Second Chances
By LoneWolf
(kodoku na okami)
COMMENTS: This grew out of another fic I wrote, "#712". You'll find bits of it transplanted here.

BGM: "Captain Nemo" from Sarah Brightman's album "Dive" (because it is dark and oceany and about separation)

WARNINGS: faint yaoi implications, heavy angst, Duo is dead, have Kleenex handy

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Sometimes truth is a blinding light that sears my soul leaving me lost, broken and uncomprehending. Sometimes truth is a demon that prowls my mind tearing and rending, leaving in its wake gaping wounds that gush forgotten memories best left forgotten. Sometimes truth is a gentle wind that blows soft in my heart, opening my eyes to what I've seen all along but never really known.

Sometimes truth is all three at once. That is the worst, to be burnt, torn and aware all at once.

Duo said I had the soul of a poet when he read that. As much as it hurts, I begin with this because it reminds me of him and because it describes me perfectly -- burnt, torn, aware. All too late.

--------------------------

The first time I died, I was fifteen. Most of you know the story. It was during the war. I blew up my Gundam and myself to save the Colonies. I was following orders. I did it with no regrets. I died.

Or should have.

Ten years later I found out what really happened when I read Duo's diaries. After I lied to him. After I killed him. As I'm writing this, I'm sitting outside at the cafe, holding back tears, listening to his beloved waves breaking behind my back, shaking my head, thinking what a fool I was to lie to him like that. But that is hindsight. Let me tell you what I learned about the first time I died.

He was hiding Deathscythe in the forest, waiting for the Oz troops to clear out so he could sneak away. Actually, Deathscythe was hidden and he was sitting there grousing about Oz, me, life in general, and the fact that he had nothing interesting to do and was bored waiting. Duo hated waiting, especially when he was trying not to cry.

That's what he wrote, "trying". Knowing what I know now, I think he probably was crying. He never got over the whole "Boys don't cry" thing, even though he knew it was a lie. But that's just what I think. He didn't like to be called a liar.

"Are you serious?"

He wrote, "I nearly jumped out of my braid when I heard the voice." I can understand that. There should have been no one in Deathscythe but him. If you've ever seen one of the Gundam cockpits you'd know there's no way two people could be in it and one not know about the other. He passed out when he looked to the right and saw himself smiling back at him, a certain dark glitter in the violet eyes.

I knew exactly the glitter he was talking about. I'd been on the receiving end of it many times. It was enough to scare me whenever it was directed at me, though I never let him know it.

He came to and found himself staring at himself. The other him was running through a quick check of Deathscythe's ECM systems. When he was done, he turned back to Duo and smiled. "Glad you're back among the living." He laughed at that.

"Who the Hell are you?" Duo was not one for beating around the bush.

He laughed again. Duo tried to explain the laugh. My guess is it sounded a lot like what we both heard on the cockpit recordings after a mission. "Close." He held out his hand. "Shinigami, or simply Death if you prefer."

Duo pinched himself. "Damn. Not a dream." He moaned. "God, I'm going crazy. First Heero went crazy and killed himself, now I'm going nuts. Next thing you know Quatre will be heading off into space to destroy the Colonies."

Death coughed. "I assure you, Duo, I'm real and you're not crazy -- at least no crazier that you were yesterday." A chuckle. Death, it seems has a sense of humor. Not surprisingly, it is a bit dark.

"Just assuming for a minute you are real..." Did I mention Duo could be stubborn at times? How often do you find yourself in a supposedly empty Gundam -- or anywhere -- looking at yourself sitting next to you carrying on a conversation? "Just assuming. What are you doing-- ... Oh. Am I about to die?"

"No. I came to make a deal. I have something you want. I want you to continue fighting. It saves me a lot of effort."

"What could you have that I want?"

Death smirked. "Heero Yuy."

"Shit. He's really dead then." In his diary, Duo admitted that he did cry then.

