Disclaimer: I finally figured out who owns Gundam Wing!! The names have been sitting here, at the very bottom of the rather large sticker of Heero that adorns my tower/CPU thingy. (You can see how technologically verbal I am.) So, let me read them off. Sotsu Agency, Sunrise. I don't own it:)

Author's Notes: The idea for this story came to me as so many other story ideas have come to me: in the shower. There's just something about being under a thick layer of shampoo lather that lends itself to brainstorming. This story does take place in the same mini-universe as "In a Family Way", but it's not exactly a sequel. You'll see.

Dedication: To my dear, slightly confused, always difficult, old Master Roshi-ish Japanese professor, Ree-sensei, for teaching us how to say things like "gigolo" and "to play (with sexual conotation)", in addition to grammar and writing skills. Arigatou! Also, to everyone who read and/or reviewed "In a Family Way". I really can't express how much your words meant to me. Thank you. Special thanks to Sabacat for putting ideas into my head......


Ashes in the Valley
by Kristen Elizabeth


After Colony 207
Colony L2-5120

"I'm HOME!!!"

Duo Maxwell's voice resounded through the house, bringing three children to their feet and sending them hurtling straight for his legs.


"You're late, Daddy!"

"Mommy made asparagus again, Daddy."

"Asparagus?" Duo bent down and scooped up his third born child, six year old Thomas. "She must be stopped!" His other arm reached for seven year old Ruth, while fluffing the hair of nine year old Abigail.

"I like asparagus, Daddy." Ruth smiled at him, displaying the gap that her recently lost front tooth had created.

Duo laughed. "Good, punkin'. You can have mine." He made a quick mental count of the children who were draped over him, coming up one short. "Where's Gracie?"

"Daddy!" Four year old Grace appeared from the kitchen. Unlike her brother and sisters, she didn't run for her father. With Thomas and Ruth still attached to him, Duo made his way to his youngest child. She beamed up at him with eyes that matched his own. "Gracie go up." Her arms lifted.

Thinking quick, Duo slung Thomas to his back and used his free arm to pick up the little girl. As soon as she was up to his level, her little arms wound round his neck. She planted a hugely wet kiss on his cheek. "Hey squirt", he greeted her, returning the favor. Grace giggled and rubbed at her chubby cheek. "How's my little girl feeling today?"

"Okay, Daddy", she replied, laying her head on his shoulder. "Mommy made me take med'cine."

"The purple stuff or the green...OW! Thomas....the braid!" Duo winced in pain as his only son, in an attempt to shimmy to the floor, accidently took his father's hair down with him. Thomas clapped his hands over his mouth in childish apology. Ruth pointed at her brother and laughed.

Grace looked down at her brother sternly. "Don't hurt Daddy's hair, Tommy." As if to soothe the offended follicles, she delicately patted the side of her father's head. "Pretty hair."

In the doorway to the kitchen, Hilde Maxwell began to laugh. She made no attempt to cover her amusement, even after recieving a withering look from her husband. The sight of their youngest daughter playing with his hair as though he were one of her dolls was far too enjoyable. After a moment, she cleared her throat. "Okay troop. You've got five minutes to get washed up for dinner."

Abigail lifted her chin in rebellion. "Why, Mommy? We're just going to get dirty again."

"Because, child of mine, I said so." Hilde gave her first born the patented "mother" look. "Scoot."

With Ruth and Thomas in tow, Abigail made a beeline for the bathroom. Grace wiggled in her father's arms until he set her onto the ground. She followed after her siblings. Duo and Hilde found themselves temporarily alone.

"Hey babe", Duo leered. "C'mere and give an old soldier a thrill."

Laughing, Hilde threw her arms around his neck and kissed him thoroughly. "You are late, you realize", she chatised him when they pulled apart.

"Couldn't be helped." He nuzzled her jawline. "Did I hold up the asparagus?" Hilde swatted at him. "You should probably punish me or something."

"Or something", Hilde chose before kissing him again.

Duo lifted her off the ground, pressing her lithe body to his. "Quick...before they get back!"

"You wish!" Hilde slipped out of the embrace, blue eyes twinkling. "By the way...the kids aren't the only ones who need to wash up before they get to eat."

Duo's groan of protest filled the foyer.


"Guess what, Daddy?"

Duo looked up from his dinner. "What", he guessed.

Abigail giggled. "No, Daddy. You're supposed to really guess."

Glancing up at the ceiling, Duo thought for a moment. "I'm out of guesses, punkin'. Why don't you just tell me?"

With a wide smile, Abigail continued. "We're going to learn about sex in school next week."

Her father choked on a mouthful of meatloaf. Coughing wildly, he pounded on his chest.

At the other end of the table, Hilde buried her face in her hands. "Abby...darling. Remember what we talked about?" Abigail nodded slowly. Sighing, Hilde smiled at the children. "If you bus your plates to the sink, there's cookies in the pantry." With the promise of a treat, the children scrambled to their feet, plates in hand. Little Grace struggled with hers, but somehow managed to carry it to the kitchen without dropping it.

Duo was beginning to recover after several long minutes of hacking. "Sex?", he wheezed. "Next week??"

Hilde stood and picked up the meatloaf tray. "I was supposed to be the one to tell you. But apparently it was just too good to wait." She carried the tray into the kitchen.

Jumping to his feet, Duo followed her. "Sex", he repeated. "She's nine, Hilde!! What the hell kind of school are we sending her to??"

"One that values education over ignorance", she replied pointedly.

He leaned against the counter as he watched his wife begin to scrape the children's plates. "I'm all for education, Hilde. But let me repeat....she's nine. Nine. I have more *fingers* than that!"

Hilde laughed at his special brand of logic and thrust a plate into his hands. "Make yourself useful."

"I'm not saying that I want her to grow up not knowing that sort of stuff", Duo continued as he absentmindedly ran the dish under the water. "But I always figured she'd be at least eleven or so."

"Need I remind you that she's half the age we were when we had her?"

