Code of Conduct + Part Five

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

Code of Conduct + Part Five

"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 real fast."

"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 you—probably. 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 hand after.

"You should've tried to ask about the vic," Marquez said when the kid was gone.

"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 our bearings."

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 ancient history."

"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," he confided.

"You knew him?" Duo asked. He tried not to be excited about it, kept his voice casual.

"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?"

"Kelly?"

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. Law. Peace.

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 new dom?"

"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 often?"

"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."

"Which 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 a distraction--

"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 away.

"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."

"Who won?"

"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 the old-timers.

"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 the time."

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 way."

"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. Thank you."

"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 a lead."

"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. "Zechs Merquise."

Marquez actually stopped walking to look at him. "You have got to be fucking kidding."

"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 for him."

"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 sure."

"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 him here."

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."

"Like hell."

"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 bathrooms.

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 killed Kelby.

"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 my job."

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 concrete. Okay?"

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 that.

But maybe just think about it. This might have been taking it a little far.

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 français? Anglais?"

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?"

"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.

ID.

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 it.

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 you wanted."

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 file."

"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."

"Don't you?"

"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."

"Barton?"

"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."

"Christ, Johnny."

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 an inch."

"Do you blame me? Faint heart never won fair lady."

"Fuck you."

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."

"No."

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."

"No."

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."

Well.

"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."

"No."

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 of times.

"I can wait," Quatre said.

He glanced at the blond head now staring blankly out the windscreen. "It'll be fine."

"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."

"Oh."

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."

"Just go."

"Wufei."

"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 the vehicle.

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 uptown."

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 to intercept.

"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 to TB and Marsh's fiction]