Buried in Dust
Six o'clock in the morning HKT, on March 27th, AC203, he met Commissioner Une at the harbour and took possession of the body.
The dawning sky reflected in the coffin lid, pale hues muted and blurred in brushed steel. Heero silently stood by as it slid into the waiting arms of a loading suit. Une's expression was guarded as the loader carried the coffin into the shuttle's small cargo bay.
Preventer kept a dedicated memorial cemetery on Earth, but per instruction there would be no funeral, no marker, and no grave.
Perhaps Wufei had thought that with those absent no one would mourn.
"Did you see the paper?" Une asked.
Heero cupped his hands around his mouth and breathed warmth into his fingers. The puddles stretching thin across the concrete also mirrored the sky. He watched the steady progress of a cloud unravelling into faint white wisps. Yeah, he'd seen the paper.
On the third page had been a list of names he still remembered well enough that he could rattle off each man's favourite massage parlour and how often they called their mistresses instead of their wives. He'd seen it and had just enough time to feel a swell of pride before his cell rang with the rest of the news.
Breathing out a sigh, he finally answered Une with a nod.
A faint smoothing of her brow made Une appear relieved, like it meant she didn't have to say anything more. She slipped a hand into the pocket of her slacks and withdrew a small jewellery box. She offered it to him, the black velvet stark in the centre of her palm. Heero noticed for the first time how neatly manicured her fingernails were. "This is for you," she said. "I want you to hold on to it, Heero."
Heero took it without a word and turned as a dockworker approached. Mumbling an apology, the man handed over a clipboard bursting with forms. Who would have guessed there'd be so much paperwork to sign off on to take a body off-planet? By the time Heero had worked halfway through the mess, the sun had crested the horizon.
It surprised him that Une lingered as he dealt with all of it, but then, this would be her only chance at a goodbye.
Before this last assignment, she and Wufei had been spending a lot of time together. There had been rumours. Heero took his time on the last half of the forms, sneaking a glance at her here and there as he flipped from one to the next. When he finished, the dockworker gave him an apologetic smile and tore free the copies that were his to keep.
"Be careful," Une said. She turned on her heel, saving him from having to figure out how to make his own apologies. Her low, practical heels clicked with each step as she returned to her driver.
Watching Une's silver sedan roll away was like a replay of the moment that had ultimately led to the present. Only then, it had been orders in hand to memorise and destroy, and Wufei already in position and waiting for him to make contact.
Heero folded the sheets in half and tucked them into his coat. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, fingers leeching the heat from his body as he followed the path the loading suit had taken into the rear of the shuttle.
Even putting into consideration the shuttle's size, the coffin seemed out of scale. Out of place. It had been firmly strapped down, all the transport locks and government seals equally incongruous on the sombre steel. Heero double-checked each lock, each strip of bureaucratic bullshit, and tugged at the restraints until the muscles in his arms burned and the reinforced steel hooks in the deckplating groaned under the stress.
Jaw tight, he stepped away and drew in an achingly deep breath. Refusing to look back, he sealed and left the hold. His steps rang as he climbed up into the cockpit, the sound dulled everywhere but in his ears when he ducked under the bulkhead. He dropped down at the controls, already reaching to run the prelim while shoving an arm into the harness.
Leaving the jewellery box in the centre of the empty co-pilot's seat, Heero radioed ground control. He hadn't opened the box yet, but he had a damn good guess at the contents. In all honesty, he didn't really want to open it. Right or wrong, not knowing had a certain comfort, a delicate latticework of pretence to hide beneath.
As the burn of the engines pushed the shuttle higher, Heero enjoyed a temporary reprieve. He took the exit vector manually, something he always did, all his attention needed for holding his course and making the ride as smooth as possible. Leaving from Earth, the twin force of gravity and atmosphere sent the controls bucking under his hands, forced teeth-rattling shockwaves up his arms and a prickle down his spine. Blue sky faded to the black of space, and though exhilaration didn't come with it as his reward, he felt more balanced.
Coordinates for the rendezvous point entered, Heero took care to note the estimated time of arrival before turning his attention to the box. It seemed like such a tiny, insignificant item as it sat there in a sea of featureless grey leather, yet heavier somehow than it had looked resting in Une's palm.
The streets were whores painted with empty neon promises. Their gaudy light faded a few feet into the alleys threaded between the storefronts. Here, the buildings showed their age, no flashy signs to obscure dark brick and crumbling mortar.
The sole of his boot propped against the wall behind him, Heero kept his arms folded over his chest. Through the leather of his jacket, the cold of the stones seeped into his back. His eyes tracked Wufei. "We should extricate ourselves immediately," Heero said. "Take whatever data we can with us."
