Illusions of Love
Heero sat on a stone bench under the ivy canopy. The cool stone beneath him and the cool shade around him chilled his skin, and he thought to remember this spot later in the day when the sun's heat would be at its peak intensity.
The dark, green leaves of the ivy were shielding and comforting in their dominance here. This part of the garden seemed forgotten it was so far removed from the palace and the main gardens. There was no crushed gravel path lined with ornamental shrubs leading here, but Heero knew Duo would find him.
One of Duo's quirks was casing a place when he first arrived. He would've made a great fire marshal, checking all the exits and routes of escape. Perhaps this little habit had been abandoned now so many months after the war, but Heero doubted it. Duo had a way of doing things and not even realizing he was doing them. A sort of sub-routine that ran in Duo's programming, hidden by the many layers that made up his complex personality.
Heero sighed. Certainly Duo could find him out here, but would he want to?
Last night had been a very long night. After seeing Duo kiss Zechs and then disappear into their room, Heero went back to his own room and lay down on the bed. He tried to fall asleep, but he could not stop himself from thinking of Duo. It didn't matter if his eyes were open or closed, he saw Duo. In those ruminations, Heero remembered the blood, death and destruction of the war, but also the happier times when he and Duo had carved out moments together. Their missions and their moods hadn't always coincided, but when they did there had been fireworks between them.
The sound of soft steps on the grass footpath, and the murmuring of a voice brought Heero back to the moment.
Duo took a deep breath and ducked inside the overgrown enclosure. It was shades darker in there, despite the morning sun, but his eyes adjusted quickly. He saw Heero at once. The other boy stood and his crisp white shirt, and pressed tan slacks and black shoes looked out of place in this rustic setting.
"You're here," Heero said, managing to disguise the excitement in his belly.
Duo nodded and intentionally bit his tongue to stop himself from making a snide remark. Sarcasm was his usual cover for nervousness, but he didn't think it right this morning.
He looked about the space, trying to act casual and pretend that nothing had happened between them last night. He had wrestled with the memory of their encounter all night. Even in Zechs's arms, Duo had drifted back to the moment of that kiss, to the press of their bodies together. The fact that Heero still had power over him made Duo angry and confused. It wasn't fair. He had worked hard to begin again.
"Yep, I'm here," Duo finally said, becoming even more nervous as Heero just stared at him.
Heero was still in shock that Duo had actually shown. That note had been a gamble. If Duo hadn't come to the garden, then Heero would have tried something else. They had to keep talking if they were going to work this out.
"Thanks," Heero said, and then gestured for Duo to sit with him.
The bench looked tempting, but Duo only frowned. He could sit and chat with Heero, but there were still too many unanswered questions to feel all chummy again.
"Or we can stand..."
"Do you really love me?" Duo asked, the question shooting out like a bullet.
Heero nearly flinched from the force of the question. It was as if it had been waiting on Duo's tongue since the night before.
"Yes," Heero said with conviction. There was something of a painful look in Duo's eyes...
"How do you know you love me?" Duo asked, his arms folding over his chest.
Again, a question used like a weapon. For Duo these questions were the root of everything. He had to know what Heero was thinking. He had to know if the declaration from the night before had only been said out of loneliness. And for Heero, these were the questions for which he had only recently discovered answers, and possibly not full answers at that.
Seeing Duo's posture closed and hearing a slight tremor in his voice, Heero delayed his response. He wanted to find the right words to hold Duo to that spot... no, to make him come closer.
"Some say you shouldn't judge a person based on a first impression," Heero began, his eyes fixed on the slender young man in blue jeans before him. "But in war your first impression can be the only one you get. What you decide in those first few seconds can make the difference between dying and completing your mission."
Duo gave a derisive snort and toss of his head. Leave it to Heero to think that the alternative to dying was not living, but completing your mission. And what did this have to do with Heero knowing he loved him anyway?
The reaction was noted, but Heero was undeterred. He was accustomed to Duo's diverging opinions.
"Do you know what my first impression was of you?" he asked, studying Duo's face closely.
Duo didn't know, but it had to be something horrible, since the first few months of knowing Heero had been so full of animosity.
"No?" Heero asked, understanding Duo's hesitation. "I thought you were bold as hell... and fast."
Duo's lips curved in a half smile. "I always did make a great entrance."
The cocky tone and little smile warmed Heero. He liked this Duo. The one who always managed to take care of himself, and was so damn entertaining in the process.
"Of course," Heero continued, "I appended that list to include annoying, loud-mouthed and a liability."
"Hey!" Duo shouted as he set his fists to his hips. "Maybe you've forgotten who you're talking to," he said, now pointing accusingly. "I could've killed you that day...."
"But you didn't," Heero said, feeling confident again. The rhythm of this conversation was like so many they had shared before. "Just like I didn't kill you when I thought you had jeopardized my mission."
An involuntary shiver raced through Duo. Though he and Heero had never discussed that day in the OZ prison cell, he knew exactly what Heero was talking about. Duo had been injured and was being held captive by OZ. Heero had broken in, seemingly to rescue him, but then pointed a gun at his face. Their eyes had met across the barrel of Heero's gun, and Duo had quickly realized it was no rescue.
"Why didn't you... shoot?" Duo asked, his eyes wide with the memory, and his body suddenly less defensive in posture.
Heero took a step forward, coming within an arm span of his former lover. "I found a reason to keep you alive... I told myself that you were still needed for the good of the mission. But it wasn't that... It was those damn eyes of yours... and the disbelief in your voice." Heero paused, taking several breaths. His heart was beating faster with the adrenaline of that day and the decision he had made. "I can't explain it, but something changed... something inside of me said the mission wasn't everything."
Duo's eyes widened. "You risked being caught for me," he said, softly, remembering the escape that followed.
"Hn," Heero nodded and took a step back to sit down, but Duo caught him by the wrist.
The momentum of Heero's body was stopped. He stared at the hand holding his wrist and felt warmth race all the way up to his face.
"It wasn't long after that... you first kissed me," Duo said, almost shyly.
Heero looked up, meeting Duo's eyes and then stood fully again. "That's right," he said, and swallowed. Did Duo want him to kiss him again now?
"Why didn't we ever talk about the war?" Duo asked, gently releasing Heero's wrist.