Duo shook his head firmly. "You don't have to remind me. In fact, never bring that up again." Hilde kissed his cheek before heading back into the dining room for a new set of dishes. "But we were different, Hilde. We had to grow up a hell of a lot faster than we should have."

"Duo..." She came back a moment later with the asparagus and potatoes. "I haven't signed the consent paper yet. If you really feel that strongly about it, she can sit in study hall during the sex education lessons." Hilde paused. "And then she can get pregnant at thirteen. And fourteen. And fifteen. And..."

"I get it!" Duo shook his head, amused. "Way to put things in perspective, babe."

"I'm perspective gal. Can you finish up in here? I think I need to have another talk with our daughter."

Grumbling, Duo reached for the dishes in her hands. "Tell her that boys are bad. Tell her to stay away from them until she's forty."

"Funny." Hilde put her hand on her hip. "That's just what my father told me...."

"Bet you're wishing you'd listened, eh?" Duo raised his eyebrows and gestured with the potatoes.

Hilde winked. "And give up all this? Not on your life, Maxwell. Don't throw away the asparagus..." Her voice trailed off as she disappeared around the corner, headed for the children's bedrooms.

The asparagus was unceremoniously dumped into the garbage can as soon as her footsteps faded.


"What happened next, Daddy?"

Duo squinted at the oversized children's book in his hand. "Well....the Bear family came home and saw that someone had been there..." He turned a page. "Eating their food...." Another page. "And sitting in their chairs!" He looked at his youngest daughter, his violet-blue eyes wide in indignation.

Grace pulled the covers up to her cherubic face. "What did they do, Daddy?", she asked, enthralled.

He thought quick. "They found the goldilocked brat, kicked her out the door and fixed hamburgers." He snapped the book closed.

His daughter giggled. "No, they didn't."

"Well, they should have." Duo lightly bopped his youngest daughter's little nose.

"Read me another, Daddy."

Duo felt himself giving in, but stood tough. "Sorry, squirt. You need to get to sleep. You want to feel better, don't you?"

Grace nodded before yawning. "G'night Daddy", she whispered.

"Night, baby girl." Duo brushed her dark bangs aside and kissed her forehead. As he left the room, he flipped the overhead light off. Upon hearing laughter from the room Abigail and Ruth shared across the hall, he stuck his head in.

"What's going on in here?", he asked, with mock suspicion.

"Nothing, Daddy!", the two girls chimed in perfect unison.

Duo raised an eyebrow. "Just keep it down, you two. Don't wake the neighborhood." There was a fresh eruption of giggling as he closed the door again.

Shaking his head, Duo made his way down the hall to the master bedroom. He was met by the sight of his wife, wrapped in nothing but a white towel, stepping out of their bathroom. "*Good* evening!", he greeted her, grinning widely.

Hilde laughed as she sat down at her dressing table. "I know that look, Maxwell. And let me just tell you, the odds of you getting lucky tonight are slim to none."

"Don't you know that impossible odds are my speciality?" Duo came up behind her and moved her wet hair to one side in order to kiss her bare shoulder. "Have I told you how much I like your hair long?"

"A few times", Hilde replied. "I'm thinking about cutting it again though. There's way too much hair in the way when you do get lucky." Duo made a noise of disapproval. "Don't worry...I won't do it before we go to Relena and Heero's. I want some hair to pile on my head for the banquet."

Duo fumbled for the opening of the towel. "You're not making this easy, babe."

"Oh, that reminds me." Hilde stood up and opened a drawer, searching for a nightgown. "I spoke to Relena today. Everything's set for us to arrive in two weeks. I asked her if she was sure it was okay to bring the kids to the banquet. She said that it was being given in Ben's honor, so it's only right that other kids should be there too."

"Ben's barely two." Duo flopped onto the bed. "I don't think he'll notice."

Hilde turned her back to him and let the towel drop. Before he could react, she slipped a dark blue satin nightgown over her head. "Of course he will. He loves being around other kids. Especially Grace."

Duo pulled off his black, clerical shirt, letting his long braid fall over his bare chest. "I think he needs a brother or sister. Heero needs to get on the ball and do something about that."

"Why don't you tell him that, sweetie. I'd *love* to see his reaction." Hilde rubbed her hair with the towel as she laughed at him.

"I just might", Duo replied, shimming out of his pants and shoes. Clad only in boxer shorts, he got up from the bed and approached his wife with all the stealth that years of combat training had supplied him with. Scooping her up into his arms, he carried her back to the bed.

Hilde protested, half-heartedly. "Duo...what the hell are you doing?", she squealed.

He set her onto the bed and covered her body with his. "Now who needs the sex education lessons?" His lips attacked her smooth throat, knowing exactly which places to target. Hilde's arms snaked around his back; her nails scratched ever so lightly.

"Not fair...", she breathed. "You don't play fair...Maxwell..."

Duo smiled impishly. "All's fair in love and..."

"Mommy! Daddy!" The adults shot up upon hearing the voice of their youngest daughter.

"Grace!" Hilde's hand flew to her throat. "What are you doing up, baby?"

The little girl padded further into the room, trailing her teddy bear behind her. "I don't feel good. My head hurts."

"Did you take your medicine?", Hilde asked. Grace shook her head; her tiny braid, tied with a pink ribbon, swung back and forth.

Duo looked sheepish. "Knew I forgot something."

Hilde rolled her eyes. "Oh dear. Well..." She gestured to Grace. "Come here."

Grace took a step forward and collapsed.

"Gracie!!" Duo was on his feet in a heartbeat, running to his daughter. She was light in his arms. Too light. "Gracie...baby?" Hilde ran to them, frantically reaching for Grace.

"Oh god...she's burning up, Duo!", she cried, feeling Grace's forehead. "Grace....Gracie, wake up!" A tear of fright slipped down Hilde's cheek.

Duo stood up, clutching his daughter. "We need to get her to the hospital. Now."


The overhead light reflected off the highly polished floor, crashing into Duo's eyes as he sat in the hospital's waiting area. Something touched his leg; he lifted his head and blinked.

