Illusions of Love
Exactly three months, seventeen days and six hours after Heero had left, Duo was given the keys to his new apartment in downtown Boston. Thanks to a little farewell gift from Quatre, he had enough money for the first two months' rent.
The partially furnished apartment was in a neighborhood the landlady called "changing." To Duo that seemed like an understatement. Half the buildings were deserted and in the process of being renovated. Sidewalks were torn up and potholes marked the street like bad acne, but the place had character.
Had he arrived six months from now he would not have been able to afford the rent. The change would be complete and the nouveau riche would be fighting each other off to obtain a lease in this district. But with the street looking like a bombed out war zone, new tenants were few and far between. Duo felt completely at home.
With a place to call his own, Duo set out to find a job. He decided very quickly that he did not want to go back to dealing in junk or working on high tech equipment. He wanted something that would give him a chance to meet lots of people and where his conversational skills would be appreciated.
On his first day out, he landed a job with a rare books dealer, making deliveries. The job would be a great way for him to learn the city and a great excuse for him to buy a motorcycle to get around. However, the pay was not as much as he had hoped, and so he took a second job working in a coffee shop just around the corner from the bookstore. The jobs gave him the variety and freedom he needed in his life and kept him too busy to think about his ex-lover.
"Hey, Duo. I need a coffee latte and do that thing you do!" Rikk called from over his shoulder as he took the money from the customer.
"Sure thing!" Duo called back.
In the week since he had started working at the coffee shop, Duo had learned all their specialty drinks and had a knack for improving on them... when the manager was not around. He also had gotten into the habit of trying to guess people's poison before they ordered.
"Here ya' go," he said, handing the drink to the customer.
"Did you add your secret weapon like I like?" the woman asked, her mouth watering in anticipation.
"You bet!" Duo said with a wink.
He looked over at the counter and saw that the after work crowd had arrived. It was a little after five o'clock in the afternoon--the second rush hour of the day for the tiny shop. He stepped up to take the order of the next person in line.
"Let me guess," he said, looking up to see a tall man in a well-tailored suit and dark sunglasses. "You've got a taste for something exotic. Something that'll take your mind off your day, take you to another plane of existence..."
Before Duo could finish dispensing his special brand of fortune telling, the gentleman cut him off, stating flatly, "Coffee... black."
Duo blinked at the man's obvious disregard for the game. "Are you sure?" he asked, looking into the dark glasses only to see his own reflection. "That's a pretty tame drink you just ordered and I'm thinking you could use some excitement in your life."
"I take my coffee black," the man repeated in an even tone, a tone that gave Duo chills.
"O-kay... whatever the customer wants," he said, and turned from the counter to fill the order.
He did not know why, but for some reason he felt completely off balance. It was as if the man had just challenged him. Under any other circumstances, Duo would not have backed down, but he had been taught 'the customer knows best' and he sure as hell did not want to get fired his first week on the job.
He went back to the counter and handed the man his coffee. "That'll be two dollars."
The man gave him the money and then sat in a comfortable chair in their small seating area.
For the next twenty minutes, Duo kept glancing over at the stranger. He decided the guy was too good looking for his own good. He was tall and lean, and was most certainly hiding heavenly blue eyes behind those ridiculously dark glasses. He was also blond, very blond. White eyebrows were visible over the rim of the glasses, and his short hair was smoothed back stylishly.
"That guy come in here often?" Duo asked Rikk.
"The Ice Man?" Rikk asked, chuckling. "Don't tell me you're drooling over him, too?"
"Nah, just curious."
Rikk smirked, not believing his new friend. "He's been coming in off and on for the past three weeks."
"He ever order anything else?"
"Nope. Wait a minute, he did have tea once. Hey, you can't win 'em all, Duo. So what if you didn't guess his drink right."
Duo smiled and then turned to grab the coffeepot, thinking he could strike up a conversation with the guy while refilling his mug. When he turned back the blond stranger was already out the door.
"Damn," he said, and set the pot down hard. "I gotta talk to that guy."
He bolted from behind the counter, nearly knocking down two young ladies coming into the shop. By the time he got outside he could not see where the man had gone.
"There's something about that guy...," he said, scratching his head as he scanned the street.
Two days passed before the mysterious "Ice Man" returned to the coffee shop. By then, Duo had convinced himself that he knew this man or someone like him. When it was the man's turn to place his order, Rikk made sure Duo was there to take it.
"Let me guess," Duo said, cocking his head. "Coffee... black."
The man hesitated, but then the tiniest smile curved his lips. "That's right."
The subtle smile, combined with the softness in the man's tone, made Duo realize he had broken through. The "Ice Man" could be melted.
"One black coffee coming up," Duo crowed triumphantly.
The man paid for the beverage and then took his drink to sit quietly near the door. Emboldened by his breakthrough, Duo decided the first chance he got he would go over and speak to him, get his story.
