At ten minutes before eight, Duo peeked out the front window. It was dark save for street lights and the occasional car. He didn't want to go to this party tonight. Maybe he should turn the light off and pretend not to be home. Wade would think he'd gone to the library to study. But the only reason to avoid Wade was that he was getting too close to the truth for comfort, a bittersweet truth that Duo had been running from since that gray day when he'd been set free.
He sighed, frustrated by the confusing tumble of emotions inside him. He had longed for freedom, ached for it in his belly until it burned and when it was suddenly handed to him, he rushed toward it like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The messy part was that once the dust settled and he'd come up for air, Duo had found that the ache in his gut had spread to his heart.
He'd replayed that day a hundred times-the shock, the haste, and the surprising gentleness. It was a whir of images and memories sealed by a kiss. If he concentrated very hard he could still taste that kiss. And that was the most damning evidence of all and why he wasn't himself these days. He hadn't wanted the road to freedom to be one-way.
Duo needed the cool night air to calm him. He waited outside, dressed casually in jeans, loafers, t-shirt and blazer. He was glad to see Wade arrive right on time.
"Will miracles never cease?" Wade asked, jokingly. "You actually listened to me!"
"Hey, you had a good argument and I was in danger of over studying for that exam."
"Over studying?" Wade laughed. "Come on... I've got our arrival timed so we'll be fashionably late."
Duo chuckled. Wade was geeky, clumsy, and anything but fashionable.
His math professor's home was a charming 1920s bungalow off campus. His wife greeted them at the door, showing them into the living room where most of the guests were already gathered. There were a fair number more students than faculty, but Duo quickly noted that only the best in his class were present. It seemed that not just anybody had been invited.
With a glass of white wine in hand, Duo settled at the edge of the room where he could watch rather than mingle. A cool breeze caressed his skin from the open window behind him, and he turned to see the moon rising over the trees. The beautiful thing about the moon was that you could gaze on it forever and not be blinded. Millions of people could be staring at it across the world, sharing this moment, sharing in the moon's allure. Millions of wishes and kisses made by the light of the moon's glow, and longing, too, for the loved ones not with you.
He took a slow sip of the dry wine, barely registering the laughter of his fellow party goers, as he studied the moon's craters. How was it that the moon was days away by rocket, but on a night like this looked close enough to touch from a mountain top? Could he begin to hope that a certain somebody was looking on this very same moon and thinking of him?
A tap to his shoulder startled him into turning around fast, nearly spilling his drink on the lady of the house.
"Oh, I didn't mean to surprise you," she said, smiling.
"It's okay, I didn't hear you... I was admiring the moon." He tilted his head toward the window and she followed his lead to look outside.
"It is lovely," she said. "I told Richard we should have the party outside and get those tiki lights. It would've been so nice, but probably a little chilly."
"It's good just like this. You have a very nice home."
"Thank you. It's Max, right?"
"Richard has mentioned you a couple of times. I'm glad you could make it. We like to have these little gatherings to remind everyone that academics aren't everything. People need to connect outside of the classroom, too."
"It's really nice of you to have us over."
She smiled and her eyes drifted back to the moon briefly and then to him again. "It's none of my business, but were you thinking of someone just now? Maybe you're feeling homesick? A lot of students struggle with being away from home."
"Uh, not exactly..." His words drifted off not knowing how to explain feelings that he didn't completely understand.
"You don't need to explain. Just remember we're like a family here and if you're ever desperate for a homecooked meal just give me a call."
Duo blinked. "Wow... thanks."
"You're welcome." She smiled brightly and patted his arm before returning to her other guests.
He stared after her, marveling at the way she had reached out to him. He wondered if maybe he did look a little homesick for a home he didn't have.
Just then, Wade stomped over from across the room. "You waiting for someone to ask you to dance?"
"Well, you're sure acting like a wall flower."
"I was admiring the moon," Duo said defensively. "And Mrs. Tingley was talking to me."
Wade held his hands up in surrender. "Okay, okay." He saw another classmate and hurried away.
That made two people who'd gone out of their way to talk to him tonight. Not so very long ago Duo would've been the life of the party, not needing any encouragement to mingle. But things had changed. Nothing felt right anymore. He needed to tie a string around his finger to remind himself to try extra hard.
It was time to join this party. Duo pushed off the wall and wandered over to a small grouping of students and professors. His professor was among them, and also one he had heard about but hadn't taken any classes from yet-Professor Motley.
"Ubiquitous computing forces the computer to live out here in the world with people," Motley said.
The guy was fascinated by the relationship between humans and computers. Even though Duo's focus was geospatial engineering-the analysis of the earth's terrain-he appreciated Motley's views and his seemingly vast knowledge of computers.
"We need to build systems..." Motley continued. "That recognizes the obstacles and overcomes them from the outset. Then we'll realize the benefits."
