"Here. It's for you." The reporter
blinked at the mobile phone for a second, nonplussed, then slowly reached out to
take it from Heero's hand. "Mr. Yui, what -- who would call me on
your phone?" He looked at the tiny screen to see if a caller ID was
showing, but the only thing displayed was 'SPEAKER: ON'.
< < I hope you can all hear me clearly, > > Relena's voice came from the phone, < < because I'm certainly not in the mood to repeat myself. > >
He nearly dropped it, but managed to fumble it into a secure two- handed grasp as the other reporters surged forwards, pushing microphones and cameras toward the phone. "Minister Peacecraft! We've been trying to contact you -- "
< < No, you haven't, > > Relena said coldly. < < You've been trying to get a juicy story, whether it was true or not. Well, you wanted a statement, and here it is. > >
"Minister -- "
< < I am deeply disappointed in the behaviour of so many supposedly reputable and responsible journalists. When my office and staff informed you that I was absent on personal business, simple decency and courtesy should have led you to leave it at that. There are, after all, privacy laws. Instead, you chose to spread a remarkable range of unsubstantiated rumours and gossip. > >
"But Minister, our sources -- "
< < I am quite sure you did not get any of those speculations from anyone who could be expected to know my business. None of my close friends or confidants would leak private information to the news services, much less anything so blatantly untrue, > > Relena cut him off. < < And please do not interrupt me again. This is a statement, not a conversation. > >
He gulped audibly and shut up.
< < I am not ill. I have not been kidnapped. I am not pregnant, and my engagement is very definitely not 'off'. I am visiting a very dear friend, who I will not identify, because this is where I believe I am needed most at present. And that is all the information I am going to give you, except to say that I will not hesitate to bring charges against any reporter who continues to harass my friends and employees about this subject. Polite enquiries directed to my office's public relations officer will receive equally polite replies. Demands will be ignored. Goodbye. > >
Smirking, Heero reached over and gently lifted his phone out of the reporter's hands, switched it off, and tucked it into his pocket. Glancing around at the circle of TV cameras and stunned faces, he allowed his smirk to widen just a fraction and raised his hand in a mocking half-salute.
"You got what you asked for, ladies and gentlemen, even if it wasn't exactly what you wanted. Now, if you'll excuse me? I don't think I could top that speech if I tried for a year, so I'm not even going to attempt it. Goodbye."
* * * * *
"Ohhh... I've wanted to do that for so long!" Relena enthused, eyes glowing with delight as she watched the studio announcer stutter her way through the next news item. "That felt so good. Do you think I offended any of them?"
"I was watching you more than the TV, so I dunno, but... probably," Duo said, a little nervously.
"I hope so! They've offended me often enough. Those 'rumours' were actually mild compared to some of the stuff we were getting the last time this happened. One reporter actually implied that I was sleeping with Heero, Quatre, Trowa and one of my cousins, and in the next breath accused me of supporting Lady Une as head of the Preventers because I was in an 'unnatural relationship' with her!" She huffed angrily at the memory. "I think if Heero had already started my self- defense lessons then, I would have kicked him somewhere very personal."
"So... if it was worse last time, why didn't you blow up then?"
She sighed, shoulders slumping a little, still concentrating on the TV. "We couldn't, really. He never said any of it in public, and even if we'd managed to get him on tape, well... we didn't want to make it public. This -- " she waved at the screen, where a new studio announcer was valiantly trying to pretend that nothing had happened, " -- was right out in the open and blatantly stupid, so I could hit back in the open. Not like when there was that vicious little whispering campaign against Quatre and Trowa. Quatre was running from one branch office to another, working sixteen-hour days, trying to keep Winner Enterprises in one piece and rebuild people's confidence in him as the new CEO; and every time it looked like he was making a little progress, there'd be an article in one of the society or gossip magazines pointing out how young he was, how 'inexperienced' -- " she snorted disparagingly, " -- or making some sly comment about Trowa, wondering just how much influence he had on Quatre. Well... maybe some of them will think twice the next time someone tries to start scurrilous rumours involving me, at least."
