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

Caveat + Part 7

'Hey.' Sally leaned on his cubicle wall. 'You look like you need about a billion years on vacation.'

Zechs removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. 'Something like. What's up?'

'Do you have time to process something through Intell for me?' She held up a thick folder. 'I need someone to babysit it while the techs work it over. It's a chain of custody issue.'

'I have the time.'

'Thanks.' She nodded at the empty desk. 'Tropic still out?'

'Wherever he ran off to, yes. He didn't file for leave?'

'He did, but you know what he's like. I got the bare bones of it, not the full story. He said he'd be back when he was back.' Sally quirked a smile. 'Still working out with him?'

'If you're asking have we bonded, I can't say particularly. Professionally, it seems fine.'

'I guess it all depends on whether you want permanent posting in Brussels.' Sally moved to take Tropic's chair, swinging it to face Zechs. 'We've got the room for you. Two of our trainees are going to ship out for Southeast Asia in a month, and I want Hydra's language skills at work in North America. But I do want at least ten agents here full-time. If that doesn't tempt you, I can talk promotion potential. I'm losing my Deputy. And you know I want you in Admin.'

'I'm not right for Admin, Sally. I think we both know that.' He tapped the edge of his keyboard, and flattened his hand over the buttons. 'I don't know about permanent posting.'

''No? I thought maybe with Duo...'

Zechs looked hard at his screen. 'I don't know if that's going to work out.'

'Really?' That seemed to take her by surprise. 'Because of the other night? I grant their behaviour wasn't terrific--'

'What's the situation between Yuy and Duo?'

She pulled her lower lip between her teeth. 'I wondered if you'd ever ask me that.'

He closed his computer. 'Yuy moved back in. And for the first time since I've met him Duo had nothing to say. So I think maybe I need to ask.'

'They're close. If you're asking if there's a romantic connection, no evidence I've ever seen. If anything, Heero's proved he's pretty attached to Relena.'

Zechs waved that off. 'There's something not normal about their relationship. “Close” doesn't cover it. Co-dependent or-- I don't know. I swear to you, Yuy looked at me cross-wise and Duo nearly broke up with me on the spot. Am I supposed to wait for him to call? Accept that I'm at best a third wheel and be grateful if I'm allowed to participate?'

'Whatever it is, I'm pretty sure you won't find out by sitting around the office on Saturday complaining to me about it.' Sally propped her chin on her hand. 'Can I just say for the record that I think Duo's been very good for you? And I don't doubt you've been good for him. If that's worth fighting for, then I know you don't have a problem with fighting.'

He rolled his fist on the edge of his desk. 'You're right. I know. I'm just--'

'Pissed off. Hurt. You wanted him to choose you first. Ego just a little bruised that he didn't.'

'Yes,' he said.

'So go remind him why he should've.' Sally stood and tucked Tropic's chair away. 'I'll get someone else to deal with the file. Take the occasional day off, Zechs. Life is short.'

'Same to you.' Zechs tapped his fist five more times, and then he stood himself. Sally was right about one thing. He hadn't ever yielded the field to Heero Yuy, and now was not the time to start. He grabbed his coat and scarf from their hangers and headed for the door.


**


The address Duo had given him took him across town on the metro to a small building that seemed to be split between an off-license on the lower level and a professional place above denoted by a single sign in the window: the International Jewish Centre of Brussels. There were balloons floating listlessly from the bars of the pavement-side iron fence. Zechs trailed his fingers over the ribbon of one as he climbed the steps.

Yuy sat at the top, gathering a dusting of snow on his shoulders, his knit cap pulled low over scowling eyes. Zechs halted when their heads were at equal height and pocketed his own hands. Yuy's glower deepened.

'I would have thought you could watch him better from inside,' Zechs said.

'This is the only exit.'

'Bit of a fire hazard.' Zechs craned his neck to look through a first-storey window. He heard the faint sound of applause. 'If you're auditioning for resident gargoyle, you should really perch closer to the roof.'

Yuy came abruptly to his feet. 'Why are you here.'

'To demonstrate to you that I will not be so easily scared off.' He put on his most aloof smile, just to watch Yuy's jaw clench. 'I think you needed a little reminder of my tenacity.'

