"Everyone sees what you appear to be; few experience what you really are." - Machiavelli
Against Better Judgement
by D.C. Logan
Wait, that was Noin. Which meant... Wufei's eyes tracked around the small tables flooding the open atrium, there, over in the corner with the good view of both the fountains and the exits was a white blond fall of hair and a man, elegant in a formal suit, very familiar in form. Except for the slowly widening smile, which was something Wufei hadn't seen that face wear yet, at least not in his presence. Apparently, it took a prettier face, a female form, and a very close acquaintance to win that sort of expression from this particular man. Wufei paused in his task, curious to see how they would greet when they met, wanting to know what they meant to each other. According to Sally, even after years of separation, on the occasion that he and Sally had served duty shifts with Noin, she'd still talked fondly and familiarly of her tall blond friend. She hadn't volunteered that their relationship went beyond that... but... Ah.
Wufei nodded. That was more than a familiar sort of kiss, and then it was followed by a soft lingering touch as Zechs graciously greeted and escorted Noin to her place at the table.
A sharp tap on his shoulder brought him quickly around to a frowning face at a disturbingly close range. Sally wasn't amused. "What's he doing here?"
"Dinner with Noin... Lucretia."
Sally raised an eloquent brow. "Lucretia, is it? I do hope he's not planning on sweeping her off of her feet and dragging her back to Mars with him when he goes. Again." She snorted at Wufei's quick look of surprise. "You don't really think he's here to stay, do you?
Wufei watched over the room, but didn't respond to her question.
She nodded to herself at his expression and stance, apparently satisfied with her internal check and balance system and the way of the world as she knew it.
"Rumour has it that he returned from Mars for a rotation or two for the exclusive reason of convincing her that he'd made a mistake and couldn't live his life without her." She waved her hand in a flourish for emphasis, "Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera." She winked at Wufei. "Sources say that he called in a huge favor to Une in order to pull an assignment that would get him close enough to court her. You care to offer me any inside information on that? Office odds are running four to one that Noin'll take him up on his offer and give Une her notice before the winter holidays roll by."
Wufei felt for the hollow space in the base of his chest and swallowed to cover the words he'd rather not admit to, but Sally called him on his action. "Don't waste your time, Wufei. You'd only get hurt by trying to get close to the likes of him. Well-bred, over-educated, a freaking royal, if rumour is to be believed, Une's pet any way you look at him, her dog to call and order if my source is correct. He'd just as soon walk over your bones and help you to your feet so you could dust his shoes for him." She gave him a very level, evaluating look. "I wouldn't trust that man if I were in your place. Turn around, and he'd likely be off somewhere else following whatever whim settles in that brain of his next." She gestured towards the couple, now smiling at each other over their glasses of wine. "And that's not rumour. That's fact." She nodded again and pointed across the room. "From her."
Wufei looked up at her in startled surprise, both that Noin had shared such a fact with Sally and that Sally had shared such an obviously private bit with him. "Noin? Told you that?"
"Well, don't go off and repeating it about, but yes. She did. Over a very nice bottle of wine, I might add. And I'm not looking forward to going through that process again." She indicated the table in the corner. "Extracting painful personal relationship history of people I care for. With both of you, if that look is any indication." She snorted to herself. "Mister blond and almighty returns, and his minions simper and fall before him."
Wufei's eyes narrowed, and he added Sally to the increasing number of those with a low opinion of his duty partner. Then the impact her words slid into his mind and Wufei winced, both at the lance, which was an accurate strike, and at the way the couple in the corner were behaving with each other. "Fine. Put me down for ten credits on Noin getting her man and leaving this rock with him."
"Done. Now, let's go somewhere a bit less social and with spicier food. You can treat your old partner to supper and tell her all sorts of juicy details about her replacement."
"As if you can call yourself my partner when I've been on solo status for, what? Four years or better?" He tilted his head at Sally while he calculated nearby restaurant options. "Frescoes. You buy, and I'll consider talking."
"Frescoes," she nodded in agreement, "we split, and I give you some background information on your new partner as well. Deal?"
Wufei knew a bargain when one smacked him in the face with authority. "Deal."
A few meters away, a slightly different observation was taking place. "So, how are you finding life on Earth?"
"It's been..." He gave a chuckle and a negligent shrug. "Very interesting so far."
She studied him over her wineglass. "That's a new look for you." She picked at her entrée and changed the subject. "How's Une treating you?"
"Well. All things considered. Did you know that I have an ex-Gundam pilot as my partner?"
Noin's eyebrow raised in an exact match of his own. "So, taking after the Peacecraft curse and chasing Gundam pilots, are we? Does this mean that you've finally found someone who lives up to your exacting standards?" It came out a little bitter, a little self-deprecating, with only a touch of humor underneath, fighting to find a balance between hope and resignation.
Zechs smiled, a bittersweet expression on his face. "Perhaps."
"Sally mentioned something about her ex-protégé slaving away in the same district..."
Noin was fishing, and Zechs nodded, accepting the bait. "Chang Wufei, yes."
Noin sighed. "Isn't he the one who...?"
Zechs toyed with his water glass, wiping the condensation off with the side of his thumb and doing his best to avoid confrontation. "Yes."
"You're okay with that? With working with him?"
"We did before."
"That was during the war." She spoke the words flat, without life or lift to them. "Now we're at peace."
"I see no difference." He avoided eye contact, moving his glass and aligning his silverware. "He's a just and good man. I respect him."
She studied him carefully, then narrowed her eyes. "You like him." She paused to make her meaning clear. "I mean, you really like him."
He shrugged to lighten the meaning if she needed him to do that for her. "I do."
She pressed on through the salad course, looking to the side and then catching his eyes and holding them hostage. "What is he to you?"
Zechs tilted his head and looked into his wine glass. "My partner. God willing and time allowing, a friend."
She studied him with the knowing face of a close companion. "You want more from him than that, don't you?"
He stopped answering her questions after that, not willing to answer that question just yet, even for her. After the meal, he found himself restless and unsettled. Noin had done that with a handful of carefully placed words. So, even now, all those old memories still rattled within him, and here he'd thought he'd managed to lay them to rest. Apparently not. Tired of the four walls around him, he decided that a long walk was in order to help him think. Only Une, Wufei, Noin, and a scant handful of Preventers knew that he was back on Earth.
He judged the risk acceptable.
Appropriately enough, it was raining. Rain had always helped him release the bonds that tied him into his daily life and allowed his emotions to slip to the surface, at least for as long or as often as he'd had the need. When walking in rain, the missing parts inside of him welled to the surface and his thoughts fell warm against his mind and the world cried with him and shared his misery. People rushed around him without pausing in their relentless pursuit of dryness--leaving him to his peace. The city left him dark and alone in his thoughts of uncertainty--and he wallowed in it. It was his favorite way of coping with the darkness it brought.
He walked, that night, in the cold rain of the dark. Cold, wet, moving misery in an all-encompassing way he'd never before experienced. He started from his assigned rooms in the urban center, and out walked first the streetlights, then the sidewalks, and finally the orange glow of the city. His long coat clung wetly to his sides and moved like leather after the rain soaked it through. It was miles or hours before he walked away from his mental tears and looked about himself, and at the wet pavement under his feet, and up at the rain spiraling down painfully at the hot lenses of his eyes. He didn't feel release, but the exhaustion brought him a measure of relief.
He took a deep breath and held it, waiting for an answer from outside of himself, but none was forthcoming. Unable or unwilling to push his decision, he instead walked from the road to lean against the black texture of a sturdy tree trunk. Spring hadn't brought leaves to shelter his way. No one knew where he was, or would have bothered to follow him had they known. It was a feeling of both empowerment--however slight--and utter despair, realizing that.
He looked down the road he'd traveled. The road stayed the same, stopped, permanent, life traveled over it on two directions--forward and back. He didn't want to be the road any longer... At the still point he'd reached between decisions. He could continue down the road and into the darkness and see where it would eventually lead him, or, turning back on his path, he could retrace his steps and try to pick up the pieces of his life and mind that he'd dropped on his way to this point. The glow of the city, just beyond the range of sight, beckoned.
Decision made, he resumed his long walk, his boot steps on pavement and the wet flap of his coat his only company. His thoughts had finally abandoned him.
He wanted nothing more and nothing less than to find a place or time where he would be accepted and defended for himself, or perhaps in spite of himself; within the unconditional boundaries of friendship. He despaired of ever finding it.
And love? After a lifetime of disappointment and continuous hope, well, he wasn't sure he believed in it. He'd hoped to find someone who had to make the same choices in his life, had to live with the same consequences, a shared frame of reference. But he despaired of ever finding a soul mate, and had resigned himself to a life lived alone. Love? It seemed such a rare thing to find, and he wasn't sure he'd recognize it if he saw it--much in the way it was easier to mistake a diamond for glass than to assume the best of it.
That way lay madness, and more long walks in the rain.
It was time to stop running away. It was time to face his past and undetermined future. It was time to stay and see what his new life could offer him. He was tired of running. He shifted Noin's suppositions to his past and deliberately moved onward.
By the time Zechs made it back to his apartment, dawn light was just beginning to creep up over the horizon of what accounted for the city skyline. He dropped his sodden and damp identification and wallet on the front table and left a trail of his clothing and other implements, ending with his sidearm and socks on the counter of the bathroom in his more than efficient little apartment. A hot shower, a change of clothes, and he'd be as good as new... or at least prepared to sit and work on his second job for an hour or two before heading into the office for the day. Or was today his day off? He could never remember them, not that it mattered, since Wufei refused to adhere to any regular schedule regarding vacation and personal time. Since his erratic schedule might have been the one thing that saved Wufei from his stalker thus far, Zechs was hardly going to criticize him for it, but it would have been good to have some modicum of stability.
Hell, even without going through the files, it was easy enough to see where the weak points in the surveillance grid were. Wufei lived in Preventer-subsidized housing, like many of the single agents, but he didn't socialize outside of work, didn't have a close companion or live-in lover of either sex, and maintained a fairly regular routine of work and personal habits that involved local shopping and errands. As far as determining his accessibility as a target, he would be predictably simple to locate.
