"Everyone sees what you appear to be; few experience what you really are." - Machiavelli
Against Better Judgement
by D.C. Logan
Airlock Sixteen. Cycle in. Cycle out. Wait for the decompression cycle. Wait for the second relay to click over. Wait for the amber light to bleed over into green. Allow time for the jets to blow the red dust from the suit. Proceed into Airlock Sixteen B and repeat cycle. Wait for the standby tech, a probie with a keeper this shift, to tap twice on the top of his helmet in warning before proceeding to un-dog the heavy links attaching headpiece to suit, and then remove the mechanical gloves from the suit and wave him on to another tech, this one a familiar face. At this late hour, during this shift, after the events of the last cycle, well, he could understand why no one was offering a word in exchange. Business as usual. Just processing another man from one zone of the Project quarters to another.
Shed of the heavy outer mechanical suit, he moved deeper into the complex, following a path so ingrained he could have traced it in his sleep, backwards, on the reverse side of a floating sheet of ice. After the double shift he'd just endured, sleep felt more like a screaming necessity than simply a good idea. Spending his time on Mars as a specialist trainer for the MS pilots who were fabricating the domes on the red planet's surface was enough of a full time job. But behind the scenes, his unlimited access to the facility made him the right man to investigate questionable vendors and labor disputes, which made him an ideal candidate for a special investigator to the general operating division of the terraforming project. It was difficult for him to turn down the opportunity to do some good, to make some small amend for his past wrongdoings, no matter how insignificant or how far from home he might be, even if no one knew for certain who he was here, only suspected. On a colony-planet like Mars where hard and fast rules meant very little to start with, that was more than enough for him.
Zechs swiped his magnetic identification badge through the reader. It bore his face, but yet another alias in a long string of assumed names. Another day, another dispute, yet another meager reason to keep slogging through the grim muck and mire of his life. At least it shortened the monotony somewhat.
He hated Mondays.
He loathed them with a thoroughness and conviction he reserved for little else in his daily life.
Someone on the squad, he forgot who, Billings maybe, used to have an engraved plate sitting on his desk that read: "Monday is for survivors." Wufei had made note of it after one black day in September, and now it had a tendency to appear in all of its vivid glory in his mind's eye after a particularly bad weekend shift. This morning it made perfect sense to him.
All established Preventers agents had desks, and they collected things on them: news clippings, drink containers, useless medals and recognition awards, notes torn from the edges of pages and tacked haphazardly on any vertical or horizontal surface with an inch of available space. The longer agents were active, the more things tended to pile up.
Except for him. He didn't believe in clutter.
Not in his work, not in his home, not in his life.
Wufei had been around long enough to merit not only a desk that he didn't have to share with someone on another shift, but also four semi-private walls and a door he could close to cut down on the usual office noise. The walls were painted in that same institutional, trying-to-look-vaguely professional palette that had long been abused in office buildings and service sectors throughout the EarthSphere--gray, gray, and more gray. His modular desk was more blue-gray than the green-gray of the hall, a color for which he had limited preference.
He also had a plant, courtesy of the previous tenant, that he'd been unsuccessfully trying to kill with neglect for the past year. Someone, he suspected McGruthers on the day shift, kept saving it though--pouring coffee or some other sort of fluid into the dirt on a regular enough basis that the thing survived. It resembled a kind of palm, and had only one shaky surviving tendril that continued to reach towards the top of his ceiling--stretching its way towards escape. The poor thing obviously hadn't a clue what was on the other side of the wall or it wouldn't have tried so hard to get out. Wufei privately thought that his plant, if it had any intellectual ability whatsoever, should be committed; compared to the rest of the building, this was the quiet room, the safe room.
He'd had to work his ass off to earn his desk. Not that he hadn't picked up flack from other agents about his promotion, but he didn't think they knew quite what to make of him. The fact that he was a Gundam pilot during the war slid out after he'd been in active service with Preventers for about a year, and though he'd done nothing to confirm or deny the rumors, the fact that they existed at all was enough to quiet most of the dissenters. He secretly thought that he might have had Duo to either blame or thank for that little slip. The man could be subtle as a shadow in pitch dark one moment, and then blatant as a fart in a room of operatic silence the next. No one ever stole pens off of his desk or borrowed things from his locker though, so he supposed that his current reputation had its advantages.
Wufei eyed the door, wishing he had the energy to get up and shut it, but after the double shift he'd just endured, his body just wasn't as interested as his brain was in gaining a little more quiet. There was always something buzzing, rattling, or ringing at Preventers, especially at the start of the day shift. It was nearing 0500, and the morning was just gearing up. The night crew was winding down, intentionally dragging out paperwork and procedures at the end of their rotation, filling in the time until they could turn over their work cases to their replacements.
Only new recruits jumped on cases at the end of shift. New recruits and himself he supposed. It didn't earn him any favors with his fellow agents, but conforming to standards of the masses held little interest for him anyway. Probably why he'd never been assigned a partner or a regular shift assignment.
He was absolutely certain that Une's staff psychologist had a file six centimeters thick on why it would be a good idea for him to have regular schedule or to train an agent to his mercy, or for him to work at the whim of another if it came to that. Of course, that meant that his caseload was entirely his own. He didn't share files with anyone on the other shifts, and usually could be found working odd hours and holidays to keep active and fill in the gaps of his days.
He didn't have hobbies, he didn't have a job; he had an obsession that ruled every aspect of his life.
He loved his work.
Wufei craned his head around the door jam and checked the official time on the series of 24-hour clocks on the far wall, one for each of the colony cluster points in space and another for each of the key regional time zones on Earth, and wondered bleakly if it should count as Monday or not since he'd now been awake and at his desk since the small hours of Sunday morning.
The work never ended, cases streamed across his desk in a real-time phenomena that mesmerized, though the occasional case still had the power to shock, to still him briefly before he moved on to the next in a long line of horrors and intrigues. Even after five years, he found the pace and breadth of the work Preventers did impressive, and the enormous caseload only continued to grow as more and more of the intra-colony policing that had become a necessity in the wake of the Eve Wars was assumed into their already desk-toppling, mainframe-crashing caseload.
He was getting ready to go home to shower and change, and had already gathered his keys and ID when the mail cart came through the department for the pre-shift drop. He knew that he shouldn't have stayed. He knew that he should have run off when he saw it coming, but that's not the way he did things and it was far too late for him to change his habits at this point in his life. So, like the fool Duo claimed him to be at times, he actually walked over to Chevie and asked for his mail. Chevie teased him good-naturedly about the hours he'd been putting in on his current case, and Wufei let him, enjoying and encouraging the sense of camaraderie. He usually got along better with the staffers than with most of the agents anyway. Agents were a competitive lot, and he apparently brought out the worst in them, but he enjoyed his irreverent and intermittent verbal sparring with Chevie, and Chevie thrived on the attention it drew to him. People noted who Wufei paid attention to--which was not always a good thing, but Chevie didn't seem to mind courting danger and was better at most at deflecting it into something harmless. Wufei usually enjoyed talking with him as the mail cart passed through on its regular circular rounds. Usually.
In Chevie's defense, no one had warned him about the envelopes--an oversight on someone-who-was-soon-to-be-reprimanded's part. Wufei leaned back against his office partition wall and refused to accept it from his hand, as Chevie had already contaminated it--Chevie, and the mail sorter, and Kris in distributing, and who knew who else. So instead Wufei asked him to set it on a tray, which he in turn moved to his desk, and then he called Une, at home; she'd made him promise that he would if he received another one. Chevie watched in goggle-eyed shock and awe that Wufei dared to call their boss at home at that unholy hour of the morning.
Predictably enough, Une was already awake and alert, and she answered her phone on the second tone, though her face hardened and fell when she saw it was him. "Another letter?"
"Yes." He said nothing else, just indicated the tray sitting in front of him.
"I'll be there in twenty."
"I'll be here."
"And Chang?" She paused, ensuring that sure she had his undivided attention. "This changes things."
"I understand," he said, and he did. This wasn't the first such instance, and though he'd had enough people threaten him throughout his career that it had ceased to bother him overly much, Une took her job seriously. A threat to one of her agents was a personal affront to her.
He was more of a fatalist--his death would happen when it happened--not a moment sooner or later than that. She blamed his religion and insisted on exploring each and every incidence to the full extent of her investigative resources. He thought it a shameless waste of taxpayer money, but she was the boss and he loved his job.
He invited a puzzled Chevie to sit with him until Une arrived. That letter was officially evidence now, and if he was its intended target, he had no business being alone in the room with it. A witness wouldn't hurt.
One cup of coffee, delivered by a floating intern, a few curious glances by passers by, and fifteen minutes later, Une stalked in and scared Chevie off. "I called in the evidence team and Chandler. I assume that you want to be in the room when they open this one."
"Yes." He was more aware and slightly wired now--amazing what a little adrenaline could do for him in the wake of a sleepless night. When he crashed after this, he'd crash hard, but with the less than timely arrival of his little gift, that happy event could easily be hours from now.
Two hours later, after the second death threat was revealed (to no one's surprise including his own), he felt that it was time for him to start his shift again. Une sent him into her office instead, wandered in a few minutes after him, and shut the door behind her. She appeared to be none the worse for wear for shifting her schedule forward three hours. Then again, Une took military preparedness to a whole new level. She made him feel inadequate, an effect she seemed to have on most people. Her desk was, as always, immaculate, set with only the bare essentials--a vid phone, a task light, and a framed portrait of Khushrenada set at an exact angle on the far corner, no papers, no clutter, not a speck of dust on the lacquered surface. This morning her mail was precisely aligned on the edge of her desk, apparently even Chevie was intimidated enough by his surroundings to take the time to set her mail perfectly along the desktop edge.
That was the sort of control she exacted over all of her agents. The few who didn't thrive under it quickly left for other divisions farther out from under her direct control.
She had his undivided attention.
"Chandler wants to run your latest note past a colleague over at our Bay Street office--someone with experience in profiling and handwriting analysis." She stared directly at Wufei, and he braced himself for the follow-up. She always delivered good news before the bad, softening her victim before delivering her thrust. He wasn't disappointed. "And as of now, you're on twelve-hour call-ins. If another one of those notes arrives at the station, you're getting a watcher on your apartment as well."
He could tell that arguing wasn't going to get him anywhere, and he tipped his head in agreement. Call-ins he could cope with, and with any luck it wouldn't escalate to anything more than that. Of course, any luck wasn't his luck. His luck, to put it in Maxwell's vernacular, universally sucked.
Speaking of the devil, Duo was waiting for him at the end of the hallway, casually leaning against the end of a bank of vending machines. Wufei did his level best to forestall the lecture he knew was coming, and held up a hand to his friend as he approached him. "It was nothing."
Duo nodded towards Une's office, "That doesn't look like 'nothing' to me, but if you say so..." Duo shrugged, easily anticipating the next question, "Simmons knew where you were. I asked her since she always seems to know where to find you." Duo slanted a look at him through his bangs. "I think she likes you. Anyway, Quatre and Trowa are both Earthside this weekend and want to get together with everyone." Duo leaned against the wall, reading Wufei's body language as he stalked back and forth in the narrow hallway. "I said that I'd find you and tell you in person."
