By: Cassima
Pairings: Implied 1xR.
Summary: Two years after the end of the war, Duo still struggles to find his place.
Rating: PG for swearing. PG-13? Hell, it's all subjective, anyway.
Disclaimer: Yes, yes I own them. <--lying big time
Warnings: AU. Yeup. The war lasted a few years longer than it did in the series, so our G-folks are a few years older than they'd be in Canon!Time. ...plus, this chapter picks up two years after the prologue. They're not kids anymore.

THANKS to my gorgeous beta, Bronze, and my one-woman pep squad, Kat. Without you guys, it'd be nothing but dren.


If I Should Die... + Chapter One
Death is Your Gift

"Death is your gift."
--Buffy the Vampire Slayer



*And you can't fight the tears that ain't coming,
*Or the moment of truth in your lies.
*When everything seems like the movies,
*Yeah, you bleed just to know you're alive...

--Iris, GooGoo Dolls


+

Duo stared into his glass, contemplating the bread crumbs and poppy seeds on the bar through the amber filter of his drink. The little bubbles attached to the bottom of the glass shifted slightly, floating to the surface whenever someone smacked the bar top. God, this place was pathetic.

Behind him, a new fight was breaking out. Another bunch of ex-soldiers releasing pent-up aggression, trying to work their way through their issues. Well, fuck that. Everyone had issues. There was a crash and a pained cry of rage from behind him as the brawlers smashed into the pinball machine, mindless of the destruction they wreaked on bar property as they concentrated on destroying themselves.

The bartender, an elderly man with twitchy thumbs, narrowed his eyes as he stared at the fighting men. "Soldiers," he muttered in disgust. "Someone should tell them the war's over already."

Really, Duo wondered. Where did this guy expect them all to go? What, that's it--fight the war, turn into animals because war sucks and you know it, and you're slaughtering other people who you'd probably get along with pretty well, had the chance arisen, and then just hop into a hole in the ground somewhere so that "normal people" could breathe easy? Create them, then lock 'em away. Normal life was a cage. He twisted slightly to avoid a flailing arm as the brawlers moved away from the pinball machine. Another crash moments later revealed that they'd found a new place to fight on: the juke box. The current track, some maudlin post-war pop breakaway hit, skipped every time a body slammed into the juke box.

Since Duo could remember, he'd lived in a perpetual state of war. When he was small, it was him up against everyone else. Then, after Solo adopted him, it was the gang against society and rival gangs. Then Solo'd fallen casualty to the war against disease, and Duo'd been back to just himself against everyone else. Father Maxwell's Church had been nice, until Oz had blown it to smithereens, and then he'd been back on the streets until G'd given him the option of fighting a war against people he'd never seen. It'd been a nice change of pace at the time. Made him feel a little more in control.

So, what to do now? He'd fought for peace--almost gave his life for it on several occasions--and now that he'd had it for two years running, he was still completely unprepared for the abrupt change. And people everywhere were increasingly unwelcoming and unhelpful as they adapted to non-wartime conditions. The police arresting the men behind him--would they try to fix what the government had created when it fucked with their heads? Hell, no. And the children who'd grown up with nothing but war--how were they supposed to live in a time of peace?  Look what you've created, world, and enjoy the hell out of it, Duo thought spitefully, and downed the rest of his drink. His mouth twisted at the taste, but he put threw some money on the counter, pushed his arms through the sleeves of his jacket, and strolled out the door past the police reading the brawlers their rights and into the night street.

He was driving himself crazy. It began to rain, very gently, and Duo trudged through the puddles on the sidewalks, feeling water drip down the back of his neck. His hair was still too short for anything but a ponytail; he'd been drunk and tired of being mistaken for a girl that night during the war, and had immediately regretted having it cut. Duo had even gone back to the barber the next day, in hopes of retrieving the braid, but the trash had already gone out. It was probably for the best--after all, short of gluing it to his head, there wasn't really anything he could do. He was as helpless to fix his hair as he was to control the war.

And now, after the war, there was nothing he could do; with his background, was he qualified for any sort of work? He'd done a little salvage work with Hilde, once, but fighting was all he really knew--well, except for stealing, sabotage, and stealth, but those weren't good traits to advertise while the government was still suspicious of potential terrorists--and yet, when he thought about it, it was all he really hated. He had no illusions of war and how hard it had been, unlike some ex-soldiers he'd met. He'd been wandering around the world for over two years now, looking for the answers.

