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

Caveat + Part 14

'Then we tr-- tr-- we--'

'Oxygen,' Barton said sharply, pressing the mask insistently to his lover's face. Quatre Winner fell back to his pillow with a weak gasp. Barton whispered to him, so low that the camera didn't pick it up.

'Was that something important?' Zechs asked. 'Did we get anyone to read his lips?'

'Mèo did,' Cobra assured him. 'He's a useful man to have around. The Director's got that “transfer” gleam in her eye. Anyway, it was just lovey-dovey stuff. Telling Winner he should shut up and sleep.'

Winner had apparently ignored the advice. After only a minute he pushed away the mask. 'We were tr-trying to find ex-ex-- more tanks. We found one of the-- one-- Trowa--'

'One of the bombs,' Barton finished for him. Barton's affect was flat, but Zechs recognised fury behind stony eyes. It was more than obvious he wanted Preventers to shut up, too. 'One that didn't explode.'

'Can you pinpoint the location of the ordnance?' That was Sally's voice, off-screen. 'If we supplied you a map.'

'The tunnel is-- is--'
Winner's face screwed up with visceral frustration. Zechs felt great sympathy for that emotion. He'd seen men suffer from headwounds, concussions, the physical exertion of mobile suit piloting that brought human bodies to deadly extremes. Winner was frustrated now, but the long-term effects of oxygen deprivation might not be evident for years.

'Hey.' It was Duo, emerging from their bedroom rubbing his eyes on his forearm and burying a yawn in his elbow. 'You were gone when I woke up.'

'Back to work.' He tapped a quick message to Cobra, who paused playback for him and kept wisely mum with Duo near enough to overhear. 'There's juice and yoghurt,' Zechs added, twisting in his seat to face Duo. 'The kettle should still be warm.'

'Thanks.' Duo crossed his arms over his bare chest. 'You have anything I could wear? My clothes are still damp. Should've put them in the dryer last night.'

'Of course.' He rose from his desk and opened the laundry closet. A white undershirt and long-sleeved overshirt. 'Trousers might be more difficult,' he said. 'We can try.'

'I can sit around in my shorts.' Duo shrugged into Zechs' clothing, pushing the sleeves up his wrists when they fell long over his hands. 'It's not like I've got anywhere to be.'

Zechs kissed him. 'It won't seem so bad for long. We'll talk about options. I just need to finish this.'

'Oh.' Duo's eyes dipped behind him to the computer. 'Guess I'm dismissed.'

'I didn't mean it like that.'

'No, classified, or whatever. Yeah.' Duo pushed at the long sleeves again. 'I'll, um, use the shower.'

'Thank you.' Zechs kissed him again, to take the sting out of it. 'I won't be long.'

'That's almost the end of the video, anyway,' Cobra told him when he returned. 'Barton called it a halt. Winner gave us the location of the unexploded ordnance, and they're working on getting to it. If we could match the construction to the plans Mavise Winner has, we'll have these bastards cold.'

'What did Quatre Winner say about FreeSpace?'

'Only that he knew they had a grudge and that he'd known about his sister's involvement. He hadn't been expecting violence. No-one was; they were on a lot of radars, but no-one caught it coming.'

'So the question is what pushed them to act now?'

'We're still establishing that. Mavise doesn't seem sure about it, or she's just not telling. And she's got a lawyer now. The family lawyer.'

'The same one who was there turning her in?'

'They're cooperating, but he's angling for immunity. He might get it, if they keep her talking.'

'Can he convince Mavise to turn on FreeSpace? Do they know yet she's betrayed them?' Zechs tapped his fingers on his desk, nudging a broken rubber band across the oak planks. 'If Preventers can send her back to the fold, she could gather enough intelligence to shut the entire operation down.'

'You think big,' Cobra mused. 'I'll bring it to the Director. You volunteering to run the op?'

'We'll see if Sally takes the bait before I go around dropping names.' Zechs checked his watch. 'It's getting late for you. Go get some sleep. Thanks for filling me in, Cobra.'

'No problem.'

His bath was steaming when he entered. 'It's me,' he said, perhaps inanely. 'Just going to shave. Will it bother you?'

'It's your place.'

'Our place.'

The shower curtain inched back with a little shriek of hangers on the metal rod. Duo's head, hair slicked in a sudsy fall over his cheek, peeked out. 'You all done out there?' he asked.