Abigail stood in front of him, still clad in her long sleeved flannel nightgown. "Daddy?", she whispered. "Mommy told me to bring you this." She handed him a styrofoam cup of coffee.

He accepted it, but didn't drink. "Thanks, punkin." He looked past her. "Where is your mom?" The rawness in his throat surprised him. A little voice in the back of his mind reminded him that it had been hours since he had spoken, something most people would never believe him capable of doing.

"In the little church", Abigail replied. She pointed. "Over there."

Duo nodded and set the coffee aside. "Why don't you go keep her company?"

Abigail shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "Tommy and Ruthie are with her. I wanna stay with you, Daddy."

Before Duo could reply, a scrub-clad doctor approached him. "Mr. Maxwell?"

He quickly stood. "That's me..." He swallowed. "Is Gracie okay?" The doctor looked down at Abigail. Duo noticed and kneeled to his daughter's level. "Tell your mom I need to see her. And then stay in the chapel with Thomas and Ruth." Abigail nodded and ran off to do his bidding.

Duo straightened up. "Is Gracie okay?", he repeated.

The doctor sighed and looked at his chart. "We ran quite a few tests. And we just got the results back."

Just then, Hilde ran up to them, chest heaving with exertion. "What's going on? Where's Gracie?"

"Mrs. Maxwell?", the doctor asked. Hilde nodded. "I'm Dr. Jain. I was just about to tell you husband the results of the tests we ran on your daughter."

Hilde grabbed Duo's hand. "Oh god..."

"Grace came in presenting all the symptoms of a bad flu. Fever, headache, stiffness..."

"So, it's just the flu?", Duo asked.

Dr. Jain took a breath. "I'm afraid not. Once we ruled out the flu, we did a spinal tap. Your daughter has what's known as meningococcal meningitis. It's a bacterial infection that inflames the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord."

Hilde put a hand to her mouth. "Meningitis?"

Duo's hand tightened around his wife's. "What...what are you doing for her? How are you going to make her better?"

"Well...we're feeding her antibiotics...trying to keep her fever down..."

"That doesn't sound very drastic", Duo declared. "You can make her better, right?"

"I hope so, Mr. Maxwell. The truth is...meningitis is an extremely deadly disease, especially in children under five." Dr. Jain scratched the back of his head. "Granted that Grace does...survive, her brain could be permenantly affected."

Duo heard no words past "survive". His stare was blank; he barely felt Hilde press her face into his arm, her tears wetting his shirt. "I want to see her", he said flatly.

Dr. Jain nodded. "She's asleep right now, but you're more than welcome to sit with her. We're going to be running a few more tests, though."

Hilde lifted her head. Her eyes were red rimmed. "Can the kids come in, too?"

"I'd rather they not", Dr. Jain replied. "Meningitis is a contagious disease. I'd like to have a nurse take them and give them a vaccination. Assuming that's all right." Hilde nodded fervently. "All right. Grace's just down the hall in Exam 3. Follow me."


She was so tiny in the hospital bed built for people much bigger than she. A tube ran from her little wrist to a fluid bag hung over her head. Another tube ran under her nose. The same nose he had bopped only hours before. She didn't wake, or even stir when her parents entered the room. The heart monitor beeped in steady, comforting succession.

Duo approached his daughter's bed cautiously. Her little chest rose and fell with each aided breath. A million thoughts raced through his brain, but none were coherent. He didn't think they would be until his daughter was back home, laughing, smiling, playing with her dolls. "Gracie...", he said aloud.

Hilde came up behind him. "Duo...what do we do now?" He felt her chest against his back, begging for comforting contact. Something that, right then, he didn't believe he possessed.

"I have no idea", he replied. "I haven't ever...." His voice stuck. "...trained for...this."

She came around to his side; her cool hand touched his chin. "It's going to be all right, Duo. I have to believe it's going to all be okay."

"I don't think it works that way, Hilde."

"Faith, Duo", she whispered. "I know you have it...somewhere." Her fingers found the gold cross around his neck.

"Don't play the god card, babe. Not here. Not while our four year old daughter is fighting for her life."

Hilde sighed and pressed her face against him again. "If not now, when?"

The heart monitor began to wail, a loud, repeitious sound. Duo's eyes flew open. "Grace?!" Not a second passed before a nurse ran into the room. As soon as she touched Grace, the little girl's body spasmed, jerking wildly from side to side.

"Dr. Jain!!", the nurse cried. "She's seizing!!"

Duo shook his head. "No...no, no..."

Dr. Jain raced into the room, brushing past Duo and Hilde. "Get a crash cart." He glanced back at the couple. "And take them out of here."

Another nurse approached them. "I'm sorry...you're going to have to wait outside."

"Like hell!", Duo snarled.

"Please, sir. I don't think you want to be in here", the nurse continued. Duo looked past her to see Dr. Jain injecting something into his daughter.

"I'm staying. And I'd just like to see you *try* to get me out."

Hilde took his arm. "Duo....please..." Her voice was small. Frightened. It was a voice Duo could never say 'no' to.

His shoulders sagged. "Make her better", he whispered. Lowering his head, he backed up out of the room into the hallway.

The minutes passed like hours. Duo was barely aware of his surroundings. It was all he could do to keep breathing. Finally, Dr. Jain stepped back into the hallway. Duo didn't have to meet the man's eyes to know.

"I'm sorry", the doctor said. "I'm truly, truly sorry."

He sensed Hilde's body crumpling to the floor. Every part of his mind wanted to take her into his arms, but his body refused to cooperate. He was frozen. Unable to move. Unable to think.

Death had come to visit.


The Former Sanq Kingdom

"Ben...come on. One more bite. Just one and I'll leave you alone." Relena Peacecraft-Yuy guided the spoonful of creamed corn towards her son's mouth. He squirmed in his high chair, lips firmly pressed together.

At the other side of the table, Heero Yuy shook his head. "You're fighting a losing battle. Haven't you learned by now that he is the one person you can't negotiate with?"

Millardo Peacecraft gave a slight smile in agreement. "I can't say I blame the boy, Relena. Whatever you're trying to feed him looks repugnant."

