Authors: TB and Marsh
Pairing: 6+2
Rating: R
Notes: Takes place five years after EW

Caveat + Part 13

'Huh,' Spider said. 'That was a good call.'

'Thanks.' Zechs hunched his shoulders under his coat, wishing his breath was still steaming-- then at least he would have been warm somewhere on the inside. His hands were blocks of ice. 'You're sure Orange secured her plane?'

'I'll try not to take that personally on my partner's behalf.' Spider grinned at him around a crumbling cigarette. 'The Princess is in good hands. And her Prince.'

God. Heero Yuy would be his brother-in-law. That was worth a wince.

'All right, I'm on my way.' Spider crushed his cigarette against the bricks of the Asylum Centre, and tossed the filter to a street-side garbage bin. 'Glad you were right about the Gundam Pilots. Would have been a shame to see you fall flat on your face, especially with Tropic aiming for your job.'

'What?' Zechs had been turning to go in, but that pulled him back. 'What are you talking about?'

'Not to speak ill of anyone in the company, but it's an open secret.' Spider's already beady eyes narrowed further as he squinted up the steps at Zechs. 'Everyone knows the Director is looking at you for promotion. Tropic wants Deputy.'

'An open secret.' Zechs tried to close his fists in his pockets, but his fingers wouldn't obey. 'I didn't know that.'

Spider screwed his mouth to side. 'Maybe time to start paying attention, yeah? Not for nothing, but I'd rather ignore your official directives than his.' He tilted his chin in farewell, and struck a laconic pace down the steps toward the limo waiting below. He climbed in the front passenger, and the engine gunned. The vehicle rolled out into traffic. Zechs watched it until it turned at the light and disappeared. He twitched the collar of his coat, and went inside.

Duo's release paperwork took two hours. Zechs suspected the Special Prosecutor of dragging it out in revenge for losing both her victims, but Van den Broeck nodded at each new form as if he'd expected it and found it safe enough, so Zechs kept his mouth shut and let her throw document after document at them. Duo endured it silently, too, mechanically signing where he was told again, again, again.

But at last they reached the end of the file. The Special Prosecutor gave him a final frosty stare, and swept out. Zechs heaved a deep breath. Van den Broeck scraped their copies into a folder. 'I will file these for you,' he told Duo, dropping a hand to Duo's shoulder. 'The nightmare is over now.'

'Thanks for your help.' Duo flexed his fingers, folded them in his lap. 'That's twice now me and Heero owe you.'

'I would not have it any other way.' Van den Broeck's smile encompassed Zechs, as well. 'Go home. Rest. Put this behind you. And ring me when you want to get a drink some night.'

Zechs answered when Duo's head bowed. 'We will. Thank you. You can get back all right?'

'I intend to walk no further than a taxi.' Van den Broeck gripped his hand. 'You're a handy man in a tight spot, my friend. Well done.'

'Be well.' Zechs watched him go, and pulled out the chair corner to Duo. He sat heavily. 'Well,' he observed mutedly. 'You need a drink?'

'A couple thousand drinks,' was the dull answer.

'Settle for some water.' He used Relena's untouched glass, refreshing it with cold water from the sweating carafe. Duo sipped once, but it went back to the table almost untouched. Zechs drank it for him, pressing the cool glass to his forehead.

'I'll drive you home,' he said. 'They should have your clothes ready for property release. Change and I'll walk you out.'

'I can take the metro.'

'Kindly wait to be stubborn, please.' He didn't quite move to touch Duo; Duo didn't quite shy back from him. Zechs transferred his eyes to the wall. 'It won't feel so dire once you're out of here.'

'No-one ever told you the fire's waiting outside the fry pan?' Duo shoved to his feet. 'Let's go. I just want to be done with this shit.'

When Duo emerged from the toilets in his own clothes again, Zechs couldn't help a little glow of relief, even knowing Duo was probably right. The worst was over, but there would be plenty more to come, and it wouldn't be any less raw for having survived this far. And he marked, too, that Duo was suspiciously restrained. That would explode, eventually, and he didn't kid himself who would be the target when it did. If he was lucky, he'd be able to nap first, but he didn't count on it. Duo would need him.

