Illusions of Love + Part 6 (cont)

"Maybe later, Noin," Zechs said, with an encouraging smile. "Right now I need to speak with Heero."

"Oh," Noin said, giving Heero an appraising look. "Well, feel free to join us... when you can."

It wasn't easy putting off his duties. But there was something Zechs needed to take care of first, a problem he could not delay in facing.

"Thank you, Noin. I will," Zechs said and watched her turn and leave.

He and Noin had been very close in their Academy days and to a lesser degree during the war. Though they had never been lovers, Zechs had always been aware of her willingness. Unfortunately the timing had never been right and now it seemed there was not even time for friendship.

"Heero," Zechs said, turning to the one member of the security team remaining. "If you have a moment." He gestured for Heero to walk with him.

Heero nodded and stepped beside the taller man. They walked silently down the corridor, uneasy in each other's presence. At the end of the corridor they came to a set of double doors. Zechs stood before them, placing his hands on the door handles, but not going in.

"What is it?" Heero asked, his brow furrowing at Zechs's hesitation.

Zechs glanced at Heero and then back at the door. "Old rivalries," he said, throwing the doors open to reveal their destination---the training hall for ancient armaments.

Heero did not have a chance to question the response as he was taken aback by the bright midday sun, streaming in through tall windows. The light was almost painful in its intensity, causing him to squint and turn his face away momentarily.

Unaffected by the light, Zechs strode into the room confidently. The hall was long, with a high ceiling, and polished wooden floors. On three walls hung the implements of war. Sharpened, glistening weapons of hand-to-hand combat. This was where Zechs would make his stand. In the place where he had learned to defend himself with foil and spear so many years ago.

He walked a few paces along one row of weapons and then turned to see Heero standing just inside the door. "Some would find it ironic for a peace-loving nation to have a room such as this."

Heero raised an eyebrow, wondering at Zechs's meaning. "Weapons can be used for aggression or defense."

"Yes," Zechs said, removing one pike from the wall. "Weapons such as this were used to defend the Sankian border many generations ago. A time long before mobile suits and vernier rockets."

Heero folded his arms over his chest. "You brought me here for a history lesson?"

Zechs laughed. "Perhaps you don't need one," he said, replacing the pike on the wall. "If Relena is correct, you've read nearly one hundred books on Sankian history."

Heero's eyes narrowed. "That's right."

"And yet it seems that not all of her information about you is correct," Zechs said, circling round to Heero's left.

Not moving a muscle, Heero followed Zechs out of the corner of his eye. This conversation was quickly turning into a confrontation. "What are you getting at?"

"You've read all those books and have spent virtually every evening in the Royal library... except for last night," Zechs said, his voice revealing a slight edge.

"That's right," Heero said, flatly.

Zechs seethed at the lie. He had seen the truth in the blush of Duo's cheeks that morning. Whether planned or by accident, the two had met in the library last night. And though Duo was uncomfortable with lies, obviously Heero was not.

"You will stay away from Duo," Zechs commanded in a tone he had used for his troops in war.

"I can't do that," Heero said, turning to face the man fully. It was going to take a hell of a lot more than a simple command from Zechs to get Heero to stop his pursuit of Duo.

Zechs studied his rival. So once again he and Heero were at odds. Then so be it. He removed his jacket and reached for a sword from the wall, grasping it in his right hand and slicing the air with its blade.

Heero lifted his chin, not intimidated. "I've told Duo that I love him."

"What would you know about love?" Zechs asked with a chuckle. "I put the pieces of his life back together after you walked out on him."

Heero found that hard to believe. Maybe Duo had been lonely and looking for companionship, but surely he didn't need Zechs to put his life back together. Duo was the most resourceful and resilient person Heero knew.

Another swoosh of Zechs's sword and Heero knew he had better choose his weapon. He grabbed a similar sword, but held it down, leaving himself open to attack.

The thrill of the impending duel rushed through Zechs's veins like fire. This was the side of himself he had tried to forget, his warrior self that he could not fully explain. And yet he reveled in this self, the Lightning Count whose speed and fearlessness were legendary.

Since surviving the last battle of the war, Zechs had known he would confront Heero Yuy again. Though the cause of their rivalry had changed, the animosity was familiar, echoing the battles they had fought in Siberia, Antarctica and in space.

