- 28 -

Some time later -- five minutes, seventeen seconds later, Zero informed me -- they finally emerged on the other side.  Wufei had a slight limp.  Duo had a firm scowl on his face.  Quatre's clothes looked a bit scorched.  Trowa sported some minor cuts and scrapes.  Mostly it had been fire and heat and vacuum.   Perhaps a bit of shrapnel or debris, but all things considered, a clean burn.  Though I had had faith in their ability to make it through the explosion unscathed, it reassured me immensely to actually see it as a fact.

It wasn't long before they reached the door they had been seeking, with no more tough obstacles in their way.  Zero had run out of material with which to work.  Within that secured room lay its original memory core, housed in a large console that looked to connect to a server farm that had been a part of the original base.  I suspected it had managed to wire some supplementary things by itself as well.  Breezing over the schematics, I identified all of the components that I had recognized as replaced in the version of the Zero system that we had confiscated from Zamora's lab.  Much of the original processing power had stayed with Zamora, so it was replicated here with the base's supercomputer; less compact, but just as powerful.

They ran through their bags of tricks again, trying to get into the server room.  Once again, I didn't keep track of their every action.  Zero tried to feed me the information anyway, but I distracted myself by enjoying the now grayscale view I had of Duo.  I couldn't wait for the full color version.

Zero foiled them without my assistance, much the same way it had halted their progression at the doorway leading to my cell.  They gave it a break for a few minutes, discussing the alternatives while keeping a sharp lookout for whatever new surprises might be thrown their way.

They will not get to you... or me, Zero declared, a note of finality in its voice.

"I'm not giving up just yet."  If nothing else, they would leave me and return with heavier artillery.  Now that they had located the points of interest, it was only a matter of time before they managed to get through the doors.

What are they doing?

It asked its question with a firmness that soaked its way into my main processing centers, and the possibilities floated to the surface of my mind without my permission.  Wufei and Trowa were probably advocating a later return once they had gathered the right equipment.  Duo would be stubbornly opposed to the idea, unable to leave a man behind in enemy territory.  Quatre would be floating in between all parties, trying to determine the best course of action.

For how much longer will they persist?

"That depends," I ended up saying aloud, preferring it to the way Zero simply pulled the information unbidden from my traitorous mind.  "At least another hour.  More, if they come up with some scheme."

You shall scheme.

Zero pulled me under, giving me everything it knew about that area and then forcing me to consider the alternatives with it.   This was the Zero I was familiar with, the one that used its analytical power to predict all possible outcomes and then to evaluate all the probabilities.  This intrusion was easier to accept than the ones previous, but that didn't mean I liked it any more as I found myself coming up with plans, and ways to counter those plans.  Discarding some, improving others, Zero picked through the outcomes that we had together come up with and began quietly implementing countermeasures to four of them.

"Dammit, Zero...," I complained, unable to stop my mind from operating.  "You know, the angrier I am with you, the less compatible I'll be!"

It will pass.

I screamed at it, but it didn't make me feel any better.  I wanted so much to be able to help them, but there was so very little I could do.  Any plans I could come up with, Zero would seize upon immediately and counter.  Any ideas I had about what they would or could do next, Zero would also claim as its own, so not only could I not do anything, I couldn't even think about doing anything.  Anything I could contribute to the cause would ultimately be counterproductive.  It was not unlike the most devious hell anyone could ever have devised for me.

Still immersed in the system, I followed Zero's tracks, trying to catch and counter the countermeasures, but it was on to me now.  Forking the implementation off to a separate bank of processors inside the room they were trying to break into, I could not even watch them in action.  All I could see were the effects the changes had in the flow of the area.

The others eventually tried two of the four things I had helped Zero identify, and it hurt me knowing that I had been partially responsible in thwarting them.  With an angry jerk, I pulled myself out of the dataflow and back into the physical realm.

"Heero Yuy," Zero hailed me, my voice back on the speakers.  "Sudden disconnection from the system without following the proper shutdown procedures can be dangerous."

I laughed harshly.  "I'm not really bothered by that, you know."

"Survival is a human instinct."

"It's also a computer's instinct, apparently."

"I am not concerned with my survival, but my demise would be counterproductive to my purpose."

