It is fair to say that Nicol's death changed them all. They had each mourned Miguel and Rusty in their own ways, but there had been something about their losses that had seemed less illogical than this, less unexpected.
Athrun seemed to be the worst affected by it, not least by the feeling that he had lost two friends in that one moment. It was clear that, more than it did the others, it was the unfairness of the situation that struck him: how the one among them with the kindest heart, the highest hopes for the future and greatest faith in humanity had to be the one to die. No matter which side of it he looked at, there was no justice in something like that. Eventually he came to blame the war, and the weaknesses of mankind that pervaded it. For the time being, he blamed Kira.
To Yzak it was a sign they had failed. ZAFT's gundam pilots were never meant to be defeated, to die. There had to have been some way to avoid losing a teammate, some way they could have planned better. He blamed Athrun, for allowing his sentimentality free reign and their enemy his life, old friend or not. It was because of Athrun and his incompetence that Nicol had had little choice but come to his aid, because of Athrun that there was even another gundam to bring him down. He was too angry to feel anything more concretely than this.
For Kira, it was not the first time he had called his part in the war into question. However, it was the first time he had destroyed a gundam, and the first time he had taken a life and recognized it as just that so wholly. Perhaps it was the knowledge that that pilot had been someone like him and his friends, someone like Athrun. Someone who didn't belong in a war at his age. Someone, like him, who had a family. He blamed a lot of things; and somewhere in that jumble, he probably found himself.
It changed Dearka, too; but he was less prone than the others to making the particulars of how that occurred clear. Something inside him gave up. Some bite he had once had was irretrievably lost. If he had hated the Naturals even greater afterwards, one might have thought him justified, even if it was not a Natural who had dealt the blow. If he had shown as short a temper as his teammates in those days, no one would have blamed him for it. But he didn't. He seemed, for a time, more than anyone else was capable of being, a bastion of patience.
It was not that he was affected less. That was clear. So why did he react the way he did? Whom did he blame? Was it guilt, some sense of personal culpability that made him lose his sting? Was he thinking of all the spiteful comments he had made about Naturals over the months? About how Nicol alone had looked away as though he were ashamed when Dearka made them? Was he thinking of all the times he had called Nicol a coward behind his back; and how Nicol in the end had shown more courage than he, Dearka, ever had to date, and far more honor?
Was that why, out of all of them, he ended up becoming just a little more like the boy they had all, in their own ways, wound up killing?
A typical two-story, penthouse apartment within the axis sector would be expected to have a floor plan with bright, spacious rooms that flowed seamlessly into one another, long planters overflowing with greenery dividing the spaces by function, and large floor-to-ceiling windows that, when the shades were drawn open, looked down on the PLANT.
In the Amalfis' home, all of that was present.
And in the Amalfis' home in particular, the room that housed the grand piano had been furnished in a distinctly old-fashioned way that stood apart from the rest of the crisp and open modern lines and stark white of the rest of the house. The soft golden color of the walls and the dark walnut chair rail panels served to give a warm, surrounding feeling like that of a womb. Even the window that formed the outer wall of this room, running down its entire length from piano to mini-bar, could not open it up and distract from that atmosphere. Perhaps his father had found something nostalgic in it, something about it that unconsciously minimized those unnatural aspects of space living technology could not quite erase that one feels in the inner ear.
In any case, it was quiet in that room. The tiny background noises of the rest of the apartment did not penetrate the walls when the door was closed, though he often left it open to fill the whole place with music. Like those times when the quiet made him feel alone in the large house. It was not so bad to be alone in the quiet of this room. It was the middle of the day, and scheduled to rain, and the light coming in through the open blinds cast a silent gray reflection on the black piano lid. Otherwise it was dim where he sat down to play.
He opened the lid of the keyboard, and ran his fingers over the keys to feel their familiar place before depressing them in melody. He played without any visual cues. By rote he had mastered the technical aspects of music. It had been a long process, the journey to this point, unpleasant at times for a child, even—and one might say especially—for one to whom music came naturally. Even for a Coordinator. It had been frustrating once, now a queer fact, that in order to express his emotions through his music, in order to break with form, he first had to embrace it and trust it wholly.
Even at the expense of his self.
