The vidphone on Duo's desk bleeped, and he automatically reached out to hit the 'accept' button without looking up from his notes. If I were going to be here any more than a week or two, I'd reprogram that thing to sound better, he thought absently. Sounds like it's going to sick up its buzzer--
< < I hope I'm not
interrupting anything too complicated, Duo, > > Une's voice said, and he
nearly lost the notepad over the edge of his desk as he jumped.
"No! No, really, I was just going over... um... yeah, sorry. You rang?" he asked sheepishly.
< < Yes, I did, > > she said dryly. < < I need a rather more concrete reason than 'because my consultant wants me to' to start an investigation into a Preventers officer's family. > >
"Uh, I don't want a full-scale investigation exactly," Duo objected. "I don't know exactly what term is right for what I want to do -- it's just that I think that Gilmore's family, um, environment is relevant to this. The way he was brought up, and stuff. I need to find out about that."
< < The way he was brought up--? > > Une cut herself off, frowning in thought. < < Duo, just where are you going with this? > >
"Um. If you don't mind..." Duo gulped, feeling his heart start to hammer against his ribs. "I don't really want to give you my preliminary report until I've got a start on a full solution to this problem, as well as working out the cause. I'm pretty sure I'm on the right track about what's wrong, but I'm still going on the rest of it..."
< < Full solution? > >
She smiled, slowly. < < You want to help him, too, don't you? > >
He aimed a crooked grin at the vidphone screen. "It's kinda looking like he needs it..."
< < Well. > > Une turned to one side, apparently checking something on a different screen. < < I do have some rather strict limits on what I can do officially, when it comes to prying into cleared agents' private lives. However, if I put you in touch with Gilmore's next of kin, who happens to live in this city, and you go to talk to her, that's another matter. It will all be entirely unofficial, of course, and she will be under no obligation whatsoever to meet you, or to answer your questions. > >
"That's fine!" he said hastily, waving his hands at the screen. "That's perfect, actually... uh, she is a close relative of his, isn't she? One who'd know what things were like for him, growing up?"
< < I should hope so, seeing as she's his older sister, > > she said, mouth quirking into the shadow of a smile. < < I hope she can -- and will -- tell you what you need. > >
After Une disconnected, Duo sat staring at the blank screen for a moment, then sighed. "Oh-kay... more interviews. First I visit this guy in hospital, then I have to arrange to meet Gilmore's sister. Damn. Why couldn't I do this all from the files? You don't have to talk to files..."
* * * * *
"Hey," a tentative voice came from the doorway. "Are you feeling up to having visitors? I can come back later if now is a bad time..."
Flat on his back in traction, Michael Sipps bit off the last few swear words in his tirade and forced a fair imitation of a smile onto his face. "Come on in; I could use the distraction," he growled. "And a hand to pick up that remote, if you don't mind...?"
A short, slim figure in jeans and a polo shirt sidled in, dropping a warm jacket on a chair as he bent to look for the offending gadget. "I don't see-- oh, there it is." A long brown braid came into view as whoever-it-was bent double to reach under the bed, making Michael doubt his first impression of his visitor's sex for a moment, but the face that popped back up grinning with triumph was definitely male.
Pretty as hell, but male, Michael decided, accepting the remote with a more genuine smile of thanks. He's got an adam's apple, for one thing, and those are some interesting calluses and scars on his hands. Damn interesting, when you consider how young he is. So who are you, pretty boy?
"Who do I have to thank for my rescue?" he said out loud, muting the ceiling-mounted TV and propping the remote back on his bedside table, close enough for him to get it without knocking it on the floor. Again.
"Duo Maxwell," the boy said, shaking hands with a cautious respect for the splint holding two of Michael's fingers together. "I'm doing a consultancy job for Lady Une at the moment, and you're one of the people I need to talk to."
"Oh-kay... first, you mind if I ask to see some ID?"
Duo blinked, looked down at the front of his shirt, and seemed surprised to see nothing there. "I know I put-- argh! Now that was bright," he muttered, snatching his jacket up and unhooking an ID badge from its front pocket.
