Disclaimer: I'm sure this comes as a shock to you all, but I seriously do not own Gundam Wing.
One thing I could never explain, one thing I could never make anyone understand, was that I had no control over the Jester.
I wasn't like Quatre or Trowa – I couldn't show the real me. And I wasn't like Wufei, trapped within my anger. And I wasn't like Heero, a man who had been the Perfect Soldier for so long it seemed to have fused with him. No, I wasn't like that.
The Jester was a mask. A persona. The Jester lived on his own within me. And when I released him, he did and said as he damn well pleased. I couldn't stop him. Why do you think I got beaten up so much? I wasn't able to turn off the Jester before he did or said something that got me hit with the blunt side of a rifle.
No. I'd never been able to get anyone to understand that.
Moreover, it's difficult to explain that whenever I was around someone, the Jester came out to play. He liked being around people. He liked being rowdy and boisterous; he loved crowds.
I'm not saying I have a split personality – are you crazy? And you think they would let me near a Gundam why? But he was someone else. A persona, if you would. A mask, if you wouldn't. He was the smiling face, the cocky grin and the bad attitude. He was his own, separate entity.
I was not him.
But no one could understand such a thing. No one could see how I was not him – because, of course, whenever they were near, he would come loose, plastering himself all over my face.
It wasn't like I woke up in the morning and put on my 'happy' face. It wasn't so simple. It was automatic. I couldn't emphasize that enough. It wasn't like I controlled him. I couldn't think, 'joke now' or 'grin'. He took care of all of that. I'd created him, yes, back when I was child and desperate. But he'd gotten away from me, creating himself in whatever way he'd seen fit.
No one even let me get to that part of the explanation.
I woke up as I always did nowadays – immediately, one second asleep and the next wide awake. There was no moment of blinking, yawning, or stretching. There was no time to ruminate on dreams.
It was six in the morning, right on the dot. It had taken rigorous training for me to make my mind record how much time I could sleep and to wake me up at exactly the right moment. Waking up when I heard a threatening noise, however, was automatic.
But I'd told myself to wake up at seven. This was a time when I heard a noise, a strange noise. I continued lying down as if I were sleeping, listening intently. The door opened. A silent sound, and footsteps padded into the room.
"Welcome back," I murmured lowly, certain my roommate would hear. He was even better than me, a soldier to the core. Heero could put me to shame in everything.
He merely grunted. He didn't like me, and he made it plain. I understood why. As a soldier, it was inconceivable that I laugh and joke and... be someone like the Jester. The real me, the true me, hurt for it. I couldn't help the mask – just as Heero couldn't. But Heero's was more acceptable – the Perfect Soldier.
I sat up, watching him carefully. He was walking fine. He dumped his duffel bag by his bed and sat down, looking out into nothing for a short second before turning and glaring at me. I understood the mask, the cold hatred of its eyes. Mine were opposite – warm, jovial. But they were both – both his and mine – fake.
"How you doin'?" I asked, already knowing the answer I would receive.
"It's none of your business."
I didn't sigh. I couldn't. The Jester was in play. I've learned to hate him. "Well, pal, if you're gonna croak, then-"
Heero whipped his pistol out – an automatic thing for him, a defensive maneuver. "Then what?" he demanded, his voice ice-cold, low. Threatening.
I put my hands up and laughed. "A bit trigger-happy, huh there?"
I saw his eyes glint for a second and wondered if he'd finally lose that damnable cool and shoot my sorry ass. I wondered if the Jester would die before I did.
"Answer the question."
I did sigh this time, but in exasperation. "I was gonna say, 'if you're gonna croak, then it'll be your business that becomes mine.'"
He humphed and flipped his gun back, slipping it into whatever mysterious place he manages to hide it with those spandex shorts and tank top. I always figured he stuffed it... well. Somewhere on that hot body that was totally inappropriate to think about. "That won't happen," he grunted. It took me a second to realize he was still on the Jester's conversation. I didn't blush, but it was a close one.
I shrugged. "If you say so." I yawned and stretched, letting my stiff muscles get a little movement in them. I was deadly aware of every movement Heero made.
It had been a disturbing development, the interest in my roommate's body. On the streets, it didn't matter if someone was interested in guys or girls. There was no time for sex when every moment depended on watchful eyes. Besides... I'd just been a kid.
I'd thought Solo was the most gorgeous creature in the world. I'd had hero worship beyond what a child on the streets should have been able to feel. Solo, I think, saw it, it and my interest in him, though I'd been far too young for it to be anything more than platonic. He seemed to watch me carefully, but he kept me close. And one night, when three kids had been watching out for enemies, he'd seen me watching him and gave me a mouthful.
It had been scary, horrifying, but it had been Solo. I'd thought it was a rite. The next night, I'd been named his second-in-command. It was only years later that I understood that it had been no rite, and he'd been watching me for more reasons than I'd thought.
