Innocence Faded, Part 3
by Jennifer Beacham & Kea Snyder


Background music: Innocence Faded by Dream Theater

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"Beginnings get complicated
the farther we progress
Opinions are calculated
Immune to openness"
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Wintertime air against sleep-warmed skin is never pleasant. Combined with the icy tension in the room it was even worse. I had no one to blame but myself. Duo was ready to pick up where we'd left off almost a year ago, I was the one resisting, the one that wouldn't let it happen. 

I let the blanket drop to the bathroom tiles, slipping inside the glass-enclosed shower. I turned the hot water on, increasing the pressure until it was nearly at full force, adding just enough cool to keep it from scalding my skin. If I'd thought I could have gotten away with it, I'd have taken the extra punishment, but Duo had sharp eyes. The stinging spray was painful, but I made no attempt to escape it. I leaned against the back wall of the shower, arms spread wide, and let it do its worst. Even then the blood still stained my skin. It never washes off, and I don't think it ever will.

Drawing a slow, careful breath, I lifted my hands and raked back my hair, turning so that the water beat down on my back.  I leaned my head against the wall, the spray so hot that the feel of it was a bittersweet mix of pleasure/pain. The sensation was not unlike just being in the same room again with Duo. I took a deep breath, and  shuddered, realizing my system was still in shock,  the events of the past week caving in on me with the mercy of a ton of bricks. 

The war was over. Over... not simply adjourned, or postponed.  The gundams were gone. Peace stood triumphant, at last. Only one problem remained...what to do with the soldiers when there are no more battles to be fought? What happens when a deadly weapon has fulfilled its purpose? I knew. I'd known it yesterday, I was just too much of a coward to do it quickly. I'd let him distract me last night, but a calm, cold part of me whispered that I knew very well what happened. Delaying the inevitable was foolish....delaying the inevitable would, in the end, just make it hurt all that much more. Hadn't I hurt him enough? Didn't I owe it to him to stop hurting him, over and over again?

I cringed beneath the scalding rain, shoving my hands through my wet hair, flexing my fingers convulsively as they slid free, then tightening them into fists. One fist met the wall, and then the other, pain blossoming beneath battered skin. It was a good feeling, a real feeling, almost enough to drown out the chaos in my head. Above all else, I had to put last night, and every night like it that had preceded it, out of my mind.

It was all perfectly clear. My star was collapsing, turning into a gaping maw that would swallow the universe around it whole. I refused to let it take him, too. 

Pushing away from the wall, I turned the water off and stepped out of the shower. The steam created a short-lived envelope of warmth around me, but it faded quickly. The cold clung to my skin, causing an involuntary shiver. I'd need that cold, the emptiness that spread outward from that inner void... It was the only thing that would let me walk back out into that room...and then walk away.

Wrapping a towel around my waist, I turned the knob and steeled myself. I needed that tensile strength as I stepped outside, my eyes hopelessly destined to lock with his. 

I remember once, as Wing Zero arrowed across the sea, hurtling us both towards another objective, another mission, looking up and noting that the sun was setting on the cockpit's starboard side. The sky was like fire on that side, orange and red. To port, it was a dark blue. Somewhere in the middle, in the skies ahead, those two conflicting fronts met and merged, creating a deep, rich purple...warm and cool intermingled into something else entirely... That was the color of his eyes, like the skies at sunset. Beautiful eyes, raw with badly concealed hurt. 

I wonder if I could have managed not to care, once. If so, where was that part of me now? Killed by those eyes? Sent into retreat by the memory of his touch? Or perhaps, slowly, I was waking from the nightmare I'd been trapped in since childhood. 

I wish I'd known to wake up before it was too late.


***

I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew it the moment I saw him. I knew it the moment I realized he intended to throw himself away as one of the useless weapons of war. I knew he had everything to take, nothing to give. I knew, I
knew!

Oh, God, if I knew, then why does it still hurt so much?

My face hurt from crying. Even my eyelashes ached. I hate crying. It has to be one of the most humiliating things a guy can possibly do, giving someone else the power to put your emotions on 'frappe'. Stupid. Baka, I mentally berated myself, scrubbing a hand under my runny nose. All hail Duo Maxwell, Lord of the Baka.

To make matters worse, I hadn't gotten dressed yet, and I had no memory of snatching a brush through my hair and assembling the ugliest braid in history out of it. I simply didn't have the will to move. I wanted to mope, to curl up somewhere into this little ball of misery and angst, and I hated myself for even considering such pathetic thoughts. 

I couldn't blame anyone else because I chose to do this. Skipping most of the celebrations, I'd gone to L2 just long enough to settle the deal with Hilde on the business and streaked back here to find him. I fully expected Relena to still have him under lock and key at the hospital.  I couldn't blame anyone else for ascribing meaning beyond the moment to last night. Dammit, I knew better! Isn't it amazing how we never really 'know better' until we've already committed an act of irretrievable stupidity?

