Blink. Flashes of rapid incoming beam fire on the viewscreen. We're going to die!
Blink. Shudders of impact on Gundanium armor. No, we're not! Shut up and shoot!
Blink. Finger squeezing the trigger, unleashing doom on one wayward mobile doll. Probability of success: low... Must focus.
Blink. Heero threw quick glances to the screens at his sides, manoeuvred Wing Zero to avoid a barrage of shells from the left, closed the distance to the remaining Taurus dolls and put his blade to the test, using the impaled mobile suit as an extra shield from sporadic beam fire.
He was scared. He was pissed. He was oddly calm.
There is precious little time to think in a battle. Even less so in space combat, where things such as 'up' and 'down' generally lacks significance. Unlike what sci-fi shows tend to preach, a colony, spaceship or mobile suit need not orient itself in line with the orbital plane.
Many an Alliance or OZ officer promoted to space service from Earth duty learned that the hard way. Unfortunately, White Fang's commanders were predominantly colony-born, and accustomed to the thought of a full sphere of combat, not a flat circle with sporadic air support.
On that stray thought, Heero pitched Wing Zero seventy degrees forward and fired at a mobile doll attacking from 'below'. Which was, relative to Deathscythe only two clicks ahead, 'up'.
The intercom crackled to life. "Hey, Heero - what's your status?"
He wanted to scream in terror, shout in rage. Instead, he kept an absolute monotone. "Still alive..."
Chuckles came in across the static. Another big flash as Duo cleaved a Virgo in two. "Glad to hear that, pal... What you say we make a race for the mop-up, huh? Most kills win."
Heero snorted softly. Mop-up, indeed. They were still very much on the defensive, and White Fang definitely had the numbers on their side.
"Okay, cut the chatter, guys..."
Heero was about to acknowledge Quatre's command when Duo beat him to it.
"Sheesh, fine..." Brief pause. Even as he turned to take on another wing of mobile dolls, Heero saw Duo's face grinning at him on one of the displays to the left, the grainy feed a narrow-band transmission meant only for him. "Q can be so damn uptight sometimes, don't you agree, Heero?"
"...I can still hear you," Quatre said, just a tad of irritation in his voice.
From the corner of his eye, Heero saw the wide grin. "I know." Ah, so the lapse of cutting radio comm was intentional, after all... Wing Zero shuddered as mobile suit fragments hit it from behind. A quick check affirmed Wufei had just watched out for his back. There was no time to offer thanks - but plenty of opportunity.
"Knock it off, you heard the man." Trowa's voice was deceptively calm, even over the hum of the barrage he was offering the enemy.
"He's your man, Trowa - not mine," Duo quipped.
Heero dared half a smirk. He could almost hear Quatre gnash his teeth and sigh. He could really hear a new batch of orders. "Heero, watch your lower left flank. Duo, focus on the dolls directly ahead of you." Slight pause, then an addendum. "We'll live through this yet... Trowa, Wufei - cover me."
"Roger that," came the choir of static.
It had happened again. As every time before, he hated when it happened. As every time before, he survived, somehow. Even as Wing Zero safely touched down in Peacemillion's hangar and was locked down, his hands wouldn't stop shaking. A cold sweat ran down his back, flashbacks to small memories he'd preferred were forgotten came to his mind. He pressed his eyes shut, balled his fist around the flight stick, clenched down on the thrust handle, focused his thoughts on the present. His breathing became less strained, his pulse calmer.
It had happened again. In the midst of battle, he'd had a panic attack. Just a mere moment of indecision, a flash of paralysis. It was only dumb luck the enemy hadn't had time to take advantage of it before berserker rage overcame him. He'd disobeyed Quatre's orders and thrown himself at the enemy. He was fortunate Duo had been close enough to follow him, afford him some cover while he fought head-on. Quatre had not been happy, but given the motley crew he was attempting to coordinate, his plans were fairly loose to begin with. Instead of going crazy in the attempt to control four headstrong Gundam pilots, he opted to trust their decisions, allow them as much leeway as possible. Heero had to commend the young man - the idea worked. Even his sudden act of aggression could be tolerated and be compensated for.
It had taken him precious minutes to calm his blind, defensive rage. In those minutes, two dozen Virgos were sacrificed by his sword alone, another two by Duo's scythe. Duo had been a bit miffed that their count ending up a draw come the end of the fight.
Wing Zero's hatch opened slowly, and Duo floated in, grinning behind the transparent plastic of his helmet. "All that, and you still didn't best me, huh?"
