Graves of Memory: Ashes to Ashes
"I am jet black. I am stone cold. Jet black to the center.
Funny like a funeral. I need you to bury me." - Jawbreaker
You know that whole 'your entire life flashes before your eyes when you're about to die' bullshit? Well, that's what it is. Bullshit.
It's not your entire life at all.
It's just your regrets.
"I drive all this way and find you sucking some faggot's dick?"
My teeth and tags rattle as my father holds me by the front of my shirt and shakes me. "Yes, well, that's what we faggots do," I say.
My father drops me as if I have burned him, and pain shoots along my jaw when his fist impacts with my face. Through the ringing in my ears, I can hear Jun banging on the door, shouting to be let back in. Fucking J. Doesn't he know that one or the both of us could be expelled?
"I didn't send my son here to take it up the ass and turn into a Goddamn queer," my father says.
I taste blood, and it mingles with the bitterness lingering on the back of my tongue. "I can't change what I am," I say.
"I'm sorry," my father says quietly. And, for a brief, beautiful moment, I think he's apologizing for being wrong. "I'm sorrier than hell that you can't."
The Lieutenant's office is uncomfortably cold, a condition made worse by the frosty look she aims at me. "It is your honest belief that Senior Cadet Dias and Junior Cadets Michaels and Lee meant no harm to you or your fellows by their actions?"
"Yes, Instructor." Talking so much has been torture. Each shape my mouth makes pulls the newly healing skin on the left side of my face.
"Your squadmates share this opinion?"
I hesitate, but this time, the truth wins out. "No, Instructor."
"And Senior Cadet Noventa?"
Lieutenant Thompson, hands clasped on the surface of her desk, rubs her thumbs together and stares at me. It feels like she's found a way to crawl into my brain and is stripping it back, layer by layer, to reveal every lie and half-truth that lurks in the pathways of my mind. Just as my knees feel almost too weak to hold me up, she forces a smile. The whites of her teeth look dangerous and feral amidst the dark skin of her face.
"Thank you, Junior Cadet Martsch, for your honesty and willingness to step forward on behalf of these young men and women. I will keep your statements in mind as I review the rest of the reports on their involvement in the accident."
"Thank you, Instructor."
"We knew it was coming, but now it's official," J says, his upper lip curling in a snarl. He squints his eyes as he lifts his gaze upwards. The small lenses of his glasses, no matter how dark they are, must do little to shield him from the blazing sun. His hand is resting casually on the weapon holstered at his side, and I watch his fingers tap out a silent, irregular beat on the matte black metal. "They're calling it a peaceful occupation, but let's face it, we're at war."
I shift as the tickling itch of sweat crawls down my spine. "It's not war unless the colonies decide to resist," I point out to him.
"You think they won't?" Jun says bitterly. He drops his eyes, blinking to clear spots from his vision before he turns to look at me. "They've been spitting fire for almost eight years."
"And that's all they've been doing for eight years," I say with a shrug.
"Yeah, well, you think your family up there is just going to sit idly by as their colony loses its independence entirely?"
I shift uncomfortably and look down at my boots. J feels so much stronger than I do about the political tug-of-war between Earth and the orbiting colonies. Not that I'm particularly close with my family, but I've never even spoken to whatever distant relatives of mine live spaceside. Nor am I here out of some deep-rooted belief in the tenets of the Alliance either.
I look up again to see Jun stand tall and gaze off into the distance. The warm wind tosses around the long strands of his hair and he pulls an elastic from his breast pocket to secure it in a thick, black ponytail. "I forget you hardly know them, G," he says quietly.
"S'ok." I scuff the ground with the heel of my boot. They are already broken in, but the rest of my uniform is still far too stiff - especially at the collar. Half the time I feel like I'm being strangled.
"Why is it that you joined the army?" he asks, crossing his arms over his chest.
"How very mercenary of you," J murmurs. "And admirable that you were accepted to the Academy."