A little puff of steam was the only evidence of Yuy's silent dismissal of him. He swept the street, far right to far left, and arrived back on Zechs harder and colder.

'And to warn you,' Zechs said then. 'Because I think you need to be reminded of this, too. If you cut him off from everyone else, then you had better be willing to commit to him for the rest of your life. He doesn't deserve to be left hanging when you get tired of this game.'

'You don't know what you're talking about,' Yuy retorted, dangerously soft.

'I know he stayed for you. That what he's been through here he did for you. You owe him return on that.'

'How do you know it wasn't owed to me?'

'Then be friend enough to call it evens and let him have a life of his own.' He inclined his head, and mounted the last four stairs. 'Think about it,' he suggested, and stepped around Yuy to push open the stairwell door.

There was a lone security camera, aimed directly at the entrance. He climbed to the landing and followed more balloons to more security, this time a barred door with a buzzer. But the door was propped open by a brick in the jamb. Zechs let himself in, courteously wiping his feet on the mat before he entered.

There were small rooms along the corridor, one some kind of office, another a children's creche, unstaffed and dark. A little shelf-lined room seemed to be a library, stocked with plenty of chairs. But a flush of applause told him to keep walking. He ducked through another pair of doors, and found himself in a hall filled with tables of seated people who were all clapping for a speaker at a podium in the front.

Duo was at a buffet along the back wall, intent on the course of the ceremony ahead. Unnoticed in the middle of the speech, Zechs was able to slip around the crowd and join him. He got right to Duo's side before Duo sensed him there, and squeezed Duo's shoulder as he jumped.

'You came!' Duo's face lit, smile transforming him from pale and tired to a handsome, happy young man. Zechs returned the grin, and bent to kiss Duo's temple. 'Wouldn't miss it,' he whispered.

For the first time, he'd succeeded in making Duo blush. Duo pressed his mittened hands to his red cheeks. 'I'm so sorry,' he said urgently. 'About last night. I didn't mean to-- I don't even know what I was thinking, except you left and I was thinking how I'm such a shithead for just doing it like that, and you left your watch and I was worried I would never see you again to get it back to you--'

'Don't worry about that.' He got in another kiss, discreetly pretending to just be shedding his coat in the warm hall. 'May I help with any of the work?'

'No, I'm done with my bit, except for taking stuff back to the kitchen for clean-up. Hey, you hungry? There's like nine billion chicken breasts left. We ran out of vegetarian.'

'Maybe later.' He tugged the hem of a hair net down over Duo's ponytail where it had ruched upward. 'I like the look.'

'Chic, right.' Duo pulled it off. 'Zechs-- I really am sorry.'

'We'll talk about it later,' Zechs promised him, and promised himself. 'But I am not leaving.'

He did end out helping in the kitchen, stationed at the sink to rinse out the aluminium platters as they piled in. Duo threw him bright-eyed grins every time he came back with a new platter, showed him how to load the industrial washer. They shared a chocolate mousse, just standing close together, hands tucked out of sight but wrapped tight. Thinking of Yuy stranded out on the cold steps outside, Zechs felt a bit smug. Duo wasn't the only one who liked to win.

'Oh, that's Pieter getting up,' Duo said then. 'I want to hear him speak. You mind?'

'Not at all.' He held the kitchen door for Duo, and then the rest of the kitchen volunteers, who were all eagerly lining up along the back wall. Zechs tucked himself in beside Duo, politely clapping for the mousy young woman reading an introduction in Dutch and then French. She ended in English.

'It is my great honour to introduce to you Barrister Pieter Van den Broeck. Pieter's dedication to Small Arms is known to all of us here and needs no further detail. Please welcome the President of our organisation, Mister Van den Broeck.'

Duo's applause was enthusiastic. So was that of everyone else, and it lasted well after the tall, dark-skinned Belgian rose to the podium. Finally Van den Broeck succeeded in hushing the crowd, many of whom had risen for him. Zechs kicked a heel back against the wall, crossing his arms loosely.

'Good morning, friends and family,' Van den Broeck said in heavily accented English. 'Thank you all for giving up a lovely Saturday for our annual luncheon. To celebrate to together our accomplishments, to welcome our new members, and to mourn those who pass away-- we get so few opportunities as a community, and yet that is what we are, a community united in common purpose, in love.'