His wife, Lucrezia Noin, laughed and placed a hand on her very pregnant belly. "Leave her alone, you two."

"Heero...Millardo...your support is, as always, *greatly* appreciated." Relena struggled with the urge to stick her tongue out at her husband and brother. That would be childish, she told herself. Childish...but completely satisifying. Instead, she lifted the spoon again and aimed it at Ben.

"No!", the little boy cried, testing out his favorite new word.

"Benjamin Yuy...", Relena began. Just then, the communicator in the hallway beeped.

Heero reached across the table and placed a calming hand on his wife's wrist. "You see who it is; I'll feed the kid."

Giving in, Relena handed the spoon to her husband and stood up. The hall communicator was on its third buzz when she finally reached it and pressed the button to bring up the screen.


Her face lit up. "Duo! What a nice surprise! I..."

He cut her off. "I need to speak to Heero."

Relena's brow crinkled. "Are you all right, Duo?"

"Just...get him."

Giving the man's uncharacteristically subdued face a strange look, Relena backed into the dining room. "Heero." Her husband glanced up from his unsuccessful attempt to feed their son. "It's Duo...he wants to talk to you."

Heero stood up. As he passed her, he gave her a kiss and the spoon. Once in the hallway, he went to the communicator. "Duo?"

His oldest friend was quiet for a minute. "Heero", he finally began. "We lost Grace tonight."

Heero stared at him. "What happened?"

"Meningitis." Every word Duo spoke was literally forced out of his mouth. "She went...fast."

"Duo. I'm..."

Duo held up his hand. "Tell Relena. Tell everyone. Hilde wants to take her to Earth, so she'll be calling Relena soon to make arrangements." He stopped.

Heero leaned over the communicator screen. "Duo, I'm very sorry for..."

"Don't say it, Yuy." Duo's eyes flashed. "I can take anyone's sympathy but yours." Before Heero could reply, the screen went blank.

His chest was heavy as he walked back into the dining room. Relena had Ben on her lap, beginning a new battle. The battle to clean his hands and face. The sight of his son, healthy and alive, albeit kicking and squirming, sent a lump to Heero's throat.

Relena looked up. "Is Duo all right?"

He took a breath and told her.


Colony L4-1250


Quatre Raberba Winner set down his tea cup and looked up at his long time partner, Trowa Barton, as he entered the parlor. He smiled at him warmly and held out an arm, beckoning him closer. "Was that the communicator I just heard?"

Trowa's eyes lowered to the thick, Arabic carpet. "It was Relena."

"At this hour?"

"It's pretty important." Trowa sat next to Quatre, running a hand through his long, brown bangs before speaking. "Grace died tonight."

Quatre blinked. "Duo and Hilde's Grace?" Trowa nodded, watching as tears collected in his lover's blue-green eyes. "How? Why?" He blinked again and the tears fell.

"She had meningitis." There was a pause. As Quatre's shoulders began to shake, Trowa put his arms around him, drawing him into an embrace. "Relena called to tell us...the funeral is in a week. On Earth."

Quatre nodded against his chest. "We'll be there."


Preventer Headquaters, South Africa

Sally Po straddled her husband's waist, enjoying the temporary hold she had over his senses. "Tell me you don't like it better this way", she teased, planting a kiss on his lips.

Chang Wufei shifted, unwilling to admit anything, yet unable to move for fear the moment might pass. It was rare that Sally was in the mood lately; the first trimester of her pregnancy had been extremely rough on her. But as they were alone in the office, very early in the morning before anyone else had arrived....he could see things getting very interesting, very soon.

Granted that he kept his mouth shut.

"Woman...", he said in a low tone. "I hope you know what you're getting yourself into."

Sally grinned and twisted her hips in an entirely suggestive way. "I'm quite aware of what I'm getting myself into." She kissed him again. "We've never been in a chair...." Her sentence was cut off by the communicator on Wufei's desk.

Groaning, Wufei slammed the button to bring the screen up. "This had better be good", he growled.

Several minutes later, Wufei and Sally left the office, hand in hand. Tears streamed down Sally's face as they climbed into their car, heading for home to make travel arrangements.


Duo stepped out of the shuttle and winced in the bright glare of the natural sun. It was something he both loved and hated about the Earth. Right then, it seemed to be mocking him. *Dare to be miserable*, it said. *Just try it; I'll keep on shining.* Duo shook his head.

On the ground below, he could make out the figures of Heero and Relena, standing close together, waiting to greet him and his family. He blinked as Hilde's hand brushed against his, urging him down the steps. He descended slowly, head lowered slightly. When he reached the last step, he looked up at the couple. "Thanks for meeting us", he said.

Relena instinctively moved forward to embrace him. "Duo...", she murmured into his clerical shirt. When she drew back, he could see tears in her blue eyes.

"Thanks", he repeated. But there was no emotion behind his words.

Biting her lip, Relena turned to Hilde. The two women flew into each other's arms in a shower of tears. Mother to mother.

Unable to think of anything to say to his best friend, Heero stepped forward. "The funeral house sent a car to pick up the casket from the cargo hold."

Duo nodded. "Good."

Heero looked past his friend's shoulder to see Relena hugging each of Duo's children in turn. The absence of one was painfully obvious. Where there had once been four, there were now only three. The children were quiet. Withdrawn. Having known them all their lives, Heero could honestly say it bothered him.

Holding Abigail's hand, Relena wiped the tears from her eyes. "Quatre and Trowa arrived yesterday", she filled Duo and Hilde in. "Sally and Wufei will be here later tonight."

Duo snorted softly. "Let the weekend begin."


Dinner that night was a solemn affair. Even Ben, the youngest of the entire party, was subdued. Sitting in his high chair next to Relena, his little Prussian blue eyes watched the adults and older children as they picked over their food in relative silence.

Under the table, Hilde felt for her husband's hand. As soon as her fingers touched his wrist, he jerked the hand away, bringing it up to rest next to his plate. She bit the inside of her cheek and willed back tears. Catching the movement, Heero's eyes slanted.

