by girl starfish
It had been a week. Quatre had barely slept, barely eaten, barely gone out of his house except to see for himself Heero and J's apartment and the site of his friend's kidnapping. He'd been glued to his computer, only leaving it to watch the hourly updates on the news.
To say he was upset would be the understatement of the decade. He had actually snapped at Relena Peacecraft the fifth time she phoned and had cut Dorothy Catalonia off quite rudely. And for all that . . . not to mention the wealth of his father, his families' connections, and their formidable data banks . . .
Heero Yuy had not been found.
Troublesome as the disappearance of his friend was, that was not the only thing worrying Quatre.
In an attempt to calm his distraught son down, Mr Winner had pointed out that the all available police were out searching for Heero. In fact, they were even being assisted by the security forces. In short, anything that could be done was being done.
And that bothered him.
True, he was glad that everyone seemed to be so interested in finding his friend.
Then he began to wonder why.
Heero was a scientific and medical marvel, an inspirational tale of triumph over great odds. But . . . he was just a person. He had no high connections, no great wealth--aside from humanitarian concern, there was really no reason for him to be so thoroughly sought after.
Just as there was no real reason for him to be taken.
Sure, there were a fair amount of extremists around, dissatisfied with robotic technology, who might consider Heero's development a threat to original human life. There'd been the same sort of fuss surrounding the genetic modification of humans. And yet . . .
It worried Quatre how little he actually knew about his friend. Yes, he knew Heero had more robotic parts than human. He’d never liked to ask him further though; Heero was notoriously touchy about his mechanical parts. Or even J for that matter. Quatre, ever diplomatic, had simply let the matter lie. But now, now he realized just how much he needed to know.
With that in mind he’d hacked into J’s computer system. It had taken him two days to get past the firewall-he was only beginning to learn his family trade-only to be met by an apparently innocent and ordinary-if the accounts of someone like J could truly be termed ordinary-set of accounts. Nothing odd, no abnormalities anywhere.
The more Quatre browsed the accounts, the more he was convinced. Something was seriously wrong.
It was in Heero’s accounts he found it. Right there at the start. A hospital grant of $50 000 to pay for the construction of Heero’s first robotic body (he’d gone through several as he’d grown).
Robots themselves retailed around a million each, and Heero’s body was far more advanced, far more expensive than that of an ordinary robot. Obviously, extra money must have come from somewhere-yet there was no record of it.
Quatre kept looking.
On the fourth day, the sixth after Heero’s disappearance, a random code generating programme unlocked a series of hidden files. Quatre read through them in confusion. What on earth was the Kushrenada Institute doing, paying J’s bills-and why didn’t they want this known?
"Master Quatre? Your presence is required for dinner."
"In a minute," Quatre replied, still watching the screen.
"That won’t do," Rashid chided. "Have you forgotten? We have guests tonight."
"Iria’s back?" Quatre obediently shut down his programmes. Not only was his elder sister good company, but she was involved in the Winner’s information gathering exercises. She might even be able to help . . .
Rashid laid out an appropriate suit and tie on the bed. Turning, he found Quatre still absorbed in the computer. He cleared his throat. "Master Quatre?"
Quatre tore himself away from the screen with great unease. The password for the hidden accounts did not bode well.
"We’re all going on a summer holiday, no more working for a week or two. Fun and laughter-"
"On our summer-what?"
"Shut up. The rest of us are not tone deaf."
"Just what are you insinuating, Mack?"
"Duo," the rest of the Sweepers chorused. "Shut up."
I carefully deprogrammed the smile off my face. It would not do for Duo to get mad at me. Although even now, while pouting outrageously and shooting death glares at the crew, Duo didn’t look too upset.
"Oy!" Duo collapsed onto the seat next to me. "I’m mortally wounded by your callous treatment-"
"Sit down kid," Howard clapped him on the shoulder. "The shuttle’s in good condition, but it’s old and the rest of you would feel a lot better without you jumping around the place like a mad hare."
