Once again, Haan was picking up a Gundam and pilot; this time, though, his answers to Duo's cheerful banter were slightly distracted. More than half his attention was on Sandrock (currently being loaded onto Ryuukossei) and Wing (standing guard), trying to sense whether or not they were 'inhabited' by more than just their pilots.
*I'm pretty sure there's nothing spiritual happening to Wing,* he mused, regretfully discarding his private daydream of a self-aware Gundam someday telling Heero what he could do with his paranoia. *It's not surprising, I guess... Heero may spend a lot of time working with it, but I'm sure he's never personified it in his own mind, and without that stimulus the creation of an object spirit is nearly impossible. Sandrock, though...*
Straightening up after tightening a restraining strap around Sandrock's legs, Haan laid one hand on the sun-warmed metal and concentrated, closing his eyes. There was a faint flicker of something, just at the edge of his awareness, but he couldn't tell if it was what he was looking for. *It could just be the fact that Quatre obviously loves his Gundam; I could be picking up on the echo of his feelings, imprinted into the metal. Or it could be a spirit that's just on the point of coming into existence; if that's it, though, it's a spirit that has absolutely no interest in communicating with me--*
The faint sense of 'something there' vanished as Haan opened his eyes and found himself looking straight at Duo's concerned face. "Uh... yes. I'm fine."
"You sure? You looked kinda spacey for a moment there."
"Just thinking about something," Haan said dismissively, stepping over the end of the restraining strap and bending to tighten the next one. *I'm not going to be able to work out if that really is a spirit without setting up a full-scale focus circle around Sandrock, and somehow I think that would be a little more difficult to explain away than 'looking spacey'. It's not that important.*
*Besides, I can always ask Ryuukossei later.*
"Will you be all right travelling with Haan?" Wufei asked quietly, helping Quatre strap down one of Sandrock's arms.
"Yes, of course," the blond pilot said, just a fraction too quickly. "Why wouldn't I?"
"Duo... mentioned that you can't 'feel' him, and that makes you uncomfortable." Wufei shot an unreadable glance at Quatre, then bent to pick up the next strap.
*Damn.* Quatre could feel a blush heating up his cheeks, and knew his voice sounded a little strained as he answered. "I'll be alone with him for less than two days. I can manage." He hesitated for a moment, then swallowed and went on. "I realise it sounds irrational, but--"
"I don't think it's irrational," Wufei cut him off, voice still low. "I'm willing to accept that you can sense things I can't. One of my cousins can hear higher pitches than I can, right up to bats' sonar; I'm not going to call him irrational, just because I can't confirm those sounds exist with my own senses."
"...There's a slightly larger degree of difference in my case," Quatre pointed out wryly. "You can at least sense some sounds, so it's easy to accept that the others are real."
Wufei chuckled. "True. True. But I believe in radio waves, too, and I can't sense them at all... and yes, I know that's not a very good analogy either, because I can see their effects on my instruments. Every time you've had a 'feeling' strong enough to risk telling the rest of us about it, though, you've been right. I believe in things that give demonstrable results. Besides..."
"Besides, what?" Quatre asked, when it was clear that Wufei wasn't going to continue.
"Besides," Wufei said, a little reluctantly, "my clan has a history of... ah... dealings with things that could be termed 'supernatural'. I was raised to believe that there are more things in this world than can be explained scientifically. I was also raised to be sceptical until hoaxes and conventional causes have been ruled out, of course," he added dryly, "but I don't think you're trying to swindle me out of my life savings by pretending to pass on messages from my ancestors, so..."
"So you're not going to tell me that I'm either delusional or hysterical?" Quatre said, a little more bitterly than he'd meant to.
"Exactly. To misquote Shakespeare, 'there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Heero's philosophy'. He doesn't even believe in chi energy, so-- hm." Eyeing Quatre, Wufei decided there wasn't any point in continuing, since the Arab pilot probably wasn't going to stop laughing any time soon, and moved on to fasten the next strap with a smile on his face.
"What's the fake load this time?" Duo asked cheerfully, standing next to Haan as they watched the walls of Ryuukossei's cargo compartment fold up around Sandrock.
"A different batch of reproduction Ming vases and statuettes," Haan told him, glancing sideways at Quatre and Wufei as he swung the doors closed. "Bigger ones. --Ryuukossei! Manifest load!"
Following Haan's look towards the other pilots, Duo grinned. "C'mon guys, tell me what's so funny!"
