As Relena and Heero came down the steps
outside the courthouse, Karl slightly behind and to one side, the waiting
reporters surged up towards them, microphones and cameras at the
"Minister Peacecraft!" one called, shifting agilely to the side and matching their pace downwards, following without obstructing them. "Would you care to make any statement about today's verdict?"
"Certainly," Relena smiled. It was difficult to keep the smile from expanding into a vicious smirk when she thought about how the hearing had gone; she concentrated instead on how polite all the reporters were being, waiting for her to answer the first question before cutting in with their own. Losing my temper with them really did pay off; I'll have to keep that tactic in mind for future use. Better not overdo it, though... "I'm delighted to report that the court has dismissed Ms Reynard's accusations of wrongful dismissal and defamation of character. Judge Abrams ruled that I was perfectly within my rights to fire her, and any damage to her character resulted from publicity she sought out."
"Are you going to reveal exactly why Ms Reynard was fired?"
"No, I am not," Relena said firmly, shaking her head. "Ms Reynard was dismissed for a breach of trust, the details of which are to remain private. That's why I requested a closed hearing. I can tell you, however, that I will be counter-suing for damages on behalf of a person, a very good friend of mine, who was harmed by the actions for which Ms Reynard lost her job. That will also be a closed hearing, so I'm afraid you're not going to get much concrete information out of this, sorry."
"But Minister, why won't you reveal any details?"
"As I said, it's a private matter. I can assure you that it has no political ramifications; it is nothing to do with my position as Vice- Foreign Minister; the person on whose behalf I am counter suing has no political connections, and until now has been unaware of my intentions. I'm sure they'll find out soon," she added dryly, gesturing to one of the cameras, and the reporters laughed. "Since this matter has nothing to do with my public position, I have no legal requirement or moral duty to give out any more information than I already have. In fact, I can't -- since it was a closed hearing, if I were to give you any more information, I could be arrested for contempt of court!"
"Well, we wouldn't want that," one of the reporters said, grinning, and there was a chorus of amused agreement. One young man pushed forward, lifting a hand, and Relena nodded.
"Just one more question, ladies and gentlemen, and then I really must be going."
"Minister Peacecraft, I know this is a bit of a stretch," the young reporter said, "but your dismissal of your secretary happened only a couple of days before Winner Enterprises, a company which we all know is headed by a close personal friend of yours, severed their contract with Elite Secretarial Services and initiated legal proceedings against them for breach of their previous contract, fraudulent dealings, and criminal negligence. Is there any connection between these cases?"
A small, Mona Lisa smile curled Relena's lips. "I... really can't comment on that," she said demurely.
"That sounded a lot more like a yes than a no to me," the reporter said hopefully.
"As I said, I really can't comment. Now, if you'll excuse me?"
"Just one more question, if I may?" another reporter called after her as Karl was opening the door of her car. "Have you and Mr Yui set the date yet?"
Oh yes. As soon as Duo is able and willing to attend... "Not really," she laughed, glancing back. "We can't agree! As soon as we work it out, though, you'll be among the first people to know."
* * * * *
"You're sure this is legal?"
"For us, yes," Wufei assured Duo, biting back a chuckle as he saw the other boy eyeing his new insignia-less Preventers jacket dubiously. "For anyone else, it would depend on what they used it for and whether or not they said they were a genuine Preventers agent... and if Lady Une decided to make an example of them, it wouldn't matter if they just wanted to wear it for Halloween. Since when do you worry about the legalities of things, anyway?"
"Since I ended up on Lady Une's side and decided I don't want to piss her off," Duo said in heartfelt tones.
"Duo, if this sort of thing was going to piss her off, she wouldn't have put you in touch with Gilmore's sister. It's the same sort of thing, a grey area in the regulations, not precisely approved but not specifically illegal. Besides, Barents' wouldn't have let us buy it if it was illegal."
"You mean 'shouldn't have let us', 'Fei. There are all sorts of things we shouldn't have been allowed to buy during the war, because they were sure as hell illegal, immoral, and sometimes even fattening, but we still got them," Duo pointed out dryly, hanging the jacket in the closet and closing the door.
