-LIEBESTOD-

a Gundam Wing fanfiction

by Fractalforge

Revision status: Final version. Final modifications made October 20, 2000.

Warnings for all parts: Shounen-ai, angst, mild AU.

Shin Kidosenki Gundam Wing / Mobile Suit Gundam Wing is the property of Sotsu Group, Bandai, Sunrise, and their licensed distributors. The original portion of this fanfiction work is copyright 2000 by Fractalforge, and is considered the creative property of the author. Song lyrics are used periodically in the fic, all without permission. "Angel" is property of Aerosmith. "Fitter Happier" is property of Radiohead. "Wish You Were Here" is property of Pink Floyd.

Comments on and criticisms of my fanfiction are universally welcome! Please drop me a line at Fractalforge@hotmail.com, and I'll be happy to respond. If you'd like to post this fanfiction on your site, feel free to do so. All I ask is a mail link, author credit, and no alteration to this text itself.

Author's Notes: Any and all complaints, comments, suggestions, etcetera, are greatly appreciated. Send 'em to me at fractalforge@hotmail.com. Flames will be ignored. I APPRECIATE ALL COMMENTS!

The title, "LIEBESTOD", is German for the concept of unity of love and death. The most famous usage of it is in Richard Wagner's opera "Tristan und Isolde" in which the heroine, whose lover is dead, literally wills herself to die in an aria entitled "Liebestod."

Modifications: I tweaked everything. Biggest is, I set the story in chronological order, as I was getting complaints from people who thought it was confusing. Then I had to cram all the intros together, and what happened then was, I was like, "I'm gonna have 15 FOOTNOTES at the end of the story!" So, instead, I removed ALL the footnotes from the stuff and pared the fic down as much as possible. Therefore, all the author's notes and comments can be found on my page, along with assorted goodness... Give me hits, folks! My pitiful page, along with my other fics, can be found at http://www.geocities.com/fractalforge/index.htm...

Though he would never stoop to reading a GW fanfiction, much less a yaoi one, I'd still like to thank my Real Life best friend for putting up with all of my crap. This one's for you, man.

I'd also like to thank Braidgirl, Radishface, Kuwami, Purinpuff, Jordan, and all the rest of the regulars on the Spandex+Braids forums (and even Kim and Brandy) for their support and friendship.

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"To lift yourself out of a miserable mood, even if you have to do it through strength of will, should be easy. I force myself out of my chair, stride round the table, exercise my head and neck, make my eyes sparkle, tighten the muscles round them. Defy my own feelings, welcome A enthusiastically supposing he comes to see me; amiably tolerate B in my room; swallow all that is said at C's, whatever pain and trouble it may cost me, in long draughts.

Yet even if I manage that, one single slip -- and a slip cannot be avoided -- will stop the whole process, easy and painful alike, and I will have to shrink back into my own circle again.

So, perhaps the best resource is to meet everything passively; to make yourself an inert mass; and, if you feel you are being carried away, not to let yourself be lured into taking a single unnecessary step; to stare at others with the eyes of an animal; to feel no compunction -- in short, with your own hand to throttle down whatever ghostly life remains in you, that is, to enlarge the final peace of the graveyard and let nothing survive save that."

-Franz Kafka, from "Meditation"








[AC 184]

The Darlian estate, in which the family lived for three seasons out of the year, was an expansive white stone mansion of two stories, with smooth columns in the front and rose bushes and ivy, and a pale gravel driveway. In autumn, the maple leaves on the trees around it would become orange and solid, like pieces of oaktag; and the bark of the trees would change from a crusty green to a smooth gray. On these days, the wind would often whip the leaves off the trees and onto the lawns faster than the groundskeeping staff could rake them up. In the breeze, the puddles and seas of orange surged about on the finely cut grass like shifting blobs of oil in water.

Sometimes, when the Assistant Administrative Director for the Foreign Ministry -- he would become Vice Foreign Minister in AC 190 -- wasn't off on one of his frequent business trips, and his wife wasn't too busy managing his complex schedule or running the household, they went out on walks. Dressed in clothes too expensive to be considered casual but too simple to be called elegant, they would begin their trek by walking across their lawns, sure to keep away from whatever area was under maintenance that particular day.

Their infrequent but treasured walks through the forest took them over the wooden bridges and stepping stones spanning the two streams that flowed by the house, under the worn canopy of paper leaves the color of cozy flame. The forest was thick and old, untouched by logging or construction; and absolutely uninfluenced by civilization. It was absolutely beautiful, the sort of place that one always considers fictional until one sees it, the sort of place no one is able to remember after they leave.

The Darlian patriarch was a man who could still be considered young and attractive: thirty-two years old, without the brown beard he would begin to grow when Relena would turn eight. His eyes were not calculating or businesslike on these walks as they were when he was in a meeting or a committee. Instead, they were warm and full of compassion, thankful for the brief moments that his life would give him with his family. In many ways he was the stereotypical expression of the busy and uninvolved father.

His wife was his age, but looked older. Her figure, though she had not had and would never have children, was slim and attractive. The woman's face was slender and pale, and there were the beginnings of crows-feet around her eyes. Except for special occasions, she always wore a string of discreet white pearls around her neck.

The girl, Relena, was bright-eyed and intelligent looking, innocent and naive in a way that only little girls can be. Usually her nanny picked something white for her to wear, because she somehow always looked more beautiful in white. Despite her outward innocence, she was scarred slightly: there was a white slash on the bottom of her calf almost two inches long. She herself payed it no heed, and her parents always explained it as a birthmark. Sometimes she woke up at night crying for her mother and father, but even when they arrived she still cried.

Relena was fond of dolls, but she was fixated on one in particular. She always took this doll on her walks, to her meals, and generally everywhere. When manners dictated that the girl should appear at a party, it was very hard to convince her to let her doll go.

The doll was fair-skinned and obviously female, made of material more durable than china but quite as beautiful. Her shoulder-length black hair was straight and her chin was rounded like a baby's, but still distinctly angular. The eyes were wide and blue, and blinked when you inclined the doll's head. Its green dress was made of solid cloth, perhaps velveteen or calico, and not fancy. Embroidered on the back of its garment, in stitched cursive text that Relena could by now read, was the word Stefania.

The three of them, dressed in this way, stopped before a clear brown stream on a sort of natural landing, where a small patch of grass and rock overlooked a series of worn, oddly shaped stepping-stones.

"Shall we cross here, dear?"

"Yes, I think we should. Relena, do you think you can walk over the stones yourself?"

Her father was always willing to carry her, but the girl, for some reason, had an aversion to being carried. She loved to be hugged and kissed, and cooed and laughed when she was... but when someone tried to carry her she would freeze and begin to cry. Sometimes, in her nightmares, she was carried, carried to and from shifting and amorphous places to other places in the dead of night, when everything was burning and loud...

The birdsong and flowing static of water licked through the air before she responded softly, "Yes, Father."

Her parents carefully negotiated the line of rocks, holding out their arms sideways to maintain their balance. Relena, walking between them, clutched her doll in her arms, carrying it like the groom always carries the bride in old movies: one arm under the shoulders, one beneath the knees.

Under her breath, Relena spoke earnestly and softly to the doll, lulling her to sleep. "Be careful, Stefania. I won't let you fall. I won't drop you."

Her father looked at her oddly, and then smiled. "Little girls and their dolls..."

His wife smiled back at him. "Adorable, isn't it? ...I remember playing with my dolls, you know. Sometimes I wished my dolls were real children I could play with..."

But the last comment did not quite have the same type of urgency and happiness in it. Instead, it was a wistful and envious tone, almost bitter. The Darlians had tried and failed to concieve, and the doctors had told them that they had almost no hope at all to have children by natural means...

But they had Relena. And Relena was enough for them, a beautiful and perfectly behaved little girl. Mr. Darlian gazed down at his foster daughter, and smiled.

Not really knowing the meaning of her parents' words, Relena smiled back at him. All four of them crossed the stepping stones without incident, and finished their walk in the usual way.

Every evening, at about seven, Relena had had her dinner and her bath. Dressed in a frilly foot-length white nightgown, and with her blond hair already combed out and washed, she knelt before her dollhouse.

The dollhouse was a curious doppelganger for the house that the Darlians lived in. The front of the plaything could be lifted away, as could the roof and the second story. Everything was there: the ten bedrooms, six bathrooms, spiral staircase, ballroom, kitchens, drawing-room, playroom, den, game room, even the outdoor pool was on the side. Even the furniture inside was intact, a perfect replica of the house it was meant to represent.

When Mrs. Darlian rearranged the furniture in the drawing-room, as she was wont to do, Relena always noticed and made sure to update its counterpart in the dollhouse.

Stefania the doll was not the correct scale to use in the dollhouse; but it of course came equipped with about fifteen dolls of the correct size -- about as tall as a grown man's thumb is long. Had the dollhouse been the correct size to use with Stefania, it would have filled nearly the entire bedroom.

With Stefania in her lap, cradled like a baby, Relena murmured to the dolls in the dollhouse, moving them around by pinching their backs with her chubby fingers. Her monologue was constant, ever-changing, weaving back and forth between characters, creating conversations and epic tales that could never be written down.

A nanny walked into the room, red curly hair and freckles surrounding a jolly face. She coaxed Miss Relena away from her dollhouse, gently talking to her, then very softly prodding her and teasing her. The child giggles and acquiesced, walking away from her playhouse with obedient reluctance. Stefania was still in Relena's arms, though. The nanny tucked her into bed, pulling up the sheets and comforter to the child's chin. Her mother came in to give her a good night kiss, and called her a good girl. She turned on the soft nightlight before she leaft.

The nanny left a glass of water on the bedside table, checked for people under the bed, and walked out the door, switching off the light.

It was one of the child's few eccentricies. Instead of monsters under the bed, Relena was afraid of people hiding down there.

The nanny left the white door open a crack, began to walk away, but stayed for a moment, hearing a murmur out of the room: the little girl's good night kiss to her doll.

"I love you, Stefania. I always will."

The nameless nanny smiled to herself and walked down the lit hallway, immersed in memories of her own childhood: poverty, hunger, but somehow a satisfied and close-knit feeling of happiness and intimacy. She had always been very close to her family.

As she sighed at old memories and walked down to the kitchen to help the cook with the dishes, she said to herself, "If children had their way, they'd never grow up..."


[AC 188]

Two figures sat in the shadows of the church's hallway.

The small church was dark and cool, splashed in bright shades of rainbow. They had cut corners building the actual structure, but they had spared no expense in the stained-glass. Unlike nearly everything else in the church, It was imported from Earth at great inconvenience and cost. To save enough money to pay for it, Father Maxwell and the Sisters had lived on two meals a day for the entire year of AC 179. The priest claimed pride for his actions, not because he had succeeded in acquiring a material item; but because he thought that beauty was conductive to the contemplation of God.

And, to an extent, this was true. When the colony light came from the right angle, one couldn't help but be amazed at the color and beauty of everything. Somehow the poverty and hard-packed concrete and cold of L2 became nothing when someone stood beneath the stained-glass. The air inside the room was always dusty and dry, and arcs of red, blue, and aged yellow lanced through the dark shadows.

Father Maxwell's moderately soft voice echoed throughout the church's chamber. His face was wrinkled with the lines of middle-age and his black robes were, as always, not perfectly pristine. Everything about the man was calm and welcoming, with little of the intense concentration or intimidating presence that priests can possess. He was as perfect as they came; brilliant and dedicated, living on L2 because that was simply where he felt that he could do the most good. He was a man who loved life, and the living. And, above all, his Savior and his God...

And his small charge, eight years old and small and always dirty, stood beneath him and listened to him speak. And his face only registered change from silent awe and wonder, once the man requested a response.

"...do you believe in God, Duo?"

What could he say? There was something about being interrogated by a priest... something helpless. It wasn't playing fair. Lying felt horrible... but the feeling that the truth would be disappointing to the man was also horrible.

"...I don't know."

"Do you really mean that, Duo? Do you really not know... or is that just a fancy way of telling me you don't want to hurt my feelings?"

The boy hung his head. "...I'm sorry, Father."

"Is there a reason why?"

"I don't believe in God 'cause I've never seen him do anything."

The priest looked at the child with compassion, his hazel eyes cutting the shadows. "But you have, my son. God is everywhere. God created this colony. God made us... God made everything you see."

The boy looked away ruefully. "But it always gets taken away."

The priest sighed in agreement. "Yes. Nothing ever lasts... this gives things value. This teaches us not to take life for granted. This too is the will of God."

Duo shook his head. "It's Shinigami."

The priest listened to a noisy truck pass by outside. His eyes narrowed, regarding the orphan boy. "What can I do to convince you that God exists? What can I show you? What do I have to do?"

Duo was quiet for a moment. "You can't do anything. You can't prove that God is real, or else people would already have done it. That's why I don't believe in him."

"But that is the mystery of Him, my son. That is what gives him power. He exists in a world beyond the real."

"...The mystery is that you can't prove he exists?"

Father Maxwell sighed again and knotted his hands together. "We live in a city of science, Duo. People built this city because of knowlege. And in this age, we can't discover a thing about what God really is. I admit that much."

The child looked up at the man oddly. "But why are you looking in the first place?"

"Because we believe that the world is simply so beautiful and complex that it simply /must/ have been created by someone. Because we are blessed with so much that it's foolish to think it came from nowhere."

The eight-year-old boy, dressed in black, listened cautiously. "But everything gets taken away. Isn't it all the same in the end?"

The priest looked at the stained-glass window and at the brilliant light. "There are some eternal things." Duo looked at him skeptically. He smiled at the boy.

"The soul of man. Belief in God, and the memory of Christ. And love."

Duo gazed at the ground and frowned and looked at a scar on his hand. "Death lasts forever too."

Father Maxwell looked studiously at the ground, concentrating.

"I understand you now. You want concrete proof... and I would move the world if I could find that for you. But I can't. You've seen enough death to make anything I tell you meaningless..."

It was true.

But the child couldn't help looking at the priest, and thinking.

Duo knew that Father Maxwell was not a stupid man. In fact, he was a very smart man. He'd seen the diplomas and awards in his small office. He'd seen the books he always read, and he'd seen the copious notes he kept. He'd heard the sermons he made, and understood them well. And, if he ignored his past and his life and concentrated hard enough, he could almost believe in them. The arguments were sound enough, even if they were built on a flawed premise. A smart man, yes. A brilliant man.

But why would a smart man pride himself on starving for a year to pay for some colored glass? Colored glass meant to lead people to believe in something abstract and distant?

And why would a smart man use all the money he could possibly scrape together to start an orphanage, give up all the material comfort and happiness that he could have had for the sake of a mangy pack of orphan children?

And why would a smart man read volumes of books, libraries, enough to be able to explain to Duo absolutely anything in numbers or in mechanics... and yet still cling to the teachings of a book that was, by his own admission; outdated, misinformed, and often simply wrong?

Because he wanted money? Father Maxwell had little.

Because he wanted respect? Barely anyone came to the church.

Because he wanted happiness? The man was often just as cold, hungry, and in need as the children that he cared for...

/WHAT?/

What was the use in it anyway? Duo looked at the dusty floor beneath the pews. Solid, unending. They would be here for a while. They might last until after they were all dead...

The church, and the orphanage, had mostly been built by Father Maxwell. And the church and orphanage would survive, in some form or another, long after the man was dead and gone.

/A legacy? Something to leave behind?/

Perhaps that was it... the children that Father Maxwell raised often went on to good things. Sometimes they became doctors, lawyers. Other times they became mechanics or technicians, or businessmen. Occasionally they even became priests themselves.

Perhaps one of them would start his own orphanage... and care for children who had lost all chance of a normal existence. Perhaps one of those children would become a priest himself, and continue the cycle.

/Something that, in a strange way, does last forever?/

Father Maxwell slowly got up from where he was sitting and began to walk away.

The boy's pale brow furrowed as things began to make sense. Perhaps this really meant something after all. Maybe not in the concept itself, but in the results it gave. Father Maxwell's belief in God... though indirectly... gave happiness to Duo's life. Warmth and comfort to Duo's life. A sort of beautiful purity to Duo's life.

Meaning to Duo's life. And meaning to the life of everyone he cared for...

And for that, he owed someone at least something..

Perhaps this "someone" didn't exist at all. Perhaps this "something" wasn't important.

"Father?"

The priest turned around and tried to smile. He couldn't, though... "What is it?"

Duo looked for words but couldn't find them. "...Does God... give meaning to the life we have?"

Father Maxwell gazed at the window again. "That he does. We don't know what happens beyond this life. But we believe. And that belief allows us to survive without fear of death."

The child's violet eyes swelled. It still had to be done. Stealing was wrong, but Duo had stolen to survive. And now that he had a way to survive at no cost to him, it was time to make recompense for old sins...

He owed this God, this God whose followers had fed him and clothed him and kept him warm... even though this God might be fictional... SOMETHING at the very least.

But he had nothing to give.

Nothing, except his heart...

The boy looked at the priest and at his black robes, and remembered when he was taken in, and smiled. "God saved my life, didn't he?"

The priest frowned skeptically. "You've changed your mind?" Had the boy changed it of his own free will, or simply out of a misguided wish to make him happy? Or out of something else entirely different?

Duo smiled at him. "I think so. It's better to believe that someone's controlling everything. It makes more sense."

"Why?"

The boy shrugged. "There's no other way it could be. Everything's too complicated. Somebody has to be running stuff."

Father Maxwell looked at the boy. "I've convinced you?" A tone too soft to be jubilant but too loud to be sad.

Duo, independent to a fault, shook his head. "I decided myself."

The priest sighed. "Then you should know something, my son... before you promise me anything."

The boy looked at the man with mute interest.

"God loves every one of us, and we are all equal in the eyes of Him. But what you must think on, Duo, is that our individual lives are not always first in His eyes. Sometimes we are subordinate to a higher plan: something that will benefit humanity rather than just one or two of us. Sometimes His love for something else, some large objective, has to overrule his love for each one of us."

Duo frowned and looked at the beautiful windows of the church. "Something else?"

"Peace, perhaps. Or change. Something we strive for but cannot accomplish. But what matters is that sometimes we're second place. And this is why God is forced to let us suffer. This is why your 'Shinigami' exists. We must die because we must remain humble. We must lose everything lest we aspire to immortality..."

Duo nodded. It all made sense, in a way... It was easy to convince yourself to believe in something. Easy enough, at least...

The priest stopped and knelt down on the cold floor and looked the child in the eyes.

"Now, do you believe in God?"

Duo tried to escape his gaze for a few moments.

/I run./ Would he be able to say what he truly felt...?

The priest looked into the violet lights, a question hanging in the air.

/I hide./ Would he lie again, and drive himself away from happiness?

"Yes, Father. I promise. I believe in Him."

/But I never lie./

"And you promise that you will not give up hope?"

Duo believed... he believed in Christ, and the soul, and the supernatural, and Adam and Eve and Isaac and Moses and Samuel and Cain and Abel...

"In what, Father?"

Yes, Duo believed in God.

"In God, my son."

Forever and forever and forever...

"I promise."

For eternity.

This was enough for Father Maxwell. He sighed sharply, finally satisfied, and raised his fingers to his neck. And to Duo's wonder, he removed his golden cross on its chain and handed it to the stunned child.

"This is yours now."

And as they walked out of the church, a small slip of paper fluttered to the flagstone floor. Father Maxwell heard Duo stop and kneel. As the eight-year-old hastily crammed the paper into his pocket, the priest was able to catch a glimpse of the image.

A photograph of a little child with violet eyes, flanked on both warm clean sides by adoring parents...

"What is that, my son?"

"...Nothing."

The priest watched the little boy form a fist in his pocket and slowly crush the photograph.

"...Nothing at all."


[Skeleton]

Three weeks later, eternity came to an end.

The ashen remains of Maxwell Church hung shakily on the grassy share of land. The ash-glazed girders and beams stabbed upwards towards the ever-grey colony ceiling. Before the attack and the fire, the church had been a thing of beauty, with a rose window and modest flying buttresses and a steeple. Now it was grotesque and dirty, a burned-out frame. The smell of burning wood and missile explosive was suspended in the windless air, the microscopic particles of ash levitating somehow; like invisible clouds of flies or gnats. Like the swarms of insects and animals that had arrived to eat the remains of the bodies.

And the stained-glass windows, beautiful windows that Father Maxwell and the Sisters had starved for a year to save for, windows that were meant to express the glory of God in their beauty, were black and broken...

The steeple was still erect, though just barely. The bars climbing to their point of intersection were skewed to the side about halfway up. One of them was completely broken through, another twisted and warped. The metal cross on top was tilted off at an angle. There was no wood between the exposed girders.

Inside the church, draped across the charred pews, were over two hundred and forty bodies: blackened, decaying, expressions of agony almost invisible in the ashy mask that had descended upon them. Some were skeletons, most still had flesh attatched to them. A few were almost intact. The positions of the bodies was unnatural, like they had been frozen during convulsions. In reality, they had been crushed and twisted by debris that had burned before they had.

The flagstones in front of the church's hollow doors were stained black now, almost like rough glass. The doors had been locked during the attack, and none of the people had been able to crawl out through the burning trap of falling wooden beams and metal girders.

The church had been made of a strange composite: steel and wood: concrete and brick had been too expensive. It had been intended that the sprinkler and fire-safety systems inside the church would prevent anything from catching the building on fire.

But no sprinkler can stop a missile.

Duo kneeled on the flagstones before the burned and twisted altar, head bowed. Somehow, though stained with settled ash and dust, the cross was still standing; and the space before it was clear of fallen debris.

To the eight-year-old's side, a respectful distance away, was a body: a burgundy-black mass whose clerical clothes had been seared off; a pile of ash that used to be a priest. His face was still recognizable: it didn't contain an expression of pain, though. It wore a mask of complete disbelief and horror.

Father Maxwell.

The priest's golden cross was still around the neck of the boy, looking far too large. His small hands were black with ashes, and his face was pink, puffy, and streaked with charcoal from where he had tried to wipe the tears away from his violet eyes. Still in a neat braid, his chestnut brown hair was clotted and held together with blood.

The boy's voice was higher than before, and it halted every now and again to sob pathetically, afraid of everything around him.

"...He thought that you'd protect them. He thought that you'd save them..."

No response, only the terrible hum of the colony's machines and the sirens off in the distance. A formality: nothing could change. Not now, not ever. What had happened was eternal, as indelible and unchangeable as a blood stain.

"If you were worth something you would have saved them. If you... if you loved me like he said you did, you would have saved them. If you really cared about anything, you would have stopped them..."

A cold wind blew through the churchyard. A dozen crows lifted off from the spiked iron fence surrounding the site and flapped, cawing and complaining, through the air.

"But you didn't. You didn't save anyone."

The boy paused, as if for an answer. None came. He sobbed once more and blinked away the ash that had gotten into his eye. Then he thought of something to say... and somehow hesitated, as if afraid to say it. But eventually, something inside him won out and he spit out the words, forming puffs of water vapor in the cold.

"...You don't love me."

There was no enlightenment or moment of truth. No guidance from above. No support.

God was silent.

Only pain, a terrible flashing hurt too big to ignore and too intense to stand. Guilt. Helplessness. A consuming hatred for everything and everyone.

Something told the boy that it would be easy to end the pain. As easy as saying a few words. Good. Death would be better than enduring this. Nothing could possibly make life worth living. Not happiness, because it always left him. Not money, because he would always lose it. Not revenge, because he didn't want to kill anyone except himself.

And not love, because death always followed it...

"...And you're supposed to love everyone..."

His voice broke into screaming, choking sobs.

A crow descended upon Father Maxwell's neck and started to pick at the meat covering his spine. The rat that had been nibbling at his fingertips recoiled, wary of the bird, but cautiously returned to his meal. Two scavengers have nothing to fear from each other.

Duo didn't care anymore. Sirens were close. He would have to be gone before they got here, because they would want to know what had happened. He didn't want to explain. He coughed and wiped his eyes once again, and stood up, looking up through tears at the distant squares of metal -- the only sky he'd ever seen. His heart was empty. His mind was gone. He couldn't cry anymore. He couldn't do anything anymore.

"AND THAT MEANS," the child screamed up into the cold and empty air, "THAT YOU DON'T EXIST!"

That settled it. He pulled the gun out of the elastic waistband of his pants, and snapped the safety catch off. The metal was cold, and as he shifted it around above and in front of his ear, the barrel pulled and pinched at the short flaring hairs on his temple.

If no one else would do it for him, he'd do it himself.

Duo squeezed the trigger without another thought, but there were no bullets left in the gun.


[Ennui]

For Relena Darlian, the years 184 to 195 were a confused tangle of half-remembered dreams and pleasant but ultimately numbing boredom.

School was easy for her as long as she worked a little bit and tried to pay attention. Straight As were the usual for her. Her father was often away, and her mother was often doing something else.

Her recurring nightmares were, sadly, the most interesting thing in her life: sliding images of pain, war, death. Buildings exploding all around her. Being very small. Being carried somewhere, amid shouts and screams. The noise of a car's tires kicking up gravel. Flashes of pink and white fire. A shattering window. Someone she'd never seen before holding her. Someone being shot, their back exploding like rose petals...

But those dreams had little relevance to her normal life, save giving her a healthy disregard for violence and conflict.

As she had played with her dolls earlier, she moved around, talking to her many friends; watching their disputes grow into feuds and their crushes grow into relationships. Often she mediated between them, helping people that thought they'd been slighted reconcile their differences. She was a natural-born diplomat, impartial but still empathic, caring but businesslike.

It would be hard to claim that Relena was exactly /involved/ in her social circle: she flirted and teased with no one, played -- and in later years, "hung out" -- with no one, confided in no one. But she managed to accumulate a massive circle of friends, some distant, some watching her every move.

Strangely enough, no one was exactly jealous of her popularity: sometimes other girls insulted her, called her spoiled, stuck up, mindless. But after she talked to them, they usually became docile and humble, occasionally becoming some of her closest friends. Her words were nothing but reason and honest opinions; kindness and happiness with -- as she grew older -- just a hint of philosophy.

She was the schoolgirl equivalent of a religious leader, naturally charismatic and thoughtful. She was adored by girls and admired warily by boys. She was praised by her teachers and her parents, meeting whatever needs they expressed to her: homework, studious effort, perfection. She was the epitome of the perfect little girl.

And she was terrifically bored.

Every day was the same: gossip, compliments, a few hours of effort, conformity to the latest trend, empty happiness. There was no one she could really talk to. She camouflaged this internal emptiness very well. Even her closest "friends" were fooled by her always happy, always smiling face.

But there was a definite need for something, a need for romance, adventure, excitement...

And when an suicidal, dangerous, and extremely handsome boy named Heero Yuy entered her life unconscious on a beach in a spacesuit, crippled three medical personnel she'd called to help him, and threatened to kill her...

She knew that this was what she'd been looking for. Something new and shocking and different..

But she also knew something else, from almost the first day she'd seen him.

It scared her, too. It was impossible. It was dangerous. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

It was love. She knew it... there was simply no other way to describe things. Beautiful, simple love. A love that he might return. And also a love he might ignore the same ways he'd ignored her pleas for peace.

Heero was something she had never experienced before -- something totally different from the problems of her friends. And the same old methods she'd used to resolve those -- reason, truth, friendly arguments -- would not work on him.

He was different. Very different.

And Relena, as she encountered the boy for the second and third time, began to realize that common sense and logic would not work on him.

Instead, something else was needed.

How could she tell him she felt for him?

Heero Yuy did not, Relena imagined, really understand love. At least not yet. He also did not understand pacifism, reason, and civilization.

No, the boy didn't understand the tools she could have used to woo him, to coax him out, to tell him how she felt. All Heero Yuy understood was force.

Force, and violence.

Violence, or the threat of violence...


[AC 195]

The dormitory at Saint Aquinas' Academy was small, ugly, and decorated in the hideous oranges and earth-tones of at least AC 175, if not '70. Two beds, two desks, two cabinets, two tiny chests-of-drawers. An overhead light. A tiny mirror. Four electrical outlets. And absolutely nothing else.

When the two pilots had moved in, even the usually stoic Heero had expressed mild dismay at the apparent lack of phone and fiber-optical jacks and grounded electrical outlets. Duo had whined and moaned to no end at the lack of space, lack of private bathrooms, and lack of modern-looking furniture.

Now, of course, it was filled with stuff: lots and lots of stuff. Clothes. Duo's stereo. A couple of band posters. Three networked CPUs hooked up to a laptop. A 'Faraday Cage' EM shielding system. An electronic bug sweeper. A scrambled satellite dish by the window for internet connection. Various guns, bombs, and instruments of destruction hidden in all sorts of creative places: behind drywall, above ceiling panels, inside mattresses. Of course, the really heavy stuff -- the antitank railgun, for instance -- was stashed with the Gundams in a nearby forest.

While it was even more cramped and uncomfortable than before, it was home for the two pilots, functional, familiar after a few days or so, almost cozy.

Duo Maxwell, clad only in a pair of black silk boxers, stretched and studied his lean and attractive form in a small, awkwarly placed dormitory mirror. From the computer-laden desk of the small room, Heero observed him squinting, posing, turning his head, and talking softly to himself. The expression on his face was one of utmost and total concentration, the expression Duo only assumed when something dangerous or complicated was going on.

"Hmmm... well, maybe... but that wouldn't work..."

Though he was loath to admit it, Heero was... at the very least... intrigued by Duo's vain concern. The mission, of course.

And something else.

"Uh-uh. That option is simply impossible... And, well... hmm.../that/ one is the best so far."

Any sort of problem that Duo was having became, by default, Heero's problem. Though it wasn't specified in the mission details, Heero didn't need someone to tell him that two people were stronger than one person. The Deathscythe pilot's prowess at piloting his machine, as well as his physical fitness and weapons knowledge, were assets that Heero would do well not to lose or endanger.

Of course, even though there was nothing between the two besides a sort of cautious yet accustomed friendship, Heero felt himself looking at Duo closely. Watching the movements he made, the way he brushed his long hair, the way he held his fork at dinner or a pen he was writing with. There was something fascinating about Duo.

But that fascination was simply curiosity. It was only a simple reflex that grew from the mission, a need to know about what went on around him. Just information-gathering. Just scouting and reconaissance.

Heero decided to go for it and ask him what was bothering him.

"Is something wrong?"

Duo looked up with a pleasant expression over his face, causing Heero to feel slightly dizzy. "I'm just thinking about tomorrow's mission... there are some parts of the plan I'm not sure what I'll do about. See, these are special circumstances..."

Heero frowned. "We went over the blueprints for the base. It'll be standard break-in and extraction."

The braided pilot rolled his eyes and exhaled. "Well, I don't have any problems with the mission plan. After all, this one's even easier than the last two."

The Japanese boy shrugged. It didn't concern the mission. Therefore it was not relevant. Like throwing an inner switch, Heero diverted most of his attention back to the computer.

Duo continued to babble. "...It's just that we have more notice beforehand than usual this time, and I want to try something... um... different."

Heero's usual 'suspicion' expression -- brow knotted, mouth quirked off to the side -- was across his face, of course. Duo resisted the temptation to mock his fellow pilot's trademark paranoia, deciding instead that Heero'd probably respond more if he answered a nonchalant way.

