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

Caveat + Part 3

'Pedal, you wimp!'

Zechs gritted his teeth and forced the pedals down rapidly. His legs ached, his fists ached from gripping the handlebars, and his ass ached from straddling the very small plastic seat. Maxwell sailed ahead, showing off, his loose hair ruffling in the breeze as he ducked branches and launched a jump off an out-thrust oak root.

'Merquise!' Maxwell called back. 'What happened to the Lightning Count?'

He could cheerfully have ground Maxwell's face into the dirt. 'He's somewhere back at that promise of a light afternoon bike ride,' he shouted.

'This is a light afternoon bike ride.' Maxwell pedalled backward, slowing in place on the path until Zechs caught up to him. Generously, he didn't take off again, as he had the last three times. 'Your legs are too long. You should raise the seat. Pull over, we'll do it before we go any further.'

He added his knees to the list of infirmities as he gingerly dismounted his bicycle. He stripped his helmet and swept the sweat out of his hair with his hand, shaking it off onto a nearby bush. He was soaked through, could feel it trickling down between his shoulderblades and over his stomach. 'I'm not convinced this is fun,' he said.

Maxwell squirted him with water, making him jump. 'Drink up. We can turn around. If you're quitting.'

His competitive nerves were wound tight. He restrained himself with effort. Maxwell was grinning at him, bright and sharp as a cheshire cat. 'Considering that turning around will take three hours, I vote yes,' he returned evenly. 'How much more forward is there?'

'Not too much more. Another seventy kilometres, more or less. The path swings up around Poperinge, under Vlamertinge, wide around downtown Ieper. We'll go through all that farmland between Staden and Houthulst and hook back up with the car at Wijnendale.' Maxwell popped a little wrench from his belt pack and loosened the screws on either side of Zechs' seat. 'Like I said, easy path.'

'You do this often?' He was in good shape-- if not, perhaps, the excellent shape he'd been in as the Lightning Count-- so he wasn't winded for long. But he had grudging admiration for Maxwell, who was admirably slim for someone who liked to cook so much, and who clearly worked at it. His tight suit left muscled legs and arms bare, and fitted just well enough to spots that Zechs was resolutely ignoring. 'It's a good way to see the countryside,' he added, the tamest, albeit lamest thing he could think of.

'Yeah, it is. I did a triathalon last year. Good challenge, nice people. Relena even came out to cheer for me. Here you go, try the seat now.'

Zechs remounted while Maxwell held the handlebars. 'Better,' he decided. 'Less cramped.'

'If you get your own bike we could do this regular. I come out pretty often.' Maxwell let him go, and Zechs eased back to the ground. Without discussing it, they both propped their bikes against a nearby tree and settled on a large flat stone for their break. Maxwell provided foil-wrapped granola bars, and Zechs swapped him for a small ripe clementine. 'Thanks. Yeah, fresh air, communing with nature, et cetera. Basically, though, it gets me out of the apartment. Sometimes I forget to watch myself and I start hiding indoors, you know. It can be-- well.'

'Can be what?' Zechs asked him. He drank half his water and tucked the bottle into the pouch at the small of his back. 'You don't strike me as someone who prefers his own company.'

'Meaning I'm a talker?' Maxwell grinned at him. 'I guess. I guess I can be. You're a lot like him-- Heero. Two words to every nine of mine. Silence and me, not so much, but I can get locked in my own head, you know. Once you get into a groove with something you can't dig out. So at least on the trails I'm occupied, right? I can be alone without freaking out about it.'

'I don't think it's that you talk. You say important things.' Zechs peeled his clementine slowly, dropping the rind into a pile between his shoes. 'You're very honest in how you speak about yourself, at least.'

'Explaining,' Maxwell shrugged. 'Kind of a habit I got into with Heero. He ignores me if I don't draw him a line between Point A and Point B.'

'Tell me about him.'

He was aware of Maxwell eyeing him. Weighing him, and maybe judging him. 'Guess you get locked in your own head, too,' Maxwell said.

'Sometimes.' He rolled his head on his shoulders. 'Please don't-- feel like I'm only interested in information. That's not why I'm spending time with you.'

