Of Mice and Men
The fumes of sulfur and kerosene hung high in the air long after the battle ended. It'd been one hell of a fight, one that I was almost sure that I wouldn't be walking away from. Professor G was going to get an earful from me when I reported back that the so called 'in and out' mission that he sent me on was nothing of the sort.I should have known better when he insisted that Heero join me... 'just in case.'
At the thought of my partner, my concern only grew. Not long before the last mobile suits were taken out, he just vanished. After a long attempt to pull Wing up on my radar and coming up with no sign, it was clear that Heero didn't want to be found. And when Heero Yuy didn't want to be found, he made sure as fuck that's what happened.
I was afraid that I knew the reason for it this time.
See... something had happened during that hellish breach that we carried out. Something that would have shocked the life out of anyone -- including someone dubbed the 'Perfect Soldier.'
Not only did the base have to be infiltrated, we had to obtain a string of data that needed to be hacked from within the main facility. And when it came to hacking, no one was better at it than Heero. I became the cover he needed from outside while he did his thing -- providing him just the time he needed. The plan had all the makes of a standard 'in-and-out' job, just as G had said it would be.
When Heero ran into the main building, I flew Deathscythe and handled the retaliation while keeping in communication with my partner. Before long, I got the word that he was in position and already working on getting into the system.
I was silently celebrating knowing that we were almost home free, another notch in our favor in this long ass war, when it happened.
Through Heero's radio, I could hear the guard that had charged into the room where he had been working. Panicking as I fended off the mobile dolls, I listened to the exchange of gunfire before my friend's voice cursed in my ear.
Fuck! Out of ammo, I reasoned.
Helpless to assist him, I could only take out the suits attempting to do the same to me. Heero was just too far for me to reach. And trying to talk to him in the middle of a struggle was not a good idea.
That was when I heard it. The sharp cry of the soldier that had run into my partner. A few grunts from the two of them followed and before long, there was a sharp gasp from the Ozzie. I heard his voice crying, pleading for his life just before it fell into a sickening round of gurgles that went on amidst gasping that would never find the air.
All too clearly, I could picture exactly what happened. I could see the slit throat and the blood pouring over the floor with Heero hunched over the body.
Never before did any of us have to take a life with our bare hands.
To hear it was honestly the most disturbing thing I ever had to endure. Those cries, that horrible sound of drowning on blood before it all stilled. It was just so... as wordy as I tend to be, I can't think of a damned word to describe how I felt at that moment.
It's so different firing a gun or piloting a suit and using that to kill someone. When it's something else taking a person's life, you could almost imagine that you're not the reason someone won't be returning home to their wife, husband, kids, mother, father, sister, brother. At least, that's how it is for me.
While it might not make any sense to someone else, it's the only reasoning that I came up with that keeps me from having my sanity go down the shitter. Sometimes, the worst wounds are not the ones that you can see on the surface, and I'm not about to survive this war only to end up in a fucking asylum.
"Duo!" I heard Heero's voice suddenly scream through my earpiece. Snapping out of my thoughts, I looked up just in time to get a lovely view of a laser blade swinging down on me. I think I cried out or something before I squeezed my eyes closed, saying the Lord's Prayer for the first time since my days at the Maxwell Church.
At the sound of an explosion, I looked up through my damp bangs just as the mobile doll was taken out by the beam of Wing's massive canon. Panting, I breathed heavily, "Thanks, man." There was no response. My friend's suit just hovered quietly beside my own.
Heero never was a person of many words. But there was something different about the silence that hung there. It was heavy, like an actual weight that I could feel bearing down around us.
The remainder of the battle went by in a numb blur. I went through the motions, took out the enemy that came into my sights and before long destroyed the remainder of the base. When I turned around at the end of it, Heero was gone. Just... gone.
And so was the reason for my frantic search.
Much to my surprise, he was only a couple miles away from the remains of the base that continued to burn. Quickly dismounting from my suit, I ran the several yards ahead to the lone tree that stood in the middle of the otherwise flat and barren terrain.
Sitting at the base of the tree was a sunken form that I almost didn't recognize. Leaning his right shoulder against the wide trunk, Heero's hands fell at his sides in tight fists as he looked to the horizon with his back to me. The sun was already setting, painting the cracked ground and sky vibrant yellows and oranges.
But mostly red. A deep blood red that matched the stains that had dried on my partner's hands.
My stomach lurched, and instinctively my own hands reached up to wrap around my throat.
The God of Death. The persona that I used to intimidate others, and yet death was something that always terrified me. Somehow, identifying myself with that which I feared helped me cope with my past and prepare me for my future... however long that future might be.
I'd held my best friend as he died in my arms, just as I had with Sister Helen as she breathed her last. I'd laughed through hair-raising battles and danced with the Devil more times than I could count on both hands.
...But, I'd never dealt with anything like I had that day. What happened that day made the war that I had treated as a big game suddenly become very real. And suddenly the realization that the Grim Reaper could one day be rapping on my door, as I pleaded for my life while a blade cut my throat, left me numb.