The walk through the garage to the car was silent. The drive across town was silent, too. There was no street parking open by Duo's apartment, and he ended out using the alley behind the block. Duo was out of the car as soon as he engaged the brake. Zechs followed him slowly, but caught him up on the landing in front of his door. There was a paper notice pasted to the jamb-- resident removed from premises on suspicion of criminal violation. Anyone and everyone walking past would have read that. Zechs reached over Duo's shoulder and shredded the notice with his key. It ripped down when he pulled at the halves, leaving spots of glue behind. 'Ignore it,' he said.

The Asylum Centre crew hadn't completely trashed the apartment; when he'd seen that notice, he'd feared it. The cabinets all hung open and Duo's file of bills and other papers had been left spread over the countertop. The cushions on the couch had been removed, the seams opened. Holes had been sawn through the drywall beside all the registers and junctions. 'It's standard procedure,' he murmured. 'Searching for contraband. They could have done worse.'

'My landlord is probably flipping his shit.' Duo scraped the toe of his shoe through drywall shavings left scattered on the floorboards. 'Heero's place, too.'

Zechs hadn't thought of that. 'You could leave it for the government. They'll deal with all of it, when they repossess it.'

'Someone should get his stuff for him. Can you get in there?'

Probably. And those damn computers. Zechs found a blank envelope on the coffee table and a pen, and began writing a list. They would need plaster, paint. Cleaning solvents. Boxes. With Yuy officially in Sanq's custody, Zechs didn't think it likely that Sally would let him ship Yuy's possessions on Preventer's dime, but Relena would surely reimburse him any expenses. Duo wouldn't have any such luck.

Duo interrupted his thoughts by emerging from the bedroom carrying a bundle of sheets. 'They tossed the beds too,' he said, dropping the wadded ball by the door. 'And pulled down part of the drop-ceiling. What the hell were they looking for?'

'Did they find your gun?' Zechs asked him pointedly.

Duo's mouth went thin. 'I'm not an idiot,' he said. 'I didn't leave it laying around in plain sight.'

'They'll have found Heero's. All of them. He didn't have the warning you did.'

Duo bit down on his lips until the skin around them whitened. 'Yeah,' he said finally. 'Probably.'

Zechs opened the refrigerator, and mentally added 'food' to his list as he poked wilted lettuce and checked the expiry date on the milk bag. A nap didn't look to be in his queue any time soon. 'Do you have spare trash bags?' he said. 'I'll get the broom. We should get started.'

'You don't have to stay.' Duo fingered a hole at head-height. 'You've got stuff to do. Or get back to L4.'

Zechs dropped his elbows to the countertop, slowly turning over the pen in his hands. 'He'll be better off in Sanq, Duo.'

Duo turned tense and straight-shouldered. 'You already yelled at me about this.'

'I don't believe I did yell. But maybe you should. Get it out. He'll be better off there. You're still stuck here. He left you behind.'

'What are you doing?'

'I know you think if you just pretend long enough you can make it all right. That's not realistic.'

It was painful to look at Duo's face. Maybe too early; maybe he was pushing too hard and too soon. But Duo was strong enough. And Duo listened, which was more than Zechs could say about himself at that age. Lucy had hammered at him for years before he'd even begun to acknowledge her point. Then again, Duo didn't have the choices he'd had. He couldn't just disappear to the Red Planet for a few years while he found himself.

Or maybe not. 'Why didn't you ever run away?' he asked suddenly. 'All this time here. Don't tell me you couldn't have disappeared if you wanted to. You vanished out of OZ prisons a half-dozen times.'

'Not quite that many,' Duo said, with just a ghost of a smile that faded almost before he'd seen it. He hooked his fingers through the hole and dropped his forehead to the wall beside it. 'If you run away you have to have a place to go to.'

'The colonies. Your friends there. You would have been safe from extradition.'

'Heero was here.'

'I don't mean when he was ill. I mean after you were released. Pieter would have helped you escape. You wouldn't even have needed his help. You're not watched. All you ever had to do was walk to a bus depot and board.'

'I don't know what you want from me.' Duo turned his back, a transparent ploy. He grabbed a double handful of broken drywall from the floor and walked it to the bin in the corner. 'You know what our situation was.'

'Our.'

'What?'

'I think you've lived through Heero for too long. I don't know if you even knew you were doing it.'

