by girl starfish
It was a situation Heero was not comfortable with.
He did not, like Quatre hesitantly admitted, find J unnerving, strange as the man was. It had been over a year since he had made personal contact with his scientist, although there had been a constant, if sporadic, stream of communication on the form of mission data. Meeting J in person was just too risky.
But to be meeting not one, but two of the scientists for reasons as yet undisclosed--the thought that this was a trap had occurred to him.Heero studied G thoughtfully. The man was not by any means quiet, keeping up a stream of sly comments that punctuated J's remarks, and seemed to possess meanings unknown to him. Heero did not like him, not in the slightest.
He was disappointed. Idly, ignoring the scientists' chit-chat, Heero tried to pinpoint why. After all, he'd never met G before, all he knew about him had been the occasional off-hand comment from Duo--Duo.
There was no similarity between professor and student. Where G was repulsive and calculating, Duo was kind and welcoming. Duo's ways, his attitudes, his smiles, all these were absent from G--and that was what disappointed him, realised Wing's pilot. He'd been hoping to see something of Duo--something to remember him by--
Heero shut his eyes.
It was still too hard to believe, hurt too much. He refused to give up hope though, making up two beds in every safe house they went to, awaiting the return of Deathscythe's pilot. The others had made no comment, although one of them had added an MIA to Duo's file. He didn't want to know who had done that--
Not when there was still the chance he was alive.
If only they'd been able to decode that message--
"I think you'll agree Heero, the situation is serious," J stated flatly.
Heero blinked, quickly running over the last few minutes of the conversation--OZ's growing power in the wake of Duo's disappearance, the pilots' inability to decipher the encrypted disk that had been Duo's last message, and most worrying, the knowledge that it had not been OZ that had taken Duo out.
"Yes," he said, not batting an eye-lid.
"G believes that our priority at the moment should be finding his protégé--"
"Without Deathscythe the Gundams are understaffed. It would take too long to train another pilot, we need Duo back."
"And if he is dead?"
Heero clenched his fists, ready to swing at his trainer.
G glared at J angrily. "I did not raise Duo to curl up and die at the first sign of trouble. You saw the code he used--your own pupil can't break it! He must have had time to work that out, he obviously had a plan in mind. If we could break the code--"
"I will break it," Heero said. "I just need time." Given time he could break any code, Duo's was no different, despite the way it was wired--a series of security walls surrounded the information, and had so far proven impervious.
"Time we don't have," J remarked. "OZ isn't going to take a hiatus while we work this out."
"Which makes my suggestion the best we've got," G said.
"You call that a suggestion? It's more like a fantasy! It's got more holes in it than Swiss Cheese!"
"It's worth a try," G said, standing. "Well, time to get on with this, I think."
Heero followed the two scientists (who squabbled the rest of the way) into a lab that looked vaguely familiar. "This is the Wepeca Institute, isn't it?"
"Very good, Heero," J said. "See G, he remembered."
G muttered something that sounded like 'Big whoop' and Heero wondered if he wasn't more similar to Duo than he first appeared.
"Wepeca was on the brink of a breakthrough in the field of astral-physics and were on the verge of accomplishing what had, up to that point, been considered merely theoretical knowledge. Unfortunately, although not allied with OZ, they were successful enough to attract their attention with the unfortunate result that the entire compound was virtually taken prisoner. You know the rest."
"Mission," Heero recited. "Destroy base, wiping out all trace of experiments."
"I understand Duo took the part of destroying the information while you destroyed their security settings and blew up the main labs," G said, adjusting the settings on what looked like a heart monitor of some sort. "He didn't happen to mention what he found, did he?"
"Hn," Heero said.
Actually Duo had been trying very excitedly to tell him something about the data in the computer--"You won't believe this, Hee-chan! It's like a science fiction movie!"--but he'd been too concerned with completing the mission. He'd said Duo could tell him after they got out of the base--but they'd had other missions.
And now Duo was gone.
"It's fascinating! Absolutely incredible! And it works! I'd never believed that this could be possible, although well familiar with the theory of course--"
"G, just do it."
