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

Caveat + Part 4

'Breathe, gents,' the foreman reminded them sharply.

The funicular rail car in which they rode scarcely allowed Zechs room for his long legs, and he seemed in constant danger of scraping his helmet on the ominously low roof of the tunnel. It was the most peculiarly claustrophobic experience of his life, and he had spent hundreds of hours in close quarters as a pilot. Then again, as a pilot, he'd known there was air, or space at least, on the other side of his enclosed mobile suit. The only thing on the other side of that tight rocky tunnel was a few thousand feet of compressed ice and sediment. His space suit felt cramped and clammy, and the sweat trickling down his neck had no-where to go. The hiss of oxygen as he inhaled was not reassuring.

The steep gradient of their downward journey was a concern of its own. The foreman had assured them-- gruffly and almost bored by their scepticism-- that the cable hauling their car was counterbalanced by another one of greater weight rising from the depth of the mine. To Zechs' mind, that was cold comfort. Pulleys did not seem adequate science to the otherwise awesome undertaking of asteroid mining. The foreman had only shrugged that simple didn't mean bad. All the same, Zechs longed for the comfort of something a little more-- modern.

It was nearly a twelve minute dive down that sharp incline before they suddenly halted. 'We're a half-kilometre in,' the foreman told him. 'Stay close. If you get lost, stay where you are and we'll find you. There's twenty-five kilometres of tunnel to wander if you take it into your fool head to find your own way.'

Tropic gave him a haunted look. Zechs was sure he looked similarly frozen. He managed a grunted agreement and tried to keep his face impassive.

The magnetised landing off the rail line grabbed their boots hard, but it was just barely wide enough for the three of them, and their climb wasn't over. Now they resorted to EVA-- a single queue float past more than seventy metre-markers. Zechs lost his count quickly, in the shuffle of adjusting to the passage, maintaining his torch, maintaining his death-grip on the implanted railing. Tropic at his back was near enough to bump him every few minutes, and so he went forward with gritted teeth and wound nerves. Zechs breathed a very deep sigh of relief when they finally reached bottom. Center of the asteroid.

'This mine has been open about thirty years, give or take,' the foreman announced, a tinny presence in their earpieces. 'Closed during the worst of the Occupation and the war years, so operating at full capacity maybe ten, twelve out of that. I've been Foreman here for three. No joke, it's a hard life, but Winner Enterprises vetts everyone before they get out here. Most problem we've ever had is disputes over holidays or overtime pay. The union is pretty strong but we're also pretty happy, all told. There's worse places to work. Honestly, if you'd've told me there'd be trouble, I would have thought it would come from the Harvesters.'

'Harvesters,' Tropic echoed questioningly.

'They operate the Grabbies. The ships that go out and collect the asteroids. Robots get 'em out of the Belt, but they only deliver back in-system as far as Mars. Humans got to bring them in from there. Long time in the Deep Dark, you know, away from your family or whoever. Harder on your health, too. Under WEI contracts you can't work Harvesting more than one trip per two calender years, just can't, but there's private contractors and a lot of them, well. You ever seen someone who lives it out in the Cold?'

'SAS,' Tropic said.

Space Adaptation Syndrome. The Colony Project had nearly derailed because of it. Microgravity damaged the human body, there was no way around that, and radiation, and cramped living quarters. Human adaptability worked both ways, and people who lived in Space could re-adapt to Earth conditions given time, but there were long-term effects that science hadn't yet solved. Duty tours on the MO outposts were limited to five months for that reason, and those were proper stations with a fair amount of space and privacy. Zechs nodded his agreement.

'Money's good, though,' the foreman said. 'Duck up ahead here, we never got around to clearing that. This 'roid is pretty mined out. They'll either take it in for melting or kick it back out to the Belt probably by close of the year.'

'How many others in operation?' Zechs asked.

'Present, fourteen. We max out at twenty-four. I think with demand we'll get there-- the rare metals industry is recovering pretty well.' At last, solid ground, if one didn't think about what direction they might actually be facing. Tropic had his eyes resolutely closed, and Zechs wondered if his inner ear were giving him trouble. Earth-bound agents often had difficulty during short Space-ventures, and this certainly qualified as disorientating. Zechs prided himself on having a Spacer's disregard for questions of up or down, but even so, the moment his boots connected and locked on the mag plates at the tunnel's end, his stomach gave a relieved little lurch.

