Quatre looked blankly at Mary-girl's back for a moment, waiting for the other shoe to drop; then he realised that she had stopped talking. "So... they left Haan for dead, and he came back and killed them, instead?" he asked.
"Yes. Oh, not that he'd ever admit it, and he was never mentioned in the version that made the papers, but that's the story that was going around," she said uncomfortably, still facing the coffeemaker. "Well, one of the stories. Some of the others were quite a bit wilder."
He raised an eyebrow. "That one sounds quite wild enough. Cleaning out a gang after being shot... how badly was he hurt?"
"Mary-girl?" Frowning, Quatre repeated his question. "How badly was he hurt when he turned up again?"
She sighed, turning with her mug in her hands. "Not a scratch."
There was another long pause as they looked at each other, and then Quatre sighed, lifting one hand to rub wearily at his eyes. "Look. I'm tired. I don't have the time or the energy to sit here asking questions until I've got the whole story in dribs and drabs. Why don't we just pretend I've asked all the questions, and you tell me whatever it is you're leading up to telling me?"
"I'm not sure whether I should," she said quietly. "I don't know you, and Haan is my friend."
She was asking for some sort of reassurance, he realised; and if she didn't get it, his chances of getting any more information out of her were going to drop to approximately zero. *And even if I wanted to lie, I don't think I could lie convincingly right now--*
"I can't truthfully claim to be a friend of his," he told her bluntly. "Quite frankly, he makes me very, very nervous. One of my best friends is a friend of Haan's, though, and he's the reason Haan agreed to transport me. Transport us, I should say, since there's three more of us coming after me. If there's anything that might conceivably have an impact on those friends of mine, I want to know about it."
Mary-girl stared down at her coffee for a moment, then let out a long breath and sat down. "I can certainly understand the wish to protect your friends," she said quietly. "I'll tell you what I know, but I don't know what you're going to make of it..."
* * * * *
**See? Chang agrees with me. A positive outlook does not make you an idiot. Now will you listen?**
*Hush up before I slip and answer you out loud, 'Scythe!* Duo thought back sternly. He and Wufei were talking about the current situation -- talking seriously, which was a bit unusual for Duo -- and the last thing he wanted was to mess up and start the Chinese pilot wondering about his sanity.
"All right, maybe I'm not an idiot, but I still think I was overdosing on optimism when I let myself get that hung up on Heero," he sighed, flopping backwards to lie on Deathscythe's open hatch, squinting up into the sun.
"You might have been pushing things a little," Wufei admitted, "but I think if anyone could have managed a stable relationship with Yui, it would have been you."
"Whaddaya think it was?" Duo mused. "Infatuation? A crush? Masochism?"
"You already admitted he was a challenge, Duo, and you can't resist a challenge."
**Listen to the boy. He makes sense.**
*'Scythe!* "Point. Well, I guess I failed that challenge..."
"I wouldn't call it a complete failure," Wufei said calmly, leaning back against the edge of the hatch opening and quietly admiring Duo's boneless sprawl. "He'd rather take missions partnered with you than with any of the rest of us. He has even, occasionally, under extreme stress, referred to you as his friend."
"True!" Duo brightened slightly. "I think... ah, shit. You know, I think I started out with that as my goal? I just wanted to get inside that Gundanium shell of his and make him admit that maybe, just maybe, he needed friends -- and one of them could be me. I did that, and then I think part of me went 'well, hell, let's go for the whole nine yards! He's hot!' Stupid hormones..."
"We're teenagers. You know what they say about teenagers," came the dry comment.
"What, that we think with our dicks?"
Wufei cleared his throat pointedly. "I wasn't going to put it quite that bluntly, but yes."
**I must say, I'm glad I don't have glands. They seem to cause more trouble than they're worth.**
After a mental snort directed at his Gundam, Duo stretched. "Well, this is one teenager who's decided to stop listening to any recommendations coming from below his waist. I figure I should keep listening to my stomach; it tends to have sensible ideas, unlike Mister Happy down there. Oh, and I might take suggestions from my feet, but I'll vet them carefully before acting on them."
There was a choked sputtering noise coming from behind him, and he twisted around to raise an eyebrow at Wufei. "Oi, I'm making a life-changing decision here, and you laugh at me? Some pal you are!"
"I'm just pleased to see you back to your normal abnormal sense of humour," Wufei replied, not quite able to manage a steady voice but working at it. "So. If we take a poll from the bits of your anatomy you're not ignoring at the moment, what do they think of getting something to replace the lunch you didn't eat much of?"
