Part Forty-Two: Neither Was It Great
It never used to be that bad, but neither was it great
Somewhere in the middle then, content and much too safe
Oh, tell me please, why it takes so long
To realize when there's something wrong
--- Neil Finn
"Jeet, go boil water."
Heero grunted, opening his eyes as his sight resolved into the underside of a ship's bunk bed. He was still on Trowa's bed, and there was an IV in his right arm. The bag was red. Heero shifted his left arm experimentally. Pain exploded in his body.
"Don't move," the voice said, then Trowa was leaning over him.
"Boil water?" Heero's voice croaked from the effort. "I'm not pregnant."
"It gives him something to do," Trowa said, and smiled tightly. "I've got enough distilled water, I think."
"How'd that happen?" His sight blurred, and Heero blinked a few times, and closed his eyes. Scissors snipped nearby, and he realized Trowa was already cutting his shirt away.
"Hel and Enny cleared out the ambulance ahead of time." Trowa smiled, then swore under his breath. "Here."
Heero felt the nudge at his lips, and opened his mouth, accepting the folded up rag without protest. After a second, he nodded his readiness. His body stiffened in pain as Trowa prodded at the wound, and he grunted with the effort of holding still.
"The bullet's lodged against the underside of the shoulder bone," Trowa reported calmly. "It missed the sub-clavicle artery. Your clavicle's not broken, but it's visibly fractured."
The bunkroom door slid open, and Hilde appeared over Trowa's shoulder. "He's eating it," she said. "You were right." Heero grunted at another touch from Trowa, and raised his eyebrows at the petite brunette, who grinned smugly. "I pounded drugs into the food. Day thinks the bitterness is just my normal cooking."
"Hel, I'm going to need you to hold his arm."
The taller man got up for a second, letting Hilde get in position. Heero turned his head just enough to see Trowa returning with several blankets. One he spread across Heero, and the other he laid on the floor for Hilde to kneel on. The bed creaked as Trowa sat down, handing Hilde a flashlight. The overhead lights were on, but Hilde and Trowa would be in the way.
"Hold that, too." There was a pause, and Trowa's hand landed softly on Heero's chest. "Here we go again," he whispered, and Heero nodded, closing his eyes.
There was an intense sensation of blinding pain, and Heero tensed. Then he let go, willing himself back into unconsciousness.
"All done," Trowa announced, an eyebrow raised as Heero opened his mouth to let the man remove the saturated cloth. "Bullet out, one team leader done in."
"Oh?" Heero's throat was dry, and he willingly accepted Trowa's help drinking a glass of water.
"You went under, and she thought we'd lost you." His tone was dry, but amused. "Sit up. I need to bind your arm to your chest."
"Don't argue with me." Trowa shook his head, and the Heero gave him a crooked smile, groaning as he sat up. His left shoulder was numb, but the left side of his chest and his left arm were throbbing, a dull ache. Trowa removed the IV and wrapped the shoulder and arm, over the existing bandage. A minute later he was done, Heero's arm bound tightly to his chest. Trowa pulled a sweatshirt over Heero's head, and helped him get his right arm through.
"Status," Heero said, once he was still and could concentrate on pushing the pain away from his awareness. He blinked, shook his head, winced as the muscles pulled in his shoulder, and swore under his breath. Five years since the last time he'd been shot, he thought, and gritted his teeth as he stood up.
"The bullet went through Enny's side. Nicked the underside of her lowest rib. Seems to have missed the larger intestine, but if she goes septic, then we'll know it got hit." Trowa was wiping his hands with a damp cloth, and leant over. When he stood up, Heero was startled to see a large pile of bloody swabs in his hands. "Told Jeet to go play pilot."
Heero's eyebrow twitched in the barest sign of amusement. "Day?"
"Heavy blood loss. Ripped through the muscle. Nicked the hipbone. Gash is pretty wide. I'll need your help sewing him up."