'More or less.' He intercepted a drip of soapy water on its way to Duo's eye. 'How did you sleep?'

'Okay, I guess.' Duo pushed his hair back, then reached for Zechs' wrist. 'Find out how big your water tank is?'

'Are you sure?' he asked, though his mouth went dry just thinking about it. The touch of Duo's fingers on his skin was suddenly electric.

'Think we could both use it.' Duo let out a long, shaky breath. 'Think, uh, reaffirming, and, um, therapeutic stress relief. And you did a big thing for me and I don't think I handled it, um, as brilliantly as it deserved, so... how about I find a way to say thanks that maybe doesn't give me a chance to say so many wrong words?'

'Duo, if you were perfect, I'd be in trouble.' He leaned into the shower to kiss Duo, getting spattered by the shower nozzle in the process. He stepped back to pull off his shirt, and shucked his sweatpants as quickly as he could. He swallowed Duo's snigger by grabbing him up in both arms. Duo had time for just a gasp before Zechs pressed their mouths together.



**


'I sort of pictured a bigger budget,' Duo observed.

'The budget goes to the artillery, not the offices.' Zechs palmed the wallswitch, and daylight flooded the floor as the blinds rose on auto. 'Though I hear the original carpet was vertigo-inducing.'

'I'm not entirely sure you've improved on it.' Duo shuddered as he forced his eyes up from the swirl pattern beneath his shoes. 'So where do you sit?'

'I'm on another floor. We can go by it if you really want to. But this is where the interview suites are.' He bent to hold his keycard to the receptor, and the inside locks released for him. 'Through here. You want a tea before we start?'

'Yeah, I guess. Maybe.' Duo was slow in following, and Zechs had to tap the receptor again to keep the door open long enough for him. 'We really have to record this? You can't just, like, take notes? When they interviewed us in the beginning they just took notes.'

'They did tape you, just not visually.' He chose the first suite, the one with ergonomic chairs. 'Go sit down. I'll get the computer running.'

Setting up the tape was simple enough. While technicians handled the video after it had been filmed, every agent was responsible for handling the front end of the process-- one of those budgetary constraints Duo frowned on. He paused to fill the kettle. Their milk wasn't fresh, so he used lemon and honey instead. He entered the interview room to find Duo chewing his fingernail and staring at the ceiling tiles.

'This will be painless,' Zechs promised. He set Duo's cup before him, and took the seat across the table. 'What we really want to do is cover the run-up to what happened with the Asylum Centre. None of our forensic leads have panned out to anything, but I don't think we can question that the person behind all the other attacks is the one who also called in the tip on Heero.'

'It's good to know we can still inspire dedication.' Duo hunched over his tea. 'Which is what I don't get, actually. We've all had stalkers before, but most of them do something certifiably crazy before it drags on this long.'

'Go back to when you realised Heero was gone. What happened exactly?'

Duo sighed, but he obeyed without argument. 'Work ran over. I was supposed to be off at five, but I was working on a re-wire, and I wanted to get it right before I quit for the night. I didn't get home until almost seven.'

'Do you know the exact time?'

'Not exact. My train arrived at six-forty-two. It takes nine minutes to walk from the station to my apartment, if I don't rush. So it was six-fifty-one, give or take a minute.'

He smiled at that off-hand statement. Duo was probably every bit as aware of his surroundings as Heero Yuy-- he just didn't look quite as paranoid doing it. 'So at six-fifty-one, you made it home.'

'Yeah. That red flier we saw-- there wasn't one of those yet. The door was unlocked, that was how I knew something was wrong. Heero doesn't leave doors unlocked. Nothing was missing except for Heero and the computer he used. I knew if he had just decided to go somewhere, he would have left me a message, a note, something. If he'd been taken by someone not legit, like private mercs or this stalker or whoever, there would've been a sign of struggle; Heero knows how to leave damage. But the place was clean and nothing was disturbed, so I figured it had to be some kind of state-sponsored. So I called the police, but they didn't know shit about--'

Zechs felt a buzz at his belt. His mobile phone. He held up a finger, and Duo paused. 'Relena,' Zechs said, recognising the number. 'I should answer. Just a moment.'

He stepped just outside the door, closing it almost entirely not just to keep Duo from overhearing, but to ensure the recording wouldn't pick up his voice. 'Zechs,' he answered, pressing the mobile to his ear.

