My right shoulder is straining a little, and fingers are starting to go numb. But there's no way I'm dropping my cargo.
The journey from hearse to burial plot seems far longer than it realistically is. Myself and the seven other pallbearers walk slowly in deliberate, terrible step. An acolyte walks in front of the coffin, swinging a censer. Sandalwood drifts back, filling my nostrils, sending me back in time.
My eyes are fixated on the back of Trowa's neck. He marches solemnly in front of me, along with Charles, Tenck, Mooney, De Boer, Macnamara and Hurley.
We take Bailey's coffin straight to the hole in the ground. The acolyte peels off to the side as we assemble in front of the empty grave. There is a silent count to three, then all agents heft the coffin up and over the burial vault so it can sit in view of the mourners.
We march past the front row of seated mourners in twos. Une sits next to Bailey's widow, patting her hands comfortingly. His two sons and daughter sit on their mother's other side. The two youngest -- the twins -- sob quietly into each other's arms. His eldest son sits, back ramrod straight. His eyes are puffy but his chin defiantly sticks out; he's trying to be brave. There's an award for valour medal clutched white-knuckled in his hands.
There are reserved chairs to the side where we sit, waiting for the priest to commence the service. Very quiet sobbing and low murmurs amongst the assembled are the only sounds until the priest actually starts talking. He begins speaking a bit of Latin, and that's the cue for my mind to start to wander.
There's a moderate turn-out for the funeral. Attendance is somewhat restricted to family and close friends (pending approval of background checks), active and past agents. Bailey's family requested the pallbearers specifically -- we're all people who'd worked with him before to some intimate degree.
That rules out Trowa, to my knowledge. I just saw him in uniform when I turned up a few minutes before the procession of the casket and didn't have a chance to ask then.
I always thought it was mandatory for funerals to be held on overcast or wet days; days where the sky is grey and big droplets of rain piss down on you from above. Widows and children stand under black umbrellas and sob their hearts out, soldiers in dress uniform are stoic as water sluices off their hats.
It's disgustingly sunny and bright today; white fluffy clouds float in a robin's egg blue sky. My dress uniform is hot and feels like it's choking me. A droplet of sweat runs down my spine between my shoulder blades and makes me itch.
The priest wears a white funerary cassock and black fascia draped around his shoulders. The dazzling sunlight plays tricks on me and inverts the colours. All I see is the positive/negative flicker of a black cassock and white collar. He has painfully familiar ruddy cheeks and greying, wavy hair. It hurts my eyes.
Instead I look to the long wooden box and the flag draped over it as a pall. The gold and bronze stylised 'P' sits in a sea of blue, ends fringed in gold tassel.
I don't go to funerals. Don't get me wrong; I've seen a lot of dead people in my time, but somehow I've almost always managed to avoid this part. I despise feeling like a grief-voyeur.
Funerals are complicated and messy. I don't *do* complicated and messy.
And I especially don't do 'goodbye'.
It's a pretty Catholic funeral -- well, as Catholic as the politically correct non-denominational Preventers will allow. No official church ceremony, just graveside. No viewing of his body -- apart from being a little confronting to the non-Micks in attendance, some bodies from time to time are a little too messed up to be put on display.
Micks. Bailey taught me that. He failed to tell me, however, that it was technically an insult and its inadvertent misuse nearly got my head caved in at a pub. I got him back, though. I found an old bottle that had once housed a very expensive Irish whiskey, filled it with tea, then 'accidentally' spilt it in his presence. I've *never* heard so many cuss words in my life -- and I grew up on L2.
Crazy dead bastard.
A little bubble of laughter escapes my throat and a few heads turn around to look at me. I turn the sound as best I can into a cough. I don't want to be written up for 'sniggering at a funeral'. Better men than I have been written up for less.
I didn't think anything could kill Bailey. He had that crusty old soldier 'I'll be around forever' vibe. He hassled me more than once about my methods, telling me *he'd* be attending *my* funeral if I wasn't more careful.
He was wrong. *I* didn't have some out-of-diapers cadet not covering my back on a dangerous op. *I'm* not in the box.
