Another Kind of Falling
When Skinny Jim won for the third time in a row, Howard tossed down his cards in defeat and scooted his chair back from the table. "I'm out," he said, and he wasn't the only one. With a simultaneous yawn, the twins called it quits too.
"See you in the morning," one of them said. Equally tall, blonde and broad-shouldered, Howard never could keep straight which one was which.
"We'll have the repairs you ordered done first thing, Boss," the other added as they ducked past the hatch that led towards the ship's sleeping quarters.
"Quite a number that little shit pulled on us last week," Skinny said, shuffling the worn deck of cards for another round with the brave few who stayed in the game. "I hope we have enough working parts 'case Duo comes back again with his suit busted up."
"Yeah," Howard said. He scooped up what remained of his cash and stuffed it in his shirt pocket, mumbling a few curses under his breath at his lousy luck as he stood.
"The kid still out there?" Skinny asked.
"Sure is," Howard said, squinting as he peered out the window. The moon was bright enough tonight that even with his ever-present tinted glasses and his failing eyesight, the silhouetted form of the young pilot should have been easy to spot. "Think so, anyway."
He pushed open the door and ambled out onto the deck. As he drew near the hulking metal body that lay flat on the far side of the ship, he paused for a moment to light up an unfiltered clove cigarette. Duo was still up there all right, he could hear the boy humming some quiet tune. "Not bunking yet?" he called out.
"What about you, old man?" Duo answered, not bothering to sit up this time.
"When you get to be my age," Howard drawled, "you don't need as much sleep." He hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his shorts and looked up into the shining face of the moon.
The silence dragged on and Howard found his mind wandering to another warm night and another full moon from half a lifetime before. Only back then, the mech he'd stood beside had been white as snow and its longhaired pilot had been twice Duo's age.
"We were something, weren't we?"
"How are you going to get down from there?" Howard said, not sure if the twinge in his chest was worry or pity.
"I touched Heaven for a moment," said the man sitting cross-legged on the high, ivory chest of a mobile suit that was the first of its kind. Hair like ink spilled off his shoulder as he lifted his face towards the stars.
Howard forced himself not to cringe at the mass of angry bruises that marred cheek and chin, and he tried to visualize a pair of familiar, golden-brown eyes instead of the thick wads of cotton that were held in place by crisscrossing strips of medical tape. "We're still not sure what went wrong," he said lamely.
"Ask Icarus," J replied, the familiar sarcastic tone burning away the melancholy lilt that made Howard uncomfortable.
"Too high, too fast," the blonde mumbled and wormed his fingers under the bridge of his glasses to pinch his nose. He wanted a cigarette; the soggy toothpick in the corner of his mouth was a damn poor substitute.
J made a low sound of agreement and turned his ruined face away from the sky. "I would have liked," he said matter-of-factly, as he scooted forward to search blindly with his foot for the edge of Tallgeese's metal body, "to have seen the moon one last time."
"It's beautiful tonight," Howard said. "Hanging there like an Angel."
"Poetic phrases, Howard?"
"Something like that."
"They don't suit you."
Howard snorted at the tartly delivered comment and spit out the splintered remains of his toothpick. He climbed up nimbly to help the pilot find his way down, and he didn't say a word at the violent shudder that wracked J's body when the man bit back a sob.
Clearing his throat, Howard dragged himself out of the past. "Still thinking about that other pilot?"
"I can't help it," Duo said, throwing an arm over his eyes and groaning. "It's like my brain is switched on and I can't turn it off. I mean, me and him, we're fighting for the same reasons - or at least I think we are.
"He thinks saving my life makes up for touching my Deathscythe?" Duo grit his teeth at the memory and blinked away the exhaustion that burned his eyes. It had been over thirty-six hours since his last battle and he had stubbornly insisted on running all the checks on his suit himself.
"Well..." Howard began, but the braided pilot lifted his arm and cut him off.
"Yeah, I know. It does," Duo said, his eyes gone back to studying the glittering canopy of the night sky again, "In spades... but did he have to be such an asshole about it? Making me think he was going to shoot me..."
"Maybe he was," Howard pointed out grimly. If he was right, that was J's boy, and the former pilot wouldn't have sent anyone who wasn't capable of the same brutal thoroughness as he was.
