"The Missing Number"
Wufei flinched instinctively as another rifle shot rang out from the woods.
Heero's hands, busy bandaging his shoulder where the piece of sword had lodged itself earlier, paused, and he glanced towards the trees out of the corner of his eye. "Trowa," he explained shortly.
Wufei nodded slightly, keeping his eyes trained on the woods rather than face his war partner's intense stare. There were too many questions and accusations in that gaze, and he didn't feel up to answering anything right now. He was still a little shellshocked.
They'd come looking for him. Together, no less. Why?
He was seated sideways on the dirtbike, clutching the hilt of his grandfather's broken sword in one hand, the other clenched on his knee as Heero bandaged his wound. Another shot rang out. Wufei counted silently in his head. He'd killed four and tied up another. Heero had just gunned down four more in his surprise rescue (He winced inwardly; he was going to owe Heero for that one). He'd heard Trowa's gun three times now; once while interrogating the guerilla, and two just now. That left three. And knowing Trowa's silent stalk and calm but bull-headed determination, those three weren't going to make it out of the woods alive anytime soon. And if they did, they'd have two nasty surprises waiting for them. His sword might be broken, but Yuy's gun sure as hell wasn't. And Wufei was supremely confident in his own ability to kill a man with his bare hands. He didn't need a weapon. Still...
He stared dully at the swordhilt in his hand and swallowed back a lump of regret and rage.
Heero finished with his arm and straightened, wiping his bloodied hands absently off on his pants. Another shot echoed from the woods. Heero ignored it, staring intently at his patient. He was silent for a long moment, perhaps judging just how willing Wufei was to talk. Finally he said, "That man-- Hank --gave us the equipment we needed. He and Po are moving her men somewhere else."
Wufei didn't answer at first, still staring listlessly at his ruined sword. Finally he set it carefully aside, balanced between the bike handles and seat, and slid from the seat. Heero's arms came out like steel bands, hands gripping the seat and penning him in as he made a move to get around the other boy. Wufei stiffened, his back digging into the seat as he stared stubbornly at Heero's chest. The bark of the rifle sounded once more, closer this time. Wufei used the noise as an excuse to glance over Heero's shoulder towards the trees.
"Why did you.." Heero stopped himself, pressing his lips tight together. His eyes were narrowed with frustration as he struggled with his temper and impatience. He shifted as if he were going to step aside, then abruptly leaned forward.
Caught off guard, Wufei tried to take a step back, but only pressed himself harder against the seat. His eyes flashed up quickly in warning-- a mistake. Heero's hard eyes caught his and held them. He couldn't find it in himself to look away. Instead he straightened and glared right back. "What are you doing here?" he demanded. He meant the question to come across as haughty and indignant. Instead it came out quiet and a bit more subdued than he liked.
"Looking for you," Heero snapped. "It took us awhile to find you. It was your cousin that led us here."
Wufei felt himself flinch minutely at the mention of his kin, and tried to cover it up with a small sneer. "Bai Ling? What did he tell you?"
Heero hadn't missed the flinch. His eyes narrowed slightly. "That he didn't know why you left or where you'd gone. It was a lucky guess on his part that led us here." He tilted his head slightly. "I got the feeling he's the reason you ran away again."
Wufei reached up and pressed a hand firmly to Heero's chest. He shoved hard. Heero's body tensed, his feet digging stubbornly into the dirt. After a moment he finally accepted the silent demand for personal space, and dropped his arms to his sides, stepping back. Wufei dodged around him and stood several feet away, arms crossed as he glared into the woods, waiting for that one last shot that would mean all of the guerillas were dead. "We had a disagreement," he said shortly. "He expected something he was never going to get." He spared his partner a quick, blistering glare. "I did not run away."
"You ran away then, and you ran away back on 0167," Heero growled. "Was it because Trowa left?"
"He wasn't coming back, Heero," Wufei shot back. "You knew it, I knew it. He knew it. It was over. There was no point in me--"
"He came back," Heero pointed out in a quiet but intense voice. "He's the one that found me."
"...Why?" Wufei muttered, glaring at the trees. "I thought he had his precious family to keep himself occupied."
"Ask him yourself."
