As soon as they walked in the door, Wufei
felt Duo flinch as he saw Heero. I knew this was a bad idea, he thought
despairingly, keeping his face blank with an effort as he nodded 'hello' to the
various people in the room. Duo's not ready to see him. I couldn't
leave him behind, though, and if I'd stayed home with him he'd know why, and...
Gods, he's going to go silent again, I know it.
Duo sat down in the first seat he came to, at the very end of one side of the table; Wufei took the next seat along, placing himself between Duo and the rest of the room. Maybe if people have enough sense to realise they shouldn't push him, this won't be too bad...
"Wufei, Duo, it's good to see you again," Relena said softly, aiming her words equally at both of them, so Wufei could handle the conversation if Duo chose not to respond. "How are you both feeling? You look better than the last time I saw you."
"We're fine," Duo muttered, looking down at his lap. One hand pulled his braid forward over his shoulder and started to pick at the tufted end.
"Considering that Major Po was hammering on my shoulderblade the last time you saw me, 'you look better' is very faint praise," Wufei said dryly, flicking her a grateful look.
She chuckled. "It's better than 'my god, you look dissipated', or 'you've been partying hard, I see'. Both of which I've heard at diplomatic functions."
"Don't you mean 'undiplomatic functions'?" Sally asked, reaching over the table to check Duo's temperature. "Hm. Not bad."
"You'd blend into the crowd, woman," Wufei said crossly, picking her hand off Duo's forehead and shoving it back at her. "Save the invasion of personal space for when you have us trapped in your office. We're both fine."
"Yeah," Duo muttered, leaning closer to Wufei.
Quatre got a similar one-word response when he offered tea or coffee. Wufei was relieved to see that Duo's shoulders were slowly relaxing from their tense, hunched posture; then they tightened again, and he looked up to see Heero standing on the other side of the table.
"Damn it, I know Heero doesn't have the sense God gave a gerbil at times, but does he have to demonstrate that fact now?!" Sally hissed under her breath.
Standing next to her, Une nearly choked on her first careful sip of hot coffee. "What -- ?! Oh," she muttered, voice dropping as she saw where Sally was looking. "No, don't go over there!" she hissed, putting her free hand on Sally's elbow and holding her back. "It won't do any good, you'll just embarrass them all worse."
Duo tensed, hands clenching on the end of his braid and twisting viciously. He'd glanced up just far enough to see who was standing there, then dropped his gaze to his lap and kept it there.
Go away. Go away. Go away. Go away. Go away!
Heero cleared his throat. "Hello, Duo," he said hesitantly.
Duo jerked, fingernails digging into his palms as he ducked his head lower. GO AWAY, he thought desperately, starting to panic. GO AWAY!
A warm, golden-bronze hand curled gently around his own. "Hello, Yui," Wufei said, voice low and even.
"...Wufei," Heero replied stiffly, after an awkward pause. "You're looking better." Then he turned and walked away.
Carefully, Wufei disentangled Duo's right hand from the tight knot of fingers and hair in his lap, and clasped it. He could feel Duo trembling. Heero's mask cracked, for just a second there, he thought grimly, stroking his thumb gently over the back of Duo's hand. He might even be hurting as badly as Duo is.
I would like to find some sort of satisfaction in that, dishonourable or not... but somehow I can't. It's not as if his pain can somehow lighten Duo's.
Perhaps I shouldn't have glared at him.
"I told you so," Une whispered behind her cup, flicking a sideways glance at Sally. "Yui would be mortified if any of us had been right there watching when Chang used his Death Glare on him."
"You think he isn't mortified now?"
"Of course not. He's miserable."
They pricked up their ears as, a few feet away, Trowa placed a steadying hand on Quatre's elbow. "You okay?" he murmured.
The blond nodded, rubbing at his chest and swallowing. "I am now. For a few seconds, I thought Duo was going to run for it. He's still feeling panicked..."
I want to go home. I don't want to be here. They don't need me here, they only need Wufei... But I don't want to go without him! Duo swallowed hard, unconsciously tightening his grip on the Chinese teen's hand. I wanted to run away but I don't want to leave Wufei. Why run? Heero wouldn't hurt me... but he did, he cut me off and I couldn't... I shouldn't be afraid of him. I'm not, really, I just really don't want to talk to him!
I want to go home...
Thoughts chased each other around Duo's head, never getting anywhere.