But even those memories couldn't keep my interest for Heero Yuy at bay.
Heero took off his tanktop, granting me a view of his naked chest, a sight that never failed to entrance me. He was all muscle and lean frames, ribs visible in their six-pack glory. I knew underneath those calloused hands was pure steel, that those biceps and triceps could lift me with little effort. The man could bend steel, after all. Little ol' Duo Maxwell would be nothing compared to that.
I closed my eyes to it and just let my ears listen to the rustle of fabric. I heard him lay down on the bed without pulling the covers over him, just as I slept. And I heard him fall deeply asleep in the next second.
I always envied him that. I could fall asleep quickly, as well, but I could never just shut off like he could. It annoyed me that he surpassed me in even that.
I stood, carefully making some noise – he would wake up otherwise. I went through my morning routine, getting dressed and making myself presentable. My hair always took the longest, but I didn't worry over it too much. Just the quickest brush-through possible and then the automatic motions of putting it into a braid. These days it took me about fifteen minutes. G had made me do it in five.
Then I did my stretches. And then I went on my run.
It was a free moment, a split second of freedom – only fifteen minutes to go almost five miles, about 2.4 to the park and straight back. I never spoke to anyone. Runners never had to.
And then I was back – it was seven o'clock to the minute. I had worked off my libido and had sweated out the worst of the memories. I saw Wufei on the back porch, his usual place from five until eight. He would be finishing his – what was it? Kata? - and would soon begin his meditation. I left him alone.
But when I entered the house, I heard Trowa and Quatre conversing lowly in the kitchen. I was hungry, but I wasn't going to disturb them. The two of them seemed to have some sort of history. In any case, they were obviously building a relationship. It wasn't my business to interfere.
I went back up the stairs and passed my – Heero's and my – room. I didn't want to disturb him. Heero would usually check his laptop for God only knew what before crashing. He was exhausted. Injuries, after all, didn't have to be physical to be debilitating. I went to the library and scoured the shelves for books.
Most in this safehouse were self-help books – books I wouldn't touch if my life depended on it. There were a few thrillers scattered inside it all, and those were what I'd sniffed out the first week. There wasn't much left.
I searched every single shelf I could see, even grabbed a chair and stood on it, and picked up the few books I hadn't yet read. I was searching through the stack when I heard steps coming toward me.
The Jester escaped.
I turned with a grin to see Quatre entering the room. I knew he felt something strange from me. He'd admitted it once – a feeling of exuberance smothered by a calculating mind and a throbbing heart. I'd just grinned at him and told him I was an onion. He hadn't caught the centuries-old reference.
"Duo." He smiled at me. I always loved Quatre's smile – there was something so honest and open in it. I had to return it to him, at least a little. But it wasn't me grinning.
"Hey there, Qat. How's everything going? You and Trowa having any fun yet?"
Dammit, it was none of my fucking business.
Quatre flushed a deep red. "Wh-What?"
The Jester shrugged and cocked his head, putting down his stack of books on the table. He broke eyesight with Quatre. The Jester couldn't look people in the eye, afraid they would see something he didn't want them to know. "Just wonderin', since the two of you look so cozy-close."
Just shut up! I screamed at myself, hating the loss of control. I felt like one might if they'd been taken over by a Yeerk – able to think, able to watch, but never able to participate. (1) I felt like I was being swallowed by my own mask. I watched as Quatre blushed deeper and looked to the floor.
Thankfully the Jester took pity on the poor blond and spoke again, this time with a more sincere tone. "Honestly, Qat, I don't care. I'm into guys, myself. More muscle to 'em."
If I could have, I would have shot myself dead right there.
Quatre looked up at me and caught my eye. The Jester let our eyes match together for a short time, showing his sincerity, before he widened his grin and looked around. "Hey, do you know any of these? I don't know which to read next."
Quatre cleared his throat and allowed the Jester to change the subject. He looked over them. "I recognize the name Grisham. He's good." His eyes flickered to me. "Uh, Duo, I came up to tell you that breakfast was ready."
I nodded. Quatre was compassionate – he would never shout up the stairs if he knew someone in the house was trying to sleep. "All right, perfect. I was getting hungry. So what'd you cook today?" Quatre was, after all, the Head Cook of the house. He was so domesticated it made me cringe. I couldn't cook and worse, I'd needed to learn from him how to clean. Yeah – that had been a humiliating experience. Everyone had teased me mercilessly about it for days. But how was I supposed to have learned? I'd never needed to clean the reeking holes we rats had hidden in.
Quatre shook his head. "Trowa cooked," he murmured. "I just gave him instructions."
Ah. Was that what they'd been talking about, or had that been only half of their conversation? I begged the Jester not to ask, but he'd already decided not to. Bubbly people who loved hanging around others never would have heard voices and not joined whoever was there. It would hurt his image. I mentally sighed in relief.
