Across the Universe
Part 1 - Drifting
No matter where he was, he always felt like he was on the outside looking in. From Earth, space seemed far away and out of reach, and from the colonies, space seemed to consume him in its endlessness. Either way very little kept him from letting go and floating off never to be seen again.
The sweet ping of crystal glasses drew Heero back to the moment. He turned from the view out of the window to the small gathering of his friends and their new acquaintances. He was on L4 to celebrate Trowa's birthday. Even though the date of Trowa's birth was unknown, Quatre had designated one for him.
"He was born in the spring of the year," Quatre had said with much surety when he had invited Heero to the party.
Heero didn't feel much like celebrating, despite the war being years over and his friends finding new reasons to enjoy life. He had joined the Earth Sphere Unified Nations' elite intelligence agency and was traveling a lot between the space colonies and Earth as one of its top agents. He was never in one place more than a few weeks, but that suited him. Destroying the armaments of war and maintaining the peace kept him focused and moving.
"Happy birthday!" the well wishers said, raising their glasses to Trowa.
Quatre beamed as Trowa leaned down to kiss him. Theirs was a success story. Through the adversity of war they had found each other, lost each other, and found each other again. Now they formed a true partnership in life and love as business partners in Winner Corporation-with Quatre at the helm and Trowa at his side. Heero was pleased for them. They had made it through the fire.
After cutting the cake, Trowa brought a piece to Heero. "You didn't have to come."
"It's your birthday."
"Designated birthday," Trowa corrected with a smile.
Heero nodded and took a bite of the cake. It was rich, dark chocolate and had a curious way of reminding him of someone he knew long ago.
"You haven't kept in touch." Trowa frowned at the distant look in Heero's eyes.
"We're all busy these days."
"Never too busy to hear from friends."
"You're right, of course," Heero said, and looked over at Quatre who was mingling with the other guests in his luxurious penthouse. "Hang onto him with both hands. You two have something special."
Trowa blinked. He was used to getting advice from his friend on occasion, but these words were seared with melancholy. "You all right, Heero?"
"Yeah," he said with a small smile. "Now you'd better get back to Quatre before he misses you."
Trowa nodded and went to Quatre, putting his arm around his lover's waist.
Heero watched them as he felt a wave of sorrow and joy wash through him. It was always this way when he was around Trowa and Quatre. Maybe that's why he kept his distance, to avoid the feeling that he had missed an opportunity for happiness. He had let it slip away, but at the time he hadn't known that was his only chance. It had been during the war and they were so very young. Surely there would be time for that... later.
He turned his eyes back to the window and the blackness of space. It was so vast, so limitless. Just like the answers he sought.
~ ~ ~
He wanted to rush back into his work, but he stayed until the end of the party and accepted his friends' offer to spend the night. They hadn't seen each other in nearly a year, and it seemed a waste to spend only a few hours together.
They breakfasted the next morning in the solarium. Trowa's and Quatre's penthouse was located in the same towering building as the Winner Corporation. Heero had wondered aloud if that was such a good idea - to live where you worked. The solarium was their favorite room, and was one of the reasons the penthouse took up two floors instead of one. The potted trees were fifty feet high and surrounded by such an abundance of greenery and flowers that it seemed Quatre had renounced his time in the desert for good.
After their meal, Heero returned to the guest bedroom to grab his duffle bag. He had left his mobile communication device on the bed and it was blinking with a new message. He flipped open the device and saw that a call had come from Preventers Headquarters in Bremen. It was from Agent Chang Wufei.
"Heero, a warehouse of MDs was discovered on Colony V08744 at Lagrange Point L2," Wufei's video message said. "How it went unnoticed all this time is a mystery, but we need you there as soon as possible. A Preventers task force is on its way to secure the premises and await your orders." Wufei's communication was succinct as usual, so Heero was surprised when after a short pause his colleague had more to say. "There's something else... it's from the Missing Persons Division."
Heero's breath caught. "Missing persons..."
"In compliance with ESUN's War Retribution Act, the General Hospital on L2 forwarded a report relating to OZ's use of the hospital during the war. According to the initial findings hundreds of patients were brought there by OZ transport. Many identified only as John or Jane Doe. I think it's a lead worth checking and thought you should know. Chang out."
Heero blinked as he sorted out this new information. He would head to L2 to begin the long process of securing and safely disarming and dismantling the Mobile Dolls, but he wouldn't have time to investigate this new lead. It was the first lead they had had in fifteen months, and the caress of hope opened his mind and made him want to set aside his duty just this once.
