"Before we get seriously sidetracked
onto the subject of Duo flashing people or exactly how many sets of twins there
are in the Assink family--"
"Three," Ninke muttered quietly.
"--I think we should find out exactly what you meant when you said your grandmother intends to 'place the Yggdrasil ring at our disposal'," Quatre continued determinedly. "Also, how active is it? What sort of reach have you got? What have you been doing since the war?"
< < I want to find out how active Nicklaus and Nils are in this ring, > > Wufei said seriously. < < They're Preventers. Have they been passing classified information out of the organisation? > >
"No," Ninke said seriously, shaking his head. "They took the secrecy oath and meant it. They have passed information to the rest of us, but only unclassified data. The, er, security video of Duo is a special case; Nicklaus said he had reason to believe that copies of it are already making the rounds of several agents' families and friends."
< < But most of the information passed to the Doctors during the war had to come from OZ internal communications, > > Wufei pointed out. < < To get it, one or more of you almost had to be working for OZ... and they had secrecy oaths as well. > >
Ninke smiled. "I'm almost tempted to say 'I had my fingers crossed', but this is a serious subject..."
"You worked for OZ?!" Quatre asked sharply.
"Yes, sir, I suppose you could say I did, and so did three of my brothers," his assistant said calmly. "I divided my time between the Communications and the Records sections, which meant that when it became obvious that the war was almost over, I could lift our personnel jackets out of the files and wipe all the computer records that said we were ever OZ soldiers; then we just vanished. That's why it never came up in my employment history," Ninke said dryly. "To get back to Mr. Chang's point... yes, we did take the loyalty and secrecy oaths. However, technically we weren't working for OZ. We regarded ourselves as on the other side, working against OZ, so the oaths meant nothing to us. Our first loyalty was to an equitable peace for Earth and the colonies, which the Doctors, the Gundam pilots and Relena Peacecraft had the best chance of achieving, not OZ. We are not opposed to the Preventers, however. Quite the opposite. That's part of the reason why we decided to work for you. Through you, we'll be working with the Preventers, and if the rest of us can get clearance, there won't be any conflict of interests for Nicklaus and Nils. They won't have the problem they have now, where sometimes they come across information relating to a 'situation' Grandmother Matilde is... interested in, but they can't pass it on because it's classified. They will also be able to pass Yggdrasil information to the Preventers, without having to explain their sources, protecting our anonymity; or they can let you pass it on and pretend to have nothing to do with it."
"Why not work directly for the Preventers, then?" Trowa asked.
Ninke's smile twisted slightly. "We don't work for organisations, sir, they're too... changeable; we work for individuals. Grandmother Matilde trusts in your motives, goals and honour to ensure that our information is put to the best use. Some day, it might be best not to give it to the Preventers."
"Not to mention that 'civilians' can get more and varied information than known agents," Karl added.
There was a moment's silence before Quatre spoke. "So, during the war... you considered yourselves to be working for the Doctors, not their organisation or the colonies?"
"Yes, and they didn't choose us, we chose to work for them."
"Grandmother Matilde chose, anyway," Karl muttered, grinning. Ninke casually swatted his younger brother in the back of his head, and continued.
"In fact, to the best of our knowledge, they never worked out who we were. We communicated with them through blind drops and some incredibly twisty electronic channels."
"I tried to trace some of your messages," Heero said abruptly. "J was going nearly insane with curiosity. I didn't get far. That habit you had of routing your data packets through Swiss banks, disguised as transaction information, caused me a lot of trouble."
"They are very protective of their data," Ninke murmured politely. "We're getting off track again, though; Mr. Winner asked what we're offering you, among other things, and I think I should get to that."
"We would like to do for you what we did for the Doctors; gather and analyze information on our own, and pass on anything that might be of interest to you. If you come across an indication that something might be worth investigation, of course we'll follow it up, but frankly, we work best when we direct our own lines of inquiry. It would help immensely if you organised clearance and access to Preventers intelligence reports for us, but we certainly don't require it. We also don't require payment."
Ninke's polite smile widened. "We all have other jobs, and the family as a whole is quite well supported. You weren't the only ones abstracting money from OZ accounts during the war, and before that we were bleeding the Alliance... besides which, we're not doing this for the money. We're doing this because we all believe that you have to work towards the world you want, not just sit around and say 'well, somebody ought to do something!' And it's fun. This sort of work is in our blood; it's as necessary as breathing to us, I think."
"That's... an interesting point of view," Relena said slowly. "Several of my security guards think that way. Georg always says they're the best ones..."