That stopped his pacing rather abruptly. "You did?"
"Yeah. Our schedules don't collide all that often with me doing the work with Sweepers, and Heero consulting, and you with Preventers, and Trowa and Quatre out in the colonies most of the time..."
Wufei examined Duo for any signs of weakness or hesitation, expecting to find none and coming away unsurprised. "Fine. Where and when?"
The brightness returned to Duo's expression, pleased at getting exactly what he'd come for. "At the State Regency, since that's where Quatre's staying. Dinner reservation is under Yuy, and time is whenever you get off of your shift. We've got a private room starting at 20:00, so you can come as you are."
Wufei sighed as his quiet plans for the night dissolved. "Fine, fine, I'll be there."
"Someone's been trying to kill you?" Quatre acted curious, but not surprised at this news.
Wufei glared at Duo for exposing that tidbit of information to the rest of the group, as he would have preferred to not have the conversation focus on him.
"Well, we know for a fact that it's not the first time."
Had Trowa just made a joke? Apparently so if Duo's reaction was anything to gauge results by.
Trowa toasted Duo, raising his glass and chiming the two lightly against each other. "You're losing your sense of humor."
"What sense of humor?"
"My point that round."
Wufei pointed to Duo. "I can claim sleep deprivation. I haven't a clue what his excuse is."
Quatre's eyes gleamed at the general chaos and he raised his glass in a return of Trowa's toast. "Gundam pilots, can't live with them, and can't kill them off."
"Amen to that," Duo chimed in.
"It's nothing new. The death threats, I mean." Wufei sat back and enjoyed the brief moment of organized mayhem with his four good friends, feeling relaxed for the first time in weeks.
Trowa sat down his glass and leaned back in his chair, studying Wufei carefully before offering his personal opinion on the subject. "I'm inclined to agree with you. After all, you're an ex-Gundam pilot, Une's favorite pet Preventer, you've dealt with similar threats as part and parcel of your regular job for years now, and with the level of training you've received, both here and colony-side, there isn't much on an individual-case basis that you shouldn't be able to handle." He nodded. "Une's over reacting." He leaned over and clinked his glass against Wufei's. "Besides, I rather think she likes you."
Wufei gave him an exasperated look, but otherwise didn't respond to that comment.
"Why not? She's not that much older than you are, and it's not like you're going to be a Preventer forever, right?"
Duo's head lifted, zeroing in and sensing prey. "Wufei's got a girlfriend?"
"I have no such thing, Maxwell," he snapped, blunt and churlish.
Duo grinned broadly. "I think he's protesting a bit overmuch, don't you?" He scanned the rest of the table, sensing an ally and settling on Trowa, since he was the one who had initiated the conversation.
"So Wufei's seeing someone? Finally? After all these years of living alone? And he didn't see fit to tell us who the lucky girl is?"
"No, I'm not, no more than you are. Bachelors to the bitter end, isn't that what you told me, Maxwell?"
Duo slid his glance to the side, nearly too quick for Wufei to notice, "Yeah, well, you still seem lonely to me. At least the rest of us get to see each other on a semi-regular basis. We only get to check in and verify that you're still breathing, what? A few times a year? Every other month at best? All you do is live vicariously through your damn job. When's the last time you took a vacation? Did something that wasn't related to Preventers, huh?" Duo was growing angry, passionate on his good friend's behalf.
It quite stunned Wufei into revealing half-truths he'd thought well buried. "How could I ever ask someone to make an emotional attachment to a guy who's going about daily trying to get himself killed?"
That quite ended the polite chitchat over dinner. Wufei, frustrated with the turn of events, pushed his drink out of the way and his chair back from the table, paused, and thought better of leaving. He looked around the table, meeting everyone's eyes in turn. "Listen, can we please just not discuss death threats, Preventers business, or other various and sundry details of my personal life tonight?"
Quatre, ever the diplomat, surveyed the table once for dissenters before raising his glass in surrender. "So, I hear the colony trade negotiations are going well..."
Wufei gave a wary look in Duo's direction, still rattled by both his confession and Duo's concern on his behalf, but settled back at the table, took his drink back into hand, and cautiously waded back into the conversation once more. Dinner after that was a quieter affair though, and Wufei left early, claiming an early shift at the office the next morning. The remaining four stayed until late, catching up on three months' worth of news.
Duo nudged at Heero's arm on the walk back to his apartment. "It was good seeing the guys again. Quatre and Trowa seem to be doing okay."
Heero nodded, waiting for Duo to get to the point.
"I'm worried about Wufei though. It's not a good thing for him to not have anyone close, you know? Especially with the work he does."
"He slept on my couch for a night just last month."
Duo chuckled softly in reply, playing along. "You know what I mean. He needs someone. He spends too much time on his own. He did during the wars too, and look where that got him." They walked on in silence for another block, lost in memories better forgotten as they approached Heero's apartment building. "I'm just saying, I think we should make a point to keep an eye on him until either he finds someone to do it for him, or this stalker thing blows over."
"Now can we go upstairs and celebrate the fact that you're here for three more days before you have to take off again?"
"I think that can be arranged..."
The message light was blinking, the important one. Duo noticed it just as the apartment door closed and he winced at the sight of it. "Right, it figures. I drag myself all the way across the colonies and down to Earth and guess what? Another one of your uber-secret consulting jobs comes in just as I get here." Duo glared at the blinking amber light, daring it to do its worst. "Fine. I'll go make myself scarce for a while, while you," he waved a hand at Heero, irritation making itself known, "do whatever it is that you do now. Okay?"
Heero leaned in close, trapping Duo between the wall and his chest, and slid his arms up the wall and around the back of Duo's head to hold him steady. "Okay. Fine." He punctuated his words with carefully selected targets on Duo's face, kissing him apologetically. "I'll do just that."
Duo instantly relaxed. "Ah, doing this now is good." He then began an onslaught of his own, slowly twining his leg between Heero's, and in a sudden move, dropped both of them to the carpet in the hall, continuing where Heero had left off. "I like now very much."
Heero nipped at Duo's lower lip, reached up a finger and stroked it gently across his partner's mouth in apology as he glanced up at the annoyance of the light. "How about later, if I promise to make it," he lifted himself, pushing his pelvis firmly against Duo's, and Duo froze, "memorable."
Duo sighed, collapsing bonelessly along his partner. "Tease. Fine, fine, torture me endlessly and then go talk on the vidphone with angry computer geeks." He sighed theatrically, rolling off of Heero and closing his eyes. "Leave me here on the hall carpet to rest and collect my strength for later."
Heero laughed. "You'll need it. I guarantee it."
Heero clicked though his security protocols and passwords before triggering the vidphone connection, trusting that the link would connect to a live person without interruption despite the late hour.
She didn't disappoint him. The screen cleared at the other end with the barely perceptible triple blip of a top-level security field before revealing the too-close face and organized desk of the head of ESUN Preventers. She honored him with a brief professional nod. "Busy?"
"Duo's here, but he needs to go out to X-18999 with Quatre sometime in the next few days or so. So, no, not really." Heero backed away to a much more comfortable distance from the monitor and exchanged a familiar nod with his ex-superior officer.
"How would you like another assignment?"
"Is this one I can or cannot mention to my partner?"
"That would depend." She gave him a thoughtful look for a few moments. "I don't suppose that there's any chance that I could persuade you to return to active duties with Preventers for the purpose of a special assignment?"
"Active duty?" He pretended to consider the option for the briefest of moments. "Duo would kill me. Or force me to sleep on the sofa of death for weeks."
Duo's sense of humor must be rubbing off. Une swore that she recognized that brand as vintage Maxwell, circa AC 196.
Heero pretended to consider the sofa torture option for a moment more. "Sorry Commander, I don't think so."
"Well, it was worth a try." Heero watched as she sat back in her chair, gave him one more considering look, and then opened the negotiation process. "I need you to find someone for me."
Heero changed his attitude from casual discussion to all business in one blink to the next, pulling up a cryptographic document file and preparing to log notes. "Oh?"
"Your friend, Chang, has landed himself in a bit of a mess, and I need someone to help get him out of it and keep his head above water while doing so."
Heero paused with his fingers on his computer. "Tall order; who am I looking for and where?"
She suppressed a bit of a smile. "No details; straight to business. I do so like doing business with you." Une rustled her papers in an uncharacteristic bid for a moment to collect her thoughts before proceeding. "Duo doesn't hear of this until after Chang gets introduced to his new partner, agreed?"
Heero raised an eyebrow, barely visible under the cascade of untidy bangs across his forehead. "You need to ask?" He shrugged, neither confirming nor denying Une's request, which was, as she knew, as good as she could hope to expect. There was a pause, then a blink as that information hit home. "You're assigning Wufei a partner?"
Une maintained her closed expression. "I am, yes."
Heero took an additional moment for his mind to process that concept, then another to relish both the idea, and that he was privy to the knowledge prior to both Wufei and Duo. "So, does this walking corpse have a name?"
Une considered, definitely the sense of humor was rubbing off from somewhere. "I'm trying to find Zechs Merquise."
Heero's fingers stilled on his keyboard. "That... changes things."
She sighed and settled deeply into the cushioned back of her chair, pushed her file away from her monitor. "Does it have to?"
Heero tapped his fingers along the surface of his desk. "And if he prefers to not be found?"
"Find him. Wherever he is, he must have left some clues that you, of all people, can follow and use to track him down. No one disappears completely. He has to be out there somewhere."
Heero nodded, a tight admission of agreement to her terms. "I'm assuming that your usual lengthy turnaround times are in place?"
"You wish. Une out." The connection clicked and the screen faded back into darkness.
"Well, that was unexpected." Heero leaned back in his office chair, reached over to a dedicated terminal and flipped a series of switches, moving it over to active status as he started the first step of what promised to be a long and arduous search process.
Wufei pushed his pending case file to the side, gave a disinterested glance at his cold coffee, and considered the past month.
He'd had a relatively quiet time after the last threatening letter. His active cases had stalled, an inactive one had been reopened in response to a related crime elsewhere in the system, and he'd spent part of one weekend catching up with the rest of the agents on his old shift rotation.
He did his best to maintain email or vid contact with Duo and Trowa on a regular basis--at least once a week or so. Most of what went on in Quatre and Heero's lives he found out through them anyway. Still, Wufei did his best to keep current on their whereabouts and traditionally visited the rest of the pilots in person at the spring and winter holidays. Duo had started that tradition, and he supposed that all five of them had been so desperate for any sense of normalcy moving forward that each had immediately made it a priority. The only reasonable excuse for missing holidays with the guys was an unexpected death—specifically, your own. Trowa had forgotten one year, and the rest of them had spent the holiday weekend tracking him down. The look of shocked surprise on his face remained one of Wufei's favorite memories. Duo's ass-ripping lecture had ensured that none of them had missed a gathering since.
