Disclaimer: Once again, I don't own these GW characters and make not even a dime from spending hours writing about them.

Warnings: AU, sexual situations, yaoi 1x2, 3x4, and various past relationship

The Pretender
Chapter 6
by Dyna Dee

Duo hibernated in his apartment the next day, still feeling the sting of humiliation resulting from the disaster at the Palomino Club the night before. He felt completely justified, however, in stopping Wufei from going further in his attempt to seduce him when the whole encounter began to feel wrong. He should have knocked the guy on his ass, but he couldn't risk any negative backlash that might affect his job or reflect badly on DuFrame Designs.

His sour mood made the day seem endless, until about three that afternoon when he decided he had better call Dorothy and confess to her what had happened before she heard about it from anyone else. After all, he figured she must have some connections at the club, seeing that she had the means to acquire guest passes.

After telling the woman about his less than stellar visit to the Palomino, it really didn't come as much of a surprise when Dorothy assured him he'd acted appropriately to Wufei's less than welcomed advances, and that the old adage, ‘When in doubt, do without' was more than apt for the situation. He felt marginally better after she reminded him that he hadn't seen Wufei in a couple of years, and he wasn't likely to run into him anytime soon. He could only hope he would be so lucky.

By the time Monday morning rolled around he was feeling a bit better and able to enter the workplace with a smile, ready to meet the challenges of the day. Yet instead of receiving the usual greetings of relief and celebration that followed the end of a successful show, the overall atmosphere at DuFrame Designs was ominously tense. A strange, foreboding silence hung in the air. Something was definitely wrong. He hurried to his office, bypassing the coffee room and his usual cappuccino fix.

Emily Harris, the stylish, forty-ish head of advertising, was nervously pacing in front of the closed door to Charise's office. Despite her cheery winter white pantsuit, her face was pale and drawn and lined with worry. "What's going on?" Duo asked, causing the thin brunet to jump in surprise. She'd seemed to have been so caught up in her thoughts that she'd failed to notice his entrance.

Emily turned and her eyes widened with relief. "Duo, thank goodness you're here. Charise is beside herself and she's been asking for you. You better go in armed."

"What's happened, Emily?" he asked as he picked up his note pad and pen, then placed up his glasses on his and slid them to the end of his nose. He was now ready to go to work.

The woman continued to look troubled as she shook her head, her shoulder length hair sweeping her shoulders. "Harrison Huffington has accused Charise of stealing his designs. She was served with a Cease and Desist order this morning, stating that she can't sell her designs from the show until the matter is settled in court. This could cost Charise her reputation and all of us our jobs," she added with growing alarm, her face looking even paler than before.

"You can't for a minute believe that Charise would stoop to stealing anyone else's designs, nor would she have the opportunity," he replied, upset that his co-worker could suggest that their boss would do such a thing. "I'm with her most of her waking hours, and believe me, we barely have time for lunch must less skulking around another designer's drawing room."

Emily had the decency to look embarrassed by her momentary lapse of faith in Charise. "I know she wouldn't steal from anyone, you're right. It's just that she was so upset this morning. It's unsettling, seeing her so distressed."

Duo gave the woman a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "Why don't you go back to your office and try to figure out how to spin this with the press. After Charise has calmed down, I'm sure she's going to want to consult with you about a response." He nodded his head towards Charise's office. "I think I should get in there and see what I can do to help."

"Good luck," she said, and with apparent reluctance she turned and slowly left the room . Duo hoped Emily could pull herself together, and soon. The last thing Charise needed in a crisis situation was to have panicked employees underfoot.

Taking a deep breath before entering her office, Duo steeled himself for Charise at her manic worst. His prediction of her mood was confirmed the moment he inched the door open. His usually composed boss was in the middle of swearing a blue streak aimed at Harris Huffington. He cautiously slipped into the room and quickly shut the door behind him and waited to be noticed. He took pity on the older gentleman sitting in the red paisley wingback chair, the company's lawyer. He was slightly surprised to see the nearly bald man was not dressed in his usual three piece suit, but in khaki trousers and a blue and white stripped golf shirt. The man had seen Duo enter the room and acknowledged him with a nod of his head, a move that stopped Charise in the middle of her tirade.

"Duo! There you are," she cried out, then rushed to close the distance between them. Grabbing his arm she exclaimed, "You'll never believe what the scum bag Huffington is trying to pull." His boss was highly agitated and stressed beyond anything he'd seen before, a fact made evident by her raised voice as well as her uncharacteristic appearance. The white blouse she wore was only partially tucked into the waistband of her pink pencil skirt. Her normally coiffed hair was in utter disarray and, if he wasn't mistaken, she'd forgotten to apply makeup to her left eye while the right one was fully loaded. It would be obvious to a stranger that the cool and composed business women was deeply shaken by the false charges made by another designer. "He's accusing me of fraud, of larceny, can you believe it? It's him, no doubt, who has stolen my designs only to turn around and accuse me of the worst, most atrocious broach of business ethics in our industry. He's trying to ruin me with these scandalous charges."

