Key:
minor scene change (from person to person at the same place, etc): --- -------
major scene change (at another place, some time later, etc): * * * * *
flashback or dream starting or ending: ~*~*~*~
thoughts (and the occasional sound effect): *Tadah!*
some more sound effects (little ones!): -tadah!-
electronics (phone, TV, intercom etc): < < Tadah! > >

----------------------------

AUTHORS: Mel and Christy, Evil Onnas, Cliffhangerers Incorporated, and hopeless fish addicts.
WARNINGS: Yaoi, angst, sap, language, some OOC, AU...
PAIRINGS: 1x2, 3x4, 5x?
DISCLAIMER: 'Gundam Wing' and the 'Oath of Swords' series are not ours, nor are the characters and settings we've borrowed from them. The stuff we made up, on the other hand, is ours, ours, all ours! Mwahahahahaaaa...
FEEDBACK: Makes us wiggle happily. You know you want to see that.
APOLOGY: We're writing slower than our readers like, and we're sorry. Hell, we're writing slower than we like, but we're doing the best we can, honest!

Demon of Justice + Chapter 31
Communistic Monopoly


Vaijon flexed his right hand again, still feeling fading tingles from the energy that had blasted into him when Sir Uthmar had healed his burns. It hadn't felt at all like he'd thought a God-assisted healing would be like; he'd thought it would be more... well... more spiritual, somehow. More obviously holy. Champion and wounded man praying together in a gentle haze of the God's power and light, perhaps...

The reality had been a far cry from his rather romanticised imaginings. The dwarven Champion had simply knelt beside him, holding his axe, laid his free hand on Vaijon's wrist, told him to hold still, and -- well, he wasn't really sure what had happened then. Sir Uthmar had closed his eyes, frowning slightly, and then all of a sudden his axe had flamed golden and something had flashed down his arm and into Vaijon, shocking the two of them apart. Ashamed of having moved when he'd been told not to, Vaijon had straightened up, about to apologise and ready to try again.

Then he'd realised that it was over. He was healed. Well, his hand was still slightly reddened and tender, and Sir Uthmar had warned him that it would take a few days for his full strength to return to that arm, but his hand worked! It was a functional hand, not a seared- white claw.

Not at all the way I'd expected it would be,
he thought wryly, sliding down the earthen slope into the temple's sacrificial chamber. But then, I've turned out to be wrong about a few things, haven't I?

He gave the altar a wide berth, feeling slightly queasy as a waft of rotten-meat smell reached him, mixed with the coppery scent of fresh blood. Ugh! How that priest could stand over that altar, in the thick of that stink, I don't know... well, to a sick-minded torturer like him, it probably seemed like 'the smell of power', or something equally warped. Good riddance to him.

Reaching the dim corner where Wufei's clothing and weapons had been thrown, he started gathering them up, wrinkling his nose at the dark stains across the back of the pants and shirt. That doesn't look like it would wash out easily. It's a moot point, in any case, he mused, picking the pants up by their waistband and eyeing the long, ragged cuts that opened them up all the way down each leg. He's never going to be wearing these clothes again...

Wufei's short black sleeveless tunic was in a similar state, both shoulders and one side slashed open, and Vaijon was about to bundle it up with the pants to be burned when a fold of the silky material slid through his fingers, revealing bright embroidery.

Spreading the cloth out between his hands, Vaijon squinted at the strange beast embroidered on it, turning slightly to let it catch the light coming from behind him. He spent a few puzzled moments working out which bit of the stylised image was which, and the white swirls had him very confused until he realised they were meant to depict small clouds or something similar, not actual body parts, but eventually he managed to decipher it. Something like a long, snake- like lizard, with impressively taloned feet and a whiskered, fanged head.

This is a picture of what Sir Wufei's spirit turned into!
he realised, eyes widening. Sir Wufei was white and this is red and gold, but it's the same creature! It looks something like a dragon... is it a family totem or--

"Did you find them, Sir Vaijon?" came Jens's voice from behind him, and he snatched the scrap of cloth out of sight, stuffing it into his tunic.

"Ah-- yes, his weapons are here," Vaijon called back, hurriedly grabbing up Wufei's sword and knife. He bundled the shredded pants into the crook of his arm on top of the weapons, added the black leather wrist bracers and low slippers to the pile, and was about to stand up when he heard something metallic clatter onto the stone floor.

"Eh? What's this?" he muttered, reaching for the glint of metal and glass.

----------

"Eeyaagh!"

"Sir Vaijon? What is it?!" Jens shouted, drawing his sword as he scrambled down the slope into the temple. "Sir Vaijon!"

Vaijon was sprawled half on his back in a litter of clothes scraps and weapons, pointing at something in the corner. "It moved!"

"...What?"

"It moved!" Vaijon insisted, obviously resisting the urge to back away across the floor.

