On Being Human:
The Difference Between Needing and Wanting
A young man walked briskly down the sidewalk of the darkening street; his long hair, woven into a thick braid, swung from side to side with each step. His eyes moved as he went, sweeping in all directions monitoring the routine nighttime activity while keeping a lookout for possible trouble.
He paused briefly, his nose wrinkling at an odor wafting up from the nearby gutter drain. Frowning, he cocked his head and watched as the sluggish liquid made its way along the concrete to drop through the grate slats. His eyes scanned to the source of the liquid, and narrowed slightly. He made a mental note to pay a visit to the one creating the foul stuff. The task duly logged, he set off once again, his destination firmly in mind.
It was the tangy sour smell that brought back the memories, the memories of a too short childhood. The pavement of the streets and alleys stank with the permeated odors of long ago conflicts, recent fights, and too many bodies in too small of spaces. It smelled of dank, dark hidden vices, the after effects of too much drink, and the sin of being poor on a poor colony. Sickness and blood, sweat and tears mixed with all manners of human waste – both of the body and of man's own making. Too little water, and never enough rain kept the streets in a constant smell of unpleasantness.
None of it mattered to the man. He'd grown up on these same streets, lived there most of his young life, and, while he'd faced more and worse dangers than what the strip of concrete and asphalt held, the possibility of dying by letting his guard slip now wasn't an option. He could not indulge in remembrances do to the sickly sweet sour smell rising up to slap him in the face.
More than he heard, more than he saw, the young man knew he was being followed. By whom, he didn't know. But he was about to find out.
The colony's artificial sun dimmed to its night cycle, and the streetlight glowed with its dismal lighting; not nearly enough to see properly, it gave off sufficient illumination for a sure-footed person to find their way from one post to another.
Cutting swiftly down a dark alley, the man's booted feet ghosted over the debris and refuge, making not a sound. He'd kept in practice for times like these, never quite willing to let the old ways die. Halfway down the alley, a faint recess in the brick wall of the building added protection and a place to hide while waiting for his tail.
It didn't take long.
A figure cursed softly being the only noise it made as it hurried down the alley seemingly as though it followed the same path as the first man. The figure passed the niche and the long-haired man moved. A quick tug on the knife in his boot preceded a startled cry as he pulled on the body and slammed it against the wall.
Pressing his blade to the neck of his would-be assailant, the young man demanded in a harsh whisper, "Who are you? Why the hell are you following me?" It was then that he realized his wrist was grasped in a strong hold. Knowing only one person who had the strength to push his arm away, he asked puzzled, "Heero?"
"Aa," the reply was just as soft.
The young man hesitated a moment before pulling his wrist free from its hold, and shoving his knife back into its sheath in his boot. Stepping back, he gave the other man room and himself a chance to think.
His manner at once went back on the alert, not giving his one time war companion the typical greeting he reserved for his friends, and instead demanded harshly, "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Do I need a reason to visit a friend?"
His eyes narrowed. "To visit a friend, no," his voice left no room for misinterpretation.
The other man drew a quick breath and released it slowly before saying; "I've always considered you my friend, Duo. I thought of you as such."
"Friends do not disappear for years without letting someone know where they are. A friend doesn't leave their best friend in the dark, wondering, worrying and losing hope of ever seeing him again."
Though he could not see him clearly, the long-haired man was aware the other had turned away. "I-I have not acted as a good friend should, but there are reasons…" A hand reached out in the dark, only to pull back quickly. "Please, Duo, just hear me out."
"Tell me what you're doing here first."
"I need your help," came the simple reply.
It was apparent this was not the answer expected, and, after biting off an oath, the young man spun on his heels and headed for the alley entrance.
"Duo?" Quiet footsteps followed after the question.
Not turning around, he ground out, "I don't have time for your games any more, Heero. I'm going to be late as it is, and I need to go."
A barely perceptible sigh sounded, and the second young man kept pace at his friend's side. "I'll walk with you, then. And if you need it, I'll help in what I can."
Duo didn't bother with a reply, but kept walking, quickening his pace and stealing glances at the man. The suppressed stillness tugged at him, robbing him of his resolve to not speak. Their destination was only another couple of blocks, but the silence held, and he disliked the quiet. "Why do you "need" me?" he asked, not really wanting to but feeling compelled to ask all the same.
