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

Code of Conduct + Part Seven (cont)

+

Noin answered the door in blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and red eyes. Duo dropped his to his feet.

"Ma'am," Marquez said crisply. "Thank you for meeting with us this evening."

The pause was long enough Duo risked a peek. Noin was waiting on him. When she had his gaze, she said, "I'm sorry, Detective. What I have to say is for Detective Maxwell alone."

Marquez rocked on his heels. "Of course," he said, a beat off natural. "I'll wait in the hall." He ducked his head in something not quite a bow. Noin accepted it with a stiff nod in return. She left her door open and went in.

It was a nice enough apartment, for a company rental. There were fresh flowers on the round little kitchenette table, lilacs and baby's breath. She had a half-eaten dinner on the counter, a microwavable pasta meal that smelled heavy on the garlic. The only other decoration was the stack of boxed files on the couch and surrounding floor. "Guess business is booming," Duo said.

"I'd like to get this over with." She picked up a little wooden casket on the table. The lid clicked as she set it carefully aside. She removed a single white envelope; she handled it like a fragile relic, a sacred keepsake. Her dark hair covered her eyes.

"It was an apology," she said. "For not cutting me off when we were fourteen. I loved him. From the first instant I saw him. I was never sure if he knew... It was one of the things we didn't talk about, until almost the end. He was sorry... for keeping me on his leash, he said, when he knew all along that all he could offer was friendship, and even that was only a burden." She thrust out the envelope. "You won't find what you're looking for in that."

"Thank you." It didn't explode in his hand, or spray him with acid. Somehow he'd expected it would, just on the strength of the hate Noin had to be holding in just now. Himself, holding this now--

Her voice on the phone, that recorded message sent a month after it had happened. The way she'd sounded. There was an accident. He's dead. Duo had thought-- accident, hell. Maybe it was. There just hadn't been a hell of a lot of reason for hope.

He opened it and read.

Noin,

You had nothing to do with this-- nor could have stopped me. My decision totally.

Good-bye. No hand-shake to endure.

Z

The handwriting wasn't even familiar. He didn't think he'd ever seen anything Zechs had written, really. Just a scrawl on a check, a hotel register. Signing them out of rehab, already high again on pills Duo had stolen from the nurses' station, his arm heavy on Duo's shoulders, proprietary.

He didn't feel anything.

He put the note back in the envelope. "I'm sorry," he said, and cleared his throat to say it again so she could hear him. "You were right. I shouldn't have asked to see it."

"No, you shouldn't have. I suppose I understand it, though." She touched the gold chain at her throat, the tiny cross in the hollow between her collarbones. "I-- there's another one."

"Another what." He didn't feel anything, except for a little shame growing in the squirmy part of his gut. It was like voyeurism, being here. Witnessing her at all. He hadn't been in a room with her even since that night at the shuttle port. She hadn't expected him there, Zechs hadn't bothered or even remembered to warn her Duo had said yes. Yes, and then there was Noin at the port, staring at him like he'd just ripped her open, just by standing there.

Get you tea before we board? Zechs had asked. Yeah, Duo had said, to get away from Noin looking at him like that, because he hadn't realised she'd be there. Just like Zechs. Damn right he'd kept her on a leash, rubbing her face in every new humiliation just to test her, just to see if he could make her leave. God knew why a woman as strong as she was hadn't given up when there was time to-- just walk away. Zechs had turned to him from the kiosk with that paper cup full of stupid gourmet tea, and Noin was staring daggers into his back--

I can't, he said. I can't go with you.

Noin took another envelope from that casket. She held it out, arms-length. "I should have given it to you right away, but I hated the idea of sharing one more piece of him with you."

Envelope. Same envelope as the one he was already holding. His name on the front. Zechs' handwriting.

His throat was froggy. "You kept that."

"I convinced myself you wouldn't want to read it. You never seemed to care much that he'd died." Now she met his eyes, daring him to call her a liar, a bitch. "There's no evidence in that note. Not mine, anyway. If you're finished with it, may I have it back?"

He put it on the counter. She took it back, great care not to rush. Tucked it back in the box to live forever. Duo didn't stay to watch the rest of the ritual. He didn't stop moving until he was out of her apartment, on the other side of that door. Other side of the door, and her locked away behind it.

Marquez looked up from inspecting a mould-covered vent. "That was fast," he commented. "Get what you need?"

There was a little stale breeze from somewhere, in the spot he stood. It felt good on the sweat on his forehead. He wiped it away with the back of his hand.

"Maxwell?"

"I have this piece of paper. I need to, uh, read it first." His tongue was thick, didn't want to work right. "Gimme a minute?"

Marquez gave an odd sharp nod. "I need the mens' room. Meet you in the lobby." He made a quick turn on his heel, and off he went, making pace down the hall toward the lift.

