Eight. Six. Eight. Six. Eight. Counter six, to catch his opponent by surprise. He repeated the succession of parries—six, eight, six, eight, six, eight, and a lateral four. The main advantage to the systematic parry was that it freed the fencer to concentrate on more than just his opponent’s blade. Without chasing the blade, without having to watch for a broken tempo attack or a feint, the mind only had to wait for the click of a brief touch, and the body knew to swing into riposte.
Zechs had been trained by one of the finest masters available. Miles Pargan had been three-time world champion before settling with his young family in the Sanq Kingdom, and as major domo of the royal household, he had been a fine, an excellent teacher for a young boy in need of discipline and activity.
His crepe soles made the familiar fudda-fudda-fudda tempo on the floor as he shuffled back and forth through the small corridor. From the backfoot, he searched a simple but lightning-fast sequence of actions. The Hungarian quarte, the semi-circular search to seconde, then semi-circular search back to quarte. On the second round, he added the rapid lateral sixte-quarte, sixte-seconde.
“I said hey.”
Zechs exhaled heavily and lowered his foil. “Did you want something?”
It was Duo. They’d been alone on this cramped shuttle for two weeks and four ‘days’, each doing their best to absolutely ignore the other whenever possible. Except for the barely civil exchanges they managed in their small efficiency kitchen—‘Pass the pepper’ or ‘You can use the microwave first’—this qualified as the first time Duo had voluntarily spoken to him since they had boarded in Japan.
Duo opened his mouth, then closed it, abruptly, as if biting back whatever words had threatened escape. Zechs wiped sweat from his forehead and shook his hair loose from the elastic, waiting impatiently.
"Uh, yeah,” Duo finally answered. “I-- wondered if you had any reading material."
“Why didn't you just take what you wanted last time you ‘tidied’ my cabin?"
No, he hadn’t missed Duo’s incursions into what little private space he had. Duo had prowled their shuttle head to toe their first twenty-six hours. The contempt he held for his companion’s detective skills was as obvious as the fact that he didn’t bother to conceal his incursions into Zechs’ cabin. They’d started one day after Duo complained that he’d beaten all the games on the computer.
Reading material, Zechs repeated silently. Duo must have watched all his video collection, too.
Duo broke the silence once again, his mouth a tight little purse of displeasure.
"I don't know what language it's in," he said.
Zechs bent for the wipecloth he’d left with his gearbag, and cleaned his foil. “Russian,” he surmised. He’d brought a box of books, but only one in that language, strapped safely under his bed, where Duo had clearly been prying. "It's Russian."
"You're not Russian."
He sheathed his sword. "Treize was."
Duo rolled his eyes so hard he nearly swallowed them, and slouched into a comfortable crouch against the wall. The grey stretchsuit he wore in the ship’s arid environment caught at his pointy elbows and knees. He looked more than a bit like a prisoner, like that. Zechs began to strip his white exercise clothes, heedless of the lack of privacy; they had so little anyway, not even doors that shut, except on the accommodation in the rear. Duo produced a pack of chewing gum, watching incuriously as Zechs towelled himself dry.
Except that, for the third time, he was the one who breached the quiet. "So what is that book, anyway?” he asked. “'Mein Kampf' for Siberia?"
With an effort, Zechs ignored that. “Solzhenitsyn."
He’d known it was coming before Duo said it. He scowled anyway. "You’re an ass." Duo rolled his eyes again, and blew a bubble with his gum. "You should read it,” Zechs said, and shimmied into his own stretchsuit. “You'd find it horrible and appropriate."
"Did you even listen to me? I don't know Russian."
"You're not stupid. You can learn."
Duo’s bubble popped viciously as he bit down.
"Afraid to try?" Zechs added, raising his eyebrows.
"You're trying to goad me into a fight over a language?"
“No, I'm trying to goad you to do something more challenging than dicking around with computer games and pulp fiction."
"Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't realise my overwhelming ignorance was bothering you," Duo said, his tone saccharine sweet.
"Not as much as it bothers you, apparently." Zechs bundled his wet clothes, and gathered his gear together. "Come on." He turned up the corridor toward his cabin. "Bring my book."
There was only a stretch of three yards between his destination and the place he’d left Duo hunkered down. Whether Duo meant to disobey him or merely took an insultingly long time to debate the command, Zechs had time to stow his foil properly and hamper his dirtied linens. When he steeled himself to turn, fully expecting to find an empty passage, Duo was already returning, the old red-bound book held carefully between both hands.
