The day should have begun with thunder crashing, a hint of storm, or some other calamity. That it began so calmly, so ordinarily eemed unfair, a betrayal.
Heero awoke as usual surrounded by the trappings of normalcy- a room in a small non-descript apartment, in a part of an equally non-descript city where no one would notice or care about his comings or goings. He was refreshed after a night of quiet dreams and satisfied with a mission well done. The corners of his mouth turned up in the littlest of smiles; he'd be leaving here soon. After an indulgent stretch, he rose to shower. As was his routine, he washed his spiky dark hair and brushed the night from his teeth. Dressed now in his customary forest green tank and biker shorts, he strolled over to his computer, situated on a desk under the room's only window. A touch of a button triggered the release and the laptop unfolded like a budding flower, the screen automatically coming to life in flashing, lurid, red. Heero's brows rose in surprise then descended in a frown—a priority message.
That moment, the flavor of the day changed. It seemed to grow dark and dreary and surreal despite the sunlight that poured over him through that single window and attempted to chase away the small room's hidden shadows; despite the birds that sang, and fluttered before that same window. Dr. J's mechanical countenance stared at him out of the phosphorous screen, his artificial eyes and claw hand not making him as much a monster as his words.
Heero was cold now. Chilled to the bone. The small screen's illumination rendered his face into contrasting lines and planes of black and white, leaching it of youth and humanity even as it exaggerated his expression, making it's horror stark and startling. He became aware of his breathing—heavy and labored—of his heart, which pounded, jumped, and flipped, in his chest. Pale lids clinched over blue eyes only to drag open again with agonizing slowness. With hands fisted and trembling, Heero asked, for the first time, a devastating question:
The word was soft, singular, more a plea then a question. Even as the little word escaped past his lips, Heero knew he had made an unforgivable error. But his very soul demanded an answer. Soul? His inner voice chided. Since when did you gain a soul?
Dr. J glared at him, mouth twisted in a rictus of rage making him appear a demon from a cyberhell.
"Why? Why?! You dare to question a direct order?!! Because you are a soldier and I told you to!"
His metal extremities waved and clashed, striking out as if he could reach through the computer screen to grasp and shake the boy before him.
"The fact that you, the perfect soldier, my best creation could question the order just reinforces its necessity."
The old man's tones became layered with disgust and derision.
Heero flinched as if struck.
"You are weak, boy. Despite all of my teach, my programming." Dr. J shook his head.
"I warned you. Warned you about emotions...about...attachments."
The scientist spat the word out of his mouth as if it were something filthy.
His expression then became distracted, softening slightly.
"I thought I had fixed that after that civilian incident. But never mind. You have a mission. A purpose. And that purpose is paramount."
The old man's face again hardened granite.
"And nothing must compromise that purpose. Nothing!"
The desperate word again slipped free before he could stop it. He wanted to protest, to throw Dr. J's word back in his face but training held and further speech stuck hard in his throat. But again, that little syllable was the wrong one...full of rebellion, disobedience.
"But! But!? Are you listening to yourself?!" The old creature raved, veins throbbing and standing out like ropes in his forehead. "You are questioning an assignment! A direct order!"
The furious man brought his clawed extremity down with a jolting crash half a light year away; Heero felt it like a crack across the face.
"Now. You have your orders. Report to me when your mission is completed."
Heero stared at the whitely glowing screen, vocal cords frozen.
His head snapped up, eyes refocusing on grim reality. The muscles of his jaw spasmed. His tremor escalated, evolving into an all over quake. His clammy hands grasped the edge of the desk, white knuckled, for support.
"Heero." Dr. J implored, his voice soft again, almost sympathetic. Sinisterly seductive. "Heero. I want you to be strong again. Prove to me you are strong."
Heero drew in a shuttering breath. In and out. In and out. Strong. Yes. He was strong. He would be.... strong. With each breath, his face smoothed, became blank and mask-like though inside he screamed and screamed. "Ninmu...Ryoukai." He whispered.
The demon in cyberspace smiled, satisfied, then the screen when blank.