I bite my tongue and manage not to snap that sometimes people do make it in on merit and not because their families can pull strings. I worked my ass off to graduate from the Academy with honors. Now all I want is to serve my time and go job hunting with a solid military referral stamped on my resume.
"It strikes me at times," J says, "that we've been... together for two years now and I don't know much about you at all."
I bite my tongue again when my brain offers up a properly sarcastic remark. The tone of Jun's voice is oddly soft, and the look in his eyes as he peers above the rim of his glasses at me is genuinely curious and lacking the cool detachment or predatory glint I typically see lurking there.
"What do you want to know?" I say, feeling oddly vulnerable. That J can surely read my discomfort doesn't make me feel any better.
"After your three years are up, what do you want to do?" he asks me.
"Teach," I reply hesitantly. I feel as if I'm baring some deep, dark secret, and the nervous feeling in my stomach only gets worse when Jun's reaction is non-existent. I don't know if he's surprised or amused or, hell, if he even heard me at all.
"Hate to crash the party," Harim's clear voice rings out behind us. It takes all I have not to visibly jump. "...but our orders have been confirmed."
The hum of the engines is almost impossible to hear, but I can feel them echoing through the walls of the ship. Space terrifies me, but it attracts me too. My life seems to revolve around that pattern.
J is laying on his back in the cubicle above me, counting the tiles in the ceiling like he always does when he wants to shut his brain off for a while. I grab a clump of the long black strands dangling beside my bunk and bring them close to my lips. They smell of the cheap shampoo we all use, but I wouldn't wish for anything different.
"G?" he says, and his hair slips from my fingers as he rolls onto his belly. He hangs over the edge to look at me. Even upside-down, his eyes seem serious as they bore into mine, and I wonder what he is thinking.
"I'm horny," he says. "Wanna fuck?"
Figures. I tell him to go to Hell.
Jun's lip curls and he kicks the wall hard with the heel of his boot. "This shitty transport is already taking us there, remember?" he says.
As if I could forget where we are headed. I just wanted to be able to get a fucking job, not all this shit.
"Let's make the best of it, huh?"
"Jack off in the 'fresher," I say. I scoot myself to the far corner of my bunk and stare out my tiny window. The stars seem so far away, and the emptiness of space yawns like some primordial beast ready to devour us all. Right now though, I'd look at anything to avoid looking at J. Even that terrifying blackness. "I'm not your Goddamn bitch."
I see him swing down out of the corner of my eye; executing, in the low grav, a fancy twist before his boots touch down with a muffled clang on the floor panels. My stomach clenches. Jesus Christ. Even at a time like this, he has to show off.
"G," he says. His body blocks most of the light as he props his arms on the frame of the sleeping cubicles and hunches down. "Gunn...
"You know..." He clears his throat. "You know you mean more to me than just a good lay, right?"
"That kind of crap only works on girls," I say.
I feel him staring at me for a long moment. Silence rings in my ears, a fearsome echo of the void outside, and when he turns to leave, sour regret rises in my throat.
I want to say: "I'm sorry. I'm just afraid, and I don't want to be going to L3," but I can't force out the words until the door slides shut behind him.
'Out of L3!' the sign reads. It lies abandoned in the dust, speckled with blood and bits of gore. Not far away is the body of the man who had carried it. Did he make it himself? Did his children help him paint those big, rounded letters?
The man's friends - compatriots? - are as numb with shock as I am. The boy with the gun holds the weapon awkwardly between his hands, and his arms are trembling. Tears spill down his cheeks, glistening in the early morning sunlight.
"It was an accident," he wails. He turns pleading bluish-grey eyes on his fellow citizens. Afraid of the gun that follows the twist of the boy's body, each of them shrinks away.
"I brought it to scare the soldiers," he says. "I didn't even know it had any bullets!"
"This is all your fault!" He turns towards me and the rest of my squad. He is all long legs and awkward elbows; no older than fourteen. Being myself at the ripe age of twenty, he seems like a child.
"I wish you'd never come here!" he screams, and his arms stop their shaking as he lifts the pistol.
