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

Code of Conduct + Part Six (cont)

+

He didn't have to verbalise that he didn't want to be seen around town-- or, more accurately, in any place where Duo might find out he'd been before he'd done his domestic duty by letting his boyfriend know he'd got back into town. They didn't even need a car. They walked through the brisk spring air just around the corner, to a run-down little pool hall with a black-lit window sign proclaiming it 'Sharkey's.'

The bar was sticky, but it came stocked with bowls of snackies, and that he liked. Heero chose a rickety pleather stool. Trowa took the one to his left. He reached for the nearest nut selection and tugged it near, styrofoam bowl that was half empty shell and half undersized peanuts. He slid it to a spot between them.

Heero said, "The cardinal rule?"

As if there'd been no pause between it leaving Trowa's mouth and sitting down here to repeat it. Trowa supplied it anyway, because Heero was like that, and he'd known it when he went to Heero's door instead of his own or even Une's, who still thought he was due in on Monday. He was almost more comfortable having that many layers of deception in place again. "Finish the job," he answered, "and get the hell out of Dodge and never, ever, look back."

The pool sharks were at the tables, the old drunks who bet the big money and took it hard when they lost. Given enough time, he and Heero might end up back here, right there with the other washed-ups who had lived it hard and still managed to get out before it ran them into the ground.

"I went to his house," he said. "This guy. Osmond. Miklos Kolinsky. Watched his wife walk the kid and the dog down to the market. They didn't know he was dead yet. She'll probably never know why."

"Why does that bother you?"

Good question. "Hell if I know. It shouldn't."

"Maybe it should. But it never has before. That's part of who we are."

They finally got a bartender, a homely girl in short black shorts and a bust-boosting tank top. Heero stayed silent, so it was Trowa who ordered, a pitcher of light beer on draft. Places like this didn't carry anything all that much better; their stock and trade was decent tap, drinkable in great quantities. Trowa was feeling like he might have the room for great quantities tonight. Besides, Heero didn't drink enough to know the difference between good beer and get-buzzed beer.

And Heero wasn't one to drown his sorrows. Heero was one to confront, take the short-term conclusion that would allow him to operate at peak efficiency. It was good policy. It took him through.

Except when it didn't. Maybe, maybe, in his fondest hopes, in the best, brightest of his long-ago hero worship of the sullen little boy who'd fired his imagination, Heero might actually have had some wisdom to share. Heero had pulled him back, once, held him steady with a steely grip for no better reason than that he was slipping and he needed the help. They'd been such different people then. So young.

He never looked behind him. He never had. There was no point, no true qualifiable comparison to be made that made it worth dwelling on who he'd been, where he'd been, what he'd done to who. Even if it was to himself. Shrinks drove him nuts. 'Tell me about your mother'-- over his ass. Not being held enough as a child hadn't affected him as much as his own choices, his own intelligent and purposeful reasoning had. Fuck Duo for being such a self-reflective little poster-child for the mentally dependent.

He should drive by the apartment, after Duo was in bed. Settle his gut over it. It might help, just seeing him there. And fuck Duo if Duo read it in the log later and called him on it.

No, fuck that too. He wanted his space. And he didn't need Duo's imagined permission to stay away from his own home if he wanted to. There were damn good reasons for never looking back and giving over your ability to determine your own, your own-- life.

"You don't have to tell me what happened that made it a special case," Heero said then. The girl came back with their pitcher, a pair of frosted mugs. "Probably it wasn't really special. It's the things that happen around it that makes it stand out and seem-- awful."

Awful. Not all that awful. A couple of deaths, a handful that wouldn't turn the world on its axis. The judge he'd rescued might or might not have been worth it, might or might not be a good man, like Trowa might or might not have it in him to do something other than shoot at people he didn't know because he was told it was helping something. He knew what Duo would say. If he could ever tell Duo. Would ever. But Duo was embittered right now over it, Duo had had his notions of justice shattered, and he'd done it to himself, protecting Wufei when Wufei was guilty of everything Duo had invested himself in grinding out of existence.