Wufei stopped his slow pacing. The dark silk of his suit blended in with the shadows. "That's not an option, Yuy." He turned to face Heero, his thumb tapping irritably against the silver cigarette case entrusted to conceal the new information Heero had given him. His lip curled away from his teeth in a silent snarl. "I'm tired of hearing you endlessly repeat it."
A breeze kicked up, ruffling cold through Heero's hair. He flipped up the collar of his jacket and his boot rasped as it slid down the brick. A tattered flyer skittered past him only to catch and drown in the puddle beneath a rusting drain spout. He pushed off the wall. "Maybe if you listened, I wouldn't have to keep bringing it up. There's not much more we can do."
"Yes there is," Wufei said, words clipped, chin raised. His fingers curled tight around the cigarette case. The shadows around him seemed to seethe, reinforcing the silent warning in his posture that said Heero was really pushing it this time.
"No there isn't," Heero replied. "You're getting too attached."
The onboard computer beeped a quiet warning as it adjusted to the pre-programmed course. Heero's mouth tightened at the corners. He threaded his fingers into his hair, holding it away from his face as he took a deep breath. Five minutes had gone by with him staring at the jewellery box and he'd hardly noticed.
Before he had a chance to stall any longer, Heero snatched it up and pried it open. The bottom of his stomach dropped out with a nauseating lurch. Nestled in the satin lining was exactly what he'd expected, dreaded: the micro neural device disguised as a Syndicate earring that had been his before he'd bailed on the assignment.
Wufei drove him back, palm slapping flat to the brick beside his head. Whatever button Heero had pushed had finally been the big red one. "Maybe you want to tell me exactly how I'm too attached," he snarled.
Heero's nature didn't include backing down, though. Not when he believed himself right. And especially not when staying here accomplished nothing but putting them both in dangerous situations they weren't equipped to handle. "How about that information you just put in your pocket?" Frustration made Heero's jaw go tight. "The girl, Chang. It's the fucking girl."
He didn't want to, but he saw it coming. Wufei requesting additional information on her and insisting he get a full profile running two generations back had just sealed his suspicions.
She was their age, well-spoken, prettier than most and would've had a good shot at being beautiful if her pimp didn't keep her on opiates. Wufei spent more keeping her in his apartment three times a week than he did on anything else.
"So cliché it hurts."
Heero didn't flinch when Wufei's hand caught the front of his shirt, and he didn't hold back the words that burned on his tongue like acid: "Meiling remind you of the sister you never had?"
"Shut the fuck up. You know nothing!" Wufei's fist was up, poised and quivering. He flexed his fingers, nostrils flaring on a breath. Heero waited for that white flash of pain to crack along his jaw when Wufei dropped his arm and repeated more quietly: "Nothing."
Wufei shook his hand free of Heero's shirt and stepped back. He tugged at the lapels of his coat and smoothed back his hair. "Don't lecture me on how to finish my assignments," he said.
Looking towards the street, Heero tightened his earring. He almost reminded Wufei that this was their assignment, but it seemed pointless when he was preparing to draw a line in the sand. "Two weeks, Wufei," he said. "If we haven't gotten everything we need, I'm out."
Again, the computer dutifully beeped its warning. Another five minutes and the shuttle would reach the designated coordinates.
Heero closed the box, tucked it into his shirt pocket, and wished it didn't feel so heavy resting there near his heart. Shaking off the burden of memory and all the things he could have or should have said wouldn't be easy. Heero sat up straight and ran his fingers through his hair, scratching at his scalp as he drew in a deep breath and prepared to take the controls again.
The slave trade was an ugly fucking business, and he may have thought Wufei had gotten too attached and went in too deep, but Wufei had gotten the job done, hadn't he?
Heero's sigh echoed in the still air of the cockpit.
The other ship was late.
Like any soldier, Heero had grown accustomed to long periods of waiting, but that sure as hell didn't mean he enjoyed it. He'd boosted the sensor range far enough that he should know a few minutes in advance when the other ship approached. So far it hadn't picked up anything.
Une had said the ship he'd be docking with couldn't hold the shuttle, and that he'd have to leave it dead for retrieval. Small didn't mean off the radar though, small presumably meant agile. A ship with good manoeuvrability balanced out the inconvenience of having to suit up to make the transfer.
A dangerous region of space to be transporting anything to, a smaller, quicker craft had all the advantage. With the amount of debris still floating free from the ruins of colony A0206, it took skill to fly through the area to begin with. But to complicate matters, pirates and scavengers made their home and their livelihoods there, and the bigger the ship, the more attractive the target.
One second it seemed as if the stars in front of him blacked out, and in the next, a ship dropped into view. Neither the long-range sweeps nor the proximity radar had picked up anything. The UFF decoder dragged, but that didn't mean much. Though it was technically illegal, any ship contracted by Preventer would likely have some sort of registry scrambler.