The burst of gunfire at my left is obscenely loud and the boy crumples in slow motion as a dark stain spreads from beneath his collarbone.
I hear someone dimly give an order to fall back, but it isn't until Howard grabs my elbow, and I smell the acrid stink rising from the barrel of his rifle, that my feet begin to move. It takes all I have to look away from the dying boy and those strangely coloured eyes that are losing their light.
I wish I'd never come here, too, kid.
"Look at 'em," Howard says. He reaches up to scratch behind his ear and sniffs loudly. "Like rats escaping a sinking ship."
The flood of emigrants is startling. With the colonies stabilized under Alliance control, whole families wait in long, staggering lines for the next shuttle to take them to the promised luxuries of life in space.
The posters that line the walls of the spaceport say everything: Regulated weather! No earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes or any of the other disasters Mother Nature throws around every year. Clean air! Filters in the atmospheric recyclers catch any pollutants not eliminated by the strictly regulated emission standards. Fresh food! Infinite varieties grown and raised on one of your clusters many farming colonies. All that, and life in a place where the cities did not reflect the scars of the past century of international conflicts.
I don't know what's worse: the propaganda itself, or how easily people eat it up.
"There are so many of them," Stefan muses, his eyes sweeping the crowd.
"Why are they all so willing to leave?" Harim wonders aloud. He and Jun have the closest ties to Colonial relatives, and from what I know, had both spent good portions of their childhood shuttled between living on Earth and in Space. From them, I've heard plenty about what it's really like living there; that it is as much hard work as it is reward.
Just the thought of living on a colony both frightens and fascinates me. I cannot imagine depending on scrubbers for something as basic as air, or having to worry about shipping lanes if you want fresh food on your table. And what would it be like knowing precisely when and how much it would rain?
"Earth is old news, man," Howard says, leaning his shoulder casually against the wall. "Gotta figure the people up there outnumber us. What is it now, three to one? They all probably think we're loony for hanging on to this rock."
"I think they're giving up," Harim says, a severe frown twisting his rounded face. Most would describe his cheeks as cherubic, but he prefers to describe it as 'still packing too much effin' baby fat'. "How can they abandon their homes and countries?"
I scan the multitudes of faces. Some of them stare back brazenly, hiding their contempt poorly, or in a few cases - duly noted - not at all. The uniform we wear is not as widely admired by the population as the Alliance bigwigs like to believe. If I'm right, and the motives for all this encouraged emigration is to essentially dilute or breed out dissent, it is destined to fail.
"Maybe most of their family is in space," S says, and aims a pointed look at H, "like yours." He pulls a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and shakes one loose to hang it on his lip. "Then it'd be more like going home, yeah?"
I see Howard's fingers twitch as he resists bumming a smoke. I almost snicker as his eyes glue themselves to the cig on Stefan's lips. "Technically, these folks aren't abandoning their country," S says.
Naturally, Harim persists. Like J, the boy is a born meddler; he can never let things lie. "Yes," he says, "but just because /we/ say Japan regains control of the dozen or so colonies that declared independence twenty years ago doesn't mean those colonists will suddenly start cheering and putting up pictures of the Emperor."
"Sure they will, H," Howard says. He grins darkly and shrugs his thin shoulders to jostle the rifle slung there. "If they don't, we can shoot em."
S says what we're all thinking: "That's not funny."
Howard drops the smile and looks away. He may have a warped sense of humour, but I know killing that boy on L3 two years ago still weighs heavily on his mind. I imagine he will carry that guilt with him for the rest of his life. "The truth rarely is," Howard says.
"You sound like J!" Harim blurts out.
I force myself not to smile. Howard fixes Harim with a piercing look and H's cheeks pink slightly under the scrutiny. I can tell by the way Howard's lips are pressed together that he can't tell if he should be offended or not. "Yeah? What do the rest of you geniuses think?"
S breathes out a long stream of smoke. "Well, you did have a similar tone in your voice." He flicks the ash off the end of his cigarette and gestures with it. "And you have to admit, that was something he'd say."
