Disclaimer: Guess who doesn't own Gundam Wing? Me? NO-oohh...

Note:This probably shouldn't be read immediately after The Jester. This recounts the story, but through the eyes of another. Though there are several new pieces, some echo the previous 'chapter,' containing the same quotes and sometimes actions. You've been warned. ^_^

For Silver Cateyes.


The Dragon


Maxwell was the most irritating, annoying, foolhardy, irksome little imp I had ever met in my entire life.

He had, for instance, this ingratiating habit of laughing after he spoke. And more than that, he was so bloody hyper and cheerful... didn't the man even realize we were in a war?

Not to say I didn't like him or anything. He was a fine enough warrior, a good enough man. It was just that insufferable happiness that hit my last nerve, that ridiculous absurdity of his... it could drive a man up the wall.

Trowa and Quatre had just finished making breakfast when I finished my meditation. I seated myself in the corner and thanked them for the meal. Quatre was too weak for a Gundam pilot, too kind to take the deaths of others upon his shoulders. Trowa, however, was someone I could understand. A man brought up in the war, changed and altered by it irrevocably.

Quatre left the room, and Trowa shortly followed after. It was odd to see a strange sort of kinship growing between the two. I ignored it. It was not my business.

The companionable quiet was interrupted by Maxwell's entrance. He sat down on the opposite end of me, leaving his back open to the door behind him. There were only four seats, and three were taken, so it was where he was stuck if he wanted to sit. Still, I couldn't help but think he was being reckless. The foolish fun-lover would get himself killed. The thought angered me.

"Wow!" Maxwell exclaimed, chewing his first bite of the pancakes, which Quatre had helpfully sat down before him. "Trowa, this is awesome! You definitely passed. As your official taste-tester, I give you an A++++."

What was this man even doing on a battlefield? The place didn't suit him at all. "Maxwell," I snapped, "there is no such grade."

"Sure there is," the fool replied. "An A is, what? A 90 or something? An A+ is a hundred, so Trowa got a 130." I audibly heard my teeth click together. "See? Perfect mathematical sense."

The man was far too easy-going. I couldn't imagine someone like him able to dirty his hands on the battlefield anymore than I could see Winner out there. Certainly their skill was recognizable, but their attitudes... I sighed in irritation. Maybe this man was simply incorrigible and there was nothing else to be said for it. "Maxwell, you cannot get more than all of the questions correct."

Maxwell seemed completely unperturbed by this bit of information. "Bonus points!" the man exclaimed, waving his fork at me. I wondered idly if he'd ever poked someone's eyes before, doing that. "He gets bonus points."

The concept was so completely absurd I almost laughed. "For what?"

Maxwell returned to eating, seemingly unconcerned with the conversation in particular and life in general. "The cinnamon."

I thought I might have felt my jaw drop.

"It is cinnamon, right?" Maxwell asked then, turning to Trowa. I took the chance to clear my face of my shock and carefully took another bite of food. With Maxwell around, one could count on not getting a peaceful meal. "Cinnamon? Or butterscotch?" I scowled; who the hell would put butterscotch in their pancakes? "And that other taste that's like sugar."

Correction: that was sugar. The man could make a monk run screaming. "Maxwell, you are hopeless."

He laughed at me, a rich sound. "Aw, you're just saying that."

I thought about my own desire at the moment to run screaming from the room. And then maybe smack my own head in with something very, very hard. "Not hardly."

Maxwell merely laughed at that, too, and began making oddly sexual noises after eating each individual piece of his breakfast. I cringed a bit at each noise – was he trying to make me embarrassed?

"Trowa," he finally continued, "this is delicious! How come you needed to take lessons from Qat?"

I couldn't believe the man's obliviousness. Was he truly blind to the fact that Winner and Barton were attempting a relationship? I was once again reminded of Maxwell's innocence. I bit down another sigh. He really shouldn't be on a battlefield. He reminded me too much of...

"Hey, Qat, could you teach me?"

"Absolutely not," I huffed, recalling the last disastrous morning Maxwell had attempted to cook. I had been afraid Romefeller may finally find us, what with the copious amounts of smoke and, eventually, a fire that had taken all of us – Winner, Maxwell, and myself – to finally put out. And afterwards I'd feared Romefeller wouldn't have to find us, because Maxwell wanted us to taste it all and see how it had come out. As if anything charcoal black could possibly be edible. "The last thing we need is Maxwell wasting more of our rations."

Winner gave me a reproachful frown. I must have sounded too harsh. "Wufei," he warned.

But Maxwell just blew it off, as usual. "Ha!" He waved his hand as if shooing off a fly. "You only say that because you fear me."

I thought about the taste of his cooking, so black as to be unidentifiable, and the feeling of my stomach lining melting. "If by 'you' you mean 'your cooking'." I took another bite to wash away the shadow-taste of charcoal.

