Heero took the elevator down several levels to the training salle, stepping into the secured foyer. He input his access code into the security panel, waiting for the optic reader to fold out, but nothing happened. His brow furrowed. He punched the code again and still nothing. It was rare for equipment to malfunction. He tried the code once more, and getting no response he felt the urge to slug the wall, but didn't. It seemed the new cocktail was managing to keep his rage under control.
He reached for his mobile and dialed the brains in IT.
"Tech services," a young woman said.
"This is Heero, the optic reader is not functioning on the salle's security door."
He heard a sigh and then, "I'll add that to the list."
"Haven't you heard?"
"Obviously not," he said with growing impatience.
"The system has caught a cold."
He lifted his mobile phone away from his ear and stared at it. Had he heard her correctly? "How does that happen?"
"That's what we're trying to determine. Thanks for reporting the glitch."
The tech hung up, and Heero had the distinct impression that things were a bit hairy in the IT department today.
With his access denied, the only way into the salle was via the scientists' shared laboratory. He would have to back track and take a different elevator and corridor to get there. On the elevator he decided to contact Doctor Po to clarify the situation, but just as he was about to dial her extension his mobile rang.
"Heero, it's Sally."
He blinked. "Yes?"
"Can you meet in my office... say in ten minutes?"
"Yes. Is something wrong?"
"There's been another compromise."
"Another? I wasn't aware of any compromise."
"Oh... Well, I was just informed by Dorothy that the computer glitches we're experiencing are because of a security breach. We're meeting in my office."
His stomach tightened in anger. Who would dare strike at the Project?
"I'm on my way," he said, disconnecting the call.
Her tone had been nervous. It wasn't like Sally to buckle under stress. So why would a breach make her anxious?
When he arrived, he was ushered into her office by Miss Noin who closed the door behind him. He wasn't surprised to find other members of the team present. Treize, Dorothy, Zechs and Sally were all there, gathered around Sally's desk. What surprised him was that they all looked at him as though he had interrupted a private conversation.
"I'm sorry, Heero," Sally said, handing him a computer print-out.
That was an odd thing to say. Did she feel responsible for someone gaining access to the system? He scanned the data on the page. The malicious code was highlighted in yellow.
"So, fix it," he said, handing the print-out back.
"The techs are working to quarantine the virus," Dorothy said. "The system should be fully operational by lunch time."
"And you have coordinates on a target?" he asked.
Dorothy blinked, stammered for an answer and then looked to Treize.
"Yes, we have the coordinates," Treize said.
"Heero," Sally said. "The progenitor of this breach---"
"There is something you should know," Treize interrupted. He gestured for everyone to take a seat. Extra chairs had been brought into the office for this special meeting. Zechs and Dorothy sat down immediately.
Heero noted the increased tension in the room. "Why do I get the feeling that I'm not going to like what you say next?"
"Have a seat---"
"I'd rather stand, thank you, sir."
Treize leaned back on Sally's desk. "Your target is Duo Maxwell."
Heero's breath caught on hearing Duo's name. It had been a long time since anyone had mentioned him in passing or otherwise. Even Sally had stopped asking about Duo during their sessions. It was like they had all agreed it was a chapter of his life that was over and best forgotten.
"Duo sent this code?" Heero asked, bewildered.
Heero glanced at Sally and then back to Treize. "And this isn't the first time?"
"Why wasn't I informed about the first breach? Or have there been more?"
"Just the one other time," Dorothy said, chiming in.
"Why wasn't I informed?" Heero asked again, more forcefully.
"You were on a mission," Treize said, his voice calm and authoritative. "A quick response was in order."
Heero blinked even as his heart skipped a beat. "And what was your response?"
"I arranged a rendezvous," Zechs said.
Heero turned sharply, his eyes narrowing on Zechs as his anger surged. "You met with him?"
"Yes, it was simple enough," Zechs said in a haughty tone.
Heero exhaled through his nose, sounding like an impatient colt. "Tell me what happened and don't dare leave out any details."