My hands resting on my legs bunch at the fabric of dress trousers, fingernails digging into my knees. Throat is all thick, making it a little hard to breathe and dammit, I want to *scream*. I'm so fucking angry I could--
I feel the brush of fingers against my wrist and knee, and it slackens my grip. Trowa's hand just ghosts there for a few seconds, reminding me of his presence, before retracting back to his own lap, each hand resting in a loose fist on either knee.
I shudder out a sigh and make a concerted effort to calm down, at least until the end of the ceremony. Standard anger and recrimination are going to have to wait. I look back to the flag-draped coffin.
Jenkin Bailey, aged 55, was the first agent I was partnered with when I joined the Preventers. Grizzled oldschool ex-Alliance, hard as all fuck, do-things-my-way-or-get-a-smack-in-the-head Bailey.
Even though he was part of the Alliance, he was an honourable soldier, actually serving with Noventa once upon a time. Bailey refused to attack the colonies even when directly ordered to, and hated OZ -- paying for each infraction with a number of ill-deserved demotions. And while Une respected his skill, his hatred of OZ never sat quite right with her, leaving him with jobs that meant sorting out particular types of new recruit... like me.
Une figured I needed an authoritarian to keep me in check to begin with, someone who wouldn't put up with any shit.
Oh, how right she was. We butted heads more than a pair of billy goats. If it wasn't how I cleaned my weapon, it was how I wore my uniform. We argued over protocol, vehicles, artillery, methods, strategy, grooming and regulation haircuts, sporting statistics, the best flavour of icecream ... and those big topics you're never meant to get into with people like religion and politics -- you name it, we argued over it, coming close to blows more than once.
At some point during our stint as partners, I came to trust and respect him. It surprised me more than anyone. Bailey had been a great soldier and a greater man.
Once we'd gotten past the stage where I fought him every step of the way, he invited me to dinner with his family. I ended up going there about a dozen times to eat and greedily soak up their family atmosphere. His daughter had a tiny crush on me and always tried to snag a seat next to mine at the table so we'd hold hands during Grace.
Each dinner would end with him saying goodbye to me at the front door. He'd give my shoulder a punch and say "Be seeing you at Mass on Sunday." And although I always promised to try and make it, I never did. It was nothing personal. I haven't been able to go to a Mass since Father Maxwell-- but today is not the day to dredge up those memories.
After a year together, Une decided I'd had my brow beaten down enough to be able to be paired with someone a little younger, and Bailey got to move on to the next green agent.
He never stopped inviting me to Mass.
The priest walks around the coffin slowly, flicking holy water onto it and surrounding earth. Quiet sobs of his children eat away at my gut.
Maybe if his new partner had been a little less green, he wouldn't have copped a spray of bullets to the stomach.
"O God," says the priest, "by Your mercy rest is given to the souls of the faithful, be please to bless this grave. Appoint Your holy angels to guard it and set free from all the chains of sin and the soul of him whose body is buried here, so that with all Thy saints he may rejoice in Thee for ever. Through Christ our Lord. Amen."
Sister Helen used to tell me about God's angels. Messengers and guardians and warriors, sounding their trumpets and unfurling their wings; the sublime Hosts of Heaven.
The Canticle of Luke comes next, after which Une stands. She straightens the skirt of her dress uniform. The priest steps aside and allows Une to take his place at the small podium. Her hair's down and she looks grave, but kind of beautiful at the same time. Epitomising the sacrifice, or something.
She talks about his bravery, his steadfastness, giving his life for the cause, all the stuff that's standard funeral fare. I don't need to listen to it; I already knew all that.
Une rejoins Bailey's family, and then Moony and Tenck march back to the coffin. They pick up the Preventers flag by its corners and proceed to fold it thirteen times, until it's a fat triangle of blue fabric. They solemnly present it to Mrs Bailey, she's somehow able to take it in a dignified way.
The priest cuts in again. "May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen."
The ceremony I feared would never end does just that. I mumble 'Amen' along with everyone else, and the funeral is over.
People talk in hushed murmurs, getting out of their seats to mingle briefly. It's not the place for a social get-together; that's what the Wake is for.
I stand up, rub my face and take off my hat. I feel tired and I have hat-hair. Trowa gets up and side-steps out of the row of chairs, half-looking back towards me. I follow. We stand there awkwardly for a few moments while I play with the cuffs of my dress jacket.
