Illusions of Love
At exactly half past seven, Duo took off his apron, folding it and placing it on the counter.
"Another hot date with the blond God?" Rikk asked, though he knew the answer too well.
"You bet!" Duo grinned.
In less than three hours it would be exactly twenty-eight days since he and Zechs had first made love. Duo wondered if other couples counted the success of their relationship in this way, but to him the last four weeks had been a triumph. His life was set on a new path and he was completely over "what's his name." There was no one else, just Zechs, the Zechs who made love to him each night and pampered him with sweet words and expensive gifts.
Duo looked down at his wrist, checking the time once again, and admiring Zechs's latest indulgence. The designer watch was not gold or set with diamonds--that would not have suited Duo--but was made of polished gun metal and a state-of-the-art time piece.
"Damn that guy is good to you," Rikk said as he tapped on Duo's shoulder to get his attention. The taller boy was a little jealous, not that he was interested in Zechs, but he wished someone would buy him expensive gifts, too. "I still say you should take him up on his offer to move in with him and quit your jobs."
Duo shook his head. Yes, Zechs was very, very good to him, but he could never just live off the man. As it was, Duo had cut back on his work schedule to spend more time with him. The meager income allowed him to keep his apartment if nothing more. Though he spent nearly every night in Zechs's bed, to justify keeping his own place, they occasionally made the bed creak at Duo's, too.
"Despite what your perverted little mind would like to believe," Duo said as he walked toward the employee entrance, "I am not a kept boy."
"Ha!" Rikk laughed and then waved as Duo disappeared out the back.
Stepping into the employee parking lot, Duo was startled to see Zechs leaning against his motorcycle.
"Hey, I didn't expect to see you here," he said cheerily as he walked over and gave the man a kiss.
"I've got a surprise," Zechs said, smiling ferally.
"You're not the surprise?" Duo chuckled and then took a step back to look his lover over. The man was dressed as impeccably as always. This evening he wore a deep burgundy cotton shirt, unbuttoned to mid-chest and tucked into pressed black trousers. The ensemble was finished with black leather shoes and belt.
"What have you got planned?" Duo asked, smiling and crossing his arms over his chest as if he were suspicious of the man's intentions.
"Mmm, how does a weekend getaway sound?" Zechs asked, pulling Duo to him possessively and nipping at the boy's neck.
"Sounds great," Duo replied, his eyes blinking shut at the arousing sensation of Zechs's lips on his throat. "But I'm working this weekend."
"Mere details..." Zechs said, releasing him and then dangling a pair of keys in front of him.
"What are those for?"
Zechs did not answer, instead he pointed the silver cylinder on his key ring toward the parking lot. Two beeps and suddenly car lights were shining on them.
"Whoa," Duo said, squinting and holding his hand up to shield his eyes. "You bought a car?"
"I had to do something today while you were working," Zechs teased and then grabbed Duo by the hand, taking him over to see his latest acquisition.
Duo gave a long whistle when he got a good look at the sports car. It was a small, silver convertible with black leather seats. "Very nice," he grinned.
"Hop in," Zechs said.
"What about my bike? And I've got to work..."
Zechs bent down and kissed Duo, silencing his worries. "All taken care of. Now get in, Baby."
Duo raised an eyebrow. That was the first time Zechs had ever called him that, but he kind of liked it, and jumped in the passenger seat without further delay.
Zechs behind the wheel was a wonderful thing. Duo leaned back, taking in the scenery speeding past him, but more so the man next to him. Zechs's hands worked the machine like they worked Duo, anticipating the moment when it was time to shift gears, making the transition from first to second, third and beyond, smoothly... effortlessly.
This car, despite its small size, suited Zechs perfectly. It was sleek and fast and looked very expensive. In minutes, they were heading out of town, and Duo again wondered how this weekend would unfold.
"Whose gonna work my shift tomorrow when I don't show up? And shouldn't we stop at my apartment so I can throw some clothes in a bag?"
Zechs shook his head. "I talked to Rikk earlier today and he said that Trish would be happy to work your shift tomorrow, and I've taken the liberty of buying you new clothes. I've planned the entire weekend, Duo. Now I just want you to relax and enjoy it. We have some celebrating to do."
Duo had been about to protest all these plans being made without his knowledge, but Zechs's last remark undid him. "Celebrating?"
"Twenty-eight days today," Zechs said, turning to smile at Duo and then looking back at the road.
"Four weeks isn't very long," Duo said, suddenly feeling silly that he wanted to make note of this day.
"It's been a beautiful four weeks," Zechs added, taking one hand from the wheel to rest on Duo's thigh. He gave a little squeeze. "I value every moment with you Duo. Whether it's one minute, one day or four weeks, it means a great deal to me."
Duo swallowed, feeling overwhelmed. "It means a lot to me, too, Zechs," he said and then grew quiet as he turned his attention onto the city's twinkling night skyline.
