Alarums and Excursions + Part 7 (cont)

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*Easy... easy... just breathe...*

"I know," Duo panted, breath hitching as he fought off tears of frustration. "There's just no getting through to him! He is the most stubborn, anal, infuriating, moronic, paranoid, cynical asshole in the universe! How could I have been so stupid as to let him get to me like that? How could I have even considered a relationship with him?!"

*You're outgoing, friendly, always think the best of people, never say die, silver linings, he's damn good looking--*

"Okay, okay. Point made. I am an idiot," Duo replied, sniffing as he got himself under control.

*Not an idiot. I prefer the term optimist.*

The braided teen sank back in his seat in Deathscythe's cockpit and sighed. "Is there really a difference?" he asked.

*Little one, you know that answer. Just because you have faith and hope, and prefer to look on the bright side, does not make you an idiot.*

"No, but if I am wrong about Haan, just because I'm going on faith and instinct, I'll be worse than an idiot. And I'll prove Heero right."

*Why are you doubting yourself now? Trusting your instincts is what kept you alive for years... at least until I came along. I take credit for everything since then, of course.*


Duo snorted with laughter. "Smug, much?" Then he sobered. "But what if my instinct is wrong this time? What if Haan is working on some convoluted plot? Though it would have to be something really wild to actually work, maybe bugging us and the Gundams instead of trying to capture us directly or something... I mean, what are the odds?"

There was a long pause before Deathscythe answered Duo's question.

*I shouldn't do this, really, but I can tell you one thing. You are not wrong. Don't ask me why or how, I'm not allowed... I can't tell you. But you're not wrong, Little Death.*

"'Scythe?" Duo asked, eyes wide. "What do you mean?"

*No more questions. And do not pout at me. It only works when you really mean it. Now, Wufei is outside. You have a few choices. You can stay holed up in here, with me, and ignore him. You can hope he gets into Shenlong and comms us, or you can open the hatch and let him in. Which will it be?*

Duo popped the hatch and sat on it, lowering the lift wire.

"Hey, 'Fei... care to join me?"

* * * * *

"He should be fine in a little while," Mary-girl said, closing the kitchen door softly behind her. "He... he just gets these spells, sometimes..." Her voice faltered and trailed off as she saw Quatre sitting on one of the stools around the kitchen table, playing idly with the pieces of the knife as he watched her.

"There's no flaw in this blade, and it's good steel," he said flatly, holding the handle up and rubbing a smear of blood away with his thumb. "If I wanted to break it, I'd have to clamp it to something and hit it with a sledgehammer. Not to mention that he was throwing that biker around one-handed, which isn't the simplest thing in the world, plus the sudden personality switch he seemed to pull. That isn't a 'spell'. I'm tempted to call it homicidal mania and hysterical strength."

"He isn't homicidal!" she objected faintly, one hand coming up to her throat as she looked away, refusing to meet Quatre's eyes. "He's... he's a good boy, I'd swear that on a Bible..."

"Do 'good boys' normally try to strangle people in your café?"

She shot him a sharp look, bridling. "Now you watch your tone, young man! I'll admit it's not exactly normal behaviour, I'd be a fool not to. Haan's just... well, he's had a hard life, I think, and he's done enough good that he deserves a lot of leeway."

"Would you mind telling me a bit more about... that?" Quatre asked, gentling his tone and gesturing vaguely towards the door. "I'm sharing a truck with him at the moment, and some friends of mine are going to be travelling with him later, so I'd really like to know if that's likely to happen again!"

"Not unless you're planning to attack him," she sighed, settling onto one of the other stools and folding her hands on the table. "And even then it might not happen. I've never seen him do... that... before, just heard about it. Apparently, he can control it unless he's badly wounded, or under a lot of stress and surprised."

"Those bikers seemed pretty scared of him," he prodded, wincing inwardly. Under stress? Wonderful. Is smuggling us away from OZ's trap stressing him that much? And why?!

"Oh, that doesn't surprise me." Unexpectedly, she chuckled, smiling wickedly. "He's got quite a reputation in some circles. You haven't heard about 'Lizard'?" she asked, pointedly eyeing his 'gang member' clothes.

"No." And I'm not going to explain why I haven't heard something that's apparently common knowledge among the rougher levels of society, thank you.

"Well." In what seemed to be an almost automatic motion, she reached out to the neatly arranged ingredients lined up on the table and began to assemble a sandwich. "A few years back, before I bought this café and started running it as a truck stop, I had a little sandwich shop in Brentonville. My parents were having some hard times. Moonbeam couldn't help out, she hadn't finished her Masters degree yet and had money troubles of her own, and Suncrystal wasn't speaking to them -- still isn't, come to think of it, which is a pity -- so the money I could spare to send them was about all the money they had to live on. Even Wiccan communes have expenses, you see," she added dryly, "especially when they were planned and started by people who intended to live on what they grew but had absolutely no idea of how to go about it."

"Oops."

