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

Caveat + Part 15

'Oh, come the fuck on,' Duo complained.

'I think it would be a very good thing. You wish to give more time, I wish to pay you for it. This is what they call a win-win, I think.' Pieter smiled the smile of a saint down at his young charge. 'Small Arms can use you. You know it.'

Zechs kept his comments to himself, even when Duo cast a pleading look in his direction. Personally, he still had reservations about Small Arms, but he couldn't fault Van den Broeck for the generosity of his offer. And it would look damn good with the parole board.

An idea that was clearly not lost on Duo. His reluctance was real, and it was probably based firmly in the grudge he was carrying about the last week. Duo was in no mood to play good for anyone.

Van den Broeck just as clearly saw it coming. Zechs would bet he'd had plenty of time to experience Duo's moods for himself. But he played Duo like an expert. He sipped his brandy, waved a hand as if to brush aside the entire conversation, and then reached into a pocket. 'I almost forgot. The children wished you to have this.'

'That's so low I can't believe it even out of a lawyer,' Duo said, but his shoulders slumped as he took the photograph Van den Broeck extended. 'Using the kids against me.'

'Cheerfully,' Van den Broeck admitted brightly. 'You may refuse me, but I think you will not refuse them. They call him Doudou,' he told Zechs, over the brim of his crystal glass. 'One of those petits noms d'amour, a little love name. They do love him.'

'Doudou?' Zechs asked.

'It's a pun,' Duo muttered sourly, but he hadn't yet taken his eyes off his picture. 'My name. It's what French kids call their teddy bears. Doudou.'

He knew. He couldn't tell if Duo liked it, the nickname. He couldn't quite imagine it. Then he thought of Heero, and changed his mind.

'I'll think about it,' Duo said finally.

'As you should. And I hope you have many competing offers, but I wanted to be first in the door.' Van den Broeck smiled fondly at Duo, and patted his hand. 'I will hold it open for you. Let me know when you're ready to decide.'

'The money's good,' Zechs said later. He washed Van den Broeck's plate and set his own beside it on the drying rack. 'And given the price of those scallops we could use a second income.'

'Hey, I was going to go with the cheap crab. You're the one who said make it special.' Duo divided the last of the brandy bottle between their two glasses, and propped himself up on the counter, heels bumping lightly on the cupboard beneath him. 'You really think the money is good?'

'For NGO work? I think Pieter wouldn't offer you less than market.'

'How much do you make?'

Zechs gave some extra concentration to rinsing their cutlery. 'A little more than... a little more than that.'

'You can tell me. Now that I live here I might, like, see bills and shit.'

He scrubbed a fork with the soapy flannel. 'A little more than triple that.'

'Shit.' Duo was blinking rapidly when Zechs risked a glance. 'Holy shit. I mean I guessed you made bank, but shit. Why the hell are you dating me? You could buy me. You could buy me and my apartment. And Heero's.'

'Not quite.' He rinsed his hands and dried them. 'So what do you think? About the job, not the money.'

'I don't know.' Duo kicked the cabinet, and fell back on his elbows. 'I don't know if-- I mean, I have no idea if I can sit at a desk. Like phone calls and brochures all day? That's not me. I want to work with my hands and I want to have product at the end of the day.'

'There would certainly be more administrative work, but don't forget how much time you'd have to work with the children.'

'And who says I'd even be good at that? I don't have a degree, I don't know what's going to cause lifelong trauma. What if I say the wrong thing and I fuck some poor kid up for life?' Duo worried his lower lip, staring at, doubtless, ugly visions. Had something wrong been said to him, once? Or was he thinking of Heero, too, who couldn't even bear a short conversation about war? 'I don't want to hurt these kids,' Duo said. 'They deserve better.'

'You haven't really looked for other work yet. Something else might come up that would suit you more.' Zechs reached for his glass and drank the last swallow, and decided a subject change was in order. 'So. Our regular caseload is back on. Tropic and I have put off our Syria trip twice, so maybe third time will be the charm.'

'No breaks, huh?' Duo drank, too, and set his glass down very carefully. 'I need to tell you something.'

'What is it?' He took a stance between Duo's knees, drumming lightly on Duo's denims. 'Something serious?'

'Maybe. Could be.' Duo chewed his lower lip, and sighed. 'Your partner. He's blond, mid-thirties, well-built.'

'I suppose he is. What about it?'

'That's the description Gervaas gave to Preventers. When someone took Heero's mail.'