"Well, I know what I think," Duo said softly, grinning slightly.
"You go girl!"
* * * * *
"...and this is the control room for our first processing facility," the station representative said, glancing nervously back at the blank- faced Preventer he was guiding. "We're really very proud of this; if we can refine the ore we receive before sending it on to its purchasers, even just roughly, we can increase our profit margin threefold. The experiment is going quite well, so far..."
"I see," Wufei said quietly. Without being obvious about it, he was studying everything in the room, comparing it to what he'd seen elsewhere in the station. Even taking into account the fact that this is a new installation, the difference in quality is too great. This equipment is first rate. Out in the main areas of the station, even the new items are low quality, almost guaranteed to break down at inconvenient moments.
Or... convenient moments?
The equipment failures are starting to form a pattern, he thought, nodding and looking with feigned interest at the display his guide was explaining. Communications, radar, internal security cameras... even the emergency doors that locked closed and sealed off an area near the docks for three hours. It only makes sense for the station management to allow this to go on if they're actually cooperating with the smugglers that operate here... whether it's willingly or not.
Well. Here's as good a place as
any to start testing my hypothesis. As his guide waved him on to the next room,
Wufei's hand slipped out of his pocket and brushed against a console, deftly
slipping a tiny bug under the keyboard.
It's a good thing I learned to do that with both hands, he mused, glancing down at his sling. My right arm's still in no shape to do this sort of sleight of hand...
His mouth quirked up into a smile as he remembered one particular evening during the war. He'd sat and pretended to read while he watched Duo practicing card tricks, running through them again and again until he could do them equally well with either hand.
"No point in being anything but ambidextrous, eh Wu-man?"
"Hn. Remind me never to play cards with you for money, Maxwell."
"Ha! If you need reminding, you deserve to be fleeced!"
And Duo had held up a royal flush
and grinned at him, and for just a moment he'd had the courage to smile
He sounded all right on the phone. A little stressed, but handling it... I hope he's not feeling too lonely, the Chinese Preventer mused, coming back to the present.
Wufei followed his guide through the station, nodding amiably at the most inane comments and planting bugs almost at random, his mind fully occupied with thoughts of Duo.
* * * * *
"You'll come and get me if Wufei calls back, won't you?"
"I promise, Duo. Now, go have your shower!"
Duo shut the bathroom door and slowly undressed, listening intently for the vidphone's ring tone. Murphy's Law dictates that he'll get a call through as soon as I put shampoo on my hair.
...in which case, maybe I should be taking three showers a day.
Once he had the shower running and had stepped in, he leaned against the wall and let the water soak through his hair as he thought. Relena... wasn't saying that for my benefit, she was genuinely angry at the reporters, and concentrating on the TV... I don't think she was really paying attention to what she said to me. And she's so honest it's painful, sometimes. She wouldn't make things up to get me back with the guys.
So Quatre and Trowa did have a reason for not worrying about me. Quatre did sound awfully upset that time he called Wufei and didn't realise I was listening, so that wasn't just an act. And if he was working sixteen-hour days, that probably means he was taking at least two hours worth of work home every night. When Quatre's working, Trowa's not very far away, so he was really busy too, and I know how easy it is to lose track of time, when you've got so much to do and not enough time. There was that infiltration mission that was only supposed to take a week, and it blew out into three weeks, and everyone was worried because I'd forgotten to call in...
...I told them I would've called if there'd been a problem. Duo winced, pushing away from the wall and reaching for the shampoo. Ouch. Way to go, Duo... you really set yourself up for this shit, didn't you?
It still sucks that they didn't miss me for eight months, though. But... I guess I can see how it happened. They thought I would let them know if I needed them, and they never found out that I tried to.
Duo slowly worked the lather
through his hair, staring blankly off through the clouds of
He was quiet and withdrawn again, while he dried his hair, and during dinner, alternately thinking about the events that led to his eight months alone, and trying hard not to think about them. Relena didn't push him; she made a few comments about the food and books she'd read recently, leaving it open for him to answer or not as he chose, and otherwise left him alone.