Heero sat cross-legged on his bed, his gun laid out in orderly fashion on the dingy spread for cleaning. He was now ready to restore it to its deadly whole. Automatically, his hands worked, long familiar with the task. So familiar, that they could work independently of the tortured mind. He glanced at the clock. Quatre and Duo would be here to get him in about an hour. The three of them would be spending their down time at one of Quatre's L4 holdings. An hour. He shivered.
A year ago, no one could have questioned his dedication, his loyalty. There would not have been a need. A year ago, this mission would not have given him the slightest pause. But. A lot changes in a year. He had changed. People had changed him. First Relena, later Duo and the other pilots. They taught him passion and compassion. They taught him trust. They ensouled him. From them he learned the joys of Godiva chocolate, Haagen Daas ice cream and strawberry cheesecake. He learned to enjoy the sweet somber strains of Quatre's violin and the haunting melody of Trowa's flute. He learned to appreciate Wufei's ideals and Duo's zest for life. Duo. His hands fumbled slightly at their task and he glanced down momentarily, irritated at the mistake. Mistakes. He didn't make mistakes. His mind drifted again to Deathscythe's pilot.
Duo. His friend. The first person, though not the last, to offer him friendship unconditionally and with little hope for reward or reciprocation. His friend, and maybe more than his friend. He wanted that, he conceded to himself. He wanted to be closer to the Shinigami pilot than he already was. They had made only the most tentative forays into that exciting and terrifying territory: brief, significant, touches; shy, desperate kisses. Such occasions left Heero roiling with undefined, unfulfilled desires.
He recalled a night not long ago spent under the stars, the two of them entwined under Shinigami's shadow, Wing standing guard. Kissing had never been so wonderful. Both of them had been breathing hard, their young bodies covered with passion's sweat. Duo's hands had roamed through his hair, over his face, down his back, trailing electricity in their wake as Heero paid proper homage to his mouth, the lids of his eyes, the hollow of his throat with lips and tongue. He had felt a desperate need to go further, to touch Duo, to be skin to skin, and had allowed his hands to work their way past the barrier of Duo's outershirt and undershirt.
"Too many clothes..." He had whispered into the other boy's ear when finally he encountered smooth, hot flesh. Soft, unbelievably fine, like a baby's, over lying steel hard muscle. Duo gasped, moaning softly at his touch. Heero felt the skin contract under his worshipful fingers. As his hand wandered more boldly, caressing higher to brush a small erect nipple, to slither down taunt abs, to dance over the other boy's delicate ribs, Duo writhed and whimpered beneath him.... Then erupted into peals of laughter.
Heero had sat back, nonplussed and annoyed. His face had burned with embarrassment. Duo had sat up, leaves in his hair, face flushed, clothes in disarray, a little shame-faced but still smiling. He had said somewhat sheepishly. "Heero...Heero, I'm sorry. It's just..." His lips quirked, "I'm...ticklish, I guess."
"Ticklish!" Heero choked, dumbfounded.
"Yeah, ticklish!" Duo responded defensively, arms crossed over his chest, chin at a defiant angle. Heero read between the lines. Shinigami wouldn't admit it but he wasn't quite ready for the next step. He was willing but a little nervous, a little afraid. Fine with Heero. He could wait. He knew Duo was his already. And he Duo's.
His eyes had glinted wickedly as he eyed his friend.
Duo's violet eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"So lets just see how ticklish!"
And he had tackled the other boy, sending them tumbling and rolling in the fragrant grass, his fingers going for Duo's ribs sending his laughter echoing into the night. In the ensuing war, Heero discovered he also had a few sensitive spots and Duo had given as good as he got. They had laughed and talked long into the night before winding themselves about each other in exhausted sleep.
It was a sweet memory and he had few of those. Most garnered in this one incredible year. After so long, after a lifetime, he had what he had not known he craved.
And now, thought Heero, looking down at the assembled weapon that lay like some deadly hibernating animal on the bed, now I have to kill him.
Kill him. Kill Duo.
Those were Dr. J's orders that set his world on end. The boy was a liability. He undermined Heero's mission. He was a weakness, a blemish on the perfect soldier. He must be eliminated-- wiped away so that the slate was once again clean and impervious.