Zechs turned his face up to the ceiling, and took in a long slow breath. 'If that's all you've got, Duo, I don't appreciate it.'

'He watched our apartments. Heero's and mine.'

'We had all of Headquarters in rotation watching your apartment.'

'No, you didn't. Cobra and Mamba and Hydra and you. I only met Neptune after the hospital, and she was never on detail here. Your partner wasn't on detail either, was he.' Duo caught his eyes, level and unblinking. 'He stood on the corner outside, in front. And he's on Heero's videotape from before you asked him to stop filming people on the street. I checked it yesterday.'

He pushed off from the counter and stood back against the stove, instead. 'I'm still waiting for you to come to a point.'

'Don't do that.' Duo sat up, his fists clenching on the counter beside him. 'Don't shut me down and do that Preventer thing where you act like I'm some criminal crud on your shoe. I'm telling you your partner isn't on the up and up, man.'

'You're making an accusation that doesn't appear to be substantiated,' Zechs countered. 'If you have something more than legal Preventers protection and an extremely broad profile then I'd be happy to hear it.' He spread his hands expectantly.

Duo looked away with an impatient eye-roll. 'This is fun. Glad we talked.'

'What do you want me to do? Investigate my partner?'

'Yes,' Duo said, as if that had been the obvious answer all along. 'Thank you.'

'I'm not agreeing to do it! Duo, does it occur to you he had legitimate reasons for whatever it is you think he's done? Assuming he's actually done anything?'

'I'd love to hear it. Truthfully. If there's a good reason for him to be watching us on private time and interfering with--'

'Possibly interfering. Assuming that one of the hundreds of thousands of other blond men in their mid-thirties weren't the ones who-- I'm not going to argue this with you.' He made himself breach the distance, and put his hands on Duo's knees again. 'I understand that Heero's-- departure-- is going to be an adjustment for you, that you don't feel as safe--'

'Condescending to me is not going to make this magically disappear, Zechs.'

'And you acting like rules don't apply because we're dating doesn't make me magically take you seriously when you're in the wrong. Now unclench.' He put his hands on Duo's cheeks, his thumbs over Duo's grinding jaws. 'Take a deep breath and step back from this for a moment. Piece by piece. Tropic wasn't my partner when we first received threats against you. He was working with Hydra then. So he absolutely had a legitimate reason for being outside your apartment.'

It took Duo a minute. 'The mail,' he said finally, and even in his tone Zechs knew their argument was fading out.

'We have no prints from the notary form. Blond is just not enough to go on, Duo.'

'Why isn't anyone watching now? If all your cases are back on the table. Why isn't there a car out there? Heero got fucking kicked out of the country and where are they? What's coming next?'

He didn't have a quick response to that. A number of thoughts went firing by, most of them contradictory and self-reversing. 'We're playing triage,' he began, and let his voice trail off.

'They're killing the case, aren't they.'

'I don't know. I don't think a decision's been made.'

'Well, find out.' Duo turned his head so that his cheek rested in Zechs' palm. 'I don't want to be some A or B option between you and your job, but if I'm not what you pick, I need to know. You were the one who went out on a limb convincing me that this threat was real. After last week, I'm in your corner on that. There's someone out there trying to get us. Am I alone now or do I have Preventers at my back?'


Zechs selected a venti-sized cup from the vending, and added a generous spill of crème fraiche to his coffee to cushion the acid. Cobra smiled sleepily at him. 'Morning,' Zechs grunted.

'Morning.' She took her time choosing from their platter of breakfast foods, settling on an apple tart. 'Rough night?'

'I didn't sleep well.' More accurately, Duo hadn't slept well; he'd been up and out of bed three different times, once for more than two hours. Zechs had checked the computer logs in the morning, hating himself for suspecting anything and not entirely sure what exactly he suspected-- but if Duo had been doing anything during the night, there was no evidence of it. He'd found a new bottle of wine had been opened, but it had only been missing three or four ounces, just enough to help one sleep. Their goodbyes had been truncated, and he had an unfinished sort of feeling, a great reluctance to leave with questions unanswered. But that was the job, and that was part of what they were going to have to get used to, together.

'Just a moment now,' Zechs said then, and reached for Cobra's hand. 'This is new.'

Her lean face was suddenly transformed into a bright blushing smile. 'Durral proposed. We haven't set a date, but it's exciting, still.'

'Congratulations.' He tilted her new ring to the light. 'By the size of this jewel I'd say he can hardly wait to make it official.'

