by RazorQueen
see ch. 1 for warnings. notes

The Claim + Chapter 8

Duo looked around the room with a sense of familiarity so strong it threatened to choke him. How many days and nights had he spent in rooms like this, with blank walls and narrow beds, the only things to recommend them being cheap rent, landlords and landladies who asked no questions, and proximity to whatever the next mission happened to be?

The only sign of the room's occupant--indeed, that it was occupied at all--was the laptop computer sitting on a table. Cautious, listening for Heero's return, Duo sat down gingerly in the rickety chair and opened the computer's lid.

He turned on the machine and waited, only to discover his access blocked. Duo grumbled, but he'd expected it. Leave it to Heero to give everything layers of protection. Still…his fingers danced across the keyboard, his mouth smiling faintly. Heero might be great with computers, but he had no imagination. Duo grinned a little at some of Heero's passwords. It was only a matter of time before Duo hit on them all and got into the files he wanted. It became a puzzle to him, and he lost himself in the sheer joy of the challenge.

Caught up in solving the next level, Duo ignored the prickle between his shoulder blades for a little while. Not for long--he'd lived by his gut feelings for too many years to discount it now. But by the time it penetrated his awareness that his nerves screamed "danger!" it was a little too late.

The quiet snick of a safety being removed validated Duo's instincts. Cold gunmetal pressed against his neck, and Heero said, "You're lucky it's me. The others would have shot you on sight."

Duo tried to shrug, although it was hard to manage with a revolver digging into his skin. "Nobody else would've have gotten this close in the first place."

"You changed clothes."

Duo blinked and looked down at the shirt and pants he'd stolen to replace his OZ clothing. "Oh. Yeah, the uniform…"

"Yes. The uniform." Heero's voice sounded as though he were reading a verdict.

"Heero, it's not…" Duo stopped. It was what it looked like. "I can explain--"

"I'm sure you can."

"Heero…"

"Get away from the computer."

Slowly, Duo drew his hands back from the keyboard. The chair shivered as though it would fall apart when he scooted it back. He stood, facing Heero with his hands open and arms spread wide, showing him that he didn't have a weapon.

"Heero, we need to talk. Nothing's like we thought it was." Duo glanced back at Heero's laptop, then at his gun. "Look, I can guess why you're here. What your mission is. And--"

Heero gazed at him steadily, eyes cold and hard as deep blue ice. "My mission hasn't changed."

Under Heero's icy glare, Duo felt his own heart freeze as well. "Well, that's a damn shame, because in case you haven't noticed, the world changed around you."

"OZ might have won. But they're still vulnerable."

"Listen to me, damn it!" Duo clenched his fists, wondering if it really was possible to beat sense into someone. "They aren't what we thought. What we were told. They don't want to run the Colonies--they're helping them hold elections and build their own governments! Isn't that what we were supposed to be fighting for--the Colonies being free to run themselves?"

Hesitation flickered behind Heero's eyes. "How do you know?"

"I--" Duo swallowed. He would have to tell the whole truth eventually, so he may as well start now and get it over with. "Look, I know how this sounds, and I wouldn't really believe it if somebody else were telling it, but it's the honest to God truth, I swear it is--"

"What is?"

"What I just told you. That Treize and Zechs are trying to bring peace--real peace, with the colonies in charge of their own destinies--to Earth and space. I don't really understand the whole thing, but I know there's guys who don't want them to, and they'd like to get rid of Treize and probably Zechs, too, and I think that's who you're working for--"

Heero held up a hand to stop Duo's avalanche of words. "Slow down. Tell me how you know all this."

Duo looked down at the floor, suddenly taking a great interest in the scarred wood. "I…well, I've kind of been following Zechs around a lot lately."

"So I noticed."

"Look, I was a prisoner, okay? A-a hostage…Zechs was my warden--" Duo faltered at Heero's faint, disbelieving sneer. "What?"

"You're going to have to do better than that."

"He was. He claimed me--he didn't want to, but those old guys, Romafeller, they wanted me, too, and not just 'cuz I'm a hotshot pilot, and so he--" Duo stopped and took a deep breath, uncomfortably aware that he'd started to babble again. "Look, Heero…have I ever lied to you?"

"No." Characteristically, Heero had to qualify his answer. "Not that I know of."