Could the answer he had been searching for be found on L2?
~ ~ ~
"I can't do this alone," he said, standing in the middle of the Winner Corporation's conference room.
Quatre and Trowa and a group of architects were pouring over plans for a new space port on Colony X18999 when Heero forced his way into their meeting. Now they all stared at the young Preventers' agent for the unusual interruption.
"Is something wrong?" Quatre asked, alarmed.
"I received a communication from Wufei this morning. It's a lead we should follow up on."
"A lead?" Quatre's voice hitched. He knew without asking what sort of lead Heero meant. "After all this time?"
"I have new orders, and can't pursue this," Heero said.
Quatre nodded, understanding that Heero was asking him to take charge. "Of course. Tell us what we need to do."
After replaying the last part of Wufei's message, the three former Gundam pilots looked at each other, hopeful yet reluctant to admit it.
"You think Duo was brought to that hospital?" Trowa asked.
It was almost taboo to mention Duo's name aloud. It pained all of them how he had disappeared during the war never to be seen again. With the most powerful resources at their command it had shamed and frustrated them not to solve the mystery of their missing friend.
"There's no way of knowing until we check it out," Heero said.
Trowa nodded. "Then we shouldn't waste anymore time."
~ ~ ~
Hilde Schbeiker had witnessed Duo's last battle. Duo in Deathscythe had fought Trant in Wing Zero... and lost. Deathscythe had self-destructed.
Duo's story might have ended there if Hilde had not seen what happened next. Despite the destructive, shuttering explosion of Deathscythe, Duo had survived and OZ had taken him away. That was more than five years ago, and the last time anyone had seen Duo Maxwell.
The Preventers' Missing Persons Division had so many case files that it would take ten times the resources to make a dent in them. Duo was one in thousands who had gone missing during the war. Their most conclusive lead had been that he was briefly detained by OZ military forces on Colony C102. After that he could have been taken anywhere across the great expanse of space-another colony, Mars, Earth, or some remote outpost.
It seemed the Gundam pilots had only just met, only just formed their new alliance when one among them was ripped from their ranks. Duo had made such an impression with his exuberant personality and fierce piloting and fighting skills that everyone had felt the loss. For a time they doubted they could win the war without him, but they had to keep fighting, having little chance to make inquiries and less to wonder if he had survived. And then, when the war was won, and Duo hadn't appeared, the search began in earnest. The pilots used every contact, every trick they knew to gather information. Still, this lead was the first in over a year.
The search for Duo had kept the remaining pilots relatively close. The majority of their communications involved passing information that had been uncovered in the vast databanks of OZ operations or through other, more elusive channels. If anyone could find a needle in a haystack it would be the former Gundam pilots. But the more time that passed without confirmation of his whereabouts or demise, the more painful it became to mention Duo's name.
~ ~ ~
Quatre and Trowa shook hands with Doctor Hewitt as they entered the man's office. He was the new administrator for the General Hospital on L2, having taken the position six months ago. They were directed to sit in arm chairs in front of his desk.
"There is a handful of staff that worked here during the war," he said, leaning against the desk. "The OZ program I mentioned in my report was not openly discussed."
"No one questioned what OZ was doing?" Quatre asked.
"It wasn't safe to question OZ, and besides, we're doctors. We're here for the patients, no matter how they get here."
"Are the OZ patient records available?" Trowa asked.
"Agent Yuy notified my office this morning that you would be coming, so I've asked my staff to copy the files of every patient that was admitted during the war. It might be more than you need. You can wait here or in the cafeteria, and I will have you paged when the copies are ready."
"Thank you, doctor," Quatre said, standing to shake the man's hand. "We appreciate your willingness to share such private information. Be assured the records will remain confidential."
"There were dissenting voices, but most of the board of directors felt strongly about working with ESUN to heal the scars the war left behind."
"That's good to hear," Quatre said. "We'll wait in the cafeteria so that you can get back to your work."
"I'll have my assistant escort you."
As it turned out, Doctor Hewitt's assistant, Ms. Bell was one of the remaining staffers from the war years and was eager to share her experiences.
"So you were aware of the patients brought here by OZ?" Trowa asked.
"Oh, yes. They tried to pass them off as war wounded, but one of the floors of the hospital was kept entirely off limits."
"All the OZ patients were kept on a special floor?"
"No. It's hard to explain, since there was so much secrecy, but it seemed only a handful of them were taken there."
"The most seriously injured?" Quatre asked.