"Of course. Do you have the papers?"
J held up a bunch of forms.
"Brilliant. Then here we go!"
G pushed a couple of buttons and stood back.
Heero frowned, wondering if he should point this out to the doctors when suddenly the floor bucked violently and the whole room seemed to spin, coming just as violently to a halt.
"Hold tight, Heero!" J said, just as it ended.
Now he tells me, Heero thought gloomily, unplastering himself from the wall he'd been thrown against.
"We need to put these on," G handed them both clear plastic tags, labelled 'Visitor: Approved'.
"Where are we going?" Heero asked, hesitantly fixing the tag to the front of his suit as he saw J doing.
"The L2 cluster," J said with a smirk. "LA-8347 to be exact."
"But--" Heero frowned. His laptop with his mission information was back at Quatre's still--he needed it if he was to be working on Duo's code--"My stuff--"
"We'll be back before you know it," G said absently, one eye to the door. "All clear." He stepped out of the room quickly, followed by J and Heero.
They were outside, standing on the roadside of a very dirty road. There were a couple of beaten up cars parked by them, rubbish and dust everywhere and a very, very hot sun beating down on them. There was only one door out of the room, but this was not the way they came in.
"Hn," said Heero.
"I'll have to admit," G said to J, "Yours does have remarkable self control. Duo would be going out of his mind at this point."
"Well, your pupil could be excused for his lack of discipline," J shot back. "After all, you never had any self control."
"I resent that remark! It is most unsolicited," G snapped.
"Do I have to remind you of your flawless rendition of the 'I'm a Lumberjack' song at the last 'Mad Scientists Annual Get Together and Social Event?"
Heero blinked. He was sure he had not heard that.
"Anyway, Heero, we must get going. Appointment, you know," J said, and they started walking.
If they weren't going to tell him, then he wasn't going to ask.
Although it was childish, Heero felt better upon making that resolution and instead studied the road they were walking down. It was definitely situated in a lower economic area--probably as low as you could go. The houses were built out of board and loose aluminium, the people sitting outside or cooking in cans over small fires were dirty, giving them hostile, suspicious glances as they passed.J and G ignored the people they passed, stopping only once.
"Heero, I know what this looks like--but don't attack. We are outnumbered in unfamiliar territory--don't draw attention to us."
Heero pondered the strange request before noticing the patrol of OZ soldiers in ornate uniform walking down the street. People got out of their way, quickly. The scientists pulled Heero over to the side of the road with them but did not do more than that. Heero grew more concerned as the patrol neared. The scientist and he had their pictures plastered through every OZ base on earth and in space--
"Relax Heero. We've got all the clearance we need," J said nodding to the leader of the patrol as he passed.
The man gave their badges a cursory glance and passed on, the rest of the patrol following him.
"What just happened?" Heero asked.
"You've probably noticed that things are not . . . normal," J said as they resumed their journey. "There is an explanation."
"It's quite simple really. You've heard of parallel universes?" G said. "Welcome to one."
"You're kidding," Heero said flatly.
"No. Wepeca had just come up with this when OZ found them," J said. "Of course it is highly unstable so we won't be staying longer than necessary to obtain our objective."
"Our objective?" Heero asked. He was taking this well, mainly because he'd decided fulfilling the mission, whatever it was, came first. There would be time later to worry over whether this was actually happening.
"The retrieval of a weapon essential to winning the war against OZ," G said. "Almost there."
"By the way," J said, "In this universe, the war broke out ten years earlier than in our world. OZ won and keeps the colonies under authoritarian rule."
Heero looked at his master startled. "If OZ won, why are we even here? There's no point if they'll just defeat us--"
"They've won here, where there were no Gundam pilots to resist them," J snapped. "If anything this just makes the success of this mission all the more crucial."
"We're here," G said. "Oh, Heero? I'm a wealthy if eccentric businessman, J's my partner and you're his heir, okay?"
Heero blinked. "Okay."
"That's the spirit." G rang a doorbell and they waited.After a few minutes the door was opened a crack, and a grubby but suspicious face peered up at them. "What?"