"I was not jumping around the place like a mad hare," Duo muttered, sulking.
I tried to feel sympathetic but failed. Although I’d seen enough to trust to the Sweeper's mechanical skills, the shuttle was rather old, with a tendency to lurch unsteadily. Knowing Duo was sitting down made me feel a lot better.
There was also the fact he was sitting next to me.
"Where are we going?" I asked him.
"-old coot’s probably never even seen a mad hare in his life so how would he know-huh? Didn’t I tell you?"
I shook my head. "You woke me up this morning yelling something about the fact that you were no longer grounded and we could finally blow this sorry joint at which point you got into an argument with Howard over whether or not you could take me. No one ever explained the purpose of this excursion."
"We’re going to look for parts," Duo said. "We get to climb over rubble and poke around in old buildings, looking for anything metal. Loads of fun."
"I see." I was dubious.
"Perhaps you should leave the AI on the shuttle," Howard said. "It’s not equipped for heavy lifting, I don’t see how it could be of much use to us."
I ground my hands into fists but kept my face perfectly calm. I could not after all get upset. To the Sweepers I was just ‘the AI’.
"Heero’s got to come," Duo argued immediately, slipping a hand over to mine, the gesture hidden from the rest of the crew. "He’s another member of the crew now, he needs to learn his surroundings, just like the rest of us. Plus, didn’t you say something about having infra-red sensors?"
I nodded. "Accurate over several miles."
"Fine then, but he’s your lookout, kid." Howard returned to the front of the shuttle.
I watched him. Something about the way he acted, the way the crew talked in subdued voices, something at odds with Duo’s cheerful behaviour-
"Is something wrong?" I asked Duo. "The crew seems-uneasy."
"Oh, we’re fine. We’re just going into Fang territory, that’s all. You can never tell what they’ll be like."
"Generic scary name for generic gang of losers who have the territory bordering on ours in the place we’re going sweeping today. They’re not too big of a threat but they’re not pushovers either. Generally they leave us alone and we leave them alone. No biggie."
I was not reassured.
"Heads up for landing, people!" Howard announced from the front.
"This is always interesting," Duo said. "You’d better hold on tight."
The landing was indeed interesting. I think, from the way the shuttle slid, and the way we were bounced from one corner to the other, that our pilot must have put us down on some very loose rubble.
"Ow," Duo groaned.
Howard and the rest of the Sweepers smirked.
"If the two of you can manage to disentangle yourselves, we’ll be outside working," Howard said as they left.
I sat up slowly, running a quick scan for malfunctions. The pressure sensitive padding all over my body protested, but there was no real cause for alarm. "Are you all right?" I asked Duo.
"I’ve been better." Duo grumpily sat up. "What did you do that for?"
Had I committed an error? "You told me to hold on tightly."
"I meant to the wall or seats," Duo said. "Not me!"
"Oh." That made a lot of sense. "I apologize."
"Apology accepted." Duo sighed then gave me a grin. "I can’t stay mad at you, you know that? It’s impossible." He kissed me quickly. "Come on. Howard and the others are waiting. And mind the step out of the shuttle."
It was dark outside. I suppose that was what startled me most about the downside. Going outside upside meant sunlight, and if you were rich enough, fresh air and open space. Downside though . . .
"Shut your eyes, Hee-chan. Howard’s gonna use the shuttle lights and when they’re turned on full they’re a bit much."
"A bit much of what?" I asked, wincing as I was suddenly assaulted by a bright glare of light.
"Should have listened," Duo sighed. "You okay?"
"I will be, once I’ve adjusted my optical sensors to compensate," I answered.
"Good. Join me when you’re done-I gotta earn my keep before Howard decides to yell at me-" Duo scrambled over rubble to join his comrades.
I followed more cautiously. Collapsed walls and debris were everywhere and the Sweepers methodically sorted through them.
"Metal detected over here!" one of the men announced. "A hand anyone?"
