Illusions of Love + Part 4 (cont)

"Why are you hiding?" Duo asked as he retreated back into the bedroom suite.

Part of him had been relieved that Heero had not been among those greeting him and Zechs. Another part of him had been hurt. Was he not even an old comrade to Heero? Was the other boy not even curious to see him again? Certainly Duo was not hoping for a friendship between them now, but shouldn't they at least shake hands and acknowledge each other's presence here? Perhaps even agree to stay out of each other's way?

If nothing else, the snub on arrival had reminded Duo of exactly why things had not worked out between them. Heero was all work and all sense of duty. Duo sighed and went over to his bag and unpacked a fresh shirt. Zechs had the right idea. Get out and explore... and live!

Tucking in his dark blue t-shirt into his black jeans, Duo headed out into the palace. As he walked the wide, marble halls, stopping to admire paintings or to peek inside rooms, he noticed the curious stares from the palace staff. At least three times, he was approached to determine who he was and what exactly he was doing. He supposed the grilling was a testament to the palace's security and shrugged off each inquiry with good humor.

Not long into his exploration he was joined by Zechs.

"You're causing quite a stir," the man told him as he bent to give Duo a kiss on his forehead. "The entire palace is talking about the suspicious boy in jeans who's wandering the grounds."

It was true he was dressed rather more casual than anyone else here. Zechs, of course, was dressed in a suit, this one of pale gray.

"And now they've sent you to collect me?" Duo asked, with a crooked grin.

"Something like that. Actually I thought as long as you were awake we could take a walk. I'd love to show you the art gallery."

In the gallery, Zechs explained the great achievement of the collection.

"Much of the Royal art collection had been damaged or destroyed in the war. What could be saved was sent to art conservators for repair, but much of what you see here has been donated by the people of the Sank Kingdom."

Duo looked down the length of the large room. Dozens of paintings of all sizes hung on the walls. There were landscapes, seascapes, portraits and still lifes. Every subject was represented in this collection of Sankian heritage.

"When Sank was attacked, many of its citizens hid away their valuables, including some of the art you see here. This is truly a wonderful gift. They have gladly given all this to replenish the Royal art collection."

Duo saw a tear spill down Zechs's cheek just before he turned and brushed it away.

"You're right, this is a wonderful gift. Looks like the people of Sank are ready to have their monarchy restored," Duo said.

Zechs turned back to him. "Yes, that is my feeling as well. And Relena has shown me the hundreds of letters of welcome that have been arriving since my return was announced," he said, his eyes watering again.

"That's wonderful," Duo said, taking Zechs's hand.

"But?" Zechs asked.

"But what?"

"I see the question in your eyes, Duo," Zechs said, squeezing his hand. "And I can tell you the answer before you even have to ask. I want you here with me. No matter the outcome. I want you by my side."

Duo smiled and then wrapped his arms around Zechs's waist. "Thank you," he said and they held each other in a comforting embrace.

Though Duo was not sure how he fit into all this grandeur or what it would mean if Zechs actually did claim his throne, he wanted Zechs to be happy.

Their progress back to their suite was slow as people continually approached them to speak with Zechs. Duo felt nearly invisible as servants and staff curtsied and bowed before the prince, giving their well wishes and sharing their happiness on his return.

When one of the security details approached, Duo suddenly wished for that anonymity. Among the group of five was a certain head of dark brown tousled hair, belonging to Heero Yuy. Duo's heart jumped. Heero looked sharp, handsome and professional in a white cotton shirt, dark blue trousers and a blue on blue tie and dress shoes. Unlike the others, he did not carry a weapon, only a small electronic notepad in his hand. But Duo knew better---Heero was the weapon.

Their eyes met and Duo swallowed hard. He had long imagined what it would be like to see the other boy again, but he had not expected this silence or this longing to grip him. Where were the clever remarks he had so carefully crafted and rehearsed?

Heero was equally silent, but the pounding of his heart in his ears was deafening. He had been unable to join the welcoming party earlier that day, but had been all too aware of Duo's arrival. Now to see him, looking as wiry, beautiful and alive as always, set Heero's heart to pounding. Could Duo know just how surreal it was to see him in these halls?

The security staff spoke with Zechs, each in turn, with Heero stepping forward last. He nodded to Zechs, but did not hold out his hand. The overwhelming feeling that they were still enemies hung in the air, and to see Zechs with Duo made those feelings that much more prominent in Heero's mind.

