Illusions of Love + Part 4 (cont)

+

It was early morning, still pre-dawn, yet Zechs had already showered and dressed. He stared out the window of his 10th floor apartment, looking out onto the sleeping city. In another hour or so, Duo would wake and Zechs would tell him his decision. He had promised himself the night before, with Duo lying curled in his arms, that when the sun rose on the new day he would resurrect his former self, Milliardo Peacecraft.

For the past three weeks, ever since glimpsing his sister in New York, Zechs had pondered the question of family, home and renewal. Certainly he and Duo were happy in Boston, but they were living as exiles from their former lives. Zechs was heir to a beautiful, peaceful kingdom and he owed it to his family and his people to return and seek their forgiveness and censure. Whether they would want him as their king he did not know, nor did he know if he could take that step, but he had to return home.

As for Duo, if he chose to journey to Sank, Zechs knew he might lose him. The look in Duo's eyes the night they had seen Relena told him that much. The boy still hurt from the loss of Heero Yuy, and one did not hurt if one did not love. Asking Duo to join him on this journey was a risk, but a risk Zechs had to take if he ever hoped to have a future with this enchanting young man.

At half past seven, Duo stumbled out of their bedroom, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He was wearing the top from Zechs's blue silk pajamas. It was too large, but it looked perfect on him.

"Good morning, Duo," Zechs said and walked over to meet him half way. He kissed the boy's forehead and smiled. "Looks like you could use another few hours of sleep."

"It got cold in there without you," Duo said, pouting. "Why you up so early?"

"Because today's a new day," Zechs said, optimistically. How could he be melancholy looking into that gamin face?

"Well, you're chipper this morning," Duo said and laughed. "How 'bout some coffee?"

"That would be nice, thank you."

Minutes later, they went out onto the balcony to enjoy their mugs of coffee. Duo had slipped on a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt while the coffee was brewing and now leaned against the railing, breathing in the fresh roast. Zechs sat on one of the balcony chairs, admiring the boy's form.

"You think I'd be tired of coffee after working in a coffee shop all those weeks."

Though he still worked part-time at the rare bookstore, Duo had quit the coffee shop after returning from New York. Something had changed between him and Zechs on that trip, something had drawn them closer, and so he had decided to take Zechs up on his offer to move in.

"I made a decision last night," Zechs said, suddenly, setting his mug down.

"Oh, yeah? And what's that?"

"I'm going to return to Sank and I want you to come with me."

The coffee mug nearly slipped from Duo's hand. "Wh-what?"

"It's time Milliardo Peacecraft came out of hiding."

Duo blinked, speechless at what he had just heard. This was the first Zechs had mentioned going home.

"I know this may seem a bit sudden...." Zechs continued.

"No kidding. When the hell were you going to tell me?"

"Now. I only just decided last night."

Duo set his mug down quickly as a wave of dizziness rocked him. Damn if he was not having a bad case of déja vu. "Oh, like you haven't been thinking about this for a while?"

"Please, Duo, let's not argue..."

"We wouldn't be arguing if you had talked to me!" he shouted, throwing up his hands.

"But there was nothing to talk about until now..."

"Nothing to talk about? Out of the blue you tell me you're leaving, and there's nothing to talk about?!"

"I'm not leaving!" Zechs said emphatically. "I'm going home and I'm asking you to come with me!" Zechs did not like to raise his voice, but Duo certainly did not seem to be listening.

"Well, no thanks!" Duo huffed, setting his fists on his hips. "Why the hell would I want to go to Sank? And why would you? Haven't we made a life here together?"

Zechs stood to meet the challenge, but he tried to keep his voice calm. "Listen to yourself. This doesn't sound like the Duo Maxwell I know. I thought you'd be pleased that I'm ready to face my past."

"Well, who says I'm ready to face mine!"

Duo tried to push past Zechs and retreat into the apartment, but Zechs grabbed him by the arm and turned him around. "Up to your old tricks again, I see. Running away?"

"Yeah, maybe I am," Duo bit back.

"Baby... don't," Zechs said, pulling Duo into his arms. The boy squirmed and tried to break free, but Zechs held on tight. "I know this isn't easy, believe me, I know. But I love you, Duo, and I need you to be strong for me."

The boy stilled in his arms. "What did you say?" he asked, looking up at Zechs's anguished face.

"Yes," Zechs said, softly. "I said I love you. I've been falling in love with you ever since that night you slept on my sofa."