Duo put his shoulder blades to the ugly wallpaper. He was numb, kind of numb all over, like being in a vacuum. Like being in a vacuum and knowing all of Space was out there, looking for a way to get in.

He ripped through the ten-year old glue, tore open the edge and shook the letter out. Not a single folded sheet, like Noin's. A letter. Full letter. Blurry handwriting, though, not like hers, blurry... He blinked, and it resolved.

Marquez was where he'd promised to be, when Duo got down there. Standing outside the public john, wiping his wet hands on his trousers. Duo met him halfway across the lobby, and offered him the note.

Marquez looked at it, then up to Duo's face. He didn't take it. He said, "If it's private, I don't need to intrude."

Duo licked dry lips. He lowered his hand.

"Any confirmation? One way or the other?"

"No."

"What's your gut telling you?"

"When I figure it out, I'll let you know."

"Fair enough." Marquez dried his hands again, his mouth screwed to the side like he was thinking uncomfortable thoughts. "It's been a long day."

"Yeah. Thanks for doing this off-hours."

"We're cops. There is no off-hours. Buy you a beer?"

That was a jump. Good jump, bad jump, he wasn't sure-- good, well, that Marquez would-- reach out, or whatever, although that couldn't be it, really, because in Duo's experience men as straight as Marquez were more likely to run the other direction if they sensed a teary moment between male companions on the horizon. But there was Trowa at home-- who probably also would develop an allergy to any mushy comfort scenarios, after the way Duo had left it earlier-- Jesus, if an hour with Marquez at a bar established any kind of peace between them, that would have to be worth it, wouldn't it?

"Uh, yeah," he said. "Okay. Thanks."

"If you've got someplace to be, I'll take a rain-check." Marquez scratched his ear. "It's kind of last minute," he mumbled. "I know."

"No, it's cool. I'd, uh-- I'm not going to turn down an opportunity to better our working relationship."

Marquez actually snorted. "That's blunt, Maxwell." But he was smiling a little, and that seemed a good sign. "But hey, next time we do a stunt like this, I'm driving. You're a shit driver."

"I am not," Duo grumbled. They nodded at the doorman as they passed, and he buzzed them out with a sleepy wave. "You and my boyfriend."

"It's a little too early on for girl-talk, okay?"

Oh, good. At least he didn't have to worry Marquez had been replaced by a pod man. "Got it. No gay shit."

"Not this week."

+

"Did you schedule tomorrow with Temple?" Quatre asked.

"He takes too much of your time." Wufei thumbed through the next day's agenda on his PDA. "You'll be up all night with him again."

"Best bring in some coffee, then. See if you can find that place I like, the one that delivers when I'm in town."

"Linda's? I'll call."

"The Sumatra roast." Quatre turned the page he was reading, then dropped it back into his folder. "Move the conference call to six tomorrow morning. We'll get that out of the way. Justice Department are going to be the death of me. I can't bloody do anything about Skalski case."

"Foreign Ministry have jurisdiction over Preventers. Just be glad they're only asking for mediation."

"If I go anywhere near the trial I'll be testifying at it next. Or worse, being sued for intervention." Quatre made a note in the margin. "Usual signal."

"Nose rub or chewing the pencil?"

"Or pulling my hair out. If they start to talk about pre-trial conferences again get me out of there." Quatre pulled off his glasses and tossed them to the table.

"Why has Temple been dancing around the point? If you're going to run for President, there's already a group behind Temple. They've got to be pushing. It could take a year to raise the money, another to campaign--"

"I haven't said yes yet. Relena and I agreed we'd wait until we could talk about it together."

"I thought it was decided," Wufei said slowly. "You've been acting like--"

"It's not a conversation I've been ready to have." Quatre pushed his chair back. "Give me a minute to go the loo. I'll be right back."

Wufei's PDA buzzed. He held out a hand to stop Quatre's progress to the door. "It's the family number." He switched it to the receive function, and put it to his ear. "Chang."

A young voice answered, a boy. "I need to talk to my dad," it said.

Same accent, and it was the secure listing, so it had to be one of the nephews. "I'm sorry?" he asked. "Who is this?"

"I need to talk to my dad!"

"Give me that." Quatre thrust out a hand for the PDA. "Wufei, give me that."

Bewildered by the urgency, he handed it over. Quatre pressed it to his ear, ducking Wufei's raised eyebrows by turning away. "Kira?" Quatre said.

Ah. Yes, one of the nephews. There were more than forty of those. The Winner clan was prolific. A dozen of them regularly called for money; there were a few who weren't totally useless, who called for advice or family news. Kira was one of the younger ones; there were many who were considerably older than Quatre himself.

"What's wrong, dearest?" Quatre asked the phone. "You sound upset."

