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

Caveat + Part 2

'How's the interview going?' Zechs asked. Tropic passed the creamer and Zechs liberally dosed his coffee. 'Is that him in there?'

'Look for the big smear of grease and hair dye,' Tropic grunted. 'They're down to writing his statement. Should get this wrapped up in time for lunch.'

Zechs ducked down the hall with his steaming cup. There was a small crowd in front of Interrogation 4's two-way mirror; low-voiced conversation ticked up into murmured greetings for him as he joined his fellow agents. Spider was in the room with the kid, walking him through it, glowering over his shoulder as he wrote. Orange appeared to be dozing at the table, but Zechs knew from experience that Orange was taking it all in. Sure enough, when the kid began to argue over something, Orange kicked his chair out from under him-- all without opening his eyes or removing his hands from their comfortable perch on his belly.

The young man himself was not an impressive specimen. Long limp hair in a flat, fake black. A deeply pockmarked face, a slack mouth not expressive of intelligence, and a cringeing hunch-backed posture indicative of a weak will. 'Hard to believe he managed to get us all hopping,' Zechs said.

'Any jackass can hump a phone and creep after a celebrity.' Neptune brushed her dark hair over his shoulder and gave him a sideways smile. 'The other ones okay?'

'I presume.' Maxwell certainly was. Relena-- he had at least thought of calling her-- he wasn't an entirely terrible brother-- but Relena would still be under watch, by her own people if not Preventers, and after a stressful week he'd figured a call would be better timed for the afternoon, not the early morning. 'Did anyone tell Yuy it's over?'

'We stood at the perimetre and shouted,' Mamba grumbled. His partner, Cobra, snorted into her coffee and rolled her eyes exaggeratedly.

'What's the kid's name?' He consulted his file again. 'Árni Olsen. Did he say what his motive was? Why did he even begin this?'

'He's in love.' Neptune gave him another sly smirk. 'Go figure. He must take after the blondes. I know I do.'

He waited a courteous minute between that comment and the careful side-step he made to put Mamba between him and Neptune's flirtations. 'Any mention of why he targeted Maxwell and Yuy, as well?'

'Eliminating his rivals.' That was Tropic, who joined them at a saunter. 'Except Yuy's a recluse and Maxwell was under wraps as soon as we got the threats. The Vice Foreign Minister was really the only one he could get to-- she's the only one who makes public movements. The bid with the fake ID wasn't all that half-baked, actually. We only changed procedure because of the threats, and he may not have anticipated we could do that so quickly.'

'Still, it's clumsier than he's been otherwise. We only got the IP address because Yuy's network was airtight. And if we'd never found him in person we'd never have been able to identify him by the phone threats alone. He used pre-paid mobiles, signal bouncers, digital voice alteration-- that's high-tech and meticulous work. A fake ID is childish. And why didn't he anticipate we'd change procedures once we were aware of him?'

'He says he learned how to use the mobiles from the net,' Cobra volunteered. 'It's all out there for anyone who wants play-by-play instructions. At the end of the day, he's just a stupid kid. He made a mistake. We got him.'

'Did I hear you were headed back to Mars?' Mamba interrupted.

'Not just yet.' Zechs felt a buzz in his pocket and checked his mobile. 'Going to stay grounded for a while-- the Terraforming Project doesn't need as many of us any more. It's down to the specialists these days.'

'Summoned?' Neptune asked archly.

'Yes.' He tucked it away. 'Enjoy the rest of the show. I'll check in later.'

His message was from Sally Po, and though it wasn't urgent, there wasn't really anything to be gained by avoiding work. He'd have a report of his own to write, for all the arrest hadn't been his. He stopped by his desk long enough to turn on his computer and drop off his files, and headed for the lift to third storey, where the Director and Section Command were stationed. He himself had nearly had an office there. He had, in fact, had to turn it down twice since. His last command had been at the Battle of Libra, and so long as he had the choice, he would never command again. That time of his life was well over. He was content these days to be a cog in a greater machine, albeit a cog with extraordinary latitude and considerable seniority. And a cog who happened to be friends with the Director.

Sally rose from her desk to greet him, stretching out a hand across the considerable paper piles on her desktop. Zechs shook warmly with her and shifted a coat and handbag to the floor at her gesture, sliding down to a comfortable slouch in the chair facing her. 'Social call or something more?' he asked. 'I like the haircut.'

