TB and Marsh
see Prologue for warnings, notes,
of Conduct +
"Anyone lookin' at that guy
gonna know he a cop," Eddie said.
"I know." Duo fidgeted with his hair, trying to hide the microphone in
his ear just a little more. "It's the best we could do."
"How come you can't just do it yourself?" Eddie's old plastic bureau creaked
when he leaned on it, but it held, however precariously. His date from
before was no-where in evidence, now, but there was a little Latino hanging
around in the kitchen, cooking quesadillas over a hot plate.
"Cops and shoes come in pairs." It was as good as it was going to get.
Duo put his back to the broken mirror. "We're not here to make trouble.
Not here to arrest anyone or even turn the lights up."
"I'll hold you to that." The big black man peered at the light under the
bathroom door. "You ain't been on the scene in a long time, neither."
It was his week for wallowing in the past. "People grow up," he said.
Eddie's laugh was as big and booming as the rest of him. "Man, I hope
not," he returned, white teeth gleaming in a grin. "Put me out of business
"There's always the newbies."
"Gettin' younger all the time." Eddie reached for him, and Duo let him,
let him pull the braid over his shoulder and finger the tuft at the bottom.
"I knew I knew you. Been a long time, but you look the same, almost."
His fingers were dark sausages, but they were surprisingly light when
they brushed over Duo's neck. "Your buddy in there know?"
"I think he has a fair idea." Would after tonight, anyway. There were
more embarrassing things to do with a colleague who didn't like youprobably.
Duo was down to hoping they got what they needed fast enough to split
before the real freaks came in after the dance clubs closed.
"What you give me to keep quiet about it?"
Duo caught Eddie's hand away from his mouth and held it firmly. "You're
nice, Big," he said, "but you're not that nice."
Crammed up close, that belly laugh was even louder. Eddie rubbed his neck
with his free hand, his palm warm on Duo's skin, pressing just a little
too heavily. "You're pretty funny, sweetness."
The bathroom door opened, finally. Duo put space between him and Eddie.
"You ready?" he said brusquely, before Marquez could say anything. Eddie's
eyes were burning into his back. "Let's get going."
Eddie lounged back into the wall. "You all just remember how cooperative
I was," he told them.
"A saint, Eddie." Duo shoved his hands into his pockets.
They started in the downstairs. It was late enough that the casual group
was headed out and the serious crowd was coming in to play. There was
a small number at the bar, and a little assemblage gathered around a platform
to watch some fireplay. None of the faces stood out to Duo. Not that he'd
been looking at faces, ten years ago. The lights were dim on purpose.
The music was loud for the same reason. It wasn't the kind of place you
went to mix with the community.
There was a guy posing awkwardly in a full-out tuxedo. He at least made
Marquez blend into the wallpaper. "You look like an Orthodox Jew," Duo
muttered at him.
"You said like clubbing clothes."
"If this is what you wear dancing, I'm shocked you're still single." The
all-black, neck-high ensemble Marquez had put on was an eye-sore in a
place where clothing tended toward optional, not Victorian. Marqueze was
frowning, which didn't help.
"We should try the bar first," he said. "Let me order."
The hot tub was up and going. A couple were already in it, necking, hands
under the water, their clothes draped over the edge. Marquez turned his
head away quickly as the passed. Duo tried to ignore his misgivings. They
weren't going to get anything out of this.
"Two snakebites," Duo told the bartender. Barboy, if that. Another one
with a sweet baby face and a hand towel for underpants was walking on
the bar itself, crouching in front of the customers who slipped dollar
bills up between his legs. Duo took his turn when the boy glided by, bare
feet delicately stepping between their glasses as they arrived. The kid
was hard from all the touching, but up close he looked bored. Duo stuck
a five under the string holding his towel on and tried not to wipe his
"You should've tried to ask about the vic," Marquez said when the kid
"He was in diapers ten years ago." Duo pushed one of the glasses into
the other man's hand and clinked his to it. "Alley oop."
"We're on duty."
"This is our duty." He took a large swallow of the snakebite, trying not
to grimace at the sugary taste of the blackcurrant cordial. Marquez looked
repulsed by the bright purple colour, and the smell didn't charm him,
either. His sip was much more moderate than Duo's.
"Hi, hello." Duo turned at the touch on his shoulder. It was an older
guy, one who'd been at the bar when they arrived. Slight nasal lilt that
might be European or even L3. A perfect smile that meant a lot of time
at the dentist, and sparse hair bleached blond and carefully combed over
the growing bald spot. Duo shook his hand and smiled back. "I'm Deeter,"
the man introduced himself. "That one staring at the movie is Jan."
"Duo," he answered. "And Rico." He ignored the jab he got in the back.
No-one was going to remember their names. Deeter stretched past him to
shake Marquez's hand, too, and they got Jan's attention long enough for
another introduction. "Nice to meet you."
"You two new in town?" Jan asked.
"New to the area," Marquez said, easily enough. "Still kind of getting
It at least excused his very apparent uneasiness. Duo was glad he hadn't
tried to pretend otherwise.
"Oh, you'll love San Fran," Deeter told them. "Some of the best food in
the world, and even dingy old places like this still have their glam.
How'd you hear about the club?"
It was an opening. Duo sipped the snakebite, and said, "I saw it listed
in a chatroom. We tried some other places first, though. I wasn't sure
about it, because of the newsprint."
"Newsprint?" That got attention from a man on the other side of Jan, too.
"Well, yeah," Duo said. "The murder here."
"Oh, that." Jan flapped a hand as if to blow away the memory. "That's
"It was a gay bashing, though," Marquez said. "Wasn't it?"
"I guess we thought so at the time." Deeter was distracted by the next
pass of the bar boy, this time playing with a string of lights. "It was
just a little kid, wasn't it? Jan, you remember?"
"Poor little thing. He used to come here all the time. Horrible home situation,"
"You knew him?" Duo asked. He tried not to be excited about it, kept his
"Well, I know the type. Daddy doesn't want you to be such a pussy, some
bully at school starts slamming you around." Jan shrugged. "He was sweet,
but too young, you know? I gave him money for a cab a few times. What
was his name?"
The man on Jan's other side was suddenly looking away. Duo noticed, and
wondered if Marquez had. He nudged his foot back into Marquez's shoe when
the guy left the bar and went toward one of the film screens.