Not long into the trip, Zechs revealed their destination... New York City. Duo was a bit surprised by the choice, trading one city for another, but he also knew that New York held its own delights and he was happy to be spending a couple of uninterrupted days with Zechs no matter where they landed. In only a few hours they arrived at their five-star hotel, but tired from the journey they retired to their suite, ordering sandwiches and champagne from room service.
Duo had never been so indulged in his life. Zechs made sure that every luxury was provided and prompted Duo to partake in this lifestyle fully. It gave the man great pleasure, and a measure of self-forgiveness, to lavish Duo in this way. After all, Duo had in one way or another been victim to Zechs's war persona. But since the first night they had had sex, Duo had not asked Zechs again to explain what he had done. Of course, Zechs was grateful that Duo had set the past aside, but he still hoped that one day he would be brave enough to face that other self.
The next evening, after a lazy day of sleeping late, shopping and visiting museums, the two young men headed out for a romantic dinner. Duo wore the new indigo blue suit Zechs had bought for him, quite pleased with the tailored fit. But being Duo, he turned his nose up at the hard-soled shoes Zechs had also purchased, and instead wore his well-used black and white tennis shoes.
Coming out of the dressing room, Duo crowed in triumph at how sharp he looked in his new clothes. "You got the size just right!"
"I think by now I know your body better than you, better than anyone," Zechs said, smiling seductively.
Duo swallowed. Yes, Zechs had learned him well, but did he really know him better than anyone? The question made Duo uncomfortable and he quickly retreated into the bathroom to brush his teeth before they headed out.
At the restaurant, Zechs ordered the best wine and talked of the art they had seen in the museums that day. Duo enjoyed Zechs like this, carefree and seemingly whole. Whatever terrible things he had done or had tried to do no longer mattered. Zechs was no longer a former enemy, he was the person Duo turned to for everything... comfort, release, companionship. And he suspected he had become the same, perhaps more, to Zechs.
After dinner, the pair stepped into the night air ready to find a dance club or just walk along the city streets taking in the sights. Just as they set off, walking hand in hand, they noticed a crowd gathering in front of another restaurant, a half block down and across the street.
"Are those photographers?" Duo asked, curious of the unexpected spectacle.
Zechs narrowed his eyes on the scene. It did seem that the local media was well represented. "Perhaps they've found us out," he said, chuckling, and pulled Duo to him for a swift, public kiss.
"Ah, the elusive lovers have been discovered," Duo snickered, letting Zechs pull him into the dark recess of a doorway.
They indulged in the forbidden love fantasy for a moment, kissing and holding each other tight, until they heard several in the crowd cry out excitedly. Looking across the street, they watched as several white limousines and black cars with darkened windows pulled up in front of the restaurant.
"Wow, looks like something big is happening," Duo said.
Men in dark suits jumped from the black cars, making a perimeter around the limousines and pushing the crowd of reporters and onlookers back. Duo stepped in front of Zechs, watching with wide-eyes as the scene played out. He was certain it must be someone very famous for there to be this much security and interest.
Zechs placed his hands on Duo's shoulders, wanting to keep the boy from bolting across the street to investigate further. At first, Duo found the touch comforting, but then noticed that the pressure on his shoulders was growing.
"You okay, Zechs?" he asked, looking over his shoulder at his lover and then back at the crowd. "Do you know what's going on?" he asked and then froze as the answer emerged from inside one of the limousines. "Relena!" Shocked, Duo leaned back into Zechs and gasped, "What's she doing here?"
"Official business, no doubt," Zechs said calmly, staring at his little sister and noting with great interest that she wore the traditional white uniform of the Royal Peacecrafts. The image stirred many memories, but memories that seemed from another lifetime.
Duo watched with growing unease as Relena and other important dignitaries made their way into the restaurant. Seeing the Sankian princess again made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. If Relena was here then so was...
"Heero," he said. The name was just a breath on his lips, going unheard over the clamor of the press and the sound of the passing traffic, but it sent a jolt through him all the same.
Duo's eyes darted about the scene, searching for the familiar tousled dark brown hair. He scanned each person, starting with the security detail, but he did not see Heero. Of course, that did not mean he was not here. He might already be inside the restaurant, coordinating the operation from there.
Their last conversation came back in a flash. "Relena needs me," Heero had said. "You can take care of yourself like you always have." The words echoed inside Duo, cutting him again as they had months ago.
Damn you, Heero, he thought, as his heart hammered in his chest. He swallowed hard against the re-emerging pain, and then took hold of Zechs's hand and said, "Let's get out of here."
The two young men moved away back down the street, neither saying a word. They walked for some time after that, each feeling a little lost, a little off-center. It was not easy having the past thrown back at you when you thought it had been successfully tucked away.