Ah. Quatre was in rescue mode again. Wufei shucked his own glasses and polished them on his shirt tail. Where would they be rushing off to next? Back to L4, to calm whatever new crisis could only be solved by the patriarch. And then would they be back to Earth, to finally see Trowa?

"Visit?" Quatre sneaked a glance at Wufei. "Yes, of course-- I'm on Earth, though. Is it something wrong? Do you want me to come back to L4? No, I know you're not twelve anymore." Quatre rubbed his mouth. "Kira, where are you? Are you with your parents?"

Wufei gestured a finger at the door, to indicate he'd be willing to step out. Quatre shook his head, but turned away again, his shoulders oddly hunched. "I can call your father and tell him you want to come. We'll set up a ticket. Time off school. No, it doesn't have to be so complicated, but you're a young man now. Young men have to consider their own safety, and how their parents are going to feel when they turn up missing."

This was a new attitude. Many members of Quatre's large family were practically strangers; Wufei, who'd grown up in a similar warren of relations, understood exactly the bonds of obligation and the very real inability to connect with everyone who bore the same name simply because they shared blood. Quatre handled it well, usually, but this was oddly personal. This Kira hadn't called since Wufei had taken over managing Quatre's schedule. He couldn't remember which of the sisters was the mother. It wasn't one of Iraia's three, though-- they were some of the worst offenders when it came to demands on Quatre's time, and Wufei had been very firm laying out new boundaries for them. This might require the same finesse.

Quatre leant an arm on the wall, PDA between shoulder and ear. "I'll ask them. They'll say yes to me. Kira, please tell me what's wrong."

He wasn't expressly trying to eavesdrop, but the phone reception was set to a high volume-- he often had to answer calls in crowded rooms. He very clearly heard three words-- divorce, and real father.

The pieces didn't come together as quickly as they ought to have. He had to puzzle at it, this child calling so suddenly, so intent on some frantic visit, demanding time face-to-face with--

He inhaled deeply. Ah.

Quatre's shoulders slipped to the limpness of surrender. "All right. We'll get you on a flight. We'll talk about it. When you get here. It will be all right, Kira. We'll figure out what to do. I promise."

Wufei examined the rough skin around his fingernails. He waited for the click of the PDA being turned off, the clatter of it being carefully returned to the desk between them. Quatre stood staring down at it, two fingers smoothing over his tie in slow strokes.

Wufei broke the silence. "Is this a good idea, Quatre?"

The other man stirred. "No," he said, "I'm quite convinced it's the worst possible thing I could do."

Easily. It would be political, and personal, suicide. "Maybe you should consider-- reconsider--"

"What else could I do? He's my son." It hung there, too jagged and abrupt. Quatre was staring at him, now. "He's my son," Quatre said.

It was an odd thing, that Quatre could be such a liar when it served him. It never seemed worthy of him, of who he should have been.

"So I gathered." Wufei swallowed the last of the water in his glass, and refilled for them both. He pushed the second tumbler toward Quatre. "You were very young."

"Fifteen and eleven months, to be exact." Quatre sank back into his chair. "My sister Jessamin raised him. Kira thinks they're divorcing. I haven't spoken to them in-- I don't know-- they didn't say they were having troubles."

Fifteen. That explained a certain amount of the situation. He had had his own brief, painful marriage, younger even than that. He'd been so unequipped for it, for her. The expectations and-- needs; and that had been without the added burden of a child. Wufei exhaled to clear his throat of momentary tightness.

"He said it so easily... Dad."

"More difficult to hear than it was for him to say."

"No-- he wasn't supposed to know. It was a sealed adoption. My sister agreed, Kira was never to know. But he said it the same way he used to say Uncle. He's known. Somehow."

"If his parents have been fighting, it may have come up."

"What an awful way to learn."

"Do you regret not telling him?"

Quatre was leaning on his fist. He didn't answer immediately. Wufei, looking at him, saw the sheen grow over Quatre's eyes, darken them to a liquid ozone. "Every minute since he was born."

Wufei picked his words with care. "And the mother?"

Quatre wiped his eyes. "She never wanted to be a part of his life. She didn't even want to name him. Hold him." Quatre was silent, his fingernails digging holes into the upholstery of his chair. "I'd let himself-- be convinced-- adoption was the right thing. For Kira too. I would visit them--- when he was little-- sometimes I almost believed he really was my nephew. So much time passed. It became a fact, not a secret."

"Who is his mother?"

He thought for a moment Quatre would resist answering. But it wasn't the same resistance he'd been facing from that front for four months. This was new. No-- this was old, and-- normal. The relationship they'd had before Wufei's truth had been known. It was a strange thing to equalise them. But it did.

Quatre wet his lips. "Dorothy Catalonia."

