Part Forty-Three: The Hour Is Getting Late
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.
--- Bob Dylan
The hotel room was larger than Heero expected, with two queen-sized beds, and decorated in what he recognized as generic hotel décor. He'd seen enough of it when traveling at Bernie's demand. Duo opened the curtains as the valets wheeled in their luggage, still packed from leaving L1. Neither he nor Duo responded when the valet hesitated, obviously hoping for a tip. Shrugging his shoulders, the valet left without comment.
Better manners than most hotel employees, Heero thought. His shoulder was throbbing badly, and he sank onto the loveseat in the small seating area. With a sigh, he put his feet up on the coffee table and leaned his head back. A knock came at the door, and Heero couldn't hear Duo's passage, but felt the brush of air along his cheek.
"What the fuck is this for?" Duo's voice was unexpectedly loud, and Heero lifted his head to see two more valets wheeling in the same crates Tiny and Joe had taken only three hours before. Hilde was leaning against the door, and tipped the two valets as they left.
"It's the computers, dimwit," she replied cheekily. "You were supposed to crack them and produce the information."
"Me?" Duo crossed his arms, standing over the crates with a sour expression as Hilde shut the door behind her.
"Well, you and Hito, if he can do it one-handed." The brunette shrugged, and picked up one of the palmtops. "How hard can it be?" Duo canted his head at her, clearly skeptical, and Hilde grinned. "Get started on it in the morning. Enny and I are ordering room service, if you want to join us." She looked around, nodded to Heero, and made a face at Duo. "Nice digs." She barely scooted past Duo's half-hearted swat, and was gone.
"Seven laptops, nineteen slimtops, and eight palmtops," Duo recited. "Plus... " There was a solid clicking sound, and Heero looked over to see Duo cocking a Ruger 9mm and sighting the barrel. "One for each." He whistled, popped out the magazine, checked it, and slammed it back home. "Ammo's over here," he said, and tossed the gun to Heero, who caught it one-handed.
"I'd rather have a Beretta," Heero muttered, and laid the gun on the loveseat next to him. "Wake me when it's dinnertime."
The next three days bled into each other, and Heero spent most of the time aggravated by Trowa's constant supervision. Each time he started to unbind his left arm, the tall pilot mysteriously showed up with a book, settled into the loveseat and proceeded to read as though this were perfectly normal behavior.
Conversation, and even interaction, was nearly non-existent. The team had quickly determined the location of miniature video cameras, and could only assume the rooms were bugged as well. Jeet and Enny brought clothes from the apartment they'd shared, Enny moving in with Hilde, and Jeet with Trowa. The young man had the most difficult time with the silence, but the rest of the team let him jabber on, knowing that there was little he could say that would cause any damage. For the first day, Jeet stayed in the room he shared with Trowa, watching movies, until Enny and Hilde bought him a sketchpad and new pencils. After that, he became Trowa's constant companion, drawing everything around him while the taller man read.
The computers were set up on every horizontal surface, waiting their turns. Duo had quickly determined the only way to crack the elaborate security systems was to hook their own laptop up to each, run the compilation program, and wait for something to give. Once they were in, it was a matter of sorting the digital information and burning it on romchips. Despite Duo's curiosity, they refrained from opening any files, as that would change the date and the syndicate would know they'd been snooping.
At night, the room was lit by the multiple screens blinking blue against the ceiling. Heero dreamt of Wing Zero, and every beep from a slimtop entered his dreams as a mobile suit.
Sunday morning, the job was nearly complete, and a pile of romchips lay on the dresser surface. When Duo woke up, Heero held up a coffee cup and Duo nodded his agreement to the silent plan. Thirty minutes later the two were out on the street, away from the computers and the surveillance.
"Hey... " Duo said, his voice a little hesitant. Heero glanced over to see Duo's face devoid of the jester's smile for the first time in three days. "Are you okay... with this?"
"What?" Heero's voice was neutral, his attention held mostly by the traffic honking in the busy street.
"Everything... " Duo waved a hand back and forth between them, but didn't say more.
"Hn." Heero started to shrug, then stopped in his tracks, turning to face Duo. I don't know what to say, he thought. Frustrated, he nearly turned and walked off, but couldn't move.