As a result of that sacrifice his talents attracted crowds within the PLANT; but he did not consider himself a local celebrity, no more than he considered himself a local hero. It remained a private ritual the effects of which he felt within his entire person, separate from and undiminished by however many happened to be listening.
With one exception.
Shortly his intuition told him he had a listener. He recognized the nuances of that person. Something in the movement of the air, the change in the music's reverberation, footsteps muffled by the carpet—things that were not actually there to discern, yet somehow he knew their particulars. He felt his body tense automatically as the door was closed, shutting in the music. Consequently it scattered in decaying wavelengths beneath his hands.
"That's a repetitive song," said the voice by way of observation, with just a hint of practiced sarcasm.
Like this war, Nicol wanted to say. He was not sure why that was the first response to come to mind.
"Everyone's a critic."
"Nah. Why did you stop?"
"You startled me."
It took some effort to turn away from the keyboard. In that moment he wanted to cling to it like the precious railing bordering a drop. However, the white keys sitting still and waiting for him to continue were useless in this situation. Silent. . . . You're being ridiculous, he chided himself, and turned quickly to his companion, so that he would have no room to hesitate. "What brings you here, Dearka?"
"I told you I'd come see your concert."
The tone of his voice said Nicol should have known better than to doubt him. However:
"It's not for another week."
"Yeah, about that. There was a change of plans and I'm being shipped out to Earth early with Yzak. I couldn't just leave without visiting you even once on your leave, though. I told you I would, didn't I?"
Perhaps he meant that to sound more like an excuse than it actually did.
Yes, Nicol thought, you said you would. In the neutral setting of a concert hall. "How'd you—?"
"Your mother let me in."
His heartbeat quickened involuntarily. The thoughts he had buried that came to mind, did they manifest themselves as clearly as they felt—could they permeate the intimate walls of this room, muddy them like tobacco smoke? . . . Nicol suddenly felt small out of uniform. His startled gaze went unconsciously to the closed door, wherein Dearka told him, "She was on her way out, running errands. Said she wouldn't be back for a while. So I guess it's just the two of us." A dangerous look came into his violet eyes when he added on second thought, "That doesn't make you feel uncomfortable, does it?"
Nicol smiled faintly.
"I don't know," he said, turning back to his music. "How do I know I can trust you without Yzak or Athrun here?"
Facing the keyboard, he could not see the smile waver and hold uncertainly on Dearka's lips, could not see the shadow of a startled look that momentarily came over his features, a look of betrayal as though he had been physically hit. If that were the case, however, he turned the other cheek easily enough, took Nicol's gesture if not his words as an invitation, and pressed on through the indifferent, incongruous music:
"Are you afraid to be alone with me?"
Nicol hesitantly played a few bars—then paused the length of two to think.
"That's not the case," he said as he resumed.
There was a quiet desperation to the space inside a ship. Something about the cold, monotonous plastics and metals that inherently evoked some eternal, internal kind of struggle, some fragile imbalance. Fighting against zero-gravity, fighting against the vacuum. Fighting to delineate its borders, fighting to maintain its existence. In some commercial vessels frequented by Earthlings, blue sky and clouds were painted on the walls to quell that feeling of disorientation, but nothing could eradicate it completely. And, needless to say, one would never see that type of thing on a ZAFT vessel. It was the nature of ZAFT to take that disorientation and that sense of fragility and cling to it: to say, this is our legacy, this desolation—this is what the Naturals have left us with. And in it we will thrive, because we are superior.
Where anyone else would fail, we will thrive.
Perhaps that was what had first drawn Nicol to Dearka. Of them all, his brash character alone seemed to truly get that attitude. Yzak was too zealous, and Athrun too well-rounded in his logic. Dearka, however, with his nonchalance in almost everything, his insolent posture and mordant way of speaking, seemed to be a young man silently confident in the direction in which he was heading, wherever it led. Standing taller than the other three in his group, there was something about his presence that was conscientiously intrusive. It was as though he could keep the animosity alive in a room just by being in it. Or by dropping a certain word at just the right moment. His gundam may have been a cudgel, but he was the magician. He was that invisible force that keeps coffee swirling round and round in its cup long after it has been stirred.
