The Lost Soldiers series #2 (cont)
Burning Brightly

+

Duo awoke in a comfortable hospital bed, warm, full of saline solution, and, for once, well rested. It was almost a temptation to keep his eyes closed and avoid reality as long as possible, but, that wasn't his nature. He met danger and adversity head on and with a silly grin, that was his trademark. Shinigami wasn't afraid of a little reality.

Duo fully expected one of his ankles to have a police security cuff to keep him from escaping. When he wriggled his feet, he didn't find one, or a police officer standing guard over his door for that matter. Instead, the door was open to an empty corridor, the hustle and bustle of hospital life coming to him faintly. It seemed he was free to go if he chose... or maybe more accurately, if he could.

Duo touched his bandaged ribs. He could feel injected bonding holding the bones together. That was only used on the most desperate cases, cases who they knew wouldn't take care of themselves long enough to heal naturally. They were all but saying that they thought that Duo was suicidal.

"Shows how much they know about me," Duo breathed as he tried to sit up. The world faded in and out and he decided against it. "I don't want to die," he whispered. "Heero Yuy is just trying to force me to ‘for my own good'."

"Too many drugs?" a husky voice wondered.

Duo started and, out of habit, reached for a weapon he didn't have. It took him a moment to orient his mind to accept that Zechs was in the same room with him and that he wasn't an enemy... yet. "Just talking to myself," Duo replied with a grin. "I'm good at that. I have to be because nobody else ever listens to me."

"I'm listening," Zechs replied as he came close, but not too close to the bedside.

Duo wasn't good at being contrite. He couldn't drop his grin long enough. "Ah, you're probably looking for an apology or an explanation, right? Well, if you remember, you left me a note to take advantage of the accommodations... I, uh, just took advantage of them a lot later than you probably intended."

Zechs didn't allow himself to look amused, even though he was by the ex pilot's bravado. "You did considerable damage to the hotel room. That and this expert medical treatment have cost me dearly."

Duo felt an edge of anger. "Yeah, well, sorry about the hotel room. I was pretty sick and out of it when I checked in. Patching me up was really nice of you, all things considered. I'm sure, though, being the brother of the Queen of the Universe, it didn't set your wallet back too far."

Zechs pursed his lips. He had expected more gratitude and some sense of debt. Duo's flippant remark had caught him by surprise. He frowned and began to turn. "Well, since you are obviously going to survive your injuries, I will inform the police of my grievances against you."

"Okay," Duo replied.

Zechs turned back to look at him. Duo was making himself comfortable in the bed, wincing at some pain, but Zechs had obviously been dismissed from his mind already.

"Okay?" Zechs echoed. "Don't you care that you are about to be charged and perhaps arrested?"

"No," Duo replied as he snuggled into his pillow. "Could you close the door, man? It's noisy out there and I need to sleep some more."

Zechs blinked. "Perhaps you think I am bluffing?"

Duo frowned a little, a slight crinkling of his elfin face. "Why would I think that? You're a serious man. I believe what you're saying. I'm about to be arrested. Fine. Nothing I can do about it, so I'm going to catch some z's before they show up, K? Hopefully, there won't be any ex Oz personal in the force with a grudge. I don't think my ribs can take any more punches."

"I'm owed something for my trouble," Zechs seethed.

Duo said sadly, "Sorry, I don't own anything at the moment to repay you with. Guess you'll have to chalk it up to ‘doing it out of the goodness of your heart.' "

Zechs flushed hotly and he hated the sudden feeling of guilt that washed over him. He almost suspected Duo of realizing his plans, and mocking him, but then Zechs scoffed. He hadn't given Duo any indication that he was interested in him as anything more than a curiosity from the war. Duo was just needling him for being an aristocrat and worrying about a few credits like some stingy miser.

Zechs began to leave again. Duo's face was smoothing out. He was still drugged, somewhat, from the operation on his ribs, and sleep wasn't going to be a problem for the ex pilot. Perhaps keeping secrets was.

"Good thing he didn't use his fist on your face," Zechs said absently as he stopped at he door.

"Yeah," Duo replied around a sleepy yawn. "Well, he did, but not too much. I hid it with some skin colored sunscreen. Heero's such a bastard. " Duo yawned again. "I was just lookin' ."

Zechs raised eyebrows. "Looking at what?" he prodded.

"Shower. Hmm, " Duo was almost asleep. "Just looked. He got all mad. Beat the crap out of me. Wanted me to... unhm... respect his privates... oh," he hissed a chuckle. "Privacy. Stupid shit," Duo slurred. "MMm, not gay. Just lookin. Even guys look, right?"

Zechs smiled. "Yes, they do," he replied in triumph, but Duo was asleep now. He probably wouldn't even remember the conversation later.

Zechs left the room, but instead of calling for the police, he made arrangements for Duo's care and left a note with some credit. The note said simply, To the Duo Maxwell charity. He knew it was going to prick the young man's pride, but Zechs was an excellent judge of character. He knew to use the whip sometimes to bring an overly spirited creature to heel. He would hold out the sugar and gain his trust again later. There was time to play out the game and Zechs wanted to draw out the diversion of Duo Maxwell as long as possible.

+

"Sorry, Heero.... Yes, I know I was wrong." Duo leaned against the vid screen booth and looked at Heero's dark expression. "I shouldn't have mouthed off to you. I know I have to be responsible and grow up. I can't expect you or Sally Po to pay my way through life and wipe my ass."

"I need proof of the information you're giving me, Duo," Heero replied coldly. "A real paycheck stub. I want to be certain that you aren't paying your half of the bills with stolen money."

"Heero!" Duo glared. "I told you where the money came from. A painted a house on Versado street. Go and look. Blue with white trim."

Heero shook his head in exasperation. "You are wasting your considerable talents. If you would show some discipline, Sally Po would assign you to mechanics or field assignments."

Duo went pale and grim. "No, no field assignments. I'm not- I won't take the chance that I might have to shoot someone, even if he is a bad guy. I'm done killing, Heero."

"Then mechanics, at least," Heero pressed.

"Yeah," Duo rubbed the back of his neck. "That would be good. I'm tired of grunt work."

"Then show responsibility," Heero urged. "Show up for work on time, dressed properly, and cut your braid. You know Sally won't assign you to machinery because it is such a hazard."

"I won't do that!" Duo seethed. "You know why!"

"Then be content with screwing on nuts and bolts and painting houses for a living, Duo. Everyone is done coddling you and waiting for you to recover from the war."

"Recover from the war?" Duo growled angrily. "How about recover from my life in general? How do you recover from that, Heero?"

"You have to, Duo. We all do." Heero grew impatient. "I have work to do, Duo. I've told you my terms. Show me a pay stub, and pay your half of the rent, or you can't come back."

"I've got it under control, Heero," Duo assured him. "I'll see you tonight."

Heero didn't say goodbye. The vid screen just went blank. Duo looked down at the credits in his hands and sighed.

"Well, thank you, Zechs," Duo muttered. "Looks like you've helped me out again." It left a bitter taste in Duo's mouth. So many people had helped him, Duo thought. Why did Zechs ‘charity' bother him so much?

Duo pocketed the credits. First months rent, he thought. Now, he just needed the pay stub and then he would be able to go back home.

+

Zechs was sitting in an outside cafe, sipping espresso. He wore a glittering coat of scarlet and gold stitchery and his hair was loose, a fall of snow white to his waist. He was a perfect foil for the flittering, bejeweled female on the opposite side of the table from him. A major functionaries daughter, she had latched on to Zechs after a boring gathering, and Zechs had thought it impolitic to shake her off. After fifteen minutes of her babbling conversation, Zechs was completely unaware of a thing she had said so far.

A dark figure strode through the crowds on the boulevard, a patch of darkness with chestnut hair and a very pale face. His two, violet eyes were enormous in his pinched face.

How long had it been. Six days? The depression had almost returned full force, especially when Zechs had discovered that Duo had done nothing more exciting than give his credits to Heero Yuy. He had expected something wilder, more flamboyant from the grinning young man, not something so mundane. Zechs had expected to drop in on chaos, a party, another hotel room, something totally irresponsible.

What was he looking for? Zechs wondered. They were on the high side of town. Everything was triple the price and a hundred times finer than even a few blocks away. Only upper crust dared to walk the sidewalks, frequent the shops, and dine in the restaurants, price no object at least where they were concerned.

Duo leaned against a wall that was well lit. He stuck hands in his pockets. He wasn't even wearing a coat, Zechs noticed, and saw Duo settle and simply begin watching the people walking by. It wasn't long before a man approached Duo. They leaned close and talked. Duo nodded. It was then that Zechs narrowed his eyes and saw that the top of Duo's black jeans were unzipped and his belt was loose.

Zechs was out of his chair in an instant and striding towards the pair, ignoring the startled eep! of his companion. She was forgotten in the rush of blood and the anger at the very idea that someone was about to slip in and claim his diversion, his prey, his Duo!

"... and we don't like riff raff around here, young man, so, move along!" the man was saying to a very quiet Duo.

Zechs checked his mad rush. He calmed himself with an effort. He had almost panicked and ruined the game. He waited until Duo began to walk away from the man and only then did he step forward.

"We meet again," Zechs said smoothly.

Duo froze and his pinched face tightened even more. He didn't look at Zechs. He was ashamed, that was clear. "I- I don't have anything to say, Zechs. Maybe another time, K?"

"After it's too late to help you?" Zechs wondered. "After some rich, hairy, old, aristocrat gropes you and then pays you for the privilege?"

Duo shook his head sharply and his long braid whipped about at the motion. He gripped his stomach with one arm and began walking away. Zechs blocked his path and bent a little to look into the shorter man's face. "What did you do to have him beat you this time?"

"Lost my job... again," Duo sighed in defeat and then angrily. "I wasn't- why did you think I was going to-, " he was flustered, confused, embarrassed, ashamed.

"Zip up your pants, Duo," Zechs said pointedly. "This never happened, all right?"

Duo did as he was told with shaking hands. Zechs smile inwardly. Good. Duo was beginning to accept his authority. Duo said in a trembling voice, "I wasn't going to... not with a guy... I was hoping for..."

"Some rich, old lady who liked a handsome face and purple eyes?" Zechs finished. "They don't need to pick up people off the street, Duo. They have enough respectable whores in the upper crust of society."

Duo choked on a laugh and then grew suddenly bitter. "Guess this was pretty stupid, even for me."

"You told me you were smarter than that," Zechs reminded him. "I would have thought that stealing would have been your first choice."

Duo winced. "Can't really spring through windows and jimmied vents when I'm in this shape.... and, well, I promised Heero..."

"Do you keep promises even when you're starving to death?" Zechs wondered.

Duo grimaced. "I think you don't see the bigger problem. Heero's a cop. If I was caught, he'd give me more than a few broken ribs. I don't want to die just yet."

"You've come close to it."

"Yeah," Duo sighed and then grimaced again. "This is stupid. I'm wasting my time here. I guess... I guess I'm not thinking too clearly. I can't even move fast enough to steal someone's wallet."

Zechs pulled his wallet out of his pants. He took out a few credits and then dropped it on the ground. Duo stared at it. "Finders keepers," Zechs said. "At least you don't have to steal it now."

Zechs walked away without another word. Some sugar and another lash of the whip, he thought with a grim smile. He rejoined his companion in the cafe and smoothed things over with a contrived explanation. Settling back into his chair and enduring her babbling speech again, Zechs looked past her. He smiled when he saw that Duo and the wallet were both gone.

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