Heero looked up at Trowa, cold mask firmly in place. "I'll book shuttle seats."
"I'll be ready when you are."
Relena looked from one to the other, confused. "But... where are you going?"
Her fiance smirked, getting up. "Guess."
"...Oh... Oh, good!"
Trowa flicked his cell phone open and hit a speed dial button as he moved towards the door.
< < Winner Enterprises, Mr. Winner's office. Ninke Assink speaking. > >
< < Mr. Barton, good morning! Is there something I can do for you? > >
"Yes. I want you to get me some information. It doesn't exactly come under the heading of 'WEI business', but I'm sure you'll be able to track it down."
< < I'll certainly do my best. > >
"I need a list of all the pawnshops and second-hand shops within... let's say a ten kilometer radius of this address..." Trowa reeled off the address on L2 where they'd found Duo, glancing down and smiling as he felt Quatre's hand slide into his.
< < Got it, sir. > > There was a slight pause before Ninke continued, curiosity audible in his voice. < < Er... may I ask exactly what you're after? I have, ah... well, if I had details, I might be able to be of more help. > >
"We're looking for places where a gang might dispose of some stolen jewelry."
< < ...I see. > >
"I'm sure you do," Trowa muttered.
< < I'm sorry, sir. I didn't catch that. > >
"Nothing. I need that info soon. Heero Yui and I are going to L2 as soon as it can be arranged."
< < Would you like me to book tickets for you? > >
"No, Heero's handling that side of things."
< < In that case, if you give me your ETA as soon as you know the schedule, I can arrange for a data pack to be delivered to you on arrival. Is that satisfactory? > >
As they stepped out into the L2 shuttle terminal, Heero and Trowa scanned the waiting crowd.
"Ninke didn't give you a description of his messenger?" Herro asked quietly, glancing to his left. "Or a specific location to meet him?"
"No," Trowa replied, looking right. "He said we'd be met in the arrivals area, and-- Ninke?!"
Heero's eyes widened in surprise as he saw the man in Preventer's uniform walking towards them, then narrowed. "That's not Ninke," he said curtly. "Too tall. And his eyes are the wrong colour."
Trowa snorted. "Trust you to spot it first, even though I've spent more time around him..."
"Mr. Yui? Mr. Barton? I'm Nicklaus Assink," the agent said, walking up and offering his hand. "My brother, Ninke, asked me to hunt up some info for you."
Heero folded his arms across his chest and scowled as Trowa shook hands. "What have you got for us?"
"Here," Nicklaus said, handing over a fat document wallet and a disk. "I've actually been assigned to the area you're interested in for the last two months, since we first got an office up here, so I was able to pull together a lot of data you might find useful. As well as the list of pawn shops and second-hand stores -- I've marked the ones known to deal in stolen goods, by the way -- I've included all of the relevant information we have available on the local gang members and the names and addresses of the known fences in the area. If we're talking about the theft of one or two fairly inexpensive items, you're much more likely to find them in a pawn shop than sold to a fence, but they may have been thrown in with a larger haul."
Trowa raised an eyebrow as Heero flipped through the thick wad of papers in the document wallet, pulling out a map and examining it briefly. "You've been busy."
Nicklaus shrugged, doing a fairly good job of looking innocent. "Ninke said it was for a good cause. Besides, it's my duty to co-operate with a couple of visiting Preventers... Ah, I do hope you have your Preventers IDs with you?"
"Yes," Heero said flatly, closing the document case and tucking it under one arm. "Anything else?"
"My contact details are on the disk if you need any more assistance or back up. Ninke made a hotel reservation, but I can cancel it if you've already made other arrangements, and I have a car waiting for you outside. Is there anything else you need before I go back to the office?"
One corner of Trowa's mouth twitched up slightly. "It's almost breakfast time. Coffee and a danish?"
Nicklaus smirked back. "There'a a take out box and a thermos in the car. Here's the keys. I'll see you gentlemen later, shall I?"
Despite himself, Heero snorted slightly as they walked away. "I have got to do some research into that family..."
