Drums of Heaven

Part Ten: Count The Holes They Leave

And now, each night I count the stars, and each
night I get the same number. And when they will
not come to be counted, I count the holes they leave.
--- Imamu Amiri Baraka

Heero left about fifteen minutes after Duo, following Enny's directions to the nearest 'net café. It was nearly four o'clock standard time; the entire crew would be online. He settled into an open terminal, pre-paid his time, logged in, and was met with the yellow smiley-face.

"Wing here. What news?" The smiley-face was promptly replaced with the dove's wing.

"Five messages decoded." Pinky's avatar waved its pigtails at him.

"First one: L3 Sector 1 October," Snake typed, getting down to business. "That file was uploaded in September."

"Two months ago."

"Right." Snake continued. "Second one: Romchip no go."

"That one was from four weeks ago," Rat explained.

"Third one: Use Zurich." Snake's avatar wiggled. "No, I don't know what it means. It's been bugging me. Oh, and it's from five months ago."

"Zurich?" Heero thought about that for a second. "If you want an impenetrable bank account, you go to Switzerland." A smile tugged at the edge of his mouth, along with a small ache in his chest. Quatre had told him that, years ago, in some random moment he couldn't place now.

"Or you go there to ski, I think," Pinky added.

"You ski?" Rat asked.

"No freakin' way. I'm a hacker, not an idiot who'd strap two pieces of plastic on my feet and throw myself down a mountain," Pinky retorted.

"No, you're an idiot hacker," Snake said.

"What's the next message?" Heero asked, getting them back on task. He still wasn't comfortable logging in from an anonymous station. He didn't have time for chatting.

"Wing!" Hand's avatar appeared in the window, and almost instantaneously sent a private message. Heero regarded the greeting with long-suffering patience; Mike had been waiting for nearly a week with his question about Deathscythe's cloaking mechanism. Dutifully Heero opened the new window and started typing, his attention divided to keep an eye on the main forum.

"Fourth message: No interference," Snake was saying. "That message's from two months ago."

"Last message is the strangest," Rat jumped in. "It says: Starting here. Dated five weeks ago."

"What?" Heero paused in his mechanical explanation to Hand, and switched to the main window. "Any idea of a server origin for the uploading?"

"No. Sorry." The whiskers drooped on Rat's avatar.

"It's still something. Some damn fine hacking you guys have done," Heero told the group. "Hold on."

"You finally answering Mike's stupid cloaking question?" Snake asked.

"Yeah." Heero finished up in the private window, and took an extra minute to read over the five additional coded comments. Zurich. Something about that tugged at his memory, and he wasn't sure what it was. He ran through a quick mental list of possible tactics, and decided to follow his preliminary hunches.

"Here's the next set of missions," Heero announced. The room's traffic came to a complete halt as the hackers awaited their new assignments. "First, find out the source of payment for an apartment's utilities on L1," the photographer told the group.

"Hunh?" Mike asked.

"The address is L1, Sector 5, 12093 15th Street, apartment 27. Utilities for the apartment are auto-paid by transfer. It may be nothing, but I'd like to find out where the money's coming from."

"I'll do that," Pinky volunteered.

"I'll help," another avatar offered. It was an alligator wearing a top hat.

"Allie's with me," Pinky said.

"Okay. Next, go back through the two accounts you found for Deathscythe's pilot and see if any transfers have occurred."

"But that guy's scary," Mike protested.

"Go through the bank's side of the equation," Heero replied swiftly, before the Hand avatar started panicking. The kid was still recovering his nerve after going up against Duo's hacking skills. "Find any transfers, where from, where to, and when."

"Alright," Mike typed. "Snappy and I can do that."

A blue star avatar waved one of its points. Snappy didn't say much in the forum, but he and Mike worked together often.

"What are you thinking?" Rat asked.

"I'm wondering if there's money traveling between three accounts – Deathscythe, Zurich, and the public utilities on L1." Heero wasn't sure Quatre would be that sloppy, but there was also the chance that Quatre's underlings wouldn't expect a group of maniac hackers to go through the trouble of linking the accounts.

"I'm also not sure anyone on the listening end of the track bots has a way to do an upload. It's trickier," Heero explained.