'It's me,' his sister said. 'How are you doing, Zechs? And Duo? We were out of Brussels so quickly I didn't even have a chance to tell him good-bye.'

'He'll be all right.' He did close the door entirely, then. 'And you? Yuy?'

'Oh... all to the good.' He could almost hear the blush in that. 'Zechs, I just wanted to thank you. I can't imagine what would have happened if you hadn't been so quick on your feet.'

'That's my job. But I'm glad for both of you. And I'll pass it on to Duo.'

'Is there any chance of arranging a way for them to speak? He won't say it under pain of death, but--'

'I know exactly what you mean.' Zechs glanced behind him, and took a few steps into the shelter of the break room across from the interview suite. He'd forgot to unplug the kettle, and did it now. 'It's still not legal for Duo to have contact with any Gundam Pilot not physically in Brussels. As soon as Heero left the city, he lost the right to contact Duo.'

'It's not right,' she said, and her tone told him that she'd known the answer before she'd asked, and felt as helpless as he did. 'Well,' she continued finally. 'Then tell him we love him from afar. And you, Zechs. You really were brilliant.'

'I'm glad it worked.'

'Oh,' she said then. 'Zechs, I hate to ask this, but--' He waited, listening to her breathing change from hesitant to certain. 'I tried to find Pargan before we left for Brussels. He was supposed to come to the palace for the Christmas dinner, but he called and said he was ill. Troyes has tried to reach him, and we even checked on him at home before we left, but he doesn't seem to be there, and his car is missing. I wouldn't bring it up, but he's been so frail lately. I'm worried.'

'Did you notify the police?' he asked, unsure why she was bringing it up. 'I'm not sure there's anything I can do.'

'I did call the police. They said they visited, and that his grandson said he was all right, but I don't think they actually saw Pargan.'

'I can ask one of our locals to look in,' he decided, mostly to reassure her. 'I'll let you know.'

'I appreciate it. I suppose it's possible he's just gone to visit a relative or something-- I just thought he would tell me if he did.'

'No, it's fine. I'll let you know.'

'Thank you. Really.' She sighed against his ear. 'I'll talk to you soon.'

Duo was sitting in his chair exactly as Zechs had left him. If not for a slight-- very slight-- shift of his eyes that smelled just a little bit guilty, Zechs would have believed he hadn't moved for the duration of Zechs' call. But he didn't mention it. He resumed his seat.

'You were telling me about the police,' he said.

'Huh.' Duo laced his fingers under his chin, his elbows digging into the table between them. 'Sure. The police know about me and Heero, well, Heero mostly. He's kind of a regular, if you know what I mean.'

'I can imagine.' He wondered if Relena knew about that habit of Yuy's. Or if Yuy would feel compelled, still, to continue it in Sanq. On second thought, he didn't need to ask that question. Yuy wasn't going to change overnight, even if he was significantly safer out of Brussels. Maybe he would have that local Preventer drop in on Yuy, too, and remind him not to make a nuisance of himself where it could reflect on Relena.

'So they took me seriously, at least. They listed Heero as missing, and they put out some squad cars to look for him. They put out calls to hospitals, border patrol, public transportation. I guess it took them a couple of hours to think of the immigration angle. Inspector Dumont told me they'd taken Heero. He said they'd put him in detention and that it was likely he was going to be deported, because they'd be out to prove Heero had violated his terms. Guess it goes without saying that if they looked hard enough they'd find something they could use. They never wanted us here, but some trigger-happy jerk arrested us after the Rebellion and they've been stuck dealing with us ever since. God, it makes me so angry, you know? They've never been able to deal with us like human beings. Just liabilities. Embarrassments. Honestly I've never understood why they didn't just have us offed in prison.'

Zechs twitched just a little, aware of that tape rolling, recording that too-casual condemnation of state authorities. International authorities, really, because the decision to imprison and try the Gundam Pilots had been agreed to by quite a lot of interested parties. 'Let's stay away from blanket statements.'

'Why? Haven't they just proved it all over again? They don't care what happens to us as long as they don't have to be in the room when it does.' Duo slumped sullenly in his chair. 'Whatever. Anyway. I tried for hours to get in touch with someone at the Centre. It took me hours just to get a live person. They finally shunted me over to some lawyer who told me they might not even get to Heero's case for months. So whoever this stalker is, he's just like those guys. He's shoving us off onto someone else, hoping they'll do the dirty work. You know what I would do if I hated someone that much? I'd stick a fucking knife in them and just be done with it.'