"What is it?" Jens repeated, edging closer and debating whether or not to sheathe his sword again. Sir Vaijon didn't seem to think the whatever-it-was rated a physical assault, but you could never tell with things you found in Dark temples.

"I don't know. It was in Sir Wufei's clothes, and when I picked it up it moved!"

"Yeah, I got that part," Jens muttered, putting his sword up. "Sir."

Stepping forward cautiously, he peered into the dim corner. There was something there all right, something like a tiny belt, about an inch wide and barely long enough to go around a woman's wrist. Or Sir Wufei's wrist, he corrected himself, thinking of the demon's deceptively slender form. He's got muscles all right, they just don't show that much...

"It don't look like anythin' the priests would have," he muttered, nudging it with his foot; then he shrugged and crouched down, picking it up. "Funny little thing," he mused, turning it around to look at the flat plate of metal and glass set into the middle of it. "I wonder what--"

It buzzed in his hand.

"Whoah!" he yelped, flinging it away from him as he jumped backwards. "Th' bastard moved!"

"I told you so!"

----------

"I wish I could heal him," Uthmar said quietly, eyes on Wufei's still figure. Karthan and Naiya were cleaning the small demon's wounds, with Terrin standing by holding bandages, but he barely seemed to notice; he'd swallowed something out of his cross-marked metal box, and now seemed to be almost asleep. He was certainly feeling no pain... which was a great improvement on the way he had been when they brought him out of the little room in Nataku's chest, white-faced and silent, catching his breath whenever they had to touch or move him.

"Has my Naiya been at you again, then?" Cord's deep voice rumbled from behind the dwarf, and he turned to see the hradani and Arwen.

"No, she seems to have gotten the idea," Uthmar snorted. "A lot faster than some people do. There are people in my home mines who've known me for years, and still seem to think that all I have to do to fix anything and anyone is wave my hand. A few of them, at least, concede that I would have to ask Torframos nicely, but none of them understand that they're better off finding a mage with the right talent or a priest of the right god. The thing is, I can heal some of them, which is why they don't want to hear that I can't heal their sanitharlahnahk who's visiting from Mountain Heart and just happens to have this old wound that nags him on cold nights. As for Wufei's case, five days of knowing someone, no matter how eventful those five days have been, just isn't enough."

"It has been a trifle hectic, to be sure," Cord grinned.

Arwen frowned slightly. "How long is long enough?"

"It's more a measure of how well you know someone, than how long it's been. Thinking of trying for yourself?"

The human Champion nodded uncomfortably, flushing slightly. "I've never felt confident that I could, and none of the men under my command have ever suffered a wound that couldn't be healed normally except when another, more experienced, Champion was around, so... I've never tried. I think I should, though, even if it's just to find out whether or not I have the ability. Better to find out now, than to try it on a battlefield and then find out that I can't."

"That's a sensible enough idea, Arwen, but it doesn't really work that way," Uthmar said ruefully. "If I don't have to heal someone, then most of the time I can't. Like Gunnar's side... it's a fairly serious wound, and it'll be some time before he's fit to fight again, but he will eventually heal. I tried to heal it myself, and I couldn't. If he had wound-fever, though, or if we were expecting to have to fight again tomorrow and needed every man on his feet, I'd bet fifty copper kormaks to a dried bean that it would have worked."

"Oh." Arwen blinked. "And Vaijon's hand...?"

"Was never going to heal by itself." Uthmar shrugged. "There are a few Champions who can heal just about anything, life-threatening or not, but most of us are either like me, or can't heal at all. Torframos hasn't talked to you about it?"

"Um, no, he hasn't."

"Then I wouldn't worry about it; when you need to, you'll be able to. If you didn't have the ability, he would have warned you not to count on it."

Arwen grinned, visibly relaxing. "That's a relief. You know, I think I've read almost everything the Order has written down about Champions, and what you've just told me was more information than I've found in any of the books!"

"Well, those records tend to be written by non-Champions," Uthmar pointed out. "We don't tend to have enough time to settle down in a Chapterhouse with a quill and a pile of parchment."

"And would it happen to be that the people who do write the books are too much in awe of your eminence to trap you in a quiet corner and start asking questions?" Cord asked innocently.

"I wasn't going to put it quite that way, but you're not too far off the mark."

Arwen coughed a few times, then got his face mostly straight and went on. "So... even if you did know Wufei well enough to heal him, you probably wouldn't be able to because he'll heal by himself?"

"That's it." Uthmar scowled. "Even though he's being stubborn about it."

"What-- oh. Th' lad won't use Karthan as a, whadday'call it, template?"

"Because his wounds might transfer over, yes. I can't even tell him that I'll heal Karthan if that happens, because I probably wouldn't be able to -- unlike last time. Deafness is a longer-term problem than a bunch of deep cuts. Unfortunately, Wufei also won't open his link to Nataku to speed up his healing, because he doesn't trust himself not to get trapped again." Uthmar sighed, blowing air through his moustache. "I think it'll be a while before he stops being a bit nervous about that."

