of Justice + Chapter 25 (cont)
"Sucky," Duo sighed, sniffing. "It's pretty damn sucky missing you anyway, but I guess there are degrees of suckiness."
"Your riveting insights into the human condition never fail to amaze me, Duo," Wufei drawled in his best supercilious tone of voice. He blocked the finger jabbing for the sensitive spot under his ribs because he was expecting it, but he missed the yank at his ponytail and yelped as Duo blew a wet raspberry on the side of his neck. "Ugh! That's disgusting, you know. Feeling better?" he muttered, wiping the spit away.
"I know it's disgusting, that's why I did it. You deserved it," Duo muttered back, sitting up again in midair. "...Yeah, I'm feeling better. Thanks."
"You've cheered me up countless times in the past; it's only fair for me to return the favour once in a while." Especially since I may never have the chance to do so again!
"And you've cheered me up more times than anyone else in my life, so you're doing just fine," Duo retorted, scrubbing the back of one hand over his face. "Even when it was just by being there, letting me know you were there to talk to when I needed to, or letting me flop in your room and listen to you read out loud when I didn't want to talk to anyone... anyway. Did you say that technically you're a demon?! Do they have some really weird prejudices about the 'Yellow Peril' over where you are now, or something?"
"They don't seem to have Asians at all, Duo, so no. Anything and anyone from outside their world is either a 'demon' or a 'devil' to these people," Wufei began, accepting the change of subject. "You'd be a demon too, if you'd been caught in that explosion along with me."
"'Maxwell the Demon' instead of 'Maxwell's Demon'," Duo grinned, red eyes and the occasional slight hitch in his breathing the only sign that he'd been crying a moment ago. "I like it! So they're not disappointed that you don't have horns and flame breath? Though I guess Nataku supplies the flame breath, in a way. Don't they think it's odd that you don't have any supernatural powers, or does being able to pilot a Gundam count?"
"The people who've made friends with me are actually quite glad I don't have horns and flame breath," Wufei retorted, "since it'll make it much easier for everyone else to accept me. My appearance is apparently already strange enough to be frightening to some people! From what they've--"
"They've got elves and dwarves and fuzzy-eared giants and you're strange?!"
"I told you, they don't have Asians. Nobody on this world, whether they're elves or hradani or human or whatever, has exactly my skin tone, straight black hair is incredibly rare, and apparently black eyes are impossible. I'll admit that I haven't seen very many of the local inhabitants yet, but they look like a mostly western European mix, with a heavy dose of Scandinavian genes. The darkest hair I've seen here is around the same shade as Yui's." Wufei sighed and grinned a little sheepishly, smoothing his hair back. "At least the response to my appearance so far has been that I'm 'exotic', not 'ugly'. Demons are normally repulsive, from what I've been told, and since the only one I've seen was a sort of luminous green amoeba that screamed like fingernails on a blackboard, I'm willing to believe it; if my looks aren't considered disgusting, people's first reaction to me is likely to be 'strange, where's HE from?!' rather than 'demon! kill it!'"
Duo snickered. "So your first demon was basically a giant snotmonster? Eww!"
"Duo, if you ever produce mucus of that colour, you will not only be on the point of death, you will have to be buried in a lead-lined coffin, because you will be radioactive," the Chinese pilot told him acidly. "And as for lacking supernatural powers, I--"
He was cut off as a sudden 'ripple' passed through the void around them, dissolving all the floating stone sculptures and bits of architecture into mist as it passed. Another ripple, and the expanding billows of fog thickened noticeably, sending vaporous fingers between the two teens and blurring their outlines.
"I think our vid call just ran out of coins, or something," Duo said, glancing around nervously. "Either that, or the monitor needs to be degaussed; we're getting a lot of static all of a sudden..."
"Krashnark did say he wouldn't be able to hold it for long," Wufei said numbly, watching as the colour began to leach out of his own fingers. He swallowed a lump in his throat at the prospect of losing touch with Duo again -- perhaps for good -- and reached out to grasp the braided teen's hand. "Look after yourself, Duo. And don't throw away any chance at happiness you may get! You've got a chance to build a life where you don't have to be a soldier any more, don't have to fight for people who don't appreciate you any more, a life where you can settle down and do what you want to do. Don't waste it. Especially not because you feel guilty about me, all right?!"
