by Dev-Aki Basaa
Duo took a moment to marvel at how smart Mari was. Everyday, coming home was a trick of getting himself inside while keeping the dog from getting outside. When Heero was around, they did it as a team, taking turns holding Mari by the collar. These days, he wedged himself into the smallest space possible, while keeping her at bay with his leg. However, this night, there was none of it, as if she knew he would be too exhausted to handle her and decided to be a good puppy out of consideration. Smart dog. He had actually figured he'd end up on his hands and knees in the hallway, begging the rambunctious blonde mutt to just come back inside, tempting her with promises of dog treats and runs in the park. Even unlocking the front door had been an exertion and he just about took a header inside when the door opened and he was still leaning against it. The door had swung open and he'd kicked it shut before remembering he should be fighting with Mari. He looked down to see her sitting calmly at his feet, her little fuzzy head cocked to one side, as if puzzled.
"I'm so tired, girl," he said as he passed her, patting her head. He dragged his feet to the kitchen and fumbled around, filling her empty food and water dishes. She sniffed at the kibble, but ended up following him as he made his lumbering way into the bedroom. The past week had finally caught up with him. He'd passed his final stamina test today, complete with sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups and more. He didn't hurt - at least, not yet - but the idea of dying sounded really good right now. Flopping onto the bed, Duo nestled into the twisted covers, Mari jumping up to lay beside to him. He was still clothed; he didn't care. Sleeping for about two hundred days sounded much more important than changing into pjs or even just stripping down to the buff. He'd probably over done it, determined to pass this test on the first try. Since he'd made the decision he'd be a Preventer for life, no matter what happened with Heero, it only strengthened his resolve to be an agent again as soon as possible. Besides, he didn't want his koibito coming back to find out he'd shacked up with a quitter, now did he?
Gods, he missed him...
Duo jerked awake at the sound of the phone ringing. In the back of his mind, he realized the phone had been ringing a lot. It had filtered into his dream, like a buzzing noise he couldn't escape. He reached out, patting around the nightstand for the phone, knocked the receiver off the cradle and finally brought it to his ear.
"Do you even KNOW how many times I've called?" Wufei's voice snapped over the line. "I was ready to send a team of agents over there to make sure you weren't dead."
"I think I was." He rubbed a knuckle in his eye and glanced over at the clock. He'd been asleep for almost three hours. It felt like five seconds.
"We have a lead," Wufei announced without ceremony. Duo sat up straight and pressed the phone tighter to his ear, anxiousness and excitement causing his muscles to tense.
"We've intercepted a transmission. I can't tell you any more than that on an unsecured line. Just get here so we can brief you. Do you want a car? I'll have one sent over."
Duo yawned and then grinned.
"Yes please, a nice new car with a big stereo and a bass canon. Sporty and black with black interior. Leather, if you can swing it. Just send the bill to one of those exiled Romefeller dignitaries you all've got your eyes constantly on. With all the money they have, they wouldn't even notice a measly new car."
"Duo..." Wufei's voice edged with a warning tone.
"Naw, on second thought, my old car is in fine working order. I'll be there in 10."
"Fine. See you then." The line went dead.
Duo hung up the phone, slamming it down hard enough to make the ringer ding and the nightstand rattle.
He shoved the covers back and climbed out of bed, pulling his t-shirt over his head as he stood. Before he even threw the shirt away, his free hand fumbled with the zipper of his slacks and shoved them down around his hips. He looked up at the sound of Mari's bark. She was prancing impatiently in place at the doorway to the bedroom. She barked again.
Duo shook his head and kicked away the wrinkled slacks, grabbing a pair of jeans that he'd left lying in the laundry basket. He should be concerned that he knew what had her all riled up. He'd never spoken 'dog' before Heero left for his assignment. "I know girl," he answered her, "but I slept in these clothes. It'll just take me a minute to change."