"Kelly, that sounds right." Jan rubbed the bar boy's ankle as he stopped
over them. "Anyway, it was a real circus, when they found him dead, but
they said it was probably just a jealous boyfriend, right? I mean, if
it had really been a bashing, it would have been all kinds of ugly. This
was more just sad. Wrong place, wrong time."
"Honey," Marquez said, and Duo nearly choked on his drink. "They're starting
a new movie. You want to check it out?"
"Oh, they play all the classics here," Deeter said. "A lot of avant garde
shit, too." His eyes skipped over Marquez, then came back to Duo, lingering
on his crotch. "Maybe we'll join you."
"Porn's not really my thing. I think I'll walk around a little." Duo let
the last of his drink slide down without tasting it, and stuck the empty
glass on the counter in time to watch Jan stand up to kiss the bar boy.
Marquez bent over Duo's shoulder and murmured in his ear.
"I'll take the loner," he said. "Meet me back here in an hour." He didn't
wait for Duo's answer, but headed straight for the couches by the big
screen, his walk all full of purpose. We're screwed, Duo figured, and
gave himself half the deadline before someone made Marquez for police
and started some trouble.
"So what're you into?" Deeter asked him. "Swing, kink, toys, bondage...
"They got any equipment here?" Duo asked. They'd used to, anyway. And
Eddie had said their suspect had been a dom, or had at least known where
to find the subs. The guy running the fire show over in the corner was
in full gear right up to a latex hood, and the cat-o'nine he was using
didn't look like light fare.
"There's a couple of rooms in back. If you want the real intense stuff,
you should try Tuesday nights. They have some workshops once in a while,
too, if you check the boards." Deeter smirked at him. "I bet your boyfriend
makes a great master."
Gag-worthy. "Thanks for the help," Duo said. "I guess I'll see you later."
"I'll be waiting."
He'd forgot how you could navigate by sound, in the clubs. It wasn't like
the baths, where there was a kind of quiet intensity, or the dance bars,
where everything was frenetic and abandoned. Exilio was on the large side,
and there was a lot to see in the warren of little rooms where some people
sought privacy and others just needed a sturdy wall to work off of. The
whole place was like waking to memories he honestly hadn't indulged in,
in a century or two-- a whole slice of life that just hadn't been part
of his daily mind. Hadn't been even when he'd been a regular in every
club San Francisco had to offer. He'd always had that talent, that need
to separate some things from the things that he allowed to matter. Work
mattered. Even when it sucked. Work mattered, because work was where there
was supposed to be purpose, work was where there was supposed to be justice.
Hadn't been. Not in those days. No shit the colonies had suffered under
Alliance, but he'd never really comprehended how Earth had, too. You almost
couldn't see the signs anymore, how the city had been back when he'd first
moved in with that edge-of-legal Preventers unit calling themselves First
Eagle. First Eagle, that was a laugh, these days. They hadn't even numbered
a hundred, and most of what they did number was made up of the same people
Duo had dedicated his grand total of seventeen years toward wiping off
the face of creation. Law, they'd carved out, or people like Relena Peacecraft
had, and Duo had taken the gun he was handed and did what he could to
enforce it, which amounted mostly to looking the other way on the big
things and making a big thing out of petty criminals who trying to Robin
Hood their way into a better life. So yes, he'd come here, places like
here, bitter and probably depressed and probably verging on a mental break
of some kind, and it had--
Not helped. But he wasn't sure, even now, that he could say he regretted
it. It had happened, and you couldn't change what was; you couldn't always
change what was going to be. Sometimes all you could do was just survive
what made it into your personal bubble. Survival went easier when you
could pretend you were concentrating on something else, like getting your
ass plugged a few times a night. And there was something undeniably exciting
about being in a building full of men, men who were unashamed about sex,
revelling in sex.
A little shame. Shame, or something like it. He didn't regret who it had
made him, in the end.
But it almost came as a surprise, to remember suddenly that Trowa was
supposed to get back in the morning. This world didn't have Trowa Bartons
in it. That, he could be glad about. Bad enough sometimes the things Trowa
did know about him. Duo didn't want to find out if there was a stalker
journal going back this far. God, he hoped not.
He'd made it to the fetish rooms, walking on autopilot. There were a few
shows going on, and a few cameras were at avid attention, taping all of
it. Duo had never been much into scenes, particularly anything that involved
ropes or cuffs. He'd spent too much time in actual captivity for it to
have any flavour of fun, and he knew too much about the real world to
get off on simulated rape. Maybe it was better for Marquez to be back
by the films. That was relatively benign. There was a young guy hanging
from a sling and a gang going at him, in one corner, and that was the
mildest of the activities in progress.
He'd been noticed. There was a pair of older men who looked like doms
who were crusing him, but both of them were holding collars, and Duo didn't
think he'd get far in conversation with them yelling at him to say "please,
sir" after every question. The subs were a better chance, and there looked
to be a few unoccupied hanging by the water hole. Duo aimed himself at
them, and plunged into the lions' den.
The one he picked as likely had the look of a lifer. Store-bought club
clothes, and too old to pretend to be fresh meat, which meant he'd been
around a while. The kind of thin that came with extended drug use, a pale
brunette with faded blue eyes. Duo pretended to walk past and then turn
back, and said the first thing that popped into his head. "Hey, can I
bum a ciggy?"
The sub brightened when Duo spoke, the sullen frown on his face evaporating
into a coy smirk. He made space on his sofa and patted the cushion next
to him. "Sure thing, darling, if you come sit with me," he simpered.
Duo obeyed. Even managed a tight smile, until a groan from the sling pulled
his eyes that way. A big hairy guy was wrist-deep in the sling's occupant.
There was a circle jerk starting amongst the spectators who all watched
with hot eyes and open mouths.
"You don't look so relaxed, pretty," the sub said. He tapped Duo on the
thigh with the leather crop in his hand. Duo caught the tress as it slipped
away. It was smooth and cool between his fingers. "In the market for a
"Just checking out the prospects," Duo answered.
"Whatever he does for you, I can do better." His fingers tripped up the
crop to Duo's and stroked.