"Same thing," he said. "Hey, maybe that should be a new bomb or something. 'The Maxwell Cooking Bomb'!" I blinked in vague confusion as Maxwell laughed. "Boom! And they all flee in horror." Maxwell did a strange scurrying movement with his hands. I was hard pressed not to laugh at the ridiculous image of Oz and Romefeller soldiers screaming and fleeing a battlefield as some fell to the power of Maxwell's horrendous cooking. I don't even know what I did to hide my sudden lapse in decorum. All I knew was that Yuy had just entered the room.

"That is the most ridiculous bullshit I've ever heard. Grow up. As you are right now, you're useless as a soldier."

I snapped my eyes up in shock, suddenly furious. I glared at Yuy as Maxwell turned to him. Even I could see the flash of hurt in those eyes of his. Yuy was turned away from it, though, picking up the plate Winner had left for him. He sat next to Barton – good. He, at least, would have enough control not to engage in a petty battle with him. I didn't know if I had such composure.

Certainly I agreed; Maxwell should never enter a battlefield. With his easy personality, he was like Winner in my mind, too kind and idealistic to enter a place of bloodshed. Still, I couldn't believe the cruel audacity of Yuy. The idea that he would say such a thing to Maxwell... I clenched my teeth tightly together and took another bite of food.

Maxwell laughed shortly. I didn't believe he'd recovered, but his desire to keep a light atmosphere had him saying, "guess so." I looked at him, but he was yawning, hardly covering his mouth. I cocked an eyebrow. See? Not the type to be a soldier.

Maxwell picked up his plate and grinned at us all. "Trowa, that was delicious! I think I have syrup all over me..."

I snorted. It was true that he'd been shoveling in his food as if it was going to be his last meal. "Don't drip all over the house," I advised. He only laughed.

When he left the room, I turned to Yuy. "Try not to be a bastard next time," I told the man.

"I only spoke the truth," he said, not even bothering to look at me. Yuy's coldness was normal and, at most times, decipherable. Still, I could not overlook the cruel way he'd spoken the truth, or the look of pain on Maxwell's face. Someone like Maxwell shouldn't look like that.

"True or not," I stated, grating my knife a bit too hard through the pancakes, causing an annoying screech, "it was unnecessary and crude."

"It was bullshit," Barton said succinctly. I looked at him in surprise. Barton was usually very calm, and he cursed no more than Winner. Maxwell, really, was the curser of our group. Whenever we were out on the battlefield, the only thing that could drown out his obnoxious shouting was his equally obnoxious rock music.

Yuy didn't respond to Barton at all.

"Whether you like it or not, he is a part of our team. And whether you think he is reliable or not, he is still one of our members. If you alienate one tree, the rest will eventually fall."

Yuy kept eating as calmly as ever. "Perhaps," he murmured, swallowing, "but it you cut off a dying limb, the rest will be saved."

I scowled at him. "Maxwell, for all his obstinacies, has been an asset."

Yuy 'hn'-ed at that.

Barton and Winner both stood with their plates at the same time. "Maybe," Winner said quietly, "you don't really understand the importance of the limb until you cut it off?"

Yuy's movements froze for a millisecond. I took that as my cue to leave, as well. "Certainly Maxwell wouldn't be able to speak eloquently on the subject," I said, "but that does not mean he would not understand it."

He just closed his eyes.

Winner and Barton began a low discussion in a corner of the room. I thought for a moment that it was another private moment, but their faces were battle-ready. A mission? I left, not wanting to interrupt.

Inside the living room, I could hear the start of the shower. Maxwell had retreated to the bathroom, then, while the rest of us argued over him. I couldn't fully understand the man. I didn't know much of his past, just that he'd been a thief, one who had met his respective doctor by gaining illegal access to his ship. It was a ridiculous idea, but Maxwell had proven his skills by stealing my duffel bag while I'd been meditating. It had been a wholly humiliating experience.

So the man had skill. I would never question such a thing. One could see the evidence of it every time he entered the battlefield; for all his ridiculousness, he was a good fighter. But that did not make him a true soldier. No; that was something else entirely.

I stood there, dumbly considering Maxwell's abilities on the battlefield. Heero Yuy walked past me at one point, not acknowledging my existence in the room. I let him go. He wasn't my concern.

Maxwell had a sort of aura about him, one that drew others to him instinctively. I couldn't explain the phenomena, simply because it didn't make any sense. A soldier, a warrior, should not have such a kind personality. It would lead to his death.

But I couldn't let myself think of such a thing. It was odd, but I didn't like the idea of Maxwell going into battle without someone there to protect him. But that idea, too, would lead to death. And trying to protect another in the sort of situations we found ourselves in would most certainly lead to death. And not just Maxwell's.