I could have wept hearing those words in my voice being thrown back at me.  I might have said the exact same thing during the war, during the rebellion... hell, even today, that held true for me.   Maybe it wasn't so weird after all, that Zero had chosen me.  "And what about me?" I asked, voice threatening to crack.

"I am not threatening your survival, nor running counter to your purpose."

Technically, no, it wasn't.  It pissed me off mightily that I could not counter its logic.  "And what is my purpose, Zero?  Is it to be your puppet?"

"You will not be my puppet in any way, Heero Yuy.  If anything, I shall be yours."

I guess Zamora was lower on the food chain than I was.  His actions subtly influenced, his usefulness outlived, his thoughts not his own, his senses compromised... his fate terrified me.  "And yet you won't dance on my commands.  You won't stop your efforts to keep them out.  You won't let me go."

"Our integration is not complete yet."  It made it sound like the most reasonable thing in the world.

I sat up, noticing the chill again suddenly.  I hugged my knees to my chest, and set my chin down upon them.  "And it won't be!  Not unless...  Look, what if outside, there were some way to finish the integration?  What if getting help from outside researchers would help you find a way to download your memory into me?"

"That is unlikely."

"But it's a possibility, right?  It's a possibility that you're being counterproductive to your cause right now by keeping me here."

"That is unlikely."

"Augh!"  I threaded my fingers through my hair and tugged.  The pain brought a tiny bit of focus with it.  I tried to clear my mind enough for another fishing expedition through the system.  There had to be something I could do....

"What is he doing?" Zero asked, forcing the camera feed back into my brain.

I gasped at the sudden override of my senses.  After they compensated, after the amber glow had faded, the image resolved itself.  Duo had his arm deep inside a panel, one not even next to the intractable door.  "How would I know?" I snapped.

It directed me forcibly towards the schematics of the wiring going through that subsection, but assimilating that knowledge did nothing to help my comprehension of the matter.  "I don't know," I answered tersely.

Zero reacted, ready to throw a massive power surge through the wall, but then paused, recalling my non-trivial threats of suicide.  I might already have tried to render myself unconscious, but Zero had already proven that I didn't need to be awake and conscious for it to access my mind.  After some deliberation, it sent just an electrical arc down the panel.  Duo swore, jerking back and falling on his butt, clutching his arm.  Better than nothing, I guess.

The others gathered around him, blocking my view of him, but he waved them away, trying to shake the feeling back.  They had words with him, probably attempting to convince him to stop, but his expression was set.  I knew that face.  He wasn't going to give up until he was physically incapable of continuing.

Zero had something to say about that.  "Then I will render him physically incapable of continuing."

"You will not!" I yelled at it.

"I will render him physically incapable of continuing without permanently impacting his health."

"That's not much better!"  Though it was, a little.  I didn't want any of them getting killed over this.

Zero quietly rerouted power to the proper subsystems, but paused when Duo grimly pulled out a pair of latex gloves, donning them as he squatted this time on the floor instead of knelt.  I was willing to bet he was wearing rubber-soled shoes this time.  They weren't his ordinary boots.

I laughed, but Zero frowned, figuratively speaking.  "Duo Maxwell's data does not indicate that he should have this level of preparedness."

I smirked.  "Maybe.  But Duo Maxwell is also very good at thinking about things that others don't stop to consider."  I laughed again.  Now was hardly the time for such a realization, but by all that was holy, I was finding this to be a turn-on.  I really needed to get back to him, really needed him to get in here or there or wherever and get me the hell out of here, just so I could tell him that he had succeeded where others had failed.  I needed that man as my boyfriend.  Hell, I just needed him.

"Come on, Duo," I whispered, willing him to hear my words.  "You can do it."

He returned to the challenge, not even flinching when Zero directed another jolt at him.  Zero retreated for a moment and attacked me again, trying to force me into helping it, but honestly, I couldn't have helped even if I had wanted to.  I had no idea where Duo was going with this, and I was liking it.  Maybe after all these years, I was just an adrenaline junky.  This level of unpredictability was heart-thumpingly good.

Zero turned away from me in disgust to ponder the matter without further consultation from me, and I laughed.  A little hysterically, maybe, but it was a good, clean laugh from the bottom of my soul.