'Oh, come on.' Duo threw a square, and it skidded across the floor with a cloud of crumbles before fetching up on the carpet. 'You don't have a fucking clue, man. This kind of pop-psychocology crap-- what are you, a talk-show? Don't be stupid.'

Closer to that hot temper Duo was always claiming he had. There was heat behind that. 'So tell me how it really was. Tell me why someone who's all about moving on stayed in a city for someone who was never going to be able to. Not for you, anyway. Relena--'

'Stop.' Duo said it so quietly that Zechs almost didn't hear it. Not angry. Not hurt. Not anything but a simple word. Zechs licked his lips, and closed them.

'Go take a shower,' he told Duo finally. 'I'll start cleaning up.'

'No. No.' Duo rubbed his dusty hands on his shirt, leaving a white streak behind. He pulled his peacoat down from the hook it had barely had time to rest on, and yanked it on both arms at once. 'I'm going out. Stay or not, I don't care.'

'You expect me to let you walk out the door?'

'I don't expect it-- I'm telling you.' Duo made a fist in his hair and snapped on an elastic. 'Start by getting out of my way.'

He moved, all right, straight in front of the door. 'At least tell me where you plan on going. And where you hid your gun.'

Duo's eyes narrowed dangerously. Zechs almost took it back; it wasn't-- entirely-- a fair thing to have said. Instead, he held his ground, figuratively as well as literally. He spread his feet to carry his weight evenly, and he waited with his arms crossed.

Duo stepped back. To the bedroom. Zechs swayed, thinking he should follow to see what Duo was doing, but Duo was back in moments. Holding the vintage LED alarm clock from his bedside table. He tossed it at Zechs.

Zechs turned it over in his hands, wary of being tested and sure he was failing. 'And?' he said finally.

'I've got a phone that can do my laundry for me, and you never even questioned why I kept a broken old antique around?'

Broken. Yes. He'd noticed it Christmas Eve-- the display didn't work. And even for an antique, the clock was heavy. Suspicion didn't even touch it. He knew. He pried at the plastic slit in the cover, and it popped easily. The clock had no guts. It did have a Glock 22. Loaded.

'I'm not going to shoot anyone,' Duo said. 'Now move, or I make you move.'

On its face that statement was so preposterous that Zechs scoffed without thinking. A moment later, he got a sharp elbow in his solar plexus, followed by a fist with pointed knuckles jabbing his stomach. Zechs grabbed for the wall as he collapsed inward. Duo ducked under his arm, wrenched the door open, and was gone before Zechs could even catch his breath.

'Damn it,' Zechs wheezed. He caught the door on its backswing, and then his own temper finally broke. He threw it closed so hard it bounced, and he kicked it on the rebound. 'Damn it, Duo!'


**


His own tantrum was short-lived. He was simply too tired to sustain it. He made a desultory attempt at cleaning, but stopped after filling a bag with the broken drywall. He sat on Duo's couch, intending to use the quiet to make some necessary calls, but the soft cushions and the silence in the apartment conquered him quickly.

He woke with a head that felt stuffed and heavy. He rubbed sand from his eyes and wearily popped both knees and both elbows before he felt like he might possibly be able to stand upright. He popped his spine, too, working out the crunchy feeling in his shoulders and neck, wondering when he'd started to get old enough that he could feel like an arthritic old man after a short nap. Maybe not so short. The apartment was still closed and he knew by feel that he was alone, but the daylight out the window was gone, replaced with the blue glow of street lamps. He found his mobile on the kitchen counter and tapped it on. Weather foggy and frozen, time well past eight. He'd slept away the entire afternoon. And wherever Duo had gone, he hadn't come back from there yet.

He washed his face in the bath, and filled the kettle to make himself tea. He was still tired enough that he thought of adding Duo's favoured splash of whiskey, but decided against it-- it would only put him back to sleep. He found a bowl of leftover chestnut risotto in the freezer and heated it in the microwave, and finished off the vanilla-poached apricots as well. The carbohydrates did their job; he felt rather more functional with a full belly.

He had forgotten to charge his phone before his sleep, and had to hunt down a cord to use it. He had several messages-- though none from Duo's number, he noted crossly. That hurt perhaps a bit more than it ought to have. Zechs scrolled to the message from Spider's phone and played that first.