"That Deathscythe guy could do it," Mike pointed out. "Hell, that asswipe could do it in his sleep."

"No disrespecting elite hackers," Rat barked, and the Hand avatar was summarily booted from the forum list. A second later Mike was back, and giving the room the finger. Rat kicked Mike a second time.

Business as usual, Heero thought with a wry smile.

"Especially an elite hacker that could kick your ass blindfolded with one hand tied behind his back," Pinky pointed out once the Hand avatar had returned and settled back down.

"Pink freak's got a point," Snake added. The avatar's tail wiggled.

"Anything else?" Rat asked.

"Find me everything you can about portable romchips."

"I'll do that," Snake said. "Can I break the information servers on my way out?"

"Up to you." Heero grinned dryly at the monitor. "Last, uploading and downloading track bots would put a larger strain on the server relay than just transferring information in the usual traffic. Pick any of those server relays, get a log, and get that information on when the track bots were accessed. If you can, get an origin for the upload as well."

"Tall order," Rat observed. "I'll take that one."

"I'll help review the log if you get it," another avatar said: a red rose. Rosie wasn't around much, but he was reputed to have skills equal with Rat's.

"I'll be leaving L2 tomorrow morning," Heero said, pleased with the team's responses. "That's the word right now, at least."

It was almost like wartime with the pilots: a team, each person capable, willing, and reliable. Even Mike, the youngest and most inexperienced of the group, was ready to put his new hardboard back on the line for the mission. The dark-haired man paused, his fingers over the keyboard, then shook his head. This time, he wasn't putting anyone's life on the line. At least, he hoped not.

Damn, Heero thought, I hadn't realized just how much I'd missed this.

"How soon will you be back around? What's our deadline?" Pinky asked.

"Don't know," Heero admitted. "I'm playing this end completely by ear, but I'll check in as soon as I can." He paused again, reviewing the options carefully before typing his next lines. "If two weeks pass and you haven't heard from me, contact Wufei Chang at Preventers headquarters. Tell them you're bringing information about Wing Zero."

"Preventers," Pinky said. Heero could almost hear the hacker whistle. Some of the hackers working for Preventers could make Duo look like an amateur.

"Wufei Chang," Rat prompted. "Who's he?"

"Someone I trust implicitly," the pilot replied. "But contact him only if it's been two weeks since the last date I was in the forum."

"If something goes south, that's a lot of lead time," Mike warned.

"Deal with it," Heero snapped, then thought better of it. His wing avatar waved at the Hand to soften the comment. "Gotta clear the lines. I'll stop by in two or three days, maybe sooner."

"We'll have something by then," Pinky assured him.

A second later Heero was out of the forum and the screen had gone blank. He wiped the cache and stood up, rolling his neck and listening to the joints pop. He smirked, missing his laptop. Just as quickly he realized he missed a lot of things: the pictures on his mantel, his shoji screens, his laundry lines hung with drying prints. His private space.

Heero sighed and stuck his hand in his jacket pockets as he left the café, blinking in surprise as he pulled out the palm-sized digital camera. Duo had wiped the images after he'd downloaded them, and the memory had room again for several hundred pictures.

Idly he twiddled with the lens cap, staring around him on the busy L2 streets. The camera's ability to reassure him was lessened by the fact that the digital system weighed an eighth of his own camera, had no shutter to speak of, and wouldn't twirl under his fingers when the roll was rewinding. But it was better than nothing, and he badly needed the serenity he'd always gained from taking pictures.


The light frustrated Heero.

Of all the things important to a photographer, light is always paramount. The observation skills he'd learned as an assassin required being fast, responsive, and willing to act on visual impressions without second thought. His antique camera had required that he slow the process. That camera simply couldn't keep up with his speed, due to the slow shutter and the need to manually wind the film. It had been valuable, though, to force him to be aware of each step in the process, to register and measure each observation before acting on it.

Now he could simply hold down the button and almost feel the pictures flickering into the memory board. The digital system was light-speed compared to his usual camera, and it startled him but at the same time freed him. Rather than measure each shot with the awareness that celluloid was expensive and rare, he could catch the picture and worry later about whether it had caught what he'd seen.