'I'm not in doubt about why you spend time with me. You may be in doubt, but I'm not.' Maxwell kicked out his legs and settled back on his elbows, scuffed trainers waving back and forth. 'Heero. Okay. He doesn't like to do this kind of thing. Walking, sometimes, or climbing, but he's actually not all that physical. No, that's not quite right. I think he just associates it with-- what's a good way to say this. Purpose. Some definable need that has to be satisfied. Solved. And he's so fucking good that he's the one who always ends out solving things, but it's not like it's cost-free, you know. Which I really wish you Preventers would get, because they keep bugging him. He's not going to join. He shouldn't have to deal with the question over and over and over again.'

'You have to admit he'd make an impressive addition. He's unmatched.'

'Because he plays total war. Or he did. And like I said, at what cost.'

'You defend him.'

'Damn right I do. But he can say no for himself and so far he has. And damn good on him for doing it.'

Zechs recalled Sally's comment that Maxwell wasn't fond of Preventers. That seemed to be bearing out. 'You don't even think he'd have a place in Tactical?' He sectioned his clementine and chewed slowly. 'There are still threats out there that need his kind of-- creativity. He sees avenues no-one else does. That has value and it's value we need.'

'I don't say this to offend you, but I want you to hear it in the spirit intended. There are things that you can do as a person fighting a juggernaught that you can't do when you're a person inside the fort. You don't need Heero Yuy to come chew his fingernails figuring out how to revolutionise your forces. You need to get out of your own head and take a long hard look at what Preventers really is. You're not the little guy against the big baddies of the universe. You're the big man on campus now.'

His immediate reaction was not kind. Maxwell could talk all he wanted-- he was on the outside and he hadn't extended so much as a pinkie finger-- since the last time that he had. The relatively bloodless end to the Barton War had been a miracle. And like most miracles, it had rested on the intense and, yes, costly effort of those involved. So on second consideration, he gave Maxwell's words real thought. 'I don't know,' he said finally. 'We absolutely had to regularise. There was no way around that, legally, morally. Just in order to function, even.'

'Which is totally fine. But take a step back and recognise what that implies. You don't need Heero.'

'Or you,' he said.

Maxwell only smiled. 'I'm a greaser at heart. I like machines. I like making them work.'

'But you called it hiding,' he recalled. 'That night in your apartment. If you and Heero really were only interested in fading out of the limelight, you wouldn't have stayed in Brussels of all places.'

Maxwell sat up abruptly and smacked him on the thigh. 'Conversation for another date,' he replied. 'Maybe we can save it for a date-date. With alcohol. For now, though, we ride.'

He tried not to feel put off. Only a little. But it was certainly a fair request. Their not-quite-friendship wasn't wide enough to open some doors. Whether they would ever reach that date-date stage, he still wasn't sure. But it was fair to draw the line. He tossed the rest of his orange to the animals in the brush, and offered Maxwell a hand up. 'Forward-ho?'

'If you think you can make it.'

'I think I might survive,' he said dryly. 'As long as you don't try to race me.'

'Wouldn't dream of it,' Maxwell swore virtuously. 'Much.'


**


'New case.' Tropic leant on the wall blocking off Zechs' cubicle. 'Neptune did her best to sink her hooks in, but I pulled rank. You're welcome.'

'Thank you,' Zechs said fervently. 'I'd prefer not to make it an official request.'

'I know.' Tropic dropped the case file on his desk. 'Your copy. You want to do the travel booking or liaise with the locals?'

'You're better at the diplomacy than I am. I'll wrangle the arrangements.' He flipped to the front page. 'Where are we headed?'

'L4. There's sabotage in the minefields. They want us to help pinpoint the leaders and be a visible presence while they beef up security.'

'I'll read up. Thanks.'

'Not a problem, Wind.' Tropic nodded himself out.