'Safe back to Sanq,' his fellow agent reported briskly. 'I'll get the children back to their playpens, no fear. Orange is on Yuy, I'm on the Princess, but at this rate I think there's only one door to guard, so to speak. Maybe Orange can stand under the window in the rose bushes. Do you know, I think we'll be hearing the pitter-pat of little feet soon. Ha-det!'

Zechs could only hope Spider had made that joke in privacy. Relena was still a young woman in the public eye, and rumours would fly without her Preventers guardsmen adding to them. Spider-- probably-- knew better. If he didn't, though, Orange would take care of it. Forcefully. But it was good news they'd made it to Sanq without incident.

He had an earlier message from Neptune's number, and braced himself for that one. He pressed the 'play' button and set the phone on speaker, laying it carefully on the countertop. Her smooth alto voice began immediately.

'Good news and bad news,' she said. 'Brace yourself. We got all but two of the first rescue crew out. They hadn't been able to find anyone before the second blast, but they had gotten calls for help from Junction 6 before the wi-fi went down. We had to clear some rubble to get to 6, but-- good news-- we found seven of the missing miners in the safety curtain there, all alive.'

Seven. Zechs let out an explosive breath he hadn't even realised he'd been holding. That was a miracle-- those men should have run out of air long before rescue was even a possibility.

'They'd made it to the curtain and the extra tanks. After the second blast, though, when it was clear we weren't going to get to them in time, they decided to send someone out to see if they could get to one of the stores of tanks at another junction. And this is where we get to the bad news. Quatre Winner was with them, and he volunteered. He went with another of the miners. They brought back eight tanks, but that still wasn't enough. When they realised they were going to run out, Winner and the other miner went back out to find more tanks. They never came back.'

Damn. There was far too much inevitability in that simple sentence. Of course Quatre Winner would volunteer. And there could have been any number of hazards that would crush, trap, or drain a man of his remaining oxygen during a fruitless search.

'We're still looking,' Neptune continued, but her expressionless voice told him she wasn't holding out hope. 'There is an interesting angle on this, though. Mavise Winner was with the crewmen. She claims she went into the mine to find her brother and warn him. Had a change of heart when she realised the bombs would kill so many people, but her FreeSpace buddies wouldn't let her go until it was too late. Apparently she did get to Winner before the first explosion in time to convince him to get his crew to a safety curtain. Honestly, I don't know how they left her alive without Winner there to stop them from ripping her to pieces.' There was a pause, in which Zechs listened to Neptune's soft breaths; then she said, her voice quieter now, robbed of its usual professionalism, 'It's kind of amazing. Even after what she did, or what she was a part of. All seven men agreed to give up a tank of oxygen to keep her alive. And when we broke through the rubble they sent her out first. All the-- you know, all the horrible things we see sometimes in this job, all the awful things we know people are capable of-- I never thought I'd see something like that. They all protected her.'

Zechs gazed down at the fork drooping between his fingers, silently agreeing with her. He couldn't begin to imagine how hard that group decision had been. And Winner must have known they might let his sister die if he weren't there to stop them. Had he gone for the extra tanks as a bribe to win their cooperation? Or had he just trusted them, believed in them? Sometimes humanity could be more shocking than inhumanity. And wasn't that a sad statement.

'All right,' Neptune said finally. 'I'll keep you up on any progress from here. No-one's giving up on Winner. And they're trying to extract the dead now. We'll still be at this for a while. And tracking down these FreeSpace murderers. Mavise is talking. We should be able to get a dozen of them on what she's confessing. So. Hope your end on Earth is sprouting some good news, too. Talk to you soon.'

Zechs sent that message to his 'save' cabinet. There were no others from her, for better or worse. If they hadn't found Winner and that other crewman yet, they'd still be searching. But if they had found him, if he was dead, they could be under communications lock while they informed the family. A quick search of the news revealed nothing specific, no headlines announcing tragedy. Zechs wasn't quite prepared to assume that no news was good, but he hoped.

It was edging past nine. And still no Duo. Nor could Zechs say with certainty where he would have gone. Yuy's apartment? Maybe. To Van den Broeck? That seemed less likely-- while Van den Broeck would probably welcome him, he didn't see it in Duo to be that openly in need. Duo was two parts independence and three parts determination that the world see him as independent. And whether or not it was true, Duo wanted it to be true-- and having Zechs shove his face in the fact that he'd obviously been torn in two with Yuy's deportation had probably not even approached the edge of helpful. Zechs scrubbed at his tired eyes. He should have known to let Duo accept things in his own time. He should at least have waited until they'd both had a few hours of rest under their belts. But he'd seen an explosion coming and he'd reacted the way he always did to a battle in the offing: he'd attacked first. If he'd given Duo time, given Duo space-- just given Duo simple support, he had to admit that Duo would probably have handled it just fine.