Not surprisingly, Death was used to it. He waited for a few minutes until Duo had almost regained his composure, then handed him a black handkerchief. "Keep it. About that deal. Are you interested?"

Duo nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

"Here's the short of it. I want you to keep fighting throughout this war. You're good at killing people. You usually kill a lot at once. It saves me having to make a hundred little trips. I can just follow you through the battle and collect them in your wake. After the war is over, you're free. In return, I give Heero Yuy a second chance and guarantee he'll survive the war."

"Why do I feel like I'm making one of those deals with the Devil that will come back to bite me?" He said he glared at Death. Only Duo.

Death nodded. "I'm not the Devil, but I use the same lawyers. Here's the fine print. You have to survive the war on your own. I won't help you with that. If you die before the war ends, you and Yuy both." He snapped his fingers. "After the war is over, Yuy is fair game again." Death produced a thick stack of papers. "Just sign here." He pointed to a line.

"I agree to the deal, but I'm writing the contract, not you. It'd take me a month just to read through that and probably the rest of my life to understand it all." Did I mention that despite all appearances to the contrary, despite all the times I called him one, Duo wasn't a fool? He wrote out the agreement as Death had explained it on the back of an old mission plan, signed it, and handed it to Death.

Death read over it. "I underestimated you. I won't do that again." He signed it and handed it back to Duo. "I know you don't lie, so I'll let you keep it."

"Heero?"

"He'll recover. It will take a while. I may be able to restore his life, but I don't deal in healing." He paused, pinning Duo with the dark violet eyes. "Do you know why you did it?"

Duo nodded at the empty place where Death had been.

He didn't write why he did it, but I'm sure that was the first time he realized that he loved me.

--------------------------

The second time I died, I was sixteen. "So soon after the first?" you ask. It was at the end of the war, when I saved the Earth. Death approached Duo again.

"Shit! What the Hell are you doing here?" Duo was never one to pull punches with people he didn't like. That applied to supernatural entities as well, I guess.

Death sat on the console in front of him grinning.

Duo's grin could be infuriating at times. I think this was probably the first time he understood it. I know that after the war there were times when he stopped mid-grin and changed it to a gentle smile. I'd always thought that was simply bad memories or maybe growing up. But reading his words, I think that facing his own grin like that must have made him feel like I did when I was angry at him and he was grinning at me.

"Oh, shit. But you said he wouldn't die before the war was over."

"The war is over," Death said solemnly. "Earth has surrendered to the Colonies. He'll break up in the atmosphere."

Duo tried to hit Death then, but missed somehow. In the small space of a Gundam cockpit that's hard to imagine, but this was no ordinary opponent. "You cheated! This was caused by the war."

"The contract is very clear on the matter, as you know. Do you want to save him or not?"

"Yes!" I know there was no hesitation in that answer.

Death produced another huge stack of papers and looked at Duo. "You aren't going to insist on writing your own again, are you?"

"Hell, yes, you bastard. Get used to it."

Can you imagine Death sighing? Duo said he did. I still can't see it, but if anyone could make Death sigh, it would have been Duo Maxwell.

"Very well. Heero Yuy in exchange for you -- part time."

"Naaniiii?"

"Some of my... customers... are a bit reluctant. They need a little help. I need agents who can give them the final push."

"An assassin."

Death shrugged. "Something like that. Part time."

"How part time?"

"Oh, once a month," Death said casually.

"Four times a year." Duo was also the only person I've ever known who had the balls to haggle with Death.

"Six."

"Done. No one I know personally. No one I consider innocent."

"Agreed."

"Heero won't die before he's 31." He wrote that he would have asked for more, but he wasn't sure he could get fifteen years from Death. He was right.

"Twenty-one. And be glad you're getting that. If you weren't so good at what you do, I'd take you both right now." Sometimes Death has a way of letting you know he means it. The dark glitter in those violet eyes got darker, almost black. Duo always knew when to fold.

