On the Wings of the Night
Part Three: Bleeding Beneath the Skin
Duo threw his head back, letting the warm water wash across his face and down his back, where his dark hair hung in thick tendrils that clung to his bare skin. The main purpose of this shower was more to drive the stiffness from his muscles and the sleep from his eyes than it was an attempt to get clean. Morning was not his favorite time of the day. If it had been at all possible, he would have buried his head beneath the covers and refused to surface until sometime this afternoon. But not today. Deathscythe was waiting for him.
Ducking his head to avoid the spray, he let a yawn run its full course, reaching up blindly for the tiny bottle of shampoo supplied by the hotel. It was not the best smelling stuff, and it was so small, he estimated that he was going to need at least three of them to wash all of his hair. Duo knew what it meant to be unclean, however. He knew what it meant to walk around feeling so dirty you were certain everyone could see the invisible stains. It was why he would gladly accept this with little complaint. It was a far sight better than having no soap at all.
Emptying the contents of the bottle into his palms, he dumped it unceremoniously onto his head and began working up a lather as far down as the amount of shampoo would allow. As he had predicted, it took three bottles to reach the tips. By that time, nearly his entire body was covered with suds and he figured that using bar soap would be excessive. He could take whatever he did not need now with him when he left. Duo Maxwell may have done a lot of things, a great deal of which were not ethical, but he never wasted anything. Doing without had taught him the value of wrenching every last bit of worth out of something.
The conditioner came next. If he was going to have any hopes of brushing out, with minimal amount of pain, the tangled mess his hair worked itself into after showering, he was going to need it. That was the one drawback to having hair so long. Not the actual brushing of it, but the fact that he had a tender scalp. Duo considered the ritual of caring for his hair to be calming and therapeutic. It was a few small moments of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic day. He supposed it might sound odd, but it kept him grounded. It reminded him that he was as human as everyone else, even if the demands sometimes put on him stretched the confines of his physical body.
Having hair that was so long could in fact be a hindrance in battle, but it was an integral part to who he was. Cutting it off would be like shredding his identity. It was less of a vanity, and more of a symbol. Life had bruised him. It had stolen his trust, taught him cynicism, and made him hurt, but it could never take away the meaning of beauty. No matter where he went, Duo would find the radiance beneath the grime. And every time that he looked into the mirror and saw the braid falling down his back, he would remember that.
When Dr. G had first recruited him to pilot Deathscythe, the scientist had informed him that having so much hair was a foolish conceit that had to go. In response, Duo had threatened anyone that touched his hair with having something far more vital cut off. Needless to say, the impious gleam in his eyes had convinced the good doctor that he was more than serious. His braid stayed where it was, Dr. G's parts remained intact, and the training had went on without further interruption. All was right with the world for the time being.
Without warning, the temperature of his water jerked him rather maliciously from his thoughts.
Turning his back to the already depleting cascade of warm water, Duo tilted his head back and worked diligently to wipe all traces of soap from his hair. That chore took a few more minutes, as he had to work his hands from the roots all the way down to the tips that fell far past his waist. By the time he was finished, the water was ice cold and he was beyond willing to abandon the rapidly cooling environment of the shower stall for the humid one of the bathroom itself.
Binding both hair and body with towels as white as newly fallen snow, he reached up to wipe the moisture from the mirror. The face that stared back at him was flushed and appeared even younger without the accompaniment of hair. He turned away from it to examine the clothes draped over the metal towel rack on the wall. He had washed them the night before with a bottle of soap he had confiscated from the ship prior to leaving for Earth. The steam from his shower had taken the minor wrinkles from them as he had expected, which left him with an outfit looking nearly as good as new. That was one thing to be said for not having access to a washing machine or drier. Your clothes never got faded.
"Can't be Shinigami in grey, anyhow," he remarked lightly, working quickly to dry himself off and begin dressing.
Padding barefoot on silent, nimble feet, he collapsed gracefully onto the single bed and rooted through his bag, by-passing various explosives until he found what he was looking for. Moving the bag away, he bent over so that his head was situated in the circle of his legs. The towel fell away to leave behind a wild mass of damp hair, and he pushed it to the side to allow him better access with the brush. After pressing the flat of his palm against the roots of his hair to alleviate some of the sting, he began pulling the brush through, wishing, as he did nearly every time, that his arms were just a bit longer.
The bristles became entangled on a few snags here and there, but for the most part, the conditioner had worked its magic. With the brushing out of the way, he was left with only the braiding to do. Skilled fingers took care of that easily, dipping in and out of his hair as they wove the simple pattern. A shake of the head was all that was required to settle his bangs in to place. Once the hair around his face had dried, he would pull his cap back on to attempt to keep some semblence of a low profile. As it was, he was going to have to avoid as many public places as possible due to the incident in the convenient store the night before.
"Which leaves me with stale chips and a half a box of cookies for breakfast," he noted, his nose wrinkling up in disgust.
