Authors: TB and Marsh
see Prologue for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Code of Conduct + Part Four

Looking back he'd remember what set him off, but at the time he was just in the moment, just living it like reality slipped with no signposts to note the fork in the road. He'd been watching the news, too dull from a trio of beers over dinner to care it wasn't in a language he spoke. Flipping between that and the weather, and it caught his eye, a short clip that was Quatre and Relena ‘Pretty In Pink' Peacecraft walking somewhere with those fake-looking colony trees, the kind that never got any bigger than Duo in thick-heeled boots. He didn't understand a single word aside from the names, but they started showing some kind of montage, so it was probably more important than the regular political blow-by. It was all the video memory that did it; one minute he was watching it on the screen, and the next he was in it like no time at all had passed.

Arm around Quatre's shoulders. They were having their picture taken, there were cameras everywhere, a huge crowd— well, a big crowd— reporters everywhere. Duo was off to one side not enjoying himself at all, but that was probably because Heero wasn't there. They'd had some kind of fight, a big one, but Duo wouldn't spill and Trowa had lost interest long before the others. Wufei was on Quatre's other side, scowling at everything with excessive dignity. Why bone up about it? They were getting awards. It was about time they got to be heroes instead of villains. Not that Trowa was fussed about the medals, but there was talk about making pensions for them, and Trowa was keen for money from any source. He didn't want to stay at the circus forever, and Quatre's annoying sisters couldn't call him a gold-digger if he had plenty in his own treasure chest. He had his arm around Quatre's shoulders, giving the crowd down below the stage the companionable picture they all wanted, but that wasn't why he'd done it— he'd done it for that flush, that nervous goose-flesh Quat got when Trowa bent down to whisper against his neck, his lips so close he could have licked if he wanted— and he did want. And Quat wanted it, Trowa didn't have a doubt in his mind, even if Quat was playing some weird game of no-no-no and Trowa couldn't figure out the rules for how to get to yes-please-now. Arm around Quatre's shoulders—

And then he was back in the hotel room, and there was a game show on the television, and it was a long time of staring at all of it before he even realised he was holding the phone in his left hand.

Well, Quat was straight, in the end. He'd loved Trowa, so he'd tried, but for better or worse Trowa had been young and stupid and probably pretty damaged. Better for them both that it had at least ended fast.

They mostly forgave each other. When they were younger Duo had used to say that. They mostly forgave. Didn't mostly forget. Kept reliving the same issues. They didn't know how to deal with themselves, which was maybe human and was maybe particular to them, in which case what they probably needed was professional help. No amount of money in the world that could convince a shrink to take that on. Duo alone had spent thousands, and look at him.

He was holding the phone. It was beeping, so the line had been dead for a while, but hell if he could remember why he'd picked it up. It was the phone more than anything that made him think—

You're hallucinating.

+

He'd been drunk off his ass. He didn't remember much else about that night, the early part anyway. Didn't really remember choosing the club, even. It hadn't been the proudest time of his life.

You gonna tell my dad?

It had got him going to a therapist, anyway. Got him to admit he needed something that booze and questionable sexual antics weren't helping. Something about seeing that skinny whiny little kid there, all hard eyes and half-grown, not even old enough for stubble. He'd just had a panic. He'd panicked, and pulled the kid right off the guy he was going down on, had his badge out and screaming at everyone to get against the fucking wall or he'd shoot their fucking kneecaps out. There was no way he should have been driving, but he'd forced the kid into his car, cussing him up one side and down the other, and when he'd sobered enough to realise how badly he'd screwed up, he was halfway to the nearest free clinic. The kid had cried, when he'd seen the sign. Cried. But Duo hadn't listened to him, at all, just marched him inside and forced him to take a rape kit. How he'd managed to forget hearing those hiccoughing sobs—he could sure remember them now. He'd stood there, so drunk he was dizzy, staring at a white curtain around the bed and thinking over and over that that kid was—

A kid. Just a kid. He was just a kid, and Duo was just a kid, and how could he save anyone when he was riding a fast train down the gutter himself.

"You were pretty young," Shazza said.

Duo blinked, and stuck the Styrofoam tea cup into the holder by the gearshift. "I think I'm pretty now I'm old, too."

She grinned fleetingly. "I meant when you joined Preventers. I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do when I was nineteen."

"I didn't really know if Preventers was going to be a career. They brought me on for a specific case. I just stayed on, after." He unlatched his safety belt. "We should go in back. The front's just a front. Probably a bar."

"Yeah." She looked thoughtfully at him. "They told us it was new management."

"They lied. Places like these don't really turn over." He opened his door, and set foot down on pavement. Nadia was getting out of the backseat behind him. Duo glanced down at her shoes, pert little heels in a bright green. He wished he'd thought to ask her to put on something else. "Follow the trail of trash," he said, and pointed to the alley stuffed with rusting garbage bins.

It was early enough that the clean-up crews were still there. The club itself probably hadn't closed before dawn. Duo pretended to ignore the broken-nosed hulk who was sweeping confetti and condoms into the street. He just aimed himself at the ‘Staff Only' door, sure he wouldn't be stopped if he didn't stop himself to ask for permission. He was right. The girls stayed a few steps behind him, the clicks of their shoes turning into muffled shuffling when they hit the shag carpet in the service corridor. It was pitch black.

"Straight and to the left," Duo said. That part of the memory was crystal. He'd never forgot a floorplan in his life. You never knew when you'd have to go running from something or other. He turned, and turned his shoulder, too, just in time to push a swinging door open. He tried not to touch it with bare skin.

The club was almost exactly as he remembered. He supposed it hadn't actually been that long—nine, ten years. The shit on the walls was different. About as classy as a porn store. But there were still sagging beds lining the walls, a couple of acrobatic-looking lounges and the hobby horses with cuffs and harness hanging off them. The big projection screens were blank, showing their age. The whole place smelled enough to turn his stomach.

"Jesus," he heard Nadia mutter.

"Hey, we're closed." It was a weedy-looking man, slumped on a stool at the edge of the hot tub, operating a gurgling drain hose. "Get outta here."

Duo propped an elbow on the edge of the pool. It took a certain amount of effort not to look into it. "They give cops special permission," he said casually.