"Oh, here they are," Karl said, breaking into the quiet conversations going on behind him. "There's Janne and Joost... and Erik... and -- " He 'eep'ed, eyes going wide, and ducked behind his taller brothers. "Oh, boy. Oma's here!"
"So she is," Nicklaus said, sounding faintly surprised. He turned to Wufei. "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."
"I take it that it's an important event?" Wufei asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Very much so," Ninke said fervently, looking rather nervous. Karl took one more quick glance out the window, then sidled around so that his brothers were between him and the door.
Trowa watched his manoeuver with interest. "Is your grandmother that bad?"
"Oh, no," Karl assured him. "We love our grandmother."
"Deeply," Nicklaus added. "But she's going to be very disappointed in Ninke."
"Hopefully, only Ninke," Karl muttered. "She might take the view that we should have restrained him."
"Thank you so much, Nicklaus, Karl," Ninke grumbled. "I'll remember this..."
There was a polite knock at the door, and Arif opened it. "Master Quatre, your other visitors have arrived," he announced, stepping to one side and bowing them in. "Madame Assink, Mister Assink, Mister Assink and Mister Assink."
Matilde Assink was a tall silver-haired woman, dressed elegantly and walking with an elaborately carved cane that she didn't seem to need; everyone hastily revised their previous estimates of her age down to about fifty, then back up again. After all, Quatre thought, standing to greet her, I know Ninke is thirty-four, and he isn't her oldest grandson...
Two more Assink grandsons followed her in, cast in the same tall, slender, white-blond mould as the others, one with ice-blue eyes, and the other with hazel. The third was a definite surprise; he was Assink-tall, but otherwise didn't resemble his brothers in any way. He had red-brown hair and a short, bristling beard, dark brown eyes and a nose that had been broken at least once in the past, and his shoulders were so broad that he automatically turned a little sideways as he walked through the doorway, though it was wide enough that he didn't need to.
Glancing up from his lap, Duo blinked and made a tiny surprised noise as he saw the third man; the dark Assink looked around to see who'd made the squeak, spotted the braided boy, grinned and winked.
"Madame Assink, welcome to my house," Quatre said, coming around the table to shake her hand.
"Matilde, please," she replied in a rich, melodic voice. "You have no need to introduce your friends and companions. I know them all, even though we have never met -- No, no, there is no need to get up!" she added, waving Wufei back into his seat as he started to rise. Seeing Ninke, she sighed slightly. "Ninke, such awful timing you have! This could easily have waited until both Mr. Chang and Mr. Maxwell were fully recovered."
"Bejammeren, Oma," he muttered, looking embarrassed.
"It's not me you should apologise to," Matilde said reproachfully, tapping her cane on the floor for emphasis. "Your timing was excellent during the war. Enemies are supposed to be taken by surprise. Friends and allies, however, deserve a little more consideration, especially in peacetime!"
"I could like this woman," Sally whispered to Une as they stood up. "Perhaps she'll be a good influence on certain other people...?"
Une smothered a chuckle and stepped forward, hand outstretched. "Madam Assink, a pleasure to meet you, I'm sure." Even if I don't yet know what this meeting's about! In the last ten minutes, Quatre Winner has managed to dance around the subject without ever coming out and saying anything definite."And there's at least one of your grandsons I don't need an introduction to," she added, releasing Matilde's hand and nodding towards the man with the ice-blue eyes. "Captain Assink, good to see you again."
Eric Assink had the good grace to blush as he shook hands. "I hope you still think so after this meeting, ma'am... Lady Une, I'd like to introduce my brothers, Janne," the hazel-eyed blond nodded, "and Joost."
The huge Viking throwback grinned, carefully taking her hand in one of his own huge paws as if he was afraid he might accidentally crush it. "I served with OZ, too, ma'am," he rumbled in an astonishingly deep voice, "Though not under the name Joost Assink."
Her eyebrows shot up towards her hairline, and she paused for a moment before withdrawing her hand. "Ah," she said slowly, obviously putting that together with what his brother had just said, and adding a meeting with the ex-Gundam pilots to the mix... "I think I'm beginning to get the idea."
"Yes, I imagine you are," Matilde said approvingly. "Such a bright woman, it was a pleasure working against you. You kept us on our toes. I believe Mr. Maxwell might remember my Joost, as Lieutenant Huginn."
"It's good to see you again, Maxwell," Joost rumbled, walking up to Duo and holding out his hand, smiling. "You look much better than the last time I saw you. At least you're fully conscious and not covered in blood!"