Zechs smirked. "I met him outside the university library. It was a lovely, sunny day and I kept the conversation brief. I believe I said something like, 'Step out of line again and your next visit will be from the Grim Reaper.' But it seems the warning didn't stick. The boy has a death wish."
At least the encounter had been in a public place, but still Heero didn't like that Zechs had met with Duo. That any of them had gotten near Duo. Heero's hands clenched as a jumble of emotions threatened his self-control.
"Why would he..." Heero's question died on his lips as he tried to understand.
He thought that they had parted on good terms with Duo understanding the importance of the Project. Why would Duo try to harm the Project's operations? Did he feel constricted? Angry? Vengeful? He was still on the Project's radar, but in time they would've stopped checking on him, barely giving him a glance.
Frustrated, Heero turned to his mentor. "We had a deal."
"Yes, and Mr. Maxwell has broken it," Treize said, standing fully. "It's unacceptable that it has come to this. My patience has ended."
Heero remembered the day in Treize's office when they had come to the terms of this arrangement. It had been a risk to let Duo go, knowing what he did, and now it seemed that Treize had been right all along. Heero had let his feelings, his love for Duo, overrule his good sense.
Treize turned to Sally. "The consequences lay ultimately with you, doctor." Sally opened her mouth to protest, but Treize held up his hand, silencing her. "I admire your creativity and what you set out to accomplish, but I should never have allowed it. Introducing such an abhorrent variable into our operation was a mistake."
There was a great silence in the room as everyone absorbed Treize's words. He had been so supportive of her efforts that it seemed wrong to criticize her now.
"Duo is very intelligent," Sally said, her eyes pleading. "Maybe there's a way---"
"Enough, doctor," Treize said. "He's had his chance, several in fact."
"I believe Duo will attempt another breach," Dorothy said, bolstering Treize's position. "Within this last code were indicators that could be interpreted as a threat of more to come."
Heero gave a little snort.
"Perhaps you would like to share the humor of this situation," Treize said.
Heero knew he shouldn't be pleased, but he liked seeing what Duo was capable of. "He's outsmarted our system. Professor G saw his potential months ago."
Treize's eyes narrowed on him. "Like the fictional Moriarty he's chosen to use his talents for the ill of society. Such a menace cannot be tolerated no matter how brilliant he may be."
"Maybe we should offer him a job," Dorothy said with a chuckle. When Treize glared, she shrugged. "You said it yourself that he's brilliant... and a little deranged."
"Sounds like some of our scientists," Sally said.
That got snickers out of most everyone in the room, except for Treize. His mood had turned sour.
"The decision is made," Treize said with great authority. "The threat must be dealt with effectively and efficiently. Dorothy will coordinate the mission." He turned a direct gaze on Heero. "The consequences belong to Doctor Po, but as you know, Heero, the termination is your responsibility. I expect you to leave within the hour."
Heero stared into Treize's intense green eyes, not wavering from their scrutiny. The man knew very well what he was asking of Heero, and he also knew that Heero would see it through. Ultimately, this was not about Heero. It was about the security of the Project.
Zechs stood and approached Heero. "If you prefer, I would be your proxy."
He was offering to kill Duo, but that was unacceptable. If Duo was to die at anyone's hands it would be Heero's. It was the only way he could ensure it was quick and painless.
"Treize is right," Heero said. "This is my responsibility. I'll see it through."
Zechs extended his hand. "You're a good man."
Heero shook the proffered hand. He accepted the compliment knowing that Zechs was aware of the relationship he had shared with Duo.
~ ~ ~
Less than an hour later, Heero was dressed in street clothes and his bag packed with reconnaissance gear. Dorothy had briefed him of his target's position. Everything that Heero had purposely not wanted to know he now needed to complete this mission. All the details of Duo's life were stored on a digital reader that doubled as Heero's secured communication line: where Duo lived, his class schedule, location of the laboratory from where he had made the attack, his favorite coffeehouse and so on. He accepted the information as objectively as possible.