At last Zechs held out his hand in greeting. Duo cringed as it seemed Heero would not accept, and remembered a time when he had resisted Zechs's olive branch, too. But then Heero took the hand and gave it a hard shake, looking Zechs in the eye. The others present gave an audible sigh. They had felt the tension, too.

"The past is the past," Zechs said, generously. "We shouldn't let it control our efforts for the future."

Heero's eyes flickered to Duo and then back to Zechs. "You've made Relena happy by coming home in one piece. For that I'm grateful."

Duo felt his face flame at Heero's words. After all this time, Relena was still the center of the universe. He shook his head and turned to leave.

"Duo," Zechs called after him, but the boy did not respond. Zechs sighed as he watched him walk away.

By now, the members of the security squad were anxious to be on their way as well.

"Will you be at dinner this evening?" Zechs asked Heero as the others began to move away.

"Yes," he said simply.

"Relena has nothing but praise for the work you have done here. Thank you."

"No problem," Heero said and then headed off to rejoin his group. His stoic features belying the turmoil he felt having Duo so close again.

Back in their suite, Zechs found Duo out on the balcony. The boy's face shone with the orange hues of the late afternoon sun.

"You two didn't greet each other," Zechs said, coming to stand next to him.

"I guess there's nothing to say," Duo responded as he continued to look over the lush grounds.

"If former enemies can speak than so can former lovers."

"Don't talk like that," Duo said, looking up at him. "I don't want to think about the past."

"Is that because you're happy with the present? Or because you're afraid of what the past means to you?"

"What kind of bullshit is that?" Duo asked, sharply.

"I don't know, you tell me," Zechs said, keeping his tone calm. "You're obviously afraid of something. You turned tail..."

"I should've never told you that!" Duo yelled, angry that Zechs would throw his admission about running away from situations at him now.

"Then you should've addressed Heero."

"Oh, yeah? Well, what was holding him back? He could have just as easily said something."

"Could he?" Zechs asked, feeling an uncharacteristic jealousy turn inside him.

Duo turned back again, ignoring the question as he stared blankly at the landscape before him.

"This isn't right," Zechs said, taking Duo by the arm and turning him to face him once again. "Heero Yuy is back in our lives for five minutes and we're fighting."

Duo's chest felt heavy, like a pressing weight was upon him. "You're right. We shouldn't fight," he said, softly. "I'm sorry."

The apology was barely across Duo's lips when Zechs pulled him into his arms and kissed him deeply, possessively. As the kiss continued, Zechs lifted Duo off his feet and carried him into the bedroom, setting him down on the bed.

Duo looked up with wide, lustful eyes. "Take me, Zechs," he said, then added silently, make me forget.

There was no hesitation.

+

Zechs's prediction was correct; dinner was a formal affair. The banquet hall was decorated in the most beautiful blossoms to be found in the Kingdom, and the table was laid with the finest linen, china and gold stemware. The lavishness of the feast was most certainly fit for a king, or the return of a lost prince. Fifty guests were in attendance, all dressed in their finest suits and gowns, and all extremely pleased to be invited to this grand celebration.

Zechs would have been happier with a simple supper prepared for himself, Duo, Relena and Noin, but that was not to be, at least not this evening. Relena was determined to fete her brother and to let everyone know her great joy at his return. The homecoming was still a bit awkward for Zechs, but he welcomed her attempts to please him.

As dessert was served, Relena stood to say a few words and to make a toast.

"Thank you all for coming this evening, to honor my dear brother's return. No one was more surprised than I to hear that Milliardo was alive and well. Nor can anyone be more happy. It is a miracle to have my brother returned to me, returned to the people of Sank, and to see him happy in his life. Welcome home, Milliardo!"

"Welcome, home!" the guests repeated, raising their glasses and sipping their wine.

When the cheers quieted, Zechs stood. "Thank you, everyone. Your warm welcome is more than I could have hoped for. I am well aware that it might have been different."

Many around the table disagreed, reassuring Zechs by saying, "No, you were always welcome."

He bowed his head. "Thank you, again, but you must know it's been a long road home for me... to be reunited properly with my dear sister and to stand before you and ask your forgiveness." He raised his eyes and looked at each person sitting around the table. "The Sank Kingdom has been in disarray since that terrible day thirteen years ago when my parents were murdered, and unfortunately I was too preoccupied with my own need for revenge to be of any use to you. Now that the war has ended, and I have re-discovered the Peacecraft in myself, it is my hope that together, Relena and I can work to rebuild this beautiful country, to make Sank the shining beacon of pacifism that it once was!"