He typed the agreement into Deathscythe's computer and printed it on that narrow paper the Gundams used.

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After the war, Duo and I shared an apartment for three years. Two bedrooms, never shared. Four weeks, two days, fifteen hours, seven minutes -- that's when I first discovered I loved him in a gentle, aware moment. I say "discovered" because I am certain I loved him before then, I just can't point to any specific moment and say, "There is where it started." Maybe I had always loved him.

And I do mean I loved *him*. While I've often wondered what we would have been like in bed together, that wasn't it. I loved him because Duo Maxwell was beautiful, not just in body, but in soul. I loved him because his heart was so lightly touched by the darkness and death the war brought on the five of us. I loved him because he could make me truly laugh. No one else has ever been able to do that.

Eventually we grew apart, but not separate. Our jobs changed. Rather than commute across town, I got my own place. Sometimes we wouldn't see or talk to each other for a few days, but at least once a week we'd meet for dinner, or go to a movie, or spend a few hours in the park talking about whatever was on our minds and watching the peace we'd won for everyone at the cost of our innocence. Those times were some of the best times in my life.

Another man with a poet's soul once said, "A man's youth is a strange and wonderful thing, and he never knows it for what it is until it is gone from him forever." I thought I had lost my youth. Duo gave it back to me for a while when I was wise enough to appreciate it.

Another priceless gift that I never repaid.

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I think Duo became suspicious of Death the third time I died -- the day after my twenty-first birthday. He never told me that, but he was shrewd enough to see the pattern. Don't you find it awfully suspicious that every time his contract on my life ended, I died? And every time, Death dragged him that much deeper into his dark embrace.

It was a motorcycle accident. Duo had taught me to love riding bikes. I was out late and on my way home when a car swerved into me. Later they said the driver was drunk. I was thrown off the bike and rolled thirty meters before the dividing wall in the median caught me.

I think I actually saw Duo and Death as they were bargaining. I remember what I thought was a dream at the time, but now... Two Duo's standing over my hospital bed, arguing. I must have made some sound because they both looked at me, then one of them reached a hand toward me and I fell asleep.

When I woke again, Duo -- only one this time -- was sitting in a chair, arms folded on the bed beside me, head on his arms, asleep. I tried to move my arm to touch him and wake him, but it was suspended in a traction sling seventy centimeters off the bed. It had been a bad accident. So I just lay there and watched him, wondering why he had come, why he had stayed. I had my hopes, but I couldn't act on hope alone.

A while later he woke and saw me watching him and smiled. "Back among the living, Hee-chan?" He knew I didn't like him to call me that.

"Duo, omae o korosu."

"I'm glad you're feeling better too. You might want to wait on the killing thing though. You're gonna need someone to take care of you for a few weeks after you get out of this place."

I stayed at Duo's for a month -- he still had the two-bedroom. Then I went back to my place. Two weeks later I moved in with him. It was too quiet without him.

People who know us will laugh when they read that. Heero Yuy finds it too quiet? And goes to live with Duo Maxwell because of it? Yes, Duo could talk, but I'd grown accustomed to it in that month. I needed it. It helped drown out the clamoring in my heart.

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I found out that Duo loved me a week before my twenty-sixth birthday. When I did, I knew it was too late to do anything about it. He was at work. I had the day off. I was cleaning up the desk, emptying the mess out of one of the drawers, when I found the plain brown envelope with my name on it. It was unsealed. The writing was Duo's. I was curious. Anyone would have been. I opened it.

The first thing I saw was the drawing. Duo could draw almost as well as he could talk. It was a picture of him and me as we had been during the war. I smiled at the familiar tank top and Spandex he'd drawn on me. We were standing on a rutted dirt road beside an old horse-drawn carriage. A skeletal hand beckoned to us from the carriage window. Duo's left hand was on my chest, holding me back. His right hand was reaching toward the carriage. He had written words in a clean, elegant script. The first lines of an old poem I barely remembered from American Literature class. "Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me." I thought it an odd thing.