L4 meant shuttle tickets and possibly the need to stay at the Embassy, which meant wrangling with the government e-travel system. Preventers had their own fleet, but used it sparingly-- many types of mobile suits were restricted or under injunction, and shuttles were frankly too expensive for private travel. So he and Tropic would be passengers like any others. Zechs was not particularly recognisable in uniform-- provided he wear a hat-- so that would be safe enough. It took him nearly two hours to complete the booking so that they wouldn't make too circuitous a route from port to port, and then he exhausted another hour searching for hotels. He ended out contacting the Embassy for rooms after all.

He checked the time, and ducked down the hall with his mobile. It was nearly lunch, so he wasn't surprised to be dialled straight to voicemail; Maxwell had already told him he had a full docket this week. He waited for the beep, and left a message. 'I need to cancel this weekend's bike ride,' he said. 'I've been called up to the colonies. It might be a little lengthy-- I hope no more than a week, but possibly two or more if we don't hit any breaks. I apologise for the inconvenience.' He hesitated, but nothing more occurred. 'Good-bye,' he finished, and hung up.

'Hot date?'

Neptune. Rebeka Spry, in the real world, though these days Zechs rarely thought in terms of 'real' versus 'Preventers'. Maxwell would have liked to know; he was nosy about real identities, though Zechs steadfastly refused to reveal any Maxwell hadn't already weaseled out for himself. Still, Neptune's cultivated air of mystery suited her. She had replaced Noin in Preventers' First Unit, and Zechs was uneasily aware that she meant to replace Noin in other ways.

'Not a date,' he said truthfully. 'Just plans between friends.' He tucked his phone away. 'Excuse me, I have to--'

'I know, but I wanted to let you know. Cobra rang me from the road. There's been a problem at Heero Yuy's apartment.'

'Yuy?' he repeated sharply. 'What kind of problem?'

'Apparently he thinks his mail is being tampered with. He contacted Cobra, but they're out of town, too. You have any time to spare for a visit? I thought I'd head out and check in on Yuy.'

That was worth the aggravation. 'Yes,' he decided immediately. 'Let me shut down the desktop. I'll meet you in the carpark.'

Brussels was a city of neighbourhoods. Maxwell's commune, like the one Zechs had chosen for himself, was largely a choice made out of proximity to work, a desire to avoid Brussels' endemic traffic jams and the crumbling metro line as much as possible. But they'd also both been drawn to the communities of expatriots who populated much of the city these days. The new government, fresh as it was, had already had a marked effect on the city it called its seat. When Zechs had returned from Mars he'd been struck by the marked heterogeniety of the people, the accents, the languages spoken. Colonial accents-- the slight lisp of Oners, the often obscure mumble of the Fours, the up-noted Twofer dialect that even Maxwell still had a bit of-- those co-existed now when five years earlier it would have been a remarkable thing to hear even a few voices like that on Earth. On the advice of his fellow Preventers, Zechs had settled in a townhome in Woluwe Saint Pierre, populated largely by Embassy staff and other governmental groups. It had easy access to the highways and the airport and even downtown, handy for a man expected to travel frequently, and a wonderful sports center, also necessary for a man who couldn't plan regular access to good exercise. Maxwell's apartment was in the residential suburb of Watermael-Boitsfort, ideal for-- he was catching on to these things now-- biking and long walks, a green-filled space, a quiet space where people were friendly but not intrusive on each other. But Zechs had been surprised to hear that Yuy had settled in Schaerbeek. It had the international flavour he assumed would appeal to a colonial, but it had a more run-down air than his or Maxwell's neighbourhoods. The art-nouveau architecture had been crumbling for a century, replaced here and there with unfussy, unlovely blocks of apartments and student studios. Yuy's place was was one of those, a dark grey facade with a small street-facing balcony overlooking a dispirited communal garden plot. Though it was autumn on Earth, there were a number of open windows-- not, he was unsurprised to see, Yuy's. Yuy's balcony doors were covered by what looked like a blanket or heavy curtains, and none of the windows were any different.

They parked on the street and walked a half-block to the steps of Yuy's building. The door was open, unavoidable in shared housing, but Zechs quietly tested all the doors off the enclosed stair, and found them all locked. Yuy's was midway off a small landing and featured none of the detritus outside the other apartments, no bikes, no boxes of recyclables. Zechs knocked once and held up his badge to the eyehole.