Worse, I knew that if I could turn back time, I'd do the exact same thing again. I'd experienced life without him before, and that nearly killed me. Simply letting go, walking away and leaving him there in the streets, had never been an option. Hell, even after I shot him I couldn't leave him to drown.

I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands and groaned. My head hurt, and my face had that uncomfortable heaviness that said I really needed to blow my nose. Soon, or my brains would start leaking down my face. It was only the shredded remnants of my pride that motivated me out of bed and towards the Kleenex. And the kah-klunk of the shower turning off helped, too. If Heero got to be clean, I should be as presentable as possible. Shake off the self-pity for twenty seconds and pull yourself together, Maxwell! I thought as I blew my nose fiercely.

The door clicked open and I turned around in reflex. By some karmic joke our eyes collided, and I looked away first. Give that round to the contestant from Japan. "Did you have plenty of hot water?" I heard myself say, the rational part of my brain trying to collect the other jagged pieces and herd them into something resembling sense. 

You knew this would happen, Duo, the thoughts kept taunting me. I chunked the tissue into the trash can and firmly told my inner voice to fuck off. It was a little childish, but I didn't want him to see me as wrecked as he was yesterday. At least he had a good reason for it. His whole meaning for existence had come to an end. 

Daring another look at those forbidding, wintry eyes and remembering them so recently hot with feeling, I thought I might have a good reason, too.

***

"Hai." Look at me. Look at me so that I can pretend everything is as it was, as it's supposed to be. Just one encounter among many, a final easing of mutual need. 

I tell myself all sorts of shit and expect it to be believed. 

"Does anyone know I'm here?" I didn't care, really. It didn't matter, but the silence was becoming deafening with words unsaid. So I spoke to drown them out. 

I didn't wait for an answer, bending to collect my clothing from the floor. Turning my back to him, I let the towel fall. Why try for modesty? He'd seen me naked before, several times. The risk of further distraction at this point was minimal, I think I'd cut him sufficiently deep to guarantee that. Now it was just a matter of getting dressed and getting out of here. Simple.

The tactical part of my mind was still churning in the background, ignoring the emotional chaos that raged around it. Ultimately, it had formulated a very logical, methodical course of action. There were still chunks of Wing Zero left that were big enough to mount a salvage operation. At best it might be used as a trophy, at worst... the Zero System wasn't a toy, and at times I think it had a mind and purpose of its own. With an appropriately weak will at its disposal... I shuddered.

With any luck, the self-destruct unit would still be intact; that would take out the torso section, the largest and most dangerous piece. It seemed like a fitting way to assure peace, really. In those quiet moments at the bottom of the ocean, Zero had shown me the future, a future in which peace existed and it didn't. We are linked, Zero and I. Wing was a tool, an extension of my hands. I was Zero's tool, for better or for worse. If one should cease to exist, so should the other. Besides, my Gundam was the only thing that had given my life purpose, riding with it to hell seemed the least I could do. 

I tugged my jacket on, taking a deep breath. God, Duo's scent clung to me even now. I shuddered again, trembling like a wire pulled too taut and just on the verge of breaking. I wanted to turn around and look at him, to ask him to help me. I can't fight alone anymore. I just--

I just need to end this.

"Arigatoo," I said quietly, my voice toneless. "I'm going now."

***

I was cold, and I felt very self-conscious standing there in nothing but a pair of navy silk boxers. "No," I said, the word tight in my throat. The blue towel had fallen away, baring him to my eyes. I glanced down, but nothing could remove the image from my mind. Suddenly I wasn't cold anymore. "Wufei knows I saw you but I didn't tell him you were here."

The slightest noise of acknowledgment rose from the collection of wiry limbs and damp hair dragging on his clothing. I held my breath and concentrated on chaste thoughts until I had body and mind leashed once more. If this were just about a roll in the hay between us, a sympathy fuck even, I would have been all right with it. Okay, maybe I'm deluding myself, but he scared the shit out of me yesterday; I wasn't about to let go until I knew he was fine.

But would he ever be fine again with Gundam a memory?

His voice broke my thoughts with a meaningless thanks and a declared intent. I saw the red of sudden anger skate across my vision. It stabbed through me like a sharp needle. I was angry. Angry at myself for letting yesterday happen, angry at feeling hurt over the inevitable outcome, but more than anything, I was angry because Heero Yuy was going to make a liar out of me. I promised I wouldn't leave him alone, even though his fleeing would probably get me off on a technicality. 

"Where?" I blurted out, running my hands up and down my bare arms to ward off the returned chill. It sounded mournful and petulant even to me; when did I get this fucking pathetic?  "Why?" I asked, softer, worrying a loose chunk of my escaped hair.

***

"Does it matter?" I asked, my voice no louder than his had been. 

