Demon of Justice + Chapter 18 (cont)
Preppy?

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"Whoa. That's big," Duo announced, leaning on his crutches and looking up at the new acquisition. "Quatre, I thought you said you bought a house, not a mansion!"

"It is a house," Quatre insisted plaintively. "It's only got five bedrooms!"

"Q-man, you need to develop a sense of scale," Duo told him, starting up the driveway.

"If it were a mansion, it would have servants' quarters," Trowa smirked. "Right?"

"Exactly!" the blond nodded; then he saw the smirk. "Trowa! Whose side are you on?"

"Mine."

"Okay, I've picked my bedroom!" Duo called cheerfully from somewhere inside as they entered the front door. "I can wobble right out of the French doors and fall into the pool."

"Duo!" Quatre yelled protestingly, seeing Heero wince.

"What? It'll be a controlled fall. It'll save me from having to take a shower in the morning-- hey, cool! You didn't mention the hot tub!"

"We're never going to get him out of the water, are we?" Trowa muttered to Heero.

"Judging by his behavior whenever he gets access to a decent size bathtub, no," Heero muttered back. "At least it should be good for his knee."

"I could fit just about anything in here," Duo muttered, then raised his voice. "Anyone have a pen and paper? I've got to make a shopping list. We're not bringing all the furniture from the old place, are we?"

"No," Quatre told him, pulling out his notebook and a pen as he walked into the room Duo had chosen. "Just our personal property, and things like the coffee maker and TV and such."

"Cool." Lowering himself carefully to sit on the floor, Duo grinned up at Quatre. "I've got just one question, then."

"Oh?"

"We're supposed to be renting this place, right? How the hell are we going to convince the neighbours that four seventeen-year-old boys can afford a place like this?"

"Easy. We dress preppy, and tell them our parents are paying for it while we take a year off before college to 'find ourselves'. You hurt your knee in a skiing accident."

"Quatre... the God of Death does not do 'preppy'. I would hazard a guess that Mister Silent and Mister 'Omae o Korosu' also do not do 'preppy'."

"Then you can do 'expensive Goth' or 'two thousand credit leather jacket', or whatever you want," Quatre told him, oblivious to the two pilots standing in the doorway behind him mouthing 'Preppy?' at each other. "Whatever you want, so long as it's blatantly expensive. You wanted to go shopping anyway..."

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Five hours later, they dragged themselves back to the old safehouse, festooned with bags and boxes from a dozen exclusive clothing stores. Quatre had gone for 'preppy'-- as usual-- but the others had concentrated mainly on designer jeans, expensive t-shirts, and the sort of shirts that had no visible logo, but could be identified (and priced) by their exquisite tailoring.

"And when I get out of the hospital, I'm going to take a pair of scissors to some of those pairs of jeans," Duo told Heero as he was carried upstairs. "It ought to convince the neighbours that we have rich parents, if I chop the leg off of a hundred-credit pair of jeans so they'll fit over the brace."

Heero snorted. "Either that, or they'll decide your injury is from being kneecapped after a drug deal went wrong."

"Heero!"

"Well, it would be a logical explanation for why four teenagers can afford that sort of house."

"Yeah, whatever." Duo rolled his eyes as Heero carefully set him down and hopped the short distance to his bed, flopping onto it with a groan. "I was right, you know. Those crutches suck. I think my arms are going to fall off."

"Does that mean you'll take your pain pills and have a nap without me having to argue with you?" Heero said hopefully.

"Yeah... I am kinda tired," Duo admitted. "Hand 'em over."

Heero produced tablets and a glass of water, and Duo swallowed them, fixing Heero with a glare as he handed the glass back. "You should have a rest, too," he said sternly, pointing his finger like a gun. "You carried all of my junk and half of Quatre's, as well as your own, and you walked three times as far as the rest of us because you kept fetching stuff so I didn't have to get up for anything. Don't think I didn't notice!"

"Ryoukai," Heero said, smiling faintly. "Yell if you need anything."

After he left, Duo rolled over onto his side, punching his pillow into a more comfortable shape, and gazed moodily across at Wufei's empty bed.

Today would have been a hell of a lot more fun with Wufei here, ranting about being told to do 'preppy'...

