[Mel and Christy are over by the TV, doing something that involves a folding card table, a squeegee and a lot of giggling. The Gundam pilots and Ardeth Bey are at the other end of the room, watching the authors suspiciously.]
QUATRE: What are they laughing about?
HEERO: Probably plotting whatever evil and perverted things they're going to do to us next.
DUO: Do we even want to know?
WUFEI: I do. We might be able to avoid it if we know what's coming.
DUO: Not likely. We haven't managed to significantly change any of their plotlines yet.
WUFEI: Then we could try to talk them out of it!
TROWA: Actually, they're screenprinting t-shirts... which explains the giggles.
[Quatre and Ardeth look puzzled; Duo, Heero and Wufei nod in understanding.]
HEERO: Ah. Paint fumes.
TROWA: Right. I think the fumes are the reason they're doing it.
CHRISTY: We heard that!
[Mel breaks into song, to the tune of 'Only You'.]
MEL: Only fuuuuuumes... is why we're doooooing this... oh-only fuuuuumes... is what gives us this bliss...
CHRISTY: That was bad.
DUO: Don't give up your day job, Mel.
MEL: Yeah, well, I'll have you know I used to be in the choir when I was at school!
[Everyone stares at her.]
HEERO: ...Did they not have many people to choose from?
MEL: Shut up or I'll start again. I happen to be living proof of the fact that some women's voices change when they hit puberty. --And NO COMMENTS about how you "just knew" I was the butch type, Duo! You haven't had your operation yet, you know, it can still go horribly wrong!
[Duo shuts his mouth.]
CHRISTY: Wow. He's learning. And we're not doing this just for fumes... though I'll admit they're pretty good. We thought you guys could use some new clothes.
QUATRE: Well, that was very nice of you! Don't you think so, guys?
HEERO: I'm reserving judgement until I see what they've printed on those t-shirts.
CHRISTY: Most of them are still wet, but in the best tradition of TV cooking and craft shows, here's one we prepared earlier!
[She tosses a bundle of white cloth to Ardeth, who catches it by reflex.]
MEL (bouncing): Go on! Put it on!
[Ardeth slowly unfolds it. It's a thin white muscle tee that will obviously be scandalously tight on his *cough* admirably muscular torso, printed in large black letters with '100% STUDMUFFIN'.]
WUFEI: You were right, Yui. They were plotting evil and perverted things to do to us.
MEL: Sheesh! Nobody appreciates our artistic genius.
CHRISTY: Just for that, 'Fei-Fei, we're moving up the timetable we've got for things to start happening to you. On with the fic!
DUO: 'Fei... I may be learning, but you aren't!
DEMON OF JUSTICE
"Do you think Jarad is going to try to follow us?"
"I doubt it, lass," Cord rumbled, adjusting his massive pack. "His mother swears she won't let him out of her sight for a week--"
"--which won't stop him if he's determined," Naiya pointed out.
"--and His Highness in there made the lad promise not to," her father finished, jerking his thumb towards Nataku with a grin. "That'll stop him if anything will."
"Ah. You're right," she chuckled. "I certainly can't think of anything else that would keep him away from his hero!"
"Myself, I'm more worried about that Rami," he said uncomfortably, glancing over his shoulder as if he expected to see the glint of sun on yellow hair in the distance.
"Er... no," she said firmly. "She won't be doing that."
"Hm? What makes you so sure?"
"I'd like to know too, if you don't mind, since it'll be my responsibility to make sure she gets back safely if she comes after us," Uthmar said, moving up on her other side. "Did she, for example, nobly inform you that Wufei was all yours and she hoped you'd be happy together?"
Naiya snorted. "Not quite, m'lord Champion. I do have it on very good authority that she thinks Wufei is 'very handsome, in a scary demonic sort of way', but he's not the domestic type, so she doesn't want to marry him." She decided not to tell anyone the rest of what Rami had told her, amusing though it might be. Except perhaps Father, if he promises not to pass it on, she amended mentally, glancing sideways at the huge metal demon-machine easily keeping pace with them on the ground by the road. I don't really want to know how Wufei would take the news that Rami was acting out her favourite ballads, using him as a living prop...