Heero didn't give him more than a soft frown. Fear and rage were firmly kept in check now. He was not about to show either weakness to Duo. Not that he hadn't already done so during their battle.
And it wasn't the first time. Another deep breath, as to not betray his calm.
"Come on, we've got a quick debriefing, and then some rest. Let's leave recharge, reload and repair to Howard and crew, okay?"
Hesitantly, Heero nodded. It had come slowly, but Howard had eventually earned his trust, as had the other pilots. Even so, he was loathe to let others do the job he preferred doing himself. Necessity forced his hand, though. Their distance to Libra gave them ample warning of impending attacks, but they kept building up in frequency and ferocity, turning the area between the two spaceships into a steadily growing field of debris. White Fang's strategy was clearly one of attrition. With their massive mass production run, they had a near infinite supply of mobile dolls - retrofitted Tauruses or shiny new Virgos. Peacemillion had five Gundams - and five pilots. A full eight hours of sleep was becoming more like the exception than the rule, especially with the sporadic harassment attacks. Without a doubt there would be a dozen battered Tauruses heading their way in a few hours - just enough to keep them alert and draw at least one of them out of bed. Peacemillion's lack of large-scale armaments was becoming a real pain.
Debriefing was hell. Or rather, a dull pain stabbing at his side. Quatre was nothing if not thorough, delivering quick points to what they did right - and what they did wrong. It wasn't meant as accusations, but Heero was quick to take every negative comment regarding his combat performance far too seriously. It hurt - not just his pride, but his self-control. Naturally, his little rampage came up too.
Critique was awarded evenly, though. The others just coped with it better. He watched Duo accept his load of it and then casually shrug it off as if it wasn't a big deal. Heero found himself greatly envious of that ability.
Any and all criticism got to him. It didn't have to be significant to matter. Little things, like small slip-ups in battle, a techie pointing out he'd made a mistake in tuning Wing Zero, Duo teasing his meticulously clean half of their shared bunkroom, or anyone giving a resigned comment to his almost compulsive need to file status reports, even though none of them knew where Doctor J and their other mentors were hiding - or if they were even still alive.
That was really the point of the matter. Heero had closer ties to his mentor than any of the other pilots. Wufei had all but hated Master O, and had only grown to the point of tolerance before Operation Meteor began. Trowa had barely met Doctor S before he took both name and suit from the original pilot of Heavyarms. Quatre had developed some sort of loose friendship with Instructor H, but his ties to the Maganacs were far stronger. Duo and Professor G had joined up by mutual need; one wanting a pilot, the other shelter.
J had picked him off the streets. It had been pure chance. It turned out to be his golden opportunity. Heero had dedicated himself in extremes to whichever case Doctor J decided to support. The manipulative old man knew how to exploit that - but in the end, he left Heero with choices - paths that often led towards death. Whether it was that of the teacher or the student - or both - varied.
Even so, Heero had had time to bond unlike any of the others. He'd also had a severe lack of other candidates with which to form friendships. Therefore, despite everything that had happened, everything they had done - everything he had done - Heero still hoped the man was alive, somewhere. To type up those reports was one of his ways of honoring that hope.
Nobody seemed to understand that though, and Heero was certainly not going to explain.
But the unintentional mockery of his unread reports hurt, added to the pile of trifles he couldn't quite shake. Sometimes, these small things pushed him to the breaking point, made his need to lash out at something - everything - unbearable. Usually, he could control himself long enough to unleash that rage in battle - but it was coming steadily sooner, and in all but the final mop-up of combat irrational fury could easily kill him.
Then again, so could bottling it up like a living time-bomb.
All the while, he tried to keep to himself, keep it all hidden.
He should have known he couldn't.
A small girl with a hat much too big for her.
A single flower, a gift, an offering to the one who'd lost his way.
The puppy tugging at its leash, running back to her feet, forward to sniff at a yellow sneaker.
Laughter, her light giggles, his hoarse chuckles.
Heero couldn't appreciate it. It couldn't last, it never did. That small moment of peace was always shattered by the same ugliness, the mistakes he made. His inadequacies had led to-
The Alliance military post blowing up, one section at a time. Glee and triumph.
Final escape, mission complete - then the mobile suit falling in the wrong direction. Fear.
Fire, explosions, death. Buildings crumbling, screams that are cut off before they even begin. Terror.
A dead puppy, a wilted flower, the occasional hand and foot sticking out from under a pile of crushed concrete. Cold, void.
The bloodied palm of a child-
He gritted his teeth, bit down a scream of hidden pain. It was always the same, always-
Fists clenching, the images of his dead dancing before him.
