in the light of dying stars
written for liafic as part of the Gundam Wing Fic Exchange Round 3
This is how it's supposed to go, Relena explains. She's supposed to serve two terms as Vice Foreign Minister. That will give her time to learn the politics game, and to wrap up some much needed personal projects- like graduating high school. Overseeing the restoration of the Sanq. Determining whether her only living relative actually died in the Eve Wars. After all that has been wrapped up, she'll run for Foreign Minister, and win, of course. She doesn't deny she always wanted to run for president, but she also wants to live her life, not stuff it between the cracks duty and ambition leave.
Life never stays it's course, she sighs.
Instead, she finds herself in conference rooms with men who outrank her both in decades and experience. If she had gone by any other name, they would have ignored her, patronized her, even sexualized her if that was their inclination. She knows girls are of no consequence to these people- but she isn't just anybody. She was differentiated through a perfect storm of birthright, opportunity, and resonance with public opinion. As such, she achieved power. These men, sly, sycophantic and self assured, did know something about respecting power.
They whisper demands through smiles, manipulat through compliments. They surround her, cajole her.
"We must strike while the iron is still hot." They reason.
"The people want a leader who wasn't associated with Romefellar or the resistance. They need someone who symbolizes the treaty." They argue.
A symbol, she intones. Not a person. But then, every man who ever loved her did so while boiling her down to a concept. Relena has all the power she wants, except to define herself. When they offer to support her bid for the presidency and she smiles, its for this reason that she shows her teeth.
She doesn't recognize her own voice when she accepts. Everyone hears her, and at the same time, no one does at all.
Duo scratches his head in bewilderment as he reads his most recent Preventer assignment. He double- okay, triple- checks the are no errors that he can discern. He reads over the agent I.D. again to ensure it was meant for him, and confirms that it is. In 36:00 hours, he is to report to the Brussels spaceport for duty as an official security escort.
It's not the assignment that Duo has trouble accepting. He has acted as a security escort before. He can carry a conversation and hold his tongue in turn, is trustworthy, but most of all- he is very, very good at his job. But usually it's Quatre's name at the top of these security detail requests, or others he fought with in the war. The last person he expects to request his services is Relena Darlian.
It is always Heero who watches over Relena, always.
An uneasy feeling settles in Duo's stomach. It lasts into the next day as he packs and makes the necessary arrangements due to his extended absence. He falls asleep feeling vaguely queasy and drives to the airport the next morning bleary-eyed and jumpy. Duo has only lived as long as he has because of his instincts, so he doesn't question that something is off- he just doesn't know what it is, yet. He's a fighter, though, so after the security checkpoints he navigates the chaotic mass of the Vice Foreign Minister's campaign party and steels himself to face Relena Darlian- former Queen of the World, probable future President of ESUN, bona fide princess, genius politician- and as close to a stranger as one could get and still be on a first name basis.
"It's so nice to see you, Duo." Her polite words are icy and formal. She doesn't quite make eye contact, and Duo gets the impression that she is avoiding him even though he is right in front of her. Any hope he fosters for gleaning insight into this unusual situation vanishes.
You can take a pilot out of the Gundam, but you can't take the Gundam out of the pilot. Duo smiles at Relena over the sinking feeling in his heart. A mission is a mission, after all, no matter the battlefield.
To say that the pace of political campaigning is grueling is an understatement. Duo wakes up in the morning to consolidated world news updates and eats breakfast over daily itineraries (two words he never wants to hear together again if he can help it). Then it's political rallies, meet and greets, speeches, charity dinners and fundraising galas. Duo drags himself from bed by his fingernails every morning and collapses into bed every night. He's not even the one campaigning.
It takes an absurd amount of effort to keep Relena safe. Duo has drastically underestimated how prominent Relena is as a political figure in the colonies. He finds he is cultivating a new appreciation for the lengths Heero has gone to in the past in order to keep the Vice Foreign Minister safe. The level of attention and fanaticism surrounding her approaches celebrity, and the resulting polarity due to this in the crowds that attend her public events is a phenomena Duo can neither predict nor influence. As a result, he is constantly on his toes, always alert, triple checking every detail, always watching Relena's every move. Until one day he looks up and realizes that what it takes to truly protect Relena Darlian was single-minded obsession.