"Trowa, huh? " I gleefully rubbed my hands together. "Great. I'll be the infamous taste-tester and let you know if he passed."
"Why thank you, Duo," Trowa said drolly. I turned to the entrance of the library and cocked an eyebrow. He was leaning on the doorjam with a smirk on his lips. I grinned back at him.
"Is something burning downstairs?" I tsked. "You make my pancakes black, and you fail on general principle."
He chuckled and stood straight. "You mean like how you failed?"
I laughed and flipped him the bird. "Keep it up and I'll help you."
He held up his hands. "I give," he murmured. "Now hurry up. If you're testing my food, you're going to eat it while it's warm."
"Aye-aye!" I saluted. Trowa turned and headed downstairs, Quatre following him nervously. I wondered if he thought the Jester would be prick enough to ask Trowa the same questions he'd asked Quatre. But the Jester was more... open... around Quatre. Trusted him more. What he'd said to Quatre, he would never say to Trowa or Heero or Wufei. Those three... there was no getting close to them.
I followed the two of them at a small distance and watched their movements. I didn't think they noticed, but the two moved in a sort of synchronization. I could remember watching the two of them in a mission a few days ago. They'd moved as if they'd been training together for years. I'd been the outsider, the monkey in a troupe of dancers. They'd been fantastic. Yes. They were working on a very special relationship. I thought about it and felt a bastard mix of happiness and burning envy. The Jester pushed it away – there was no room on the mask for anything but smiles.
We sat down and ate quietly, Wufei already eating. He gave me a burning glare and promptly ignored me. I in turn exclaimed over the food, giving Trowa an A++++. That brought Wufei out of his introspection.
"Maxwell," he said coldly, "there is no such grade."
"Sure there is," I said jovially. "An A is, what, a 90 or something?" I'd never gone to a conventional school, so I couldn't be precisely sure. "An A+ is a 100, so Trowa got a 130." I nodded. "See? Perfect mathematical sense."
Wufei sighed as if having suffered my attitude for years. "Maxwell, you cannot get more than all of the questions correct."
"Bonus points!" I exclaimed, waving my fork at him. "He gets bonus points."
"For what?" Wufei pressed.
I cut off another piece and smothered it in syrup. "The cinnamon," I said randomly. I caught Wufei's surprise an instant before I felt an odd silence in the air. Ah. I'd shown a piece of intelligence.
The Jester backtracked. "It is cinnamon, right?" I turned to Trowa's shocked green eye and looked into it. "Cinnamon? Or butterscotch?" I chewed thoughtfully. "And that other taste that's like sugar."
Wufei sighed, and I turned back to him. I didn't like that speculative look in Trowa's emerald eye. I had to start evading more around Trowa. I could forget sometimes, when in a group, just how carefully Trowa watched. "Maxwell, you are hopeless."
I laughed. "Aw, you're just saying that."
Wufei shook his head. "Not hardly."
I took the hit with a chuckle, but the Jester wasn't able to respond. He couldn't push me back completely, so he silenced himself a bit, only making moaning noises of ecstasy whenever he took a bite.
It wasn't like he and I were separate people. He was still me, even though he was his own entity. He was still linked to me. And when I hurt, his ability to mask me waned. I felt the pain snatch me up and pushed him out, desperate.
"Trowa, this is delicious. How come you needed to take lessons from Qat?"
I saw the two of them freeze for a second, but this time I couldn't ask him to stop. I had to trust him to meet his own limits and not exceed them. The Jester let it drop. "Hey, Qat, could you teach me?"
Qat smiled at me, but Wufei stopped him before he could speak.
"Absolutely not." His gruff words escaped in a huff. "The last thing we need is Maxwell wasting more of our rations."
Quatre turned an upset gaze to him. "Wufei..."
But the Jester laughed, blowing it off. He waved his hand wildly. Movement. It became more pronounced the more I needed to hide. "Ha! You're just saying that because you fear me."
"If by 'you' you mean 'your cooking'." Wufei used a knife and fork to cut his pancakes, same as Quatre. I vaguely envied them the ability to do that so... eloquently.
"Same thing," I joked. "Hey, maybe that should be a new bomb or something. 'The Maxwell Cooking Bomb'!" I laughed at the idea. "Boom! And they all flee in horror." I wiggled my fingers and spread my hands out in front of me to indicate scurrying.
Wufei sighed and rolled his eyes.
"That is the most ridiculous bullshit I've ever heard. Grow up. As you are right now, you're useless as a soldier."
My breath caught and my eyes widened a bit. I turned to him and saw him picking up a plate, left out specifically for him, and seat himself by Trowa. Quatre watched him with a frown.
I laughed, rubbed the back of my head. "Guess so," I said. I felt something inside of me slip off-course.
I felt a pain in my eyes, in my chest. I knew I had to escape. The Jester went into full evasion mode.
