Part Twelve: Describe The Absence Of Feeling
Grief is a word to describe the absence of feeling;
now I know, now I know what it means to be broken.
--- Michael Timmins
Heero focused on a point on the wall across from him and wished he'd argued when Hilde decided to have them skip lunch in favor of another interview. It was one more in a string, having started with the union leader the night before. It had been two hours, consisting mostly of the man's pompous statements droning on over cheap beer and overflowing ashtrays.
Any respect Heero had developed for Hilde had shot up even higher as he observed her conversations with the leader, Jake, and his five or six minions grouped around the table. Within minutes she'd had them all at ease, her light banter fitting in perfectly. She was dressed casually in a conservative blue skirt and white top, and Heero had to remind himself several times that she was also from L2. She may have been raised in a more sheltered environment, but five years of being Duo's best friend was bound to rub off on her.
When they'd finally escaped the lecture, she'd demanded that he take the time to edit out her voice, rather than keep the original version laying around. It was another two hours before he could put the camera down and get some sleep.
Now it was the second day of their trip, mid-afternoon, and they were being dragged to the fourth pocket of union organizers. Heero watched, impressed yet again, as Hilde skillfully placed explosives in the most incongruous places: under the edge of a desk, beneath a chair, inside a cabinet.
Heero kept the camera steady on his shoulder, recording her latest interviewee, and remembered how he used to tell Duo that the braid would stand out. Hilde was another one he expected to stand out. Who wouldn't notice the bright blue eyes, the charming smile, the lilt of her voice? But instead, they all seemed so taken by the fact that she was noticing them that they never stopped to really pay attention to whatever her hands were doing under that table, at that doorknob, by that light switch.
Duo had rigged each tiny explosive as a group, set for a series of frequencies, to be triggered as needed. It was simply a matter of tracking which ones were in which locations, and the Wing Zero pilot had no problem cataloging the ongoing placements.
Hilde nudged him in the ribs and he blinked, lowering the camera to look down at her.
"We're done," she told him quietly. "Ready for an early dinner?"
He nodded, and she turned to the men grouped around her, giving them a deceptively innocent smile. She was saying something about the article she was writing, and how soon Free Earth News would be publishing their video accounts. It was several minutes more before Heero realized she was leading him back through the warren of employee housing, and then they were back at the hotel.
She sighed as she unlocked her door, holding it open for him to follow her in. While he placed the camera on her dresser, she collapsed on the bed.
"Shit," she exclaimed, not even sitting up as she toed her shoes off. "My feet are fucking killing me!" Hilde popped back up with a wicked gleam in her eyes. "Did your training include foot rubs?"
"Yes," he replied, leaning against the dresser with his arms crossed as he watched her from under his eyebrows. "I'm one of the best when it comes to getting them."
"Hito!" Hilde laughed and swooped down, grabbing a shoe and throwing it at him. He ducked quickly and it hit the mirror behind him. "Men! First dibs on the shower."
Heero grinned and let himself into his own room through the adjourning door, taking the camera with him. Pausing for a minute, he unbuttoned his shirt, pulled off his belt, undid the top button of his pants, and then froze. Letting his hands fall to his sides, he hung his head. The emotions washed over him as the cool air hit his bare chest.
What am I doing here? I'm following someone around as she places explosives, field dampers and smoke bombs all over the damn place. This isn't peace. I didn't go through hell and death to be here. He chuckled miserably at his thoughts. I want to go home.
Heero threw his head back, rolling his neck as the joints popped, shrugged his shoulders and let them relax. One of his hands slapped lightly at his leg as he thought, and a mischievous smile began to tug at his lips. Turning without a second thought, he strode across the room and yanked open the bathroom door.
He was greeted with a shriek.
"Hito!" Hilde's form was barely visible behind the dappled shower curtain, but she was definitely aware of his entrance. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Entering without knocking. What does it look like?" He asked her ingenuously. "Needed my toothbrush."
"Bastard!" Hilde hollered, but her indignant shout barely masked the laughter bubbling up in her voice. Heero grinned at the shower curtain and left just as the curtain was yanked open and a bar of soap hit him in the back of the head. The door shut, cutting off his laughter as she continued to sputter.
Hilde was reading when Heero joined her in the hotel's empty restaurant. His hair was still wet from the quick shower, and even messier than usual, but his deep blue eyes were bright from an edge of hunger.
"I ordered a sandwich for you," she told him. "The service is so slow, and we've got a union meeting to observe in forty-five minutes."
"Is this what it's going to be like all week?" He grumbled, and seated himself across from her and tried to catch a waiter's eye. He was ignored.
