Disclaimer: I don't own nor profit from my GW stories

Warnings: Yaoi, some language, mild angst, possible NCS

Second Chances
Part 3 - The Last Entry in the Journal of Duo Maxwell... continued
by Dyna Dee

The banquet was long winded with several important world leaders standing to postulate their beliefs and hopes for enduring peace. Pilot 01 was lauded in each of the speeches as the brave young man who countless times during the war saved the Earth. We had chosen Heero to be the front man for us, having made an agreement with the government to not use our names but the code numbers Oz had attached to us during the war. Because we were still considered juveniles, our identities were kept from the press at large. Even in a private setting like the ball, where Relena had invited all the important political cronies, our names were changed and cameras were forbidden. Heero, being Relena's bodyguard, was simply known as the pilot of Wing Zero, or pilot 01. The other four of us were mentioned in passing a couple of times during speeches, clumped collectively as "the other pilots".

Jealous? No way! I thought it was hysterical knowing how much Heero hated being put in the public spotlight and to be praised as the single harbinger of Peace. Heero knew more than anyone how much we all had lost and suffered before and during the wars. None of us really wanted or needed the praise or accolades that everyone in the political circles seemed too pleased to pass out, especially if it benefitted themselves in return.

During those long two hours of food and talk, I found myself to be a rather contented and happy boy. The speeches I could have done without, but the service, as well as the food, was beyond great and the wine was flowing in abundance. Added to that, I was seated with "the other pilots". In contrast, Heero was stuck sitting next to Relena on the main podium in full view of the large assembly. I had to snicker as I recognized his slight squirm whenever a speaker would turn to him with words of praise, bringing all eyes in the large room to rest upon him. He momentarily lifted his head up from studying his plate and looked our way, and our eyes met. He frowned fiercely at my obvious humor at his discomfort. I winked at him and he quickly looked away. It was kind of a heady feeling to know that the man of the hour, one that every one respected and revered and waited with bated breath for a word to pass from his lips, had indeed used those very lips to drive me crazy in his bathroom an hour ago. I looked at his hands folded neatly together before him, and recalled how those hands gently laid me down on the dark blue, slightly damp bath mat just moments before he took me, how they possessively and deliciously touched me, bringing me to a state of Nirvana once again. Damn, I had it bad for the guy.

Wufei elbowed me out of my thoughts. "Give him a break," he hissed and I chuckled realizing I'd unknowingly been giving Heero my best bedroom eyes while I recounted our earlier tryst. I reached for my wine glass and took a couple of good swallows of the most excellent liquid offering that was quickly refilled by a very diligent waitress. Yeah, I nodded in satisfaction, I could get used to this.

By the time the speeches were over and dessert had been served, Wufei had confiscated my wine glass and had threatened our server with great bodily harm if she replaced it.

When all of us were invited by Relena's closing remarks to adjourn to the ballroom, I was the first to be up and out of my chair. I wasn't all that anxious to go to the ballroom, but to hit the bathroom.

I've determined that liquor mixed with the caffeine jolt from dark, rich coffee served at the end of the meal is not exactly a good mix for the former God of Death. I wasn't drunk, not even near it, but I was very happy and full of energy. I took care of business and returned to the ballroom entrance only to find a long line of elegantly dressed people waiting to enter the ballroom. I decided to wander around for a bit as I didn't feel like waiting in line with a bunch of people I didn't know. I climbed a couple of the stairs of the nearby staircase to see what the hold-up was. It seemed each person entering the ballroom was being formally introduced, making a grand entrance as their name was called out by a loud, resounding male voice. Leave it to the rich and pretentious to come up with that one.

I wandered around a bit and talked to the security guys and waiters hauling exotic looking appetizers and long-stemmed and filled to the top champagne glasses on very large trays. Yep, the waiters and I became pretty good friends. One girl dressed in the waiter get-up and I sat at the top of the grand staircase sipping the mighty fine champagne while we viewed the party goers below and loosely commented on the varied appearances. I remember she was nice and witty, and tried not to stare at me as we chatted, but I don't recall her name.

She said something that, at the time, I thought was hilarious and laughed really hard. I can only guess that my laugh carried because it led my watch dog, Wufei, up the stairs towards me, frowning in disapproval as he all but stomped up the long staircase.

"Hey Wuffie." I greeted him happily.

"Are you drunk?" he asked, already disapproving.