The boy nervously waited on several more customers before there was enough of a break for him to bolt from his station behind the counter. With coffeepot in hand, he approached the blond stranger, noticing for the first time that the man's hair was not short at all, he had a ponytail hidden inside the collar of his shirt.
"Would you like that warmed up?" Duo asked, as he approached ready to pour.
The man looked up, one white eyebrow arching in curiosity. "No, thank you."
Duo stared, sensing failure looming close. The feeling that he knew this man was growing stronger. "The way you're savoring that coffee, I'll bet this is your first cup of the day," Duo said with a smile. "Don't need it to get you going in the morning, huh?"
The man's lips pursed in frustration, and then he stood.
Duo took a step back, his mouth gaping as he got the full impact of the man's height. He was easily a foot taller than the diminutive former Gundam pilot. The stranger looked down at Duo and then turned to leave.
"Wait! Don't I know you from somewhere?" Duo blurted out desperately.
The man stopped, his shoulders seeming to stiffen, but he did not turn or reply. Duo stared at his back, not sure what to say or do next, but then the man just continued on his way.
Rikk took pity on Duo and came over to nudge him back to reality. "I don't know why you're bothering with him. He's way out of your league. Can't you see that crown stuck up his ass?"
"W-what?" Duo asked, blinking and turning to his friend.
"A crown... you know, like a king or something. He walks like he owns the whole planet. King of the Ice Men!" Rikk laughed and then went back to waiting on customers.
A king? Duo wondered as he retreated behind the counter. He knew Rikk was only joking, but somehow that made sense.
Later that evening he stopped by the rare bookstore where Mr. Brentwood had some last minute deliveries for him to make.
"Duo, thanks for coming by on such short notice. I've got a customer, a professor who's having a dinner party tonight and insisted I get these to him." The middle-aged man with the protruding stomach handed Duo a brown-wrapped package with an address scrawled on it. "He lives in Midtown, but it shouldn't take you long at this hour."
"Right, Mr. Brentwood," Duo said, tucking the package under his arm.
Just then the front door chimed and both men looked up from their business to greet the customer. Duo's mouth gaped the moment he saw the man. It was the stranger from the coffee shop! That sense of recognition skittered through his psyche once again.
"I'd better see to Mr. Merquise," the proprietor of the shop said.
"Whoa, did you just say Merquise?" Duo asked, staring with a mix of horror and wonderment at his employer and then back at the stranger.
"Yes, he's one of my best new customers."
Before Mr. Brentwood could come around from behind his sales counter, Duo leapt forward as though springing in attack. In several quick strides he was standing in front of the stranger, who had removed his sunglasses on entering the shop.
"I do know you!" Duo called out as he pointed an accusatory finger. "You're Zechs Merquise. But you're supposed to be dead!"
Startled, the man took a step back, his eyes widening and then narrowing quickly. "You're that boy from the coffee shop."
"I'm Duo Maxwell! I fought against you in the war!"
The man's features went pale and in a flash he turned on his heels and was out the door. Duo stepped forward to pursue him, but was yanked back by a heavy hand on his shoulder.
"What the hell are you doing?!" Mr. Brentwood screamed. "I just got through telling you that man is my best customer and you frighten him off with accusations from the war."
"But he's Zechs Merquise of White Fang!"
"I don't care if he's the devil himself!" The man's voice bellowed so loudly that the glass vases on the shelf behind the counter shook. "His money is good here and you will not run off my customers like that! Understood?"
Duo swallowed hard. Every muscle in his body was coiling to spring back into action, to dart out that door after the enemy of the EarthSphere. But Mr. Brentwood still had a grip on his shoulder and the displeasure in the man's face told Duo he was very close to losing his job.
"Yeah, okay," Duo said, his brow knitting.
"Good, now make that delivery. And remember I need you in here at six a.m. tomorrow to stock shelves."
Duo nodded and the man released his shoulder.
He hurried out the front door of the shop, but again Zechs had disappeared. He shivered as an image of Zechs as the leader of the White Fang, announcing his intentions to destroy the Earth, sent a chill through him once again. It had seemed impossible to stop him, even Relena failed to sway her brother from his diabolical plan, but in the end someone did stop him.
"Heero," Duo whispered. It was the first the other boy's name had been spoken aloud in weeks. It was also the first the old ache had managed to creep back into his gut.
He took a deep breath, clenching his fists against the pain. Life really sucked if an old enemy could stir painful memories of a former lover.
"Damn it, Zechs. Why couldn't you have stayed dead?" Duo muttered as he strapped the books onto the back of his bike and then straddled the seat.
He started the motorcycle and sped off down the street, his eyes scanning the pedestrians. It was hard to believe that Zechs could have survived the explosion that stopped the quarter section of Libra from falling to Earth. No one had found any remains of him or his mobile suit the Epyon. Now that it was clear he had survived, Duo felt sure he needed to do something, but what?