Almost immediately he heard the latch. Several latches. Neptune smirked at him. 'Be polite,' Zechs murmured, half admonition, half real worry that she'd openly express her contempt. Paranoid or not, Yuy deserved to be greeted by sober respect, not mocking sarcasm.

The young man who finally appeared on the other side of an evidently well barricaded door was a shock. Not because he was tangibly different from how Zechs remembered, although somehow he was. Still lean and slight, still glowering yet stoic. But now startlingly humanised. He wore cigarette-legged jeans, a loose yellow button-down. A knit cap. Relena's handiwork. He recognised it immediately. The slipped stitches were unmistakable.

'My mail was taken,' Yuy opened.

'So we were given to understand.' Zechs pocked his badge. 'Agent Neptune and I are temporarily replacing Agents Cobra and Mamba.'

'I don't care which ones you are.' Yuy abandoned the door. Zechs exchanged a glance with Neptune, and gestured her through. With a shrug, she entered Yuy's apartment. Zechs followed and closed the door behind him. Five locks. He locked each of them, and set the superfluous chain.

Yuy was at his window, the one overlooking the street. 'You have a license for all that equipment?' Neptune said. Zechs almost rebuked her for joking, but it wasn't entirely funny. That was night-vision telescopic, and the video camera next to it really might have been illegal. The firearms on the table were definitely illegal.

Maybe he ought to call Maxwell and let him deal with this.

'I collect my mail daily at the post,' Yuy told them. 'They know me by sight and I'm the only one with permission to collect it. Today there was nothing to pick up.'

Zechs removed a notepad, but didn't write yet. 'You receive mail every day?'

'Yes,' Yuy retorted flatly. 'Duo and I have a system. We send each other something every day to ensure the mail hasn't been tampered with.'

'Great, there's two involved in this,' Neptune muttered. Zechs let that pass, too, because it was in fact good news, if not something he'd known about. Maxwell would have to confirm it, but for the moment it was helpful.

'And the staff of the post reported no internal difficulty that could explain the problem? No strikes, no late trucks?'

'No. They called the office where Duo mailed his letter. They put it in process. It arrived at my post and was logged in. Then someone else picked it up.' Yuy squinted through his camcorder and turned back. 'I got a description from Gervaas--'

'Who?' Neptune interrupted.

'The post officer, I would guess,' Zechs said. 'Please continue, Mr Yuy.'

Yuy scowled at them. 'White, mid-thirties, blond, well-built. He had a notarised note with my signature claiming I had granted permission for him to handle my mail while I was ill.' He held out a folder. 'I had Gervaas copy the original and seal it. You might get fingerprints or DNA. Here's a copy.'

Zechs opted for a polite thanks. He opened the folder and read the note-- exactly as Yuy had said. If it was a ploy, it was a good touch-- a notarised permission form seemed completely in line with Yuy's standard MO. He passed it to Neptune. 'Provide us with the address and we'll talk to this Gervaas.'

'He's on shift until seven this evening.' Yuy had that ready too, a notecard with precise block printing. 'He's expecting you.'

Neptune threw up her hands. 'Well. We'll get right on that.'

'Mr Yuy. Heero.' Zechs folded the notecard, rubbing his thumb along the perforated edge. 'We'll follow your lead. But I want you to do something for me as well.'

Yuy was immediately suspicious of him. He rocked back physically on his feet, his fists clenching uncertainly.

Zechs linked his hands before him, feet together, the most deliberately non-confrontational pose he could manage in full uniform. 'I'm going to need you to take down the camera. The telescope can stay, but it's not legal to film people without their written consent.'

'Are you serious?' Neptune began. Zechs cut her off with a look.

'I am serious,' he said. 'The camera in exchange for the post office lead. Are we in agreement?'

Yuy chewed his lower lip. 'This is not normal Preventers procedure.'

'No, it's not. This is a private agreement between you and I. If you do agree.'