Yes, work as an active agent for five years had colored his language skills somewhat. Besides, that's precisely what it had been. Duo hadn't touched him, but he didn't have to. Wufei had never seen Trowa afraid of anything before, but he'd cowered in front of Duo like a little boy. It simply wasn't wise to disappoint Duo, and they'd all taken the lesson to heart.
Seeing his friends in person was a few times a year treat at best though, and most of the people he could ask favors of wore badges and dressed in Preventer colors. They were a good group of people, but he'd always had difficulty relying on others, and that, consciously or unconsciously, limited his attachments at work. He had colleagues and acquaintances; but the few Wufei could call as friends could be counted comfortably on his fingers.
He didn't pay much attention to the calendar except for those few reserved dates, which explained why, a month later when the staff shift pitched in and took him out for dinner at one of the local bars for his five-year anniversary, it came as a complete surprise. They impounded his car, as practical jokes were a standard part of the hazing ceremony, but they didn't venture more than a token obeisance to the rules in his case. Then they pulled him en masse from his desk, shoved him in the back seat of a squad car, and took him to Pearly's to celebrate the fact that he'd survived all those years on the active force.
Predictably enough, immediately after the main course was served, an emergency call came through, and more than half of them had to leave. Une and a few agents from the prior shift came by to fill in the empty seats, and they closed the place down afterward. It wasn't pretty, and although the more lurid details escaped him, he remembered that the evening involved the consumption of more alcohol than he'd a polite tolerance for.
He hadn't felt up to driving home after that as he vaguely recalled some sort of inventive nonsense about the guest of honor not being allowed to ignore a round purchased in his honor. They'd tried very hard to get him drunk, and had mostly succeeded. He didn't have a clue what the blue things had been, but he'd pushed as many of them as possible onto his tablemates.
He obviously hadn't passed enough of them down the line.
An hour later, while leaning heavily against the countertop in his apartment, he discovered that he'd brought a third of the distinctive envelopes in with his regular mail. It was a very efficient sobering device, and he made the inevitable call to Une again. She was already home, and looked, if possible, even more sober and unsettled than he did when he delivered the news to her.
She watched him from her vidphone in her kitchen, a resigned expression on her face, appearing oddly out of place wearing her casual clothes. She made the appropriate disconcerted noises, and relayed the information to the appropriate channels, and told him to stay where he was until someone came over from HQ to relieve him of his burden.
"Do you have a place you can stay until we have someone come over to upgrade the security system on your apartment?"
"Unless Heero's in town instead of out on one of his consulting jobs, no, not really. But a quick and painless death is preferable to sleeping on his sofa."
Une just stared at him with steady eyes and held her comment.
"Okay, point taken. I'll give him a call and see if he's around."
Une waited for the line to clear before walking away from the vidphone and winding her way back through the hallway to her home office, finding comfort in the shallow darkness. Wufei's stalker was getting closer, and now with access to his home location as well as his office... She sat at her desk and turned on the reading lamp, considering her options for a moment. Her secure files were stored behind a ten-key combination only three people in the EarthSphere had access to, and she thanked whatever insight had led her to store this particular file at home, rather than in her office safe.
Zechs Merquise. No matter what name he was using at the moment, he really wasn't all that good at hiding. He was apparently relying on physical distance more than finesse to maintain his distance between Preventers and whatever job, she checked the file, jobs, he was doing at the moment. Noin had returned without him years ago, saying only that their goals had changed, and when pressed, that Zechs was more interested in his self-imposed exile than in seeking a new start for himself. After a year of watching the man she loved work himself to the bone in a class-four mobile suit labor job with no ambition to move on to anything better, and no desire to seek help for what Noin considered post-war stress, she'd left for Earth, hoping that that, at least, would jolt some sense into him.
Une paged through the rest of Heero's report. Unlike his usual efficient, thorough (and thick) reading, this dossier was disturbingly thin for such a prominent player in the EarthSphere. Over the last five years, he'd apparently arrived on Mars, done his preliminary stint to organize some of the development work for the terraforming project at his sister's request, and then quietly moved into a mundane job. Eventually, finding a position for himself where he could work daily to implement a piece of his sister's master plan.
Based on Heero's report, it appeared that he had taken the opportunity to move to the other side of the complex shortly after Noin had left for Earth, and had legally changed his name at that point. Reason given--she paged through the report again to verify--continual problems in the post-war world. The name change was granted, and he resumed similar work, albeit on the other side of the planet-colony, where few, if any, would presumably know him.
"Hiding from Noin, weren't you." She shook her head. She had to give him credit for that, his plan, while simple, had worked very well. He hadn't even had to change much about his life in order to do it.
Still... he'd gone through a great deal of trouble to stay intentionally lost. Did she have any right to bring him back? Well, the right, certainly. He was still an agent, and though not technically an active one, he'd never rescinded his status. She could recall him to service at any time of her choosing if the situation warranted it. Or hell, even if she wanted to order him to follow her around in order to tie her bootlaces, if she cared to be that petty about it.
She reached out and stroked her finger along the side of the frame that never left her desk, here or at the office, tilting the picture to face her a little more in the soft light. "What would you do? What would your decision be if you were sitting in this chair instead of me? If your agent was in danger, and you suspected that it might just be someone inside, and you had no one else. Would you do that? Would you bring him all the way back here after it seems he's finally found some peace for what he's done?"
She closed the file and stared fondly at the image of Treize, her favorite ghost forever young and handsome in his mahogany frame; considered all of her other options, found none, and spoke to the wisdom he whispered in her mind. "I hope you know what you're doing."
She sighed deeply, and calculated the time differential between her home office and Mars. "Regrets are for the weak." With one last look at the portrait, she opened the file, found the appropriate number, and began the long connection process.
Mars Research Mining Station X4274, Pavilion IV, Apartment 16
Zechs scrubbed his wet hair back from his face with a towel and left the damp mass slung absently over his shoulders as he walked past the tiny communications alcove in his apartment. A red indicator light where there shouldn't have been one swiveled and redirected his attention from food. He had an incoming message on his vid--which was impossible. No one had that number; it was as unlisted as he could arrange for it to be, and he never accepted outside calls.
Five minutes later he found himself sitting in fragile shock at his desk. So much for all of his carefully planned solitude.
Damn. He'd thought he'd done a better job of hiding his existence on this red rock; he'd thought she'd forgotten about him, but he was wrong, very wrong. The planetary interference created heavy static that blurred and twisted her image, but his second-hand machine had faithfully recorded her message.
Une was revoking his leave of absence from Preventers and wanted him back on Earth. Now. The question presently running through his mind was... why?
He was going to burn Heero's sofa.
Douse it in petrol and light it.
No. Better. Rebuild Nataku and stomp it into matchsticks--that would be infinitely more satisfying.
Thank God it had been only the one night. Two and he'd have been in a wheelchair for a month, three and he'd be crippled for life. As it was, he could barely function. It was a miracle that he'd managed to get dressed that morning.
Beyond tired and sorely missing each and every hour of his much-needed sleep, Wufei reached over to snag a pile of notes from the corner of his desk. Doing so shifted the stack of files, which tipped the lamp. In his desperate reach to save both, he managed to slosh his warm cup of coffee against his chest.
He sat there and cursed quietly to himself. Mondays. Hell. Why did Duo's god of bad luck always attack him on Mondays?
After setting down the cup, he scrubbed ineffectually at the spreading stain, but only managed to worsen it with his efforts. He glanced at the closed door to his office, shut the blinds over the glass to limit the risk of exposure, and unbuttoned his uniform to assess the damage, which was extensive. Well, he had a spare shirt in his locker downstairs; he'd just have to give in to the inevitable and go change into the fresh one. If only he'd elected to have tea instead of coffee earlier this morning. Tea wouldn't have stained as badly as Preventers high-octane brew. Preventers coffee was legendary.
'If only' wasn't getting his shirt changed though, and he was just pushing his chair back from his desk when the door opened.
Only Une went through doors without advanced warning. She'd earned that privilege a thousand times over at this point in her career, and no one ever disputed it. She took in his disarray, noted his frantic buttoning, and pursed her lips in mild disapproval. He had a reputation to maintain after all, one that didn't include taking off his clothes in the relative privacy of his half-glassed-in office.
"Chang? A moment of your time please?" It wasn't really a polite request when it was Une doing the questioning. He glanced down at his own personal embarrassment, but she didn't offer to let him change first, so he re-buttoned his clothes and dutifully trailed through the maze of office cubicles in her wake. No snickers followed his path despite the sorry state of his uniform. When Une required use of her own office to deliver news, that news was rarely of the positive variety. Agents supported each other in these small ways--evidence of their solidarity in the wake of adversity. That and the fact that any bad news was likely to be taken out on prior aggressors. Wise agents knew when to hold their comments.
After that, things became a little blurry in his memory for a while. He remembered walking away from his desk and following her into her lair, he also vaguely recalled leaving her office and returning to the security of his own. It wasn't until the end of the day when he was relaxing at home over a reheated meal that his brain started to function again--well and truly short-circuited by Une's news.
She was assigning him a partner.
After five years...
That was the real question. Did it have anything to do with his record in her service and in Preventers so far? Had he been lax in some regard? Had something emerged during his last psychiatric review that had triggered this action? It made no sense, and he was wary of decisions made by a logic he couldn't comprehend.
An agent assigned to watch his apartment he could understand; that made sense. Reassigning his shift so he spent more time with the fraud or investigation teams instead of working independently on cases, he could see that too. But a partner? Other than his brief training period with Sally Po, he had never worked closely with anyone. Okay, well, not for lack of trying, but he seemed to have, in the words of the professional analysts in charge of evaluating the Preventer staff, 'issues' with most of his other agents.
Une hadn't been all that forthcoming with information about this other mystery agent either. Male, yes, and apparently something of a hotshot mobile suit pilot and decorated soldier before the Mariemaia Incident brought about demilitarization of the EarthSphere forces. She didn't volunteer any specific details about how she expected him to work with the department though. Either she intended Wufei to bring this new agent into alignment with her idea of what an agent should be, or, more disturbingly, this man had been assigned here to influence him.
This new man would be working counterterrorism and information tracking along with the local division. Terrorist activity was still a viable enough threat that it warranted Une's personal attention and direction. Wufei had done his best so far during his five years of service not to disappoint, and had been compensated with work he found interesting and compelling--and that let him use his otherwise questionable talent set. He'd also worked alone up until now, both by choice and convenience of roster. He couldn't help but wonder what had changed her mind, since Preventers had other single agents as well as the more usual pairs.
The problem was that he liked working alone, and, after considering her proposition for a while, he started to wonder if this was perhaps a test to see if he could be paired with a compatible agent. Still, this was Une asking, and there was no option except for to agree to try, and he'd been informed that his new partner was due to transfer down to Earth sometime within the next seventy-two hours.
So... he was predictable.