"A duel to the end?" Heero asked, lifting his blade as well.

"I see old habits are hard to change," Zechs said, with a small smile. "But I am not interested in spilling blood. This is a gentleman's duel. The first to disarm the other wins."

"Agreed," Heero said.

The agreement had been barely made when Zechs saluted with his weapon and then lunged forward, striking at Heero. The smaller man blocked the attack, their swords connecting for a split second before Heero spun around and out of reach. A moment later, Heero was advancing in his own attempt at knocking Zechs's blade from his hand.

+

The green embraced Duo like a cocoon, sheltering him from the growing heat of the day and the tumult of his heart. He sank down onto a grassy patch and put his head in his hands. Questions flooded his mind even as memories of Heero's words and the taste of his lips came back to Duo. Heero had spoken of apology, forgiveness and love, and even joked. At each encounter he had risked Duo's bark and his bite, and yet he had come back for more.

"Masochist," Duo spat.

Heero always had been anxious to die in battle. He probably would have enjoyed the pain Duo had inflicted on the pillows in effigy. And yet, when Heero had asked Duo to hit him, Duo could not. He was worn out from his anger and hurt and now desperately wanted it to end.

Remembering the note, Duo slipped his hand in his back pocket and pulled out the folded paper. Meet me... under the ivy, it read. He looked over the handwriting, Heero's fast and semi-legible script. The words had set Duo's heart to pounding and he had been in motion in no time, anxious to see Heero again, and as it turned out, anxious to talk and to embrace passionately.

It was clear to Duo, sitting here surrounded by green and bird song that he loved Heero... very much. So what was stopping him from taking the other boy back?

Fear, Duo thought with a shudder.

The frightened child within was battling the maturing young man. One hesitant and seeking shelter and the other brash and willing to gamble. But who would win? It was easy being tough as nails when you had a thermal scythe backing you up, but standing on your own, with your heart on your sleeve was another thing entirely.

"Life was a hell of a lot simpler with Deathscythe at my side," Duo said, wiping the moisture from his eyes.

But was it his Gundam that had made him the God of Death? Was it the firepower at his fingertips that had made him unafraid? No, of course not. Deathscythe had helped him to free the colonies, but it was Duo's own spark, his own rebellious, fiery heart that had led him into the thick of the fighting. Or in Heero's words the fact that he was "bold as hell." Remembering the compliment made Duo smile. Heero didn't hand out compliments every day, and it was nice to hear he had made an impression on Heero from the start.

He looked at the note once more. Heero was gambling. He had no way of knowing if Duo would accept his invitation, if he would show up only to scorn him or if he would show Zechs the note. God, what would Zechs do if he found out they had met secretly? Twice! And yet Zechs had come very close to learning of their rendezvous in the library. The overly chatty Relena conversed more like a gossip columnist than a princess.

Duo needed to make a decision and now. He could not allow this situation to drag on, straining and complicating three people's lives. He had to face his fears.

"Heero," he said, closing his eyes as the name formed on his lips.

He loved Heero. Despite everything... the hurt, the rejection, and fears for the future. Heero was his heart, his equal in life and in passion. Duo could try to deny it, and he had, but he would never be able to douse the flame that burned only for Heero.

"Okay," Duo said with a firm nod and a conviction worthy of going into battle. "I'll take a chance and tell Heero I love him. And he damn well better come through for me or I'll kill him."

With the decision came a relief and lightness of heart that Duo hadn't felt in months. He got up from the ground, tucking the note back into his pocket and smiling with the exhilaration of a new day. He couldn't wait to find Heero and tell him he was ready to start again, ready to take that risk.

Duo rushed from the enclosure, jogging back to the palace with his braid flying behind him. He entered through a rear door, taking a shortcut through an empty reception room to the main corridor. Now all he needed was to locate Heero. Where would he be at this time of day? It was right about the noon hour, but Heero didn't normally stop for lunch. He liked to work straight through the day. Then Duo remembered. Heero had been called back to the palace for the security tour with Zechs... Zechs!

Duo's steps slowed as his heart filled with regret. Shit, he would have to face Zechs. How could he ever tell Zechs his decision? Zechs had seduced him, courted him and eventually told him of his love for him. In another world, another time, Duo might have fallen for Zechs and fallen hard. He was an incredible man, but Duo's heart was already spoken for and every fiber of his being told him that Heero was the one for him.