Mamba set his head around the corner. 'We're on,' he told his partner. 'Morning, Wind.'

'Good morning.' He had time for a smile for Cobra before she ducked out. He capped his coffee, and left the breakroom for his cubicle. He dropped his coat on the peg and set his cup at his desk. He tapped the screen to life, and settled in.

His own partner arrived just as he was opening his email. Tropic gave him a silent nod, and departed again after dropping off his portfolio and coat. Zechs turned his chair to watch him go.

'Hey, Wind.' It was Neptune, leaning on his cubicle wall with her feet crossed at the ankles. 'Thought you'd be interested to know. We finally got in touch with Chang Wufei.'

It actually took him a moment to recognise the name. Treize, he thought guiltily, would probably have been amused by that. Cosmic irony had always appealed to Treize's ego-- but, then again, forgetting the identity of the man who'd killed him might not have been quite so appreciated.

'Chang Wufei,' he repeated rustily, and bought himself time by prying the lid from his coffee and sipping it. 'What did he have to say?'

'No disturbance on L5. He's some kind of monk, or something.'

He did remember that. 'Not a monk. Just living on monastery grounds. Studying.'

'He was a Preventer, wasn't he? Once?'

'Just after the Rebellion. But not for very long.' And now that he had more threads to that storyline, he could contextualise Chang's departure with the concurrent trial Duo and Heero had been forced into on Earth. Not surprising that the other Gundam Pilots would sever ties with an organisation such as Preventers, which had neither the ability to protect them nor the ability to employ them solely in the colonies, where they were safest. 'So he's noticed nothing?'

'Not a thing. In fact he informed me rather testily that he hasn't even met a new person in almost a year.' Neptune arched a dark eyebrow. 'These Pilots seem to pack a lot of personality. I think you got the good one.'

He had a blush of his own for that. 'I think so too,' he replied, with as much dignity as he could muster. 'Did you tell him anything? About what's been happening?'

'I gather they don't have television at the monastery, but he'd had word about the mine on L4. I think he's flying out to them, although when I tried to ask about that he told me flat to mind my own business. But he was cagey about goings-on in Brussels. He wouldn't admit to knowing about what's happened with the two here. I gave him the bare bones and played it down.'

'So what does that mean?' Zechs sipped his coffee again, though it was too hot still. 'Maybe our stalker just can't get to L5 as easily? It's a pretty homogenous cluster.'

'So we're eliminating Asians?'

'Or maybe it's just the isolation of the monastery. A closed community where everyone knows everyone would be much harder to penetrate than a city or even a small mine.' Zechs gave up trying to unearth meaning from a summary. 'Can you send me the transcript? I'd like to read it.'

'Sure, but I don't think you'll get much out of it.' Neptune looped her long hair behind her ear. 'I read your case notes. About Heero Yuy's deportation. You did good work.'

He didn't think it was his imagination that no official word had come down yet on his actions. Sally might or might not approve, personally, but her official silence on the subject was not a mark of favour. 'It was half miracle,' he said. 'And all luck.'

'Not entirely.' Neptune's sideways smile was coy. 'You're not what I expected,' she said then. 'Unorthodox, I think is the word.'

'I had-- unorthodox teachers.'

'I can imagine. Maybe you'll tell me about it, some day.' She shrugged. 'Back to work.'

'Right.' Zechs turned back to his computer, but then rose to stop her progress down the corridor between desks. 'Neptune?'


'Tropic and I are headed out, probably this evening. But I'm waiting on a return call from the Kalmar office. If it comes in, could you make sure it gets to me?'

'Of course.' She came a few steps back toward him. 'Regarding?'

He took a gamble, then, banking that he could trust her on this level at least, and possibly farther, if she'd been silent so long on the subject of his identity. 'Princess Relena Peacecraft asked me to check on her driver. His grandson is the one we caught trying to approach the Princess.'

'Olsen. Right. Something's wrong with the driver?'

'He hasn't been seen in a few days. The Kalmar office was going to get a warrant for his home. I'm hoping the news is good, but at this point--'

'Understood.' Neptune hesitated, just for a second. 'Right. I'll keep you informed.'

'Duo likes you,' he said, not sure what he was saying, exactly, or why, except as a kind of thanks. 'Maybe you could check in on him. While I'm gone. If you don't mind it.'

She smiled. 'Sure. I will.'

