He'd visited my desk a hundred times before, and I'd thought we were done with the talking for the day. I looked at him inquiringly, but when he didn't volunteer an answer, I just shrugged and gestured toward the stairs.
We fell in step as we made quick progress down the nine flights to the TSRU. There was still a short walk to the department once we emerged from the stairwell, and wanting to spend just a little more time in Duo's company, I slowed my usual brisk pace to a comfortable stroll.
He walked with his hands in his pockets, eyes catching on the various flyers, announcements, and motivational posters that decorated almost every hallway in HQ. He settled down as the door to the departmental office came within sight. "Hey. Is it... you know. Hard? I know you've got a hell of a lot more patience and tolerance than I do, of course, but... It's still gotta be rough, right? That, uh, I've got all my shit going on, and I don't like Zero, and Zero doesn't like me, and hell, let's just throw your buddy Trix and the whole kit and caboodle in there while I'm at it. That leaves you kinda stuck between one thing and the next, doesn't it?"
I wasn't about to deny it, so I shrugged.
He shifted his balance from one foot to the next as I unlocked and opened the door to the office. He preceded me, scanned the area for the company of others, and then stepped out of the way. "I, uh... sorry about that," he muttered as I passed him.
I squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. "It's..." What, okay? Not really. It was exhausting having to play the peacekeeper, sometimes, but it wasn't that much different from daily life. I had great sympathy for Relena. "...not your fault. Everyone's entitled to their opinions."
His hands were shoved more deeply into his pockets. "Yeah, but... we don't have to give you shit about it. You're just the poor guy caught in the middle, I guess. Don't shoot the messenger and all that."
"Oh, well." I got just as much shit about my own opinions as I did about everyone else's. I took a quick peek into all the cubes as I proceeded to the rear of the office, where my desk was hidden. All empty, as I'd expected. I wouldn't have felt comfortable coming down here, otherwise. Zero had reminded me of something I'd needed to do. I studied the layout of my desk after I got there, marking the position of each object. My survey produced a frown. "Someone's been through my things." It was more than Trix just borrowing my stapler.
Duo's expression went from mildly uncomfortable to business-like. "Did you keep anything important in there?"
I wasn't one of those people that thought personal things belonged in the workplace, so there was none of that. Everything else was mostly files and paperwork for the cases I'd worked on. Except for one thing. I opened the second drawer on the right, dug underneath a pile of discs, and pulled out a pouch. Still there, and still full of what I'd put in there, judging from the weight and feel. I opened it anyway, found what I was looking for, and sighed in relief.
"What is that?" Duo asked.
"A..." A second thought about telling him hit me, but I brushed it aside. "Something of a personal project. Something I tinker with in my free time, mostly when I'm here on call. It's... a neural interface device."
He watched warily as I pulled it out of its bag to show him. "That? Doesn't look like one."
For which I was glad. It looked like any other small piece of personal electronics these days. "Probably why they didn't take it." It wasn't very incriminating, as evidence went, but it still would have been relevant to the IAB's investigation if they'd recognized it for what it was. I didn't really know what else they would have been looking for. A written agenda for taking over the world? What would have proven my alleged instability to them? I set the interface down on the tabletop and went through the rest of my drawers.
Duo stared at it, but didn't touch it. "Does it work?"
"Mm-hm. I know it's not very pretty to look at, but it's just a prototype. It's designed for portability and compatibility."
"And, uh, any particular reason why you'd be building something like that?"
Satisfied that nothing seemed to be out of order, I shut the last drawer and turned on my computer to check it out. While it was booting, I leaned against the desk to give Duo my full attention. "No particular reason. Well, now that I've 'come out', it might see some use, but a few weeks ago, it was just something I did to see where I could go with it."
He fidgeted with my stapler, tweaking its position until it was precisely aligned with the edge of the table. "Your other little buddy. RJ. He does research in this stuff, yeah?"
"Yeah. He never knew about Zero, or what I was doing with this." I waved my hand at the interface. "But we discussed some ideas. One of the only people I've come across that has been interested in the possibilities on a purely academic level."
"Oh." Done with the stapler, he moved on to repositioning two pens on the desktop. "Just a tale of two geeks, then, huh?"
"He was never my accomplice in anything, Duo." I pulled my chair out and took a seat. The IT department had administrator access to all of these machines, so I also kept my computer clean of personal items, but it was still healthy to look into it.
"You were using him, then?" he suggested neutrally, straightening up a small stack of reports.
"We bounced ideas off each other. We were both researchers in the area. Duo." I put a hand on top of his wrist as he reached out to the small whiteboard I had hanging on the cubicle wall. "Stop touching my stuff."
He started guiltily before jamming his hands back in his pockets. "Oh. Sorry."
"What are you thinking, Duo? That I had a whole second life -- third life? fourth life? -- revolving around all of this? I didn't. We were just two people with a common hobby. I just happened to have the means by which to test my theories. Outside of this, there's nothing else."
"Oh," he said again dully, looking antsy now that I had forbidden him to play with my things. "So. I guess maybe he'll be even more interested in what you've got to say now, you being like the living embodiment of all his interests."
I sighed. Someone else to use me? At least he was well-acquainted with the discretion that needed to be wrapped around the Zero system. He had the security clearance for it, still active from the time he was supposed to do research on it, but hopefully it would be enough to keep his curiosity about it confined to small, quiet chunks. "I need to pay him a visit. Apologize for getting him involved. Thank him for coming forward when they started asking him questions. Without him..."
"We wouldn't have known," Duo finished. "Guess I can't really hold a grudge against the guy for that. He's obviously a pretty loyal friend. You... have loyal friends, Heero."
