When they learned that the almost abandoned base where Zechs had repaired Heero's Gundam was going to pass on from OZ to Romafeller's new military faction ("cleverly" named Romafeller's Army, or RA), and that they realized Wing's construction blueprints were probably still stocked there, the choice of pilots pretty much made itself. Trowa knew the base and Duo, Heero and Wufei were still poking and prodding at their Gundams. But now that he was there, Quatre was seriously wondering what the hell he was doing in Antarctica.
First problem : he was alone with Trowa.
Maybe wasn't it really a problem any longer, now that they had sorted out the whole misunderstanding, but it was still annoying. Quatre had to give his mission priority over his love life and that was what he did, so he didn't fear that he would let Trowa distract him at the wrong moment; he was more professional than that.
But when they weren't planning, and he finally could think about whatever he wanted, the only subject that came to mind was 'how can I make Trowa change his mind about dating me?' And for the moment, he didn't have a clue. Getting a chance with Trowa was a huge surprise and an even bigger responsibility; he almost missed the time when he'd been persuaded that he would never get anywhere with him and was content enough with dreaming in secret. At least it was easier. But he wasn't too cowardly to grab his chance when it ran by him...
... just not that inspired.
Second problem: Trowa had told him. Heero had told him. He knew it himself, intellectually. But knowing, intellectually, that Antarctica is COLD, and feeling it in the marrow of his bones... now that was different.
The cheetah shivered and started searching his bag for another pullover to put on over the three he was already wearing. Sadly, the only one left was too small to get over the rest; he should have put it on first and there was no way he was going to take off the ones he was wearing even one second. He threw the spare pullover around his shoulders like a shawl and crossed his arms tight, shivering.
If it was that bad inside an airtight and sort-of-heated space, he didn't want to know how it would be outside with the wind. He just hoped that the mission would need the Gundams. They had heaters. Though, seeing as they'd need to be discreet...
Well, that would depend from the preliminary information; Trowa was probably looking over the radar readings to determine how close the Gundams could come. Still shivering, the Arab left the bedroom and joined him.
"What's up?" he asked, smiling politely.
Trowa didn't smile back. His eyes weren't thoughtful as always, but serious, maybe even sort of worried.
"The Rommies arrived early."
* * * * * *
Duo had spent the last five days testing nonstop the way Deathscythe's new flamethrowers behaved, and it seemed to work okay, though still not perfectly yet.
He finished typing the last recalibrating results and sent Howard the file with a sigh of relief. Finally, the so boring task was finished! He glanced at his laptop's clock. Only five PM. It was earlier than he'd thought it was. He smiled. Not that he didn't love spending hours tinkering and adjusting his new toy, but still, some time to himself! What to do...?
'It's been a while since I spent some time with Heero,' he thought with an amused smile. For once that he was the one to abandon his friend in order to type up a report... He jumped up, stretched, and went to search for his teammate.
Heero was in the backyard of the farm, fighting with Wufei. Duo was alarmed for a moment, until he realized that they were training. When Wufei managed to touch Heero, Heero mimicked his movement to learn it and Wufei showed him how to block it, or the other way around. To make it harder, they didn't always do it in that order. Sometimes Wufei threw another attack when Heero was still repeating the first one and Heero had to invent a way to block or dodge.
Duo observed them for a long while. He wasn't really familiar with these stylized ways of fighting, he was better acquainted with street-fighting and 'everything goes', but to watch, it was magnificent, almost like a dance. Heero and Wufei both had a rhythm, a balance, a grace that made what they were doing as beautiful as it was lethal.
During all the time he watched them, they didn't talk to each other at all. Apparently it was far from their first session. He didn't even know if they'd noticed his presence; they didn't give that impression, and yet their hyper-developed senses should have warned them... But they seemed so totally concentrated on each other than finally, he wouldn't have been surprised to learn that they'd forgotten the rest of the world.
After a half-hour, they still didn't show signs of slowing down. He realized that Wufei had seen him, but since he wasn't surprised, Duo concluded that the tiger had felt him at some point.
The Chinese teen jumped back and left his combat stance, nodding at Duo. Heero turned around, wiping the sweat on his brow with his forearm.
"Did you want something?" he asked.
As if he needed to want something to come see them, thought Duo.
"No," he replied simply.
Heero blinked, then turned back toward Wufei as if he was going to start up the training again without caring about their visitor. Wufei saw Duo's eyes narrow and thought that Heero may have changed a lot, but was still hopelessly obtuse sometimes.