The discussion continued for a while longer before breaking for dinner, but the Assinks had already made their point. Their skills, experience and contacts would be incredibly useful to the Preventers-- even if they were insisting on (mostly) not working for the peacekeeping agency. Heero, Trowa, Quatre and Relena were all making quiet plans to check up on the Assink family's past history, but none of them seriously expected to find anything unacceptable.
* * * * *
In another part of town, Sally and Une were settling into chairs at their usual table in King O'Malley's, drinks in hand.
Sally politely smothered a yawn behind one hand. "Uff... I swear, I don't think I sat down after ten this morning. Was it my imagination, or did it get incredibly busy the moment Duo and Wufei left?"
"It wasn't your imagination," Une said, surreptitiously kicking her shoes off under the table and wriggling her toes. "I would be inclined to think it was the universe punishing you for tormenting Chang about his 'love life', but why would your karmic burden result in more work for me?"
"Instant karma splashes?" Sally suggested. "Can we be bothered cooking tonight, or do you want to eat here?"
"Here," Une said definitely. "When we get home, the only thing I want to do before getting into bed is have a hot bath. And speaking of Chang and Maxwell--"
"We are now. You never did give me a proper report on their condition. 'They'll be fine' lacks a certain something that I'm used to getting in reports. What was it again...?" She stared into space for a moment, sipping at her drink, then nodded. "Ah, yes. Details."
Sally chuckled and reached for a menu. "Wufei does have a very pretty crack through his shoulderblade, as I thought, as well as a wrenched knee and an impressive collection of bruises. Another couple of days of rest, however, and he can safely go onto light duties. Duo is still making slow but steady progress; he's not improving as quickly as I'd like, but he is improving as quickly as can be expected under the circumstances."
"You said that last time you gave him a checkup," Une pointed out.
"It was true the last time, too. Running around in sub-freezing temperatures on a mission of vengeance doesn't exactly count as 'resting'."
"No... I see your point," Une murmured into her glass. "What caused his somnolent state this morning? Will that have any adverse effects on him?"
Sally's smile widened and she chuckled again. "No. I was a bit worried, I'll admit, but apparently Christmas Day was rather tiring as well and it pushed him past the end of his reserves. That's just how he reacts when he's exhausted or sleep-deprived. He calls it 'zombie mode'."
Une raised an eyebrow. "Isn't that rather a liability for someone in his-- er-- previous profession?"
"Not really. By the time Duo goes zombie, almost anyone else would have collapsed days before. He can still function if he has to-- admittedly, in a limited fashion-- and he won't drop into that state unless he considers himself safe."
"You've seen him like this before, I take it?"
"Oh, yes. Only once, but it was a memorable occasion..."
Climbing into bed with a hot drink clutched in one hand, cursing the fact that her tiny apartment 'safehouse' had no insulation and almost no heating, Sally snuggled down into the warm blankets with a sigh. A couple of minutes with her feet planted on her hot water bottle, and she might even stop shivering...
There was a loud knock on the door.
Even if that's not somebody from OZ, I may shoot first and patch them up later, Sally thought sourly, putting her drink on the floor and groping for the gun under her pillow. Or not patch them up, she amended, wincing as her feet hit the floor. Even through two pairs of socks, it was freezing.
The knock was repeated as she moved out of the bedroom. "I'm coming!" she yelled, gun lifting to point at the door. "Who is it?"
"Us," a flat voice answered.
"Ah, Mister Talkative," Sally muttered, relaxing slightly. "I should have guessed."
Once she got the multiple locks open, she threw open the door and glared at the two pilots on the doorstep. Duo was seemingly asleep, leaning heavily on Heero, not even twitching an eyelid. "I might have known it was you," she snapped, giving them a quick visual once-over after checking up and down the corridor. They look exhausted, but there's no visible wounds or bandages. Good. "I only know five people with timing this bad."
"We're supposed to have it," Heero informed her, shifting his grip on Duo to a slightly more secure one. "It's called 'the element of surprise'."
"You're supposed to do it to your enemies."
"I'm practicing. Now, let us in before I drop Duo."
"First things first," she sighed, stepping to one side to let them past, and then closing the door. "Do we need to leave in a hurry or are we secure?"
"Secure," Heero grunted, walking Duo over to the sofa and sitting him down. "We lost our tail four hours ago."
"Second thing. Are you staying here or just passing through for treatment?"
"Staying. Four or five days."
"Okay. Third thing. There is only one hot water bottle, and it is mine."