The rifle went off for one final time, and silence descended. Wufei continued to glower at the trees, struggling internally with mixed feelings of guilt, anger, and resentment. Heero stood with his back to him, checking his gun. They waited.
Ten minutes later a lanky figure emerged from the woods, cradling a rifle against his shoulder, haphazard hair hiding his expression. As if sensing his approach, Heero turned slightly, asking a question with his eyes.
Trowa walked up to them, lowering the rifle and tugging the strap over his head and shoulder, letting the gun hang by his side. Heero took the motion as his answer and turned to the bike, sticking the first aid kit and swordhilt in a side pouch.
Trowa's eyes slid to Wufei, and he stopped a few feet away, studying his partner with a face devoid of emotion. Wufei's eyes went immediately to the blood staining the slender pilot's chest and throat, and he stiffened.
"It's not mine," Trowa murmured. He seemed to hesitate, then reached out with a long arm, touching his fingertips lightly to the bandage on Wufei's shoulder, then raising his hand to trace the slash across his cheek. His eyes studied the wounds clinically-- they weren't fatal --before he had reassured himself that Wufei seemed to be fit to ride. He met Wufei's fierce stare, and Wufei had to look away or risk having the other boy see the warring emotions in his eyes.
"The bike won't hold all three of us," Heero pointed out, standing beside the bike and holding the handlebars as he turned to look at them.
"I'll walk," Wufei said before Trowa could speak. "I have to retrieve a man from the woods, anyway. Sally Po will want him questioned."
Trowa arched a brow, as if to say "And let you out of our sight again so you can run off?", but wisely held his tongue. Heero wasn't quite so prudent.
His eyes narrowed. "No. You ride. I will retrieve the man. Where did you leave him?"
Wufei turned on him irritably. "I am perfectly capable--"
"Sally Po wished to speak with you as soon as we had retrieved you," Trowa interjected quietly. "I think she needs your help with moving the camp." Probably a bold-faced lie, but Wufei wasn't willing to risk Sally's ranting wrath if it was the truth.
He muttered to himself for a moment before reluctantly giving Heero directions to where he had tied up the man. Heero accepted the information with a curt nod and strode off toward the woods. Trowa mounted the bike and twisted the handle, revving the engine. He looked at Wufei through his bangs, face still calm despite the death he had just visited on the unsuspecting guerillas and the sight of his previously missing partner. "Coming?"
Wufei hesitated, then slid on behind the other pilot, gripping a strong shoulder in one hand, wrapping the other around the back of the seat for balance. He couldn't quite bring himself to hold Trowa's waist to steady himself more securely. Trowa lifted his foot from the ground and twisted the bike in the direction of the road, roaring off.
Sally Po had had the foresight to leave a man a mile down the road from their old camp to give directions to the returning rescue party. By the time the two pilots caught up with her and her men, it was nearly dark.
Wufei hopped off the bike almost before it came to a complete stop. Men and women were setting up the last of the tents, some pausing to stare hopefully in Wufei's direction. They were waiting for word on their teammates.
Sally came jogging up, braids half undone, face streaked with sweat and dirt. She looked exhausted and not too hopeful. "Wufei. Good to see you alive and kicking," she greeted as she stopped in front of him, eyes flicking immediately to the bandage on his shoulder. "The others...?"
Trowa shut off the bike's engine and tossed one long leg over the seat, dismounting. "I'm sorry, I found no survivors," he reported quietly. "But the enemy is dead. Fifteen of them. We took care of them between the three of us."
"Where's Heero?" Sally asked, glancing down the road.
"He'll catch up," Wufei growled. He hesitated, then added gruffly, "I apologize for the loss of your men. I should have kept them alive."
Sally sighed, closing her eyes briefly in regret. After a moment she shook her head and looked at him again solemnly. "I've no doubt you tried your best, Wufei. At least you made it out and the murderers who did the killing are gone." She raised her eyebrows with tentative hope. "All of them?"
"I left one alive for questioning," Wufei grunted. "Yuy is retrieving him."
"Excellent," Sally murmured, a light of intended justice in her normally calm eyes.
Trowa unslung the borrowed rifle and held it out. Sally took it from him with a nod of thanks, turning slightly and gesturing towards one of the already erected tents. "You must be starving. We'll get you some food and redress that wound."