Lying on the cold floor of the cell, Duo watched a thin trickle of his own blood stop flowing and begin to clot.
I don't think I broke anything, when they shot the bike out from under me, he thought, dispassionately cataloguing his various pains and cuts. They were certainly careful not to damage me any further when they put me in here... but they haven't bothered to check me over or bandage anything, either. Doesn't look good. And it's cold enough in here that if they just leave me alone for another hour or so, I'll be in no shape to put up a fight.
Not that I'm in any shape to fight now...
The electronic lock beeped softly and the door slid open.
"What, room service at last?" Duo asked, as sarcastically as possible considering that his lip was split and sore. "Took you long enough. The OZ Hilton this is not. I'd like to check out now, if you don't mind, and I want my money back." One eye was nearly swollen shut, but he had a clear view of the door, and tensed as he saw only one man had come in. Not an official visit, then, he thought. Either he wants a little private fun, or a little private revenge. Damn, he's big...
His 'visitor' hadn't turned up the lights; he was dimly visible as a large, looming bulk as he crouched down beside Duo and dropped a wadded bundle on the floor. "Well, there's a coincidence," he said softly, voice rumbling deep in his chest. "Helping you check out is exactly what I'm here for! Think of me as your travel agent."
Duo raised one eyebrow, wincing as the large man carefully patted him over, checking for broken bones. "Oh? I'm afraid I seem to have lost my wallet..."
"No need to worry about that," the man assured him with a chuckle. "Someone else is footing the bill." Picking up the bundle, he shook it out flat, and started wrapping it around Duo. The braided pilot clutched at the fuzzy blanket and suppressed a yelp of mingled pain and surprise as his rescuer scooped him up as if he weighed less than a feather.
"Oh, mah he~ro," Duo falsettoed in a fake southern accent as he was carried to the door. He considered fluttering his eyelashes, but decided that the black eye made that a bad idea. "You're so strong, an' kind, an' all round generally the sorta man a gal wants to see whenever she needs to scream 'hay-yelp!'"
The man snorted, shifting Duo's weight slightly so he could open the door. "Shhh," he rumbled, checking up and down the corridor. "The guards are all napping right now, and I shut the cameras off, but that's no guarantee of safety. I can't drop gas grenades on the whole base, after all."
"Okay," Duo whispered, blinking as his vision blurred. "I don't mind being quiet; I think I might pass out soon, anyway."
"That's fine," the man whispered back, grinning down at his dazed passenger; Duo finally got a decent look at his face, in the brighter lights of the corridor. "This package tour comes with a sleepover option..."
"It was you!" Duo said softly, letting go of Wufei's hand to take Joost's. "I never got a name, but I saw your face... and I woke up in a safehouse, with Quatre and H-Hee..." His voice trailed off and he swallowed, looking away, then he looked at Joost again. "How'd you get me out?"
Joost laughed. "I put you in the back of the base commandant's car," he said, "left the keys in it, and went back inside to be seen working. Then Janne here came in, with forged ID and a stolen uniform, and drove the car out. It had tinted windows, so the guards never saw who was inside, and they just stood back and saluted as it drove out."
"I delivered you to a vacant safehouse in town, patched you up, and sent a message to the Doctors telling them where you were," Janne added, smiling at Duo. "They sent the other pilots to get you. Pleased to meet you again, awake this time!"
"I remember you, too," Trowa said, stepping forwards to take Joost's hand. "I was all set to break Duo out when you stopped me."
"It seemed a shame to let you go to all that trouble when I knew he was already gone," Joost grinned.
"I never heard that part of it," Quatre said, surprised.
Trowa shrugged. "It didn't seem important. I told you there was a lieutenant at that base on our side, I just didn't go into detail about how I found out."
"How did you find out?" Wufei asked, spirits lifting slightly as Duo's hand found his again. I think the argument over whether or not to trust them is over before it can begin!
"I was at that base as a cadet," Trowa stated.
"As usual," Une said sourly, rolling her eyes. "You'd think, with all the security alerts I sent to different bases with all of your descriptions, and photos after we got them, somebody would have recognised you boys once in a while. But did they? No! As far as my OZ intelligence personnel were concerned, anyone on a base, in uniform, was beyond question until they blew something up. And now I find out that several of my more intelligent staff were actually double agents. No wonder we lost! Between the Assinks and the Gundam pilots, we had a snowball's chance in hell!"
