Part Twenty-Eight: When The Wind Is Southerly
I am but mad north-northwest.
When the wind is southerly,
I know a hawk from a handsaw.
--- William Shakespeare
"The bottom line is really simple," Duo said as he settled himself back on the bed, next to Heero, facing the laptop. "We find out who killed Joe. And why, if possible. You could consider this whole thing just an investigation into the death of an agent while on duty."
"Under cover of total secrecy." It was a question, but Heero turned it into a statement as he saw Duo nodding.
"First, you hafta keep in mind that Une isn't exactly the world's favorite person. She didn't have the benefit of sealed records or anonymity like we did. There's no hiding for her, anymore than Relena can hide the fact of having cooperated with OZ."
"But Relena did so under duress," Heero replied.
"A technicality. People remember what they want to, and they remember the Queen of the World as an innocent pawn. They remember Une as a bloodthirsty killer willing to shoot down the colonies."
"Was being the operative tense. She's done a lot in five years, if you haven't read the news." Duo stared down at his coffee.
"I'm aware of what she's achieved," Heero told him. "But there's a lot more she could've done."
"Not really," Duo retorted. "If she goes too far in one direction, the hawks attack her for selling out. And if she goes too far in the opposite direction, the doves come after her with accusations that she's still the same psycho bitch."
"That would make cracking down on the syndicates hard," Heero said. "Harder if the President's in league with them."
"If not impossible. My personal theory is that Joe's investigation was fine as long as it was gun smuggling. More people are against personal ownership of guns than are for it. But Joe found something else, and Une tried to go after it. She got shot down, and Joe along with her. She doesn't have any room to maneuver, and the only reason we do is because no one knows we're here."
The two were silent for several minutes. Heero watched the laptop screen fade from blue to yellow, a fractal swirl, and enjoyed the heat radiating from Duo's thigh and hip being so close. Finally he shook off the fatigue and checked the computer's clock. There were fifteen more minutes before he needed to check in with the hackers again.
"The hackers determined Quatre's one of two sources for the track bots." Heero listed the messages the hackers had decoded. Duo furrowed his brow at several points, but didn't interrupt. The photographer ran a hand through his hair and tapped the laptop's touchpad to reactivate the screen. "I thought it was Quatre talking to you or Trowa," he said.
"The 'I love you, be safe' wouldn't be to me," Duo joked in reply. "But as far as I know, if Trowa was reading it, he kept it from the rest of us."
"Did he know you were sending pictures of him to Quatre?" Heero raised an eyebrow at the longhaired man, who blushed.
"Well... " Duo hedged. "He knew I was sending reports."
"Can I ask you something?"
"When I saw Wufei, he was--" Heero broke off his words when Duo lifted a hand as if to stop him.
"Oh. No. Let's not go there," Duo said quietly. "There's really never any good timing for some things, and Wufei took it a little personally."
Duo stared the laptop screen, then at his cup of coffee, and then at the floor. Finally he shifted in place, scratched his nose, and sighed. "You know that whole deal with losing his wife, just when he figured out she might be someone worth knowing... worth loving... after all? He's a little obsessed with not letting any of us miss that chance, if we've got it."
"And he thought Trowa and Quatre have that chance," Heero concluded softly.
"They would, if Quatre ever got off his ass and stopped taking Trowa for granted," Duo spat with unexpected force. "I love Quatre like a brother but he just strings Trowa along... and I'd gone to ask his help but when I saw what he was like now... " He shrugged, turning his face away. "Quatre's all business, all politics, and he doesn't see anything wrong with domesticating Trowa. And he won't even... "
Duo ducked his head, exhaling softly. Heero waited until the Deathscythe pilot had himself under control, and hesitantly put a hand on Duo's knee. The man flinched under the touch, then gradually relaxed, raising his head to give Heero a sad smile.
"Sorry," Duo murmured. "I... we... decided to take his help after we were settled in a routine here, but still... it was a bad scene."
