< < What the fuck have you done to
your hair? > >
"Ah... Duo did it," Relena said meekly, resisting the urge to lean away from the huge, out-of-focus image of Howard's face on her vidphone screen. "The reasons behind it are, ah, long-standing and complicated."
He snorted and, to her great relief, sat back a bit. < < I shoulda guessed. What did he do, glue the bows in so you can't undo it all without cutting them off? > >
"He wouldn't do that!" Relena protested, then reconsidered. "Well... not unless I really deserved it. Which I don't. I like this hairstyle, so I decided to keep it in for a day, that's all."
< < He's had more of an effect on you than I thought, > > Howard muttered. < < Right; getting back to me being pissed at you. If he's messing with your head, in more ways than one, obviously the kid turned up. Why the hell didn't you call me?! 'Hey, Howard, I just wanted to let you know that you can stop growing that new ulcer of yours', > > he added in a squeaky falsetto. < < 'Duo isn't dead or anything'. Would it have been so damned hard to pick up a fucking phone?! I know you've got my number here in Santa Monica, since I was here when you called me the first time, damn it! But, no! I had to find out through my contacts, six weeks after he turns up, and all I get is 'The kid's back'. No details about where he's been or what he's been doing, just that he's back-- oh, and there's a rumour that he don't look too good and Sally Po is on his case medically, but that can't be right since YOU'D TELL ME SOMETHING THAT IMPORTANT, WOULDN'T YOU?! You wouldn't leave me hanging for six weeks if there was something wrong with my kid! RIGHT?! > >
This time, Relena did scrunch back in her chair, retreating as far as possible from the roaring gargoyle on screen. "Howard-- I didn't mean to-- I-- It's been a tough six weeks, I forgot--"
< < Well. > > Voice suddenly cold and composed, Howard slowly settled back, coming properly into focus for the first time. < < For the sake of my sanity and your continued good health, you are going to tell me all the little details I seem to have missed out on. I want to know where my kid's been, what he's been doing, what happened to him, how he is, and where the hell he is now! > >
* * * * *
Back in his new office after lunch, Duo settled cautiously into his chair, took a deep breath, and lifted the top folder off the stack of files sitting in his intray, checking the cover to make sure it was the one he wanted-- the initial course proposal and lesson plans that had been written up when the Preventers' training system had been set up. He opened it and started to read.
Five minutes and three pages later, he closed it, got up, and walked out.
"Um... it's Amanda, right?"
Lady Une's secretary looked up with a smile. "Yes, that's right, Mr. Maxwell."
"Oh, good. I was a little spacey when we got introduced, sorry. Um... I need a red pen. I've only got blue ones."
"Not a problem, sir," she said cheerfully, opening a desk drawer and handing him one. "Here."
"Thanks." About to turn away, Duo hesitated. "Ah, it is okay for me to scribble notes in those files, isn't it? Or should I make copies?"
"All of those documents are archived in other places, sir," she answered him. "Scribble all you want. We do have some files that weren't duplicated anywhere, but they're all highly classified and clearly marked; if you need to access any of those, I'll make sure you know that's what you've got."
"Good," Duo said. "'Cause I think I'm going to be scribbling a lot."
Wufei had-- barely-- managed to restrain himself from checking on Duo every five minutes. He'd sat at his desk, staring at his computer screen, and told himself over and over that Duo didn't need him interrupting. Duo was perfectly capable of doing that sort of analysis without being checked up on. Duo especially didn't need his fragile self-esteem shattered by Wufei acting as though he couldn't be trusted alone...
It became obvious how much attention Wufei wasn't devoting to his work when his screensaver came on.
This is ridiculous, he scolded himself, half-standing and peering over the top of one of the bookshelves walling his desk off from the rest of the room, craning his neck to see through the doorway of Duo's office. Duo's closer to me now than when he was staying at home, so logically I should be happier with this arrangement, but I'm still acting like a nervous mother on her child's first day at preschool--
Une walked out of her office, handed Amanda a couple of sheets of paper, and shot an oh-so-casual look towards Duo's open door before turning to go back to her desk.
Ah. This child also has a nervous godparent, I see, Wufei thought, beginning to smile. I'm glad to see that Lady Une isn't quite as blase about this as she was acting earlier.
About to sit down, he glanced up again as another movement caught his eye. Sally came out of the corridor carrying a file, walked over to the file room-- a trip that coincidentally took her past Duo's office, and there wasn't anything odd about her glancing in as she passed, was there?-- went inside and came out a minute later, still carrying a single file. Actually, it looked like the same file.
