As the Other Half Lives
He was woken by a stabbing pain in his shoulder. Opening his eyes blearily, he was compelled to close them once more as the world swayed nauseatingly around him.
"...this bastard live if our kids didn't..."
"Should have left him out there to die..."
Kids dying? He forced his eyes open again, turning his head to the side where the voices were coming from - and froze, wide-eyed for an interminable heartbeat.
Earth Alliance uniforms. He was on an Earth Alliance vessel.
"Hey, he's awake!"
His senses instantly on full alert, he rolled off the stretcher he'd been lying on, kicking it back into the legs of the two men who had been carrying him. Curling into a crouch, he sprung forward, driving his good arm into the chest of a third man, winding him. Ripping the gun from the man's slackened fingers he spun about, eyes absorbing every detail of his surroundings in a split second. They were in a corridor, with an intersection just a short distance ahead. Behind him a fourth man in an orange jumpsuit stood staring at him in horror.
"H-hey now," the man said, raising his hands in a placating manner.
Athrun didn't waste time on him, darting instead in the other direction.
"Get help, damn it!" he heard one of the stretcher-bearers call out as they scrambled to follow him.
The first corridor he turned down was blessedly empty. The second, he wasn't so lucky. With the soldiers right on his heels he did the only thing he could do: he grabbed the girl, ignoring the pain in his arm to hold her firmly in front of him, the stolen gun pressed to her cheek. The Earth soldiers stumbled to a halt before them.
"The hanger," he rasped out, his throat dry. "Where is it?"
The soldiers cast debating glances at each other.
"Where is it?" he repeated, more forcefully.
"This way," one of them responded, and signalled Athrun to follow him. The ZAFT pilot didn't move.
"Back off," he instructed the remaining soldiers. After another round of frustrated looks, they lowered their weapons and backed off a couple of paces. Athrun nudged the girl, and they slowly moved forward together. The soldiers followed several paces behind them; he could feel them glaring daggers at his back every step of the way.
His left arm was starting to feel numb. His chest hurt, his stomach was rebelling, and his head felt like he'd been listening to Yzak complain non-stop for a week. The walk to the hanger was agonisingly long in his condition. He barely even noticed when they arrived, and stared at the soldier who had led him there blankly for several seconds until he realised why they'd stopped moving.
"A plane," he managed to get out, his voice sounding strangely off in his ears. He coughed, and tasted blood in his mouth. "I want - "
"You're out of luck, kid. The Archangel has absolutely nothing flight worthy aboard right now, and that's the unvarnished truth."
He turned to face the speaker, a solid, swarthy man dressed in one of the orange jumpsuits, with his arms folded across his chest. He looked tired and angry - and not about to give an inch of leeway to a wounded ZAFT soldier holding an Earth forces girl hostage.
Looking around the hanger, Athrun concluded that he was probably telling the truth. The only plane he could see was obviously damaged, and in the process of being worked on. Other than that, there was only...
"The Buster!" he exhaled in shock. It looked to have taken some damage, but was more or less in tact. What had happened to Dearka? "The pilot - what happened to him?"
"How about you tell us what happened to our pilots first, mmm?"
He stared at the newly arrived man who had spoken: a blond lieutenant with a stubborn set to his jaw. From behind him another lieutenant, a woman this time, looked on with anxious eyes.
"The Strike and the Skygrasper, the light plane," the lieutenant clarified, his tone harsh and demanding. "What happened to the pilots?"
The Strike... His breath caught in his throat. He'd been fighting the Strike in Aegis, and then...
He bowed his head, his forehead almost touching the girl's shoulder. "They're dead. I killed them."
The girl breathed in sharply, and twisted in his arms to face him. He didn't have the strength or the will left to stop her, his left arm falling limply by his side, the gun in his right all but forgotten. She clawed at the collar of his suit.
"That - that can't be!" she exclaimed vehemently. "Tolle can't be dead! He could have ejected form the Skygrasper! He could have - "
"The cockpit was crushed," Athrun stated emotionlessly, his mind replaying the events with ruthless clarity. "There's no way the pilot could have survived."
"No," the girl gasped, clearly shaken to the core. Distantly Athrun noted the dismay spreading through the crowd gathered around them - and the guns pointed his way now that he had relaxed his grip on his hostage. He couldn't quite bring himself to care.
"Why?" the girl was sobbing now, but had not let him go. "Why did you have to kill Tolle!"
"I wasn't tying to kill him. He was just in the way. I was only trying to kill..." he trailed off, his breath stolen by the memory of purple eyes wide with horror as Aegis locked onto the Strike.
"The Strike's pilot?" the blond lieutenant pressed. "Is there any chance he...?"
"No." His eyes burned. "I trapped the Strike with Aegis before I self-detonated. He couldn't have escaped that blast." The ripples of emotion through the crowd were stronger this time. "He's dead," Athrun stated softly, more to himself than to them. "Kira's dead."