'Do you?' Sally touched the short waves that swept back from her high forehead. 'I was ready for a change, but I'm worried it's too much. Pepper swore it would take ten years off.'

He was at a loss for how to reply to that. 'I like it,' he repeated cautiously.

That seemed to satisfy. 'I just wanted to reassure you about Relena,' she said more seriously. 'Olsen never got in sight of her. We tried to keep her as unaware as possible of all the arrangements. She's used to restrictions on her movements, at least. I'm sure Duo gave you hell.'

'He wasn't thrilled,' Zechs admitted.

'I already heard from Hydra. I take it Duo's got a mouth on him. They were pretty terrorised.'

Maxwell had mentioned a certain amount of needling with Choudhury. 'Hydra's a big boy. If he can't handle a little smart talk, he shouldn't be assigned high-level targets.'

Sally raised her eyebrows. 'You don't usually defend bad behaviour.'

'Maxwell's? He was understandably put out with the situation. I didn't find him badly behaved.'

She considered him only for a moment, until he raised his eyebrows back at her. 'Well,' she shrugged then. 'That's good. Duo's a big boy too. He knows we were only doing our jobs. He's never been all that fond of Preventers, but he's never actively made it hard on us.'

'Was there something you needed from me?'

'Yes.' She shifted the files on her desk, and came up with one from the bottom of a pile. 'I'm hoping you can interview the driver. We want to get a history on the grandson. If there's a pattern of behaviour here, our case is that much tighter.'

'You don't want Spider and Orange on it?'

'They're occupied, but more to the point I don't think their good-cop bad-cop routine is right for this. Pargan's an old man, and I don't think he's even raised his voice in a decade--'

'Pargan?' Zechs said sharply. 'Miles Pargan?'

'You know him?'

Yes. His father's major domo. Odd that he had forgotten. Yes, he'd known Pargan was still attached to his sister. It was a miracle they'd never come face to face. 'He's been with the Peacecraft family for many years.'

Sally pressed her lips together. 'You want me to assign it to someone else?'

'No.' He finished his coffee with a final swallow and dropped the cup into Sally's bin. 'No, it's fine.'

'You're allowed to opt out for personal reasons.'

'It's not personal,' he replied calmly. 'I haven't seen him since I was a very young child. I have no real memories of him. It's fine. Actually, the fact that we're connected will probably work to my advantage during the interview. He might be more open.'

'Zechs... I'm not sure. I think maybe I should assign this to someone else. Neptune--'

'Would appall him. He's a gentleman. Neptune is not a lady.' He put out his hand for the file. 'It's fine,' he repeated again, firmly.

Sally didn't protest any further. She gave up the file in good grace, and a supplementary secure drive for recording. 'You hungry?' she asked him then. 'I'm going to go down to the caf for breakfast.'

'No, thanks. Maxwell cooked for me, actually.'

'He did?' she said. Her eyebrows went up again, and Zechs made a point of imitating her until she caught herself at it and covered her forehead with her hand. 'I guess he really was well-behaved,' she laughed. 'You sure he didn't poison you for kicks?'

'No ill effects yet.'

'I am a doctor, if you start to feel symptoms coming on.' She nodded him at the door. 'Job well done, Zechs. We'll wrap this up and call it a success.'

'We will.'


**


'Incoming call,' his hands-free receiver announced.

Zechs detached a hand from the steering to tap the device once. 'Number?'

'Unknown.'

He didn't receive many-- any-- calls from numbers he didn't know. And the hands-free was not equipped for a discussion about secure or non-secure lines, which meant he could either answer the call or not, and lose whatever message it might be. 'Accept,' he decided finally, just as the red light began to blink, indicating the call would drop momentarily. 'Merquise,' he said.

'Hey. It's Duo Maxwell.'

He could not have been more surprised by that. 'Hello,' he answered belatedly. He checked his GPS to be sure of his exit. He had six more miles to be inattentive. 'Is something wrong?' he asked. 'Any problems?'

'No, everything's kosher. So listen, I'm--'

'We're finishing up the interviews this morning. If we're lucky, Olsen will take a plea and go straight to prison. Even if we face a trial--'

'Yeah, I'm familiar with the process. Hey, I was wondering--'

'How did you get this number?' he thought to ask. 'I don't give it out.'

