AUTHORS: Mel and Christy, Pillaging Onnas Incorporated
WARNINGS: Yaoi, angst, sap, language, some OOC, AU...
PAIRINGS: 1x2, 3x4, 5x?
DISCLAIMER: 'Gundam Wing' and the 'Oath of Swords' series, along with their characters, are not ours. Despite our recent pillaging successes, we aren't that good.
FEEDBACK: The more, the merrier!
APOLOGY: We have no pictures of Shinee to attach, sorry. (You'll work out what we mean.)

NOTE: Mineshaft is a real store! Go to http://mineshaft.com.au/ and prepare to drool.

Demon of Justice + Chapter 39
They tell me you get used to it

"Wanna bet?" Duo asked, eyes sparkling dangerously.

Doctor Modi sighed. "Mister Maxwell--"

"C'mon, Doc, you were calling me Duo before the op!"

"Very well. Duo. When I told you that most patients do not manage to re-bend their knee on the first try, I did not mean that as a challenge," the doctor said, looking sternly at him over his glasses. "I told you in the hope that you would not feel bad if you do not succeed today. I am also not going to bet that you cannot, as I am quite sure you would do whatever it took to win the bet, up to and including ripping the carbon fibre I implanted in your knee away from the fuse points and having to start all over again."

"You know him so well," Heero muttered under his breath.

"The only reason I am allowing you to try today, instead of telling you to go home and come back in three or four days, is because the incision has healed remarkably well," the doctor continued, showing no sign of having heard Heero. "Hopefully the inside of your knee is similarly advanced in healing. However! I want you to promise me that if your knee starts to hurt too much as you bend it, you will stop."

Duo grinned. "Whatcha gonna do if I don't promise?"

"Relock your brace," Modi grinned back, "and possibly call in Maintenance to weld it shut. By the time you manage to get loose, your knee should have healed enough to take a little abuse."

Duo laughed out loud, and Heero relaxed as he saw that the dangerous glitter in his eyes had softened to genuine amusement. "Oh man, that's low, Doc! And I bet Heero wouldn't help me get out of it either."

"I'd be terrified of doing something wrong and hurting you," Heero said truthfully.

"Okay, okay, I'll be good," Duo sighed. "Just one more question. What's your definition of hurting 'too much'? 'Cause I think my level of 'too much' is higher than yours."

"Considering your opinion of painkillers that you expressed so -- ah -- fluently a week ago, I'm quite sure it is," Modi agreed. "You should experience the sort of pain you would feel from an overworked muscle, an ache rather than a sharp pain. If you feel a stabbing sensation, or any sudden increase in the amount of pain, stop."

"Yes Doc sir," Duo said, saluting. "Let's get this show on the road!"

"Very well," the doctor nodded, moving to start unlatching the brace. "Bear in mind that if you do manage to damage your knee further, I will tell Doctor Po and let her deal with you."

"Ooooh, now that's a scary thought."

Dr Modi handed the brace to Heero, still supporting Duo's ankle with one hand, then slowly let go. "Carefully now..."

Duo frowned, concentrating. "Okay, here we go." Slowly, he bent his knee a few degrees. "Nothing bad so far," he muttered, pushing a little further.

"You are not just ignoring the pain?" Modi asked, raising an eyebrow, and Duo snorted.

"I said I'd be good, Doc," he said, pausing for a moment to mock-glare. "It feels like I pulled a couple of muscles in there, sure, but nothing too serious. Maybe sitting in the spa with the jets on every day helped?"

"I suppose that is possible. Do continue, then."

Slowly, still frowning, Duo bent his knee until it reached the full ninety degrees. "Awright! And I didn't even cheat," he laughed, looking up to grin at Heero.

"Nice," Heero smiled back, unobtrusively ticking off a mental checklist of 'Signs Duo Is Hiding Something'. His colour's fine, his eyes are steady, that's a real grin not a forced one, his hands are relaxed... hm. It really didn't hurt that much.

"I must say that I am impressed, Duo," Modi told him, smiling. "Now, I will adjust the brace so that it allows a little movement, but you do still need to use the crutches--"

"--if I'm moving more than a few steps, for three months or so, until I've done enough therapy to switch to a lighter brace, yeah? I was listening when you explained all that, Doc," Duo said cheerfully. "I've been good this long, I can survive being good some more."

"My goodness." The doctor blinked behind his glasses, looking genuinely startled. "Mister Maxwell -- Duo -- I can truthfully say that although very few of my patients manage to re-bend their knee on the first try, even fewer actually remember the instructions for more than five minutes."

"Har har."

As Modi bent over the brace, adjusting the joint at the knee, Duo frowned again. "Um... Doc, speaking of instructions..."

"Yes?"

"...We might end up moving in a couple of months," Duo told him slowly, glancing in Heero's direction. "I'm gonna need to do physiotherapy for four or five months, right?"

"Approximately that, yes. I can give you a referral to a therapist near your new home if necessary," Modi said, still concentrating on the brace.

"Yeah, we might end up kind of out in the boondocks. Nowhere near a town, let alone a hospital. Any chance I can get written instructions so I can finish the therapy myself?"