Looking back at the tree where my partner sat, I realized that he had pulled his legs up and was holding them to his chest.
As I slowly neared him, I took in his profile, the few lines in Heero's face darkened by the way the red light was shining on him. For a moment, between the way his face looked and his shoulders slumped, he seemed to have aged another fifteen years.
More than that, I couldn't recall a time that I had ever seen him look so lost. It was as if he were not sure if he should cry, scream, punch something, laugh in relief or what. While I only saw him from the side, Heero was having a bit of a time with the emotions that he had been able to keep in check so well.
To see that wave of feelings nearly breaking the surface for the first time in what I could only imagine had been years, I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I realized that I had been holding my breath in hope that maybe I would get to see the real Heero Yuy that had been locked away.
When his head snapped in my direction, suddenly realizing that he wasn't alone anymore, the almost forlorn expression surprisingly didn't fade right away. It took a moment for that calm, collected mask to fall back into place. When it did, I had to bite back a sharp cry of protest at his pulling back once more.
Releasing his legs to stretch them out, Heero looked back at the sunset. Slipping to sit a few inches away from him, I heard myself ask softly, "You alright?" His shoulders stiffened at the question, then eased a bit. He never looked back or gave me an answer. Swallowing past the lump in my throat during the uncomfortable silence, I just contented myself with watching the sunset along with him.
I nearly jumped when Heero finally said in little more than a whisper, "I'm tired. Just... very tired." In all the months that I had known him, it was the first time that I ever heard Heero admitting to such a thing.
Tired. That just about summed it for me, too. We were fifteen going on sixty with all of the crap that we had seen and been through, with all of the things expected of us to get through another day in a world that had gone mad. Shit, we'd experienced more in a few years than most would ever have to handle in their lifetimes.
So yeah, tired certainly was a good word to explain the whole of how I felt. How we both felt, I reminded myself.
Apparently, what happened back inside the base had taken a toll on the 'Perfect Soldier,' if he was willing to share that much.
Hesitantly, I reached out to place my hand on Heero's shoulder that was closest to me. Instead of batting it away, he never budged. The lack of response only made my concern grow. "You didn't have a choice," I told him quietly, speaking before thinking. "It was self-defense."
Unknowingly hitting a nerve with that, I watched in shock at Heero's last reserve crumbled right before me. His sunken shoulders began to shake with the effort to fight off the choked sob that escaped him. Quickly moving so that I was facing him, I was shocked to find that he was drying his eyes with his arm just before he turned his head away from me.
Still not meeting my eyes when he finished wiping away the few tears that managed to break past his defenses, Heero shook his head and whispered, "I can't do this. I can't let this get the better of me."
A part of me was still so stunned at finally getting a glimpse at the real Heero that I nearly missed his words. Shaking my head to clear it, I finally registered what he said. I pulled up own legs to my chest and told him quietly, "You know, one of the last things that G told me before I left to get involved in this damned war was that there would be moments that would separate the mice from the men. He told that when that time came to make sure I was one of the men, and not to run away like a mouse."
I watched, silently grateful, as Heero slowly turned his head back to face me. His eyes no longer shimmered with tears, though I could tell that there were more on the threshold waiting for another slip in his control. With genuine interest in my continuing, he kept his eyes on me.
Taking a deep breath, I ran a hand through my long bangs and shrugged, "Up until now, I've been able to cope with everything in my own way, so I never had to second guess what I've been doing. Now, I don't know if I can keep this up... After what happened back there... "
My voice trailed off when I noted my partner shudder involuntarily at the thought of that struggle. Closing his eyes, he clenched his bloody fists as he took a deep breath to regain the composure that was slipping away from him.
Before he could put himself behind that emotionless shield again, I reached forward and grabbed his shoulders. "I would think less of you if you weren't affected by what you had to do," I told him honestly. When he wouldn't open his eyes or respond, I gripped his shoulders tightly and cried, "You're a human being, after all, goddamn it! Please don't hide yourself away again!"
Heero finally opened his eyes. Blinking away the small glimpse of surprise in them, he told me softly, "You always were the only person to refer to me as anything other than a soldier or a machine."
Another flash, this time of almost sadness, glimmered and faded away in his eyes. He shook his head almost violently, changing the tracks from going in that direction, and frowned deeply, "A mentor of mine told me to follow my emotions and I'm only now realizing how strong those emotions can get."
Running a stained hand through his bangs, Heero commented softly, "I don't know how you can get through this war while never losing touch with how you feel. I'm losing control with my feelings and it's scaring me."
A small lump filled my throat. My God... what had those bastards that trained him done to him? How could they willingly try to take away the one thing that made a person so unique and so alive? I wished a million painful deaths to each one of them.
I swallowed hard before answering, "It's not easy, Heero. To be honest, there are days I wish that I could just shut off my emotions, but I can't. And apparently, there is no training that could keep those feelings locked away forever. I just find my own ways of coping with all of this shit."
