Just To Be Around Him
I only followed Duo to church once. He didnít see me, I made sure of that. Why, I donít know. The reason was partly the thrill of the chase, I think--it was exhilarating to track him silently through the few blocks from his apartment building to the small cathedral. And also I knew that if he saw me Iíd get A) a thousand unanswerable questions about my newfound interest in religion and B) more attention than Iíll ever be comfortable with in public. I know Duo very well. Luckily, I do not know most of his friends and acquaintances very well, and Iím happy to keep it that way. If he had noticed me, I would have been introduced to the whole congregation, most likely, and embarrassed myself by mixing up and mispronouncing names and saying stupid things and staring and accidentally Death Glare-ing and... The list goes ever on. Iím not a people person. Never have been and never will be, no matter how hard Duo tries to make me one.
But more than anything, the reason that I followed him, the reason I kept out of sight, and even the reason I donít want to meet his friends, is the same reason Iím here now.
There is no one on the church steps this late Saturday afternoon. I stare alternating at the big arched doors and the sign beside them, trying to make sense of the unfamiliar English characters Iím still having trouble reading. If Iíve got it right, mass is tomorrow morning at nine thirty, but the cathedral is still open at this time. I hesitate, unsure of my conclusion, somehow afraid of embarrassing myself by trying to open a locked door--which is ridiculous even as I think about it, no one is here to see me and the sign says right before my eyes that they should be open.
The breeze picks up, stirring the dusty, spring-scented air around me, combing through my hair and working chill fingers down the back of my windbreaker to brush my neck. I shrug the coat up to cover the exposed skin, shivering as the retreating sun takes with it the dayís warmth. Another puff nudges me gently from behind, urging me up the last step to the doors.
They arenít locked.
The squeak of the hinges shocks me as I push the massive red thing open, and I close it quickly behind me to avoid a repeat performance. Facing me is a tiny cloakroom, and the bulletin board to my left is a clutter of colourful papers proclaiming upcoming church events and notices. I wiggle out my jacket as quietly as the rustling fabric will allow, and set it on the small bench beside me. Inexplicably, Iím nervous--though I know what I will see, having been here before--nervous to go in on my own, nervous to find myself on unfamiliar territory without a comrade to bump elbows with, nervous of being cast out for defiling the place of sanctuary just be being in it. Around me is silence. My breath, abruptly, seems too loud, and my haste to quiet it almost makes me stop breathing altogether.
The interior of the cathedral is as I remember it. A high vaulted ceiling, and long stained-glass windows that cast marbled splashes of colour over the rows of pews and the aisle. The building is small, but feels larger than it is, having been built almost to scale to a much bigger church from I think France (if Duo told me correctly). If this is small, though, Iíd hate to see the original, because the stretch from me to the altar seems impossibly long. I feel a sudden sympathy for the poor bride that has to walk down this aisle with everyoneís eyes on her. In a way, perhaps I am doing the same thing, and I feel the same scrutiny from the stained-glass eyes of the saints high in the windows. The bride has a fatherís arm to support her. I am alone.
My steps seem impossibly loud as I all but tiptoe down between the rows of pews, watching carefully for the sources of the quiet voices I can hear--whispering that sounds at first like discreet gossip about me, but on closer investigation turns out to be the occasional parishioner kneeling on the padded bench, whispering devotions. In the long shadows cast between the inky sunlight, hundreds of candles wink conspiratorially at me, dancing behind the red glass of their tiny jars.
I didnít really take notice of any of this, the last only other time I was here. I was occupied in watching Duo, in staying hidden, in trying to understand my friend--why he came here, why he had begun again to seek the counsel of those whose God he claimed to not believe in. Why, why, why... Why are you my friend, Duo? Why are you so happy in a world that is so sad? Why did you get involved with the war? Why did you meet me? Why are you the person that you are? So many questions. My head fills with them whenever Iím around him. They were more than enough of a distraction that Sunday two months ago. The questions, the people, the incense. I didnít notice what I notice now.