Trowa dug in the side bag on the bike and wordlessly handed the broken sword to Wufei. Sally's eyes widened at the sight of it. "How--"
Wufei shook his head sharply, cutting her off. "I'm not hungry," he snapped. Still clutching the hilt, he strode off. Trowa watched him go in silence.
"Wufei!" Sally called.
"Leave him," Trowa interjected calmly. "He needs to be alone right now."
Sally sighed, placing her hands on her hips as she watched the slight figure disappear in the crowd around the tents. "I'm really going to catch it later. He must be pretty pissed that I helped you guys find him."
The faintest shadow of a smile hovered on Trowa's lips. "A little," he admitted.
"How about you?" Sally asked, looking at him expectantly. "How does a hot dinner sound?"
"Iie. I'll put this bike with the others and keep an eye open for Heero."
"Of course," Sally muttered, rolling her eyes. She started to turn away, then hesitated, looking back at him. "Tank seems to think highly of you. Do you two know each other?"
Trowa shook his head in denial. He gazed at the camp, his eyes seeing into a past of blood, smoke, and violence. "It seems he saw me once during the war and remembered me."
"At least he's not one of those that resented all that the Gundam pilots did," Sally pointed out with a quirk of the mouth. "He's a good man. I think even Wufei respects him. They butted heads a little, at first. Wufei's not too keen on taking orders, and Tank isn't used to people blowing him off. But they hold a mutual respect for each other. In their own way."
"Hm." Trowa signaled that the conversation was over by toeing up the kickstand and pushing the bike in the direction of the other vehicles.
"Offer's still open if you get hungry," Sally called after him. "Grab a bite to eat if you feel like it. We owe you that much, at the very least."
Trowa didn't respond, and Sally returned to the rest of her men with a heavy heart to deliver the news of their teammates' demise.
The hostage was being uncooperative. It probably had something to do with the murderous glares Sally's men were aiming his way as he was man-handled into her tent. He was also still bitching about the crack across the jaw Heero had given him on the way back to the site in payment for his hunt of Wufei. Heero didn't have time for his wild attempts at escape, however. He had other things to do. Mainly, find his two partners and figure out what the hell they were going to do next, and where they all stood.
He put up with the man's cursing, threats, and flailing for all of ten seconds before realizing there wasn't going to be an end to the noise anytime soon. A hard blow across the shoulders from the butt of his gun made the man stumble; a hard kick to the middle of his back brought him heavily to his knees. Two men leapt forward and grabbed his shoulders to keep him there. Heero flicked a glance towards Sally and Tank, who stood, grim-faced, prepared to deal with the man.
Sally caught the look and offered a small smile that was anything but pleasant. "Thank you, Heero," she said sweetly. "We can handle it from here."
Heero nodded curtly and strode from the tent without a backwards glance.
He spotted Trowa quickly. The slender acrobat was leaning against a nearby tent pole, arms crossed over his chest as he watched the milling camp with hooded eyes and an immobile face. He focused on Heero as the other boy approached.
"Wufei?" Heero demanded shortly.
Trowa straightened and tilted his chin in the direction of the trees. Heero fell in step silently as the two of them walked off to confront the third member of their party.
They found him seated on-- of all things --a stone bench in a small clearing not far into the little woods. The bench was covered in moss, and part of it had broken off. A few feet from the bench squatted a jungle gym, complete with monkey bars and slide. The whole thing was rusted and covered in leaves and dirt. One of the swings swung slowly, chains squeaking mournfully as the breeze played with it as children must have done decades ago.
Wufei must have heard them coming, but he didn't look up as they approached. He sat, shoulders slightly slumped, hands clasped tightly between his legs as he gazed at the playground with a dull gaze.
Trowa and Heero exchanged a brief look before coming up behind the other pilot. Trowa took a seat on Wufei's left without a word, and after a moment's hesitation, Heero sat down on Wufei's right.
