"Wufei, good morning," Quatre
said cheerfully, stopping by his desk. "You're looking well. How's
"He's fine," Wufei said a little too quickly, looking up from his paperwork. "Thank you for staying with him."
"No, really, there's no need to thank me; I'm glad I could help," Quatre assured him. "I understand he and Relena have been having fun."
The Chinese Preventer snorted, relaxing slightly. "It's an alliance made in hell. They would have cleaned me out yesterday if we'd been playing for real money. I certainly don't begrudge them their fun, though, even if it is at my expense... she goes back to her home and office tomorrow, and I think I'll almost miss being double teamed."
"Well, it's good to see that he's willing to pull a double team play with somebody that isn't you," Quatre pointed out, smiling a little sadly. "I just wish he felt the same way about me."
"...He will, I think," Wufei said quietly. "Give him time."
The blond teen grimaced slightly, but nodded. I gave him time before, he thought bitterly, without realising it. Eight months' worth. That certainly produced dramatic results...
"What brings you here?"
Quatre accepted the change of topic with relief. "Budget appropriations time is coming... yes, already," he added, seeing Wufei's surprised expression. "Lady Une and I need to discuss how to squeeze a bit more money out of the Powers That Be this year, so that you don't end up trying to do your job on less than the half- shoestring budget you've already got."
"Most politicians do seem more interested in funding military organisations to expand their power, instead of para-military organisations dedicated to stopping anyone from accumulating extra power," Wufei murmured cynically. "At least Relena is one of those 'Powers' and can be depended upon to support you."
"And I don't know what we'd do without her," Quatre grinned. "I wish you'd been at the first lot of appropriations talks, just after the war ended. One idiot got up and spent fifteen minutes oh-so-politely explaining that Relena was young, and female, and a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist, and therefore couldn't possibly have any sort of opinion on military matters. She waited until he'd finished, thanked him sweetly for his concern, and proceeded to demolish every single point in his anti-Preventers platform. It was beautiful. He was squawking like a chicken by the time she finished with him."
"It sounds like it would make a good spectator sport," Wufei grinned back. "Perhaps you should sell tickets."
"It might be a good way to raise extra cash for the Preventers' budget..."
"Mister Winner?" Amanda, Lady Une's secretary, materialised at Quatre's elbow, smiling serenely. "If you'd like to go in, Lady Une is free now."
"Good morning, Lady Une... uh... what's wrong?" Quatre blurted out, coming to a halt just inside the office door.
"It's that obvious?" she sighed, looking up at him with her expression hovering between a wry smile and a scowl.
"I wouldn't say obvious, exactly," he said evasively, "but you certainly don't seem to be your normal composed self. Even when you snarl at people, you do it with flair. Right now you look... er..."
"Always the diplomat," she said dryly, waving at the visitor's chair. "Sit."
"Well, we seem to have established that something is wrong," he said just as dryly, sitting down. "Is it something that I can help with?"
"That's what Chang asked," Une muttered, rubbing at her forehead. "Unfortunately, I have to give you the same answer I gave him; this isn't your area of expertise. Unless all my intelligence reports during the war were wrong, that is, and you're brilliant at stealth and sabotage, instead of tactics and planning..."
"Um." He looked thoughtful. "No, but... what exactly is the problem?"
For a moment, it seemed as if she was going to refuse to explain, but then she sighed and sat back in her chair. "As I'm sure you're aware, stealthy reconnaisance is not one of my strong points," she began. "I prefer to walk straight in the front door and blow things up; rather like Chang, actually. Sally-- Major Po, that is-- is better than I am, but she's still far from expert, and in any case she has just as many demands on her time as I do. The point is, we needed someone to teach it, and not only can't we teach it ourselves, we can't really evaluate someone else's teaching to see if it's effective. We had a reasonable pool of ex-Oz and Alliance soldiers to draw on when we built the Preventers from scratch, not to mention both acknowledged and secret resistance fighters, but stealth isn't something that OZ placed a high premium on--"
"No," Quatre agreed with a twisted smile. "Somebody I know once described OZ's usual tactics as 'If it moves, shoot it. If it doesn't move, undermine it and blow it up.'."