"Yeah. See, usually I wear the same old thing to these infiltration missions... the black riding pants, black shirt, clerical collar... you know. But we're near a major city right now, with a lot of places to get things, and we hacked a lot of money out of OZ accounts. So I decided to try and take advantage of what I call The Badass Factor!"

"The what?" Heero's face was blank.

"The Badass Factor."

Heero looked at Duo for a moment (in his mind, it was wasted time), and returned to typing. The braided pilot retorted with a superior smile.

"Yeah, you heard me Heero. The Badass Factor. It's an advanced tactical principle -- and something, Spandex-shonen, that you... ESPECIALLY you... would do well to take a look at."

Duo continued to talk, waving his hands around and gesturing to various things. "We usually take advantage of surprise when we infiltrate, right?"

Heero did not respond. Duo, after pausing for effect, continued with a manic grin and lots of hand gestures.

"Well, the Badass Factor comes into play when the enemy first sees us." He held up a finger, representing an Oz soldier. "Pretend you're an Ozzie, okay? Now pretend that you see us, as we are right now, sneaking in." He made a 'V' with his other hand, representing the two pilots. "What do you /see/?"

Heero redefined file parameters as he responded succintly, "Us sneaking in."

Duo slapped his forehead. "No! I mean it literally...as we are right now! You see a spiky-haired putz in a stupid school uniform, and a braided guy in nothing but his boxers! What could be less intimidating than that?"

The braided pilot prepared to recoil from the inevitable attack that calling Heero a putz would provoke. However, he became cautious for nothing: either Heero didn't know what a putz was (it was dated American slang, after all) or he simply was too interested... or disinterested... to care. Or, of course, too busy.

Probably the latter.

"Well, as I was saying, the Badass Factor turns that into an advantage! Now imagine you're the soldier again... only now you see us and we're wearing like, large-ass armor, massive boots, flowing Ashram-esque capes, with grenades and knives and automatics strapped onto ourselves!... in other words, imagine us looking BADASS! You're scared shitless, right?"

Heero only shrugged and clicked in a dollar sum for an account transfer.

Duo gave a disappointed sigh and shook his head at nothing and said, "I should've known you wouldn't like my idea."

Heero's response, delivered without looking up: "Next time, think of one that isn't stupid."

"Screw you, Yuy!"

Duo sat on his bed for a few moments and continued to talk, regardless of Heero's interest level. "Well, anyway, I've got it narrowed down to two choices. First option: the trenchcoat, the cooler-looking of the two. Trenchcoats make you look like a bigger target, which adds to your safety in a gunfight, and are also able to hide lots of stuff... probably even more than you can stash in that spandex."

The braided pilot quickly changed position, nonchalantly covered his lap with a "Hachiman no Fukuin" manga, and thought unsexy thoughts.

"The other option is the more functional but less attractive one: SWAT team gear. It can be stolen from any police station in a major metropolitan area, is impervious to small-caliber arms, and offers mad stopping power against bullets. Hell-yeah! Only problem is, it's very heavy, and the facemask tends to fog up."

In truth, the facemasks for SWAT teams are designed specifically not to fog up, and both Heero and Duo knew this.

"You're not interested?"

"No."

The two sat there for a few moments, the silence punctuated only by the clicking of the laptop.

Duo, obviously unable to keep still for more than ten seconds, stood up on his bed. The standard dormitory issue, it squeaked and creaked, protesting Duo's admittedly light weight. As he tried to keep his balance, Duo's braid darted and flailed about like a streamer in the breeze.

"Yo, Heero? Did you lock the door? I'm gonna check my stash."

"Already locked."

"You're predictable. You know that?"

Heero didn't respond, of course. Duo raised his arms and pushed up one of the drop-tile panels that formed the dormitory ceiling. After fiddling with the particleboard panel for a few seconds, Duo tilted it and threaded the large rectangular slab through the metal lattice that supported it. He held it at arms' length, examined it for a while and plopped down on the bed with it.

Duct-taped to the top of the panel was a thick metallic case about the size of a desktop computer's processing box. Duo opened it, revealing a veritable armory: four throwing knives, ten small shuriken, several grenades, ammunition, several large chunks of plastic explosive, miscellaneous jumbled wires and batteries, blasting caps, and of course a modified (and loaded) Tek-9 assault pistol.

"All in order... as always!"

Duo took the ammunition out of the Tek-9, clicked on the safety catch, and brandished the pistol in his right hand. Moving off of the bed and onto the dorm room's thinly carpeted floor, Duo pointed the gun at the mirror, cop-style, with the handle pointing towards the ground, and exclaimed in a cliched cop voice, "Freeze, asshole!"

The rate of Heero's typing slowed down.

The braided pilot immediately rotated his wrist ninety degrees, pointing the handle at the wall to his right... the way that "gangstas" hold pistols in bad action movies. He also altered his cheesy voice to resemble a ghetto-movie stereotype. "Sheet, yo! We been spotted!"

Heero's typing began to get lethargic.

Back to normal, cop-style grip. "Drop your weapons and slowly approach the car!"

At this point, Heero could have been touch-typing for the first time, or picking out keys one by one.

And again to the gangster grip. "Check this shit out, beeyatch! Fucking cops!"

Heero glanced at Duo and began to glare.

"If you do not comply we will open fire!!"

The typing stopped altogether.

Duo's voice rose to a falsetto. "Damn~! Chill that shit out, T-dog! We got's to o-bey the officer of tha law!"

"Duo." The braided pilot turned, slightly exasperated, and gazed at Heero with an expectant and somewhat cloying expression. Actually, the boy was somewhat pleased that Heero had for once chosen to address him by name.

"Something wrong?"

"Yes. Be quiet."

"Consider it a test of your perceptive capabilities," the Deathscythe pilot smirked, "See if you can tune me out."

Duo stifled a maniacal laugh: teasing Heero was so dangerous, yet so fun! There was a point in the Wing pilot's aggravation levels, slightly higher than "trying to ignore Duo" and a little lower than "ready to kill Duo", in which the dark-haired pilot looked almost impossibly handsome, even beautiful. Like a proud, graceful lion or a sleek panther; like a...

"DUO." Duo knew that tone. It was the low, deadly "omae o korosu" voice, full of deadly intensity and flaring aggression. He'd gone too far again...

"Fine, fine! Cripes!" Duo retreated to his bed, pouted for a few moments while secretly stealing glances at Heero, and spent the next five minutes unpacking and repacking the box of weapons as noisily as he could.

Heero, out of the other pilot's field of vision, glared at him silently, with a combination of infuriation and simple numbness. He began to type again, the keyboard clattering like sleet on shingles.

While Heero was looking away, Duo plopped down on his creaky bed and began to ogle his spandex-clad companion. Though he was hunched over the computer, his rear was readily visible. Though he tended to complain about it, Duo was in truth thankful that Heero wore spandex around sometimes. After all, the braided boy couldn't think of anyone else he'd /rather/ see form-fitting garments on. Unfortunately, they were in school -- and so Heero usually wore a school uniform. Thankfully, in the dorm Heero didn't really think about appearances...

"So," Duo began.

"So what?"

"I'm bored. Let's do something."

"No." A statement of fact.

"Why no~~t?"

"You always say you're bored. Then you always find something to do very soon."

"Yeah, but this time I really AM bored...!"

The silence between Heero and Duo would probably remind an observer of a court of law: even when no one was talking, a feeling of import and consequence was everywhere.

"As I was saying Heero, let's just go and do something. Something, like, fun... and yeah, yeah. I know what you're going to say. We're supposed to be available 24/7. We can leave our phones on."

"Duo, no one's keeping you here. Leave if you want to."

There was another long pause. Somewhere down the hall, someone decided to start playing music at a loud volume. Duo scratched his ear. Heero glanced at his wristwatch, continuing to type with the other hand. Duo started to read his manga, couldn't find a page he liked -- he'd read it twice before -- and tossed it into the corner.

"....Yuy! You're a freaking machine! Do you ever do anything fun? Anything remotely enjoyable?"

Glare.

"You're wierd, Heero. Normal people take breaks from their work from time to time. Normal people go places, and have fun..."

"Duo."

The braided pilot responded eagerly. /All right! A response from Heero!/ "What?"

There was a touch of ironic humor in Heero's voice as he said, "We're not normal people."

Duo didn't have any way to respond to this one. Not ready, at least... he decided to try another line of attack.

"...You know how I always complain about you being paranoid?"

"I'm not paranoid. I'm competent."

Duo rolled his eyes. "No, Heero, you're definitely paranoid."

"I don't care what you think."

Duo ignored the last comment. "I was thinking... maybe you're right about people beginning to suspect us. Not me, I mean, but you."

"How?"

Duo smiled internally at his conversational gambit. Heero was at least paying attention. The braided boy had to admit it: manipulating your partner with his own urge to complete his mission wasn't exactly honest...

But it was mostly okay. And it was for a decent cause. Well, maybe not totally /decent/ decent, but honest. At least it wasn't an outright lie. Of course, Duo never lied...

"When you decided to infiltrate a private school, you assumed that you'd use your espionage skills to, quote-unquote, 'fit right in'. But when you decided your plan of action, you assumed that no one would notice a new student. But you calculated all wrong. You're not inconspicuous. People -- girls especially -- notice you, Heero-man. They think you're good-looking."

"Good... looking?" Heero spoke the phrase as though he'd never heard it before, as though his mouth couldn't form the words.

Duo made a "V" sign with his right hand and grinned. "Yeah, man, they /dig/ you! They think you're CUTE!"

The Deathscythe pilot couldn't have asked for a more perfect manipulation tactic. Manipulation was his secret art, his specialty. /Convince him that the mission is in danger. Convince him that he's made a grievous tactical error. Make him open to suggestions.../

Something inside Duo asked him what on earth he was doing. Something else answered that he was finally doing what he'd always wanted to: seeing exactly what his chances were with Heero. He didn't know how he was going to do it -- he'd worry about that later. The point was, he was doing it.

He was running towards the edge. And when he got there, he would see if he fell or flew.

"People talk about you, you know? Cause there's something about you that makes you different from all the other pretty faces here. Instead of trying to be popular or at least /social/, you've got this independence thing going on. Someone asks you over to their dorm to watch a movie or something and you give 'em the silent treatment! And so people begin to wonder exactly what is going on with that Heero Yuy kid?... people begin to wonder why he's so quiet, so withdrawn..."

Duo grinned. "So... secretive."

/What secrets are you hiding from me, Heero?/

/What secrets are you hiding from yourself...?/

Heero frowned. No, that wasn't possible. He was an espionage expert, and he'd perfectly entered his role as the dedicated student. No, no. Duo was wrong.

But if he was right... if there was a chance, even a small one, that he was correct...

"I realize that you're trying to project this image of a good student." Duo yawned and chuckled. "But it just doesn't seem like that at all! People are beginning to wonder about what you've got to hide. Your habit of avoiding the sunlight actually interests people."

"Why would doing that attract attention?"

Interrogation by Heero... the American pilot shrugged innocently. "Cause you stand out. And, of course, 'cause you're good looking." A small red flash hit Duo's cheeks, but Heero was looking in the opposite direction.

Heero tried to count the specks of dust on the monitor. There was definitely some truth to what the braided baka was saying. Heero HAD heard people talking about him, discussing him when they thought he was out of earshot. Most of the talk consisted of complaints that he wasn't social... but there were a few people that had seemed wary, even /suspicious/ of him.

"Suspicion is something we just can't afford, Heero," Duo remarked casually. "Your Doctor may've taught you a lot about combat, but it seems that he didn't tell you anything about fooling people."

Heero's hands typed errors as he slipped into silent thought. Was there truth to this, or was Duo just playing off of his professionalism? He wouldn't put it past the Deathscythe pilot to try something like that. Even an inexperienced person like Heero could tell that the American boy's goofy exterior was only a facade. It was pretty obvious to someone who saw him in private that Duo was extremely sensitive to people's emotional states. He knew where to push to torment someone, and what to avoid in conversation.

The question was, what was BEHIND Duo's facade? What was the motive behind his actions? Caring compassion and a true dedication to the mission? Or a joking and malicious kid, always looking for another trick to play...?

The question was... who WAS Duo Maxwell?

Noticing Heero's poorly disguised thoughts, Duo murmured, "You've got to face it, man -- socializing is instrumental to the stability of our cover. And that means that you gotta get out once in a while."

And to his interest and amazement, Duo heard a soft snapping sound from Heero's direction; higher and faster than a keypress.

The Japanese boy's teeth clicking angrily together inside his mouth...

/This is amazing! I'm actually provoking an emotional response!/ Though he tried not to show it, Duo was secretly thrilled.

"So. Heero. It's in the interest of the mission to be seen around and about." He glanced at Heero with a questioning look.

The Japanese boy looked at Duo and decided to find out what was really happening. He removed his hands from the keyboard and cracked his knuckles.

Heero Yuy had been trained as a guerilla since nearly the day he was born. His numerous teachers had, through the years, imparted to him knowledge of various intimidation and torture techniques. The reasons were varied in each case, but one was common: awareness of exactly /what/ could happen to someone who failed a mission was truly instrumental in motivating a soldier... a key step in stripping away a soldier's soul. An added benefit, of course, was that Heero would be able to utilize any one of them on anyone he needed to interrogate...

Heero knew all of the 242 pressure points on the human body, and how to utilize each one.

Heero knew 325 physical attack techniques. He also knew at least seven working defenses from every hand-to-hand combat position possible.

Heero had a passing knowledge of at least seven hundred different methods of torture, and a working knowledge of more then two hundred.

But rather than use any of these, Heero decided to take a gentler route.

His eyes simply locked onto Duo's.

/Increased breathing rate, slightly dilated pupils, shift in center of gravity../

And the japanese boy's face became a hard mask. And he turned away, and started typing again.

There was something inside that gaze of Duo's that had suggested glee and happiness, not concern or professional regard. Seeing through Duo's act wasn't hard if you were persistent. You had to watch for a crack to appear, and then look in. The Wing pilot had done just that, and he'd seen nothing but personal satisfaction.

Did Duo really enjoy manipulating him like this?

Heero's voice was as cold as his eyes. "It's not working, Duo."

"What do you mean?" The braided pilot rejoined, with a perfectly adorable and innocent expression on his handsome face. Heero was almost tempted to give it up...

"You're not fooling anyone. I can tell just by looking at your eyes. I know that you're just saying these things. They're not true."

Duo sighed and dropped the act. There simply was no fooling Heero Yuy.

"You're good. ...It was worth a try. I told you that you were predictable."

"You're unprofessional." Heero spoke the comment as though he were condemning Duo to death.

Duo shrugged and grinned. "I never claimed to be professional, Heero. Everyone knows that Death strikes at random. Besides, there was at least /some/ truth to what I said. And you know I never lie."

"That's irrelevant."

The Deathscythe pilot shook his head. "Wrong. The mission is the /most/ relevant thing going on here. I said what I said because I wanted to go to dinner with you, get to know the only real ally I've got. But that doesn't mean that people aren't beginning to be a little suspicious..."

"You could have asked," intoned Heero coolly.

"I already DID ask you. And you said no."

"Then you should know that I'm not going to change my plans."

Duo turned to the open window and stared at his warm reflection, superimposed over the twilight outside. He'd fucked up, big time. /Brilliant way to try and tell someone you care about them.../ When he spoke, his voice was softer and somehow weaker than before.

"Can you really blame me for what I did? All I'm trying to do is get to know you. It's no different than testing the limits of a machine. I'm sure that you did it with your Wing."

Heero glanced at Duo, but only shrugged it off. That was probably another attempt at manipulation, too.

Duo started to sing, out of tune of course, to an old song. "Getting-to-knoooow-youuuuu, getting-to-know all abouuut youuuu..."

Heero cringed invisibly at the noise and spit out the words like bitter water. "Be quiet."

Duo looked at him. "YOU be quiet! You're only a machine, after all... You exist for one purpose. And when you're not doing something focused on it, you're absolutely useless."

/You idiot. You complete and total idiot. You like him! Why are you saying these things...?!/

Heero glared at Duo. "I won't warn you again."

Duo made an 'okay, okay' sound and put his hands up in a pacifying gesture. "I'm sorry, alright?"

Heero only started typing again. Somewhere far away, another 330,000 dollars and an arms shipment changed location.

The braided boy went silent. Bodily injury was coming soon. This would be his last chance... it was time to play his best card. His breath was shaky and mistrusting, halting in his throat too soon.

But inside, Duo was confident enough. His hobby was reading people... telling from their actions and reflexes what their true feelings were. It was a talent more based on instinct than on skill, and there was a good deal of gut feeling involved. And, of course, Heero was one of the toughest people that Duo had ever tried to understand. Some parts of him were enigmatic and mysterious, as though blocked off or sealed away. Other parts; parts that most people have... compassion, sensitivity, love... seemed missing entirely; or maybe just bound somehow. Duo hoped that they were only muted and disguised, not killed entirely. After all, a sick soul was better than a dead one.

Certain things were apparent on Heero's surface, of course. These were readily apparent to anyone, because the Japanese boy didn't even attempt to disguise them. Faultless dedication to the mission, intense concentration, perfect skill.

But there were other things beneath the surface that Duo saw, or perhaps imagined, whenever he glanced at Heero's blue eyes.

Some sort of nameless, gnawing pain. A desire for release and a hope for a quick death. A hopelessness involving life and the living. Lethargy in normal existence. A wish for release from pressure and pretense. A wish for an end of combat and fighting...

And a deep, secret, almost totally repressed longing for something...

Duo's voice was soft and low, scratchy like an old record. "I'm not going to bullshit with you, Heero. I'm going to be perfectly honest."

Heero glared at Duo again, but couldn't find anything to throw. Would the braided baka never shut up...?

Duo recoiled in advance and waited, tense, to get hit by something. When he realized that nothing had collided with him, he murmured, "Before you smack me, just listen to me for ten seconds. Okay?"

The Japanese boy's glare softened for a minute, worried for some reason. He looked at the shallow coarse carpet on the floor of the room, and somehow couldn't bring himself to respond.

"You saw it in my eyes... you saw that I wasn't being totally truthful. Well, I can see things inside you too. I can see what your eyes say even though your face doesn't."

Outside, in the hallway, a group of kids passed by noisily. Heero and Duo waited for them to continue before restarting their face-off.

"I can see things, Heero. I can see you sort of want to agree with me and come along. But your pride won't let you until I give you a really really good reason. You want to look like you're persuaded by something really important and intense. And, about that, I have no idea why..."

Heero moved his gaze to the computer screen again, raking in all the data onscreen, filing it somewhere in that incredible brain of his.

"But I can't think of anything else to say. You don't really want to wait anymore. I don't want to drag this out any longer. So let's just dispense with this bullshit and go have pizza. It's what we both want."

Heero looked at Duo oddly. /He says he knows what I want.../

"Believe me, we'll both feel better. I won't be bored. And you won't have to keep pretending you're some sort of super-soldier that doesn't need food, and human contact, and life. And we get noticed, and fit in more. What do you say?"

Heero closed his eyes. /I don't think I know myself.../

But wasn't it true that the soldiers were supposed to reduce conflicts to their most fundamental level?

Wasn't it true that a part of him wasn't averse to the idea of having dinner with Duo? Getting comfortable around Duo? Being... friendly with Duo?

Heero took a long look at his work, and then a long look at the braided baka. He started to close applications resignedly. "If I smacked you, you'd just complain more..."

Duo began to pull on his clothes. All black, of course. His cherubic face displayed a grin. "Of course."

Heero sighed, realized that it was futile, and began to change into his school uniform.


[Two Theories]

Spring in a prep school town.

Duo and Heero walked along the sidewalk in the peaceful twilight. Old, expensive homes, well-manicured front lawns. Cars on the half-circle driveways, built for off-road driving but never used for anything but driving on safe paved perfect roads. Planters with pink trees and flowers in them, made of railroad-ties. Extending from the treelawns, the birches and oaks and maples created a leafy green canopy over the residential road. The sky was becoming orange-purple and the moon had risen.

The Wing pilot, confident as ever of his own capabilities and skill, strode purposefully but discreetly ahead. His companion, on the other hand, was literally walking circles around him: hopping up onto roadside benches, walking along waist-high stone railings, jumping onto planters, vaulting over parking meters... and running his mouth like mad all the while.

It was a singular sight to behold. An observer would probably be reminded of a braided planet erratically orbiting a star that was sliding effortlessly through space.

Duo was having the time of his life. Not only had he managed to bug Heero into submission, he'd actually coaxed him into getting dinner with him! God only knew what else would happen tonight...

"Toniiight, toniiiight, won't be just aaany niiiight..."

Heero was trying very hard to look bored.

"Okay, Heero, it's time to review mission specifics. I realize that the only reason you're doing this -- going out to be noticed by people -- is to enjoy my sparkling personality, but unless we want to attract more attention than we need, we're gonna have to work on your social skills a little bit." Duo's voice betrayed more enthusiasm than he would have liked to, but Heero didn't seem to mind.

"Hn."

"Okay, the first thing you need to know is that this robotic silence thing you're doing right now has got to stop if you want to be social. When people talk, they tend to talk about nothing. Talking about nothing is the biggest thing you have to do to fit in."

"Nothing?" Heero's voice was deadpan and slightly nasal as usual.

Duo grinned and his eyes sparkled. "Absolutely nothing. Like music or bands or something. You hear what kids at school talk about! ... don't even pick a topic, just sort of interject opinions on whatever people are discussing. Conversations tend to ramble, and if you want a break you can just stay quiet and pretend you don't know much about it. Besides, if you really get in trouble, I'll cover you."

Heero nodded. "Good. You're better at talking than I am."

Duo closed his eyes, smiled, and shrugged. It wasn't a compliment, was it? Of course not. Heero would never compliment him. It was simply a statement of facts. Of course, it wasn't negative either. Perhaps Heero at least /sort/ of noticed Duo. Or perhaps he was reading far too much into this...

That was probably true. "Can you act?"

"Act?"

"Yeah." Duo moved his hands around and patted an invisible surface in the air. "You want to look interested, or at least look cheerful. This Heero Yuy Stare of Death thing you tend to do is not cool at all."

The pair now entered a shopping district, a row of stores with expensive apartments above them. The cars were more thick here, driving around, running idle in front of various establishments. Warm streetlights splashed the shadows of the two pilots onto the light concrete in various directions. And from all directions came the sound of people talking; happy, sad, indignant, pleasant and aggressive. People were around now, and Duo adjusted the tone of his voice to be a little more quiet.

"If you want to talk, you have to accept even the most pointless and meaningless shit with a smile."

Heero nodded and pursed his lips. "No problem."

Duo stopped and gave his partner a once-over, then shook his head and clicked his tongue. "No, that's not it. What you're doing right now is totally wrong!"

Heero looked down at his body. It wasn't doing anything abnormal. "How?"

Duo's eyes slid to the side and his mouth formed a sarcastic line. "No, no, no, no! You want to slouch, have bad posture, look relaxed!"

As Heero tried to adjust his stance and center of gravity, the American boy shook his head furiously. As he mumbled various things about Heero's total resistance to be normal, his braid flew from side to side. Sighing, Duo gestured to a nearby frame of wooden bars. "Here, sit down on this bench. And just TRY to look normal."

Heero sat down grudgingly, crossed his legs, uncrossed them... tried slumping his shoulders a little bit... leaned backwards...

Duo groaned. If they weren't so pathetic, Heero's attempts at looking casual might actually have been funny. "Ugh! That's horrible! Really, really bad! Here, watch me. Just try to imitate me. It's not that hard."

The braided pilot plopped down onto the bench and performed a passable imitation of a bonsai tree, lazily drooping over the piece of street furniture. "There... try to do that."

Heero tried to imitate him, but just couldn't do it. He knew he was flexible enough... and he had the position right... but something was missing, something vital.

The Deathscythe pilot shook his head. "Uh... this isn't happening. You're still too tense. The pose is right, but your expression... guh." He buried his head in his hands in mock horror.

"Duo..." A threatening tone.

Duo massaged his temples and shrugged hopelessly. "Okay, fine. Be that way, Yuy. Just don't blame me when your suspicious body language blows our cover..."

Heero didn't say a word. Much as he didn't like to admit it, Duo's constant verbal jabs did make a difference to him. He knew that the comments were exactly what he'd been talking about earlier, nothing more than "talking for the sake of talking"... but they still hurt a bit when he wasn't prepared for them.

No one else was able to insult him... he didn't care about what anyone else thought. So why did he try to please Duo, make him feel at ease, do what he could to satisfy him...?

Why had he agreed to come in the first place?

Heero didn't really know. He didn't feel anything for him, at least, he thought he didn't. But there was simply something about him... something dark and black and beautiful. There was something in Duo that said that he'd seen terrible things, too... images of rotting bodies and piles of dead flesh... fiery death in a thousand different countenances. And this secret pain that the Deathscythe pilot tried to disguise intrigued and confused Heero.

/After all he'd experienced, how could he expose his soul for anyone to see? How could he be free from fear? How could he exist the way he did...?/

/After all he'd lost, how could Duo have a soul at all?/

Duo brushed a chestnut-colored bang out of his face and straightened up his clothes. "We're here."

Heero took a cursory look into the brightly lit window of the restaurant. It wasn't part of the normal block of stores and apartments. Instead, it was built on a lot on the corner of two streets; just another chain. A gas station would have been equally at home there...

As his partner regarded the place, Duo took another long look at Heero.

/He'd never pass for a normal person.../

/He's so focused on his ultimate objective that he never learned to really be himself.../

The braided pilot shrugged and sighed. "Okay, look. I'm sorry, but I really don't think you're quite ready for social melee quite yet." He paused and watched for a reaction, but Heero seemed to be defering to him: he simply watched and listened.

"Cool. So we're just gonna get a table and be friendly to anyone who comes up to us. It shouldn't be hard... unless you make it hard..."

Heero nodded, a look of cool competence on his face. "Ryoukai."

Duo smirked for a moment. /Kawaii./ Suddenly the boy blinked, cringed, and chuckled. "I almost forgot. There's one more thing."

"What?"

The boy's feet shifted nervously, and he hoped that Heero didn't see how anxious he was. "It would really be... um, good... if you didn't threaten anyone."

Heero responded only with a nod, and began to walk into the restaurant.

The place was not fancy, not exactly run-down either. Discreetly patterned curtains on the windows up to about head-height, concealing the patrons except for their sillhouettes. Funky lighting implements, stained-glass lampshades. Fake plants were visible creeping about the inside, in useless planters full of plastic mulch... a miniature rainforest of superficiality. Wooden paneling. Mass-produced posters on the walls.

Heero reached into his pocket and adjusted his cellphone, hitting the button to activate a bug sweep.

A number of girls from school turned their head as the pair of boys opened the door. As if feeling pressured to explain himself, Duo murmured, "A lot of people from school go here on Saturdays. You pay too much, but there's something to be said for the atmosphere."

Inside they were greeted by a pleasant warmth, fairly low yellow light, and the sound of a jukebox cranking out appropriately trendy music. A sign attached to a golden post with a flat, moveable base, read "Please Wait To Be Seated."

As they waited to be seated, Duo scratched the back of his head and fiddled with his braid. "It's the little things, you know, Heero?"

"What?"

Heero wasn't much of a conversationalist. When he asked questions, Duo was reminded of a police interrogation. The American pilot silently reminded himself to talk to the Japanese boy about the proper way to delve into someone's knowlege.

Duo strolled about the square red entrance area, still seeing no one. He paced as he talked, trying to keep his voice as low as possible.

"Well, to be honest, I didn't expect that Earth would be that different from L2. But all these Earth kids have, like, totally different cultural references. I don't know any of the music they listen to or the movies that they've seen. You take this jukebox into any restaurant in space, they'd be all, 'who the hell are these people', you know...?"

Duo didn't expect Heero to respond of course, but he was surprised to see the Japanese pilot's eyes narrow with interest. "Jukebox?"

"It's, uh, what they play music on. And by the same token, if... well, say, Relena or somebody from Earth were to go into Space, they wouldn't have a clue what to listen to or watch. But then again, you don't listen to anything or watch any movies in the first place..."

"Hn." was the only reply he recieved.

A acne-plagued waiter with a bored expression walked up to the pair of pilots. "Welcome to Pizza Shanty. Two?"

Duo grinned. "Yup!"

The great thing about being beautiful was that you could easily tell almost anyone's sexual orientation by their response to you. Duo was keenly aware of this fact, and he made it a point to observe various people's reactions to him and other "beautiful people". Once Duo knew what they liked, it was almost pathetically easy to manipulate them. He could tell that this waiter was either extremely depressed or extremely heterosexual, and probably the latter.

Of course, that only worked with people who displayed their emotions. Heero was still a total mystery to the American pilot...

"Follow me, folks."

The two pilots settled into a largish red booth with silverware and two laminated menus and various condiments in festively discreet jars.

Settling into the comfortable seating material, Duo pored over his menu and coolly spoke to his partner.

"Speaking of Relena, Heero... people like her are the reason why we have to do subterfuge shit like this. You let a LOT of stuff slip around her. And believe me, not all people are as clueless as she is. Next time we might not be so lucky..."

Heero frowned at the Deathscythe pilot. "Why are you telling me to be cautious? You try to be noticed by everyone."

Duo ah-ahed gently. "That's fallacious logic, Heero."

"Oh?" His tone wasn't quite threatening or aggressive, but still carried an edge of superiority.

/Prove to me that your existence is worth something, Duo./

The Deathscythe pilot rolled the napkin-clad fork and knife around between fingers as he nonchalantly spoke. "I thought you signed up to be on this school's debate team."

"So what?" Heero's expression only became more severe and surly.

Duo grinned. "A personal attack isn't a logical argument. Anyway my social visibility is a calculated feint. After all, no secret agent would be as talkative as I am."

Heero buried his nose in his menu and tried not to look into Duo's eyes. "Oh."

As an old familiar tune plopped into place on the jukebox, the American boy leaned back and stared at the ceiling. "Besides, it's hard if I try to put on a disguise."

/Even harder, of course, to wear one mask on top of another.../

Duo sighed silently and watched the aisles and the odd off-white lights inside the restaurant.

"Anyway, we gotta do this sneaking around because of that Relena girl. And people like her. We'll probably be okay if we don't do anything violent... The violence is the important thing. That's what attracted Relena's attention... that, and your hot sexy man-bod."

Duo smirked contentedly. The great thing about being talkative was that he'd already set a precedent for wierdness... so usually people didn't pay a lot of attention to what he said. Heero less than most, but he was still included. It had gotten to the point where the Japanese boy was taking his sexually charged comments totally in stride.

The dark-haired pilot, having selected his meal, regarded Duo with detatched and powerful eyes. "Chigaimasu."

Duo raised an eyebrow. "I'm totally wrong, huh? Care to tell me why... Hee-chan?"

The braided pilot was somewhat annoyed to see that his diminutive honorific hadn't rattled Heero in the slightest. But at least Heero was talking.

/Usually he never says anything except what's totally necessary. But tonight he's a little different. Tonight we're closer, or more stretched, or inflated or something. Or we finally decided we hate each other. Or we finally decided that we're gonna be friendly.../

/But if I take a step back and look at it all, I'm gonna lose my place. And I don't want to leave here. All I can do it wait, and do my best to help things along./

/And I can look for meaning later.../

Heero looked at his silverware and observed the people in the room before softly speaking. Deadly, metallic. "We analyzed her behavior patterns. She suffers from a psychosis based on her repressed hatred of me."