Reflecting on the fact that he had eaten worse, Duo picked up the box of cookies and began munching on them absently. Crumbs fell to the carpet unnoticed as he walked to the bathroom to retrieve his socks. Slinging them carelessly over his shoulder, he flicked the lightswitch off with his elbow and partly wished he had gotten cable. It could hardly hurt to keep up with the news. By now, OZ had either made a big production out of his little mission or were keeping it mum. Whichever suited them most, he supposed.
OZ was quite good at doing what was best for OZ.
Whistling softly to himself, he cleaned the last pieces of cookie from the bottom of the box and tossed it in the trashcan near the window before flinging himself back down upon the bed to pull his boots on.
Glancing around the room, he decided that he would not miss the muted green walls or the rose scent that had fast become cloying as he lay in bed waiting for sleep to claim him. With a slight smile, he wondered how many had stayed here before him and what their lives had been like. It was a game he often liked to play to offer himself a short escape from his reality.
He could imagine that a woman had stood at the window as he was now doing, her hand parting the curtain as she stared out onto the dimly lit alleyway, eyes searching the shadows for signs of her lover. Caught up in her vigil, she would miss him and he would instead slip unheard into the room and surprise her from behind. They would fall together like two starved people and remain entwined in each others arms for the few hours their seclusion offered them.
Letting the curtain fall back into place, dark lashes swept across each other as he laughed silently at himself. What need did he have for being a Gundam pilot? All he had to do was pen out a novel and he would be set for life. He could afford his own small colony then.
"Maybe after I get rid of OZ," he considered with a grin, nabbing his bag as his strides took him to the door.
Pulling it shut behind him with a soft jerk, he caught sight of the people milling about, most carrying an ice bucket of some sort or bags of laundry. He would give them one thing, the majority of them were far more ambitious than he was. That, or they had just put their laundry off for so long they had no choice but to wash it this early. Watching one lady struggle with three bags, a lady who had to be at least twice his age, yet smaller than him if that was at all possible, Duo decided he was blessed to only have this one outfit to take care of.
Stuffing his hat on his head and pulling it low, he abruptly changed directions. Turning in the key to the main office could wait a few more minutes. He was not even due to check out of his room for at least three more hours anyhow. Duo had never professed to be a model citizen, but Sister Helen had taught him the value of manners. The least he could do was honor her by exercising them now and then.
Forcibly pushing away the wealth of memories that one name brought him, he plastered a bright smile on his face and approached the distressed woman, who was even now taking a beating from one of the three laundry bags as it slipped from her hands and fell on her foot.
"Ma'am, can I rescue you?"
She looked up sharply, pushing a frizzled mass of hair from her face.
"Three on one isn't very fair odds," he continued, pointing to the bag still resting on her foot.
Managing a small, tired smile, she straightened completely.
"That's very nice of you. You can take whichever of the offending bags you want," she added, spreading her arms out.
Snatching the one on her foot, and the one immediately to her let, he hefted them up on either shoulder, saying, "Direct me, and I shall follow."
Grabbing the last bag, she laughed. "I was beginning to think I'd never get them back to the room. This was very kind of you. Not many young men would bother."
Duo followed behind her, shrugging in slight discomfort. "It's no big deal. I just figured I'd better step in before someone got hurt."
"I'm stronger than I look," she tossed over her shoulder as they took to the stairs.
"I was talking about the bags," Duo returned, grinning.
Her laughter floated back down to him, lighter this time, as if more weight than just laundry had been lifted from her shoulders.
"I've got two sons about your age," she told him, as they rounded a sharp corner and took to another set of stairs, "and neither one of them volunteered to help me. They like making the laundry just fine..." she paused to shake her head.
"But they don't like washing it," Duo finished for her.
"Right." She responded ruefully. "They'd much rather play their video games."
Duo had to smile at that. He had ducked into more than one arcade while hiding from the police, or an irate entrepreneur who did not appreciate having his produce removed from the premises without compensation. Playing games was a pleasant enough way to pass time, but it soon became mundane when you got better than the game itself. That, and he had devised a way to get his quarters back after each game. It was not much of a challenge if you knew that you would never run out of chances to start again. There was just something infinitely more exciting about playing when each moment could be your last. Maybe that was why he liked being a Gundam pilot...
"Why, oh why did they have to give me a room on such a high floor?" She lamented.
"How long have you been here?" He asked conversationally.
"About a week now. We're having our kitchen remodeled. I can hardly wait to get back. The boys are driving me crazy. They're bored all the time."
Duo's smiled turned slightly bitter.
How very simple that all sounded. It must be quite nice to know you always had something to go back to, to be completely oblivious to tensions simmering just beneath the surface as the colonies and Earth clashed in a silent battle of wills. Shrugging the thought away however, he came to the conclusion that to him, that was boring. After all, he was here so that they could remain unaware. Who wanted to sit around playing video games all day and complaining about boredom when you could blow things up for real? Not him.
"What about you?" She asked in absence of a comment, coming to rest in front of a door marked 38.