You did things like that for loyalty. If you were Duo.

But he was Trowa Barton. A little disloyalty didn't bother him that much. A little injustice.

He poured full mugs for them both and drank half of his, cold swallows of watery beer that didn't even register. "I couldn't stand the guy. He was pompous and self-important. Less competent than he should have been." He drained his mug and filled it again. They were probably going to need another pitcher. "This is why people like us should always work alone."

"If we only ever worked alone we'd end out alone always. Then we'd be dangerous."

Words into the bar's white noise. There was a football game on the television over their heads, a music video for something thirty years old on another screen. The clack and pop of the pool tables. Two older women opposite them at the bar, talking in low voices with the occasional loud out-burst.

"We never had a problem with that before."

"We've always had each other," Heero said.

Strange statement, from Heero. Maybe not so strange. Heero had never turned any of them away, had never done like Wufei and gone off in a pout to sit outside the circle. Like Trowa had done. He wondered how Kathy was doing, these days.

God. Like it mattered. Like it really fucking mattered anymore how anyone he hadn't so much as thought of in a decade was doing without him. Just fucking fine, was how Kathy was doing.

"Did you ever wonder if you were losing your edge?" he demanded abruptly. "If your screw up was what got the mission in trouble?"

Heero replied, "I've thought it at least once every day since I turned eighteen. Maybe every day since I killed the Federation Doves. I think that might be truer."

That was a shitload of accountability. From someone who'd been all about the end goal, especially.

Excepting that interlude where he'd wandered the Earth offering his loaded gun to his victims. Trowa supposed that was more significant than-- but it still kind of shattered him, on some deep inner level, to hear that, to look at the stony unmoving carving that was Heero Yuy's face and see a man who was carrying that insane amount of baggage.

"I never gave it a thought. Before." Had never had to. He'd been a one-man team since before the wars and he'd probably-- probably die somewhere doing the same. He was good at it. Efficient. Everything about Heero he'd used to idolise he'd earned for himself, he'd become. He was indispensible. Had worked hard to make himself that, to ensure there were a dozen world leaders who owed him, who would need him, who would be afraid to cut him off. He'd relied on that for some part of his sense of self-worth, hadn't he, built himself up a little on that idea, the money, the rewards, the reputation. Une would stand there and tell him if he ever messed up he was on his own, that they weren't going to ride to his rescue. That was the way of the world, spelled out in extra big font on the contract he'd signed, and at the sterling age of twenty-two he'd looked at the odds and laughed and he'd agreed. So sure he was invincible.

Didn't have the others. Duo, sure. Would have been deep in the trenches with him for the asking, shovelling out the shit, getting his hands dirty. Yelling at him the whole time about not asking for help sooner.

Quatre? Maybe. Quatre had his limits. Trowa had his own limits on what he'd ask, especially from Quatre, on what he'd need from Quatre, because as much as Quat seemed to offer unconditional love, it was just a pleasing, pretty disguise. There were always strings with Quat. Trowa hated strings, unless he was the one holding them.

Wufei wouldn't extend so much as a pinky finger. He'd be lucky to get as much from Une, unless she had a reason to help, but then again if he was ever that shit out of luck she'd turn her back and that would be the last he'd ever see of her.

He might have said the same about Heero, but he'd still gone walking to Heero's door, given his choices, and Heero was sitting next to him actually fucking talking it out. So maybe the universe was imploding and this was the only sign he'd ever get. A shot in the dark missing the target.

Osmond was dead. His fault or not, it was going to sit on his shoulders until he did something about it.

He had to try it twice to get it out of his throat. "Maybe it's time to get out of the game."

Heero only nodded. "Maybe so."

"Duo thinks so."

"Duo's very intelligent."

"You've been listening to him too, huh?"