'He's big on love,' Duo whispered to him. 'A little hippy-dippy sometimes, but he means it. Straight from the soul.'

'In brief,' Van den Broeck went on. 'As we near Christmas, we are reminded yet again that civility is always the first casualty of war. In the year 195 we were approaching a conflict so drastic that it involved great swaths of humanity, nations with no geographic connection, no political connection except for opposition to each other's self-determination. But this room is not for questions of geo-politics. This room is where we speak of the unspeakables. Where we remember that the most barbarous form of incivility in our world is not war, but war that exploits those it ostensibly protects: the children. Children as young as seven are pressed into service for government forces, armed resistance groups, and local militias. Many children carry guns. Many children witness atrocities of war, and many children commit them. You serve as porters, as security, as labourers, as decoys and human shields, as camp help, as spies, as sexual slaves. This untold misery is the great evil of our time, the great shame that we have not yet wiped from existence. We have peace, but until we have eradicated the child soldier, that peace is only a mockery.

'I do not believe in lost generations,' Van den Broeck said. 'I do not believe in even one lost child. I do not believe that this evil which afflicts our world has the power to end even one child's worth and potential. I do not accept words like “emotionally crippled” or “damaged for life” or “socially unacceptable”. These words suffocate hope. But I believe in hope. Many of the young faces I see here have terrible stories to tell. A survivor who turns that past pain into present triumph is a triumph of hope. There are three hundred thousand child soldiers. I hope our work will end one day. But until that time, Small Arms will name that evil, expose its weaknesses, its human faults, and together we will save each other, one child at a time. Thank you for your support, and please enjoy the holidays.'

Zechs joined the rest of the applause, smiling at Duo to cover his ambivalence. War was a darker thing than most would ever know, he granted that-- but to blanket it with a word like 'evil' obviated both the necessity and the outcome of war. He wasn't the passionate philosopher that Treize had been, but he had agreed with Treize that some conflicts couldn't be ended until the alternative became so undesirable that it couldn't be contemplated. And in his admittedly twisted use of the ZERO System, he'd done his part to make war as ugly as possible. Relena's Pacifists had succeeded in part because OZ, the Gundams, White Fang had all brought war to such a wretchedly grand scale that it threatened to destroy everything and everyone if not stopped.

He'd thought, anyway. 'Three hundred thousand?' he asked Duo. 'Is that number accurate?'

'You're the Preventer,' Duo answered. 'You tell me.' He cocked his head. 'Hey-- Pieter's coming over. If you want to bail, you've got about five seconds.'

Less than that, and Zechs lost the chance to decide. Duo stepped in front of him, almost a protective gesture, but it was swallowed up into a warm embrace from Van den Broeck. 'And how are you, my young friend?' the older man asked him. 'Did you eat? I never saw you sit.'

'I ate. Pieter, this is--'

'Yes. I saw you standing back here.' The smile fell off Van den Broeck's face. Zechs straightened in response. 'Your choice of guests surprises me, Duo.'

Ah. Odd to have it happen here, among civilians, but it did happen, once in a very long while. Neptune wasn't the only one who could compare pictures and press reports. Zechs neutrally extended his hand. 'My name is Zechs Merquise, sir.'

'I know very well who you are, sir. Many of the people here are here today because of you.'

'That's not fair,' Duo said. 'Or at least the same thing could be said about me.'

Van den Broeck broke their stare to look at Duo. 'I take your point,' he conceded finally. 'And I'm breaking my own rule about pre-judging.'

'Yes,' Duo said bluntly. 'And killing the mood. And making me into a liar. I told Zechs how great you are and now he won't believe me.'

'Not at all.' Zechs held out his hand again, and this time Van den Broeck took it, gripping him firmly. 'I would be-- interested-- in learning more about Small Arms.'

'I would be more than happy to answer questions. Not least because I want my favourite to keep his high opinion of me.' Van den Broeck looped a long arm over Duo's shoulders as Duo grinned cheekily at him. 'Come, let me treat you to a drink. We don't bring alcohol on the premises out of respect for our hosts, but I want a good stiff brandy.'

'Zechs?' Duo asked. 'Oh-- Heero's outside. Can he come?'

Oh, that would not end well. 'Of course,' Zechs said lamely.

