Rebuilding + Chapter 14 (cont)

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The shopping trip was a magnificent success.

Wufei gradually relaxed as it became obvious that Relena and Duo were right, and nobody was recognising the former Queen of Sanc in her 'normal girl' disguise. He was glad it worked, even though it would make it harder for Relena's usual minders to argue her out of dangerous ideas in the future; it left him free to wander around, hand in hand with Duo, watching the braided ex-pilot enjoy the day.

His enjoyment wasn't as obvious as it would have been during the war. He was still quiet and withdrawn, especially when other people were around, but every so often something would catch his attention, and he would seem to forget his diffidence as he explained some new delight to Relena, eyes glowing and hand waving. One of these bursts of enthusiasm led them into 'A Touch of Glass', the shop where Duo and Wufei had found Une and Sally's New Year's present, and it required threats of violence to get Relena out again. Wufei finally dragged her out when he heard Duo's stomach gurgle audibly, and marched their small party off towards the restaurant area.

"Yes, sir, Officer Wufei, sir!" Relena giggled, bouncing into a booth and sitting down primly, surrounded by packages. "We'll be good and eat all our veggies, won't we, Duo?"

"As long as I don't end up with brussel sprouts," Duo muttered, making a face, then half-grinning. "I won't be held responsible for the consequences if they turn up on my plate. Those evil green blobs don't deserve to be called vegetables."

"I think we can make an exception in their case," Wufei snorted, passing around menus. "I've never been able to see why some people like them, myself. Did you have anything in particular in mind for lunch, Relena?"

"I'm buying," she reminded him firmly, "so I should be asking you two that question. I want to eat something messy, what about you?"

"'Messy'?" Duo asked doubtfully.

"I'm not wearing white, or anything expensive," she said happily, scanning the menu. "I don't have fifteen cameras focussed on me, waiting to take pictures of spots and dribbles. I can eat something messy, or sticky, or finger-food, and concentrate on enjoying it instead of worrying about how I look. Ooh-- spaghetti bolognese! And I can eat garlic or smelly cheese without offending people in meetings all afternoon... this is wonderful! I hope you're both enjoying yourselves," she added, looking up over the edge of her menu, "because I am!"

"It's certainly better than being shot at," Wufei teased, and Relena hit him with her menu as Duo grinned and nodded.

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That evening, Relena suggested a game of cards. "This is a proper holiday for me now," she pointed out, "so I don't really want to do paperwork. Besides, I've finished it all."

"I don't think I have any cards," Wufei started, only to break off with a laugh as she stuck a hand into one of her shopping bags without looking and came up with a new pack. "I might have known," he chuckled, shaking his head. "All right, if Duo wants to. What are we playing?"

"Poker?" she suggested innocently, stripping the cellophane off the cards and beginning an elaborate shuffle. "I'm really only a beginner, but I think I'm getting the hang of it..."

"The last time I fell for a line like that, I was six years old and Meiran had just told me that she wouldn't hit me too hard if I sparred with her," he muttered, watching her hands with a jaundiced statement. "And just where did you learn to play poker?"

"Duo taught me," she replied, starting to deal as Duo came back from the kitchen with a bag of M&Ms for stakes.

"I should have known."

"What else was I supposed to do?" Duo shrugged, sitting down and ripping the bag of candy open. "The war was nearly over, and bits of OZ and Romafeller were getting desperate. G got word she was being targeted--"

"I remember that," Wufei nodded, picking up his cards and scowling at them. "You two vanished for just over a week, until Heero and Trowa had removed the problem."

"The safehouse we went to was rather a minimalist affair," Relena nodded, picking up the thread of the story as Duo passed M&Ms around. "No TV, no radio, hardly any furniture, and I'd left too quickly to pick up more than a couple of changes of clothing, so no books, either. Duo found a pack of cards-- missing the three and ten of clubs, I might add-- and he taught me to play poker."

"Should I be afraid?"

"Well, I did teach her to play poker properly," Duo murmured. "Ante up."

"In other words, the laws of chance will have nothing to do with this game," Wufei sighed, holding onto the pair of queens he'd been dealt and using the three discards to push half a dozen M&Ms into the middle of the table. "Oh, well. At least you'll be able to tell if she cheats."

"Heero couldn't tell," Relena said smugly, flicking new cards out around the table and taking two for herself. "He was awfully surprised when I literally beat the pants off him."

Duo just looked at her; Wufei looked up from his hand (four queens now) and blinked. "You beat Heero at strip poker?"

"It was a similar situation to the one when Duo ended up teaching me to play," she explained calmly, one dimple making a fleeting appearance. "Bodyguard duty, boring hotel, nothing on TV... he had to be very, very nice to me to get his clothes back."