Zechs turned off the water and stood in his shower, turning over options in his head. Upgrading his personal surveillance on Wufei seemed to be the next logical step. He quickly stomped down the part of his mind that suggested that he might have a personal reason for doing so, and told his mind that any checking up on his partner that he elected to do, both before and after the course of their regular working hours would have to fall into the range of "purely practical" reasons.
Right. Sure. Absolutely.
Wufei blinked as a pear was added to his shopping basket, dropping the edge of it down unexpectedly from the additional weight. He looked up into the unexpected dancing blue of his partner's eyes.
"I like pears too."
Wufei glanced down at the pear, nestled next to his own in the plastic basket, and tried not to read anything into that. "Since when did you start shopping in this neighborhood?"
"Since you told me that the produce sold here was better quality than over at my market."
Wufei really didn't have a good comeback for that, since it was true.
He paid for the second pear, and handed it back to Zechs at the door when they parted to walk their separate ways. He discounted the meeting, adding it up to happenstance and chance.
That once, perhaps. But what were the odds of running into Zechs at the dry cleaners the next day when he was dropping off his uniforms? Then catching a glimpse of him while he was out on his morning run in the park, when he knew for certain that Zechs' assigned apartment was on the other side of the city sector, and that Zechs had no reason to be in Wufei's neighborhood at that hour.
No reason at all.
This required some legwork, and Wufei knew just the man for the job: discreet, professional, and the friend and family rates were fantastic. All it would take was a simple vid call to set things in motion.
"Are you still on Earth and staying with Heero?"
That in itself was interesting. "You've been spending a lot of time Earth-side lately, haven't you?"
"Was there something you wanted, Wufei?"
"I need you to do me a favor."
"What sort of favor?"
"One involving your special skill set."
Duo's look brightened at that news. "Does this favor involve paint-on latex and a bottle of maraschino cherries?"
Wufei nearly laughed, and bit back his smile with effort. "Umm... no. It doesn't."
Duo sounded bored already. "Well, what's the challenge in it then?"
"I think Zechs has been following me during his off-duty time. I want you to track him for me and report back on what his activities are for the next twenty-four hours."
"Oh. Is that all?"
"Yes, that's all."
"It'll cost you double you know. Time on Earth isn't cheap, even at family rates." The news was delivered with a wink.
"Fine, fine. Double rates. Lunch and supper."
Duo pretended to consider. "With beverage, appetizer, and dessert."
"Your rates have gone up since I hired you last." He frowned. "I'm not paying for the appetizer this time. I've been to the restaurants you choose."
Wufei sighed. What choice did he have really? "Done."
"I find myself in need of additional information on these cases." Zechs passed the slip of paper over Une's desk and awaited her response.
She glanced at the line, her eyes widened only slightly, and she nodded. "I'll have them forwarded to your encrypted account as soon as my private agent is... available."
Maybe it was her tone of voice, maybe it was the pause or the significance behind it--but it all suddenly clicked together for him. "Your other resource, it's Heero Yuy isn't it?"
She didn't respond to Zechs' query, but her silence was answer enough.
It only took him a few moments to connect the rest of his mental dots. "That's why Yuy picked me up at the station. He was checking up on me and verifying my credentials before I worked a case that involved one of his friends." Zechs said it more to himself, but Une followed his reasoning and nodded briefly in reply.
Then she had the nerve to smile back at him. So, that had been one of her tests then, one he'd eventually passed. "Yuy's the best digger I had access to, but his relationship to Chang rendered the data he retrieved questionable. I needed you as an outside resource unconnected with the system or the people involved in order to validate the information and look for patterns in the material. You've always had a strength for tactics and investigatory studies. I needed that... and your impartial view."
She shuffled additional non-essential paperwork on her desk to give herself another moment to collect her thoughts. A delay device noted by Zechs, but not remarked upon.
"Yes, Yuy has been running the covert surveillance on Chang's terminals ever since the first letter hit his inbox. Chang isn't aware that he's being watched, and though Yuy is rather a compromised resource because of his long-term friendship with Chang, admittedly, they are not close, seeing each other only during gatherings with the other pilots or when initiated by Maxwell. I do believe that Maxwell is responsible, along with Winner, of making sure that they all don't lose touch with each other."
She pulled a slip of paper from her desk, wrote a line on it and passed it over to him. "Commit this code to memory."
He glanced at it before passing it back to her, mildly chilled by her discretion as she thoroughly destroyed the note before proceeding. "That is Yuy's direct access. If you have any avenues that you need investigated, you may contact him directly. He is under private contract with Preventers, but is not, at the present time, listed as an agent in the system. You can trust him with any details regarding this case."
Taking that as a dismissal, he stood, preparatory to leaving, but paused as Une sighed softly. "It... wouldn't hurt if you and Yuy maintained a level of, shall we say, public resentment towards each other while in the presence of others. Purely in the interest of maintaining his cover. Do you understand me?"
He nodded once. "Understood, Commander," and he left to continue working his troubling and multifaceted case.
"Man always walks like he's on a mission. And his shadow, for a tall blond guy who should stick out in a crowd like a Gundam on an empty airfield, is doing pretty damn well at keeping out of Wufei's way. Not mine though..." Duo cracked his knuckles. "Not mine..." Zechs seemed perfectly content to either remain in his car and follow his partner from location to location as he made the rounds of his general errands, or to monitor him covertly from a position within about a quarter-block access if he had to leave his vehicle. Protection then, not monitoring. Duo snickered once he'd made that connection in his mind; Wufei would love this.
"It looks like someone might have told him about your secret admirer, and he's taken it upon himself to make sure that they don't get through to you."
Wufei seemed doubtful. "Zechs wouldn't do that."
"Well, he wasn't close enough to be listening in on your conversations with anyone. He wasn't using any equipment that I could see to record anything, and no one else was working with him." Duo shrugged, then sat back with a wicked grin as the opportunity to play with Wufei's mind came to him. "I think it's sweet."
Duo nudged him in the shoulder, encouraging him to get the joke. "Sweetest thing ever. You know? Your partner? Tall man? Blond? Hair down to his ass? Ice Prince of the Preventer Forces? Tried to wipe out Earth and everything on it just to prove a point? That guy?"
Wufei wasn't smiling back.
"Apparently he thinks a Gundam pilot just isn't man enough to take care of himself." Duo stopped smiling too, now that he'd stated his opinion of Zechs openly. "Listen, Wufei, if he gets to the point that he's a problem, let me know. I have some Sweeper friends that can take care of him for you, Preventer God or not." He nodded at Wufei. "And we," he said, picking up the bill for their late supper, "never had this conversation."
Wufei raised a cup of coffee to his lips and lifted another mug in offering to his partner as he approached his desk. "You have interesting hobbies."
Zechs took a seat behind his desk, accepting his cup and settling into his chair with the ease of a king into his throne, leaning back and steepling his fingers alongside of his cup as he faced Wufei. "Do I? Which one are you commenting on at the moment then?"
"The one that involves following me around and monitoring my activities in your off-duty hours. I asked Duo to follow you yesterday. He was very specific in his report."
Zechs offered a half smile in response. "He must be very good. I didn't notice him."
Wufei moved to sit on the edge of his desk, the better to watch Zechs' subtle reactions, but the man didn't seem upset by the exposure of his subterfuge. Instead, he seemed genuinely impressed with Duo's success at tailing him without his notice. Interesting. This was worth pursuing. "You're not surprised?"
He drank deeply from his mug before replying. "At what? That I was following you? I was. Or that you caught me doing so?" He continued, replying to his own questions. "I was told about the threats on your life, and thought to check in on you from time to time." He set his empty cup aside. "Your friend is very good at what he does. He should be working here instead of elsewhere." Zechs shook his head and clucked his tongue softly. "Talents such as those..."
Wufei frowned and his look turned serious and dark. "You'll stop following me."
Zechs' expression remained light. "I'll not."
"You will. It is a violation of my privacy. You have no business following me around. No authority to do so. It compromises my morals deeply and personally." He glared. "I'll not have it."
Zechs beamed back at him, oddly pleased to have a portion of his hidden agenda found out.
"I hate you." The words were uttered low, vehement, under the tongue and entirely without inflection.
Zechs blinked, taken aback by the utter seriousness in his partner's demeanor. "I beg pardon?"
Wufei looked away from him and pointed at the door. "Leave now. I'll find no room for duplicity and lies in a working partnership between us."
"Merquise? You have no idea how very angry I am with you. Just fucking leave. Right now."
Zechs stood uncertainly at his desk and edged his way closer to the exit. Wufei cursing at him was unprecedented. And serious. Very serious. It was definitely time to back off and reconnoiter on his own and leave his partner to his own devices for the remainder of their assigned shift.
Or not, as five hours blended into nine, and one disaster turned into another and rolled over into the beginning of the next night shift before Zechs thought to check and see if his partner was still in the building.
By then, Wufei looked like a man who'd just lost his best friend, and Zechs was unaccountably moved by how much the exposure his secret operation to watch over him seemed to be affecting him. He stood in the open doorway of their office, assumed a non-aggressive pose, and ventured a quiet and questioning, "Chang?"
His partner didn't respond to him; Wufei just continued to stare down at his desk, running his finger around the lip of his coffee mug, obviously deep in thought.
Zechs breathed in deep and gave it a second try. "I know I'm probably the last person you want to see right now, but I don't think you should drive yourself home after the day you've had." Zechs waited a few seconds for that to sink in. Wufei was still staring fixedly at his drink. Unresponsive.
"Will you allow me to drive you home? Chang?"
Still no reply, and he tried harder to gain a response from him, "I'm more sorry than..."
Wufei lifted his hand in a silent bid for quiet.