The foreman's phone beeped, and he used it to scan a metal panel tacked to the wall. Barcode, Zechs saw. 'I've got six men ahead,' the foreman reported, reading from his screen. 'There's supposed to be seven. I'll find out what happened with Eudes. I guess you know what to do from here?'

'Yes, thank you.' Zechs offered his hand, and the foreman shook quickly, maybe a little nervously. 'We'll wait for your return to go back?'

'Any of the men can take you when you're done with the interviews. Or beep me and I'll get you, right.' The foreman gave them a gruff nod. 'All said and done, though, I hope you don't find anything.'

'So do we.' Tropic got a handshake of his own. 'Thanks for your help, sir.'

'Divide them up?' Zechs asked his partner. 'Three each shouldn't take too long.'

'Not that I don't agree, but I think we'll get more if they face both of us. One can talk and the other watch.'

There was wisdom in that. Zechs squared his shoulders. He'd done unpleasant things before-- a few extra hours in the middle of an asteroid was survivable. He was fairly sure.

'Agents?'

They turned. Not the foreman, who was long gone-- it was a taller form free-falling down the tunnel, ignoring the rail except for the occasional push-off. The hand-torch bobbed distractingly, but the overhead strings hit on blond hair as a face mask caught the light. 'Quatre Winner,' the young man introduced himself, arriving with admirable grace precisely at the edge of the mag plate and grasping their hands one after the other. 'I'm glad I caught you.'

'Mr Winner, you visit the mines often?'

'Not as often as I like, but rather more often these days than I should have to.' In the bulky miner suit it was difficult to tell much about Winner's size, but standing he was nearly eye to eye with Zechs. 'I meant to meet you at the docks, but my morning meeting ran over. My crew are entirely at your disposal. I have employment files for your examination, including my own. Consider everything open for discussion. This is dangerous work, it's not a well-regulated field, and we rely on each other for our lives. If I've got anyone here in a position to harm anyone else, I want to know it.'

The brisk tone of a man accustomed to professional interaction. That handshake had been straightforward, tight, a good grip through the sausage-like fingers of the gloves. He'd interacted with Yuy and Trowa Barton years earlier, but of the adult Gundam Pilots he had now met, re-met, he was discovering them to be all different, so varied in personality from what he expected. Military types tended toward similarities, could often be identified immediately by those samenesses, as Zechs was sure he could. The military complex created those similarities deliberately. It challenged his adaptability, trying to determine which approach they wanted out of him.

Even as he thought it, he realised. There was a similarity between them all. All they really wanted out of him was honesty.

'We're open-minded in our approach,' Zechs assured him factually. 'But at this point I'm concerned about any possible connections to what's happening with Relena Peacecraft, Duo Maxwell, and Heero--'

'Heero's informed me,' Winner said. 'We knew this day might come when we agreed our identities should be public. Full disclosure, I lost employees over it, but they went with their pensions and I've received no complaints since. I've got a list of everyone who chose to leave, though I do believe it's highly unlikely any of them could get back on the mines without being identified. I rotate security measures every two months, I require background checks on everyone from the cleaning staff upward, including contractors, and every employee, including me, participates in trust exercises. If this is coming from outside Winner Enterprises, it will have to be organised to get in here.'

'None of which means that it won't get here.'

'That's true.' Winner flipped his torch, letting it float a few inches before catching it again. 'I appreciate Preventers' presence here. Anything you can do. Anything you need.'

'We'll keep you informed.'

'I appreciate it.' A second round of handshakes, even firmer than the last. 'And please, you're welcome to eat with me tonight on the colony. You'll want a good meal after a long day.'

'Quite the welcoming committee,' Tropic muttered at him, when they were alone again. 'Winner himself.'

'Mm,' Zechs answered absently. 'Interesting, though. Have you noticed the common theme?'

'Common theme?'

'Yuy and Maxwell's mail system. Winner's preparedness here. By and large, they're in constant anticipation of something like this happening. They've thought it out and they're ready for it.'

'You would have to be, wouldn't you? Like Winner said. People do know who they are. Relena Peacecraft is no different. Controversial. Controversy attracts nutjobs.' Tropic cracked his knuckles. 'All right. Let's get it moving.'

'Right.' Zechs rescued his notepad. 'Behind you.'