I turned around, then, and I felt myself go dead inside, eyes as flat and hard as chips of glass. This had to be done, there were no alternatives, no possibility of reprieve. Graceless,  I sank down into a chair, reaching for my boots. "Wing Zero is still mostly intact. That's a risk that can't be ignored."

"I'm going to make sure that it never becomes a threat again."


***

'Does it matter?' How can you ask me that? It's you; of course it matters!  

Something in the rational part of my brain began twitching, beating against my skull with what promised to be a profound revelation, but it didn't stand a chance against the drowning tide of emotion. There was something beneath the hardened surface of his eyes, something itching to get out. To get out or get away...probably from me, I thought. The pain of a rejection I should have anticipated flared anew like an explosion in my chest, raw and biting. I grabbed the back of the chair closest to me; otherwise I would have been on my knees.

The human consciousness has a stunning capacity for multitasking, though. Like a sponge, I kept absorbing what little information he offered. 'I'm going to make sure that it never becomes a threat again.' Which meant he had to dispose of Wing Zero. Naturally. We had all done that. I could still feel the cool, rounded curves of the self-destruct beneath my fingers as I pressed the button and watched Deathscythe Hell obliterate itself into nothing and...

Oh shit...

Dammit, Heero, last night didn't fucking happen so you could throw your life away today! His head snapped up, and it was only then I realized I'd said--make that shouted--it aloud.

***

I stiffened, heart pounding, my lungs begging for air as my entire body ground into stillness. 

I'd underestimated him. You'd think by now that I'd know better. Or maybe, just maybe,  part of me was still begging to be stopped, crying out in the darkness with a voice that I'd chosen not to hear. I dragged a slow breath into my tortured chest, analyzing the situation. 

Alright. So he knew. So what? I closed my eyes, took another deeper, shuddering breath. It didn't make any difference. Weariness was creeping over me again like the long shadows of twilight. I was ready for night to fall, felt like I'd been waiting for longer than I could remember. 

Get up, that inner voice warned coldly. Walk away. Now

I gathered myself to rise, but something stopped me. Something that I don't think I'll ever be able to explain. Without looking up, I asked, very quietly, "Why did last night happen?"

***

I shook with indignation, vibrating like a leaf in a gale. What did it take to get through to him that he mattered? If I thought it would have helped, I'd have grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to knock some sense into him. But there was only room in this room for one suicidal ex-terrorist.

Frustration choked my throat closed and I shoved my fingers through unruly bangs, not even wincing at the tangles. I'd gambled and lost. Sex hadn't worked; it only delayed things. Tenderness--true tenderness I could only show him while he slept--had no effect. Logic? Don't make me laugh; no one asking me for bullets to put in his skull would respond to logic. 

I was rapidly running out of options and I didn't know what to do in this desperate race to stay one step ahead of him. I let my guard down long enough to feel sorry for myself and he's ready to run for Zero and become a human firework. Not on my watch, Yuy. He had gone perfectly still, but I didn't trust it, no matter how the raw whistle of breath in his lungs squeezed my heart. I was fast enough to tackle him if he moved for the door, but...

'Why did last night happen?' fell from the stillness of those bloodless lips.

This time it was me that froze, trapped as surely as a deer in headlights. Direct questions never fail to trip me up. Mentally, I scrambled back like an awkward crab, cursing him for using this weakness against me now. 'Why?' was the one I always had the most trouble with. I never lie, so attempting to explain things  winds up in the type of convoluted, twisted mess reserved for the timelines of American comics. Besides, hadn't we'd gone over this last night? I told him it all came down to one reason: because I wanted to. 

Truth it was, but it didn't expose the man behind the curtain. While Heero is one of the most brilliant guys I have ever known, I doubted he would realize the name of the puppeteer holding my strings and directing my actions.

Love.

It all happened because I was purely, helplessly, passionately, and completely in love with one Heero Yuy. And I was struggling for new ways to say it without using the words. Ways to both continue telling the truth and keeping the truth from him. 

"Heero..." I swallowed hard, and my body moved on its own accord; my legs still felt gelatinous, but they supported my weight. Five steps, and I was all but toe-to-toe with him. Five steps further down the rocky road. Hurt continued to resonate in me like a discordant note, but my own pain has never failed to submit itself to soothing his.

My hand shook violently--wanting to touch him, terrified to do so--as I stretched it out to him. "I wanted to help you. I couldn't stand seeing you like that." And I'm too selfish to let you put a bullet in your head just to end it all. 

I think Wufei was right back then when he called me 'pathetic'; there are times when I pity me. Some days the only thing that keeps me going is my quest to prove Heero is a real human being inside, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Isn't that something straight out a fucking shoujo manga? 

"Not just to help you," I gently said, the ache in my chest impossible to ignore. It demanded I touch him, keep touching him, keep believing. "I wanted to be with you." My fingers grazed his face, the electric sensation of skin on skin undiminished by the riveting tension stretching us both as tightly as a drawn bow. "Even if it was only for a little while, I wanted to take away your pain."