How I missed these magnificent windows, I donít know. The worn covers of the bibles and hymn books on the shelves between the pews, the delicate marble inlay in the floor beneath my grubby running shoes, the subtle patterns in the lace altar cloth, the candles, everywhere the candles.
And, presiding over the whole cathedral, a gaunt, bearded young man, clothed only in a white swath around his narrow hips and a painful-looking briar circlet, hangs from a cross high on the wall behind the altar.
I know the story of Jesus Christ, how He was born of a virgin mother, how He was the only son of God, how He taught that through Him alone could the people of this earth find Salvation. I even know how He came to be nailed to His doom, as He is before me now, if only in masterful sculptural form. I know the story, even if I donít believe all of it.
Looking up at the man whom so many call their Savoir, I am struck by a sudden memory, a yellowed newspaper clipping from one of Jís many old files. More the sketchy pictures than anything--there were three. One of a smiling man in his early thirties, one of that same man plus a year or two, standing before a crowd, giving a passionate speech, and a last one of the very same man collapsed in the arms of one of his bodyguards, head lolling back, a dark stain of blood spreading over his shirt from a bullet hole in his breast.
The manís name was Heero Yuy. Yes, than man I was named after. He fought for peace in a world of war, for love in a world of hate, fought for it and died for it. Like Duoís Christ. I may not believe a word of the stories about immaculate conception and resurrection, but I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a real man, and I believe he died a heroís death standing up for his people.
Before I know what Iím doing, I have dropped to my knees at the bottom of the steps leading up to the altar. I do not lower my head, nor pray, as those around me might expect. But instead, I find myself staring up at this image of the Son of God, wondering. Where did he get such conviction, to die without protest, to die for his people? Where did he get such weakness, to go without resistance, to never strike out in self defence? What terrible force beat him into submission? What horrible delusion made him think he could win without fighting? I donít know if Iím trying to understand Jesus Christ or Heero Yuy. Their faces blend together in my mind, until the man with the bullet wound also has a crown of thorns and long brown hair, and Yuyís face smiles disarmingly down at me from the crucified body on the wall.
Why? Why? Why did they, peaceful men, die, while I live, and remember days when I was a killer? Why did I fight, when peace could have been won by so much less violent means? So many questions, I contradict and doubt myself until my head spins.
And another memory dances in front of my eyes, superimposing over the already indistinguishable two Iím trying to separate. Three figures on a massive public broadcast television screen. Duo stumbling between two Alliance soldiers, his small body almost hanging from them, held up by their harsh grips on his spread arms. Crucified between them.
Movement catches my eye to the right. A woman is moving away from a row of confessionals, casting a curious glance down at me before pausing at my side to cross herself, then turning to walk slowly back down the aisle to the doors that lead out into the evening.
I climb slowly to my feet and make my way in the direction the woman has just come. The sculpture on the wall is too wrapped up in his own trials to answer my host of questions. Perhaps I will find answers with one of His servants.
The door closes with a snick as I sit awkwardly on the padded bench. I fight momentary panic, trying to remember what to say in one of these things. Finally, after a few long seconds, it returns to me, but I stumble over the unfamiliar words anyway, trying to keep my accent out of my voice.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." I think thatís right. A few more long seconds of silence before I remember the suffix. This I am hesitant with as well. "This is my first confession."
There is a startled noise from behind the screen, before I hear a deep male voice answer me. "First? How old are you, my son?"
A pause. I chew my lip nervously. Finally, "Well, what sins have you accumulated in twenty years of life, young man?"
"I..." Even now I question myself. "I killed--a lot of people. During the war. I mean--I had to, I was a soldier, it was my job, but--It was a lot of people, Father." Trailing off, doubting again. Breathing. "Sometimes I donít know if I did the right thing."
