by RazorQueen
see ch. 1 for warnings. notes

The Claim + Chapter 2

Zechs opened the door of his quarters and ushered the boy inside. He fetched first aid supplies from his medicine chest and motioned for Duo to sit on the bed. Kneeling in front of his charge, he took a wipe dampened with antiseptic lotion and dabbed carefully at the torn skin. Duo hissed as the liquid touched his open wounds, and Zechs looked up at the tight, desolate face. Good God, he was only trying to help. Couldn't the boy see that?

"I'm sorry. I know it stings. I'll try to do this quickly."

The boy seemed embarrassed that he'd shown any response. "Just get on with it."

It seemed that his every attempt at kindness was to be rebuffed. But why should he have expected anything else? In the young pilot's mind, he was still the enemy, and nothing he'd done had changed that. The odd thing was that Zechs should mind so much. He finished cleaning and bandaging Duo's hand without speaking. He could tell his touch hurt the young pilot despite his best efforts to be gentle, but the boy remained silent.

"There. We'll change the bandage tomorrow. You're lucky you didn't break anything. Next time, you might try a more yielding opponent." Zechs stood, still holding his slim, bandaged hand.

Duo pulled away, glaring ominously.

"The proper response, Duo, is 'thank you.'"

The pilot still did not speak, only held his injured hand close to his body, his mouth turned down in a sullen pout. As Zechs replaced the medical supplies, he glanced back at the boy. Duo sat hunched on the edge of the bed, cradling his hand, his smudged, tear-streaked face sulky. Poor little ragamuffin, Zechs thought with a burst of sympathy. Apparently, soap and water were not part of a prisoner's regimen.

After a moment's hesitation, Zechs took a washcloth and wetted it with warm water. Returning to the brooding ex-pilot, he sat down again and began to wipe away the grime from his pale skin.

Duo jerked away from him. Beneath the dirt, Zechs saw his face flush with red. Damnation! He didn't expect warmth or friendliness, but he did expect civility. He grasped Duo's upper arm, digging his fingers into the rigid, unyielding biceps.

"Duo, understand this. You are mine, like my boots or my gun. If I wish to give you a bath in the Trevi fountain, I will do so. And you will obey me, or I will be forced to exact some appropriate and unpleasant punishment."

Duo gasped as Zechs gripped him. Anger made the violet eyes glow like irradiated cobalt. His small hands balled into fists, and his chin set, stubborn.

"Fuck you."

"I wouldn't put that under the category of unpleasant." He smiled wolfishly, and the anger in Duo's face transmuted to fear. "Nor would it be punishment, I think."

"Maybe not for you," the boy said, nearly snarling.

Zechs rubbed his chin in consternation. This really wasn't going the way he'd planned it to. Not at all. But for some reason, this little ex-terrorist defeated all his skills at diplomacy. Damn it, but he'd been a fool to claim the boy. He'd be better off with a housebroken wolf cub. More reluctantly than he dared admit to himself, he released Duo's arm.

"I think perhaps it might be better if I left you now." He stood, looking down at the boy. "Is there anything else you need? Are you hungry?"

Duo lifted his chin, defiant. "No."

Zechs didn't believe him, but he allowed him the denial. "Very well. These are my quarters, so you will stay here until we return to Earth. Don't try to leave."

"I said I wouldn't run." Duo managed an injured look. "I don't lie."

Zechs gravely inclined his head. He could not bring himself to insult the boy's pride. It was, after all, the only thing that he had left. "So I've heard. Until later."

He left Duo sitting on the edge of the bed, staring after him, his face a study in confusion. What had the boy expected, Zechs wondered. But then, he recalled, Duo had been a prisoner before. He remembered the photos in the news, and even at the time, he had thought that the captured pilot had not received all those injuries in battle. He leaned back against the cold metal wall and closed his eyes. Teaching Duo to trust him was likely to be a long battle, and patience was not his strong suit.

"What's the matter, Colonel? Is your prize proving too difficult for you to handle?"

The unctuous voice brought Zechs up short. He turned and found himself facing Colonel Tuberov. A leer twisted his craggy face, and Zechs recalled that the engineer was one of those who'd been vying for Duo. He suppressed a shudder at the thought of Tuberov's hands on that ivory skin.

"He's not a prize, Tuberov. He is a security risk, and I am his custodian Nothing more."

"Nothing more? How very noble of you, if rather shortsighted." Tuberov moved closer, close enough for Zechs to see the cold dislike in his eyes. "It's a pity the boy wasn't given to someone who would appreciate him."

Zechs narrowed his eyes. "Are you suggesting yourself?"

As if he sensed the warning implied in Zechs' words, Tuberov's face creased with an oily smile. "I was speaking hypothetically. My apologies if I was misconstrued."

"I suggest you confine your theorizing to numbers and machines."

Tuberov made a bow, perfectly correct, but Zechs perceived the mockery in it. "As you wish, Your Highness."

Zechs stiffened. Prince of a ruined kingdom and an impoverished people. In Tuberov's mouth, his title was an insult, a bitter reminder of his failures. He turned a cold, regal stare on the engineer, and the man lost a bit of his swagger. After a moment's wary silence, Tuberov turned and left Zechs alone in the corridor.

His unease remained even after the engineer had departed. Fear prickled at the base of his spine, not for himself, but for Duo. If only he could count on the boy to behave himself and stay in his quarters. He claimed he never lied, and he'd promised not to run, but Zechs didn't doubt for a minute that Duo would squirm his way around a promise just as easily as he'd squeezed through OZ defenses.

Zechs returned to duty, but found himself unable to concentrate. He read important documents three and four times without having any idea what they said. He stared at his computer screen, his hands idle on the keyboard. He'd been working long hours, he told himself, trying to fashion some sort of order out of the shattered remnants of the colonial governments. That explained his inattention.

Rubbing his eyes, he leaned back in his chair. He'd worked this hard before and not had so much trouble focusing. In the days before the coup that overturned the Alliance, he'd hardly slept at all. It wasn't work that distracted him, and if he'd been honest with himself, he'd have realized that hours ago. No, it was the thought of the pilot he'd left sulking in his quarters.

He refused to dwell on details like the boy's impossible eyes, or the way his braid switched deliciously when he walked, or the vulnerability of his mouth, so much at odds with his obstinate chin. He'd taken Duo out of duty and honor, he reminded himself, to keep the pilot safe from men like Tuberov. Not to take advantage of any of his...attributes.

Zechs frowned and drummed his fingers on a forgotten pile of reports. Duo's safety, on the other hand, was a subject he must dwell on, like it or not.

Why had Tuberov been in the corridor outside Zechs' quarters? The engineer's room and labs were on another deck entirely. Coincidence? He wasn't willing to believe in accidents of fate where security was concerned. What if Tuberov managed to get inside Zechs' room? Could Duo protect himself? The boy was a first-rate pilot, but he didn't look as though he could put up much of a fight.

Many years ago, his tutor used to chide Zechs for borrowing trouble, as he called it. But he couldn't help it. His mind created a dozen scenarios, each of them ending with the vision of Duo's slight form crumpled and helpless, at the doubtful mercy of Romefeller's engineer. Good God, he was thinking of the boy as though he were some fragile flower. He'd been a Gundam pilot; he survived the war. He had to be strong. But he remembered the small, cold hand in his. Duo might be courageous and proud, but it would be so easy to hurt him. What good was inner strength against treachery?

"Damn." Until he assured himself that Duo was in his quarters and safe, he wouldn't accomplish a thing. Still annoyed at himself, he poked the call button on his intercom. "I'll be in my quarters," he said to whoever might have been listening and headed out the door.

+

Duo sat in the only comfortable chair in the room, his feet tucked under him, elbows resting on his knees. It had taken him all of about ten minutes to investigate Zechs Merquise's spartan quarters. Didn't the man do anything but work and sleep? No books, no music, no films or pictures, nothing that might have helped Duo pass the time--or that might have given him some clue about the nature of the man who'd claimed him.

Duo shrank from the word and all its implications. What, exactly, did it mean that he belonged to the OZ colonel? He gave the bed a single, skittish glance, recalling the brush of Zechs' fingers against his cheek. A warm flush spread up from his neck at the memory. If Zechs thought that he could...that being his master gave him the right...well, he had another thing coming. Duo scowled. He'd fought off enough unwanted advances in his life to know how to take care of himself.

Duo laid his cool hands against his flaming cheeks. The scent of soap lingering on them stirred another memory, this one of Zechs washing his face. His eyes burned at the humiliation. It wasn't like he didn't know he was dirty. But what was he supposed to have done about it? It wasn't his fault. Older memories nagged at him, children's voices this time. The spiteful names they'd called him still sounded as clearly in his ears as if they were in this very room, and even the memory of smashing his fists into the sneering faces of his tormentors didn't erase his shame.

He hunkered deeper into the chair, desolately wondering if his new master meant to starve him into submission. He'd had only prisoner's rations since being tossed in that cell, and nothing at all today. A dull ache twisted in the pit of his stomach, and he told himself that it was only hunger. He could stand that. It wouldn't kill him to be a little hungry.

Duo didn't know how long he sat there, staring at bare gray walls, trying to ignore the hollowness in his belly. Without warning, the door opened. Duo looked up into the face of his master, forgetting momentarily to be angry in his sudden relief from boredom.

Startling blue eyes met his frank stare. Duo blinked. It had never occurred to him that Zechs Merquise might be attractive. The only photos he'd ever seen were of early in the war, before the Alliance fell, when he'd worn a mask to conceal his Peacecraft identity. And Duo hadn't really paid much attention to his looks earlier.

For the first time, he perceived the man as something other than his jailer. He seemed impossibly tall to Duo, and just as impossibly handsome. His blond hair hung like a satin cape down his back, shimmering even in the room's indirect lighting. His uniform fit him with tailored precision, leaving no doubt of the powerful muscles hidden beneath. Duo felt an odd twinge of recognition at the picture the man presented. He could have stepped out of the pages of one of the stories Sister Helen had read to a group of homeless orphans, a lifetime ago.

"Duo?"

He realized he'd been staring and lowered his head. His anger came back in a fierce rush, giving him a place to hide from the disquiet the clear blue eyes raised in him. How dared the man look like...well, like a fairy tale prince! A hard knot lodged in his throat. Wasn't it enough that they'd lost the war, that he'd been left alone again, that he'd been handed over to a man who considered him a piece of property, somewhat less useful but more troublesome than a pair of boots? Did his master have to look like Duo's half-forgotten dream, too?

"Duo..." Zechs spoke again, more softly than before. "You must be hungry by now."

Duo's pride warred with his empty stomach. He didn't want to accept anything from this man, to do anything that smacked of giving in. He shook his head, even as his stomach rumbled.

Zechs raised his eyebrows slightly. "Well, it doesn't matter. I know that you haven't eaten today, and it's time you had something. There's little enough of you anyway. I don't want you to fade away."

Duo wondered what it mattered to the tall OZ officer if he disappeared entirely. He wondered, too, how he'd gotten foisted onto Zechs Merquise. It was obvious the man found him an annoyance, and that he'd rather be anywhere but here, having to deal with him. Duo could see it in the strained line between the blond wings of his eyebrows, in the tense draw of his shoulders. He was clearly a man trying to make the best of a bad bargain.

An old pain gnawed at Duo's heart. The ache of never quite being wanted had dulled, but his new master's determined politeness gave it an edge he hadn't felt in a long time. Christ, what did it matter? The man was OZ. And he'd rather be dead than live under his enemy's rule. Wasn't that what he'd always told himself? As soon as Duo got his bearings, he'd figure a way out. Except...except that he'd promised not to run away. God damn it, what had possessed him to make a promise like that?

Duo's thoughts were still in turmoil when a man in uniform delivered a cart. He removed covers from several dishes, and steam trailed from them, the odors tantalizing Duo's nose and stomach.

The man set a small table with plates and utensils before Zechs dismissed him and sat in one of the chairs, unfolding a napkin with a single, effortless movement.

"Won't you come and eat?" Zechs motioned for Duo to join him.

"I told you, I'm not--"

"And I told you that it doesn't matter if you're hungry." Zechs smiled, robbing his words of their authority.

The man's smile made something flutter in his belly. Backing frantically away from the feeling, Duo took refuge in his anger. "Fuck you."

"We're going to have to work on your vocabulary, I believe." He pulled out a chair. "Come over here and sit down."

Duo remained where he was, resolutely denying his appetite.

Impatience flickered in Zechs' eyes, but his smile never wavered. "Duo, you are truly raising stubborness to an art form, but it's time to stop being foolish."

Duo gripped the arms of the chair, still determined to hold his ground. With a sigh, Zechs stood. In spite of himself, Duo shrank back into the chair as the tall man approached, watching him with apprehension. The hands that lifted him to his feet were firm, but there was no hostility in their strength. Nevertheless, Duo sensed that resisting would not be in his best interest, and he gave in, although with as little grace as possible. Jerking his arm away from Zechs, he flung himself into a chair.

Zechs filled a plate and placed it in front of him. He put a fork in Duo's hand and said simply, "Eat."

Had he been one of Zechs' officers, he wouldn't have considered defying a command issued in that voice. Defeated, Duo took a tentative bite of the dish set before him. The combination of flavors was strange to him, but after another few bites, he decided that it was possibly the best meal he'd ever eaten. Not that he was about to let Zechs know that.

He stole a glance at his captor. The colonel had a small serving on his plate, but Duo noticed that he only toyed with his food, pushing it idly with his fork. With a start, he realized that Zechs was only trying to encourage him to eat but hadn't swallowed a bite himself.

From underneath the cover of his long bangs, Duo studied the man who'd claimed him. Apparently unaware of Duo's scrutiny, Zechs had dropped his congenial mask, and Duo saw the evidence of fatigue etched clearly on his handsome features. Weariness carved furrows around the corners of his mouth, painted shadowed circles beneath his eyes. His proud shoulders sagged slightly as though he bore an immeasurable burden.

"It's hard work, isn't it?"

At Duo's words, Zechs straightened his back. "What's hard work?"

"Winning."

Cool, sapphire eyes measured him with their steady gaze. "Yes. It is."

Duo felt an unaccountable desire to offer some sympathy, but he bit his lip before he let his mouth run any further. Zechs, however, seemed to sense his softening and smiled with unmistakable, genuine warmth. He appeared about to speak again, but a squawk sounded from his intercom, followed by a harried female voice paging him.

Zechs ignored the voice. Duo looked toward the wall and then back at the blond man. "Aren't you going to answer?"

Zechs smiled again, but Duo noticed some of the warmth had faded and when he spoke, bitterness tinged his voice. "They can get by without me for a while."

Duo turned his eyes back to his plate, but not before he saw the terrible weariness in Zechs' face, and the hope. Both confused him.

"Duo," Zechs began. "I'm sorry."

Duo started to snap that he had a lot to be sorry for, but Zechs' tired eyes and patient smile changed his mind, and he only muttered, "For what?"

"For leaving you here alone. I spend very little time in my quarters, and I should have realized there's nothing for you to do here. But I didn't even bother to find out what you might like."

"S'okay," Duo mumbled without looking up. He had expected anything but consideration from his new master. Commands he could counter with rebellion, but how could he fight this cool courtesy?

"No," Zechs said. "It isn't. I claimed you, and that entails certain obligations on my part."

Duo felt a strange, sinking disappointment at being an obligation, which sounded an awfully lot like being a burden. And that was pretty close to being a pain in the ass.

The intercom sounded again, but this time a male voice crackled with impatience. "Milliard, where the devil are you?"

Zechs grimaced. "Forgive me, but this time I'm afraid I must answer." He moved to the 'com and responded. "I'm here, sir."

Duo's eyes widened slightly as he recognized Treize Khushrenada's voice. "Then come down here right now. I've got half a dozen critical situations, and everyone else is totally worthless."

"I'm on my way." Zechs switched off the 'com and turned back to Duo. "My apologies again. I have to go. Please, finish eating." He frowned, as though something vexing had just occurred to him. "You don't have any belongings, do you? Clothes? Personal items?"

His cheeks flaming again, Duo shook his head.

"I'll send someone to help you. It looks as though I'll be gone for some time, so don't feel obliged to wait up for me."

Duo stared at his plate as the implication sunk in that Zechs did indeed expect them to sleep in the same bed. It might not be so bad, he told himself. As long as it was only sleep. But he'd better not try anything else, or...or...

"There's one other thing." Zechs cleared his throat, and Duo thought he sounded almost apologetic. "I must lock the door. Only someone with my security code will have access."

The knowledge that Zechs didn't trust him to keep his word had a bitter taste. But it reminded him that he was a prisoner after all, and that the handsome officer was his warden, not the prince of his childhood dreams. He didn't look up, but he felt Zechs' eyes on him, as though he expected an answer. Silence stretched between them, and then Duo heard the door open and close, and the soft snick of an electronic lock engaging.

He toyed with his food, his hunger suddenly evaporated. Old habit made him force himself to eat, hungry or not, because who could tell when he'd have another chance. But his throat closed around the food and swallowing each bite required concentrated effort.

By the time he finished the meal, the food had long grown cold. Glad for something to occupy himself, if only for a few minutes, he cleared the table, carefully stacking the empty dishes on the serving cart. Too soon, he finished the task and dropped, despondent, into the easy chair again, resigning himself to boredom.

When the door signal sounded, he almost leaped out of his seat. Scrambling to his feet, he stood in front of the locked door, uncertain. He couldn't open it, not without the security code. And what if Zechs had intended not only to keep him in, but also to keep someone else out? Apprehension had barely time to register before the door slid open.

"Hello, Duo."

The shock of seeing a familiar face wiped any possible response from his mind. He opened his mouth to speak, but a hundred questions logjammed in his brain, and in the end, he could only stammer, "W-wufei?"

The Chinese pilot smiled faintly. His words made even less sense than his presence. "Zechs sent me. May I come in?"

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