I didn't sleep much that night, even though it was the last night before the mission and I really should have been trying to get some rest. Every time I closed my eyes, I couldn't do anything but remember every nasty sight that had been crammed into two short days. Three and a half corpses in 48 hours - that worked out to a little more than one corpse per fourteen hours. One per twelve if Une gave up the ghost and went from being half a corpse to a whole one. Yes, it was so bad I was doing math in my head.
Of everything, it was the smell that was the worst; people tend to underestimate how powerful sensations are to the mind. It was all about the smell or the feeling that connected with a sight. That's what gave things power.
So all I could think about was the smell of blood and sickness, or somehow more disturbing, the stale, dusty air of a closed apartment. It all made me remember other faces with eyes shut tight with dried blood, searching blindly for mercy.
So yeah, no sleep for Duo.
And no sleep for Wufei either, it seemed. As I lay in bed, staring at the dark ceiling, I heard the rustling of fabric and a soft gasp. Wufei slipped out of his bed, clumsy enough that I could track his progress to the door by sound alone.
For a moment, I thought about getting up and following him, making sure he was alright. But I knew the guy far too well; he wouldn't appreciate me intruding on his nightmare, any more than I'd appreciate it if the tables were turned. Pain's a highly personally thing, at least for guys. Sort of like how wolves always drag themselves away to hide when they need to lick their wounds.
When the first watery light of dawn turned the room's walls dingy grey, I gave up even pretending to sleep and extracted myself from the rat's nest of blankets. Idly re-braiding my hair, I stumbled over to the desk and turned on my laptop. Yeah, I'd finally gotten off my ass and, ah, acquired one shortly before Heero left. It didn't seem like a smart idea to leave us without private internet access. Some things, you just didn't do with library computers - surfing porn and hacking military databases were two examples that sprang instantly to mind.
By the light of the monitor, I opened the top desk drawer, messing around with the right side of it until I found the pressure release for the quick and dirty false bottom I'd stuck in it upon our arrival at the school. It yielded two things - the little metal dart, still wrapped in my hanky, and my Little Black Box.
And trust me, the LBB deserved the capitalization.
The LBB was a collaboration between Heero and I, conceived when I was drunk and he was bored. You had to hand it to the kid - he was a natural at electronic crime second only to yours truly, and had been as long as I'd known him. His expertise was more in the hardware department, though, while I truly shone when it came to being a console cowboy - programs start to finish. The other pilots didn't come close to us, and we didn't have the time or patience to teach them anything. But we also couldn't just leave them, since we couldn't always do the hacks but we sure didn't want them giving us away. So, the LBB was born. Heero had put the mini-computers together; what was in them, I couldn't tell; a lot of wires, a couple microprocessors, and some serious magic blue smoke. I provided the binary voodoo that gave the collection of bits a soul, and it was ready to rumble, easy enough for even Quatre - the most computer illiterate of the bunch - to figure out. All you had to do was run your LAN or internet connection through it, and you could suddenly cut through ice, up to low-level military stuff, like a hot knife through butter.
When we showed the guys how to use them, the only comment had come from Quatre: "I'm glad you guys are on our side." Yeah, well, there you go.
So anyway, I plugged the LBB in and switched it on; a little red LED on top of it started blinking, and that was the only sign that it was working. Technically speaking, I didn't even need an LBB, but I was lazy and that meant I wouldn't have to waste time on low level security systems. I dug my lock picking kit out of my pocket and sorted through it until I found my magnifying lens. It wasn't something I used often; lock picking was more of an intuitive, by feel sort of thing, but it was great for eyeballing miniaturized hinges or tripwire assemblies when things got to the nasty, mono-filament side of booby traps.
I took more care than was probably necessary unwrapping the dart; there was no way of telling it had been entirely spent when Noin handed it over, and I wasn't really thrilled by the idea of a dirty needle stick either. I could end up with the lycanthrope version of the Red Death, or who knew what kind of funky germs that werewolves carried around - especially ones that could very well be fucking vampires.
Ugh, now there was a mental image I could have lived my life happily without. Thanks, brain. Remind me to kill you with beer later.
