Part Five: A Careless Thief
Time is a brutal and a careless thief
Who takes our lot but leaves behind the grief
--- Emmy Lou Harris
Heero got his feet under him, coming to a low stance as he watched Duo warily. Duo's eyes were slits as he glared at Heero. When no one spoke or moved, Duo jerked his arms out of Trowa's and Hilde's hold.
"You aren't welcome here," he snarled to Heero. "We don't need--"
"Enough," Hilde snapped. "Day, go fix something."
The longhaired man started, turning to the girl as a strange expression flashed across his face. A second later he stormed from the room, his braid trailing like a whip. The door slammed shut behind him.
Heero was puzzled to belatedly register that Duo had looked hurt, and filed the observation away. Trowa was still staring at him, and if Heero hadn't just gotten his face slammed for the third time in two days he might've chanced a laugh. The tall man's expression was, as Sammy might say, priceless.
"Hito!" Hilde snapped her fingers. "Wake up."
Heero blinked and focused his eyes on the petite girl stepping between him and Trowa. Her lips were pinched tight, but her eyes looked upset, sad even. None of their reactions were what he expected. He wondered if this was what Relena's warning had meant; he hadn't looked hard enough for his motivation and now he was left floundering.
"Well, what's done is done." Hilde chewed on her lower lip for a second, staring at Heero. "You're bunking with Trey in my room. Trey, you and I are trading places."
"But," Trowa started to say. Hilde shook her head.
"I don't want to hear it." Hilde's tone was cold. "Move your stuff, now." She glanced behind Heero, then back at him. "They didn't give you much of a chance to pack, I'd bet."
Heero just stared at her.
"Superstitious?" Hilde grinned, and it wasn't a pleasant expression. When Heero didn't reply, she shrugged. "You can use the clothes left behind by the last two guys. You'll be in the last room on the left, just before the cargo hold." She checked her watch. "The loading should be done by now. Once Day's calmed down we'll move out. Trey," she said, her gaze flickering to Trowa. "I told you to move your stuff. I didn't say next week."
Trowa's green eyes rested for a moment on Hilde, then dropped, acknowledging the order. His passing was nearly silent as the door slid closed behind him, and Hilde waited for another second before turning to Heero. Her shoulders slumped just a little, but her expression was still stern.
"I don't know what kind of game's being played with us, but if you don't watch your step I can – and will – leave you out to dry." She held up a hand. "Next time you talk to Pops, explain that we don't need muscle, we're not interested in being babysat, and if he doesn't take us seriously we'll take our business elsewhere. Understood?"
"I'll take that as a yes." She paused at the sound of something mechanical grinding from the belly of the ship, and stomped her boot heel twice against the floor. "I said fix something, not break something," she yelled to the floor. The sound stopped. She put her hands on her hips, and when she spoke again her voice was calmer. "Hito, get to that bunk, set your ass down and don't move until I or Trey come for you. Got that?"
Heero nodded. Yesterday was beginning to look like a great day in comparison.
Two hours later they were finally leaving the colony behind. Heero watched the docking bay recede through the porthole in the bunkroom. He had taken the empty top bunk and was now lying on his stomach, drifting in and out of sleep, the towel-wrapped ice set aside. If he bruised, so be it.
His leather jacket was hanging in the small closet, over four small drawers of someone else's clothes, with his boots tucked in underneath. Most of the clothes seemed like they'd fit, and there were clean socks. He smiled to himself. The little things matter when nothing else makes sense.
The door slid open and Trowa entered. Heero waited as the other pilot seated himself heavily on the bed, then cautiously leaned over to look down. Trowa was leaning forward, his head in his hands.
"Tro--" He started to ask, quietly.
"Trey." The man's voice cut him off.
"Trey." Heero corrected himself with a soft sigh. "What's going on?"
There was no answer, but Trowa stood up to face Heero. A second later the taller man had taken the bowl of melted ice and the damp towel from the platform next to Heero's bunk.
"I assume you're done with this."
"Yeah. Thanks... " Before the words were completely out of his mouth, Trowa was at the door.
The taller man paused, his head ducked to step out the door, and spoke over his shoulder. "In two hours Day'll step down from the pilot's seat. You'll be up for co-pilot with Hel. One of us will come get you." He didn't wait for Heero's reply.
