Part Two: The Squats And Lowrise
There's a house in an alley
In the squats and low rise
Of a town with no future
But that's where my future lies
--- Richard Thompson
"We hadn't planned on saying anything, if we could help it," Quatre began. He'd poured thick Turkish coffee for himself and made a pot of green tea for Wufei and Heero. The tone in Quatre's otherwise melodious tenor made the photographer wonder if ten in the morning was too soon to ask for whiskey.
"Being Relena, Quatre, and myself," Wufei added helpfully. "We asked Relena to join us, but she sends her regrets. She had a prior appointment. Between us, I think she also considers this Gundam business."
"She tried to stay out of it when it began," Quatre added. "I think she sometimes still hopes there's a way to fix things."
"Fix?" Heero frowned.
"Please understand, this is old news to us. We thought if we started to explain, naturally you'd have questions. We weren't sure you needed to be involved."
"Understood." Heero let his glance slide to Wufei, who was sipping his tea, his eyes focused on some unseen point.
"Trowa and I... stopped being friends almost a half-year ago." Quatre's face was tense. A muscle flickered in his jaw. "Trowa entered school a year behind us, preferring to take time after the war to travel with the circus. When Cathy took over the management, she ordered him off to school. He was in his fourth year of veterinary medicine when we... had a falling-out."
"Say what it is," Wufei interrupted. "It all crashed and burned, thanks to Duo."
Quatre winced. "It wasn't Duo's fault," he replied, softly. He spoke as though this were an old argument between the two friends. "It was just bad timing."
Heero glanced back and forth between the two men, and waited.
"Trowa was feeling trapped. He's used to traveling, being without a home. He needed to get out. He wanted... " Quatre trailed off, and Wufei picked up the explanation.
"The bastard wanted a home to come back to, but didn't want to put forth the effort to make it a home. He just wanted to head off, do his own thing, and expected Quatre to be waiting when he got back." Wufei set his cup down on the side table. It rattled unevenly. Quatre's face was pinched, and he took several seconds to steady his breathing.
"That's not all, and you know it," he reprimanded Wufei. The Chinese scholar frowned and crossed his arms, refusing to meet the blond's eyes. Quatre sighed and continued. "Duo had just finished school. He was studying... mechanical engineering, I think. Or perhaps it was civil engineering. I can't recall."
Heero murmured something inaudible when Quatre didn't speak again. A prompting sound, and the blond nodded.
"I'm sorry," Quatre said. "We've worked hard to put this behind us. Anyway, something had happened to Hilde, and Duo came asking Trowa's help. Apparently they had been in correspondence, and Trowa had mentioned he wanted to take a break from school and get back to space." Noticing Heero's puzzled expression, Quatre shook his head. "I don't know the situation with Hilde. Last I heard, she was safe and healthy, but that was six months ago."
"The long and the short of it is that Trowa packed up, made a few choice comments, and left with Duo," Wufei said. "We haven't seen nor heard from either of them since." The scholar was still staring off into space, and he spoke in a flat voice. Exhaustion was written all over his delicate features.
"There's more." Heero glanced back at Quatre, his statement a flat certainty. He was answered with a wan smile.
"There always is," Quatre told him softly. "Almost a month after Trowa left, I did some work with a peace-building operation between the colonies and one of the Sweeper groups. The colonies were in conflict with the Sweepers over the alleged sabotage of several shuttles, which the Sweepers were then claiming for salvage."
"The alleged saboteurs are ex-Sweepers." Wufei picked up the thread when Quatre fell silent. "That group disappeared off the radar screen, but not before a report was made about a long-haired man breaking and entering the shuttle work bay the night before the flight."
It took a second to sink in. If the two pilots specified that detail, it could only be to narrow it down to a single person. The security on most shuttle work bays was normally high, but Duo could slip in and out of Fort Knox and no one would be the wiser. Heero blinked, trying to comprehend the implications. Sabotaging a shuttle just wasn't something he would normally list as a likely crime for Duo.
"We say a video shot," Quatre said, and shrugged, a casual movement. "You might not recognize him now - he's grown as well, and his braid's shorter by half, but it was definitely Duo. It wasn't clear whether he did anything to cause the sabotage, however. It's only certain that he was there, the night before, and the next day the only outgoing shuttle blew up en route."
"What was on the shuttle?" Heero asked.
"Shipments," Wufei replied. "I'm not sure of what. Canned goods, I think."
