"Mister Maxwell, do come in," Justine
Gilmore said with a practiced smile, standing up and holding out her hand as Duo
walked into her office. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, but you know how it
is; busy, busy."
"Not a problem, Ms Gilmore," Duo replied easily, falling automatically into the proper role as he felt all his mental warning signs snap on. *Whoa. I do not like you, lady... and it's not just because you're a scary lawyer. Now, why is that?* "I appreciate your taking the time to speak to me." He shook hands with her, applying exactly the right pressure and smiling his best 'totally-honest-and- open' smile, watching her do exactly the same thing back.
"Anything for our brave defenders of law and order," she chuckled, eyes flicking over him in a quick evaluation and then returning to his face. Her smile warmed a notch, and she gave his hand a little extra squeeze before letting go.
Duo snorted inwardly. *You're good, lady, but I'm better -- I'm never that obvious about checking someone over. And you've just decided I'm worth schmoozing up to. Guess 'Fei was right about the jacket.*
He settled into the chair she waved him to and sat back, pulling out his notebook and getting ready for what he privately vowed would be one of the best bits of fast-talk in his life.
Justine busied herself pouring water for her 'guest', marshalling her thoughts. When she'd heard that someone from the Preventers wanted to speak to her, her first thought had been that one of her firm's clients -- one of her clients -- was mixed up in something... serious. A bit more thought, though, and she'd dismissed that idea. Even if one of her clients was up to something, ah, 'irregular' enough to attract the Preventers' attention, lawyer-client privilege still meant something; nobody would expect her to testify against someone with whom she had a fiduciary relationship.
Besides, she was smart enough to arrange things so that she could honestly say she didn't have proof of anything illegal her clients might be doing. Knowledge without proof wasn't admissible in court, even if she might be giving her clients advice that somehow applied perfectly to the shady dealings she definitely didn't admit they might have.
Which meant, of course, that the Preventers were interested in something else, and that meant her brother Patrick. That surely couldn't be too serious; little Pat was too prudish and too stolid to have involved himself in anything major. Besides, she hadn't really spoken to him in years. That's what she'd told herself... before she saw the agent they'd sent.
He didn't look like a Preventers agent at all, which immediately set off warning bells in her mind. That young, and with that ridiculous non-regulation braid... but his ID would have been checked as he came in, and an impostor would have tried to look more normal anyway. Therefore he was one of 'those' agents, the ones everyone knew the Preventers had, the ones who had special skills or special duties and were allowed leeway in other areas. That, plus the number of colours in the band across the bottom of his ID, plus the lack of insignia on his uniform, had to equal 'highly cleared secret agent of some sort'.
*He's a prodigy,* she thought quickly, passing him his glass with a smile and pouring for herself. *Either that or he's a lot older than he looks. Probably works undercover. This is serious. Little brother, what have you done?!*
*Well, I'm sorry Patrick, but if you're going down I'm not going to be tarred by association. Mister Maxwell, you just got yourself one very cooperative interview subject.*
Settling back in her seat, Justine steepled her hands in front of herself and fixed her best smile on her face. "Now, Mister Maxwell, how exactly can I help you?"
Ms Gilmore's bustling around with carafe and glasses gave Duo time for a more subtle evaluation of her and her surroundings than she'd managed, and by the time she was finished he was frowning inwardly.
*Big imposing desk, squishy leather furniture that's so retro it's been back in half a dozen times, power suit from a major designer, subtle-yet-screamingly-expensive jewellery... that plus what I've seen of the rest of this firm equals money money money, all right. You don't get this high in this corner of the legal world as young as she is without family money and connections, either, no matter how good your Uni scores in law and butt-kissing were. Which means she's rich from birth. Therefore her brother should be rich, too... but I checked, and he's living within his not-exactly-handsome Preventers salary, no extra sources of income.*
A glance at the expensively-framed photographs on the wall turned into a longer look as Duo's instincts nudged him again, telling him that something important was there to be seen if he could just get his conscious mind to notice it. There were several 'brag wall' photographs, pictures of Ms Gilmore shaking hands with assorted celebrities and politicians (presumably after winning cases for them), and two or three that looked like family shots -- no, five; the tall, powerful-looking man standing next to a younger Justine in academic robes with a proud hand on her shoulder in the graduation photograph there was also shown there, there, there and there, always the centre of attention, and the older-brother type standing on her other side at graduation was sharing a frame with him there and there- -
*Oh. So that's it.*
Patrick Gilmore was standing in the background of the graduation photo, half-hidden behind their father, somehow managing to give the impression that he was huddling into his Alliance uniform collar despite the fact that he was standing up straight.
