Gunfire from an Aries rattled across the back of Deathscythe as it slashed another Leo in two. Seconds later, the spinning motion of the seven ton war machine gave the offending Aries the same fate. Within the bowels of the black giant, Duo Maxwell revved the engines, making Deathscythe jump sideways out of the path of incoming enemy artillery shells. On the left monitor, the familiar bright beam of a buster rifle seared a path through three careless Leos. The right monitor showed a shower of bullets tearing an Aries out of the sky. The battle was going in their favour, and quickly so. Another Leo came charging at him, only to lose its legs when it came within swinging distance. Crippled, but not disabled, the Leo pilot drew his weapon, and fired directly at Deathscythe's gut, a desperate act, and proven futile as another sweep of the glowing beam scythe cleaved both weapon and suit in two. However, the seconds bought by the Leo pilot allowed two of his companions to catch the black reaper in a crossfire, bullets shaking loose the hatch protecting Duo from the world outside. As one of the Leo's companions felt the wrath of the God of Death, the other scored a vital hit, bursting one of Deathscythe's fuel tanks, causing the gundam to shake violently, front hatch finally giving in to the stress, falling to the ground. As the giant machine fell to its knees, its pilot was thrown out, hitting the rough surface with a sickening thud. Before passing out, Duo saw his last nemesis being cut down by heat shotels, and his buddy in black kneeling over him, scythe in hand. Then all went black.
As he came to again, his vision was blurred, as if looking into a dense, white fog. He could still see the black figure looming above him, resting on the scythe. All else was an creepy shade of darkened white, like a dirty rain cloud.
"Hey, old pal. Looks like we made it through another one. Not bad, huh?"
"Who said you made it through this one?"
The dark, grim voice was cold, but that was not what disturbed Duo. The fact that Deathscythe talked back, was what initially surprised him. He had talked to the suit often enough, but he'd never expected Professor G to install such a frill as a voice synthesizer in the suit. However, as his vision slowly cleared, it became apparent the figure standing above him was not Deathscythe. Merely Death.
The pale, saggy face protruding out of the hood of a dark robe didn't alter a bit as ash lips began moving again.
"Duo Maxwell - You're an interesting young lad, I'll give you that. Taking me as a role model - or taking my role, are you?" The colorless sneered, right hand clutching the scythe even tighter.
"I am the one and only God of Death," Duo replied while standing up, "and while I might be a Reaper, you're the only one that's Grim, paleface - and I'm for real. You're just part of a dream - by the looks of it, a failed nightmare. When I wake up, you'll be lucky to end up as a diary entry."
"Such a lovely delusion of grandeur," Paleface replied, voice as dry as a desert, tone mocking. "No, young Mr. Maxwell, I can assure you this is no dream. You are very much dead right now. Let me show you."
Paleface placed both hands on his scythe and painted a square of clouds in mid-air with the blunt end. Then he twirled the tool as if it were a baton, steel grip suddenly stopping its motion, blunt end hitting the empty center of the cloud frame. As an image slowly formed in the frame, Duo made a mental note to try that scythe move with Deathscythe later. Nothing wrong with seeking inspiration from your dreams, he thought. The view sharpened, and he saw Deathscythe kneeling, a body sprawled out in front of the mobile suit - still, lifeless. In an eerie slow motion, he could see Quatre running toward the body, medkit in one hand.
"As you can see," Paleface said, index finger pointing towards the black-clad body on the screen, "you are, technically speaking, dead. They might still be able to revive you, though - we'll know soon enough. As you can see, time operates a bit differently here, so we have more time than them, in a way. Ah, who am I kidding? We might have eternity." He grinned briefly, grey teeth shown for but a second. Then the stern, glum expression returned. "Now, Mr. Maxwell, personally I couldn't care less if you stay or leave - I don't like impersonators."
"I could say the same, paleface," Duo said, grinning broadly. Paleface arched missing eyebrows, dark voice becoming ominous, threatening.
"Do not mock me. It would do you little good, should you have to remain here for an extended period of time. Now, let us just enjoy the show, shall we? I always find it entertaining to see painful deaths in slow motion. I'm almost saddened you are not there to feel the pain, you insolent little punk."