"I don't know," Heero said, regretting the loss of touch. "Probably for the same reason we never talked about how we felt about each other."
At Quatre's, everyone had carefully avoided the topic of war, choosing to keep conversations light. Each young man had his own baggage of pain to sort through, and the prospect of sharing those raw emotions had been daunting to the young friends.
"Duo, things got real intense for you and me after the war. Maybe... maybe Relena was a good excuse."
"I knew it. You wanted to get away from me," Duo accused.
"No," Heero said, sweetly, taking a small step forward. "I know it appeared that way, but I just needed things to slow down."
The mild tone in Heero's voice helped Duo to understand. Heero was not looking for excuses, he was truly trying to sort things out. Obviously he had been thinking about what had happened between them.
"I didn't mean for this job to split us apart," Heero added. "That last night when we argued, I was confused about what I wanted."
"You wanted to make love," Duo said as his cheeks flushed.
"Yes," Heero said, swallowing nervously. "I wanted that, but..."
"But what you really wanted was to talk," Duo finished.
Heero nodded, remembering their last night together. Once again he could not understand why he had let his pride take him out of that room and out of that house. But now he was standing here with Duo, in this beautiful, forgotten garden, and Duo was looking at him with those impossibly large eyes.
"I wish we could've talked like we are now," Heero said.
"Yeah," Duo said, looking into Heero's eyes. Those were the eyes from his dreams, the dark blue eyes that could hold him in place, breathless and warm.
Heero was standing so close, just inches away, and the thrill of connecting like this in words and good energy set Duo's chest to burning. The heat radiated out, taking him over, making him want... making him ache. He reached for Heero, grabbing the boy's waist and a fist full of shirt and pulling him in tight. Their bodies and their lips came together as Heero returned the fierce embrace.
The moment was rough, frantic in the desperation of young lovers. Why had they separated? How could they stand to be apart a moment longer? Little whimpers and moans escaped through the bruising kisses as they remembered just how good it had been.
Oh, God, Heero...
** Beep. Beep. **
The low, tonal sound cut through the pleasant hum of nature around them, snapping Duo out of his frenzy. What was that? He broke away from the tangle of bodies, gasping and stumbling back.
"Fuck," he said, looking up at Heero and hearing the strange sound again.
** Beep. Beep. ** It was Heero's radio.
Heero looked down at the device, hanging lightly from his belt and then back at Duo. Not now! He didn't want to be called back to duty now!
"Go on," Duo said, breathless. "Answer it, for God's sake."
Slowly, Heero gathered his wits, bringing the radio to his lips. "Heero here."
"This is Noin. Zechs is ready for the security tour now."
Two sets of blue eyes met and locked over the small, black transmitter. The ivy canopy suddenly seeming more like an OZ prison cell than a secret garden.
"Do your duty," Duo whispered unhappily, as he hooked a stray piece of hair behind his ear.
Heero swallowed and schooled his features. It was the same old problem---duty or love---but he felt he had no choice. "I'll be right there," he told Noin and re-clipped the radio to his belt. "I'm sorry..."
"No," Duo said, holding up his hand. "I'm the one who should be sorry. I shouldn't have done that."
Heero felt his heart sink away, bottoming out through his shoes and slipping away into the earth beneath him. Why would Duo apologize for a kiss like that?
"I want you to know," Heero began hesitantly, his voice choked, "that I am sorry... for everything."
Duo lifted his chin and swallowed hard, tears welling in his eyes. A terrible weight was pressing on his shoulders as he felt this encounter collapsing into ashes. "You don't have to be sorry... for everything," Duo said in a mix of anger and regret as he clenched his fists to stop his hands from trembling.
Heero nodded. "Then there's hope that maybe someday you'll forgive me."
Duo turned away just as a tear fell down his cheek. He didn't want Heero to see him cry or to know just how deep the hurt had gone.
Heero's eyes drifted down the length of Duo's braid, his fingers twitching at the memory of its weight and softness. Oh, the things that Duo could do with that braid... As much as Heero wanted to resolve this now, lay it all on the line, he needed to be on his way. And so, he turned and walked away, retreating quietly back to the palace and to his duties.
"The security measures are more than adequate," Zechs said as he and his security team exited the computer control room. "I appreciate the subtlety of the system. We would not want to appear unwelcoming to those visiting Sank."
"Thank you, that was our intention," Noin said as she and the others followed Zechs into the main corridor.
"Is there anything else you needed to show me?" Zechs asked.
"That's everything on my list," Noin said, scanning her notepad quickly. Then looking to the chief security advisor added, "Did we miss anything?"
"No," Heero said, meeting her eyes. "But we need to follow-up on linking the border posts."
Though he had answered every question thrown his way during the inspection with care and thoroughness, Heero's thoughts were elsewhere. His mind kept replaying his encounter with Duo, making Heero second-guess the things he had said and done. Part of him wanted to believe that Duo was on the verge of taking him back. Clearly they were still drawn to each other and those kisses, they were all fire and need. But another part of him--more persistent in his thoughts--said that he had lost. Duo had moved on and was doing well for himself in his new life. Any attraction that remained was merely embers from the past.
"Thank you for your efforts," Zechs was saying as Heero came back to the moment. The group had paused at the juncture of three corridors and was in the process of ending their tour. "I am very impressed."
Noin smiled proudly. She had put a great deal of herself into protecting the Sank Kingdom both during and after the war and it delighted her to be receiving this praise from Zechs. "It's been a challenge, but an enjoyable one," she said sincerely.
Heero merely nodded. He was never comfortable with compliments, preferring just to be left alone to do his job.
"I'm meeting with Relena now concerning the new university," Noin said, her eyes intent on Zechs. "Perhaps you could join us to look over the plans."
"Maybe later, Noin," Zechs said, with an encouraging smile. "Right now I need to speak with Heero."
"Oh," Noin said, giving Heero an appraising look. "Well, feel free to join us... when you can."
It wasn't easy putting off his duties. But there was something Zechs needed to take care of first, a problem he could not delay in facing.
"Thank you, Noin. I will," Zechs said and watched her turn and leave.
He and Noin had been very close in their Academy days and to a lesser degree during the war. Though they had never been lovers, Zechs had always been aware of her willingness. Unfortunately the timing had never been right and now it seemed there was not even time for friendship.