He didn't show up anywhere else.
*Hm. Daddy darling rates a good proportion of the brag wall, and big brother dear is almost as favoured despite being a typical boring Suit if ever I saw one, but little brother gets the short end of the stick. One photo, and it doesn't look like you actually meant him to be in it. So much for the 'brave defenders of law and order' schtick, huh lady?*
Duo shifted his gaze back to Ms Gilmore in time to be looking polite- and-attentive at her when she turned back to him, flipped to a blank page in his notebook, poised his pen, and never noticed that he was now completely calm.
"Now, Mister Maxwell, how exactly can I help you?"
The young man sitting opposite her smiled, a wonderfully warm expression that didn't reach his eyes, and Justine found herself shivering inside.
*This is one dangerous man,* she thought, recognising the mannerisms of someone who was completely in control of events as he shifted his shoulders, pushed his booted feet out a fraction, and somehow took control of the space around him, making a large chunk of her office subtly his territory. It was something she did herself in court, but she'd had to study and really work at it to pull it off, and she felt a stab of jealousy as her visitor accomplished it without effort.
"Before we get started, I should let you know that this interview is completely unofficial," he told her, sparking another surge of alarm. "You are under no obligation whatsoever to answer any of my questions, and you can end the interview and ask me to leave at any time."
*And have you get a warrant and come back-- or worse, not get a warrant and come back anyway? No thank you!* Justine thought, mind filling with unpleasant scenarios where 'unofficial' meant 'covert', or maybe even 'black op'. "I'm sure that won't be necessary."
His smile widened. "Thank you."
* * * * *
Wufei eyed the clock for perhaps the fifteenth time in five minutes. *Unless that woman's keeping him waiting, his appointment should have started twenty minutes ago. He hasn't called or come back, so she didn't just refuse to talk to him, which is... good?*
*Unless she refused to talk to him and he's sitting somewhere feeling like a failure. That would be bad. Very bad.*
His hand reached out for his terminal, then pulled back and clenched into a fist. *Chang Wufei, you are not going to phone him!*
Another glance at the clock. Twenty-one minutes.
* * * * *
Lady Une sat at her desk, paperwork lying forgotten in front of her, moodily playing with the ears of the floppy stuffed toy sitting in her lap.
*Twenty-two minutes and counting,* she told herself. *Everything must be going all right. If it didn't, he'd call Chang, and even if Chang didn't think to tell me, I'd notice when he broke the sound barrier as he left.*
* * * * *
Sally Po was halfway through an impromptu spring cleaning of all the cabinets in her surgery. It didn't stop her checking her watch.
*Twenty-four minutes and Une hasn't called, so nothing's gone wrong yet...*
* * * * *
Justine kept her courtroom smile going as she showed the Preventer to the door after what had turned into nearly an hour of the most searching cross-examination she'd ever experienced in her life. *Which isn't too surprising, since I'm not normally on the receiving end!* she told herself, feeling a drop of sweat prickling at her hairline. *That was worse than defending my thesis!*
And the boy -- young man, she corrected herself hurriedly -- had been perfectly polite and courteous the whole time, unlike one of her thesis examiners. In a way, it would have been better if he'd been rude or threatening; she was used to dealing with that, and if worse came to worst it would have been an excuse for her to break off the interview... even though that would have ended up with her looking over her shoulder for months. As it was, she'd had to answer dozens of probing questions about her brother and the rest of her family, staying strictly within the bounds of the truth while carefully shading her answers to make it clear that no other member of the small Gilmore clan could possibly be involved in Patrick's wrongdoing.
Whatever it was. She still didn't know. It would have been far easier to avoid incriminating herself if she'd just known what it was she was supposed to act oblivious to.
"Samantha? Hold my calls for the next thirty minutes," she told her assistant, shook Maxwell's hand goodbye, and hurried back into her office to regain her composure, go over everything she'd said one more time... and, most importantly, decide whether or not to call her father.