He inhaled sharply, before he could think to hide such a reaction. Quatre flinched a little. Yet Wufei was somehow unsurprised. It explained too much about her lingering presence in his life-- even Quatre was not so generous as to invite a woman who'd nearly killed him into authority and even affection in his life-- no. Not affection. There had never been any warmth there, from either of them-- in fact Wufei had once described it as wariness. He'd attributed it then to some private suspicion he'd thought Quatre still harboured about her. A child between them... and a decision he did not doubt had been made by Dorothy for both of them. To protect Quatre from his own mistake. And to take the sacrifice out of his hands. That explained Quatre's guarded attitude toward her, his decades-long silence on her unswerving loyalty to his business, his career, and to him.

Yes, it explained quite a lot. He was a little appalled.

Oh, and the Quatre of fifteen and eleven months-- yes, he could remember that as clear as if it were the same boy sitting in front of him. Dorothy must have eaten him alive.

Quatre looked back at him in quiet for a long time, fidgeting fingers slowly mussing his hair. "I thought Trowa was dead," he said, in something just over a whisper. "I thought I'd killed him. I just-- was weak."

"You don't owe anyone an explanation," Wufei replied softly.

"Kira." And then Quatre laughed, a short airless thing very expressive of dawning terror.

"Aside from Kira, yes." Wufei pushed the water at him again. "What will you do?"

"I don't know. I don't know." Quatre covered his mouth. "Relena."

Not surprising Quatre would only now consider that ramification. They weren't yet married. Maybe now they would never be. Women stronger than Relena Peacecraft might find their desire cooled by such a revelation. She was just spoilt enough to not listen willingly to something that would shake her world so much-- and just spoilt enough that she might not want to share Quatre with a bastard teenaged son and a woman who'd been a rival already in many ways. But she was important to Quatre. It would pain him, if she rejected him now. "She will find this confusing," he said slowly.

"Yes, that's assured. Wufei..." Quatre looked up at him wretchedly. "I need your help."

"Of course." He offered it immediately, perhaps automatically. Quatre's expression didn't alter with relief or even understanding, though, and he had to check himself to be certain he'd said the right thing. Not quite. He did know what Quatre wanted, needed to hear from him.

"Yes," he said. "We're friends."

+

It wasn't the single most awkward moment he'd ever spent in a bar, but it ranked.

He had no frame of reference, was the problem. He'd been through dozens of co-workers and certainly there'd been a few problems in the bunch, but by and large Duo was used to relying on his natural charms to wear people down.

Marquez didn't seem to have or even recognise natural charms, though. Even Heero hadn't been so prickly, back then. If anything, Duo had instantly fallen for that eyebrow-contorting scowl-- Heero hadn't been joyless, he'd just been-- lonely. It had been cute. Endearing.

Marquez was not endearing.

And after one beer he was displaying a worrisome tendency to drone. He'd been regaling Duo with the cumulative total of his experience in Cold Case. Each story began, "The victim was" and proceeded to "The suspects were" and ended with "Solved it, of course." Duo went fast through his martini and ordered a second before he thought better of it. Gin was probably not going to improve his night. He could actually feel the letter inside his coat, like it was burning his skin. Not a fucking mystery why Noin would've kept it from him. She'd never outright blamed him for Zechs, but she'd been bitter jealous about it and nothing Duo could have said would have made her see how completely unhealthy it had been.

No, not unhealthy. Unhealthy was Johnny, who wanted Duo to stay in a itty bitty box full of puppy dogs and roses. Unhealthy was Scotte Lee, who'd thought his fist was the appropriate vehicle for saying I love you. Zechs had been three kinds of derailed, and there'd been a very dedicated effort on both their parts to find just how low they could sink as two human beings intent on destroying each other with their dicks. Even without the drugs they'd probably have been deadly to each other. Noin knew that. Noin had seen it for herself, for Chrissakes. He got bitter. He understood being bitter about it, and he knew she'd been left with cleaning Zechs up because Duo had walked, but it had been her choice. Zechs had done anything a dark and imaginative mind could do to drive her off, and she'd stayed.

No. He got it. People stayed. And it was to their credit when they did, because most the time it ruined you to try it, but there was still something noble in the trying.

"Maxwell?"

"Yeah," Duo said, swimming up and tongue already tripping to stall until he could figure out whatever Marquez had been blathering about then, but it was just the waitress with their nacho platter. Duo moved his elbows so she could set it on the bar between them.

"Thanks, honey," she said, tossing him a wink. But it wasn't Duo she managed to slither all over, giving Marquez a boob brush down the shoulder as she stepped back from their stools. There was an extra sashay in her step as she headed back to the kitchen. Why not? Duo had the boy-next-door thing, but Marquez was dark and broody. Probably if he never opened his mouth, she'd never find out what a snooze he actually was.

"So, like... great tits on her," Duo said.

Marquez raised an eyebrow. Perfect arch. He probably practised it. "She's not your type."

"The tits sort of preclude that, yeah. Oh, there I go, spitting up the gay stuff."