"Aye! That sounds like Rami," Cord laughed, trading grins with Uthmar. "She acts like there's nothing in her head but air and fluff, and then she comes out with something dead practical."
"And then she goes back to air and fluff," Naiya said, smiling a little wistfully. I'm going to miss her...
As they approached a fork in the road-- one branch continuing southwest along the Spinewall, the other bending to the east, towards a pass through the rough hills-- Lord Yithar kicked his horse forwards, catching up.
"I'll be leaving you here," he snapped at the Champion, ignoring everyone else.
"I realise that, m'lord, and I wish you a good journey back to your estate," Uthmar said pleasantly, nodding.
Yithar didn't return the courtesy, glaring sidelong at Nataku instead. "You'd best see to it that those two don't return to Purple Lord lands," he said abruptly, jerking at the reins so that his horse tossed its head, snorting. "I've been very forbearing, after all, and some of my brother lords won't be as-- as understanding about a demon striking a lord, even if he was ignorant of my rank at the time. I won't invoke the full legal penalties for such an act, of course, but someone else could."
Uthmar worked his jaw slightly, considering possible replies, but Gunnar beat him to it. "Actually, m'lord, I believe Prince Wufei was acting within the law when he struck you. Purple Lord law does allow high-ranking nobles to strike their inferiors, after all, and he is a prince. In fact, if anyone was in the wrong, it would be you, m'lord, for drawing your sword on him and then ordering your armsmen to attack." Gunnar smiled at the open-mouthed half-elf, scratching his chin through his beard as he continued. "Of course, I haven't had the opportunity to ask His Highness, but I'm sure he'd take the position that the full penalties shouldn't be applied to you, since you were also unaware of his rank at the time--"
"Good day!" Yithar choked out, sinking in his spurs and sending his horse towards the pass at a dead run. His armsmen swore under their breath and urged their mounts after him; at the end of the line, the man who'd been injured in the fight with Wufei groaned and followed at a gentle canter, swaying in the saddle.
"Good day, m'lord prick," Gunnar said quietly, waving goodbye. "Don't wet your bed..."
"Good riddance," Wufei muttered, watching the viewscreen as Yithar rode off into the hills. He felt he'd been very fortunate that Yithar had avoided him whenever possible; everybody who'd had to interact with the half-elf on his terms came away either pale or swearing.
Well, he was gone now, and Wufei had more productive things to think about.
His vocabulary was increasing with surprising speed, and Gunnar and Karthan were very good at sketching or pantomiming things he didn't have words for, so they'd been able to explain Uthmar's basic plan to him without resorting to his link with Karthan. Thanks to that, he hadn't been surprised when nearly sixty soldiers arrived at the village, dressed in the same colours as Uthmar and his men. They'd been surprised when they saw Nataku, of course, but... not as surprised as he would have expected. It was as if they'd known there would be something strange in the village, just not exactly what or how big. Wufei had a sneaking suspicion it had to do with the other Champion who'd arrived with them, a large human who had immediately taken Uthmar aside and started working out refinements to their plan of attack.
Just refinements, Wufei thought, watching the man in question amble along with a deceptively slow stride. He already knew Uthmar's basic plan without being told it. And if I understand Gunnar correctly, they started out from wherever they came from before Uthmar and his men got to the village... so how did they know where to go...?
Maybe Torframos told them.
Wufei squirmed slightly in his seat, swallowing. He got a cold feeling in his throat and stomach whenever he thought about how that deep, rich voice had spoken out of thin air...
It's not such a startling thing, really, he told himself determinedly. I've already accepted two moons, magic, non-human intelligent races, a link to Nataku, a link to Karthan... I have to admit, gods who actively interfere in their worshippers' lives fit into this setting quite nicely.
And I've got one of them out to kill me. Wonderful.
Well, if he could do anything directly to me, he would have hit me with a lightning bolt or something by now! Stop worrying about it!
Dragging his thoughts away from the subject of gods with an effort, Wufei went back to studying the new soldiers. Around twenty of them had stayed in the village, but that still left thirty-five to join the assault on the temple. Wufei had to admit, he was favourably surprised by what he saw.