"Exactly. That was during the war," Wufei countered. "Dealing on the black market for explosives and ammunition at a ridiculous markup is a bit different from buying an off-the-rack uniform jacket from a stodgily respectable family business. A business, I might add, that got the contract for the Preventers' uniforms because they are so stodgily respectable, and have to account for each one of their sales if they want to keep that contract. Don't worry, Duo. If something goes wrong, we'll just tell Une the truth."
"And that is...?"
"It was all my idea. The shock of having me take responsibility for something unorthodox should distract her from whatever punishment she would otherwise have imposed," he said, smirking.
"True," Duo admitted, a brilliant grin breaking through his worried expression immediately. "That's a good distraction-- hold on, are you sure she's worked with you for long enough to know your orthodox habits properly? Otherwise it won't have the proper impact."
Wufei snorted. "She's observant. She knows."
"It's a good thing she didn't work it out during the war, then, or she would have been able to predict your behaviour better and might have caught you. Of course, you are the person who once stabbed his own Gundam with its main weapon and used the resulting explosion to get away. Maybe that fooled her."
"Yes, I have to admit that mechanical hara-kiri is hardly an orthodox tactic," Wufei murmured blandly, a faint smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth. "On the other hand, it was a successful tactic, which is what I wanted at the time."
"There was method in your madness, in other words."
"So how come you never let me use that excuse when I did something that seemed crazy, yet worked? Hmmm?"
"Because my 'madness' never involved glitter, aerosol cheese, rubber cockroaches, or insane amounts of jello."
"...You have a point there. You're a spoilsport, but you have a point."
"I thought I did. Now let's go start dinner! I'm hungry, and if you aren't, you should be."
Dinner eaten and dishes done, Wufei walked out into the living room to switch on the TV while Duo made coffee. The news was on, and a familiar voice brought him up short as he turned to go back and help carry the cups.
< < --statement about today's verdict? > >
< < Certainly. I'm delighted to report that the court has dismissed Ms Reynard's accusations of wrongful dismissal and defamation of character... > >
"Duo?" he called, eyes fixed on the screen. "You might want to see this."
"What?" Quick footsteps pattered up behind him. "Is it something about the Preven-- oh."
< < ...I will be counter suing for damages on behalf of a person, a very good friend of mine, who was harmed by the actions for which Ms Reynard lost her job... > >
Wufei risked a glance back at Duo and saw him swallowing hard, eyes wide. Okay, that's... not exactly a happy expression, certainly, but it's not angry or upset either. More like... shocked?
Well, that's hardly a surprise. Great. I am going to have words with Relena and Heero for not warning us about this beforehand. And if Duo ends up taking it badly, it's going to be more than words!
They watched the rest of the news item in silence. Duo's face was blank when Wufei looked at him again, withdrawn and almost cold, and the Chinese Preventer winced inwardly. Lots of words. Starting with 'sha zi' and going downhill from there, I think! Duo's been willing to come out of his shell around other people for less than a month, damn it, and now it looks like he's going back in even around just me, thanks to those idiots--
< < Have you and Mr Yui set the date yet? > >
< < Not really. We can't agree! As soon as we work it out, though, you'll be among the first people to know. > >
There was a soft, choked sound, and Duo spun and walked out.
"Duo?!" Wufei was on his heels before it occurred to him that perhaps following Duo might not be the best idea. I don't want to push-- I keep telling myself I can't push-- but what if he needs me?
A spoon clattered noisily as Duo dumped sugar into a cup, movements jerky and hurried. "I don't see what the heck she's waiting for," he said roughly, face hidden behind his bangs. "I mean, they've got everything they want, they've got everything they need, it's not like they need to wait for anything else before they get married."
...I really hope telling him this is a good idea. "Actually," Wufei said carefully, "there's one last thing they're waiting for."
"Oh? Like what?" Duo snapped.
"Come here." Wufei reached out and tugged Duo away from the bench, pulling him into his arms. Serious words. Serious, possibly unprintable words, for making me have to bring this up before I'm sure Duo's ready to hear it. He was okay with Relena when she stayed here, but he's nowhere near comfortable even thinking about Heero, and he still shies away from discussing what happened when he was out of touch... "Do you know why we came looking for you when we did?" he said softly, rubbing gently at Duo's back. "I don't think I told you, but did Relena talk to you about it when she was here?"