It was a joke. He even smiled. Heero, of course, was deathly serious. "He says he won't come back to Preventers."

"Can you blame him?"

"If it's right for him, maybe it's right for me. Maybe it's right for you."

Relief to know there was a point. Relief to know there was a solution. Not so sure how else it made him feel. Still a little crushed, kind of.

And then it sank in, what Heero had said. Maybe it's right for you. What did Heero know? Had Duo told him? No, Duo wouldn't have-- not even feeling like he did about it all-- Heero sat there not giving anything away.

"Yeah," Trowa said.

"I think maybe sometimes we made Duo listen to us too much, and not the other way around."

"Made him?"

"We said these were the things we wanted to do. We told him to let us live our lives. We told him this is the way we'd love him, let him love us. At a distance. Carefully."

"Occasionally I wonder why he chose me and not you." He finished his almost-full glass of beer, then found it in him somewhere to add, "Maybe--"

No flash of Duo's face. No memory of his scent or the colour of autumn daylight on his hair. Not even a sense of him, or a longing, except for a desire maybe to get off, a vague tingle in his crotch that didn't do Duo justice and didn't speak too highly of their-- relationship.

Past a certain point, to hell with the vocabulary. They owed each other. He could close his eyes and dredge through the mind and what Duo was was more than thinking about what Duo meant, was things like wide eyes with Heero's fist arcing toward his gut, that night, that Christmas Eve when Trowa stood there wearing Mariemaia's uniform and Heero stood there, too, and Trowa knew what he was going to do before the fist even started moving. Every act, every word out of Duo's mouth, it was an act of faith. He was always ready, ready to jump in, fight, take the swing, take the hit. For whatever was important, whether he'd been called to do it or not, at his own peril, at his own cost, vulnerable as all hell because faith just couldn't conceive of personal pain. He didn't really know Duo, it wasn't love or even admiration yet-- hot boy, that grin, the way Duo looked sideways at you to evaluate and then grinned at you like he knew-- he dredged at all of that and came up with the look in Duo's eyes when he'd put it together, the second Heero hit him, crumpling from the inside at the hurt, but still accepting it as his due. Still accepting it.

The three of them, Heero pushing Duo away and Trowa picking him up again.

"Maybe he didn't," Trowa said. "Choose."

Heero nodded once. "I never really thought he did. But, regardless, you make him happy. He loves you now."

"You okay with that?"

Heero drank. "I'm okay with it. If you earn him."

He could still laugh. Heero could always make him laugh. He topped off their mugs with the last in the pitcher, drew a circle inside the circle of sweat his mug had left on the bar. "You think so?"

"The trying is important. Maybe part of trying is thinking about where this problem with your 'edge' is coming from."

"He thinks I should see a shrink." Dryly, around a sip of the watery beer. "He thinks everyone should see a shrink."

"He says it's helped him." Heero braved the peanut bowl, choosing a few by some strange criteria, but didn't eat them. "It helped me."

No end to the surprises. "He got you to a shrink? Or did you come up with that all on your own?"

"I might have bowed to a suggestion in the absence of alternatives."

"He made that sentence up. Didn't he? Because it sure as hell doesn't sound like something you'd say. Well, whatever works, I guess."

Heero smiled a little, let it fade. "It's not really about him, though, is it. Maybe you feel like things are changing because they have, and the things that they've changed into have different values. Are more valuable."

"I care more. Yeah." It was what happened when you stopped being immortal. Everything became more important. Dire even. And the faster it seemed to slip away the more desperate he was to hold on. Duo had said that, written it in some journal he didn't keep anymore, forever ago. Forever ago when he'd been too young to think stuff like that. Always in such a rush to be old and annoyingly-- annoying.

"Take something off your plate," Heero said. "Duo will help you."

"Good to know you have his back anyway."

"I have yours, too. Finish your beer. You can sleep on my couch, if Duo doesn't know you're back yet."