I heard the shower turn off and knew Maxwell would be returning to his room. Behind me, the kitchen door opened and closed. Someone turned on the dishwasher. And I continued standing like a fool in the middle of the living room, staring blankly at the paisley walls.

Then the calm sounds of household chores was interrupted by the raucous, almost wild laughter that flew down the stairs.

Maxwell?

I turned to it. Something was off; it was not one of his normal laughs. Something was wrong. I took a step forward before I managed to stop myself. Maxwell was perfectly fine; all five of us were here, and one of us was outside. There was no danger. Still, I got the sense that something was very, very wrong.

One of the pictures on the wall was of a cottage hidden in the woods, surrounded on all sides by beautiful wildflowers in a crazy splay across the painting, trapped only by the frame. I walked over to it, trying to let my worries slide away. There was nothing to fear. Nothing to worry about. I was overreacting, fearing something that couldn't happen.

Maxwell... Maxwell should have never been introduced to the battlefield.

"Hey, 'Fei."

I hated that nickname.

Maxwell stood by the entrance to the living room, right by the lobby leading outside. His duffel bag was slung over his shoulder.

The feeling of trepidation stole over my limbs once more.

"Maxwell?" I turned away from the painting, away from the lonely cottage standing stark against that dark oak frame. "You have a mission?"

"Yup!" he chirped cheerily. Something was off again; Maxwell, though excitable, was never so crazily happy when going off on a mission. "I'm headin' out." He pointed behind him to the door. "Wanted to say a quick 'bye before I hopped on outta here."

His speech patterns weren't quite right, either. I leaned against the wall and stared at him, trying to see what he was hiding. "How long will it take?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "Eh, not too long. Should be pretty quick, actually."

A couple days? Then why didn't he just say so? "So you'll be back soon?" I pressed.

He just shrugged his shoulders. "Probably."

I sighed. The mission had to be an absolute secret; I wouldn't pry any further. I understood the need for such secrets.

But why, why did something about this scenario seem so off?

Duo slid past me, going out to talk to whoever was in the kitchen. It was Winner; they spoke for a short time, then Duo asked where Barton was. When Winner told him Barton was out scouting the area, Duo thanked him ad left.

I vaguely touched my forehead, eyes wide. I was scared. Scared for Duo Maxwell – something wasn't right.

Five minutes later – to the second – I heard the sound of an engine revving from far away, heard trees bend and wind howl. Maxwell was leaving. I moved to the window, somehow desperate to see. His face was set in stone as he pulled out of the lot, driving down the empty street and disappearing around the turn. His face was so serious... something was wrong. Very wrong. But what? It was just another mission. We were soldiers. We got them all the time. There was nothing to be afraid of. The man would be off killing a few people – welcome to war – and would return with most likely nothing more than a good bruise or two. Maybe even a cut. He was weak-hearted, but he had good physical strength. If he didn't, he wouldn't be a Gundam pilot.

I pushed off off the windowsill and turned away. He would be fine. It was because of what had happened this morning in the kitchen – his exuberance and energy. Yuy's words – that damnable flash of pain in those blue-violet eyes. That small flash of vulnerability unnerved me. That was all.

Barton stormed into the house then. I heard him grab Winner's arm, heard the blond's surprised yelp as he was dragged. Barton's eyes met mine as soon as he entered the living room. "We have a serious problem," he said grimly.

"Trowa, what's wrong?" Winner asked, beating me to the punch.

I felt my chest tighten. "It's Maxwell, isn't it?" I asked him. My fists clenched. Dammit. I'd been right. Something was wrong. Very wrong.

"He said good-bye," Trowa gritted out.

I was about to snarl at the man, to demand he explain his ridiculous piece of information, when it just clicked. I heard Winner's horrified gasp as he, too, understood.

"What does it mean?" I snapped, staring at Barton as if doing so alone could force out the answers. It was true. Maxwell had never spoken that word before. Not once. He would always shout 'see ya' or ''til next time' or 'I'll tell you when I get back.' Something innocuous, something that hinted at a return. That something in my chest turned into large, painful spikes.

"I don't know," Barton told me. "But we need to see that mission statement."

Winner shook his head. "It won't be that easy," he whispered. "If Duo doesn't want us to see, he'll have taken his laptop."

And, racing up the steps, we all as one pounded into Yuy's room. He looked up from his laptop and scowled at us all. I ignored him and went straight to Maxwell's desk. "It isn't here." I wasn't surprised; of course it wouldn't be.

Maxwell. What the hell was he thinking?

"What are you doing in here?" Heero demanded.

"Heero." Trowa turned to him. "What did Duo say to you? Tell me exactly."

Heero glared at him. "Why?"

I wanted to punch the man, but Barton managed to continue his calm. "He said good-bye to you, too, didn't he?"