“The galley,” Zechs pre-empted him. “If you please.”
Zechs had chosen the galley because it was the only truly common area available in the shuttle aside from the cockpit. The galley held their only luxuries for the nine month journey to Mars—a vid screen, a table, two cushioned chairs, and a couch almost large enough for someone Duo’s size to stretch out length-wise.
Which Duo did, promptly, when they entered. Zechs brushed Duo’s feet away, and pulled the table closer as he sat. He centred a pad of paper and a pencil between them, next to the book Duo dropped there not-quite-carelessly.
"You're going to have to pay attention,” Zechs told him. “Cyrillic is difficult."
"Do you think you can do this without insulting me every sentence? I think it'll have more impact if you save up for a few real zingers instead."
That was unreasonably rude, and probably fair. Zechs amended himself stiffly. "I think you're playing games, and this won't work if you don't try."
A look told him Duo was angry. They didn’t know each other well, not properly. Their personal association had not begun until the fledgling paramilitary force that was Preventers had solidified into an organised police unit. Duo had, perhaps naturally, partnered with Heero Yuy. Zechs did not imagine that anything good had been said about himself from that source. He’d replaced Yuy once on a stake-out, sitting for seventy-nine hours in a musty motel room with a nineteen year old Duo Maxwell, and walked away vowing to avoid any potential repeat of a contained space and a wise-cracking, easily bored teenager too clever for anyone’s good.
Yet here he was, sharing an extremely cramped shuttle for a length of time so consuming the mind could barely contemplate it—and that didn’t even include the journey back, when they’d completed their mission to the red planet.
It didn’t help that Duo was not nineteen anymore. At nineteen Duo had been very much a child, round-faced, slim, his physicality overwhelmed by his boundless personality. At twenty-six, he was an adult. The grey stretchsuit reduced him to lean, compact lines. The long braid he wore no longer leapt to capture the eye; Duo wore it covered with a folded kerchief these days, only the tail visible down the back when he turned. His cheeks had sharpened, his mouth firmed, exchanging wide-eyed prettiness for handsome maturity. He also smelled very good.
Zechs picked up the pencil, and began to write out the thirty-three letter Russian alphabet. Beneath each letter he approximated the sound with English. Duo leaned close, perhaps reluctantly, reading over his shoulder. "When he taught me...” Zechs came to the end, and pressed hard with the graphite point of the pencil. “I had a hard time with the characters. I was nine, and sitting still for more than a few minutes was difficult."
Duo said, “When I was nine, future OZ cadets were blowing artillery onto my home."
Zechs clenched his jaw on a swift retalation that was half indignation and half—shame. So much for a declaration of peace between them. But curiously, Duo’s head turned away, down, almost a pose of regret. His hands clenched on his knees, just visible in the corner of Zechs’ eyes, under the table.
“This is upright Cyrillic,” Zechs said. He cleared his throat with a sharp exhale, and shouldered on. “The italic is difficult. Some of the letters look too much like English, and they’re not equivalent. Repeat them after me.”
When they’d gone through twice, Duo mimicking him without further protest, Zechs wrote a word at the bottom of the pad, and angled it toward Duo. He watched Duo’s lips move as he put together the characters, and settled on a tentative pronunciation.
“Zek,” he said.
"Perfect." Zechs laid the pencil aside, and touched the book’s cover. "For a long time I thought that was my name."
"I don't understand. What's it mean?"
"Political prisoner. Solzhenitsyn's book is about the Russian GULags and their inmates." He laughed, until he realised the entertainment was forced, that the memory was hardly pleasing. "I think Treize was amused by the play on words." He bent his eyes back to the pad, not his companion.
"Yeah,” Duo said, lamely. “He sounds like a... fascinating man."
"He was about as you've probably imagined him." He pushed the pad at Duo. "Memorise those and we'll work more tomorrow."
"I already did." Duo tapped his temple. "Eidetic memory."
Zechs was unwillingly impressed. He guessed, suddenly, that Duo had rather a lot of secrets, not least of which that he was a great deal smarter than he let on. "That will make the process a great deal easier," he imagined. “It must come in handy.”
Duo fingered the edge of the pad. “Maybe you have a dictionary or something? Maybe the computer does.”
“Maybe.” Zechs hesitated. He retrieved the pencil, and began a list of words, writing each as they came to him. Simple words. Everyday civilities. Interrogatives. He wrote them first in Russian, then in the English pronunciation. Duo caught on to the idea, and muttered to himself as Zechs filled a page, casting about for vocabulary that didn’t require phrases, jargon, metaphor.