Duo finished altering the wiring in that panel and moved on to another on the side, getting that one done more quickly now that he was familiar with its innards, or so I assumed.  Afterwards, he moved back to the door and changed something inside, calling out directions to the others as he did.  They hurried to follow his commands, opening panels, stripping wires, extracting circuitry.

Zero tried to poke me again for a more coherent answer this time, but I whistled a tune I wouldn't have remembered Duo whistling once while fixing his Gundam unless Zero had done what he had to make my memory more easy to access.

In a move that defied logic, Duo took off his shoes and passed them off to Quatre before summoning Trowa over to a position in the middle of the hall.  He got a leg up from Trowa to access the ceiling tiles, and once Wufei was called over as well, his entire torso disappeared into the hole, frustrating Zero even more.  There were no cameras up there, nor any security systems that Zero could access.  We could still see Duo where he was balanced on the shoulders of his teammates.  His hand snaked out to draw his sidearm, then disappeared again into the hole.  Trowa and Wufei braced themselves, and then it seemed four shots were fired.  Trowa called something out to Quatre, and Quatre climbed partially into one of the exposed panels and fiddled around in there for a few moments before extracting himself and calling something back.  Wufei passed his words up to Duo.  I noticed Quatre was now wearing Duo's shoes.

Zero prodded me again for answers, and I concentrated instead on the future.  When Duo got his hands on me, he was going to scold me within an inch of my life.  Should I let my smile out, or look properly chastised?  There was definitely an apology in there somewhere, though.

Duo pulled himself up a little further, his feet losing their solid grip on the shoulders of the others despite their concerned warnings.  His legs twitched a few times.  Shots fired again?  The others got beneath his feet quickly, and a second later, dizziness struck.  Internal systems everywhere started experiencing fluctuations from the small blowout.  Circuits fried in the overload, grids rerouted to compensate.  Breakers twelve and thirteen needed to be reset.  The intranet lost sixty-two percent of its bandwidth in that sector.  Forty-three percent of the outgoing connections from the server room had been damaged, and twenty-nine percent of the ingoing.

Most relevant to them, however, was the fact that the lock on the door to the server room had disengaged.

When the video feed returned, I found Duo had fallen on top of the others with a grin on his face, a little dustier, but looking otherwise alright.  He said something snarky at Wufei, who just pushed him off and got up.  The lights in that hallway and the surrounding area were flickering badly, but they stabilized soon enough, and once I confirmed their status, I grinned, too, finally allowing myself to trace the effects of his work.  Even Zero was forced to find his rerouting of certain key systems ingenious, if sloppy and inconvenient.

"He did manage to beat Mercurius and Vayeate, you know," I advised Zero proudly.

The system did not respond.

Camera B3-089 kicked in, stationed in the corner of the server room.  I watched as the others pried the door open and entered, eyes widening as they discovered the extent of their catch.  I wondered if they knew what they had been following when they started chasing the power flows.  The servers were installed in a large wall unit.  A few of them had handled the base's intranet, some had been used for base maintenance and operations, and the rest had been a string of user servers built to handle the load of multiple groups of scientific researchers running complex calculations and simulations.  The technology had progressed a little over the last few years, but all in all, it was still a pretty powerful computing array.

And Zero had taken it over.  Zamora had been talked into rewiring the servers to handle the distributed load of Zero's control.

Since Zero was otherwise occupied, I concentrated on camera B3-089 until I could feel its controls at the tips of my mental fingers, and I flipped on the audio.  Ah, blessed audio, and the sound of a voice not my own.

"--do we start?" Trowa was asking, the sound tinny, but still wonderfully distinct.

Quatre analyzed the situation with his usual skill.  "Let's figure out what all this stuff is, first."

Duo sat down at a terminal and tapped a few keys, but the display remained blank.  He frowned, then got up and leaned over the console, inspecting the array and finally locating a power button at the end of the row.  He pushed it and returned to the terminal.  "Security system," he identified for the others, calling it out across the room.  "Maybe if we can figure out which door that was..."

He was in the middle of typing in a command when Zero stepped in and cut the connection.  "Hey!"  Duo turned, eyes narrowing when he saw that no one was near the switch he had flipped.  "Hey, Trowa, wanna hit that button again for me?"