My mistake, Wufei sighed to himself as he watched her walk back, glancing in at Duo again as she passed. Godparents, plural.
Acting on the principle that it also wouldn't do Duo's self-esteem any good if it looked like Wufei was avoiding him, the Chinese Preventer made sure that they took a coffee break together mid- afternoon.
"It's probably a bit early to tell, I know," he said tentatively, bringing coffee and doughnuts back to their table in the cafeteria, "but how's the analysis going so far?"
Duo shrugged, looking down at his cup with a slight frown. " I think I've got a pretty good idea what the basic problem is, but I want to talk to some of the students... work out all the details before I give Une her report. I know she'd like a simple answer as fast as possible, but telling her 'the teacher isn't' after half a day might be pushing it a bit."
Wufei couldn't help chuckling. "The teacher isn't what?" he asked, propping his chin on one fist and watching as Duo started to eat with some of his old enthusiasm. This is going to be good for him, I think... it seems like he forgets all his insecurities when he's absorbed in a problem.
"He isn't a teacher," Duo explained, swallowing a large bite of jam doughnut and washing it down with coffee. "As far as I can tell, Gilmore's a great solo stealth agent... but his idea of how to teach people is to show them what he does, then expect them to be able to duplicate it. And since what he's doing is way above basic level, his students might learn how to handle the specific problems he uses as examples by copying him, but there's no way they can apply what they've learned to other situations. They might know what to do to disarm a particular trap, but not why, and if you change that trap in any way, they wouldn't know what they had to do differently."
"But because they can eventually do his example problems, they end up with a good mark in class, and it looks like the lessons are working...?" Duo nodded, mouth full again, and Wufei sighed. "So nobody realised it wasn't working until they were sent on missions."
"Which Gilmore planned," Duo told him, eyes glittering dangerously. "I'm going to start going over his mission plans tomorrow; I've got enough lesson plans left to last me the rest of the afternoon. They look just fine until you get past the explanations of what he intends to teach in that lesson, and start reading about how he plans to do it. Even then, if you aren't a 'dirty tricks' specialist, the problems aren't all that obvious."
"In the plan for the third day of classes," Duo said dryly, pointing a bit of his doughnut at Wufei for emphasis, "he planned to teach bypassing electronic locks. However, past the general overview, he wrote something about teaching 'strategies to defeat Bohrman-code electronic locks, using a Takuma 25-G series 3 as the demonstration model'. 'Fei... if you had to go through a door with that kind of lock, how would you do it?"
"My training with locks concentrated on those most commonly used-- incidentally, also the easiest to rewire," Wufei replied, equally dryly. "Since I don't recognise the name, I assume it isn't one of them... so, if you or Heero weren't around to open it for me, I would either steal a keycard or shoot it. Nice and simple."
"Heero can't open that type of lock," Duo said flatly. "They take me half an hour, minimum. If I have the proper tools. He used one as an demonstration tool for the third day of what's meant to be a basic class."
And you just said Heero's name without stuttering... and without even really realising you said it, too. "Not good," Wufei replied, hiding mixed feelings.
"No," Duo snorted, returning to his doughnut. "Not good at all."
Later that afternoon, at the end of Wufei's shift, they went home. Duo was quieter during the trip home than he had been on and off during the day, but still animated; Wufei did his best to assess his condition, without being obvious about it, but couldn't see any signs that he was overtired or badly stressed.
He is tired, a little, he thought, walking up the stairs to their floor and watching the other teen out of the corner of his eye as Duo stifled a yawn, but that's not surprising; this is his first full day out of the apartment, after all, and I've come home tired often enough to know that sitting in an office, shuffling paper and thinking can be work.
Duo stiffened suddenly, eyes widening, and clutched at Wufei's sleeve. Automatically, the Chinese teen took a half-step sideways, putting himself between Duo and whatever had startled him, head turning to identify the threat as his hand reached for the pistol he wasn't carrying--
"Howard?" Duo whispered.
"Hey, kid," the old man said, pushing away from the wall he'd been leaning on. "Long time no see. Gonna invite me in?"
Duo swallowed, trapped in the old man's gaze, and began to twist the end of his braid in his hands.
"...Good afternoon, Howard," Wufei said after an awkward pause. "Would you care to stay to dinner? It wouldn't be any trouble."
"Thanks, but I just came to see how you were doing," Howard muttered, eyes still fixed on Duo's nervous, downturned face. "Got a few of the kid's books, too; he left almost a ton and a half of stuff in my bases, and I figured he might be wanting these."