"--and I didn't know any of the other recruits well enough to confirm whether or not they really had the skills they claimed," she finished, glaring half-heartedly at him for a moment. "Agent McKenzie would have been perfect for the job of 'Instructor of Stealth and Dirty Tricks' as the position has been nicknamed by the cadets, but she joined after we'd already set up the training corps. Now, I'd like to use her to evaluate the current instructor's work, but I also need her on that damn resource satellite Chang was on; I was planning to leave her there for a few months, as interim head of the new office."
"You don't think the current instructor is up to standard?"
"He's ex-Alliance," Une replied, not answering the question directly. "I have his old files. He's good; he saw a lot of action before the Alliance started openly crushing resistance, while they were still operating secretly. The Yggdrasil Ring say he's good."
"And if anyone would know, the Assinks would," Quatre nodded, grinning briefly. "But?"
"But... his students are starting to graduate, becoming regular agents and going on missions. He says they're up to standard. Nevertheless, four missions in the past six weeks have gone catastrophically wrong. Several of my people have been hospitalised, and I think it's only luck that nobody's been killed yet."
"So, you need somebody to review what he's been teaching them, to find out what he's doing wrong-- if anything-- and how to fix it," Quatre finished. "Somebody who will understand what they're looking for."
"Exactly." Une sighed again, pushing her hair back from her face. "I looked at his proposed curriculum when he first started, and it looked fine then, but as I've already said, this isn't my area of expertise. Yui has a full-time job on his hands looking after the Minister's security, when he isn't taking unauthorised side jaunts to L2; Barton is just as busy and specialised in infiltration, anyway; Chang's style is too direct, and I don't want to increase his workload any more than I have to while he's looking after Maxwell--"
"What about Duo?" Quatre interrupted. "You have to admit, he has exactly the sort of expertise you need right now."
Une blinked at him, taken aback. "...Well, yes," she admitted. "He certainly gave me plenty of opportunity to observe his talents... but he isn't a Preventer. He isn't even a 'part-time' Preventer."
"You could bring him in as an outside consultant. It might even be an advantage," Quatre pointed out. "He has no connection to the man you want evaluated, he isn't a rival for his job, no personal agenda..."
"Good point. Is he... would he be up to it, though?"
"Ask Sally what she thinks," Quatre said confidently. "Personally, I think she might agree with me that it could be exactly what you both need."
* * * * *
"How was your day?" Duo asked, stepping back to let Wufei through the door. Behind him, an impressive card house on the dining table told Wufei how he and Relena had spent at least part of theirs, and the sound of the shower coming from the bathroom told him what Relena was doing now.
"Busy, and slightly puzzling," Wufei told him. "Lady Une apparently wants to discuss something with you; she asked me to bring you in tomorrow morning. Is that all right? I told her it was entirely your choice..."
"Uh... yeah, I guess so," Duo said doubtfully. "What does she want?"
"She wouldn't tell me. All I know is that it's nothing to do with Anders and his little ambush on Christmas Eve, because I asked and she said 'no'."
"She could have at least given you a general idea of what's going on," Duo grumbled, "or called me and asked me herself... Oh well. Did you get them?"
Wufei displayed his shopping bags with a triumphant smirk. "All of them. Tiramisu, liqueur chocolates, the ingredients for your spaghetti recipe--"
"Duo's Spaghetti Bolognese of Death!" the braided teen snickered, peering into one of the bags and locating the string of garlic bulbs.
"--five rolls of different coloured ribbons, and a bag of very small rubber bands," Wufei finished. "Remember, I take no responsibility for this if it backfires."
"I never got her back for putting my hair into zillions of tiny braids," Duo said, glancing towards the bathroom and lowering his voice as the shower noise stopped, "and this might be my best chance ever. Her time has come. At least we're going to give her an end-of- vacation feast first! I was stuck with field rations."
* * * * *
"Mister Maxwell, come in," Une said cordially the next morning, checking Duo over in one sweeping glance and was apparently pleased with what she saw. "Thank you, Chang; you aren't essential to the proceedings, but you're welcome to sit in if Maxwell doesn't mind..."