Over the next week, Duo spent every free moment riding his motorcycle through the streets and alleys of Boston, searching for his old enemy. He had plenty of time to relive in his mind all he had witnessed of Zechs's destructive capabilities. How the man had fought with a rage, speed and skill so powerful that Duo had cowered from him in battle. And how he had destroyed space fortress Barge, mercilessly taking hundreds of lives.
Exhausted from working two jobs and hunting Zechs Merquise, Duo grumbled as he pulled up behind the coffee shop early Saturday morning. Usually he made deliveries for Mr. Brentwood during the day and then worked second shift at the coffee shop, but on Saturdays it was the reverse, forcing Duo to wake up three hours earlier.
He yawned loudly as he walked up to the back entrance, jangling the keys as he felt for the right one in the diffused light of the early morning.
"Gundam pilot, zero two," a man's voice said.
The designation sent a chill through Duo. "Zechs," he said and turned quickly.
He had not seen anyone when he had approached the building, but now he looked deep into the building's dark recesses and there he saw the shadowy figure of a man. Instinctively, he reached for his gun, but in his rush to get to work this morning he had left it behind in his apartment.
"I have no intentions of harming you," Zechs said, as he stepped within several feet of his former adversary. His hands were tucked into the pockets of his long black coat. "I think it's time we talked."
"Talk? You mean you've got something you need to get off your chest before you kill me?" Duo accused as his heart hammered in his chest.
Was this how his life was going to end? Being cut down in an alley long after the war's hostilities had ended? By the ghost of a former enemy no less?
"As I said, my intentions are not to harm you, pilot zero two."
"That's an OZ designation... zero two."
"An old habit, I apologize," Zechs said, nodding his head slightly. "You're Duo Maxwell, pilot of the Gundam Deathscythe."
"That's right," Duo said, lifting his chin. "I see you've done your homework since I introduced myself last week." He set his fists to his hips and swallowed. If Zechs meant to kill him then he would at least face death like a man.
"I admit, I did do some research. Your name did not immediately mean anything to me, but your demeanor and your recognition of me told me you must be one of those Gundam pilots."
"So now you know," Duo said, defiantly.
The boy's eyes slid away from his enemy for a moment, trying to plan his route of escape. He could make it to his motorcycle in just a couple of seconds, but the problem was whether Zechs had a gun hidden inside his coat. If he did, Duo would never make it.
"The war is over," Zechs said, taking his gloved hands from his pockets and holding them up in the air to show he had no weapon. "I've long admired you Gundam pilots, but the war prevented me from knowing any of you."
Duo exhaled the breath he had been unconsciously holding. "Well, you're not going to get to know one now," he said, perplexed by the strange admission. "In fact, the first chance I get I'm going to kill you!"
Zechs turned his face away, his hands dropping to his sides and clenching into fists. "You're right, Duo Maxwell. You should probably kill me." With that, he turned and slowly walked away, his head bowed in defeat.
Duo stared, opened mouth, at the retreating form. As Zechs turned a corner and disappeared from sight, Duo shook his head as if waking from a dream. Had he really just come face to face with Zechs Merquise?
The encounter gnawed at him as he went into the coffee shop, locking the door behind him. He went about the tasks of getting the shop ready for business, removing the pre-made cinnamon rolls from the refrigerator and placing them in the oven, brewing coffee, and making sure the spices and syrups were sufficiently stocked for all the specialty drinks. Two other employees soon arrived and helped with the preparations for the day, but all the while, Duo could not stop thinking about Zechs.
If he had wanted to kill me, why didn't he? Duo wondered.
He asked himself that same question dozens of times over the next couple of days, and each time the answer was unsatisfactory or uncomfortable. Could it be that Zechs Merquise truly had no intentions of killing him? That by some twist of fate the man had survived that terrible explosion and was now trying to quietly live out the remainder of his life in America?
For all Duo knew, Zechs had since moved on. The boy had looked for him again, scanning the busy streets of the city and hanging about, hoping to lure Zechs out of hiding, but once again failing to find him. The only difference this time was that Duo was now prepared. He carried his handgun with him faithfully and secretly cloaked himself in his war persona, the God of Death.
He considered contacting Quatre, allying with his friend once more to wipe out a common enemy, but something prevented him from making that call. Perhaps it was in consideration of not interrupting the work Quatre and Trowa were doing on L4, but more likely it was Duo's ego, telling him he could make the kill on his own. Whatever the reason, he chose to keep his discovery to himself.
It felt good to have a purpose, to be on a mission again, and for the first time Duo understood the need that had taken Heero away from him. Of all the Gundam pilots, Heero had been the most focused. The lazy days following the cessation of war must have seemed pointless to Heero, as though his life had no direction, and yet he had so easily re-directed that infamous focus onto Duo. The boy with the long braid had never questioned the new intensity in their relationship. It seemed a logical evolution to what had begun during the war. And then all too quickly it was over.
After going through shock and denial, and finally settling on anger, Duo added Heero to his mental list of loved ones lost.
