"That guy ain't gonna be very happy," Duo commented as he climbed into the truck Trowa had just stolen.
From behind the wheel, the boy with the unibang gave him a sarcastic quirk of his eyebrow.
"... Ooookay, you don't give a damn about him."
Trowa nodded, a small, mocking smirk on his lips.
"...You don't give a damn about my opinion either."
A second nod, the smirk widening.
"Nod a third time and you'll go back to Howard's ship on foot, Barton," Duo threatened, trying not to smile.
"I am terrified."
"Ha! It speaks."
"Where are the others?" the ex-mercenary asked, ending the exchange of jokes.
Duo pointed toward an abandoned shack.
"They're hidden there. Well, that's where I left them."
Trowa turned and drove to the shack. Duo leaned against the dashboard nonchalantly.
"Hey, from what I've seen you aren't snubbing Quatre any longer. That suits me, since I won't need to tire myself out by driving a monkey wrench up your left nostril. In any case, if you decide to try again, I saved a big, rusty one just for you."
"Thanks for your faith in me," the other boy commented dryly. "For the moment I don't plan on doing it again," he added in a more serious tone.
Duo nodded, accepting the implicit regret and promise, knowing Trowa enough to realize that he was more sincere that it sounded.
Trowa bared his teeth as he parked the truck out of sight. He got out to unlock the back doors. Duo took advantage of it to slide in the driver's seat.
Wufei walked out of the shadows first, glancing around before signaling for the last two pilots to follow.
Quatre's arm was around Heero's shoulders, one of Heero's arms around his waist, as if he couldn't walk alone, and Trowa tensed. The blond had told him that his leg didn't hurt! He let Wufei deal with the back doors as he hurried toward the cheetah and his pack leader.
"Your leg?" he asked in a slightly reproving voice.
Quatre looked up, letting him see the cheetah markings darkening on his skin, and his upper lip curled up, baring a fang.
"My legs would be just fine if they weren't trying to change into paws!"
Quatre was holding his shoes in one hand, his bare feet on the ground. His toes ended in thick claws and the soles of his feet lengthened and shrank regularly, the bones creaking noisily. He couldn't help but grimace; it was probably very painful on top of being damn unpractical. Trowa hurried to catch his free arm and help Heero to transport him to the truck.
"What's going on?" he asked as he sat the blond pilot on the doorstep.
"Loss of control. Adrenaline crash. Moon's influence."
"You don't have a clue," Trowa replied, annoyed.
Heero's voice was toneless, flat. Trowa felt stupid for having expected his pack leader to have al the answers, but also vaguely relieved that he hadn't decided it useful to lose time dealing with the aggressive way Trowa had asked the question.
Wufei helped Quatre to crawl into the back of the truck until he was leaning against the back of the front seat and took place toward the doors, glaring darkly at the two wolves.
"We don't have time to lose with your chatter," he threw at them, visibly annoyed. "Where are we to meet with Howard's ship?"
Heero frowned thoughtfully.
"I have the general direction, I'll calculate the precise trajectory on the way."
Duo twisted around on his seat and smirked at them.
"So, are you getting in one of these days or what?"
Heero sat in the front with Duo and Trowa didn't have any choice but to climb in the back. Wufei closed the doors behind him just as Duo started, and the green-eyed boy ended up leaning against the back of Heero's seat. At first, being so close to Quatre embarrassed him a bit, and then he heard the bones creaking and forgot his confusion. 'Is it still going on?' he thought, astonished, not understanding why Quatre's transformations were so out of control.
Quatre looked up a bit too fast, reminding him of a cornered animal.
"No, I'm playing the "break my toes" game just because it's so fun," he shot back sarcastically.
Wufei threw them a weird look, but the motor was noisy, and it was possible that he had heard wrong or missed Trowa's question, so he stopped paying attention to them, turning back to the windows to make sure they weren't followed.
Trowa sighed in relief as he saw Wufei turn away, and then frowned at Quatre.
'You're taking a walk through my head again,' he thought with force, concentrating on the words themselves. He didn't want Quatre to receive his surprise and his fear of letting him glimpse too intimate things.
The cheetah jumped, and looked up at him with eyes whose irises had eaten the whites.
'We will have to tell them soon,' Trowa continued to think at Quatre. The cheetah sighed and nodded, looking guilty.
"I suppose," he whispered, feeling the mental connection evaporate.
Wufei glanced back at them and they fell silent.
Duo nodded a greeting at Heero when he sat at his side, then turned around to check that his friends were sitting down. He saw Wufei reaching out to close the door and started to drive.
"Which direction?" he asked as he reached a street going along the harbor.
"Follow the coast toward the south for now," Heero instructed as he checked his watch. "Howard left the harbor a hour and forty-five minutes ago," he added, thoughtful, as he searched the gloves box, searching for an eventual map of the area.
The one he found wasn't detailed enough for his tastes, but he had to make do; the truck was too old and too sucky to be equipped with a GPS.
"If we reach the next town in under two hours, we'll have about a half hour to steal a boat and meet him."
"About? I didn't know that was in your vocabulary," Duo commented with a grin.
"I would need more time and especially better instruments to determine the coordinates with precision. Anyway, once we're at sea, it will be less dangerous to call Howard and ask him to pick us up."
A police car was driving around the traffic circle they were bout to reach and the two boys exchanged a look. They hadn't been noticed and didn't even know if the shooting had been reported, but a little paranoia was good for survival. The windows were tinted, which would make their identification more difficult, but... The braid! Heero realized as he checked the cab for suspicious details.
"We have to hide your braid," he explained as he pulled an old, shapeless cap from the glove box.
Duo swore as he realized that his head was bare.
"My cap! Ah shit. I'm gonna have to buy another one..."