Ever the diplomat, Relena cleared her throat delicately. "The gardens are blooming very nicely this year even thought it's been so cool. I thought we might have coffee out on the patio."

Quatre looked up and smiled at her. "That sounds nice."

Little Ruth spoke up, a spark of something resembling life in her violet-blue eyes. "Will there be dessert?", she asked softly.

Noin leaned forward as much as she could. "I think I saw the cook frosting a cake", she confided.

Thomas abandoned his fish and looked at the older woman. "Chocolate?", he asked, hopefully.

"Did I hear someone say chocolate?" Sally sat up a bit straighter.

Hilde found herself smiling for the first time in four days. "Music to a pregnant woman's ears", she joked.

"Music to any woman's ears", Relena laughed. She caught Heero's eye and winked.

"I don't know..." Quatre set his water glass down. "You all might have to fight Trowa for the biggest piece of cake."

A slight blush spread onto his lover's cheeks. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Please..." Noin laughed. "If it comes down to a battle over chocolate, that one..." She pointed to Millardo. "...will win, hands down."

Millardo raised an eyebrow. "Mission accepted." Heero's eyes narrowed slightly at the laughter that burst out around him. Even Wufei stifled a smile.

Abigail shook her head. "I don't get it." The laughter increased. This time, Heero had to grudingly smile.

Duo stood up abruptly, his chair scraping against the hard wood floor. Hands stuck deep in his pockets, he stalked out of the dining room without a word. Silence followed his departure.

Hilde looked down at her trembling hands. "I'm sorry everyone", she apologized. "He needs more time....before he can laugh again."

"You don't need to apologize", Heero said, in what could pass for a comforting tone.

She smiled weakly and stood up. "Excuse me."

Relena watched her follow after her husband. She rubbed her temple for a second before sitting up straighter. "Abby, Ruth, Thomas. Do you remember where the patio is?" The three children nodded. "Could you go out there and wait for your dessert?" Duo and Hilde's children scooted back their chairs, heading for the French doors.

There was a pause after they left. Finally, Trowa spoke. "He's hurting far worse than he's showing."

"That's saying a lot", Quatre said, playing with the edge of his napkin. "I never thought I'd see him like this."

After another pause, Noin shook her head. "It was just so fast! No warning...nothing. Just...." She trailed off. "And then she was gone."

Sally nodded sadly. "That's how meningitis works. Practically as soon as the symptoms manifest, it's too late."

Heero pushed his chair back. "It's Ben's bedtime." He walked the short distance to the other end of the table and picked his son up out of his high chair. Without another word, he walked out of the dining room.

Relena closed her eyes. "Dessert, anyone?"


Duo was halfway down the hallway to the guest suite he and his family were sharing when Hilde caught up to him. Instead of stopping, he walked on until he reached their room. He entered it, allowing her to slip in behind him.

"Duo", she said as she shut the door. "What was that all about?"

He stopped in front of the window that overlooked the manor's gardens. On the patio, he could see his three children, sitting patiently in the evening air, obviously waiting for something. "What do you mean?", he replied tersely.

"Don't play dumb."

Duo spun around, his braid slapping against the windowpanes. "Oh...I'm sorry, babe." He spat the words out. "Should I go back down there and laugh it up? It's not like our daughter is..." He stopped.

"Say it, Duo", Hilde whispered. "Say it. Our daughter is..."

"I don't have to say it, Hilde!"

"No. But you need to."

He turned back around. "I really don't want to be around anyone right now."

She blinked. It was like he had hit her. Only worse somehow. "Duo...please don't do this", she begged her husband. "Don't shut me out....not now!" She took a step towards him. "I need you, Duo. I can't do this...by myself."

Duo folded his arms across his shirt, but didn't turn. "That's the difference between you and me. I can go it alone."

"Fine." Hilde's eyes smoldered. "Go it alone. Keep it all bottled up inside you. Don't let anyone in. Isolate your friends. Ignore your children. Forget about me. But it's not going to make it hurt any less, Duo. Grace will still be dead. And you'll still be miserable. But at least you'll be miserable alone. Just the way you want it."

When he turned back around, it was too late. She was gone and he was alone again. Just like he wanted. Duo's fist balled up; the anger he felt was unparalleled. Directed at no one but himself, it threatened to boil over. He felt his knees giving out and he dropped to the carpet. One fist pounded the floor repeatedly.

"What's wrong with me?", he cried. His knuckles were raw; his chest was heavy. A million unshed tears pressed on his lungs, making it difficult to breath. But for some reason, he could not draw them out. He struggled for control, all the while wondering why he was bothering. Control was not a trait he generally admired in others. Why did he want it for himself in the face of tragedy?

He slowly staggered to his feet. His attempt to stand failed, however, when the heel of his shoe stepped down onto the very end of his braid, yanking the long hairs as he straightened up. "Damnit!!!", he screamed. "God damn fucking hair!!"

Hilde's suitcase lay open on the double bed. The scissors in her manicure kit. He fumbled for the tiny pair of shears. When it was in his hand, he stared at the silver blades for a moment before grabbing onto his braid. Taking a deep breath, he raised the scissors to the back of his head.

Her voice came to him as a distant memory. *Don't hurt Daddy's hair...* A little girl's indignation and sense of protection. *Pretty hair.* The hand holding the scissors faltered.

"Are you going to do it?"

Duo whipped his body around. Heero stood in the doorway, hands in his pockets...demeanor cool and collected. As always. "Great idea, Yuy", he snapped. "Sneak up on the guy with scissors pointed to the back of his head!"

"That's not my fault. You put them there." Heero took a step into the room. "Why?"

Drawing on years of quick comebacks, he sniffed. "A man's hair is his own damn business."

"Fair enough", Heero replied.

Duo sighed. "What the hell do you want?"

Heero shrugged. "Handed Ben to the nurse. Heard your voice." He took another step. "Thought we could talk."

Laughter filled the room, sharp and bitter. "Talk? You and me??" Duo shook his head. "That's a good one. All those times that I used to try to get you to talk....and *now* you want to start communicating. Your timing is as fucked as..."