Duo sneered, folded his arms. "Making me watch my own death - definitely 'hellevision'."
Paleface calmed down, dry tone resurfacing. "You are mistaken. This is not hell - nor is it heaven. Doesn't look like either, does it? Think of it as the cold, empty street between two hotels; Waldorf Astoria and Chuck's Inn, if you will - or the lobby where they figure out if you should get the penthouse or the janitor's quarters. People from both areas are occasionally allowed to stray out here, much to my dismay. Once accommodated, I'd say they should be kept on their side of the fence. Ah, well - Regardless, such things get sorted out later - preferably when your friends give up and bury your lifeless carcass. Now, sit down and enjoy the show. Not much else you can do, my little copycat."
On the screen hovering in white nothingness, Quatre had begun giving CPR, mouth forming words Duo couldn't hear - the screen was image only, no audio. Quatre was yelling at someone. Heero stepped into the frame, knelt by the body's neck, and looked at Quatre. Another order. Resuscitation. Quatre put his weight down on the chest covered in black cloth and thick crimson liquid trickling from numerous small gashes. Five short pushes, pausing only to let Heero blow fresh air into the body's lungs, another five pushes, breath, five pushes, breath. It repeated over and over, all in such slow motion you could even see the salt droplets falling from Quatre's chin to the ground. Feeling queasy, Duo turned around and walked away, leaving Paleface and his show behind.
"I don't want to watch this. They'll make it. I'll make it. I always do," he muttered to himself.
"You were always lucky like that, kid. Starvation, thugs, soldiers - even the plague. You beat them all."
Another voice. The voice of a child, a known voice. In the distant white haze, a young boy came stumbling towards Duo. The child could have been no more than ten, tousled hair, rags and skin alike smeared in dirt and soot. Duo's eyes went wide.
"S-Solo?" was all he was able to stutter out, memories of early childhood, street life, hardship, pain - and faint glimmers of hope and happiness - clouding his mind over.
"The one and only, kid - though you've grown a bit since I saw you last." The figure coughed, halted, resting from his painful, limping walk.
"Solo!" Duo shouted as he ran over to his long-lost friend, embraced him in a crushing bear hug.
"Omph - Easy, pal - you've become stronger too, you know - and I'm still as frail as I ever was," Solo said with a fatigued smile.
Duo released him, face all sunshine, voice and mood matching. "You have no idea how much I've missed you, Solo."
"Sure I have - they let us watch, you know. I've seen you grow up - we all have. I'm honored by your choice of name, kid."
"Sure. Did you think I was the only one on this side interested in your life? You were like my little brother in those days - the caring brother of all of us streetrats back at L2. Thanks for taking care of the others when I.. when I-"
Sunset hit Duo. "Don't talk about that. I don't want to remember those things. Not now."
"Now might be all we have, Duo - and I'm not the only one that wanted to see you again, talk to you, if just for a few minutes."
As he spoke, Solo looked over Duo's shoulder and nodded. Somewhat puzzled by this, Duo spun around to face the two Solo had already greeted, two figures clad in black - and white. Sister Helen and Father Maxwell.
Father Maxwell raised a flat palm. "Hello, Duo." Sister Helen wrapped her arms around Duo and hugged him gently. He didn't know whether to be embarrassed or not to be hugged in front of Father Maxwell and Solo, but it was good to feel those comforting arms again. In his ear, he could barely hear Sister Helen whisper "You still don't smell, Duo." She put her hand on his shoulders, gently smiling at his dumbfounded expression. "It is good to see you again, Duo. We have missed you so much."
"We have followed your life with great interest, Duo." Father Maxwell stated. "You fight for your beliefs, for those who can't do so themselves. Though I admire your sacrifice, I can't approve of you using force, I-"
"Force. You mean you can't accept that I kill."
Father Maxwell sighed. "The Bible provides a loophole. 'Thou shalt not murder', it says. It doesn't say 'Thou shalt not kill'. However, I do not believe killing another could ever be justified. Judgement is for God alone to pass. We all sin, Duo. We all do good deeds too. We remember most of our sins, and often regret them, if not try to repent them. We usually forget what good we do for others - but the ones we help, tend to remember. God remembers everything, but he is also fair."
