AUTHORS: Mel and Christy, tormenting new victims-- err, adding new characters to the fic-- every day! Er, every week. Month. Regularly. Um. Look, Mel was sick and Christy had a birthday, okay? *hides*
WARNINGS: Yaoi, angst, sap, language, some OOC, AU...
PAIRINGS: 1x2, 3x4, 5x?
DISCLAIMER: 'Gundam Wing' and the 'Oath of Swords' series still don't belong to us. Those ninjas are totally not getting paid now.
FEEDBACK: Is the only payment for this we're allowed to accept! And we love it!
APOLOGY: We apologise for taking a month for this one. No, we're not going back to one chapter every few years, honest...

Demon of Justice + Chapter 36
Movement

Dusk in the Shipwood was a strange blend of light and darkness. The tall, straight trees that let through a reasonable amount of sunlight in the middle of the day began to block more and more as the sun slid towards the horizon, but they also kept the undergrowth down to scattered patches of brambles and tall ferns; what light did penetrate the trees travelled unimpeded for a long way, angled golden shafts spotlighting random clearings. Kairic's horses kept heading for the lit areas, objecting with muffled snorts when he steered them away.

The guardsman cursed mildly as his gelding sidestepped yet again, reining it back on course and patting its neck in apology. It's a pity I can't explain things, he thought, but even the smartest horse isn't going to understand things like 'ruining what night vision I've managed to develop' or 'being seen for miles'. Or, for that matter, 'crazed Champion of Sharna with a cursed sword somewhere behind us'... and whatever else he may be, Greediguts is not a smart horse.

The gelding was living up to its nickname by snatching mouthfuls of leaves from whatever was close enough, not caring whether or not it was technically edible. "Oh stop that, you blithering imbecile," Kairic scolded quietly, tugging his mount away from a tall stand of ferns and borrowing freely from Yithar's store of insults. "You may not have managed to poison yourself yet, but I don't have the time to nurse you through another bout of colic-- "

Intent on the ferns, Greediguts ducked his head and yanked left, bunny-hopping sideways with the agility that made him Kairic's favourite horse despite his habits. One of the led horses shied, jerking its lead rope, Kairic's weight shifted, Greediguts' left forehoof slid on a root and he went down with a crash.

"Fuck," Kairic groaned, untangling himself from the ferns and cautiously poking his bruises. Greediguts had rolled to his feet almost immediately and was standing calmly, quizzically observing his rider with half a fern frond sticking out of his mouth, jaws moving rhythmically... and holding his left fore up so that the tip of his hoof barely touched the ground. The shoe on that hoof had wrenched half off and was dangling by a single nail.

"I hope that Phrobus-cursed fern is delicious, you moronic beast, because it'll have to be bloody well incredible to be worth the delay you just caused!"

----------

Apparently the ferns were particularly tasty, because the two remounts joined Greediguts in stripping all the young fronds and half of the older ones off the nearest one as the guardsman -- ex-guardsman now, he supposed -- worked to transfer his tack. The fern was looking rather dilapidated by the time he was finished.

I still won't be able to go as fast as I was, Kairic thought, frowning as he ran one hand down Greediguts' leg. Once the dangling shoe had been removed, the horse had gone back to standing normally, but there was a spot of heat indicating a strained muscle and he moved with a definite limp. I should probably leave him... no. It doesn't seem too serious. I can poultice it at night, and if I can just get him re-shoed he should heal fast. Besides, if I'm reduced to two mounts I'll have to slow down anyway.

Frowning as he considered his mental map of the area, Kairic didn't notice the approaching hoofbeats until Greediguts lifted his head and snorted, looking south.

One horse, coming fast. Glancing around in the growing dark, he led the horses deeper into the ferns and shortened his grip on the reins and lead ropes, holding them as still as he could manage. It could be completely unrelated to that mess, but I wouldn't bet a copper kormak on it--

Lord Yithar came into view, teeth clenched in a snarl. His horse was obviously exhausted, gait uneven, but he flogged it on mercilessly and there was something, a scent or a glint or a haze of green, that told Kairic the lash wasn't all that was keeping the poor beast at a gallop. He passed the stand of ferns without a glance and continued northwards, shooting nervous glances back over his shoulder.

He's heading for Sindark, Kairic realised, staring after him and feeling a cold chill down his spine as he realised what a narrow escape he'd had. Right down the same route I was taking. The way he's going, he would have come up behind me just before I reached town.

"Damn," he whispered, stroking Greediguts' nose. "Horse, I swear, so long as they don't give you colic I will pick bushels of these damn ferns for you with my own hands, whenever you like."

All right then, he thought, taking a deep, shaky breath. Sindark is out, but I still need to get to a blacksmith.

...Well, I know one village Yithar isn't going to want to visit again...

* * * * *

Eyeing one particular sonar return, a fleeting there-and-gone-again shadow at the very limit of Nataku's scanner range, Wufei considered the possibility of sea monsters. Sea demons? Kraken? I know Karthan's encountered an actual dragon, but the bit of that memory I saw indicated it was living in a mountain pass... are there sea dragons here as well?

Surely Uthmar would have mentioned the possibility. Unless he thought I could handle whatever was likely to show up.

Another sonar return blinked into view to the south, behind them, and he dismissed thoughts of tentacles from the deep as he eyed it. Two ships-- no, three-- moving faster than us, if they're coming into view from behind-- wow. Moving a lot faster than us, he thought, eyebrows lifting as the symbols on his screen inched upwards. And I thought the Osprey was fast for something at its technological level.