"As your sensitivity?", Heero suggested. "Are you specifically out to hurt Hilde or do you just want to see her as miserable as you are?"

Duo examined the sharp blades of the scissors once again. "Of all the people, on this planet and off of it, you are the last one who gets to talk to me about sensitivity." He looked up; his eyes threw violet-blue sparks. "Besides, you should know *everything* about the situation before you start making accusations."

"I won't pretend to know what that means. But I'm sure that whatever it is, you'll figure it out. After you talk to your wife." Heero backed up. "Until then, I suggest the couch in the drawing room. It's not *too* uncomfortable."

Duo waited for the door to close before he sent the scissors hurtling towards it.


"Hilde?" Relena approached her friend and leaned against the stone balcony in a nearly identical position as the shorter woman.

"Hey." Hilde quickly wiped at her eyes. There was a slight pause. "It's really beautiful here", Hilde finally said. "I forget sometimes....being on the colony. She really liked it here, too. Grace..." She put a hand to her mouth.

Relena lowered her head. "Do you feel like talking?"

"Oh god..." Fresh tears appeared in Hilde's eyes. "Yes. I *need* to talk to someone, Relena. I haven't....talked since...since she died..." She pause. "Duo won't talk about it. The children are too young..."

"He really hasn't said *anything* about it?"

Hilde shook her head. "This is how he talks about...Grace's death. By never actually coming out and saying it. He hasn't mentioned the word 'death'. He hasn't even cried, Relena."

Relena put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Maybe he just needs some more time."

"That's what I thought...at first. I told myself I'd give him some time. I mean, I needed some, too. But then..." Hilde twisted her wedding ring. "It's like...a part of him is dead, Relena. And nothing I do or say seems to be able to bring it back to life."

"He always was very close to Grace."

Hilde nodded. "She was the baby. His baby. But he has three other children. And they need him. Maybe more than I do. They've not only lost their sister...they've lost their father, too." Her eyes closed as new tears spilled onto her cheeks. "And me? I lost my little girl....and my husband. I need him, Relena. I can't do this alone...we shouldn't have to do this alone..."

Relena's arms wrapped around the petite woman. "You are much stronger than you think you are, Hilde. And Duo...." She looked up at the sky. "He'll work things out when he's ready." A sad smile spread onto her face. "For all the arguing they do, your husband and mine are so much alike. They do things their way. And the best thing to do is just let them....trusting that they'll find their way back."

"He had better find that way back. And soon." Hilde pulled back. "Because I'm pregnant."


The morning of the funeral dawned clouded and cool. The chill in the air failed to dissipate in the time it took the residents and guests of the Peacecraft Manor to assemble in the dining room, suffer through another silent meal and pile into two limousines, courtesy of Quatre and Trowa, to make the journey to the gravesite. A hearse headed up the sad procession.

In the second limousine, with Ben on her lap and Heero's hand holding onto hers, Relena took a moment to collect herself. It wouldn't do the family in the first limousine any good for her to lose it. Opening her eyes again, Relena noticed Quatre looking at her.

From his place next to Trowa, Quatre smiled ruefully. As though he could read her mind. "It's all right, Relena. The funeral is the place you're *supposed* to cry. Or else...why have them?"

Swallowing heavily, she nodded. "You're right." She paused. "I can't get this image of Grace out of my mind. She must have been Ben's age; I was about seven months pregnant with him and they were visiting us for the weekend. I was holding her....and she put her hands on my stomach and started speaking to him...not really words, just...baby talk. Like she was trying to make friends with him." Relena shook her head as if to clear the image away.

Sally laid her head onto Wufei's shoulder. "You know...", she began. "I was the first person to see her. I never thought, when I helped bring her into the world, that I would ever have to be at her funeral."

Millardo placed a discreet hand on his wife's stomach. "No one expects the death of a child."

"No one should have to", Heero added, surprising most of the limo's passengers.

Trowa folded his arms and spoke the words that everyone was thinking. "She will be missed."


Hilde sat in the hard, wooden chair, in front of the open grave. Although her husband sat beside her, if not for the children at her side and the friends behind her, she would have felt utterly and entirely alone. Taking a breath, she forced herself to turn her head, looking back at the makeshift aisle.

Four men worked together to carry one terribly small casket down to the grave. They were the only four men who Hilde would have picked for such an important job. Four men who had helped secure a peaceful world for her children to grow up in. It was hard for her to acknowledge her own part in that task; it was far easier to give them the credit. Them...along with her husband.

He sat next to her, staring straight forward at the retangular hole in the ground, refusing to look back. When the casket made its way into his eyeline, he looked up at the grey sky. Hilde searched the corners of his eyes. They were dry.


Before he was quite ready, the funeral was over. Duo watched the minister close his Bible and make the sign of the cross over his daughter's casket. The people around him stood. Reluctantly, he joined them. He knew what he was supposed to do next. Walk forward, take a handful of dirt, throw it onto his daughter. It was a sick ritual. Why should he have to have any part in burying his child?

The clump of earth was still damp with early morning dew. He stood at the very edge of the rectangle; his arm poised over the hole. The dirt slid through his fingers, raining down upon the mahagony surface of the casket. Hilde's handful followed his. Then Abigail's and Ruth's and finally Thomas' small handful....all adding to the growing pile that he had started. He closed his eyes. The dirt still clung to his fingers. He had a feeling it would be a long time before the hand felt clean again.

There was nothing left to do. With his family and friends, he began the long journey back to the waiting limousines. Behind him, he could hear his son's voice.

"Miss Relena", Thomas asked. "The minister said that Gracie is in heaven."

He heard Relena release a pent-up breath. "Yes."

"Is that true?"

He listened as Relena, obviously aware of his presence, replied, "It depends on how you look at things. But I'd certainly like to believe so, Thomas."

There was a pause as his son thought over her words. "But...if Gracie is in heaven, then what's in her coffin?"

It was too much. Turning on his heel, Duo began to make his way back down to the grave. He felt a dozen pairs of eyes on his back. He ignored every single one.