The priest considers my admission. Heís the only person Iíve ever told that particular fear to, aside from Duo. Iíve told Duo everything, and heís given me his responses. But I want an outsiderís opinion, I guess. Sometimes I feel like heís sugar-coating his answers to keep me happy.
"Did you feel you were doing the right thing at the time?" he asks, just as I start to get nervous again.
"I didnít think at all," I blurt out. "I just did it."
There is a hmmm. "Youíre twenty now, you were, what, sixteen then?"
"Fifteen." I can almost hear him wince. "So young."
"Yes." At this rate, my bottom lip will be gone in an hour, the way Iím worrying it. "Did I sin, Father?"
He sighs. "Everyone sins, my son. Some sins are worse than others are. Perhaps you need to consider what might have happened had you not fought."
"But Heero Yuy," I protest, baffled by the priests turning away of my biggest concern. "And Jesus! They resisted with peaceful means, and they accomplished something, didnít they?"
"And did they not both die very young, before their dreams could ever be realized?"
I am now more confused than I was when I came in. "Thatís what my theory was for years," I whisper. "I didnít think it was right. Was I right?"
The shadow through the screen shakes his head. "Iím afraid in war there are no right and wrong answers. Killing will always be a sin, but the Lord is merciful and loves even the basest soldier. I think in your heart you understand your sin and have done penance enough, and God will forgive you."
"There are no answers," I echo, impaled on my own sword.
"Not for that question," he confirms. "But you are a man, are you not? You have more questions than that."
This is true. "Iím not sure how to ask them."
"More sins?" It would sound sarcastic, but his voice is kind, coaxing my very soul out from the depths of my psyche.
"I donít know," I admit. "Thatís part of the question."
"I see." I squirm in the seat waiting for him to continue. "I tell you what, son," finally reaches my ears. "These old bones of mine arenít meant to be crammed into a confessional for lengthy discussions. Letís go talk in the kitchen, over a cup of tea."
I agree before I can panic, and stumble out of the booth to blink like an owl in a beam of multicoloured sun. When I turn around, there is a middle-aged priest standing beside me, a little shorter than I am, smiling at me like a father would smile at his child. "Iím Father Patrick," he tells me. "Come. Follow me."
I follow. Through a side door, down a short flight of stairs to a warm kitchen in the basement. He motions for me to sit at the small white table, and I obey while he fills an electric kettle with water and plugs it in. I watch the expressions play over his wrinkled face as he sits opposite me, looking me over.
"Now, child, pose all the questions you want."
I ask the first coherent one that comes to mind. "Do you know Duo Maxwell?"
The grin that lights up his eyes is answer enough to that one. "Who doesnít know Duo Maxwell?"
I smile at that, a small, pondering smile. "Heís my best friend."
Understanding dawns on him. "Youíre Heero." I nod. "Mmm. Yes. Duoís told me all about you. What possibly can I answer about your best friend that you canít ask him yourself?"
Hit the nail on the head, why doncha? One of Duoís sayings, for when I get too direct and forget to engage in the appropriate beating around the bush. "I..."
But I donít even know what the question is anymore. Theyíre there, oh, theyíre there. But for a horrible moment, they all blend together in a crazy, whirling puzzle of fragmented thoughts and sentences.
Sanity, like it always does when concerning Duo, takes a moment to return. "I donít know what to think of him these days." No, thatís not entirely true. "No... I donít know what to feel about him."
"He is your best friend."
"And you his."
"Mmhmm." The priest leans his elbows on the table and rests his chin on his folded hands. "Whatís there to be confused about?"
Something tells me he knows exactly what there is to be confused about. "Heís always telling me I should get a girlfriend so she can cook for me. That makes me think about having to move in with a girl, which makes me think of having to marry a girl, which makes me think of having to live with a girl for the rest of my life. I canít think of anyone Iíd be comfortable spending the rest of my life with."
He does know exactly what there is to be confused about. I take a deep breath. Iíve never told anyone this, not even my best friend. "Except him."