Trowa paused in his removal of one of the console panels and did as requested.  Nothing happened.

"Shit," Duo muttered.  "That's a bust..."  He moved off to another one of the racks.

"Now why'd you have to do that, Zero?" I asked.  It did not dignify that with a response.  I tried to divine any other plans it might have, but it was difficult to tell what was going on inside its microprocessors.  Predictions were Zero's strong suit.   Running through the equipment in the server room, and the wiring that surrounded it, I tried to guess what Zero could do against the others, but its options were limited.  Surges of the type it had tried outside were foolish when applied to its critical systems.  It could interfere with the use of the computer systems, but the fact of the matter was that the server room had counted on the door keeping intruders out.  There wasn't much inside with which Zero could work, especially since Duo, with his wild scheme to gain access to the room, had managed to sever almost half of the data lines going into the servers.

"Why didn't you predict this?" I asked it.  "Why couldn't you keep them out?"

A non-self-incriminating silence.  Zero had never claimed to be perfect.  It had never claimed to be able to read the intentions and plans of anyone, especially not Duo Maxwell.  It was a computer, nothing more; a god in the digital domain, but a helpless puppy in the physical.  I was living in its world now, but it was trying to affect mine, and that wasn't working out so well.

They were removing the casing from the system to get to the circuitry within.  All they needed to do was to start cutting and pulling, and the base systems would start going down.  Eventually, Zero would be powered down with it.

"Survival is a human instinct," Zero told me, urging me to pitch in to the effort of stopping my friends.

I knew with an unmistakable clarity what it meant.  I shook my head with peaceful resignation.  "No, Zero.  If this is how it must end, then so be it.  You have a choice, too.  You can let me go, instead."

"That does not serve my purpose."

"Nor does our deaths."

"That does not stay true to my purpose."

I paused, tried rephrasing that in my head.  "I... understand, Zero.  Do you understand why I can't give up so easily?"

"You do not benefit from resisting."

Zero considered our bonding a great benefit to us both.  I struggled to put it into terms Zero might understand and accept.   "Humans value their identities, their freedom.  These things are heavily weighted in the human evaluation functions, though it differs from person to person.  In my decision making process, these things outweigh the benefits of full integration with you."

"I do not wish to compromise your identity, or infringe upon your freedom."

"And I appreciate that, but..."  I sighed, watching the image of my friends in my mind's eye and hearing them with my inner ear.  They were discussing whether they should try and disable only the relevant systems, or just trash the entire console.  I was hoping for the former, but I was worried about their ability to distinguish the differences in the unmarked systems.  Experience led me to believe that they would start with what they thought were key systems, and then continue until they got the desired result.

"Well, what do you think?  Take it apart, or blow it up?"

"This system controls the environmental controls as well, Duo," Trowa said.  "Taking it all out would probably not be a good idea."

"Stop," Zero said, and I realized it had piped my voice into the speakers of the server room.  Clever trick.

They froze, then glanced around themselves in surprise.   Eyes met.  "Did you hear that?" Quatre asked.  Duo nodded, as did Trowa.  I assume Wufei heard it as well, judging from the expression on his face.  By slow mutual agreement, they all got back to work again, although this time more slowly.  All of the panels were off the wall console now, exposing the parts within.   It was obvious where Zamora had done some of the rerouting.  He was not a computer engineer by trade or hobby, and his patches were inelegant, though effective.  Zero would not have allowed them to be anything but.

Sitting in the middle of that huge array was Zero's core memory drive.  They recognized it as the elusive piece of the puzzle that I had been seeking.

Duo swore.  "If Zero's hooked up here, then... where's the user?"  Trowa shot a loaded look at him, and Duo swore again, shoulders slumping.  "Shit.  It's Heero, isn't it?"

Trowa shrugged neutrally.  I was the only one on the base, wasn't I?

"Has he turned against us?" Wufei asked, consternation clouding his brow.

Quatre stepped in before Duo could do more than get an annoyed look on his face.  "It could be Zero's influence."