Duo set his kickstand down as he parked his motorcycle on the sidewalk in front of Brentwood's rare bookstore. He had just completed his last delivery and was returning to the shop for his paycheck.
"All done with the deliveries, Mr. Brentwood," Duo said, smiling as he entered the shop and spied his boss sitting behind the counter.
The man looked up at the clock. "In record time," he said and then reached into a drawer for a small bundle of bills. He preferred paying Duo in cash and Duo never questioned the practice.
He handed over the pay and then handed the boy an additional ten dollars. "A bonus."
"What for?" Duo asked, surprised by the man's sudden generosity.
"I'm in a good mood. My best customer is back. Looks like you didn't frighten him off after all."
Duo's eyes widened and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. "Merquise?"
The man nodded. "That's right. He's making a selection right now."
Duo spun around and scanned the shop, but several bookshelves blocked his view. He leaned over the counter and looked at the view screen.
"Don't get any funny ideas or I'll take that bonus back!" Brentwood warned.
The boy was too intent on the image on the screen to respond. He noted that Zechs was browsing in the botanical section, and casually pushed off from the sales counter as he patted his jacket, checking for his gun.
"Duo, I mean it. You leave that man alone!"
"Don't worry," Duo said as he slipped down one of the aisles.
His heart was beating fast and all his senses were on overdrive. It was like the war all over again, except this time he really needed to keep his head. He could not take out Zechs in the middle of Mr. Brentwood's store. The post war authorities would not understand.
Duo turned into the aisle where Zechs was standing with a book in his hands. The man was wearing the same long black coat, but he no longer wore dark glasses, and his signature white-blond hair was loose and hanging down his back.
"Why are you here?" Duo asked as their eyes met.
"I have an ultimatum for you," Zechs replied, closing the book and replacing it on the shelf.
"Like I care," Duo snorted. "I already told you that I'd kill you..."
"We both could use the rest," Zechs interrupted smoothly.
The remark surprised Duo. It was at once an admission of fatigue and a recognition of Duo's own condition.
"All right," Duo said with a little nod.
"The first part is the same as before. I want us to talk. I want to get to know a Gundam pilot."
Duo shook his head, not understanding what was so damn important about getting to know one of them. "And the second part?" he prompted.
"Then you can kill me... if you still want to."
The boy gasped. "You'd let me kill you... just like that?"
"Yes," Zechs said, his voice low, almost sultry. "Just like that."
Duo tilted his head, not completely believing him. "Why?"
"I've already told you," Zechs said with a grin. "I'm curious, and like you, I'm not afraid to die."
Yes, death was certainly no stranger to Duo. It had been his companion on the battlefield and in his slumber. Death followed him like a shadow and yet he did not fear it, he had learned to command it as the God of Death. He knew very well what it was to live without a fear of death and to hear Zechs claim as much gave Duo an ounce of respect for the man.
"Okay, I'll accept your proposal on one condition."
"And that is?"
"Tell me why you did it. Why did you destroy Barge and why did you try to destroy the Earth?"
The boy's words were fierce and Zechs completely understood his curiosity. "I wish I had an easy answer for you, Duo Maxwell. It's something I have asked myself many times."
Duo crossed his arms over his chest. "Then you must have a theory. And before I agree to your ultimatum, I wanna know."
Zechs nodded. "I'll try, but can we at least go outside?"
Duo looked over his shoulder, realizing Mr. Brentwood must be watching them on the monitor. At least he would not have heard their conversation.
"Sure, come on," Duo said, nodding toward the front door, and indicating that Zechs should go first.
The taller man did not hesitate. He knew the former Gundam pilot would not shoot him in the back.
As they approached the sales counter, Zechs stopped to chat with the proprietor.
"There are one or two books I may purchase, but I'll leave them until tomorrow," he said, optimistically, for truly he did not know if there would be a tomorrow for him.
"Very good, Mr. Merquise. Have a good evening."
"Thank you," Zechs said and exited the store.
Duo was close behind, but Mr. Brentwood called to him. "Hey! What were you two talking about for so long?"
"Uh... war memories."
The man frowned. "Well, I guess it didn't do any harm."
"No, sir," Duo said and gave the man a little wave as he went out the door.
Zechs was waiting for him next to his motorcycle. "Fast?"
"Oh, hell, yeah!" Duo said, excitedly. "If it wasn't for all the traffic around here I could really... Hey, wait a minute! You've got some explaining to do, remember?"
The former OZ colonel and White Fang leader sighed. Yes, he had a lot of explaining to do.
"You must find it ironic that I've come back to live on the Earth when it was my plan to destroy it, but the Earth is my home. I had never been to outer space before the war." Zechs turned and looked at the potted flowers set outside the shop's entrance and the leafy trees lining the street. "Had I succeeded this spring would have never come."
Duo recalled the scientists' prediction. Had the Libra hit the Earth as Zechs had planned, it would have created an eternal winter. He shivered with the thought, though the evening was warm and humid.