"Where is it?" Heero asked as he considered the risk that it would be found by a policeman and used as a clue in the inquiries following the death of the hunters.
"Dunno, probably in the alley. I wasn't really thinking about it --hey, what are you doing?"
Heero was twisting Duo's hair on top of his head, and soon topped the piled up braid with the old cap.
"That will do," he commented, pushing back the little wisps of hair over Duo's ears with his fingertips.
He resolutely ignored the soft blush on the tip of the ears he had brushed against and sat back down, buckling his seatbelt.
They stayed quiet the whole time they needed to leave the town, and even after the last houses disappeared from the side view mirrors.
Once they were alone on the road, Heero unbuckled his seatbelt and turned to look through the little window. He would have opened it but it was rusted shut, and he swore quietly at it before finally resolving to just knock on the glass to attract his teammates' attention.
Wufei arched an eyebrow, and Trowa straightened up, but from Quatre, he could only see bare feet. At least they didn't seem to still be transforming, though it was hard to say through the dirty, scratched up window.
"Okay?" he mouthed.
Wufei grimaced briefly, then nodded, even though he didn't look that convinced. Heero interpreted it as " it's sort of ok now, but I don't like how long it needed for that." He gave Trowa a thoughtful look; the other wolf looked serious, but not exceptionally worried, so Heero decided that it meant Quatre was better now. The Japanese teenager sat down and buckled his seatbelt again.
"So?" asked Duo.
"He seems to feel better, but since we still don't know why it even started..."
"Maybe the tension..." the American commented thoughtfully. "The shooting and everything, it probably put him on edge."
He was still just fine when Trowa and him had left to appropriate a car, but Duo didn't see any other reason for the loss of control that had lead the cheetah to transform. The full moon had been only a few days ago, so its influence was still strong, but not enough to transform them against their will in the middle of the day. Quatre had probably concentrated to keep control of his body during the chase and the shooting, and as soon as he had felt safe, he'd let go. Except that his emotions were still too intense. Yeah, the more he thought about it and the more he believed that it was probably the cause.
Heero didn't comment, his nose on the old map.
Fifteen minutes went by in the same silence, but the road was straight and there was nothing interesting to watch, so Duo resolved to find something to do.
Teasing Heero would do.
"So... Wufei AND Trowa?"
Heero blinked, and then finally noted the suggestive and vaguely mocking tone his comrade was using.
Oh. The rut.
"I needed to fuck and they were here," he answered, his tone dryer than he had intended to make it.
"Heero's harem," the braided boy commented sarcastically.
"What, are you jealous?" the Japanese teen shot back without thinking.
There was a second of tense silence during which Heero fully realized what he had said and Duo tried to keep a hold of his teasing smirk before it fell off his face to lamentably crash at his feet.
"... fuck yes," the violet-eyed boy finally answered, falsely unconcerned. "I want a harem too. With these missions right and left, it's been months since the last time I had a chance to go out on a date. Ah well, at least one of us has a sexual life..." he finished, laughing weakly.
The embarrassed silence spread in the front of the truck again.
"... Next time I'm in rut, I promise to catch you, is that okay?" Heero commented, only half-joking.
Both of them knew that unless the war finished before then it was a false promise, but it was the thought that counted. Or something like that.
"Thanks a lot. And what will I be, concubine number one hundred twenty-seven?" Duo answered, in a better mood.
"Oh," replied Heero with a quiet laugh, "you will at least be one of the thirty spouses, not only a mere concubine."
"So long as you don't make me wear see-through skirts, a sequined bra and a veil, I suppose I can deal with that."
"You're ruining all my fantasies," deadpanned Heero.
He was quite satisfied when Duo burst out laughing. He didn't like to see him morose and uneasy.
"What a pervert! I bet you imagine yourself sprawled on a mound of cushions and the four of us in harem costumes ready to serve your every desire."
Far from protesting, Heero decided to play along. It amused Duo and they would be on the road a while.
"Sally and Catherine too."
Duo's eyes widened and he glanced at him quickly, briefly forgetting to keep an eye on the road.
"They have big breasts," explained Heero in a falsely innocent tone.
"Heero!!!" Duo shot back, offended... two seconds before cracking up. "So you decided that you're bisexual finally?"
"I will have to try females before deciding, but at least the idea doesn't disgust me."
Duo nodded thoughtfully. Apparently, he didn't have anything to answer with, and Heero had nothing to add, so the silence fell back between them. Heero would have let it settle, if he hadn't seen that the good cheer in his comrade's eyes was slowly dissipating, replaced by a thoughtful, and even, if he believed the scent, slightly melancholic mood.
"Duo... Do you think it counts as bestiality to think that someone's animal shape has a sexy tail?"
Heero had to lunge at the wheel to straighten their trajectory; Duo was laughing so hard that he had almost sent them right into the ditch.
The only boat they managed to appropriate was a small skiff moored away from the principal pontoons, and even then they were almost caught about a dozen times.
"Can we get up?" Quatre asked after a good fifteen minutes, shouting to make himself heard over the noisy motor.
He was lying down on the bottom of the boat with Duo and Wufei, hidden out of sight under the benches. Since the skiff wasn't really that big, they were more or less piled up on each other, and the movement of the waves, though too soft to give any trouble to Trowa who was piloting, was still deep enough to give them the beginning of seasickness. The various cuts and rashes Duo and Quatre had didn't really appreciate the salt from the puddle of cold water stinking of seaweed they rested in, and the two werecats were just as irritated by being cold and wet.
Heero, that bastard, was sitting on the other side of the windshield from his teammates, his legs stretched out lazily, casually leaning back against the glass behind which Trowa was standing. He put an elbow on top of the windshield, looking back at the three pilots piled up in the puddle, then glanced up to check how far they were from the harbor. The little town had almost disappeared and there were no other boats on sight, so he nodded magnanimously. Of course, the three started to try to get up at the same time, getting even more tangled up and knocking heads as a result.