For a time Nicol had thought that Dearka hated him. Whenever Dearka actually acknowledged his presence, it seemed only to criticize Nicol for some flaw. His cruel remarks about Naturals seemed specifically meant for Nicol, as though they were a test to see how much he could take before he snapped back. Or simply snapped.
It did not occur to him until much later that they might have been just as much a test for Yzak or Athrun.
There was a time Nicol had forgotten to knock on the door of the room that Dearka and Yzak shared, and had witnessed something that perhaps he shouldn't have.
The light was on over the small desk beyond Yzak's bed. Perhaps that was why he went unnoticed in the doorway for a few seconds. Yzak's bed was unoccupied and still impeccably made, his crimson uniform folded neatly on the end. Dearka was in his own, naked and slouched against the foot in that same devil-may-care posture, his arm hanging heavy over the side. His uniform lay hastily discarded on the floor near his hand. His lips were parted, his breathing heavy, and his eyes closed, but now and then he seemed to be glancing at something only he could see.
Then he noticed Nicol. Dearka sought out his eyes through the back-lighting and locked with them. His own were dark and drowsy under their lids, but held Nicol with an unwavering intensity he found difficult to read the meaning of. Testing him, daring him. Perhaps that look was nothing more than Dearka's own amusement at being caught at something by this person in particular. Perhaps it was all those things. A slight, lopsided smile touched his lips and his breathing changed, grew quiet. His body squirmed distractedly, impatiently, as though trying to rouse its eyes back to the business at hand.
That was when Yzak lifted his head. His face peeked out from the shadow cast by Dearka's leg. His pale fingers moved against Dearka's bare hip in an impatient manner; Dearka's dark fingers were tangled in his hair. His lips were swollen as he asked in a voice swallowed up by the small room, "Something wrong?"
Nicol could not stand it anymore. Shaken out of his state of shock, he could not stand to be discovered watching by Yzak and quickly pressed the button to close the door. He felt his face grow hot as he hurried around the corner just out of sight—as though either of the room's occupants would try to follow him. But could he really say it was because he was embarrassed by what he had seen?
It probably should have bothered someone like him. It didn't. He wasn't sure why.
It was the same queer sensation he felt in his gut, like when an elevator starts too quickly, or the same rush of blood under his skin he felt when someone mentioned his music, and surely he could not say he was embarrassed about that. And yet, he felt exposed talking about it, or being caught humming something he had been working on, as though at that moment he had made it so that anyone passing by could see through his uniform and through his skin at something he wanted to keep hidden, something that was unequivocally private. It was not that he was afraid of showing it to anyone. Nor was it completely adequate to say it was that he thought no one would understand.
It was a while before Dearka confronted him about the incident. It was late, and Nicol had retired to his room, which he now had to himself. He was editing a tentative transcription of a melody that had stuck in his head when he heard his teammates passing by his open door. On some impulse, Nicol shut the loose pages in the nearest book at hand. The others had already gone by when Dearka, having noticed the open door, interrupted their conversation and excused himself. "You want me to . . . ?" Yzak started hesitantly to offer something.
"Nah, I'll catch up with you later." The next moment Dearka had popped his head in Nicol's doorway, rapping his knuckles after the fact on the plated wall. "Hey, Nicol. 'Talk to you for a sec?" he asked.
His smile seemed to indicate Nicol didn't really have a choice. Lowering the book to his lap, he said, "What about?"
"Does it have to be about anything in particular?"
"Well, usually when people go out of their way to talk to someone, they have some kind of purpose in mind."
"Maybe I just felt you and I've hardly exchanged a word lately—"
"And you felt it was your duty to do so?"
Dearka smiled silently at his sarcasm, as though he were amused to see it was within Nicol's capacity.
"What are you reading?" he said suddenly, and reached for the book on Nicol's lap before he could make much of an objection, and sat down heavily with it on Miguel's bed. "Robotics, huh?" Dearka glanced at the thick book from all sides. "I didn't know you were interested in this sort of stuff—but, then, I guess I never knew much about you to begin with. You don't say much unless it's about business."
"I rarely have anything to share." With Dearka, at least.
"Is that it? Your father represents Maius City, doesn't he?"
Dearka slapped the book absently against one palm. "Well, then, isn't that just like you, the filial son?"