So, this was really the end of their brief partnership then; Wufei was serious about his vow and his need for absolute honesty between them. He'd have to go to Une, confess his failure. As Zechs had come to expect from him and his black or white worldview--forgiveness would come slowly, or more likely, never. Defeated, he turned to leave, only to hear the sounds of Wufei pushing his mug away and collecting his keys and coat. Zechs didn't move, too apprehensive to look behind him and see the rejection on his face. Wufei stood, walked over until he was even with Zechs, stared tiredly up into the man's puzzled face, and waited for him to make the next move.
Encouraged, Zechs preceded him through the artificially quiet office. It was a late hour, yes, but it was office gossip that had quieted the voices. The news had obviously spread of the unheard of sound of Zechs and Wufei arguing loud enough to penetrate the walls of his inner sanctum, and Zechs for once, was grateful for the quiet the gossip gained them.
Zechs led Wufei to his own car, folded him into the passenger seat, and waited for directions.
Wufei hadn't said a word or done anything to indicate that he'd heard Zechs other than following him to the car. Zechs waited for him to offer something, anything. He was prepared to wait all night if he had to. They had to figure out how they were going to handle this situation if there was any hope of the two of them continuing to work together.
And Zechs didn't want to do this anymore if they couldn't do it together. It was humbling. Had his life turned out differently, he could have been a ruling monarch in a peaceful kingdom on the sea. Instead here he was sitting in a two-year old car in a parking garage, earning a soldier's wage, and couldn't imagine a place he'd rather find himself. Okay, maybe one or two came to mind, but only if his partner was willing to go along with him.
He sighed as he waited patiently for Wufei to say something, but no words came. Zechs settled in to wait. He was good at waiting, you either learned that skill as a soldier and pilot or you didn't. If you didn't, you never relaxed nor slept--which would eventually kill you for certain.
Wufei shifted in his seat. Not normally one who transferred his emotional nervousness to the physical, Zechs turned to watch him and locked onto his expression. Wufei was looking back at him with something, regret perhaps? He folded his hands in his lap, shifted his glance away and then back, and spoke softly to him. "I overreacted, I'm sorry."
"Accepted." Zechs started the car and pulled out of the garage, pausing to wait for Wufei's direction at the first intersection.
He drove carefully, wary of unexpected comments from his passenger, but Wufei kept his words confined to simple directions until Zechs eased the car over to the curb in front of an unfamiliar apartment building.
"Park over on the right, third space from the end."
Zechs was sure that his confused look was priceless, but offered no comment, content to wait out Wufei's hesitance.
"We need to talk. Do you have time to come in?"
Zechs pretended to consider his request, but only for the moment it took to shut off the car's ignition and unbuckle the safety harness, but inside he was already leaping at the opportunity Wufei had presented. The simple fact that his partner was interested in working this problem out too was, in itself, nearly a physical comfort.
Zechs followed him silently into his home. Wufei flicked on lights, dropped his keys on the coffee table, and left his jacket trailing over the sofa on his way to the kitchen, expecting Zechs to follow. He did, cautiously, looking around his environment carefully. Wufei had his head in his refrigerator; obviously digging for something, and eventually emerged victorious with a bottle of wine. "I don't need this, but it will help. Care to share this with me?"
It wasn't really a question of yes or no. Zechs had to. He wanted to. And some small part of him wished to see how far Wufei would be willing to take this--to discover how much he wanted to fight to regain their partnership. Somewhere in himself, Zechs needed the confirmation that Wufei needed this contact between the two of them as much as he did. He wasn't sure where they were heading, but he wanted to stay with Wufei on the road they'd started. He just needed to hear that Wufei wanted to admit to that as well.
It took all of the first bottle before Wufei started to get close to the questions that had been festering within him. Zechs had been more moderate in his consumption, but the way the room rattled about the edges of his vision when he moved too quickly told him that he'd be sleeping on Wufei's sofa tonight, as this was not a safe mental state to drive in. He decided to break this news to his partner after the second bottle was empty--no sense in disturbing the mood he was in. For the first time, Wufei seemed to be truly relaxed in his company. That edge of careful caution was gone, blurred by the alcohol perhaps, or maybe he'd leaked some of the frustration and reserve he felt over Une's mission, and Zechs had picked up on that. In part because Zechs felt that he owed Wufei something personal in return for the hurt that he'd caused him, he'd offered to answer any questions he might have about him. Wufei's sense of curiosity was insatiable, and he'd been asking questions of Zechs he suspected would never have surfaced except for the strain of the day and the loosening of Wufei's mind. Questions like the one he was patiently waiting for Zechs to answer... about Noin.
He was just maudlin enough after the wine and the up and down emotions of his day that he was planning on being candid in his response.
He leaned his head back along the support of Wufei's very comfortable chair and let his soul out to roam. "God how I miss her. I never realized what a comfort it was to know, deep down, that I was loved and appreciated for who I was--not what rank I held, not my skills, just me--imperfect, proud, and irreparably flawed when it came to relationships. I tried, and I truly believe that she knew how hard I tried to offer the same to her in return, but it wasn't to be. Try as I might, I just couldn't see her in a romantic light--as a fellow pilot or comrade, yes; as a friend, dearer to my soul than all others, dear lord yes, as a lover, well... We'd tried, of course, but the spark between us just wasn't strong enough to bridge our differences. I found her attentions increasingly frustrating, and she ultimately found me lacking."
"We parted, not exactly on friendly terms, yet I miss her company. You'd think I'd take more care with my friends, having so few of them. But I failed Treize, and I disappointed Noin, and, well, I've found myself alone with my thoughts most times."
Wufei swirled the dregs of his glass, apparently fascinated with the ebb and flow of the liquid. "And the 'other' that you mentioned? What happened then?"
Zechs was deliberately vague. "I loved, they wanted to limit our relationship to friendship. I believe things might have changed at some later point in time, but our differences separated us." Zechs sipped his wine as he selected their next question; it would have to be a fair exchange. "How about you? Anyone?"
Wufei stared fixedly at his wine in response, and apparently thought he needed more restitution before answering that one, as he leaned over and emptied the rest of the bottle into his glass. "I was married once..."
He stopped there, and Zechs thought he'd lost him to his past, but didn't want to interrupt. Wufei shook his hair from his face, stretched out along the cushions of his sofa and closed his eyes. He was smiling when he began speaking again. "Her name was Long Meiran. It was an arranged marriage. She smelled of flowers and was a warrior beyond compare. She referred to herself as Nataku--a warrior goddess. I was studying to become a teacher, and she thought me a weak man and labeled me as lacking because I didn't aspire to be more in my life than that."
He paused again, and Zechs prompted him gently. "Wufei? What happened?"
If he objected to Zechs' use of his given name, he didn't show any sign of it. "The Alliance condemned my colony in AC194 and sent forces to destroy it. They feared us I think, in much the same way that Earth feared my clan enough to banish us to space in the first place. They sent the Specials in to destroy the colony, and Meiran defended our clan. She had a suit similar to your Tallgeese, and I fought alongside her in my Gundam, but Shenlong hadn't been completed and the Specials were a force to be reckoned with. She was injured in the battle and she died in my arms... in a field of red flowers.
"Treize was there, leading the Specials. Noin and Po were there as well, although I didn't find that fact out until much later.
"I asked the elders for the honor of piloting Shenlong in Operation Meteor, and they granted permission. I found out what the final plans were for my colony, and came to Earth to fight alone instead of waiting for them to drop our colony at the request of Dekim Barton, and the rest, I believe, you know.
"There's been no one for me since then. All my clan is dead. I've kept in touch with the other Gundam pilots, but that's more of their doing than mine, and I've made a few acquaintances at work, but nothing lasting or of great importance."
Wufei listed all of this very matter-of-factly, no regrets, no sense of hope for the future. It was simply the way of his world and he couldn't foresee any change in his future. Something within his fatalistic outlook depressed Zechs deeply though. Wufei had so much life--so much to give, and yet he couldn't see it in himself. Treize had once called Zechs the coldest sonofabitch he'd ever met. He'd told him later that he could learn a great deal from Wufei's passionate idealism and idealistic fervor. Zechs hadn't believed him at the time, and it was years too late for him to tell his old friend how very right he'd been. He'd stood briefly over Treize's occupied grave and his own empty one and told him this, but it hadn't given him the satisfaction he needed to hear in Treize's voice, the nearly sensual tone he saved for those times when he was right--and knew it. Maybe Wufei and he deserved each other.
The two agents rested in companionable silence for a while before Wufei sat up, reeled, and folded his head eggshell-gentle in his hands. Black strands of his hair fell loosely through his fingers, and flowed with his movement like silk over satin.
Zechs watched him, openly fixated at the sight of his loose hair, drooping posture, and defenseless submission to the alcohol.
"Oh ancestors, what have I done?"
"Excuse me?" So Zechs was momentarily distracted, a man three days dead wouldn't have been left unaffected by the man sitting slack and loose-boned in front of him. Zechs was feeling the effects of his wine as well--just on the edge of mellow and relaxed.
Wufei looked up at him, tiredly irritated. "I haven't had this much to drink in months... maybe years." He stared bleakly at Zechs through crossed fingers. "And it's Thursday, and I have to go to work tomorrow... We have to go to work tomorrow... no... wait... make that today."
He'd said 'we', and Zechs felt the last dregs of tension drain from his body with that vital little two-letter word. He rolled the word over in his mind with a deep sense of satisfaction. He still had a partner. Life was worth living again. He shifted in his seat and suddenly realized how tired he was, and how early in the morning... and that he hadn't delivered news of the time he'd pleaded for earlier in the day.
"Oh, right, by the way, I asked and Une gave us until Monday to work this out, so we don't have to report in until then. And I'm sleeping on your sofa tonight," Zechs added as an afterthought. Wufei nodded in acknowledgement and heaved his way to his feet, tottering slightly.
Zechs had never seen him so, quite literally, off balance. He wanted to reach out a hand and steady him.
He groaned quietly... God he was in trouble... if Wufei ever found out about... No, he'd made it this far without suspicion. Only three people knew about where he chose to lay his affections, and one of them was already dead. Une wouldn't tell anyone; Noin had said nothing. The excuses between them had been sufficient to explain their parting. Zechs reminded himself sternly: This is my partner, and nothing else can complicate our relationship. This is my work, and I must remain objective and professional, this is...