Duo rolled his eyes in exasperation. "I haven't, and you know it. I'm not lying now, either." He drew himself up and faced Heero's gun, determined even though his stomach ached from the tension. "You can take my story or leave it. Believe me, or shoot me. Just make up your fucking mind, because I'm tired of trying to argue with you."

"Hn." Heero glared at him for so long that Duo began to think he was going to shoot after all, but then he slowly lowered his gun, although he still sounded unconvinced. "What makes you think it's the truth? Why would they let you see what they're really up to?"

"No reason not to--as far as they knew, I wasn't going anywhere. It's not like they tried to get me to do anything. He…" Duo felt himself blush slightly, aware that he betrayed himself. "…they," he emphasized firmly, "weren't trying to use me. Trying to keep me from being used is more like it."

Finally, Heero's gun disappeared and Duo sagged in relief. He hadn't really thought Heero would shoot him…but still…

Heero sat down stiffly in the rickety chair, his body between Duo and the laptop. Duo smiled a little. Okay, so Heero didn't trust him that much.

"All right, then," Heero said. "Tell me all of it."


Zechs stood alone on the balcony of the palace suite that served as OZ headquarters. He looked out over the city, studying it intently as though he could single out one small figure in the thousands who were coming and going.

Where was Duo? Zechs' men had searched all night, but they'd found nothing. He'd simply melted into the city. Zechs berated them, then apologized, remembering how easily Duo had slipped through their defenses during the war. He could lose himself now just as easily.

Try as he might, Zechs couldn't keep his mind on the practical matters of Duo's escape, nor on the political implications of it. Every thought he had of Duo was intense and utterly personal. But was it personal for Duo? Had all of it, every moment of warmth between them, truly been a device to secure his escape? He clenched his fists, tensing as though he might strike out again in frustration, but no one came close enough to serve as a target. Behind him, his men went about their duties with quiet efficiency, all too conscious of their commander's black mood to disturb him.

Zechs raked his hand through his hair. He thought back over the last few weeks, searching for something that might give him the key to understanding the slender spitfire he'd reluctantly claimed. He replayed every memory of Duo, from his stricken, lost look when Zechs told him he'd been claimed to the moment he'd grabbed his shirt and run from Zechs' rooms in the palace. One image returned over and over to haunt him, that of Duo's first night, when Zechs had found him huddled, shivering, asleep on the floor, too stubborn and too frightened to sleep in Zechs' bed.

In spite of his pain, he smiled a little at the memory. "Silly, stubborn kit. As if I'd have hurt you…" Zechs mused, still staring sightlessly at the play of light and shadow on the tiled rooftops below. Duo had been proud and headstrong from the first, but it had almost always been a cover for his fears. Why should last night have been different? Duo had barked and snapped because he was afraid of something. Zechs muttered a curse. He ought to have recognized it then, but he was too ensnared by his own fears and frustrations to see it. What had he missed, ignored? What had happened to make Duo suddenly doubt him?

Driven by his own desires, he'd gone too quickly, tried to push Duo into something he was not ready for, physically or emotionally. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that Duo was inexperienced that way, when he'd had so many other experiences that were beyond the grasp of most young men his age. Of most men of any age, for that matter. But Zechs been so certain his need…his love would convince Duo and allay his fears.

He did love Duo, of that he had no doubt now. In the agonizing hours since Duo had run, he'd had time--too much time--to think. He'd mentally totaled up his feelings, the beguiling mixture of tenderness, admiration and protectiveness, added in the blazing fire the pilot ignited in him, and he could no longer ignore the meaning of the sum. In Duo Maxwell, he had found all that he ever wanted or needed. Found him, and then ordered him away.

Zechs shook his head, disgusted with himself. Duo was not the only stubborn fool. Treize had seen it, had tried to tell him, but he'd refused to accept the truth. His own pride had kept him from admitting to himself, much less to Duo, that he'd fallen in love with his prisoner. And if he'd refused to see it for himself, how could Duo possibly know? No wonder he had fled.

He'd acted so thoughtlessly he didn't deserve a chance to tell Duo that he loved him. Still, he would find him or die trying. Grimly, Zechs realized that was a distinct possibility, if the reports he'd read earlier in the morning were accurate. For the first time, a real pattern began to emerge, names, places, connections…he'd felt genuinely ill when he confirmed that some of his own men aboard the Libra, his own officers, were part of the plot to murder Treize and him. He suspected that the same men had been responsible for trying to abduct Duo. The forces against him and Treize gathered; he could feel them, as oppressive as an impending thunderstorm. But until they knew who in Romafeller was the head of the conspiracy, they dared not move.