"Well, fuck me!" Howard says, a laugh exploding as he delivers a staggering slap to Harim's back. "Now /that's/ funny."
"What is?" comes a familiar voice. My pulse speeds up a little just hearing its smooth, deep tone.
Harim has a stronger reaction and bites back a yelp. Howard gives him another pat on the back and I see him impale Stefan with a 'keep your big mouth shut' look.
"H here thinks I'm giving up cancer sticks for Leslie," he says, as Jun - looking impeccable as always - takes up a spot among us. J is the sort that was born to wear a uniform. He looks equal parts officer and aristocrat with his tall, lean frame, and one glance at his face erases any doubts that it was money alone which got him the rank marked on his collar.
"You're not?" Harim's eyes go wide. I can't tell If he's faking or not. Probably not. He's honest to a fault. "G said you were!"
"G's full of shit!" Howard declares loudly.
"Thanks asshole." So much for my trying to keep Howard's bad-boy reputation intact when he decides to give up smoking - not to appease the latest girl he fancies - but rather because he's worried about his health. The big blonde idiot is going to have to come up with some new excuse all on his own.
"As his best friend, I should know."
I see J's eyes narrow slightly. If he had fur, his hackles would be up. He has always been a bit jealous of mine and Howard's relationship, and predictably, his eyes go darker still when Howard grins at me and says, "Hell, look, he's got brown eyes to prove it."
"Not best friends for much longer if you keep it up," I say. I don't mean it, of course. It would take a lot for me to give up a friendship that has grown so strong after six short years. But, when he slides over and puts an arm around my shoulder to tell me, yet again, that I need to get myself a girl, I feel like I want to cry.
I slide my gaze up, along the arm braced on my desk, past the tattered fleece collar of an ancient bomber jacket, and I drown for a moment in dark green eyes.
"You don't really want this, anyway," I say.
"How do you know what I want?" Howard asks, but there is relief in his eyes as he draws away.
"What I mentioned before," Howard says, pausing by the door, "about that project. Give it some thought."
Alone again, my office feels smaller than it ever has before. And although I feel like I should be relieved and a little bit proud of my restraint, I'm not. I pick up my pen again and take the essay from the top of the stack, but I can't concentrate on the words that eagerly try to prove their point. I can only think about what possible futures I've discarded by not letting the mistake be made. And when I'm able to push that aside, swift to take its place is worry about what possible futures could come into being if Howard's rumors prove true and none of us does anything.
J is fond of saying, 'Better us than them.'
Something inside me finds it darkly amusing that I now subscribe to his belief.
"And the gang's all here," J says, his perfect teeth revealed in a wide grin as he steers us into a conference room.
Seated around a table are the almost familiar faces of men who had been - are? - my friends: Harim, packing a few more pounds, but still looking boyish and years younger than the rest of us; ZhiJian, who, if it's possible, seems even bigger now that his muscles are firmly defined; and Stefan, who has changed the least outwardly, but the ring on his finger makes for a unique spark in his eyes.
Howard is here as well, and he folds his arms across his chest as he looks at me over the top of his sunglasses. "About time you two showed up."
Jun's eyes flicker from face to face and his grin fades as he automatically assumes the task of figuring out who has the skills to work on what and what resources each of them will need.
"Let's build ourselves a monster, boys."
"I don't think the prototype is ready."
"It's as ready as it will be until we get some live data." J is getting irritated with me again. With this whole project. S is the only one who isn't feeling burned out, but we haven't even gotten past schematics on the weapons systems, so he hasn't had half as much to do as the rest of us.
"True, but don't you think it would be best to send the suit up under remote again? Until we know what kind of power those new engines are going to output." I try to be the voice of reason, but Jun doesn't even pause as he pulls on his gloves.
"We don't have time to rewire the slave circuits," he says as he lifts his chin and zips up his flight suit. His ponytail coils around his neck like a thick black snake. "We also need human feedback. Charts and graphs are all fine, but a good pilot can feel what needs to be worked on."