Nicol wanted to tell him he was wrong. He wasn't that filial, nor was he trying to make anyone proud; and he certainly wasn't interested in robotics, not nearly as much as Athrun was anyway. But unsure how to take Dearka's meaning, he simply said, "I really haven't decided on any specialty yet. I thought I would have plenty of time to figure that out when the war's over."
Dearka snorted. "As if it ever will be."
"Have you already decided on yours?" Nicol smiled, eager to re-route the subject, as he drew one knee up into a more comfortable position. The smile felt brittle on the corners of his mouth.
"I have some idea, but I can just imagine the fit my folks would have if I told them I wasn't interested in biochemistry. It's not that I'm not interested in what makes people tick," he continued when Nicol said nothing. "I am. Just . . . not on a molecular level."
Then he opened the book. The folded sheets of music slipped out, and scattered disorderly on the floor. For some inexplicable reason, Nicol didn't make a move for them. It was as if to do so would be to admit they were his; but who else could they possibly belong to?
"What's this?" Dearka said, putting the book aside and reaching down to pick them up. "Did you write these?"
He studied them as though there was some hidden meaning to get. There wasn't, but it still felt to Nicol like in doing so he would discover something.
Nicol didn't answer his question. "Could I have those back?" he said instead.
Dearka smiled. He made no move to return the papers.
"Now I remember. In training someone mentioned you played piano in concerts back home." Something about his smile or the angle of his eyes turned suddenly malicious. "You're not one of those people who believes they can make people stop fighting with music . . . are you?"
The smile dropped from Nicol's lips. He said nothing, just looked straight ahead.
"Don't get me wrong," Dearka continued. "I think Lacus Clyne has a pretty decent voice, and your playing must be great if you're that big a celebrity in your PLANT."
"I'm not a celebrity—"
"It's just that the mindset strikes me as naive. Clearly music is powerful, but more powerful than hatred and fear?" It seemed to be a rhetorical question, so he didn't seem to mind when Nicol gave no answer. He just leaned back and hummed a couple bars as he studied the pages.
It startled Nicol. He turned to look at Dearka, feeling helpless to do anything to stop him.
After a second, Dearka nodded to himself. "It's an awfully repetitive melody, though—"
"How do you know that?"
"The song? I heard you humming it a while back." He chuckled. "Didn't think anyone could hear—?"
"You got it all wrong."
"Well, I can't read notes that well, but I think that's pretty close to how you did it . . ." And Dearka tried again, this time whistling the notes softly. His finger tapped out a steady, muffled rhythm like a silent metronome on the bedsheets. The amused look was stuck on his face, and Nicol had the distinct feeling he was being made fun of. Dearka's memory was right on. But it sounded wrong, not at all like Nicol had intended it.
He sat up quickly and his hand flew to the panel on the wall by the door, hitting the button to close it and seal the song in the small room with them.
Dearka stopped whistling in mid-note and stared at him.
"Could I have those back?" Nicol said.
Dearka seemed surprised. "I didn't know you were so sensitive about it." He glanced at the closed door. "You don't want anyone else to hear?"
Nicol held his gaze. "It's private."
"And yet you play concerts."
"You wouldn't understand."
"Hm." Dearka snorted a laugh and closed his eyes. "Yeah, maybe not." He tapped the papers against his knee, then stood and closed the distance between them. When he stopped before Nicol, he was closer than would have been necessary to return the sheet music. It was close enough to be intimidating, and close enough to be heard clearly when he lowered his voice and said, "We've all got our own reasons for being here, but I'm just not getting yours. You kill Naturals in battle, but you don't have any particular problem with them. So, was it just some weird sense of duty that brought you into ZAFT?"
"It's more complicated than that," Nicol said ambiguously.
"Okay. It probably is. But it seems like you had a good thing going back in your PLANT. A safe bet. Your folks must have rathered you stayed."
Nicol accepted the sheets and put them down on the bed. He turned his eyes, lingering on the hand-written notes. "They trust me to do what I feel is right."
"That's not what I meant," he said. "I mean you'd be saving them the grief. It'd do you all better. Anything would do you better than being a gundam pilot."
Suddenly Nicol was standing. It was Dearka's turn to flinch from the proximity.