Others gathered to dig up and analyse the metal parts found. They were sorted into scrap and parts that could be reused as they were.
Mid afternoon, or what I guessed was mid-afternoon, we made a major discovery. An old generator, pretty much intact.
"Ya reckon you can fix this?"
"Easy!" Duo snorted. "It’s old and very rusty but all the major parts are there. We’re gonna have to take it apart and clean it but the parts are good."
"Right. Let’s get started then."
There was something of a change in the attitude of the Sweepers after that. Howard posted more guards around the area we were working.
"Is something wrong?" I asked Duo.
"We’re being watched," Duo said conversationally. "It’s hard to do anything down here without people noticing. Most are just nosy, not looking to harm us, but ready to take advantage of any opportunity that comes their way, like an unattended light or tool . . . actually, that’s how I first met Howard and the guys."
"Yes?" I said, not seeing the connection. Then again, I was more concerned with scanning our surroundings for watchers. Duo was right, a multitude of life form readings returned. However, the people who caught me looking at them melted back in the shadows quickly.
"Howard learnt the hard way there isn’t anything safe from me," Duo snickered. "He hadn’t left the shuttle unattended a minute before I tried to steal it."
Now I snickered. I’d acquired the habit from Duo sometime over the last few days. Wufei told me it was very unattractive and that I should strive to retain my professional cool. Duo said that Wufei was being an overly anal jerk, an expression he then refused to explain. I got the impression there was something going on there. "You robbed Howard?"
"Tried to," Duo shrugged. "He kinda caught me. Not surprising really. I was only six-couldn’t even reach the pedals, not that I knew how to drive back then."
"Yet you were trying to steal a shuttle? What would you have done with it?"
"Dunno really. I suppose I thought it’d come in useful," Duo said vaguely. "Okay, this section is ready for lifting."
I watched as the generator, now in bits, was collected by a mover port with a strong magnetic field attached (Duo advised me to step away).
"Why separate it?" I asked. "That port looks strong enough to carry the whole thing."
"We do that and our captivated audience yonder knows we’ve got something worth having," Duo explained. "That’s trouble we don’t need. The Fang must know we’re here by now. They’ve got spies all over. But they’ve messed with us before and come off worse, so unless they think it’s worth the effort, they’ll leave us alone."
I nodded, shoulders prickling under invisible gazes. I did not feel entirely happy with the situation, but there was not much I could do beyond stay alert.
I was not the only uneasy one.
"Dim the lights," Howard ordered, not too far from where we worked. "But don’t do it obviously." He paused as he passed us. "You okay, kid?"
"We’re just peachy, Howard." Duo sounded oddly subdued.
"Good." Howard hesitated then threw Duo something. "No foolishness, you understand?"
"Howard," Duo said condescendingly. "Would I do something like that?"
"Just take care." Howard clapped him on the shoulder, then nodded to me as he left.
It was a start I supposed. At least he wasn’t glaring at me suspiciously or talking about spare parts anymore. I turned to Duo to find him staring uncharacteristically seriously at the object Howard had thrown him.
My chest tightened.
This was wrong. Duo had an undercurrent of danger and recklessness to him-burglary wasn’t an altogether tame profession. If his attitude towards other people (and their possessions) was a little more rough and ready than I could condone, I’d written it off to the effects of living downside, where survival was by no means assured and different rules applied.
Despite this I’d learned Duo was funny and kind and wouldn’t hurt anyone.
"Heck," he whispered. "Howard’s never done this before-" He looked up and his eyes met mine. "I think this is serious. If anything happens, stay down. I’ll take care of you."
He meant that too.
I was strangely touched-at the same time I was appalled. Duo should not endanger himself on my behalf. If anything, it should be the other way round. I should protect him.
Why I felt that so strongly, I could not explain.
About half an hour later, something happened.
Duo had paused in his work. "Does it seem awfully quiet to you all of a sudden?"
I hesitated. "My external sensors indicate a sudden dispersion of life forms-"
An instant later a volley of shots rang out.