"Why were you a pallbearer?" I ask suddenly. "Thought it was meant to be Linh."
"Family emergency," Trowa tells me. "Wife went into labour. They needed a stand-in."
"And you were the same size, yeah?" I say, gesturing to the dress uniform. Trowa cocks his head to the side a little, but doesn't answer. Eh, the joke wasn't that good anyway.
"Are you alright?" he asks me, ignoring my failed attempts at humour.
'Yes' is on the tip of my tongue to say. Less complicated and I don't have to explain myself, least of all to my best friend. "No." is what *actually* comes out of my mouth.
Trowa takes his hat off, (one of the only guys who can pull off the military hat look anyway) and tucks it under his arm. "He was your first partner."
"Yep," I say, popping the 'p'. And now, like so many previous associates of Duo Maxwell, he's going to be put in the ground.
"I met him a number of times," Trowa tells me, and that in itself is surprising.
"Really? I didn't know you guys knew each other."
"Yes. Down in the motor pool." A small, reserved smile curls the corner of his lips. "He didn't want me working on his vehicles after he found out about my previous occupation."
That strikes me as odd. "Why would he have a problem with you being a Gundam pilot and not me?"
"I believe it was because I worked as a mercenary."
"Oh." It didn't surprise me. Bailey had been born into military service and held it in the highest regard. He hated 'soldiers for hire'; he didn't think men that fought for the highest bidder principled enough to fight on anyone's side. Thing is, I think Trowa is one of the most principled soldiers I've ever met.
"I'm sorry. He had pretty... firm ideas about military matters."
Trowa affects a shrug of his shoulders. "It's alright. He got over it. I 'redeemed' myself in his eyes when I was able to track down a replacement logbook for his rare Buick Centurion." It jogs a stray memory, and I can't help a wry smile. The very corner of Trowa's lip twitches. "It seems the pages of his other one somehow got glued together...?"
"In all fairness, that only happened after an 'incident' on an op in Istanbul. The bastard got me held up in customs for *four hours* while they literally combed my hair for bugs. It was his attempt to convince me to cut my 'non regulation' hair."
My friend shakes his head. "You know, I don't quite know who to feel sorry for the most."
"Me, definitely," I say, and turn to glance at the coffin. Even at the time, I know I shouldn't. The amusing recollections melt away to be replaced with gnawing cold in the pit of my belly. It shouldn't have gone down like that.
"Intel is the op was carried out faultlessly," Trowa answers. I hadn't meant to speak aloud.
"Faultless?" I spit caustically. "Faultless doesn't equate to bodies in the ground."
"Sometimes it does," Trowa shrugs, "depends on your point of view."
I hate him just a little then. He knows, too, but he doesn't flinch at the angry look I level at him. "You're saying Bailey was collateral damage?" My voice dips into this low register that I never use, except for when I'm *monumentally* pissed. Like now, for instance.
Trowa matches my tone, though his words are without the waver of high emotion. I admit it; my buttons have been thoroughly jabbed.
"I'm just saying the operation objectives were achieved. However, it's always terrible when those successes come at the price of good men like Bailey. No sacrifice in the line of duty should ever be discounted, or forgotten."
A snippet of an old conversation -- actually, an argument -- comes back to me. Tobacco-roughened voice with a lilting Celt twang telling me "Not every successful operation brings all our men home in one piece".
And just like that, he takes the wind right out of my sails. He fucking has to have the last word, even when he's dead.
I feel bad for having hated Trowa, even if it was only for a few moments. My thumb and middle finger squeeze the bridge of my nose briefly, trying to alleviate the building pressure, and sigh.
"You're a better soldier than I am," I tell Trowa quietly. "He would have liked you as a partner way more." I scrutinise him for a second. "Though he still might've tried to make you cut your hair."
The very ghost of a smile touches his lips. "I doubt that. You're far more interesting."
I turn away from Trowa to properly face the coffin. Sun still shines brightly down on it. There's not even the hint of a grey cloud in the sky. It annoys me, and it annoys me more that it annoys me when there's more important things to be annoyed about.
"It shouldn'tve happened," I say firmly, almost daring Trowa to play Devil's Advocate again. I guess he's smartened up, because he doesn't this time.