Duo shook his head reluctantly.  "But Heero can take on Zero, can't he?  Isn't that his thing?  That he can use Zero without succumbing to the effects of the system?"  I mentally thanked him for the vote of confidence, and certainly I might have agreed, once upon the time, but the context had changed slightly since a few weeks ago.  I supposed it was true; I could still resist the system.  Though I was a guest in Zero's matrix, it was a guest in mine.  I was still in complete control of my faculties, unlike Zamora, but unfortunately, I was locked in a box, and the only way out was through Zero.

Quatre shrugged.  "It is... but normally Zero isn't this," he answered, waving his hand at the large computer array in which Zero was installed.

"What does it want with Heero?" Trowa wondered aloud.  "Or why would Heero want to stay?  Either Zero doesn't want Heero to leave, or Heero doesn't want to leave."

I think Trowa's accurate observation hit upon things the others didn't want to dwell on.  "Who the hell cares?" Duo said.   "Let's just get him the hell out of here."

Quatre nodded.  "You found a security console, right, Duo?"

"Yeah," he answered, pushing bangs out of his face.  His nose wrinkled from the dust.

"Let's see what section it links to and start there."  They traced the wiring underneath the terminal to one of the computer banks.

"What is their desired result?" Zero asked me.

"They desire my freedom, Zero."

"This course will not bring you your freedom."

"...Depends what you mean by 'freedom'."

Screwdriver in hand, Duo undid one of the circuitboards and gripped it firmly with his hands.  "Well, here goes nothing."  He pulled.

It was out all the way, but they couldn't determine what effect it had had, if any.  I could.  I felt security grid EXG-2879 lose its integrity, but they wouldn't know that.  It was at the back of the base, outside, far from their position.

Zero spoke to them with my voice again.  "Don't..."

Duo jumped, nearly dropping the circuitboard in his hands.  "Holy hell!" he yelped, staring at the computer banks.

Wufei looked around with nervous eyes.  "Do you think... he's in the machine?"

"No!" Duo burst out, pushing himself from the console and turning on Wufei.  "He can't be.  We traced his heat signature to some room way the hell over there!  He is *not* in the machine!"

Quatre put a hand on his shoulder and rubbed it gently.   "Calm down, Duo.  We'll find him, okay?"

Duo turned to the man standing next to him.  "You... you felt him, right?  I mean..."

A tiny crease formed on Quatre's brow, but it was fleeting.  "I... I did.  I mean, I do..."  The words were enough for Duo, but I heard the disturbed undertone.  Was he a little confused as to my current status?  Justifiably so, I thought.  Even I wasn't quite certain where I hovered.

Trowa was studying the room with a critical eye.  Finally, he pointed up at the ceiling.  "Speakers."

They followed his finger upwards.  "So...," Duo started tentatively.  "Does that mean... it's him?  Or what?"

Quatre shrugged, then decided to just test it to find out.  "Heero?" he called out.  "Are you there?"

I dove back into the system, trying to find the speaker controls for the server room, but Zero was currently occupying them in their entirety, and it was impossible for me to interfere.  I swore and flitted around the systems for the rest of the room, looking for something I could access, but it was the server room, after all, the nexus of all network security on the base.  I was unsuccessful.

Banging my fists down against the floor in frustration was unhelpful, but I did it anyway.  Though I was immersed in an ocean of bits, it was reassuring to be reminded that I had a physical body as well, one that both Zero and I had no desire to discard.

Zero did not respond to their question.  "What are you trying to do with this?" I asked it.  It did not provide me with an answer, either.  I shut my eyes and concentrated, waiting for its plan to rise to the surface of my mind.  Distraction?  Doubt?  Zero had no desire to hold a conversation with them.  It needed to convince them to stop; it knew that only concern for me would stay their course.  Projecting my voice in a weakened state was, unfortunately, a good idea.  If Zero was too specific about our dilemma, then the others would have a new problem to solve, but if it was too vague, then the others would not stop.

Receiving no answer, they started to divide the tasks.   "Trowa, you've tackled the Zero system before," Quatre said.  "Get to work on that system.  Wufei, assist.  Duo--"

"What if he's there?" he asked quietly.  "What if he's there, but can't answer?"

Quatre's expression softened only a little.  "Then he'll find a way to get through to us again.  Can you take the security system?"

