Rebuilding + Chapter 17 (cont)

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"--don't think we'll have too much trouble getting the budget increases we want this time," Quatre was saying as the door opened, head turned back towards Lady Une. "Wingrove will put up a good fight, but with Relena and her supporters all firmly on our side he'll have a hard time convincing enough of the independents to vote against us, especially since we can point at our track record of arrests and impoundments to prove that no, Humanity hasn't 'matured beyond the need for a nanny organization'..."

"I like that tagline he used in last week's speech, though," Trowa volunteered, following him out. "'The Preventers -- Diapering the World!'"

"I'd have liked it better if it hadn't got Reid up on his 'everyone ignores the colonies' hobby-horse," Une said dryly, coming last and closing the door behind them. "He ranted for twenty minutes; I think the only reason I didn't shoot him was because he always votes on our side. Is there anything I need to look at before we go to lunch, Amanda?

"Nothing requiring your immediate attention, Lady Une, but Agent Chang and Mister Maxwell would like a brief word with Mister Winner and Mister Barton," her secretary said cheerfully, shuffling a stack of papers into order with one hand while the other reached for her vidphone's touchpad. "I'll just let them know you're free-- oh, there they are."

"I'll go on ahead and get us a table before the main lunch rush arrives," Une started, then re-checked her watch and grimaced. "Hm. Too late. We may be reduced to hovering significantly behind someone until they move, sorry."

"Major Po is holding a table for you," Amanda informed her, waving to catch Wufei's attention from where he and Duo were standing talking at the entrance to Duo's office.

"That's... suspiciously convenient," Une muttered, shooting her a sharp look that had no effect on her serene façade. "Well. In that case, I'll go ahead and join her before she gives up on us."

"We'll be with you shortly," Quatre assured her, then turned back and raised an eyebrow at Amanda as the colonel strode off. "It is suspiciously convenient, isn't it?"

"Not when you consider that late lunches are the norm for Lady Une," she pointed out cheerfully. "Normally Major Po chooses to -- ah -- 'leave her in the lurch', but on this occasion I believe she said something about 'having pity on the growing boys'."

"'Boys'?" Trowa muttered, looking faintly offended.

"'Growing'?" Quatre muttered back, looking rueful. Unlike his lover, he hadn't had a sudden growth spurt during the last year, and rather resented it.

"Trowa, Quatre," Wufei nodded, walking up with a nervous-looking Duo trailing behind him. "Sorry to bother you, but we wanted to ask something..." He trailed off, glancing back at Duo with a hesitant, encouraging expression.

"Um." Duo gulped audibly, then stepped forward the half-pace necessary to bring him level with Wufei's shoulder. "We were wondering... I mean, it would be kinda nice if... If you don't mind and you've got time and everything..." It was his turn to trail off, shooting a panicked, beseeching look at the Chinese teen.

"We'd like to invite you both to dinner at our place," Wufei finished for him. Duo nodded, adding non-verbal confirmation but apparently having given up on talking for now. "Would that be all right? When would be convenient for you?"

Quatre was speechless for a moment, a delighted grin spreading across his face as he realised that yes, he had heard right, and yes, Duo had-- well, Duo hadn't actually issued the invitation, but he'd made it halfway through before he stalled, so surely that meant he didn't mind? Even if it's Wufei's idea, Wufei would never make him do anything he didn't want to, so he has to at least agree that it's okay!

"We'd love to," Trowa said calmly, picking up the conversational ball before Quatre's brain-freeze could cause an embarrassingly long silence. "And I know we're free Monday night, if that's okay with you two."

Wufei glanced quickly at Duo again, saw no overt signs of horror, and nodded. "Sounds good. Seven?"

"Seven o'clock, your place," Trowa confirmed, nudging Quatre unobtrusively. "We'll look forward to it."

"Y-yes!" the blond stuttered, jolted out of his happy daze. "Thanks! Ah, uh, can we bring anything? Wine? Dessert?"

"Dessert...?" Duo said in a tiny voice.