Bailey shouldn'tve gone on a dangerous op with some runt barely out of cadets as his only backup. He was a good soldier but he is-- *was* getting on a little. And for fuck's sake, he had a family to take care of. He wasn't supposed to be babysitting when he should've been protecting his own hide.
Why does it always happen like this? The stronger one dies and the weak one gets to live. How do we always manage to see the better ones into the ground before us?
"You're not the weak one," Trowa tells me quietly, but firmly.
Damn, I have *got* to stop speaking my thoughts aloud. "You don't know. It's not like this is the first time I've seen events play out like this."
"You think it has before, and you're weaker than someone who died, Duo?"
I can't answer straight away. I can barely bring myself to think of him, though I do in some way, every time someone says my name.
My voice is a little more than a hoarse whisper. "There's never any excuse for letting your friend die."
It's the closest I've ever come to telling Trowa about Solo, my first best friend. I open my mouth to say something else, but when I glance at Trowa, it falls shut again.
My eyes are itchy, and I rub them a little. I look up and Trowa's still watching me. My brain can't handle dredging up any more ghosts today, so to save face it automatically defaults to 'smartass'. I look down and brush the front of my jacket. "Am I getting a little survivor-guilt on my uniform?"
"You're not the only one," Trowa answers, and something in his voice compels me look into is eyes.
They're more exposed than I've ever seen. He has an unexpectedly naked expression, and I get it; I'm not sure when or how or what happened, but we understand each other completely.
I cough and break eye contact again, choosing to look past Trowa at the line of expensive black cars waiting on the street to take high-ranking Preventers away. I, of course, arrived in a bus.
"Did you hear about Stanborough?" Trowa asks me, referring to Bailey's current partner; the one that got him killed.
"He's not here, and he's not in a box," I frown, "what else is there to know?"
"He's in the ICU with one kidney after taking a bullet in the back." My eyes widen in surprise as Trowa continues. "Apparently he threw himself over Bailey when shots were fired. The retrieval team found him shielding Bailey with his own body, and he refused the first ambulance even though he was bleeding out severely."
Well *that* shut my noise-hole.
"Oh," is all I can manage. I hadn't heard that, but then again, none of those details have been released yet. "How do you know that? All the info is strictly 'need to know'," I say with distaste.
"I infiltrated the hospital as an orderly."
I think my eyes bulge out to the size of tennis balls. "Bullshit," I scoff.
"It was either that or conceal myself in a bunch of helium balloons," he says dryly. "I thought 'orderly' would be easier to pull off."
Trowa's odd sense of humour shows up at the strangest times. Somehow, it never fails to make me laugh, though. I never would've picked *that*. A bark of laughter that is really too loud for the situation we're in unexpectedly bursts out of my mouth.
"You're so full of it. I can't believe you just said that, man." All I can do is shake my head, unable to help the fact my mouth splits in a smile. Trowa's eyes crinkle in the corners a little and he opens his mouth to answer. No sound comes out, though, as his eyes drift over my shoulder.
Oh sweet Christ on a cracker, not now.
I turn agonisingly slowly to see my former partner's widow, and his daughter. I'm sure all the blood drains right out of my face. Fantastic, Maxwell. Here you are laughing at her husband's funeral. *Laughing*. Kill me now.
The apologies can't gush out of my mouth fast enough. "Mrs Bailey, I am *so* sor--"
"I don't know how many times I've told you to call me 'Allira'," she interrupts, scolding me. But there's no heat in her voice, and she reaches out to envelop me in a hug. I freeze for a few seconds, before hugging her back. The daughter, Hazel, steps forward. She holds the folded Preventer flag tightly in her hands.
It feels a little awkward, but she looks up at me expectantly even through her red eyes. I glance at Allira quickly for any negative signs, but get none. I give Hazel a kiss on the cheek and squeeze her shoulder in what I hope is a reassuring gesture. It seems to work, her cheeks colour prettily as she retreats to stand next to her mother.
My chin drops to my chest, and I'm unable to meet her mother's eyes. "Allira, I--"
"It's good to hear laughter," Allira says, glancing around at the assembled Preventers. "Jenkin would have hated his funeral to be so serious." She inclines her head towards me. "He would have loved for you to do something to liven it up."
