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

Caveat + Part 9

'Breakfast is on.' Duo bounced the mattress with a knee as he reached over Zechs to place water and a pill bottle on the bedside table. 'Aspirin. If you're suffering half as much as I am, it's got to be Christmas.'

There was a throbbing sort of swell in his head that said he'd overindulged the night before. Happily, his stomach stayed in place as he sat up. 'Time is it?' he managed fuzzily. 'Where are my underpants?'

'About a foot from your toes. Don't bend over just yet, though.' Duo fetched them for him. 'It's half seven. We slept in.'

Zechs pushed his hair out of his face and got his fingers about halfway through it before he found an impassable tangle. 'Can't we just go back to sleep?'

'I never realised you were a layabout.' Duo did at least sit on the edge of the bed. 'You want to? I can leave the light off and let you rest in.'

'You're getting up though?' Zechs took the aspirin when Duo put it in his hand, swallowing it down with a grimace. 'Coffee?'

'I'm on it, hot stuff.' Duo lifted Zechs' hair off his neck and kissed him gently there. 'Happy first morning after. I put your clothes in the dryer so they'll be warm when you get out of the shower.'

Zechs managed a tired smile. 'Who could pass that up.'

His clothes were, as promised, pleasantly toasted and wrinkle-free when he emerged from the bath ten minutes later. There was no sign of Duo, but the bed was already made and toiletries laid out for him. Zechs brushed his wet hair and ran the electric razor over his chin and cheeks, and cleaned his teeth with a new travel brush that had found its way to the sink. He gathered up his wallet and shoes and opened the door on the main apartment.

Yuy was seated at the bar eating something that smelled unappetisingly like oatmeal. He glanced once at Zechs and then ignored him.

Zechs returned the favour, choosing to finish dressing and attend the freshly brewed coffee. He found cream in the refrigerator and added a generous, calorie-heavy half-cup that settled the wobble in his stomach. There was eggy toast waiting in a pan for him, caster sugar and syrup waiting beside a plate. He fixed himself a double portion and stood at the stove to eat it.

Duo finally reappeared, entering via the front door and locking it behind him. 'That Preventer is still out there,' he explained to Zechs. 'I brought breakfast down.'

'You're not supposed to draw attention to him,' Zechs said automatically. 'Though-- I'm sure he appreciated it.'

'She. Kagiso Ninow, also known as Cobra, which is yet another sterling example of crappy Preventer code-names. She's from Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa and she had to spend last night in her car instead of at home with her boyfriend, a statistical engineer.' Duo plunked an empty plate in the sink. 'And she liked the pheasant last night, too.'

'You are really not supposed to spy on your spies.' Zechs rubbed a dusting of snow off Duo's shoulder. 'You're making us look bad. Is there anything you can't do faster and better? Or more deliciously? Breakfast is excellent.'

'Aw, I love it when you lay it on thick.' Duo shoved Yuy's foot off the second stool and sat. 'You don't have to run off, do you? I was thinking of, you know, like, plans. Day plans. Even I don't have to work today, so how to spend the free time, right?'

'I'm all yours until Monday morning. What plans did you have in mind, though? The only thing that's open is the Christmas Market, and that not until noon.' He cottoned onto the gleam in Duo's eye then. 'I'm really not up to a bike ride in a blizzard.'

'Wimp. It's barely futzy out there. Besides, nothing cures a hangover like fresh air and a good work-out.'

Yuy shuddered and hugged his oatmeal closer. 'Just because you can doesn't mean you have to,' he muttered.

'We're on Earth! We should be out there enjoying it, taking advantage of it. Winter's a completely natural process.'

'People do freeze to death in cold, Duo,' Zechs pointed out. 'I would rather not be one of them.'

'If we stay in I'm going to make you clean.'

Yuy stood. 'I'll get my shoes.'


**


They didn't bicycle after all, given that Zechs had used Yuy's bike the last few times and there wasn't a spare to accommodate his presence. They walked the bike path instead. Most of the city-bound path had been cleared of snow, but not enough to take them through the countryside, a fact for which Zechs was profoundly grateful. At least the brisk pace Duo set was intensive enough to keep him warm. Zechs envied Cobra her heated car, following them at distance.

'I thought Relena looked good,' Duo said. 'They aren't feeding her in Sanq, clearly. Did you see the way she cleared her plate? Poor girl is starving up there. What kind of food do you have in Sanq, Zechs?'

'I don't really remember much,' Zechs admitted. 'I was young. I remember not liking surkaal. Sour cabbage.'

Duo screwed his face up comically. 'Gee, wonder why.'

'You might be interested in hárkal. Putrefied shark.'

'You are fucking kidding me.'

Zechs grinned at him. 'Not even a little. Or hrútspungur, although that's more traditional for Icelanders.'

'Do I even want to know?'

'Ram's scrotum with testicles,' Yuy said.

Duo turned a little green. 'Okay,' he said bravely. 'We can totally talk about something else now. Seriously, you ate that shit?'

'My father was required to observe all sorts of traditions. We often ate with diplomats. Smalahove terrified me, honestly-- smoked sheep's head.'

'Jesus.'

Zechs relented. 'Most of it was fairly normal. Cured salmon, crab, game like reindeer. A lot of mutton.'

Duo faced the path again with deeply hunched shoulders. 'Man. No wonder you like what I cook.'

'Did you hear that?'

Yuy had stopped dead. Zechs came to a halt, attentive as soon as he saw the tense set of Yuy's face. Duo only kept walking, though. 'It's probably Kagiso,' he shrugged. 'She's supposed to be close enough to us to help if something goes cuckoo.'

'Cobra,' Zechs corrected absently. 'You don't know who's listening in, Duo.'

'If she's doing her job, then no-one is, isn't that the point?'

'Yuy? Did you hear anything else?'

Yuy's scowl, so far absent that morning, appeared like magic, turning down his brows and fixing his mouth in a thin slash of upset. 'No,' he said reluctantly. 'It might have been the wind.'

'Stop being paranoid,' Duo called back.

'If you did hear something, we could turn back,' Zechs offered, though he lowered his voice enough that Duo, now ahead by several paces, wouldn't hear.

'No. Not yet.' Yuy squared his shoulders. 'Be alert.'

'I am.'

Yuy kicked at a puddle icing over. His eyes followed Duo as he went around the curve, not waiting for them. He looked up at Zechs. He said, 'You're really going through with this.'

Zechs slipped his hands into the pockets of his coat. He could see Duo through the trees, and more importantly he could see Cobra's car on the street nearby, so he didn't push Yuy to keep moving. 'Through with what.'

'Duo.'

'Our relationship? Yes.'

'Why?' Yuy asked bluntly.

'Because I like him very much.' Zechs felt his own mouth trying to frown, and stopped himself. 'I don't think you get a veto.'

'But you only like him. Not love him.'

'That's a question better reserved for Duo and myself.' Zechs took up the path again, and felt Yuy behind him. 'Why the interrogation? You really feel you're “protecting” him from me? Or that he's too stupid to protect himself?'

'I'm asking if you have an agenda.'

Zechs stopped moving so abruptly that Yuy swayed back from him to keep their distance. He locked eyes with Yuy. 'No,' he said flatly. 'I have never been less than honest with either of you. Ever, even when we were enemies.'

'Even when?' Yuy repeated.

Zechs stepped close to him. Yuy was all bunched muscle under his coat, staring unblinking up at him. 'The war is more than over,' Zechs told him softly. 'I'd encourage you to let it go, unless you want to resume our previous engagement where we left off at Libra.'

'Stop it.' Duo's voice lashed out in the sudden silence, and they both started like guilty schoolboys, jumping back from each other. Duo stood on the path ahead of them, his fists clenched at his side. 'If you two are going to fight each other you can do it on your own fucking time. Why are you trying to ruin everything?'

Zechs rubbed his chin, only then aware at how much he'd heated over in confronting Yuy. 'I'm sorry,' he said. 'I wasn't thinking.'

'Obviously,' Duo snapped. 'Heero, you know better. You know me better.'

Another time, Zechs would have been interested at the way Yuy dropped his eyes almost submissively to that. It suggested he might have been wrong in his assessment that Yuy was the one in charge. At the moment, he had to stop himself from doing the same.

'Go home,' Duo said then. 'Neither of you wanted to be out here anyway. Cobra can follow me.'

Zechs cleared his throat. 'You really shouldn't be out here alone.'

'I'm not, am I? I have my damn escort. Leave. I'm pissed off at you both and I want to walk it off.' Duo turned, but go no further than a pivot before he came back. 'It's fucking Christmas,' he said. 'It would have been nice to enjoy that fact.'

The chastened quiet between Zechs and Yuy lasted all the way back to the apartment and more. Yuy went into his room and shut the door immediately. With nothing else to do, Zechs occupied himself cleaning the kitchen, washing the last of their dishes and scrubbing down the counters. Duo had been right to call out their bad behaviour. He hadn't even realised their animosity ran so deep still-- triggered by something so small. Lingering suspicions. So what if Yuy didn't accept him? Yuy was hardly the only one who had wondered aloud if Zechs really deserved to bury his past with relative ease, more easily, perhaps, than Yuy and Duo had been allowed, given their imprisonment and subsequent difficulty in Brussels. But to accuse him of stringing Duo along as some nefarious plot for revenge was over the line, and he thought he'd been right to swing back on that one. Yuy was clearly ready and willing to be a problem between he and Duo, and that was going to have to be dealt with. If he and Duo were going to be-- permanent.