Karthan? he sent, flinging the thought upwards. There are some ships coming up from the south, fast. Are they in view yet?

----------

Twisting to stare backwards over the Osprey's stern, Karthan squinted into the distance, shielding his eyes from the lantern hung on the taffrail. I can't see anything, and the lookout hasn't reported them, he thought back. Can you tell whose ships they are?

The reply felt amused. At this point all I know is that they're there, they're fast, and they probably have more metal in their construction than usual; the sonar return is surprisingly clear. If it's true that Marfangers have all the best ships, they're probably from Marfang Island. Do they have a navy?

Sort of. If I remember rightly, any Marfanger ship over a certain size can be called up in time of war, or if they're about to run a campaign against pirates, Karthan sent slowly, thinking back, but they are said to have a few purpose-built armed ships that sort of hang around the island, trying not to look obviously threatening. Are they looking for you, do you think?

Unless something else has happened to upset them, probably. I did get well underwater before turning north, though, so they can't be sure I came this way.

Karthan squinted again, peering south at a flicker of light that might be a reflection from a wave, or something else. I think I see--

"Sail ho!" the lookout called down from his perch at the top of the mainmast. "Three sails, dead astern! Showing green!"

"They signalling?" the captain called back.

"No-- aye, now they are! Three and two!"

The captain scowled, then glanced at the last flickers of sunset to the west and sighed. "Ah well, we'd be dropping anchor soon anyway. Strike sail!"

"Three and two?" Arwen inquired mildly, watching the sudden activity as sailors hauled on ropes and the first sail came flapping down.

The halfling grunted, glancing up at him before turning to stare south. "Marfang code. 'Heave to' and 'warning'; there's something in the area they think we should know about, or else they want to check to make sure we're not what they're warning people about. Either way, it boils down to 'stop'."

The Osprey slowed, returning to a more even keel as its sails were furled, and the less seaworthy members of the Order of Torframos sighed in relief as its motion gentled. Karthan had a general idea of where Wufei was -- the mental link had a directional 'feel' to it -- and sensed him stopping too, deep down below the ship.

The following ships caught up quickly now, navigational lamps at masthead and midships showing first; the green of their flags and the mainsail of the foremost ship became visible next, and last the low-slung black hulls. Water frothed oddly in front of their bows, as if the bow wave was being projected by something in front of the visible hull, and Karthan glimpsed a gleaming copper-sheathed ram as the lead ship pitched over a wave and it lifted out of the water for a moment.

Marfanger warships all right, he thought to Wufei, and these look to be the ones that don't do very well at not looking threatening! You did stir them up.

Given a choice between worrying the halflings and sticking around to face something two gods are telling me to run away from, I'll-- well, it wasn't my preferred choice, but I went with worrying the halflings, Wufei reminded him dryly. The alternative was having Orfressa yell at me again, and it was giving me a headache.

"Ahoy there!" the Osprey's captain roared through a leather megaphone. "What ships?"

"Whitetip, Reef and Harpoon!" came the bellowed response. "What ship, and where to?"

"Osprey, on a charter to Belhadan! What's all this about?"

The lead ship heeled into a tight turn, swinging around the Osprey and pointing into the wind, booms swinging its sails out to either side to catch air and bring it to a near-total stop. Rigging groaned at the sudden strain and the ship seemed to curtsey, bowsprit rising high above the waves, but the manoeuvre was expertly performed and the halflings on board the Osprey muttered in admiration. Close enough now for voices to carry without support, the first ship's spokesman leaned on the rail and shouted across as the other two plunged onward.

"Seen anything in the last few hours?"

"Oh, aye," Osprey's captain called back sarcastically, "wind and water and Purple Lord shit-bucket boats. You looking for anything in particular?"

"You'd know it if you saw it," the other halfling said grimly, ignoring the almost-joke. "There was a demon sighted off Marfang, a bit past noon, shaped like a giant in armour. It got underwater and then headed north; we're chasing it."

How do they know?! Karthan thought, only half-listening as the crew reacted, mostly by swearing. Wufei! They know you went north!

How?! Wufei responded, just as surprised. I was well underwater! They can't possibly have seen me to follow me!

"Hells! Well, we haven't seen anything like that, thank Korthrala," Osprey's captain confirmed, rubbing one horn nervously. "Are you sure it went north? I have to admit, I'd not be one for chasing it myself..." He glanced uneasily sideways at Arwen, as if he expected the human champion to demand they immediately join the hunt.

The halfling on the Whitetip snorted. "A water demon, hiding in the sea? That's our territory; we're not about to leave the Dark Gods' muck in it. It won't be the first time we've cleaned up their mess, either!"

The warship's crew certainly didn't look nervous, standing watch in shining mail and half-plate instead of the cloth and leather usual for seamen. There was one in dark blue robes, standing by the steersman and looking subtly out of place, but the rest appeared grim yet confident. Wickedly barbed harpoons and spears seemed to be the ship's main weapons, including several that were set up to be fired from large dart-throwers mounted at bow and stern.

"If you can, y' might want to head back to Refuge and wait a couple days before going north. Adric!" the newcomer called, turning away from the rail and making a circling-around gesture with one hand to the steersman. "Give us a new bearing!"

Whitetip began to ease away from the Osprey, starting a turn to take her after her consorts. The blue-robed halfling had his hands cupped in front of him, concentrating with his eyes closed.

...Wufei? Karthan sent, seeing what was coming. I think you're about to be found...

The robed halfling took a deep breath, opened his eyes and looked down at his cupped hands-- and let his breath out in a panicked yell, dropping a small cup that splashed liquid and something metallic across the deck. "Straight down!" he yelled. "It's under us!"

