"I'm fine," Haan muttered under his breath, keeping a wary eye on the café door as he waited for Quatre to emerge. "I'd be even better if everyone would stop asking me. And just what did you think you were doing, unlocking the door for him?"
=boy needed to get in.=
"You are supposed to act like an ordinary truck whenever anyone but me is around!" Haan hissed, then stifled a cough, tasting blood as the tearing pain in his throat intensified. *Damn it!*
=boy still thinks i am ordinary... just very good ordinary. boy thinks i am tech-- tech-- tech-no-lo-gy,= Ryuukossei said reasonably. =using pocket spell to hide big metal is not acting ordinary. pocket spell is bigger not-ordinary than opening door. if pocket spell is okay in front of boy, opening door is okay.=
Haan moaned softly, crumpling forwards to rest his head on top of the steering wheel. *And how do you explain to the ghost of a dragon that technically never existed that it's easier to tell a big lie than a little one? Wave your hand and tell someone that vanishing a Gundam and replacing it with crates of crockery is 'a hologram' -- better yet, let them come up with the explanation themselves -- and they'll accept it, because nobody has any idea of how to do it and therefore they don't know what to look for. But if a door unlocks itself for them, they know literally dozens of ways to make that happen, and they start looking to see which one it is... and then when they find out there's nothing there to explain it...*
*Looks like I'm going to have to rig up something to masquerade as a sensor and attach it to the lock. Wonderful.*
=haan sure is okay?=
"I'm sure," he sighed, raising his head and draping his left arm across the wheel, settling his chin on his wrist. "Don't worry about me."
There was a wordless feeling of relief and comfort, fading to something like a non-physical purr, and Haan mentally thanked the few gods he cared about that Ryuukossei couldn't read thoughts as well as send them. The scars on and in his throat felt fresh and raw again, but he was used to a constant ache from them; what bothered him was the wards tattooed onto his chest and around his right arm. Now that they were no longer exerting their magic, he could feel each symbol as if they were precisely outlined in fire, weighing on him like chains, throbbing slightly out of synch with his heartbeat.
*Why is it always afterwards, when I'm exhausted and shaky and feeling like shit anyway?* he thought wearily. *Why don't they drag and burn when they're actually doing something? If I'd known they were going to do this when I designed them, I would've... ahh, who am I kidding? I would have paid that old man to needle them into my skin even if I'd thought they were going to feel like this all the time. I certainly haven't come up with anything better in all the years since then! It's this or nothing, and nothing is not an option.*
Movement at the café door caught his eye, and he pushed himself upright in his seat, trying to look alert as Mary-girl followed Quatre out, pressing Haan's clothes -- a suspiciously large bundle, undoubtedly containing some form of food -- into his hands. *Having the cargo decide I'm not fit to drive is also not an option,* he thought. "I bet you're not going to act 'ordinary' enough to let him take the wheel, hmm?" he said under his breath, and stifled a laugh at the offended mental snort Ryuukossei produced.
='security system' unlocks door,= the truck informed him firmly. ='security system' not unlock anything else unless haan say so!= There was a brief, uncertain pause, and then: =...haan not say so?=
"Haan does not say so," he replied just as firmly, rubbing fondly at the dashboard. "It would take something a lot more serious than this for me to let someone else even sit in this seat."
Quatre heaved the bundle of Haan's dirty clothes into the little sleeping cabin for later disposal, grinning wryly as he felt the outline of a thermos and some sort of package inside it. *Mary-girl's determined to make Haan eat that soup somehow. I wonder what else she put in there? More sandwiches? I don't think she had time to make anything like that -- I didn't spend that long getting clean clothes, or delivering them...*
That thought led to another, and the smile faded from Quatre's face as he closed the cabin door and swung himself up into the truck cab. Haan was looking away from him, waving goodbye to Mary-girl as the truck's engine purred to life, so the blond pilot was free to study him for a moment, remembering what he'd seen less than half an hour earlier.
*Why would you get tattoos like that and then hide them?* he wondered. *I don't even really understand why anyone would get tattoos like that at all... though it was certainly a very impressive sight! And if you have tattoos like that, and they become a liability for some reason, why not have them removed instead of wearing distinctive clothes to cover them up? It's easy enough these days.*
At the back of his mind, Quatre was aware that he was concentrating on Haan's tattoos to avoid thinking about what else he'd 'seen' earlier.
"Are you sure you're all right to drive?" he asked quietly, keeping his voice as calm and non-judgmental as possible; the exasperated look he got from under Haan's lowered brows in response rather surprised him.
"Don't you start," the taller boy said cryptically, straightening in his seat. "I am fine, all right?"
"I just thought that perhaps it might be a good idea to share the driving," Quatre objected mildly. "I can drive this sort of truck, you know."
Now Haan was... grinning? "Not this one. I don't share, and neither does it."
