The Lost Soldier's Series #8 (cont)
Counting Coo


Duo leaned back into the pillows of the wicker divan and grimaced as he sipped at the nutritional drink the doctor had prepared for him. Three other glasses were lined up on the small table beside him, all drunk with equal distaste. The proteins and vitamins sat heavy in Duo's shrunken stomach, threatening to come back up again if he didn't keep very still. The drinks were a compromise he had to endure in exchange for not being hooked up to I.V.'s. After four glasses, Duo was almost ready to change his mind.

On a wide porch, stretched out on the divan in a pair of loose, cotton shorts, slippers , and a thin robe, enjoying a slight breeze and a view of a carefully manicured jungle of greenery, Duo could almost forget his injuries and his troubles. After two days of obedient servants, an obedient doctor, and an absent Zechs, Duo finally began to trust Zechs' word that he was indeed on his own. That freedom would have tasted sweeter if he hadn't been an invalid and dependent on so many people to take care of him.

"Feeling well?"

Duo started, almost dropping the glass. He stared at Zechs with wide, amethyst eyes, as the platinum blonde Peacecraft Prince mounted the steps to the porch and slowly approached Duo with a box in his hands. Duo recognized it at once.

"Hey, that's my stuff!"

Zechs looked down at the non descript box in his hands in surprise. "How can you tell?"

Duo managed a grin, trying to fake confidence. "Me and that box go way back. I'd know it anywhere!"

Zechs smiled, amused. That smile made him beautiful. Duo blinked, even his faked confidence evaporating. The sunlight coming down from under the eve of the porch struck Zechs just so, making his white hair shimmer and his eyes seem like clear, blue crystals. His clear complexion was flawless, his sensuous mouth ready to kiss.

Duo melted into the divan. Why was he even thinking things like that? He wondered. This man used to be his enemy! This was the man who had tried to kill him and a good portion of everyone else! If he was beautiful, it was the beauty of a devil! Besides, he was a man! Men weren't supposed to be beautiful. A small voice deep down whispered evilly, ‘and other men weren't suppose to notice when the were.'

Duo felt his face go red. Zechs didn't seem to notice as he cleared off the glasses, placing them on the floor, and then put the box in their place on the table. That done, he lowered himself into a chair on the other side of the table and looked Duo over in interest. That made Duo blush even deeper. He was well aware how awful he looked. Next to Zechs' military crispness, he felt like a bum.

"Your hair is tangled," Zechs said at last as Duo opened the box and began rummaging inside, trying to hide his red face. "You should have a servant comb it out for you."

"I need an all over grooming," Duo agreed as he lifted out clothes and brightened at the manga and some of his personal effects. "Doctor won't let me take a bath or a shower yet. He just lets me sponge. I hope I don't stink too bad."

Zechs was politeness itself. "Not at all," he lied. "When will he allow you to wash thoroughly?"

Duo laughed. "I believe Quatre calls that ‘tact'. How did you get my box of things?"

"It was sent here by a servant," Zechs replied, wondering that himself. "I'm not sure how he came to be in possession of it. "

Duo thought it over and could only come to one conclusion, as unlikely as it seemed. "I called Heero Yuy and asked him to send my stuff to me. I never expected that he actually would. Heero doesn't bother himself with favors. I'll have to thank him."

Zechs frowned, perplexed. "Why?"

Duo looked up, startled. Zechs' eyes were warm and... no, he wasn't mistaken, they were showing concern for him. "Why?" Duo echoed.

Zechs looked uncomfortable. "After the way he hurt you, I can't imagine why you would want to speak to him ever again. Boxing a few of your things, and sending them to you, hardly makes up for-"

"He didn't box them," Duo mumbled as he began searching the box again. "I never unpack. It's an old habit. This is all I own, right here, in my favorite box." He blinked, "minus some clothes, of course. Heero must have forgotten them."

Zechs blinked, stunned. "You own so little."