Yanking on the jeans, Duo hopped into the bathroom, bouncing on one foot while the other slipped through the stiff pant leg, finally buttoning the fly as he stepped up to the sink. He flipped on the faucet and wet his hands, then reached up to run them over his scalp, smoothing down the pillow-mussed fly-aways that has slipped out of his braid. There wasn't time to really fix his hair. He grabbed a shirt from the closet and slipped on a pair of loafers as he jogged to the front door, Mari barking at his heels.
"Ssssh!" he said as buttoned up the yellow Oxford. "You're not coming with me this time."
He grabbed his keys and pulled open the front door. A breeze rushed down the hall and spun into the apartment, fluttering his braid. Someone must have propped open the door to the complex, but that part wasn't unusual, it was the familiar scent the wind carried. Duo's eyes went wide and he turned around, looking down to see Mari with her ears perked and her head tipped to one side, her nose working furiously. She'd smelled it too.
Then Duo remembered the shirt.
He stretched out his arms and looked down at the yellow shirt he was wearing. It was one of Heero's, one that Duo had never borrowed before. Heero must not have washed it after the last time it'd been worn, must have just put back in the closet. It smelled richly of him - of his cologne and sweat. Of that soft sweet aroma that always permeated his hair. The wind must have rustled the shirt enough to release the scent. Duo raised his arm and pressed the cuff to his nose, breathing deep. He'd thought everything in the place had lost his smell at least a year ago.
Apparently, not everything.
A movement in his lower peripheral vision pulled his back from the swelling memories. He shot out his leg and halted Mari's sneaking attempt to slip past him and out into the hall.
"Don't even think about it."
Mari whimpered as he pushed her back with his leg. Then Duo reached for the wide-open front door, pulling it close behind him. There was no point in dwelling in memories when he could be just hours away from wrapping himself in the real thing.
He had to go; a lead awaited him.
Duo wasn't the least bit surprised to pull in and see Wufei standing outside the rear entrance to headquarters, hands clasped behind his back, pacing to and fro. He was dressed as casually as Duo had ever seen him - a dark blue t-shirt tucked into a pair of khaki slacks. He already had the door held open as Duo jogged up from where he'd parked his car. For several paces into the back corridor, neither said a word, just hurried to their destination. Even for the late hour - almost midnight - headquarters were still a buzz of activity.
Finally, Duo couldn't take the silence and inquired about the transmission.
"It actually came through two days ago," Wufei answered, as they still strode down the corridors. "It took our men all this time to break the code, but this is what we've been waiting for."
"Hey, you should've called," Duo said, absently brushing the sleeve of the shirt close to his nose and taking a deep breath. "I could have broken any code in no time."
Wufei nodded, pausing to type in a security code and place his hand against the pad for ID. "I realize that. However, you aren't an agent, remember? I've always had to argue for clearance to involve you in what little we have in the past two years." The secured door beeped twice and slid open. Wufei gestured for Duo to precede him through the threshold. "It wasn't until after they'd broken the code that we knew it to be related to Heero and Zechs' mission." Wufei slowed his steps as they came to the Monitoring Room, bowing his head slightly. "There have been many times I had been inclined to call you for a troublesome code, but couldn't because of your leave. Such things will be much better once you're back."
"Right, thanks," Duo mumbled, looking away. He felt like an idiot = deserving of the 'baka' title Heero had given him as some sort of teasing endearment. He stopped at the door and scuffed his feet before looking up at Wufei and offering a shrug. "Sorry 'bout that, though."
Wufei's lips curled just enough to be called a smile, but his face didn't crack, so one really couldn't be sure. "Don't apologize, just get your ass back on the roster."
At that, Duo beamed and gave a sharp nod. "Gotcha!"
Wufei turned away and pressed his hand to the ID pad. After another set of twin beeps, the door before them slid open and they marched into the room. Une and Sally looked up as the two walked in; they were standing behind two male agents that Duo didn't recognize. The pair was seated at a large databank computer; one had a set of headphones on, the other was scribbling on a pad and glancing repeatedly at one of the monitor screens before him.
