- 3 -

When we were safely ensconced on a return train to Brussels, Duo and Wufei chose to keep watch over our prisoner in a private compartment.  It was a duty they wouldn't have minded leaving to the two IA agents, but there was a chance that Brisbois would start talking, whether coerced or not.  Unfortunately, that left the pair with us.

I drifted away from the rest of the group towards the farther end of the otherwise empty corridor outside the compartment we were guarding and stood in front of a window seat, leaning against the back of the chair in front of it.  I found myself a little disturbed by my behavior, my lack of control.  In the process of analyzing my reactions to Brisbois, I noticed my brief spikes in temper.  Had the possibility of war flaring up really shaken me that much?

Sometimes, when I got edgy, I still had my moments of hyperawareness.  On those occasions, I still had to consciously refrain from accidentally lashing out at someone that unthinkingly startled me, or got too close to me with some innocent motion.   That had nothing to do with anger, just engrained response.  It didn't happen often that I got angry enough to want to strike a man.  I didn't like it when it did.  I needed to be professional and just get Zero back.  I couldn't do that if I went around gratuitously hurting the people from whom we needed cooperation.

Who said anything about gratuitous?, a little voice whispered to me.  I could easily hurt a person quite strategically and still get cooperation, now couldn't I?  I blocked out the litany of pressure points and little bones that sprang up in response to the thought, and chose to dwell instead on the peace.

It did mean a lot to me.  No question.  I would not tolerate all of the sacrifices made by so very many people on every side of the war being rendered meaningless by some fool that didn't think he had gotten enough personal benefit out of it.

That was only making me angry again.  I stopped the thoughts in that line altogether, and decided to focus on our leads again.  I hadn't really sunken into the facts of our case when Quatre showed up in the row in front of me, one knee on the seat.

"Heero," he said quietly, mindful of the others.  There were about a dozen rows of seats between us and them, with Trowa in between, feigning a nap.  "We've just gotten you back, and now you've left again."

"Sorry," I murmured, unable to be anything other than repentant when he smiled softly at me.  "Just thinking."

He studied me with those too-wise eyes of his.  "Is it alright?  That you've been called back?"

Alright?  It wasn't alright that some bastard with an agenda was threatening world peace, but I suppose it was alright that I had been called to help deal with it.  I had offered, hadn't I?  I nodded for him.  "The vacation was nice, but I guess it couldn't last forever."  There should have been a little less melancholy in that attempt at light humor.

He put an encouraging hand on my upper arm.  "We'll stop it before it starts, Heero."  He let that rest between us, knowing that any more of a pep talk would be lost on me, before moving on to something a little less intense.  "We're glad you're back, you know, despite the circumstances.  If you end up going back to your life after this, I hope we can be a part of it."

"Glad?" I repeated wryly.

"Even Duo," he reassured me, an understanding sparkle dancing around his eyes.  "Granted, he may be sore that you left in the first place, but he's still glad you're back."

I snorted in agreement.  The way I saw it, Duo was just making up for the five years I'd missed of experiencing his irritation in person.  It would pass after he'd caught up.  Provided my perception of him hadn't changed, Duo was not inspired to hate easily.  "I wasn't trying to shut all of you out, you know."

"How do you mean?"

"It wasn't personal, that's all.  I just... needed a vacation," I finished, falling back on my flat joke from before.   "One of those vacations where you leave your cell phones and your pagers and your laptops at home."

He chuckled, scratching ruefully at his chin.  It was a little strange to see the faint color variation of a shaven beard along his jaw.  "I need to take more of those."

"Business keeping you on your feet?"

"Absolutely.  Did you always plan it as a 'vacation'?  Were you thinking of coming back?"  He resisted my attempt to change the topic.  Perhaps trying to out-converse Quatre was an exercise in futility.

I tried not to let all the talk of 'being back' get to me.  Was this really the place I belonged?  Had I been an idiot to try and leave it?  No, I didn't regret my decision.  I was a better person for it.  On the other hand, maybe 'vacation' was putting a wrong spin on things.  'Sabbatical', perhaps.  I hadn't left for fun.  Was this where I inevitably belonged?  I didn't know.  With these people, I wouldn't be surprised.  We had shared something important, and that would never go away.  I hadn't thought of my absence as 'shutting them out', but it basically came down to a decision between me and them, and for the first time in a long, long time, I had the leisure and the opportunity to choose 'me'.  I took it.  I didn't think they would begrudge me that.