Back in their hotel room it seemed the incident was forgotten. They fell onto the bed in a passionate embrace, their mouths coming together in kiss after kiss. Zechs pulled Duo on top of him, the boy straddling his hips as he wriggled out of his suit jacket and then worked to unbutton the other man's shirt.
Duo kissed each inch of the broad chest as it was exposed. He needed this contact, needed to make this connection, needed to forget... As he began to work open Zechs's pants, the man grabbed him by the wrist to stop his progress.
"Duo, I need to tell you something," Zechs said.
"Talk later," Duo said, continuing to kiss the bare skin. "I want to make love." He reached down to feel Zechs's bulge and grinned. "Mmm, and so do you."
"That can wait."
The statement stopped Duo's ministrations. Zechs had never made him wait before. He looked up to find Zechs's blue eyes intense and serious. "You really want to talk... now?"
"Just for a moment."
Duo sat up, still straddling the man. "Okay, so talk."
Leaning up on his elbows, Zechs took a breath. "I haven't been completely honest with you."
"You can be honest after we have sex," Duo said and snickered.
"I'm serious. I have to tell you something about this weekend. When I planned it, I wanted it to be a celebration of our relationship."
The boy smiled. "And it is. So what's the problem?"
"The problem is that I chose New York for selfish reasons." Zechs looked away and then back up at his lover. "I knew that Relena would be here."
"Oh," Duo blinked.
"Yes, oh. I read an article outlining the upcoming summit of the United Earthsphere Alliance. I knew they would be meeting here in New York City."
"And you knew Relena would be at that restaurant tonight?"
"Yes, I'm sorry, Duo. I thought it would be good to see her again, but it was very selfish of me..."
Duo shook his head. "Since when is it selfish to want to see your own sister? There's no way I could be mad at you for that."
Zechs rested back down on the bed, sighing deeply. "I don't deserve you," he said, running his hands over Duo's thighs. "But be honest with me. Tell me, are you all right? I should've consulted you before putting you in that situation. I hadn't considered your feelings about possibly seeing H---..."
Gentle fingers pressed against his lips, stopping the name from being spoken. He searched the big, round eyes staring down at him and saw the emotional scars. Of course, Duo had felt something out there. How could he not? But whether it was pain, regret or anger, Zechs knew he should not ask. They were in bed and this was no place to discuss past lovers. And so, Zechs kissed the slender fingertips and then pulled Duo down, taking his mouth in a deep, slow kiss. Tonight they would set the past aside once again.
It was early morning, still pre-dawn, yet Zechs had already showered and dressed. He stared out the window of his 10th floor apartment, looking out onto the sleeping city. In another hour or so, Duo would wake and Zechs would tell him his decision. He had promised himself the night before, with Duo lying curled in his arms, that when the sun rose on the new day he would resurrect his former self, Milliardo Peacecraft.
For the past three weeks, ever since glimpsing his sister in New York, Zechs had pondered the question of family, home and renewal. Certainly he and Duo were happy in Boston, but they were living as exiles from their former lives. Zechs was heir to a beautiful, peaceful kingdom and he owed it to his family and his people to return and seek their forgiveness and censure. Whether they would want him as their king he did not know, nor did he know if he could take that step, but he had to return home.
As for Duo, if he chose to journey to Sank, Zechs knew he might lose him. The look in Duo's eyes the night they had seen Relena told him that much. The boy still hurt from the loss of Heero Yuy, and one did not hurt if one did not love. Asking Duo to join him on this journey was a risk, but a risk Zechs had to take if he ever hoped to have a future with this enchanting young man.
At half past seven, Duo stumbled out of their bedroom, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He was wearing the top from Zechs's blue silk pajamas. It was too large, but it looked perfect on him.
"Good morning, Duo," Zechs said and walked over to meet him half way. He kissed the boy's forehead and smiled. "Looks like you could use another few hours of sleep."
"It got cold in there without you," Duo said, pouting. "Why you up so early?"
"Because today's a new day," Zechs said, optimistically. How could he be melancholy looking into that gamin face?
"Well, you're chipper this morning," Duo said and laughed. "How 'bout some coffee?"
"That would be nice, thank you."
Minutes later, they went out onto the balcony to enjoy their mugs of coffee. Duo had slipped on a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt while the coffee was brewing and now leaned against the railing, breathing in the fresh roast. Zechs sat on one of the balcony chairs, admiring the boy's form.
"You think I'd be tired of coffee after working in a coffee shop all those weeks."
Though he still worked part-time at the rare bookstore, Duo had quit the coffee shop after returning from New York. Something had changed between him and Zechs on that trip, something had drawn them closer, and so he had decided to take Zechs up on his offer to move in.
"I made a decision last night," Zechs said, suddenly, setting his mug down.
"Oh, yeah? And what's that?"
"I'm going to return to Sank and I want you to come with me."
The coffee mug nearly slipped from Duo's hand. "Wh-what?"