Wufei eyed Duo for a moment, got no clear indication of whether Duo wanted him there or not, and shook his head. "If I'm going to be superfluous, I might as well take care of some of the paperwork I found waiting for me yesterday instead," he said easily. "You know where to find me when you're finished, Duo."
"Left rear corner of the big room," Duo confirmed quietly.
"Behind his homemade ramparts," Une added dryly, sitting down as Wufei left and closed the door behind him. "Sit, please, Mister Maxwell. Now, I know I didn't tell Chang what this is about, but considering how effective your intelligence gathering was during the war, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if one of you has found out...?"
Duo shook his head, hunched and sitting nervously on the edge of the chair. "No. This isn't something to do with me kidnapping you that time, is it? Or all the times I broke into your quarters?"
A faint smile appeared on her face. "Not exactly. Those incidents did play a large part in my decision to ask for your help, though... Duo." His body relaxed and straightened slightly as she abandoned the more formal mode of address, and she made a mental note to stick to his first name as much as possible. In private, at least, she amended uncomfortably. I don't want him to feel like I'm giving him the third degree, but I also don't want anyone to think he's getting special treatment. Sally already knows that I have a soft spot for him!
"You want my help?" Duo asked skeptically, seeming to forget some of his nervousness as he reacted with disbelief. "Why me?"
"Because you are one of the two people who have the precise skill set I need," Une said bluntly, "and of those two, you're the one I can get my hands on right now."
He looked down at the end of his braid twisted in his hands, frowning unhappily, and Une felt a pang as she realised just how shattered his self-confidence was. A year ago, he wouldn't have had any doubt that he would be up to whatever I might throw at him... or if he did, he wouldn't have shown it. Now, I think he might refuse just because he's afraid to try and fail...
"Let me explain the problem first," she said, and dropped the thick file onto the center of her desk with a satisfying thump.
"...so I'm sure you can see why I need someone like you," she finished, ten minutes later. Her explanation to Duo had been far more detailed (and more logically set out) than the one she'd given Quatre; she'd had time to plan it, after all. "The number of times you scouted and invaded OZ bases during the war was a constant amazement to me, when I wasn't too annoyed to be amazed. And we caught you... how many times? Five? Two of those occasions don't count against your stealth skills, since you were in your Gundam at the time, and of the other three, I'm pretty sure you let yourself be caught once."
"Uh, yeah," Duo agreed unthinkingly. "If it's the time I'm thinking of, I was providing a distraction while Quatre and the information we came for got out at the other end of the base."
"It worked," Une muttered, eyebrows rising. "I wasn't aware Winner had been within kilometers of that base."
Duo was still playing with the end of his braid, but now it was just absent-minded fiddling to keep his fingers occupied, not nervous pulling and twisting. As Une explained the situation, he'd shifted more and more towards the sort of posture she remembered from the war, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and feet planted firmly. He threw himself back in the chair and squinted at the ceiling, waving the end of his braid to illustrate points or emphasise questions as he made them.
"Right. Four bad missions in six weeks. Have any missions gone right?"
"One," Une said sourly, "but I refuse to count it as successful since the terrorist cell in question had moved out of that location three days earlier and stripped the place. There were no guards or traps to evade."
"Well, that's reconnaissance failure, right there," Duo muttered. "Somebody should have noticed that people weren't going in and out anymore. You can't sneak into a place without having some idea of its normal traffic patterns... um. Who planned the missions? The agents going on them?"
"Gilmore did," Une said shortly, naming the instructor.
"Who did the after-action evaluations?"
Duo dropped his gaze from the acoustic tiles on the ceiling and shot an incredulous look at her. For a moment, he looked so much like his old self, reproaching her for 'pulling such a damn stupid trick, Une- chan, what the hell did you think you were playing at?' that she found herself stiffening and reaching up to settle the glasses she no longer wore.
"That's part of the problem," she said defensively. "We don't have anybody else with his qualifications! Well, Agent McKenzie... but by the time we realised the problem was this bad, she was on her way off Earth!"
"Uh-huh. What did his evaluations say?"
"Essentially," Une said slowly, frowning as she thought back over her quick skim-read of the file, "that although the agents were competent in class situations, in their first exposure to the real thing they forgot procedure and made serious mistakes."
"All four mission reports say that?"
"Ah... with minor differences, yes."