I shrugged in response to Quatre's question.  "I didn't plan anything.  Whatever happened, happened.  And 'this' happened to happen."  It was sort of reminiscent of how it was after Odin had been killed.  Something had just happened that dictated the course of my life for the next few years.

"'This'," Quatre agreed with a sigh.  "No offense, but I could have lived without 'this' happening."

"So could I."  A 'this' having to do with something other than revolution would have been nice.  "Do you think Brisbois will give it up?"

He sighed again.  "I don't know.  Actually, yes, I think he will, provided he has it to give.  Just how long it will take, and to what depths we will have to sink for it, I don't know."

"Hopefully, not much of either."  I thought about Duo and Wufei, and the chat they would be having with Brisbois.  It wouldn't be anything messy here on a vehicle of public transportation, but that could change when we got back to HQ.  It was unsavory to contemplate, but I think we would do what we had to in order to get the job done.

This easy train ride back to the city was deceiving.  There was a clock ticking somewhere, and we didn't know how much time was left on it.  We had rushed to action in tracking down Brisbois in the hopes of catching up to him before the system left his hands.  Now that we had missed that window of opportunity, everything was up in the air.  Despite that, the feeling of urgency didn't fade, and it inspired me to get back on task.  "We'll need to pursue those ideas we had on neural interfaces.  Do a more thorough check on his financials and look for a payment or something.  Talk to his co-workers, check his friends or family.  We have his computer; we need to check his correspondences, his contacts, his browser caches, everything."

When I slowed down enough to take a breath, Quatre's hand reached out to touch me on the arm again.  "Don't make it sound like it has to be a one-person job, Heero," he chided lightly.  "We have a team of incredible people known for pulling off the impossible.  We'll get it done."

I felt like he was scolding me again for taking off on my own, and he was good enough that I couldn't tell if he had meant it that way or not.  It wasn't clear to me why he thought I was thinking solo, anyway.  I had used 'we', not 'I'.  While the odds against us now weren't quite as bad as they had been during the war, I recognized the wisdom in our unity.  In fact, I sort of looked forward to it.

Wufei and Duo didn't get anything useful out of our thief on the ride back to headquarters.  We threw Brisbois into a holding cell and let him sit there with a security camera for company while we discussed the case in an office down the hall.

"We can't just sit around waiting for him to sing," Quatre declared.

"Amen to that," Duo muttered.  He had emerged from his session with Brisbois with a very disgruntled look on his face, though one that existed only out of Brisbois' sight.

Undisturbed, Quatre continued.  "Une's got the information on the possible insurgent groups ready for us.  We'll definitely need to take a look at that.  It's the middle of the night right now, so--"

"Do we have to let him sleep?" Duo interrupted.  "I mean, I hardly want to spend any more time with the little creep, but give me a little caffeine, and I'm ready to go 'til morning.  A little sleep dep, and I'm sure he'll be talking in no time."

I was sorry to say that that actually sounded like an appealing notion to me.  We even had enough people to tag team him so we wouldn't have to lose the sleep ourselves.  Unsurprisingly, however, Wufei shot the idea down before it had time to really take root.  "No."

"Aw, come on..."

He lifted a thin eyebrow and repeated himself.  "No.   I like the man as little as you do, Duo, but sleep deprivation is hardly humane treatment--"

"Screw 'humane', Fei.  We're talking about a guy ready to screw over lots and lots of people in the name of God knows what!   We still haven't even figured that out yet."  Personally, I thought sleep dep was pretty humane compared to some of the other things we could have done.

"--and it would be enough to bring this entire investigation into question."

"By whom?  We afraid he's going to sue us or something?"

"I know you've never really gotten along with the system, Maxwell, but--"

"Realistically speaking," Trowa cut in, his soft words directed at me, and yet somehow capable of putting a stop to their testy exchange.  "How much of a hurry are we in?  How long would it take to set Zero up, worst case?"

