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Absolute Beginnings

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Peter: Thanks for the help.
Mozzie: Any time, Serpico.
Peter: Buy Jones lunch.
Mozzie: We'll see.
-- 2.16 Under the Radar

 

Clinton looked around the diner—low ceiling, paint peeling, scratched wooden tabletops and disreputable-looking denizens—and back to the little guy, Mozzie, who was sitting across from him, frowning at a faded, plastic-coated menu as if he were mentally decoding it.

Clinton still wasn't sure how they'd ended up here. "What is this place?"

"One of the few eating establishments in midtown that's in a traffic camera blindspot," said Mozzie, without looking up. "They do an excellent vegan aubergine parmigiana and have an impressive selection of teas."

"Huh." Clinton decided to wait for more information rather than pursuing the subject. Mozzie got chatty if you gave him space, but from what Clinton had observed over the last year or so, it didn't take much to make him spiral into paranoia.

Mozzie put his menu neatly to one side, adjusted it so it was meticulously in line with the corner of the table and reached into his messenger bag. He pulled out an envelope and tipped some photos into his hand. "Now it's my turn to ask the questions."

The top photo caught Clinton's eye. "Where did you get that?"

"Your apartment," said Mozzie, unabashed. "You don't think I'd consider dating a Suit without doing precautionary research, do you? Now, tell me about this one." He shuffled through the stack and pulled out a snapshot from a couple of years ago. Jeez, he must have gone through Clinton's albums to find that, not just the pinboard on the kitchen wall. Mozzie held it in full view of the people around them. "It's not that you're wearing the dress. I just wouldn't ever have pictured you in this particular shade of mauve."

"It was Halloween," said Clinton. "Wait, dating? How exactly did that seem like a good idea?"

Mozzie sat up straight and blinked behind his glasses. "Hold on a minute. This wasn't your idea?"

"Not me." Clinton resisted pulling his firearm and demanding the photos back at gunpoint. He folded his arms on the table instead and tried to look federal and authoritative.

Mozzie stuffed the photos back in the envelope, and the envelope into his bag. "There's been a misunderstanding," he said. "I should have known. Neal must be laughing himself sick."

He stood up to leave.

"Mozzie." Clinton kept his voice low, but Mozzie's reaction was electric. He halted and stared at Clinton as if he'd never seen him before. It made Clinton realize he'd never actually called Mozzie by name before, not to his face. "Why did you ask me to lunch?"

"The Suit told me to. Neal's Suit."

"You mean Peter," said Clinton, mostly to mess with him.

Mozzie ignored that. "I thought you asked him to. If I'd known my invitation was unsolicited, I would never have—" He shook his head.

Clinton leaned back in his seat. "Never?"

"I have standards!" said Mozzie, sounding mildly outraged. Clinton decided not to take offence. "I was prepared to consider—this being exceptional circumstances—but it's a mistake." He turned to leave again.

"Wait," said Clinton, before he could think better of it. "Sit down."

Mozzie stopped, but he didn't sit. "You G-Men never know when to cut your losses."

A waitress came over. Her gray hair was pulled into a bun and she wore horn-rimmed glasses like someone out of a Farside cartoon. "Hey, Mozzie. You here for lunch? What'll it be?"

Mozzie hesitated, so Clinton spoke up. "I hear the aubergine parmigiana's good. I'll have that and a coffee."

Mozzie peered at him suspiciously, as if to make sure Clinton wasn't laughing at him. Clinton just sat there, watching him, and after a long moment, Mozzie slid back into the seat opposite. "Make that two," he told the waitress. "Thanks, Gracie."

"Sure thing." Gracie wrote down the order and disappeared back behind the counter.

Clinton watched Mozzie fidget with his fraying bracelets, his round eyes on Gracie's retreating back. He looked like he was steeling himself for a run-in with The Man. Clinton hated to disappoint.

"I want those photos back," he said firmly.