But the light was still a problem.

L2's systems were archaic; decrepit compared to L1, but neither could ever duplicate earth's varying light. In Paris the light was a pale blue; in the Sudan it was a buttery yellow. Tokyo's light was a soft gray, while in Los Angeles the light flooding the city was nearly orange in its intensity. To an untrained eye, one source of light is much like the next; to a photographer light is the very basis of every image.

And the light on L2, Heero grumbled, sucked royally.

He'd started with buildings, studying the geometry, the angles of shadow and highlight. It was almost like being in Photography 101 again, with a simple assignment to observe shape and meaning rather than the actual presence of the object. It forced one to see the abstract, to capture what is without being aware of the object's overall shape.

Eventually Heero began including people in the pictures, fast captures, in the midst of movement. Pushing the speed down a little saturated the pictures and compensated for the softer light. He continued walking, moving quickly enough with the camera that he'd stopped checking the view screen. He simply held up the camera and hit the button, like shooting a gun without checking the sights.

His breathing calmed, and he started observing the questions in his head as though they were also objects, which no longer needed connection to a greater whole. Like the buildings and people, perhaps they, too, would resolve into something new without a need for placement or origin.

Quatre, Wufei, and Relena had become a trio of close friends. But neither of the other pilots had called to dissuade him; Relena had. And she'd merely warned him about doing damage to the situation. If Quatre and Wufei were somehow aware of Duo's and Trowa's actions – and were even possibly supporting them – then perhaps Relena's comments were related solely to the emotional impact of Heero's reintroduction into their lives.

It's your choice. But don't come back unless you're going to stay. None of us can take losing you again.

The photographer paused, tucked the camera away, and bought himself a cup of coffee. Settling himself on a low concrete wall, he reviewed the pictures so far. Many he deleted as out of focus, badly composed, or too low contrast. Slowly he began to see movement in the portraits he'd caught, the same liveliness he'd seen in Quatre's image of Trowa. He'd not had time, when pointing and clicking, to think about what he'd seen of the person. He'd simply let them be, and caught what was there.

He finished his coffee and started walking again. This time he focused on people on the street, but threw away the idea of slowing down long enough to ask permission. Heero simply flowed through the late afternoon crowds, catching people's pictures on the fly. His mind moved through the week's questions, and between the two, shapes were coming into focus.

Romchips exchange information between the teams and the bosses.

If there were no one to claim responsibility for the order, the team would be useless if caught. There was no one they could specifically point to as the one who told them what to do. The real boss was protected, even if the team knew every thug and mercenary in the colonies.

Hilde was leading the crazies.

It was clear that Duo and Trowa controlled the actual jobs much more than Hilde, even if they made a point of appearing to answer to her commands. The dynamics he'd observed at the diner had definitely not included Hilde telling Duo what to do. As a matter of fact, she'd acted as though she were working for Deathscythe's pilot.

Heero suspected this was the kind of detail Pops was hoping for, but something in him had preferred to keep that information to himself. For some reason it was paramount that Hilde appear to be in charge. He wasn't sure why, but he was willing to wait and see if an explanation showed up.

The colony's light was fading, and Heero pushed the speed down to the longest he could manage without camera shake. After a thought, he flipped through the controls, overriding the camera's control to make the depth of field as minimal as possible. Between the two, he'd have another hour before the fading light made pictures completely impossible. In the meantime he wandered towards the shopping district, curious as to the impact neon signs would have on the color levels.

Four years of photography, and he'd never moved away from black and white imagery. It often amused him, that people classified that kind of imagery as black and white when it really was only shades of gray, deepest to lightest. The eye clarified the differences purely from contrast. He'd never risked color.

Heero paused on the sidewalk, nearly getting barreled over by several people behind him. His eyes were focused on nothing in particular as he repeated that last random thought.

He'd never risked color.

Stupidly he stared at the camera in his hands. What had he been afraid of, anyway? Or was it something about the world, now that peace was achieved? During the war, life was blood crimson, smoke black, earth blue, star silver. A year of the world shifting and moving as OZ, Romafeller, the Alliance, and White Fang changed their politics daily, twisting around the Gundam pilots. The war was a brilliant, terrifying, magnificent kaleidoscope. He'd longed for peace, the quiet stillness of knowing everything he could do, had been done. He'd wanted the spinning colors to settle down into understandable patterns.