Quatre snickered quietly, and Wufei's serene smile widened a fraction, but they didn't answer.
"Sheesh... they've been chortling to themselves for the last five minutes, and they still won't explain," Duo grumbled half-heartedly. "Oi! Heero! Scanning OK?"
< < Fine, > > Heero snapped. < < Now let's clear the area before an OZ patrol turns up. > > Without another word, he turned Wing around and walked off into the forest, vanishing from sight.
"'Goodbye, Quatre'," Duo sing-songed under his breath, glaring after the departing Gundam. "'Have a nice trip. Say hi to Trowa. Good luck going through OZ's perimeter.' Would it really have been so hard for him to say something like that?"
"Apparently," Quatre sighed, reaching out to stop Haan as he began to lock the doors. "May I have a look before we go?"
Haan swung the doors open again, and Quatre peered in with an almost awed expression. "That's still amazing," he murmured, looking at the ranks of plastic shipping containers strapped to the walls of the cargo compartment. "I know it's there, but I can't even see the boundary where the false image ends and reality begins."
"Talk about attention to detail," Duo said, looking over Quatre's shoulder. "There's dusty footprints on the floor, and you've even got a 'loose strap' on one of the containers!"
"Don't try to tighten it," Haan advised, beginning to close the doors once more.
"No, Trowa told us what you said about it not being safe in there while your anti-scanner whateveritis is running," Quatre assured him, stepping back. "Besides, I'd feel rather silly trying to tighten a strap that isn't actually there!"
"Just hope that no OZ jerk tries it," Duo snorted, scooping up Quatre's bag in one hand and throwing the other arm around his shoulder. "Not that anyone would notice if some more of them went insane... Hey, maybe if we got Psycho Bitch Une to search Haan's truck in person she'd turn normal!" Laughing, he towed Quatre off towards Ryuukossei's cabin, and Wufei rolled his eyes and followed.
"I don't think so," Haan muttered under his breath, watching them go. "Catatonic maybe, but not normal..." The instant all of the pilots were out of sight around the corner of the trailer, he leaned in, grabbed the loose strap and yanked it tight, slapping the fastener to make sure it was secure.
*That could have been a problem,* he thought grimly, straightening up and locking the doors behind him. *Quatre might find the idea of a perfect hologram a little harder to accept if the 'illusionary' packing crates came loose and started sliding around, complete with loud smashing noises from the 'fake' pottery inside!*
"Need a hand with anything?" Duo asked, poking his head back around the corner. "Locking up? Polishing the headlights? Test-wearing one of those cool jackets you probably weren't planning on telling us about?"
"I take it that Trowa didn't stop after filling you in on my 'trick's' side effects?" Haan said, calm face showing no sign of how glad he was that Duo hadn't come back a few seconds earlier.
"Yeah, well, a Jedi Jacket is way too cool to be kept a secret from your friends," Duo said mock-reproachfully, falling into step beside Haan as they walked. "I don't suppose you make bigger sizes? Like, XXXXXXXXXXXXXX-L sized?"
Haan just looked at him with an eyebrow raised, and Duo grinned sheepishly. "Thought not... but it was worth asking."
"Yes, Duo, I could make one big enough for Deathscythe to wear," Haan said dryly, "but it wouldn't work. A Gundam, no matter where it is or what it's doing, is even more suspicious-looking than you would be if you were caught in the middle of a secret OZ base, grinning insanely, dripping explosives and fumbling with a timer, while wearing a pink tutu and a T-shirt that said 'BOOM'. Even I can only do so much."
* * * * *
"Something wrong?" Haan asked abruptly, half an hour down the road from where he'd picked Quatre and Sandrock up.
"Uh, ah, no," Quatre stuttered, startled. "Um, I guess... I'm just a little tense."
"I noticed. Anything I can do something about?"
"I don't think so."
Haan shrugged. "If that changes, let me know. In the meantime, try not to look like you want to jump out and run for it," he added, softening the instruction with a half-smile.
Quatre managed a weak grin, sitting back and trying to make himself relax. Spending time alone with Haan was turning out to be harder than he had thought...
*I never realised how much I depended on my empathy,* he thought miserably, *until now. I've finally met somebody it won't work on, and it feels horrible!*
Haan was a living, breathing presence next to him, able to be seen and heard and even smelled, a faint musky scent that seemed to come from his hair and clothes. Quatre could feel the seat shift under him as Haan moved, knew that if he reached out he'd feel warm cloth and skin... and as far as his sixth sense was concerned, there was nobody there. He'd learned very quickly that it was best to sit so that he could always see Haan out of the corner of his eye, since if he didn't he had to fight down the urge to lunge across and grab the wheel because it felt like nobody was driving.