She knew he wouldn't argue with her decision. He wondered who else knew about this. That transfer order had to have been set in place weeks prior if this was another Preventer agent moving into her territory. Still, if anyone could pull rank in this organization, Une could, as only the EarthSphere council outranked her authority. She could get her hands on any agent she wanted, the question was, who had she found for this assignment? He'd have to ask Heero or Trowa if they'd heard anything from their contacts within Preventers. Okay, that might be a long shot, but worth a try, still he'd find out for himself who his partner was within the next three days.
He dumped the remainder of his meal in the trash, his appetite well and truly gone. Ruined by the unexpected news.
Zechs had the remains of a ration bar in his pocket, a promise of an interesting job, and a transit flight that had been bumped twice and delayed for nearly twenty-four hours. He wanted a shower, a drink, and ten hours of uninterrupted sleep badly enough to sell body or soul for any of the three. If Une had her way, she'd have both--she'd already contracted for the body, the soul was sure to follow, and he was delivering both parts of the deal directly to her doorstep.
He was heading home. Well... sort of. He didn't rightly consider that he had any place that fit that title any longer, but he'd been born on Earth, raised there, and had managed to spend most of his adult life somewhere on its surface, so he supposed that counted for something. Home, and yet not home at all. He'd traveled all this distance for what reason?
He hadn't been exactly happy with his life on the red rock that had been his self-imposed exile for far too many years, but she'd crooked her little finger and he'd come running right back into the Preventers' fold. He had no willpower. None at all. It had been the same around Treize; whatever Treize asked of him, he did. Now she had essentially taken over Treize's place in his life. He'd thought himself free of her influence, but here he was. She'd said something about needing someone capable of keeping up with her current favorite, since apparently her top investigator was involved in some sort of extracurricular activities, and to date, none of her stellar agents had managed to keep up with her pride and joy. Well, they had, briefly, but apparently, he was quite adept at dodging them or intimidating them. So she was planning on reactivating his status as agent, and throwing him to her pet wolf. More than that, she'd refused to disclose.
Welcome home, Merquise.
Back to EarthSphere Preventers. ESP. He'd thought they would have come up with a better acronym by now. Some of the press releases he'd read from Mars were downright hilarious. He sighed, rested his head against the headrest in his too-small shuttle seat, and briefly closed his eyes. Hell, with his luck, his partner would turn out to be an insufferable prick that was impossible to work with. With his luck... All he wanted was to find someone he could go have a drink with after a bad day at work, talk about something other than the labor problems on Mars, and not have to threaten or intimidate into working a regular day--was that too much to ask for?
Ah, Zechs, get used to disappointment old man, you're heading to Earth and placing yourself at Une's mercy. No good can come of this.
Moreover, she'd given him some advanced warning, how unlike her. She must have mellowed some in the aftermath of the wars. Oddly enough, Treize's death, as much as it pained him personally, may have been the best thing for her. Treize had confided in him a worry that she might lose her identity within his own, and had asked Zechs to look after her... yet another of Treize's plans that he'd failed to follow--some comrade he'd turned out to be. Still, she was apparently thriving in her role as figurehead for ESP, and retained enough authority to hire him back on her staff, sight unseen, even after a long five years. He'd found his transfer papers, tickets, and re-list forms in his mail slot within three days of that one brief call, crawling with static and interference. She'd gone out of her way to help him, as he'd done for her in the past.
Une had included directions on how to get to her office, and, given his new status as relisted agent, had offered to send a trainee down to the local port station to meet his flight and give him a ride into HQ, an offer he'd gladly accepted. The thought of navigating his way through an unfamiliar transit system after his long trip in from the outer limits was daunting; he had no problem accepting honest help when it was offered.
He didn't expect to see this particular man waiting at the station for him though. The agent wearing the Preventers jacket was leaning casually against a support pole and looking over the passengers as they filed off the local shuttle. He hadn't changed much over the past years. He was a little taller maybe, but he still had that 'keep away' attitude that surrounded him during the wars and held the entire world at bay--the entire world with the exception of his sister at least, who'd found Heero's behavior fascinating. Even through the windows of the shuttle, he could see people giving his position a wide berth as they diverged around him.
Zechs approached him cautiously and could see him become defensive, climbing up on his toes and getting ready to move if necessary. He kept his voice low and the tone welcoming. "Yuy? I wasn't expecting to see you."
Heero allowed a slow small smile to creep to the surface of his face as his body relaxed with confirmed recognition. "Merquise. Welcome back to Earth."
The greeting appeared to be genuine. God, a familiar face, what an incredible gift he was. "Thank you."
"Une was going to send Richards down here to pick you up, but I thought you might appreciate someone you'd met before."
Zechs' luck was apparently changing for the better already. "You have no idea, Yuy." He slung his bag over his shoulder, but Heero hesitated.
"Where are your other bags?"
"I travel light. Anything else I need can be shipped later." Most of the things he owned had been worth more in trade on Mars, as most of his personal effects were still in storage here on Earth. He didn't have much else worth bringing with him aside from some clothes, a few mementos, and a book or two.
"Car's over this way then."
The drive was uneventful. Heero volunteered little that was personal, but casually informed Zechs that he had started a freelance consulting business that had resulted in a more or less permanent retainer to Preventers for his computer skills. He gave him a brief tour through the city during the drive to the headquarters building. The roads started out as a basic grid layout with regular blocks, but skewed dramatically into oblique angles and random alleys when the car passed over into the older part of the city. Architecture was diverse and styles were random in their distribution; buildings crowded close to the street, and pocket-sized gardens provided the occasional surprising flash of color as they drove by. It reminded Zechs of parts of old Sanq, and he fought down a feeling that was vaguely nostalgic.
"You have a place to stay tonight, Merquise?"
Zechs turned to give Yuy a curious look. He was watching out for him, why? He tried for a neutral response, unsure of the motives behind his offer. "That would depend on whether or not Une has assigned a desk to me yet, and whether it's long enough for me to sleep on or under."
Heero shot Zechs an unreadable glance before arching back in his seat and reaching deep into his pocket to retrieve a card, which he summarily handed over to his passenger. "If you get stuck, give me a call. My apartment came with a sofa that's older than I am that will teach your back to crave death, but it's yours for the night if you need it."
Zechs pretended to read the card while he considered Heero's motives. The offer seemed genuine. Something must have happened to Heero after the wars, something to shift his focus beyond the driven, serious soldier he'd been before into someone more approachable and human. He was reaching out others now, and he wore his new persona well. Zechs quietly envied him, and whatever had happened in his life to change him. Lucky bastard. "Thanks, Yuy." He flipped the card over and tucked it securely in his pocket.
Heero left the car in the no parking zone and escorted Zechs past the two security checkpoints and to the reception area outside of Une's office where he abandoned him to the tender mercies of Une's secretary--a dour woman with a severe twist of gray hair and a red pen clenched between her teeth. She was unfazed by his appearance, and duly noted on her register when he'd arrived. If she notified Une that he was there, it was via means that Zechs couldn't discern. He waited, patiently, and fought against the fatigue that was creeping over his shoulders and quickly settling into his chest.
He lost track of time. It might have been a few minutes or could have been hours before he was called. "Merquise." The tone of voice was neutral, cool, professional, and very familiar.
He turned and saw her standing in the doorway. Une looked accomplished and in control. He tried on a careful expression of goodwill and intentionally used the title he'd used last: "Lady."
"Commander now," she corrected without ire. Something changed in her face once she recognized the depth of his fatigue, and her mask slipped a little with the realization of how far he'd come to place himself in front of her.
On closer observation, she seemed to be mildly stressed and harried, but... oddly content. Apparently she'd found a position that agreed with her. He stood, walked over to her, and gave her a tired but genuine smile. "Commander." He accepted her hand.
"Welcome back to Earth, Merquise, it's been a long time. It's a pleasure to see you again."
He nodded and released her grip, refusing further comment until he had more details on his new assignment, knowing her far too well. "You brought me an awful long way for polite greetings, Commander."
"So I did. Have a seat," she said, waving at the one opposite her desk. "This will take some time to explain."
His new partner was in that room, separated from him by only eight feet of carpet, an artificial plant that was supposed to mimic a ficus, and Une's formidable solid steel door... and he was curious, nearly insatiably so. It wasn't one of his favorite personality traits, and he was careful to keep it under control and leashed at all times. But it was wiggling loose at the moment, and he cautioned himself to be careful what he wished for.
"Agent Chang?" Une's secretary had spoken; it wasn't really a question. "You may go in now."
He thanked her while stifling the urge to call her Renfield, Duo's pet name for her, knocked once, and pushed the door open.
He wasn't expecting his partner to be anyone that he recognized, and it was that, more than anything else, that halted him on the threshold of Une's office.
Zechs Merquise, it had to be. No one else could carry off those looks with that sort of casual acceptance and grace. He rose politely from his chair when he saw Wufei standing in the doorway, and Wufei got the distinct impression that he would have performed the same action if he'd been on the maintenance crew--ingrained courtesy, what a rarity.
Une waved him into her den. "Shut the door, Chang, and have a seat."
So, this was his sentence then.
Or his penance.
He was slowly getting better at reading her moods, but this time she wasn't wearing one that he recognized. He stood, facing Zechs, stunned beyond words while Une waited patiently for him to come to his senses. Zechs resumed his seat as Wufei sank into his own--both men automatically turning to face Une; Wufei watched Une, more to avoid staring dumbstruck at Zechs than in any acknowledgement of her rank. He didn't want to consider his motivations for doing so. Nor did he want to consider the way his brain seemed to be short-circuiting at the moment.
"Agent Chang? Merquise has been re-activated as an agent within the Preventer forces and will be listed as your duty partner. I'm assigning him to regular staff with the same specialized duties as yourself. He will be expected to adjust to your current shift and rotation schedules." She paused to shuffle papers in a thick personnel file. "Please take him down to get his identification processed and uniform and locker assignments. Show him around, introduce him to the rest of the squad, and arrange transport for him to and from his hotel until the motor pool can locate a car for him and we decide which residential unit to station him in permanently. Any questions?"
Questions? Wufei was supposed to have questions?
She stood. "You are dismissed gentlemen." Then she smiled at Wufei, a considering, thoughtful and mildly evil expression, and he started to worry about exactly what it was he'd just agreed to do. He'd never seen her smile like that before. Ever.
Wufei stood uncertainly at her dismissal. He could only assume that Zechs was waiting for him to take the initiative and escort him from the room and both he and Une waited patiently while Wufei collected his scattered thoughts. He held out his hand to his new partner. "Welcome to Preventers, Merquise." He worked at keeping his voice low and even.
Zechs was going for cautious acceptance as well. "It's a pleasure to be here." His fingers, when he reached out and met Wufei's were cool, his touch light with the calluses of physical labor. "I'm looking forward to working with you again."
That took Wufei by surprise. Had they ever? However briefly? He nodded at his new partner and glanced over at Une from the edge of his peripheral vision. She seemed satisfied, so he faced Zechs again. He hated looking up at people, but he'd been getting better at coping with it. A good thing in this case, as his new partner topped him by far more than a few centimeters. Wufei resisted the urge to stare, but got a general impression of tiredness nonetheless.