"Here. Blankets. Pillow. I promise you that my sofa is less of a bastard than Yuy's. I'll see you in the morning." Wufei looked fuzzily at the wall clock for verification, "Uh... later this morning." He was standing in front of Zechs, the linens already resting on the sofa. His hair was still loose and wild and Zechs was sure that he was staring openly at the unusual disarray, and then Wufei was gone.
Zechs unfolded the blankets and fit his body awkwardly into a space too short for it, intentionally laying in the same direction he'd seen Wufei in earlier. The fabric smelled of Wufei through the sheets, and Zechs drifted off thinking about how far they'd come in their partnership that it could survive this incident relatively unscathed. It was a comforting thought, warmer to him than the blanket he huddled beneath.
Why was the sun in his eyes... and why did it hurt so much? Wufei flipped his pillow over his face, and blessed darkness descended. With that action came rational thought though, damn. His stomach was roiling about in moderate misery, and his brain felt wet and abused in his skull. He ran though his mental catalog of symptoms and came up with: Wine, red, lots of it... and the pieces circled and clicked one by one into the puzzle solution that equaled a hangover. He'd felt both better and worse in the past though, so he worked around to the conclusion that he'd possibly survive this experience intact as well.
It was comfortable in the dark behind his pillowcase, and he fought cloudy memory to bring back as much of the night as he could manage, including Zechs and Une and the awful day, and coming back here to talk. He remembered what he'd told him, and all of what he'd said. Contrary to popular belief, he was not a forgetful drunk. Alcohol slowed down his reaction rate and eased much of his muscle tension, little else. Zechs had planned on sleeping on the sofa last night. This morning. Whatever.
Wufei had been pretty sure Zechs wouldn't fit on it as it barely accepted Wufei's own length, and though it wasn't nearly as bad as Heero's, Trowa had still complained and threatened to put knives in it the last time he'd had to crash on it.
Suddenly it hit him that this was the opportunity he had been waiting for to catch Zechs completely unguarded and relaxed. Curiosity would be the death of him; Wufei knew that for a fact. Even as a child, his parents couldn't keep him from exploring places, taking things apart, trying to fit all of the odd-shaped pieces into his mental boxes. Right now he wanted nothing more than to know what Zechs looked like asleep, no tension, no masks, and no mirroring off of Wufei's own actions and reactions. Just the man alone and emotionally naked, and as vulnerable as Wufei was likely to ever see him.
God he'd looked good last night. Somewhere in his mind Wufei realized that a part of him still idolized this particular man. Zechs seemed bigger than life in so many ways--his presence during the wars, his close relationship to Treize and Relena... The three of them had changed the direction of the world as he now knew it, and here the uncrowned prince rested, sleeping in Wufei's living room on a secondhand sofa. How strange the twists and turns of fate, and how unexpected their eventual outcome.
There was an odd conflict in his head when he thought of Zechs, and he had yet to resolve it to his satisfaction. Which man was he? Really? And what one was Wufei hoping he'd turn out to be? Uncomfortable questions, but they could wait for later, he wanted to see Zechs sleeping now, and he certainly didn't want to question his motives as to why this was suddenly so important.
Life was too short for those sorts of questions.
He employed stealth techniques to approach the living room undetected, but they were completely wasted on the empty room; Zechs was gone. Gone gone? Wufei walked over to the sofa, discretion discarded behind him and a cheated empty feeling in his chest. The blankets were neatly folded. No note, no trace left behind. He wandered into the kitchen to find the evidence of the previous night: two bottles, two glasses, a corkscrew, and a dish towel with a red stain on it.
Zechs had said they had the next two days off to, what was it? To work this out? No question what 'this' was. And Une had allowed this? Time off to settle a dispute between partners? It was unheard of. Preventers didn't coddle agents; they threw them together and made them work. If two agents were incompatible, they were reassigned until a match was found. Zechs had asked for time to settle this? Or had he been told to 'fix' the situation so Wufei would be easier for Une to work with once Zechs was back on Planet Hell (as he un-fondly referred to his prior home). Come to think of it, Wufei had been the only one to use that dangerous "we" in reference to their future at Preventers. Zechs had just smiled that odd, satisfied smirk of his and moved on.
That in itself was unsettling.
Wufei pushed that thought around in his mind while he showered and dressed. He had a day off, perhaps two, and he hadn't a clue what to do with it. He was on the verge of ringing Une and asking her what her plans were for him when the entrance chime rang. A running walk through the living room proved his cautious hope--Zechs was in the security lens. Other than dark sunglasses that intensified the contrast of his hair, he showed no signs of his consumption earlier that day. Hell, he just looked good, and Wufei wasn't sure he was all that pleased with where those thoughts were leading him. What Zechs did to faded denim should be illegal, but would have done wonders for their advertising campaign.
He opened the door, and Zechs smiled slightly down at him. Damn the man was tall. Wufei studied the odd blue-gray eyes carefully through his glasses for any sign on censure. None was evident, so he assumed that they were still on speaking terms.
And still partners, good. Zechs had a paper bag under his arm and another in his hand. He handed the larger of the two to Wufei and invited his way into his apartment, setting the bag on the coffee table and unpacking its contents--gourmet coffee, an assortment of danish and sweet rolls, juice in plastic cartons.
"You have the morning papers in that one." Zechs indicated the bag in Wufei's hand with a negligent wave and sat down on the corner of the sofa, waiting for Wufei's reaction. His smile didn't abate, if anything it grew wider. "You feeling okay, Chang?"
"You brought me breakfast?"
Zechs folded the bag and set it aside. "Us, actually. I was planning on eating some of this myself."
Wufei felt that he was obviously still missing something of key importance. "Why?" Why was Zechs here? Why was he looking out for his interests? Why did he care enough to do this?
"You don't have anything worth eating in your refrigerator."
"I know that." Wait a second... the pieces were coming together. "How do you know that?"
"You sent me in for the second bottle last night. I took a moment to look around."
Okay, Wufei was out of questions and realized that he probably looked ridiculous standing there in his sock feet with a bag of newspapers in his hands. He tried a second time to get through to his mentally obtuse partner.
"No, why are you here?"
That got Zechs attention, and Wufei watched the warm smile melt from his features with growing discomfort. Wufei hadn't meant it to sound accusing, but it was too late to retract his words now.
Zechs considered the question carefully, reading the nuances and the unstated questions behind it.
"We're partners, right?"
No question about it. "Yes."
"You had a rough day yesterday, right?"
Well, they both had, but that rather went without saying. Wufei didn't answer that one, preferring to glare sideways at Zechs instead.
Zechs handed over a still-hot cup of coffee. "This is what partners do for each other, Chang. It's important to support each other, that's how you survive to make it through to the next day." He read Wufei's puzzlement easily. "You've never worked closely with anyone before? Never had a partner?"
"Does training with Po count?" He waited for the quick shake of Zechs' head. "Well then no, not really."
"Well, this," he lifted the danish, "is part of it."
Wufei considered that idea carefully before pronouncing judgment. "I could get used to this." He sat down with his coffee and reached for a roll and watched Zechs' smile came back. Hoping desperately that he wasn't just indulging in wistful thinking...
Une didn't seem impressed that they were still partners when they returned to HQ for their assigned shift. However, she did give them a sideways look as she walked into the A.M. review session. The matching logo baseball caps might have had something to do with it. The two of them got a few weird looks from the third and first shift as well. The caps had been Zechs' idea. They'd spent a few hours of the weekend roaming around the historic district of the city and he'd insisted on buying souvenirs. Wufei wondered what sort of rumors they'd be starting. Carlon's crack about their mother dressing them funny had been the least risqué of the lot.
Zechs hadn't even twitched at the more suggestive labels that had been tossed around the break room. Wufei had felt his face grow uncomfortably warm, and wondered about his partner's lack of response. Had he set up the situation intending to let the power of suggestion influence Wufei, had he done it to relax his standing within the squad, or was Wufei just so fixated on his partner at this point that it just seemed so obvious? Surely Zechs knew what the response to the matching hats would be, but then again, Wufei hadn't been expecting it. Hell, this was getting complicated. He needed to run his thoughts past an impartial ear.
He made a mental note to stop by Sally's office and see what she thought of all this. She'd worked partnered with various people in assorted agencies for years, and had a real intuitive sense for how people related to each other. Wufei trusted her implicitly, but he didn't really want to let anyone in on what he was asking her about either. He didn't really understand what was going on in his own head yet, and this wasn't exactly something he could take to the Preventers' shrink. No now, not yet, not ever.
"So has he stopped following you around yet?"
Wufei shrugged and turned to Heero, "I'm assuming that Duo has told you absolutely everything about my personal life, so you require no updating?"
Heero laughed lightly. "You assume correctly. No more letters since all of us met the last time then?"
Wufei slid his ale from one side of the small table to the other. "No, no more letters."
Duo pressed onward. "You still haven't answered my question."
Heero leaned back in his chair with a smug expression. "He doesn't have to."
Duo glared back at Heero and threatened to stab him with one of the toothpicks pulled from their appetizer. "What do you mean by that comment?"
Heero leaned back a bit further and pointed at the tall man sitting quietly by himself at the bar, nursing a drink and ignoring the table of three along the side of the room. "I'd say that it's obvious that he does."
Duo's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "When did he come in?"
"A few minutes ago." Heero nudged Duo under the table, warning him of what he was about to do. "Wufei? He's your partner. Go ask him to join us."
Duo kicked him back, a little more vengefully than Heero'd anticipated. He hissed and bit back a curse, but waited until Wufei had left the table before asking, "Did you forget that you were wearing your boots?"
The answer was a dark and sullen, "No."
"Listen, I know you don't like the man. I know you said that he betrayed Howard's trust during the war when he left for the White Fang, but he did some things at the end of the war you don't know about that... well..." But there was no time to elaborate then, not with the subject at hand returning to the table behind Wufei, looking a little uncertain about his place with the circle.
Duo glanced up at their approach, and Heero tensed, but held his ground, waiting.
