"They aren't even glancing inside," Trowa muttered, nodding towards where a squad of OZ soldiers were examining a truck. "Waste of a good hologram, or whatever it is you do to make the load look right."
"We might still need it," Haan shrugged, shifting gears and slowing down as they approached the queue of vehicles waiting to be checked. "Maybe they only look inside trucks that are big enough to take a whole Gundam at once."
The OZ squad covering this road had set up two boom gates, far enough apart to let in one vehicle at a time. One by one, each car or truck was let into the enclosure, where it was thoroughly scanned and its occupants questioned; then the other gate was opened and it was let out. Vehicles coming into the blockaded area got similar treatment, but the scanning and questioning only took about half as long.
*Of course,* Trowa thought wryly. *They're looking for people -- us -- trying to get out, not in.*
"Here." Haan's hand materialised in front of his nose, waving a couple of banknotes. "Go get us lunch. Put the jacket on first, though, it changes your profile."
"Let me guess," Trowa sighed, taking the money and glancing towards the small roadside cafe Haan was indicating. Half a dozen OZ soldiers seemed to be eating their own lunches at its outdoor tables, and there were probably more inside. "This is another time when if we act like we have nothing to hide, nobody will suspect us?"
"Don't forget coffee," Haan grinned. "Black, two sugars."
"The principle is sound, but I think you overuse it," Trowa said pointedly, shrugging into the jacket as he opened his door. Haan just pushed a CD into the player and turned the volume up, settling back into his seat as if he had all the time in the world to wait for the OZ troops to get around to him.
The European pilot had barely taken three steps away from Ryuukossei when there was a shout from further along the road. "Hey! You there, in the blue jacket! Where do you think you're going?"
"Boss wants lunch," Trowa called back, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the truck and trying to sound bored.
"Hmph. All right, but make it quick! The queue's moving, you know," the officer said pompously, waving him towards the cafe.
"That's what he said," Trowa agreed, walking casually towards his destination while his heart slowly settled back into its proper place. Normally he wouldn't have been bothered by the idea of walking into a group of enemy soldiers -- he'd done it before, after all -- but this time he wasn't in their uniform, and they were specifically looking for him. Besides which, having his bangs slicked back over his head instead of hiding half his face was making him more nervous than he'd expected. *This is stupid!*
Stupid or not, it seemed to work. He was able to walk into the cafe, buy sandwiches and coffee, and walk out again without anyone else giving him a second look... or even a first look, in many cases.
*Something's going on,* he decided, as for the third time an OZ soldier looked past him to glare suspiciously at someone else. *These guys are alert, they're professional, they're careful... everybody's getting checked out except me!*
"Did you do something?" he asked under his breath as he climbed back into the truck cabin.
"What do you mean?" Haan asked, just as quietly, taking his coffee and sipping.
"There was a lieutenant comparing everyone's faces to a handful of Identikit pictures. He didn't look at me. All the other soldiers were paying attention to faces, but not mine. Did you bribe every OZ soldier at this roadblock to ignore anyone wearing this jacket, or what?" Trowa whispered, half seriously.
There was a long pause as Haan released the brakes and let Ryuukossei roll forwards as the queue moved; then he sighed. "Bribes don't work," he said obliquely, not quite answering the question. "There's always one person who takes the money and then turns around and tells his bosses about you anyway."
"All right, so you didn't bribe them. Did you do something else?"
"You're entirely too observant for my peace of mind, you know." Haan glanced over at Trowa as he reached for a sandwich, and grimaced as his eyes met the pilot's intense stare. "Yes, I did something. No, I won't tell you what. Just keep that jacket on until we're clear."
Trowa might have kept arguing, but an OZ officer was walking down the line of cars and trucks towards them, carrying a datapad. Abandoning the issue to wait until they had privacy, he sat back and occupied himself with a sandwich, resolving to dissect his jacket down to its component threads at the earliest opportunity.
*I half expected that one or more of them would get suspicious,* Haan thought, pretending to watch the approaching officer, *but I definitely didn't expect it this soon! It's the first time he's used that jacket, damn it, and he realised right away that something was going on.*
A lifetime's habit -- a long lifetime's habit -- was telling him to forget his contract, dump Trowa and Heavyarms somewhere and leave, abandon his current identity and vanish again before the Gundam pilots could find out anything more about what he could do... and what he was. And yet...