"Heero," Zechs said, turning to the one member of the security team remaining. "If you have a moment." He gestured for Heero to walk with him.
Heero nodded and stepped beside the taller man. They walked silently down the corridor, uneasy in each other's presence. At the end of the corridor they came to a set of double doors. Zechs stood before them, placing his hands on the door handles, but not going in.
"What is it?" Heero asked, his brow furrowing at Zechs's hesitation.
Zechs glanced at Heero and then back at the door. "Old rivalries," he said, throwing the doors open to reveal their destination---the training hall for ancient armaments.
Heero did not have a chance to question the response as he was taken aback by the bright midday sun, streaming in through tall windows. The light was almost painful in its intensity, causing him to squint and turn his face away momentarily.
Unaffected by the light, Zechs strode into the room confidently. The hall was long, with a high ceiling, and polished wooden floors. On three walls hung the implements of war. Sharpened, glistening weapons of hand-to-hand combat. This was where Zechs would make his stand. In the place where he had learned to defend himself with foil and spear so many years ago.
He walked a few paces along one row of weapons and then turned to see Heero standing just inside the door. "Some would find it ironic for a peace-loving nation to have a room such as this."
Heero raised an eyebrow, wondering at Zechs's meaning. "Weapons can be used for aggression or defense."
"Yes," Zechs said, removing one pike from the wall. "Weapons such as this were used to defend the Sankian border many generations ago. A time long before mobile suits and vernier rockets."
Heero folded his arms over his chest. "You brought me here for a history lesson?"
Zechs laughed. "Perhaps you don't need one," he said, replacing the pike on the wall. "If Relena is correct, you've read nearly one hundred books on Sankian history."
Heero's eyes narrowed. "That's right."
"And yet it seems that not all of her information about you is correct," Zechs said, circling round to Heero's left.
Not moving a muscle, Heero followed Zechs out of the corner of his eye. This conversation was quickly turning into a confrontation. "What are you getting at?"
"You've read all those books and have spent virtually every evening in the Royal library... except for last night," Zechs said, his voice revealing a slight edge.
"That's right," Heero said, flatly.
Zechs seethed at the lie. He had seen the truth in the blush of Duo's cheeks that morning. Whether planned or by accident, the two had met in the library last night. And though Duo was uncomfortable with lies, obviously Heero was not.
"You will stay away from Duo," Zechs commanded in a tone he had used for his troops in war.
"I can't do that," Heero said, turning to face the man fully. It was going to take a hell of a lot more than a simple command from Zechs to get Heero to stop his pursuit of Duo.
Zechs studied his rival. So once again he and Heero were at odds. Then so be it. He removed his jacket and reached for a sword from the wall, grasping it in his right hand and slicing the air with its blade.
Heero lifted his chin, not intimidated. "I've told Duo that I love him."
"What would you know about love?" Zechs asked with a chuckle. "I put the pieces of his life back together after you walked out on him."
Heero found that hard to believe. Maybe Duo had been lonely and looking for companionship, but surely he didn't need Zechs to put his life back together. Duo was the most resourceful and resilient person Heero knew.
Another swoosh of Zechs's sword and Heero knew he had better choose his weapon. He grabbed a similar sword, but held it down, leaving himself open to attack.
The thrill of the impending duel rushed through Zechs's veins like fire. This was the side of himself he had tried to forget, his warrior self that he could not fully explain. And yet he reveled in this self, the Lightning Count whose speed and fearlessness were legendary.
Since surviving the last battle of the war, Zechs had known he would confront Heero Yuy again. Though the cause of their rivalry had changed, the animosity was familiar, echoing the battles they had fought in Siberia, Antarctica and in space.
"A duel to the end?" Heero asked, lifting his blade as well.
"I see old habits are hard to change," Zechs said, with a small smile. "But I am not interested in spilling blood. This is a gentleman's duel. The first to disarm the other wins."
"Agreed," Heero said.
The agreement had been barely made when Zechs saluted with his weapon and then lunged forward, striking at Heero. The smaller man blocked the attack, their swords connecting for a split second before Heero spun around and out of reach. A moment later, Heero was advancing in his own attempt at knocking Zechs's blade from his hand.
The green embraced Duo like a cocoon, sheltering him from the growing heat of the day and the tumult of his heart. He sank down onto a grassy patch and put his head in his hands. Questions flooded his mind even as memories of Heero's words and the taste of his lips came back to Duo. Heero had spoken of apology, forgiveness and love, and even joked. At each encounter he had risked Duo's bark and his bite, and yet he had come back for more.
"Masochist," Duo spat.
Heero always had been anxious to die in battle. He probably would have enjoyed the pain Duo had inflicted on the pillows in effigy. And yet, when Heero had asked Duo to hit him, Duo could not. He was worn out from his anger and hurt and now desperately wanted it to end.
Remembering the note, Duo slipped his hand in his back pocket and pulled out the folded paper. Meet me... under the ivy, it read. He looked over the handwriting, Heero's fast and semi-legible script. The words had set Duo's heart to pounding and he had been in motion in no time, anxious to see Heero again, and as it turned out, anxious to talk and to embrace passionately.
It was clear to Duo, sitting here surrounded by green and bird song that he loved Heero... very much. So what was stopping him from taking the other boy back?
Fear, Duo thought with a shudder.
The frightened child within was battling the maturing young man. One hesitant and seeking shelter and the other brash and willing to gamble. But who would win? It was easy being tough as nails when you had a thermal scythe backing you up, but standing on your own, with your heart on your sleeve was another thing entirely.
"Life was a hell of a lot simpler with Deathscythe at my side," Duo said, wiping the moisture from his eyes.
But was it his Gundam that had made him the God of Death? Was it the firepower at his fingertips that had made him unafraid? No, of course not. Deathscythe had helped him to free the colonies, but it was Duo's own spark, his own rebellious, fiery heart that had led him into the thick of the fighting. Or in Heero's words the fact that he was "bold as hell." Remembering the compliment made Duo smile. Heero didn't hand out compliments every day, and it was nice to hear he had made an impression on Heero from the start.