Unfair, to make him so grateful when he'd already had to go baring his innermost thoughts and such. "He's not expecting me for another few days. I kind of wanted to-- decompress, a little, before I went home. I hate taking this shit into the house. You know?"

"I understand," Heero said, and that was the last thing they did say to each other. Neither of them were talkers, really, but this was all the conversation they'd needed, anyway, certainly more meaningful than any they'd had in years. Maybe their only real conversation, since Heero had advised him against throwing his life away when they were fifteen.

Funny how Heero had a knack for that, still.

+

It was as well Quatre knew nothing about basketball, because it kept Duo from showing off too badly when it became rapidly clear that he more than outmatched Quatre. They sparred slowly, both of them exhibiting spots of perspiration through their button-downs as they took slow, uncompetitive shots at the basket, pausing to exchange idle news as they tossed the ball back and forth. Quatre's guards occupied all the corners of the little lot, their heads making grim revolutions as they searched the street outside the chain-link fence. A group of boys who had wandered past to use the lot had been turned away; Quatre had watched them go with regret, but Duo had soothed him by observing that it was the golden rule of community lots, anyway.

Duo may not have been trying to show him up, but he didn't stint himself on natural talent, either. He sunk a perfect toss, the ball swishing the ragged net, and turned a grinning face to Quatre. "'N' spells Orion," he announced. "I win."

"I'm shocked," Quatre said dryly. He wiped his forehead on his sleeve. Duo bounced the ball to him, and he outright missed it. By chance, it rolled to Wufei, who stood rigid at the edge of the court. Wufei flipped it up with the edge of his foot, and sent it back to Quatre. He managed not to embarrass himself again and caught it neatly.

Duo caught his eyes. Quatre tilted his head stiffly, ever so slightly, in Wufei's direction. Duo went into a deep frown and shook his head. Quatre repeated himself, putting more emphasis into his eyes.

"Damn it," he heard Duo mutter. Duo swivelled and the ball left his hands. It flew the distance, landing with a soft whup against Wufei's startled catch.

Even if Duo was still avoiding looking directly at Wufei, Quatre thought it made a good start. Duo had a deep-seated sense of fairness, and he was sure that if Wufei just accepted the overture...

Wufei stood staring at the ball. His indrawn breath was audible. Lacking any direction from Quatre, who made a point of not providing help, and perhaps fearing some kind of explosion from Duo, Wufei dithered over it for almost a full minute.

Then he faced the basket, lifted his arms to his head, and sent the ball through the air. It wobbled for just a moment on the rim, and then it fell through.

It hopped its way to Mohammed, who tossed it back to Duo. Duo in turn passed it to Quatre, and said, "How's your lady?"

"Relena's well. On L2, actually, giving a speech. I think it's the Family Coalition."

"I hate those bozos," Duo complained. "They're the ones who came out supporting those high-school kids who pipe-bombed an abortion clinic. Why's Relena giving the time of day to radical crazies like that?"

"If you only ever talk to people you like, you don't make much progress," Quatre said philosophically. "She condemned their endorsement and they know that. By going there she might be able to change a few minds."

"I love her, but not even Relena's that slick." Duo sunk another basket, and tossed it back to Wufei. With his eyes squinted as if to avoid the setting sun, Duo asked him, "Don't you think?"

There were days when Quatre could burst with pride for his friends. He tried not to break into a silly grin, when Wufei ducked his head like an awkward school boy and answered. "If I know Relena, she's going there to scold them silly," he said. "Which may have the same effect. There's not many who can say 'no' to her." Wufei took his second shot. This time the ball rebounded from the backboard before shooting through the net.

Duo bumped Quatre with a shoulder as he passed by to drop the ball into Quatre's hands. "You need to loosen your wrists," he told Wufei.

"Oh, really." Wufei seemed to decide that was an invitation to play, finally, and he left his lonely position to venture onto the court.