They're disciplined. They seem professional. They move well-- I'll be able to tell more when I see them practice-- and they're certainly well armed!
He snorted to himself as he saw one stocky dwarf who had a double-bladed axe slung on his back. The axe looked like it weighed more than its wielder, but he'd seen the dwarf swing it easily into place with one hand.
I'd be happier if they had machine guns and rocket launchers, but they seem to have the best of what's available here and now. Cord approved of their weapons, anyway, and they seemed quite impressed by the quality of his metalwork, so I'd say that's a testimonial for both sides.
They also seem quite comfortable about what they're going into, he mused, watching them talk and joke among themselves as they marched. That isn't the sort of bravado I'd expect among soldiers who've never seen serious combat. They act like seasoned fighters who know what's coming and are confident they can deal with it. I don't think they'll be doing anything stupid.
Feeling a little better about the plan, which called for him to be (relatively) safe inside Nataku while the lay brothers fought on foot-- After all, it's my job to keep any demons that appear away from them. The risk isn't distributed as unevenly as it seems at first, he told himself-- he dialled up the magnification on one screen, zooming in on the small group at the head of the loose column. Cord and Naiya were there, carrying ridiculously large packs without visible strain, chatting to Uthmar and Terrin.
I wasn't expecting Terrin to come. Cord and Naiya weren't such a surprise-- they didn't exactly blend in with the human villagers, so I was already wondering where they come from-- but Terrin has family there. Derrin and his wife, nieces and nephews... I think he's lived in that village all his life, but he packed up his belongings and left on a day's notice. I still don't know why! Naiya said she and her father are going back 'home', but they still left friends behind...
At least they got a chance to say goodbye. If they change their minds, they can turn around and go back. I can't even pick a direction and say 'I come from there'!
Abruptly, the silence in the cockpit was too much for Wufei. No battle transmissions, no radio chatter, no surprise calls from a braided maniac to tell him 'You're looking way too serious, Wu-man!'. Yanking open the storage compartment beside his seat, he fumbled in Duo's CD bag, pulling out a random disk and sticking it in the slot.
< < She's Miss California, hottest thing in West L.A. > >
Are they even alive? They have to be. The battle was going badly when whatever happened to me happened, but... maybe my disappearance provided enough of a diversion for them to get away? If they could just get clear of that trap, I think-- I'm sure they'd be able to do all right without me.
I wonder what they're doing right now...
* * * * *
"Damn it, Heero, I am not going to be carried down to breakfast! I have crutches and I'm not afraid to use them!"
"On stairs?" Heero asked pointedly. "Steep, narrow stairs?"
"Steep, narrow stairs that you've already fallen down on twice?" Trowa put in from the doorway.
"Hmph." Duo tried to look stubborn, but was obviously thinking about it. "Well, good point. Er... taxi?" he said sheepishly, raising one finger in the universal taxi-hailing motion.
"Hn." Heero raised an eyebrow and carefully picked Duo up. "You get the crutches," he told Trowa, edging sideways out the door.
Heero carried Duo down the stairs as carefully as if he was made of spun glass. He hesitated at the bottom of the flight, eyeing the length of the hall leading to the kitchen as if he suspected it of harbouring tripwires, but put Duo down and supported him until Trowa handed over the crutches.
"Thanks, Heero," Duo said seriously, meaning more than just 'thanks for getting me downstairs'. Thanks for putting me down here instead of carrying me all the way to the table, he continued to himself, setting the crutches under his arms and swinging off towards breakfast. Thank you for not babying me more than you have to.
He had a little trouble turning the corner into the kitchen, swearing mildly as he caught the end of a crutch on the doorframe. Heero's fingers twitched as Duo wobbled, but he managed to restrain himself from lunging forward and grabbing the braided pilot. He also managed to refrain from breathing an audible sigh of relief when Duo made it safely to his chair and sat down, leaning the crutches on the wall behind him.