Someone climaxed. The noise was unmistakable. But the crowd had closed
ranks and Duo couldn't see who. He refocused on the sub. "You in here
"Honey, I live here." That got him a smile. Lip gloss and a pierced lip.
Not bad-looking, but he was a little desperate, which probably meant he
didn't have the money for drugs and was hoping for trade.
Or his instincts were entirely off. Next thing out of the guy's mouth
was, "You haven't been around in a while, but I remember you."
That caught Duo's full attention. But he had to shake his head. "Sorry,"
he said truthfully, and gratefully. "I don't remember."
"Well, we were all pretty wasted most of the time. You're here now."
"Yeah." Duo forced an easy smile. "Duo." He held out his hand.
"Sheldon Rembrandt the Third, pretty. Shelly to you." He took Duo's hand.
His fingers slid up under Duo's sleeve. Duo kept his smile in place with
sheer willpower, and plunged head-first into conversation.
"I was kind of surprised this place was still around, but I guess it figures."
"The urge to merge is eternal. But you know that." His other hand went
wandering into Duo's lap. "You came back, didn't you?"
"Anyone else from the old time still around?"
"A few of them. Aren't I enough for you?"
"Just making small talk."
Not very well, apparently. The fingers searching for which pant leg Duo
preferred didn't slow down, but a hint of irony entered Shelly's painted
eyes. "You're not looking for a date, are you, honey?"
He took a gamble. "I was looking for someone. Kel. I remember he used
to come here."
Shelly's lips pursed. "Oh, Kel. There's a sad story." Piercing in the
tongue, too, playing between meth-worn teeth. "But I think you knew that
already, didn't you?"
There had been a time, not too long ago, when Duo had been paid to lie
to people. He'd been decently good at it. He'd have given a lot if he
could remember, just now, exactly how he'd done it.
If he couldn't lie, he could be honest. Even perverts had a heart. "I
just want to know what happened to him," he said, no window dressing.
"I didn't know he was dead until someone just told me last week."
"You knew Kel. He ran with a dangerous crowd. A boy comes to grief when
he's not careful."
Success made him edgy. Duo took another risk; he put his arm on the back
of the couch and let his fingers rest against Shelly's bare neck, the
edges of his hair. Shelly's shiver was only a little overdone. "Ohh,"
he said, "I do remember you."
Not the best news he'd ever heard. He'd spent years in therapy trying
to reconcile-- this kind of thing. This place. And a dozen just like it,
where he could probably still walk in today and meet a dozen men he'd
screwed while he was drunk enough to forget about it. It was a miracle
he didn't run into more like this.
Shelly leaned in to steal a nuzzle. Duo tried not to turn his head away,
and got his ear bit for it. Words whispered out against his cheek. "Kel
slept with the wrong man."
He got an ankle between his feet, first, and then Shelly settled entirely
into his lap, his arm around Duo's neck. To anyone else, it would have
looked like they were making out. The reasons why occupied all of Duo's
paranoia, and he got a little lost with the effort of marking all the
exits and nailing a memory of where every man in the room was standing
and who was watching and three conversations near enough to overhear which
meant six or nine who might have heard Duo ask about Kel, and someone
in that crowd was someone Shelly thought was dangerous enough to warrant
"Doesn't even matter if you're a cop."
All his scattered concentration pulled back to a single point. Shelly
wasn't as much of a noodle as he looked.
The hard-on rubbing Duo's thigh was no noodle, either. "If I tell you,
you'll owe me."
He freed his hands to grab the kid by the face. It was harder to get his
eyes up and firm, but he held them when he had them. "I won't promise
just to get a name out of you," he said flatly. "I'm not that kind of
cop, and I don't think you're really that kind of guy."
A kind of awkward, intense silence fell then, as they sized each other
up. The tongue ring went in and out of pursed lips-- then Shelly looked
"I wasn't drinking that night," the kid said. "I was mad at Kel; you know
how it is. I was watching and stewing about how he spread it around. And
he was using real heavy by then. He was getting the stuff from Eddie.
And cruising that blond. I think he was making time with both of them."
Duo stroked his gel-stiffened hair, for whoever was watching them, and
for reward, maybe. "Eddie claims he doesn't remember Kelby," he said softly.
"Eddie's a big fat liar." That was hard, and bitter. Duo believed it for
that. No-one who didn't have cause gave half a shit about anything, not
in a place like this, not when you were on plenty of pharmaceutical help
to forget anything that serious. His heart was beating faster, catching
up on his excitement before he'd half allowed himself to even think about
it in his own mind. Answers, real concrete answers, and if Shelly gave
him a lead out of this Duo really would kiss him.
He almost couldn't get it out of his mouth, he'd gone that dry-throated.
"What happened to Kel?"
"That night, when Kel was crawling all over his blond, and Eddie didn't
like it. They fought. The blond and Eddie."
"Oh, please. Eddie owns the place. Who do you think won? He had Blondie
banned from the club."
Owns, not owned. That shouldn't have surprised Duo; even as it settled
he thought he'd already known it, in the back of his mind. Eddie had a
little too much influence for someone who only stayed on to chat with
"Could you describe the blond?" he asked. "Maybe to a forensic artist?"
"Well, I could, but you already know him. You were in here with him all
He was right into opening his mouth to protest that he sure didn't remember
any blonds and it didn't mean a thing to him. When it did.
Zechs Merquise had been blond.
He went blank. It was shock, pure shock, and something like a horror that
it had to be true.
It couldn't have been Zechs. Zechs had been messed up, drugged up, but
he hadn't been a murderer. Duo was proof of that-- what you did as a soldier
was nothing to do with what you did as a civilian or even as a Preventer,
and Zechs hadn't been interested in hurting--
Except he'd had a taste for rough, hadn't he. Had a talent for it, too.
"Kel took off," Shelly was saying, and Duo went zeroing in on his voice
like he was coming out of a tunnel and could suddenly hear again. "He
wasn't happy with either of them. Kel was a lot of things, but drama didn't
get him hard. He didn't come around again. Week later, they found him
in the alley. I liked Kel," he mumbled. "It made me sad that he went that
"Blond," Duo said hoarsely.
He felt a smile stretch the lips on his neck. "Kel and me, we used to
call him Sexy Zexy."
Bad enough he'd messed up so much with Kel when he'd had a chance to help.