"I won't," Duo swore, clinging to his friend's hand as the mist thickened and they lost sight of each other. "And you look after yourself, too! Don't you dare make me worry about you! I know you can't promise me that you'll always be okay, nobody can promise that, but you can damn well promise me that any fucking snotmonster that takes you down is going to have indigestion by the time you're through, all right?"
"I promise," Wufei said, laughing and crying at the same time. "I'll kick it in the tonsils on the way down!"
Wufei's hand seemed to melt and slide out of his, and Duo groped through the darkening fog, trying to find him again. "I miss you," he called desperately, trying for one last word. "We all miss you..."
Heero woke abruptly as he felt Duo moving restlessly beside him. Snuggling closer to the braided teen's back, he gently rubbed his hand up and down the other boy's arm, enough to soothe, but not awaken.
I don't think this is a nightmare, he thought, raising himself up on one elbow until he could see Duo's face. In the dim light from the hospital's courtyard lamps shining through the window, he could make out his boyfriend's features. Rapid eye movement, restlessness, muscle twitches, quickened breathing -- all signs of a nightmare, or at least intensive dreaming... but... he's smiling?
Heero continued visually monitoring Duo as he dreamed, noting various frowns, fists clenching briefly, a few sighs, a giggle... Once his breathing stuttered, almost sobbing, but it smoothed out again after just a few seconds.
Definitely not a nightmare, thank heaven--
Duo gasped, twisting, and reached out with both hands as if he was grabbing at someone in his dream. "I miss you," he mumbled, voice blurred by sleep but still desperate. "We all miss you..." Then his eyes snapped open and he lunged upright.
"Duo! Duo, it's all right, I'm here!" Heero grabbed his shoulders, trying to give him an anchor point, and the braided teen wrapped his arms around him, resting his head on his shoulder.
"Heero! he gasped, happiness mixed with pain in his voice. "He's alive, Heero! He's okay! Wufei's alive!"
"I almost hate to wake th' lad up," Cord chuckled, deep voice barely above a whisper. "Whatever he's dreaming, I'd say it's good..."
Wufei was lying limp in his sleeping bag, on his back, face turned to one side and one arm stretched upwards, hand loose and open above his head. His normal closed, slightly wary expression was nowhere to be seen; instead, there was a faint, happy smile on his lips.
"For once, I have no idea," Karthan yawned, stretching. "I didn't share his dreams last night, and the link is firmly closed-- well now, look at that. He looks a lot older when he's scowling, doesn't he?"
"Aye, he does." Cord frowned in thought for a moment. "How old is he, anyway? I've been thinking of him as about the same age as Arwen, here," he jerked his thumb at the human Champion, "but it occurs to me I've nowt to base that on at all, at all, save for the thought that he acts like a belted knight..."
It was Karthan's turn to frown. "I can't just lift the answer out of his memories right now, but... I think I already know, sort of, it's just that it's never come to the front of my mind... uh... seventeen?" he finished, tentatively.
"Seventeen?!" Cord snorted incredulously. "Ah, now, I know humans grow fast, but tha's ridiculous! Manten's nowhere near his age in th' head, an' he's twenty!"
"I can believe it," Arwen said softly, walking over to peer past Cord's shoulder as the giant hradani crouched down next to Wufei. "There are times and places -- especially in human lands -- where children have to grow up fast, and it sounds like his home is one of them." There was a quiet, thoughtful pause, and then he thumped the hradani's shoulder companionably. "So, were you planning to wake up His Demonic Highness any time soon, or were you just going to look at his sweetly dreaming face and sigh?"
"I'd watch it if I were you, laddie," Cord said dangerously, slanting his ears back and glaring. "One Gunnar is more than enough in this group, I'm thinking."
"Yes, but I can run faster than him," Arwen grinned.
"Not faster than a Horse Stealer hradani, you can't," Cord muttered, reaching for Wufei's shoulder. "There's a reason why we eat 'em instead of riding 'em, you know, an' we have to catch 'em first... Come on, lad, time to get up and moving! We've a few scorpions to stamp on today, an' they won't wait around for you to finish your beauty sleep!"