After ten minutes, Duo galloping hard on his heels sopping up his proferred knowledge like a sponge, Zechs again put the pencil aside. "This is no way to learn a language. Even with a photographic memory, all you’re achieving is—basic recognition. A vocabulary lesson."
"This seems fine." Duo played his chewing gum between forefinger and teeth as he shrugged. "The only way I ever learnt a language before was hearing it. Speaking it."
"How many languages do you have?"
"A few for real, and enough to get by in a couple more," was the evasive answer.
It felt a bit like the moment of weightlessness after the shuttle left the bounds of gravity. The floor dropped out from under him. Those artful, careful little almost-lies were familiar entities. They’d been Treize’s way of life. Duo had no reason to lie to him, to withhold an honest answer, yet that was what he’d done. Sheer stubbornness? Mistrustfulness?
Or he was entirely wrong again. Duo tucked a knee to his chest, his eyes skipping over the pad without settling. A faint pink flush tainted his cheeks.
"I never... went to school, really,” he said, and Zechs finally registered his embarrassment. “I mean, I did, for a little while, but who the fuck needs art history?"
He was so disarmed he found himself chuckling. "No one I know."
He turned to a new page, and wrote several more words in Russian. This time he gave the pad entirely to Duo. "Say the words,” he instructed. “I'll tell you what they mean."
Duo obeyed without question, eyes narrowed in concentration. “Ti takAya valnUyashaya,” he read slowly. He stumbled on the long last word, but recovered strongly, determindly. “Ti takAya Iskrennaya. Ti takAya ocharovAtel’naya.” He paused. “That’s… you are… something, isn’t it?” A smile of startled satisfaction hovered over his lips. "You said you'd tell me what they mean."
So he had. He wrote each translation, grateful for the shield of pale hair that offered at least minimal protection from Duo’s curiosity. You are exciting, he wrote, pronouncing it in Russian for Duo as he did. You are so sincere. You are so engaging. “Simple admiration forms,” he said, keeping his eyes on the tip of the pencil. “You’ve already figured out how easy they are to construct.”
He could feel Duo’s confusion, through that ineffective screen. It produced several seconds of awkward speechlessness. Zechs sat tensely, trying to prepare an explanation for choosing such odd phrases.
"Look,” Duo said. “I don't know what I did wrong, but whatever it was, would you tell me so we can be cool?"
"You did everything perfectly."
"You know, whatever." That suddenly, Duo was angry again, flipping moods like a switch of electricity. "I was making an effort, you know, and it's not like it sucked, but fine."
"What are you on about? You're performing far better than I imagined you would. We're working."
"Well, then what--" Duo clamped his mouth shut with a click of teeth. "Fine. I'm going to my cabin. I'll probably have dinner there."
"Suddenly you can't even look at me?"
He looked. He looked; a good, long, almost provocative look. Duo glared back, first. When neither of them broke the stare, Duo slowly flushed.
“I'm looking at you now," Zechs said quietly.
"Yeah. Okay." Duo was flustered, though he tried to hide it. He grabbed the book, and the pad. He left quickly, and in his wake, the pencil rolled off the table and fell beneath the couch.
Duo spent the night staring at his computer screen. He’d tried, at first, to interest himself in one of the games he’d brought, but he hadn’t lied when he told Zechs that he’d already beat all of them. The computer had a few, but they weren’t difficult enough to hold his attention.
Quiet hours had been in place for half the night before Duo gave in. He set the book upright on his desk. Until he’d left L2 and joined the Sweepers, Duo had never seen a real book, even at the Federation school he’d attended briefly. The Professor had kept his own library with him, but most of his books had been engineering, maths and theoretical physics that had been beyond Duo’s interest or ability. He had liked the heft of them, the way they smelled musty and wise, had liked to compare the different type face in each—the little details all missing from a digital text. The same details that had drawn him to choose this book from Zechs’ box, when there were plenty he could have read without such a bother. The corners of the cardboard cover were bent and soft from decades on an unknown shelf. The pages were all dog-eared, and notes swarmed over the margins, underlined whole paragraphs. There were pictures, too, photographs in faded sienna. The hard-eyed faces of the men in the pictures intrigued him. They wore tattered clothes, their arms spread for the camera, defiant and angry. The only word he could read in the captions was zek, that word Zechs had taught him. Prisoner.
He set the computer to search for a Russian-to-English dictionary. He had eighteen months, after all. And besides, if the book was so important to Zechs that he brought it with him on a two-year journey away from his home on Earth, Duo wanted to know why.