Wufei stood for a moment at the side of the small table, taking in Heero and Duo's combined front on one side, the two empty chairs on the other. Duo was already glaring. "Zechs Merquise. Heero Yuy. Duo Maxwell." A tense silence followed the stilted introduction.
Zechs nodded politely and settled into the empty chair, looking very unsure of his welcome.
Duo smiled. "It's okay Zechs, I don't bite. Much."
Heero reached down and rubbed his shin. "No, he kicks instead."
Zechs folded his hands protectively around his pint of ale and glanced at Wufei. "Chang did mention that I should wear protective gear when meeting his friends..."
Wufei chuckled at that, and the tension eased somewhat, with the four of them spending the evening civilly, if not companionably, over a meal and easy topics of conversation until Zechs made excuses to return to the office for some files before heading back to his apartment for the evening.
Duo gave him a hard look as he rose from his chair. "I hear in some parts of the EarthSphere, you're still a wanted man Zechs."
Zechs turned and winked at Wufei as he left the table. "Well, one can only hope..." And with that, I believe that I have outstayed my welcome, and beg my leave of you for the evening." He passed his credits to Wufei and bowed slightly to the three of them. "Gentlemen."
Duo shook his head as he departed. "Is he always like that?"
Wufei watched him go. "No, not always."
Early the next morning, he found Zechs at his desk, still crammed sideways into their small office. He was reading through a copy of the report they'd filed just last night, but Wufei could tell that his attention was on him. They hadn't discussed this openly between them, and Wufei would have chosen a better place to do it if he'd had the option. But he'd let this slide for months now, and now that it had come to light, brought up during the course of their meal with Duo and Heero the night before, he simply couldn't let it rest.
Zechs had dismissed it out of hand, casually let it go, but it had taken hold in his own heart, and Wufei couldn't help but see how it had ridden the undercurrent of their partnership, waiting for an opportunity to surface.
Wufei pulled the door shut behind him, and leaned on it.
Zechs looked up from his paperwork with an expression that told him the topic was closed, nailed shut, and dared him to do or say anything about it.
"You know then?"
Zechs sighed deeply and surrendered to his question. "That you were the one who killed him? Yes."
Zechs' expression collapsed in on itself. Wufei watched him rebuild his resolve before his eyes, amazed at the inner strength it took to do that... in a public space... with a man who was still a relative stranger standing in front of him demanding answers to unasked questions. He didn't expect any more of him, and was surprised when he continued.
"Chang... Treize was my best friend, the closest thing I had to any real family, and I knew his strengths and weaknesses in combat situations nearly as well as he knew his own." Zechs paused, gathering himself for something. "Chang..." He stopped, looked up at the ceiling fixture, tried to gather his thoughts. He stared directly at his partner and his tone softened, "Wufei... There was no way you could have defeated him unless he intended for you to do so. I... I do not hold you in any way responsible for your actions. You were merely his selected tool of execution."
Wufei gathered himself to protest, to take some measure of blame for his actions. When suddenly it all clicked into place: the pace of the duel, the intentional opening too basic for him not to take advantage of, the strike that wasn't met with a calculated parry, the unexpected ease of the great man's death. It all made sense now, but it had taken the insight of someone who knew Treize to connect all the pieces together for him. He slumped hard against the door. "I... never thought of it that way."
Good lord, he'd come to the office with the idea of comforting Zechs, and instead, the man had neatly reversed the favor.
Wufei knew he was wearing the relief he felt slack on his face for Zechs to see, and all he could think of was that, instead of enduring endless sleepless nights, his next psych analysis should go infinitely smoother.
All that death had had a collective weight on his soul. The lives he'd taken before their final paths had been determined. Even during times of necessity, and war, the individuals stood clear, framed in his mind. All of the souls he'd personally had a hand in shifting from this plane to the next, and the personal guilt he'd felt over Treize's death had slowly eaten away at him for years.
His partner had wiped that stain from his soul in mere seconds, and he found himself deeply in his debt for doing so.
The next day Une asked Zechs to remain for a moment after the morning briefing meeting. Wufei had looked up at them, concerned and briefly suspicious, but Une had spoken up then, said something to Zechs about "a question about your medical paperwork, nothing more," and had then turned to address Wufei. "I'll send him back to you unmolested once my secretary is done with him. Promise."
Once out of range of Wufei and the other agents, she had questioned Zechs on his progress so far, his opinion of Wufei, his feelings on Preventers' security measures, and what progress he had made since last she spoke with him. She admitted that information ripped by the data feed was being used to compromise additional active cases. Two thus far, and that she needed results to show to her superiors.
He wasn't pleased with the direction his instincts had been talking him. Une had managed to smuggle him some additional information on the security breaches and he'd pinned them alongside the dates that Wufei had received his threatening letters. Zechs then added his own comments and notes on top of the electronic pinboard's other data, and it was becoming cluttered. Through that clutter of information though, he was expecting a pattern to emerge. He'd assisted on cold case files for the Specials in-between troop movements, and it had been his experience that the solution, the answer he was looking for, would be found somewhere in the data he was given. Brainwork, puzzles, and finding points of connection--something he used to excel at, but now he found himself somewhere in a higher norm. Brilliant for a teenager was very different than the same intelligence hosted in an adult frame. He'd found expectations in Preventers were very different.
Zechs read over all of the data again. It hadn't changed in the interim, but the more familiar he became with it, the easier it would be for his subconscious to process the data while he slept or lived within his basic daily life. His active thoughts wouldn't be nearly as useful as the instincts and hunches his brain would assemble while operating as background noise or at least, that was his hope, as there was nothing so far in the surface that was obvious to him.
He'd no solid leads on Wufei's stalker--but his suspicion was that it wasn't just another Preventers agent with access and motive. A very short list of suspects had made his cut thus far, and none of them fit the psychological profile that had been generated by Preventers' experts.
Personnel records next then. Une had provided him with a duty roster for all Preventer staff and consultants from the time Wufei received his first letter to the present day. Zechs had to ask for it; Une hadn't missed the implication.
Despite her early thoughts that it was an inside job, she didn't like it.
He patiently fed the new data into his system, person by person, each additional name a new thread in the increasing tapestry of connections. He had one hundred forty seven possible points of contact. Although this would take him awhile, this wasn't a situation where he could afford to ask for help. Une's extreme caution, though an unwelcome burden, had been an astute judgment call. For a situation this delicate, an outside view like his was necessary. Hopefully he wouldn't disappoint her faith in him. Time to make a few calls then, one of them to his new contact.
Heero returned his inquiry a few hours later. "You rang?"
Zechs looked over Heero's shirt with an appraising eye. "Nice shirt, Heero."
"I'm fairly certain that Howard purchases them in bulk lots and dispenses them as gifts system-wide."
"I recognize the pattern. AC197?"
Heero nodded. "Christmas. What can I do for you, Zechs? I assume this isn't a social call."
Zechs leaned back, putting more distance between him and the camera lens, giving Heero the illusion of negotiating room. "Information, of course."
"Paid or unpaid?"
"I need to know which files were accessed and when, and if possible, through which log-on accounts. Une has listed two breeches of the system protocol since my arrival on Earth, which should be enough to give you a strong indication of which user ID is..."
"Hang on, Zechs. Une won't pay for that."
Zechs waved his hand at the monitor. "Then I will. I need to know that information in order to proceed. I'm working with too many variables and that's the best way to narrow the field down."
Heero was silent on the other end of the connection, staring at Zechs.
"Okay, Heero. What aren't you telling me?"
"Do you think Wufei could be involved in this?"
He thought about that for a moment. "I haven't come across any information that eliminates him from the pool of applicants, but..."
Zechs sighed and smiled lightly at Heero. "This is Wufei we're talking about here. He takes his honor and commitment seriously." He pinched the bridge of his nose, thinking hard again for a moment before committing himself. "No, no I don't think he'd be involved in something like this. He's damn near a model agent. The only way I can see him becoming involved is if, like the Mariemaia Incident, he believed himself in the moral right about something and was working to right a wrong. I don't believe that's the case here." He watched as Heero stared patiently back at him from the flat surface of the monitor. "So, did I pass your test?
"Une won't pay for that information because she's already paid for it once."
"Ah." He waited. Heero either would volunteer the rest of the information, or withhold it at this point. Further attempts at extracting it would likely be useless.
"Wufei's account number was the one that was accessed, hence Une's focus on the investigation. Wufei was on assignment at the time, but the fact that his account was used implicates him, and I can't ask Wufei about the details without revealing my involvement as a private consultant to Une on the case."
"Ah... I see. That is a problem. But it helps, Heero. Thank you."
Zechs, armed with this new information, went back through the personnel records and cross-checked all of those with access to the data and access to Wufei. He went back and re-checked to see who worked with and trained with Wufei, and still came up with an approved and cleared list of Preventer agents. Frustrated, disbelieving that Wufei could possibly have had any involvement, he went back to Une. "Commander?"
"Yes, what is it this week?"
"I'll need a cleared list of all personnel issued access badges to that portion of the building, from cleaning personnel on up, all shifts. Any person who may have come into contact with a password or terminal used to access or download the information."
"I'll have Heero forward that to your encrypted account. Will that be all?"
"Yes, for the moment."
"Are you making any progress?"
He hesitated, not wanting to appear too hopeful, yet not wishing to let her down either. "Some, yes."
"Let us hope for the sake of our active cases that 'some' becomes 'more' and soon."
Zechs resigned himself to more sleepless nights, as time was limited, the new information was plentiful, and he seemed to be the only resource she trusted to work through it all.
It wasn't until later that week that another layer of connections occurred to him. Zechs hadn't seen it at first, but there was an entire staffing layer at Preventers that moved in and out of offices and handled case files with near invisibility. Wufei had taken the time to review one of his earlier cases with Zechs, and Wufei been sitting on the edge of his desk and flipping through the hardcopy file when an intern had entered with the supplemental material. And it hit Zechs then--the intern and volunteer staff. Hell, how could he have missed that? He scribbled a frantic mental note to himself to catch Une in his travels and arrange to get a file of interim staff as well.