"Identification first then, if you'll follow me?" It wasn't really a question, but Zechs trailed him from her office without answer or hesitation, willing at the moment to be led by Wufei's whims though the rabbit warren that was Preventers HQ in this city.
They walked though the twisting halls without talking, as Wufei hadn't the first clue what to say to him. Only one thought retraced a frantic path around in his brain: Zechs was his partner? He satisfied his internal question by watching him carefully as he maintained his distance in his peripheral vision. He didn't want this, he didn't like this, but if this endeavor was going to fail, it wouldn't be his fault. If Une wanted him to keep Zechs as a partner, he'd do his level best to prove that he could handle the situation. If one of them was going to fall short of the mark, it wouldn't be him. He chanced another glimpse of Zechs to verify that this was really happening. Zechs was looking around with interest, but didn't slow or pause, intent on keeping up with him--a good survival tactic in this part of the building.
HQ had been converted from a twenty-first century academic building, and the renovations hadn't left the building navigable with anything less than a detailed map, GPS system, and a flashlight. They lost an intern at least once a week; a new agent sent to find a file from the file archives room had turned up a full shift later. Someone had started tacking up "beware of the leopard" signs on the file room doors. While Wufei didn't understand the historical reference, it was a popular coping mechanism and Une allowed it to continue. There was even a running joke about a dedicated SAR dog reserved for finding lost archivists in the cold case files.
It didn't take long to get Zechs set up with his identification tags and uniforms. During the wait, Wufei gave him a running monologue explaining the training and re-evaluation he'd have to go through before he'd be issued a sidearm, and Zechs either nodded or offered a few words in response.
Not a talkative man. Good. Wufei didn't recall that he'd had much opportunity to interact with him in the past, but at least in that respect, he thought they'd get along, he didn't care to fill the air with random chatter either. He pointed to a map of the facility on the wall, explained where they were, how to find the target range and duty lockers, where the break room and filing facilities were, and then led him back through the maze to 'his,' now 'their,' office.
In hindsight, Wufei probably could have found Zechs a desk on the main floor. God knows he wanted him out of his personal space and with a desk of his own, but if Une expected him to bring Zechs up to speed on all of his active cases, they were going to have to remain in close proximity with each other. Besides, his office was one of the precious few that had a door. It didn't offer much in the way of true privacy, but it offered at least the illusion of quiet, and vid calls were easier to handle than when he'd had a desk on the open main floor.
"It will be crowded, but I'll ask Une to move a second desk in here," he apologized for the lack of space. "We've had increasingly tight quarters due to the expanding number of agents in the building."
He wondered if he still sounded nervous; he felt that he did. He expected Zechs to complain about the limited room, but was instead surprised at his easy acceptance of the situation and effort to fit in. Zechs nodded, looked around carefully at the way Wufei was currently using the space, and waited for him to steer him to their next destination. Wufei thought privately that Zechs was really taking all of this very well. But he'd been careful to steer their limited conversation only in the direction of safe topics so far--hiding beneath the mundane assorted tasks of work and civilized discussion.
The dangerous topics would surface later; he was sure of it.
"It's close to the end of my... our shift. Do you need anything else before I give you a ride to your hotel?"
Zechs seemed thoughtful; either that or he was very tired and covering it well. "No. Not that I can think of at the moment."
Zechs shifted the bag he'd been carrying around on his shoulder since they'd left Une's office. He hadn't mentioned either the discomfort of carrying it or asked to stow it in a duty locker, and Wufei had forgotten he'd been carrying it. Sloppy Chang, very sloppy.
"Follow me then; I'll give you a ride over."
The parking garages were on the surface levels of the multi-storied building; key administrative offices were underground; training facilities and private offices were fit in wherever there was space available. It was awkward at best, impossible to navigate through at worst, but the decentralized offices dissipated terrorist risk and impact on the organization, and the top-level garage was useful for the odd times Preventers needed to land field equipment and such for emergencies. The two men rode silently in the elevator, Merquise staring into middle distance with an odd calculating expression on his face. Wufei recognized that expression after a moment--Zechs was committing everything he'd just seen to memory. Wufei would have to test him on that tomorrow--see how talented he was at that particular skill.
Une hadn't let him see Zechs' dossier, and the electronic version of the file had been locked and protected when he'd thought to take a moment to look him up in the system. Interesting.
And then Wufei realized that he'd been caught staring at the man for the duration of the elevator ride, and turned quickly to face the opening doors, embarrassed as he hadn't been in months, and seeking a quick diversionary tactic.
Wufei led him to his car instead, and waited a moment for Zechs' appraisal and pronouncement.
"Nice. Very nice."
There was true admiration under that brief statement, the first honest praise he'd heard from Zechs, and he had to smile privately in response. Yes, she was sweet, one of the only advantages to seniority in the ranks at Preventers, he pretty much had his choice in the motor pool, and his regular ride was a late model coupe with 'extras' under the hood that Une might have disapproved of had she known. It was not, even by a stretch of a liberal imagination, a car that any would suspect of originating from the Preventers' garage.
Duo had been envious as hell.
Zechs stowed his bag behind the passenger seat and settled into the upholstery with what appeared to be honest relief to be off of his feet. He was soft then, thought Wufei. Probably had been spending at least some time at a desk or in a vehicle every day in addition to the relative gravity differences between Mars and Earth.
So he was human after all, thank God.
Preventers always used the same hotels in rotation for guests, and the one in current use was the farthest from the office. Zechs didn't bother to look up at it when Wufei pulled into a no-parking zone next to the building, and that triggered something else in his admittedly befuddled head. He glanced sideways at Zechs before asking, "You haven't been here before?"
"No. Lady, pardon, Commander Une, asked another agent to pick me up at the shuttle dock this morning. She mentioned that Preventers would provide me with some sort of basic housing, but that it would take a few days to arrange for it." He peered out the window of the car, tilting his head to look up at the building. "This is?"
"Your hotel. You should have a room reserved under your last name." Zechs seemed to be waiting for something, so he continued. "I'll pick you up a half hour before our shift starts tomorrow; right here is the best point."
Zechs nodded, apparently understanding that this was a dismissal. He pushed the passenger door open, levered his endless legs out of the car, stood, and reached back for his bag. "05:30, here?" At Wufei's nod, he shut the door and stood back on the low curb, watching silently as Wufei drove away from the building.
It wasn't until Wufei was pulling into his parking space at his apartment that he realized what he'd just done. That he'd just left his new partner standing alone on the sidewalk in a strange city after he'd just started a new job, didn't know anyone to call, probably hadn't eaten anything all day, and wouldn't have had any opportunity to exchange his currency for local credits.
And then he had the bonus realization that Zechs' must have been carrying all of his personal belongings around in that one small bag.
Nice going Chang, great way to start your new partnership.
He spent the next hour kicking himself before deciding that what he really needed was a distraction. He took a shower and dressed in his 'house' clothes before he decided that he felt a little more relaxed, then he spent the better part of a half hour trying to convince the contents of his kitchen that they should become something marginally palatable. Distracted by his thoughts on how the day had gone, the chime of an incoming call managed to startle Wufei half out of his wits. He quickly discovered that he'd left the phone on auto-answer as well. Damn, he hadn't meant to do that. By the time he walked over towards the monitor, Duo was already peering interestedly back at him with a confused expression on his face. He saw that look so rarely on his friend that he was immediately on his guard.
"Morning, Duo. What is it?"
Duo laughed, a bright, unrestrained sound, and pointed at him. "First of all, it's after eighteen-hundred local, so you should be well past the early hours by this point; and second," he paused for dramatic effect. "What exactly are you wearing?"
He'd done it to him again; Duo's timing was, as usual, impeccable. "What does it look like I'm wearing, Maxwell?"
Even the use of his last name didn't distract Duo this time. "It looks like you're wearing something that small creatures vomited on and then bled creatively over before they died."
"Your friend Howard sent this to me after the war. He told me that I needed to add more color to my wardrobe." Wufei looked down on the violent chaos of patterns on his Hawaiian shirt. "It wouldn't be appropriate to wear this to work." Or, actually, anywhere outside of the privacy of his own apartment--Duo's description was, to be honest, rather accurate. "Why, exactly, are you calling?" He was quickly becoming concerned, Duo seemed to be stifling his amusement with a great deal of effort. Bad things usually happened when Duo laughed like this.
"You said you'd give us a call after you met your partner. We're all dying here, waiting to hear about the poor victim that you're going to intimidate and traumatize to death before Une gives up and reassigns you to solo status again. You didn't call, you're distracted enough to admit to actually owning that hideous shirt, and you've got your time clock completely screwed up, so something interesting must have happened. "Give, dammit, or I'll send Heero over to interrogate you."
Wufei watched as Duo swallowed his mirth and fought down the urge to give in to his bubbling amusement so as not to miss any of Wufei's reactions. Wufei suspected that Duo would be able to live off of this news for days. Hell. "I was assigned my new partner today..."
"And she's a gorgeous stacked blonde, right?" Duo's fingers were busy sketching imaginary dimensions in midair. "Or a complete airhead? Someone Une is trying to force out of the squad..." He paused and a look of put-on-incredulous shock drifted over his features. "Oh dear God, she didn't assign you Widener did she?"
He nearly gave in to an urge to reply, 'well, he's blond all right,' but settled on a tired but serious response. "It's Zechs Merquise."
There was sudden shocked silence as Duo's face fell. Then... "Hell. Don't go anywhere, Wufei, I'll round up the guys and call you right back. We need to talk this one out," and the line went dead.
So, he was expecting another call, apparently. But after thinking back to his thoughts about this day and how rattled he'd been since he'd found out, perhaps that wasn't such a bad idea after all.
He was partly right, the call was arranged, but only after his leftovers were consumed and Heero and Duo arrived on his doorstep. He didn't bother to change the shirt, thinking absently that perhaps it would distract the others. Quatre and Trowa were called once he'd recapped his brief conversation with Duo for Heero's benefit, and the discussion fell completely apart from that point onward.
"You knew about this! And you didn't tell me?" Duo's volume was increasing, but Heero didn't seem to be paying him any mind--well accustomed to Duo's violent but rare theatrics.
"Une hadn't told Wufei yet; saying anything to you would have violated Preventer's protocol."
"You literal-minded sonofabitch..." Duo threw his hands into the air in frustration before stalking around the room in frustration. Wufei studied their reactions carefully. Heero may have decided to base his growing business on Earth, but Duo was still working within the Sweepers network--more on colony than off--but sometimes, as now, here on Earth as a mediator. He'd managed to become a figurehead of sorts for their community, and they used him shamelessly to negotiate better trade routes and districts.
Quatre's band of lawyers did most of the work for him, but Duo was the focal point that everyone in the media paid attention to. The Sweepers exploited that for all they were worth, which in this case had increased dramatically over the past few years, mostly due to Duo's efforts to support his 'family' in space. God knows he had a huge tribe of them, the man acquired friends and adopted family members with an ease and finesse Wufei envied deeply, but through all of it, Duo was his friend, and an inherently loyal one at that. His intuition was something he'd come to rely upon, and Wufei paid careful attention to Duo's impression of people.
