Fuming, Quatre looked up from the sheaf
of papers in his hand to glare at his lover. "Trowa, Duo needs us to take this
seriously, not just... um..."
His eyes widened as he realised what he'd been hearing for the last minute or so. Snickering. Quiet, muffled snickering, coming from where Duo was leaning against the wall, bent over with one hand pressed firmly over his mouth, tears of mirth in his eyes.
"I was taking it seriously," Trowa said, deadpan. "That was a perfectly logical evaluation."
"Hoo!" Duo whooped, giving up the struggle to be quiet. "Logical?! 'What drugs is he taking' is logical?!"
"It adequately expressed my concerns that he might not be operating on the same plane of reality as everyone else..." Trowa's voice trailed off as Duo collapsed into helpless laughter again, and he raised an eyebrow at Quatre. "Just like Duo took his missions seriously during the war," he explained, barely above a whisper, "but still managed to find room for a little humour. I thought it was a good idea, and look..." He smirked slightly. "My work here is done."
"Hiyo, Heavyarms, awa~ay?" Quatre sighed, slumping a little. "You're right, and I didn't even see that he needed to--"
"Don't start that again!" the taller pilot hissed under his breath, snatching the printouts out of his hand and swatting him with them. "You didn't do anything wrong, now just relax!" Turning smoothly to Duo as Quatre yelped and jumped back, hands up to protect his head, he continued calmly, "You have to admit, that mission plan reads like it was written by somebody who believes every member of the team is a superhuman being, to whom normal physical limits do not apply. ...Hm." He looked thoughtful. "Are you sure that was written by Gilmore, and not Heero or Wufei?"
"Positive," Duo sputtered, straightening up with an effort. "Heero's plan would be something like 'This is my mission. The rest of you, wait outside...' And Wufei's mission plan would be at least ten pages longer, with every single detail planned out, listed in black and white, and timed to the second."
"Plus it would be possible," the blond said, managing an awkward smile.
"Exactly!" Duo laughed, then looked around guiltily, seeming to remember where he was. "Um... so, anyway, if you guys could finish the evaluation, I'd appreciate it," he went on, voice lower but eyes still sparkling. "Oh, hey, I nearly forgot-- did things turn out okay with your panicking manager? There was something going on with the EPA, wasn't there?"
"Oh, that!" Switching mental gears in a hurry, Quatre looked confused for a moment. "How did you-- oh, stupid of me, that was why I left early... Yes, everything should be fine now. That branch of WEI deals with manufacturing a wide range of industrial chemicals, some of which are dangerous, so they're subject to periodic visits by the EPA. They check to make sure that all the documents are up to date, properly stamped by government inspectors, the plants are being maintained as necessary... that sort of thing. There's a schedule for these visits, but it was one of the bits of paperwork Elite managed to misfile--"
Duo grimaced at that, and Quatre winced slightly, but went on.
"--and that manager got promoted into the position after the last visit, so he didn't remember about them. Though he should have, it's not as if he was transferred in from outside that branch... Well, since the EPA inspectors have to have full access to everything, they always arrive with a warrant. It's a perfectly routine matter, but he wasn't expecting it, and he panicked." He snorted, remembering the babbling, hand-waving man he'd spoken to on the vidphone. "Not a good idea even when the EPA are genuinely on the warpath, which they weren't. Just very confused, when he ran into his office, locked the door and phoned me in hysterics..."
"Ow!" Duo stifled another snicker, trying to look suitably solemn and disapproving. "I guess he's kind of in trouble now?"
"Let's just say Boris Wertheim isn't a regional manager for Winner Enterprises any more, and his referral letter doesn't advise giving him too much responsibility."
The braided teen blinked, eyes widening in shock. "I wasn't thinking that much trouble! That's a bit harsh, isn't it?"