My body again developed independent will and locomotion; the silk of my boxers whispered against the rough denim of his jeans as I straddled his lap. Granted, my presence might only delay him a few seconds in blowing himself and Wing Zero skyward, but sometimes a few seconds is all the difference in the world.

***

I wanted to take away your pain.

Pain. I hurt. I hurt so badly. It pushed ruthlessly upwards, past the formidable barriers I'd held in place for so long. It wasn't the same. Physical hurt could be ignored, forced into the back of the mind and forgotten. This was deeper, a mortal wound.

 I was already trembling so hard that I had to clench my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. My body was practically convulsing in manifestation of what was going on inside. It abruptly stilled when he touched me, drawing into absolute tension when his body came into full contact with mine. 

"Duo..." My back slammed into the back of the chair, a belated attempt at escape, to shy back from his presence.  I couldn't manage to say anything else, but my eyes locked onto him. Then, without knowing why, I leaned into him, wrapping my arms around his waist, resting my forehead on his shoulder.

It was too much, all of it. This was it.  I was going to break, I could feel the fractures already starting, running through the flawed mold of my self. I turned my head, slowly unlacing one hand from behind his back and lifting it. I watched, fascinated, as it trembled uncontrollably. I couldn't stop it, couldn't stop anything that was happening. It was like I was watching from the outside, cursed to witness a tragedy unfold. 

A soft sound like a sob tore itself from my chest and I looked up at him. I willed him to let me go, to just go away and let what happened happen. It's not your fault, Duo. It's just...

God... it's just me finally going crazy.

***

His legs were warm and strong against my backside. And frighteningly tense.  Dancing with death as Shinigami had always meant uncertainty for me, I'm no stranger to it, but to see uncertainty staring back at me through his eyes...reemphasized just what was at stake.  

I opened my mouth to speak, and he touched me; never breaking eye contact, he laced his arms around me. Broken as a reed in the wind, his body folded into mine, forehead pillowing on my shoulder. Time seemed to crawl as I simply held him, willing my heart to beat for both of us, my lungs to breathe for both of us. In my mind, I could see the shattered remnants of his soul in my hands; I couldn't let go for a second or he would slip away.

Achingly slow, he raised one hand into our field of vision. It shook, and with dull eyes he stared, mesmerized by the vibrations.  Mine slipped around it, holding it steady. The small, fierce tremors seemed to cascade from his skin straight into my soul. 

"Don't talk, don't think. Just be," I whispered, loathe to bring anything else into the moment but us. It was wearing me out mentally trying to keep up with his sudden mood swings, but what choice did I have? It was made the moment I knelt down in the dirty streets by him yesterday, the moment our bodies first knew no barriers between the other months ago. Maybe even from the moment I pulled the trigger of that gun.

His breath broke on the air in a choked half-sob; the small sound crushed the last of my mental restraints to powder. "I'll be with you." My hands tightened over his, clutching it to my chest, pressing those shaking fingertips over the steady pulse of my heart. 

All it would have taken to repeat last night, to return to that realm where body and soul merged into one, was one kiss. One kiss to light the dynamite that exploded between us. Nothing difficult about it. I could do it; his mouth was dangerously close to mine, lower lip trembling with emotion. Already I felt my body want to move; so little effort to lean forwards and warm his lips with mine. One kiss. One direct flight back into his arms.

I sighed mentally, knowing what I wanted was inappropriate, even destructive. To simplify the complexity I held in my hands down to something another blistering, desperate lovemaking session could cure would be tantamount to slapping a Band-Aid on a mortal wound; it might temporarily staunch the flood of life draining away, but it wouldn't fix what was wrong. Heero was still bleeding to death inside; he was wounded and I didn't have a clue where the knife really was. Or if pulling it out would let him heal or mean his death. 

I turned my face downward and brought Heero's hand to my mouth, placing a soft kiss in his palm; I remember hearing somewhere that a kiss there was for a request. "Breathe," I exhaled against his skin, inhaling his scent once again as I nuzzled his fingers like a cat before protectively clasping that hand between my own again. "Just breathe, Heero. It's the first step on the path."

***

Breathe. It seemed an age since I had taken a breath. 

Manic desperation didn't lend itself to just breathing, just existing. It demanded action, some attempt to resolve or escape from its cause. I couldn't stop trembling, my body aching with the inner struggle that was tearing me apart.  

I want...to get... away... I want it to stop. Stop hurting me, please just stop. I'm lost, I'm dying inside. 

I need...Something to hold on to.

Default programming snapped into place abruptly and without warning. I bit my lip so hard it drew blood, struggling between accepting the clarity offered by my training and fighting it down again. That's not me, not really.