Duo raised both eyebrows this time. "...'Hatred'..?"

"Yes. Subconsciously, she despises me."

Duo coughed, started to speak, and then reconsidered. He looked at Heero's perfectly serious face, and at the odd lighting and the fake plants. Finally the American pilot murmured, "You're crazy."

Obviously, Heero was either perfectly aware that he was crazy, or just didn't care what Duo thought. The dark-haired boy simply shifted his eyes to the aisles and silently caught the attention of a waitress.

The braided pilot rolled his eyes and chuckled. "You know, I don't care how intelligent you test out to be. You're still really dense sometimes." A little softer, guilty... "Anyone could see that she's crazy about you."

A young and plain girl, dressed in a red and white striped shirt and an apron, sidled up to their table and gave them a smile. "Hi! I'm Kim, I'll be your server tonight. Can I take your order?"

Duo responded to her with his best lady-killing grin. "We'd like a little more time."

The waitress blinked in a dazed manner, then recovered nicely: smiling, nodding, and moving away from the table. When she thought that they couldn't hear her anymore, both Heero and Duo heard her mutter "K-kawaii...!"

The Deathscythe pilot grinned. "Ain't it the truth..."

Heero simply closed his eyes and started to ignore his partner. Before he could focus his attention away, though, Duo started talking.

"...Man! I can't believe you think she hates you, Heero. The girl's, like, got stars in her eyes and shoujo manga bubbles all around her when she thinks of you. It should be really obvious. REALLY obvious. You should just see it in her..."

Heero shrugged with a numbingly cold expression on his face. "I don't see anything in her."

"You mean, you're not hot for her?"

/Leave it to the baka to impart a double meaning to what I say.../

/A double meaning that's actually true.../

"No. The only reason I've let her live this long is because she was the eyewitness to her father's assassination. That's information that could severely discredit OZ, even cause them a public relations scandal."

"Hmm." The braided pilot took a deep breath and chuckled. Silently, he thanked every diety he could remember the name of. He didn't know who her father was, or who Heero was even talking about... but it was enough to know that his sullen partner didn't feel anything for her. Or at least, didn't appear to... "So you mean it all balances out?"

The Wing pilot nodded. "When Doctor J and his people rescued her from OZ, they gave her a tranquilizing injection... but it also contained polygraphing and brainwave nanomachines. Dr. J interrogated her later in a car. She thought it was simply casual conversation, but it was all recorded. He asked all the questions necessary for us to get a definite psychological profile of her..."

Duo whistled. "Ooh, intrigue!"

Heero took a deep breath and stared off vacantly, as if reciting from a script. "The thesis statement is that beneath it all, she's simply surprised. She's simply finally encountered someone whom it wasn't possible to impress with her power. Relena's never felt this before, because everyone she's ever known has submitted to her. At school and at home she is honored and respected. But she's finally found a thing that even she can't touch or influence."

Duo looked on with growing amazement as the Wing pilot calmly continued to speak. "You, right?"

"Aa. The current hypothesis is that her interest in me is nothing more than misinterpreted rage and jealousy. Rage, because she likes to control people. Jealousy, because she has no power over me. Consciously, Relena is not aware of these feelings. The most probable cause of this is that her social status has 'programmed' her to avoid expressing contempt and anger. This supression of her true feelings manifests itself as a massive obsession with me."

Heero paused for a moment, as if to indicate a shift in paragraphs in some text file somewhere far away, then continued. "Relena, of course, is only too happy to regard this obsession as 'true love'. In summary, her psychosis is a result of developmental factors, environmental stimulus, and romantic idealism."

The Wing pilot put his menu down casually, the sound of the laminated paper hitting the table muffled in the low noise of the restaurant. Then he leaned back and crossed his arms and was silent.

Duo sat in silence, eyebrows raised. This was a red-letter day: he'd /never/ heard Heero talk even half this much... well... recite this much. He mentally scolded himself for being surprised, but the truth of the matter was that Heero being so /verbal/ had simply thrown the boy for a loop.

Heero regarded Duo suspiciously, and the Deathscythe pilot threw up a look of nonchalance a moment too late. "Is something wrong?"

Duo smiled and shook his head. "Nothing, I guess."

As if to punctuate the awkward pause, Kim appeared once more. "Have you guys, like, decided what you want?"

Heero's ordering voice was much better than Duo expected: a reasonable approximation of a normal, if not especially polite, teenager. "Two slices of plain and a glass of water."

Duo, still slightly shaken, smiled again at the 'server'. "Four slices of pineapple pizza, an' a large Coke."

After Kim walked off, still in a trance, the braided boy scratched his head and muttered, "Just who is this Relena chick, anyway?"

It was Heero's turn to look surprised. "You don't know?"

The braided pilot moved his eyes around sheepishly. /He's gonna think I'm dumb../ "Well, anoo... not really."

"Relena Darlian is the adopted daughter of the late Vice Foreign Minister Darlian. Her real name is Relena Peacecraft, heiress of the extinct Cinq Kingdom."

"Oh. I feel sort of retarded now..." Duo smiled at Heero, who simply closed his eyes. "I was sort of wondering what you were talking about earlier...'assassination', and whatnot..."

"Hn."

"I'm still a little shaky on your theory, though." The braided boy adopted a pensive pose, sliding his eyes to the sides and placing a finger on his chin. "So... she's mad that she can't make you pay attention to her... therefore she obsesses over you... and therefore she thinks she loves you?"

"Yes."

The braided boy was half jubilant and half disappointed. True, Heero obviously felt nothing for Relena... and that was a definite plus...

But did Heero feel anything at all?

COULD Heero feel anything at all...?

Duo shook his head in disagreement. "It's an interesting argument. But I gotta say, I don't think it's totally true..."

The waitress returned, fairly composed this time. "Here are your drinks..."

"Thanks!" Duo surreptitiously observed Kim, who was carrying a tray stacked high with beverages. Obviously she was about to serve the other tables in the vicinity... The braided pilot got an evil and mischevious look in his eyes and caught Kim's vision...

Then he winked at her.

Kim walked off in a daze again, barely managing to avoid spilling the drinks over some of the other customers. The ones closest to her were a loutish boy Heero recognized from school and a girl wearing too much makeup, probably his girlfriend.

Duo snapped his fingers in disappointment. "Damn, she didn't fall over. I was hoping she'd pour that orange soda on her tray /all over/ Kensuke and that hussy he's with..."

"That wasn't necessary." Heero's tone wasn't exactly scolding.

"She was being unprofessional," the chestnut-haired pilot replied coolly. "It was only a matter of time until someone took advantage of it. She'll be more careful in the future. Besides, Kensuke is an asshole."

Heero folded his arms and looked at Duo, who was currently brooding over his last failure. He was utterly evil.

"As I was saying... oh, that reminds me! I'm such an idiot..." Duo slapped his forehead, cursing his carelessness. "Did you do a bug sweep?"

"Of course. There's no EM pickup except for the cash register and the man in the tropical shirt's cellular phone." Heero looked slightly offended that Duo considered him capable of making such a gaffe.

"How about line-of-sight?"

"No one can see us except those kids there."

"Oh, that's Kiori, she's in my math class. Believe me, we don't have to worry about her. She's a DITZ."

Heero frowned. "I'll have to take your word for it."

The braided boy looked down at his drink and frowned. After a short pause, he muttered, mostly to himself, "...You don't trust me, do you?"

Heero looked at Duo oddly. "What?"

"Never mind." Duo shrugged and looked surreptitiously away.

"What did you say?" Heero Yuy, prosecuting attorney...

"It doesn't matter." Duo, rattled witness..

"Just TELL me."

"I asked you if you trusted me."

Heero stared at the wall and focused his eyes and tried to see if the pattern repeated itself.

The pair were silent for a while. Duo looked at his reflection in the spoon, taking intermittent sips of his frosty coke. Heero looked at nothing in particular, calculating something or other. The braided pilot had to give him credit; Heero might try to do as many things in a day as he could, but even when he wasn't busy, Duo had never seen the Wing pilot look bored.

Duo decided to break the silence with a compliment, and one that deserved to be said. "I was impressed with how you spoke to that waitress. That was actually pretty good. I thought you'd make me order for you or something."

Heero slid his eyes towards the other pilot, but frowned. "All mission objectives are to be completed securely and competently."

Duo laughed and spoke despite himself. "You really are a machine." /No, no, no! You don't want to distance yourself from him!/

Heero examined Duo suspiciously. /Why's he looking at me like that? He doesn't do that to anyone else. His hand is involuntarily shaking. His breathing rate is higher than normal, too. What does he know that I don't...?/

Duo leaned back on his seat and twirled a swizzle stick in his hands absent-mindedly, trying his best to look relaxed. "Anyway... about Relena."

"Yes."

"Do you want to know what I think?"

/Do I really have a choice, Duo?/

The braided pilot sighed at the lack of visible response and covertly adjusted his pants beneath the table. Heero might have opened up a little, but communication with him was as hard as ever... in more ways than one. /Stupid hormones.../

"Well, do you?"

Heero's frown became more pronounced. Normally Duo didn't wait to see if he wanted his opinion before talking. Heero was torn between refusing the offer... he wasn't crazy about Relena as a topic of conversation... and accepting peacefully and potentially reinforcing this new behavior. He decided to take the potential long-term benefit and murmured, "Fine."

Duo was surprised, to say the least. He didn't expect that Heero would actually /want/ his opinion. Now he'd have to start thinking about what it was.

His speech was punctuated with frequent pauses as he spoke while deciding what to say. "Um... I don't think your... or rather, Dr. J's... reading of Relena is ALL wrong. I agree with a lot of it... the 'romantic idealism' part is the strongest part of the theory. That girl was raised on handsome princes and damsels in distress, and I'm sure she does think of you as... er... her very own white knight."

Heero didn't laugh at the analogy, though Duo did; breaking into helpless giggles and rocking back and forth.

"I'm just imagining you in, like, armor and stuff..."

The Wing pilot took a nonchalant sip of his water.

The Deathscythe pilot gradually recovered from his loss of control. "...But I'm sure that you're wrong about the anger factor. I saw her on that boat -- I saw her trying to protect you -- and I.. well..." here Duo trailed off, taking a long while to find the right way to say it.

"I saw the look in her eyes, Heero..."

Heero snorted.

"Don't snort at me, man! Just don't do that! It's demeaning and it's rude! Now, just listen to what I have to say -- you said earlier that you could see it in my face when I was fooling you."

Duo was silent for an uncomfortable moment. "And I saw exactly what you were thinking in your face earlier. Now, doesn't it make sense that it'd be even /easier/ to detect what Relena was thinking by looking at her? If anything, she's much more comfortable with expressing her emotions than we are..."

Heero was intrigued by this latest statement. Duo had included /himself/ in the claim... but the Wing pilot had, since he met him, regarded his companion as one of the most emotionally free people that he knew. If what he'd said was true, it would indicate that much of what Duo expressed wasn't, in fact, genuine emotion. So how much of him could he trust?

/Is is possible that what I see is just a facade...?/

Unaware of his friend's internal dilemna, the braided pilot continued. "Just hear me out. When we were on that ship, I saw the way she looked at you when she bandaged you up -- and the way she looked at me... and I just couldn't, for one moment, imagine that she was feeling any sort of hatred towards you. The expression on her face was... well, I don't know what it was.

"But it was compassion. I'm sure of that much."

Heero kept on sitting quietly and silently. Talking to him was an excercise in frustration for Duo. You never quite knew if he was really listening to you, or just thinking about something else and filtering you out...

"When she stood in front of you... protecting you... it was like a mother protecting her children... or a White Knight protecting a fair maiden or something. think she isn't angry at you, Heero. She's /envious/ of you... envious of the fact that you're uninfluenced by her. To her, you appear "pure"... if that makes any sense at all."

The Wing pilot frowned. "It doesn't. She knows what I am."

Duo gesticulated with controlled frustration, sticking his fingers straight out from his palms. "I /realize/ that! But she's inflated with importance.... she considers herself so large... so big, so important... that someone who's /not/ influenced by her appears innocent. Almost virginal, if you understand what I mean. If you take a look at all this objectively, it's easy for us to judge Relena too harshly. It's probably not narcissism on her part, but a sort of envy. An envy of how untouched you are by her."

Duo smiled as his point became clear. Up to this point it had been touch-and-go, ad-libbed sentiment, but he knew what he was arguing now. It was his nature to start arguing before he knew what he was arguing about.

"Ya see, Relena's a very private person... she has to be that way. To avoid being emotionally compromised. And she's found someone who's refreshingly untouched by her public persona, something she surely must despise by now. Her celebrity is the sin, and you're the essence of purity. It was protective instinct... /maternal/ instinct."

Heero nodded, taking it into consideration. It was an intelligent argument, though not perfectly thought-through. Worth going over later, certainly worth sending to Dr. J. A second opinion can only clarify matters. Mission must be successful.

But that wasn't what /he'd/ seen in Relena's eyes at all. He'd seen nothing more than a greedy, jealous possessiveness...

Like a child who'd had her new toy taken away...


[Second Best]

Duo shrugged. "That's what I think. Does that make any sense at all?"

Heero shrugged curtly. "I'll report it to Mission."

The Deathscythe pilot sighed, satisfied. "So! Whaddya wanna talk about?"

Heero surreptitiously checked his cellular phone for em pickups. "I need to know your blood type."

"Huh? My blood type? Why do you need to know my blood type?" Duo was slightly taken aback by the shift in conversation.

"So I can get you a transfusion if you ever sustain serious blood loss. Everyone accepts Type O blood, but it may not be available."

"So I'm not a nuisance to the mission, huh?" Duo grinned, then looked at Heero's serious face. As if seeing something he didn't understand, the Deathscythe pilot continued talking in a quiet and honest voice. "You probably don't care, but I appreciate that. I think I'm BB positive."

Heero nodded curtly, ignoring the verbal slight. /So he can accept types O and B... this means that it's better for him to be injured in Europe or America than in Asia, because of the relative frequence of O type blood in Caucasian regions... It would be optimal to avoid injury in Asia due to the rarity of O and B blood there.../

There was a short gap in the conversation as the braided boy waited for his partner to respond. As Heero realized that Duo might one day have to get HIM blood, he quietly murmured, "I'm AB negative."

Duo shook his head, discouraged. "You ARE perfect, you know? You're a universal reciever. I'd be able to give you blood from absolutely anyone." He took a long sip of his coke, admonishing himself to stop chugging it down... At this rate he'd drain his drink before the pizza came. Speaking of which...

The American pilot poked a finger at a distant waitress. "Hey, is she bringing us...?"

"We didn't order two pies."

"...Eh. I should've known better. You never get served on time in this place."

Heero crossed his arms again and listened to the noise in the distance. Two booths away, an older man and woman settled down and started loudly discussing their dinner. In the kitchen, a number was called out. At the other side of the restaurant, a kid spilled his soda. All of these things and more were noticed and catalogued, stored somewhere for future reference...

Duo felt the need to fill the gap in the sound. "...Hey, Heero. You ever in a resturant, and you're waiting for your food for some time, an' the waitress passes you for like the sixth time, and you're getting sort of pissed off because your order is taking so long? And you're like, 'if I do not get my food soon I am walking out of this place'? And then, even before the person turns the corner, you, like, /know/ in your gut that your food is coming, and it's coming now? And you turn out to be right...?"

Heero looked blankly at Duo for a moment, then narrowed his eyes. "No."

The braided boy flashed a winning smile and shrugged. "I guess not. You've probably never been in a resturant, anyway. But don't you ever get that feeling other times...?"

His companion's eyes flashed upwards as he pored over his brain for similar circumstances. "No, I don't."

"I guess it's instinct. Like, instinct that something's gonna happen... instinct that something's gonna come up that you've been expecting, but you /know/ it's happening now. Don't you ever get that sort of premonition?"

Heero snorted softly and tried to intimidate his knife and fork by staring at them. "I don't need instinct."

"Oh, yeah?" Duo's mouth became an ironic grin as his violet eyes narrowed together.

Heero took the verbal offensive. "What are your instincts telling you about our meal now, Duo?"

The braided pilot was caught off-guard. "Um... well, I don't know. But that's not the point! ..It's... it's like it only happens every so often, and..."

Heero spoke with a strangely relaxing intensity. Duo wasn't scared, though a day before he might have been. There was something about Heero's manner that guaranteed Duo's safety, but at the same time betrayed the existence of a definite /reason why/...

"That's why I trust facts, not instinct. Facts are reliable. Facts are always there."

"Huh. So what do facts tell YOU about our meal, O Wise Prophet?"

"I know for a fact that our meal's coming in less than twenty seconds."

Duo looked around. The waitress was nowhere in sight, just lights and customers and the clink of knives and soft chatter and running water in the distance. "Yeah, right."

Nineteen seconds later, Duo sat, mouth open in astonishment, as their meal was set onto the table.

Duo's meal looked deliciously tempting to the braided pilot, but would have seemed decidedly nauseating to most others: pineapple pizza, dripping with melting cheese and sauce. Oil and grease practically jumped right off of the top of the pie.

Heero's meal was the pizza equivalent of vanilla ice cream: two slices of plain pizza, and absolutely nothing else. No topping, no extra cheese, no wierd filled crust. It bubbled and steamed like normal pizza did, but Duo got the distinct impression that it had to be filled with some sort of wierd drug.

Duo had never heard of anyone eating -plain- pizza. Heero always ate wierd stuff like that... The American's mind wandered off. /Maybe all the wierd foods that no one likes are secretly filled with, like, mental enhancement drugs and energy supplements and stuff. That would explain why Heero's so perfect.../

"Here you go! Enjoy!"

"Th-Thanks." But more things were on Duo's mind than Heero's diet: things like Heero's uncanny sense of perception. "How did you do that?"

Heero began to methodically cut his meal into bite-sized pieces. "When the waitress wrote down our order, she also wrote down a number on the pad. If you'd been watching her pen, you'd have seen the number she assigned to our table. Fifty-five seconds ago, they called that number in the kitchen."

Duo shook his head. "Machine."

Heero took another sip of water. /I am not a machine. I am not a machine. I am not a machine.../

"And...how do you do /that/?"

Heero paused while lifting his fork to his mouth. "Do what?"

Duo shut his eyes halfway and pointed at the other pilot with his messy fork. "Count off seconds in your head. Ya have some kinda internal clock? Or do you have stopwatches and stuff stashed in that spandex of yours?"

Heero bit down on his piece of pizza, chewed it twenty times, and swallowed. "Heart cycles."

Duo brushed the bangs out of his eyes with his wrist. "...Huh?"

The Wing pilot sighed as though explaining something very obvious. "At my resting pulse, every cycle occurs once every .63 seconds. I just count and do the math."

Duo shook his head, despondent. "And you do this sort of thing for fun?"

Heero eyed Duo with a vaguely insulted expression. "No."

Duo put on his best sorry face. "Oh! Gomen nasai, your honored, unbeatable, invulnerable Yuy-sama! I'm so sorry, but I'm actually human!"

Heero calmly skewered and ate another bite of pizza, chewing it exactly twenty times.

Duo eyed his perfect partner with a critical demeanor. /How can someone so physically fit, and beautiful, and smart, be so clueless when he's eating...?/

"Heero, you're... um... doing this totally wrong. You actually pick the pizza up by the crust and sort of dangle it into your mouth, like this..."

Heero ignored Duo's impromptu demonstration and continued to eat in his infuriatingly precise way.

"Heero, you look really silly..."

"I don't care."

Duo rolled his eyes, voice filled with frustration. "It's more FUN to eat it this way!"

"It doesn't matter."

An an accusing tone, Duo pinned Heero with his eyes and said, "...Does fun matter to you at all?"

The dark-haired pilot didn't quite know how to answer the question.

He was human, of course; human above all and after all. And he knew that the human desire for satisfaction and happiness was simply an attribute of the human system. It was built into the design as a device for emotional and psychological stabilization. It was like the AMBAC mass balance compensation unit or the ALICE combat control OS in his Gundam.

Heero also knew that attempting to "transcend" the boundaries of a system inevitably lead to failure. Just as one wouldn't write a computer program that didn't work with the hardware, it was foolish to try to forsake enjoyment and satisfaction.

It was natural to want to have fun. It was natural to want affection and happiness and compassion.

But the success of the Mission would be determined by his own actions and his own dedication to the objectives. Heero knew where the boundary between harmless enjoyment and wasteful idleness was. Duo's ideas of "fun" were simply irresponsible and frivolous. They took time and energy from the mission.

And therefore, "fun" that interfered with his job as a Gundam pilot was to be ignored.

But fun could always be found in different forms.

What better way to enjoy life than to associate enjoyment with his job...?

/Laughing as explosions of gas and metal fill the air.../

And doing that was certainly possible to a certain extent. But even Heero had to admit that he'd found a limitation to what he could accept as "enjoyable". Blowing up mobile suits was fun sometimes, simple and easy and disassociated from real killing.

But actually /killing/ something... Heero didn't doubt that if he ever managed to accept THIS as "enjoyable", then his search for fulfillment would cost him something far more precious.

His soul.

The truth was that there was simply a human need that he could not fulfill... a wish, buried deep within pain and violence, for happiness regardless of the status of the Mission. A wish for closeness and sense, direction and focus beyond set objectives. A wish for security... a need for something...

...someone...

Yes, there was truth in what Duo was saying.

But revealing that would accomplish nothing.

Heero's voice was steady and low as he murmured, "...I can't afford to have fun right now."

Duo frowned and shook his head. "It's an unhealthy life. But hey, different strokes..." He lustily regarded the other pilot. Inside, his brain was panicking and his heart was pounding. This was his chance. It was time. This might be the only opportunity he'd get...

"You seem pretty confident that you'll survive."

The Wing pilot shook his head. "I'm not confident at all. There's a very good probability that I'll either be killed or be forced to self-destruct."

Duo smiled as though he'd found an obvious flaw, a move that Heero found condescending. "So when do you enjoy yourself?"

"I don't know."

Duo rolled his eyes. "I understand -- 'not now, probably never'? Is that the way it works?"

Heero began to stare at the braided boy; but not aggressively. Was it weakness, or a chosen lack of aggression...? "Duo, what's the point of this?"

Duo's voice rose, excited but not quite angry, to the maximum level that was prudent for their surroundings.

"When are you finally going to be happy?!"

Heero didn't respond.

/Shit. Shit. If I drove him into that shell of his again.../

/This isn't working. Perhaps I'm going about this all the wrong way.../

Duo took a long slow sip of his drink, as Heero continued to eat in his irritatingly perfect way.

"Heero-man, you're a logical type of guy. And you should know as well as I do that even if we /do/ win, people will still be fundamentally violent. This war's never going to end!!"

"That's not true."

Duo threw up his hands and fumed silently, then made a pleasant face. "Okay, maybe in a technical sense. But we'll never /really/ achieve peace. You realize that, right? That it's all futile?"

Heero looked up from his food and regarded Duo mechanically. "Why are you trying to convince me that we're doing this for nothing?"

"I'm stating facts. You should know it better than I do. After all, you're certainly more observant than me. Look around us: preppy, privleged kids, sheltered from real life. Lots of idealists whine, 'yes, the children will save us, the children will lead us into peace'... and these are the kids who would probably be the first choices! They haven't had to worry about any of the shit that most people have!"

"Yes...?" Heero prompted, impatient but interested...

"But look at them all! Aggressive, insensitive, bigoted assholes! They're just as ready to destroy as everyone!"

Heero's fork slowly stopped its motion toward his mouth, then started again.

/Oh, great. Just freaking great. I really hope I didn't shatter some fundamental truth at the core of his being, or something./

Ten seconds of silence later, Duo leaned back and took a deep breath. Time to try a different approach. Heero had apparently totally withdrawn from the conversation.

"Heero, I'm saying that we need to enjoy life now because our job's never gonna be over!"

Incredibly, Heero shrugged and glanced around, ever cautious. "That would interfere with the mission."

Duo looked at the wall and darkened a shade. "It wouldn't have to..."

The japanese boy slowly remarked, "I'm a soldier. And that's that." The depth of his casualness was almost disturbing -- he spoke the words as though he would speak the score of a game...

"Calvinist."

"What?"

The braided pilot mumbled, "Nothing."

Heero's voice continued on, insisting. "What did you call me?"

/Did I get him mad at me...? But he doesn't look mad.../

Duo fidgeted helplessly. "I called you Mary Queen of Scots, okay? It doesn't matter what I called you. It doesn't matter."

Heero's eyes darkened uncomfortably. His hair began to obscure Duo's view of his blue orbs. "...I want to know."

This was too much for Duo, and he chuckled mirthfully. "I thought you didn't care about what I thought?"

Heero closed his eyes, looking aloof again. "I thought YOU wanted to know ME."

Duo shrugged. "Okay with me. You win. I DO want to know about you. You interest me, Heero. In a wierd way, you're a really interesting person."

"...At least you're not bored."

Duo's eyes widened. This was going better, ever better... "You're right. For the first night since the last mission, I'm not bored..."

"What does 'Calvinist' mean?" Back to reality with Heero.

Duo looked up to heaven for guidance that didn't come, hemming and hawing for a few moments. "Anoo... It's just something you say... something without real meaning. I guess it means someone who believes in predestination. Someone who thinks that their existence is determined by their lot in life."

Heero took a long slow sip of water. "It doesn't change the fact that you talk too much."

Duo was indignant. "Okay, then. You talk too little."

Heero shook his head. "I talk enough."

Duo grinned and pointed towards Heero with his fork. "Ah-HA. ...But it's true that you could talk more if you wanted to."

As though finishing his sentence, the Japanese boy interjected "..But there's no reason to."

Duo smiled. "Sure there is. It only helps the mission if we know each other. So why aren't you telling me anything more than name, rank, and serial number? Why aren't you telling me your wierdest dreams? Your deepest secret fear?"

Heero looked at the wall.

Duo's expression changed to a predatory grin. "Is there something about you thatcha don't want me to know about?"

The stoic boy glared at Duo. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, this was exactly the wrong thing to do.

"So there IS something you're hiding from me." The braided boy ignored his food and pinned the other pilot with his excited eyes. As he observed his friend's total lack of response, he changed his tone.

"Okay, that's excessive. Listen, just talk to me, okay? All I'm doing is asking you if happiness means anything at all to you. Anything."

Heero found that, as much as the tried to turn away, as much as he tried to shut up, he couldn't avoid the intensity of the braided boy's violet eyes. His glance always wandered back to them, like a compass needle homing towards north. He couldn't avoid answering if he were to continue to talk.

Was it even possible for him to withhold the answer from Duo? He didn't think so. What was he scared of? Actually giving the answer? No, that was simply a matter of speaking. Duo's reaction to the answer? He knew the braided baka couldn't hurt him. The answer itself? What it could mean? What it might /do/ to Duo?

Or was he just grasping at things only-half seen, scared of shadows on the wall? Was there really anything to be scared of?

And most of all... was he, Heero Yuy, actually scared of something?

Internally, Duo shivered with anticipation. This would be the deciding moment, the determining factor. He could see two futures ahead, two radically different paths, all depending on what Heero answered. One was desolate, a wasteland of loneliness and despair. The other was a bright garden, light, full of happiness. After this decision, it would simply rest on his own charm... and Fate.

/I already know how I feel.../

Heero looked down at his half-completed meal, and his voice was scratchy and ragged as he managed to force out the words.

"...Peace is my happiness, Duo. And I fight for peace."

Duo looked upwards, silently thanking some diety for that much. His pupils seemed to widen, and he smiled quietly. "So you are human after all."

Heero looked at his partner, not knowing quite what to say. "...Of course."

After an uncomfortable silence, Duo's voice shifted awkwardly into the next question. "But peace is a far-reaching goal... how do you get satisfaction when everything's imperfect?"

"I don't understand the question."

"...Is there anything else that would make you happy?"

Heero moved his head up from the greasy food on the table. Duo's eyes moved down from the empty air above Heero's head.

"I don't know." Heero took a deep breath without looking away.

Duo took a sip of his coke without it obstructing his vision of the dark-haired pilot. Heero blinked twice.

"Have you tried DOING anything?"

"...Not really."

Duo grinned. "That's exactly it. You need to try new stuff; find a way to be satisfied in lieu of your ultimate objective."

The two kept their eyes locked on each other.

Heero scowled.

"People say," Duo began softly, "That the eyes are the windows to the soul." He rubbed his hands together as if for warmth -- though it was a comfortable seventy degrees in the restaurant -- and cleared his throat.

"I know what you're thinking, Heero. I can see it."

Heero's face remained the same.

"You're thinking the same thing I am. You hate people. Everyone you meet. Everyone you know. Not because you want to... but because you think you have to. It's your job. It's your life."

Duo took a guilty sip of his soda. "I never told you about Maxwell Church, did I...?"

Heero shook his head. His expression was masked, of course, but there was something behind it that seemed startled... disturbed...

As for Duo, he was concentrating on keeping his voice as low as possible. It was a new level of intensity -- almost nakedness.

"After my street-bum phase, I was living at an orphanage." Duo's neutral smile disappeared and was replaced by an unfamiliar, pensive line. "I'd really rather not talk about what happened. But I'll give you the three-second summary."

Heero didn't quite know what to think. This was unprovoked, unnecessary... but still somehow important and relevant. He needed to know what happened. He was interested, much as the thought shocked him.

Duo cleared his throat and failed to chuckle. "It burned down because a lot of people were stupid. Everybody died except me."

Heero didn't say anything. What could he have said...?

The American boy laughed haltingly for a moment, but he didn't smile. "...I wanted to die for a while. I'm sure you know the feeling. But when I finally got the chance, I didn't have the nerve to actually do it."

The Japanese boy didn't have a clue as to how to respond as Duo continued to talk, haltingly, unsure.

"And afterwards, I thought I hated everyone. I thought I was marked for death -- not my own, but for the death of... everyone near to me. And so all I could do was push everyone away from me."

Something told Heero to stop his friend, to say something, to break the strange trance that his partner's story had created. Something told him to run far away and never think of Duo again and go on fighting alone.

The braided pilot looked around self-consciously, and muttered, "It's... well. It's why I call myself Death. Because in a very real way, everyone around me has died..."

Heero, unconsciously, moved his empty hand around on the table. If it had been three inches forward, it would have cupped and stroked Duo's own digits...

"Anyway, for seven years, I really DID hate everyone. My Doctor... all the techs... everybody on board the colony where we were building Deathscythe..."

Duo finally looked up at Heero, and pinned him with the strongest gaze he could muster.

"But then I met someone."

And then he chuckled to himself as he slowly looked away. Heero's eyes hadn't told him anything this time. Suicide Shounen learned fast.

"And I thought I was going to hate them, too. That person would have been easy to hate. The person was easily the most cruel, cold, and uncommunicative person that I'd ever met."

/Do you know what I'm talking about, Heero?/

Duo continued. "...But I decided to try and get to know that person... just out of curiosity. And when I finally found out who the person really was.... he destroyed the world I'd created. He didn't fit anywhere."