He startled himself awake from a doze in the morning when his chin hit his chest. His eyes felt grainy and his mouth was dry. He checked the time. It was well into morning, ship-time, and that meant hiding in his room was likely to be noticed. Duo rubbed his face, and gathered up the notes he’d made. He tucked the book under his arm, and a pencil over his ear, and left his cabin.
Zechs was in the corridor, up the other end by his own room. He was doing that fencing thing. Duo had seen Heero fence before, and once Heero and Quatre had engaged in a friendly duel that had gone just a little over the edge of competitive before Trowa had wisely called a halt. Zechs didn’t fence like them. Heero was pure power, using the delicate little sword like he was throwing a punch. Even to Duo’s untrained eye, Zechs exhibited more control. Every shuffling step was precisely placed, and every flick of the wrist was measured and tightly restrained. His hair swung in a tail behind him, flapping white-on-white against the cotton coat he wore.
They hadn’t had much room for luggage. Twenty kilos. Duo had spent most of his allotment on equipment for their mission, as Zechs had likely done. Duo wasn’t sure what a fencing sword and all the padded garments weighed, but it seemed like Zechs could have saved the room for more books. Duo had opted to make due with the shuttle’s built-in exercise options— one of the chairs in the common room converted to a bike, a treadmill folded out of the wall, and there were plenty of stable bars for pull-ups, exercises aimed at keeping bones and muscles healthy, not at building the body. They were also exercises that could be done without an opponent, unlike fencing.
Not that Zechs looked silly, exactly. Just—a little odd, concentrating so deeply on it, a frown digging furrows into his face.
Duo left him at it, stepping quietly away until he was sure Zechs hadn’t noticed him. He turned on the kettle for tea, and stuck a piece of bread in the toaster. He arranged his notes on the table, and put the book down square on top of them. The low light glowing from overhead threw the Cyrillic characters into sharp relief. Duo knew what they meant, now, could sound his way through most of the words, but comprehension was still frustratingly beyond reach. Whenever he tried to skip a page, or open to one later in the book, the words began to swim. Part of him acknowledged he was too tired to keep fighting something that hadn’t even existed in his world before yesterday. His pride was louder.
He almost didn’t notice when Zechs finally joined him. It was the smell of sweat that caught his attention, and he looked up to see Zechs walking past him to the cooler where they kept cold drinks. Perspiration made deep grey streaks down his chest and back, and under his arms as well. Duo tried to put his eyes back where they belonged when Zechs stripped off the cotton jacket. He was wearing just a brief white vest beneath, clinging to his skin.
So the man was handsome. A specimen, as Sally Po had once said, after three cosmopolitans and with Wufei glaring jealously, that proved God was a woman after all. Looks didn’t give a man class or charm. Or personality. It gave him dead Russian would-be tyrants who left behind emotionally loaded books about long-dead prisoners.
Zechs finished a bottle of juice, and rinsed it in their sink. "You didn't sleep at all, did you?" he said.
Duo put a hand to his forehead to block the sight, and pulled the book closer to the edge of the table. "I can sleep whenever. It's not like there's a law about when I have to."
"Pardon me, then." Zechs sat, straight-backed, in the chair opposite Duo. A moment passed in which Duo got the impression he was supposed to apologise for his rudeness. He didn’t. Zechs added, "You're not ready for that."
Duo grabbed his tea and drank half in big swallows. "Clearly.”
Zechs reached over the table. He turned the book back to the first page of the introduction. "Read it to me. Don't translate; just read."
Was Zechs mocking him? Duo searched his face suspiciously. He’d thought that yesterday, too, when Zechs had written down those lines about sincerity and excitement, but he hadn’t been sure enough to call him on it. Zechs gave no expression. His eyes were always cool and level, his face dead, as if someone had disconnected the nerves. Duo had never seen him smile, even when he laughed.
Duo cleared his throat, and began to read.
"Don't worry about the accent,” Zechs interrupted, almost immediately. “Not yet. Just pronounce the words."
It was on his lips to retort that he was trying. He didn’t. He pressed his lips tightly together, and continued.
“How much of that did you understand?" Zechs tapped Duo’s notes.
"Maybe a third. I don't have the verb forms down."
"Then you've done very well.” The compliment caught Duo by surprise. Zechs didn’t sound satisfied, for one thing. He could have been remarking on the weather. “Let's work on this together," he said then.