**


'Nothing?' Sally said. 'Well, I suppose at least we accomplished some good by showing up.'

'We interviewed seventy-two miners,' Tropic shrugged. 'They'll spread the word to the ones we didn't get. We either chased it underground or didn't. For my money, there was nothing there to worry about. Sabotage might just be sloppy work.'

'Zechs?'

'I just maintain that we should be watching for a link between what's happening with Gundam Pilots on Earth and what's happening with them in Space.'

'So you think it was Yuy being targeted and not Relena?' Sally probed.

Zechs shook his head reluctantly. 'I can't claim that. Olsen did admit to stalking Relena, and she was the one he physically tried to get to. But I think it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that there's an uptick of incidences involving Gundam Pilots.'

'Can't argue with that.' Sally tapped her fingers on her desk. 'I suppose we can assume that Barton and Winner come as one, but let's get in touch with Chang on L5. He's never been the sort to share unsolicited, but if we ask directly we may find out if there's anything going on at his end.'

'I'll do that,' Tropic volunteered. 'I need to log some desk time anyway. Wind, you staying?'

'Planned on working from home for the rest of the day, actually.' He needed to run laundry, though he saw no reason to admit that. 'I'll be in tomorrow.'

'Don't come in on a Saturday,' Sally disagreed. 'God knows I won't. Stay home and relax. Nothing about this is urgent yet.'

'Thanks.' Tropic nodded to them both as he stood for the door. 'See you Monday, then.'

'Not the warmest,' Sally observed. 'You didn't have any problems with him?'

'Tropic?' Zechs asked, surprised. 'No. Not warm, as you say, but neither am I, particularly.'

'You have your moments.' She grinned briefly at him. 'No complaints, before you ask. He just doesn't pair up well with everyone. If you think you can work with him, maybe you'd consider making the arrangement permanent?'

He hadn't had a permanent partner since Noin. He'd waited on it, unwilling to commit to anyone who didn't mesh with him so easily-- Noin had always just known what he was thinking, known what needed doing. Tropic wasn't as easygoing, true, but when he was on the job he was fully on the job, and Zechs appreciated that. There was no mess and no worry. 'I can do that,' he decided. 'If he agrees.'

'I'll talk to him. If he says yes, I'll get you the paperwork next week.'

'There's paperwork for it now?'

'There was paperwork before. Lucy just did it for you.'

He hadn't known that. He wasn't surprised. 'Have you talked with her at all? Since the baby was born?'

'She's happy. They're all happy.' Sally propped her hand on her chin, watching him. 'She misses you.'

'I miss her.' Zechs folded his overcoat over his arm. 'Well. I'm going to get going.'

'Zechs-- while we're in private, can I have a word with you? About Duo Maxwell.'

He sank back into his seat. 'Is this a word between Director and Preventer?'

'Maybe. I don't know yet.' Sally chewed her knuckle. 'You're spending a lot of time with him.'

'Off the clock.'

'We do have rules, Zechs.'

'He's not under watch anymore. I don't see a conflict.'

'You're the one who thinks there's a link. Between the threats in Brussels--'

'He's just a friend, Sally. And the last time you had a private word with me it was to tell me you were worried I wasn't settling in here.'

'I guess I did say that.' Sally tossed up her hands. 'Well, if you tell me it's just friends, I believe you. And I hereby supply you with the paperwork he'll need to fill out.'

'Are you kidding me?' The disc she handed him did not make him happy. Maxwell would explode. 'There's paperwork just to be friends?'

'There's paperwork that goes into your file so we know who your contacts are and who theirs are. Just in case.'

'There's no possible way he'll clear any security check. Not with his background.'

'Which is something you have to think about before you let it get any farther.'

That did not make him happy either. He tossed the disc back to the desk. 'I'm not giving that to him. It's insulting.'

'It's policy, Zechs. For you just as much as any other Preventer.'

'I'm not giving it to him. You want him to fill it out, you argue it with him.' He stood. 'For the record, I think if we reach the point where you disconnect us from the rest of humanity, you're at risk of creating a new Specials Unit. That's not what we were supposed to be.'

'Zechs—'

'I've got nothing else to say on the matter, Director.' He clenched his jaw, faced the wall until he had himself back under control. 'Our strength is in not being like that, Sally. That's what we said in the early days.'

