Lies - Between Friends and Lovers
by Dyna Dee
Friday was definitely one of the more difficult days for working at the distribution center. Relena arrived well before it was time to open the doors and wasn't surprised to find a large group of people already lined up for their weekly food allotment. They stood in silence and displayed more patience than she would have thought possible, considering this group received fewer rations than the other citizens. This was the group she belonged to; single men and women, sixteen and older, with no dependents. If it wasn't for Hilde allowing her to work at the distribution center, she would be standing in line with them, silent, hollow with hunger and praying the door to their food supply would hurry up and open She felt a bit guilty about having received the prized job that not only gave her something to fill the long hours of the day, but also for receiving a small, added portion of food than she received as recompense for her daily service. She kept her eyes down as she made her way past the somber line to the front door of the building. And like the day before, Hilde was standing behind the front window, looking out at the growing line. Their eyes met and the petite, ebony haired young woman moved to the front door and waited while she pushed her way through the line, murmuring apologies as she jostled with those refusing to step aside. Those standing at the front of the line perked up when they noticed the other woman unlocking the door. But they were disappointed when Hilde reached out and pulled Relena inside before shutting the door firmly behind her and locking it.
The eight workers had a few moments before the doors opened to get set up and place their mismatched kerchiefs on their heads. Relena experienced a flutter of anticipation as Hilde returned to the front door and paused with her hands on the lock and doorknob. Looking over her shoulder, she made eye contact with each worker, silently asking them if they were ready.
The distinctive click of the lock opening filled the air and alerted those waiting both inside and out that the center was now open for business. The listless line of people flickered to life, and as a group they surged forward, shuffling towards the front door and spilling into the room. Two of the larger men who worked there made an effort to bring some order to the group and soon had them herded into six lines, each one leading to a worker behind the counter who would check their badges and bring out the last of the week's food.
Though she tried not to stare, Relena couldn't help but notice the ragged clothing and the thin, sunken faces that greeted her as each person stepped up to the counter. Despite the limited amount of food each person received, she saw relief flash in their otherwise the dull eyes when each man and woman swept their containers off the counter and into their arms. But before they rushed out the door to hide their week's allotment of food, the majority of them paused to utter a word or two of gratitude.
Several times she'd had to turn her head to hide the tears in her eyes, especially when the few, frail elderly displayed their badge with skeletal hands that trembled with feebleness the comes from both age and prolonged hunger. This wasn't the way someone was supposed to spend the last few years of their life, she thought, though she was sadly aware that no one, no matter what age, deserved to be starved to death for some political ideal, especially when those who were suffering the most didn't understand the reasons for their plight.
After several hours of manning the front counter, Hilde pulled her from her position and asked another worker to take her place so she could take a break. The two young women each warmed up a package of what was supposed to be stroganoff, their earning for a day's work at the center. Several weeks ago, Relena would probably have turned a polite yet snooty nose up at the odd, smelly rations. But having suffered the pains of hunger everyday since her arrival on L2, she didn't hesitate to rip open the foil pouch and savor every last bite, even going so far as to lick the nasty tasting gravy off the inside lining.
"How are you doing, Lena?" Hilde asked as she finished the last of her meal.
"I'm fine now that I've got some food in me," she answered, setting the empty pouch down and sliding the kerchief off her hair and setting it on the crate they used as a bench.
"Bet you never dreamed you'd be living like this, did you?"
"Never," she said with a shake of her head.
With a sigh Hilde leaned back to rest her head against the wall. With a turn of her head she looked at her companion and said thoughtfully, "I've heard it said all our life experiences can be looked upon as a lesson, that we can learn and grow from even the most difficult situations instead of letting them get the better of us. What have you learned from your time here, Lena?"
Relena sensed that there was more to Hilde's question than mere curiosity or idle conversation. She met the steady, blue-eyed gaze, no longer belonging to the brave girl she'd met on Libra years before, but to a young woman who had seen suffering and lived through many hardships. "I've learned that being hungry is horrible and that I've taken for granted all that I have. How could I have been so naive when it came to the struggles of others? I've known terrible loss and grief, Hilde, but not true depravation. I used to believe that if we could just lay down our weapons and have peace we could concentrate on the other problems in the world, and that would ultimately lead to happiness for everyone. Now I wonder if that's even possible."
"You're not responsible for everyone's happiness," Hilde interjected. "Neither is it your job to make sure everyone gets along."
"Perhaps," Relena said, her eyes straying from the other woman to look out the backdoor of the room to the outside. "Funny, but even in the struggle to survive here, there is a strange feeling of peace on L2, and I'm not just talking about the lack of noise." After a long moment of thought she reconsidered. "Maybe it's not peace I feel here, but the lack of hope, an accepting lethargy that takes hold while you wait for death."
Hilde snorted. "Now you're going from being philosophical to morbid."
"I think being morbid is quite acceptable in this situation."