"Definitely 'oops'," she chuckled, then sobered. "My shop was doing all right; not great, but all right. I had some regular customers, and enough drop-in traffic so that I could pay the rent, support myself, and help my parents. I wasn't saving any money, which worried me a bit, but I was getting by... until the local mafia imitators decided I was doing well enough to be added to their protection racket. They had a frighteningly good idea of what sort of turnover I was getting, cash flow and so on, and had calculated quite nicely how much money I could, supposedly, spare from my own needs. Of course, they weren't taking into account the money I was sending away."

Stretching one arm behind her without looking, Mary-girl took a plate from a stack on the bench, slid the sandwich onto it, and passed it to Quatre. "There, get yourself outside of that; you didn't have nearly enough to eat before things got messy. Mugs are on that shelf and the coffee makers are on the bench behind you; the one on the left is decaffeinated." Beginning on a new sandwich, she waited until he was seated again before continuing.

"I had a choice; I could pay the gang and stop supporting my parents, pay the gang and stop eating, or not pay the gang and have something unpleasant happen to either me or the shop. A couple of the local police were involved, and doing a good job of making sure that complaints never got anywhere, but all the local shopkeepers knew what was up; I'd thought I was small enough to be left alone. Well..." She chuckled wryly. "I don't look like I gave up eating, do I? And I wouldn't abandon my parents.

"Things got a bit ugly. They started small, with a couple of smashed windows and some threatening phone calls. People were advising me to give in before things got worse, or sell out and leave. Then, one day, Haan walked in and ordered a sandwich."

Her hands slowed, settling the last few slices of meat and tomato onto her sandwich, and she blinked. "He looked exactly the way he does now," she murmured, gazing into nothing as she remembered. "Same hair, same eyes, same scars, same way of dressing right down to the loose high collars and wrappings over his hands... he hasn't changed a bit."

"Same voice?" Quatre asked, remembering what Trowa had said about the scar across Haan's throat looking relatively fresh.

"Oh, my, yes, like he'd been drinking neat whisky and eating broken glass for years," she chuckled, shaking herself out of the memory and plonking the top slice of bread on the sandwich with a decisive motion. "It's a bit of a shock when you first hear it, isn't it? Sounds like it should be coming from someone about a foot taller and three times his weight, with a broken nose, scarred knuckles, and a name like 'Tony the Knife'."

Quatre nearly spat out his coffee, sputtering with laughter as he wiped at his chin. "I was thinking he sounded like a jazz singer after a few too many late nights in smoky clubs, but I can see your point!"

"Well, perhaps I was influenced by the circumstances I first met him in," she laughed, passing him a paper napkin. "After all, I was expecting that sooner or later a gang tough or two would walk in and up the pressure, and here was this young man who looked like some sort of tough; of course I thought 'gang', and that was the image I came up with. Still, he ordered politely and didn't immediately start breaking my tables, so I got him his lunch and just kept an eye on him."

"And that was when the real gang toughs walked in and started breaking tables?" Quatre guessed.

"You're so sharp you're going to cut yourself one of these days," Mary-girl told him. "Except that they weren't breaking tables so much as overturning them and scaring my customers, while yelling a remarkable number of suggestions concerning what they'd do to me, personally, if I didn't come up with their money. They were shouting, some of my customers were screaming, I'd lost my temper and was shouting back... and Haan told them to shut up, because he was enjoying his lunch and all the noise was annoying him."

"I'm sure they took that well."

"They turned his table over next," she said dryly. "It didn't have quite the effect they wanted; he scooped up his plate and mug and slid out of the way just as they did it, so all they achieved was a bit of noise. He carried his food over to the counter, dodged three attempts to trip or hit him on the way without losing a crumb, handed it to me to look after, and proceeded to wipe the floor with the pair of them. Literally -- he knocked one of them face-down in a puddle of spilt milk, grabbed the back of his collar and waistband, and smeared him around in it a few times."

Quatre choked again, on the sandwich this time. "You're joking... no, you're not, are you?"

"It's the plain truth." Her expression was solemn enough, but there was an amused sparkle in her eyes for a moment. "After he kicked them out and the place had been straightened up a little, he asked what was going on, and my regulars were only too glad to fill him in. He looked surprised for a moment, then a little angry, I think, but he didn't do or say anything... then. A couple of days later, though..."

She pushed away from the table, moving to get herself a mug of coffee. "A couple of days later," she continued, back to Quatre as she stirred, "the story went around that somebody who matched Haan's description had walked into the gang leader's house as if he owned the place and told him the racket was going to stop, `or else'. The `or else' turned out to be that he got shot, and his body was disposed of... wherever and however the gang did things like that. They were bragging about it. And less than a week after that..." She took a deep breath. "...Half a dozen gang members and one of the police officers in their pay were dead, most of the others were in jail or had left town in a hurry, and Haan was back in my shop eating lunch and answering no questions."

+

[ note: "For the sidefic dealing with Duo and 'Scythe's meeting, read Christy and Ashkara's 'Conversations with Death' " ]


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