Silves, Portugal, AC 206
“Kill him now!”
“I… I can’t!”
He laughs like it’s a good joke. Laughs like it’s the best joke he’s ever heard. Rich, boisterous laughter. My microphone crackles with interference-- still, he must’ve overheard Wufei’s words, otherwise he wouldn’t have laughed. He’s standing in front of me, a few meters away, tiptoeing in perfect balance on the large balustrade of the convent of St. Jorges. The historical building provides a marvellous view over the city; it’s still searing hot, it’s past midnight and the moon shines perfectly on him, sculpting his shadow into a living creature, foreshadowing darkness. Despite the heat, he’s dressed in all black; a thick, black scarf woven into his braid, the loose ties lazily dancing in the faint breeze. How I used to run my hands through his hair, how I used to whisper in his ear, how I used to gaze into his eyes.
I’m sweating like a pig; I’m wearing a jacket. God, why do I even think of wearing a jacket in the Portuguese summer? It’s smothering me- I feel the sweat rolling over my back.
“It doesn’t have to end like this.” My voice is faltering.
“Why yes, yes it does, Heero.” His voice... sings. A musical string of words, floating on the air, carried by the wind. I fail to suppress the surprised look on my face.
“In denial, aren’t we?” He laughs, but it isn’t the rambunctious laughter of a moment ago.
“Stop it, Duo…”
“Duo Maxwell isn’t here anymore. Shinigami is the only one left.”
My aim is perfect, gun steady in my hand. I can take him out with one shot. This is what I’m afraid of. I thought…
“I was dead?” He makes a dismissive gesture with his hand, twirling a small, wooden stick between his slender fingers. I follow his every movement with rapt attention- what’s he doing? Whatever he’s holding, it seems to unfold itself, thickening, growing in front of my eyes, taking the shape of a large… from the tip, it sprouts some sort of hook, curving, quickly enlarging itself, morphing into a… scythe, the razor sharp silver blade glowing faintly. I didn’t know what or who I’d find on top of the convent, and certainly not my lover and friend, Duo Maxwell.
“Oh, my poor Heero. Lost in the dark.”
His voice… is still the same. The voice that sang to me, the voice that lifted my spirits, the voice that spoke words of love, friendship, comfort, happiness. The same voice that repeated my name in the heat of passion, whispered promises at the moment of total surrender to emotions so strong, cried out in pleasure at the summit of pure ecstasy.
“Yes, I am lost in the dark. I thought I had a light to guide me.”
He snorts. “Poetic little fucker.”
The crude words make me cringe. This isn’t Duo. This is Shinigami. He’s really the only one left. It can’t be. It can’t be possible, ever, that my Duo has succumbed to the God of Death- that he believed that he had become the one in whose name he had taken so many lives.
“What is it you want?”
He shrugs. “There is nothing I could wish for. I already have everything.” He has the nerve to pat at his chest. “This is all I need.”
“Death is not a power, nor a force. It’s death- it has no influence on me! I can’t believe that of all people, Duo harboured you!”
“Oh, really now?” The high-pitched sarcasm in Duo’s voice hurts me as if he has dealt me a physical blow. “It’s the truth, my dear Heero. Mind you, I tested you all before I came to Duo.”
“Tested us all?”
“Remember your self-destruction? Trowa’s attempt at suicide? Quatre’s father being killed in front of his eyes? Wufei’s colony blown to bits?” He sounds amused, but the wrong kind of amused- a little bit of glee, as if he revels in those events and their disastrous consequences. Maybe he really does revel in it. “All perfect situations and I approached you each and every one. You all rejected me, though- you had something or someone to fall back on. You had Relena, her quest for peace and the strong feelings of protection she awoke in you. Trowa had his nice sister Catherine, who helped him back on the road. Quatre had his private army, his sisters, and the support of the other pilots to help him out. Wufei had his strong honour and visions of justice, and Sally to get him out of the hole he buried himself into. However, Duo... Duo didn’t have a thing.”
“That’s the biggest lie I’ve ever heard.” I snort, not afraid of angering the... creature. The one who has Duo’s looks and body, but not his character. “Duo was the liveliest of us all, he was always surrounded by friends, and he didn’t –and doesn’t- need the God of Death to keep him company. You corrupted him, with lies and-”
“The seed of his corruption was sown a long time ago.” He interrupts me, cocking his head. “Aww, do not feel bad, Heero. There was nothing you could do about it.”