I didn't have a number prepared for him.  "Hmm.  Well, they'd have to recalibrate the system for its user and its purpose.  The absolute shortest possible time would be about a day of hard work, if you knew what you were doing, and you didn't have very many adjustments to make.  The further the new user from its previous settings -- which would be me -- the longer it will take to get useful results.  The same goes with its purpose."

"Then this war will never get off the ground," Duo drawled, aiming a wry look at me.  "Isn't anybody that thinks anything quite like you, Yuy."

Somehow, I didn't think he meant that as a compliment.  Oh well.  "There's also the little matter of our final battle.  A lot of Wing's circuits got fried at the end there.  Zero suffered some damage, but I'm not entirely certain of the extent.  I never had the opportunity to sit down and inspect it carefully, but I would assume at least part of it will need to be fixed or reconstructed.  Who knows what they might end up with if they don't realize that."

"A VR version of pong, maybe?"  Pong.  I was pleased that I was familiar with one of Duo's references.

Quatre asked a less flippant question.  "If the memory is corrupted... if the filters are malfunctioning...  It could really, really mess with someone's mind, couldn't it?  And I mean that in a, even worse than it usually does, sort of way."

"Hmm, now that you mention it, yes, I suppose so."

"...Oh my."

"But only in the worst case scenario," I was quick to point out.  "Garbage in, garbage out -- that's what we end up with when someone plugs in that's not suited for the system's configuration.  If the input is garbled on processing, we'll still only end up with garbage out, nothing worse than what we have when the system is working properly.  Not that that is mild, by any means."  Yes, we were very familiar with what sort of 'garbage out' the system could produce when undamaged.  "The difference is that we'll get garbage out even if we don't get garbage in.  The results would be the same if a layperson connected, damaged or undamaged.  On the other hand, I'd probably see a significant difference in performance."

"So, in answer to my question," Trowa mused.  "Taking into consideration your estimates, we probably have, say, at least a week before we see any results of the theft pop up, and that's a conservative worst case.  Longer if the system is going to exchange hands again."

"Shorter if Duo's assessment of the situation proves true.  They might just be idiots and try plugging in first thing in the morning.  I assure you that nothing useful will happen, but it's possible that something might happen.  Even if it's just a VR version of pong taking over all of our computers," I added with a nod of my head to Duo.  His eyebrows rose, but that was all.  I couldn't tell what it meant.  "Average case scenario, I'd say we have a couple of weeks, if our thieves are smart."

Wufei offered another scenario.  "It's entirely possible that they stole nothing but a worthless bunch of silicon wafers."

That would be nice, although I might feel a bit sad for the loss.  "I wouldn't get my hopes up."

"Could they do any further damage to it by accident?" Trowa asked.  "If they don't know what they're doing with it, that is."

It was times like these that I really missed Zero and its ability to analyze all of the possibilities.  "Hmm.  If they interface with it incorrectly, they could possibly damage it further, but it wouldn't be damaged by the quality of input."

"So we have some time, to sleep if nothing else," Quatre said, looking pointedly at Duo.  When the former Deathscythe pilot registered the attention, his expression transitioned into one of feigned innocence.  The blond shook his head and continued.   "As I recall, Zero's components aren't unique, but they are sophisticated.  If they are going to repair Zero with similar parts, there are only so many avenues for them to pursue."

I wasn't completely unfamiliar with the topic.  "Hardware.  I'll compile a list."  I suppressed the urge to yawn and scratched at the back of my neck instead.

"Write up the specs, then hand it off to one of us.  You need to look into Brisbois' computer and see what you can find there."  I nodded my acknowledgment, and he turned back to the group at large.

"I wanna talk to his co-workers when they come in tomorrow," Duo put in.

"Brisbois is a pompous fool."  Mostly, it was a statement of fact, but there was still a faint tinge of disdain in Wufei's voice.  "Do you really think he would have said anything relevant to his co-workers?"

"Brisbois is a pompous fool," Duo repeated.  "And in my experience, what makes these people fools is that they open their mouths and share their idiocy with others.  Guys like this like to rant.  He must have said something stupid and annoying to someone."

I had to agree with his assessment, and Duo, to my knowledge, had always been good with people.  Although in the last twenty-four hours, most of his pronouncements had been jaded, cynical ones involving the stupidity of mankind, I still trusted his judgment in these matters.

