by RazorQueen
see ch. 1 for warnings. notes

The Claim + Chapter 5

Duo crouched on the floor, his fists against the closed door. He wanted to scream, pound, something. Anything. He wanted Zechs to come back. He never wanted to see him again. He wanted Zechs to hold him and make the ache in his body and in his heart go away. He wanted to run away so far that no one, especially not the tall, blond man--who's not the prince I used to dream about!--would ever find him.

But what if he is--could be--my prince? The dreams he'd woven as a child, sleeping alone in the dark of Maxwell Church, haunted him. Sister Helen's stories always seemed to end with the prince rescuing the princess, but he'd wondered why a prince couldn't come for him, too. Someone tall, and too handsome to believe, and strong...

Someone just like Zechs. Except my prince wanted me. He picked up the whisky bottle and put it to his lips, tilted back his head, and swallowed. It burned his throat, and he coughed. Fuck it all. He tipped back the bottle and swallowed again. And again.

+

Zechs' head ached and he winced at the bright lights that illuminated Treize's office. As an added insult, his back felt permanently stiff. I'm going to requisition a better couch for my office--especially since it looks like I'll be sleeping there for a long time. Gingerly, he sat down in one of the leather chairs opposite the General.

Treize looked up from his cluttered desk and smiled faintly. "Rough night?"

Zechs glared. "How kind of you to notice."

"Don't snap at me because alcohol gives you a headache." Treize stood and poured Zechs a cup of coffee from the pot on his credenza. He put the cup on his desk near Zechs' elbow and sat down again. "Would you like to tell me what drove you to overindulge?"

"As if you can't guess." Zechs sipped the coffee, his eyes closed. "I don't think this is working out."

"It's been barely a week. You're not giving it a chance."

Zechs took another swallow, letting the coffee sooth his rattled nerves. "I destroyed any chance of making this work last night."

"Milliard! You didn't force him, did you?"

Zechs blanched. "No! Of course not!"

"Then what are you talking about?"

"I was drunk and crude, and I've frightened him, I'm certain. He'll never trust me now."

"It's not like you at all to be drunk." Treize frowned. "What happened?"

"I took him for a walk. For a little while, he relaxed with me. He almost seemed to enjoy my company. And then some idiots made comments about him being my pet, and he overheard." Zechs sighed, recounting the rest of the evening to Treize. "Can you imagine what it is like to have someone so beautiful, so clever, so.... perfect within arm's reach and not be able to do anything about it?"

Treize stood and poured himself a cup of coffee. He slowly added cream and sugar, the silver spoon chinking against the china as he stirred. He tasted his coffee and looked at Zechs over the rim of the cup before settling back in his chair. "Zechs, it sounds to me like you're positively taken with him."

"Who wouldn't be?" Zechs thought of Duo, the stubborn set of his chin, his quick understanding, of the brief warmth of his friendliness, and his eyes, his mouth--dear God, his mouth. "But you knew that. It's how you got me to claim him in the first place."

"I knew that you wanted him, Milliard. But you also sound remarkably as though you're in love with him."

Zechs studied the design of his china cup. "The thought had occurred to me."

"Then all that remains is for you to decide what to do about it."

"Unfortunately," Zechs said, his voice morose. "I am not the only one with a voice in the matter."

"In what matter?"

Both men looked up as Wufei entered the room. He closed the door behind him and stood with his hands on his hips, studying them. "What are you two plotting now?"

"Your friend's happiness, I hope," Treize said. "Come in, dragon, and help us scheme."

+

Wufei balanced the tray of food with one hand while he entered the security code to Zechs' quarters with the other. It seemed to him that every dealing with these two was a balancing act, neither willing to give or take quite enough to tip the scales. Treize is right. What they need is a good, solid push. Well...push wasn't the word Treize had used. He enjoyed tossing an unexpected, crude phrase into his conversation now and then just to startle Wufei.

Zechs' quarters were still dark, even though it was late morning. Wufei carefully set down the tray, took off the lid, and turned on a light. Duo lay sprawled facedown across the bed. He groaned at the light and pulled a pillow over his head.

"Leave me alone," he said, his voice muffled.

"It's me, Duo."

"Fei?" Duo peered out from under the pillow, and Wufei noticed his pallor and his red-streaked eyes. "What're you doing here this early?"