No... I guess that's not true, it's a much a part of me as anything else. And maybe if I could lock myself down to that again... maybe I could find a way to survive this. I breathed deeply, looking up at him through my bangs. "Ninmu wa nan desu ka?" I asked him softly, giving in to the soldier. 

'What is my mission?' 

***

What could I say? If his universe had a center, it was the mission. Make that Mission with a capital M. He felt ready to shake apart in my arms, a ship tossed in violent, stormy waters with nothing for anchor. Existence depended on and revolved around the mission. Without the mission, there was no stability, no constant by which to measure.

Eerily, it reminded me of this guy I'd known in the Sweepers, a mechanic everybody called Tiger. Wasn't his real name, but who was I to judge on that score?  There wasn't anything he couldn't fix, couldn't hack apart and put back together so it ran better than ever. Most of what I learned about parts, salvage and engineering was from him.

Tiger had this knack for everything being in its proper place. With one look, he could tell you what bolts were missing out of a wrecked suit, every little place it had taken damage. He was a walking diagnostic computer, with the steady and sharp personality to match. The first couple weeks after I met him, I went around in awe, imagining rounds of the Hallelujah Chorus whenever he walked by, he was that good.

One day I borrowed a wrench from him to pop open a comm box we'd snagged out of space. From the signal we'd been picking up, the transmitter was still good, and would fit nicely in the busted one from yesterday. If I didn't finish quick, I'd miss lunch, and now that I had food available, I wasn't about to shortchange myself. He'd already gone to the mess by the time I'd finished, so I tossed it back in the box and hurried off to grab some soup and bread.

Three bowls and a loaf later, I sauntered into the hangar and into what sounded like an argument or something. Tiger--dependable, brilliant Tiger--was huddled on the floor, screaming, hands over his ears, and two of the other guys were frantically sorting tools while G tried to calm him down.

"Duo!" The old guy's eyes tracked to me almost instantly. "Did you have the 5/8" wrench earlier?" Tiger howled, and the doc grabbed his shoulders tighter.

"Uh, yeah. I put it back in the box." I pointed towards the green one, not sure if he could hear me over the shrieking. "What's going on, anyways?"

Suddenly, I had everyone's attention, except for Tiger, who still wailed like a banshee. Pete flipped open the box and hauled out the wrench, putting it in place with the rest of them; I noticed that they were all laid out across the top of a rolling cart, in order by size from left to right.

"There, there," G said in the kindest voice I'd ever heard from him. "It's not missing. They're all there, all in their proper places. See?" He patted Tiger's hair like a mother would a child, soothing and comforting. And without so much as a by your leave, he stopped caterwauling and calm fell on him like rain. He stood up, pulled G to his feet, and smiled. It was like nothing had happened.

G smiled back and turned to go, heading straight towards me. He snagged my braid in one spindly fist and dragged me out of the hangar. Didn't think the old scarecrow was that strong. Thrusting me into a chair in his small office, he explained what had happened. I didn't have enough formal education yet to really understand words like 'autism,' but he hammered one important thing into my head: Tiger functioned perfectly well as long as nothing upset his routine. By putting that wrench in the wrong place, I'd collapsed his world around him. It was easily fixed then, just a matter of returning the necessary structure, but now...with Heero...

But now there was no next to move on to. No wrench to put in the right place. And with no one else to fight, no mission for the soldier, Heero Yuy's reason to live ceased to exist. I wanted desperately to tell him what to do, to fix things as easily as they had been before. I could do it. I could give him some sort of mission or reason to live--even something as simple as 'help me decide what to wear', I thought, glancing down at my absent apparel.

The air around me went cold as I realized to do that would make me no better than the scientists who tried to play God with a little boy, who sought to train and shape and mold him into a soulless killing machine that peace rendered useless. 

It carved my heart up to say the words, but Duo Maxwell doesn't lie. 

"The war is over, Heero," I whispered quietly, the full gravity of the phrase weighing my voice almost into baritone range. "There are no more orders." I swallowed hard, hating myself for being unable to give him the one thing he most needed. "No more missions."

***

I have no other words for it, something inside of me snapped. Those words were like a spark to dry tinder, and the resulting explosion left nothing but wasteland for miles around. My body jerked, a physical response to what amounted to a verbal attack, but my mind was nowhere to be found. 

I remember the rest only in bits and pieces, almost like a bad movie not worth remembering.   

I think the soldier took full control, assessing a threat and acting on it. One moment Duo sat on my lap, our bodies mere inches apart, the next he sprawled on the floor, half a room away. I'd struck instinctively, grabbing for something familiar, something real. With catlike reflexes, I spun, sighting along the slim barrel of my handgun... training it on Duo's forehead.

Destroy the threat... That one thought hammered like a pulsebeat inside me. Simple logic began forming again, without the benefit of higher functions to knock it down. If I had to continue, I would require parameters. Right? I shook my head, clenching my teeth against a wave of pain. Duo was a threat, he was lying to me...