"Do you want to practice, Maxwell?" he asked.
Duo grinned and stepped forward.
Heero frowned at Wufei, as if he was berating him for inviting Duo, and Duo suddenly felt unwelcome.
"Am I bothering you?" he asked with a smile that was a little less sincere than the first.
Heero blinked as he realized the way his actions could be interpreted.
"That's not it, but... Duo, you aren't a were."
"Because I'm not a were, I can't spar with you? You're a good fighter, and Wufei too, but I can defend myself. Neither of you is bleeding, meaning no contamination risk. After all that time at the computer, some training can't hurt."
"You don't get it," Heero tried to explain. "We're more resilient and stronger, we could hit you too hard and not even notice..."
"Yuy, lemme get this straight," Duo interrupted him, voice suddenly gone cold. "You are not telling me that I'm too weak and frail to fight you?"
"No, but..." sighed the boy.
But Duo could read on his face, clear as day, that it was exactly what he was thinking.
Wufei grimaced and stepped aside cautiously.
Suddenly, Duo had enough. He stalked forward until he was practically nose to nose with Heero, and calmly kicked his ankle out from under him, making him stumble forward. A solid grip on his t-shirt, a punch in the stomach, a hard shove -- before he could think about reacting, Duo had thrown him down.
"I spent my whole life finding ways to beat up stronger, heavier people," he spat before turning around and stomping back inside the house.
Heero stayed sprawled on the ground watching him leave, stunned.
"Congratulations, Yuy," Wufei commented cynically, giving him a hand up. "Remind me to shoot you if you ever think about becoming a diplomat."
"What did I say?" he asked, honestly baffled.
* * * * * *
Usually, Noin saw herself as a calm, reasonable and professional young woman.
When Zechs wasn't parading in front of soldiers from a rival faction, trying to pretend that he was feeling perfectly fine.
Well, she had to admit that it was only because she knew him well that she was able to notice his unusual pallor and the fatigue in his movements. He hid it from the other officers so well... Which didn't mean that, had there been any other solution than to send him supervise the change of ownership of that base personally, she wouldn't have locked him up in his bedroom to make him get some rest.
Though... Finally, no, locking him up wasn't a good idea, she reminded herself, remembering that night three weeks ago... the night of the latest full moon.
"Is the perimeter secure?"
Noin nodded wordlessly, refusing to comment on Une's tone, even snippier than usual, and her suspicious look. She cordially hated the Colonel, but it was hard not to empathize with how stressed Une was. She didn't let herself feel outrage at the implication that she did half-assed work.
In the opposite corner of the cozy little room, Otto was fiddling with a surveillance system, adjusting it to his specifications. Noin was glad that he'd convinced Une to let him come with them. He was a good soldier, very competent, a good mechanic and just as devoted to Zechs than she was, maybe even more. He was just as worried as her about Zechs' unstable state.
Zechs and Treize had gotten sick (or had been poisoned, no one could really tell) almost a month before, some time after the missed capture of the Gundam pilots. None of the doctors who had looked at them had been able to find anything, and out of fear of revealing a weakness to their enemies, Une had decided to bring Kushrenada to a secret retreat. Noin had been forced to deploy the last ounce of persuasion she owned to convince her to take Zechs too.
The only thing that the doctors could see was physically wrong was the crazy hormones levels, but apart from the mood shifts, it didn't explain the first thing; not the way their hearing suddenly sharpened beyond bearability, not the way they made themselves sick smelling things no one else noticed, not the speed at which they tired themselves out, not the strange, borderline psychotic reactions and reflexes that the two men exhibited, and even less why the injections to restore a normal hormonal level never worked.
They didn't even know for sure where it had come from. Before it became a real problem, Une had chalked up Treize's exacerbated irritation to pilot 05's escape, and had tried not to take it personally. The only thing they knew for sure was that apparently Treize had been contaminated earlier, and had contaminated Zechs with the transfusion.
The doctor and the nurse that Zechs had bitten in his first fit of mad fury had died, one three days and one eight days after the contamination. No one could tell why either; it certainly wasn't from the wounds themselves.
Noin was half-convinced that it was Chang Wufei's fault. He was just ruthless enough to infiltrate their base for the sole purpose of contaminating General Kushrenada with a new virus or biochemical agent. He hadn't hesitated for even a second when he destroyed her cadets' dormitories and killed them all on their sleep, rather than bothering to destroy the Mobile Suits they were to pilot.
