Part Twenty-Four: As Your Sorrows Are Joys
It'll happen to you as sure as your sorrows are joys
And the thing that disturbs you is only the sound of
The low spark of high-heeled boys
--- Steve Winwood
There were points in Heero's life when he could reasonably describe a situation as exploding, even without the benefit of grenades. When Duo shouted at Hilde, the Wing Zero pilot absently noted that the argument had suddenly become one of those moments.
A number of things happened, apparently at the same moment.
At Duo's shout, Hilde launched herself forward, her left hand flying up in a fist. Trowa came to his feet. Duo blocked the girl's punch. Heero kicked the low table out of his way and closed the distance between him and Hilde. The Deathscythe pilot retaliated with a right hook. Trowa jerked Duo backwards. Heero grabbed Hilde under the arms and swung her around, yanking her out of Duo's reach. Hilde screamed, an infuriated, frustrated sound. She kicked once and swung them around again, but Heero didn't let go. He only twisted to turn with her, until his left shoulder was pointing at Duo as he faced the girl.
"Let go of me," Duo snarled at Trowa, his eyes flashing amethyst from the adrenaline rush.
"Stand down," Trowa responded calmly, but his green eyes were fixed on Heero's protective posture around Hilde. Duo growled and pushed at the taller man's hold a second time. Trowa's grip tightened on Duo's wrists.
The dark-haired man was grasping Hilde carefully, one hand on her arm; his other hand at the back of her neck, ready to disable her if need be. She didn't move, and Heero exhaled at Trowa's words. At the same instant Hilde's right hand reached back, under her sweater, and brought out a dull gray semi-automatic. Heero barely had time to react when he heard the hammer pull back with a clunk. A round was in the chamber, and Hilde's forefinger was squarely on the trigger.
"Shit," Duo whispered. His face was pale beneath the auburn bangs hanging in his eyes, and he stared at the gun intently. "This is familiar," the man finally said. His voice was steady, if scarcely audible.
"We have a job to do," Hilde said, her eyes cool and dangerous. Heero didn't move. His lips were close enough to kiss her ear, if he chose. Hilde's pupils were large, the green absorbed by black, but her hand was steady, and she spoke with the control of a well-trained mobile suit pilot. "There's no quitting now."
"This didn't work the last time, either," Duo said, a playful smile appearing on his lips. His chin was down, his eyes slits, a conspiratorial look.
"Hilde," Heero said, barely louder than a breath, hoping he was right that the volume was below the threshold of the ship's listening devices. The name, at least, got Hilde's attention. Heero made no move towards the gun, but shifted his hold so his thumb could stroke the girl's cheek. Her eyes were fixed squarely on Duo, but he could tell she was listening. "First," he instructed her quietly, "you need to ease the hammer down."
There was a long silence. Just when Heero was realizing he couldn't go longer without drawing a breath, there was a quiet click. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Trowa almost visibly slump in relief, but the Heavyarms pilot didn't release Duo's wrists.
"The syndicate is hitting your buttons," Heero murmured. "Don't let them."
"What... " the girl started to say, then cut herself off. Her jaw clenched, and Heero went back to stroking her cheek as he whispered in her ear.
"Little boss," he said, hoping to put her at ease with the friendly teasing. Heero's body language conveyed relaxed intimacy, and he raised his voice enough to barely be heard by the other two men. "I have an idea of how we can do this, but you and your brother are going to have to clear the air first."
Hilde's entire body immediately tensed. Her thumb moved to the hammer. Heero pulled her a little closer, molding her body to his as though partners in a tango. Out of the corner of his eye, Heero could see Duo, and that little voice prodded Heero to say his piece quickly. Duo stood staring at Heero with a peculiar sequence of emotions playing on his face: suspicion, chased by relief, darkening into a slow burn of envy.
"I am the muscle here," Heero said, his tone becoming a command while still pitched below a whisper. "I agreed to protect the team. If you try to kill your best friend, then I'll have to kill you for hurting a member of the team. Got that?"