"Something like that," Quatre agreed. "Regardless, the colony disputed the Sweeper's claim to the salvage, seeing as the shuttle exploded outside colony airspace. There were demonstrations, and I asked for the photographic records. I wanted to see if Duo... showed up in the crowd. Just on the off-chance he stuck around to gloat... " The blond Arabian looked distinctly uncomfortable at stating the accusation out loud, but his discomfort grew as his voice dropped to a pained whisper. "Instead... I saw Trowa."
"Trowa?" Heero gripped his cup tighter.
"In the crowd," Wufei said. "There were two other people near him that he appeared to be talking to, but the video was too fuzzy. One of them was wearing a cap of some sort. The other was hidden behind him."
"That was four months ago, when I saw the video records." Quatre sighed and poured more tea for Heero and Wufei. "So now you know. Trowa and Duo left together, are now gone, and may be involved with a group that's illegally boosting Sweeper operations."
"Isn't this a task for Preventers?" Heero wrinkled his brow at the tealeaves swirling in the bottom of his cup.
Heero looked up to see Quatre shaking his head, his blue eyes darkening into the color of steel on a cold morning. The Arabian had clearly made up his mind as to the strategy. One glance at Wufei told Heero that the Chinese man had willingly acquiesced to Quatre's decision.
"Need I remind you, these are two former Gundam pilots," Quatre said. "They have the skills and the contacts to remain two steps ahead of any Preventers. If any of the five of us chose to disappear, Heero, you know as well as we do that we would not be found unless we wanted to be."
"Understood." Heero knew it all too well. He also knew that reluctance on the part of potential searchers was also a significant part of successfully staying hidden for a long period.
"Plus, if word got out that one Gundam pilot – let alone two – had gone renegade... " Wufei sighed, and shrugged. "It wouldn't look good for those of us working to keep the peace. Even if no one knows who the rest of us are."
"Which is why we've kept this information away from the Preventers, and done our best to be first informed of Trowa's and Duo's possible whereabouts. If something happens, we'd rather know of it first... but nothing's happened, and we're learning to live without the knowledge." Quatre set his cup on the table and leaned back, folding his hands gracefully in his lap.
Heero studied the other man, noting the stern line of Quatre's jaw, the pale skin, the blue eyes now lidded and heavy. The photographer measured the changes in his friend, and judged him still as beautiful as it was when they were young. As beautiful, and likely as lethal, for all his diplomatic prowess, Heero thought, perhaps even more so.
"Thank you for telling me," Heero finally said, setting his own cup down. "But I think I should go. I was up most of the night and now I'm dead on my feet."
"You can stay... " Quatre stopped at Heero's expression.
"No," Heero replied. "I've grown accustomed to my space, but thank you."
For the second time in twenty-four hours, Heero found himself hailing a cab in front of Quatre's sister's house. As the taxi barreled down the narrow Parisian streets, Heero found himself puzzling over Quatre's and Wufei's words, chewing at them, annoyed. The early afternoon light was harsh in his eyes as the cab pulled up in front of his hotel, and Heero staggered out with barely a nod to the doorman.
Duo was many contradictory things, Heero knew. But Duo wasn't the kind of person to break up a relationship by encouraging division. Hell, Heero thought, reminding himself of all the times Duo had pushed him to return Relena's friendship. Duo was the kind of person who looked for and worked on connections. He wouldn't show up and knowingly encourage Trowa to leave a friendship behind.
Heero stood in the lobby, waiting for the elevator, and shook his head at his thoughts. It's been five years, he reminded himself; people change, and not always for the better.
If any of the five of us chose to disappear, Heero, you know as well as we do that we would not be found unless we wanted to be.
Heero leaned back from the laptop and scowled. A month had passed, and he'd found nothing. Weary, he ran a hand through his hair and slowly got up from the desk. Fewer pictures hung on the lines, and he could nearly walk the length of the studio without ducking.
It still bothered him: Duo, sabotaging a shuttle for what seemed to be the sole purpose of letting Sweepers claim more loot. The boy who'd fought for peace, going back to thievery – or worse – with so little honor? Heero just couldn't see it happening. He refused to.
The photographer wandered to the large windows at one end of the studio, past the shoji screens flanking his bed, and stared down at the streets of L1. The false lighting was fading into the strange twilight that passed for night in the colonies, but it didn't comfort him. Uneasy, Heero placed a hand to the window, then looked up, instinctively searching for the moon before he remembered: no sky, no stars, no moon. He sighed and turned back to face the studio.
I failed him, he thought. I tried so hard to keep him safe... Heero laughed under his breath, a bitter sound. Stealing parts from the other boy's Gundam, when Howard had already offered me all their spare parts, and all to keep Duo from joining me in the fight. I was the soldier. He was a civilian, a street kid, fallen into my world and no idea of just how far over his head he'd gone. He was one more colonist to protect. Even as Heero thought it, he wondered if that were really true. Did Duo need – had he ever – needed Heero? Or was it Heero who needed someone to protect?