Maybe it wouldn't have worked without that 'weird whateverness' Maxwell said they had. Yuy knew him in some respect, had some gauge of his seriousness. It was not just a bribe-- Zechs saw the very moment when Yuy understood that. Yuy needed to ensure his own security, as Zechs would in such a situation. As any sane man who had the kind of enemies they had had would need to. Yuy needed to feel safe, and the mail incident was clearly large enough to trigger his anxiety. Zechs understood, and that was enough to slacken the tension in Yuy's bunched shoulders, relax those angry fists.

'I agree,' Yuy said. He took two steps backward, and touched the camera. The red recording light turned off.

Zechs inclined his head. 'Thank you. We'll go to the post right now.'

'Thank you,' Yuy echoed haltingly. 'I... appreciate it.'

Zechs nodded again. He touched Neptune's arm, and moved her toward the door. 'We'll let you know immediately what we learn.' He unlatched the door, and gave Neptune a little push to move her out. He was not surprised that he had no sooner pulled the door closed again when Yuy locked it behind them.

'That is so not the way we do business, Wind,' Neptune warned him. 'That won't fly in the report.'

'I'll take the hit. It was my decision.'

'It's not about taking responsibility. Yuy's in there breaking the law and you just agreed it was okay! How do you know he won't just turn the recorder on again?'

'He won't,' Zechs said firmly. 'I believe his word. Now. The post office.'

'Please,' she dismissed him. The skin around her eyes was tight and her mouth was unhappy. Zechs gave her grudging points for being genuinely upset at the way the interview had gone-- their rules were new still and shouldn't be flouted, perhaps, as easily as he'd just done.

'I know him,' he said. 'Believe in me, at least. His cooperation now is a good thing for later, especially if there is someone taking his mail.'

'I don't know if you recall right this moment, but we already arrested someone for stalking them. This could be completely unrelated. This could be a figment of his imagination, Wind. He didn't look incredibly stable in there.'

'Let's go on the assumption that he is and investigate anyway,' he suggested mildly, but her protests were beginning to wear on him. 'Or did you have anything else to do?'

He felt her glaring at his back as he descended the stairs. But she came after him all the same.


**


'You have a system?' he asked.

'He told you about that, huh? Don't spread it too wide. It took us months to think it up and it's so perfect.'

'Right now, all I'm interested in knowing is if it has flaws.'

'Not in two and a half years. I mail something every day, a letter, a note, a postcard, whatever. I vary it up just in case someone's ever watching for a pattern. He gets my mailing the next day. So the stuff that's missing today is what I mailed yesterday.'

'And it was what?'

'A birthday card.'

'It's his birthday?' Zechs repeated, startled.

'Like hell either of us know when it's our birthday. There was a pack of them on sale a while back. So it's like missing-missing?'

'This Gervaas person swears it was logged in. He never touched it.'

'What about their security camera?'

'Broken. The company in charge of monitoring it was negligent and hadn't fixed it yet. What abour your mail from Yuy? You received it per usual?'

'I don't make it to the posty until late. I'll let you know. So-- all he said was that you were better than your partner.'

'She's not my partner,' he began, before that fully registered. Maxwell and Yuy had already talked, if not much-- and Yuy had complimented him. He wasn't sure how to feel about that, except tentatively glad.

'Look, if someone is messing with our mail, then it's someone who's been watching long enough to know we've got a routine.'

'Or at least that Yuy does. It might be just about him.'

'I guess.' There was a loud clang over the line; Zechs hurriedly distanced himself from the receiver as it grated. Maxwell's swearing was almost as loud before it abruptly dropped volume-- the phone being set down-- and then there was fuzzy silence for a minute. Zechs waited it out, but just when he would have hung up to call back, Maxwell returned. 'I gotta go. Fucking chaos here. You still leaving or you staying to deal with this?'

'Leaving,' he said. 'Cobra and Mamba will follow up with the post office.'

'Okay. Thanks for handling Heero the way you did. A little goes a long way with him-- and with me.'

That definitely warmed him. 'I didn't do it for that,' he said.

'I know. You did it because it was right. Which is even better. Be good.'

He rubbed his collar, where his neck felt hot. 'You too.'

'Zechs-- when you get back--'

'Yes?'

'Just don't forget about me on your trip.'

Not much chance of that. 'Good-bye, Duo.'

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