"Now, now, my dear," the gentleman sitting chair interjected in a calming tone of voice, intended to soothe his client who was now pulling at the hair on the top of her head. "Things aren't as bad as they seem. You have an excellent reputation in the fashion industry. I'm sure when the garments in question are compared to Huffington's we'll find they aren't alike at all."

"Yes, that's right!" Charise brightened considerably. "My designs are timeless, classically styled, and even if that turd managed to scribble out something even close to my designs, just by happenstance, my fabrics, not to attention the details of the garments, will no doubt prove my innocence."

"What would you like me to do?" Duo asked, anxious to help.

Mr. Perry Rhoads turned his attention to the handsome young man. "I need to have a photo of each article of clothing that was in the fashion show. I've asked Mr. Huffington's lawyer for photos of the garments in question, hoping to settle this matter before it ends up in court." With a look of regret aimed at Charise he added, "I'm afraid I won't be able to keep this from the media, though. If Mr. Huffington behaves as he has in the past, he'll most likely call the press himself. He's a bit of an attention hound."

"Damn the man," Charise said, combing her fingers through her hair, which was looking more and more Medusa-like from the mistreatment it had received that morning. "He's a mediocre clothing designer to begin with. To stoop so low as to accuse me of copying his pathetic attempts to design is an unforgivable insult to me and a disgrace to our profession."

"Can I get you anything, Charise?" Duo asked again.

His boss shook her head in answer, but then turned to him with a new idea shining in her eyes. "I need coffee and a devil's food doughnut with chocolate frosting," she declared. "And I needed them half an hour ago."

Duo nodded, silently hoping that if he couldn't snag that particular doughnut in the break room he'd be able to find a bakery somewhere close by. Charise rarely indulged in food so high in carbohydrates. To ask for such a breakfast was more proof of her upset. "Mr. Rhodes? Can I get you something?"

"Nothing for me, thank you, Duo. After Huffington's lawyer contacted me about his suit, I thought I should come and reassure Charise before I leave for my vacation later this morning that my firm is on top of this case. Our junior partner will be handling the case in my absence and should be calling here shortly."

"I think it's highly unethical and insensitive of you to abandon me in my hour of need, Perry," Charise cut in, looking put out by the man's ill timing.

"I assure you, Charise, I had this vacation planned eight months ago. My wife wants to visit Ireland, the home of her ancestors. She's an avid genealogist, and if I were to cancel on her at the last moment, well, she'd never forgive either one of us."

"Fine. Go ahead and trot through old rotting graveyards and musty books filled with dates of your long-dead relatives. I'll just be here struggling to keep my business afloat and my employees paid." Duo knew that Charise often employed tactics of guilt to get people to do what she wanted, but it appeared the wizened lawyer had seen it all before.

"You'll be fine under Mr. Yuy's care, my dear. I have full confidence in my associate to see you through this situation. He's competent and smart beyond his years. Gaining his position as associate at twenty seven speaks highly of our expectations for him and of his abilities for winning cases."

"I've met the man, of course, and I'm sure he's all you said, but he's not you, Perry," Charise sulked.

Duo backed toward the door, saying, "If you'll excuse me, I'll be back as soon as I can find your chocolate doughnut with chocolate frosting."

"Don't forget the coffee." Charise called out as she waved him off. As he closed the door behind him, Duo heard Mr. Rhodes try once again to comfort her with regards to his replacement.

For the rest of that day, as well as the next, Charise remained high strung and agitated, unable to work at her desk as a result of the lawsuit that had been filed against her. By noon on Tuesday Duo was more than happy to escape the office for his scheduled, weekly appointment with Trowa. He met his auburn-haired friend in the locker room of the fitness club, where they quickly changed into shorts and T-shirts and walked with their usual camaraderie to the racketball court that had been reserved for them every Tuesday at noon for the past two years. Duo couldn't help but cast an appreciative look at his friend. Trowa was damn good looking. At six feet, Trowa was a good three inches taller than he was. His auburn hair was cut short in back and the sides, but there was a long fringe of hair that swooped over his forehead, the result of a cowlick that would never be tamed. His face was classically handsome, and his eyes an emerald green that Duo had always found beautiful.

"You didn't call to tell us about your working trip," Trowa said out of the blue, as he waited for Duo to serve the ball.

"I haven't had more than a spare moment to eat since I got back, what with the show and all," he explained, then grunted as he hit the ball and lined himself up to return whatever Trowa sent his way.

The game began as it usually did, being fast and furious, which was typical given that both men were competitive. After winning a third point, Duo found himself blurting out his latest news. "I got laid."

Trowa stopped in his tracks and looked incredulously at his friend. "When did this happen?"

"On my trip up north."

"I didn't realize you were seeing anyone. You never said anything."

"I'm not. Seeing anyone, that is."

The incredulous expression changed to one of concern. "A casual fling? That doesn't seem like you, Duo."

Duo shrugged. It wasn't like him, but how could he explain to his former boyfriend that he'd had sex for the first time with a prostitute. "It was spontaneous and it just... happened."

Trowa's racket lowered and his face was a picture of seriousness. "I find that hard to believe, considering your history."