"No." Duo shifted, and Wufei felt a rush of relief when he settled his head more comfortably in the hollow of Wufei's shoulder instead of pulling away. "She didn't."
"Well... I thought you were keeping in touch with Relena and the others. They thought you were keeping in touch with me." Deep breath. "We found out we were wrong when Relena and Heero called me to ask for your contact details, so they could invite you to be best man."
Duo stiffened, and Wufei felt his mouth move soundlessly several times before he spoke, almost inaudible. "They wanted me... to...?"
"They still do." When-- if-- your relationship with them gets back to something like what it was before.
...They might be in for a long engagement, then.
"But-- but why?!" Duo burst out, one hand coming up to punch half- heartedly at Wufei's shoulder. "Why would they think I was only talking to you? For eight months!" His breath choked on an angry sob, and he hit Wufei again, other hand knotted in Wufei's shirt and holding him close. "Eight fucking months!"
"I guess they weren't thinking," Wufei said quietly, grateful that Duo was hitting his left shoulder instead of his right. Not that he would have stopped him if he had been hitting the still-sore one; this was the most emotion Duo had allowed himself to show on the subject of his 'abandonment' since the night he'd broken down crying. And that was self-hate and guilt. This is at least half anger. Much better.
"So Quatre and Trowa thought I was having fun and would call if I needed them," Duo went on in a tight voice. "They didn't know I was trying to, and they were busy, but still--" Another sob, another thump on Wufei's shoulder. "So Relena was busy too, with all that government and Preventers crap, and it was her secretary's fault, but- - but-- oh, shit!"
The sudden switch from angry to panicked made Wufei jump as Duo's head jerked up, eyes wide. "What? What's wrong?"
"She's suing her secretary for me!" Duo's voice scaled up towards soprano. "Oh, shit! 'Fei, we gotta stop her!"
"But she's suing her!"
"Yes, she is. And?" Wufei chuckled darkly. "The only problem I have with that idea is that it's not going to be nearly as painful as that onna deserves. My preferred retribution would involve a locked room, me, and my second-best sword, but unfortunately that isn't sanctioned by modern legal codes."
"Heero would probably prefer to use a gun," Wufei went on thoughtfully, watching Duo flounder between shock and laughter. "Trowa would like knives -- again, not legal, so unfortunately that's not going to happen. Considering what Quatre is planning to do to Elite's owner, I'd say he'd agree with Relena's actions, only he'd go further; I'll be very surprised if Taarnby has a credit to his name after this is all over. Marie Reynard is lucky that Relena is dealing with her; she might not end up living in squalor and misery until the end of her days. Of course, she's likely to end up without a shred of reputation left, and for someone like her that's probably worse."
"But-- but-- damn it, 'Fei, I don't want people hurt because of me!"
"It's because of what they did to you, Duo, not because of you," Wufei corrected him gently. "There's a rather important difference there. If Taarnby wasn't an opportunistic, unprincipled bastard, and Reynard wasn't a social-climbing bitch, you would have been able to get through when you first decided to come home, and nothing would be happening to them."
"Or if the guys had wondered where I was," Duo said quietly, letting his head drop back to Wufei's shoulder.
"Yeah," Wufei sighed, tightening his arms around Duo. "I can't tell you why the others let you go uncontacted for eight months, because I don't understand it myself. Maybe they can explain. What I do know is that all of us would happily kill to take back what happened, but we can't, so--" He swallowed. "So we have to settle for what we can do. Let Relena sue Reynard, Duo."
"...all right. I guess."
* * * * *
"Coffee, Miss Relena? Mister Yui?"
"Yes please, Karl," Relena replied, flashing him a grateful smile as she dropped her handbag on top of her desk and sank thankfully into her chair. "It's been a long day, and I've still got that stupid cocktail party to go to this evening. First things first, though; I'd better call Wufei and Duo before--"
The vidphone rang just as she was reaching towards it, and she jumped. Karl's still right here, so it hasn't been transferred in from his desk, and there's only half a dozen people who have the number for my private line -- and even they don't use it unless it's important! Frowning slightly, she hit the 'accept' key.