All the pieces went falling together. He'd messed up with Kel, but it
had waked him up to how fucked up he really was, how little it would take
to wake up one day dead from drugs and booze. He'd wanted to change, wanted
not to feel so lost, so he hadn't gone back to any place he'd known because
all the places he'd known were like this, wrong, from top to bottom.
Except because he hadn't come back, there'd been no-one to come back for
Kel. Except Zechs. Six months later Kel was dead, and three more after
that, so was Zechs, and it took nine years for Duo to even find out what
he'd started rolling.
"Honey? Pretty?" He'd been silent long enough for Shelly to be sitting
up and staring at him with real concern. "Let me get you a drink," Shelly
said. "Or a glass of water?"
Duo rubbed his mouth. He meant to say something, but it got lost in his
own head. He managed a nod to confirm he'd heard.
Shelly kissed him on the cheek. "You just stay right there and let the
world turn right again. I'll go get you that drink."
There was a little black hole of him being gone and coming back with a
bottle. Duo sipped when Shelly put it to his mouth, then up-ended it over
his palm and splashed his face, the back of his neck. Shelly rubbed circles
on his knee, meant to soothe, not come-on. Nice, for a guy who'd just
thought he was getting a quick lay. If Duo had been him, in this place,
he probably wouldn't have come back.
Fuck it all.
"Thanks." He was still dry-mouthed, but it sounded reasonably professional.
He capped the water and offered it back. "You were really helpful, Shelly.
"For what it's worth, it was actually kind of nice to see you again."
Shelly's eyes went flicking toward the open corridor. Duo noted that,
but not in time to fend off the big sloppy kiss that came swarming in
a second later-- or the hand magically appearing in his pants. That, he
thought dazedly, was talent. That zip always stuck on the down.
"Call me some time, pretty."
"Yeah," he said vaguely, before his brain re-engaged. "Wait. Take my card,
okay?" He pulled one from his back pocket, and a small pen. "I'm putting
my home phone on the back. If you're in trouble ever--"
Shelly kissed the card, leaving an impression of glitter gloss. He managed
to touch himself as obviously as possible, putting it in what might have
been a front pocket and might have just been the band of some dubious
underwear. "Back rooms are still open."
He wasn't remotely tempted, physical stimulation aside. It really would
look less suspicious if they went there, after the show they'd made of
making out on the couch. Of course, Marquez-- who was now watching like
a hawk from the door. Of course. He could at least be useful and pitch
a hissy or something, give Duo a reason to back down. Staring back at
his fellow detective failed, somehow, to telepathically communicate that.
"Not this time." But he let himself bend down for a firm kiss, on the
cheek. "I mean it," he whispered. "You may be the clue that breaks the
case. Don't stay in places like these."
"Places like these make life bearable on a good night, pretty." He snagged
the pen away from Duo and held his hand open, scratching out a series
of numbers on his palm. "Not before noon, please." He mouthed the numbers
he wrote and balled Duo's fingers to a fist. He laughed. "Now this gives
a boy ideas."
No kidding. Duo felt a little green.
Greener, then, because of course Marquez chose that moment to join them.
The hissy was at least finally on the agenda; Marquez was as red in the
face as Duo. Very abruptly, and not precisely asking, he said, "Can I
talk to you?" and turned around without waiting for an affirmative.
If it wasn't going to suck so much once they were outside, Duo would have
been relieved to be leaving.
As it was, the trek to the back alley was torturously quiet. Marquez marched
along like a man fleeing a bad smell. Duo doubted he'd ever gone to even
a straight club happily. The stick up his ass had the mark of God, not
man or woman.
"How'd it go with the guy from the bar?" Duo asked, as they let out into
the night air. Their sound van was three blocks up in the paid parking
lot. He stripped the mike from under his hair and switched it off.
"Bust," Marquez said shortly. He barely slowed, cutting a tight turn around
the corner. "You get anywhere?"
Hard to tell if that was derogatory. Duo didn't try to parse it. "I got
"Is that what you were doing? Interesting methods, huh. I'd never have
thought of screwing a snitch to get a lead."
"Oh, fuck off," Duo retorted, stung. Marquez didn't so much as glance
back, and Duo was stuck trailing after him like a naughty schoolboy caught
with his-- with Shelly Rembrandt the Third's-- hand down his pants. "You
never flirted if it would smooth the path?"
"Flirted. Maybe. Your fly is down." It was. Duo zipped it furiously. Another
turn and they were on a main street again, out with the night-crowd straggling
between bars. Duo had to dodge a couple who weren't watching where they
were going, but he was still plenty close enough to hear what Marquez
aired next. "You know, I'll never understand what drives you people to
places like this."
Duo counted to ten. He counted to god-damn ten, and managed an actual
breath at the end of it. "You want to know my lead, or you want to be
a self-righteous prick a little longer?"
"I'm not," Marquez said. "I honestly wanted to know. Never mind. Yeah.
What'd you get from your snitch?"
"He was a friend of the vic's. He recalls Kelby and Big Eddie making
time--" He caught himself. "They had a sexual relationship that
got a little proprietary. Kelby stepped out with another guy, the
blond Eddie mentioned. The one he threw out. Apparently it
was hot and heavy."
"Do we have ID on the blond?"
"Yeah." Duo hesitated, sheer personal reluctance to believe it, still.
Marquez actually stopped walking to look at him. "You have got to be fucking
"No. And I can confirm it, before you ask."
Marquez was shaking his head, violently. His hand made a cutting slash
through the air, ending with an accusing point at Duo's chest. "Do not
say another word. Zechs Merquise did not kill that kid."
Oz. That was the first thing that popped into his head. There was no reason
for Marquez to even remember that name, unless he was-- But Duo didn't
know if he was, and the generous, the professional, thing to do would
be to assume that it was at least possible to be politically savvy enough
to not want that name repeated in the middle of the street, or in the
middle of a case, especially if it was your case. "I didn't say he did.
I said he might be the last person who say Kelby Gerganas alive."
"Did that kid in there name names?"
"I don't think he got the significance," he said. "They had a cutesy nickname
"I don't like it."
"Sorry for your loss, then. It-- fits."
"It doesn't make any sense though. And the guy's dead. Are we really going
to trash a war hero on a maybe?"
Too much credit to the opposition. He felt a little colder. War hero.
