get light-headed anymore."
"And that was true." I shrugged off her hand with a mild grimace.
"So this is the first time?"
"Since I told you that, yes. Can we get back to work now? I seem to recall civil disorder on a multinational scale going on here, bent on dismantling our current method of governance."
Duo waved his hand dismissively. "Bah. That will still be there tomorrow."
"So will I."
"You could die of an aneurysm tomorrow."
Sometimes, Duo's morbid sense of humor was a little inconvenient. "I could be hit by the proverbial beer truck tomorrow, and Sally running me through a physical won't save me. We don't know what weapon could be sold to which people tomorrow, however, and that we are in a position to do something about. I'm fine, okay?" I would know if there was something wrong inside my own body. I had spent time with Zero studying human biology so he would know what to look out for.
Sally patted me on the shoulder, the unbruised one this time. "Why don't the rest of you boys continue working, and let me just borrow Heero for an hour or so? He and I should have a little chat, catch up on old times, that sort of thing."
As if I was going to fall for that. "You won't find anything, Sally."
She caught my eye and held my gaze for several seconds. "You know exactly what caused your little 'moment of light-headedness', don't you?"
I refused to confirm or deny. "Whatever it was, I'm sure it was a one-time thing. It's not going to happen again."
Admittedly, that was as good as a confession. Duo glared sternly at me. "'What' was a one-time thing, Yuy?"
I sighed minutely, just wanting this to be over with so we could get back to business. "It was the EM pulse that got me, okay? Low chance of reoccurrence. Can we move on?"
::You shouldn't have said that.::
::I'm not going to lie to them.::
::You revealed a point of weakness to them.::
::I see you in there, working on making it less of a weakness even as we speak.::
"The... EM pulse?" Duo echoed. "The one from the reactor? What does that have to do with anything? Why would that affect you?"
::Don't do it.::
I didn't trail off because of Zero's admonitions. I trailed off because of another realization entirely, and suddenly my resources were being devoted to going, 'oh crap,' instead of answering him. The others stared expectantly at me, and for a moment, no words came. One singular idea did, though, and I jumped on it. "Can we have a short recess?"
Duo responded first. "What the hell, Yuy? You gonna leave us hanging here or what?"
"I... need to talk to you."
He looked nervous for a heartbeat before covering it up with a bit of bravado. "What, now? Alone?"
"You got something to say to me you can't say in front of the others?"
I swept my gaze over all of them before settling back on Duo. "...I'll tell them afterwards. You should just be the first to know."
"By what, like, a whole five minutes? Whoopee, Yuy. Just spit it out."
::Don't do it.::
::Oh, hush, you.:: Why was I only now coming to understand how much trouble I was going to be in? It just proved that, no matter how much of a processing boost Zero was, it didn't help at all when it came to human interaction. "I really think you'd like to hear this first, Duo."
He looked irritably around the room before shrugging. "Fine. This isn't going to earn you any brownie points, though."
I shooed everyone out of the room before sitting down next to Duo and trying to figure out where to start. Duo started it for me, with a little bit of fear in his voice now that the others were gone. "So, Yuy. You're not, like, sick or something, are you? Ugh, god, déjà vu."
Yes, he'd asked me that question before. "Same answer, too, Duo. No, I'm not sick or anything."
"Then what the hell, Yuy?" he demanded, turning his anxiety into anger. "You don't just fall off ladders."
This was going to take some talking. "You know how I have the habit of doing something and forgetting to mention it to you until way after the fact? Did I ever promise to stop doing that?" In my defense, though, I'd only really done it twice. Since the war had ended, anyway.
He regarded me warily before deciding to play along. "Well, you promised not to go disappearing again without mentioning it first..."
"Ah, good." Not the same at all. "I think I've done it again."
I could tell there were any number of things he was choking on at the moment, but he waited them out calmly before continuing. "Oh? Forgotten to mention something, have you?"
"Yes. And just like the other times, I swear I didn't do it on purpose." I struggled to find the words to be both accurate and sincere. "It's just... you know, sometimes something comes up, and it's your own cross to bear, right? It's something that is yours and yours alone to deal with, and that's the only reason why it never really comes up. It's not secrecy, it's just... personal."
His expression shifted from cautious to at least somewhat amused and resigned. "What did you do this time, Yuy?"
"I would have said something if it had ever really mattered before," I continued, warming to my subject. Now that I had found my way, I wanted to be very clear on this point before moving on to the main event.
A corner of his mouth tilted upward. "You don't think it matters?"
"Well, *I* don't think it matters... but I'm starting to think that someone other than me would probably think it matters." Which was probably a part of the reason why I had never mentioned it before. It was something I knew would generate a lot of unwarranted fuss.
Duo should have been used to me seeing the world from a very different perspective than everyone else. "But you're assuring me it doesn't matter?"
With my field record when it came to these sorts of things, I wasn't going to be assuring anyone of anything. "I'm hoping that you will eventually decide that it doesn't matter. I'm willing to accept a certain amount of thinking that it does, though. Just for a while. But after a while, I think it should be clear that it doesn't really change anything."