No reasons. Nothing to make it easier. No explanations. Just an order. Kill his fellow Gundam pilot, his fellow colonial. Kill the smiling, manic baka who could never sit still in one place long, who did not know the meaning of quiet. Kill the 16-year-old boy who loved basketball, and video games, and pizza. Kill the kid who gave piggyback rides to children and fed stray dogs.
He rose from the bed to pace back and forth, the gun held loosely in his fingers. What had Duo done to deserve death other than offer kindness and friendship to a boy who was barely human anymore? What crime was that?
The rattling tremors began again and his breathing again became rapid and shallow. His vision blurred, graying about the edges, leaving him light-headed and weak. His stomach clinched and heaved. Moaning he collapsed on the floor, bent at the waist, fighting nausea. The gun slid from his fingers.
"I can't do it!" He breathed, feeling hot moisture escaping in runnels down his face. "I can't do it! Do you hear me?" Heero shouted to his absent superior whose presence loomed so large, "To hell with orders! Fuck you! Fuck you goddammit!"
He lurched like a drunkard to his feet, stumbling to his desk where is laptop sat, his inanimate nemesis. Growling like an animal, he seized it, hurling it across the room, watching it fly into gratifying pieces as it struck the sheet rock walls with a crash.
Kill Duo. He thought to himself, chest heaving, eyes wild: May as well kill himself. He stopped. Now that was a possibility. Kill himself. Duo would be safe then. And everything else would be moot.
The world changed again, becoming calm and dream-like as Heero walked sedately back to where his gun had fallen. It felt warm and welcoming in his hands. He lifted it to his face, caressed his cheek with the cold metal barrel, let his tongue dart out to taste the oily metallic surface.
Through the mouth, he thought calmly, aiming straight back, a little down, to sever the spinal cord at the brain stem. No chance for survival. Bam! And I'm dead. He closed his eyes. So easy...so easy...
He looked up, startled. Before him stood ...himself...standing with legs braced and arms crossed, the cold Prussian blue eyes arrowed in contempt. "Look at you! Pathetic! Coward! So you want to kill yourself. Fine! Do it. A weak soldier is as good as worthless. Dr. J was right. You are flawed."
Then the image before him morphed, the visage melting and stretching to take on the shape of his superior.
"I warned you, boy. Attachments. Avoid them at all costs. Their power is insidious, gangrenous. They eat at your foundations leaving you weak and vulnerable. Look at yourself, proud warrior. Look."
The apparition shook his head in disappointment.
"The work of a life time undone by a mere slip of a boy. Do it then. Kill yourself and watch from hell as the world crumbles."
Reality shifted again, leaving Heero blinking in the muted light that lit his grim little room. He looked at the gun in his hand then placed it deliberately on the ground. His eyes flickered over the scattered pieces of his laptop. His face twisted. He was a soldier. He couldn't escape that. A soldier whose primary responsibility was to end a war. To bring about peace. And as a soldier, he owed obedience to his commanding officer. He was a soldier. A less than perfect soldier.
"Dr. J is right" He murmured to himself, staring at the gun on the floor as a single tear tracked over the curve of his cheek. "He has corrupted me."
At 1pm there was a loud, rhythmic pounding on his door.
"Oi! Heero! You in there? It's Duo! Heero!"
Heero sat cross-legged on his bed, his gun cradled in his lap. He looked down. He had loaded it with two bullets, assassin grade. Made to kill. At point blank range, they left the victim unrecognizable. At distances greater than 20 meters, they divided, exploding into many destructive merciless fragments, more deadly then buckshot. He looked up at the door for long moments before rising like an ancient to unlock and open it.
Duo stood there, blinking at him, hand raised to knock again. Then his face transformed, breaking into his usual warm grin at the sight of his friend and fellow pilot.
"Heero! Long time no see!" He leaned against the doorframe, legs crossed at the ankles, arms folded cockily over his chest. He raised one eyebrow, orchid eyes glinting with mischief...and something else. "I missed you. Did ya miss me?"
In answer, Heero took the startled boy into his arms, crushing him to himself in a fierce hug. He smells so good, Heero thought, nuzzling a few strands of light brown hair that had escaped from the ever-present braid. He feels so good. So here. So...alive. Duo...Duo...