"I don't think so," Quatre disagreed, a dangerous glint in his eyes. "Not when you consider that I had to spend over three hours in a conference call with the EPA inspection team, Wertheim's second-in-command, and the head of the regional EPA branch, explaining that no, Wertheim didn't actually have a reason for not wanting the Environmental Protection Agency to be examining his books; no, we weren't hiding anything; no, I certainly had not ordered him to try to lock them out of the building... I think they're going to be paying extra attention to my Eastern European branches for a while, even so, and that's a black mark WEI does not need on its record."
"...Point," Duo conceded weakly. "Good point. I hadn't realised it was a screwup of that magnitude, sorry..."
"Neither did he," Trowa cut in. "I saw Une's head sticking out of her office door and looking this way a moment ago, so I think it would be a rather major screwup for us if we don't head in that direction now... When do you need these evaluations, Duo?"
"Uh, Une wants a preliminary report next week, so... as soon as convenient?" Duo hazarded. "Tomorrow would be good, but if you're busy--"
"Tomorrow it is," Quatre said firmly. "This is hardly a Herculean task, and we're glad to help!"
"What he said, only without the literary reference," Trowa smirked, patting Duo's shoulder as he moved past. "See you."
Duo stood for a moment, looking after them, chewing his lip indecisively; then he nodded to himself, and headed back towards Wufei's desk.
Lady Une looked at the clock, then out her open door.
Quatre Winner is never late for an appointment, she thought, frowning. Punctuality should be his middle name, not--
Her eyebrows rose as she heard the blond teen's voice raised in exasperation. "Trowa, Duo needs an evaluation, not a comedy sketch!" There was a bit more muffled conversation, then Quatre nearly shouted "Trowa!"
Well, he's here... Une listened more closely, rising and stepping to the door, staying out of sight. That sounds like Duo... I hope they haven't upset--
There was a shout of laughter, and she began to relax, leaning against the door frame. Peeking out, she watched Duo talking to Trowa and Quatre, eyes bright and occasionally snickering; he'd quieted down since the first delighted yelp, but was obviously still enjoying himself.
Well, it seems Chang's mission may have had added benefits, apart from convincing Duo that he'll come back, she thought, moving back to her desk and settling into the chair. He's actually talking to them... He didn't take it well, though, I wish it hadn't required something that drastic... Ah well, what's done is done. Picking up a sheaf of paper, she leaned back and perused the report. Fortunately, I don't have any other appointments. Quatre can be as late as he wants.
A few minutes later, she looked up at a knock on her open door. "Winner, Barton... come in. Good morning."
"Good morning, Lady Une," Quatre said, shooting a guilty glance at the clock. "I'm really very sorry we're late--"
"I'm not," she interrupted him, tossing the report back onto her desk and sitting up straight. One and a half pairs of wide, startled eyes met hers, and she stifled an unladylike snort. "From what I saw, you were making Maxwell laugh. I consider that to be a worthwhile endeavour right now... though that shouldn't be taken to mean that you can be late to anything really high-priority," she added dryly. "Now, shall we get started?"
"Hey... how's it going?"
Wufei snorted without looking up, absorbed in writing a comment in large, emphatic block letters. "The man is a fool. He's completely failed to take into account the varying skill levels and specialties of the team members, and from the look of this he's working from about half of the information he should have got before making concrete plans. There's one stage of the plan where I think he expects one person to be in three different places at once..."
Duo grinned. "I take it you wouldn't go on this mission, then?"
His boyfriend looked up, blinking in surprise. "Oh, I'd go," he said blankly, sounding surprised that anyone would consider any other course of action. "I'd rewrite the mission plan to my own satisfaction first, of course, but I'd go."
There's a major difference between us, Duo thought, not realising he was smiling fondly at the picture Wufei made with his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose and a strand of hair escaping from his ponytail, wisping down across his forehead. I look at this and think 'hell no'. He looks at it and thinks 'duty requires it, but I'll do it my way'... Wufei was speaking again, and Duo dragged his attention back to the conversation.