"It's time Milliardo Peacecraft came out of hiding."
Duo blinked, speechless at what he had just heard. This was the first Zechs had mentioned going home.
"I know this may seem a bit sudden...." Zechs continued.
"No kidding. When the hell were you going to tell me?"
"Now. I only just decided last night."
Duo set his mug down quickly as a wave of dizziness rocked him. Damn if he was not having a bad case of déja vu. "Oh, like you haven't been thinking about this for a while?"
"Please, Duo, let's not argue..."
"We wouldn't be arguing if you had talked to me!" he shouted, throwing up his hands.
"But there was nothing to talk about until now..."
"Nothing to talk about? Out of the blue you tell me you're leaving, and there's nothing to talk about?!"
"I'm not leaving!" Zechs said emphatically. "I'm going home and I'm asking you to come with me!" Zechs did not like to raise his voice, but Duo certainly did not seem to be listening.
"Well, no thanks!" Duo huffed, setting his fists on his hips. "Why the hell would I want to go to Sank? And why would you? Haven't we made a life here together?"
Zechs stood to meet the challenge, but he tried to keep his voice calm. "Listen to yourself. This doesn't sound like the Duo Maxwell I know. I thought you'd be pleased that I'm ready to face my past."
"Well, who says I'm ready to face mine!"
Duo tried to push past Zechs and retreat into the apartment, but Zechs grabbed him by the arm and turned him around. "Up to your old tricks again, I see. Running away?"
"Yeah, maybe I am," Duo bit back.
"Baby... don't," Zechs said, pulling Duo into his arms. The boy squirmed and tried to break free, but Zechs held on tight. "I know this isn't easy, believe me, I know. But I love you, Duo, and I need you to be strong for me."
The boy stilled in his arms. "What did you say?" he asked, looking up at Zechs's anguished face.
"Yes," Zechs said, softly. "I said I love you. I've been falling in love with you ever since that night you slept on my sofa."
Those were the words, the words that Duo had longed to hear, but from another. And now to hear Zechs say them as though it was the most natural thing in the world was unbelievable.
"Zechs," Duo said, his brow tightening. "You can't mean that."
"And why not? That's how I feel. I'd have to be blind not to see all you can offer."
Duo looked away, ashamed. He wasn't ready for this, nearly, but not quite.
"Duo," Zechs said, taking the boy's face by the chin and turning it back to him. "I didn't mean for you to hear that now. I know you're not ready..."
"But I--I want to be ready," Duo said with trembling lips. Why can't I tell him I love him? I think I do... I must! We make love every night. He's generous and kind and beautiful. I should be able to tell him!
Zechs brushed his thumb under Duo's eye, taking away the tear that was about to fall. "Don't worry, when it's right, you'll tell me."
"That's better," Zechs said, and bent down to kiss Duo's cheek. "Now what's all this fuss about not coming with me?"
It had been two days since the conversation on their apartment balcony. Two days since waking to find that life was about to change once again. And now, Zechs and Duo were traveling in a private car on their way from the Sank airport to the Peacecraft palace.
In the backseat of the white Rolls Royce, Duo reached for Zechs's hand and held it tight.
"I know," Zechs said, squeezing Duo's hand in return. It was all he could say, all he needed to say.
After sending a recorded visual message to Relena, it had been only a matter of hours before they had received the simple reply, "Yes, brother, come! You are most welcome here!"
There had been no mention of his absence, assumed death, or misdeeds. Instead the message conveyed the brightness that was his sister. Zechs had been glad, and Duo, too, though now that they were moments from arriving at the palace both were too nervous to speak.
"There it is," Zechs said as they came into the valley where the palace sat. "My home."
Duo's mouth fell open. It was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. The sprawling white palace looked welcoming and appropriately grand, and the land surrounding it was richly green and carpeted with wildflowers in every color.
"Zechs, it's beautiful," Duo said, not taking his eyes from the scene.
Zechs's heart pounded. It was as he remembered it from childhood. Relena had restored the Peacecraft ancestral home to its former beauty, to a time before the war when the Sank Kingdom was unravaged and peaceful. He nearly sobbed as their car turned onto the long drive leading through the open iron gates and to the front of the palace.
Home, he thought, wiping at his eye.
There had been a time in Zechs's life when he did not believe he would ever return to Sank. Nor had he cared. And now as they drew closer to his roots, Zechs knew this was right, knew this was where he belonged.
Duo looked over at him and smiled. "You okay?"
"Yes," he answered softly.
A small welcoming committee waited at the bottom of the palace steps. The Princess Relena was wearing a yellow summer dress and holding the hand of a young girl with a basket of freshly picked flowers. Next to them stood Lucrezia Noin, an old friend of Zechs's, wearing an uncharacteristically feminine suit of pale blue. And standing straight and true behind them was Pagan, the reliable and much loved servant of the Peacecrafts. It was more than Zechs and Duo had hoped for and yet the grouping was curiously missing one key player... Heero Yuy. Neither mentioned this fact.