"I'm not a bigot," Marquez said. "I just don't like thinking about tossed salads and lube."

Duo choked on his drink. He wiped his mouth carefully. "Well, ditto. Not before nachos, anyway." He dug a chip from the middle out, soggy with sour cream and greasy cheddar. "I pulled a ho, once."

"Gee, there's a challenge." Marquez took from the edge, moving a hefty chunk onto the extra plates the girl had brought. "I don't have any similar confessions, I'm afraid."

"You could, if you go back to that club. That guy at the bar was way into you."

"Which one?" Marquez got a perfectly crisp crunch when he bit in. "Your snitch?"

"Do we need to talk about that?"

"Not sure. Do we?"

Duo imagined Marquez developing a sudden case of bullet-in-the-ass. It helped.

"Look," the man said then. "None of us gets through life without doing some things he'd be uncomfortable confessing. I get that. I'm not in the habit of bagging witnesses, though. So when you see him again, let him down easy for me, okay?"

"Yeah, I'll ask for your number back." Duo licked his thumb clean and wiped it on his knee. "You might want to double-check your Facebook wall, though."

Score. Duo suppressed a smirk. Marquez didn't know whether or not to believe that one. His hand hovered over the nachos without moving for several seconds. "I'll freaking kill you."

"Hey, you shoulda laid down ground rules." That took the joke just about far enough. Marquez passed it off with an uneasy laugh. Duo kept his eyes on the food, picking olives out of the mess of refried beans. He'd missed dinner and Trowa-- Trowa wouldn't be cooking, not if there was beer and pizza, so if he wanted anything it was going to be this, and hoping he could sleep on top of all the grease. Or the fight they'd been working on having before he'd run out of there. He really couldn't stop himself, sometimes. He really had wanted to just make it a good home-coming so they could kiss and fuck and Trowa could have his space to decompress. He earned it, even if Duo still didn't know what all he'd been out there doing. Shouldn't have brought up the apartment. Or Quatre. God, he could really fuck up, when he put his mind to it. All he ever had to do was open his freaking mouth.

"You get a pension or anything from Preventers?" Marquez asked. Eventually. Filling up the silence with the first awkward, least awkward questions. Couldn't ask him about a wife, couldn't ask him about where'd he'd come from or what school he'd gone to. They'd be on to weekend golfing next, and then Duo might shoot himself in the ass, if it would get him home. He didn't want to go home. He didn't want to stay. His chest was tight and it was getting hard to breathe.

"No pension," he said, and made himself take a deep one through the nose, fill up both lungs until the rush hit the brain. "They opted not to let me carry my benefits to the new job."

"So what, you lost how many years of service?" Marquez whistled. "That's pretty shitty."

Ten years of shitty. A third of his life shitty. So he had thirty more he had to make it now, to get anything on the other end of retirement. He'd be sixty and still trying to jump rooftops after perps. Sixty and still trying to infiltrate sex clubs with a thirty year old partner who still wouldn't respect him, probably.

"I remember reading about you a few times. After the war." Marquez finished his beer and pushed the glass away, a last wash of foam sinking down the sides. "All of you guys. I wondered if things would ever get normal for you. I guess it shouldn't be any less possible for you than anyone who fought in that war."

"Except for the part about being in the papers, I guess."

"Except for that, yeah." Mutual pause as they absorbed how little that actually settled. "Want kids?"

"Fuck, no."

Marquez managed another of those stilted laughs. "Me too."

"I'd be horrible. I don't really like kids. Kind of awful thing to say. Don't know what to do or how to talk to them--" He swirled his martini. He wanted to finish it, which meant he shouldn't. "Never thought of myself as a kid when I was one, even."

"No?"

"Know-it-all. Had a fast pair of legs and a smart mouth and never needed much more, really."

"Most teenagers would say that."

He drank it to the ice. It left a numb kind of burn along his jaw. "I was six."

"War orphans had it rough."

Oh, war orphans now. Great progression. "We had all the food we could steal and I slept safe every night, in jail or out of it, until the Feddies showed up. I didn't know it was rough. Hell, I might not even be an orphan. I thought about it, once, applying to that DNA database. There may actually be someone looking for their kid."

"What stops you?"

That brought him up short. He swallowed his ice, too, just for the last taste of alcohol on it. "Only thing I think of that's worse than not ever knowing what happened to your child is finding out he started a war that got hundreds of thousands of people killed."

"A lot of water under the bridge." Duo didn't want to look at the man. Their waitress was passing by behind the bar, and she paused in front of them. Duo almost asked for a new drink. Almost. He shook his head, though, and off she went, like a phantom floating past. "People forgive," Marquez said.

Right. Duo had heard that one, too. "I couldn't do it. I always get this picture of some tiny little lady in a white apron and she just looks at me." He scratched his nose. "Well, I think. Done for the night, with that note."