Heero slid into the copilot's seat across from Hilde. The ship was silent except for muffled sounds coming from the gathering room, accompanied by random shouts. The young woman caught Heero's glance down the hallway and shrugged.
"Video game," she stated, checking a few of the instruments before leaning back. "Autopilot means nothing to do, really," she added nonchalantly. "But I figured you'd go crazy if I tried to keep you in that room for the entire eighteen hours."
"Not even a thanks?" Hilde looked at him, then sighed, looking back at the instrument panel before leaning back to stare out at empty space. In the corner of the view screens Heero could see a thin silver of the bright blue ball of Earth. "How much did Pops tell you?"
"I'm the distraction guy." Heero kept his voice even.
"Right. This next job's our biggest so far. You fuck it up, you'll be wearing your balls for earrings."
Heero tried not to flinch at the visual. This wasn't the Hilde he remembered. He looked sideways, studying her more carefully. She was wearing a dark blue sweater, and her legs were encased in tight black leather. She looked slim, fragile, and casually lethal.
"This job's gonna be good for our rep. We're to infiltrate a hotel on L4, hack their information, and we can even waste the place when we're done."
"Their system's not connected to the 'net," she explained. "So Day's gonna have to be on location."
"What do I do?" Heero shifted in the seat. Day. Duo. He couldn't wrap his head around the name choice. Why Day?
"I'll decide once Trey's finished recon. Going by past jobs, I'll probably put you someplace where you can attract as much attention as possible." Two buttons lit up, and she leaned over and tapped them, hard. They went off and she sat back. "The definition of 'attracting attention' changes with the job."
Heero grunted, and the cockpit was quiet.
Heero mused on the changes he'd noted in Duo, the first of which was that Heero was now an inch or two taller than the American. The quick glimpse as Duo had left the cabin proved Quatre's comment had been true; Duo's braid was only to his waist. Heero wondered what had prompted Duo to cut it, or worse, what had cut it for him. He couldn't see the Deathscythe pilot willingly parting with that stupid length of hair, but he couldn't see Duo thieving for the syndicate, either.
It didn't make sense... and it was all somehow related to Hilde.
Heero chanced another sidelong look at Hilde. Her black hair was chopped bluntly at chin length, the front still falling into her face like he remembered. The girl's eyes were closed, her lashes dark against her pale cheeks. Her arms were crossed, and she'd propped her feet up on the console. She'd been the reason Duo had come for Trowa, he recalled, but she also seemed to be the one in charge here. That intrigued Heero, since he recalled Duo arguing repeatedly with Hilde about her involvement back during the first war. Duo had wanted her to stay out of it. He'd wanted to keep her safe.
Heero's lip twisted up, a wry awareness. Even Duo had someone to protect. Trowa had Catherine, Heero had Relena... and Duo had Hilde. So why was Hilde here, now, running a team for the syndicate? And why had Duo let her?
He looked over to see she was watching him, grinning in a way that rather uncomfortably reminded him of Duo's Cheshire looks.
"Did you know Day collects art?"
Heero's eyebrows shot up his forehead. That was not the opening statement he'd expected to hear from the young woman. Caught off-guard, he could only stare at her, his eyes slowly narrowing as he waited for her to continue speaking.
"I'm going to tell you this much," Hilde said in a reasonable tone. "When we were in school, he worked part-time. He didn't need to, having a full scholarship, but it was for his own expenses... and he spent all that money on buying art."
"He likes art?" Heero blurted the question out despite himself.
Hilde shook her head. "I didn't say that. He just liked this one guy's work."
"Was it a pho... " His voice trailed off, and he turned his face away from Hilde, a frown marring his features.
"Yeah." She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the control panel, and stared at the sliver of earth now receding at the side of the ship. "So you see, you've got some figuring out to do, if you want to make this work."
Heero didn't say anything. He couldn't think of anything to say. He was having too much difficulty keeping himself in mission mode. The emotions he'd learned to display over the past five years were struggling to reach the surface, and he wasn't even sure what those emotions might be.