Duo hadn’t been entirely sure that offer was going to be made again. Whatever patience Zechs had shown or him the day before might have been a fluke. “Really?” he was saying, before he could censor himself. “It’s okay if you don’t. People are always promising me things they don’t mean.” He hesitated, and made what he considered a generous confession. “I know I’m a little much for most, even my friends.”
“I didn’t make a promise to pacify you.” Zechs picked up the book, his fingers running over the engraved title. The gold leaf there had faded—Duo had found himself making that exact gesture, too, during the night. Arkhipelag GULag.
Zechs opened the book, and began to read. He was husky at first, but that was just what his voice sounded like, when he was self-conscious—and Duo tried not to remember why he knew that. He concentrated on the words as Zechs read them, in English, the first coherent reading of the book Duo had had.
“How do people get to this Archipelago?” Zechs read. “Hour by hour planes fly there, ships steer their course there, and trains thunder off to it—but all with nary a mark on them to tell of their destination. And at ticket windows or travel bureaus for Soviet or foreign tourists the employees would be astounded if you asked for a ticket to go there. They have never heard of the Archipelago as a whole or of any of its innumerable islands.
Those who go to the Archipelago to administer it get there via the training schools of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Those who go there to be guards are conscripted by the military conscription centres.
Those who, like you and me, dear reader, go there to die, must go there solely and compulsorily via arrest.
Arrest! Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your life, a lightning bolt which has scored a direct hit on you? That it is an unassimilable spiritual earthquake not every person can cope with, as a result of which people often slide into insanity?
The Universe has as many different centres as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a centre of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you, You are under arrest.”
The memory rose unbidden. They were hauling him out of his Gundam, and he was injured, barely conscious. Duo glanced away from Zechs, his focus broken and wavering. He breathed carefully through his nose.
“Heavy material,” he managed, and was glad his voice was calm.
“Very grim. Yes." Zechs’ eyes slanted away from his, to the page still upturned. "A difficult slog. Particularly for people like us."
"It reads like an instruction manual.” Duo searched for a joke, and pulled a smile up out of somewhere. “I should send it to L2 bureaucracy."
"I believe that qualifies as an improvement." The corner of Zechs’ mouth turned up.
He might have spent the night trying to read that damn book, but now that he knew more what it was about, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go any further with it. It was bound to lead them into dangerous territory, considering they’d once been enemies. And if not precisely dangerous, then to dangerously private, personal things. Duo knew better than most what silence and suggestion lead to. He didn’t like the company of his ghosts, and he didn’t plan on introducing them around to Zechs.
“Why did you take this assignment?” Zechs asked suddenly.
He’d volunteered for it, actually. Duo chose not to explain that. Instead, he said, quite truthfully, “I’ve never turned down a mission.”
“You didn’t have anything better to do with two years?”
Zechs’ eyes went narrow and calculating. "I have a hard time swallowing that, Duo."
"The trick is to open real wide and not gag on it."
That was a victory, after what Zechs had done to him yesteday with the pretty flattery and that look Duo sill hadn’t sorted out. The other man turned a bit red, and he wasn’t wearing nearly enough clothing to hide it. The blush went clear down his chest.
“Do you have to make a joke out of every genuine conversation?" Zechs demanded.
Heero liked to ask that, too. And Wufei. Quatre always laughed at his jokes, though, and Trowa never laughed, but he never told Duo to stop, either. "I like jokes,” Duo said. “I like sex, for that matter, and eighteen months is a long time to go without either."
"Is that what this is about?” It was hard to decipher that minute expression on Zechs’ face, but Duo thought it was disgust. “You're horny."
"Oh, God, forget I said anything. I don't even want to touch that with you."
"I don't doubt that."
Silence, and reticence, and that armour of arrogance meant kept everyone at bay.
He was the one who spoke first. His own voice, unwontedly tentative, proffered, "People think I'm-- an ignorant loud-mouth. They won't work with me. I can't get preferred mission status, even though I have the scores and a recommendation. When I partnered Heero, all that happened was I dragged him down. I've been a Preventer for nine years, and I've never been promoted." He fiddled with his pencil. “I know it shouldn’t matter, but it does."
"They're stupid to believe that,” Zechs answered softly. “Or easily deluded by what they see when they look at you. I never thought you were stupid or ignorant. I watched you."
"Me?" The implication confused him, except for the hot little tingle along his collar that knew exactly what that meant. He said, "I guess it was your job to know who all of us were."
"Of course," Zechs said.