Duo grimaced. "Pretty pathetic, huh?"

"Only if you don't want it to be that way," Zechs replied. He leaned so that he rested his elbows on his knees, staring at Duo earnestly. "Sometimes, I wish my life could be reduced to a single box."

"What's stopping you?" Duo wondered. He felt the innocence of the question as it left his mouth and he was embarrassed again. Zechs wasn't that much older than himself, yet he seemed twice Duo's age in experience. He watched Zechs smile and go distant, as if he were actually considering leaving everything behind and only taking a few things in a box to a new life.

"I have responsibilities, unfortunately," Zechs replied sadly. "Duties that, if I'm not there to do them, will cause people's lives to be disrupted. They depend on me."

Duo went bitter, looking off into the garden. "Yeah, people used to depend on me too. Now they just want to forget about me."

"There are many ways to be useful, to have people depend on you again," Zechs pointed out.

Duo shook his head and his hands busied themselves with the box again. He found his journal and fingered it. He didn't want to talk about his problems. He couldn't make sense out of them himself. On the one hand he wanted to be a Gundam pilot again. He wanted to be the hero and have everyone depending on him. On the other hand, he wanted what had been stolen from him, his childhood, his innocence. He didn't want to wake up, dripping with sweat, from nightmares of killing people. He didn't want to have panic attacks whenever he heard an alarm or a noise that sounded too much like a gun or a bomb ticking over to deadly. He didn't want to talk to a man and remember that they had both killed and that he had been his enemy.

"What are you thinking?" Zechs asked.

Duo chewed on his bottom lip and then let it go. "I was wondering how many people have read my journal," he lied.

"I assure you-" Zechs began, the lie easy on his tongue, ready to reassure Duo that his privacy hadn't been violated, especially by him. He stopped himself just in time. He reminded himself that he wasn't talking to a child. Duo's level eyes on him, told him that Duo was ready to chew Zechs to pieces if he dared to treat him that way. "I'm sorry,' Zechs finished at last.

Duo frowned. He hadn't expected the truth. He almost wished Zechs had lied to him. Maybe, he thought, he could have forced himself to believe it. He said, trying to sound flippant and uncaring, "Guess a person has to expect that to happen when they write stuff down. Heero probably read it too. I'm surprised he's not here now trying to shove my journal down my throat."

"Why do you stay with him?" Zechs wondered.

Duo shoved his box to the end of the divan, ignoring the catch in his ribs. He sat back, wrapping his arms around them and frowning. "Zechs...," he sighed and then almost angrily. "What game are you playing with me? I'm sure you have a lot better things to do than to sit and talk with a scabby ex pilot who can't keep himself from getting the shit beat out of him."

Zechs frowned to, but persisted. "Tell me why, Duo."

Duo swallowed hard and found the button holes of his robe suddenly interesting. "He puts up with me," he replied. "He tries to help me."

"Help you?" Zechs said curiously. "How?"

"I never had a normal life," Duo replied. "I had a street gang once, an orphanage for a short time, and Dr. G for a few years. None of it was permanent or close to normal. I don't know how to cook, clean, or do much more for myself than keep clothes on my back and scavenge for enough food to keep me alive. I try to work. I try to live like everyone else, but... I dunno. Heero tries to keep me in line, tries to teach me how to be on time, pay my share of the bills, and pick up after myself. I do fine for awhile and then I..."

"Don't see the point any more?"

Zechs' words chilled Duo to the bone. They had cut to the heart of his problem. He blinked, feeling tears. He looked away and said through gritted teeth. "Yeah."

Zechs nodded, eyes distant, looking inside at his own pain. "I am kept ‘in line' by schedules and duties that can't be avoided," Zechs explained. "but often I don't see the point either." His eyes focused on Duo and they were very intense. "Beatings can't help you find it Duo."

Duo was startled by Zechs' revelation. He kept talking, saying things that he hadn't been able to say to anyone else, Zechs' openness, his caring eyes, dragging it out of him. "I know Heero can't really help me, especially by trying to beat me into line. I think, that last time, after he...," Duo grimaced and then went on, hoping that Zechs hadn't noticed his stumble. He didn't want to talk about what Heero had almost done to him, "after he attacked me, I realized that I was being an idiot for putting up with it. I realized that I had to stop depending on other people. I thought, if I gave myself a backbone and made my own way, I'd have to be responsible to survive." Duo smiled tightly. "I didn't have long to try out that theory."

Zechs nodded thoughtfully, but then said, "Being responsible is only part of it. If you don't have a goal in life, a reason for getting up in the morning, you won't succeed, Duo."

"That's kind of what the Doctor said," Duo murmured.

"Which doctor?" Zechs wondered.

The psychiatrist, Duo thought with alarm, but he covered it with a shrug. "Just someone I met," he replied, not wanting Zechs to know he was screwed up enough to need THAT kind of doctor. "He told me nearly the same thing. I can't wait for that though. I need a patch until then. Not starving to death seemed a good enough motivation."

"Fear of death," Zechs said, pushing a long lock of white hair out of his handsome face absently and leaning back in his chair. "You didn't think that Heero would kill you? He came close to it."

Duo didn't want to talk about that either, so he said quickly. "He didn't mean to. He's not good at dealing with emotions, that's all, and I pushed his buttons one to many times."

Zechs stood up, face furious. Duo flinched and felt for a weapon he didn't have. Zechs said, with incredible intensity, "Don't ever say that again! Don't ever blame yourself for what he did to you!"

Duo could only stare, shocked, mesmerized by Zechs' molten blue eyes. The man was just so very handsome, a small part of Duo's mind thought within a roil of confusion. Zechs looked almost supernatural, white hair a tangle over his blue eyes and chin set hard. He seemed unnaturally tall as well and unnaturally commanding. Lightning Count, Duo thought, and understood then that the name had more to do with Zechs' personality than any speed.

"Uh, okay," was all Duo could manage to get out. He blushed. "Okay, relax, man. I didn't mean to make you upset and all."

Zechs took a deep breath and let it out. He pushed his hair back from his face again, unruly locks at all odds with his otherwise impeccable appearance. Duo wondered if he allowed them to remain like that on purpose. Zechs' wild, long hair gave him an edgy, dangerous look. If he had been too perfect, his men might have thought him an armchair commander, a man who didn't get his hands dirty. The effect those disordered bangs had on Duo was more personal. Duo didn't find them a reassuring mark that Zechs wasn't a complete elitist and too distant to talk to, instead he found them... uncomfortably appealing. Duo refused to think of them any other way, though, deep down, he had a stronger word than ‘appealing'.

"Forgive me," Zechs said at last. "I have grown to hate violence of any kind. It makes me less than understanding."

"No, you're right,' Duo replied uncertainly. "I shouldn't blame myself. Heero shouldn't have pounded on me, no matter how much I messed things up. I know that." He picked at his robe again. "I don't know why I even said all of that. You just wanted to know how I was feeling and I just said a bunch of stupid stuff. Sorry. I feel fine. Healing good. You can go about you business now."

Zechs sighed, exasperated at Duo's sudden withdrawal. "I didn't come here because of duty."

"No?" Duo scratched at his nose and then favored Zechs with his innocent eyes. Maybe if he played it right, he thought, Zechs might finally tell him what was really going on.

"Why did you decide to live with Heero?" Zechs asked abruptly.

Duo replied truthfully enough. "I guess, because we had shared the same experiences. We understood each other."

Zechs nodded and then said, "That's why I'm here, Duo Maxwell. I need someone to understand me too."

Duo blinked, surprised and wide eyed, not sure how he felt about that revelation. "Are you suggesting that we be friends, Zechs?"

Zechs half smiled as if he wished the moment to be serious and solemn and couldn't manage it in the face of Duo's comical astonishment. "Yes, friends," Zechs replied, leaving it at that for now. It was all that he was willing to admit to himself at the moment.

Duo was hardly believing his ears. He wanted to say something funny, biting, sarcastic, anything to stop the moment they were having. It was making him too uncomfortable. He didn't know if he wanted Zechs to get that close to him. He was still trying to figure the man out.

"Okay," Duo said finally. "I think you're just suggesting we get together and talk about old, times, right, not any kind of, ‘let's hang out and have a few beers' kind of friendship right?"

"You don't drink," Zechs pointed out, his smile coming more easily.

"Yeah, " Duo found himself smiling too. "Well, you know what I mean."

"I don't think a plan can be made for this kind of thing," Zechs replied. "We will talk from time to time-"

"And see how long we can tolerate each other?" Duo wondered. "Just let me know when you get to the punching stage. I can be pretty annoying."

Zechs' smile dropped and he replied angrily. "I will never hit you, Duo. Believe that."

Duo felt embarrassed by Zechs' intensity. "Uh, okay. That's good. I'm glad."

Zechs nodded and then he suddenly walked into the bungalow. Duo looked after him, surprised by his sudden departure, and then was even more surprised when Zechs returned with a hair band and a hair brush.

Zechs pulled his chair close to Duo. He showed Duo the brush and the hair tie and asked politely, "May I? If you let this go much longer, it may become so tangled you may have to cut it off."

"You want to brush my hair?" Duo was dumbfounded. "Why?"

"Why do I wish to do it?" Zechs wondered. Without waiting for Duo to give his approval, he began unbinding Duo's very long, chestnut braid. "I suppose I hate disorder, but I have my own long hair and I know much care it requires. Since we are to be friends, in a matter of speaking, I will assist you in a friendly manner. I know that you are unable to lift your arms to do this yourself."

"Um, thanks," Duo managed to say as he blushed to the roots of his hair. Zechs' strong fingers were touching him. It was only his braid, but for some reason Duo refused to understand, it was making him warm and giving him an odd, fluttering sensation.

Zechs was unaware of Duo's discomfort, his attention fully on the large rat nest knots in his hands. Duo was glad when he began pulling the strands of hair apart. It hurt. That pain distracted Duo from the sensations coiling up inside of him. As separating the knots became an actual battle, Duo groaned and winced. Now all he could think about was wishing that Zechs finished soon.

Zechs didn't have the comfort of distracting pain. He realized, almost at once, that he had been weak and foolish to take on the task of brushing Duo's hair. After their intimate talk, he had been unable to stop the sudden desire to touch the young man in any manner he could manage. Brushing out Duo's tangles had seemed like an excellent excuse. Now, with the silky, chestnut strands in his hands, all Zechs could think about was Duo's soft, moist, warm mouth on his cock and the feel of Duo's privates in his hand. The tightness in his groin warned him. Zechs let a fall of Duo's untangled hair drop into his lap, covering the rise there in his pants. Zechs hurried with his task. He had to stop soon or he would forget himself, he was certain. He could see the creamy line of Duo's neck in the corner of his vision, and the young man's pink lips worried between fine, white teeth as Duo winced and hissed in pain.

"Easy man!" Duo finally said in protest. "You aren't wiring a trench fence! That's attached to my head!"

Zechs grimaced and slowed. "Forgive me, " he whispered. "I didn't realize it was so tangled. I do have duties to attend to."

Duo felt those words sting him. "Okay, you don't have to finish. I can get someone else... I really don't like anyone touching my hair though. I think I can finish up myself." Duo's face flamed as he realized what he had just said. He was letting Zechs touch his hair. What did that mean? He hadn't even thought to protest.

Zechs forced himself to relax and slow down. Duo's obvious hurt at his words forced his erection to cool. "I finish what I start," he replied and then, with a deprecating smile, "A soldier should have short hair, but it's a family tradition that the heir to the Peacecraft name have long hair."

"Is that why Relena has long hair?" Duo wondered.

It was Zechs' turn to feel the sting of words. He looked up, eyes hot with anger. Duo's expression stopped him. It was open and interested. He wasn't insulting Zechs on purpose. "I did give the ruling seat to her," Zechs acknowledged, pushing through his anger to understand Duo's question. He finished the last of the knots and began to brush out the silken mass of Duo's hair. "Why do you keep your hair so long?"

Duo was very quiet. The sound of the brush running through his hair was loud in that silence. "I don't want to talk about it," Duo said at last. Zechs saw the distant pain of memories in his eyes.

"That's all right," Zechs said quickly. "You don't owe me any explanations."

Zechs braided Duo's hair and then tied it of with the black band. Standing up, he cracked his back and sighed. "Back to my duties."

"Thanks, Zechs," Duo said, running the perfect braid through his fingers. "This makes me feel much better. Once I have a bath..."

Zechs wrinkled his nose and chuckled. "Yes, I think I'll curtail any indoor conversations until then,"

Duo broke into a laugh, hugging at the pain it caused his ribs, but unable to stop himself. He quieted after a moment, breathing a little raggedly, he said, only half serious. "I don't want to like you Zechs."

Zechs nodded, frowning. "I know."

"I don't want to owe you anything."

"I know that, too."

Duo scowled. "I certainly don't want to be kept here like a bird in a cage, waiting around until you feel like talking to me. That's a rich man's game. I'm not playing. You can't buy me. I won't be your friend because you pay me to. I'm going to get out of here as soon as I can. I'm going to work. I'm going to try again to make it on my own."

"Of course," Zechs agreed. "You're free to come and go as you please. If you want to return to the States, I'll prepare a shuttle for you."

Duo shivered unconsciously. "Well, I kind of like the sun here. I don't think I'll be wanting to get back to the cold any time soon. Maybe I need a change of scenery to change my life, get away from old habits and-,' he stopped himself before he said Heero. "I'll try this place out before I decide what to do."

"Good," Zechs said, feeling inwardly pleased. He wasn't sure how he would of reacted if Duo had suddenly decided to leave. The darkness was still in him. It was still capable of doing unpleasant things. He didn't want to give it the chance, especially where Duo was concerned. "I must go, Duo. We'll talk again. Please, don't hesitate to call on me if you need anything."

Duo relaxed. He hadn't been sure about Zechs' reaction to his words. He was relieved to see that the man was accepting them and remaining pleasant. "Thanks, I will. See ya later."

Zechs nodded and began stepping down the stairs, long legs graceful and hair flowing gently in the breeze. He said over his shoulder casually. "I didn't think that you were an idiot that time at the restaurant, Duo." and then he was striding away into the manicured jungle, his confession about reading Duo's journal made. He could hear Duo splutter something, but he thought it best not to witness Duo's embarrassment.

There was a cage of different colored parrots. Zechs noticed them as he passed by on pea stone path, thinking about Duo's words; his wish not to be Zechs' caged bird, his entertainment when the mood struck him. Those words had troubled Zechs, reminding him that he had treated Duo that way already, taking what wasn't offered, using Duo as if he were a pet, less than human, a sexual amusement. The guilt of it gnawed at Zechs. It drew him to the birds. He almost longed to atone somehow by setting them free.

Standing by the cage, Zechs put his hand on the door. He almost unlatched it, watched by curious bird eyes, mesmerized by sunlight on iridescent feathers, when a lack of color caught his attention. One very dead, snow white parrot was hanging from something attached to a perch. A shoelace, Zechs realized, as his stomach twisted and his hand reached for his gun. He looked wildly about him at the greenery. Anyone could be hiding in it.

Zechs reached into his pocket and hit the button on his touch pad to call for security. It was obvious that the bird was a message, a message meant for him. A white bird. Zechs' white hair. Someone was not pleased with him. Someone wanted him dead.

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