"That's it?" Duo asked, putting his hands on his hips. "You have no explanation for your actions?"
"You're disappointed," Zechs noted, turning back to the young man.
"You're damn right, I'm disappointed! No one could figure out why you were acting that way. Not your sister and not even Miss Noin. And now you're telling me that *you* don't even know?"
Zechs bowed his head. "I regret my choices..." he said, and then raised his eyes to Duo's. "I'm sorry, I cannot answer your question, and therefore cannot meet your condition." He turned and began to walk off down the street, his long hair swaying behind him.
"Where are you going?" Duo asked, just as a thunderclap shattered the night air above them.
"Our arrangement has come to an end," Zechs said, glancing over his shoulder as he continued on his way. "Good bye, Duo Maxwell."
Duo watched for a moment, silent, and unsure of how to proceed. Part of him wanted to follow Zechs and kill him, but another part of him felt some sympathy for him.
He's alone, Duo thought as the first drops of rain fell.
He turned his face toward the sky, letting the large drops splash on his cheeks and lips. The air smelled of ozone, something Duo had never experienced on L2. He inhaled deeply, marveling at the uniqueness of spring on Earth. Some might sneer at the sharpness of the smell, but to Duo it was beautiful and alive, alive like all of them... the Earth, the Gundam pilots, and even Zechs.
Duo looked down the street again in time to see Zechs turn a corner and disappear from sight. The street was unusually quiet this evening and now seemed to be telling him he had just lost a unique opportunity.
What strange twist of fate had brought two survivors and two enemies of the war together on the streets of Boston? Zechs had made a simple request: to know a Gundam pilot on a level the war had never allowed. Was it such an odd request? After all, Zechs had fought against them... and lost. What would it hurt to spend a couple of hours talking, satisfying their curiosity and possibly learning something about each other? If he needed an excuse, Duo could justify his time with Zechs by evaluating whether the man was still a threat.
What would it hurt to tell him a few things about myself? Duo wondered.
He fished the keys for his bike out of his pocket and hopped on, replacing the kickstand and starting the engine. The rain was steady now, but not hard enough to make it dangerous to ride. In seconds he was turning the street corner and spotted Zechs by his distinct long white hair. He slowed the bike as he pulled alongside the sidewalk where Zechs was walking.
"Hey, you still wanna talk?" Duo called out, blinking as raindrops landed on his eyelids.
Zechs glanced at him through long bangs, but continued to walk. "I don't need your sympathy. A deal is a deal," he stated harshly.
"Look," Duo said, getting off his bike and pushing it up onto the sidewalk and alongside Zechs as he walked. "You could've given me a line back there about how you were wrong and you're going to spend the rest of your life making up for what you did, but you didn't. Instead you said you didn't know why you did it. That wasn't what I wanted to hear, but that's damn honest, and I respect that."
The man stopped and turned to him. "You respect my honesty?"
"Sure, I do. You're not my favorite person in the world... in fact, you're probably my least favorite, but you didn't lie or try to manipulate me just to get your way."
Zechs found the boy's directness refreshing. "Then you wouldn't mind talking?"
"That's right. Besides, I didn't have any plans for tonight anyway," Duo said with a shrug.
A flash of light followed by a quick crack of thunder made both men realize they should go indoors.
"I don't live far from here...," Zechs offered, and then regretted it. "Or we could go somewhere neutral."
"No, your place is fine," Duo said, feeling the reassuring weight of his handgun in his jacket pocket.
He still did not trust Zechs. Hell, he would be a fool if he did, but damn it if this was not an interesting opportunity. So, in the continuing rain, Duo pushed his motorcycle along beside Zechs as they walked another block to a new apartment high rise.
Duo left his bike in the parking garage and then took the elevator with Zechs to the top floor. Neither said a word and it was one of the most awkward moments of Duo's life. Though the ride was less than a minute long, Duo managed to glance at Zechs twice. He was a privileged and dangerously attractive man, but somewhere along the way had gone wrong. And after only hearing about Zechs second hand from Heero and Noin, and seeing his White Fang declarations broadcast to the populace, it seemed quite strange to Duo to be here now. Once again, he was glad of his gun.
Stepping into the apartment, Zechs switched on only a couple of lights, leaving the large and newly decorated space in partial darkness. It was a deliberate attempt to make this evening less like an interrogation and more like a meeting of old friends.
"Wow, I didn't know they made apartments this big," Duo said, chuckling nervously as he stepped into the large, open space.
Zechs grinned. "It's more space than I need, but I liked the view." He nodded at the floor to ceiling windows.
Duo followed his gaze and his eyes widened immediately. On this rainy night and from ten stories high the city sparkled in all its built glory.
"I see what you mean," Duo said, stepping over to the windows and oddly finding himself reminded of L2. "Gee, I'd forgotten how small everything looks from up high."
"It reminds you of being in your Gundam?"