The man's lined face went sour. "We got a permit."

"I don't care what you got or who comes here to get it." There was a crash of breaking glass across the room. "I'm looking for Big Eddie."

"Who?"

"Ran the place about ten years ago." It was the cleaning crew. There was some scrambled Spanish, and then a fat woman stumped past with a broom. "We want to talk to him."

"I don't know him."

"I've flashed you the signal about five times, douchebag." Duo kicked the switch on the drain, and it glugged to a stop. "Tell me where Eddie is. I'm not here to arrest him."

"Man, he retired. He don't run the place no more." He spat into the pool, wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "You want the new guy? Dilts'll be in tonight, if he manages to sleep it off."

"If I wanted the new guy, I'd ask for him. I want Eddie." Duo slipped his hand from his pocket. Suddenly sharp eyes dropped to his fingers. He felt a quick brush, slightly sticky, and let the twenty slip out of his grip.

"He got a room upstairs. He should be there. Got himself a piece of ass last night." The man spat again, and restarted the drain. "If not, he works Thursdays and Sundays. The older crowd always liked him." He squinted at Duo. "You familiar. I know you?"

"Let's sincerely hope not." Duo nodded to the women. Nadia was struggling to hide her disgust, but Shazza was watching closely. "There's a back stairs. We'll try that first."

"What was the signal?" Shazza asked him. Duo stepped back to send her and Nadia through the door first, this time, and pointed them toward the stairs. "Duo? The signal you said you were flashing him."

"One of those underground things," he said briefly. He wasn't sure about the room. There were a few up there, it looked like. "All's clear, I'm cool, kind of thing."

"I didn't realise Preventers worked on Vice," Nadia said. She slipped in a wet patch of carpet, and Duo caught her with a hand to her back. "This place is filthy. Who the hell comes here?"

People without a lot of other place to go.

"I didn't see you do the signal. Show me what it was?" Shazza interrupted.

"Maybe some other time. That's the one," he added quickly, pointing to the door with an upside-down ‘3' nailed to the front. It was the biggest of the apartments, and Eddie wouldn't go with less, not if he was still working the place and still held the deed. He leant past the girls and banged on the door with his fist. "San Francisco Police," he yelled. "Open up."

"He's going to go right out the nearest window if you keep up that police thing," Nadia rebuked him.

"He might want to, but he don't fit. ‘Big Eddie' is more like an adjective than a nickname."

It took a long time, and there was a lot of muffled banging and cursing on the other side of the door, but eventually it opened. The man on the other side was at least dressed, which was why Duo had called out ‘police'. A huge, bald black man, Eddie glared muzzily at them, then pushed the door wide.

"Ain't got much to search," he rumbled.

"Not here for that." Duo hid his hand by his side, just to keep Shazza from seeing, and made an outward-facing fist with his thumb crossed over his other fingers. Eddie's eyes flicked down, then back to his face. "We have some questions," Duo added. "We're investigating the murder of a boy who used to come here."

"We card everyone," Eddie said promptly. "At the door and at the bar. No-one underage."

"Because there's no market for kiddie sex," Nadia retorted. "Not in a fine establishment like this one."

Dark eyes that were suddenly quite awake turned to the women. Eddie looked them over, one by one. Duo stood still and impervious to his own turn. Eddie lingered on his hair. Duo was sure he'd been recognised, this time, but Eddie at least did him the favour of letting it go silent.

"No-one underage," he repeated. "This place may be a piece of shit, but I'm in no hurry to see it shut down." He left the doorway and shuffled back to his suite. Shazza clearly took it as invitation, and followed on his heels. Nadia was next. Duo trailed, slower, and nudged the door shut behind them.

Eddie settled heavily on a low-slung sofa of stained red velvet. It creaked noisily under his weight. "Where the fuck you go?" he hollered. The women jumped, but it wasn't directed at them. A white guy came out of what was probably a bath, a ciggy hanging from pierced lips. "Be fucking useful," Eddie said. "Make coffee or something. You want a real drink?" he asked over his shoulder.

"It's a little early for some of us. Coffee's fine." Duo revised his estimate of the smoker's age down five years when he noticed the track marks on the forearms. "He looks like a real nice guy."

"Fuckin' bitch." Eddie gestured them to the open seats around the suite. "Who's this kid you're here about?"

"His name was Kelby Gerganas. He went by Kel." Nadia produced their picture. Eddie plucked it out of her hand and sat back with it, his thick lips twisted into a scowl of concentration that might even have been real.

"However he got in here," Duo said, "the fact is that he did. Several times."

"Fake ID." Eddie finally tossed the picture back at Nadia. "More sophisticated every night. Any idiot with photoshop can age a pic. They paste it on a real card. My guys, they know what to look for, but they don't speak real good English, you know, so sometimes stuff gets past ‘em."

"You remember him at all? He was fourteen. He was killed right on your damn doorstep, Eddie."

"Ohh, he's the one." The guy with the piercings was back. He put a mug of lukewarm coffee in Duo's hand, but Nadia and Shazza both declined. "Get the hell out of here," Eddie told him. To Duo, he said, "Yeah, I remember that. It was my night off. I come by in the morning and there's cops and reporters and all kinds of shit. Bad press like that almost shut us down. You didn't catch who did it yet?"

"The case went cold. That all you told the cops the first time? You weren't there, didn't see anything?"

"Yeah. Never even knew who the kid was. Cute little white boy like that, I woulda remembered." Eddie glanced at Nadia, who was frowning. "Remembered for kicking him out."

"You're selectively blind, Eddie?" Shazza said. "We told you this boy was in your club several times."

Duo redirected Eddie's attention quickly. "Tell me something you do remember. Any types in here who got violent or made trouble. Would've been September, October, back in 199."

"199." Eddie scratched his thigh, at the risk of revealing too much in his short robe. "I don't know about September or October, but we did have a lot of shit go down that year. I remember ‘cause that was the year we added the private rooms." His eyes lingered on Duo. "Troublemakers. Yeah, I remember one. Even a place like this has limits. He didn't listen to safewords. Beat a guy to shreds before the bouncers stopped him. Blond, big guy-- tall-big, I mean. I kicked him out myself, but my floor manager let him back in a couple weeks later. Brought his own drugs. Took three of my biggest boys to take him down."

"You call the police?" Shazza asked.

Eddie laughed. "This look like the kind of place that wants attention? He thought he was hot shit, anyway. Kept screaming we'd be sorry, ‘cause he was someone important. Whatever. Important people don't want attention here any more than we do."

"This crazy guy have a type?" Duo picked up the picture. "Give me something to go on, Big."

"A type? Yeah, I guess." Eddie scratched his crotch again. "The first guy was small, I think. A sub, you know? The kind who's too delicate for the tough stuff but likes to be held down and lick a little boot polish. He didn't come back, neither."

"Thanks." Duo caught Nadia's eyes. "I think that's all we need. You think of anything—" He pulled a card from his pocket and scribbled his mobile number on it. "Maybe something you remember when there's not three people breathing down your neck."

He got a deep belly laugh for that. Eddie even took the card. "Yeah, kid," he said. "I'll do that."

+

"Wufei."

Three feet ahead of him, Quatre leaned over to murmur something in Relena's ear. The orchestra was swelling to some ungodly climax. There were still two hours to go.

"Wufei."

"What, Miriam." He did not face her, for the sole purpose of further annoying her. Quatre's sister had a particular way of saying his name that was more effective than nails on a blackboard.

"He's got a call."

"So give him the mobile and let him answer it."

"He's got to be seen paying attention!" She sounded shocked. He was sure it was an act. Even Miriam couldn't be that out of touch with reality. Certainly Quatre's attendance was a political gesture and the right people were supposed to be watching him every bit as much as much as the symphony below, but Quatre had spent almost as much time whispering to his fiance as paying the proper attention.

Wufei plucked the mobile from her hand. She protested, but he was already out of his seat and moving toward the curtain-covered access to Quatre's private box. He left her spluttering behind as he ducked into the suffocating quiet of the corridor. He put the vibrating phone to his ear.

"This is Chang, answering for the Foreign Minister," he said.

"Quatre?"

It took a moment to recognise the voice. He hadn't spoken to the man in three months.

He drew a deep breath, and just as quickly was embarrassed of himself. "Trowa," he said gruffly. "I'm sorry, Quatre can't come to the phone."

"Wufei?" There was a long pause there. "I... I need to talk to Quatre."

"We're at a concert. I'm sorry, he can't step out right now." The walls were draped in what the building manager had told them was authentic Chinese silk imported in 1898 pre-colony. The age-bronzed threads traced over bamboo fields between Wufei's fingertips. "How are you?"

"I need to talk to Quatre. Damn it, he won't return my calls. He's mad at me. It's fine. I deserve... I need to talk to Quatre."

He sounded distressed. But if there had been calls, much less calls unreturned, Wufei would have known. There hadn't been anything in weeks. In fact Quatre had called Trowa, just four days ago.

"Damn it, please, Quatre, talk to me."

Wufei stuck his head back into the box. He snapped, twice. Both Quatre and Relena turned to look, and Miriam too.

Phone, he mouthed, and waggled it in the air. He held up three fingers.

Quatre slid out of his seat immediately. Relena watched him go, her expression inscrutable in the dim. Light from the stage below cast strange shadows over her smooth face.

"Trowa," Quatre answered the mobile. "It's me. How are-- Tro-- Why would I be mad at you? What did you do now?" He glanced up at Wufei with an amused smile.

He was a watcher. It was a role he'd assigned himself at the age of five, in the arrogance of youth. He'd been told all his short life he was smarter, better-- better bred, better raised than the loud self-centred children of lesser families. Of course it had been true; it was obvious to Wufei, certainly. He had been the child who hung back, who would not climb trees with the other boys, who preferred to read, not play. He had agreed to a marriage when he was thirteen, the youngest in decades, younger even than his great-mother who had come all the way from China when she was fifteen to marry his great-grandfather and unite the Long Clan with its ancient cousins on Earth. That was Wufei's honour, too, uniting the Long Clan again, and her name was Meiran, and when they asked him if he wanted to see a picture of her first, he'd said no. He was a watcher. He knew his duty, but more than that he knew what was whispered between his elders late a night. He knew Meiran was being trained to pilot a new kind of mobile suit, and he knew that his clan had the money hers didn't that was needed to build it. It was a marriage of necessity.

Not like Quatre and Relena. Mostly. Oh, there was a certain inevitability to it. They were rich, attractive, political young people. They had been thrown together by destiny, not the elders, but they had circled in orbit on aligned paths for so long the idea almost occurred naturally. They would never be passionate, but they would have affection, they might even have love, one day; they were adults making a choice that might have been made exactly the same way if there hadn't been a war. But there had been, and of all people, they were two of the most determined that there would never be again, as long as they had power to prevent it.

So Temple Mayfield said. Our best days lie ahead, he'd told them both. Our best chance to grab our party away from the conservative old men pretending they were the better half of Romafeller.

I'm looking at the 210 ticket for the Presidency.

"What are you talking about?" Quatre's voice turned concerned. "I miss you too, but you haven't been an asshole lately-- that I know about."

Except for the skeletons in the closet. There was a weird kind of optimism these days, Wufei had noticed. Back in 199, even the new century, the world had still been recognisably the world that Wufei had been born into. He had joined the Preventers in 200, and the very day he was instated there had been a thousands-strong protest against the militia unit-- disarm, no more mobile suits, let the people govern themselves. Duo had been a Preventer already, two years by then, and Wufei almost found it hard to remember what he'd been like then, a skinny man-child, sullen-tempered, angry. Anxious. Wufei had just moved to San Francisco to join the Preventers, and he'd asked Duo to meet him for coffee, to talk to him about the things Une wasn't going to tell him. He'd wanted to know if he could count on the men in his new squad, the ex-White Fang, the ex-OZ. It was almost hard to remember how Duo had stared down into his coffee, instead of meeting his eyes. You think you know, Duo had said, so quiet it was almost voiceless. You think you know if they'll have your back, but you won't, not until the bullets fly.

But these days it was all so civil. The economy was strong. Government debated education reform, not munitions demolition. Quatre had run on a pro-integration platform when he'd run for Vice Foreign, the first to so much as say that word on television since the first Heero Yuy was assassinated by the Federation.

"Okay." Quatre wandered to the opposite wall. There was another trumpet-heavy swell of music inside. "I'd like to see you, too. You never visit me."

Greedy of Trowa, in a way. To have a man like Duo, and still say Quatre's name in that voice, with that longing. But childhood loves were the hardest to let go. And Quatre never lit up, like that, for Relena.

They all had their own unfinished business. He'd thought he'd known. He'd thought—surely, once they knew, that they would do what they were trained to do, what they'd taken oath after oath after oath to do. They wouldn't leave him to the wolves, not these men. They were still friends, despite the passage of time, despite the minor regrets—despite the major ones. But they were Preventers, and before that they were Gundam Pilots.

He'd been wrong. About Duo. Duo had had his back. He'd thought he'd known what they would all do, but when the bullets had flown, Duo had been there to take each one for him. The honourable execution he'd been waiting for, longing for, had been snatched from him.

"Lose me?" Quatre straightened. He looked baffled. He didn't even see Wufei, he was that concentrated, but it was all confusion, all sudden worry. "Trowa, what's going on? What's wrong?"

He honestly could not say that he would have done what Duo had done, if he had been the one to figure it out, if another had carried the guilt he had. Maybe, if it had been Duo who had been guilty. Saying that Duo was special when they were all special was practically meaningless, but—Duo was. Duo was special, in a way not even Quatre was. Quatre, he was still unsure of. He trusted Quatre with his life, had even put his life in Quatre's hands three months ago, in the most spiritual way possible. Yet Quatre had taken just a little more than he was comfortable with, had kept for himself just a little too much power over Wufei—and Quatre was no more incapable of a monumental mistake than Wufei himself. On his darkest nights he found chaotic, compelling similarities between them. Of all of them, Quatre, not Trowa in his cynicism or Heero in his bullheaded impulsiveness or Duo who had come to love justice and truth—of all of them, Quatre, handsome accomplished Quatre was the next most capable of committing the acts that Wufei had. They were both ‘wrapped tightly', as Duo liked to say. The other three were orphans by birth, but he and Quatre had both lost their families in the midst of estrangement, and had felt the same grief and guilt. They had both been treasured heirs; they felt the same pressures—the same disappointments. Both of them expected more of their fellow man than could reasonably be delivered. But Quatre had escaped some of the ugliness of his station; he had sidestepped the darkness with a grace that made it look effortless—Wufei was jealous, yes. He didn't blame Quatre, didn't imagine it was in any way deliberate or even taken for granted, but it bothered him. And it bothered him that Quatre didn't seem to resent any of it.

It bothered him that he was aware of it, and Quatre was not.

The only thing Quatre seemed to feel martyred for was his custodial duty to Wufei. Wufei had come to be grateful that he hadn't been imprisoned, as he'd once wanted. Now he often wondered if it wouldn't have been better. The alternative had cost him their friendship.

All friendship. He missed what he had had with Duo. It had surprised him, that Quatre was less—accessible, than Duo. But Quatre wasn't Duo. He wasn't less than Duo, but he wasn't as much, either.

Interesting to wonder if he would have been, if he'd stayed with Trowa.

Interesting to wonder if Wufei would have been, if he'd let himself love someone like Duo. That friendship had been the easiest thing he'd ever done in his life. It had felt good, to have something so profound that was so effortless. Ironic, that it had been so hard to destroy it.

Every day passed with an increasing sense of regret. Not for what he'd done to those men, but for what he'd done to Duo. What Duo had allowed him to do. Quatre wanted him to be honest in his feelings. If he was honest, he would admit he was angry that Duo had made himself a sacrificial lamb. He hadn't asked for that. There had been no cry for help in what he'd done.

He'd wanted to confess, after they'd arrested Duo. It had been terrifying, honestly terrifying, not knowing what to do, not knowing yet if Duo knew. He'd almost interrupted a dozen times—almost. But once the thing was in motion, no-one, most of all Duo, had wanted him to. Easy to blame them. Sometimes he did, honest or not. Duo had snatched away his chance for the moral, honourable resolution he'd dreamed of for two years. He had killed, he had righted the wrongs of the hideous infinitesimal corner of the universe he found himself in, and Duo had stolen—

"Schedule it for me?" Quatre said.

Wufei blinked out of his reverie. "Forgive me—what?"

"Could you schedule it for me? To go see Trowa."

Trowa. That meant Trowa and—Duo. He swallowed down the rising lump of panic. It was an unworthy emotion. He unclipped his palm pilot from his pocket and flipped it on. He was blind to the tiny screen at first, but his voice was calm and level when he spoke. "We can be in the air within eighteen hours."

"That's fine. Relena has to be on L2 for a conference tomorrow night anyway." Quatre fidgeted with the antenna of the mobile, pushing it in and out. "What's your position? What would you rather?"

"I stay with you," he answered promptly. "It's my job." He typed quickly with the edges of his thumbs, a skill he'd learned quickly as Quatre's manager. He was online in seconds, booking a private shuttle. No-one needed to know the Foreign Minister was going anywhere, particularly if it was personal. It didn't get more personal than Trowa Barton.

Quatre was still hesitating. "You don't have to come if you don't... want."

"I don't have a problem with it. You can relax." It was Wufei who paused, then, to question that, to question himself. "Would you rather I assigned someone else to you for this trip?"

The other man glanced inside the box. The lights went up, over their heads. Intermission. "My concern is Duo."

"I won't get in his way."

With an impatient sigh Quatre thrust the phone into his pocket. "Are you ready?"

"To be on earth?" he said. "Or to face Duo?"

"Yes."

He kept his answer clipped. He didn't want to give anything away, though he knew Quatre hated it. Even if he'd been able to anticipate what, exactly, there was to reveal—which he couldn't. He wasn't sure of himself, suddenly. He hated that.

"I think I can handle it," he said. The shuttle was booked. They would be able to drive Relena to the port. She would be pleased. She might not even have to know where her future husband was going, or why.

"Wufei—"

"I don't expect him to welcome me." He wet his dry lips, and put the palm pilot away. "I can behave."

He did not expect to have moved Quatre. It had happened, rarely, these last months. Quatre hid as much from him as the reverse. They were not friends, not right now. But out came Quatre's hand, cool and gentle, curving to his cheek.

He leaned into it. Just for a moment. His heart hammered, and he told it severely to stop being so silly.

Because it was over as quickly as it had happened, as if Quatre had caught himself in a weakness and was embarrassed of it. Their eyes met, accidentally. Wufei looked away first.

"It can be any way you prefer," he said, tone carefully deferential. "I can pull Agrawal from Miriam's detail. He'd be relieved."

"No. I trust your word."

He couldn't help being relieved. Who knew why. Things were about to get unbearably—unknown.

Quatre gave Wufei a quick kiss to the cheek. "Bring them a gift. He'll like it." He ducked through the curtains just as voices presaged the appearance of people leaving their boxes. Wufei stepped aside quickly as an elderly couple passed him, headed for the stairs and the bar. He stayed against the wall where he ended out, not sure he could gather himself to move further.

+

"What is this shit on all the files?" Duo said. He rubbed it with the side of his hand, but it wouldn't come off.

Nadia glanced over his shoulder. "Looks like blood."

"Catsup," Marquez said. He raised his own sandwich an inch higher. "It's probably catsup."

"Gross." Duo couldn't help another swipe of the hand, but the stuff was a decade imprinted into the file. "I can't read half of what's under it."

"It's not that bad." Marquez ripped the file away from Duo and flipped it to face himself. "It's just on the copy of the kid's diary. Probably nothing. ‘Dear Diary, today I met—‘"

"'A guy who wants to murder me?'" Shazza interrupted.

"'Bradmin Beringer from the Stepback Boyz. He's so dreamy.'" He let Duo take the file back. "The first cops didn't think anything in there was important."

"And they did a real bang-up job." Shazza finished her salad and tossed the container into the trash. "Duo, did you have any luck reaching the doctor from the clinic?"

"His daughter says he's on holiday and won't be back for two more weeks. No mobile and no satellite."

"Romantic getaway." She caught all of her hair into a tail behind her head and gripped hard. Duo used the eraser end of his pencil to flick one of the little braids that had escaped her hands, and she laughed as she swatted at him. "Lemme alone. Or the next time you go for a catnap in the crib, you're gonna wake up looking like this." She pulled his plait, and they both laughed.

Marquez had a sour expression when Duo glanced at him. "You two girlfriends mind concentrating on the case?"

"Don't be a jerk." She sat up straight. "Look, there's no-where else to go with this. We don't know anything new. Forensics got nothing new, the witnesses got nothing new, the parents didn't even know the vic was sneaking out to clubs. I think we should try to track down who was at the club."

"How?" Nadia spread her hands. "I think so too, but there's no video anymore, if there ever was. There's no log-in sheet. Big Eddie wasn't much help. Duo didn't remember anyone out of the ordinary from the club either."

"Or he said he didn't." Marquez ignored the glares that came from both women at that. He licked his fingertips and brushed crumbs from his tie, eyes on Duo the whole while. "Trying to save yourself some embarrassment? The whole world already knows you're gay. Not going to surprise anyone in here you're a deviant, too."

"That's enough," Shazza started.

"Oh, come on. You didn't just accidentally walk into a sex club thinking you'd find some teenagers to save," Marquez persisted. "Just admit you were there—"

"Stop it, Rico."

"Let him get it out of his system," Duo said.

His calm answer was enough to derail Marquez. Duo had known it would. He waited, face as pleasant and unprovocative as he could make it. Marquez got out one final stutter, and then he went into a slow flush of embarrassment.

Duo let it go on like that just long enough to make his point, and not a second longer. "It's a good idea, actually," he said then, and everyone's eyes swivelled back to him. Marquez twitched into an uncertain glower, and then Duo looked away from him, too. "If we could compile any kind of frequent customer manifest, maybe I would recognise a face or two. Eddie told us the troublemaker was a big guy, right? Big guys with big tempers don't make trouble at just one place, they make trouble at a lot of them, and they do it often, right? I think if we ask around at some of the other clubs in the area we might turn something up. And frankly I think we should get someone in Exilio to talk to the, uh, clientele. The community has a collective memory. Bad guys get remembered, and so do guys who sleep with fourteen year old boys."

"Except they're not going to just come out and admit it." Nadia glanced at Marquez, then back to Duo. "Not to cops. We go in there openly, and half the room's going to slip out the back door."

"Duo could go back. That signal you know? The secret handshake?" Shazza smiled at him. "They wouldn't necessarily know you're a cop. Eddie might get you in as a favour."

"He might." It wasn't quite what Duo had had in mind, but it wasn't unrealistic. It wasn't like Duo had ever told them he was a Preventer when he'd been handing over his cover fee at the door. The only good cop at a sex club was the kind in costume chaps.

"Captain has to authorise undercover." Marquez was gruff, but it was moderately professional. "Even for something like this. If we're going to do it, we should get the paperwork started. And someone should go with Maxwell."

"Who, you?" Shazza snorted.

"Yeah," Duo said. "Actually." Shazza was not the only person who stared at him for that. Duo waved a hand, surprised they hadn't followed his logic. "He's the only other guy on the case, isn't he?"

"We could still go," Shazza protested. "Women could get in."

"If I show up with a woman it's going to look odd. If you and Nadia went together, that'd be fine, but women who go together to that place aren't going to spend a lot of time with a gay man, are they?" He shrugged them both off and appealed directly to Marquez. "If you're cool with it, you're the best choice."

He'd phrased it deliberately to be unchallenging, even encouraging. It was a patch on a bad attitude, and it didn't work brilliantly, but he got a nod for it, a little curl of a lip that was definitely condescending, but at least stopped short of saying aloud what Duo was pretty damn sure was waiting to come out.

"Great," he said. "So let's get that paperwork."




"Hey," Duo said. "You got a minute?"

"If it's personal, I don't care and I don't have the time," Marquez snotted over his shoulder. He slammed his locker shut.

"That's funny, because that's exactly what I was going to say to you." Duo leaned on the lockers, and kept his arms loosely curled around his chest. "Walk away if you want, but this crap between us is going to come up at some point, and I think we'd both rather that it doesn't happen sometime professionally embarrassing."

That, if nothing else, got him the attention he wanted. Marquez went stiff, but he didn't, at least, leave.

So Duo went on without waiting for a response. He said, "If it's about me being a Gundam Pilot, you're not the first to have a problem. If it's about me being gay, we can just avoid talking about it, because that's none of your business, and it's something you'll have to learn to live with." He was halfway sure that was it. He gave just enough time for Marquez to jump in, but the other man was silent. "If it's about the murder trial, we—"

"Trial," Marquez spat out, and the vehemence actually startled Duo, because he'd been shooting in the dark on that one. The other man turned to face him. "What about that verdict?"

"I didn't do it," Duo interrupted. "The jury—"

"Should have strung you up on contempt of court. You may not have done it, but you know who did, don't you?"

That outright stunned him. He couldn't do anything but flap his jaw for a minute.

"You know who did it and you not only protected the bastard, you walked away without telling the truth." Marquez nearly ripped a sleeve off his jacket stuffing his arm in too hard. "And you're rewarded with a ‘not guilty' and a great job and just like that it's all over for you. Well, I'm not the Captain. I don't have the Preventers standing over me waving a big stick. I wouldn't have hired you and I damn well don't want to work with you, so don't wait for me to fall for the smile and the good-guy act. You are exactly what's wrong with the system, man. Dirty cops protecting each other, and who cares about the people anyway?"

"The people?" Duo sucked in a deep breath. "Let me tell you something about the people. Every single one of the miserable scumbags who were killed were walking on the streets because they had money and connections. The person who killed them may not have been aces-up, but you can't argue to me that in the bigger picture what happened is going to make the world a worse place to be."

"So glad it was easy for you to justify."

"Damn right it was." There was weight on his chest, weight and a burning sensation. He clenched his hands into fists to stop himself from touching it. "I don't expect you to understand, I never asked you to understand. There's a difference between the truth and the people. The people don't have a God-damn clue what we do to keep the bad guys from their door, and they've got even less about what got sacrificed giving them this pretty shiny world where everyone can sit on their hands for months on end watching a cop on trial for killing killers."

"Oh, here it comes." Marquez sneered at him. "The Gundam Pilot speech we've all been waiting for."

It wouldn't do any good. He knew it wouldn't do any good, had been down this exact same path before and knew, knew it. But he still had the bitter taste in his mouth that meant adrenaline surging, felt a shake in the hands coming on.

"The one thing," he managed. He had to push it out from clenched teeth, clench his jaws to stop the rest from coming out in the scream he could hear going in his head. "The one thing no-one on this planet or otherwise has the right to say to me is that I didn't give everything I had in me. You may not like how I did it, you may think my politics are bad or that I'm bad or whatever the fuck is your problem with me, but you do not have the right to denigrate what I did. And I am still here, Marquez, I am still trying to make a difference, I still believe that living through all of it has to have meaning, and whether you accept it or not that brought us to the same job, to the same mission. So the next time you jump up on your high horse about the people you can remember that you are hardly the first to feel a moral imperative."

And then he was outside. There was just a black hole, grating out the most controlled reaction he could manage, and there was standing outside in the blast of freezing wind from the alley, shivering from feeling like his head might explode.

He knew better. Marquez was a no-body, a no-body just like every no-body who'd ever challenged him about it. Trowa could keep a cool head when people shouted at them from the street. Heero could. He'd watched Quatre answer whole booing crowds at rallies and been so proud of his unflinching honesty. But Duo had never been able to just sit there and let it fly over him.

He wiped his eyes. The wind was making them sting. Outside in the freezing spring without his coat. He really was an idiot.

An idiot who had to go back inside. He didn't even know how long he'd been standing in the alley. He wanted to call Trowa. He wanted to call Trowa so much he could've kicked something. Just to hear his voice. Trowa would probably just make fun of him for being such an easy target, but he was right, anyway, so maybe Duo could've laughed about it, then, and he'd be able to go back inside and sit through the safety brief and go into tonight with locker room bitch fights out of sight and out of mind.

He went back in when he couldn't feel his fingers for the cold.

+

Their guy was a High Court justice. Trowa didn't know anything more about him than that, and didn't have to. It was the kind of job that was a dime a dozen. Courts were always pissing someone off, a cartel or a mob boss or who knew what. In Trowa's experience it usually came down to drugs and guns, and if it was especially kinky, sex for a little spice. Marc Addison could only dream of a career important enough to cross that kind of danger.

Une's extractor had chosen the train station. Serviceable, as these things went. Lots of noise, lots of innocent ignorant human shields, big metal coming and going and generally creating the kind of distraction you wanted when you were doing something illegal. Trowa spent an entire day wandering it, marking exits, marking security stations, traffic patterns. How many people in which café for how long, who lingered where on which platforms. He stood in every shadow until someone passing by noticed him, and he remembered how long it took. He remembered every spot where a footstep echoed, and every kiosk large enough to duck around and disappear, and every rafter where a pigeon sat that might be persuaded to fly with a well-timed scare. It was practically second nature. It was practically— fun.

Work for the lawyers. He got why Duo wanted it. He'd always figured Duo would reach that age before him, want to be settled, want to play house. He'd thought he'd have a little longer.

He wasn't sure yet if he was considering it except in the way he considered anything Duo wanted, which was to say he considered it if it was going to shut Duo up for a while. He spent half their damn relationship considering all wild kinds of nonsense he didn't give a crap about.

He was an asshole in his own head, sometimes.

He was three hours early, the next morning, cutting it close out of sheer confidence in how easy it was going to be. He chose a second-storey men's room that overlooked the ground-level train platform and hung a stolen 'out of order' sign on the door. It took all of fifteen minutes to remove the inside vent cover and arrange the tripod stand for his rifle through the slats on the outer wall vent. He made it through the double espresso he'd bought at the only cafe with an Italian name; it was mediocre, at best, but by the end of it he was riding a good caffeine high and feeling focussed and on. He was ready.

The service from Olomouc was late five minutes. There was a thick crowd on the platform below him, lot of people, mid-day traffic. A group of Japanese tourists taking pictures of the grey sky over the tracks, and a group near them of Czech girls in short leather jackets with big lapels turned up under their short dark hair. He did like this country. He wished Duo was here to see it. Duo would have liked it, too.

There. The bell rang three times, and the train was coming around the edge. Trowa crouched on top of the john and sighted down the scope. Second car from the front, first class. Time did the weird slow-down-crunch thing it did when he was deep in the moment. The train coasted in to the station gently, smooth as a blade through butter. The big steam-puff sighs it made, huge sleek black beast, slowing to a graceful stop. Doors slid open like a dream, and people debarked.

The justice came off, middle man in a group of black-suited hirsute guards. They had government badges, but they weren't government; Trowa could pick government security out of a tornado at a hundred yards. These guys were private hire bad boys. And the justice was afraid of them. He didn't want to touch any of them, but one, a chunky red-head, kept grabbing his arm to hustle him along. They made it down the steps and the baddies bulled a path through the crowd, shoving people out of their way.

Good so far, tense but good. None of them so much as noticed the laser sight dancing between them.

There was Baldy, materialising out of the newspaper stand. "Shit," Trowa said, and went up straight on his knees. "Shit, not yet, you idiot."

There was Baldy, too freaking early, getting the whole fucking thing wrong. Trowa fired, and the red-head dropped like a sack of grain, but Baldy had already fucked up and there was no time. Screams started from the Japanese tourists right before the guard throwing the justice to the floor pulled his piece and blew Baldy's face off.

Fuck. The crowd exploded as people tried to run and created a mess. He lost all possibility of a solid target before he could even attempt a second shot. The remaining three guards were throwing the justice toward the emergency exit. Trowa left the rifle where it was and hurtled out of the bathroom. Security was pouring out of the watch rooms, guns out, doing wonders for upping the panic level. The whole place echoed with it in an unrelenting roar.

He lost considerable time on the stairs, until he gave up fighting the flow of mindless mob swarming up off the platform. He climbed over the side and dropped to the concrete ten feet below, tucking and rolling and coming back to his feet with just the numb shiver of impact on the soft flesh of his thigh and arm. There was a big swath of empty by the train except for Baldy and the red-head and the scarlet stains they were making on the ground. Someone turned on an alarm, whatever idiot was running the place, and he all but went deaf with it.

There. They were taking the justice toward the service tunnel. Trowa zeroed in on the first security man he passed and full-body tackled him, knocking him brainless with a sharp impact on the pavement. He grabbed the gun and the badge and sprinted off before he could get caught at it. Instinct and muscle memory caught up just a second later, though, and he crashed to the ground himself, just as the camera over the service door swept toward him. His heart hammered. It hadn't caught his face-- he was sure he'd been quick enough-- but it was too near for comfort. He couldn't afford any mistakes, not now.

An agonising fifteen seconds before the camera made a revolution away from him, swinging back to the left. He made a dash for the door the guards had gone through. The key pad lock was sporting a bullet hole, now, and the door opened at his touch. It was an old brick corridor, smelling of dank water and mould. Dim red lights at wide spacing.

Shouting, and steel-toed boots pounding quickly along. They were headed for the surface.

Time went flying by, heartbeat by heartbeat. They heard him coming, no way to avoid it. He saw guns going up, and-- whatever shred of plan he'd thought he'd had vanished. Sudden screaming flash of panic, and then--

"Arrêt!" he shouted. "Attente! Je suis police. Suivez-moi de cette façon!"

It threw them off, at least. No-one fired at him. Still riding that crazy frantic high, he ran right up to them, throwing the badge in their faces, babbling at them in French to follow him, to trust him, this way to safety. I saw the whole thing, he told them, je les ai vus vous attaquer, hurry, messieurs--

It shouldn't have worked. There was no Earth under any Sun where that should have worked, but something out there smiled on him and it was just stupidly chaotic and insane enough to convince them he was legit. The one who'd killed Baldy said something back in Czech, he didn't understand it, but the man moved, and the other two both had hands on the justice, who looked like he was in full-on shock--

Not full-on. He was awake enough to vomit, when Trowa shot all three of his guards in the back.

"Je suis un Preventer," Trowa told him, in the middle of wiping the gun off on his shirt and dropping it on the nearest body. Couldn't believe it had worked. The mind was in overdrive, a little hysterical. "Parlez-vous français? Pouvez-vous me comprende? Je vous apporterai à un endroit sûr. Je vous apporterai à nos amis."

No resistance left in the man, if there ever had been any. He went where Trowa pulled him, same as he had with the dead guards.

The security corridor let out on a closed alley. They had to climb a fire escape, high enough to risk being seen by the assemblage of real police and evacuees gathering around the corner. Trowa took the first roof, the first storey above ground, and he pushed the justice into a run going across it, away from the front of the building, away from the danger of being discovered. They had to jump from the roof onto a covered walkway, but the justice went when Trowa made a few hand gestures to explain it, never asked a question or made a peep except when he landed badly on an ankle. Trowa slipped a shoulder under his arm and took his weight, as much as possible. No time left to lose.

And then, finally, safety. The covered walkway let out into the patron parking in the back. Once they got on the ground they were just faces in the crowd, nothing remarkable at all when everyone was sobbing or excitedly repeating what had happened. Trowa heard everything in a wash of foreign voices, remote like he'd turned the television low and forgot it was on. The justice limped along with him through all the talking people, until the crowd thinned, until it was just them and cars, row after row of cars he wasn't even paying attention to until he realised suddenly he was looking at his motorcycle, the rental he'd been using. Not built for two, but it was big enough if they didn't have to go far, if they didn't--

He didn't know where the rendezvous was. That wasn't part of his job. Baldy was the only one who'd known, and Baldy was colder than yesterday's fried eggs back there.

"Get on the bike," he said. "Montez sur le vélo. Allez."

The man was trembling, fine little tremor all over his body. "Qui êtes-vous?"

"Preventers. Get on the fucking bike."

"Vous... vous n'êtes pas Osmond."

Osmond. You are not Osmond.

His throat was too dry to swallow. They were out in the damn open, and the guy wanted to argue names. "Osmond," Trowa said, just sound to fill the air. "Osm-- Baldy. No. Non. Osmond es mort. You knew-- vous avez su que nous viendrions pour vous."