Duo squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose, a gesture that seemed familiar to Une, yet somehow out of place. "Four stealth teams, totalling something close to fifty agents, most of whom are experienced soldiers even if they weren't stealth specialists to begin with, and he's blaming their failure on buck fever?"
"When you put it that way," she reluctantly nodded, "I'd have to say... yes."
"I can tell you right now, the guy's either incompetent or a lying asshole or both," Duo blurted, and then almost cringed as he snapped out of his concentration on the problem and realised what he'd said. "Uh... sorry," he mumbled, ducking his head and pulling back into the withdrawn huddle he'd started the discussion in.
"Don't be," Une snapped back, shaking her head. "That's exactly why I need you, Duo. You can find out the truth of what's going on, and you're not afraid to tell me if it's bad. You also won't dress up a two-sentence conclusion in a thirty page report," she added in a slightly sour voice, eyeing the stacks of paperwork on the end of her desk with disfavour.
"Never could understand why people would deliberately write more than they had to," Duo mumbled, managing a wobbly smile.
"I can offer you a consultant's fee to analyse the situation and produce a report, including your recommendations for improving things," Une told him, feeling slightly giddy from a mixture of relief and triumph. I think he's going to say yes!"As a consultant, you'd get to set your own hours, in consultation with Sally Po because we'd both be in trouble if she wasn't asked for her recommendation, and I'm not going to set any real deadlines... though I would like some sort of preliminary report in a week's time. You'll have access to any files or records you need information from, though if you want anything really odd you'll have to convince me of its relevancy, and you can work from here or from home, whichever you prefer. Do we have a deal?"
"Uhh... I guess so," Duo said, blinking. "Um... how big a consultant's fee are we talking about?"
Une named a figure and got some mildly guilty-feeling satisfaction out of being the one to shock him for a change.
"What?! Hey, no, Une-- Lady-- that's way too much!"
"It's the standard fee we pay to anyone we would hire for a job of this importance, with allowance made for a specialist's knowledge and skills," Une said serenely, keeping her expression bland with an effort. "Most people tell me it isn't enough, and insist on putting extra clauses into the contract so that they'll be paid more if the job takes longer than anticipated."
"No buts, Mister Maxwell," Une smirked, deliberately switching back to a semi-formal mode of address without changing her tone. "If you're going to be working for me, it's not exactly etiquette for you to argue with my decisions... not that that ever stopped some people. I'll have Winner draw up the contract, shall I? Now, I'll have Amanda take you down to see Sally and start getting your clearance arranged. Let her know where you would like to work, and she'll also set you up with an office or arrange for secure transfer of files between here and your home." Ushering him out the door, she paused with her hand on his shoulder for a moment. "It's good to have you back-- and working on the same team this time," she said softly, smiling at him.
"Told ya you weren't meant to be a bad guy," he replied, just as softly.
"I didn't think I was," Une murmured. "I have only one more condition to specify before you're officially employed by the Preventers, Duo. When you deliver your report, do not nail it to my door with a switchblade."
"Duo!" Wufei looked up from his paperwork with a smile that froze as soon as he saw the dazed expression on Duo's face. "What happened?"
"She hired me as a consultant," Duo said numbly, eyes wide. "It didn't really hit me until now. Consultants are the sort of people who wear ties on weekends, 'Fei! I don't even own a tie! How can I be a consultant without a tie?"
"I'm sure Une realises that you aren't a tie-wearing sort of person, Duo," Wufei said soothingly, hiding his surprise as he got up and guided Duo to a chair. "If she wanted someone who was going to wear a tie more than one who gets results, she would have hired someone else."
"I've even got an office, one with a door," Duo continued, sitting down with a thump. "I have a security clearance and an entry pass and a desk and a computer. I've even got a penholder, 'Fei!"
"Now that's a daunting level of respectability," Wufei muttered, beginning to see the funny side. "What did Une hire you to consult on?"
"She wants an evaluation of the stealth-and-dirty-tricks training course and a bunch of missions that went wrong, along with possible solutions. I already have a pile of files on my desk. Sally says it's okay for me to do this as long as I pace myself." Suddenly, Duo grinned. "She says if I overtire myself, she'll teach you how to look at me."
