Disclaimer: I own nothing (except my cat and a box of Timtams, which have mysteriously gone missing. Now that I think about it, I don't own the cat either...)
Three weeks. Three weeks since Heero had been quarantined. Three weeks since the plague had ripped through their forces. And three weeks since Duo had left this goddamn camp!
The original army camp had been split into three. The healthy, the sick and the quarantined. Quarantine was by far the largest, followed by the sick. The healthy camp was so miniscule it hardly counted, and consisted mainly of people rich enough to bribe their way out of the quarantine camp. In short, if they were attacked now, they were done for.
The Airmessens knew it too. Their menacing figures could be seen prowling the river bank, taunting, just close enough to set the back of Duo's neck prickling. And not just his. The air in the camp was horrific. A heavy expectancy hung in the air. An empty fatalism assured everyone that they were doomed, although not one of them dared to say it, as though voicing it would somehow make it true.
Suspicion and fear danced wildly through their minds. As much as a cough or a headache was enough to brand you a plague victim, although not nearly enough to get you into the sick tents.
On top of everything, the royal visit was pushing ahead. It had been delayed for a week or so, on a vague hope that the plague would miraculously disappear. When no such wonder was forth-coming, Treize had decided to continue with his original course. With Relena in tow, naturally.
Try as he might, Duo couldn't bring himself to care that in a very few days, his king would be exposed to the plague. His thoughts of late were very simple. Almost all of them circled around Heero.
Duo hadn't seen his knight-master since the day the plague had broken out. The sick continued to fall into their comas, and not a one had woken. He tried to take some comfort from that fact that none of them had died either, but he wasn't sure that eternal sleep was any better than death.
Trowa had been admitted to the sick tents yesterday, and Quatre was frantic. So far the blonde squire, along with Duo and Wufei, had remained free of the disease, but according to most, it was only a matter of time before they all fell prey to the silent killer.
Wufei was not reacting well to confinement. He stalked the perimeters daily, his head down and his movements short and angry. He had been oddly disturbed by the news of Treize's eminent arrival. Ordinarily, Duo's interest would have been piqued, but now it was nothing worth bothering over.
From where he sat on a log, Duo could see the figures of two young medics scurrying towards him over the swathe of land that served as a barrier between the two camps. Daily the medics would emerge, checking for signs of the plague and desperately seeking volunteers. As they approached, their hungry, tired eyes glued themselves to his form.
Hopefully they smiled at him, as the plain brown-haired man opened his mouth to deliver his little speech on sacrifice for his country and helping humanity. What the hell, thought Duo. They're just going to keep coming back, and I'm going to die anyway.
"I'm coming already." He said, cutting off the man, and stepping towards the no man's land between the two groups of tents. It had come to be an almost mythical thing in the camp. 'Crossing the gap' was the point of no return.
Duo could feel eyes on his back. It was rare for anyone to accept the medic's proposals. As he entered the first of the tents, his mind was forcefully pulled from them. Row upon row of silent, still bodies littered to huge covered area. Among them their carers walked, but they were far and few.
It hadn't dawned on Duo before exactly how many soldiers had already succumbed to the disease. It's like a village of the dead, he thought, then instantly regretted it. A hand landed on his shoulder.
"Ah, is de square, no? You can help Mika, de mute. Over dere!" barked the head surgeon. Duo nodded, and hurried towards the waiting youth. An exhausted smile greeted him. A hand guestured, communicating that Duo should work on the last row of beds. Duo approached them, worry creasing his features. Heero was in the centre bed, with Andreguo and Ariel's knight-master, Breadwane or something, flanking him.
Watching Mika, Duo realised exactly how helpless the doctors were. The treatment consisted mainly of cool cloths on the fevered and unconscious faces. Then again, when you considered the several thousand faces, it was still a pretty massive task.
He snatched up a cloth from the bucket sitting on the floor, and approached Heero. Fear washed through him as he saw how pale and still the knight was. For a moment, Duo honestly believed he was dead. Now that he looked closely though, he could see the miniscule rise and fall of his chest.
Gingerly wiping Heero's face, Duo felt a wave of emotion, for the first time in weeks. Heero couldn't die. He just couldn't. He was too needed, there was too much to do. People needed him. The king needed him. Everyone needed him.
Duo needed him.