...yep. There they go. Looks like they have a mage on board.

----------

Oh, lovely. Wufei sighed and nudged at the controls, sending Nataku a little deeper. I guess I'll be staying put while Uthmar and Arwen explain, then.

That sounds like the best option, Karthan agreed, sounding more amused than worried. If you surface, you're just going to get a face full of harpoons. Even if they can't hurt Nataku, that's got to be annoying.

Noisy, at the very least.

----------

"Calm, Captain Grantik," Uthmar rumbled, laying a gentle hand on the halfling's shoulder. "Your ship's in no danger so long as your countrymen don't start firing at random."

"What-- you-- " Interrupted in the middle of yelling orders to his crewmen, Grantik let the rest of his breath out in a rush and twisted to stare incredulously at the dwarf. "You-- no danger, is it? Foam Beard's spit, what the blazes do you call danger if this-- wait." Eyes narrowing, he stared up at the dwarf's face, and when he spoke again his voice was calmer and dangerously cold. "Is there something I ought to know you've forgotten to tell me, Champion?"

"Not forgotten, as such," Uthmar shrugged, withdrawing his hand. "You didn't need to know about it before, and -- truth be told -- we would've preferred to get through this trip without you ever needing to find out. Yes, there's a demon down there, but I swear to you by my axe and Torframos's favour that he's not an enemy."

"...Well now." Grantik stared for another couple of breaths, then turned his head and whistled sharply, getting his crew's attention. "Stand down!" he yelled, making a cutting gesture in the air and then pushing his flattened palm towards the deck. "Stand ready, but hold!"

"Thank you, Cap-- "

"There's a long story behind this, I'm betting," the halfling interrupted.

"...Fairly long, yes."

"I hope you've made up your mind to tell me all of it, then, because charter or no charter, if I don't find out what's going on I'll be putting the lot of you ashore and you can find out if the damned Wild Wash will give you a ride up to Belhadan," Grantik snarled. "Huh." He glared at Uthmar one more time, then looked away and took a long, slow breath, shaking his shoulders out in a motion that put the dwarf in mind of a seagull settling its feathers.

"Here." Without looking back, the captain held his megaphone out towards Uthmar. "You'll need this if you want to talk the Whitetip and her friends out of turning this not-an-enemy demon of yours into a pincushion."

----------

"Is it coming up?" Commander Morash snapped at the mage, sparing a moment to pray that the gods-damned civilian who was his only means of tracking the demon would hold it together and not panic. Harpoon and Reef were circling back in answer to his signals, weapons ready, but if the thing surprised one of them from below there wasn't much their sister ships would be able to do.

Down on his knees, Adric scrabbled for the compass needle he'd been using as a focus, clapped it between his palms, shut his eyes and concentrated. "...No," he said after a stressful pause, hands shifting slowly as he followed the tug of the needle. "It's staying still?"

"Are you sure?" Morash asked, not liking the faint questioning note in the mage's voice.

One eye popped open and shot him an annoyed look, then closed again. "Yes, I'm sure. It just wasn't what I expected."

"Not what I expected either," the commander muttered, staring over the rail. The water was pitch black and unreadable, reflecting their lanterns and showing no sign of what was beneath the surface. His harpooners and dart-men were watching too, ready to fire at the faintest sign of movement. Not that it'll be a faint sign of movement if something that big comes up at us, he thought sourly.

"Ahoy, Whitetip!" a new voice called from the civilian ship, and he scowled.

"Get clear of the area before the damn thing decides to attack!" he roared back, furious as he realised the fools hadn't even begun to set sail again. "We've enough to do without trying to protect you as well!"

"I am Sir Uthmardanharknar dihna' Shirkanath, Champion of Torframos," the calm voice replied, and his head snapped up to stare across at the other ship. "With me is Sir Arwen Ewansson, also a Champion of Torframos, and fifty-five knights and lay brothers of the Order. The demon you have been tracking, sir, is not a threat to you."

Because you'll protect us? I doubt it. Morash snorted. "Ever fought aboard ship, Sir Champion?" he shouted. "It's a bit different to on land! I advise you to stand off and let us handle this!"

"I mean," the voice came back patiently, "he's not evil. He is travelling in company with us, and I vouch for him!"

There was a long pause as Commander Morash -- and, to be fair, every halfling on board both ships who'd heard Uthmar -- stared in disbelief.

"...You what?"

"I vouch for him," that irritatingly calm voice repeated. "He helped us destroy a temple of Sharna. Torframos himself regards him as an ally of the Order. He isn't going to attack you, sir."

"He's telling the truth," Adric said from behind Morash, and the commander spun around to stare at him instead.

"He's serious?!"

Adric shrugged. "He seems to be. At least, he believes he's telling the truth. Either what he says is true, or he's completely insane. Frankly, I'm not sure which is more likely."

"I'm not sure which option scares me more," Morash told him bluntly, and the mage snickered.

"Man overboard!"

They both jerked around at the splash and shout. The gap at the rail told the commander who, and the harpoon rope rapidly uncoiling as it ran overboard gave him a good idea of what had happened. Duroshan, he always leans out too far to try to get the first shot, he got distracted and slipped-- curse it, he's in full armour, if he can't get out of it and swim up himself there's nothing we can do--! One of the harpooner's teammates had dropped his own spear and grabbed for the rope, swearing as it burned his hands. He's tangled? We can pull him up!