* * * * *
A lifetime's instincts and practice kept Duo's expression cheerful and unrevealing as he joked with Justine Gilmore's assistant ("How'd it go?" "Mildly chilled, but no frostbite!"), waved to the receptionist and walked out of the building, but inside he was starting to get genuinely angry. Snatches of the conversation he'd just had echoed through his mind.
"Well, Mister Maxwell, my brother Patrick's always been sort of the black sheep of the family..."
"I haven't seen Patrick lately, so I don't know how much help I can be, but..."
"We've never been what I'd call close."
"Oh--" a delicate laugh "--Patrick lives his own life regardless of what the rest of us are doing. He's always been like that."
*So much for family solidarity! Why don't you just hand the guy an anchor and cut the rope?*
And then there'd been the clincher. "He never really managed to... you know." A wave of the fingers. "Measure up."
He'd raised an eyebrow at that. "Measure up to what?" A momentary impulse to leer and make a crude remark was ruthlessly suppressed.
Another vague wave. "Family expectations."
"Family expectations? Do you mean your parents' expectations, or yours as well?"
"Oh, parents' of course, though I shared their feelings. Father knows best, after all." Justine practically simpered at him.
*Interesting how that went from 'parents' to 'father' so quickly. Come to think of it, I couldn't see any pictures that looked like they might be of their mother either, but Gilmore's file lists both parents as living...*
*So. Dad runs the family and Father Knows Best. Mom's either out of the picture -- literally! -- or totally without influence. Maybe the 'perfect' trophy wife, there to support her husband and be a hostess but nothing else? Number One Son and Daddy's Little Girl fit in just fine, but Number Two Son somehow fails... probably every day of his life, judging by the tone of some of those remarks.*
*Number One Son becomes a rich polished Suit, just like good old Dad. Daddy's Little Girl becomes a high-powered lawyer, just like good old Dad wanted. And Number Two Son is supposed to be something else, but ends up going into the military. In some families that's an honoured tradition, but in other families it's the sort of thing you do if you don't have the skills to do anything 'better'. I think I can guess which sort of family Gilmore's is... which makes his entire career a failure too. No matter how well he did, it would never count, because it wasn't success in the 'right' field.*
*And what does this sort of upbringing do to Number Two Son?*
Duo frowned, one hand pulling gently on his braid.
*Time to give Une my preliminary report, I think.*
* * * * *
Wufei leaned sideways in his chair as he heard light, quick, familiar footsteps coming into the room, peering past his bookshelf ramparts. Seeing Duo, he started to get up, smiling... then sat down again as Duo walked straight into his office, tugging at his braid and apparently muttering into the open notebook in his hand.
*Oh. I guess... he's busy?*
Feeling rather deflated, Wufei suddenly realised that he was beginning to pout.
*Ugh. Stop that! Duo doesn't have to come and talk to me every time he gets back into the office!* he scolded himself, scooting his chair back in front of his computer and snatching up a file at random. *Busy and absorbed is much better than upset or panicked! He will come and talk to me when he wants to!*
Five minutes later, he realised he was holding the file upside down.
* * * * *
Une looked at the thin sheaf of neatly-typed pages sitting on her desk and raised an eyebrow. "My. That's certainly concise."
Duo shrugged uncomfortably. "You said you liked brief reports. I put all the facts in there, I just didn't dance around the evaluation."
"Believe me, I'm glad to see it," Une assured him, smiling but sounding a little acerbic as she glanced towards her ever-full in tray. "Sit, please."
Duo sat, fingers and braid tuft twisting together nervously in his lap. Une picked up his report and started to read.
*...Well,* she thought, *concise and coherent. Logically set out, clear, easy to follow...* "I may have to hire you to give lessons in the proper way to present a report, next," she murmured, turning over the one-page outline of the problem and starting to read the 'Observation and Analysis' section. A few of the things listed as observations made her eyebrows lift again, but she wasn't distracted enough to miss Duo's pleased blush.
Turning finally to the last page, 'Conclusion and Recommendations', Une read the two short paragraphs, nodded to herself, and laid the pages down again. "How sure are you of your conclusions?" she asked, looking up, and Duo shrugged.