"'A bit nervous'?" Cord's ears tilted at a comical angle. "I'd be a wee bit more than nervous if I thought there was any chance my mind could get sucked out of my body and stuck in a big suit of metal armour, or whatever Nataku is!"

"Even without opening his link he'll still heal fast, though, won't he?" Arwen said anxiously.

"Oh, certainly. Far faster than anyone else would," Uthmar reassured him. "He's just not going to enjoy the next several days at all--"

"Sir Uthmar? Sir Arwen?"

"Jens?" The mismatched trio turned around to see the armsman hurrying up behind them, an expression of mixed worry and relief on his face.

"I know that look," Uthmar muttered under his breath. "'Oh good, someone I can toss this hot potato to...' What is it?"

"Sir Vaijon was getting Sir Wufei's clothes and weapons out of the temple, sir-- sirs--" Jens began, nodding his head in an abbreviated courtesy to Arwen and Cord. "--and he found something else with the clothes. We don't know what it is, but it's, uh, moving. Buzzing."

"Buzzing?"

"Yessir. Sir Vaijon's bringing it now, sir."

"You must be worried if you're being that formal," Uthmar snorted, moving past him to peer towards the temple. "I haven't heard you say 'sir' that many times in one conversation since the time you got caught sneaking your 'cousin' into the barracks."

Jens looked offended. "She was my cousin, sir!"

"Of course she was. Your kissing cousin."

"Sir--!"

"Don't tease the armsmen when they're under stress, Uthmar," Arwen said absently, looking off towards the newly-excavated temple entrance. "It's not nice. --What is he doing?!"

Vaijon was picking his way over towards them, a bundle of clothes and weapons held awkwardly in one arm, and his other arm held out stiffly from his body. Something was dangling from his outstretched hand, pinched between two fingertips as if he wanted as little contact with it as possible, and just after Arwen first saw him he flinched violently, almost dropping it.

"I told you, sir," Jens said wearily. "It keeps buzzing."

"Y'look like a maiden with a dead mouse by th' tail, lad," Cord called to Vaijon, barely suppressing a snicker.

"I don't mind admitting that it's extremely unsettling," Vaijon said emphatically as he came up, for once not taking offence.

"Like t'see you hold it wi'out jumpin', big 'un," Jens muttered under his breath.

Tufted ears twitched. "Oh, y'would, would you? Give that over here for a moment, if y'don't mind..."

Vaijon almost dropped the little belt-thing in his eagerness to hand it over; Arwen opened his mouth to object, then shrugged and just leaned closer to examine it in Cord's hand.

"A little lower, if you two beanpoles would be so kind?" Uthmar said through gritted teeth. "I'm not about to jump up and down like a dog at a treat!"

"My apologies, little man," Cord said genially, leaning over and stretching his hand downwards. "It's a neat little thing, whatever it is-- hey!"

The little black-and-silver object went flying as he jumped, ears flattening.

"I warned you." "Told y' so." Vaijon and Jens spoke simultaneously.

"Damn thing tickles!" Cord said incredulously, shaking his hand to rid it of the lingering sensation.

"If you're all quite finished playing with the potentially dangerous object?!" Uthmar stomped across to where it had landed and picked it up, feeling for any trace of unhealthy energy. Torframos? Is it safe, or can I start chopping people's hands off to limit contamination?

=*Now, now, just because they're acting like idiots is no reason to maim them...*=

Can you think of a better one? Uthmar hefted the little thing in his hand, turning it to look at the flat crystal surface. I can't feel Sharna's energy in this, so it's probably Wufei's--

=*I agree,*= the god told him, heaving a semi-humorous mental sigh. =*I can't feel it at all.*=

"Eh? This thing's a clock!"

"A what?" Cord crowded up behind Uthmar, peering down over his head. "A clock? Are you sure?"

"Look at it! Look at how tiny it is!" The dwarf blinked at it, eyebrows vanishing into his hairline. "My cousin's husband makes pocket clocks, but the smallest one he's ever made would come close to filling the palm of your hand. This thing's the size of my thumbnail!"

"Does your cousin's husband make clocks that buzz?"

"He makes clocks that cuckoo," Uthmar said absently, running one thick finger over the side of the metal part. "Hmm... there's a little knob on the side here, but I don't see how you'd ever get a grip on the damn thing to-- hnk!"

His arm jerked, nearly elbowing Cord in the groin as the tiny clock demonstrated its ability to vibrate yet again, but he managed to not throw it away.

"...Rrrriiight," he said slowly, bringing it back in front of his face and looking at it with renewed caution. "I think we'll just put this somewhere safe and ask Wufei what in Krahana's hells it is once he's awake enough to answer questions, shall we?"

* * * * *

Heero opened his eyes at the sound of water flushing nearby, blinking in the early-morning light filtering in through his curtains. The blue and white tones Relena had furnished his room in turned any colour of sunrise into a cool snow-and-ice glow, and he found himself smiling as he stretched. It had only been a couple of days since Duo had come 'home' from the hospital, but they'd already settled into the house as if it had been theirs for months.

I never paid any attention to the idea that colour can affect your mood, he thought, but I have to admit that this is very... soothing. I don't think I'd feel nearly as comfortable in Quatre and Trowa's room. Duo's is nice, though.

Of course, the colour isn't the only reason I find this comfortable...

The mattress beneath him was firm, but still almost sinfully soft from his point of view, and he felt slightly guilty as he wriggled deeper under the covers to snatch another five minutes of relaxation. I'm even staying in bed until seven! I shouldn't get used to this, but... Duo needs his rest, and we're leaving the doors open so I can hear him if he needs anything in the night, so if I get up he'll hear me, and... hm. I'm getting pretty good at rationalising laziness, too.

More faint sounds from the bathroom that lay between the two downstairs bedrooms reached his ears, and he forgot about lecturing himself as he mentally followed Duo's progress. There was splashing water and the creak of a tap as Duo washed his hands, then a faint squeak of rubber tips on tile as he swung around on his crutches to dry his hands. Another squeak as he started to leave the bathroom; a faint curse and rustle of cloth as he paused to dry the handgrips; two more squeaks before he reached the door into his room, and then the sound was lost as he moved onto the carpet. Heero counted three slow breaths before there was a series of clicks as Duo unlocked the glass door leading onto the patio.

Looks like he's serious about sticking with his morning hot tub sessions, Heero
thought, sitting up and swinging his legs out of bed. He may not be allowed to start physical therapy on his leg yet, but he got Dr. Modi to agree that soaking in a hot tub with the jets going was something close to mild hydrotherapy and allowed, and now he's determined to get a head start. I'd have to laugh if he wasn't so serious about it.

'As if you'd be any less serious about it if you were in his place,'
a quiet, critical voice at the back of his head put in. 'In fact, you can bet you'd be worse. Do you honestly think you'd actually restrict yourself to doing only what the doctor told you was permissible?'

Shut up,
Heero told the little voice, and got up to make breakfast.

----------

Heero was halfway through reading the mission plan-- er, the instructions for making french toast, rather doubtful about whether a fried mixture of bread, milk and eggs could really be as good as Quatre insisted it would be, when the vidphone rang. He eyed it suspiciously for a moment, then shrugged and accepted the call, sound only.

"Hello?" he said flatly, turning back to his recipe book. If that's an early telemarketer, they're going to regret--

< < They said yes! > > an excited voice squealed.

"...Relena?"

< < Yes, it's me, it's me, > > she confirmed, still sounding unusually hyper. < < Didn't you hear me? They said yes! After only one session! Aren't you excited?! > >

Now thoroughly puzzled, Heero twisted around to stare at the dark screen as if he could somehow work out what had the ex-princess so worked up. "Who said yes to what?"

< < The cabinet! Lady Une! They-- oh, would you just turn your screen on, Heero?! > >

Giving way to the inevitable, Heero turned his chair around to face the vidphone and hit the 'accept video' button. Relena's image sprang into view, neatly groomed and perfectly presented as usual, yet somehow more... animated? Is she actually bouncing up and down?

"So... the interim cabinet has accepted Lady Une as the head of the peacekeepers?" he half-guessed.

< < Yes! After only one discussion session! Well, we did go overtime by a few hours-- > >

Try about nine, if you just got out of the legislative chambers,
Heero corrected her mentally, eyeing the clock. The late-night cabinet meetings were supposed to finish at around ten PM, and it was almost half past seven.

< < --but I was expecting the conservatives, the pacifists, and the hardboiled anti-OZ factions to drag things out for at least four sessions between them. Half of the conservative group were actually supporting me right from the start, and I hadn't even warned them who I was planning to nominate! Of course I warned everyone I could depend on to support me, so they could get their arguments lined up in advance, but I was sure the conservative alliance were going to oppose whoever I put forward just on principle! Lady Une herself was harder to convince! > > Relena seemed to sober slightly. < < I think she had herself convinced that as soon as we got around to it, she was going to be either shot or locked up for life. She's been... um... well, sort of under house arrest, protective custody really, and... she's been awfully quiet. > >

"Resigned to her fate?" Trowa's quiet voice came from behind Heero, and Relena glanced up and smiled.

< < Good morning, Trowa, Quatre. Yes... I think that's a good description. Plus depressed. It took her a while to really understand what I was offering her, and then she started bringing up all the objections I'd expected to hear from the cabinet members. Actually, arguing with her was good practice! > >

"What finally convinced her?"