"I want a different set of crutches, guys," Duo announced, scowling at the offending objects. "I mean, these things may be made of the latest ultra-light alloys, blah blah etcetera etcetera, but they're still awkward as hell and they're gonna rub my armpits raw. I want a pair of those elbow crutches."
"That shouldn't be a problem," Trowa shrugged, setting out glasses and getting a bottle of juice out of the fridge.
"Hn." Heero nodded automatically, but his mind went into a brief tailspin. If Duo gets lighter crutches he'll be moving about more, and that's not good... but he's more likely to have an accident with the long crutches... I can catch him... not all the time, I can't... gah! For a moment, unable to work out which option was safer, he seriously considered hacking into hospital files to look for statistics on the number of accidents suffered by patients on long crutches versus elbow crutches.
No. That is stupid. Duo's right, they'll be more comfortable for him. He's a Gundam pilot, damn it, he can handle a pair of crutches without me following him around waiting to rescue him!
So long as I don't startle him off of them, that is.
Quatre triumphantly deposited a stack of pancakes on each plate, and Heero gratefully let himself be distracted by the ensuing competition for butter, syrup and lemon juice.
Putting down the syrup bottle (which promptly vanished and reappeared on Duo's side of the table minus a third of its contents), Quatre paused before picking up his fork. "Guys... I have some news."
"Yes?" Trowa raised an eyebrow; Duo looked up, chewing happily.
"I bought us a house. We're moving in tomorrow."
Duo nearly spat out his mouthful. "Mmf?!" Washing it down with juice, he repeated himself. "Tomorrow?! Quatre, I'm having the damn operation tomorrow, in case you forgot! And why are we moving, anyway?!"
"It's closer to the hospital, for when you start physical therapy, and it has two bedrooms on the ground floor."
Heero blinked at that idea.
"I worked it out," Quatre insisted. "Heero will stay at the hospital with you, while Trowa and I move our things in. It's a really nice house, Duo; five bedrooms, three bathrooms, swimming pool, TV room, big garage, everything."
"Is it listed as part of the Winner Estate, so Relena can find us easily?" Trowa asked dryly.
"No, it's not," Quatre informed him, blushing slightly. "I bought it under an alias, through my agent. Officially, we'll be renting it from the 'real' owner."
"Well, can we go see it first?" Duo sighed. "I'd like to at least see it once before you guys move me in!"
"You're supposed to be resting today..." Heero objected weakly, trailing off when Duo gave him a 'Look'.
"Today is the last day before I am dragged, kicking and screaming, into surgery. Then they're going to lock me in a mediaeval torture implement, laughingly called a 'brace' by some, and throw away the key. I want to get out and about while I still can!"
"...Okay. When can you be ready?"
"Hell, I'm ready now-- well, I will be as soon as I finish eating breakfast," Duo corrected himself.
"You should also put on some pants," Trowa pointed out with a smirk.
Duo blinked, looking down at his fluorescent orange boxers. "Er, yeah... that too. And that reminds me, I need to go shopping! I've got to get some hospital clothes. I wouldn't wear one of those damn gown things when I went in for the checkup, and I'm not going to wear one when I go back. Gundam pilots and terrorists just don't do that."
Quatre laughed, and even Heero managed to crack a smile.
"Whoa. That's big," Duo announced, leaning on his crutches and looking up at the new acquisition. "Quatre, I thought you said you bought a house, not a mansion!"
"It is a house," Quatre insisted plaintively. "It's only got five bedrooms!"
"Q-man, you need to develop a sense of scale," Duo told him, starting up the driveway.
"If it were a mansion, it would have servants' quarters," Trowa smirked. "Right?"
"Exactly!" the blond nodded; then he saw the smirk. "Trowa! Whose side are you on?"
"Okay, I've picked my bedroom!" Duo called cheerfully from somewhere inside as they entered the front door. "I can wobble right out of the French doors and fall into the pool."
"Duo!" Quatre yelled protestingly, seeing Heero wince.
"What? It'll be a controlled fall. It'll save me from having to take a shower in the morning-- hey, cool! You didn't mention the hot tub!"
"We're never going to get him out of the water, are we?" Trowa muttered to Heero.