Wufei snorted, shaking his head. "Somehow, I don't think I'd be very good at it; it requires a very expressive face. Do I get a guided tour of this office and its accessories? I have to see the penholder."
"This way," Duo said, unthinkingly grabbing for Wufei's hand as he got up from the chair. "It's one of the little ones opening off the main room, so I'm close to all the files and everything..."
They were halfway down the aisle before Duo abruptly realised that he was holding Wufei's hand and towing him around in full view of dozens of his workmates and subordinates. Holding hands in public, in front of total strangers was one thing, but these were people Wufei had to interact with, six days a week. Stung, he tried to let go and pull his hand back, but the Chinese Preventer tightened his grip, lacing his fingers through Duo's and squeezing reassuringly.
Then they were at the door of Duo's new office, and as soon as they were out of sight of the main room with the door closed, Duo spun to face Wufei, stuttering apologies. "I didn't think about where we were, 'Fei, I just did that automatically, I'm sorry--"
"Don't, don't... shh," Wufei soothed, pulling him into a hug and rubbing his back. "Don't ever apologise for being yourself. I love you, remember?" he said softly, and Duo shivered, tucking his face into the curve of Wufei's neck, clutching fistfuls of his jacket. "I said it and I meant it. I love you, and that includes the way you reach out to people... the way you want to touch, and hold hands, and... everything. I'm not ashamed of loving you, and I'm not going to hide it!" Still holding Duo close with one arm, he slid his free hand up to the braided teen's cheek and coaxed his head up until he could see his face.
"Don't apologise for being the person I fell in love with," he whispered, and kissed him.
Duo slowly relaxed into the kiss, tense muscles unknotting as it sank in that no, Wufei wasn't angry, and yes, Wufei had said that he loved him... again.
He couldn't quite bring himself to say it back. Not yet. A small, frightened part of his subconscious was still convinced that this was too good to last; the moment he relaxed his defenses and told Wufei that he loved him, something would happen and he'd lose him. It was better just to keep his mouth shut and hope that Wufei knew anyway.
"Amazing," Wufei chuckled after the kiss ended, gently rocking back and forth, with Duo cradled against his chest. "No interruptions this time. I was expecting Quatre to burst in, or the phone to ring..." Duo laughed shakily, straightening up and rubbing at his suspiciously reddened eyes. "I guess the gremlins, or Murphy, or whatever is in charge of interruptions just didn't expect us to kiss here. So... wanna see the penholder?"
Wufei turned toward the desk and solemnly examined the object in question. "Black plastic. Very functional. Shall we go have lunch?"
* * * * *
"Heard the latest news?" Zechs murmured to Noin, sitting down next to her with his lunch tray.
"I doubt it," she replied, keeping her voice under the general level of background chatter in the cafeteria. "I only just got back from watching the latest cadet class find five brand-new ways to crash a Taurus's computers. What new gems of gossip have I missed?"
"Lady Une just hired Duo Maxwell as a consultant."
"Oh!" Much to Zechs's disappointment, Noin didn't react nearly as dramatically as he'd expected; she just raised her eyebrows, took a mouthful of shepherds' pie, chewed thoughtfully, then used her fork to point across the room. "That explains that, then."
Duo and Wufei were sitting at one of the side tables, eating lunch. Zechs couldn't see all the detail on the pass clipped to Duo's shirt from that distance, but the color-coding showed that it wasn't a visitor's pass.
"I don't suppose your haul of information includes what he's been hired to consult on, does it?"
"Actually, it does," Zechs nodded, slightly miffed at having his bombshell fizzle like that. Well, I couldn't reasonably expect them to hide until after I'd had the satisfaction of throwing Noin into a tizzy, now could I? "He's doing an evaluation of the stealth course and those missions that went wrong."
"It's about time!" Noin exclaimed, twisting around to fix Zechs with an accusing stare. "Some of the agents who've ended up in the hospital are my students!"
It's a little later than expected, but there's the sort of reaction I was aiming for. "Don't glare at me," he said mildly. "I didn't put them there!"
"Hmph. You'd feel the same way if they were your students."