With IDs confirmed and codes matched, Heero pried his fingers off the controls. He made sure to leave a note with the onboard that the systems needed maintenance. To save the other ship's fuel, he took on the task of guiding the shuttle into place to proceed with docking.
The registry named it the Blackjack, and it was small, but not to the extent that he'd been prepared to suffer. By his estimation, it probably ran a crew of about half a dozen. Locked into rotation, Heero suited up quickly. As he checked his seals, he studied the rough geometry of the vessel on the screen to get an idea of what the interior might look like. He turned the grav off, used the handholds to swing back down into the cargo hold, and punched the controls to seal off the cockpit and evacuate the air.
A crewmember identifying himself as Johns brought over a pair of programmed bots that had the transfer going smoothly from step one. A few buttons directed the coffin's sled, and Heero felt almost useless following behind with nothing but his gear.
Coming in from the airlock, the interior looked like it could belong to a much larger vessel. Bulkheads had been stripped of panelling to reclaim precious cubic metres, and what would've been rear quarters up above opened to bare beams. The ship wasn't running empty either. Heaps of miscellaneous cargo -- most of it small-scale mining equipment -- was netted down portside beside a whole block of crates stamped with old Alliance identifiers.
"Are you the captain?" Heero asked. He dropped his gear and stripped off his helmet, tucking it under his arm and extending a friendly hand at the sandy-haired woman standing ready to confirm receipt of the coffin.
Before she had a chance to answer or take his hand, a loud whoop echoed from the catwalk above.
"Fuck me! Heero!"
There was no mistaking that voice, and no mistaking the armful of gangly, black-clad limbs that crashed down on him. With the grav low, the impact threatened to send them careening into a pile of metal scrap, and Heero hastily turned on the magnetics in his gloves and boots. He slammed his palm against the floor, catching and holding there.
He twisted around, rolling onto his back, and Duo seemed perfectly content to move with him, giving him a rib-crushing hug somewhere along the way before ending up straddled on his chest. Heero's heart pounded furiously in his chest, and his head dropped against the deck with a thump.
On a day like today, the enthusiastic greeting fell flat.
"I think this is where we're supposed to have that awkward 'been a long time, hasn't it?' conversation," Duo said, leaning back.
"Or perhaps the even more awkward 'your balls are practically in my face' conversation," Heero muttered.
"Hah, sorry." Duo didn't particularly look sorry, and he just inched down until Heero's stomach bore his weight instead. Heero could feel the crew staring at them. He supposed that while there were certainly no end to the number of people Duo would fling his arms around, tackling and rolling around with him on the floor put him in a special category. Duo prodded a finger high in the centre of Heero's chest. "They didn't tell me you were the agent I was going to be hauling to the ass end of the colonies."
"Well that makes for two of us left in the dark."
"So, who's the stiff?"
If he hadn't been trained to disguise physical tells, Heero's muscles would've tensed. Heero put his hands to Duo's hips and tried to gently pry him off. "It's Wufei's body."
Duo snorted quietly, ignoring Heero's attempts to dislodge him, and leaned in until the brim of his cap bumped Heero's forehead. His head cocked to the side birdlike. "I'm sorry, I thought you said 'Wufei'."
All the humour drained out of Duo's expression and he sat back again, his mouth working soundlessly. He picked himself up slowly, then held out a hand to help Heero to his feet. Duo shook his head like he couldn't quite believe it. Understandable enough, it hadn't really hit Heero, either.
"Shit, Wufei..." Duo took his cap off and scratched at the peak of his skull. His gaze settled on the coffin and didn't stray.
The woman Heero had first suspected to be the captain cleared her throat and quietly mentioned they had a schedule to adhere to. Duo spun around, rattling off orders, and, for the second time today something fundamental about Heero's world had changed: Only a short ponytail brushed Duo's shoulders; his braid was gone.
Narrow, well-lit corridors ran along the length of the ship. Heero could easily reach both walls if he stretched his arms out, but there was just enough room for two people to walk side-by-side if they didn't mind being cosy. Duo spent a good part of the tour at his elbow, taking advantage of that.
Every few feet there were notes on the walls. Heero took them for graffiti before recognising the chicken scratch Duo used to work out math or physics problems. After paying more attention to the next chunk of formulas they passed, Heero puzzled them out as plans, ways to keep structural integrity while lightening or expanding the ship.
Layout and landmarks waited to be fixed in his mind, but Heero found it hard to ignore the swing and sway of Duo's ponytail. Eventually, he had to interrupt the tour to ask the question.
"What happened to your hair?"
Duo paused two steps into the galley and tossed a glance over his shoulder. "Oh, yeah, I know. Most days I still feel kinda naked without the braid." He tugged at the thin ponytail and made a face. Unbound, Heero guessed the majority of Duo's hair would fall only a bit past his shoulders. "Had one of those 'one day you're gonna lose an eye' moments. Long story short, I nearly got my head torn off when my hair got stuck in some machinery. Had to chop most of it off just to get free. I was lucky Liz was around."
"Would've looked like shit if I'd had to do it myself," Duo joked.
"I'm sorry," Heero said. He'd had only an inkling of what Duo's hair meant to him, but he knew a lot of memories had been wound in the length of it.
"Ah, what's done is done," Duo said. He jumped up to perch on the edge of a counter and propped one hand on his thigh. "I'm trying to grow it out again, but sometimes I kinda like not having to wait hours for the lot to dry once I'm out of the shower."
Even with the tour temporarily on hold, Heero scanned the room. He did it partly out of habit but mostly out of curiosity. Like the rest of the ship, the galley wasn't very big and most of the spare space held supplies. More than just crates of food, spare parts for everything from wiring to lighting panels were packed in labelled boxes.
Still, the room managed to be cosy rather than cramped.
Comfortably lived in, Heero supposed was the best term he could pin the Blackjack with.
"So, five years. Man, it seems like everyone else is getting married." Duo slid off the counter and pinned Heero with a measuring look. "How about you? I don't see a ring, but wife? Kids?"
Heero shook his head. "No. You?"
"That's what I've got my wallet out for," Duo said, and sure enough he'd already dug it out of his back pocket and flipped it open for Heero to look at.
A chubby-faced little girl smiled at him from a photograph. The resemblance was clear. Beyond the shape of Duo's familiar smile, she had the same hair coupled with the same unique eye-colour. "Poor kid," Heero said, trying to match Duo's levity. "She looks like you."
"I know, I feel sorry for her already. Like father like daughter, she's going to have to fight off hordes of slobbering teen boys," Duo said. He grinned and smacked Heero lightly in the chest with his wallet before putting it away. "Hey, so no girlfriend either? I figured with the way you were so set on that leggy chick at the hospital, you'd have hooked up with her less than a month after I packed up and got off L3."
"I did," Heero said. "It didn't work out."
"Tough, man, she was a real piece," Duo paused, looking up and meeting Heero's gaze. "Wait, unless it was a nasty break-up. In which case, I always knew she was a bitch."
"It didn't work out because of me."
"Is there a story I ought to be prying out of you?" Duo asked.
"Let's just say after a while I was spending more time trying to get to know her brother."
"O-ho!" Duo whistled and slung an arm around Heero's shoulders to give him a little shake. "Finally decided you actually liked playing on the other side of the fence, eh? I feel oddly proud."
"Just because yours was the first dick I ever suc--" Heero stopped short when one of Duo's crewmembers entered the room. Heat steadily crept up the back of his neck. He ducked his head and laughed softly -- honestly -- for the first time today. Duo always did have that knack of both making him say the worst things at the worst possible times and making him blush on top of it.
"Go on, you can finish, McKenzie here never gets sick about hearing about my sexual conquests."
"I'd rather scrub toilets, Captain," the man said, fetching a protein drink from a crate filled with dozens of cans.
"That can be arranged," Duo said cheerfully.
"Go blow yourself."
"You kidding, now that I've got this guy around again?" Duo's arm tightened around Heero, and Heero's face got a touch warmer.
McKenzie just rolled his eyes, cracked open his drink, and continued on his way.
Duo's relationship with his crew felt a lot like the Blackjack itself. For someone who'd never had a real family, it looked like he'd built himself one right along with the ship.
Heero should've been happy for him, but the cheer that had crept back receded like the tide. Duo's arm slid off him. "Guess after that first year, we didn't keep in very good contact, did we," Heero said.
"Busy making my dreams come true. You know how it goes."
Though Heero didn't really know, the lie came easily. He hadn't become a Preventer agent because he'd wanted to; he did it because he was good at it. A sour taste at the back of his throat welled up and everything he wanted to say died there. Duo didn't need to hear that Heero was a proud of him. Not when it would inevitably be tinged with jealousy that even after all this time, Duo would pick up on.
"Took a lot of work to get my baby running. Still doing a lot more crawl and haul than I'd like, but it pays, and, hell, she's gorgeous isn't she."
Heero smirked. His initial impression of the patched together chimera of a ship hadn't been entirely favourable. "I'm not sure gorgeous is the word I would've chosen."
"You're just jealous," Duo said. He forced a grin, dropping it when he couldn't get it to stick. "Shit. It's gloomy in here. C'mon, let's finish up the tour."