2.7 Kelvin + Part 2Duo rubbed his eyes, and sat back to retie his headband. A low-grade headache ate at the back of his skull, refusing to be alleviated by the pain pill he'd swallowed an hour ago.
The soft squeak of the water recycler told him when Zechs had made it out of bed. They kept different schedules, usually, simple ship procedure to ensure there was always someone awake to deal with emergencies. Zechs, like most Earth-born who flew space flights, preferred a twenty-and-six rotation. Duo, like most colonials, slept twelve for every forty. For the most part, they had managed not to disturb each other much--or at least, had agreed not to acknowledge any minor annoyances when they occurred.
Like the fencing, every morning. Like the whine of the pipes at odd times. They ate separately, usually, and slept alone, for the most part, and for a few short hours here and there, they read the book together.
His vocabulary had taken wide strides forward since the first page of random words Zechs had given him. Duo occupied his quiet hours with a dictionary downloaded from the computer, slogging through letter by letter. He hadn't lied about his eidetic memory, but he understood more than most the limitations of recall when what was needed was understanding. Duo had never applied himself to systematic study of anything but the mathematics he'd needed to pilot his Gundam, and he was finding it difficult. At least with maths, he'd known what the specific goal was, had had a tangible reward of seeing his own progressively more accomplished skills in flying. Of the five--six, if you counted Zechs Merquise, and Duo reluctantly did--living men to pilot Gundams, Duo could unabashedly claim to be the best. Just as Quatre was the smartest, and Heero the strongest. Everyone had a point of excellence. Given the advantage, Duo was confident in his own.
Except that he didn't have the advantage, here. Maybe Heero had enough--class, and power, to hold up to someone like Zechs. Duo knew he didn't.
The shower shut off a precise five minutes later. They observed the limits on the recyclers, Zechs by taking short showers every day, and Duo by enjoying a luxurious long one every few days. Duo had never lived in such close contact with someone so obstinately an Earther. It was interesting, from a purely academic point of view. Other things were just bothersome. Zechs would go to the galley, next, and waste his time cooking a real meal. Duo had no problem relying on a liquid diet of nutrient shakes. He didn't see how you could get tired of something that didn't have a taste.
The little rap on his portal surprised him out of staring at the book. "Hey," Duo said, looking up.
Zechs nodded to him, in that oddly formal way he seemed to think constituted informality. "Good morning."
Zechs was towelling his long hair dry. It dripped down his sleeveless vest. "Join me for breakfast?"
Powdered eggs, dried fish, and rice. Every morning.
Duo went back to his work, ostentatiously taking up a 'study' pose. "Nah," he said. "I think I'll work a little longer."
That earned him a momentary silence. Then Zechs entered his cabin, took a seat on the edge of Duo's bed.
Well, all right. They'd slept together there, so technically, Duo supposed, there was an open invitation to enter as he pleased, but Zechs hadn't exactly asked, and he hadn't been back in since the week before, and for that matter he hadn't asked Duo to sleep with him again. Which stung, a little. Perhaps more than a little.
"You're trying too hard," Zechs said. He draped his towel over his shoulders, and gestured at Duo's desk of papers. "Why?"
Duo turned his chair to face the man. "What else do I have to do?" he shrugged.
"I understand that you wish to learn, but you're behaving as if you have something to prove."
Duo laughed at that. "Don't I always?" he returned.
Zechs lifted his muscular shoulders in a small shrug. "Why do you?"
More talking than they'd done since they'd been doing the horizontal, too. Duo wondered why now. He pulled his bare feet up to the seat of his chair, hugging his knees close to his chest.
"Because everyone, you included, think I'm some kind of-- goof off," he said. He returned the shrug. "I'm smart. And I guess I'll never be done proving that, so I might as well do it as fast as I can, right?"
A pale eyebrow might have lifted a millimetre. "You've got nothing to prove to anyone. Except, maybe, yourself."
"Bullshit," Duo said, and didn't even bother to elaborate on the obvious.
Maybe Zechs realised it was obvious, too. He picked up Duo's hairbrush, but didn't use it. He rubbed his thumb over the soft bristles. "It's not because you're perceived to be stupid, you realise," he answered Duo finally. "You're too-- nice. Except when you're not. And then you're pissing people off."