"Erase that smirk from your face or I'll do it for you, Yuy," Wufei growled, fighting with his wet, tangled ponytail to make it look halfway presentable.
Heero's smirk widened and he pretended not to have heard.
Trowa rolled his eyes and gave the wheel a quick turn on the left. Heero almost slid off the boat and into the sea, only managing to stay on the prow because he'd been holding the windshield in the first place.
"BARTON!!" he roared over the sound of the motor.
"If you told me which direction to take, instead of annoying Wufei?" he murmured, letting Heero read his lips.
Even without hearing Trowa's comeback, Quatre and Duo were laughing their asses off, and Heero deathglared at them before turning away haughtily. Wufei sat on the bench by Trowa, a small, vindicated smile on his lips.
Muttering, the Japanese teen told himself that they could laugh as much as they wanted; they were the ones who were wet and packed like sardines. He verified where Howard was on his GPS with a quick glance and pointed Trowa in the right direction, leaning back against the windshield.
In about twenty minutes, they were close enough to see the ship. Trowa maneuvered to bring them at the bottom of the closest ladder, and their small skiff was quickly moored to the side of the massive ship.
Howard was waiting, leaning against the guardrail. Duo waved at him and climbed the rungs quickly.
"Hey, old man, so you wanted to ditch us, eh?" he joked as he arrived at the top.
Howard snickered and pretended to kick the young man in the sea. Duo twisted to avoid it and jumped on the deck.
"And here I was hoping to keep these charming young ladies to myself," the old man replied. Hilde and Sally rolled their eyes together, amused.
Behind his shades, Howard was watching the way his protégé was moving, making sure that he wasn't hurt. But he was doing his acrobatics freely enough, so he decided not to worry any more.
Sally was the next one to step closer, giving Duo a brief once over before turning to Wufei who was climbing on deck.
"A few bruises and cuts here and there for Tro, Quat and me," Duo replied instead. "Wu and 'Ro arrived late and thus are as fresh and unmarked as a baby's butt."
Wufei snorted, vaguely offended.
"Quatre's got pretty scratches from the bullets," continued Duo, "but nothing truly deep. Though, on the other hand," he added thoughtfully, "he did roll around in the dirt, so..."
"But nothing worse? Are you sure?" she asked, suspicious.
Duo leaned over the guardrail to check on his comrades who were still climbing. They were slow; making sure Quatre didn't fall maybe?
"Well... Something weird happened... Quatre lost control of his transformations for a few minutes, and we don't know why. He's better now," he added to reassure Sally who was starting to frown. "But for a while his legs kept on trying to switch to paws."
The young woman put her hands on her hips, annoyed and worried.
"What happened? And someone is helping him to climb I hope," she added in a peremptory tone as she leaned over the guardrail at Duo's side.
"Duo just told you he was fine now," Wufei grouched as he stomped away.
Sally ignored his tone, used to him. It was her job to worry. And these boys could never admit it when they were less than perfectly okay.
Quatre finally arrived on the deck, closely followed by Heero and then by Trowa. Sally immediately ordered him to follow her, and with an amused eye rolling toward Duo, he obeyed. He hadn't even been given any time to open his mouth.
Trowa frowned imperceptibly as he observed the rest of the group.
Heero and Duo had started a discussion about how much the modification of the boat's journey would influence their next mission with Howard, and Hilde was listening without coming too close, nibbling on her lip nervously. Wufei was probably with Shenlong and the doctor and her patient were going to the infirmary.
Someone was missing.
"Where is Catherine?" he asked Hilde softly.
The girl jumped at his voice.
"Eh? err... We left her at the harbor, Howard was saying there could be trouble and he didn't want a civilian on board."
He could imagine that she had not been happy to be abandoned there. It explained her absence anyway... Ah well, it was a relief, he had to admit. He liked Catherine, but he had avoided her a lot this last week by staying in Heavyarms often and he really didn't feel like facing one of her famous tongue-lashings, even if his insensitive ways deserved it.
And he didn't like endangering her, and between the war and the lycanthropy-related problems, the surest place for her was certainly not amongst them.
He looked up at his two teammates and the old man, wondering what they were talking about.
"Which excuse did you find to leave the harbor that suddenly?" Heero was asking with a frown.
Howard looked amused.
"Easy. We started a rumor about one of our snitches reporting the existence of a Spanish galleon somewhere in the area. Seeing as our, the Sweepers' job is effectively the recuperation of all sorts of wrecks, it was plausible. So when they saw us leave the harbor discretely as if we were scared someone would follow us, they all laughed a lot at us, but none of them even thought there was another raison. Trust me, no one will link us old, eccentric weirdoes to a band of kids involved in a shooting with armed men in town."
Heero blinked, confused.
"... A Spanish galleon?"
Understanding that Heero had problems finding the correct reference to get it, Duo explained.
"Ships dating back to the... er... 15th century or so, I think. They were supposed to contain gold and treasures. Lots of them were lost at sea so gold hunters regularly go on quests."
Heero stared at him, then turned to Howard to stare at him too.
"And they honestly believed that you, the leader of the Sweepers, were gullible enough to go on such a stupid search?"
Duo burst out laughing.
"Heero, look at the way he dresses. He could have sworn that he was going on an UFO hunt and no one would have doubted that it was exactly what he was doing."
Howard deathglared at the braided boy.
"So wearing Hawaiian shirts is a sign that I am...?"
"I'd say eccentric, but loony sounds better."
Trowa shook his head, vaguely amused. They didn't need him in that discussion, so after a moment of hesitation, he decided to see what was happening to Quatre. The blond probably needed some support; Sally could be ferocious when she wanted answers to her medical interrogations.