The woman shook her head. "Some had obvious wounds. Most had a blank look on their faces. Kind of a soulless look." She shivered visibly. "I don't like thinking about it."
Quatre stopped walking and turned to her. "You mean they were shell shocked from battle?"
She shook her head. "Oh, I've seen plenty of that to know it wasn't the same. One of the nurses told me that OZ was experimenting on them."
"What?" Quatre asked, his heartbeat quickening.
"I never heard anything more about it... and I never saw that nurse again."
"What happened to the patients?" Trowa asked.
Ms. Bell shrugged. "When it was obvious the war was coming to an end and OZ had lost, they started destroying records and evacuating their people... and the patients from the secured floor. It was complete chaos here. I lost a lot of friends and co-workers. They either fled or were killed, I suppose. OZ didn't like witnesses."
Quatre looked to Trowa. "Do you think...?"
Trowa shook his head. "Let's hope he wasn't here."
"Are you looking for someone?" she asked.
"Yes, a former comrade," Quatre said.
"Well, I hope you find him."
~ ~ ~
Three hours later, Trowa and Quatre were given seven boxes of copied medical records. It was all the data the hospital had on the OZ patients, and Doctor Hewitt reminded them that many records had been destroyed.
The couple headed back to L4 where they could look over the records in the comfort of their home, before sending them to the Missing Persons Division. Trowa contacted Heero to inform him of their meeting and that they planned to spend the night going through the files. At ten o'clock they were surprised to have Heero at their doorstep.
He came into their penthouse, shrugging out of his Preventers' uniform jacket. "What have you discovered?"
"That OZ brought a lot of patients to L2," Quatre said.
"Shouldn't you be on L2 now?" Trowa asked.
"The warehouse is secured. I'll fly back in the morning."
Trowa and Quatre exchanged a glance. It wasn't like Heero to abandon his post.
"I hope we didn't give you the impression that this is more than we can handle," Quatre said.
Heero surveyed the open boxes and stacks of papers in the living room. "There's a lot to read and with three of us it'll go faster."
"You've got us there," Trowa said with a chuckle. "I'll brew some coffee."
"Good, thank you," Heero said, heading for the work area.
In minutes, they were settled into chairs and the couch pouring over page after page of medical records. They sorted the files into categories such as deceased, John Doe, and transferred-all relating to the patient status as best they could determine.
By three o'clock in the morning they had consumed several pots of coffee and cartons of Chinese take-away. They were finished checking the records, but had found no conclusive evidence that any of the patients were Duo Maxwell. Still, Heero compiled a list of the facilities where each male patient had been transferred at the close of the war.
"So many lives lost," Quatre said, leaning against Trowa on the couch.
Heero stared at the lovers who acted even less inhibited after a long night's work. He couldn't fault them for snuggling close in their own home, or for being comfortable enough around him to do so. "Thank you for getting these files." He got up from his chair and grabbed his jacket. If he hurried, he could be back on L2 by dawn. "I'll have Missing Persons send an image of Duo to each facility on our list. Maybe someone has seen him."
"But there wasn't anything that indicated Duo was at the General Hospital," Quatre said, frowning.
"Maybe there's a connection we don't know about. I'll contact you if I hear anything," Heero said and left.
When the door closed, Trowa got up from the couch and stretched. "We should've offered him the guest room again."
"He knows the offer is always good."
Trowa began picking up the empty coffee cups and cartons, but noted how quiet Quatre had become. He looked over to see his lover was staring at the door. "You okay, babe?"
"It's Heero," Quatre said, softly. "He's desperate to find Duo."
"Desperate? I guess we all are," Trowa said, laying a hand on Quatre's shoulder. "You think it's his way of coping with the war? It hasn't been easy for any of us to move on."
Quatre turned his clear blue eyes up at Trowa. "Do you think he's changed?"
"We've all changed, but maybe he hasn't had the support the rest of us have."
Quatre nodded, thoughtfully. "Is he seeing anyone?"
"As in dating?" Trowa asked with a laugh.
"Why is it funny?"
"He just doesn't seem like a guy who's ready for a relationship. Remember what happened with a certain young princess?"
"I'm sure Heero didn't mean to embarrass her..." Quatre's words trailed off as he recalled Relena's very public declaration of affection for the hero of the war.
It seemed a given that those two would get together once peace was forged. After Heero had quietly rebuffed the princess, he slipped away to attend college for a year before joining the Preventers.
"We need to make more of an effort to keep in touch with him," Quatre said as he stood.