Gasp, eyes open, sitting up to his elbows. His heart went double-time, his body was soaked with sweat, his hands clammy, trembling. A presence - he turned, saw his caller kneeling by his bed. "Duo-"
"You were having a nightmare, Heero... Take a deep breath and calm down."
Heero did so, blinked a few times to shake the images of memory and dream away. Then the urge to cover up hit him. Duo had seen- He gritted his teeth, not happy about having shown a weakness like that. Another bit of critique added to his pile. He was used to the nightmare now, had relived it more times than he could count - but never before had the effect lingered that much. Duo would understand, he was sure of that. They all had nightmares from time to time. Given what their lives were like, no sane man could avoid moments of regret.
"...I would have shook you awake, if I didn't think you'd have put a bullet between my eyes for it..."
It was said so softly, followed by such a weak grin that Heero faltered in finding a good answer.
"All I could do was call your name..."
Heero sat up, pulled on the sheets to keep his waist down covered, looked at the end of the bunk. "Thanks..."
Silence descended again. The chill of the room grew noticeable, but tolerable. "Want to talk about it?"
Heero glared at him, sized him up, eyes down to Duo's knees and up again, across blue boxers and a gray tank top. He had never really understood Duo's sense of body shyness. Heero preferred to leave all restrictions behind when sleeping, including clothes. Then again, his standard wardrobe was considerably more tight-fitting than Duo's. That was another thing he never quite understood about Duo - or the others. Was not maximum mobility the most preferable thing?
And Heero certainly didn't understand what the point of talking about his nightmares was. More than once had he roused Duo from one or another - usually because Duo's thrashing and soft whimpers distracted his own sleep. Yet, he'd never made an offer like that - and Duo had never demanded it. What good was talking about it? What good was admitting he was weak, still unable to cope with his past actions?
"I know something's wrong, Heero..."
No answer but silence.
"It's not what you think it is. It's not your past that's a problem - not whatever it is you were just reliving. It's your future that's at risk."
At that, Heero's frown faltered.
Duo stood up, moved to the foot of Heero's bunk. Heero retreated to allow Duo to sit, the sheets between his lap and his hands.
Heero waited, not sure what would come next.
"I've heard you laugh."
That was certainly not what he'd expected. His brows drew closer in suspicion. "What about it? You've never heard people laugh?"
"I don't mean your regular laughter, not that dark chuckle you make when Trowa makes a lewd joke. I mean your raw laughter, the one from the pit of your stomach - the one that's full of promises of destruction and chaos. That one..." He paused for but a moment. "It's not pretty."
Heero glared at him. It was the only defense he could think of. Duo was right. When he was close to losing control to rage, his laughter was usually the first to go. He'd heard his own maniacal laughter, but dismissed it - at least until he met the other pilots. Then it became yet another thing to hide; a weakness to cover up, feel bad about.
Duo took a deep breath, scooted further in against the bulkhead, pulled one leg up in the bed, leaving the other dangling over the edge. "Once, I knew this kid... The quiet type, kept to himself a lot. He was as nice as kids can be, I suppose..." He locked eyes with Heero for a moment. "But if you touched him without warning him or without his approval, he'd go crazy - real berserk, rage against everyone and everything, smash anything close and fragile, curse enough to make dockworkers blush - well, you get the picture. When he went off, it took forever for him to calm down again, no matter what they did - but when he did, the change was as abrupt at the first. The kid never remembered those violent tantrums afterward." Duo paused, pulled his other leg up too, rubbed his toes between his palms. "It was as if... as if he was two people in the same body, really... The quiet kid we all knew, and this little hellion that came out whenever he felt threatened."
Heero snorted, pulled on the sheets, not that they moved much with Duo sitting on them. "That's ridiculous."
Duo's frown was instant, and the cold stare sent a shiver down Heero's bare back. He was careful not to show his sudden streak of fear, though. "No, it's not. See, people cope with stress in different ways. Some just shrug it off almost without effort because they're either carefree, indifferent or fatalistically pragmatic. Others turn themselves into beings of steel or granite to weather anything the world tosses at them. A few crumble... ...and some find other ways to defend themselves - something hidden deep inside them they can bring out in times of need."
Duo waited for that part to sink in. Heero reached around his back for his pillow. It wasn't much of a defense, but it would have to do. The gun hiding under the pillow was no good for this type of combat. He hugged the pillow lazily against his stomach, convincing himself it was only to keep his arms occupied somehow.