"Okay, then," Quatre said decisively.  "We'll let Brisbois stew for the night.  Maybe that will loosen his tongue.  I'll talk to him in the morning.  I should be able to get a good feel for him.  Heero, look into his laptop and whatever other electronic records you can get your hands on.  Duo, talk to his co-workers, his friends if he had any.  Wufei, look into the groups Une gave us that might be interested in acquiring Zero.  Trowa, start compiling lists on hardware manufacturers and neural interface research and development.  And all of us..."  He looked us all solemnly in the eye.  "Get some sleep, and get started in the morning.  We have plenty of time to lose sleep later.  That's one thing we shouldn't get an early start on."

And thus was the tension broken.  Remarkable.  I would have to keep a closer eye on him and see if I couldn't pick out some of his distinguishable leadership characteristics.  He wasn't quite done yet, though.  "Heero, where are you staying?"

It took a moment for the question's relevance to register.  "On the grounds.  Preventer's barracks, two-thirteen."

"That sucks," Duo observed casually.

I shrugged.  The barracks weren't as bad as they sounded.  It was more habit than anything else that made me call them that rather than the dormitories that was its official name.  The accommodations were clean, simple, and secure, and I didn't much have to worry about transportation.  The dorm was a modest building capable of housing fifty or so, set near the training grounds, and used mostly for the population of Preventers or cadets that came and went on short-term bases.  They were fairly empty at the moment.   "They're convenient."

I told them my cell phone number, and my e-mail address as backup, the same address I had given Une, and watched as they all committed the information to memory without needing any repetition on my part.  Then I asked where I could find them.

Apparently Quatre had a suite in the city, attached to some offices his family managed.  I wouldn't be surprised to find out he had gone out of his way to secure a family presence in this area, just to have a legitimate excuse to be near both the political capital of the world and the paramilitary base of the Preventers.  I was told Trowa was staying there as well.  Wufei, naturally, had an apartment not far from the base since he worked here.  It appeared to be standard practice for Duo to crash in his living room whenever he was in town.  They gave me their contact information, and I, too, committed it to memory without much thought.

We agreed on a time and location for the next day, and then we dispersed.  I made it back to my room feeling both tired and energized.  I had been up since early morning working with the team from IA, and then there were the added experiences of meeting the guys again, breaking the Brisbois case, traveling to Wimereux and back again, and just worrying in a general sense about what would happen with Zero.  I really wasn't as young as I used to be.  This should have been nothing.

Perhaps I simply wasn't yet acclimated to the stresses of what used to be daily life for me.  While I was in school, I rarely had so much to do that it was necessary for me to keep long hours.  I had, in fact, pulled an all-nighter only once, and then only for the heck of it.  I figured I was missing out on some integral part of the college experience by not catching the sunrise from the wrong end, so I tried it.  It hadn't been particularly exciting.

This, on the other hand, was.  Yes, there were so many bad things that could happen right now that my mind would exhaust itself if it tried to keep up with each and every one of them, but this was something I was passionate about.  This was about war and peace and people's lives, and the fire inside of me for that had never gone out, despite my leave of absence.  I didn't want to live this life anymore, but I also wasn't willing to let the peace fall apart just because I didn't feel up to the challenge of facing all the problems of the world every day; thus, I had left my contact information with Une.  I could walk away from it, but I could never turn my back on it.

I fell into bed that night with a sense of weary accomplishment.

It was a little more difficult to get out of bed the next morning than I had anticipated, and it wasn't because the beds were particularly comfortable.  I made a mental note to myself to account for that before I went to sleep that night.  I had been hoping that things would turn out alright, that my body wouldn't betray me, and it had worked out fine when I had first arrived.  Guess I couldn't count on it to keep up with me when I was working eighteen-hour days.  Luckily, I could compensate.

I did a few exercises to get my body going, then left my room eagerly, ready to start the day.  The Preventers dormitory had not been built with aesthetics in mind.  My room received very little in the way of light through the window, even with the curtains pulled back.  In the early morning, though the sun shone bright, it held my quarters back in a state of pre-dawn gloom.  I guess I'd gotten to liking my sunlight a little too much.  I didn't mind darkness, but the gray that seemed to have had its life sucked out of it was a little too much for me to bear these days.