"I'm prepared to negotiate their return." Mozzie's chin came up. "What do you have to bargain with?"

"Bargain with? They're my photos!" Clinton let his jacket fall open a fraction to reveal his shoulder holster.

Mozzie scowled, neither intimidated nor backing down. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law."

Unbelievable! Clinton leveled his gaze at the guy. "You do know you're talking to a federal agent, right?"

"Fine." Mozzie tipped the photos onto the table between them and started methodically wiping their edges with a handkerchief.

Clinton did his best to hide his amusement. "Give them back now and I promise not to dust them for prints."

"And I should trust you why?" asked Mozzie, absorbed in his task.

Clinton waited until he looked up, and then raised his eyebrows. He'd passed up dozens of opportunities to get Mozzie's prints since they'd been acquainted, and they both knew it.

Mozzie sighed and grudgingly slid the photos across the table. "Fine. Can I go now?"

"And miss out on your eggplant?" Clinton tucked the photos safely into his jacket pocket and relaxed a fraction. Even if that wasn't all of them, he had the most incriminating one back. He'd check with Neal later to make sure Mozzie hadn't made copies. "How about we start over?"

Gracie brought their coffee, and Mozzie ripped open a sugar packet and emptied it into his cup. He wiped his teaspoon with his handkerchief and stirred his coffee. "I'm prepared to consider it."

Clinton took a sip of his own coffee. It was surprisingly good. "Tell me something about yourself."

"I'm allergic to dust mites, mold and traffic cameras," said Mozzie. "What about you?"

"No allergies."

Mozzie glanced up suspiciously. "Was that mockery?"

"No."

Mozzie looked unconvinced.

Clinton wasn't sure how much more of this he could take. He tried a last-ditch attempt at small talk. "I like Jackie Chan movies and spaghetti westerns."

"Louis L'Amour?" Mozzie perked up.

"Yeah," said Clinton.

"A.B. Guthrie Junior, Jack Schaefer, Luke Short, Ray Hogan, Owen Wister, Zane Grey, Max Brand," said Mozzie, making each name a question.

"Zane Grey and Luke Short," said Clinton. "None of the others. Mostly I watch the movies."

"You should try Guthrie," Mozzie told him. "I'll lend you my copy of The Way West if you promise to take good care of it."

"I'm honored," Clinton told him.

Gracie brought their plates, and Mozzie settled in to eat.

He pointed at Clinton with his fork. "You should be honored. The last time I let someone borrow one of my books, it came back with a strong odor of stilton. I had to fumigate my entire library."

"I won't so much as think about cheese while I'm touching it, I swear," said Clinton. The weirdness of the conversation was catching up with him. He wasn't sure how they'd got from stolen Halloween photos to Zane Grey, let alone to this being a date. He hoped Peter had known what he was doing when he'd suggested this lunch. After witnessing the merry dance Caffrey led Burke, the last thing Clinton needed was his own personal crackpot CI.

If, on the other hand, this really were a precursor to something more personal, well—Mozzie was paranoid and strange, but he was smart too, not bad-looking and his eyes were kind of mesmerizing behind those thick lenses. And he was always entertaining. Clinton's self-preservation skills were strong, but given the hours he worked, he sure wasn't immune to expressions of sexual interest.

"All right then," said Mozzie.

Clinton had lost track of what they were talking about. Books? Cheese? He took a bite of his eggplant, which was tangy and just the right amount of sweet. It didn't taste vegan. "This is really good."

Mozzie inclined his head as graciously as if he'd cooked it himself.

Clinton grinned and settled in to enjoy his meal. The diner bustled around them, oddly soothing. After a few minutes, something occurred to him. "My apartment is off-limits."

Mozzie raised his eyebrows.

"Unless I'm there," said Clinton, caving to the inevitable. He was going to have to ask Peter for tips for self-defense against con artists.

Mozzie smiled cherubically. "Duly noted."