"Don't treat me like that!" Nicol said. "I can't stand it when you say things like that! You and Yzak are always treating me like I was a weakling!"
Dearka did not seem at all taken aback. Neither the uncharacteristic, unorganized burst of frustration nor the accusation seemed to have any effect on him. After all, it was he, not Yzak, who was responsible for provoking such a reaction. How fitting for a coward, he had said. . . .
"I'm just as good a pilot as either of you! Just because I'm younger than the rest of you and I don't have so many hateful things to say about others doesn't mean I'm naive. It doesn't mean I'm incompetent. Just because I don't hate Naturals like you and Yzak do—because I'd rather think things through than rush in and kill as many of them as I can—"
"Hey, no one's accusing you of being naive," Dearka told him.
"You don't seem to have any problem calling Athrun incompetent to his face. What has there ever been to make me think you somehow have a higher opinion of me than that? Maybe you don't say it out loud, maybe not to my face, but I know that's what you two think of me."
Even if he hadn't heard it outright, they must have thought it at one point.
"That you wish it had been me instead of Miguel."
"Don't be an idiot. You almost sound like you were jealous of him."
Whether the sarcasm he imagined in Dearka's tone of voice was actually there, it turned on something inside Nicol he tried so often to repress, something that wasn't becoming. Something that he preferred to think he was above. The words were out before he quite knew the consequences of what he was saying. "I'll prove it to you! You don't think I'm serious, you think I've just been lucky so far, but I'll prove to you I'm not a coward!"
Dearka frowned. "And how do you plan to do that?"
Nicol struck at him. If one asked him later, he wouldn't have been able to say where that sudden impulse came from. It was just some knee-jerk reaction, some desperate thing inside that wanted so badly to shout out, See, I can be as impulsive as Yzak. I can be caustic like you. For a moment he didn't care if that entailed hurting the very person whose recognition he was after.
In the end he was able to accomplish nothing.
Dearka caught his wrist before he could connect. "Ineffective, as usual," he said.
The action brought Nicol abruptly back to himself. Mortified by what he had done, and furious with Dearka afresh, he tried to free his wrist from the other's grasp. The nonchalance of Dearka's closeness was awkward, uncomfortable, nerve-wracking. He wanted to get away from it, but his legs seemed to freeze. "You don't get it," Dearka said, and Nicol found that, as usual, he had nothing to say.
He didn't seem to be able to avoid it when Dearka pressed his mouth to Nicol's. It came as some kind of inevitable shock. His body registered the physical sensations of Dearka's lips and the fingers wrapped tight around his wrist, but his brain failed to send back further instructions as to what to do about them. Or how to feel about them. Was he just being mocked again? Difficult to say. Somewhere during that time of trying without success to figure it out, he allowed himself to end up on his bed. Having released his arm, Dearka's fingers parted the overlap of Nicol's long uniform jacket, sliding up his thigh. Either at that or the discomfort of his hasty posture, or both, a choked sound came out of Nicol, a sound of quiet desperation. But he didn't move one way or another when that hand came to rest on the crotch of his trousers. Somehow he couldn't.
All Nicol seemed able to do was go with the flow, even though it seemed to be heading for a waterfall. With one hand, Dearka awkwardly tackled his fly, and his mouth moved to Nicol's ear. His heavy breaths seemed to sync up with the monotonous vibration of the ship Nicol felt thrumming up from the floor and through the insulated walls, through the bed frame into his blood.
He turned his head and stared at the bed across the narrow room that had belonged to Miguel. Even at this moment he wondered hazily why no one had reassigned him to another room, or why neither he nor anyone else had bothered much to remove the deceased's things. As he tried to judge the distance between the two beds, he didn't notice Dearka move. Not until that young man's arm slipped under his thigh, just as Yzak's had that time he had caught them.
It seemed wrong somehow with him in the equation, but Nicol's body refused to make any effort to stop Dearka. Nicol bit his lip. He was determined not to make a single sound that could be construed as encouragement. To do so would be to admit defeat. He would not do that, no matter how good it felt.