'We're done with the interview,' Zechs overrode him, not quite in time to cover that. Then he sighed. 'Can you try not to litter this video with incriminating--'

'No, because I'm angry and they hurt me.'

'But not Preventers.'

Duo paused open-mouthed. 'Ohhh, don't you even.'

'What?'

'I'm not looking for a job, specially not with Preventers.' Duo let out half an incredulous laugh; he sighed out the rest of into his palm. 'You wanted Heero and you'll never get him now. I am so not a substitute. I don't play like he would've.'

'Do you see me making skull caps out of babies, Duo?' Zechs demanded, irritated himself. 'You seem to be under the impression that Preventers has some deep moral fissure at its heart. Yet in the last week we've done almost nothing but stand behind the Gundam Pilots.'

'It's not that you don't try. It's that you never quite manage to do.' Duo dropped his eyes then. 'I'm not ungrateful for this. But I draw a line between standing behind us when it's personal and not standing behind us when it's not. Because I'm looking around at a damn empty office and wondering where the hell your buddies are.'

He didn't have an answer for that. Duo was right. And he'd been angry about that himself, having to beg for permission to leave L4.

'Don't write us off yet,' he murmured at last. 'At the very least, you haven't seen the garage.'

He surprised Duo into an unwilling chuckle. 'The infamous Preventers MS fleet?'

'You're wasted working on those old service drones.'

'Why don't we wait on any offers of employment.' Duo sucked on his lower lip. 'Go turn off the video. Then give me the tour.'

After the many highs and lows of the past days, there was something peaceful about just walking with Duo. They moved at a slow, ambling pace, fingers curled together, shoulders brushing every other step. He gave up the pretence of actually touring Duo quickly-- there wasn't much to see, after all. The important part was just to be moving, with Duo.

'The couch isn't mine,' Duo said, after a silence that had lasted two storeys. 'The bed is. But I got it from a charity sale we had at Small Arms. I could live without it.'

'I don't really have much furniture.'

'I've noticed. If we scavange Heero's place, we could at least get extra chairs.'

'I think we can do a little better than recycled office pieces.' He pointed Duo ahead of him. 'That's my cubicle. And since we're here, I should follow up on a request Relena made.'

'What's Chickadee want now?' Duo sat in Tropic's chair, rolling it back and forth over the worn carpet. 'You need some personal mementos in here. We should do one of those cute couples pics, like Old Time Cowboys. Or matching golf outfits.'

'This should only take a moment.' He'd left his computer booted yesterday-- had it really only been yesterday?-- and his email opened immediately. Top of the queue was one from Sally, declaring a close to the mass involvement of Preventers in the L4 mine bombing. She named a team to stay behind, a diplomatic sprinkling from various offices from both Earth and the Colonies; the eponymous Mèo had been named team lead. Sally really was looking to recruit him, if she was personally appointing him to high-profile positions. 'I just need to enter a request for the Kalmar department.'

'Another classified thing? You need me to put on a blindfold or something?'

'No, it's fine.' He called up a request form and began to enter the data. 'Relena thinks something might be wrong with her driver.'

'Pargan? She thinks the grandson did something?'

'What?' He looked over his shoulder at Duo. 'What makes you think that?'

'Kind of the logical conclusion. You said he was a real freak on wheels. If Pargan's in trouble--'

'We don't really know that he is. Just that he didn't answer a phone call. I promised Relena someone would look in on him.' It took only moments to complete the form-- it was a fishing exercise and barely that. He left it open to the discretion of the local Preventers and gave his own name as contact. 'All done. We can go, if you like. Get a light lunch somewhere. I'll have to get back to regular office hours tomorrow when the others return.'

'Okay.' Duo helped himself to a stick of gum from the pack in Tropic's desk drawer. 'Short honeymoon, huh.'

'Do you want to take time like that? I could put in for a vacation.'

'You should stick around until it's not so crazy at work.' Duo blew a small bubble with his gum, and popped it between his teeth. 'We'll figure it out. Come on. I'm in the mood for Italian. And a big-ass bottle of wine.'

'I'm yours to command.' He shut off his computer and stood. 'So what's this about matching golf outfits?'


**


Duo greeted him the next morning with breakfast in bed. Zechs was sitting up at his alarm when Duo entered their bedroom carrying a tray-- or, as Zechs discovered when it was placed on his knees, a cardboard box lid covered with a dishtowel. He smiled sleepily at Duo's ingenuity, and picked up a triangle of buttered toast. 'I could get used to this,' he murmured.