The problem was he'd protected people by pushing them away. And I'm still keeping my distance, he admitted.
He turned, studying the rows of pictures drying on the clothesline. The photography class was originally part of a contract between himself and his therapist. It began as an assignment to create something; to find a way to heal. Atonement. From there it grew, and then he'd met Bernie, and now... now he had one collection out, and a second one in the works, and he'd spent the past month aching.
It was that picture of Trowa, he'd decided at some point. He'd woken in the middle of the night after he returned to L1, staring at the pictures flapping softly on the drying line; so many images, endless faces, frozen in time. None of them had that blessed movement, that gentle quality Quatre had captured in Trowa's startled privacy, or in Quatre's snapshot of Heero's own impulsive affection towards Duo.
Heero's legs slowly gave out and he slid down the wall to rest his forehead on his knees, an old gesture from when therapy got too hard and the emotions came too strong. He'd always had emotions. He'd always followed them. It was just the display that was difficult. Even with only one other person in the room, there were times he shut down, terrified. When he'd started group therapy his junior year, with other war veterans, it was almost too much, too many times.
Each time, the camera had saved him. It let him record, observe, set boundaries. The subject couldn't approach too close, or the picture would be out of focus. It was safety. It was something protecting him, as the Gundams had.
The dark-haired man pushed himself away from the wall, a decision made. Bernie had been complaining, quietly, that Heero's pictures had dropped in quality. He'd even suggested that Heero was distracted. While the photographer hadn't admitted as much, he was at least honest enough with himself to admit Bernie had a point.
It wasn't Duo's and Trowa's disappearance, though. It was the bigger question of whether it was time he step out from behind the camera and get back in the frame. That would mean dealing with other people, reaching out, if he wanted to track down his wayward comrades and determine for himself whether there was anything worth saving there.
Heero settled himself in front of his laptop, hitting the keys hard as he began to search. This time he was searching for something a little different than the straightforward 'net searches he'd been using. This time, he was searching for someone who could help.
The kids' avatars amused him. It had taken Heero several minutes of contemplation before he decided not to use the jpeg of his camera. Instead, he dug through online image galleries until he found a picture of a dove's wing. Satisfied, he loaded it up, signed on, and sat back to observe the underground news 'nets.
He had just begun to grasp some of the faster-moving slang when one of the avatars messaged him publicly. It seemed to be some kind of blue rat, holding a white disk. Heero wondered idly about the image's meaning but was too surprised by the avatar's comment to file the thought away.
"You can't use that nick," the rat ordered. "You're new? You'll need to go to Settings and re-register. Your current nick will be deleted."
"Why?" Heero dutifully typed, more curious than insulted. "What's wrong with Wing?"
"Shit, you asswipe," a hand-shaped avatar barked. "That's a Gundam. Those are off-limits. Didn't you even bother to read the FAQ?"
"Shut up, Mike," the rat snapped. There was a flurry of movement on the screen and suddenly Mike the Hand was tossed out of the box. As fast as Heero registered the movement, the Hand avatar was back in the line. Four of its fingers were folded down, leaving one up in a universal symbol.
"Why no Gundam names?" Heero was definitely curious now.
"No disrespecting elite hackers," the rat replied, and tossed the Hand out of the lineup a second time. When the Hand returned, it was back to its original image, the palm displayed, all fingers spread.
"Well, not all were really hackers," another avatar interjected. This one was a little girl's face, with pink hair in pigtails. Heero chuckled, wondering if Relena would have once chosen an avatar like that. The pink girl avatar continued, "Sandrock and Shenlong weren't all over the place as much as Deathscythe or Wing. And there's only ten or fifteen records of Heavyarms hacking. And only Deathscythe and Wing hacked Crays."
"Maybe the other three just covered their tracks better," Heero responded. He knew it wasn't true, but he was curious now. A generation, worshipping the Gundams, he mused, because of their hacking skills. He never would have guessed, but this might be useful. The only problem was the forum's ironclad ability to cloak identity, combined with his own consistent paranoia on keeping his anonymity. Even if they could break into his current identity, there was little to connect Hito Yuy, photographer, with Heero Yuy, terrorist.
"No way, man," Mike the Hand said. "We've got records on all of it. We've scrounged it all, and the other three pilots just barely together hacked enough to equal Deathscythe on a good day, let alone Wing."