"What about Hel?"
"Shock finally hit her." Trowa's face was impassive. "She's with Enny now."
"What about you?"
Trowa didn't answer as he left the bunkroom. Heero dragged himself to his feet, took a second to center himself, and followed the taller man into the other bunkroom to assist in surgery.
Heero could assist with only one hand, but Jeet was needed to stabilize Duo on his side. The longhaired pilot was groggy from the painkiller, conscious enough to speak, but not in control enough of his muscles to hold himself in place. Jeet's face was pale as he clung to the edge of the bed, listening carefully as Trowa explained what they needed.
Duo's chest and legs were covered in blankets, to help with the shock. He shivered involuntarily as Trowa removed the lower blankets before cutting off his jeans.
"Great," the Deathscythe pilot mumbled, his face against the pillow. "Now everyone in this room has seen my dick."
"Day," Heero replied sternly. "Shut up."
"Are we going to be eighty, in some nursing home... " Duo's words were cut off. Jeet looked puzzled as Duo continued speaking softly. "And you'll still be telling me to shut up?"
"If you spend the next sixty years talking this much, yes."
Then Trowa pried back the edges of the wound, and it was enough that even in Duo's drugged state that he could feel the pain. He hissed, drawing breath in through his teeth. His fingers clenched on Jeet's arm. Trowa began digging through the muscle for the bone shards. Heero swabbed the blood, and eventually the only sounds were Jeet's panting as he tried to keep the light steady without watching.
"Stupid drugs don't work," Duo finally said, as Trowa began cleaning the wound of cloth and dirt. "Damn doctors... "
Heero raised an eyebrow and reached for another stack of surgical padding, using his teeth to rip open the package. Beside him, Trowa continued to work silently and efficiently, despite the blood coating his fingers and the medical tools.
"I can't believe this," Jeet whispered. His pupils were dilated so far his brown eyes appeared jet-black. "Who are you people?"
"Soldiers," Duo replied softly.
"Yeah, but... "
Trowa reached up without a word and steadied the flashlight in Jeet's hand. The young man blinked, startled, then seemed to refocus.
"How do you know how to do this?" His question was directed at Trowa, who shrugged almost imperceptibly. The taller man didn't even pause as he washed the wound on Duo's hip. Jeet's voice quavered. "Soldiers don't learn this stuff."
"I was a mercenary," Trowa said calmly. "You learn to do this young."
"You killed people for money," Jeet translated.
"What do you think we did today?"
"I... " The flashlight shook, and Trowa paused, waiting. Jeet fought to keep calm. "I... thought we were just getting those computers. I didn't know... "
"You didn't need to know," Heero told him.
"But killing... for money," the young man retorted, his wide eyes taking in the entire scene.
"Everyone has a price, kid," Trowa said. "Now, hold that light steady." His voice brooked no argument.
The room was silent after that.
Trowa sat back on his heels with a sigh, and rubbed at his forehead with the back of his hand. Duo's eyes opened slowly, and he shifted a little, then was still. Trowa's hands were deft as he began the quick work of bandaging the stitched area, ignoring Duo's muffled giggles as the taller man ran the wrap around Duo's upper thigh. Heero and Jeet helped Duo sit up, and Trowa wrapped the bandages a few times across Duo's hips.
"Get me some sweatpants," Duo instructed Jeet. Once the pants were on, along with a warmer sweatshirt, Trowa gave Duo a hand up. The thief swayed for a second, an annoyed look on his face. "Stupid drugs. Wasn't necessary."
"It wasn't for you," Heero replied smartly. "It was to save our ears."
"Bastard." Duo's voice held no malice, though, and he shoved his feet into his boots, letting the laces drag.
The bunkroom door slid open, and Hilde leaned into the room. Her face was drawn, the lines of exhaustion etched clearly on her features.
"Hey, bro," she said casually. Her gaze darted to each man before she spoke. "We just got a channel. I think you should come see."
