He said I have the face of a poker player.
It was a compliment. Praise from him, a relative stranger, at how well I had managed to school my expression over the years in order to keep every nuance, every little spike of emotion hidden. Envy from him at how easily the deception came to me; wonder from him at how effortlessly I could keep the deception going.
All this plainly evidenced on his own countenance.
And do you know what? It hurt.
Not that I showed how much it hurt, of course, the very nature of my 'poker face' wouldn't allow it; but it did, and I stowed that hurt deep down for the rest of the day.
It was just a small comment made on the spur of the moment by a Preventer agent, nervous at finally being able to speak to the great and revered Gundam pilots. He was young and inexperienced, eager to learn and impress. He was twenty five.
I felt so old.
A poker face.
Devoid of emotion; giving nothing away, whether it be good or bad or indifferent. Just waiting patiently for my turn to play.
And yet there's no one to call my bluff.
I know why it hurt so much of course. Since the end of the war I have made a concerted effort at breaking down this barrier that keeps me apart from the rest of the world. I had thought I was succeeding. I had thought other people could now see the smile that, to me, was clearly visible.
I tried it that afternoon. Put myself in another's position and saw what they saw, feeling foolish all the while of course, smiling at my reflection in the mirror of the gents rest room. Looking for the smile I knew was there.
And I saw nothing.
The smile that was so obvious to me, the one that had taken me over a year to cultivate slowly, was barely recognisable as such. You could explain it away as a nervous tic. You could call it neutral...there was quite simply nothing, no smile but no scowl...just nothing.
I don't want neutrality.
I don't want to seem unemotional and cold.
I've spent too long that way already and it's a lonely life to live.
It was training that did this to me, years of conditioning that taught me to shield that delicate part of myself and keep it away from society, to wrap it in a soft, protective cocoon and harbour it away from the harsh realities of a world at war.
No one told me that this defence mechanism would become a prison; that my soft, safe cocoon would begin to harden over the years, without my knowledge, turning from something malleable to something terrifyingly unyielding and trapping me inside it.
And for all my ability to bend steel I know I don't have the strength necessary to break this particular bond; especially when every action, every move I make, only serves to strengthen it in some way.
I know it's crazy. I say I want to be free from it and yet even as I make the effort to break down the walls, there's this other part of me that's right there bolstering them up again. I'm the worst kind of hypocrite, saying I desire freedom even as I burrow deeper within myself.
And then there is the fear of what I will find on the other side.
Can a soul survive without experiencing life? I have no idea. Perhaps I'm withering away behind this protective, destructive layer of my own creation. Perhaps it's too late and that fragile element has already vanished, another casualty of the wars I've fought in.
How would I know?
Do I really want to find out?
I think without Duo I would be more than happy to sit back and let this world go on without me...or at least whatever passes for happiness in my mind.
Duo was a thief on L2, a pickpocket as a child with a knack for stealth and a personality so contrary to mine that it was startling. I've seen him pick the locks of his own prison cell with little more than a pin, or in one distinctive case, a shard of shrapnel which he pulled from his own body after an explosion.
After doing that, the barriers I'm presenting to him should be no problem at all.
We always came to each other's aid during the wars, in our own ways. I only hope he can see I'm in need of help now; I doubt it though, after all I keep my cards tight to my chest and give nothing away.
A poker face he said.
And I've never played a game of cards in my life.