"And you're assuring me that your health is not in danger?"
"My health is in no danger at all." If anything, I was even more healthy than I had been before. Zero had spruced up the place a little.
He chewed on that for a few seconds before moving on. "So how long have you not told me?"
"Oh... since we got together, I guess. I mean it when I say I've never considered it a big thing. It's just a curious fact of my existence, that's all. I deal with it, and no one else has to."
"That's 'all it is', and yet you have to talk to me alone about it?"
"I wouldn't be begging so shamelessly for your forgiveness if the others were here."
Finally, he had to laugh. I was pleased to note the lack of a hysterical edge. "Aw, man, Yuy. Why do you have to be so weird?"
"Because I'd be someone else if I weren't. Forgive me?"
He laughed again. "You haven't even told me what I'm supposed to be forgiving you for."
"I'm getting to that. I just wanted to make sure you heard my explanation first, before we get carried away with things."
His humor faded away with a sigh. "You still think we'll get carried away with things, though."
"I'm just taking some safety precautions."
He licked his lips, steeled himself visibly, then nodded. "Okay. Hit me."
"You'll keep everything I said in mind, right?" He nodded again. "Alright, then. Five years ago--"
"Uh-oh," he interrupted. "I don't like any story that begins with 'five years ago'." Undoubtedly, he remembered what happened five years ago.
That didn't deter me. "The 'EM therapy'..." I gestured the quotation marks into being with my fingers.
"Uh-oh. I don't like any story that begins with 'five years ago' and medical procedures surrounded by quotation marks."
I put my hand on top of his nervous one on the table. "It didn't quite work as they thought it would."
His eyes widened. "You mean they messed up?"
That implied some sort of terrible disfigurement or something, an image I was working hard to avoid. "They didn't do what they set out to do. They thought that an EM pulse or two would destroy the circuitry in the nanos, and that they would degrade over time. They didn't."
"Holy shit," he whispered. "Those things are still in you? Why didn't you say something?"
Squeezing his hand, I smiled. "Like I said. I didn't think it mattered to anyone other than me. The therapy did accomplish its most important goal -- I woke up. I came back. I didn't consider anything outside of that to be very significant. By the time I was fully functional again and able to think of more than that, I had already been living with them for a while, and clearly there did not seem to be any side effects worth mentioning, so... I didn't."
"So the EM put out by the reactor... fried the circuitry again..." I watched him follow the logic, and finally realize that the circuitry had to have been active in order to be affected by the electromagnetic field. "...and shit, Yuy. How fully functional are they?"
"Fully functional," I admitted softly. "They didn't start out that way. That was another reason why I didn't mention it in the beginning. I didn't know for sure how they had been affected by the pulses. But... they are what they are. Self-evolving nanomachines. They're fully functional now."
He stared at my forehead as if he could see the circuitry inside my brain. "Do they... 'do' anything? Or do they just float around doing..." His face went blank with shock as he followed the reasoning on to the next logical point. "Shit. Zero. What happened to Zero, Heero?"
The urgency in his question discouraged me a little, but we had come this far. Time to finish it. "Zero was reset, but not wiped. He started over from a clean slate and--"
He slid back in his chair in what I hoped was surprise, his hand slipping out from under mine. "Zero's still--- Wait, he?! Holy fuck, Heero, you've got the fuckin' Zero system in your head?!"
"He's not the same Zero he used to be! All of the bad data that went into making the system unstable was lost when Olin's computers were destroyed. Do you see? Zero's completely rebuilt his database, with only me as the user from start to finish."
His chair scraped the floor harshly as he stood. "I don't care what the hell it's done! It's still the fuckin' Zero system, Heero! And it's running in your head! And it's been there for... shit, for five fucking years! And you didn't think it mattered?!"
I resisted the urge to stand as well and tried to keep things non-confrontational. Tried. "It doesn't! I'm in complete control of the system, Duo. It sits inside my head and it's been there all this time and you've never had a problem with it before."
"That's because you never told me before! You know, that's what everyone says. Everyone always *thinks* they're in control of the system, up until they snap and kill everyone in sight!"
"Have I killed anyone lately? I don't think so." Maybe that was snapped out a little more snarkily than I intended, but what was done was done.
Duo ran his hands through his bangs agitatedly as he paced. "Shit, Heero, this... this is crazy. You're crazy. This... I... augh, I gotta...!" That was my only warning before he strode swiftly to the door and yanked it open.
"Duo!" I called after him, hastily getting out of my chair to follow him, but he had already passed the startled group of our friends in the central area outside the conference room and was well on his way out into the hall. I stared helplessly at his back, wanting to run after him but knowing that he really needed a little space right now. In an act of desperation, I turned pleading eyes on Wufei, and he took off after his close friend. It probably had nothing to do with me asking and more to do with the fact that by asking, I was signaling that he wouldn't be getting in the way if he wanted to do something.
last modified : 5/5/2007 02:55:49 PST