* * * * *

The column stopped for a rest and a meal just after midday.

We've made surprisingly good time, Wufei thought, checking the distance on the map that was slowly building up in Nataku's computer memory. Most of them are dwarves, but they all seem to be as good as Uthmar at long-distance walking.

There were two small supply wagons with the column, but nobody had been riding on them; they carried only food and what looked like a large tent. Most of the soldiers were carrying their own personal gear on their backs, not seeming to notice the weight. The five soldiers who weren't were the only ones mounted-- two humans on horses, and three dwarves on mules-- and they'd covered at least twice as much ground as the rest, acting as scouts.

Nataku's sensors can probably spot most dangers much further away than they can, Wufei told himself, watching on screen as one of the scouts arrived back, dismounting with a flourish while his horse was still moving, but there's no point in interfering with their routines. They know what they're doing, and I might not recognise a threat, simply because it's unfamiliar.

Well, let's see if there's anything I can help with.

Jumping down from Nataku's open hatch, Wufei scanned the temporary camp, looking for someone who needed a hand. They definitely know what they're doing, he noted, watching with approval as they set sentries and checked weapons before settling down to rest and eat, occasionally glancing curiously in his direction. They all have a job to do-- ah. I can help with that at least!

One of the humans was gathering fallen branches from underneath a dead tree, breaking them into manageable lengths for a fire. The wood was well seasoned, dry but definitely not brittle, and he was swearing under his breath as he kicked at a length he'd wedged between the tall stump and a rock.

"I help?"

"Sure, if you think you'll have any better-- ah, um, sir! Didn't realise it was you," the soldier said uncomfortably.

Wufei shrugged. "You find, I break?"

"Uh... sure," He stepped aside and waved at the wedged branch. "I already found plenty, but it's--" The rest of the sentence wasn't words that Wufei knew, but they sounded fairly rude.

Hiding a smirk, he leaned forward and tapped the branch, then put a little pressure on it. "Good wood," he nodded.

*CRACK!*

"Next?"

There was plenty of firewood by the time the cook was ready to make tea.

Wufei was well aware that all of the newcomers were watching him as he easily snapped branches as thick as his thigh, splitting the pieces lengthwise by getting a good grip on the jagged ends and simply pulling them apart. After all, it was what he would have done in their place-- what he had been doing, come to think of it. Observe your allies and learn their capabilities, so you know what they can and cannot be depended upon to do in a fight. He nearly laughed out loud as it occurred to him that it was a good thing the cook got the fire started quickly; the soldiers might not have been unsettled by his demonstration of strength, but he doubted they'd remain calm if he lit the fire with Nataku's flamethrower.

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"That's fairly impressive," a calm voice behind Uthmar observed. "Does he do things like that often?"

"Not really," Uthmar shrugged, grinning through his beard. "Unlike some people I know, he doesn't do things just to show off."

"I only did it once," the human Champion said in a wounded voice, moving up to stand next to the dwarf. "You're never going to let me forget it, are you?"

"Well, I might let the joke die eventually, Arwen," Uthmar chuckled, "but Gunnar saw you summoning your axe to impress those girls, too, and you know what he's like."

"It was three years ago!" Arwen protested. "I was still a teenager! I'd been a champion for-- what, two months? Don't I get a little leniency for youthful exuberance?"

"Nope. By dwarven standards, you humans are always babies. If we gave you leeway on account of youth, we'd have to excuse everything."

"Whatever happened to the even-handed generosity, kindness and tolerance that are supposed to be the hallmarks of a true Champion?"

"They take second place to ensuring that my fellow Champions also cultivate the humility that is proper for their station."

"You weren't like this the last time I saw you," Arwen sighed, folding his arms across his chest. "I think Gunnar's been a bad influence on you."

"Actually, I think it was having to deal with Yithar that did it," Uthmar mused, scratching his chin. "I had to find some way of coping that didn't involve punching his teeth out."

"He's gone home," Arwen pointed out. "You can stop now."

"No, I can't," the dwarf said quietly, inclining his head fractionally towards a tall, golden-haired human in the uniform of a knight-probationer, standing some distance away and watching Wufei intently. "You brought Sir Vaijon."