He pulled on his coat, used Duo's spare key to lock the door behind him, and left to get the car.

He did check Yuy's apartment, first stop, but the red flyer announcing Yuy's criminal violations was undisturbed, still securely attached to both door and jamb. It took an hour to make that a round trip back to Duo's apartment, stopping along the way at the market Duo shopped at-- closed-- and the laundry where Duo went for the wash-- open, but empty of all patrons-- and the three small bars in the blocks nearest Duo's apartment, none of which had seen him in weeks. He was pulling back into the alley in defeat when it finally occurred to him that he knew exactly where Duo would go in this kind of mood. He turned right back into traffic and headed for the park.

He left the sedan in a small lot by the ice skating rink. It had started to snow, and his coat was thin defence against the damp cold. He warmed both hands in his armpits as he set off on the lane he'd walked with Duo and Yuy just days ago, crunching frozen grass beneath his heels as he left the bright lights behind for the small solar lamps that gave off only a fading haze to light his way.

It didn't take as long as he'd thought it would. Either Duo hadn't gone far, or he'd been on his way back. He found Duo standing on wooden bridge over Lover's Lake. Telling himself it wasn't jinxing the name, he mounted the bridge, and walked exactly nineteen steps to Duo's side.

'You should've worn a hat,' Duo said.

'I didn't think of it.' After a moment of hesitation, he mimicked Duo's slouch on the rail, settling his elbows on cold wood, rubbing his hands slowly to keep them from chapping. 'Have you been out here all night?'

'I think better when I'm suffering.' Duo let out a little puff of air. He pulled off his cap and held it out. 'Your hair is steaming. Put it on.'

Zechs felt his face heat. He confined himself to a nod of thanks, and pulled it on. It had Duo's warmth, and it smelled like him. The press of his wet hair to his scalp made him shiver, but it did help. 'Did it help? Being out here.'

'I guess.'

Duo didn't seem upset any more, at least. Or at least not so furious with him. There was a heavy blankness to his face, a stillness to the set of his body. Zechs didn't look at him for long. He transferred his gaze to the lake below them. It wasn't entirely ice, but snow was starting to settle on the surface. It had been a long winter.

'What was it like on Mars?' Duo asked him abruptly.

'Mars?' He had to slip his hands into his pockets; they were starting to burn with the chill. He wasn't sure where he'd left his gloves-- probably back in his apartment, or in the office, perhaps. 'Mars,' he repeated slowly, unsure what Duo wanted him to say. He settled on honesty. 'Dusty,' he said. 'Not quite like a desert. The dust gets everywhere, specially during the storms. We used to spend weeks after storms cleaning out vents with toothbrushes.' Duo's cheeks sucked in, like a smile but without the right emotion behind it. Zechs watched him sideways, wishing he knew what was going on behind that mask. 'The bio-domes in the colony keep the temperature even, but outside of them it's cold. Like this, a bit, except in the summer season. It's nice then. In the winter season it's-- you feel how far away you are from everything. Everyone. At first I welcomed that. I thought it was... safest. For everyone else, for me to be so isolated.'

'But you left. Eventually.'

'I suppose in the end I was lonely.' He could close his eyes and summon up his last solid memory of Mars. His last rover mission. He'd separated from the group to pick up a broken sample drone; had crested a crater's ridge and looked out over that vast red surface, pockmarked and streaked with millions of years of humanless history and-- 'It made me come to terms with my smallness,' he said finally. 'The planet didn't need me, want me, care about my existence. It made me feel less a monstrosity than a-- a-- confused and unhappy man who'd made a terrible mistake.'

'I think I could use a moment like that.' He listened to Duo's slow, careful inhale. 'It might be a bit much to ask of a municipal park.'

'Might be.' He risked it, then, because the moment had a kind of tentative possibility to it. He put his arm over Duo's shoulders. Then he changed his mind. He stepped behind Duo and wrapped him in both arms, tucking Duo's head under his chin. Duo's chilly fingers lifted, to curve very lightly over his wrist. Zechs said nothing else. It was good to know he'd chosen rightly, but he didn't need to press it any further. Duo had to come to him, now.

