by: Aoe

Strangers in Paradise + Part 10

Zechs paced slowly through the mobile suit hangar, pretending not to notice how heads turned and silence trailed in his wake. They were still a bit unsure of him.

Not that he particularly blamed them for that. He'd departed Oz most spectacularly, after all, shedding not only his rank but his very identity as well. Then he'd gone wandering among the colonies, searching for a cause, a concrete belief on which to take a stand.

He hadn't found one.

He'd returned to Earth at the news of the attack on the Sank kingdom, hoping to at least protect his sister, but managing only to engage in another test of skill with Heero Yuy.

Zechs admired the younger pilot, but more than that, he envied him. Heero knew where he stood, what he was fighting for. All the Gundam pilots had what Zechs knew he lacked: the courage of their convictions.

Zechs scowled viciously, thinking of what had been done to the driven young man. He didn't envy those vicious idiots who had done it. Treize respected the Gundam pilots even as Zechs did, and took his honor very seriously. As a prisoner of Oz, Heero had been under Treize's protection.

Those fools would learn the price of besmirching Treize's honor.

Zechs sighed. It didn't really matter what Treize did to them, though. The damage had been done, by vindictive bullies looking for someone to blame for their unhappiness.

That wasn't what Oz soldiers were supposed to be.

But the younger, newer men... They had never known Treize, as the original Specials had. They had an idea of Treize, but it was tailored to their own beliefs and desires.

Oz had gotten too big. It was no longer a force for change, but a destructive juggernaut, simply rolling over and crushing any opposition. Even the Gundams could only do so much. Powerful as the machines were, and dedicated to the point of suicide as their pilots were, there were still only five of them. And the cause for which they fought so valiantly seemed to have gone up in smoke some months back.

As things stood now, the remnants of Treize's force that hadn't already returned to his side would either do so or be wiped out easily by Oz's ever-swelling numbers, and the Gundams... Well, Zechs rather thought they would fight until they couldn't any longer, but at this rate, the great machines would be dragged down, worn down by superior numbers, not defeated in glorious personal combat. And once the Gundams were gone... You needed two sides to have a war.

It would end by default, with no one strong enough to oppose Treize.

That wasn't the sort of fight Zechs had signed on for. And, he was certain, it wasn't the sort of victory Treize wanted.

Zechs came to a halt at the feet of Epyon, the massive machine gleaming malevolently in the hangar lights.

He wondered how differently things might have turned out if he'd taken Quinze up on his offer all those months ago. Would he have found the strength, the resolve, to defy Treize? Or would he only have expedited the return of the Oz soldiers within White Fang to Treize's command?

He didn't know. He never would. He'd ignored Quinze's request, choosing to take some time to try and figure out where he stood on his own.

And in the end, aimless and confused, he'd returned to Treize's side, to the only clear path he'd ever known. He'd been too long gone from Sank, seen too much in his short life. He could no longer embrace his father's ideals as Relena could, in her innocence. He was a warrior, first by necessity, now by choice.

Treize had welcomed him back like the prodigal son. Or perhaps like a favorite dog, who'd strayed, but finally found its way home.

Yes. That fit. Treize's prize hound. As Heero put it, Treize's most loyal servant.

But how was a servant, a hound, to alter the course of events? How could he return things to how they ought to be, how could he set this war back on the path it should have taken?

He didn't know.

"Baka. I told you how. I even gave you the means to do it."

Zechs stared up at Epyon.

Zechs frowned in thought, and climbed slowly up to the catwalk at Epyon's cockpit level. He stared into the darkness for a moment, and until his eyes adjusted he entertained the brief whimsy that the entrance led not to a cockpit, but an endless black abyss.

It gazes also...

Zechs climbed in and seated himself, closing the cockpit so he was sealed in silence and shadow.

If Heero couldn't control it, perhaps... it can't be controlled? Perhaps Epyon requires... a more passive approach.

"I don't understand how he thinks."

But... I do. I do.

Zechs reached out and touched the controls, bringing the guidance system to life with a soft hum. He set the control helmet on his head, settled back in his seat... and began to listen.

_____________________________________________________


Wufei slid through the shadows of the base, trying to keep Duo in sight. The American was just slightly more adept at skulking about unnoticed, and kept getting further ahead. Wufei could hardly call Duo back, either, since they were deep inside the massive base already.