Nice. Except when he wasn't. Duo didn't know what to make of that; no-one had ever called him that before. And then taken it back immediately. Bemused, he said, "All that, and we've only been cooped up together for three weeks. What are you going to think nine months from now?"
A hint of a line formed at the side of Zechs' mouth. It might have been amusement. "We can turn back."
Duo heaved a sigh, and dropped his feet back to the floor. "Look, my concentration's shot anyway. You don't need to cook for me, though. I'll just have a tea. You know--"
Zechs was standing. He paused, halfway to his feet.
Duo chewed his lip. "I know I said we don't have to like each other to fuck, but now we're, well, we're not really doing either."
"I like you," Zechs said.
Duo raised his own eyebrows. "No, you don't."
"You're not allowed to say so."
He laughed at that. "Why?"
"You don't know what's in my heart."
"I know what's on your face," Duo corrected him.
"You don't know that either." He actually sounded aggreived. "You don't know me at all, Duo. You look at me and see OZ. Nothing more."
"Not 'nothing more'. There's a healthy dose of White Fang, and at least a little Agent Wind."
"And all of these are the same sort of man. An OZzie in a different uniform."
Now who had something to prove? Though Zechs was right, at the base of it. Duo sucked on his lower lip, and surrendered with another sigh. He said, "All right," he surrendered. "Lead me to the chow." He grabbed his steadily increasing pile of notes from the desk, and stood.
Zechs didn't leave the portal as Duo came to it. His skin still glowed just slightly from the heat of the water, and it looked--well, soft. It looked like it might taste good.
And when Duo managed to drag his eyes off Zechs' skin and up to his eyes, he rather imagined he was not the only person plagued with such thoughts. Duo was suddenly glad he'd taken his own shower just the evening before.
Zechs exhaled heavily. He reached out for Duo's waist and snagged him close. Duo didn't know how he hadn't seen it coming or where his famous cat-feet had deserted him to, but he went right off-balance and tumbled into Zechs' chest. Damn, that man was fast.
And slow. Why wait a week if he really did want it?
"Guess we're eating in," Duo said. He pitched his voice self-consciously lower; it didn't seem right to speak at volume, pressed so close like this. He had to tilt his head back to see Zechs' face, one of those indecipherable expressions gazing back down at him. Duo skimmed a tentative hand up the slender indentation of Zechs' spine.
His answer was Zechs lowering his head to brush his lips over Duo's neck. Duo closed his eyes on the warm, tickling sensation, letting his pulse jump, letting his breath catch.
"I want you," Zechs whispered.
Well. At least he'd made up his mind about it.
They kissed all the way in a circle before Zechs pushed him against the wall. It required Duo to strain up to Zechs' height, and Zechs had to spread his legs and bend down to him. It was worth it. Zechs was the perfect kisser, aggressive but considerate, and his hands stayed north of the border in a way that still suggested where they wanted to be playing. Duo teased him with quick nips that turned feverish, and soon Zechs was rocking against him, grinding a rhythm out that only added to fire.
The third time Duo had to pause to pick a long blond hair from between their lips, he added a gentle push of his hands on Zechs's hips. Immediately Zechs stepped back, giving him a few inches of space by taking up his stance against the doorframe again.
"Breakfast, then," he said.
"Don't--" Duo started, and hesitated on the right words. "Pull back from me."
"I won't." As quick as he'd been to assume rejection, Zechs just as easily accepted reassurance. He traced the vee-neck of Duo's jumpsuit and fit his thumb into the hollow between Duo's collar bones. "I can't seem to do that."
Duo quirked a smile. "There are other places than the wall to kiss me."
"Kitchen table's hard, and your bed's small."
Duo laughed. He circled Zechs' wrist and followed it down the golden hairs to the crease of his elbow. He'd been right. Zechs had great skin. He measured out Zechs' biceps in fingertips, and Zechs found the pull-tab of his suit and began to inch it down.
"You're pretty hot when you do that not-looking-away thing," Duo murmured.
Zechs coloured, just a little. "Thank you."
"And that was cute."