"Judging by his behavior whenever he gets access to a decent size bathtub, no," Heero muttered back. "At least it should be good for his knee."
"I could fit just about anything in here," Duo muttered, then raised his voice. "Anyone have a pen and paper? I've got to make a shopping list. We're not bringing all the furniture from the old place, are we?"
"No," Quatre told him, pulling out his notebook and a pen as he walked into the room Duo had chosen. "Just our personal property, and things like the coffee maker and TV and such."
"Cool." Lowering himself carefully to sit on the floor, Duo grinned up at Quatre. "I've got just one question, then."
"We're supposed to be renting this place, right? How the hell are we going to convince the neighbours that four seventeen-year-old boys can afford a place like this?"
"Easy. We dress preppy, and tell them our parents are paying for it while we take a year off before college to 'find ourselves'. You hurt your knee in a skiing accident."
"Quatre... the God of Death does not do 'preppy'. I would hazard a guess that Mister Silent and Mister 'Omae o Korosu' also do not do 'preppy'."
"Then you can do 'expensive Goth' or 'two thousand credit leather jacket', or whatever you want," Quatre told him, oblivious to the two pilots standing in the doorway behind him mouthing 'Preppy?' at each other. "Whatever you want, so long as it's blatantly expensive. You wanted to go shopping anyway..."
Five hours later, they dragged themselves back to the old safehouse, festooned with bags and boxes from a dozen exclusive clothing stores. Quatre had gone for 'preppy'-- as usual-- but the others had concentrated mainly on designer jeans, expensive t-shirts, and the sort of shirts that had no visible logo, but could be identified (and priced) by their exquisite tailoring.
"And when I get out of the hospital, I'm going to take a pair of scissors to some of those pairs of jeans," Duo told Heero as he was carried upstairs. "It ought to convince the neighbours that we have rich parents, if I chop the leg off of a hundred-credit pair of jeans so they'll fit over the brace."
Heero snorted. "Either that, or they'll decide your injury is from being kneecapped after a drug deal went wrong."
"Well, it would be a logical explanation for why four teenagers can afford that sort of house."
"Yeah, whatever." Duo rolled his eyes as Heero carefully set him down and hopped the short distance to his bed, flopping onto it with a groan. "I was right, you know. Those crutches suck. I think my arms are going to fall off."
"Does that mean you'll take your pain pills and have a nap without me having to argue with you?" Heero said hopefully.
"Yeah... I am kinda tired," Duo admitted. "Hand 'em over."
Heero produced tablets and a glass of water, and Duo swallowed them, fixing Heero with a glare as he handed the glass back. "You should have a rest, too," he said sternly, pointing his finger like a gun. "You carried all of my junk and half of Quatre's, as well as your own, and you walked three times as far as the rest of us because you kept fetching stuff so I didn't have to get up for anything. Don't think I didn't notice!"
"Ryoukai," Heero said, smiling faintly. "Yell if you need anything."
After he left, Duo rolled over onto his side, punching his pillow into a more comfortable shape, and gazed moodily across at Wufei's empty bed.
Today would have been a hell of a lot more fun with Wufei here, ranting about being told to do 'preppy'...
* * * * *
The column stopped for a rest and a meal just after midday.
We've made surprisingly good time, Wufei thought, checking the distance on the map that was slowly building up in Nataku's computer memory. Most of them are dwarves, but they all seem to be as good as Uthmar at long-distance walking.
There were two small supply wagons with the column, but nobody had been riding on them; they carried only food and what looked like a large tent. Most of the soldiers were carrying their own personal gear on their backs, not seeming to notice the weight. The five soldiers who weren't were the only ones mounted-- two humans on horses, and three dwarves on mules-- and they'd covered at least twice as much ground as the rest, acting as scouts.
Nataku's sensors can probably spot most dangers much further away than they can, Wufei told himself, watching on screen as one of the scouts arrived back, dismounting with a flourish while his horse was still moving, but there's no point in interfering with their routines. They know what they're doing, and I might not recognise a threat, simply because it's unfamiliar.
Well, let's see if there's anything I can help with.