And, miracle of miracles, Duo did. Turned in his arms, tugging at Zechs' collar. Zechs bent, and Duo rested his forehead against his. 'I'm sorry,' Duo whispered.

'It's all right.' He kissed Duo, and smoothed his damp hair down. 'A little yelling is understandable. Let's just leave out the hitting in the future.'

'Maybe.' Duo exhaled a tremulous laugh into his collarbone. 'Okay. I swear.'

'Who taught you to hit like that, anyway?' He guided Duo's cold hand to his chest. 'I can still feel it.'

'A priest.' Duo grinned up at his scepticism. 'I was always getting into fights at school. Father Maxwell said if I was going to misbehave, I might as well learn how to do it without losing all the time.' His grin faded, then. His palm smoothed gently over Zechs' bruised chest. 'He never asked me stay for him.'

Zechs knew they weren't speaking of a priest anymore. 'He needed you,' he answered. 'You know that.'

'I needed him. To matter. I needed to matter to someone.'

'There are other ways to matter.' He gripped Duo's biceps, giving him a tiny shake. 'Let me help you find them?'

He didn't imagine that Duo had to force himself to nod. But he did. Zechs kissed him again, briefly and firmly. 'Good,' he said. 'Now can we please get out of this blizzard?'

'Wimp,' Duo retorted, though his voice was hoarse. 'Yeah. I'm with you.'


**


He made another choice that turned out to be right-- he drove them back to his own apartment. Duo relaxed considerably when he realised where they were headed. He even put his hand over Zechs' on the shift.

'Cook you dinner,' he said.

'Only if you feel like it.' Zechs parked in his usual spot. 'Duo... you know you left your phone at your apartment.'

'What?' Duo touched his coat pockets, before his hand dropped slowly to his lap. 'You checked my messages.'

'I can try to help you get your job back.'

'No.' Duo stared blindly out the windscreen as the wipers swept snow back and forth. 'She was right to sack me. I caused her a lot of trouble, doing this. Busy season. I put my own shit first. Can't do that and be employable.'

'You didn't put your own shit first.' He squeezed Duo's hand and kissed his knuckles. 'You put your friend first. What kind of man would you be if you'd chosen the garage instead?'

'Doesn't mean I didn't break the rules.' Duo blew out a long breath from pursed lips. 'Good news is I'll have plenty of daylight hours to pack up my apartment. Find a new place to live. Cheaper place.'

'Move in with me.'

Duo's head snapped around. 'What?'

The thought had been growing in the back of his mind. Until he'd spoken the words he'd been doubting the wisdom of such a proposition, but now that he was to it, all he felt was calm. 'Move in with me. You should move in.'

'What—' For maybe the first time since they'd met, Duo was genuinely speechless. 'What-- happens, uh, if-- I mean, Lord, what if we break up?'

Zechs shrugged one-shouldered. 'Then you move into the exercise room and pay rent. I'm away enough with Preventers that it wouldn't bother you. We can worry about that if it ever happens.'

Duo bit his lips. 'Jesus,' he whispered. 'I...' He cleared his throat, his eyelashes dipping low. 'If this is just you trying to get laid...'

Zechs didn't dignify that weak attempt at humour. He kissed Duo's forehead. 'Come inside.'

The walk up to his apartment was silent. Rather, they didn't speak, but though they held hands as they climbed in the lift, he was aware that Duo's attention had gone inward-focussed. Whatever he was thinking, he was thinking hard. Zechs had to say his name when the lift arrived on his floor. Duo only gave him an absent 'Uh-huh' and followed where he was tugged. Zechs unlocked his door with distinct relief. 'Welcome home,' he said.

'Uh-huh,' Duo repeated. 'Oh. Give me your coat. I'll hang it up.'

Zechs raised an eyebrow. 'All right.' He surrendered his jacket and scarf. Duo shook it out briskly and hung it in his little foyer closet, and hung his own as well. 'Are you tired?' he asked Duo. 'You could have a bath. Maybe a glass of wine?'

'Okay. Yeah.' Duo leaned back on the closet door. 'You have any of that stuff I left here last time? The food?'