If he loved Duo.

That, he realised slowly, was not a question to which he had an answer.

Except to say that it was probably too soon to tell. Legitimate to say that; after all, they'd only been dating for a few months. And Duo himself had put decided emphasis on the process of dating, of observing those little milestones very carefully. They had even agreed to forgo an exchange of Christmas gifts. He'd never even played Duo's thumbdrive of music. It sat in his desk at work, still in its wrapping. Somehow it had been easier to stash it away, let it wait until he did know what he felt.

He supposed that meant he had an answer after all. He did like Duo, very much. And was willing to see where dating might take them. But that was all, for right now.

And he didn't think Duo could say anything different. Duo was the one who'd set the pace for them, after all. Up to and including the development of their sexual relationship. Which had been very nice, very welcome, very enjoyable-- but not, perhaps, very intimate, very romantic. If anything, there'd been more intimacy in the things that had come before that, the making out stage.

Wasn't that food for thought.

He was seated on the couch reading a travel book about Italy when Duo finally returned. Either Duo's temper had been strong or he'd taken advantage of his time alone to properly exercise; Duo had been out two hours alone. When he heard the key in the door, he went to the kitchen, to turn on the full kettle so Duo could have a hot drink. He leant on the fridge to wait.

Duo ducked quietly through the door, pausing just a second when he saw Zechs. He closed the door behind him and shucked his coat onto the rack, his wet shoes onto the mat. 'Hey,' he said.

'Hello.' Zechs nodded to the kettle. 'Tea or chocolate?'

'Um, chocolate would be good.' Duo approached the bar warily, sliding onto a stool. His hair was wet. Zechs pulled a fresh towel from the drawer and went behind him, gently wrapping Duo's head in it and blotting away the moisture. Duo let him, and even relaxed enough to let his back rest against Zechs' chest.

'You'll catch cold,' Zechs said. 'Why don't you take a bath.'

'If you're being this nice, I gather you're not breaking up with me.'

'Not today.' He gave Duo's ponytail one last squeeze with the towel. 'Go on. I'll bring in the chocolate.'

'What, no ram's testicles?'

He flicked Duo's chilly ear. 'Cute. Go get warm.'

Yuy emerged just as the pipes began to creak. Zechs gave him a mild look as he spooned chocolate shavings into a mug. 'He's taking a bath,' he said.

Yuy glanced at the bathroom. He frowned. 'He likes whiskey in his hot chocolate.'

Zechs found the bottle atop the fridge. 'How much?'

'Just a splash.' Yuy came as far as the bar. 'I will-- make an effort.'

Zechs flattened his hands to the countertop. 'As will I.'

'All right.' Yuy nodded once, uncomfortably. And that was it. With nothing else to add, he went back to his room, though this time he left the door open. Zechs exhaled deeply. He flexed his hands once, then resumed making the chocolate, adding water and cream, and splashing whiskey as instructed. He gave it a swirl and took it into the bath.

Duo was sitting naked in six inches of water, eyes closed as he reclined against the tiled wall of the tub. He looked up at Zechs as Zechs entered, and accepted his mug with a murmur of thanks. Zechs eased down to the floor beside the tub, pulling a bath mat under his bottom for cushion and propping himself up against the sink cabinets. He didn't have quite enough room for his legs, so he crossed them loosely.

'Smells good,' Duo commented. He sipped, and his eyebrows went up. 'You found the whiskey.'

'A little bird told me you liked it that way.' Zechs shifted to avoid the dig of a cabinet handle. 'Why don't we start our chat with why you think I'm going to break up with you every time we quibble.'

'Dude, that wasn't a quibble.' Duo's eyes were low, focussed on the steam rising off his chocolate. 'I told you I had a temper.'

'No, it wasn't a quibble. But it wasn't unfair of you, either. I thought I was past that-- competitive stage.'

'Please, you and Heero have been sniffing around each other from the first. Look, I get it. And I know that Heero moving back in here made it worse.' Duo sipped again, and put his mug down. 'It's not my job to stand in the middle of you all and stop you from whatever it is you want to do. It's just that he's my best friend and you're my boyfriend and I don't like it when my boys fight.'

'I can sympathise with that stance.' He chucked Duo under the chin. 'We've both promised to be good. For your sake, and I think also for ours. It doesn't do either of us any good to regress every time we see each other.'

'That's enlightened of you.'

