Heero glanced quickly over his shoulder, angry at himself. He'd been so lost in his own dark thoughts, he hadn't even noticed Wufei's approach.
The other man was looking over Heero's shoulder at the notepad covered in random notes. The two words in the middle of the page had been traced over several times. Heero dropped his pen in frustration and leaned back in his chair to stretch his back. "It's a clue," he said shortly, rubbing roughly at his tired eyes. "It was left with one of the bodies. I believed it meant Relena was the next victim, but now Senator Yule is dead."
"Relena's well-protected," Wufei pointed out, coming around to prop his lower back against the desk's edge. He crossed his arms over his chest, eyes drifting towards the window, glass panes stained red with the setting sun. "Maybe the killer thought it was too risky, and went for someone a bit more convenient."
"That bothers me even more," Heero admitted angrily. "First her cat, then the oatmeal, now this. It's as if the killer knows every step we make. He's watching us, waiting for his chance, and we're still no closer to figuring out who he is or how he's keeping tabs on Relena."
"He?" Wufei repeated, and continued when Heero frowned at him in question. "You seem so sure it's a male. Is there solid evidence to support that? How do you know it isn't a woman?"
Heero shook his head briefly. "The upper body strength required for some of the murders makes it much more likely that it's a man. Plus, I would expect a hair to have shown up by now at a crime scene if it was a woman."
Wufei shrugged. "Not if she's putting it up under something, or cut it very short. As for the strength thing..." he frowned. "You know how I feel about women in general, but I've seen some surprisingly strong women, Heero. Sally Po, for instance, thinks it's amusing to humiliate her new recruits by showing them up on the training field. She can do nearly as many pull-ups as Barton."
Heero frowned uneasily. The thought that the killer could be a woman had barely even occurred to him, and he'd long ago dismissed the idea. The fact that Wufei-- whose faith in the strength of the "fairer sex" was pitiful at best --had forced himself to think of the possibility only made Heero angrier at himself.
"This clue, this 'two down'," Wufei gestured towards the notepad. "Was it like the note found with the cat head?"
"Did you have the handwriting analyzed?"
"The police were on it, but I haven't heard anything further," Heero grunted. "Ever since the media got ahold of the story, they're refusing to share any more details with me until they figure out who leaked it to the press." He tugged a small plastic bag out of his pocket and shook two scraps of paper out onto the desk. "I've tried to analyze it on my own, but it's not my area of expertise." He unfolded the two notes-- the one from Relena's desk and the one from the bathroom at the hotel. "The handwriting is sloppy enough to suggest a male, and it looks like it was hastily done with some sort of fountain pen," he indicated a few tiny spatters of ink by the letters, "but other than that..." he shook his head in frustrated defeat.
Wufei reached across and picked up one of the notes, holding it up to the light and squinting at it. His nose crinkled slightly, and he lowered it towards Heero's face. "Smell that?"
Heero took a quick sniff and frowned. There was the faintest trace of a scent lingering on the paper that he couldn't quite identify. "...Fruit?" he guessed.
Wufei sniffed it again delicately. "Cherry. Some women wear fruity perfume." He inspected the note for another moment. "Do we know anyone who might have a shot at it?"
Heero shook his head once. "Not unless you know anyone who took a fair amount of psychology and criminology."
"Ask your woman." Wufei returned the paper and pushed himself away from the desk. "She has connections. She might know someone."
"Relena," Heero corrected absently, scooping the notes into the bag. "I'll ask her."
Wufei was already heading for the door. "I'll be exercising outside if anyone's looking for me." He wrinkled his nose. "The air conditioning has been uncooperative, and this house is beginning to smell a bit ripe in the sun. I hope she has an electrician on speed-dial as well."
Now that Wufei mentioned it, the house had been uncomfortably warm all day. And there was a very faint stench, so faint he only noticed it when it was mentioned. Too many sweaty bodies in one house. He rose to his feet, grateful to be able to have at least one thing fixable. "I'll take care of it."
Duo found him tearing the air conditioning apart an hour later. He stood in the doorway, munching on an apple and watching with amusement.