Those were the words, the words that Duo had longed to hear, but from another. And now to hear Zechs say them as though it was the most natural thing in the world was unbelievable.

"Zechs," Duo said, his brow tightening. "You can't mean that."

"And why not? That's how I feel. I'd have to be blind not to see all you can offer."

Duo looked away, ashamed. He wasn't ready for this, nearly, but not quite.

"Duo," Zechs said, taking the boy's face by the chin and turning it back to him. "I didn't mean for you to hear that now. I know you're not ready..."

"But I--I want to be ready," Duo said with trembling lips. Why can't I tell him I love him? I think I do... I must! We make love every night. He's generous and kind and beautiful. I should be able to tell him!

Zechs brushed his thumb under Duo's eye, taking away the tear that was about to fall. "Don't worry, when it's right, you'll tell me."

Duo smiled.

"That's better," Zechs said, and bent down to kiss Duo's cheek. "Now what's all this fuss about not coming with me?"

+

It had been two days since the conversation on their apartment balcony. Two days since waking to find that life was about to change once again. And now, Zechs and Duo were traveling in a private car on their way from the Sank airport to the Peacecraft palace.

In the backseat of the white Rolls Royce, Duo reached for Zechs's hand and held it tight.

"I know," Zechs said, squeezing Duo's hand in return. It was all he could say, all he needed to say.

After sending a recorded visual message to Relena, it had been only a matter of hours before they had received the simple reply, "Yes, brother, come! You are most welcome here!"

There had been no mention of his absence, assumed death, or misdeeds. Instead the message conveyed the brightness that was his sister. Zechs had been glad, and Duo, too, though now that they were moments from arriving at the palace both were too nervous to speak.

"There it is," Zechs said as they came into the valley where the palace sat. "My home."

Duo's mouth fell open. It was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. The sprawling white palace looked welcoming and appropriately grand, and the land surrounding it was richly green and carpeted with wildflowers in every color.

"Zechs, it's beautiful," Duo said, not taking his eyes from the scene.

Zechs's heart pounded. It was as he remembered it from childhood. Relena had restored the Peacecraft ancestral home to its former beauty, to a time before the war when the Sank Kingdom was unravaged and peaceful. He nearly sobbed as their car turned onto the long drive leading through the open iron gates and to the front of the palace.

Home, he thought, wiping at his eye.

There had been a time in Zechs's life when he did not believe he would ever return to Sank. Nor had he cared. And now as they drew closer to his roots, Zechs knew this was right, knew this was where he belonged.

Duo looked over at him and smiled. "You okay?"

"Yes," he answered softly.

A small welcoming committee waited at the bottom of the palace steps. The Princess Relena was wearing a yellow summer dress and holding the hand of a young girl with a basket of freshly picked flowers. Next to them stood Lucrezia Noin, an old friend of Zechs's, wearing an uncharacteristically feminine suit of pale blue. And standing straight and true behind them was Pagan, the reliable and much loved servant of the Peacecrafts. It was more than Zechs and Duo had hoped for and yet the grouping was curiously missing one key player... Heero Yuy. Neither mentioned this fact.

"It's good to see Noin," Zechs commented as their car drew closer. He had not been aware that the former OZ lieutenant was living in Sank. "Though she has every reason to be angry with me for what I've..."

Duo held up a finger and wagged it at his lover. "Nope, gotta stop you there. Remember our agreement? No self-abasement allowed."

Zechs chuckled as the car came to a stop. Before they opened the door to face the others, Zechs pulled Duo to him for one last private embrace. "Duo, thank you for coming with me."

"No problem," the boy said, caressing Zechs's long hair.

Zechs knew that Duo was nervous and had his own worries concerning this trip, but Duo had not mentioned them once. He's a strong young man, Zechs thought, proud of his lover's resolve.

Zechs was first to exit the car and was immediately greeted in a rush of hugs from Relena and Noin.

"Oh, Milliardo!" Relena said, releasing him from the hug and taking him by the hands. "When you sent that message we thought we were dreaming! We just couldn't believe you were actually alive!"

Relena knew so little about her brother. They had been raised separately from the time of their parents' deaths thirteen years earlier, and she had only met him once during the war when he had been crazed and emotionally unreachable. To see him now made her eyes shine with tears. The recorded message had given her hope of his newfound stability, but now she could see in his face that he truly was a Peacecraft again.

The little girl came forward and curtsied, lifting the basket of flowers to the Sankian heir. "Welcome home, Prince Milliardo."

