Authors: TB and Marsh
Pairing: 6+2
Rating: R
Notes: Takes place five years after EW

Caveat + Part 1

'No, it's fine, it's just,' Maxwell said, 'I'm just severely uncomfortable, with you, you know, here in my apartment.'

Zechs levelled a flat look on the younger man. 'Are you.'

'Seriously, you don't feel like this protection detail crap is total bullshit?' Maxwell pulled a bottle of beer from atop the fridge and sat on a barstool. 'She's not even my ex. She's Heero's ex, and I used to have to sleep in the car when they were in here fucking around, because the walls here are like paper, man. You really don't think being assigned to protect your sister's ex-boyfriend's ex-roommate is, like, demeaning?'

'Talking to me about Relena's sexual habits is demeaning.' There were only so many doors to check behind. A hall closet. A bath. The two bedrooms. The apartment was, at least, far cleaner than Zechs had expected it to be. Two cereal bowls in the sink, but otherwise freshly scrubbed and well-maintained. Even the beds were made. 'Which room was Yuy's?'

'The one with my computer junk in it now.' Maxwell shed his scarf to a hook conveniently placed at head-height behind him and went down the line of buttons on his peacoat. 'I've already been through this place. Forensics has already been through this place. Heero even came back and scowled at the corners. No-one found anything.'

Zechs went so far as the balcony, peeling back a vertical blind. The Preventers in the dark car on the street below were in position, blocking the back alley and watching for intruders. Zechs left them to it. He paused to investigate a creaky floorboard under the area rug, but was satisfied there had been no outside interference. 'What did Forensics find on your computer.'

'Nothing. Except all my private shit. I don't appreciate that, either, having to spread open my life just because Heero or your pretty pink princess sister or whoever did something to piss someone off. I had private shit on those drives. Some tech is getting his rocks off on my collection of private shit.' Maxwell swigged his beer, his narrowed eyes following Zechs' every move with suspicion. 'Why'd they send you? Isn't there some nobody cadet or something who usually gets the short straw?'

'Your straw, however short, is not at issue here.' He did some corner-scowling of his own. There truly did not appear to be any disturbance. Yuy's flat had been a much more involved search; just going through the dirty laundry had taken three techs. Zechs was grudgingly impressed at Maxwell's housekeeping. The furniture was hardwood and invulnerable to easy bugging, the rugs were thin enough to show wiring but thick enough to muffle the carry of their conversation, all the lights were recessed bulbs with no spare space for camera lenses. The walls were a buff shade that would be difficult to industrially replicate and yet showed every small ding and scratch, making it easy to spot signs that someone-- anyone-- had been where they were not supposed to be. There were no cabinets in the kitchen, only shelves, and the refrigerator stood out from the wall where it could be easily examined. Even the segregated rooms offered a series of hide-outs with good visibility and clear access to exits. It was a well-thought-out shelter. 'The threats Relena received were quite clear. All three of you are being watched until we've apprehended--'

'Some sick loon. Look, can I just ask, are we going to do this every time someone yells “boo” at your sister? Is there like a seven year deadline on when I will officially have not been around her long enough that I'm safe from being barricaded in my apartment by Preventers?'

'Dinner,' Zechs said. 'Don't use the stove. Microwave only. Unheated would be better.'

Maxwell's jaw was clenched hard. He jumped off his stool and marched five steps around the bar to his kitchen. He returned with a can. He slapped it down to the table with a loud clang.

'What's that?'

'Beets,' Maxwell answered. 'Dig in.'

They managed four hours of peace-- interrupted only by rumbling bellies-- before Maxwell made a magnanimous, if reluctant, overture.

'You can sleep in Heero's old room,' he told Zechs. 'Assuming you don't mind what they used to do on that bed.'

'Thank you,' Zechs replied mechanically, because it took a second to register yet another insult. 'I won't be sleeping.'

'How does being tired protect me?'

'Another agent will take over at 0530.'

'Well I can tell you've thought of everything.' Maxwell set a folded sheet set on the couch. 'In case you change your mind.'

'Thank you.'

'Has anyone considered the fact that if you don't catch this guy you could end out guarding me forever?'

'If it goes on longer than a week we'll most certainly concentrate resources on Relena.'

'Snap.' Maxwell seemed amused. 'That was pretty good, Merquise.'