Heero was the first to go after Duo. Quatre followed soon after, with Trowa and a slightly reluctant Wufei in tow, leaving the remaining members of the group to wait.

Duo felt the presence of the four men gathered around his daughter's grave long before he finally spoke to them. "Hi...I'm Duo and I'm an alco...." He slapped his forehead. "Damn...wrong support group."

"We just wanted to make sure you were all right", Quatre said softly. Glancing at the others, he quickly added, "I did, anyways."

Trowa's voice was almost as quiet as his lover's. "You don't need to be alone right now."

"Thank you ever so much." Duo slathered on the sarcasm. "But I severely doubt any of you have the slightest comprehension of what I need right now."

"We've all lost people, Duo." Quatre's blond hair blew in the wind that swept through the cemetery. "We all know what it feels like."

Duo turned on the smaller man. "Don't give me that shit! You've never lost a child....and you never will. Right?"

Quatre blinked. "No", he finally replied. "I don't suppose I ever will."

Wufei snorted. "You're losing sympathy points by the second, Maxwell."

"I never asked for your sympathy!!", Duo shouted. "The God of Death does *not* need *anyone's* sympathy. Got that??"

"The God of Death", Heero repeated. "I thought he didn't exist anymore. I thought you had laid him to rest."

Duo's fist curled up. "I was an idiot to think that. I should have known....but I forgot. I fucked up. Took too many chances..." Try as he did to stop it, his voice cracked. "Became too happy. And Death found me again." Silence hung in the air. "It was my fault, you know."

Trowa tilted his head to one side. ''No. We don't know that."

"Well, it was." Duo kicked at a patch of grass where the ground had been cut to make way for his daughter's casket. "I didn't give Gracie her medicine. Hilde asked me to, when I put her to bed..." He lifted his shoulders. "And I forgot. So, my daughter is....gone because I'm the same irresponsible fuck that I was when I was fifteen. The same *cursed*, irresponsible fuck."

"You really believe that?" Heero's question was more of a statement.

Duo shrugged again. "What else is there to believe in?"

"The family you've still got."

"Give the God of Death some time. There won't be *anything* left to believe in."

"Bullshit." Wufei unfolded his arms. "It is as dishonorable to accept responsibility for things over which you have no control, as it is to deny responsibility for the things you do." He stepped forward. "Do you know what Sally says? She says that there is no way you could have done anything for your daughter. You could have spoon-fed her an entire bottle of medicine and we'd still be here."

Quatre sniffed. "It's an awful disease, Duo. But it was a disease that took Grace away from us...not you."

"That's a very easy conclusion to make when the weight isn't on your shoulders." Duo shook his head.

Heero sighed impatiently. "Well, if you're done feeling sorry for yourself....everyone's waiting for us."

"I don't believe you, Yuy." Duo looked at his old friend incredously. "I don't fucking believe you. I just buried my kid....and you're acting like I'm wasting your precious time."

"I don't do pity. Grace is..."

Duo held up a warning hand. "Don't say it."

He began again. "Grace is..."

"I said....don't say it!!"

"Heero..." Quatre started forward, but Trowa's hand on his wrist held him back.

"Grace. Is..." He was cut off by Duo's fist, swung thoughtlessly and wildly, coming straight for him. Heero easily ducked the punch. "That's it...hit me."

Duo's cheeks were red with anger. "You're a bastard, Yuy." He swung again, but once more, Heero dodged his fist.

"I know." As Duo tried for a third punch, Heero caught his fist in one hand, locking it into place. When Duo brought up his other fist, he did the same, until he was in a strong arm-lock with his oldest friend. Duo struggled to gain the upper hand, but Heero held onto his fists, keeping them in place.

"I didn't think I'd ever have to fight you again", Heero said. "But there doesn't seem to be any other way to get through to you. Grace is dead, Duo. But you're not. And Hilde's not. And those kids of yours...they're not either. Do you get it yet?"

With a sudden burst of energy, Duo tore his hands away from Heero. His lip curled in a look of pure hatred. Backing away, he headed out across the cemetery in the opposite direction.

Quatre looked down at his hands. "Will he be all right?"

Trowa watched as Duo's figure became smaller and smaller, finally disappearing from sight. "He'll find his own way back."


Midnight at the Peacecraft Manor was generally a quiet time. The night of Grace Maxwell's funeral was no different. Exhausted from an emotionally heavy day, most of the Manor's guests and residents had retired for the night. Sleep...the greatest stress reliever. For one woman though, sleep was impossible.

Hilde pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders to ward off the cold, night breeze. She thought briefly about giving up, going inside where it was warm. But she clentched her jaw, braced herself against the next wind that swept over the patio and waited.

He would return. And she would be there for him.


The grave had been filled in. A blanket of loose, brown dirt covered the freshly dug hole, sealing its contents from the world. Flanking the grave was a newly carved headstone in soft grey marble. Light from the full moon gently illuminated the cemetery. To the outside eye, it was peaceful.

The man who sat on the cold grass next to the grave took a swig from his nearly full bottle of whiskey. Wincing, he coughed before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He was quiet for a long moment before he spoke.

"Don't worry, baby girl. Your daddy's not drunk. I wouldn't come here like that." He took another, smaller sip. "Your mom would kill me if I did." He paused. "I'm just a *little* more....loose than usual." Laughter resounded through the cemetery. "That's a joke, baby. No one's ever accused your dad of being uptight."

Duo swished around the liquid in the whiskey bottle, watching it circle around. "I had to come by....to talk to you. I won't get to come back for awhile, you know." He stopped twirling the bottle. "I don't know if that's good or not. You're here, on Earth now. So I can't just stop by every day."

"I guess your mom figured that out. Maybe that's why she wanted you...buried here." He shrugged. "She said it's because you liked Earth so much. And that was true. 'Course...there weren't many things you *didn't* like, baby. Besides asparagus." After another swig of whiskey, he continued. "In a way...I'm kind of glad you're here, too. Your mom knows me too well, I think."