*I took their money. Not much of it, maybe, but I took it, and I said I'd get them out. Without me, they won't get out without a fight. They might not get out at all.*
*It would prove Heero was right to be suspicious about me. It would prove that Duo was wrong to trust me.*
*Hell. I wish he didn't trust me! It would make this decision a lot easier if they were all acting like Heero...*
"What can I do you for, Major?" he asked in a lazy voice, leaning out the window as the OZ officer walked up to his door and deliberately overestimating his rank.
"It's Lieutenant," the young man said stiffly, handing up the datapad. "If you could fill in the questions on this form before you reach the inspection point, your clearance through the perimeter will be expedited."
"Gotcha." Haan pulled the stylus out of its clip on the side of the pad and started to read the form, scrawling nearly illegible answers onto the pressure-sensitive surface. Filling in the details of his current false identity and listing Trowa as 'temporary relief driver, Tomas Brent', he watched the lieutenant march away and frowned.
*How they're acting towards me is irrelevant,* he told himself coldly. *Look at the problem logically. If I forget the contract and go underground, I'll be significantly safer in the short term. On the other hand, OZ will get a serious advantage, maybe even enough to end the war here and now... and in the long term, that could be far more dangerous for me than anything the Gundam pilots might do.*
*I should stick with the contract,* Haan decided, and tried to ignore the feeling of relief as he persuaded himself to do exactly what he wanted to do, anyway.
"And you have a cargo of... ah..." The officer in charge of the small detachment physically examining vehicles peered at Haan's messy writing, squinting. Unlike the lieutenant Haan had 'accidentally' promoted, she was a real major.
"Vases and stuff," Haan shrugged. "Little statues. I can open a container or two if you want, but I'll have to get you to sign a note formally requesting me to break the seals. Insurance company requires it," he explained, sounding bored.
"I don't believe that will be necessary, sir," she said politely, hitting a key to advance the pad's display to the next screen. "Assuming our scans confirm the nature of your cargo, that is. Will this be your only trip through the area?"
"No. Got a contract for six more runs. Same company, different destinations, different cargoes."
"I see," she murmured, expression slightly sharper as she looked up from the pad. She had a good view into Ryuukossei's cabin through Haan's open door, and her eyes were alert as she checked him over... and then she looked at Trowa and visibly lost interest, bored eyes sliding away from his face and back to the pad. "So we'll be seeing you both again?"
"Just me. Brent's working his way south. I'll be dropping him off, same time as the cargo. I don't have a regular relief driver, but the insurance on this contract requires one, so I'll be taking temps with me on my trips out."
*If anything should have made her suspicious, that was it!* Trowa thought, keeping his face expressionless with an effort as the major just nodded, eyes on the datapad. *He as good as told her 'I'll be driving a very large truck out of your search zone, several times, taking people I can't vouch for with me', but she didn't even twitch! The way they're running this checkpoint, we should be flat on the ground being searched, interrogated and fingerprinted right about now.*
Pressing one hand against her ear as a faint crackle came from her tiny communications headset, the major nodded and then smiled at Haan, totally ignoring Trowa. "Well, sir, since my scan team has just confirmed your cargo, I don't see any reason to delay you any longer. Thank you for your cooperation."
"Be seeing you," Haan grinned, pulling his door shut as the reinforced boom gate ahead of him swung up out of the way.
Haan drove in silence for almost fifteen minutes, getting clear of the roadblock and out of sensor range of the OZ forces covering it; then he pulled over onto the shoulder of the road, shut off the engine, and just sat there.
"...What's wrong?" Trowa asked quietly.
"Go ahead," Haan told him, looking straight ahead through the windscreen.
"Go ahead and what?" the European pilot asked wryly. "Get out and walk? Sing? Punch you?"
A faint snort escaped Haan, and he finally turned to look at his passenger. "I imagine you have a few things you'd like to say," he replied, voice just as wry. "Go ahead."
Trowa raised a sceptical eyebrow. "I don't know that it'll do me any good. I have several questions I want to ask, yes, but you haven't exactly been forthcoming with answers whenever questions have come up before."
"Good point," Haan murmured, mouth twisting into what was almost a smile. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel for a moment, then shrugged. "If they're about my methods, don't bother asking them," he said flatly. "If they're about my capabilities, or my motivations, I'll probably answer. Up to you."
"There's obviously no point in asking you how this jacket does what it does, then," Trowa said, tugging at the collar.
"How about 'what'? What does it do? What are its limits? Does it run out of power? Is it good enough to make Lady Une ignore me, considering that she's actually met me before and knows who I am, or not? Will it make people ignore me even if I'm acting suspiciously?" Trowa ran out of fingers to tick points off on and stopped, smiling faintly. "Is that enough questions to start with, or shall I go on?"