There was a sudden loud gurgle as Duo opened his mouth, and Wufei collapsed in laughter.
**Glands and internal organs... terribly inconvenient, really. Pure thought is so much neater.**
"My stomach just seconded that motion," the braided pilot muttered, poking cautiously at his navel. "The taste buds vote yes, the feet are abstaining, and Mister Happy wants to propose a raid on a gay bar, but has been vetoed by the brain. I guess we're doing lunch."
* * * * *
*I've never seen Duo that upset,* Heero thought dazedly, staring at the stone-cold remains of his stew. *I've certainly never seen Duo that upset at me...*
That hurt. Heero was well aware that he'd annoyed Duo in the past, even sometimes pissed him off -- sometimes for reasons he still didn't understand -- but he'd rarely upset him. *And he was usually upset about me, not at me. This is a lot worse than having him yell because he thinks I don't look after myself.*
*Not to mention Wufei saying I'm being irrational because of hormones, of all things! Duo is my friend, damn it, not my lover or prospective lover or-- or whatever. He'd probably laugh himself sick at the idea if Wufei tried to tell him I'm jealous. It's just... he's my friend, and I don't trust Haan no matter what Howard says. Not that Howard would ever knowingly do anything to endanger Duo, but that's my whole point, maybe Howard doesn't know anything bad about Haan, but he doesn't know much about him at all! Nobody knows much about him, but the others are accepting him because he helped Duo once -- I still think that was way too convenient, him turning up right when Duo needed a hand -- and because Howard says he's okay, and nobody but me cares that Howard hasn't given us any proof!*
Back to feeling angry again, a far more comfortable feeling than dazed and upset, Heero pushed back from the table and stood up, heading for his laptop and yet another database search. *Then there's that whole 'I give discounts for people who annoy OZ' thing. Everyone else sees it as one more reason to trust Haan, but it could just as well be a way to draw in and identify people OZ would like to watch! Duo's my friend and I don't want him hurt, and he's the one who trusts Haan the most so he's the one most in danger from him!*
*That's all it is,* Heero told himself firmly. *Duo's my friend.*
* * * * *
"Now just you bear in mind that I don't necessarily believe any of these stories," Mary-girl began carefully, turning her coffee mug around in front of her and making patterns out of the wet rings it left on the table. "Like I said, some of these are pretty far-fetched, and nobody would have been passing them around if they didn't think it would take something right 'out there' to explain what people were saying Haan had done."
*You may not be saying you believe them, but you're not coming right out and saying you don't believe them, either,* Quatre realised, waiting silently for her to go on. His empathy couldn't get much more than the normal 'background noise' feeling from her that was all he got from most people before he knew them well enough to tune in to their emotions, but there was a faint tinge of uneasiness coming along with it. Uneasiness, and... fear?
*Uneasiness because she doesn't like the stories she's heard about Haan, and fear because she's afraid they're true?* he wondered, sipping at his own coffee to hide his expression. *That would fit the way she's acting, and her reluctance to tell me about them, since I get the impression that normally she'd like nothing more than to gossip happily about anyone and everyone she knew. I don't get any impression that she's afraid of Haan himself. Which I suppose is a good sign...*
"As well as the people who ended up dead or in jail, there was one gang member who ended up in an asylum," Mary-girl went on, apparently concentrating on making more and more intricate designs. "He was the only one who would admit that there'd been any sort of incident with Haan, and he actually led the task force that came in to investigate the whole mess to where the gang had been disposing of the bodies of anyone who pushed them too far, which certainly indicates that he knew a lot about what had been going on. In the end, though, the psychologists they brought in to examine him said he had a-- what was it? Something about a 'fixed psychosis'. They said he was sane on most subjects, but completely out of touch with reality in that one little area. The prosecutors decided they couldn't use his testimony in court, because if anything started him talking about his fixation he'd sound crazy, and the jury might decide they couldn't trust anything he said, so they just had him put away.
"What he had his fixation about, of course," she said quietly, "was Haan."
"I would have been surprised if you'd said it was anything else, considering what we're talking about," Quatre pointed out.
"That's true enough," she admitted, managing a chuckle. "You'd be looking at me funny now if I'd said he had nutty theories about the Yui assassination, now wouldn't you? No, it was Haan. Specifically, he insisted point-blank that Haan didn't just come back from being shot. He swore up and down that when they shot Haan, they killed him. He said that he, personally, checked to make sure that Haan was dead before they buried him... and he was sure he hadn't made a mistake, because he wasn't exactly new to murder. He actually said he wished he could believe he'd made a mistake, because it would have made things a heck of a lot simpler."