'I don't disagree. But this is the way it has to be for right now.' Her gaze was uncompromising. 'You can take that disc or not, but if it's not, I have to alert the SI Team. Maybe they can do an in-person interview, if that would be easier.'

'I'll ask him.' It burned him to even surrender that much. 'I'm tired,' he said finally. 'I'm going home.'

'Relax, Zechs. Enjoy your weekend.'

A little less so now. He managed a reasonably civil nod, and let himself out.


**


'Did you swish out the door?' Maxwell wanted to know.

'No,' Zechs said shortly. 'I do not swish.'

'You could. You've got the ass for it.' Maxwell pushed a black chequer across the board. 'What happens when I reach your side?'

'You become king.' He topped the chequer with another piece-- the third time he'd had that duty since they'd opened the game. 'You wouldn't happen to have stretched the truth about not playing draughts before?'

'Doesn't it make me look more genius to be a first-time player? I think it makes me look more genius.' Maxwell paused to dip a crudite in their hummus. 'Look, just give me the disc. I'll do the background check.'

'No,' Zechs protested. 'It's demeaning and ridiculous--'

'And kind of dumb, yeah. But if it's going to be the only thing that stops us from hanging out, that would be kind of dumb too.'

'I won't ask you to do it, Duo.'

'I like when you use my name. Usually you avoid it.' Maxwell crunched his carrot stick. 'Take it as a measure of friendship. Our friendship. And the other thing of which we do not speak, but which is totally going to happen when you stop telling yourself how wrong it is.'

His cheeks went ever so warm. 'It's an invasive process. The paperwork. And they can't possibly approve you. They couldn't approve any of us in Preventers, if we'd had to do these when we were forming. All of us are dangerous, suspicious.' He moved his white chequer without thinking too hard about it, and saw his mistake as soon as he let it go. He at least had the pleasure of watching Maxwell crow over it, squirming happily in his chair as he jumped one of his kings over the chequer and capturing it. 'Gloating is so attractive,' he teased.

'Hell yeah it is.' Maxwell smirked at him. 'Did I win yet?'

'No, but I don't think there's any doubt you will.' He moved his next piece more carefully, and it stayed safe as Maxwell took a diagonal with one of his kinged chequers. 'How's Yuy?'

'Oh, Lord. It was in the paper how Relena went on a date with some schmuck from France or somewhere and Heero's all end of the world.'

'I meant about the mail.'

'Oh, that. Yeah. We're doing text messages until we figure out a better replacement for the mail thing. It was a good excuse to upgrade my phone. I dropped the other one while you were gone. Check it.' Maxwell produced the new one from his shirt pocket; Zechs made appropriate noises of approval. 'I know it's a stupid thing to spend your money on, but I'm gadget-happy. Heero just doesn't see the beauty in it. With a phone like this you almost don't need a Gundam.'

'Speaking of Gundams,' Zechs began.

'Hold up. If we're going to talk serious shit, I want a beer.' Maxwell abandoned his stool and opened Zechs' refrigerator. 'You want?'

'Sure.' A bottle of lager arrived at his hand a moment later. Zechs twisted off the tab and clinked it against his tabletop. Maxwell rejoined the table, sitting back, looking at him more soberly now. Not protesting the change in tone. Not forestalling questions.

'You don't have to do the background check,' Zechs said, sideways of what he meant, but feeling he needed to repeat it.

'If I minded, I wouldn't do it. If you don't want me to do it, that's cool, though.'

'It's not that.' It had been on his mind maybe as long ago as the day he'd gone with Neptune to meet Yuy. Definitely since meeting Quatre Winner, who had been ineffably polite, cordially distant, and aggressively insistent on opening his life to their examination. 'I suppose what I mean to ask is-- I—'

'It doesn't have to be elegant. Spit it out. We'll process it together.'

He managed a small smile for that and buried it in his beer. 'Your lives here. The others of you, the ones in Space.'

'Wufei and Quorwa?'

'Quorwa?' he repeated, distracted.

'The Siamese couple. Quatre and Trowa. They've been joined at the dong since 195.'

He had barely seen Barton. He'd assumed nothing, but now it seemed that might have been deliberate. Interesting. 'I just wondered why you and Yuy chose to stay on Earth.'