"I still don't trust him," Duo added, though he noted that, so far, both Heero and Trowa had held their opinions quietly to themselves. Quatre had been unusually reserved as well--uncertain and caught between his friends' reactions. "Remember what he did during the war?"
Quatre looked thoughtful, finding a puzzle in the facts and trying to unravel it to his satisfaction. "But Une listed him in Preventers afterwards... and what about during the Mariemaia Incident?"
Heero nodded, casting his own vote. "He has his own sense of honor."
Duo snorted at that, but Trowa caught Wufei's attention with a shift of his eyes and then nodded at Heero. So there were two hesitantly for, one against, and one carefully abstaining.
Abstaining seemed the best route at the moment, and he announced his decision to the room. "Well, based on Une's endorsement of his character, I'm willing to see how he does."
Duo was more cautious, "Are you certain? This is the man who nearly engineered the end of the world as we know it."
"And we didn't?" Wufei shook his head, his mind settled on the matter. "He rises or falls on his own actions."
The hotel room was like so many others--carefully designed not to offend, but hardly luxurious. It still surpassed his last set of accommodations by a fair margin though. At least Zechs had new identification to go with his claim to the room--good planning on Une's part. He'd managed his flights and connections with her traveling papers. His identification, limited as it was to hide who he'd been, would never have allowed him off of that red rock--a risk he'd accepted while running from his past.
He walked over to the room's only window and twitched the blinds open just far enough to allow natural light, what little of it was left in the day, into the room. His bag he settled on the edge of the bed as his body slowly sank into the comfort of the slightly broken down upholstered chair. He let his thoughts out to wander for a while with the view out of the glass, considering the day he'd just had.
So here he was again: another new base, another new job, another new superior officer to learn the ins and outs of. The surprise this time was that it was an Earth-side assignment (thank God), the job was at least marginally similar to the last one he'd held, and his direct superior was one of the last people he'd expected to run into ever again. Lady Une... he hadn't seen that one coming. How the hell had she managed to track him down? For what reason? Wufei seemed a perfectly capable agent, and as an ex-Gundam pilot and ex-terrorist, should have been more than capable of handling whatever trouble Une suspected was heading his way. Her logic simply didn't make sense.
It had taken him a few minutes to place Wufei in his memory banks during Une's briefing. He had to wonder what sort of intelligence lay behind partnering two ex-Gundam pilots together, ones who had somehow or another usually served on opposite sides of the battle lines. What sort of plans could Une have for them over and above her initial assignment request?
He took a moment to remember Treize's interest in Wufei during the war and his long-winded praise of Wufei's dueling skills. His notice that Wufei had enough honor to put aside his superior weapon and meet someone on equal footing. That counted for something. Even now during a time a relative peace.
And then there was the other problem.
There was simply no denying the fact that he had been personally and physically attracted to him from that first touch today in Une's office, though he had taken great pains to conceal that fact from both Une and his new partner.
He stood and pulled the blinds closed.
While he didn't know Wufei's inclinations, there was always the possibility that Wufei, as himself, fell among a percentage of mobile suit pilots that had been treated with the same chemical stimulant as a number of other elite pilots, with the same, odd, predictable side effect. Though Wufei, married and heir to his clan, would likely have been spared the prototype drug protocol that made the pilots better suited to control the MS's control systems, the side effects had not been well documented at the time. Obviously, based on the OZ intelligence reports during the war, Heero, Duo, Quatre, and Trowa had not escaped the effects of the drug. Zechs had been exposed to the prototype drugs as part and parcel of his stint as an elite MS pilot in the Specials. It was openly recognized that an unusual percentage of Specials MS pilots were bisexual and homosexual as well, as OZ would no doubt be held accountable for, if the organization still existed. He moved on to read the rest of the files Une had provided to him, taking a moment to review the recent photographs.
Wufei. Pilot 05. He hadn't recognized him at first, but that could be forgiven given the five years that had passed. His hairstyle hadn't changed much since the end of the war, only grown longer with the tail worn in a traditional long braid down his back. He was taller as well, more... centered, confident in his abilities, and though Zechs was loathe to admit it, even to himself, he was curious about what circumstances had brought Wufei to this point in his life.
What were the odds that they, of all the pilots active in the war, would meet up at this point? That brand of planning had Treize written all over it. It had the right degree of stealth and subtlety that was his trademark. So then, had Une come by her trade honestly, learning at the side of a master. Zechs wondered again what the next few months would bring. He doubted that it would be boring. He remembered chanced glances at Wufei while his new partner had been preoccupied with Une, and revised that thought.
Definitely not boring.
Speaking of assignments, now that he was alone, it was long past time for him to take a closer look at the one Une had assigned to him. It had been this, more than anything, that had apparently forced her into making him an offer he couldn't rightly refuse. Someone, likely someone internal to Preventers, had apparently been accessing past case information. She'd had no success in ferreting out the culprit so far, and most of her current staff had already been implicated by the evidence tampered with to date, hence her need for an outside agent. And, he mused, they didn't get more outside than him at this point. Mars hadn't exactly been a hotbed of espionage activity, at least not Preventer-based. Targeting Wufei though?
Even though it hadn't been the first time in his career, Une had been very concerned that his inflexible standards for excelling in his work and his high level of uncompromising ethics would make him a target, and in this case, the threat couldn't be ignored or put off. Une feared an inside agent, and had asked Zechs, personally, for help, as he'd had some limited experience at this sort of work. The Mars installation had been rife with threats and harassment, and he'd helped out on a number of cases, his experience with the Specials turning out to be surprisingly useful. Her directive had been simple and to the point: Get close to Wufei, look for opportunities to protect him if necessary, and research his past cases to see if he could find any trace of his stalker and the individual responsible for creating chaos in her evidence chain. Three simple yet impossible tasks.
It was somehow refreshing to realize that his life hadn't changed all that much over the past few years--first Treize, now Une, and, if this scenario played true--Wufei would now be the last in a long line of candidates who would have the privilege of directing his actions for the next few months. Hopefully, his assignment would last no longer than that. How difficult could it be to ferret out an inside agent or agents responsible for altering evidence and threatening Wufei?
He suspected that he'd be back on his personal red hell before the next major holiday rolled around.
Which brought him neatly around to his "assignment," Chang Wufei, a chain of thought he quickly extinguished. "Just an assignment, Old Man. Just a reason to be here. Don't forget that, no matter how interesting he is." He glanced down at his crotch, currently protesting the tightness of his new uniform trousers, though they'd fit rather well before his thoughts had turned to his new partner. "You. Stop that. He's work. Just work. You hear me? Now be quiet and go back to sleep."
He set to his work, pulling the sheaf of paper from his bag and reading about all that Preventers knew about his new partner, officially and unofficially, from the very beginning of OZ's data gathering during AC195.
Wufei's guilt was working overtime. It must have been, why else would he be here, parked at Zechs' hotel nearly half an hour before his expected pickup? Wufei had even taken the time to purchase a peace offering. He didn't know if Zechs drank coffee or not, but assumed that the offer wouldn't hurt--though said coffee was getting cold while he continued to sit here trying to decide what to do next. How did he feel about this? Dammed uncomfortable. He'd been callous and inconsiderate to a man he was expecting to entrust his safety to--a bad move even in peaceful times. "Yeah, Wufei, go ahead; get yourself shot. What partner would take a bullet for the bastard that dumped him on his ass first day on the squad." Duo hadn't actually said that, but he didn't have to. Wufei gave in, carefully balanced the drinks in their flimsy holder, and headed into the hotel, moving unerringly towards room 762.
He knocked, and there was a pause before the security lock clicked over and the door opened. Wufei hadn't asked the front desk to ring ahead, preferring instead to deliver his apology without introduction. Perhaps he should have considered that decision more carefully. Zechs sent him a startled look, and gave a pointed glance to his watch with a lifted eyebrow before stepping aside to allow Wufei to enter.
Wufei walked into the room; as far as hotels went, it really wasn't all that bad. The colors selected by a decorator with a nod to elegance; the carpet wasn't patterned to hide the stains. Either Zechs had re-made the bed, or he'd slept on the floor; as the coverlet was unmussed and pristine, the pillows undented. Wufei turned to issue his apology, and was struck dumb by what he'd missed on his way into the room. He'd been so focused on 'who' Zechs was yesterday, that he'd completely ignored 'what' he was.
Which was an unpardonable sin.
Zechs had recently showered and was dressed in his uniform trousers, new boots, and the new regulation belt that nobody was wearing if they could possibly help it. The rest of his new uniforms must have arrived via courier overnight. It was only the top portion of his body that defied protocol, and Wufei stared openly. Zechs still had hair longer than most women had, and that wasn't the least of it.
"I just finished shaving, give me a minute to put a shirt on." Zechs sent Wufei a puzzled glance before turning back to his bag and removing a uniform shirt, still packaged in its plastic sleeve.
Wufei blinked, remembered his mission, and held out the cups. "I brought coffee."
"Thanks." Zechs reached out and snagged the cup from his hand on his way back into the narrow little bathroom, and caught Wufei staring at him again. He disappeared into the alcove, and Wufei caught the sounds of him removing the plastic and unbuttoning the shirt. Zechs' voice drifted out to Wufei, cautious now, and tinged with resignation.
"Burns and shrapnel mostly..."
"The scars. That's what happens when you self-destruct a Gundam while you're still strapped into it."
Zechs voice came to him again, softer now, more as if he was repeating something to himself from long memory or repetition, "Some lessons can only be learned by risking one's life."
It wasn't until then that Wufei realized he hadn't been looking at the scars.
Wufei went into his office to check their respective scheduling for the day; Zechs had been excused from the morning rundown meeting since his firearms proficiency test was scheduled for the same time. When they had arrived at HQ, Wufei had walked him down to the range and introduced him to Chavez, but didn't have time to do much more than make sure Zechs knew how to get back to their office before he took off again. The morning rundown meeting drifted into a discussion of a related case to his with Rogers and Leibowitz, then an impromptu bitch session over the agent in the neighboring district who was limiting access to information their squad wanted. With one thing and another, it was well past lunch before Wufei remembered that; one, he had a partner now; and two, he'd just abandoned him yet again.
This new partnership was not going at all the way he'd planned.
Wufei took another few minutes to walk through the break room, disturbing Rogers in another one of his futile attempts to get someone to replace the water cooler reservoir for him, but that was Rogers for you. The man would just as soon carry a light bulb from room to room as replace one. It wouldn't occur to him to change a bulb if he was sitting in the dark. Wufei took a few moments to run by his office and return two calls: one to the intern helping him on the Walter's case, and another to one of his regular informants who'd left him a message with a time and number to call. Predictably enough, his snitch wasn't there, and Wufei was finally able to take off in search of his partner.
That was going to take quite some time to get used to...
Wufei found Zechs still on the basement range, practicing with his newly issued firearm. He grabbed hearing protection at the door, checked in with the range guard, and after receiving a cursory nod, looked through the scope at Zechs' sheet--the rounds centered in two tight clusters over the target zones--very nice. Zechs had extended the target sheet to the full length of his station, the two other agents had only run their targets out to the regulation ten meters, and their scores weren't nearly as proficient.