Letting the bags fall at his feet, Duo pushed the bill of his cap back slightly. "Just passing through."
She stared at him in thoughtful silence then, her eyes seeming to probe past his smile. For a moment, Duo felt himself falter. Her expression was so motherly, that he was instantly taken back to a time when he had been younger, and another face had looked at him with such kindness. But as soon as the spell had descended, it was broken as she shook her head and turned to use her key on the door.
"Thank you again."
"I'd stay and help you fold," Duo replied, "but I've got pressing engagements."
She smiled. "Sure. I know when I'm being shined on."
He raised his hands. "Okay, you got me. I'm trying to get out of further work."
"At least you're honest."
His grin flashed again, quick and lethal. "I never lie."
Before she was given the chance to reply, he spun away and bounded down the stairs at a speed that made her wince with visions of him losing his balance and falling the rest of the way. He took the last few steps two at a time, his movements having all the grace of a cat. There was a lot of energy packed into one small frame. Yet, unlike her own sons, it was not spilling out all over the place, nor was it a hindrance to either him or anyone around him. That was what had struck her about him the most. Not only his manners, but his control. Almost too much for a boy his age...
As he drifted further away, she realized that she had not even asked him his name.
Resting in the pilot's seat, one leg tucked neatly beneath the other, Duo moved toward the small screen in front of him, tapping away at the keyboard to his left until he had found what interested him the most. It seemed that a missile base not far from here was receiving a great deal of attention from OZ. The reasons were currently unknown. If the ships cruising the water and the momentary glimpse of the submarine the last clip provided him were any indication, however, they were highly intrigued with something that was in the water.
If Dr. G knew what it was, he was not divulging. Not that Duo expected him to. The engineer was not exactly what he would call supportive. He only gave enough to get him going and left the rest up to him. He was used to doing things on his own, so that did not bother him. Besides, it was not as if he intended to follow Dr. G's instructions down to the last letter. He figured the scientist knew this as well. After all, you could not spend as much time with him as Dr. G had and not figure out Duo liked to do things his own way.
Touching the screen with the tip of his index finger, he narrowed his eyes slightly. "What is it you guys are so interested in, huh? Well, whatever it is, I can't let you get to it first. I'll just kill two birds with one stone. Wipe out some more OZ, and snatch their precious sunken treasure."
Leaning back, he pushed the screen away, drumming his fingers absently against his leg as his thoughts flashed around in his mind, struggling to align themselves into an identifiable pattern. Other than a few minimal scratches, Deathscythe had not suffered any major damages and was more than ready to leave as soon as Duo was. This first part of the mission would require getting in unseen, which was far from difficult with the lovely hyper jammers Dr. G had installed. He figured at some point, however, he was going to be noticed. Something of the Gundam's size could not remain hidden forever.
Dropping his chin against his chest, he folded his arms, bringing his attention to the angry bruise on his lower arm. It occupied a rather large portion of his skin, the pigment vying for the right to be blue or to be purple. It would be muted green soon enough, however, and then sickly yellow as it faded away, healed but not always forgotten.
Duo could not even remember exactly how he had gotten this one. It had probably been at some point last night when he was knocked around inside Deathscythe. One of the less memorable bruises. Some never faded. They left an indelible mark on your soul, scarred your heart, and resurfaced when you least expected.
He hated those kind.
Lips compressing, he untucked his hand and experimentally put pressure on the bruise, causing his arm to jerk reflexively as pain shot up the nerve endings and raced to his brain. Like most people, he was less than fond of pain. But it let him know that he was alive. When he could no longer feel, when he was numb inside, he was dead. It hardly mattered which way. Physical death or mental death. He fought both every day. Of the two, being dead while you were still alive had to be the worst. He would rather feel anything than be a walking zombie. What kind of existence was that?
When life beat him down, he would live harder, laugh louder, and smile wider. No matter if the pain was eating him up inside, no matter if the smile felt as if it had been painted on, no matter if the laughter bordered on a sob. He would fight back the only way he knew how, by never giving in, no matter how tempting it was. You were only given one life to live, and he would embrace it, no matter where it took him. No matter where, no matter what, and no matter how. He would ride the wave of his existence until it no longer was.
Perhaps like many, Duo had dreamed. Dreamed of a better life. But dreaming did not change anything. So now he fought, because fighting with words had produced nothing. Funny though, that he fought for an ideal. Ideals were just feelings put into words. Like peace. What a simple word that was, but so very difficult to attain. And yet, for all its simplicity, what did it truly mean? Was it not supposed to satisfy all sides? But did it ever really? And did mankind really want to quit fighting? History seemed to suggest otherwise.
Everyone had to have a reason to fight. Fighting without purpose was meaningless. It was a random act that lacked heart. You had to believe in something, because without it, you had no center, nothing to hold on to. Duo has his reasons, and they were enough.
"To protect the colonies... To fight so someone else can promote peace with words. For the colonies, I'll gladly become the bad guy. Because I love outer space."