The young woman leaned against the wooden wall, arms crossed, and gazed at the small room thoughtfully. The mountain cottage wasn't that wide, barely holding their small group. The only bedroom only had two beds, occupied by Kushrenada and Merquise. Une, Otto and Noin had to take turns on the couch.
"How are they?" she finally asked softly.
Une shrugged brusquely and got up to look at the map of the mountain on the
wall. Noin didn't know what she was looking for, really; if she'd chosen that
area in the first place, it was because their surroundings were literally empty
of anything worth putting on a map. There was the one dirt road, but that was
"Their state is stable," she snapped without turning around to face her, shoulders tense.
Noin could hear what she wasn't saying.
"They still haven't woken up?" she asked for confirmation, trying not to let her worry get out of control.
"That's what I just said, isn't it?" Une shot back aggressively.
Otto glanced at Noin, giving her a sympathetic look, and Noin calmed down. She couldn't snap back, however satisfying it may be. For one thing, she was her superior officer, and for another, it wouldn't help. Zechs and General Kushrenada would still be -- no, not dying. They were going to get better soon. She knew they would. They'd had worse things happen to them and they hadn't died even then...
For once she regretted not smoking. She could have used a cigarette.
She straightened up and walked toward the bedroom door in silence, struck by the need to check for herself. Her hand was on the handle when Une noticed what she was doing.
"They're resting! Leave them alone."
Right that moment, Noin heard something moving behind the door.
"One of them's awake," she replied, glad for the excuse.
She opened the door cautiously. Quickly, Otto reached out to turn the lights off, knowing that there was a good chance the two men would be hypersensitive to it.
He didn't turn it off quickly enough for her to miss the strange double reflection over one of the beds, like two fireflies in the dark.
Treize's eyes were open and he was watching her.
"General...?" she called softly, not sure that he was in a mood to let anyone get close.
"Where are we?"
She relaxed. He sounded normal.
Une shouldered her out of the way on her way in. Treize straightened up carefully, and Une hurried to his side to help him. But he lifted a hand quickly, palm toward them, signaling clearly that they were not to come any closer, and she froze.
She sounded surprised, a little hurt, and Noin understood her; she would have been hurt too if Zechs forbade her to get close. But she understood Treize too. For a fraction of second, while Une was rushing toward him, she had seen his muscles tense briefly and his expression harden, as if he was hovering on the edge of yet another of his strange fits of dementia. He was sane enough to notice to which point he was unstable.
"Water, if you please, my Lady?" he asked with a tired version of his trademark charming smile.
Une hesitated, then, apparently reassured by his calm expression, left the room to bring him a glass of water. Noin stayed by the door, looking at Zechs who was sleeping fitfully, legs tangled in the sheets and long blond hair stuck to his sweaty skin. Following her line of sight, Treize watched his subordinate, face blank, then turned toward the brunette.
"Where are we, Lieutenant ?"
"Alps, towards Geneva, a cottage in the forest, General. Your state was worsening and Colonel Une judged prudent putting you out of harm's way while waiting for your recovery."
"What is the date?" he asked, methodically continuing his questioning.
She gave him the date, reassured to see that his tactician mind was already working on the problem.
"... Five days since my last real memory," he remarked in a low tone. "Who else knows where we are?"
"Apart from Colonel Une and myself, only Lieutenant Otto does, General."
His expression turned vague, as if his attention was attracted elsewhere, and she was scared that he was going to start divagating again.
"... The man in the other room... that's him, then," he whispered, as if talking to himself.
Noin nodded, then wondered how, if she hadn't told him that Otto had come with them, and he'd been discreet, how could he know where the Lieutenant was?
"How is Zechs ?" he questioned before she could ask him.
She bit her lip. "... it's been ten days since the last time he was lucid, General. He alternates between being in severe pain, having mood swings and ... what we can only call insanity. On that subject..." she hesitated.
"... It happens to me too," Kushrenada finished her sentence thoughtfully.
Behind Noin, there was a smothered whimper, and she turned around just in time to see Une let go of the glass, which rolled on the floor, splashing her boots. Une's eyes were wide open and the short-haired woman had never seen her with that open and vulnerable expression.
"I will fetch you another one," she apologized quickly and disappeared again.
Noin wondered when she had bothered to let down her hair. Treize sighed sadly.