"Yeah. You never listen to me when I tell you that."

"If you ever beat me, I would." Wufei stole the ball from Quatre, who let it go with only a half-hearted protest. Duo made a weak reach, but Wufei had got the drop on them, and he made a smooth basket, jumping up to tip the ball through the net with the tips of his fingers.

"I forgot," Quatre said. "You both played on the Preventers pick-up league."

"Not for a few months," Duo muttered. He pushed his sweaty fringe from his face. "Quat--"

"It's okay," Quatre murmured. "Give it a try, Duo."

Duo drew a sharp breath through his nose. "Basic rules," he called out, loud enough this time for Wufei to hear. "Me and Quat versus the Powerhouse there. Two points in-circle, three points outside, one point free-throws. No foul game."

They started slow. Quatre, as was probably natural, found himself hanging back, letting the two who knew what they were doing keep the game right at the circle line. They were about evenly matched, as long as Quatre didn't get in the way; he managed to block Wufei from making a shot, and got in one good pass to Duo, but the real action took place between the other two. Duo was the shortest, but he was lean and fast, and Wufei's more muscular grace served him better when he managed to get the ball closer to the net, where he could use jumps and forceful dunks to get his points. Duo had quick feints and a dashing run that could get him outside the circle for his shots before Wufei could catch him. Duo began eking out a lead.

And it might have ended well like that, if there hadn't been one inevitable factor. Their blood was up with the exercise, they were both competitive men, and it might have been a little early to bring those qualities onto the court when neither of them had truly breached a dialogue.

Wufei stole the ball from the air and sank it for himself instead. Duo crowded him on the next play, shy of fouling him but aggressively preventing him from getting into position. Duo won the next five points, and after that managed an excellent free-throw from well behind the line. Wufei had the ball again, and instead of a genteel block, Duo ran a hard intercept. Wufei got the ball back with a fast reach, tried to feint and came chest to chest with Duo again. Quatre, who hadn't been anywhere near the ball in ten minutes by then, saw it happen very clearly: Wufei couldn't get around Duo, so he simply shoved past, throwing an elbow into Duo's collarbone and knocking him back a step. Duo let him get away with it, but his expression was one of dangerous, centred fury, his eyes flat and his jaw locked.

It was a curious sense of acceptance than came over Quatre, then. They were going to blow up, and Quatre knew it, saw it very clearly. But it didn't worry him as it ought to have. They would blow up, and it would be damaging and ugly, yes. But his bodyguards would be there to prevent unnecessary bloodshed, a nice advantage. And angry as they obviously still were with each other, they both had a good sense of the consequences, and Quatre was sure that nothing would be said that shouldn't be. Wufei wasn't the self-destructive man he'd been three months ago, and Duo wouldn't risk a fight so bad that Trowa would feel called to retaliate-- also a nice advantage, if one were going to have a rabidly protective lover be useful for once. Both men felt betrayed, and if they chose to deal with it violently, so be it. There was still time to intervene and call it to a halt before it got too hot, but Quatre made the choice not to.

Wufei was keeping the pressure on Duo. He was playing rough, but not dirty, and when he tripped Duo over his ankle he immediately helped Duo up, and Duo took his hand easily enough. A flurry of intercepted shots went back and forth between them with no points to either player. It was Duo who reached his limit first. He slammed Wufei with a shoulder, took the ball out of Wufei's hands, and then suddenly turned about and passed it to Quatre. Quatre, lost in watching them, saw it sailing toward him, managed to get his hands up, and actually caught it. His triumph lasted until Wufei was standing in front of him, swatting the ball out of his grip so that it bounced hard. Wufei caught it and over-handed it for a clean three-pointer, and then he was demanding, "What's your problem?"

"He's playing too," Duo accused. "Don't fucking ignore him."

"He dribbled illegally!"

"Leave him the fuck alone. We're not playing rules like that."