Tropic was another hour at whatever it was he was doing. Zechs spent the time confirming their travel arrangements yet once more, hoping that this time, at least, they'd get to use it. If they delayed much longer, they might lose the little progress they'd made, and the perps they were watching would go underground. What if Duo's stalker went underground? There were distinct waves, he was beginning to think, in the attacks they'd seen. He dug out his notepad, reviewing his notes. He underlined a few points, wrote a few on a new sheet of paper, but before long he fell simply to doodling, trying to chase down mental puzzle pieces that didn't want to arrange themselves neatly.

He was jolted out of his thoughts when Tropic reappeared at last, leaning over his shoulder to steal his pad. 'Nice circles,' Tropic said, and tossed it back into his lap.

Zechs put up his pen. 'Thinking.'

'About?' Tropic sprawled in his chair. 'Are we set for Syria?'

'Yes.' Tropic was blond, yes, almost a buttery yellow. He hadn't ever paid much attention to his partner's looks. Scandinavian features, narrow-faced with deep-set, light blue eyes. Not unlike Zechs, actually. They were of a height, as well. And then he told himself again that Duo had been over the line. And then thought that Tropic had been more than just his usual kind of odd when he'd met Duo the other day. Almost hostile.

But Zechs hadn't thought it was hostile at the time. It hadn't set off any alarms at all.

'I was thinking,' Zechs said. 'About the pattern of these attacks against Relena Peacecraft and the Gundam Pilots.'

'Pattern? You think there is a pattern?'

'I'm starting to.'

Tropic waited on him, then finally let out an exasperated sigh. 'And?'

'I'm thinking that each new step was all aimed at one thing: getting the Gundam Pilots to panic and do something damning. First, dropping Preventers into their laps, where we were likely to turn up their-- less legal activities. But then the kid we caught, Árni Olsen, goes off the book, blows the game open. So the next gambits, Heero Yuy's mail theft, Duo Maxwell's GHB poisoning, both very targeted, aimed at stressing them, aimed at their individual vulnerabilities. The mines on L4... I'm starting to let go of that connection. I think it was just an unexpected opportunity. Cover for the next gambit. If the Pilots won't leave on their own, force them out. But it didn't work. In fact I'd say it backfired entirely. If the goal was to free Relena Peacecraft from the corrupt influence of the Gundam Pilots, then putting Heero Yuy physically in Sanq with her is going to be a real stressor for our perpetrator. I think there's going to be another attack.'

Tropic nodded along with his reasoning, and nothing more. Not trying to guide him. Not acting in any suspicious. Acting just like Tropic always did-- focussed and not particularly patient. In a way, that eased Zechs' mind on the matter. If Tropic had really been involved in some way, he'd be working a lot harder to make sure no-one looked at patterns that might lead back to him.

'You tell the Director?' Tropic asked.

'Not yet.' Zechs glanced at the clock. 'I'll write it up. There's time before we head for the airport.'

'And to call him.'


'Maxwell.' Tropic pulled his portfolio off the desk and stashed it beneath his desk. 'He's a distraction,' Tropic said.

'Any relationship is a distraction,' Zechs countered, and suddenly realised he recognised this mood in Tropic from the other day, when Tropic had seen Duo drive him to work. His grim partner disapproved his personal choices. Well, Chang Wufei had one thing right. 'It's none of your business.'

'What affects you in this office and in the field is my business. And by your own logic, he's still a case subject.'

That stung. 'I believe I can police my own ethics,' he retorted coolly. 'If you doubt me so much, request a partner who meets your standards.'

'You're a good agent, Wind. All I'm saying is that I hate to see you endanger that.' Tropic stood. 'I'm going to get our gear from the Quartermaster. Write up your report. And then do yourself a favour and clear your head for the mission.'


Damascus was hot, dry, and discontented.

Treize had always been of the belief that the Middle East should be avoided. Their campaigns against first Alliance and then the Resistance had been confined to small, strategic areas-- ports, oil fields, and nuclear refineries. Get in and get out, Treize had ordered. We can't afford to get bogged down.

That appeared to be a universal truth, even in times of peace. They had no sooner paid for the rental car that they hit a traffic jam. And they no sooner cleared that jam when they found themselves in another, all before they reached the suburbs. Zechs drove until they were out of the city, and begged off with a headache when they made their first stop at a highway services. Tropic returned from the food court with felafel and chicken shawarma. The food put him in a better mood, but he was still exhausted by the time they reached their destination, Al-Qamishli, right at the Turkish border.

Their hotel was near the centre of town, a blank-faced affair of white-washed brick with long strings of ivy spilling out of every window. There was more greenery on the roof, and a swath of bright scarlet tenting that extended over the courtyard below. 'Charming,' Zechs said, breaking the five-hour silence.