That brought Modi's head up to stare at him. "...I would be much happier if you were under the supervision of a properly qualified doctor," he said eventually. "Can Doctor Po not make, ah, house calls?"

"Proooobably not."

"We're likely to be completely out of contact for a long time," Heero put in bluntly. 'Forever' is 'a long time', after all... "Duo will need to be able to do exercises and so on by himself."

The long-haired pilot shot him a grateful look. "Yeah, what he said. If I get detailed instructions I promise to follow them and everything, honest."

"...I see," Modi said eventually, not sounding completely convinced. "I will speak to your therapist, and Doctor Po, and we shall see what we can do, hm?"

----------

"Do you want to go straight back and gloat, or can we do an errand on the way home?" Heero asked, holding the car door open for Duo to negotiate his way into the seat.

"Depends. Is it a fun errand?"

"Gem buying."

"Yeah, that's fun!" Duo told him, buckling up. "Where to?"

"Mineshaft," Heero told him, checking a list with the first four or five entries ticked off. "They apparently do some good deals on loose stones, opals, garnets, that sort of stuff."

"Ooh, definitely fun! Is that one of Q's contacts?"

"Trowa's, actually," Heero shrugged, sliding the list back into his pocket and starting the car. "I've been saving this one for today because it's near the hospital."

"Sorry I haven't been able to help much," Duo said, a little sheepishly. "We've got a ton of stuff to do before I can even get 'Fress to put me in touch with Wufei..."

Heero shot him a wry sideways glance. "You and Quatre have been doing all the planning, Duo -- and besides, we only have one car at the moment. Even if you could take a turn out buying supplies, it wouldn't speed things up at all."

"I still feel kinda lazy sitting on my ass."

"You're also better than me at finding bargains online. I wouldn't have spotted that wholesale bead website as a good option. Exactly how many thousand pearls and garnets did you get?"

"Okay, okay, you win, I'm helping," Duo grinned.

* * * * *

Wufei yawned, stretched as far as he could in the limited space available, and then finished getting dressed after the sketchy wash he could manage with a rag and a cupful of water.

Space missions were good practice for spending ten days underwater, I suppose, he thought, wrinkling his nose at his dirty clothes and stuffing them into a storage bin. At least I'm not stuck in an atmosphere suit! I'll have to do a full purge of the environmental system as soon as we arrive at Belhadan to get things smelling clean again, though.

=*Good morning, Wufei,*= Krashnark's voice said out of thin air. =*Did you sleep well?*=

"Good morning, Krashnark," he said politely, glancing upwards. "Reasonably well, yes, though I'm looking forward to a night in a real bed." A mental 'nudge' at Nataku's controls sent the Gundam into motion, following the Osprey north, and he reached for another storage cabinet. "And actual cooked food," he added wryly, pulling out a ration bar and one of his dwindling supply of citrus fruits. The little green not-quite-grapefruit were keeping well, and Wufei made a mental note to save one to show Uthmar. Since I don't know what they're called, I can't just ask for them by name...

=*Belhadan has all the comforts a city can provide,*= Krashnark chuckled, =*and I'm sure my uncle Torframos's chapter house is-- what are you doing?!*=

Wufei blinked and nearly dropped his meal, startled by the sudden panicked yelp. "Ah... having breakfast?"

=*Where did you get that fruit?! It's mindanwe! Wufei, that's poisonous!*=

"...Krashnark, I've been eating these for four days," he said slowly. "Exactly how poisonous are they?"

=*...*=

"Krashnark?"

=*...Deadly,*= the god said in a rather dazed voice. =*You should have collapsed while the first bite was still in your mouth.*=

"Oh," Wufei said, eyes wide. "Um. That's... very poisonous, yes."

=*Given that you're fine, they must not be poisonous to you,*= Krashnark told him, recovering some of his usual poise. =*Normally, everything about the plant is poisonous, to the point where even picking the leaves is dangerous. The sap is used as an assassin's weapon.*=

"Well. That's one advantage to technically being a 'demon' that I hadn't expected." Eyeing the fruit a little warily, Wufei balanced it on one of Nataku's control panels and unwrapped his ration bar, taking a bite and chewing as he thought. "That might explain the little group of trees where I got these," he said eventually. "They were out in the middle of nowhere, and someone had cut into the bark and then scraped up some sap. I only found them because I could smell it."

=*That would have been in the Shipwood, yes?*= Krashnark's voice soured a little. =*Sharna has quite a presence among the Purple Lords, and his dog brothers use mindanwe. It doesn't grow well further north, and usually gets ripped up and burned whenever it's found.*=

"That must be a dangerous undertaking," Wufei said dryly.

=*Oh, yes. Farmers usually tie ropes around it, drag it out of the ground with a team of horses, and then burn it ropes and all. Not on a windy day, obviously.*=

"Ugh. You know, this is actually rather worrying."

=*How so?*=

Wufei grimaced. "If I can happily eat something that's deadly poison to people from this world, what if it goes the other way? Is there something they eat that's deadly poison to me?"

=*...I certainly hope not.*=

* * * * *

"Can I help you with that?"