Duo glanced away, then back, through just the corner of his vision. It cast Zechs in a golden halo that was flattering and diffusive.
"I was different,” Duo said. “I am."
“I was different,” Duo said. “I am.”
Yes, he was. Different not just among nameless thousands who were all interchangeable pawns. Different even in that highly select group of men and women who had risen to the top by the skill of their hands, their unusual intelligence, their extraordinary bravery. Ordinary did not describe someone who at fifteen could pilot Gundams—launch himself to Earth alone against an overwhelmingly more powerful enemy. Someone who walked away from torture at the age of fifteen didn’t become a Preventer in the first place, didn’t wait politely for nine years while his superiors, the same people who had held the clubs to him once upon a time, passed him over. Duo could have, maybe should have, turned into a victim, or a suicide bomber, or a sociopath. He hadn’t. He endured. There was a centre in him that burned, and protected itself. Zechs didn’t know if it was strength, or stubbornness, or just perversity, but the end result was that Duo Maxwell had decided he was indestructible, and he didn’t accept anything less. It just made him hard to work with.
Duo was gazing at him. There was a question in his eyes, but he didn’t speak it.
Zechs reached a fingertip to the cover of the Solzhenitsyn. "I have books in English. They’d be an easier read, and certainly less… Less a reminder of the past."
Duo chewed his lower lip. Zechs didn’t think he was aware of that habit, that it left the soft flesh raw and flushed. He didn’t answer immediately, and Zechs supposed that was answer enough.
Then-- “No,” Duo decided. “It’s just a book. I’m not going to run from the written word.”
“I didn’t think you would.”
“Then why’d you ask?” Duo looked at him, and a strange, crooked smile formed on his mouth. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you the way to a man’s heart is whiskey and whispers, not depressing Russian literature?”
That was just possibly—coy. Zechs paused, and then asked him, “Is your heart vulnerable to anything I might offer?”
He’d caught Duo off guard, somehow. “Zechs…”
Duo’s teeth bit hard into his lip. He left the table, but he didn’t go far. He bent to one of the knee-high cabinets under the sink, and came back with a pop-top can of fizzy soda. His plait slipped over his shoulder as he straightened. He opened the can, and sipped from it.
When he turned, he seemed to have settled something in his own mind. He said, “You’re used to getting your own way, aren’t you?”
“Usually, yes,” Zechs admitted. He stood, too. Duo didn’t try to evade him when he slowly blocked him against the counter. He reached out again, but this time to touch Duo’s hair. The blue kerchief over his scalp hid the soft fringe Zechs could see in memory, but the braid over his shoulder felt perversely strong and delicate at once, silky in its tight weave, and cool.
Duo blinked once. "Touching me there, kind of, aren't you?" But though his braid slipped through Zechs' fingers, Duo didn’t pull away.
He curled his hand around it loosely. "Should I not?"
The plait was, perhaps, thinner than he remembered, and shorter. Hadn’t it once swung to his lower back? Zechs wondered what had damaged it, or prompted Duo to cut it. "You should wear it loose from time to time," he murmured. “This braid—it’s a sin.”
"Still kind of touching me there."
He followed the plait up to Duo’s neck. "Is this out of bounds too?"
Duo met that with a stare that knew what was coming and dared him to try. "No," he said.
"You set the boundaries, Duo." Two weeks of aggression and acrimony, and in barely twelve hours they were at a break point. He traced the skin above Duo’s collar, side to side, then dipped his thumb under the fabric. He felt minute vibrations as Duo spoke again.
“Thought you don’t like me.”
“I like you.”
His adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. "You did a lot of ignoring me, considering."
"You can't stand me." He dipped his index finger into the hollow of Duo's throat, then whispered it away.
Silence hung on a precipice while Duo left him hanging.
Then Duo smirked. "Are you going to kiss me or not?"
Zechs leant down slowly. He pressed his mouth, just barely parted, to Duo’s. He felt a faint warm exhale, scented like Duo’s mint tea, and chased it with the tip of his tongue through Duo’s lips. Duo met it with his, massaging lightly. It was a heady thing. That chapped lower lip was exactly as he had imagined, just a little rough. He felt a scrape of teeth, and then he retreated.
Duo followed after him, an automatic curl of his body, his eyes still closed. He caught himself, though, and stood still.
Zechs hesitated. There was still time to walk away, to see if something developed naturally out of this risk they’d just taken together—friendship, maybe, or even just understanding, something that wasn’t like that instinct Duo had just displayed. Or they could follow this to the one conclusion that would be entirely natural.