The rope jerked once or twice as crewmen joined in to haul it up against the weight, then twitched and came up more easily as the tangled halfling slid free. The man who'd grabbed first swore again and dropped it, leaning over the rail to look for signs of Duroshan swimming back up. It was full dark now, and the lantern-light had been joined by the first faint glows of phosphorescence in the water, flickering wherever there was disturbance and outlining the ships' hulls. One long streak of fading blue light showed where Duroshan had gone down.

Deep down, the phosphorescence outlined a monstrous form as something moved.

----------

One of the warships' crewmen--

I see him. There was some sort of bioluminescent plankton in the waters, outlining the struggling figure in blue as it sank. Wufei activated Nataku's searchlight, setting it to a wide dispersed beam to illuminate as much of the area as possible, and reached out to catch the tiny figure with one metal hand as he nudged the control for the jets. Too hard and the surge of water as he rose would put the ships in danger; too gentle and the flailing halfling would drown on the way up.

Remembering the last time he'd carried someone to meet people who didn't know him yet, he curled Nataku's fingers protectively around the sailor as he broke surface. Nobody fired from the ship the sailor had fallen from, but a series of clangs and tings across the back of the Gundam's head and shoulders told him that one of the other ships was in range. Carefully, making sure not to lean on the rail and swamp or break the ship, he reached across and gently deposited the coughing man on deck in a puddle of faintly glowing water.

"I've got to stop meeting people like this," he said mildly, broadcasting through the external speakers.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Gunnar called from the Osprey, leaning casually on the rail and grinning at him. "It's a great way to break the ice."

* * * * *

"If you fall over, Heero's going to very obviously not say anything about it," Quatre said calmly, settling more comfortably into his chair.

"He would, wouldn't he?" Duo grinned, stopping his crutch-assisted one-legged pacing. "He's getting positively sneaky about not lecturing me."

"It works, doesn't it?"

"Hell yeah." Sighing, Duo swung across the hall and plunked down into the chair next to Quatre.

Silence reigned for approximately three seconds before Duo stood up again.

"They're taking an awfully long time in there."

"It's been less than five minutes! You were in there for twenty, and Relena managed to not fidget."

"Relena has secret politician ninja training for patience, or something. Princess Zen martial arts. I dunno, whatever it is I don't have it."

"I couldn't tell," Quatre said dryly.

"Ha freakin' ha. Seriously, Q, if he makes her cry again I'm siccing you on him for some major ass-beating. You're up for that, right?"

"...He's in traction."

"And you have a point? We're terrorists! We don't go in for fair fights! If we were doing the fair thing I'd do the ass-beating seeing as I've got one leg nearly tied behind my back, and he still wouldn't have a chance, so there's no point. You can stick your hands up and surrender in the cause of peace after you've bounced his head off the wall a few times."

"Duo..."

Zechs's voice was suddenly audible from within the room, cold and harsh. "There's nothing more to discuss. This is the best course of-- "

"Damnit Milliardo, get your head out of your ass and listen to me!" Relena shrieked. Halfway to the door, Duo nearly fell over.

"Wow," he said softly, eyes wide. "I didn't know 'Lena had it in her."

Quatre looked over at him, just as surprised. "Duo, you have successfully corrupted Relena Peacecraft. I'm not sure whether to unleash you on the rest of the system government, or keep you away from her for the rest of your life."

----------

Fifteen minutes later, Duo had his ear pressed to the door. Quatre had stopped trying to get him to sit down.

"Anything?"

"Nothing," Duo hissed, scowling. "It's way too quiet in there. She's not yelling at him any more."

"Allah be praised."

"Hey, the yelling sounded like it was working."

"Duo, she wasn't yelling, she was screaming. That's never good."

"So she needs some practice at voice modulation under stress," Duo shrugged. "The content was good. I especially liked when she brought up that promise he made back when they were kids, to always protect her."

"I would have caved in to her demands at that point," Quatre admitted.

"Yeah, but you're not emo."

"You have emo on the brain today."

"...I hear sniffling. I'm going in. Cover me."

Swinging one crutch up like an improvised club, Duo reached for the doorknob, but Quatre lunged and caught him by the back of his shirt before he could slam the door open. "This is not an assault on a fortified position, damn it, Duo!" he hissed.

"It'll become one if she's crying!" Duo hissed back. "--Fine, fine, we'll just peek, okay?!"

Easing the door open a crack, both teenagers leaned in, peering towards the bed. Quatre reacted first, tugging Duo back and silently closing the door.

"She's crying!" Duo hissed.

"So is he. Your work here is done," Quatre smiled.

"Eh... for now. I'll check back later to see if he needs any remedial ass-beating."

* * * * *

"How do you think it's going?"

Heero looked up from his laptop, mouth quirking slightly into a smile. "Zechs doesn't stand a chance."

"Of course not," Trowa agreed. "I was wondering more about the potential for grievous bodily harm, or property damage."

"Ah. Well. That depends on whether or not he capitulates before Relena cries. If it gets to that point, we may be required to retrieve Duo and Quatre from the police."

"No we won't. Quatre would post bail, assuming his lawyers let it get that far."

"I was picturing more of a dramatic chase across the rooftops, with Duo bounding one-legged across gaps and yelling insults," Heero mused. "You know that's still going to be his automatic reaction if anyone tries to arrest him."

"I gather in this scenario, we're hijacking a helicopter and coming to the rescue in proper dramatic fashion?"

"Do we really need a helicopter?" They were both grinning now. "We have Gundams, that's more than dramatic enough."

"Drop a rope ladder from Wing?"

"Wait, no, Wing can't hover at low altitude. You're right. It would have to be a helicopter."

