by Artemis

Illusions of Love + Conclusion

Mid-day was not the best time to be setting off on a journey. The sun baked the road, making Duo perspire and wish for the cool, green grass of the palace grounds.

Pathetic, Duo thought. He had been on the road for less than an hour and he was already missing the creature comforts of the Royal palace. Well, he wasn't about to turn back, and he certainly wasn't going to run to his other independently wealthy friend either. The next time Duo saw any of the former Gundam pilots he was gonna have his act together.

It was then that he saw it, the place Zechs had described. Just ahead was where the main road veered left, and a second road, the mountain road, ribboned away into the dark shade of evergreens. Duo swallowed. He had a decision to make.

"No," he said, firmly. He had already made that decision. He was sticking to the main road and to hell with Heero.

In seconds, he was speeding past the fork, easily veering left. He took a deep breath. That hadn't been so hard. Then from over a mound came a deer, bounding onto the road. Duo's eyes went wide with the unexpected obstacle, but his training and quick reflexes saved him, allowing him to swerve clear of the deer and come to a stop several hundred yards down the road.

With his heart in his throat, he looked back to where the deer had crossed in front of him and shook his head. Damn, that had been close. It struck him as funny how fast things could change. One minute he was wishing the road wasn't so damn hot and the next he was nearly splattered all over it.

"And here I am, looking back at that damn fork again," he said, the juncture still visible from where he had stopped.

Clearly he would have to make that decision again, whether to continue on the main highway or to take the mountain road, like Heero had. The thought of Heero made Duo shiver. He could practically feel his presence, but surely that was only because he knew he had come this way. It couldn't be because he still ached for the boy and was still licking his lips from that fantastic kiss this morning.

The indecision was all too familiar and that irked Duo. He had come so far with his feelings, to the point of convincing himself that he could gamble, relatively safely, on Heero. And where had that gotten him? Out here, on the open road, all by his lonesome. And the strangest part of the equation was that Zechs, Heero's eternal rival, had been the one to argue Heero's case.

Duo shook his head, remembering Zechs's words, "I hope it's you who doesn't give up." So this is what he meant, Duo thought, believing that somehow Zechs had seen his future, seen how Duo would let his pride, and once again his fear, take him down the wrong damn road.

"Fine, I'll take the fuckin' mountain road," Duo decided aloud.

It seemed appropriate that by choosing Heero, Duo was also choosing to take the more dangerous road. Life with Heero would definitely have its bumps and pitfalls, but the alternative was something that Duo no longer wished to think about.

If things don't work out this time, Duo mused, I can easily dispose of the body.

Not knowing just how far ahead Heero was, Duo took risks he normally would not. He sped back to the fork, taking the turn while barely slowing down, and pushed the bike and his nerves to the limits. In fact, he was going so fast along the shaded road that it took his mind several seconds to process that he had buzzed passed a motorcycle parked on the shoulder.

With a squeal of his tires, Duo stopped, jerked his bike around, and headed back the nearly quarter mile to investigate, his heart thumping in his ears.

+

After nearly an hour on the road, Heero had decided to take a break in the shade of one of the many evergreens lining the mountain road. He wasn't as tired as he was reluctant to continue. He was still several hours from crossing the Sank border, and he suspected that despite his lack of escort from the palace, his progress was being closely monitored. Hell, he knew it was. He had designed and supervised the installation of the tracking system into the border patrol bikes. And yet he hadn't bothered to remove it from this one.

Pure desperation, Heero thought. He had felt like he was falling the further he drove from the palace. Free falling into oblivion without a safety net, without Duo to catch him and pull him back with his cocky smile and boisterous laugh. Yeah, Heero Yuy was desperate to be found, because he knew he could never go back, and certainly could not go on... without Duo.

So here he sat, at the base of a tree, with a twig in his hand and a lump in his throat. Hoping, praying, begging the universe that someone was watching out for him.

"Duo," he said. The name sounded on his lips as the sound of a motorcycle rumbled in the distance.

Heero looked down the winding road and perked his ears. Definitely a motorcycle, and by the whining pitch of the motor it was going too fast for these conditions. He only knew one idiot who could drive like that and survive.

"Duo," he said again, this time with a smile.

Before he had a chance to stand, the motorcycle came round the bend, accelerating again. The bike and its driver whipped by in a blur, but Heero had seen enough... he had seen a braid like a streaming banner, blowing in the wind.

He jumped to his feet and in a flash he heard the squeal of tires. With a deep, shaky breath, he walked to his bike and watched as the motorcycle turned around and came back down the hill to him.

Duo pulled his bike up alongside Heero, their eyes meeting, locking onto one another in disbelief and longing. He had found Heero! But this time he wasn't going to remain silent and then storm off in a huff. He was here to gamble on Heero, and he expected to win.

