Duo followed Zechs into the shuttle, not having to duck his head as his tall lover had. He settled into the seat next to the Ambassador, managing to smile, even, as he buckled his seat belt. But inside, his stomach churned as his mind repeated the same frantic litany that had started with the invitation to Heero and Relena's wedding.
I don't want to go. I don't want to go. I don't want to--
Zechs twisted and leaned back to give a few instructions to his assistant in the row behind them, then turned to Duo, smiling. His smile faded when he looked into Duo's face, and he reached over and laid his hand on Duo's knee.
"You aren't nervous, are you?"
"Nervous?" Duo laughed, but he didn't meet Zechs' eyes. "Why should I be nervous?" He picked at an imaginary loose thread on his slacks. I'm not nervous. I just don't want to go.
"Oh, I don't know. Heero is marrying my sister, and you're standing up with him--which you agreed to do without ever actually having a conversation with him…"
Duo didn't look up. "We're old friends. How could I say no?"
"Old friends." Zechs snorted softly. "Duo, my love…I know you too well. Don't give me this 'old friends' bullshit."
Duo grinned a little in spite of himself--it still came as a bit of a shock to hear Zechs swear. Impulsively, he laid his head on Zechs' shoulder, suddenly needing the intimacy of the gesture.
"It'll be okay." He tried to shrug the whole wedding off. "I'm sure he just asked me 'cuz he doesn't have any other friends." Yeah, and why me, Heero? Why not Quatre? He'd do it. Even Trowa probably would, for you. He always did think you pretty much walked on water. Why me? Are you that clueless or that cruel?
"I would think that he's made friends at Relena's court."
"Heero?" Duo laughed. "He's not exactly anti-social, but he's the next thing to it." He never had any friends, really, never had anyone but me. Of course, back then, I didn't have anyone but him, either, so what's that say for me?
Zechs wrapped a loose strand of Duo's hair around his finger. "How long since you've seen him?"
"Three years…" And four months and twenty-two days, and damn you, Heero, that I'm still counting.
"A long time…" Zechs hand fell to his lap, and he looked out the window of the shuttle as the thrusters began to fire.
Duo watched him in silence. You count days, too, don't you, love?
Suddenly, his prince felt very far away. Duo reached over and covered Zechs' hand with his own. Zechs turned and gave him a smile, but it looked so automatic that Duo didn't feel reassured. He squeezed his lover's hand, and it wasn't until he felt the warmth and pressure of Zechs' fingers twining with his own that the tight little pain in his chest began to lessen.
Neither spoke for a long time, but finally, Zechs said, "You have to talk to him, you know."
"Stop it." Zechs turned his back on the stars and looked shrewdly at Duo. "You know perfectly well who I mean."
"Zechs… I can't." Duo's stomach churned again at the thought of confronting Heero. The frantic litany began again--I don't want to!--but he quelled it with sheer will. "And what's the point? It'll just get everyone all upset before the wedding. Relena already hates me, and that'll just make things worse--"
"You've put it off as long as you can. We're on our way back to Earth--you can't avoid him any more. Are you going to stand up beside him without ever telling him what you've thought and felt over the last few years?"
"Yeah." Duo folded his arms and hunched back into his seat. "Yeah, I am."
"I never thought you were a coward, Duo."
Duo looked up at him, stung. Zechs' voice sounded distant and chill, and it made Duo afraid, and out of fear, he flung the sharpest barb he had.
"When are you going to visit Treize's grave?"
Zechs had been reaching toward Duo, but he jerked his hand away as though he'd been burned. "That's entirely different."
"Really? I have to face up to my old flame, but you don't have to deal with yours?"
Zechs' voice had a harsh, ragged edge. "He's dead."
"He might as well still be alive!" Vaguely, Duo was aware that he was getting louder and he tried to lower his voice. Shut up, you dope. Just shut up. You're going to regret this… but when had he even taken good advice, even from himself? "He's still hanging around, coming between us--"
"Duo, stop it."