The world had that peace now, and he'd duplicated it in the imagery he created: simple, pure images where everything could be reduced to black, white, and shades of gray. He wondered about that, and started walking again, fiddling with the camera's lens cap as he picked up his pace back to fall in with the after-work shopping crowd.

He remembered the first time he'd realized just how different he was from Duo. They'd been on a shuttle, Heero recalled, and Duo had said something about when the war was over, he would go back to space. Duo had spoken with the affection one reserves for returning home, and Heero had caught the longing. It wasn't anything he could identify, at the time, having never had much of a place he could identify as being worth the effort of returning to – let alone keeping in his mind as a goal. He'd had no goal, other than to bring peace. What came afterwards simply hadn't occurred to him. But Duo... to Duo, hoping for what could come afterwards was the only thing that gave him purpose.

Heero shook off the thoughts and let his mind fall back into the trance state of letting the crowds move around him as he walked. A girl was standing by a shop window as he passed, and he reflexively lifted the camera, holding it one-handed at shoulder-height as he walked past. She'd turned at his approach, and her eyes were large, blue and surprised, but crinkled in that way of a smile that's not yet reached the mouth.

He took the picture and kept walking, tossing her a half-smile in apology as he continued without a word. That expression reminded him of Relena, again, and he smiled. It felt like meeting up with an old friend in a crowd and recognizing humanity.

Sighing, he noted the light was fading even more and he was putting the brightly lit shopping sector behind him with long strides. Shoving the camera back in his pocket, he registered his location and estimated the direction of L2's docking station. The deep space chill was kicking in as the colony's heaters slowed down for the false night, and he shrugged the old leather jacket closer as he walked.

Heero wondered if what he'd told Enny was true. He'd loved Relena, but he wasn't sure if it was love so much as strong admiration. She'd always provoked a strange tug in his soul, as though she were something he had to fight desperately to protect, even before he'd ever stopped to ask why. Sometimes he wondered if it might have made any difference who stood in her place. Perhaps, so long as there was someone, he would've fought just as hard.

The thought gave him pause.

He remembered his first kiss. He'd gone to the Libra, partly to face down Milliardo, partly because Duo relayed word that Relena was there. He'd been drawn to her flame, and it didn't occur to him to consider his reasons. He simply had to go, and there she was.

She'd insisted binding the wound on his arm before she'd agree to put on the suit he'd found for her in the locker room. The war was immediate, persistent, but it was gone the second she'd put her hands on his bare skin and wiped away the blood. He'd found himself staring at her face, just like he had when they'd danced at the Saint Gabriel institute. He'd forgotten how silken and pale her skin was. It always caught him off-guard, that delicacy could mask such a powerful will.

Without even thinking, he'd reached out and touched her cheek. She'd smiled at him, from under her brows, nervous, uncertain. When he didn't say anything but kept stroking gently, she tied off the bandage and remained, just watching him. His eyes were half-closed, afraid to look directly, afraid she'd pull away, and just as afraid she'd lean closer.

She leaned closer.

The kiss was soft, hesitant, and it was several seconds before either of them could marshal awareness to invite more. He couldn't remember who did what; he could only remember that one minute he was running his calloused thumb across her cheekbone and the next minute he was stunned to discover her mouth was cool, and wet, and her tongue was as delicate as her fingers.

The kiss never ended. It simply faded, and they were staring at each other. He could see his own surprise reflected in her face, and she blushed, her eyes sliding away from his. His hands were shaking, and her breath was coming a little fast, her lips parted. He found himself staring at her mouth.

The world had returned; the war was still going on. They struggled into their suits, his arm giving him painful pause, but he could feel his heart beating fast. He'd been a teenager long enough to know there was more to being human than killing, but he'd never had someone show him so easily and completely what else could exist. Relena had been willing, giving. He had wished, in that pure moment, that her gift would remain true.