"Like it says, that's just my preliminary report, but I'm pretty sure. All I need to do before I turn it into my final report is to talk to Gilmore himself."
"You don't think he'll object to your suggested changes?"
"If I'm right, he'll jump at the chance to get out of the job," Duo said seriously, hitching forward in his chair to make his point. "He's a brilliant solo agent. Not so sharp on the reconnaissance end of things, but that doesn't matter if someone else is in charge of gathering intelligence for him, and he makes up for it by being great at improvisation anyway. Teamwork and teaching, though, nada. Zip. He's useless and he knows it... but he was offered the position, and in his family that's the same as getting an order. The person in charge tells you what you're going to do, and you do it. No excuses. No saying 'I can't' or 'I don't want to'. If you fail, it's because you failed, not because you were given a job you weren't prepared for. You weren't good enough. You didn't 'measure up'."
His voice turned biting on the last words, and Une nodded for him to go on. "You sound..." She gestured vaguely. "Mildly annoyed about this?"
"I wouldn't say 'mildly'," he snorted. "Severely narked, that might cover it. I spent nearly an hour listening to his sister preen herself about how she and her big brother were just so much better than 'dear Patrick', so much more successful, so much better at living up to what their father decided for them... She said that a lot. 'Father decided'. She didn't become a lawyer because she watched a lot of courtroom dramas when she was a kid; she became a lawyer because 'Father decided' she should go to law school. She was just lucky he picked something she was actually good at! Same for her big brother, 'Father decided' he should go into the family company."
"Yes, well, Father didn't decide so well there." Duo grinned coldly. "Apparently, 'Father decided' really early that it would be nice to have a doctor in the family. That was the family expectation, starting from when our Gilmore was about five... but he only got into medical school because 'Father decided' to buy him a scholarship, and he bombed his first year. Y'know, if you're heading for medical studies, you don't do well in all the preparatory units in high school and whatnot and then suddenly lose the aptitude. It had to be obvious -- obvious for years -- that he wasn't headed for the right career, but oh no, Father had decided, so they made him go on until he hit the wall and made it blazingly obvious. I may not know too much about families, but even I know that's no way to raise your kids."
Une studied him for a moment, then quirked a smile. "I'd say you know plenty. So. Gilmore's personal track record made him look like a good choice, we-- I-- offered him this job--"
"And either he didn't know whether he could do it or not, or he knew he couldn't, but refusing wasn't an option," Duo nodded. "As far as you were concerned, he could have said no, but he didn't see it that way. And he can't teach, because for one thing I think his social skills are shot, plus he's so good he doesn't think about how he does things any more. Stealth and infiltration are so easy for him, he can't understand why other people can't just see him do something once and catch on. Maybe he knows intellectually that they need to start with the simple things, but everything is simple to him.
"So his teaching sucked, but he managed to get his students to look competent by training them to do a series of classroom problems by rote. Then he had to plan missions. I bet he can plan one-person missions for someone at his skill level just fine, but he can't plan anything that takes teamwork. He can't plan for people who aren't as good as he is. He doesn't remember to write down some things that are absolutely necessary, because he's so used to them that he doesn't even think about them any more. They're a given for him, like-- like writing directions to get someone from the lounge room to the bathroom in your house. You'd write 'go into the hall, turn left, second door on the right' or whatever it is, not 'get up from the sofa, walk to the door, stop, open the door, move through it, close the door, turn on the hall light if it's dark...' You see?"
"I'm beginning to," Une sighed. "I'm also beginning to feel rather sorry for him."
"Well, yeah." Duo ran one hand back through his bangs. "He knows he's screwing up, but he can't ask to be removed from the job. It's the medical school thing all over again. He's been given a job to do, and he has to keep doing it until it all comes crashing down around his ears and he's told to stop. The way he's been raised, he's not allowed any other way out."
"So what do we do now?" she asked quietly.
"Well, first I talk to Gilmore to make sure I'm right about all this," he said, grinning sheepishly. He almost seemed to deflate a bit as he backed off from his anger at Gilmore's family, but she was pleased to see that he wasn't retreating back into timidity just yet. "Then, if I am right, you've got to take Gilmore out of his teaching position. He really is good within his area of expertise, he'd be invaluable to the Preventers back in the field, and I think he'd be pretty good as a teacher's assistant. You could bring him in after a mission to tell an advanced class what he'd done; you'd just need someone else to tell them why he did it that way, and why other methods wouldn't have worked. And... it might also be a good idea to get him some counselling, so next time he needs help he knows how to ask."