The kettle whistles, prolonging my statement, and Father Patrickís response. Iím not sure if I want him to hurry up and answer, or to take his time pouring the boiling water over the teabags, and give me a chance to collect my wits and run. He sets the steaming mug in front of me, and the sweet scent of Earl Grey teases my nostrils.
"Well, I donít know why thatís such an issue, Heero. He probably wants to be friends with you until the end of his day, as well."
Thatís not what I meant and he knows it. "But--I donít--" I canít put my own jumbled thoughts into words. "Itís different than that."
The old man regards me coolly from over the rim of his mug as he takes a cautious sip. "Yes," he agrees finally. "I suppose it is."
Again, there is enough of a pause to leave me uncomfortable.
"Has there been a significant change in your relationship lately that has sparked these questions in you, my son?" he asks, impossibly perceptive.
This, at least, I know how to answer. "Sort of." Past that, it is more difficult. "I donít know. Not an obvious one. I just... I was talking to Relena-sheís a friend of mine-the other day, and she hinted at... something. I donít know if she was trying to get me to admit I had a thing for her by playing mind games-and I really donít-or if she really had something."
"What did she suggest?" Father Patrick inquires, watching my eyes carefully as I avoid his and absently stir my tea.
"She-" This is harder that I thought it would be. A few deep breaths go in and out of me in a futile effort to slow my racing heart. It suddenly seems absurd that I am confessing such doubts to a Catholic priest, of all people. It made sense on my way over here, but sense is leaving me.
"She... she suggested the only reason I didnít want to date her was because I was too busy chasing him," I whisper after a long, long pause.
The priest raises an eyebrow. "It sounds as though she meant it as an insult."
"Yes," I agree. "She was in that kind of a mood. And Iíd let it go for that but..." Father Patrick inclines his head expectantly. "It got me thinking. I mean, what if itís true?"
The old man heaves a sigh. "Itís usually such things that cause young people such as yourself to question their preferences, and often it amounts to nothing. Itís quite possible that you are simply jumping to conclusions from a single trigger. No one expects a boy your age to know exactly who and what he is yet, after all, especially having been so involved with the war."
Why always these doubts? "I know," I admit quietly. "But I did a lot of thinking after she said it, and I think she may have had something to go by."
I finally try the tea, while I wait for Father Patrick to digest my words. Itís actually good, even without the two heaping spoons of sugar Duo puts in. I like Duoís way better, though.
"Well," he says finally. "What do you think about it all? You know you have no interest in this Relena girl. Do you think you do in Duo? Who is he to you?"
This isnít going where Iíd hoped it would. I didnít except to be so closely analyzed, to have to pick apart my relationship with Duo in order to make sense of my own mixed-up feelings. In all brutal honesty, I think I hoped to have someone tell me it was a sin and all in my head, and be done with it. To write off Relenaís comment as an insult and my own confusion as devilís whisperings in my ear. To not have to worry about it anymore. I never thought I would have to look at things so seriously.
Duo never lies. And youíre not supposed to lie to a priest. So I may as well just spill. This old man I met maybe ten minutes ago knows all my other secrets, he might as well know the worst of them.
"Heís been my best friend since the war. He was the only person at that time who ever put any effort into me. I mean, I pushed him away over and over and he kept coming back until I finally just let him in. He risked his life I donít know how many times to help me, even when I never really gave him anything in return. He was the only person who seemed to really care about me."
It makes me nervous to say so much all at once, when Iím used to my normal vocabulary of short, concise sentences. But I stumble on anyway. "Iíve always been blown away by him-like, his spirit, his energy. Now that the warís done and weíve grown up a bit, heís just gotten better and better. He thrives in peace. It makes me happy to be around him."
"These are all fairly normal things for a best friend to say," Father Patrick reasons. "Especially a best friend of so extraordinary a man as Duo Maxwell."
"Yes, but..." I donít know how to say it. "I canít imagine life without him. Five years weíve been best friends and Iíve never had a moment where Iíve been bored of him. Iíve been mad at him, yeah, but when I havenít seen him for a while, I feel it like somethingís missing. If I didnít have him, Iíd have nothing."