He looked at the note once more. Heero was gambling. He had no way of knowing if Duo would accept his invitation, if he would show up only to scorn him or if he would show Zechs the note. God, what would Zechs do if he found out they had met secretly? Twice! And yet Zechs had come very close to learning of their rendezvous in the library. The overly chatty Relena conversed more like a gossip columnist than a princess.
Duo needed to make a decision and now. He could not allow this situation to drag on, straining and complicating three people's lives. He had to face his fears.
"Heero," he said, closing his eyes as the name formed on his lips.
He loved Heero. Despite everything... the hurt, the rejection, and fears for the future. Heero was his heart, his equal in life and in passion. Duo could try to deny it, and he had, but he would never be able to douse the flame that burned only for Heero.
"Okay," Duo said with a firm nod and a conviction worthy of going into battle. "I'll take a chance and tell Heero I love him. And he damn well better come through for me or I'll kill him."
With the decision came a relief and lightness of heart that Duo hadn't felt in months. He got up from the ground, tucking the note back into his pocket and smiling with the exhilaration of a new day. He couldn't wait to find Heero and tell him he was ready to start again, ready to take that risk.
Duo rushed from the enclosure, jogging back to the palace with his braid flying behind him. He entered through a rear door, taking a shortcut through an empty reception room to the main corridor. Now all he needed was to locate Heero. Where would he be at this time of day? It was right about the noon hour, but Heero didn't normally stop for lunch. He liked to work straight through the day. Then Duo remembered. Heero had been called back to the palace for the security tour with Zechs... Zechs!
Duo's steps slowed as his heart filled with regret. Shit, he would have to face Zechs. How could he ever tell Zechs his decision? Zechs had seduced him, courted him and eventually told him of his love for him. In another world, another time, Duo might have fallen for Zechs and fallen hard. He was an incredible man, but Duo's heart was already spoken for and every fiber of his being told him that Heero was the one for him.
The lightness in Duo's step was now gone. He trudged along cautiously through the marble halls, his eyes darting about, expecting Zechs and Heero at every turn. It would be just his luck to bump into them while the security check was still in progress.
As he came to the junction of three corridors, Duo was stopped short as a servant brushed passed him in a hurry.
"Hey!" Duo shouted.
"Sorry!" the young man called back, continuing at a near sprint down the hall.
Duo scratched his head. That was the most life he had seen in any of the servants. Usually everyone moved at a snail's pace... polite, but damn slow.
Before Duo could set off again on his tentative search, two more servants dashed by.
"What's going on?" Duo asked as they breezed past.
"There's a duel!" one shouted, excitedly.
"Oh, yeah? Who's dueling?" Duo asked, half amused. It sounded so... aristocratic.
"Prince Milliardo," one said.
"And that Gundam pilot!" the other servant added.
Duo gulped. Zechs and Heero were dueling?
"Shit!" Duo said, and was instantly in motion.
At the end of the hall, Duo found a sizeable grouping of onlookers. The double doors to the training hall were open wide, and crowded into the doorway were no less than two dozen servants and palace guards. The distinct clash of metal could be heard above their excited murmuring, but there was no way for Duo to see over or through the wall of bodies in front of him.
Another clash of swords and a shout came from the hall, the onlookers "oohed" in appreciation.
"That's it, I gotta see!" Duo exclaimed and began to push his way through the crowd.
They stood five deep, and it took every ounce of determination for Duo to wriggle and force his way between each person. Half way to the front of the line, Duo heard the taunts of each man.
"Without your Gundam you've lost your flair," he heard Zechs say.
"Do you always need an audience when you fight?" Heero asked, sarcastically.
Their voices were rough and breathless with exertion and a quality Duo knew too well... battle adrenaline.
With one last push, Duo spilled out of the mass of bodies. He quickly regained his balance and absorbed the scene before him... a large room dominated by two powerful and very focused warriors.
"What the fuck," Duo said, finding it hard to believe. What had triggered this confrontation? Had the security check gone that badly?
Both Zechs and Heero looked as though they had been fighting intensely for some time. Hair clung damp to their faces and their shirts were soaked with sweat, and yet their eyes glistened with the determination of defeating an old enemy.
Duo looked over his shoulder at those gathered. Wasn't anyone going to stop this? They were Zechs's staff... his servants and guards. Of course, they would only interfere if they thought their prince was in danger. Obviously they were secure in the knowledge that Zechs would win, but at what cost?
Duo spun back around, eyes wide as Zechs lunged forward in another attack. Duo had every faith that Heero could hold his own, but he couldn't just stand here watching the man he loved risk injury.
"I've got to stop this," Duo said, stepping forward.
Some of the onlookers called out to him, "What are you doing?" "You'll get hurt!" But Duo was determined to bring an end to this ridiculous rivalry.
"Hey, you two! The war's over!" he shouted as he came within twenty paces of the duel.
They seemed not to hear him as Heero blocked the attack and then pushed Zechs back with not one, but three strikes of his sword. Each blow dealt with force and snarling teeth.
"What the hell are you doing?" Duo asked, calling out to them both. "We're all on the same side now!"
His attempt at halting the fight was met by a flash of intense eyes from Zechs and a growl from Heero. Duo took a half step back. This was not a game, this was the war all over again. Duo knew there was only one way to be heard in the middle of a battle and that was to jump into the fray and make a big splash.
He walked away, scanning the weapons on the wall. He'd choose one and then they'd have to listen to him! This old rivalry had to stop!
Heero circled wide, the pause allowing him to catch his breath and calculate his next move. Duo's appearance in the hall had set Heero's heart to pounding even harder. If he was going to win he could not be distracted, and he would win this for the both of them.
"You have no chance of winning, Zechs," Heero said in a harsh, flat tone.
"On the contrary, I have every chance," Zechs said, his eyes glancing to Duo's retreating form. It was unfortunate that Duo had come upon their battle, but perhaps he could use that to his advantage. "There is nothing you can offer him!"
Heero snarled. "You'll suffocate him in this gilded cage!"
"Huh?" Duo turned back to the duel, his mouth agape. Were they talking about him?
"I should've killed you in Antarctica," Heero said, circling closer to Zechs, nearly ready for his next attack. "Then you wouldn't be in the way now."
"You're the one confusing him. Duo was happy until you came back into his life."
"What the---" Duo said, dumbfounded. This fight was over him?