They did collect Yuy, who trailed after the three of them with a permanent frown stamped on his face and a decidedly shifty-eyed habit of looking into all alleys. Duo and Van den Broeck engaged in an exchange of news about mutual acquaintances that Zechs did not know, and he only kept pace with them because he wanted to prove to Yuy that he belonged there. There was a small café only a few blocks' walk from the Jewish Centre; Zechs got to the front of the queue to hold the door for their party. Van den Broeck wove a quick path through the lunch crowd for a round table in back-- a diplomatic choice, since it enabled both Yuy and Zechs to claim a side of Duo, while Van den Broeck overlooked the byplay. Duo rolled his eyes, though.

'Brandy all around?' Van den Broeck asked them. He signaled the bar server. 'Mr Yuy, you look well.'

Yuy's nod was less begrudging than Zechs expected. 'Duo said fundraising was good this year.'

'Yes, with a generous donation from Sanq, as always.'

Zechs looked sharp at that. 'Relena Peacecraft is one of your donors?'

'You know Relena,' Duo said. 'Never met a cause she didn't like. She donates to a bunch of groups like Small Arms.'

'She's a fine young woman,' Van den Broeck said. 'And the kind of leader we all prayed for. Intelligent, compassionate, extremely capable. But I'm sure you're aware of that, Mister...'

'Merquise,' Zechs said. 'Yes. So I've heard.'

'You're doing it again, Pieter,' Duo interrupted. 'I didn't bring my boyfriend to meet you so you could rip him a new one. The one he's got is just fine.'

'Boyfriend?' Van den Broeck managed a smile, but Zechs was certain for a second he'd seen real concern there. 'Congratulations are in order.'

'I don't know if we need to be congratulated, but yeah.' Duo fiddled with the edge of his placemat. 'A couple of months now, if you don't count all the dancing at the front end.'

'Dancing?'

'I had to work to convince him.' Duo smirked slyly at Zechs. 'Those are our drinks, I think. Heero, help me?'

No time to object to being abandoned, then. Zechs watched them go. He checked his watch, straightened the leg of his trouser over his boot. Looked at Van den Broeck looking at him.

'For Duo's sake,' Van den Broeck said, 'it's a good thing you came today. I hope it gives you some idea what you're getting into.'

'Getting into?'

'Should I say affecting the tide? Duo's come a long way since I first met him. I would be very distressed to see him regress because of inappropriate contacts.'

Zechs took an impatient inhale. 'I take it I'm the inappropriate contact? First of all, sir, I believe Duo would be more than sensible to any problems-- he's also intelligent and extremely capable. Secondly, whatever I have done in another time, I've taken every step possible to ameliorate my-- debts. I serve in Preventers, I live very quietly, and I want nothing for Duo but happiness.'

'I don't speak of your “debts”. Duo is correct in that I have no place to stand in judgment.' Van den Broeck laced his large fingers, pale on the underside, a burnished black walnut at the knuckles. 'I speak more broadly. Your inescapable involvement in the war.'

'This is a conversation I've already had privately with Duo.'

'I didn't leave you alone to argue.' Duo was back, plunking down into his seat so that it rattled. He put a tumbler in front of Zechs and another in front of Van den Broeck; Yuy had his own and Duo's. 'Keep it surfacy. Cheers.'

'Cheers,' they echoed, all three with less enthusiasm than Duo. Zechs lifted the glass to his lips, just enough to taste it. Yuy didn't even do that much. Duo sighed, and dropped to his elbows on the table.

'Out in the open?' he said. 'I guess originally I wanted you to be there not just because it's important to me, but because I wanted to know if it would make you think differently about me. And us, and yourself.'

So much for the surface of the thing. Zechs cupped both hands around his brandy. 'I-- don't know yet.'

'I know it's a lot to think about. It's not, like, it's not blame. I see it more like-- context. Like it just puts everything in context for me. Because I was always so focussed on this cosmic inevitability in my life. I thought everything led to me becoming a Gundam Pilot because that was the only way to retaliate for what had happened to get me there. Do you know I was actually glad about the Barton Rebellion? Because I'd started to figure out I wasn't going to fit in very well to a world that didn't make or need Gundam Pilots.'

Yuy's eyes dropped. Zechs had to keep his own level with an effort.