"--not all the time, but I know you still think about him. Even when you're with me. And you t-talk to him--"
Zechs' voice was quiet and thunderous at once. Duo cringed. He's never been mad at me before. Not like this. And it's my fault. But still he pushed harder, too stubborn and too hurt to quit now.
"You'd rather be with him, admit it. You'd never have left him if he'd lived. I'm just second best. The first runner-up. Or Miss Congeniality, smiling and taking whatever you want to hand out."
Zechs looked like he'd like to hit Duo--or like he'd been hit himself. "You are not 'second best.' I've never said that, never implied it. I don't know where-"
Duo couldn't look at Zechs any more, couldn't bear the hurt and anger on his lover's usually cool, imperturbable face. And even worse, he couldn't handle the possibility of seeing his accusations proved correct. But that didn't stop the indictments from tumbling out of him.
"Tell me it isn't true, then. Tell me you don't ever think about him."
In a voice that stabbed as quiet and sharp as a stiletto, Zechs said, "Tell me you don't ever think about Heero when you're with me."
Zechs still sounded cold and unreachable, until Duo gathered the courage to look into his eyes and saw a flicker of pain and… uncertainty? No, it can't be…not Zechs… Duo blinked. He opened his mouth to retort, but then closed it and looked down at his lap. Suddenly, he felt like pond scum.
The silence between them was tense, but as it stretched, the tension seemed to fade a little. At last, Zechs reached over and gingerly touched Duo's shoulder. "Little one…are we fighting?"
"I'm pretty sure we are, yeah."
"Then let's stop. I don't like it."
Duo nodded, miserable. "Me, neither, I hate it, but…" God damn it, I am not going to start sniffling like a little kid! "…you called me a coward…"
Zechs winced. "That was…unfair of me. I had no right to do that. I'm sorry."
As much as Duo wanted to agree, his essential self-honesty forbade it. "Sometimes I fucking hate it when you're right, you know that?"
Zechs frowned, clearly puzzled.
"I am being a coward about Heero. I don't want to talk to him. I don't want to go this wedding. I sure as hell don't want to stand up there with him when he marries Relena--"
"You could have said no." Nothing in Zechs' voice sounded accusatory. He sounded, instead, as though he absolutely meant that Duo could have refused and it would have been all right. "I would have come up with some plausible excuse for Relena-for Heero, if you'd wanted me to. You could have stayed home…"
I'm never gonna figure you out, my prince…sometimes the rules in this game just don't make sense. Abruptly, Duo felt terribly weary, but he tried to smile. "What? And pass up a chance to see you in a tux?"
Zechs' answering smile was fleeting, as though he couldn't quite help it. "You see me in a tuxedo all the time."
"Okay, so I'm greedy." Duo was relieved when Zechs seemed to go along with him, and his grin got a little stronger. But Zechs' next words killed the hope that Zechs might be distracted from a topic that Duo had no desire to discuss.
"You're doing it again."
"What's that?" Duo switched from a rakish, crooked grin to his best wide-eyed, innocent look, but his effort failed.
"You're trying to make a joke out of something serious."
It's better than admitting that I'm afraid. Even to you. Duo held up two fingers. "That's twice in one fight you've been right, Blondie. You're approaching your legal limit."
Duo could tell that Zechs' stern face was for real now. "All right, all right." He took a deep breath. Here goes everything… "I am scared to see Heero again…"
Duo wished Zechs had looked surprised at his admission, but he didn't. Zechs said, "What are you afraid of?"
Duo looked down and shook his head. I don't want you to get mad at me again. I don't want to hurt you…more than anything, I don't want to hurt you. "Can't tell you."
"Of course you can."
Zechs' patient, reassuring smile made Duo feel like someone had their hands around his throat. Someday, you're going to get tired of me and my shit. I know you are. And then where will I be? He shivered, cold despite the pressurized, temperature-controlled cabin of the shuttle. No point in thinking too much about that-he knew the answer to that question far too well. Hoping Zechs would let him keep his reasons to himself, Duo mumbled, "Just take my word for it."