"Thank you," Zechs said, smiling.

"This is Tatiana, she's Pagan's granddaughter," Relena explained.

Zechs looked from the little girl to his old friend. "She's lovely, Pagan."

"Well, naturally I think so," the elderly man said, coming forward and shaking the prince's hand.

"Zechs, why didn't you let us know you were alive?" Noin asked, her heart pounding at seeing him again.

"I'm sure you can guess," Zechs replied. Then turning to Duo he gestured for him to join them. The boy had been completely ignored in the excitement of this homecoming. "Duo, please," Zechs said.

Duo stepped into the grouping and smiled.

"Duo!" Noin exclaimed, giving him a welcoming hug. "We were surprised to hear you would be escorting Zechs back to Sank."

"He's more than escorting me," Zechs answered, reaching his hand over to squeeze Duo's shoulder. "He's my lover."

There was a collective gasp from the women as eyes widened at the former Gundam pilot.

"Your lover?" Noin asked, her heart sinking. After all this time she still held out hope that she and Zechs...

"Yep, that's right," Duo said, blushing. He had not expected Zechs to be so open or so blunt about their relationship.

"It's good to have you here, Duo," Relena finally said. "I'm sure you must be anxious to see your old friend, Heero, again. If he wasn't in the middle of switching over our computerized security system he would've been here to greet you."

The blush that had colored Duo's cheeks faded, as he paled. Had Heero wanted to greet him?

"Are there problems with your security?" Zechs quickly asked.

"Not anymore. Heero has done wonders," the girl said, her face beaming with admiration. "I'm sure he'll be happy to tell you all about it. But you must be tired from your journey. There are two lovely bedroom suites ready for you..."

"Two? That won't be necessary. Duo is staying with me," Zechs said, slipping his arm around the youth's waist.

"Oh, of course!" Relena said. Poor Miss Noin, Relena thought as she escorted the group into the palace.

+

In their suite, Duo flopped down on the bed, truly exhausted from their journey.

"Is this all yours?" he asked, his eyes to the ceiling, looking with wonderment at the plaster scrollwork etched in gold.

"It is mine by birth," Zechs replied, sitting on the edge of the bed. He followed Duo's line of vision up and smiled. "As a child I often stared at the ceilings in the palace. One is more beautiful than the next."

"I noticed a lot of scaffolding outside and down corridors as we walked to our room. There must be a lot of fixing up to do," Duo commented, letting his eyes fall to Zechs.

"Yes, the war ravaged this place, this land. Relena has done a great deal to restore it to its former beauty. She is wise for her years. She knows the right people to have around her."

It was implied that Heero was one of those people, but Zechs would not say it aloud. The fact that Heero had not been part of the welcome made things a bit more uncomfortable. It was as if the boy was lurking, waiting to jump out at them.

"You should get some rest," Zechs said, leaning over and petting Duo's long braid. "No matter what Relena promised, dinner will be a formal affair, and you'll need your wits about you."

"Why not nap with me?" Duo asked, putting his hand over Zechs's.

"I would enjoy that, but I'm too keyed up. It's hard to believe I'm home."

Duo smiled. "They're happy you're here. You had nothing to worry about," he said, gesturing to all the bouquets of freshly cut flowers in their room. The flowers were from government officials and other Sankian elite. It was obvious that they had missed their prince.

"And I'm happy you're here," Zechs said, bending over and kissing Duo lightly on the lips. "Now sleep, and I'll wake you for dinner."

Duo watched as Zechs got up from the bed and unpacked a few items. He wanted to keep his eyes open, keep watching Zechs's graceful movements, but he was just too tired. Soon his eyelids became heavy and he fell into sleep.

A loud noise startled Duo awake little more than an hour later. It was just mid-afternoon, still hours before he needed to get ready for dinner. He looked around the room and saw that he was alone. Zechs had been restless and must have gone out to re-acquaint himself with his surroundings. Another loud noise drew Duo's eyes toward the open balcony doors. Neither sound was menacing, just loud and curious, and so he slowly lifted himself off the bed to investigate.

On the balcony, he peered along the outside wall of the palace until his eyes settled on a group of workmen. It seemed one of them had dropped some tools on the metal scaffolding.

The day was bright and Duo winced a little at the intensity of the mountain sun. So this was Sank, this was Zechs's home. It was as Duo had imagined, a fairytale land for a beautiful prince, and yet he could not enjoy it as such. Beneath all its beauty and grandeur lay a deep wound.

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