The cots in the ship were hardly large enough for two people. Even after he had finished with Nicol, Dearka refused to leave it. He wiped his mouth carefully, checking his fingers each time. Gingerly he moved himself to the end of the bed. He smoothed the sheet music he had accidentally crushed beneath him in his haste and placed them on the table. Nicol heard him do it and, as if suddenly remembering to do so, pulled his knees up to his chest and stared at the other bed. He could not bear to face him, to see his nonchalance after such a thing.
Or, perhaps, to show Dearka he had been right all along.
"Hey," Dearka said. There might have been an undertone of sympathy in his tone, however brief. "Don't be like that. I saw you spying on us. You looked like you were jealous."
Nicol said nothing.
"I wasn't too rough, was I?"
"Then what's the problem? That's what you wanted, isn't it?"
Nicol was silent.
"Well, if you didn't, why didn't you say anything?"
Because he knew Dearka would say he was a coward. Because maybe, deep down, he really did want it. Because he couldn't. . . . All of these were true to some extent.
"I didn't know what to say."
Dearka sighed. "Figures. . . ."
Nicol blinked. The lights in the narrow room suddenly seemed too bright.
"I'm not angry, though," he said after a moment. No, he didn't really feel any way.
They abandoned the old-fashioned room with the piano for the white, open living area. They sat side by side on the sofa in front of the television even though there was plenty of room around them and tried to carry on a conversation. The sound of the percolator percolating coffee on the kitchen counter filled the awkward pauses in between, like the quiet but present hum between tracks on a record.
In those awkward pauses, the penthouse apartment realized its width. It realized the expanse of its negative spaces. Feeling claustrophobic in his one corner of it, with a boy whose actions he could not predict, Nicol suggested moving to the balcony. He took a stand near the railing, and put his family's home at his back. Dearka followed him, and together their attention was drawn to the clean roads and buildings and long stretches of green and blue that were spread out below them within the PLANT.
"It's going to be a whole different place than what we're used to, Earth," Dearka remarked at one point.
"It should be beautiful," Nicol said as though it were a stock response.
Dearka chuckled. "Yeah, if you like dirty and run-down. We'll spend the first few days getting used to the gravity, and the rest of the time getting used to the bugs. Beautiful . . ."
"You can see the stars at night."
"I can see the stars any time I want."
"Except on Earth there's nothing but air separating you and them," Nicol said.
"You say that as though it's supposed to make me feel more comfortable," Dearka said absently. Yet it seemed to be somewhat of an agreement. He was silent for a moment. Then: "That song was different than I remember it, though," he said out-of-the-blue, even though their discussion had had nothing to do with music.
The rain began to fall then. It started as a gentle patter. Small, round dark spots appeared around their feet. Nicol raised his arm and looked at his wrist watch. "It's three minutes early," he remarked, as though by way of apology. "Either that or my watch is three minutes behind."
"Would you rather we went back inside?"
Nicol shook his head. And Dearka made no gesture to indicate he had that desire either. It might have been possible that they shared the same impression: that the rain might pin down their words and their thoughts before they could rise very high and dissipate. There was something comfortable about that density of space, despite its lack of boundaries.
"It's too bad you won't be able to stick around long enough to catch the concert," Nicol said. "I'm really happy with the changes I've made; I'd hoped you'd be able to hear it in the proper setting."
"I thought you said it was a private affair."
Nicol recognized the challenge but refused to acknowledge it. A slight smile came to him unbidden. "It is. But Athrun will be there. And I guess I had had this notion that it would be nice if you and Yzak could be there as well, if we could be a team outside of ZAFT for once. Of course, I never thought it would actually happen." He did not sound particularly sorry for it. "He doesn't strike me as the type to sit for something like that."
Looking into the distance, Dearka smiled.
"To tell the truth," Nicol added, "you never did either."
Dearka made no effort to contradict him.
"You didn't have to come here. So why did you?"
"You don't sound happy that I did," Dearka said, watching him out of the corner of his eye.
"Am I supposed to be grateful or something?" Nicol took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He watched tiny cars moving like blood cells up and down the darkening roads. "I wonder if I was supposed to feel grateful then, too. That you'd paid attention to me."
Expecting a different answer perhaps, Dearka said nothing.
"You were right, you know," Nicol said after a time.