Though Une's expression didn't change, Sally's face brightened considerably, her gaze focused on Wufei.
"Wonderful, you're here," she said.
Duo grinned, but let Wufei off the hook, not making even the slightest comment when he noticed how red the tips of his ears got.
"So, what do we know?" he said instead as he strode over to where the two women were standing. He leaned over the agent with the pad of paper and read the code that buzzed across the screen.
"Plenty, actually," Une began. "Titan and Io's report came in. The base we knew the group to be at is deserted and the local town rumor is that they went north." She stepped away from the computer to a conference table that had a map spread out across it. Duo glanced over his shoulder to see Wufei join her, together leaning over the table to get a better view of the detailed map of Central Northern America. He gave another quick glance at the computer screen, then turned away, walking to the table in time to see Une point high and center on the map.
"There's an old Alliance bunker this way," she said, "and the chances are good that they're there. But, thanks to this transmission, we think they're on the move again, or, at least a small band of them." She folded her arms across her chest, her expression softening. "There are a lot of followers to this group who offer little more than support - this is also from Agent Titan and Io's report. People who believe in the group's ideals, but have no useable military or weapons knowledge. They may be families of the involved soldiers. There may even be children, though nothing has substantiated that theory." She shook her head. "Either way, there are innocents involved and I don't want the base attacked. As we speak, a group is gathering to join Titan and Io in monitoring that bunker and securing it - with as little force as necessary - once that option presents itself."
Duo nodded. "And when do you think that'll happen?"
"The transmission gives details of a planned attack; we would strike then. It's an assassination attempt on Miss Relena," Une added, her tone blunt.
Duo jolted, giving a mental curse.
"It gets better," Wufei said, leaning close to Duo. Duo's face crumpled at Wufei's cryptic statement, glancing at him for explanation, but his expression belayed nothing. Une sighed and continued.
"A sharpshooter will be present in the Government Central Auditorium for a speech Relena has planned this coming morning. After the shooting, aimless shots will be fired to increase commotion so the shooter can escape. They plan on taking credit for the attack three days after. The name of the shooter is disclosed. It's Keb."
"Heero..." Duo whispered then shook his head. "He can't do it. It's Relena."
Then Duo scowled at the knowing, conspirator type glance that passed between Wufei and Une. Why did he get the sinking feeling this was going to be a repeat of that initial briefing meeting?
Wufei continued for Une. "That's how this is exceptionally interesting," he began. "Was this leaked on purpose? Maybe by Heero, so we can stop him in time or perhaps by the group to taunt us into trying to stop them?" He shrugged, then clasped his hands before him. "It could be a trap. It could be a mis-lead, they may actually be setting up elsewhere and mean to set us off the scent. Or it could be an actual mistake, which could indicate that Heero and Zechs have defected - we have no other information to go on."
"No!" Duo shouted, shaking his head. "There's a reason for this. I know it. Lemme see the original message." He reached out his hand, stubbornly waiting for a response to his demand.
The agent standing next to Sally snapped to attention, grabbed a folder off the computer desk and passed it to Duo. Duo raised a brow at the man's efficiency, but shook it off and focused on the folder in his hands. Inside were copies of the original message, still in code and copies of the broken, decoded message. The clean factual way the information was presented reminded him of Heero, but he knew better than to let that be proof to him - anyone could have written the message that way. The proof would be in the code. Duo scanned the sheets. Well, it wasn't familiar - this was far more complex of a system than they'd ever used on the BBS, but that made sense to him. Heero knew better than to use such simple codes for something this important. This wasn't even reminiscent of the codes they'd used, but again, that made sense. He couldn't use a complex system based on something simpler because it could be too easily broken down to the baser system. Heero would think of these things, just as he had. However, so could anyone else and he knew that's what the others would be thinking. But he knew. In its own subtle, indescript way, this had Heero's name all over it. Maybe not directly, but he was involved. In the end, Duo didn't technically know anymore than Wufei, Une and Sally, but he felt more certain. This was leaked on purpose and meant for him to see. He knew it in his gut - too bad no one was listening to his gut.