Yuy's hard eyes wavered. For an instant I could see fear in those eyes, breaking through his icy glare like it was nothing more than glass. A mask. I looked on grimly. His cruelty was just a mask? Then the fear I saw was what was real. His hands froze on his keyboard. "Yes," he answered dully. "He told me to get away from my computer every once in a while. Said he had to leave and that it had been fun. Then he said good-bye."

Yuy stood in a quick surge, looking a bit dizzy. "You mean he has a suicide mission?"

Barton nodded. "I believe so."

"Why?" Yuy demanded, as if we knew the answer.

"It doesn't matter why," Winner said firmly. "What matters is that we bring him back safe."

None of us argued.

"But how?" I moved forward. "Yuy. We need to find Maxwell. Can you hack into the doctors' sent e-mail?"

Heero frowned. We all knew Maxwell was the best hacker, for reasons one hundred percent foreign to us. But Yuy was the second-best, and only by a slim margin. "I'll do it."

Not a yes or no, not a maybe. He was as desperate as I was.

But when I saw him sit and practically attack his keyboard, I realized I was wrong on that. He was more desperate than me.

It took him over fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes during which Barton and Winner and I grabbed our weapons and prepared for our departure. After that, we all stood like fools, watching Yuy type without pause. His eyes flashed once, his teeth bared, but he barreled through until finally he sighed and said, "here." His eyes flashed down the screen, reading at lightning speed. Then he stood again. "No."

His voice was practically nonexistent. Barton pushed him away from the screen and read aloud. "On the fifth of the month at fourteen-hundred hours, a shipment of-" His breath hissed in "-twenty kilos of alloy will be carried from Colony C28 to Colony E9. Destroy the alloy and its defenses. Are you kidding me?" he interrupted himself, hearing the ludicrousness of the demand. "P.S.," he continued, and here he froze for a moment, seeming unable to continue. "P.S.," he began again, his voice much quieter now, "Say your good-byes."

"Oh, no," Winner moaned.

Yuy was moving, grabbing his own weapons. "Let's go," he said shortly.

I nodded. "Right. We're not letting this happen."

Winner reached out for Barton's hand. Barton gripped it without looking, staring at the message, calculating, just as I was. "He would meet them an hour afterwards, I would guess," he murmured.

"A bit past halfway," I agreed, "to catch them right when they're starting to think they might make it through."

"With less chance for their back-up," Yuy muttered.

We all ran out of the house, not bothering to walk. We ran like demons to our Gundams. We knew we were racing against time. What were the chances that we would make it in time? Almost a half an hour had already passed. Maxwell would already be en route in space. We had yet to get through our system checks, a minute-long wait. When we finally pulled off from the ground, my hands were shaking almost too badly for me to hold onto my controls.

A suicide mission? No way in hell. Maxwell would not die. I wouldn't – couldn't – let it happen.


It was an agonizing wait.

Every moment, I wondered how Maxwell was faring. Along in his Gundam, expecting death. Why? Why had he been sent into such a situation? The airwaves between our Gundams were silent, each of us drowning in our own fear. Maxwell couldn't die. He was the mirth of our group. Foolish, immature, but always there for a laugh. I enjoyed fighting with him, despite the constant aggravation. He was like a long-lost brother. A friend good enough that I could punch in the face and remain best friends with.

I couldn't let him die.

"He should arrive soon," Quatre murmured over the comm. His voice was so sudden, so loud within the dark silence, that I jumped.

Yes. Maxwell would be arriving on the battlefield. Would he fight with everything he was, or would he give in? No, Maxwell wouldn't give up. He wasn't the type to do such a thing. He was stubborn. He would fight.

Still, a lot could happen in a half an hour.

"He'll live," Yuy stated strongly. As if saying it could make it so. I had a brand new view of Yuy now, after having seen that fear flicker in his eyes. It was as if his mask had been stripped away completely in that one instant, giving me the chance to see, to understand, more than I ever had before.

Yuy, in his own way, was just as afraid for Maxwell as I was. In his own way, he was trying to protect Maxwell from the battlefield. He, too, didn't think someone like Maxwell should be a pilot, risking his life when he laughed and smiled so much. The idea of seeing Maxwell tainted was almost sickening. Yuy agreed.

I always had to wonder exactly how people like Winner and Maxwell had gotten into Gundams to begin with. Sure he'd managed to steal onboard a doctor's ship, an amazing feat, but how did that equate to becoming a pilot? And Winner, with his soft heart, was equally unworthy of the name soldier. Both were excellent fighters, but their dreams would forever be stained. It wasn't a world for people like them.

No. Only those scarred, like me, so be weighted down with such a burden.


We arrived in hell.

We were close enough to pull up visuals. I could hear when everyone else did; they all gave the same sounds of horror when they saw what I did.

Maxwell was toast. His suit was in absolute shambles. One leg was gone completely. I didn't see it floating around anywhere, so Maxwell must have had it destroyed before we'd arrived. His suit was hardly moving, trapped in a state of limbo. As I watched, his scythe, moving so slowly the hydraulics must have been almost completely broken, was shot away from him. I pushed Nataku as hard as I could.

The enemies converged on Maxwell as I watched, helpless, not quite in range yet-

"DUO!"

Yuy screamed out across all channels as he launched forward, completely neglecting everything. I switched on my own comm. link and got ready to speak, as well. Maxwell's music could be heard, a loud, irritating blast of some man screaming about getting down with sicknesses. Then, blessedly, the enemy suits began to turn to us, seeing us as the threat that we were.

Maxwell's music turned off. I greeted the silence with pleasure. It was proof that he was alive enough to turn it off. "What the fuck are you doing here, Yuy?!" I heard Maxwell snap, and could have whooped with glee. He sounded healthy, or at least healthy enough to scream at us.

"You bastard!" I called out as greeting. Now that I knew he was all right, I was going to kill him.

I turned on the vid link, hoping to get a view of him, but his was still off. I scowled at it, but it didn't matter much. I was in range. I pulled my scythe forward and charged straight through an enemy stupid enough to charge at me.

"Duo!" I heard Winner call out, his voice sounding much more concerned than either mine or Yuy's. Rely on Winner to allow his emotions to run free, even in a battle situation. Still, it was good to hear someone send out the message we were all feeling.

"Hold on, Duo!" Barton urged. Apparently we all needed to reassure Maxwell of our existence here.

I cut through another opponent, letting my fury fuel my swings. I wouldn't let Maxwell get hit one more time. Beside me, Winner cut down his own foe.

"Duo, don't you dare hit that button!"

I turned my gaze to the vid screen, horrified. The self-detonation switch? But there was still no sign of Duo over the screen; he still hadn't turned the thing on. What made Yuy think Maxwell had been about to press the self-detonation switch?

"I..."

And yet there was guilt in that voice of his. I gritted my teeth.

Finally we were there, passing Duo's ruined Deathscythe, chasing after the suits smart enough to know we were too strong. Those who had charged at us were already gone; these were more interested in getting away. I wouldn't let any of them escape. For what they'd done to Maxwell, they would all die.

I heard a groan from the comm. link and knew Maxwell was trying to help. A sickening crack sounded.

"Don't move, Duo!" Yuy and Winner shouted in unison, fear in both voices. Silence returned. I felt fear clench my chest again – had something happened to Maxwell in there?

And as if in answer to my silent question, Maxwell suddenly screamed, "fuck!"

It was too simple then to smash through the last of the runaways, to destroy each suit before they could leave. Yuy took the last two, seeming to be in an even bigger hurry than me. I turned back to the Deathscythe, floating pathetically in place, unable to move.

"Duo?" Winner called.

Maxwell was laughing. Laughing? The idiot! "Maxwell, get your head on straight!" I ordered. My fingers were locked around the controls. It didn't seem like they would be moving any time soon. "We need to start heading back-"

"Go," Maxwell murmured softly, choking back his out-of-place mirth. "Get going."

That didn't sound good.

"Maxwell..." But what could I say? What the hell did he mean, 'get going'?

"Duo." Yuy's voice came strong and sure over the speakers, as if his speaking alone would make mountains fall. "Your mission is over. You can return."

But I knew, knew before Maxwell spoke, that he wasn't telling us to leave simply because of that. "No," the man whispered, and I felt my heartbeat like a gun firing in my chest. "Not this time."

Not this time. Because something had changed. The something that had made Maxwell laugh like that, just as he had in the safehouse, getting the message that said his life was forfeit.

"Duo..." Winner's voice sounded as agonized and horrified as I felt.

"Duo, we don't want you to leave." Barton spoke calmly, as if we were all witting down at the table continuing to eat his pancakes. "We don't want you to say good-bye to us again."

Why were my hands trembling?

"Sorry, man," I heard Maxwell say, and I felt the trembling increase, verified by the words. "I have to."

He can't die. That's all I heard in my head, over and over again, like some hideous broken record. I couldn't speak.

"Why?" Winner demanded for me. But he was demanding something else. "Why are you going to leave us?"

Leave? There was no leaving. Maxwell had no intention of moving from this spot.

"What? Did you guys think I would go somewhere else if I'd survived?"

I shivered.

"Fuck," Heero said, so low it was difficult to make out. "So you knew."

"Of course." Maxwell said it as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. Say your good-byes. The the message itself was so strange, but it was definitely understandable. Perhaps Yuy was trapped where Winner seemed to be, unable to believe that this was the inevitable conclusion. "I knew there wasn't much hope," Maxwell continued.

Inevitable? Why did this have to be inevitable?

"Then why?" Quatre asked. His voice held all the hurt I could never release.

When Maxwell spoke again, his voice was smoother, calmer. As if his being calm could somehow make Winner calm, too. "Because it was a mission," he explained. "And because I knew it was needed."

"Needed?" I repeated dully. I tried to process that word.

"This mission was a mission of proof," he said after a moment. "A mission to prove my worth." He laughed a bit at that.

I felt sick.

"Guess I failed the test again, huh?"

Failed? Again?! The stupid bastard! "Duo, dammit!" I snapped.

"Enough!" Yuy roared. I'd never heard Yuy so enraged before. Usually his emotions were in constant check. "Enough. We're going back to the safehouse and hashing this out there."

"Sorry," Maxwell murmured, and I flinched, knowing now for sure that there was no chance to return to the way we'd all been. "I can't. It's either now or never."

I could tell that the others only figured it out then; there was an ominous silence that seemed far too foreboding to me. I clenched my eyes at it, wishing I could block it out. "Duo?" Winner called out, his voice tentative and unsure. "Are you... are you hurt?"

The silence then was even longer, and much, much worse.

"Oh, Quatre," Duo sighed, "it's not quite that simple." A short pause, then, "I have about an hour, I would say."

I flinched in my cockpit.

"An hour?" Winner breathed, voice infused with horror.

"What do you mean?" Yuy demanded. I clung to his calm sureness. At least one of us was managing to stay calm, to act as they needed to get the job done. I, on the other hand, was trapped imagining listening to Maxwell fade right in front of me. Imagined the laughter dying. One of my hands slid off the controls to clap over my mouth. I felt sick.

Then Maxwell made it even worse for me when he said, "I thought you could see inside?" Still trying to keep the mood light. It hurt to hear.

"You cut me-" Yuy started, then stopped immediately. He'd forced open Maxwell's vid screen? It sounded like bullshit. It sounded like something Yuy would do. But if Yuy could no longer see inside Maxwell's cockpit... "Your internal system's-" Yuy snapped, everything clicking into place just as it did for me.

"That's right!" Maxwell chuckled merrily, and my stomach just dropped, "they're all dead!"

I digested this for a moment. Maxwell would slowly suffocate to death, the inside of his cockpit completely dead. Something slid into my mind, a desperate grasp at hope. "Then how are you communicating with us?"

I could almost hear Maxwell shrugging. "Maybe that's still up?" he asked rhetorically. "But the air's done. I'm gettin' nothing new here."

I hissed. So I was right – Duo's time was up. The fingers still pressed against my lips trembled.

So was this it? Was it all over? Had our efforts been too little, too late? If we'd just been faster... if I'd been faster, able to decipher just what it was that had been bothering me... no. Dammit, Maxwell couldn't die! I wouldn't let him!

Yuy spoke then, just as my resolve firmed. "Remember, Chang? We all set our communications onto our Xerok system. It works as long as its battery is intact."

I pounced on that. "Can that battery be-"

"No," Yuy stated firmly, shooting down the idea before it could fully form. I felt my newly-won resolve falter. Worse, Winner's soft crying could be heard over the speakers. It made this seem far too real.

"Hey, hey," Maxwell called, obviously speaking to Winner, his voice almost happy, "You just gave me a great going-away present, after all. What more could I ask for?"

Kill me. His kindness made our failure even more palpable, the taste of it like acid on my tongue. Winner heard the inevitability of it in Maxwell's voice, in our continued silence. His sobs got louder. I felt my own eyes tear up in response. Ridiculous... men didn't cry. It was weak. "Maxwell," I called, trying to speak. But my throat closed up. I hunched into my hand, seriously afraid now that my stomach would flip.

"Scratch that." I heard tears even in Maxwell's voice, and I felt a bit better, knowing I wasn't the only one struggling against them. "You're giving it to me right now – the best present I could ask for." He laughed, a hauntingly empty sound. "I don't have to die alone now."

The pain was disturbing, almost like I was losing Meiran again. Someone close to me... because I hadn't been strong enough to protect them...

"I'm not alone anymore."

I was horrified to feel a tear fall. "Maxwell." Was I so weak that I would have to suffer the torment of watching someone important to me die right in front of my eyes again?

"Duo, you can't," Winner sobbed.

"Quatre," Barton whispered, offering what solace he could. "I'm here."

It felt like we were already mourning the dead.

"Hey, Heero," Maxwell called out, thankfully ruining the depressing mood for at least another short second, "you know... I've always..."

I flinched. Oh, God. A bedside confession.

"No," Yuy snapped harshly. I heard, behind the anger, a desperate fear in Yuy's voice that seemed even stronger, even more demanding than my own. "I won't let you die."