"Ah. I gather there would be a mysterious ignition failure even if I had the keys?"
The grin widened. "Something like that."
Quatre sighed. *I know when to give up. He does look a lot better than before... but that's still a lot worse than he looked yesterday!* "I bow to the logic of your argument," he said dryly. "Before we go, however, let me see your hand."
"Huh?" Haan's expression was genuinely puzzled.
"Your hand." It was Quatre's turn to be puzzled -- Haan had to have noticed. Didn't he? "When you did that knife-snapping trick, you cut your hand. Mary-girl gave me some bandages out of her medical kit; if you're going to insist on driving, it'll have to be taken care of, or you'll just reopen it and get blood everywhere," he explained, past experience telling him exactly how extravagant a tiny nick could get if you were flexing the skin, and just how much of a nuisance it could be cleaning the resultant mess out of all the crevices in a control panel.
*Fuck. Why the hell do they have to be so damn observant?! First Barton, now this one--* Haan hoped his expression hadn't changed visibly. *Was there a cut? There could have been... I don't remember. Okay, there probably was. Did he get a good look at it?*
"I don't see a cut," he shrugged, glancing down at his left hand and spreading the fingers out, pretending to examine the skin.
"There was blood!" his passenger objected, reaching out to take his hand, and Haan nearly wilted with relief.
*If that's all he saw...* "Maybe it was his," he suggested, voice light. "I wasn't exactly careful when I took the knife off him."
"There wasn't much," Quatre muttered doubtfully, slender fingers stroking down between Haan's as he peered closer, looking for signs of damage. "I guess I could have been mista--eep!" Blushing as red as his dyed hair, he snatched his hands away from what had turned into something uncomfortably like a caress.
"All fingers present and accounted for," Haan confirmed, wriggling the digits in question at him with a wicked smirk and watching the blush deepen. *Three cheers for embarrassment! Even if he did see a cut, that should keep him from thinking about checking for it again... and wondering why it isn't there any more.* "Now, if you're satisfied that I'm not going to have any bits fall off me on the way, can we get going before Mary-girl decides to lock us in her kitchen and fatten us up?"
"Drive," Quatre said mock-seriously, still blushing but going along with the joke. "Drive fast!"
* * * * *
Wufei cleared the abandoned bowls off the table, scraped the unappetizing cold stew into the garbage, and put them in the sink to soak.
"I thought we were just going to zap the stew and finish it off," Duo said, watching him.
"It wasn't exactly my best effort ever," Wufei admitted, "even before it went cold. I refuse to reheat anything that has globs of fat that colour on top of it. Besides which, did you hear anything when you came in?"
"Not particularly, no..."
"Go into the hall and listen."
"I have a bad feeling about this," Duo muttered, but opened the door obediently and leaned out. There was the weird clicking noise the ancient water heater made sometimes, a curtain rustling where a window had been left open nearby, a faint creak from above as the warmth of the sun made old boards expand...
*Oh. I see.*
"Angry typing noises," he said flatly, moving back into the kitchen and closing the door behind him.
"Angry typing noises," Wufei confirmed. "We can hope Heero's just doing some preparatory mission planning, but he's definitely in a bad mood. I suggest we either make sandwiches and take them back to eat by our Gundams, or--"
"Or?" Duo prompted as Wufei paused, looking slightly sheepish.
"Or, we could go into town to assess the local situation, and take the opportunity to eat there."
A slow grin spread across the braided pilot's face. "Why, Chang Wufei... is that a thin rationalisation for self-indulgence masquerading as mission-oriented logic that I hear?"
"You should know, since you're the master at it," Wufei told him loftily. "Still, we do need to see if OZ are moving their search into this area, and the best way to do that is a personal inspection, correct?"
"I do believe you're absolutely right," Duo said in mock-surprised tones. "And naturally you can't go without backup, so I volunteer to accompany you."
"I accept your offer with gratitude," the Chinese pilot responded, bowing extravagantly. "We also need someone to remain here and stay on communications watch. I propose Heero."
"Any objections? No? Motion carried. Mister Secretary, please inform the candidate of his honour -- in writing."
"I can do that, but I'm afraid the postal workers' union won't allow me to usurp their duties by hand-delivering it. I guess we'll just have to leave it here..."
The sound of a motorbike engine snapped Heero out of his fierce concentration in time for him to make it to the window and see Wufei's bike disappearing down the narrow dirt track that led to town, Duo riding pillion.
"What the hell does Wufei think he's doing?!" he spat under his breath, lunging for the door. "We've no way to tell if there are OZ soldiers in town-- he's compromising our security-- putting Duo in danger--"
Storming through the kitchen on his way to get to their other transport, an old car, he was brought up short as he reached for the handle to the back door. There was a note written in bold red marker, stuck to the door frame with a small carving knife.