The words finally sunk in, and a choked giggle burst from Hilde before she managed to stifle the sound. Her thumb moved away from the hammer, and Heero let go of her cheek long enough to grab the gun. One fluid move and he disarmed her, tucking the gun into the back of his jeans. Dropping his hands, he kept his body away from her even as he leaned over to whisper in her ear.
"Repeat after me," Heero ordered. "I have an idea. We should cover all bases."
"I have an idea," Hilde said, woodenly. "We should cover all bases."
"They'll be checking the prostitutes," he continued. "But they'll need someone to serve the drinks, and the wait staff is noticed even less than the hookers." Heero waited while the girl dutifully repeated his comments, and steeled his mission mask as his idea sunk into the girl's awareness. She paused, pursing her lips, then gave Heero a shy smile, indicating her acceptance.
"Day, you get a job as a cook," Hilde announced, her voice growing stronger. Heero stepped back to lean against the wall. Hilde turned back to her teammates. "I'll go in as a hooker," she added, shaking her head as Duo started to open his mouth, his expression dark. The girl spoke quickly, before he could say anything. "Someone has to, so we're covered on all fronts. Trey, can you dance?"
Trowa nodded, reluctantly.
"You'll go in as a dancer, and Hito will be wait staff. If Enny and Jeet are available, we'll have them do general surveillance." Hilde fell silent, and the room was uncomfortably quiet for a minute, until Hilde's stomach growled loudly. "Oh, hell," she said with a rueful look. "Don't know about the rest of you, but I'm hungry."
Trowa stepped away from Duo. The Heavyarms pilot's face gave away nothing. Duo accepted Hilde's offer with an unenthusiastic nod as he carefully twitched his sleeves back down. Hilde glanced at Heero. The dark-haired man shrugged with one shoulder, preoccupied with Duo's strange gesture and the glimpse of white scars circling Duo's wrists.
"Let's go by the corner, get Enny and Jeet if they're there. Dinner at Marty's." Hilde turned to Heero with her hand out. Heero raised one eyebrow and shook his head, letting his gaze travel to Duo in a pointed movement. Hilde scowled, pulling her hand back a little before thrusting it out again. Heero simply stared, and her scowl grew deeper.
She stepped to the side, and Heero put out his arm, blocking the exit. Again he shook his head, and glanced towards Duo, who was watching with narrowed eyes. To Heero's surprise, Duo spoke first, a raspy whisper.
"I would never quit this, Hel," he said as he stepped towards the petite brunette. "But I don't want to compete. Don't make me."
Hilde's eyes went wide, and she suddenly started to shake, realizing Duo's meaning. Seeing her distress, the longhaired thief stepped forward, placing his hands gently on her shoulders as he leaned forward, putting his forehead against hers.
"He chose you," Duo whispered, just barely loud enough for Heero to hear. "Stop hassling me 'bout how I deal with it, cause he... chose... you."
"I thought you... " Hilde's voice was ragged.
"You thought wrong," Duo said, and kissed her on the nose. "Hito's right. You're letting them call the shots. Don't. I know the real score. Don't worry about me."
"But I do," she breathed. "I'm sorry... "
Heero kept his gaze towards the floor. This had better work, the small voice reminded him, or you're out of a job and just lost two friendships. Maybe three. Heero shrugged mentally. If the syndicate's suggestions could push Hilde and Duo into such an explosive showdown, then it meant there was an issue that needed to be dealt with. The last thing any of them needed was a job going bad due to miscommunication.
"Don't be, on both counts," Duo was saying. That half-smile was back on his face, evident in his tone. "I'm the one who screwed up." He kissed her again, on the forehead, and held her close, letting his head drop until he was cradling her cheek-to-cheek. "I can cook, Hito can wait tables, Trey can dance, and you can look cute in heels and a short skirt."
There was a choking sound from Hilde, and Duo's grin flashed across his face. Heero watched carefully, vaguely aware the two friends were resolving their differences only insofar as they were agreeing to remain unresolved. He sighed inwardly and guessed it would have to do for the time being.
Duo released Hilde, who stepped away, her face to the floor. Heero let his arm fall from where he'd blocked the doorway. The Wing Zero pilot pulled the gun out from the back of his jeans, and racked the slide. He ignored the ejected round, flipped the gun in his hand, and held it out to Hilde, butt-first. She took it with a sheepish grin.