The lightness in Duo's step was now gone. He trudged along cautiously through the marble halls, his eyes darting about, expecting Zechs and Heero at every turn. It would be just his luck to bump into them while the security check was still in progress.

As he came to the junction of three corridors, Duo was stopped short as a servant brushed passed him in a hurry.

"Hey!" Duo shouted.

"Sorry!" the young man called back, continuing at a near sprint down the hall.

Duo scratched his head. That was the most life he had seen in any of the servants. Usually everyone moved at a snail's pace... polite, but damn slow.

Before Duo could set off again on his tentative search, two more servants dashed by.

"What's going on?" Duo asked as they breezed past.

"There's a duel!" one shouted, excitedly.

"Oh, yeah? Who's dueling?" Duo asked, half amused. It sounded so... aristocratic.

"Prince Milliardo," one said.

"And that Gundam pilot!" the other servant added.

Duo gulped. Zechs and Heero were dueling?

"Shit!" Duo said, and was instantly in motion.

At the end of the hall, Duo found a sizeable grouping of onlookers. The double doors to the training hall were open wide, and crowded into the doorway were no less than two dozen servants and palace guards. The distinct clash of metal could be heard above their excited murmuring, but there was no way for Duo to see over or through the wall of bodies in front of him.

Another clash of swords and a shout came from the hall, the onlookers "oohed" in appreciation.

"That's it, I gotta see!" Duo exclaimed and began to push his way through the crowd.

They stood five deep, and it took every ounce of determination for Duo to wriggle and force his way between each person. Half way to the front of the line, Duo heard the taunts of each man.

"Without your Gundam you've lost your flair," he heard Zechs say.

"Do you always need an audience when you fight?" Heero asked, sarcastically.

Their voices were rough and breathless with exertion and a quality Duo knew too well... battle adrenaline.

With one last push, Duo spilled out of the mass of bodies. He quickly regained his balance and absorbed the scene before him... a large room dominated by two powerful and very focused warriors.

"What the fuck," Duo said, finding it hard to believe. What had triggered this confrontation? Had the security check gone that badly?

Both Zechs and Heero looked as though they had been fighting intensely for some time. Hair clung damp to their faces and their shirts were soaked with sweat, and yet their eyes glistened with the determination of defeating an old enemy.

Duo looked over his shoulder at those gathered. Wasn't anyone going to stop this? They were Zechs's staff... his servants and guards. Of course, they would only interfere if they thought their prince was in danger. Obviously they were secure in the knowledge that Zechs would win, but at what cost?

Duo spun back around, eyes wide as Zechs lunged forward in another attack. Duo had every faith that Heero could hold his own, but he couldn't just stand here watching the man he loved risk injury.

"I've got to stop this," Duo said, stepping forward.

Some of the onlookers called out to him, "What are you doing?" "You'll get hurt!" But Duo was determined to bring an end to this ridiculous rivalry.

"Hey, you two! The war's over!" he shouted as he came within twenty paces of the duel.

They seemed not to hear him as Heero blocked the attack and then pushed Zechs back with not one, but three strikes of his sword. Each blow dealt with force and snarling teeth.

"What the hell are you doing?" Duo asked, calling out to them both. "We're all on the same side now!"

His attempt at halting the fight was met by a flash of intense eyes from Zechs and a growl from Heero. Duo took a half step back. This was not a game, this was the war all over again. Duo knew there was only one way to be heard in the middle of a battle and that was to jump into the fray and make a big splash.

He walked away, scanning the weapons on the wall. He'd choose one and then they'd have to listen to him! This old rivalry had to stop!

Heero circled wide, the pause allowing him to catch his breath and calculate his next move. Duo's appearance in the hall had set Heero's heart to pounding even harder. If he was going to win he could not be distracted, and he would win this for the both of them.

"You have no chance of winning, Zechs," Heero said in a harsh, flat tone.

"On the contrary, I have every chance," Zechs said, his eyes glancing to Duo's retreating form. It was unfortunate that Duo had come upon their battle, but perhaps he could use that to his advantage. "There is nothing you can offer him!"

Heero snarled. "You'll suffocate him in this gilded cage!"

"Huh?" Duo turned back to the duel, his mouth agape. Were they talking about him?

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