Wufei and I are going into town to check on local conditions. For all we know, OZ could be there right now, setting up to run a sweep of the area, right? Stay here in case someone calls in.
Blinking at the note, Heero wavered between his original intention -- to chase after the two 'truant' pilots and drag them back to the safehouse by whatever means necessary -- and a grudging realisation that they had a point. It had been just over a week since OZ had first cordoned off the broad region they were trapped in, long enough for airplanes to make meticulously detailed scanner checks of the area. OZ had to have known that the scans had almost no chance of finding the Gundams while their main systems were powered down and their scan defences at maximum, but there was always the hope that they might have the luck to catch one on the move. That hadn't paid off, which meant that the next move would be for them to block off a smaller area within the wide cordon and move in for an intensive ground search -- and that sort of search would get results.
*They still shouldn't have done this without consulting me,* he thought angrily, screwing up the note. *I could have gone into town instead of...*
The thought stopped there. Try as he might, Heero couldn't convince himself that he should have gone.
*Duo's far better at blending in than I am,* he admitted to himself. *Far better than any of us except Trowa. Of the three of us, he has to go. But I could have gone instead of Wufei... couldn't I?*
Admitting that that was wrong took even more of a struggle. *Wufei and I are about equal when it comes to infiltration and reconnaissance, but when it comes to vehicles, I drive four-wheelers and bigger. The car can't handle the track between here and town at speed, so if a fast retreat is necessary a motorbike is essential. And Wufei... the only time I know of that he's lost control of a bike, it was because he got blown off it by a mobile suit's cannon. Wufei's the best backup for Duo under the current circumstances.*
There was a long pause as he stood there, fist clenched white-knuckled around the note, arm shaking with the tension in his muscles.
*Damned if I have to like it, though!*
* * * * *
Although outwardly Haan and Quatre had reached some semblance of friendly accommodation, the atmosphere in Ryuukossei's cab was tense enough for even non-empaths to feel. Haan was concentrating on seeming alert and competent enough to drive; he knew that the spirit inhabiting the truck wouldn't allow any inattention on his part to lead to an accident, but Quatre didn't know that, and Haan had no intention of giving the Gundam pilot an excuse for insisting that they stop. *The sooner I get him out of here, the sooner I can relax,* he thought grimly. *I need to relax. I need a day without one of these damned observant teenagers following me around, without having to worry that 'Kossei will do something blatant or that I'll say or do something careless...*
It didn't help that something was obviously bothering Quatre. Even facing straight ahead and concentrating determinedly on _not_ looking at his passenger, Haan could feel blue eyes watching him intently, and once Quatre shifted in his seat, opening his mouth as if to say something and then settling back, frowning.
*Is he just worrying about whether I'm going to fall asleep at the wheel, or is it something else?* Haan wondered, beginning to get irritated. *Whatever it is, I wish he'd either get it over with or just leave it alone!*
*Damn it, I have to ask,* Quatre told himself determinedly, gathering up his courage. *If I don't, I'll just keep wondering, and I'll worry about it the whole time he's transporting the others!*
*I just really hope he doesn't take it badly...!*
"What happened back there?" he asked, years of practice and training for board meetings and social occasions keeping his voice low and non-judgmental.
There was a short pause, then the corner of Haan's mouth that Quatre could see quirked up in a humourless smile. "I lost my temper," he said evenly, never taking his eyes off the road.
"It seemed like a bit more than that," Quatre replied, just as evenly.
Another quirk. "I have a very bad temper. It gets out of control sometimes."
"That's not what I saw," he insisted. "You seemed quite controlled while you were facing down those bikers."
"Yes, well, you weren't inside my head," Haan muttered, barely audible.
Quatre took a deep breath. *Okay. He's not going to talk about it without a bit more of a push, not that I expected anything else. And he's certainly given me a perfect opening, even if he's probably not going to believe this...*
"Actually... I was, in a way."
Haan's hands spasmed on the wheel, and he could feel a muscle in his jaw clench. "You were what?" he managed through a rising haze of panic.
"I'm an empath," the boy said, hands clenching in his lap the only sign that he wasn't perfectly calm. "Under certain circumstances, I can feel other people's emotions. What I was feeling from you during the fight was not just you 'losing your temper'."
Despite what Quatre might have thought, Haan was perfectly willing and able to believe in empaths. That wasn't the problem. The problem was what that meant to someone whose main fear was losing the many layers of artifice and misdirection protecting his true identity.
Before Haan could do anything -- before he could even clear his thoughts enough to decide what to do -- Quatre was speaking again.
"I normally can't feel anything from you," he said carefully, seeming slightly encouraged by the fact that Haan hadn't laughed at him immediately. "That's why I was nervous around you; normally, even if I can't get anything clear from people, I can still feel that they're there, but you were-- are-- a complete black hole. When you grabbed that man, though..." He swallowed. "All of a sudden, I could feel you, and it did not feel normal! It-- it was like there was two personalities, fighting, and one was--" he gulped-- "extremely unpleasant."