"Fine." Wufei's short fuse lit out. He stalked from the court immediately. "You invited me," he retorted irritably. "It didn't have to go this way."

Duo picked up the ball. His arm went back, and then the ball was winging through the air so fast it whistled. It smashed Wufei in the back and bounced away.

Wufei whirled. For a moment, Quatre doubted his reasoning. The way they stared at each other was savage, unblinking, daring escalation.

Wufei came back on the court in a rush. He scooped up the basketball and fired it at Duo, right at Duo's head. "No, you never do. Do you? You make your own then expect the rest of us to figure out what they are."

Duo caught the ball with an audible smack against his palms, and it was all there in his face for the world to see, the next attack, the wrath that would fly instead of the ball. Quatre didn't even realise he was holding his breath.

And then Duo's face went blank. His face went absolutely blank, woodenly immobile, as he shut every emotion down. He set the ball down very precisely by his feet, and when he straightened his spine was a ramrod, his hands tense fists at his sides. He walked off the court to the bench where they'd left their jackets. He didn't don it, not with the sweat streaking down his face and soaking his chest, but he gathered it in a tight grip and headed for the wire lot door. As he passed Quatre, he said briefly, "See you before you leave," and that was it. Quatre exhaled, then, almost dizzy with the lack of air. Duo crossed the pavement and stepped out onto the street, darting out of the way of a speeding SUV and dodging briskly for the opposite side.

"Oh, come on," Wufei shouted after him, his ragged voice splitting the air. "Don't be such a child! Coward!"

Duo's long legs carried him to the corner. He met a crowd of businessmen crossing from the Prince Edward at the green light, slipped through them so smoothly they never even noticed him. He disappeared around the edge of the valet desk, and then he was gone.

Wufei was actually shaking. He stared at his hands, and then at Quatre. Helplessness slowly replaced the rage. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I didn't mean for it to go that way."

Quatre swallowed to ease the dryness of his throat. He didn't give that the obvious answer; all he could do was nod.

Wufei wiped at his face. A horrible sort of impotence, really, maybe the first truly defenceless expression he'd ever worn before Quatre. Paralytic in the face of this one final failure.

Then, incrementally, he gathered himself. His dignity, the first and last shield, pulling his shoulders straight. The little act of deference to Quatre, a humbling inclination of the head. "Want me to get him back?" he asked, subdued.

"No." Quatre looked for his bodyguards; they were all carefully looking elsewhere. "Leave him alone. He walked away, which is more than you managed. Let him cool down."

"Of course."

Quatre waited for Wufei to meet his eyes again, but gave up as the seconds passed. "I'm hungry," he said. "Let's go in and shower so we can eat."

"Sounds like a plan." Wufei nodded tightly.

He collected the ball, so he could return it to the corner where they'd found it, and got his coat as well, automatically checking his mobile display for messages. Whatever vestige of his calm decision to let his friends battle to the death produced one final sally. He said, "Perhaps while you're waiting for him to forgive you, you could forgive him for his flaws."

"I'm not angry with him."

"I think the game showed otherwise."

"Sometimes things aren't more complex than they seem."

"Are you going to argue with me?" He wiped his forehead and settled the ball awkwardly over his stomach. "You can. But if you do, it's an end to this. Maybe you're ready. But think about it first."

It was him Wufei stared at, this time. Quatre didn't try to throw words at it, didn't try to explain or qualify or alleviate the weight of it.

Slowly, Wufei replied, "I'm not arguing with you, Quatre."

He accepted that silently. A breath of breeze began to flow, then, and he looked up, by chance perhaps to that spot over the Bay he had pointed out to Duo. The Lagrange clusters were very bright, now, beacons in the night sky. Not even the nearly full moon could dim their brilliance.

Wufei said, "I won't stay with you forever."

"I know." Quatre freed his eyes with a strange twinge. "But leave for the right reason."

Wufei nodded sharply. "I'm-- sorry I ruined your visit with him."