Perhaps Duo hadn't considered it, because he didn't respond. Howard sighed quietly and scratched at the stubble on his cheek. Times like this, the boy seemed far too young to be caught up in the ugliness of war. "I'm headed below decks. You look at the moon as long as you want, but try going down before Jim and the boys start snoring."
"What gives with all the checking up on me? This some kind of fatherly concern?"
"Something like that," the old mechanic said, turning to walk away.
"It doesn't suit you!" Duo shouted, and the slap of Howard's sandaled feet paused briefly before they faded in the distance.
Alone again, Duo sighed and closed his eyes to listen to the churning water as the huge salvage ship crawled its way across the ocean. Beneath him, Deathscythe's Gundanium plating had warmed to his body and he could almost imagine sinking into the metal and becoming a part of the suit itself.
In the fitful half-sleep of exhaustion that stole him the first chance it got, he dreamed of beautiful things. As time passed, his dreams changed; fire and anger made a brief appearance, only to be washed away by the song of a woman whose face he could hardly remember anymore. Eventually, he dreamed that he wasn't a pilot in the middle of a war - he was just a kid laying on the hood of his car at the beginning of summer and watching planes go by overhead.
When a skinny boy with dark brown hair appeared, sat down next to him, and leveled him with an intense look, he stared back. "What are you doing here?" he asked calmly. The blue-eyed youth may have been dressed in a crisp school uniform, but Duo knew he was a soldier, a potential enemy, he had no place in a dream where conflict didn't exist.
"I don't know," was the reply, in a voice that, had he not been a dream figure, would have been too well trained to reveal the hesitation that came across.
"Don't you have people to kill or something?" Duo said, remembering the chill that had shot up his back when Howard pointed out that he'd maybe been a little closer to meeting his namesake than he had thought.
The dark-haired youth flinched, but didn't vanish. "What about you?"
"The God of Death is on vacation," Duo replied and tried to take control of his dream to change it. When it stubbornly refused, he insisted, "Killing is the furthest thing on my mind."
"You're an entirely different story," Duo said. He sat his dream-body up and his world spun as he looked boldly into the depths of the other boy's eyes. "I can't seem to stop thinking about /you/."
"Me?" the dark-haired youth drew back in confusion.
"Yeah, like what you're doing right now."
"I'm sitting here."
"I know that," Duo said, squinting to try to clear his thoughts without waking up. He leaned on one palm, half rolling on his side to put himself nose to nose with the other teen.
At some point, as they sat inches apart like that, Duo realized he could feel the heat of the other boy's body and the eyes he was focused on were far too real and detailed for him to be dreaming. His heart sped up in his chest and fear crept up from his gut. He found his voice reluctantly and whispered, "Why did you come here?"
The other pilot's lips parted, but he didn't answer immediately and the strange silence grew thick between them. A lock of dark hair across the Japanese boy's forehead swept to the side as he tilted his head. Duo stopped breathing and he felt himself blushing as he caught himself just before he tilted his head in the opposite direction. A blunt-nailed fingertip bumped the side of the hand he had pressed flat against his Gundam, and the single touch shot lightning all the way up his arm.
Whatever spell that had been coiling around them broke and each boy jerked into motion. Duo straightened and rubbed his elbow awkwardly, while Heero scooted away and swung his legs over the side of Deathscythe to leap down.
"Hey!" Duo cried, grabbing for the back of the other pilot's shirt. He heard a button pop free and clatter to the ground as he got a firm grip and hauled the Japanese boy back a good twenty centimeters.
Heero wrenched free violently and twisted around with a glare. His shirt had split open and he felt the cool kiss of night air on his stomach. "What?" he growled, his right hand hovering above the butt of his gun.
Duo held his hands up and blinked. "Your leg, pal," he said, daring to point. "You shouldn't jump down or it'll never heal."
For a long second, dark blue eyes gauged the concern on the longhaired boy's face. "Stop worrying about me," said Heero, and he smirked before he vaulted to the ground.
Wincing, Duo crawled to the edge of his Gundam and peered down. He expected to see blood and bone or some horrible replay of the incident that had led up to the whole thing with the wrench, but the dark-haired boy showed no signs of a limp as he walked briskly towards where his blue and white mobile suit waited.
Duo shook his head and lay down on his belly. His braid slithered off his shoulder and dangled off the edge of his Gundam as he propped his chin in his hand. "Crazy guy," he murmured to himself.
"That flight model showed up late last night," said Howard.