"We're very popular," she replied. "Seems no one ever asked these folks what they think."
"Maybe." She set the papers down with a sigh. "You read any of this?"
He shook his head, finally sighting a waiter. Heero caught the boy's eye, but the boy stared straight at him and kept walking. He made a disgusted sound, and Hilde giggled.
"What?" He glared at her.
"You were growling."
"Hn." He got up, stalked over to the waiter, cornering him by the kitchen door, demanded his drink order – whiskey, neat – and returned to the table. It wasn't quite the same as punching something but it produced a satisfied feeling nonetheless.
"Hito." The girl raised her eyebrows at him and waved the papers in his face. "You didn't answer my question. Have you read any of this? Have you even listened to what the union organizers have been saying?"
He had to pause and think about that. "Not really," he admitted.
"Didn't think so." She set the papers down with a sigh. They were mostly propaganda statements from the union leaders. "I don't know if the union's the good guy."
"What?" In the corner of his eye, Heero saw the whiskey set down by his water glass but he was too busy trying to figure out Hilde's expression. She had a strange look on her face that he couldn't read, somewhere between upset and amused.
Her voice dropped to a whisper as the waiter left, and she leaned over the table. "We're supposed to keep the union from forming, so the workers will accept the bosses' offers. Thing is, I don't think the union would make the situation better."
"That head injury still bothering you?" The girl sat back, her blue eyes twinkling, and she tucked a longer strand of hair behind her ear. "I think the union's pushing the workers into a contract that would render them little better than indentured servants."
He dragged the papers towards him, and began flipping through them. "Unions are usually an improvement."
"Traditionally," she agreed. "But they can also cripple the economy. Forcing the pay rates this high seems good on the face of it, but it'd undermine any profits so badly the mining operation would be bankrupt in four, maybe five months."
The photographer scanned the pages. On the face of it, the union's demands seemed like the things any employee would want. Guaranteed sick time, generous holiday time, higher pay scales, and annual increases for cost of living. Excellent health insurance, too.
"Read the third page. I think it's near the bottom," Hilde prompted. She waited while he read it, nodding as his eyes widened. "Exactly," she told him smugly. "The workers have to agree to stay in the union, which means this union, on this rock. If the asteroid business is shut down, they're all stuck here. They can be held legally responsible, at the beck and call of the union, if they try to work elsewhere."
"That's not the way unions work," the dark-haired man muttered. "They're for people to band together to prevent exploitation by a powerful business interest."
"But if the union itself is a powerful business interest... " She let the question hang in the air, and Heero glanced up to see her watching him carefully. "It's all so stupid."
He raised his eyebrows at her, and she shrugged, her gaze sliding away from him as she spoke. "The union organizers use rhetoric to cajole the workers and sticks to beat the picket-crossers, and we're only marginally less pleasant. And in the end, if we left the workers alone, I think they'd realize which end is up. Talking could solve a lot of this, instead of harassing them from both sides."
"What are you planning?" His voice was even, but his narrowed eyes bespoke the suspicion he was beginning to feel.
Their dinner arrived, and they waited until the boy had left.
"I think I might write that article after all," she said. "Since we're here anyway."
The second day went much like the first. Heero steadfastly ignored everyone but Hilde, and Hilde chatted her way through the employees' sector while patiently ignoring the glaring man with the camera. Between them, they made a strange couple, but Heero was pleased to see the miners keeping their flirtation low-key. If the girl was aware his protective mode had kicked in, she gave no indication.
Thankfully she didn't opt to have them skip lunch again. Heero was ready to argue, after learning his lesson the day before. Afterwards they joined back up with Jake, and the union organizer led them through the working sector. They didn't cross the picket line, but Heero got fifteen minutes of footage of the striking workers. Meanwhile, Hilde stashed nearly a dozen more explosives and smoke bombs.
On their way back to the hotel, the first seven mini-bombs went off, timed for the dinner break. The alarms were blaring from the meeting building, and the scene was panicked, but the asteroid's fire fighters arrived quickly. It was soon reported that no one had been killed, although three were injured. Hilde dropped into role without pause, and Heero automatically hefted the camera as she began interviewing the fire fighters on the scene.
It was eight o'clock standard time before they got to their rooms. Heero waved Hilde away with one hand as he unlocked his own door, dropping the camera on the bed as he kicked off his shoes. A second later he'd landed on the bed as well, his face down. He'd just grabbed a pillow when he heard the connecting door open.
Heero groaned into the pillow.
"Get up, lazy," Hilde said behind him.
He nearly yelped when she tapped him on the insole of his foot.