Haan snorted again, sitting back. "It's a start," he agreed dryly, then drummed his fingers again as he thought for a second. "It... makes people lose interest," he said slowly. "They come up with their own reasons why -- decide they've already checked you, or you don't look right after all, or whatever -- but the end result is that they convince themselves you aren't the person they're looking for."
Trowa nearly choked, abruptly sputtering with laughter. "You mean this jacket does the Jedi Mind Trick?!"
Haan blinked at him for a moment, then slowly smiled. "I thought I was almost the only person who still remembered that movie," he murmured quietly.
"Duo," Trowa snickered, shaking his head. "Blame Duo. He has the weirdest collection of old cult movies and series on disk. All fifteen Star Wars movies, Star Trek, Blake's 7, It Came From Outer Space, X-Files, something really surreal called Mister Ed, the full Redemption Station series from the late 21st century, including the legendary lost episode... and that's just the ones he's managed to get the rest of us to watch. I'd heard of Redemption Station before, but all of the older stuff was completely new to me."
"I should have guessed," Haan sighed, then cleared his throat, wincing. "Anyway. The jacket has more limitations than the Force. If it's damaged in the wrong place, it'll stop working, and it can't do much if there's nobody else around for people to redirect their attention to. It won't work against anyone who knows you, it doesn't work if you're being watched through a surveillance system, and it won't work if you're caught clutching explosives in the middle of a restricted base, but it doesn't run out of power. Next?"
"You all right to keep talking?" Trowa asked, gesturing vaguely towards Haan's throat, and he grimaced, hand automatically going to his collar and tugging it up a fraction.
"A bit longer, yeah."
"Then it's probably a good thing I only have one more serious question. Why?"
"Why everything," Trowa shrugged. "Why are you so secretive? Why are you helping us even though it puts your secrets at risk?"
"I'm helping you because you're fighting OZ," Haan began, and Trowa quickly lifted a hand to cut him off.
"And why are you so strongly against OZ?" he added, holding Haan's eyes with his own. "I know you've said they annoy you. Why do they annoy you so much that you'll take this sort of risk to help their enemies?"
Haan looked away first, staring out the windshield again, and when he spoke his voice had a more serious tone than Trowa had heard from him before. "My entire lifestyle, and sometimes my life, depend on my ability to vanish at will," he said slowly. "I change locations whenever I want to, I change identities, and I won't -- I can't -- give that up. Totalitarian governments keep tight enough track of people's movements and identities to make things difficult. At the moment, I can just stay away from that sort of country... but OZ are trying to become a system-wide totalitarian government, and if they win, I won't have anywhere to go. That's why I am 'annoyed' by what they are now," he said grimly, glancing at Trowa and away again, "and it's also why I am scared shitless by what they could become."
He stared blindly out the window for a while, jaw muscles tight, then gradually relaxed. "As for why I'm so secretive," he said, reaching for the keys in the ignition, "it's because I have a lot of secrets that I don't want anybody to find out."
"Not even Duo?" Trowa asked quietly, and Haan paused halfway through putting Ryuukossei in gear.
"Especially not Duo," he said bleakly, shoved the gear lever forwards and drove off.
Ten minutes later...
"The first three Star Wars movies are the only ones worth watching."
"The first three in the timeline, or the first three made?"
"First ones made. They went downhill from there."
"Mmm... you have a point. What about the fourth one, though?"
"*snort* Be serious! Queen Amidala, prisoner of her own hairstyle."
"True. And then there was... what's his name? The annoying alien."
"Jar Jar Binks. Ugh."
"Duo calls him 'Dur Dur'."
"*snicker* I knew he had good taste."
Duo and Quatre were sprawled on the lawn again, watching puffy white clouds drift across the sky, when Wufei leaned out the front door and called to them.
"Duo? Quatre? Trowa's on the com."
Quatre rolled to his feet faster than even Heero could have managed on a good day and bolted for the house, leaving Duo scrambling in his wake. "Secure or normal com?" he snapped as he barrelled past Wufei.
"Secure!" Wufei shouted down the hall after him, then leaned against the wall, chuckling. Duo jogged up the steps and stopped next to him, resting one arm on his shoulder as he shook his head incredulously.
"Ya know, Wufei, I honestly think Q-man would've left a cloud of black smoke behind him if he'd been wearing rubber-soled shoes," he said in awed tones. "Who knew he could hit mach five from a standing start like that?"
"Lying-down start, you mean," Wufei corrected him, still chuckling. "He had motivation, after all. Shall we dawdle slightly on our way in, and give him a little time to talk to Trowa alone?"