"Where ya' heading?" Duo asked, breathless.

"Anywhere you are," Heero responded as the hint of a smile broke across his face.

"Well, all right!" Duo said with a nod and a wide grin.

Duo watched with curiosity and growing excitement as Heero removed his pack from his own bike and secured it to Duo's. He didn't want to leap to conclusions, but when Heero put his helmet on and then stood next to him, it seemed pretty clear. Heero wanted to ride with him.

With a bright smile, Duo nodded for Heero to mount up. Oh, this would be so much better than riding on separate bikes. They were throwing their lot in together--wherever you're going, so am I. Heero got on the back of the bike and placed his hands lightly on Duo's hips, not wanting to assume anything. But Duo would have none of that. He looked back over his shoulder.

"If you're gonna ride with me, then you'd better hang on," Duo said, and pulled Heero's hands around his waist.

Heero grinned and leaned forward into the body in front of him. There was a second's delay as they absorbed the feel of the other. Then they were off, heading over the great Cascade Mountain and out of Sank.

+

Gloriously strong, slender arms wrapped around Duo's waist, hugging him, bringing him impossibly close to the boy behind him. The shared warmth of their bodies was distracting. Duo yearned to sit Heero down and stare into those dark, blue pools for endless hours, and very soon he would get his chance. It wouldn't be long before they crossed the Sankian border and sought out a place to spend the night. Duo's body tingled in anticipation. It would be his first night with Heero in so many months... a night alone to do and have done.

Just as it seemed they would never reach the elusive border, Duo glimpsed a small yellow road sign in the distance. As they drew closer, he saw the border post to the side of the road, little more than a booth for the patrolmen to keep out of the weather. Without these manmade markers, travelers would pass this spot and not know they had entered or left the Sank Kingdom. The border was just on the other side of the mountain, and there was no distinct geographic feature to set it apart from another piece of land. Duo mused that Zechs's ancestor, Renalto Peacecraft, had been the one to set this boundary. The thought made him a little sad, remembering.

Heero sensed, rather than felt Duo's distress, and squeezed the boy's thigh with his hand. It was a simple gesture to let him know that everything was going to be all right. They were together now. Duo smiled, glad for Heero at his back, and slowed only a little as they crossed the border. As much as he tried, Duo couldn't help a little cringe, half expecting a net to drop on them or soldiers to jump out at them. But no obstacle appeared. They were free.

Down the road, and down the other side of the mountain some ten miles, they came into a tiny village. Its picturesque beauty prompted Duo into thinking he might like to buy a postcard of this place. A souvenir of the first place he and Heero had visited in their new life. It was a new life, wasn't it? They hadn't had a chance to talk yet, but he was sure that's what they wanted... to be together.

They had arrived at the end of a market day and the streets were still crowded with vendors and their last customers. Duo slowed the bike to a near crawl, carefully weaving around carts and pedestrians. The mountain highway was so different here. It had suddenly become little more than a village street, eventually taking them to the town's square where a fountain bubbled and women and children milled about, showing off the day's purchases.

Surrounding the square were buildings that had to be over a hundred years old. Duo wondered how this place had fared so well during the war. It looked untouched by time. There were shops, houses, and on one corner a large, prosperous inn. Heero tapped Duo's shoulder and nodded toward the inn.

"Yep," Duo agreed, turning them in that direction.

They parked the bike at the side of the building and dismounted, stretching and popping out the kinks in their muscles from their long journey. They had been traveling for nearly three hours at a fast, wild pace.

"Got ya' here in one piece," Duo said, looking Heero up and down. "And you didn't flinch once."

"If you were trying to make me flinch by taking those hairpin turns at sixty miles per hour, you'll have to try harder next time."

"Is that right?" Duo asked with a crooked grin. "Your life didn't flash before your eyes... even once?" the boy said with a chuckle.

"It did, but that was before you picked me up off the side of the road."

Duo looked at Heero, mouth agape. "Huh?"

Heero shook his head. "Maybe I'll explain it to you later. Right now, we need to get you fed. I could feel your stomach growling for the last hour."

Duo laughed as he grabbed their bags and then they headed inside. To their surprise and great relief, the inn was rustic and entirely unpretentious in its forest decor. Large, hand-hewn beams supported the ceiling, carved wooden chairs were grouped snuggly around a fireplace, colorful woven rugs covered the slate floor, and stuffed animals were posed atop bookcase shelves. The inn had so much of a homey, self-made quality that Duo felt immediately comfortable.

Heero noted Duo's ease as he watched the other boy smile, half gaping at their new surroundings. Duo was free of his gilded cage.