"Hey, at least you had it with you," Michael said calmly, taking the badge and examining it with interest. "A friend of mine once forgot his completely. Made it through most of a day in a top-secret lab because everyone knew him, so nobody bothered checking his pass. Then he ran up against the one new door guard who didn't know him by sight, and ended up getting the 'hands on the wall and feet apart, sir,' speech. Guns drawn and everything."
"Since he was the head of security there, yeah." He grinned at the snickering teenager as he passed the badge back, and made another mental note. Seems kind of nervous, a bit shy, and then you get him to laugh and it's like the sun coming out... Maxwell, Maxwell, where have I heard that name? Didn't Daria say something about somebody with a name like that when she came in to see me a couple of weeks ago? Damn drugs were playing hell with my memory, it's a good thing they've got me off half of them...
"Well, it looks like you've got enough clearances and accesses to ask me about anything I'm likely to know," he went on, shifting his shoulders and wishing he could somehow reach the middle of his back to scratch it. "Not to mention anything I'm allowed to know, and a few dozen things extra. How'd you pull that off?"
"I have lots of clearances?" The kid blinked, and Michael could swear he saw whatever lines he'd had planned dissolve out of his head. "I mean, I knew I had clearances, but lots of them? You can tell I have lots of clearances from my badge? How do you do that?"
"Kid, the only people with more clearances than you are Lady Une, Po, the Four Horsemen, Merquise, Noin, and God. And I'm not so sure about God. As for how you tell, you just--"
"Wait wait wait wait wait, Four Horsemen? What's that about?!"
Michael grinned. "Chang, Yui, Winner, and Barton. The nickname around HQ for those guys is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Only one of them is a full-time Preventer, and Winner doesn't go on missions, but you can guarantee that if one of them is involved, all hell is going to break loose."
"Four Horsemen, huh?" Duo's smile wavered for a moment, and his eyes slid away. "That's pretty cool..." His voice dropped. "Shame there weren't five in the Bible."
"What was that?"
"Ah, it's nothing. So how do I tell people's clearances from their passes?"
Now why the hell did that make you wince? "See that multicoloured strip across it, about a quarter inch up from the bottom?" Michael gestured vaguely in the direction of the pass, still in Duo's hand. "Different bits are different colours to show your clearances, codeword accesses, special zone accesses and stuff. If there's a gap in the strip, that's a clearance or an access you don't have. My strip is just four different patches and a lot of empty space. Yours goes almost all the way across, see?"
"Whoa," Duo muttered, raising an eyebrow. "I feel privileged."
"Nah, it just means you get the most trust, and therefore the worst jobs. I'm happy with my patchy little card. So, what were you planning to ask questions about?"
"Ah, yeah, right. Sorry." The kid yanked a notebook out of his jacket and flipped through the pages, face suddenly so serious that Michael bit back a laugh. "Okay. You went through the Covert Operations and Sabotage course late last year, correct?"
"For my sins, yes," Michael said dryly.
"I gather you didn't enjoy it," Duo muttered, before looking back at his notes. "You completed your training, got assigned to a field team with some of your classmates, and on January the fourth your team -- minus Agent Vanderveer, who had been involved in a motor vehicle accident -- attempted to infiltrate and suppress the Black Lotus group's headquarters in Denver."
"That wasn't a question, but yeah. 'Attempted' about covers it, I think." And now I'm flat on my back in hospital, being driven insane by an itch in the middle of my back, lucky to be alive, and really lucky to not be permanently crippled. Jacobsen and Lassiter only got released to recuperate at home last week, and Gifford is going to be a long time recovering his nerve if I'm not mistaken.
"Right. Starting at the very beginning... did you have any experience in covert ops before you began the course?"
As Duo's questions moved from the general to the specific, asking about the course itself and the way it had been run, Michael found himself intrigued. Curiouser and curiouser, he mused, less than half his attention on answering the question about classroom routine he'd just been asked. If I didn't know better, I'd say he's dancing around the subject he really wants to know about, slanting his questions to get me to talk about something without him actually coming out and naming it. And since I don't know better, that's probably exactly what he's doing.