Heero shot his friend a glare over his shoulder. "I'm busy, Duo," he snapped. "Can it wait?"
"Need a little help?" Duo leaned over a bit to see better. "You keep going like that, and it's either going to turn into the North Pole in here, or you'll damage it beyond repair."
"I'm fine," Heero grunted, returning his scowl to the air conditioner. A moment later Duo was hanging over his shoulder, watching with interest. Heero's hand tightened on the screwdriver painfully as the close proximity brought back unwanted memories of a hungry mouth and a merciless hand in his lap.
Duo noticed the sudden tension and moved out of Heero's personal space, face carefully neutral. "Look, just let me fix it. It'll be quicker if I do it, and you know it. I'm the best mechanic in the house. You want something to do, go find whatever's making that god-awful smell."
Heero paused, glaring at the screwdriver in his hand. "It's the smell of too many sweaty people packed into one house," he snapped.
"I dunno, it smells pretty strong downstai--"
Heero rose to his feet abruptly, tossing the tool to his old partner. Duo barely caught it. "Fine. Fix this. I'm going to do a perimeter check."
Duo opened and shut his mouth, then decided to keep his peace, subdued by Heero's chilly tone. He stepped aside to let Heero pass, avoiding his hard stare.
Heero was almost through the door when Duo lost the internal struggle with his opinions. "You can quit acting so thorny about it, you know," he called quietly. "It was wrong, yeah; you're with Relena." He turned to offer Heero a long look. "But quit acting like I raped your or somethin'. You enjoyed it. I felt that much. So just deal with it."
Rather than struggle to think up a response to that, Heero hurried from the room, shoulders stiff and stomach churning.
A lie. That was a lie.
He hadn't enjoyed it.
Not at all. It had been wrong, and a violation. Duo had betrayed his trust. He'd...
Duo pulled back marginally, his breath falling hot on Heero's open mouth. "You going to kill me now, Heero Yuy?" he murmured, a dark smile twitching at his lips.
Heat rose to Heero's face, his breath catching for a moment in his throat.
Must be a side-effect of the anger. It wasn't 'enjoyment' as Duo seemed to think of it. Couldn't be.
Because he didn't react this way to Relena.
Belatedly he realized someone had been trying to get his attention for several moments. He stopped abruptly and turned to offer the manservant trotting at his heels an impatient stare.
The man-- Vincent, wasn't it? --stopped, paling a little at Heero's expression. "Er-- there's a man at the gates requesting entrance. He says he's a friend. The guards are holding him there, he's being very cooperative, but--"
Friend? Heero turned and headed for the front doors at a quick walk. Relena had no appointments scheduled. After that murder at the hotel at the hotel yesterday, she'd cleared her calendar and confined herself to her room, where she attempted to get some work done to keep her mind off of things.
So no appointments, no Senators that would be foolish enough to come near another target, and all those he considered friends were already on the grounds.
...Except one, he thought an instant later as he crossed the lawn to the gate and caught a glimpse of golden hair. Even then, it took him a moment to recognize the young man.
Quatre Winner was sitting quite calmly on a stool inside the guard shack, sipping tea from a canteen and carrying on a light conversation with the polite if somewhat wary guards.
He caught sight of Heero and offered a sunny smile. "Hello, Heero. It's been awhile."
"...Yes." Heero tried to keep the surprise from his face and voice. Quatre had been the last person-- besides Wufei --that he would have expected to see. Especially since he was so busy with the business his father had left him. No one had seen the Winner heir for some time, not counting that brief run-in he'd had with Wufei last year.
Quatre, once the smallest and most delicate-looking of the pilots, had, like Duo, grown up quite a bit. He was a shade taller than Heero, but still a bit below average height for a man. He'd filled out, though, losing his baby fat and his fragile looks. Where once he might have been mistaken as a girl, now he was most definitely masculine, from his broad shoulders and faint shadow of a golden five-o-clock shadow to the firm line of his jaw. No longer 'cute' or 'delicate', he had grown into something more defined and handsome. No doubt girls still got whiplash watching him pass in the street, but no one would ever look at Quatre Winner and see him as an easy target again.
