Far Away from Here
"Duo, where the hell did you hide our packs?"
Glory be, do I sense a hint of annoyance in that stony voice? "Chill, Heero, I know where they are. You think Iíd risk death just to play a joke on you? Just give me a sec."
Heís gone beyond walking, past trudging, past angrily marching behind me. Now heís stalking. Damn. Iíd better find those backpacks soon, or this might well be my last mission.
"Why did I let you hide them again?" he demands, sounding more than a little impatient.
"Because you were too busy cloaking Wing and ĎScythe to do it yourself. And I figured, as it was my responsibility to hide my own bag, I might as well hide yours as well. Would you rather Iíd left it in the middle of the path?" I manage to keep my voice even. Barely. I have to wince at the petulance of the words, though. I should really quit letting him get to me like this.
"You could have at least asked me, donít you think?" Heís a little on edge too, it seems. Choose answer carefully, and approach with caution.
"Yuy," I snap. "If I had interrupted you in the middle of your precious mission, you would have blown my head off, and never thought a thing of it. I know where the goddamn bags are, all right? Just shut up and give me a minute!"
Or not. Oops.
Breathe, Duo. One more outburst like that, and the bags will no longer be your top priority, not by a long shot.
I am granted about forty-five seconds of tense, expectant silence before he starts up again. With a vengeance, this time. "Kíso, Maxwell! How long does it take you to find two little backpacks?! Did you just drop them in a bush or something stupid like that? If you donít have them in your hands in twenty seconds, Iím going to look for them myself, and when I find them, Iím giving yours to you, and sending you back. I canít afford to have you with me if youíre going to slow me down like this!" One thing you forget with Heeroóit isnít that he doesnít talk a lot, he just doesnít talk often. Piss him off, and he can talk at great length. Like any good soldier, of course, he chooses the most efficient and cutting words to hit where it counts. "If you canít even pull yourself together and act like an intelligent human being for a mission which could kill a score of people if it went wrong, then youíre even stupider that Ióumph!"
So maybe I threw the bag a little harder at his stomach than necessary, but with that speech, I think he had it coming. Jesus, itís one thing to hear words like that from someone you couldnít care less aboutóbut I really do respect Heero, even with all his cruelty. Heís smart, heís controlled. Heís a lot of things I wish I could be, at least until the war is done. Hearing that from him hurts. Because he means every word he says, and knows me well enough to believe what heís saying.
My bad mood has escalated to dangerous. Screw the mission. Screw Heero. Heíll kill me one day anywayówhy wait?
"You know what, Yuy? Youíre a real asshole. I mean that. Youíre a great pilot and you fight like Bruce-fucking-Lee and no one can hack like you can, but I swear sometimes I wonder if you were dropped on your head as a baby or something! You know full well that I did the right thing and that you would have told me off if Iíd done anything differentóand you still find things about me to bitch about! Christ! I hid these bags six hours ago! Itís gotten more than a little dark, smart guy! If I was with anyone else, theyíd shut up and let me concentrate on finding the damn things, but no, you have to try your darndest to me snap, which will not help your cause in the least."
Use of italics climbing. Possible crisis approaching. You know what? I really donít care. Heeroís been asking to have his head bitten off all evening.
"Look. I found them. In under your twenty-second, may I point outóyes, I can count. Are you surprised? Huh? Hey, Iím speaking in coherent sentences, too! Stand in awe! It looks like youíre a good influence on me! Why, before I met you, I was nothing but a drooling vegetable with the I.Q. of cheese! Forgive me for lapsing into my former state! Having my hard and newly acquired intelligence insulted tends to do that to me!"
The anger leaves me in a cold rush, as the exhaustion of traipsing through thick forest after a gruelling five-hour mission catches up with me. I force myself to take deep breaths, clutching my own pack to my chest, and wait for the repercussions of my outburst to take shape. My eyes are fixed on the mast-covered ground, steadfastly refusing to look at Heero. If heís going to kill me, Iíd rather not see it coming. You never can tell with him. Once in a while, he goes through with his threats.
Nothing happens, for long enough for me to worry more about Heero than myself. I look up and meet his eyes, which are wide and stunned, gaping back at me like he canít process what I just said. We stare at each other for a long moment before he seems to almost shake himself and get a grip again.
"Ió" He stops and looks at the ground, apparently at a slight loss for words. Myself, Iím pretty much just hoping he doesnít kill me too slowly. "Iím sorry."
"I said Iím sorry," he mumbles with a little more force this time.
"Youíre sorry?" Yeesh, now I do sound like an idiot.
"Yes, Maxwell, Iím sorry." His voice sounds forced, and heís beginning to glare. "I had no right to say such things to you. I was tense from the mission and therefore I was rude, and I apologize."
I am quite gaping at him now, completely shell-shocked. "I donít think Iíve ever heard you say youíre sorry before."
