Illusions of Love + Part 2 (cont)

Zechs turned his face away, his hands dropping to his sides and clenching into fists. "You're right, Duo Maxwell. You should probably kill me." With that, he turned and slowly walked away, his head bowed in defeat.

Duo stared, opened mouth, at the retreating form. As Zechs turned a corner and disappeared from sight, Duo shook his head as if waking from a dream. Had he really just come face to face with Zechs Merquise?

The encounter gnawed at him as he went into the coffee shop, locking the door behind him. He went about the tasks of getting the shop ready for business, removing the pre-made cinnamon rolls from the refrigerator and placing them in the oven, brewing coffee, and making sure the spices and syrups were sufficiently stocked for all the specialty drinks. Two other employees soon arrived and helped with the preparations for the day, but all the while, Duo could not stop thinking about Zechs.

If he had wanted to kill me, why didn't he? Duo wondered.

He asked himself that same question dozens of times over the next couple of days, and each time the answer was unsatisfactory or uncomfortable. Could it be that Zechs Merquise truly had no intentions of killing him? That by some twist of fate the man had survived that terrible explosion and was now trying to quietly live out the remainder of his life in America?

For all Duo knew, Zechs had since moved on. The boy had looked for him again, scanning the busy streets of the city and hanging about, hoping to lure Zechs out of hiding, but once again failing to find him. The only difference this time was that Duo was now prepared. He carried his handgun with him faithfully and secretly cloaked himself in his war persona, the God of Death.

He considered contacting Quatre, allying with his friend once more to wipe out a common enemy, but something prevented him from making that call. Perhaps it was in consideration of not interrupting the work Quatre and Trowa were doing on L4, but more likely it was Duo's ego, telling him he could make the kill on his own. Whatever the reason, he chose to keep his discovery to himself.

It felt good to have a purpose, to be on a mission again, and for the first time Duo understood the need that had taken Heero away from him. Of all the Gundam pilots, Heero had been the most focused. The lazy days following the cessation of war must have seemed pointless to Heero, as though his life had no direction, and yet he had so easily re-directed that infamous focus onto Duo. The boy with the long braid had never questioned the new intensity in their relationship. It seemed a logical evolution to what had begun during the war. And then all too quickly it was over.

After going through shock and denial, and finally settling on anger, Duo added Heero to his mental list of loved ones lost.

+

Duo set his kickstand down as he parked his motorcycle on the sidewalk in front of Brentwood's rare bookstore. He had just completed his last delivery and was returning to the shop for his paycheck.

"All done with the deliveries, Mr. Brentwood," Duo said, smiling as he entered the shop and spied his boss sitting behind the counter.

The man looked up at the clock. "In record time," he said and then reached into a drawer for a small bundle of bills. He preferred paying Duo in cash and Duo never questioned the practice.

He handed over the pay and then handed the boy an additional ten dollars. "A bonus."

"What for?" Duo asked, surprised by the man's sudden generosity.

"I'm in a good mood. My best customer is back. Looks like you didn't frighten him off after all."

Duo's eyes widened and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. "Merquise?"

The man nodded. "That's right. He's making a selection right now."

Duo spun around and scanned the shop, but several bookshelves blocked his view. He leaned over the counter and looked at the view screen.

"Don't get any funny ideas or I'll take that bonus back!" Brentwood warned.

The boy was too intent on the image on the screen to respond. He noted that Zechs was browsing in the botanical section, and casually pushed off from the sales counter as he patted his jacket, checking for his gun.

"Duo, I mean it. You leave that man alone!"

"Don't worry," Duo said as he slipped down one of the aisles.

His heart was beating fast and all his senses were on overdrive. It was like the war all over again, except this time he really needed to keep his head. He could not take out Zechs in the middle of Mr. Brentwood's store. The post war authorities would not understand.

Duo turned into the aisle where Zechs was standing with a book in his hands. The man was wearing the same long black coat, but he no longer wore dark glasses, and his signature white-blond hair was loose and hanging down his back.

"Why are you here?" Duo asked as their eyes met.

"I have an ultimatum for you," Zechs replied, closing the book and replacing it on the shelf.

"Like I care," Duo snorted. "I already told you that I'd kill you..."

"We both could use the rest," Zechs interrupted smoothly.