/You have to./

"...Because, in a way I'd never seen before... he was pure. Righteous. Perfect. And this person showed me, in his incredibly frustrating way, that life was... worth living. I don't think he tried to do it. But it still happened."

/After all, I'm talking about you./

"I... I finally found someone, Heero."

/You gave me life.../

"I found someone who I couldn't hate."

/You saved my soul.../

Duo struggled with the words. "I found someone, Heero... and when I did, the world suddenly meant something again."

Heero drew in an almost imperceptible breath and his cobalt orbs shifted like tides. His hair fell into his eyes and he brushed it away. Suddenly his eyes widened, alarmed and fascinated, and Duo could finally see that he'd broken through...

He coughed twice. This was it. This was the final moment... the last chance to turn back.

Duo Maxwell felt his stomach fly into his throat as leapt into the void and tried to think of something to say.

"For that..."

/For that, I have to help you./

/For that, I have to let you know that you're not alone./

/For that, I have to try to save you./

/Because you're the one who saved me./

He spoke too fast and too softly. His voice shook. His breath halted in his throat and he whispered the last few fragments of sound in the sentence. There was worshipful silence between the words and a long, almost crippling pause...

"And for that..."

And as he spoke the words, he thought he felt something inside him fuse together again; like two pieces reunited. Like something made whole again.

His heart.

"I think I love you, Heero."

The Wing pilot pinned Duo down again with his cobalt gaze, their meals forgotten, the restaurant miles away. His blue eyes ignited as he felt an electric bolt dance down his spine.

Inside Heero's head, something clicked into place...

/Someone loves me./

/Not for what they see. Not for a killing machine or for who they percieve to be a lost child. Not for what I do or why I fight./

/But for what I really am./

/For WHO I really am./

/And more important.../

/I think I love him back.../

Heero's voice shook with sealed intensity and passion, with restrained force and forbidden fire. "I... I hate war. I want to end it... the stupidity of it all... more than anything else in this world."

Heero debated with himself the wiseness of pulling Duo into an embrace, hugging him, kissing him, touching his body... but modesty prevailed. If they hadn't been inside the restaurant, with people around... if they had been in the dorm room, somewhere private...

"The only thing that I ever loved was peace."

And they /would/ be there, very very soon. When they got there... when they got there, Heero would show Duo what his soft, clandestine words meant. He would show him that, if he couldn't settle for being the sole object of his affection, perhaps he could settle for second best.

"But now..."

Second best in his heart. Second place to an intangible concept. Second to something that couldn't hug or kiss but that could persuade and motivate to suicidal extremes. Second finisher in a race for Heero's soul...

Heero's voice was papery and soft, delicate and fragile. Everything seemed dark next to his radiant and eyes. His expression was soft and fragile, sad and broken.

"...I always knew that if I had to choose between my friends and peace, I would never hesitate. ..But now, I'm not so sure..."

Duo's eyes closed and he sank back into his seat. Heero, for all his perceptive capabilities, couldn't tell if the American boy was elated or despondent. Strangely enough, Duo's voice remained the same: casual, but serious.

"I suppose that's the best I'm going to get."

Heero looked down, obviously ashamed. The tone of his voice was now low and gutteral. "I'm sorry, Duo."

"I didn't think you felt shame."

Heero closed his eyes and looked at his hands. "...I didn't think so either."

Duo reflexively began to launch into his normal make-fiun-of-Heero routine. "Amazing... even the great Heero Yuy cannot resist the charm of--"

Heero shook his head. "Just shut up, Duo."

"Why?"

Heero's eyes were serious slits and his voice was deep as he scowled.

"...So I can tell you that I DO care."

The braided pilot made sure no one was looking, and squeezed Heero's hand gently. "Second place is enough for me. I know we've both gotta be subordinate to the mission..."

Heero yanked his hand away from Duo's, and for a horrible moment the American boy thought he'd done something horribly wrong.

/You think that. But you're not sure. You're not satisfied. And because of that, when it comes time for me to choose, I'll have to hurt you./

/And I don't want to hurt you./

Heero took a nervous glance around and looked at Duo again with frightening intensity.

"Don't say that unless you're absolutely sure."

Duo nodded and smiled, eyes elated. "I am." /A place in your heart, no matter how small... will be worth anything.../

"HOW sure?"

A satisfied smile, confident. The smile of an immortal man. The smile of someone living a life that will never end. An assurance of eternal paradise and happiness.

"More sure than I've ever been of anything."

"Promise me."

"...Promise you what?"

"Promise me you won't give up hope."

"In what?"

"In me."

Duo looked around the restaurant and his grin became a happy open smile, the pure laughing face of a child.

"I promise."

Forever and forever and forever...

The corners of Heero Yuy's mouth moved upwards; not in a smirk or a maniacal laugh, but in a real smile. Smitten, overwhelmed. Happy.

They paid the bill and left quietly, though a little quickly.

As he, through a haze of excitement and ecstacy, felt himself bouncing out of the restaurant, the braided pilot thought he heard something scrape his neck in the darkness, then a clinking noise. Then something metal brushing against his leg. The ping of a metal object and a chain hitting the concrete.

His cross had fallen to the ground, purely by accident...

Odd...

...From somewhere far away, the sound of a little boy crying.

Duo knelt down and picked up the broken pieces of his golden cross, not knowing quite what to think or say. The chain had become dislocated from the actual crucifix. He remembered a fragment of something...

/Eternity.../

Heero turned around and felt his face do something unfamiliar. "What is it?"

The sight of the Wing pilot smiling, finally smiling, was so overwhelming that all Duo could do was to blink and shrug and whisper into the wind,

"...Nothing."

Heero kept looking at him, intrigued, as Duo laughed and dropped the pieces to the dark road and started walking onwards.

"...Nothing at all."


[AC 197]

(An excerpt from the posthumous publication of Relena Darlian's diaries.)

19 September, AC 197.

I used to think that it was just a crush.

Then I thought it was a dangerous obsession.

After that, I believed that it was an immature wish that paled before the pursuit of peace.

But I suppose something's finally snapped inside me. Perhaps the cause was that ridiculous and slanderous rumor of him and that other pilot getting engaged. Perhaps the cause was the jealousy I feel when I see the photographs my people bring me of him with his friends, one especially, the one with the braid -- enjoying each other's company, companionable and friendly. Just friends, when what Heero really needs is someone to really trust... someone beyond a friend...

But whatever the cause, I've finally decided that life's too short to go about and worry about the things we can't have.

I miss Heero. And if I don't see him soon, my life may end up too short to worry about anything. Maintaining this life I lead -- politics, more politics -- won't be possible for much longer. I guess I never really believed it would happen, but I'm gradually being worn down. I may be naive, but I'm not stupid. I see where I'm heading: a final quiet hell of exhaustion and burnout, as the world falls apart outside.

I used to do what I do for the sake of everyone around me. But the fact of the matter is that "everyone" simply isn't enough anymore.

I need someone. I need to be strong. I need someone to help me live... help the world live...

It's not hopeless, adoring infatuation. Perhaps it was at one point, but that time is gone now. I used to think of him as a perfect being, a god. I now see the faults in him. I see weaknesses. Heero's in many ways a shell, a flawed article. His emotions are either hidden or totally destroyed... he has serious problems with rational discussion... he has an obsession with peace and his "mission", whatever that is.

I'm finally beginning to see Heero's whole self. Maybe time does that to us. I used to be blind to the weak parts, the sad parts... blinded by his radiance. It's not a bad strategy for hiding yourself, I suppose: hoping people are too busy staring at your intensity to wonder what you're really thinking.

But I know what's beneath his face. I know what's beneath the cold, empty eyes. I know what he wants. I know what he needs.

I tried my best to understand him... I did the very best I could to look at every possible angle. I thought about him from every perspective. But there's still doubt -- there's still the doubt that I've missed something huge and vital to him...

And so I have to ask, for the thousandth time... Is it really love?

I don't know how to answer. And, because I have no other options, I have to ask myself the melodramatic questions. Would I die for him? Or die because I couldn't have him? I don't know. Yet. I'll know sometime.

I've thought about dying. And to be honest, the thought doesn't really scare me.

Living without him DOES.

It's probably useless thinking about it. After all, Heero would probably save me before I could do it. He always saves me. I don't know why. After all, I've never been anything but trouble to him...

Haven't I?

If that's true, then I know that he cares for me. He didn't kill me when he could have. He broke through his facade of coldness and heartlessness to give me that teddy bear. He's nervous when he talks to me.

Somehow, I wish I could be sure that I was only a nuisance all those times, and never any sort of asset or advantage. Because if I really meant nothing to him in terms of his "mission", then I can be sure that he saved me because he cared...

For once, I wish I wasn't helping the world...

And I remind myself once again. I remember the best moments, the happiest moments. I roll them around and around in my head like a girl with candy on her tongue. I treasure them. I remember them every day.

When the transmitters picked up the radio waves of him and Zechs fighting on the Libra, I heard my brother ask him why he didn't just kill him.

He said, "Relena would be sad."

When we danced at Saint Gabriel's, and I felt his shoulders and realized that he was as warm and real as any other human. When I noticed something in his eyes that wasn't ruthless killing instinct or cold dedication...

/He cares about what I feel./ It would be easy to believe that. So easy...

"He cares!" I know that and suddenly life seems worth living again. I know that and I feel good about everything.

And until a while ago, just knowing that was enough. But I need more. I need /him/. And all I need to do is decide what I want to do about it. I've been thinking lately, sometimes about life and love, and Heero is what I think of after those. But often I think about death as well... how useless it is, how pointless it is.

So many people died in the wars, and the numbers of casualties have been documented carefully. People die for their loves. But no one remembers what the loves ARE.

No one remembers what soldiers die for.

I've seen enough telecasts of mass funerals for soldiers -- one of the things with hundreds of thousands of people that they put on after a really large battle -- to realize that they're nothing more than an opportunity for politicians to spout more rhetoric. There are always people from a number of parties there, foreign governments, usually even a colony representative or two. And everyone who speaks always mention honor, and bravery, and "giving ones' life for a cause".

Then they start going over how revenge must be had for this horrible crime, and start the sound bites in which they demand increased strength and solidarity and honor.

But they never really go back and talk about what that /cause/ is.

Perhaps they're afraid that if they spoke about what they were actually fighting for, they'd be accused of being idealists or monarchists or communists or anarchists. Perhaps they're misguided enough to believe that it doesn't really matter what their soldiers' cause was, as long as they believed in it and loved it until the end. Perhaps they're greedy enough not to care about what their men died for, and just think of the funeral as a PR opportunity.

And maybe they're stupid enough to believe that "dying for a cause" is just a romantic ideal. I don't think so at all.

Dying for a cause is very real. I'm convinced that it is the most ardent expression of love possible. Even the /threat/ of dying for a cause can sometimes startle people, change their minds, sway them once they see your true beliefs. It's one of the purest things that one can do.

But there's a difference between dying for a cause and dying in vain...

I think that dying for something in vain is useless. Someone hurts everyone close to them when they do that. They may cause their loved ones to die for no reason -- the weaker ones may kill themselves in grief, or decide that they want the fifteen seconds of fame that their beloved son or father or brother wanted, and so sacrifice themselves simply so that they can be remembered as a selfless person.

But all this is corruption of the original idea. Someone has to remember what the soldiers love. Someone has to know what's on their lips as they die.

I fight, so I suppose that I'm a soldier. But if I die, I wonder if "Heero" will be my last word...

And more than anything else, I wonder that... if he died... if he would say my name...


[Warm Embrace]

Heero had been silent all through dinner, speaking only when spoken to, and even then concise and curt. After he'd volunteered to put the dishes in the dishwasher and clean up the mess Duo always left in the kitchen, the stoic man -- and he was a man now, seventeen years old and five foot six and shaving -- had walked into the living room and sat down next to Duo on the sofa.

He hadn't paid any attention to the television, even though the news had been about the relations with the cluster of L1 colonies. Heero simply stared off into space, obviously thinking something over. His bouncy companion, who had been occupying every bit of the couch with his trademark full-bodied sprawl and wiggled into one of the sides and put his arm around Heero, queried, "Something wrong?"

Heero shook his head. Duo hadn't thought it possible for Heero to look apologetic, but his face had displayed an uncharacteristic element of regret and humbleness. "No."

"You should know that I won't take 'no' for an answer, Heero."

Duo smiled at his lover, in what was /still/ his best strategy of getting what he wanted: looking adorable. Inwardly, he worried about what he was going to do to convince Heero of something once his good looks began to fade.

Heero had gotten a lot better at expressing his emotions since the time they'd spent together during the early part of the war. Even after they'd exchanged their feelings for one another, the Wing pilot had been reluctant to engage in any sort of prolonged and emotionally intimate conversation, let alone public displays of affection. But after the war had ended and peace had returned to the Earth sphere -- almost ending a hellish twenty-four hours before Christmas in AC 196 -- the emotionally mute pilot had become very different.

He was gentler now, more forgiving, more pleasant to be around, more wont to talk. Sometimes, when he slept and his lover watched him (he liked to watch), Heero's face was tranquil and almost happy. He even allowed Duo to put his arm around him in public, now, though there were severe restrictions on kissing: lip lock only for a second or two, no tongue, and only once a day. In private, of course, it was different...

It was as though a great weight had been taken off of Heero's shoulders. Everything was easier, more welcome, happier.

But today it was like an emotional relapse; as though Heero and Duo were back in the rigid and masked days of shrugs and glares and the occasional grunted "Hn."

Duo sighed and adjusted a cushion behind him as he realized that his his cuteness had no effect. "I suppose you're going to brood about whatever this is for a week or so."

"I'm not brooding." Heero wearily said.

With a tone that was almost nagging, Duo stated, "You are."

"I'm not, baka."

"You're acting like you used to when the war was still going on. Something's wrong and we both know it! Would you just tell me what's bothering you so that we can both be happy?"

Heero placed his hands on his face and hunched over, leaning his chin on his palms and his elbows on his knees. It was almost a Yogic position. He looked at Duo oddly, focusing his eyes as though his lover was quite a distance away.

"Nothing's wrong."

As of to prove his point, the Japanese man wrapped his strong arms around his lover and gently dragged him into a delicate embrace. Soft lips on Duo's cheek... warm hands wandering over Duo's back. Slowly, the tension began to drain from the braided man's body.

"I was thinking about what you said that night..."

"What night?"

"THAT night."

"What about?"

"..You said you hated everyone. And you tried to hate me, but couldn't. And that was why..."

Duo looked vacantly at the cool blank wall of the apartment. "...Yes...?"

"Do you still feel that way?"

/It's amazing how we change.../

"...Why do you ask?"

/He wants to know how I feel.../

Heero's eyes filled his face, lost. "I... don't know."

/He lets me know how HE feels... or tries to.../

The braided boy smiled. "Ya don't have to worry about explaining everything, okay?" As if to support his point, he leaned over and kissed Heero on the cheek. "But I... I don't hate everyone now."

Heero looked at him dubiously but good-humoredly... or at least as close as Heero could come to looking good-humored... "Everyone?"

"Almost anyone. Everything's changed since then."

Heero closed his eyes and stroked his lover's hair. "Changed for the better."

Duo hugged him closer and rested his head on Heero's chest. "You're probably right about that, too," The braided man intoned. "I think of that night as one of the best moments in my life, you know."

Heero made a soft contented noise. Then he relaxed his arms a little and held his lover at arms' length.

"Can I ask you another question?"

/He's questioning.../

/Caring.../

/Confused, shy, and still antisocial and paranoid... and still even a little bit clueless.../

/But compassionate and loving. What a radical change from how he was three years ago.../

Duo chuckled. "Hit me with your best shot."

Heero took a deep breath, steeling himself once again for a question that would reshape his future. Only this time, he'd be doing the asking...

Duo moved his head in closer to Heero's, closed his eyes, tilted his head...

Heero closed his eyes and moved inward, ready to accept Duo's kiss...

Their noses collided forcefully.

Duo winced. "OW! That wasn't cool at all! I hope /that/ wasn't your attempt to..."

Heero tried to scowl, but couldn't somehow. "Marry me, baka."


[AC 198]

/I'm alone
/yeah I don't know if I can face the night

Loneliness was a many-splendored thing for Relena Darlian. Sometimes it was quiet and humble, ready and willing to let her suffer in silence, a martyr for love. Other times it was hyperactive and aggressive, demanding that she do something, /find/ something, or even just /pretend/ that her wishes were true... Usually it was fairly calm but still malicious, like a slow-growing malignancy or tumor.

Tonight, her loneliness was desperate and decisive. This would decide it all.

Everything would happen tonight.

/I'm in tears
/And the crying that I do is for you

Relena lay spread-eagled across her large white bed, alone, listening to the blood rush through her brain. What was there left to do? She had no other options. He'd ignored her when she called, dismissed her invitations, refused her requests. She'd gone through his friends, asking him to tell him. He hadn't listened to them.

/I want your love
/Let's break the wall between us

He'd always been distant and detached, and now that the war was over, she had less and less reason to be around him. He was slipping away from her, sliding down a slope into a dark black pit. Just spending time with the people he knew.

She could show him such a wonderful future, such a perfect existence. She could show him what it was finally like to be loved. She could give him what he'd always hungered for, what the war had never let him have.

She, and only she, could show Heero what having a heart was like.

His friends couldn't provide what she could. She could tell that the only reason they kept him around was from some sort of obligation. Some sort of warrior's honor, a social idea she didn't understand.

But she would be only too happy to take him, help him, care for him...

Love him...

Hope that he loved her...

Wait for the words she needed... wait for him to finally express himself. That one time would be enough. After that, her mind would be made up.

All that Relena needed was for Heero's mask to slip, even for only a second...

And she was prepared to do nearly anything to force off that mask.

/Don't make it tough
/I'll put away my pride

She was scared, of course, but not completely terrified. Her palms were sweaty and her eyes were wet. Her pulse was thumping along at a rapid clip. But she was in control of her mind, mostly sure that her path was the correct one. Dangerous, yes. Blunt, yes. Deadly... well... that would depend.

What if she was wrong? Did Heero really love her? Would he tell her so even if he didn't?

/Enough's enough, I've suffered
/and I've seen the light

Would he go that far? If he was fond of her, not truly in love with her, that might be what he'd do. Lying to her to save her feelings...? It was a confounding proposition -- she didn't want him to have to lie, or be unhappy; but she also didn't want to live without him. She had to do something about him. She had to let him know how much she loved him.

And if he said no...

Relena stopped her train of thought and shut her eyes. She wasn't going to think about what she'd do if he said he didn't love her. Thinking about dying wasn't very encouraging to her. But Heero was an honest person. She'd percieved that much. And she knew that she would be honest to /him/. She loved him!

She knew that he would be honest to her, too.

/You're my angel
/Come and save me tonight

She had to tell him. Heero was her knight in shining armor, her angel, her prince. And he alone would save her from the pain and the fear and loneliness.

He would come in and tell her everything was alright and make all the trouble go away.

/You're my angel
/Come and make it alright

He would save her no matter what the danger, no matter the task. He would save her life, her heart, her soul. He would comfort her and hold her and kiss away her tears until she didn't need to cry anymore.

He would be there for her.

And if he wasn't, then there would be no meaning to the world.

/You're my angel
/Come and save me tonight

Heero would make the nightmares -- by now she knew what they depicted, but that did not make them any less terrifying or painful -- go away. They were happening more and more frequently, now. Each time, each gunshot, explosion, car chase at midnight from a burning castle; they threatened to carry away her sanity and soul.

/Don't know what I'm going to do
/about this feeling inside

But she would be strong. As long as she had Heero, she knew that she could beat them. Somehow, she would triumph over the demons in her mind. Somehow, he would manage to forget her past. He would help her.

/Yes, it's true loneliness
/took me for a ride

After all, he was all she lived for, all she /existed/ for. Life was meaningless without him. Heero was her angel. Hers, and no one else's. He belonged to her, had ever since she'd seen him almost drowning in that spacesuit and saved his life.

She would let no one else have him.

But that wouldn't be a problem... because no one else wanted him. He truly was an orphan boy, a castaway.

Heero had made her wake up. Heero had made her see what was really wrong with life -- and what she had to change.

/Without your love
/I'm nothing but a beggar

She sat up and surveyed the room. A dresser, a vanity, a desk. White curtains and oriental rugs. Even a fireplace. Rich decadence, ornamentation, flagrant exhibition of money. But without him it was worthless. She was no longer a child: she wasn't fascinated anymore by expensive and complex toys, beautiful objects, exquisite craftsmanship.

Heero was all the beauty she needed.

/What can I do?
/I'm sleeping in this bed alone

No. Now she was fascinated and enraptured by the simple perfection of Heero Yuy -- his compassion, buried for so long; his intelligence, stained by war; his beautiful heart and soul.

He was a child, abandoned by the world...

He had given her a teddy bear... she didn't know why.

But that had to mean something...

What else could it mean?

/You're the reason I live
/You're the reason I die
/You're the reason I give
/when I break down and cry

She got up from the bed, her face locked into a mask of determined tenacity.

"I trust you to tell me the truth, Heero. Tell me what you really feel." Relena could imagine the consequences if he /didn't/... a painful existence for Heero, forced by his honor to do her bidding... a slow plunge into misery and despair... He would break her heart, in the end, if he lied to her.

"Because if you don't, we'll both be lost."

/Don't need no reason why

"I'm the only you hope you have. You're the only hope I have."

/Baby, baby, baby

"I love you, Heero."

She walked over to the mirror, looked at her clothes, frowned. No. She selected a dress from the cedar cabinet and changed. Much better. Relena smoothed out her hair, put on just a touch of makeup, and dug up the revolver from a drawer. The girl listened to the cold sliding sound of metal against metal as she loaded each individual bullet into the handgun.

Guns fascinated Relena. Forbidden, sleek. A part of herself tried to deny it, but they were even somewhat beautiful...

Her people had gotten the number, but until now she'd resisted dialing it. She pressed the buttons, twice hanging up before she was finished dialing.

As the phone rang, she murmured, "Into the hands of Fate..."

Already she could visualize their life together. Beautiful lace sunrises and ocean skies, silent love and brilliant warmth.

Her heart hammered with love and fear.

A voice on the other line answered the phone. "Who is this?"

"It's Relena, Heero."

"How did you get this number?"

"It doesn't matter. Heero... I want to talk to you."

She pressed the gun to her temple and took a deep breath and started talking.


[Loaded Gun]

Relena was looking out of the window of the Darlian estate, the gun still raised to her right temple. Her white silk ballgown and the white rose she was wearing were still in perfect order. Without her weapon, she would fit right in at any debutantes' ball or upper-crust social event.

Heero's footsteps were, of course, silent in the ornate room, but she could see his reflection. He was dressed in a navy blue suit, immaculately tailored. Inside his jacket, on a side holster, was a gun... but it wasn't loaded.

"Why did you come?"

Heero's face tightened, and he spoke softly. "Because on the vidphone you said you wanted to see me. You said you /only/ wanted to see me."

She didn't respond.

"And because you said that you were thinking about killing yourself."

She moved the gun around on her temple, pulling at stray hairs.

He opened his arms in an appeal to her. "... And here I am, Relena."

Relena turned to face him, and her tear-streaked cheeks shone in the brilliant light cast by the chandelier above the two. Her whimpering, sobbing voice cut the terrible silence, somehow making it worse.

"Don't lie to me, Heero. Don't. Not after everything that's happened."

"I'm not lying to you." Heero's voice was cold like steel.

"You ARE! That never mattered before, Heero! /I/ never mattered before now! Is this what I have to do to find you? Is this what you want to MAKE me do to find you?!"

"...Your life was never on the line before."

"Why did you really come?"

"I came to save your life."

"Why does my life matter?"

"Relena..."

/Why is she doing this? Why did she demand that I come to her...? Why am I the important one all of a sudden.../

/What the hell is she thinking...?/

Something in his voice betrayed his confusion, but she did not notice the waver. Instead she ignored meaning and sound and just let his words run over her like waves of the ocean.

"Your life is the... the most important thing in the world right now. There are colonies that are threatening to secede. The JEF's trying to leave the United Earth Nation. Various colony sides are threatening each other. You're the only one who can help. You're the only one who the colonies will listen to..."

Like the kingdom she'd once tried to rule, her voice reminded one of glass. And as her dynasty had shattered, her voice was shattered; alternating between high and low pitches, warbling weakly.

"The world... needs me?" She spoke the words as though they were a bad dream, not real, all make-believe. Mime.

"More than ever."

She was quiet for a few moments, and Heero didn't dare say a thing.

"I'll tell you something, Heero. I don't CARE if the world needs me. I don't CARE about what my life's worth. I don't CARE if this'll destroy everything, because I think that MY everything might already be gone..."

A stifled sob. Sparkling blue eyes, pink and wet with tears, hit somber cobalt ones.

Heero spoke suspiciously, afraid of the inevitable answer: "What do you mean... 'your everything'...?"

Incredibly, her voice was angry. "You really don't understand...?"

She kneeled down without a sound, stopped whimpering and started to really cry, sobbing, choking once every few breaths. Her weight supported on her knees and hands, her tears falling onto the floor. The gun was still in her right hand, but it was no longer pressed against her head.

/I haven't showed him anything at all.../

/I haven't proven my love to him.../

/I'm worthless.../

For all of his weapons knowledge, Heero didn't have any idea what to do. This situation didn't require a trained terrorist... it required a hostage negotiator.

Because, literally, she was holding the world hostage...

/Does she realize what she's doing?!/

He'd gotten the call a few hours before, while Duo was out somewhere. A calm voice speaking too fast. A suicide threat. A request -- no, a demand -- to see him. She had said that if he wasn't there by midnight she'd shoot herself. He'd gotten there at 11:41.

/What provoked this? The news that Duo and I were finally getting married? No, she couldn't have known. We didn't tell anyone... at least, I didn't... Years and years of interminable pressure? Stupidity? Selfishness?/

His hands, involuntarily, clenched into fists. "What do you want, Relena?"

/How dare she put me in this position? How dare she threaten to abandon her responsibilities as chief mediator between Earth and the Colonies simply because I didn't pay attention her?/

She kept sobbing, inconsolable.

"Please, Relena." An edge of panic had penetrated his voice. "Just tell me. Tell me, no matter what it is."

Her hacking coughs and moans began to diminish.

"Relena. The world needs you. /I/ need you. Put down the gun and tell me what you want."

She stopped altogether, wiped her pink and inflamed eyes, and gulped. A chill ran down Heero's spine.

/Oh, no./

/She wouldn't. She wouldn't dare./

"...I want to be with you, Heero."

/NO!/

Heero's heart was pounding. His mouth was dry. His eyes were slack and horrified, dry and stinging with sand.

/NO!/

She leaped up into a defensive position, pointing the gun at her temple again. "I love you, Heero..."

A choice...

A choice...

Love of man, and death of peace...

Or love of peace, and death of men...

It was cloudy but clear enough. He could see the answer in her sobbing eyes. And in that moment, Heero Yuy knew exactly what he had to do.

/NO!/

The future was locked into place. There was no escaping it. There would be no exit, no recourse to her demand, no protest. The gears would turn and the days would go on and on, all to the same inevitable end. Time would pass by fast, very fast. The days would fly by. They always did, once you knew exactly what they held.

/I probably won't feel the pain./

Shuddering, trembling, wishing for once in his life to be innocent and small and uninvolved in everything. Weak, low to the ground, insignificant. Ignorant. How he would have loved it if she'd just gone and killed herself, or killed him... Heero saw the days before him flashing in front of his eyes. Pain. Numbness. Ennui. Eventually just a wish to die.

/I always knew that I would have to self-destruct one day./

Mechanically, he spoke the words that unmade his soul... words that were supposed to be reserved for someone else. Words that he'd spoken to him in intimate moments, holding his body, kissing his hair, while making love. Words he used to smile at when he said them. Words that belonged to Duo.

Words that she'd stolen, like a thief in the night or like a greedy child.

Words that she probably didn't even KNOW weren't hers to take...

A loathsome sort of innocence..

"I love you, Relena."

/NO!/

Relena's voice, ecstatic, light with happiness. The happiness of a child opening a gift on Christmas morning. Almost heartbreaking in her naivete and selfish innocence. "Oh, Heero..."

And Heero's voice, thick with irony and pain and tortured, unrelenting fury...

And with, incredibly, truth...

/Relena is peace. And I love peace./

"...More than life."

/I'm sorry, Duo./

She unloaded and dropped the gun, overwhelmed with joy, and ran to his arms. The bullets, six of them, fell out of the gun and rolled off the thick rug and clicked on the wooden floor of the ornate chamber.

Relena planted a little girl's kiss on his lips.

To Heero, who peeked out from the edge of Relena's sobbing mass, it didn't really look like a room anymore.

It looked like a cage in a zoo. A flimsy structure that the laws of honor kept him in, would keep him in for the rest of his life.

A mansion, along with everything in it, that was owned by her.

A coffin of lace and decadence and silent hatred.

A doll's house.


[Illogical Anxiety]

When Duo Maxwell first saw the headlines that morning, he'd laughed out loud.

VICE FOREIGN MINISTER TO MARRY.

Heero and Relena getting married. What a joke. What a lie. Obviously a prank. A desperate gambit by a desperate girl, leaking a fake news story and hoping that Heero would comply with it. The creation of a delusional mind. Poor Relena. She must not be getting along too well, now. She might even have finally cracked...

Heero was already marrying him. He'd proposed six months ago, on a humid summer night. Duo looked down and eyed the plain golden engagement band around his fourth finger. Still there. Sorry, Relena -- Heero belonged to him.

DARLIAN ENGAGED TO EX-GUNDAM PILOT.

Ridiculous, absurd. Outrageously egotistcal. Total self-indulgence. The girl's belief in some romantic fantasy. A daydream published by the press. Heero was his, now and forever. Heero belonged to him. He'd told Duo so a thousand times, sometimes before they went to sleep, sometimes as he was brushing out Duo's hair, sometimes when they were snuggled warmly together on the couch.

WEDDING PLANS FOR VICE FOREIGN MINISTER AND "HEERO" OF EVE WARS.

As Duo had strolled by the newsstand, he considered it remakable that someone had managed to simultaneously hoax so many major newspapers. They were losing their touch, being lazy. If he was feeling really bored he might write an angry letter, just to wake up some random intern. If he were feeling insanely bored he might actually go over to the newspaper office himself and complain. He might try to seem angry there, put on a good show of huffing and puffing and telling people off. That might be fun.

But, if someone one had asked him at that moment, he hadn't really been feeling angry. Surprised, yes. Amused, yes. But angry? No, perish the thought. There was nothing to get angry about, nothing to worry about. Heero was his, and he would remain his.

As he'd walked back to his and Heero's apartment that chilly but sun-dappled morning, he had thought to himself, "The only thing that Heero puts before me is a philosophical concept. And he's not about to marry one of /those/."

But there was... a hesitation, a resistance. Some sort of unconscious anxiety restraining his urge to call up everyone he knew and tell them.

There was something else there... something buried beneath the surface. Something that Duo would never have admitted to others, and at the time, not even to himself.

Even Duo Maxwell's penchant for gallows humor stopped somewhere. There was something about the announcement, though obviously false, that was both disturbing and darkly fascinating.

It hit too close to home.