Rami looked up from the well to see the blond guardsman smiling hopefully; after a moment she smiled back, and nodded. "If you don't mind?"

He took her place at the windlass and started cranking, hauling the full well bucket upwards. "My name's Kairic," he said politely. "I believe we met about three five-days ago, though I didn't exactly get a chance to be introduced..."

"You were a little busy," she told him, looking back down modestly. "My name's Rami. Is it true, what I heard? Lord Yithar's gone mad?"

"I don't know if he's mad, exactly," Kairic said, grimacing. The hook reached the lip of the well and he set the brake, then reached over to swing the bucket closer to her. "He's gone over to the Dark Gods, that's for sure."

She shivered theatrically, emptying the well bucket into one of her own, bigger buckets, then passed it back, looking up at him through her eyelashes. "You must be very brave, getting away and bringing warning like you did."

He blushed slightly, ducking his head as he sent the rope down again. "Not really; I was just running," he shrugged. "It was pure luck that I reached here and found someone official to tell."

"Good luck for us, then!" Rami smiled at him again, noting his reaction with a certain amount of smugness. "You've been talking to the Sisterhood mostly, haven't you? Aren't they wonderful?"

"And a little scary," he confessed. "I nearly w-- er-- jumped out of my skin when they came up behind me yesterday."

"Oh yes, that was Dame Kaeritha's patrol, wasn't it?" Rami giggled. "She's very nice."

"The, um, scarred lady knight?" Kairic looked uncomfortable. "Er... nice? Really?"

"Of course! She's been here for nearly ten days, you know, so we've had time to get to know her. You'll see. --Thank you, that's plenty of water," Rami added, sliding the yoke onto her shoulders and hooking the buckets onto it.

"Can I carry that for-- ah," he trailed off as she stood up effortlessly. "I guess not."

"I can handle this just fine," she told him airily, inwardly stifling another giggle. "You can open the gate for me if you like, though."

"Certainly," he told her, smile recovering.

"That one there," she told him, nodding towards the low fence surrounding her mother's kitchen garden. And then I can ask you in for tea, she thought, watching him hurry ahead, and I don't think you'll refuse... then it'll be time for Papa and the others to come in for lunch, and I can invite you to stay for that. And then we'll see, she mused.

* * * * *

"Hello Iria," Quatre said, smiling at his oldest sister's image on the screen. "How have you been?"

Well, thank you, > > she said with a subdued smile. < < And y

"Quite well. I'm enjoying a little peace and quiet," he laughed, carefully not glancing sideways at the diminishing piles of handwritten notes on the dining table. Relative peace and quiet, at least, compared to the last couple of years!

Ah. > > Iria's smile thinned. < < That's ni

Quatre frowned slightly, studying her expression. "Iria? What's wrong?"

Nothing. >

"Really?" Quatre raised one eyebrow at her. "When you start using your business poker face on me, something's wrong -- even if it's just that I've called right when you were hoping for a nap," he added. "What is it?"

...You're far too perceptive sometimes, > > she sighed, relaxing. < < Are you coming home soon, broth

"No, I'm not," he said apologetically. "That's actually what I was calling about... why?"

You are the heir, Quatre. Winner Enterprises needs you. >

He snorted indelicately, getting a startled blink in return. "Winner Enterprises has you, Iria, and the rest of our sisters. It doesn't need a seventeen-year-old CEO who hasn't been involved in the business for over two years!"

Be that as it may, > > she said dryly, < < you are still the he

"Because I'm the only male," Quatre said, rolling his eyes. "Sharing a Y chromosome with our father did not miraculously give me the divine right to rule."

Try telling that to every single business contact we have on L4, brother, > > Iria said, voice completely flat, < < and all the non-family board members. Please. I've been pretending to pass on your decisions ever since Father died, but it's getting to the point where they won't take my word for it any more. You need to come ho

Quatre sat back in his chair, staring at the screen. "...You really mean that," he said finally. "Are you honestly telling me that they'll take an inexperienced teenager more seriously than you, the person who was Father's publicly acknowledged second-in-command for nearly twenty years?!"

Oh, they won't take you seriously, > > Iria told him, smiling bitterly. < < Several of our competitors are positively drooling at the thought of taking you on; but as long as you exist, they won't take me at a

"They're insane."

They're traditional. They would be quite happy to deal with and even respect me if you didn't exist, but the moment a male heir comes of age all his female relatives lose their business acumen, > > she said scathingly. < < It's written in the Koran somewhere, I'm su

"My copy must be missing that page," he murmured, then shook his head. "Well. What if I signed my interest in the business over to you and then vanished?"

...I beg your pardon? >

"I was originally calling you to discuss coming back... or not coming back, to be precise," Quatre said calmly, leaning his chin on his folded hands. "You know what I've -- we've -- been doing for the last two years, Iria. So do quite a few other people, and the word is going to spread. Do you think I'd be left alone if I came home and took over from you?"

She cocked her head slightly to one side, considering. < < No, probably no

"Definitely not," he agreed. "The Winner fortune and political power could shelter me from quite a bit, but that same fortune and power would make certain people wonder what someone with my background might do with them; and then there's my friends. I won't abandon them."