The silence stretched between them once again, and Duo had decided he wasn't going to receive an answer when he did. "Because you're the only one who can do it… who can help me."
"That's not an answer, that's an evasion."
"Hn," the typical, almost forgotten grunt nearly made him laugh.
Duo paused before the doors of the shelter, and looked to his one-time friend. The light was dim, the entryway light casting more shadows than illumination, and the street lamp too far away. But there was enough, barely, for the young man to see the serious expression and determined set to his jaw. "Look, I can't help you if I don't know what's going on, not that I'm going to help. But to even consider helping, you're going to have to tell me something."
A short nod was given before the other man spoke, his voice low, "I'll explain all I can, all I know, later. Once we've finished your business here for the night and can speak privately."
His brows furrowed together and his eyes narrowed. "How do you…" a quick shake of the head, and he continued in an exasperated tone, "Never mind. You've probably staked me out for a day or more, haven't you?" Duo didn't receive an answer, hadn't really been expecting one, but the minute change of expression confirmed what he knew. "If you're serious about helping, we can use it." With the trace of an old familiar grin hovering on his lips, he pushed open the doors, and added, "Though you might have wished you'd approached me after I've left here."
Not waiting to see if he were followed, Duo made his way into the large, noisy commons. He returned greetings to those who called out to him, and stopped briefly to help an older man gather his scattered belongs, packing them away in his safe place. Heero followed, keeping a few feet behind without interfering.
Entering the kitchen area, Duo stopped to assess the mess, and smiled happily seeing a covered plate on the large table set off to the side. "Thanks, man. I'm starved," he called out enthusiastically. Sitting on the stool and pulling the dish toward him, he paused, remembering he wasn't quite alone. Looking up at the shorthaired man, he asked, "Have you eaten? Are you hungry?"
Heero shook his head. "It's been taken care of already." He leaned against a counter, arms folded over his chest, watching his friend.
Duo moved his gaze from him back to his plate, and the smile returned. "I see it was meatloaf night," he called out over the clatter of dishes being washed somewhere in the recesses of the cavernous kitchen.
The noise from the back stopped, and a man appeared, wiping his hands on a large dishtowel. "Yeah, meatloaf and potatoes, can't do better than that." He grinned, displaying a large set of crooked, yellowed teeth.
His fork cutting into the gravy-covered mess, the young man crowed, "No sir, you can't!" Even as his words left his lips, the fork was there. In between bites, Duo made the introductions using his fork to point one to the other, "Jonesy, this is Heero. Heero, Jonesy." He paused long enough to glance up at the former gundam pilot. "Jonesy is in charge of the kitchen. He usually needs help with food prep, serving, and cleanup. If you'd like to help in here, I'm sure he'd be grateful." His glance darted over to the large man wearing the greasy apron. "Heero's decided to give us a hand for a few days, and we need to find a place for him to help out. Do you need him or does Smitty need him more?"
Jonesy looked Heero over closely before answering; "He looks more like someone Smitty can use. I can always use the help but Smit's been having problems again." He grinned, and added slyly, "So, Heero that friend of yours?"
Hiding his blush, Duo shoved another forkful of meat in his mouth, contemplating what explanation he would, he could give for the sudden appearance of the missing pilot.
"I am a friend of Duo's," Heero answered quietly.
Eyes wide, Duo tore his gaze from Heero's face to look back at the cook. "He's an old war buddy, dropped in suddenly to stay a couple of days. Since we haven't seen each other in a couple of years, he thought he'd like to help out here. He's never been to a mission, and I thought what the heck. We can always use the help around here, and since he's willing, it would also give us a chance to catch up. You know, so we can spend time together but I'd still be able to do my job." He was rambling, and he knew it, but until he was able to talk with Heero, he wanted to be sure he wasn't giving the wrong impression, or exposing his friend when he didn't want to be.
Jonesy held up his hands. "Whoa there, Duo. I didn't need the history lesson. I just wanted to know if he was with you or not." He turned to wink at the now silent Heero. "You know, for the biggest joker your friend sure can't take a joke."