I put my hand down on his helmet, pinning it to the table that stretches halfway across the room. "J, I think-"
"Just let him fly the fucking thing before I take the damn bird up myself," Howard says. He is sitting in the corner with his back to the window; his feet up and chair tilted back on two legs as he reads the paper.
Jun smirks at me and pries my fingers off his helmet. "See, even Howard agrees."
"Fine," I sigh, relinquishing my hold on the smooth black plastic, "but if anything goes wrong, I'm going to be the one with the big, fat, smug look on my face."
Howard gives me the finger without looking up from his reading.
"Don't worry," Jun says, leaning down and stealing a kiss before I can duck away. He chuckles as he props his helmet under his arm. "Nothing's gonna happen, you practically built those engines yourself."
"Shiiiit, I forgot about that," Howard drawls. He tosses aside the newspaper and pulls his boots off the table. The chair's legs snap to the floor with a bang and complain as he stands up. "J, you're fucked, man," he says. He unhooks his sunglasses from his shirt pocket and winks at me before he slips them on.
The short walk to the prototype has me sweating. It is at least 120 degrees on the carrier's deck and if I knew how to swim, the urge to throw myself overboard would have been overwhelming.
"Aren't you going to wish me luck?" J says. Howard snags the zipline for him as he pulls on his helmet.
"Do you even believe in luck?" I ask.
"No," J answers. He takes the line from Howard and hooks his boot in the stirrup.
"If you're so determined to die, get going, asshole," I say, and I smile when he flips me the bird before thumbing the switch on the line's controls.
"You know," Howard says, as we move towards the shelter and shade of the control tower, "when you put two halves together you're supposed to get a whole, but with you and J, the glass is completely fucking empty, man."
I chuckle and he takes out a pack of cigarettes and offers it to me. When I decline, he shakes one free and takes it between his lips. Next appears his precious lighter. It's older than that stupid jacket he loves so much, and he curls a hand around it as he tries to coax a flame from the ancient striker. Nested in his palm, the silver skull relief stares at me with its one remaining ruby eye. I don't know why, but the damn thing has always creeped me out.
Howard's thumb stops in its task and I see his fingers quiver as the metal slides from his grasp. I scramble to catch it, and as the lighter lands safely grinning in my palm, the sound of the explosion reaches me.
Above us, the sky is raining metal.
I'm screaming, I think.
"It's not your fault," Stefan says, putting a hand on my shoulder and squeezing gently.
At any other time, I would shrug off the touch and try to quell my unease at the majority of the world's complete lack of respect for personal space, but I just feel too empty to even care.
"I know it isn't," I say, long after the time it would have been appropriate to make a response.
"He'll forgive you one day."
I nod, if only to make S feel as if he's made a difference and can, in good conscience, leave me here alone with my work.
If O is good for anything, it is his ability to make coffee. I could sit here and do nothing but drink it all day.
"Good shit," I say.
He doesn't spare me a smile like usual and I tune in to the drone of the reporters coming from the small television he is watching. A clip flashes from a speech and I recognize the sandy-haired man elected to represent the Colonies.
'Cluster-wide demilitarization begins immediately. The colonies desire a peaceful resolution...'
The image cuts away as soon as the relevant quote ends, and is replaced by a talking head. "Colony Leader, Heero Yuy, is making good on promises he made in a speech earlier this month," the reporter says. "Eighteen colonies in the L5 cluster have been certified weapons-free by Alliance inspectors and sources say upwards of a hundred colonies in the Earth Sphere are currently taking steps to remove all...."
O looks over at me with hope plastered on his face. "You think this means we'll have real peace, G?"
I look down into my coffee as I consider what to say. The liquid is as dark as his eyes and as I rest the cup on my knee, the surface shivers, distorting my reflection with a dozen tiny ripples.