"Sounds good to me," Duo nodded, then shoved his hands into his pockets and began to mosey down the hall at a snail's pace. "Did Tro say anything other than 'hi' before you came to get us? Was Haan there?"
"Trowa's calling from Heavyarms," the Chinese pilot informed him, matching his casual pace. "He said that Haan dropped him off, and will be starting back here for his next pickup once he's made his cover delivery."
"Well, that just about proves that Haan's got accomplices," Duo pointed out. "Since he doesn't have anything else to deliver, either he's got to get somebody to sign off on a nonexistent delivery, or he's got to pick up something matching his manifest to take to the warehouse."
"Which pushes him further into negative returns on this job," Wufei said thoughtfully, "unless they're working for nothing because they hate OZ too."
"Yeah," Duo said, voice suddenly flat as he stopped dead in the middle of the hall. "Look... Wufei... what do you think of him?" he said in a rush, running his hand nervously through his bangs. "You think we can trust him?"
"You're asking me? You've been his steadfast defender all along, Duo! What's happened to make you doubt him?" Wufei asked, startled.
"I don't! Not really," Duo insisted, glancing towards the doors at the end of the hall and keeping his voice down. "It's just that, well, normally we all think pretty much alike, right? If you make allowances for Heero's institutional paranoia and Quatre's occasional Pollyanna moment, we're usually on the same wavelength. If one of us trusts someone, then given the same evidence, the rest of us will trust that person too. And we're usually right! I rely on everyone's judgement the way I rely on my own. But this time..."
"This time, Heero's opinion is so different from yours that it's making you wonder who's wrong?" Wufei asked quietly.
"It wouldn't be so bad if it was just Heero," Duo sighed, but Quatre's got kind of twitchy about Haan, too, and--"
"Really? He didn't say anything," Wufei interrupted, frowning.
"I think he didn't want to 'cause it's an empathy thing, and you know how Heero is about that," Duo snorted. "He doesn't get anything wrong from Haan, but he doesn't get anything else, either, and that makes him nervous. The thing is, when we were talking about it last night, he said something that got me wondering... Sure, Haan saved my butt four months ago," he said unhappily, "but I don't really know anything else about him. What if I am wrong to trust him without reservations?"
"I rely on everyone else's judgement, too, and I trust your instincts a lot further than I trust Heero's paranoia," Wufei scowled. "Besides, Howard trusts him too, remember? Don't start doubting yourself, Duo; you've got no reason to. Heero has his own reasons for disliking Haan, and he's allowing them to affect his judgement."
"Yeah... the whole stupid kiss thing," Duo sighed, looking a little happier. "Beats me why it bothers him so much, though. I mean, I kissed Quatre once as a joke, and Heero just called me an idiot!"
Wufei coughed uncomfortably, a faint flush creeping over his cheekbones. "Er... call it a personality conflict," he suggested, tugging nervously at his short ponytail. "In any case, I think the strongest proof of Haan's trustworthiness is the fact that nothing untoward happened when he picked Trowa up. He knew we'd all be there, with only two Gundams present to reduce the risk of being picked up by OZ, and although it was a good spot for security and privacy it was also a good spot for an ambush. It was his best chance to catch us all in one swoop, if that was his intent."
"True!" Duo said cheerfully, perking up and starting to walk down the hall again.
"Of course, this won't stop Heero from insisting that he might just be lulling us into a false sense of security," Wufei added dryly, falling into step beside him.
"Yeah, well, now that I'm back to my normal stellar levels of self-confidence, Heero can kiss my ass," Duo said belligerently, chuckling as Wufei choked and coughed violently. "Thanks, Wu-man!" he added brightly, bouncing ahead. "I needed to hear that."
"Any time, Duo," Wufei sighed, barely above a whisper. "Any time."
"...good to hear," Quatre was saying as they walked into the room, looking genuinely happy for the first time since Trowa left. "Did you have any problems going through the checkpoint?"
< < ...Not really, > > Trowa said slowly, and Heero looked up from where he was leaning against the wall.
< < Haan doesn't just play with holograms. > > Trowa looked past Quatre out of the screen, raising an eyebrow. < < Is Duo there? He's going to love this. > >
One explanation later...
"Ya know, it would be sooooo useful if we could just get hold of a few of those jackets," Duo mused, hanging over Quatre's shoulder with an avaricious glitter in his eyes. "D'you think he'd sell us one or two? Or five?"
< < The impression I get is 'no', > > Trowa said dryly. < < We've survived without anything like them before, Duo; I think we'll keep managing without them in the future. > >
"How does he do it? Sonics?" Duo asked. "Some ultra-low frequencies make people uneasy. Maybe he's hit on a different frequency that makes people bored!"