"Nope!" I beamed him my best smile. Yep, I was a happy man. "Just enjoying all that Sanq has to offer," I added holding up my near empty champagne glass.

Before I knew it, he had me up on my feet and moving rapidly down the stairs. "See ya!" I called back to the snickering girl who gave me a brief wave of farewell.

I guess it pays to have done something right in your life, I thought as Wufei escorted me to the front of the long line of guests. I smiled and waved teasingly to all those richly dressed people whom we had just cut in front of as Wufei dragged me forward by holding my elbow in his firm grip. That arm was getting pretty damn sore from all the man handling I'd endured that day and I'd absently rubbed it when he let go.

We stopped at the entrance of the open doorway as a long, red-pointed staff blocked our entry. I first noticed the music, toned-down, techno dance music; not quite my style, but I was sure that after a few more glasses of champagne, it would suit me just fine.

Then my eyes lowered to the long, red staff blocking our entry to the ballroom, my eyes studied it with some fascination and they slowly tracked the length of it to an odd-looking dude in a loud red jacket with gold buttons down the front and on the freaky belled cuffs. I'm sure my eyes looked like they were about to pop out of my head as they scanned down the man's strange costume, from his red jacket to his white knickers and stockings that slipped into the most ridiculous shoes I'd ever seen. They were red, the exact shade of the jacket, slightly heeled with ludicrous red bows on the top.

I heard the man, standing on the other side of the doorway and closer to Wufei, formally ask for our names, so I dragged my eyes from the fascinating but obscene shoes to look in his direction only to see he too was dressed in the exact same costume with a similar staff in his hand as the guy on my side of the doorway. But this guy's ornamental staff was different from the one that was blocking our entrance in that it was topped off with a gold finial top; fancy, shiny and definitely top heavy. Seeing Wufei pause, I quickly supplied the pseudo names for the caller. "I'm Hugh Fakalata and my friend here is Mr. Lo, Mi Hung Lo." Just as Wufei elbowed me sharply in the ribs, the man with the staff raised his right eyebrow skeptically, but continued on with his job. He took the staff and hit the floor three times, and in a clear, resounding voice, announced the names I'd given him. Poor guy, when no one turned to give a questioning look or a giggle in response to the called names, it just pointed out how ridiculous his job was. I wondered how much they had to pay him to stand in that weird outfit and basically do nothing. I could do that, I thought with a smile. The staff blocking out way was raised, allowing us to step into the large room.

"That was cool, man," I said out loud, hoping to make the poor guy feel better about his job. The man who had just announced us looked at me questioningly at my not moving into the room as expected. I gave him a winning smile. "Thanks man," I said. "But could you tell me the name of your tailor?"

I was under the impression that the man was not suppose to smile as he announced each and every guest that passed by him, but I definitely saw his mouth tweak upward.

I felt Wufei pull on me once again. "Dig the shoes guys," I called back over my shoulder. "Are you fraternal or maternal twins, or something kinda freaky? Are you mutated, cloned, or separated siamese twins?"

"Maxwell!" My dear Chinese friend growled out my name in a tone of warning.

"Ah, come on Wu," I complained as I tried to pull out of his grip. "I haven't done anything wrong. Cut me some slack."

"You are trouble waiting to happen," he said with a look of long suffering, but he huffed out a breath and gave me a small indulgent smile.

I reached up and patted his cheek. "Flattery will get you everywhere," I teased him.

He grabbed my hand and flung it away, obviously embarrassed by my touch in public. "Duo, behave," he admonished me more seriously.

I tried not to show nor feel hurt as I answered him. "I'll be good, promise. Let's dance."

"I don't dance with boys," he answered in a clipped tone.

"But I don't know any girls here," I complained and reached over to grab some tasty treats from off a passing tray that a server held out briefly before he continued on.

Wufei rolled his eyes. "Please, you could make friends with a potted plant. Mingle," he ordered. "But don't get drunk and make a scene."

"Party pooper," I pouted and moved onto the dance floor to join in with the rather conservative dancers, less a partner. I turned to give him a last word in parting. "Let your hair down Wu and have some fun."

He stood with his hands on his hips, glaring a silent warning as I lost myself in the dancers.

I don't recall all that happened during that evening, guess I didn't meet many people that left a lasting impression. I do remember sipping champagne throughout the evening though and eating some remarkable as well as disgusting appetizers.