At first, he was optimistic. People were generally good and forgiving, and open minded towards strangers, right? He had his GED; he'd taken the tests shortly after the end of the war and scored high enough that Meiran asked him if he'd cheated (he hadn't), or if he'd hacked in and changed the numbers (he hadn't), or, if neither of those, he had pretended to be a world class idiot to make everyone underestimate him (he hadn't done that, either, but he let her believe it because it sounded better than her other theories). With basic education out of the way, he'd set off to see the world in all its glory. All he had found, however, was that there was no glory in human beings. Oz soldiers and the Rebellion soldiers were openly hostile. The poverty-stricken areas hadn't seen any change from war time to peace time. People were suspicious of their neighbors. Discontent ruled.

Some soldiers were too conditioned by the long period of stress to do anything but fight. There was no place for them in society. There was no acceptance for them. There was no tolerance for them. They were picked up and dragged away in the night. They were charged with disturbing the peace. They were shunned, and provoked, and thrown away, and they fought every bit of it.

He paused at the door to his room, searching through his pockets until he extracted the key from underneath the scarf wedged in on top. The door opened with a creak, and he turned on the lights as he entered. He bolted the door shut after him, using both chains to further secure it--you could never be too careful in a neighborhood like this--and turned to face the room. Grimacing at the coldness of the room's air on his damp skin, he nevertheless tossed his coat on the worn chair and sat down on the old bed. The faded, pilling bedspread was too thin at night, but he'd slept in less comfortable places. Duo dug into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out the flyer he'd pulled off the telephone pole a few weeks ago. It was no longer clean and crisp, but the worn folds creasing the paper didn't obscure the message. He had it memorized, anyway.

"Tired of the tyrannical government's endless promises? What has Peacecraft done for you? Soldiers dedicated to truth and honor sought for good cause." A rally date and address was printed below. In smaller print at the bottom, the message, "Fight for your rights, not for someone else," was italicized and underlined twice.

During the war, he'd been so sure that all he wanted was peace. Now that it was here, however, he couldn't enjoy it. It seemed... cheap, somehow, and a bit anticlimactic. This was what he'd bled for, struggled with every breath for?  This was what Sister Helen had died for?  Ex-soldiers from both sides found themselves struggling to make ends meet.  It was impossible to find a job, or a home, or a place in society.

It was tempting. Join another cause, Duo, a voice in his mind whispered.  You're drowning in this stupid peacetime--you and hundreds of thousands of others. Fight. It doesn't matter what for, just fight.

I'm tired of fighting, he replied to the voice. I'm tired of death.

You are the Shinigami. What else is there?

Duo stared at the flyer, watching as the border and text blurred in front of his eyes. There had to be something...

You were made to kill.

"I was made to save." He crumpled it with one hand and chucked it into the corner of the room. He was... he lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling.

Killing, saving. It's all the same. You kill one to save another. You save one who kills another. It's part of the eternal life cycle. You have a gift for death.

Duo's throat tightened. He didn't want a talent for death. Maybe I'm not meant to live in this world. Maybe I was supposed to die in the war.

Wasteful, to cheapen all the lives sacrificed to keep you living.

Even Heero found peace. The front page of that morning's newspaper was mostly taken up by the picture of Heero Yuy and Relena Peacecraft announcing their engagement.

You miss death.

"I don't!" he whispered out loud. His voice was harsh in the silence of the room, against the dull pattering of the rain outside his window. He closed his eyes, shutting out the flickering ceiling light. "I don't miss it at all."

Would anyone miss you if died?

No.  No one would even notice. He was... detached.  I need something. I need to do something important. I need to... I need...  He opened his eyes, slowly.  I can't give up on war.

War is what you are.

If death is my gift, then I refuse to give it.  He'd always, since the plague on L-2 that had killed Solo and his gang, wanted to become a doctor. Inner peace through continuing education.  The humor of the thought brought traces of a smile to Duo's face. It felt strange; he hadn't smiled for quite some time. The tests for his GED had been absurdly simple compared to what he'd had to do as a gundam pilot. College would be... well, it would be a change. Duo needed to change.

+

The next day, Duo pulled out his laptop and filled out online applications to a dozen respectable colleges. Eight of them were on Earth, two were on the Moon, and two were on L-4. He was pretty sure he wanted to leave Earth; attitudes were generally hostile towards colonists, and he'd had more than enough hostility to last him a life time. Since the end of the war, however, many of the colonies were still struggling to rebuild. It wasn't exactly a promising future.

He got a part time job in the florist's shop down the street to pass the time; Duo could live comfortably for the rest of his life on the money he'd made off Oz during the war. He took some standardized tests. He bought dishes. He received his acceptance letters. He bought new clothes. His final choice, Tianan L-4 University--chosen because of their good pre-med program, large student body, and reputation for having a rather eclectic art collection--informed him of the orientation dates, and he packed his meager belongings and headed off to school.