Just like that and they were done, actually. Marquez was probably relieved to be out of it. He asked, "Need a cab?" and was sliding off his stool before the last word got out.

"No, I'm fine." Duo pulled out his wallet. Marquez beat him to it, tossing down a couple twenties for the nachos and drinks. Duo left an extra ten for tip. He'd have to ask Trowa to pass him some cash. Between bribes, drinks, car repair-- face repair-- murder trials-- he was low in the bank. That was humiliating. Figured.

"About Noin," Duo said. Surprised both of them. He sure hadn't intended on opening his yapper. What the hell did she even deserve from him? They were even. She'd kept the letter from him for whatever crazy girl reason she'd had, and he'd taken nine years to ask for it, and probably if she knew it could be ruining his second career before he'd even started it, she'd be pleased anyway.

Not particularly fair. What the hell was, though?

"What about her?" Marquez said. He made eyes at the waitress where she was over at someone else's table. Tight smile.

Fuck it. "What you said before, about keeping this off the record for the moment. I'd rather just call today a-- like a fishing expedition. Keep her name out of it."

That got him full attention again. "No reason to put it in the report at all. She didn't provide anything informative."

"Yeah. My thoughts." He wiped his hands dry on his trousers. "And about Zechs."

Marquez shrugged at him. "We still have no hard evidence he was involved."

He was two drinks in, not as fuzzy around the edges as he wanted to be. The letter in his pocket felt like a timer bomb. Would he ever feel it? He'd been walking away from it for nine years.

"No," he said. "No evidence at all."

+

This time coming in, Duo saw the tulips.

Trowa was sprawled on the couch with his pants open, watching the pundit shows in the dark. The charm was a little off the rose-- Duo was usually more thorn than petal anyway, but he looked positively droopy now. Whatever had happened in three hours with that guy from work apparently involved being strung up by the thumbs. It made Trowa glad he hadn't gone with his first instinct-- smoking up the apartment with the steak and re-distributing his smelly laundry where Duo would trip on it.

"Hey," he said.

Duo's finger lingered on one of the yellow bulbs. His eyes came up to Trowa. He dropped his keys next to the flowers, and did something Trowa had never seen him do, ever. He took off his jacket and dropped it to the floor.

Trowa sat up straight for that. Duo came walking toward him, shoes silent on the carpet. Duo stepped neatly around the coffee table, put his hand on Trowa's cheek, and bent to kiss him. Just before their lips connected, he said, "I'm sorry."

Trowa felt an actual flutter. "Me too." He covered Duo's hand on his skin. Duo wove their fingers together, and kissed his forehead.

"It was a shit day," he said. "I took it out on you. Thanks for being here to do that for me."

"Sorry I wasn't here to look at that apartment." Trowa tugged Duo near by the thighs, sliding his hands around to cup Duo's ass. "There's food in the kitchen. Bowtie pasta with spinach. Tomato and avocado salad a l√° Barton."

Duo smiled. "I can smell it. Thank you." Trowa kissed his belly through his shirt, and Duo cradled his head there. "I think I might shower first, okay?"

"Sure." He squeezed Duo's buttcheeks, then just hooked his fingers through Duo's belt loops. "Want help washing your back?"

"Sounds good." Small smile. "Gimme a minute. Settle some ghosts, and all."

"Give me a yell when you're ready."

Duo emptied his pockets onto the coffee table, wallet and spare change and a folded letter. Trowa noticed, because he assumed he was meant to-- Duo had strict rules about where pocket crap went, and it wasn't the living room. He summoned a smile of his own as Duo nodded at him, and then he was alone again, with nothing but the big fat elephant of a clue to whatever was wrong with Duo.

Well, Trowa hadn't worked the elephant show at the circus for nothing.

He didn't recognise the handwriting, but that didn't mean anything. The envelope was already slit, and the letter hadn't been stuffed in neatly. It had new crinkles alongside the original trifold. Trowa smoothed it out and held it up to catch a bit of light from the kitchen window.

Letting you go was the best and worst thing I ever did. I suppose everything about us fits under that description, though.

I know you never accepted that what we had was more than sexual. I was never in any doubt, however. You were the first man who saw me as another man, not an outsider-- and despite your choicer insults, I know you never truly saw me as just another 'Ozzie' or even as the man who tried to destroy the Earth in the name of colonial independence. I never verbalised it, but you were more than just a Gundam Pilot in my eyes. You were many, many things, almost all of them frustrating. I never could get that through to you. That was frustrating, too.

I wish I could do something for you. I've written a will. Noin knows where it is. You're in it, for whatever it's worth. No money-- I know you wouldn't accept it. Please accept the only other things I have to give-- just things that could make your life easier. The car is yours. So is the art. Sell it if you don't want it, give it away-- it doesn't matter. Please take the clothes. It's all still in the apartment. Don't disdain them just because I bought them for you. You know you could use them.

