The Day of Candles

Rating: PG, probably... I refuse to acknowledge that I can write a fic rated G. G for Grrr.

Disclaimer: I don't own Duo Maxwell, or his unidentified companion. Neither do I own the war they're talking about. The former upsets me, but frankly I'm just as glad about the latter.

Warnings: angst, fire hazard
(Has anyone else noticed that I have weird warnings?)

Pairings: none

POV from someone; I'm not sure who, but I think it's Trowa. It was either Trowa or Heero, but I think it was Trowa. So I suppose this could count as 2+3 going by the definition that the '+' indicates non-sexual friendship. But really, this story isn't about romance.

I don't know much about the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, I'm afraid, but I thought it sounded like something that Duo would do.

It was merely a pure coincidence that I happened to be present when it broke. Nowadays, with the war over and gone, we five Gundam pilots didn't see each other much any more. Quatre, being Quatre, tried to keep communications open, but really Duo was the only other who was willing. It's kind of funny when you think about it; Quatre is gentle, and Duo is kind, and yet they alone of the pilots had come through the war intact. It was one of the many things I had to think of during the time I spent alone, moving through the world and colonies as I tried to come to terms with my present and my past. Even I didn't always know exactly what I was looking for, nor did I always understand the turns of logic or fate that led my steps.

So I hadn't known beforehand that Duo Maxwell would be there in that mansion at the same time as I. I don't think he planned it that way; something in his voice and manner when I arrived at the run-down old mansion told me that he'd expected to be alone. I could respect that. I only planned to stay for a few days, and if part of me wondered as to the contents and purpose of the boxes stacked in the hall outside of his room, I never would have asked him.

It was a very old house in the back nowheres of Sank, a place untouched by war simply because there had been nothing of value there for soldiers or rebels during the fighting. The mansion was built of stone, half-choked with ivy, and the layout and architecture made the installation of modern technology almost impossible. Large sections of the mansion were simply unlivable; in the eastern side of the closed-off wing, facing the sunrise when it came, was a chapel. It was small, and dingy, and bare of any religious adornments but for the shelves on three sides and the round glass window near the arched roof.

Late that night I found him there. Despite the cross and the clerical-style clothing he wore, I never knew Duo to be particularly Catholic, so I wasn't expecting to find him there when my wanderings drove me nearby enough to the chapel to hear the sound of someone inside. I stopped in the dim-lit corridor outside there, and thought for a while; in the end, though, I couldn't think why Duo would be here, now, and after all I pushed open the chapel doors and went in.

The scene that greeted me was entirely outside of my experience. Tiers of shelves packed against the walls in the small space, and they were covered by dozens -- no, hundreds -- of white votive candles. Rows of them crowded the shelves, over the altar, even a few of them spilled over onto the floor. On the left side of the door, one section of maybe a score or two of the candles were lit. The combined candlepower reached almost but not quite up to the ceiling, throwing flickering cloaks of shadow on the roof and the floor. In the center of the candles, on his knees on the floor, was Duo Maxwell. Crying.

I had never known Duo all that well during the war, but we'd seen an awful lot of each other as we fought and tried and bled side by side, and I had never seen him cry. Ever. All of us had guilt, all of us had issues pressed on us by the monstrosity of what we did, but of all of us Duo seemed the strongest, the most stable. Anguish, guilt, helplessness, despair -- none of things had I seen in him. When the bad things happened, and a mission or a fight went so horribly wrong, he calmly accepted it as the tribute due to the God of Death. From time to time I had wondered if, of all of us, he was the most sane, or the least.

I wondered again now, because I did not understand what could have driven the ebullient, courageous, manic boy I knew onto his knees in anguish. There was nothing here except the rows and rows of untouched white candles, and the box of matches spilled open on the floor before his feet. Charred, broken matches littered the stone ground around him. When he spoke, I hardly knew his voice.

"I can't do it," came a soft, keening cry. He might have been addressing me, or his remote and distant God. "I thought I could do it, I promised I would do it, but I can't. I can't. There are just too many. Oh, God! There are so many of them!"

I let myself into the room, and the door slipped shut behind him and left only the candlelight to illuminate the scene. He looked up at me, and the pure desolation in his face shook even my hollow heart. He was crying unashamed, tears of pure frustration and helplessness. "Look at them all, my God!" he moaned, lifting his hands to encompass the candles. "I just can't do it. By the time I've finished lighting the ones at the end, the first ones have already gone out! I can't light them all. I just..."

"Duo." My own voice was as soft as his, but so much emptier, free of the passion and anguish that tormented him. "What is all this, Duo."