Quatre's eyes widened. "You're saying Haan came back from the dead?!" Then he blinked, recoiling, as a spike of pure fear flared up out of the background emotions he was feeling.
"No!" Mary-girl said sharply, hands clenching on her mug. "I'm saying that man believed that Haan came back from the dead, which is quite another thing. I've no idea how he did it, and it's none of my business anyway."
*And you really, really don't want to know, just in case?*
"It's pure foolishness," she went on firmly. "The only reason I'm telling you about it at all is because... well, that sort of thing is a large part of Haan's reputation on the streets."
"He comes back from the dead -- appears to come back from the dead, whatever -- on a regular basis?!" Quatre burst out incredulously.
"Yes!" She sighed, seeming to deflate. "That, and... other things. After everything quieted down in Brentonville, Haan dropped out of sight for a few months. While he was gone, people started talking--"
His voice was dry. "As they do."
"As they do, yes, but in this case the rumours being passed around were a little bit out of the ordinary," she replied, just as dryly. The exchange seemed to steady her, and she took a sip of coffee and set the mug down, pushing it away. "An awful lot of 'interesting' people come through a truck stop, and my cafe back in Brentonville was half-way to being a truck stop, so I used to hear a lot of things from a lot of people. I still do, and according to what I hear, Haan's famous among two different groups of people; smugglers, and the nastier gangs. The smugglers talk about him because he's the best there is, but the gangs talk about him because half of them admire him, and the other half are terrified."
"I can understand the terrified ones," Quatre muttered, rubbing one hand across his eyes. "I'm not so sure about the rest..."
"There are people out there who don't react normally to the idea that someone could kill a roomful of people without breaking a sweat, and might do just that if he loses his temper. Proof positive that it takes all sorts to make a world, though if you ask me the good Lord could have been a little less inventive and things would still have been plenty varied enough," Mary-girl said acidly. "You and I might not agree with their point of view, but they kept my shop out of the red for the next few months. Everyone else was afraid to visit until they were sure the gang trouble was really all over, but once Haan's admirers heard that 'the Lizard' had been involved I had all the trade I could handle. They'd keep coming in, hoping to see him, and they'd swap rumours while they waited."
"How reliable would you say those rumours were?" Quatre asked, thinking despairingly, *Groupies. Haan has groupies? What's next, an online fan club?!*
"I don't know how you define reliable, sweetheart, but the stories about what he did were pretty consistent. It was the theories on how he did it that were all over the place. If the rumours can be believed, Haan has a habit of getting messed up in bad situations. The tale-tellers all agreed that if nobody was getting hurt, Haan couldn't care less what people did, but if you started something that got messy and innocent people were getting caught up in it, he would not like you. He would tell you to stop. And if you didn't do as he said, that was when things would get messier.
"Some of the rumours said he was some sort of experiment, genetically engineered to be stronger and tougher than anyone normal," she went on. "Some of them said he was actually a set of identical clones, and if one got killed the next one would turn up to finish the job; a variation on that one says that 'he' has been around for hundreds of years, because somebody's been making Haan clones ever since it became possible. I even heard one young man insisting that Haan had to be an android of some sort, because his brother's friend had talked to a man who'd seen him rip out an armoured door with his bare hands, and nothing flesh-and-blood could have managed that."
"In that version of the story, I suppose if he gets 'killed' he just reboots his processor and finds a few spare parts?" Quatre asked, becoming interested despite himself. *Well, the first and last versions sound like some of the things OZ soldiers say about Heero!*
"Something like that," Mary-girl chuckled. "There were also some interesting speculations on how he plugged in to recharge... There now, that's better," she said with undeniable satisfaction, watching him choke back laughter. "No offence meant, child, but you've a face that suits a smile better than a scowl."
"None taken." *Tell Haan that. Please!*
"Anyway, those are the sort-of scientific explanations for how Haan does what people insist he does," she went on. "There are some very unscientific explanations going around, too."
"Such as?" There was another tickle of discomfort through the emotions Quatre was monitoring, and his attention sharpened. *Is this what she's afraid of?*
"You already know one of them; that he really does come back from the dead. That he's immortal. That he's some sort of monster in human form, or a demon. That he has psionic powers, or can use real black magic. Like I said, though, I'm not saying I believe any of this!" she added quickly, standing up and beginning to clear away their plates and mugs. "All I know for sure is that Haan is a good boy, and he's helped a lot more people than just me. Nothing evil would be living the life that he does, and that's all I or anyone else needs to know."