Heero nudged Duo toward the reception desk. "We need a room for the night," Heero said, to the large, red-faced woman, knitting a scarf in an oversized chair.

"Oh, good, good," the woman said in a bouncy accent. She got up from the chair with a creak, whether it was the chair or her bones it was hard to tell. "You boys look as though you've had a long day."

Heero glanced at Duo and then back at the woman. "Do you serve dinner here as well?"

"The best meals in town!" the woman boasted easily. She leaned back, stretching her hand into one of the cubbyholes behind her and pulled out two keys. "Room two is available," she said and then turned the register toward Heero. "You'll need to sign this." She laid the keys to the side and rang a bell.

Duo watched as a young boy, no more than ten, came running out from a side room.

"Yes, Ma'am?" he asked.

"Take these young men's bags up to room two," she said, handing him one key.

Duo obliged the boy by handing over their bags.

"Your room is on the right at the top of the stairs," she said, handing the other key to Duo. "It's a bit small, but it has a lovely fireplace."

The woman then came around from behind the desk and escorted them to a small dining room. A couple of other travelers were having dinner and several locals were drinking and talking at the bar. Again the surroundings were pleasant and warm.

Once seated, they removed their jackets and were each given handwritten menus. "Would you like something to drink before dinner?"

Duo gazed over at the bar and then back to Heero, who shrugged.

"Yeah, I'd like a beer," Duo said. And why the hell not? He wasn't driving anymore tonight and he could use the alcohol to help him relax.

"We have a fine lager that I'm sure you'll enjoy. And you, sir?" the woman asked Heero.

"I'll have the same."

Duo's eyes widened. "Really?"

"Sounds good," Heero said, and then the woman was gone, leaving them to make their dinner selection.

Duo chuckled under his breath.

"What's so funny?" Heero asked.

"Nothing," Duo said, scanning the hearty offerings on the menu. "Just the thought of us sharing a beer." When he didn't hear a response, Duo looked up and across the table to his companion whose eyes were already on him. "Uh, I think I'll have the rabbit and sausage stew," Duo said, gulping at the intensity in Heero's eyes. "What about you?"

Heero stared a few seconds longer, taking in Duo's nervousness, and then looked down at the menu. "The beef pot pie," he said and pushed the paper aside, looking up again. "We have a lot to talk about..."

"Yeah, but don't you think we should wait for our beers?"

Heero had to admit it was awkward sitting here like this. Maybe it would have been better for them to go directly to their room. The complete privacy would have allowed him to touch Duo, to ease his nerves with a gentle kiss or a brush of his hand. But here, in this room, with people all about, coming and going, it was nearly impossible to convey the intimacy, understanding he so desperately wished to share.

"Sure, we can wait," Heero said, and leaned back in his chair.

Duo busied himself with rearranging his silverware and fussing with the cloth napkin on his lap. It seemed forever before a waitress came back with the tall, foaming glasses of lager.

Duo took a quick sip and grinned. "Exactly what the doctor ordered."

"Good," Heero said, taking a swallow from his own glass.

They placed their dinner orders and then were left alone, once again.

"So... here we are," Duo said, tapping the side of his glass.

"I know it's been a long time, but you never lacked for words before," Heero said, slightly frustrated at the awkwardness of this moment.

"Six months," Duo said.

Heero cocked his head.

"It's been six months. Well, actually it's been five months, three weeks and two days since you walked out..."

"Hold it," Heero said, lifting his hand. "Are we back together now?"

Duo blinked. "Yeah."

"Then you can stop counting."

"I'll damn well count 'til the end of time if I want," Duo said with a toss of his head. "Hey, I'm the dumpee, remember? I think that gives me the right to tell you a thing or two."

"Is that right?"

"Yeah, it is," Duo said.

Heero stared him down one second, two seconds, and then grinned. He loved his Duo cocky and all fired up. Shit, this could be one hell of a night.

Just then the waitress brought their meals. Their plates were steaming and filled with rabbit, sausage, potato and carrots, and a rich beef stew nestled in a golden piecrust. Duo tucked into his food the same way he did everything... with gusto. There was no half way of doing anything for Duo. You either did it, and did it right, or not at all. It was a pleasure watching Duo eat, but Heero had begun to feel the pangs of hunger as well, and was happy to postpone their talk for a few more minutes.

Twenty minutes later, Duo was mopping his plate with a piece of crusty bread, absorbing the last bit of rich gravy. Heero, too, had finished his meal.

"That was the best damn stew I've ever had!" Duo exclaimed, patting his stomach.

"I wouldn't mind staying here a few days, just for the meals," Heero said, pleasantly.

Duo smiled. "It's good to hear you say that."

[cont]