Suddenly, the crush he jokes about Heero harboring on occasion becomes a much less outrageous accusation. Duo turns to face Relena, a brightly lit figure hovering on the platform above him, and wonders how many hours Heero watched her like this, unseen, unknown, filled with longing while he stood in the same position Duo is currently in.
Which makes Duo wonder once again why he is even in it at all.
Despite the sheer amount of time and physical proximity they share, there is very little in the way of personal sharing that passes between Duo and Relena- at best, their interactions are utilitarian. What astounds Duo the most is the disparity between Relena's public persona and her private one. Duo gets shivers when he watches Relena speak in public, her presence electric and larger than life, her words commanding and sincere. The passion in her voice is almost tangible in these moments, and Duo feels a certainty that he just happens to have the best seat in the house as this cusp of history unfolds. Okay, sue him, he's become something of a believer in these three weeks they have been traveling. Duo knows it's not just him- he watches every face carefully, at every speech and rally, and he can see her effect first hand. Relena can reach the masses- she gives people hope.
In private, however, it's a very different picture. Duo doesn't know if it's the pressure of the campaign, the strain of constant travel, or... something else. As soon as she enters the limo he can see the openness of her expression dull to pensiveness, her body language tense and become defensive. If she has words left in her after the day, she chooses to spare them. Duo almost can't reconcile the one woman with the other, and to his chagrin, he's begun to think of her as some sort of political cyborg, complete with an on/off switch.
Duo's never shied away from telling the truth, both to others and himself, so he doesn't have many qualms admitting that Relena is somehow less of a person to him now than she was during the war, despite their limited interactions- just a stint as classmates and one botched rescue to speak of, but she had never seemed so distant, even through the T.V screens. On the contrary, her ties to one of their own made her seem completely accessible- a common friend they all kept tabs on. Back then, if he had known what tree he had been barking up the day he found her in a party dress with a gun to her head, he'd have spared his bullets and let Heero and Relena sort themselves out. Even as early on as that, they only had eyes for each other.
He blinks as he finds a trace of envy in that thought. Unwillingly, his eyes find Relena across the meeting room. She doesn't look up, but she doesn't need to- he knows what her eyes look like, how severe her expression becomes when she's focusing her full attention on a task. It's an intimate knowledge, he realizes, but upon reflection he's always observed her in the strangest and most vulnerable times. He is in the unique position now to be able to say he knows how she takes her tea, and how she sounds when she screams the name of the man she loves when he's about to die (like she could save his life with her voice alone, but isn't that just what she did?). Duo gets caught on that last thought, and wonders if anyone could ever love him with that kind of ferocity and selflessness. He thinks of Hilde, threatening him with execution the first time they spoke to each other, and he thinks he understands Relena a little better.
He realizes he was mistaken when he thought of her as less of a person. That wasn't quite correct. It's more that he's bearing witness to the slow diminishing of her spirit.
L4 comes and goes in a blur, and now that L3 is growing smaller behind them, Duo realizes he has been so caught up in the whirlwind of events that he has not even realized until now that he will be returning to his home colony for the first time since the war ended. The knowledge sits at the back of his throat, and blackens his normally stable mood. It goes mainly unnoticed by the others, but to Duo's surprise, Relena picks up on the shift in his demeanor. As he stares out the aperture of the shuttle, he sees her sit down next to him in the reflection in the glass. He meets his own eyes in the window for a brief moment to make sure his expression is upbeat before he turns to face her.
Her gaze is inscrutable, but he's more than used to that now.
"Your home colony was L2, was it not?" Relena asks, her voice deceptively mild.
Duo's lips flatten before he responds. "Yeah, you could say that."
She regards him a few more moments before continuing. "I take it you're not happy to be returning to it."
Duo snorts. Why bother hiding his feelings from someone who already knew them?