"You just ate a meal and you're giving up already?" Hilde teased. "Where's that girl who set herself into the middle of a war in order to try to talk to her brother out of his destructive plan? Who risked her life to do what she felt necessary in order to save her planet? Can it be that L2 is too big of a problem for your delicate sensibilities to handle?"
A glare from Relena was her answer to that last question. A moment later, she shook her head. "I just can't understand how the UEC could have gotten the situation here so wrong. The reports stated that a lawless group, a gang, had taken over the colony, but now all I see are desperate men, women and children, all suffering.... and for what?"
"That might have been one way to describe L2 a couple of years ago," Hilde stated with a frown as she thought of the past. "The colony was plagued by several rival gangs fighting for control, but the thugs responsible for a lot of the crime and violence here were taken care of, thanks to the Guardians and a vote by the colony citizens. After they were dealt with, and justly, I might add, our only worry became getting enough food and surviving. And now every colonist who has managed to live this long believes the UEC is utterly despicable and evil. Your government didn't give a shit about what happened here after they put up the embargo or about the rest of us struggling to survive. They've written our colony off as a loss, evidenced by the fact that they haven't sent anyone to check on our condition. Most likely they won't until the crews who deliver their puny emergency supplies are no longer received here. Then they'll know they were successful in killing off every last one of us."
"It won't come to that," Relena said firmly. "It just can't."
Hilde put a hand on Relena's arm to gain her full attention. "Given the chance, would you do what you could to change this, to help L2 when nobody else will?"
Before answering, Relena searched her heart. Could she ever forget about the people she'd met here if she woke up one morning back on Earth? Back in her palace with all the luxuries she'd been accustomed to, being waited on by maids? With a purse full of credits and shopping malls, entertainment, food, water and anything her heart desired would she remember these weeks of deprevation? She didn't have to think about the answer to her questions. She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, she could never forget the faces of the desperate and hungry people she'd seen and served in the distribution center Despite all that she had gone through, the people who lived and survived thus far were stronger, braver and more resourceful than she could have been without their examples. Yes, she had grown as a person during the weeks she'd lived in poverty. And despite being hungry, she was probably stronger than she'd ever been before, in mind if not in body.
Returning Hilde's gaze, she answered, "I will never forget what I've seen and felt here. Given the opportunity, I would do everything within my power to change things, to make the UEC see the mistake they've made. I would give voice to the people of L2 and let the citizens of Earth and the colonies, who've been kept ignorant of what is going on here, know of your needless suffering. And then I'd tell them of the resourcefulness and order I've witnessed. And if that doesn't turn the UEC around, then I'll find a way to break the embargo myself and spend every last dime I can get my hands on to bring food to you."
While answering her question, Hilde's gaze never left her own. The other woman's face and demeanor was every bit as serious as her own. But after she finished speaking, a small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "I'm glad to know that you're more than just window dressing, Lena."
Relena couldn't help but return the faint smile. "Thank you, Hilde. I thought you were a brave, plucky girl when we met on Libra, but you've grown into a strong, resilient woman. You're every bit as much a fighter now as you were during the war. I can only hope to be just as strong one day."
"Don't sell yourself short, girly," Hilde said with a lopsided grin. "I expect great things of you yet."
A few moments later Hilde suggested they get back to work. They tossed their empty food packages into the waste container and returned to the front of the center, ending their conversation for the day
Even after seeing one suffering face after another approach her in the distribution center, Relena managed to offer a genuine smile to each person she served. At the beginning of each day, Hilde reminded everyone who volunteered there to greet those coming for their weekly allotment of food with respect and kindness. She was convinced something as simple as a smile and friendly hello went a long way towards keeping tempers and the general L2 misery at bay. Working with the dark-haired woman was a surprisingly good experience. More and more each day, her admiration grew for the petite young woman who had proven to be organized and efficient as well as fair and compassionate.
Working alongside Hilde and the others that made up the crew of food dispensers, Relena managed to learn more about where the majority of the food was coming from. It wasn't from the UEC government's aid program, as she'd been told, but from an unidentified group who managed to sneak past the blockade to deliver food and goods to supplement the inadequate amount her government sent. Hilde called this group of do-gooders the L2 Guardians, the same name as those citizens who voluntarily saw to the welfare of the colony's citizens.
Of course, Relena had read several of the many reports regarding a group of space pirates who had been hijacking colony freighters and took everyday goods from them and, surprisingly, paid for what they took with credits equal to a fair market price. It made sense that the two groups, marauders and Guardians, were one and the same. It seemed to her that Hilde and everyone on the colony was aware of the extra supplies being brought in by these "Guardians" and they viewed them as L2's saviors, and rightly so. This group of good Samaritans brought food, water and medical supplies to L2, as well as generators, blankets and clothing for the estimated 5,000 people still living on the beleaguered colony.