'You do, actually. It was on the card you left me the first night. I just never had an emergency.'

There was a long pause after that. Zechs braked carefully behind a slower vehicle. 'Still there?'

'I was waiting for you to interrupt me again.'

Zechs grinned faintly. 'My apologies. Go ahead.'

Maxwell laughed. 'I called to ask you out. I mean, ask you in, I guess. I went kind of crazy on groceries, what with my newfound freedom, but eating a feast alone is kind of demoralising. So...'

It seemed he could be more surprised. 'Ask me out,' he repeated blankly.

'I mean, like, if you wanted. As a-- I-- kind of thought maybe we had a little bit of a thing going. A very little bit. Like maybe we could possibly be friends, in non-protector-protectee situations.'

'Friends.'

'You're kind of just taking the last words I say and saying them back to me. It's hard to tell what you're thinking when you do that.'

He had no idea. 'What I'm thinking,' he began, and Maxwell laughed again. He cleared his throat. 'Dinner. Tonight?'

'Tonight if you're not busy. Any time this week.'

What he could think of was no logical reason not to agree. 'Tonight would be fine,' he said. 'Um, can I bring anything.'

'Only if you want something special to drink. Otherwise it's beer. Guess you know where to find the place, so. I'll let you get back to your day.'

'Wait-- what time?'

'Oh. Seven? Sevenish? That give you enough time? Flexible on my end.'

'Seven is fine.' He was approaching his exit. He twisted to look behind him, just to be sure, and moved into the right-hand lane. 'I have to go,' he added. 'Interview. I'll-- I'll see you tonight.'

'Yeah. Okay. Well, good-bye.'

'Call terminated,' the receiver informed him serenely.

The flight out of Brussels was just over two hours, but his lag time was considerably shortened thanks to Preventers' resources. He was the sole passenger on the jet that landed at Helsinki's smallest airstrip, little more than a dirt road with a few controllers. He had a driver of his own waiting for him, a young cadet with a smart salute. He crossed the border at half past eleven and at just before noon they entered Sanq's capitol, Kalmar. Sanq was a small kingdom, the product of political bargaining, brief and forgotten alliances, and there had been only two short dynasties before Alliance had brought her low. When Relena married-- not, he was perhaps unduly grateful to know, to Heero Yuy-- she would do what Zechs couldn't, and continue their line. Their duty as Peacecraft heirs.

Sanq didn't need him now, and he didn't feel welcome in his father's kingdom. Time had reconciled it-- mostly. He had never really believed in his core that he would rule here, and he'd been abjectly relieved that Relena had been so readily accepted since her identity had been revealed. For himself... for himself, he'd had two years on Mars to decide he wasn't doomed to exile by anyone but himself. A period of punishment, entirely self-imposed, which in its way had been worse, but still cleansing-- and a period of reflection. And, now, a period of renewal. Zechs Merquise was who he had been most of his life, and Zechs Merquise served him still. And he served, which was all to the good. This way.

It didn't stop a pinched feeling developing deep in his belly when Sanq Palace first came into view.

It was not the palace proper that his driver took him to, however. They curved around the wide coral-laced drive and departed left on what seemed little more than a cowpath, the car jumping in muddy ruts to either side. They ducked through a cramped brick tunnel and popped out the other side into wan, tree-filtered sunlight warming a block of cottages. A bent figure hoeing soil in a little garden plot straightened at their approach.

I don't recognise him, Zechs thought with relief. The white-haired elder who shed his mack and garden gloves was just an old man like any other. The tight clench of his gut eased.

'I'll wait here for you, Agent,' his driver said. Accented English, that curious mix of crisp and blunted Nordic. Not Zechs' accent, not anymore. Not in a very long time.

'Thank you,' Zechs replied. He let himself out, carry bag in hand. His boots squelched on damp gravel.

The old man was waiting, too. Weak eyes, Zechs catalogued that uncertain squint, and arthritis in the swollen fists and bowed legs. No give at all in the craggy face. None.

'Mr Pargan,' Zechs said. He inclined himself at the waist. 'I'm the agent from Preventers. For the interview.'

'And right on time.' Pargan wiped his hands on an old towel and extended one to him. 'Please come in. Tea?'

'Thank you.' A brief dry squeeze. Reassuringly impersonal. 'Forgive the intrusion.'