"But they were still elite," a fourth avatar added. "Way over your grade, Hand."
"You've got fifteen seconds to ditch the nick," the rat announced. He was clearly a moderator. The rat's whiskers were animated to twitch, probably to indicate growing irritation.
"What if I'm really Wing?"
There was a long silence in the room, then Rat started laughing, followed quickly by the rest of them. After a minute, the laughing avatars settled back into their original stillness and the typing resumed.
"Prove it," Pink Girl ordered.
"How? What are the rules?"
"Tell us how Wing got into the lunar base." Pink Girl's avatar winked once at Heero's dove-wing avatar. "And we've seen the public records. We also snagged the only existing copies of the surveillance cameras."
Heero took a second to think, then grinned as he typed. "I snuck into the loading docks that connected the main tourist area to the military base. Dug open the first case I found. Lettuce. Let it float in low-grav, and waited for someone to see it and come investigate. When he did, I hit him behind the shoulder blades and took his uniform."
"Discuss," the rat barked, and Heero suddenly found himself facing a blank screen. The avatars were present, but the scrolling lines had come to a complete halt. A second later the rat's words appeared.
"Give us the unlock codes on Wing Zero."
Heero hesitated for a second, taking a deep breath to remind himself that the codes would do no damage at this point. They were only a piece of history now, so he carefully typed the string into the window. Another moment of silence while he waited.
"Last question," the Hand announced as the screen began scrolling again. "When you left for space the first time, why'd you take the Deathscythe pilot's name as your alias?"
"He was my only friend," Heero admitted, hoping that would suffice. Because he was the first friend I had, he thought. Because I wanted to remember him. Because some part of me had this crazy notion that by invoking his name I could let him participate in the safest way – at a distance. He was there, but in spirit only. Heero snorted at the nostalgia. See just how well all of that worked.
"Good enough for me," Pink Girl replied, her avatar laughing. "We've always been curious."
"We're still digging for the Wing unlock codes," Rat told him. "Snappy's got a contact. Just waiting for a response."
"Can you find more than just historical info?" This was getting closer to what Heero wanted to know. Absently he wondered what contact would know the codes from Wing. The doctors, of course, and Quatre, who actually built it. Possibly Milliardo, maybe some of the OZ folks, assuming they were still sane after the experience. Unlikely.
"You name it, asswipe, we can do it," the Hand said.
"Shut up, Mike," a blue snake avatar interrupted. "If he's really Wing, that puts you below snails in this food chain."
"Snappy's not back with the word," Mike the Hand said. "Until then, Mister Newbie is asswipe."
"This forum secure?" Heero ignored the side conversation and focused on Rat. He'd checked the neighborhood as thoroughly as possible, but it had also been three or four years since he had really sat down to practice the skills. New codes and programs had developed since then, and he was reluctantly beginning to recognize a sense of inadequacy. He squashed it.
"Ten times over," Hand spoke before the Rat, who twitched his avatar whiskers.
"I need to find two of the other pilots."
Again there was a long pause as the seven avatars present registered the statement. There wasn't a flurry of responses, as Heero had expected. Instead, it seemed as though the group naturally waited for the Rat to speak first. Heero was impressed, sensing this was most likely a group that had worked in tandem on several projects. And projects, like missions, are only successful when there's a clear strategist.
"Snappy just sent confirmation," Rat said. "If you're not Wing, you're a damn good facsimile. Which pilots you trying to find?"
"Heavyarms and Deathscythe."
The screen went blank while the group discussed, and Heero waited, tapping his fingers on the tabletop. After a much shorter space the scroll returned, and Rat's avatar shook as though laughing.
"Mission accepted, Wing!"
Heero's life settled into a strange new routine. In the mornings, when the forum was silent, he developed the latest prints or met with Bernie about upcoming gallery exhibits. Sometimes he even bothered to read and answer some of the mail about his photography, which surprised Bernie to no end. Heero privately considered it practice for his reintroduction to the human race.
In the afternoons, he was waiting in the forum as the seven regulars piled in. Sometimes there were additional avatars, but they usually remained quiet, using the side forums for their own discussions. He'd suggested a side forum for his own group, but each time it was voted down. There was too much street cred to be gained from hosting a pilot, and the hackers weren't about to lose that.
Over the week after they started the mission, a simple pattern had developed. In the main forum, Heero presented places he'd already tried, as well as methods he'd used during the war to track down and locate people. His methods were often obsolete due to heightened post-war security and changing programming formats, but the hackers enjoyed the stories regardless. None of his public stories were classified, he knew, and were probably available on the 'net through other sources without needing hacking skills. Most newspapers would have the details he provided in the public forum.