She was doing the same sort of thing before that meeting we had with the Assinks, Duo thought, when he eventually started paying attention again and realised what she'd been doing. Including me in the conversation when she talked to 'Fei, so I wouldn't feel left out, but not putting any pressure on me...
"Thanks, Relena," he said softly as she got up and reached for his empty plate.
"Thanks for what?" She blinked at him, plates balanced on one hand and holding a glass in the other, with the massive bruise down the right side of her face making her look like she was wearing a half- mask like Trowa's. "I haven't done anything special..."
"You know what I mean," he said uncomfortably, looking away. "Being here for me without being all over me the way Sally would be."
She giggled softly. "She only does it because she cares, you know... and it's not really my style any more. I gave up clinging over a year ago on the advice of a certain braided baka, for want of a better term." On her way to the kitchen, she paused and glanced back, just as he started to get up. "Unless you'd really prefer it if I started following you around, calling 'Duuuuuo!'?"
He sputtered with laughter, dropping back into his chair. "Oh God, no! Are you going to ask me to kill you, too?"
"Only if you want me to..." floated back to him from the kitchen. Twenty minutes later, still occasionally snickering, Duo abruptly realised that he'd enjoyed a joke that was based on Heero's past, without feeling his stomach clench from remembered pain.
Lying in bed that evening, Duo stared at the ceiling, half listening to the noises Relena made moving around in the bathroom.
Four more days before 'Fei comes back... I can manage four more days. Relena's here, and maybe 'Fei will be able to get another call through, and... He'll be okay. He'll come back to me. He loves me, he said so, he'll come back.
He will be okay. It's not supposed to be a dangerous mission. Just negotiations.
...as if nothing ever goes wrong on a 'safe' mission.
We're not at war! It's not the same as our old missions. We're not expendable anymore! He's going in openly, in uniform; nobody can do anything to him without bringing a Preventer squad in to flatten the place.
Unless it looks like an accident. He said himself the station is a piece of junk; all sorts of things could happen 'by accident' --
Duo turned over and viciously
punched his pillow into a different shape, swearing under his breath. I'm a
paranoid moron. Wufei will be fine! Even if something does go
wrong with the mission, even if somebody does try to pull something,
Wufei can take care of it. He. Will. Be. FINE!
The bathroom door opened and shut, soft footsteps padding out into the hallway, and Duo abruptly remembered that the spare futon was still packed away in the cupboard. "Damn," he muttered, throwing the covers back and starting to get up. "I should help Relena -- "
The light in the living room clicked off, and the bedroom door opened. "Move over, Duo; I'm getting cold," Relena said cheerfully.
"Huh? What -- ?"
"I'm sleeping with you," she said matter-of-factly, crawling onto the edge of the futon. "Move, Duo, you're right in the middle."
When he stayed put, trying to think of a coherent objection, she sat back on her heels and sighed. He couldn't see her face clearly in the dimness, but somehow he got the impression that she was smiling wryly at him.
"Think of it this way," she suggested. "If I get in with you while you're awake, you're far less likely to cold-clock me and give me a matching pair of raccoon eyes."
"But -- "
"Good Duo. Now go to sleep."
* * * * *
Late that afternoon (according to the
station's clocks, which were set behind the time zone he was used to), Wufei got
back to his room and dropped heavily into a chair.
It's only seven, here, but according to my body it's about four A.M., he thought, looking longingly at the bed. If I sleep now, I won't adjust... and I still have work to do.
The first thing he did was to pull a small, flat metal case out of an inner pocket of his jacket and press his thumb onto a slightly recessed spot. The detector/jammer checked his thumb print, decided he was authorised to use it, extended a tiny aerial and thought for a while; then it gave a satisfied beep and blinked a green light at him. No listening devices. Good. Has anyone been in here while I was gone?
If they had been, he couldn't see any signs that they'd touched anything or searched his luggage, and his laptop's security program informed him that there had been no attempts to access it since he'd shut it down that morning.