His impeccable manners still remained, though his smile was not as unguarded and heartfelt as it had been in his youth. This was most likely just the absence of naivety, but it still bothered Heero a bit that it was noticeable.
And since Quatre's thousand-watt smiles had once irritated Heero, he found this observation puzzling.
Quatre took one last sip of tea and screwed the cap back onto his canteen, getting smoothly to his feet. He flicked a glance towards a car idling outside the gates, and Heero did a double-take as he caught sight of who was behind the wheel. No wonder the guards had been nervous.
"Rashied still insists on serving me, even after all these years," Quatre admitted with a fond little smile. "I'm afraid he startled your guards."
"He's a big man," Heero admitted, still staring at his old companion. "...What are you doing here?"
"I was supposed to meet with one of earth's senators next month, but he's gone on sabbatal. Something to do with this 'Butcher' that's in the news. I thought Relena might be able to help me instead; and since she's a possible target, I thought I'd check on you two at the same time. I hope I'm not intruding."
"No." Heero waved to a guard to open the gate for the car, and slowly led Quatre down the path towards the mansion.
"But you weren't expecting me," Quatre noted, studying him a bit curiously. "Didn't you get my message?"
"Why... Toby, of course." At Heero's blank stare, Quatre's expression shifted to one of concern and bafflement. "I sent him ahead nearly a week ago. He was supposed to let you and Relena know when I'd be arriving."
Heero shook his head. "No. But we've strengthened security, as you saw, so he might have been turned away."
"...I suppose." Quatre looked charinged. "So you haven't been expecting me at all. Is this a bad ti-- Well of course it's a bad time. I'm sure Relena's very nervous, even with you to protect her."
"Us," Heero corrected, opening the front door for the other man. "The others showed up to help."
Quatre froze, and Heero barely stopped in time to keep from running into him. He stood in the doorway, puzzled, staring at Quatre's suddenly stiffened back.
"...Others?" Quatre repeated, voice barely audible.
"Yes." Heero pulled the door shut and moved around him. Cool air found the sweat on his neck and caused him to shudder in surprise. "At least Duo's fixed the AC."
"Duo. And..." Quatre glanced around slowly. "..Trowa, as well?"
Heero nodded, frowning at the blond. Quatre's expression was difficult to decipher, but he was tense all over, as if he was about to duck for cover or enter enemy territory.
"Perhaps this was a bad time after all," Quatre murmured, then forced a smile, turning towards approaching footsteps from the den.
Trowa entered the foyer, eyes on the papers in his hand. "I found that work order from the electricians who set up the alarms. Duo was right, they didn't install one in the--" he glanced up, and his voice died as he laid eyes on the smiling blonde at Heero's side. "....Quatre."
"Trowa," Quatre answered, and Heero's frown deepened at the slight strain to his voice. He looked from one man to the other in frustrated confusion. They were standing stiffly, gazing at each other without speaking, and both of them looked tense. Quatre was still smiling, but it looked forced, and Trowa's face was even blanker than normal. After several moments Trowa's gaze shifted away abruptly, and the faintest flinch crossed his face. Either Quatre had desired or expected that reaction, because he lowered his eyes and spoke to Heero quietly but calmly. "Do you think I could see Relena? I'll try to be brief."
Heero, watching Trowa carefully, noticed that the taller man's shoulders relaxed minutely. Whatever was going on, it seemed as if it was over for now. And he got the impression somehow that Quatre didn't wish to stick around long. He was suddenly frustrated that he wasn't speaking to Duo. At least that twit seemed to have some idea of what was going on with Quatre.
But never mind. There were more important things at stake. If Quatre's presence caused tension, then the sooner he left, the better. He would get his meeting with Relena and be on his way. Hopefully she wasn't still too shaky from yesterday's murder to hold a civilized conversation.
"I'll let her know you're here," Heero started to say.