Duo ducked behind a partly crumbling wall, pulling me with him.
There were shouts around us as the rest of the Sweepers took cover, Howard yelling orders to stay out of sight. I pulled myself up slowly, careful to remain in shadow.
Duo was already up, gun at the ready, squinting at the shadows. "Oh, this is bad."
"Are you injured?" I asked, trying to ignore the fact that Duo handled the gun like one used to that, and that I, who as far as I knew had never seen a gun in real life, recognised this fact.
"Not me. The situation has me worried. The light-you see?"
I looked over Duo’s shoulder carefully. I sized up the position in moments-the light of the shuttle that enabled the Sweepers to work now made them easy targets. The Fang, assuming it was the Fang who were attacking, could shoot at whim from the shadows, masked perfectly.
"We have to turn the light off, we’re sitting ducks," Duo said. "But how do we get there without being shot?"
"Could you not shoot it out?" I asked.
"Hell no! Howard would kill me! Do you have any idea how hard it is to get those parts? That light is irreplaceable!"
A bullet struck the stone just above our heads and we ducked again.
"If I were to-I’m small enough that it just might work-" Duo squinted out at the darkness again and came to a decision. "Heero, stay here."
"What are you-" I stopped as Duo, ignoring my question, ducked out from our hiding place and disappeared behind another rock.
It was far too dangerous for him to be alone. I waited a moment then followed. Ducking behind rocks and bits of rubble, making short dashes to new hiding places, I caught up with Duo at the shuttle.
"What are you doing?" Duo panted. "I told you to stay put!"
"Howard told you not to do anything foolish," I returned.
"Whatever," he shrugged. "Stay down. There’s one of them above us-I know he knows I‘m here, every now and then he takes a pot shot at me-but he doesn’t know exactly where I am. Problem is, I don’t know where he is either."
A bullet ricocheted off the shuttle and we ducked.
"You see?" Duo paused. "It hit here, sounded like it came from there . . ."
He raised the gun slowly.
This was wrong, this was wrong, I should stop it-
"A little higher. My heat sensors indicate that he is there." The words that came out of my mouth surprised me.
Duo looked at me, then obeyed. "This right?"
Duo turned back to his target. There was a second when he did nothing-and I thought he wasn’t going to shoot at all. But there was another volley of gunfire behind us, and we heard one of the Sweepers cry out in pain. Duo’s face tightened and he fired.
And then we waited.
Minutes passed, no returning shot.
"You think we got him?" Duo’s voice sounded uncertain and very young.
"I don’t know. He hasn’t moved."
"Oh. You stay here. I’m going to sneak round the front and turn the light off."
"But you’ll be in full view of everyone," I protested. "That’s madness!"
"It’s the only way to turn off the light," Duo said with a rueful smile. "Can’t get in from the outside, Howard’s got the keys and the thing’s armoured. He learnt his lesson about security after he met me, all right." He turned, ready to slip along the side of the shuttle-
I grabbed his arm. "Wait."
"Heero, why-" Duo shut up and let me kiss him, pressing him against the shuttle side. I think I was getting better at kissing. Duo’s body relaxed against mine totally, and he was so absorbed in the kiss he didn’t notice that I’d removed the gun from his grasp until after I’d done it.
"Heero-" he started.
"I’m going to cover you," I told him. "If you’re going out there then you need some protection. I can use this thing better than you, and you’re going to need both hands free to disconnect the light."
Duo hesitated. "Are you sure about this?"
"It feels strangely right, familiar-as if I were meant to do this." I looked up to find Duo looking at me as if I’d announced that Wufei was the prophet of the bird people and I was going to take his advice and sprout wings. "I’ll be fine. Metal plating and everything-just don’t let anything happen to yourself."
Duo nodded. "Take care, Heero."
"I will." I turned, broadening the width of my heat sensors. "We go-now."
We stepped out from our shelter-and that was all I remember of the battle.