by RazorQueen
see ch. 1 for warnings. notes

The Claim + Chapter 7

"...dates back hundreds of years pre-Colony. The records have mostly been lost, so no one knows exactly how old it is."

Duo stood in front of the massive façade of the cathedral, his mouth gaping slightly in awe. He'd never seen anything quite like it, with its high, arching roof, towering so far above the street that he couldn't quite make out the strange figures guarding it. But it was the window that captured his attention. An enormous circle of colored glass, petals radiating out from the center that sparkled like jewels in the sun of a summer mid-morning. As he looked closer, Duo realized that the window was really hundreds, possibly thousands, of individual pieces of glass--some no bigger than the palm of his hand--joined together like pieces of a puzzle to create the larger picture. He must have made some sound that gave away his wonder, because Zechs turned his gaze from the building, looked down at Duo, and smiled.

"Amazing, isn't it?"

Duo nodded. "How did they do that?"

Zechs' smile turned a little sad. "No one knows. That, too, has been lost." He looked back at the cathedral and sighed. "We can build so much with our modern machines...but not like this. Something like this--it takes hands...and time, a lifetime, maybe more. We've lost the patience for such art, I think."

Duo reached for Zechs' hand and squeezed it, just once. He felt, if dimly, what Zechs meant. "I never had time to think about things like that...about what it might have been like--before." The idea of a world before colonization, somehow, had never occurred to him. "I was always just worried about today. You know, what was I going to eat and where was I going to sleep. Or who was I going to fight..." He swallowed, and Zechs returned the squeeze. "I wonder what it would be like to know that this planet was all there was, that you couldn't just go somewhere else." He looked up at the soaring vaults and arches. "Maybe that's why they built things like this. Because they knew that they would be here to see it, always, and their kids, and their kids after that." Duo's brows drew together in a frown of concentration as he tried to imagine the kind of permanence the builders of this cathedral must have felt. But it was still too foreign to him, and he shook his head, giving up.

"Do you want to go inside?"

"Inside?" Duo's heart skipped a beat and his mouth went dry. He hadn't been inside a church since...of course, that one was hardly so grand as this, but... "No. No, I don't think so. If you don't mind."

"Of course I don't mind." Zechs watched him for a moment, as if he sensed that Duo's refusal had some meaning beyond a reluctance to leave the sunshine.

Duo shrugged and smiled sheepishly, a little embarrassed by the superstitious dread he felt at the idea of going into the cathedral. "I'll tell you about it one of these days."

"I hope so." Zechs tugged slightly on Duo's hand. "Come on, then. We've only seen a little of the city. And I want to show you all of it."

Apparently, when Zechs said "all," he meant precisely that. Duo thought they must have walked up and down a hundred streets, although it was probably only a dozen or two. Some of them were lined with narrow houses, shoulder to shoulder like people in a crowd. On others, shops butted up against one another, painted signs and colorful awnings overhanging the narrow sidewalks. The streets, too, seemed narrow--far narrower than the broad boulevards that criss-crossed colonial cities--and often paved with stones or bricks. Some cars braved the cramped, winding streets, but mostly people seemed to travel on foot or on bicycles.

Duo took all of it in, his eyes wide and round. To him, the city looked like something out of a fairy tale.

"Granted, I didn't spend a lot of time sightseeing while I was on Earth, but this isn't anything like the other cities I was in."

Zechs smiled proudly. "There are more modern sections, of course, but the heart of the city is still the same as it's been for hundreds of years."

"I'll bet not many places can say that."

"No, they can't. It's one of the things that makes Sanc so special." They stood at the top of a hill, the street winding away into shadow below them. Beyond the rooftops, they could see the flattened rectangles of the newer parts of the city and the paved ribbons of the airfield, and beyond that, the ocean glittering in the afternoon sun. Zechs looked out over the city, but his eyes seemed distant. "Sanc has been lucky--with the mountains on one border and the sea on the other, we've been too hard to conquer and too small to make the effort worthwhile. And of course, we had a tradition of not becoming involved in the wars of others."

Duo thought he noticed the slightest emphasis on "had."

They walked on a little, turned a corner into yet another quaint, old-fashioned neighborhood. To Duo, it seemed indistinguishable from the others they had strolled through, although Zechs pointed out landmarks as though he were a tour guide. "Do you see that building there, the one through the trees?" Duo could make out the broad, gray edifice, rows of windows glinting through the leaves. "That's the House of Parliament."

"Parliament? But I thought Sanc had a king--" Duo hesitated, uncertain of how Zechs would feel to be reminded of his dead father and his unclaimed throne.

"It did." Zechs' voice was quiet and a little solemn. "My father, the last Peacecraft king, was still ruler in a very real sense. But the Parliament was the voice of the people. Of course," his voice turned bitter. "That ended with the Alliance."

"Yeah. Lots of things ended with the Alliance."

They stood in silence, each alone with his painful memories. Finally, Duo prodded Zechs gently. "Come on. Let's finish the tour."

Zechs' answered with a grateful, if pale, smile and started walking again. They passed the trees and now Duo could see that the House was only a burned-out shell. The front section still stood, but behind it, the great building lay in shattered, blackened ruins. In fact, the entire neighborhood that lay behind the House and the park that bordered it was pitted by fire and bombs. Zechs pointed to another structure, crushed as though an apathetic giant had trod on it.

"That used to be a school. It was full of children the day an Alliance bomb missed the House and fell here instead."

Duo stared at the gray ruins, then turned his back, blinking rapidly. He couldn't look. Too many of his own ghosts hunkered in the lengthening shadows.

Zechs laid a tentative hand on Duo's shoulder. "I'm sorry...I wanted you to see all of it, but--"

Duo shook himself. "No, you're right. This is part of Sanc, too. It has war wounds, just like everywhere else. You can't ignore them."

"No, I can't. And I don't mean to." Zechs turned with Duo and steered him back down the sidewalk. He stayed quiet until the row of trees once again obscured the evidence of war. They crossed the street, and Zechs stopped, finally. "I've dragged you all over the old city for half the day and not even offered you lunch. Forgive me?"

Duo shook off the gloom of the war-scarred quarter behind them. He looked up at Zechs and grinned. "Sure--as long as you make amends. Soon."

"What would you say to now?"

"I'd say that suits me just fine." He and Zechs entered a little café and found a seat in the cool dimness. Duo flopped into a chair with careless grace, then ran a finger under his collar. "You've got some nerve, you know. Not even sweating in your uniform."

Zechs laughed. "Well, I am more accustomed than you to both a uniform and Sanc summers. But a cold drink would certainly be welcome."

As if on cue, a middle-aged woman approached their table, and Zechs ordered for them both. The woman looked curiously at him, and then her eyes widened. She dropped an awkward curtsy and scurried back to the kitchen. In a matter of minutes, several heads poked around the kitchen door and just as quickly disappeared. Duo watched the performance curiously, then looked back at Zechs. The prince shrugged a little, and Duo was surprised to see that he was blushing, if only faintly.

Before Duo had a chance to say anything, teasing or otherwise, a man about the same age as the waitress--her husband, perhaps, and clearly the owner of the café--approached them. He welcomed Zechs profusely as "my gracious prince," then served them three times the food they'd ordered and declared that he could accept no payment in exchange for the honor of serving Prince Milliard. Duo thought that Zechs seemed distinctly uncomfortable during the entire little ceremony, although how he knew that, he wasn't sure, as nothing in Zechs' demeanor gave away his discomfort. Still, when the man finally left them to eat their lunch, Zechs rolled his eyes a little and attacked the food with as much good grace as possible.

Duo leaned over the table and asked quietly, "You're not really going to eat all this, are you?" Unlike his General, Zechs was not by nature a hedonist and usually seemed to approach food as little more than a necessity, when he made time to eat at all.

With a slight grimace, Zechs nodded. "I've got to give it a shot, Duo. I'd insult the poor man if I didn't." Then he smiled. "But of course, I have you with me, so it shouldn't be a problem."

"Hrmph." Duo gave Zechs a slight pout, then laughed as well--and helped himself to the food. They spent the better part of an hour that way, eating and laughing, sharing stories of mostly trivial mishaps or embarrassments. Finally, Duo leaned back in his chair, rubbing his flat belly. "I can't eat another bite, I don't care whose honor is at stake."

Zechs leaned on his elbow, resting his cheek against his fist. "I would say that you've done a fine job of preserving my good name." He made a teasing bow. "You have my gratitude."

"What? Not even your royal gratitude?"

"Very well." He bowed again, more deeply, sweeping his arm in a dramatic flourish. "You have my most high and puissant royal gratitude."

"Huh? How can you be pissed and grateful at the same time?"

For a moment, Zechs looked puzzled. Then his expression brightened, although he didn't laugh. "Oh, I see. No, Duo, 'puissant' means powerful or strong." Finally, an amused smile quirked his expressive mouth. "Not that I'm...pissed."

"Oh." Duo looked askance for a moment, then stifled a laugh himself. "It just doesn't sound right to hear you say 'pissed.' It's too...common."

Zechs stood, offering his hand to Duo. "I'll take that as a compliment--whether you meant it as one or not."

Duo let Zechs take his hand-it would be silly not to, all things considered. And anyway, he liked the way it felt. Zechs' hands were so much bigger than his, and when his fingers disappeared in that warm, firm grasp, he felt strangely as though no one else could touch him. That as long as Zechs held his hand like that, no one could ever hurt him again. Yeah, he liked feeling that way. A lot.

As Duo got to his feet, Zechs started to release his hand, and he made a small, disappointed mewl. Long, warm fingers tightened around his again, and he felt that strange, secure feeling return. Still sheltering Duo's hand in his, Zechs spoke again to the owner, then left more than enough money to pay for their food. With a final bow to their host, Zechs guided Duo out of the café.

Duo went with him outside into the drowsy, late afternoon heat. "I don't get it...he said it was free, but you paid anyway?"

Zechs tucked Duo's hand under his arm, escorting him down the street back toward the Palace. "Yes...I suppose you could say it was a thank-you gift. I couldn't refuse his food, but to offer to pay would have been an insult. But for me not to pay at all would have been mean-spirited and greedy. So...I left him a gift."

"Oh." Duo walked beside Zechs for a few blocks, quietly trying to decipher that bit of logic.

They'd been gone from the Palace now for hours, and the end of the work day had come. The streets seemed to swell with laborers on their way home, on foot and on bicycle, jostling past Duo and Zechs in a noisy swarm.

Duo used the cover of the bustling street to think about the day. Underneath the fairy-tale surface, Sanc was a wounded country. They had walked past other war-damaged neighborhoods, burned and boarded-shut buildings, blackened piles of rubble, cracked foundations and tottering walls. Duo had seen the pain in Zechs' face, like he was bleeding inside.

The words of the man who'd tried to kidnap him on the Libra came back to him, that Zechs had somehow used Sanc for his own gain. But what gain? True, Zechs was an officer in OZ, second only to Treize. But the throne still sat empty...of course, so did the House of Parliament, and the OZ banner flew over the Palace. Had Zechs used his country to barter for a broader power for himself? But then, there was the unmistakable pride in his eyes when he showed the city to Duo, and the pain. Duo sighed. His body--and his heart--told him one side of the story, but his head persisted in trying to put a different spin on the evidence.

Zechs somehow must have heard his sigh, even over the street noise. "Duo? Is something wrong?" He pulled Duo aside, under the shade of an awning. "It's still quite warm-do you need to rest a minute?"

Duo smiled in spite of himself. "I'm not going to melt or die of heat stroke or something." Still, it did feel good to stand in the shade for a few minutes. The OZ uniform he wore was heavy and hot and scratched where the high collar rubbed his neck.

Zechs smiled, too, and laid his hand on Duo's shoulder, a small, possessive gesture that made Duo's skin tingle. They stood that way for a little while, and Duo found himself wishing they were back at the Palace already so that Zechs might do more than touch his shoulder. Since their last day on the Libra, they'd had little time for more...training exercises. But Duo had found himself thinking about it often, the feel of Zechs' hands gently stripping away his clothes, of those hands on his body, of his mouth....Duo remembered how it had felt, and how he had squirmed and cried out and begged, and his cheeks flamed, as though he had indeed been in the sun too long.

"Duo, your face is flushed--you are overheated." Zechs drew him toward a bench. "Come on, sit down and catch your breath."

Duo felt his blush deepen. "No, really, I'm fine. I--"

Duo stopped as someone jostled past them. Even though he didn't see the young man clearly at first, some thrill of recognition shot through him. Zechs' attention was still focused on getting him to rest, and Duo allowed himself to be guided to a narrow bench against the window of a shop. Even as Zechs fussed over him, opening his collar, Duo barely felt the cool touch of air on his perspiring skin. The young man who had brushed against them stopped and turned. From under disheveled dark bangs, a pair of Prussian blue eyes met his in a long, cool, appraising stare. Then the young man turned away, opened a door between the shops that led to the upper stories of the building, and disappeared. Duo bit his lip, his heart racing.

Heero was in Sanc.

+

Duo stood with his back to Zechs, looking out over the balcony at the sea. Zechs watched him, mostly for the pure pleasure of it. Duo leaned forward against the balustrade, elbows planted, hands clasped loosely. The tail of his untucked white shirt fluttered in the soft wind just over the curve of his hip. His braid hung over his shoulder, and he played with the end of it without conscious attention, as though it were an old habit.

He had taken off his jacket--or rather, Zechs had taken it off of him as soon as they were inside their suite. Duo had spent his life in the controlled environment of the Colonies, and Earth's extremes clearly still taxed him, if the way he'd flushed and then gone pale was any indication. Zechs had been afraid he was going to be ill. Duo protested he was fine all the way home, but when Zechs relieved him of the heavy blue jacket, he'd smiled.

"Thanks. I-I need a little air, I think..."

Zechs nodded, and Duo had stepped out onto the balcony, where the sea breeze ruffled his damp hair. The prince had called for some cold drinks, and a servant brought them, lemonade in tall glasses on a silver tray. Zechs dismissed the girl, then carried a glass to Duo. Ice tinkled against crystal as he offered it.

Duo met his eyes for a moment, then looked down, his "thank you" nearly a whisper. He took a tentative sip of the lemonade, then a bigger drink.

"Feeling better?"

"Yeah." Duo took another swallow, then turned his head, looking out over the ocean again. "I guess the heat got to me more than I thought."

Zechs brushed his fingers over Duo's ivory cheek. "You're not used to it yet."

"Must be it."

"Duo...is something wrong? You seem distracted." Zechs frowned slightly, wondering if he ought to have avoided the bombed-out areas of the city after all. Duo had been unusually quiet ever since.

Duo managed a wan smile. "No, really. I think it's just the heat..."

Perhaps it wasn't the war that was disturbing Duo. It had been days since he had come close to taking the pilot on the floor of his quarters on the Libra. Since then, there had been little time for much physical attention except quick kisses, hurried hugs and pats. He'd barely had the energy at night for even the brief, weary cuddles they'd managed. Perhaps Duo was only feeling neglected--with good reason.

"Then you need to cool off." He took Duo's half-empty glass out of his hand and set it aside. "Let me help."

Duo's breath caught sharply, but he made no attempt to stop Zechs, who slowly opened the white cotton shirt one button at a time. A faint sheen of perspiration covered Duo's skin, and he quivered a little when the air touched his bare chest. Other than that involuntary movement, he stood motionless, lips slightly parted, eyes open and wide. Zechs bent down and kissed the hollow of Duo's throat, savoring the clean, salty taste.

Duo laughed shakily. "This isn't c-cooling me off much--"

"No?" Zechs opened another button, then blew lightly over Duo's damp skin. "How's this?"

"Ohhh--" Duo shivered and he closed his eyes. One hand still gripped the edge of the stone balustrade. The other trembled, reaching toward Zechs a little before falling back at his side.

Zechs saw the small movement. He was right, then, about Duo wanting some attention. Smiling seductively, he reached for Duo's free hand and tugged him away from the railing. Violet eyes opened, searched his face--for reassurance, perhaps? Zechs gave it with a kiss, his mouth urging Duo to boldness.

With a tiny noise, like that of a curious kitten, Duo returned his nuzzle. His hands began to roam a little over Zechs, tentative at first, then with more confidence as Zechs murmured encouragement. Duo might be inexperienced, but his eagerness made up for any lack of finesse.

Duo wrapped his arms around Zechs' neck, enthusiastically responding to his kisses, even pursuing a few of his own. Zechs had half-forgotten how Duo's mouth tasted, how it felt to have that little tongue caressing his. But the memory came back to him in a sudden rush, and kissing no longer satisfied him. And this time, he had no reason to stop. He would take his time--no crude, quick tumble on the floor of his quarters, but a long, slow night of love...

"Let's go in." Zechs cupped his hand over Duo's bottom, fingers rubbing, teasing.

Nervousness edged Duo's voice. "In? Like...inside?"

"Yes." Zechs looked down at Duo, who suddenly seemed apprehensive, skittish almost. "Inside--to our bedroom..." His voice trailed off, the invitation left to hang in the air.

Duo's body tensed slightly, but he nodded. Zechs took his hand and let him across the balcony, through the wide doors that opened into the bedroom. Somehow, Duo seemed even smaller here, in the midst of the marble floors, the silk tapestries, the satins and velvets. He reminded Zechs of a wild little animal that someone had tried to make into a housepet. The look in his wide eyes only added to the image--wary, but a little awestruck, perhaps even hungry for the comforts and safety captivity could provide. Not docile, though. Never that.

Duo's aura of grudgingly-tamed wildness quickened Zechs' pulse. He pulled Duo into the room and started to shut the doors behind them, but Duo grasped at his sleeve.

"Don't-please? I-I like to hear the ocean...to smell it..."

Zechs smiled. "Of course. As you wish."

Duo smiled a little in return, and a hint of eagerness returned to his eyes. "Thanks."

"My pleasure." Zechs' voice roughened slightly as his desire spiked. "And speaking of pleasure..." Mindful of Duo's nervousness on the balcony, Zechs reined in his need. Slowly, he removed Duo's shirt. He leaned down and followed the cloth with a trail of kisses from Duo's neck to his shoulder, then down the other side. Duo's eyes closed. He bit his lip, as though to stifle himself. Zechs gently rubbed his fingertips over Duo's nipples, then slid his hands over his ribcage and waist. Duo moaned faintly as Zechs' hands skimmed his body, but when Zechs began to unfasten Duo's uniform trousers, he shied away.

Puzzled by Duo's sudden withdrawal, Zechs let his hands drop. "Duo, what--?"

"Zechs...I-I don't think I can...not now--" His voice faltered and broke. "I-I'm sorry."

"You're--sorry?" Zechs frowned, his voice sharp from disappointment. "I don't understand."

Duo pulled away from him. A shadow of the old, belligerent look returned, and his mouth set in a stubborn line. "I said I don't want to."

Frustration began to condense into anger. "On the ship--"

"Look, I changed my mind, okay? I'm allowed to do that, aren't I?" A faint sneer pulled at Duo's mouth, and even in his anger, Zechs thought it sat ill on Duo, looked false somehow. "Or maybe I'm not. After all, I belong to you. I'm yours--like your boots or your gun."

The shock of having his own words thrown back at him made Zechs gasp. "Duo--what is this about? What's changed?"

"Changed? Nothing's changed." Duo looked around the room, his eyes hardening at the grandeur. "The ship...this palace. It's all the same to me. I'm still a prisoner, and this is still a cage."

"A prisoner? After all that I...is that what you think?" Zechs' voice turned cold, as though the chill might soothe the burning of the bright, hot barb of pain lodged in his chest. "Then...go."

Duo stared at him, dumbstruck.

"Go!" Anguish tore ragged strips from Zechs' composure, left his voice tattered. "Leave, if that's what you wish. The door of the cage is open. No one will stop you." He turned his back and closed his eyes against the sight of Duo, sheet-pale and poised for flight. He waited, hoping...for--what? An apology? To hear Duo's voice, as choked as his own, begging to make things right, to clear up this misunderstanding?

He waited in vain. For a long moment, there was only silence behind him. Then a soft rustle of cloth and the swift, light clatter of Duo's heels on the marble floors. A door opening and closing. And then...nothing.

Nothing.

The emptiness of the palace swelled around him, crashed like the waves just beyond the balcony. After Duo escape, the silence became palpable, a pall, dark and smothering. The need to break it--break something--overwhelmed him. He grabbed at the first thing at hand, an ornate ormolu clock. Snarling with blind rage, he flung it wildly. The heavy bronze clock smashed against a mirror, and the glass exploded in a rain of silver shards. One struck his cheek, leaving a small, clean cut that leaked steady drops of blood. Zechs felt the warmth on his skin as he stared at the ruin he'd made. Blood ran down his face in a thin stream, but he didn't move. The pain comforted him somehow, as did the blood, still warm and wet on his cheek like the tears he refused to cry.

He couldn't tell how much time had passed while he'd stared, unseeing, at the shattered mirror, but at last, Zechs turned away, his boots crunching the broken glass to powder. He wiped his cheek and his blood smeared red on his fingers. If any of his servants had heard the crash and the slamming doors, they hadn't come to investigate. He supposed that over the years, they'd become accustomed to his outbursts and to cleaning up after them. They'd deal with the mess while he was out, quietly and efficiently. When he came back to his rooms later, it would simply be gone.

If only.

This time, he'd demolished far more than a mirror. The brittle trust Duo had begun to show lay broken at his feet as surely as the ruined glass. Or maybe there had never been trust, and he'd only seen what he wished to see. Perhaps Duo's hesitant belief and eager desire were no more real than reflections, and when the mirror shattered, so did the illusions.

Zechs' anger toward Duo had burned itself out in the hot flash of his temper. But a slow burn remained-at himself. He'd been a fool, an idealist, a...romantic. He sneered at himself, at his naïveté in believing that Duo Maxwell could actually grow to trust him. To want him. Perhaps, even, someday...

"Stop it!" Zechs snarled at himself. He could scarcely blame Duo for deceiving him. He'd have done the same himself, had he been a prisoner--said anything, behaved any way to make his captor trust him. Duo had played it well. He felt a grudging respect for the pilot's shrewdness. Wufei had been right all along; he'd never given Duo half the credit he deserved.

Yes, it had been well played. Well enough to make the OZ colonel behave like a smitten schoolboy over his ward. Zechs had no doubt he'd done precisely what the pilot had intended in brining him to Earth and then in giving him a chance to escape. Demanding that he escape, in fact.

"Holy Mother of God."

He had let a Gundam pilot slip through his fingers, turned him loose to stir up God knows what trouble. This was exactly what Treize's entire scheme was supposed to avoid. And he might well have destroyed all the General's fragile plans in one idiotic burst of temper.

Zechs squared his shoulders, his hand resting on his gun. He had to find Duo, now, before any more damage was done, bring him back here. He had to lock him in the cage again. Duo might never forgive him, but that made no difference. No difference at all.

Except to him.

+

The sun had long since set, and the city quieted as it prepared for sleep. A damp mist crawled in from the sea, but Duo scarcely noticed as he ran. His heart pounded and his legs burned, but he neither slowed nor stopped until long after the palace disappeared behind him in the evening fog.

When he could no longer see the lights of the palace, Duo halted his aimless, frantic dash. He leaned against a building, head tilted back against the brick, eyes closed. His chest heaved, and try as he might, he couldn't smother the little moaning gasps that escaped with each breath. He hadn't pushed himself that hard in a long time. But it wasn't exertion that dragged those mewls of pain out of him.

Oh God, he'd done it again. Fucked up. Ruined everything. Everything. Like he always did.

The ocean breeze that felt pleasantly cool in the late afternoon took on a chill, and mist soaked unpleasantly through the thin fabric of his shirt. Duo shivered, cold and miserable. The street seemed less quaint than menacing in the dark, the warm sun a distant, hopeless memory--like the memory of Zechs' hand clasping his as they walked.

More immediate were his memories of Zechs' face when Duo had pushed him away. Of his eyes, full of confusion and anger. And hurt. Duo groaned again, feeling Zechs' shock and pain as sharply as if it were his own. Maybe it was his...he couldn't be sure. Couldn't be sure of anything.

Why? Everything he'd ever dreamed of had been within his reach. A prince in a palace, for God's sake. It had been just like he'd imagined it as a little boy, spinning fantasies to escape the gnawing hunger that made sleep impossible. Everything--the tapestries and paintings, the gilt and mirrors, the silk and satin bed. And the prince...his prince. Looking at him with desire. Kissing him, touching him...

And with one stupid, stubborn impulse, he'd thrown it away. What was wrong with him? This was what he'd waited for, why he'd never... Even when he'd been so lonely he thought he would die of it, he'd never given in, never settled. Even fought when he had to, because he believed in his dream. In his prince. Then...why? Why wasn't it enough, to know that Zechs wanted him? What more was he waiting for?

Duo dragged the sleeve of his shirt over his eyes, then stared at the cloth as though he'd never seen if before. White shirt, white pants...who was he? He looked like a ghost, a shade, insubstantial and powerless. Everything he had been, turned inside out. There'd been a time when he had made things happen. But since their defeat and capture, he'd been drifting, letting things happen to him instead. Even his "escape"--Christ, he'd waited until Zechs gave him permission to run.

Enough of that shit. Yeah, and enough of believing in fairy tales. Time to get off his sorry ass and get moving. Duo straightened, wincing a little as the rough brick snagged at his long hair. Kids believed in fairy tales and princes and happy endings. He was no kid any more, and it was time he stopped acting like one. Acting like someone was going to show up and take care of him. That was crap, and he ought to know it by now.

Duo looked around him, paying attention to his surroundings for the first time. He thought the street looked familiar, but it was hard to tell. Yes, he recognized that store front--he remembered the sign, a rearing unicorn, decked with garlands of flowers, facing a disarmed knight. And then beyond that, that place with the red and white awning, and next to it, the little café where they'd eaten lunch.

The sight of the tiny restaurant stabbed through Duo's belly like a physical pain. His heart began the endless, aching chorus of why? but his mind screamed stop! No more fairy tales. No castles in the air, no knights in shining armor, no happily ever after. Not for him.

The streets were deserted now, windows shuttered like eyes in so many sleeping faces. Duo clung to the shadows out of habit, creeping close to storefronts, slipping into the darkness between buildings. This was what felt right, he told himself. This was where he belonged, not on an OZ ship or in a palace. Not with Zechs.

Whatever he'd been thinking in trying to fit in, to make the choice Wufei had made, he'd been wrong. There was no place for him in OZ, regardless of Treize Khushrenada's intent. It didn't matter if they were right. He could never be part of that world, of military discipline and uniforms and protocol. The freedom of the night began to ease some of his hurt. Not all of it--there would always be a place in his heart that ached with longing for his prince. But that, at least, was a familiar pain, and he could live with it.

It was better this way. Even if he'd stayed, he'd have been a misfit, always awkward and out of place. He thought of how easily Wufei seemed to wear the OZ uniform, how comfortable he appeared at Treize's side. He'd only had to look in his friend's eyes to know that he was where he belonged. Lucky Fei, to be able to fit so neatly into his lover's world.

But would Wufei have chosen to be by Treize's side if OZ were the evil they'd been told it was? Duo knew the answer. As much as Wufei loved Treize-and Duo knew that he did-he would never have dishonored his mission. Wufei was with Treize not only out of love, but because he believed in Treize's purpose.

Duo paused and turned, but the mist still obscured the palace from his view. He believed them, too, he realized. Treize and Wufei and Zechs-it had not been an act when they'd said that what they wanted was a united Earth at peace with the Colonies. All the evidence was there, and he'd been too stubborn to really accept it. But Treize was not a dictator, and Zechs was not his partner in oppression. Not that it mattered so much now, but the knowledge gave him a little peace. At least he knew that he had not fallen in love with a tyrant or a monster.

Duo's breath caught. Fallen in love. In love...the force of that realization brought him up short. He stopped, his hand groping against the building for support. He loved Zechs, one more thing he'd been too stubborn to admit. He understood now why he'd run. Because it wasn't enough just to be wanted, to be desired. He needed to be loved.

"Fuck," he whispered to the dark, the only confidant he'd ever had. Even Deathscythe had just been darkness solidified. "You're a greedy bastard, Maxwell. Gotta have it all." The night stayed quiet. It had no answers for him. Come to think of it, it never had. "Some friend you are," he muttered to nothing, then looked around, truly processing his surroundings for the first time. He'd followed the same path he'd taken with Zechs. Maybe he'd been hoping to find some echoes of that warmth remaining, some remnant of their closeness. Duo shrugged. Whatever. Time to quite whining and do something.

Maybe he didn't fit into OZ. Maybe he couldn't fight at Zechs' side. That didn't mean he couldn't fight on his side. But he had to do it his own way. Stealth and silence had always been his weapons, only now he was about to use them for OZ, and if that wasn't fucking strange, nothing was. But Duo knew what he knew, and if there really was a chance for lasting peace and freedom, not just for Earth but for the Colonies, it lay with the success of Treize Khushrenada's plans.

Duo scanned the street. He wasn't far from the spot where Zechs had made him stop and rest. His eyes narrowed at another memory, this one of a young man elbowing past him, a young man with unruly brown hair and cold, blue eyes. This was where he'd seen Heero. Shit. How could he have forgotten that?

He snorted, disgusted with himself. Heero Yuy was loose in Sanc, and all he could do was carry on like a goddamn drama queen, moaning about his poor broken heart. Duo gave his anguish a final shove, stuffing it into the little place inside where he always packed away his pain, and closed the lid.

So what brought Heero to city where OZ had headquartered? Coincidence, that he and his guardian had dropped off the radar screen, then conveniently resurfaced here--just as Zechs returned to clear the way for Treize? Uh huh. Sure it was. He'd seen Heero's eyes clearly enough, and he knew that look. Heero was on a mission, just like old times. Duo would have bet his life on it.

A sudden cold gripped Duo, and he wrapped his arms around himself. Just like old times...both of them, up to their old tricks. He was sneaking through the shadows like a thief, and Heero...

"Holy fucking shit."

The men who'd trained Duo had taught him to fight, sure, but they'd focused more on developing his natural talents as a sneak. Heero, though--his training went so far back that it seemed like second nature to him, long before he'd been taught to pilot a Gundam. Duo guessed that it wasn't his piloting skills that had attracted the attention of OZ's opponents. Of them all, Heero was the trained killer. The assassin.

It had to be the explanation. Why else was Heero here, now? Someone wanted Treize dead, and probably Zechs, too. And they'd picked Heero to pull the trigger.

But Heero didn't know what he knew, hadn't seen or heard the things he had. He didn't know that if he killed Treize and Zechs, he'd be destroying the Colonies' best hope for peace. He couldn't know...

Duo straightened. He had to find Heero first. If Treize and Zechs were murdered, that fragile hope would be destroyed. The war would start all over again, all the useless killing, all the waste. If he could explain, tell Heero what he knew, then maybe he could stop it.

But what if Heero wouldn't listen to him? What if...? His mouth set into a tight line. He'd shot Heero once before. If he had to do it again, to save the Colonies from another war--to save Zechs--he would. He tossed back his braid, forced his lips into a sardonic grin. After all, he reminded himself, fists planted on his slim hips, he was still the God of Death. Wasn't he?

[ch. 6] [ch. 8] [back to RazorQueens' fic]