"So, we'll have enough fuel to compensate the longer trajectory only if we borrow from you," Duo summarized after quickly calculating the way their path had been modified from having to flee that town.
"Yes, we can restock once you leave, no problem. Was that all?"
Duo checked with a glance at Heero and they both nodded.
"It was all."
After a small nod, Howard walked away and Heero finally turned to face the girl who was still standing a few feet away, staring at her in silence for a few seconds.
Duo frowned and looked quickly from one to the other, wondering where the tenseness between them was coming from.
"Which other potentially lethal information did you forget to give us?" the Japanese teen asked in a soft voice.
Duo's eyes widened imperceptibly. Hilde bit her lip and glanced at him, but he frowned thoughtfully and crossed his arms, implicitly warning that he wouldn't intervene.
"... Nothing else," she whispered, embarrassed.
Heero gave her a doubtful frown.
"Are you sure?"
"... It's possible that the Alphas will try to make you join a Pack..."
"We already knew that," Duo commented.
"... then, no, nothing else."
Heero stared at her, suspicious, but accepted her reply.
"I want a complete and detailed list on the Were hunters organization. Number of men, chain of command, training, background, areas where they most often operate. Then you'll go to Sally. She most likely has a mission for you, and if she doesn't one of her contacts probably will."
The she-wolf whined like a lost pup. The Alpha of that territory had just clearly told her that she had overstayed her welcome. For a moment, she wanted to protest, to rebel, but it would only piss him off more.
Heero glared at her coldly a final time then turned away and left. She'd put his pack in danger and he wasn't going to forget that easily.
Duo shrugged helplessly and gave the young girl a sympathetic look, but didn't stay to talk with her.
She stayed unmoving for a long minute, and then kicked at a roll of rope. Of course, being rolled around a metal tube soldiered to the boat, it didn't move an inch and she thought she'd broken a toe, but it still calmed her a little.
She resented Duo for not backing her up, and Heero for not forgiving her, but she understood, even if she didn't want to. It wasn't something she should have forgotten.
Officially, Heero's opinion didn't have any more weight than the other pilots', but of all of them only Quatre would support her and it would be more from pity than because he agreed that she was blameless. Trowa was calculating and efficient and didn't have any emotional link with her, and she had a feeling that Wufei would despise her for that gross lack of professionalism. True, they were on Howard's ship, and he wouldn't kick her out, but... she would only annoy the pilots if she stayed. It was better to help them forget by making herself useful.
She sighed and went back to her cabin.
Duo stayed silent for a long while, and Heero relaxed slowly. He had feared that his partner would get into an argument with him about his harsh treatment of Hilde.
"You know," Duo finally said softly, "she's not the only one to blame. We shouldn't have gone out..."
Heero shook his head.
"There wasn't any military presence in the town. You had no way of knowing that they weren't the only hostile group you could deal with."
Duo gave him a sidelong glance.
"Not so long ago, you would have thought your desire to get out for a walk a stupid, useless risk," he commented, his voice still as quiet.
Heero grumbled something, and Duo gave him a curious look, wondering if he had heard right.
"Not so long ago," the Japanese teen repeated reluctantly, "I found the idea of working within a group a stupid and useless risk."
His embarrassment almost entirely disappeared when he received a smile in return. The braided boy didn't comment, understanding his need to pretend that he hadn't said anything. They walked in silence a few minutes longer.
"... How long are you going to give her the cold shoulder?" Duo asked finally in an unconcerned tone.
Heero frowned, but after a quick look at Duo, decided that he still wasn't changing his mind about supporting Heero's actions.
"You got out of here alive, but she still forgot to warn us. She was a soldier, she should know better."
"You'll let her come back?"
Heero gave him a surprised look.
"Since when do you give me authority to decide who you will hang out with outside of us five?"
Duo laughed and shrugged, amused.
"Oh, I would keep on seeing her. But if you can't stand to be around her, I just would not invite her to join us anymore. I doubt she'd feel comfortable around you anyway."
Heero shook his head. He should have known.
"We'll see how her next mission goes," he decided. "What did you learn about them?" he then asked, changing the subject. The noise the motor of the skiff made had been too loud to let them talk back then, but he'd seen Duo go through the wallets he had stolen before throwing them in the sea.
"Oh, nothing interesting. They come from about everywhere on the continent. They don't all have the same job. One of them was a barman, another raised dogs, another worked at a post office. It looks like a secret society; apart from their hobby, they don't have anything in common."
Heero grumbled. It made discovering them a lot more difficult.
"Anyway," the American continued, "we don't know how many the lot of them are, maybe it's not so much or more normal people would also know about weres. And we're still on the move... Only two of them had dogs, and without the stupid furballs, I'd be surprised if they could find us."
"Us, Duo?" the Japanese repeated, arching an eyebrow. "I don't think you're one of their targets."
Duo blushed. He couldn't help but assimilate himself to the four other Gundam pilots.
"... Okay, you," he conceded. "But still, I'm hanging out with you lot so much, I have to stink of were too. It would be possible for them to target me."
Heero gave him a doubtful look but decided not to insist.
Trowa knocked softly at the infirmary door and pushed it open, glancing inside. Sally wasn't anywhere in sight, but Quatre was sitting on the edge of the hospital bed, wearing a clean t-shirt and his briefs. Pale blue. Trowa pretended not to have noticed ; he was only interested by the state of his legs.
"How do you feel?"
Quatre looked up at him and made a face that the brown-haired boy couldn't interpret, before lifting the bottom of his shirt and the leg of his boxers, baring a large part of his thigh. For a second, Trowa wondered if it was an attempt at seduction. If that was the way the blond pilot wanted to convince him, he wouldn't go far.
"Look. Do you see anything?"