It wasn't hard to find what I was looking for on the little dart - the serial number was written in tiny lines just about the point where the needle joined the barrel.
The search itself? Not so easy. I had to figure out which digits of the serial number indicated company of manufacture. Then I had to hack the sales/manufacture database of the company and find one dart amongst millions and work out who it had been sold to. The company was Chiba Kagami Manufacturing, Ltd, and they were one of those annoying businesses that used account numbers only on orders, probably just to piss off guys like me. So I had to do a little more hacking around to figure out who belonged to the account number. By the time I was done, I was about ready to leave a nasty surprise for their database and sysadmin as thanks for being so fucking efficient and making me work for it.
Surprise, surprise. The account belonged to the R&D division of Romefeller, and the shipment had gone to - even better - the research lab that Wufei and I would be doing recon on tonight. What a coincidence.
And we all knew how much Uncle Duo loved coincidences.
Suddenly, I wanted to have a chat with Dr. Schbeiker. One that would quite possibly start out with my boot up his ass and only go downhill from there.
Except two hours later, I was no closer to finding him for said chat. His lab existed, yeah, I had the specs to prove it, but as far as the network was concerned, he had no employees and didn't actually exist himself. This was all complicated by the fact that the mysterious Dr. Schbeiker didn't have a first name, either.
With no luck in the government or lower level military databases - they had this guy buttoned tight - I figured what the hell, if I was going to waste my day on the computer, I might as well check domestic and commercial databases. The military might have their shit together on their own network, but I'd encountered things on non-secure networks before that they'd totally missed. Top Secret wasn't always.
I wrote up a quick worm that would sift through the transaction records and send me anything interesting and sent it off into the net to take care of the non-secure stuff while I started checking the major banks. It took me a couple of hours, working my way up to the big International financial institutions. Finally, when I was about to give up and go get myself some compensation coffee, my worm popped me a message about a transaction in a department store in Shinjuku that originated on a credit card issued by the First Bank of Munich to H. Schbeiker. Heinrich, Henri, Hartmut... whatever. It worked. Hah, you bastard. Gotcha.
Once I had the ID on that credit card, it was pathetically easy to put a trace on that account, hack into the bank, and check the transaction history.
Dr. Schbeiker, it seemed, had a penchant for books, a nice chardonnay, and lived in a small apartment in Roppongi. Even more interesting, he did all of his purchasing online and then had everything delivered.
I printed out the information that I had and stuffed it into my back pocket. There was enough that it made the ass of my pants stick out quite nicely. I needed to collect Wufei - it was time for us to go visiting.
Wufei was down in the tennis courts, which was the third place I checked. They were echoingly empty during break, and a decently secluded spot. I heard him before I saw him; harsh breathing echoed along the concrete walls that surrounded the courts. He was working himself into exhaustion; his hair and clothing clung to his skin, soaked through with sweat. As he ran through a series of punches, kicks, and blocks, I could see his hands trembling, ever so slightly. Bad sign.
"Have you been here since this morning?" I asked, lacing my fingers through the chain link fence.
Wufei completed the form, his back to me. He stood still and straight, his shoulders stiff as if he expected a blow from behind, and he didn't even acknowledge my presence until his breathing had slowed to normal. When he finally turned to face me, scraping loose locks of hair away from his forehead, his dark eyes were haunted. There was no other word for it; it was like all of his ghosts were staring out at me, begging for an end to their pain.
The look was gone in the blink of an eye; his mask fell into place quickly, until he was once again calm and cool. His gaze was shuttered. "I've been remiss in practicing my forms in recent months."
So that was how he wanted to play it. Fine, I knew better than to drag the skeletons out of some other guy's closet. I knew how much I hated it when people did that shit to me. "Don't be so hard on yourself. We've been busy lately."
"That is no excuse."
"Oh, that's right, because Chang Wufei is not like us mere morals." I said, giving him my best sneer. "Where does it leave me if you half kill yourself? You're my partner, I need you functional."