Heero looked at Duo, who continued to eat with avid interest; his ears had turned a bright red, and with his head lowered, his eyes couldn't be seen behind his bangs. The shorthaired man raised his gaze back to the cook. "No, he can't. "
The cook grinned before turning away. "I'd better get back to my dishes. Want to get home sometime tonight." Looking over his shoulder, he added, "Oh, and Heero, if you want to spend more time in the mission helping out, stop by tomorrow while Duo's working. I can always use an extra hand in the kitchen." Heero nodded, and Jonesy went back to his washing.
"What was that about?"
Duo paused with his fork raised halfway to his mouth. He looked up behind the curtain of his bangs, and offered quietly, "Jonesy's a good guy, but sometimes he takes things a little too literally." A blush crept up his neck and settled on his cheeks, "He's been trying to set me up with any available girl for the past couple of years until I'd finally had enough and told him some story about an old war buddy. So any time I bring anyone down to the mission, he asks." Mopping up the last of the gravy with a bit of the thickly sliced bread, the man stood without looking at his friend, hoping his explanation was the last he'd hear on the subject. "Let me get rid of this and we'll go see what Smitty has for you."
Arms still crossed as he leaned against the long counter, Heero's eyes narrowed watching the black-clothed man as he disappeared into the back of the large kitchen. Though it had been a reasonable explanation, he couldn't help but think there had been more to it than what Duo told him. He filed it away for later contemplation; it had nothing to do with his mission… his being on L2 now. His reason for seeking Duo out in the first place.
A little over an hour later, Heero suppressed another sigh and let the old man's words wash over him. Smitty assigned him shower duty, a job requiring someone with the ability to keep the peace in the men's shower room. And keep the stronger guests from preying on the weaker ones. Though it wasn't common, rapes, knifings, beatings and threats took place too often for the mission staff to ignore. One of the more capable volunteers or staff members held guard duty during shower hours. Since theft was more likely, the "guard" watched over each mission guests' articles as well.
Surreptitiously looking at his watch, he noted the showers would be opened for another half an hour. It wasn't the job so much as the company he disliked. If he had his way he'd tell the old man to take a hike and leave him alone. For some reason he knew if he had, Duo would never listen to what he needed to say and he wouldn't be able to get the man to help him. He made another visual sweep of the facility before focusing back on the old guy.
"…so we was all alone, and what could we do? Two guys with nothin' but air guns ‘gainst those mobile suits." The man shook his head. "Ever seen one up close?" His bleary eyes seemed to notice Heero for the first time. "Nah, you'se too young. Couldn't have seen one."
Heero hid his grin and nodded to the older guy. If he only knew.
The old man became lost within himself, mumbling occasionally. A full minute had passed in near silence before he shuffled back to his possessions. Heero watched as he shifted through them, taking them one at a time from the large shopping bag at his feet to set out on the bench. Every so often, an item would be held up for inspection and either returned to the bag, or added to the collection left out.
Shaking his head, Heero made a physical circuit of the shower room, noting each occupant in anticipation of possible danger. None seemed to be forthcoming and he settled back against the wall separating the showers from the dressing area. Most of the guests had showered, and now it was a matter of waiting for the room to clear. And there was always a chance of a late guest showing up needing a shower.
"Whatcha got there old man?" a coaxing voice broke through Heero's thoughts.
As his attention focused on the scene in front of him, he realized that a small group of younger men had entered the room, most likely while he had been making his round of the shower. They now stood in a loose circle around the old guy who'd been talking his ear off before. Eyes narrowing, Heero began to stalk toward them.
The old man sat as if frozen, his arm stiff with an old, dented tin can in his hand. His eyes darted around the human circle formed about him and his mouth worked soundlessly.
One young man picked up a chipped mug and held it up at eye level. "Well, it looks like trash. Don'ya think boys?" A manic grin flashed. Gesturing broadly, he added, "In fact, it all looks like trash. I think we should clean up this place. Whatja say?"
The gang laughed and the old man hunched over the exposed items set out on the bench, his body shaking with fright, but not willing to give up his possessions. A hand reached out to jerk him away. The hand had barely touched his shoulder when its owner gave a sudden cry and it was quickly pulled back.
"Leave him alone," Heero's quiet request sounded in the room. He stood facing the group, one man kneeling in front of him on his knees and an arm behind his back held in a strong grip. Heero shoved the man away, angling for a better position to the one he took to be the real threat.