I stretched and yawned, careful not to squeeze my eyes shut too tightly. I picked up my dish – thank God, thank God the Jester had been using it as a prop, so that only a couple of bites remained. I knew Trowa was watching, was deciphering something, but just then I couldn't make myself care.
I know I said something – something witty and stupid, because Wufei snapped at me irritably. I laughed at his remark, whatever it had been, and I leisurely left the room, waving cheerily behind me.
I didn't go to my room. It was Heero's, too – it wasn't a sanctuary.
The only place I could escape to was the shower, and so I did. If anyone asked later, I'd say I'd stunk after my run.
I turned on the water – scalding hot – and leaned against the wall. I let the water wash over my face and let the shower cry out my tears as I battled the real ones back.
It was stupid to get emotional over it all. By creating the Jester, I'd made myself the butt of jokes, the useless, stupid, pathetic little teenager. I'd created that image, and it served me well. Hell, my own teammates, the people who went into battle with me, thought I couldn't be a soldier. If that was the case, then didn't that mean that I'd done a good job? Nobody would suspect someone like me.
I laughed, but this laugh was mine. Empty. Humorless. I heard it ring hollowly over the shower stall and let the sound echo inside of me. I had accepted, long ago, that I was alone. When Solo had left me, when Sister Helen and Father Maxwell had left me, I'd looked around me and seen the irrevocable truth: I was alone. And I would always be alone.
But, I'd thought, I would make sure no one else ever felt the burden of having no one standing beside them.
I'd trained for years on that philosophy, accepting my aloneness with a passion fueled by pain. I'd piloted Deathscythe on the belief that I would fight alone and die alone, just as I lived. But then I saw Heero standing there, saw him try to destroy the Gundams and found out just who he was. And then I'd found the others.
Stupidly, a part of me had thought I was no longer alone.
I leaned against that bathroom wall and realized I'd been as stupid as the Jester.
I turned the water off and stretched again. I breathed deeply, testing myself, but there were no tears and I was safe. I ringed out my hair – still in its braid, hellfire. Now I had to brush it again.
I heard a knock on the door and tensed. The Jester came over me, taking over, and made my lips move. "Yeah?"
"You have a mission."
Heero. A message must have been sent to my laptop.
Of course I had a laptop. All of us did. We just weren't psychotic about using it all the time like Heero.
"Cool!" I piped up. I wondered who I was going with, whether they would rely on me whatsoever with Heero's words still trapped in their minds. I shrugged. The Jester didn't care.
Heero's footsteps receded. I wondered if he would bother to get any more sleep and let the worry slip away. I wasn't his mother.
I toweled myself off and wrapped the towel around my waist. It took five steps for me to reach the door to our room and enter. Heero was on his laptop, typing furiously. I saw his eyes flicker to me for a short second before he determinedly pushed my existence out of his mind. I let it go without protest.
I dropped the towel to the floor in a fit of fuck-all and stretched once more. I got dressed in record speed and flipped open my laptop, the only thing sitting outside my little duffel bag. There it was, a pretty little pop-up informing me that I had a message. I opened it and typed in my password.
A solo mission?
I read it over and had to keep myself from gasping in shock. The hell? I had to stop a major export of alloy alone? There would be a critical amount of defenses. I wondered at it until the very end, where G had left me a pretty little private bit.
P.S. - Say your good-byes.
I laughed. I laughed loud and hard and I didn't give a damn what Heero thought of it. Say my good-byes? Classic. Absolutely classic. So no one wanted to work with me anymore.
Because that's what that little code meant. G thought I was useful. He never would have trained me otherwise. But apparently he'd found out about my 'partners'' opinions of me, because he'd sent this little peach.
It was fly or die. Prove or lose. Either I would survive and prove my worth, or... or, well, I would die in a ball of flames and they would laugh over my useless corpse before moving on without me.
I grinned. With how I was feeling today, I would probably blow. But hell if my corpse would be considered useless.
I closed my laptop and turned to my duffel bag. Heero's eyes were on his laptop, but he was typing a bit slower. Concentrating on me now, wanting to find out why I'd laughed so randomly.
I unzipped my duffel bag, unable to lose the mad grin. "Thanks for the let-know, Hee-chan."
He growled, fingers still not going any faster on those keys. I knew he was still listening.
I stuffed in my laptop and zipped it back up, then stood and hefted the bag onto my shoulder. "You know, it's not healthy to stare at a computer screen all day. You should get out more." (2)
Heero didn't even bother commenting this time.
I paused for a moment. I really did like Heero, despite everything. His power and body weren't all; he seemed to have a... a deeper part of himself hidden in there, a part so rarely seen it was as precious as a pearl. I hesitated – my parting words, if I gave him any, would be from me, not the Jester. I worded it carefully. "Welp, I gotta get goin'. It's been fun, as always." I gave him a two-fingered salute and turned away from him, toward the door. "'Bye."