Once they reached their hotel room, Heero and Trowa dumped their bags on the floor and got to work. Trowa spread the papers out over the coffee table, unfolding the map and reading the neat notes written on it. Heero started up his laptop and began going through the data on the disk.
"Anything useful?" Trowa asked quietly, pulling out a sheaf of papers and matching them up with the notes on the map.
"Detailed write ups on the shops and fences," Heero muttered. "Rap sheets and mug shots of gang members."
"Hm... I've got the general write ups on each gang and the lists of addresses. They're plotted on the map, too; we'll be able to work out a logical search sequence so we don't end up doubling back or missing anything."
Heero glanced over the top of the laptop screen. "What are the shaded areas?"
"Gang territories. According to this," Trowa waved a hand at the litter of paper, "gang members who go outside of their own borders have a habit of turning up dead... so they don't. If we find Duo's cross, we'll know it was taken by the gang in that territory."
"What's even more convenient is the fact that Agent Assink has kindly listed each gang's usual activities. Some of them concentrate on drug- and arms-dealing, and regard muggings as beneath them."
"We'll save them for last," Heero said dryly.
"O'course I'm sure, son. Don't get many crosses, and the ones I do get are usually fancy. I'd'a remembered a plain silver cross like that because it woulda been unusual. Can't help ya, sorry."
Stepping out into the thin artificial daylight, Trowa shook his head briefly at Heero. "Another 'no'. At least this one was positive..."
Heero snorted, putting a line through the pawn shop's name on their list. "It's better than 'how the hell do you expect me to remember a piece of junk like that?', anyway."
"I still say he was only after a small bribe. Five or ten credits would have done it," Trowa said mildly. "You didn't have to threaten to put him through his own display counter."
"His memory improved, didn't it?"
"True. Where to now?"
Heero studied the map briefly, then pointed off down a side street. "'Skeet's Pawn and Vintage Emporium'. Four and a half blocks that way."
Trowa blinked, checking his memory. "Doesn't one of the fences live a couple of blocks that way?"
"I want to double back a bit and stay close to the shortest route between the 'port, Maxwell Church and where Duo was staying. If we don't get any results, we can expand our search pattern later." Heero's mouth twisted slightly. "After all, Duo didn't have anywhere else to go; he's not likely to have been mugged anywhere else."
Wincing slightly, Trowa nodded agreement as they walked off.
Half a minute later...
"What did you say the next place is called, again?"
"'Skeet's Pawn and Vintage Emporium'."
"...'and Vintage Emporium'."
"Are you sure both bits belong to the same name?"
"Skeet's" was a small shop, and amazingly cluttered; racks of second hand clothes shared space with shelves of electrical equipment and boxes of random junk. Nothing looked particularly valuable, but Trowa had accompanied Catherine on a couple of bargain hunting expeditions to places like this, and knew that there could be almost anything in the bottom of a box or tucked away in a corner... if you were willing to look under all of the cobwebs and dust.
"Can I help you gentlemen?" A short, balding man leaned on the counter and smiled, blinking a little sleepily.
*'Gentlemen'? We're in one of the worst parts of L2, and we find a pawn shop owner who calls his customers gentlemen?* Trowa raised an eyebrow and moved forward as Heero drifted towards a couple of glass topped cases holding cheap jewelry and watches.
"We're after a specific item that might have been sold in this area sometime in the last week," the taller pilot said carefully. "A plain silver cross. Have you bought anything like that recently?"
"Well, let me think," the mad said slowly, rubbing at his chin. "Seems to me I do remember something like--"
"That one," Heero said abruptly, pointing into one of the cases.
"--yes, that's where I put it," Skeet said happily, shuffling out from behind the counter with a large, jingling bunch of keys. "Came in... mmm... two days ago? Might've been three... no, it was two, I remember now, because Thursdays I have a bowl of chili for lunch and I nearly dropped it in the bowl. They didn't warn me the chain was broken when they handed it over..." Fumbling with the keys, tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth as he concentrated, he got the case open and picked the cross out, handing it to Heero. "I fixed the chain," he pointed out helpfully. "That the one you're after?"