He released him slowly when the other began to squirm slightly in protest. Duo stepped back a bit but remained in the circle of his arms.
"Guess you did," He said, a little breathlessly. His smile faded slightly, seeing something in the other boy's face. "Hey? What's wrong?" He brushed the back of one fine-boned hand over Heero's cheek, an unconscious gesture of concern. "You don't look so good, man."
Heero moved back, releasing him, unable to meet those innocent eyes.
"Nothing." He said finally, his usual monotone. He walked away from Duo, back to his bed where his duffel waited. And his gun. "I've received a new assignment."
Behind him he could feel Duo's surprise and disappointment.
"Aw man! So soon? Geez! It's not like they could give us a break sometimes. One assignment after another." Heero heard his resigned sigh. "But I guess that's what it means to do what we do, eh, Heero?"
He turned around, duffel over his shoulder, gun in hand.
"Aa." Was his soft reply.
Duo's lips quirked into a wistful little smile.
"Yeah. Aa. They say jump, we say how high. Ah well, and here I was, being selfish, hoping for a little personal time."
Heero suppressed a shutter, his eyes dropping to the floor.
"Oh well!" Duo said, his smile brightening. "The guys will be disappointed. Trowa and Wufei were coming, too." He looked about the small room inquisitively, braid whipping about. His gaze finally settled on the refrigerator. "Oi, Heero. I'm starved. Ya got any food in this place?"
He was already heading to the tiny kitchen before Heero could respond. Soon he was rummaging through the fridge's contents, seizing a coke, sandwich meat, bread, and cheese.
Heero watched him, backing slowly to the farthest corner of the room, about 17 meters. Duo looked good he noted dispassionately. Strong and healthy. He was dressed today in close fitting black jeans and a white sleeveless cotton tee that played up the sleek, slim muscles and lines of his body. His black cap was worn jauntily backwards on his tawny head. His only other ornament was the gold crucifix about his throat.
"Where's Quatre?" He asked dully, eyes flicking briefly to the open door.
"Right behind me," Duo through over his shoulder, "He's parking the car. And what a car, man! You gotta see it! Candy-apple red. Vintage BMW convertible! I told Quatre he should have it repainted black of course..."
Quatre was close. He would be here in moments. That was good. He looked down at the gun in his hand. With a smooth practiced motion, he thumbed off the safety. Duo was still talking.
"Can you believe it, Heero? All of us off at the same time. Together. Man! I hope you wrap this mission up ASAP. We..."
The other boy turned around, brows raised in query, his mouth full of sandwich. Heero raised his gun with a steady hand, taking careful aim. Duo's already large expressive eyes widened further, for once speechless at the sight of his best friend holding him at gunpoint. Slowly he swallowed.
Obedience. Heero thought. The only expectation of a soldier is obedience. He clinched his jaw tight against the despair that wailed within him. I have to pull this trigger. I have to attempt to carry out my mission. But I'm not the final arbitrator of life and death. Maybe I can tilt the odds a little in his favor. Maybe his god will have mercy on us both. Before Duo could move, before he could throw off his careful aim, Heero squeezed the trigger.
Time flowed like cold molasses.
He heard the discharge of his gun like an atomic explosion: BOOOM! BOOOM! The familiar, powerful recoil seemed to rip at the tendons of his shoulder. He imagined he could see the shots making an almost leisurely path to their startled target.
The first bullet caught the bewildered boy in the chest, just left of his heart, right where Heero had aimed. Blood blossoming like a red rose over the former pristine whiteness. The impact threw him hard against the wall behind him. The second found its mark as well, striking Duo's right temple at an angle, tearing a path through bone and tissue before erupting again into the outside.
Heero watched, wide-eyed, as Duo sank to the ground, limbs limp and loose like a rag doll or a puppet cut from its strings. The boy watched him out of eyes glazed with pain and stunned disbelief. One hand fluttered briefly, birdlike to the wound in his chest before falling limply at his side. He tried to speak but all that came was a gurgling bubble of bright red blood. Then those questioning eyes lost awareness and slid closed.
As his gun slipped from Heero's numb fingers to rebound once, twice on the floor, he heard the sound of rapid footsteps just before the maker himself appeared in the door. Quatre, breathing fast, skidded to a halt.