Trowa smiled, knowing that once Quatre made up his mind it was best not to argue.
~ ~ ~
Three days later, the sound of the phone startled Trowa and Quatre from their sleep.
"Yes?" Trowa asked, picking up the phone.
Trowa pressed the speaker button and set the receiver down. "It's half past four, Heero. Is everything all right?"
"We've got another lead."
Quatre sat up, rubbing his eyes. "You've found Duo?"
"Not verified. One of the institutions on Earth contacted Missing Persons. They have a John Doe with a strong likeness to Duo."
"Oh, great Allah!" Quatre threw his arms around Trowa. "We'll leave on the first shuttle."
There was silence at the other end of the line.
"Heero?" Trowa asked. "Did you hear that? Quatre and I will go to Earth to check this lead."
Quatre stared at the phone, wondering at his friend's clipped response. "Are you still on L2, Heero?"
"Hn. The disarmament of the Dolls has begun, but it will be weeks before this phase of the operation is complete."
"Is it necessary for you to stay there?" Quatre asked.
"Until I receive new orders, yes."
"Isn't there a second in command who can take over for a few days?"
Even from this great distance, Quatre sensed Heero's conflicted emotions. "It would be good for you to join us."
There was a long silence, and Quatre was about to ask if Heero was still on the line when he spoke up.
"I'll see what I can do. For now, here is the information you'll need. The Institute for Mental Illness is outside of Paris, France."
"A mental institution?" Quatre gasped.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Heero said, calmly. "We don't know if Duo is there. Someone at the Institute merely stated that one of the patients with an OZ transfer has a likeness to the image that was sent."
Obviously, Heero thought this lead was a big deal or he wouldn't be calling at this hour, but he was trying to keep things in perspective. Quatre, on the other hand, was eager to embrace this new hope.
"We'll meet you there, Heero," Quatre said with practiced authority. "Rendezvous with us at the Paris shuttle port."
~ ~ ~
When Heero arrived at the shuttle port, Quatre gave him an emotional hug.
"Easy," Heero said, gently removing himself from the embrace.
"It's just so incredible to think... we might find Duo," Quatre said. His hands were shaking with a mix of nerves and excitement.
Heero opened his mouth to tell Quatre that there was no reason to believe they would find Duo today or any other day, but clamped his mouth shut. This was the best lead they had ever had. There was no point in dashing hopes when there had been so little hope for so long. It was a beautiful thing, after all, and if Quatre had hope now, it was more than they had had at the end of the war five years ago.
The trio rented a car and drove out of Paris to the countryside where the Institute for Mental Illness was located. The facility was nestled on a 500-acre parkland and consisted of eight, multi-story buildings. The former Gundam pilots were pleased with the setting, but refrained from conversation as they walked along the sidewalk to the main entrance.
Inside, Heero took control, since it was the Preventers who had made contact with the Institute. The lead they had gotten was from an anonymous source; not uncommon, but definitely not preferred.
At the reception desk, Agent Yuy showed his identification. "We are investigating a missing person and received a credible tip that he is possibly a John Doe patient here. Is there someone we can speak to about him?"
"You probably want to speak with Doctor Gies, but he's off-site until later this afternoon," the receptionist said. "He's the chief of staff, and also personally works with our toughest cases."
"Hn," Heero said with a nod. "Could another doctor give us a tour while we wait for Doctor Gies?"
"Let me call the doctors' lounge and see if anyone is available."
They waited nearly thirty minutes before a young man in a white lab coat met them in the lobby.
"I'm Doctor Finch," he said, holding out his hand in greeting.
Quatre immediately took the man's hand in a firm shake. "I'm Quatre Raberba Winner, and this is Trowa Barton and Heero Yuy." The men exchanged handshakes.
"You're investigating one of our John Does?" the doctor asked.
"Yes," Heero said. "He was a colleague of ours and we're following a lead that he may be a patient here."
"I see. What can you tell me about him?"
"His name is Duo Maxwell." Heero opened his mobile to show the doctor the image of Duo. He had uploaded it when the Missing Persons Division had sent the digital file to dozens of medical facilities.
"He doesn't look familiar, but we have hundreds of patients. Doctor Gies would probably know if he's here."
"Do you know when the doctor will be returning?" Quatre asked.
"Another hour or so," he said as he looked at his watch. "He's giving a seminar in Paris. I can take you to his waiting area, and give you a tour on the way."
"Thank you. We would appreciate that," Quatre said.