And the small cinder of suspicion within him was further warmed as he entered the apartment.

He'd opened the blue door and walked into the main room, laughing, calling for Heero to listen to what he'd heard, he had heard nothing but the twitter of hardy birds outside in the cold. He had checked the main room, with the sofa and television and computer; the kitchen; the bathroom; the bedroom.

No Heero.

Heero must not have returned last night. He must have dreamed that Heero had returned late, cuddled up to him as he came to bed, held him, breathed warm air onto the nape of his neck and left like a ghost. He must have imagined the drip, drip, drip of the coffeemaker and the slight squeak of the door in the morning. He must have been alone all the time.

If it had involved someone else, he would have called up the other pilots -- Trowa and Quatre, at wherever it was they lived, somewhere on an L4 colony; and Wufei, working with the Preventer unit...

But not now. Not when there was still insecurity. Not when there was something to be lost...

Duo sighed and shrugged. Heero would be back soon.

/Well, I can wait. I might as well start reading that book Quat and Trowa gave me. I'm not really one for Shakespeare, but I suppose I owe it to them./

He collapsed onto the comfortable but worn sofa, reached out to the coffee-table, and grabbed the copy of "Twelfth Night". Annotated, with glossary and essays by literary critics.

Duo smiled as he remembered the circumstances surrounding his acquisition of the book. It was the closest, he bet, that the proper and polite Quatre had ever come -- or would ever come -- to giving a gag gift. The smallish book was very attractive, clothbound, with a beautifully illustrated cover. The inner cover read, in delicate green fountain pen, "Duo, you'll probably enjoy page 121. You'll always be wise enough for us."

Duo flipped there, 100... 115... 118... 124... no, back... The first lines on the page read,

VIOLA
This fellow is wise enough to play the fool;
And to do that well craves a kind of wit:
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, cheque at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practise
As full of labour as a wise man's art
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint their wit.

That provoked a chuckle or so from him, though he didn't really understand it. Duo turned to the beginning and read a couple of lines, then flipped to the ending and read the last couplet. He read the entire book jacket. He turned to a random page in the middle and read some. It was funny how easy it was to procrastinate starting something.

Heero would be back soon. Duo started reading. It was tough -- he frequently had to check the glossary for outdated terms or phrases... and they were plentiful. But he was making pretty good progress, even without cheat-sheets or someone to walk him through it. By early afternoon, he'd finished it and even understood most of it.

Duo smiled. /I only seem like a baka./

But as the day grew onward he became increasingly aware of an illogical and totally instinctual anxiety pressing upon him. There wasn't any pain or literal /fear/, just a sort of prolonged tightness in his throat and stomach. But it made its presence known. Three o'clock rolled around, and no Heero. Three-thirty. Four.

His mind knew that nothing was wrong... at least, nothing visible...

Duo calmly walked over to the vidphone and tried calling Heero's cellular number. No response. Where could he have run off to? He'd been here at about seven o'clock the previous night, when Duo had left to do the shopping. And he hadn't been seen since.

Except on the front page of the paper.

No, it was a coincidence. Heero often went out without telling him where he was going. He wouldn't just randomly go and run off with Relena. He'd /never/ do something like that.. After all, Heero loved him!

Heero loved him...

Just a coincidence. Just a fluke. There would be a big story on the news tonight at seven, telling about how all the papers had been fooled. It would be funny, the anchorwomen would smirk to themselves, the anchormen would smile and joke about it in their rehearsed and phony way. It was like watching the end of an old movie that he already knew. He knew exactly what was going to happen.

Heero was probably confronting Relena about the story. Yes, that was it...

Four-thirty became five as Duo sat and stared at a photograph of Heero on a table.

Duo got onto the net, checked a few sites, looked at his stock portfolio. Mostly the money he lived on was hacked out of defunct OZ accounts, and he knew how to hack out more... but watching the stock market gave him at least a /plausible/ explanation for the neighbors of how he and Heero could live together without either of them holding a job.

In a rare attack of conscience and kindness, Duo looked at the black filing cabinet, sitting on the floor next to the computer.

"I'll do all the boring stuff while he's gone so I can enjoy my time with him when he gets back," Duo announced to the empty apartment. "Besides, it'll be worth it seeing the look on his face when he finds out I did all the stuff he normally has to do..."

He pulled all the bills out of the filing cabinet -- the filing system was predictably Heero, anal-retentive and organized. Easy enough to understand. Time to write some checks. Duo wrote sums out for the fiber/phone bill, the electricity, a bunch of utilities. Credit cards, lots of snacks and video rentals and impulse purchases. Landlord... ugh... homophobic bastard. They'd actually had to convince him that they were brothers, not lovers, before he'd agree to rent them a room. /What an asshole./

Six o'clock.

Bills were done, Heero was nowhere. Also, no one had called him to ask or tease him about the announcement in the papers. Duo shrugged. Maybe it was only on earth that this media error was happening. Or if not, the time difference between earth and the colonies. All the colonies operated on Greenwich time, but he was on the other side of the world from England.

Dinner time. It was ethnic night at the Maxwell-Yuy residence, brought straight to Duo from the dark, exotic depths of the fridge. Microwaved ramen noodles, a few burritos, a lot of chips and salsa. A can of highly caffienated cola. For dessert, an ice cream "Choco Taco."

Six-thirty.

/I miss Heero./

The news would be on in half an hour. That would be fun to watch, if just for watching some hapless newspaper editor guy get embarassed.

/No one's called./

The sun was beginning to set outside, over the ocean. Sunset was always beautiful by the sea. On land, trees and things always hid how the sky really looked; but near the beach -- or in a highly situated location near the beach -- you could see it all.

/Why hasn't anyone called? Do they think I wouldn't like the joke.../

Reds, blues, violets, oranges. Like half of the rainbow distilled and slopped onto the sky, like fingerpaintings of the gods.

/Is there some sort of practical joke going on, to, like, isolate me from everyone? It's not my birthday or April Fools Day or something, is it?/

Duo loaded the dishes into the dishwasher from the sink and poured the crystalized soap into the little slot in the inner side of the door. The smell of the soap reminded him of... disinfectant, a caustic laboratory smell. The room from which he'd purloined Heero...

The blood on Heero's wrists from the straps...

The news would be on soon. Duo flicked on the television, plopped down on the couch, and grinned with anticipation when the cheery chords of the news program's theme music started to play.

/This is gonna be funny./

"First tonight on the news, Foreign Minister Relena Darlian is engaged to one of the infamous Gundam pilots, Heero Yuy... at a press conference today, Darlian said that she planned to remain in her position as chief liason between members of the United Earth Nation..."

/They have his picture on the news?/

Duo's grin slowly faded away as the interview took place.

"I am happy to announce..."

Relena spoke happily to the odd tangle of microphones before her, but Duo didn't hear her. Heero was beside her, not smiling, but not frowning either. The stoic pilot's expression read embarassment, distrust, paranoia... but also some sort of ill-hidden elation. Was Heero participating in this charade? Was he playing along? Wouldn't he say that is was all a cruel trick?

"My marriage to Heero Yuy..."

Thunderous applause.

As though everyone in the world was rejoicing.

Not silence.

Not laughter.

Thunderous applause. Louder than loud.

Relena was ecstatic.

Ecstatic.

And Heero was smiling.

Smiling.

SMILING!

Duo's eyes slammed shut as his head began to pound...

/What the fuck is going on?!/

Duo, disbelieving, clutched the wedding band around his fourth finger on the left hand. He took it off, made sure it was still real, and put it on again. He heard something shattering in the distance; his glass, which had been balanced on the arm of the sofa, as it dropped to the wooden floor.

On the television, Heero kissed Relena for the cameras.

Duo sat there, in shock, taking it all in.

It was over.

This was no joke.

This was no hoax.

This wasn't happening. It couldn't be happening. Did he suggest it? Did she? Why? How? Had he been lying when he said he didn't feel anything for her? Where, when? Without even telling him? Letting him find out the way the rest of the world found out, through television and the papers? As though he was just another face in the crowd?!

Heero wouldn't be coming back. Perhaps for an hour or two sometime, but not more.

As the newscast wrapped up, Duo leaned back onto the cushions and listened to his heart thump along like rifle fire.

/"Shut up, Duo."/

...no...

/"Why?"/

...No!

/"...So I can tell you that I DO care."/

NO! NO! NO! Damn it, no! Was asking for a happy life really that much? Hadn't they both earned their rewards by now? Hadn't they done enough?

Duo's throat contorted as a whimper escaped. /What a pitiful sound. Weak, selfish, greedy. He's doing it for Peace, you idiot? Can't you see that?!/

Another and another, he couldn't stop the sobs or the tears. The pain was simply too great for him to bear. Too much hurt and rejection and loneliness.

GODDAMN IT!!!

Heero had left him. Not for another man, not for someone they'd been really to, not for anyone that Duo might have blamed himself for not matching up to.

Heero hadn't left him for a /friend/.

He'd left him for Relena.

Relena Darlian Peacecraft.

He'd always disliked her. Heero had shunned her presence, had told him so. They'd actually discussed her psychological problems in that restaurant... discussed what was /wrong/ with her...

/I did everything right! I tried my very best! I gave Heero everything I could and it still wasn't enough!!/

WHY?!

Duo shuddered and really started to cry, curling up into a fetal position; hands on the top of his head, staring between his parallel forearms. His knees were at his chest. He didn't care if the neighbors heard. They didn't matter.

All that mattered was that Duo had AGREED to this pain...

/"Promise me."/

/"...Promise you what?"/

/"Promise me you won't give up hope."/

/"In what?"/

/"In me."/

And he'd promised, too... he'd signed his soul away... he'd given his word. And Duo Maxwell never lied.

/Fool me once, shame on you.../

Through tears, he looked at the ring again.

/Fool me twice, shame on me.../


[We Can't Go Back]

Outside the apartment, a cloud eclipsed the sun.

The heavy door creaked open like a death-rattle.

Heero, clad in a long navy blue coat and a suit underneath that, shivered.

"You're back."

They say that a voice can sound 'whiskey-soaked' -- in that the vocal cords have actually become eroded from consumption of alcohol. Duo's voice was stretched and hollow in that fashion. On the other hand, it could have come from tears...

Tears and alcohol; the two went together. Heero had known Duo to get smashed once or twice when he'd been either really happy or really depressed, and had feared that he'd really be out of it /this/ time. But he didn't smell any whiskey around, there weren't any bottles lying around the apartment, and Duo was perfectly conscious: leaning against the windowsill away from him. His head was bowed.

No alcohol. No drugs, no bloody suicide. Heero's worst fears were mercifully not fulfilled.

But...

But the large television was destroyed -- smashed, upturned onto the floor. Glass from the screen was scattered into the soft carpet.

But a gigantic pile of broken dishes rested beneath the sink.

But several framed photographs had been thrown across the room, and were lying next to a wall, broken and limp.

All of the debris was glass, as though Duo had been more intent on hurting himself than on anything else..

"Don't even start. Don't talk to me, Heero."

Heero had occasionally wondered about the capacity of the human voice for expressing emotion. Duo's was doing a fine job of expressing bitterness, loneliness, and most of all pain.

/I didn't want to hurt you.../

"Duo.."

"No," Duo stated as though it were a fact. "Don't say my name. Don't say anything. Just leave this room right now before we both get hurt more."

"I have to talk to you. I want to explain..."

The braided pilot heard his serious, humble words. Perhaps there was still a possibility. Perhaps Heero was planning on escaping, eloping, running away... There was still hope, and being melodramatic about it wouldn't help anyone at all. Duo sighed as he heard himself acquiesce. Sort of...

"Spit it out."

"I heard all the announcements, Heero. You don't need to explain anything. I know what you did and I think I know why you did it."

Uncomfortable. Awkward. Heero would have given anything to be Quatre, be Duo, even be RELENA... to be someone who could explain things... someone who could /talk/.

"Duo, please..."

Still staring out the window, Duo watched a blue car pass by a few stories below them.

"Please what. What do you want from me, Heero? What CAN you want?"

Heero looked down and knew that it was true. He was the one who had run away. He had gone to Relena and been too afraid that she'd been serious -- been too afraid not his for sake, not for Duo's, but the world's sake -- to refuse her demand.

Like a talking doll with a string, he'd said exactly what she wanted to hear.

Yes, he had been unfaithful. Yes, he didn't deserve to see Duo at all. Yes, he had no right to ask the braided man for anything at all.

But he had a right to say a few last words.

"Just let me tell you something,"

Still gazing out the window, Duo spoke fiercely but nonconfrontationally, as though his lover wasn't in the room.

"What? What could you possibly say that could make this better? What could you possibly DO?"

A pause heavy with pain.

"Nothing! Absolutely nothing!"

"...I could tell you that I'm sorry."

Duo rested his face in his hands and scrubbed away something hot and stinging. The feeling wasn't altogether bad, though. At least Heero still cared for him. At least he still meant /something/, if not everything, to his love.

But 'sorry' wasn't anywhere nearly enough.

"That doesn't mean anything. I'm sure you /are/ sorry. God knows I would be if I had to marry her."

/Jealousy. Duo's always been possessive, jealous.../ "I'm sorry because I have to leave you."

Heero paused uncomfortably. It still hurt to say it.

"...I love you. I always will. But the world needs her alive. And without me, she'll die. It's the mission. And I have to return to it."

Duo didn't respond for a while, but finally bowed his head and began to speak.

"Just leave. It'll be better this way, if we make a clean break. You two will be... happy, or at least not unhappy. And me... well, I'll probably be very depressed for a while, then find some way to get by. You know how I always bounce back up."

Duo decided to go for the all-out guilt trip. His voice was thick with irony. "Maybe Trowa and Quatre can help me.... those two certainly know enough about love. Maybe they can tell me what I did wrong."

"You didn't do anything wrong, Duo."

It was a lie. /It's a comforting lie I just told you. You DID do something wrong! You agreed to something you weren't prepared to! I told you not to!/

/I TOLD YOU, YOU BAKA!/

/But you didn't listen. You wanted to love me more than you wanted to be rational. You weren't acting realistic. You weren't ready. You thought you could have it both ways./

/But there's no way that I can tell you that now.../

Duo spun around from the window and faced off with the solemn man, his eyes glittering but not filled with tears. "Then WHY?! If I did everything /perfectly/, then why are you leaving?"

Heero's shoulders slumped as his normal sense of pride became meaningless. "It's my fault. I told you... I could never love you with all my heart. And I told you that I might have to lose you before the war is over."

He looked up at Duo, the braided man's frame shaking with every breath he took.

/It really is Heero's fault, wasn't it...?/

It was so easy to believe...

"The war isn't over, is it...?

"You told me the war would never end. You were right."

Duo sat down on the sofa. Heero had held him, kissed him, made love to him -- on that very spot. It hurt to remember. But it hurt even more to listen to him try to talk, try to fit a lifetime of emotion into a solemn speech. It hurt to hear him to cram a future that would never be into a few minutes.

"Last time my heart was broken, it took seven years and you for me to recover..."

"I still love you, Duo."

"The same way that /God/ still loves me?! Second best?!"

Heero looked as though he was trying to wince and cringe, trying to curl up into a fetal position -- but his body wouldn't let him. /I'm going to have to tell him./

"I told you, Duo. I told you that you'd have to be prepared to settle for second. I told you that you'd never get all of my heart."

"I know that, goddamnit! And I believed it, too!"

"Then why-"

"You thought I'd ignore my brain just to be with you?!" Duo's face was contorted in disbelief. "I knew that this might happen! You never promised me anything except to love me as much as you could."

"So why are you so sad?" Heero snapped. "You knew this would happen. You knew this day might come."

Duo shook his head. /Does he feel at all? Does he have any regret at all? Can all these sensations that normal people feel really be unknown to him?/

Heero's hands formed fists involuntarily.

Duo swallowed. "It's... I always expected something simple, like going off to war again. Or just self-destruction. Something like that I could have withstood. But not this. I'm more prepared to see you /die/, Heero, than I am to see you go and marry her."

Heero's voice was filled with low fire, sparks raking off blue coals.

"BAKA! You think I /want/ to marry her? Do you think that I don't hate her with a passion?!"

Duo's voice contained more surprise than was really prudent. "So..."

The stoic man looked at the floor, humbled but still intense. "Believe me, Duo, you don't have to be jealous. I've always considered Relena a nuisance... but now I think I can say she's much more than that."

"Is that so."

Heero's fingers hooked his pockets. "She took you from me."

"So why don't you just leave her?! Why don't you just say 'nothing doing Relena, you can't do this, grow up!' Why don't you do that?!"

"You're being obstinate again, Duo."

Duo looked up from his gaze at the floor. "Get out," he heard himself say. But he didn't want that. He didn't want his love to go... but staying might hurt more later.

Once again, Duo Maxwell was reduced to searching for an existence based on minimizing pain...

"I'm not going to leave."

/Don't hurt me anymore, Heero. Please, don't hurt me... Don't refuse... don't try to convince me everything will be all right... just leave... just leave.../

The braided pilot turned and exploded.

"SHUT UP! Just leave me alone! Do you think I'm doing this because I want to? Do you think that I'm telling you to leave is because I don't love you anymore?"

"The reason--"

"Well if you do you're /wrong/. I love you, Heero. I'll always love you! But... this..."

Heero sat down next to him on the couch, but did not look at him. He was ashamed -- Heero Yuy, ashamed again -- to be associated with Relena's actions. He was bound to her already.

"There was no other way she'd agree to live."

Duo's violet eyes were wide in outrage.

"Are you kidding me..?"

Heero shook his head.

"What a total... did... did she realize what she was doing? Threatening to kill herself... do you think she KNEW she was holding the entire fucking /world/ hostage just because she couldn't get over you?!"

"...I don't know what I think."

Duo's mouth moved silently for a few seconds. He managed to finally scream, "What a selfish BITCH!"

Heero gazed thoughtfully at the blank wall on the opposite side of the room. "She's just a child. A greedy child. And she wants me for her toy."

Duo shook his head furiously, sending beads of sweat and tears off to be absorbed in the carpet. "No. NO!! She's not a child. No child would be capable of doing /this/ to someone. No child would even THINK about doing this."

Heero's eyes narrowed. "Relena would."

Duo collapsed back into the cushion.

/Itai.../

Duo looked up at the ceiling and watched the tears warp his vision. Whimpers escaped his throat softly, in pathetic, high tones. The sound reminded his lover of distant discordant bells.

Heero awkwardly placed a cold arm around the braided man, but it didn't help. The gesture was superficial, eclipsed by the events that would follow it. Just a charade. Duo didn't want to invest any more hope in believing that things would turn out all right. He pushed Heero's arm away.

/I don't want to pretend anymore./

But real life effort was better than fantasy. And there was still an option left for them. Duo knew that Heero would never terminate his relationship with Relena. That meant the only option was to wait for Relena to do it herself. His mind began to turn and click.

"Listen. Remember a couple of years ago, back in that restaurant?"

"Of course I remember, Duo."

The tears began to clear from his eyes. Hope was there beneath the fire.

"Remember how we talked about how she was so stuck on you? And WHY she was so stuck on you? Do you still believe your... theory?"

Heero started reciting again. Old habits never ceased for Heero Yuy, even in times like this. "Yes. It's been modified a bit, but the ideas are the same. She's only obsessed with me because she cannot influence me."

"So... by that token, once you submit to her she'll totally lose interest in you?" Duo's voice was expectant and eager, a ray of light in the darkness. There was still something left to believe in.

"Hn. Do you still believe yours?"

"Yes." He recapped it for Heero's benefit. "It's maternal instinct, and she's /protecting/ you because you're uninfluenced by her public persona. In either case... this whole thing should just fade away once you're with her for a while, join her in public life for a while... right?"

Heero nodded. "I hope so."

Duo managed a weak, tearful smile. "I sure hope you're right. Or I'm right. Or both of us are right."

"I hope so too."

The pair were silent for a few minutes. Duo leaned into Heero. Touching him didn't feel so bad, after all. He was warm -- his coat was still on.

/He hasn't taken it off because he knows he'll have to go./

Duo's tears burned his eyes, and suddenly he couldn't keep them open -- squeezing them shut, shutting out the pain, trying to shut out everything he saw. It didn't work. The pain just didn't go away. The ache behind his eyes and in his gut didn't go away.

Heero listened to his returning sobs as he held him. He was as good as gone, lost forever, dead, killed, a corpse that walked and talked. Holding him was like holding a dead body.

"Can't we just forget all of this? Can't we just fake your death or something... and go off and live happily...?"

"No, Duo. I'm sorry."

His arm tightened around the braided pilot and he buried his head in Duo's thick, soft hair. Duo nestled his head into that spot on Heero's shoulder that he liked, and closed his eyes. It was almost real, it felt so good. But thinking about it any more would just cause more hurt when he had to leave.

Duo withdrew from his arms and kissed him on the lips.

Heero rose to go, and his lover thought that he saw something change inside his hard blue eyes. He opened his mouth, then closed it again as though deciding not to say anything.

Still sitting on the couch, Duo brushed the hair and teardrops off of his face.

"Yeah, I know. We can't go back, Heero."

"Mmm."

"I'll wait for you."

"...Don't give up on me, Duo"

Duo's eyes were wide and honest, adoring; but the tears were still there "I love you."

Heero sighed and looked away. "I love you too."

He opened the blue door, stepped outside, and shut it quietly. Outside, the sun began to paint cold black shadows on the dirty beige pavement once more.


[AC 198 to AC 201]

Dawn flashed upon the facade of a modest mansion, three stories, obviously several hundred years old, with many forward-facing windows and a balcony. I was mottled white stone, covered with ivy. Several luxury cars were parked carefully on the gravel driveway. White rose bushes, elaborate flowers, walls of beautiful plants surrounded it on the wide grounds. Sunrise painted the facade with elaborate shadows.

The master bedroom overlooked the front lawn through a largish picture window on the right side of the house. It faced east -- light was streaming in the window. Beneath the white curtains two sleeping forms were almost dwarfed by a massive four-poster bed. One had dark hair, one light -- the light-haired one had snuggled up against the dark-haired one, who was facing away from her in barely contained but still unconscious revulsion.

/Fitter happier

Heero woke up to find himself wearing blue silk pajamas. His eyes blinked open without surprise, taking in his surroundings. 5:53 AM. Darlian house. Master bedroom.

Relena. He was sleeping with Relena. There were nights when, in the haze of half sleep where truths seem like fiction, he felt her snuggle against him and he pressed into her, thinking she was Duo...

Reflexively and still wearily, he looked over at the light-haired figure with dismay and undisguised pain. Relena was sleeping in a sort of matronly but still attractive nightgown, almost a chemise but much longer. Not at all indecent; almost virginal. The sort of thing a rich little girl would wear.

He missed Duo. He missed waking up next to him, locking his eyes on the braided man's so that he could watch him rise from slumber. The sight of his violet orbs gently fluttering open was always more than worth the wait. Duo always looked peaceful when he slept. He'd once told Heero that since they'd been together he didn't have nightmares much at all.

Heero surreptitiously hugged himself against the morning air and wondered how many nightmares Duo was having now.

/more productive

Heero scanned the room: nothing out of the ordinary.

The newspapers on the endtable read: DARLIAN MAKES DIPLOMATIC BREAKTHROUGH, and RELATIONS OPENED WITH COLONY C-661, and UNITED EARTH NATION GAINS NEW MEMBER. Photographs of Relena in various states of diplomatic disarray were on each page, in each one beside Heero.

The usual publicity and press. He hadn't been able to adjust to it at first, sulking and glaring at the cameras. After Relena had scolded him for it, he had decided that Duo might have had the right idea in smiling all the time.

She didn't care about his feelings... but then, she never really had in the first place. She'd yelled at him because he hadn't enjoyed being photographed by hundreds of merciless press sharks.

The memory was strangely funny.

Her voice floated up from beneath the covers. "I love you, Heero."

"...I know, Relena."

/comfortable

Heero detached himself hurriedly from Relena's arms, seemingly unconscious of his body's movement, his mind elsewhere. He moved toward the door without reluctance but also without eagerness, submissive to the day's usual responsibilities: locked into routine.

/not drinking too much

He splashed cold water onto his face and groggily removed the shaving supplies from the light-decked cabinet. It was covered in bulbs, like a vanity or a makeup mirror backstage at a theatre.

The dark-haired man remembered vaguely the events of the previous night. A ball, some fundraiser for yet another charity. Oddly chosen and fleeting images of the previous night flashed across his brain. They'd been seated at a table, in tuxedo and ballgown. They'd had some wine, only a glass or so. They'd listened politely to the speeches. And then they'd danced.

Dancing with Relena was an exercise in misery. He didn't like to touch her body, let alone stay in prolonged contact with her. And the worst thing of it was, she knew that! She was aware that at home he never touched her, held her hand... But their social situation always seemed to dictate some form of physical contact.

He wondered if she planned it that way...

/regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week)

Heero changed efficiently into a pair of sweatpants and a neutral-grey tank top. Padding downstairs over the wide carpeted staircase in slippers, he walked through the west wing and entered the room that housed the gymnasium.

Treadmill: 7.5, thirty minutes. Weights: bench press, military press, dips, squats, snatches. Ten laps in the pool. An hour and a half of exercise allowed Heero to wake up.

/getting on well with your associate employee contemporaries

At the breakfast table, Heero nodded to a servant serving coffee in a friendly way. His air wasn't condescending, but rather inclusive and companionable: it was as though he considered /himself/ a servant as well. The nameless steward looked away, somewhat perturbed.

/at ease

Heero looked over at Relena, who was just sitting down now. She beamed at him; obviously totally infatuated. Heero managed a brief smile before burying his nose in his coffee and the daily itinerary. Satisfied that she was no longer looking at him, he sat back in his chair and watched a fly crawl across the opposite wall, used to the pressure by now. She could fool herself for a little longer. She had managed to for this long.

Just a little longer...

/eating well (no more microwave dinners and saturated fats)

Heero and Relena helped themselves to an extravagant but still healthful breakfast: coffee, salmon, eggs, croissants, waffles heaped with blueberries. The woman -- she was a woman now, nineteen and mature -- relished the taste of each delicious dish. Her husband merely moved the fork to his mouth, not moving his head or body. His choices in food were based solely on their nutrient and calorie content.

/a patient better driver

In the front seat of a black luxury sedan, Heero glanced in the rearview mirror at Relena. With an almost professional courtesy, he conversed concisely with his wife on a matter that mattered to neither of them: the weather. Heero's part of the conversation consisted mostly of "Yes" and "Hn," though he did insert an observation when he felt one was appropriate.

He inserted the key into the car's ignition and felt a slight electrical shock.

Heero had duplicated the car's key out of a conductive metal and installed a voltage tester and microcomputer chip, about the size of a pinhead, inside. It was programmed to check for the correct current running through the ignition, and if there was a drain or a gain from the usual, it would zap his hand.

/a safer car (baby smiling in back seat)

Car bomb.

Heero froze in serious contemplation. He gingerly shushed Relena, who had moved into the exciting conversational topic of landscaping, and opened the car door for her, murmuring a cautious word to her, leading her into the house. He was her bodyguard as well as her husband. When he had shut the front door after her, he ran out to the car and ripped open the hood hurriedly.

Assassination attempt. Two in the last three weeks.

/sleeping well (no bad dreams)

A bomb inside the front of the car, attached to the engine. Shit. Shit! No counter, but an ominous hum of some sort... obviously the beginning of a charge cycle.

Heero calmly removed an insulated wire-cutting tool from his jacket pocket and snipped a few wires leading to the car battery. Nothing; the bomb was clearly running on an internal power supply. At least it was a time-activated device and not a remote-detonating model. He'd seen the design before -- in fact, he'd even built one before. RDX plastique, not as expensive or stable as C4. This one was going to be tough to disarm. And there was no time left to disarm it in.

He started to run a few seconds before the car went up in a rain of flying metal and flaming gasoline.

But he didn't run as fast as he could have.

Half of the windows in the front of the Darlian estate shattered. Face down on the ground, Heero's eyes flickered shut.

/no paranoia

A few days later, Heero walked out of a hospital surrounded by press, walking fine but moving his arms somewhat stiffly. He answered a few questions, smiled mechanically for the flashbulbs, and went over to the new car. Inside, before starting up the engine, he fished around in his pocket and looked down at a yellow slip. The doctor's handwriting was so bad that normal people would need to take courses in cryptography and ciphers to understand it, but Heero could read the name of the drug and "Tranquilizer"...

/careful to all animals (never washing spiders down the plughole)

The next morning, in the bathroom, Heero was shirtless and shaving numbly with a safety razor. He'd tried a pill for the pain. It had made everything duller and fuzzier, including Relena, so that was a distinct benefit to the drug. His physiological "sixth sense" told him that he would become addicted if he took too many. White strips of cloth, stained with blood where he'd opened a wound, circled all around his chest and upper arms.

A large grey spider scuttled across the white porcelain, skirting the growing sludge of white fluff and water and scattered facial fuzz. Heero noticed it but didn't brush it into the water, letting it climb vertically down the lip of the sink and onto the floor.

/keep in contact with old friends

The tinny sound of transmission audio flirted through the study as Heero spoke, deadpan and morose, on the vidphone with Quatre. The blond man, despite his insane schedule, had been making calls every week to Heero... and Duo as well.

"How's Duo?"

Quatre responded with a series of positive generalities.

The look of disorganization and cheerfulness that Quatre had thrown onto his face did not distract Heero from noticing his overall aura of concern and helplessness. He didn't care: he switched off the phone with a smile. It was time to call Duo.

Three rings and Duo picked up, the cold look in both their faces melting in an instant.

They called each other every week.

Heero looked for inquiring faces and murmured, "...I miss you."

"I miss you too."

/(enjoy a drink now and then)

Wufei, dressed in a Preventer uniform, sat down next to Sally Po on a loveseat by a fire. She was similarly adorned. Heero glanced at the pair with a rare contemplation in his face as he pondered something: who would have thought that the most mysogynistic of all the pilots would turn out to be the only straight one...?

The Chinese man's "onna" had obviously cajoled and pressured him into coming, and his face still registered reluctance -- but also a sort of mute relief and acceptance, the way that a nagging adult would look at a reformed, formerly delinquent teenager. His arms were crossed, as usual. Sally, on the other hand, looked pleasant and businesslike, but also slightly disturbed by something. Heero was talking to them robotically, mechanically sipping sake. Sally's sake was completely gone, Wufei's half so.

Why was Wufei acting so relieved...?

/will frequently check credit at (moral) bank (hole in wall)

Heero typed on his laptop, accessing the secret account information, the slush fund in case of catastrophe. Mr. Heero Yuy, Mrs. Relena Darlian. Their balance was absurdly high, several million adjusted credits. The hoard was in order. Hopefully, it would never be needed. With a weary but somehow satisfied expression, he shut off the computer.

Just taking precautions.

Later, through a white-veiled window, Heero watched Relena drive away to some conference. He casually walked over and removed the false back from his closet, checking his arsenal as usual. Assault rifles, plastique, semiautomatics, pistols, knives. An illegally modified UZI. Leaned up against the corner of the secret compartment, an antitank railgun. This hoard was in order, too. Hopefully it would never be needed. With a weary but somehow satisfied expression, Heero closed the passage.

Relena had to survive.