"You could also say that." He drawls sardonically.
Relena doesn't reply, but she does hold his gaze, waiting patiently. Duo knows he could leave it at this, and she would let him, out of respect for his privacy; but, for all the information he has about Relena, he realizes she knows next to nothing about him beyond the little he offers. The way he figures, that's not really an even playing field. He sighs deeply, already regretting the decision he just made.
"I was a war orphan- didn't even have a name. Don't know when my parents died, but it was before I could remember. I was taken in by a group of older children. We stole in order to eat and slept in abandoned houses. All we had was each other." He doesn't mean to look Relena in the eye because he hates pity, but he finds he's met her gaze anyway. Her expression is blessedly neutral. Duo is more grateful for this than she can know. It's maybe because of this reason that he decides to tell her the rest.
"We tried to steal food from the Alliance military base one day. I figured I was going to die eventually anyway- if not from exposure and starvation, then definitely from the armed conflicts. Instead, I got adopted by a priest and a nun. It..." His voice catches, because the pain really never went away and it still surprises him from time to time. "It was the happiest time of my life. But, it didn't last." He sighs, trying to dispel the knot in his chest.
"What happened?" Relena asks, her voice warm and soothing.
Duo would've cringed, but really, he dug his own hole. He steels his voice and replies. "The Maxwell Church Massacre. That was where I lived."
Relena is silent for a long time, and Duo knows that even an Earth-born person like herself has heard of the event that ended up being the bloodiest colonial uprising against the Alliance's oppression since they established rule.
When she speaks she simply says- "I see. And then you became a Gundam pilot." She's trying hard to hide it, but Duo can detect a dazed note in her voice.
He smiles humorlessly in reply, and they don't speak again for a long time.
When they reach L2, Relena cancels a meeting with potential campaign backers. Her staff squawks and protests and harangues her, but Relena doesn't budge, steady as stone. Instead of meeting with supporters, she schedules a tour at one of the largest shelters for war orphans. She meets all the children, listens to all their stories, and donates a small fortune of her own money. At a press conference later in the evening, she speaks almost exclusively about the foster program on L2, and how future doctors, scientists and politicians may never realize their potential if they are not given the basic necessities of food, shelter, and love. She gets a standing ovation, and the orphanages on L2 get some sorely needed public attention.
Duo understands why Heero loves this woman the way he does.
Relena is perfection in a peach silk gown, her hair swept up in a loose and simple style that exposes her graceful neck and frames her bold features. Duo lets out a low, appreciative whistle and earns a mild look of reproach.
"Sorry, princess, but it had to be said." He jokes, offering her an arm. It's not their first fundraising gala, though Duo sincerely wishes it would be their last. Still, the food is usually pretty good, and he doesn't have to dance, so he supposes it isn't a total waste of an evening.
"Well, what kind of puppet would I be if I didn't sport the appropriate attire?" Relena shoots back, but there is so much bitterness behind it that Duo stops short.
"Whoa, where is this coming from?" He frowns. He's never seen her be quite so resentful before.
She shrugs off their casual touch. "Oh, nevermind. It was a tasteless comment. I'm sorry if it put you off."
He ignores her and places her hand back in the crook of his elbow. "I don't really know if I'm overstepping my boundaries here, but if I can be frank- that didn't sound like a joke to me."
Relena stiffens beside him and stops short. He stops walking as well, and turns to face her. Her expression is conflicted and he's never been able to read her emotions so plainly on her face before. She looks honest to god furious at that moment, and Duo is surprised to feel a thrill of fear race through him.
"Relena? Hey, forget about it. I don't know how to keep my mouth shut." He tries to backtrack, holding his palms up in an appeasing gesture.
"I didn't want this." She blurts out viciously and unexpectedly. "Not like this."
Duo's apology is frozen in his throat. Every part of him is aware that Relena is talking to him with full disclosure, for the first time... well, ever. He swallows and wonders how to reply. She saves him the trouble.