< < Well. > > Relena squirmed slightly, looking uncomfortable. < < I was, ah, a bit reluctant to use Duo's argument... you know, that heading up the Preventers and working for world peace would be the same as working towards Treize's goals, just by a different route. -- Oh, and that is the official name now! The cabinet agreed about that too. So although I didn't actually mention Treize as such, I did point out that world peace was OZ's official goal, so that really she was going to be doing essentially the same job as before, and-- > >

"--you let her draw her own conclusions." Trowa smirked. "Nice hair- splitting."

Relena actually giggled. < < Please! That wasn't hair-splitting, that was sophistry. And at least it did the job! > >

"Hn." Heero felt his mouth quirking up into an unwilling smirk of his own as Quatre leaned forwards over his shoulder, looking concerned.

"Relena... how much coffee did you drink to get through the cabinet meeting?"

< < Um. I'm not sure. > > She blinked and gazed off into space, apparently counting under her breath. < < Er... they kept bringing fresh jugs... > >

"Oh dear." Quatre turned stricken eyes towards Heero and Trowa. "The future of the world is being decided by a group of people who all have coffee jitters."

< < Hey! We are not all coffee addicts! > > Relena mock-frowned at him, visibly restraining another giggle. < < Most of the L3 representatives drink ginseng and guarana, and everyone from your colony goes through enough tea to float a battleship! > >

"That's just as bad!"

She stuck her tongue out at him.

"...You realise that proves my point."

< < Anyway! > > She flapped her hands at him. < < The important thing is that Lady Une agreed to accept the position if the interim cabinet accepted her -- hmm, maybe she was assuming that the cabinet would say 'no' and only agreed because it was easier than refusing? -- and the cabinet agreed, and we got the best person for the job, which is what we wanted. Now all I have to do is fight to make sure that the Preventers are actually set up as an effective force, and funded properly, and keep an eye on the legislative committees so they don't perpetrate something awful in the name of law, and sign a ridiculous amount of paperwork -- oh, and wonder why, exactly, the conservatives did support me. Wonderful. Now that I'm over being flabbergasted by their attitude, I'm starting to wonder about their motives. Hmmm. I suppose I should start my staff looking for bear traps in the political bushes. I'll talk to you all later, okay? I'm going to need more advice! 'Bye! > >

"Goodb--" Quatre began, only to stop and sigh as the screen blanked. "Well. That was a new experience."

"And an interesting one," Trowa chuckled.

"Hn." Heero stood up and thrust the cookbook into Trowa's hands. "I'm going to go tell Duo his idea worked. You make Quatre's french toast."

----------

Heero paused just inside the glass doors, looking out over the patio to the hot tub. Duo was sitting side-on to him, scrunched down until his chin was barely above the water surface, head bowed.

He's having a hard time, he thought, feeling guilty. And so much of what's bothering him is my fault...

Duo might be good at hiding his true feelings when he wanted to, but Heero was getting better at seeing through the masks. I'm pretty sure he isn't having nightmares about Wufei any more, but he still worries... he still misses him. I still don't know exactly what sort of relationship he and Wufei had-- have, but I do know they're important to each other. And his leg hurts, and he almost never takes his painkillers, and he hates having to wear the brace, and being at less than full ability for so long has to be driving him crazy, and...

Heero sighed unhappily, then straightened his shoulders and put on his own mask -- the nearly expressionless 'I'm not going to do anything so undisciplined as to actually laugh, but I am amused' Perfect Soldier look -- and opened the sliding door noisily, head tilted down and slightly away from Duo as he 'concentrated' on the latch. By the time he had the door open and stepped through, Duo was looking up at him with a grin.

"Hey, Heero!" he called, waving. "Water's great, as usual. Are you coming in, or is it breakfast already?"

"I came to commiserate with you on missing the opportunity of a lifetime," Heero said calmly, allowing his not-quite-smile to widen a little.

"Oh? What did I miss?"

"Relena on a caffeine high."

"What?!" Duo sat up straighter in the swirling water, looking as if he wanted to leap out then and there. "Where is she? What did she do? Damn it, why didn't you tape her?! Talk about blackmail material!"

"She 'phoned -- from her office, I think -- she was burbling and hyper, we were so surprised that none of us thought to record the call until it was too late, and you're quite right; we could have sold copies of it for a lot of money." Heero swung himself down to sit on the edge of the tub, careful not to knock Duo's crutches out of his reach. "Apparently those late-night cabinet meetings are fuelled by coffee, tea, and guarana."

"Wow." Duo blinked for a moment, considering, and then grinned again. "Okay, the next time we know she's in a late session, we leave a message with her office for her to call us as soon as she gets out, and then we sit up and wait, okay?"

"Sounds like a plan. Are you planning to get out any time soon, or would you like breakfast in bath?"

"Ahh, I'll come inside to eat." Duo shrugged casually, but Heero caught the nearly invisible wince as he shifted his leg. "Don't want to get too pruny -- I have to think of my adoring public."