Heero stopped, reading a street sign before finally taking a right. His hands were dug deep in his pockets, shoulders hunched a little against the chill seeping through his bones. His black boots ate up the pavement, and his thoughts eating up his awareness.

By the end of the war, he'd decided to leave. He was too afraid he'd taint that purity, that humanity she'd shown him. That, he thought bitterly, wasn't the only thing. He'd also known by then that he wasn't truly in love with her so much as he was in love with the ideal of who she'd been to him, for him, for the world. And he wasn't sure he could manage being with her if she wasn't on that pedestal. He didn't want to see flaws. He didn't want to acknowledge they existed.

He wanted that single moment, that one kiss, to always be the truth.

Heero sighed, pausing to wait for nighttime traffic to stop so he could cross the street. Relena had been an ideal, he thought, and he couldn't be in love with an ideal. He missed that powerful will, that certainty she held, but he couldn't really relate to it. In the days and weeks after he left them all behind, he hadn't missed her as much as he'd expected.

What he'd missed was Duo.

A car alarm went off, down the block, and Heero kept his pace steady, heading for the ship. He'd stay there for the night, and wake up with the team, and leave with them in the morning. He fingered the camera in his pocket, wondering what pictures he'd finally keep, and whether he could use the ship's computer to download the images and free up the memory space.

Almost reluctantly his thoughts returned to Duo. That stupid, brash American who had no problem telling the rest of the team that he, trained nearly from birth to be the best, could make mistakes. When he'd heard, the idea rankled on the surface. It took a long time before he realized just how comforting the knowledge really was that Duo wasn't fooled.

He'd missed the American's humor, his ability to grin as he came up with more strength in the face of overwhelming odds. He'd missed the idiot's way of surprising the Wing Zero pilot, continuing to fight even when there didn't seem to be a purpose. He'd missed the way Duo didn't worship him as an ideal.

Heero grunted at himself, angry for the nostalgia. Look just how far it's gotten me, he chided himself. I lost that friendship, and it's too late now. Duo was always there to watch my back, and that's what I missed, really. Four years of therapy and he knew the intellectual reasons for the friendship: he and Duo had, in some ways, the closest upbringings. He could relate to Duo, and understand him, on a primal level that he couldn't do with anyone else.

For a short time, with Odin, he'd had a guide, a quasi-parent, someone steady and reliable, just as Duo had Solo. And when those foundations were gone, they were both cast on their own, dealing with the world as miniature adults, choosing and acting and being as though childhood were something unimportant, to be set aside when life required.

The differences in their personalities, Heero suspected, were more than just the issue of his shyness and Duo's extreme extroversion. Duo's foundation was based on that of a group, a family, where Heero's foundation was a single person.

The photographer stopped short, two blocks from the docking station.

Maybe that was it.

Duo required people. Duo came after him, as a fellow Gundam pilot, much like Trowa had. Neither had done it because of something personal, of that Heero was certain. They'd done it because he was one of them. Quatre had helped him, stayed with him, fought at his side, for the same reason. Even Wufei, the other loner in the group, had eventually joined the group, going to huge lengths to retain that sense of belonging. They were in the war together, bound by a common goal.

He was the only one who had walked away from that sense of a group, a team. He'd thought that once the goal was gone, so was the team. What if it wasn't? What if the ties still existed? Trowa was willing to leave school to help Duo. Quatre and Wufei, even now, may be supporting that action from afar, if hiding it. They were still a team, a group, an undeniable family. If Duo's life was defined by the need for a family, then Heero's departure was a negation of that need.

Heero swore, slowly and softly under his breath.

He remembered the pictures he'd taken that afternoon. All this time, he thought, I've been pushing people into the frame. The reviewers spout nonsense about me letting people speak for themselves, but they never did. I never let them. He'd spent four years putting his sanity back together, four years of work to know who he was, but he'd never stopped to let anyone else show him who they were, too. He'd worked so hard to create stability he'd forgotten to allow for the chaos of everyone else's intrusion.

The dark-haired man stood under a streetlight and rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. The tension in his shoulders drained slowly as he concentrated, the ache in his chest growing stronger.

"That's what I did wrong," he whispered to himself on the empty street. "I left."



On to Chapter eleven

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Fiction : GW :

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