It didn't help that he hadn't slept well since Trowa left, either. He'd thought that his anxiety dreams would stop once Trowa contacted them to say that he got out safely, and the call had made him feel a little better... but then there had been Duo's argument with Heero over Wing's pilot still being suspicious of Haan, and Duo and Quatre's argument with Heero over whether he or Quatre should go next, and everybody's argument with Heero over whether they should work together or separately after they made it out of OZ's search zone. It had been a pleasant surprise to have both Trowa (via the comm) and Wufei taking their side against Heero, but it still had been very stressful. Instead of dreaming about his lover walking into danger with a drifting black blob next to him, Quatre had spent the night dreaming about watching himself walking into OZ ambushes while the colour leached out of the world around him.
"You mind having some semi-permanent dye in your hair?"
Blinking, Quatre looked over at Haan. "Um, no. No, that would be fine."
"Good. It'll wear off eventually," Haan added, "but I want something that won't come off if you get rained on, and the dyes last longer in pale hair. It'll take a while."
"That's all right. What colour were you thinking of?"
"Red. A lot of redheads have blue eyes, so it won't look strange."
Quatre blinked again, trying to imagine himself with red hair and not having much success. "I'd wondered if you changed Trowa's hairstyle as camouflage," he mused, half to himself, "but I guess not..."
"Er..." Quatre could feel himself starting to blush again, and silently damned his fair complexion. *Though it will make it easier to pretend to be a natural redhead!* "When I found out about what that jacket you lent Trowa did, I thought perhaps you'd disguised him to keep him from wondering why nobody recognised him, rather than to keep OZ from spotting him. But if you're going to disguise the rest of us even though we know about the jacket now..." He let the last sentence trail off, and Haan grinned.
"It's still worthwhile. I don't know if Trowa told you about the sp-- jacket's limitations, but the less you look like yourself, the less work the jacket has to do... and if you're seen through a surveillance system, or somebody who already knows you is at the roadblock, a physical disguise is the only thing that will help you."
*'Sp-- jacket'?* Quatre thought. *What starts with 'sp' that could cause the effect that jacket has?*
A little later, Quatre was finding out that he looked damn good with red hair. He was distracted from this discovery, however, when Haan brought out the clothes he was expected to wear.
"I can't," he insisted, actually backing a couple of steps away from the boots Haan was holding out to him. "I wouldn't look right. I can't act right. It won't work!"
"They'll fit you," Haan said matter-of-factly.
"It's not whether or not they'll fit me!" Quatre protested. "It's whether or not I can project the sort of attitude that goes with that outfit, and believe me, I can't!"
The jeans and jacket were black denim, scuffed and worn, embellished with chains and studs in strategic places. The t-shirt was at least white, but it was torn and looked like it would be a couple of sizes too small. And the boots... The boots were a leather-and-buckle fetishist's wet dream, that was the only way to describe them.
"I can't," Quatre repeated, looking decidedly squeamish.
"Yes, you can."
"I don't have enough voice left to argue you into them," Haan interrupted, scooping the outfit into a ball and bundling it into Quatre's unwilling arms. "Put them on, and I'll explain."
The only consolation Quatre had as Haan stared him down was the thought that once Haan actually saw him in the clothes, even he would have to admit that the idea was ridiculous. It certainly seemed ridiculous to Quatre...
Even when Quatre was standing in front of him, though, feeling very small and embarrassed, Haan still seemed to think it was possible.
"I would need to swagger to make this believable," Quatre said quietly. "Duo can swagger. The others could stalk, and glare, and make it work. I'm the only one who can't."
"In other words, you're always polite and self-effacing, and would never dream of doing something like this yourself," Haan said bluntly, making it a statement rather than a question. "That's why it can work for you. Nobody who knows anything about you would think that a redhead in tough's gear could possibly be Quatre Raberba Winner in disguise."
"That won't help if I can't behave the right way!"