"'Kira'?" The girl had heard him even if no one else had. She stared up at him with glistening eyes and tear-stained cheeks, and he couldn't escape that gaze. "You knew him, didn't you? It was you, you were his friend, the one he didn't want to fight against, weren't you? You were his friend, and you killed him! How could you!" Her voice had risen with every accusation, and he fell back before the strength of her verbal attack, his mind clutching at what little reason it could find for acting as he had.
"He was the enemy!" he shouted, still not wanting to really believe that. "He killed Nicol! Nicol was barely fifteen! He shouldn't have had to die!" He felt the tears sliding down his cheeks, and was helpless to stop them.
"Neither should Kira and Tolle!" she cried. "Does killing them make you happy? Does it!"
"No..." He closed his eyes, but the tears kept falling. "Kira..."
He was vaguely cognizant of someone taking the girl by the shoulders and drawing her away from him, but her words were lodged firmly in his mind. Killing Kira had left him anything but happy.
A familiar sound caused him to open them once more - and he abandoned his gun carelessly as Birdy swooped down, landing lightly on his outstretched hand.
Birdy tilted its head to one side and chirped quizzically at him.
In his mind, he could see beyond Birdy to the thirteen year old Kira he had given it to, his eyes troubled and sorrowful at their parting. Birdy was given as a reminder, and a promise - a promise of everlasting friendship that he had failed utterly.
His knees gave way beneath him, and he sank gracelessly to the floor. Birdy fluttered in mid-air for a moment before landing once again in front of him.
He closed his eyes once more, and let the darkness swallow him whole.
He killed people in his dreams. Kira, Nicol, Lacus, Dearka, even Yzak and that Natural girl Cagalli, they all died one by one, over and over again. He wondered morbidly how many times he would have to kill them before they stayed dead, then immediately felt worse for having wished them so. It seemed like his hands should be permanently red from all the blood he'd spilt, and it seemed strange to find this wasn't the case when he woke.
He stared at his hands, clean and pale, dropping them only when Birdy swooped down onto his chest, hopping about in a carefree manner before finally settling on his pillow.
"He's stayed with you just about the whole time you've been sick."
Turning his head slightly he watched as the girl he'd held hostage carried a tray with a pitcher and glass into the room. Placing the tray on the table by his bed, she poured a single glass of water.
"Here," she said, first helping him to sit up, then drink the cool water, observing him dispassionately.
"Thank you," he said as he lay back down, and she returned the glass to the tray.
"You're welcome," she replied perfunctorily, and turned to go.
"I'm sorry," he blurted out before she'd taken two steps. She froze, her back still to him. "I know it doesn't really help, but... I am sorry for your loss."
She turned around, her face still expressionless. "You lost a friend as well."
He looked away. For several moments there was silence but for the soft sounds of Birdy fluttering about the room.
"The Buster's pilot," the girl spoke again at last. "He's on board too."
"Dearka?" Athrun looked up at her. "Is he all right?"
She snorted softly. "He's fine. Better off than you were. They're keeping him in the brig. They'll probably move you there as well, once you've recovered."
"How long was I...?"
"About a week. You had a fever that took a while to shake. The doctor doesn't really know much about Coordinators so aside from treating your obvious injuries he mainly just let you be."
Athrun nodded. That made sense, considering it was an Earth forces vessel. "Thank you," he said again as she turned once more. She moved away again, but only to collect a stool from a nearby desk. Planting it by his bedside she sat down and stared fixedly at him. He waited, until she at last bowed her head, and softly began to speak.
"We were all together on Heliopolis, Kira, Tolle, Sai, Kuzzey, and I, all students in Professor Kato's seminar. We were there in the Professor's lab that day, when the room began to shake..."
He listened to her story with growing understanding why Kira had taken action as he had done. Kira and his friends, they had all been innocent victims of circumstance, drawn further into confusion by the actions of his own people.
He couldn't really blame Kira for wanting to protect his friends. It was the reason he himself had joined ZAFT, after all, to protect the innocent from suffering as his mother and everyone else on Junius 7 had suffered. He didn't want to kill them, and yet, according to this girl whose name he didn't even know, he had killed people who fought for the same reason he himself did, who longed for the same peaceful future.
Who was right, and who was wrong, when they all wanted peace? Would the constant retaliation only end when they were all dead? What kind of future was that?
"Thank you," he said again when she rose to leave. He wasn't sure she would understand what he meant, but she nodded, pausing to look back at him from the doorway.
"My name is Miriallia," she said, in those quiet, half-dead tones.
"Athrun," he responded. She nodded again, and left him with a thousand conflicting thoughts and emotions - and one mechanical bird that fluttered around the room like the ghost of its dead owner through his mind.