Rebuilding + Chapter 15 (cont)

"When you put it that way," she reluctantly nodded, "I'd have to say... yes."

"I can tell you right now, the guy's either incompetent or a lying asshole or both," Duo blurted, and then almost cringed as he snapped out of his concentration on the problem and realised what he'd said. "Uh... sorry," he mumbled, ducking his head and pulling back into the withdrawn huddle he'd started the discussion in.

"Don't be," Une snapped back, shaking her head. "That's exactly why I need you, Duo. You can find out the truth of what's going on, and you're not afraid to tell me if it's bad. You also won't dress up a two-sentence conclusion in a thirty page report," she added in a slightly sour voice, eyeing the stacks of paperwork on the end of her desk with disfavour.

"Never could understand why people would deliberately write more than they had to," Duo mumbled, managing a wobbly smile.

"I can offer you a consultant's fee to analyse the situation and produce a report, including your recommendations for improving things," Une told him, feeling slightly giddy from a mixture of relief and triumph. I think he's going to say yes!"As a consultant, you'd get to set your own hours, in consultation with Sally Po because we'd both be in trouble if she wasn't asked for her recommendation, and I'm not going to set any real deadlines... though I would like some sort of preliminary report in a week's time. You'll have access to any files or records you need information from, though if you want anything really odd you'll have to convince me of its relevancy, and you can work from here or from home, whichever you prefer. Do we have a deal?"

"Uhh... I guess so," Duo said, blinking. "Um... how big a consultant's fee are we talking about?"

Une named a figure and got some mildly guilty-feeling satisfaction out of being the one to shock him for a change.

"What?! Hey, no, Une-- Lady-- that's way too much!"

"It's the standard fee we pay to anyone we would hire for a job of this importance, with allowance made for a specialist's knowledge and skills," Une said serenely, keeping her expression bland with an effort. "Most people tell me it isn't enough, and insist on putting extra clauses into the contract so that they'll be paid more if the job takes longer than anticipated."

"But--"

"No buts, Mister Maxwell," Une smirked, deliberately switching back to a semi-formal mode of address without changing her tone. "If you're going to be working for me, it's not exactly etiquette for you to argue with my decisions... not that that ever stopped some people. I'll have Winner draw up the contract, shall I? Now, I'll have Amanda take you down to see Sally and start getting your clearance arranged. Let her know where you would like to work, and she'll also set you up with an office or arrange for secure transfer of files between here and your home." Ushering him out the door, she paused with her hand on his shoulder for a moment. "It's good to have you back-- and working on the same team this time," she said softly, smiling at him.

"Told ya you weren't meant to be a bad guy," he replied, just as softly.

"I didn't think I was," Une murmured. "I have only one more condition to specify before you're officially employed by the Preventers, Duo. When you deliver your report, do not nail it to my door with a switchblade."

----------

"Hey 'Fei."

"Duo!" Wufei looked up from his paperwork with a smile that froze as soon as he saw the dazed expression on Duo's face. "What happened?"

"She hired me as a consultant," Duo said numbly, eyes wide. "It didn't really hit me until now. Consultants are the sort of people who wear ties on weekends, 'Fei! I don't even own a tie! How can I be a consultant without a tie?"

"I'm sure Une realises that you aren't a tie-wearing sort of person, Duo," Wufei said soothingly, hiding his surprise as he got up and guided Duo to a chair. "If she wanted someone who was going to wear a tie more than one who gets results, she would have hired someone else."

"I've even got an office, one with a door," Duo continued, sitting down with a thump. "I have a security clearance and an entry pass and a desk and a computer. I've even got a penholder, 'Fei!"

"Now that's a daunting level of respectability," Wufei muttered, beginning to see the funny side. "What did Une hire you to consult on?"

"She wants an evaluation of the stealth-and-dirty-tricks training course and a bunch of missions that went wrong, along with possible solutions. I already have a pile of files on my desk. Sally says it's okay for me to do this as long as I pace myself." Suddenly, Duo grinned. "She says if I overtire myself, she'll teach you how to look at me."

Wufei snorted, shaking his head. "Somehow, I don't think I'd be very good at it; it requires a very expressive face. Do I get a guided tour of this office and its accessories? I have to see the penholder."