And then Wufei came pounding down the stairs, scowling and flustered. "Yuy!" he snapped the instant he was within hearing range. "Tell that harpy of yours that I am not her personal servant, or so help me--" He spotted Quatre and came to such an abrupt halt he almost tripped down the rest of the stairs. He caught himself with a hard grip on the handrail and stood staring numbly down at the blonde, who had turned slightly paler and gone completely rigid. He stared back up at Wufei, lips pressed tightly together. Trowa closed his eyes briefly, but said nothing.
"What..." Quatre looked quickly from Wufei to Trowa, then to Wufei again, almost accusing. "What are you doing here?"
"...I could ask you that," Wufei pointed out, voice tight and grip on the rail numbing. He shot Heero a hard look. "When did he--"
"Just now," Quatre interrupted, still staring up at him. "I'm here on business. What about you?"
Heero's head was starting to hurt trying to figure out what in the hell was going on, and he was getting sick of the tension in a house that was already on edge enough as it was. "He offered his help," he said shortly. "Did you still want to see Relena or not?"
"...Yes," Quatre said more quietly, composing himself swiftly. "Thank you, Heero."
Wufei stood aside as Heero led him upstairs. If they exchanged a glance in passing, Heero didn't bother to turn around and check.
Quatre cleared his throat and wrinkled his nose, making a valiant attempt to change the unspoken subject. "Did you let Duo try to cook or something?" he asked lightly.
Heero frowned at him in question.
Quatre gave an embarrassed little laugh. "Downstairs-- it smells a bit like rotten meat. When I was young I tried to surprise my father with a dinner, and took out some pork to thaw. I went out to play and forgot about it for a couple of days."
Heero stared at him, nonplussed. Quatre must really be desperate to lighten the mood if he was mentioning the faint smell; usually he was too polite to ever--
Then his mind re-processed those words and did a frantic stumble. He stopped so fast Quatre bumped into him from behind. He leaned back, murmured apology aborted when he saw the intense look on his old companion's face.
"Are you sure that's what it smells like?" Heero demanded.
"Wha-- um, I don't know what it is. That's just what it reminds me of... Why?"
Normally it was something Heero would have dismissed and checked on later at his leisure. But that connection was not one he needed when bodies were cropping up left and right as of late. "Watch Relena," he ordered shortly, dodging around the baffled blonde and hurrying back downstairs. "Fourth door on the left." Wufei was still standing near the bottom of the staircase, staring down at Trowa with his lips pressed tight together. He jumped when Heero came pounding down the stairs and seized his elbow.
"Yuy, what the hell--"
"Go get Duo and round up as many of the security as you can without leaving the perimeter unguarded. I want this house searched from top to bottom."
"What are we looking for?" Wufei demanded as Heero jerked his head towards Trowa in a gesture to follow and headed for the den.
"The source of that smell," Heero shouted over his shoulder.
Wufei still looked a bit baffled, but went to find Duo.
Trowa, however, was frowning grimly as he followed Heero in long strides. "I had almost gotten used to it enough to not notice it," he admitted quietly. "Do you think it's another body?"
"I don't know," Heero admitted in a growl as they entered the den. He snatched a flashlight from one of the bookcases and dropped to his hands and knees to check under the sofa. "But after everything that's happened, I'm not taking any chances."
Trowa nodded in agreement, twitching aside the heavy drapes and glancing behind them before heading over to look behind the bookcases. "It could be nothing," he pointed out. "A dead rat somewhere, a scrap of that cat..." He fished a flashlight from his belt and shone it behind each shelf. "But if you're right, I don't understand how it could have gotten in the house. There's security everywhere; even Quatre couldn't get in, and his name usually opens all kinds of doors."
Heero noticed that he stumbled a bit over the name, but left it alone. "Nothing," he growled after they'd checked the last corner. "I'll look in the kitchens; you take the dining room."
When they re-entered the foyer, it was buzzing with uptight security guards. They were shouting to each other and moving every piece of furniture. A cluster of maids stood nearby, baffled and anxious. Heero caught a glimpse of Duo leading a pair of guards towards the back of the house, then Wufei's shout caught his attention.
Heero nodded for Trowa to continue, and strode over to the other man. "Find something?"