Blinking, I focused on my partner's right hand. The whole time we'd been sitting together, I never realized that something was gripped tightly in that clutched hand.
Slowly raising his right fist when he realized what caught my attention, Heero opened it to reveal a thin wallet. Like his hands, the black leather was splattered with blood.
My eyes widening, I was opening my mouth to ask Heero why the hell he stole a dead man's wallet when he opened it to a small picture of a lovely, smiling young woman and a toddler in her lap. I couldn't bring myself to study their faces. To see the images of those who would be missing the man killed today was far too much to handle with everything else.
I had to strain to hear the whispered explanation, "I plan to send a letter to his family when this war is over. They should hear from the man who saw him alive last how brave he was right up until the end."
Not having expected that from my partner, I just started at him in shock. Finally, I gave him a small smile and nodded, "I'm sure they'd appreciate that." He nodded lightly and carefully closed the wallet once more before stowing it away as if it were something precious.
I guess it made sense that it would be precious to him.
Again, we just sat in silence as a warm breeze passed through. After a time, Heero rubbed his arms as if cold. Gazing out to the sunset, he said quietly, "I never wanted for myself before now. But now, I want this war to end more than anything, even though I have no idea what the hell I'm supposed to do when my purpose for existing is gone."
It was the most I'd ever heard my friend speak at one time. The surprise at what he was saying was keeping me from responding right away. Looking down to where he rested the wallet beside his pistol on the ground beside him, he frowned, "He had a family, something to go back to when this war was over. Now, he has people to mourn him. I've been sitting here this whole time thinking of how I don't have that. I don't have a place I can call home. I don't have anyone in my life that would miss me if I'm killed."
Unable to listen any more, I finally broke through my daze and quickly reached forward to grip his shoulders tightly again. "Yes you do," I insisted, nearly yelling as I shook him. When his wide eyes met mine, I hissed, "How the fuck can you say you don't have anyone that would miss you? After everything we've been through, you don't think that I'd..." My voice failed, cracking at the end, and tears stung my eyes.
"Duo?" he asked and I could hear the uncertainty there. That uncertainty was filling his eyes.
Taking a deep breath, I leaned close to him with my hands still on his shoulders. "Stay with me when this shit is over. Please," I managed past the lump that was forming in my throat. "I could... I could help you."
The tears started running down my face as I watched that mask fall away. Heero looked like a child sitting there, his eyes wide and filled with hesitancy to believe what I just said. "You... you would do that for me?" he breathed. Swallowing hard, he asked, "You would teach me how to live with these... feelings?"
I bit my lip and grinned, "Who better than the most emotional bastard you know? I'll always be here for anything you need."
Very slowly, I watched as the walls began to crack enough for Heero's eyes to fill with the smallest traces of tears. "Could..." he tried again when his voice broke. Clearing his throat, he asked quietly, "Could I have a hug?"
Once more, I fought the urge to break down. Allowing a few tears of my own, I nodded and reassured him, "Of course."
Careful not to scare him by throwing myself at him as I wanted to, I slowly closed the distance between us to wrap my arms around his neck. As I pulled him close, I felt him cling to me, burying his head in my shoulder as he allowed himself a moment to just let himself be.
He eased in my arms, and finally pulled back when the stars were just starting to come into view. Leaning back against the tree, Heero actually gave me a small smile and I could feel my heart stop in my chest. Just as quickly as that grin appeared, it faded once more and he asked softly, "Teach me how you cope with all of this?"
That time we spent under the tree would be known between us as the 'Big Talk.' As soon as we returned to our safehouse, Heero went right back to his usual, emotionless self. However, there were a few occasions when we were together and alone that he would allow his trained guard to slip just enough to breathe and feel.
I've cherished every one of those moments.
G would have been proud of me. While my street rat urge to run had come up quite a bit during the war, I believe that I proved that I was on the side of men as he wished me to be. There was no question where Heero or the others stood, either.
When the war finally ended and the last threat to peace was quickly handled, I was surprised to find Heero on my doorstep only days later to take up my offer. He stayed true to his word, and sent an anonymous letter and very generous contribution -- which we'd acquired from hacked funds of OZ's accounts -- to the family of the soldier that he had killed that fateful day. And I became the ready and willing support that he'd been looking for in a world of peace in which he felt he had no place.
From there, well, that's another story.
I smile now as Heero approaches me at the tree where I've been standing, silently thinking of the events that bought us to where we are now. He grins in return, hands moving from the pockets of his jeans. When he reaches me, he leans in to kiss me lightly and I return it gladly.
"All set?" I ask quietly.
Taking my hand in his and squeezing it, he nods simply, "Yeah."
As he leads me, I take one last glance at the tall, white stone cross that marks the grave we visit every year on this day. Amidst so many hundreds of thousands of others in this graveyard, it is easy for a fallen soldier to be forgotten. However, neither Heero nor I will be able to forget the man responsible for giving us someone to live up to during the war.
...Now, we have each other to rely on for the reason to live on.