"Are we going to ignore a solid lead because you don't like it?"
"No. We're not going to ignore it. But we're keeping it quiet until we're
"Did you expect me to go blabbing it on Channel 14 at five? I'm not a
goddamn greenhorn. Stop impugning my abilities and focus on the fucking
facts. Merquise frequented this club, we have three descriptive IDs on
his presence here at the time of the murder, and both Eddie and Shelly
recalled violent episodes. I call that a theory."
Marquez caught at that. "Three now? Who else?"
He hadn't even been conscious of that slip. He was getting too far deep
on this, and he didn't do well swimming in over his head. He lifted his
braid off his neck to cool his skin. "Me," he said shortly. "I can place
Marquez winced. It wasn't angry, at least. Duo had expected the furious
denial. Marquez just stood there rubbing his forehead like it was all
too much to think about. "That's just beautiful."
Duo made an enormously reluctant gesture. "I'll recuse myself. From the
case. I'm too involved."
"If we pursue Merquise then more is going to come out. I had a--" He couldn't
call it a relationship, exactly. Affair still had a tinge of romance,
and there had never been that, even in the moments where they'd managed
to look up and remember there was a person attached to the dick. War heroes
didn't pick up you at rehab, war heroes didn't take you to clubs so everyone
could watch you screw. War heroes didn't overdose on coke and die in their
Trowa was going to kill him.
"What?" Marquez said impatiently. "You had a what? Damn, Maxwell, look,
if you have an insight that can finally get this case solved--"
"I'm happy to offer my witness," he snapped. Immediately wished he hadn't.
He wasn't happy. At all.
And that was when he realised. He really believed it. Zechs could have
"You listen to me now." Marquez slapped a palm flat to Duo's chest, hard
enough to rock him on his heels, hard enough that Duo almost took a swing,
and his face was flat and angry too. "Maybe you Preventers have the luxury
of recusing yourself when you're involved. But this is real work, Maxwell.
This is the law. We do our job even if it hurts, we do our job even if
it's our own mother and Santa Maria robbing the banks. Too bad it's hard."
"Get your hand off me," Duo told him very quietly. He didn't add anything
more. He waited, hands spread at his sides.
It only took four seconds. Marquez obeyed, with a flick of his eyes that
said maybe he was sorry, or embarrassed, or maybe he'd just heard enough
to worry about the follow-through.
"Look," he repeated. "Realistically, Merquise is dead. So even if by some
remote chance it was him, there's not going to be charges brought, no
trial to go through. You're getting off easy."
He was glad about that, then, because he felt raw enough to dread the
idea. So it took him a minute to get it out of a dry throat. "I can do
The air of tension slowly eased. "Good," Marquez said, gruff in getting
what he wanted, minus a little face, a little of his treasured cool. "Do
the job. And we won't be getting people upset until we have something
Shocking, that they were back to that. Duo bypassed it, to prove he could
do curmudgeonly too. "Merquise was a Preventer. That's where we should
start. I can set up contact with friends inside." Another idea occurred,
but he liked it even less than he liked going hat-in-hand to people who
weren't his squad anymore. "The last place Merquise lived was on Mars
with a woman he knew from OZ and Preventers. She's the logical next step.
She's even in San Fran right now. I could get her to interview."
"Is this above or below board?" Marquez stared at him, then. "You know
her too, don't you? You have history with all these people."
"I'm a fucking Gundam pilot," he snapped. "This is what it's like, all
the time. You might as well get used to it."
"Not everyone gives a shit what you were."
That was fine to say. They were at their lot, anyway. The sound guys were
tossing open the van's back door. They'd obviously heard everything and
weren't in the business of meeting eyes. Too late, it occurred to Duo
that he hadn't seen Marquez de-mike. Terrific.
"Just do the damned job, Maxwell," Marquez said, and grabbed the handhold
to jump up into the van. "Lose the personal baggage and do what you know
how to do."
That pretty well illuminated the difference between them. Duo would always
say "is" about being a Gundam pilot. Marquez said "was". Being a Preventer,
being a cop, that was all secondary. It was the job he did, not the man
he was. Had decided he was going to be, when he was all of nine years
old, before he'd ever even heard of Gundams.
Trowa had told him once that not everyone in humanity went around making
big decisions all the time.
Duo wasn't sure he believed it.**Trowa was making a big decision.
He'd never been one to second guess, but given the memory lapses and hallucinations,
he was feeling a little twitchy. Duo had told him once some crap about
how admitting you had a problem was the first whatever, step or stair
or he didn't remember because he hadn't been paying attention-- which
was not his fault. Duo couldn't stand around in boxers and expect people
to actually listen to what he was saying.
It sucked to wonder if you were losing your edge. Or got your partner
killed. Osmond hadn't been much of a guy, but Une's reaction had been
working at him. It wasn't just blame that fell on the guy left standing.
Responsibility did, too. His instinct said Osmond had jumped the gun,
but his instincts were compromised, and it was time to think about admitting
But maybe just think about it. This might have been taking it a little
It was his fourth city morgue. Maybe Prague had a high incidence of random
murders and deaths, but it just seemed unusual that there were so freaking
many John Does lying around.
"Mon nom est Rumina. Je suis d'Interpol." He slid the fake ID across the
counter, long enough for a cursory glance to take in the almost-official
seal and photo, short enough to prevent a thorough examination. "Parlez-vous
It took some working to find someone who spoke French, much less English.
He repeated his story about being with Interpol and flashed the badge
a few more times. He ended up with a mousy little girl in her early twenties
who looked likely to turn into a quivering young fool under the pressure
of actually talking to a man. Or, judging from the way she stared at him
over the rim of her glasses, she was a young Une clone.
"My name is Tomas Rumina," he said. "I need to speak with someone who
knows French or English. I don't speak Czech."
She hunched in on herself under the safe layers of her overlarge lab coat.
"I speak some English," she said haltingly. "What do you want here?"
"I'm looking for a John Doe, shooting victim, from yesterday. Might have
been brought in yesterday afternoon or night. Maybe this morning."
"His name is John Doe?"
That must not have translated. He stopped her from typing it onto the
computer by brushing the edge of his ID over her wrist. "Unidentified
male." She was red, from being corrected, so he softened his approach.