Getting in had actually been remakably easy, since they'd left their Gundams some kilometers distant. Wufei had some experience with sneaking into Oz bases, and Duo had plenty of experience with breaking and entering. Between the two of them they'd snuck past guards, hot-wired alarms, and played merry hell with the surveillance system. In the last guard station they'd ghosted past, there had been a very loud argument going on as to why every camera circuit on the fourth level seemed to be looped to the feed from the monitor outside the women's bathroom. The shift supervisor had been unimpressed with the guards' protestations of innocence.

Wufei and Duo had shared a conspiratorial smile and moved on to the stairs down to the second sub-level.

Now that they were here, though, on the floor that actually housed prisoners, Duo just couldn't seem to restrain himself to Wufei's more cautious pace. Wufei sighed softly and shook his head. He couldn't blame the boy, he supposed, but he also couldn't understand why Duo was breezing past all these cells without even checking. The actual cell number where Trowa and Heero were being held had not been included in the information Wufei was able to hack without setting off alarms. Heero probably would have been able to do it, but none of the rest of them could quite match the Japanese boy's computer skills.

Duo seemed confident of his destination, though. Wufei just shook his head. He'd known he would have to be the practical one on this mission. He halted before a cell door and slid back the observation panel, checking inside. Empty.

Shrugging, he moved on to the next cell.

That one and five more after it were also unoccupied. A less patient man might have given up at that point and just followed Duo's lead, but Wufei believed in being thorough. He was not, as Maxwell had occasionally suggested, just anal-retentive.

Sniffing in irritation at the very thought, Wufei pulled back the panel on the eighth cell he'd come to.

His eyes widened briefly in surprise and amazement, then a small smirk twisted his lips.

It always paid to be thorough.

+

Duo wandered silently down the semi-darkened corridors, passing cell after cell without even pausing to look in.

Wufei would be carefully checking them all anyway, on the off chance that Duo was incorrect in his destination.

He couldn't explain what urged him to pass by all these cells. Logically, he acknowledged that Heero and Trowa could be in any one of them, and he ought to follow Wufei's meticulous example, and not his own strange whims.

But hell, if Quatre could formulate his (usually) excellent battle plans around his ‘feelings', then Duo could run a rescue operation based on his own.

He hoped.

Besides, they didn't have any time to spare, so on the off chance Duo's instincts were leading him in the right direction, it was worth a shot. At the very least, they eliminated one more cell.

His light steps slowed as he neared the end of the corridor. Somewhere along here... he was pretty sure... It just felt right.

Felt right... Duo bit his lip nervously, wondering what this reunion would be like. He missed Heero like an amputee misses a limb. The Japanese boy had become a part of Duo, and being without him... Well, Duo knew withdrawal when he felt it. His body craved Heero's touch, his heart needed to feel Heero's love warming him, keeping him safe...

And Trowa... Duo was worried about the tall pilot. Trowa had not been himself before the fight, and he had no idea how Heero had handled that. Or if Heero had handled it. Trowa had a very bad habit of repressing his emotions behind his mask of stoic implacability, and Heero wasn't likely to even realize anything was wrong if that was what Trowa had done.

Heero would be okay. As long as the Japanese boy wasn't dead, Duo wasn't too worried about him. He'd probably be a little banged up, but Heero could take a lot of punishment without batting an eye. He was strong, he'd be fine.

But Trowa... Trowa was strong, too, of course, but... there was something fragile inside him, that made Duo just want to wrap Trowa up in his arms and hold him close, protect him from the world. Not that Trowa was likely to allow such a thing. The tall pilot liked his freedom, and Duo understood that. But Trowa... Trowa had needed him, back at the mansion, and they hadn't had time...

We'll make time, Duo decided firmly. I'm going to drag him out of that shell of his if it's the last thing I do. Heero will help me, I'm sure...

His mind produced the memory of Heero smirking in the doorway of Trowa's room.

It was kind of funny, Duo had reflected over the past few days, how Heero had so easily accepted Duo's attraction to Trowa. He knew that Heero understood he was attracted to the taller boy, but Heero's accepting grins and smirks, his utter lack of protest or jealousy, had Duo somewhat confused. After that performance back at the cabin, he'd expected a certain amount of possessiveness from the Japanese boy, but Heero hadn't acted that way at all, lately.

Duo had wondered what it meant when a person who'd been possessive suddenly decided he didn't mind sharing.

And he'd also wondered, very late at night, remembering meaningful looks between the two that he'd dismissed at the time, exactly how close Heero and Trowa were. What exactly had gone on between them when they'd traveled together after the Noventa disaster?

What exactly did Heero and Trowa mean to each other? And what did he mean to either of them?