"Sometimes I wonder..." he said, flexing his hands. He didn't seem to want to look me in the eye, and I wasn't sure why.
"It's not important."
"Man, did you go to the Heero Yuy School of interpersonal communication and charm? You're starting to sound like it!"
He smiled. It was a sheepish little expression, but it was a start. "Point taken."
"Some day you'll finally admit that I'm always right. Your life would be so much easier if you'd stop fighting it."
Wufei snorted, then bent to pick up his white jacket where it lay on the court in a discarded heap. "I only wish that you would stop dragging us so righteously into trouble."
"Hey, I don't go looking for it! It comes gunning for me," I said. "But seriously, man, I am sorry. I don't know why you guys keep following me into the pit of hell."
Wufei walked up to me and actually laid his hand on my shoulder. "Because as infuriating as you are, Duo, none of us can encompass a life without you. You have, in your annoying American way, infiltrated our lives and become that which holds us together, no matter how separated by distance we become. You have forced us to care - and for that, I can't give you gratitude. It has made my life difficult. I have long been accustomed to having nothing to lose."
So was that a compliment or not? I really didn't know, and I don't think he knew either. "Wufei..."
He squeezed my shoulder. "Not good or bad, Duo. Just a fact to be considered. I have found that every strength is a weakness, and likewise every weakness is a strength. It's all in the turn of strategy you take."
"Life as a military campaign, huh?"
"So far." Wufei wiped sweat away from his eyes, then gave up and peeled off his shirt. His skin shone with the sheen of sweat. He'd filled out a lot in the last year, same as me, except his muscles were a lot nicer. Huzzah for kung fu.
I realized I was staring. Suddenly, the lines painted on the court seemed really interesting.
"So, Duo, was there a reason you were looking for me, other than to deliver your harangue?"
"Oh, yeah." I risked glancing up. Wufei was blotting himself dry with the shirt. A soft breeze pulled a few strands of hair loose from his ponytail. "Yeah," I repeated, "so anyway, I did a little independent research this morning. Remember our mad scientist?"
"Well, I found him, or at least someone using his credit account."
Wufei tucked the much abused shirt in the waistband of his pants and let it hang, crossing his arms over his chest. "And what were you planning to do with this information?"
That wasn't quite what I'd been expecting. "What do you mean? Let's go have a chat with him."
"Don't you think that could jeopardize the mission?"
"Actually, no," I said, "you see, I look at it this way. We go to Schbeiker, we beat the information we need out of him, and if he turns out to be a bad guy we neutralize him."
Wufei shook his head, and tried to adjust a pair of glasses that he wasn't actually wearing. "At the risk of becoming a broken record, don't you think that could jeopardize the mission."
"Think about it. We find out what we want, and if Schbeiker is a bad guy, we can hit the installation ahead of schedule, using our newly acquired knowledge. Get it all taken care of in one fell swoop. If there isn't anything biological, we blow it. If there is, we turn the fuckers over to the world press and the CDC." I grinned. "Besides, if we can steal his lab ID, it'll get us in nice and easy. I won't have to take part every frigging door lock."
Wufei nodded. "You've thought about it, at least. Have you contacted Doctor G or Roshi O?"
"Nope." I shrugged. "They made us to be independent operatives, didn't they? Well then, they can't complain when we put all the training to good use."
"I doubt the scientists will enjoy being surpassed by their own creations."
"Yeah, but do you care?"
He smiled, and the expression was positively wolfish. "I haven't since they revealed the true nature of Operation Meteor. This is our mission now."
"That's my Wufei." I grinned and held out my hand. We did our stupid little handshake and banged out fists together. Then Wufei broke down laughing. "What's so funny?" I asked, barely suppressing a snicker of my own.
"Some day, Duo, we'll have to grow up."
I waggled a finger at him. "Grow old, 'Fei. We have to grow old. No one said jack about growing up."
He nodded his agreement. "We'll go meet Dr. Schbeiker, then. But I think I should bathe first." He ran over his damp hair, grimacing.
"Yeah, we don't want the smell to warn him we're coming."
