Three days later, an immense truck drove slowly along a narrow dirt road, coming to a stop in the shadow of a taller-than-normal stand of trees. Haan pushed the driver's side door open, took one last look at a display on the dashboard, and dropped easily to the ground, flicking his hair back and adjusting his headwrap as he did so.
"That's the all-clear signal," Quatre observed quietly, hidden some way back in the trees. "How about our end of the road?"
< < Sensors say it's clear, > > Trowa's voice came from the small comlink in his hand.
"Let's get started, then."
Haan looked up and smiled as Quatre stood and walked forwards, waving to call the other pilots out of their camouflage. "Good to see you again," he murmured. "Everything seems peaceful in this area, so we shouldn't have any surprises while we load. Who's going first?"
"Trowa and Heavyarms," Quatre told him, carefully not wincing at the memory of the arguments they'd had with Heero before the Japanese pilot had finally agreed to let someone else take the risky first trip. "It's marginally bulkier than the other Gundams, so if we're going to have problems fitting them in we'll find out right away."
"Oi, Haan, nice truck!" Duo called from the other side of the road, jogging down a slight slope ahead of Wufei. "Is that Chinese?"
"Japanese," Wufei corrected him before Haan could reply. "The characters are slightly different."
Haan nodded, grin widening. "Meet my truck, Ryuukossei," he said, gesturing towards it. "'Dragon-bone-spirit'."
A silver oriental dragon with blood-red eyes was painted down both sides of the huge cargo trailer, frozen in the act of snarling and rearing up to strike. The angle of the head and claws made it seem as if it was targeting a spot just ahead of the seriously chromed radiator, and something, presumably the truck's name, was painted in kanji across the cabin doors.
"It's a magnificent piece of work," Wufei said slowly, "but I certainly didn't expect a smuggler's truck to be so... ah..."
"Memorable?" Haan raised an eyebrow at him. "That's the point. If I'm driving something this flashy, I must be legitimate. Besides, I can change it in a hurry if I need to. I don't expect that; I've got a short-term contract for half a dozen trips to explain why I'll be going in and out of OZ's perimeter, so I want them to get used to seeing the same truck."
Branches creaked and shed leaves as Heavyarms pushed through them and stepped onto the road, followed by Wing. < < Let's get this over with and get back under cover, > > Heero snapped through Wing's speakers. < < It would only take one OZ plane flying over to blow this wide open. > >
"Stating the bleeding obvious, Heero," Duo muttered, rolling his eyes. "Need a hand, Haan?"
"Not really," Haan shrugged, strolling towards the truck's rear. "Come watch if you want."
"Why not? I might see something I can use!"
The other teen snickered, swinging the trailer doors open and pushing one around to latch it back against the side panel. "I doubt it, but you're welcome to try."
Duo leaned into the cargo compartment and squinted around the cavernous interior, estimating measurements, and grimaced uncertainly. "I dunno if this is going to work. I mean, it looks big enough to hold a Gundam, but it's still gotta get in there, you know? Even if Trowa manages to crawl Heavyarms in, he's gotta end up with the Gundam on its back or he won't be able to get out."
"Not a problem." Haan latched the second door back and quickly checked to see where everyone was standing. "All clear... Ryuukossei! Open up!"
The huge truck shivered slightly as a series of latches clicked open, and then the walls of the trailer slowly leaned outwards. The two halves of the roof folded down against them as they settled slowly to the ground, and the faint sound of hidden motors stopped.
"I think I'll stop having last-minute doubts now," Duo grinned.
Haan snorted and waved towards Heavyarms. "Hop on," he called. "Just shift the weight slowly so the suspension can adjust."
Less than ten minutes later, Heavyarms was properly positioned and secured, and the trailer was quietly closing up around it. Haan waited until the latches in the various seams had all closed, then swung the doors shut but didn't lock them. One hand still resting on the warm metal, he glanced up at Wing.
"Getting a good sensor picture?"
< < I can see Heavyarms in there just fine, if that's what you mean, > > Heero replied shortly.
"Keep watching." Making a fist, Haan banged twice on the door and raised his voice. "Ryuukossei! Switch to the manifest load!"
Suspension groaned as the trailer abruptly rose five inches, as if the load had lightened, and a startled noise came out of Wing's external speakers.
"Now what do you see?" Haan asked, poker-faced.
< < Fragile-item shipping containers, > > Heero replied slowly. < < With ceramics in them. > >
"Imitation Ming vases and small statuettes, according to my load manifest," Haan informed him, now visibly suppressing a smirk.
"And if someone looks in the back door?" Wufei asked, managing to sound matter-of-fact.
Wordlessly, Haan pushed one of the doors open, revealing... stacks of bulky plastic containers, liberally plastered with 'FRAGILE' stickers, strapped securely to either side of the trailer with a walkway left clear down the middle.
"I think it'll pass a visual inspection," Trowa said calmly.
"How are you doing that?" Quatre asked wonderingly, stepping slowly to one side and confirming that yes, his perspective did shift. "Holograms? Nobody's been able to make a stable projected hologram bigger than a six-inch cube..."
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Haan grinned, swinging the door shut again, "and you couldn't pay me enough to tell you, anyway."
"If you ever do decide to sell the idea," the Winner heir told him seriously, "I'd appreciate it if you'd consider talking to me first. Even if you can only project still 3-D pictures, this has the potential to make you a lot of money."
"But then you wouldn't be able to use it to piss OZ off, right?" Duo asked, shaking off the effects of seeing boxes and empty space where large chunks of Gundanium should have been.
"And I already have a lot of money," Haan agreed, snapping a locking bar over the latch. "Shall we get going?"
Trowa nodded, swinging a small backpack over his shoulder, and bent to kiss Quatre. "See you," he muttered, nodding to Duo and Wufei, then waved briefly up at Wing before walking off towards the truck cabin.
"How attached are you to that hair?" Haan asked abruptly after a couple of hours of driving.
Trowa blinked, startled out of his thoughts by the unexpected question. Haan hadn't spoken since they set off, except to point out the rack of CDs, and Trowa had been quite comfortable in the silence, falling into a quiet reverie.
"...What do you mean?"
"I mean, can I cut it?" Haan glanced across for a moment, frowning. "It's the first thing people recognise you by."
"I suppose so." Trowa pulled at his fringe and squinted at it, going slightly cross-eyed. He felt a little uncomfortable at the idea of losing the smooth fall of hair, but suppressed it. *If it's a choice between cutting my hair and getting caught, I'll cut my hair. Quatre teases me sometimes about hiding behind it... I suppose I do. Well, it'll grow again.*
"How are you planning to disguise the others?" he asked curiously.
"I'm not planning to cut Duo's hair," Haan said dryly. "I've got a few ideas for him, but nothing solid yet. I might dye Quatre's. Wufei..." He shrugged. "I'll see what he looks like without the ponytail."
"What about Heero?"
Haan snickered, grinning nastily. "I'm tempted to give him a buzz cut. I know where I can get clippers."
"I'll sign your casts when you get out of hospital."
In the end, Haan didn't shorten Trowa's bangs very much; he just trimmed them enough so that they didn't make a cowlick on the back of Trowa's head when he slicked his hair back with gel. He produced new clothes, too, scruffy jeans and t-shirt, with a bulky down jacket that made Trowa look much more heavily built than he really was.
"Try not to look as if you're scared they'll fall off," Haan advised, nodding towards Trowa's hips. The European pilot blushed and stopped hitching up the baggy jeans.
"I'm not used to wearing clothes this loose," he admitted. *Except in the circus ring!*
"The waistband isn't loose, and that's all that matters. See?" To prove it, Haan grabbed the front pockets and yanked downwards. The jeans didn't come off, much to Trowa's relief. "We're going the long way across OZ's search zone, so you've got twenty-four hours to get used to it."
"Why can't I just ride in the cargo space? If you can fool the OZ sensors that well, why risk having someone recognise me?"
"It wouldn't work," Haan said flatly. "It doesn't work on living things." Trowa raised a mildly sceptical eyebrow, and Haan's mouth twisted into a humourless smile. "Well, it would work up to a point. The sensors wouldn't see you... but anything more advanced than a plant that spends more than a couple of minutes in there," he jerked his thumb towards the trailer, "while my 'trick' is operating, ends up either dead or insane. I contracted to deliver Gundam pilots, not walking vegetables or slabs of 'the other white meat'."
About to say more, Haan suddenly choked and doubled over, coughing violently. He clamped one hand over his mouth, supporting himself with the other hand on his knees, and managed to suppress the coughing fit, but stayed bent over for a long moment, breathing hard.
When he took his hand away from his mouth, Trowa saw blood.
"That anything I need to know about?" he asked quietly, not reaching out to Haan but ready to move if he needed support.
"Talking too much," Haan rasped, and muffled another cough. Slowly straightening up, he grimaced and wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand.
Trowa could think of several things that would make somebody cough up blood. Most were at least potentially fatal, and an uncomfortably large number were infectious. "What is it?" *Tuberculosis? Ravenna's Disease? Maybe he's not interested in making money because he knows he won't live long enough to spend it...* "I'd like to know if I have to worry about you dropping dead, you see," he added in a bland voice when it didn't look like Haan was going to answer right away.
*I'm not dead yet! I'm getting better!* Haan thought, suppressing a slightly hysterical laugh that would only hurt like hell and give Trowa entirely the wrong idea. *I feel happy!* Squashing the urge to keep quoting Monty Python to himself--*And how long is it since I've thought of that scene without wanting to get drunk?* --he tugged the collar of his turtleneck down with his clean hand, displaying the ugly ridged scar running across his throat and down onto his shoulder.
"Nasty," Trowa observed dispassionately, reaching out to pull the cloth lower. "Looks like somebody tried to kill you."
"You could say that," Haan whispered hoarsely. *Or you could say that he was trying to find out if something would kill him, and needed a guinea pig, but I don't feel like getting into a full explanation.*
"Scar tissue on your vocal cords, too?"
Haan nodded, pulling away and readjusting his collar. "I normally go months without an episode," he whispered. "Duo's a bad influence."
A faint smile tugged at the corners of Trowa's mouth. "He is very good at getting quiet people out of their shells," he murmured. "Do you need to see somebody about it?"
"Years old. Not gonna get better."
*That explains his voice,* Trowa mused, walking back to the truck and resisting the urge to hitch up his jeans again, *and why he stopped talking so suddenly when we started driving. His throat must have started hurting. Or started hurting more...*
*That scar didn't look years old. It looked a couple of months old at most, still red and tender... but why would he lie about it?*
Late that night, Haan pulled into a truck stop and parked at the end of a row of other semis and road trains.
"are we moving on after we've eaten?" Trowa asked, nodding towards the bright 'NO VACANCY' sign.
Haan shook his head. "Bunk in the truck," he rasped, voice still painful-sounding.
"Is that safe? Sleeping in the truck while your 'trick' is operating?" Having Haan suddenly cough up blood might have been distracting, but Trowa hadn't forgotten what he'd said about the effects of whatever-it-was he did to hide the trailer's real contents.
"It's safe. The effect goes in, not out. Shielded." Seeing Trowa's mildly dubious expression, Haan grinned. "Safe as driving the truck with it operating."
"Good point," Trowa said dryly. "I don't think I've gone insane yet, but then, the patient is apparently the last one to know. You seem stable enough, so I suppose it must be all right."
"Crunchy pool frogs spam," Haan said seriously, and swung out of his door. He was still smirking, and Trowa was still chuckling, when they walked into the building.
They ate at a table by the window, watching trucks pull in and out of the brightly-lit parking lot, and Trowa noted a few that were as impressively decorated as Haan's. The drivers who got out of the flashier trucks tended to check out the other rigs in the parking lot before coming in to eat, and always spent extra time looking at Ryuukossei.
"Prosperous independents," Haan said quietly, noting Trowa's interest. "It's advertising."
"If you can afford to spend that much on your truck's looks, you must be doing well, and therefore you're a good person to hire?" Trowa speculated, and Haan nodded. "Just like making an impression on a prospective employer when you're in a mercenary corps... Why are they so interested in Ryuukossei?"
"Not a regular in this area," Haan shrugged, taking a sip of his soda. "Wondering if I'm new competition or just passing through."
"I see what you meant about it looking legitimate, now," Trowa admitted. All the bigger trucks were either painted in the colours of a major shipping company, or chromed and embellished from their hood ornaments to their taillights. A 'nondescript' truck without any identifying marks would have stood out like a sore thumb.
"You are paying me for my expertise," Haan pointed out quietly.
"Not enough," Trowa muttered into his coffee.
"I'm sure they'll be fine, Q," Duo said earnestly, breaking into Quatre's uncharacteristic gloomy silence. "They both know what they're doing, and you saw what Haan can do with that truck of his!"
Quatre managed a weak smile. "I know. I just... I can't help worrying about it. I mean, we all know how easily a plan can fall apart if the stupidest little thing goes wrong..."
"Even if that happens, they'll make it," Duo said confidently, sitting down next to him on the lawn and looking up at the moon.
"...You really trust Haan that much?"
Duo groaned. "Oh, man, don't tell me Heero's got you doubting him too!"
"No! I trust your judgement, and Howard vouched for him as well, so yes, I still believe he's on our side. It's just... you have so much faith in him, but you've only met him once before now."