I left, wondering how long it would take for Heero to realize that that had been the first time I'd ever said good-bye.
I sent a similar good-bye to everyone else, waving and smiling hugely. Yep, dumb ol' Duo Maxwell was heading out for possibly his last hurrah. Nothing big.
Trowa's eyes narrowed when I said good-bye to him.
I didn't give them time to figure it out and follow me; instead I threw myself into my Deathscythe and took off, keeping myself as hidden as possible before lifting off into space.
It was a long wait before I would reach the station. I had time to think about how I could die. Had time to think about where my life was heading, what I wanted it to head toward.
Did I want to live? I had to admit that I didn't want to live any longer than the war. I wasn't so foolish as to believe that my hands weren't stained with the same blasphemous dirt and blood as those who took away the light from those I'd loved. I knew I was as much a heartless bastard as they. I knew I deserved death.
Still, still, I didn't want to die.
No. There were other things I wanted. I wanted to see Quatre and Trowa together, hands linked. I wanted to fight with Wufei some more. I wanted to see Heero's body. Taste it. More, I wanted to melt that cruel, dead gaze and warm it up.
Foolish, of course. My light was fake, as fake as my smile. Relena, I thought with a pang, was the perfect one for him. It made me laugh, as humorlessly as in the shower. Relena, who I didn't even like, was the perfect match for someone who I very much did like.
I closed my eyes and leaned my head back. I had five more hours before I had to be aware of my surroundings. I focused on falling asleep. My last images were a bastard mix of pictures – Heero, his chest bare. Quatre's blushing face, Trowa's narrowed eyes. Wufei's glare. Myself, grinning stupidly as others slung stones at me – and Heero, staring blankly up to the sky, pleading with eyes as empty as the moon.
I was awake thirty-five minutes before the first convoy appeared.
I shifted Deathscythe out of its Stealth Mode just in time to destroy two suits. I saw the other suits turn to me, reacting. I threw myself at them, already knowing it didn't matter if they sent in a red-alert. The enemies would already know that two suits and just slipped off their radar.
I destroyed those two, as well, then decided it didn't matter and destroyed the alloy. Just in case I didn't succeed.
It took only a few minutes for more to show – what had started out as a routine run had turned south. I grinned my psychotic grin and took a chance to jack up my music to full volume.
What people didn't understand – other than the truth about the Jester – was that Shinigami was the Jester. They were one and the same. The Jester thought of life as a game. Shinigami thought of its life as a game. That's how he got the job done – if he lived, he won. If he died, he lost. Game over.
I wasn't a dancer in battle. That was reserved for Wufei. I wasn't smooth like Quatre or acrobatic like Trowa. And I certainly didn't have Heero's style for the outrageous. No, I was just power and stealth, the ultimate thief, quick and deadly. I went for one-hit kills and didn't care how I got them. I flitted into the battle and jumped out when necessary. Guerrilla warfare at its best.
But that wouldn't work this time. Not with twenty suits already surrounding me, not with fifteen more on their way. I laughed and screamed and shouted my lyrics as loud as I could. "Die, motherfucker, die!" (3) My hands moved like lightning, like mercury, and pain sang through my muscles as I pushed them to go even faster. I took my first hit, a beam straight to my cockpit from the back left of my suit. I shot forward in my seat on a choked cry. My harness bit into my chest, my shoulder. I punched my controls from memory and swiped that sucker through.
I took another hit, then another. I felt blood in my mouth and grinned at its taste. I recognized it from my memories. I'd tasted it many times before. I let the taste spur me on, let my hands move to strike again and again.
Then I felt another hit in an increasing list of hits and heard Deathscythe's mechanics whir. I felt something shift in the Gundam and felt my left side stop dead. Leg, arm. I cursed.
Of course it took all of ten seconds for them all to notice. I still had the bigger bulk of my enemies surrounding me. I saw them converge and grimaced. I would take out as many as possible. I didn't want to admit defeat. Not yet.
I thought of Heero and screamed a war cry. Not yet! Not yet – I didn't even know how I felt about him yet!
I couldn't die yet!
I swung my scythe again and again, shooting my engines to maximum for my turns. I took too many hits too quickly. I felt a leg be blown away and cursed. I had to take the second to slash it with my scythe. The Foundation couldn't get it. I wouldn't let them.
The harness bit into me yet again, but this time I only felt the force of the blast and not the hit itself. Which meant wherever I'd been hit, it was more than the hydraulics that weren't responding.
"Dammit!" I shouted, letting my music wash over me. I took out another suit – another – and got slammed by another hit. I choked this time on the harness as a piece of it broke. I was shoved in my suit as I was hit again. I tried to get my scythe to move and heard the hydraulics put up a fit.
"C'mon, baby," I cajoled. "C'mon. Not yet." It worked, but it was slow. The enemy managed to dodge.