/favors for favors

On a cloudy and humid day, Heero walked into a pharmacy and handed the pharmacist the prescription he got at the hospital. The expression on his face told anyone that might be watching that he was only doing it because of "doctor's orders".... The man behind the counter raised his eyebrows and whistled. Strong drug.

He foraged around back in the shelves, and handed Heero an amber medicine bottle with some large-looking white capsules in it. Heero pocketed it and produced his wallet. Outside the building, he took a pill. Immediately, his severe expression mellowed out a little bit, and he walked down the street briskly.

/fond but not in love

In a bathroom, Heero regarded the bottle of tranquilizers and shrugged wearily. He popped down another, washing it down with a handful of tapwater.

/charity standing orders

A week later, Heero and Relena were dancing at some society function, a benefit of some sort, in tuxedo and ball-gown. It was the same routine every Saturday night. It was the same conversation every time they danced...

"Do you remember the first time we danced, Heero?"

"Yes. Saint Gabriel's."

"Second time?"

"Our wedding."

"That's odd, isn't it?" She smiled cutely. "I wonder how many people only danced once before they got married to each other. You must really love me."

She convinced herself of this nearly every day. This had become her substitute for what she'd always dreamed she'd have: a lover who would sweep her off of her feet, tell her he loved her with a passion. A placebo for her romantic fantasies. She sighed to herself. Having Heero was enough, though. More than enough.

There was no expression in Heero's cobalt eyes save a slightly intoxicated haze. He'd taken two tranquilizers before /this/ particular occasion.

Relena noticed that he was less tense than he usually was when they danced.

/on sundays ring road supermarket
/(no killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants)

The servants were bringing in the groceries, under Heero's supervision. He looked like the classmate assigned to tell on misbehaving kids when the teacher was gone. His face was, as always, numb.

/car wash (also on sundays)

It was autumn now, and the leaves were shifting around on the ground again. One of the servants was washing and waxing a /new/ black car, soaping it up with a bucket and sponge. On their way to one of their infrequent walks outside, Heero and Relena stopped and nodded at the servant approvingly.

/no longer afraid of the dark
/or midday shadows

The pair stood shaded by orange trees with leaves blowing in the wind, in a clearing by a stream. Bushes were beginning to brown, and in some places you had to wade through the leaves on the forest floor. Heero and Relena gazed out over the bridge -- the stepping stones that she'd crossed so many times with her foster parents -- into the Arcadia of the forest beyond them. Beautiful like a church.

Relena put her arm around Heero, and held onto his hand when they crossed the stream on the stones. She giggled and laughed helplessly, but Heero could barely conjure up a smile.

Under her breath, she mumbled cheerfully, "Be careful. I won't let you fall. I won't drop you." A memory floated up from the well of her mind, but she couldn't quite see what it was

/nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate
/nothing so childish

At night, Relena cuddled up to a tired Heero in their massive, ornate bed. As she put her arms around him and looked into his eyes, he tried to think of something else and smiled weakly.

As a servant turned off the light, she said, "I love you, Heero. I always will."

/at a better pace
/slower and more calculated

Heero splashed water into his face, gasping for air. Somehow, it was morning.

It hurt to go this slowly. It hurt to wait this long. He thought about Duo every second, swam in Duo, ran on Duo, breathed Duo, ate Duo. Duo was everything. He told himself that he had to survive until she didn't want him anymore.

But there are toys that children never grow tired of...

After locking the door, shuttering the windows, cramming a towel under the crack to make sure no sound escaped, and turning on the water to muffle any other sound, Heero bent over the basin and calmly watched his tears roll down his face and into the water.

/no chance of escape
/now self-employed

Heero was waiting in the black sedan in front of a gray governmental building. Relena, finished with some sort of conference, walked out briskly and confidently, the epitome of the competent and willful diplomat. Heero exited the car without any expression at all and opened the back door for her. She rewarded him with a fond and familiar kiss on the cheek.

Weeks passed this way.

/concerned (but powerless)

Another weekend afternoon at the Darlian-Yuy household. Through the tinny speaker of the vidphone, a hung-over and miserable Heero watched and listened to Duo screaming at him with the volume turned way down.

"Get out of there! GET OUT! Don't you fucking hear me?! It's the only way that you're going to survive!!"

Heero looked around to make sure no one was watching, and kissed the flat and brightly lit screen. Kissing the coarse grid of the screen was like kissing sandpaper. Duo's eyes began to glitter with inevitable tears.

"I'll be able to survive. I know I can. You don't have to..."

The braided man's voice cracked and sobbed, "I'll never leave you, Heero."

Heero sighed with quiet dismay at his lover. Duo was honest, ardent, faithful. All the things that he had tried to be but couldn't. "I love you."

Duo couldn't manage to say anything, only reached over and closed the connection.

/an empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism)
/will not cry in public

Heero, standing back on the platform of a political conference, watched with a satisfied expression as Relena wrapped up an impassioned appeal to the floor of the political convention. She was greeted by thousands of flashbulbs and thunderous applause.

Backstage, while Relena was putting on new makeup, Heero swallowed some pills: three, this time. He noticed that his little amber bottle was empty.

/less chance of illness

A day later, Heero was back at the pharmacy, talking to the clerk. He was a middle-aged european man with rosy cheeks and gray hair, and looked as though he'd be more at home in a pub than in a drugstore. The stoic man handed him a yellow slip, but the man looked at it and shook his head.

"Prescription period's expired. Talk to your doctor."

"I see."

/tires that grip in the wet (shot of baby strapped in back seat)

The headlights of the car lit up large drops of rain in their path as the luxury sedan sped down a highway. Inside, Heero and Relena sat in silence. The noise of rain breaking on the windshield was interrupted by a voice. "Heero, how come you never talk to me anymore?"

/a good memory

Heero, after having answered her question with some excuse about being tired and recovering from his injuries, shifted gears. His mind, though, was occupied; gears grinding against each other and computers churning out reams of printout.

"I have /never/ talked to her..."

/still cries at a good film
/still kisses with saliva

Relena lay on the couch with her head on his lap, watching a sad movie on the bigscreen TV. Heero, out of habit more than conscious thought, cradled her head as she sniffled during the big parting scene. He resembled an animatron, a human doll, an autistic robot, a warm thing to hug and kiss and love; more than he did a real human being.

A doll so real that believing it was human was easy... if you closed your eyes at the right times.

/no longer empty and frantic
/like a cat
/tied to a stick
/that's been driven into
/frozen winter shit (the ability to laugh at weakness)

The cello section of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" wafted into the office from a stereo somewhere. "Dance of the Knights." Heero, wearily sitting at a mahogany desk, ignored the music and examined a brown cardboard package that had just been delivered. It was about the size of a thick dictionary. He held it up, rattled it around a bit, sniffed it. His suspicions confirmed, he dialed 911 to call the bomb-squad, then set it aside and started to sign papers. Ten cautious minutes later, police arrived in the driveway for the second time that month.

/calm
/fitter, healthier, and more productive

A morning not long from then, Heero looked at himself in the mirror. His face was still handsome, but the bags under his eyes were more prominent than ever. His unshaven face was blank.

"I have to survive.."

Even if it hurt more than anything had hurt before. It did.

Under his breath, "I love you, Duo..."

Heero gazed at the empty room behind him, reflected off the looking glass. He bowed his head over the sink to slap water onto it. When he looked up again, Relena was standing behind him, cheerful and chipper.

/a pig
/in a cage
/on antibiotics

Relena woke up for a sleepy moment in the middle of the night, looked up into his blank, worn, but still undeniably handsome face, and sighed. She was so lucky to have someone like him. He was perfect, beautiful, patient...

"I love you, Heero. I always will."

Relena smiled as she drifted off to sleep, her arms curled up around her loved one's chest and back, careful of the raw pale area where the bandages used to be. His skin was smooth and warm under the silk sheets. Like a doll's porcelain skin.

Just before she slipped below the realm of consciousness, she thought, "And I know you'll always love me, too."

Before they had been together, Heero had occasionally observed Duo crying in his sleep.

But as Relena drifted off, she did not notice that her husband's eyes were wet...


[Wish You Were Here]

Duo Maxwell sat backwards on a chair, arms crossed on the bar of the seat's back, chin resting on his forearms. Before him was an open window, and a generic-looking table with a framed picture on it. The room that he was in -- the room that he and Heero used to share, the one they'd proposed in, made love in -- was on the western side of the apartment building. On his left brilliant shafts of light were entering the room, carving rectangular channels in the dust motes. Sort of like a somber church at dusk.

/So, so you think you can tell heaven from hell,
/Blue skies from pain?

Duo reached, in a long-forgotten gesture, for his golden cross, but as usual grasped at nothing but air. He shook his head mournfully.

His expression was bored, lost, and melancholy, his face was worn with pain and waiting. The bright light wasn't exactly doing wonders for his face: It appeared to have lost its youthful shine. Duo was by all accounts still handsome, but something was gone: a certain spark, a certain zest for life. He wasn't sure if it was childish innocence or simply the contented satiation that he'd shared with Heero for those three perfect years....

He sighed and got up from the chair.

/Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
/a smile from a veil

Another day in the city. Wrapped in a knee-length black raincoat, Duo navigated his way through an empty and dismal city park. The trees around him were almost bare skeletons, the wind flicking off the rest of their remaining leaves. Through the emptiness between their branches, one could see large and monolithic city buildings surrounding the park. The sky was cloudy, thunderheads massing in the distance. Duo's long brown bangs floated sideways in the constant current of air.. A black baseball cap was pulled over his eyes, shielding passers-by from his violet gaze. His shoulders were hunched, hands were in his pockets.

He always wore more clothes now that Heero was gone.

He was thinner, now that Heero was gone.

And the leaves on the trees were always dying, now that Heero was gone.

/Do you think you can tell?

Remembering a flashing and shapeless memory, Duo looked back over the park. The Heero and Duo of two years before were walking through the same section of pavement, strolling casually along at a closer-than-friendly distance from each other. The trees were totally green, and Duo couldn't see any of the skyscrapers behind them. Both of them were smiling, Heero less so than Duo.

/And did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?

Duo slammed the door to the apartment. Nothing helped. Trying to stop the pain was as useless as catching sand with a sieve. He walked up to a bookshelf and reached for a photo album that was, instead, full of black-and-white clippings from newspapers. Duo's new passion, and one that years before he would have regarded as pathetic and sad, had become collecting old news, most from before he was born. The index tags read: "AC 101-146", "AC 147-173", "AC 173-185", and "AC 185 +". He flipped through them.

A file photograph of the assassinated Colony leader, Heero Yuy. The date was April 7, AC 175... He was lying on the ground, chest plastered to the ground by a pool of blood. His arms were outstretched. His head was splayed out to the side, facing the camera; a death-mask.

A headline dated February 20, AC 183. CINQ KINGDOM OCCUPIED. A photograph of Relena's original father, King Peacecraft, dead...

/Hot ashes for trees?

Duo's eyes closed. In his mind's eye, he could see the burning ruins of Maxwell Church. Dust hung heavy in the windless air. A churchyard with a spiky wrought-iron fence, with a smoking pile of metal and wood inside. Bodies everywhere, scattered left and right. Debris from the explosions had been thrown close to a hundred feet, into the long patch of gravestones to the church's side.

And, though it was warped slightly by the tears in his eyes, his view morphed into the magnificent, color-splashed autumn of the Darlian estate, a place he'd only been to once. Such beauty, almost legendary or imaginary. A beautiful place to live. Thick oaks and maples, and a few scattered beech and ash trees. The trunks rose like pillars from the chaotic and cluttered forest floor, the view extending off into the foggy distance. Leaves sailed through the air like lifeboats on invisible current.

/Hot air for a cool breeze?
/Cold comfort for change?

Duo opened his eyes. The apartment was there again. He walked into the bedroom and collapsed into a green easy chair, looking blankly across the room... and he remembered something that had taken place there.

Heero had been lying on the bed reading a book, his back and shoulders propped against a fluffy pillow. Duo had bounced in and leaped onto the bed, assuming an adorable pose. He'd been facing down, his chin propped up by his crossed forearms, legs kicking at nothing; all just to gaze up at his love's earnest and handsome pace.

Duo imagined Relena in the same position and tried not to destroy something.

How dare she?

If she hadn't been the world's one hope for peace -- if destiny had made her someone expendable -- Duo would kill her in a second. But then, if that were true, he wouldn't need to, Heero would already be his...

/And did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in the cage?

Duo walked back into the kitchen and read another newspaper clipping that hadn't yet been affixed to the album: DARLIAN SAVED BY HUSBAND FROM ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT. There was a photo of Relena possessively clutching Heero, and the stoic man doing his best to look relieved for the cameras. A child showing off her new toy.

/How I wish
/How I wish you were here.

The night outside was cold and cut with neon. Duo slammed the door, threw his coat into the corner, and collapsed onto the bed. Facing down, arms crossed before his eyes, his head was pressed against a pillow and his silent tears left little grey circles on the white fabric. Half of the bedspread was wrinkled, but the other half was left pristine.

The braided man only slept on half of the bed. The other side belonged to Heero, still did after years had passed.

He'd heard people talking on the street. It hurt enough knowing that his love was gone. It hurt even more now that they'd become the topic of the local sewing circle: a crowd of twentyish men in a bar.

"Hey, there's that faggot kid from my building."

"What's his problem?"

"His man left him for some rich chick..."

"Fucking faggot..."

"Don't say that too loud, he looks pissed..."

"Scared of a queer?"

"Scared of HIM. Kid's a fuckin' psycho... I hear the shit he breaks..."

Duo sighed and looked to the bedside table. Idiots. The clock read 12:12 AM. Maybe he WAS a psychopath, obsessing over Heero like this. Maybe /he/ was the hopeless one. Maybe Heero and Relena were actually happy together. Maybe the special voice Heero saved for him on the phone was nothing but a charade, designed to drive him away like they'd planned to drive away Relena. A coddling existence, like the lies used to appease the elderly...

Perhaps life meant nothing...

/We're just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl
/year after year

Duo frowned hopelessly and switched off the light. The nightmares came right on schedule. Sister Helen's corpse. The crow picking at Father Maxwell's neck. The cross shattering on the pavement. The stained-glass rainbows of the church's interior, draping across the pews like yards of fabric hanging on a massive loom. Heero and Relena's wedding photograph, her smiling, he trying to look presentable. Deathscythe-Hell, double beam-scythe slicing something in two. An exploding mobile suit. A small boy screaming at the sky. Space Fortress Libra falling towards the Earth. Relena and Heero kissing passionately.

Perhaps having no emotions would be better. Perhaps punishing those who caused such pain would be better.

Perhaps becoming Death again would be better...

/Running over the same old ground
/What have we found? The same old fears

Duo's eyes snapped open in the darkness. He sat up and flicked on the light switch. 2:32. He collapsed back onto the bed, afraid to sleep because sleep brought dreams. Totally and completely alone. He moved his arms back and reached for a lumpy white thing. In a last resort of alienation and loneliness, he hugged his pillow, a pathetic expression of blissful catharsis and ironic, loathing self-pity on his face. His lips moved as he spoke sweet nothings to an imaginary someone.

A play Heero. Something to hug and kiss and pretend loved you back. Relena had one and now he had one. They were the hip new toy this Christmas. But the real Heero wouldn't be home for Christmas...

/Wish you were here.

Duo lay on the double-bed and looked helplessly up at the ceiling, emotionally exhausted; tired of living, tired of everything; totally alone. One arm was folded behind his head, another was wrapped around the pillow. His eyes were not focused on anything in particular, save a cardboard-brown moth fluttering about the overhead light.

His illuminated window was the only room in the building with a light on. From the next building over, his room might look like a nightlight to a child. From the roof of the bank further towards the ocean, it might look like a lightning bug.

From farther out into the void, the light would resemble a pinprick in a black veil; a solitary speck of light, unmoving and unshifting, completely alone.

In this way, three years passed slowly by.


[AC 201]

Outside the Darlian estate, the sun was a pale circle masked by the gray November sky. The birds that usually sang had long ago traveled south. Only blackbirds and crows and flocks of geese crossed the sky in this season. Unlike the previous month, a brisk and colorful October, the massive trees around the grounds were now almost bare, resembling great tan-mottled skeletons. The snow would arrive soon, and with it the smell of wood fires and cozily yellow-lit rooms. But on that day, something seemed wrong.

Throughout the year, everyone did their best to keep the mansion completely immaculate -- groundskeepers and gardeners swept pathways and trimmed hedges and bushes; maids and servants tidied up, cooked, and cleaned. In winter, the regular snowfall frosted the estate with a delicate, chilled glaze of ice and fluffy snow. In spring, flowers bloomed and trees became green. In summer, the warm winds and thunderstorms gently aged and battered the plants. In fall, the most spectacular, the orange leaves scattered and heaped upon the ground. And in all of these times, the grounds were beautiful.

But today, there was something vaguely unsettling... almost /foreboding/... about the estate. People often look their most awkward while growing and changing -- and this was surely the case here. Like a car's transmission humming awkwardly while shifting gears, the mansion and its grounds were stranded somewhere between autumn and winter, between here and there.

On some days, like these ones in between seasons, it became obvious that there were aesthetic aspects of the house's locale that not even the dedicated staff could control. These transitional periods left the house vulnerable, weakened. And, when something that normally would not matter went wrong -- the weather was bad, for instance, or the light was wrong, or there was frost too early or late -- the estate was liable to look severe and disagreeable.

The Darlian estate had been, for many years before, a favorite haunt of various landscaping and decorating magazines, who always praised the people who originally chose the site for their "superb sense of aesthetic balance".

The opinions of various critics and photographers didn't matter at all to Heero Yuy. Since his entrance into a high social strata three years before, he'd often been teasingly accused of not appreciating the "good things" in life. When he was, his instinct for decorum and tact kicked in, and he always managed a forced, artificial smirk, and sometimes even defended himself by mentioning their estate and the condition in which it was kept. Heero learned the patterns of any social group well.

But now that he was in his office, and Relena was in /her/ office working on a speech -- he would have to listen to it and give her advice on it later -- and no members of the papparazi or photographers were around, he could quite comfortably say that he didn't care what his house looked like. To Heero's mind, a house was a house. And size simply meant that you could store more things in it.

Like all the rooms in the mansion, the office was adorned with various ornaments and decorative devices -- elegant, curving moldings between the wall and ceiling, various pictures of famous nobodies, a framed painting. The windows were partitioned off into squares by a white wooden lattice. Heero sat at an obnoxiously ornate desk, surrounded by shelves of obscure books and ancient texts, typing on his laptop, searching the area for the location of a certain parmaceutical company's storage and production labs.

Six years before, during their tenure together as prep-school transfer students by day and Gundam pilots by night, Duo Maxwell's largest gripe about Heero Yuy had been his penchant for using his computer. He complained about it to everyone who was polite enough to listen to him, whether they were his fellow pilots, passing students, or just random people on the street. It wasn't one of Duo's usual shows-of-rambunctiousness for the benefit of the people surrounding him, either. Even when they were alone together... and even after they went from friends to being lovers... the Deathscythe pilot always complained about Heero's "addiction" to his laptop. The Wing pilot had then considered it a simple insecurity of Duo's, an irrational fear of being left behind for a computer.

But it was an ironic coincidence that today, Heero was using his laptop not to ignore Duo, but to find a way back to him. Or at least, something similar...

He would have liked to have avoided using this particular method, of course. But things were getting much too big; much too complex, for him to stand on his own any longer. He had to find a way out of the prison he was in. He had to find a way to get away from Relena... find a way to withstand her, tolerate her... find something -- anything -- any possible way to get away from her.

Even Heero had a maximum tolerance for pain, and he was rapidly being pushed to that limit. Sleeping with Relena, trying to move away from her clinging and clutching arms. Having to hold her, touch her, in front of the cameras so everyone could see how happy they were. Imagining how Duo and Trowa and Quatre and even Wufei were holding up. Feeling a part of his heart disappear each day... Listening to her babble on and on...

There was one obvious choice: for him to just consider it "The Mission". It would have been all too easy for Heero to let go of what few emotions he had, and simply sink into a coma of apathy and robotic routine. The pain only existed when he remembered that he loved Duo... so why not try to stop loving him? Why not become, as his lover had suggested he was in AC 195, a machine? Relena could live that way, and so could Duo... albeit uncomfortably and hopelessly.

But if Heero were to abandon his emotions, he would let them go forever. He would no longer "love" anything. And love, though one would hardly think it, was what held his life together. Love for peace. Love for Duo. Becoming a machine would destroy who he was and what he fought for.

And if the political situation changed -- if Relena died, if war started again, if peace needed to be protected once more -- then Heero would not be able to do it. In an emotionless state, he would simply be locked into his last objective, protecting Relena. And if she became a liability to peace, then he would /continue/ to protect her, and in the end, wind up working against his greatest love...

But simply continuing the way he had been was not an option. He couldn't pretend to love her anymore. He couldn't kill his soul anymore. Heero had once thought that as long as he considered it his "Mission", he would be able to do anything. And it had taken Duo Maxwell's love to show him just how wrong he had been.

It was possible to choose between loves.

But it always hurt. And the hurt never went away.

Dissolving his emotions was out. But /something/ had to be done. Relena had stolen him. And he desperately wanted to go back to where he belonged. He wanted to feel his love's touch, the whispered words and the breath on the back of his neck. He needed to feel what they'd shared.

Heero needed to feel real again.

Escape was impossible. He could leave in the middle of the night, run home to Duo, just leave her alone; abandon her with no warning and no signs of where he would go. From a logistical standpoint, that might work, as Heero was an expert at disappearing. But the problem with this was Relena's reaction. She might totally lose it and do what she'd threatened to do three interminable years ago -- kill herself. That contingency was unacceptable as it would threaten the unstable political situation in the Earth Sphere. Besides, he needed to be there to protect her.

Suicide was also impossible. There were enough weapons stashed inside the house to enable Heero to kill himself quite easily. But Duo's mind could break; Relena might kill herself too; there was simply too much to risk. Most of all, it would end permanently all chances of somehow escaping the situation while still alive. Duo would truly be lost then. And no one would win that way...

Faking his death was possible, but also extremely dangerous. He could arrange an explosion, a bombing, /something/ that no "normal" person could survive... and then start living under one of his many new identities. He'd set them up years before, as as precaution... Then he'd meet up with Duo, contact Relena once she'd had a chance to become used to his absence, and that would be all. Duo wouldn't give up on him unless there was a corpse -- Duo wouldn't leave him behind unless there was no real hope. No, Heero didn't have to worry about his lover killing himself. But the problem was Relena. For all of his experience and knowledge, he had absolutely no idea how she would react if he "died", even for just a while...

He'd judged Relena wrong before -- both he and Duo had, inside that restaurant in AC 195. And three years after that, they had agreed on a plan that assumed that one, or both, of those theories were correct. But they had been completely wrong. He and Duo had thought that close contact and assimilation, if that was possible, of Heero, would totally cancel her infatuation with him. But if anything, Relena was even more obsessed with him than she'd ever been.

Perhaps she really was in love with him. Though he wouldn't admit it to anyone, even Duo on one of their infrequent and longing conversations, he was scared of that idea.

If Relena was really in love with him, she might never let him go.

In any case, it was impossible for Heero to anticipate her behavior if he disappeared. All bets were off now. What was more, he could not physically leave Relena. What other choices were left?

As ex-Queen of the World, and as the current Foreign Minister -- she'd been promoted now -- Relena Darlian symbolized peace and equity to the colonies. No one in the Earth Sphere could replace her, or even try to. Like she'd been in school, she was completely popular and admired; like a religious leader. Except for a few scattered dissenters, policies that she supported were almost unequivocally supported by all governments in the Earth Sphere. Charismatic, passionate, businesslike... Even the various colony sides under extremely radical governments; like C-1701's, who desired total independence from the United Earth Nation and its ailing economy, would agree with her from time to time.

But, in a way even surpassing her personal popularity in importance, Relena was absolutely instrumental in the newly formed democratic government. Her politics -- both pragmatic and populist -- drew an almost equal line down the center of the political spectrum. Governmental debate was, in a way, calibrated according to her opinions... in other words, if Relena were to cease to be able to lead, the government would most likely collapse. Her presence was an absolute requirement for peace. Even with her dead as a martyr, political movers formerly secondary to her would probably struggle to grab her place in the government. That would lead to another power struggle, and probably other wars...

The stoic man shook his head and continued to type, redefining search parameters on his computer.

Did she really /need/ him? Was there any chance of making her wake up to reality? Could he possibly confront her, tell her how wrong she had been that night three years before? Even if she realized how short-sighted and insensitive she'd been, he still doubted he'd be able to do it without totally destroying her psyche. Heero had never been a good communicator. Duo, perhaps, could pull it off... but this, too, was too much of a risk to think about undertaking.

Peace... and hence, Relena's survival, was necessary. /His/ survival... and the survival of his /emotions/ was also necessary. These were the only objectives. And Heero always completed his objectives.

But if he had to choose, he knew which one he'd pick. There was no question about it. But that choice might never have to occur. For now, at least, there might be a way to let them coexist.

The tranquilizers he'd gotten from the doctor after that assassination attempt had run out long ago. It was probably a good thing, too. They provided a relief from the perception of Relena's presence, but at the expense of Heero's reaction time, reflex level, and general awareness of his surroundings. He couldn't protect Relena that way.

He needed to be aware of the mind-crushing truths around him, be totally coordinated, deadly accurate, intelligent... but still retain every bit of his soul and sanity. And the tranquilizers couldn't do that.

But they had given him an idea.

There were many other options beside the one he'd chosen, but none of them were appropriate. Heero had ruled most of them out due to the requirements of his mission and his... "unique" body chemistry. Alcohol, and similar depressants, affected his physical and mental coordination. Various narcotics and stimulants blocked out the entire world, rather than just Relena. Hallucinogens, and other perception-altering drugs were out because Heero needed to be acutely aware of the state of, and the passage of time in, the world around him.

Drugs that altered his perception of the world were not acceptable. But substances that altered his feelings... his /mood/...

Antidepressants seemed to be the best bet. And with his considerable medical and biochemical knowledge, Heero had decided on the ideal substance.

Venlafaxine Hydrochloride. A new drug, created in AC 198; marketed as "Effexor", and classified as a phenethylamine monoamine reuptake inhibitor. The drug was fairly new and easily obtainable, with a unique but simple chemical structure. Venlafaxine's biggest advantage was that it was new enough and unconventional enough that it might be able to bypass the biochemical "barriers" that had been installed in him. Heero was well aware that, with all the tinkering with his body and brain chemistry that had occurred, normal antidepressants might not work on him. The antidepressants that the Doctors would have installed measures to protect him from, such as fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil) and fluvoxamine (Luvox), were classified as a type of antidepressant called "selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors", or SSRIs. Venlafaxine worked on a fundamentally different principle than these -- a principle that the Doctors would not have thought to shield him from.

The perfect drug. No severe side effects. Not addictive. A generic name, and a fairly simple formula -- in the most desperate case, it could be created with some basic chemicals and lab equipment.

And it was designed to treat reactive and major depression.

Getting some would be easy; more than easy. No one but him would need to know; doctors or curious nurses or crooked pharmacists -- he was a celebrity now, after all -- might leak it to the media; and the last thing he needed was Relena to know that he was on antidepressants. He wouldn't have to work with dangerous black-market suppliers, either. Heero had infiltrated heavily guarded military facilities and stolen blueprints from Code Black OZ labs. Ripping off a few years' supply of a drug from a civilian pharmaceutical company would be almost /too/ easy.

The computer's screen flashed hacked information across the screen. Perfect: there was a supply of the drug not two hours away. A little would probably be missed, and would probably even merit a police investigation, but Heero knew how not to leave traces.

The young man's face resembled stone as he efficiently started closing windows and shut off the power to the computer. He would break into the warehouse sometime soon; whenever it was convenient. He was engaged tonight, and the following night, but on Sunday he was totally free for the entire day -- all but the earliest hours of it, plus the following night. That didn't happen very often. Perhaps he'd subconsciously avoided scheduling events for that day... Heero had read that often, when the rational mind neglects or ignores a vital need, the urge to return to it becomes manifested in nearly every facet of personal life...

As long as Duo was free, Heero might actually be able to visit him on Sunday... jetlag and timezones be damned. The former pilot reached for the videophone before remembering that though it was 3:00 PM here, it was 4:00 AM on the West Coast. He'd have to call later -- no matter. Nothing mattered except Duo and the mission. And the mission wouldn't miss him for long.

Assuming he got out of the Saturday night diplomatic function by 2:30 AM, he could be on a plane by 3:30. Nine-hour plane ride would let him step off at 12:30 local time, but 1:30 in the morning California time.. To be back by 7:30 AM on Monday morning, he'd have to be on a plane by 10:30 Cinq, or 11:30 AM there...

That left ten hours with Duo. Ten clear, fresh, beautiful hours... He'd tell Relena the truth, for once. He'd say he was visiting an old friend. If he was inconspicuous enough, the press probably wouldn't notice him...

/Why do I have to sneak around like this...? Why do I have to look forward to a time that may never come?/

How much can two people really do in ten hours?

/Of course, how much can two people do in three years? Why isn't she tired of me by now? Hasn't the novelty of having me around worn off yet...?/

He couldn't do /enough/ in ten hours, certainly not. Not nearly enough. But he could definitely do something... something long enough to be special. Something long enough to make it worth it. Duo was always worth it. Love was always worth it.

"Hi, Heero."

From hours of reflex training, he didn't recoil at the sound of her voice.

Relena casually stepped into the room.

"How's your research coming, Heero?"

He had told her that he was looking at census statistics. "I'm done."

"Good, good." She gave him a quick hug and started massaging his shoulders. "...You're so tense. Here, let me." Instead of being steeped in anguish like her usual touch, this sensation was actually physically pleasant. Rather than being relieved, though, this thought filled Heero with silent remorse and guilt. How dare he be anything but revolted when she touched him? How dare he enjoy her when he loved Duo?

Psychologically, the same phenomenon can be observed in victims of sexual molestation and abuse: the phenomenon of guilt for feeling the physical pleasure of an act that they consider totally and utterly wrong...

He pushed the thoughts away, simply ignoring them. Everything became more normal when he didn't think at all. Heero slowly squirmed under her hands, gently releasing himself from her grip. Perhaps this would be a good time to ask her. "Maybe I /am/ tense. I was wondering if you needed me for anything on Sunday."

Relena stared off at a familiar picture on the wall for a moment. "Hmm...I don't think so. All that I have is that press conference, and then the luncheon with the Mars Terraforming Project Cooperative Alliance... Why? I keep telling you to take a vacation..."

Her voice trailed off. Perhaps she was questioning herself -- debating if she really /had --, or perhaps it was simply a mannerism. If so, Heero had never seen it before. And he didn't remember her ever saying anything like that.

But then, Heero was constantly discovering new things about her; things that any normal husband would have noticed within the first month of knowing her. The methodical, efficient way she braided her hair. Her habit of chewing on a pencil eraser. The fact that she held her fork in her left hand and knife in her right, in the European style... The first thousand times he'd seen these things, they'd been dulled by a haze of pain. But now, after three long years... as he became accustomed to her presence... as he was slowly getting used to his servitude... he was beginning to notice them.