He sighed; at this rate, his night job would take more hours than his day job.
Une looked askance at him when he asked her for the list of intern staff after he'd walked into her office under pretense of asking her for information on retirement benefits. She knew full well that he'd never retire from Preventers and had no need for any of the information on pension plans, but she humored his request for a cover story by requesting the backup information from her secretary, whose real name turned out to be Turner. Ms. Turner delighted in pleasing Une, and hauled out all of the support files, information books, and subscription forms for Zechs to walk through. Zechs, busy stacking the endless forms, decided that he would find some way to repay Une for this sublime torture later. Une addressed her as her personal assistant. Zechs decided that he liked Duo's description of her as relayed by Wufei, Renfield indeed.
An hour later, after he'd signed more forms at Une's insistence than was probably wise to do without his legal advisor present, she slipped him a disk with his requested data on it.
More work for him tonight.
He wondered what Wufei would say of he ever found out that he was listed as the beneficiary of Zechs' pension plan.
Wufei set his papers down on the edge of his desk, and paused. Something wasn't right. It took his fried neurons a few long minutes of scrambling around in the gray matter to figure it out. Zechs hadn't been speaking English, Wufei had automatically replied in Chinese, which meant...
"You speak Cantonese?"
Zechs looked up from his paperwork and took a sip from his coffee, wincing when he found it too hot to drink.
"I can speak and say a few polite words in about ten or so languages and dialects. I was taught the basics as a young child, learned mostly for state introductions and greeting dignitaries and the like. Apparently, if children are exposed to a language before puberty, the accent is much improved; languages learned later in life carry a distinct accent. For some reason it seemed important for me to retain some portion of my language skills after Sanq fell."
Zechs turned back to his papers after that, but Wufei had to wonder exactly how much Zechs had understood of his conversation with Sally in the break room a few weeks ago. He found that thought... unsettling.
It took Zechs three nights to input the new data and overlay it against what he'd collected, with no better results than he'd had so far. The connections he was looking for simply weren't there to be found. At least not yet. Once he'd exhausted the logical and systemic exploration of options that Wufei favored, he'd be left with his random gut hunches. He'd had mixed luck with those in the past. Why Une thought he had any talent in this area, he had no idea. Why she thought he was important enough on this case to pull him back from the far reaches of explored space, well, he hadn't a clue there either. Anything important enough to require the resources of two of the only six surviving Gundam pilots... well, it was either very important, or someone high enough in the control hierarchy had demanded haste and discretion. He was betting on the latter scenario, which made him feel marginally better about the work he was stumbling through. He needed to avoid unnecessary distractions; but there still existed the captivating puzzle of his partner.
He picked up his partner's personnel file and flipped back to the now familiar photo.
It was a small conceit of his, referring to his partner as 'Wufei' in his head when it was 'Chang' that Zechs called him with his voice. 'Wufei' had a softness to it, a resilience at odds with the strength of his family name. He'd know for a while now that Wufei was a direct descendant of the Long Clan, a group so feared by the political associations on Earth that they had been exiled to their own colony in space, a colony now destroyed by their own hand. Wufei was a true son of those imperial dragons, and he showed that strength in every aspect of his character: proud, strong, fiercely protective. But Zechs preferred to remind himself of the other side of Wufei's soul, the part where he suspected that acceptance and forgiveness lay. Chang was the name of an adversary; Wufei that of a friend or intimate.
He wanted most desperately to call him Wufei.
It was while he was distracting himself from the puzzle in front of him that his mind slipped into that middle distance where he did most of his best thinking. Zechs discovered that, while concentrating on the pieces, he'd missed the very pattern he was looking for. For a moment, his mind refused to put together the evidence that had been sitting in front of his eyes, but in that moment of mental lapse, it all clicked together. The fusion points practically glowed with intensity. Only two suspects emerged from his overlays.
Une would be pleased with neither of them.
The floating interns. The damn interns. The same ones that wandered around the building with impunity and a rare level of access to files and classified work material. There were two who had been working with Wufei's case files at the correct time. Could either of them have lifted his access code? Or was he dealing with two levels of access, one to steal the code, and one to access the system and take the data?
It might work. If the interns were involved, the threats might be cover to divert attention from Wufei's account while they transferred to another office location. It would explain the access, the motive... but it was a thin possibility. Still, Une had requested that he bring any of his ideas directly to her attention, no matter how far fetched, and there was no denying that these two individuals had the necessary access.
Zechs took them to her personally, as this wasn't news he could entrust to a voice message or encrypted note. It was early next morning, an hour before the official start of his shift when he walked into her office. Renfield was suspiciously absent, which was all to the better. Une was watching her coffee cup with a serious look of mistrust when he entered her office and shut the door. Her right eyebrow raised in an unspoken question when she heard the door click shut. He walked over and set the sheet of paper in front of her.
"I will need detailed personnel records for these two people." He hesitated, unsure of how he wanted to phrase his other request. He settled for the straightforward truth. "And I would like permission to discuss this investigation with my partner at this point."
Zechs watched her face carefully for any sign of reaction, but she had her closed face on and he couldn't read her at all. He sat down in front of her desk and patiently awaited her decision. He really wanted the opportunity to talk about this with his partner, as Wufei had access to firsthand experiences with both of these people, and, well, he had to admit that concealing this investigation from Wufei had been bothering him. His partner was too honest and forthright a person to be held in any question, and while Zechs fully understood the reasoning behind Une's decision, he believed that he had already cleared Wufei from any hint of collusion or involvement. Still, Une did not answer, but her shield had slipped enough that he could tell she was considering her options.
She looked up at him, than back to the two names he'd placed in front of her, and then considered a moment more before... "No, Zechs, I know you've asked before, but I don't want Chang involved at this stage of the investigation. Once I have the data I need, I will discuss the matter with him personally."
Hang on. "I couldn't find any direct evidence that he allowed either of those people access to the information you are concerned with."
"Still, my decision stands. You will not enlighten him on this matter." She looked at the paper again; she didn't look pleased with either of the names Zechs had hand delivered. "I... will gather more information on these individuals through my other intelligence sources and get back to you. I need you to remain impartial on this."
"Your agent is not so impartial at the moment." Zechs studied the carpet between his boots, it was easier than meeting her condemning glance. It might not be there yet, but it would be shortly. He ticked off mental seconds in his head: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4...
"Zechs?" Seven whole seconds; she was slowing down, and there was a definite 'oh dear god what has he gone and done now' tone behind her one-word query.
"Chang is an honest man and a superior agent for Preventers."
"Zechs?" There was a new tone in her voice, a cautionary one.
"And I've enjoyed partnering with him. He's one of the very few people I've worked with since the end of the war that has accepted me on the basis of my current skills, and not my past history."
This time she received his silence. He'd asked, he was willing to go that far, but he wouldn't beg for the privilege from her. Neither would he enlighten her beyond what he'd already confessed.
"Not this time. I'll handle the research on the personnel you're investigating, but you're not to mention anything to Chang."
He nodded. Yes, he understood. He might not like it, he might not approve of her ethics, but he would obey her directive.
"I understand." If she needed it in words, he could certainly deliver them. Zechs stood to leave, but hesitated at the door to look at his superior. She'd aged in the past few minutes, betrayed by her trust in her agents. Misplaced trust. Zechs had elected to rest his own faith in Wufei. He trusted him. He wasn't so sure that he could trust Une any longer; she'd played too fast and loose with his ethics in the past.
He was switching allegiances.
So be it.
Une watched her agent carefully close the door behind him as she left, then opened a file on her desk, and considered Treize's portrait for a moment before dialing an outside line.
Her suspicions alone hadn't given her enough to proceed. Her suspicions combined with Merquise's two names, well, that was a different story entirely.
A fit, nondescript man in his early forties picked up the other end of the connection, caught midway between answering the line and straightening his tie.
His expression quickly changed from mild curiosity to riveted attention; he'd been expecting this call. "Boss?"
"This is a secure line." She paused to consider her next words, selecting them with precision. "That information we've been waiting for hit my desk this morning. Is your team prepared and ready to move?"
If possible, Chelsea's eyes gleamed brighter--the game was afoot. "Yes, Commander. We've set up three working scenarios and have been running drills since you appropriated us. Do you have the specific details on the target and situation?"
"Yes. We have two targets under investigation, but I would like you to concentrate your initial effort on only one. I will courier the information to you personally. This is too sensitive to risk to a carrier."
"It's inside, isn't it?"
Une neither confirmed nor denied Chelsea's statement. She paused, hand over the call-termination button, "I'll meet you at the north contact point in ten minutes," and her screen faded to blue.
She pushed her chair away from the desk, and paused to look back at Treize. "I hope, wherever you are, that you realize what you've done. I suspect that both of my agents will be worthless to me after this entire situation collapses."
Wufei watched appreciatively as his partner sighted smoothly along the top of his sidearm and thought to himself that, this was a man supremely confident of his ability with a weapon. He waited patiently while Zechs rhythmically emptied his clip and ejected the empty cartridge and shot a new one home. After which, he thumbed the safety into place and visually checked it before holstering his gun and turned to face Wufei, not at all startled at the interruption. He looked... relaxed.
Wufei watched as Zechs removed his safety glasses and absently reached over to flick the motor switch that rewound his last target back to the station. Wufei nodded at him. "Renfield called, Une wants to see us at 0900."
Zechs nodded in acknowledgement, pulled his nearly perfect score from the clips, folded it in half, and dropped it into the waste bin under the convenience shelf.
That particular action widened Wufei's eyes marginally. He knew men on the squad that would have slept with that score under their pillow for weeks, or at the very least had the page matted and framed under real glass. That brand of casual acceptance of his skill without drawing attention to it was something he'd only seen in four other people of his acquaintance. No small wonder why Une had accepted Zechs' request to re-join Preventers. Or had she? How had an ex-Alliance, cum ex-Ozzie, cum ex-White Fang, cum ex-Preventer wound up back here on Earth? And why? She must have had a very good reason for reenlisting this particular man. It was suspicious as hell.
Zechs snapped a clean target into the clips on the frame before replying. "I have a meeting with Richards at 0830. I'll meet up with you outside of her office five minutes before then, okay?"
"That works. I have a few calls I need to return, and evidence I need to review before we run it back to the storage facility this afternoon."
Zechs turned to leave his station on the firing range. "Sounds good to me. I'll call you if I need anything before our meeting with Une."
Wufei turned and snarled at the vid, "What the hell is it now, Merquise?"
Heero returned a mild look at him from the surface of the viewer. "So it's Merquise, now, is it? Interesting development."
Wufei couldn't help the slight reddening of his face.
"He's been getting on my nerves lately, and I was expecting him to call with some piddling excuse of a waste of time, hence the less-than-familiar form of address. And the reason for your call, Heero?" Wufei tried without success to keep his tone even and professional. The truth was though, Heero had managed to rattle his composure somewhat. Wufei peered into the monitor. Was it his imagination? Or did Heero seem to be a bit uncomfortable himself?
Heero held his breath, then released it slowly, plunging forward into forbidden territory. "This... breaches a contract. And I know how sacred you hold the given word."
Wufei considered that. "That you both know and are on my vid and talking to me peaks my interest. Talk to me, Heero."
"It's about the... other case Merquise is working on."
A hesitant Heero was an unfamiliar creature to Wufei. Even Duo was approaching him oddly from the other room in the background of the monitor screen. "Is this regarding Simmons or the Marketplace murders?"
Heero coughed under his breath prior to proceeding. "The one involving... you, actually."
Wufei's stunned expression told Heero everything he needed to know. "He didn't mention anything to you, did he? And you didn't suspect?"
Wufei moved in closer to the monitor camera and took a seat. "What. Case. Involving. Me?"
"He's been reopening and reviewing your closed cases and sending reports to Une. He's also been monitoring your transmissions."
Wufei waved his hand at the monitor. "All Preventer terminals are monitored, and old cases are common proper..." He broke off his sentence when he saw the way Heero was shaking his head. "What?"
Heero just shook his head. "Not just Preventer terminals. Private transmissions too."
Wufei's eyes grew wide. "He can't do that. They aren't allowed to do that."
"How did you find ou... Wait... That contract job that Duo mentioned that was taking up all of your free time." Wufei gave Heero a calculating look. "You?"
A terse nod was granted in return.
"You could lose your license for telling me about this. Get kicked off of that super secret internal Preventer investigative squad even I'm not supposed to know about."
"I know. I decided to call you anyway. This has gone on long enough. You should have been informed about Merquise's involvement from the beginning."
Wufei returned the serious look. "Thank you, Heero. I owe you one."
"You can return the favor by never again missing one of Duo's holiday gatherings. Heero out." A secure transmission logo flashed briefly across the screen before the monitor returned to the standard send/accept screen.
Wufei stared at the monitor until his vision blurred. He'd been set up.
This time, he really was going to kill Zechs.
But first, he was going to get the man out of his office. No more spying on him from the comfort and convenience of a neighboring desk. If Zechs wanted to find out what he was up do, he could damn well spy on his life and his casework and his well... anything else he damn well pleased to monitor from the other side of the door, the room, another floor, or preferably, if Wufei could manage to arrange for it, Mars.
Wufei pulled an empty box from the file room and stormed back into his crowded office, box in hand. Seasoned agents ducked their heads and pretended other business as he passed them, muttering paint-peeling curses.
He pulled all of Zechs' personal effects from the drawers, the walls, the narrow locker in the corner of the room, and then, as the pièce de résistance, he topped the box with the hat he'd bought during their city outing, the one that matched his own, and centered the box on the center of the desk.
He went to his own desk, took the twin cap to Zechs', and shoved in his bottom drawer, and then he went off searching through the building for his soon-to-be-very-ex-partner. No one made jokes about him losing his partner this time around. Not after they saw Wufei's expression. But as he searched through the building trying to find him, he had second thoughts about confronting him directly. What if Heero was wrong about the case Zechs was working on? What if Une had asked Zechs to do something else? Or maybe the information Heero was collecting was going elsewhere. He would simply sit back and let the situation play out on its own. Maybe. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to give the man a chance.
He slowed down his search, and met up with Zechs in front of Une's office as planned.
Right on schedule.
The two met outside Une's office, since they were already running late. The Renfield woman watched the two of them shift in their chairs outside of Une's door, waiting. Wufei thought she enjoyed watching them squirm; Zechs knew it for the truth. The insurance and investment forms had been sheer torture to fill out and complete.
Wufei thought that Zechs seemed a bit more unsettled than was normal for him, but didn't think much of that now that he had that additional information, courtesy of Heero's insight. He heard Une slam something on her desk; her office was thoroughly soundproofed, and it took real volume for anything to penetrate her door. Wufei wondered briefly what had upset her so. Then the door opened without any announcement from Renfield, and Une stood there. Apparently she'd just been on the phone; there was no one else in the room.
Both of them stood automatically when she entered the waiting area, and she gave first Zechs, and then him, a penetrating look in turn. This wasn't good news, he'd never seen her this serious before. Wufei's first thought was that something had happened to one of his friends, his second was confusion.
Wufei moved towards her, Zechs did as well, but she waved him off. "Just Chang; not you, Merquise. You can wait out here."
Zechs passed a quick, alarmed look at him, and then hesitantly sat while Wufei allowed Une to precede him into her office. She turned and faced him as soon as the door closed. Her coffee cup was centered perfectly on her desk, full and untouched. It was ten in the morning. Something was seriously wrong for Une to break her pattern this significantly.
"Chang? Please sit down. You are not going to like this."
Wufei had never been at ease in her office, and this morning was no exception. He balanced carefully on the edge of one of her uncomfortable chairs and waited for her to drop her news. She was adding courtesies to her speech, had warned him in advance, and seemed to be having difficulty composing herself. She finally settled on sitting on the corner of her desk, and he could only assume that she did it in an effort to seem more supportive. Definitely very bad news then.
"Those letters we've received threatening your life?"
Of course, those; he waved off her concern. "It happens all of the time."
"Not like this it doesn't. Your stalker was surprisingly well informed as to your whereabouts and activities." She paused to let that news sink in and shifted on the corner of the desk. "I assigned Merquise to you as both an investigative agent and as personal protection, should your stalker succeed at getting close enough to strike." She raised her hand to stop his automatic protest. "Yes, I am well aware that you can take care of yourself, but an extra set of eyes never hurts. Merquise has been systematically going through your past cases and call logs. He brought me his information last week, and I've acted on it, which is why I've called you here."
It was starting to sink in. Wufei had threats issued against him before. It was inevitable; he had been active enough during both wars and his career as a Preventers agent to have made any number of enemies. But this time Une had acted, she'd gone behind his back and used him as both bait and stalking horse with Merquise as her tool. He couldn't kill Une; she was beyond his reach, but Zechs? That blond-headed, sneaky, sanctimonious sonofabitch? He was going to choke him down as soon as Une released him from her clutches. Heero had been right after all. His partner had betrayed his trust in him, and he was going to find a way to pay Zechs back. The bastard hadn't changed at all since the war; always looking out for number one. Zechs had some real explaining to do, and then Wufei remembered his guarded look in the waiting room.
His partner had suspected that this was coming this morning.
"So, Zechs was just using me as a temporary decoy then; you never intended for me to have him as a permanent partner."
Wufei, staring at Une, froze, shocked at what he'd just admitted out loud. Even more surprised at what he'd just said. The statement hung heavy in the room between them, past all chance of retraction. He sat back hard in his seat, uncomfortably stunned by what he'd just confessed in front of his superior.
In his anger, he'd revealed to both Une and himself the core of his fear. He'd finally found his own unique equal, the one human being that had been impossible for him to domineer, and now he was going to lose him. He'd started to rely on Zechs for his balance and his insight, only to find that his trust in him had been so tragically misplaced. That hurt. A lot.
Une attempted to temper her statement. "Merquise wanted to tell you. He asked me on more than one occasion if he could fill you in on the details of the investigation, but I ordered him to silence."
"You investigated me..." Wufei's tone was accusing, flat, and dark, and it was meant to be.
She saw that his anger hadn't abated in the least at her confession, and she tried another direction. "For your own safety and that of my other agents, yes."
Wufei muttered to himself, and attacked the one person he could, since the person in the room was beyond him. "That sneaky, underhanded, evil sonofabitch."
Apparently he said that just a little to loud, for Une rose from her desk like an avenging angel and swooped down on him until her face was a handspan from his own. She held off from touching him, just, but made sure that he saw the level of control she was exercising. And then she consoled herself by giving him the verbal thrashing she thought he deserved.
"That man is the most loyal and dedicated soldier it has ever been my honor to serve with. He followed my orders to the letter, not without questioning my motives, as I'd expect for an agent versus a soldier, but he did as he was told to the very best of his ability, and he managed to put the pieces together to fit a puzzle that's been evading us for months. The man is a true and honorable agent, doing his job as I asked him to. You were a part of that job, yes, but I've never known him to tolerate idiots lightly. He has a deep respect for you, and you do him a disservice by questioning his morals and ethics."
Now she had him confused and misdirected. "But what about...?"
"Merquise was under express orders from Treize throughout the entire war. Everything was planned; Treize had no equal when it came to military strategy. At the end, Zechs was expected to forfeit his own life along with Treize. How many soldiers do you know that would be willing to die for a cause like that? How many men would be willing to forfeit their lives to defend the beliefs of their friends?" She gave him a moment to consider that question, and saw the answer in his face: precious few.
"Then at the end, when Treize's plan to shock the people of the world and space started to fall apart, Merquise decided to sacrifice his own life in order to save that of your friend, Yuy." She walked back to her desk with satisfaction written all over her stride. She'd shocked him, knew it, and was proud of her accomplishment.