He hadn't meant that as a joke. But, examining it retrospectively, he saw how it might sound like one. 'I won't disturb your sleep.'

'You can at least unbutton. I won't tell your superiors if you pee on duty or something.' Maxwell pulled his elastic from his short ponytail and fluffed his hair. 'You know what's most annoying about this? They were a bad couple. Epic bad. And it's still haunting me.'

'I never approved, either.' He occupied himself in examining a Joan Miró lithograph framed in the hall. 'They were neither of them mature enough for a relationship so intense.'

'Right?' Maxwell perched on the edge of the couch. 'Fate of the world meets burgeoning political career meets high expectations. I don't know what's worse, that he thought they'd be getting married or that she thought they wouldn't.'

'Wait-- Relena thought--'

'You didn't know that?' Maxwell wore a crooked grin. 'You don't give either of them enough credit. She knew he'd be a crap husband. He knew he should try.' He picked up his shoes. 'I'm off. If I don't hear you sneaking out, I guess I'll see you when you catch the guy.'

'Good night,' Zechs answered courteously, but it was lost in the snick of a closing door.

+

'In here,' Maxwell called. 'There's take-away on the counter.'

Greek gyros and thick-cut potatoes and rice. There was bottled sparkling beside it. Zechs fixed a plate for himself and wandered to the balcony windows with a sour cucumber to munch. 'Where are you?' he asked absently. The Preventers in the car below gave him the nod, and he twisted the blinds to shut out the alley below.

'Bedroom.' Propped up by pillows on his bed, thumbs flying over the small keypad of a mobile phone. Maxwell didn't look up at his entrance. 'How's it going?'

'No progress since this morning.'

'Yeah, the day shift told me. You've got an IP address.' Maxwell flipped his phone, scrolling pages only visible to him. 'The day shift guys are hacks, total hacks. Choudhury spilled coffee all over my desktop.'

'I've seen your shop. There are many unexpected noises in a mechanical garage. He was just startled.'

'You wouldn't have spilled. Just saying.'

Zechs took that as cautiously flattering. 'You're locked in for the night. If you need anything outside, tell me, and I'll have it taken care of.'

Maxwell finally abandoned his phone, tossing it carelessly to a bedside table. 'What do I have “outside” anymore? Your guys take my mail, frighten away the neighbour's cat, bring me crappy food from secure sources. I'm officially living in a bubble. I have no outside needs.'

'They gave you your phone back,' Zechs said.

'With instructions not to contact anyone. Big whoop.'

Zechs gazed silently at him for a moment, deciding for himself how much of that was ritualised complaining and how much was a dangerous mood close to boiling over. He settled on whining. Maxwell was not a child any more and he knew better than to act rashly. 'Come eat,' Zechs told him. 'I'll show you the case notes.'

That got a spark of interest. 'Is that allowed?'

'Does it sweeten the pot if it's not?'

'Hell yeah.' Maxwell swung his legs off the bed. 'Lead the way, Wind.'

The case notes were hardly extensive; what they didn't know far outweighed what they did. But Maxwell gave all of it serious attention, absently nibbling on slices of lamb as he read. 'Who's guarding Relena?' Maxwell asked finally. He lifted a page to show Zechs. 'Who's Spider and Orange? By the way, Orange? Agent Orange? Preventers are really scraping the barrel for code names.'

'They're Sanqians, extremely loyal to my sister.' Zechs finished his rice with a final forkful. 'And yes. We are, rather. Although, oddly, Orange fits him. He's solid as an ox. I've watched him ram down iron doors with just his fist. Relena is in good hands.'

'What about Heero?'

'He refused personal protection. He's watched, but from outside his home.'

'Wait, I could've refused? You didn't tell me I could refuse.'

'It must have slipped my mind,' Zechs said mildly. 'Imagine that.'

Maxwell scowled at him. Then, grudgingly, he laughed. 'You're funnier than I thought you would be. I guess Heero's protection enough for himself. You know he shoots first and asks what later, though.'

'Why did he move out? Heero.'

'The usual reasons. They already interviewed us both. I just read our interviews.'

'I'm asking for anything that's not in the file. An IP address is thin.'

For a moment, their fingers tapped the bar in unison. 'This doesn't go in the file,' Maxwell answered finally. 'I mean it. I ever find out you let it leave this space, I hack your entire life.'