Wufei was standing by the wall behind the staircase. "We're checking behind every door." He nodded to the wall. "So what's behind this one?"
Heero did a double-take. The paneling here was interrupted by a single vertical doorhandle. "I don't know," he admitted, tugging at the handle with no results. "I've never noticed it before." He turned and recognized a face in the small crowd of nervous maids. "Caroline, what is this?"
She came over hesitantly, peeking around Heero. She was one of the more experienced maids; one who had been working for Relena's family for years. She blinked in surprise when she noticed the cleverly concealed door. "Why-- that's the old elevator," she exclaimed.
Wufei's brows shot up. "Elevator?" he repeated incredulously, glancing upwards in the direction of the second floor. "This house isn't that damned big."
"No, sir," Caroline stammered. "It was built at beginning of the war as a quick escape. There were lots of riots back then."
"Where does it lead?" Heero demanded impatiently.
"I-I think it just leads to the basement, but I've never seen it used, and no one's ever seen a door down there."
"How does it work?"
Caroline wrung her hands in despair, upset by his obvious urgency. "I don't know, sir," she insisted. "I never did see it get used..."
Heero turned to Wufei. "Wait here. See if you can figure out how to activate it." He dodged a security guard and headed quickly for the back of the house. Duo had left the basement door open, and he could hear voices echoing off the concrete walls as they continued their fruitless search.
He pounded down the stairs recklessly, and nearly stumbled when one of the wooden slat steps shifted warningly under his feet. After that he kept a firm grip on the banister and descended with more caution. It was rare that anyone went into the basement, except to check the breakers or the water heater, and Relena had never gotten around to getting someone to fix the stairs.
A flashlight hit him in the eyes as he reached the bottom, and he snarled a curse, throwing his hand up to protect his face.
"Whoops-- sorry," came Duo's quick apology. "The lights down here are pretty crappy; they don't reach every nook and cranny."
Heero blinked a few times to recover his sight, glancing around. He himself had been down here only twice before; once when he'd first taken over as Relena's head of security, and more recently when he'd been setting up the house's new defenses. The room was large, filled mostly with boxes and old furniture. Some of the boxes were Relena's old things, but most of it had belonged to the Darlian family. Heero had made a meticulous inventory of it all when he'd first moved in to make sure there was nothing dangerous or inappropriate. Other than that, there was only the water heater and an outdated furnace collecting years and years of dust and cobwebs. There were two narrow windows, both barred, but no door.
Duo pointed this last bit of information out after Heero had finished explaining the escape elevator. "There's no door, Heero," Duo insisted, sweeping his hand to indicate the dimly-lit room. "Why would someone's emergency getaway be to a room with no door leading outside?"
Heero peered around at the solid concrete walls, frowning. "I don't know," he admitted. "But that's where the maid said she thought it led. And she was here when it was built."
"If you say so," Duo said reluctantly, scratching his head and glancing around. "We can keep looking."
"Move some of these boxes away from the wall." Heero stepped over a moth-eaten automan and began shoving boxes towards the middle of the room. The security guards hastened to help. They moved all the boxes from the walls and even tapped at the concrete with their flashlights.
"Nothing," Duo huffed, wiping sweat from his brow and dumping himself in a chair. He coughed at the dust that rose, waving a hand in front of his face. He looked up at Heero and spread his hands in bewilderment. "Maybe the thing was dismantled after the war. For all we know, it was covered up in concrete."
Heero scowled, stepping over and around boxes and trailing his hand along the wall, peering into the corners and sweeping his flashlight left and right. "Keep looking," he snapped.
"There's nothing here, Heero," Duo insisted, but pushed himself to his feet anyway.
Heero ignored him. He'd reached the old furnace, and was trying to get a glimpse behind it. Duo wandered over towards him, watching, before brushing dust off of his shirt and leaning against the furnace. "Look, maybe we can find some files or something on whoever was contracted to-- Whoop!!"
Heero jumped back quickly at Duo's startled yelp, staring in disbelief as the furnace slid across the floor a few inches, grating on the concrete. The guards ran over to see what the commotion was about.