It wouldn't be at all in character for you, no, > > Iria said, showing her first genuine smile of the conversation. < < How is Trowa, by the w

Quatre coughed, blushing slightly. "Very well, thank you. Well. We're planning to pull a rather extreme vanishing trick; possibly one that includes faking our deaths," he added, remembering the huge explosion that had accompanied Wufei's disappearance out of the world. "So. If I were missing, probably believed dead, and you had all the legal paperwork necessary to show that I had handed full control over Winner Enterprises back to you... would that work?"

...Yes, > > she told him, almost visibly working her way through all the ramifications. < < Yes, that would work very well. Quatre... if you do this, you won't be able to stay in touch, will y

"No," he told her sadly. "Not at all, but I really do think it's the only way we're going to be able to live anything close to a normal life." In a different dimension, he added to himself. Talk about taking extreme measures!

I'll miss you, > > she said softly. < < We all will, but if you'll be happy, then... it sounds like the right thing to

"Excellent," he said, and she sat up straight as he smiled like a happy shark. "Now, let's discuss exactly what you're going to pay me for my share of the company, hmmmm?"

* * * * *

"We've gotta tell Trowa how well that contact of his turned out," Duo gloated, peering inside one of the white bags that filled the footwell in front of his seat. "That place was the motherlode."

"I'm surprised you didn't want to get more of the carvings," Heero said, glancing over. "Some of them were really impressive."

"Yeah, they were, but that sort of thing's hard to sell fast. The ones we got will make great presents if we ever need to not-quite-bribe someone rich and powerful, but we're mostly getting things we can sell if we need funds, right? Or even trade directly for goods without swapping them for cash first. Smaller, simpler things work better for that."

Heero shrugged, eyes back on the road. "You'd know better than me. I mostly used cash, Krugerrands, and electronic funds when I needed to buy something -- or Doctor J bought it, and had Howard get it to me."

"Nice anonymous gems are less traceable if you're dealing with some of the shadier traders," Duo grinned. "Or mercenaries. Plus, you can carry them with you, don't need an ATM to cash them in, and the government can't stop you spending them by freezing your accounts. Study well, Grasshopper, and you too may reach financial enlightenment!"

"I bow to the wisdom of the master," Heero snickered. "At least I was already sufficiently enlightened to stand back and let you empty out half their display cases."

"Damn straight!"

"What I really want to know is how you got what looks like several kilos of loose gemstones and jewellery so cheaply. Did you talk them into a bulk discount, or did they just forget to add half of it up?" Heero asked, half-seriously. Duo looked at him quizzically.

"You really were standing back, weren't you? I bet you didn't hear half of what we were talking about, either."

The dark-haired pilot looked a little embarrassed. "I was, er, enjoying watching you," he confessed. "You seemed to be having fun."

"Aheh. I was," Duo said, then coughed. "Anyway. If you'd been listening, I bet you wouldn't have recognised half the names of the gems I bought."

"I'm not that oblivious!" Heero protested. "Just because I never used them as currency--"

"Bronzeite? Unakite? Dendritic quartz? Lodestone? Chrome diopside? Larimar? Labradorite? Maw-sit-sit?"

"--okay, is that last one even a real name, or did you make it up?"

"It's a rich green stone mottled with black, made up of a blend of chromeite and jadeite," Duo told him smugly.

"You win."

Licking one finger, Duo made an imaginary mark in midair. "One to me! Seriously though, I trawled a bunch of gemmology websites while Quatre and I were deciding the most cost-effective trade items to bring along," he admitted, relenting. "Five days ago I wouldn't have known half of those names either. The point is, they're all fairly cheap semi-precious stones, but because they're pretty and well cut they'll be worth more than diamonds and rubies in a society that can only polish cabochons."

"...Cabo-what?" Heero asked plaintively.

"Smooth oval stones without facets. Nice enough if that's all you have the tools to do, but they don't sparkle. --Unless they're opals. Opals sparkle no matter what shape they are," Duo added.

"That settles it," Heero told him, turning into the driveway of their safehouse and putting the car into park. "I'm going back to the shops I already visited, and taking you with me this time. I didn't know enough about what I was looking for, but with you along we'll be able to clean them out."

* * * * *

Holderman whistled, a low surprised tone instead of one of the signal whistles that could cut through a gale. "If we were out at sea, I think we'd be running for shelter about now. Is that anything we're going to need to worry about?"

"Shouldn't be," Kelov said, staring eastwards with a worried look on his face. "We'll be tied up at Derm well before the river rises and the docks are built in a sheltered inlet, but you're right; if we were any further away from a safe mooring I'd be damn worried." He paused, eyeing the lowering clouds, and went on in a quieter voice. "I've never seen a storm look quite like that."

To the east and north-east, the distant escarpment that was the western edge of the Wind Plain was invisible behind roiling black clouds and grey sheets of rain. They were moving oddly, a slow clockwise swirl that seemed perpetually on the verge of spreading out but never did.

"So that's not normal for the area?" Evark asked sharply.