He had taken out targets before, but never one with whom he was intimately acquainted. Such a mission would test every oath that Heero had ever made.
"Is there any indication that he may have programmed the university's computer to send another attack unless he's there to stop it?" Heero asked.
"Anything's possible," Dorothy said.
She set a case of weapons on the table. It was tradition for Heero to choose his weapons from the arsenal just before he left. He selected a stiletto, and a handgun with a suppressor attachment to reduce the noise and flash when the weapon was fired. Both weapons would be strapped to his person before reaching his destination.
"I wish I knew his motivation for doing this," Dorothy said. "The virus was nasty and I give him credit for sneaking it through our firewalls, but...." She shook her head and seemed uncharacteristically perplexed. "The first communiqué from Duo...."
Heero blinked. It was against procedure for the mission team to use the target's first name. Everyone knew it was easier to take someone out if things were kept impersonal.
"It seemed like he was just keeping in touch. It took us several hours to figure out that the greeting was meant for you."
"The first contact wasn't a malicious code, it was a message that said: 'Hello, Mr. Kaplan.'"
Heero's eyes widened. "Why didn't someone tell me about this?"
"It was irrelevant," a voice said from behind them.
He turned to see Treize coming into the control room. It wasn't completely out of the ordinary for him to be on hand for a mission departure, but it wasn't the norm either.
"He broke the rules and an immediate response was necessary." Treize leveled a strong gaze at Heero as he walked up to the table, perusing the weapons that remained in the case. "In deference to you, Heero, I merely sent a warning, but it seems I didn't take him serious enough and now he's become a threat."
Heero understood this, but he couldn't get past the original message. It softened something inside him knowing that Duo had made an attempt to contact him using that silly nickname. He remembered the day he had stared at Duo across the fountain. Back then all he could do was stare and wonder what it would feel like to brush the back of his hand across Duo's cheek. The desire for that simple touch seemed so innocent now after all the things they had shared. And now, he was staring down at the gun in his hand. The gun that would end Duo's life.
"Heero," Treize said, putting his hand on Heero's shoulder.
He looked into the man's serious face. "Yes."
"I am sorry it has come to this, and will require an even greater sacrifice from you. I have no doubt that you will see this through to its rightful conclusion."
"Thank you, sir."
Treize nodded, giving his shoulder a squeeze and then got out of the way for the mission to begin.
~ ~ ~
According to the target's schedule he was between classes and would more than likely show up at Puchi's Bistro. Heero was positioned across the street and partially hidden by a postcard rack outside a store. He had been here for ten minutes and the boutique's owner had glared at him through the window twice. He would buy a postcard if he had time, but he couldn't risk missing Duo's arrival. He had yet to get command of his target.
At a quarter past one, he got his first glimpse. Heero's breath caught as he recognized Duo's characteristic bounce as he came down the sidewalk. Duo was wearing jeans, sneakers, a long-sleeved white t-shirt, and a messenger bag slung crosswise over his body. He turned into the coffeehouse and his braid whipped behind him, causing Heero to swallow hard.
Heero leaned back on the post behind him, warmth rushing through his body. He hadn't expected to be so affected by seeing Duo again. Everything came back to him at once: Duo's confident stance, the way his head tilted when he wasn't sure you understood him, the way his body moved, the way his ass fit into a tight pair of jeans, and the way his braid swayed in harmony with his raucous laughter.
"Can I help you?"
Heero blinked and looked to the shop's doorway. The shopkeeper was standing there with pursed lips. The interruption was enough to set Heero back on track. He shook his head and moved along. It was time to find a new lookout. He settled a couple doors down at a bookseller having a sidewalk sale. He could stand here browsing for at least an hour.
He picked up a book not bothering with its title and pretended to read, occasionally looking across the street to the Bistro. What he wanted was to be inside the Bistro, breathing the same air as his target, and on most missions that would be possible, but not this one. The target knew him and he had to carefully conceal himself until the moment was right.