'That would be unfortunate for you.' Duo climbed back under the sheets, bumping Zechs with frozen toes. 'Figured I'd send you off in style just this once. I packed you a lunch, too.'

'I think you rather like these little domestic moments.' His plate had fresh asparagus in hollandaise, a poached egg with shavings of what tasted like parmesan. 'What will you do today?'

'Go home. Old-home. Clean up. Maybe Heero's if I can get in.'

'Are you sure you're up to it?'

'It's gotta get done. Might as well be sooner.' Duo stole a sprig of asparagus and slumped comfortably against Zechs' arm to eat it. 'You think you'll be late?'

'Possibly. We'll be debriefing all day.' He shifted to put his arm about Duo's shoulders and pressed his lips to Duo's messy hair. 'I'd ask you to come shower with me, but given how long it took us last time, maybe we should pass.'

'Oh, you're such a romantic.' Duo's fingers made a trip down his hip, making a familiar and rather possessive cup over his groin. 'You've got about ten minutes to spare, right?'

They'd made love only hours ago, before falling asleep. He'd begun to think it then, but the thought completed itself now. He carefully, gently lifted Duo's hand by the wrist, wrapping it in his hand. 'You know I'll come rushing home for you. It will be all right.'

'What's that got to do with the price of tea in China?' Duo applied lips and tongue to his neck, and Zechs shivered. 'Nine minutes, now. I can do it if you can.'

'Duo.' He kissed Duo firmly, and set his breakfast aside. 'Tonight, when we can go slow, appreciate each other. Promise.'

'You really are a romantic.' Duo accepted it quietly, though, and without offence. He even managed a small smile for Zechs. 'Go shower. Maybe I can drive to the office with you and use the car after?'

'Good idea.' He tweaked Duo's ear. 'If you get ready fast enough we could... make out in the car when we get there.'

Duo's eyes crinkled as he grinned. 'I dig how corruptible you are.'

They did, too: with the manual shift digging into his thigh as if mocking him with what he could have had if they'd stayed in bed. Duo was scrupulously keeping his hands to himself, almost as he had when they'd first been dating. And yet there was something sweet to it because of that. Zechs found himself simply petting Duo's hair, twirling soft strands over his knuckles. It was the perfect length, long enough to wrap his fist, short enough not to get in the way as his own sometimes did, never snagging on collars or trapping him in carseats. Maybe it was time for a trim.

'You're not concentrating properly,' Duo chided, and sat back before Zechs could protest. His lips were pinked and slightly swollen, and Zechs touched them with the pad of his thumb, just a bit smug to have made that happen.

'I'm thinking about a lot of things,' he admitted belatedly. 'I think I'm happy.'

'Yeah?'

'Yes.' He reached for his bagged lunch on the dash, crinkling the paper bag in his hold, and admitted a step more. 'And I like that you'll be there tonight when I get home. I never thought I would have this. A life with someone. When I was young I was too focussed on-- but even after the war, on Mars, it still never seemed a possibility, it wasn't something I could-- imagine. Now it seems the most natural possible thing.'

'I don't know if I'm really housewife material.' Duo wouldn't quite look at him, as if the concrete wall at their bumper had some deep fascination for him. 'It took Heero and me a long time to figure out just roommates.'

'I am not Heero Yuy. And maybe that's a good thing. Because I know what I want from you. I don't think Heero ever quite did.' Duo started to protest, and Zechs shushed him by leaning across the seats for a final kiss. 'I'm not saying that to be mean or to denigrate your relationship with him. Just to point out that you and I are going to have something that's unique. And maybe a little bit better for us both.'

Duo's gaze was searching, now. Zechs left himself open to it, calmly meeting Duo's eyes. Maybe Van den Broeck hadn't been so entirely off the mark with his warnings. Duo wanted him in a niche, a little box with definable rules and expectations, the kind of box Heero Yuy had been born to fill. Zechs, on the other hand, had upset that a few times now, surprised Duo, maybe even unnerved him a little. But maybe that was precisely why Duo was drawn to him. Most of the time they worked well together. And sometimes they worked better than well, because they could choose their own direction together. People in boxes didn't make it very far at all.

'I—' Duo began.