"Your 'public'?" Heero twisted around to eye the (empty) back yard ostentatiously. "Since when do you have a 'public'?"

"Hey, we all have small but vocal fan clubs as well as hate groups, y'know," Duo shot back. "In this case, however, I was referring to the nice old ladies across the street who think I'm a 'poor boy' who needs to be mothered. Haven't you met them yet?"

He frowned slightly, considering. "The ones in the red brick house with all the cats on the porch?"

"That's them," Duo confirmed. "I can't take a single step onto the sidewalk without one of them just happening to pass by and inquire after my health, your health, Q and Tro's health, our plans for the day, our families, our pasts, our hopes and dreams, and what we had for breakfast. They'd make great intelligence operatives."

Heero's frown deepened. "I'm not sure I like that."

"Actually, I think they could come in handy," Duo disagreed, starting to lever himself up to his feet. "Sure, we're going to have to be careful not to slip out of character in front of them because if we do, they will notice, but we were going to have to watch that anyway. The thing is, they stick their noses into everyone's business, and happily gossip about what they find out, and everyone else in the neighbourhood is so used to it that they've worked out elaborate excuses and strategies to avoid having to listen to them. If we talk to them once in a while, we'll know the minute someone suspicious moves into the neighbourhood, starts asking questions, or just drives through."

"And anyone else who talks to these women will find out everything they know about us," Heero pointed out darkly.

"Sure!" Duo grinned, getting his crutches adjusted and carefully hopping himself up out of the hot tub. "They'll find out all about four nice, polite, wealthy boys who are not at all secretive or standoffish, not--" his smile slipped a little "--five nasty, skulking Gundam pilots who keep to themselves and refuse to talk to anyone. They should go look somewhere else immediately."

"Well..." Heero shrugged as he stood up, conceding the point. "You're the people skills specialist, so if you say so I'm not going to argue. It'll have to be you and Quatre who do the talking to them, though."

"I kind of guessed that. So, what's the plan for today?"

"Nothing fixed, yet. What would you like to do?"

Duo hummed thoughtfully under his breath, swinging into his bedroom through the still-open door. "Actually, I kinda feel like being lazy. What say I beat the pants off all of you guys on some of those board games 'Lena supplied us with?"

----------

"Pay up."

"Oh, man!" Duo groaned, throwing himself back in his chair as he clutched his hair dramatically. "Q, I don't believe you're doing this to me!"

"It's got a hotel," Quatre pointed out, minutely straightening one of his many property deeds and smiling pleasantly. "That makes the rent five hundred and eighty credits."

"Whose idea was it to play Monopoly, anyway?" Duo grumbled, starting to count the required amount out from his dwindling funds.

"Yours."

"Hmph. Don't spoil my complaints with the facts, man."

Duo handed over the money and glared at the board as he rattled the dice, about to roll again. His previous throw had been a double two, putting him smack into the middle of some of Quatre's best properties, and once his little motor car rounded the next corner and passed 'Go' he was going to be on Trowa's side of the board. Somehow the unibanged pilot had managed to buy every single property on the side closest to himself, and his income from that stretch was nicely compensating for the few times he missed 'Free Parking' and 'Community Chest' to land on Quatre's hotels. Quatre owned practically all the rest of the properties, plus all the railroads and utilities, leaving Heero and Duo hanging on by their fingernails with three and four properties respectively.

Counting the spaces to the next relatively safe square, Duo crossed his fingers and tossed the dice. "Come on, six--! Woohoo!" Hopping his token along to the 'Chance' square, he reached across to pick up the top card. "'Get Out of Jail Free'. Well, I guess it's simpler than lockpicks..."

"That was a double too," Trowa pointed out, passing the dice back. "One more, and you're going to need that card."

Duo shrugged, counting again. "Eh, easy come, easy go. A three would be good here..."

He threw. Two single pips stared up at him accusingly.

"Aaaah, nuts!"

Trowa helpfully moved Duo's token to 'Just Visiting' as Heero took the 'Get Out of Jail Free' card out of his limp hand and returned it to the stack.

"Like you said," Quatre said cheerfully, picking the dice up for his turn. "Easy come, easy go!"

"Man, I missed getting my two hundred creds again! At least I didn't have to pay the fine to get out this time."

"You have been spending rather a lot of time in jail," Heero agreed, watching as Quatre's top hat stopped safely on one of his own squares.

"Never happens in real life," Duo groused, scrunching down in his chair. "Well, okay, it happens, but I've never had to pay to get out yet!"

"Unfortunately, there isn't a 'Shoot Your Way Out Of Trouble' card in this game," Heero muttered, picking the dice up and eyeing his situation. His boot was sitting on one of Duo's properties -- in fact, the only reason Duo had had enough money to pay rent to Quatre was because he'd just received some from Heero. Unfortunately, this left Heero with almost no cash, and a long stretch of Quatre's houses and hotels looming ahead of him. He threw.