"Actually-- I want to try and stay longer." There was, after all, still the question of what might be wrong with Trowa. Still, he hesitated. "See how long we can manage."

"I'll stay out of the way. Or perhaps you'd prefer I went back to L4? I could send Miriam to replace me."

"I think today was a sign of progress. Mostly. Come on, I really am starving."

+

"I've reviewed the tape from the train station," Une said. "I think it's clear the Prague agent jumped the gun. You can relax about that, at least."

It hadn't occurred to him that the same cameras he'd been so careful to avoid would actually vindicate him by recording the shooting. "It wasn't my cleanest mission, but that was my assessment," he proffered cautiously.

"Agreed." She finished writing whatever note she was busy with and gave him her full attention. "I take it you were the Interpol agent who visited every morgue in the city?"

"Who reported that?"

"You are not the only competent agent under my command, Barton." She gave him a sly little glimmer. "I wouldn't mention the extra-curricular activity when you give your report to the Committee on Monday."

"No? Huh."

"The local bureau sends you their apologies. They wanted to be clear that there were problems in Kolinski's last few missions. He was facing disciplinary action. The good news is that all evidence points to you having acted in good faith, as usual, and with considerable quickness of mind. It was a win."

"That's all that counts, isn't it?" He didn't manage his 'usual' edge for the snotty comment, but Une let it pass.

"It is indeed." She spread her hands. "Anything else?"

"What's the status of my paperwork?"

She made a little noise of impatience. "This conversation again. I was clear the last time you raised the subject."

"I thought I was too. Look, I need out."

She heard the difference-- not want, but need. He made sure she heard him.

"I answer to the Security Council, Trowa," she said.

They had some connection. Whatever it was worth. Too much time together, maybe. It didn't quite amount to trust, but he knew her, and she knew him, knew his worth. To her, more than anyone else, he could safely say, "I'd rather leave than act like I want to leave and wake up to one of your new pretty boys holding a gun to my head tomorrow morning."

A ghost of a smile lifted her lips. "I sympathise," she said drolly. The top buttons of her blouse were loose, her loose hair was still crimped from the pins she'd piled on the edge of her desk. A faint tinge of lipstick still lingered on her mouth. There was something strangely relaxed about her, almost a fondness in the way she looked at him. Trowa didn't fool himself it would last if she decided he was better off dead. It was one of the top things he liked about her, after all.

Her painted nails tapped her desktop. She said, "Are you doing this because Duo wants it, or is this an authentic ennui?"

Trowa cocked his head at her. "When have I ever done anything for someone other than myself?"

"You flew a Gundam."

He showed his teeth in a smile. "I liked blowing shit up."

"Maybe. Answer my question, Barton. Yes or no."

Faced with the moment, all the clever bullshit he'd thought he'd have at his fingertips evaporated. His throat worked, his jaws moved, but his brain had quit on him. There was-- just-- nothing there to say.

Just sitting there with Duo's face in his mind, looking at him so seriously. I love you, Trowa. He wanted that there for himself.

"I'm tired." He breathed. "I need out. We're getting too old for this shit, Une."

Her nod was slow in coming. He'd got himself pretty drunk to be able to come here and do this, hopped up on Heero's pep talk and understanding, and it had made him stupid enough that he almost took that little gesture for permission or agreement or something that would be fucking positive for him. It hurt to be quite so very wrong.

She folded her hands flat on her desk. "Here's how this will play out," she explained gently. "I'll take your request to the Security Council. They'll debate letting you go for a week, review your reports, contemplate the possibility of a real security breach. They'll deny your request. And on your next job, they'll send that new pretty boy after you, and either he'll kill you, or you'll kill him, and the next one after that won't miss. A month from now, you'll be dead."