"Not like anyone cares. Just as long as I can be some kind of living, breathing olive branch. But then again, I wouldn't know what it's like to be treated like a person instead of an ideal if someone came up and slapped me." There's a hysterical note to her voice, and he hears tears threatening in her voice. "I can be selfish and weak too! Does that make me unacceptable? How is that fair! Why is what I want irrelevant in my own life..."
The threat of tears follows through and slides down her cheeks. Duo knows she hasn't said Heero's name once, but he feels like she has, just like a million other moments over the past seven weeks- every time she's lit up by the stage lights, when she stares out of windows, any time she forces a smile for her cause. But he isn't Heero, and he knows it. He takes a deep breath and takes her hands gently in his own. She brings wet eyes up to his.
"Listen. I know we barely know each other. And I know you may not have wanted this but...you're honestly the best person for the job. And I do mean person." He squeezes her fingers to reinforce his earnestness. "I got my vote on you, princess."
She dries her face and thanks him sincerely, but he can already see it in her eyes- it wasn't what she needed to hear. Duo pretends it is and escorts her to a party neither of them wants to go to. He curses Heero for the millionth time in the past seven weeks.
L1 is their last stop, and though it is the wealthiest colony, it is also the one with the lowest approval ratings for Relena's presidential bid. All of the best colonial universities are located here, and with them a disillusioned, vocal and educated youth, suspicious of the new government. Relena digs her heels in and fights for every victory she manages to earn. They are fewer than her staff would like. He sees her begin to visibly wear, and wonders if Heero will make an appearance. He can see she needs him now more than ever- he doesn't know what to do or say on those evenings where she looks like her soul was forcibly sucked from her body. He can only gather her as quickly as possible and deposit her safely into a place free from demands and criticisms. Still, he knows it's not enough, and he can see she's losing sight of what she's fighting for.
In the center of the city block dedicated to the government buildings both local and interplanetary, a sculpture of the Gundams has been erected, dedicated to the anonymous heroes who piloted them and all the known ones who died fighting to free the colonies from oppression. It is the location of the last speech on Relena's colonial tour. A huge stage has been built next to the sculpture, and a crowed has gathered that is twice as large as they anticipate. The citizens that have shown up to watch the Vice Foreign Minister spill out of the square and down the streets. Additional T.V. stands are set up. Duo tries not to systematically bite all his nails off at the sheer volume of people- none of whom he's screened, on the most hostile of all the colonies, in an open square with tall buildings, with Relena on an open stage. He's pretty sure this is how the original Heero Yuy got assassinated. Oh god, he's going to hyperventilate. He insists on a bulletproof vest under her clothing, stations policemen on each rooftop and other key vulnerable areas, crosses his fingers and for the first time in a long time, sends a prayer to the sky. He's almost got her through this safe and sound, they're so close. Just this one speech and they're Earthbound again, if he can just make it through this last one...
Things are going smoothly, when he feels a prickle at the back of his neck. Duo curses- he knew this was going too good to be true. He whirls around, trying to discern what had caused his uneasiness when he sees a figure, close to the stage but hidden off to the side, out of Relena's direct line of sight. The posture screams of time spent in the military, the set of the shoulders tense and on guard. Duo barrels through the crowd without hesitation, sure that this had to be the threat he had feared. As he draws nearer, he abruptly loses sight of the individual. He whips around, his eyes wildly searching the throngs of people when he feels the unmistakeable press of a gun against his back.
"You're as dense as ever, Duo. Calm down before you distract her."
He hasn't heard Heero's voice in almost a year, but it still doesn't stop him from recognizing it like it was yesterday. He immediately relaxes, chuckling slightly.
"You had me scared for a second there, buddy."
He hears Heero's 'tsk' before the pressure of the gun barrel is removed. Duo hears the click of the safety being engaged, but he doesn't immediately turn to face his old comrade- he doesn't want to alert Relena to Heero's presence while she's mid-speech.
"Where have you been?" He asks, eyes still scanning the crowd. Heero's pause is a beat too long.
"Here." He answers. "Not that I need to report my whereabouts to you."