"Understood," Heero said. A bad scene that everyone remembers differently, the small voice pointed out. He ignored the mental comment. It was too late now to undo how it all started; it wasn't too late to make sure everything was resolved in the end. The fact that all five were still working together, in some manner, was at least a good sign, Heero reminded himself.
"Time yet to check in?" Duo asked.
"Five more minutes," Heero said. "That's the other half of what I wanted to talk to you about. I don't know if I'll need the hackers anymore, but they're willing to help if there's a way to use them."
"I bet there would be. There's a lot I couldn't do from L2, thanks to the ship's T9 being syndicate-operated. And the decrypting and hacking software I'd need means I can't do much from the independent 'net cafés on the colony. What have you had them doing?"
"I'd think you'd know all of it," Heero teased, his expression bland. "Two of the hackers, Rat and Rosie, were parsing the track bot uploads. Pinky and Allie were trying to identify a Zurich bank account. Mike, Snappy, Rat, and Snake were all working on decoding the headers for your mission reports."
"Which they discovered are pictures," Duo added with a quick grin. "But no more than that."
Heero ignored the jibe. "The track bot uploads came from Quatre's account and someone else's, which they couldn't identify but were still trying last I heard. Now that I know Quatre's actively involved, I'd guess the Zurich bank account is also his."
"Probably. You know anyone else who uses top-security banking systems?"
Heero shrugged nonchalantly, but his lips twitched up at the corners. Top-security unless it was up against a group of overeager hackers with a willingness to break and enter, he thought.
"Which means," Duo said after a pause, "that all the assignments you gave them are now obsolete."
"Looks like it." Heero watched Duo fiddle with the braid, and smiled crookedly. "I was thinking of having them start traces on the activity going through the L2 server relays around May of this year."
Duo gaped. "That could be millions of messages."
"Not once they narrowed it down to only messages originating from the ISP used by the President's personal quarters and Council headquarters."
"That's still potentially hundreds of headers for a single eight-hour period." Duo shook his head. "I can't believe the president would be stupid enough to send email from his personal address that says outright, 'go kill this annoying person.' The message wouldn't just be encrypted, it'd be in code." Duo rubbed the bridge of his nose. "You're asking them to find a needle in a haystack... from a mile away."
Heero snorted. "We need something that draws a line between the President, or his staff, and Joe's death. The timing is too coincidental. And if anyone can find that message, the hacker team can."
"I'll believe that when I see it."
The hackers' forum was empty when Heero logged back in, and he willingly relinquished the computer to Duo for several minutes. Duo leaned over the laptop, his fingers flying across the keyboard as he grinned at the screen. When Heero returned from refilling their coffee cups, Duo was cackling softly.
"Look at this," he said as Heero sat next to him. "Now we're both in."
"What did you do?"
"I opened a command window, jumped from our dialing line, patched into the nearest ISP connection, and came at the forum that way. Anyone looking at the connection would think we're as far as several blocks away from each other. Definitely not in the same apartment, at least." Duo squinted at the green words on the black background of the command window, and hit a few keys.
Trust Duo to not do anything by halves, if it could be done by quarters with twice as much effort with no more gain. Heero rolled his eyes at his partner's back.
"Elaborate. Probably pointless. What's your speed?"
"That's pretty slow. You'll be lagged."
Duo chuckled. "Not once I'm finished."
Heero sighed and stared at the screen, a foreboding sense filling his gut. "Duo... what are you doing?"
"Flooding the upload points. The server will divert to handle the torrent exchange as though it's heavy traffic, and the forum will get less attention from the relays. Ta-dah, it all slows down." Duo elbowed him. "What happened to your hacking skills?"
"I traded them in for a darkroom," the photographer retorted, watching the forum. Rat had just entered, and the yellow smiley-face was being greeted. "Give me back the keyboard," Heero ordered. Duo pulled back, and Heero turned the laptop towards himself, leaning forward to jump windows and type a greeting to Rat.