Wufei drew in a sharp breath and jerked before Cord's hand touched him, though, eyes snapping open. They were vague and unfocussed for barely a heartbeat before he registered that someone was leaning over him, silhouetted against the pre-dawn glow and firelight, reaching out--
One quick flurry of movement later, Cord was blinking up from his new position, flat on his back on the ground with Wufei rearing over him, one hand coming down to strike at his unprotected throat-- then the hand redirected slightly, stabbing into the ground next to his head, and the human/demon was yawning as he sat back.
"Good morning," he said sleepily, rubbing at his eyes.
"Good morning," Karthan replied politely, suppressing a snicker as Cord coughed and tried to pull some air back into his lungs. Arwen wasn't quite so controlled, sniggering helplessly behind one hand.
"An' a good morning t'you, Wufei lad," Cord wheezed, pushing himself up into a sitting position with a rather grumpy expression on his face. "You've a nasty way of treating people who disturb good dreams!"
"Hm? --Oh," Wufei said vaguely, only now seeming to realise what he'd done. "Ah. My apologies. It's safer to wake me up from a distance, actually... standing back and calling my name is probably the best idea."
"Aye, well, that's as may be, but the only other time I've tried waking you up, nothing like this happened!"
"The only other time you've tried waking him up, he didn't actually wake up," Karthan pointed out dryly. "Breakfast is nearly ready, Wufei. Did you sleep well?"
"Um. Yes. I think so," Wufei replied distractedly. "Do we need more water, or did somebody already fetch some?"
"The cook got a double load of water and wood last night, so nobody had to leave the camp to fetch any before dawn, but I think they need more for washing up," Arwen told him, stifling his last chuckles. "Uthmar's given orders that nobody is to go outside our sentry line alone, though, so you'll have to take a group... hmm. I know just who to assign to you, too!"
"If we attack now, my lord, we will have the advantage of surprise," the assassin whispered impatiently. Showing impatience towards a high priest of the Scorpion was always dangerous, of course, but letting the Order of Torframos meet their attack on equal terms, awake and ready to march, would be even more likely to kill him. Less painfully, perhaps, but--
"Patience," the priest whispered back, studying the awakening camp through narrowed eyes. "Patience and stealth, those are the virtues of the Scorpion..."
"And they have served us well, my lord, bringing us close enough to attack our enemies before they are prepared," the assassin pressed on. "We must not lose the opportunity our lord Sharna has given us!"
"Be silent," the priest snapped, tensing. They were too far away from the camp and it was still too dim for him to make out individual forms easily, but he could feel the thing he held coiled in his hands awaken, yearning towards its target. "The one we seek is moving... there!" A small group was moving towards the woods to their left, and steel hooks bit into his hands as his grip tightened eagerly.
"This is the true opportunity lord Sharna has sent us!" he hissed, twisting around to bare his teeth at the assassin in an _expression that had nothing to do with a smile. "The one He seeks is leaving the main group and is coming to us, with only a small escort. This is what patience brings!"
"Your pardon, my lord!" the assassin muttered, bowing his head. "I spoke too soon. Your orders?"
"You, and all of your dog brothers, are to come with me," the priest whispered, crawling back from the edge of the forest. "Send the regular infantry to strike the camp; I want them cut off, unable to aid our target. We will take the demon. And remember!" he said sharply, glaring at the assassin again. "Our lord Sharna will want them alive!"
"Arwen's going to assign him as one of my guards?" Wufei muttered darkly. "Did I do something nasty to him lately and forget about it?"
Karthan shrugged his weapons harness straight and picked up his axe. "It's not what you've done, Wufei; it's what Vaijon is. Think of it as a compliment! Arwen's hoping you'll be a good example for the brat."
"Oh?" Wufei turned away from watching Arwen give instructions to the small group of armsmen clustered around Sir Vaijon, and looked sharply at the dwarf next to him. "An example how? He certainly doesn't seem to need a martial mentor..."
"Common sense and proper knightly behaviour," Karthan grinned, hooking the axe into place on his back. "The little things, like not discounting people just because their birth rank is low, and not regarding 'menial' tasks as 'beneath' him; that sort of thing."
"Oh, really?" Wufei lifted an eyebrow, and then began to smile... rather nastily. "In that case, I need two more buckets."