Trowa gathered the bloody bandages, and followed Heero and Duo down the hall. Jeet was assisting Duo, and the longhaired man walked with a slight limp. Enny waved as the rest of the team entered. The pimp struggled to sit up, making room. Heero settled himself on the long bench, and Enny promptly laid her knees across his lap and covered them both with her blanket. Hilde settled down behind Enny, and let the other woman rest her head on Hilde's lap. Trowa sat in the chair by the door. Duo started to sit in his usual spot, wincing as he bent his hip. He gave up and leaned against the wall, motioning Jeet to take the seat.
The control room's large screen was flickering as it strove to pick up the interstellar signals from an L4 news station. The lights were down, and the only illumination was from the screen and a single lamp over the computer desk.
The commercial ended, the station identification rolled past, and the news anchor appeared. The gentleman's hair was perfect, his suit tailored, and his face was grave as he introduced the segment concerning the afternoon's tragedy. The station then cut to a young woman on the scene, fire trucks and police cars in the background.
"This afternoon, one of L4's largest convention centers, in Sector Four, was the scene of a horrible tragedy. During the second day of a business convention for L4 economic development, gunshots rang out during dinner. Six shots were fired from a weapon police have identified as an AR-15, a type of semi-automatic rifle."
The woman paused, and the camera panned across the building as she continued speaking. The scene showed the top-half of the left wing was mostly destroyed, with a number of windows on lower floors blown out, fire damage around their edges. "Bombs were also set off on the top floors, including the arboretum, and in several locations on the seventh and eighth floors. Five people are now dead, and four more in critical condition from gunshot wounds. Another fifty people were injured. Most were minor injuries, although fourteen people suffered smoke inhalation while being evacuated from the top floors."
"What about the explosions on the top floors?" The camera cut back to the young woman, who had a hand to her ear, trying to hear over the sirens behind her, as the anchorman's voice continued. "Any word on that?"
"Yes, some," the young woman replied.
There was a hiss in the meeting room, and Heero glanced over to see Jeet gripping the chair's edge tightly. The young man was panting softly, open-mouthed.
"A number of explosions went off at the same time," the woman was explaining. "The fire marshal's early determination is that these were bombs placed in and around the top levels, including the convention center's arboretum. Preliminary estimations of damage may top several million dollars in property damage."
"We have Tom at Meridian General Hospital," the anchorman broke into say. "The hospital has just released several more victims' names, and he's standing by with that information. Tom?"
"Yes, Rick," an older man answered, and the camera showed an elderly Asian man in front of the Meridian General Hospital. "Only a few minutes ago, another name was released. John Torres died of a gunshot wound to the chest. He was employed as a bodyguard by Vincent Borja. As viewers may already be aware, two of the sniper victims have been identified as Ellen Scott and Shuiichi Miyamura. Both died at the scene." The reporter's face was lean and drawn, his voice a rasp. "The third victim's name has not been released, nor has the name of the Preventer. We're also receiving indication that two additional victims were not shot, but had their necks snapped."
Hilde looked confused, and glanced at Duo. The Deathscythe pilot gave her a nonchalant grin that didn't reach his eyes.
"You said six shots were fired?" The camera jumped to show the anchorman looking intent.
"Yes. Two of the shooting victims are in critical condition, and a third is currently in surgery," the older reporter replied. "Four Preventer agents acting as security for the event were also shot, possibly by the sniper or his associates. Their statuses have not been formally confirmed but we have preliminary word that one died, and one is in stable condition."
Heero, curious, stole a glance at the Heavyarms pilot. Trowa's face was emotionless.
"This is a horrible catastrophe," the anchorman interrupted to lament.
Heero raised an eyebrow at the melodrama. Duo rolled his eyes.
"Any good news," the anchorman prompted. His stern face relaxed into a caricature of hopefulness.