"It's not early. What's wrong?" Wufei approached the bed and saw a bottle on the floor. Frowning, he picked it up, sniffed it, and grimaced as the remaining fumes burned his nose. "Duo? What's this?"

Duo sat up, shading his eyes with his hands. "It's an empty whiskey bottle." Duo swallowed as though he were fighting down nausea. "Oh God, Fei." He moaned. "I feel like shit."

"Did you drink this? How did you get it?"

"Ouch." Duo winced as though speech caused him pain. "Don't talk so loud. Zechs brought it. He left, and I finished it, all right?"

"Duo..."

Duo's eyes widened as the odors from the breakfast tray reached him. "Fei...I'm gonna..." He bolted from the bed and ran into the bathroom.

Wufei heard him vomiting. He followed and knelt beside his friend, putting his hand under Duo's forehead as the boy emptied his stomach. Finally, Duo stopped heaving and hunkered limp and wrung-out, hands braced on his thighs, head hanging.

Wufei fetched a washcloth and dampened it with water at the sink. He knelt again and dabbed the cool cloth across Duo's face. "All right. What happened?"

Duo took the washcloth out of his hands and laid it over his own eyes. "It's kind of a long story."

"Tell me anyway."

Duo slumped back against the wall, his cheek resting against the tile. "Zechs took me for a walk last night--I guess he wanted to show off his new toy."

Wufei frowned. "Did he say that?"

Duo shrugged. "Not in so many words. But he made sure I was all dressed up, and when we passed a bunch of other soldiers, it was pretty obvious they thought I'm his new slut. He sure as hell didn't do anything to change their minds." The boy's voice quivered, and Wufei knew that Duo hurt far more than he wanted to let on. If he's hurt, then he cares what Zechs thinks of him. It's a place to start, anyway.

"Duo. Zechs would not think that about you. He's an honorable man."

"Yeah? Well, your honorable friend just wanted to get me drunk so he could make out with me!"

"That's absurd." He's jumping to conclusions because he's hurt and frightened--and ignorant. But he also heard a faint wistfulness in Duo's voice, almost as though he wished it were true. Wufei hesitated, then made a decision. If Zechs were angry, then so be it. "Duo, there's something that you don't know, that Zechs doesn't want you to know. But I think it's time someone explained it to you."

"What's that?"

"When Zechs...claimed you, he wasn't the only one who wanted you."

Duo sat up, taking the cloth off his eyes. "What do you mean?"

"He made enemies by claiming you. Powerful enemies, the kind a war hero like him shouldn't have."

"Talk plain, Fei. I'm young and stupid." Duo clenched the washcloth in his fist. His knuckles whitened, and water oozed from the cloth, making a damp spot on his thigh.

"All right, then. Duke Dermail wanted you. Colonel Tuberov wanted you. Other men you don't know--and wouldn't want to know--wanted you. Zechs' claim kept you out of their hands, but it put him in danger. They are influential men, and they are angry with him. Quite angry. If it weren't for Treize's influence, and the fact that he's wildly popular with the people, he'd be sent away. Far away. I've heard the Mars terraforming project mentioned. Is that plain enough for you?"

Duo's eyes widened. "He did that? He took that kind of a risk...for me?"

"Yes. Does that surprise you?"

"But why would he do something like that?" Wufei thought he saw a hopeful light in Duo's eyes, but then a hard, cynical curtain came down, shuttering the blue-violet depths. "It's not like it's his duty to go around rescuing Gundam pilots."

"I think this is more than mere duty to him, Duo."

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"You'll have to ask Zechs. I've said enough."

"Fei! Come on. 'Ask Zechs,' yeah, right. What am I going to say? 'Hey, Zechs, Wufei says you had an ulterior motive when you claimed me. So how about it?'" He snorted. "Yep. That'll get results. Great plan, wish I'd thought of it."

Duo's acrid voice brought back memories of the pilot during the war, when his bright, optimistic mask would crack just a little, giving them a hint of the anger and pain the boy still nursed inside him. But just as when they'd fought together, Duo retreated to darkness when he couldn't bring himself to believe in the future. It had never been when things were truly at their blackest and defeat seemed inevitable. But when events began to shift their way, when they'd had cause for hope--that's when he'd turn bitter, caustic. You can't believe in a happy ending, can you Duo? I'm not sure I can, either. But at least I've found that there can be moments of joy along the way, regardless of the ending.