J bent down to the child's level. "We're here to visit Father Maxwell. Is he around?"
Heero had to give the child credit--face to face with J and it (gender was so far undetermined) didn't even flinch. "Maybe."
"Would you go and fetch him for us?"
The child shrugged and shut the door in their faces.
"Charming," J replied. "What do we do now?"
After a good fifteen minutes the door was opened again by a slightly flustered and out of breath clergyman. "Come in, come in, I'm sorry about the delay. The children only just told me you were waiting--I hope you haven't been here long--"
"Not at all," J said.
"We'd like to get down to business," G said. "We don't have long here, you see."
"Oh, of course. I'm Father Maxwell, pleasure to be of service. What business is this exactly? I understood the next rent payment wasn't for another week--"
"We're here to adopt one of your charges," G said. "Or rather, I am. Like my colleague I am childless, and I want my estate and enormous wealth to go to someone when I die. With that in mind, I'd like to adopt an heir."
"Well, I'm only too happy to introduce you to the children. They're at playtime at the moment, so I'll look at your papers, and then see if we can't narrow down what you're looking for. My office is this way."
They passed several more grubby children on the way to the office. The orphanage was obviously straining its resources--and there were far more kids than staff. The kids themselves though--they laughed and ran around with all the appearance of enjoying themselves, despite the fact that their clothes were worn, and they were little more than skin and bones. Heero was surprised by this.Father Maxwell's office was inhabited by a sticky toddler, who attached itself to the clergyman's robes and refused to relinquish them upon sight of the strangers. It remained fastened to him, a wary eye on Heero and the scientists as the priest read through the adoption papers.
"Well everything appears to be all right," Father Maxwell said. Now, do you have any idea of what age or gender child you want to adopt?"
"Boy," G said. "I'm not too particular on age, but he's got to be adaptable, intelligent and show initiative."
"I'm sure you'll find many of our wards here meet that description." A bell went and Father Maxwell smiled. "That's the afternoon tea bell. We'll join them in the dining hall."
The dining hall was remarkably silent. Heero was surprised at that until he noticed why--the kids were all intent on eating their food before it got stolen by one of the others.
"Wander round and talk to the kids," Father Maxwell said vaguely, trying to pull the sticky toddler off his robes. "They're all quite used to strangers."
"Thank-you." G set off round the dining hall, J and Heero following him. The kids gave them speculative glances or ignored them. Heero wondered what G was looking for exactly--and then his gaze slid over a nearby table--
--and a long chestnut braid hanging down the back of one of the table's occupants--
"Ah-hah!" G crowed triumphantly. "Found him."
He went and sat down at the table. The children eyed him suspiciously at first but the production of a bag of candy seemed to magically produce amiability.
Heero hung back.
This did not fit any mission parameters he had ever known and he felt more than a little uncomfortable. For one thing he was very much out of his element. Generally Heero avoided little children. For one thing they were inclined to do incomprehensible things (as far as Heero knew he had never been one). And they dribbled, were noisy, had no concept of rational behaviour--
He glared suspiciously as a group of children at the table next to him broke out into giggles. In short, they inhabited a world he knew nothing about.
Secondly-well, J's training had failed to cover what to do when you are brought to a parallel universe in order to replace one of your colleagues, with whom you, incidentally, are somewhat emotionally involved, with his nine year old self.
J prodded him. "Try to appear more interested. We don't want to look suspicious."
Heero took a deep breath and nodded. He followed J over to where the scientist was chatting with the children.
"No, I didn't tell a lot of lies when I was little. My nose just happens to look this way," G was explaining.
The kids eyed him sceptically. "But that's not really your hair, is it?"
"What happened? Did your hairdresser go insane or something?"
"It's a wig, right?"
One of the kids snickered. "Send whoever does your hair over here. Duo really needs a trim. Get rid of that stupid plait--snip, snip."
"You're the one who needs a trim," the nine-year old replied, unperturbed. "From your neck up."
The other kids snickered, and the boy who'd insulted Duo's plait went red.
"Oh yeah?" he said. "Well see how you feel about your plait now."