Duo doesn't lie. Ever. 

"Omae o korosu," I heard it distantly, as though someone else were saying it.

Kill him, the soldier urged ruthlessly. Kill him, and then you can complete final mission objectives. He's in your way.

But... there are no more missions... I started shaking again, and I had to jerk my arm back into alignment to keep the gun on target. 

That's not true... it can't be. I felt like a black hole was opening up inside of me, sweeping everything I was, everything around me into its depths. What was worse? The fact that Duo might be lying to me, or that he was telling the truth?

The click of the hammer sliding home was my only answer. 

***

One moment I was close enough to kiss him, the next I was smooching the floor none too gently. What is it about him that drops my guard every time? I bit back my body's grunt of protest and pushed into a sitting position, wincing because my bare elbows definitely felt rugburned. Me and my commitment to the truth. Maybe I should have gone with sex after all. 

Heero whirled around, moving so fast he was almost in slow motion, restored to real time only by the unforgiving click-click of the gun being cocked. Uh, check that. The cold, cycloptic eye of the pistol stared mockingly at me and a sharp, haunting chill shot through the room. He's pulled that gun on me more times than I can count, but this time it's different. This time he means it. The wild, desperate expression was a vivid reminder of yesterday. 

Yesterday... but this time it's different. Vivid images of yesterday surged into my mind like still photographs and I felt my eyes widen in shock.  Of the two of us, only I realized how different today was.

I held my hands up slightly, as if by some miracle Shinigami could forestall or duck a bullet in mid-air. Yeah, right; I'm fast, but I'm not that fast. "My life has been yours to have or take away for a long time, Heero," I admitted, my throat catching on the words; it wasn't quite a confession, but I'd come farther in twenty-four hours towards telling him my real feelings than I ever had. 

Still keeping my hands in the universal gesture for surrender, I got my feet under me and inched into a standing position.

***

My eyes flicked to the gun I held, and then shuttered briefly closed. 

Realization slashed  into me like a knife. What I meant to do, why I was doing it... combined with the rest of the pain it became nearly unbearable. I clenched my jaw, my face contorted into a grimace of pure agony... But I couldn't put the gun down. 

"I don't have to kill anymore," I grated, feeling as though every word were carved from my flesh. I'm not sure who I said them for, although I suspect they were directed to my inner demons as much as to the person I was currently trying to kill. I'd made a choice, had been prepared to die to ensure that decision was carried through. Didn't that mean something?

No. It meant nothing. Nothing at all.

I could feel ghosts in the air around me, burning holes in my skin with their accusing stares. They gathered closer, enjoying the show. Either way they'd have satisfaction, ne? This was a tragedy unfolding, for which they held front-row seats.

I felt the specter of Wing Zero at my back, spreading deceptively angelic wings around me, holding me in death's embrace. It was my escort across that final border crossing between sanity and chaos. You'll never escape, it whispered softly, and I realized that it had always been watching, savoring the lives I fed to it. Now that I'd tried to free myself, this pain, this torture, was my punishment. And now... it wanted Duo, too.

Wings of shattered glass sealed me in their cocoon, and I gasped as it showed me the future.

Nothing.

***

Misery burned through me like acid. Heero's misery. He was in an horrifying downward spiral and I wasn't falling fast enough to catch him. Yesterday he had been unstable and weary, but despite the rock-solid sighting of the gun trained on me, I felt today's Heero was infinitely more fragile, more brittle than yesterday's. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck to skate between my shoulder blades as ex-Gundam pilot and gun stared at me. 

Steadying my legs, I nodded slow agreement, covertly inching forward towards him. Stealth, after all, was my tactic of choice. "Hai, you don't have to kill anymore, Heero." God, I wanted to lock him in a fierce, protective embrace for eternity, to take all his pain for my own so he wouldn't have to suffer any more. The urge choked through me; I've never felt this way about anyone or anything. It kills me to see you like this, powerless to stop what's hurting you.  

His eyes were wild, tumultuous seas, rolling and tossing in an elemental battle. In a desperate attempt to calm the storm, I took what he said a step farther, willing him to understand it wasn't too late. We could do this together. "You don't have to be a weapon anymore."

***

I don't have to kill anymore.

'My life is my own. I won't be controlled.' The thoughts welled up from the darkness, spoken in a still, quiet voice that I slowly recognized as my own. The owner of that voice looked out through my eyes, locked onto the one thing in the world that meant something to me.

I gathered strength from that contact, wearily made a last-ditch effort to fight. 

"All I am is a weapon," I said softly. "I don't know how to be anything else." Another breath, another few heartbeats. "There has to be peace sometime." I swallowed convulsively. "We fought so hard...killed so many. It can't be for nothing. I won't let it." A renewed wave of anguish washed over me, reflecting  in my eyes. It nearly killed my effort to fight... and then I realized that I just didn't have the strength to hold on any longer. 