"Duo, I can't tell you more. I've already gone against Zechs' wishes to say this much." He stood, leaving his friend sitting on the bathroom floor. Duo wore his God of Death face, dark and dangerous, his eyes guarded. He's afraid to let himself care too much--but I think it's too late for that. "I have to go now. Do you want me to come back later?"

Duo hauled himself off the floor, trying without success to manage his old devil-may-care grin. "Nah. Don't bother. I've got enough to keep me busy."

Wufei bowed slightly, his face grave as he accepted Duo's excuse. "Good-bye, then." He turned, but not before he caught sight of the hopeless longing in Duo's brooding eyes. He wished he could make things easier somehow, that he could tell Duo how much Zechs cared for him. But the agonizing last months of the war had taught him something else, too. No one can hand you happiness, Duo. You have to go out and take it yourself. And you have to have courage enough to keep it when you find it.

He opened the door of Zechs' quarters. Behind him, he heard Duo rummaging around the bathroom, turning on the shower. He smiled. But if anyone is brave enough to take the risk, Duo, I know it's you.

Still smiling, he left his friend to find his mettle and, he hoped, to discover that the only true enemy he had left was neither Zechs nor OZ, but his own intractable, angry heart.

+

After Wufei left him, Duo dragged himself into the shower, then dressed. His head still throbbed, and his stomach lurched every time he stood up. All right, so getting drunk wasn't such a hot idea. He gave in to his hangover and abandoned any thought of doing more than collapsing on the bed.

Duo huddled on the bed, going over what Fei had told him, trying to superimpose a new meaning on Zechs' actions the night before. What did Fei mean, it's more than duty to Zechs? He went over everything his warden had said, everything he'd done, trying to grasp the meaning of Wufei's vague suggestion.

Always, he came back to one point--being in Zechs' arms. Since Fei had left him alone, there was no one to lie to except himself, and that seemed pointless. It felt good when he touched me, he admitted. For as long as he could remember, he'd wanted to be held like that, safe in a pair of strong arms. Just my luck that when it finally happened, the arms belonged to an enemy.

Enemy. Duo thought about what Wufei had told him. Did an enemy risk his career for a foe? Or bandage injuries, coax his prisoner to eat? Give that prisoner his own bed to sleep in? Care if he were lonely or bored?

Do enemies kiss like Zechs Merquise?

What's wrong with me? Duo bit his lip, stifling the part of him that wanted to snuggle into Zechs' arms and lose himself in that strength. He wanted to feel the man's hands on him again, not like last night when Zechs had been goaded by alcohol, but as a willing partner. He groaned, his body aching with sudden need. Why am I thinking of him like this? I don't know anything any more...

Zechs had made him resurrect the fantasy he'd had for as long as he'd known what a lover was, a dream of someone strong enough to protect him, gentle enough not to hurt him, kind enough to care for him. Though he'd decided long ago that such a lover couldn't really exist, he still clung to the dream, used it to get through the worst nights, when sleep brought only nightmares.

But now--now, it seemed like maybe his prince really existed. And maybe he wanted Duo, too. He blinked, the wetness on his lashes surprising him. Am I wishing too hard? Am I looking for something that isn't there?

Duo curled up, resting his forehead on his arms. C'mon, Maxwell. You were a Gundam pilot. You were the God of Death. Talk to the man. How scary can that be?

He remembered something else from last night, Zechs' cool and distant look as he mechanically moved Duo's hand from his arm. He'd rather be in Deathscythe facing a whole OZ army than facing that unreachable iciness again.

Get real. It's scary as hell.

+

Zechs rubbed his eyes, no longer able to read the information that glared at him from his computer screen. Despite its inauspicious start, it had turned out to be a productive day, though a long one. At least two colonies seemed well on their ways to forming provisional governments ahead of even Treize's desperate schedule. It was sometimes grueling work, but it gave him satisfaction--and it distracted him from the problem of Duo Maxwell.

He shook back his long, fair hair, tipping his head so that it spilled down his back, his hands gripping the edge of his desk. He closed his eyes, thinking back to his conversation with Treize and Wufei, how his friends had urged him to take some kind of action with Duo. And after Wufei had gone, Treize implored Zechs to be honest with the boy, as well.

"If you love him, and I think you do," Treize had said, "then you have to tell him all of it. Do you think he won't know that you're hiding something from him? How can there be trust between you if he senses you still have secrets? And believe me, my friend, there can't be love if there's no trust. Wufei and I learned that, and it was a painful lesson."

Zechs had nodded and promised to think about it. And he had, over and over, without coming to a conclusion that satisfied him.

Maybe he's right. Maybe I should tell him all of it--including how I feel.

Zechs' body agreed with his reasoning, but his mind generated a dozen objections. Most of all, he couldn't bear to think of Duo burdened with the fear of knowing he was a target. He'd known that fear himself, and he'd do anything to spare the boy.

Zechs had grown to manhood dogged by the knowledge that there were men who wanted him dead. He'd learned not to let it rule him, but he never lost his awareness of it. Every time a door opened, every movement glimpsed from the corner of his eye had made his body tighten against the blade or bullet that would finally claim him. He'd come to terms with fear, accepted the inevitability of fate. But he'd paid a high price for his fragile serenity, paid it in solitude and loneliness. He'd allowed very few people to be close to him, either out of fear that they might be harmed or worse yet, that they might ultimately turn out to be his enemy. Only Treize, really, and more recently, he'd counted Wufei as a friend, as well. And Duo--whether he admitted it or not, the little pilot had slipped past his defenses.

He glanced at the clock, startled at the late hour. Have I been working that long? Duo would surely be asleep by now. Too late to talk with him tonight. Suddenly, the need to be near his prisoner overwhelmed him. But at least I can see him.

He kept himself from bolting out the door, but he strode through the corridors with every appearance of intense purpose. The corridors seemed much longer than usual, but he finally reached his door and opened it. As had become his habit whenever he entered his quarters, Zechs scanned the room, his senses zeroing in on Duo in seconds.

As he expected, the boy was asleep, curled in a tight, almost fetal ball. As though drawn to him by an invisible but irresistible force, Zechs sat next to Duo. The movement of the bed must have disturbed him, because he squirmed a little, flung out his arm. His small hand clutched at the covers, gripping them in his fist. Instead of the desire he expected, the colonel felt instead a rush of tenderness. My little prisoner. Without thinking, Zechs reached out to stroke Duo's hand. I know you're confused. I only hope that what I have to tell you doesn't make things worse.

Duo sighed, a soft, erotic sound. Zechs looked at the pale, still face for a long moment, traced a finger along the delicate curve of Duo's cheek. His fingers had left faint shadowed bruises on that stubborn chin, and the sight of them made him ashamed. He didn't remember being so rough last night--or was it only that Duo was so easy to hurt?

A soft murmur escaped the boy's parted lips. A slight frown furrowed his forehead, as though his dreams puzzled him. Those full lips moved, silently asking questions Zechs couldn't understand. He would have leaned closer, but the memory--even through the haze of drunkenness--of that sweet mouth's surrender still raged in him. He didn't trust himself with the temptation.

Zechs lifted a lock of soft, brown hair off Duo's face. Was Treize right? Had he fallen in love with this half-wild kit? He didn't deny the attraction Duo had for him. But was that love? Gently, he brushed his fingers over the boy's cheek. I'd give anything to see you safe and happy. But it seems as though it's got to be one or the other.

Duo turned his head, murmuring in his sleep. The white silk of his top fell open at his neck. Zechs found himself marveling at the smoothness of the ribbon of skin that showed beneath the open collar, only slightly less creamy than the cloth. He imagined Duo tipping back his head for him, imagined his mouth on that delectable spot at the hollow of his throat. As long as he spun fantasies, he decided to go a step farther, picturing that magnificent hair loose and flowing. He envisioned sliding the silk off Duo's shoulders, following with a trail of kisses. And Duo's eager responses, his little moans a fillip to his own desire....

Stop.

Zechs brought himself back to reality. More thoughts like those, and he'd lose his restraint totally. If last night had taught him but one thing, it was how precarious his control was where this boy was concerned. He shifted, knowing he ought to leave, but unable to stop watching Duo. He's an addiction. Just the smallest taste of him, and all I can think of is more.

As though he sensed Zechs' intense attention, Duo stirred. The soft murmurs roughened into whimpers, as though he were frightened or in pain. Zechs frowned, laying his hand on the boy's forehead. Warm...does he have a fever? Duo flinched at the light touch, and he withdrew his hand. He started to stand, to fetch a strip from his bathroom to check Duo's temperature, but a low moan kept him at the boy's side. Duo tossed his head on the pillows, fretful. Then he gave a sharp cry. With a gasp that had a word hidden in it, he sat up, reaching out his hands as though he sought physically to drag himself out of his nightmare.

Eyes wide, he stared at Zechs without recognition. Zechs gingerly took the small, reaching hands in his. "Duo?"

Duo blinked, filled his lungs with a shuddering breath. His shoulders sagged, but he made no effort to free his hands. He shivered, his grip tightening on Zechs' fingers, as if he needed to assure himself of their solidity.

"It's all right." Zechs returned the squeeze. "It was only a dream."

Duo nodded, still clinging to Zechs as though he feared letting go, that he might somehow fall back into his nightmare if he did.

Zechs let him hold on. "Can you tell me? Sometimes just telling it makes it see less frightening."

The boy ducked his head, sat silently gripping Zechs' hands for what seemed an eternity. Zechs had given up hoping Duo would talk to him when he began to speak in a hesitant, almost whispered voice.

"I've had it before."

His voice caught, and Zechs felt him fighting a sob. He released one of Duo's hands so that he could slide an arm around the boy's narrow shoulders. Duo sagged against him as though he had no resistance left, and Zechs held him in a close, sheltering grasp. He, too, knew about recurring nightmares. "I understand."

Whether it was his words or his touch that encouraged Duo, he didn't know, but the boy laid his cheek against Zechs' broad chest and began to speak. "I'm in the church, and everything is in ruins around me. I'm looking and looking for something, I'm not sure what. I just keep looking, crawling over the rubble, hunting around on the floor. It's dark, but I can see something ahead of me. When I get there, it's a body, with long blond hair. Just like Sister Helen's." Duo's voice broke, and Zechs tightened his hold. "But this time...this time when I turned the body over, it wasn't her. It was you...and it was all my fault. Just like it was before, when everyone in the church died because of me."

Duo lifted his head. Zechs saw that tears wet his cheeks, glistened in his eyes. "Zechs, I'm sorry...I know what you did, and...and...if you're in trouble, it's all my fault. I'm sorry."

Your fault? Oh, Duo, none of this is your fault. You're caught in the web, that's all. "Hush. What makes you think I'm in trouble?"

"Wufei said--"

"Ah." Zechs smiled. "Well, Wufei does dramatize things sometimes."

Duo didn't answer the smile. His forehead creased slightly, and Zechs reminded himself of the ex-pilot's quick mind. "Sometimes. But usually, he knows what he's talking about."

"Duo, you're not to worry about me. It's nothing I can't handle, and it most certainly isn't your fault." Zechs tipped Duo's chin so that the boy looked into his eyes. "I'm used to my superiors being less than pleased with me. I've always had a tendency to act rather independently. It's not an endearing trait in a soldier. But I always win, so there's no reason to be afraid. Trust me?"

Zechs felt Duo's slight body tense and he released him. Duo eased himself out of Zechs' arms, but he stayed within reach. "If you say so," Duo said, clearly unconvinced.

I've been worried about his fears, but I never thought he'd be frightened for me. Zechs allowed himself to brush back the damp strands of hair that stuck to Duo's skin. "I say so. Now lie down and go back to sleep."

"No!" Duo's sleep-heavy eyes flew open, and he grabbed Zechs' sleeve. "Please--don't go."

Zechs patted the small, pale hand. "I won't. Don't be afraid to go to sleep. I'll be here."

Duo's fair skin colored slightly. "It's not that. I wanted to talk to you anyway. I meant to wait up for you, but I guess I fell asleep."

"Talk to me? About what?"

In the semidarkness, Duo's eyes seemed larger than usual, hazy and luminous. He took a deep breath and looked down, as though he were gathering his courage to speak. "I-I've been a real asshole to you. I should have known...should have seen that you've been trying to make things easy on me. But I was so pissed--at the other guys for leaving me, at Fei for being in love--and I-I was scared, too. Of lots of stuff, but mostly of you."

Zechs drew in his breath sharply, but Duo seemed determined to continue.

Duo hunched his shoulders and refused to look at Zechs, speaking barely above a whisper. "I didn't know what you wanted from me. I mean, I thought I knew, but you never acted like that, not until last night. And then...well, then I was scared that you didn't mean it. That you were just drunk and you didn't--that you never really wanted me. The way you acted on the observation deck, like you didn't want anyone to see us together, and then back here, when no one else was around--I thought I was just...convenient."

He looked as miserable as last night after their encounter with those fools. Realization struck Zechs. He thought I was rejecting him, not that I was trying to spare him embarrassment. But--convenient? "No, Duo. It wasn't that, not at all. Never. I wanted you from the very beginning. Far too much."

"Sometimes I wondered--but most of the time, I felt like, I dunno, the prize at the bottom of the cereal box. You know, some cheap little toy that you didn't really want, but that came with the package." Duo looked up, his eyes pleading. "I don't want to be scared any more."

The last of Zechs' reserve melted. He reached for Duo, his palm cupping the boy's face, fingers brushing against his hair. "I don't want you to be afraid. Not ever."

He leaned forward slowly, but Duo didn't back away. For a moment, deep violet-blue eyes met his gaze. Then they fluttered shut as he bent down and touched his lips to Duo's in a gentle kiss. Duo's response was hesitant but willing, and very slowly, Zechs allowed the kiss to deepen. He reached for Duo's hand, pulled him closer until he could fold his arms around the slight body. Duo pressed forward eagerly, but Zechs felt the tremors that shuddered through him, and he suspected that it was not only desire that made him tremble. As gently as he initiated the kiss, Zechs broke the contact. Duo leaned against him, drawing a ragged breath.

Keeping his arms around the boy, he said, "Are you still afraid?"

Duo looked up at him with that half-shy, crooked grin that went straight to Zechs' groin--and his heart. "Maybe just a little. Do you think you could help me out?"

"Gladly." Zechs bent down again, and Duo slid his arms around the taller man's neck. Zechs felt the yielding and the trust in that gesture, and when they kissed again, it was fierce and tender and possessive all at once. Duo whimpered, and Zechs feared he'd hurt him, but when he tried to pull away, the slender arms tightened and Duo's mouth sought his almost desperately.

Ah...now I understand you, Duo. You only needed to know that you're wanted. The warmth of the wiry young body against his made Zechs ache with desire and with the need to protect this young warrior, to cherish him. To claim him in all ways. Slowly, he reminded himself, as his yearning for Duo grew almost unbearable. Don't rush him...there's all the time in the world for this. Duo rubbed against him, and Zechs felt his heat and hardness, no less urgent than his own. I have to stop this--now. Or I won't be able to. He is still afraid, no matter what he says.

Zechs gently pushed Duo away, smiling to reassure him. He slid one hand under the heavy braid at the back of Duo's neck. "I think that's enough."

Obvious disappointment pulled at Duo's swollen lips, but a small flicker of relief showed in his eyes, too. Zechs knew he'd made the right decision, however much his body regretted it. He disengaged himself from Duo's arms. "It's very late. You really should go back to sleep."

Duo yawned, making a protest to Zechs' suggestion impossible. "What about you? Where have you been sleeping?"

"There's a couch in my office. I didn't want to make you uncomfortable. It was plain that being my ward troubled you--I thought sharing a bed might be too much." It would have been too much for me--and if it weren't that my back is killing me, I still wouldn't trust myself.

A warm blush marked Duo's cheeks. "I...you're probably right. I thought you wanted to avoid me--but I guess I'd have freaked if you'd tried to make me sleep in the same bed with you." He looked up at Zechs, his eyes hopeful. "But you don't have to go back tonight, do you?"

Zechs rubbed his thumb across the spot of color on Duo's cheek. "No, I don't have to go back tonight, not if you don't want me to."

Duo's only answer was to scoot to the side of the bed. "There's plenty of room. I don't move much. And I really wish you'd stay."

Zechs found it impossible to refuse. "Then I'll stay. Since you promise that you don't take up much room." He opened a drawer and fished out a pair of barely-worn pajamas, then went into the bathroom to change. When he emerged, he found that Duo had already burrowed under the covers. He lay on his side, covers drawn up to his waist, watching Zechs with eyes that were both wary and eager.

Zechs slid under the covers. For a moment, the two of them looked at each other, silence stretching awkwardly as though they both wanted more. Finally, Zechs said, "You don't have to spend the night on the edge of the bed, Duo."

For once, Duo did as he was told without an argument. Before he quite knew what to think, Zechs found himself cuddling with a small, warm bundle of silk and hair and smooth flesh. Wordlessly, he drew Duo closer, smiled as he felt the boy nestle against him, his head resting on Zechs' arm, one hand shyly splayed across his chest.

"I'm glad you don't move much." Zechs petted the soft brown head. "I like having you right here."

Duo looked up, opened his mouth to speak, but he couldn't seem to form words. His eyes glistened with emotion, and Zechs felt his own throat close at the look on Duo's face. The boy pressed his cheek against Zechs' side and whispered, "You are my prince."

"What?" Zechs played with a loose tendril of hair. "What do you mean?"

"Never mind." Duo snuggled close with a happy sigh. "I'll explain it some day."

Zechs chuckled in return, not really understanding but knowing that Duo seemed content. They lay silent, twined together in the dark. From the edge of sleep, Duo mumbled, "...feels nice..." and Zechs laid his cheek against Duo's hair. He listened as the boy's soft breathing became regular, felt the last bit of tension drain from the slender body pressed against him. Without volition, his arm tightened possessively around Duo's shoulders. Sleep, little kit. You're safe now. You're mine, and no one will ever hurt you.

Zechs drifted off, as well, exhausted as he was. They slept soundly, neither moving. When the call on Zechs' view screen blared, it ripped both of them from sleep. For a second, Duo clutched at Zechs out of fear, but Zechs gave him a swift hug before swinging his long legs over the edge of the bed. Duo still seemed confused, but Zechs was wide-awake.

He slid into a chair and turned on the screen. He wasn't sure what to expect, but it wasn't the distraught face of Treize Khushrenada. Treize was shirtless and his hair mussed, as though he, too, had just been roused from bed.

"Treize? What's going on?"

Treize's voice shook slightly, and that frightened Zechs more than any news his general could possibly report. "Heero Yuy--and his custodian--have disappeared."

Zechs head Duo gasp, and out of the corner of his eyes saw him crawl to the bottom of the bed.

"When? What happened?"

Treize had regained control of his voice, but Zechs saw the tension in his face. "We don't know. We're still investigating." Treize's eyes darted to look at something beyond the edge of Zechs' screen.

"Are they in danger?" Zechs didn't mean Yuy or his guardian, but he could tell Treize understood.

"I think so. This could be what we expected--or at least the beginning of it." Treize ran a hand through his hair. "I thought we had more time."

Zechs ached for his friend. "We may yet have a little. Perhaps they're unaware we know."

Treize smiled, tired but obviously grateful for the small hope. "Perhaps." He shook his head, as though he were annoyed with himself. "I'm sorry for waking you. Neither of us is in any shape to deal with this tonight. Get some sleep and we'll meet in the morning. Bring Duo with you."

"Of course." Zechs mustered a grim smile. "We've fought long odds before and won, you know."

Treize nodded, his own smile equally ferocious. "So we have. Try to sleep. I'll see you both in the morning. Treize out." The screen went dark.

"Zechs?" Duo crouched at the foot of the bed, clearly confused, but no doubt sensing the two men's uneasiness "What's going on? What does Heero have to do with anything?"

Zechs turned to him and held out his arms. Without hesitation, Duo came to him, and Zechs held him tightly. "I don't know yet. Maybe nothing."

"But you don't think it's nothing, do you?"

"No." Duo's arms tightened around him. "No, I think it's--very bad."

"Zechs--whatever happens--"

Zechs looked down at the boy in his arms. "What, Duo?"

"I want to stay with you. Please."

Zechs kissed the top of Duo's head, then hugged him fiercely. "Where else would you be?"

"Nowhere." Duo pressed against him, so close that he could feel the rapid beating of the boy's heart. He felt Duo's breath catch and his hand clutch around the fabric of his shirt. "Zechs--"

"Shhh." He stroked Duo's back as much to soothe himself as the boy. "Let's not borrow tomorrow's trouble tonight."

Duo said no more, but even though Zechs had ordered Duo not to be concerned, he couldn't help worrying over his conversation with Treize. Did we make a mistake? Did we trust him to the wrong person? Everything checked out, and yet...

He held Duo, reluctant to let him go. You were so right, Duo. Winning is hard work--especially now, when I have more to lose than I've ever had before.

[ch. 4] [ch. 6] [back to RazorQueens' fic]