Trowa stared at Quatre's thigh. Apart from a few red marks and some bruising, his skin was as pale and smooth as always.
"No, nothing. Should I see something?" he asked, a second before seeing the hole and the brown-red spots on the outside of Quatre's underwear.
"Rather, yes. This is where the bulled grazed me," the blond confessed in a low murmur, his hand brushing the skin, where only a faint red line still showed.
Trowa took a second to digest that. Well. These healing abilities would sure come in handy. He wondered how good they truly were, but it wasn't as if any of them was going to volunteer to test them to the limit.
"You told Sally?"
"Yes. She's in her lab, verifying I don't know what in my blood," Quatre added with a small smile. "She has a theory about my loss of control being due to my body trying to heal itself."
"You have to admit that it's a possible solution, Quatre," the young woman answered as she walked in the room through the back door.
"Maybe. Or maybe it only was that I stopped trying too early to keep the instinct to transform at bay... Any clues?" he asked, absently rubbing the inside of his elbow, where Sally had pricked him.
The woman sighed, shrugging helplessly.
"I have some results, but I'm going to need days to interpret them. In the meantime, you seem to be in good health, but your glucose level is way too low. I want you to go and eat something. Trowa, make sure he doesn't faint before getting to the kitchen," she added with a nod to the green-eyed boy.
He nodded seriously, accepting the mission.
"Wait, I can't walk around in the ship in my underwear," Quatre protested as he got up. "Where did you put my pants?"
"Trash bin," she answered crisply. "It was dirty, shredded and covered in blood. Same for your shirt."
Quatre gave her an annoyed look but didn't protest, sighing instead. It was a bit too late to save them from the garbage chute now.
"You're decent enough to go to your own bedroom and change clothes," Trowa remarked. "We're not so far. Then we'll go and eat."
Quatre thought about it and nodded. At this hour, the cabins area would be mostly empty.
The trip to the bedroom was made in silence, Quatre lost in thought and Trowa watching him closely with some worry. The young man honestly was a bit pale...
Quatre got dressed quickly, then they went to the kitchen.
The cook was busy with the evening meal, but he let them raid the fridge, and then the two boys exited the kitchen to go and sit in a corner of the canteen. Trowa nibbled on some bread while Quatre devoured his meal, apparently more hungry than he had noticed.
"We were supposed to talk about something, if I recall right."
Quatre's expression darkened.
"The telepathy incidents?" he asked, after checking that no one was looking their way.
Trowa nodded soberly. "Did you ever read anyone else's thoughts?"
"No, only you. And not often. I don't know how it works at all," Quatre admitted, chewing on his nail thoughtfully. "The only element in common between these times was a violent feeling..."
"So it's still linked to your emotions. Probably a development of your empathy. Do you know why it's happening now?"
"No... there wasn't a lot of research made on newtypes in the Colonies. Few people know how and why they're different, and a lot of people even think they're just another urban legend. I'd say the new development is linked to the lycanthropy, but as far as I know, it could just be a side effect of puberty, like the hair and the growth spurt. I don't know how we could check..."
"I doubt there are many newtype weres anyway," Trowa commented in a pensive tone.
Quatre sighed and nodded.
Were-animals couldn't live on a colony for very long, and in these times of war between Earth and the Colonies, rare were the Colonists who made trips down there often enough to risk a contamination. Seeing as newtypes were barely starting to appear in families who has been in space for at least three generations, the number of people in the Earth sphere who happened to be both newtype and werebeast had to be very close to zero.
"Okay, so we know your empathy is starting to ...spread out to also receive thought on top of feelings. Anything else?"
Quatre bit his lip guiltily.
"I think we're not dealing with just receiving any longer."
Trowa straightened up, staring at him.
"I... After the last full moon... I ended up in a farm. As a human. I... There was a farmer."
"And?" Trowa nudged him when the blond one didn't show any sign of wanting to continue.
"I thought at him not to go in my direction, and he didn't. Then I felt guilty, and he almost started to cry. I was imposing my feelings and my... my will on him."
Quatre shivered as he remembered, and hurried to check that he wasn't emitting again. He didn't seem to be, so he relaxed.
The green-eyed pilot needed a long while to digest that particular bit of info.
"... I can see you emitting feelings as well as receiving them..." Trowa commented as he remembered the sudden bout of sadness he'd felt the other day, after the full moon, when he'd been sitting with Heero and ignoring Quatre. "It only seems logical. But to command someone?"
"I don't think I really commanded him... but rather influenced him. And when I scratched my hip while escaping, he noticed me right away. And there were the hunters... I ordered them to look at me while Hilde ran off. It lasted until she landed in the water, and then the splash woke them up. I don't know if it was because I had stopped pushing them or if there were limits on what they could ignore."
"We'll have to test," Trowa muttered thoughtfully.
"Yes... If I can do it again," the boy sighed. "I'm not sure it works when I'm not convinced of absolutely needing it."
"Train. Train until you can do it at will, and until you can read my thoughts whenever you decide."
Quatre stared at him, surprised.
"It wouldn't bother you...?"
"It can be useful later. In the meantime, I prefer that you do it after warning me than by accident, and if you can control this thing, it will mean that I won't have to wonder how upset you can get before I need to watch my thoughts."
The blond teenager flinched, but nodded. Trowa was fiercely private, and he had to hate how Quatre could peek at his thoughts. If Quatre trained on him, it meant there were long stretches of time where he could be thinking intimate stuff without risking being caught. It wasn't as good as having his spirit entirely protected, but it was better than having to always wonder if right now, Quatre wasn't being a voyeur.
"When are you going to tell the others?"
Quatre grimaced and raked a hand through his hair.
