Part Four: The Masquerade Of Our Living
Here's the masquerade of our living
Well, I hope it makes you feel better
It's for our own protection
--- John Mellencamp
Heero found Sammy a block away from his original location, standing on the street corner smoking a cigarette. The man turned to watch the young man approach, his grin growing wider as Heero's frown grew deeper.
"Find Jeet?" Sammy threw the cigarette down and ground it under his boot heel.
Heero stopped a few feet away. It was only old habits that pulled him back to awareness fast enough to realize Sammy's fingers were headed straight for his mouth.
Automatically Heero grabbed the man's hand, then his arm. He twisted, turned, pushed, and then yanked sharply, a cruel smile flitting across his face as he acknowledged that some skills don't die. Sammy's body was pressed against a parked car, one arm at a severe angle across his back. Heero's other hand was against Sammy's neck, prepared to clench tightly enough to make Sammy pass out.
Instead of arguing, Sammy laughed even harder. Heero reflexively tightened his grip. The bald man choked slightly.
"All right, all right, uncle," the man said.
Heero let go, stepping away quickly, his hands still up, his body braced. Sammy turned around, flexing his left arm, his other hand at his neck. He coughed once, and looked at Heero a little more closely.
"Got the chip?"
Heero nodded, and started to dig in his pocket. Sammy waved, dismissing, at the young man's gesture and flashed another shining smile.
"You can hand it over yourself, then, and get the thanks yourself. By the way, nice moves, boy. Think you could do that with more than just one person at a time?"
Suspicious, Heero considered the question, and nodded. His eyes were narrowed, and he glanced left and right. In response, Sammy started laughing again.
"Oh, shit," he said, then coughed a few times. Getting his breath back, he shook his head at the younger man. "You should see your face! No, I ain't gonna jump you, and there's no bunch of goons waiting around the corner. Just seems you might have some use other than as a stand-in for a whore." Sammy leered. "You kissed the guy, didn't ya."
Heero flushed, then scowled at his face's betrayal.
Sammy hooted. "Yeah, I thought so. Well, no matter. Here's the forty, and if you want more, I think I've got a job for you. 'Specially if you can handle about seven of me."
Heero's face was back under control, and his tone was perfectly neutral as he accepted the credits. "No sweat."
"No sweat, he says!" Sammy turned, slapping a beefy hand across Heero's shoulder blades. "Kid, you are too much. Come on, we'll get you introduced."
The dark-haired man paused, then nodded. Duo's world, he told himself. As long as it's not a part of Duo's world that involves kissing everyone, he amended. He could still taste the coffee on his lips, and it had drowned out any flavor of the man on the bike.
The bar was half-full when Sammy pushed the door open, beckoning Heero to precede him. Heero shook his head, preferring to follow Sammy in. The black man grinned again, an expression that was definitely grating on the ex-pilot's nerves. He'd dealt with killers and soldiers, but the only jokers he'd ever tolerated were Duo and Bernie. He was starting to wonder if the constant grin was a traditional coping mechanism for L2 residents.
Sammy slung his arm over Heero's shoulder and the young man tensed as he was dragged towards a table at the back. Three men were sitting under a bare red bulb. A gray-haired man appeared to be sleeping. Heero noted the gun holster under the man's jacket and a crease in his visible pants leg that meant an ankle holster. The second man, of Asian descent with a bleached stripe in his hair, was tilted back in his chair as he finished a beer. The third man, a redhead with dark roots, was reading the newspaper.
The Asian looked up as they approached. "A little scrawny for entertainment, Sammy."
"Bite me," the bald man replied, releasing Heero. "Go on, kid, hand it over."
Heero furrowed his brow before realizing Sammy's meaning. He dropped the romchip on the table and backed up a step. The Asian man leaned over and palmed it skillfully, his hand seeming to merely pass over the table.
"That it?" The redhead glanced up from the paper, his eyes a watered-down version of Heero's own cobalt. "Give him fifty, Joe, and get him out of here. Don't need no more whores."