'Threatening a Preventer is felony interference.' He stood to remove their plates to the sink. 'If it's not relevant, it doesn't matter to the case. Tell me or not. I'll honour your decision.'

'No you won't. You talk a good game, but you're not completely above manipulation on the sly. The war may not be relevant to the current conversation, but I did learn from it.'

It had almost been comfortable between them. So much for that. Zechs had been about to resume his seat. Instead, he stood against the stove, arms crossed over his chest. 'Fair enough,' he replied. 'Old habits are deeply engrained in all of us. I'm used to the cocky attitude you rebels throw around to hide your inadequacies.'

Maxwell almost fell for that. His eyebrows slammed together and he just barely bit back a hot retort. Zechs smiled tightly at him.

Then Maxwell burst into a genuine grin. 'Okay,' he said. 'Choudhury didn't manage that as well, either.' He offered a hand. 'Truce.'

Zechs shook it immediately, but as soon as their hands touched, he had to wonder if it was a smart idea. Truces meant nothing more than a close of hostilities-- not a promise not to play. And if Maxwell had one defining trait, it was a deep, insatiable need to find buttons to press.

'You were going to tell me about Heero,' he reminded Maxwell. He took his stool again, deliberately adopting a more casual pose, to suggest their 'truce' had reduced the other tensions in their forced companionship. He propped an elbow on the bar, crumbled a scrap of pita onto a paper towel. The look he turned on Maxwell was his most innocent-- a trick he'd learnt from Noin and found invaluable on dozens of occasions. He played it almost indifferently, as if he didn't really care if Maxwell answered.

Maxwell was not a weary Academy Instructor, however, and he was not fooled. 'Was I,' he said. 'I meant it, though. This doesn't go in the file. Any file.'

'I give my word.'

'And I'm only telling you because you and Heero had that weird whateverness you had. I guess the war is relevant to this conversation, after all.'

Ah. It followed Maxwell would know about that. Or rather, those: the several times he and a boy he'd known only as Zero-One had tried to battle each other out of the atmosphere. Duelling to the death. 'Weird whateverness may be the most accurate description,' he admitted, and picked at that pita for real now, picking over his memories. 'I admired him. In the kind of way that makes you want to destroy what you admire, immolate it. Rise victorious over it.'

'I don't know if Heero ever knew what he felt about you. Which is kind of to the point. Heero--' Maxwell blew out a breath from pursed lips. He stole a corner of bread, shredding it slowly with his fingernails. 'He was drugged out of his mind, the day we launched for Earth. Completely fucking high.'

'What?' Whatever revelation he'd expected, it wasn't that. 'High?'

'Dekim Barton, the men he paid to work on the Gundam Project, they had a lot of theories about their pilots, and how to manage us. Me, I got lucky; Professor took a shine to me and didn't let them get away with much. Well, he let me get away with a lot, is the other way to look at it. Let me get away with my Gundam and-- anyway. Heero. They had Heero for years, you got to understand that. And if you're building a super-soldier you obviously spend some time thinking about how to stop him from doing anything but exactly what you want him to do. For Heero, it was drugs.'

That cast everything he'd ever known about Yuy into a completely new light. Bad enough Yuy's relative youth; Zechs had been that young when he'd gone to war, and age had been the last of his considerations. He'd always assumed Yuy's self-abnegation was a function of his extreme fanaticism, an expression of total dedication to a goal. But if there had truly been no choice-- 'He self-destructed his Gundam,' Zechs said.

'June ninth. There were whole weeks that went by that year and I didn't know what day it was, but I remember that one like crystal. I still have nightmares about it.' Maxwell screwed his mouth to the side. 'So anyway. Boom, big boom, and Heero's in a coma for a month. Not injecting, not swallowing anything on schedule. When he woke up, he was clean. It was all out of his system. Flip side of that was that he didn't have a fucking clue where he was or why.'

And not quite a month after that he had lured Yuy to the Barclay Base in Antarctica. Their duel had had all the brutal potential of mutual annihilation. Interrupted by his sister's unexpected arrival. They hadn't fought again until November, each driven by the ZERO System. They'd been evenly matched then, and he'd believed Yuy had held back, as he had, until they'd reached a mutual decision to halt. They'd met one final time on Christmas Eve, battling for control of Libra, control of the future. He'd assumed-- he'd always assumed Yuy was as committed, as utterly present and alive in those moments as he had been.