Yuy and the colonies' first step towards disarmament will certainly ease the diplomatic tension that has been smoldering for the past twenty years. Naturally, Sanc will be the most vocal supporter for this new policy of non-violence, but dozens of Allied countries will welcome the change if it means stability. Somehow, though, I have a hard time believing that the higher-ups in the military will appreciate Representative Yuy's efforts.
"It's a good start," I say finally. "But, I don't think our funding is going to dry up anytime soon."
"I suppose you're right," O says, giving me a sad smile.
"You hated me, didn't you?" Jun asks. The lenses of his artificial eyes gleam in the light of the television, reflecting the bloody images of Heero Yuy's assassination.
"Even when I wanted to, I never hated you," I say.
"Not you," J says. His beautiful black hair has small streaks of grey in it now and I brush it aside to rest a hand tentatively on his shoulder. It's been a long time since we patched things up and I still find it hard to be his friend, but friendship never did come easy to me. "Him."
"You knew Heero Yuy?" I ask, withdrawing my hand.
J laughs sharply. "The last time we spoke was the day I decided to join the Alliance Forces," he says, and pauses the news feed when it flashes the colony leader's picture again. "Didn't I ever tell you? Guess not," Jun says. He turns to look at me with a smirk. "Can't see it?"
"See what?" I say, and then it hits me so hard I forget how to breathe. The eyes I remember so clearly, the warm golden-brown gaze that was lost to me twenty years ago, is right there on the screen.
"Same father," J says. "Ichihara is my mother's name." He crosses his legs and props an arm on the back of the couch. "I won't be able to attend the funeral, you know."
I can think of nothing to say, so I sit down next to him and we watch the same information regurgitated on the feeds for hours. I don't know when I fell asleep, or for how long, but when I open my eyes again, the broadcast is cycling through scenes of rioting on a dozen colonies.
"Analysts are predicting that if the situation continues, the United Earth Sphere Alliance will take military action..." reports the solemn young woman on the screen.
"What happened to happily ever after?" J murmurs, as I lift my head from his shoulder.
"It bled to death on that shiny linoleum," I retort, and wince as soon as the words leave my mouth. "Sorry."
Jun shakes his head, dismissing my apology. He laces his fingers together and cracks his knuckles as he stretches his arms out in front of him. "And what about us?" he says, cocking his head to the side and fixing me with his unblinking robotic eyes. "What happened to our happily ever after?"
"Us?" I stare at the man who used to be my lover. His face holds so many more lines now; so much more sorrow. My heart tightens in my chest. We could probably never have a real happily ever after, but maybe we could salvage whatever was left between us if we wanted to give it another try.
"No," J says suddenly. He aims the remote and turns off the television. "Don't answer."
Pale imitations of the beautiful machine we created crawl across the ruins of Sanc like foul scavengers picking at the remains of a once magnificent creature.
"This is only the beginning," says the thin man who has introduced himself as Dekim Barton. There is an air of arrogance surrounding him that is different than J's. It's obvious that this man never bothers resorting to charm and doesn't believe it necessary. He's probably right. Money, and the influence it brings, is more than enough to sway most men.
And what am I swayed by? Would I be more inclined, or less, to weigh his proposal objectively if he had possessed even an ounce of J's charisma?
"How soon do you need an answer?"
Dekim frowns, considering. "By the end of next month," he says. "After that, I offer my resources elsewhere."
"I can't guarantee they'll be interested, but I'll talk to the others."
In the pit of my stomach though, I already know what Jun's answer will be. Damn him. And damn each of us who will so readily follow him.
Fourteen men are waiting back at my ship for me to make a decision. How many of them are loyal to Dekim and his cause?
I've culled dozens of their fellows who were, for one reason or another, not fit to fly my Deathscythe. Those who remain are the cream of the crop. Flexible and fit in both mind and body. I have found no reason why I should dismiss any of them. And still I can't choose who to train.
"None of them are cut out for this," Howard says quietly.
"Time is running out," I say. God, how I feel it too. In my bones and in my soul.
"Then you better be prepared to just roll the dice, man," he says.
Before us, Peacemillion sinks into the crater's shadows. One more dream buried.