"Yeah," Duo said, looking over his shoulder at Zechs who was in the process of taking off his coat. Though his Gundam had been only half the height of this building it still reminded him of the different perspective it had provided.
"Do you miss it?" Zechs asked, as he joined Duo at the window, noticing how the boy's braid shimmered with the remains of raindrops.
"Oh, hell, yeah! Deathscythe and me were a team," he said, his gaze becoming less focused on the cityscape before him. "I'm a little lost without him."
Zechs heard the sadness in Duo's voice and empathized. A good pilot became one with his mobile suit and cared for it as though it was an extension of himself. Obviously this was something they had in common.
"I felt that way about the Tallgeese," Zechs confessed and stepped a little closer to his guest. "It was the first time I felt challenged as a pilot."
"Hmm," Duo responded with a little nod. He knew that Zechs had been a career military man, but he did not know what that was like. "How did it feel to take orders and give orders?" Duo asked as he turned to face the man fully.
"Giving orders is far more satisfying," Zechs admitted with a small smile. "But when you believe in your superior and your cause it can be just as satisfying to take orders. To do your duty." He raised his chin and straightened his shoulders at that last statement.
"You took orders from Treize?"
"That's right, but our friendship and our association ended before I went to outer space. We had been very close, but in the last couple of years drifted apart. It was impossible to maintain what we had when things turned political. Politics and the military do not mix."
Duo thought the words, but more so the tone in Zechs's voice seemed to imply that he and Treize had been more than friends. That however, was for another conversation, and another lifetime, since Duo was only going to be here a couple of hours.
"I digress. It was not my intention to expound on my time with OZ."
"Right, you wanna know about me."
"Yes, I would. But first, may I offer you anything to drink? I could open a bottle of wine."
"Wine, huh? Is it non-alcoholic?"
"No, I'm afraid not. Would you care for some sparkling water instead?"
"No, the wine would be great. Quatre never let us drink anything alcoholic at his place," Duo said, and then suddenly blushed. This was the first truly personal thing he had revealed about himself or any of the Gundam pilots and it seemed somehow wrong.
Zechs found the blush totally disarming. He had never expected a former Gundam pilot to be so easily flustered. "I'll get the wine," he said, trying to give the impression that he had not noticed the rosy cheeks. "Please make yourself comfortable in the living room."
Duo walked over to a grouping of furniture. The decor was all in creams and whites and looked very expensive. Several wide upholstered chairs and a deep, cushioned sofa were placed around a low glass table. On the table sat a crystal bowl with a white flower blossom floating in water, and behind the sofa on the wall hung a tapestry also in creams and whites. The neutral colors were soothing, but Duo suspected the precise arrangement of the furniture and simplicity of the decor spoke of a man who liked order and control in his life. Or wanted to get that control back.
When Zechs returned with the opened bottle and two wine glasses, Duo had yet to choose a place to sit. Zechs grinned internally, realizing that the young man was being cautious. He poured the white wine and handed a glass to Duo.
"Thanks," Duo said and held it up to his nose, but did not take a drink.
Zechs sat down in one of the chairs and crossed his legs. "Please," he said, gesturing to all the choices.
Duo finally sat down at the farthest end of the sofa. He felt out of place here among such finery. Even Zechs was dressed impeccably in a navy suit with a crisp white shirt. Duo was dressed as he always dressed--in black jeans, a plain white t-shirt, black jacket and boots. "So," he said, holding the glass in both hands, worried that he might drop it. "What would you like to know?"
A smile curved Zechs's lips. "I'm not sure. When I said I wanted to get to know a Gundam pilot, I thought that meant I wanted to learn more about the Gundams and the pilots' battle techniques... but now I think I'd rather hear about Duo Maxwell."
"Huh?" Duo asked, his eyes widening.
"The Gundams were effective because of their pilots, and from what I've seen, you're all very different. I'd be doing us both a disservice to ask you to talk about battles and Gundam capabilities."
"Okay, it's your party," Duo said, shrugging.
Zechs took a sip of his wine and leaned back in his chair. "Tell me why you're here in Boston? I seem to recall you're not originally from Earth and I don't believe any of your former colleagues are in the vicinity."
"You get right to the heart of things, don't you?" Duo asked, sighing.
"Oh, have I stumbled onto something I shouldn't have?"
"Nah, it doesn't matter," Duo said, realizing it would probably do him good to talk about it. "I'm here to be as far away from Heero as I possibly can... without having to go back to outer space."
"You're talking about Heero Yuy, the pilot of zero one?"
"You got it."
"And why would the pilot of zero two, pardon me, Deathscythe, be running from the pilot of Wing?"
"Let's just say things got a little complicated." The boy finally took a sip of his wine.
"You were lovers," Zechs said, perceptively.
"Right again," Duo said, this time taking a good swig of the wine. "Wow, that's good stuff."
"Thank you," Zechs nodded, then narrowed his eyes on the young man. So, Duo Maxwell and Heero Yuy had been lovers. This was far more interesting than he had expected. "Were you lovers during the war?" he persisted.