Maxwell read his silence. 'Don't go imagining the worst. He had a functioning brain and he decided what he wanted to do all by himself, after that. My point is that he did it on the back of a major chemical shift. He'd literally been programmed to follow orders. Even if he'd never got off their junk, it would have been a hard year, you know? He just really struggled to make it all make sense. He still sort of does, all these years later. He does better when there's someone with him who helps him work it out. For a while it was Trowa, but Trowa and Quatre, you know, so that was out. Hence me. Me slash Relena. I think sometimes he still sort of needs permission, you know. Like if there's someone nodding along he feels better, surer about everything. Anyway.'

It was a lot to reconcile. Zechs didn't like how it made him feel. And that was without even trying to make it fit with their current circumstances; no way of discerning if this news had any effect on the stalker threatening the three of them.

'He moved out,' he ventured. 'Six months ago.'

'It's a big step for him. A really good step. Give Heero credit, he never hesitates about a big risk.' With a shrug, Maxwell tilted his head back to swallow a handful of crumbs. 'Credit for Relena too. She helped him decorate the new place. I'll tell you one thing, I'm glad that frickin' dog is gone. Beagles are not meant for apartments.'

+

He got the alert at three-twenty that morning. He read it twice to be sure, and went to wake Maxwell.

'We've made an arrest,' he said, as Maxwell propped himself up on a fist and gazed sleepily at him. 'The grandson of Relena's driver.'

Maxwell blinked at him a few times, then rubbed his eyes. 'The kid with the spots and inappropriate tattoos?'

There was a picture attached to the file. Zechs referenced it. Maxwell's description was apt. 'Yes.'

'How many Preventers does it take to capture a punk teenager?' Maxwell dropped back onto his pillow, then sighed deeply and sat up. 'So you're leaving? Detail over?'

So it would seem. 'I'll let myself out.'

'No, it's cool.' There was a wide swath of skin, accidentally revealed, before Maxwell fumbled on the robe at the foot of his bed. Zechs politely looked at the wall. 'Sorry. You want like a cuppa or something? It's-- really fucking early.'

He checked his phone again. They wouldn't need him at HQ for the interview-- that would be Orange and Spider for the win, and they wouldn't want him interfering. The car guard below would have had the same message he did, and they had probably already cleared out. There was no-one waiting at home, certainly, and he didn't need to check in until nine. 'That would be welcome,' he decided finally. 'Thank you for thinking of it. I can make it, though, if you want to go back to bed.'

'Up now. No problem.' A face-splitting yawn contradicted that, but Maxwell was indeed up and moving. He bypassed Zechs with a warm slide, leaving a bedsheet scent behind him. Zechs followed at a courteous distance. 'You hungry?' Maxwell asked over his shoulder. 'I could eat.'

'You just waked.'

'I can always eat.' An impressive amount of food was coming out of the refrigerator as Zechs arrived at the bar. Eggs, chives, a packet of rocket greens, soft cheese. The coffee pot, already prepared, came on with the tap of a button, and soon began to hiss busily.

'Here,' Maxwell said, and put a small cutting board and knife before him. 'Quarter-inch lengths.' He placed the chives very precisely on the board. 'So. The kid.'

'Yes.' Zechs dragged a stool to his spot and sat. The chives were ready washed, wrapped in a damp paper towel in the bag. He selected the thickest green straw and measured a careful quarter inch. 'They caught him outside the embassy, using an outdated pass and claiming he was supposed to be my sister's driver tomorrow. Today. When agents questioned him, he caved and admitted everything.'

'He's pretty young, right?' Maxwell was a defter hand than he. The eggs tapped once on the counter and broke over a bowl without so much as an eye in their direction; in fact the other hand was busy with the milk bag, and ready to splash it, unmeasured, into the mix. A twist of pepper and a pinch of dried herbs followed and where whisked briskly. 'You ready with those chives?'

He'd only finished four. 'How many do you want? He's young, yes. Well-- not much younger than you. Nineteen.'