Everyone was enrapt listening to his theory, but the only person contributing to the conversation was Professor Tingley. Motley seemed disappointed.
"No offense, Richard, but I'd really like to hear what these bright young scholars think of all this."
Motley met each of their eyes, and Duo was surprised by everyone's great hesitation to respond to the challenge. When the professor looked his way, Duo felt he had nothing to lose.
"I agree, we need to build systems, but before you do that won't you need to create spatial data standards?" Duo asked.
Motley blinked and then smiled. "Precisely! And what is your name young man?"
"I'm D... Max Solo."
"Max is one of my best students," Duo's professor of mathematics said.
"Is that right?" Motley shifted position, stepping forward and essentially cutting off the others from the conversation.
Duo took a half step back, finding the move slightly aggressive.
"You're in Tingley's class?"
Duo nodded. "Someone once told me I should study mathematics."
"Well, it sounds as if you know your way around a computer as well."
"I worked in IT for awhile."
"Tell me more about what you were saying... about the spatial data standards."
Duo swallowed. "I was only following through with what you were saying. Without a code of standards your systems would have nothing to stand on... so to speak."
"I'm in the process of creating effective models of continuous data streams with the goal of establishing a standard for the very reason you suggest. Might you be interested in working on the project with me? I have access to the largest computer in the region, but I need an assistant if I'm ever going to get this idea off the ground."
"Wow, you're offering me an assistantship?"
"Yes. Can you stop by my office tomorrow afternoon and we'll work out the details?"
Motley held out his hand and they shook on the deal.
~ ~ ~
Motley's project took up most of Duo's free time, but it was worth it to work with computers again. Duo found that evaluating and re-engineering data was good mental exercise that kept him in shape for his heavy course load. After only two weeks on the ubiquitous computing project, Duo was given unsupervised access to the mainframe computer. It was like being a kid in a chocolate factory. Duo had never worked this closely with a computer of this size. It was masterful to watch and he was in awe of its power.
Late one evening, after Professor Motley had gone home, Duo went over some gaps in the data. He especially liked the computer lab when there was only the hum of the machine to keep him company. He was at home with computers, but he had forgotten this comfort in favor of new pursuits. Mathematics and geospatial engineering would have led him back to this eventually, but as he sat here alone he knew this was where he always wanted to be.
Back all those months ago a crazy-haired scientist had recognized his potential. The man had seemed extremely interested in his talent for communicating with computers and had even wondered if Duo was a "master of mathematics." Duo chuckled at the memory, still flattered by the compliment.
Miss Noin had given Duo access to the Project's computers. He had fixed a simple glitch, but in the process had learned a thing or two about their system. They had underestimated him. The technicians had been protective, but wet behind the ears. Duo's fast fingers and memorization skills had found key data. Noin should've listened to the technicians' warning that day.
His eyes lifted from the print-out, settling on the machine. This supercomputer was designed for massive mathematical calculations at gigaflop speed, and it was capable of communicating with mainframes around the world. Computers talked to each other all the time sharing data and assisting in computations. What if the university's supercomputer sent a greeting to the Project's supercomputer?
He almost laughed aloud. He would have to be nuts to do it. Any contact will be regarded as a threat. Is that what he wanted? Contact at any cost? Maybe Wade was right. Duo wanted to know if he had gotten under Heero's skin.
He had the power at his fingertips, and he believed the know-how to make this work. But sending an unauthorized message to the Project's computer would set off a chain reaction. He had been warned against even sending a postcard, and this would leave a trail of breadcrumbs back to his door. They would treat contact as a breach in security, but how would they respond? A nervous twinge skittered through him and his face warmed. God, did he dare to hope that Heero would respond? Is that why he was willing to play with fire? Feelings like that had no place in the real world. They made him want to do dangerous things like send messages to one of the world's most covert organizations.
He got up from his chair and took a deep breath as he walked over to the computer. At the keyboard his mind raced with codes and how to proceed and a last hesitation if he should proceed. How would he cover his tracks among the data stream so that Professor Motley wouldn't know? He started typing, disbelieving that he was actually going through with this. He was sending a message to Heero and quite possibly unleashing the demons of hell.
~ ~ ~
Large hands massaged deeply in the rhythm of crashing waves playing on the penthouse's sound system. After a fourteen-hour workday and the completion of plans for a water desalinization plant, Treize deserved this indulgence. The masseur rubbed warm oil into his shoulders as rose incense filled the air. What better way to end the day and await his lover?
The beep of an incoming message on his computer brought Treize out of the moment. He reached from the massage table to his desk, his fingertips just able to touch the activation key on the laptop.
Zechs appeared on the screen. His platinum bangs swaying across his brow as he looked up. "Treize, I have something to report."
Treize sighed. Sometimes Zechs could be so serious. "Just a moment," he said, raising himself from the massage table, and dismissing the masseur. Standing with only a towel at his waist, he stared down at the vid screen. "What is it, Zechs? And why aren't you here?"