Relena, grudgingly at first, felt a deep sense of gratitude for the aid the marauders provided and her contempt grew for the UEC for sending a vastly insufficient amount of food and water to the colony. She and Hilde had debated over why the government sent so little. Her initial defense of the government sounded lame even to her own ears. Though Hilde never raised her voice in their debates, she adamantly defended the actions of those called the Guardians. Evidence of their aid was more than apparent to Relena as she doled out supplies on a daily basis, supplies that lacked the UEC symbol which should be stamped on the back of each package that came in the scheduled humanitarian aid shipment.
Each night, as she lay in her bed listening to her roommates breathing, snorting and snoring, she pondered the many questions she had regarding these "Guardians" who delivered the food shipments that restocked the backroom at the distribution center at least once a week if not twice. Whoever it was, they had a lot of money behind them. And how in the world did they get past the UEC's blockade? She didn't dare ask her roommates those questions, not wanting to risk their ire, especially Havoc's, who seemed less than pleased with her since her arrival.
She was going crazy trying to come up with an answer to the question about who could be behind the mercy mission to L2. Each colony had wealthy citizens who subsidized charitable programs for the benefit for those in need... on their own colony. But she just couldn't come up with the name of anyone having that kind of financial clout on L2. Other than former governors, set up by the Alliance and arrested during the war for corruption, and notorious crime lords, she could only think of one L2 citizen who stood out, and that was Duo Maxwell.
She shook her head, doubting he could be the one helping this colony. She'd heard a rumor that he'd sworn off the colony shortly after the second war, vowing to never step foot on the place that had caused him nothing but heartache. One thing she'd learned from Heero, on the very few occasions he talked about his former gundam pilots, was that Duo Maxwell never lied. It was a code of honor he lived by. So she had to believe he hadn't been back to L2 since after the second war.
She was no closer to answering the puzzle after spending several nights pondering the issue and cautiously questioning her coworkers. Whoever L2's benefactors were, they were very careful to avoid being identified, and with good reason. Crossing a sanctioned embargo was not something to chance lightly, and the punishment would no doubt be severe for any who attempted breaking international law. However, in light of her firsthand experience of being on the wrong side of an embargo, she was more likely to give the marauders, or rather, Guardians, a medal of honor instead of a jail sentence. She'd thank them herself, given the chance, for breaking the law in order to supply L2 with the much needed, life-sustaining goods. The mere thought of what would have happened if they hadn't intervened was too horrible to contemplate for long.
She shook herself from her musing and glanced up in time to greet a family of four who promptly showed their identification badges. It was Monday, the first family day of the new week at the food center. Relena tried to ignore the look of desperation in their faces as she checked each badge to make sure they were there for the correct day, and that the four had the same number, signifying they were family members. Assured that they were together, she went back to the storeroom to collect the week's worth of food for them. Placing the containers on the counter, she didn't think it looked like very much for four people. No doubt they, like everyone else, would be hungry by the end of the week.
The man she guessed to be the children's father took a small burlap sack out of his baggy pants pocket and began to fill it with the packages of food and water. What didn't fit into it was carried in the arms of the mother and children. When everything had been removed from the counter top, the woman, looking tired and weak, paused before turning to look Relena in the eyes. Without any sign of recognition of who she was, the woman said through trembling lips, "Thank you."
The former Queen of the World nodded her head. It was hard for her accept the gratitude of the people receiving the food she handed out each day. After all, she wasn't really the one responsible for providing them with the life-sustaining goods, just a person who was fortunate enough to have the job of hand it out. Instead of the usual response to that expression of gratitude, she replied by saying with a smile, "I'll see you next week."
The family turned to leave and another one stepped forward to take their place at the front of the line. Her smile was a bit harder to achieve as she greeted the next hungry looking group.
Again Hilde pulled her aside for their mid-day meal in the back room, the ebony haired woman set an already heated pouch in her hands. Today the meal looked something like lasagna, though it really didn't smell anything like that once favorite dish. After a word of gratitude, she ate what she was given regardless of the taste or smell. Hunger, she'd learned, drove people to sometimes do things they normally wouldn't. She was well aware, thanks to Rida and Gian, that there were still quite a few desperate people on the colony who would do anything to earn an extra meal or two. Swapping sexual favors for a meal didn't seem like much when your stomach was hollow and death by starvation was a reality. Would she ever compromise her morals for a package of food? She wanted to believe she wouldn't, but she knew that desperate times called for equally desperate measures.
Hilde's voice brought her out of her dour thoughts. She was talking about her roommates, how one particular man snored so loud it kept the rest of the group awake a good portion of the night. Halfway thought her meal, Relena began to feel off, light headed and woozy. The room began to tilt as her body swayed and her tray of food slipped from her hands and fell to the cement floor. With heavy eyelids she tried to look up at Hilde to ask for help only to find that she couldn't. The words in her head wouldn't form. Unable to remain vertical, she slumped to the side, but a pair of hands on her shoulders caught her before she tumbled off her seat. She felt herself being cradled in warm arms as she descended into darkness. A soft voice whispered into her ear as the last moments of consciousness closed around her. "Don't forget us, Lena. Please, be our voice, our salvation."