Gambit
By LoneWolf
(kodoku na okami)
COMMENTS: The dreaded sequel to "Second Chances". Sometimes the Muse is a Fury. Read slowly, preferably aloud.

ADDITONAL COMMENTS: After I posted "Second Chances" on GWML, someone commented that it was a happy ending. I was writing a reply when it hit me. Not bloody likely! It was, at best, a hopeful ending, and I speculated about what would happen if Heero and Max couldn't work things out and various other loose ends.

BGM: "The Lion's Share" from Dan Fogelberg's "The Innocent Age"

WARNINGS: Intentionally left blank.

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A year later and I am here again at this place, Duo -- this place that I will always think of as yours. The café, the ocean, the soft wind. They will always be yours. Never Max's. This is where I met Max, and Max is all that is left of you, but this place is yours alone.

We tried coming back a few times. The memories of you were too thick. I think he felt my discomfort without really knowing what it was, just that it made him uncomfortable. It took maybe two months before he stopped coming with me when I said I was going to "the café". I think he knew he wasn't really welcome. Every time I saw him here I knew he wasn't you. He wasn't the one I wanted. In the end, we quit coming here together. I only come here now when I need you, not him. That is more often lately. I come when I need you to tell me what to do, or convince me that the thing I am going to do is wrong. That is what I need this time. I need you to tell me it is wrong.

Oh, Duo, how could you abandon me to this ghost-not-you? Did you know what would happen? Did you understand how changed he would be? He isn't you. He's close in so many ways, but that is the problem. He is only close. And close is a poor substitute when someone is talking about the person he wants to be with forever. In the face of forever, close is never close enough.

We tried. We tried so hard. We moved slowly. I didn't want to rush us. I needed to be sure. He sensed, as you would have, that I was fragile those first few weeks and let me take my time. We moved from meeting on weekends to meeting for lunch during the week, then dinner. Several times he wanted to come up to the apartment, but I couldn't bear the thought of him there. I still thought of it as yours and mine.

I still think of it as yours and mine and him just a stranger walking around in the attic of us, picking up the artifacts of what we were and the images of what we could have been, stirring up the dust of memory until my eyes are watering from the irritation.

After a couple of months I convinced myself that, maybe, putting him in those surroundings so shrouded with you would make him more like you. Maybe it would stir hidden memories in him or maybe I would see the similarities more clearly in the familiar terrain where we played our fatal games and hid our dark secrets. I invited him to share the apartment, making it clear that I wasn't ready to share a bedroom. He accepted, and doing so reminded me of you and your gentle ways.

I thought it would work.

I was wrong.

It only showed up the differences.

He is quieter. His taste in music is simpler -- not that anyone's could match the wild mixes you created for us from your collection. He doesn't draw. He doesn't appreciate what I write the way you did. He reads the things that always made you cry and says simply, "That was touching," or, "You communicated the pain well," not understanding the pain, not able to explain why it touched him. The list goes on endlessly, but it comes to the same, single thing.

Every time I look at him I see he isn't you and will never be you.

You are the only one I want. You! Not some reasonable facsimile. I love Duo Maxwell, and that love cannot be satisfied with a rough, grainy copy of its object. It demands the original or nothing.

Duo, please come to me here. Come to me and tell me that what I am going to do is wrong. Tell me I'm wasting the thing you bought so dearly. That worked once in the past -- you stopped me before. I need to hear your voice whisper to me again in the sighing waves you loved. I need you to remind me why I should go on. I'll wait, as I always have, keeping the promise -- even though it no longer needs to be kept.

I'm waiting, Duo.

I'm here at the café, waiting for you.

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Today is my birthday. The week has passed. As I feared, he hasn't come. Now, it is time for the thing I have weighed and considered for the past seven months -- ever since I understood that Max would never replace Duo in my heart. Would never come close to filling that void. And as I face this test, I remember a story Duo once told me about a man who sold everything he had to buy a single, valuable pearl. I know how he must have felt as he walked to the seller ready to offer everything for a chance to have the one thing that mattered to him, even if it was only for a moment.

I am walking along the beach, the ocean to my right, whispering memories of us walking along this same beach, Duo holding my hand, smiling. Another dozen meters and I will be there.

Here, now. Hidden behind a just of rocks. No one to see me. No one who might keep him from coming. I kneel on the sand, facing the water and call him the only way I know how. I take the gun and hold it to my head and pull the trigger. It jams. I knew it would.

I release the clip, pull the slide, eject the bullet, release the slide, replace the clip, chamber the next round. I pull the trigger. It jams. I release the clip, pull the slide, eject the bullet…

I empty the first clip. As I let it fall to the sand and shove the second into the gun, I hear him.

"Would you PLEASE quit that?"

I shudder. I should have known he would take Duo's form. He believes it will unnerve me. He doesn't know me as well as he thinks. I look up at him and see the darkness in his eyes, darker than it ever was in Duo's. No, this will be easier than he thinks. It is Duo's shape, Duo's voice, but it is not Duo before me. It is Death.

"I want to make a deal."

He laughs. "You have nothing to bargain with."

I hold the gun to my head and pull the trigger. It jams. I clear the jam, chamber the next bullet and raise it again. "I think I do." I pull the trigger. It jams. He winces. I clear it, readying the next round.

He frowns at me. "What are you offering?"

"I'll release you from the contract."

Choosing Duo's form was a mistake. I know Duo's expressions better than I know the anatomy of my gun, even after all these years. Even Death is somewhat constrained by the body he chooses to emulate. And now I see he hadn't expected that, and he wants it. "You can't. I made the deal with Duo Maxwell and he no longer exists." There was a hint of anger underneath his tone. Yes, he cheated you, didn't he?

"I want him back. Undo Max. Make him Duo again. I'll get Duo to release you."

"How can you be certain he'll do that?"

I am angry and I don't care if he knows it. This is all his fault. I shout at him, pouring it out. "Because he loved me enough to serve you for ten fucking years, you bastard! He put up with the Hell you put him through just so I could live! And in the end he killed himself for me after I told him--!" I reach for a semblance of control. I am in unfamiliar territory facing a powerful enemy. I can't afford to forget that now. I corner those dark eyes with a glare. "I'll convince him. In return, you give us one week together, then we both die and take our chances in whatever comes after."

He stared at me. "You would give up nearly forty years of guaranteed-safe life for one week with Duo Maxwell? Are you crazy?"

"Maybe. I love him. A week is enough." It was what we could have had before -- before I lied to him. He knows that. He knows I'm only asking for a chance to make up for my stupid mistake. And I think he knows a week would be enough for both of us to find... I don't know. Maybe love. Maybe hope. Maybe just peace. A week would be more than enough time for me to tell him I love him. That's all I really want to do.

He shakes his head. "As tempting as your offer is, Yuy, I can't. You can make my existence miserable for the next few decades by trying to kill yourself, but that isn't long, the way I see time. I am bound by my deal with Duo. You screwed up. Live with it." I hear a certain resignation in his tone. He would love nothing more than to accept my offer. Well, if I have to live with my mistake, he can exist with his.

I close my eyes and pull the trigger. The gun jams. When I open them to clear it again, he is gone. I waste two more clips, hoping, maybe, he'll slip or get angry enough to ignore the deal. As I drop the third clip and reach for the fourth, I know he won't. I look at the gun and bow my head to my knees and cry. My last hope gone. Duo is forever beyond my reach, and Max…

Max will never be able to take Duo's place, but I can't leave him. He is all that remains of Duo. I owe Duo too much to abandon the shattered remains he left me, even though they cut me like slivered glass with every glance.

Eventually, defeated, worn, hopeless, I stand up and walk back to the café, gather my notebook and climb on the motorcycle, riding back to the apartment where Max is -- my own bit of Hell on Earth, complete with resident demon memory. I think I will go to bed before he returns from work. I am tired.