"Our status is compromised."
Treize's eyes narrowed on his lover's face. He knew full well Zechs was not talking about them, but about a breach of security within the Project.
"I'll be right there."
"Thank you, sir."
He almost purred to hear Zechs call him 'sir.' Now to get him to say that in bed....
He dressed in the blue cashmere pullover, navy trousers and black leather shoes he had intended to wear for the start of their evening. His chef had planned a simple dinner for them to share in the veranda rose garden, but it would have to wait.
In the Project's control room, Treize was not surprised to find Dorothy Catalonia clucking like a mother hen.
"This is unacceptable!" she said.
"What is the nature of the compromise?" Treize asked as he joined them in front of the supercomputer's bank of monitors.
Zechs met his eyes, seeming genuinely happy with his presence in the room, but the gravity of the moment shown on his face. "We received a message."
"From whom?" Treize asked, incredulously.
"To whom more like it," Dorothy said. "'Hello, Mr. Kaplan'."
"Pardon me?" Treize asked.
"That's the message," she said. "I want to know who's Mr. Kaplan? And why on earth should we tell him hello?"
Treize's eyes narrowed on the print-out with the message nestled within lines of numerical code. "Who sent this?"
"We're working on that now," Zechs said. "It could be a prank."
"Hardly," Treize said, flicking the page. "No one gets into my system, and certainly not by accident. Even some punk computer geek would have no way. This is meant to get someone's attention."
"Yes, Mr. Kaplan's," Dorothy said, sarcastically.
"Dear cousin, I suggest you find the person responsible and eliminate him. Understood?"
Her eyes widened. "Isn't that a little extreme?"
Treize raised one eyebrow. "Extreme would be eliminating the person or persons who allowed this breach."
He turned on his heel, his blood boiling. Zechs caught up to him several paces into the hallway, stopping him with a touch to his shoulder. The two men faced each other.
"If you don't mind," Zechs said. "I'd like to remain here until this is resolved."
Treize nodded. "Thank you, Zechs. Your dedication is appreciated."
They parted ways without so much as a kiss. Treize stepped into the elevator to take him back to his penthouse and heard Zechs call to him.
"You look very handsome tonight," Zechs said.
Treize grinned as the lift's doors closed.
~ ~ ~
He woke the next morning at dawn, surprised that he had fallen asleep and not been disturbed. Why hadn't his team contacted him with news? He dialed Zechs's mobile.
"Don't tell me you haven't figured this out?" Treize asked, disheartened.
"I thought you had more faith in me, Treize," Zechs said with a soft chuckle.
"Then why didn't you contact me?"
"You needed to sleep. Everything is under control. Meet me on the veranda for breakfast in one hour."
"So mysterious," Treize said. "I could phone Dorothy---"
"Have a little patience, love."
"All right. One hour."
When he arrived on the veranda, Zechs was already there pouring champagne into glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice.
"Do we have something to celebrate?" Treize asked, kissing Zechs's cheek.
"Merely an indulgence after a long night apart." Zechs wrapped his arms around Treize, planting a lustful kiss on his lips.
"Tell me what you found," Treize said.
Zechs laughed. "I guess I've made you wait long enough."
They sat on cushioned chairs under a white canopy, champagne glasses in hand.
"Mr. Kaplan's identity was revealed," Zechs said, sipping his Mimosa.
"The breach was caused by someone sending a message to Heero? Could it be..." The source seemed all too apparent, but he waited for Zechs to confirm it.
"Yes, we're certain the message was sent by Duo Maxwell. We traced the communication to the computer at the university he is attending."
"And you dispatched him?"
"Not without your orders."
"I said as much last night."
"Treize," Zechs said, putting his hand on the man's knee. "You were unhappy last night. This was better discussed in the light of day."
He leaned back in his chair, surprised at how quickly Zechs was learning him. They were becoming a formidable team and he rather liked it.
"Maxwell is Heero's responsibility. That was our deal," Treize said.
"When will he be back?"
"Not for days. And I won't interrupt a mission for something so trivial. What does the name Kaplan have to do with him anyway?"
"Sally informed us that Maxwell used the moniker when referring to Heero, but she didn't know why."
Treize nodded. He wondered why Duo would send a message to Heero knowing full well there would be consequences. Were the feelings that Heero had expressed for Duo reciprocated? How very odd.
"Let's send a warning shot," Treize said, standing down somewhat in deference to Heero's feelings. "Remind Mr. Maxwell of our agreement and tell him of the great displeasure at receiving his communiqué."
"I can leave at once."
"You are eager to please, but I'd rather you didn't leave on an empty stomach. Breakfast with me and I'll give you a proper send-off for your little errand."
They smiled at one another and leaned in to seal the mission with a kiss.