'Coerced participation in military conflict only accounts for a third of children in war,' Van den Broeck said. 'Children who grow up in war zones often choose the life as a seemingly-positive alternative to oppression and powerlessness. And what of the standing armies of Alliance and OZ that recruited children as young as thirteen?'

'The Academy was hardly the same as a standing army,' Zechs interrupted, stung by that.

'Is there really a moral difference between a boy recruited in the bush and a boy indoctrinated with the nobility of war in a citadel? Is it righteous just because a government supports it? Because the children of OZ were pampered and rich when they were sent to battle?'

'Please, I think the world has had enough of--'

'Yes, it has. Which is why all standing armies were disbanded and only Preventers has a mandate to use military force. The deception is that violence can never solve the effects of violence, no matter how well-meaning.' He patted Duo's shoulder. 'The real answer is to find a way to re-interpret those needs in a peaceful context. Provide the same belonging, the same sense of purpose.'

'What purpose?' Yuy said suddenly. 'You tell me what purpose there is in the way we live now.'

'Heero,' Duo began.

'It's bull, Duo.' Yuy stood. 'Thanks for the drink. I'll wait outside for you.'

'Don't fucking walk outside, Heero. We'll talk about something else.'

'No, Duo!' Yuy slammed his chair back to the table and was gone before it hit the wood.

'Fuck,' Duo said. But when Zechs pressed his wrist, he sank back into his seat.

'Let him go,' Van den Broeck agreed quietly. 'I forgot how distressing he finds such talk.'

'Is he really wrong?' Zechs pressed Duo's wrist again as Duo opened his mouth to protest. 'Maybe you don't believe in emotional cripples, Mr Van den Broeck, but you have to admit that Heero is troubled.'

Duo moved his hand away. 'Don't trash him.'

'I'm not trashing him. I'm just speaking the obvious. He feels trapped, and there's nothing to tell him he isn't. He felt threatened by you being of a different opinion, Duo. Maybe Preventers--'

'No, Jesus. Zechs.' Duo drank from his brandy, but his mouth was a thin line now that spoke of rising temper. 'He didn't feel threatened, he just doesn't agree and it frustrates him. I'm frustrated too, at the moment. This isn't going how I planned.'

Nor for Zechs. Van den Broeck didn't look much thrilled, either.

'Pieter, thanks for the drink. I think the luncheon went really well.' Duo gave his friend a quick one-armed embrace. 'Zechs, whenever you're ready, I'll be out with Heero.' He finished his drink with a quick swallow, grabbed his coat, and went outside. The bell on the door clanged with his exit.

Van den Broeck threw up his hands. 'So much for holiday cheer.'

'May I propose a little information sharing?' Zechs asked him directly. 'On the assumption that neither of us should operate in the dark about those two.'

The older man regarded him with pursed lips, swirling his brandy slowly. 'You surprise me. Information about what?'

'Off the record, and without having sought Duo's permission to discuss this, there's been an ongoing security problem. Preventers received verbal and written threats against Relena Peacecraft, and by extension, or perhaps equally against, Duo and Yuy. We thought we apprehended the person threatening them, but there's been other incidents. One of them just Thursday night. Because of what happened Thursday, Yuy felt it necessary to move back in with Duo.'

'They're living together again?' Van den Broeck sat forward. 'But they were doing so well.'

'Please tell me about it.'

'As Duo's boyfriend, or as a Preventer agent?'

'Mostly the first,' Zechs said. 'But if it's important, then also the latter. If anyone has the means to really evaluate their relationship, it seems it would be you, and I want to know.'

The Belgian sighed deeply. He emptied Yuy's glass into his own, and took two small sips. 'You know I was their lawyer?'

'Duo told me.'

'Then you have some sense of the travesty it was. Two very young boys, Heero critically injured. There was all this ridiculous talk of example-making. What example? Not mercy. Not common sense. The other Gundam Pilots had escaped to the Colonies, which of course would not extradite them if the ESUN would not promise not to indict. And the charges, Mr Merquise-- absurdities. Murder. They wanted to call it murder, what the boys had done, because the Gundams were never officially more than “enemy militants”. Homegrown insurrection has no legal protection under the Geneva Convention, you understand? Our entire universe at war and the only people to be brought to criminal trial are those two boys?' Van den Broeck waved a hand toward the door. 'The Barton girl, too young, too obviously a puppet, and Dekim Barton dead already. Lady Une of course had diplomatic immunity by then, had made herself invaluable to the new government by providing intelligence, by creating the Preventers, and she had the fallback of mental illness to excuse her grosser acts. Treize Khushrenada, dead at Libra, Milliardo Peacecraft--' He gave Zechs a very level look. 'Disappeared, presumed dead at Libra. Who was left to punish?'