"Little one, we've opened the box." Zechs lifted Duo's chin. "We can't just stuff it all back in."
Duo managed a pout. "You're getting real close to being right three times, and that's the line."
Duo sighed, giving in. "Okay, but don't say I didn't warn you…"
"I promise." Zechs rubbed Duo's arm, and the warmth of his hand, the gentle rhythm of the touch soothed him. "Why are you afraid to see Heero again?"
Duo closed his eyes, gathering his courage as though he were about to make a potentially fatal jump. He was afraid his voice would betray him again, but he managed to say the words firmly, if quietly. "I'm afraid I'm not over him."
Zechs said nothing, and Duo opened his eyes, looking up at his prince through his lashes, alert for anything resembling a flinch. But the only change in his expression was a tiny, slightly sad smile.
Duo felt his face flush with heat, and his voice took on a desperate edge. "You asked…"
Zechs' blue eyes appealed to him for something, but Duo didn't understand what. Whatever it was, it made Duo uncomfortable. More than that-ungrateful. Zechs gave him so much and asked for nothing in return. Just this one thing, that he once and for all put Heero behind him. So why can't I do it? Why can't I just say 'I'm done' and mean it? Because I'm stupid, that's why. Because I'm afraid I'm going to see Heero, hear him again, and go crawling after him, begging for his attention, just like I always did. Duo hated himself for his weakness but even more, he hated himself for being to blame for the look in Zechs' eyes.
"Please don't look at me like that."
"Like I just ran your own sword through you."
Zechs shook his head and covered Duo's hand with his own. "No…no, it's nothing like that." Duo curled his fingers around Zechs', clinging to their warmth. "I was just thinking that you're right, too."
"About Treize." Zechs looked so sad and solemn that Duo's heart ached in spite of his jealousy. "You're right. I've never really faced up to his death. Part of me has been pretending that he's not…gone."
"I really didn't mean you shouldn't ever think about him, regardless of what I said. That'd be wrong." Duo nuzzled his cheek against Zechs' shoulder. "But you have to let go…not of the memories, but of him. You can't hang on to a ghost…" He sighed. "I oughta know…"
Zechs' arm slid around his waist, and Duo leaned into the comfort of Zechs' lean, solid body. "Do you think I'm in love with a ghost, little one?"
"I don't know. Are you?"
"Treize is dead." It was hard for Duo to see Zechs clench his jaw against the grief of that admission. "Whatever I still feel, still think…it doesn't touch my feelings for you. You've no need to be jealous of a dead man."
Duo noticed that Zechs had neatly sidestepped his question. I guess that means you are…you do still love him…but I guess he's right. Being jealous of a ghost is just plain dumb.
"You don't sound convinced."
"I know you love me. I do. But Treize--"
"That's ancient history, my love," Zechs said firmly, as if to end the discussion. Duo had often envied Zechs his ability to say the past was done and not to look back, but at the moment, it gave him an unreasonable itch to slug his prince. "Now, are you going to talk to Heero?"
The stubborn jut returned to Duo's chin. "I already told you I'm not."
Duo expected more arguments, but instead Zechs traced the shell of his ear with his fingertip. Duo felt the flutter from his chest to his groin, and pulled away. "Cut that out. You know I can't think when you do that."
"I know. I don't want you to think. I just want you to promise."
Duo did a credible job of hiding the shiver that Zechs' touch engendered. "That's not very fair…"
"Just promise me." Zechs' leaned close, and his words breathed over Duo's skin, a promise themselves.
I give up. Why fight it? He always gets what he wants eventually. Still, Duo's voice quavered. "O-okay…"
"You'll do it?"
"I'll talk to Heero." Duo gave Zechs a sidelong look. "IF…"
"If what?" Zechs interrupted, scowling faintly.