"Ah," Sammy interrupted, smug. "He's no whore."
Heero bristled at being discussed, but kept his face calm, his body centered.
"Really," Joe replied. The overhead light turned his streak to crimson as he leaned forward. "What is he? Floor decoration?" His gaze raked up and down Heero, and clearly dismissed the young man for a lightweight.
"Humor me." The bald man shrugged. "Fifty creds says he takes down at least seven."
"Fifty?" The redhead glanced up again, studying Heero closer. What he saw seemed to please him, but his tone was unexpectedly flat. "Not interested."
"You're on," Joe cut in. He slapped fifty creds on the table, pushed them across to Heero, who took them without comment. Joe put down another fifty, and Sammy put down fifty as well. Joe whistled, a long short blast followed by two sharp high notes.
The redhead visibly winced. "Can't you just stand up and shout like the rest of us?"
"Shut up, Tiny," Joe snapped, and raised his voice to be heard over the room's noise. "Seven guys, pick yourself out and fall on... him." He pointed to Heero, who turned slowly to face the room, his body dropping into a defensive crouch.
It's been too long, Heero thought. But like Duo always used to say, it's just like riding a bike, or piloting a Gundam.
Ten minutes later, Heero assessed the damage as he dragged himself to his feet: a sprained wrist, several bruises on his chest, a pulled shoulder, and a bruise on his cheek that would be livid the next day if he didn't ice it soon. He could feel the swelling when he clenched his jaw.
Two of the men had gone down instantly, one from a glass jaw and the other from a solid punch to the stomach. A third required a chair across his back; the chair was in pieces and the man was down. The fourth and fifth took a little longer, having held back to see Heero's moves. The sixth fell victim to a floor-sweeping kick as Heero tried to regain his feet, followed by two kicks to his gut while the ex-pilot blocked punches from the seventh. A grab at the last man's arm and a quick twist dislocated the guy's shoulder even as Heero was thrown to the ground.
The redhead was smiling, a small quirk in his lips, and Joe was staring open-mouthed. The third man grunted slightly, and Heero realized he'd been awake and watching carefully. Sammy swept the hundred credits off the table and pocketed them with a wide grin.
"Back to work," he announced. "Kid, I think you've got a job."
Heero rolled his neck, listening to the pop as his joints fell into place. He regarded the three men with a stony expression, remaining crouched and ready.
"Stand down," the gray-haired man ordered. "What's your name, kid?"
"Hito," Heero said, thinking rapidly.
"Got a last name?"
The combination prompted a laugh. "Young person," the gray-haired man translated. "Kids these days. Yeah, I think I've got a job for you."
"Like that?" Joe sat back down, grabbing his beer with an indignant look at Heero. "Just walk right in and that's that?"
"Sure," the man said, turning his attention to Heero. "I'm Pops. I run this Sector."
Heero nodded, once.
"A man of many words," Pops said, and stood up, pushing his chair back. "Come on... Hito. I think there might be someplace less noisy in the back. Let's go see."
Heero glanced around once more, noting the two guys groaning on the floor. A third was being helped up, his expression still glazed from being knocked out. After a pause, the ex-pilot followed Pops through the kitchen's swinging doors, down a hallway and into a small room with two chairs and a desk piled high with papers.
"Have a seat." The man settled himself on another chair, leaning back with a smug expression. "Go ahead. The furniture don't bite."
Heero seated himself, stretching his legs before curling them under his seat, feeling the rush of fighting keeping him on guard.
"I'm not the big fish," Pops drawled, clearly at ease. "But I do keep an eye on what's going on, and I've got some folks that need babysitting." The man dug a cigarette pack from inside his jacket. "Want one?" He smiled dryly at Heero's frown, and lit a cigarette, his eyes narrowed through the smoke. "The syndicate has teams, kid. Every team's got its specialty, and I've got one that's lacking muscle."