"Yeah, that's when it started, but there wasn't a lot of time for that sort of thing. If you know what I mean?"
"I fought Heero several times. He was the best pilot I had ever come up against. Quite a challenge."
"Yeah, I'll say he's a challenge," Duo chuckled and took another big swallow of wine.
Zechs was about to tell Duo to slow down on the wine, but he decided it was not his place.
The wine tasted good and eased Duo's discomfort of being here with Zechs. He still did not know why Zechs wanted to talk to him, but he was finding that it really did not matter. It felt good sharing a little of what had happened between him and Heero. He had not spoken of it to anyone since that last day in Arabia.
"Heero wanted to kill you, you know," Duo said, setting the glass down on the table.
Zechs bowed his head, remembering his last battle. "He had his chance on Libra."
"But he didn't kill you. So what happened?"
"Didn't he tell you?" Zechs asked, looking up through his long bangs.
Duo shook his head. "Nah, he didn't want to relive all that. He said the war was over and we should leave it in the past."
"He's a wise man," Zechs said, sipping his wine. As he set the glass on the table he decided to open up more to Duo, that it felt good sitting here, talking to each other. "He told me Relena would be sad if he killed me. That's why he spared my life."
"But Relena doesn't even know you're alive. No one knows..."
"She thinks as everyone else does, that I died on the Libra, but at least she does not think that her friend killed me. Heero is too pure and too kind to burden my dear little sister in that way. Unlike me, he has a strong heart and has made the right decisions."
Duo's brow knit as he listened to Zechs. Obviously fighting Heero had given Zechs an insight into the other boy. It made Duo uncomfortable to hear of Heero's connection with Relena once again and how that connection had kept the pilot of Wing Gundam from killing his enemy.
He turned his face away.
"What is it?" Zechs asked, concerned. "Did I say something to offend you?"
The boy swallowed hard and clamped down on his unhappiness before looking back at Zechs. "You do have a way of getting to the heart of things," he said, repeating the statement from earlier and forcing a little grin.
"Heero still has a connection to Relena," Zechs surmised, and then leaned forward adding, "You're still in love with him."
Duo closed his eyes briefly and sighed. "Yeah, I'm cursed. It's been four months since it ended and I still feel the same."
"Give it time. I know what it means to end a loving relationship. You never completely get over it, but it does get easier."
The warm advice surprised Duo. "You know, you make a lot of sense for a guy who supposedly made all the wrong choices."
Zechs chuckled. "I'll take that as a compliment."
"Good, because I meant it as one," Duo said with a smile.
For the next couple of hours, the two young men spoke of anything but lost lovers. Duo told of his growing up on L2, of living on the streets and then his time at the Maxwell Orphanage. He was honest and open about the tragedies he had witnessed and in turn Zechs shared something of himself, telling of how his parents were murdered by the Alliance.
It was close to midnight when Duo first started to yawn. "I guess I'd better be going," he said, standing and stretching his arms over his head. "I've got deliveries to make for Mr. Brentwood in the morning."
A flash of light from outside turned their attention toward the window. They had been so engrossed with their conversation, and finishing off the bottle of wine, that they had forgotten about the storm outside. And by now, it truly was a storm.
"It's not safe for you to drive home," Zechs said as he stood. "You can stay here the night."
Duo looked with wide eyes at the tall man. "Oh, I couldn't do that."
"As you can see I have room to spare. You may sleep on the sofa."
The boy looked down at the couch. It was quite large and comfortable, and Zechs was right, he should not ride his motorcycle home in a downpour. "Okay, why not?" Duo asked with a shrug.
"Good. I'll get you a pillow and a blanket. I won't be a moment."
Zechs cleared away their glasses and the empty wine bottle and was gone less than a minute. When he returned he set the pillow and blanket on the sofa.
"The bathroom is down the hall on the left," he said, pointing in the direction from which he had come. "What time do you need to be up?"
"Oh, I'm sure I'll be out of here before you're awake," Duo said, laughing, and hoping to God he would not have to face Zechs in the morning. Just staying here the night was awkward enough.
"That's fine," Zechs said with a little grin. He turned to leave, but then stopped and looked back at Duo. "Thank you. It was good talking."
"Yeah, I thought it was all right, too," Duo agreed.
"Good night, Duo Maxwell."
"Yeah, good night."
Duo waited until Zechs had retreated down the hall to his room before padding off to the bathroom to relieve himself. He then returned to the living room, switched off the lights, and took off his boots, jeans and jacket, and piled them on the floor next to the sofa. He removed his gun from his coat pocket and tucked it under the pillow, and then plopped down on the sofa with the blanket over him.
A couple of hours later, Zechs emerged from his room. He could not sleep. His conversation with Duo had his mind racing with memories of the war. Frustrated with lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, he got up and put on his silk robe and slipped quietly into the kitchen for something to drink.