"We were about to send out a search party," Rat replied. His blue avatar wriggled its whiskers, and Heero smiled a little to see the familiar dove's wing replace the generic smiley-face avatar.
"Been busy," Heero told him. "Any chance of getting the rest in here this morning?"
"I can try," Rat typed. "I sent out an alert as soon as I got your message. We'll see who replies. You want to set up a time?"
"One hour from now?"
"Sounds good." Rat waved. "By then, I'll have shot down the jerk in your apartment building that's flooding the forum."
Heero snorted and logged off without response.
Duo squawked as he looked over to see Heero had shut down the command window as well. "That was a nightmare setting that up," he protested. "And you just--"
"These kids are the whole reason I found you," Heero said, cutting the longhaired man off with a glare. "Even if Rat hadn't noticed your tricks, I'm still not going to let you flood their forum for the next hour simply because you can."
"Then you gotta make it up to me." Duo's face took on a smug expression, and he uncrossed his arms, leaning forward.
"I presume you have something in mind."
"Or in body," Duo replied, leaning forward to close the distance between their lips.
It was a half hour later when Heero and Duo surfaced from another long kiss in a series of long kisses. Lying side by side diagonally on the futon, Duo's shirt was askew, pushed halfway up his chest. Heero's shirt was laying where it had been thrown across the laptop keyboard. Both pairs of jeans were intact, but Duo had been persistently, if subtly, trying to work in a specific direction on the buttons of Heero's jeans.
Heero murmured something inaudible and shifted closer to Duo. The fingers snaking into his jeans were now trapped. The dark-haired man grinned momentarily as he suckled at the base of Duo's neck.
"Heero," Duo groaned. "Let me... "
Heero rolled away, sitting up in a smooth motion. Sighing, he scooted back, leaning over Duo to run his fingers across Duo's flushed face. Duo's dark blue eyes were half-closed, and that sweet seductive smile played along the edges of his lips. He looked utterly kissable, and Heero gave into the temptation before pulling away again. Duo whined softly, deep in his throat.
"No," Heero said. "I mean... There's no reason to rush."
"I know that," Duo protested, pouting slightly as he pushed himself up to a sitting position facing Heero. "But if you want to... and I want to... we can try again."
"I do," Heero reassured the other young man. "But I think last night... was too soon, too much, and that's... frightening."
"I'm scared, too," Duo whispered, but he didn't quite meet Heero's eyes. He was staring at the futon instead. His fingers plucked nervously at the hems of his jeans as he pulled his legs to sit cross-legged under him.
"I know. It's just... You matter to me," Heero confessed nervously. "You always have, even when I couldn't or wouldn't let you know." His voice dropped to a whisper. " ...Or even admit it myself. So I want all of... this... to matter, too."
"It does matter." Deathscythe's pilot's head was down, his fingers twisting in the sheets.
Heero moved closer. Shyly he reached out, taking one of Duo's hands in his own and holding it gently. "I know it does. So let's take our time..?" Heero's statement shifted to a question on the last word, coming up in pitch as he tried to peer into Duo's lowered eyes. Finally Duo nodded, once.
The dark-haired man sighed, and kissed Duo tenderly on the cheek. Duo's fingers tightened, but the young man didn't otherwise move to respond. Those deep blue eyes were still hooded, and Heero sighed again, leaning his forehead against Duo's.
I wish you'd just tell me what's in your head, Heero thought. "We have a half-hour. I'll make lunch while we wait," he offered, and after a pause, Duo nodded.
Rat, Snake, Pinky, Snappy and Mike were waiting in the forum when Heero returned at the top of the hour. By the time Rat had completed switching the smiley-face avatar to the dove's wing, Duo had commandeered the laptop and was rapidly setting up the command window.
"Give it back now," Heero warned.