The remark surprised Duo. It was at once an admission of fatigue and a recognition of Duo's own condition.

"All right," Duo said with a little nod.

"The first part is the same as before. I want us to talk. I want to get to know a Gundam pilot."

Duo shook his head, not understanding what was so damn important about getting to know one of them. "And the second part?" he prompted.

"Then you can kill me... if you still want to."

The boy gasped. "You'd let me kill you... just like that?"

"Yes," Zechs said, his voice low, almost sultry. "Just like that."

Duo tilted his head, not completely believing him. "Why?"

"I've already told you," Zechs said with a grin. "I'm curious, and like you, I'm not afraid to die."

Yes, death was certainly no stranger to Duo. It had been his companion on the battlefield and in his slumber. Death followed him like a shadow and yet he did not fear it, he had learned to command it as the God of Death. He knew very well what it was to live without a fear of death and to hear Zechs claim as much gave Duo an ounce of respect for the man.

"Okay, I'll accept your proposal on one condition."

"And that is?"

"Tell me why you did it. Why did you destroy Barge and why did you try to destroy the Earth?"

The boy's words were fierce and Zechs completely understood his curiosity. "I wish I had an easy answer for you, Duo Maxwell. It's something I have asked myself many times."

Duo crossed his arms over his chest. "Then you must have a theory. And before I agree to your ultimatum, I wanna know."

Zechs nodded. "I'll try, but can we at least go outside?"

Duo looked over his shoulder, realizing Mr. Brentwood must be watching them on the monitor. At least he would not have heard their conversation.

"Sure, come on," Duo said, nodding toward the front door, and indicating that Zechs should go first.

The taller man did not hesitate. He knew the former Gundam pilot would not shoot him in the back.

As they approached the sales counter, Zechs stopped to chat with the proprietor.

"There are one or two books I may purchase, but I'll leave them until tomorrow," he said, optimistically, for truly he did not know if there would be a tomorrow for him.

"Very good, Mr. Merquise. Have a good evening."

"Thank you," Zechs said and exited the store.

Duo was close behind, but Mr. Brentwood called to him. "Hey! What were you two talking about for so long?"

"Uh... war memories."

The man frowned. "Well, I guess it didn't do any harm."

"No, sir," Duo said and gave the man a little wave as he went out the door.

Zechs was waiting for him next to his motorcycle. "Fast?"

"Oh, hell, yeah!" Duo said, excitedly. "If it wasn't for all the traffic around here I could really... Hey, wait a minute! You've got some explaining to do, remember?"

The former OZ colonel and White Fang leader sighed. Yes, he had a lot of explaining to do.

"You must find it ironic that I've come back to live on the Earth when it was my plan to destroy it, but the Earth is my home. I had never been to outer space before the war." Zechs turned and looked at the potted flowers set outside the shop's entrance and the leafy trees lining the street. "Had I succeeded this spring would have never come."

Duo recalled the scientists' prediction. Had the Libra hit the Earth as Zechs had planned, it would have created an eternal winter. He shivered with the thought, though the evening was warm and humid.

"That's it?" Duo asked, putting his hands on his hips. "You have no explanation for your actions?"

"You're disappointed," Zechs noted, turning back to the young man.

"You're damn right, I'm disappointed! No one could figure out why you were acting that way. Not your sister and not even Miss Noin. And now you're telling me that you don't even know?"

Zechs bowed his head. "I regret my choices..." he said, and then raised his eyes to Duo's. "I'm sorry, I cannot answer your question, and therefore cannot meet your condition." He turned and began to walk off down the street, his long hair swaying behind him.

"Where are you going?" Duo asked, just as a thunderclap shattered the night air above them.

"Our arrangement has come to an end," Zechs said, glancing over his shoulder as he continued on his way. "Good bye, Duo Maxwell."

Duo watched for a moment, silent, and unsure of how to proceed. Part of him wanted to follow Zechs and kill him, but another part of him felt some sympathy for him.

He's alone, Duo thought as the first drops of rain fell.

He turned his face toward the sky, letting the large drops splash on his cheeks and lips. The air smelled of ozone, something Duo had never experienced on L2. He inhaled deeply, marveling at the uniqueness of spring on Earth. Some might sneer at the sharpness of the smell, but to Duo it was beautiful and alive, alive like all of them... the Earth, the Gundam pilots, and even Zechs.