Heero raised an eyebrow and looked her up and down. Flannel pyjamas, quilted dressing gown (with an automatic pistol tucked in the belt), thick socks... "You look warm enough."
"I'm not," Sally snapped, tucking her hands into her armpits and shivering. "There was ice in the toilet bowl this morning! I am not tough enough to wear spandex in all climates, damn it, and God only knows how you keep everything functional in temperatures like these... at least Duo wears long sleeves and pants! And yes, I can see that you're not wearing spandex now, but I bet you would be if it wouldn't attract attention. The hot water bottle is mine. Live with it. Are you two hurt?"
He blinked. "No."
"Good. Hot chocolate?"
"Yes. ...please," he added when she glared.
"Fine. Coming right up. Blankets and quilts are in that closet, take as many as you need, there's plenty."
When Sally came back out of the tiny kitchenette with a steaming mug in each hand, she paused for a moment as she saw Duo still slumped on the couch in the exact same position. "Duo?"
"He's asleep," Heero said, pulling bedding out of the closet and arranging it on the floor.
"...oh. Duo? Wake up, Duo. Hot chocolate... Duo?"
"Give me one of those," Heero said brusquely, getting up and moving to sit by his friend. "You won't wake him up like that." Holding Duo's head steady with one hand, he guided the mug to Duo's lips; Sally watched in amazement as the braided teen drank without twitching an eyelid.
"He drinks in his sleep?"
Heero snorted, slowly tilting the mug. "For the next couple of days, he'll be doing everything in his sleep."
Sally watched, bemused, as Heero put down the mug, got Duo up on his feet, half-stripped him and got him under the covers without Duo opening his eyes, or-- more surprisingly-- his mouth.
"And he was right," Sally told Une, rattling the last ice cube around the bottom of her glass. "I swear, for forty-eight hours, Duo did not open his eyes. He ate in his sleep, he drank in his sleep, he showered in his sleep-- well, Heero showered him, but you get the idea. He even went to the toilet in his sleep!"
"With guidance, I hope," Une murmured, eyes a little wider than usual.
"Definitely," Sally said, "and that's another job I wouldn't share with Heero. I told him that if he didn't help Duo to the toilet, I was going to diaper him until he woke up. He considered it for about thirty seconds, until he realised what Duo's reaction would be to waking up in a nappy."
Une nearly choked trying not to laugh out loud, but waved her hand at Sally to go on.
"Well, that lasted two days. On the third day--"
"Duo rose?" Une sputtered.
"Oh ha ha," Sally retorted, mouth twitching as she suppressed a smile. "Sort of; he was still at least half asleep. The next day he was fine. Apparently they'd been on some kind of observation mission for two weeks, that really needed four people to properly cover everything they needed to watch. They'd had about two hours of rest a night, then laid a trap and led the pursuit over a few hundred miles of nowhere in particular. Heero said Duo was fine until they reached my building and confirmed it wasn't being watched; then he just keeled over onto Heero's shoulder in the elevator."
"Heero Yui took an elevator? My goodness, he was slipping," Une said, dabbing at her teary eyes with a tissue.
"So, how was your day? Apart from busy?"
"Some parts of it were interesting, at least-- oh, yes, that reminds me. The next time you have Chang in for a checkup, I need to talk to him. We'll be ready to proceed against Anders as soon as Wufei presses charges. I was going to start the paperwork this morning, after he came back from x-ray, but I forgot."
"You forgot something?" Sally purred. "My goodness, you are slipping."
"I was distracted," Une said loftily, thinking of the moment when she'd discovered that Duo now seemed to trust her. "You've done it yourself."
"True. How is Anders? I haven't been called to the cells, so I assume he's physically well enough... more's the pity."
"Surprisingly meek and well-behaved, actually, and I don't think he's putting on an act. He twitches every time someone comes into the cells, until he sees who it is; then he relaxes. Even if it's me," Une added dryly. "Duo's little visit seems to have had a serious effect on him."
"Really? This, I have to see," Sally said, eyes sparkling. "And it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy..."
"Sally, you're an evil woman sometimes."
* * * * *
Duo was quiet again that evening; Wufei wasn't sure whether it was because he'd heard Heero and was brooding, or because he was thinking about the fact that he'd first flashed one stranger and then fallen asleep on another.
Or he could be thinking about the Yggdrasil Ring and the war, Wufei thought, watching Duo's thoughtful expression out of the corner of his eye as he pretended to read. Or the kiss...
I'm not going to ask!