"Remorse comes from attachments," he informs me coldly. "I cannot afford to have attachments in this war."
Oh, God, Iím sick of his attitude. "No," I spit out. "What you canít afford is to say things that piss me off, because then I wonít listen to you at all, whether youíre saying something worthwhile or not."
Mind you, my attitude could use some adjustment right about now itself.
Those icy eyes of his are turning dangerous again, and I force my inner brat down before it can get me in any more trouble. "Look, forget I said that, ok Heero? Apology accepted. Letís just go and set up camp. Iím dead tired, and itís making me cranky. If you really want to, you can yell at me in the morning, when Iím feeling more reasonable." Because yes, I am reasonable in the morning. Actually, Iím reasonable pretty well around the clockójust something about Heero really makes me want to smack him.
Heero, thank God, lets the matter drop, to pursue it come dawn or not, Iím not sure, but nor do I care. Iíll deal with it when the time comesóotherwise, Iíd as soon it never happened. I let him take the lead through the underbrush as we search for a suitable place to sleep for the rapidly darkening night, once in a while crouching to right a trampled sapling or brush away blatant footprints that would give our presence away.
A breeze picks up, stirring the foliage around us quietly, and I shiver. Itís gotten damn cold. And I have to sleep on the ground? Thereís something Iím not looking forward to. To think I complained about those missions where I roomed with Heero at those schools. What I wouldnít give for a real bed and a furnace right now. Last night I slept on the floor of an abandoned house, and it was unpleasantly chilly enough there, even with the meagre shelter the crumbling walls afforded us. On the ground. In the forest. With the Iceman himself. Iím going to wake up blue.
I think I redeem myself a little when I manage to not plough into Heero when he suddenly halts and sets down his bag. "Weíll sleep here," he deadpans. "There is sufficient space between the trees for us, but not enough for it to be a known clearing."
Too tired to even tease him about his complete lack of inflection, I drop my bag and start rummaging through it on my knees, cringing at the cold seeping through my jeans and up my legs. I dig out my sleeping bag and set it aside, desperately wishing to find an extra sweater or jacket in the bottom of the pack, but I know I havenít brought any. With a resigning sigh, I push the bag away, and set about to unzipping my sleeping bag.
"Guess itíd be stupid to ask if we could risk a fire, huh?" I grin ruefully at my partner.
His head snaps up with alarming suddenness, a mix of anger and shock on his face. "Maxwell! Donít you evenó"
"I know. I know, man." I hold up my hand in defence. "The smoke. I was just dreaming." Heero lets out a sigh of his own that almost makes me smile. I think heís wishing for a fire about as much as I am, but heíll never admit to that.
Nothing left to do but sleep, I guess, and I wriggle into my sleeping bag without even taking off my boots, curling into a tight ball on my right side and pulling my lumpy knapsack under my head as a poor substitute for a pillow. God, itís cold. Even in my little cocoon Iím freezing. I watch Heero crawl into his own bag, shivering in sympathyóheís wearing less than I am. Whoís the idiot now?
The whole damn day settles on me like a lead blanket, and that combined with the numbing cold has me motionless within minutes. I am not in the least bit worried about whether or not Iíll be able to sleepóIím a little more concerned with being able to wake up again. But you know, if I freeze to death, it wonít be a huge dealÖ Iíve been tempting Shinigami all day with my bating Heero, I wonít be surprised or upset if he comes for his payback now.
Iíll deal with that when the time comesÖ
The thing that really sucks about sleeping in the cold is that itís diuretic. As in it makes you have to pee. Your blood tries to stay closer to the core of your body to keep your vital organs warm, so more blood is filtered through your kidneys than the poor suckers are used to handling. The result leaves you cold, shivering, frostbitten white, and with a very full bladder.
This is very embarrassing when you are stuck outside with the person who thinks you are the biggest idiot that has ever walked the face of the earth.
I throw an arm over my face and stifle an exasperated groan. Of all the god-awful times for nature to call, she has to call me now. Shit. Even if I manage to get up and do my business without waking up Heero (which would be a dire mistakeóI mean, really, does that guy have a bladder? No, he does not, and therefore no one else in his operation may acknowledge their own either), Iím going to freeze my balls off, and I donít mean that figuratively. Getting out of a (not so) perfectly warm sleeping bag at three in the morning in just-above-freezing weather is extreme enough. Here I am planning on not only getting out of said sleeping bag, but also exposing some valuable (sensitive!) parts of my anatomy to the brutal elements. Smart, huh?
But then, I donít think Heero would be terribly impressed with me if I wet the sleeping bag, either. Whatís a guy to do?