"We'll meet you there," Heero said. "Day and I will take a cab, and stop by Enny's corner."
"See you at Marty's," Hilde said. She shoved the gun back into the holster under her sweater and left without a backwards glance.
Trowa took the keys from Heero's jacket before leaving without a word. Heero looked over, catching the smile fading from Duo's lips. It had never truly reached the pilot's eyes, and it made Duo look far older than the wartime boy Heero remembered.
The dark-haired man leaned his head against the wall, and closed his eyes, wishing momentarily he'd stayed on L1. "Well," he finally said, pushing away from the wall with a sigh. "Let's go."
The cab ride was silent. Duo had leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes, obviously uninterested in conversation. Heero stared out at the passing slums, and ran the day's information through his head. He doubted he'd find any answers in the fifteen-minute ride from the station bay to Sector 3, but he had to start somewhere.
He began with the upcoming job: infiltrate the L4 syndicate's annual party. A number of representatives from the other crime organizations would probably be there; one reason for the event was likely to discuss alliances and syndicate politics.
Heero recalled Duo's comment that no L4 organization had yet allied with the Yakuza, Mafia, or Space Syndicates. It was logical that the real goal behind the team's mission would assisting with an effort to force the L4 organization to join the rest of the syndicates. L4's syndicates would be allies; failing that, they would be servants. Hilde's team would be collecting information that would make either possible.
But the real value to completing the job, Heero theorized, wasn't the risk level of the mission. Although there was considerable risk in dealing with the heads of other organizations and the security such would entail, the real value was the chance for direct contact with the L2 syndicate bosses. Joe's mission may originally have centered on gun smuggling, but the Wing Zero pilot doubted that was still the objective.
The incident a half-hour ago, Heero mused, was proof enough that the syndicate could procure such items, at least for its employees. Hilde's semi-automatic had been a .45 P-11. If the gun was older than the Earth Sphere handgun restriction laws, it must have been a museum piece until recently. The action was too tight to be anything but relatively new.
The only reasonable conclusion was that Joe had stumbled on something that made it worthwhile to mess with the syndicate heads. Either that, or he'd found a way to connect them to their numerous crimes, despite their precautions like using romchip technology. If Joe had connected the vultures to the road kill, what was keeping Hilde and Duo from following in his footsteps? What had Joe discovered? What had made his death necessary?
The cab pulled up to the corner, and Duo stepped out long enough to call Enny and Jeet over. The three chatted outside the cab before coming to some kind of agreement. Heero could see Jeet walking off as Enny climbed in. She slid over until her hip bumped against Heero, and Duo got in after her.
"Hey, Hito," she said cheerfully. "Haven't seen you in awhile."
Heero threw her a scowl for forgetting the afternoon so quickly, and then realized she knew exactly what she'd said. He dropped the scowl and gave her a crooked smile instead, before returning his attention to the scenery outside.
"That's why I like you," she said, settling down into the seat between the two Gundam pilots. "Such the extroverted charmer."
Heero ignored her. For every answer, ten more questions, that small voice taunted: Joe's death, the President's shutdown request, Une's refusal, and the clear sabotage. Pops' said Joe had been suspected of selling out to competition, but Heero had inferred that Pops meant other syndicate competition, not the Preventers.
Why would someone so obviously murder Joe and his team, yet not broadcast that the victim was an undercover agent? Was the syndicate lying in wait to do the same to Hilde and her team? Had the L2 crime organizations already pegged Hilde as a continuation of Joe's infiltration?
Normally, Heero knew, a death like Joe's would be used as a warning. If it wasn't, this could only mean the syndicate saw reason to let its other employees think Joe was a traitor. Alternately, perhaps the L2 syndicate wasn't aware of Joe's real identity. But the timing was such that Joe's death couldn't be anything but a hit, and that required someone with knowledge of the agent's real purpose. Who would stand to gain from Joe's death but not gain from knowledge about Joe's mission?