"You get plenty of storms over in that area all right," the dwarf pilot told him. "When you get a damp wind blowing up over the edge of the Wind Plain it can form ribbons of cloud that run up the cliff like a waterfall going backwards, and if there's rain or snow anywhere you can guarantee some is going to fall there. That storm's closer, though, and normally I'd expect it to be moving away from us with the prevailing winds. It blew up out of nowhere and it's just sitting there, and frankly I don't like the look of it."

Evark and Holderman exchanged wary glances. "Aye, well, like you said we'll be snug at Derm before anything reaches us," Evark said eventually, giving Holderman a half-shrug and a grimace that said we can't talk in front of him clearer than words.

"Aye," Kelov agreed, still worried. "This message you're delivering, is it to Baroness Ernos?"

"No."

"Someone in Derm?"

"I'm thinking you don't need to know," the halfling captain said calmly, looking up at the dwarf with one eyebrow raised. "Meaning no insult and all, but you're better off not getting any more mixed into this than you are already."

"It's just that if you need to keep travelling, that storm's going to ruin all the roads hereabout if it moves any closer," Kelov shrugged. "Not to mention that if you're heading to Moretz or Esgfalas," he went on, naming the nearest two human baronies, "you'll need to cross at least two fords, and they aren't going to be passable for days."

Evark grimaced again. "Let's just get to Derm first, shall we? Time enough to worry about moving on then."

True to his word, Kelov brought them in to the docks at Derm less than a candlemark later. As the Wind Dancer coasted smoothly through the calm inlet, all sails furled and manoeuvring purely on momentum, her low hull and rakish lines drew curious glances from dockworkers and sailors alike. It was a fair bet, Holderman thought, snickering under his breath at the blatant double-take a man in a tiny rowboat had just done, that no Marfanger ship had ever been this far up the river before.

"You can tie up there," Kelov told Evark, pointing out a clear berth. "There's no dock fee; Baroness Ernos figures she makes enough in trade taxes without one, and it encourages return business."

"Not something we need to worry about right now," Evark muttered under his breath, turning the wheel with care. His crew were hanging fenders along the ship's side and coiling ropes ready to throw, leaving him free to give his full concentration to his task. The Wind Dancer eased into place, barely kissing the wharf, and a couple of dockside loiterers nodded in admiration. Mooring lines were made fast in seconds, and two dockworkers slid out a slatted wooden ramp, sloping it steeply downwards to reach the low deck.

"Who's the jester?" Holderman asked almost absent-mindedly, jerking his chin towards a human male who was hurrying along the docks towards them. He was carrying a small bundle slung over one shoulder and dressed in a garish red and green robe, brown hair and white beard flowing loose down it as if trying to conceal the horrendous colour combination. "If that's the dockmaster, I've never seen one with worse taste in clothes."

"Someone from the Baron's College, I'd say," Kelov shrugged, scratching his beard. "They wear ceremonial robes that look a bit like that on special occasions, though I'll admit I've never seen 'em in those colours."

Evark looked up and blinked, briefly horrified. "...And I'll wager you'd be happy not to see 'em now," he said eventually, drawing a snicker from the dwarf.

"It's about time you got here!" the tall human snapped, reaching the top of the gangplank and shoving a dockworker out of his way. "Cast off or untie or whatever it is you call it, we need to get moving."

Evark and Holderman exchanged speaking glances. "I think you might have the wrong ship, whoever you might be," Holderman drawled, one hand resting on his swordhilt. "We're on a private charter right now, not up for hire."

The human shook his head, starting to pick his way down the plank. "This is the Wind Dancer, yes? It's not like we're going to have two halfling ships come into port on the same-- awk!" He windmilled his arms, almost losing his balance as one foot skidded, and made it to the deck in an undignified scramble. The bundle's strap slid off his shoulder and it thumped to the deck at his feet, nearly tripping him.

"Aye, you're aboard Wind Dancer," Evark told him suspiciously. "And what makes you think you have business with us, whitebeard?"

Kelov looked around nervously as several crewmembers drifted casually towards the conversation, carrying belaying pins or loosening knives in their sheaths. The stranger didn't seem to notice, drawing himself up proudly and tugging his robes straight.

"I," he said portentously, "am a messenger of the Gods."

Evark's eyebrows shot up. "Oh aye, are you then? And which gods would that be?"

"Korthrala and Chemalka, of course," the man sniffed. "Didn't you see the storm? We need to head upstream immediately or it'll be wasted, and it shan't be my fault."

Opening his mouth to retort, Evark jerked as he felt the now-familiar twinge from his trident pendant. It was a little different this time, feeling somehow... embarrassed? "Even assuming I believe you," he said slowly, "I'm thinking I'd like a few more details before I set off up a shoaling river on your say-so. For starters, who are you?"

"Jothan Tarlnasa, chairman of the philosophy department at Baron's College," came the snappish answer. "You're on a mission from Korthrala to deliver a warning message to Hurgrum, yes?"

Kelov choked, wide-eyed. "Hurgrum?!"

Evark ignored that. "Aye," he nodded. "And where do you come in?"

Tarlnasa gave a long-suffering sigh, rolling his eyes. "The rivers between here and Hurgrum aren't normally navigable, so Korthrala asked Chemalka to help. She's caused a storm that will raise water levels in a couple of the tributary branches of the Upper Saram high enough for your ship to pass. They've sent me to guide you, obviously."

"Obvious once you actually explain, maybe," Evark snorted, eyeing the tall human with disfavour.

"Well, get moving then!"

Holderman looked sideways at his captain, who was starting to jut out his chin dangerously, and took one long step back and to the side to separate himself from the conversation.

"We'll do that all right, just as soon as you tell me where we're supposed to move to," Evark growled.

"Hurgrum, you blithering idiot!" Tarlnasa snapped, lifting his eyes heavenwards in exasperation. "That is where your message is needed, gods give me patience to deal with fools!"

"Which river?!"

The human blinked. "Oh. The northernmost channel until you pass Esgan, then south-east, eastern channel past Navahk, then the second north-pointing tributary. But I'll be on board to guide you, so--"

Evark looked at Kelov. "Got that?"

Kelov looked surprised. "Ah, yes?"

"Know the channels?"

"Yes, though I'll admit I haven't actually piloted a ship through those specific ones--"

"Willing to try?"

Kelov swallowed, stiffening his spine. "Yes."

Evark grinned, eyes glittering. "Good. You, whitebeard! Off my ship!"

Tarlnasa squawked, eyes bulging unattractively. "But-- you need me! The Gods--"

"I need to know the safe channel. You've told me. Damned if I'll tolerate you on my decks any longer than I have to. Off, before I throw you off!"

The human backed up the gangplank as Evark advanced on him, then yelped again. "My luggage! I packed--"

Without pausing, Evark scooped the bundle up and hurled it at Tarlnasa, who caught it, wobbled dangerously, staggered sideways... and fell off the ramp, disappearing underneath the dock with a despairing cry and a loud splash.

"Cast off!" Evark bellowed, and the dockworkers tossed the mooring lines onto the deck and hauled up the gangplank. Evark nodded politely to them. "I'm thinking yon philosophy chairman would appreciate a rope," he said, straight-faced. "Or perhaps a boathook."

"Aye, we'll take care of that," one nodded back, eyes alight with curiosity. "Good sailing -- and good luck!"

* * * * *

"Captain Yurgazh," Arsham sighed, cutting the other hradani off mid-sentence. "Do me a favour."

"...Yes?"

"Stop beating around the bush and tell me what you want."

Yurgazh's mouth snapped shut, and he stared fixedly for a moment, trying to judge Arsham's mood.

Prince Arsham Churnazhson -- Arsham the Bastard, as he was often called by his father's toadies -- was tall for a Navahkian hradani, seven feet tall and as broad in the shoulder as some Horse Stealers. He had light brown hair in a warrior's braid, oddly pale eyes that looked nearly yellow in some lights, and a near-permanent calm expression that had fooled a lot of other hradani into thinking the Rage had 'gone out of him'... until he proved otherwise.

"I want to bring someone-- no," Yurgazh corrected himself. "No point getting her to talk to you if you want me to come right out and say what we want now."

"'We'?" Arsham asked, and Yurgazh winced.

"Can we leave that bit for later?"

"This is starting to sound like something you don't actually want to ask me, Captain," the prince said quietly. "Would you like to think again?"

"...I want to take you somewhere, to talk to someone," Yurgazh said carefully, meeting Arsham's eyes. "I give you my word that this isn't a trap of any sort, and that we honestly believe this is something you need to hear."

Arsham sat back in his chair, twirling the quill pen he'd been using to make careful marks on a map, and looked steadily at him. "Why can't you just tell me whatever it is here and now?"

"I'm not in charge, and I'm a lot less convincing than the-- person who wants to talk to you."

"Why can't they come here?"

"It's complicated," Yurgazh said frankly, and Arsham laughed.

"I have to admit that sounds more interesting than all this," he said ruefully, waving at the piles of parchment on his table. "Never trust anyone who says you don't need to read to run an army," he sighed, and Yurgazh stiffened. The last time he'd heard a comment like that, it had been Churnazh saying it.

"So you'll come?"

"This isn't some plot by the old noble families, is it?"

"Definitely not."

"Do I bring a bodyguard?"

"Er... I'd rather you didn't," Yurgazh admitted, "but I'm not about to tell you you can't."

It was Arsham's turn to stare, ears cocked backwards in surprise; then he nodded sharply. "Fine. I'll take you as my bodyguard, how's that?"

"Um. Thank you?"

"Let's go, then, before somebody brings me some more damn work to do."

----------

Arsham walked beside Yurgazh through the main corridor of the underground temple, staring around him in well-concealed surprise. All the worshippers had been cleared out except for Akar and Mathel, as a precaution in case the prince didn't react well to finding out what exactly was going on, but it was clearly designed to hide a lot of people.

"How in all of Krahana's hells did you build this?" he asked. "This stonework is new, so it's not like it's been down here for years. Where'd you put all the stuff you dug out?"

Yurgazh shrugged. "I wasn't here to see it. I think a lot of it got used to re-gravel roads, though."

Arsham stopped short, staring at the carving above the wide double doors they were approaching. It was stylised, and the lack of colour made it harder to decipher, but it was the same rod-in-flames symbol Yurgazh had seen on Mathel's necklace. The prince's ears went flat.

"This is a temple," he hissed, rounding on Yurgazh with one hand clenched on his sword hilt. "You worship the Dark Gods?!"

"Only Krashnark," the captain told him, keeping his ears up and his hands away from his own sword with an effort. "The rest of 'em can stew in their own black juice as far as I'm concerned," he added emphatically. "Krashnark's different."

"Different how?! Damned if I'll--"

He cut himself off as a sudden sense of presence filled the temple, something deep and strong. "If you'll come in here so I don't have to yell at you," a calm voice called from the chamber ahead, "I'll explain."

"That would be Himself," Yurgazh said dryly, jerking one thumb in that direction. "They tell me you get used to it eventually, but I'm not so sure."

Slowly, eyes wide, Arsham edged along the corridor until he could see through the doorway. Krashnark was standing at the back of the huge chamber, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed and a sardonic look on his face. Beside him, Akar and Mathel were looking respectively embarrassed and exasperated.

"M'lord," Akar said tentatively, "sooner or later you're going to appear at someone like that and they're going to fall down in a fit."

"I don't do it to people who can't take it," Krashnark shrugged. "It's worked so far, hasn't it?"

Mathel shot the god an irritated look, then stepped forward and curtseyed slightly. "Welcome to the Temple of Krashnark, Prince Arsham," she said, a little curtly. "Please excuse Himself, he gets like this sometimes."

One of Krashnark's eyebrows shot up at that. "Why do I seem to be collecting followers who refuse to give me the respect due to my station?"

"Because we're the ones who don't fall down in fits in your presence," she snapped. "You're the one who told Akar you didn't want us grovelling, aren't you?"

"True," he admitted, shrugging again. "That gets annoying very quickly. Well, Prince Arsham? Are you willing to hear me out?"

Arsham's ears, that had been slowly inching upright during this exchange, snapped down flat again. "Do I have a choice?" he asked suspiciously.

"Yes." Krashnark's dark eyes were perfectly sincere. "You may turn around and walk out of here at any moment, and I-- we-- will not bother you again. You might discover that you couldn't find your way back here," he added, "possibly disappointing Akar, who I think is just waiting for a reason to abandon this place, but we'd let you go and leave you alone. My word on it."

----------

Behind Arsham's wary expression, he was thinking furiously. He's not like anything I'd expect of a Dark god, he told himself, studying the faces of the other hradani present. His followers talk back to him and he doesn't mind? Unless this is all an act, he added, natural suspicions coming to the fore. They'd have to be damn good actors, of course, but then any high Dark worshipper would have to be to survive.

And yet...

He couldn't make himself believe it. He couldn't look at Krashnark, at the ten-foot-tall Dark God of War casually leaning on the wall and shedding crimson light through the chamber, chaffering lightly with his followers, and believe it was all a lie.

So if it wasn't a lie...

"All right," he said abruptly, walking forward. "I'm listening. So what does Krashnark Phrofro want with me?"

He might have imagined it, but he thought Krashnark winced slightly at the patronymic.

"There's war coming," the god said, and Arsham surprised himself by snorting.

"There always is," he said dryly, and Krashnark smiled thinly.

"This time will be different."

The priest -- and priestess? She wasn't in robes, but she acted like she belonged -- were looking up at the god, frowning slightly, and Arsham realised that they were waiting for an explanation, too.

"Aye, Bahnak of Hurgrum's going to lead all the Horse Stealers against us again just as soon as we give him a reason, and this time a bunch of Bloody Sword cities are like to join in on his side instead of ours. I don't see why that has you turning up to chat with me, though."

"As I told these three yesterday, Hurgrum isn't your only concern," Krashnark said, shaking his head. "There are other forces moving, and other wars to be fought soon, and Navahk can't even survive to face them unless the Prince of Navahk is very, very smart and very, very cautious. Do you think your father fits that description, Arsham?"

The god was serious now, straightening up, and there was nothing funny in his tone. Arsham swallowed.

"...No," he admitted, voice thin.

Krashnark nodded. "He doesn't. So. Do you think you fit that description... Prince Arsham?"

* * * * *

"Oh, there you are, Heero dear! How's the car?"

Heero stiffened, staying hunched over the engine of the pseudo-junker the pilots drove as part of their cover for a couple of breaths; then he straightened up, pushing hair out of his eyes, and nodded at the two elderly women who were beaming at him from the end of the driveway.

"Miss Immy. Miss Neppy. It's doing okay."

"That's nice," Miss Neppy said happily. "It certainly sounded better when we saw you heading off this morning. You were taking Duo to the hospital, weren't you?"

"Yes." He struggled with himself for a moment before producing something resembling a smile and summoning up his minimal reserves of 'small talk'. "His knee's healing nicely. The doctor says he can start physiotherapy now."

"Oh, how lovely! He'll be so happy about that, I'm sure."

Heero's smile widened, relaxing into a genuine expression. "He is."

"Well don't let us interrupt you dear, we can talk just as well without you stopping work," Miss Immy told him, flapping one hand at him. "It's so nice to see young men like you, willing to do something with your hands and make a proper job of it..."