There's a kid at the club I was seeing. Kelby. You know him. Could you check on him from time to time? Help him if he needs it. He's another of my bad decisions, and he deserved better.

Stay clean. You have the determination. I know you'll succeed. It's your most admirable quality.

It was signed Zechs Merquise.

The thing about Duo and Duo's history was that he never let anything go. The problem with the therapy and the confessions and the psychic yoga was that it kept everything fresh, kept everything right in the forebrain where it could be hashed and rehashed. It stopped Duo from moving on and it kept the genuinely painful things from healing ever. Duo knew that and put himself through it anyway, which meant he put Trowa through it too, even if half the time Trowa didn't know what particular bug was up Duo's bung. Of course, this one had a name. It at least explained the taste of liquor on Duo's lips.

Weird that this letter would just turn up suddenly. No date, but since no-one had heard of Merquise in-- what, ten years? The date kind of set itself. That was one hell of a delayed reaction.

They probably wouldn't be able to afford a house, if Duo got himself a new shrink over this. Maybe he'd better take Addison up on the job offer after all.

Meanwhile, Duo had never called him to share the water, so Trowa invited himself along. He ditched his pants on the way back to their bedroom and tossed his shirt at the foot of the bed. The door was open. Trowa nudged it wider and went in. "Duo?"

Said boyfriend was standing at the double sink next to their steaming shower, head down. Duo was naked, the bright gold light painting streaks on his back, shadows on his hips and flanks. Trowa traced the braid down the length of his spine, leaning slow and sensual against Duo until his cotton boxers were the only thing separating skin from skin. He smoothed his hands up Duo's chest, plucking small brown nipples until they were hard. He pressed their hips together.

"Let's wash," he whispered.

Duo was hotter for it than normal, ignoring the usual foreplay; his hands were everywhere, but it was random, undirected. Trowa was up in flames the very first brush of Duo's palm to his balls. It was barely a blink before he was face-first against the tile with Duo inside him. The soap lather lube stung just a little, but it smelled like cedar, vanilla. Sex. Duo left a series of bites around his shoulder and upper arm, hard enough to hurt just a little. It was erotic. Normally they blitzed through sex, racing for the finish line-- this was no different, but it was, somehow. Like he was feeling it everywhere. Maybe it was because of the day they'd both had-- because he'd been thinking about this from the moment he'd left on one more bad job and because the job had been what the job had been-- because he was leaving behind him a trail of people today, Quatre and Heero and Une even, a whole lifetime of people who'd defined-- and everyone one of them had led him back to this man, who'd decided at some obscure moment the way Duo always did that he was going to love Trowa Barton, whether he was ready for it or not.

He wound his arm back around Duo's head, fisted his hand in the base of the braid. The spray was too hot, he was too hot all over, but it was building up to an explosion and it felt so good he could've drowned in it. "Come on, baby. I'm ready."

Pause just long enough for a single inhale. Duo dropped the hand that was jerking him off and put it on his hip instead. Trowa replaced it with his own, but he barely split his concentration for it. Duo fucked him, coming at him so hard he had to brace himself on the wet tile, turn his head aside so the spray hit him on the cheek and not the eyes. It didn't take long, not at that speed. He didn't ask Duo to come with him; he just let it overtake him, no effort to hold it back, and it left him gasping and hollow and weak-kneed. Duo was there to hold him up, still inside him, in-out, in-out-- just that much more, and then he was still, his open mouth pressed to Trowa's shoulder blade.

Trowa was the one who initiated the separation, just because it was starting to edge into unpleasant, and he wasn't ready to give up the good feeling yet. Duo stepped away when he felt Trowa move, but Trowa caught him back with an arm around his neck, pulling him in close so they could wrap around each other, limbs falling sluggishly into place. He kissed the top of Duo's head, all the tangled slick hair, and rested his chin there.

"You know what's weird?" Duo whispered against his chest.

"You mean besides all the fake bacon we have?"

Duo laughed a little. He stepped away again, rolling his shoulders and head. He gave Trowa a flip little slap on the ass. "Sometimes when you come back," he said, "I actually forget what it's like when you're gone."

 

They ate his pasta and salad in bed, and left the bowls on the floor to worry about in the morning. They fooled around again, not serious about taking it anywhere, but exploring and re-exploring, as if they'd been apart a year instead of a little more than a week. He'd always loved Duo's body-- and he loved the tight jeans Duo wore to show it off-- but there were times in touching him he felt like he was discovering everything new. The taught muscles in his stomach and back, his sharp elbows and the way his thumbs tasted like salt when Trowa licked them, the way Duo would curl his foot over Trowa's calf and drag it up to hook around his knee and trap him close. He felt sort of newly sensitive to it all, and it was the weight of a lot of years together coming to a point suddenly.