Heero pushed his mind back into line before it could go wandering off down the side-alleys created by Duo's story. Dragging his attention back to the mission, he steeled his mind to comprehend the orders that had Hilde so dejected, and Duo so angry. There were alternative ways to collect the information, but the syndicate's orders this time had been specific that the team should infiltrate as prostitutes. The orders left Heero completely bewildered. If he couldn't figure out what the syndicate stood to gain by keeping Joe's true identity a secret, he wasn't sure he would fare much better in figuring out the syndicate's purposes for insisting the team use prostitution as their cover.
This had to be why Duo had gone seeking Quatre, Heero thought, a small touch of irritation coloring his thoughts. The Arab was their strategist, the brain behind their teamwork time and time again. Heero chuckled dryly in his head. The Zero system had decimated Quatre the first time, but when Heero installed it in Sandrock, the blond pilot had mastered it in one battle and never required Zero's clairvoyant skills again. He had proven to be capable of operating as efficiently without it as Heero did with it. Quatre didn't need the system to observe, master, and select all the options in a battle.
The thought of Quatre's talents drew Heero along a path to consider his other teammates. Heero knew that where he could give and take orders with ease, Duo was the opposite. The thief had refused a position with Preventers out of reluctance to take orders; then again, Duo had equal trouble giving orders. He had grown used to being part of a collaborative effort, but this probably came from so many battles as Quatre's wingman. That might explain Duo's request for Quatre, because otherwise it was unusual that Duo would be willing to be drawn into a Preventers mission. The Wing Zero pilot wasn't sure whether Duo was acting out of support for Hilde, or Duo's own sense of loss for Joe, or because of his innate sense of justice on behalf of those who couldn't fight. He did know, however, that the only two people Duo ever took commands from were Quatre and himself.
And even I, he reminded himself, had to put up with an argument from Duo, every single time. In the end, Heero mused, perhaps it didn't matter. Whatever the reason, the goal had to be a significant one to compel Duo to go against his natural grain and take orders again.
Heero's thoughts shifted to the circus acrobat and lifelong soldier. Trowa had been accepting orders as a mercenary for nearly his entire life. It made sense that he'd seek that outlet again, after five years of deprivation.
He watched the street signs change as the cab entered Sector 3, flickering neon giving way to brighter digital displays. Two blocks from the restaurant, Heero registered their location and sat up, rapping sharply in the ceiling to get the cabbie's attention. Setting aside his musings on his teammates, he rapped louder when the cabbie didn't respond.
"Stop here," he ordered. "Pull over. Two of us are getting out."
"What?" Enny asked, surprised, and immediately suspicious.
"Not you," Heero said as the cabbie pulled over. Digging in his pockets, he pulled out twenty credits and shoved them at the girl. "Pay him with that when you get to Marty's, and I expect change. Day, you're coming with me."
Duo opened his mouth, then shut it when Heero glared. Frowning, Duo shook his head and climbed out of the cab. He had pulled his braid around and was cradling it quietly as the cab pulled away, leaving six feet of empty tarmac between them. The colony's winter seeped in through the soles of Heero's boots, and tugged at the rip in the knee of his jeans. Heero shrugged his jacket closer and tried to find his voice.
"Was there a purpose," Duo asked him, "or did you just think we needed the exercise?"
Heero started at the caginess in the young man's baritone. "I wanted to talk to you," he finally said.
Duo didn't say anything, but watched, wary, as Heero joined him on the sidewalk. The taller man jerked his chin in the direction of the restaurant. Duo scowled, then fell in line next to Heero. After a second, the thief let go of the braid, flipping it behind his shoulder automatically.
"Why did you cut your hair?" Heero hadn't intended to start there, but seeing the auburn rope draped over Duo's shoulder reminded him.
"To hide," Duo said, and flashed a quick grin at Heero. "Best way to do it, in plain sight."
Heero studied the expression carefully, and concluded Duo was guarded, but not unhappy. The large smile at his lips was matched with a cautious friendliness around the eyes.
"From whom? And when?"
"Journalists, five years ago now, I guess." Duo shrugged, pulling the braid back around and studying it for several seconds as they walked. "All that post-war crap, heroes of the universe... our pictures everywhere. So I cut it off... but you can see how long that lasted."