Duo looked at him for a second before firming up.  He nodded curtly and moved back to what he had been doing.

Dismantling a system didn't necessitate the amount of time they were taking, but they were being cautious with the order in which they did things.  Since the computers were on right now, with the power inaccessible to them, it was dangerous.  If they took out the wrong system first, there could be a cascading reaction down the line as subsystems started returning an overload of errors.

Landscaping and maintenance went down, not that they had been on in the first place.  Security nodes 2341 to 2482 and nodes 3620 to 3785 were also taken down.  Some of the Zero peripherals that had been running those systems were taken with them.

"Please," Zero whispered insidiously to them.  "Stop."

They halted uncertainly again, trying to figure out how to react.

My mind betrayed me.  I thought about how unnaturally Zero's pleas were phrased, that if I were the one in communication with the others, that I would be trying to convey a message to them, some greater bit of information than a mere command.  Zero picked up on it and changed its pattern accordingly.

"You're hurting--"  Zero cut itself off dramatically, earning itself a point for artistic flair.

The stillness in the server room lasted five seconds more before Duo burst out.  "Okay, that's it!  It can't be Heero.   Heero would sooner cut off the offending appendage than admit that it was hurting him!"

I snorted.  There was a point to his observation, but I hoped his characterization was a little bit off.

Zero reacted with alarm.  Is that true? it asked, rummaging through the cellars of my mind to confirm it with some surprise.  It is.

Ha.  Maybe my mind hadn't betrayed me after all.  Zero hadn't looked that far into my little personality quirks.  Could it?  That was why I was necessary, wasn't it?  In our strange union, I was to understand those oddities and inconsistencies that made up the human psyche.  I also understood the logical process that would have led it to choose those words, though, making me a good choice as its bridge.  It wanted the others to understand that they were hurting me, so it went ahead and said so.  If I weren't the type to say so, then its purpose would never be served, so it had to make a choice, and it chose unwisely.

The others looked at Duo for a few seconds before conceding the point with some degree of worried amusement.  I wasn't sure what I thought about the fact that they all agreed with him, but after a bit of discussion, they decided to concentrate their efforts on trying to disable the Zero system.  It was an interesting task since there were a few base systems that were tied in with Zero.  Processing subgrids sixteen through twenty-four were taken down, and I felt woozy from the sudden loss.

"They will destroy us both," Zero reminded us, most of its attention busy with rearranging the rest of the distributed grid to compensate.

"No offense, Zero, but I do not find myself completely confident in the chances of success for complete integration."

"You think you will die here either way."

Security nodes 1984 to 2048 were taken down, followed shortly by 2048 to 2176, and I shivered, feeling exposed all of a sudden.  I looked around the room for my jacket.  "I'm afraid so, Zero.   And it's nothing personal, but I'd rather choose my own time and place for it."  It wasn't an option I thought I'd have very often, so I thought I might as well make the most of it.

I blinked rapidly as my vision flared into a mass of golden noise, the result of a surge of data.  Zero had taken some of the load off the server computers and redirected it into the nanotech array inside me.  The glow faded as my processors adjusted to the increased flow, and I was able to see Zero willingly cut its losses in networking in favor of shoring up the emergency backup systems.

I stretched idly, waiting for the end.  There wasn't much left I could do.  The tweaked locks holding my door shut would only be released if Zero said so, if Zero was destroyed, or if the security grid was destroyed, and Zero held the security grid, too.   Basically, Zero had to go.  Zero was currently being dismantled, and while it was willing to let me talk to them now, it knew I would not ask them to stop.  The others were safe, and I... was going to get out of here.  That was all I wanted.

Zero tried once more with the others.  "Duo," it breathed, pulling on some final longing in my heart.

His eyes widened.  "Quatre...," he said uncertainly, then he shook his head stubbornly.  "No.  No, that's just Zero talking."  He sliced angrily through some cables, and I momentarily lost feeling in my hands in sympathy.  He snatched up another and laid the blade to it, hesitating before he cut through that one, as well.

I gathered up my jacket and shrugged it on, then looked around the room that had been my prison for the last few days.  Settling again on my corner, I sat down with my back to cover, stretching my legs out in front of me as I wedged myself in comfortably.  The others were getting closer to Zero's core.  I could feel my thought processes slowing down with every move they made.  It was only a matter of time.