“You can’t rile me,” I answer, snorting again. “I know everything about Duo. Don’t think you can use anything against me. I made mistakes, he made mistakes, I know about his youth, he knows about mine. There is nothing you can say that will make me upset or doubt myself. So why don’t you just leave Duo and me in peace?”
He throws his head back, laughing. “Magnificent! Bravo! What a speech, Heero- and you saw right through my master plan!” The scythe rests in the crook of his arm, the curved silver blade catching some moonlight and shining almost into my face. There are spots on the end of the blade, as if it has been smudged or tainted with paint... the colour of dried blood.
I wait until he has finished laughing; I have nothing more to say to him. I’m starting to feel tired, as if the fatigue that has built up from the past years has finally chosen this moment to drain me. I want this to end.
“Blind, foolish...” I didn’t hear him speaking again, and I quickly focus my attention back to him.
“Deaf, arrogant...” He plucks the scythe out of the crook of his elbow, gripping the weapon, hands a few decimetres from each other. Such a strong grip.
“You are lying,” I repeat. “You have told Duo lies, and corrupted him. He never would have chosen to become the God of Death, or harbour you willingly. You forced him to. Get out of him and leave us both in peace!”
“I commend you for your bravery, but you are far too late.” His voice has lowered a few octaves, sounding almost like he’s rumbling. It’s too low a voice for Duo. My Duo. My Duo who laughed, talked, joked, cried, and chattered...
“Death holds no power over me.” I said that before too. If you have self-destructed once, believe me, death has no surprise in store for you any more.
“I know.” He whispers, reverently… respectfully? “Only Duo has, right? So how does it feel, Heero, that he is the one going to kill you?”
“You filthy…” I can’t say it. My aim doesn’t falter. My arm is as rigid as a blade. Perfect hit.
My thumb moves a little, clicking off the safety pal. It’s like a church bell ringing into my ear. He notices my movement and grins, not even tightening the grip on his weapon.
“Let’s see what’s faster- your bullet, or my scythe.”
I hear my gun fire at the same time as a flash of silver appears in front of my eyes.
Prague, Czech Republic, AC 200
I take a sip from my orange juice, swallowing the watery drink. I’m almost happy that I can taste the oranges; I’ve been used to synthetic crap for too long. The quality of the fruit may be low- but they’re real; freshly squeezed oranges, right under my nose. The juice presser didn’t seem clean- nothing about this run-down café in the back streets of Prague seems hygienic- but it suffices. There are more important things than orange juice. Most of the people here are nursing a cup of hot coffee or a steaming mug of tea; but I don’t need the caffeine right now. Never needed it, and those stimuli aren’t good for my system; not that I need any stimuli for my system anyway. I’m here on a job, on a mission, and I want to end it successfully.
The benefits of a military training? Numerous. The disadvantages? Numerous too, but that’s another tangent altogether. I don’t have the time to elaborate on this right now; I’m waiting for my partner in this mission to show up. I watch the people present in this café and with one look, I know how to deal with them. The bickering couple in the right corner- they won’t pose a danger, as they are too engrossed in their conversation, totally focused on each other. The elderly, grumpy man in the other, left corner- he could be a problem; I can’t assess his physique and weight very well because of the overly large coat he’s wearing. His eyes are darting around the room incessantly; he’s either on some kind of drug or he’s just paranoid. The two men in the middle, seated at the large, hard plastic table, are pretending to play a card game, but they’re bad actors. From first sight alone, it’s obvious they’re up to something- they don’t yet possess stoic faces, the nerve to pull off a smooth cover act, and they haven’t been around in criminal circles long enough to move unnoticed and inconspicuously. I don’t need my over-developed sixth sense -thank you military training, benefit number one- to determine that they are dealing in something, or are setting up some kind of transaction by the way they’re playing their cards. What would the cards stand for: drugs, weapons, illegal medicines?