He lunged forward to tug on Duo's plait but Duo, obviously expecting this, ducked out of the way. The two of them tried to shove the other off the seat, while the other kids returned to pestering the scientists with questions.
"Do you have to use hair spray to get it to do that?"
"What do you do when you want to wear a hat?"
"What happened to your eyes?"
Heero's unease grew as the scientists continued to field questions. There was a little girl who would keep looking at him, even though he had glared at her quite strongly. Moreover, the kid sitting beside him had a disturbing habit of spraying whenever he laughed. Heero did not have a lot of knowledge on the subject, but he was sure little children were a cesspool of festering diseases and viruses waiting for the right moment to pounce. They were always getting illnesses--chicken pox and measles and mumps and things like that. Heero wondered if the orphanage stocked gas masks.
"You're not looking for a kid of your own," the other-Duo said, attracting Heero's attention. "Are you?"
"You're very perceptive," G said.
Duo glowed. "You're very old."
J coughed. "As it happens, my colleague here is thinking of picking one of the children here as his heir."
"Don't you have any?" one of the littler kids at the table piped up to general ridicule. "How do you hear?"
"Not that kind of ear, silly," Duo said. "Heir. It's the person you pick who gets your stuff once you die."
"You better pick someone fast," the orphan who had picked the fight with Duo remarked. "Ya don't look like you got much time left."
G chose to ignore that. "You seem a bright spark. What's your name, lad?"
"It's nice to meet you, Duo."
The bell rang then and the kids were shooed off to various pastimes by a blonde haired lady. She came over to the scientists and Heero.
"Hello there. I'm Sister Helen. Father Maxwell tells me you're thinking of adopting one of our children?"
"That's right," G said. "I've just been having a most interesting discussion with several of your charges."
"Oh dear. I hope they weren't too impolite. You mustn't mind them, they all have perfectly good manners, they just don't use them."
"I'm a great believer in letting children be children," G said. "I found them all perfectly charming. In fact, I can see it will be hard to pick just one child!"
"Oh yes, it's a very hard choice," Sister Helen sat down. "Most prospective parents find that once they've made a few visits and talked to a lot of the children, they find there is one that just seems to fit--"
"As a matter of fact," G said, so much as if he was having to think of it that Heero was impressed--he'd never realised the scientists were capable of acting--"There was one child that seemed to stand out."
"Oh, yes?" Sister Helen said interestedly. "If you can tell me who I can arrange a further meeting with the child right now."
"His name, I believe, was Duo."
There was silence.
Heero was surprised enough to look up into Sister Helen's face. He couldn't quite read the emotion there, but he thought he saw dismay, before all was gone, and Sister Helen said in a determined tone, "Not Duo. I'm afraid that's quite impossible!"
"Oh, and why is that?" G asked.
"Duo has been adopted on several occasions, and each time he has been sent back to the orphanage. He grew up on the streets, you see, and is something of a handful." There was something else behind her words. Heero knew very well what it was--fear.
"That wouldn't worry me!" G waved a hand. "I have very capable staff who I'm sure would provide adequate care for a young boy."
"Duo is a very social child who requires a lot of attention. He is not the sort of child one can confidently leave to his own devices," Helen warned.
"I'm planning on hiring a nanny-governess to act as a companion for him while I am at work. There's also Heero here, who will provide another source of company."
Helen gave Heero a rather doubtful look. "I'm not sure if that's enough. He needs the companionship of his peers--"
"There's something else though, isn't there?" Heero said. "What aren't you telling us?"
Helen stared at them, then abruptly nodded. "An adoption suit was filed on Duo's behalf last week. It's still being processed but we have every reason to believe it will be successful."
"Suits can be cancelled," G said.
Helen frowned at him. "I see no reason why this one should be."
"And why not? The resources I have at my disposal are quite considerable--I find it hard to believe anyone could match the chances I offer Duo."
"There is no denying that you offer great prospects for Duo materially," the nun acknowledged coolly. "But I believe there is no-one less capable of providing for his happiness. Duo needs the attention and love of his future parents--and I have seen nothing that convinces me that you would be able to provide for that."