The laughter stopped. The gang's leader sneered and dropped the mug, stepping around the shattered ceramic as he moved forward to stop in front of Heero. "It's none of your business, boy. So why don't you turn around and leave yourself."
Heero balanced on the balls of his feet, his body posed with his arms dangling loosely at his sides; he was ready for an attack. "I'm afraid I can't do that. This man is a guest of this mission and my job is to protect the guest." He noticed, without taking his eyes off the man in front of him, the other room's occupants hurriedly left, some half dressed. The old guy started shoving his possessions back into the bag at his feet, his gaze danced among the six surrounding him.
The sneer turned sour and a mixed look of anger and contempt arranged itself on his face. "Tough guy, huh? Looking to make a name for yourself?"
"I have a name. I've no need for another," he answered softly.
"Shit. Fucking comedian," the boy-man ground out harshly. Stepping forward, he swung his fist.
Heero dropped low, ducking the wild punch and spun into a leg sweep bringing the man down. Throwing himself in a roll, he came up in a crouch to immediately take assessment of the others. The other four remained standing with varying looks of doubt and amazement.
His hands rested lightly on his knees, elbows cocked and ready, Heero's eyes flicked from one to the other before settling on their leader. "I suggest you leave."
At the door, loud voices and the noise of many bodies trying to crowd into a small space sounded. Suddenly Duo was there, his eyes sweeping the room taking in the situation at a glance. Smitty appeared behind him, a heavy wooden bat held in one hand. Another man, large and seemingly all muscle, one Heero didn't know, pushed forward and came to a stop before the downed leader on the floor.
With a withering glare, he stated, "That's it, Jake. This is the last time you come here. I see you again and it won't be a warning you're given. Do I make myself clear?" He bent over and hauled the would-be gangster up by his shirtfront to shake him.
Duo stepped around the group, his eyes darted over Heero before moving over the five near men and back. "You okay, buddy?"
Coming out of his crouch, his eyes never leaving the big man with the gang's leader, he answered shortly, "Yes. No one laid a hand on me." He brushed the dust from his shirt and moved forward. The old man sat huddled in as small a space as he could make himself. Heero pushed one of the would-be gangsters out of his way and crouched down next him. He picked up the last of the items on the bench, and replaced them in the bag, not saying a word.
The older man cast him a fearful look. Seeing a calm, neutral expression on the young man's face, he offered a small smile. "Thank you," he muttered gruffly before grabbing his bag and hurrying from the room.
Smitty and the big man already had the would-be gang out of the shower room. Heero expected they wouldn't be leaving the mission without a few bruises and lumps. He sat for a moment, willing the shaking of his limbs, the trembling in his hands to stop. As he stood, his shoe kicked one of the shattered remains of the mug, and an indescribable pain shot through him. He'd failed to keep a guest safe.
"…does happen on occasion. Mostly, though, Smitty or Bill is there to block those who are known predators from entering the shelter, but sometimes they slip through." Duo leaned over to peer into Heero's face. "You sure you're okay? You're acting awfully strange."
Heero lifted his lowered head to meet Duo's gaze. His expression stricken, he whispered, "I failed again."
Concern clouded the braided man's features. "Failed? Heero, you possibly kept a lot worse from happening. There isn't a failure here. The only failure was in letting that creep inside in the first place, and you are definitely not responsible for that."
As though he hadn't heard him, Heero spoke over Duo's voice, his sentences like bullets in the night, cutting and swift. "I couldn't save him. I froze. I was scared. I failed to save him. When the guy pulled a gun, I hid and didn't do anything to stop him from shooting…" With a start, he turned wild eyes to Duo before quickly scanning the room. It remained empty but for the two of them. He let out a deep breath and began the attempt to calm his panic attack.
A feeling more than concern worked its way into Duo's voice as he said soothingly, "Heero, man, there wasn't any gun. No one got shot. It's okay." He placed a hesitant hand on his shoulder, uncertain of its reception.
Raising a trembling hand, Heero pressed stiff fingers against the skin between his brows. "I know. I… know."
Duo gave his shoulder a squeeze before dropping his hand. "How 'bout we go back to my place now. And you can tell me just what the hell is going on." At Heero's nod, he jerked his head toward the door. "You lead. I'll close up in here."