"You know," he said mildly, interrupting Duo before he could move on to his next question, "this would probably be more efficient if you just came straight out and asked me about Gilmore."
"What--?" Duo jerked upright, eyes widening as he looked up from his notebook. "How did-- Why the hell aren't you in intelligence gathering or interrogation?!"
"Not glamorous enough. I saw too many old James Bond movies as a kid," Michael grinned, enjoying his reaction. "I'm right, aren't I?"
"Shit." The teenager glared, then cleared his throat and attempted to look prim. "Investigating an active agent who has not been charged with an offence and suspended from duty is against Preventers' internal disciplinary regulations... even if some people think that's stupid."
"Ah. Right. But beating around the bush until you get the information anyway is allowed?"
"Right. Not that I'm investigating anyone," Duo pointed out virtuously. "I'm investigating a training course, and the track record of the department using that training course, not any specific people."
"Even if you think perhaps you should be...?" Michael guessed, and noted a faint flicker in his questioner's eyes.
"I did not say that."
"No, you didn't. And I can testify to the fact that you haven't asked me any questions that could be interpreted as breaking those regulations. Important things, regulations. But it's hardly your fault if I'm feeling gossipy and tell you all sorts of things without being asked, now is it?"
A slow grin spread across Duo's face. "Well, I do have a bunch of questions about the course and that mission that I have to ask you. Still, it must be pretty boring, stuck in here--"
"Terribly," Michael agreed enthusiastically. "Bad TV, no view, and hardly any visitors," he lied, ignoring the multiple boxes of chocolates and get-well cards piling up on his bedside table.
"--so I guess the least I can do is to humour you by sticking around for a while and letting you chat about, oh, random subjects."
"Very random. No connection whatsoever to anything official. Completely off the record."
"Not that it would be interesting enough to record anyway," Duo sighed, ostentatiously flipping his notebook closed.
"Of course not." Michael's grin widened. "Think that's enough bullshit?"
"Plenty," the teenager nodded, pulling his chair closer. "Let's dig some dirt."
"You got it. First, though, could you do me a favour?" Grimacing with the effort, Michael reached across and grabbed the right bed rail with his left hand, pulling until he raised his torso slightly up off the bed. "Could you scratch my back? Right in the middle, where the damn bow is on the gown? I keep telling the nurses to leave it undone so it doesn't bug me, and they keep doing it up again as soon as I manage to wiggle the right way and get it loose..."
* * * * *
Duo glanced at the time as he parked Wufei's Blazer back in its usual spot in the main HQ parking lot, and smiled. He hadn't been sure he would make it back before the end of his and Wufei's shift, but he had half an hour to spare to call Gilmore's sister and make some additions to his notes before it was time to go home.
Everything Sipps told me just backs up what I've been thinking, he told himself, walking past the front security post with one hand holding up his pass and the other holding his notes in front of his face. Gilmore can't teach for peanuts, and he can't plan missions to save his life. Or anyone else's life, for that matter! The Black Lotus mission was planned with the assumption that all the team members would be involved, but Daria Vanderveer was out of action when it went down; the plan should have been changed to take account of that, or postponed. Heck, it was a bad plan to start with! He's been planning without full information, sending inexperienced teams against terrorist cells that have turned out to be larger or better armed than expected, or just plain gone. And Sipps says that Gilmore just didn't seem to get what was going on when he showed his students something and they didn't catch on right away... "like he realised there was a problem, but he couldn't understand why".
So why didn't he report that there was a problem? Why did he pass them as fit to serve as field agents, when all they could do was go through one or two classroom problems by rote? Is he incompetent and trying to cover it up no matter what it costs anyone else -- in which case, screw him; is he actually trying to sabotage Preventers operations -- in which case, Une is going to fillet him; or is he out of his depth and unable to get help for some reason? Finding out about his home life could tell me what's behind this, so I really do need to talk to his sister... but I'm really not looking forward to it!
"Mr. Maxwell?" Amanda's gentle voice broke into his thoughts. "You have a meeting with Justine Gilmore at ten-thirty A.M. tomorrow."