'Mm,' Tropic said.

Zechs extended most of his Arabic on check-in. Tropic managed a full conversation with their hosts, and got to the important points about internet and border control. It was nearly nine when they were finally able to climb the stairs-- a lot of stairs-- to their fifth-storey room. Zechs twisted the key in the lock, kicked open the door, dropped his bags, and sat directly on the nearest of the twin beds.

'I'm getting old,' he muttered, and stuffed a pillow behind his head.

'What, a fifteen hour flight and a mere nine on the road, and you're defeated?' Tropic had to stagger an extra few steps to the other bed, and spread himself flat in an impressive sprawl. 'You know Hydra is only twenty-two? I don't even remember being twenty-two.'

'Most of those years are probably wasted getting from one place to another.' Like his career in OZ. Travel was another thing Treize had abhorred. And Treize had had a private jet.

'Our contact is supposed to meet us at eight tomorrow.' Tropic rolled, and turned on the lamp between their beds. 'We get an interpreter and a driver, too.'

'Good idea.' Save their energy for thinking instead of worrying about the roads. 'And we're meeting with some of the girls who've been brought in for asylum applications?'

'Here and in Turkey as well.'

Duo had given him a pamphlet from Small Arms. It was in the front flap of his backpack. He freed it with a few weak yanks, and settled back on his pillow with it. Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration for Child Soldiers. It wasn't the closest analogy to young women who had been sold into sexual slavery, but he was plagued by some of Duo's worries about inadvertently adding to their trauma by doing something insensitive during the interviews, and Preventers didn't have much by the way of specialty training. Tropic and he didn't make the most reassuring pair, and that couldn't be mitigated except by his attitude tomorrow.

The objective of DDR is to enable a safe and peaceful transition from military to civilian life. This process is different with children, as opposed to adults, because efforts to re-integrate a child ex-combatant into their community must address the basic violation of that child's human rights, emphasising three main components: family reunification, psychological support and education, and economic opportunity.

Interesting. Duo had said that Heero was involved in online education programmes, where Duo had gone the route of finding paid work. But neither had a family. Neither had anyone to go back to, except for each other.

Primary services upon separation from military involvement must include food, clothing, and medical care. Although child soldiers can suffer from a variety of illnesses, some of the most pressing are malnutrition, open or infected wounds, STDs, and drug addiction.

God. That had been Heero Yuy. Which had been Duo?

Once their condition has been stabilised, children can be slowly integrated into local schooling, or, if they are older, can take part in vocational and skills training. Integration Centres should also provide psychological support activities, such as art, singing and dancing, storytelling, and basic play. Finally, Integration Centres are responsible for tracking the families of child soldiers and preparing those communities for the return of the child.

So the girls they would be interviewing were likely being given some of those services; their brief mentioned, very shortly indeed, support efforts. So that might be one way to approach it. Rather than presenting themselves as inspectors, as Preventers-- as soldiers-- it might be better to appear to be part of that ongoing support staff.

Long-term care and follow-up is a necessary part of re-integration. Child soldiers often experience difficulties for many years following disarmament, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress, disobedience, aggression, paranoia, and violence.

Maybe he should send this pamphlet to Relena. Then again, she was a donor to Small Arms. Suddenly that didn't seem like just a favour to Duo. Relena was smart enough to read the material she was committing to. She knew what she was getting into with Heero. And maybe that had something to do with her continued presence in their lives, locked as they had been in Brussels. Christmas dinners with a friendly ex-lover might be explained away, but with Duo? Maybe that was more of a stretch than he'd thought about at the time. But supporting two people she believed had been wronged, who were struggling to, what, re-integrate? Giving them a chance to feel normal, if only for a night. Giving them a feeling of family.

'Tomorrow,' he began, and rolled his head to look at Tropic. He didn't finish his sentence. Tropic was out cold, mouth slightly open, one shoe off and the other only loosened at the ties. Zechs reached for his backpack again, and pulled out his mobile. He made sure their room was secure, and then he went back to the stairwell.

He found a strong signal on the roof, empty of diners and dimmed for the night. The stars were much brighter here than in Brussels, and there was a cool breeze off the desert that smelled musty, like sage and sand. Zechs pulled a chair away from one of the tables toward the edge of the roof, where he could stare out over the city, and he dialled.

Duo answered after five rings. 'Hey,' he said sleepily. 'You landed?'