"You can. You just aren't thinking about this from the right angle. You don't need to act like a violent gang member. You just have to act... arrogant," Haan told him, smiling faintly. "As if you can do whatever you want, whenever you like, and nobody can stop you. Nobody impresses you. Quite the opposite. Imagine..." He paused, thinking, and the smile widened. "Imagine that you have just walked into a conference room," he said softly. "Facing you are several men who think they are in control. Following you is an assistant, carrying the documents that prove you now own 51% of their company's stock. You know they are all incompetent, you have heard disgusting stories about their personal habits, you intend to fire every last one of them, and they can't stop you.
"Get the idea?"
"...I think so," Quatre admitted eventually. "I can do that sort of arrogant, I think, if I'm careful to stay in the right frame of mind. I'll need to do it well to outweigh my disadvantages, though."
"What disadvantages?" Haan asked incredulously. Just as incredulous that Haan couldn't or wouldn't see what was so obvious to him, Quatre stared back.
"Look at me!" he sputtered, holding his arms out to the sides. "I'm hardly the most physically impressive person around!"
"You're--" Haan's voice cracked painfully, and he winced, one hand lifting towards his throat. "Damn, I hope this isn't going to happen every trip," he whispered, tugging at his turtleneck. "You're a Gundam pilot," he hissed, glaring so intensely that Quatre forgot all about asking if he were all right. "You have to be stronger than average to do that. Don't even try to tell me you're weak!"
"No, but-- I'm short, and I don't look strong--"
"Gods save us from people with bad self-images," Haan whispered wearily. "Quatre... how tall are Heero and Wufei?"
Automatically, Quatre held his hand flat, a couple of inches above his own head.
"No. They are exactly the same height you are. They just seem taller to you because they act strong and confident, and sometimes arrogant, and you're subconsciously interpreting that as added physical presence. Trust me," Haan rasped, forcing the last few words out through uncooperative vocal chords, "people either won't notice that you're short, or they won't care."
* * * * *
Duo was beginning to think that he should have let Heero take the second trip out, after all.
"Ya know, it would've been easier to deal with Quatre moping without Trowa than Heero in Uber Paranoid mode," he muttered bitterly.
"For you, perhaps," Wufei muttered back. "Myself, I find that there are only so many times I can say 'there, there' in a soothing tone of voice before I develop an overwhelming urge to do something violent."
"Well, if you feel the need to be violent, there's a suitable body upstairs to be violent at," Duo snorted. "You'll find him in front of his laptop, as usual, and as annoying as hell, also as usual."
Wufei looked at him a little strangely. "I thought you were... ah... chasing him?"
"You noticed, too, huh?"
"Duo," the Chinese pilot said flatly, "I think that Yui is the only person who didn't."
"Yeah, well, I've given it up for Revised Lent," Duo said flippantly, staring out the window at the trees around the safehouse. "'Revised' as in 'for good', that is. It's not like it was getting me anywhere with him, after all."
"I never could work out why you started," Wufei said under his breath.
It didn't go unheard. "I'm beginning to wonder myself," Duo sighed, suddenly serious. "I honestly did think it could work as a serious relationship, if I could just get him to notice me... but now, I just want to smack some sense into him, and surely the attraction wouldn't evaporate so fast unless it was just a crush to begin with. I mean, I'd already backed off a bit because I was tired of getting no response... I dunno. Maybe I was just fascinated by the challenge."
"You took Heero on as a challenge?" Wufei raised one eyebrow. "That's rather more masochistic than I've come to expect from you."
"It would only be masochistic if I'd made a conscious decision to beat my head against that particular brick wall. I didn't."
Duo picked up a battered sofa cushion and threatened Wufei with it for a moment, then sobered again. "Aah, can the pseudo-analytical vocabulary, will ya? I never thought of it this way before, but Heero is the only person I've ever found even vaguely attractive who hasn't reacted to me in some way. Even if people aren't interested in doing anything, they at least notice that, hey, there are other people out there who are sexual beings, right? I noticed Quatre and Trowa, they noticed me, you noticed me, and I sure as hell noticed that Heero is a damn fine physical specimen who presumably has a libido buried in there somewhere with the rest of his suppressed hormones! But as for noticing other people, from what I've seen, Heero evaluates everyone around him as collections of strengths and weaknesses, nothing more." Dumping the cushion back in place, he flopped down on top of it, scowling morosely.
"...He might not be quite that oblivious," Wufei said cautiously.
"Well, it's all academic now. I've had enough. It's not worth trying anymore... is it?" Duo asked, suddenly uncertain. "Look, Wu-man, you're the most grounded, focussed, objective person I know. Do you think I'm cutting off my nose to spite my face just because I'm currently narked at Heero?"