Duo's deep blue eyes narrowed. Heero dropped his head, then lifted it, startled, as Duo grabbed his arm and yanked him into an alley. Duo scoped the area quickly, pulling the dark-haired man along until they came to a doorway. Practically shoving Heero backwards, Duo pressed himself up against Heero in the small space, hip-to-hip, chest-to-chest.
"This," Duo muttered, his lips against Heero's ear. His face was tilted up, and his hands dug into Heero's chest. The longhaired man ground his hips against Heero, and pushed a knee between Heero's legs. "Do you... miss this?"
"Yeah," Heero managed to say, biting back a groan as his fingers clawed at Duo's hips, pulling the shorter man closer. "Fuck, I miss it... what do you think?" Without waiting for a response, he grabbed the back of Duo's head, turning his head, blindly seeking Duo's lips. Mouths already open and panting, tongues met and searched deep, twisting in the slick heat, threshing with the movement of their hips together.
Heartbeats passed, and Heero jerked away. Duo's eyes were closed, and the Wing Zero pilot watched as the blue eyes slowly opened. They were nearly purple in the shadows, shuttered with lust, focused on Heero's lips.
Heero held Duo close, pressing their foreheads together. He spoke low enough that only Duo could hear him. "I miss... hearing you laugh... really laugh. And I miss... holding your hand at night. I miss... feeling you move against me... Yes, fuck yes, I miss what you do to me... " He swallowed hard, centering himself as he realized what he had to say. "But I'm not... that person, deep down. I can't be, and do what I did."
"That's not true," Duo whispered. "Heero--"
"I'm only good at one thing," Heero told him. "I wanted to be something more, but... " He paused, closing his eyes against the hurt on Duo's face, the way the other man's brow was furrowed with a single line. Heero closed his eyes against the wish to kiss that line away. "This is what I can do, maybe the only thing... let me do it, please."
Heero bit his lip, and shoved Duo backwards, leaving the startled man behind in the alleyway. He could hear pounding feet behind him. When he reached the sidewalk, Duo had fallen in place beside him, but said nothing. Heero led the way to the coffee shop. By the time he'd pushed the door open, both had their masks firmly in place.
That afternoon, Heero left the hotel, making a circuitous side-trip to a net café ten blocks away from the hotel. Settling his soldier's instincts about him, he entered only once he was satisfied that he wasn't being trailed. He paid for his time and settled into a station facing the door, logging quickly onto the hacker forum.
There were a number of avatars he didn't recognize, but Mike entered a few seconds later. Rather than attract attention by changing the anonymous guest smiley-face to the dove's wing, Heero messaged the young hacker.
"Wing?" The Hand's fingers wriggled.
"Yes," Heero replied, his lips twitching. "Only me. No Deathscythe."
"Whew." The avatar drooped a little, then sprang back up. "That guy seems to have it in for me."
You're too much alike, Heero thought. He shook his head slightly and began typing. "How's progress on the latest task?"
"Traffic, all the time," Mike replied. "Big spike about two days ago in the gossip column. There were a bunch of emails closing with notes about something on L4. Pinky thinks it's related to that big shoot-out where the whole place burned and everyone died."
"The whole place did not burn," Heero corrected the hacker. "I don't have long. Summarize."
"Most of it's saying that plans change, or things like how great, now that all obstacles are out of the way," Mike typed. "And then, starting yesterday afternoon, the gun smugglers started closing their emails with questions about who's going to some meeting. It's something big. Looks like they're all going to be there."
Interesting, Heero thought. He pondered for a second, his fingers hovering over the keyboard, before continuing. "Anything else?"
"Only that I don't think these guys are as stupid as we thought they are." The avatar waved. "I've been making a list of the addresses, and they're changing every six days. I think they're all using a program that cycles through the fake addresses, because two have changed. One from ryoiw2397 to ryoiw2398, and then yesterday another one changed, from sdrt34g to sdrt34h."
One letter up in the roman alphabet, Heero observed. "Not the brightest system."
"No, but it means we have maybe two or three weeks before we lose this address. Unless we're on the next on the list to change, or if they don't find us first. But the thing is, the main eight addresses stay the same, and the one I made is on that list. It's the other eight that change, depending on who's sending it. I'm not sure, but I think those are also listening dumps."
Makes sense, he thought. "Fine, keep tracking them as long as you can. How's Rat organizing the information?"