Wufei only shook his head and lightly punched my arm as he walked by. I was pretty sure I'd have a bruise there tomorrow. Guy forgot his own strength at times, especially when he'd just finished his workout.
A couple hours and some train tickets later, a much cleaner Wufei and I were standing outside Schbeiker's apartment building. It was an okay looking place, but not really what I'd been imagining as a mad scientist's digs.
"Which apartment is it?" Wufei asked.
He counted the windows on the sixth floor, finally pointing at one apartment. "That should be it."
I pulled a scope out of my pocket, extending it with a practiced flick of my wrist. "Bicycle, one wooden chair...not anything interesting, really. No glass tubes with nasty things in them or stuff like that."
"I hadn't imagined he'd be that obvious."
"Hey, you never know. I mean, shit, man, they don't exactly live in the same reality as the rest of us. Just look at those shirts Howard wears, for God's sake."
"Point. We haven't seen him recently, have we?"
"Not since the end of the war. Who knows what he's up to, but hopefully it's been more productive than our efforts..." That was a sore point I'd been meaning to mull over, ever since Heero went to Kyoto. I'd think about it later. "Hey, will you look at this... either Schbeiker has him a little woman, or there's a side of his personality that the dossier didn't catch."
Wufei didn't so much rise to the bate as laconically glance at it. "Oh?" Still, it was the line I wanted, even if the enthusiasm needed a little work.
"You could try to sound a bit more interested, 'Fei."
"I imagine you'll get to the point eventually whether I help or not."
"Such a dick," I said. "Fine, rain on my parade. Anyway, he's got a nice little herb and flower garden going in some pretty ceramic pots."
"Herbs?" He raised his eyebrow with that special ironic arch.
"Oh, nothing illegal. Looks like mint, lemon grass, sage... shit like that."
"Perhaps the good Doctor has a green thumb."
"Stranger things have happened. Vegetarian painters and all that. I guess we'll find out soon enough." I tucked the scope back into my pocket and brushed my jacket off, surreptitiously adjusting my gun for comfort. "You got the packages?"
"I've only been holding them since we left the school."
I flipped him off without really looking. "Let's go, then." He tossed one of the boxes to me. It was empty and light, but brightly wrapped. It was all about the presentation.
The apartment building was a lot newer than I'd guessed. It had a nice little glass kill box setup going to control entry to the lobby, something that had only gotten popular since the gaijin like me had really start immigrating in earnest. We walked on in, doing our best to look like bored high school students on a part time delivery job.
I located the buzzer that was labeled 'Shubaikaa' in katakana and gave it a couple enthusiastic stabs with my finger.
The voice that came from the speaker was unmistakably female. "Who is it?"
"Taki-ya, miss. Delivery for Schbeiker."
"Ah, good, bring it right up." The speaker popped off and the door into the lobby unlocked.
Wufei gave me a doubtful look, which I shrugged off. "So he's got himself a luscious popsie. Not a pretty thought, but not impossible. I mean, how many Schbeikers do you think are running around Tokyo?"
We stayed silent in the elevator - you never knew where surveillance would be. The hall was empty and utilitarian, apartment 618's door no less so. It made me nudge Wufei in the ribs. "Hey, look, Schbeiker's behind the green door."
"That is not a thought I wish to touch."
"Hey, all comic geniuses are underappreciated in their time, you realize." I fell silent as we came closer to the door, then nodded to Wufei, signaling him to knock while I stood to one side, gun cocked and ready to go.
It was the best plan ever, as far as I was concerned. If by some miracle it wasn't the Schbeiker we were looking for - and I failed to see how that could happen - we could just hand over the empty boxes and play dumb.
I heard one lock click, and then the sound of a bolt being drawn back. Pause. Wufei frowned, which I answered with a shrug, tightening my grip on my gun.
Then she spoke. "I know one of you has a gun, but you're not going to shoot me, because I'm not the one you're looking for."
Wufei looked positively dismayed. I seconded that.
She continued. "I think I can help you, though, and I think that I should. So I'm going to open the door now. I'm trusting you more than I ever have anyone else."
The door began to open.