Arwen winced. "Sir Terrian assigned him to me. I had to bring him."

"What in Torframos's name did you do to deserve that?!"

The other Champion's mouth twisted wryly. "In his infinite wisdom, our honoured Knight-General has decided that serving under a Champion of... how shall I put this... excruciatingly humble birth might open Sir Vaijon's eyes and make him realise what's wrong with some of the attitudes he was raised with. I couldn't exactly say no. Well, yes, I know I could have said no," he corrected himself, shaking his head, "but 'I don't want to' didn't seem like a good enough reason to refuse."

Uthmar grimaced sympathetically. "Ouch. Is it working?"

"No." Arwen blew out his breath heavily, scowling. "He's always very carefully polite to me, but I can see him wondering 'Why him? Why is someone so undeserving a Champion when Torframos could have picked me, an Almerhas of Almerhas?'. And he's very quick to step in and deal with nobles for me. I think he thinks he's doing me a favour."

Uthmar grimaced again. "Well... I can't think of anything that'll help. Sorry."

"If he just meant to be insulting, we could throw him out of the order," Arwen grumbled. "Unfortunately, he genuinely does want to do good in the world. There's a decent person buried somewhere under all that horseshit about ancestry and tradition and birthright."

"Actually... having Wufei around might be good for him," Uthmar said slowly.

"Oh? How so?"

"Wufei is a prince, better born than Vaijon, and his attitudes towards rank and privilege couldn't be more different. Vaijon never forgets his rank; Wufei didn't think his was important enough to mention, until I asked. Vaijon automatically judges people by their birth first, and won't break the rules about who outranks who; Wufei used superior-to-inferior language on Lord Yithar, then turned around and used speaking-to-equals mode to Goodman Royce. If Vaijon pays more attention to Wufei's birth than the fact that he's a demon-- and he might, especially once he finds out that Torframos confirmed Wufei's rank-- he'll automatically give Wufei's opinions more weight than his own."

"And Wufei's opinion will be that he shouldn't...?" Arwen started to grin. "They're really not going to get along, are they?"

"Nope."

"At least it should be fun to watch."

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After marching on foot through the afternoon, they stopped for the night in a shallow, bowl-shaped dip in the land, sheltered from the breeze (and also concealing the light of their fires from any observers). This time, Wufei insisted on getting firewood alone; with Karthan's help he managed to explain that he was the only person who hadn't been walking or riding all day, and therefore it was only fair for him to handle the heavier camp chores. A couple of soldiers tried to argue, but the two Champions just looked at each other, smirked slightly, and nodded.

There's something going on there, Wufei mused, walking back to camp with a load of wood, but I can't work out what. They seemed pleased that I'm willing to do my share, but it's only common sense! Dropping the wood with the rest of the branches he'd gathered, he nodded to the cook and picked up two buckets. On his way back out, he passed one of the mounted scouts, nodding politely as the blond human stared at him. Whatever it is, I doubt it's anything to worry about. Now, which direction was that stream in?

A moment's concentration, and Nataku's map shimmered in front of him. Little moving symbols indicated the soldiers in the camp, scouts further out, and a few small animals in the forest to the west. A thin blue line marked the location of a stream coming out of the Spinewall, and Wufei headed in that direction.

That's incredibly useful, but I don't think I'm ever going to get used to it!

The stream was clear and fresh, and surprisingly cold; Wufei filled his buckets and then took the opportunity to wash his face and neck, gasping as an icy trickle went down his back under his shirt. Wiping his face dry on one arm, he turned back to pick up the buckets, smiling. Refreshing... I think I will come back with a towel and bathe properly after I deliver this--

"Good evening, Chang Wufei," a deep voice said from behind him. In Chinese.

He dropped the buckets and spun around, automatically snatching his sword from its sheath on his back. Standing across the stream where there had been nothing an instant before was a man, a human with wavy brown hair pulled back in a tail, handsome face slightly spoiled by his arrogant smile--

--ten feet tall--

--and glowing faintly red.

Wufei backed up a few steps to get better footing, tightening his grip on the sword. "Who the hell are you?!" he snarled.

The arrogant smile widened slightly. "Pleased to meet you, too. My name is Krashnark."

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