"This way," Duo said, unthinkingly grabbing for Wufei's hand as he got up from the chair. "It's one of the little ones opening off the main room, so I'm close to all the files and everything..."

They were halfway down the aisle before Duo abruptly realised that he was holding Wufei's hand and towing him around in full view of dozens of his workmates and subordinates. Holding hands in public, in front of total strangers was one thing, but these were people Wufei had to interact with, six days a week. Stung, he tried to let go and pull his hand back, but the Chinese Preventer tightened his grip, lacing his fingers through Duo's and squeezing reassuringly.

Then they were at the door of Duo's new office, and as soon as they were out of sight of the main room with the door closed, Duo spun to face Wufei, stuttering apologies. "I didn't think about where we were, 'Fei, I just did that automatically, I'm sorry--"

"Don't, don't... shh," Wufei soothed, pulling him into a hug and rubbing his back. "Don't ever apologise for being yourself. I love you, remember?" he said softly, and Duo shivered, tucking his face into the curve of Wufei's neck, clutching fistfuls of his jacket. "I said it and I meant it. I love you, and that includes the way you reach out to people... the way you want to touch, and hold hands, and... everything. I'm not ashamed of loving you, and I'm not going to hide it!" Still holding Duo close with one arm, he slid his free hand up to the braided teen's cheek and coaxed his head up until he could see his face.

"Don't apologise for being the person I fell in love with," he whispered, and kissed him.

Duo slowly relaxed into the kiss, tense muscles unknotting as it sank in that no, Wufei wasn't angry, and yes, Wufei had said that he loved him... again.

He couldn't quite bring himself to say it back. Not yet. A small, frightened part of his subconscious was still convinced that this was too good to last; the moment he relaxed his defenses and told Wufei that he loved him, something would happen and he'd lose him. It was better just to keep his mouth shut and hope that Wufei knew anyway.

"Amazing," Wufei chuckled after the kiss ended, gently rocking back and forth, with Duo cradled against his chest. "No interruptions this time. I was expecting Quatre to burst in, or the phone to ring..." Duo laughed shakily, straightening up and rubbing at his suspiciously reddened eyes. "I guess the gremlins, or Murphy, or whatever is in charge of interruptions just didn't expect us to kiss here. So... wanna see the penholder?"

Wufei turned toward the desk and solemnly examined the object in question. "Black plastic. Very functional. Shall we go have lunch?"

* * * * *

"Heard the latest news?" Zechs murmured to Noin, sitting down next to her with his lunch tray.

"I doubt it," she replied, keeping her voice under the general level of background chatter in the cafeteria. "I only just got back from watching the latest cadet class find five brand-new ways to crash a Taurus's computers. What new gems of gossip have I missed?"

"Lady Une just hired Duo Maxwell as a consultant."

"Oh!" Much to Zechs's disappointment, Noin didn't react nearly as dramatically as he'd expected; she just raised her eyebrows, took a mouthful of shepherds' pie, chewed thoughtfully, then used her fork to point across the room. "That explains that, then."

Duo and Wufei were sitting at one of the side tables, eating lunch. Zechs couldn't see all the detail on the pass clipped to Duo's shirt from that distance, but the color-coding showed that it wasn't a visitor's pass.

"I don't suppose your haul of information includes what he's been hired to consult on, does it?"

"Actually, it does," Zechs nodded, slightly miffed at having his bombshell fizzle like that. Well, I couldn't reasonably expect them to hide until after I'd had the satisfaction of throwing Noin into a tizzy, now could I? "He's doing an evaluation of the stealth course and those missions that went wrong."

"It's about time!" Noin exclaimed, twisting around to fix Zechs with an accusing stare. "Some of the agents who've ended up in the hospital are my students!"

It's a little later than expected, but there's the sort of reaction I was aiming for. "Don't glare at me," he said mildly. "I didn't put them there!"

"Hmph. You'd feel the same way if they were your students."

"I'm sure I would. I'm sure I will, when a mission falls apart around some of my agents. In the meantime, would you please stop glaring daggers at me? I can almost hear a new crop of rumours starting right now, featuring me as some sort of villain and you as the offended maiden."