He'd hoped to spend a few minutes alone while getting the water -- a few minutes he could have used to good effect, talking to Krashnark. He still wasn't sure whether he was going to thank the dark god, yell at him, or both, but he would have gotten something out of his system! It was bad enough having any sort of audience for this trip, but Vaijon?
I'll just have to wait until I'm in Nataku's cockpit, he told himself, taking the buckets a grinning dwarf was holding out to him with a polite nod. In the meantime, if I'm stuck with Vaijon and supposed to be an 'influence' on him, I may as well work at being an influence...
The look on Vaijon's face when Wufei dumped a pair of buckets at his feet was almost worth it.
"...Sir Wufei?" he asked tentatively, looking at the buckets rather as if he suspected they were poisonous. The honorific had to struggle to make it out past his teeth, but it was there, and Wufei was very careful not_to smirk as he nodded and held up his own pair of buckets.
"We need to get water," he said calmly.
"I am aware of that," the golden-haired knight-probationer said carefully, "but I was under the impression that we were to guard you."
And do you think that you're guarding me from attack, or guarding the group from possible betrayal by me? Wufei thought sourly. "Dahan says he needs four buckets' worth," he shrugged. "Either you get water too, or we make two trips. I know what seems more sensible to me."
"I see," Vaijon nodded, looking around. Picking one of the men-at-arms, a human, he stepped back and waved towards the buckets on the ground. "Jens, if you would--"
"Sir Vaijon." Wufei's voice was flat. "I didn't give Jens the buckets. I gave you the buckets. Jens is armed with a crossbow and needs to be able to carry it in his hands, or it won't be ready if and when we need him to shoot."
"And what am I supposed to do if we are attacked?!" Vaijon shot back indignantly, drawing himself up to his full six-foot-four. "Run like a... a peasant farmwife?!"
"You'll do exactly what I intend to do," Wufei snapped. "Throw the buckets at your first opponent and draw your sword while he's distracted. This is a job, Vaijon, it needs to be done and there is no loss of honour in doing it -- and no honour in shirking it!"
Without waiting for an answer, he turned and headed towards the woods, aiming for where Nataku's map told him there was a small stream. Karthan and the other lay brothers followed, hiding grins with various degrees of success, and Vaijon was left behind, mouth hanging open.
"Well, Sir Vaijon?" Arwen said gently. "What are you waiting for?"
The knight-probationer flushed angrily, but (visibly) resisted the temptation to answer back; instead, he scooped up the buckets and stalked after the small group, silken cloak swirling behind him.
"And it's such a fine figure of a farmwife he makes, too," Cord's deep voice mused from behind Arwen, and the champion nearly choked trying to stifle his laugh so Vaijon wouldn't hear it.
"I don't mind telling you, Sir Wufei, I get a creepy feeling walking through these woods," Jens muttered under his breath, glancing around as they reached the stream. "Am I jumping at shadows, or is there summat here?"
"You're not jumping at shadows," Wufei said grimly, looking around. Not that there are too many dark shadows for us to jump at, he mused.
The area of woods they were moving through -- called the Shipwood, Uthmar had told him -- was mostly made up of tall, straight trees that let a fair amount of light through their branches, and seemingly their roots secreted something that kept the underbrush to a minumum, so the tangled ground cover and bushes that Wufei would have expected in a similar forest on Earth wasn't a problem. Even though the sun was only just peeking over the horizon, he could see clearly, and he thought that the humans and dwarves with him could probably see well enough to shoot if necessary...
...and if he concentrated on looking at the scenery in a slightly different way, he could see smears and puddles of sickly green light everywhere.
"Sharna's energy is all over this area," he continued, pitching his voice to carry to every member of the group without being too loud. "I can see it, and you can probably feel it, a little... but the water seems clean. Stay alert."
"Oh, there's no way I'm relaxing after hearin' that, sir," Jens growled, snugging the butt of his crossbow up against his shoulder. "Let's get that water and get back out of here, huh?"
"Sounds good to me," Karthan said, hefting his axe. "Perimeter, lads, everyone faced out and watching!"