Yuy's voice was full of pure panic. I remembered the appearance of breaking glass in the safehouse and thought that Heero's mask couldn't withstand the horror of losing Maxwell.

But Maxwell just laughed at Yuy's words. "Too late, Perfect Soldier. You can't save 'em all."

"No," Yuy agreed harshly, "But I will save you."

I wiped my eyes and glared through my monitors. Yuy was right – we couldn't give up yet.

"Heero," Maxwell started, but Yuy cut him right off.

"I put on my suit on the way out here. I can go to you."

When was that? He must have had one stashed somewhere in his cockpit. I tsked. We all should get into such a habit.

"Are you crazy?!" Maxwell demanded. It was oddly comforting to hear something other than merriness or defeat in the man's voice. If nothing else, Yuy had revived him. "You'll just be killing yourself, too!"

"Fool," Yuy muttered, blatantly ignoring Maxwell's words. I could hear movement over the speakers and knew without a doubt that he was unbuckling himself from his harness.

"Heero, you can't!" No wit was Maxwell who was panicking, Maxwell who's breath was loud over the speakers. I heard a shift in his movements, as well. "If you open your hatch, I swear I'll self-destruct!" he shouted suddenly.

My breath gushed out on a steely hiss. I heard Yuy freeze, fearing the truth of Maxwell's statement. I had no doubt he actually would hit that damnable button if Yuy made the wrong move. Suddenly a strange suspicion stole over me. My mind flashed back over the months, trying to remember all the instances in which Maxwell and Yuy were together. Suddenly all of Maxwell's jokes directed at Yuy, all of his teasing, took on a different tint.

Maxwell loved Yuy.

I was so blown away by this revelation I almost missed the continuation of the argument. "Duo," Yuy snarled, voice low, "damn you. I will not let you die. Do you hear me? I won't lose you!"

And, I realized with an even greater amount of surprise, Heero Yuy may very well love Duo Maxwell in return. My head spun with the sudden insight.

"Well I'm not losing you!" Maxwell shouted, not backing down in the slightest. "It's over for me! I knew that as soon as I took this mission-"

I lurched forward in my seat, not thinking whatsoever. "You stupid fuck!" My hands wrapped around their grips on instinct, reacting to my fury without my giving them any conscious directions. "We never wanted you to die!"

That's right – that's right! A test to prove his worth?! What utter bullshit! We'd always known he had strength! We'd never questioned his abilities!

But Maxwell laughed at my words. "What?" the man choked out. "What's this bullshit? You thought I was a worthless piece of-"

"We didn't think you could be a soldier!" I argued, leaning forward as if I could reach his throat by doing so. "We thought you were too much a civilian – we didn't want you getting involved in these fights! All of us... we..." I was breathing heavily. "Damn you, Maxwell, we thought you couldn't be a soldier, but..." But not once had we thought he wasn't a worthy fighter!

Maxwell's laughter was even louder than before, more cruel. "I am the war!" he yelled, his voice almost crazy. "My entire life is battle! From the first moment I can remember – I've always been fighting. Always!"

I stopped at the sound of Maxwell's voice. It was bitter, bitter and full of knowledge I couldn't conceive of existing inside the Maxwell I envisioned – the laughing, ever-cheerful, attention-seeking jokester.

A mask.

My head hung in shame. A mask. Just as Yuy lived within his own secret world – just as I myself hid away – Maxwell had perfected a mask of his own. Perhaps the best out of all of ours, one good enough to not only fool the enemy forces, but also his very own allies. Those who were supposed to understand him the most. Gods. I'd been so blind.

"Duo," Quatre murmured, "the real you – that's the calculating mind and overwhelming sorrow... isn't it?"

"Guess it doesn't matter any more for you to know," he said negligently, as if it didn't matter at all anymore. And why would it? He would be dead soon. I had to cover my mouth again.

"Damn you," Yuy hissed. It was odd to hear a man usually so stoic cursing almost as much as Maxwell.

I felt nauseous. Of course it was now, standing helplessly on the sidelines in the middle of space as we counted down Maxwell's last breaths, that I realized just how wrong, just how pathetic, I'd been. I would never have the chance to make this up to Maxwell. He would die, a sign of my own weaknesses, both inside and out. I felt the tears in my eyes again.

"Duo, that..." Winner seemed unable to speak exactly what 'that' was, his own voice faltering. It seemed we were all grieving. Even Winner, the one with the least amount of soldier in him – no, no, that probably wasn't right, either – the one with the most kindness, was unable to say his thoughts. If he couldn't, what were the chances that I, a man so very unaccustomed to admitting emotions, would be able to say all the thoughts clouding my mind?

"Duo, who are you, really?" Barton spoke, the first he'd said in a very long time. His voice was calm.

"Oh, Trowa!" Maxwell seemed pleased to hear Barton's question. "I knew you knew. I could feel it. How much?"