'Most of it. I froze it the way you told me to.'

'Good.' Duo passed him by for the kitchen. 'Why don't you get the wine. I'll cook something.'

Zechs detoured to his hutch. 'Is red all right? I don't have any white.'

'It's fine.' Duo was removing an assortment of containers from Zechs' freezer. 'Are those smoked oysters here? I think I can put something together out of this.'

'Cupboard, right where you left them.' Zechs set a bottle of pinot noir on the counter, out of Duo's way, and rested his elbows beside it. 'You'll fit right in here. You already made a mark.'

Duo's eyes were low, on the tupperware he turned over in his hands. 'I think I love you,' he said.

Zechs rubbed his mouth. 'Duo.'

'Don't say it back, or think that you have to.' Duo flattened his hands on the granite, and met his eyes squarely. 'Most of the time I think we're good at this. We work together, we fit well enough. But then sometimes you have these moments. You say something and it's-- it's so right, like you see past all the extraneous crap and you just know the perfect way to-- say the right thing. And I think I love that. Pretty sure. I'm pretty sure I do.' He reached for the bottle, and placed it between Zechs' fists. 'So. Go open that and pour a couple of glasses, okay?'

'We could talk about it,' Zechs began to say.

'But we don't need to.' Duo's mouth moved, curled up at the corners. 'Just FYI. Been a long couple days for us both. We'll figure it all out when it's time.'

It made for a quiet meal. It made for a lot to think about. He sat sipping his wine and watching Duo move about the kitchen, realising that Duo was right-- they did seem to be good at this part. It was comfortable, this small and normal activity together. It was something he could imagine continuing well into the future-- and imagining the future was not something he'd ever been much capable of. Maybe Duo wanted a Mars moment, but Zechs thought he might be experiencing another for himself. A future. He'd lost all future in the seconds his parents had died. OZ, White Fang-- all of that had been vengeance, not living. He'd been adrift on Mars because he'd been bereft of purpose, and he'd had to learn from scratch how to rebuild, rediscover that. But Duo was so good at that already. Had found identity and purpose in things people like them had rarely been able to try. Zechs could learn from that. And he wanted to. He watched Duo move from the stove to the cutting board, the smooth practised movements of the knife in his capable hands, the way he used a knuckle to loop an errant string of hair behind his ear, twirled his fork between his fingers as he ate. The way he breathed, deeply, evenly, willing it to be okay.

When their plates rested in the sink and the oven was propped open to cool, Zechs pushed their chairs back under the table and palmed the light switch. 'Shall we go to bed?' he asked gently.

'Yeah.' Duo surprised him one more time-- set his palm open and tender against Zechs' belly, smoothing upward over his chest. 'Come on, beautiful.'

He woke abruptly hours later with just the feeling that time had passed. He was a little lightheaded, and cold; the sheet had fallen to his naked waistline, and he was only warm where Duo's back curled to his side. He fumbled in the dark for the duvet, clawing it up where it dragged on the floor. He tucked it carefully around Duo's bare shoulders.

There-- the sound that had waked him. His mobile, beeping in receipt of a message. He sat up against the headboard and set it to his ear to play.

When he had listened to it three times through, he reached down. Duo stirred when Zechs ran his fingers through his hair, sifting it softly away from his forehead. 'Wake up,' he whispered.

Duo fumbled an arm under his head, blinking heavily. 'Huh,' he mumbled, eyes falling closed again. 'What is it.'

'Duo. They found him.'

'What?' Duo's head rolled back. Zechs smiled at his stare.

'They found Quatre,' he told him. 'He's alive. Just barely. He and another miner had gone looking for extra tanks. They weren't able to find any-- they were rationing their own oxygen by the end. But the rescuers found them. They're alive.'

Duo inhaled sharply. 'God. God, I can't believe that. Trowa must be-- rationing? He's not--'

'Too early to tell. Distorientated, of course, but too soon to tell more than that. And Trowa almost kicked his way through the crowd to get to him, yes.' Zechs felt his own smile widen at Duo's fleeting grin. 'It's over.'

'Zechs.' Duo tried to get more out, but his voice failed suddenly. Zechs carefully brushed away the thin line of moisture that clumped Duo's eyelashes.

'I love you too,' Zechs said. He brought Duo's fingers to his lips. 'I do.'

[part 12] [part 14] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]