"Again," the old priest says, studying me. "Fairly normal things to say, at least for one who has lived a life as unusual as yours."
The punchline appears before me as crystal clear as glass. "The thing is, he could never speak to me and Iíd still be his friend," I tell Father Patrick in a rush. The words trip over each other in their impatience to get out. "He could ignore me completely and Iíd still follow him around waiting for his soul to rub off in me. I love it when weíre alone, because then I get all his energy focused on me, but I like sometimes to just watch him interact with everyone but me, just to see him in action. Iím happy just to be around him. Iíll brush off any previous commitment for a chance to spend an hour in the same room as him. I think that if I died, Iíd want to stay here and just follow him around for the rest of the afterlife, whether he knew I was there or not."
"Iíve had young people say similar things to me about friends and crushes," Father Patrick says. "But thatís usually in the first few weeks or months. In the infatuation stage, and it wears off with time. How long have you felt like this?"
"Years," I admit. "Almost since the beginning."
"Hmmm." He frowns. "What about physically? Do you find him attractive?"
Thatís a hard one, too. "I donít know. I know he is, because I hear it from every girl we meet. Iíve always loved his hair, but that might just be because itís so different from my own. I like playing with it, though, when he lets me braid it for him or something. And I like his eyes, too, just because they always tell me what he isnít saying. I-I like his body, I think mostly because itís his, and he wouldnít look right in any other. But... attractive? I donít know. Yes, and no, I guess. Yes because I know he is, and heís my best friend, and no because Iíve known him forever and anything else would just be weird. Does that make any sense?"
The old man ponders my response. "I think I understand what youíre getting at, though Iíve never experienced it myself. Tell me, if you had to describe him to someone in one word, all of him, what word would you use?"
I blurt it out before I remember to think. "Beautiful."
"I see," he murmurs, looking me over slowly. Iím pretty sure Iím blushing, and that only makes it worse. Embarrassed, I duck my head and try to get my bangs to hide my face--theyíre getting too long, Iíll have to get Duo to cut them for me again...
There is a long silence, long enough for the heat in my cheeks to recede and long enough for the moment to get awkward. When I look up, Father Patrick is still watching me. I suddenly have to fill the quiet room with words, and I pull back the left sleeve of my shirt and extend my arm.
"Duo gave me this," I tell the priest, showing him the small bracelet around my wrist. The black cord is old and tattered, but the little pewter angel charm still looks new. "He got it for me when he was in Italy a few months ago, he said it reminded him of me. It probably only cost him a few dollars, and itís not something I would ever buy for myself. If I saw it on anyone else, Iíd probably think it was tacky." I withdraw my arm to wrap my right hand around the little bracelet, feeling the metal, warmed from my skin, dig into my palm. "Since he gave it to me, Iíve never taken it off. I think if I lost this little thing, Iíd have a fit."
The old man pushes back his chair and stands up without responding to me. Briskly, he picks up my half-finished teacup and his own, putting them in the sink. He pauses there for long enough to let a cloud pass, while I chew my abused lip and sink nervously into my chair.
When he finally turns around, his face is troubled. "Why did you come here with such questions?" he asks me, but the way he says it is not challenging, but curious. "Surely you know that in such a place as this, your feelings for your friend would be looked down upon."
"I donít know," I reply. "I couldnít tell Duo, and I didnít really have anyone else to go to. I had to ask somebody. Duo always feels better after telling you whatís bothering him."
"Yes, he does like to pile his troubles on me, doesnít he?" A ghost of a thoughtful smile passes over his face. "You know, my boy, Iím probably breaking every rule in the book by telling you this, but I think you and Duo are closer than any couple Iíve ever married in this church, whether you know it or not. If you want my answer, youíre getting it not from a priestís mouth, but from the mouth of a man who wants to see two young people happy: Tell him what you feel, Heero. Duo is very perceptive and very open, and I think he deserves to know what he means to you, romantically or otherwise. He can help you sort yourself out better than I ever can. You never know, son. You might end up even closer than you already are."
