+ 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sorry," he mumbled, ducking his head and pulling back into the withdrawn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."
"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
"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."
"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
"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
"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
"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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