Then I looked at the other papers.

An old mission plan. A printout on a narrow strip of paper from a Gundam. A sheet from a hospital notepad -- the hospital I'd been taken to five years ago after the motorcycle accident. All with words written on them. All bearing two similar but different signatures. Reading them was tearing, aware. Especially the last one.

I said earlier that Duo became suspicious of Death that last time. I said that because by the time I'd finished the second contract I was, and I know Duo was at least as smart as me about such things. I knew, reading the third contract, that, once again, Duo would be facing Death on my behalf next week. He'd only been able to get another five years. And the cost. I felt the tears on my face as I considered what he'd paid for those five years. I couldn't imagine how he could survive another five.

The last thing in the envelope was a key. It fit a lock box I had found in the same drawer and set aside. I opened it and saw a stack of books. Opening the top one, I saw it was a sketch diary. Duo had recorded the faces of his victims and what he knew about them and how killing them hurt, even when he knew they were evil. He wrote about the darkness growing inside him and how he wanted to hide it from me because he wanted me to be happy. There was a new entry every week. Every week for the past five years, Duo had killed someone, and a part of himself.

For me.

I read the last entry in the diary I had picked up. Yesterday. He had been out late the night before and had been subdued by any standards. By Duo Maxwell standards he had been silent. The man had been ill, no family, no hope, no friends -- he'd abandoned them all in his quest for power. The only reason he had clung to life was to spite his last few enemies by outliving them, even if it was only by a few minutes. I thought he was better off dead than living with that hatred and the myriad tubes and machines that kept him alive. Duo had seen a foreshadowing of things to come. Beneath the sketch of the man and his horrified, hateful look as he died were words. "I met him once. The next one he makes me kill will be an innocent. I might as well kill myself. But I can't." The ink was smeared where tears had fallen on it.

I wept too. Duo had taught me how precious life is. If he wanted to die, there was no hope.

Then I saw the way out. It would hurt us both and I would die, but after what he had done for me, all the times he'd saved me and the price he had paid to do it, how could I not do this for him.

Mission accepted.

I locked the diaries away and took the envelope into his bedroom and laid it on the bed. Then I went to the kitchen and started dinner. Duo had painfully taught me the rudiments of cookery in the past five years. I will never have my own restaurant, but I can make good, simple meals.

I greeted him when he came home. I don't remember exactly what I said. I was too lost in what was coming. I told him dinner would be ready in a few minutes. He said he was going to change into something more comfortable. I could see him from the kitchen. He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off, then turned to throw it on the bed. That's when he saw it.

I'll never forget the way he looked. Stunned barely begins to describe it. I think fear was part of it too. His head bowed for a moment, as if in prayer. He looked at me watching him, walked to me, half undressed and opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Then the tears started.

"God, Heero," he whispered, voice choking, "I didn't want you to know about this."

I nodded. I understood everything, even why he had done it, but it was too late. We only had a week and then Duo or I would die. Oh, he might still be breathing after his next deal with Death, but he would be dead inside. I couldn't stand to think of him that way. I couldn't let him do that. I loved him too much. I lied.

"Why? Why would you do something like this? How could you kill all those people? They weren't your enemies." I delivered the blow in my best cold-soldier voice, hoping it hid the hurt. This was the only way.

"Don't you understand, Heero? I love you. I did it to save you. I don't want you to die."

Do you know how hard it is to maintain your resolve to be cruel in the face of a broken child? Even when you know it is for his own good? I wavered for a moment, then I remembered what awaited him. "I don't love you Duo."

If he had been looking at me. If he'd been able to see for the tears. If his own sobs hadn't clouded his hearing. If... He would have seen and heard the lie. My heart felt like a million hooks had been sunk deep into it and ripped out all at once.

He turned and walked to his room, broken, hopeless, unloved, and closed the door quietly behind him.

No reason to save me.

Mission complete.