Duo sighed and leaned back, nestled against Wufei's shoulder. "Fei?"
"Read to me?"
Wufei blinked, then smiled, shifting around so that he could put his good arm around Duo and still hold the book. "Certainly," he said quietly, gathering Duo's braid into the hand that was still strapped to his chest as he turned back to the beginning of the volume.
Later, as they were drifting off to sleep, Wufei pulled Duo close and gently rubbed his cheek against the soft bangs.
Sooner or later, we've got to discuss our... relationship, he thought, closing his eyes. Not talking about it, making assumptions, that was what screwed up our lives to begin with.
Once Duo's better. I'll tell him how I feel once he's better, and ask him... ask him if he's sure he wants me.
"Wo ai ni, Duo," he whispered, so quietly that he almost didn't hear it himself.
* * * * *
Five minutes after Une sat down at her desk the next morning, her vidphone chimed.
"Une speaking-- ah, Winner. To what do I owe this call?"
She flicked a quick glance sideways at her computer clock, confirming that yes, it was only ten to eight. Quatre never calls this early; I know he works even longer hours than I do, but he doesn't like making it obvious. What's happened?
< < Lady Une, > > Quatre said, nodding politely. < < Are you available for a meeting at my estate sometime today? > >
Her eyebrows rose. "This is very short notice. How long a meeting? With whom?"
< < You, Major Po, myself, Trowa, Heero, Relena, Wufei, and possibly Duo... and as many members of the Assink family as we can get together, > > Quatre listed. < < The meeting is likely to be a long one; I'm afraid I can't narrow it down any more than that. > >
"The Assink family?"
The blond teenager nodded, one corner of his mouth twitching. < < They're the subject of the meeting. > >
"Oh?" Une's eyes narrowed and she sat back, one hand lifting to her chin as she thought. "I worked with a Captain Erik Assink during the war. We have an Agent Assink-- no two-- in the Preventers. Your new assistant is an Assink..."
< < Relena's, too, > > Quatre noted.
"It's not an enormously common name. They're all related?"
< < Brothers. > >
"And they are the subject of this proposed meeting because...?" She let the sentence trail off, looking at Quatre expectantly.
< < This is only a medium security line, > > he pointed out.
She stared at him for a moment, then reached out and pressed an intercom button. "McKenzie?"
< < Yes, ma'am? > >
"Reschedule all my afternoon appointments and meetings, please," Une said, never taking her eyes off of Quatre's image. "I will be in a different meeting, at Mr. Winner's estate, and will be leaving at 1 pm. Please inform Major Po and Agent Assink that I will be expecting them to join me." She cut the intercom and raised an eyebrow at Quatre. "The other Agent Assink is posted to L3, so we can't realistically expect him here in time to attend. I presume you'll be bringing your Assinks?"
< < Most definitely. Thank you. > >
"You've managed to get me very curious," she said dryly. "We'll be there."
* * * * *
Quatre keyed in another number and sat back, fingers tapping on the desk as it rang... and rang...
"They're not answering," he said, frowning slightly.
"Duo and Wufei?" Trowa asked, looking up from his chair. "It's barely eight o'clock and they've got no reason to get up early. They're probably still asleep."
"Well, yes, but I don't think Wufei is physically capable of sleeping in unless he's really exhausted... oh, well, I can just leave another message--"
The screen flickered, and Duo appeared.
< < Um... Quatre, > > he said quietly, looking away.
"Duo! It's good to see you again," Quatre blurted, surprised. "How are you?"
< < I'm fine. Wufei's having a bath. I'll have him call you back, > > Duo replied, reaching towards the keypad.
"No, no, don't hang up, please! Er, there's a meeting at my house at 1 pm, about the Assinks, and we'd like you to be there. You don't have to come if you really don't want to, of course," he hastened to add, "but I'd really appreciate it. Lady Une and Sally will be here. I'll send one of the Manguanacs to pick you up, if that's all right."
< < Hang on, > > Duo said, getting up and walking out of pickup range.
Quatre blinked, then a broad smile spread over his face. "He's wearing the boxers I bought him!" he said happily, leaning around the vidphone and beaming at Trowa. "The 'Salad Dressing' ones!"
Trowa snorted. "The ones with the vegetables getting dressed? And which ones are you wearing?"
"If you hadn't gone for a walk this morning, instead of taking a shower with me, like I suggested, you'd already know." Quatre said archly, tipping his nose up into the air. "You'll just have to wait to find out."