Heero raised his eyebrows.
"The muscle is the distraction guy for a job, while the rest of the team gets the real work done," Pops explained patiently. "And I prefer to hire the muscle myself, so I know there's someone who'll tell me what's going on. Don't like not knowing, if you get my drift."
Heero nodded, curtly.
"I don't normally put a newbie like yourself on a team, but this team's got a bad history of... losing its fighters," the man said, his lip curling up, a dimple flashing in his cheek before he grew serious again. "Their track record is oh-for-three, so far. Strange accidents, bad situations, you name it. Nothing I can pin on them, but I'm tired of losing good guys to their antics."
"I'm disposable." Heero stated it flatly.
"Exactly." The man's tone was smug. "All you need to do is work with them, keep me informed, and if you survive, it's good money. If you don't... " He shrugged.
"I'm not sure what I get out of this."
"Who do you work for?"
"What?" Heero furrowed his brow.
"When the chips come down, what do you believe in?" The man was watching him closely. Heero felt like he was being dissected, and he considered the question carefully before answering.
"Good." The man stubbed the cigarette out on the floor. "Pay's two hundred credits a week, not including what you make as part of the team."
"All I have to do is fight?"
"Looked to me like you can do that just fine."
Heero crossed his arms, leaning back in the chair as he pondered the situation. Sector Three, no sign of Duo, and now a job offer to be a hired fighter. So far, this search was not going according to plan. Heero chalked it up to Duo's long-distance influence.
"Head upstairs, get some sleep. First-aid kits are in the bathroom. Take whatever unlocked room you find. We'll send you over tomorrow morning."
Heero nodded, getting to his feet, and barely stifling a groan. His shoulder and hip were going to need ice. He said as much, and the man grinned wolfishly.
"So you are human," Pops commented. "Help yourself to ice from the kitchen on your way up. Stairs are at the end of the hallway." He turned towards the desk, dismissing the young man.
The shower didn't seem to help much. Heero still felt the filthy bed sheets against his body, even though he'd slept in his clothes. He suspected the chances of returning to the hotel were slim, given the nature of the company he'd landed. He thought for a bit about that, reviewing mentally the belongings in the hotel room.
A change of clothes and shoes he wouldn't miss anyway, and an old backpack. That was it. He had the cell phone with him, but it was off to save batteries. He hadn't missed any calls when he'd checked before going to bed the night before, so he'd tucked it back into an inside pocket in the leather jacket. The slim digital camera was in the opposite interior pocket. Shrugging, he decided to let the hotel just assume he'd left and wasn't returning. They'd probably contact Bernie, since that had been who'd made the reservations the last two times he'd stayed there. And Bernie could panic or wait, depending on his mood.
Heero sighed as he pulled the green shirt over his still-damp body and slipped on the jeans. The worst part was wearing the same socks two days in a row. Fortunately enough years in biking shorts had gotten him comfortable going without underwear. He idly recalled his first college roommate declaring that no underwear meant longer between laundry days. The dark-haired young man ran his fingers through his thick hair, stared at himself in the mirror, and gave up. The hair would do the same as always: exactly what it wanted to.
He was ready when the knock came. It was the redhead, Tiny, who looked mildly disgusted at the early hour, but didn't say anything. He still hadn't said anything fifteen minutes later when he pulled the car up in front of the Sector Three docking bay. He didn't get out of the car, but merely turned to Heero with a grim smile.
"This is a death warrant, kid," he said. "Sorry, but it is. If there's anyone you wanna call or write, do it now. The folks you're joining are in bay seven. Their ship's ready to leave in about an hour. Make sure you're on it... and good luck."
Heero nodded and got out of the car. He considered calling Bernie, and decided against it. But he could at least pull out a few more credits. Not too much, but enough to put activity on his account in case anyone needed to know a time and place before he disappeared. There was an automated teller at the docking bay's entrance, and he slid his card in and punched in his code.