"And if I don't believe in God? I told you that once before."
Father Maxwell shook his head. "Doesn't matter. You don't have to believe in God. God believes in you, that is enough. As do we. Remember that."
"But I've killed people - Not just a few, either - and as a soldier, I'm not likely to stop that until this war ends."
"Yes, but your efforts might also end all wars."
Duo huffed at those words. "Heh. Now, that's the ultimate statement. 'The war to end all wars'."
The gentle smile of Father Maxwell was as disarming as ever. "At one time it will come true. Rid the world and space of weapons and the will to fight from the people, and you will succeed." Duo found it hard to believe Father Maxwell could suggest something like that, and still keep a sincere voice and a straight face.
"Sheesh. Yeah, sure. That sounds so easy..."
Father Maxwell laughed. "Miracles are never easy, Duo. I know what I suggested. What I am trying to tell you, it to never lose hope. Do what you think is right. More often than not, it is."
Father Maxwell was about to continue when a dim, distant voice faded in, the soft voice of a woman, vaguely marked by the passage of time.
In the deepest recesses of Duo's mind, that voice triggered memories he didn't even know he had. He knew that voice. The woman became visible in the fog, but her face was obscured by haze. Her plain dress and cascading hair seemed so familiar, he knew her, but he couldn't make out her face from neither vision nor memories.
"M - Mom?"
"Oh, my little angel - you've grown so much..."
The voice was soft, blurry, filled with the strangest sense of comfort, as if it were a white, fluffy cloud speaking. The faceless woman walked slowly towards him with open arms.
"Mom!" Duo cried out, no longer able to hold back the flood building up within his eyes.
"Hush, darling - big boys don't cry. Come here."
He ran. Ran toward those safe, comforting arms he had missed for as long as he could remember, but as he ran, the image of his mother blurred, faded away. Before he could reach her, she was gone. He looked around, desperately hoping to find her again, but to no avail. He turned to see the images of Father Maxwell, Sister Helen and Solo slowly vanish into oblivion also.
"No!" he screamed, grasping out after the fading phantoms. As Paleface walked up to him, he shouted angrily "What's happening? Why are they disappearing?" For the first time, he noticed wind - the cloud screen dissolved in the growing breeze, and other cloud matter scattered about by the wind obscured his view. Over the wind, Paleface spoke with a voice raising to compete with the growing howls of the wind.
"I told you - your friends might succeed - and it looks like they did - this time. We will meet again, Duo Maxwell - and don't you dare think you'll always be this lucky."
Paleface blurred away from view, along with everything else, and all went white as the wind muted all other sounds, except a last distant, unknown voice screaming barely audible words into the wind. Then all went dead silent - and pitch black.
Quatre had gotten to the third push of yet another series when Heero, still bent over Duo's face, held up a flat hand to him, motioning him to stop. Quatre complied. He could hear what Heero had heard seconds earlier; the slow, hoarse inhalation. Duo was breathing again. Quatre put his ear to Duo's chest, heard the slight beat beneath, closed his eyes and smiled. Getting up, only taking enough time to put his palms together to mutter a few silent words of gratitude to the skies, Quatre reached for the bandages in the medkit, and began patching up the numerous small wounds and cuts. Heero helped as best he could with the patching of wounds, though he also constantly checked that Duo was still breathing, as well as monitored his strengthening pulse.
Emerging from his personal darkness, Duo's eyes went wide open, frantically darting from one side to the other, looking for something not there. "Mom?!" he heard himself cry out, as he quickly got up on his elbows, body tense and panicky as if he was preparing to bolt from a predator. "Mom!" Duo screamed again, louder, more desperate. When Quatre placed a hand on his arm hoping to calm him down, Duo threw his arms around Quatre's neck, and started sobbing uncontrollably over his friend's shoulder.
At first shocked by Duo's swift, crushing embrace, Quatre placed one comforting hand on Duo's back, using the other to give Heero a request. 'Sedatives - Now!', his hand signaled, distraught eyes adding a silent 'Please, before he squeezes the life out of me.' Heero nodded, picked up a syringe from the medkit, filled it with the desired amount and stuck it in Duo's side. The Deathscythe pilot was still sobbing, clutching Quatre's neck as Quatre began turning blue. Duo was lost in his own world, he never felt the needle, but a part of him was thankful when oblivion again returned.
Heero pried the unconscious pilot off of Quatre, who with a few deep breaths regained lost color. In the distance, the roar of a twin flame-thrower mixed with the sounds of stored ammunition exploding within the firebreather's targets, blast sending bits of twisted mobile suit wreckage everywhere, fragments barely missing the three pilots on the ground.
"We have to get him out of here," Quatre said. "Trowa and Wufei can deal with the remaining forces. I'll take Duo to the safehouse with Sandrock. You take Deathscythe to the hangar with Wing." Seeing Heero's hesitation, he continued. "Sandrock doesn't have the power to freight Deathscythe out of here, Heero. Wing does. - Please, do as I ask." Stalling for but a few seconds to evaluate that judgement, Heero gave another curt nod, reluctantly agreeing.
"Are you sure you can handle him?" he asked, while hurriedly packing down the medkit. "If he comes to again while-"
Quatre shook his head. "The sedatives put him out cold. He'll sleep for hours. Now, let's get going."
Light. A white ceiling. These were what first caught his eyes when he opened them tentatively, adjusting to the brightness of the room from his dark sleep. As he came to, his nerves delivered messages of pain and ache from just about everywhere in his body. He lifted his left arm, saw it wrapped in bandages, but no cast.
"Welcome back to the land of the living, Maxwell," he heard someone sitting on a chair beside him say. Turning to look, he saw Wufei. While letting his raised arm fall back to the bed, Duo noticed the book lying in Wufei's lap, and he could have sworn he had glimpsed the Shenlong pilot tuck away a set of glasses in his pocket before speaking. He wanted to bring that up, think of some clever way to test Wufei's patience by exploiting such a 'weakness' as flawed vision, but instead he found himself asking with a tired voice "What happened?"
"You got hit badly a few times. You were thrown out of Deathscythe, and the fall nearly killed you - I told you to replace those safety straps."
Duo shrugged, coughed, and with a tired smile he said "Yeah... Well, I am the God of Death, after all. Have to live dangerously."
Wufei snorted. "That you did. Your heard and lungs seized to function. Fortunately for you, Quatre and Heero were able to revive you in time."
Duo shrugged bandaged shoulders again. "Lucky me, I guess. Speaking of which, where are the others? Did they stick you on babysitting duty while they took off on another mission, or something?"
"No, they're here. Nataku took virtually no damage in the battle, so there was little for me to repair. That meant I was free for other duties. Given the choice between making dinner and watching you - when you for once were quiet - the choice was easy."
Duo felt too tired to offer a solid riposte to the smirking Wufei, but he could think of at least some buttons he could push to reach a similar effect.
"So, you let poor Quatre hovering over the pots and pans, Wuffie?"
Wufei's face dropped for but a second, but his answer was cold and clear.
"If you weren't already in such bad shape, I'd make sure you'd suffer for calling me that." He paused, regaining his customary cool composure as Duo snickered, interrupted only by a series of coughs. "But you're wrong. Quatre is not the one preparing today's main meal. Heero is."
Duo's eyes widened, both in surprise and horror.
"Heero is the one making dinner? Oh, great, it'll probably be all green and healthy stuff; or better yet, all the essential raw compounds of minerals, vitamins, proteins and hydrocarbons all mixed up in a tasteless mush of powders. Yuck." He grimaced at the mere thought. "How come Quatre isn't making dinner? Or Trowa?"
"Quatre is assessing the damage done to Deathscythe, and he asked for Trowa's help. That left Heero and me for 'domestic detail' duties."
"Is Deathscythe heavily damaged?"
Wufei noted the concern in Duo's voice, and considered for a minute how to best reply in a way that would be both truthful and reassuring. "It's repairable. Could take a while to get all the parts we need, though. Trowa and Quatre will probably have compiled a list of the needed spare parts soon, and if Howard or Rashid can get the parts, Deathscythe might be ready for battle before you are."