He looked up at the moon. "I guess I've really been messing up, haven't I?" His gaze lowered back to the bottle in his hand. "Not exactly been handling all this the right way. Your mom keeps telling me to cry..." He shook his head; his braid swung back and forth, the end brushing against the grass.. "I don't know if that'd make me feel better or worse. I don't know a lot of things, squirt. In case you never noticed."

Duo lifted the bottle to his lips, but didn't drink. "The one thing I do know is that you're gone. Everyone thinks I'm in some sort of denial....but I'm not. I know that you're...that you're...you know. It's just that they all seem to want me to forget about you. But that's not going to happen, baby. Never." His throat stuck. "You're my little girl. You'll always be my little girl. That's the other thing I know....I gotta let you go. 'Cause your mom, your sisters, your brother....they all need me."

The bottle was heavy in his hand. He set it down and reached into his breast pocket. "I need to give you something." From the pocket, he pulled out a three inch lock of hair, tied with a pink ribbon. "I can't give you the whole braid, baby. It's too much a part of me. I can't lose me because I lost you. So, I'm leaving this with you. Kinda my promise to come back." Duo dug a small indentation in the freshly turned dirt, laid the lock of hair into it, and covered it over again.

Staggering a bit under the influence of the whiskey, Duo stood. Reaching out, he brushed his fingers across the smooth marble of the headstone. "Grace Deborah Maxwell....I miss you so much." He turned and picked up the bottle before taking one last look back at the grave. "Rest in peace, squirt."


A cloud passing over the moon and the temporary absence of light that followed roused Hilde from her temporary doze. She sat up in the patio lounge chair; the shawl around her shoulders slipped down. "Duo?", she said outloud.

From the shadows created by the huge house, a voice replied. "You have a sixth sense, Hilde Maxwell." Duo's face came into the clouded light. He smiled sadly. "Hey there."

Hilde took a breath and returned the smile. "Hey." The smile fell. "Where have you been?"

"Took a long walk." He looked up at the moon. "A really long walk. Had to clear my head. Do some thinking."

"Anything in particular?"

Duo scratched his cheek. "Yeah. I was just thinking 'bout how incredibly stupid I've been for the past few days. And I was trying to figure out what it would take to get you to forgive me."

Hilde swallowed heavily. Hot tears stung her eyes. "And what did you come up with?"

"Eh...the usual. Flowers, chocolates, incredible sex." His eyes twinkled. "I can do all three..." He stepped towards her. "But then I thought, maybe I should just apologize and work on the material stuff later." Duo knelt next to his wife's lounge chair. "I'm sorry, babe", he whispered. "I'm so sorry I made you go through this by yourself. Forgive me?"

"Duo..." Hilde ran her fingers through his thick bangs as her tears fell. "I forgave you a long time ago." His head fell forward and she gently guided it back up. "Come here."

Somehow, he managed to manuever his way onto the lounge chair built for one. Hilde laid her cheek against his chest, savoring the warmth that his body provided. Her fingers found the end of his braid and tangled themselves in the chestnut colored strands. "So...you just went for a walk?", she asked.

"Yeah...?", Duo replied, uncertainly.

Hilde smiled. "Just how much whiskey did you drink?"

He sighed and shook his head. "It seemed like a good idea at the time." There was a long pause. "I went to see Gracie."

His wife was a long time in answering. "I see."

"Had to talk to her about some stuff...you know." His eyes closed. "I needed to make sure I knew something...." She said nothing, waiting for him to continue. "Our daughter's dead."

Hilde nodded, pressing closer to him. "She's dead."

A strong breeze whipped across the patio; its low, sweeping sound filled Hilde's ears. It wasn't until the wind began to die that she heard Duo murmur their daughter's name. His chest rose and fell eratically; something warm and wet touched the top of her head.

She turned her face up to see the tears coursing down her husband's face. His eyes remained closed as he softly cried. Hilde lifted her body to kiss his wet cheeks, first one and then the other. She brushed a salty kiss across his lips and let him cry.

After a long time, his breathing evened and his tears dried in the cold night air. Hilde continued to hold him. He cleared his throat and wiped at his cheeks. "You knew I needed that, didn't you?"

"Of course." Hilde kissed him again. "I love you, Duo."

"I love you too, babe." He lowered his gaze. "You think Gracie knew that I loved her?"

"How could she not have? It was in your eyes, every time you looked at her from the moment she was born...to the day she died." Hilde took a breath. "You're a wonderful father, Duo. I knew that you would be when I told you I was pregnant with Abigail. Remember that?"

Duo grinned. "It's a little hazy, but I think it was the champagne. Does not do wonders for your memory."

Hilde touched his chin. "You picked me up off the ground and thanked me for letting you get me pregnant."

"I'm still grateful for that."

"Then you told me you were going to be 'the best father in the history of the world, ever'. Direct quote." She brushed his bangs from his eyes. "As far as I'm concerned, you've succeeded." There was a pause. "And will continue to succeed." After another pause, Hilde began to laugh.

Duo pulled back to see her face. "What's so funny?" An impish smile on her face, Hilde cupped her hand around his ear, whispering into it for a moment. Duo's violet-blue eyes widened. "Really?"

She nodded. "Two months really."

A whoop of joy shot up through the night sky. "Another little Maxwell!!" Duo planted a huge kiss on his wife's waiting lips.

"I was worried about telling you....I thought maybe it might be too soon." Hilde bit her lip. "Is it?"

Duo ran a hand through her hair, lovingly. "No, babe." His hand found her abdomen, softly caressing it. "Whoever this little person turns out to be...well, he or she can't ever replace Gracie. I don't think that's why we've been given...um...it?" He grinned. "Can I go ahead and say it's a girl?"

"Why a girl?"

"Well, looking at our track record, there's a one in four chance that it'll be a boy, so I'm just assuming...."

Hilde shook her head. "I thought impossible odds were your speciality."

Duo winked. "You got me there, babe."

"I've got you. That's enough for me."

He kissed her again. They settled into a long minute of comfortable silence. "So, about that incredible sex I owe you...."

As it had done for centuries and would continue to do for centuries more, the moon watched on.