"It's too early to tell, but an investigator on the scene has reported that the Preventers normally wear a type of body armor under their uniforms. This appears to be what saved the life of one of the Preventers, a... " The man glanced a notepad in his hand. "Sally Po."
Hilde froze. Enny looked up at her, startled. Heero caught the movement from the corner of his eye. Hilde's eyes were wide and panicked. Heero could see her hand, white-knuckled, gripping Enny's arm.
"You said four Preventers were shot," the anchorman replied. "Were all of them wearing this armor?"
"Ah, yes and no," the reporter said, and his face creased as worry broke through his professional guise. "The armor only protects the chest area. The agent who died on the scene was hit in the thigh and died of blood loss." The reporter broke off for a second, swallowed hard, and continued. "Off the record, the word is that one of the Preventers was not actually on duty, and was not wearing the armor. He took a shot to his midsection. His status has not been released. The other Preventer is in critical condition, but stable, at an undisclosed location."
Quatre, Heero thought, and glanced over at Trowa. The man's detached expression was unchanged, but his eyes were glittering. The short hairs on the back of Heero's neck were standing on end. He studied Trowa intently for several seconds, distantly listening to the news report.
"Later this evening, we'll have a short segment on the body armor worn by Preventers, and how it works," the anchorman was telling the audience with a smile. Then he turned back to the side, speaking to the first reporter through his earpiece. "Joan, you've spoken with the L4 Preventer Chief. Any word on whether it's true that one of those Preventers was actually Quatre Winner, brother-in-law to Martin Marlowe?"
The camera jumped to the young woman, who forced a smile as she shook her head. "That has not been confirmed. The investigating Preventer on the scene would only say that Mr. Winner was not currently on a job for Preventers. Normally Mr. Winner is assigned to duty with Relena Darlian, one of the adjuncts for the Interstellar Council."
The scene changed to the anchorman, who added that three customs inspectors at an L4 docking station were also shot, but investigators had not yet determined if there was a connection to the events at the hotel. Two of the officers were dead, and a third was in stable condition. The anchorman added that the Police Chief had released a statement concerning witness reports at the hotel, and that four suspects had been arrested. More details were promised when the news show returned. A commercial for an L4 cleaning service came on.
In the light dancing across the room, Heero returned his attention to Trowa, and was startled to see tears dripping down the man's face. Trowa's expression was impassive, and the tears fell unheeded. The dark-haired man watched, vaguely concerned, as Trowa stood up. Without another word, he left the room.
Duo watched him go, the thief's eyes glinting in the television's light. "Jeet," he hissed without looking up. "Go back there."
"Where?" Jeet's voice shook.
"To Trey's bunk. Stay with him."
"He's... I can't... you people... "
"I could care less what your problem is," Duo snapped, a fierce smile on his face. "You're here for several reasons, one of which is enough reason to get your ass back there and do anything and everything Trey needs."
"What if he doesn't... "
"Then he'll be the one to tell you." Duo looked over, and the cold glare in his eyes was enough to make the young man bolt from the room. The remaining members of the team could hear Jeet's footsteps padding quickly down the hallway, and then the soft tapping at the bunkroom door. A second later, the door slid open and shut. By the time the news report had returned, they knew Jeet hadn't been sent away.
The opening segment of the news program was the local sports reports for L4, and Enny hit the mute on the remote. In the silence that followed, the room was filled with quiet crying. Heero frowned, then looked over to see Hilde, with her fist in her mouth, stifling the sound as she cried. Enny was trying to sit up, and grabbed at the back of the seat to lever herself up so she could wrap her arms around the other woman.
Hilde sobbed softly, her hands fisting against Enny's back. Heero listened as Hilde mumbled into Enny's neck.
"She's alive," the brunette was saying. "I can't believe she's alive."
Enny pulled away long enough to wipe the tears from Hilde's face, shushing her. "That's a good thing."