Duo almost managed to keep a straight face, but Wufei nearly choked at the mental image that produced.

"Are you going to stick with that hand, or would you like some more cards?" she inquired sweetly after the sputtering had died down.

"I'll stick with these," he coughed, pushing out enough M&Ms to match the last round of bets. "Call." Smirking inwardly, he set down his four queens... then stared as Duo put down four kings, and Relena revealed four aces.

"You were right when you said I could tell if she was cheating," Duo grinned as Wufei turned to look incredulously at him. "You just never asked me to say anything about it."

"Ah. Right," Wufei sighed, hand going up to cover his eyes briefly. "My mistake. I'll have to watch more carefully myself."

"Would you care to make the next few hands a little more interesting, then, if you think you can catch me?" Relena asked slyly, passing the cards to Wufei.

"I am not going to play strip poker with you," he said firmly, starting to shuffle. How did that trick go? Catch the card you want with your thumb, and..."You've already tried to get me out of my pants once."

It was Duo's turn to choke as Relena blushed bright red. "What?! When did that happen?" he yelped.

"Last night," Wufei said serenely, working to stack the deck while his opponents were distracted.

"Relena..."

"I only took off his shoes after he ended up in bed still fully dressed!" Relena protested. "That's all!"

"Only because I objected when she went for my belt," Wufei sniffed. "Who knows where she would have stopped otherwise?"

Relena was saved by her mobile phone ringing, and made a hurried retreat to the living room. The caller ID showed a familiar number, and she was smiling as she answered. "Heero, hello. How are you?"

< < Fine, > > came the reply. His voice was as bland and calm as usual, but she'd had a lot of practice interpreting the subtler shades of emotion he was capable of, and the faint warmth that meant he was smiling came through clearly. < < How about you? > >

"Oh, I'm having a wonderful time," she said happily, stifling a giggle. Apart from the occasional moment of squirming embarrassment, that is... "I've--"

"Don't be too long, Relena!" Duo called, laughing. "'Fei's trying to deal off the bottom of the deck, and he's not getting it right!"

"Well, teach him to do it properly, then!" Relena called back. "Sorry, Heero."

< < You're still at Wufei's apartment? > > he asked, sounding surprised. < < What's up? > >

"I'm having a holiday, a proper one. Wufei invited me to stay, but--" she turned farther away from the table, lowering her voice, "-- I think Duo asked him to."

< < That's... good, > > Heero said slowly. < < How is he? > >

"Much better," she said quietly. "He... he sort of blossomed when he woke up and found that Wufei was back. He's still very quiet most of the time, but you can tell he's much happier. Physically, too. I don't think I've heard him cough more than once or twice today."

< < That's good, > > Heero repeated, a little more firmly this time. He changed the subject, telling Relena a little about the progress being made at setting up the new Preventers branch office on the satellite, and then ended the call.

Well, at least Duo's starting to open up towards me again, she thought, looking a little sadly at the silent phone. Maybe it won't be too long before you can get back something of your own friendship with him...

* * * * *

The rest of the week, and Relena's holiday, passed quickly. Wufei managed to avoid another shopping trip-- the first one may have been a success, but he still felt his scalp crawl whenever he thought about what could have happened if just one person had taken a good look at the slim blonde hanging onto Duo's arm-- and before he went back to work on Thursday he quietly took Relena aside and made her promise on her honour that she would not go out with just Duo as escort.

"Normally, I wouldn't even have a second thought about it," he explained uncomfortably after she had promised. "If anybody can manage one-man crowd control and bodyguard duties, Duo can. But... the situation isn't normal, yet. Is it?"

"No," she agreed, patting his arm, "but it is getting better. Now, shoo! Go to work and don't worry. We'll look after each other."

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Even though most of the agents he knew personally were away, still involved with the mission he'd just come back from, Wufei was surprised by the number of cheerful morning greetings he got on his way into the building.

About to turn towards Une's office to submit his report, he stopped and turned back as a strained voice called out his name. "Uh... Agent Chang... sir? Could I, uh, talk to you for a moment?"

"Agent... Petrov, isn't it?" Wufei said slowly, looking up at the large man. Normally, he wouldn't have had to guess at the agent's name, but his cast and sling were obscuring his nametag. "Ivan Petrov?"

"Yes, sir," Ivan said miserably, ducking his head. "I, uh, wanted to apologise for my part in what happened on Christmas Eve. It was really stupid of me to just accept what Ray said about you without checking. Uh... is Mr. Maxwell getting better OK?"