'You really don't know?' Maxwell tipped his beer back. 'You kind of said something before and I thought maybe you were being a jerk. But you don't know, do you.'

'Know what? I never tried to offend you.'

'No. Sorry. For thinking that.' Maxwell rolled his beer between both palms. 'We're here because they don't let us leave.'

He felt something very still in his stomach. 'Who doesn't let you leave.'

'Interpol. Preventers. The municipality of Brussels. Take your pick.'

'I don't understand--'

'I guess I forgot. You jacked it for Mars, right after the Barton Rebellion.' Maxwell rolled his beer, and set it gently down. 'After it. Heero was stuck in hospital for a while. I made it out, me and Quat and Trowa, and we got rid of the Gundams. But I came back for him while the others beat it for the Cold. Heero was really poorly-- he just needed time, but we weren't sure, not back then. Anyway. There was a lot of attention to the fact that the Gundam Pilots were involved in putting down the Rebellion. It brought up a lot of crap from the war. And there were enough around who knew who we were, it got out. There were a couple of guys from the war who went on air with interviews, and all the sudden there's crowds every day at the hospital, and reporters and shit, and we went from one Preventer standing at the door to a whole phalanx blocking all the exits. Took them about two weeks to arrest us. Saw it coming, but Heero, you know. I couldn't leave him. Knew I'd never get near him again if I left him. So yeah, they took us in. Held us in one of the old asylum centres. They gave us a trial, eventually-- a lot faster than I expected, actually. About nine months.'

'Nine months?' He was shocked. 'Under what charge? How did they hold you that long?'

'There were all kinds of outstanding warrants from the war. They picked a handful. I had a lawyer, even. He was a nice guy, you know. Cared about what happened to us. Anyway. Mostly they wanted the Gundams, but like I said, we'd already got rid of them. And anyway in the end we'd fought on the right side, or the winning side, or whatever you want to call it, so they couldn't pack us off to a max security holding without opening a big fucking backdoor on everyone who'd been given official amnesty after the war. So we agreed we'd stay put. Be watched. No criminal charges, no time in prison. They leave us mostly alone.'

'That doesn't make it right.' As angry as he'd been about the background checks, this had him infuriated. 'They don't have the right to pick and choose who to prosecute—'

'They've got all the right that big guns gives them.'

The knot in his gut clenched tight again. 'I'm sorry.'

'You didn't do it.' Maxwell drank. 'Look. It is what it is. Mostly we live our lives and there's not much stopping us from doing it.'

'I can't believe Yuy agreed to this.' A thought occurred. 'I can't believe Relena did.'

'She's never said it outright, but I have a feeling she's part of why we get as much freedom as we do. I'm not complaining, Zechs. I like what I've got here. I have hope it won't be forever. I miss my friends, I miss Space, but for now, I can live with this.' He winked, though it didn't entirely erase the darkness behind his eyes. 'Compared to that, background check's not so bad.'

That revelation made what he'd really wanted to say all the more pointed. 'Why would you want to... be with... spend---'

'Date. You're looking for the word “date”.'

'Why do you want us to date, Duo. Given everything that's happened.'

'I'm glad you finally got the backbone to ask.' Maxwell finished his beer and put it aside. 'You don't seem to accept this concept, but I think we're not unalike. I also think the war is over and that it doesn't really matter who you were or what you thought you were doing. We all believed in what we were doing, we all questioned the righteousness of what we did. And the world seems to have picked itself up without too much advice from us, so I guess we're all aware of where we stand. I respect your decision to join Preventers and I respect that you've got your shit together. It's no small thing. I think you're kind of funny, mostly not on purpose, I think you're very nicely sincere and smart and your apartment doesn't smell bad, so you're probably a decent housekeeper. And you're interested.'

'Duo—'

'Why don't you tell me now why you don't want us to date.'

Try as he did, he couldn't muster a real reason. 'It just doesn't bother you?' he asked finally.

'No. And you may not have figured this out yet, but it doesn't bother you, either. Or you wouldn't have ever come over the first time I asked you out.'

That seemed a sensible conclusion. 'You talk a good game,' he said.

The corners of Maxwell's eyes crinkled. 'I like to win at everything. Talking, too.'

'I think I give in,' he replied. 'Fold.'

'Atta boy. You might even like it.'

He could only laugh. 'I'll let you know.'

[part 3] [part 5] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]