He wrapped his arm about Duo’s waist and held him close. Duo’s head tilted tensely up to meet his eyes. His whole body was taut, almost trembling.
He cupped Duo’s face and kissed him again. He sucked hard on Duo’s lower lip until it tasted wet, and then he drove his tongue into Duo’s mouth again. Duo swayed with the force of it. He caught his arm around Zechs’ neck. It brought them chest to chest, and something snapped.
The kiss went wild and fiery. Chaotic. They bumped into the wall before he realised they’d moved. Duo wrestled him for control of it, making fists in his hair, arching up against him. He’d never really seen Duo as small, precisely, but he felt like it, from the bony protrusion of his hips under the thin stretch of his suit to the way his waist seemed to disappear under Zechs’ palms, but it was still a fair fight. Duo was all teeth and attack, nothing soft and romantic. Zechs ground a slow rhythm into him, shuddering at every rub against his groin as the growing sensation changed to one of leaking.
Duo wormed a hand beneath his vest. He fumbled a path upward, in his navel, scratching his nipple. When he squeezed it hard, Zechs had to wrench his head away to breathe. It was almost painful, it so intensely pleasurable. He pulled at the fastenings on Duo’s suit, barely hearing the rip of it as he plunged his hand inside. He met the head of Duo’s erection, slick and spongy, and Duo gasped out a needy little noise.
"If we don't stop, we'll be fucking right here," Zechs whispered. He closed his lips on Duo’s earlobe as he rolled Duo’s cockhead beneath his thumb.
"I'm perfe-- perfectly fine with that." Duo rocked up into his grip. "My cabin's closest, else."
"Tell me you brought lube."
They both laughed at that. Duo was the one who broke away, half undressed already, his mouth and chin red from the kissing. "Come on," he said, and lead the way up the corridor to his cabin.
The cabins were small, meant mainly for sleeping. With the two of them inside, it felt like little more than a closet. Zechs was barely cognizant of it. He fell backwards onto the bunk, dragging Duo down with him. Duo swarmed on him from above, drowning him with deep dragging kisses while he jerked at Zechs’ clothes. Zechs helped him shed the stretchsuit, peeling it off one limb at a time before throwing it aside. Duo knocked over his bedside lamp with an errant elbow, and cursed. He leaned over the bed to fix it as Zechs kicked off his shoes and stockings. Duo came back with a little container of lotion, a sheepish grin tugging at his mouth as he handed it over.
They were both naked. Zechs smeared a palmful of cold liniment on himself, and wiped his hand on his thigh. Duo straddled him.
“Is this all right?” Zechs asked.
Duo’s answer was five fingers holding him in place while he scooted backwards into position. He bent his head low to kiss Zechs roughly. Zechs closed his eyes. He felt the press of Duo’s buttocks against his head, and then muscle bearing down on him. The grip of Duo’s fist became the tight squeeze of a feverishly hot tunnel.
Duo panted softly against his cheek. They were going too fast, Zechs thought, but it was Duo taking the lead now. He rubbed Duo’s back as they both adjusted. In only a few moments, Duo began to rock slightly, his hands planted on either side of Zechs’ head. Zechs slipped away the kerchief, and Duo’s hair, soft and teasing, fell down to his face. Zechs inhaled the scent of summer grass.
If Duo noticed, he didn’t care. He rose higher on his knees, and sat hard. The third time, he leaned back, instead, and Zechs slid deeper inside him. He watched Duo’s face—eyes slitted in concentration that became abandon, as his movements gained a frantic edge—and grabbed Duo’s bobbing erection. It swelled in palm, flushed and wet.
Duo’s mouth hung open. His hand trembled when it scrabbled to a heavy rest on his shoulder.
Zechs sat up on his elbows and caught him into a hard, hungry kiss. Duo groaned into his mouth and clutched him clumsily. Zechs held him close and carefully rolled them. When Duo lay on his back, damp thighs clinging to him, Zechs dug a knee into the mattress, and slammed into him. Duo went rigid and spasming. Zechs did it again, and counted out a rhythm until his body knew it every time. Duo’s blunt fingernails made furrows in his back, but he felt no pain, just an increasing urgency and a primal demand. He bit Duo’s neck, and growled, “Let it go."
"You close?" Duo whispered anxiously.
Perilously. Duo’s legs tightened around him. His insides clamped wildly, and then he was jerking like a puppet on strings while the spurts of his orgasm spattered Zechs across the chest. Nails in his skin dragged him down, and Zechs bit Duo’s throat again the weightless drop began. He heard himself cry out, and saw white explosions against his eyelids as the firestorm hit him.