"As written, I think the only one of us who could pull this off is you, Duo, and only if there were seven of you," Wufei said, looking back at the printout. "I could do most of it, but the security system is beyond my abilities to crack quietly. Noisily, yes, but not quietly. In any case, I'll have this finished in a few minutes, so--"
"Oh, hey, no rush!" the braided teen insisted, waving his hands. "That's not what I came to talk to you about, though it's great that you're already mostly done with it. Um... I sort of wanted to ask..."
"Yes?" Wufei smiled, _expression warm and caring, and Duo gulped as he nearly lost his train of thought.
"Uh... I just ran into Tro and Quat," and Quatre was so damn twitchy around me I wanted to scratch, "and I was thinking... maybe we could invite them to dinner? If you don't mind?" Maybe that'll make him settle down? I'm not mad at him... not any more... not really... but I guess he's still worried, and maybe this'll help?
Wufei's eyes widened slightly, but that was the only outward indication that he might be finding the request at all unusual. "I don't mind at all," he said emphatically. "In fact, I think it's a great idea. Hmm... Quatre tends to run into the same 'high visibility' problems as Relena when he eats out, so dinner at our place would be best, don't you think?"
'Our place'. He said it again! "Uh, yeah," Duo stuttered, feeling his cheeks heat up in a blush. "Trowa's okay with garlic, but Quatre doesn't like it that much, so the Spaghetti Bolognese of Death is out, though."
"I'm sure that between us, we can come up with an alternative," Wufei said soothingly, punching buttons on his vidphone with one hand as he beckoned Duo into his little homemade enclosure with the other. "You'll sprain your neck if you keep twisting it to peer in past the bookshelves, you know... hold on a moment... Amanda, hello."
< < Agent Chang, good morning. How can I help you? > > Une's secretary said, her apparently permanent gentle smile firmly in place.
"Could you let me know when Barton and Winner finish their appointment with Lady Une, please? Nothing urgent, but Duo and I do need to speak to them."
< < No problem. They're scheduled to break for lunch at 12.30, so it'll probably be shortly after that... certainly not before, judging by past experience, > > she added, dimple appearing briefly as her smile widened. < < I'll call you, and ask them to wait for a moment. > >
"Thank you." He nodded politely and disconnected, turning away from the screen with a quiet, satisfied sigh as Duo sidled cautiously in. "Welcome to my office," he grinned, picking up the copy of the mission plan and waving it at the 'walls' around them. "Not as official as yours, perhaps, but I do have a penholder as well."
"Ooh, red plastic," Duo said admiringly, relaxing enough to perch on the corner of the desk. "Stylish."
"And good Feng Shui, in theory, not that I ever put much faith in that... anyway. This might look good to somebody who doesn't read past the summary or doesn't know any better, but I can say with full confidence that you are not overreacting to it," Wufei went on, voice souring as he waved the plan again, contemptuously this time.
"Even if I recommend disposing of it -- and all the rest of them, and possibly the author -- with a flamethrower and napalm?"
"...That didn't sound like you were joking."
"Not really," Duo said grimly. "I've got the reports on what happened when Gilmore's students tried to execute his fucked-up excuses for plans, too. No fatalities, yet, but... it got pretty close, a few times. I know what I'm going to say about the plans. My recommendations for dealing with him... well, I'm going to start talking to his students this afternoon, and doing a bit of research into the man himself. We'll see."
Duo's expression was unusually serious, even taking into account the fact that he was generally quiet and non-manic these days, a glint of hard steel in his eyes; Wufei swallowed uncomfortably, and changed the subject.
"--don't think we'll have too much trouble getting the budget increases we want this time," Quatre was saying as the door opened, head turned back towards Lady Une. "Wingrove will put up a good fight, but with Relena and her supporters all firmly on our side he'll have a hard time convincing enough of the independents to vote against us, especially since we can point at our track record of arrests and impoundments to prove that no, Humanity hasn't 'matured beyond the need for a nanny organization'..."