"The weapons have to be destroyed," I whispered hoarsely. 

"Their only purpose is to kill."

***

"Chigau." You're wrong. The breathless denial passed my lips. You're not just a weapon! You're so much more than that! my mind screamed as my heart kept crumbling. I'd lost count of the atrocities I owed J for planting these beliefs so deeply in Heero's psyche. 

You don't have to know how. I'll show you, I'll teach you. We'll learn it all together. Just don't let go.

"Listen to me." Was that calm voice mine? I didn't recognize it. "The weapons have already been destroyed. You, me, Wufei, Trowa, Quatre....we were only weapons because of our Gundams." I had scooted almost within touching distance of him; the gun still stared at me, but I wasn't afraid. He needed me. What was a gun compared to that? 

"We were weapons because our colonies needed us to be. They didn't have the strength or means to resist on their own." Unbidden, as though summoned by the word 'colonies', images arose of young children on the streets of L2. War orphans. How many more kids like me did I create? I swallowed tightly at that thought, but now wasn't the time to dwell on my own reckonings. Not with Heero teetering so close to the brink. He was worth any cost, even my soul and its hope of redemption.

"Now, the Earth and the colonies have peace. Together. It's here, we have peace." No matter the cost, peace had been achieved for the rest of humanity. And I would fight Hell itself to bring it to Heero at last.

"The Gundams have been destroyed, Heero. What made us weapons is gone. That part of our lives is over," I insisted. Pouring my gaze unwaveringly into his, I stretched out one hand and closed it around the cool, hard barrel of the gun. "We're not weapons any more." 

I shook the gun just slightly;  no ammunition rattled in it. He'd asked me for bullets yesterday because he had none. The gun hadn't been loaded. It hadn't been a weapon. 

"We're just like this," I whispered, willing him to understand. "Empty. We can't hurt anyone anymore."

I waited for the thoughts to process, for something from him, but he just kept staring at the gun, at my lean fingers curled around it. My hand not in shared possession of the pistol tightened into a frustrated fist. Dammit, Heero, say something! "What else can I do to make you understand how fucking important you are?" Amazingly, he flinched...for Heero, that meant he blinked. My voice was rising, God only knew what the rest of the people in the hotel must think, but I didn't care. "Killing has never been your only purpose! As long as someone needs you, Yuy, you have purpose!" My voice was raw, agonized, but I didn't care. All I cared about was him. 

"Don't you get it? I need you!"

***

Need. God, I need something. I stared at him blindly, my mind racing, trying to understand, to comprehend. Need. What did it mean? Why did it kindle this sudden pain that was not pain... why did I want to hear him say it again?

I need you.

Duo... I recoiled from the gun as though burned by its frigid metal. I need Duo.

I've always...needed you. I continued to stare, struggling for a foothold in this new revelation.

My life is my own...

I'd known the moment I saw him in that prison cell, as soon as I found him alive, that nothing would ever be the same again. I'd struggled with it, rejected it, but whether I liked it or not, the world had changed. I guess this was the moment I could let go of that denial for good, if I chose.

I won't be controlled...

Needing him wasn't enough, but it had never occurred to me that he might need me too. Something so simple, seemingly insignificant... and yet it was like the touch of water to the lips of a dying man. My world would never be the same, because in that brief moment I found a reason to live, one that gazed back at me with impassioned violet eyes. Eyes I could drown in, that I could deny nothing. Especially now, when I had nothing in the world but those eyes.

They held me, refused to let me go... and with a slow, shuddering breath, I made a choice not to. More than that, I made a promise to stay, to try and find a way to keep going. There was something to fight for here, something important, if not to the world... then to us. I would stay, and protect him, with my last breath.

"Wakatta," I said softly. I reached out, hesitantly, like I couldn't believe this moment was real and not some interlude of a waking nightmare. Then our hands met, and I knew. It was real.

***

"Baka," I half-whispered, feeling one corner of my mouth turn up in an involuntary, crooked smile. "I need you." The gun wobbled in my hand and I dropped it, kicking the vile thing under the bed. I didn't want to see it, I didn't want him to see it. I didn't think I could go through this again.

I couldn't begin to describe what happened next. I felt like a sleeper waking from a long dream, only to find reality sweeter than any fantasy. Heero Yuy...reached out to me. He stretched out a sinewy, tanned hand towards me, this time awaiting my response with oddly tentative eyes.

I have looked into, far into, those eyes of his many, many times, but they have never returned my gaze quite the same way before. My heart throbbed with conflicting emotions, exposing and affirming all at once. I felt defenseless and vulnerable and...and wonderful. It reminded me of how snakes shed their old, dull skin to reveal brilliant new colors beneath. There were things in that look that seemed to reach right down inside me and tickle my soul.  

I lifted my hand to his and laced my fingers through Heero's, closing my eyes as the skin-on-skin contact burned. I folded them down and gripped tightly; his hands are so strong they are almost marvels of science, but wrapped around mine they were the soul of gentleness. The soul of Heero. More than anything, the touch reinforced what I had told him. He wasn't a weapon, wasn't a killer anymore. Nothing with hands fit only for death could have so tender a touch.

"Wakatta," I repeated. I had no idea what would happen between us from this point, but I found myself not entirely caring. We had a beginning, a real beginning, at last.

***

I felt...exhausted. Nightmares had chased me into sleep, keeping me from any real peace. That in combination with the tension and turmoil of the last few minutes made staying on my feet difficult. I managed it, I also managed to keep the fatigue from showing. Broken or not, I think I will always be a soldier to the core.

I reached, captured a strand of Duo's hair. The sensations stirred up by that simple contact was only confirmation that I was well and truly insane. My thoughts only moments ago had been of death, now they centered on the boy whose hand clasped tightly with mine. One moment I was at the brink, the next I felt surprisingly calm, unexpectedly buoyed up out of the grasp of chaos by Duo's offhand admission. He needs me. That inner voice was soft, wondering...awed. 

I'm not stupid, nor am I blind. I've known there was something between us for a long time, I just didn't know what to call it. I still don't. I do have feelings, but they're too fledgling and new to have a name or a real meaning. In war they were a dangerous liability. I never expected them to be the key that held me to life.

I still didn't know what any of it meant. I only knew that I meant what I'd said. He gave me what I needed, a reason to cling to life, to find my way out of the shadows in which I still stood. It wasn't over, I had demons to fight that had yet to show their faces... but he needed me, and I accepted that charge. No one and nothing gets in my way once I have accepted a mission. There is reassurance in that absolute.

"Can I hold you?" I asked hesitantly, suddenly feeling shy. It was as though I walked a path that seemed familiar, but in a half-remembered way that made me afraid of making a wrong step. "I need to..." I swallowed hard, closed my eyes. "I need to feel alive again."

***

He touched my hair, and I nearly lost it then. Biology tells us that our hair is essentially dead--it grows, sure, but in actuality it's merely a keratin byproduct like fingernails--but I don't think that's entirely accurate. How else could sensation funnel up the strands, permeate into my scalp, and quiver down my neck to jettison out through every nerve ending in my body like a tazer blast? I love having my hair touched--to me, it's more arousing than actual sex. Having Heero touch my hair...I wondered why I hadn't completely lost molecular cohesion.

I didn't think I was dreaming, but if I was, I wanted to never wake. Joy--true joy--has been such a rarity in my life, every precious moment stolen. As good a thief as I am, one would think I'd have been able to steal more of them. 

I couldn't steal this one; it could only be freely given. Clumsy and unsure, Heero reached out and placed a trembling soul into equally-trembling hands with a single question. Slowly, I realized that his body wasn't the only thing he'd bared to me in the past twenty-four hours. Nor was it the most important.

I tried to laugh; I think I sobbed. "Please..."

Since I saw him yesterday, he had begged for death. Now, ironically, Death begged for him.

***

I pulled him to me, untangling our fingers so that I could slip my arms around his waist. He was slight and strong all at once, vibrant life radiating from him like sunlight. Duo calls himself Death, for me he was life incarnate. He was my life, in a way I'd never realized or accepted until that moment. Maybe because, until now, I'd been unable to let anything, even him, come between me and my role in the war. Now there was nothing between us.

I ceased to think, letting the gentle buffer of fatigue settle over me and put my searching mind at rest. Turning my head, I breathed in his scent, rubbing my cheek against the silk of his hair. Drifting lower, I pressed my lips to the curve of his ear, then the line of his jaw, slowly making my way to his lips. Then I kissed him.

***

His mouth was warm, inviting, and with a slight intake of breath, as though courage were something that could be inhaled, I kissed him back, forgetting pretense and consequences and a wealth of other things that, strangely, no longer mattered. Muscles rippled under my fingers, strong and powerful. In so many ways, I had always felt weak next to him, training and possible genetically-enhanced abilities aside. Weak because I didn't have that same ability to see life only in terms of the mission.

But now there was no more mission. Nothing but the beat of two hearts and the gasp of two breaths. 

In that spiderwebbed silence, Sister's favorite verse rose to my mind like a gentle, comforting breeze, as though she were whispering her approval to me. 'Two are better than one; for they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift the other up: but pity the man who is alone when he falls and has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie together, they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; a threefold cord is not quickly broken.' [1]

A sort of desperate hope bloomed in me, unfurling and flooding over the score of broken dreams that littered the landscape of my soul. A strong wind could have blown either of us over, but not both. 

Apart, we had been nothing; together, a fragile sense of something was awakening.

***

[1] The Bible, Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, New King James Version


Part 4
Innocence Faded Main