All disclaimers can be found in the author's notes back in the first chapter.
-- Justification --
"What tests are you planning to run today, Doctor?"
Britain sat on the neatly made cot, idly swinging his legs off the side and looking expectantly at the scientist. He was smiling; a detail that should not have seemed as out of place as it nonetheless felt.
Sitting in his computer chair, facing his patient, Doctor Gilmore fought the urge to sigh. His shoulders threatened to slump already, which wasn't a good sign considering he had yet to put into words what he wished to say. This would be difficult enough without his body language putting the shapeshifter further on guard.
"…007, I'd like to start by seeing… could you take off your shirt, please?"
…He was sorely tempted to smack himself in the face after that; it wasn't precisely the smoothest of opening lines…
Britain tilted his head to one side, looking slightly taken aback; however, thankfully, he then shrugged off whatever curiosity he felt, along with a good portion of his half-buttoned shirt.
While he removed his top, Gilmore studied the newly bared flesh, searching for… well, he wasn't entirely certain what he was trying to find. …Evidence, perhaps: something that would lend credence to he was increasingly convinced was necessary. Something that would make it easier… that he could point to as way of explanation, when his own stumbling attempts failed.
The shapeshifter still looked a bit pale. Gilmore occasionally wondered if that was more his imagination playing tricks on him than anything else -- a small part of him insisting that there must still be some physical mark of his ordeal, an obvious reminder… something that couldn't be concealed despite all of Britain's efforts.
Real or imagined, however, the pallor of his skin wasn't helping as much as it should in locating what he needed -- if not wanted -- to see.
"Okay…" With a careless flick of his wrist Britain tossed his shirt to one side, letting it settle over the edge of the cot. Folding his arms, he eyed the scientist expectantly, prompting, "What now?"
That… was a rather good question, actually. Swallowing quietly, Gilmore reached out and gently took hold of the shapeshifter's elbow, guiding it back.
"If I could just see…"
The question was innocent, the tone falsely so, the first clear hint of suspicion sparking in Britain's eyes. However, he offered no resistance just yet, uncrossing his arms and letting the good doctor proceed as he wished.
Gilmore traced his fingers down along his patient's forearm, gingerly, bracing the limb with just enough slack that Britain could easily yank it away if he wished. He made no move to, simply watching his caretaker work in silence.
He stopped when he reached Britain's wrist. Frowning, he carefully turned it around so that he could inspect the other side, still taking the utmost care, like he expected to trigger a cry of pain at any given moment.
There was nothing visibly wrong with his arm… that didn't assuage the good doctor's concerns any. Rather, he frowned thoughtfully, rubbing the pale, unmarked skin until Britain let out a soft, deliberate cough.
"…Doctor…?" he questioned, softly, expression guarded as his tone.
"…Your wrist… hasn't been bothering you lately, has it?"
He glanced up in time to catch a flicker of something off in Britain's eyes, too fast to decipher. The Englishman flexed his arm slightly, not pulling away just yet -- simply letting the scientist feel the way it moved. …A warning, or an attempt to add backing to his next statement.
"…No… it's been fine." Dark eyes locked with his, Britain then asked, "Why?"
The flatness in his tone indicated he already knew, or at least suspected. Gilmore felt it best to answer anyway.
"004 visited my office last night. He said you'd been arguing, and he was afraid he might have hurt your arm…"
…That wasn't nearly all that the gunman had said, but it was more than enough for Britain. Gilmore watched his mouth thin into a hard line, not quite a frown, but a sign that he didn't want to have this conversation.
He pursued it anyway.
"Are you certain you haven't been having any trouble with it lately? From what 004 described, I…"
"It's been fine. No problems at all."
"Even after you had your fi…"
"It's fine," insisted Britain, a hint of anger coming into his clipped tone that was immediately squashed.
He very deliberately did not pull his arm free, waiting for the scientist to release it on his own. Gilmore obliged, folding his hands in front of him; Britain did the same, regarding him in quiet defiance.
"Well, I'm sure 004 will be glad to hear it, then," offered the doctor after a moment's pause. "He seemed rather upset by the possibility that he'd hurt you…"
"I'm not so fragile, you know. You don't have to look after me."
"I'm not so sure of that…"
That earned him a hard look, the Englishman actually glaring at him for a moment before turning away. Gilmore sighed: he hadn't meant to put it quite like that… he'd hoped to phrase it a bit more nicely.