"Funny, he didn't seem unhappy when he was kissing me this morning," Heero said, half smiling with the confession.
Zechs's eyes narrowed on his opponent. So Heero had dared to meet with Duo again. "A mere trifle considering that he's been in my bed for the last two months," Zechs shot back.
"Hey!" Duo shouted in protest. His face was red with anger and embarrassment as he looked from the duel to the ogling bystanders. He rushed to one of the open doors and tried to close them out. "Get the hell out of here!"
Shocked by his display of emotion and sheer force of will, a portion of the group stepped back, and Duo was able to close and bolt one door. He hurried to the other side, and began swinging that door shut as well, needing desperately to close out the world as he prepared to deal with his lovers privately.
Just then Noin and Relena burst into the room.
"We just heard..." Noin said as she looked from Duo to the duel. "Oh my God, it's true!"
"Milliardo! Heero!" Relena called as she rushed in, distressed to see the two men she cared most about battling each other. "Stop this foolishness immediately!"
Duo rolled his eyes, knowing her pleas would be unheard. "This doesn't concern you."
"I thought their rivalry ended with the war..." Noin was saying, but then shut her mouth as the taunts began to fly between the warring parties once again.
"It's time for you to give Duo up and find a new hobby," Heero said, with much resentment.
"And how long will you fuck him this time before you walk out on him... again?" Zechs replied, angrily.
The pair clashed once again, their swords connecting and ringing out with the high ping of metal on metal.
"You sons of bitches!" Duo cried out as he stalked forward, blood boiling in his veins. He would tear them apart, limb from limb with his bare hands. Anything to stop this bullshit.
Noin was on Duo in an instant, grabbing his arms from behind and jerking him away from the fight. "Stay out of this, Duo," she said, her tone a warning.
"You stay out of it!" Duo yelled as he worked to break free of her grasp.
Zechs and Heero were fighting over him as if he were a trophy to be won. How dare they think that his heart could be secured by a duel! He was horrified that they would have so little respect for him. Maybe he was just a bed warmer after all...
Duo twisted out of Noin's hold, stumbling back and onto his ass. He hit the wooden floor hard. Damn them all. Damn Zechs for using him as a convenient fuck and damn Heero for making Duo think that things could be different between them.
"I'm outa here," Duo said, trembling with rage as he got to his feet. "They can kill each other for all I care."
"Duo don't..." Noin said, reaching out and trying to delay his departure. Despite what she felt for Zechs, she knew that Duo made him happy.
Duo slapped her hand away as he tore out of the hall. He had been insulted enough for one day.
With Duo gone, Noin turned to calming Relena.
"Have the guards stop this!" Relena demanded.
"Oh, Miss Relena, this needs to run its course or they'll never resolve their rivalry."
Relena huffed in frustration. She had never understood the need for violence.
Zechs and Heero were equally matched, and there was no doubt that this duel could drag on for hours. Their match in Antarctica had gone on for three hours before being interrupted by Relena and an army of OZ mobile suits. This time it seemed that nothing would stop them from settling their rivalry once and for all. The winner would gain more than just bragging rights, he could make demands.
"I'm growing bored of this contest," Zechs said, dismissing Heero as though suddenly not a worthy opponent.
"Then finish it... if you can," Heero dared.
Zechs gave a feral grin and then with explosive speed bolted forward, swinging his sword down on Heero. The move was so fast and so unlike the others Zechs had used that Heero was caught off guard. He jumped aside and turned, but not in time. His left arm was grazed by Zechs's blade slicing through his white shirt and into his skin.
The sight of blood made Relena scream, but Noin held her back from running into the fray.
Zechs attacked again, not waiting for Heero to recover from the flash of pain racing down his arm. This time he came in from Heero's right and strategically went for the grip of his opponent's blade. Zechs's sword slid past Heero's hand and hooked under the guard, and then Zechs swung out, yanking the sword out of Heero's hand. The sword flew high into the air, tumbling over end to end until it hit the floor with a clatter.
Heero stared at it disbelieving until he registered the feel of cold metal at his throat. His eyes turned back to Zechs who held his sword to Heero's neck.
"The duel is over," Zechs said, his tone no less threatening than it had been during the conflict.
"And once again we've proven our weakness to fight," Heero said.
Zechs gave a toss of his head, clearing the hair from his eyes. "It's over, Heero," he repeated.
"Please don't hurt him, Milliardo!" Relena cried from across the room.
Zechs glanced at his sister. No, he would not hurt Heero... physically. That kind of pain meant nothing to soldiers such as them.
"Are you prepared for the terms of your surrender?" Zechs asked, purposefully choosing the language of war.
"You won honorably," Heero said, accepting the fact that he was in no position to argue.
"Then listen carefully, Heero Yuy... We may well meet again, but it will never be on Sankian soil. This is a peaceful nation and as such, I hereby exile you from the Sank Kingdom... never to return!"
"No!" Relena cried, tearing away from Lucrezia and running to Heero's side. "Take that back, Milliardo! Heero is my friend and protector!"
"I will protect you now, dear sister," Zechs said, slowly lowering his sword.
Heero stared intently at Zechs. He might have guessed that Zechs would want him out of his life for good... and away from Duo. But Heero also gave Zechs credit, the man understood that the two of them could not live peaceably, and Sank was a peaceful nation.
"He's right, Relena," Heero said, turning to look at the girl. "It's your brother's job to protect you now. Had I known he was alive, I might never have come here."
"Oh, Heero, please don't go... Milliardo will take it back," the girl pleaded with tears in her eyes.
"No, he won't," Heero said, flatly. "We'll see each other again Relena, it just won't be in Sank."
Relena threw her arms around the boy and gave him a fierce hug. "Where will you go?"
"I don't know," Heero said, truthfully.
"The guards will escort you to your room to pack your belongings," Zechs said, softening at the scene before him, but not enough to recant his demands.
Heero nodded at Zechs and then gently pushed Relena away. "I'll be fine," he said and then walked from the hall with the stoicism of a true soldier.
The guards never left Heero's side. He was escorted back to his room and given just enough time to throw a few things into his backpack, change his torn shirt and slip on his black jean jacket. No problem, he always did pack light. Then Heero was taken on a circuitous route through the palace, avoiding the busiest corridors, but surprisingly ending up at the grand entryway with Relena waiting.
"I'm sure you didn't expect to see anyone," she said, sadly. "But it's wrong to send you away with no one here."
Heero's mind flashed on the day of Duo's arrival. He had purposely not been present, but it was not for lack of wanting. And now Duo wasn't here to see him off. Oh, that he could have seen Duo one last time....
Relena gave the guards a harsh look, prompting them to step back several paces. With a bit more privacy, she held out her hand, revealing a long, snow-white envelope emblazoned in blue with the official crest of the Peacecraft dynasty.
"This is not charity," she said as she handed it to him. "This is your last month's pay. Please accept it and my fondest wishes for a happy life."
Heero took the envelope and opened it to find several thousand sovereigns. Though it was awkward receiving such a large sum this way, it was owed him, and the cash would come in handy. His previous months' pay had been banked and could be transferred when he had settled in a new place.
"Thank you," he said, barely meeting her eyes.
"Oh, there's one more thing," Relena said brightly, gesturing for him to follow her outside.
A servant opened the ornate door for the princess, and Heero followed her into the sunny day. They stood on the stone landing, a surprisingly cool breeze meeting them.
"Isn't it wonderful?" Relena asked as she breathed in deeply. "I love it when the wind comes in off the sea."
Heero's bangs stirred about his face, but he did not reply. Sank was a beautiful country, but he was in the process of trying to forget it now.
Relena regained her focus and pointed below them to the foot of the steps. "There," she said, her face alight. At the place where the drive curved in to the wide, stone steps was a motorcycle---the type used by the border patrols. "I know you can manage on your own," Relena said with the familiarity of old friends, "but I thought it would be good for you to have your own mode of transportation."
"Does Zechs know about this?" Heero asked, a bit sharply.
Relena giggled. "He may be running this country, but he doesn't need to know everything that goes on!"
Heero couldn't help a little grin. The girl's logic was on target and it was only right that he accept her help this once.
Relena smiled, delighted that her gift was appreciated. "I won't say goodbye, Heero," she said, biting her lower lip to keep it from trembling.
He nodded, slipping the envelope into his pack and then descending to the driveway below. Shit, was he really leaving? Without turning back, he went about his preparations for final departure, securing his pack, donning the helmet and finally mounting the bike. There was a moment's hesitation before he started the engine, his thoughts and his heart racing back to Duo... mapping out how he could get back into the palace and find Duo before anyone could stop him. He shook his head. If Duo wanted him, he would have told Heero by now.
With a final nod to Relena, Heero started the engine and set off on his journey. Relena's eyes had glistened with tears and he thought once again how he admired her determination and bravery. Of course, he felt some relief in knowing that the responsibility for her preservation was now in another's hands. Whether he liked it or not, he was a free man... in more ways than one.
Nearly one mile from the palace, Heero slowed his bike, and despite his better judgment gazed back. The open fields surrounding the palace were blossoming with spring, and the Sankian palace gleamed white in the distance. The tranquil setting belied the struggle that had gone on within, a struggle that had ended with his leaving.
Heero said, nearly begging for his lover to return to him. He had done everything possible to help Duo see the change inside of him. Now it was time to let Duo go, and so a different plea formed on Heero's lips and he whispered it into the breeze...
"Please, Duo... be happy."
With a hard swallow and the shedding of a single tear, Heero turned away from Sank for good, heading out onto the open road.
Despite his great victory, Zechs was not in the mood to receive congratulations from his staff. He was exhausted and pushed through the circle of admirers with nods and half smiles. All he wanted right now was a hot, scented bath, a bottle of his best champagne, and a very naked and wet Duo to enjoy it with. Thoughts of his lover stirred Zechs back to life when only moments before he doubted he could walk back to his suite of his own volition.
Zechs headed upstairs contemplating how he would spend the rest of the day fucking Duo, his Duo, and making a final claim on him. Now there would be no more Heero to interfere and to distract. Duo would settle down and they could begin making a life together in Sank.
That little fantasy lasted until Zechs opened the door into his Royal suite. The once pristine chamber was now torn apart. The bed linens were stripped from the bed, the draperies askew, and every drawer open and its contents---clothing and otherwise---tumbled onto the floor. It looked quite literally as though a storm had torn through the room... and in seconds, Zechs would meet that storm.
"Stupid, fucking, no good, son of a bitch...," came the litany of profanity from the bathroom.
Zechs straightened. Okay, maybe he shouldn't have expected a victor's welcome.
"Duo?" Zechs called, tentatively.
A second later, Duo emerged from the bathroom with his duffel bag in hand and a look on his face that Zechs had never seen before... one a mix of frazzled nerves, grief and wild anger. Duo flashed Zechs a threatening glare and then set his bag down and proceeded to look through the piles of clothes on the floor.
"You're leaving?" Zechs asked, confused.
"Where the fuck's my cap?" Duo replied snappishly, ignoring the question.
"Your cap?" Zechs asked. Why was Duo acting this way?
"Yeah, my fucking black cap!" Duo shouted, pointing to his head, but not looking up.
Zechs blinked. "That's why you've torn apart our room?"
Duo shot up, standing tall for all of five feet, one inch. "You mean YOUR room! I am so gone..."
"You're upset about the duel?" Zechs reasoned.
Duo sighed heavily. "Oh, gee, I can't imagine why," he said, sarcastically. "It's not like I should mind being treated like a commodity."
"You could never be that..."
"Oh, no? Well, you and Heero sure made it clear that I'm a Grade A piece of meat!"
Zechs took a step back, appalled that Duo would think such a thing. Zechs believed the duel had been honorable and he had fairly won the right to continue in his relationship with Duo.
"I'm sorry if that's the impression you..."
"Fuck you, Zechs!" Duo shouted and then returned to his search.
Tears filled Duo's eyes as he continued his frantic hunt. The pain inside him was ripping him apart, and maybe that was why it was so important for him to find his trusty cap. He needed that cap... that one last link to his old self, the God of Death. He knew he had packed it when they had come from Boston just days ago, but he hadn't seen it since. One of the servants must have tucked it away not realizing its importance.
Zechs stared at Duo, watching his jerky, angry movements. Pain was rippling off the young man's tense, slender shoulders. Whatever wrong Zechs had committed it had cut Duo deeply.
"I was going to wait to discuss this with you later," Zechs began, anxious to re-connect with Duo. "I want to appoint you as my official liaison to the Sankian parliament. It would allow us to work together, but also give you a semblance of autonomy... " Zechs's words drifted off as Duo turned his eyes to him, eyes burning with a deep resentment.
"I don't want your charity," Duo said, turning back to stuffing clothes into his bag.
"It's hardly charity. You'd have an official position... your own staff."
Duo stood again and put his hands on his hips. "You don't get it, do you? I heard what you and Heero said... exchanging jibes of your sexual conquests of me. Well, that's bullshit, man! I don't need that crap and I certainly don't need you!"
Zechs shuddered. He was losing Duo.
"I'm sure you can understand that certain things are said in battle to provoke or intimidate an enemy."
"Hell, yeah, I know," Duo agreed, in a surprisingly cordial tone, but that tone didn't last. "I ain't gonna be that ball you volley back n' forth. Duo Maxwell is nobody's plaything! And it might interest you to know that I had already decided I was leaving before I found you fighting."
That was a lot to process, but Zechs could guess why Duo had decided to leave. "To be with Heero?"
As much as Duo wanted to punish Zechs, he didn't have the nerve to tell him, 'yes.' Besides, Heero was now a moot point... null and void.
"I'm not gonna be with anyone," Duo finally said, nearly convulsing with the words. He then took the beautiful watch Zechs had given him off his wrist and held it out in the palm of his hand. "I can't keep this," he said, nervously. This was the part he was dreading, the actual severing of this relationship, a relationship that had had many happy times.
"It's my gift to you," Zechs said, keeping his hands at his sides.
"No, it's too expensive..."
"Duo, I bought that expressly for you," Zechs said, feeling his heart pound hard at the sight of Duo holding that watch out to him. It had been something like a promise between them, though perhaps not as symbolic as a ring. "I want you to have it... always."
"Okay," Duo said, reluctantly. "Thanks. I've always liked it."
Duo put the watch back on and for a moment Zechs believed things would be fine. But the air was all wrong in the room, it hung heavy, crowding him even though the room was obscenely large for two people. He needed to act, to scramble his troops and come in from all sides if he was going to hang onto Duo, the boy with the look of flight in his eyes.
"I can see what you need is a little time to yourself," Zechs said, warmly. "There's a lovely summer retreat up in the mountains..."
Duo shook his head and dropped his gaze to the floor. He couldn't bear to see the pain creeping back into Zechs's eyes.
"This has been a rough few days," Duo said, his voice low, but steady. "Rough for you, me and Heero." At Heero's name, Duo looked up, making eye contact with Zechs.
"And how would you know it's been rough for Heero?" Zechs asked. It had bothered him all along to detect traces of what was surely going on behind his back, and as much as he didn't want to hear it from Duo, he had to ask.
"He told me that he wanted me back," Duo said, his eyes wide and round with the terrible position in which he had been placed.
"And what did you tell him?" Zechs asked with a swallow.
"I didn't tell him anything," Duo said, truthfully.
Zechs considered the answer for a long moment. It was not in Duo's nature to lie, so what was he saying? That he had not said 'yes' to Heero, but also that he had not said 'no.'
"Then, if you're not running off to be with Heero, what are you doing?" Zechs asked.
"I'm just leaving," Duo said with a little shrug. He could see the wheels turning in Zechs's mind and held up his hand to stop the flood of questions that was about to be released. "Look, this isn't easy for me. I like you Zechs, hell, maybe it's even more than like, but I can't do this," he said, throwing up his hands. "Hell, I can't even order out for pizza in this place."
"Well, if it's pizza you want," Zechs said with a small smile.
Duo gave a little chuckle, the anger going out of him. It was just like when he had first met Zechs, he couldn't stay mad at him, or keep that level of hatred up long enough to kill the man. Maybe it was Zechs's charm that so disarmed Duo, or perhaps it was the sadness in his eyes, a sadness that ebbed and flowed through him, constant, but not always at the surface.
When Duo spoke again, his tone was much softer. "I know neither one of us wants to dissect what went wrong..."
"I can tell you what it was," Zechs interrupted.
Duo straightened, surprised. "You can?"
"It's been our problem from the very beginning."
The clue only confused Duo all the more. "You mean about being enemies?"
Zechs shook his head. "You're in love with Heero. You came to me in love with him and you're leaving me still in love with him."
Duo's gaze slipped away.
"Don't feel bad. You made it clear that you loved him, and I still seduced you," Zechs said, reaching out and gently taking hold of Duo's chin.
The boy looked back at him uneasily. "Heero doesn't matter anymore."
"He doesn't?" Zechs asked, skeptically.
Again, the beautiful blue orbs looked away, and Zechs felt his heart breaking. He had been a fool to fall for someone whose heart was already taken, but then how could he have resisted? Duo was a mischievous, captivating blend of manchild who had come into his life at a time when Zechs had thought he would never have another friend in the world. And as much as he yearned to make Duo stay, he would not. Heero had been right. Duo would never be happy in this gilded cage.
"If you are determined to go, would it be wrong of me to make one last request?" Zechs asked, boldly.
Duo looked at him with curiosity plain in his eyes. What did Zechs have in mind? "Go ahead."
Zechs melted at the hesitation. How was it possible that the boy standing before him was one and the same with the war creature, God of Death, who had plagued OZ for so many months?
"Would you allow me to kiss you once more?" he asked, gently, as his thumb caressed Duo's chin.
Slowly, Duo nodded, his eyes growing even more wide and round. He hadn't expected this.
Zechs grinned warmly and bent down, pressing his lips to Duo's. There was a slight tensing of Duo's body, but then, very soon, Duo relaxed and accepted the kiss for what it was... a sweet farewell.
In that moment, Zechs not only felt himself falling away, broken, but also the truth that he might have destroyed Duo's one chance for something beautiful. But that something had not been between him and Duo... it had been between Duo and Heero.
Suddenly, he pulled out of the kiss with a gasp, the clarity of what he had done spiking in his mind and in his heart.
Duo's eyes remained closed seconds longer, but when they opened he quickly saw that something was wrong. "What is it?" he asked, his pulse quickening. "You look... frightened."