I took another hit, breaking the last strip of my harness, and felt it slap me as it flew free. The lights in the cockpit flashed on and off for a few seconds. I heard the air compression give for a moment before stabilizing. My scythe was shot from my Deathscythe's hand.
Fuck. I was out of time.
I took one last look around. I'd gotten a good bit of them. There were about twenty left – I did a quick count – seventeen. How many had I destroyed? Twenty? Twenty-five? I laughed. Pitiful. If I'd had one more person with me, even just as a decoy, I could have taken them all out.
I only had one last weapon left.
I flipped open the safety for the keypad and punched in my password. The little hatch opened, showing me that little red button. I closed my eyes and lifted my hand.
Heero. What was it about him that made him so necessary to me? Heero. I'm sorry I couldn't make you smile.
"Shinigami has a little present for you, motherfuckers!" I screamed. I let my fist crash down-
My eyes snapped open and I froze in shock. I felt my fist stop right above the button and caught my breath.
My music blared around me, loud enough to deafen everything. But I heard his voice, clear as a bell, in my mind.
And in my failing monitors, I saw the enemy suits turning. Away from me.
I snapped on my communications unit and slammed my music off. "What the fuck are you doing here, Yuy?!" I demanded. For once, I was able to speak without my Jester.
"You bastard!" I heard a voice rage, and my eyes widened. Wufei?
"Duo!" a fearful voice shouted over the comm.
"Hold on, Duo!" I heard Trowa urge.
I couldn't breathe. What... what were they all doing here? What did they want? How had they known? How had they found me? What...
"Duo, don't you dare hit that button!" I heard Heero shout, and I thought I heard emotion in that voice of his. I felt my fist tremble. I hadn't turned on the vid link.
Then their suits were shooting past me, engaging an enemy that suddenly seemed more interested in retreating. I struggled to get my body under control, but the Jester was conspicuously absent. My fist just didn't want to move. I grabbed it with my other hand and forced it around the controls. I tried to make my machine move and heard it complain loudly in protest. I heard something break and clenched my eyes shut, but no fluid flooded the cockpit and I was eternally thankful.
"Don't move, Duo!" both Heero and Quatre ordered, and I couldn't help but obey. I watched as they covered for me, taking down the retreating enemies one by one. My screen fuzzed as Heero picked off the last desperate fleer.
The cockpit went dark.
"Fuck!" I shouted, searching by memory for back-up lights. They didn't turn on. I heard the air vents go silent.
I laughed. No way. I'd been miraculously saved, only to die, anyway. No fucking way.
"Duo?" Quatre questioned.
"Maxwell! Get your head on straight! We need to start heading back-"
"Go," I murmured, swallowing my mad chortles. "Get going."
"Maxwell," Wufei started, but it was he who spoke.
"Duo." I let my eyes close, let his voice wash over me. For whatever reason, he'd come for me. It was the most wonderful gift he could have possibly given me. "Your mission is over. You can return."
I shook my head, even knowing he couldn't see it. I didn't bother to open my eyes. "No," I whispered. "Not this time."
"Duo." Quatre's voice was agonized.
"Duo, we don't want you to leave." Trowa's voice was calm. "We don't want you to say good-bye to us again."
I grinned and felt the bastard burn of tears. "Sorry, man," I murmured lowly. "I have to."
"Why?" Quatre demanded. "Why are you going to leave us?"
I cocked my head. "What? Did you guys think I would go somewhere else if I'd survived?"
I heard a low curse. "So you knew," Heero accused.
"Of course." I grinned. "I knew there wasn't much hope."
"Then why?" Quatre demanded.
I smiled for him, a soft smile that I knew he couldn't see. "Because it was a mission." I shrugged. "And because I knew it was needed."
"Needed?" Wufei echoed.
I wondered at it. At why, suddenly, they were listening to me. And why, for the first time since before I could remember, I was able to speak to someone without the Jester veiling my every thought. Was it because I couldn't see them? Or was it because the Jester knew it didn't matter, that it was too late? "This mission was a mission of proof. A mission to show my worth." I chuckled humorlessly. "Guess I failed the test again, huh?"
"Enough!" Heero shouted harshly. It was the first time I'd ever heard Heero raise his voice. My eyes opened in shock. I flinched at the cool blackness that surrounded me. "Enough. We're going back to the safehouse and hashing this out there."
"Sorry," I murmured. "I can't. It's either now or never."
"Duo?" Quatre's voice came in timidly. Shaking. "Are you... are you hurt?"
I thought about the pain in my shoulder and chest and back, the blood on my lips and the small piece of shrapnel my stomach had willingly caught in its grasp and laughed aloud. "Oh, Quatre. It's not that simple." I thought it over. "I have about an hour, I would say."
"An hour?" he whispered, horrorstruck.
"What do you mean?" Heero demanded. His voice was clipped and cool, and for once I was happy for it. He was centered, at least. He would need to be – they would all need to be – to help Quatre through this.