He was starting to get seriously pissed-off at the other man. "It took me 25 years to finally let it happen, Trowa. I thought you'd be happy for me. Why is it so hard to believe that I finally got over my hang ups and experience something I never could before? I haven't been paying Quatre for nothing these past two years, have I?"

Trowa stepped closer and put his hand on his shoulder. "It's just that I know how deeply ingrained your aunt's verbal poisoning went, Duo. I'm not unhappy that you've overcome your problem, it's just that this seems so sudden, like a spontaneous act on your part and not a step up in a relationship with someone you care for. That's what seems so unlike you. You've always said you wanted to be in a committed relationship. What's changed?"

His feeling of irritation morphed into anger. Duo shrugged off the other man's hand. "What's changed?" he asked hotly. "Maybe the fact that I'm damn sick and tired of being alone, of being left for someone else who can have sex. Who cares about how I did it or with whom? What's important is that finally, at 25 years old, I had sex for the first time and it was incredible. I thought you'd be happy for me."

The concern on Trowa's face didn't diminish as Duo hoped it would. In fact, it seemed to deepen. "Who was it, Duo?"

"None of your god-damn business." It was apparent their pleasant racketball game was over, and as far as Duo was concerned, so was this discussion. He turned and strode angrily towards the door, intending to leave.

"Duo, wait!" Trowa called out. Two steps before he reached the door, a hand firmly latched onto his forearm and held him in place. He turned with a scathing look directed at his friend. Trowa held up both and said, "Look, I'm sorry. But Quatre and I care about you. This is a big step in your life and I want to be supportive, but your being evasive isn't helping me to do that. Please, tell me what happened."

Duo could tell that Trowa was being honest with him, but somehow his concern stung and he wasn't sure why. "Look," he began with a weary sigh. He really didn't want to tell his former boyfriend about Tex. "I met a drool-worthy guy, we connected and had great sex. That's all there is to it. I've broken past the barriers that kept me from having a relationship with you and a dozen other guys that I've fallen for since I was sixteen. I'm grateful to the guy, but there is no relationship."

"It's just seem so unlike you to have casual sex," Trowa said, still frowning. "I think you should talk to Quatre about this."

"I'll see him on Thursday, for my usual appointment."

For the first time since he'd blurted out his news, a faint smile tugged at Trowa's lips. Duo figured the man was relieved that he'd be seeing Quatre. There would be no doubt in Trowa's mind that the blond would get to the bottom of his first sexual encounter. Duo wasn't looking forward to that session. Quatre always wanted to talk a subject to death before they could move on to the next one. They'd probably hash over his first sexual encounter for two months. Just thinking about it was giving him a stomach ache.

"Good," Trowa said. "Are we still on for dinner on Friday?"

Duo had originally agreed to having dinner with the two lovebirds every Friday to show that he didn't have any hard feelings about Trowa dumping him for Quatre. Many a time he'd dreaded the end of the work week because of it. Watching the other two men have the kind of relationship he could only fantasize about made him feel more lonely and depressed than if he'd spent the night alone in his apartment eating a T.V. dinner and bemoaning his lot in life.

"It all depends on Charise and if she's not a neurotic mess from this lawsuit that's been filed against her. I might have to make her dinner at her place if things go badly. The new lawyer from the law firm that has represented her over the years is due to show up this afternoon. He's supposed to be something special, so I can only hope he can calm her down so that the rest of us aren't walking around the office like it's a mine field."

"Well, I wish you luck with that. Do you want to finish the game?"

Having returned to a more relaxed manner, Duo could tell that Trowa was over their spat. Why didn't he feel that way? He scolded himself for acting like a woman, holding onto an argument or hurt feelings for much longer than he needed to. This is way it had between him and Trowa since their break up. They'd argue or disagree and as soon as it was over Trowa would be fine and ready to move on. He, on the other hand, would bury his hurt feelings and resentment, not really getting over his hurt feelings. He'd never really forgiven Trowa for his desertion. Leaving him for Quatre felt like a betrayal more than a cordial parting of ways, which was how Trowa described their breakup. Maybe he should have taken Quatre's suggestion, that the three of them part ways professionally and personally, at least until he'd had time to come to terms with the change in their relationships. It was too late for that now, he thought. He'd played the forgiving jilted lover well, making the other two men believe that everything between them was good.

"No, I'm out of the mood," he answered Trowa's question. "Guess I've just got too much on my mind. I'd better get back to Charise."

They walked back to the locker room, speaking casually of mundane and safe topics. Changing back into his suit, Duo stole another glance at Trowa as he too changed. Talk about drool-worthy. Trowa was ridiculously attractive, but without clothes he was simply drop-dead gorgeous. Sleek muscles beneath flawless skin, a flat stomach and long, lean legs. Jealousy stabbed at his heart. What was once offered to him, could have been his, now belonged to someone else.

Speeding up, he finished dressing before Trowa even had his socks and shoes back on. With a hasty goodbye, he turned to leave, pausing only when Trowa called out a reminder about his appointment with Quatre on Thursday. For some reason that small reminder soured Duo's mood more than ever. He could only hope Charise was in a better mood that afternoon. He just wasn't up for any more upsets.

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