The doorbell chimes and he enters. Trowa Barton. Punctual as usual. He doesn’t need to search through the café, he recognizes me within the second. He walks towards me- his military training, one of the best, has made everything neutral about him. Trowa Baron can sit next to you for hours on end and you wouldn’t have known how to describe him even if he had talked to you. Blending in, fitting in, and collecting information, in and out before you can bat an eye. Trowa sits down at my table, after a short nod of his head. The bored waitress approaches him, wiping her hands off on her smudged apron. He orders a small coffee and then sits down, facing me.
“Dobré odpoledne, Vavrin.”
“Dobré odpoledne, Bojan.”
Trowa hasn’t changed in the few years we haven’t seen each other- after the Eve Wars, we all needed some time to ourselves. Even Duo and I, but we rotated so quickly towards each other that six months after the last war, we were living together. He needs people around him, and I need him around me. It’s simple as that. Duo Maxwell is life- I need him to breathe, to think, to see, to live. I can’t imagine my life without him, and the others saw that too- almost reverently, they left us alone for a while before we renewed our social contacts. Trowa, Quatre, Wufei, Relena, Sally, Hilde... the impact of two consecutive wars is significant, and everyone was affected by the events. I dealt with it like I usually do with similar situations; analyzing and processing. Duo likes to make fun of that, but I know he worries about me ‘bottling too many things up’. I can’t help it that I’m not that extravert as he is, but that’s what it makes so interesting- a day with Duo is never the same as the day before. Yes, I love him and he loves me. For the moment though, I have to keep my mind clear of him- there’s this mission I have to attend to.
After the War, we kept in touch with vid-mails and phone calls, the times we did talk to each other. Trowa went to L3 with the circus and the woman who turned out to be his sister, Catherine. I was glad for him when he told me officially- he had his suspicions, but now it was confirmed they were related. Don’t we all long for a family bond or a significant other? I never thought I would be all that happy-family either- but since I have Duo, I have come to think about it otherwise. I know my adoptive father is dead, and I’m sure he didn’t have any other children. Duo sometimes mentions that he’s going to look for relatives, and he doesn’t mean only Sister Helen or Father Maxwell by that. If there are any living relatives of my Duo, he will find them, one way or the other. I’m not that particularly interested in what he calls ‘finding my roots’. Many civil records have been destroyed in the war, and it just doesn’t bother me that much. Duo is all that I need.
Trowa accepts the coffee the waitress brings him and puts it on the table. His hair is still the same, combed to one side, covering one of his green eyes, the bangs for some reason looking a bit darker than the usual chestnut. He looks at me; calm, composed. Military benefit number two: never let your emotions show too much – or not at all - on your face. We have a cover to keep up; I offer him a pack of cigarettes, and he takes two; one to light up immediately, and sticking the other one behind his ear. Taking two cigarettes is the signal that everything is under control.
Trowa taking up smoking is one of the little surprises of life, just as he didn’t end up working with Quatre. After the war ended and – for the time being - peace was established, I assumed our group would stick together… but I soon learned that peace was fragile, war still imminent and threatening, and people go their own way, no matter what I think or what ties holds them together. Maybe the war didn’t bind us as profoundly as I had expected; I wanted to leave it all behind me and do something that didn’t involve mecha… dear God, how I loved my Wing Zero, but I didn’t cry for one moment when there was nothing left of it to be rebuilt. It was a symbol of death and destruction and of life and growth, all together in one piece of machinery. It was something that formed me into who I was- and Duo was the one who formed me into who I am.
The café is still quiet, the two men playing cards are awaiting the arrival of their third partner- the man they know as Gergely, and the man I know as Duo. My Duo. It still makes me feel strange... no, hurt, every time we have to take off our rings when we’re going undercover. No, we’re not married- neither of us feels the need to throw a big party or sign a few papers to convince each other that we’re really in love, though we did want something to symbolize our bond. Both our rings are rather plain, white gold, engraved with our names and the promise of always and forever. I didn’t expect Duo to go for a rather simple ring like this one, but I’ve also come to learn that his exuberance doesn’t have to extend to everything in his life. It irritates me that I’d had to take it off- but not only would it be strange for Bojan Labó to wear a ring with Heero & Duo engraved on it, but also it would give away too much information about me, and it could be used against me. I know Duo would have been sighing as he took his off, before putting it into the velvet jewel box. We don’t share a hotel room during a mission- we aren’t even supposed to know each other for as long as this operation needs to be wrapped up.