Jumping down from Nataku's open hatch, Wufei scanned the temporary camp, looking for someone who needed a hand. They definitely know what they're doing, he noted, watching with approval as they set sentries and checked weapons before settling down to rest and eat, occasionally glancing curiously in his direction. They all have a job to do-- ah. I can help with that at least!
One of the humans was gathering fallen branches from underneath a dead tree, breaking them into manageable lengths for a fire. The wood was well seasoned, dry but definitely not brittle, and he was swearing under his breath as he kicked at a length he'd wedged between the tall stump and a rock.
"Sure, if you think you'll have any better-- ah, um, sir! Didn't realise it was you," the soldier said uncomfortably.
Wufei shrugged. "You find, I break?"
"Uh... sure," He stepped aside and waved at the wedged branch. "I already found plenty, but it's--" The rest of the sentence wasn't words that Wufei knew, but they sounded fairly rude.
Hiding a smirk, he leaned forward and tapped the branch, then put a little pressure on it. "Good wood," he nodded.
There was plenty of firewood by the time the cook was ready to make tea.
Wufei was well aware that all of the newcomers were watching him as he easily snapped branches as thick as his thigh, splitting the pieces lengthwise by getting a good grip on the jagged ends and simply pulling them apart. After all, it was what he would have done in their place-- what he had been doing, come to think of it. Observe your allies and learn their capabilities, so you know what they can and cannot be depended upon to do in a fight. He nearly laughed out loud as it occurred to him that it was a good thing the cook got the fire started quickly; the soldiers might not have been unsettled by his demonstration of strength, but he doubted they'd remain calm if he lit the fire with Nataku's flamethrower.
"That's fairly impressive," a calm voice behind Uthmar observed. "Does he do things like that often?"
"Not really," Uthmar shrugged, grinning through his beard. "Unlike some people I know, he doesn't do things just to show off."
"I only did it once," the human Champion said in a wounded voice, moving up to stand next to the dwarf. "You're never going to let me forget it, are you?"
"Well, I might let the joke die eventually, Arwen," Uthmar chuckled, "but Gunnar saw you summoning your axe to impress those girls, too, and you know what he's like."
"It was three years ago!" Arwen protested. "I was still a teenager! I'd been a champion for-- what, two months? Don't I get a little leniency for youthful exuberance?"
"Nope. By dwarven standards, you humans are always babies. If we gave you leeway on account of youth, we'd have to excuse everything."
"Whatever happened to the even-handed generosity, kindness and tolerance that are supposed to be the hallmarks of a true Champion?"
"They take second place to ensuring that my fellow Champions also cultivate the humility that is proper for their station."
"You weren't like this the last time I saw you," Arwen sighed, folding his arms across his chest. "I think Gunnar's been a bad influence on you."
"Actually, I think it was having to deal with Yithar that did it," Uthmar mused, scratching his chin. "I had to find some way of coping that didn't involve punching his teeth out."
"He's gone home," Arwen pointed out. "You can stop now."
"No, I can't," the dwarf said quietly, inclining his head fractionally towards a tall, golden-haired human in the uniform of a knight-probationer, standing some distance away and watching Wufei intently. "You brought Sir Vaijon."
Arwen winced. "Sir Terrian assigned him to me. I had to bring him."
"What in Torframos's name did you do to deserve that?!"
The other Champion's mouth twisted wryly. "In his infinite wisdom, our honoured Knight-General has decided that serving under a Champion of... how shall I put this... excruciatingly humble birth might open Sir Vaijon's eyes and make him realise what's wrong with some of the attitudes he was raised with. I couldn't exactly say no. Well, yes, I know I could have said no," he corrected himself, shaking his head, "but 'I don't want to' didn't seem like a good enough reason to refuse."
Uthmar grimaced sympathetically. "Ouch. Is it working?"
"No." Arwen blew out his breath heavily, scowling. "He's always very carefully polite to me, but I can see him wondering 'Why him? Why is someone so undeserving a Champion when Torframos could have picked me, an Almerhas of Almerhas?'. And he's very quick to step in and deal with nobles for me. I think he thinks he's doing me a favour."
Uthmar grimaced again. "Well... I can't think of anything that'll help. Sorry."
"If he just meant to be insulting, we could throw him out of the order," Arwen grumbled. "Unfortunately, he genuinely does want to do good in the world. There's a decent person buried somewhere under all that horseshit about ancestry and tradition and birthright."
"Actually... having Wufei around might be good for him," Uthmar said slowly.
"Oh? How so?"
"Wufei is a prince, better born than Vaijon, and his attitudes towards rank and privilege couldn't be more different. Vaijon never forgets his rank; Wufei didn't think his was important enough to mention, until I asked. Vaijon automatically judges people by their birth first, and won't break the rules about who outranks who; Wufei used superior-to-inferior language on Lord Yithar, then turned around and used speaking-to-equals mode to Goodman Royce. If Vaijon pays more attention to Wufei's birth than the fact that he's a demon-- and he might, especially once he finds out that Torframos confirmed Wufei's rank-- he'll automatically give Wufei's opinions more weight than his own."
"And Wufei's opinion will be that he shouldn't...?" Arwen started to grin. "They're really not going to get along, are they?"
"At least it should be fun to watch."
After marching on foot through the afternoon, they stopped for the night in a shallow, bowl-shaped dip in the land, sheltered from the breeze (and also concealing the light of their fires from any observers). This time, Wufei insisted on getting firewood alone; with Karthan's help he managed to explain that he was the only person who hadn't been walking or riding all day, and therefore it was only fair for him to handle the heavier camp chores. A couple of soldiers tried to argue, but the two Champions just looked at each other, smirked slightly, and nodded.
There's something going on there, Wufei mused, walking back to camp with a load of wood, but I can't work out what. They seemed pleased that I'm willing to do my share, but it's only common sense! Dropping the wood with the rest of the branches he'd gathered, he nodded to the cook and picked up two buckets. On his way back out, he passed one of the mounted scouts, nodding politely as the blond human stared at him. Whatever it is, I doubt it's anything to worry about. Now, which direction was that stream in?
A moment's concentration, and Nataku's map shimmered in front of him. Little moving symbols indicated the soldiers in the camp, scouts further out, and a few small animals in the forest to the west. A thin blue line marked the location of a stream coming out of the Spinewall, and Wufei headed in that direction.
That's incredibly useful, but I don't think I'm ever going to get used to it!
The stream was clear and fresh, and surprisingly cold; Wufei filled his buckets and then took the opportunity to wash his face and neck, gasping as an icy trickle went down his back under his shirt. Wiping his face dry on one arm, he turned back to pick up the buckets, smiling. Refreshing... I think I will come back with a towel and bathe properly after I deliver this--
"Good evening, Chang Wufei," a deep voice said from behind him. In Chinese.
He dropped the buckets and spun around, automatically snatching his sword from its sheath on his back. Standing across the stream where there had been nothing an instant before was a man, a human with wavy brown hair pulled back in a tail, handsome face slightly spoiled by his arrogant smile--
--ten feet tall--
--and glowing faintly red.
Wufei backed up a few steps to get better footing, tightening his grip on the sword. "Who the hell are you?!" he snarled.
The arrogant smile widened slightly. "Pleased to meet you, too. My name is Krashnark."
End of chapter 18
MEL & CHRISTY: Dum dum DUMMMMMM!
[Wufei hits Christy on the back of the head, scowling.]
CHRISTY: Owwww! 'Fei-Fei, whatcha do that for?
WUFEI: Idiot pain-in-the-ass onnas! It's bad enough that you're doing things like that to me without you providing dramatic sound effects!
CHRISTY: Then why didn't you hit Mel? It was her idea!
MEL: The god stuff, not the sound effects.
WUFEI: You were closer.
[He stalks off muttering angrily, then turns back at the door.]
WUFEI: And I might have been pleased that you got rid of Yithar, but you replaced him with this Vaijon person!
MEL: Vaijon's nicer than Yithar! He means well...
WUFEI: That doesn't mean he won't be annoying. Even Relena means well!
CHRISTY: Not right now, she doesn't. She's gonna get the dirt on Duo soon.
MEL & CHRISTY: Thank you!