"Why do you persist in this?"
The prisoner sipped from a cup of coffee and did not look at him. "You can put an end to it any time you like," she said mildly.
Because it was true, Neo scowled and turned his back to her to glare at the locked door of the crewman's cabin that served as her cell. Every time he spoke to this Murrue Ramius, he only left more frustrated, more and more conscious of all the things he didn't understand, but still he kept coming back as though she were a code he were determined to decipher, and she sat composedly on the side of her bunk and would not look at him.
"What are you hoping to gain?" he demanded. There was no response. Perhaps she'd sensed somehow that he wasn't truly asking her.
Restless, he turned back, prowling the confines of the room as though he were the one imprisoned. "Don't be so complacent," he told her. "We may not be at war with Orb--" --yet-- "--but you deserted at JOSH-A. You'll have to answer for that."
Should have answered for it already. He was dangerously close to crossing a line by not reporting the whole business and washing his hands of her, but he could not escape the certainty that she held some piece of vital information which she refused to surrender.
She still said nothing, all brittle dignity concealing--what? "Look at me, damn you," he muttered through his teeth.
She smiled wanly, down into the cup cradled between her hands. "Make up your mind."
Neo understood warfare. He was a soldier to the bone, and there was no enemy he would not ultimately defeat. But this woman, with her mild voice and warm brown eyes - this woman who had no business being on a battlefield, who spoke to him like she didn't know she was speaking to her jailer and sometimes didn't seem to be speaking to him at all - this woman was an opponent beyond his experience. She refused to do battle in terms that he understood.
"If you want me to talk to you," she said, "look me in the eye."
"What are you looking for?" he asked her, but this time he expected no answer, and got none.
Removing the mask was like peeling back a layer of skin, with something of the same expectation of revulsion at the rawness beneath. Here are my scars. They're ugly. Be disgusted. But when she finally turned her face toward him, there was no disgust on it; her expression ached with a mixture of wonder and a stark tightness of pain.
"Masochist," he said.
She smiled, fondly, with a glimmer in her eyes that might have been tears. "I wonder what that makes you, then, Mwu."
"Captain," she murmured, looking away, a compromise that neither of them believed. With careful movements she reached to set the coffee cup down, and then rose to her feet to face him again. "Do you remember JOSH-A?"
"I was in Panama." He remembered neither, except as a confusion of fragmentary battlefield images, but he knew his own service record.
"They transferred most of our strength there." Clever how she acknowledged his words without accepting them at all. "To be ready for ZAFT's attack... but that was a lie. They transferred the ones they wanted to save."
"You ran to save your own life."
Her eyes were still turned toward him, but she seemed to be seeing something else, someplace else, a long way off. "'Maintain the defense and adapt to the circumstances,'" she said. "That was the order we were given. But in reality, what we were meant to do was put up a convincing fight--and have our backs broken by ZAFT--and then die, and be no more trouble."
Suddenly her eyes came back into focus, fixed on his face, searching him for something. He had the irrational thought that she would see past the scars, straight into the core of him, to all the places in which he was lacking. It took a force of will not to look away.
"Would you give that order?" she wondered softly. "Tell your men to fight the good fight, and then use them up, and abandon them like trash to die without ever knowing what they were fighting and dying for?"
Now he did turn away, sharply, a bitter laugh grating in his throat. "My men," he said, "are brain-damaged children who know nothing. They fight because I tell them if they don't fight, they'll die." Her quixotic blindness was more damning than the brutality of the truth. He felt a compulsion to strip it from her, to make her see him instead of the ghost of a hero. "They die anyhow. That's what soldiers do--they die."
"But you're alive." Her voice was hushed.
"For now." Neo was no different from his trio of toy soldiers, in the end--no control over his fate, and far too much he didn't know. "Don't assume I can protect you."
"This has nothing to do with that," she murmured.
He didn't hear her move, and his spine stiffened at the light touch of her hand to his shoulder.
"You have a scar here," she said, "don't you?"
"I have a lot of scars," he said.
"You have one here from a bullet." When her hand brushed his side, his breath hissed quietly in through his teeth. "And one here, from shrapnel... when Raww le Klueze damaged the Strike at Colony Mendel."
He turned around abruptly, shaking off her touch and catching her by the wrist as they came face to face again. "Stop fooling yourself," he said. "Mwu la Fllaga is dead. He's dust - part of the debris at Jachin Due. The positron beam probably didn't leave enough of him to fill a shoebox--"
She slapped him, hand cracking across his face with an impact that stung less than it surprised him into silence.
He'd meant to hurt her, and he could see in the tightness at the corners of her eyes that he had - had meant to make her angry, and he could see that, too, in the lift of her chin - but greater than either in the way that she looked up at him was the regret, as though she'd already forgiven him for lashing out at her, and the unquenched radiance of a love he'd done nothing to earn except look a little like a man who'd died for her sake.
The line was there and it was time to step back from it, but when he released his hold on her wrist she reached up, fingers glancing gently over the side of his face where she'd struck him, and the words he'd been about to say died in his throat.
Thumb skimming over the ridges of his scars, she slid her hand back into his hair. At any moment he could have stopped her; he wasn't quite certain why he didn't, but stood very still as she rose up and pressed her mouth to his, softly and warmly, a kiss given rather than taken.
His hands closed on her upper arms, but the reflexive urge to push her away warred with the unexpected impulse to take hold of her and find out if there was enough of her to fill the empty places inside him. In the end he did neither, and it was she who finally drew back, just a few inches, to look up into his eyes.
"Mwu..." she breathed, one uncertain syllable wavering on the brink of a fall.
Suddenly, vengefully, he wanted to shred Mwu la Fllaga's memory into vapor. He wanted to force the illusions out of her. He wanted her to look at him and see only him. "Neo," he corrected roughly, gripping her arms hard enough to bruise, and watched her flinch.
Something broke in her then. Behind the glassy brightness of unshed tears, her eyes were dark and hollow, and he thought that maybe she was as scarred and as empty as he was after all.
"...Neo," she echoed in a whisper, and it was too late for turning back now.
He kissed her ruthlessly, with no gentleness, but she only yielded to him without protest, body pressing warm and close, her fingers digging into the sleeves of his uniform with more desperate strength than he'd have given her credit for.
They fell across the line together.
She stirred uneasily in her sleep when he left her, much later, but did not wake. There was a moment in which Neo almost hesitated, almost paused to brush his fingers over the knotted scar tissue of an old gunshot wound on her shoulder... but ultimately, he only settled his mask back into place, and locked her in behind him.
This was a battle they would both lose. He would find out soon enough what the cost would be.