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I wake to the dream. Soft lips against mine. I don't know what they really would have felt like, but I always thought they would feel like this. Warm, gentle, tender. They press against mine in a sweet kiss I never knew when I had the chance and, for just a moment, hope comes. It vanishes as I remember that this is just a dream.

For eight years I have met this dream every morning as I woke. I know it too well. The dream is a ghostly might-have-been that haunts my semi-conscious mind, much as Max is the ghost now-is that haunts my daily existence. That's all it is now. Existence. Not life. Death refused my last hope at life -- my last hope to get Duo back. I wait for--

The soft scent of cinnamon. Yes, that is what comes next. Smell is one of the strongest memory triggers and now it floods me with the memory of him. At his scent, hope rushes forward again, but is turned back before it reaches the stage. This is only a dream. It is time for--

The hair. I don't have to see it. I know. It is chestnut-brown and the long strands drape over our bodies, trails of sensation rippling across my chest and belly and face. False trails through a nightmare forest. Trails that lead only to pain. Now--

The dream moves faster, rushing toward the ending. I feel his warmth next to me, my cool skin drinking it in, brushing against his, feeling the soft, soft texture caressing me. Warm, almost burning. His arm across my chest, his hand on my shoulder as he lays with his lips against mine, his hair surrounding us, his sweet smell in my head and lungs. Any moment now--

The kiss ends. He raises his head. I feel the smile as a different warmth against my face. I have never seen it. In the dream, my eyes are always closed. But I know that is what it is. Then, he says those words. Those terrible, painful words. "I love you." That velvety tone he sometimes used when he was insinuating something, but there is no secret meaning. Everything laid out clearly in three awful words. I open my mouth to reply in kind.

The dream ends. This is where it always ends. Even in the dream I cannot correct my mistake.

I lay there, awake now, still feeling the after-shock of the dream against my body. Him, still faintly teasing the nose of my memory. The faint tingle where phantom lips touched mine. The echo of his words in my ears. As it has every time, a single tear breaks from the corner of my left eye and slides along my temple to the pillow, burning a track against my skin. I don't know why it is always that eye. It just is.

"I love you." His words still haunt me.

"Go away, dream," I whisper. "You've tormented me enough today." I open my eyes, knowing that will blow away the last fog of dream-memory, hating to banish this precious moment that never was.

Violet greets me. How did Max get in here? What is he doing here? Damn him! I can't! We can't. He isn't Duo. I don't want Max. I reach to push him away and…

My hand tangles in long chestnut hair. I am paralyzed in that moment as I watch the light dance along the strands in shades of brown and honey and auburn.

"Heero, I love you."

I look again and it is him! It is Duo! But how? Death refused my pitiful, begging attempt to reclaim him. Death told me Max couldn't be undone. Death had told me to live with my mistake. I want to cry for joy, but I am too stunned to cry, to think. Afraid. Maybe this is one of Death's cruel tricks. "How?" I whisper.

"He knew what I was going to do, so I bet him you wouldn't be happy without me -- that you'd give it all back to have me." He smiles at me. "We won. We're free of him." I see a hint of pain in his eyes as he smiles, though. He knows how bad the last eight years hurt. He knows, I think, because they hurt him as much as they hurt me.

Then I understand what he did. Oh, my precious fool. How could you take such a risk? How could you go through that? How, after I told you I didn't love you?

"Because, I knew you loved me," he says simply, reading the question on my face. "Because I love you."

"Aishiteru. Duo, aishiteru." I smile at him, glad that I finally said it, knowing I can never say it enough times. "Aishiteru. Hold me. Aishiteru." I will try, though.

He lowers his body against mine again. We kiss.

It is our first kiss.

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CLOSING COMMENTS: "So," you will ask, "why, in light of that ending, is the Muse a Fury?" Because she didn't tell me what was going to happen until I reached the line where Heero raised his hand -- and I didn't want to spoil that moment for you. And she is a Fury. Writing blind to that point, thinking it was going to be Max… Ugh. I'm glad it's written, though.