"It's good to see Noin," Zechs commented as their car drew closer. He had not been aware that the former OZ lieutenant was living in Sank. "Though she has every reason to be angry with me for what I've..."
Duo held up a finger and wagged it at his lover. "Nope, gotta stop you there. Remember our agreement? No self-abasement allowed."
Zechs chuckled as the car came to a stop. Before they opened the door to face the others, Zechs pulled Duo to him for one last private embrace. "Duo, thank you for coming with me."
"No problem," the boy said, caressing Zechs's long hair.
Zechs knew that Duo was nervous and had his own worries concerning this trip, but Duo had not mentioned them once. He's a strong young man, Zechs thought, proud of his lover's resolve.
Zechs was first to exit the car and was immediately greeted in a rush of hugs from Relena and Noin.
"Oh, Milliardo!" Relena said, releasing him from the hug and taking him by the hands. "When you sent that message we thought we were dreaming! We just couldn't believe you were actually alive!"
Relena knew so little about her brother. They had been raised separately from the time of their parents' deaths thirteen years earlier, and she had only met him once during the war when he had been crazed and emotionally unreachable. To see him now made her eyes shine with tears. The recorded message had given her hope of his newfound stability, but now she could see in his face that he truly was a Peacecraft again.
The little girl came forward and curtsied, lifting the basket of flowers to the Sankian heir. "Welcome home, Prince Milliardo."
"Thank you," Zechs said, smiling.
"This is Tatiana, she's Pagan's granddaughter," Relena explained.
Zechs looked from the little girl to his old friend. "She's lovely, Pagan."
"Well, naturally I think so," the elderly man said, coming forward and shaking the prince's hand.
"Zechs, why didn't you let us know you were alive?" Noin asked, her heart pounding at seeing him again.
"I'm sure you can guess," Zechs replied. Then turning to Duo he gestured for him to join them. The boy had been completely ignored in the excitement of this homecoming. "Duo, please," Zechs said.
Duo stepped into the grouping and smiled.
"Duo!" Noin exclaimed, giving him a welcoming hug. "We were surprised to hear you would be escorting Zechs back to Sank."
"He's more than escorting me," Zechs answered, reaching his hand over to squeeze Duo's shoulder. "He's my lover."
There was a collective gasp from the women as eyes widened at the former Gundam pilot.
"Your lover?" Noin asked, her heart sinking. After all this time she still held out hope that she and Zechs...
"Yep, that's right," Duo said, blushing. He had not expected Zechs to be so open or so blunt about their relationship.
"It's good to have you here, Duo," Relena finally said. "I'm sure you must be anxious to see your old friend, Heero, again. If he wasn't in the middle of switching over our computerized security system he would've been here to greet you."
The blush that had colored Duo's cheeks faded, as he paled. Had Heero wanted to greet him?
"Are there problems with your security?" Zechs quickly asked.
"Not anymore. Heero has done wonders," the girl said, her face beaming with admiration. "I'm sure he'll be happy to tell you all about it. But you must be tired from your journey. There are two lovely bedroom suites ready for you..."
"Two? That won't be necessary. Duo is staying with me," Zechs said, slipping his arm around the youth's waist.
"Oh, of course!" Relena said. Poor Miss Noin, Relena thought as she escorted the group into the palace.
In their suite, Duo flopped down on the bed, truly exhausted from their journey.
"Is this all yours?" he asked, his eyes to the ceiling, looking with wonderment at the plaster scrollwork etched in gold.
"It is mine by birth," Zechs replied, sitting on the edge of the bed. He followed Duo's line of vision up and smiled. "As a child I often stared at the ceilings in the palace. One is more beautiful than the next."
"I noticed a lot of scaffolding outside and down corridors as we walked to our room. There must be a lot of fixing up to do," Duo commented, letting his eyes fall to Zechs.
"Yes, the war ravaged this place, this land. Relena has done a great deal to restore it to its former beauty. She is wise for her years. She knows the right people to have around her."
It was implied that Heero was one of those people, but Zechs would not say it aloud. The fact that Heero had not been part of the welcome made things a bit more uncomfortable. It was as if the boy was lurking, waiting to jump out at them.
"You should get some rest," Zechs said, leaning over and petting Duo's long braid. "No matter what Relena promised, dinner will be a formal affair, and you'll need your wits about you."
"Why not nap with me?" Duo asked, putting his hand over Zechs's.
"I would enjoy that, but I'm too keyed up. It's hard to believe I'm home."
Duo smiled. "They're happy you're here. You had nothing to worry about," he said, gesturing to all the bouquets of freshly cut flowers in their room. The flowers were from government officials and other Sankian elite. It was obvious that they had missed their prince.