"I thought you could see inside?" I asked him, feeling a maniacal smile tugging at my lips.
"You cut me-" His words stopped short. I could hear him suck in a sharp breath. "Your internal systems-" he snapped.
"That's right," I chortled gleefully, "they're all dead!"
There was silence on the line before Wufei spoke. "Then how are you communicating with us?"
I shrugged. I'd already wondered the same thing. "Maybe that's still up?" I mused. "I dunno. But the air's done. I'm getting' nothing new here."
There was a sharp hiss.
Heero spoke then, his voice even lower than before. "Remember, Chang?" he murmured. "We all set our communications onto our Xerok system. It works as long as its battery is intact."
"Can that battery be-" Wufei started, but there was a sharp "no" from Heero and Wufei went silent.
I heard the sound of muffled sobs.
"Hey, hey!" I murmured, grinning from ear to ear. I felt something inside me clench. "You just gave me a great going-away present, after all. What more could I ask for?"
Yes, I pleaded. Jester – please save me.
Those sobs only got louder.
"Maxwell," Wufei breathed, and I thought I could hear a choked sound in his voice.
I think that's when it hit me – the fact that they'd come out here despite the fact that the mission had been sent to me and me alone, the fact that they were all crowded around me as if in a mourning procession, unable to leave me behind and have me die alone. I felt that pain in my chest change until it was grabbing my heart and lungs. The pain in my eyes became too unbearable. I couldn't take it.
"Scratch that," I told them, and my throat was so tight I wondered if they could even hear, "you're giving it to me right now – the best present I could ask for." I laughed. "I don't have to die alone now."
There was silence, but it was filled with their tension and pain and somehow that made it okay. I felt them around me, floating there beside me. I felt it. I clutched my chest and gasped at the feel of it. The tears fell, hot, salty tears that drained themselves from my very soul. "I'm not alone anymore..."
"Maxwell," Wufei repeated, and I could hear the tears in his voice, too.
"Duo, you can't," Quatre sobbed. Trowa murmured something, but I didn't think it was directed to me and I let it slip past.
Heero was silent.
"Hey, Heero," I called out, and let myself grin once more. "You know... I've always..."
"No," he snapped. His voice was still cold, but there was a frigid sort of panic in it. Panic and determination. "I won't let you die."
I laughed. "Too late, Perfect Soldier. You can't save 'em all."
"No," he agreed harshly, "But I will save you."
"Heero," I argued, but he cut me off before I could begin to argue.
"I put on my suit on the way out here," he snapped. "I can go to you."
"Are you crazy?!" I demanded, jerking up. I felt that painful hole in my chest spasm in panic. "You'll just be killing yourself, too!"
"Fool," he muttered, and I heard him begin unstrapping himself.
"Heero, you can't!" I shouted. I leaned forward in my seat on instinct and felt the hatch for my magic button against my pinky. I narrowed my eyes. "If you open your hatch, I swear I'll self-destruct!"
I heard a pause in his movements, a precious halt. I felt my breath rushing in and out of my chest. It was loud.
"Duo." Heero's tenor voice was low and – oh my God – seductive. "Damn you. I will not let you die. Do you hear me? I won't lose you!"
I felt a part of me shift. "Well I'm not losing you!" I shouted. "It's over for me! I knew that as soon as I took this mission-"
"You stupid fuck!" Wufei snapped, and I shut up at the words, stunned. "We never wanted you to die!"
The words shocked out a laugh from me. "What?" I asked. "What's this bullshit? You thought I was a worthless piece of-"
"We didn't think you could be a soldier!" Wufei shouted. "We thought you were too much a civilian – we didn't want you getting involved in these fights! All of us... we..." His breath was loud, too. "Damn you, Maxwell, we thought you couldn't be a soldier, but..."
I felt the laughter in me and let it bubble up. I leaned my head back and just let it explode from my lips, let it shake me in its humorless mirth. "I am the war!" I yelled right back. "My entire life is battle! From the first moment I can remember – I've always been fighting." I felt the Jester's suicidal grin and let it play with my face however it wanted to. "Always."
They were silent then, silent as they thought about my words – really thought about me – for the very first time. I wondered just how much longer I had. The air was getting a little thin. Maybe I should stop yelling.
"Duo," Quatre murmured. "The real you – that's the calculating mind and overwhelming sorrow... isn't it?"
I shrugged. "Guess it doesn't matter any more for you to know," I said, as close to an admittance as I could get.
"Damn you," Heero murmured. I wondered why he was suddenly cursing so much.
Wufei seemed to be choking on something rather unpleasant; I could hear strange noises coming from his side of the comm. link.
"Duo, that..." Quatre seemed to be having trouble forming the words he needed; it was a new concept. Quatre always knew what to say.
"Duo, who are you, really?" Trowa asked, calm as ever.