I was able to hold my own composure long enough to put dinner in the refrigerator and go to my own room. The door closed, my face safely buried in the pillows so he wouldn't hear me, I wept all night.

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The next morning, Duo was up before me. I came out of my room, face carefully washed of any signs of my tears. I had to maintain the lie in front of him. He said, "Ohayo," softly. I nodded at him, my usual response, and went to pour myself a glass of orange juice. "I have to go to work early today," he said. "Why don't we meet at the cafe by the ocean for dinner?"

He loved the ocean and the cafe. I wanted to say no, but I didn't want him to think I hated him, just that I didn't love him. "Ryoukai," I said. I thought my voice was quieter than usual, but he didn't seem to notice.

"Sugoi! It's a date." He touched my hand, drawing my gaze to those precious violet eyes I'd been avoiding. Softly, intensely, "Wait for me at the cafe."

He left, braid trailing behind him out the door.

That was the last time I ever saw him.

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I walked into the empty apartment, hurrying to my empty bedroom to change and leave in time to meet Duo for dinner at the cafe. I saw it laying on the bed when I walked in, but it was only as I was about to leave that I grabbed it and scanned it, thinking maybe Duo had left me a note I needed to read before dinner.

Oh, had he ever. Once again, Duo had written his own contract with Death. I think he must have written it the night before. The paper was his calligraphy paper, an oversized sheet. The writing had the neat, precise line of his favorite pen. I had seen he was always careful with the wording of the contracts when I found the first three and understood why Death had come to hate dealing with him, but this one was a masterpiece. Nothing was left open to interpretation. Death must have wanted him badly to go along with it.

"Death guarantees that Heero Yuy will not die untimely or of unnatural causes..." There were a dozen paragraphs in Duo's neat writing specifying exactly what that meant and ensuring that I wouldn't be left maimed or a vegetable. He covered all the possibilities. "... and that when Heero Yuy does die, it will be a gentle and painless death. In return, Duo Maxwell will cease to exist. Death may take Duo Maxwell's body and soul and may use them as Death sees fit."

I almost fell to the floor when I read it. I somehow maneuvered myself onto the bed, dinner forgotten -- meaningless. He'd killed himself and given his soul to Death to save me. That was the very thing I'd been trying to prevent. I didn't understand why. I had told him I didn't love him. Then I saw the writing continued on the back of the paper.

"Death will deliver this document to Heero Yuy's bed at 4:00 PM on the day this contract goes into effect." The signatures were Duo's and Death's in his close facsimile of Duo's handwriting. I could see the differences. Underneath his signature Duo had written two other things for me. "Heero, aishiteru." And "Wait for me at the cafe."

Now, as I write this, I feel the tears coming back. Then, I lay on the bed and wept all night for the second night in a row. I stopped long enough to call in to work sick the next morning, then lay there remembering things. Another one of those burning, tearing, aware times that I hate so. It was agony.

I remembered the time he said he loved me, and then laughed when I looked at him in shock, making it sound like it had been a joke. I remembered all the times he had held my hand for no good reason. I remembered the deals he had made to save me. I remembered telling him I didn't love him, lying to him about that one, most important thing in our lives. I cried again.

And finally, I understood why I had never told him I loved him. I was afraid. Yes, that's right. The soldier-boy who had faced his own death so many times during the war without a second thought was terrified to approach his best friend and tell him he loved him. I can't explain it now except to say that I would gladly face death, but I would never risk losing Duo.

Only, I had.

He was gone.

Mission failed.

I had lost my last chance to say those words.

I was alone.

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I've been coming to the cafe by the ocean every year for seven years now. I spend a week here waiting for him, knowing he won't come, but keeping my promise. I owe him so much more than that, but it is the only thing that I can give him now.

Writing. That would make him happy, I think. He always loved to read whatever I wrote, even the painful things. Even when the stories or poems made him cry, I could see that indefinable something in his face that told me he was glad to have read it.