The mess hall wasn't in full operation yet, but simple breakfast items were available, so I snagged some juice and toast on the way to our makeshift office.  I was the first one there, but then again, I was currently living on-site.

I took the opportunity to study everyone's desks while they were out.  They had only been used for one day, but it interested me to see if I could pick out signs of personality.  I couldn't quite.  I had to be truthful to myself: I knew that the desk across from mine, with the blue, black, and red pens, belonged to Quatre only because I had been there yesterday to hear him request them.  Maybe I would have guessed that the desk to Quatre's right was Duo's because it was closest to the whiteboard and corkboard, but I knew it to be fact already, so that threw off any supposition on what conclusions I might have drawn.  So many things become clear in retrospect.

I sat down at my own desk with Brisbois' laptop and observed its exterior first.  The hardware was decent, but not top of the line.  There were some scratches on its surface, and a small sticky point on its front right corner where it seemed some liquid had been spilt, but no other identifying paraphernalia such as stickers or labels.

Its interior was similarly bland, although I noted with some disapproval that the LCD display also sported a few faint scratches.  Turning it on, I continued my investigation of the system before I looked into the data contained on the drive.  The generic software installed was probably what came with the system upon purchase.   His desktop image was a reef, with brightly colored fish hovering amongst the tropical coral.  That also came standard with the system.

The door opened suddenly, and I glanced up to find Duo looking back at me, equally startled.  Both of us blinked it away quickly.  He entered, shut the door behind him with minimal sound, and leaned against his desk.  "You're here early."

"Are you surprised?"  I'd always been an early riser, even when I found I needed more sleep, and especially when there were things to be done.

He snorted.  "Guess not."

"Where's Wufei?"  Since Duo was staying at his place, I had expected them to come in at the same time.

He gestured vaguely out the door.  "Had some other stuff to do.  He'll be around.  I'd go off and get started on my job, but I don't think they're all in yet.  That's his, right?"

I returned my attention to the laptop he was pointing at.   "Yes.  I've just started looking into it.  He hasn't done anything fancy with his system, so there shouldn't be any particular problems with figuring it out.  The only question now is what are we going to find."

Quatre came back before lunch, a frown marring his face.   There seemed to be a lot of that going around.  Trowa questioned him first.  "Didn't get anything out of him?"

Quatre shook his head.  When his bangs ended up in his eyes, he shook his head again.  "He knew me."

"I found some reports on his laptop," I informed him, wishing I had found them sooner.  There may have been more, but my search was not yet complete.  "Documenting the events surrounding Zero's first appearance."

His expression was both accepting and disturbed.  "I had a hard time getting him to talk to me about anything useful.  When he spoke, he just went on about..."

Duo touched his arm in a show of concern.  "That bastard need a good ass-kicking?"

Quatre shook his head again.  "No.  It wasn't like... he had been personally affected by what I did.  He seemed much more interested in... it's hard to nail down.  What Zero was capable of, I guess.  Kept telling me that I had no idea what Zero could really do."

"Yeah, he needs a good ass-kicking," Duo declared.

It drew a brief smile from Quatre.  "Heero, I'd like you to speak with him."

"Me?"  I was hardly a good talker.

"He can hardly argue that you know nothing about the Zero system."

"You want me to give him a list of my credentials, then?"   My name should not have been associated with the system as Quatre's had.  He had had the poor sense to introduce himself at the time of his little episode.  In the few instances my own name had managed to pop up, Zero had not been an issue.

"If it comes up.  And I'd like to observe.  Maybe you can get a little more out of him than I could."

I nodded my acquiescence.  I doubted I could get anything out of him on the basis of my conversational skills or my stunning portfolio of experiences, but I had been told that I could be quite unnerving and/or infuriating, to the point where people sometimes said things to me that they had had no intention of saying.  Perhaps that remarkable talent of mine would serve well enough.

This piece of fiction is the intellectual property of the little turnip that could. The basis for this fic, i.e. Gundam Wing, Kyuuketsuki Miyu, et al., is the property of someone else. The author can be con tacted at jchew at This has been an entirely automated message.

last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST