I started to get out of my seat automatically when I heard my order come up, but Trix caught my eye over her shoulder and nodded at me, indicating that she would fetch it since she was already up for her own. It wasn't long after I had settled back into my seat that she returned to the small table, setting my drink in front of me.
"That still cracks me up," she said, sitting down across from me.
"What?" I responded absently, wrapping my hands around my cup and absorbing the warmth. The night wasn't cold, but it was still comforting.
She snickered. "Henry."
"That was your idea." And a good one, too, if frivolous. Especially considering the fact that her alternative suggestion had been 'Sparky'. It hadn't been uncommon for the group of us to go out during college. If it wasn't a coffee shop like this one, then it was a burger joint or café or something. For such a short name as 'Hiro', I had been impressed with the number of ways it could be taken down incorrectly. One day, Trix had suggested that I provide a more common name instead, and 'Henry' had simply come to mind first.
"You just don't look like one."
"Really?" And here I had thought it to be an appropriately geeky name. "Then what do I look like?"
She poked at the whipped cream atop her coffee in thought. "I dunno. A 'Hiro', I guess. Sorry. A 'Heeeeee-ro'." A brief smile snuck onto the corner of her mouth as she drew out the syllables of my name quite deliberately, though I sensed the amusement was tempered with a faint pensiveness. She had adapted well enough to the slight name change after she had joined me in my world, but the deeper source behind its necessity was something a little bit beyond her realm. "Either one, I guess. They're about the same anyway, aren't they?"
"They are," I answered automatically, but a moment more of thought led me to append my statement with a thoughtful negation. "And they aren't."
"Oooh, deep as always, Yuy." Her eyes smirked up at me as she bent her head to her straw.
"They should be, don't you think?"
"Dunno. Why do you think they aren't?"
My reason stopped short of the air as I realized that it wasn't really me who thought that. "They should be," I just echoed, turning the matter over in my head.
Correctly picking up that I didn't want to go any further with that line of discussion, she leaned back in her seat, played with her coffee a bit, then sighed. "It seems like a while since we've been out like this."
"Busy at the office, I guess."
"Yeah, you were busy as a bee, buzzing over your broken little hard drive. And you managed to put that thing back together, too."
"It wasn't a perfect reconstruction." That was impossible. But I'd gotten enough of it back together for some useful data to be extracted. The local authorities had taken the men apprehended at the site of the raid into custody and were running them through the justice system. Much of the information that I pulled off the hard drive had given hard evidence that tied the men to the local rebel movement. Beyond that, there had been other communications with some of the suppliers of their hardware, and that data had been retained for the use of the regional Preventers office. The police forces got what they needed for the arrest and conviction of the men making trouble in their area, but the contraband case moved out of their hands when it breached the international level.
"I don't envy you that task. Way too tedious for me. And you don't even know if there's anything worth it at the end of the tunnel. And it's just plain *hard*." She pouted a little. Her skills were appreciated within the department, but she excelled at real-time apps, something that didn't come our way all that often. "I don't get how you do it, how you can consistently do it."
It wasn't the most interesting of tasks, but there was something to be said for taking something that was broken and putting it back to rights. Once the physical remains of the drive were salvaged, it was mostly a case of reading what there was off of it and attempting to fill in the blanks for those places that were lost. Zero was quite helpful when it came to that part. Large-scale pattern analysis was a particular forte of the system.
I was happy to do something that I knew no one else could do. I was even honor-bound to do the things that no one else could do. I considered myself fortunate that I had already been leaning in favor of joining the Preventers when Zero came to roost inside my head. Otherwise, I might have resented his presence pushing my obligations in a direction I hadn't wanted to go.
But none of that made it into my answer. "It's my rugged good looks."
She laughed loudly, toning it down a notch only when she remembered that we were in a public place. "Rugged? I don't know about that."
"Alright, maybe there's a little practice involved, too. Next time a dead disc comes in, feel free to volunteer to take it."
"I think I'll leave that to you, thanks. You hear back about what you found on that thing?"