"Boring. Deathscythe can hover, can't it?"

"As if Duo's going to let us fly his baby." Heero rolled his eyes. "Especially since he still hasn't had a chance to fix that knee joint. We'd get fewer complaints if we left him to his fate."

"Heh. True. So!" Trowa stretched, faint popping sounds coming from his back. "I've finished the mass-value-cost calculations on all the commodities Duo and Quatre identified as possible trade goods. I can't say which ones will be worth most over there, but I can say which ones will be easiest to transport. Plus, I have some nice charts showing their relative value in various mediaeval cultures."

"Right. I've got the mass calculations on the various spares we want to take done." Heero flipped through a pile of printouts, frowning. "I've also let Howard know we're likely to be stripping his stock, so he doesn't start getting rid of it under the assumption we don't need it any more."

"What's wrong?"

"Hopefully nothing," the Japanese pilot sighed, slapping the printouts down. "I won't know for sure until the Doctors can give us figures on how much mass they think they can safely blow out of the trouser leg with us, or whatever metaphor they're using for it today."

"Ah." Trowa's one visible eye sharpened. "You think we're packing too much?"

"No; when you're talking about spare parts and ammunition, there is no such thing as too much."

"Agreed!"

Heero grinned again at Trowa's fervent tone of voice, then sobered. "I do think that we're not going to be able to bring enough, though. It's not just the spares, it's the tools to work with them and the power systems to operate the tools -- field-hardened power systems and tools, that is, which usually at least doubles the mass -- and the powered winch systems you need to even move some of the spares, and the shielding, and... It would be simplest just to buy Howard's whole ship, really."

Trowa sat up straighter. "It adds up that much? I hadn't realised."

"Neither had I, really, until I started running the numbers," Heero admitted. "The sort of repairs we can do at a safehouse are pretty minimal; we carry the tools and spares for that on-board. That's nothing. The sort of repairs Howard can do are another matter. He has holds full of spares on that ship of his. As for the sort of repairs and modifications the Doctors can do, well... that needs a zero-g manufacturing facility. We may have to resign ourselves to the idea that the Gundams might not stay operational for more than, say, a year or two."

"Hm." Trowa frowned, fiddling with his own stack of printouts. "Well. I'd be lying if I said I was happy with the idea of losing Heavyarms... but I'd rather have all five of us together, there. It's not as if we can easily keep the Gundams if we stay here, anyway."

Heero grunted in agreement. "Hn. True. And I'd rather lose Wing in battle or to a component failure than see it blown up to keep a bunch of politicians happy."

"Good thing lack of luggage space wasn't going to make us cancel this trip under any circumstances, then, isn't it?"

* * * * *

Well. It looks like Wufei and those Champions have the situation fairly well in hand, Krashnark thought, finally sitting back from his scrying window. My little brother is probably having a tantrum, unless he's gotten over his initial snit about Wufei getting away and switched to having a panic attack over what I'm going to do to him. I'll let him stew for a while.

...So. Why in all of Krahana's hells is Orfressa talking to My-- to Wufei?! She doesn't take Champions, she doesn't communicate with mortals, she certainly doesn't communicate with my Father's pantheon -- I don't think she communicates with other members of Orr's pantheon much, either! Why is m-- Wufei important enough to her for her to speak?!

"...Orfressa?" he said tentatively, looking around his empty quarters.

//query?//

Even half expecting the response, Krashnark jumped.

//amusement//

"Ah. Pardon the intrusion. I, ah, hope I didn't disturb you."

//shrug//

He paused for a moment, carefully considering his next move. Orfressa was something of an unknown power, technically Light but... he'd never considered the possibility of her involvement in anything, much less his own affairs.

"May I ask what your interest is in My Champion?"

//AMUSEMENT!/denial//

Krashnark winced. "Sorry. What is your interest in Chang Wufei, my prospective Champion?"

//connection/kinship/need/love//

"...Why?!"

The emotions came slower this time, spaced out as if Orfressa was searching for terms he would understand. Each seemed to echo, as if he was perceiving faint shadows of the greater meaning behind the simple concepts that made it through to him.

//need// (//longing/desire/pain/emptiness//)

//comfort// (//truth/fulfilment//)

//kinship// (//affinity//)

//love// (//delight/amusement/joy/pride//)

He blinked, shaken. "That felt... almost maternal," he murmured, half to himself.

//...affirmation//

"Wha-- why are you telling me this? Aren't you afraid I'll tell my fa-- "

//HATRED!//

"--agh!" Krashnark almost cringed under the weight of it.

//apology/hatred!/apology//

"What could my father have ever done to you?!" he burst out, incredulous.

//diminishment/emptiness/pain/loss//

"...wait. The pain he caused you..."

//pain//

"...and the pain you need Wufei for..."

//pain//

"...they're the same?!"

//...affirmation.../...negation...//

"Yes and no?"

//affirmation/sadness/farewell//

"Wait, no, I need to ask-- " He sighed, somehow realising she had 'gone'. "Damn," he muttered, rubbing at his forehead. "I think now I know what mortals feel like when they talk to us..."

* * * * *

Feeling ancient pain as if it was fresh again, Orfressa reached out for comfort.

----------

"He's not going to leave," Relena said happily, smiling through her tears. Wordlessly, Quatre handed her yet another tissue.

"Once again, Shinigami kicks butt! Non-physically," Duo said triumphantly, "but still, there was ass-kicking."

"Verbal ass-kicking," Quatre confirmed, rolling his eyes. "Lots and lots of run-on, babbling, guilt-tripping verbal ass-kicking, with a little sexual harassment thrown in."