"And why are you so sure that these other potential parents can?" J asked. "You know no more about them than we do."
"As a matter of fact," Helen snapped. "The people adopting Duo are none other than Father Maxwell and myself. I'm sorry, but you will just have to choose another child." She stood. "I must go to the kitchens now, gentlemen, but I'm sure Father Maxwell will be only too happy to introduce you to some suitable candidates." She stalked out of the room without another word.
"Well," G said.
"That was a waste of time," J said. "I told you we should have done it my way from the start."
"All is not lost. Let's find Duo again." G led the way down the corridor. Duo was found involved in what was ostensibly a choir practice, but that seemed to involve an awful lot of pushing and teasing.
G walked over to the harassed looking piano player. "Might I borrow Duo a moment?" he asked. "Sister Helen has given us permission to talk to him."
The pianist did not notice the blatant lie. "Duo, accompany the gentlemen, please."
The other-Duo joined them. "What do you want?" he asked warily.
"Just to get to know you a bit," G said. "Come along, Duo, we thought we'd take you into town to buy ice-creams as a treat."
"Ice-creams? As in more than one?" Duo was enchanted.
Heero snorted softly. Among the many confused and sad feelings in his stomach was growing one of resentment--this was not his Duo.
"If you think you can eat more than one," G said, taking the child's hand.
Duo was happy enough to be led towards the orphanage gate. The subject of ice-cream was enough to occupy him--until one of the little girls saw him going and kicked up a wail.
"Duo! You can't get adopted--you said you'd help me with my homework."
"That's Elsie," Duo said. "I'll just go and tell her I'll be back."
"No time," G said, hurrying him onwards.
Duo stumbled as he was all but dragged forward. His feet stabbed ineffectively for a hold in the dirt as he realised something was wrong. "Let me go!"
G had to stop as Duo tried to wrestle free. "None of that!" He seized the child's wrist even tighter.
"No! I don't want to go with you!" Duo fought the best he could. Managing to break G's hold on his wrist--only to be grasped even tighter by J.
The little girl screamed and ran towards the main building. "Sister Helen! Father Maxwell! The scary old men are hurting Duo!"
J cursed. "So much for doing it your way. Well? What are you waiting for?"
"Can't you hold him still?" G demanded peevishly. "This is hard to administer as it is--" Heero saw with a start there was a syringe in his hand.
The other-Duo saw it too and kicked harder. It was to no avail. He cried out in pain as G gave him the injection.
"Let's go," J said hurriedly.
Their return through the streets was done in haste. The child had ceased struggling, Heero, walking behind J could not determine more of his condition until the reached the room and began their preparations to leave.
"Hold him," J said, passing his load to Heero, and joining G at the controls. "What are our return co-ordinates?"
"If I've told you once--" the scientists started squabbling again.Heero glanced down at the still form he held. He had grave doubts about this. The child was docile now, thanks to whatever drug he'd been given--but he had not been so at the orphanage. This stillness was not his usual behaviour--and it gave Heero the opportunity to make some observations.
He was surprised how light his burden was. And how fragile--he was sure he could break one of those flimsy wrists without trying. And yet--he remembered Duo's strength and capability--this wasn't right.Heero almost lost his fragile load as the room abruptly shifted around him. He was just prepared enough to wedge himself against the wall until the room settled down again.
"Well Heero, this is the town near your current safe house. We suggest you get a motel room and wait for the child to sleep of the effects of the drug--a couple of hours--before taking him back. You might want to pick up some clothes for him on the way--The L2 cluster generally has mild temperatures, he won't be used to the cold."
Heero looked at them in alarm. "You're not leaving him with me?"
"Of course! You need him--you should be able to use him to crack Duo's code. Now we have to run--we're on our way to the Mad Scientists Annual General Meeting and if we're late they might elect O in charge of the social events--"
"That would be a tragedy. I'll expect a full mission report later, Heero."
"But--" The perfect soldier found himself shoved from the room and had the door shut in his face. When he tried to re-enter the room he found it locked--and by the time he broke the lock and opened the door again he found himself looking into an abandoned lab--G and J were gone.