"Oui. Pas quand."

Fuck, so messed up. So messed up. His throat was so damn dry it made him cough, but his hands were the only pair steady enough between them to drive. "You knew we were coming for you, so maybe you know where the meet-up's supposed to be. You understand me? Rendez-vous? Où est-il?"

"Franti kánská zahrada."

The Franciscan Garden. Over in Wenceslas Square. Public. Poetic. Preventers always liked that kind of bullshit.

"Get on the bike," he said. "Partons."

+

Just to be safe, he wiped down the motorcycle and ditched it in a copse outside the city. He walked back, four miles into the outskirts, until he caught a bus passing by on the last service before nightfall.

The students were having some kind of party when he got back to his hotel. A teenaged girl offered him a drink before she realised he wasn't one of her buddies. He took the beer anyway, and watched her blush, then eye him speculatively. He drank it, there in the stairwell with her making eyes at him, tired enough that he wasn't even amused by it. He left her with the empty bottle and trudged up with her stuttering at his back. He locked the door and stuffed a towel under the bottom edge, and then he went face-down on the mattress for a long while, empty as the bottle, in the dark.

Feeling came back first as a pinch in the toes from the boots, an itch where the zipper of his jacket scratched his skin, an uncomfortable tingle in his fingertips that meant a nerve pinched by his angle. The mind started making signs of waking up, floating thoughts that became a growing sense of dread and depression.

Wouldn't have made much difference, even if he'd been faster on the trigger. Baldy hadn't waited for him. Baldy'd made the decision, go in without waiting. Should have waited for Trowa. Amateurs made that mistake, not seasoned field ops. Dead amateurs.

Five dead, all told. Hell of a day.

Didn't it just figure. Just when he started to think Duo was just possibly right and it was just possibly time to quit, and he'd probably be fired, for this. Such utter fucking hell of a mess. And it was like having a lover dump you. Even if you'd wanted it to end, even if it was that bad, you still wanted to be the one to kiss it off, and--

I'm sorry, Duo had said, a year ago, polite little voice that could have come from a stranger. I'm not having fun anymore. I'm not me anymore, when I'm with you.

When he finally moved, it was to pick up the phone.

She listened in silence for most of it. He got to the part about placing blame and laid it square where it belonged, and that was when she interrupted, cutting him off like a garrote around the windpipe.

"You barely met the man, you're making character assassinations now?"

Maybe they should just can him. At least Duo would be happy.

"I don't give a shit about him one way or other," he said. He managed to turn onto his back. The room was pitch black, no light even from the window with the curtains pulled. All the noise from the party downstairs was muted, distant. "He moved prematurely and the job went down sloppily because of it. If the justice hadn't known--"

"Shit falls on the survivor," Une interrupted. "When you get back you'll have to come up before the division heads. Have a better explanation than indicting the dead guy."

"Right."

"You're sure your identity wasn't compromised?"

"No-one was near me long enough to identify me as anything but a tourist. Even the justice only knows I'm a Preventer."

"Do you need aid getting out of the country?"

"No." He wanted another beer. He wanted to sleep for a few days. He had a headache. "Have you sent a cleaner for Osmond?"

"The locals will worry about it."

"Then unless there's anything else you need, I have two more cathedrals to see tomorrow, then I'm heading home."

"Come in on Monday," she said. "Use the back door."

Dial tone. He lay there listening to it, minute after minute, because it was at least consistent.

Lulled by it. Dull single note. Not quite music, but enough.

Dreaming.

Dreaming? Probably. Everything felt magical, in that sense that nothing was really under his control but it was all right, because everything happened anyway and he was just accepting of it, and some corner of his mind was all right with that. He was showering, which was a funny thing to dream about, and he could smell the lime-sage bath soap he was using, except not really, because you didn't really smell things in dreams, you just thought you did, and it made you feel content, just like the real thing.

He was out of the shower and he was answering the door, and Trowa was there. Hi, Trowa said, and kissed him, wet-but-not and hot-but-not, tongue in his mouth and hand on his hip. He laughed, because it was funny. What do you reasonably think you can get away with? he asked, and Trowa grinned back at him. Are you drunk? Did you come drunk to a cop's house?

I had to see you, Trowa said.

Why?

We have something. I have something, for you. Do you have anything for me?

It made his chest feel funny. Magical.

Trowa was inside, then, and they were sitting on the couch together, opposite ends. He knew it was their first date, and knew he wasn't supposed to know that because in the dream it was the first time they were having their first date and it wasn't their first date yet, wouldn't be until years later when he wanted to be able to look back and point to a day and this was what he'd choose. And in the first date Trowa was drunk, or drunk enough, and kept saying come get a burger with me, come see a movie with me, come fuck around with me at least, and he laughed each time and finally answered do you even know why you want me?

You're not a liar, Trowa said. That's nice for a change.

They bickered about something, in the real first date, but in the dream he just decided to lean over and kiss Trowa back, finally. Trowa grabbed him by the neck and held him there, then put his hands up under his shirt, then down his trousers. They stretched out on the cushions, him on top of Trowa, grinding, Trowa's mouth on his, hot, hot all over. Hands on his prick, mouth on his prick. God, Trowa-- yes-- yes--

Then Une was there. Trowa, she said, and he looked over, Trowa looked over, to where she was standing by the door, coming toward them, that nutty little half-smile on her face. Room for me? And her hands went up to her blouse and unbuttoned all the little buttons. Her bra was black, no, red, her bra was red, and silk with lace on the edges framing her breasts, her breasts were bigger than before, big and heavy, in his palm, his palms cupping her breasts and her nipples going between his lips so he could suck on them. Trowa sucked on him and he sucked on her and she opened her mouth and moaned--

He woke up with a start. And with wood.

It was still dark out. He groped for his phone and smashed the key guard with his thumb; the sudden light made him squint. Three fucking a.m..

Wild fucking dream. He'd been doing that lately, dreaming that he was Duo. He couldn't figure out if it meant anything. And Une. Man, he hoped that was just because he'd been talking to her. He wasn't even sure if he really wanted to masturbate, not with that image lingering.

He gave it a shot. He grossed himself out, and got up to take a cold shower instead.

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