"We're both still taking drugs that don't mix well with alcohol," Wufei grimaced, "so wine is out unless you want to bring some for yourselves, I'm afraid. I agree with Duo, though, dessert would be wonderful." He grinned suddenly. "The only time I actually gained weight during the war was when I spent three weeks hiding out at one of your properties, Quatre, and your cook kept trying to find a dessert that I'd actually eat. Once he discovered my weakness for those damned little chocolate-and-strawberry things -- you know, the ones that are the calorific equivalent of plutonium -- I was doomed."

Trowa and Duo looked at him with surprised expressions, and Quatre sputtered with sudden laughter. "I remember that! I learned about fifteen new words when you found out you'd gained two pounds! I think you even made Rashid blush!"

"Wufei likes chocolate?" Trowa asked quietly, sidling over to Duo. "I didn't know that."

"Don't look at me," Duo muttered back, nerves completely forgotten. "I didn't know either. And given the number of times I tried to get him to eat sweet junk food during the war, I'm surprised I didn't find out!"

"You know, you really upset Nasser when you wouldn't even taste his desserts after that," Quatre went on, trying to look severe and not even coming close.

"I was more concerned with maintaining my ability to fit in my Gundam," Wufei grumbled, looking rather embarrassed. "And you were eating just as much as I was! Why aren't you about fifteen sizes larger than you are?!"

"Fast metabolism," he replied smugly, eyes sparkling. "Runs in the family. Well, I know what we should bring with us on Monday, then..."

"Noooooo, not the evil little chocolate things!" Wufei groaned, turning to bury his face in Duo's shoulder. "I'm doomed again! Duo, save me!"

Lady Une, coming back to see what was taking so long, walked into a scene that made her stop short as if she'd run into a wall. Chang, clutching theatrically at Duo's shirt as he whimpered something about 'evil chocolate'. Duo, with a half-bewildered, half-amused expression on his face, patting Chang's shoulder sympathetically. Winner, staring wide-eyed, mouth opening and shutting silently (an expression, she noted, that was shared by most of the Preventers in the room who'd noticed the little tableau). And Barton, choking with laughter, using Amanda's desk for support as she helpfully thumped his back.

Une left without speaking to them. There are some things you just shouldn't interrupt.

* * * * *

Back in his office after lunch, Duo sat staring at a neatly typed sheet of paper, wiping his palms slowly up and down his pants legs. It didn't look like anything that would make someone nervous; just three columns of data, names and dates and telephone numbers...

Taking a deep breath, he tugged a notepad out from under the stack of files on the corner of his desk, folded back pages covered with notes and angry-faced little doodles until he reached a clean sheet, picked up a pen, and dialled the first number.

< < Records section, Agent Gifford speaking. > >

"Ah, hi," Duo said. His voice was mostly under control, and his face seemed calm, but his hands were fisted in his lap, out of line of sight from the vidphone screen, clamped tightly around the pen. "My name's Duo Maxwell; I'm working for Lady Une as a consultant at the moment, and I need to ask you a few questions about the matter I'm investigating. Do you have a minute?"

< < ...Uh, sure, I guess, > > Gifford said uncomfortably.

"Thanks. You were a member of the team that tried to infiltrate the, um, 'Black Lotus' terrorist group's headquarters on January the fourth this year, right?" he went on, quickly re-checking the list to confirm the name and date.

< < Yeah, I was, > > the older man replied, eyes flicking down and away from the screen as he scrubbed one hand through his short hair. < < Look, I already answered a few billion questions in the post-mortem to that cluster-fuck, okay? We screwed up, it went wrong, our bad, so sorry, end of story! I'm out of field ops for now and probably for good, you don't need to dissect the whole-- > >

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Duo yelped, holding his hands up. "Hold it! I'm not actually asking about that mission, I was just checking I had the right guy!"