It all passed in a blur until he set his bags down on his bunk, turned around, and realized he was actually here. Duo sat in the uncomfortable desk chair and stared at the neutral walls, suddenly unsure about his plans. Could he just forget about the problems back on Earth? Could he ignore everything he'd learned these past two years on his own, wandering the planet and feeling sickened by its intolerance? Could he transcend this person he'd become, and finally find some sort of peace with his own demons?

If he forgot about the plight of the soldiers, who would remember?  Who will speak if I don't?

"Dude, are you just going to sit there?" A young man with a large box--his roommate, he presumed--was attempting to fit through the doorway.

"Sorry," Duo said, pulling himself to his feet and assisting the other with the box; once guided on both sides, it was relatively easy to get it into the room.

The other guy held out his hand. "Jordan Keevly," he said, shaking Duo's hand. "Sorry about snapping; it was a little heavy."

"It's okay." Duo felt an old mask settle down over his face as he shook hands with his new roommate, and outwardly relaxed. "Duo Maxwell." Inside, he felt like his emotions were sloshing back and forth uncomfortably in his stomach.

Jordan glanced back to Duo's bed. Three suitcases, a box, and his backpack; most of it had been bought for the express purpose of bringing to school. Duo never had learned how to accumulate stuff. "Is that all you brought?"

Duo nodded and laughed. "Yeah, I packed a little light."

"Good think I packed heavy, huh?" Jordan grinned and clapped Duo on the back. "I'm going out for another load."

As of yet, Duo didn't hate his roommate. He took that as a good sign. "Wait up," Duo said. "I'll help."

+

Chang Meiran settled down at her desk and looked over the report Une had given her. After a moment, she turned to where her friend sat on the corner of her desk trying not to smirk. "Where did you get these figures?"

"They're accurate," Une said mildly, folding her hands in her lap. The twitch at the corner of her lips was the only sign that she was desperately fighting a smile.

"This is incredible." Meiran looked back at the numbers, then again at Une. "This many new Preventers recruits is... is... it's incredible."

"I do believe you're speechless," Une drawled. With her glasses off, she looked much closer to her real age.

"I... I suppose I am." Meiran circled the numbers with a red pen, then underlined them, and finally highlighted them in bright yellow. "This many college graduates?"

"I win!" Une called towards Sally's office next door. "She's speechless."

Meiran shook her head. "Do they realize what we're offering to pay them?"

Sally appeared at the doorway, mock-scowling. "Alright, I'll buy dinner."

Meiran raised an eyebrow.

"Sally thought you'd want to double check," Une explained.

"I--I do," Meiran said. "But--this is amazing!"

Sally laughed, sounding, for the first time since they'd founded the Preventors, relaxed. "If I'm buying, we're leaving now. Tonight's a celebration!"

"For more than one reason," Meiran agreed, getting up and allowing Une to hand her her coat. "Heero and Relena picked a date."

"So soon?" Sally asked. "They just announced their engagement a few months ago."

Meiran smirked. "The seventh of January, next year."

"Next year?" Une's eyebrows rose and she turned out the lights, ushering Meiran out the door before she closed it. "That is soon."

"All we need to do," Meiran said with a sigh, her spirits sinking a little, "is find Maxwell."

"Still no word from him?" Sally frowned and pushed the button for the elevator. "Do you think he's in trouble?"

"Maxwell is always in trouble." Meiran quickly turned the security alarm on, joining her colleagues in the elevator.

"It does seem a little odd that you haven't even heard from him." The elevator dinged as the doors opened, and they stepped inside. "Maxwell was never one to leave things alone. Speaking as someone who fought against him, that was one of his more irritating qualities."

Meiran smirked. "Speaking as one who fought on his side, it was most definitely one of his more irritating qualities." The women laughed, exiting the elevator into the lobby of the building and calling goodnight to the security guards.

"Seriously, though," Sally said as they pushed through the heavy glass doors into the chilly night air and began the walk to their favorite bar. "Aren't you worried?"

"About Maxwell?" Meiran shook her head. "Heero and Relena are hunting around. They want to invite him to the wedding. But we know Maxwell can take care of himself."

"He was very good at it," Sally admitted, wrapping her scarf around her neck once more against the biting wind.

"He always seemed so lonely to me." Une buried her hands deep in her pockets. "Especially towards the end of the war."

"It was hard on all of us," Meiran said, and they reached the entrance to the bar. "But enough about the war. Tonight, we celebrate Sally's newfound generosity."

"Here, here!" Une grinned and opened the door for her friends.

"I didn't say I'd pay for both of you," Sally griped.

[prologue] [chap. 2] [back to Cassima's fic]