A small smile curled at Zechs's lips. Perhaps he was afraid, but it was for Duo and not himself. Maybe, just maybe there was still time to put things right.
"If you'd like to finish packing, I have a phone call to make," Zechs said, very mysteriously.
Duo tilted his head, but didn't argue. He went back to his duffel bag, sadly not having found his cap, and threw a couple more items in before zipping it closed. Then he grabbed his brown leather bomber's jacket from the wardrobe and slipped it on. When he returned to the center of the room, Zechs was just hanging up the phone.
"I guess this is it," Duo said, holding his bag in front of him with both hands.
Zechs sighed. Damn, Duo could look so vulnerable at times. "Indeed. Please allow me to walk with you," Zechs said, opening the door for them.
Outside the palace, Zechs gestured to the surprise he had arranged.
"My bike!" Duo exclaimed with a bright smile. "When did this get here?"
"Only yesterday. I was going to surprise you with it this evening..."
Duo looked up at Zechs and frowned. "Zechs, I'm sorry..."
Zechs shook his head. "We agreed upon something when we began," he said in a nostalgic tone. "We agreed to be a comfort to one another, and we did that."
Now Duo was shaking his head. "Yeah, but..."
A long, white finger touched Duo's lips, silencing him. "Duo, you were my comfort and my friend when I had none. I regret nothing of what we shared."
"And I'm still your friend," Duo said, adamantly. He was hurting, but he wasn't about to let it show. He and Zechs needed a clean break, and so Duo smiled and added, "I'll always be your friend."
"Thank you," Zechs said, and then walked over to the motorcycle with Duo, watching him fasten his bag with bungee cords.
As Duo readied to mount the bike, Zechs spoke again, knowing this was his last chance. "There is something I must confess before you go."
"Oh, yeah? What's that?" Duo asked, leaning against his bike comfortably. It felt so good to have his wheels back!
"It's about the duel."
"Not that stupid thing again," Duo said, rolling his eyes. "Are you trying to get me mad? 'Cause I'm gonna get mad if you keep talking about it."
"Heero lost the match," Zechs said, succinctly.
Duo stood up, surprised, but then schooled his features. "Well, that's too bad for Heero," he said, sarcastically.
Zechs ignored the flippant remark, knowing that Duo was suffering. "You are aware that the duel was about you, but what you don't know was the consequence for losing."
Duo gulped. That didn't sound good. "You didn't take him out back and hang him, did you?" he half-joked.
"Nothing so barbaric," Zechs replied in a regal tone. "I chose instead to banish Heero from the Sank Kingdom."
Duo blinked. "You banished him?"
"Yes, Heero is gone from this place, never to return."
A flash of panic skittered through Duo. "Where did he go?" It was the child in him speaking again, but the young man quickly regained control. "No, wait. Don't answer that."
Duo's sudden play at disinterest was not lost on Zechs. "Duo," Zechs said, touching the boy's shoulder. "You love Heero, and I know that he loves you. After all, he was fighting for you."
"He was fighting for a good fuck!" Duo exclaimed, angrily, shaking off Zechs's hand.
Zechs pulled back, but regrouped. "Heero was fighting for the person he loves."
Duo gave a derisive snort, crossing his arms defensively over his chest. "And how would you know so damn much about it?"
"Because a true soldier knows his enemy's weakness," Zechs said, his tone and mannerisms regressing to the Lightning Count. "Yes, he lost to me, but this fight was not like the others. Before he battled only to defeat me, this time he battled for you. He was desperate for you. And if I didn't know how much you love him, I wouldn't have told you this."
There was a softening in Duo's eyes, and then in a blink it was gone. "Any other confessions for me?"
"Perhaps you didn't fully hear the first one," Zechs said, smoothly.
"I got it," Duo snapped, turning to his bike and swinging a leg over as he seated himself. "You want me to chase after a guy who dumped me six months ago and has been yanking my chain for the last three days, pretending he's changed when in fact, all he was doing was trying to find a way back into my pants. Well, I've been there, done that. I'm closing up shop on the easy fuck department."
Zechs shook his head. "You can't really believe that?"
"Zechs, it's not your place to worry about it anymore... In fact, it was never your place to worry about it."
Duo put his helmet and leather gloves on, and ignited the engine. "Yep, still purrs like a kitten," he said with a grin, seeming to have forgotten their conversation already.
"You can still find him," Zechs said, over the engine's idle. "He took the mountain road. When the main highway forks left, bear right through the mountains. It's the shortest distance out of Sank, but the road can be quite unpredictable up there."
"You don't give up, do you?" Duo asked, looking at the blond man curiously.
"I hope it's you who doesn't give up," Zechs said.
Duo nodded slowly, gazing at Zechs for a long moment. He had so many regrets with Zechs, but there was no use in apologizing again. As Zechs had said, they had agreed to be a comfort to one another, and they had done that... quite well.
"I wish I had something profound to say right now," Duo said with a chuckle. "But even if I did, it's not my style."
Zechs smiled. This was their goodbye, but he would do everything he could to keep it from being sad.
"You definitely have your own style," Zechs said, lightly.
"Nah, my style was all you. You're one classy guy," Duo said with a wide smile.
Zechs looked away briefly, his eyes going out over the great expanse of lawn to the road beyond. This was where he was meant to be. Ruling Sank was his destiny...
Ice blue eyes turned back to Duo, shining with a mix of farewell and happy memories. "I think you're right. There are no words for this moment."
Duo's smile faded slightly at Zechs's sedate tone. "Yeah, no words, but there's no forgetting either," he said.
Zechs nodded, knowing there was certainly no way he would ever be able to forget Duo Maxwell.
"Friends," he said, holding out his elegant hand.
Duo looked at the extended hand and then into Zechs's eyes and smiled. "Yeah, friends always," he agreed and took the warm hand in his.
Their hands shook and then separated slowly, each young man's mind briefly flashing on the passion they had shared, and what it had all meant.
With no hard feelings to haunt either one, Duo put his bike into gear and smiled once more. "You're gonna make someone very happy someday," he said, and drove off without looking back.
"I had rather hoped that someone would be you..." Zechs said, but his words went unheard as Duo disappeared over the horizon.