Noin made a rude noise, but she did stop glaring at Zechs. Turning back to her plate, she stabbed viciously at her food and began to eat again. After a couple of bites, she began to chuckle.

"I just had a lovely thought," she said in a pleasant voice that didn't match the wicked grin on her face at all.

"Should I be afraid?" Zechs asked dryly.

"No... I was just thinking about what Maxwell is likely to do if he decides that the missions failed because somebody was criminally negligent. Remember the security camera footage from when he went after Anders?"

Zechs thought for a second, then winced. "Noin... that isn't a lovely thought at all. In fact, it makes me want to go and find a bunker somewhere far away."

"You're too squeamish," Noin said cheerfully. "I want a front row seat."

* * * * *

"Minister! Is this a new style for you?" a voice called as Relena walked back into the Foreign Ministry building after lunch, trailed by her usual retinue of bodyguards and assistants. Turning to look, she saw a man she recognised as one of the newspaper reporters who always hung around waiting for something interesting to happen, standing at a polite distance with his tape recorder poised. Behind him, a photographer was fidgeting uncertainly with his camera. It looks like telling the Press off won me some personal space back, she thought, amused. A week ago he would already have taken a dozen photos-- if he could have gotten line-of-sight past the other fifty reporters and cameramen that would have been here!

"Do you like it?" she laughed, tugging on a couple of the tiny braids and waving their multi-coloured bows at him. "A friend of mine did it for a joke, and since I didn't have any meetings scheduled for today, I thought I'd leave them in."

"It-- er-- suits you, actually," he grinned. "Very bright and cheerful. So, this is just a temporary change then?"

"Back to normal tomorrow," she agreed, nodding to the photographer as he twisted his lens cap off and pointed at the camera, mutely asking for permission. "It's a fun style, but it might distract people if I had my hair like this during the budget talks."

A few minutes later, still smiling, she stepped into her office to be met by Karl with a sheaf of messages. "You're going to be in all the papers tomorrow, you know," he grinned.

"Assink intelligence-gathering at work again?" she teased, taking the notes. "Have you bugged the lobby?"

"Miss Relena, you wound me," he protested, hand over his heart. "I don't need to bug the lobby; the reporters were there this morning, and the rest follows logically. Besides, I have access to security camera feeds from the public areas of the building," he added. "How did you think I always manage to have coffee waiting for you when you come back?"

"You've crushed my illusions, Karl! I thought you were psychic!" "I am, Miss Relena, but the only thing I can predict is Australian Rules Football scores. Ask my brothers, if you don't believe me. Ah, there was one caller who rang three times, but refused to leave a message. A Mister Howard. He seemed rather annoyed about something."

"Howard called?" Relena blinked, looking up from the messages she'd been leafing through. "Elderly man, grey hair, balding?"

"Wearing sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt, yes. He isn't on the 'immediate access' list, but he rang the direct number instead of being transferred through the switchboard."

Relena grimaced as if she'd bitten into something sour. "Put him on the list please; I should have remembered to add him myself. I hope I haven't forgotten anyone else... oh. Ohhh dear, he's going to kill me."

"Miss Relena?" Karl looked up from scribbling a note to himself, startled. "Ah... why is he going to kill you? And should I alert Mister Yui, or were you speaking metaphorically?"

"I think I did to Howard what Quatre did to the Manguanacs," she said nervously, heading for her office. "I got him worried about Duo, and then I didn't tell him we'd found him... Hold my calls, please, I have to phone him!"

Waiting for the call to go through, Relena found herself fiddling with objects on her desk and had to force herself to stop. It's not like I've done anything really bad, she told herself, putting the letter opener down and folding her hands firmly into her lap. He has a right to be annoyed, but surely he won't be really angry--

The screen blinked and cleared to show a larger-than-life image of Howard's head, so close to his vidphone pickup that he was fuzzing out of focus. < < Damn it, Relena, I'd think you could give a shit about keeping me up to date-- > >

He broke off abruptly, leaning in even closer and raising his eyebrows until his face warped into a blurred parody of surprise.

< < What the fuck have you done to your hair?! > >


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