Heero glanced at the braid. "About two feet, I'd say."
Duo's eyebrows shot up, and then he smiled shyly, but it was a true smile. "Yeah, I guess about that much. Hair grows an inch a month. I cut it every few months now."
They waited at the corner, a block from the restaurant. The light turned green, and Duo stepped into the crosswalk without looking to see if Heero was following. The dark-haired man hid a smile, recalling their shared wartime schooling. To his surprise he often found himself following Duo around whenever they ended up at the same school. The idiot was talkative, unconventional, and a security blanket of the strangest kind. His openness created a wall of noise behind which Heero could hide.
The photographer sighed, glancing down at Duo's hands that were clutching the braid again. Heero had seen something, earlier, and it was still playing in his mind. His soldier's senses were telling him to ask; his friendship instincts were telling him to lay low. Distrusting his ability to be a friend, Heero decided to follow the soldier side of things.
"What happened to your wrists?"
"Ah, my... " Duo's blue eyes widened, and his expression went from distantly polite to stunned. Even a little terrified, Heero thought, catching the way Duo's knuckles had suddenly gone white as his hands held onto the braid. "After the war," Duo started to say, then stopped. He took a deep breath, relaxed his hands, flipped the braid over his shoulder, and shoved his hands in his coat pockets.
"You don't have to say," Heero replied. "I was just... "
"It's okay," Duo said, shock still obvious on his features. "That whole thing about a face being recognizable? I guess the braid was more so... stupid group shanghaied me, held me for ransom. Quatre wouldn't pay, but he and Wufei stormed the castle, guns blazing." He chuckled, a dark sound. "Maybe the only time I didn't get out on my own," Duo added. "Of course, OZ didn't usually knock us out. Why waste the drugs?"
"And the scars?" Heero did his best to speak casually, and kept his gaze level on the cars they passed. He didn't look at Duo.
"They did their research. Kept the handcuffs tight enough to... "
Out of the corner of his eye, Heero could see Duo shake himself rather than finish the sentence, a grim smile pasted across his face. No other words were needed. There was just one more thing to say, the small voice piped up to remind him. The other realization from those moments after the room had exploded.
Heero looked up to see they were at the restaurant. He reached out, catching Duo's coat sleeve between his fingers to make the other man stop. Now was the time, especially now, Heero told himself: Duo had spoken openly. Perhaps he would allow the same in return.
"You were my first real friend," Heero said, carefully, slowly. He licked his lips, glancing into Duo's wide blue-purple eyes once before his gaze slid away again. "I know I wasn't a good friend to you before, but I want to be... if you'll let me." Stepping forward, Heero leaned over a little, letting his cheek brush against Duo's until his lips were at the other man's ear. "And... " Heero took a deep breath, exhaled through his nose, and tried again. " ...I want you to know, I will always choose you."
Heero didn't move. Duo's breath was on his cheek, hot, steady, and quick. The wool texture of Duo's coat was crisp beneath his fingers, where he grasped the sleeve. Finally Duo nodded, his long bangs brushing Heero's cheek like butterfly wings. Heero stepped back, giving Duo a tentative smile, a bare movement, a quirk of the lips before his face returned to stillness. Duo was staring at Heero's lips.
"Were you waiting for me?" The voice came from behind Heero, a jeering, cheerful question. Heero jumped, startled. At the same moment Duo also reared back, skittish, pulling his coat sleeve out of Heero's grasp.
The speaker resolved itself into a flurry of blue hair and Jeet appeared in the corner of Heero's vision. Irritated, the photographer opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Duo was giving Jeet a goofy grin.
"Not even close," Duo retorted. His wide smile was back in place, and he shoved Jeet towards the door. "Finish up your last trick for the day?"
"Not if you're my dessert," Jeet teased, and threw his arm over Duo's shoulder.
"You wish," Duo said, and led the way towards the restaurant's doors. Heero blinked, realized he was about to be left behind, and shook himself. Ignoring the thumping ache in his chest, he followed the two into the restaurant.