It was about ten minutes later when Haan opened the door from the dining area and just stood there, swaying slightly; Quatre looked up from helping Mary-girl load the dishwasher and had to stifle an uncharacteristic oath.
Haan looked terrible, as if he'd been working hard for weeks and getting almost no sleep, his eyes like burnt holes in an alarmingly pale face. There were coffee and food stains on his shirt and down his pants from when he'd sent their lunch flying, and he seemed crumpled inside his clothes, somehow smaller than before.
"Haan! How are you feeling, hon?" Mary-girl fussed, hurrying to his side. "Do you need anything? Cup of coffee? I can make you some soup--"
"'m not hungry," he rasped, voice sounding so painful it made Quatre wince just hearing it. "C'n I borrow th' shower?"
"Now you know you don't even have to ask," she scolded, making little shooing motions with her hands as she nudged him towards the other door, in the back wall. "Go on, go right on in, I'll get you fresh towels and you can take as long as you like, the hot water won't run out. Your friend will get you some clean clothes, go on now, don't you worry about a thing!"
*I guess I have my orders,* Quatre thought, watching bemusedly as Mary-girl shepherded Haan out of the room, all signs of fear gone. *She really does like looking after people, doesn't she?*
He was out of the cafe and most of the way over to Ryuukossei before a thought occurred to him and he slowed, exasperated. *Haan's got the keys! I won't be able to get in without them, and if Haan's security systems are anything like his anti-scanner setup, I might not even be able to get in with them.* He reached the door to the sleeping cabin as he finished the thought, and reached up for one futile tug at the catch before going back. *Yup. Locked. I guess I go back for the keys, and hope it doesn't require a code or a voiceprint authentication as well--*
There was a quiet, but perfectly audible, -snick- sound. Quatre knew that sound; it was the noise he expected to hear when a well-maintained mechanical lock opened.
Tentatively, he reached up and tried the door again. It opened.
*He set the security system to let me in? When did he do that? And how?! I didn't say anything, so it's not a voiceprint lock, I haven't seen anything that could be camouflaging a camera for a shape analysis... There could be a fingerprint sensor attached to the door latch, I suppose, but when and how did he take a good enough set of my fingerprints to program a sensor with?!*
The whole time he was rummaging through the storage compartments to find a clean set of clothes for Haan, his mind was working furiously on the problem. *Why would he do that and then not tell me? In fact, why would he do that at all? He may not be as paranoid as Heero -- he does seem to be extending at least minimal trust to us all, for Duo's sake -- but he's still a very, um, cautious individual. If he won't talk to me about how he pulls off his smuggling tricks, why would he give me the ability to access his truck and poke around when he's not here?!*
He hadn't worked out a reasonable answer by the time he'd assembled a full change of clothes, down to underwear and a couple of bandage-like rolls of cloth that had been stored with the shirts; Quatre had puzzled over them for a moment, then remembered the wrappings Haan always wore, covering his shirt sleeves from the elbow and extending down to the first knuckles, and added them to the pile. There wasn't a spare cloth headwrap/skullcap anywhere he looked, though.
*Oh well. Hopefully that at least is still clean--*
Balancing the stack of clothes, he jumped down from the sleeping cabin and half-ran back to the cafe... but not before giving the latch, door, and immediate surrounds a quick but thorough examination, looking for any signs of whatever system Haan had installed to identify 'authorised persons' and open the lock. He didn't find any.
*I really, really hate not knowing how something was done,* he fumed, shutting the door and turning away. *And I bet he won't explain anything about this, either!*
He had the uncomfortable feeling that Ryuukossei was watching him as he left.
"There's a good lad, that was nice and quick," Mary-girl greeted him as he sidled back into the kitchen, shutting the door behind him with one hand. She was stirring something on the stove, and waved at the other door with her free hand. "Can you take them through? I can't leave this or it'll burn."
"I thought Haan said he wasn't hungry?"
She blushed slightly. "I know, but he looks like he needs something to get his strength back up, and he might change his mind. I can always reheat it for my dinner if he doesn't eat it all. Just leave that stuff outside the bathroom, last door on the left, and call in to let him know it's there."
He didn't hear water running as he approached, but it couldn't possibly be the wrong room; Mary-girl apparently liked to hang folk-art signs on every possible surface in her living quarters, including one on each door with the room's name in curly script and a riot of flowers and ribbons painted around it. He dropped the pile of clothes next to the wall, and tapped tentatively at the panel. "Haan?"