They both started at the knock to Zechs' window. Zechs let out a deep breath before he reached for the control, to roll it down. 'Tropic,' he said. 'Good to see you planet-side.'

'Same.' Tropic was not looking at him. He was looking at Duo. 'I take it the mission was successful,' he added.

'Mission-- so to speak.' Tropic did not look like he was going anywhere fast. Surrendering on the notion of a few more minutes of privacy, Zechs opened his door and exited the vehicle. Duo did the same, circling slowly around the rear and joining them in a slouch-shouldered hunch against the side of the car. 'Unfortunately, Heero Yuy did have to leave Brussels,' Zechs continued. 'But we were able to work out a compromise. He'll be in Sanq now, under the same terms of parole.'

'Interesting,' Tropic said. He sounded slightly strained, but waved off Zechs' concern as he removed a small chemical inhaler from his coat. 'Got a face-full of dust at the mines,' he said. 'The medic assures me it will pass.'

'Sorry to hear that.' Duo kicked a tyre, and Zechs glanced at him. 'Duo's using the car today,' he said, part excuse, part filler of that awkward silence. 'Duo, I don't think you've met my partner, Agent Tropic.'

'Partner?' Duo's eyes narrowed. 'I thought the bombshell was your partner. Neptune.'

'No, she just accompanied me that day.'

'And when you met with Heero, too.'

'Nevertheless.'

'Uh-huh.' Duo made no move to extend a hand, to greet Tropic in any way that even verged on polite. More of that business of not liking Preventers? But he did like Neptune, if that was what this sullenness was about, and he'd liked Cobra and Mamba too. Then again, Tropic made no attempt to cover Duo's gaffe, only regarding him inscrutably. But Tropic was always like that.

'I should go,' Zechs said at last. 'Duo, I'll see you tonight?'

'Yeah.' Duo did go through the open window to retrieve his bag lunch for him. 'Give me a ring when you're leaving and I'll be sure to meet you there.'

'All right.' He wasn't sure about kissing Duo in front of Tropic, but Duo mooted that point by opening the car door right between their bodies, and climbing in without further word. A moment later the car started. Duo nodded once to him, and then Zechs was stepping back as he pulled out of the parking slot. After a tight three-point turn, Duo was gone.



**


'Why this kind of thing always happens over Christmas I'll never understand,' Mamba complained.

'That's true, it does seem to clump over the holidays,' Sally agreed.

'Maybe they're rushing to get it in by the end of the calendar year.' Neptune snagged the last of the speculoos, a Christmas biscuit supplied by Mamba, their only Belgian agent. 'Anyone have New Year's Eve plans?'

Zechs had to check that count on his fingers. 'It is New Year's Eve, isn't it?'

'Dancing,' Sally said firmly. 'I'm going to get all dolled up and find a club to crash. I've got my eye on a swank little number I saw in a boutique. Black and silver pearls all over the bodice and the back goes all the way down to here, I swear. If I don't make a dozen conquests, it won't be for lack of trying. You in, Rebeka?'

'Definitely.' Neptune dusted her fingers of cookie crumbs, giving Zechs a sly look from under the cover of long dark lashes. 'You and Duo should join us,' she said.

'I don't know,' he murmured, glancing sideways at Mamba. The black-eyed Belgian wore a Cheshire grin at his embarrassment; no secrets there. Neptune's eyeroll berated him silently for doubting her discretion. 'It's been a stressful week.'

'Which is why you need to let go. Life goes back to sucking quick enough on first January.'

'Maybe.' Duo would be tired. But maybe it would be a good thing. Get his mind off the losses of the past days, if only for a little while. And something special to mark their progress together. That warmed him to the idea. 'Let me know the address of the club.'

'Well, look at you.' Sally was openly amused with him. 'You know, a year ago you would have died before you agreed to go dancing.'

'I have a few tricks up my sleeve,' he said solemnly, then winked. Mamba guffawed, and Sally punched him lightly in the arm. 'That's my phone ringing. I should answer.'

'See you tonight, then.'

He made it to his desk just in time, and grabbed up the receiver. 'Agent Wind.'

'Agent Ulv,' was the brisk introduction. Wolf. Zechs called to mind a vague memory of a rangy woman of middle age, with bristling grey hair worn in a thick braid that wrapped around her head like a crown. 'Calling with regard to your request from yesterday.'

'Yes, the Princess' driver.' Tropic was at work on his computer, typing a report; he paused at Zechs' words, twisting in his chair to look. Zechs waved him off. 'Anything to report?'