"Hey! You're ticklish!" Delighted.
Heero rolled over to see Hilde, her hands on her hips, and a look of self-satisfied discovery on her face. When she didn't respond to his iciest glare, he let his head fall back and an expression of long-suffering patience settled onto his features.
"Stop that," she ordered, then brightened. "Pull out something nice. We've got invitations for after dinner."
"Actually, I do, but you're coming along."
"I'm sure you can handle yourself." Heero rolled back over on his stomach and grabbed the pillow again.
"I know I can, but inspectors can be a sneaky lot." Her tone was light, with no additional emphasis. "Besides, it's not safe now. Didn't you hear two another fire started just as one of the picketing groups was about to have their nightly meeting? No suspects, no idea of how... " Her voice trailed off as she shut the connecting door behind her.
An inspector? Heero frowned and rolled over, staring at the closed door.
"No, you can not wear that." Hilde wrinkled her nose at the green button-up shirt Heero had selected.
The dark-haired man glared at her. The girl was lying on her stomach across his bed, wearing an green iridescent slip of a sleeveless dress that barely reached mid-thigh with a low-cut back that revealed a swath of pale skin.
Heero sighed, aware he'd given her enough of an argument about her own selection, but he felt his worries were justified. They'd been invited to the asteroid's best club, and Heero was certain they'd be surrounded by miners whose only contact with women was limited to wives and whores. Hilde's dress seemed like an open invitation for trouble.
He pondered that thought as he dug through the suitcase for a shirt she'd approve. Heero wasn't interested in spending the night beating down men trying to paw at his teammate who also happened to be Duo's best friend. The last thing he needed was another reason for Duo to want to pound him. Frustrated, he pulled out a long-sleeved shirt from the bottom of the case and held it up. Heero raised an eyebrow at Hilde over the shirt.
"Where did this come from?" It looked like something Wufei would wear: raw silk, and a mandarin collar. Fabric loops and knots ran from neckline to hem, all in a rich dark sapphire blue.
"The suitcase, idiot," she drawled.
"You know what I mean," he retorted. He couldn't remember either of them buying it while shopping for the trip.
"Doesn't matter," she announced, rolling over on her back. "It's perfect. Change, already. It's almost nine, and we're supposed to be there in a half-hour."
He didn't even bother to tell her to leave, but stepped into the bathroom, doing his best to ignore her laughter behind him.
The club was classier than Heero had expected, and he was secretly glad he'd listened to Hilde's fashion suggestions. He didn't stand out as much in the dressy shirt and black pants, although he got enough attention for the way his blue eyes shot daggers at every man who looked in Hilde's direction. Unfortunately, that was pretty much every man in the crowded bar.
Cigarette and cigar smoke drifted towards the ceiling, bathing the soft lighting in a haze of gray. Heero stood behind Hilde as she greeted the union organizers who'd invited them, doing his best to nod appreciatively each time Hilde threw a warning look his way. After several minutes of visiting, she took him by the arm and guided him to a table along the wall.
"There's supposed to be live entertainment," she said. The music wasn't as loud as he'd expected, either. A cocktail waitress appeared, took their drink orders, and faded into the crowd. Hilde leaned over again. "It's a lounge more than a club, I think."
Heero considered what constituted 'live entertainment' to miners, and whether faking internal injuries would get him out of there faster. He hadn't like putting on the monkey suit when dealing with Relena, and he wasn't sure the experience had improved with age. The only benefit was that he wasn't forced to wear a bow tie this time. It was little comfort given the nasty looks he was getting from some of the other men in the bar.
By the time their drinks appeared, the lights were dimming and a pianist, a bassist, and a drummer had gathered on the stage. The floor was clear for an area in front of them, but it was hard to see past the parade of men coming by to welcome Hilde. There were plenty of other women in the place, Heero noted, but Hilde just had a way of delivering a teasing line that was drawing in the marks.
A woman had joined the band, and it was several minutes before her voice filtered into Heero's consciousness. It was some old torch song, in a low sulty delivery, and a glittering dress that could compete with Hilde's for outright sex appeal. At least, the photographer thought, it wasn't music that required the audience dance like twitching road kill, nor would it damage his eardrums. He could hear Hilde's voice, only marginally raised to be heard, and drew his attention back to the table in time to realize the latest mark was one of their team mates.
It's Trowa in a suit, Heero thought, keeping his face still and his eyes flat to prevent allowing a flash of recognition. Heavyarms' pilot was in a dark double-breasted suit, with a white shirt that glowed gently under the lights, his dark crest of hair falling over his face. His slim figure was set off perfectly; highlighting his broad shoulders, trim hips, and long legs. Heero glared at the man, since he'd been doing that to the other men so far that night. A second man joined Trowa, chatting with Hilde for a moment before sliding into the seat next to Heero.