The overwhelming kindness in his voice makes me want to cry. It hits me like a gale what I risked by coming here, what a wonderful thing I could so easily have squashed with a few little words. That Father Patrick has taken my delicate admission, looked it over carefully and handed it back to me intact is almost more than I can handle. I get clumsily to my feet and lurch over to stand in front of him by the sink. "Why?" I whisper huskily, staring at my sneakers. I meet his eyes once I get the threatening tears under control, and ask, "Why did you do that? Why did you answer like that, if itís not what you believe in?"
"Ah, Heero," he chuckles, clapping fatherly hand on my shoulder. "Did you know that every time a couple engages in sexual relations with each other, it is a sin? Whatís the first thing a man and a woman do after they get married? They go home and make love, and I know that every time I say, Ďman and wife,í I am blessing it. It is considered wrong for a man to love another man, yes, but I see in your eyes such love for Duo that most husbands and wives pale in comparison. God is strict sometimes, Heero, but in my studies, I have come to believe that He is a God of love. Why then should I not bless your feelings for your friend, when they are of the purest nature of all emotions?"
I swallow hard, and Father Patrick squeezes my shoulders once before releasing me. "Thank you," I manage. "So much, Father."
"Nonsense," he admonishes, and shoves me in the direction of the stairs. "Now, my son, I have priestly things to attend to, a sermon to finish, babies to baptize... And you have a best friend to talk to. Now get."
In fact, I get so fast I nearly run back down between pews, ignoring the disapproving looks from those present. It isnít far to Duoís apartment from the church, and I jog most of the way there, too. The setting sun makes the whole sky glow pink and orange, casting colourful shadows, reminiscent of the stained glass, on the sides of the buildings. When I finally punch Duoís number into the com, Iím out of breath.
"Yeah?" My best friendís voice is crackly through the old speaker.
"Itís me, Duo," I reply, feeling better just to hear him. "Can I come up?"
"Heero!" he exclaims happily, and I can imagine his wide grin spreading across his face. "Oí course, come on in, man! I ainít seen you since, like, Thursday!"
"Itís only Saturday, Duo," I tell him, smiling myself, now.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah."
The buildingís doors swing open to admit me. I take the stairs, not patient enough to wait for the elevator. The four flights up seem like eight, but eventually Iím on his floor and peering down the dimly lit hallway to where heís grinning at me from his place leaning against the doorframe.
Heís wearing a back tee shirt and a ratty pair of jeans that donít quite cover the mismatched socks heís got on. His braid is coming out, and wisps float around his head in the dry March air. The wide open window I can see past his shoulder means he has the same opinion of the eveningís weather as I do, and the brilliant sunset catches the side of his face and his hair, making him seem to glow at the edges.
He has to be the most amazing thing Iíve ever seen.
Duo grabs my arm and hauls me into his messy, energetic apartment, already chattering away animatedly, filling me in on his doings from the past two days. I follow him happily, fall into my usual place on the couch, and grin up at him as he zips around his little home, gathering up discarded socks and magazines as he goes.
Iím still grinning when he comes back and sets bowls of nachos and salsa on the coffee table and flops down beside me. "What?" he finally demands, taking in my giddy expression.
I school my features to neutrality quickly, but canít help but smile again when I lean forward to reach for a chip. "Nothing," I reply evenly, and pop the nacho into my mouth before I grin any wider.
Duo doesnít believe me, and decides to hit me with a cushion before leaving me alone. We fall into our usual pattern of talking and snacking and wrestling for the remote, and I swear it feels so good it almost hurts.
The purest of all emotions... Tell him what you feel, Heero. Father Patrickís words sound in my head, but I push them aside. Iíll tell him in a minute. Right now Iím happy just to be around him.