by RazorQueen
see ch. 1 for warnings. notes

The Claim + Chapter 9

"How long has he been in there?" Duo paced the hospital's private waiting room for what seemed the hundredth time, twisting the end of his braid in his hands. Nothing but movement seemed to hold back the panic that threatened to strangle him. "It's been too long. Don't you think it's been too long?" He looked wildly at Treize and Wufei, eyes pleading.

Wufei glanced meaningfully at Treize, who stood. "Duo, come sit down before you fall down." He rested a comforting hand on Duo's shoulder and guided him back to a couch, pushed him down gently, then sat next to him. To Wufei, he said, "Duo needs some coffee. And a sandwich, if you can find anything decent."

Duo shook his head vehemently. He wanted to throw up just thinking about food. "I can't eat."

"Yes, you can." Treize's voice made it an order, and Duo didn't bother to protest again as Wufei left. Arguing took too much effort.

Treize patted Duo's knee. "I have to take care of you, you know. I'll face Zechs' wrath otherwise, and I'd really rather avoid that." He rubbed his chin as though he'd been struck there and smiled ruefully. "I've found his wrath unavoidable a few times in the past. I generally came out on the losing end."

Duo tried to smile back, but it dissolved into something else.

"He's going to recover. He's been hurt far worse than this before. The bullet went through cleanly." Treize sighed. He'd repeated the same arguments now for hours, but Duo couldn't quite bring himself to believe them, and it showed.

Duo could feel the fear vibrating through him. He hated it, hating being this afraid and this helpless. It brought too much back. But it wasn't just the past he was afraid of now, it was the future, too--a future without Zechs. Treize's calm, rational assurance couldn't begin to penetrate that.

"He couldn't breathe!"

"His lung collapsed." Treize made another visible effort to be patient. "Duo, he's going to be all right." He looked at the wall clock. "It won't be long now."

As if even doctors responded to Treize's orders, the surgeon came out a few minutes later, while he and Duo were still alone. Duo leaped to his feet. Treize stood, too, his hand again resting on Duo's shoulder. Maybe he wasn't so sure as he sounded about the results of Zechs' surgery. Realizing that Treize was scared, too, didn't do a damn thing to make Duo feel better.

Duo's throat squeezed shut, but Treize asked, "How is he?"

"He's on a ventilator temporarily, and we're still giving him blood." The doctor, a middle-aged woman with graying hair and a pleasant face, answered Treize's question but looked at Duo when she spoke. "But aside from the lung, which should heal, there was no other major damage. "

"He'll recover?" Treize interrupted, as though he had to verify what he'd heard.

"There's no reason why he shouldn't."

Recover...sweet Jesus. Recover. Zechs was going to be okay. Duo's legs nearly folded under him, and his voice shook as badly as his knees. "C-can I see him?"

The doctor didn't wait for Treize's permission, although by all rights, she should have. But it seemed that word had gotten around about Zechs and Duo, and that gave Duo some sort of status among the people of Sanc. "Yes. I'll take you. Your Excellency?"

"I can find my way, thank you." Treize squeezed Duo's shoulder. "You go, Duo. I'll wait for Wufei. We'll be along in a few minutes." To the doctor, he said, "You'll need to send someone to talk to the reporters. I'll speak to them myself after I've seen him, but word will spread that he's out of surgery, and I don't want any wild stories flying about."

"Of course, Your Excellency." The doctor turned to Duo. "This way, if you please."

Duo followed the doctor down a corridor. They passed a few patient rooms, but all appeared empty. At the end of the hall, just past a nurse's station, the doctor paused. She spoke to Duo with a strange combination of deference and maternal kindness that comforted him, even if it mystified him.

"His Highness is in a private room, although we're monitoring him constantly, of course. If he should need assistance, someone will be here in seconds."

Duo nodded, steeling himself before he went through the door. The doctor gave him a knowing look and said, "And if you need anything, you only have to ask."

Her unexpected sympathy undermined Duo's ability to hold himself together. What was it with these people? Doctors and nurses usually acted as though he was a huge bother, even when he was the patient. Duo bit his lip and pushed open the door.

The room itself was darkened, with heavy curtains blocking the windows. Duo had lost all sense of time. Day? Night? Nothing here gave him any clues. He took a hesitant step into the room, but he had a hard time staying on his feet. He groped for the wall, but the doctor took his arm and steadied him, and he went in.

It was the most luxurious hospital room Duo had ever seen, with real upholstered chairs that looked like they might actually be comfortable, instead of those vinyl-covered ones that made his ass numb after a few minutes. But it still smelled like a hospital room, heavy with disinfectant and fear. Indicator lights on a dozen devices winked steadily. Except for the regular, mechanical click and whoosh of the ventilator, an eerie quiet hung over the room. And in the middle of all the lights and tubes and wires lay Zechs, still and white. Had it not been for the rise and fall of his chest as the machine forced him to breathe, he could have been an effigy carved from marble. Duo shivered. No one could look like that and be okay, no matter what the doctor said.

"He's so pale..."

"He lost a significant amount of blood."

Duo stood at the foot of Zechs' bed, feeling lost.

"It's all right. You can sit next to him." The doctor pulled a chair next to Zechs' bedside and lowered the rail on the bed. "His Highness is sedated, so don't expect him to wake or respond."

"Will it hurt him if I...if I touch him?"

The doctor smiled. "No. It won't hurt him. He'll probably be aware of it on some level. It could even do him some good."

Duo couldn't look at the doctor. He was really losing it, and any minute now, he was going to fall apart. She seemed to understand and left him alone with Zechs. He stood by the bed, staring helplessly, his hand trembling as he touched Zechs' cheek, just above the tape that held the ventilator tube in place. It seemed to him that there weren't many places not covered with tape or bandages or tubes.

His knees wobbled, and he sat down heavily. Something broke inside him, like an eggshell cracking, and he had no more strength to fight the tears he'd been holding back for hours. Not just hours...years. This felt familiar--too familiar--this sitting next to someone he loved, just waiting...his mind refused to complete the thought, even though he knew deep in his belly what he waited for. He curled his fingers around Zechs' unresponsive hand. Cold...his hand was so cold. Feeling like a baby, he hid his face against the bed and wept.

By the time Treize and Wufei came in, Duo had stopped crying, although his breath still hitched and his eyes felt heavy and swollen, and he was pretty sure his face must be a mess. Confirming his suspicion, Treize took a tissue and held it up to Duo's face.

"Blow your nose." Duo obeyed. "Now go wash your face. You'll feel better."

Again, Duo obeyed. As he toweled his face dry, he glanced at Wufei. "Does he order you around like this?"

"Of course not," Wufei said smugly. " I order him."

Treize attempted to look persecuted. "Indeed. So I must assert my authority over everyone else, as I have none in my own house."

Duo smiled faintly at their banter, but it faded quickly, and his mouth began to quiver. They reminded him of the few times he and Zechs had shared that kind of easy warmth. And that maybe never again...he bit back a whimper as fear stabbed him so sharply he felt it like a blade in his chest.

Once again, Treize said, "He's going to get better, Duo."

"Is that an order?" Duo struggled to smile again, but it was a weak, watery attempt.

"Absolutely. And here's another. Sit down and eat."

Too tired to argue, Duo sat in the chair next to Zechs and began to pick at the sandwich Wufei brought him. He watched Treize move to stand on the opposite side of the bed. The general couldn't get too close because of the medical equipment, but he gripped the metal rail of the hospital bed until his knuckles turned white. His suave, nonchalant mask dropped, leaving his anguish painfully naked. Wufei slipped around the IV stands and equipment carts to hold Treize's other hand.

After a while, Treize cleared his throat and spoke. "There's a crowd outside the hospital. Word spread like wildfire that Zechs had been shot. I think that the conspirators are probably safer in our custody than loose in the city. The people--his people--they love him, you know."

"I know. He loves them, too." Duo swallowed. "He's a good man."

"That he is." Treize gazed silently at Zechs. After a few minutes, he cleared his throat a couple of times, then said, "I have to go for a little while, Duo. Will you be all right?"

"Me?" Duo blinked. Why did everyone keep asking if he was okay? It wasn't like he was the one who'd been shot. "Sure."

Treize looked a little skeptical. "Do you want Wufei to stay with you?"

"If...if it's okay...I think I'd like to be alone. With him."

"Of course. We'll be back in a couple of hours. But if you need us, we'll come immediately."

Duo forced his eyes away from Zechs, finally, and turned to Treize. "I know. Thank you. You, too, ‘Fei. I...thanks."

Treize nodded, as though he understood the things Duo couldn't put into words, and then he and Wufei left. As soon as they had gone, Duo put aside the sandwich and took Zechs' hand again. It still felt cold, but maybe a little warmer than before. Yes, it was warmer. He was sure of it. He rubbed his thumb over Zechs' fingers, watched his face for any sign of consciousness. There was none. Duo felt desperately alone, and he began to wish he'd asked Wufei to stay with him after all. The silence of the room weighed on him, and unable to stand it any longer, he began to speak to Zechs.

"This isn't how it's supposed to turn out. The story, I mean. Y-you were supposed to rescue me, and take me back to your palace, and we were supposed to live happily ever after. That's how it ends. Not with the prince getting shot..." Duo's voice broke, and he took a deep breath. "Damn it, Zechs, it's my story, and I ought to get to say how it ends."

He got no response except the steady mechanical clicks, but talking lightened the suffocating weight in his chest, so he went on.

"I don't know when it started...before the orphanage, though. I used to think that I got it from Sister Helen's fairy tales, but I've been thinking ‘bout it lots lately, and I can remember this one night, I must have been like four or five, and we'd found this great place to sleep, the gang I was with. It was this old office building or something, but it was tall and skinny, and the top floors were in pretty good shape. We went up there to sleep--see, the farther from the street you could get, the safer it was. And I remember standing at the window, looking down at the street, and playing with my hair--it was long even back then--and thinking it was like a tower, like in Rapunzel...guess maybe my mom must have read me stories, too."

Duo's eyes burned, and he drew another quivering breath. "I don't remember her or anything, but I knew that story from somewhere. And anyway, that's when it started I think...I remember going to sleep that night imagining that I was rescued by a prince...'course, back then, when I dreamed about getting rescued, it meant stuff like eating anything I wanted and living in a house and having real toys...but later, when I started growing up some..."

Duo stroked Zechs' hair tenderly, a little desperately. "He always looked like you. My prince, I mean. Tall and strong.... had to be strong if he was going to take care of me. I used to get so tired, you know...seemed like I was always looking out for someone, and I didn't mind or nothing, but that's when I really started making up the whole thing. Nights, especially, like when we hadn't found a lot to eat, and the little kids were real hungry. Sometimes I'd tell them parts of the story to try to make them forget about their empty stomachs, stuff like how wise and wonderful the prince was, and how he'd make sure that everyone in his country had enough to eat. Didn't tell them the parts I'd started thinking about when I was trying to fall asleep, though..."

"And after...well, by the time I was a pilot...I knew the whole thing by heart. But I'd quit waiting, pretty much...quit believing. I knew it was just a fairy tale by then. I knew my prince was never going to find me. And then we lost, and you came along...and you looked so much like him. It was like torture, you know? Like the last dream I had got pounded into the dirt. I wanted so bad to hate you..."

His voice trailed off. It seemed like such a long time ago. How could he have ever wanted to hate this man? He'd wasted so much time being angry. What if...Duo's fingers trembled over Zechs' cheek, and the words started tumbling out again.

"And then you were so nice to me. All the time, even when I acted like a shit. I tried not to care. Tried telling myself it was all an act, and you didn't really like me. Guess I couldn't believe that you would like me. Didn't matter what I believed or didn't, though. ‘Cuz I couldn't hate you. Remember at the very beginning, when you made me eat? You didn't have to do could've let me starve. And then you sent Wufei to see me...I had to really work at being pissed off. I guess I was starting to like you, even then. But I didn't want to admit it. I still thought I was just a big inconvenience to you."

Duo's voice turned soft and heavy with longing. "And there was that night you got drunk and kissed me...and what we did on the floor of your room...and all I wanted was to be yours. And...and when we came here, and you showed me around...I was watching you real close, you know, like when we were at that school that got bombed. That's when I got it. You care. About everyone. And I thought that maybe...well, maybe you would feed a bunch of hungry, homeless kids...that's when I knew I loved you. But, God, it scared the shit out of me."

"And then..." This was the hardest part, even if Zechs couldn't really hear him, but now that he'd started, he couldn't stop. "I know I was stupid, running like that, even if you told me to. I didn't mean to make you mad at me. I was just so confused when I saw Heero. I started thinking that maybe it was all an act, the way you'd been treating me. I knew it wasn't, but when we got back and you wanted, I got everything all messed up in my head. I was scared. I still am. I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint you, that I won't be any good I want to find out, Zechs. I want to--but just with you. I don't want anybody else, not ever."

"So you have to get better. There are people waiting outside, just standing in front of the hospital, waiting to hear if you're okay. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands. You can't let them down. And Treize, you have to get better to help him, too. And there's can't leave me. You can't." Duo laid his head on the bed again and held Zechs' hand against his cheek. "We gotta make it to happily ever after."

Exhausted, Duo closed his eyes. So faintly he thought at first he'd imagined it, Zechs' fingers twitched. He caught his breath and kept still, whispering, "Zechs?"

Another movement, faint but unmistakable. Zechs rubbed his fingers against Duo's cheek. Hardly daring to hope, Duo raised his head and looked up. Zechs' eyelids fluttered a little, opening for a moment, and he gazed lucidly into Duo's eyes. For that brief second, his blue eyes held the same soft expression as when he'd said he loved Duo with all his heart. His fingers twitched once more, and then consciousness slipped away. Duo clutched Zechs' hand, but it had gone limp again. Frantic, he felt for a pulse, and when he found it, strong and regular, tears burned in his eyes again. Comforted, still clinging to Zechs' hand, he surrendered at last to exhaustion and fell asleep.

Duo woke a little from time to time when nurses and doctors came in, but no one tried to make him leave. Someone covered his shoulders with a blanket, and he managed to murmur a sleepy "thank you" to his unseen benefactor, but mostly he slept soundly for what must have been hours. Finally, feeling vaguely more human despite the ache in his neck, he woke and stretched as the doctor opened the door. He started to scramble out of the chair to give her more room, but she waved him back.

"Please, don't get up. I'm fine over here." She maneuvered to the other side of Zechs' bed, where some of the equipment had been moved aside. She had a soft, liquid accent, and Duo liked her voice.

"How is he?"

"Much better. We're going to start weaning him off the ventilator now. If that goes well, he could be breathing on his own in a day. We'll let him wake up after that."

"Is he really going to be okay?" Even though he'd slept, Duo's voice still trembled.

The doctor looked up from the chart where she took notes. Her pleasant voice was full of kindness, as though she didn't mind that Duo had asked, and she'd answered, the same question half a dozen times already. "Yes, he really is." She looked Duo over. "You ,on the other hand, don't look so good yourself."

Duo felt his cheeks warm. He still wore the shabby shirt and pants he'd stolen, and they looked worse than ever, rumpled, ripped from his escape attempt through the window, stained with Zechs' blood. Conscious that they were probably beyond help, he still tried to smooth his clothes into something resembling neatness. "I slept..."

"Good, although I'm sure it wasn't enough. I'll find you some clean clothes and some lunch. You can use the shower in here."

Duo started to protest, but decided he really did want to get clean, and maybe he was feeling a little hungry after all. And she hadn't suggested he leave Zechs. For that alone, he felt grateful enough that he could get all soppy again if he wasn't careful. So he only smiled--a real smile, for the first time in what seemed like ages--and said, "Thank you."

The doctor was true to her word, and Duo, clean and wearing borrowed scrubs and a sweatshirt, was eating a lunch that he was pretty sure didn't come from the hospital cafeteria when Treize returned.

"You're looking better." Treize smiled and went to Zechs' side. "So is he."

Duo nodded. "They've been letting him breathe some on his own, and he's been doing great. They think they could let him wake up as early as tonight."

Duo saw the relief in Treize's eyes, and an edge of fear crept back into his voice. "What is it? Did something else happen?"

"No, it's nothing like that. In fact, everything has gone remarkably well. Heero has been very helpful. With his information, we've been able to capture most of the conspirators. The few who have eluded us won't for long, I'm certain."

"Heero helped?" Duo's eyes widened. Heero, working for OZ? Now, that would be something to see. Duo felt a surge of relief that Heero had not wound up in a cell--or worse. Sharp on the heels of relief followed guilt at totally forgetting his friend in his worry for Zechs. Way to show your gratitude, he thought. Nice way to say thanks for saving their lives.

"Yes, he's been most cooperative. Wufei is with him now. He's explaining some things."

Duo smiled. "He's getting good at that."

"He's had some practice recently. But Heero has agreed to stay on, at least for a while. With his abilities, he'll be quite an asset to our Security Council."

"Heero--on the Security Council? Holy shit." That image had barely sunk in when Duo had another thought. "So this means Zechs--and you, too--are safe?"

"As safe as we can ever be. I think this threat is over, at least."

Duo felt cold suddenly, despite the sweatshirt. "Until the next one."

"There's always going to be a next one. But for now, we can actually think about building peace instead of merely avoiding war."

"Peace seems awfully complicated."

"Oh, it is. Much more complicated than war. There's far more to it than merely the absence of fighting. War is destruction. Peace is construction. It's always easier to tear something down than to build something up."

Treize frowned thoughtfully, and Duo experienced a sudden, surreal realization that he was chatting with General Khushrenada about politics like they were old war buddies. But then, he thought, maybe in a way, they were. He looked up at the tall general and tried to set his childishly round chin as firmly as possible. Damn it, but it was hard to look fiercely determined with eyes as big as a poster kid's for some relief organization and a nose that could only be described as kittenish. But he managed.

"I want to help."

"You will. But first, help my friend get better. It's hard going without him."

Duo's fierce determination drained out of him like someone had pulled a plug. All he could see was Zechs, who hadn't shown any signs of consciousness since he'd touched Duo's cheek. Duo's mouth trembled again, and he looked down to hide it. "I know."


"It's okay. Don't worry. He's getting better." Saying it out loud helped, and he very nearly believed it. "And then we're going to help you, both of us, build this peace you keep talking about."


The first thing Zechs realized was that he was conscious without any particular effort. He'd tried to fight his way out of the darkness time after time, only to sink back into the mire. He'd made it once, though, long enough to let Duo know everything was all right. Even in that black, weightless place, he'd felt his kit's fear, more painful than the hole in his body or the tube in his chest.

The second thing Zechs realized was that Duo was still here. Silly kit. He would have to speak to Treize about making his love take care of himself. Zechs opened his eyes and found himself looking at the top of a tousled brown head. Duo's forehead pressed against his uninjured shoulder, and his fingers clutched the sleeve of Zechs' hospital gown. Zechs thought he ought to send Duo home to rest, but for the moment, he let himself be selfish. He wanted Duo here, with him. They'd been torn apart too many times in the last few days for him to send Duo away willingly. He turned his head and kissed Duo's hair because he needed to.

A sharp gasp told him Duo was awake. He smiled as two violet eyes blinked owlishly up at him and a tremulous voice warbled, "Z-zechs?"

"Yes..." Zechs grimaced. His voiced sounded like sandpaper on steel.

"You're awake! Oh, God..." Duo erupted into activity, jumping up from his chair. Zechs winced as the bed jostled, but his smile softened.

"What do you need? Can I get you something? Just tell me what you want--"

"I--" Zechs' voice came out as a dry rasp. "Water first...."

"Water. Right. Water." Duo fumbled with the yellow plastic pitcher, kept filled religiously by the nurses. He managed to slosh a good bit of it onto the table before he held a glass and drinking straw to Zechs' lips. "Here. It's cold, they refilled it with ice all the time. I drank a little, I didn't think they'd mind, but I know they were really doing it for you. More? I can get you more if you want it--here, let me fill it again..."

"Kit. Come here."

Duo put the glass down. The frenzy bled out of him, leaving his face open and vulnerable. "Oh, God, Zechs...I thought you were going to leave me, too..."

Zechs stretched out his hand, ignoring the IV tube taped to it. He repeated, "Come here."

Duo came back to him, and Zechs folded his small, quaking hand in his own. He drew Duo back to the chair beside him, still clasping his hand. "I'll never leave you."

Duo opened his mouth to speak, but his eyes filled with tears and no words came out. Zechs reached up and wiped his cheek. Duo's eyes were red and tired, rimmed with shadows. Anxiety weighted down his mouth, and his lips twitched from lack of rest. Zechs' heart ached for him, sitting here alone with his fears for all those empty hours. "Poor kit. You look done in. You've been doing a lot of this in the past few days, haven't you?"

Duo's cheeks colored, and he suddenly seemed to find the bed sheet of great interest. "Feel like a damn cry-baby. Everyone probably thinks I'm a total sally. Couldn't help it, though. Every time I'd look at you, I'd just...just..." He stopped, clearly on the edge of another bout of embarrassing behavior.

"I don't mind--as long as you were crying about me."

Duo rolled his eyes, but he grinned faintly, and some of the careworn look left his face. "Are all princes as arrogant as you?"

"Only the devastatingly handsome and brilliant ones."

Duo laughed finally, and Zechs chuckled, too, though he winced when it hurt. Then Duo turned somber again, although not with the same load of fear he'd carried earlier.

"What is it?"

"Zechs..." Duo hesitated, as if he were uncertain how to ask his question but knew he had to ask it. "Why did you do it? Push me out of the way like that? Take the bullet that I should have taken..."

So that was part of what haunted him. Zechs squeezed Duo's hand with surprising strength. "Do you have to ask? I love you. It's as simple as that."

"Nothing's that simple."

"This is."

Duo looked, not disbelieving, but confused. Zechs supposed that while Duo would have given his life without hesitation for someone he cared for, or a cause he believed in, he couldn't fathom that someone might do the same for him.

"I'm afraid you'll just have to trust me."

Duo still looked bewildered, but his eyes filled with hope when Zechs lifted his hand and kissed his fingers. "I guess I can do that." Duo's smile was like the sun breaking through clouds to Zechs. "I think you're pretty crazy for loving me like that, and I might be crazy, too, for all I know. But if this is crazy, I think I kind of like it."

Zechs nuzzled the little hand still wrapped in his own. "So do I, kit. So do I."


Ten days later, Zechs left the hospital. Even though he looked and felt recovered, Treize had insisted he take Duo and leave the city for a few days. Zechs protested, but in fact, at the moment, he had little enough to do. The Colonial elections had gone off without a hitch, and the media, both on Earth and in the Colonies, were distracted with stories about the new governments. He welcomed the relief from being in the spotlight; the reporter's overblown, romantic descriptions of the whole affair made him uncomfortable. The traitors in Romafeller and their accomplices had been rounded up. Several of the conspirators had confessed, when they realized they'd been used by the very men they'd wanted to eliminate, and their evidence, along with Heero's and what Duo had heard and seen, was certain to seal Tuberov's fate. He would go on trial in Sanc, and given public opinion regarding the man who'd tried to have their prince murdered, he would be lucky if he were locked in a cell and never let out.

Zechs had no excuse, then, for not going away for a few days, at least. Not that he really wanted an excuse. The promise of spending those days--and nights--alone with Duo eliminated his remaining resistance.

Treize and Wufei had come to see them off, and they brought Heero with them. The little group stood on the tarmac where Zechs' private plane waited. Vague guilt at leaving Treize to deal with the mess made him protest one more time, if faintly.

"Treize, are you sure--"

"Absolutely." Treize looked him over with a critical eye. "You still need rest, my friend. And you and Duo need the time. Go."

Duo stood at Zechs' side, fidgeting nervously. Until they were actually on the plane, he suspected Duo would be afraid that something would happen to stop them, or that Zechs would change his mind. To reassure him, and possibly himself, Zechs took his hand and tucked it under his arm. Duo blushed a little, seeming suddenly shy now that they were actually going away together. Zechs wondered if that had anything to do with the fact that everyone else knew exactly what they'd be doing while they were gone.

Still keeping Duo close, Zechs offered his other hand to Heero. "I've never really thanked you properly, Heero. You saved our lives."

Heero looked at Zechs' hand long enough that Duo tensed, and Zechs wondered if there would be a confrontation between them after all. Duo told him that Heero had come to the hospital with Wufei once, when he'd still been unconscious. They'd had no chance to meet face to face since then, but Zechs wondered what Heero had wanted to say. As though he doubted Heero's intentions, Duo inched a little closer to Zechs.

Heero must have seen Duo's movement. He looked steadily at his friend, who clung to Zechs' arm, and his lips curved in a small, sad smile. Zechs had the sense that Heero expected Duo to recognize both the expression and his thoughts, but nothing in Duo's face showed that he did. Then he grasped Zechs' hand at last.

"I was willing to kill him. You were willing to die for him. I guess that makes all the difference."

Zechs' eyes widened slightly. He stole a sideways glance at Duo, but he didn't seem to attach any particular meaning to Heero's words. For Duo's sake, he didn't respond except to shake Heero's hand. But he knew Heero would be able to read in his eyes that he understood.

"Thank you." Zechs shook Heero's hand firmly. "Again."

Heero released Zechs' hand, then stepped back to stand next to Wufei and Treize. Duo, who seemed confused by the whole interchange, opened his mouth to speak, but Heero caught his eye and nodded slightly, as if to say everything was all right. Wufei must have seen, as well, because he smiled, a wolfish little grin that made Zechs momentarily regret that he was going away and missing the action. Then he looked down at Duo's hand where it rested, pale and small, against his red coat. He covered it with his own, and Duo lifted his head, their gazes meeting as if they were drawn together. His violet eyes were eager and tender and unsure all at once, and suddenly, Zechs knew he wouldn't be missing a damn thing.

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