"By sender address. We notate them that way, then add into the database the content, location, time, mentioned in email, and notes of any gossip in the closing or opening. When we're done, you'll be able to search and find out who shipped what, when, where, and to whom. Or," the hand drooped a little, "as much as we know from the emails we've gotten."
"One other thing," Mike said. "It's huge. I mean, it's really HUGE. There are people emailing from all over earth, and every colony. And it's not just guns, it's drugs, prostitution, code, everything. If it can be bought or sold and it's illegal somewhere, there's an email about it. This isn't just guns. This is... something else."
"It's trade," Heero told the hacker. "It's illicit trade, but even that has a market, and goes by market rules."
"I guess so. I just never thought... I mean, the Preventers are supposed to prevent this stuff, aren't they?"
"That's the theory." He frowned as he checked the time. "Have to go. Will try to check in again, in the next few days."
Hilde had set wake-up calls for everyone at Monday morning at ten standard time, prompting a string of violent cursing from Duo as the phone rang for the fifth time in fifteen minutes. Eventually he'd struggled from bed, cursing as he made his way blindly to the bathroom. Forty-five minutes later he reappeared, showered and dressed in his usual black. Heero had been laying on the bed, reading, and got up when Duo shoved his feet into a pair of black boots. Heero had been dressed and ready for an hour.
"Ready." Duo tied his laces and stood up. He tugged at the bottom of his jacket, and flexed his left leg. Heero pulled on his leather jacket, wincing as the left shoulder ached for a second. Duo watched, raising one eyebrow at the fact that Heero had refused to wear the sling.
There was a knock at the door, and Duo opened it to find Jeet.
"Hel says I'm to wait for the guys picking up the computers," he told the two pilots. Duo nodded, and Jeet made himself comfortable on their loveseat, sketchpad in hand.
Heero looked over the rest of the team as they assembled in the hallway, assessing each one's status. Their wounds were healing neatly, assisted by the salve Trowa gave them that kept the skin soft as the tissues generated. Heero still healed phenomenally fast, he'd realized with some satisfaction, but the soreness indicated the process wasn't done yet. Another day or two and he'd have closer to full mobility. Duo was walking without a limp, and Enny hadn't dropped into a fever. Trowa's silent nod was enough to tell them all that they weren't going to lose one of their newest team members. In celebration, Hilde and Enny had spent an evening bleaching and dying Enny's hair. Now the pimp had streaks of green at her temples. The rest remained auburn, a few shades redder than Trowa's hair.
Heero was pleased to see they fell into formation without any need for discussion. Hilde led the way, with Trowa and Duo on either side, with Enny right behind Hilde. Heero came last, instinctively taking rear guard. The loaded Ruger against the small of his back felt comfortable and solid.
The van was waiting in front of the hotel, and the team piled in, remaining silent. Hilde's eyes were straight forward, in the seat next to the driver, while the rest of the team got in the back. The man driving said nothing. Twenty minutes later they pulled up in front of a large office building in the downtown district. Without a word, Hilde got out, followed by the rest of the team, who arranged themselves again around her in a flanking formation.
Heero could see the petite brunette square her shoulders, then confidently led them up to the glass and steel structure, pushing the double doors open so they could walk unimpeded.
Seventeen floors, one elevator, and three receptionists later, they were ushered into a large conference room. There was a table at one end, with the nearer end holding a desk and several seats arranged on an oriental rug. Across from them the panoramic windows showed L2's shopping district, with its warehouse district peeking up beyond, in the distance. A man was leaning against the desk, his arms crossed as he stared out the window. When they entered, he turned his head to smile. His copper-blond hair was chopped short, a casual tousled look that contrasted with his fine tailored dark suit and expensive shoes.
Hilde stood, waiting, as the rest of the team filed in behind her.
"Please, Miss Waters, have a seat." The man glanced at one of the chairs.
After a moment's pause to look around the room, Hilde seated herself in one of the chairs. Enny stood a little to the side, behind Hilde's chair. Trowa leaned against the wall to the left of the desk. Heero crossed his arms and leant against the wall to the right of the door. Duo watched the others move into position, and took a long look around the room before wandering over to the window. The man at the desk watched, curious, as Duo stared out onto the streets below before turning with a cocky grin to sit on the window ledge.