"Relax," he said gently, and smiled for her, no teeth, all gentleman.
"Unless you shot the man, you're safe. All I want is some information."
She returned his smile with a nervous spaz as she turned the screen toward
him. "The man from the train station? Was he somebody important? It's
all in the news."
"Let's just say he's a person of interest in a case we're working on."
The line worked in every language, he'd found. Thank God civies never
seemed to know how useless Interpol really was.
His interpreter fetched the report out of the file cabinets in the back
of the chilly little office. She spread the manilla folder out on the
counter for him, for all the good it did. It could have been so much chicken
scratch, for all he knew. "What questions?" she asked.
"First the obvious one. Was this man under the influence of some controlled
substance? Any drug at all?"
The supervisor he'd first talked to was watching very obviously from the
crack of another door. Trowa stared back.
"A medication for arthritis," the girl said. "He had advanced degradation
in his joints."
Interesting. "A narcotic?"
"Standard prescription, sir."
"Anything else? Anything that might have affected reaction time? Judgment?"
"Mental agility. Common sense."
"It's only a preliminary autopsy, sir."
"Thank you." He pulled the folder closer. "May I see this? The pictures?"
She let him have it. "You can't read it, though. No English?"
"A picture tells a thousand words, doesn't it?" A thousand and one, and
one was all he needed. At least his memory had been straight on that account.
"The cause of death?"
"The bullet wound, sir."
The forebrain said he'd never know why Osmond had jumped the queue and
moved too soon. The hindbrain said no answer wasn't good enough, and in
general his hindbrain spoke pretty loudly.
"Did he have personal items?"
"Yes. They came with the body. There hasn't been time to go through them
yet. That's a different department."
"Call them and have them bring it all to me. And make me a copy of this.
Immediately." He saw the protest starting, and cut her off with his most
official voice. "Our offices will go over the details and save you the
time of explaining them to me." Fresh reports made good insurance policies.
He didn't think Une would trash him so clumsily, but it still paid to
be ready, if the paperwork ever showed up with some ugly new edits.
Still the girl hesitated. "You need to sign for it."
Why people thought that was going to cover any mistakes, Trowa would never
know. He'd left a hundred fake paper trails behind him, over the years,
and none of them had ever come back to him. He smiled again. "Of course."
He waited almost a full hour for the personal effects, and when they arrived
they came in a garbage back half-heartedly sealed with an official evidence
form. Trowa ripped it open carelessly and dumped it end over.
A nice pocket watch. A pretty personal piece, but it didn't tell him anything.
A little pill box, with what looked like generic aspirin. A penknife.
With a nailfile. The guy sure didn't carry like a secret agent. There
wasn't a gun in there, or any kind of weapon at all. Maybe the local Preventers
had already cleaned him up.
Wallet. A couple of credit cards, some cash. A few grocery store coupons.
Nothing. Fucking nothing.
Secret pocket. Someone had missed this.
Not Osmond. Miklos Kolinsky. And there was an address.
Thank God some people just didn't follow the rules.**Duo asked to meet
him at their old bar.
They'd used to really like it, back in the day. They'd only ever gone
to gay bars, back then, gay clubs-- neither of them were out at work and
if you didn't have a third wheel, it wasn't worth the risk of being seen
together. But Johnny had genuinely liked it. Going out like that, in a
bubble of total privacy. Like they'd had a place where they could be totally
themselves. He'd been so sure he knew who he was, too. Arrived. Solidly
middle class, solidly cultured-- wine tastings on Sundays, dinner parties
with the gay crowd and drinks after work with the squad, a job that made
a difference, a home with a partner and a sense of security in all of
He actually stood in the door for a few minutes, to watch Duo sitting
in their old booth, the one by the side window with the Tiffany lamp hanging
over it, casting gem-toned shadows on his face.
At the first glance he wondered what he'd ever seen in Duo. But standing
there looking at him, it came back. It always did. It wasn't that he was
good-looking-- he was reasonably handsome, and there was some pride in
having a man like that on your arm. But Duo had something harder to define,
a kind of bright, animal grace. Even the way he sat his seat showed it--
the way he held his glass by the fingertips, balanced on the balls of
his feet and not the heels, had an instinctive eye on everything around
him. He drew the light to him.
Johnny drew in a big breath, and went in.
"Thanks for doing this," Duo said, and stood to meet him. Johnny kissed
his cheek, and took the open side of the booth.
"Hi," he agreed. "You look great." He tossed his jacket down, and
set the folder he held on the table between them. "I think that's what
Gratitude, expressed in the sudden upturn of lips and the loosening of
the fist that lay on the table. Duo pulled the file to his side and flipped
it open, immediately like that, and as quick as it had been easier between
them, Johnny felt like he just disappeared. Duo was as good as gone when
he was working.
"Glad I could help," Johnny said into the silence. "It wasn't any trouble."
"Thanks." Duo glanced up. "They, uh, have the Copperhead you like on special
until nine. You want?"
"Sure. I'll let you buy me a beer."
Duo missed that. He was head-down again in the file, his eyelids flickering
as he read. Johnny gestured for the waiter walking past, and ordered for
both of them.
"You flag anywhere in the system?" Duo asked.
"Don't worry about me. I know how to run silent." He managed to brush
Duo's hand, reaching for the peanut bowl. Skin to skin, like a thousand
memories that weren't really so far gone as he'd thought. "In a hurry
to get home?"
"Not really." Duo turned a page. He'd gotten to the photographs. He thumbed
through them quickly. "Is this all there was? This is barely more than
his service record."
"Pretty much. Merquise knew how to lay low, too, apparently." He'd read
everything he'd pulled. Duo had played it cagey, on the phone. Duo was
good at that. Johnny almost hadn't thought anything of it, content with
the fact that Duo had called him and not, say, Heero Yuy. In fact he'd
been more curious about that than he had about Zechs Merquise, until he
was in the process of illicitly copying retired records. "You know, I
didn't even know he was dead. I guess I always thought he was still on
Mars, or retired, or something." No response. "I don't think anyone had
a clue what he did in his down time."
Duo did. He was pretty sure of that. Like the fact that Duo's name was
in that file, and they were in pictures together. Maybe not so unthinkable,
but they definitely weren't sharing old war stories.