"Either way, we'll have the place staked for Relena's speech. This may be our only chance to catch them if the information is real," Une added as Duo still studied the folder.
"I'm going," Wufei said, perhaps as a reassurance to Duo, that someone he trusted would be there. And though Duo appreciated the gesture, there was only one thing he would find reassuring at this point.
"I'm going too," he said.
Une let out a long sigh and folded her arms across her chest. "Duo, we've been over this," her tone sounded exasperated, as if speaking to a disobedient child. Nothing could have angered Duo more, he could feel his pulse race, his face redden. This was his life, damnit! Heero was his life, being a Preventer. Was. His. Life! Enough with this shit. He tossed the folder onto the conference table and slammed his fist down hard on the top, the paper map snapping and shifting from his force.
"I don't care," he said, "I'm going. How many more tests are you going to make me do!?"
Une's brows drew sharply together. "We have rules, I can't bend them like this. Last I checked you had two pysch tests to complete."
Duo clenched his teeth together in a sneer and took a step close to Une. "Let me tell you what you..."
But Sally cut him off.
"He passed those," she said, stepping forward between Une and Duo. "I'm sorry, I forgot to update you." She bowed her head, her thick braids falling over her shoulders. She looked contrite. Duo blinked, he'd never seen her look contrite. He'd sworn that stubborn chin of hers never turned downwards.
Shocked, Duo then glanced over at Wufei - who looked aghast at first, and then angry, his brow creased and folded. But he turned away, suddenly interested in the map spread out on the conference table. He gave it a little tug back into place, seeming to study it with much concentration. Wufei wasn't going to say anything! Had his strong sense of justice on Duo's behalf overrun his typical penchant for following the rules? If it had, that spoke louder to Duo than any words of support ever could. Holding back a wide, touched grin, Duo returned to Une.
"See, I'm done. Send me."
Une looked taut as a wire, a vein in her forehead more pronounced than before. She glared first at Sally and then Wufei - the two avoiding her regard.
"I haven't reviewed the results," she began.
"Une," Sally interrupted again, "you know it's enough that I say he's passed." Sally had lost that contrite stance, looking strong and defiant now.
Une closed her eyes, waiting a long moment before she spoke again. Duo's heart was in his throat; he could feel it, pounding against his Adam's apple, choking him off.
"Yes, that's right." Une said finally, her voice soft, more resigned. "And since I *trust* Sally's judgment," Une glanced Sally's way, the words ground out through clenched teeth, "Duo and Wufei will lead this. Backup will be waiting outside. We don't want to scare them off with a flood of agents."
Une was no fool and was probably far more upset at being lied to than bending the rules for Duo, but even with Sally's claim, she still could have stopped this. She chose not to. Duo swallowed hard, breathing a sigh of relief.
He felt the weight of a hand clap his shoulder and turned to see Wufei standing next to him, the slightest hint of a smile twitching his lips. Apparently he'd come to terms with being a rule-breaker. Welcome to the Dark Side, Wu-man.
"Let's go," Wufei said, "we'll need all the time we have to prepare."
Duo nodded and followed as Wufei turned and strode towards the door. When Une called after him, Duo stopped, turning back just as Sally brushed past him. She gave him a wink and his already wide smile grew that much broader.
Beaming, Duo raised his brow in question at Une. Her features had softened from before, looking now more like a worried parent, hands clasped before her. Duo wondered then how much of that split personality she'd been able to shake in these passing years.
"Don't let your emotions cloud the mission," she said, one hand twisting in the other's grip.
Duo snapped rod straight, brought his right hand to his brow and saluted her.
"I'm a Preventer first, ma'am."
And with that, he turned and rushed out the door after Wufei and Sally. He couldn't wait to tell Heero what awesome friends they had.
Fuck that. He just couldn't wait to see Heero.