"007, I didn't mean that quite the way it sounded…"
"What I'm trying to say is that I'm worried about you, G.B.," he belatedly switched to using his name rather than code number, realizing it might not be helping him make his case. "After everything that's happened, it's perfectly understandable that you're having problems with…"
"I don't need help." Britain studied the floor, clenching and unclenching his fists in his lap. "So long as none of Black Ghost's little toys still have a chance of taking over again, then I'm alright. You don't have to worry about anything else."
"G.B., you don't have to handle this on your own…"
"And what if I want to?"
Gilmore blinked, surprised by the vehemence lurking just beneath the surface of the shapeshifter's deceptively calm tone. He didn't know how to respond to the loaded question; he didn't have to, for Britain continued shortly, looking up to meet his stare with distressingly dark eyes.
"You don't need to look after me. The virus is gone; I'm not being controlled anymore… I'm fine. I wish I knew how to make you understand that… it would be so much easier if you would just trust me… though I can get why you wouldn't."
Dropping his gaze to the ground, he went on, "After what I did, it's amazing you even bother keeping me around…"
"…G.B. What happened wasn't your fault…"
"If it wasn't, then why do you keep fussing over me? If it was all thanks to the virus, then if it's gone, what's left to worry about? If everything's been taken care of, then why does it feel like everyone's just waiting for me to attack again…?"
Gilmore started as Britain met and held his gaze again; though his expression was perfectly composed, there was a strange quality to his eyes, an air of desperation the scientist might have only imagined due to his own feelings.
"Doc, is there something you're not telling me? Is there something else wrong that you don't want me to know about?"
"What?" Gilmore raised his hands defensively, stammering, "No, no, that's not--"
"Then why? Why all the tests, and why do you keep acting like there is something wrong…?"
"007," the doctor said sternly. Straightening in his seat, meeting Britain's stare directly, he solemnly declared, "I have been nothing but honest with you."
(I just wish you would give me the same courtesy,) he didn't add aloud.
"The only reason I've been running these test was because I thought it might help ease your mind," he said instead. Shaking his head, he sighed, "Clearly that hasn't been the case, however. I'm sorry. I'll stop if you wish…"
Britain blinked several times. It was clear from the shapeshifter's obvious surprise that he hadn't expected the good doctor to make such an offer; nor did he have any clue how to respond to it. Leaning forward, Gilmore rested his chin on the back of his clasped hands, regarding his patient intently.
"Really, G.B., if the tests were bothering you, then you should have said something before. I would have listened…"
Britain shifted uncomfortably on the cot, glancing away momentarily before hesitantly meeting the scientist's steady gaze. Gilmore sighed.
"Do you want me to stop? All you have to do is tell me; I'll go along with whatever you want."
Rubbing the back of his neck, Britain shifted his weight again, pulling his legs up in front of him. Gilmore didn't press any further, patiently waiting for his answer.
Taking a quiet breath, Britain appeared to calm down, looking back at Gilmore with a slightly lopsided smile. It was a comfortably familiar expression, and the doctor relaxed just a bit upon seeing it.
"…I… don't mind them… not really. It's just…"
"…What?" prompted Gilmore after he trailed off.
Britain sighed, shaking his head.
"It just feels like… I don't know… you're waiting for me to slip up again. Like you know it's just a matter of time before… I let you all down…"
He stared down at his lap, self-consciously; Gilmore leaned forward and placed a hand on his knee to get his attention. When the shapeshifter looked up, he smiled, trying to be reassuring.
"G.B. That's not it at all. We just want to be sure you're safe… Like I said, I was trying to help you relax… I'm sorry that wasn't the case. If you want me to stop calling you in for check-ups…"
"No… no, that's fine." Shaking his head, Britain offered another crooked grin. "Sorry for troubling you…"
"It's no trouble at all. I just want to help you readjust… It's been difficult lately, for all of us…"
"Yeah…" Dropping his legs off the side of the cot again, Britain cocked his head to one side, inquiring, "So, was there anything else you wanted to try today?"
"…I think… that's enough for today, G.B." Getting up, the doctor suggested, "Why don't you go help Chang get lunch ready? I'm sure he'd appreciate the help…"
He didn't have to go any further into his reasoning for wanting the shapeshifter to go talk to him; Britain nodded, jumping off the bed and turning to retrieve his shirt and jacket. As he pulled his clothes back on, he made certain to turn his body just enough that the older man couldn't see how he rubbed his wrist after getting the sleeve over it.