Withdrawing only twenty credits, he was surprised to see the machine printing out a receipt. He never requested those, and he regarded the paper curiously. Instead of showing an account total, or a transaction record, it was three lines of type.
TAGGED SCYTHE EMAIL. POSSIBLY MOVING OUT SOON.
TRACK BOTS ON ALL POINTS. ASSUMING HOSTILE.
BE CAREFUL. RAT AND CREW.
Heero struggled to keep a straight face. Those hacking bastards, they'd broken their own forum ethics to get his identity. The edges of his lips twitched, and he felt like laughing out loud for the second time in two days. He should have known they'd do to him what he'd had them pull on Duo, but he was equally flattered they'd done it for the sake of continuing their loyal mission. Thus pleased, he considered the printout's information more carefully.
The track bots were probably those placed by Quatre, and had somehow finally been discovered by someone in the gang. Probably Snake. Where Rat and Pinky had a knack for breaking in, Snake just liked to break things. Heero wondered if Quatre's eyes and ears were temporarily out of order as a result.
The idea amused him as he shredded the paper, and it was with a slightly lighter heart that he went in search of bay seven.
There was a brunette standing at the ship's docking point, holding a clipboard and studying the external identification. She glanced up as Heero approached.
"Hito Young?" Her voice was high-pitched, almost a squeak, and Heero raised his eyebrows. When he didn't respond further, she shrugged. "Well, Pops warned me but I thought I'd try. I'm Lee, the docking manager. Come on and meet the team."
The ship was a fast cruiser, built for speed rather than comfort, but Heero took in the design with appreciative eyes. The loading entrance in the back was wide, easily accessible for loading and unloading large cargo. Through the cargo bay was a wide hallway, a straight shot to the pilot's cabin. Rooms on either side, Lee explained in an undertone, were bunks, a small kitchen, and a room for the crew to gather while on autopilot. She slid the door open and Heero followed her in, looking side to side before glancing up to see the three-person crew come to their feet.
The first face he registered was Hilde's, her blue eyes wide with shock. The second face was Trowa's, his brown hair falling across his face, his one visible green eye narrowing as he took in Heero's dress and stance. The third face was Duo's, whose eyes went from surprised to angry almost immediately.
There was a long pause in the room, and Lee looked around at the four people, her eyes narrowing speculatively. Hilde stepped forward.
"This our new muscle?" The petite woman looked Heero up and down as though seeing him for the first time. Her gaze rested momentarily on his bruised cheek. "What happened? Pops already crack him?"
"Something like that," Lee replied. "He's shipping out with you. Try not to break this one. We're running out of spare muscle." The woman turned to Heero, her gaze bemused as her voice dropped to a stage whisper. "They're not the friendliest but they're decent, if you don't piss them off. That's Trey," she said, nodding to Trowa. "And that's Hel. She runs this joint. And that's Day, our best sneak." Lee grinned, dropping her voice further to reach only Heero's ears. "Don't piss him off." A last glance around the still tableau and she was gone.
Her footsteps receded down the ship's main passageway and the four people listened as the main loading door slid shut. There was a long silence. No one moved. Trowa's eyes were pasted on Heero's, Hilde was frowning at Duo, and Duo's eyes were wide, his nostrils flaring. Finally, Heero opened his mouth to say something. He didn't get much of a chance before he was thrown halfway across the room.
Blinking rapidly, he tried to get his bearings, but he was pinned to the floor and a second punch was already landing on his still-bruised jaw. Someone was yelling in the background, and two more punches landed before the person was pulled off him. Heero sat up, getting unsteadily got to his feet. Trowa and Hilde were holding Duo back. Deathscythe's pilot was practically spitting nails as he shouted.
"There is no fucking way we're letting him on this ship," Duo was yelling. "And get your damned hands off me! This is a sick joke, Hil! Tell Pops to find us someone else, or let me kill him now and get it over with!"