I danced with everyone not clutching another person, and vaguely remember getting up on the stage and singing a lively song with the band. Hey! I'm a good singer and did a great job. Everyone clapped enthusiastically at the end of my single performance. I took a deep bow and saw Quatre, Trowa and Wufei just off to the right of me in front of the stage, being the great supporters they are. Handing the microphone back to the lead singer, I turned back to face my friends and beamed them a warning smile

"Catch me!" I yelled at them a second before I launched my body off the stage in their direction. Thank the colonies for good reflexes. They caught me, but I never really had any doubt that they wouldn't. Quatre and I laughed heartily, Trowa chuckled, and I could see a lecture about to burst from Wufei about propriety, so I high-tailed it out of there, that is after I gave Trowa and Quatre a quick peck on the cheek.

I wandered the dance floor, danced, ate and talked, but I was becoming bored as there wasn't anything else to do. I sometimes caught a glimpse of Heero in the crowd of partiers, but he was always at Relena's side, and feeling a stab of jealousy, I avoided going anywhere near them. I tilted my head up to look at the tantalizing crystal chandeliers sparkling brilliantly above the large room. Heero would be livid if I tried anything with that, so I squelched the ideas flying through my head. Then my eyes lit on the only object that had really caught my attention that evening. I sauntered over to the red jacket guys, the two of them looking like matching bookends holding up the doorway. They stood impassive and impressive, looking bored and attentive at the same time. I stepped up to the guy with the object that fascinated me from the moment I came into the room, the red staff with the golden finial. I stopped in front of him, exchanged a smile at his slight questioning look, then turned my attention to the stick in his hand and eyed it with appreciation.

"That's pretty impressive," I said with a nod towards the staff. "Is it heavy?"

"No sir," he answered crisply, like a military rookie.

"Really," I drawled out. "That gold top looks a bit heavy. I can only imagine after lifting it up and down as many times as you did that your arm must be tired."

"Just a bit, sir." His eyes twinkled at my inquisitiveness.

"Ya know," I rocked back onto my heels then forward onto the balls of my feet, "I use to have something similar to this in the war and I learned to do some pretty fancy moves with it."

The man's eyebrows raised up in interest.

"Yep," I continued. "It took a lot of practice, but I became waaaay efficient." I gave him my crooked smile that always seemed to win over the majority of people I tried to con into something.

Five minutes later, I had the top-heavy staff in my hands and I cautiously flipped it over from one hand to the other, testing its balance. Then with a flick of the wrist, I flipped it, one handed.

"Don't drop it," Harold cautioned me, suddenly looking very nervous. Yeah, I was now on a first name basis with the two bookends. They still held their posts, but watched me with nervous curiosity.

"It's all in the wrist and fingers," I told them, even as I straightened my arm and set the staff into a spinning motion. It took a few moments to get my momentum, but soon the six foot long, red painted wood pole with the ornately crafted gold top became a blurred wheel. I easily shifted hands several times, then with arms straight, I lifted the twirling stick up and over my head. Looking up at it, I was mesmerized by the spinning red wheel above me, the gold boldly marking the rim. Memories of wielding my thermal scythe with expertise and precision had me momentarily missing my gundam once again. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the war is over, but piloting Deathscythe was one of the best things that ever happened in my life. It was a war machine designed for massive destruction, but it also was a place where I felt in control of my life, even when in a battle with overwhelming numbers of enemies coming at me, I was still in some sort of control over what happened to me. Those were intense but brief feelings that seemed opposite of how I felt the majority of the time. Only a few people knew about my mask, those closest to me who had seen it falter, and even they couldn't always tell when it was in place. I decided a long time ago that no one likes a depressed guy hanging around, but as time went on, I found it increasingly hard to be the lively, happy guy everyone had come to expect, hence the cracks in my mask.

I shook off the brooding thoughts in my head and looked back to Harold and Geoffrey, smiling happily at the sight of their wide eyes fixed on the blur spinning above my head.

Then Harold's eyes lowered and, after a quick look over my shoulder, he nodded his head to indicate something was happening behind me. Acknowledging it, I lowered my arms and with a resounding "thump" I brought the spinning staff to an abrupt stop, the tip resting on the wood floor.

"Now, that's how you handle a scythe," I explained confidently. A smattering of applause came from behind me. Without turning I asked Harold, "Gotta crowd?"

He nodded as I tossed the end of the staff up to place it balancing between both of my hands, presenting it properly to its owner who accepted it with his white gloved hands.

"Yes sir," he said in answer to my question.

"Well," I brought my hand up and scratched the crown of my head, "thanks for letting me hold it. And I wouldn't do any of those moves unless you practice at home first."

"I understand, sir," Harold replied as the corners of his mouth struggled to not smile.

With a nod of farewell, I high-tailed it out of the ballroom and out into the grand entryway of the Palace.

"Duo!" Damn, I didn't get more than fifty feet when I heard Heero call my name and stopped me mid-stride. I turned around and grinned sheepishly at his frowning face. My momentary happiness faded.

"Dammit Heero, do you ever smile anymore?" I asked, annoyed at his stone face.

"Yes," he answered, still failing to disprove that very question. "When you're not around causing trouble."

Ouch, that hurt.

"Look Heero, what's your problem? I've behaved. I haven't broken anything or offended anyone...too much. I'm just trying to have some fun at this very stodgy party."

"You draw too much attention to yourself, just like in the war," he said, clearly disapproving.

"Can I help it people are bored in there? And I really can't help it that I'm eye candy."

He stepped closer to me, his face unreadable and I tensed, not knowing if he was going to hit me or not. He grabbed hold of my upper arms and held me firmly as he leaned forward, his lips going to my ear. I was expecting a death threat or a severe reprimand, but what I wasn't expecting was Heero's tongue in my ear. I closed my eyes as I felt my eyeballs roll upward as a wave of pleasure coursed through me. He attacked me in one of my weak spots. But then again, Heero knew just about all of my weak spots and always used that knowledge to his advantage.

To anyone else, I'm sure it looked like he was quietly putting me in my place, which, in a different sense, was true. All I can say is that it was a good thing he held me by my arms as my knees weakened from his simple, sensual onslaught. When he finished with me, his teeth gently took hold of my earlobe and tugged on it playfully. "Behave?" he questioned in a teasing voice I doubted very few people had ever heard coming from him. I nodded and he pulled back so he could look into my face.

"I'll behave," I told him, then gave him a knowing, sexy smile. "Well, until later." I was rewarded with a rare smile in return and a twinkle in his eyes that he clearly understood exactly what I intended to happen later.

"Heero?" Relena's voice called out sharply behind the Perfect Soldier, and Heero's smile fell, to be replaced by his former frown.

I felt my own silly grin fade as I finally got the unsaid message that I'd been getting from Heero since my arrival. I was okay to be with, enjoyed and amused by, but only behind a closed door. It was obvious that to Heero, I was a dirty little secret to be kept from Relena or anyone else. We'd argued over this point when we were together during the war, and he'd compromised by letting the other pilots know of our relationship. But now it was clear that nothing had really changed at all, he was ashamed of his relationship with me.

Relena came up and slipped her small, manicured hand under Heero's arm and clutched it possessively. She was frowning at me, and I had to wonder if someone didn't put some kind of face relaxers in the champagne. Frowns seemed to be contagious in the princess's palace, and I could feel my own practiced one slipping.

"He'll behave now," Heero told her as if he'd successfully put a dog on a choking collar and leash in order to keep it obedient. My head was spinning with all the mixed messages I kept getting from him. I really didn't know where I stood or what I wanted anymore.

"Well, I should hope so," Relena replied in a chilling tone while looking at me with disdain written all over her face. At that moment I think I really hated her.

I was saved from any further insults by seeing a tray of desserts being carried into the ballroom along with more trays of champagne. Just what I needed at the moment.

"If you two charming people will excuse me," I moved past them as quickly as possible, "I have a date with the Petite Fours." Me, my braid bouncing happily against my ass, and the little bit of pride I had left promptly walked back into the ballroom...alone.

I sampled wonderful chocolates and tiny cakes from off the several trays that came by me. The confections went perfectly with two glasses of champagne. I was, at that point, decidedly tipsy, but not flat-out drunk. Nope, I'd learned a long time ago that it was a lot more fun to act drunk than to actually be drunk.

I turned on the charm and flirted outrageously with everyone, trying to forget the hurt welling inside me at the realization that my feelings for Heero were completely one sided. I took on the role of a happy drunk, which was always preferable to an unhappy or mean one.

Wufei followed me like a shadow and it was fun to watch his stunned expression when I threw myself at an elegantly dressed Lady Une and hugged her enthusiastically. He pried me off of her and I was rewarded when she gently touched my face with her hand and smiled at me with warm compassion and a look of concern. "Good to see you too, Duo," she said in a soft, throaty voice. I turned and threw myself into Wufei's arms and hugged him fiercely, deciding at that moment that I'd had enough of the party and that it was time for me to play at sleeping. I let my body slump bonelessly against the Preventer, knowing he'd take care of me if I appeared incapacitated.

"Duo?" he questioned as I lay limp and heavy in his arms. I stayed as still and unresponsive as possible, modulating my breathing rate to match that of a slumberer.

"He's out?" Trowa's voice came from behind me.

"Finally," Wufei answered in obvious relief. Poor Wu, I really wore him out that evening.

"Let's take him out of here," Quatre quietly suggested.

"This way." Ah Heero, now the gang was all there. What a unifier I am. "There's an empty sitting room he can sleep in until I go up. We don't want to make a scene by taking him out right now," he added. Arms lifted me from Wufei's hold. The person carrying me felt and smelled like Trowa.

The sound of four pairs of footsteps echoed off the wood floor and we didn't go far before we stopped in front of a room just off the dance floor. I heard the jangle of keys and of a door opening. I saw through my eyelids the lights turn on and I felt myself gently set down on a soft surface that I judged to be a couch. I instantly turned onto my side away from them and curled up slightly and mumbled something unintelligible to give credence to my act of being asleep. Little did my friends know that I'm an absolute expert at faking sleep; I found that I learned more interesting things this way. For some reason, most people speak openly and freely when they think you are dead-to-the-world drunk.

"Ah Duo," Quatre said my name softly and with affection from nearby and I felt his weight settle next to my back on the edge of the couch. "What are we going to do with you?" Gentle hands reached under my neck and loosened my neck tie then slipped under my jacket to unfasten my cummerbund. Quatre always saw to it that I was comfortable.

"He's left his job on L-2," Wufei reported. "Says he wants to live earthside, maybe go to school. It seems his colony has too many painful memories for him to be comfortable there any longer."

"So he has no place to go from here?" Quatre asked in a worried tone, his hand rested on my shoulder for a moment before I felt him stand.

There was a long, ominous pause, and I had to make sure that I kept breathing slowly and evenly.

"Well he can't come home with me." Leave it to Wufei to get straight to the point. "I work long hours and can't keep an eye on him."

"Maybe he could work at the Preventers," Trowa suggested.

"Che! He's too undisciplined. He'd be an embarrassment to the organization."

Ouch! Remind me to watch out for Wufei's stinging quills.

"Well," Quatre said slowly, his voice already sounding regretful. "He's certainly let us know how uncomfortable he is here, and my home is not much different. I think he'd be unhappy there, plus it's on L-4 and he wants to stay on Earth."

Two down.

"He and Catherine don't get on." Trowa spoke up quietly. "For some reason she took a disliking to him when he found me at the circus when I had amnesia, and I haven't been able to dissuade her from feeling that way towards him."

In the silence that followed, I could only imagine the three sets of eyes turning to Heero, as did my heart.

"Relena wants him out of here as soon as possible," Heero said with no sound of regret or emotion in his damnable monotone voice.

It took every ounce of strength in me not to curl up and die. As heart wrenching as it felt, I now knew my place in my friends' lives. Despite my stillness and best efforts, a tear slowly escaped the corner of my eye and trickled down the side of my face to drop onto the material of the couch.

"Let's talk with him in the morning and see if we can give him some direction," Quatre said sadly.

Just leave, I wished with all my heart. I didn't know if I could hold my hurt in much longer.

I felt hands on me when Heero spoke up. "No, leave him here. It will just make a scene to carry him up that stairs past Relena's guests. He sleeps like the dead when he's drunk. I'll come get him in the morning."

The others must have agreed with a nod of their heads because all I heard was the sound of footsteps shuffling to the door, though I knew someone had lingered as a hand touched my hair and gently stroked it. I imagined such a touch could only come from Quatre, always the gentle, sentimental one.

Goodbye guys, I said to myself as the light went out and the door closed with a click that had a sound of finality to it.

I waited a moment to make sure I was truly alone, then curled up and as quietly as possible, cried my heart out. Even as I let go from holding in all the hurt I felt, I was ashamed of myself for doing so. Here I was a veteran of poverty, the streets of L-2, and of two wars, and I was bawling like a baby because my friends and former lovers didn't care for me enough to see what I really wanted; what it was that I really needed.

I don't know how long I lay there and wallowed in my self-pity, I just knew that I had wrung my heart out and that I couldn't face the guys in the morning. I noticed about that time that the music in the ballroom had stopped and realized the ball was over. I had no other concept of time, only that I was cold and alone, like so many other times in my damn life. I sniffed back more than tears and regretted not having a tissue or handkerchief in my pocket. I used the next best thing available, the eye-matching cummerbund

Well into the process of blowing my nose with that accessory to my fancy tux, the door suddenly opened and a female voice called out. "Just a minute, I think this is where I left my wrap." The lights were turned on and I heard a feminine gasp as I was spotted.

"Duo?" It was Lucretia Noin. She had caught me unaware, looking like a deer caught in the headlight of an oncoming truck, and in the middle of using my cummerbund to blow my nose. Embarrassed, I turned my red-rimmed eyes away from her shocked but penetrating gaze.

"Go away," I said unhappily. Great, all I needed was a witness to my misery. The only thing worse would be if she...

"Zechs," she called out softly behind her. There it was, the next worse thing, another witness and a male to boot. Boys aren't supposed to cry. Well, that's what I always said, but once again I failed to follow my own motto. And there were times when that saying should hold true, especially in there's another male around.

The door shut and I felt the looming presence of the two taller adults. "What's wrong Duo?" The deep male voice that could only belong to Zechs asked.

"Everything and nothing," I replied cryptically. "So just go away."

"Did the others leave you here?" Noin asked and I felt a weight settle on the edge of the couch next to me.

"Please... just go," I whispered, my desperation to hold in my emotions was pretty clear as I spoke with a shaky voice.

"We're not going to do that, Duo," Noin said in a voice as soft and compassionate as Sister Helen's used to be. "Now, tell me what's wrong."

Needing someone and something to anchor myself to at that moment of weakness, I raised myself up and literally flung myself into her open arms. I blush now to think of how I silently cried against her, like a little orphaned boy who had been beaten up one to many times because of his long hair and flippant attitude.

Zechs moved to sit behind me and gently rubbed my back. "Tell us Duo. Maybe we can help," he said in a gentle tone.

That was all I needed, their compassion and willingness, the champagne, along with the hurt and the disappointment I'd been delivered and somehow, it all combined to loosen up my stubborn pride and my tongue...and I blurted it all out. Still holding onto Noin, I told them of leaving L-2, how I hated the memories of my childhood the place brought back. I told them of my past and present relationships with Heero and Quatre, how I'd come to Earth hoping to find a home with one of my friends and then spoke of my hurt and anguish in reaction to the words of rejection spoken by my friends when they believed I was asleep.

Noin held me tightly, and several times during my nearly incoherent babbling I felt her lips kiss the top of my head, as if my hurt and pain somehow affected her.

"I'm sorry," I sniffed, coming back to myself feeling thoroughly embarrassed and horrified at my emotional outburst. I pushed myself out of her arms and flopped against the back of the couch, rubbing at my eyes. I reached blindly for the cummerbund, needing to use it again. "Please, don't tell anyone I fell apart like that," I asked them.

"It's alright, Duo," Zechs replied. "You've had enough disappointment during your life to merit a deluge of tears."

When he saw the direction the blue-violet tuxedo accessory was headed, the blond man grabbed hold of my hand and placed a fine linen handkerchief into it. I smiled gratefully and used it.

"So where will you go?" Noin asked. She and Zechs were sitting on the edge of the couch, each on either side and turned towards me so that I could see the both of them when I looked up.

I shrugged. "I dunno," I replied. "But I'll be gone before Heero comes for me in the morning. Don't want to be any more of an embarrassment to him." The tone of my voice was sad and bitter.

I looked up at the two of them, marveling at the striking couple they made, both of them were tall, trim and commanding. The light and dark hair contrasted remarkably. Then I realized they were somehow communicating something over my head.

Noin looked at Zechs with a question in her eyes. The tall blond nodded and smiled. She returned it then they both looked at me expectantly.

"Duo." Zechs took the lead. "Would you consider coming home with us?"

Now that was unexpected. "Why?" I asked, suspicious and puzzled at their invitation and naturally feeling skeptical.

Noin reached out and touch my damp face. "Because you're lost, just as we have all been. We're building a home," she continued and looked up to her fiancÚ with a smile. "You got our wedding invitation, right?"

I nodded, then felt guilty as I hadn't R.S.V.P'd it.

"We're to be married next week," she reminded me.

"Then I'm the last person you want hanging around your home," I warned them.

"Did you know we're adopting Mariemaia?" Zechs asked.

I shook my head.

"She's lost too, and lives with a lot of guilt from her actions in the last war. We'll be taking her with us in six weeks when we return to Mars to work on the terra forming project."

I nodded my head, not sure how to respond to their news when the next question asked left me dumbstruck.

"Would you consider coming to our home to live with us Duo?" Noin asked. "If we get on well enough in the next few weeks, we'd be pleased to have you come to Mars with us."

My eyes widened, from surprise or shock I'm not really sure. "What are you saying?" I asked, wondering if I was on my ass drunk after all and didn't know it.

Noin smiled at me, she really is very beautiful. "We're offering you a home and a family Duo, such as we are." I could see by her eyes that she meant what she was saying.

Zechs then took up the next part of the conversation. "It will also give you time away from the other pilots to grow and mature. I suspect all of you need time to do that and readjust to life beyond the war, just like we've had to." His eyes strayed to his fiancÚ and from the look in them, I could easily see just how much in love they were and felt a twinge of jealousy pull at my heart.

I sat back against the couch feeling overwhelmed. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, that I was being offered all that I ever wanted: a home, a family, and people who seemed to care enough for me to offer me a place in their lives.

"Are... are you sure?" I asked, my voice unsteady with the fear that they would take it back. "I'm a bit of a handful." I felt the need to warn them, after all, believing that if I could cause my closest friends to turn away from me, who would really in their right minds want me? Not to mention the fact that, at one time, the couple sitting by my side had been my enemies during the first war.

Both Zechs and Noin laughed easily at my statement about myself. "So are we." Zechs chuckled in his deep voice. Then he slowly sobered and looked me in the eye. "Listen Duo," he began in a more earnest tone. "It won't be easy as you've been very independent all your life, but we're willing to try. I'll teach you all about fitting into this society and how to comport yourself in public. If you're willing to try to meet us half way, we'll be more than satisfied."

I thought about it for a moment, still not quite believing they were willing to give me not only a chance, but a family, a roof over my head with the promise of food and shelter. The insecurities of my childhood on the streets of L-2 haunted me every day with the fear of not having those basic necessities of life. I asked myself what was there to lose? I had no where to go and I desperately didn't want to be alone any longer. In those terms, I came to a quick decision. "I'm willing to give it a try." But even as I said those words, a dark cloud hung over my immediately future. "But on one condition."

Both of them looked at me a bit wary, but Noin nodded to go ahead with my stipulation. "I don't want the other pilots to learn anything about this."

I could see the questions in their eyes as to my reasoning, but they both withheld them. Maybe they saw the hurt in my eyes that from when the others had rejected me or sensed I wasn't ready to face them. I just knew my pride wouldn't let me see them again until I was stronger and didn't need them any more. Whether Zechs and Noin understood or not, they both exchanged a glance of silent understanding.

"Alright." Zechs spoke for both of them.

With a trembling, watery-eyes smile, I looked at the two people who were offering me the future I'd craved since I first became aware of my hungry, needy circumstances on L-2, my earliest memories. Funny, I had looked to my closest friends to fill the emptiness inside me and here were these two, near strangers, volunteering to fill that dark hole in my heart. I sniffed back more of the traitorous tears that threatened to embarrass me again. "Well, okay then," I said, surprised at how young and vaunerable I sounded, the needy child in me had resurface, and putting out a hand to each of them I asked, "Can you take me home now?"

So that's it in a nut shell, and as I close this journal, having jumped with both feet into the second chance being given to me, one that was so unforeseen, I know this is the last time I'll write in it as Duo Maxwell. I'm going to work at putting behind me the boy of poverty, who scavenged the streets of L-2 for food and shelter among the wretched poor of that colony. I'm putting behind me the soul shattered, only survivor of the Maxwell Church Orphanage massacre. I'm leaving behind the teenage warrior who suffered for the colonies for two wars. And I'm leaving behind the old me, along with the name of Duo Maxwell and the four friends who were my family. Yet even as I say I'm putting it all behind me as I journey to Mars, I know I'll never really forget any of it, because you see, I am a result of all that has ever happened to me, good and bad. I just hope to take the better part of me and become the best person that Zechs and Noin can help me become. Then, when I return, it will be on my own terms.


Duo Maxwell

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