It is damn cold. And I do nearly fall over when I try to stand up, numb and stiff legs not expecting the sudden responsibility. And while Iíll spare you the more personal details of the process, Iím expecting ice crystals instead of piss and Iím quite sure Iím going to be androgynous from now on, because my balls are never going to trust me enough to come back out.
Shivers wrack my body head to toe as I finally pronounce myself sound once more, and I turn back to my empty sleeping bag with more than a little longing. After having me out of it for a considerable amount of time probably has it bone cold again, but do I care? No, I do not. Iím freezing, and Iíll take anything right about now.
Kids, be careful what you wish for.
There are eyes on me. When I turn to see just whose they are, I am met with a pair of glowing, yellow discs, staring at me out of the furry face of a coyote. And this animal is looking at me like he would have no problem getting warm and close and personal with me.
It doesnít occur to me to swear or run or call Heero or anything. I just freeze on the spot, one hand in the middle of rubbing my cold bare arm and the other still resting atop the zipper of my pants. My breath stops in my lungs. I think maybe my blood halts in my veins. In my sleep-and-cold-muddled brain, two thoughts fight their way to the surface: This is really fear. This is something I fear and Iím going to die.
The animal takes a baby step towards me, and another. My feet are immobile, rooted in the frozen ground. My hearts starts up again and begins to bang and crash around in my chest. My breath, however, has not moved, has somehow become lodged in my throat. Somewhere in the vicinity of my lower arm, phantom pain blooms, sharp and real as if it just happened.
I want to close my eyes. I want this moment to end and the nightmare to pass. Iíve felt flashes of heart-stopping terror before, vertigo, panic, but they were all gone in the space of a breath, leaving me gasping and laughing at myself in self-deprecation. This is lasting far too long. Too damn long. I want it to be over, and I want it to be over with every live fibre of my half-awake being.
You know when you have a bad dream and you know youíre going to have something supremely painful or fatal happen to you, and it doesnít seem to quite register? Like whatís happening in front of your eyes is in a completely different category in your brain from fear, and filed in with annoyance or anticipation or, if itís really terrible, nervousness. That doesnít happen in real life. The opposite does. So when you see a wild animal looking at you like youíre an annoyance in his territory, your mind turns it into him looking at you like youíre a round roast, medium-rare. When he moves a bit and proves heís really only about dog-size and relatively skinny, you see a monster. And when he lowers his head in a warning growl, baring his teeth, you close your eyes and clench your hands into fists and shake in stark terror, and wait for the first blow of your slow death.
Especially if youíre me, and youíve been awake all of two and a half minutes, and you have a history of bad luck as far as your safety is concerned.
I want to scream. I want to run for my life and I donít care where it takes me so long as that coyote isnít there anymore. I want to fall to my knees and cry like a baby. I want to do anything but stand here like a statue, but what consequences might that bring? I want to disappear and never return to this thrice-cursed place, and be free of Heeroís ice, and the damn cold, and this chilly dread that feels like a blow in the gut.
With my eyes screwed shut tight and my whole body quaking violently, I wait.
For a long, too long moment, there is stillness.
Then, without warning, Iím on my ass on the frosty ground, and Heero is in a half-crouch to my left, whipping a rock at the object of my fear with his deadly accuracy. I didnít even hear him get up. The coyote takes the rock right in the shoulder, and jumps back with a half-growl, half-whine. Heero hauls me ungently to standing as the animal turns and trots back into the trees without so much as a disdainful backwards glance in my direction. I sway on my feet, and Heero gives up trying to hold me upright and lets me crumple into a small, terrified heap on the edge of my sleeping bag.
"Itís gone, Duo." Somehow, his blunt, toneless voice manages to seep into my consciousness. "Itís gone. Youíre ok. Itís not going to hurt you."
In a painful rush, breath returns to me, and relief washes, shuddering and unpleasant, over my skin. I suck in air desperately, panting, and fight back a bout of nausea. The fear leaving me reminds me of the time I took a long piece of shrapnel in the shoulder, and pulling it slowly out hurt as much as when it hit. With a horrified start, I realize that the hot wetness on my cheeks is tears, but the mixture of residual panic and the shame renders me only able to curl up in a tight ball and cry silently into my knees, slowly rocking back and forth.
I shift off my sleeping bag when I feel Heero tugging out from under me, but donít realize what heís doing until heís already done it. My companion has zipped our two bags together to form one, wide sleeping bag, large enough to fit us both. I gape stupidly at him, and move pliantly at his direction as he manoeuvres me in on the right side of the bag before wiggling in beside me on the left. I donít even have it together enough to demand an explanation. I remain tense and shuddering, not bothering to fight the tears anymore.
I nearly yelp when I unexpectedly find myself pulled close against a warm, hard body, with strong and unyielding arms wrapped around my waist and chest. "Damn it, Duo," I hear Heero whisper in my ear. "Itís gone. You donít have to be afraid now. Stop shaking, all right? Just stop crying. The last thing I need is for you to go into shock. Just stop shaking! Duo!"