Heero turned the cross around with fingers that shook slightly, then jerked his head in a quick nod. "It's his," he said huskily. "It's got his initials on the back."
"Thirty-five credits, then, if you're buying it."
"Do you remember who brought it in?" Trowa asked as he dug out his wallet, not really expecting an affirmative answer. *They'll belong to the local gang, but knowing names might help. He probably won't want to tell us, though...*
"Oh, sure, I remember," Skeet replied calmly, relocking the case. "Names do you any good, or do you need descriptions?" Shuffling back behind the counter, he smiled lazily at the expression that flickered quickly across Trowa's face. "Now, what's that look for? Anyone would think I just said something strange."
"You did," Trowa admitted. "This was sold to you by a gang, wasn't it?"
"The Demon Dogs, yes. They run this area."
"And you're not worried about what they might do if you talk to us about them?"
"Oh, the Demon Dogs-- stupid name, really-- the Dogs and I have an agreement," Skeet said in his slow, calm voice. "I give them a better price than they'd get from anyone else around here, and they don't expect me to keep my mouth shut about their business. I'd keep my mouth shut on principle if I actually liked them, of course; but I don't, so they'd have to give me a bigger profit margin if they wanted my silence." The smile widened slightly as he shrugged. "They decided that a few extra credits were more important to them."
"If you don't approve of them, why do you deal with them?" Heero asked coldly.
Skeet's smile twisted slightly, then he shrugged again, spreading his hands. "Look around you, gentlemen. This is L2, the cesspool of the solar system. Everyone deals with people they don't approve of. There aren't enough nice people here to build a business on. You wanted to know who sold this, yes?"
On the way back to their hotel, Trowa was even quieter than usual, withdrawn and distracted.
"What is it?" Heero said, finally, pulled out of his own reverie by the vague awareness that something was wrong with his companion.
"I never realised..." Trowa trailed off, his eyes following a scrawny little girl as she ducked into an alley, then began again.
"None of us had a normal childhood," he said softly. "Quatre and Wufei came the closest to it, but even they... None of us had an easy childhood, either, but I never realised Duo's was this bad." He half-laughed, half-choked, an almost inaudible puff of breath. "I thought I had a tough childhood -- when I thought about it at all -- but at least I never had to wonder who I was going to have to run away from next, where my next meal was coming from, or where I was going to sleep. It might have been in the cockpit of my mobile suit, but at least I had a place, and a group..."
"Duo had that," Heero said shortly, pulling one hand out of a pocket and looking at the chain tangled through his fingers, cross out of sight in his palm. "For a while."
"And then it went away," Trowa pointed out. "Then he had us..."
Heero's conscience supplied the unspoken half of the sentence on cue. *And then we went away.*
The next day dawned bright and cheerful... well, it was as bright and cheerful as could be expected on L2 in their artificial 'winter' season -- not very, in other words -- but to Nicklaus Assink there seemed to be a special sparkle in the air as he walked out of the Preventer's offices at the end of his shift and got into his car, yawning.
*That transfer to HQ sounds better every day,* he mused, grinning broadly as he drove to his apartment building. *I think being closer to those people could get very interesting...*
Back inside the offices, a battered and bandaged gang member was slurring his way through his statement for the third time. It was standard practice to make any suspect go over his story multiple times to catch them in inaccuracies and contradictions, but the listening agents didn't expect the latest lot of prisoners to change their stories.
They just really wanted to hear it again.
"...so these two guys just walked straight in, ya know? Like they owned the place. One minute we're all sittin' around havin' a couple of beers and thinkin' about goin' out for something stronger, the next we look up an' there's these two guys starin' at us. It's like they're robots or somethin'. They weren't grinnin', or tryin' to look tough... just starin'. So the boss asks what they want, and the one with all the hair down over his eye says, dead flat, he says 'We're lookin' for the Demon Dogs. Izzat you?' Only he doesn't say it like that, ezzackly, but you know what I mean..."
"So I guess the boss figures they wanna hire us or somethin', and he grins and says 'Yeah, that's us all right.' So the other guy, he he says, dead flat, 'We're lookin' for six of you in particular,' an' he starts listin' names, and it's me and Brian and Trigger and a few of the guys, only this guy doesn't call Trigger Trigger. He says Mau-reece, like it smells bad, and Trigger wants to know who spilled the beans about his real name. The rest of us say yeah, that's us."
"An' then the first one says, still dead flat, no expression or nothin', 'We're Preventers. You're under arrest for assault and theft,' with all the words about about 'bodily harm' an' all that thrown in, and they both hold up I.D. and the other starts reading us our rights. I figured it was a joke, 'cause there's no way just two cops would try to arrest a bunch of Demon Dogs by walkin' straight into our squat, and they knew Trigger's real name. I didn't know Trigger was a Maurice. I figured maybe somebody in Trigger's family put them up to it, only they weren't grinnin' or nothin'."
"So, he finishes reading us our rights and they put the I.D. away and we all just kinda stare at each other.
"An' finally the boss says 'Are you serious?' and they nod."
"So of course we jumped 'em!"
"About five minutes later, when the shorter one was bouncin' my head off the wall a few times, I remember Trigger yellin' at the taller one, askin' why they were doin' this. I missed some of what the tall guy said, on account of bein' bounced, but he said somethin' about some hindoo people believin' in karma, where if you do bad things they come back an' haunt ya. Then he says, 'Do you remember the guy you mugged a week ago? The one with the long braid, who only had a cross on him?' I heard him clear 'cause the short guy had started bouncin' Brian's head instead."
"So Trigger says yes, he remembered, and the tall guy, he says 'Think of this as instant karma'."
The gang member sighed, rubbing his aching head. "I dunno what they were so pissed about. I mean, that guy was nobody. A bum. He didn't have nothin' worth botherin' with."
"But I'm real glad I didn't say that then, 'cause that was what Trigger said, and that got them really ugly."
Lady Une's vidphone beeped, and she answered it without looking up. "Une here."
< < Captain Clarence Moloko here, ma'am. > >
Glancing up, Une raised an eyebrow at the smiling black face on her screen. "Good--" she ran through a quick time conversion in her head "--morning, Captain. How are things on L2? I take it something unusual has come up for you to be calling me direct."
< < I just wanted to express my appreciation, ma'am, > > he said happily, obviously not bothered by the slight transmission lag. < < While your agents were tying up loose ends on that missing person case, they also cleared out the Demon Dogs gang. It's quite a bonus for us; they weren't one of the bigger gangs, but they had a tendency to be vicious for the sake of it, and they were giving us quite a bit of trouble. Could you tell your agents I said 'thank you', ma'am? They left before I had the chance. > >
Une kept all traces of surprise off her face as she put two and two together and came up with 1 plus 3. "That would be agents Yui and Barton, yes? I'll pass the message on. You wouldn't happen to know what shuttle they're on, would you? They neglected to inform me of their itinerary before they left, and I'd like to arrange a suitable reception..."
Heero eased himself carefully back into his seat next to Trowa, wincing slightly as he settled. "I reached Relena at her office. She'll call Quatre and pass on our arrival time."
"How did she react to the news?" Trowa asked curiously, carefully flexing his swelling right hand.
The Japanese boy snorted. "After she finished saying how happy she was, she wanted to know all the details on exactly how badly we beat the gangers who mugged Duo."
"So much for 'Total Pacifism'," Trowa chuckled. "I think you're rubbing off on her."
"When she starts saying that, then I'll worry. You're moving stiffly; I thought that big one tagged you. Ribs?"
"Hn. Cracked two, I think. You?"
"I think I did some damage to my hand, hitting Maurice. It's not serious."
"Good idea." Trowa pushed the call button and settled back, glancing out the window at L2 receding behind the shuttle. "I'd say the damage we took is more than acceptable, considering that most of the Demon Dogs will be out of commission for a long time."
"Over half of them were arrested," Heero mused, a cold glint in his eyes. "There's a good chance that the other gangs will just swallow the rest up."