Not much wonder he hadn't asked Yuy to run it down for him. It was one
thing to ask an ex to dig up your dirty past. It was another to ask a
friend you still cared about liking you.
Their beers arrived. Johnny sipped at the foam, and moved a coaster nearer
his elbow. "Rumours came up from time to time that Merquise wasn't always
the nicest guy in the world, but nothing specific. Internal Affairs
has a file. There's nothing concrete in it. Just an open watch
"Could you pull that?"
"Already have. It's in the packet."
Duo found it quickly. "Why were they watching him?" he muttered.
It wasn't meant for Johnny, but Johnny answered anyway. "He tested suspect
for substances four years before he died. Only once, but the red flags
stay up permanently when you're not on Narcotics rotation."
"He was in rehab." Duo chewed at his lip. "So much for anonymity."
That was about as far as Johnny was interested in Zechs Merquise, especially
if Duo wasn't going to come right out with anything resembling an explanation.
"I'd like to buy you dinner. If you're not expected at home, that is."
That, Duo heard. His head came up. He said, "Uh."
"What? It's an innocent invitation. It's just nice to work together again."
He watched Duo drag his finger up and down the thin edge of a page, risking
a papercut. "I don't really know what answer I'm supposed to give to that."
"You're supposed to say, 'Yeah, Johnny, dinner would be great'."
"I know what I'm supposed to say. I don't know what the right answer is."
"I'm grateful you did this for me. I'm still really fucking pissed at
you for believing I was capable of murder. I guess the right answer has
something to do with what's changed in three months?"
"One thing doesn't have to do with the other."
"You have a spectacular talent for comparmentalisation," Duo sniped. He
tugged his beer near him, but didn't drink it. He was off balance, then.
He wasn't as sure of himself as he wanted. Duo was a volatile guy. Baskets
full of issues. You were lucky if he confined himself to one at a time.
Johnny had been smart enough to compare dates. He was all but certain
that Duo had been in rehab the same time as Merquise. Rehab happened,
if you made your career in Narc, and Johnny had done a stint of his own,
once, for testing positive on a contact high; but rehab seemed to be the
piece that was missing in explaining away some of Duo's stranger habits.
The OCD cleanliness, the very insistent limitations on diet and drink.
The reliance on therapists as confidants, on anonymity for safety. He
hadn't even known Duo was a Gundam pilot until their captain had let it
slip in conversation. They'd been together seven months by then, seven
months, and the first thing Duo had done after he'd been exposed was go
home and pack, in full expectation that Johnny would want him to.
Duo's mobile buzzed. He pulled it from his belt to check it, and tapped
it uneasily on the table.
"Answer it," Johnny sighed.
"Don't fucking tell me what to do." Duo let it drop face-down. "I know
who it is."
"A real estate agent. This friend of mine--" Duo sucked at his lower lip.
"We're looking at buying a house. This agent has a place to show me, but
it's tomorrow afternoon, and I don't really have the energy."
"Get lover to do it. He always seems to have a lot of time off."
Duo was a lot like a contact high. He had come onto a Narc case from Homicide,
a tight little ball of angry energy wrapped in the stiffest uniform Johnny
had ever seen. But he'd taken all the ribbing and teasing with good humour,
and within an hour he'd had everyone laughing at his jokes. They'd done
a stake-out, almost a month of very long hours. He'd known Duo was gay
right off-- no question there. And they'd talked about everything under
the sun, politics, religion, travel, family. They'd had everything in
common, and a real spark, and he'd thought, I can see being with this
person. It had been the first time he'd really felt that way. The first
time, Duo had claimed, that he had, too.
They'd have been just fine if Duo had been all those things, and not a
Gundam pilot, on top of it. It wasn't just about the war. He could have
handled that. It was the whole world he wasn't invited to-- was deliberately
excluded from. You couldn't be with someone who wouldn't let you in on
his entire life. Like this stuff. He'd never known, would never have guessed.
Duo would never have told him.
Or maybe you just had to try harder to listen. He'd had a lot of time
to think about that. And they were older now. They knew more about the
effort you had to make. The decisions you had to make, to make it work.
"Look," he said. "I didn't come to apologise. You were right, that day
at court, about what we owe each other now, which is mostly honesty. No
game-playing, no fake-outs, no tests. Dinner is an honest offer. If you
don't want me to make a move, I'll respect that. But if you're open to
the idea, then, honestly, yes, I want to do that. So it's up to you. Thanks
or no thanks."
"No thanks," Duo said immediately, brusque in his temper. But then the
guilt went flying across his face. His fidgeting finally produced a scarlet
little slice. He stuck his finger in his mouth. "Jesus, take a mile for
"Do you blame me? Faint heart never won fair lady."
He assumed that was Duo's temper speaking, and let that go, too. "We could
go to Antonio's. They still have the eggplant and pasta you love."
He considered fighting further. The instinct was there. The habit was
there. But-- and there was always a but, with Duo Maxwell. He'd thought
that was exciting, once.
Who knew. Maybe it still was.
He took out his wallet and left a couple of bills on the table to cover
their drinks. "Call me sometime," he said. "Even if it's only because
you want another favour."
Duo was wearing his nervous shame face. "I'm sorry."
"You didn't do anything. It was nice to see you."
Duo finally reached for his beer. His palm smoothed over the file. "We're
not ever really going to be friends, are we?"
Johnny eased back into his seat. "Is that even remotely possible?"
"I'd wish for it, yeah. There used to be enough for sex. Romance."
"We could have that again."
It was quietly offered. Genuine. Johnny drew and released a deep breath.
"Because of Barton."
"Yeah." Duo sipped his beer. Then, "No. Because of me.
I hated how it ended with us, but it was time. We weren't ever going
to be forever."
"Seems like," he said. "Whatever. Let me know if
you need more help on this stuff with Merquise. I'll do my best." He drained
his drink, and let the glass thump hard on the way down. "But that's all
you ever want from anybody. Isn't it?"
"Is it really so hard to give?" Duo said.**Quatre was on the phone. Quatre
had been on the phone. For five continuous hours.
Wufei had opted to drive, rather than rely on the "secret service" car.
They'd left the four bodyguards with the limo and added a little rental
to their retinue. He'd signed for it, while Quatre wandered the parking
garage, trailed by his black-suited guard, yammering on call after call.