Drunk enough he got a chill, hearing her lay it all out like that. Nothing he didn't know. Nothing Duo didn't know, if Duo could ever bring himself to admit the moon had a dark side and it was the side Trowa had chosen for himself. But, son of a bitch, it still sent a cold wind down his spine. He was hoarse answering her. "I figured it would go that way."

Une exhaled. She sat back, her shirt loose at the throat like that so that she almost seemed human, and said, "So we'll have to be more clever than that."

Son of a bitch, indeed. Une had a brass pair on her. "Maybe I'm unfit for duty," he said. "Losing my-- mind."

"That would work. If it didn't leave you open to untimely breaches of confidence. Something... maybe post-trauma stress."

"I could attempt suicide." He passed off the joke with another grin.

"As a cry for help or a last resort?" She actually laughed for him. "It was never my intention that you would be locked into this for life, Trowa."

"It was never my intention to survive long enough to want to quit."

"Then Duo must be the positive influence we thought he would be."

"He's perfect."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves." Then she frowned. "He is perfect."

That was funny. "What?"

"Your entire psychological profile is based on your rabid desire for privacy. Classic lone-wolf." She leant toward him, intent, excited even. Her eyes were alight with whatever idea had occurred to her. "No-one ever expected you to settle down."

"No, I'm kind of shocked myself."

"Have you and he talked about a commitment ceremony?"

He sat there blinking at her like an idiot. "Commitment-- If I asked him, he'd be sure I had lost my mind."

"He's not my concern. If we can show a real change in you, a real desire to retire from your career in favour of a family life-- you're not only not dangerous to the Council, you're practically benign."

Jesus. He saw where her mind was on it. It wasn't unknown, he'd even met a few wash-outs himself. He'd always thought they were limp fish, couldn't believe they'd leave the game for a house and a wife and a pet. But here he was, the right age for it, and damn if he hadn't just spent a weekend shopping for a fucking house with Duo?

Jesus. Duo.

He was so dry inside he could barely get it out. "He'd never forgive me."

"He would do it for you."

"That's the shittiest reason in the world."

"You were glued to his side during his trial. You're already buying a house together. Is it so great a sham?"

"That's my point." He shoved to his feet, paced off every inch of her office. "I don't want him to think... fuck, it's just cheap."

Une had her hand to her mouth, as if she were physically stopping herself from shouting him down. "The argument might work without an official declaration," she said finally. "You're gay. It's not so surprising, perhaps."

He faced her. "You really think it would work?"

"I think it's worth a try. Spies are still people. People fall in love. It's even admirable." She watched him jitter a path into her floor a minute longer. "Duo would do it for you, Trowa. You put this choice in front of him-- your life or your death. You know what he'll choose."

Duo would never think twice about it. It would break his heart. It would be the one thing Trowa could ever think of that would really break him.

He was thinking of doing it. It actually stole his wind, realising it. He was already thinking of doing it. He had it in him, this monumental low. He really was everything wrong that anyone had ever accused him of.

"Buy that damn house, Barton," Une said.

"Yeah." He was even breathing, like he hadn't just committed to killing something genuine and wonderful in a man he was supposed to care about, supposed to--

Love you, Duo said, watching him walk out the door like he always did, without saying it back, without so much as calling to say I'm home, baby, I'll be there soon.

"How honest would you be if you were in my position?"

"To the man I loved?" she said quietly.

"Yeah."

Une's dark head swam in his peripheral vision. "I think any kind of commitment is a rare opportunity for honesty and candor. When else do we have a cushion against it? You have a partnership with a man who has already experienced the worst with you. They call it a foundation for a reason."

"You make it sound so reasonable." He couldn't even look at her. "Yeah. Okay. Work your magic, and we'll name our first kid after you."

"At the very least," she said. "Go buy some nice furniture. Try to do it publicly."

"Yeah." Couldn't face her. He reached for the door handle, wrenched it wide. "Thanks."

"Save your thanks. Let's hope you can give them soon, under better circumstances."

[part 6a] [part 7] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]