Either they're being cautious, or I'm jumping at shadows... Wufei shrugged to himself, typed in an instruction for his laptop to contact the bugs and download their memories, and sat back to wait, absent-mindedly kneading and flexing the muscles in his right arm. I'd say they're being cautious. The preliminary talks yesterday went well, but today I got the runaround. Very polite, of course, but I didn't get to speak to anyone during all those tours and demonstrations, and all my guides seemed very nervous. I think they showed me everything on the station a visitor could possibly find interesting, and quite a few things that definitely aren't. I could have insisted on continuing the talks, of course, but it made sense to find out exactly what's going on here first.
Download complete, the laptop flashed up a menu, listing each bug and how much activity it had recorded since being planted; Wufei sighed, and started working his way through.
The first few had nothing interesting on them, unless you were the sort of person who'd be fascinated by hearing technicians running through checklists and firing up a zero-gravity smelter for a trial run. Wufei just felt thankful that the bugs' software edited out long periods when nothing happened, so he didn't have to, and moved on. The next one, planted in a small conference room, was what he was after.
A door opened and closed, and there were scuffing sounds as three or four people entered the room.
< < Do you think he's getting suspicious? > > a man said in low tones.
If I wasn't before, I would be now! Wufei sat up and listened intently.
< < It's hard to say. I can't read his expressions. He's either blank- faced or smiling politely all the time, > > a woman answered.
< < That's worrying. If he's taking the trouble to conceal his reactions from us -- > >
< < No, that's just because he's traditional Chinese, I think, > > another man cut in. < < Did you ever go to L5 before it blew? They were all like that. Showing too much emotion to strangers is rude, or shameful, or something. > >
< < So how do we find out if he's catching on? > > the woman sighed.
< < Wait for the bombshell to drop? Ask? > >
< < I said we should've refused to start negotiations, > > the first man growled.
< < And the Preventers would have known right away there was something wrong, > > the second man snapped back. < < Our only chance is if we can walk this guy around by the hand, keep him from seeing anything, and just not sign the agreement. > >
< < And how do we explain that? > >
< < We act like we can't agree among ourselves, and we can't sign unless we're unanimously agreed on the terms. We bicker. We snipe at each other. We bring up old arguments and personal insults. > >
< < It'll never work -- > >
< < It has to work! > > the woman interrupted shrilly. < < You know what'll happen if we don't make it work! > >
< < Belle, calm down. Panicking won't -- > > the second man started.
< < It's all right for you! You don't have any children! > >
< < Oh, so that means I won't care if anything happens to yours? > > He laughed bitterly. < < Shit, Belle, you've got a high opinion of me, don't you? > >
< < ...I'm sorry. I didn't mean... I'm sorry. > > There was a quiet sob.
< < Look, we're all wound a bit tight, > > the first man said quietly. < < We're not going to get any further discussing this now. You're right, Jeff; I certainly can't come up with a better plan, and Belle's right that we've got to make it work. > >
< < I wish we could just tell the truth and ask for help, > > Belle sniffed. < < We're never going to get clear this way... > >
< < They wouldn't get here in time. > >
They said a few more words, quiet, hopeless-sounding farewells; then the door opened and closed again, and the recording ended. I don't think I really need to play any more recordings, Wufei mused, sitting back and staring through his laptop screen as he thought. I didn't manage to get any bugs into the area I think is being used by the smugglers, anyway...
I thought I recognised those voices; Jeff Garner, Belle Anderson, and the other one sounded like Mitch Hooper. The three co-owners and managers of this station. I think tomorrow's meeeting is going to be very interesting.
It's a good thing this station's
still a small enough concern that the owners do all the admin
work, Wufei thought as he
sat down at the table. If they had assistant managers and secretaries sitting
in on the negotiations, I wouldn't know who I could trust -- and
insisting on a private meeting would tip off the smugglers that something was
"Well, we spent some time discussing the proposed agreement yesterday, Preventer Chang," Hooper said, fiddling with the papers in front of him, "and we, uh, we have a few problems with it."
"I don't like the search-and-seizure provisions," Anderson said, hands clenched tightly together in her lap. "I think our employees will see it as an invasion of privacy."
"Oh, come on, Belle," Garner snorted. "Anyone who objects probably has something to hide. I think it's reasonable."