"And I'm happy you're here," Zechs said, bending over and kissing Duo lightly on the lips. "Now sleep, and I'll wake you for dinner."
Duo watched as Zechs got up from the bed and unpacked a few items. He wanted to keep his eyes open, keep watching Zechs's graceful movements, but he was just too tired. Soon his eyelids became heavy and he fell into sleep.
A loud noise startled Duo awake little more than an hour later. It was just mid-afternoon, still hours before he needed to get ready for dinner. He looked around the room and saw that he was alone. Zechs had been restless and must have gone out to re-acquaint himself with his surroundings. Another loud noise drew Duo's eyes toward the open balcony doors. Neither sound was menacing, just loud and curious, and so he slowly lifted himself off the bed to investigate.
On the balcony, he peered along the outside wall of the palace until his eyes settled on a group of workmen. It seemed one of them had dropped some tools on the metal scaffolding.
The day was bright and Duo winced a little at the intensity of the mountain sun. So this was Sank, this was Zechs's home. It was as Duo had imagined, a fairytale land for a beautiful prince, and yet he could not enjoy it as such. Beneath all its beauty and grandeur lay a deep wound.
"Why are you hiding?" Duo asked as he retreated back into the bedroom suite.
Part of him had been relieved that Heero had not been among those greeting him and Zechs. Another part of him had been hurt. Was he not even an old comrade to Heero? Was the other boy not even curious to see him again? Certainly Duo was not hoping for a friendship between them now, but shouldn't they at least shake hands and acknowledge each other's presence here? Perhaps even agree to stay out of each other's way?
If nothing else, the snub on arrival had reminded Duo of exactly why things had not worked out between them. Heero was all work and all sense of duty. Duo sighed and went over to his bag and unpacked a fresh shirt. Zechs had the right idea. Get out and explore... and live!
Tucking in his dark blue t-shirt into his black jeans, Duo headed out into the palace. As he walked the wide, marble halls, stopping to admire paintings or to peek inside rooms, he noticed the curious stares from the palace staff. At least three times, he was approached to determine who he was and what exactly he was doing. He supposed the grilling was a testament to the palace's security and shrugged off each inquiry with good humor.
Not long into his exploration he was joined by Zechs.
"You're causing quite a stir," the man told him as he bent to give Duo a kiss on his forehead. "The entire palace is talking about the suspicious boy in jeans who's wandering the grounds."
It was true he was dressed rather more casual than anyone else here. Zechs, of course, was dressed in a suit, this one of pale gray.
"And now they've sent you to collect me?" Duo asked, with a crooked grin.
"Something like that. Actually I thought as long as you were awake we could take a walk. I'd love to show you the art gallery."
In the gallery, Zechs explained the great achievement of the collection.
"Much of the Royal art collection had been damaged or destroyed in the war. What could be saved was sent to art conservators for repair, but much of what you see here has been donated by the people of the Sank Kingdom."
Duo looked down the length of the large room. Dozens of paintings of all sizes hung on the walls. There were landscapes, seascapes, portraits and still lifes. Every subject was represented in this collection of Sankian heritage.
"When Sank was attacked, many of its citizens hid away their valuables, including some of the art you see here. This is truly a wonderful gift. They have gladly given all this to replenish the Royal art collection."
Duo saw a tear spill down Zechs's cheek just before he turned and brushed it away.
"You're right, this is a wonderful gift. Looks like the people of Sank are ready to have their monarchy restored," Duo said.
Zechs turned back to him. "Yes, that is my feeling as well. And Relena has shown me the hundreds of letters of welcome that have been arriving since my return was announced," he said, his eyes watering again.
"That's wonderful," Duo said, taking Zechs's hand.
"But?" Zechs asked.
"I see the question in your eyes, Duo," Zechs said, squeezing his hand. "And I can tell you the answer before you even have to ask. I want you here with me. No matter the outcome. I want you by my side."
Duo smiled and then wrapped his arms around Zechs's waist. "Thank you," he said and they held each other in a comforting embrace.
Though Duo was not sure how he fit into all this grandeur or what it would mean if Zechs actually did claim his throne, he wanted Zechs to be happy.
Their progress back to their suite was slow as people continually approached them to speak with Zechs. Duo felt nearly invisible as servants and staff curtsied and bowed before the prince, giving their well wishes and sharing their happiness on his return.
When one of the security details approached, Duo suddenly wished for that anonymity. Among the group of five was a certain head of dark brown tousled hair, belonging to Heero Yuy. Duo's heart jumped. Heero looked sharp, handsome and professional in a white cotton shirt, dark blue trousers and a blue on blue tie and dress shoes. Unlike the others, he did not carry a weapon, only a small electronic notepad in his hand. But Duo knew better---Heero was the weapon.
Their eyes met and Duo swallowed hard. He had long imagined what it would be like to see the other boy again, but he had not expected this silence or this longing to grip him. Where were the clever remarks he had so carefully crafted and rehearsed?