The man returned the grin. "I'm Alan Kessler, and I'm your liaison for your next project." He didn't move from his spot, but uncrossed his arms and rested his hands on the heavy wooden desk beside him, turning slightly to direct his words towards Hilde. "Everyone is very impressed with what your team managed to accomplish. You went above and beyond, Miss Waters."
Hilde graced him with a simple nod. Heero noted that Trowa's eyes appeared to be closed, while Enny had cocked her head at Alan. Duo's attention seemed to wander. Heero noticed the other man seemed to be studying the rug, but he could tell Duo was listening closely.
"I see you've added more people to your team. I've known Enny for several years. And Jeffrey Taft. Jeet, I believe it is, now?"
"A good worker," came the baritone statement. "If you've included him, I'm sure it's because of his... talents."
Duo shifted against the window, turning to stare down at the streets below him.
"I'll get to business. We understand this last mission was difficult," Alan continued in a soothing tone as he moved to seat himself behind the desk. "But my sources tell me that you've each recuperated beautifully." He shuffled several papers on his desk, then set them aside, glancing down at them a few times as he spoke. "Hito Young. Impressive shooting. You learned this during the war?"
Heero glared at the man and didn't answer.
Alan chuckled softly. "Hard to unlearn, isn't it. Don't lose those skills. We might need them again. We honestly had hoped for two, perhaps three shots before you were interrupted. Instead, you took down all six. Three dead immediately, and one died on the operating table. The last two are still in critical condition. Truly, some amazing marksmanship, to get off that many shots in a crowded ballroom. Speaking of which, how is your shoulder?"
Heero rotated his left shoulder, his face perfectly blank.
"Amazing." Alan chuckled and dropped the paper back on the desk, looking over at Duo. "And the thefts. We had figured you would spend all day hacking into each to get just the drive mirrors. We certainly didn't expect the gift of so much hardware."
Duo chuckled, a feral expression flashing across his face.
"We don't always do the expected," Hilde replied smoothly.
"Which is why you're elite," came the quick reply. Alan leaned back, his fingers clasped behind his head. The chair creaked. "We know you weren't prepared to move up so fast, and we would have sent in another team, but... " He shrugged, still staring at the ceiling with a nonchalant expression. "Our elite team needed retirement a few months ago, after an equally difficult assignment. But you stepped in, and completed the work better than we would've expected from our top teams."
He sighed, and canted his head to study the tallest team member. Trowa's head was down, his face hidden by a sheaf of auburn hair. Alan smiled wryly. "Trey Barlow," he said softly. "Too bad, isn't it? To have killed a Gundam pilot, and no one will ever know it was you."
Trowa didn't respond.
"Officially, it's not confirmed he was one of the five," Alan said blandly, and a smile twitched at the corner of his lips. "There are no records of the true identities. Only a few people met the pilots in person, and we've never gotten close enough to them to find out." The colony lights caught his copper hair, turning it to gold as he glanced down at the papers on his desk. "Quatre Winner has an alibi for the entire war, but rumors dogged his every step. During the war, we used to joke that a Gundam pilot is as indestructible as the Gundams themselves. Considering Mr. Winner took a bullet to the gut between his first and second ribs, damaging the liver, it's amazing he lived as long as he did."
Or the result of some excellent marksmanship, Heero thought, if Trowa missed the spine.
"The Winner corporation is trying to keep it quiet, but reliable sources indicate that he died early this morning," Alan added nonchalantly. "A coma from massive trauma, after three days, means brain damage. It's been six days. Even if he woke up, he'd only amount to a vegetable. The bottom line, regardless of his past, is that he's been a thorn in the side of every attempt to form an alliance with the L4 organization. We had hoped his sister's death would force him to draw back, but his own death achieves that objective just as well."
There was a pause, and Alan leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers at his chin. He seemed to be thinking, then smiled at Hilde. The expression reminded the dark-haired man of Duo, that same cat-sly look that didn't quite reach the eyes.
"Miss Waters, you've organized an excellent team. Some truly dangerous men under your command," he said blandly. "Your next task is high-profile. Are you sure you can keep these three in line?"
"What do you think?" Hilde's voice was cool.
Heero glanced over at Duo. The man was leaning against the window; his smile was smug.