Duo looked down the street again in time to see Zechs turn a corner and disappear from sight. The street was unusually quiet this evening and now seemed to be telling him he had just lost a unique opportunity.

What strange twist of fate had brought two survivors and two enemies of the war together on the streets of Boston? Zechs had made a simple request: to know a Gundam pilot on a level the war had never allowed. Was it such an odd request? After all, Zechs had fought against them... and lost. What would it hurt to spend a couple of hours talking, satisfying their curiosity and possibly learning something about each other? If he needed an excuse, Duo could justify his time with Zechs by evaluating whether the man was still a threat.

What would it hurt to tell him a few things about myself? Duo wondered.

He fished the keys for his bike out of his pocket and hopped on, replacing the kickstand and starting the engine. The rain was steady now, but not hard enough to make it dangerous to ride. In seconds he was turning the street corner and spotted Zechs by his distinct long white hair. He slowed the bike as he pulled alongside the sidewalk where Zechs was walking.

"Hey, you still wanna talk?" Duo called out, blinking as raindrops landed on his eyelids.

Zechs glanced at him through long bangs, but continued to walk. "I don't need your sympathy. A deal is a deal," he stated harshly.

"Look," Duo said, getting off his bike and pushing it up onto the sidewalk and alongside Zechs as he walked. "You could've given me a line back there about how you were wrong and you're going to spend the rest of your life making up for what you did, but you didn't. Instead you said you didn't know why you did it. That wasn't what I wanted to hear, but that's damn honest, and I respect that."

The man stopped and turned to him. "You respect my honesty?"

"Sure, I do. You're not my favorite person in the world... in fact, you're probably my least favorite, but you didn't lie or try to manipulate me just to get your way."

Zechs found the boy's directness refreshing. "Then you wouldn't mind talking?"

"That's right. Besides, I didn't have any plans for tonight anyway," Duo said with a shrug.

A flash of light followed by a quick crack of thunder made both men realize they should go indoors.

"I don't live far from here...," Zechs offered, and then regretted it. "Or we could go somewhere neutral."

"No, your place is fine," Duo said, feeling the reassuring weight of his handgun in his jacket pocket.

He still did not trust Zechs. Hell, he would be a fool if he did, but damn it if this was not an interesting opportunity. So, in the continuing rain, Duo pushed his motorcycle along beside Zechs as they walked another block to a new apartment high rise.

Duo left his bike in the parking garage and then took the elevator with Zechs to the top floor. Neither said a word and it was one of the most awkward moments of Duo's life. Though the ride was less than a minute long, Duo managed to glance at Zechs twice. He was a privileged and dangerously attractive man, but somewhere along the way had gone wrong. And after only hearing about Zechs second hand from Heero and Noin, and seeing his White Fang declarations broadcast to the populace, it seemed quite strange to Duo to be here now. Once again, he was glad of his gun.

Stepping into the apartment, Zechs switched on only a couple of lights, leaving the large and newly decorated space in partial darkness. It was a deliberate attempt to make this evening less like an interrogation and more like a meeting of old friends.

"Wow, I didn't know they made apartments this big," Duo said, chuckling nervously as he stepped into the large, open space.

Zechs grinned. "It's more space than I need, but I liked the view." He nodded at the floor to ceiling windows.

Duo followed his gaze and his eyes widened immediately. On this rainy night and from ten stories high the city sparkled in all its built glory.

"I see what you mean," Duo said, stepping over to the windows and oddly finding himself reminded of L2. "Gee, I'd forgotten how small everything looks from up high."

"It reminds you of being in your Gundam?"

"Yeah," Duo said, looking over his shoulder at Zechs who was in the process of taking off his coat. Though his Gundam had been only half the height of this building it still reminded him of the different perspective it had provided.

"Do you miss it?" Zechs asked, as he joined Duo at the window, noticing how the boy's braid shimmered with the remains of raindrops.

"Oh, hell, yeah! Deathscythe and me were a team," he said, his gaze becoming less focused on the cityscape before him. "I'm a little lost without him."

Zechs heard the sadness in Duo's voice and empathized. A good pilot became one with his mobile suit and cared for it as though it was an extension of himself. Obviously this was something they had in common.

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