Lifting his chin defiantly, Duo said, "I'll settle things with Heero once and for all--if you settle things with Treize."
Zechs' mouth twisted a little, as if something hurt him, and he swallowed hard. "I wish I could-"
"You can. Go up there…talk to him…" Duo faltered. What was he doing, raking all this up? Wasn't it enough that he had Zechs now? Treize had been dead for a long time. What did it matter now? But it did. Not just for us. You have to do this for you, or else he'll haunt you forever. But Zechs looked lost in a way Duo had never seen him look before. Duo's throat knotted just watching him,and he felt guilty and helpless.
All the pain of Treize's death was raw in Zechs' face. "I was wrong earlier, Duo. I'm the coward--"
"You are not." Duo nudged him gently. "C'mon." He looked up at Zechs, eyes wide and plaintive. "For me?"
Some of Zechs' pain faded, and he even smiled a little. "You know I can't think when you do that…"
"But it's true. I am a coward. You said that you don't want to talk to Heero. I don't want to go up there. Looking at his name on that stone…it's so final." Zechs traced a finger over Duo's cheek and lips. "But it's not fair of me to ask you to do what I'm unwilling to face…"
"That's four. One more and I'll have to kick your ass, so you'd better just agree with me and shut up."
Zechs laughed at last. "It's tempting to see you try." He touched Duo's cheek again. "All right, little one. For you."
Duo closed his eyes and leaned into Zechs' touch for a moment. "You spoil me…"
Zechs let Duo nestle against his hand, leaning his own cheek against Duo's head. They sat like that a little longer, each quietly absorbed in his own thoughts but taking comfort from the touch of his lover. Duo's stomach jumped a little, and he thought at first it was still nervousness, until he realized that it was the shuttle's subtle deceleration in preparation for descent. God, I have been away from space a long time…
Zechs didn't move, but he, too, must have felt the engines cut back. He said gently, "It's your turn. Promise."
"I was hoping you'd forget that part."
Zechs tugged lightly on Duo's braid, his voice teasing, as if their future didn't hinge on this. "Not a chance. Promise."
"I'll talk to Heero. I said I would, didn't I?"
Zechs watched him with those iceberg eyes, so blue and deep Duo could fall into them and never come up for air. Three-fourths of you is under the surface, my prince. And sometimes I feel like I've barely mapped the part I can see, much less figured out the rest. The sudden rush of love and longing he felt for this man left him shaken, and he put his head on Zechs' shoulder again, at least in part to hide his face from his prince.
Zechs' hand hovered over Duo's hair, his fingers lightly combing his bangs. "And you'll tell me about it--yes?"
Duo sat up straight, looking at Zechs with dismay. "I'll tell you about it, no."
"Little one, we have to do this all the way." Zechs touched him again, his voice softly cajoling. "No half measures."
"Might as well beat my head against a wall, for all the good it does…." Duo wilted in resignation even as he glared up at Zechs, poking him lightly in the side. "But as soon as I talk to Heero, I owe you one ass kicking." He grimaced. "Okay. I'll talk to Heero AND I'll tell you about it. But you have to do the same…"
Zechs batted Duo's hand away, then caught and lifted it. "It's a deal then," he said, sealing the bargain by pressing his lips against Duo's slender fingers.
The shuttle began its final descent and the huge, blue sphere of Earth swung into view. The shimmering planet, veiled in a lace of clouds, always produced a tangle of emotions in Duo. I've had some good times here…and some not-so-good ones…but it's always like this, I'm always on the outside looking in….
As if he sensed Duo's thoughts, Zechs tucked his lover's hand under his arm. "It's going to be all right."
"Yeah." Duo decided not to point out that neither of them sounded especially convinced. "Yeah, a few days and it'll all be fine." He squeezed Zechs' arm and grinned, even if it was all bravado, as the shuttle entered Earth's atmosphere, and they both went to face their ghosts