Duo slowed down first, the heel of his palm on the underside of Trowa's prick inching away, then falling flat to the mattress between them. Trowa rescued it, giving it a teasing nip. Duo smiled sleepily, and didn't let him go. Trowa let him keep hold, marveling a little at the sensation of it, how connected it made him feel, like he had a lifeline just by holding Duo's hand.

It wasn't going to get better than this.

And if it was going to get worse... better to do it before he let himself really start to think about how good it could be.

"Have you thought about maybe getting married?" he said.

Duo's hand spasmed a little in his. Too dark to see his face. "Yeah," he answered, a cautious moment after.

"So-- what do you think?"

Hard to breathe, coming to it. Not just for him. Duo wasn't breathing at all now. "Are you asking me?"

"Yeah. I'm asking you."

Duo's hand locked tight on his fingers. "Yes. Is what I think."

"Okay. Good."

Took a few seconds then. Long awful seconds. Then Duo exhaled hard, and rolled onto his chest. Manic press of his mouth to Trowa's, grinding at him, sucking him so hard it took the last of the breath out of him, too. He grappled Duo's body onto his, all long lean lines of him and his legs around his waist and hands gripping him like hot iron everywhere they touched until--

He eased away with a groan. "Baby. Stop. Stop a minute. Okay?"

Duo's fist on his dick paused. "You wanna be on top? Okay." He slid away, until Trowa grabbed him by the arm.

"I wanna talk."

"Oh. Yeah, sure." Duo sounded thrown. Trowa felt thrown himself. Head spinning, actually. What the hell was he doing? How could he ever-- this was too--

"You have to shut the hell up and hear all of this," he said. "And you have to trust me. Because this might be the most important thing we've ever discussed."

The mood was totally gone. He was still hard, but it was cold fear now. He was holding Duo so hard it had to hurt, but Duo didn't make a single sound.

"The Council is going to refuse my resignation," he said.

It took Duo a moment to understand that. There was the barest nod from him.

"Une suggested that they might give my petition more consideration if my lifestyle had changed drastically. Fuck." His carefully planned speech evaporated. He couldn't take not being able to see how Duo was reacting. "This isn't how I wanted to do this. I don't want you to think that just because it's advantageous that it's why I want this marriage."

And that was the blunder. He could have stabbed Duo and there would've been less hemorrhage. Duo had a quick mind and he understood that one immediately. Light enough to see that, how his face went blank and then wooden. His muscles were so tight Trowa was afraid of snapping his arm. With a difficult little breath, Duo said, "Okay."

"Is your answer still yes?"

Tiny nod. Another one, a little firmer.

"I don't expect you to believe me when I say I was going to ask you even before she suggested it." And just like that, he knew it was true. It had been true since that night Duo had come home, that day after his trial, had come back to Trowa's apartment and that was what made it a home, Duo being there with him. "I was."

"Yeah?" Quaver in the voice, locked down immediately. Forced levity. "You keep a good secret. I never guessed."

"I wanted to give us a little time. To adjust. To the house. To-- all the other shit we're facing."

"Good plan."

Make him happy, Heero said, as if that could be done. Earn him. Trowa tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry. "I'll prove it to you, eventually."

"You don't have to prove anything to me." Duo kissed him. Not the same kind of kiss, not the easy loving touch he'd just had a minute ago. He was really-- he couldn't tell-- if he'd done the right thing, being honest about the reasons, the impetus, or if he should have lied to protect him. If he'd ruined everything. The only sure thing was that if he hadn't told Duo and Duo had found out one day--

"A year ago--" His fingers tingled releasing Duo's arm, that's how hard he'd been holding, and he was almost afraid to let go, but he wanted to touch Duo's face, feel him near. "A year ago I would have just let you believe whatever you wanted to believe if it got me what I wanted. Our relationship-- our relationship is based on something different now."

"Yeah. Yes."

"I know there was no way to make this come out the way I meant it to." Duo's lips were parted under his fingertips, his jaw tense. "And I've been a liar all my life. But I wasn't lying when I said I wanted to make a formal lifetime commitment to you. It just sucks that it comes off like I'm only doing it to save my ass."

Duo overrode the last word with a harsh kiss. He wrapped his arms around Trowa's neck, lifting him off the pillows to do it, holding him down. Trowa didn't fight it. He was too busy trying not to faint from the relief. Duo kissed him allover his face, then back to his mouth again, hard enough to numb him.

"We'll have to invite the guys." Duo gripped Trowa's hair in both fists, then palmed it down. "Housewarming-slash-- what should we call it?"

"It's about fucking time Barton smartened up and chained himself to the best thing that ever happened to him? Maybe that's a little long." Another kiss for that. Duo's eyes were wet. Trowa felt it, coming away where his knuckles brushed.

"I'm sorry," he said.

[part 6] [part 8 ] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]