I chuckled. "Oh, Trowa! I knew you knew. I could feel it. How much?" I asked, honestly curious.
I heard a noise then, a noise that pulled me back. A hatch being opened. "Heero!" I screamed.
"Are you really going to kill me?" he asked, almost parroting my words in the dungeon that day as he aimed at my head. I cursed. I could tell from the sound that his voice came to me through a suit's speakers.
"Damn you, Yuy!" I screamed, and I felt the Jester grab me and push me back. I watched as he – as I - hit the buttons to open the hatch. My eyes widened in shock.
"Duo!" Quatre screamed.
It took the others merely a split second longer to understand what I was doing. They screamed, as well. I wondered where the sudden give-a-damn was coming from.
Shinigami – the Jester – smiled. "Just give it up," he advised. "Some things can't be changed."
"Duo!" Heero cried, and I heard the Perfect Soldier... melt away. Disappear. Vaporize. He was just Heero Yuy then, and I saw clearly why I'd fallen in love with him.
Fallen... in love?
I felt my chest burn with the need to breathe. I gulped in a breath – and the Jester started laughing uncontrollably.
"What...?" Wufei snapped.
"Rich," I murmured, "just rich! Yuy," I called out, as if he couldn't hear me clearly through the speakers. "Hey, man, did you know I love you?"
I laughed riotously and opened the hatch up completely.
"Maxwell!" Wufei shouted.
"DUO!" Heero yelled.
I smiled and closed my eyes. I felt my skin react to the vacuum, felt hot fire and splintering cold, felt my body start... bubbling, like I was boiling water.
Everything was so very dark...
I... woke up.
I opened my eyes and woke up.
I couldn't explain the feelings along my body – pain, pain everywhere, and an odd itchy feeling I couldn't get rid of. I felt smothered and trapped. Disoriented. I started struggling.
"Calm down, Duo," someone to my left said tiredly.
"...Heero?" I whispered.
I heard him move suddenly. He came into my range of vision. "You're awake," he said gruffly. I wondered how many times I'd fought blindly while... asleep.
"What happened?" I whispered. My tongue felt odd, big and swollen. My gums, too. Lips. Entire body. I wondered if corpses felt like this.
"I saved you," he said simply.
Just those three words made me stop for a moment. Heero? Save? Me? "Why?" I murmured. There was an odd silence then. I could only digest the news – Heero had somehow miraculously saved me, had somehow charged through and grabbed me and... what? "How?"
"I grabbed you and took you to Wing."
I thought about that. "It would take too long," I accused. My throat hurt. I tried to work it and winced.
Heero left my field of vision then, only to return momentarily with a bulb of water in his hands. I wondered why it was a bulb until I realized that my lips and fingers were so swollen and numb that I would never be able to manage anything else. Heero had to hold it as it was. I blushed.
"I threw you," he admitted.
I thought about that. I couldn't remember – I remembered getting beaten in Deathscythe, remembered them all coming to save me, remembered... remembered the startling blackness all around me where there should have been light. Then things got fuzzy. "Why?" I repeated.
Heero carefully withdrew the bulb from my lips and sat it back down. Then he turned back to me. I saw those cobalt eyes and smiled. I was sure I looked stupid – I could feel my hair, loose for once, all around me. Felt the covers over my body. Both were irritations to my skin, but I felt too cold to complain. I knew I was swollen all over. It was a miracle I was alive.
Still, his eyes were serious and determined as they gazed down on me. "Because I love you, too," he whispered.
My mind was as numb as my body when he leaned down and kissed me. He raised up and quirked a sardonic, triumphant, I-am-the-best smirk at me. I felt a frisson of annoyance flicker my brain to life.
"Rest," he ordered, and left my sight. I heard the click of the door and scowled.
"Bastard," I mumbled, and closed my eyes. I would ignore his orders based on general principle.
Oh, but I felt great. Not physically – oh no, that hurt like a bitch – but still I felt better than I ever had before in my life. I grinned.
Had I heard that right? That despite everything, these men who I thought couldn't stand me wanted me near? From that, we would work something out... right?
And Heero... Heero Yuy, the Perfect Soldier, wanted me near him – me, the Jester, Shinigami, and maybe even some of my baggage. The man I cared for so much... despite everything, he wanted me near him...?
He wanted me...
I fell asleep with a true grin playing on my lips. The Jester was nowhere to be found.
(1) Yeerks are from Animorphs – a truly awesome saga that I'd been engrossed in as a kid. A Yeerk took over a person's mind and controlled their body, leaving their victim helpless in their own skin.
(2) It may not be healthy, but that doesn't seem to be stopping me any.
(3) An actual song by Dope. Guess what its name was?
A/N: Yeah, it went fast at the end, but what to do? I wanted it to be short, dammit, and it was turning into a mini-story. I had to cut the sucker off. Bite me.