Wufei and Vaijon filled the buckets quickly, sliding down the stream bank to a convenient shelf of rock that let them reach the free-flowing water in the centre, away from the weeds and mud at the edge. Getting back up was a little trickier, but Vaijon managed by lifting his buckets up to the edge to free his hands for the climb, swearing under his breath at the mud staining his gloves.
Taking one last look around as he waited for Vaijon to get out of the way, Wufei stiffened as he saw/felt a dense clot of green energy moving closer. He'd seen patches of energy trickling from place to place the night before, seemingly at random, but something was different... It's not flowing smoothly, he realised. It's bobbing, moving from side to side and up and down, like a light that someone's carrying--"Something's coming," he snapped, dropping his buckets and jumping lightly to the top of the bank. "Get ready!"
Vaijon was scrambling to get up, and Wufei reached down and yanked him to his feet without thinking, eyes fixed in the direction the light/energy was approaching from. Nataku, he thought, focussing hard. Disengage energy scan mode. Scan these coordinates, motion detection only--
A map sprang to life in his mind, crawling with little moving dots, and he swore. "We're surrounded!" he snarled. "Head back now and watch our rear, we may be able to break out before they can bring up their full forces!"
"How many?!" Karthan asked urgently, spinning to run back the way they'd come. "What about the camp?"
"About thirty," Wufei said grimly. "We can't expect reinforcements, the camp's about to be hit too."
"And how do you know?!" Vaijon snarled.
Wufei turned his head to look at him, and the blond human swallowed, steps faltering as he saw the small demon's eyes glowing green. "Nataku just told me," he said, almost conversationally. "Just like she's telling me that you should look out to your left."
"Wha--?" Vaijon swivelled automatically to look left, and brought his sword up just in time to block a blow from a dark-clad man who burst up out of the underbrush. Sudden clangs and shouts told him they were being attacked from the other side of the trail as well, and then he was facing three swordsmen at once and had no attention to spare for anything else.
"Thirty against seven?!" Karthan panted, blocking a cut and chopping low, taking his opponent's legs out from under him. "I hate to tell you this, Wufei, but I don't think we're going to break out of this one!"
"Oh ye of little faith," Wufei grunted, swatting an axe away with the flat of his sword and punching its wielder, sending him flying. "As Duo would say, 'think of it as a target-rich environment'!" Shadowy red and green armour was flickering into view around him, and he had no doubts about his ability to handle the mundane opposition they were facing, but that sickly green whatever-it-was was coming closer by the moment and he didn't really want to stick around to find out what it would do--
Backing up as two of his opponents coordinated their attacks and a third circled around to approach from the side, Vaijon brought his boot heel down on a rock and skidded, staggering backwards. Arms windmilling for balance, wide open to a strike, all he could do was watch as the men facing him grinned nastily, swords coming around to spit him like a rabbit--
--and then there was another sword, blade glowing white, that arced over his shoulder to chop through one of the assassins' weapons, then twisted to stab the other man through the heart. It wrenched free as Vaijon landed flat on his back, and the demon Wufei was standing over him, twisting around to punch the third man away before he could strike the knight-probationer. His arm seemed to lengthen as he struck, driving the assassin out of sight, but that blow left him off balance and there were more men running around the corner of the trail--
=*Now!*= Sharna's voice snarled in his priest's head, and he threw the barbed chain before he even saw the small demon clearly. It knew its target, though, twisting through the air as its length uncoiled, steel hooks gleaming new-forged through the flaking dried blood left from its dedication sacrifice, and snapped securely around his neck and torso, barbs digging deep.
--and Wufei screamed as something coiled around him, cutting through his link to Nataku as if it had never existed. It burned, cold green fire cutting into him wherever it touched his skin, and sharp hooks cut through his clothes into his flesh as he fought it.
"Sir Wufei?!" Vaijon's face was hovering over him, and he realised he'd collapsed. The thing seemed to coil tighter, choking him, and he tugged weakly at the length around his throat.
"Can't breathe..." he wheezed, struggling to focus as his vision blurred. Another hand joined his on the chain, then jerked away as the cold fire flared higher. He heard a muttered swear word, then a shout and a clang of weapons, and somebody stumbled over him--
"Bind them and bring them," a cold, satisfied voice said clearly. "Our Lord is hungry, and waiting..."
[part 24] [back] [part 26] [back to Mel and Christy's fic]