'I have my moments.' He tugged at Duo's loose hair until Duo leaned in. They kissed. Duo's mouth was soft and yielding, and Zechs rewarded him by drawing a slow caress down his chest to his belly. He met hot water, and dipped lower. Duo whispered something when he closed his hand around Duo's cock, and bit him lightly on the lip.

'Did you like last night?' he asked.

'Like it?' Duo smirked at him as he sat back against the wall. 'It had its moments.'

He stroked Duo slowly. 'You had wanted to wait. I just wonder if you felt we waited long enough.'

'I think so. I mean, yeah. Don't you?'

'I want to know what you feel.'

'Feel pretty good.' Duo's fingers wrapped around his. 'Feel pretty good about us. And I loved that face you made when you were coming.' He squeezed his eyes shut and stuck his tongue out. Zechs gave him a quick yank, and Duo laughed. 'What's with the questions?'

'I just-- I-- want to be sure that--'

Duo kissed him suddenly. 'That I'm happy?' He caressed Zechs' face. 'I'm happy.'


**


Zechs had a surprise waiting for him Monday morning at the office. Tropic was back, seated in their cubicle and working on the computer as if he'd never been gone.

'Welcome back,' Zechs told him. He set his briefcase on his desk. 'I was starting to forget what you looked like.'

Tropic's expression indicated he'd missed the humour in that. Zechs didn't repeat it. He shed his coat, stomped his feet a few extra times to rid the last of the snow from his boots, and settled in. 'Did you get back in time for Christmas?' he asked.

'Last night.' Tropic frowned at his email as he clicked through it. 'Red-eye flight.'

'Did you take care of the emergency?'

'Emergency?'

'The reason you had to rush out last week.'

'Mm.' Tropic opened one of the notices about budgetary publications, and closed it just as quickly. 'My son,' he said.

Zechs pressed his lips together. 'I didn't know you had one. How old?'

'Too old for these ridiculous failures.' Tropic abandoned his email and settled back with their load of paper case files. 'You know how family can be. Continually disappointing.'

If there was some courteous reply to that, Zechs was at a loss. 'Sorry it ruined the holiday,' he said finally. 'A flight out and back? He doesn't live nearby?'

'His mother and I were estranged. I didn't raise him. If I had, his little inadequacies wouldn't plague me.' Tropic shrugged it off. 'He's not much of a son. I don't suppose I'm much of a father. But he still rings whenever he falls into another one of his self-created problems.'

Zechs made a point of absorbing himself in his own email, after that. Tropic's poor mood communicated itself, though, especially when Zechs saw the official approval for their trip east. Travelling with a grumpy companion would not be all that enjoyable. 'We should gear up,' he said. 'I had the Quartermaster disperse our original pack. I'll order it again.'

'Right.' Tropic slapped the case down on the desk. 'I'll check on the hotel, remind them we're coming--'

The central alarm blared suddenly, making them both jump. Zechs pulled up their intranet alerts, even as Sally's vocal announcement called for them to do so.

Neptune appeared at their cubicle. 'Trouble on L4,' she said curtly. 'There's been an incident on one of the mining asteroids. We're all up for this one. Better hurry-- we rate the jet for once.'

Zechs reached under his desk for his ready bag. 'We're behind you. Neptune-- any casualties?'

'Fourteen,' she answered grimly. 'We'll be meeting the local branch of Preventers there.'

Zechs bent for the phone even as he shouldered his bag. He dialled quickly as Tropic gathered up their case papers out of the drawer and sent files to print. 'Duo,' he said, as soon as he heard pickup on the line. 'Watch the news today.'

'What?' Duo's startled voice was almost drowned out by loud clanging. 'What's happening?'

'Something involving a friend of yours. You'll want to watch the news. I have to go.'

'Wait, Zechs--'

'I'll contact you when I can.' He hung up, and turned-- and ran right into Tropic.

'You contacted Duo Maxwell?' Tropic said.

'He's a friend of Quatre Winner,' Zechs replied shortly. 'If Winner is amongst the injured, Duo will want to know.'

'You're not authorised to contact anyone outside Preventers with classified information!'

'It's not going to be classified when it hits the news, if it hasn't already.'

Neptune looked troubled. 'That's a pretty grey area, Wind.'

'Preventers are not at odds with compassion.' Zechs gestured them both out of his way. 'And if we are, then we need to seriously question what our purpose is.'

Neptune chewed her lower lip. Then she shrugged and moved aside for him. 'Your neck on the line. I won't argue with your interpretation.'

Tropic was not so easily solved. He was at Zechs' back, glaring; Zechs could feel him there, and determinedly ignored him.

'Let's go,' he said.

[part 8] [part 10] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]