"One, two, three, f-- kuso!"

"I believe that's one of my railroads," Quatre informed him. "That'll be--"

"Objection!"

"--eh?" Blinking, Quatre turned to look at Duo.

"I object!" Duo repeated, drawing himself up. "In fact, I do more than object, I'm calling for an investigation by the Consumer Protection Agency, and it's my belief that they'll find you guilty of price-fixing and having an illegal monopoly on essential goods and services. You're in trouble now!"

"Duo, what are you talking about?!" Quatre protested, laughing. "This game is called Monopoly, for goodness' sake!"

"Not any more it's not! That's an outmoded capitalist concept, that is, totally inappropriate in today's enlightened society. You're a bloated plutocrat grinding the faces of the proletariat, you are! I insist that you divest yourself of some of your holdings. In fact, just to be safe, you should divest yourself of most of 'em." Duo grinned. "New house rule. The person who spends the most time in jail at the start of the game is therefore proven to be a politician, and gets to mold society. That would be me... so we're communist now, we are. Welcome to the New Era, comrades!"

"Sounds good to me," Heero grinned back, noting the renewed sparkle in Duo's eyes. "Got a red flag I can raise?"

"Don't I get any say in this?" the blond asked plaintively.

"No! Be grateful you're not facing a firing squad!"

"Does that make me a capitalist running dog lackey of the system too?" Trowa enquired. "I am using the scottie dog, you know."

"Oh, you're only a minor parasite," Duo informed him as he started 'confiscating' Quatre's properties and returning them to the bank. "You can probably repay your debt to society by turning some of your lands over to the People to be converted into low-rent housing for underprivileged families. Of course, that'll lower property values in the neighbourhood -- pity all the rest of your land is in the same place, isn't it? Still, it's not as if anyone really needs to make a profit here in the United Gundam Socialist Republics!"

* * * * *

"Is he awake yet?"

Wufei didn't move as the half-whispered question roused him from vague dreams. *Pain* plus *Person nearby attempting stealth* equaled *Potential threat situation!* to his well-trained instincts, so he found himself immediately alert and reaching out with all his senses to analyse the situation. He felt weak and heavy, and there was a dull throbbing pain down his chest, stomach and thighs, a sharper pain in his right hand, the feel of bandages and a rough blanket covering him... he didn't seem to be restrained, which was good, but the quality of the blanket balanced that out, implying cell furnishings.

Scent and sound came next, telling him of cool fresh air and woodsmoke, something cooking nearby, the quiet sounds of a large group of men at ease all around him. The sounds were a little muffled, but not as much as they would have been by solid walls. Not a cell, then, he thought, and the environment suggests a camp... the Manguanacs? Or Sally Po's resistance fighters?

The whisper came again. "Naiya, is he--"

"No he is not awake!" hissed a female voice, quieter but closer. "Now go away and wait, before you wake him up yourself!"

"Sneakin' around and whisperin' is more likely to wake him up than not, y'know," a deep voice rumbled, sounding faintly amused.

"Father, shhh!"

...Ah. "He's right, actually," Wufei said, opening his eyes. His voice rasped, and speaking made it obvious that his throat was painfully dry, but otherwise everything seemed to be in working order. Though I don't think I'll try moving much else just now.

"Wufei!"

He managed to roll his head to one side, enough to see Naiya kneeling by his low pallet, with Terrin and Cord peering in through the tent flap. Past them, he could see the Order of Torframos going about the usual camp business.

"Thank goodness!" Naiya burst out, hands hovering near Wufei as if she wanted to hug him but wasn't sure where was safe to touch. "Wufei, you've been asleep for over a day!"

"How do you feel?" Terrin put in.

"Um." Wufei frowned, considering. In pain, weak, slightly lightheaded -- in fact, he rather suspected he wasn't tracking properly -- and with a tired, hollow feeling in his head and chest that somehow bothered him more than anything else. "Like about five miles of bad road... which is actually better than I expected." Certainly better than I'd be feeling now if that damned priest had had a few more minutes in which to work!

Judging by what he'd learned about the theological side of life in this world, 'damned' was probably exactly the right adjective, too.

"Bad road...?" Naiya echoed, bewildered.

Wufei grimaced, starting to wave one hand dismissively and then abruptly deciding that it was a bad idea and he was going to stay still now, thank you. "It's something Duo says when he's, um, moderately banged up," he explained, closing his eyes against a fresh wave of pain. Or when he's been trashed, to put it bluntly, and doesn't want to admit it. And make that ten miles. "...Could I have something to drink, please?"

"Oh! Of course!" Naiya scrambled up to her feet and dove out the tent flap, pushing between her father and Terrin; Cord just swayed slightly, but Terrin staggered to one side, nearly knocked over by the force of her passage. "I'll be right back!"

"Tell Uthmar and the others th' lad's awake, too!" Cord called after her. "They'll be wanting to talk t'him 'bout that little clock!"