"What the hell??" Duo pushed himself to his feet from where he'd fallen. "I thought the damned thing was attached to the--"
"What did you do?" Heero demanded, hurrying to the front of the furnace.
Duo waved a hand towards it, making a face as he rubbed at his sore rear. "I dunno, I was leaning against the door, and it moved..."
Heero crouched in front of the grated furnace door, staring at it. The handle was twisted slightly to the left. He hesitated, then gripped it firmly and tugged hard. It swiveled up with a squeal of rust, and the furnace rumbled again, scraping against the floor.
"There!" One of the guards pointed his flashlight excitedly at the floor. "Rails! It musta moved along those!"
Heero put all of his strength into turning the handle one final time, and leapt away as with a groan and a scrape, the furnace moved away from the wall fully.
Duo darted around it and gave a shout of surprise. "Holy shit, Heero, I think there's a door back here!"
Heero stepped around and let his flashlight play across the wall, following the crack in the wall in the shape of a wide door. He shot Duo a glance out of the corner of his eye. "So much for never telling a lie," he pointed out. "Nothing's down here?"
"It doesn't count if I think it's the truth at the time," Duo snorted, running his hand experimentally along the crack. "How the hell was I supposed to know this was here? Damn, no handle. How's it open?"
Heero glanced up. "I think this is directly below the staircase upstairs. This has to be it."
"That's great, Heero, but how do we open it?" Duo began pushing at the wall in random places.
Heero frowned thoughtfully. "If it's an emergency escape, maybe it can't be opened from down here," he said slowly. "We have to figure out how to get that elevator working."
Heero left the guards where they were and led Duo quickly to the door. He and Wufei watched as the boy inspected it, knocking on the wall and jiggling the handle.
"Fuck if I know," he finally admitted in disgust. "Maybe it was controlled by a remote or something. If you ask me, there's only one quick way to get in there. Wait here a sec. I think there's a sledgehammer in the shed."
"Don't be crass, Maxwell," Wufei growled. "If it was controlled by remote, can't you find some way to override it?"
"Or hack into it, you mean," Duo said quickly, turning to Heero. "Whaddya think?"
Five minutes later Heero was sitting on the floor in front of the door, fingers flying over the keys of his laptop.
By then there was a crowd of curious guards and maids. Wufei toed a bulky piece of equipement by Heero's knee. He knew it had something to do with picking up frequencies, but his knowledge on such technology was vague at best. "Is this really going to work?" he asked dubiously. Trowa, who had joined them when his own search proved futile, shrugged mutely.
"Guess we'll see in a minute." Duo was leaning over Heero's shoulder, watching him work.
Everyone looked up as something behind the door beeped faintly. Those closest scrambled back as the door at last swung open with a hiss.
Duo laughed, clapping his old friend on the shoulder. "Haven't lost your touch, buddy. Let's get a peek inside."
Heero set his laptop aside and reached for his gun instead, rising to his feet. "Duo, stay here. If the door shuts and we can't figure out how to open it again, you're the only one who might be able to figure out how to open it again."
"Awww no fair!" Duo complained. At Heero's impatient glare, he seated himself grumpily on the floor and tugged the laptop into his lap. "Fine, fine," he grumbled. "You always get to have all the fun."
There was a narrow elevator waiting behind the door, and Heero nodded towards Wufei. "Go to the basement with the guards down there. We'll meet you down there." He and Trowa stepped into the elevator.
There was only one button, and Heero pressed it after only a moment's hesitation. The door shut soundlessly, and with a jolt they began their descent.
Trowa glanced around, nose wrinkling slightly. "The smell's a bit stronger here," he pointed out quietly. "Your hunch may prove to be right."
It was a short trip, and they exchanged a wary glance as they came to a slow stop. Unsure of what to expect, they lifted their guns and went tense as Heero reached out and pushed the door open.
Author's Notes: I always personally thought Quatre would change the most growing up. I mean, he can't be some shy small kid all his life ^.^
Also, I apologize for the delay-- blame my muses. They're busy shoving HB down my throat -_-; And I've been drawing more than writing lately ;_;
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