And this scared him too, because he knew that he was getting used to her. No matter what that could mean from the standpoint of efficiency, it was unacceptable. He had to remain faithful to Duo -- well, there was no danger of him straying from his love. But it was, as the old saying went, the thought that counted...

Could it be that he might end up being emotionally attached to her...?

Oblivious as usual to his inner torment, Relena continued talking casually, viewing him like a consultant views a business plan. "You work so hard, you know. You should take a break."

Heero nodded mutely and forced a shrug. "I was, actually. I'm going to visit a friend."

"Who?" she inquired pleasantly.

Heero was startled. "Duo Maxwell. I haven't seen him for at least a year and a half. Before that, not since before our wedding."

/Who? WHO? Who else? Have you already forgotten he exists? Have you forgotten that I talk to him every private minute I have?/

"Duo Maxwell?" She spoke the words strangely and detatchedly, as though they were an alien tongue or a magic spell, a runic inscription.

/You think you own me, Relena, and in a way you do. But you barely know the name of the one who really has my heart./

/Calm down. Use that unserious, joking tone. Restrain yourself. But slightly grate on her. She doesn't like hearing about the time I spend piloting a Gundam, so I'll mention that.../

"You met him on the boat, remember...? Of all the pilots, I probably know him the most. We worked best together."

This time, unlike others, she didn't visually or verbally show her disapproval for Heero's last profession. /Duo/, on the other hand, was clearly not kosher. "Didn't he... um... try to kill you, Heero?"

Heero nodded. "He was doing it to protect you, though. Besides, /I/ tried to kill you first."

Relena sighed and rested her chin on Heero's shoulder. "I suppose you're right. We've all changed since that time."

/That's more true than you know, Relena. I grew a heart since then. Duo grew a new one to replace his last. Even you grew out of those hand-me-down ideals you tried on./

/But some things are still the same. I'm still uncommunicative. Duo's still unhappy, though in a much different way./

/And you, Relena, are still a child./

She released him from her squeeze and walked over to the window, eyeing the ugly, mismatched weather vacantly. Her mind was elsewhere, considering something important...

"Heero... I've been meaning to talk to you about something."

"What is it?"

/Is she going to...? No. She won't, not now. If she were ready to leave me, she would already have done it. This is another false alarm, I'm sure. But just in case it isn't, I'll be ready and listening.../

"Well... er... I don't quite know how to say this..."

For once in his lifetime, Heero felt like encouraging Relena to make her presence known. His voice, though he didn't know it, sounded both supportive and persuasive. "...Just say whatever comes to mind."

For all her diplomatic prowess and knowledge as a public speaker, Relena was woefully unprepared for this type of personal confession. She stopped and started, stuttered, warbled. Her voice shook mildly as she said the words. Somehow, her supreme confidence had failed her. How was she going to say this... she was endlessly thankful for everything Heero had done for her... she was ecstatic that he'd finally opened up to her... but still, she was worried...

/Is she going to...? Does she know? Does she want me to leave?/

"I just wanted to take some time to... to thank you, I guess... for everything you've done for me. You've been... been absolutely great. Just wonderful. When I married you, you came out of your shell... you were happy, friendly..."

/She imagined all this?/

Heero didn't say a thing, didn't respond -- relapsing, perhaps, into his old stoic mode of speaking. There was still hope left... and if she /was/ really getting ready to free him, he didn't want to scare her away by making himself seem too fond of her.

Relena gesticulated helplessly, cupping her palms together and interlocking her fingers. She was definitely nervous about something. "But lately, you've been different... sort of... I don't know how to put it. Colder, I guess... more like your old self."

/Her illusions are just wearing off. Or perhaps I really am becoming colder to her. It doesn't matter./

Heero shrugged. "It's probably just work and stress. You might be right -- I might need a vacation. Even just for a day or so."

The woman's mouth flattened out into a sort of pleading, unsatisfied expression. "I just wanted to.. just wanted to say... that you've been so good to me, and you haven't really taken anything in return... I mean, I'm always telling you something or talking to you or asking you for advice. And when I do, you always give it to me. I appreciate that... a lot, Heero."

Outside the door, Heero and Relena could hear a servant noisily walking down the hall.

"I wanted you to know that..." here she struggled for a moment to choose the best phrase. "If you ever need to talk about something, or if you ever want anything... then please don't hesitate to come to me. I owe you so much... I'll do anything for you that I can."

/I wonder what she'd do if I told her the truth? "Anything I can"... I wonder if it's POSSIBLE for her to just leave me alone... I wonder if she's ABLE to let me go?/

Relena saw the quizzical expression on her husband's face, and leaned over, murmuring, "I guess I just wanted to tell you that I love you."

/I don't want to know...!/

Heero didn't kiss her, but gradually he managed to form a sad smile. Inside, he felt as though he was being stabbed. The truth was finally clear to him. It was all becoming elementary now.

It was all over.

/I finally realize it. I finally understand it./

/I make all your pain go away. I let you void your fears and demons. I let you purge your heart. And I ask for very little in return./

/I'm the perfect servant, the perfect husband, the perfect lover./

/I'm the perfect drug for you, Relena./

/And I should have found a way to leave sooner./

/I realize, now, that I'm too late./

Relena, not getting any response, interpreted it as mute happiness. She softly made an "mmm" noise and hugged her husband close to her, winding her arms around his body.

He was trapped, locked in a choke hold. Unable to find freedom or think of freedom.

/You're addicted to me./


[Time Differences]

Everything had gone absolutely according to plan.

He had contacted Duo that night, they'd talked as long as they could, as usual, but this time saving the tender words for later and making the necessary arrangements. Saturday had been the usual, but drawn out by anticipation until it was terminally slow. Just a succession of diplomatic functions, meetings, accompanying Relena various government buildings, making arrangements, ever on his guard. Though she had a formidable staff of escorts and security personnel, Heero was her de facto bodyguard: he went with her everywhere it was appropriate, always armed, always on the alert.

The time not spent in committees and meetings was spent in the limousine or in the office, on the phone with various people. Relena was due to visit the Colonies in three weeks' time, and the necessary preparations were already being made by Heero and her numerous secretaries and underlings. Absolutely everything had to be arranged: applying for the appropriate flight permits, making the proper announcements, scheduling appearances in various colonies. In this way, Heero and Relena passed through the day.

On Saturday night, with his flight and meeting with Duo so close on the horizon, the usual charity function seemed interminable. Seated next to Relena in the usual tuxedo and sipping a token glass of champagne, Heero wanted nothing more than to escape from the endless succession of speeches. The lights and flashbulbs were too bright, the speakers were too loud, the applause was too thunderous. The event seemed to stretch on forever into the cold night. But even the outrageous excesses endured by his senses were ignored in favor of internal anticipation: anticipation of the next day.

He couldn't wait to see Duo.

Mercifully, the reception after all the speeches hadn't been nearly as complex or lengthy as usual. Heero and Relena had been able to leave at around 1 AM. In the amber streetlights in front of the convention building, he had kissed Relena goodbye and surrendered the car to Pargan. In his own car on the way to the airport, he used his cell phone to dictate several email messages. They all involved their staff's orders for Sunday: he gave the security forces, household staff, and secretaries, instructions as to exactly what to do during his absence. By 1:45 he had left all his weapons in the locked car, put on lensless glasses and and changed his clothes to lose any papparazi, and entered the terminal. By 2:00 AM he was waiting in the deserted terminal to board the airplane.

Heero, from lifelong combat training, had long been accustomed to catnapping, grabbing each and every second of sleep that he could. But even at 3:15, when his luggage was in the overhead compartment and he was sitting in a first-class seat and everything was in order, he was too excited to rest.

He would be with Duo in nine hours and fifteen minutes.

During the flight across the Atlantic and America, he did not sleep for intervals of more than thirty minutes. Something kept waking him from his dreams, and when his eyes opened he never remembered what had occupied his sleep.

The plane took nine hours to reach California from western Europe, but the time zone difference was eleven hours. Because of this, when Heero stepped off the plane and into the waiting, warm arms of a joyous Duo Maxwell, it was dark night and still only 1:30 AM; two hours "earlier" than when he'd left.

Ten hours left until 11:30 AM, when he had to catch the plane back to Brussels.

Ten hours of time in which he could tell Duo.

Ten hours in which he /had/ to tell Duo...

...that Relena wasn't going to let him go.


[Silent Questions]

"I missed you," Duo intoned, slightly embarassed, as the streetlights flashed past their windows in the American night.

Heero nodded, his face betraying jubilation... but at some price."I missed you too."

"I..." The braided man's voice began the word as if he was completely sure of the sentence that would follow it. He simply held that tone in mild surprise as he realized he couldn't think of anything to say.

"You're not used to talking." Statement, not a question.

Duo flashed his high-beams at an obviously drunk driver. "Actually, I talk a lot. I mean, I talk to /people/. But it's... it's different when I talk to you. When we're, you know, on the phone... there are things I always want to say but don't... like... oh, yeah! I didn't tell you that got a job about a year ago. Whenever we talk, I just seem to forget about stuff like that."

"You got a job?"

The braided man grinned, but let the smile fade soon. "Believe it or not, I didn't have to lie on my resume, either."

This was news to Heero, but not surprising news. It was Duo's nature to need to find something to /do/ instead of moping around the house, waiting for some unknown day to arrive. But of course he couldn't tell him that. "You never went to school, though."

"Well... yes. To get the job, I had to get my high school equivalency. To get /that/ I had to fake some things, but..."

"But that part doesn't count?"

"...Not to me. I like to think of that as second-generation fraud, Heero-man."

Heero desperately tried to think of something to say. "You seem pretty happy, Duo."

"Do I." This was a statement, too, cold and bitter.

The dark-haired man shifted his feet around on the floor of the sports car and slowly amended his statement. "...You always seem happy."

Duo checked his mirrors, looked helplessly over at his love, and leaned over and kissed Heero on the cheek, making sure to keep his hands on the wheel.

"Well, you've known me long enough to know that usually it's a lie. But you can be sure that I'll be happy for the next nine-and-a-half hours."

/I wonder about that, Duo./

"What kind of job?"

"Just packing and moving and checking off shit. I manage inventory in a warehouse."

Heero couldn't help but frown at the image. This was definitely out of character. "You don't need the money, do you?"

Duo smiled ironically. "Not really. I've hacked enough out of OZ accounts to last me until I'm a hundred. It's just that neighbors begin to ask questions about how someone my age is able to be independently wealthy."

"Keeping up appearances?"

"Something like that. But there are other benefits. It takes my mind off of... other things."

The two sat in silence. The questions were obvious to the two men, hanging in the air like a pervasive scent.

Duo casually shifted into fourth. /Does he still want me? Because I know I want him.../

Heero glanced around the interior of the impressively powerful car. /Does he really still love me? Because I can't love him nearly as much as I want to.../

Duo glanced around and decellerated for the upcoming yellow light. The roads were nearly deserted. /Is she ready to let him leave her?/

Heero unconsciously began to tap the fingers of his right hand against his khaki-clad knee. /Is he ready for the news?/

Duo glanced worriedly at the ring around his finger as the few cars moving in the opposite direction flew through their field of vision. /Were we wrong about her?/

Heero's eyes began to sting for no physical reason. /Should I really tell him that she loves me?/

Duo caught the look of morose anticipation in Heero's eyes and shuddered. /Will she be able to live without him?/

Heero watched Duo's shoulders shake and sighed, reaching over the gearshift to give his love a silent, gentle squeeze. /Will he be able to live without me?/

The braided man sighed hopefully and nuzzled Heero's neck until the light turned green. Duo, for better or for worse, could not see the look of hopeless loss and futility in Heero's cobalt eyes.


[Empty Soul]

Relena, poring over a complicated document on a computer, sighed again.

Perhaps it was the white midday sun pouring in through the skylights that kept distracting her from her work. Perhaps it was the subtle symmetry of her wide and well-decorated office. Perhaps it was the particular pattern on a framed painting, or the face on the wide portrait of her bearded father. Maybe, still, it was the distant noise of one of the groundskeepers mowing the lawn. Or the periodic calling of geese as they flew overhead. Or maybe it was just silence that was distracting her.

She shook her head. No. She knew what was bothering her. Waiting hurt.

Waiting for /him/ hurt.

This was the first time in a few months that she'd been apart from him for more than a few hours. His job -- as her husband, bodyguard, /knight/, required him to be constantly close to her. And she'd forgotten what it was like to be alone. It wasn't painful, exactly... at least, not physically painful.

She'd learned long ago that all those romantic definitions of loneliness were wrong. There was nothing tearing her heart apart. Nor was she being eaten by a demon. She was not physically cold or injured. And no growing black void was bodily consuming her. Also, nothing inside her felt shattered or broken. Finally, of course, she was not "dying a little bit more every second."

All of those things were romantic cliche, but were necessary. They were used to describe something that could be described no other way.

But something still hurt, something unidentifiable and distant. It wasn't anything real, anything you could complain to a doctor about. It wasn't as though there was literally anything diagnosable or wrong.

It was just loneliness, and there was no other way that it could be explained.

She missed him. There were no photographs of him on her desk because she'd never really needed to look at a photograph before. He had always been there to touch and look at, reassuring her in his silent and aloof way. And he had done such a good job of unobtrusively healing her that she never even noticed anything different until he was gone. Without him, she was absent, vacant, sorrowful; a shell without a soul. He was her life. He was her heart.

What a wonderful world it would be once Heero came back. It would be as it had always been, yes, nothing would be different -- nothing ever was with him. But it would still be wonderful. After all, she loved him and she knew that he loved her back. And what more security did anyone need?

/I will never let him go./

/Past death, past pain. I will not fail him. And I know he will not fail me./

/I love him./


[History Repeats]

"Well, here it is, Heero. The Maxwell Residence. 2:18 AM. When the sun comes up outside, you'll be able to see the ocean. Sorry, we face west, so we don't get to see it rise over the ocean..."

Heero tried to decide whether or not to take off his black coat. /I'll be leaving soon anyway... but I don't want him to feel uneasy.../

Some voice in the back of his head murmured, /Since when do you care about his feelings? About HIM? Leading him on for three years... draining him of all purpose, dropping hints that it might end soon; when you really knew the truth all along./

Heero squinted and counted seven heartbeats. "It doesn't matter. I didn't come for the view, Duo."

Duo gestured around the room. "Anything look familiar?"

"...No. Is this all new furniture?"

Duo smiled mischeviously. "Remember our old bigoted landlord...?"

"Yes..." Heero knew that look in Duo's eyes: he'd planned an elaborate prank and gotten away with it. Despite himself, he wondered idly what ill had befallen the owner of their last residence...

Duo's grin got wider. "I got bored once you left and started seeing how much I could piss him off. After I started flying the 'Queer Nation' rainbow flag out the window, he got sort of pissed off at me... said I violated some clause in the contract. Threatened to evict me." Duo took a breath here and paused for effect.

"What did you do then?"

"Well, in retaliation, used my, er, knowledge on information access, to find out when he was going on vacation. Then I picked his locks and hired moving guys to remove absolutely everything from his house, including the appliances. Didn't leave a thing... we even stole the light bulbs. Then I paid a bunch of street kids a few hundred bucks each to paint as much graffiti on the walls, ceiling, and floor, as they possibly could. I even stapled my rainbow flag to the wall, just to make sure he knew who was responsible. Of course, I'd gotten the hell out of my building before that..."

"You stole all his stuff?" Heero's eyes were narrowed in skepticism.

"Yeah! For an intolerant asshole, he sure had a lot of great crap!" Duo plopped down in a comfortable-looking chair. Sure enough, all the furniture was totally different. "Widescreen TV, recliner, leather sofa..."

Heero couldn't help but smile sadly. "What did he do when he got back?"

Duo smiled. "My finishing touch was to set up cameras and audio bugs in the smoke detectors, linked up to my computer. Actually, he ought to be glad that I did. He collapsed as soon as he walked in the door. I was the one who called 911. Turns out he went into cardiac arrest..."

Unsure of quite what to do, Heero remained standing. "You haven't changed."

The two of them could feel the air in the room change. Neither knew, though, what had changed their repartee from amused to serious. But one thing was obvious: it was beginning and nothing could stop it now. Soon would come the final sentence, the last and only chance would fade away. The events had begun. There would be no choices now, no real decisions. It was all set. And all they could do was watch and wait and see what the outcome was.

Duo sighed distractedly. "Maybe you're right. I hope you're right."

"Why don't you want to have changed, Duo?" He'd said it in a way he never could have planned to: comfortable, soft and ardent. Being this intimate... even only in voice... felt good, like bright sunshine. Being supportive this way felt happy, joyful... an illusion he would do anything to make real. A dream he would do anything to keep.

The braided man looked away from Heero. "I became... who I was... so that I could forget Maxwell Church."

Heero slowly sat down on the couch with Duo, pants softly brushing against the leather, putting his arm around him. The braided man needed reassurance right now. He needed Heero. Perhaps, even if just for this moment, Heero thought, he could be there for his love. Perhaps, if he really thought about it hard, Duo could believe that three years had never gone by. Perhaps the pain of loss could go away, even only for a few hours.

Perhaps pretending was worth it after all.

"It hurts, doesn't it..." Sympathy. How much pain had he endured...? How much more would he endure...?

/AND THAT MEANS THAT YOU DON'T EXIST!/

The color in Duo's eyes quivered as he blinked and turned away from Heero's face, somewhat ashamed. He had only seen them for a second. But like he'd seen the love in them six years before, Heero could plainly see the raw pain and anger there in those eyes.

"Yes." His voice broke and his mask came down. There was no humor now. Duo's true form was revealed: a hurt, crying child...

"Not often. But sometimes when I'm not ready... sometimes it hurts a lot. And now I'm beginning to think..."

Duo was silent for a moment, trying to muster the courage to tell Heero what he was really afraid of.

"Think what?" It felt good being near him, but it felt better to try and help him. And Heero didn't care what Duo was scared of. He would do everything he could to help him.

"Think that if I change, I've given up hope on you."

Heero just looked at him quizically, then corrected himself and hugged him closer. "I don't think I understand."

Duo's face was relaxed and sad, still looking away but strangely calm, as if he'd anticipated this conversation taking place a thousand times. "I never did tell you exactly what happened. I always wanted to, but..."

The dark-haired man gently pulled Duo back against him, allowing his love to rest his head on his strong chest. "Now's a good time."

Even Heero's embrace -- arms wrapped around him posessively, private phrases in his ear -- an embrace that Duo hadn't felt since a year and a half before, did nothing to stop his suffering. "How should I start?"

"Any way you want to."

Duo rolled his wet eyes. "That doesn't tell me anything, Heero. How much do you know? I don't want to waste time telling you my life story."

Heero's brow smoothed in sympathy, and he kissed a tear from the braided man's cheek. "I know that the anti-Federation rebels had taken over the church, and that you tried to steal a mobile suit for them so that they'd leave."

/The rush of cold air inside my lungs. Gunfire. Dodging shots at random, taking advantage of the fact that I was small./

"And I know that you managed to steal the suit."

/Trying to figure out the controls. Falling down twice when I messed up the walking function. Not knowing how to tell it to go faster or slower./

Heero slowly ran his fingers over Duo's head, stroking his hair. "And I know that when you came back... everything was gone."

Duo nodded in comprehension. "You got it all right. After the fires, I tried to go through the wreckage to see if anyone was alive... Sister Helen was there, but only barely conscious." Duo's eyes pinched shut as moisture leaked out from beneath his long eyelashes.

" ...I couldn't save her. I found the bodies of the villagers, mostly in the sanctuary. A lot of the kids and colonists were in the aisle of the church when the roof collapsed, and I didn't want to..." Duo swallowed, but his throat was dry. "I didn't want to try to identify their bodies.

/Swollen corpses, flesh warped and wrinkled by flame.../

"I guess I ought to explain about the roof, too. Maxwell Church was the closest thing that the colonists could get to an old-fashioned gothic cathedral. It had the buttresses and pointy arches and everything; but they were made of steel and wood, not stone..."

"Export issues?" Maybe talking about something technical would ease the pain for a while; place some distance between Duo and the pain. It was the only thing to do.

"It was cheaper to grow it on-colony... I think that's why they built it that way." Duo sniffled, and for a moment, Heero thought his plan had worked. Then his love kept talking. "Anyway, old-fashioned churches, like this one, are usually built in the shape of the cross: a main hall with two wings off to each side. When the missiles hit, the weight of the roof must have..." His voice trailed off on a high note.

Heero really didn't have any idea what to say. He'd never been any good at talking. He wanted to tell Duo not to talk, if talking hurt him. But all he could force out was a feeble and useless "Ssh."

Duo grit his teeth together. He had to keep talking. Everything depended on him talking.

"The roof... must have come down oddly... because the altar, and the space right in front of it, were almost untouched by the debris. It had all sort of shifted away from the altar."

/A circle of untouched, unsullied stone, surrounded by burning debris... with only two things inside: the altar, and.../

"And..." Duo shut his eyes, trying to make the memory disappear. "In front of the altar, I did find... what was left.. of Father Maxwell. None of the debris went down there, but plenty of the fuel from the incindiaries...." he coughed and was silent for a few moments.

Heero's face lengthened in concern. Awkwardly he covered Duo's mouth with a kiss and rocked the braided man's body for a few moments.

And then he remembered something.

A golden cross that was always around Duo's neck...

The same golden cross that had fallen, broken somehow, to the ground that night outside the restaurant... and that had been left there in the street. It was gone now...

The silent ache in Duo's throat started to subside as Heero murmured, "Is that where you got your...?"

"Sort of..." The braided man managed to smile. "I guess it would have been more dramatic if I'd taken it from him then and there. But he'd given it to me earlier... when I finally told him I believed in God."

Heero's eyes widened in surprise, sympathy, and expectation.

Gradually, Duo's friendly and matter-of-fact manner was returning. "It's funny you should mention that. Because before he gave it to me, he told me something."

"What?"

"He told me that if I was going to... believe in God... then I had to accept that..."

"Accept /what/?" Perhaps he said it a little bit too strongly and urgently.

Incredibly, Duo's face widened in a smirk. "You've got a lousy bedside manner, Heero Yuy."

"...Sorry."

"What he said was... that the reason he let us suffer was because he had a 'higher plan' for us. That sometimes, in the eyes of God, we were..."

Heero nodded. "'Second best...'?"

Duo nodded. "I'm glad you picked that up. You're a smart guy. Anyway, it was after Maxwell Church..." He closed his eyes. "That was when I decided I didn't believe in Him."

Heero shifted in his seat. This was going to be harder than he'd thought. Duo looked away from the stoic pilot for a moment, attempting to stretch the discomfort out forever rather than finally end it. The silence was noisy and pregnant with expectation, like black ink filled in between written words.

"They say that history repeats itself until we learn from our mistakes."

Heero nodded numbly, not really understanding.

"Do you remember how that cross broke, when we went out of the restaurant? I guess I used to think it was a bad omen. But now I think it's a warning. But not to me... to you."

"To me?"

Duo spoke calmly and rigidly, as though trying not to listen to his words. "More than ten years ago...Father Maxwell, because of his faith... his belief... didn't lead the the people out of that church. They were women, children, orphans, teenagers, men, rebels... and he thought that the Federation wouldn't be low enough to attack a church."

"I guess he thought wrong." Heero shut his mouth too quickly, wincing at his words. /No, no, no! That was absolutely the wrong thing to say! What the hell were you thinking?! Just don't talk at all!/

Duo was somewhere else, not really noticing Heero's words. "...He thought that God would protect them from the army that was looking for the rebels. He thought that God would shield him and the two hundred forty-four others from the Federation's attack."

Heero tried to heal the damage. He put his hand on Duo's shoulder, awkwardly. It didn't do anything, like kissing a bandaged and amputated stump. There was no placebo effect, no response from the other pilot, save a cough and a sniffle.

"He made a mistake," the braided pilot pronounced. "And he died because of it. He'll never make a mistake again... not where he is now. But I saw the consequences of this one. I saw the wreckage. I saw the crows landing on the pile of corpses, and I saw the rats try and take the bits of meat they could tear off."

/What is he getting at...?/

"I saw his mistake, Heero... and and I believe that you're about to make the same one. And if I have any purpose at all, it's to warn you."

/What...?!/

Heero simply did not respond. It was becoming harder and harder for Duo to speak. "I... I remember during the war, how you told me that all you believed in was yourself."

The dark haired man nodded him on, his cobalt orbs shifting around, barely understanding.

Duo's voice was cold and deadly serious, almost angry. Heero supposed that he had a right to be angry.

/More than a right. More than a NEED./

/He should be furious with me.../

"Well, Heero, you're stepping into a /fucking warzone/ now, and all you've got protecting you is that faith. And I've got a surprise that you might not like: not even you can survive like this for much longer. And when you die, I don't think I'll have anything like that cross to remember you by."

Heero shook his head. "You have my ring."

"That doesn't count. It's a promise that you'll never fulfill. It's a bad check, Heero; a fraud. I can't remember you by this."

Duo brushed something out of his eye with a slim finger, and began smiling again. As if catching himself, the braided man started to scowl.

/Duo chooses when to smile and frown. He chooses how he appears.../

/And he CAN choose how he feels.../

With an arm wrapped around Duo and another arm hanging uselessly, black-clad, to his side; Heero Yuy realized what was going on.

Everything was simpler than he would have expected. Duo was close. But not exact. It was a warning, yes. But not to him. He understood now. Everything was clear now. And everything was also out of his hands. There was only one ending now.

/The warning is to you, Duo. But the chance for you to heed it has already gone by. Perhaps if you'd known earlier, you could have./

/I'm doomed. And you will never change that.../

He spoke mechanically. "You'll be able to remember me by this, Duo. You just don't know how."

"Heero... I'm asking you to leave her. Get away from her, I don't care how. Save yourself. If that's not enough, save /me/."

Heero was silent for a few seconds and looked away. When he finally spoke again, his voice was stretched and corroded, like his vocal cords had been eaten by acid... but there was a forceful vengeance behind it that would have scared to tears nearly anyone else.

"I can't do it."

Like a child, Duo's eyes opened up in an appeal to Heero. "Why?"

/I've never spoken these words before.../

Heero Yuy's baritone voice filled the apartment as he whispered,

"I love you, Duo."

/I love you more than any other person./

/More than almost anything./

/Almost anything.../

"Would you have asked Maxwell to abandon his church, Duo? Would you have told him that he had to forsake his GOD to have a chance at saving everyone?"

Duo's face elongated as he turned around, and his bangs fell back behind his ears, parted like a Wagner curtain. /This isn't how it's supposed to be./

"Would you have questioned his /faith/? Would you have told him that everything he believed was meaningless? All so that there might possibly be a chance of saving the people that he loved?"

All that the American could do was look at Heero hopelessly and submissively and wish that everything would just leave once and for all.

"I know you would have asked him, Duo. I know that if you'd known what you know, and if you had been there at the time, you would have pleaded all you could."

/We cannot change the past./

"But even if you /had/, do you think it really would have made any difference in what he would have done?"

Duo felt inclined to comment. "I don't know..."

The Japanese man felt something run down his spine. /We cannot change the future./ His voice seemed to freeze upon contact with the air.

"...And do you think that asking me to leave her is going to stop ME from doing anything?"

The braided pilot's voice was high, his throat pulled into a massive achy lump. "No!.... Of course not!... But this is different, it's a mistake you're about to.. it's not--"

"No, Duo. It's not different at all. He believed in God. And I believe in ME."

Duo didn't understand, and he gestured with his arms to the stoic man. "...Goddammit, Heero! Why the hell are you doing this? For something you did to her before? To atone for something? Why do you stay with her when you're killing yourself? WHY?!"

Heero didn't say a word for a few moments.

"Answer the /fucking/ question." Duo's words exploded forth with a ferocity that he had not known he posessed.

The black-haired pilot rose from his seat and walked to the door, his black coat flowing behind him. Over his shoulder, he intoned with a cold intensity,

"The world needs her for peace. She needs me. She LOVES me. ... It's as simple as that."

Heero rested his hand on the black cylindrical doorknob, feeling its perpetually cold surface and its smooth texture. It was oddly comforting, a sensual absolute.

"I might not be coming back, Duo."

The braided pilot screamed, frantic, regardless of the fact that there were other people in the building who were sleeping,

"Do you realize that you're going to kill both of us for your honor?"

"I'm the only one who'll die." The response was chillingly cold. "I always knew that my death was inevitable. Now I just know that it'll happen sooner rather than later. I'm not afraid of dying, Duo."

The braided man's blood pounded inside his head. /Say something. Say anything. You're supposed to be good at saying things./ His voice broke like thunderclouds.

"...But /I'm/ afraid of dying. If you were ever gone, I... don't know what I'd do..."

Heero examined the white raised panels on the door. "/I/ know what you'll do."

Duo's grip splintered the back of his wooden chair. "What about... her?"

An airy hypothetical shrug. "It all depends."

"On what?"

Heero turned around and glared at Duo with startling nonchalance. "On how I die."

Duo's eyes blinked in disbelief. /Were we wrong all this time? We thought she was a child... I thought she was a child... what do you know, Heero?/

"Then what IS she?! What the hell is she feeling for you?! WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON IN HER FUCKED-UP MIND?!"

"Exactly what's going on in yours." The empty spaces between the words were black and airy, vacant and lonely. "I can't stay with you because if I leave her, she'll die. And I need her alive."

Heero's fingers skirted the doorknob. The sun hadn't even risen yet, but he was already ready to leave. Staying more would only make it harder.

"I want you to survive. And I want you to remember that I love you. You don't owe me anything more."

Words clawed their way out of Duo's throat, like misshapen sobs. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Heero was supposed to come and tell him there was hope... not that this was the end of everything...

"NO! That can't be it! There has to be something else!" Duo shook his head frantically. "Let me take your place... let me die for you! Let me take you away from her! Let me kill HER so it frees us both! Let me do something! ANYTHING!"

Heero turned and looked at the smooth paint on the wooden door. "I'm sorry, Duo."

"...Why can't we just be like normal people? Can't we just go off somewhere and forget about peace and war and just leave everything to someone else? Haven't we sacrificed enough of ourselves for this fucking fairytale ideal?"

The Japanese man's face didn't change as he spoke a phrase Duo had heard a long time before...

"We're not normal people."

Duo was silent for a moment or two, then set his face. As Heero tried to think of something to end the silence in the air, Duo silently pulled himself up from the stolen leather sofa, reached into his dresser drawer, rummaged through a number of unironed shirts, and tossed Heero a small but powerful black handgun.

/I thought that everything would be worth it, no matter what, as long as I could have you./

/Even for just a little while./

/But now.../

/Now that I've tasted blood and I've tasted pain and I know that you're going to die and I'll never have you, ever.../

Heero caught the gun in one hand and pointed it toward the floor.

Duo's eyes did not meet the Japanese man's as he whispered, "We may be soldiers, Heero. And we may deal in death." His eyes ignited like soft gasoline on coals as he slowly spit out, "I'm only going to ask one thing of you."

"What?"

"Kill me."