"I'm sure I would. I'm sure I will, when a mission falls apart around some of my agents. In the meantime, would you please stop glaring daggers at me? I can almost hear a new crop of rumours starting right now, featuring me as some sort of villain and you as the offended maiden."
Noin made a rude noise, but she did stop glaring at Zechs. Turning back to her plate, she stabbed viciously at her food and began to eat again. After a couple of bites, she began to chuckle.
"I just had a lovely thought," she said in a pleasant voice that didn't match the wicked grin on her face at all.
"Should I be afraid?" Zechs asked dryly.
"No... I was just thinking about what Maxwell is likely to do if he decides that the missions failed because somebody was criminally negligent. Remember the security camera footage from when he went after Anders?"
Zechs thought for a second, then winced. "Noin... that isn't a lovely thought at all. In fact, it makes me want to go and find a bunker somewhere far away."
"You're too squeamish," Noin said cheerfully. "I want a front row seat."
* * * * *
"Minister! Is this a new style for you?" a voice called as Relena walked back into the Foreign Ministry building after lunch, trailed by her usual retinue of bodyguards and assistants. Turning to look, she saw a man she recognised as one of the newspaper reporters who always hung around waiting for something interesting to happen, standing at a polite distance with his tape recorder poised. Behind him, a photographer was fidgeting uncertainly with his camera. It looks like telling the Press off won me some personal space back, she thought, amused. A week ago he would already have taken a dozen photos-- if he could have gotten line-of-sight past the other fifty reporters and cameramen that would have been here!
"Do you like it?" she laughed, tugging on a couple of the tiny braids and waving their multi-coloured bows at him. "A friend of mine did it for a joke, and since I didn't have any meetings scheduled for today, I thought I'd leave them in."
"It-- er-- suits you, actually," he grinned. "Very bright and cheerful. So, this is just a temporary change then?"
"Back to normal tomorrow," she agreed, nodding to the photographer as he twisted his lens cap off and pointed at the camera, mutely asking for permission. "It's a fun style, but it might distract people if I had my hair like this during the budget talks."
A few minutes later, still smiling, she stepped into her office to be met by Karl with a sheaf of messages. "You're going to be in all the papers tomorrow, you know," he grinned.
"Assink intelligence-gathering at work again?" she teased, taking the notes. "Have you bugged the lobby?"
"Miss Relena, you wound me," he protested, hand over his heart. "I don't need to bug the lobby; the reporters were there this morning, and the rest follows logically. Besides, I have access to security camera feeds from the public areas of the building," he added. "How did you think I always manage to have coffee waiting for you when you come back?"
"You've crushed my illusions, Karl! I thought you were psychic!" "I am, Miss Relena, but the only thing I can predict is Australian Rules Football scores. Ask my brothers, if you don't believe me. Ah, there was one caller who rang three times, but refused to leave a message. A Mister Howard. He seemed rather annoyed about something."
"Howard called?" Relena blinked, looking up from the messages she'd been leafing through. "Elderly man, grey hair, balding?"
"Wearing sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt, yes. He isn't on the 'immediate access' list, but he rang the direct number instead of being transferred through the switchboard."
Relena grimaced as if she'd bitten into something sour. "Put him on the list please; I should have remembered to add him myself. I hope I haven't forgotten anyone else... oh. Ohhh dear, he's going to kill me."
"Miss Relena?" Karl looked up from scribbling a note to himself, startled. "Ah... why is he going to kill you? And should I alert Mister Yui, or were you speaking metaphorically?"
"I think I did to Howard what Quatre did to the Manguanacs," she said nervously, heading for her office. "I got him worried about Duo, and then I didn't tell him we'd found him... Hold my calls, please, I have to phone him!"
Waiting for the call to go through, Relena found herself fiddling with objects on her desk and had to force herself to stop. It's not like I've done anything really bad, she told herself, putting the letter opener down and folding her hands firmly into her lap. He has a right to be annoyed, but surely he won't be really angry--
The screen blinked and cleared to show a larger-than-life image of Howard's head, so close to his vidphone pickup that he was fuzzing out of focus. < < Damn it, Relena, I'd think you could give a shit about keeping me up to date-- > >
He broke off abruptly, leaning in even closer and raising his eyebrows until his face warped into a blurred parody of surprise.
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