He hadn't been able to catch much sleep on the shuttle, either; Quatre
had been awake for all of it. On the phone.
They were ten minutes out from Duo and Trowa's apartment when he reached
boiling point. Quatre had fumbled the charger cord out of his hand luggage
and was trying to plug it in while he talked. Wufei reached a hand out,
grabbed the phone, and stuck it under his own visor. "Enough."
"Wha-- I was--" Quatre actually unhooked his safety belt to climb over
the shift, completely oblivious to whether Wufei was trying to, perhaps,
drive. Wufei batted him away. "That was Temple--"
"Do I need to put it somewhere you don't want to stick your hand? Take
a breather. The world won't stop turning."
"You're awfully high-handed, Mister. At least let me text him."
Quatre actually pouted. He put his safety belt on again, and crossed his
arms over his chest. "At least charge it so I can check my messages later."
"You can check them when we get to the hotel tonight. You're officially
off the clock for the rest of the day. Is it that necessary to find distractions?"
"No." Still sullen. But he at least looked around, and noticed where they
were. "We're almost there anyway. I hope Duo's home. He should be done
with work by now, right?"
"Given that it's Saturday, one would think." They were well past afternoon
now. Evening, California time. If they were lucky they wouldn't interrupt
Trowa and Duo doing something intimate. He knew how they usually spent
their weekends. "Stop doing that leg-jiggle thing."
"I'm excited. I'm expressing my excitement. I also have to use the loo."
"Do you need to stop?" He was sure that Quatre wasn't so much excited
as nervous. Nervous about seeing Trowa. He was glad of it, actually. It
was a distraction from his own nerves. It was one thing to think about
seeing Duo. It was another to be mere minutes from the actual event.
He hated unpredictability. Duo was unpredictability. Even in the best
"I can wait," Quatre said.
He glanced at the blond head now staring blankly out the windscreen. "It'll
"Of course it will." Quatre pointed. "That's the turn," said the man who
had been a tourist every time he'd been in San Francisco, where Wufei
had lived for eight years.
"No," he corrected. "It's the next block."
It was only another moment. He turned onto their street and the rows of
apartments, all mixed styles and interlaced with precious trees to cotton
the otherwise dull city landscaping. He knew the way to Trowa's apartment
by heart, though it was a strange feeling to be following the path now.
His hands knew when to turn the wheel. He parked in the guest spot, and
turned off the engine. "I'll wait out here."
"No, don't wait." Quatre twisted to grab the gift bag of champagne and
toast he'd brought. "Oh, no, someone's going to have to tell them all
where to park. They can't block off the entire street, it's just not right.
This is rush hour."
Wufei checked out the rearview. Sion and Davi were already out of the
limo with their road blockade signs. "I'll handle it," he said. "Okay?
Go see your friends."
Suddenly Quatre was sitting and staring at him head-on. Given that Quatre
hadn't had the focus to look anyone in the face since take-off, it caught
Wufei by surprise. "What?"
"I can wait for you. They're our friends."
"Test the waters. If he's fine with it, I'll come in later."
"I'm not giving out choices, Wufei."
They'd been discovered. The noise of their arrival must have alerted Duo.
He appeared at the front door. Wufei felt his chest tighten.
"Neither am I, this time." He flipped his phone open and dialed Sion's
frequency. He didn't look at Quatre, at all. By the time he was asking
Sion to keep a lower profile, Quatre was opening his door and vacating
He was trembling, a little. His hands. He flexed them until it stopped.
He hadn't really expected to win that contest. He hadn't really expected
there to be a contest at all. He hadn't even known he would disobey until
it was happening. But he had done. Disobeyed. For the first time, since
they'd begun their strange dance of master and supplicant. He hadn't broken
free, but the possibility was real, now. He'd found the limits of Quatre's
authority, without even intending to look.
They were hugging, Quatre and Duo. Duo was visibly surprised to see them,
which seemed odd. Quatre was talking. They both looked back at the car
where Wufei sat.
Davi beeped him, to say that they'd established perimetre.
A man he didn't recognise came out of the apartment. No, he did know that
man; from where? Then he caught a full view of the face and remembered.
It was Duo's lawyer. Was something wrong? Something new going on? His
thoughts raced with new worry. Fear. He had thought everything was over
for Duo. Quatre would have told him, surely. Would certainly have told
him if it was something to do with the trial, if there were new evidence--
Quatre came back to the car. Wufei rolled down the window for him. "Trowa's
not here," Quatre said.
Odder still. "Where is he?"
"He's been gone for days on a job. Apparently including the other day
when he called me."
There was no immediately obvious reason for that kind of miscommunication.
Quatre had been very clear about the invitation, and Trowa had been quite
urgent during the call. "He didn't mention that," Wufei noted cautiously.
"No. Certainly unusual." Quatre rubbed his nose. "And he didn't tell Duo
he'd invited me. So Duo was on his way out. I've offered him a ride."
"Okay, fine." He drew a breath, rearranging his mind to incorporate the
new task. "Where are we dropping him?"
"I guess they've been house-hunting. He's going to look at an apartment
The lawyer was saying his good-byes, between staring at the bodyguards
and at Quatre. There was no urgency in their exchange, at least. Duo smiled.
The lawyer kissed his cheek, that surprised Wufei, and hugged him as well.
They waved as the lawyer walked to his car, parked in the visitor's area
further up the road. He slowed when Mohammed split off from the watch
"Get someone to let Addison through. He's hardly going to assassinate
me when my back is turned. Will it make you feel too much like a driver
if Duo and I sit in back?"
"Quatre, I really couldn't care less. Someone's got to drive and you came
a long way to see him." He sent the order by text, and watched long enough
to be sure Mohammed received it. "Would you please take off the kid gloves?
I work for you."
He didn't raise eyes to see if Quatre were upset. Or angry. Or disappointed.
He didn't want to know.
So he couldn't have blamed Duo for doing the same thing, coming to the
car. But Duo was a braver man. Duo looked, for a long minute. There was
nothing to read on his face-- there was too much to read, really. Too
much that defied easy understanding.
He discovered he'd stopped breathing, when Duo's gaze finally left his
face. The doors opened behind him, and Quatre and Duo got in.
"Where to," he said, and started the engine.
[part 4] [part 6] [back
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