"And then 'Lena had her turn," Duo went on, pointedly ignoring Quatre. "Man, 'Lena, I've been joking about you being my padawan now, but that 'head outta your ass' comment was a beauty! Perfect delivery, perfect timing, and from what I could hear through the door you just kept going in a full-on frontal assault. Steamrollered him like a pro!"

"You heard that?!" Relena blushed, looking horrified. "I-- but-- "

"Well it's not like you were whispering, babe. You were kinda screaming at the time."

"I do not scream!" she shrieked. "I never scream! Ladies do not scream!"

"Okay, shrieking. Semantics. Whatever, it worked!"

"Children, children," Trowa murmured. "Can we keep it to a dull roar? Let's not bring the neighbours in to see if we're being murdered in broad daylight."

"I don't!" Relena hissed, down to nearly a whisper.

"Not on purpose you don't, maybe," Duo grinned at her.

Quatre sighed. "I know you've semi-adopted Relena as your sister, Duo, but that doesn't mean you have to play bratty little brother teasing his sis quite this well."

"Who's playing? This comes naturally! It's not like I-- "

Duo cut off, eyes glazing over, and Quatre gasped.

"Duo?" Heero grasped his shoulder, peering at his face, and shook him slightly. "Duo?!"

"It's her," Quatre whispered, hand pressed to his chest. "Orfressa."

----------

"-- 've had practice-- whoa! Okay, who is it this time?" Duo said, looking around at the misty void. "Orr? C'mon, I'm collecting god-contacts. Three more stamps on my card and I get a free cup of coffee!"

//sorrow//

"Orfressa? Hey, babe, what's wrong?"

//pain/loneliness//

"Aw, sweetie, I wish I could hug ya. Who upset you? Drag 'em in here, I'll kick their asses!"

//amusement/gratitude//

"You just want a chat?"

//affirmation//

"Cool. I always have time for you. 'Course, you seemed to fix things last time so it didn't take any time on my end, which makes it easier. You got anything in particular you want to talk about, or did you just want me to ramble?"

//comfort/amusement//

"That sounds like 'ramble' to me. Okay babe, I'm all yours. Wh-- "

//LOVE!//

"--whoa!" Duo staggered. " 'Fress, hon, what brought that on? Uh... you love me?"

//affirmation/pride/joy/approval/love!//

"...Wow. Um. I wish I knew what I did that made you feel that way hon, I'd do it more."

//possessiveness//

"...the 'I'm all yours' bit? Oh. Heh. Quick check, are we talking 'I love him and want him to be happy' possessiveness, or are we getting into 'love him and squeeze him and subjugate him to my every whim and call him George' territory?" Duo said, a little nervously.

//amusement/love/happiness//

"Right. Good. Option one."

//affirmation//

"Phew. You didn't seem like the call-him-George type, hon, but Heero and Quatre are twitchy, and given that Wufei's developed a stalker over there I wanted to make sure."

//amusement!//

"You've been watching that?"

//affirmation/amusement//

"So Wufei's all right? Everything's okay with him?"

//affirmation/reassurance//

"Aw man, that's a relief. I'm glad you're keeping an eye on him, thanks for that. So... this Krashnark guy. Is he gonna be a problem? 'Cause if he is, I'm gonna have to get Heero to kick the Doctors into gear and get us over there faster."

//...delight!/query?//

"Oh, yeah, we hadn't decided last time you visited. We think we can get over there, part way at least. We're working on it. Actually, can you help out a bit, or would it be out of your territory?"

//query?//

"You know about how Krashy pulled me and Wufei into the same dream, so we could talk?"

//amusement/affirmation//

"Can you do that too?"

//affirmation!//

"Awesome!" Duo grinned. "See, we figured that if we can get to where Wufei was pulled-- summoned-- out of, then maybe he can duplicate what brought him the rest of the way for us. Only he can't do that unless we can get the message to him that he should. Do you think it'll work?"

//...affirmation...//

"Uh-oh. You're feeling tentative again. I've got that kind of right?"

//affirmation//

"So... he can't do exactly the same thing, but he can do something that will work?"

//affirmation!//

"Cool. Is he going to be able to find out what will work?"

//affirmation//

"'Fress, hon, you are fantastic. I hope people tell you that all the time, 'cause you are, babe."

//delight//

"Hey, sorry to sidetrack this into our problems, hon. You feeling a bit better?" Duo settled into a relaxed midair slouch, smiling upwards.

//affirmation/gratitude//

"Like I said, anytime. Well, maybe not when I'm driving. Or piloting. Or going down stairs. That could end painfully. Um." Duo's eyebrows quirked as he considered that. "Can you tell what I'm doing before you yoink me in here? And, you know, not yoink if I'm in the wrong situation?"

//affirmation/reassurance//

"Phew, again. So-- hey. That... hm. There's a possibility. Given that you can tell what I'm doing when you're not actually talking to me, can I call you? I mean, will you hear me if I'm sitting somewhere going 'Duo to Orfressa, come in Orfressa'?"

//...consideration.../affirmation//

"Really?!"

//affirmation//

"This is so cool!" Duo sprang up, practically dancing in nothingness. "'Fress, hon, this is perfect! We can tell Wufei what to expect and actually coordinate with him, that was all we were missing! Seriously, babe, I could kiss you, and I don't even like girls that way!"

//welcome/delight//

"Okay, okay," Duo muttered, thinking furiously. "Man, this is awesome... okay, Krashy said it was taking a lot of energy for him to do the dream thing, so we need to keep it short and not do it until we've got actual details to tell Wufei. That'll take a while." No hurry, then, he continued privately to himself. So, no, I will not run out on talking with 'Fress just because I want to do something about this now now now!