Maxwell gave him a sleepy-eyed smirk. 'Here. Like this.' He bundled several stalks of greens together. Zechs reddened-- he hadn't thought of that. 'Keep the point of the knife on the board and just move the chives, not the blade. Like a little log being sliced up at the mill.'

That was an image he could work with. They nodded in tandem approval when he managed the new batch of chives with almost the same speed Maxwell could have. Maxwell swept the chopped bits off the board and added them to his egg batter. 'He wasn't a top suspect though, right? What about the IP address? You guys tracked that yet?'

'Top suspect, no. But he is the one who showed up. They'll run all the rest of the evidence now, once they have the interview.'

'Mm.'

'It does take time, Duo.'

Maxwell glanced up as he lit a burner for his pan. 'Yeah,' he said, a beat off. The pan clunked loudly landing on the burner. 'Get the margarine out of the fridge?'

He rose to obey. 'Anyway. I'm sure they'll return your computers now. Your life will go back to normal. You're free.'

'Free.' The grin was full this time. 'That is a beautiful word. Coffee's up. You take the first cup, you've been up all these hours.'

He only really registered how tired he was when he had the first steaming sip. It warmed him from head to toe in a running river. He sighed deeply before he thought to censor himself, but Maxwell's only response was a bright spontaneous laugh.

The omelete Maxwell produced looked as good as anything he'd ever seen in a restaurant, served on a warmed plate with an artful little arrangement of mustard-spread soldiers and fresh greens. Maxwell joined him on the stools and went through his meal with unhurried contemplation of the movement of his fork. The silence was easy, so Zechs didn't break it except to refill their mugs. When both their plates were empty, he brought them to the sink to wash, and he washed the pan and mixing bowl as well, up-turning them on a drying rack and turning off the coffee maker. It was somewhat after four. He had time for a leisurely shower, maybe a trip to the gym, a luxury he'd missed the last week while on guard duty. He could nap in the car before going in at the office. The full belly would work against the coffee if he didn't keep moving.

'Hey,' Maxwell said suddenly. 'That stuff I told you about Heero. That really freaked you out.'

It caught him by surprise, the only excuse he had for standing still like a deer in headlights. He inclined his head stiffly. 'I won't pretend it hasn't,' he answered.

'Maybe I shouldn't've said anything.'

'I would always rather know than not.' He rubbed at sandy eyes and leant back against the stove. 'I wish I had known then.'

'It's worth remembering that you were actually enemies.'

'That doesn't ease my conscience.'

'It should. No-one's entirely proud of anything they did in the war. If we were, you wouldn't be a Preventer, I wouldn't be hiding out in a garage, Heero could do something useful with himself instead of float a million online study programmes. And we were all tripping our balls off at some point. I tested the ZERO system too. I know what it does to you.'

'I don't let ZERO take the blame for my actions.'

'Maybe you should.'

It was an effort not to grind his teeth. He could feel heat creeping up his neck. 'You've been talking to my sister.'

'I did occasionally interact with her when she and Heero were done rolling the sheets. She changed my mind on a few things, even. Like you.'

He looked sharply at Maxwell. Maxwell looked placidly back him. 'Did she,' Zechs said.

Whatever reply Maxwell would have made was swallowed into another large yawn. Zechs used the opportunity to break their face-off, to grab his gear from beside the door and button on his coat. When he turned around again, Maxwell's eyebrows were arched high, but he seemed to accept the manoeuvring for what it was, and he didn't look offended, only amused.

'I'll let you get back to sleep,' Zechs told him. 'Thank you for the meal.'

'No problem.'

'I can let you know how the interview goes. When the investigation is over.'

'Really? Yeah. I'd appreciate it.'

Not policy, and not something he'd ever offered before. But it was not the usual sort of investigation, and Maxwell was not the usual sort of protectee. He would have followed up with Yuy and his sister just the same. If they had asked.

'Good night,' Maxwell said. 'Or morning. Either.'

'Yes. And to you.' He hugged the strap of his pack to his shoulder. 'I can see myself out. But you should lock up after me. To be safe.'

'Yeah, okay.' Maxwell padded barefoot the seven or eight steps to the door, opening it for him. Standing that close together, Zechs stared over his head as he shuffled back, far enough to bump into the wall.

'Good night,' he repeated, and ducked out. He pulled the door closed after him, and waited just long enough to hear the deadbolt slide before striding off for the stairs.

[part 2] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]