I heard it then. A noise that shouldn't have existed at that point of time. It came from Yuy's comm. link. "Heero!" Maxwell screamed. He'd heard it, too.

Yuy had opened his hatch.

Over Maxwell's comm. link, I could hear movement. "Are you really going to kill me?" Heero called out through his suit's speakers, already knowing the answer.

"Damn you, Yuy!" Duo screamed. His voice was half-crazed. It seemed almost as if Duo had lost his mind.

"Duo!" Winner screamed suddenly. It took me only a short moment longer to see what Winner had, and I felt my heart skid to a stop when I did.

Deathscythe's hatch began to slide open.

"No!" I screamed. I knew, remembered specifically, that Maxwell did not have a suit on. There was only one end to this.

Maxwell was forcing his own death.

"Just give it up," Maxwell advised – most possibly the last words we would ever hear from him. My chest seemed about to explode, the utter panic was so great. "Some things can't be changed."

No. Not this way. Not like this!

"Duo!" Yuy screamed. In that split second Heero Yuy was not a soldier. Not a fighter. In that one instant, he was merely a man faced with the possibility of seeing the one he loved die. There was nothing more to him than that. My gut wrenched – how very well I understood that man just now. Without helping him, I'd stood back and watched him make the same mistakes I had made. And now, because of that – because of my indifference – he would face the same soul-tearing heartache.

And Maxwell started laughing again.

Mocking Yuy's pain? "What...?" My hands convulsed around their grips. What the hell was Maxwell doing?

"Rich," Maxwell chortled, "just rich! Yuy!" He shouted out as loud as he could. I could hear the deafening sound of decompression all around him; it must have been hard for him to breathe. "Hey, man, did you know I love you?"

His laughter only got louder as I saw the hatch open up completely.

No...! "Maxwell!" I screamed. All around me, the others shouted, as well; I heard Winner yell out in denial, heard Trowa make a sharp, unintelligible cry. Then there was Yuy, shouting his lungs hoarse, calling the one name I knew he would hear in his nightmares for the rest of his life.

"DUO!"

Yuy launched himself forward with his squirt gun, a wholly useless effort. The vacuum would already be boiling Maxwell alive. I closed my eyes; I couldn't see him like that. I'd seen plenty of dead bodies, but I didn't need to see one that would blur into the face of my own nightmares.

"I'm not losing him!" Yuy screamed, and I heard a noise from within Maxwell's cockpit. Like a fool, I opened my eyes again, only to see Maxwell's body being hurled like a javelin across empty space. Yuy had thrown Maxwell's body?

And I saw Maxwell's form slam straight into Wing's cockpit, followed immediately by Yuy's form, flying as quickly as possible back to his suit. And then the cockpit closed.

"Barton, take Deathscythe back in," Yuy ordered.

My breath came in small gasps. Was it possible? Could Maxwell still be alive? What the hell kind of insane maneuver had that been?!

"No problem," Barton responded.

I myself was still trying to wrap my head around whether or not Maxwell would stay alive. Well, the sooner we made it back to Earth, the sooner we would know.

I watched as Barton latched his suit to Maxwell's. "He'll get bruises, probably even broken bones during our landing," I informed everyone. As if they didn't know.

"He'll live," Yuy growled. I imagined him cradling Maxwell protectively in his arms, hands firm and steely but most likely gentle, holding his most precious burden. I wanted to tell him life didn't work out so miraculously, but I knew he would deflect the words immediately. As if his will alone could make Maxwell live.

But it did.


I had made such a huge mistake.

I sat in the hospital, watching the nurses carefully avoid me, used to a soldier's moods. My glaring heatedly at a wall was also probably a clue.

Maxwell. He'd been sent out on a suicide mission to prove his worth to us. Meaning, of course, that it was our fault. His injuries were our fault.

No, I had to fix even that assumption. Winner was constantly kind, Barton aware. No. I myself had to shoulder the burden. Yuy, as well, but certainly I had to take a good share of the blame.

I had seen Maxwell as nothing more than a jokester – a court jester, perhaps. The one in the story who told puns, sang songs and gave a general sense of goodwill to everyone. I had never seen him as a true warrior, despite his efforts on the battlefield. Despite all of his skill.

I had been so wrong.

Maxwell was a fighter, just the same as me. He had been through the same rigorous, hellish training. And he had succeeded. If he hadn't, he never would have been given Deathscythe. In being near him – or, I should say, his mask – I had made a base assumption that had almost taken his life. I had no excuse.

From now on, I needed to change. I needed to be a better man, or else I would once again drag down those fighting beside me. I needed to be stronger.

I stood, determined, and went over to check on Maxwell to tell him of my decision.

And two minutes later, I was in the bathroom nursing a nosebleed. Nevermind... I would tell him later.