They weren't talking about him.
Of course they weren't. Howard lingered in the next room on board the grimy little ship they called 'Orion'. He wasn't eavesdropping - at least, he told himself he wasn't. It was just that he felt like moving sometimes, walking across the room, and when he passed by the door, pieces of conversation came to him. He couldn't help but overhear, that was all.
" - so no one found out whose swimsuit it was - so many people were laughing, and some were looking around for who lost theirs…"
"Oh no! Did he get it back?"
"Well, yes, but only because while everyone was busy talking about it, whoever it was snuck over and grabbed it. Lucky for him, huh?"
"I'll bet it was! But no one found out, at least."
It wasn't like they were even talking about anything interesting. Some book or another Sharla had read in grade school - which led into grade school stories, which led into middle school stories. Nobody talked about the sand, unless it was Bell or Kaoru, and even then they did it in an undertone, so as not to disturb the others. Nobody talked about Howard, because that would've been wrong. It would've meant being like someone who talked about people behind their backs. Being like Howard.
What was it they had? Howard stopped in front of the window again, staring at the mass of swirling sand in frustration. Somehow, he messed up every time. Somehow, he always did the wrong thing. Somehow, every time he opened his mouth, it seemed like all he got in return were those looks - the ones that said 'This again? Can't you say anything useful?'
'Howard, again? Don't you ever learn?'
Why was it just him? What did they know that he didn't? What secret formula did they use to be heroes, to look strong and brave and caring no matter what the situation? He couldn't manage it. No matter what he said, what he resolved to do, how he decided to act - when it came down to it, he couldn't do it.
Howard pushed himself away from the window, wandering - casually, just casually - in the direction of the door.
" - wonder what sorts of cities this planet had." Luna sounded a little more subdued than before - speculative, curious. She'd want to look around if they had time and it wouldn't hurt anything. There might be something useful - it might be a way to get everyone's minds occupied so they don't think about danger. Luna thought about things like that.
"Maybe they were big, beautiful buildings - with spires and towers." Sharla's voice was almost dreamy. "With gardens around them and vines twisting in the stones. Like castles in story books."
Gardens, when the climate was that bad? How realistic was that? Howard felt the sneer forming his lips, without his mind's conscious consent. Not a bad thing, right? It wasn't like he thought less of Sharla. Who could think less of Sharla, not eating or drinking so there'd be more for everyone else? He wanted to be like Sharla - content with what she had, making the best of any situation she found herself in, self-sacrificing, caring…
Who could be like that? Who could, realistically, be like that? Howard clenched his teeth and moved away, feeling frustration building up again with every word he overheard. How could you give up your food when you were that hungry? Things got to be too much, and he couldn't help but say something - didn't the others feel it? That edge of fear, hunger, thirst, weariness… when you were pushed to your limit, and forced into action.
Was he born detestable? Was it some inherent quality? How could anyone like a person like that?
"Let's go back to the colony together."
She pitied him. Obviously, that was it. He yearned for her sympathy at the same time as he detested it. It was like cheap gratification - that someone thought enough of him to come in and say something, but the motivating factor was pity.
They all did that - all looked down on him, giving in to what they thought of as his lesser form of attitude when it wasn't too much trouble, accepting him because he was a friend and ignoring all the things about him that were obviously flaws. Howard stopped by the wall, feeling his fingers twitch as if they weren't sure whether to clench them into fists or leaving them hanging there limp. His skin felt prickly.
He had their friendship - there was no question of that. Was it too much to ask to be admired in some way? Every single one of them had something about them he wanted for himself, just for the sake of the regard it would bring him. But every time he thought he understand - thought he had the trick of it, knew what he was supposed to do… it slipped through his fingers, and he was left with his own character and all its deficits.
'It's just Howard, again. Don't worry about it.'
"I'll be quick - excuse me," Kaoru said suddenly, and the door opened. Dark brown eyes glanced over Howard, took note of his presence, and moved on without interest. The other boy walked across the room and out the other end without so much as a pause to show that the existence of another person effected him in any way.
Kaoru. Howard stepped across the room again - casually, of course - to stare out the window again with a look of practiced indifference. Out of everyone else, it was Kaoru he felt most uncomfortable with - Kaoru he wanted to impress most, too, and that was ironic, considering how much he'd hated him before they'd been stranded. Or maybe not - maybe it was left over from his desperate need to have everyone in awe or fear of him, and the fact that Kaoru had been a constant thorn - a single, glaring exception who refused to grant the regard he'd sought after, refused to acknowledge his false superiority in any way, shape or form.
Kaoru was competent; he was brave to the point of being reckless, put his life in danger as if it were nothing, never complained or said anything unnecessary. He did all the things Howard would've called impossible - the things he failed at himself and was forced to contemplate in aggravated silence as he watched Kaoru accomplish them with ease. It was no great thing for Kaoru to save someone's life at risk to his own. No great thing for him to be tired or hungry; he would keep going, as if his discomfort was minor, as if he didn't even feel it.
Howard admired him; wanted to hate him, but admired him instead. Kaoru, who went beyond what he was told to do. Kaoru, who knew exactly what to say and what to do in any situation. Kaoru, who never seemed weak, even when he failed at something. Kaoru, whose gaze was canny when he deigned to turn it in Howard's direction. Knowing. Perceptive. As if he could see through Howard's skin into the thoughts underneath it. As if there was some way such a hero could know what it was like to be reminded of your own inadequacy whenever you were compared to the person next to you.
What could he know about being me?
Kaoru came back into the room - Howard heard his footsteps, but didn't look, concentrating on being absorbed in the sand whirling around outside the window. The footsteps didn't slow; he didn't feel any eyes on him, and complete, indifferent silence followed the other boy across the room, right up until he walked through the door on the other side and closed it behind him.
He didn't look. Of course Kaoru wouldn't look at him - none of them would. Who cared if Howard was sulking; he always sulked? Who cared what Howard was doing, as long as he wasn't getting them into trouble or slacking off when he was supposed to work?
'Howard, again… that's all.'
It wasn't fair! Howard leaned forward against the indent of the window, crossing his arms and resting his elbows hard against the cold metal. Didn't the others ever feel it? Choking, all-encompassing fear… It got him every time - took over his mind, erased every other thought. He couldn't remember pride or shame in those moments; forgot about looking like a hero or a coward. He couldn’t be like them, couldn't help but avoid the unpleasantness of hunger, fear, and exhaustion. Couldn't take being dirty, couldn't handle being uncomfortable, felt the need to comb his hair when he could because at least if he looked good, he could feel worthwhile somehow.
"Let's go back to the colony together."
Looks weren't going to help him be worth that.
He would never know, he was sure, what that secret was, that made a good person. He was always just going to be Howard, and Howard was never going to be on the same level as the others when it came down to it.
It wasn't until he was desperately holding on to the side of the ship with a trembling Sharla clinging to his neck that the answer clicked somewhere at the back of his head - he wouldn't realize it until much later, but that moment was when it had hit.
Howard, again. It was all he ever thought about.
When all it had taken to overcome the fear was to think of someone else for a change.