"I kept count," he whispered, his fingers groping and finding the box of matches, clutching it tightly. His braid fell forward over his shoulder, dragging in the dust on the floor. "Every single one of them, I counted. One for each mobile suit pilot. Three for the underwater transport units. Five for the control towers. Ten for the shuttles. One and one and one for each one I passed in the corridor. I counted every one." He lifted his haunted, heavy gaze to stare at the gleaming rows of candles. "I swore I wouldn't forget a single one. I promised. And I didn't. I brought them all here. I thought I could put them to rest. But I can't do it... I can't do it. God, I don't know what I'm gonna do..."

I thought I understood then. What he was doing, what he had done, even if not why. It was another little piece of data that I could add to my store, thinking and thinking about people and why they did the things they did to each other. Duo was human. What he, what I, what we had dealt with was enough to drive any human being mad, and yet the Shinigami had not. He had not denied his emotions, refusing to admit that they existed. He had not wallowed in guilt and pity, allowing his own shame to keep him from what needed to be done. He had not even justified his actions, trying to seek some higher moral ground only to have it constantly slip away just beyond his reach, tantalizing.

Instead, he created a little box in his soul, and called it the God of Death, and there he put a promise for each life ended by him. Counters for the day of reckoning, the day when he finally unlocked the box and was buried as a war's worth of guilt rolled over him all at once.

As I only stood there, in silence, I saw him try and fail to pull himself together. He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes, freeing the last of the tears. His trembling fingers eased open the box of matches, and lit one. With an agonizing effort, he lifted it to touch the next unlit candle, but his hands shook too badly and the match dropped to the floor; flickered, and went out. I watched, fascinated, as one more candle sprang to life.

"Why now?" I asked, drawn in despite everything. "Why today?"

He had to answer, had to explain himself. I was firmly situated as a spectator, taking no action but witnessing everything. I think my presence comforted him, though; just knowing that someone saw. That someone would remember. "It had to be today. Today is... the Day of the Dead. Today, you light candles for your dead loved ones, in remembrance, and to set their ghosts at rest."

"Were you so close to all of them?" I asked, waving a hand vaguely at the ring of candles.

He made a sound that might, in another world, have been laughter. "Are you kidding? I killed them. You can't get much personal than that." The new candlelight glittered off the wetness on his face as he spread his arms wide open. "Behold the Shinigami, surrounded by all his faithful subjects!"

Shadows shifted, above him, below him. A tiny, pained whimper escaped him, and he collapsed into himself once more. "God, please... I don't want to be Shinigami anymore. I don't want to go back to the old game of kill or be killed. I just want it all to be over..."

Over? Nothing was really over, not as long as life remained. He probably knew that too. Death and Duo Maxwell had always been a little too close for comfort. Did it really matter, I wondered, if he survived this day of reckoning; now that the world was at peace, and had no further need of soldiers with blackened souls?

And if he didn't, would his life count as one more unlit candle for me? What would I do, when none of my wandering brought me answers, and I finally ran out of places too look... when my own uncared for uncounted ghosts cornered me in my sleep and the shadows, and I --

I had not moved in some time, and when I finally unbent from my position beside the door, my movements were as stiff and jerky as any marionette figure. Duo finally looked up when I stood beside him, staring at him; thoughtfully, I'm sure. His eyes met mine and searched for something behind them; what, I don't know, but I felt a balance shift.

"Do you suppose," I said to him, my voice never wavering from its lusterless calm, "that my dead could share candles with yours?"

He froze, and I reached out and pried the matchbox out of his closed hands. My own fingers, when they struck a match, shook with no more life than stone. It burned down quickly, and went out when the fire met my hands. I didn't really feel it.

A wan, deathly smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. "Yeah," he answered, still a bit shaky. "Yeah, I bet that they could."

We gave each other a little motion and stillness, then; his hands steadied enough to carry fire from the section he had managed to light into those not yet brought to life. I moved from the other end, my arms unfreezing just enough to move the match from one wick to the next. With each light that sprang up, the shadows retreated a little more, until we met in the middle in the chapel full of candlelight.

Duo stopped to pray, then, and I saw him clasp desperately at the golden crucifix he always wore, and no less desperately at the end of his braid. I wondered what memories that brought to mind, as his lips shaped the Latin words of sin and of penance. He closed his eyes as he recited the Prayer for the Dead, but I contented myself with the present, as I watched him.

Nothing had changed, really. Nothing could change by the lighting of a candle, or a dozen candle, or a hundred, or one for every innocent killed in every war that mankind had ever committed.

But, he believed.

So maybe that was something.