"If I'd showered with you, we'd still be in the suite," Trowa muttered.
"Would that be so bad? You keep telling me I should spend less time working, after all..."
Duo tapped on the bathroom door, then opened it a little and leaned through. "Need a hand?"
"I will with my hair," Wufei grumbled, splashing slightly as he tried to handle the soap and the washcloth with only one hand. "And I want waterproof bandages! People can build Gundams and space colonies and blow huge chunks off planets! Why can't they make waterproof bandages?"
"Um... Quatre's on the phone. He wants to have a meeting about the Assinks this afternoon. Are we going?"
Wufei looked up, a faint worried crease appearing between his eyebrows. "Do you feel up to it?"
Duo shrugged one shoulder, looking away. "If you're going, I'm going."
"... All right," Wufei said slowly. "Are we being picked up?"
"Quatre said he'd send a Mangaunac, but I'd rather drive."
The Chinese teen's mouth opened, then snapped shut as he bit back an automatic objection. "Very well, if you prefer it," he said quietly. "If the meeting is tiring, we can get a lift back...?"
Duo nodded, glancing back at Wufei and smiling for just a moment. "Okay. I'll go and tell Quatre we're coming."
* * * * *
Stepping out of her car, Sally scowled up at the grey, cloudy sky. "It's going to snow again," she muttered, then raised her voice. "Did you say Duo was coming to this meeting?"
"Quatre said he might," Une told her, closing the passenger-side door.
"Well, he shouldn't. The weather's turning bad, and I doubt he's ready to see all of the other Gu-- er, boys yet." She stuttered to a halt, eyeing the third person getting out of the car.
Nicklaus straightened up and cleared his throat. "I, ah, do know that they're all Gundam pilots, ma'am."
"You do? How-- oh." Sally lightly slapped her forehead. "The security camera feed from Duo's little 'conversation' with Anders, of course. Damn."
He coughed. "Well, yes, there was that, but--"
The front door opened and Quatre came out. "Come in, out of the cold!" he called. "Heero and Relena are already here; we're just waiting for Duo and Wufei, and another Assink or two."
"Duo's coming?" Sally asked sharply, moving towards the steps. "He's supposed to be resting!"
"Well I certainly wasn't going to tell him I didn't want him to come!" Quatre replied, just as sharply. "One, it wouldn't be true. Two, this affects him just as much as the rest of us. Three, it would hardly be a step towards getting him to forgive us!"
"You've got a point," Sally muttered begrudgingly.
"I've got several points," he muttered back.
"What other Assinks are we expecting?" Une asked, raising an eyebrow at Nicklaus as they followed Sally.
"I honestly don't know, ma'am," he said. "Mr. Winner?"
"Ninke said two or three of your brothers are coming, but he's not sure which ones," Quatre said, ushering them towards the door. "I believe your father can't get away from his company just now--"
Wufei's Blazer came up the driveway and parked beside Sally's car.
"They're both determined to make themselves worse!" Sally said incredulously. "I told Chang not to drive!"
"It looks like he listened," Nicklaus observed quietly as Duo got out of the driver's side door.
"Duo!" Sally yelled. "Did you at least bring--"
Duo pulled his inhaler out of a pocket and waved it at her as he moved around to help Wufei out of the passenger's seat, and she deflated slightly.
"Well, that's something at least," she grumbled. "And he seems to be wearing properly warm clothing this time..."
It was a fairly uncomfortable group that gathered around the table in the breakfast room. Duo sat next to Wufei, hands twisted around his braid in his lap, looking at the floor; he'd responded with quiet monosyllables when Quatre and Relena greeted him, then stiffened and had gone silent when Heero had ventured to say hello. As a result, Heero was sitting as far away from Duo and Wufei as the seating arrangements permitted, completely expressionless, flicking the occasional glance in their direction. Une and Sally were making polite conversation with Relena, Trowa and Quatre, pretending they hadn't noticed anything, and the three Assinks were avoiding any awkwardness by standing at the window watching for their brothers.
"Oh, here they are," Karl said with relief tinging his voice as a limousine pulled up. The sound of the car doors opening and closing could be faintly heard through the thick bulletproof glass in the windows. "There's Janne and Joost... and Erik... and--" A strangled squeak escaped him, and he took a step sideways to stand behind his taller brothers. "Oh boy. Oma's here!"
Nicklaus cleared his throat and turned around, looking at Wufei. "So she is... Sir? If you remember, I said I was sure you'd get to meet my Grandmother Matilde some day? Well, today seems to be the day..."
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