"I like that tagline he used in last week's speech, though," Trowa volunteered, following him out. "'The Preventers -- Diapering the World!'"
"I'd have liked it better if it hadn't got Reid up on his 'everyone ignores the colonies' hobby-horse," Une said dryly, coming last and closing the door behind them. "He ranted for twenty minutes; I think the only reason I didn't shoot him was because he always votes on our side. Is there anything I need to look at before we go to lunch, Amanda?
"Nothing requiring your immediate attention, Lady Une, but Agent Chang and Mister Maxwell would like a brief word with Mister Winner and Mister Barton," her secretary said cheerfully, shuffling a stack of papers into order with one hand while the other reached for her vidphone's touchpad. "I'll just let them know you're free-- oh, there they are."
"I'll go on ahead and get us a table before the main lunch rush arrives," Une started, then re-checked her watch and grimaced. "Hm. Too late. We may be reduced to hovering significantly behind someone until they move, sorry."
"Major Po is holding a table for you," Amanda informed her, waving to catch Wufei's attention from where he and Duo were standing talking at the entrance to Duo's office.
"That's... suspiciously convenient," Une muttered, shooting her a sharp look that had no effect on her serene fašade. "Well. In that case, I'll go ahead and join her before she gives up on us."
"We'll be with you shortly," Quatre assured her, then turned back and raised an eyebrow at Amanda as the colonel strode off. "It is suspiciously convenient, isn't it?"
"Not when you consider that late lunches are the norm for Lady Une," she pointed out cheerfully. "Normally Major Po chooses to -- ah -- 'leave her in the lurch', but on this occasion I believe she said something about 'having pity on the growing boys'."
"'Boys'?" Trowa muttered, looking faintly offended.
"'Growing'?" Quatre muttered back, looking rueful. Unlike his lover, he hadn't had a sudden growth spurt during the last year, and rather resented it.
"Trowa, Quatre," Wufei nodded, walking up with a nervous-looking Duo trailing behind him. "Sorry to bother you, but we wanted to ask something..." He trailed off, glancing back at Duo with a hesitant, encouraging expression.
"Um." Duo gulped audibly, then stepped forward the half-pace necessary to bring him level with Wufei's shoulder. "We were wondering... I mean, it would be kinda nice if... If you don't mind and you've got time and everything..." It was his turn to trail off, shooting a panicked, beseeching look at the Chinese teen.
"We'd like to invite you both to dinner at our place," Wufei finished for him. Duo nodded, adding non-verbal confirmation but apparently having given up on talking for now. "Would that be all right? When would be convenient for you?"
Quatre was speechless for a moment, a delighted grin spreading across his face as he realised that yes, he had heard right, and yes, Duo had-- well, Duo hadn't actually issued the invitation, but he'd made it halfway through before he stalled, so surely that meant he didn't mind? Even if it's Wufei's idea, Wufei would never make him do anything he didn't want to, so he has to at least agree that it's okay!
"We'd love to," Trowa said calmly, picking up the conversational ball before Quatre's brain-freeze could cause an embarrassingly long silence. "And I know we're free Monday night, if that's okay with you two."
Wufei glanced quickly at Duo again, saw no overt signs of horror, and nodded. "Sounds good. Seven?"
"Seven o'clock, your place," Trowa confirmed, nudging Quatre unobtrusively. "We'll look forward to it."
"Y-yes!" the blond stuttered, jolted out of his happy daze. "Thanks! Ah, uh, can we bring anything? Wine? Dessert?"
"Dessert...?" Duo said in a tiny voice.