Oh. Duo sucked on his lower lip, wondering what in particular he'd done to earn back the angry teacher tone. "You're the boss, I guess," he said finally.
Zechs pulled down on his zip and bared his chest, then pressed a firm kiss to his mouth. "You have me off-balance all the bloody time, Duo," he complained, and his fingers spread wide over Duo's sternum, curled up to his throat. The next kiss was deeper, and the one after that just went on without ending, like Zechs was trying to drain him dry. "Bed," Zechs whispered, or maybe didn't say aloud at all, but suddenly they were there. Duo reached for his duvet and fumbled it down out of the way. He finally broke the kiss, and pretended to model the bed.
"If it meets your satisfaction, sir?" he asked.
He finally got a genuine laugh, if a quiet one. Zechs cupped his cheek. "Let's give it a try," he replied, and gave Duo a playful shove backward onto it. Duo didn't even bounce when he landed, the mattress was so thin, and they both laughed again at that. Zechs came down after him, pinning Duo back and holding his wrists down.
"You're trapped now," he said.
"So it seems." Duo felt a grin threatening, and bit his lip.
Zechs rocked his hips. "What will you do?"
"Good question." God, Duo realised; they were having fun. He spread his legs wide, and Zechs settled closer between them, so their groins brushed. "I think I might have to resign myself to the inevitable."
"Certainly easier that way."
"So... if I'm the prisoner... I guess you're my prison guard. What kind of dire abuse can I expect?"
That went down like a bucket of ice water. Zechs faltered.
Duo let his breath out in a hard sigh. "Sorry," he said. "That sounded sexier in my head."
"No, it--it was fine."
Except for the glaring reminder of exactly what pitfalls waited for two ex-enemies feeling their way across the minefield. Who even knew if it was worth it.
"Flirting may be too advanced for us," Duo decided.
"We've had sex," Zechs pointed out, rather grouchily. "We ought to be capable of it."
"Well, don't get ahead of yourself there, big boy."
"I apologise." Zechs sighed, too, and rolled off of Duo. "Maybe we can try again later."
He almost protested. He did. But the impulse passed, and he laughed instead, and zipped his suit closed. "Yeah. Okay."
"I'd say you, Mr Darcy, but you don't like to be laughed at."
"Mr Darcy?" Zechs repeated disbelievingly.
"See, I can read."
Zechs' fingers curled around Duo's wrist. They stroked, and then tightened, and he pulled Duo to his feet. "I'm not sure I like the reference entirely," he said good-naturedly.
Duo let himself be hauled off the bed, a little amused at the way Zechs seemed to like doing things like that. On the whole, he thought he might not mind too much.
"We have work to do," Zechs reminded him.
"All right then," Duo agreed. "And food."
Duo perched on the table top as Zechs added water to a packet of dried eggs and heated a pan for cooking. "Scrambled?" he asked. "Or I can try an omelette. There's peppers and cheese."
"Why not," Duo said.
Zechs glanced back at him. Duo kicked his legs idly, and his fingers drummed the counter, as if he couldn't bring himself to sit still. He willingly passed dried peppers and plates when Zechs requested them.
"I think I'm just going to walk about naked from now on," Duo announced, tapping his knee with a fork.
That came accompanied by an image that was not precisely new fodder for Zechs' imagination. He stirred the eggs until they frothed. "May I ask why?"
"Well, the whole point of wearing this suit is to be as naked as possible without offending your shipmates," Duo said, tugging at the thin fabric over his stomach. He arched an eyebrow. "But I don't think you'd mind all that much. Besides, it would cut out that flirtation handicap."
Zechs twitched back his drying hair. "You'll catch cold."
Duo nudged the back of his thigh with a bare foot. "You're supposed to say, 'Great idea, Duo!' And drool a bit."
"Oh, I see. Great idea, Duo!" He sliced a desiccated pepper in half and pried loose the seed-covered stem inside. "But I'm not going to drool. That's disgusting."
"Spit's natural. And you wouldn't mind so much if I was slobbering all over Little Darcy."
Zechs made a face at that. "Slobbering? Not an erotic word."
Duo's toes went seeking between his legs again. "The word's not the part that's supposed to be erotic," he said.