Trowa's eyes fell on the object Wufei was clutching tightly in both hands, but he didn't mention it. Heero also found himself staring at the broken sword before his eyes shied up towards Wufei's face. Uneasiness settled in his stomach. Maybe they should have left him by himself for awhile longer. It seemed to him suddenly that the ancient, broken blade in Wufei's hands was almost like a reflection of Wufei right now, and the thought was disheartening. He knew next to nothing about Wufei's past or family, but he did know he had rarely seen the other pilot without the sword. Had Wufei taken its death as some kind of sign? Had he broken with it? And then him and Trowa showing up again so suddenly...
He shot a quick, tense look towards Trowa. They shouldn't have come.
But Trowa ignored the look. He leaned back slightly on his hands and followed Wufei's blank stare, studying the rusting playground with a calm face. Heero turned his own eyes on the playground, and the sight of it only caused him more discomfort. In the solemn mood that had fallen over them, he found his imagination creeping up on him with a vengeance, twisting painful memories inside of him. His mind tossed the image at him almost accusingly: a little girl with a dog, offering a flower...
When Trowa finally moved, Heero almost jumped, he was so lost in the melancholy moment. The tall pilot reached up to comb some of the hair out of his eyes, still gazing at the rusted playground. He spoke softly in a tongue Heero vaguely recognized.
Heero looked at him sideways, but didn't speak.
After a long moment, Wufei shifted slightly, grip on his sword tightening. "...What does that mean?" he asked, voice gruff and quiet.
"It means..." Trowa's smile was small and humorless. "'Alone yet not alone am I'. I forget where I first heard it."
Heero stared at his fists, clenched on his knees. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Saa... who knows," Trowa mumbled with a tiny, one-shouldered shrug. "I suppose it means something different to everybody. For instance..." He picked up a leaf from the bench and twirled it in between two long fingers, eyes drifting from the monkey bars to the squeaking swing. "Duo says it means he and his god- the God of Death -are one and the same. He says it means he can never die, because one can't kill death. That they fight together."
Heero couldn't stop the small snort. That certainly sounded like Duo.
"Quatre," Trowa continued, voice still quiet and nearly inflectionless, "says it means he is never alone because he will always have those that love him. Friends, family. Us." He lifted the leaf and opened his fingers, watching the breeze pluck it away and dance with it in the air. "Catherine says it's something to do with religion. That it means a higher being is always there, watching after you. Protecting you and maybe even guiding you. She says that it means that even when you think you're alone in the world, there's always someone up there that loves you."
Wufei's face twisted into a sneer, his eyes finally giving a hint of life. "No one's watching after us," he growled bitterly.
Heero couldn't debate that. He gazed stone-faced at the playground. Had she once played on a playground like this? Laughing, full of youth and life. Until he'd taken that life from her.
"You're probably right," Trowa agreed diplomatically. His eyes followed the airborne leaf as the breeze seemed to lose interest and it settled onto the ground to join its brethren.
"What does it really mean?" Wufei demanded, glaring at the swordhilt in his hand. The broken weapon that was himself.
Trowa shook his head slightly. "I'm not sure. I think it's how you choose to interpret it."
Wufei's dark eyes darted sideways to regard him, a jeer in his voice. "And you? You believe it means someone up there 'watching' us? Or are you sentimental like Winner?"
Trowa gazed back at him solemnly. "I think it's just a phrase," he murmured. "Nothing more."
Heero looked at the both of them and imagined what they must look like. Three teenage boys seated on a broken bench, bodies unconsciously close as they sought something like life in the death that seemed to hound them at every step. Torn apart by their own pride and confusion, their own difficulty with the strange being that was "emotion". Three soldiers, souls stained with blood, emotionally crippled, each with wildly different attitudes and views on life. Three boys who had gone against everything they'd been taught and come to believe, in pulling together. They had fought separately during the war, and now, just a few months later, they were seated together on a bench far from their respective homes. They weren't here for another battle or refuge. They weren't deciding how to save the earth or space. There really was no reason for the three of them to be sitting together in the first place.
Heero straightened slightly, eyes traveling from Wufei's tight expression to Trowa's own calm facade. He looked down at the broken sword hilt Wufei was clutching, and forced back the niggling doubt and the restraints he had placed on himself years ago.
He reached out and tugged on Wufei's ponytail sharply.
Startled out of his somber mood, Wufei gave a little squawk that he wasn't quite able to strangle. He whipped his head around to glare furiously at Heero. "Yuy! What have I told you about--"
"It's not just a phrase," Heero informed him brusquely.