'I had two of my youngsters go out to check as you asked. They can't enter the house without a warrant, but I wanted to let you know I am pursuing one.'

'They didn't speak to him?'

'He wasn't there, but a boy was. Records indicate the boy is on parole. He was a fishy character, raised suspicions with my men. Evasive about the subject, you understand. I want to search the house.'

'Thank you for informing me. You'll keep me abreast of developments?'

'I will.'

'Many thanks.' Zechs hung up slowly, wondering. He'd dismissed Relena's concerns initially, but now it sounded as though she may have been onto something. If only that the grandson was afraid of Preventers, having already dealt with them once. It was possible Pargan had simply ailed-- it happened, that the elderly went out, collapsed, were rushed to hospital without any identification, no way of discerning their identity. And, he supposed he had to admit, it was possible that Duo was right-- the grandson had done something and was trying to hide it. That wasn't Preventers' fault. The court had let the boy go rather than imprison or commit him, lenient toward a first-time offender. But first times had a way of becoming second times. If that was what had happened, Ulv would know, soon.

'Trouble?' Tropic asked him.

'It seems like there might be.' Zechs sat back in his chair, tapping his desk. 'Miles Pargan, the driver for Relena Peacecraft. It seems there's some difficulty in contacting him. The Princess asked me to look in on it. The locals want to search his house for evidence.'

'Search his house.' Tropic coughed, and reached for his inhaler again. 'What about Árni Olsen?'

'The grandson? Nothing to arrest him for, I gather. The situation is just odd.'

'Mm.' Tropic went back to his report. Zechs raised an eyebrow, surprised by that exchange. Tropic wasn't one for extraneous detail.

'A rough thing, on L4,' he ventured, thinking that might be behind it. 'Everyone was greatly affected.'

'L4?' Tropic cast him a queer look. 'What are you talking about?'

So much for that angle. One day he would give up looking for depths in his partner. 'It's nearing seven,' he said. 'I'm going to head home. Don't stay all night working on that report.'

'No. Good night.'

'Good night.' Zechs stood, shrugging into his coat. 'Happy New Year.'

'Mm,' Tropic said, and that was that.


**


'Dancing?' Duo seemed cautiously pleased by that. He stacked a box that clanked onto the kitchen counter. 'Do you do that? Dance?'

'Every OZ cadet had mandatory lessons. We were gentlemen as well as officers.' He flourished his hand through the air, bowing low for Duo. Duo snickered at him. 'You think there will be waltzing at this club?'

'Oh yeah, it's all the rage with the kids these days.' Duo lifted a final box to the counter, and dusted his hands. 'Your partner going to be there?'

'They might have invited him, but I shouldn't think he'd come.' Some of Yuy's chairs had made it to his apartment after all. Zechs unfolded one and sat on it. 'The others will have dates. It won't be just you and the Preventers.'

'I don't know. I'm kind of tired.'

'Then we'll stay in.'

'No, we should go.' Duo sounded certain enough, so Zechs nodded his acceptance, but he wondered what had occasioned such a quick change of heart. 'So,' Duo said then, 'it's cool to introduce me to your work mates? I'm not outing you or anything?'

'I think I outed myself, on Christmas Eve.' He snagged Duo by the belt loop when Duo passed near, and rose to hold him close. Duo settled comfortably against his chest, and Zechs wrapped him tight in both arms, liking how it felt. 'Earlier,' he confessed softly, 'Relena said to tell you. Heero misses you.'

For a moment, just a moment, Duo went horribly tense; and then just as swiftly he unwound, so completely that Zechs was nearly holding him up. 'I'm going to be sad about it for a while,' Duo said, muffled against his chest. 'Just to warn you.'

'I know.'

'Miss the racket, anyway. He snored almost as badly as you do.'

'I do not snore.' He squeezed Duo until he squawked, and then they were both laughing. 'I don't snore.'

'Are you kidding me? There's a reason I'm always awake before you. It's a good thing I'm out of work, it'll give me time to sleep it off during the daylight.'

'I don't either snore.' He scrabbled at Duo's ribs, grinning as he found sensitive spots. Duo tried to wiggle away, and he gave chase, and then they were on the carpet, and then Duo's mouth was on his, and then they were going to be late, but that didn't seem to be all that important a problem, really.

[part 13] [part 15] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]