"We're both still taking drugs that don't mix well with alcohol," Wufei grimaced, "so wine is out unless you want to bring some for yourselves, I'm afraid. I agree with Duo, though, dessert would be wonderful." He grinned suddenly. "The only time I actually gained weight during the war was when I spent three weeks hiding out at one of your properties, Quatre, and your cook kept trying to find a dessert that I'd actually eat. Once he discovered my weakness for those damned little chocolate-and-strawberry things -- you know, the ones that are the calorific equivalent of plutonium -- I was doomed."
Trowa and Duo looked at him with surprised expressions, and Quatre sputtered with sudden laughter. "I remember that! I learned about fifteen new words when you found out you'd gained two pounds! I think you even made Rashid blush!"
"Wufei likes chocolate?" Trowa asked quietly, sidling over to Duo. "I didn't know that."
"Don't look at me," Duo muttered back, nerves completely forgotten. "I didn't know either. And given the number of times I tried to get him to eat sweet junk food during the war, I'm surprised I didn't find out!"
"You know, you really upset Nasser when you wouldn't even taste his desserts after that," Quatre went on, trying to look severe and not even coming close.
"I was more concerned with maintaining my ability to fit in my Gundam," Wufei grumbled, looking rather embarrassed. "And you were eating just as much as I was! Why aren't you about fifteen sizes larger than you are?!"
"Fast metabolism," he replied smugly, eyes sparkling. "Runs in the family. Well, I know what we should bring with us on Monday, then..."
"Noooooo, not the evil little chocolate things!" Wufei groaned, turning to bury his face in Duo's shoulder. "I'm doomed again! Duo, save me!"
Lady Une, coming back to see what was taking so long, walked into a scene that made her stop short as if she'd run into a wall. Chang, clutching theatrically at Duo's shirt as he whimpered something about 'evil chocolate'. Duo, with a half-bewildered, half-amused expression on his face, patting Chang's shoulder sympathetically. Winner, staring wide-eyed, mouth opening and shutting silently (an expression, she noted, that was shared by most of the Preventers in the room who'd noticed the little tableau). And Barton, choking with laughter, using Amanda's desk for support as she helpfully thumped his back.
Une left without speaking to them. There are some things you just shouldn't interrupt.
* * * * *
Back in his office after lunch, Duo sat staring at a neatly typed sheet of paper, wiping his palms slowly up and down his pants legs. It didn't look like anything that would make someone nervous; just three columns of data, names and dates and telephone numbers...
Taking a deep breath, he tugged a notepad out from under the stack of files on the corner of his desk, folded back pages covered with notes and angry-faced little doodles until he reached a clean sheet, picked up a pen, and dialled the first number.
< < Records section, Agent Gifford speaking. > >
"Ah, hi," Duo said. His voice was mostly under control, and his face seemed calm, but his hands were fisted in his lap, out of line of sight from the vidphone screen, clamped tightly around the pen. "My name's Duo Maxwell; I'm working for Lady Une as a consultant at the moment, and I need to ask you a few questions about the matter I'm investigating. Do you have a minute?"
< < ...Uh, sure, I guess, > > Gifford said uncomfortably.
"Thanks. You were a member of the team that tried to infiltrate the, um, 'Black Lotus' terrorist group's headquarters on January the fourth this year, right?" he went on, quickly re-checking the list to confirm the name and date.
< < Yeah, I was, > > the older man replied, eyes flicking down and away from the screen as he scrubbed one hand through his short hair. < < Look, I already answered a few billion questions in the post-mortem to that cluster-fuck, okay? We screwed up, it went wrong, our bad, so sorry, end of story! I'm out of field ops for now and probably for good, you don't need to dissect the whole-- > >
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Duo yelped, holding his hands up. "Hold it! I'm not actually asking about that mission, I was just checking I had the right guy!"
< < ...Oh, > > Gifford froze with his hand still raised, expression an interesting mix of embarrassment and shame. < < Sorry. I'm, uh, I guess I'm a bit touchy on the subject. > >
"Yeah, well, I can understand that. I've got all those records, I've read them, and I'm not going to make you go over it all again," Duo assured him, waving one hand at the teetering pile of files. Pulling the notepad out from underneath them seemed to have unbalanced the stack; he paused to straighten them a bit, putting off the inevitable collapse, and went on. "I want to ask you about stuff before that, basically the lead-up to that mission. All the lead-up... starting from when you transferred into Stealth and Dirty Tricks division, and ending when you completed your introductory training."
"Agent Vanderveer? I-- ooh, nice cast!" Duo couldn't hold back a snicker at the sight of the stiff-backed, attractive blond woman with her arm in a cast decorated with Hello Kitty stickers and 'Get well soon mommy' scrawled on it in various colours.
< < Thanks, > > she said dryly. < < My daughter decided it was too plain, and then the twins brought out the Magic Markers. I'd prefer something a little plainer, but every time I even think about taking the stickers off they look at me. > >
"I'd sympathise, but I tend to be on the giving end of that tactic, not the receiving end," he snickered. "More power to your kids, I say."
< < That's exactly what Major Po said when I badgered her into letting me come back to work on light duties... and she won't resurface it for me. How can I help you, ah-- > >
"Oh, sorry. Duo Maxwell, temporary consultant," he explained, glancing down at his notes and missing the momentary flicker of surprise and recognition across her face; by the time he looked up again, she was back to looking politely interested. "I need to ask you some questions about the Stealth and Dir-- uhhh, Covert Operations and Sabotage course you were on in December last year..."
Daria Vanderveer eyed the vidphone speculatively after the call was over, thinking about the thin young man who'd lost his nervousness when he saw her cast. Investigating Stealth and Dirty Tricks, are you? Good. If I hadn't been in that car accident, I would have been on the same mission that landed four of my classmates in the hospital. I don't like having my friends in the hospital; if someone's error is to blame for it, I want it found.
Usually on the giving end of 'looks', hm? I remember that little incident in the cell block on Christmas Eve. No wonder Chang recovered fast, with you around to nag him! And that reminds me... there's a betting pool open on those two. I normally don't bother tracking office romances, but perhaps in this case I should make an exception?
"Agent Hansen? You took the training course run by Agent Gilmore, right? I need to ask you a few questions..."
"Yeah, is this Agent Giancarlo? Tony Giancarlo? My name's Duo Maxwell; have you got a moment for me to ask you a few things?"
"Agent Yun, hi. Sorry to bother you at home, but..."
After a few hours of telephoning and talking to people, Duo's throat was dry and he had a surprisingly large stack of notes. Phew. Good thing I've got decent handwriting even when I'm in a hurry, he told himself, glancing through the pages and underlining a few bits that particularly interested him. Sometimes I think the main reason Heero spent so much time on his laptop during the war was because even he couldn't read his notes unless he typed them!
Without consciously realising it, he flinched away from that train of thought and back to the job in front of him. Right. I'm still going to have to talk to some more people tomorrow -- hmm, Sipps is still in hospital but he's allowed visitors now, I should go see him -- but I think I've got a pretty good selection of opinions on Gilmore. I may not have come right out and asked what his students thought of him, but I angled some of the other questions the right way to get them to come up with personal views... stupid rules about not being allowed to openly investigate a person unless he's been charged with something, feh...
Well. I may not be supposed to come right out and ask his students 'Hey, do you think Gilmore's criminally stupid or just badly socialised?', but I can do a bit of research in other ways.
One tap on the speed-dial button all Preventers in HQ had on their vidphones, and a minute later he was talking to Amanda. "Hi, Amanda! Could you do me a favour? I need to know the proper procedure for requesting to see a senior agent's personnel file..."
< < That's simple enough, > > she assured him. < < You need Lady Une's approval, and I can't see her refusing so long as you've got a good reason. > >
"Yeah, well, I also want to have some background checks run on his family."
Her eyes widened. < < ...Oh. That's just a bit more complicated. > >
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