"The ship wasn't damaged beyond repair was it?" asked the narrow-shouldered man on the screen.
"Nope. Kid didn't lay a finger on this old bucket. In fact," Howard peered over the frame of his glasses, "he paid me for the parts he stole.
"Duo came running over," Howard continued with a dry chuckle. "Thought the kid was going to shoot me, but he just handed me a credit chit."
Professor G's dark brown eyes narrowed for a moment. "So Duo's mystery 'friend' has graduated from asshole to jerk. I still don't trust him."
"He's J's. I'd bet my life on it."
Professor G's lips thinned beneath his mustache and he glanced away briefly. "That doesn't make me any more inclined to trust him."
Howard shrugged and leaned away from the small monitor. "You never were the trusting sort, G."
"I trusted Dekim and look where it got us."
The old mechanic shook his head. That was an argument he had no desire to get in to. "Duo's got a good feeling about the kid."
The scientist tugged at the tight black collar of his shirt and eyed his friend darkly. "So I should trust the feelings of a fifteen year old boy."
"Yes, you should," said Howard. "You gave him your Deathscythe after all."
G broke into a gravelly laugh and reached for the controls on his side of the feed. "He stole it remember...but you're right," he said, shaking his head as he conceded the point.
Howard smirked after the screen blinked out. "Always am."
The old mechanic dug into his pocket for a cigarette and closed his eyes with a mournful sigh. The search found only the kid's money and a quick check of his desk didn't turn up anything either. "'Bout time I tried to quit again," he muttered.
His shirt pocket got one more chance, but nothing magically appeared. Howard sighed and pulled out the thin piece of plastic stamped with a hologram of the Alliance symbol. Twisting it around in his fingers, he recalled the way the Japanese kid had handed it over almost grudgingly. It was possible he'd received an order from J to make a monetary apology. Then again, who was Howard to say he hadn't merely chosen to do so on his own. Either way, the pilot obviously didn't appreciate Duo's snide remarks about his failure to pay the first time.
Howard flipped the little credit chit into the air and caught it as it fell, secreting it away again swiftly. He leaned back in his chair and considered what had happened after he'd tucked it away the first time. Snide remarks or not, J's kid had to stiffen his neck so he wouldn't turn to look as he climbed into his cockpit, and Duo's eyes had been glued to the sky long after the Gundam had shot into the air.
He too had watched as the engines powered up with a whine, and worry had gnawed at his stomach, just as it did every time he saw Duo off. But the mobile suit had flown true; it's powerful thrusters trailing a line across the brightening sky. No faltering, no tumbling, no wreckage. Not this time.
"Hey, Howard, where are you?"
"In here," he called back automatically. He pulled his glasses off and had just started to clean the dark lenses with the bottom of his shirt when Duo burst into his small office.
"Whoa!" Duo shouted as he skidded to a halt. The old mechanic looked up curiously and a finger waggled at his face. "You have green eyes?"
Howard chuckled and put his sunglasses back on. "What's up, Duo?" he said, rising from his chair.
"Got some new orders," Duo said, settling back on his heels and propping his hands on his hips. "Think ya can get Enrico to swing this rig closer towards shore so I have enough fuel to get myself to where I need to go?"
"And where's that?" Howard asked, even though he already knew the answer. On the edge of his lunch plate, Howard spotted the leftover toothpick from his sandwich. He picked it up and stuck it in the corner of his mouth as he followed Duo out the door.
Duo flashed a roguish grin and started down the hall, heading towards the stairs that led up to the bridge. "Nearest place I can steal a transport."
"Guess this means you won't be coming back," Howard said.
"Don't take this the wrong way," said Duo, glancing over his shoulder at the old man, "but, I'm hoping that's what it means."
"I hear ya, kid," Howard replied.
"I wonder if that other pilot's got the same idea," Duo mused, and he paused with one foot on the stairs and one hand on the railing to give Howard a chance to catch up with him.
"You never know," Howard said absently, and he rubbed the back of his head, hoping this time around fate would be more generous and he wouldn't have to watch two kids fall in love only to fall apart.
"Yeah," said Duo, his face cracking into a smile again. "Wouldn't that be something..."
"Sure would..." Howard agreed, and Duo's smile broadened. The old man took a deep breath and his thin lips stretched into an answering smile as he patted the pilot fondly on the shoulder. "It sure would."