< < Oh good, you're there, > > Quatre said, Trowa visible behind him. < < I've been calling for the past fifteen minutes! > >
"Quatre? Is something wrong?" Out of the corner of her eye, Relena saw Heero move into pickup range behind her, exchanging short nods with Trowa.
< < No, not at all, > > Quatre reassured her. < < I was just surprised, that's all; we didn't know you were so close to finishing up in court. I thought you were going to warn us before the verdict came out, so we'd be prepared in case we were asked for comments. > >
Oh, damn. "I'm sorry," she apologised. "I didn't realise the reporters would get to you this fast, though I suppose I should have expected that they'd want something to fill out the broadcast with--"
< < Oh, they haven't. We saw you on TV. > >
It was Quatre's turn to be surprised. < < Yes... you were on the six o'clock news. > >
"Oh no!" Relena almost wailed. "It was five to six when we came out of the courthouse, I thought for sure they wouldn't air anything until later tonight!"
< < Slow news day, > > Trowa shrugged, leaning back against the wall panelling.
"I haven't told Wufei and Duo yet! I don't think Duo even knows Marie was suing me, let alone that I'm planning to sue her!"
< < Oh. > > Quatre's eyes widened.
< < That could be a problem, > > Trowa pointed out calmly.
Relena was rapidly approaching a state of panic. "A problem? If Duo saw the news and takes it badly, Wufei's going to kill me! Duo's barely back to talking to us, who knows how he's going to react if he gets this dumped on him with no warning?"
< < Maybe he'll see it as a good thing, > > Trowa offered.
< < Maybe he didn't see the news, > > Quatre said hopefully.
"Wufei never misses the news," Heero pointed out bluntly.
"Thank you, Heero," Relena growled, glaring at him over her shoulder. "You're not helping."
* * * * *
"Don't worry about this now, Duo," Wufei said eventually, still rubbing the braided teen's back. "You can talk to Relena about it later, if you want to, but right now you've got tomorrow's interview to think about. Have you worked out what sort of questions you need to ask Ms. Gilmore yet?"
"No..." a muffled voice said from somewhere around his collarbone.
"Well, why don't you go and have a shower, get relaxed and into something comfortable, then sit down with a pen and paper and work out what you want to ask?"
"I dunno, 'Fei," Duo said doubtfully, pulling back slightly. Wufei saw with relief that he was looking more thoughtful than upset. "I mean, this is a bit different from the questioning I've been doing so far. All the others were Preventers, and I had authority from Lady Une; they had to answer me, and I was only asking about the course anyway. This time I've gotta think of a way to ask 'hey, was your brother raised wrong?' without getting thrown out of this lady's office!"
"Considering the number of people you've talked into, out of, and around weird situations in the past, I'm sure you'll do just fine," Wufei told him. "Besides, this time your life isn't on the line."
"I guess I'll just keep telling myself that," Duo sighed, managing a shaky grin. "Note to self: the scary lawyer lady can not shoot me. Gotcha."
Five minutes later, the phone rang.
"Hello? --oh. Hello, Relena."
< < Um. > > Relena smiled weakly out of the vidphone screen. < < I, ah, gather that expression means that you saw the news? > >
"What the hell did you think you were doing, not warning us?!" Wufei snapped, leaning in towards the screen with his hands braced threateningly on the table. "Duo only settled down a few minutes ago!"
< < I'm sorry, honestly! I didn't know it was going to be on before this evening, I meant to call you first... uh, is Duo there? Is he all right?"
Wufei nearly said 'No thanks to you,' but managed to keep that retort mental rather than verbal. "I think so. You can talk to him later, he's having a shower right now. In the future, would you mind letting us know about things that might involve or upset Duo before they get to a point where they're likely to make it into the mass media?"
Relena winced. < < I'll do that. Really, I'm sorry. > >
*Don't be sorry. Be careful!* "Right. I'll let him know you called." - click!-
* * * * *
Relena let out a hissed breath and leaned back in her chair, rubbing her arms. "Ow."
"Relena?" Heero leaned around the doorjamb, one eyebrow raised, a mug of coffee in each hand. "How did it go?"