"I prefer to have a better idea of what I can do, frankly. Right now, I have only read your thoughts twice, and both by accident. As for the mental influence... Those were really extreme urgency cases. If the gift responds to this feeling of urgency, maybe the simple fact of knowing that I'm not in danger because I have it will be enough to prevent it from responding to me."
Trowa had a little laugh, the corner of his lips quirking up in a sarcastic smirk.
"That would be ironic."
"It won't be as amusing if it really happens," the blond shot back. "I want to know exactly what I can do first, before I start taking it for granted. For now, it's too random. I will be happy to use it if I can, but I am not going to count on it. I don't want the others to take it into account as long as I can't depend on it utterly. They would expect me to use it for the missions, but right now, I can't, and I don't know when I will be able to... If I can ever learn to use it at will. I prefer not to give them false hopes."
Trowa nodded thoughtfully.
"Very well, we won't say anything for now. But we have a few days before the next mission..."
"I will find occasions to train," the blond pilot agreed as he picked up his fork.
Howard pushed back his account book and accepted the list of messages one of his Sweepers was giving him. There were a few letters and transcriptions of radio communications from his contact, but the stack of papers seemed a bit thicker than usual. The old man frowned thoughtfully.
Available supplies at the next harbor, report from a spy -- he spent a few minutes reading it over -- request for assistance for weapon manufacturing, contraband hardware to transport to Australia... Message from Catherine Bloom... Curious, he read the first sentence and started to laugh. The young woman had "convinced" one of his contacts back where they left her of transmitting a message to "her little brother". He put the message aside, promising himself that he'd stay to watch Trowa's reaction when he would read it. From her years with the circus, Cathy had apparently ended up with a very... varied vocabulary.
There was a transcription of a radio message, coded with a key he hadn't seen for months. He decoded it quickly, reading the instructions, then turned his computer on and connected to the net.
The webcam window barely surprised him when it popped open, but he hadn't expected to see S's absence of nose from so close.
"Move over, S!" G ordered as he bumped him out of the way. "Hey, Howard. Still on your floating pile of scrap metal from what I see," he added with a glance toward something that was just under the camera, probably a map to pinpoint where the call was coming from.
"Still here, yeah," the man with the Hawaiian shirt agreed.
He didn't ask G where he was. His old friends were extremely paranoid.
"The kids still with you?"
Howard didn't ask how he knew either; he knew that some of his men sent reports to the Mad Five regularly. Seeing how some of the mechanics he had trained worked for the scientists but still kept on asking him for help when they got stuck, he and the Mad Five tacitly agreed to consider it a fair exchange.
"Yes, still here. I'm dropping them off by their next mission site and then they'll get by on their own."
"There's... A week left? Two?" G asked innocently.
Howard pulled his shades off, cautiously put them away in his pocket, then looked up at G. They stared at each other quietly for a few long seconds.
"Why do you need to know that?"
"We had upgrade ideas. It wouldn't hurt the kids to have your men's help. Turn on your printer, I'm sending it directly. Hey, J! Make yourself useful, you old geezer," he called over his shoulder.
Howard saw J walk behind G, expressionless, without looking at the camera. His bionic goggles made judging his mood difficult, but the corner of his mouth indicated some bitterness.
Howard's printer turned on and he thoughtfully watched it spit out page after page of diagrams and plans.
"Your upgrade ideas, what are they?" he asked to start the conversation again.
"Simple, really. The base was common to the five of us, but we all innovated in our own domains for our Gundams. That each of them has a specialty is good, but still, taking what makes a Gundam more dangerous and adding it on another can only help. Of course, there are some compatibility problems... For example we can't add a lot on Wing; its beam weapons are already eating most of its power and the modifications also have to say out of the way when it shifts to bird mode."
Behind him, J grumbled something in Japanese which was probably not quite flattering seeing the way G snorted.
"Heavyarms and Sandrock need the same power accumulators as the other three if we want to give them some more thermal weapons. For the moment, Heavyarms isn't worth shit in close-range combat. Between us," he added, whispering just a bit too loudly, "S should keep with his new generation of joints, his Gundam moves well but its weapons suck."
A rolled-up ball of paper bounced off his head and Howard snickered, amused. Sometimes he felt that, emotionally, his friends were still stuck in adolescence.
"Anyway, the major point is adapting Deathscythe's stealth cloak on the other Gundams. It was genius to make it undetectable to radars, if I may say so, an idea that the other Gundams would find very useful indeed..."
"When you feel that you have sufficiently patted yourself on the back, tell us," J growled as he bopped G on the head with a thick folder. "The plans all went through, now cut the communication before we get caught," he added, walking away without looking back.
G rolled his eyes, grimacing, then winked at Howard, who was laughing his ass off quietly as he observed the scene.
"The plans aren't complete, and still only so many concepts. We're designers, not mechanics. But with a little work, the boys should get by just fine. You'll say hi to Duo for me?"
"No problem," Howard answered with a nod.
"And tell him to stop sulking because his baby won't be as unique anymore. It's an occasion to get his hands on Shenlong's flamethrowers, after all."
Howard started to laugh, and he was still laughing when G nodded a salute at him and cut the connection.
"There's no way I'll let these barbarians get their hands on my baby!!"
Howard thought to himself that G knew Duo decidedly well.
"I'd have to let them in my cockpit, and they'd put their noses everywhere, and they'd steal what makes Deathscythe the best Gundam! ... Apart from his pilot, of course."
"If you let Wufei borrow your stealth cloak, I'm sure he'll be willing to let you adapt the flamethrowers," Howard commented innocently.
The braided teen shut up, blinking dreamily.
Apparently G knew that Duo had a pyromaniac's soul.
"Flames? Oooh, fire... You'd do that?"
"I would have to want your cloak first," Wufei grumbled, crossing his arms. "Hiding to attack secretly is cowardly. I am certainly not going to use such a technique."