"So!" he continued, stretching his arms out and looking around. "Back to rambling, as requested. I kicked ass today, hon, wanna hear about it?"

----------

"This is taking longer than the last time," Heero muttered, watching Duo's blank face.

"It feels like a very active conversation," Quatre told him, still rubbing his chest. "Duo feels excited and happy, mostly, so I don't think we need to worry-- "

"--whuuurr. Um. Where was I?" Duo said, abruptly blinking back to awareness.

"Away with the fairies?" Trowa suggested.

"Ah. Heh." Duo looked around the table at everyone staring back at him. "I gather she didn't make it instantaneous on this end this time?"

"Eighteen seconds," Heero told him, hands slowly unclenching from fists. "Welcome back."

"Ha, thanks." Duo grinned at him; the grin faded a little as he took in Heero's tense, closed expression, and he reached out under the table, capturing one of Heero's hands and rubbing his thumb comfortingly over the knuckles. "Sorry if I worried you guys, but I do have good news."

"...Could I have an explanation before we get to the news?" Relena asked plaintively, eyes wide. "Because I have no idea what just happened, but obviously you all do. Is this something to do with, um, Wufei and the alternate dimension you were talking about when Duo was in hospital?"

Explanations didn't take long, but acceptance was another matter; when the pilots had finished talking, Relena just sat and stared at them. Eyeing her expression, Duo snickered and nudged Heero. "You see why I didn't want to tell you guys everything the first time? You would've looked at me like that."

"I think I did look at you like that," Heero muttered. "You just didn't notice because it was dark."

"Duo, that's... this is..." Relena fumbled for words. "A goddess? That's just... but Quatre agrees... I don't..." She waved her hands helplessly. "I'm not saying you'd lie to me, and I can't think of any reason why you'd all cooperate in a joke like this, but-- why are you all so calm? Honestly! Even if you immediately accept that this is real, and I still don't see why you would, how are you not, not, I don't know, having hysterics on the floor?!"

Duo shrugged. "Because I don't do hysterics? Heero definitely doesn't do hysterics."

"You are still being perfectly matter-of-fact about talking to a goddess! Even if you don't 'do' hysterics, you have something you do when you're having trouble accepting a situation! Don't you find it just a little bit odd?!"

"I kind of got over that part during the talk with Wufei, I think." Duo shrugged again. "I dunno, it's just... when I got to talk to Wufei first of all I wanted it to be real, and then he had a logical argument for why it had to be real. Talking with 'Fress-- Orfressa-- though, it's like... I dunno! She just feels right or something. I trust her."

Quatre nodded. "I trust my empathy; if I didn't, I'd be the one in hysterics whenever I got 'feelings' from someone. And Duo's right, Orfressa feels very... emotionally solid, I guess. Trustworthy. There's nothing false or deceptive in what I get when Duo's talking to her."

Trowa smiled. "I trust Quatre."

"I trust Duo," Heero agreed. "I was a bit dubious the first time he talked to me about this, but the closest I came to not trusting him was thinking maybe he'd had a convincing dream and wanted to believe it. Now? If he told me the sky had turned pink, I'd at least check."

Duo snickered, grinning. "If the sky turned pink, I'd ask you how you did it, Pretty," he told Relena. "Do you get where we're coming from now?"

"No," she said frankly, "but given that I'm not the one having little impromptu coffee breaks with a goddess, I don't think I have to. I do understand that the four of you are serious about this, even if I still think you're all crazy to accept it this easily even if it is all true!"

"We're not just accepting it, hon," Duo told her gently. "We're going to act on it. I wasn't going to tell you until we were sure one way or another, but-- well, like I said, I have news. It looks like we can go there."

"...Go?" Relena repeated dumbly. "To another universe?"

"Yeah. We ought to be able to do some good over there, and, well... we don't exactly fit in here any more, do we? Not with Gundams and terrorist skills and all. The war's over. We aren't needed here any more."

"But I need you!" she wailed, and burst into tears.

* * * * *

"Mathel? Do they fit?"

"Well enough for now," the hradani girl said, opening the door to the little chamber that seemed to have become hers. "I can alter them."

"Oh. Good," Akar said, stepping back.

Mathel folded her hands in front of her and looked up at him. He's so careful not to crowd me, she thought, and hid a smile. All the hradani who'd witnessed her near-sacrifice were wincingly careful around her, trying not to scare or even touch her. Now that she'd had time to take in her new status as 'the girl rescued by a god', it was rather amusing.

"How's, er, how are you healing?"

"Fine," she told him, raising her eyebrows. Just like I was this morning, the last time you asked. "Was there something else you wanted?" She was still bandaged underneath the loose dress Akar had brought her, somebody's daughter's cast-off, but the shallow cuts had closed and were itching as they healed.

The brand-new priest of Krashnark fidgeted uncomfortably, glancing upwards as if seeking inspiration. "You, ah... do you want to go home? You can, you know, we've no wish to keep you prisoner or-- "

"No!" Mathel snapped, ears pinned back, then took a deep breath and forced them to lift a little. "No," she repeated, "I've no wish to go home. No home to go to, truth be told."

"Oh. I'm sorry."

"What for? It's no fault of yours," she said wryly. He was looking rather like a boy about to cry, she decided, and relented. "My parents are dead," she told him, making a throwaway gesture with one hand. "About a year ago now. Churnazh and Harnak had borrowed money from my father, but of course that all got forgotten when he died, and without it I couldn't keep our house... even if I'd been allowed to. They 'kindly'," her voice soured, "allowed me to work in the palace."