"It helped solidify their case. The more interesting stuff was in the rest of the evidence they gathered. Some of it's gone high-level again," I mentioned apologetically. It wasn't normally good operating procedure to discuss the details of our work where others could listen in, but they had discovered some of the contraband had been liberated without permission from government facilities, and when cases involved the government, things started getting need-to-know. We probably hadn't gotten there quite yet, but one could never be sure when it would. It was better to err on the side of caution.
She flicked a stray crystal of sugar on top of the table toward me. "Shoulda known. Anything you work on is always high-profile."
An exaggeration, to say the least. "Part of it has ended up back on Duo's desk again. He's not exactly thrilled."
I noticed her almost literally biting her tongue on something I probably didn't want to hear, even though I had added a faint smile to let her know that it was a joke. I suppose that, if I really wanted to avoid these situations, I could have just avoided mentioning Duo at all, but in my experience, avoiding a problem never led to a solution. A few seconds later, she found something neutral to say. "So he's been busy lately, too, eh?"
"Mm-hm," I answered around a mouthful of steamed milk. There had been evidence of weapons-grade particles found in the stockpile, similar to the type being used in some experimental prototypes for non-military purposes. The materials were strictly regulated, however, and refinement beyond a certain point was not permitted. It was a serious violation of international law if someone was refining and selling the particles on the black market, warranting the involvement of high level Preventers agents. There were only a few private institutions known to be carrying out research in the area, and a handful of government labs. Duo and Wufei had been assigned to look into it.
"Hmpf. No wonder you didn't seem to mind hanging out with us last Friday."
"We hang out as a team every first Friday of the month, Trix." It was a bonding exercise or something. Pizza, games, occasionally a movie.
"Yeah, but you usually cut out early to go home to your boytoy."
I always stayed at least a little while. "You know that's never really been my scene."
"We're better company than he is."
And Duo wondered why I thought he was kidding when he finally asked about her dislike of him. Now I wondered just how correct I'd been when I'd offered my opinion to him the other night. "This isn't a competition, Trix. What is it about him that puts you so on edge?"
She hid her miffed expression in her coffee, which was hardly a denial. I pinned her with an expectant look, however, and forced an answer out of her. She'd started this. "I just... I just don't get what you see in the guy."
::Oh, hush you. You don't like him for entirely different reasons.:: So I assumed. I suppose it all boiled down to the same thing, though: they didn't think he was right for me. "Why not?" I asked Trix patiently.
"He's an ass."
"That doesn't tell me anything. Could you be more specific?"
She resisted for a few seconds, but the feminine urge to talk about these sorts of things overwhelmed her. "He doesn't respect you."
That wasn't entirely out of line with what I'd thought, though I wouldn't have used such harsh words. "How so?"
"He doesn't... I don't know. He doesn't like me. Yeah, shut up. I don't mean it so shallowly. It's just... I dunno. Like he thinks he's so cool, with his shiny pretty special agent badge and office above us and stuff. He doesn't respect your job. He's always making little zingers about how we're goofballs or something. It bugs me."
Duo didn't think he was 'so cool', but I'd agree that there was something about my job that bugged him. Trix wasn't the only one that bugged. I exhaled softly. "Okay. I know Duo isn't perfect. I'm not perfect either."
"That's such a load of crap, Heero. I swear, guys are so stupid sometimes. Yeah, I know we should accept each other's flaws because no one's perfect and all that, but that doesn't mean you should just lie there and take a beating."
Was she comparing me to a battered spouse? That wasn't right at all, but I'd let that go as one of her own little quirks. Six months ago, she'd worked on a case involving an abused woman and her kiddie-porn loving husband. She'd been understandably vocal about her distaste of such things ever since. "We're working on it, okay? If it makes you feel better, you're not the only person that sees flaws in him. You're just the only one that thinks he's an ass."
"Your words, not mine."
"You just called him an ass not even two minutes ago."
"Oh yeah. Have I called him a loser yet?"
"Can we talk about something else now?"
"Like what? The current socio-economic-political climate in the world today? Boring."
My mind automatically applied the disdainful label of 'civilian' to her before I remembered that she was a fellow government worker. That made it even worse. I consoled myself with thinking that she was just joking, but I decided a pointed comment on the matter would make for a good transition to other topics anyway. "It's far from boring, Trix. There are a lot of unstable regions in this world right now, and it's not just because of local problems. Anti-government protests aren't uncommon these days, and they have some very good points about the way the world is run right now...."
"You're a busy boy, Yuy. Your services have been requested for a 'special investigative task force'."
I could hear the quotation marks around the phrase quite clearly. He knew what it meant. "Ah. Effective immediately?"
"Yeah. Report to Agent Chang's office. And don't think that, just because you're off doing 'special' stuff, you can slack off on your work down here."
I smiled at Schafer's version of a joke. "Understood. Yuy out."
Glancing around my workstation, I decided to pack up my work laptop and bring it with me when I reported to Wufei's office. When I arrived, I found a desk full of folders and briefs that hadn't been there the other day. I knew the two of them had been hard at work for the last couple of days, but it seemed to have gathered an expected amount of momentum this morning. Knowing the nature of our enterprise, I shut the door behind me and sat down in front of the desk without preamble. "What's going on?"
Wufei gestured to the mess on his desk while Duo at the secondary workstation turned around in his swivel chair. "The investigation started with replica Preventers badges. From there, we found two sources of corruption within government offices, along with one black market dealer. And from that, we uncovered a small terrorist cell -- the one you raided -- along with a source of outlawed weapons. And now from all of that, we're starting to track down a few more sources of contraband, and it's high time we formed a group to pin down these glimmerings of a huge ring operating beneath our radar. Until now, each lead has been tracked independently according to jurisdiction, but it's clear that there needs to be a force at the global level to analyze the overall patterns and make the connections. There's been far too much going on in the world lately for it to be a coincidence."
He hardly needed to convince me of that. There were a lot of angry people out there these days, making claims that the government wasn't doing its job. They weren't exactly incorrect. It'd been ten years since the formation of the ESUN government, and they were still ironing out the details. A few weapons in the wrong hands could bring things in a very bad direction. I scratched at my chin as I glanced quickly over the paperwork scattered over his desk. "Not that I'm not thrilled to be working with you... but this isn't exactly special ops. What do you need me for?"
Duo snorted. "Too good to play in our sandbox, all of a sudden?"
Was that another barb against my choice of jobs? I shrugged and let it pass. "Just want to understand my role here."
"The brass is sticking with the 'task force' label so far," Wufei said. "Like you said, the situation hasn't elevated to 'special ops' status yet. This is considered an extension of the anti-terrorism task force."
We had all been off and on members of the anti-terrorism task force over the years, but it had been fairly quiet on that front lately. "Still doesn't quite explain what you need with me."
"Several of the leads seem to have connections to government offices."
"IAB again?" Sometimes it was rewarding working with Internal Affairs. Rooting out foul play and self-interest within the institution that was supposed to be protecting the civilians was a good cause. On the other hand, sometimes it was pretty demoralizing, too.
"That, but more than that, government clearance. We're going to be pulling some high-level files. We may not *need* you, but it would take too long to find someone else and clear them for this work. We need to move fast on this, need to find out how far this goes."
I smiled crookedly. "Oh, well in that case, I guess I can help. Not as if I have anything better to do."
"Gee," Duo put in. "Way to make a guy feel wanted, Yuy."
"That's what our nights are for, Maxwell."
His lips twitched as he tried and failed to hide a grin. He resorted to wiping a fake tear from his eye. "Aw, 'Fei, my little grasshopper's all grown up."
Wufei rolled his eyes. "So much for keeping this meeting professional."
"Sorry," I apologized, with a minor though significant degree of sincerity. But really, Duo started it. "Do you have something specific you need me to do right now, or shall I go over what you've gathered so far?"
"I have information for you from Morocco," he said as a greeting.
Duo raised an eyebrow at him. "I didn't know you were a member of this task force."
"We're members for life." That was, sadly, true. There would always be terrorism somewhere, and for some reason, the government thought we were best qualified to deal with it. The squad had other members, as well, but they were typically recruited on a case-by-case basis.
"What do you have?" I asked, moving a packet of papers off of my computer keyboard. Adding Morocco to the grid could have potentially interesting ramifications to the overall pattern. Zero was already recomputing our analyses before I got the relevant data out of Trowa and into the computer. It was guiltily gratifying to find time and time again how right I had been about Zero's utility in non-combat situations.
"I know where the RX-32s went."
There was a silo out in old Petersburg that insisted they still had their entire stock of RX-32s on the base. They were simply 'misplaced' during the post-bellum conversion. Apparently, they'd been misplaced all the way in Morocco. I dutifully entered the new datapoint into the computer and connected the dots on the map. The web of lines shifted in my mind's eye, flashing as different hypotheses were tested and discarded. Morocco had ties to Syria. Syria had stores of fuel, some powerful engines. Syria had a twice removed relationship with Cuba, who had several threads joining them to West Virginia...
"Hello?" I pulled myself out of the golden haze and blinked at Duo, who bestowed an amused, tolerant smile upon me. "Looks like we lost him again."
"Sorry," I answered reflexively, playing the conversation of the last couple of minutes back for review. Sometimes I got carried away with my internal dialogue. "Yes, the bomb in Ireland showed the manufacturing signature of Sri Lankan design, but I don't think that means much. The process has become popular lately. Instead, I think it's more interesting to explore the similarities between..."
"Whoa, did we lose him again?"
My mind absently recognized the five second pause, but it was irrelevant. "There's been a lot of criticism about the world government coming out of these states, hasn't there?"
Wufei tapped a pen against the notepad he was currently studying. "Yes, I suppose. But there's been a lot of criticism coming in from all corners of the world, and the colonies, too."
"But these states all have a history of violence. Which is probably why we don't even think twice about the criminal activities happening in these places now. They've been happening off and on for years."
"You think there is some significance in it now?"
"Hmm. I don't know." I couldn't tell if that vague feeling I had was just a guess, or a possibility generated by Zero, emerging as a likelihood with each new piece of evidence we uncovered. "I wouldn't be surprised if one or two of them decided to take arms against the government. But all of them? Granted, some of these states seem to be traffickers more than buyers, but... I think it's worth looking into."
Duo twirled a pen over his fingers. "What, a world wide conspiracy to overthrow the government? Wait, I'm sorry, 'another' world wide conspiracy to overthrow the government?"
"They were pretty good about being quiet for a while," Trowa noted. "Like they were waiting to see where the government would go."
"And obviously, it hasn't gone where they want it to go."
"They've got a coalition representing their interests in the Senate."
A wrinkle formed on Wufei's brow as he thought about it. "The one pushing for more decentralization in the government, you mean?"
"It started as a nationalist movement, really," Trowa answered from where he was, leaning against the wall by the door. "On the one hand, they want less government interference with their lives because the government isn't all that efficient about things." Duo snorted, but Trowa pressed on. "But on the other hand, the global government, global system, global economy, global community... all of these 'global' things that the ESUN government is trying to push is aimed toward unity. Which equates to homogeneity. The abolition of national borders means the abolition of national identity."
"Which ultimately leads to a lack of motivation and innovation," I said, remembering some of the things I'd heard in the media sound bites. "It's not bad, as movements go."
"And all of these states we're looking at are pretty strongly nationalist," Duo mused, studying our wall map.
"The coalition has been very civilized so far," Wufei put in, taking the side of the opposition for the sake of discussion. "Their presentations in the Senate have been quite orderly, regardless of the increasing complaints from their home countries. They've even been quite willing to compromise in some cases."
Trowa shifted his weight against the wall, switching from left foot to right. "That may be true of the lobbyists, but not necessarily true of the people they represent."
"They haven't gotten much done," Duo pointed out. "Especially not to the ground troops. Compromise is bad for morale when you're in the trenches. People don't fight for compromise unless they think they're going to lose everything otherwise. Yeah, I could see the natives getting restless if the big talkers aren't getting the job done."
As the titular lead investigator of our group, Wufei charted our course. "Right then. Barton, are you staying?"
Trowa nodded. "I can stay."
"Do the paper pushers know you're here?"
"I signed in with the front desk."
He snorted. "File the appropriate memos, then work with Yuy to dig up the information on the people doing the violence, see if there's a pattern of escalation, something to confirm this theory. Let's see if we have a weapons ring or the preparations for a coup on our hands. Maxwell and I will continue our investigation into the weapons behind the violence. That should help us actually find the people, if they're there."
"We're going to need a bigger office," Duo commented to the room at large.
last modified : 5/5/2007 02:55:49 PST