Heero was equally silent, but the pounding of his heart in his ears was deafening. He had been unable to join the welcoming party earlier that day, but had been all too aware of Duo's arrival. Now to see him, looking as wiry, beautiful and alive as always, set Heero's heart to pounding. Could Duo know just how surreal it was to see him in these halls?
The security staff spoke with Zechs, each in turn, with Heero stepping forward last. He nodded to Zechs, but did not hold out his hand. The overwhelming feeling that they were still enemies hung in the air, and to see Zechs with Duo made those feelings that much more prominent in Heero's mind.
At last Zechs held out his hand in greeting. Duo cringed as it seemed Heero would not accept, and remembered a time when he had resisted Zechs's olive branch, too. But then Heero took the hand and gave it a hard shake, looking Zechs in the eye. The others present gave an audible sigh. They had felt the tension, too.
"The past is the past," Zechs said, generously. "We shouldn't let it control our efforts for the future."
Heero's eyes flickered to Duo and then back to Zechs. "You've made Relena happy by coming home in one piece. For that I'm grateful."
Duo felt his face flame at Heero's words. After all this time, Relena was still the center of the universe. He shook his head and turned to leave.
"Duo," Zechs called after him, but the boy did not respond. Zechs sighed as he watched him walk away.
By now, the members of the security squad were anxious to be on their way as well.
"Will you be at dinner this evening?" Zechs asked Heero as the others began to move away.
"Yes," he said simply.
"Relena has nothing but praise for the work you have done here. Thank you."
"No problem," Heero said and then headed off to rejoin his group. His stoic features belying the turmoil he felt having Duo so close again.
Back in their suite, Zechs found Duo out on the balcony. The boy's face shone with the orange hues of the late afternoon sun.
"You two didn't greet each other," Zechs said, coming to stand next to him.
"I guess there's nothing to say," Duo responded as he continued to look over the lush grounds.
"If former enemies can speak than so can former lovers."
"Don't talk like that," Duo said, looking up at him. "I don't want to think about the past."
"Is that because you're happy with the present? Or because you're afraid of what the past means to you?"
"What kind of bullshit is that?" Duo asked, sharply.
"I don't know, you tell me," Zechs said, keeping his tone calm. "You're obviously afraid of something. You turned tail..."
"I should've never told you that!" Duo yelled, angry that Zechs would throw his admission about running away from situations at him now.
"Then you should've addressed Heero."
"Oh, yeah? Well, what was holding him back? He could have just as easily said something."
"Could he?" Zechs asked, feeling an uncharacteristic jealousy turn inside him.
Duo turned back again, ignoring the question as he stared blankly at the landscape before him.
"This isn't right," Zechs said, taking Duo by the arm and turning him to face him once again. "Heero Yuy is back in our lives for five minutes and we're fighting."
Duo's chest felt heavy, like a pressing weight was upon him. "You're right. We shouldn't fight," he said, softly. "I'm sorry."
The apology was barely across Duo's lips when Zechs pulled him into his arms and kissed him deeply, possessively. As the kiss continued, Zechs lifted Duo off his feet and carried him into the bedroom, setting him down on the bed.
Duo looked up with wide, lustful eyes. "Take me, Zechs," he said, then added silently, make me forget.
There was no hesitation.
Zechs's prediction was correct; dinner was a formal affair. The banquet hall was decorated in the most beautiful blossoms to be found in the Kingdom, and the table was laid with the finest linen, china and gold stemware. The lavishness of the feast was most certainly fit for a king, or the return of a lost prince. Fifty guests were in attendance, all dressed in their finest suits and gowns, and all extremely pleased to be invited to this grand celebration.
Zechs would have been happier with a simple supper prepared for himself, Duo, Relena and Noin, but that was not to be, at least not this evening. Relena was determined to fete her brother and to let everyone know her great joy at his return. The homecoming was still a bit awkward for Zechs, but he welcomed her attempts to please him.
As dessert was served, Relena stood to say a few words and to make a toast.
"Thank you all for coming this evening, to honor my dear brother's return. No one was more surprised than I to hear that Milliardo was alive and well. Nor can anyone be more happy. It is a miracle to have my brother returned to me, returned to the people of Sank, and to see him happy in his life. Welcome home, Milliardo!"
"Welcome, home!" the guests repeated, raising their glasses and sipping their wine.
When the cheers quieted, Zechs stood. "Thank you, everyone. Your warm welcome is more than I could have hoped for. I am well aware that it might have been different."
Many around the table disagreed, reassuring Zechs by saying, "No, you were always welcome."