"No, no," the other woman replied, shaking her head frantically. "You don't understand. I shot her, I thought she'd died, and I didn't care." Hilde's body was wracked with more sobs, and Enny hugged her tightly as they rocked on the bench. Hilde's voice was muffled as she cried softly, "I didn't care, I didn't care... "
With a glance at Duo, Heero carefully removed Enny's legs from across his lap, replacing them on the sofa as he stood up. Silently he left the two women alone, nodding at Duo as he walked past. Duo followed him into the hall, and hit the door control. The door slid shut, and he leaned against the wall with a sigh.
Heero leaned against the opposite wall, and put his head back to stare at the dim overhead light.
"It's done," he said, although something inside him whispered it wasn't true.
A chuckle broke the moment, and Heero looked over to see Shinigami. The indolent smile did nothing to warm the stark ice of Duo's deep blue eyes. Heero knew his own face was completely blank.
"And now we're back," Duo replied, and his words held multiple meanings for them both. The thief shrugged and his grin grew broader. "Damn, feels like it's been forever."
Maybe it should have been, Heero thought, but didn't let the wish linger.
The news report was not turned back on. None of the team wanted to hear any more details, although Enny continued to watch while Hilde calmed down. She reported that four suspects had been held for questioning. Witnesses on the scene reported several snipers on both the stage and the balcony. Most witnesses from the dinner seemed to be convinced that the three snipers were tall, heavy-set men wearing black ski masks. Other hotel guests reported seeing four women fleeing the scene, shooting at bystanders, being chased by an officer also carrying a gun. This second set of reports were given credence by station witnesses, who saw three women shoot the police officers, while another woman ran for cover.
Duo's low chuckle was the only response any of them had.
The rest of the trip was nearly silent, with few words exchanged. Duo slept for the majority of the trip, unable to sit comfortably in order to pilot. Heero kept watch in the pilot's seat for several hours until Trowa returned, his face showing exhaustion, but a certain resolve. Heero didn't ask for details, and Trowa didn't offer. Hilde had remained in the meeting room with Enny for several hours, before retiring to her own bunk to sleep. Six hours before reaching L2, Heero went back to his own bunk, and found Jeet sound asleep in the upper bunk. Sighing, he lay down, throwing his good arm over his face, and let sleep take him.
Hilde strolled in without knocking, several hours later.
"Wake up, handsome," she called, leaning against the doorjamb with a lopsided smile on her face. She'd showered and changed, and her leather pants hugged her slim body. The deep blue sweater set off her eyes, and she raised an eyebrow as she watched Heero carefully swing his feet over and stand up. "Jeet, you too. An hour 'til we arrive, and I want everyone in the main room in a half-hour. Hito, the bathroom is all yours."
Heero nodded. A shower was out of the question, but a wet washcloth was better than nothing. He cricked his neck, grabbed some clean clothes, and headed to the bathroom. It took nearly the entire half-hour, patiently struggling in the small space to remove clothes one-handed, clean, shave, brush his teeth, and get dressed again, but he felt marginally refreshed. He stared at his reflection as he dragged the razor across his chin, and wondered whether other people noticed the silver flecks hiding in his irises. He doubted it.
The rest of the team was waiting in the meeting room when Heero arrived. Jeet's brown eyes were solemn, and the kid had dyed his hair back to a brilliant blue at some point. He sat next to Trowa, close but not touching. Trowa had showered and changed into jeans and a green turtleneck. His auburn hair was still damp, but he tossed it back to give Heero a single nod as the dark-haired man entered. Duo was leaning against the wall, his long braid neatly redone, dressed entirely in black. He shifted against the wall, favoring his right leg, but gave no other sign of discomfort. Enny was dressed in black jeans and a pale gray sweater, and the boots on her feet had steel tips. Her dark brown hair was pulled up in a ponytail, and there was no makeup on her face.
Hilde was standing by the shelves when Heero entered, and watched him as he leaned by the door. There was a long pause, while she studied each person in turn.