Zechs set down his knife, and faced Duo. Who looked back at him, hard-eyed and with a glint there of something else, lurking just under the surface. Half his mouth curved in a smile, and the rest just looked dangerous.
"I can't keep up with you," Zechs admitted.
"Really?" Duo's shrug was barbed. "You're not that much older."
There was really only one answer to that.
Duo's mouth was hot and his body seemed to surge up against Zechs' when Zechs levelled him back onto the table. He held Duo down by the shoulders, then by the hips, and then he unzipped Duo's suit from collar to groin with one quick jerk of his hand. The zip on his own trousers took even less time.
"Yes," Duo whispered. The table squeaked in protest as Zechs added his weight to Duo's, but it held. He just remembered to turn off the heater, and then he was back on Duo, helping him strip out of the clinging suit. Duo took him the hair and cleverly twisted it back, then held it there while they kissed. Duo wormed Zechs out of his trousers with the heels of his feet and impatient grunts.
Lubricant. Duo's cabin was impossibly far away and the lotion hadn't been in obvious sight, anyway. Zechs was reaching for the butter as soon as the idea occurred to him. It was slick and still cold, gobbing between his fingers.
Duo saw it coming. "Oh, you are not putting that--"
"It's slippery." He caught Duo's lower lip between his teeth, and proved it. He was in Duo's body so fast that he cut off any reply Duo might have made, or he was deafened by the rushing wind in his own ears. Everything disappeared for an instant--the galley, the ship, all the little noises he'd slowly become used to--everything disappeared but Duo's legs around his hips and Duo's heat.
Duo had lost hold of Zechs hair. It went tumbling between them. Duo clung to Zechs by the neck, arched against him, still and tense.
Zechs curled his buttery fingers around Duo's cock and jerked. He did it again, and then he rocked his hips. Duo's body swayed with him. He braced himself on the table, and thrust hard.
This wasn't the urgent, half-angry sex they'd had before. This felt different. Raw, and hungry. Maybe he'd been a fool to let a week go by, but now that they were back here, melded like this, it made the wait worthwhile.
Duo went skidding over the table top when Zechs pushed into him again. Zechs raked his torso with his nails, leaving faint red scratches behind, while Duo hissed and squirmed. Their hips met hard enough to sting. Zechs bent his head and latched onto one of Duo's brown nipples and then the other. When they peaked and pebbled in his mouth, he bit down. He would have done it again, but Duo's body, his whole body flinched back.
There was no way of knowing if that had been pleasure or pain. Zechs hesitated.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"S'fine." Duo offered a twitch of a smile in a taut face. "Keep going."
He did. He was more careful this time, rubbing one nipple with his thumb while he licked the other, and slowed the tempo of their hips. Duo was curled around him, one arm stretched back to balance against the wall, and the table shivered just slightly every time they moved. He tried his nails on Duo's skin again, lightly, and got a fitful toss of Duo's head in answer.
Something was more wrong than he'd recognised. He supported Duo with an arm under his back and stood still.
He wasn't so lost to the moment that he couldn't see Duo was not all there with him. At first he thought he'd been too rough, that Duo was pained. But the flush that came with good sex was absent, and instead Duo's skin was pale, too cool to the touch. His eyes, usually so sharply aware, were distant, unfocussed. The deep violet blue was too clouded to be reflecting desire.
"We can stop," he whispered.
Duo wrestled with it. For once, Zechs understood every thought crossing his face. He nodded 'yes.'
Zechs made extra effort to pull out as smoothly as possible. He gathered Duo close and helped him off the table.
"Sorry," Duo muttered.
"I should have been more--"
"I said it wasn't." Duo squirmed loose from his arms. He picked up his suit, and then the dish towel, and passed it to Zechs.
Zechs wiped himself and wadded the towel. Then he unballed it, and folded it carefully over the stains.
Duo had cleaned himself as well with a fresh towel. He tossed it into the sink and ran water over it.
He felt--shocked at himself. No--disgusted. Hurting a lover was an unconscionable act. It left him nauseous. Guilty. He'd been on the other end of it and knew how debasing it was. He'd thought he had a better sense of his actions than that.
"I said you were fine," Duo interrupted his thoughts forcefully. "Jesus, Zechs, if you'd hurt me, I'd hurt back, at the least."