"Do you remember these episodes, General ?"
"Not quite," he replied with a humorless smile. "The memories are there, but they're too confusing for me to make sense of them. And I won't try to untangle them now," he added calmly, "I would risk another fit."
He went silent once again, his eyes vague, and Lieutenant Noin decided to let him think. She trusted his mental abilities. That and she didn't even know what to ask.
* * *
Une came back, glass of water in hand, but stopped by the door, unsure. He signaled for her to approach, and she obeyed with tiny steps, her face both anxious and adoring. Embarrassed, Noin looked away and leaned against the wall outside the door, out of sight. The reunion seemed too personal for her to assist to it, but she couldn't go any farther away. If Treize had a fit now, Une would need help immediately.
She heard Treize drink, a rustling of sheets as if he was slowly straightening
up, and then, after a moment of silence, his low and harmonious voice.
"There is something inside me that fights to get out... and if I don't stay calm and in control of myself at all times, it will eat me alive. I need you to stay strong for me, Lady. When you are anguished, I suffer too."
Otto and Noin exchanged an uncomfortable look, then went back to their attempt
to pass for wallpaper.
"... I understand," the Colonel whispered in her weirdly soft and shy voice. "I will control myself, sir."
Really embarrassed, Noin stepped away silently, staying out of sight, and went to join Otto to see what he was doing.
Two minutes later, Une's voice rang out, authoritative and cold anew.
"Lieutenant Noin, Lieutenant Otto. General Kushrenada is asking for you."
He was sweaty, pale and his hands shook imperceptibly, and even though they had gotten used to seeing his hair in disarray when he was unconscious, the two Lieutenants couldn't help but exchange a surprised glance at the sight of his messy, sweat-drenched locks.
" General, you seem tired..."
"I'll rest later," he cut them, frowning.
Rather than provoking his unstable temper, they nodded.
"What's the situation ?"
They explained one after the other how they had abducted Zechs and himself, then why the rise of influence of rival Generals, inside OZ and in other groups, had made it necessary. Without Treize to force them to either follow him or unite against him, they were starting to escape his influence. Romafeller, who had been their creator and ally for so long, stayed their most feared adversary, but from the Colonies as from numerous areas of Earth, soldiers, mercenaries, political men coming from lots of different social classes united with likeminded people to make their own demands heard.
Exhausted, Treize closed his eyes.
"... At least they aren't uniting against us."
He could already see the challenge it would be to convince most of these parties and factions to once again unite under OZ, and to destroy the ones who wouldn't accept to side with OZ for the common good, too obsessed by their own narrow interests to worry about the interests of the human race itself.
If they didn't follow him, he would destroy them. He was already resigned to grieving for the unavoidable stubborn ones, but that wasn't going to stop him.
They kept talking in low voices for several minutes. At first, Noin checked regularly that they weren't bothering Zechs; he needed rest. But since he wasn't moving, she stopped worrying.
Thus the snarl behind her took her by surprise.
Otto whirled around, standing between the two beds to protect Treize. Noin imitated him, more slowly. Zechs had backed up against the wall and was shaking, hands clenching and unclenching in the sheets. As with each fit, the expression on his face didn't look anything like civilized anymore. His upper lip was curled up in an aggressive grimace and his eyes narrowed. It was hard to accept that he could see, though. His eyes seemed... empty. No trace of his intelligence, of his discreet humor, of his education in these frozen irises.
No trace of him.
He was starting to get agitated, kicking to free himself from the sheets. At first they were slow, sleepy, but Noin and Otto had experienced that kind of fit before and generally they ended up with blind, frenetic violence. The first time, they'd tried to tie him to the bed to keep him under control, but it only made the crisis longer and even worse , and whether Zechs ended up breaking his bonds or not, he always managed to hurt himself with the shackles. The best they could do, they'd discovered, was still to leave him alone so that he could calm down on his own. But with Treize in the room too...
"Lieutenant Otto, move aside."
Surprised, the two Lieutenants glanced back. The General was sitting up against the headboard, staring at Merquise with a surprising -- and maybe not quite normal -- intensity.
There was a small hoarse note his voice, and Otto moved aside without answering, worried.
Treize didn't say anything for a few long minutes, just observing. Noin didn't know who to pay attention to, him or Zechs.
"Do my fits look like that?" he finally asked.
He seemed so perfectly unconcerned, it was almost as if he was talking about the weather.