Trowa coughed. "Well... I had worked out a plan to get Duo out. It would have required breaking my cover, since I didn't have an accomplice to get him away. I was actually getting up from my duty station when Lieutenant Huginn -- Joost -- walked past, looked over my shoulder at my screen, and whispered 'Don't bother. He's already gone'. Two minutes later, the alarms went off when the next shift found their colleagues unconscious and Duo gone."
"So, your cover wasn't blown," Une sighed. "As I recall, a week later that base was. I suppose that was you?"
Trowa bowed silently.
"Ah, well. Perhaps I shouldn't have demoted that commandant when Maxwell escaped. He did say there must have been inside help..."
A lot of the meeting went past in a blur, for Duo. He was still easily tired, after all, and being around the other pilots was very stressful... so he dealt with it by shutting most of his surroundings out. Leaning on Wufei's good shoulder and holding his hand, the braided teen ducked his head and watched Matilde from under his eyelashes.
She's not what I was expecting, he thought drowsily, listening with only half of his attention as she skilfully took control of the meeting and laid out exactly what the Assinks were offering, answering most of the possible questions and doubts before anyone could bring them up. After what she sent me for Christmas, I think I was expecting a plump little granny with glasses and a knitting bag. I guess she knits, all right, but she's six feet tall and still has a great figure...
Lulled by Matilde's voice, Duo let his eyes slide closed and drifted off into a confused dream, where Joost carried him through endless corridors while Matilde Assink criticised her grandson's rescue technique.
During a pause in the discussions, Matilde looked across at Duo and smiled. "Still much too thin," she said softly, "and he has fallen asleep. He is doing better, though, yes?"
"Yes," Wufei said, a little defensively. "He insisted on coming."
"That is no surprise," she told him, chuckling. "Only my Joost actually met him during the war, but Garrison is quite fond and proud of young Maxwell, so he told me many stories. He almost gloated over his exploits! About all of your exploits, actually, but his were the most memorable, and notable for stubbornness. Among other things."
Wufei couldn't help a faint, fond smile as he looked down at Duo's face, nestled against his shoulder. "We're all stubborn," he replied quietly. "It's the 'other things' that make him special." He frowned in thought and looked up at Matilde again. "Garrison?" he asked. "I don't believe I know -- "
"We seem to be agreed, then" Une said from the other end of the table, where she'd been alternately doodling on a notepad and whispering to Sally. "Nobody can think of any real reason not to accept the Assinks' offer, but we can all think of plenty of reasons why we should. I want to do some more checking before I arrange clearances with the Preventers -- "
"Of course," Matilde nodded.
" -- but for now, at least, we're accepting the offer?" Une glanced around the table, counting nods. Nobody disagreed.
"Then I have here our first reports," Matilde said cheerfully, taking two disks out of her handbag and handing them to Eric; he stood and walked down the length of the table to give them to Quatre and Une. "In the future, we will report only to the Gundam pilots and Miss Peacecraft," she continued, pulling out a third disk and handing it to Relena, "and it will be up to them whether or not to pass our information on to the Preventers, the civil police, or whoever... but under the circumstances, it seemed polite to hand it over directly, this once."
Une and Quatre slid their disks into their laptops right away; Relena tucked her into her purse. "I should point out that the disks do not contain the same information," Matilde added. "There is some overlap, of course, but also many differences. Miss Peacecraft's disk contains data of interest to the world government. Lady Une's has data on organisations we believe to be dealing in or accumulating weapons, the Preventers' main concern, and Mr. Winner's covers both data on companies that seem to be using 'dirty tricks' and industrial espionage, and data of interest to you all as Gundam pilots."
Relena looked up sharply as she closed the clasp on her purse. "I have a question. Yesterday, Ninke told us that your main aim was an equitable peace between Earth and the colonies. To that end, are you also reporting to representatives of the colonies?"
"No," Matilde replied firmly, shaking her head. "We have aligned ourselves with you because we believe you are the best people to maintain the current peace, and we will not alter this arrangement unless and until you wilfully endanger that peace." She smiled, eyes sparkling. "I do not expect that to happen any time soon. If you wish us to pass information to the colonies, of course we shall... ah, perhaps I should point out that we have maintained links to the Doctors, although they are not now in use."
"You know where the Doctors are?" Wufei asked, surprise driving all thought of 'Garrison' from his mind for the moment.