"Heero! Duo! I heard shots!" He panted, "Then I felt..." He stopped with a sudden indrawing of breath as he finally registered the scene before him. Quatre's aqua eye moved in shocked denial from Heero's anguished face to the smoking gun at his feet to his friend lying so still and bloodied on the floor. With a fearful groan, Quatre ran to Duo's side, rapidly searching for a pulse, for any sign of life. He looked up at Wing's pilot; the soldier he admired and had called friend.
"Damn you! Don't just stand there! Call an ambulance! See if you can find something to slow the bleeding!"
Quatre's sharp words broke through Heero's shock. He stumbled dazedly to the telecom, pressing the button that notified the authorities of a life-threatening emergency. He then made his way to the bathroom, emerging with a bundle of white towels, collapsing to his knees beside Sandrock's pilot. Together they did what they could to fashion make shift bandaging, to staunch the flow of blood. Quatre then pulled the boy into his arms, unconcerned with the blood that soaked his clothes or covered his hands as he tried to smooth blood-slicked bangs from Duo's too pale face. Unconsciously he rocked him, back and forth, talking to his friend in hushed desperate tones.
Heero watched them for a moment, still feeling as if he were an actor in a play or trapped behind glass. He then reached out, with quivering hands, for his best friend, to verify for himself that the wounded heart still beat, that the damaged lungs still drew breath. Quatre, all unexpected, lashed out at him, his right hook catching him hard in the jaw, rocking Heero where he knelt.
"Stay away from him!" He growled, drawing Duo closer to him. His normally gentle face was all rage, fear and betrayal. "Allah! Oh Allah! You shot him! You tried to kill him!" His voice was rough with unshed tears. "For the sake of Heaven...! Why?!"
Why? Heero thought. That word again. He had come around back to the beginning. He gave Quatre the only words that would come to him and in their simplicity, they explained it all.
Hospitals. Heero hated hospitals. Their white sterility, their antiseptic smell seemed offensive somehow. Deceptive, as if that whiteness could cover the pain, the grief, the agony contained within the walls. It was impossible; even now he heard the wailing of bereaved families from every hall, seemingly, every doorway.
He liked the waiting room even less. It's dimmed lights, and softly plush chairs seemed an even greater offense, a greater lie to him then the hospital's blankness. Worse yet, it overflowed with other people suffering, other people fearing, other people working through their guilt and regret. But not like mine, he thought, the ghost sensation of his gun still lingering in his hand. Not like mine.
Trowa and Wufei were here now, keeping vigil with him and Quatre. Quatre wasn't speaking to him; Trowa and Wufei hovered close, supportive in their proximity but not meeting his eyes. They didn't judge him. They were perfect soldiers, too. And he knew that they wrangled with the question in their own minds: What if the order had come to them?
Time was the enemy again. They had been waiting for over 6 hours. Six hours had pasted, almost seven, when finally a nurse dressed in clean, pressed white, and a fixed smile came to them, motioned for them to follow.
"The doctor would like to speak with you now."
The surgeon looked worn and tired, his dark face set in lines of bone weariness. He was too tired to tell the boys anything but the truth.
"I'm from Neurosurgery (2). Thoracics(3) should be finishing up soon but I knew you would be anxious for some word on your friend. "He attempted a smile; Heero felt his heart jolt.
"He's fortunate. The bullet that struck his head did so at such an angle and velocity that it essentially sheered around the perimeter of the brain. There was considerable bone and tissue injury; I'm expecting the brain to have a lot of swelling which we will have to monitor carefully but all in all, there is less actual damage to the brain itself then we had feared.
"What...what about the rest?" Trowa murmured, the others almost afraid to ask further questions.
The physician sighed and massaged his brow. "I'm not a thoracic surgeon of course; she can tell you more when she finishes up but I can tell you that the bullet went through the left lung but somehow missed the major bronchus(4). It struck his ribs and sternum veering away from the aorta, piercing the left ventricle(5) of the heart. Most of the bleeding was held in check by the pericardium.(6)"He shook his head. "Not pretty. A serious injury but ... I've seen young people survive worse.