No answer. He could hear faint sounds of movement inside, though, and tapped again, harder, trying not to think about what he'd felt from the smuggler earlier. *I also felt him getting control of it,* he told himself firmly, and raised his voice. "Haan? Are you okay?"
A loud thump against the wall next to his ear sent Quatre jerking back, followed by a downward slithering noise and a clatter as something fell over. He hesitated only a moment before easing the door open and looking in; Haan had controlled himself, and he was on the same side, and surely if that second personality or whatever it was had come out again he'd be able to feel it--
Haan was slumped in the corner down between the sink and the wall, stripped to the waist and blinking dazedly. He had a shoe in his one visible hand, and it didn't take Quatre long to work out what had happened; getting undressed while he was still unsteady, Haan had overbalanced when he bent over, and probably hit his head on the wall.
"Here, let me give you a hand," he said gently, reaching out to help the taller teen up and unconsciously mimicking Mary-girl's 'mothering' tones. "Let's just get you out of that and into the shower, all right?"
The smuggler seemed to consider the offer for a moment, then nodded slowly and reached out. Quatre accepted the shoe without comment, grasped his left wrist firmly and hauled him up out of the cranny he'd managed to wedge himself into. He'd expected Haan to be wobbling, unable to balance himself, so he was prepared to get his shoulder under Haan's arm and steady him; what he hadn't expected was the riot of colour the move revealed across Haan's chest and down his right arm.
An oriental dragon was tattooed across most of Haan's torso and continued down to vanish under the waistband of his jeans, rather like the dragon painted on Ryuukossei's trailer but multicoloured instead of silver. Its claws seemed to be dug firmly into his flesh, red ink trailing down like lines of blood, and its head and neck were positioned on his upper chest as if it were recoiling after a successful bite at the ragged scar stretching across his throat and collarbone, shreds of bloody skin dangling from its jaws. An image of something like a piece of yellowish parchment covered in scribbles of black ink had been needled into a gap between its coils, directly over Haan's breastbone.
A second dragon wound around his right arm, smaller and black, with highlights on its scales shimmering in all the colours of a peacock's tail. It was interwoven with a ribbon, the same colour and bearing the same sort of scribbles as the 'parchment'; both continued from the point of his shoulder down to end on the back of his hand, where the dragon held the end of the ribbon clamped in its jaws and looked up with intelligent golden eyes.
*Trowa mentioned the scar, but he never said anything about this!*
Fascinated by the flamboyant tattoos, Quatre stared for just a little too long. Haan's muscles suddenly tensed under his hands, and he pushed himself upright, steadying himself with a hand on the sink. "I'm fine," he said shortly, looking away. "Thanks."
"Are you sure?" Quatre asked uncertainly. Haan certainly seemed properly alert now, but that was an awfully sudden recovery.
"I'm fine," he repeated through clenched teeth, left arm coming up across his chest as he turned slightly to his right, away from Quatre. "I don't need any help."
"...If you say so." He started to back away, still watching for any sign that the other teen was going to lose his balance, and caught a glimpse of more colour on Haan's back as he turned a little further and his hair shifted aside. "Um, I got you some clean clothes, they're outside the door--"
"Thank you," Haan said dismissively, then frowned, one hand going to a pocket. There was a faint jingle, and he pulled out a bunch of keys, staring at them. "How'd you get into the truck?" he asked, seemingly bewildered.
"It unlocked itself," Quatre replied, surprised. "Didn't you set the security system to let me in?"
"Huh? --Oh. Uh, yeah, that," Haan muttered, shoving the keys back. "Right. Sorry." One hand went to the fastening of his jeans, and he shot a pointed look at the door.
"I'll just be going then..." Outside, with the door closed behind him, Quatre blew out a long breath and frowned, puzzled. *He didn't want me to see those tattoos, but why not? He almost has to have been deliberately hiding them -- it's not just me, Trowa spent a couple of days with him without ever seeing them, or he would have told the rest of us. They're so extensive, you'd expect to at least get a glimpse of them if he wasn't going out of his way to prevent that. He always wears those wrappings over the part that extends down onto his hand, and he got changed in the rest area toilets last night and this morning; he must have changed in private when he was with Trowa too.*
*Either Haan is unusually body-shy, or he doesn't want anyone to see his tattoos.*
Walking slowly back down the corridor towards the kitchen, Quatre shrugged to himself, pushing his hands into his pockets. *It's fair enough, I suppose. He doesn't want to be traceable, and tattoos can be a very inconvenient identifying mark. If that's it, though, why doesn't he just have them removed? And why do I have the feeling there's more to it than that?*
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