"She won't tell them if she thinks Wufei needs more rest," Terrin pointed out, rubbing his shoulder ruefully.

"I know." Cord grinned. "But they'll've heard me, now won't they?"

"You are a cunning man, Cord, and I'm proud to know you." The human hunter carefully edged inside the tent and sat down next to Wufei's pallet, peering at him worriedly. "Damn, Wufei, you look-- um. Er. Ah, Cord, why did you say whispering was more likely to wake him up?"

Cord's ears tilted to comical angles at Terrin's ludicrously clumsy attempt to change the subject, but he responded politely enough as he folded his bulk into the limited space available. "'Cause whisperin' and sneakin' will wake any good warrior up faster than a tree fallin' on his tent. If someone's sneakin' around him, what's to say they're not sneakin' up on him?"

"Oh." Terrin blinked. "I guess that makes sense."

The corner of Wufei's mouth quirked up in a faint smile. "Perfect sense," he confirmed. "I can sleep through almost anything, if the voices and sounds around me are ones I know, and know are safe. Someone being stealthy, on the other hand, will wake me up immediately. --And so will Duo snickering," he added thoughtfully. "That's a very dangerous noise. It usually means he's either plotting something, or he's finished plotting and is now doing something that I'm not going to like when I find out about it."

"Such as?" Cord grinned.

"Um... drawing on my face as I sleep. Dying my underwear strange colours. Tying my pants legs in knots. Rigging my computer to play the Marseillaise at top volume next time I open an e-mail. Painting--"

"Rigging your what to play what when you what?!"

"Um... never mind. It was annoying, that's all you need to know."

Before Cord and Terrin could ask any more questions, Uthmar and Arwen were at the tent flap, closely followed by a fuming Naiya clutching a cup and jug. "There's not enough room in there for you all!" she snapped, pushing Arwen out of the way and glaring pointedly at her father. "If the Champions need to talk to Wufei, fine, but you two are leaving first, and any more talking can wait until after he's had a drink!"

"Yes, ma'am," the Champions chorused, straight-faced, and Cord laughed.

"Looks like we've got our marching orders, lad," he said, patting Wufei carefully on one shoulder. "We'll talk some more when you've had a rest, eh?"

"I will look forward to it," Wufei whispered, closing his eyes for a moment. Yes... very tired.

After Wufei had had his drink and been resettled comfortably on his pallet, Naiya twitched his pillow into place, smoothed his blanket, and left -- not without a parting glare at the two Champions and a promise to come back soon.

"Is it just me, or did that sound like a threat?" Arwen asked nervously, looking after her.

"I think it was definitely a threat," Uthmar nodded, scratching his beard. "Something along the lines of, 'if you're still keeping Wufei awake when I get back, you'll regret it'. We'd better keep this short. Not to put too fine a point on it, Wufei, you're not looking very well."

"Better than when you were out of your body," Arwen hastened to assure him.

"I'll be fine," Wufei insisted, dragging his eyes fully open. "What did you need to talk to me about? Cord said something about a clock...?"

"This," Uthmar said, reaching into his belt pouch. "What is this, and why is it buzzing?!"

"Buzzing--? Oh!" Wufei managed a short, breathy laugh, carefully taking the watch in his left hand. "It's just my watch. It's got an alarm..." His voice trailed off as he held it for a moment, waiting; then it vibrated quietly, a quick string of long and short pulses. "Ah. That's the code that tells me somebody's got into Nataku."

Arwen let out his breath in a groan, slumping backwards and raising his eyes to heaven (or at least the tent roof). "That's all?!"

"Well, it can be fairly important, you know."

"Oh, I realise that, but-- you have no idea how much of a fuss that thing caused! People squawking and dropping it and throwing it around and looking at it like it was a snake. Myself included," Arwen admitted sheepishly.

"Heh. I suppose it would be fairly upsetting if you weren't expecting it." Come to think of it, there was that time Duo got hold of an antique joy buzzer...

"Well, now that we know what it is, we can stop fussing and let you get some more rest," Uthmar told him, heaving himself to his feet. "-- Um, you can turn it off, can't you?"

"Oh yes. Already did it."

"Good. Don't worry about taking a while to recover," the dwarf told him firmly, patting him on the same shoulder as Cord. "We're camped, we're safe, we're guarded, and we're in no hurry to go anywhere, all right? I shudder to think what Krashnark would say to us if we let you exert yourself before you're well!"

"Remind us to tell you about what he did, later," Arwen added, following the senior Champion out.

Alone for the moment, Wufei dropped the watch next to his pillow and relaxed, lying limp. "I'm surrounded by mother hens," he muttered, eyeing one particular corner of the tent roof a little sourly. "And you're the worst of them."

=*--!! How did you know I was here?*= Krashnark asked incredulously.

"Quantum physics, for all I know," Wufei told him, closing his eyes. "'Night."

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