"When you said I looked jealous, when I saw you and Yzak together . . ." He blushed slightly for his innocence of that time. "You were right. I guess I was a little jealous. But not of that."
A hard look came into the corners of Dearka's eyes, but he said nothing. Just waited for everything to fall into place.
"I shouldn't have stood there gawking, and I should have knocked in the first place. But seeing that look on your face, I guess I couldn't help myself. It wasn't like I wanted to be a part of it. Not in the way you thought, anyway. I guess I was envious that you would let him do something like that so . . . That you trusted him that much."
"What's your point?" Something in the tone in Dearka's voice sounded uncharacteristically impatient.
Nicol glanced at him, then turned away again to speak.
"It's hard for you to trust me like that, isn't it?"
The rain began to fall harder. Dearka said nothing.
"It's hard for me, too," Nicol said as though to himself. "I can tell myself that I'd trust you with my life, but there's always one little part of me that wonders. I feel bad about it, but that doesn't make it go away. When you criticize me, are you doing it out of some sense it's for my own good, like it's some sort of test? Or do you really hate me that much? If something happened, would you care?"
"Don't be an idiot," Dearka said, turning to him. But he didn't answer Nicol's question. "Is that really what you thought of me? If you doubted my intentions, you should have stopped me."
"Maybe I should have," Nicol said. A smile came onto his face involuntarily. "I wanted to trust you like that. I didn't want to spend my whole life looking in from the outside. I don't even know if I thought I could gain your respect. But maybe, if I stopped being so afraid you might actually get to know me—"
"What is this?" Dearka grabbed his arm, turning Nicol to face him. "Are you making fun of me?"
His reaction was not what Nicol had expected. It was slightly malicious. "Pardon?"
"You are really dense. You think all that was about you?"
"No. That's not what I think."
Dearka shot him a lopsided smile. "You still don't get it, do you?"
That was the tipping point. Shrugging Dearka off, any trace of amusement vanished from Nicol's face. "Do you think I'm a child?" he said. "What is there not to get? I've known all along you don't think of me as anything more than a game. Something you can play with and pick apart like I was some specimen in a petri dish. Something in your best interest. That's all you've ever thought of any of us, isn't it? How we can tear them apart, just to see what happens. How we can turn Yzak and Athrun against one another. How many buttons can we push before Nicol does something stupid and nearly gets himself killed? And proves us right?"
Nicol snorted sarcastically. "And you know what? I don't care anymore. I don't care if you think I'm a coward. There are things that I'm afraid of, doubts that I have, but at least I haven't run from them."
He looked down. There was something desperate slipping into his voice, like a discordant note. His voice was small as he said, "That would be cowardice."
The young man whose mordant witticisms came to him as naturally as breathing did not respond.
The sound of the rain filled the silence. Beyond Dearka's body, the raindrops pounded the foliage that trailed from the planters over the edge of the balcony toward the homes and the cars and their rooster tails below. The leaves were dark and weighed down, oppressed.
"There are a lot of problems with the world," Dearka said after a while. "They're not yours; you didn't make them. What makes you think you can fix them?"
"Don't I have a right to try?" Nicol murmured. "Or is that a naive mindset?"
Dearka slowly let out a deep breath.
"It's still a repetitive song. No matter what you do to it."
"I'll see you on Earth," Dearka said shortly when it was clear there was nothing more either wanted to say. Or knew how. Neither would meet the other's eyes as he said so.
He hesitated for barely a second before brushing past Nicol's shoulder. The action was in such a way that it seemed he had tried to avoid touching Nicol but had misjudged their proximity. It begged for something. Despite the finality of his words. It left Nicol with the feeling that he should have initiated some kind of contact, and refuted everything. If he were a bolder person, he thought. But he was not that kind of person, and the moment passed.
And Nicol was simply left.
He did not turn his head. He hardly even moved his gaze. He remained with his back to the sliding doors. Refusing to be stirred. After a while, he was sure Dearka must have left the apartment, but there was something of his teammate he could still feel on the balcony. It would not just wash away. Perhaps it was a manifestation of some regret. Some feeling of hypocrisy.
He stood like that for some time, wondering what sign he had missed, until the rain soaked his clothes and weighed them down; until it darkened his hair and ran dripping from the tips of his curls over his nose and eyelashes.