"That sounds like the right thing to do. It will mean a demotion for Gilmore, however, and I'll have to find a replacement."
"He might not mind the demotion if it gets him out of something he can't handle," Duo pointed out. "Most of his students said he seemed like a nice enough guy, and he wasn't a heavy in the classroom -- y'know, no leaning on his rank, no insisting they called him 'sir'. Besides, it was a provisional appointment anyway, wasn't it?"
"As for a replacement, you mentioned McKenzie, right?" He grinned. "From what Wufei's told me about her, she definitely wouldn't keep quiet if she thought there was a problem..."
"I believe I can safely say that failure to communicate her feelings is not one of McKenzie's flaws," Une said dryly, and waved him away. "Go. Shoo. I'll have Amanda set up a meeting with Gilmore in the next couple of days, and I'll expect your final report as soon as it's ready. I doubt you'll keep me waiting. Now go make Chang take you to lunch or something, it's nearly two o'clock and you look hungry."
"What, you mean 'Eat, eat, you're too thin already'?" Duo was already sidling towards the door as he continued with, "You know, you don't look like a Jewish grandmother--"
The stuffed puppy hit the door as he yanked it shut behind him.
* * * * *
Wufei looked up -- again -- as he heard Lady Une's door open and close, and he nearly catapulted himself up out of his chair as he saw Duo, heading for him this time.
"How'd it go?" he asked as Duo stepped into his little homemade office, carefully not asking all the other questions in his head -- at least, not asking them yet.
"Well. Um." Duo blinked at him and then seemed to sag all over, wilting forwards into Wufei's arms for a long, tight hug. Eventually pulling back, he sighed, "Man, I needed that. Um... how'd it go? Well, it... it went. It went okay, I think. Oh God, I just advised Une to totally rewrite a guy's career and she agreed with me!"
"Then she obviously knows how to recognise good advice when she hears it," Wufei said soothingly, carefully steering Duo to sit down.
"Uh. Okay. Cool. Thanks." Duo managed a wobbly smile. "I'll know for sure when I talk to him. Amanda's setting that up. Oh, and the scary lawyer lady did not shoot me. Actually, I think I scared her, I'm not sure why but I think it might have something to do with the way scary lawyer minds work. I guess the jacket worked. And Une says I should make you take me to lunch."
"Far be it from me to argue with my commanding officer. Where would you like to go?"
"Somewhere with nice soundproof booths so I can have a minor nervous breakdown and babble at you without anyone calling the men in white coats."
* * * * *
An hour and a half later, after a leisurely lunch (during which he had indeed babbled, but had managed to avoid breakdowns of any kind), Duo was back in his office sorting his files and making a few final notes before putting them away. Leah McKenzie might not be in charge of the filing room any more, but that didn't mean he was going to leave them for Amanda to deal with; after all, he liked her, and for all he knew she might have been taking lessons from Leah on how to deal with file defaulters.
His reaction when he answered the vidphone and saw Amanda's face looking back at him was therefore amusing, but understandable.
"I'm putting them all back, I swear!"
< < What? --Oh! > > She dimpled at him. < < I'm pleased to hear that, but that's not actually why I called. I have a call for you, from a Mister Gilmore, Senior. > >
Amanda nodded, and he straightened his tie, suddenly very grateful that he'd left both it and his jacket on. "Okay, put him through."
< < Certainly, Duo. Ah... Mister Gilmore asked to speak to 'Preventers Agent' Maxwell, and I did not correct his assumption. > >
"Gotcha. Thanks, Amanda."
< < You're welcome. > >
There was a brief flicker of static, and Amanda's image was replaced by that of a heavy-set, scowling man. He hadn't changed much since the photos on his daughter's wall were taken.
"Good afternoon, sir," Duo said politely, cold-calm once more. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Cold brown eyes studied his face, flicked over his clothes, examined his badge, and returned to his face... now showing the faintest, almost invisible, flicker of wary respect. < < Agent Maxwell, > > he said.
*Oh yes. The jacket really works.*
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