Heero looked at Duo Maxwell's damp and defiant face. /I should have known that you'd choose death, at this point in the cycle. You tried to kill yourself last time, didn't you? Or perhaps you wanted God to do it for you.../

/History is repeating itself for you. You didn't realize what the consequences really were. You didn't realize what reality really is./

/History repeats.../

/Only one question, and only two choices.../

The dark-haired man pressed back on a lever. Six bullets tumbled out of the gun and tumbled heavily on the wooden floor like steel bees.

"I won't kill you, Duo. You can't die."

"WHY?"

Heero shook his head enigmatically, and began to turn the metal knob. "Because I want you to live."

Duo put a hand over his eyes and listened to the wind howl by the thin windows. When he started talking it was bitter and gravelly, deep and painful. "That's not a reason."

Heero was silent for a minute, then spoke. "I won't kill you because you love me."

As though some secret barrier had just been broken, the American screamed loud enough for everyone in the apartment building to hear them. "THEN I'LL DO IT MYSELF!"

/You always were a baka./

"Don't you understand it, Duo?"

"Understand what?"

Heero turned away from the door and took a step inwards towards Duo's trembling form.

/I have one last chance to make you see.../

"The choice."

/One last chance to save you.../

Duo frowned. "What choice?"

/After all, you were the one who saved ME.../

"...You made a choice six years ago. You chose between being Duo Maxwell and being Shinigami."

Heero's face softened, if only a little bit. The lines of tense pain around his eyes were drawn tightly inwards, and his blue eyes seemed to glow"

"You had me for three years, and you had hope for three more. And now you're paying for your time."

/I may be silent, Duo. But I'm not stupid. And it seems I've thought about this more than even you have./

"You've made the choice twice already. And next time you have to make it, it will seem like a new choice. But it's really just the same one as before. It's ALWAYS the same one as before."

The braided man's face registered utter confusion and loss as Heero unconsciously tugged at his cuffs and tried to draw Duo into his eyes.

"I can't tell you what the question is. But when you have to face it, you'll know what I mean. And when you decide..."

Heero smiled at Duo, beautiful, angelic.

"Just remember....I told you to live according to your emotions."

A clear drop of water fell to the floor of the apartment, and Duo's eyes welled up with tears. "Do you mean that?"

Heero turned and walked past the doorframe, his boots making no sound. "Of course. I wouldn't have had it any other way."

Like a summer love, like something impermanent and delicate and unimaginably fragile, Heero disappeared past the doorframe without any other sound. He would wait at the airport for his plane. Duo would not follow him. He knew this above all.

He shook his head and walked down the hall.

/It's all up to you now, Duo.../

And outside the building, a few hours before dawn, the word "Sayonara" was carried off on the black wind of a winter storm.


[AC 202]

Everything went absolutely as Heero Yuy thought it would, until the lights went out on the colony almost exactly two months after his meeting with Duo.

He and Relena had departed into space without incident and completed half of the tour of speeches. The scheduling had been perfect. The expected few death threats from the radicals came in, and the colony public security forces always uncovered the culprits. The spacecraft had been in top shape, with no repairs necessary.

And the drugs had worked even better than he'd expected them to. He could go on now. He was... almost happy, now. Almost content.

He knew that it was artificial, but that didn't bother him. A deathbed conversion.

The ordeal of a speech was always the same.

Nighttime darkness lit by thousands of lamps at the outdoor auditorium. A milling, shifting, but extremely attentive crowd of spectators and officials and reporters, filling the stadium seating.

The intermittent pop of flashbulbs and the low hum of recording equipment as the news teams relayed her speech live to a dozen television networks.

The Foreign Minister leaned slightly over the podium, clearly and passionately addressing an attentive crowd. The speech was different for every stop she made, each colony she visited. She always wrote it the night before, to adjust it to the particular needs and tastes of each colony. But the basic structure was always the same. Greeting to the audience. A personal anecdote as a lead-in to the discussion of a political issue. Description of the problems that we faced -- it was always "we" in these speeches. A quick one-two punch: a logical, numerically correct scientific argument; followed by an impassioned and irresistable emotional argument. A beautifully worded conclusion, usually including an appeal for peace. Applause. A few quick questions, then a departure. Move to another colony.

The formula was always perfect for the cameras and for the public. News channels ate it up. People loved her. It was a bad idea to try to adjust a good one, so the routine was the same each time. She always walked on from the same direction. Heero, his face an impassive but unthreatening mask, accompanied by several security agents, always stood behind her. Reporters always asked the same sorts of questions. And everything always turned out fine.

The only thing that happened differently this time was that in the middle of her logical argument, every electrical device in the outdoor auditorium, and in the surrounding ten blocks, suddenly went dead.

"What the hell--?"

"Hey, my camera!!--"

"What's going on?!--"

In the still darkness, Heero's eyes became narrow slits.

Everything took less than two seconds.

In every situation involving the surprise and fear, there is what can be described as a certain moment of dawning realization.

It is the unmoving, paralyzed surprise in the crowd after it hears the shot but before it sees the president's head roll back. It is the silence witnessed among everyone as the space shuttle explodes, before the logical consequences of the event begin to click in. It is the horrified, claustrophobic flash of truth and death-anxiety a fighter pilot experiences when an enemy craft appears out of a cloud in front of him, guns blazing.

It is this same moment of surprise that all five Gundam pilots had so often taken advantage of in combat.

Usually, this phenomenon prevents people from acting and thinking at once. All mental energy is spent dealing with shock and surprise, and therefore it's impossible to consciously think while acting, or coherently move while thinking.

But Heero Yuy was immune.

And it was this that allowed him a few moments to think as he coolly moved forward towards Relena.

/Electromagnetic pulse. Sniper, working with a night-vision scope, shielded from the electrical disturbance. Take advantage of nocturnal vision correction time on the guards. Shoot before they can react./

/But he didn't know that I would react quite this fast./

Through the twisting course of his his not-quite twenty-two years, Heero Yuy had often idly considered the prospect of his death. His death was inevitable -- and was quite likely to happen soon, after all, considering his profession. And, as he'd been trained since birth, there was no point in worrying about what was inevitable.

But it would be hard to say that he hadn't been curious about it.

Not, though, what happened /after/ death -- Heero was almost positive that it would be just like unconsciousness. And he'd been unconscious enough times to know that slipping out of the realm of the real wasn't often so bad. You didn't hurt when you weren't conscious. Nothing hurt. Nothing /felt/ at all. It wasn't empty, numb blackness, because you would have to be /thinking/ to notice your mental state or percieve the color surrounding you. He knew that it -- death, that is -- was simply the absence of everything.

The idea of eternal sleep had become boring to him, accepted without question. If Heero Yuy was anything, he wasn't a romantic. And he didn't believe in eternal life or karma or reincarnation, or any of that mumbo-jumbo.

/Religion is just a way for people to ignore the fact that one day they won't exist. Fundamentally useless and immature./

What Heero had, throughout his life, been curious about, was not what would come after death, but what would transpire in the second or so BEFORE.

Would the varied and colorful events of his many-splendoured life flash before his eyes? If so, what moments and what events? His traumatized childhood? His unhappy adolescence? The one dead little girl that prompted his "educators" to begin the treatments that finally crippled his emotions? All the things set into motion by the descent of the Gundams on April 7, AC 195? The blank pleasure and contentment of his love with Duo? The long slow torture as Relena's pet husband?

Would time and reality seem to lengthen out and slow down as he lost consciousness, like a child stretching a wad of sour bubblegum? Would his consciousness expand outwards to encompass everything, only to pop into nothingness at some random moment...?

Would the pain of death stretch on into eternity, his still-thinking mind stalled in a hellish void of pain between life and death? Would the pain last forever? Would his death ever really be complete?

Would people's faces flash in his mind like still photographs? Who would he see? At what time? Certainly he would see Duo, perhaps in the ecstasy of sex or in a warm moment. Most probably Trowa, Quatre, and Wufei as well, smiling or frowning or looking neutral. Definitely Dr. J and Odin Lowe, each of them disciplining him in their own way. Perhaps Trieze Khushrenada, dignified on the battlefield or rotting in a dark coffin. Perhaps also Zechs Merquise, in some unknown place or at the helm of Epyon. Perhaps Noin, as well, then; Sally Po; Duke Dermail; Dorothy Catalonia. A million people he knew... had once known.

Or would he see still images of the ideals that he knew? War? The Gundams darting around and leaving only puffs of nuclear exhaust and compressed air and fiery death? Peace? With Relena, perhaps, playing on a flowery field... much as that little girl had, so long ago?

All these thoughts were foremost in his mind as he wheeled and drew his gun and, almost too fast to comprehend or percieve, leaped in front of his startled wife and shielded her body with his.

As his eyes adjusted a split-second later and he scanned the startled stadium quickly and noticed a green reflection somewhere on top of a building about five hundred yards away, he knew that he would find out what death was like. The sensation was finalized, his fate sealed. It was the end, and there was no point in worrying about it. There was simply anticipation and curiosity now.

It would be over soon. This was the final stop, the end of destiny, the end of everything.

What would happen? Any of the possibilites he'd considered before? More? None? All of them? A few? Several? Heero waited, resigned and intrigued, for something to flash across his mind. Gradually, the final peace of everything took control, and he relaxed slightly.

He percieved absolutely nothing save his view of the crowd, and his beating heart and the warm screaming air covering his body.

/I forgive you, Relena./

/You showed me why I had to fight./

/I love you, Duo./

/You taught me that I had a soul./

And then he knew all the secrets of the final seconds. The only sensation he felt was the hot bullet silently lodging in his body, and all he saw in the echoing light was his chest exploding in wet crimson ribbons.

And he thought, as he felt the ground drop from under him...

/Peace.../

/Though I did not see you until today.../

/Though the pain was great.../

/I never stopped loving you./

And then Heero Yuy knew nothing more.


[Last Words]

/Heero's dead./

Relena, clad in traditional black mourning garb, stood in front of the large granite gravestone in the Darlian plot in the church's graveyard. Her eyes were red with tears, and except for a few stoic, black-clad bodyguards at a discreet distance, she was completely alone.

The graveyard and all of its trappings were covered in a foot of powdery white snow and a glaze of frozen rain. A few isolated flakes had gotten into the cracks between the somber, embossed letters of the inscription: "HEERO YUY AC 180 - AC 202. IN LOVING MEMORY." No one had been able to think of anything else to write or say. Even in death, Heero was anonymous and unobtrusive.

/Lost and gone forever. Not my fault./

The churchyard, like everything that Relena's family had frequented, was large and solemn and extremely expensive. Every stone was practically dripping with religious ornamentation and ornate frills. Some would say that the atmosphere had a distinct tendency to inspire a somewhat guilty, self-conscious awareness of nonpiety in those that were not religious. But the proprietors of this graveyard -- it was possible to live by owning and maintaining one -- didn't ask questions about religious background or such. If you paid, you paid a lot... but you got your money's worth there. For a sizeable sum, you could rent a plot for fifty years. For a much, much larger one, you could buy one forever.

/HER fault./

Even gravestones are a status symbol.

Relena stood in silence, carrying her bundle of white roses. After a while, she coughed and stifled a sob. Then she spoke up, somewhat self-consciously and embarassed. Her voice resembled her veil -- dark, thin, wispy; almost too delicate to exist. It was as though she was a spirit, a ghost. Perhaps she was -- a part of her had died with Heero, certainly. But there was an air of maturity about her now. She was a woman, not a girl.

"I suppose you would have told me I was wasting my time by doing this."

/Heero's dead./

"...Talking to an empty grave."

No one answered her save the wind, blowing the few flakes of snow in the air into her pale face. Somewhere in the distance, a walkie-talkie crackled and spit out radio chatter as a bodyguard whispered into it. The snow was cold, and her skin burned. A few flakes had caught in her blond eyelashes.

"After all, you didn't believe in the afterlife. At least, you never told me that you did. You never did talk about those sorts of things..."

/I'm not surprised he didn't speak to you, Relena./

Duo's view of the girl was slightly distorted by the rifle's scope. But he could hear her as plain as day through the audio bug he'd planted on the gravestone the previous night. Acquiring the gun had been easy. Choosing the location had been even easier. This graveyard was surrounded on all sides by thick trees and vegetation, though except for the evergreens everything was black and bare now. A few birds flew through the white sky, but they did not sing.

Relena continued to talk. "But you were there when it was important. And that's really what matters. Even though you didn't say it often, I know..."

/Tell me how much he loved you. Go ahead. Tell me how much your doll really loved you. Did he love you because you were his minder? Did he love you because you cared about him? Did he love you because you were his world itself?/

"I know that you loved me. And even if I'm wrong, and you didn't... and you married me because you wanted to protect me, or save me, or stop me... just know, at least, that I loved you."

/Heero's dead./

"And just know that, even now, I still love you..."

Relena shifted her weight from shoe to shoe and shivered. The hairs on the back of her neck pricked up, but she thought it was just the wind.

/I have every reason to kill you, Relena./

Certainly every reason that would have been necessary six years before. She had taken Heero from him, bent him, broke him, killed him. He'd been a slave to her. Everything was her fault. Everything.

Everything.

/Heero's dead./

But was she guilty of anything that HE hadn't done? Clinging to old beliefs even as they shattered? Refusing to grow up? Loving Heero?

/Did... DOES she really love him?/

Duo sighed to himself. There was no other possibility. He'd seen it when he was at the service. He'd seen it in her eyes. He could tell about these things.

/In her eyes. "People say that the eyes are the windows to the soul." It hurt to remember./

She swallowed in the cold, as though trying to think of something important to say. "But you were there. You gave your life for me... you saved me."

/I suppose that does prove something, after all. She loved him.../

"...My knight. My Champion."

/Your doll./

Duo noticed through the scope that she was wearing a black veil. She was clearly in deep mourning -- dressed in all black instead of her usual white. Beneath the mesh of the veil, her eyes were blank, like the smooth pupils of a stone statue. Perhaps as dry as stone, too, for she'd cried all she could a while ago. All that she could do now was sit and listen to herself think.

/And, in a wierd way, he probably loved you too. Even just a little bit./

Relena went silent for a long time and wondered what it felt like to die.

/Maybe not for who you really were... but I'll be the first one to confess that I didn't like to think of Heero as what he was -- a paranoid bastard. No, he loved peace. And you were his peace... the means to an end./

"I know that you've probably stopped listening to me, Heero. I always knew you never liked to listen..."

/He always listened to ME. Well, no, not really. Most of the time he told me that I was a baka, and should really just shut up. But we both knew that he was joking./

"I know that we weren't always happy..."

/WE were happier than we had ever been before. This much was true. He completed my life... showed me that there was reason to go on. And I like to think that I did as much for him./

"But I realize that you always meant the best for me."

/But you don't realize what's really important, Relena. I loved him and he loved me and it was supposed to be perfect. But it wasn't./

/You killed him. You're why he's rotting in the ground. You're why I'm pointing a gun at you and trying to find the right reason to pull the trigger. You're why my life means nothing now./

Relena just stood there in silence, and looked around her nervously. At the gate of the graveyard, the papparazi were crowding the gate. For one moment, a flash of irrational fear flashed through Duo's mind. Had she somehow heard him? Were the security forces aware of his presence? Was everything okay?

But she went back to lovingly looking at the gravestone. "I don't know who killed you. But I do know that your death was meant for me. You protected me until the end."

/You killed him, Relena./

"I wish I could tell you something more. But we don't know anything more."

/It was a slow death you gave him, too. You bound him by his love for peace. You struck the first blow, and the second, and countless others. And then you raped him./

"I'm sorry, Heero. This is all I can say."

/You raped his heart. You made him feel for you and then you took advantage of him./

"Ai shiteiru," she said, her voice breaking. Her silent tears slid against the white ice as she knelt down in front of the stone.

"I think that's how you'd say it. 'I love you, and I will continue to love you.' ...Or maybe that's wrong."

Her voice shook. In the recordings of her speeches that Duo had listened to, she was never this nervous or shaky.

"I guess it's just the thought that's important," she said to no one. A few hardy birds crossed the skeletal trees and hovered for a while above shoveled paths and mountains of white.

"Sayonara, Heero."

She got up from her squatting position and stood there thinking.

/So you did love him./

"So why am I letting you live?" Duo murmured into the cold February air, as if waiting for an answer from her, a hundred yards away. "Why aren't I pulling the trigger on this rifle? Why aren't your guts exploding like a popped balloon?

And then she set down her bundle of white roses. If this was any sort of omen, he should be squeezing the trigger right now...

"WHY?" This time, a little louder. His voice rang into the winter air, but no one seemed to hear him. A gust of wind blew some snow onto his white parka. If he didn't move soon, he would be buried in a sea of white.

"Why don't I kill you?"

Only the wind answered him, in howls and low wails.

"Why CAN'T I kill you?"

/Because Heero would never have wanted me to kill you./

Relena had finished talking long ago, and now remained only in mute contemplation of the grave. The sun appeared for a moment, reflecting off the white snow and ice into Duo's scope. It was, for a moment or two, impossible to see. The sniper was snow-blind.

She turned to go.

/Because that would be making a choice... THE choice... for you. And you should make that choice yourself./

The white haze in the sky then reduced the sun to a dim circle, and the cold wind slashed past Duo's exposed ears. His vision was obscured now in white dots and streaks, afterimages of the brilliant sun, halos. The discarded mantle of an ethereal and beautiful ghost.

/Because if you really should die, Relena... then you will choose to die./

Duo Maxwell took his finger off of the trigger and watched Relena walk away into her cold limousine with a look of lost acquiescence on his face. He watched the impressive black car pull away in a slurred rush of snow and ice. The braided man lay there, face down in the foot of snow beside the large tree in the woods, still staring through the scope at the solitary gravestone and the roses that she had left in front of it.

/Why didn't I do it?/

/I had every chance. No one was watching. This was the perfect angle. I would have gotten away with it easily. They couldn't trace my escape. An eye for an eye. A heart for a heart./

/A soul for a soul.../

"She really loved you, Heero-man."

Duo Maxwell's voice was clear and soft like Christmas bells. "She did. With all her heart and all her soul."

He sighed, gradually moved into a crouch and began to pack his rifle away in its case. The case was white, too.

Duo clicked shut the silver lock and left his rifle in the case behind a tree and removed the white sniping clothes, packing them into a bag next to them. He removed a long dark coat from the bag and donned it, leaving the bag closed and half-buried in the show. He would be back for them. There wasn't much of a walk to the perimeter of the graveyard.

He climbed over the spiked iron fence -- much like the one that had been around Maxwell Church -- and slowly approached the patch of ground belonging to the Darlian family.

Now it was his turn to talk.

"...I was wrong, Heero."

Duo could now see how uncomfortable Relena had been, why she'd looked around to make sure no one was watching. There was something naked and exposed about standing next to a grave; something humbling and invisible. It was mortality that gave it that shine...

"I was wrong. I thought that you were making the mistake in deciding to die for her. But now I see that I made the first mistake, a long time ago..."

Duo reached into the pocket of his cold coat -- it had been refrigerated by the snow -- and tried, frustrated, to warm his glove-clad hands. It all made sense now. HEERO made sense now.

"I thought that I could have it both ways. I thought I could have all the joy of love without any of the pain."

His grin was gone, but so were his tears.

"And I thought that it was fair to ask you to choose between her and me. But you had already told me what your choice would be. Back in that restaurant."

Duo let the memories wash over him like waves of water of flakes of falling snow.

Heero's voice shook with sealed intensity and passion, with restrained force and forbidden fire. "I... I hate war. I want to end it... the stupidity of it all... more than anything else in this world.

"The only thing that I ever loved was peace.

"But now..."

Second best in his heart. Second place to an intangible concept. Second to something that couldn't hug or kiss but that could persuade and motivate to suicidal extremes. Second finisher in a race for Heero's soul...

Heero's voice was papery and soft, delicate and fragile. Everything seemed dark next to his radiant and eyes. His expression was soft and fragile, sad and broken.

"...I always knew that if I had to choose between my friends and peace, I would never hesitate. ..But now, I'm not so sure..."

Duo's eyes closed and he sank back into his seat. Heero, for all his perceptive capabilities, couldn't tell if the American boy was elated or despondent. Strangely enough, Duo's voice remained the same: casual, but serious.

"I suppose that's the best I'm going to get."

The sun reflecting off of the white snow snapped Duo out of the memory.

The braided man coughed. "It was. You never lied to me, Heero. In fact, you always told the truth..."

Duo looked around and saw no one: the papparazi had fled, as had the bodyguards. He was alone now -- if he waited, Quatre and Trowa would arrive to visit the grave, and they were always nice to talk to. Sally and Wufei would come later. Maybe even Zechs and Noin would show up. The sun appeared again in the white sky, this time clearer. Not brilliant, but still there.

In a few months, it would be spring. Then, beautiful flowers would rise from the choking snow. It would be sunny then, warm. The time of year that one can fall in love. The time of year that makes one feel full with hope and peace.

It hurt now. But in time, everything would be all right.

All he would need was time. All he had needed before was time. Days and weeks of regret and sorrow, and a gradual catharsis. Eventually, sad complacency, then numbness. And like flowers blooming after a long winter, his soul would emerge again.

It wasn't the only way to live.

/But it's the better one... at least, I think so./

/I never understood what he meant when he was talking about 'choices'. But now I do./

/When it's time to choose again, I know what choice I'll make. Next time my heart is pieced together, next time it's springtime in my soul./

"Sayonara, Heero." That had been what she had said, wasn't it?

Duo Maxwell smiled and looked up at the white sky, and walked away to retrieve his rifle.


[AC 203]

The night outside her window was stained with orange light, but the stars were shining as she heard a low voice pipe up behind her. "Please excuse me."

Lady Une -- Commander Une, now -- nearly jumped out of her chair. She was used to being unpleasantly surprised by now, by terrorist uprisings, constant political problems, various immediate threats to the United Earth Nation. Surprises were what she and her unit, the Preventers, were paid to deal with.

But her unpleasant surprises rarely, if ever, appeared unannounced behind her while she was at her desk.

"I'm sorry to bother you." The voice was husky and low.

"...I thought you were dead."

"You were wrong."

"I assume you have a reason for being in my office."

The intruder was clad in black -- a long dark black coat, a black shirt, black trousers... the whole works. Though his attire contained several spaces and holsters for weapons, they were all empty.

"I'm interested in joining the Preventers, Commander Une."

She recognized immediately the brilliant eye-color of the intruder, and his unique, spiky bangs. He was changed, but there was still no mistaking him...

"That can be done through official channels. You don't need to come to me to do it."

"These... are rather special circumstances. I have a request I would like to make."

She straightened out her long brown hair and said mildly,"You're hardly in a situation to be making requests, Mister--"

"Commander Une, you know who I am. And you know that I would be extremely useful to you."

The man in front of her was, indeed, an espionage expert, a brilliant hacker, and a top mobile suit pilot. Everything that he said was true. But she could not expose her weakness to him; it simply would not do.

"Your skills, I'll admit, are indeed extraordinary. But I need more than skill. A competent agent is useless to me without a guarantee that he is willing to perform..." She looked at the papers on her desk and gestured to them with her hands. "...Any task that I assign. I know your past. And I don't need any conflicts of interest."

"You want my word of honor, then?"

She smiled. "In a sense."

He frowned. "Anachronistic."

Maybe he didn't know everything, after all. "Well...not as such. By the time we're done the psych testing, we'll know if you have the capacity to betray us or not. But we'd rather know sooner than that."

"Digging around in my mind, huh?"

"I'm sure Dr. Po would be able to explain it better than I can; but basically, the procedure involves hypnotizing you, activating any subliminal suggestions, gauging your response to various psychological stimuli.... that sort of thing. Nothing that could be considered..." She paused to choose a word. "Invasive."

The man narrowed his eyes reluctantly. "I suppose psychoses in your agents are something you can't have."

Despite his expectations, she smiled coolly.

"The nature of the psychosis itself matters more than the fact that it is present. Some mental problems are relatively benign, while others can cause a lot of damage. And a lot of us have... things... in our minds that even we aren't aware of."

He hesitated slightly. "I see." Then it clicked into his head. /Khushrenada./ "But you understand what I mean."

Obviously she did not care to discuss the topic. "Anyway, assuming that your psych test goes smoothly, you should recieve your papers, clearance card, rank status, and uniform by tomorrow. You won't be inserted into the field until after training exercises, and if you do as well as I think you will you'll probably be given a fairly elite position. But I still see no reason why you needed to come to /me/ to.."

The man made a 'hn' noise. "I'm willing to follow the procedure, Commander," the man said slowly and somewhat humbly. "It's just that I'd like to learn the facts about what's going to happen to me."

"Don't worry. Once I submit your application, you'll have access to total disclosure about the process. We keep no secrets here... at least, not secrets of that sort."

"That's why I came to you, Commander Une."

Une frowned. "Excuse me?"

"I want total anonymity."

A slightly patronizing glance, and then a voice with a touch of humor. "Now why on earth would you want THAT, mister...?"

His voice was restrained. "Please don't say my name. That's why I came to you instead of anyone else. I know that no one else is in this room... but if I could get inside here, someone else could too. We may be bugged."

She regarded him coolly. "Insulting my security will get you nowhere."

The man made another aggreeing noise. "That's fair. All I ask is that I recieve a new name and a new past... one that I choose."

"You still haven't told me why."

The man paused and waited a moment before saying, "I feel like I'm a new person now. I want my mask to match my mind..."

She looked knowingly at him, but did not smile. "I'm familiar with the sensation."

He opened his mouth for a moment, closed it, and nodded. /Khushrenada, again./ "Yes... I suppose you do."

Commander Une looked at the man and frowned. "But, in your case, there are circumstances that have to come into play. I can't accept that you want a new identity simply because you feel like having one..."

"Is that so."

She looked at him in the eyes. "The Foreign Minister is dead."

"Suicide, wasn't it?"

"But the circumstances were questionable."

The man didn't say anything.

Une's eyes became cold. "Was she REALLY the one responsible?"

The man responded without pause. "You have no reason to believe what I say. And you'll find out anyway with the psych probes."

She glared at the man. "I was told by... a friend of a friend... that you are a man of honor. If that's true, you'll tell me the truth and save me some extra time and trouble in kicking you out of here later. Did you kill her?"

A soft chuckle. "Zechs thinks more of me than I deserve. But, no. I didn't kill Relena."

Commander Une couldn't help but dig deeper. "But you felt the opportunity... and the urge... didn't you?"

"I should ask you the same question, Commander Une. Don't the records show that Trieze Khushrenada was killed by a certain Chang Wufei... the same Chang Wufei currently under your command?"

She was silent for a moment. "We see eye-to-eye, then."

Une didn't speak for a moment or so, then turned to look out the window into the orange night. "You want, then, for me to keep your old identity a secret... and then give you a new identity. I think that can be arranged. What do you want your new name to be?"

He told her.

She was surprised for a moment until realization hit her. After a few moments of unresponsiveness, a slow smile spread across her face.

"It's the anniversary of your death today, you know."

His face was almost a smile. "Apparently I have a flair for the dramatic. The original 'me' was killed on this day. Operation Meteor started today, eight years ago. And now.... this begins."

"Is there any reason why...?"

The stoic man's voice shook. "I read the diaries of someone important to me. She said that 'No one remembers what soldiers die for.' This is MY remembrance, Commander."

Une sighed. "I recognize that quote from somewhere, but I have no idea where..."

He shrugged. "Maybe you can look it up later."

She began to pull the application papers out of her desk. "I have a final question... one that must be asked."

He tilted his head at her.

"Are you joining up with us because you've... got a death wish?"

He raised a quizzical eyebrow. As if to apologize, Commander Une shrugged... almost sheepishly, if that were possible... and added, "I need an operative, not a suicide."

"You'll be able to find out with your tests, won't you?"

She tried to look businesslike. "Again... if you tell me the truth now, I won't have to waste time later. You may be a special case, but we should still be as efficient as possible."

"Look at the city, Commander Une."

She did, standing up and watching her and his reflections in the thick glass.

"A million lights out there.... Some moving, some still; some close together and some very far apart. Some turn on and some turn off. And each and every one of them is alone. Quite a lot of them are ugly, but some are quite beautiful."

"I see. I suppose that it might seem that way to some."

His smile broadened. "They've very much like people, don't you think? A million faces, a million souls, trying desperately to shine... trying with all their might to let the world know they exist. Trying to find someone who'll watch them. Trying to find someone interesting enough and beautiful enough to watch."

She turned to face him. "A philosopher, hmm?"

He shrugged as though the term meant nothing. "Something powers them. Something drives them. That something is called love."

Her grip tightened on the back of her chair as the man turned. She looked into the brilliant color of his eyes, and tried not to lose herself in their depths.

"Someone me told me what I needed to know about life."

She repeated her question, not understanding. "DO you want to die?"

He ignored her. "He told me that I would need to make a choice sometime... and that there were only two options. But he didn't tell me when I'd feel it, or even what the options were. He just told me that, when it came time to choose, to choose according to my emotions."

Commander Une shrugged. "I'm afraid I don't understand you at all."

"Of course not. I was as confused as you were. But then things started happening. They say that if you live more than one life, you have to die more than one death. Believe me, I know that fact extremely well."

"You had most of us fooled, you know."

He laughed softly and his violet eyes sparkled. "I couldn't have stayed that way. What business do I have being dead?"

She found this funny. "The other two of you /are/ dead."

"That may be true, Commander Une." He took off his hat and bowed to her formally, his hair rubbing the collar of his long dark coat. "Death may surround me. Death may threaten me. But it's a little too early to give up now."

"Is that really true?"

The man didn't respond. But Une saw a flash of gold as the man took something off of his finger and examined it. Intrigued, she turned to face the man.

"What's that?"

He shrugged and smiled and palmed the ring, inserting it onto his finger again. Safe and sound. "Nothing at all."

/A photograph of my parents I destroyed.../

/A cross from Father Maxwell that I lost.../

/And now a ring you gave me./

/But this time, I'll remember you. I'll keep you with me.../

His violet eyes sparkled and his braid swished as he walked along to look out the window for a moment more.

/Heero, you were right. I finally understand./

/It starts when you are tempted by the idea of God, or heaven, or closeness to another.../

/You can choose love... and everything is perfect for a while. But soon it all goes away, and it hurts more than you think you can stand. Then, eventually, things go back to normal and it all repeats like seasons./

/Or you can ignore the chance for love, and throw away all the happiness and all the pain because you're afraid: afraid of the empty space a love leaves when it dies. You can live your life numb... like a tomb or a grave./

/And when you choose, you can never go back./

The braided man smiled ironically and regarded the amber night.

"Love and death, Commander Une. Those are the choices."

She regarded him curiously but solemnly. "And what did you choose...?"

He smiled and laughed. "It's obvious, isn't it? You should know that I'm the type of person to choose a rose, even with the thorns..."

/It's springtime now. And It's springtime in my soul./

Une frowned. "It's not obvious at all, Duo."

His eyes went wide and he produced an angry but ultimately useless smirk. He considered getting mad at her for mentioning his real name, then restrained himself. He'd let her off easy this time. After all, she was his new boss...

"I told you. My name is Heero Yuy."

She started to apologize, but he cut her off.

"Don't worry about it. It's a little too early to give up now."

Commander Une smiled. "Is that right?"

He smiled and watched the stars and lights and listened to his heartbeats.... and felt things start to thaw inside.

"Of course. After all, I've only just been born."

~OWARI