"Thank you." Wufei opened the door, keeping an eye on Duo as Howard bent to pick up the box at his feet. "It's good of you to take the trouble."
"No trouble," Howard grunted, following them in.
Once they were inside, Howard set the box on the coffee table, his coat on the back of the couch, then just stood there, wiping his palms nervously up and down his Hawaiian shirt and staring at Duo, who was staring at the floor, twisting his braid and shooting occasional skittish glances at Howard's feet. Standing between them, Wufei opened his mouth to offer Howard a seat, but then changed his mind.
That would just move the nervous glances and fidgets to a sitting position, he decided, looking back and forth between the two silent figures. They need to get to the point of actually talking, and I don't think that's going to happen with me here in the middle. All I can do is get myself out of the way for a moment and hope they take the first step in the right direction before I have to come back...
"I'll go make some coffee," he announced and walked out of the room.
"You're looking better than I expected," Howard muttered eventually. "The way I heard it, you were in pretty bad shape... Damn it, kid," he burst out, "if you were in trouble, why didn't you just come home to us?! You're a Sweeper, damn it, you're one of us and always will be and you know we always look after our own!"
Duo looked up at him, wide-eyed, as a tear began to trickle down his cheek, and Howard swore under his breath. "Oh, hell," he sighed, holding out his arms. "C'mere, kid."
In the kitchen, Wufei sighed with relief and switched the coffeemaker on.
Howard didn't think Duo had realised it yet, but he'd certainly noticed that Chang was taking a suspiciously long time to make three cups of coffee. Looks like he's finally developed a bit of sense, he decided, rubbing Duo's back as the braided teen clung to him, an occasional sniff the only sign that he was still crying. He was even more useless at interpersonal relationships than Yui, but this is a pretty good sign...
"I missed ya, kid," he said softly, shaking Duo gently back and forth by his shoulders as he finally pulled away, scrubbing at the tears on his face. "Why'd you drop out of sight like that? I mean, Relena explained why you got out of touch with them," he added, making a vague gesture that managed to indicate the other ex-Gundam pilots and the Minister, "but I never changed any of my numbers."
Duo shrugged weakly, tugging at his braid and looking down at his feet. "I dunno... I, just, well, I'd been trying to get in touch with the guys for a while, and Relena's secretary kept blowing me off, and Q and Tro's secretaries were giving me the runaround, and H-Heero just wasn't there... I was getting kind of down," he went on quietly, eyes sliding away from meeting Howard's, "and then I tried calling you, but you weren't there. 'He's out of town, and no, sorry, he isn't really reachable at the moment, but I'll tell him you called'... I got that for a couple of weeks, and it was so much like what I was getting from everyone at WEI, I just... I figured nobody else wanted anything to do with me, why should you be any different?"
"'Cause I'm not them," Howard growled, shoving his sunglasses up onto the top of his head and leaning in close, poking Duo in the chest to make him look at him. "I'm me, Howard, the old fart who doesn't take crap from anybody, and I don't give that sort of crap to anyone, either. If I want somebody out of my life, I tell them so, right to their face; I don't go off on a business trip and tell my guys to freeze them out. Hell, they wouldn't do that either! No, kid, I would have told you to get your ass home, then I would've worked your butt off, but we both know that's never been a problem for you. I like having you around, okay? And I wouldn't if you were a slacker or a parasite, so don't you get any ideas about telling me you didn't want charity, 'cause that's the last thing it would've been!" he added, interrupting Duo as he began to open his mouth. "Get it?"
"...Got it," Duo whispered, smiling faintly, then looking away. "But why didn't you get back to me?"
Howard sighed. "Well, kid, I never got the messages. As far as I can figure, shortly after your last call, we had a minor fire in the office. We lost most of the paperwork, equipment, and Roger spent a week in the hospital for smoke inhalation, minor burns and slight complications-- idiot tried to put it out by himself. My guess is the messages went the way of the rest of the paperwork, and Roger didn't remember to tell me. By the time I got back and things settled down--"
"It's okay Howard, I understand. At least everything's turned out okay--" Duo started, softly, twisting his braid in his hands.
"Never think we don't want you, kid," Howard said, reaching out and gently taking Duo's hands away from his braid. "Don't even worry about asking... just come home if you need to. Understand?"
Duo nodded, wiping his eyes one last time.
"Good! Now where's that freakin' coffee?"