"Yes... but they're generally shorter and less frequent. We weren't able to determine the reason for this difference." It was almost as if Zechs's was trying to catch up to Treize's schedule, but that was such a ridiculous notion, she'd never shared it with anyone.
His voice, though cautiously low, provoked Zechs into tensing up anew and growling threateningly. His blue eyes roamed the room without stopping on anything, and he frowned, as if he was trying to see through mist.
His eyes and Treize's met for a second, and she felt like, for the first time, Zechs had seen someone. It didn't last, sadly; two seconds later the blond was snarling anew and tearing up the sheets.
"The window... Open it."
"General, it's cold outside..."
She saw his eyes narrow, his expression hesitating between annoyed and ferocious.
She went and opened the French window.
Outside, the sun was setting, and the sky was already darkening. She opened the blinds just a crack, to make sure that the weak light wouldn't bother Zechs. He was already agitated enough.
The effect was contrary to what she'd feared. Zechs calmed down quickly, muscles relaxing. He lifted his head, eyes still half-open, still veiled, nostrils palpitating.
Treize watched him silently, thoughtful. He signaled Noin to step away from the French window, and she stepped back slowly between the two beds.
The low growls leaving Zechs's throat spaced out then disappeared.
"Don't cover him," the General advised when he saw Noin hesitating, a blanket in hand. "Bunch it around him, but not over him."
She cautiously stepped forward, but even if Zechs' clear blue eyes turned toward her -- without really recognizing her, as always -- he only tensed a little, letting her pile the blanket around him like a nest, without protesting.
It was strange to see such a tall man, with such large shoulders, curl up like a child, almost like a cat. Disturbing, not really for the position itself, but for how naturally it came to him. At least he was calm. Maybe the only thing he needed was not to feel imprisoned. He wasn't claustrophobic usually, but...
Finally, it was clear that the crisis was past, and when Treize closed his eyes and seemed to want to sleep, Otto left the room noiselessly. Noin lingered in the doorway, then decided to leave it half-open, just in case.
Une was sitting on the couch, twisting her braid into a bun and untwisting it, and didn't seem to want to acknowledge their presence, which suited Noin just fine. The young woman sat at the table, found a mission report to read, and finally, let the calm of dusk convince her to relax.
The sun disappeared completely, the sky filled with darker colors, sumptuous pinks and purples, a soft, cool breeze ran through the house, and she managed to immerse herself entirely in her work.
And then the moon rose, and the soothing quietness turned into a nightmare.
* * * * * *
She shook her head and observed Zechs silently as he exchanged meaningless pleasantries with the other officers. Apart from his chronic fatigue, which was slowly getting better, he seemed perfectly healed. His appearance was the same as before; no hairy patches of skin left, no bone or muscle deformation -- quite the contrary, on the scanner his left forearm showed almost no trace of that break dating from the military academy, and the stress signs his heart had kept after the heart attack the Tallgeese had inflicted on him had disappeared. He was in better shape than before. But she couldn't accept that it was finished, that everything had gone back to normal.
Everything wasn't normal, she knew that; they all knew that. Zechs and Treize's senses were still seriously hyperactive, and their personalities had imperceptibly changed.
She would probably always remember the fear she'd felt when he'd dashed off through the window, stumbling, crawling in his fight to reach the edge of the forest, that he'd started the metamorphose, mass of changing flesh, just far enough from the house to hide the most horrible details and just close enough to let her guess so much more than she'd wanted to -- when Kushrenada had changed too, in full light this time, right there on the back steps -- when Otto and Une and her had to face the nightmarish scene, the impossible way their bodies broke, melted to better reshape themselves into something alien. She still remembered the acid taste in her mouth as she fought not to throw up, Une's horrified sobbing...
Otto had dragged them both back to safety, had locked the door, and then they'd
heard the howl of a beast somewhere in the mountain, and, realizing what it
was, he had crumpled in a corner and spent a food fifteen minutes having a breakdown.
Noin had managed to keep from losing it long enough to lock up every single
Never in her life had she imagined that the monsters of legends could exist. There was no place for fairytales in her view of the world. And yet, the proof was there.
The following day, the nude man sleeping under the balcony was still the Zechs she knew... Dirty, hair tangled, but miraculously sane -- saner than he'd been in weeks.
Almost. Because that way of curling his upper lip when someone was leaning
over him or said something he didn't like was a habit he'd never had before.