"Nobody ever figured out why that kid went ballistic at a simple touch. Many guessed, but they were probably all wrong - at least the few who acted on their hunches. In the end, they told the kid of his other side - told the quiet kid about the little imp inside him. That was probably the best they could have done. It gave the boy a chance to work it out with himself before it got serious." He locked eyes with Heero again. "He did, you know. Almost all on his own. Between his two halves."
Calm analysis took control. "You're talking about schizophrenia. Multiple or split personalities."
Duo cocked his head to the side, as if waiting for more of a reaction. "Sort of... Something similar, at least. What we saw was only the start of the process, really. If the kid hadn't been made aware of it, he might have turned out really messed up - get two truly distinct people living in the same body, if not half a dozen, or more. It was just... well, fate didn't work out like that back then. He ended up pretty normal in the end."
Anger started breaking through, his voice was laced with frustration at the barely veiled accusation. "So... you're saying that I have-"
"Yes," Duo cut in, not allowing him to start lashing out. "And no. I don't think you have a 'real' case yet - just like that kid. You seem to shift between your private avatars without effort so far - but you're getting to a point where it might become a problem." Again, Duo hesitated, sighed, broke into a short, stressed chuckle. "You know, when you told me your motto was to live by your emotions, I didn't think you meant beside them..."
Heero's answer was the coolest glare yet, promises of death and maiming hanging loose in the air.
Duo wasn't blind; he noticed. "Look... I can see that I'm provoking a change in you, probably to your worst side, so I'll cut to the chase. Heero, you have a problem. Or problems. I don't know how many - I think I've noticed about three distinct ones so far. The one I'm talking to now is the one I've seen the most, so I'm assuming that's the 'main' you, in lack of a better word - just like how the quiet side was the 'main' side of the kid. Your true self is the voice in control - the one almost without emotion, despite what you preach. You've compartmentalized your feelings so much that they've formed lives of their own inside you, Heero. All your rage and passion stormed one way, and all your fears and worries huddled off in the other direction."
All the while, Heero felt anger swell up inside him. He could only take so much critique without bursting, without lashing out. He wasn't sure how long he could contain his need to vent his rage. His voice was calm, full of venom. "...and what do you suggest I do about this... problem?"
Duo hesitated in answering, letting everything said so far sink in.
Heero had a feeling he wasn't going to like the answer, but tried to calm down, gain full control of himself - both the side that wanted to take a swing at Duo for suggesting all of this, and the fearful side wanting to run away, sulk and acknowledge the truth in Duo's words.
At length, Duo said simply "Talk."
Heero thought about it, came to conclusions, all but growled in reply. "I'm not seeing a shrink, Duo."
Quick sigh, mild frustration in his voice. "I didn't mean that. I meant, talk to us, instead of yourselves." Heero opened his mouth as if to refute that claim, deny it, but Duo pushed on without letting him. "And I know you are, Heero. The other guys might not have picked up on it yet, but I've heard your nightmares before. I've heard your quiet murmurs when you thought nobody listened, or when you were half asleep, heading to and from those nightmares. Heero, quit bottling all of this up - try to show your feelings. Look, none of us would hurt you for being mad or afraid - you think we aren't? Sometimes, you're so detached from everything that we're left to wonder if you're even human, fercrissakes..."
Duo bit his lip. He was rambling beyond what he wanted, brushing against things he wanted to hold back, at least for a while longer. All he had hit Heero with so far was more than enough for any one stubborn bastard to cope with - even their local superhuman. Duo's frown broke apart, softened his expression. He looked Heero deep in the eye, touched Heero's bicep, undeterred by the lingering aftermath of the deathglare.
"Just... prove us wrong, okay?" He paused, then added "Please?"
While Heero kept his frown in defense, he hesitantly nodded. Duo had given him much to consider.
Duo got up. "Well, I have to go to the bathroom."
Heero didn't stop him, even if he was sure that was a lie. It hadn't been that long since Duo's last pit stop, he was sure of that. It didn't matter. If Duo wanted a quick escape, Heero would let him have it. Besides, Duo would probably stay there long enough to make the lie a truth.
Long enough for him to make up his mind, too.
After a few minutes alone in the dark bunkroom, Heero did. He tossed the pillow against the bulkhead, flipped the sheets aside and searched for his shorts, wanting to go down to the gym. He had an urgent appointment with the largest punching bag aboard Peacemillion - and after that, his bunk again.
It was safe under the covers.
Trying to follow Duo's advice came hard - but Heero tried, over and over again. After training himself so well in hiding everything, it was a constant struggle not to, no matter how small an expression he wanted to let through his mask of detachment.