One corner of Trowa's mouth lifted a fraction. "I can't say I'm sorry..."
As the first few passengers trickled through the gate into the arrival lounge, yawning and stretching, Quatre leaned closer to Relena. "Think we should warn them somehow?" he murmured softly.
"No," she whispered back. "You might be able to get away with them, but that would leave me here to face the music."
"Besides, it should be fun to watch, right?"
"Why, Mr. Winner! The thought never crossed my mind..."
"Trowa! Heero! Over here!" Quatre's clear voice lifted over the sound of several hundred people being met by their friends and family. The two arriving ex-pilots saw his hand waving over the chaos and headed in that direction.
*Bath,* Trowa thought contentedly as he suppressed a yawn, feeling travel grimed and stiff. *A good hot bath, and maybe a back rub, and--* His steps slowed as the crowd briefly parted, revealing Relena and Quatre waiting with welcoming smiles... and two taller female figures behind them, in Preventers uniforms.
"Uh-oh," Trowa said softly.
"Hn," Heero replied affirmatively.
"Wanna make a run for it?"
Heero considered for a moment, then squared his shoulders and stepped forward. "No. They'd catch up with us eventually. Might as well get it over with."
"Agent Barton. Agent Yui. How nice to see you back... and more or less in one piece, I see." Une said pleasantly, eyeing the makeshift bandage around Trowa's hand and Heero's slightly off-kilter stance. "I'm so looking forward to debriefing you about you latest... 'mission'. This way, gentlemen."
"You may as well come, too," Sally said cheerfully, shepherding Quatre and Relena along. "I'm sure you were in on this."
"Why, Sally, whatever--"
"Can it, Quatre."
"Technically, we both outrank you--"
"I realise that, Relena."
"--but somehow I doubt you'd stop if I tried ordering you to," Relena said nervously, following Une with Sally's hand firmly planted in the small of her back.
"Not a chance."
Once everyone was in the small meeting room Une had commandeered, with the door firmly shut, Une turned to Trowa and Heero with a dangerous glint in her eyes.
"Yui. Barton. While I fully appreciate your desire to properly punish the people responsible for Maxwell's injuries, I cannot and will not stand idly by while you use your rank and authority as Preventers to cover up a personal vendetta! Captain Moloko thinks I sent you to L2; he actually called me to thank you, which is how I heard about this little exploit. Were you planning to tell me about your trip any time soon, or were you just going to hope I never found out?"
"We... hadn't actually thought that far yet," Heero admitted, glancing at Trowa.
"I see," Une said coldly. "You were so focused on going to L2 to beat up some gang members-- who may or may not be the ones responsible for Duo's injuries-- that it never occurred to you that it might not be a good idea to do so as Preventers without telling me."
"We weren't planning to do it that way," Trowa pointed out. "Things sort of... developed. We read them their rights first."
"And they attacked us, not the other way around," Heero added.
"And they were the ones who did it. They admitted it."
Une grimaced. "Under how much duress?-- No, don't answer that."
"We didn't actually go to L2 to beat them up," Heero said quietly, unzipping his jacket and reaching into an inner pocket. "We went to recover something of Duo's."
"Delivering the 'instant karma' was just a bonus," Trowa said, watching the silver cross spin in mid-air.
There was a long pause before Une spoke.
"All right," she said abruptly, turning away. "Just... write me a report, and I'll sign it. Don't even think about calling it 'Operation Instant Karma', and for God's sake, don't pull something like this again without telling me first!"
Trowa raised an eyebrow. "You knew when you hired us that we're very independent operatives."
"Out. Out," Une snapped, waving one hand. "Shoo! Go let Sally check you over."
"This way, boys," Sally said cheerfully. "There's a first aid station down the hall. I hope you don't expect me to be too gentle; karmic messengers are supposed to be tough, after all..."
"Now we're in trouble," Trowa muttered, following her out into the corridor, with Quatre clutching his unbandaged hand.
"Hn. She's worse than Une."
As the door closed behind them, Une sat down and began to chuckle.
"Instant Karma. I do like that..."