"Almost done," Duo said, opening a second window.
"No, you're completely done. Don't flood the forum, or I'll... " Heero paused, trying to think of a decent threat. He noticed Duo regarding him with raised eyebrows, a look of sudden interest on the young man's face. Heero snorted. "No kisses until your next day off."
Duo's hands were off the keyboard in a heartbeat. The thief threw himself backwards on the bed, his arms spread as he laughed. "Never thought I'd see the day you'd threaten me with that," he cried. "I was expecting a gun!"
"Idiot," Heero replied, and hunched over the keyboard.
"Wing," Rat said. "Rosie and Allie sent word they'll be here as soon as they can."
"Good. What's Mike doing out of school?"
"I'm not out of school." The Hand avatar wiggled its fingers at the dove's wing. "It's my free period. I'm in a storage closet right now."
"I see." Heero stopped for a second, wondering how he'd phrase what he needed to tell the team. Behind him, Duo struggled into a seated position, draping an arm across the Wing Zero pilot as he watched the screen over Heero's shoulder.
"Just tell them straight out," Duo said, understanding intuitively what had Heero's fingers hovering uncertainly over the keyboard.
"I've gotten more information," Heero typed. "And much of what you were doing is now irrelevant. It's nearly certain that both Zurich accounts are Sandrock's. The track bots contained messages set for Sandrock's personal corps. We're not sure how or why they were involved, but they are. The files sent from the Maxwell bank account contain pictures and progress reports between Deathscythe and Sandrock."
"Whew," Pinky said. "How'd you find all this out?"
Duo nudged Heero, who obliged. Leaning past Heero, Duo jumped to the command window and typed in a series of quick lines. A second later, a new avatar appeared in the forum. It was a newly registered member, with a devil's wing as its avatar, and using the name of Deathscythe.
Rat immediately responded. "Fifteen seconds to change your alias."
The line was entered, but clearly incomplete, lacking any comment about the use of Gundam names. The room was quiet, as the rest of the team waited for an explanation from Rat. The blue avatar shook several times before settling down. Duo glanced at Heero, who shrugged.
When Rat continued his line, it was an abrupt departure from the expected comment. "Deathscythe," came the statement. Rat's avatar was pointing at the dove's wing, an implied question.
Heero didn't respond. The command window was still in control of the connection, and Duo grinned wickedly as he leaned forward. "Test me, if you want," he typed.
Mike's avatar was wilting, while the girl avatar's pink braids were standing on end. The snake avatar was flicking his tongue in and out repeatedly. Snappy's avatar hadn't moved. A new avatar entered, a red rose.
"Oh, another Gundam?" Rosie asked, then looked around as no one responded. "What? What's going on?"
"No one wants to test me?" Duo's grin was getting wider, and Heero bit back a sigh. Duo was clearly enjoying the effect he was having on the crowd.
"If that's him, keep him away from me," Mike finally squeaked.
"Nice to meet you in person," Duo replied. "Or in forum. And yeah, it's me."
Suddenly, Mike was kicked from the forum. Heero frowned and leaned forward. The Hand usually only flew out the door from disrespecting elite hackers, and he'd done nothing this time. The surprise coming from Rat's avatar made it clear he'd not been the one doing the kicking. A second later Mike was back in the forum, his fingers folded down except for his middle finger.
"Screw you, man," Mike said, doing his best attempt at bravado.
"Anytime," Duo typed gleefully. "This is the same Mike who lives in Sector 8 of L1, bantamweight wrestler, works part-time at a shoe store... Right?"
"How the hell--" Mike only had the time to get out three words and he was gone again.
Duo's fingers were flying at top speed across the keyboard, and there was a look of intense concentration in the man's eyes. Even out of practice with hacking, Heero could tell Duo was having to work at twice his top speed to compensate for the lag due to the way he'd piggybacked through the system. The Hand reappeared, its fingers drooping slightly as it realized no one else was stepping in.