He looked with sympathy upon the four pale, stunned faces before him.
"Listen boys. Your friend will go to recovery from the OR and then to the Surgical Intensive Care Unit. I don't think he will get there before morning. If I were you, I'd go home and get some sleep. "
"He's going to be alright though?" Quatre's desperate plea. They faced death every day in battle. But not like this. Not like this.
The surgeon seemed to pick up some on the under current.
"I won't lie to you; it's going to be touch and go for a while. Let's take things one day at a time, alright?"
With that he left, no longer attempting a reassuring smile.
"Sir. Sir? Are you Mr. Yuy?"
Heero jumped, looking up to meet the benevolent gaze of a young nurse. She smiled at him, all gentle sympathy. He nodded curtly in answer to her query.
"There is a Dr. Jeffries on the telecom asking to speak to you. He says he's Mr. Maxwell's Uncle? You can take the call privately in the family room."
A press of the button brought up Dr. J's grinning maniacal face. He was all joyful satisfaction.
"Heero, my boy! Well done!" He put his hands to his waist, leaning forward, "I didn't think you had it in you. Thought you were too far gone. Though," He straightened, stroking his chin with his metal claw. "I almost wish you hadn't. That bastard G is up in arms over his precious little Shinigami. Howard's just as bad!" The mad scientist sighed. "Well, the doctors tell me that the brat might pull through, huh? Well, that's ok." His eyes narrowed at Heero. "I know where you stand now. My perfect soldier." He smiled again. "Well, enjoy your leave, Heero. Nothing new is coming down the pipe line anytime soon."
With those last words, the screen flickered off, leaving Heero staring impassively at nothing.
Morning again. Sunlight streaming through another window, chasing shadows from another small room. But no birds flew as high as the 10 floor ICU . Not that Duo could hear them anyway at the moment, Heero mused sadly.
It was a little overwhelming really, even for a Gundam pilot. Even for Heero Yuy, the perfect soldier. The monitors beeped constantly, making him look up in fear at every chime, the pumps set up a continuous whir as they fed blood, fluids, and medicine into Duo's veins; the ventilator hissed as it pushed oxygen into Duo's lungs. And Duo was so still. He was never still. He was always moving and talking. But now he didn't move at all. Not even a moan escaped those lips. And so many tubes going in and out of his body. It seemed indecent somehow. A violation. He didn't even look like himself—swathed in heavy bandages, the right side of his face bruised and swollen. They had had to shave half his hair to take care of his injury. Duo would be mortified; at least Quatre had taken the time to brush and braid what was left. He would like that, Heero thought, caressing the shimmering braid.
Heero felt the quaking starting; that feeling of being out of control that had plagued him since the nightmare began 24 hours ago. He grasped Duo's hand, unnerved by its coldness, it's pallor, it's lifelessness. He took that hand, held it to his face, rubbed his cheek against the back as Duo had done...was it only yesterday? He heard a sound, high pitched, keening. He found himself wracked by shuttering sobs, and he couldn't stop. Even though Duo would tell him that boys don't cry. Certainly not perfect soldiers. He rocked back and forth, as Quatre had rocked, holding his friend's limp hand.
"Duo.." He whispered, "Duo... Don't die...please...don't die..."
He tugged lightly at his friend's hand, hoping for some response, watching the slack face for any signs of life. He resisted the urge to shake Duo, like a child waking early on Christmas morning, begging him to wake up, to get up.
He finally gave up, emotionally exhausted. He bent forward, placing a kiss on those cold lips, another on the soft cheek. He laid his head lightly on the bed, still absently holding his friend's hand, stroking his chest and abdomen with the other.
"Duo, " He whispered, "Can you hear me? When you wake up, I have so much to tell you. So much to...explain. I'm not perfect anymore. Haven't been for a while now and Dr. J was right: It's because of you." He shifted slightly in his chair getting more comfortable. "Duo, can you hear me? I'm not a perfect soldier anymore. Duo? Can you hear me? Suki da, Duo. Suki da. Kitto." He wiped the tears from his face that were wetting the clean white sheets tucked about Duo's body.
"Duo? Can you here me? Please, let me know you hear me."
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