He helped the other pilots tune their mobile suits, joined them in the rec rooms. He talked. Not on anything in specific - but that wasn't required. It was never mindless chatter - purpose was strong in him, and in his words. He discussed overall strategy with Quatre, trying to best the master strategist on the tactical level, often successfully. With Trowa the conversations strayed on mobile suit logistics - what type of armaments were best, which type of bullets and energy charges did best under which battle conditions, and so on. It was a mutual exchange of experiences.
He got caught up in more than one argument of battle philosophy with Wufei, trying to convince him sometimes guile was worthwhile - especially when the opponent was far too strong to engage head-on. Bravery would not do you much good if you were dead. Wufei countered him, convincing him that too much deceptions on the battlefield would only lead to a destruction from within; a hallowing of your warrior spirit, since you needed tricks to survive, not strength.
Duo was another story. For so long, Duo had been the one to initiate predominantly one-sided conversations with him, but ever since that night, he had become a bit reclusive. In the end, when words failed, he chose another tactic. They had been in the gym one late night, and he'd offered to spar with Duo in hand-to-hand combat. Duo had gladly accepted.
He had not so gladly lost, cursing and writhing with his face to the floor, one arm twisted behind his back and Heero wrestling him down against the mat. Heero wasn't sure why Duo kept struggling for so long, when the outcome was already clear. Heero lay on top of Duo until he finally calmed down in surrender.
He lost their instant rematch.
Their third was a tie.
After that, they lost track, both of score and time. Only Wufei's reminder they needed sleep before their shifts stopped their duelling.
Days came and went, and ever so slowly, Heero managed to form friendships rather than last name relationships with the other pilots, and even some of the crew. It took him a while to realize it himself, but when he did, he knew what he had to do.
One night in their bunkroom, he did it.
"Duo... thank you."
Duo sat up in his bunk, rubbed his eyes, looked at Heero sitting at the edge of the bunk. "Huh?"
"I said, thank you. For telling me about myself. For suggesting what to do."
"Oh..." Half a grin. "Don't worry about it..."
Silence descended the dimly lit room.
"That kid I told you about... You know, I only ever saw his angry side once."
"And that was just a flash in a mirror."
The eerie quiet returned. "That kid..." Heero made a quick glance out in the dimly lit room, then focused on Duo again. "It was you?"
Duo stared at him for the longest moment, waiting for any other reaction. When none came, he gave a hesitant nod. "Yeah... I was that kid. Both of them." He reached out to put his hand over Heero's. "See... I was rage and passion, Heero. I never could control myself when I went off... And I was fear and worry too, never sure what crap would hit me next. I... I never developed any sort of control over my two sides, could never bring them together. One never knew the other, after all - not until I caught myself in a mirror, just as I shifted back." He sighed, leaned up against the bulkhead. "Now, with you, things were different. You started out with control, and just stowed away your feelings. That's a big difference - you never really were your feelings..."
"...but you said-"
"I know what I said," Duo interrupted. "I told you, the kid - I - I turned out fairly normal, all things considered. I've learned to accept that I'm both a compassionate, vengeful person - as well as a kid wanting to run away and hide rather than fight. I don't know if my case was ever really serious - but I'm pretty sure that if I hadn't come across myself in that mirror, I would have fed both sides of me until they tore me in two. Luckily, I got the chance to merge my two sides. Some never do - and they turn into truly split personalities... But yeah, I'm pretty normal now, I think..." He flashed a grin. "Still argue with myself sometimes, but who doesn't?"
Soft snort, lopsided smile. "Yeah..."
Pause, cautious question. "Heero?"
"What about you, then? Think you've managed to pull your emotional sides back into yourself yet?"
Heero shrugged. "I don't know... I think so."
"So... When I'm talking to you now, who am I talking to?"
Heero gave him a puzzled look at first, then relaxed his face into a smile. "Me."
Return smile. "Good... See, in that case, I have a question for you..."
Duo pushed away from the bulkhead with his shoulder, shifted his palm from Heero's hand to his other elbow, sliding up to grip his bicep, turn his torso just a bit more. With his other hand, Duo reached around Heero's neck, slowly pulling him closer, meeting only token resistance.
Blink. Mild fear, shivers. Is - is he going to-
Eyes closing, closed. Soft pressure, warm tip of tongue against my lips...
Eyes opening, a lopsided smirk on his face. The bastard kissed me...
And grinned back at him, obviously waiting for an answer to his question.
As one, the trinity of Heero gave their reply, answering Duo's unspoken prayers.
It was right about then Heero began to realize why sleeping in the nude could be embarrassing.