Howard didn't stay long-- just long enough to drink two cups of coffee and give Duo a high speed precis of recent events in the Sweepers' lives, including numerous goodwill messages from various people-- but by the time he was ready to leave, Duo was no longer avoiding his eyes.
"And this time, keep in touch, okay?" was his parting shot. "I've got your number now, so I'll be calling you and you'd damn well better return my calls if you don't want me turning up on your doorstep again!"
"Well, we know how to get you to visit," Wufei said dryly, standing up to show Howard out.
At the front door, Howard took Wufei's arm, holding him back for a moment. "I love that kid, you know," he said quietly, looking out the open door at nothing. "Ever since he first waltzed onto one of my ships, I've thought of him as the son I never had... You care about him?"
"...Yes," Wufei replied.
"Good. He's been in love with you for the past two years, and the only reason I didn't beat the shit out of you for ignoring him was 'cause it would've given him a heart attack. Make him happy or I'll rip your nuts off."
Wufei nearly choked, but managed to give an appropriately serious reply. "You'd have to wait in line. There are a lot of people taking a personal interest in Duo's happiness... starting with me."
"Just so we understand each other," Howard growled, and stamped off without a backwards look.
Shaking his head, Wufei closed the door and turned around to find himself looking at Duo's pale, shocked face. "Duo! You, ah..."
"Did he... just... I heard..." Duo began dazedly, then blinked and swallowed. "Did Howard just, ah, threaten to castrate you?"
"I believe that was the gist of it, yes," Wufei admitted, watching him a little nervously. I certainly hope you heard the rest of it, too, but I am not going to ask...
"Ah. That's... that's okay, then. I just wanted to be sure I heard him right." Still blinking repeatedly, he turned away and wandered towards the bathroom.
"Duo, are you--"
"Gonna take a shower."
Ten minutes later, Wufei peeked in the open door of the bathroom and discovered Duo sitting on the edge of the tub, stripped down to t- shirt and briefs, staring into space with a sock dangling from one hand. Doing his best not to look either worried or amused, he walked in, turned the water on in the shower, patted Duo on the shoulder and pointed him in the right direction.
I guess he did hear all of it, he decided, walking out to start cooking dinner.
* * * * *
The next day, Duo didn't mention that part of Howard's brief visit, and Wufei respected his silence, keeping his end of the breakfast conversation to subjects Duo brought up first. He had a nagging feeling, though, that there was something else he should have noticed, something important...
He didn't work out what it was until after they'd arrived at Preventers' HQ and reached their respective desks to start the day's work. I slept through the night without waking up, he realised. That means Duo slept through the night without having any nightmares, not even the really mild ones he has almost every night... I may not wake completely when he has those, but I do wake up enough to soothe him when he gets restless and I remember that something disturbed me. Last night, nothing did.
He's... more secure now, I suppose, he thought slowly, frowning at his computer screen without really seeing it. He's got a job, so he doesn't feel as if he's a 'useless bum' any more-- that reminds me, I must check with Relena and find out what's happening with that idiot woman's court case. Duo's probably going to give me some of his consultant's fees to pay for household expenses, and while I don't think that's necessary, I certainly won't insult him by refusing. Howard made it clear that he has another family in the Sweepers, and that he thinks of Duo as a son... I don't know exactly what Une said when she asked him to take the job, but knowing that he's needed has to be good for him--
"Hm?" Looking up with a jerk, Wufei blinked at Duo's face timidly peering around a bookshelf.
"Uh... could you do me a favour?"
"Name it," the Chinese Preventer said promptly, smiling; an answering smile lit Duo's face, and he snaked an arm around the barrier to drop a document on the desk.
"I need a few extra opinions, just to make sure I'm not overreacting or anything. Thanks, 'Fei!" And he disappeared.
Half-standing and craning his neck to see around the bookshelves, Wufei watched with interest as Duo walked off, bundle of documents under his arm, presumably in search of a few more second and third opinions. I really must move these shelves, he thought, dropping back into his seat and reaching for his copy. I don't use them for anything, and having to get up whenever I want to see the rest of the room is getting annoying...
Hm. Maybe this is going to be good for me, too.
One eyebrow lifted as he considered the idea, but he shook it off quickly and dropped his gaze to the thin sheaf of papers in front of him. I need to take care of this for Duo, not start staring vaguely into space again!
The top sheet didn't have much on it; just a few neatly printed sentences, widely separated on the page.
WOULD YOU GO ON THIS MISSION, YES OR NO?
IF NOT, WHY NOT?
HOW WOULD YOU FIX IT?
Wufei's eyebrows went up again, and he turned the page.
Duo dropped another copy of Gilmore's first mission plan on Sally's desk, and handed two more-- a little nervously-- to Zechs and Noin. Much to his relief, they didn't react as if there was anything unusual about getting work requests from him, and they didn't ask questions. It didn't occur to him that under the circumstances, their lack of reaction to his presence was an odd reaction...
He paused outside Noin's office, frowning down at the copies left in his hands. The report would be better if he got more opinions, but he didn't really know anyone else in the HQ except Une, and he knew she didn't have the right background to evaluate a mission plan. She can evaluate the results of a mission just fine, he mused, looking around the main room and trying to pick up the courage to approach someone, but it doesn't take specialist knowledge to look at what you gained from a run, and look at what you lost doing it, and weigh them up against each other--
"Duo, good morning!"
Duo flinched away from the unexpected voice to his left, stumbled and ended up dropping his papers at Quatre's feet. "Jeez!"
The blond teen seemed just as startled as him, and a lot more upset. "I'm sorry! Duo, I didn't mean--"
"It's okay," he said quickly, crouching to scrabble after the scattered documents. "I just didn't hear you coming, that's... that's all," he added, trailing off into an embarrassed mumble. Trowa stepped around Quatre and scooped the last copy off the floor as he reached for it, holding it out for him to take, and Duo could feel a blush heating up his face as he shuffled it into the stack. "Are you here about the budget appropriations talks, or something?" he asked, trying to sound casual as he stood up and dusted off the knees of his pants.
"Yes, actually," Quatre said, surprised-- and successfully distracted from his apology. "Well, I am; Trowa just got back from that satellite, so he's coming in to deliver his report."
"We may live in an electronic age, but it hasn't stopped us having to come in to deliver our detailed reports face-to-face," Trowa said dryly, holding up a disk and a sheaf of paper. "It hasn't delivered the promised 'paperless office', either," he added, gesturing at Duo's pile.
"No," Duo agreed ruefully, glancing down at it. "If anything, it-- um. Actually, you guys can help me get rid of some of this, if you don't mind..."
"You need us to review a mission plan?" Quatre asked a minute later, looking down at the document in his hands. "Didn't it get reviewed when it was first written?" Beside him, Trowa folded back the cover sheet and began reading.
"No," Duo told him. "Mission plans generated by somebody in a Preventers' sub-section get reviewed by the section head, and Gilmore's been in charge of setting up the 'stealth and dirty tricks' area, so at the moment he effectively is the section head."
"Good grief," Quatre muttered. "That could have been done better."
Trowa nodded silently, pulled out a pen and began writing.
"It looks like everybody else was busy with half a dozen other things at once, and either assumed that somebody else had oversight of this section or just didn't think to check," Duo shrugged.
"If they did check, maybe it just seemed as if he was the right person to act in that capacity," Quatre suggested. "After all, the only people in the section were the ones going through the introductory course, and he was the person teaching it."
"He shouldn't have been," Duo muttered, glancing at Trowa.
Quatre looked in that direction too, watching as Trowa turned another page and kept scribbling notes. "Trowa... what are you doing?"
"Duo wants an evaluation," Trowa shrugged, mouth curling up in a faint smirk. "So, I'm writing a Duo evaluation."
"A 'Duo evaluation'?
"Yes. Written in Duo-ese," the taller teen said calmly, underlining something he'd just written several times. "You know, the sort of thing he used to send us during the war."
"'I came, I saw, I kicked butt'?" Quatre asked incredulously. "Give me that!"
Duo watched bemusedly as Quatre snatched the papers out of his lover's hand and turned back to the first page, frowning. "'Would you go on this mission-- Not a snowball's chance in hell'," he read out, eyes widening. "'If not, why not-- See detailed notes'. What detailed notes?"
Helpfully, Trowa reached over his shoulder to turn the page and point. "This is not a mission plan, this is a mission statement from a very confused company'," Quatre began, skimming down the page. "'Don't give up your day job, Gilmore'. 'This section could be nicely condensed into a few words: OPEN THE DOOR AND THEN WING IT!'"
A faint snicker escaped Duo, and Trowa grinned at him.
"Trowa, Duo needs an evaluation, not a comedy sketch!" Quatre exclaimed, turning the page and continuing. "'Repeat after me: They Don't Pay Me Enough To Try This'. What's that supposed to mean?!"
"I thought it was fairly clear," Trowa said innocently. Duo was grinning back at him now.
"'What drugs is he taking and how can I get some?' TROWA!"
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