"I took the liberty of making the appointment for you," she smiled, handing him a slip of paper with the time and address written in her neat cursive handwriting. "As Lady Une's secretary, it's sometimes easier for me to get through other people's secretaries to make necessary arrangements..."
Easier than it would be for a teenager who's got long hair and no tie, yeah, Duo agreed mentally, eyeing the paper as if it might bite. "Thanks," he muttered, and winced as he realised how unenthusiastic he'd sounded. "I mean it, really. Thanks. Um... so, you spoke directly to her? What's she seem like?"
"In a word?" Amanda's smile turned sympathetic. "Frosty. Wear a tie."
She read my mind. "Those things are crimes against humanity," he grumbled, "but I guess I can borrow one from 'Fei. Thanks for the warning."
"All part of my job, sir."
"Whoa, hey, no," he protested, wincing. "I am not a 'sir'. I mean, 'Mr. Maxwell' is bad enough! I'm nobody special, Amanda. Really, I'd be happier if you just called me Duo. 'Mr. Maxwell' and 'sir' make me feel like-- like-- I dunno, like I've been infected with responsibility germs and aged about twenty years overnight."
She muffled something suspiciously like a giggle behind one hand, and nodded. "Duo it is, then. I wouldn't want to make you uncomfortable... though I do have to disagree with one part of your argument."
"Lady Une certainly seems to think you're 'somebody special'."
Blushing bright red, Duo stammered out something that didn't even make sense to him, and bolted for the safety of his office.
I do like that young man, Amanda chuckled to herself, turning back to her computer. Now if he'll just get a little more self- confidence, and show his sense of humour more often--
"Amanda," Lady Une said coolly from behind her, "were you teasing my consultant just now?"
"Teasing?" She blinked innocently, turning to look at her boss. "I wouldn't call it 'teasing', Lady Une. I just corrected him when he said he was nobody special."
"Oh dear," Une groaned, stern expression vanishing as one hand came up to cover her eyes. "That could be worse than teasing him."
"On the contrary, ma'am, I think it could be good for him. After all, if he hears the truth often enough, from several different people, he might actually start believing it." Amanda paused, then dimpled. "And he blushes so beautifully."
"I'm sure he does. All right, I won't interfere with your attempts to boost his confidence-- or whatever you're trying to do. However, you might want to be careful."
Une turned to go back into her office, one corner of her mouth quirking upwards. "You might want to consider what Chang's reaction could be if he catches you making his boyfriend blush."
"...Good point, ma'am. I will boost with discretion."
Embarrassed, but with a faint warm glow in his heart, Duo sat at his desk and started rearranging files, sorting out the ones he was finished with from the ones he wanted to go over one more time. I've got time to put at least a few of these away, he decided, then 'Fei and I can go home. Better make sure he's got a tie I can borrow -- I mean, of course he's going to have a tie, but with my luck they might all be colours that don't go with any of my shirts -- and I need to make sure I know the way to this place and how long it's going to take, I don't wanna turn up late--
Picking up the slip of paper once more, he read the address and froze.
Oh. Oh man. Oh shit. I'm gonna need more than a tie!
"'Fei! We gotta go shopping! I need a suit!"
Wufei's glasses slid down his nose as he raised his eyebrows, surprised. "I beg your pardon, Duo. You need a what?"
"A suit. A swish one, you know, a serious suit. One that says 'hey, this guy is boringly respectable and should not be thrown out of your offices by your hulking security guards even if he does have long hair'," Duo said, waving his hands as he paced back and forth in front of Wufei's desk.
"Duo, calm down, don't panic," Wufei told him, standing up and reaching for him. "Sit down, take a deep breath, and tell me what's going on--"
"I need a suit!"
"--from the beginning."
"From the beginning. Okay." Duo plonked himself down in the visitor's chair and clutched at his hair, breathing heavily. "Okay. Right. I decided I had to talk to Gilmore's sister. Well, his next of kin, anyway, or somebody who could tell me about his family life, not specifically his sister, but it turned out to be his sister anyway."