The range guard gave Wufei a steady look as he backed away from the scope. "Rumor mill says that that's your new partner?"
"He's very scary, Chang."
"Tell me something I don't know."
The older agent tilted his head to the side and absently scratched his elbow as he considered the puzzle of Wufei's new shadow. "Chavez was practically crying when he left. Does everyone you work with shoot like this? The other guys that you dragged down here shot the begeesus out of our scoring system as well. The guy with the braid was freaking scary." He sat back in his chair and took a measured look at Wufei. "Where the hell do you find these people?"
Wufei had to take a moment to think about how he wanted to reply to that question. "I'm sorry Reggie, but you really, really don't want to know." He shrugged apologetically, shook his head at the thought of how Reggie would react if he knew the truth, and walked down-range to talk to his partner.
He caught him up on what had happened so far that morning, gave him a rundown of the morning meeting and drove Zechs, since it was Zechs at his insistence, "it's easier to shout than Merquise," over to a local restaurant and tried to repair some of the damage he'd done by abandoning him twice now. They sat at a table off to the side of the main room as Wufei carefully probed him for information, questioning him about his impressions about the squad so far.
Zechs toyed with his salad as he compared Preventers to military ranks he'd held and other positions, and gave Wufei a brief synopsis about his time on Mars. Wufei was hoping for more in the way of reasons for his return and current involvement with Preventers, trying to find out whether he was his cover, or if Zechs was his for the duration. Wufei didn't have any luck though; Zechs was smoothly practiced at evading his questions without seeming to do so.
They returned to HQ and began the endless rounds of introductions to the squad members. The few agents Zechs met in passing had been cautiously accepting so far. He had already been though this same complicated dance more times than he cared to remember. Moving around with Alliance troops and OZ assignments accustomed one to dealing with the uncomfortable solitude of being the new man on the base. These agents were no different, and he recognized one of their rituals immediately by the standard question they continued to ask: How many years do he have to go? Only established personnel spoke of employment in terms of years until retirement instead of total years in the system. He recognized the subtle test of whether or not he belonged within their ranks and nodded in recognition. One of the older men's eyes had widened in feigned surprise with a glint of respect behind them at his quick response. Wufei had nodded in return and introduced his new partner to the remaining agents in the break room.
Zechs had the distinct impression that he was tolerated but neither liked nor respected by anyone in the room. Une knew the truth though, and he suspected that she'd delivered some of the details to Wufei—as he was the only person who seemed willing to accept him at face value. This looked like it was going to be more of a challenging assignment than expected. Fitting in wasn't something that he did as easily now as he'd once done in the past--too much history and too much of his public and broadcast live EarthSphere-wide. He'd have to make do. Wufei certainly had, though he hadn't done anything quite as high-profile as Zechs had done during the war.
After the round of stilted introductions, if was off for a tour of the district in Wufei's tidy little ride. On the way back to HQ, Wufei edged around the one topic he'd not brought up at lunch: Noin. He'd worked with her in the past, though only briefly. She'd been partnered with Sally during the early days of Preventers, had left the service to accompany Zechs to Mars, and had come back shortly thereafter. She was still listed as active--although in a different unit. Wufei had spoken with her fairly recently, though not about her time on Mars, and was curious about what Zechs would have to say about the matter. He pushed around the idea in his head, framing the question a dozen different ways before giving in and going with the direct approach. "Have you spoken with Noin since you've returned?"
Zechs gave him a level, considering look that said he knew what Wufei was trying to do and was considering whether or not he really wanted to answer that particular question. His look spoke volumes. Wufei didn't dare break eye contact, if he gave into him now, he'd lose all the ground he'd gained with him so far. Wufei could almost see his internal shrug and subsequent decision to humor him. Zechs was starting to be able to read Wufei's moods and internal thoughts; Wufei didn't find that particular thought exactly comforting.
"We're meeting next week for dinner. And no, Chang, we're not exactly on excellent terms at the moment. She followed me into exile and didn't like what she found there or who she found at the end of that long shuttle flight. I wasn't worth being with after the war, and I chased her back to Earth. We'll see what comes of dinner and I'll take it from there."
It sounded like he'd either regretted confessing that much, or that he'd intended to tell him more and then thought better of it, as his words stumbled to an awkward stop. Wufei made a mental note to query the Mars project records to see if any information was available through service records or the local media. He'd need to investigate further at some point if Zechs didn't eventually come forward with the information. Lovers, friends, and work associates were all targets for security leaks; they required constant monitoring.
They didn't speak to each other again until they arrived back at ESP HQ. Zechs seemed preoccupied with his past, and Wufei was sorting out its possible impact on his future. Thankfully, the rest of the afternoon turned out to be uneventful as well. Zechs' desk was requisitioned and moved into their office, and the two of them sorted out the best configuration for the new furniture and multiple wires once the movers left them to their own devices.
Wufei arranged to get Zechs copies of his active case file for review, and the current intern delivered them in surprisingly good time. Wufei covered highlights from each active case--feeling awkward at directing all of his material lecture-style at Zechs, but Zechs didn't make any comment--he merely took occasional notes, asked careful questions when he didn't recognize a procedure or task, and nodded intelligently at the connections Wufei had pieced together so far.
When Wufei was done with his initial rundown, he was surprised to see Zechs pull a pair of delicate, gold-framed glasses from his pocket and settle behind his new desk for a prolonged study of the materials he'd provided him with. At his surprised look, Zechs quirked the corner of his mouth and told Wufei that they were 'just for all the small print--to help him avoid eye fatigue,' and he'd started reading. Zechs read all afternoon, occasionally asking Wufei to clarify points in the reports, and twice pointing out errors that had been introduced by clerical error, and one logical assumption that wasn't--all in all an honest day's work.
Wufei drove him back to his hotel at the end of their shift, but couldn't find it within himself to offer anything more beyond what he'd done so far. He just wasn't ready to try to become his friend, to offer companionship over a meal, to talk about anything that didn't impact his working relationship with him. He hesitated as he dropped Zechs off after their shift closed that evening, watched as Zechs shut his car door.
Zechs turned to watch Wufei drive off, only to find Wufei looking forward through the windshield with both hands clenched around the steering wheel. Zechs waited on the sidewalk for a long count of thirty before Wufei visibly startled and moved the car away from the curb.
Zechs made his way back up to his room, following ingrained precautions Wufei hadn't bothered with, but that made him uncomfortable to ignore. He got off the elevator two floors above his assigned room and took the fire stairs back down to his level. Une had assigned him an electronic sensor, and he swiped down the room before settling in to review the additional files supplied for his second-shift job. Une was going to assign him a data link as soon as she could do so without arousing any suspicion, but until then he was reduced to working with paper files and digital recordings of Wufei's work and home communication lines.
He'd objected at first to this insidious invasion of his privacy, but Une had reassured him of its necessity--and her concern that Wufei's private conversations be limited to only her, himself, and her one dedicated electronic digger. She hadn't revealed who her source was, but he knew he was out there--Wufei's files would have to have been encrypted and re-coded, and she'd have needed someone specialized to retrieve the data and, in turn, make them available to him.
The recorded screen snapped from fuzzy to sharp focus, and Wufei was suddenly there in front of him. He appeared more open and relaxed than he'd been when sharing the same space with Zechs, and it made him look both younger and more energized. He'd showered and changed into casual clothes before returning his friend's call; his hair was slicked back on his scalp, and there were damp marks on his shoulders from it. Zechs found himself watching him, and had to force himself to pay attention to Wufei's words, captivated as he was by his expression alone.
"Duo? To state this in your own words: This sucks."
"Really? Does it? I wasn't aware that Zechs was into that sort of thing? Though, come to think of it, Noin sure as hell didn't last long as his duty partner in Preventers and he was awfully close to Treize..."
Duo had one of his trademark grins wrapped around his face, and Wufei gave him a derogatory snort in response. "I don't know Duo, Zechs is adapting better than I thought he would, and he's surprising me with his willingness to follow directives, but something just doesn't seem right. Why now, why him... What's Une up to?"
"I wouldn't trust him if I were you." Duo looked earnest, and Zechs made a mental note to watch him carefully when, not if, they met face to face. I was inevitable--Wufei was too close to his fellow pilots to drop contact with them, and Zechs had made it his mission to watch out for Wufei whenever and wherever he could.
Heero appeared on the screen over Duo's shoulder, and added his comments to the mix: "Wait until you decide for yourself. Zechs is an honorable man, or at least he has been in dealings with Trowa and myself; he just lacks his own good judgment and is too willing to follow orders in some cases."
Wufei appeared to be resigned to the idea that he'd have to wait to come to a final decision. "I'll do what I can to give the partnership enough time to satisfy Une, and then I'll decide what path to take from there. Let me know if you come up with any answers to the issues we talked about yesterday." Wufei disconnected the call without thanks or acknowledgment--which was strange; he'd done so on all previous calls that he'd reviewed, so something must have distracted him, but what? What kind of issues was he referring to?
Time would tell, but Zechs couldn't afford to be as patient as Wufei was.
Zechs rewound their conversation from that afternoon. He'd committed it to memory so he could replay it at his leisure and pick it apart. It was easy to see what Wufei was after--proof of Zechs' intentions, his reason for being here and his assignment as his partner. What was curious was his inquiry about the last time Zechs had contacted Noin. Did Wufei think he'd returned to see her? Or was the question meant to throw his attention into imbalance.
Neither option rang as 'true' to Zechs, and he sat at the edge of his bed, trying to puzzle out the rest of Wufei's intentions. That he was curious was more than evident--even without Zechs' access to Wufei's private calls. Why else the interest in his past then?
Noin. He really didn't want to think of her, about 'them' at the moment, but if he didn't, Wufei would no doubt use that topic as a tool to eventually pry open his thoughts.
He groaned and mentally shelved the topic for later, and reached for the stack of paper files.
It only took three more days before his apartment was available. For employer-subsidized housing, it was surprisingly luxurious, Une apparently believed in treating her agents well. It was on the second floor, the furniture all matched and was in good condition, and the artwork on the wall was original, although Zechs suspected that the artist wasn't anyone who'd ever be well known. There were even linens in the closet and on the bed, something to be grateful for, as he'd not managed to keep much in the way of personal effects. He'd since been told that some of his personal effects had been placed in storage under the conditions of Treize's will, but that meant that they were more than an ocean away. The task of retrieving them would have to wait, more than likely for a very long time.
Wufei had a meeting that morning that he couldn't reschedule and that, as a new member of the squad, Zechs wasn't invited to participate in, so Rogers had dealt with the task of driving Zechs over to his new place and introducing him to his new stability. Zechs hadn't had much to move into his new space, and Rogers had him back in his office at HQ before Wufei was done with his meeting.