"Yes, he's recovering well," Wufei told him, smiling despite himself. "I'll tell him you asked. I won't accept your apology, though." As Ivan looked up with a dismayed statement, Wufei gestured towards his cast, smile twisting slightly. "Since you saved me from a broken arm, at the very least, and got your own broken in the process, I don't think you have anything to apologise for." And it was your warning that made me duck and turn just as Anders tried to break my spine... so, no, I don't want an apology from you.

"If I'd shown a bit more intelligence and checked the facts, you might not have been attacked at all," Ivan mumbled, ducking his head again.

"I don't think so. You might have convinced the other agents that Anders had duped to leave me alone, but D-- Maxwell was just an excuse to him and his friends. They still would have come after me sooner or later, and you wouldn't have been there to help. I take it that Major Po is satisfied with how you're healing, since you're back in uniform?"

"Kind of," Ivan grimaced, accepting the change of subject with a relieved sigh. "She and Lady Une finally let me come back to work this week, 'cause I was going nuts without anything to take my mind off-- without anything to do. I'm helping Amanda out-- she's still on light duties, too-- by looking after the file room."

"Hopefully McKenzie's influence is still lingering," Wufei snorted, "or else that won't qualify as light duties for long."

The other agent managed a weak grin. "I'm not quite as forceful as she is, but I can use this--" he waggled his cast "--to guilt-trip people into putting their own files away where they belong. It seems to be working so far."

"Good. If all else fails, it looks like it would work as an acceptable bludgeon to beat the rules into people with," Wufei said dryly, glancing at his watch. "I have to get this report to Lady Une, so--"

"I won't hold you up any longer," Ivan said quickly, backing away. "I just wanted a quick word. Thanks."

"Thank you," Wufei told him, meaning a lot more than just the conversation, and walked off.

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"Chang, sit down," Une sighed, slapping a bulging folder shut and pushing it to one side of her desk. "I know perfectly well that there can't be anything in your report that urgently needs attention, or you would have told me already, so just put it on that stack and I'll get to it later."

"Good morning, Lady Une," he said politely, responding as if she'd said a normal greeting. "Fine, thank you, and yourself?"

She eyed him sourly for a moment, then gritted out, "Morning. Trust me, Chang, it isn't a good one."

"Anything I can do something about?"

"No," she said regretfully, rubbing her forehead and giving the folder a venomous look. "Unfortunately, this doesn't fall into your area of specialisation, though you may get saddled with it yet, if I can't find time to handle it properly. If McKenzie were back from that resource satellite, I'd give it to her; it's right up her alley."

"The problem requires threats and physical intimidation to solve it?" Wufei inquired blandly, and was rewarded with a laugh.

"Her attitude towards sloppy work and incompetence would be an asset, yes. Never mind that now. I wanted to talk to you about how we're going to handle any further away missions that come up for you."

He stiffened. "Oh?"

"You're not going on them, Chang, so don't give me that look," she snapped.

"I thought the Preventers were so short-handed that you couldn't avoid sending me out," he retorted, eyes narrowing.

"That was last week and that particular mission. It required your diplomatic and negotiating skills, overrated and never used as they are. This week, and for the foreseeable future, I only have reconnaissance and neutralisation missions coming up, and I have a commitment from Yui and Barton that they'll make time to take any missions that would otherwise be assigned to you, until Duo is completely recovered. Is this acceptable?"

"...Yes," he said grudgingly, half relieved and half annoyed that he wasn't going to have to argue for this result as he'd expected. "But-- "

"Do me a favour and don't argue with me!" she interrupted hastily. "Winner phoned me and volunteered Barton's services, then spent a quarter of an hour telling me all the reasons why it was a good idea. Then Barton phoned, essentially told me 'What Quatre said', and hung up. Then it was Yui; he took about as long as Winner had, only he was more forceful about it. Sally got into it, too-- why am I telling you this?"

"Because you're tired," Wufei said bluntly. "I recognise the symptoms from my own experience. Have some coffee."

"If I have any more coffee, I'm going to make sloshing noises when I walk," she grumbled under her breath. "I'll be fine."

"I do think that going on that mission was the right thing to do," he said slowly. "He needed to know that I will come back... but now that the point has been made, I don't think anything would be gained by repeating the experience. It's too stressful." For both of us!

"That's essentially what Sally said," Une told him, smiling thinly. "So, do we have a deal, so that I can get through the day without another email reminding me that this is a wonderful idea?"

A faint smirk quirked one corner of Wufei's mouth. "We have a deal."

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[1] Miko no Da wrote a fabulous sidefic about this, called 'Happy Birthday Une-chan'. You can find it at: http://4dw.net/deathndragon/gwfic/unechan1.html
[2] Naturally we used a far more scientific and logical method to work out the G-boys' birthdays than mere darts. Well... we threw dice. But they were cool, glittery role playing dice with weird numbers of sides, so that makes it okay.

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