'Not at all.' Slate stones inset in diamonds made a path to the blue door of the cottage. A modern enough building, done up to a quaint impression of pre-colony Scandinavian. Zechs ducked the low lintel and came up in a bright small space. Blonde wood walls, a merrily burning fireplace, burnished copper pots. Plush chairs arranged around a low slate-topped kitchen table.

On which sat a box. 'My grandson's things,' Pargan said. 'I'd been packing him for university. He was set to go this past September, but he deferred. I suppose now I know why.'

Zechs took the unspoken invitation to open the box, though he refrained from rudely spreading the contents over the table. The usual electronic toys-- a phone Maxwell would have envied, a few bound books-- unusual choice-- a plastic dinosaur. He lifted that, rubbing the pad of his finger over a ridged mane of scales.

'He was a sweet child,' Pargan said abruptly. 'Not many friends. Not many children his age here.'

'You raised him?' Zechs asked. He returned the dinosaur to the box. A medal for scouting service, a hard drive for external storage, a camera. The camera he picked up, thumbing the 'on' switch and calling up the picture files.

'My daughter Bera passed away nine years ago,' Pargan answered. 'His father cared for him for a time, but Latham is a troubled man.'

That fit with the profile they'd created before they'd made their arrest. Absent mother, threatening father. The first few dozen pictures were standard, as far as he could tell. Vacation somewhere. Roller coasters, a castle-- a fairytale European castle, not a grand if rather dull mansion like Sanq Palace. Mascots in costume, groups of young people. School trip, judging by the uniforms.

There. Nestled between a genteel portrait of a water fountain and a haunted ride. A dead rabbit, grotesquely broken, lying beneath a bush. Its bloody nose and glazed eyes spoke of fresh death.

Torturing animals. That fit the profile too.

'Do you take your tea with sugar, lemon, or milk?'

'Lemon, thank you.' More pictures, a whole ream, featuring Relena. Relena at the Palace. Relena in the market in town, speaking at the university, touring a factory. No pictures beyond Sanq, but these chronicled almost a full year, by the time stamp. They'd recovered another camera with the boy, but it was useful to know the obsession likely went back years. There were memory cards in the box. Zechs bet they contained more of the like.

'Did you suspect him?' Zechs asked finally. He took the chair he was offered and sipped from the steaming mug Pargan set beside him.

'Not enough to confront him.' Pargan sighed into his own cup, gnarled fingers curled around the blue porcelain. 'I knew he had a shine for her Highness. Not that it was so deep. Relena is loved everywhere she goes. I thought it would pass, when he went to school, saw more of the world.'

'It might have,' Zechs said. And then was cross he'd said it. It was a lie. The boy was a sociopath in the making, and it was lucky he'd been caught and stopped before he'd managed to get to Relena. Nothing short of incarceration would have stopped him. But Pargan's shoulders slumped, and his hand trembled holding his cup. He'd wanted to hear that.

'Please forgive me,' Pargan said roughly. 'He's all the family I have left. And I've given more time to Relena these past years. I've wondered if I missed something. If my inattention did this to him.'

'It was nothing you did, sir. And to say that Relena didn't need you would be wrong. She needed a father, too.'

A sharp look, then. 'Your compassion does you credit, Agent,' he said. 'You flatter an old man.'

'A good man,' Zechs countered gently. 'In unfortunate circumstances. Preventers will help your grandson. He needs help, sir. And that's the only thing that would ever make a difference.'

Gnarled fingers rubbed at a twisted mouth. Pargan blinked watery eyes and gazed down at his tea. Zechs sipped his own, politely allowing the moment to pass in silence.

'You're very like him,' Pargan told him finally. 'Your father.'

Zechs raised his head. 'You know me, sir?'

'I'm old, Agent. Not blind and deaf.'

Zechs placed his tea carefully on the table. 'Whoever I might have been, I am no longer.'

Pargan sighed. 'Ask me the questions you came to ask. I'll tell you whatever you need to know about my grandson.'


**


'Rough day,' Maxwell said, sounding impressed. 'Poor guy. His only grandkid. He always seemed like a good guy. Pargan, I mean. I mean, I didn't ever spend any real time with him-- he just kind of stood by the car sometimes. I don't think he's even been out of Sanq lately. Relena said something about him being ill.'