Quatre strained to see some sign of life in the tents across the bare ground. Trowa was gone. He had caught the plague, and, somewhere in that godforsaken hole of a camp, was dreaming his life away.
He let out an audible sob at the thought. Quatre had always been emotional; he believed emotion was what made you human. He had been forced to watch as the life slowly sapped out of Duo, as Wufei drove himself relentlessly to pace. Throughout it, Trowa had been a voice of quiet reason and comfort. He hadn't realised how much he'd relied upon the brown-haired archer.
Quick, angry footsteps alerted him to Wufei's arrival. A bit of news that had earlier slipped his mind once again rose to the surface. "The royal party from Dastrane will be arriving today, instead of later." He said casually. The footsteps stopped.
Behind him, Wufei was scowling ferociously, glaring at the ground as though it were the source of all evil. His ponytail, usually so high and tight, was tied loosely at the base of his neck, and black strands were escaping to curl along his jaw line, accenting the feline slant of his dark eyes. He looked almost child-like. Vulnerable.
To Wufei's eternal gratitude, there was no one to witness his momentary weakness. Quatre's back was turned to him, the blonde's eyes fixed unwaveringly on the line of tents, so close and yet so far.
Behind them, another figure was watching. Ariel, alone in the thousands of quarantined, stood to the side and observed their fretting with disdain. Whatever happened to the rest, Ariel knew he wasn't going to die here. As if he would ever succumb to something as minor as a plague.
That annoyingly factual part of his mind was insistently informing him that he was an idiot, and that he was fooling himself. But Ariel was very good at ignoring that little voice (whom he'd recently dubbed Gregoric). Gregoric had promptly informed him that while hearing voices was a sign of madness, naming them was a symptom of absolute irretrievable insanity. Ungrateful git.
In fact, he could definitely see a bright side to this whole situation. After everyone but he was dead, the glory of the sole survivor would be his. And best of all, there would be no more Duo! (At this point Gregoric went into a snit and stopped talking to him altogether. Ariel was not unduly upset).
The white-blonde wasn't sure why he was watching Duo's… acquaintances? friends? … but now that he was, he was going to do it properly. Gregoric (who was now, apparently, done ignoring him) told him dryly that he made no sense and was mad besides.
Ariel's attention was diverted from his inner argument with Gregoric by the tent he was leaning on. It was talking to him. Or at least burbling at him.
Curious, Ariel opened the flap. So what if the owner caught him? They were all going to die soon anyway. Ariel just wished they'd hurry up with it.
The tent clearly belonged to a wealthy man. A small trestle bed lay along one side of the tent. The burbling was coming from a small basket. Approaching, Ariel carefully lifted the lid.
A pair of silver eyes looked up. Ariel let loose a cry and tumbled back. Gregoric screamed at him to get out, get help, do something, anything but what he was currently contemplating.
Ariel picked himself up carefully, and warily approached the basket. The Airmessens kitten burbled curiously at him. Delicate fins turned towards him, as the tiny creature focussed all its attention on the strange, pale being before it. Ariel returned the favour, slowly reaching out a hand towards it. A surprisingly warm nose was pushed into his palm.
The infant Airmessens was happy. Not only had the Cold One been gone for days, but now this Pale Child had come to visit it. Perhaps Pale Child had brought food. It couldn't smell any, but then, its sense of smell wasn't well developed yet.
Ariel carefully moved to stroke the top of the creature's head. The smooth scales felt pleasantly cool against his skin, and the Airmessens stretched happily. It was unbelievable that this docile animal was related to the vicious killers Ariel had met before.
Gently lifting the kitten out of the basket, Ariel placed it on the floor, even as Gregoric screamed furiously at him. It stumbled a little at first, on its strong legs, before standing steadily, and looking around with the bright eyed curiousity attributed to all young creatures.
Ariel's brain was working at the speed of light, or at least sound. Something fast, anyway, it didn't matter. What mattered were the possibilities that this animal presented. Forget being a sole-survivor, when he could be the first to tame an Airmessens. Imagine what they'd say. They sure as hell wouldn't compare him to Duo then.
Of course, there was the little matter of whoever had brought the kitten here. And then the even littler issue of where they had gotten it in the first place, but he was confident that would all sort itself out.
By this point Gregoric was frantic, pleading with him to leave the tent. Sometimes Ariel suspected Gregoric was a coward, and a little mad besides, although he would never tell him that. Putting the kitten back into it's basket, he picked the whole thing up, and just walked out.