Duo laughed, even though it hurt significantly to do so.
"Don't underestimate me, Wufei. I'm a fast healer."
Strangely enough, it was Wufei that caved in first, not able to stand the awkward pause.
"So, the 'God of Death' didn't like it on the other side?"
"I told you - you were, for all intents and purposes, dead for at least a few minutes. Quatre thought you had to have experienced something, because of the way you reacted when you came to."
Duo was hesitant to answer, but ever so slowly, he did.
"Yeah, I guess I experienced something - but it felt more like a dream than anything else."
It took a while before Wufei answered. When he did, the words made Duo imagine him wearing those glasses he expected were in Wufei's pocket, making him look more like the philosopher or psychologist he suddenly sounded like. "Dreams are usually a creation based on our own memories, desires and fears. Sometimes, a dream can tell you more about yourself than any conscious thought can."
It was Duo's turn to snort in disagreement. "And sometimes, they're just dreams. Don't go all analytical on me, Wufei - I don't want my dreams interpreted."
Wufei shrugged, smiled. "Fair enough. I won't comment or tell anyone else. Was it a pleasant dream, or a nightmare?"
"Both, actually. I met lost loved ones again - people I cared about - people that cared about me. And then it ended."
"Quatre said you had cried out for your mother - I thought you were an orphan?"
"I am - I don't remember my parents - at least, I thought I didn't. I heard her voice, and I just knew it was her. I woke up before I could piece together her face, though - and there was something else."
"Another voice shouted something right before I woke up - after I was done dreaming, I think. Didn't sound like anyone I've known, and I got the impression she wasn't yelling at me, either. It was as if she was trying to talk to somebody else, and ended up talking to me instead."
"Yeah, it was a girl's voice - young, probably our age, but she sounded serious, determined, intimidating as hell, yet not scary." Duo looked directly at Wufei, grinning. "She sounded a lot like you, actually - minus all the annoying parts, of course."
Wufei chuckled. "Thanks, Maxwell. So, what did she say?"
"I can't remember it in detail. It was hard to make out - something like 'you are strong, you are worthy'. then she began rambling something about protecting the flowers. I didn't quite get that part. It was all a bunch of strange phrases like that. Might have forgotten one or two - the dream was much more memorable."
Duo looked over at Wufei. The sight scared him, another childhood memory brought to life. One of the kids in their little streetgang once suffered a seizure. At first, the kid had just frozen, stood there like a statue, eyes open but not seeing anything. Then he had collapsed, as if every bone in his body had been removed. The kid recovered, but it had scared the crap out of Duo and the others when it happened. Now, Duo saw the same emptiness and frozen expression on Wufei, and the fear returned. "Wufei? You okay?"
Wufei's eyes were glazed over, lost in memories. Suddenly remembering to breathe, he snapped out of it. "N-Nataku. Have to go check on Nataku," was all Wufei was able to mutter before getting up and walking quickly to the door, sending the book he had been reading tumbling to the floor. In the doorway, he almost ran down Heero, who sidestepped quickly enough to save the food tray he was carrying from the disastrous possibility of a collision.
In the bed, Duo struggled to sit up, quizzical look meeting Heero's equally puzzled expression.
"What was that all about?" Heero asked.
"I don't know. Guess he didn't like my tales of my near-death experience." Duo grinned.
"Near-death, indeed. You've always had the devil's luck, Duo."
"I'm not the devil - I'm the one and only God of Death!" Duo announced in his best, darkest commentator voice, barely keeping himself from laughing, not wanting the accompanying pain. It was not until then he noticed what was on the food tray Heero was carrying, all meant to be easy digestibles for the sickling - A plate with mashed potatoes and fried sausages cut in tiny pieces, a small bowl of thick, dark gravy on one side, a dish with assorted steamed vegetables - and at the end of the tray a plate with a small mountain of jelly. Not a gourmet meal, perhaps, but considering the chef, it was far better than Duo had expected. Mouth already watering, licking his lips and rubbing his hands miserly, he added "And you, good buddy, are a freakin' saint."