"Look at him," the man said to Heero, congenially, as though they were old friends. Heero shot the man a startled look that faded back into a glare.
"He's gonna get her," the man said, oblivious to the fact that Heero's glare had just gone down a notch in temperature from cool to positively frosty. "Telling you, Mr. Barlow gets here from headquarters and we knew right away no one would be safe. Doncha hate guys like that?" The man grinned at Heero, relaxing into his seat. It was clear he wasn't going anywhere soon, and Heero just barely turned his head in time to see Hilde getting up, her hand in Trowa's.
The tall pilot led her onto the dance floor and spun her once before pulling her close. Her petite form was pressed up against him, her high heels just barely raising her enough to tuck her head neatly under his chin. Trowa had one hand on her lower back, steering her carefully around the dance floor between the other couples as they sasheyed together in a lazy waltz.
"But you gotta admit," the man was saying beside him. "They do look good together. I'm Tom, by the way. I'm the program manager for sixth level. I hear you're one of the journalists?"
Heero nodded, dragging his eyes off the dancing couple long enough to glare at the man one more time. The man's eyes widened, and he leaned back, whistling.
"Damn, is she your girl? Sorry about what I said--"
"No," Heero said, a little more forcefully than he meant to.
"Oh, I get it," Tom said, giving Heero a knowing expression. Heero turned his head away, watching as Hilde and Trowa glided back into view. He wondered why he was surprised at Trowa's masterful ability – the man was an acrobat, after all. If anyone should be able to move gracefully on a dance floor, it'd be Trowa.
Heavyarms' pilot was whispering something into Hilde's ear, and she was laughing politely at intervals. For all appearances the tall man was propositioning her, and she was declining gracefully. They certainly didn't look like they were plotting sabotage for the mining levels.
When the song ended, many in the audience politely clapped, including Tom, still sitting next to Heero. The dark-haired man, however, tossed back the rest of his whiskey and glowered at the two men approaching Hilde on the dance floor, who had probably determined they were far enough away that the likelihood of Heero ripping out their throats was reduced. Hilde accepted the first offer with some laughing comment to the second. Trowa, meanwhile, faded back into the crowd after kissing Hilde's hand.
Heero stared at his empty glass and decided it was time to start ordering ginger ale.
Another two songs went past, and eventually Tom slipped away with some muttered comment that Heero didn't hear and didn't bother listening to anyway. Hilde was in demand, and enjoying every minute of it, and Heero moved his gaze to study the club's inhabitants. At every point he was aware of Hilde's general location on the dance floor, but her absence from the table meant his view of the rest of the club was finally unobstructed by admiring fans.
The photographer realized a smile was sneaking onto his face as he watched her obvious pleasure. The girl might be running a crew of unsavory types with a questionable mission, he reminded himself, but she was still only twenty-one. Staying up late, dancing all night and being admired were things she deserved. She'd worked as hard, in her own way, for peace. Wasn't dancing all night part of peace? So this is her reward, Heero thought. The least he could do, in Duo's absence, was make sure she was safe.
His self-satisfied train of thought was derailed abruptly when he caught a glimpse of a man near the back of the bar who was watching Hilde nearly as intently as Heero. It wasn't until the man turned to order another drink that Heero saw the braid, its long twist capturing the bar's overhead lights in a tangle of auburn. The reddish color stood out against Duo's customary all-black ensemble, and Heero smirked. Duo would be eighty and probably still favoring black clothing. Once a thief, always a thief.
Heero was pondering Duo's appearance at the club when he noticed Trowa standing with another group of men at the front of the bar. Trowa's group seemed to be mostly managerial types, dressed a little nicer than the rest of the rough crowd. Trowa was also watching Hilde, who was presently laughing as she worked out the foxtrot with a man two inches shorter than her.
He sunk a little lower in his seat as he surreptitiously watched Duo out of the corner of his eye. Unwillingly he remembered Enny leaning against him, her breath playing along his ear as she gave him the play-by-play. Jeet, talking to Duo. Jeet, leaning on Duo. Jeet, leaving with Duo.
Heero's face flushed, certain he knew the purpose of the departure. His thoughts halted as he considered the memory. Duo had cut Jeet off, but then agreed after all. Why? Jeet had acted like it was a regular thing, for Duo to be his john. Heero flinched unconsciously at the thought of calling Duo something so crass. He couldn't figure out, then, what made Duo change his mind that day. All Heero knew was that he was getting more and more annoyed just thinking about it.