< < I have no idea, > > Trowa admitted. < < I don't think sonics would be specific enough, though... or at least, I can't think of a way to focus them tightly enough to prevent people around you from being disinterested in everything. I was planning to take the jacket apart, but I didn't get a chance to, and I didn't exactly have access to Heavyarms's sensors at the time. > >
"If he's got this sort of capability," Heero said grimly, "I for one find it suspicious that we've never heard of him before."
The other four pilots hid their collective wince with varying degrees of success; then, Duo slowly straightened up and sighed theatrically, turning to face him. "Gee, Heero, and here I was just thinking that maybe we've never heard of him before because he's got all these cool widgets to keep himself out of trouble. Or maybe it's got something to do with the fact that we're all colony brats and he operates on Earth! But no, Mister Yui, He Who Suspects Absolutely Everything has spoken, so of course the real reason we never heard of Haan before I met him is because he was lying in wait, lurking around random bars waiting for a Gundam pilot to fall into his clutches, get rescued from the stereotypical Minions Of Evil, and trust him! This, of course, was only the first step in his Byzantine master plan," he continued, voice rising as Heero tried to interrupt the flood of increasingly angry words. "You know, the one where he gets us all to trust him and then hands us over to Lady Une's tender mercies. We're talking really Byzantine here, 'cause only a dedicated conspiracy theorist would believe that somebody would actually try something this complicated and chancy -- especially since, hey, would you believe it, Haan actually had a perfect opportunity to spring his hypothetical trap yesterday, and nothing happened! I guess he musta forgot, huh, Heero?!"
"It's classic deception tactics to pass up an early opportunity in order to set your enemy up for a later attack," Heero said stiffly, fists clenched.
"Ten points to Chang for predicting that line," Duo said sourly, throwing up his hands. "Not that it was hard to see coming, or anything! Shit, Heero, get the stick out of your damn ass and just admit that you don't have a single solitary concrete reason for distrusting Haan! And do it quick, all right, 'cause it's making you act like a total jerk and I'm getting sick of it. Grow a brain cell and get over this, or I'm gonna give up talking to you until you can hold a rational conversation again."
"Thanks for the help getting it all unloaded," the warehouse supervisor said gratefully, shaking Haan's hand. "As shorthanded as we are, I honestly didn't think we were going to get all the containers in before the local delivery vans arrived to start taking the orders out, much less get them unpacked in time!"
"No problem," Haan told him, patting him on the shoulder and then swinging up into Ryuukossei's cabin. "Got my own schedule to keep, after all."
"Well, it's appreciated. Come by the next time you're in the area, and I'll buy you a drink, okay?"
"Deal," Haan smiled, and started the engine.
There was a quiet sound underlying the usual engine noises as he drove away, a low, intermittent rumble, and Haan's smile widened as he recognised it. "Happy?" he murmured softly, patting the console in front of him, and the purring rumble got louder.
"You don't like carrying passengers?"
=not talk to me.= The mental 'voice' conveyed images and feelings more than words, and there was a definite pout in it.
"Well, I can't when humans are around. You know that."
=then not carry passengers,= Ryuukossei said bluntly.
Haan sighed. "Just four more times, I promise, then it'll be just us again. Okay?"
=...like last one?=
"How do you mean?"
=other four have big metal to hide too?= the truck asked plaintively.
"Yes," Haan said cautiously, hoping that Ryuukossei hadn't abruptly decided it didn't like the spell that had kept Heavyarms hidden. The truck -- or rather, the spirit that was currently being a truck -- had taken a sudden dislike to one of Haan's security wards about two years earlier, saying it 'itched', and he'd had to stop using it.
"Why does that make it okay?" he asked, startled.
=nearly awake. maybe others awake, talk to me.=
Haan blinked a few times, absorbing that bit of information, then shrugged. *It's almost unheard-of for an object spirit to develop in something that's less than fifty years old, and so far as I know the Gundams haven't even been around for one... but they are the focus of the hopes and fears of billions of people. I suppose that could accelerate the process...*
*So could spending a couple of days inside another object spirit.* Haan snorted as a possibility occurred to him. *I wonder how the pilots would react if their Gundams suddenly started talking back to them? Not that it's likely, even if the spirits do wake fully, but it's an amusing idea.*
"How close to awake was the Gundam?" he asked curiously.
"The big metal," he explained patiently.
As he drove on, a good percentage of Haan's attention was occupied with imagining the look on Heero's face if Wing ever told him to soak his head.
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