"Ouch," Howard commented softly as Duo growled.
Quatre swallowed a fit of laughter.
"As for me, using non-thermal weapons is an advantage, since I don't risk running out of energy, but if we could adapt my generators after Wing's model, I wouldn't say no to a secondary weapon. Trowa?"
"Same," the green-eyed boy commented soberly.
"In any case Tro's weapons can't get worse," Duo snickered. "Heavyarms and its habit of running out of ammo..."
Trowa showed him his middle finger.
"But its joints are both more flexible and more resilient than the other Gundams," Heero commented. "If there was a way to reinforce Wing's, it would suit me. The transformation to bird mode regularly deteriorates them."
The pilots were lost in thought for a few minutes. The pilots lapsed into thought for a few minutes. Howard observed them in silence, stupefied (as he still was sometimes) by the competence and instinctive mechanical skills that these adolescent boys possessed.
"I suggest we list everything that the others possess that would make our own Gundams better, and then we'll arrange a way to put everything into place."
Trowa and Heero nodded their agreement, Duo grinned at Quatre and Wufei shrugged before turning away.
"I don't want anything," he commented.
"So think of what you can give," the blond shot back.
Wufei gave a long, indecipherable look at his comrade, then smirked and nodded. Knowing that the other Gundams would be made more efficient because they would make some of Nataku's abilities theirs amused him greatly. He just had to see it not as a theft but a tribute.
Duo dragged his feet along the corridor, relieved when he finally saw the door of his bedroom. He had spent the day working on the Deathscythe adaptations on Sandrock with Quatre, like the previous day and the day before that, and he was dead on his feet. He didn't understand how the blond pilot managed to keep going, but if he wanted to stay "just five minutes longer," really, it was his choice. It was a good thing that for now the five of them were concentrating all their efforts on Sandrock and Heavyarms; it was already difficult to upgrade a Gundam with help, so doing it alone...
The light was on in the common room at the end of the corridor, indicating that at least one of his teammates was there. It was implicitly known that their bedrooms were private, and could only be accessed on invitation, but when someone was in the common room, it generally meant that they wouldn't say no to some company. And an invitation like that from one of the three antisocial guys of the team couldn't be refused without a better reason than some fatigue.
He shouldered the door open, leaning against the frame, and glanced inside.
... Okay, maybe they didn't really need him.
Heero and Trowa were sitting on the couch side by side, slightly turned toward each other, Trowa nonchalantly leaning on his elbow which was resting on the Japanese teen's shoulder. Their thighs were pressed against each other. They were leaning over a large sheet spread across their laps and had been murmuring to each other when he had barged in. Now they were looking at him, interrupted.
"Ah, Duo," Heero greeted him before he could open his mouth to apologize for interrupting. "Tell us what you think."
The American realized that the sheet was a plan; a Gundam's arm to be precise.
"What are you doing?"
"We're trying to find a way to place the circuits so that they don't get stuck in the new joints," the Japanese teen replied with a pensive frown.
"I don't know a lot about Heavyarms-type joints, you know," he reminded them as he leaned over the sheet.
It was quite complex indeed, and he had to make an effort to visualize these red, green and blue lines as a three-dimensional object.
"... I think I see where it gets stuck, but it won't be practical to get around it. Unless you lengthen the wires and go that way," he added, his finger following the external edge of the elbow, "but the armor plating is thin there and it's going to be a lot easier to lose power in combat."
"We'll see how to get around the armor problem if we can't find another way," Trowa commented absently. "Sit down," he added, pulling the coffee table closer with his foot.
If Heero had invited him, Duo wouldn't have been sure that he was truly welcome. But if it was Trowa... Content, Duo sat on the table face to them, his knees touching theirs, and looked over the plans with them.
The problems to sort out with Wing and Deathscythe were more complicated than Heavyarms and Sandrock, the reason why the five pilots had started working on Gundams 03 and 04 first. Heavyarms and Sandrock were now equipped with thermal weapons, more efficient generators, and Sandrock now had hyper jammers modified from Deathscythe's design.... well, it wasn't finished yet, but Quatre and Duo were working on it. Trowa hadn't wanted them for his own Gundam, the bulk would have compromised his mobility.
As for Shenlong, Wing and Deathscythe, that was another matter. The fuel conduits that were necessary to install Shenlong's flamethrowers on Deathscythe interfered with the circuits of its shields. Wing was even more complex because of the Bird mode. As for Shenlong, Wufei had refused to change anything, and so he was using his free time for a complete check-up.
Quatre opened the door to the common room to discover the three of them flat on their fronts, drawing furiously.
"Gimme the red pen!"
"I'm using it," Heero growled, not letting go of said pen.
"Evening, Quatre," Trowa greeted him as he swiped the green pen Duo had left on the floor.
The blond pilot approached slowly, staring at the sheets of paper... ah, diagrams. They had been swimming in them for days.
"I thought you were done working for today, Duo," he commented with some amusement, but Duo didn't answer, too busy trying to pin Heero down on the floor and make him let go of the red pen.
Tiredly, Quatre wondered if they were fighting for real or just playing. Without thinking too much about it, he extended his senses.
It was a lot easier for him to receive Heero's feelings than Duo's, as he realized after a few seconds spent trying to untangle the different "tastes" attached to the emotions and impulses he was getting. But it was mostly because Heero's Wolf insisted to make the American bare his throat in submission. It wasn't really aggressive though, only a weird mix of canine protocol and play. As for Duo, he was just having fun. Which didn't prevent him from enjoying the way he was accidentally rubbing against his comrade's body. Blushing slightly, Quatre thought that Duo would be better off conceding the victory or he would end up poking Heero in a most embarrassing way.