The two old ladies continued their stream of chatter, trading the thread of their gossip back and forth as one put in a detail or reminded the other of a date, and Heero bent back to his task, making a vaguely affirmative noise whenever they seemed to be expecting a response.

"...though it's surprising the number of cars we've been having drive down the road today, considering it's a cul-de-sac," Immy said vaguely, fussing with the strap of her oversized handbag.

"I know! Really, I quite wondered if somebody was having a party, but none of them stopped, just drove up to the end of the street and then out again," Neppy nodded.

"Perhaps the party was somewhere nearby and they had bad directions to follow?"

"I suppose. Or faulty GPS units, you know there was that article in the paper recently."

"Yes, but would they all have the same fault? I saw half a dozen cars that I know don't belong here before tea, and I wasn't watching all the time," Immy objected.

Heero stiffened, hands tightening on his tools. "What sort of cars?" he asked cautiously, trying not to sound as if he cared about the answer.

"Oh, all medium-sized sedans, darkish colours, local plates," Neppy shrugged, waving one hand as if to brush the question away. "Nothing at all memorable."

Surveillance cars, Heero thought automatically. Something that doesn't stand out, something that could belong anywhere -- except on a dead end street with a couple of nosy women who have all the residents' cars memorised, thank Quatre for picking this house--

"Funny, though," Immy mused, sounding a little puzzled. "I could have sworn the same person drove down the street twice, a man with a very unfortunate set of sideburns that really didn't suit him, only it couldn't have been the same person after all because it was different cars. So that means it must have been two men with the same type of horrible sideburns, isn't that strange?"

Heero looked up at that, and for one split second he caught the two women looking straight at him, eyes sharp and calculating. Then Immy blinked and they both smiled, just two elderly ladies in hand-knitted cardigans sprinkled with cat hair, and he nearly thought he'd imagined it.

Only nearly. He knew better.

"Well, we won't keep you, dear, we can see you're nearly finished and will be wanting to get on with your day," Miss Neppy said cheerfully, ignoring the tools laid out all along the edge of the engine bay. "So nice to hear that Duo's knee is going well, do give him our love when you get the chance."

He nodded slowly, straightening up and wiping his hands on a rag. "I will. I might do that now, in fact."

Their smiles deepened a fraction, curling into a more knowing expression for just a moment before they smoothed out again. "What a good idea," Immy chirped. "You boys be good now, and look after each other!"

Heero's own smile returned, a little sardonic. "We always do."

----------

"We're under surveillance, or at least the area is," Heero announced tersely as the front door closed behind him. "I don't know if they've actually pinpointed us yet."

"Any idea who?" Duo asked, twisting around in his seat and picking up one crutch as if to get up immediately. "OZ? Government?"

Heero shook his head. "I didn't see them myself; the gossip ladies warned me. They send their love," he added, unable to stifle a smirk.

"Miss Immy and Miss Neppy warned you?" Quatre asked incredulously. "But--"

"They're just a couple of chatty old ladies?" Heero finished the sentence. "That's what I thought until now. They didn't come right out and say it, but they were very careful to give me all the details I needed to recognise a surveillance patrol being run on the street. I'd bet my beam cannon that they've worked out exactly who we are."

"Are you sure they're on our side?" Trowa asked. "Or could they be testing to see if we'll spook and run?"

Heero opened his mouth, closed his mouth, thought for a moment, then pointed at Duo and Quatre. "You two are the interpersonal experts," he shrugged. "Opinions?"

"Dude, I thought they were oblivious," Duo snorted. "I like them, but that doesn't necessarily mean dick."

Quatre shot him an annoyed look at that choice of words, then turned back to Heero. "They've never felt hostile. Curious and interested, of course, but... hm... benevolent? Sometimes they've felt worried, but not afraid; more like they were worried for us than about us. I put it down to them worrying about Duo's knee. They're on our side, I think. --Besides, even if they were some kind of covert intelligence agents they've been living here long enough that they'd have to be sleepers, and probably planted here before we were born."

"Right," Heero nodded. "So we're going to trust them and their info, at least for now. Plans?"

Duo grimaced. "If whoever it is haven't pinpointed us yet and we book it out of here, that'll just confirm we're the right targets. If they've already picked us out, though, there could be a catch team coming through the windows tonight."

"I don't know if I'd expect a catch team," Quatre said slowly, frowning. "This isn't likely to be an OZ operation; they're in the middle of disbanding, Lady Une isn't going to authorise anything of the sort, and a group of disgruntled vets coming after us for revenge would almost certainly take longer to get organised."

"Government, then," Trowa shrugged.

"Yes. Which means someone needs to call Relena on a secure line and tell her not to visit."

"That might be what the surveillance team is doing," Duo snickered. "Hoping they'll cruise past when there's a pink limo in the driveway pinpointing our location!"

"And that's also probably how they worked out what area to look in," Heero sighed.

"So we're sitting tight?" Trowa asked.

Heero glanced at each of the other pilots in turn, collecting nods and shrugs, and nodded. "But we'd better move up the timetable."

[chap. 38] [chap. 40] [back to Mel and Christy's fic]