< < ...Oh, > > Gifford froze with his hand still raised, expression an interesting mix of embarrassment and shame. < < Sorry. I'm, uh, I guess I'm a bit touchy on the subject. > >

"Yeah, well, I can understand that. I've got all those records, I've read them, and I'm not going to make you go over it all again," Duo assured him, waving one hand at the teetering pile of files. Pulling the notepad out from underneath them seemed to have unbalanced the stack; he paused to straighten them a bit, putting off the inevitable collapse, and went on. "I want to ask you about stuff before that, basically the lead-up to that mission. All the lead-up... starting from when you transferred into Stealth and Dirty Tricks division, and ending when you completed your introductory training."

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"Agent Vanderveer? I-- ooh, nice cast!" Duo couldn't hold back a snicker at the sight of the stiff-backed, attractive blond woman with her arm in a cast decorated with Hello Kitty stickers and 'Get well soon mommy' scrawled on it in various colours.

< < Thanks, > > she said dryly. < < My daughter decided it was too plain, and then the twins brought out the Magic Markers. I'd prefer something a little plainer, but every time I even think about taking the stickers off they look at me. > >

"I'd sympathise, but I tend to be on the giving end of that tactic, not the receiving end," he snickered. "More power to your kids, I say."

< < That's exactly what Major Po said when I badgered her into letting me come back to work on light duties... and she won't resurface it for me. How can I help you, ah-- > >

"Oh, sorry. Duo Maxwell, temporary consultant," he explained, glancing down at his notes and missing the momentary flicker of surprise and recognition across her face; by the time he looked up again, she was back to looking politely interested. "I need to ask you some questions about the Stealth and Dir-- uhhh, Covert Operations and Sabotage course you were on in December last year..."

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Daria Vanderveer eyed the vidphone speculatively after the call was over, thinking about the thin young man who'd lost his nervousness when he saw her cast. Investigating Stealth and Dirty Tricks, are you? Good. If I hadn't been in that car accident, I would have been on the same mission that landed four of my classmates in the hospital. I don't like having my friends in the hospital; if someone's error is to blame for it, I want it found.

Usually on the giving end of 'looks', hm? I remember that little incident in the cell block on Christmas Eve. No wonder Chang recovered fast, with you around to nag him! And that reminds me... there's a betting pool open on those two. I normally don't bother tracking office romances, but perhaps in this case I should make an exception?

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"Agent Hansen? You took the training course run by Agent Gilmore, right? I need to ask you a few questions..."

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"Yeah, is this Agent Giancarlo? Tony Giancarlo? My name's Duo Maxwell; have you got a moment for me to ask you a few things?"

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"Agent Yun, hi. Sorry to bother you at home, but..."

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After a few hours of telephoning and talking to people, Duo's throat was dry and he had a surprisingly large stack of notes. Phew. Good thing I've got decent handwriting even when I'm in a hurry, he told himself, glancing through the pages and underlining a few bits that particularly interested him. Sometimes I think the main reason Heero spent so much time on his laptop during the war was because even he couldn't read his notes unless he typed them!

Without consciously realising it, he flinched away from that train of thought and back to the job in front of him. Right. I'm still going to have to talk to some more people tomorrow -- hmm, Sipps is still in hospital but he's allowed visitors now, I should go see him -- but I think I've got a pretty good selection of opinions on Gilmore. I may not have come right out and asked what his students thought of him, but I angled some of the other questions the right way to get them to come up with personal views... stupid rules about not being allowed to openly investigate a person unless he's been charged with something, feh...

Well. I may not be supposed to come right out and ask his students 'Hey, do you think Gilmore's criminally stupid or just badly socialised?', but I can do a bit of research in other ways.

One tap on the speed-dial button all Preventers in HQ had on their vidphones, and a minute later he was talking to Amanda. "Hi, Amanda! Could you do me a favour? I need to know the proper procedure for requesting to see a senior agent's personnel file..."

< < That's simple enough, > > she assured him. < < You need Lady Une's approval, and I can't see her refusing so long as you've got a good reason. > >

"Yeah, well, I also want to have some background checks run on his family."

Her eyes widened. < < ...Oh. That's just a bit more complicated. > >

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