Of course, I don’t really know what goes on in Duo’s head, as he often still surprises me with the way he can think or shows his insight. I know how intelligent he is, and how good he is in his work… Duo agreeing to work for ESUN amazed me, however. I was convinced he wanted to leave everything pertaining to war behind him, closing the chapter that contained... and tainted him with Shinigami, his partner in the battle of life and death, of war and peace. I should’ve known that instead of that, Duo would chose to continue to fight so that others wouldn’t have to, accepting that his life would be entwined with the God of Death for the rest of his days. That’s the only thing he doesn’t want to talk about- maybe he got tired of the comparison, as I am getting rather fed up with people calling me the Perfect Soldier- I never was, and I never will be. I’d rather not lose my humanity, becoming an order-following drone without a personality. I did follow orders during the war, but I always had a great say in my missions as well; military training benefit number three: developing strategic skills and taking responsibility for decisions in effecting that strategy.
The doorbell chimes again, and Duo enters the café. Nobody looks up- the couple is still occupied with their heated argument, the elderly man still darts his eyes about, not seeing anything apparently, and the two men force themselves to focus on their cards. Officially, Duo – as well as Quatre - has had the least military training of us all; but that’s only officially. Duo has something else; hardened in life, a tenacious survivor’s instinct, an instinct stronger than everybody else’s together. I’m proud of him, my Duo… I think his life on the streets taught him more than any official training, but he merely shrugs and smiles when I say so- he always says that we’ve all learned from the experiences in our lives, and that his situation wasn’t that different from the others. It’s talking about his past that makes him sad, sometimes irritated, and very occasionally infuriated. The subject of his past... both our pasts... the time before the wars, is something we don’t talk about often. He rather looks forward to the future and I can do nothing but agree with that.
He’s about to make contact with the other two. Duo brushes past our table, not showing any sign of recognition, of course. He walks by on our right side, another sign that the situation is still under control. I don’t expect anything else of him. Trowa coughs, as if he inhaled too deeply, to show Duo that the signal is understood. Small signs, and maybe exaggerated or superfluous considered our professionalism and experience, but this is our trust system. We’re his backup should things go wrong, just like in the ‘old’ war days. We know we can count on each other.
Duo takes his place at the table, after greeting the two card players cheerfully and jovially. They shove their chairs backwards, allowing room for him to take a seat. He sits down, the epitome of relaxed carelessness; hands folding behind his head, legs wide, slumping in his chair. He has nothing to hide, face radiating a certain smugness and confidence. Those two aren’t just card players; if Duo can make a deal, and record it with the equipment on his body, we have enough to arrest them. They may be small fry and not very deep into the organization, judging from their nervousness and non-professional approach, but it’s a good start in rolling up a large cell in a smuggling network in Eastern Europe. Inconspicuous, that’s the keyword we operate by. This rundown, greasy café on the Stépanská 35 in Prague isn’t exactly the most obvious choice of doing a transaction. Duo needs to play the game only once to decipher the structure of their deals and their working methods.
He talks- I can hear his voice. He has a knack for languages, and he speaks Czech with a barely audible accent. Duo is good at dealing with situations, especially when something unexpected comes up. He’s a pretty good infiltrator, and knows how to adapt to changes in a situation very well. I hold a noncommittal conversation with Trowa, not really listening to his voice as he’s not really listening to mine. If witnesses were to describe us, it wouldn’t be much more than “two young men talking over a cup of coffee”.
It’s an old fashioned mission… nothing has really changed since the war. We don’t use mecha anymore, but the threat and danger are still there. The ESUN was established to maintain peace, both on Earth and the colonies. I could debate to a very deep level why and how there are still people who apparently aren’t satisfied with peace and feel the need to trade in weapons, start civil wars, smuggle technology or drugs, but Duo always summarises it with ‘There are always rotten apples in the fruit basket.’, taking the words right out of my mouth.