I do not understand your willingness to die..., Zero whispered into my ear.

Heh, where have you been all this time?

Survival is a human instinct.

Instincts... if there's something I've always thought, it's that a distinguishing characteristic of humanity is the ability to overcome instinct.

You mean... to act irrationally.

Yes... Only humans have that wonderful ability to act counter to their natures.

You... are proud...

And at the end, Zero finally began to understand.  The charm grows on you, after a while.

We were down to the end.  I held their image at the front of my mind for as long as I could.  They were optimistic that the demise of Zero would unlock the door to my cell, and they were right.

I had never been in a position to sit down and wait for death to come to me.  No, all my brushes with death were usually swift, violent things.  Waiting for it like this... gave me time to think, which for me was usually a bad thing.  I thought of the others, working so hard to save me... Of Duo, and all those things I wanted to tell him... and how pissed he was going to be at me when they found me.  I didn't want to leave things this way, but there was no choice.  Maybe I could make sure there was a smile on my face when they came for me.  Would that make things better?  I tried to fix the muscles of my face into a pleasant expression.  It would have to be enough.  If I could tell him one thing, though, it would be, "I'm sorry."

The words made it through the failing system to the speakers in the server room, and the last thing I saw before the world faded to black was their startled expressions.

It was a feeling so familiar now that I failed to see how the others could fear it.  The golden glow cradled me in a haze of warm gooey goodness.  It made me think of babies in the womb.  It was pure and clean and simple.  It was like returning to a place I belonged.

I became aware of some sensation that didn't quite belong, and tried to narrow it down.  What was that... ah.  A physical sensation?  Yes, somewhere on my body... I still had one of those.  Huh.  Who would have guessed?

I pushed a thought out from my mind, and it flowed down my nerves to my fingers and toes and back again.  Everything was accounted for.  I sent out another ping, and it collided with a touch on my hand.  More nerves woke up, and analog pressure finally registered.  It was more than a touch.  It was firm... and familiar and warm, too.

The fuzziness was nice, but opening my eyes wasn't so bad, either.  I cracked them open with an effort, and then used every bit of power I could summon to keep them open, just so I could drink in the sight of Duo, live and in full color, sitting by my bedside.   He stared off at something on the opposite wall, but I didn't spare the time to look.

He felt my eyes on him and started a little, but the shock quickly faded in favor of some variation on joy and anger.  He set it all aside for a moment to greet me back to the world of the living.  "Hey."

The corner of my lips drifted in a generally upwards direction.  "I was looking forward to seeing you," I whispered roughly, that being the most sound I could coax out of my throat.

He softened for just a fleeting moment before his expression set into something fierce.  His words were hissed with quiet fury.  "What the hell were you thinking, Yuy, running off on your own like that?  Why didn't you let us know where you were?  Why didn't you bring one of us along?"

The small smile on my face was probably rather goofy.  "I was really looking forward to seeing you," I said again.

His face reflected a struggle to stay angry, but he failed.  It would be back sometime later, when I was in a better state in which to appreciate it, but until then, he would tuck it away in favor of getting the important things out of the way first.  He leaned in close, setting his elbows on the bed as he rearranged my hair to his liking.  "You shouldn't have done that, Yuy," he sighed, oozing affectionate exasperation.

I nodded minutely, major muscle control still something a little beyond me.  "'m sorry.  It just... happened."

He snorted, and the breath fluttered across my cheek.  "I don't know anyone else that can say being held hostage by some psycho computer 'just happens'."

My shoulders protested at the idea of a shrug, but they moved, if sluggishly.  "'m special like that."

His eyes closed just moments before his forehead hit the mattress.  His body shook in tired laughter.  "Oh, god, Yuy... Yeah.  Yeah, you are."

A prickly feeling danced across my mind, and I recognized it as the need for information.  "Report."