"I think you can," Alan said, unruffled. "But then, I keep telling my bosses that you can handle a Gundam pilot. Two mercenaries should be nothing." He laughed. "I'm afraid they're convinced Gundam pilots walk on water, and are as unpredictable as any other messiah."
Heero frowned. It must be Duo, he realized. They know about Duo. Damn braid, he cursed silently.
Alan glanced at Heero, and shrugged. "When you fund a share of the activities, the people involved have a tendency to leave their files where you can read them. Of course we know about Mr. Maxwell," he said, throwing a quick smile over at the Deathscythe pilot, who ignored him. Alan chuckled and shook his head. "He was raised and taught to defend L2's interests. There's a certain logic for him to join us, protecting our organization's interests in return for his protection these last five years. After all, we are this colony's sole industry. If we go down, so will L2." Alan paused, his gaze measuring Trowa and then Heero. "However, Miss Waters, it appears the truth of your brother's history is news to the rest of your team."
Hilde shrugged in reply, a nonchalant gesture. Enny shifted her weight but didn't move.
"Which brings me to one of my final points, and then I'll give you the next assignment." Alan leaned forward, his eyes intent on Hilde, but his face strangely affectionate. "Miss Waters, I know your brother's a seasoned veteran, but sometimes family can't be what we need. Killing is different when it's up close. Our organization has... people, that you can talk to, if you need someone."
"That won't be necessary." Hilde's calm tone carried a hint of a smile.
"Excellent," Alan said. There was a knock at the door, and Heero immediately shifted. Enny turned, enough to see both Alan and the door on either side of her. The man waved his hand at their instinctive responses. "Come in," he called.
A dark-skinned woman in a tailored suit leaned across the threshold. The beads at the end of her cornrow braids clicked against the door.
"Mr. Kessler, we've received the information," she said, and smiled politely as she shut the door again.
"Ah," Alan said, standing up. "That brings me to my last point." He leaned against the window, and tilted his head at Trowa. The light coming in from behind shadowed Alan, and his coppery hair glowed like a halo around his head. "We've been worried for some time that there may be a problem in your team, Miss Waters. I argued against this, but I'm afraid my bosses are adamant that Mr. Barlow be watched carefully, due to some lingering questions about his past."
"Oh?" Hilde's single word was icy.
"Yes, but we compromised, once it became clear that Mr. Barlow has become quite close to another member of your team. This gives us a bargaining chip, and we will be keeping Mr. Taft... Jeet... with us for the time being. For this next task, we cannot risk allowing anyone to be... " Alan paused, as if trying to find a delicate term for the accusation. "Disloyal, shall we say. If it goes well, the boy will be returned to Mr. Barlow, none the worse for wear."
"I don't see that this is necessary," Hilde protested, but her voice was steady.
"It's definitely necessary," Alan replied, and a hint of steel crept into his smooth baritone. "You are still a new team, despite your record, and we are not willing to take chances. We are aware that Mr. Maxwell also favors someone. However, we are certain a Gundam pilot is capable of carrying out his own retribution if crossed." Alan's voice lost its silky quality, and dropped into a more matter-of-fact tone. "Your next task is to be security. This Friday we're meeting on L2, with the colony and Earth organizations, to discuss trade agreements between the syndicates. All parties will be in person. It will be the first meeting of its kind." He grinned, and raised his eyebrows, a self-mocking expression. "Normally we'd plan for months in advance, but we can't miss this chance, or L4's anti-alliance groups will have time to organize a defense. Right now they're in shambles, and we have to take advantage of that."
"We're just supposed to be bodyguards?" The brunette's shoulders had relaxed. Her arms were on the chair arms, and her entire posture radiated confidence.
"Not entirely," the man said, and shrugged ruefully. "You're to plan and supervise the security for the entire event. The details are on this disk." He stepped forward, picking up a disk and flipping it over in his hand before tossing it to Enny, who caught it one-handed. Hilde didn't react, and Alan smiled. "Do this, and your positions are assured, as is our trust in you. And, of course, that means your team will be complete again. Good day, all."
When Hilde nodded and stood, Duo got up from the window. Enny and Duo flanked Hilde as she left, Heero and Trowa falling in behind. As the door shut, Heero was almost certain he could pick up the sound of Alan, softly chuckling.