'Yes.' He pulled his coat closed against the chill night air as it ruffled his hair. He searched for a spare elastic in his pocket. 'Were you in bed?'

'Am. Had the phone on your pillow.'

He smiled to himself. 'Almost as good.'

'I downloaded an app that sounds like snoring. They don't quite have the pitch right, but it's keeping me company.'

Now he grinned. 'You're going to ride that snoring horse until it's dead, aren't you.'

'I take leverage where I can find it. You okay? You sound really beat.'

'I'm all right.' He watched a taxi trawl the street below, until it turned a corner around another building. 'Just wanted to hear your voice. Talk to me. Tell me how you are.'

'I finished Heero's apartment today.' There were soft rustles, and the sound of Duo's voice came closer, as if the phone were nestled just by his lips. 'Put some shit in boxes for him. I found his porn.'

'Maybe it's better that I can't really imagine that.'

Duo chuckled softly. 'It's pretty innocent stuff. Straight boys are so boring. Anyway. Brought the rest of it back. You care if I set up the computers?'

'Not at all. You can use the exercise room if you want.' He let his head fall to the back of the chair. 'I was thinking. About the job with Small Arms.'

'Yeah? What about it?'

'I think you should take it. I think you're the right person for this. You understand it. You've been through it. And you care. There are enough bad things happening out there that we can't do anything about.'

'What about Preventers?'

'We'll always need more people in Preventers. But I think you're needed more doing work that you believe in.'

Duo was quiet for a while, but Zechs could hear him breathing. He listened to that, just those soft exhales, as a minute ticked by, and a second one, a third. He didn't push.

'I miss you,' Duo said finally. 'I put something in your pack for you. In case you missed me too.'

He had it at his knee. He pulled it up into his lap. 'Where?'

'Front pocket.'

He dug a hand in, past his visa, his plane ticket, a packet of gum, a half-empty bottle of water. There, something wrapped in tissue. Ribbon.

'You know I'm a snoop. I kind of, sort of, went through your desk at Headquarters, that day. Found it there. Gathering dust. You never listened to it, did you?'

It was the thumbdrive, that Duo had given him before Christmas. It seemed a very long time ago, now. Not quite a full month. 'I didn't,' he admitted. He shucked the tissue. There were earbuds wrapped around the drive, too. They plugged into his phone, and so did the drive. 'Can I sleep to it?'

'Tracks thirty-four and up. The stuff before that is all for exercising. But the last track is the special one.'

The music was loading. He thumbed through the tracks, scrolling to the last. It was only labelled 'Unnamed 12/09/201'. 'I'll listen as soon as I hang up.'

'Okay.' Duo yawned. 'You think you'll be able to check in again? Before you come back?'

'Maybe. I'll try. Duo-- I miss you, too.'

'Be good, Zechs.'

'You too.' He had to work himself up to ending the call. He dropped his head back again, and didn't lift it for a long time. He shivered in an errant wisp of wind. He lifted the earbuds, and fitted to them to each ear. He pressed 'play'.

'Hey, hot stuff. Me speaking. So. We're approaching kind of a significant point, I guess-- our first major holiday as a couple. Well, a non-sex-having couple. And yes, I say that knowing full well that someone is probably going to hear this in the universe, some day. Anyway. I thought it would be a nice thing to mark our progress as said couple by saying something significant about it. I tried to write something, but I'm not really good at that, so I'm going off the cuff, in case you haven't realised from the way I'm rambling. So, um-- mostly I guess I want to say that I've really enjoyed getting to know you. You surprise me in a lot of ways. And I like that. Sometimes I start thinking that I'm never going to be surprised by the world again, you know. Life-- you know, we've talked a little, and I know you know what I mean. You start to forget that people don't automatically want to screw with you. And I know I talk a good game about my life here, but honestly, honestly-- you're the best thing that's happened to me here. You may have figured out from the amount of time I have to spend with you that I don't really have a lot of, like, friends. Pretty much Heero, and I don't begrudge him wanting to move on. But you make me feel like things are okay. And I really like how that feels. I really like you. So-- I hope I haven't scared you off with this, but I just really want you to know that you make me happy. So-- okay. Happy Christmas, Zechs. I'm glad we'll be spending it together.'

Zechs took a deep breath. The stars were still there when he looked up for them again. So clear, the sky out here, away from the bright cities. When the moon was full it must have been like a beacon, out here, almost as bright as the sun.

He pushed 'play' again, and closed his eyes to listen.

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