I've been coming here for seven years now, and yesterday, I finally admitted to myself he was truly dead. So now I sit here writing, summarizing the things I've said and thought and dreamed and wished I'd said. And crying sometimes. Some of the memories are painfully beautiful.

I wish I hadn't lied at that one moment when I could have made him happier than he'd ever been in his life. I wish I'd taken the chance for that one week we could have had knowing we loved each other. I wish I'd told him that I loved him.

That will always be the greatest regret in all my life. It didn't matter if we became lovers or just remained good friends. I wish I had told him. He deserved that much. I know he loved me. He died to save me one last time.

In the lonely aftermath of finding that piece of paper, I tried to die off and on for a year. Something always happened to stop me. I couldn't find a blade to cut my wrists, or someone called, interrupting my resolve at the last minute, or the gun misfired. It was the promise binding Death. I'm sure I caused him no end of difficulty as I tried and failed to meet him at least twice a month.

When I came here that first year, the sea grey with winter, I was going to drown myself. But sitting, watching the water Duo had always loved, I couldn't bring myself to corrupt it with my death. I realized he had paid a price for my life and I couldn't throw it away because I hurt. It would be throwing away his life too. That year I chose to live again.

Because I loved him.

"Excuse me. I know this is gonna sound weird, but do I know you?"

Have you ever heard a ghost? It is another tearing moment as I remember his voice and feel a flash of hope that fades as quickly as it comes. He sounds so much like him, but I hear the differences. A little smoother. A little deeper. I keep writing, holding back tears, not wanting to look up and find a stranger standing there with almost his voice.

I must. I missed my chance before. Maybe... I am blinded with burning memories of Duo's face as I look up to find...

A stranger. Short hair. Too light. He's wearing a bright green sweater Duo would have worn only if there was nothing else to wear, and maybe not even then. He's heavier, more muscle. Too tall. The face is wrong.

But the eyes. Those same violet eyes. The bangs -- identical. The face is wrong but it's his face blended with mine. My jaw. His chin. My nose. His mouth. My forehead. His cheeks.

The gentle breeze of awareness comes and I am waiting to fall into agony, but this time, it soothes the burning and heals the bleeding memories, leaving peace as I remember the things he wrote in his diaries. Oh, yes, I read them so many times I can almost quote them verbatim.

I remember him writing that Death had given him the power to change his appearance -- to disguise himself. I remember him writing that contracts with Death are interpreted literally. I remember him writing he'd learned a secret -- that Death's gift was more than it had seemed at first, and that might be useful one day. And somehow those things and the odd wording of that last contract with Death coalesce into hope.

Now the quiet wind that blows through my heart whispers to me and I think... I think I know what he did.

Maybe.

He always hated Death as much as Death hated him. It would be just like him to try to cheat Death with his last breath.

Why else had he told me to wait for him at the cafe? Maybe he needed me here to see the parts of Duo Maxwell that he left, and pick up the pieces of our lives and help him -- help me -- help us -- become what we never did become while he was Duo.

But how much does a person have to change before they become someone else? I don't know, but I know I missed my chance before. I don't know how like him this person he became is, but I will find out. I hope they are alike enough in the ways that really matter. I hope I will find as much of his soul as I see of his body. I hope...

I answer his question. "No, but I think I've been waiting for you for a long time."

The empty chair is in front of me, the chair I have always reserved for Duo, facing the waves. It is an invitation Duo would have recognized.

He laughs, familiar but different. "That's a good come on." He holds out a hand. I pause in my writing to shake it, a touch, not quite the one I remember from long walks on this beach. "I'm Maximillian Twain, but you can call me Max." He grins. That hasn't changed at all. It eliminates my last doubts. "What're you writing?" He sits.

"My name is Heero Yuy. It's a story about an old friend and the second chances he gave me."

"Can I read it?"

I shake my head. "It's private. Where are you from?"

I'm going to put the pencil and paper aside for a while. I don't want to miss this chance
.