This does the job of irritating Duo enough to risk turning around. The sight he receives is something of a shock. Heero's normally thin physique looks almost emaciated, deep shadows carved under his eyes. Duo notices the jittery way Heero's gaze jerks around, and his own eyes immediately go to Heero's bare forearms. Heero doesn't miss it.
"I'm not on anything." He clips his words, about as close as Duo's ever heard him be to annoyed.
"Are you sleeping?" Duo asks, unable to hide his concern. Heero breaks eye contact and doesn't answer. Duo takes that as a 'no'- instead of pursuing this, he instead asks the question that's been plaguing him from the beginning of all this.
"Why am I here, Heero?"
That gets Heero to look at him again. If he weren't so worried, Duo would've laughed at the expression on the former pilot's face. "I think that would be obvious. Please tell me you're aware that you're Relena's head security detail."
Duo does laugh at that, but he shakes his head to show Heero misunderstood. "No, I mean, why am I here- with Relena. I'm not doing anything for her, man. I'm not the one she needs."
Heero regards him silently, the same intense expression as the woman above them. "And you believe that I am?"
Duo is honestly taken aback by that. He blinks, mouth agape. "Yes. I mean, I think so. Aren't you? I know you'd be better for this assignment."
Heero's wry smile is a little sad. "I turned it down."
Duo is rendered mute for a few minutes before he throws his arms up in the air. Or tries to, but there's honestly too many bodies blocking him. "What the hell, Heero! No wonder she's been so miserable. You idiot. Don't you know she's been-" Duo breaks off, unsure of how to articulate all the tiny cracks he's carefully observed, cataloged and documented.
Heero interrupts him. "No. She's strong- stronger than me. If anything, I'm a liability. If people found out my identity... and if the rumors about us started again...well, I think you realize how bad that could damage her chances."
Duo understands Heero's conspicuous absence now, but that doesn't make it any better. "Please, Heero, just talk to her. I know she'd like to see you."
Heero looks like he is going to argue, even opens his mouth to, but then unexpectedly relents.
Relena's words boom all around their silence.
"These amazing individuals gave their lives to move us to take back ours. Their bravery, selflessness, and determination are a reminder that the colonies and their citizens are a strong people, hardy enough to claim the most inhospitable environments as home. The blood and sweat and tears they gave in their labors and shed in the war will always be honored as the ultimate sacrifice- one that allowed us to arrive here today, on the brink a new, brilliant beginning. The Gundams -" Relena's voice breaks for a moment. She recovers quickly, her slip almost unnoticeable "- are an inspiration to every one of us. I try to carry them with me in my every endeavor."
Duo knows those words weren't meant for him.
Relena's speech gets the best response out of any other she has given during the entire tour.
Hours later, Duo leaves them facing each other as the stage is being dismantled, and the crowds dispersed. They head back to Earth first thing in the morning, but it's almost late enough to be considered the a.m. anyway. He tries not to watch them from the distance, but he can't help it. He doesn't know what they're saying, but Relena smiles, and Heero actually seems to relax for a second. The warmth between them is palpable. It almost hurts to see because as much as Duo understands them, seeing the way they look at each other makes him realize he really doesn't. Not the way they understand each other, anyway.
Duo knows people as bright as them are doomed to burn out- it's just a fact of life. But maybe, if they figure out how to figure "them" out, they'll find they sustain each others' light just enough to... well, just enough.
Duo throws his arms over his head and looks up to the artificial night sky. What does he know? He's not an expert, after all.
BONUS OMAKE EPILOGUE SO YOU'RE NOT DEPRESSED FOREVER
The election comes and goes.
Duo does not vote for Relena, despite his better judgement.
Not even a week after Relena loses the election by one single vote, tabloid covers emerge that picture her passionately making out with a mysterious dark haired college student on the L1 cluster.
No one cares.
AN: ohhh, this fic is so weird, but I was interested in exploring the way Duo and Relena would relate to each other if they were forced interact. This is what I got. So hoping you enjoyed this, and thank you for reading.