We both know we are needed with our skills- working for the ESUN enables us to keep a low profile, while the media is searching all over the world for those elusive Gundam pilots. None of our friends have ever talked about us to the press, but during the war we have met so many people, so it was inevitable that some information has been divulged. At this moment, the five Gundam pilots are still heroes, but shrouded in mystery, as not everything is known about us. It amuses Duo to no end, and sometimes I suspect him of regretting not being able to cash in on his name, so to speak. I think Duo would like all the interest and the media blitz, as he’s a natural centre of attention, but on the other hand, he likes his privacy as well. He sometimes refers to us being heroes or legends, but he never goes on about it… maybe I should ask him if it’s really important to him.
This is an under cover mission... no microphones, no wires. I snort softly- as if we ever needed that. He only wears a small recording device as we need oral proof of the transaction being made, otherwise it won’t hold up in court. We don’t need a back-up besides ourselves, the ones we can trust. I once suggested to Duo that he should wear wires. He is more of a ‘flying by the seat of his pants’ person. I have yet to forgive him for not even studying the plans of the Lunar Base before he came to rescue us. He takes great pleasure in telling me time and time again with that goofy smirk on his face that he found out where the cells were by consulting a map on the wall. I don’t liked being unprepared, but with or without equipment, Duo always succeeds. His protests against wearing wires were so loudly that it almost looked like I had just broken up with him, and his argument that I obviously doubted his skills had hurt very much. I remember very well that we both went to bed that night very tense- Duo never throws a tantrum, nor is angry or infuriated that often… but when he is, he’s not the Duo everybody knows... not the Duo I know.
The conversation behind me starts to get a bit heated, judging from the raised voices. I suppress my urge to turn around to see what is going on. Trowa has a better view of them, and he’ll give me a signal should we need to intervene. I take another sip of my orange juice and continue to hold up our meaningless conversation; I see his lips move in an answer, but I don’t register his words. The card players are talking a bit more loudly, the Czech language too difficult and too fast to follow exactly. We were Gundam Pilots, and had been trained to handle every situation thrown towards us. We have all proven to be capable of dealing with stress and strenuous situations and I trust Duo to work his way out of this safe and sound as well. Trowa cocks his head a little and I straighten my back- with the voices still rising, something is not going smoothly. What are they arguing about? The price, the amount, the quality? Duo’s voice still sounds the same- he needs to establish the transaction, it’s in his own interest to keep the conversation going and under control. Trowa puts out his cigarette, which is a sign to me that he’s ready to intervene when necessary. Damn, why had I agreed to sit with my face turned to the entrance, with my back to Duo, leaving it to Trowa to have the overview of the situation? I know exactly why- I would jump in too early and too easily- something that Duo has reproached me for before. I have to tell myself that he can take care of himself; I don’t need to protect him. He’s just as adequate as me- but he’s also my lover, and the only person in my life I care so much about that I would die for him. I have been quick and easy to self-detonate during the war, believing that the importance of the mission was far greater than my own life; but Duo taught me that the value of my life was far greater than that. Now he’s the only one I want to die for- no matter what.
The voices dwindle down; apparently the situation is back under control. Trowa doesn’t pick up his cigarette again, and I remain seated, a bit cramped from the rigid position I’ve forced myself into. Within a second, I can intervene and save Duo. I have assessed the two card players before; both their physique and build outweigh mine, but I always have the upper hand when it comes to speed. I don’t rely on pure, muscular strength when it comes to a fight; agility and speed are far more important. Duo laughs- I heave a sigh of relief. Everything is under control.
“Dohodnutá cena,” I hear behind me. Trowa nods at me, hardly noticeably- they have agreed to something, apparently the price. I curse my lack of language skills.
“Přespříliš,” the other one says. Trowa lifts an eyebrow. He’s not agreeing with the price, he sounds irritated- he’s also the one who raised his voice a little earlier. Duo answers him, voice laced with confidence and charm. He’s going to bargain with the man for as long as it takes him to agree. We can’t arrest them before they have both agreed to finish the transaction.
From the corner of my eye, I watch the elderly man in the left corner. He’s too restless, and he’s setting off alarm bells in my head. I can’t place him; he doesn’t belong with the others, or does he..? I see him reaching inside his coat at the same moment one of the card players yells something loud and indignant, and chairs scrape over the floor. The next second, the waitress starts to scream: “Puška! Puška!” and both the transaction and control are lost. The woman throws herself to the ground, the couple in the corner look up, frightened, and the elderly man starts to fire- at the two card players and at Duo.
Chapter 2 |