After working his jaw for a moment to get moisture back into his dry mouth, Haan managed to speak. "That's a very diplomatic way to put it," he replied, mind racing. *He can't feel me now? It was just then? So-- all right, this isn't a complete disaster, but what do I tell him?!*
"I'm usually good at diplomatic," Quatre bit out, "but believe me, this is straining 'diplomatic' to the limits. Please! What the hell was that?!"
Haan stalled for a moment, shifting gears down and then up again as he slowed to negotiate a sharp curve. When he spoke, it was slowly and carefully, choosing his words with the utmost caution.
"I have... what you could call a type of personality disorder. The effects are somewhat similar to a form of schizophrenia."
*Once upon a time, an arrogant jerk found out that eating mermaid's flesh could make him effectively immortal. He also found out that it could have nasty side effects, and he decided to test it on me.*
"I've suppressed the, ah, nastier aspects of my personality. Strongly suppressed them. I'd guess that might be why you can't feel me normally; the method I used could have that effect, I suppose."
*I have magical wards and shields tattooed on my body that are all that keep me from turning into something that's about one-third lizard, physically as well as mentally. I lived like that for almost a hundred and fifty years before I managed to design a set of wards that worked properly. I have scar tissue that's felt fresh since the day I was changed. I've been nineteen years old for over eight hundred years.*
"If I lose my temper, the suppression can fail temporarily. It almost never happens, but I guess that you being uneasy made me uneasy as well, and then I was taken by surprise. I'll be more careful in future."
*You and Trowa had me jumpy and distracted, and when that idiot leapt at me the Lizard took the opportunity to leap right back. It was straining the wards, and if they'd given way I would have killed you and Mary-girl right along with the gangers. The wards would have reasserted themselves in an hour at most, but it would have been a bit late for you...*
Quatre wasn't responding yet, apparently stunned into silence, and Haan snorted. "I'm aware this isn't the most reassuring thing I could be telling you," he said dryly, "but you did ask."
"Reassuring--!" Quatre broke off with a choked laugh. "You're right, it's not, but at least I know what's going on! I can handle not being able to feel anything from you if I know there's a reason for it, and--" He broke off, looking thoughtful, and then -- surprisingly -- burst into slightly strained laughter. "Allah! No wonder Duo likes you so much! You're like a, a, a nuclear-powered version of him!"
Haan swivelled to look at him incredulously. "I'm what?!"
"It's, it's like, there's the Duo that everyone sees, and then there's the Duo that comes out when everything's gone wrong," the temporary redhead said, waving his hands as he attempted to explain. "Sometimes... Duo can be frightening. Genuinely frightening. If he has to be a cold, merciless killer to get through a mission alive, he will. I've felt him do it. The rest of the time he's just Duo, our Duo with the jokes and always looking on the bright side, but it's not a mask; both Duos are real. Just because one of them scares me doesn't mean the other one is fake, or that he's not my friend. I guess... your version of that is just a bit more extreme, huh?"
"I guess so," Haan murmured softly, and they drove on in silence.
*He thinks I'm like Duo, huh?* he thought, one eyebrow lifting a fraction. *Hm.*
*I can live with that. More importantly, I can let him live with that.*
* * * * *
Wufei and Duo's first stop was just outside town, to hide the motorbike; their second was in a hiking supplies store, to establish a simple disguise. Carrying small backpacks and fishing gear, with a cap and loose hooded sweatshirt hiding Duo's braid, and with Wufei's short ponytail undone, they didn't look particularly like the 'dangerous terrorists' whose descriptions had been circulated...
...which was a good thing, as they found out shortly afterwards.
"Well damn," Duo muttered under his breath as a large open truck grumbled past them, rows of OZ soldiers seated on benches in the back. "Do we call it good luck or bad luck that we decided to come into town right now?"
"I'm voting for good," Wufei told him, glancing down the street to where it opened up into a paved plaza, where another truck could be seen. "Looks like they're just setting up; if we'd come earlier, we would have missed seeing them, and if we'd come later, they'd be ready to start doing impromptu ID checks and searches. Ideas?"
Duo grimaced. "How badly do we need a good estimate of their manpower?"
"Thought so. Feeling cocky?"
The Chinese pilot gave him a wary sidelong glance. "That depends. What did you have in mind?"
"We buy our food, like we planned... and we eat it in the plaza, like good little innocent tourist boys who have no reason whatsoever to avoid the nice OZ soldiers." As Wufei's eyes widened, Duo grinned and shrugged. "You can bet a bunch of teenagers are gonna be there to stare at the big guns and wonder if mobile suits are going to turn up. What better place to hide?"
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