Duo frowned, pausing in the hall to shake off the cumbersome doubts that had left dark shadows under his eyes for the past few days. He was only worrying because they weren't there with him, to reassure him that it was all real. He was only worrying because it was all too good to be true. He was only worrying because the other shoe was still hovering up there somewhere.

Baka, Duo chastised himself. You're wasting time. Trowa needs you, you need Heero, so quite shuffling your feet and get on with it. As soon as you find them, everything will be okay again.

Nodding firmly in agreement with himself, Duo stepped forward... and halted, looking at the door in front of him.

Had that been a soft groan he heard, coming from the other side?

Yes, definitely a groan. And definitely Heero's voice. God, was he hurt? How badly would Heero have to be hurt to groan like that?

Certain of his identification, and more than a little frantic with sudden concern, Duo quickly picked the lock, habit alone holding him to near silence as he worked. Finally, the door swung open, just as another groan emanated from within, light from the hallway spilling over the cot inside...

+

Trowa looked around in surprise as light spilled into the dim cell from the doorway. He hadn't heard a key in the lock!

But as his eyes adjusted to the light, Trowa recognized the figure standing there, staring at the two bodies entwined on the cot.

It wasn't an Oz soldier.

It was Duo.

Oh, this has to look good, Trowa thought bleakly to himself, studying Duo's expressive face for clues as to what the braided boy thought of the scene he'd walked in on.

Duo's eyes were wide, his jaw slack in surprise and amazement. A shadow of worry was fading from the violet eyes even as Trowa watched, being slowly replaced by... fear?

"Duo," Trowa said softly.

The violet eyes locked onto Trowa's steady gaze like a lifeline. "Trowa," Duo replied, a weak smile tugging at his lips. "I guess you had some time to think, huh?" he asked, obviously trying for a light tone.

Okay, I suppose that answers that question, Trowa thought bleakly.

Beneath him, Heero groaned again, and insistently ground himself against Trowa's pelvis, momentarily blanking out all rational thought in the taller pilot's mind. Heero, quite obviously, had not yet noticed Duo's presence. He was somewhat preoccupied.

Cursing quietly to himself as he swam back up from the swirling sea of sensation that was threatening to drown him, Trowa wondered what the best course of action would be. It really wouldn't be fair to Heero to rush things, not now, but...

"Um, not to rush you or anything, but we're sort of on a schedule," Duo's strangled voice observed from the doorway.

Trowa cursed silently again. Of course they were on a schedule! Here was Duo, trying to rescue him and Heero, and Trowa was contemplating prolonging the moment? You were right about one thing, Heero, sex does fuck up your priorities.

"Right," Trowa muttered, quickly taking stock of Heero's and his own readiness. Nodding clinically, he gave a few more sharp thrusts of his hips, and it was all over.

Trowa collapsed on top of Heero, gasping slightly as he pressed his forehead to Heero's cheek. "Heero," he murmured. "Heero, Duo's here. He's come to get us out. Ready to go?"

His message delivered, Trowa raised his head to look down at Heero's face... and suddenly realized what he'd been missing all along.

Heero's face had gone completely blank.

Heero was terrified.

Shit! Trowa thought. What have I been thinking about? This was only a part of it, just a little tiny part... He's used to torture, used to being hurt, but he's not used to being loved! He doesn't understand it, doesn't understand... Heero's words came back to him.

"I think... he would do a lot of things he didn't want to, or didn't like, if it was for me. I don't know why, but... he would."

You don't know why... he would want you. You don't know why you're worthy of that. And when this happened, you worried... you were afraid you'd hurt him. God, I should have seen it then... it's all about him, isn't it Heero? Not just the fear that you hurt him, but that... you're not good enough. That he won't want you anymore.

You know you love him... but you don't know that he loves you.

"Heero," Trowa said softly, staring intently into the shadowed blue eyes. "Daijobu."

"Hn," Heero grunted skeptically, but he sat up when Trowa did, the taller boy quickly yanking his pants up as he slid off the bed.

Trowa walked over to Duo, who smiled weakly at him. Duo seemed to be dazed, like he was in shock. Probably is.

"Duo," Trowa murmured softly, when they were only inches apart. He didn't embrace the shorter boy, wanting the eye contact between them to convey the seriousness of his words. "Heero ­ "

"Is ready to go," Heero interrupted sharply from right behind Trowa. Trowa turned to look down at the Japanese boy, and Heero returned his look flatly, a determined set to his lips. Trowa frowned in disapproval. You idiot, if we don't explain, don't you know what he'll think? Trowa wanted to yell.

But of course, Heero didn't know. Heero never had understood Duo's insecurity.

"Let's just get out of here first," Heero snapped, sliding around Trowa and Duo and out of the cell. Before Trowa could stop him, Duo moved quickly after Heero and grabbed the Japanese boy's arm, calling his name softly.

Heero jerked his arm out of Duo's grasp so hard the American almost fell down. Trowa wished his hands had the sense to cover his eyes, but instead they foolishly hung limp at his sides as Heero turned on Duo, his face a mask of defensive anger.

Duo took a step back in reaction to the rage in Heero's expression.

"Don't touch me," Heero warned softly. Trowa watched with oddly detached calm as Duo's shoulders twitched and then slumped in response to this command.

Heero backed away down the corridor, watching Duo for a few steps. Then he turned and began jogging toward the distant sound of Wufei's voice.

Trowa drew breath for the explanation that would clear everything up, but his throat froze in the face of the look Duo turned on him at that moment.

Confusion. Hurt. Betrayal. It said without words, You took him away from me.

Trowa shook his head in denial of the unvoiced accusation.

Duo simply turned and ran after Heero.

+

Heero came to an abrupt halt when he turned the last corner and found Wufei standing there, surrounded by a group of old men.

"Heero! Long time no report," a familiar voice greeted him, accompanied by the clacking of a mechanical hand.

I want to go back to my cell.

"What are you doing here?" Heero demanded of his erstwhile mentor. The other four scientists milled around, talking quietly with Wufei, who was apparently trying to figure out how to expand the rescue mission.

Dr. J shrugged, smiling his oily smile as he stepped closer to Heero. Involuntarily, Heero took a step backward, and then had to jump quickly to the side to avoid being run over by Duo.

Duo skidded to a stop, turning towards Heero with a pleading look on his face.

Pleading? What's he got to be pleading about? Heero wondered.

"Heero," Duo murmured softly, his tone thick with indecipherable emotions... Heero glanced from the braided boy to Dr. J, who was frowning back and forth between Duo and Heero.

Kuso. Could this get any worse?

Dr. J could be very... straightforward about removing any potential weaknesses in his perfect soldier. If Heero showed any sort of emotional dependence on Duo right now, he might as well stamp potential weakness on the American's forehead in big red letters. Or maybe, potential target.

So when Duo stepped forward, obviously intending to embrace his lover, Heero kept his face carefully blank and sidestepped Duo's open arms.

"I told you not to touch me," he growled, watching in confusion and despair as Duo's eyes widened in shock, shimmering slightly. Why was Duo reacting so strongly to Heero's behavior? It wasn't like they hadn't spent months acting this way around each other back at the beginning. Then it was always Duo reaching out, and Heero slapping his hand away. Of course, things have changed a lot since then, but...

Heero had never understood why Duo reached out to him. Why he bothered. Eventually, recently, he'd finally acknowledged his own desire to take what was offered. But he still didn't understand why it was offered. What did Duo see in him, anyway?

I'm just a soldier. Just a killer. That's all I ever was, and now...

He'd never been good enough for Duo. But now it was even worse. Now he was dirty, a thing that had been used... Heero had wondered, for several days now, if that would disgust Duo. If he would turn away from Heero.

Or, worse, if he would stay... out of pity.

Heero shuddered slightly at the thought.

Duo blinked in surprise, frowning at the shiver. He lifted a hand slightly, and Heero backed away again.

Suddenly, Duo's expression smoothed into his usual mask of vapid good nature. He smiled his wide, empty smile at Heero, nodded, and walked away to join the knot of people surrounding Wufei. Heero watched him go, wary and confused. Something had just happened between them. He'd just sent Duo a message.

And he had no idea what it had been.

+

In the end, Wufei wasn't sure they ever would have made it back out if it hadn't been for Zechs.

Four Gundam pilots alone, no matter their state of convalescence, were a lot better at sneaking around than four Gundam pilots with five old scientists in tow. Wufei had taken the lead with Duo covering the rear, and they'd moved through the base with their weapons drawn. There was simply no concealing a group of their size, so anyone that saw them would simply have to be shot. The odds of them making it out alive if they had to shoot anyone were not good.

But just as they were approaching the main level of the base and almost certain detection, suddenly alarms started going off. Emergency lighting cut in as the florescent lights died overhead, and the sound of boots pounding along the corridors filled the air in the fire exit staircase they were climbing. After a few moments, the corridors seemed emptied of people, though the alarms still blared. Finally, Wufei dared to stick his head out the door, and found the hall beyond deserted.

From that point on, escaping had been child's play. Providing, of course, that one was speaking of a child playing with a container of nitroglycerin.

One wrong move still would have gotten them killed, but the confusion they found on ground level provided ample cover for them to find and steal a transport truck, loading the doctors and Heero and Trowa in the back. As Wufei burned rubber away from the base, they observed, beyond the hordes of running, screaming soldiers and aimlessly wandering mobile suits, the massive figure of Epyon, green eyes gleaming in the darkness. As they stared, the huge mobile suit brought its whip down on top of a row of mobile dolls, sending up a succession of fireballs like a Roman candle. Zechs voice growled over the external speakers, apparently recruiting followers for a ‘real war', whatever the deranged aristocrat meant by that.

Wufei sniffed in irritation. He'd rather liked having all the bad eggs in one basket, but it seemed Oz was factioning again. Ah well, he supposed life would be more interesting now.

He raised an eyebrow in surprise when Duo asked him to slow the truck a bit. He'd turned with a critical comment about Duo's driving on his lips, but swallowed it in the face of the American's blank expression.

He'd never seen Duo look quite like that, and frankly, he found it unnerving. Enough so that he began to argue when the American flung open the door of the still moving vehicle, betraying his intent to jump out. But before Wufei could even begin to yell, Duo was out and rolling down the soft grassy shoulder of the road. Wufei cursed, but he really couldn't stop to drag Maxwell back to the truck, no matter how much he would enjoy it. They couldn't risk letting any pursuers catch up to them.

Still, he wondered exactly what Duo thought he was doing...

An idea occurred to Wufei, and he glanced at the odometer. Ah. He was going after Deathscythe. Wufei frowned, still irritated. They could have come back for the Gundams tomorrow, or any other time...

Finally, he shrugged. Duo was gone, so there was no sense arguing the point. Wufei could give the American a thorough tongue-lashing when next they met.

He briefly considered pointing out Duo's departure to Trowa or Heero, but a glance in the rear view mirror showed both pilots asleep on the truck bed.

Wufei sighed and drove on into the night.

+

Duo cursed softly under his breath, a steady litany of expletives accompanying his tromp through the woods as he approached Deathscythe's hiding place. The occasional explosion from the base still lit the sky every now and then, but Duo guessed Zechs was long gone by now. The fires were just getting to fuel and ammo dumps before they could be extinguished.

Finally, Duo arrived at the clearing that held his Gundam, and climbed wearily up to the cockpit, collapsing into the seat.

"I should have been expecting this," Duo announced grimly to the darkness. "It was only a matter of time before he figured out he could do better."

Duo closed his eyes, picturing Heero at his most relaxed, his most open... sleeping beside Duo. The coldly beautiful features softened to delicacy, the perpetually tousled hair soft beneath Duo's fingers, the long lashes fanned against a golden cheek...

Duo sighed and opened his eyes, banishing the memories.

"Trowa. You thought about it, didn't you. And you realized you could have him without the baggage of me. Always knew you were smart."

Duo's mind produced a vivid image of Trowa's face, turned toward the door in surprise, green eyes wide and warm with passion...

"You never looked at me like that," Duo whispered softly to the memory. Trowa's head turned back to Heero. "Of course, why would you?" Duo murmured bitterly.

He settled more deeply into the seat, curling into a ball. "I should know better by now," he chided himself. "Ask for too much and you always end up with nothing." He squeezed his eyes shut, one hand gripping at the arm of the pilot's seat.

"But I've still got you, eh, Shinigami? You and me, we were meant for each other." Duo chuckled softly in the darkness. "Me and Death, fucking inseparable," he muttered.

"I'm gonna sleep for a while, partner," he continued after a moment. "Maybe when I wake up, things will look better, ne?" he asked with a small smile.

Somewhere within the massive machine, metal groaned, a low, mournful sound.

Duo sighed, the smile slipping away. "Yeah," he murmured, "I don't buy it either."

+

A/N: And...that's it? Damn... Well, I believe I warned you folks it ended on a bit of an unresolved note. Heh heh... Let's see, Zechs has taken off with Epyon, Duo's sulking with Deathscythe, Heero's emotionally fragile and also emotionally retarded, and the wacky docs are back. (White Fang was holding them prisoner in the series, so I figured when Treize's troops came crawling back to Oz, they brought the freaks as a please-don't-court-martial-me present...) I can't really believe I left the story hanging here. Neither can Shoori. The third part of this trilogy consistently rates in the top five of her list of Things Aoe Ought To Be Writing. So where does it rank on yours, folks? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

and if you hold any love for me at all, you will contact Aoe and tell her you want her to continue this arc. now. please? *sheepish grin* -- Dacia ^_~

[part 9] [back to Aoe's fic]