When one of the avatars took on a challenge, Heero would get messaged. In return for a completing a task, Heero would answer a question. Several times it was about the programming adaptations he'd done to Trowa's Heavyarms or to Wing Zero; another often-asked question was about his relationship to Relena.
That surprised him, and left him a little uneasy. How was he supposed to speak about someone who was still a public figure? Would his admissions of being in love, at one point, in any way damage her now? She hadn't looked at him with anything but simple fondness, that night he'd met her again. He settled for being coy, saying only that they had been close. Fortunately the few avatars asking quickly got the message and returned to asking about the other pilots, the programming, mission details so small he'd nearly forgotten until they'd pointed out discrepancies in the official logs.
He was starting to feel old. The thought made him laugh.
"Got something," Pinky announced two days later. "There's been activity on a long-dormant account under the name of Maxwell Church."
"Where was the contact?" Heero sat forward, his heart suddenly lurching. A week of digging, and the team had only tracked down Trowa's and Duo's movements up to seven months before.
"L1, in the fourth sector." Pinky's avatar winked, and did a little dance before settling down. "I even have pictures from the bank video. Transferring now."
Heero waited impatiently while the DCC connected. When he opened the file, it was a grainy bank video, but that was definitely Duo. He was turned to the side, laughing at something. The camera had recorded every ten seconds, and Duo was out of frame for two of the shots. Heero ground his teeth. It wasn't a lot, but it was something, and only three weeks old.
"Sorry it's out of date already," Pinky added in the message window. "It's taken me three days to get through the archaic system."
"Happens," Heero replied. It wasn't much, but it was something. Duo had been on L2 within the month. He graciously provided an explanation about the system used by the Saint Gabriel institute's connection to the OZ databanks. Halfway through the programming example his eye was distracted by a flurry of typing in the main forum. An unfamiliar avatar was screaming at Rat.
"DAMMIT," the little yellow smiley-face was typing. "Someone check my IP and give me access! NOW! I have NEWS!"
Rat's avatar shook, as though laughing, and it was a second or two before the moderator answered. "The IP is registered as backup. Hand, shut up already. Why're you on your friend's box?"
"Mine's fried, assfart," Hand answered, settling down as his avatar shifted into his normal open-hand picture. "I found Deathscythe."
"When?" Heero skipped the message window, and went directly to the main window. Conversation came to a halt. Hand was the undisputed center of attention.
"Thirty minutes ago. Would've been here sooner but I had to run to my friend's place to use his box." Mike the Hand's avatar did a little dance, then gave Heero the finger.
"Details, Mike," Rat ordered.
"I put a trace program on the card used in Pinky's bank find, and ran the access numbers against the L2 banking system. There's another three cards with the same code series, which means they're the same because the bank uses consistent algorithms in its passwords." The Hand's typing was positively breathless. "So I traced those three cards. Two showed up immediately, and were knocked off the list as regular people living on L2. But the third didn't have activity until I checked this afternoon, so I was tracking it down." Hand paused, probably to wring his fingers to get feeling back.
"And?" Snake was irritated with the pause. "Well?"
"It's registered to Max Wellson, and I pinged the system so I could follow the thread to his specific location. Problem was, he was online."
There was a pause as that sunk in.
"Oh, shit," Pinky started.
"What?" Heero asked. It didn't sound good, but he wasn't certain what kind of retaliation could be used with the newer systems. He hadn't investigated offensive programming yet.
"Fucking A," Rat added. "Hand, why didn't you call one of us? You're not up to that. What happened?"
"He's fast, man," Hand said. The fingers on his avatar were drooping now. "And mean. He came after me in sixteen different ways. The guy's a hacking god, I tell you. It was just, shit, fuck, and then smoke coming out of my box. I don't know what he did."
"You had a DCC open?" Snake asked.
"Fuck, man, that was stupid." Pinky's avatar shook its head and its pink pigtails bounced.
"I took a calculated risk," Hand protested. "I wanted to get in and out fast. But I got the location. Colony L2, Sector 3, Area 17, Block 4, Building 25, Floor 7, Apartment 738."
"H-O-L-Y-F-U-C-K," Rat typed. Admiration was evident in the stillness of the avatars as they digested Hand's exploit.
"Give me a drop-point," Heero suddenly ordered. "I'll send you a new motherboard."
"Will do," Hand sighed, his avatar popping back up. "And I gotta question about the cloaking mechanism on Deathscythe."
"Later," Heero said. "I want to get on this information, now. I'll check back in with you all, and send the board, but I've got packing to do. I'm heading to L2."