"Okay, I will… Thanks, doc."
Gilmore returned the Englishman's smile, watching him walk out. After the door closed behind him, the scientist fell back into his seat with a sigh, a hand moving up to massage his brow. He spent a few minutes rubbing it before turning back to his computer, calling up a file and beginning to type.
Blinking at the sound of his name, Gilmore glanced over to the source; the intercom was on, the display beside it showing that it came from the bridge. Reaching over, he held down the reply button.
"What is it, Francoise?"
"Could you come up to the bridge, please? We've intercepted an enemy broadcast, and I think you should hear it…"
There was a noticeable tremor in her voice, and that caught his attention more than the message itself. Frowning, he nodded, although she couldn't see it.
"I'll be right up."
"Thank you, doctor."
Switching off the intercom, Gilmore rubbed his brow again for a moment before standing. Just when it felt like he was making real progress with one problem, another presented itself… but then, wasn't that always the way? Sighing, he shuffled over and hit the lights before leaving the infirmary, making his way quickly toward the bridge.
Francoise met the good doctor at the door with a whispered greeting and a hollow smile. If the tone of the summons hadn't caused Gilmore to anticipate the worst already, the sight of her brittle expression would have taken care of it. He'd seen that look far too many times before; the attempt to be cheerful in the face of yet another setback, another complication to deal with.
He nodded, murmuring an equally hushed response to her welcome as he stepped inside to behold a less familiar, much more disheartening sight.
Pyunma sat hunched before his terminal, elbows propped against the control panel, head resting in his hands. Swallowing hard, Gilmore moved to his side, eyeing the display with no small amount of trepidation.
"What seems to be the problem, then?"
The eighth cyborg collected himself visibly at the sound of his voice; turning haunted eyes to the scientist, he moved to offer his own seat to him, hitting a few buttons as he helped him get settled.
"The Dolphin picked up this a few hours ago, under standard-level encryption; Francoise and I ran it through the translators, and…"
He trailed off, shaking his head.
"You should listen to it for yourself…"
Nodding grimly, Gilmore steeled himself as best he could before reaching out and activating the recorded message. After a few short bursts of static, a female voice became discernable, rattling off her report in a taut manner, clear and professional.
"…proceeding as scheduled. Project number six-four-six-four-two… Test subjects are responding as expected… the infection spread at the projected rate. Some difficulty with rejection… test subject three-oh-eight went into cardiac arrest roughly forty-seven hours after complete takeover; could not be resuscitated. However, none of the others show any obvious signs of rejection…"
Gilmore shuddered at the blasé tone the woman was using to announce the status of the test subjects; a delicate hand came to rest on his shoulder, squeezing it. He knew that he needed only to glance up to see Francoise's sympathetic expression; he didn't actually do so, focusing solely on the report.
"…If things continue as scheduled, the improved virus will be ready for release by the end of the week," came the terse declaration he was dreading. "Then, we need only to track down the zero-zero cyborgs…"
Gilmore closed his eyes, pained. The rest of the transmission droned on before falling back into static, then silence; he would have to replay it later, to ensure he wasn't missing any vital information. Francoise's hand was heavy on his shoulder, Pyunma a silent presence to his right.
"…008. Have you been able to locate the source of this transmission?"
"Yes sir," was the crisp, ready response. "Once we listened to it ourselves, we… thought it prudent to take initiative and find where it was coming from." Reaching across the terminal, the aquatic expert keyed in the sequence to bring up a small display. As the map zoomed out, crosshairs centering on a point in the ocean, he reported, "We've pinpointed the source here; it would take about four days to reach it from this point… though we could perhaps cut the travel time down to three if I could find a straighter route…"
"Alright." Pushing back his seat, the doctor looked up at them solemnly. "We should call a team meeting to address this; we can decide what to do once everyone's aware of the new situation."
"Yes, doctor," Francoise and Pyunma nodded, almost in tandem. The female gave his shoulder one last squeeze before turning away; as she and the African moved to separate stations, Gilmore began rubbing his forehead again, the motion doing little to relieve the building pressure.
…He would continue to be as forward and honest with all of his 'children' as possible; he wasn't about to keep unnecessary, hurtful secrets. He could only hope all of them would eventually grant him the same courtesy…