He is panicking, Wufei decided, coming around his desk to sit on the edge next to Duo, knees touching for reassurance. But he's not freezing up or going silent, the way he has been lately. This is... this is a very Duo sort of panic. This is the way Duo used to panic during the war. This is... good?
"So Amanda made the appointment for me, which is nice, because I wasn't looking forwards to calling this lady and saying 'hey, I think your brother wasn't raised right, wanna talk to me about it?', and God knows what Amanda told her to get the meeting set up, but it's at ten-thirty tomorrow and I can't just borrow your tie! I need a suit!"
"Why?" Wufei asked, reasonably enough he thought. "You have some good clothes--"
"I have nice jeans, 'Fei, and nice casual shirts, and boots, or sneakers. I can't walk in there in that and a borrowed tie!"
Wufei scanned the small square of yellow notepaper, and felt his eyebrows rising again. "Ah. I see."
"They're lawyers, Wufei, nobody in that building has a soul! Expensive lawyers! These are the lawyers really famous rich people hire when they're in really deep guacamole! They're going to take one look at me and-- and--"
"And they're going to see your consultant's badge."
"Yeah! And then-- huh?"
"It's all right, Duo. Let me think for a moment."
Wufei leaned forwards and kissed Duo gently, feeling him jerk in surprise and then slowly relax, responding. "It's okay," he whispered, pulling back barely an inch. "Calm down. It's okay."
"Um. Right. Calm," Duo whispered back. "I can do that."
"Good." Smiling, he kissed Duo one more time before leaning back and beginning to think aloud. "Well. I can understand you not wanting to go to this meeting in casual clothes, no matter how nice they are. Two-hundred-dollar jeans are still jeans, after all."
"Yeah," Duo muttered, still slightly dazed from the kisses. "I-- two- hundred-dollar jeans? I have two-hundred-dollar jeans?!"
"Quatre," Wufei said dryly, and smirked when Duo rolled his eyes and nodded understanding.
"He would do something like that," he muttered, then blinked. "Hang on... he got me four or five pairs of those jeans! How much did the shirts cost?! How the hell am I ever going to pay him back?! He--"
"Duo. Focus. Calm, remember?" Wufei eyed Duo until he was sure the outburst was over. "I honestly do not think that Quatre either expects or wants repayment."
"But... they're two-hundred-dollar jeans!"
"Can you honestly picture Quatre going to a discount store? Getting back to the current topic, I don't think a suit is necessarily the right thing for you to wear either. I mean, honestly, Duo, would you be comfortable in a suit?"
"No," Duo admitted reluctantly. "But it's the right thing to wear in that environment."
"It's the right thing for them to wear in that environment, but you're not a lawyer. You're going there as a consultant for the Preventers, conducting an investigation."
"Er, this part of the investigation is completely unofficial. I'm not allowed to specifically investigate Gilmore."
"I doubt Amanda told his sister that, or you'd never have got the appointment," Wufei smirked. "If you tell her that she is under no obligation to answer your questions, well... she's a lawyer. She's far more likely to assume that that means 'I don't have a warrant but I can and will get one if you refuse to cooperate', not 'I shouldn't be here'. Especially if you are dressed appropriately and seem confident, which will be far easier if you are comfortable with what you are wearing. So, not a suit."
"I like it," Duo told him, beginning to relax and smile back. "What's your definition of 'appropriate' non-suit-type clothes?"
"As much like a Preventer as you can be without breaking the law," Wufei decided, twisting to reach his vidphone.
"Who are you calling?" Duo asked, craning his neck to see the screen.
"Barents' Workplace Apparel," Wufei muttered, calling up a directory and scribbling down phone number and address. "They supply all of the Preventers' uniforms. The slacks, boots, shirts and ties are all pretty standard items, so anyone can buy them; dress uniforms and standard jackets are distinctively styled and not freely available, but your consultant's badge should be sufficient ID to get you a jacket -- especially since I'll be with you. The insignia are the only part you definitely aren't legally entitled to, but if you've got the rest of the uniform and your badge clipped to your lapel--" he smirked "--I don't think you're going to need them."
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