Aaron's voice crackles in my ear and I frown. An intruder on my ship is not something to be taken lightly. No one, unless they had the patience of a saint or the luck of a devil, could get through the security system Howard and I built up over the past ten years.
Curiosity burns in my veins, only to be extinguished by incredulity when I arrive at the cargo hold. Bathed in the shadows of the hold, a face from my nightmares stares back at me.
A dead boy struggles in the grip of two of my Sweeper crew. "Lemme go!!"
No matter what kind of stories you hear, ghosts simply do not exist, and I force myself to believe that as I step forward. "Let him go."
"Just let him go."
The two men step back and the boy jerks his arms close to his chest and stands there sullenly. A clerical collar? My curiosity comes slamming back full force, and I ask the boy how he made it past my security.
"That's a trade secret," he says. "But if it helps your pride, I'll say it was pretty tough." The confidence in his voice is reflected by a cocky grin, and suddenly, I find it easier to divorce his face from the one of the boy who I watched die nearly half a century ago. The more I look, the more I can see the differences. This kid is a little younger; with skinnier arms, larger hands, darker hair, and a face that is rounder and far less innocent. His eyes though, are the same strange colour that is somewhere between blue and grey with a bit of purple in the mix.
From the streets, I guess, as the knife scars on his knuckles would suggest. The tiny blotch beneath his right ear bore witness that he fought off the L2 plague without vaccination before it reached second stage. He was a tough one, all right, and he had the skill and sheer balls to hack his way through my ship's defenses.
"Interesting kid," I muse aloud.
"I'm no kid!" he insists. "My name's Duo. Duo Maxwell."
"Maxwell... Heh. Like the demon, eh?" Like the massacre, too. Could that explain the collar?
The boy clearly doesn't get the reference, but in his eyes, I see something shift. "Nope, not just a demon," he says fiercely, "I'm the God of Death!"
The God of Death... Is he proud that he's cheated the odds? No, that isn't pride in his eyes so much as determination.
If Howard were here, I'd see a reflection of that same determination. And, no doubt, the set of his mouth would make it clear that he and I were thinking the same thing and both found the prospect equally uncomfortable.
I argue silently with myself. He's just a child! Fourteen? Fifteen? But we weren't much older when the Academy spit us out and deemed us ready to die for the Alliance. He's innocent! Yet, the look in his eyes speaks otherwise. He's too young to truly care about the welfare of the people of the colonies, or the Earth Sphere at large. That is the only thing that truly makes me waver, but my gut reaction is that I would rather hand my Deathscythe to this boy than pin my hopes on any of the men who volunteered.
"Come with me," I say.
The boy grins as he's handed his freedom and he walks boldly alongside me as I lead the way towards the center of the ship. If I can find a way for him to agree to take it on, this kid could shoulder the burden.
God in Heaven, if there was only a better way to control the path of an arrow than to be the archer...
Jun. Howard. Duo. Tallgeese. Peacemillion. Deathscythe. ZERO... There are a thousand and one things that make my heart ache. A thousand paths I wish I'd taken. A thousand mistakes made. And a thousand things left unsaid. I relive them all as I press the button that initiates Libra's powerful engines.
The fiery path of a bullet rips through me and the force of it sends me crashing back against the terminal's panel. I'm too old for this shit.
Stefan, Harim, and O move to form a barrier between Quinze and this end of the catwalk. It's a gesture, nothing more, the bastard doesn't have a chance to stop the reaction, even if he knew how.
Jun staggers to his feet. Red is seeping through the white shoulder of his suit. He flashes that maddening grin that I hated as much as I loved, and takes a step towards me.
"If I wanted to look, I would have had a good view of your ass when you were doing your part," he says, and all I can hear and all I can see is the brash young man I fell in love with the first time I laid eyes on him.
I taste blood bubbling in my throat as I laugh, and I manage a garbled, "Fuck you."
The floor shudders as the first explosions rip through the ship, and J reaches me before the flames. "Promise?"
In the next life, I'll have no regrets.