"Oh," Duo added, a low chuckle rumbling in his chest, "you're welcome for that A in history." He kicked the avatar one more time.
"Duo, enough," Heero ordered, shoving Duo a little. "Give me back the laptop and stop that. Mike's a good kid." The Hand avatar reappeared, but this time didn't say anything.
"Whatever you say, oh-one," Duo taunted as he moved away from the computer. "But I've got a reputation to uphold."
Heero jumped from the command window the main forum window and replied to Duo in the window. "Cease and desist, Deathscythe," he typed.
Naturally, there was no movement from the temporarily inactive avatar. Next to Heero, the longhaired man seemed to be sulking quietly.
"Stop that, or I'll tell them you're pouting," Heero whispered. He turned his attention back to the window and began filling the waiting avatars in on the news. "All current projects are now irrelevant, but 02 and I have a use for your skills, if you're willing and able. It's much higher risk, and we can't give you the big picture, for several reasons. One, we don't know it all, and two, ignorance could save your lives at some point."
"It could also kill us," Snake pointed out. "We're not stupid. We know you don't exactly work on peanut-level stuff."
"The drawbacks of knowing outweigh the benefits," Heero replied. "All information from now on is strictly need-to-know."
"You've been open with us before now," Pinky said. "We've done everything we could to help, and never asked for much in return."
"I know. You're a great team," Heero said. "It's been nothing but a pleasure working with you. But you're not trained soldiers, and I won't forget that. If I tell you the repercussions of the mission, knowing that extent could easily unnerve you to the point of losing the distance you need to hack efficiently."
There was a long silence as the hackers digested Heero's response. Duo nudged him in the ribs and Heero pulled away from the laptop. Duo leaned forward, typing rapidly in the command window for several minutes. On the forum screen, his words showed up and the rest of the hackers watched carefully. Heero wondered idly if Mike was contemplating changing his name, moving, getting a new job, and contacting the school to correct his grades, all at the same time.
"Wing's right," Duo had typed. "Normally I'd be all for telling you everything, but you're civilians. If you're with us, then perform the tasks we assign and tell us of anything unusual you find. But don't, under any circumstances, go looking for trouble. Leave that to us."
"You're the professionals," Rat said, and the whiskers on his avatar wiggled. "Can you give us an idea of the scope before we decide?"
Duo handed the keyboard back to Heero, who took a deep breath before explaining the email header search he wanted the team to perform. The forum froze for several minutes, and Duo glanced at Heero, a puzzled look on his face. Heero noticed the glance and shrugged.
"They're debating," he explained. "They decide these things as a team. Rat's their unofficial leader."
"So they're your illegal subcontractors," Duo joked. "You think they'll do it?"
"I hope so," the dark-haired man said, frowning as he studied the frozen forum window. "It'd be an nightmare for the two of us to go through a week or two worth of headers."
The forum window flickered, indicating movement, and Heero looked down to see Rat's affirmative reply.
"It sounds like a hell job," the team leader was saying. "But we'll do it. We'd like to break it up into equal parts for each of us. Pinky, Snappy and I will start with breaking into the servers to download the headers for the first two weeks of May."
"Good," Heero said, breathing a sigh of relief.
Duo tapped the back of Heero's right hand, and Heero moved out of the way so Duo could join in the conversation.
"Also make a point to look for email headers going to europa-dot-moonscape," the Deathscythe pilot told the forum. "That's the T9 run by a company that's one of the suspects. If you find something and it's also come through that server, consider it doubly suspicious. Moonscape is used as one of the money-laundering covers for the L2 syndicate, so be especially careful when moving around their systems." Duo handed the keyboard back to Heero.
"Warning taken," Snappy replied.
"I'll check back in a week," Heero said. "Thanks again, everyone. Wing out." He sighed, and wondered momentarily whether this was a good idea. Then he cut the connection.