I try for a smile, but it comes out looking a bit too much like a grimace. "Not even I have the ba--" I look down at Bailey's daughter and cough, correcting myself, "--guts to pull a practical joke at a funeral. Least of all Bailey's."
She smiles at that, dimples in her cheeks twitching as she does her best to maintain the happy expression. Her eyes flick up behind me and she extends her hand. "I don't believe we've met, Agent...?"
"Trowa Barton," Trowa replies, shaking her hand a couple of times.
Recognition flickers briefly in her eyes. "Agent Barton. So nice to finally meet you. I know it was short notice, but thank you for stepping in to be a part of the ceremony."
"I was honoured to be asked, ma'am," he tells her, meaning it. "Duo's been telling me stories about your husband."
"He has, has he?" Suddenly that smile she'd tried to plaster on her face is a little more real, and I'm glad for it. "I hope he saves some good ones for the Wake. " Her eyes shift back to me. "You are both coming, aren't you?"
"Please?" Hazel adds, red-rimmed eyes wide and imploring.
I'd wanted to perhaps beg my way out of attending, but that was now firmly out of the question. With a glance at Trowa, I receive his silent confirmation. "Of course," I relent, scratching the back of my head. Going won't be so bad if he's there, I think.
"Wonderful," Allira says, and it's as good as set in stone. There's some high-falutin' Commander trying to get her attention a few feet away, but she waves her hand and nods in the internationally recognised sign-language of 'in a minute, impatient asshole'.
"I'll let you go," I tell her, not wishing to commandeer her attention for too long.
"I want to catch up with you more at the Wake, but before that... I have something for you." A slender hand dips into the right pocket of the black tailored jacket she wears. Her left grabs my right hand and presses something metal into my palm, curling my fingers over it.
She holds both of her hands over my closed fist, so much so that my own nails begin to dig into my palm.
"Jenkin took this on every operation in his entire military career. I know for a fact he would have wanted you to have it."
My eyes widen a little. Make that a lot.
"I can't accept anything as important as that, Allira."
"You don't even know what it is, and yes you can," she declares in a very Bailey tone that brooks no arguments whatsoever.
"But something that precious should stay in your family," I argue.
Allira shakes her head slightly, her expression very parental. "It is," she says simply, and releases my hand.
I open my fingers hesitantly and look into my palm.
It's a small silver medallion of St Michael; archangel, commander of the Armies of God, and patron saint of -- amongst other things like paramedics and police -- soldiers.
I close my fingers back over it when I realise my palm's trembling. "I don't know what to say," I murmur, feeling lame.
"No words are necessary. Father Welstead is going to do a special prayer for Jenkin at Mass on Sunday..." She reaches out and lifts my chin slightly with a crooked finger. "Will you come?"
"Yeah," I confirm, unable to raise more than a croaky whisper. Allira beams at me, even though her eyes hold so much sadness. She and Hazel leave to meet the Commander, and I am left with Trowa and St Michael.
My feet begin to automatically walk me to the casket. I can see the gravediggers waiting in the wings, ready to pile earth on top of him, burying him forever.
I look down at the medallion in my hand. It was a little cold when I first got it, now it's warmed with my body heat. The chain slips between my fingers and I twirl my wrist, wrapping the silver links around my digits.
There's the extremely soft sound of boots walking on grass behind me, followed by a supple but deceptively strong hand coming to rest on my shoulder.
It's my last chance to say goodbye, but I don't have any words.
I let out a gusty sigh and give into my sudden impulse of crossing myself with the hand that holds the medallion, finishing by kissing the warming metal.
I half-turn towards Trowa and sigh. "Ready?" He asks me.
"Yeah." I look at the coffin one last time, turning away as it begins its descent into the plot. "I think so."
"I drove. We can take my car if you want."
I find relief in the idea of travelling in Trowa's Chevy as opposed to making my way to the Wake alone. We begin to walk but I stop suddenly, Trowa waiting patiently for me.
"D'you think we might be able to make a stop at the hospital on the way?" I absently run my thumb over the brim of my hat. "I'd like to visit Stanbourne."
He nods once, squeezing my shoulder.