"This is it," she announced blandly. "We reach L2 in an half-hour. We'll be dropping out of stealth in the next ten minutes. It's only going to get harder from here. So there's only one question: anyone want out?"
The room was silent. Heero noticed out of the corner of his eye that Jeet didn't look up. Hilde's eyes came to rest on the blue-haired young man, and she called his name.
"No," he said softly, but without hesitation. "I still don't know who... " He shrugged one shoulder. "But there's no going back now. If you need me, I'm here. Don't know what I can do... "
"We'll find something for you," Hilde assured him flatly. She glanced at Enny, and an understanding seemed to pass between the two women. The brunette looked around the room again, then smiled, a cold expression mirroring Duo's own lazy smile. "Fine, then. We're expecting company at the gates. Trey, you're in the cockpit with me. Jeet, you help Day put the shipment together. Enny, you and Hito are assigned to clean-up duty. I want the ship blood-free before we arrive."
There were no responses. When Hilde walked out, the rest followed silently, going to their assigned tasks.
The ship pulled into its bay at an unfamiliar docking station. Trowa had followed the syndicate's directions to an alternate, less-used station, and once the ship was in place, the team congregated in the cargo area. The stack of stolen slimtops, laptops, and palmtops were packed neatly in three crates, along with the laptop Duo had used to record the first day of the convention. The handguns, ammunition, magazines and communications devices were in another crate, ready to be disposed of or used again, as the syndicate saw fit.
Hilde glanced once around at the team, then hit the door unlock mechanism.
The cargo door slid up with a hiss, and Heero could see the legs of several people standing outside. When the door was fully retracted, he recognized Lee, the woman who'd originally led him to the ship. On the left was a taller man with bright red hair, and on the right was an Asian man with a bleached forelock. Heero took a second to place their names: the redhead was Tiny, and the Asian man was Joe. Both men had gun holsters under their jackets, Heero noted, and their postures were tense.
Hilde stepped forward, and Heero noticed she was smiling tightly. His soldier senses kicked in as he registered everyone's location. Duo was just to the side and front of him, shoulder-to-shoulder with Hilde. Trowa stood at Hilde's other shoulder, and next to him was Enny. Jeet had been at the back, by the crates, when the door opened. Heero hadn't heard him move.
"Glad you made it back in one piece," Lee said, and her high-pitched voice once again sounded strangely out of place. "Some projects will make or break a team."
No one spoke. Heero kept his eyes trained on Joe.
"I see. That's good," Lee continued, as though she'd gotten the right response. She studied the group for a second before smiling brightly, looking past Hilde at the crates. "These two gentleman are here to unload your cargo. This," she said, holding out a palmtop, "is for your team, along with these."
The petite brunette stepped off the ship to receive the palmtop and bundle of papers. The four on either side instinctively moved along with her, guarding her watchfully. Joe noticed, and his eyebrows shot up, going up even further as Jeet stepped forward to stand alongside Enny.
"Those are room reservations for a hotel in Sector 3," Lee was saying, pointing to the papers in Hilde's hand. "There's no need for you to stay on the ship in such tight quarters," she explained. Behind them, the two men were grunting a little as they hefted the crates, loading them up on a waiting dolly. Lee ran her eyes over the team again, and nodded in clear satisfaction. "Your next assignment is on the palmtop, but I hear you've got a week to recuperate. Enjoy it."
Lee turned to see Tiny putting the last crate on the dolly, and the two men trundled it off. Without another word, she followed them, waving one hand over her shoulder. There was a long silence after she left, and Heero looked over to see Hilde staring down at the items in her hands. The woman blinked, as if registering the rest of the team's curiosity, and handed the papers to Duo. Frowning a little, she clicked on the palmtop, her eyes widening as she read the information scrolling down the screen.
"Pack your stuff and prepare to live large for the next few days," she told the team quietly. "Next Wednesday, we're having lunch with the big boys."