"I did hurt you," Zechs pointed out. "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't lie about it to save my feelings."
"I'm not gonna lie about something as stupid as sex," Duo snapped. He dressed himself quickly and zipped his suit closed. "I just wasn't as ready as I thought. It's on me this time. You can take the blame the next time it sucks."
"If you like," Zechs said stiffly. He fastened his trousers. "I would--"
"Fuck," Duo said. He put a fist in Zechs' hair and dragged him down. Their teeth clashed and Duo's tongue was in his mouth. Then Duo was gone, and the galley was empty.
There was nothing to do after that but turn the cooker on again and finish breakfast.
He took a plate of cheese omelette to Duo's cabin when it was ready, hoping it would serve as a peace pipe. He even knocked again before entering. But the cabin was empty. Zechs put the plate on Duo's desk, wondering where he could possibly have gone--the cockpit? It was in a different section of the ship and would be as private as any space they had, but it was also depressurised, and he couldn't imagine he'd missed the noise of Duo suiting up.
He had missed some noise, though. He heard it when he stood in the corridor.
The accommodation's flimsy plastic door was closed. It opened at his touch. Zechs flipped on the sink and wet his hand, and knelt next to Duo to press his cooled hand to a warm forehead.
Duo winced. He was crouched over the commode, and the smell of his sick lingered even though the toilet was flushed clean. Zechs wrapped an arm around him for support while Duo gagged, but he brought nothing up. He spat clear into the bowl.
"You're ill," Zechs said uselessly.
"I'm fine," Duo answered hoarsely. "I'm finished." As if to prove his statement, he spat once more, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve and flushed the commode. He struggled to his feet, and Zechs hurried to help him. Duo felt cool and fragile, sweat standing out on his forehead and neck. Zechs made up his mind and simply swept Duo into his arms and off his feet, ignoring Duo's protests. It was a short enough walk, as it was, and within a minute he was laying Duo onto his bed and reaching for the light.
"Does that happen often?" he asked, hovering awkwardly beside the bed.
Duo sat up and took off his headband. He used it to wipe his face. "Must have been all that talk about nudity," he joked weakly. "Caught a chill after all."
"Maybe you're getting space sickness," Zechs offered. Neither of them laughed, but he saw Duo smile, in the wan light from the portal.
"Yeah," Duo agreed. "Hope it's not contagious."
A brief silence fell. Reaction was setting in. On the one hand, he was relieved to have evidence that he truly might not be responsible for Duo's reaction during the act. On the other, this was no less disturbing. Space sickness was an old joke, but suddenly it seemed a frighteningly real possibility, the sudden onset, and the severity of it. His mind went flying toward symptoms and landed on Duo's moodiness, his lack of appetite--
Which reminded him of the omelette, and he said, "I don't suppose you want your breakfast now. I'll take it away."
"Don't throw it out," Duo said. "I'll eat it later."
"Yes," Zechs said. He picked up the plate, and wondered if he ought to say anything more. Nothing adequate occurred to him. He left without a further word.
He ate his own food, rather than waste the supplies, and was down to washing dishes when Duo finally returned to the galley. He dried his hands, and faced his colleague.
"I have a tetchy stomach," Duo said. "It really wasn't your fault."
"I figured," Zechs excused him, though truthfully he'd never heard of such a reaction to sexual activity. "Ah... perhaps some hot tea."
Duo nodded. "Thanks. That would be great." He pushed one of the chairs closer to the table and sat. Zechs busied himself filling the kettle with their filtered water and turning it on, in finding the tea bags in the cabinet. They had a good variety still, and amongst the choices were mint and chamomile. He chose the mint and readied a cup.
At his back, Duo said dryly, "Nothing like disastrous sex to make you wish you weren't living in a sardine tin for the next eight months."
Zechs smiled despite himself. He turned to look at Duo, and agreed. "I don't know whether to laugh, or--open a vein."
"Let's agree to laugh," Duo said. "A lot less clean-up."
"All right." The water was ready and steaming. He held up a jar of honey. "Sweetened, yes?"
"Yeah. Thanks. A spoonful." Duo had pulled his sleeves low over his fingers and sat chewing on his thumbnail. "Book's still here," he said tentatively. "If you still wanted to work on it, maybe."
An offering of peace. An offering to revert to the only pursuit that they could honestly say they mutually enjoyed. An offering to forget, Zechs understood that much, to pretend the past hour had never happened. He took it gratefully.
"Show me where you left off," he said.
Duo readily arranged his notes across the table. He opened the book to the second chapter and turned it toward Zechs, then showed him a hand-written sheaf of pages. "I'm working on a translation," he said. "Not a good one, but..."
Zechs accepted the papers and skimmed them. Duo's handwriting was small, almost cramped, clinging to the margins, and there were no misplaced words, no cross-outs or eraser marks. Given the scarcity of paper they'd brought with them, Zechs dismissed the idea of a clean copy. With Duo's memory, he must have had the ability to plot his notes in advance of actually marking them down.
"Your translation is too literal," he explained. "There's no way to avoid making mistakes like this. The dictionaries don't account for idiomatic expression. You can translate the words, but not the language, if that makes sense."
Duo pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. He was still pale, Zechs noticed, and then tried not to.
"It makes sense," Duo said. "It blows."
Zechs turned the Arkhipelag and pressed down the page to read it. "When people decry the abuses of the cult," he read, "they keep getting hung up on those years which are stuck in our throats, '37 and '38. And memory begins to make it seem as though arrests were never made before or after, but only in those two years."
Duo listened closely. His eyes fell to his translation, and then he picked up the book for himself. Zechs watched his lips move. Duo might have been frustrated with his progress, but Zechs knew it for the brilliant leap it was. Soon he'd have Duo read the chapters to him, he thought.
Assuming Duo didn't have space sickness and wasn't in immanent danger.
"It's still a mystery, isn't it," Duo said. "This isn't our history, it's not our years. It's like reading a cipher."
"I used to think there were parallels." Zechs set Duo's notes down and shuffled the pages to make them align. "Maybe I was just looking for them. I wanted to find validation in the march of history. Maybe..." He picked up the tea, and set it in front of Duo. "Maybe we're making a mistake."
"I don't want to stop, just because I don't get it yet."
"It wouldn't mean you quit. It would only mean you found something better to study. More meaningful."
"I like this," Duo protested. He seemed almost wounded by Zechs' suggestion. He dropped his eyes to his tea, one hand clutching it close, and the other hovering protectively over the book. "There's time now, and I--"
"You're holding something back," Zechs guessed.
But Duo only sighed. "The sheer weight of what we don't know about each other should have kept us stuck in the gravity well."
"Confess something," Zechs said suddenly. "Anything. Something boring or shocking or vulgar."
"Confess something?" Duo repeated. He looked up. He was puzzled, but, Zechs thought, intrigued, also.
Zechs held his breath, until he realised he was doing it. Truth or dare was a silly game, a hateful game in some ways, but he rather thought Duo would be up for it. "I can keep a secret," he added, with no small irony for the tiny, lonely ship around them. "So you're safe."
Duo's long eyelashes swept down for a moment. "Something boring, or shocking, or vulgar..." he said. "Okay." He finished his tea and set it aside. "When I was, like, fourteen, maybe, I was living on a ship with some Sweepers. Well, hiding out, I guess, might be the right way to say it. There was this guy, we used to call him Hopper, because he ran the jumpers we used in the asteroids. So we're docked for a refuel, and he says to me out of no-where, Come on, it's time for your first drunk.
"So he takes me to this bar at the fuel dump--these places always had bars, back then, real ratty places, some bum with warm beer and liquor he made in his bathtub. And Hopper puts money on the table and tells the guy to keep bringing the booze until I pass out." He laughed a little. "This stuff tasted--I mean, I've never had anything so bad before or after, and I've gone looking, I don't think that bar's even there any more, or the guy died in his own kegs, maybe... Hopper had me doing shots, and I know I went and puked at least twice, but he'd just pour more in me. When I finally did pass out, we'd been there for hours, hours. It was awful. I don't even know what I was dreaming or what was real."
It occurred to Zechs to wonder why Duo had chosen this story to tell him. "Why did he do it?" he asked. "Hopper, I mean."
"He wanted me to fuck him," Duo answered casually. He stroked the cover of the book, a gesture so small he didn't seem aware of it. "He thought it would help his case if I owed him something."
"Was he right?"
"Sure he was."
He realised he was perilously close to crossing a line with Duo, but he pressed on anyway. "Do you regret it?"
"Why would I?"
"He used you." The naïveté of Duo's response bothered him. It wasn't--consistent, not with the Duo he knew now, the Duo who attacked fast and protected himself. Or maybe that was his mistake. Maybe that was something he had to think about, deeply, before he let Duo tempt him into bed again.
And Duo's eyes seemed to agree. They'd gone still and soft, and serious.
"So?" Duo asked, a moment later.
Zechs cleared his throat, and glanced away. "You deserve better."
He would have known Duo was smiling even if Duo hadn't reached out to touch his hand. "Thanks," Duo said. "Darcy."
"I'm not that noble," Zechs informed him. "Drink your tea."
Duo obeyed. "I'm not making fun of you, really. It's just kind of funny. For me, anyway."
"You expected me to be different?"
"I don't know what I expected."
"You're exactly as I imagined." He wished suddenly for tea, himself. There was enough water for half a cup. He made chamomile for himself, and set it to steep on the table. "More cerebral, perhaps. I knew you were intelligent, but I didn't realise you were so-- driven. To learn."
"Yeah, it's not exactly pure scholarship," Duo admitted. "I think... it's like... sometimes I feel aware that there's so much I don't know. And it's when there's a mountain in front of you, and the thing you want is on the other side. All you can do is give up or climb." His mouth twitched into a smile. "And you got to be just a little impressed that I went for an Earther metaphor, there."
"A little, yes." He tried his tea. It wasn't strong, but it was drinkable.
"So I told you my first drinking story. What's yours?"
He'd been thinking what to say, if Duo returned the dare. But now with the chance in front of him, he wasn't sure.
"I was a cadet," he started. "Fourteen, fifteen. They'd send us out on operations sometimes, to evaluate us." And there he hesitated. Would the honesty be worth the risk? Looking at Duo, at the easy smile Duo wore, waiting to laugh at whatever tale he told despite the manifestly bad start they'd had together, he didn't think he had to guts to go ahead with it. If he told the story he wanted to, this tentative, emerging friendship they almost had--it would be crushed, and there would be no second chance. "I--"
Duo sipped his tea, and waited.
"Heard we were going to be sent to the L2 Cluster," he said instead, guilty and relieved all in one confusing bundle. He licked his lips, and bulled forward with whatever came easily to mind. "I wanted to see it without the taint of OZ first. So a month before the op, I took a shuttle and went. Alone. Treize was frantic. I spent two weeks there."
"You ran away from home, huh?" Duo rephrased.
"OZ was never my home."
Duo accepted that. "Metaphorically speaking."
"I needed it. I thought. It was one of the most foolish things I've ever thought."
"You got in a lot of trouble?" Duo asked.
"Yes. But not for why you think."
"Having been there, seeing it, living amongst those people, everything I was called on to do afterward--made me sick. Until it unravelled completely, and I ran. Before that day, they were just the opposition."
Duo nodded slowly. "It's hard when your enemies become faces."
"Very hard, yes."
He must have pulled it off. Duo didn't seem to suspect that he'd switched gears. His hands were fists. He didn't know when he'd done that. His knuckles were white.
"You really did hate it, didn't you?" Duo asked softly.
"You have no idea." He forced his hands flat on top of Duo's notes. "The instant I saw an out, I took it. The second largest mistake in my life."
"You've got to let go of at least some of those regrets."
"I prefer not. They keep me careful."
"They keep you something. Company, I suppose, since no-one was beating down the doors to take this mission with you."
"I'm told I'm difficult."
Duo laughed suddenly and brightly at that. The sound of it eased the tightness in Zechs' chest, and Duo touched his hand again, and he found he could smile, too.
"Hey," Duo said then. "I think I could eat something now."
"Good." Zechs stood quickly and fetched the plate from the refrigerator. "It will only take a moment."
"Thank you," Duo said.
[part 1] [part 3] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]