"I thought Merquise was dead. We buried him in absentia while he was clinging to the edge of life in the Sweepers ship that picked him up as salvage. They put him back together, but it couldn't have been a simple or pain-free task given their limited access to medical technicians and supplies. And then do you know what he did?" She didn't wait for Wufei to formulate an answer. "He asked them to let him retain his anonymity, and he took a job working with the Sweepers--manual labor, scavenging, some piloting work.
"He did his level best to bury his past, and he did such a thorough job of it that, even though I searched for him with all of my available resources, I couldn't find any trace of him. Then the Mariemaia Incident came up, Merquise found out that his sister was in danger again, and he walked through my office door as if coming back to face his past meant nothing to him at all. Asked me for a code name; if I'd allow him to help." She still looked angry at Wufei, but he was slowly cooling off from her determined and convincing diatribe. "At the end, he left again, this time for a self-imposed exile on Mars, as far away from here as he could arrange to go. Noin followed him there, but came back within a year. Merquise was starting to set up a life again, had determined his path and was settling down, and what did I do? I needed his help, his level of dedication and discretion, and I called him to watch over you.
"I asked him to do that, and you will not think less of that man's ethics because I ordered him to not tell you what he was doing."
It was quite the longest and most impassioned speech Wufei had ever heard from her, and it effectively shut him down in his tracks. So, he had his answers now, and Heero's quiet faith and public confidence in Zechs suddenly made sense. He knew, and he hadn't told the rest of them. It had taken Une to reveal that, under extreme duress. Damn. Wufei realized that he'd probably reached the one time when Une would answer any of his questions, but his mind was so bludgeoned with her truths that he couldn't come up with even one. He tried another direction instead.
"Who else knows?"
She moved from her corner and walked behind her desk to take her seat, putting more distance than three feet of government-supplied polished oak between them. "Agent involvement was kept to a minimum to preserve your privacy, Chang. Other than a single data and electronics specialist, Merquise, and myself, no one else has had access to your confidential information and private call logs."
She settled herself back in her chair, met his eyes and held them fast while delivering her second bullet. "Chang? It was Whittaker, your intern. She had both access and means, and she was selling information to a source outside of the agency. She threatened you as part of her cover to her buyer. She told them that she had a personal vendetta against you, and was selling the information as a way to damage your credibility as an agent."
His mind spun. "Whittaker?"
Une picked up and waved a stack of papers from her desk. "Whittaker," she said with conviction. "Merquise came to me with his suspicions, and I was able to verify them through another agent." We ran a sting operation two nights ago to gain evidence, she fell into it, and we're holding her prior to her arraignment."
Now he was really pissed--this new betrayal on the heels of his distrust of the man who he'd come to rely on like the other half of himself. To respect like no other. Oh, he was angry. The situation might be beyond his control, but that didn't mean he had to take it sitting down.
Zechs knew it wasn't going well by the raised voices behind Une's reinforced door. He'd never heard Wufei raise his voice in anger before--get steely serious, cold and deadly, a rare delighted chuckle, yes--but not this violent rage. Une had clearly pressed him beyond his limits, it was either that or she'd just revealed his own involvement in this investigation, which was not a comforting thought. Zechs stood, paced, and sat down again as the voices rose and subsided behind the door.
As he stood to make another round through the waiting area, the door burst open behind him, and Wufei exploded out of it. He turned, and he turned on his partner... and the look of betrayal on his face froze Zechs where he stood, waiting for Wufei to pronounce judgment over his actions.
"You used me. You betrayed my trust in you."
He froze at Wufei's statement, and just when he thought he couldn't handle the silence any longer, Wufei's next words twisted the ice blade in his chest.
"You are no longer my partner. I won't work with you. Nothing you do or say can make me trust you again."
He walked past him, and left Zechs stricken in his wake. Wufei's eyes were dark and hard. There was no one home he could talk to--not now. But Zechs had to try.
There was a brief pause, barely a hitch in his stride.
"I'm more sorry than I can say that this had to happen."
"Don't give me apologies, Merquise. Just leave me alone."
Wufei didn't even turn to Zechs as he delivered his verdict; Zechs thought that was the most telling fact of all. Wufei left the room as if his partner didn't exist, and defeated, Zechs turned and walked into Une's office. She motioned him to a seat, and walked around him to close the door. In direct opposition to the reception by his partner, or ex-partner if Wufei had his way, the seat was still warm.
Une took her seat and reached into her desk, withdrawing a folder that she slid over the surface towards Zechs. He hesitated before accepting it, and pulled it closer, flipping it open and checking the contents.
"New identity cards, along with a transit pass to Mars dated for later this week. That should give you enough time to put the rest of your personal effects in order." She paused, giving him a moment to take it all in. "If there's anything else I can do..."
He looked up at her. "There is."
"I want a second chance at this."
That stopped her in her tracks. He seemed oddly earnest, even hopeful. Like a recruit that hadn't become jaded and still believed he could make a difference--that he might have a chance to right a wrong he'd made.
"We were a good team; we can be again. Give me a chance to convince him."
Une started to stand up from her desk, an incredulous look on her face. "You want to do this? You really want to do this?"
He knew she wasn't just talking about the job--though that was primary in her mind--she'd picked up on his interest--which could be good or bad depending on how far she thought he'd take measures to pursue it. He'd already given her enough data to exploit the situation. What was that old saying, 'in for a penny, in for a pound'? "It was good... very good... worth fighting for. Together we were better than either of us could be on our own, that's worth fighting for. But I need time to convince Wufei of that."
"You want to remain here on assignment? Permanently?" She realized that he was serious, and sat down again.
He met her eyes, tried to invest as much resolve and conviction behind his words as possible. "I can't lose this. It means too much to me now." He said 'it', but he meant 'him'; he believed Une knew that. He remembered his slip of tongue. It probably hadn't been wise to refer to his partner by his first name in front of Une. Her eyes were gleaming with repressed energy. She had him now, and she knew it.
He wondered bleakly what his admission would cost him.
"You do realize that it may be too late to salvage your partnership at this point."
"I have to try. You understand that, don't you?"
Zechs saw her shift her glance to the framed photo that never left her desk. Was she asking Treize what she should do? If she had done the right thing, made the right decision in involving him in this? He saw her find her answer before she turned back to him.
"I have a new assignment for you, and a new partner for it. Once that assignment is resolved to my satisfaction, I'll assign the two of you together again on a trial basis." She seemed to reach a decision within herself. I'll give you the chance you want, Zechs. It's your choice of what to make of it once you have the opportunity."
He stood, uncertain which direction to turn to next, and was halfway down the hallway to the main working levels of the building before he realized that he hadn't thanked her for the chance she'd just granted him--apparently contrary to her wishes and against her better judgment. He reached the doorway to his office before he realized that he didn't really have a reason to consider it 'his' any longer, unless Wufei would be willing to reconsider.
Zechs paused in the threshold. There was a box on his desk. Intrigued, he walked over to investigate. It held all of the personal items from his desk, carefully if hastily packed; the mug from Noin, the shrapnel fragment from Tallgeese that he used as a paperweight, even the baseball cap that he'd bought during that day when he and Wufei had played tourist and walked the city together after their first fight as partners.
Apparently Wufei had already made his decision for him. Dejected, he picked up the box and carried his last message from Wufei back to Une's office.
Wufei found himself falling back on the habits of his youth. When he needed time to think, when he wanted to retreat, he looked for a source of water to meditate by. There were no rivers or waterfalls within walking distance of the Preventers' office, but the memorial fountain in front of the municipal building had worked for him many times before. It had rained that afternoon, and the coping around the fountain was wet, but that didn't matter. He rested on the edge, concentrated on the sound of the water, using it to filter out the sounds of the traffic and pedestrians around him, and searched for his center. Once he attained it, he opened his internal focus and dissected his meeting with Une. It hadn't been one of his better sessions with her, and he wasn't at all proud of his behavior. What frightened him more was the realization of exactly why he'd lost control--and it came from such an unexpected source that he backtracked through both his mental exercises and the logic path twice before he dared admit it to himself.
He'd panicked over losing Zechs.
Not the death threats, not the betrayal by a trusted co-worker and confidant. Zechs. The man had been his partner for what? Months? Not long at all, but apparently quite long enough that he'd set his complete trust in him.
He hadn't felt this degree of closeness with anyone in his life before. Yet he suspected that this connection shared between him and his partner was more intense than what siblings felt for each other, or even some spouses. They lived in each other's lives, they depended on each other for everything, preserving their sanity, saving their sense of humor, and protecting each other's lives. Wufei hadn't wanted a partner, had vehemently protested Zechs' addition to his life.
And now he'd nearly written off a successful five-year career because Une had said that she never intended them to be permanent partners.
Or had she? Wufei carefully rewound the discussion in his head, but couldn't find any of the words he was certain she'd said to him.
And there was something else under this, something so dark and luring and forbidden that he couldn't give it a name. It had started when he'd first seen Zechs as a person instead of just a memory from the war, and it had intensified as he'd worked alongside him and learned more of what made him the complex and compelling man he was. Zechs had earned Wufei's respect, which was a difficult thing to do, and Wufei couldn't have confessed when he'd managed to do that if plied with torture. They'd been able to read each other from the start. Maybe it had been a part of being a Gundam pilot during the wars--an intensified instinct for this type of work, the intuitive reactions--he didn't know. He'd known partners that were close to each other, who could finish each other's words and make their respective spouses jealous with the level of intuitive communication they'd developed and the amount of off-duty time they spent together.
It wasn't uncommon, but it was unheard of after only three months together.
Wufei had put enough together in his head that he was starting to become aware of his surroundings and feel the dampness of the concrete underneath him. He stood, thanked the balancing effect of the water, and carefully navigated his way back to the office.
Zechs should be long gone by now, and he still had plenty of thinking to do.
He eased his way towards his office, the general room around him was notably quiet, the swing shift giving him no clues whether or not Zechs was still in residence. He braced himself, and looked through the doorway.
The box holding Zechs' personal items was gone.
Had Zechs taken the easy way out? Had he been looking for a way to end the partnership all along?
He supposed he would never know the truth behind the man's motivations now.