"Is that supposed to imply something about me?!"
"Well, now that you mention it," he said smugly, "there was that little incident on L2 -- "
There was a quiet beep from Wufei's direction, and they looked around to see him laying a small silvery object on the table. "You're surprisingly good actors," he said calmly, "but we're not being bugged, so you can stop now. I actually expected listening devices, which would have made things more difficult, but I suppose the smugglers don't want to risk me finding bugs and getting suspicious."
Anderson paled, one hand pressing over her mouth, and the two men swallowed. "I, I don't know what you mean," Hooper said weakly. Wufei didn't answer; he just hit a key on his laptop and sat back, looking at them.
< < Do you think he's getting suspicious? > >
< < It's hard to say. I can't read his expressions -- > >
"Oh god. You bugged us. You bastard," Garner groaned, sagging forward in his chair. "You bastard..."
< < That's worrying. If -- > >
"Shut it off," Hooper snapped, one hand going out to Anderson's shaking shoulder.
Wufei turned off the recording, and there was an uncomfortable pause. "What sort of threats have they made?" he asked eventually.
"The children," Anderson sobbed. "My daughters, Mitch's son, all our employees' children... nearly forty in all. Do you have any idea what you've done?! When they find out -- "
"I've done nothing yet," Wufei interrupted firmly. "I'm hardly going to walk out onto the docks and announce 'the jig is up', and I doubt you're stupid enough to start gloating about how the Preventers are going to solve all your problems for you. The smugglers will find out nothing until we are ready to do something about them. Now. I realise that your children have been threatened, but what exactly did they say? Are some of them being held hostage?"
Garner sighed and rubbed at his forehead, not looking up. "When we started up this place, we were aware of the sort of dangers a small space station can hold for children. We're all colony-bred, Belle and Mitch have children, and I -- well, the reason I don't have children is because my wife was on a rescue squad that went looking for a missing child during a pressure-loss emergency in an asteroid mining dome. Turned out the boy was safe, sitting in one of his favourite hiding places trying to make his parents worry, but the squad stayed in the danger zone trying to find him, and..." He waved his hand dismissively, mouth trembling for a moment, and cleared his throat. "Anyway. We made it a rule that every child under fifteen years old has to wear a locator bracelet or necklace. They can be tracked in an emergency, and alarms go off if they wander into a dangerous area. More alarms go off if a locator comes off or stops working. The whole idea was supposed to keep the kids safe!"
"The smugglers hacked into the locator system," Hooper said dully, still rubbing Anderson's shoulder. "The first thing we knew about it was when they turned up and told us they wanted free run of our docks. They know where all the children are, all the time; they'll know if we try to move them off station, or gather them together to guard them. They say they have people among our employees, but we don't know if that's true; if it is, we can't set up something to protect the kids without the smugglers finding out before we even start, anyway. And if we don't do what they want, or we try to contact anyone for help," he took a deep, shaky breath, "they say they'll grab every child they can reach and take off before help can get here, and we'll never see our children again. If they're prevented from reaching the kids, they'll shoot everyone in sight. And if there's not enough people in sight to make it worth their while, then whatever ships they have here at the time will take off without uncoupling, which will explosively decompress our docks and probably the segment on either side as well." He grimaced. "The bastard who presented this to us grinned and said, 'You can rat on us if you really want to, but we'll make damn sure you regret it'."
"The only reason you're here is because the Preventers contacted us, not the other way around," Anderson sniffed, "and Jeff convinced them that refusing to let you in would be more suspicious than refusing to sign an agreement. We swore we wouldn't let you find out..."
Wufei thought for a moment, then nodded decisively. "The problems with your communications systems, are they real or manufactured?"
"Uh -- manufactured," Garner said, looking up. "They monitor our transmissions, and they made it very clear that they didn't want us talking too much to other people, so we figured the best way to keep communication to a minimum was to detune our transmitters, so we get a lot of static, and cut the power totally every so often. The equipment would work fine if we just let it."
"Good," Wufei said, sitting forwards. "In that case, here's what I propose to do..."
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