The song ended, another began, and Heero impulsively stood up. He knew this song; Bernie used to play it while reviewing Heero's negatives. He was suddenly hit with a bolt of homesickness, and he pushed it away as he headed straight for Hilde. Two men were vying for her attention, but he stepped past them and took Hilde in his arms.
"My turn," he said over his shoulder, yanking her close. One hand went down to her hip, and the other held her hand up near his shoulder. "You've been on the floor all night," he muttered in her ear. "Don't complain to me later when your feet fall off."
"I didn't know you could dance," she replied blithely as the singer's sultry tones flooded the dance floor.
"I can do a lot of things," he replied, his grip slowly loosening as he relaxed into the familiar steps of a simplified tango.
"Hush," she chided. "I'm busy counting steps."
"Don't. I'm leading here, not you."
"Do you ever follow?" She pulled away to look up at him, inadvertently tilting her hips against his as he spun them around, guiding her swiftly backwards. "Or are you always in charge?"
"Yes," he answered, purposefully ambiguous. She tossed him a playful smile and leaned into him, her forehead against his cheek as they stepped forward, pause, two steps back, pause, half-spin turn. The singer was accompanied only by the deep bass notes and the drum's whisk on the snare, making the song almost a cappella.
He was whispering the refrain with the singer. "Let me fall out of the window with confetti in my hair... " Hilde remained quiet as his words crept into her ears.
"I love this song," he said suddenly, interrupting himself. He could feel Hilde's quiet chuckle against his chin.
"One more thing I didn't know about you," she teased. "So how do you know this song?"
"A... friend used to play it a lot," he said after a pause. They were quiet for a minute, and he steered her around again so he could see the back bar. Duo was still standing there, but didn't seem to be looking their way. Heero let his eyes close halfway, focused on the bass line throbbing through the floor.
The refrain came around again, a sulky moan from the singer, her silvery dress glinting under the lights. Step, pause, step, pause, turn... the movement was liquid, sexual, and Heero's smile was feral above Hilde's shoulder. Her eyes, in turn, were large, but a smile twitched at the corner of her lips.
The ex-Gundam pilot focused on a point over her shoulder, staring at the bar where Duo had been standing a second before. He was humming again, a husky baritone. "Deal out jacks or better from a blanket by the stairs... "
Duo reappeared in his sights, and Heero stared, his expression wild and possessive as he whispered in Hilde's ear.
"I'll tell you all my secrets, but I'll lie about my past... " Heero's eyes were locked onto Duo's. The dark-haired man lowered his head, watching the other pilot from under his brows. Heero's lips were poised over Hilde's neck in an intimate gesture as he spun them one last time, turning his back on Duo.
Then the song was over, and Hilde stayed where she was. He could feel her heart beating against his chest, and then they stepped apart as another man approached. Heero fought the sudden urge to apologize, instead settling for a quick kiss on her cheek as he whispered in her ear.
"What are friends for?" Hilde teased then almost as abruptly her expression froze. She was looking past Heero, and he frowned, confused. Hilde caught the look and glanced up at him, her eyes dangerous enough to make him pull back a half step. Almost as quickly the look was gone, and she was giving a brilliant smile to a young man trying to cut in. In seconds she was laughing at the man's words, and Heero made his way back to the table, puzzled both at her reaction and his own actions.
Several songs later, Hilde returned to the table, her eyebrows raised at the three empty shot glasses lined up in front of Heero. His movements were steady, however, as he stood and followed her out. She paused a few times, giving courteous goodnights to various people, and Heero waited each time, satisfied that he no longer had to glare. Hilde's admirers were more than happy that he merely stared, his entire body communicating his desire to be on his way.
Outside the club Hilde said nothing, and Heero followed, his footsteps silent behind her. They were almost at the hotel when Hilde suddenly spun and slapped Heero across the face. Stunned, he pulled back a fist before he thought twice and dropped his hand.
"What the fuck were you doing in there?" she cried.
"When?" Doubly shocked, Heero could only stare at her. His fist was still flexing in automatic response to the strike, and it took him a minute to get past the whiskey in his system to register that she looked like she was on the verge of tears.
"When we were dancing!"
Heero blinked, almost positive she'd just stomped a foot.
"What kind of game are you playing?" She was shouting, and Heero instinctively glanced around to see if they had an audience. When he looked back, she was already running for the hotel.
Bewildered, he could only stand in the asteroid city's broad avenue and stare as the sound of her footsteps receded in the distance.