"...Oh."

"Yes. 'Oh'. I've been dodging three of Black Churnazh's sons all year, them and their friends, and I wouldn't have managed it if I'd been prettier. So, no, I don't have anywhere to go back to even if I wanted to, which I don't. For one thing, I've been missing for four days, and that alone would get me whipped or thrown out. For another," she swallowed, "it was two of Prince Chalak's guardsmen who kidnapped me and sold me to that priest. Whether he knows about it or not, they wouldn't be happy to see me back and able to talk."

Akar scratched one ear, abruptly scowling. "Huh. I'm tempted to say Chalak Rottenbrain can't know, because if he did he'd never be able to keep the secret, but you're right; it doesn't really matter one way or another. Well enough. You're welcome to stay here, then, if you'd like, and not as a servant either. If you're willing, Himself said as how he might have a job for you, and if not, well, we'll find you a good place. Get you out of Navahk and out to one of the other Bloody Sword cities if you'd rather."

"Thank you," Mathel said, swallowing again as relief made her knees feel weak. "I'd... I'd like to stay here. I do have a few friends, and I owe a debt; if Krashnark has something for me to do, I'll at least hear him out."

=*Thank you,*= a deep, rich voice said out of thin air. Mathel and Akar both jerked, eyes wide and ears going flat. =*Sorry. I'd warn you before speaking,*= Krashnark went on dryly, =*but I think whatever I did to warn you would be just as much of a surprise.*=

"Probably," Akar agreed, taking a deep breath and rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Hopefully I'll get used to it eventually. Hello again, Lord."

Krashnark chuckled. =*Judging by how blas!" certain other people have become about my appearances, I'd say you will. Mathel, thank you for staying. I need a messenger, if you're willing...*=

----------

"We'll start with Yurgazh," Akar had said. He's as close as you'll get to a trustworthy man in the Guard, and from what I hear he's no lover of Black Churnazh."

Hurrying through Navahk's darkened streets in the middle of the night, Mathel found that those words weren't as reassuring in her memory as they'd sounded at the time. If he doesn't like Churnazh, why is he a Captain?' a little voice at the back of her head asked.

Because he's the closest thing Navahk has to a war hero, Mathel answered, tugging the hood of her cloak down further as she passed one of the few lit torches. Churnazh had to either promote him or lose half the mercenaries that joined his army.

'He's stayed a Captain,' the voice pointed out. Sounds like he's happy here.'

Or he's got nowhere else to go. I stayed in the damn palace kitchens for a year, didn't I? I'd still be there if I hadn't been kidnapped, and it wasn't for love of the job. Mathel snorted quietly to herself at the thought, and the doubting voice fell silent as she reached her goal.

Captain Yurgazh turned out to be slightly shorter than normal for a Bloody Sword hradani, only a few inches over six feet tall and not heavily built either. His eyes were intelligent, though, and his gear well-kept, something that wasn't normal for the City Guard. One eyebrow quirked when a cloaked, soft-spoken woman asked to see him alone, but he bowed politely -- with real courtesy, not the mocking pretence some of Churnazh's followers used -- and waved her into his tiny office in the gatehouse, closing the door firmly between them and his bored subordinates.

"If you want genuine privacy, lady, I suggest you whisper," he said wryly, pushing a stool forward for her and leaning against the corner of his rickety desk. "There are enough chinks in the walls for a howling blizzard to waft straight in here in winter."

"That shouldn't be necessary, Captain," Mathel said, one hand coming up to close over a small, angular object under her dress as she dropped her hood. She didn't think Please let this work! was exactly what Krashnark had meant when he told her the pendant only needed 'directed prayer' to do its job, but the sudden disappearance of the little noises from the next room told her it had served well enough.

Yurgazh noticed the silence, too, and straightened up, eyes narrowing. One hand slid to his swordhilt, but he didn't draw... yet.

"I've come to see you because I hear you're an honourable man, Captain," she told him, sitting down and hoping she looked calmer than she felt. He might in fact be an honourable man and all that, but that might just mean he would kill her quickly if he decided she was dangerous.

"I like to think so," he said slowly.

"Also a smart one," she went on. "Which means you can see what Prince Churnazh and his sons are doing to this city."

His eyes narrowed again. "You called me 'honourable' first," he pointed out. "I swore allegiance to Churnazh, and I'm not about to talk treason just because a mysterious girl flatters me."

"Even if he and his sons are meddling with Sharna?"

Yurgazh's hand tightened on his hilt. "That's a very serious accusation," he said grimly. "I hope, for your sake, that you have some sort of proof if you want to pursue this."

"Not at hand, but it can be provided." Mathel lifted her chin, meeting his eyes defiantly. "Black Churnazh and his sons are headed straight for Krahana's deepest hells, and they'll take half the city or more with them if they aren't stopped."

"And that's where you come in," he said sarcastically. "Let me guess; one of the old families has had enough, and their lord is drumming up support for when he tries to take the throne?"

She shook her head, reaching into the neckline of her dress. "Not a lord, no. Gods are moving, and we hradani aren't going to be let alone the way we have for the last thousand years and more. So if we've got to pick a side-- " Her hand pulled out a thin chain, and a pendant dropped to dangle, sparkling in the lamplight. "--let's make it one that understands us, and honour."

Ebony and gold shone, a stylised flame surrounding the black steward's rod; Krashnark's symbol.

[chap. 35] [chap. 37] [back to Mel and Christy's fic]