"But of course," she said placidly. "We took care not to lose sight of them when they went underground after the war. If we wanted them, we did not want to have to go looking for them. We can pass messages to them, if you wish to establish contact."
"We already know about this one," Une muttered, concentrating on her laptop's screen as she quickly opened and scanned files. "And this one -- "
"But we didn't know they had that," Sally said, leaning over Une's shoulder to point.
"No," Une said grimly. "I think we need to move up the timetable for taking care of that group... hm. We didn't know about them... or this group..."
"At least they're small fry."
"So far. ... Ye gods!"
"They're not small fry!"
"I noticed! And look at this list of suspected personnel! He gave us the tipoff that led to the uncovering of the 'Third Dawn' group!" Une sputtered indignantly, stabbing an accusing finger at the screen.
"So he did," Sally mused. "Taking out the competition and distracting us at the same time, maybe?"
"Remind me to ask him after we arrest him," Une said dryly, closing the remaining files and shutting her laptop down. The disk went safely into an inside pocket. "I think this partnership will be very satisfactory, Madame Assink, even if you won't let me recruit the lot of you."
"We are much more effective behind the scenes, Lady Une," Matilde replied sweetly. "Besides, you have already my Nicklaus and my Nils, and their cousin Hjordis is joining as a cadet. Three Assinks in the Preventers is plenty for now. We do not want to take over, after all." Sally narrowed her eyes slightly. "Why do I hear 'yet' on the end of that sentence?"
Matilde's smile widened. "You have nothing to worry about. We do not need to take over. You are doing a fine job."
"If we've established that the Yggdrasil Ring is still doing an excellent job," Wufei cut in, "I need to get Duo home. Quatre, can we borrow a Mangaunac or two to drive us back?"
"Certainly," Quatre said, dragging his eyes away from his own laptop. "I think I need to pass some of this along to my security people... uh, I'll ask Abdul to send a couple of the men around. Will you need help getting Duo into your car?"
"No, I don't think so." Wufei disentangled his hand from Duo's loose grip and gently patted the sleeping teen's face. "Duo? Wake up, Duo, it's time to go home..."
"Mmmh... 'Fei?" Duo mumbled, screwing his face up and scrubbing at his eyes with the back of a hand. "Meeting over already?"
"What do you mean 'already'?" Wufei teased gently. "It's almost five- thirty. You've been asleep for at least the last three hours."
"Can't be," Duo insisted muzzily. "I just closed my eyes. I was listening, too... Why was Mrs. Assink criticising Joost's technique?"
"Rescue technique," Duo explained. "While he was carrying me... oh. That was a dream, wasn't it?"
"Most likely," Wufei said gently.
"I have never found fault with my Joost's rescue techniques, actually," Matilde said quietly, half to herself, half to Duo. "It is only the occasional lack of subtlety that I have had to mention, lieverd, and when he rescued you, I do not think anyone could have found fault."
"I certainly didn't -- " Coming fully awake, Duo blinked his eyes open and abruptly realised/remembered that he had a fairly large audience, including several people he was still very uncomfortable with; he turned red, then white, and scrunched down in his chair, looking at his hands again.
Oh well, Wufei thought ruefully, suppressing a sigh. For a moment there he sounded almost like his old self... even if it didn't last.
* * * * *
After Wufei and Duo left, followed by the Assinks, Une and Sally stayed; Quatre had invited them for dinner. He invited Heero and Relena, as well, but after a quick glance at her fiance, Relena politely declined.
"Did you notice?" Sally asked Une quietly, watching out of the corner of her eye as Quatre and Trowa saw their other guests to the door. "After he tried to talk to Duo, Heero didn't say a single word during the whole meeting."
"Mm," Une agreed. "Perhaps you should be teasing him about his 'relationships' to make him think, instead of Chang."
"Not in a million years. For one thing, he's not my patient. For another, I'm not suicidal. If I push Wufei, the worst things I'm likely to get aimed at me are glares and swearwords. If I push Heero too far, I could get shot!"
"Good point," Une said dryly. "Yui has a much shorter fuse than -- oh, bloody hell!"
Sally nearly spilled her coffee. Une swore? "What? What's the matter?"
"I forgot to talk to Chang about pressing charges against Anders, again!"
 Bejammeren: sorry (Dutch)
 lieverd: my dear, dear one... expression of affection. Used here as 'my dear boy' (Dutch).
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