The computer seemed untouched since the last time I had logged on. I shut it down and spared him a curious glance.
He shrugged, trying for nonchalance. "I... maybe I should get to know them better. That's all."
I smiled. "I'd like that." I put the interface back into its bag, tucked it into one of the inner pockets of my jacket for safekeeping, and stood. "I'm done here. Everything looks fine. Shall we?"
His eyes flickered nervously at where I'd just stowed the device, but he mustered up a small tilt of his lips as he nodded.
I had a whole morning of peace, following leads with the others and then getting lunch in the office before I was summoned before our overlord for a personal report on our team's progress. That was the official reason, at least.
When I got to Une's office, I was granted an immediate audience, which made me glad that her office wasn't that far from our workspace. The upper floors of the building weren't heavily trafficked, sparing my nerves some. Meeting with Une was actually calming in a way. I knew what to expect out of her.
She watched me closely as I seated myself on the other side of her desk, and continued to do so after I had myself settled. I waited the scrutiny out, knowing that it was a part of the game. When she was at last satisfied with what she saw, she spoke. "Report."
Official business before unofficial business. I did as I was told, and briefed her on our findings to date. All of the terrorists from ZenNet had been processed. We had successfully identified the one who was the actual building engineer for ZenNet, who had arranged for the place to be used as their temporary headquarters for their operations in the city. Though it was knowledge after the fact, I felt vindicated in my decision to head directly to the building rather than try to bull my way through all the levels of red tape to get ZenNet's cooperation. That avenue would only have led straight to the building engineer's door, and he would no doubt have stonewalled us until it was too late.
Of the others, we had successfully taken into custody two known nationalist leaders, and five agitators on record. The other dozen of them had been locals or henchmen. Since they were all people passionate enough about their cause to set bombs, cause major damage to government infrastructure, and consider innocent deaths to be mere collateral damage, even Quatre hadn't broken any of them yet. But we had hope. They weren't fanatical to the point of willing martyrdom, given the desperation with which they had fought me in an attempt to win their freedom from the ZenNet building after I'd locked us all in. Most of the bruises I'd acquired from the encounter were still fading.
Despite the lack of cooperation, our captives were able to provide us with useful information. We were still in the process of looking up the backgrounds and connections of each of them. We'd dug up a lot of information, but nothing had centralized into a cohesive whole yet. It would take time, given the non-localized nature of the rebellion, but they'd gathered once for a concerted terrorist effort. We had every reason to believe they would do so again.
Following the report of our current progress, Une transitioned smoothly to an inquiry into my 'undercover mission'. I recounted the details of my initial interrogation and subsequent arrest, glossing over the severity of my disability while incarcerated and skipping straight to the escape. From her grimly amused smile, I could only guess that my story didn't quite match up with what she had heard from the IAB officials involved.
I paused in my report as she leaned back in her chair and studied me some more. "You didn't seriously injure any of your fellow Preventers," she told me. "Nothing out of the ordinary for a 'faked' escape. Off the record, however, I know that your actions were taken out of self-defense. You need not worry about repercussions."
I bowed my head slightly in respectful gratitude. She'd just spared me one more headache. "What about their actions?"
"On the record, they were merely participating in an undercover operation. Off the record... They were just doing their jobs, pursuing whom they thought was a security risk. There can't be many repercussions for that." She smiled again. "But I'm sure they'll soon find it in their best interests to request transfers. It wouldn't be wise for any of them to linger long where there are so many high-ranking people that are displeased with them. In that case, we'll certainly be able to find them new positions fit for their talents. I'm afraid I must apologize for their initiative, and for allowing this matter to slip my attention for so long. If I'd known, I would have put an end to their investigation immediately."
I'd gotten the details of their motivation from Quatre, so I didn't waste time pursuing it with her. I also knew how busy the government had kept her with their nonsense. There were other questions I had for her. "You disagreed with their actions."
"Of course," she answered serenely. "If I'd wanted you imprisoned, I'd have done it myself."
"Is it a matter of keeping your enemies close?"
She leaned forward to meet my gaze intently. "You're a valuable member of this organization, Agent Yuy. I hope you continue your work here. Your talents shouldn't go to waste."
I tried to evaluate the threat level in her words, but didn't come to any solid conclusions. "I look forward to returning to my post, Director."
"I was hoping you might consider another position, Agent."
"You've hoped that for several years now, Director. I've never taken you up on that offer." Une had always been much more graceful about it than Duo had been. Perhaps she felt that time was on her side. Or maybe the difference that permanence would make meant little to her. I was already at her disposal on special ops, ready and willing to drop everything and work the important cases. She could make do for the rest.
Unsurprisingly, she decided to up the ante this time. "I've been unintentionally limiting your choices. Having you in the field would be a great boon, yes, but perhaps your... 'talents' might serve a better purpose in, say, tactical analysis."
I decided not to argue the merits of one position over the other and cut to the heart of what was motivating the renewal of this topic. "If you want to use me in a capacity of your own choosing, then why would you have ordered my release? Why not just keep me in that box?" Friend or foe? The question kept bouncing around in my head. Friend or foe?
She nodded in acknowledgment of the point, but afterwards took her time in answering. "I don't believe you would be able to perform to your greatest potential if you were kept locked in a box," she said finally.
I noted the way she was absently rubbing the top of her paperweight, fingers tracing the grooves of the rose engraved upon its surface. That moved her assurance beyond all doubt. She was on my side about this. I should have expected it. Thusly reassured, I settled down to discuss the matter of my appointment in earnest. I was sure we'd be able to work something out that we could both find agreeable.
last modified : 5/5/2007 02:55:49 PST