Slowly, very slowly, it dawns upon me that while our impromptu guest might not have terrified him like it did me, heís more than a little shaken up by the whole incident. Dare I say itómostly by me? Iím probably white as a sheet, and cold, too, enough to make him a little nervous. He moulds himself against my back, an attempt to warm me up, I think, which may well be a lost cause. I take a deep breath and make a conscious effort to still my trembling, and worm a hand out from under my body to swipe hastily at my eyes.
"Iím ok," I rasp at length. "Iím ok."
"Yeah." No. But he doesnít have to know that. His grip on me loosens, but he doesnít let me go.
A wobbly sigh rattles out of me as I submit to the truth. "I panicked. I froze up."
"But why?" he presses. "It wasnít that big a wolf. It wasnít a real threat."
"That was a coyote, Yuy," I tell him. "Theyíre used to humans, they arenít scared by them. He could have hurt us."
Heero knows thereís something more, and he wonít let me drop it. "And?"
"AndÖ" Itís been a while since Iíve had to think about this. I detangle myself from his arms and wiggle around to face him, his curious expression lit silver and blue by the half moon thatís coming up. He watches me carefully as I push myself up on one elbow and extend my top arm to give him a good look at the shiny scars that circle it wrist to elbow.
"When I was a kid," I explain, too tired to try and evade the question, "maybe five or six years old, I broke into this big house with my friend. Weíd seen the owner coming home from an electronics store and figured we might be able to swipe a laptop or palm-pilot or something smallósomething that could feed the gang for a week or two. We actually found a personal vid-disk player, which was the jackpot of the year. Butó" I stop and take a deep breath. "We didnít think that the guy might have guard dogs."
I watch him piece it together, eyeing my scars and picking out the three or four places where you can actually see the pattern of a canineís teeth in my skin. "You were already out stealing when you were six?" he demands finally.
"Uh-huh. Earlier, too. I was a really little kid, so I was good at squeezing through small places. The dogs outweighed me by a good thirty pounds."
Heero reaches out and touches one of the less distinct scars. "It tore here, didnít it?"
I wince at the memory. "Yeah. I pulled my hand back and the dog didnít let go. Left a nice gash. Thereís a couple like that on my left ankle, too. I was almost over the fence when one of them decided to pick up the slack again. Damn near didnít get out." I have to close my eyes. That was one instance, one of several in my relatively short life, where I came way, way, way to close to being killed. If the dogs hadnít ripped me to pieces, the owner of the house would have shot me. I give my head a tiny shake and produce a grin. "Shoulda seen these things fester. It was disgusting."
Iím not expecting a smile, of course, but a deeper frown is a surprise. Heís looking at me with that damn unnerving calculating stare of his. I want to squirm, but I manage not to. "Everything has a reason, with you, doesnít it?"
I blink. "Sorry?"
"Everything you do, every joke and evasion, even when youíre acting like an idiotÖ" The hand he had been resting on top of my outstretched arm retracts and slips under the warm covers again. "They all have a history. They all have a story behind them. An explanation."
Now thereís something I never thought Iíd hear from Heero Yuy. Philosophical discussion. If I hadnít already been on the ground, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I gawp at him for a little longer than necessary.
"IÖ yeah. I guess it does."
Something that might be a contemplative smile on anyone else graces his face for a fleeting instant. "Itís good to know," he says quietly. "It means youíre not an idiot."
UhÖ right. He rolls away from me then, apparently done with the conversation and me as well. I stare at the back of his head for a while, trying to wrap my own around what just happened. Before long, I just give up, having had quite enough for one night. I donít roll over as he does, though, and stay on my right side, curled against Heeroís back like he was against mine not five minutes ago. It has not escaped my attention, frazzled though my nerves may be, that his arms are covered in goosebumps and were freezing cold when they were around me.
"Heero?" I receive an hmm in response, and it makes me smile. "Goodnight, man."
There is a pause, a hiccough in time. Then, "Goodnight, Duo."
My smile becomes a full, if tired grin, and, feeling somewhat adventurous (and living up to my idiot status), I let my top arm drape over his side and my forehead fall forward to rest between his shoulder blades. It really is warmer with both of us in here, and I think I might actually survive the night. I let my eyes fall shut and my body finally relax.
Somewhere, a mile or two away from our rough camp, I can hear a pack of coyotes paying their respects to the lady moon. Their eerie howls send a new shiver through me, and I guess Heero feels it against his back, because he abruptly reaches up and rubs the arm Iíve got around him almost comfortingly.
And you know what?
Suddenly Iím not all that scared anymore.
≠In the arms of an angel
Far away from here.
More to come. Stay tuned! Next story will feature some proper 2 + 1. Hurrah!