As he stood in the middle of the dark room, drinking a mixture of pineapple juice and sparkling water, he reflected on his evening with the former Gundam pilot. Despite Duo's initial nervousness that the wine seemed to alleviate, the evening had been a success. But Zechs now regretted they had not made plans to further their acquaintance. That fact stung all the more when he got the notion to look in on his little guest before returning to his bedroom.
To his wonderment, Zechs found Duo sprawled on the couch sound asleep. The boy was the picture of sweet innocence. His long, chestnut braid trailed behind him and onto the floor. He lay curled on his side, blatantly displaying a lovely, round little ass in bikini underwear.
Zechs swallowed at the sight. Duo Maxwell was quite the beauty, but this was not the first he had noticed it. That evening as they had talked, Zechs had found himself transfixed by the boy's animated personality and large, blue eyes. His diminutive guest's good looks had more than once distracted him from their conversation. And now, to find that Duo had kicked the blanket down to his feet, exposing his bare legs to the coolness of the room, Zechs felt the urge to touch him. His fingers twitched at his side as he imagined pulling the blanket up over Duo and in the process brushing the length of those slender legs with his hands.
The surge of desire surprised Zechs, and when Duo's leg twitched, it sent the man quickly from the room. He should not have intruded on the boy's privacy.
The next day at the coffee shop, Duo reflected on his evening with Zechs. Had he really shared a bottle of wine with Zechs Merquise, his former enemy and the man Heero had sworn to kill? It all seemed a bit surreal now as he blended another specialty drink for a waiting customer.
The machine was acting up again, but that was no surprise. It was the middle of their late afternoon rush and the damn thing never faltered unless there was a line half way out the door. Duo banged its side and it sputtered to full power again. When things slowed down, he would take it apart.
"You're not gonna believe this," Rikk whispered into his ear, giving him a nudge.
"What?" Duo asked, his mind on getting the drink made.
"The Ice Man cometh..."
That got Duo's attention. He twisted around nearly spilling the drink, to see Zechs standing at the end of the line.
"Damn, he looks good today," Rikk said, admiring the long fall of platinum hair and the silvery gray suit he wore.
"Yeah," Duo said, and nodded to Zechs as he looked his way.
For some reason, seeing Zechs again made Duo's heart beat a little faster. Duo guessed that it was because the man still made him nervous and that he still could not trust him. Their conversation had been pleasant enough, but Duo had not expected to see Zechs again... ever.
When it was Zechs's turn at the counter, he leaned over and smiled at Duo. "You were gone this morning when I got up," he said.
Duo's co-workers all stopped what they were doing and stared with wide eyes and perked ears.
"I slept on the couch," Duo said, rolling his eyes at their filthy minds.
Rikk and a couple of the girls chuckled and then busied themselves with their orders once again.
"Black coffee?" Duo asked Zechs, impatiently.
"Hmm, I seem to recall that you are quite good at guessing people's drinks."
"And yours is black coffee," Duo said, flatly.
Zechs noticed the boy's change in attitude, but did not let it stop him. "I'd like you to fix me something special," Zechs said, his voice dropping into a sultry range.
Duo swallowed. Was Zechs hitting on him or just being playful now that they were better acquainted?
"Sure. Have a seat and I'll bring it to you," he said, and turned away from the counter.
Duo poured some coffee into a metal container and then proceeded to add his special touches. At the blender, he kept his head down watching the progress of the foam, but now and again looked up through his heavy bangs. Zechs was seated facing the counter. Duo ducked his head again. He could not understand why the man was here. Of course, he had every right to be here, but Duo had assumed that once they had talked that would be it, they would stay out of each other's way.
Rikk grabbed him by the waistband as they switched places at the blender. "You didn't tell me you shagged ol' blondie."
"I haven't shagged anyone," Duo said, his tone edged with embarrassment and anger.
"Then what's up? I doubt the Ice Man took you up to his place just to talk."
Duo was mortified. "Of course that's all we did. We know each other from... before. We were just catching up on things."
He poured the blended coffee into a serving mug and shot Rikk one last glare before he stepped from behind the counter.
Zechs smiled as Duo handed him the drink. "Thank you," he said, taking a sip. "Mmm, it's smooth... I like the mixture of cream and spices."
"Look, I don't know why you're here."
The accusatory words stopped Zechs from taking another taste. He set down his mug on the small table next to him. "You mean you don't want me here."
The boy's eyes slid away. "I thought last night would be it."
Zechs looked up, studying the discomfort in the boy's posture and face. "Do you think you've betrayed your friends, because you had a pleasant conversation with the former leader of the White Fang?"
Zechs's voice was sharp and very much reminiscent of the tone he had used during war, but this time Duo thought he heard it laced with hurt.
"It's not my friends I'm worried about," he admitted and turned away.
"Then what are you worried about?"
Duo did not respond, could not respond. That question cut too close to something he did not care to explore. He returned to his work behind the counter and Zechs remained only a moment longer. Once the man was gone, Duo could breathe again.