'Duo said that you cleared them by claiming they were child soldiers, unaccountable for their actions.'

'Not unaccountable, no. Not unaccountable. But I did argue that the charge of murder could not apply, that the proposed term of imprisonment should not apply, and that there was no morality in using the laws that should have protected these young men from ever engaging in battle to punish them for having done so. They are both very clear on the fact that they chose to pilot the Gundams. They maintain that very strongly. But those were not choices made in a vacuum. Duo is an orphan from a greatly impoverished colony; Heero had almost no normal socialisation until his teenage years. These are conditions that create child soldiers. And what of the adults who built the Gundams? The adults who gave them to children to pilot?' He considered Zechs, his fingernails tapping lightly against his glass. 'Their relationship, yes. That they would die for each other, given. I found them each highly dependent on the other. So I was very glad when Heero found a place of his own. I am not so glad to hear they live together again. It reinforces a siege mentality-- them against a world which will hunt and hurt them. I make no mistake that the world may do exactly that, but it is still unhealthy. If they only define their identity by what they used to be, they will only go as far forward as they can get while looking over their shoulders, do you understand me?'

He did. He did, actually. He'd come to a similar reasoning on Mars, searching for his own way forward. He'd only achieved internal peace by letting go of Milliardo. Because Milliardo had been the child inside of him-- the child who was orphaned in a war and devoted himself totally to vengeance-- and in the end, he'd had to leave that child behind him on the Red Planet.

Van den Broeck swallowed the last of his brandy. 'So you see why I do not greet the news of your relationship with Duo as a happy thing.'

Zechs blinked out of his thoughts. 'Not really. Why wouldn't it be--?'

'Child soldiers who cannot easily rehabilitate and reintegrate often return to the only place they've ever felt wanted. To other soldiers. Duo and Heero together are maybe inseparable, as long as they are legally restricted in a place where neither feels they belong. But add a third-- add a you, do you follow me, add someone of your stature, your appeal-- and I do not mean the appeal of your person, forgive me, but of your history, your air.'

Because the military complex bred men of a certain mould. Often Zechs could identify a military man simply by posture, knowing nothing else about him. 'I'm not exactly convinced yet that I should end our relationship.'

'End it or not, that's a decision for you to make mutually. But allow me to be concerned-- I've seen this play far too many times not to know the ending.'

Zechs set his jaw. 'Vague threats, sir, and vaguer predictions of doom. I think you're selling us both short.'

'Well. We have exchanged information. Now we do what?'

He stood. 'Keep them from getting locked in their own heads,' he said. 'Thank you for the drink, Mr Van den Broeck. Happy Christmas.'

They were sitting on the front step, shoulders touching, heads bent over something. Zechs crouched down on Duo's side. The phone, playing a game together. Both of them looked at up him as one.

Zechs held out a wool scarf. 'Yours, I believe,' he said to Yuy. 'You left it inside.'

'You better not lose that,' Duo told him. 'I got you that for Christmas two years ago. It's a good scarf.'

Yuy took it so that it slid from Zechs' fingers. 'I didn't lose it.'

'Where's Pieter?' Duo asked.

'Off to a meeting. I was thinking I'd walk the two of you home. Make sure everything's in line for the big meal on Wednesday.'

'You will be here, right?' Duo took his hand, chilly fingers wrapping around his. 'Because I'm going to sulk for, like, ever. Christmas is non-negotiable.'

'I'll be here.' He kissed Duo, with Yuy sitting there watching, and didn't skimp on it-- but he didn't rub it in Yuy's face, either. He pulled Duo to his feet after, and put out a hand for Yuy to help him up. Yuy didn't take it, but he didn't seem put off by the offer of it, at least. That, Zechs decided, would have to count as progress.

'Shall we?' Zechs asked.

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