"Duo's in the shower, and Wufei was... brusque," she admitted, holding out one hand for her mug and relaxing with a sigh. "He only swore at me once, though, and I still seem to have all my limbs, so I'd guess things aren't too bad." She took a sip, relaxing a little more, and waved the mug at Heero. "Remind me not to get into this situation again; I doubt Wufei will be so forbearing twice."
"Given the way you reacted when you found out what had happened, I doubt you'll need reminding," Heero smirked, leaning on the corner of her desk.
"Remind me anyway. I'm not taking any chances."
* * * * *
Taking a deep breath, Duo stepped up to the desk in the foyer of Enwright, Andrews and Bauer, resisting the urge to straighten his new tie one more time. Just remember, he told himself firmly, this is just like running an infiltration during the war, except that the scary lawyer lady can not shoot me.
"Good morning, sir, how can I help you?"
"Hi," he said, automatically turning on his best smile, the one that always made people feel like he was one of their best friends, the slightly disreputable one who had all the fun ideas. "My name's Duo Maxwell, I've got an appointment to see Ms Gilmore."
"Certainly, Mister Maxwell," the middle-aged receptionist said, dimpling at him. He noted, though, that her eyes still flicked down to check the I.D. badge clipped to his pocket, comparing the photo with his face. "If you'd just wait for a moment, Ms Gilmore's paralegal assistant will come to show you through."
Duo was shivering inwardly, part of him expecting someone to pop out of nowhere and declare him a fake, a worthless bum with no right to be standing where he was, wearing what he was, doing what he was... Outwardly, though, none of that showed. A shadow of the bold fašade that had carried him through the war was operating, letting him lean on the receptionist's desk and joke with her while he glanced around the lobby, noting well-concealed cameras and the large-yet- unobtrusive security guard.
Money money money, he decided, spotting yet another almost-hidden camera. Lots of money to spend, and a real concern about security... they don't let visitors wander around alone... it wouldn't be easy to break in here. Not that I plan to try, but anyway.
Justine Gilmore's assistant didn't keep him waiting for long, emerging from one of the elevators with a polite plastic smile and a smooth apology for the delay. There was a slight surprised lift to her eyebrows when she saw him, changing to an expression of suppressed interest, and he decided to gamble that she might actually be human underneath the mannequin-like perfection of her makeup job.
"So," he asked, shooting her a sideways grin as they stood shoulder- to-shoulder in the elevator, "should I be quaking in fear, or is Ms Gilmore not an Ice Princess?"
That got him a startled look and then a real smile. "I'd say 'quake'," she told him in a confidential voice, "if it weren't for the fact that she goes for visible signs of weakness like a piranha. It's a courtroom reflex, and I did not tell you that."
Oh shit oh shit oh shit. No. Remember, Duo, the scary lawyer lady can not shoot you. "My lips are sealed. Hmm. Quake internally, while maintaining a sober and businesslike expression, then?"
"That would be the best course of action, yes," she chuckled.
"Thanks for the advice."
"It's even free," she said, stepping forwards as the elevator doors opened, "which is against best practice for a lawyer. Luckily for you, I don't have my diploma yet."
He was left to kick his heels in a comfortable waiting area for five minutes, watching several paralegals shuffle files around their desks (exactly the same as the files in Preventers headquarters, he noted, except for the fact that they were literally tied up with red tapes). Before he could either convince himself to relax or work himself up into a nervous breakdown, Ms Gilmore's assistant answered her intercom, stood up, and beckoned him forwards.
"Mister Maxwell? Ms Gilmore can see you now."
"Abandon all hope, ye who enter there," one of the other paralegals muttered in a low voice he probably didn't intend to be heard, ducking his head.
"Into the valley of death," Ms Gilmore's assistant murmured in agreement, smiling brightly.
Duo took another deep breath and blew out his cheeks, for one moment wholeheartedly wishing that he'd never said 'yes' to Une's offer of work. Wufei thinks I can do this. "Ave, Caesar," he muttered, stepping forwards. "Morituri te salutant."
The scary lawyer lady can not shoot me. The scary lawyer lady can not shoot me...
 "Ave, Caesar. Morituri te salutant" = "Hail, Caesar. We who are about to die salute you." Said by gladiators in ancient Rome before the Games began. Talk about violence in entertainment...
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