"I developed faith in Heero pretty damn quick too, and that was after I shot him, he nearly committed suicide, and he stripped Deathscythe for parts," Duo pointed out dryly. "Maybe I'm just a sucker for guys who glare well."
Quatre giggled. "Maybe."
Duo leaned back on his hands and studied Quatre's profile. "What's got you twitchy about Haan?"
The blond pilot was silent for a long moment, chin resting on his knees. "I can't feel him."
"In my heart... my empathy." Quatre shifted, rubbing absent-mindedly at his chest. "I can't feel Haan at all."
Duo leaned forwards, tossing a wary glance back over his shoulder at the house to make sure the other pilots weren't coming out. Wufei had maintained a diplomatic silence on the subject of Quatre's 'sixth sense', but Heero was openly sceptical. Duo wasn't so sure. "But... I thought you couldn't feel people until you got to know them, anyway?"
"Usually," Quatre stressed. "Very strong personalities make an impact right away. I felt you and all the other pilots on our first meeting, for one thing," he added.
Duo snorted. "Haan definitely comes across as a strong personality, I gotta admit."
"Even without that, before I can get anything definite from people, there's a sort of... It's sort of like a faint background noise," Quatre said, struggling to find the words to explain. "If somebody's right next to you, even if they don't say anything, you can hear them breathing and moving, maybe feel their body heat. It's kind of like that. People radiate the fact that they exist, but Haan's like a black hole. I didn't really notice it the first time I met him, because I didn't expect to feel anything yet, so I wasn't really 'looking' at him. But today... I 'looked'."
"Weird," Duo breathed. "I can see how that would be creepy." *Like talking to someone and then suddenly realising that they're ice cold and not breathing... brrr!* "Maybe he's, I dunno, an anti-empath or something? I mean, you've got a psychic ability that lets you feel things about people, maybe he's got one that blocks it?"
"It's possible," Quatre said doubtfully. "I've never met anybody else who does that, though."
"So it's rare. Ever met another empath?"
"...Not knowingly. Good point." Quatre sighed and flopped back onto the grass, letting his arms sprawl limply to either side. "If I'm one of a kind, I can't blame him for being the same."
Duo choked. "Q!"
"What, you're allowed to swear and I'm not?" Quatre sniffed haughtily. "That's discriminatory, you know."
"It's not that! It's just... it means more, coming from you."
Quatre sniffed again. "I just haven't cheapened it through overuse."
"Now you sound like Wufei."
"Finally, someone learns from my example," an amused voice came from behind them. "I gain merit by improving the world around me. No doubt my ancestors are pleased."
"Shit, Wu, don't sneak up on people like that! How long have you been there?!"
"Long enough to hear your last sentence, that's all. And don't call me 'Wu'." The Chinese pilot raised one elegant eyebrow. "Is this a private conversation, or can anyone sit in?"
"The restricted portion is over, I think," Duo told him, glancing at Quatre for confirmation and getting a nod back. "Pull up a weed and take the load off, 'Fei-fei."
"How would you like it if I called you 'Du'?" Wufei asked, mildly exasperated. "Or 'Well-well'?"
"I'd call it a sign of a developing sense of humour, and cheer... Wufei."
He snorted, sitting down. "Devolving, Maxwell, not developing."
"Whatever. Change is life. Is Heero gonna come out too?"
"I doubt it. Yui is--"
"Oh no." Duo collapsed forwards onto his face. "You're calling him 'Yui'. That means he's being a dick again."
"I wouldn't put it that strongly, but he is exhibiting moderately paranoid behaviour patterns," Wufei grumbled.
"What's he doing?" Quatre asked tiredly, draping one forearm across his eyes.
"Hacking into OZ databases to look for mentions of our smuggler."
"It figures," Duo growled, rolling over onto his back. "I'm sick of this. I'm not even going to argue with him about it. It's not worth developing an ulcer over. Maybe when he doesn't find anything he'll shut up for a day or so!"
"Since you haven't left to hunt Haan down, should I take it that you didn't find any mention of him in OZ's records?" Wufei asked coolly the next morning, after walking into the kitchen to find Heero already there.
"Hn." The scowl on Heero's face deepened as he reached for a mug and the jar of instant coffee.
"I would consider this a good thing," Wufei continued pointedly. "One more piece of evidence pointing towards his trustworthiness."
"It doesn't prove anything," Heero snarled, slinging coffee into his mug and glaring at the kettle as if it had personally offended him.
"You know as well as I do how hard it is to prove a negative, Yui," Wufei snorted. "There comes a point when you have to admit that you've found no reason not to trust someone, and you passed that point a long time ago."
"Perhaps we have different ideas of where that point is."
"Perhaps you have personal reasons for wanting Haan to be a traitor."
Heero stiffened, jerking his head around to stare. "And what the hell do you mean by that?!"
"Jealousy is a very ugly emotion, Yui," Wufei said quietly, meeting Heero's eyes without flinching. "Driving away anyone who even looks at him sideways won't get you very far with Duo."
"I'm not jealous!"
"Then stop acting like you are."
"You were acting like your normal paranoid but rational self until Haan kissed Duo," Wufei snapped impatiently. "Since then, any mention of him has you clenching your fists and reaching for your gun. If you want to have some sort of relationship with Duo, do something about it. If you don't, then whatever he and Haan may choose to do together is entirely their business!"
Heero opened his mouth to retort, but snapped it shut again as a door opened at the other end of the hall.
"Think about it, Yui," Wufei muttered, lowering his voice as dragging footsteps approached. "Try to use your intellect instead of your hormones this time."
"Man, I hate mornings," Duo yawned, pushing the kitchen door open and making a beeline for the coffee jar. "If you see a sunrise, you're either up too late or way too early... uh... am I interrupting something here?" he trailed off uncertainly, looking back and forth between the two Asian pilots.
"Not really," Wufei said flatly, not taking his eyes off Heero. "I was finished."
"Whoa," Duo whispered, dumping coffee and hot water into his mug and making a quick about-face. "The testosterone readings are off the scale today! I'm outta here."
Scuttling out the door, he quickly intercepted Quatre as the blond teen came out of his room. "Word to the wise, Q: do not walk in where angels fear to tread."
"Huh?" Quatre blinked at him fuzzily, sleep-tousled and not looking well rested at all.
"The kitchen, Quatre. I think we'd better treat it as a no-go zone until the coast is clear," Duo explained patiently. He glanced back in that direction as he heard the back door open and shut. "Heero and Wufei were in there just now, flexing their tempers at each other or something. I think one of 'em just left, but that leaves the other one in there with no ready target, so let's not offer ourselves as substitutes, 'kay? If you need a caffeine hit, you can have some of mine." With that, he focussed properly on Quatre for the first time and whistled quietly. "Looks like you do need some, Q. Bad night?"
"Bad dreams," Quatre sighed, accepting the mug of coffee and taking a sip. "When I could get to sleep at all, that is."
"You're welcome to bunk in with me tonight if you think it'll help," Duo offered sympathetically, nudging Quatre gently in the direction of the living room.
"I may take you up on that." Quatre took another sip, shuddering slightly. "How you can regularly drink double-strength coffee with no milk and no sugar, I don't know... It was mostly anxiety dreams. Seeing Trowa and knowing that something was about to happen to him, but not being able to warn him, that sort of thing."
"Yeah, well, dreams don't mean anything, right?"
"I know that! I'm empathic, not precognitive." He shuddered again, taking a larger mouthful of coffee and making a face. "I think I was incorporating what I, uh, didn't feel from Haan into the dreams, too. There was one where Trowa was walking along, talking to someone, but there wasn't anyone with him; just a black smudge in the air that was sucking the colour out of everything it went past, slowly getting closer and closer to him."
"Yuk!" Duo grimaced, plucking his mug out of Quatre's hands and taking a swig. "That settles it, you're definitely rooming with me tonight. And you're going with Haan next. The sooner you can hook up with Trowa again and see for yourself that he's fine, the better it'll be for everybody."
Quatre smiled wanly. "I'll be all right once we get the OK signal from Trowa to say they're safely through. Besides, we're supposed to avoid each other until the Doctors identify the traitor, remember?"
Duo snorted, passing the mug back. "That was just a recommendation, not an order, from the man who taught Heero everything he knows about paranoia. If the Doctors don't know where we are, it's not going to make any difference if you two stick together. Hell, we could all stick together."
"You get to convince Heero and Wufei, though," Quatre chuckled, starting to look happier.
"Easy. If the Doctors' organisation is as badly compromised as we think it is, the last information the traitor's going to have passed to OZ will be that we've been told to split up. Given that, it's almost a tactical necessity for us to do the opposite!" Duo grinned triumphantly. "Think they'll buy it?"
"Great! Hmmm... you know, I've only had two mouthfuls of coffee so far this morning, but I'm awake and thinking. Walking into a Yui-Chang glaring contest must be a pretty good substitute for caffeine."
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