Zechs remembered watching the gardeners in this very palace when he was a small boy. Once, he'd asked one of them why he worked so hard to dig up the roots of weeds when it was so much easier to snap off the stems and leaves. Because, the man had said, if you didn't dig out the root, the weed just grew back, sometimes even bigger and stronger than before.

Enemies and their plots were the same. Dig them out, root and all, or they grew again, their purpose strengthened by your attack.

He blinked, and the city came into focus again. The conspirators were out there, waiting. He could feel them. And somehow, Duo had gotten tangled up in their web. Zechs sensed that time was running out for both of them, and he'd already wasted too much of it in pointless pride and anger. He turned his back on the city and returned to his men.

"Any word?"

Two soldiers exchanged glances, then the higher-ranking one spoke. "A lead, sir. I don't know how promising, but it's something."

Zechs put a quick damper on the relief that sprang up at the man's words. "What is it?"

"A house in the old city. Some of the suspects have been seen going in and out. We're certain they're using it as a base."

"And Duo?" Zechs winced. The question came far too quickly and with too much hope.

"Nothing." The man hesitated, clearly waiting for Zechs' fury, but when the colonel remained quiet, he offered a hesitant, "I'm sorry."

"Yes," Zechs responded stiffly, with automatic courtesy. "Thank you."

"Sir…perhaps if we searched the house. There might be a clue, or someone to question--"

Zechs nodded. "Yes. Yes, you're correct. I'll take some men with me--"

"You, sir?"

"I, lieutenant." Zechs' expression forbade the man to question any further. He knew it was unorthodox for him to go into the field like this. But he had to do something or go mad. "I'll take six men. It's not our purpose to engage the entire group, but to search the house and possibly capture a suspect for questioning."

"Yes, sire." The lieutenant frowned. "But we'll be ready with backup, just in case. Sir."

Zechs nodded, turning to the other soldier who had maps of the area surrounding the house. "If we use this street to approach them, it's unlikely we'll be seen." Zechs scarcely needed a map. This was his city, and he knew it as well as he knew himself. No, he corrected. He knew the city far better than he knew his own mind and heart, because he'd never been afraid to look at its scars. Never been afraid to admit he wasn't whole unless he was here, caring for his people. Never been afraid to admit he loved it. He'd thought his father's land filled the need in him that most people fulfilled with a lover. He'd seen others, even Treize, lose their hearts, and he had felt both superior and excluded. But always, he'd thought himself immune. How little he had known, after all.

"There's an alley we'll need to watch, here--"

+

Duo perched on the edge of the narrow bed. He started at the beginning, when he was alone in the cell on the Libra, and how angry and abandoned he'd felt. Heero's mouth twitched at that, and Duo thought he might say something, but he didn't, and Duo went on with his story. He explained it all, even about Treize and Wufei. Heero did have something to say about that, and Duo had to sidetrack for a few minutes to calm him down. In the end, Duo made only one omission, that he'd fallen in love with his warden. No point in telling that to Heero. It would only make Heero suspicious all over again, and anyway, it didn't matter. Zechs wasn't in love with him, and besides, Duo was never going back there. He would stay where he belonged, in the shadows, doing what he could for peace--for Zechs. He would keep his secret, a sweet memory to warm himself on bleak, lonely nights. What could it hurt if he held those few days of happiness in his heart and never told anyone? For the first time, Duo looked into Heero's eyes and told him a lie.

"That's all of it."

Heero stayed quiet, his face thoughtful. "There's still a lot I don't understand…but it does make a kind of sense."

Duo grinned, finally. "'Course it does. Heero, think about it. We've finally got a chance--a real chance--to do what we set out to do, to make things right for the colonies. OZ will help them get back on their feet, but the colonies will still run themselves, make their own decisions. They'll have what they need to fix things up, clean up the shit that all these years of war have left." He quit seeing Heero's pensive face opposite him, looking away to an almost unimaginable future. "Think about what that will mean for the people…for the kids…"

Heero nodded slowly. "It could be an opportunity to build something new instead of endlessly repeating the same mistakes."

"Yeah! Yeah, that's it, exactly." Excitement burbled up inside of Duo, despite a hard, sharp pain that remained over Zechs. "We can really make a difference this time. On our own, without anyone giving us orders, pulling our strings--"

"That would be…preferable." Heero frowned, clearly still thinking. "But--" His voice cut off at the sound of the street door opening and closing, followed by footsteps on the stairs.

Duo held his breath as the heavy tread--men, but how many?--drew closer. Heero's gun appeared in his hand again. Duo opened his mouth to speak, but Heero shook his head. For a second, Duo thought that the men would go on by, up to the next floor, but that proved to be wishful thinking. His heart thumped so loudly that it drowned out the creak of the door opening. Three men entered, their eyes fastening immediately on Heero and Duo. Duo smothered a dismayed gasp as he recognized one of them as the man who'd grabbed him in the corridor of the Libra. After a moment of equally startled recognition, the man broke into a sly, smirking smile.

"Good work, Heero. You caught Merquise's bed toy."

Heero's eyes narrowed, and he glanced sidelong at Duo. "He's not their prisoner any more. He escaped."

The man from the Libra glowered. "Don't trust him. He's sleeping with Zechs Merquise."

Heero turned to Duo at last, clearly waiting for Duo's denial. Duo hesitated, then blurted, "I'm not Zechs' lover. He was my warden, I told you."

Heero still said nothing, but the man snorted. "Warden…feh. Ask him where he slept."

Heero's gun pointed at Duo's ribs again. "Well?"

Duo swallowed. He felt his face burn, but he lifted his chin and answered the literal truth. "In Zechs' bed. I'm not ashamed of that. But we didn't do anything." Not in the bed, at least. He glared rebelliously at the man from the Libra. "I'm not anyone's toy."

The man stepped closer and raised his hand, as if to strike Duo, but Heero said, "I'll lock him in the other room. We'll decide what to do with him…after."

Duo twisted to look at Heero. "No…Heero, don't. You can't--"

"Get up." Heero's voice sounded odd…almost gentle. "I don't want to have to shoot you."

Duo stood, rather unsteadily. "Heero--"

Heero didn't speak again. He prodded Duo with the nose of his gun, nudging him toward an open door to another room. Duo had briefly investigated it earlier, found it sparsely furnished like the first but otherwise empty, an anonymous sleeping room. It also made a decent cell, with its narrow, wire-covered windows and its stout door and heavy lock.

Duo turned to face Heero as he shut the door behind them. "Listen to me--"

"I did listen to you. 'That's all of it,' you said."

Duo looked down and scuffed at a scar on the bare wood floor. He knew Heero was waiting for him to deny what the man had said. He could do it, and Heero might just believe him. He could tell the truth--he wasn't Zechs' lover. But it would be the truth in only the most literal sense, because he did love Zechs, whether Zechs loved him or not, and Duo would do anything to save him. Even lie to Heero, and Heero must know it.

"It doesn't matter what I say, I'm screwed. If I tell you I wasn't Zechs' lover, you'll think I'm lying to save myself. And if I tell you I was, then you won't believe anything else I say, because you'll think I'm lying to save him."

"I'd say that sums it up pretty neatly."

"God damn it, Heero, it wasn't that way!"

Heero turned away, but he paused with his hand on the worn brass doorknob as if he were waiting for something.

Duo tried again, desperate. "Maybe I didn't tell you all about Zechs and me, but everything else I said was true. Check it out--there have to be news stories about elections in the Colonies. Do that much, at least."

Heero looked back at him with eyes that suddenly seemed much older and sadder. Duo flinched. He'd seen that same expression too many times in his own mirror when he was tired--tired of orders, tired of war. Tired of killing.

"I wanted to believe you."

Duo's voice shook. "Don't kill him, Heero. Please."

Heero smiled a little, weary and wistful to match his eyes. In that same strange, gentle voice, he said, "I have my orders, Duo." Then he was gone, and Duo was alone.

He beat his fists on the door. "Heero! Listen to me! Don't do it! Heero!" No one came, even when Duo slammed his slender body against the door in a wild attempt to break it down. He sank to the floor, shaking. Heero was going to kill Zechs.

It had been more than twenty-four hours now since he'd eaten, longer than that since he'd slept. Not so long ago, such things wouldn't have slowed him down, but now, he couldn't seem to make himself think, much less move. He could only replay that same thought: Heero was going to kill Zechs.

A wave of helplessness broke over him, and he pressed his cheek against the door, almost deceiving himself for a second that it was Zechs' broad chest he leaned against. That he would feel a strong hand smoothing his hair, hear a velvet voice soothe, "Now, kit. Don't be afraid."

"I can't help it. I am afraid," Duo whispered, hugging himself. "I love you, and now you're going to die."

The cold, black waters of his memory rose up, and for a little while, he was in danger of being caught in the undertow and pulled down. Everyone he loved died. He'd forgotten that…how could he have forgotten that? From somewhere deep inside, a small voice began to wail, the voice of a little boy who'd been given glimpses of love and security and had them snatched away, again and again. Duo sniffled, dragging his arm over his eyes.

It was fate that everyone he loved should die. He couldn't fight fate, could he?

Duo lifted his head. Like hell, he couldn't. If anyone could fight the inevitable, it was him. Every day he'd stayed alive, he'd challenged fate. So what was he doing, sitting here feeling sorry for himself when Zechs was in danger? Not just Zechs, but Treize, too, and their dream of peace. He pulled himself to his feet, swaying a little from exhaustion.

Duo surveyed the room critically. He could escape any jail, and this was just a bedroom, not even a real cell. The door and windows were made to keep thieves out, not lock prisoners in. They'd expected this to hold him? He laughed out loud. Heero, of all people, ought to have known better.

Experimentally, he lifted the sash of the ancient window. It stuck a little, the wood swollen from the heat and humidity, but he managed to push it open far enough that he could go to work on the wire mesh. Using makeshift tools fashioned from bits of metal pilfered from the bed frame, Duo began the tedious work of prying the mesh loose. Some of the nails had rusted and loosened, but a few were clearly new and held fast.

He was sweating by the time he'd loosened one corner. The air grew stifling as the late afternoon sun beat down on the windows, and if he stood too quickly, the room had an unpleasant tendency to dip and sway. Still, Duo worked doggedly, and by the time the sun sank lazily toward the rooftops of the old city, he'd made enough of an opening that he could squeeze through.

He paused, listening for signs that Heero or his other captors had returned. Nothing. The building was quiet, almost as though it napped in the last warmth of the day. Duo wiped the sweat from his face and went back to work. The stiff wire mesh cut his hands as he pushed it back, but he ignored it, forcing his shoulders through the opening as he wriggled out the window.

It was a tight fit, and sharp ends of wire snagged at his clothes. As Duo stopped to free himself, he froze. Downstairs, the street door opened and shut, followed by cautious footsteps on the stairs. He began to worm his way out of the window again, aware that time was running out. Even if Heero hadn't found Zechs yet, how much longer would it be? Not long. Heero was too good at getting into places without being noticed. And Zechs didn't know Heero was in Sanc. Duo had kept it from him, his loyalties torn.

Cursing, Duo tugged on his shirt as it caught again. The fabric ripped, and he squirmed until half his body was through. He looked down from the second-story window at the alley below. It was a drop, but he could make it. He leaned out as far as he could, scanning the alley and the street beyond before making the leap. There were footsteps scuffling in the other room now, and he twisted his hips, trying to wiggle through without falling to the pavement below.

The doorknob jiggled. Panting from his efforts, Duo remembered the loathing in the eyes of Heero's comrades. Without Heero around to stop them, they'd probably kill him and say he was trying to escape--which, of course, he was. Then he remembered something else--the way the man had pressed and pawed him on the Libra. Maybe they wouldn't kill him first. Maybe they'd…Duo couldn't finish the thought. He tore at the wire, his hands trembling more wildly than before.

The door reverberated under a heavy kick. Even as he worked frantically, Duo managed a tiny smile. Heero must have taken the key. Good old Heero. He'd done what he could for Duo without jeopardizing his mission. Guess he realized these guys were slime after all.

The door shivered again, and this time Duo heard the wood giving way. One more solid kick, and they'd be in. He was out of time.

He could fit through the hole now, but he was going to have to make a dive for it and hope the landing didn't kill him. No time for finesse. Behind him, the door crashed open. He took a deep breath and launched himself like a slender projectile.

And went nowhere.

Even as he felt hands dragging him back in, he kicked and clawed, fighting like a feral cat, blind with rage and terror. Damn it, he'd make them work to get him. He wrenched one hand free and swung wildly.

"Duo! Duo, stop it. It's me. Stop--" A soft grunt cut off the familiar voice as Duo's blow connected.

Duo blinked and froze in shock as his eyes focused again. Instead of the dark, saturnine face of his captor, he looked up at a tall, blond man in a red uniform coat. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He tried a second time and managed to croak, "Zechs?"

Zechs nodded, as though Duo needed the confirmation. His hands still gripped Duo's arms tightly. "Are you going to fight me?"

"Fight you?" Duo forgot everything in that moment. Nothing else mattered except that Zechs had come for him. His prince had rescued him, just like in his dreams. "Why would I do that?"

Zechs smiled a little. It made Duo realize how tense and tight his expression had been. "I can't think of a single reason."

"You came for me! You really did." Duo clung to Zechs, half laughing, half crying in amazement. Finding warm and solid flesh far more satisfying than rough wood and imagination, he pressed his cheek against Zechs' chest, rubbing like a kitten.

"How could I help it?" Pain and worry flickered in Zechs' eyes as he touched the bleeding scrapes on Duo's arms. "You're hurt."

"It's just a scratch."

"We'll go back, and I'll take care of them." Zechs studied him intently, his hand cupping Duo's cheek, the other arm around his waist. "You haven't eaten, have you? Or slept…oh, kit--" His voice shook. "Never run from me again…"

"I'm sorry…I'm sorry." Duo's throat tightened and ached. "I was…it wasn't because I didn't…" He gave up and threw his arms around Zechs' neck. "I won't do it again, not ever. I promise."

He could hear the smile in Zechs' voice as he murmured, "And I'll never be foolish enough to tell you to go."

Duo grinned. "We did pretty much act like idiots, didn't we?"

Zechs wrapped his arms around Duo's waist. "I'd much rather make a fool of myself loving you." His smile widening, he lifted Duo and swung him in a half-circle.

For a moment, Duo was left breathless. Then the realization of Zechs' words sank in. "You'd rather what?"

"I'd rather love you, my brave, foolish, beautiful kit."

"Oh!" Duo's hands clenched around fistfuls of Zechs' coat. Hopeful and afraid at once, he looked up into the prince's face. Had he said…surely, it couldn't be. "You…you love me?"

"With all my heart."

Duo thought he must be asleep, because dreams didn't really come true. Not his dreams, anyway. But here was Zechs, an honest-to-God prince, more handsome than any fantasy of a handsome prince he'd ever spun, and not only had he come for Duo, Zechs loved him. Still only half believing, Duo turned his face up for a kiss.

Zechs' arms tightened, and he bent his head. Duo's eyes closed of their own will, and he waited to feel Zechs' mouth on his. But the kiss seemed a long time coming, and he opened his eyes. "Zechs?"

Zechs didn't answer, but a voice behind Duo spoke, so thick with hate he almost didn't recognize it.

"Little bastard, you led him right to us. Should've killed you the first time I had the chance."

Duo twisted in Zechs' arms. The officer from the Libra stood between them and the door to the hallway, his gun aimed at Duo's head. With him was a man Duo didn't recognize, but from his age and the antique richness of his furred robe, he assumed it must be one of Romafeller's inner circle. He, too, looked at Zechs and Duo with undisguised hatred.

"Tuberov. I should have known…" Zechs thrust Duo aside, and for a sinking moment, Duo thought that Zechs was ashamed to be seen with him, even by his enemies. But then he heard the crack of a revolver, and Zechs staggered back.

"No…oh God, no…" Duo scrambled across the floor on his hands and knees to Zechs' side as the prince fell. A small hole, the edges blackened, marred his coat halfway between his right shoulder and his breastbone, just at the height of Duo's head. Duo tried to sound reassuring as he gabbled, "It's okay…it's not so bad…."

His fingers crawled across the still form until they touched flesh. He reached under the cornsilk hair and found a pulse. Weak with relief, he pressed his cheek against Zechs' face. "I'll get you out of this, I promise."

"It's rash to make promises you have no way of keeping."

Duo looked up, tearing his eyes away from Zechs. The ugly Romafeller aristocrat sneered down at him. "Pity. You'd have made such a pretty plaything when we were done with you."

"Why?" Duo felt the cry torn from him. He didn't mean the question for himself, and Tuberov seemed to realize it.

"He betrayed us. His class. We are the only ones capable of ruling, we're entitled to it." Tuberov looked at Duo as though he were a piece of filth that someone had forgotten to clear away. "His fascination with a guttersnipe like you proves how unworthy he is."

"You seem pretty fascinated yourself." Duo tried to gather Tuberov's anger to himself, to distract him from Zechs. And where the hell were Zechs' men, anyway? He didn't come here alone, did he? Stalling desperately, Duo returned Tuberov's sneer. "Says something about your taste, too."

"Don't flatter yourself. We'd have used you, not kept you as a pet. What do you think we are?"

"Fucking crazy, that's what!"

Tuberov's sneer twisted into a vicious snarl. With barely a glance at his companion, he ordered, "Shoot him."

Duo stared into the barrel of the revolver. Another shot, deafening in the small rooms, and Duo flinched, his body tensed and waiting for the bullet. But the burning pain didn't come. Instead, the gunman's fingers loosened and his eyes widened in surprise before he pitched forward. Behind him, Heero turned his gun on Tuberov.

"I'll kill you, too. Don't move."

More boots pounded up the steps, and Zechs men arrived, drawn by the gunshots and voices. Heero's eyes met Duo's the instant before the soldiers grabbed him. Almost immediately, they hustled him and Tuberov roughly toward the stairs, and Duo cried out as though something were being torn from him.

"No, wait--" Duo reached toward the soldiers, but they ignored him in the confusion. "He wasn't helping them, he saved us--"

Zechs drew a wet-sounding breath. Duo forgot Heero utterly, conscious of nothing except his prince who lay in a growing pool of his own blood. He touched the bullet hole, and when his fingers came away wet, he frantically pulled open Zechs' coat. Underneath the jacket, red soaked the front of his shirt. Duo pressed his hand on the wound. "Oh God, you're bleeding…"

" 's jus' a scratch." Zechs' eyes opened, slowly, as if it took great effort. He whispered, "Duo…beloved…"

A sob wracked Duo's body, and he struggled against its successor, finally managing to say, "I'm here." He groped for Zechs' hand, squeezing his fingers with gentle pressure. "See? I'm right here…"

Zechs smiled wearily, a short-lived smile that faded as the effort to hold on it became too great. "…good…"

"Fucking idiot…" Duo sobbed again, not sure who he railed against. "What'd you have to go get in the way of a bullet for, anyway?"

"…he was going to…had to stop him…couldn't let you…" Zechs coughed, and Duo could hear blood in his lungs. "…hard t'breathe…"

Duo's vision blurred, and he clung more tightly to Zech's hand. "Hush. Don't try to talk. Help's coming." He looked up at one of Zechs' men, his eyes pleading. "Right?"

The soldier nodded. "An ambulance is on the way."

Duo tried not to think about the crowded, narrow streets and how long it could take an ambulance to navigate them. Somehow, the calm that always came over him in an emergency eluded him. He couldn't stop shaking, and his fingers kept slipping off Zechs' wound. Zechs groaned, and Duo swore at his own clumsiness. After what seemed an eternity, he heard the siren, and then more footsteps.

The soldier who'd spoken to Duo earlier pulled him gently away from Zechs' side. "They have to take him now."

"No! I'm going with him!"

Duo struggled, but his strength evaporated. When they lifted Zechs, Duo felt a great, tearing pain, like when the soldiers had taken Heero away, only a thousand times worse. He tried to fight his way to Zechs' side, but they wouldn't let him. Duo reached for his prince, but he was too far, and then they took him away, carried him down the stairs to the waiting ambulance. The soldier's grip loosened, and Duo broke free, running down the stairs, but not fast enough. Just as he reached the sidewalk, the ambulance pulled off, sirens blaring.

Duo stood on the sidewalk as the ambulance disappeared over the hill, struggling against his tears. He had to find out where they were taking him, had to get there…he whirled as the remaining soldiers came out of the building, meaning to demand they take him to Zechs. Suddenly, the street dipped and swirled around him, and his angry order faded into a weak mewl, like a hungry kitten's cry. Dimly, he knew someone caught him as he fell, but as darkness folded over him, he whimpered, "Zechs…" and surrendered to the cold comfort of oblivion.

[ch. 7] [ch. 9] [back to RazorQueens' fic]