He bowed his head. "Thank you, again, but you must know it's been a long road home for me... to be reunited properly with my dear sister and to stand before you and ask your forgiveness." He raised his eyes and looked at each person sitting around the table. "The Sank Kingdom has been in disarray since that terrible day thirteen years ago when my parents were murdered, and unfortunately I was too preoccupied with my own need for revenge to be of any use to you. Now that the war has ended, and I have re-discovered the Peacecraft in myself, it is my hope that together, Relena and I can work to rebuild this beautiful country, to make Sank the shining beacon of pacifism that it once was!"
The room burst into cheers once again, and everyone stood, holding their glasses high. "To the future King Peacecraft!" they cried out. "Long live King Milliardo!"
The people of Sank adored their prince and were more than ready to forgive all his past mistakes. Their devotion felt right, and Duo smiled, knowing that Zechs was a good man and deserved this warm reception.
After several more toasts, the guests finished their dessert and then got up to mingle and to speak with Zechs directly. Duo, once again, was pushed aside. For several long minutes, he tried to stay near Zechs, be part of the circle adoring him, but soon he found he was just in the way. Not that Zechs would have ever said so, but Duo knew the crowd had no use for him.
He slipped from the banquet hall and stepped onto a stone patio, inhaling the fresh mountain air. The night was cool, but he was warm from the crowded hall and his black tuxedo. He settled on the pedestal of a nymph statue and looked up at the night sky. Even though it was quite late, the sky was still a deep azure and twinkled brightly with a thousand stars and a round, yellow moon. The last time he had gazed at stars like this he had been at Quatre's home in Arabia, ages ago.
A prickling sensation on the back of his neck made him look away. Someone was here. He turned to see a figure silhouetted by the night and standing less than ten feet away.
"I always could sneak up on you," the visitor said.
Duo shivered. He knew that voice and now that his eyes had adjusted he could see the outline of Heero clearly. "What do you want?" he asked, sharply.
"The same things you want. Peace and fresh air," Heero said, stepping closer.
Duo let out a shaky breath. He did not want to be alone with Heero, but damn it if he was going to give up his spot on the patio. "It was peaceful... until you showed up," Duo said.
Heero nodded. He had not expected anything less. In fact, he had expected more venom than this. "You're with Zechs now?" he asked, stopping his advance just a few feet away.
"What's it to you?"
Now that sounded more like the Duo he knew. "Just curious," Heero said as he looked at Duo in the moonlight. Even in the formal attire, Heero could see Duo's rebelliousness wanting to wriggle free. Damn it was good just to be looking at Duo again. Had it really been six months since they had last seen each other?
"Why don't you hit me and get it over with?" Heero asked, in the flat, serious tone he often used.
Duo inhaled deeply and looked over the other boy as if assessing his chances in a fight. "I've already wasted too damn much energy on you. Now beat it!"
In an odd way, the angry words were welcome. Heero knew he deserved them and more, and he also knew the least he could do was give Duo some space right now. There would be more opportunities to talk in the coming days, and so, he left quietly, retreating back into the palace.
Moments later, Zechs appeared on the patio, looking a bit breathless. "There you are!" he said as he came over and put his arm around Duo's shoulder. "I saw Heero pushing through the crowd and suddenly realized I didn't know where you had gone."
"It's all right, Zechs. I told him to get lost," Duo said and stood.
"Then you spoke to him?"
"I suppose you could call it that."
"What did he say?" Zechs persisted.
"He wanted to know about us and I told him it was none of his business."
Zechs felt that twist in his belly again. Was Heero taking inventory of the situation?
"Well, he'll probably keep his distance now," Zechs said, though somewhat unconvincingly. He pulled Duo to him, wrapping his arms about him.
"Shouldn't you be inside?" Duo asked, nuzzling the white dinner jacket Zechs was wearing.
"They've had me long enough for one evening. Now I'm yours."
"Mmm, that sounds nice, but won't you be missed?"
"Their welcome is sincere," Zechs said, letting his hands slide down Duo's back. "But their prince has needs, too." His hands settled on Duo's bottom and squeezed.
The boy chuckled. Oh, he liked this. "Is that right? And what needs would those be?"
"I think you know, Baby. Needs that only you can satisfy," he said and lifted Duo by his bottom until their lips met in a searing kiss.
Duo hooked one of his legs around Zechs as the man plundered his mouth. For the second time today he was swept up in Zechs's desires. Whatever was enflaming Zechs's needs, Duo wanted more of it.
Dark, Prussian blue eyes narrowed, dilated as they watched the scene two stories below. As much as Heero wanted to look away, he could not. A strange burning sensation was growing deep inside him, at the very center of his being. It was a feeling he had never experienced before, a feeling that grew more intense as he watched Zechs's hands move on Duo... watched Zechs's mouth possess Duo.
Noin had told him that Zechs and Duo were an item, but Heero had been reluctant to believe. Duo had hated OZ, and Zechs's role, especially at the end of the war, had been all too clear. Yes, people could change, but Heero had never expected Duo to be the one to change.
He turned away, unable to watch anymore.