The room burst into cheers once again, and everyone stood, holding their glasses high. "To the future King Peacecraft!" they cried out. "Long live King Milliardo!"

The people of Sank adored their prince and were more than ready to forgive all his past mistakes. Their devotion felt right, and Duo smiled, knowing that Zechs was a good man and deserved this warm reception.

After several more toasts, the guests finished their dessert and then got up to mingle and to speak with Zechs directly. Duo, once again, was pushed aside. For several long minutes, he tried to stay near Zechs, be part of the circle adoring him, but soon he found he was just in the way. Not that Zechs would have ever said so, but Duo knew the crowd had no use for him.

He slipped from the banquet hall and stepped onto a stone patio, inhaling the fresh mountain air. The night was cool, but he was warm from the crowded hall and his black tuxedo. He settled on the pedestal of a nymph statue and looked up at the night sky. Even though it was quite late, the sky was still a deep azure and twinkled brightly with a thousand stars and a round, yellow moon. The last time he had gazed at stars like this he had been at Quatre's home in Arabia, ages ago.

A prickling sensation on the back of his neck made him look away. Someone was here. He turned to see a figure silhouetted by the night and standing less than ten feet away.

"I always could sneak up on you," the visitor said.

Duo shivered. He knew that voice and now that his eyes had adjusted he could see the outline of Heero clearly. "What do you want?" he asked, sharply.

"The same things you want. Peace and fresh air," Heero said, stepping closer.

Duo let out a shaky breath. He did not want to be alone with Heero, but damn it if he was going to give up his spot on the patio. "It was peaceful... until you showed up," Duo said.

Heero nodded. He had not expected anything less. In fact, he had expected more venom than this. "You're with Zechs now?" he asked, stopping his advance just a few feet away.

"What's it to you?"

Now that sounded more like the Duo he knew. "Just curious," Heero said as he looked at Duo in the moonlight. Even in the formal attire, Heero could see Duo's rebelliousness wanting to wriggle free. Damn it was good just to be looking at Duo again. Had it really been six months since they had last seen each other?

"Why don't you hit me and get it over with?" Heero asked, in the flat, serious tone he often used.

Duo inhaled deeply and looked over the other boy as if assessing his chances in a fight. "I've already wasted too damn much energy on you. Now beat it!"

In an odd way, the angry words were welcome. Heero knew he deserved them and more, and he also knew the least he could do was give Duo some space right now. There would be more opportunities to talk in the coming days, and so, he left quietly, retreating back into the palace.

Moments later, Zechs appeared on the patio, looking a bit breathless. "There you are!" he said as he came over and put his arm around Duo's shoulder. "I saw Heero pushing through the crowd and suddenly realized I didn't know where you had gone."

"It's all right, Zechs. I told him to get lost," Duo said and stood.

"Then you spoke to him?"

"I suppose you could call it that."

"What did he say?" Zechs persisted.

"He wanted to know about us and I told him it was none of his business."

Zechs felt that twist in his belly again. Was Heero taking inventory of the situation?

"Well, he'll probably keep his distance now," Zechs said, though somewhat unconvincingly. He pulled Duo to him, wrapping his arms about him.

"Shouldn't you be inside?" Duo asked, nuzzling the white dinner jacket Zechs was wearing.

"They've had me long enough for one evening. Now I'm yours."

"Mmm, that sounds nice, but won't you be missed?"

"Their welcome is sincere," Zechs said, letting his hands slide down Duo's back. "But their prince has needs, too." His hands settled on Duo's bottom and squeezed.

The boy chuckled. Oh, he liked this. "Is that right? And what needs would those be?"

"I think you know, Baby. Needs that only you can satisfy," he said and lifted Duo by his bottom until their lips met in a searing kiss.

Duo hooked one of his legs around Zechs as the man plundered his mouth. For the second time today he was swept up in Zechs's desires. Whatever was enflaming Zechs's needs, Duo wanted more of it.

+

Dark, Prussian blue eyes narrowed, dilated as they watched the scene two stories below. As much as Heero wanted to look away, he could not. A strange burning sensation was growing deep inside him, at the very center of his being. It was a feeling he had never experienced before, a feeling that grew more intense as he watched Zechs's hands move on Duo... watched Zechs's mouth possess Duo.

Noin had told him that Zechs and Duo were an item, but Heero had been reluctant to believe. Duo had hated OZ, and Zechs's role, especially at the end of the war, had been all too clear. Yes, people could change, but Heero had never expected Duo to be the one to change.

He turned away, unable to watch anymore.

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