He had a car assigned to him the next day. It was a practical sort of thing, not the tidy little performer that Wufei had, but it was nondescript, indiscreet, and it ran when he started it. Good enough for him. It would diminish his contact with Wufei somewhat, but granted him more mobility and flexibility in his schedule, which was welcome and useful as far as Une's special project was concerned. Though he was making progress, his investigation hadn't taken him in a direction he'd wanted to pursue. Zechs had the barest glimmer of a suspect, albeit without any solid proof.
He desperately wished to confide the details of his investigation to his partner. Gain his insight, ideas, bounce thoughts through his quick mind. Even one of the other Gundam pilots would do. In his more introspective moments, he found himself deeply envious of Wufei's tight circle of friends.
He missed Treize. The two of them hadn't had a group of compatriots; they hadn't shared their times together with a large circle of friends. Their friendship had been something so uniquely theirs that, in some way, they'd unintentionally excluded others from their private circle. Une entered it at times, surpassed it at others, but through it all they could count on each other--to be there, to offer support, advice, or the opportunity of collective remembrance to draw them ever closer.
Now he was gone, and Zechs had no one left to help him remember the times between them--to reminisce over his past--the accomplishments, the horrors, the good times and very bad. No one alive knew him the way Treize had, and no one alive had known him well enough to help him remember Treize the way Zechs needed to remember him. His memories alone had no power to console him. As time passed, they lost their clarity, and he ceased to trust them in their entirety.
Une had tried, once, to speak of Treize in his presence. He thought, with the clearness hindsight brought, that he'd hurt her deeply, unintentionally revealing the depth of knowledge the two men had with one another. Zechs mentioned a summer weekend in Prague--one they'd been on together as the Alliance troops were resituating themselves throughout the European continent. Une had been there as well, but excluded from their outing. Zechs had assumed these long years past that she'd been on assignment. She hadn't been, but he didn't find out until he mentioned the weekend, and she remembered the same time stranded on the nearby base--alone, separated from the other enlisted by the privilege of her rank, and waiting for her Treize to call.
He was afraid of uncovering more missed opportunities between them that he had interrupted, and he ceased to speak of His Excellency with her.
Wufei was an as-yet unknown quantity. It remained to be seen how much overlap his partner would be expected to have in his personal life.
That a physical attraction existed was beyond doubt. He had only to think of his partner for a moment or more for the kernel within to take hold and warm him. Intelligence and quick wit were there in quantities enough to keep him interested beyond the initial flicker of interest, and he suspected with a deep flare of intuition that he'd finally found his match. His other. His mirror. His partner. That didn't necessarily mean that they would become lovers though, as that could complicate matters greatly.
He turned back to his case and his musings.
It took a few weeks for the two of them to settle into a routine of sorts. Wufei tried to broach the next unspeakable topic by sliding an advance copy of the afternoon edition of the regional newspaper towards Zechs to gain his reaction, as Relena had made the front page again. Something didn't make sense to him though. Wufei had read over the rest of the headlines before passing the paper over the break room table to his partner.
Zechs skimmed the article with critical disdain, and then handed it back to him without comment for disposal.
"She didn't say anything about you, even when she had the opening to do so. Does she even know that you're back?"
Zechs lifted his shoulder and looked uninterested. "I doubt it."
"You've been working here for what, nearly a month now?"
"You didn't think to inform your only remaining family that you were back on Earth and working only a short shuttle flight away from Sanq?"
Zechs turned a level look at him that was calculated to stop that line of questioning in its tracks.
Wufei pushed back against the cold expression, wanting to know the answer to his question. "That's not going to work on me this time."
Zechs sighed, sat back in his chair, and studied the water cooler in the corner before replying in a tired, drawn out voice. "I'm... not Milliardo Peacecraft any more, and I never will be again. That part of me is dead, and will stay dead." He sounded worn out, defeated, and he wasn't done with Wufei yet. "Zechs has no family and no remaining friends. Sometimes it's just easier that way. Can you understand that?" There was the angry sound of his chair sliding across the abused tiles as he retreated.
So, he had a soul buried in there after all, and it was bruised pretty badly if his reaction was any indication. In its own way, Wufei found that thought comforting.
And then he remembered exactly why it was that his partner had no more friends, and went to track him down. Which proved to be difficult. Apparently when his partner wanted to disappear, he did a better job of it than Wufei did. He wasn't in their office, or the second break room, or the weight room, and his car still in the lot and his badge still registered as checked into the building, which left Wufei with very few options.
"Have you seen Zechs?"
Cormac flipped him the bird, but Jalopian pointed up at the ceiling. "I saw him heading up to the courts with the night shift's basketball a while ago."
Wufei shook his head at the good-natured razzing he received for 'misplacing his partner' and turned to the parking garage elevator, not quite understanding the motivations driving his partner, god he still didn't quite believe that word applied to Zechs, to drive his physical body in order to cope with the stress of the day. All of his own coping strategies involved meditation or quiet contemplation of the problem. Basketball? He considered other options open to them as he climbed the stairs, forgoing the slow freight elevator. Sparring with swords came to mind and was quickly discarded as reminiscent of Treize, and likely too painful a memory.
Wufei made his way to the roof of the parking deck, carefully opening the reinforced fire door, and following the sound of the erratic hollow thudding sounds towards the fixed hoop at the end of the helicopter pads. He found his partner there, circling and spinning in the afternoon light, shed of shirt and in casual sweatpants and track shoes, absently leaping towards the rim of the basket with his borrowed ball. None of the other members of the shift, usually eager for a pick-up game, had followed him up to the roof. Zechs played alone.
Watching him brought home how many times Wufei had stranded him over the last few weeks as well. Not a pleasant thought, though Wufei was at a loss of what to offer him at the moment either. Heero and Duo were the two with the basketball-playing skills. He had none to offer. He would have to come up with a better substitution.
He turned and left Zechs to his own meditation devices.
Zechs caught a flash of movement as the door opened on the roof platform, expecting company eventually, but not this company. He hadn't expected him to turn and leave without comment either. As Wufei moved off, Zechs scooped up the ball, snagged his shirt off the perimeter fence, and sprinted across the helipad to catch up with his partner. Wufei glanced up at the sound of running feet and stabbed the hold button on the elevator, locking the doors in their fixed position as his partner approached.
Zechs slowed, unsure of his welcome. "Going down?"
There was a double meaning in that, and Wufei's mind immediately jumped there, triggered no doubt by the current setting. "Sure."
The two of them rode in the freight elevator together back down to the locker room, Wufei listened as Zechs' breathing slowed to normal and watched with covert interest as Zechs wiped the sweat from his chest with the red tee-shirt before draping it over his shoulders.
"Shower is going to feel great after that." He looked over at Wufei, relaxed and at ease, leaning against the protective impact bumpers of the lift. "What do you usually do to relax after shift?"
Wufei stopped dead in his tracks, his brain frozen on the thought of Zechs in the Preventer showers, and not moving much further than that, and was spared the necessity of a response by the timely halt and opening of the elevator doors. Wufei waved him on--pretending a meeting he had forgotten. Some meeting. Right. His scheduled call with Duo sure as hell wasn't going to go as planned.
It wasn't until later that night that the rest of his mind caught up and he came to the difficult realization--that yes, he just might be physically attracted to his partner, damn Duo's insight. Unfortunately, that didn't leave him in the best frame of mind to greet Sally Po during her regular rotation visit the next day.
Little notice was made of the ex-partners as they conversed quietly near the vending machines of the senior staff break room. Sally and Wufei quietly discussing the peculiar aspects of a case or the particular strengths and weaknesses of a theory was not an uncommon happening. That they chose, at times, to converse in one of the dialects of Chinese unfamiliar to most of the other Preventers on staff was considered a polite form of ensuring their privacy. Therefore, the fact that they were, in fact, discussing matters of a more personal nature was beneath the knowledge of the other staff.
"He was probably just checking you out."
Wufei frowned thoughtfully at Sally's blatant effort to get a response out of him.
"He's shown no indication as to his sexual orientation and his history would indicate otherwise..."
"Chang? What is it? I haven't seen you this twisted up since the Endovar case, and that was months ago. Give."
Wufei scanned the area around them, picking up the head of shockingly white blond hair on the other side of the room. "I don't know what other languages he's familiar with..." His words drifted to a stop as Zechs abruptly pushed his chair away from the table and walked across the room to the bank of coffee machines, nodding politely to Sally and Wufei as he moved around them.
"Your tall, blond partner with the royal lineage has the absolute finest ass I've ever seen on two legs," Sally offered conversationally, just loud enough to carry. She cocked a smirk at Wufei. "He dresses well, and I'd be willing to bet that he undresses even better." She gave Wufei a carefully evaluating look, spending a long enough time watching his face that he shifted his feet in uneasiness. She was ever too accurate at reading him. "Since when, exactly, have you been into men, oh ex-trainee of mine?"
Wufei nearly burst with the effort to maintain his composure, but managed a polite nod in return to Zechs before taking Sally by the elbow and hustling her quickly closer to the wall.
"What the hell was that about!" He hissed at her.
She gestured at Zechs, who was weaving his way back to his seat while carefully balancing two cups of coffee. "He doesn't seem to know what we're talking about, so I'd say we're safe to continue."
Her expression turned serious. "Listen, Wufei. Don't mess with this. Rule number one is that you never, ever, get involved sexually with your partner. Okay, sure. The man is damn gorgeous, and Noin never had much to say about him that was all that bad, but you just don't play around with your partner. Got it?"
She waited for him to look directly at her again before adding. "You'll find someone. Just don't choose Zechs, okay."
Zechs looked up at the sound of his name amid the foreign syllables, and found and caught Wufei's eyes while lifting an eyebrow in polite inquiry.
"Now you've gone and done it. He's listening to us."
"It's not worth losing a good working relationship for. Find someone else to ply with your lame pick-up lines. The man's called the Ice Prince for good reason. He's nice to everyone, but he's got the passion of a stone. You deserve better, Wufei." She gave him a slow, head to toe, evaluating look. "Playing for the other team huh? Okay, I wasn't expecting that news. You want me to introduce you to that new guy on the bomb squad?"
She granted him a long-suffering sigh. "Wufei..."
Even with the advance warning of her secretary and the heavy tread of his footsteps announcing his presence, it took two taps of his fist on the side of the doorframe before Une raised her head from the files on the desk. "Now what."
Taking that as permission to approach, Zechs slid into the chair opposite her desk. "I need more information for my 'other' case."
She hedged and moved her files from one side of her desk to the other, buying time. "What sort of information?"
"I want the raw information hacked from the database."
"No. Absolutely not."
He shot her a frustrated look. "Why?"
His frustration level increased. "Give me a higher clearance rating or declassify it."
She stood, paced in front of her windows, then returned to her desk. Zechs allowed her the time, hoping it would balance the odds in his favor. "The information was lifted from the system using an agent's access code, but the information was a higher security rating than the code allowed for, and the agent was on assignment at the time the security code was being used."
Zechs frowned. "That's all I'm getting?"
"At the moment, yes, that's all you're getting."
Frustrating, that's what it was. At least he had the evening with Noin to look forward to, as it didn't look as if new data would be coming his way any time soon.