When he had negotiated with Treize for Duo's release four months ago, Heero never thought this scenario would play out. Treize had flatly refused to set him free for the very reason that Duo could be a threat on the outside. But Heero had persisted, believing that Duo understood the importance of the Project. He had won by volunteering to "take him out" if it came to that. He hadn't wanted it to come to that, but the offer hadn't been made lightly.
On the day of departure, Duo had looked into Heero's eyes and said, "I could never hate you." Apparently in the interim months he decided he hated the Project and its finger on his life. Heero was tied to the Project with every fiber of his being and for Duo to hate the Project was to hate Heero. Duo had to know that there was zero tolerance for threats. Why couldn't he have left well enough alone?
Maybe in death he'll find the freedom he so desperately wants, Heero thought.
He glanced at his watch. He was in mission mode and had no more time for doubts. He would spend the day tailing his target and assessing the best opportunity to strike.
~ ~ ~
Duo took a last sip of his coffee and set the cup in its saucer. He stretched his arms over his head and gathered his books back into his bag. He had twenty minutes to get to his last class of the day, then he would go to the laboratory to check the data streams for Professor Motley, and in the process see if there were any messages for him. The warning had been simple and clearly stated. Further contact with the Project would result in Death's fury. He swallowed as he slipped his messenger bag over his shoulder and got up from the table. Would it really be worth it to see Heero one more time if it was down the barrel of a gun?
He left a buck on the table as a tip and exited the Bistro. On the coffeehouse steps he paused to look at the dark clouds rolling in from the west. It looked like it might rain in the next couple of hours and he didn't have an umbrella on him. Just then, Vivian came rushing out the door.
"You forgot this," she said, smiling as she handed him a notebook.
"You left it on a chair." She gave his arm a squeeze and then went back inside. The middle-aged barista made everyone feel welcome, but Duo had a feeling she had a soft spot for him.
He stepped onto the sidewalk and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He turned, scanning the busy pedestrian traffic. There was an odd feeling in the air. Was it paranoia or was the air charged with electricity from the coming storm? His senses prickled and it got him moving quickly to class.
After an agonizing hour and a half, Duo anxiously made his way to the science building. It was less than twenty-four hours since he'd sent the malicious code, but he knew he should expect a response.
Professor Motley was in the lab pouring over the data streams that Duo was to check.
"I'm glad you're here," he said, looking up from his desk. "I've found an error message among the data."
Duo put down his bag and leaned over the desk, trying to act as casual as possible. Motley turned the print-out towards him.
"Do you see... here and here?" he asked, pointing to the page. "I don't know what to make of it."
Duo nodded, his mouth agape. It was an error all right, and it seemed to be telling him that his code hadn't made it through the Project's firewall. The bastards had outsmarted him. No wonder the sky hadn't fallen in!
"What do you think it means?" Motley asked.
"It looks like the computer picked up some stray code, but it doesn't seem to have effected the data stream's integrity."
The professor scratched behind his ear. "But that's not possible unless someone is making a deliberate attempt to hack into our system."
Duo swallowed nervously. "Yeah, could be. How about I run a complete system's diagnostic and build a new firewall?"
"Do you have time for that?"
"I can at least start on it."
"Thanks. I appreciate it. I have a meeting this evening and really don't have time to worry about this."
"Nothing to worry about. If it was a hack job they didn't get very far."
In minutes, the professor had packed up his briefcase and said goodnight. Once he was out the door, Duo slumped into the nearest chair. Fuck, the malicious code had not gone through. By the fragments of code that had been shuffled in cyberspace and bounced back it appeared that it had not broken in. The Project's system had not received the virus.
He started to laugh. All day it had felt like someone was watching him, following him just out of view. It turned out he had imagined the whole thing. His date with Death would have to wait for another day. Of course, that meant that Heero would not be materializing any time soon, but Duo would not make another attempt at sabotage tonight. He had a lot to think about and obviously needed to formulate a better code. He was lucky that Motley had not suspected a thing.
For the next two hours, Duo put the supercomputer through a full diagnostic check, and began to prepare an additional firewall.