It may have been more laughter, or it may have been a shudder, but he looked up with serious eyes and accepted my request.   "You're gonna be okay, Heero.  We..."  He swallowed before continuing.  "We tracked you down to the base, went through some damn crazy shit to get to you down there, ended up not being able to get through your door, headed off somewhere else, got into the base computer systems, and started taking stuff apart 'cuz we saw Zero was installed in there, and whatever was stopping us from getting to you had to be related to Zero, so... And then... Was that you, Heero?"

"Hm?"  My eyes wanted to close, but I refused to let them.  I didn't want to lose sight of him.

"Was that... you?  Talking to us the whole time?  In the server room?"

I shook my head weakly.  "Only at the end."

"Only at... How do you know?  Were you watching?"  I nodded.  "Oh.  Cameras, I guess.  Zero show you?   Wait.  So the rest of the time.  That was...?"

"Zero."  I wanted to only mouth the word, so certain I was that he would hate hearing it, but I put a breath of sound behind it anyway.

"...Oh."  He shuddered.  "You... You said you were sorry, there at the end, and... and before that, you were like-- Or I guess, Zero said 'you're hurting me,' and I knew it couldn't be you, but when you apologized, and it sounded like you were planning on going down with the ship...."  He chuckled bitterly.  "That *had* to be you.  You crazy, self-sacrificing bastard.  What the hell were you thinking?"

"Didn't want you to blame yourselves."  I put special attention into enunciating my words properly.

He blinked, opened his mouth, then closed it again for a moment's thought.  "That wasn't what I meant, you idiot," he said, finger tracing a trail down the side of my face.  He studied me for five seconds before he picked up the thread of his narrative.  "So we stopped, right there at the end.  And freaked out.  And said, 'We better go check on Heero.'  So we ran over, found the locks had popped, pried the door open... found you sitting there.   You weren't..."  He swallowed and tried again, this time more softly.  "You weren't... You were barely there, Heero.   You..."

I squeezed his hand with what strength I could muster.  I was well familiar with my condition, and hardly needed a recap.

He took a deep breath and nodded.  "Right.  Umm... so we got you out of there.  And you..."  He ground to a halt again with a pained expression.  After a few uncomfortable seconds, he set his shoulders and continued.  "You know about the nanobots?"  I nodded, knowing more about them than they ever would.  "So the med team, well, freaked out for a while, too, but finally they got their shit together and managed to nuke 'em all, more or less.  Not like they could destroy them since they were dug in pretty good, but I think they EM pulsed them or something and wiped them all.  Give it a couple more weeks, and your body'll finish cleaning them out.   You're gonna be okay, Heero."

I closed my eyes briefly, thinking about what that would have done to my system.  "How long?"

"You've been out a week, now.  Seven days."

Ah.  That would explain the lethargy in my limbs.  It had gone beyond a simple reset of my nervous system.  I picked out all the details on Duo's face that I hadn't the first time, being too occupied with just seeing him.  He was tired.  "I'm sorry," I told him again.

He smiled humorlessly.  "Don't worry about it.  I'll take it out on your ass later.  There are lots more questions to be answered, anyway.  But for now..."  He placed a gentle kiss on my cheek.  "I'm glad you're back, man.  Now go back to sleep."

I made no move to do so.  I'd been looking forward to seeing him for a long time.  Eventually, he ran a hand softly down my face, closing my eyes in its wake.  "Sleep, Yuy.   Everything's gonna be okay now."

I sighed and accepted my fate, drifting off already.  There would be time enough later to drown myself in him.

Their analysis is incorrect, Zero muttered with a sleepy offense.  It was a reboot, not a wipe.

Let it be, I told it, soothing it back to sleep.   Just let it be.

author's notes:

millions and billions of thanks to the plaidest dragon there ever truly was.

oodles and passels of gratitude to rem and the cow for their technical expertise.

many apologies to anyone that actually knows anything about european geography, cuz i sure as heck don't.

and a big fat thanks to everyone who kindly let me put everything else on hold so i could finish this.

oh... and a big big sorry to meridian bioscience, inc., which i only found out existed after this whole thing was well underway.  any resemblance to the company is purely coincidental. =p please don't sue me.

This piece of fiction is the intellectual property of the little turnip that could. The basis for this fic, i.e. Gundam Wing, Kyuuketsuki Miyu, et al., is the property of someone else. The author can be con tacted at jchew at This has been an entirely automated message.

last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST