by Artemis

Illusions of Love + Part 2

Exactly three months, seventeen days and six hours after Heero had left, Duo was given the keys to his new apartment in downtown Boston. Thanks to a little farewell gift from Quatre, he had enough money for the first two months' rent.

The partially furnished apartment was in a neighborhood the landlady called "changing." To Duo that seemed like an understatement. Half the buildings were deserted and in the process of being renovated. Sidewalks were torn up and potholes marked the street like bad acne, but the place had character.

Had he arrived six months from now he would not have been able to afford the rent. The change would be complete and the nouveau riche would be fighting each other off to obtain a lease in this district. But with the street looking like a bombed out war zone, new tenants were few and far between. Duo felt completely at home.

With a place to call his own, Duo set out to find a job. He decided very quickly that he did not want to go back to dealing in junk or working on high tech equipment. He wanted something that would give him a chance to meet lots of people and where his conversational skills would be appreciated.

On his first day out, he landed a job with a rare books dealer, making deliveries. The job would be a great way for him to learn the city and a great excuse for him to buy a motorcycle to get around. However, the pay was not as much as he had hoped, and so he took a second job working in a coffee shop just around the corner from the bookstore. The jobs gave him the variety and freedom he needed in his life and kept him too busy to think about his ex-lover.

"Hey, Duo. I need a coffee latte and do that thing you do!" Rikk called from over his shoulder as he took the money from the customer.

"Sure thing!" Duo called back.

In the week since he had started working at the coffee shop, Duo had learned all their specialty drinks and had a knack for improving on them... when the manager was not around. He also had gotten into the habit of trying to guess people's poison before they ordered.

"Here ya' go," he said, handing the drink to the customer.

"Did you add your secret weapon like I like?" the woman asked, her mouth watering in anticipation.

"You bet!" Duo said with a wink.

He looked over at the counter and saw that the after work crowd had arrived. It was a little after five o'clock in the afternoon--the second rush hour of the day for the tiny shop. He stepped up to take the order of the next person in line.

"Let me guess," he said, looking up to see a tall man in a well-tailored suit and dark sunglasses. "You've got a taste for something exotic. Something that'll take your mind off your day, take you to another plane of existence..."

Before Duo could finish dispensing his special brand of fortune telling, the gentleman cut him off, stating flatly, "Coffee... black."

Duo blinked at the man's obvious disregard for the game. "Are you sure?" he asked, looking into the dark glasses only to see his own reflection. "That's a pretty tame drink you just ordered and I'm thinking you could use some excitement in your life."

"I take my coffee black," the man repeated in an even tone, a tone that gave Duo chills.

"O-kay... whatever the customer wants," he said, and turned from the counter to fill the order.

He did not know why, but for some reason he felt completely off balance. It was as if the man had just challenged him. Under any other circumstances, Duo would not have backed down, but he had been taught 'the customer knows best' and he sure as hell did not want to get fired his first week on the job.

He went back to the counter and handed the man his coffee. "That'll be two dollars."

The man gave him the money and then sat in a comfortable chair in their small seating area.

For the next twenty minutes, Duo kept glancing over at the stranger. He decided the guy was too good looking for his own good. He was tall and lean, and was most certainly hiding heavenly blue eyes behind those ridiculously dark glasses. He was also blond, very blond. White eyebrows were visible over the rim of the glasses, and his short hair was smoothed back stylishly.

"That guy come in here often?" Duo asked Rikk.

"The Ice Man?" Rikk asked, chuckling. "Don't tell me you're drooling over him, too?"

"Nah, just curious."

Rikk smirked, not believing his new friend. "He's been coming in off and on for the past three weeks."

"He ever order anything else?"

"Nope. Wait a minute, he did have tea once. Hey, you can't win 'em all, Duo. So what if you didn't guess his drink right."

Duo smiled and then turned to grab the coffeepot, thinking he could strike up a conversation with the guy while refilling his mug. When he turned back the blond stranger was already out the door.

"Damn," he said, and set the pot down hard. "I gotta talk to that guy."

He bolted from behind the counter, nearly knocking down two young ladies coming into the shop. By the time he got outside he could not see where the man had gone.

"There's something about that guy...," he said, scratching his head as he scanned the street.

Two days passed before the mysterious "Ice Man" returned to the coffee shop. By then, Duo had convinced himself that he knew this man or someone like him. When it was the man's turn to place his order, Rikk made sure Duo was there to take it.

"Let me guess," Duo said, cocking his head. "Coffee... black."

The man hesitated, but then the tiniest smile curved his lips. "That's right."

The subtle smile, combined with the softness in the man's tone, made Duo realize he had broken through. The "Ice Man" could be melted.

"One black coffee coming up," Duo crowed triumphantly.

The man paid for the beverage and then took his drink to sit quietly near the door. Emboldened by his breakthrough, Duo decided the first chance he got he would go over and speak to him, get his story.

The boy nervously waited on several more customers before there was enough of a break for him to bolt from his station behind the counter. With coffeepot in hand, he approached the blond stranger, noticing for the first time that the man's hair was not short at all, he had a ponytail hidden inside the collar of his shirt.

"Would you like that warmed up?" Duo asked, as he approached ready to pour.

The man looked up, one white eyebrow arching in curiosity. "No, thank you."

Duo stared, sensing failure looming close. The feeling that he knew this man was growing stronger. "The way you're savoring that coffee, I'll bet this is your first cup of the day," Duo said with a smile. "Don't need it to get you going in the morning, huh?"

The man's lips pursed in frustration, and then he stood.

Duo took a step back, his mouth gaping as he got the full impact of the man's height. He was easily a foot taller than the diminutive former Gundam pilot. The stranger looked down at Duo and then turned to leave.

"Wait! Don't I know you from somewhere?" Duo blurted out desperately.

The man stopped, his shoulders seeming to stiffen, but he did not turn or reply. Duo stared at his back, not sure what to say or do next, but then the man just continued on his way.

Rikk took pity on Duo and came over to nudge him back to reality. "I don't know why you're bothering with him. He's way out of your league. Can't you see that crown stuck up his ass?"

"W-what?" Duo asked, blinking and turning to his friend.

"A crown... you know, like a king or something. He walks like he owns the whole planet. King of the Ice Men!" Rikk laughed and then went back to waiting on customers.

A king? Duo wondered as he retreated behind the counter. He knew Rikk was only joking, but somehow that made sense.

Later that evening he stopped by the rare bookstore where Mr. Brentwood had some last minute deliveries for him to make.

"Duo, thanks for coming by on such short notice. I've got a customer, a professor who's having a dinner party tonight and insisted I get these to him." The middle-aged man with the protruding stomach handed Duo a brown-wrapped package with an address scrawled on it. "He lives in Midtown, but it shouldn't take you long at this hour."

"Right, Mr. Brentwood," Duo said, tucking the package under his arm.

Just then the front door chimed and both men looked up from their business to greet the customer. Duo's mouth gaped the moment he saw the man. It was the stranger from the coffee shop! That sense of recognition skittered through his psyche once again.

"I'd better see to Mr. Merquise," the proprietor of the shop said.

"Whoa, did you just say Merquise?" Duo asked, staring with a mix of horror and wonderment at his employer and then back at the stranger.

"Yes, he's one of my best new customers."

Before Mr. Brentwood could come around from behind his sales counter, Duo leapt forward as though springing in attack. In several quick strides he was standing in front of the stranger, who had removed his sunglasses on entering the shop.

"I do know you!" Duo called out as he pointed an accusatory finger. "You're Zechs Merquise. But you're supposed to be dead!"

Startled, the man took a step back, his eyes widening and then narrowing quickly. "You're that boy from the coffee shop."

"I'm Duo Maxwell! I fought against you in the war!"

The man's features went pale and in a flash he turned on his heels and was out the door. Duo stepped forward to pursue him, but was yanked back by a heavy hand on his shoulder.

"What the hell are you doing?!" Mr. Brentwood screamed. "I just got through telling you that man is my best customer and you frighten him off with accusations from the war."

"But he's Zechs Merquise of White Fang!"

"I don't care if he's the devil himself!" The man's voice bellowed so loudly that the glass vases on the shelf behind the counter shook. "His money is good here and you will not run off my customers like that! Understood?"

Duo swallowed hard. Every muscle in his body was coiling to spring back into action, to dart out that door after the enemy of the EarthSphere. But Mr. Brentwood still had a grip on his shoulder and the displeasure in the man's face told Duo he was very close to losing his job.

"Yeah, okay," Duo said, his brow knitting.

"Good, now make that delivery. And remember I need you in here at six a.m. tomorrow to stock shelves."

Duo nodded and the man released his shoulder.

He hurried out the front door of the shop, but again Zechs had disappeared. He shivered as an image of Zechs as the leader of the White Fang, announcing his intentions to destroy the Earth, sent a chill through him once again. It had seemed impossible to stop him, even Relena failed to sway her brother from his diabolical plan, but in the end someone did stop him.

"Heero," Duo whispered. It was the first the other boy's name had been spoken aloud in weeks. It was also the first the old ache had managed to creep back into his gut.

He took a deep breath, clenching his fists against the pain. Life really sucked if an old enemy could stir painful memories of a former lover.

"Damn it, Zechs. Why couldn't you have stayed dead?" Duo muttered as he strapped the books onto the back of his bike and then straddled the seat.

He started the motorcycle and sped off down the street, his eyes scanning the pedestrians. It was hard to believe that Zechs could have survived the explosion that stopped the quarter section of Libra from falling to Earth. No one had found any remains of him or his mobile suit the Epyon. Now that it was clear he had survived, Duo felt sure he needed to do something, but what?

Over the next week, Duo spent every free moment riding his motorcycle through the streets and alleys of Boston, searching for his old enemy. He had plenty of time to relive in his mind all he had witnessed of Zechs's destructive capabilities. How the man had fought with a rage, speed and skill so powerful that Duo had cowered from him in battle. And how he had destroyed space fortress Barge, mercilessly taking hundreds of lives.

Exhausted from working two jobs and hunting Zechs Merquise, Duo grumbled as he pulled up behind the coffee shop early Saturday morning. Usually he made deliveries for Mr. Brentwood during the day and then worked second shift at the coffee shop, but on Saturdays it was the reverse, forcing Duo to wake up three hours earlier.

He yawned loudly as he walked up to the back entrance, jangling the keys as he felt for the right one in the diffused light of the early morning.

"Gundam pilot, zero two," a man's voice said.

The designation sent a chill through Duo. "Zechs," he said and turned quickly.

He had not seen anyone when he had approached the building, but now he looked deep into the building's dark recesses and there he saw the shadowy figure of a man. Instinctively, he reached for his gun, but in his rush to get to work this morning he had left it behind in his apartment.

"I have no intentions of harming you," Zechs said, as he stepped within several feet of his former adversary. His hands were tucked into the pockets of his long black coat. "I think it's time we talked."

"Talk? You mean you've got something you need to get off your chest before you kill me?" Duo accused as his heart hammered in his chest.

Was this how his life was going to end? Being cut down in an alley long after the war's hostilities had ended? By the ghost of a former enemy no less?

"As I said, my intentions are not to harm you, pilot zero two."

"That's an OZ designation... zero two."

"An old habit, I apologize," Zechs said, nodding his head slightly. "You're Duo Maxwell, pilot of the Gundam Deathscythe."

"That's right," Duo said, lifting his chin. "I see you've done your homework since I introduced myself last week." He set his fists to his hips and swallowed. If Zechs meant to kill him then he would at least face death like a man.

"I admit, I did do some research. Your name did not immediately mean anything to me, but your demeanor and your recognition of me told me you must be one of those Gundam pilots."

"So now you know," Duo said, defiantly.

The boy's eyes slid away from his enemy for a moment, trying to plan his route of escape. He could make it to his motorcycle in just a couple of seconds, but the problem was whether Zechs had a gun hidden inside his coat. If he did, Duo would never make it.

"The war is over," Zechs said, taking his gloved hands from his pockets and holding them up in the air to show he had no weapon. "I've long admired you Gundam pilots, but the war prevented me from knowing any of you."

Duo exhaled the breath he had been unconsciously holding. "Well, you're not going to get to know one now," he said, perplexed by the strange admission. "In fact, the first chance I get I'm going to kill you!"

[cont]