There was a shout from the gathering room, followed by a crash. Hilde glanced back into the ship's main hallway. "You need to get back to your bunk. Trey just won, so they'll both be out in a few minutes. I'll have Trey bring you dinner."
The dark-haired man got to his feet, vaguely aware that two hours had slipped past. He paused in the doorway, then thought better of it, heading down the hallway without a backwards glance.
The dinner was miso soup and tofu teriyaki. Heero stared at the tray, completely at a loss. The last time he'd ever had reason to eat with the rest of the pilots they'd had some Arabic dish, courtesy Quatre's abilities. He'd introduced Wufei to sushi, once, with questionable results, and he couldn't recall much about Duo's eating habits other than an assumption that the guy liked beer, pizza, and ice cream. Heero was doubly startled, therefore, when he gingerly tasted the teriyaki and discovered it was quite good.
He looked up to see Trowa watching him. Heero froze with the chopsticks halfway to his mouth, one eyebrow raised. Trowa shrugged in response and moved out of Heero's line of sight, lying down on the lower bunk.
"What do I do with the dishes when I'm done?" Heero asked.
"Am I some kind of prisoner?" Heero hoped his voice sounded neutral, especially since it sounded nearly wistful to his own ears. Mission mode, his mind screamed, mission mode.
"You signed up for this," Trowa replied. "We didn't do the inviting."
But if I'd had the choice between them and a different team, Heero told himself silently, I would've taken this anyway. He paused, staring down at the Japanese spoon resting next to the bowl of miso. But would I have taken it if I knew this was the reception I'd get? He wasn't sure.
"I signed up to work for Pops," he finally said.
"Don't forget that," came the low response. "We won't."
Four hours later, Trowa woke Heero for his turn to use the shower before taking co-pilot again. The water was tepid, and recycled, but Heero now had a change of clothes and could care less about the temperature as long as he got clean. Shutting the water off while he soaped up, he listened to the creaking sound of the ship's metal, feeling the chill of deep space seeping into the hold. It was somehow comforting, after so long of only taking heavily insulated commercial shuttles with padded seats and premixed drinks.
Although a drink of any kind would be good right now, he thought.
Heero ran his fingers through his hair, and once again gave up after a few swipes. Pulling the borrowed clothes on, he listened carefully through the door before sliding it open. The main passageway was empty, and he headed up to the cockpit to join Trowa. The man acknowledged his arrival with a curt nod.
"ETA, six hours."
Heero didn't reply. Soon it seemed that Trowa was asleep, his arms crossed and his head down. Heero leaned back in his own seat, staring out into space. They were angled away from the earth, now, and it felt as though they were merely drifting, without a single foundation on which to base their progress.
The sensation felt like home. Heero wondered if this was because, in some ways, that's just how he'd been living for the past five years.
He'd slept the final four hours, his mind finally shutting down enough to dream, although he couldn't remember anything but disjointed images when he awoke. Trowa was already up, pulling on a sports coat over his turtleneck. He was wearing khaki pants, and Heero stared for a few seconds, curious. Trowa saw the look and smiled, a tentative expression.
"Hotel security," he said. "Get dressed. Hel wants you to go with her into the colony for exterior recon. Fifteen minutes," Trowa said, and left.
Heero pushed the covers back and dropped gracefully to the floor. The ship's engines were whining louder now as the pilot – probably Duo – reversed thrust to slow the ship down for landing. Heero dug into the closet for a shirt, mildly aggravated that the previous muscle had been a size larger and three inches taller. Heero had cut off the bottoms of one pair of jeans, but there was nothing to be done about the shirt's large neckline.
He was pulling on his boots when the ship shook, once, as the landing gear touched down. The auto-tug locked in with a thud. The ship began moving again, pulled towards its docking station inside the bay. He waited, counting the minutes. At fourteen minutes since Trowa had woken him, there was a knock on the door, and he slid it open to see Hilde pacing.
"Come on," she barked. "If I've gotta drag your ass to breakfast, least you could do is not make me wait."
The irritation was clear, but Heero wasn't certain it had anything to do with him personally. He settled for nodding, fully aware the tension was already high enough on the ship. She'd been right. He had some figuring out to do if he was going to make it through this.
The only problem was that he couldn't see how he could figure out anything if no one was going to talk to him.