There was a long pause before Wufei answered, and he wasn't looking at Duo as he spoke. "...I may not be the best person to ask about that."
"I doubt I can be objective on this subject," Wufei admitted. "I want to tell you that you're making the right decision, that it's a good idea to give up on Heero... but I don't know how much my opinion is based on the fact that I have found it _incredibly_ frustrating to watch you trying again and again to get Heero to notice you, while he just types obliviously at his laptop!" His jaw clenched as he looked away again, then he sighed, tugging at his ponytail. "I can't really advise you one way or the other," he said quietly. "However... Heero has noticed you. I'm pretty sure he still has no idea that you've been chasing him, but since Haan turned up the first time, he's been noticing you."
"A couple of weeks ago, I would have been delighted to hear that," Duo replied, a little sadly. "The way I'm feeling now, it might be too little too late."
* * * * *
Haan stopped for the night at a rest area, tucking Ryuukossei neatly into a gap between trees that Quatre would have hesitated to take a smaller truck into. "Nice driving," Quatre said, a little nervously, eyeing the gnarled branch that was hanging a centimetre in front of the windshield. "Very... precise." Repressing the urge to ask if Haan was sure he could get out in the morning, he tugged his duffel out from under the seat and opened his door, slowly at first until he was sure no trees were in the way.
"Door to the sleeping cabin's just behind you," Haan told him, no longer having to whisper, but still sounding rather raspy. "I'll be around in a second."
Quatre nodded and shut the door, and a second later Haan heard him open the sleeping cabin. Taking a brief chance, he patted the dashboard and leaned forward, lowering his voice.
"Not too bad?"
=interesting,= Ryuukossei silently replied.
"Interesting how? Is the big metal awake?"
=yes... but not talk to me.=
=only want to talk to boy. boy can't hear yet. i talked to big metal anyway,= Ryuukossei said, a trace of wicked humour leaking into the mental communication. =annoyed it.=
Haan stifled a chuckle, shaking his head. "Well... have fun," he told the truck, reaching for the door handle.
=not tell me to stop and be good?= Ryuukossei asked, faintly surprised.
"No," Haan grinned, opening the door and swinging out. "I've been having fun annoying Heero, and I'm not going to stop. Why should you?"
Quatre had been distracted from his discomfort when Haan had argued him into wearing the 'tough guy' clothes, and had managed since then to keep his mind focussed on maintaining the proper attitude to go with the outfit. Now, however, unavoidably faced with the fact that he was going to have to sleep next to the black emptiness that radiated from Haan, not even exploring the tiny sleeping area could prevent him from becoming more and more nervous.
It was a pity, really, since he could tell that under normal circumstances he could have been fascinated. Brought up in huge mansions, where bigger was better and everything took up a lot of room, he had always been delighted by the sort of space-saving design found in boats and caravans, where things folded up or tucked away in unlikely corners, and Ryuukossei's sleeping cabin was a beautiful example of the style.
"Don't fold the bed down yet," Haan advised, nudging the door open with his shoulder and climbing up the inset steps below it. "Takes up too much room. Get ready first."
Sidling past Quatre in the confined space, he flicked catches open and wordlessly showed him storage cupboards, a tiny sink hidden behind a sliding panel, and a larger panel that folded down to become a shelf, revealing a kettle, hotplate, cutlery and crockery racked in the space behind it. "Toilet's in here," he said shortly, tapping a narrow door, "but I don't use it when there's public loos nearby. The tank's a pain to pump out."
"Understood," Quatre nodded, trying to avoid contact with Haan without being obvious about it.
"Fridge," Haan went on, displaying one that was just big enough to hold a carton of milk and some eggs. "Chairs. Your bag'll fit here. Back in a minute." And he was out the door and gone.
Quatre changed quickly, pulling on a loose t-shirt and shorts to sleep in, and pushed his bag into the empty cupboard Haan had indicated. The disputed boots followed it, stuffed out of sight with perhaps a little more violence than was really called for, and there was nothing more for him to do except wait for Haan to come back. He unfastened the clips that held the bed folded up to the wall and lowered it a bit, just enough for a quick look, then closed it up again. It was larger than a normal bunk bed, but still seemed awfully small for two... especially when one was him and the other was Haan.
Pulling one of the collapsible chairs out of its slot and folding its legs down to give himself a place to sit, he sighed. "It's going to be a very long night," he whispered.
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