Chapter 21: Internal Dissent
by Casey Valhalla
oyogi hitori ukai yami wo
anata ni aeru made
I'll swim alone in the deep darkness
until I meet you
The landing pad had survived intact, with only a smattering of debris strewn across it. The hangar, however, displayed a gaping hole in the roof, a corner of the wing of the fighter that had crashed through it peeking out among the shreds of linoleum. There wasn't much hope for the ship docked inside.
Duo barely registered the change in the sound of his footsteps as his feet left the sand and stepped onto the metallic surface of the landing pad. He was leaving a trail of blood in his wake, thick droplets that spattered against his boots, forming abstract patterns on the metal tiles.
What finally broke through the void his mind was drifting in was the soft pattering of feet trotting alongside him. He paused halfway across the pad and looked down.
Yoko's green eyes blinked back up at him.
He didn't trust his voice to work properly, but tried using it anyway, hoping it would remain level, at least. The words came out soft, almost rasping. "I thought I told you to stay in the fortress."
She gazed at him evenly for a moment, then let out a tiny, pitiful mew.
The trembling began in his knees, and worked its way upwards, through his spine, until his arms were shaking. He clutched the body he was carrying tight against his chest and grit his teeth, forcing it down, until all that remained were slight tremors in his bones. His voice cracked. "Stay with me, girl?"
He started walking again, slower, Yoko keeping pace easily at his heels. The doors to the hanger were blown open from the crash, and one of them had lost a hinge. It hung askew, partially blocking the entrance. Duo kept his eyes fixed on it, somehow fascinated with the odd angle.
He didn't require sound to register the next presence that approached him. The muscles in his back automatically tensed, and he stopped three yards from the doorway. "What do you want, Naki?"
She was shifting where she stood, somewhere behind him and to his right. "There are nine of us now." Her voice was soft and unassuming, but unfortunately he knew her better than that.
Duo didn't turn to look at her, or give her any sort of acknowledgement. He adjusted his hold on the body in his arms, settling the boy's head more securely against his shoulder. His gaze remained trained on the skewed door, tracing the outline with his eyes. "So, you've come to gloat, have you? Come to tell me what a fuck lousy job I'm doing as a tribal leader? To wax intellectual on my complete incompetence and reminisce all my past screw-ups? I've heard it all, more times than I care to count. You're walking on dangerous ground, number fifteen."
"You're the one who killed him," she replied dispassionately. "Don't take out your frustration on me, *Eldest*."
Distantly, Duo felt his entire body tense, his fingers curling against the black fabric covering the body he was carrying, sticky with drying blood. "I didn't have a choice.
Naki laughed, a sharp bark that seemed to split the atmosphere. "You just keep telling yourself that."
He felt like he should be angry, that he should be seething with rage, but somehow he just didn't have the energy. The space where the anger should have been was hollow, echoing like the sound of dripping water in a long, empty corridor.
Like his entire being had gone numb.
He stepped into the hangar.
Most of the building was dark, lit only by the half-light of an overcast sky drifting down through the gaping hole in the ceiling. The concrete floor was cluttered with debris, hunks of jagged metal and scattered teardrops of broken glass. In the center a cruiser was docked, with the nose of a fighter ship buried deep in its guts. Half the fighter had been blasted away before the crash, leaving a long scar of wiring and blackened metal teeth along one side.
Duo continued forward, only registering the obstacles in his path by instinct, until he was standing next to the cruiser's hull. He mentally traced the word painted in black on the well-worn metal, scrawled in blocky capitals, a mockery of handwriting. DeathScythe. Solo had made the joke that Duo should have called it 'Death's Pale Horse.' But Duo reminded him that a ship was a weapon, not just a form of transportation. That's the way things were with pirates.
The skin on the back of his neck prickled, his senses picking out the presence still shadowing him. He chose to ignore it for the moment, and knelt beside the ruined cruiser, in a space clear of rubble.
He set the body down gently, arranging it with care, smoothing the unkempt fall of hair away from the boy's pale forehead, as if the boy were merely sleeping. Yoko batted at Duo's knee with a paw, and he reached down to scratch her neck affectionately. He kept his voice at a whisper. "Watch him for me, okay?"
Naki was standing by the remains of the fighter's wing, looking over the damage critically. Duo stood and strode the length of the cruiser quickly, whisking past Naki without meeting her eyes, only stopping in front of the ship's hatch. He examined the portal for a moment - it was dented and slightly warped, but he detected a gap in the seams. He grabbed the manual release catch and twisted the handle, giving it an experimental tug. Naki hadn't moved from her spot. "Are you still here?"
"Do you want me to leave?" She asked as though she might actually honor his request.
"I have every right to know what you do with him." She started pacing, slowly, staying near the damaged wing.
Duo wrapped his fingers around the handle and shifted his stance to gain better leverage, then yanked. The hatch didn't budge. "What do you want from me?"
"He told you something," she replied, her voice softening. "And I want to know what it was."
"It didn't make any sense." He adjusted his grip slightly and pulled harder. The portal didn't give an inch. "I don't know what the hell he was talking about, so why should I tell you?"
"Mishide was our memory," she said. Duo thought she sounded hurt, almost mournful, but still didn't spare her a glance. "He was the only connection we had to the past. Whatever he said, it was important."
He kicked at the hatch in irritation and stepped back to examine it again, frowning. "He said, it's the Bond. That's what does it."
"Exactly." He latched on to the handle again, and leaned back on his heels, groaning through his teeth as he pulled.
Naki stopped moving, and he could see her frown out of the corner of his eye. Her voice suddenly pitched higher with her next words. "Why don't you just blast it open?"
"I'm out of power, if you must know." Duo leaned against the hatch, palms flat on the smooth surface, staring down at his feet. He marveled at how well black clothes hid the stain of drying blood.
He heard a boot scuffle against the floor, and the clinking sound of metal skittering away across the concrete. "You shouldn't be that drained after such a short battle. What have you been doing?"
"None of your fucking business."
She snorted. "Don't tell me the Eldest is being kept at a high restriction."
Duo laughed, a strangled yelp, cut off abruptly. If he started laughing now, he was afraid he'd never stop. "The things you think you know, Naki," he muttered, lifting his head to glare daggers at the warped hatch. "You don't even remember why you hate me."
Her voice turned to ice. "I wrote it down." She had turned, her head tilted sideways towards him, her eyes blazing in the distance between them. "Every sordid fucking detail. *You're* the one who forgot, Duo." Her voice started rising with every word. "This isn't the first time you've killed one of your own because they had the audacity to defy you."
Duo's hands clenched, his fingernails raking across the metal. "I know that. I might not remember, but I hear the others talk, and it would kind of be hard to avoid, wouldn't it?"
"Do you remember her name?" Naki's voice came out in a hiss.
He wrapped both hands around the handle of the hatch, deliberately keeping himself from meeting her eyes. "No." He lifted one leg to brace against the hull, and pulled.
There was a sound of creaking and the grinding of metal on metal, then the hatch gave way and swung open. Duo staggered a bit from the force, then pushed the door wider until it rested back against the hull.
He turned and looked at Naki, noting her tense position, the drawn expression on her face. He closed the distance between them in a few quick strides, and stopped a foot away.
"This conversation is over."
Her face froze into a blank expression. Duo whipped away from her and stalked back to where he'd left Yoko, kneeling to pick up the body.
Naki's eyes followed his path across the concrete and back to the hatch. He could feel her gaze like a cold hand on his neck, his skin prickling with the imagined contact.
She didn't speak again.
The interior of the cruiser was a wreck of peeling linoleum, ripped metal and exposed wiring. He navigated the ruins carefully, picking his way to the cockpit. The pilot seat was still mostly intact, though the stuffing could be seen through a deep gouge in the leather along the back. Yoko remained seated at the hatch, her head turned to scan the area outside. She always took guard duty seriously.
Duo settled Mishide in the chair. The boy looked small and frail in the high-backed seat, his skin taking on a blue tint against the contrast of black leather. Duo touched the boy's cheek once, gently, with a curved forefinger. It was cold.
There was a panel under the console, one he pretended wasn't there, and infrequently hoped he wouldn't have to open. But now, he found himself crouching and doing just that, and adjusting the timer inside to five minutes.
He met Yoko at the hatch, and didn't dare look back.
Naki was standing in front of a large piece of rubble, her head bowed, hands resting on her hips in a posture that was more fatigued than imposing. He drew level with her, a few feet away, and spared her a cold look across his shoulder. "Get out. Unless you want to be next."
Her head jerked around, her mouth already open to let out a scathing comment, but he ignored her, crouching to let Yoko jump up on his shoulder. He strode out of the hangar quickly, back into the half-light and the misting rain, and felt a grim satisfaction when he sensed the other demon scampering after him.
Duo was nearing the edge of the battlefield, four minutes and thirty-five seconds later, when the hangar exploded.
The demon-manned fighters were disappearing one by one, jumping into hyperspace to escape from the masses of the Resistance fleet. Their mothership had probably stayed outside the atmosphere. It was unlikely the Resistance would be able to catch the mothership before it, too, dropped out of regular space to flee. Trowa busied himself picking off the last of the ISG ships who hadn't taken the hint to run as well.
The intercom had been silent for several minutes. The elf frowned a bit, but flipped the toggle to announce his score anyhow. "Forty-nine. Status?"
The connection crackled a bit, but no response came through. Trowa adjusted the controls and hit the toggle again. "Wing?"
The voice was harsh and strained over the link. Trowa quickly whipped his ship around and scanned for Heero's fighter. "Where? What?"
"There was a boy."
The other ship was hovering steadily a hundred feet lower, away from the few enemy fighters that remained. The elf kept a careful eye on it.
Heero kept speaking without the need for Trowa to prompt him. His voice seemed to hover, disconnected from itself. "No, not a boy. A Relic. He had gray eyes. They were glowing, but."
*"What are you doing here?"*
*"Awaiting my execution."*
Trowa settled one hand over the control panel, gently, and closed his eyes. "I met him, when we infiltrated the command ship." He kept his voice low and soothing. "What happened?"
He already knew the answer.
Heero's voice was choked. "He's dead."
In the communication room of the Resistance command ship, a headset fell to the floor with a ringing clatter.
Dorothy Catalonia stared at her empty hands, and cursed herself in every language she knew.
The surface of Sabaku was a mottle of sand and debris and the bloody remains of combat, glaring against the pristine white of the Talmac, unscathed in the wake of the turmoil that had circled around it in a whirlwind for a full week. Outside the walls, however, the after-effects of the conflict was weighing heavy on the shoulders of those who fought, and they wandered listlessly to the safety of their ships, or the fortress itself. Day was wearing on into afternoon, the sun's light angling to cast a deepening glow through gaps in the clouds. The sky cleared slowly, steadily, the rain fading into memory.
From the sky, Heero could see the flaming beacon of the destroyed hangar, clouds of black smoke roiling angrily from the flaming debris. The landing pad was out of the question. If the proximity to the fire wasn't danger enough, the possibility of a second blast from something volatile inside was an equal risk. He scanned the ground, looking for a clear sweep of fairly level sand he could land the fighter on.
Then, as he flew lower, he saw Duo.
The demon was standing a good hundred yards apart from the battlefield and the rest of the soldiers, on a rise of sand that leveled out into a large enough space for even a mid-sized cruiser to land. He was standing perfectly still, his hands thrust in the pockets of his black trenchcoat, Yoko curled securely on his shoulder, staring up into the sky.
But I didn't call, Heero thought, his brow creasing into a frown. He pushed his helmet off in frustration and punched at the thruster controls with a fist.
He blinked several times, keeping his gaze on the figure on the sands below. The next thought came unbidden.
Perhaps *he* is the one calling.
The assassin felt something twist in his stomach, and his hands started trembling against the console. He wrapped his fingers firmly around the fighter's controls, trying to quell the burning sensation rising through his chest.
He's waiting for me. He's calling for me. He's hurt - he's screaming inside, I can hear it in my head every time I take a breath. And he wants me. Heero shook his head, trying to focus on the process of landing the fighter to shove the thoughts out of his mind. Trying again to shove that - that *word* Trowa had used away from the thread of consciousness that was trying to drag him down into the depths of sensation, into the memory of two words in a dream that had stripped him of control.
The ship shuddered as it slammed into the sand. Heero released the seat harness and slumped forward, resting his forehead against the console, dropping his arms limply between his knees with a sigh. He concentrated on the sound of his heartbeat in his ears, letting his breathing even out in time to the steady pulse.
When he lifted his head, the viewscreen in front of him flickered, displaying Duo just outside, turned slightly, one hand up in front of his face to ward off the wind from the thrusters that kicked up sand in a thin cloud around the ship. Heero turned the engines off, watching as the air settled, and the demon's long coat and the tail of his braid stopped whipping out behind him and dropped gracefully back into place. Duo lowered his hand and looked back up, at the ship, as though he could stare straight through the viewscreen and into Heero's eyes.
The assassin pushed himself to his feet, pausing to stretch his stiffened muscles and relax, stripping the upper half of his flight suit off. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with one of the loose sleeves and tied both of them at his waist, cursing standardized fighter design. No one yet had managed to improve cockpit ventilation.
The hatch opened with a hiss of pressurized air, and Heero's feet touched the sand. The air outside was warm, arid, but clear and fresh in comparison to the stuffiness of the fighter. A light breeze was blowing, cooling against the sweat on his body.
Duo hadn't moved.
The demon's face was drawn and pale, his glowing eyes large against the expression. He shifted his feet slightly, meeting Heero's stare, but said nothing.
The assassin found himself moving forward, as though his feet had made the decision on their own. He drew himself to a halt a foot away, his arms hanging limp at his sides, his mouth open slightly. No words came out. His mind struggled to formulate them, but his body rebelled, formulating its own plan of action.
Yoko leapt off Duo's shoulder, and Heero caught her easily, cuddling the cat to his chest absently without taking his eyes off the demon. Duo was studying his face, eyebrows twitching. Waiting for him to say something.
Heero's hands stilled and the cat jumped to the ground, but his arms kept moving, wrapping themselves around Duo instead.
For a moment the demon didn't move, then a deep tremor ran through his body and he slumped heavily against Heero, clutching at the assassin's waist, burying his face against a sweaty shoulder.
Heero tightened the embrace and found his voice. "Are you okay?"
Duo was taking deep, shuddering breaths that vibrated against the assassin's arms. A long moment of silence stretched before he replied. "No. But I'm alive."
"I'm sorry, Duo." He shifted his hold, keeping one arm tight against the demon's back. He rubbed gently at the shaking shoulders with his other hand, feeling the long rope of Duo's braid brush against his skin with every movement.
He almost expected Duo to ask what he was apologizing for, but the demon was lost in his own sphere of misery. It seeped through the Bond, drawing Heero in, until all his thoughts drifted away and he had no further desire for anything other than to remain here, in this embrace, for as long as his legs could hold him up.
And after that, he thought, I would be more than happy to lie on the ground with him in my arms, until the sun sets and the stars come out, and fall asleep here with him in the sand.
Even if neither of us ever woke up again.