'He didn't mention.' Zechs was in charge of 'thinly slicing' fennel, an activity that took great concentration and was having mixed results. He did get to eat the mistakes, at least. 'I didn't think he looked particularly well, but given the situation, I assumed it was depression.'

'Open wide.'

Caught off guard, Zechs fumbled it. Maxwell had a funny sort of grin on his face. Zechs managed to swallow the orange slice without dripping too much of it down his chin, and wiped his face hurriedly with his palm.

'Wow,' Maxwell. 'Graceful.'

'Sorry.' He wiped again to be sure. 'You surprised me.'

'Clearly.' Maxwell's kitchen tasks were far more involved, but he moved languidly from cutting board to stove to refrigerator and back to the bar, where Zechs once again sat. 'Here,' he said, and put a crystal glass in front of Zechs. 'Got this special for you.' He produced a bottle and modelled it on his arm. 'It's a South African. I like reds, personally, but you don't drink red against the harissa stew, and anyway you strike me as a white drinker.'

'Good guess.' The tumblers had an appealing weight to balance the bright, appley flavour of the wine. When he made a noise of approval, Maxwell grinned again and filled the tumbler halfway for him. Zechs sipped again. 'I thought it was going to be just beer.'

'Must mean I like you,' Maxwell said. He smirked as he said it, and Zechs felt free to roll his eyes in response.

'May I ask you a question?'

'You may.' His fennel slices joined griddled auberguine, radicchio, and the rest of the oranges. 'Here, drizzle this honey over that.'

He obeyed. 'You never really seemed upset about the idea of being threatened by this Olsen. Even before we knew it was just a teenager.'

'Point of fact: that was not a question.'

'Pretend that it was.'

'Okay.' Maxwell munched a slice of fennel thoughtfully. 'Guess not. It happens. Will happen again.'

'You don't know that.'

'Please,' Maxwell dismissed him. 'If it's not about Relena it'll be about Gundams. If it's not about Gundams it'll be about something else. People suck.'

'That's a harsh attitude. For someone your age.'

'Call me a cynic, but don't call me naïve. Here, watch this part, it's nifty. This is how you make the roulades. You spread out the ricotta mix-- here, come do this with me. You can use your finger. Very thin layers here because we're going to add the spinach.'

'Why did you invite me?' Zechs asked him.

'Seriously?' Maxwell canted back a step to look up at him. 'You really just asked that.'

'I--' He flushed. 'I'm sorry.'

'Chill. I kind of dig the awkward interpersonal skills you've got going.'

'This is a date,' Zechs guessed, awkwardly indeed.

'Seriously?'

He licked ricotta off his finger. His ears were hot. He was glad his hair covered them. 'I didn't realise.'

'So I see.' Maxwell nudged him aside and began to roll the roulades in greaseproof paper. 'It doesn't have to be. Romantical date, I mean. We really can just be friends if you want. Since Heero moved out it's kind of lonely, you know? Plus, you eat what I cook. Heero thinks hamburger is adventurous. But if I can argue in favour of the dating, I'd like to open with the fact that I'm adorable.'

He smiled involuntarily. 'I don't date very much,' he said stiffly. 'I'm not very... familiar with the process.'

'But you don't object in principle?'

Did he? Not object, exactly. 'Truthfully I'm not sure it's entirely a good idea,' he admitted softly. His own attempt to roll a roulade resulted in a mess, gently rescued by Maxwell's cleverer fingers. 'There's a lot of history on either side of us.'

'They call that "spice", I believe.' Maxwell tapped him on the wrist. 'If it makes you uncomfortable, then don't. Simple as that. You change your mind, you let me know. Don't take forever about it, but it's not like I've got dance partners buying up my tickets. Meanwhile, see what I'm doing with the greasepaper? Use it to tighten the roll as you go.'

Maybe it was Maxwell's easy dismissal of the tension. He swallowed back the uncomfortable comments he'd been trying to dredge into complete sentences. 'Like this?' was all he let out. He rolled the sponge slowly. For a moment, Maxwell's fingers overlapped his.

Well. That answered for at least one piece of the dating puzzle. He liked the way that felt.

'Good,' Maxwell approved. 'Now we let those set a minute and we enjoy the wine. Tell me about the rest of your day, as friends do.'

'All right,' he agreed. 'That sounds good.'

Maxwell winked at him. 'It does, if I do say so myself.'

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