He sat down cross-legged at Trowa's side, sending him a little smile and his amusement. The green-eyed teen blinked, his surprise transmitting to Quatre, then his understanding. They had tested Quatre's gift often during the last days, and the blond one had understood pretty fast how to share his feelings --even if it only worked properly when he was relaxing or tired-- though he had a lot more trouble starting a sharing than stopping it once he was "connected". Trowa had learned to discern his own sentiments from his comrade's-- they had a brighter, more sophisticated feel than his own -- but he knew that if he wasn't aware of what the cheetah-boy could do, he would have been hard-pressed to notice that his reactions came from outside of himself. They'd never tested while around the other pilots, either.
/triumph/ Quatre sent with lots of smug satisfaction.
Trowa looked up at him, arching an eyebrow.
Another day, the Arab would have stopped there when faced with the relative complexity of the message he wanted to send, but he was quite satisfied with himself and suddenly it didn't seem so hard anymore.
/Other:sad-rejected. Me:relief. Other:notsad./
Trowa blinked several times, trying to sort out what Quatre had just dumped into his head. The string of concepts was longer and more complex than usual, and some of the perceptions, though not Trowa's, didn't feel like Quatre's either, as if the empathy had tried to imitate another emotional timbre.
Quatre checked that Heero and Duo were still roughhousing, and then informed Trowa in an unconcerned tone.
"Sorry I'm late. One of the Sweepers just got dumped, but from what he tells me it was to be expected; his ex-girlfriend was a first-class manipulator. He would have felt better in a few days, but for the moment he was so depressed that... I spent a moment chatting with him to help him see the positive side of the whole mess."
In other words, he had read his feelings and brought to the surface the most positive ones. Trowa nodded, impressed. Quatre's ability rarely worked on people he didn't know. Except the compulsion apparently, but they had a theory that it was because he felt less guilty forcing people to do what he wanted when they weren't his friends.
"How is Sandrock?" Trowa asked, cautiously changing the subject.
"Not complete yet. I'm afraid he won't be ready for the next mission," the blond sighed. "We'll be there soon, and we cannot ask Howard to float aimlessly until we are ready, we're already putting him at enough of a risk..."
"I think I can finish Heavyarms, but it's going to be hard work," Trowa commented, sighing quietly.
"We still haven't really started on the last three, at least they'll still be battle-ready," Quatre replied thoughtfully.
"Can someone tell me why Maxwell and Yuy are currently rolling on the floor like two actors from a bad porn movie? Unless they're pretending to be two extras in a cheap action flick..."
Leaning against the doorframe, Wufei was observing the scene, one of his black eyebrows arched expressively.
"I'm leaning toward the porn movie," Trowa commented calmly while Quatre choked on his laughter.
"I'd lean toward the porn too," Duo shot back without loosening his hold on Heero, who was rolled into a ball around his pen, "but it's kinda hard to have a realistic sex scene when you're dressed, yanno."
"Since when are porn movies realistic?" Wufei scoffed, his eyebrow taking on an even more mocking curve.
"Monsieur is a connoisseur from what I see."
"Your collection taught me a lot."
"You watch my porn flicks!!!" Duo exclaimed, pointing at the Chinese teen accusingly.
"It's not as if you hide to watch them, you know," Trowa deadpanned.
"Blahblahblah... Hey!! Gimme that pen back!!!"
Heero rolled on the floor, evading his comrade.
And he flopped down on his front before his blueprints and started drawing lines, ignoring everyone once again. Duo growled, glancing at the wolf from the corner of his eye.
/To give him a good hard slap on his ass or not to give a good hard slap on his ass?/
Since he seemed not to be able to make a decision, Quatre did it for him. Heero yelped with surprise, jumping off the floor, and stared at the blond pilot.
"You spanked me," he said, blinking owlishly.
"You shouldn't have showed them," the cheetah grinned back innocently while wondering what the hell had gotten into him.
"You slapped Heero's ass!" Duo exclaimed, at the same time admiring and envious.
Quatre laughed heartily, scratching the back of his head in a vaguely guilty way. He had let Duo's enthusiasm contaminate him.
"Yes, and I'm not going to do it again. I think I broke my hand."
Giving him a wary glance, Trowa rolled on his side to put his own butt out of range. Wufei couldn't help but snort at his falsely suspicious expression. A few seconds later they were all laughing.
"... I think we're all tired..." Quatre commented, still smiling.
"We've been working hard recently," Duo replied, slumping back against the couch.
He stretched his legs, and since one of his feet was bumping against Heero's side, decided to just rest his leg across his back. The Japanese teenager growled at him, but thinking that a second brawl wouldn't be very intelligent, decided not to bother protesting more verbally.
"I should finish up my side of the blueprints before I go to bed, but I'm just too lazy and Heero is monopolizing the only red pen."
Wufei stepped over Trowa and picked up the abandoned sheet of paper, giving it a quick glance.
"I have a brown felt-tip pen," he indicated, pulling it out of his pocket.
Instead of giving it to Duo, who for once honestly looked tired, he sat on the couch by the American and pulled the coffee table close to finish inking the lines Duo had penciled in quickly.
Quatre closed his eyes and tasted the currents of feelings in the room. Everyone was tired, but it was a good tiredness born from a full day. The general mood was good, and they were all expressing variants of contentment and quietude. It was comfortably peaceful, as was the quiet friendship they were all feeling and that, to his surprise, he was receiving only to send it right back. That was a nice feedback loop.
After the next mission, there was no doubt that their quiet little vacation would be finished. It would be like kicking an anthill; OZ was going to scramble all over for a long moment and it would have repercussions on the rest of the political situation. Who knew when they would have an occasion to get another moment like this one?
He leaned back against the wall, his eyes still closed, sharing the sentiment of tranquil unity with his four teammates. He would have the headache from hell tomorrow morning, using his empathy so much in one day, but it was well worth it.