Treize shielded his eyes against the bright sun, as it leapt out from behind as cloud, as thought trying to surprise him. But playing games with the sun was the last thing on Treize's mind.
He knew as well as anyone that the situation was desperate. A border camp of several hundred in Hastros had been destroyed. Annihilated, without a trace. Yet Treize had faith in humanity. Yes, humans were the cruellest creatures in the world, and perhaps the world would indeed be better off without them. That didn't mean they were going to give up. Humans are also the most resourceful creatures, and they weren't going to be beaten by some dumb animals.
But were the Airmessens simply dumb animals? Treize doubted it, as did everyone. But it was easier, for everyone, if they were just animals, instead of sentient beings with thoughts and dreams and feelings. Because that would humanise them. And then the hate wouldn't be as strong, as pure, as venomous.
Beside him, Relena sat side-saddle on her palomino mare, admiring the pretty pink ribbons in her white mane, and playing with matching ribbons in her own hair.
Her darling Heero was sick! Of course, he would need her with him. She would nurse him back to health, and when he was well enough to go down on one knee, he would propose and they would be married in a huge ceremony with flowers and…
One thing at a time, she reminded herself, delighted by her cleverness in remembering such a useful piece of advice.
A little behind them, yet another blonde rode, this time astride the bay gelding, and flanked by Zechs. Her name was Dorothy Catalonia, and as she glared out from under her… interesting eyebrows, men shuddered from the mere force of her eyes. She had told Treize repeatedly that she didn't want to come. Then she told him that she couldn't come. Then she'd flat out screamed at him that she was not coming. Dorothy was normally a dangerously composed individual, but the thought of weeks with Relena will do that to a person.
Zechs jerked on the reins of his own horse. He'd heard the rumours, although he'd neglected to tell Treize. The Dragon was in Yhman. Angry memories played in his head, as he thought of the boy. Because he was only a boy, and a childish one at that. Treize could do so much better than that little twit, and Zechs had been delighted when their relationship had fallen in tatters, sending Chang on his way, and leaving a very inconsolable Treize in his wake. Unfortunately Treize hadn't seemed to want much consoling from Zechs.
Still, with Chang in the camp, things were likely to be very interesting. Zechs wasn't going to allow Chang another chance with his liege. It was for Treize's own good.
If, Zechs reasoned, Treize didn't know that Chang was in the camp, then he couldn't go looking for him. There would be no way to stop Chang from knowing about Treize but that couldn't be helped. It wouldn't do Chang any good anyway.
With any luck, Chang would have caught this plague everyone kept talking about, and carked it already. But I'm never so lucky, Zechs thought sadly. I'll make my own luck.
Ariel sat, observing the little animal that was currently chasing a fluff ball around his tent. For the first time in quite a while, he tuned in to Gregoric's babble in the back of his head.
…told you it was trouble. You're a seriously jerky bastard, you know that? You just found a baby Airmessens in a tent, and all you do is pick it up and take it home! You know how many men those things have killed! Thousands upon thousands! It'll kill us too, see if it doesn't!
Us? remarked Ariel mentally. I wasn't aware there was an us.
A brief pause.
Of course there's an us, you idiot! We're the same bloody person!
Well then shouldn't it be me?
Yes… no… I don't know! Why are you asking me? I'm not the crazy one here! I'm not talking to voices in my head!
You are the voice in my head. I don't see how that's so much better.
Being better has nothing to do with what you are. I'm just plain better than you. If I were in charge of this body, I'd use it for good things.
Well you're not, so sucks to you.
Language! If you'd just stop being a self-centred little child for a moment, I'd be eternally grateful.
And Mr Loopy crawls out of hiding! You are mad, admit it.
I am not!
Someone's in denial.
Yeah, you are.
You are such a child. Could you please get over yourself and do something about the Airmessens chewing on our foot!!
Ariel blinked. The baby Airmessens had one of his leather shoe-strings in its sharp little teeth, and was having the time of its life.
Gingerly rescuing his shoe-string, Ariel offered the creature some dried jerky he'd stolen earlier. As it ate, he debated on a name.
A name? A name?! First you name me, than you name an Airmessens?
Relax Gregoric. You're getting hysterical. What do you think of Cime?
I'm getting hysterical?
There you go. Sorry it took so long for me to get this out. I'm just… easily distracted. J.