Wufei snapped his mouth shut and blinked at him warily, obviously not sure how to deal with an apparently insane Heero. Beside him, Trowa leaned forward slightly to look at Heero quizically.
"Anyway, I thought the agreement was three months," Heero pointed out sternly, glaring from one bemused boy to the other. "Together," he emphasized. "Three months, and if we couldn't stand to be around each other by the end of it, we would go our separate ways." He crossed his arms over his chest and glared. "Technically, we only spent a few weeks in each others' company. Therefore, we have a little over two months to go." He aimed his intense stare at Wufei. "We came to see if you were still willing to give it a try. Well?"
Wufei opened and shut his mouth soundlessly as he gaped at his resolute friend. He shot Trowa a strange look. Trowa blinked, then allowed a small, rare smile to creep up. "He's right, you know," he murmured seriously.
"Are you insane, Yuy?" Wufei finally exploded, leaping to his feet. He was retreating again, his mind informed him acidly, but he couldn't stop himself from backing a few feet away and pointing the broken sword at them both. "You left! Or don't you remember?" he snarled. "It was obviously all a big mistake, we never should have-"
Heero surged to his feet and batted the shattered blade aside. Wufei sputtered in surprise as the ragged blade cut a gash across Heero's knuckles. The sight of blood was enough to make Trowa get to his own feet in a hurry. Then a strong hand had seized Wufei by the shoulder and yanked him up against a hard unyeilding body. Heero's mouth by his ear made him freeze, breath hitching in his throat.
"Are you coming back?" Heero murmured in a perfectly reasonable, threatening tone of voice, "or do we have to drag you back?"
Wufei had to fight not to move, struggling with his conflicting emotions. He wanted to punch Heero in the stomach for startling him like that. He wanted to just shut up and follow them. He wanted to turn down the offer cold, and never see either of them again. He didn't know what the hell he wanted, but Heero's breath on his ear and Trowa's solemn eyes boring into him were quickly breaking down the walls of his resolve.
"...What are you doing?" Wufei finally demanded hoarsely, staring at a tree over Heero's shoulder.
Heero reached out and hooked a finger in Trowa's shirt collar, dragging him forward past the foot or two that separated them. Trowa got over his initial surprise after just a moment, and reached out and touched the tips of his long fingers to the small of Wufei's back.
"Hn." Heero leaned back slightly and flicked Trowa a sideways glance. "Evening the odds."
Trowa's eyes widened slightly, and abruptly he smiled. Wufei turned his head slightly to stare at him, startled by the sudden show of real emotion. "Duo's missing number," Trowa murmured, tweaking Wufei's hair again, but gently.
Wufei looked from one boy to the other, and bit back the taste of shame that suddenly rose in him. If ever he had been offered a real chance at life, this was it, and he was actually considering throwing it away. He was still-- he forced himself to admit it --scared. Wary. This couldn't possibly work. But.. if it did...
He drew himself up straight and offered the two of them a haughty look. "You expect me to return to that blight of a colony and work for minimum wage just to get by?" he demanded. Heero blinked, swaying back slightly, and Trowa glanced at Wufei quickly. Wufei scowled, refusing to meet their eyes as he crossed his arms over his chest imperiously. "In case you hadn't noticed, Sally is in charge of a group of miscreants and mercenaries. Her cause is good, but her people are weak. Her greatest asset is Tank. And letting a woman be in charge..." he snorted derisively to show what he thought of that. Heero was beginning to look a little annoyed, but Trowa chuckled quietly.
"Aa," he agreed quietly. "It seems there's still some fighting to be done. It's a pity she doesn't have more manpower."
"People that actually know what they're doing," Wufei added with a sniff. "That don't get killed on simple recon."
Heero blinked and looked sharply at the both of them. Then his face shifted into an expression Wufei hadn't seen since the end of the war nearly three months ago. The soldier peeked out at them with eyes as hard as gundanium, the slight twist of the lips hinting at the beginnings of a cold smile.
Author's Notes: Don't go freaking out on me going "wtf is the 'missing number'??!!1", k? ^^; One more chapter after this. Wow. Fic is almost done. Scary @_@; Last chapter should be out soon. ^_^
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