It was Duo who moved first. He wriggled out from under Zechs, shoving when Zechs didn’t move fast enough. Zechs gave him a little space to lie flat, though the bunk was not, short-sightedly, built for two. He could feel Duo drawing away in another sense; he didn’t look at Zechs directly, for one, and he lay on his belly, almost as if protecting his vulnerable front. He didn’t resist when Zechs traced the bumps of his spine, though, and Zechs supposed that was something.
When his breathing had settled, Duo sat up. He dug in his bedside drawer, and came back with a brush. Zechs settled himself on a pillow to watch as Duo struggled to untangle the braid—it had suffered from their enthusiasm.
He’d been right about the hair, at least. It was still crimped from the braid, subtle lowlights making shadows of chocolaty darkness down his pale back. Zechs had always been a little vain of his own hair, but Duo’s was an unaffected ornament, a natural extension of his self.
He sat up, settling his legs on either side of Duo’s. It brought them chest to back, and Duo tensed. Zechs rested his hands on Duo’s hips.
“May I?" he asked softly.
Duo’s back had gone rigid. Zechs gave him time to think about it. Even so, Duo sounded, at best, reluctant. He said, "I guess."
He reached slowly, in case Duo changed his mind. He combed his fingers gently through Duo’s hair, separating the three threads of the plait. He went back and started again, brushing delicately through from the the base of Duo’s neck to the ends halfway down his back, stroking over skin as well. Duo’s head bent just a little, following his progress. Zechs pressed his nose to Duo’s nape. To that grassy smell, baked summer fields. On this shuttle headed far away from Earth, he thought, that scent was even more precious.
"You have no idea how beautiful you are, do you?" he whispered.
Duo turned his head away. "I don't like flattery," he said flatly.
“Neither do I."
He’d mis-stepped. Duo scooted to the edge of the mattress, away from the touch of their thighs, and jerked his hair over his shoulder. He attacked it with a few harsh strokes of his brush, and began to braid it up again.
"Let me," Zechs tried.
Duo finished the braid and pulled an elastic from the handle of the brush to wrap it off. It was sloppily done, and carted sharply to the right. He bent to the floor for his suit and began to dress. “Because,” he said, “I said so, and it's mine."
"I see.” He did. Hell, he thought. He should have been stronger than his own hormones. Taking Duo to bed risked everything. The mission, at the least. His sanity, certainly. Duo would insist they play by his rules, or not at all. That was both familiar and uncomfortable.
He found his pants hanging off the edge of the bed, and stepped into them. His stockings and shoes, he simply gathered up to carry with him. “And now you'll run away," he surmised. “As far from me as you can.”
"It's a fucking shuttle, where am I running to?" Duo faced him. His fingers slowed on the fastenings of his suit. Slowly, a tiny little smile bloomed on his lips. "You're just a big bad wolf, aren't you?"
"You seem to think so," Zechs muttered.
Duo tossed the hairbrush at him. "Maybe I'm just not a romantic.” His eyes glittered. “So, what do people usually say at this part? ‘Thanks for the sex’? ‘Next time we need to use more lube—‘"
Zechs put the brush on the table, and stood. "You're welcome."
Duo’s face went still. "One time event, then."
"That would be your call, wouldn't it?"
Duo grunted. He slumped back into his lone desk chair, legs spread, mouth sullen. "We're on this tin can for a long time,” he said, in a hard little voice. “It was crap enough for two weeks. There's no reason for us to spend all of it not talking, and there's definitely no reason for us to spend all of it not screwing, but it doesn't make us like each other any better than we did yesterday. And if you think it does, trust me, the afterglow fades."
It seemed a cold-blooded arrangement. He was a little shocked that Duo had suggested it. There had been rumours, yes, among the Preventers, but he hadn’t ever believed them. And the Duo who an hour ago had confessed so shame-faced that he cared for the good opinion of his fellows was not the same person now proposing they fuck for the sake of passing time.
“I suppose I’d be foolish to turn you down,” he said stiffly. “If only to… keep the boredom at bay.”
Duo’s eyes slid away, suddenly, while he crossed his arms over his chest. He bit down on that lower lip, and said, “You still gonna help me with the book?”
In two weeks they’d barely exchanged two words, and now Zechs had the feeling that despite everything they’d done, he understood even less than he had before.
“Of course,” he agreed.
On to Chapter Two