Duo, as self-proclaimed leader, called a halt at noon. Heero halted in his tracks to gaze upon the young assassin with barely-veiled contempt; despite having walked the whole way, he wasn’t even out of breath.
Duo didn’t miss the look, and made a face at the Were as he slid from his saddle. “You look like you swallowed donkey piss. Quit with the glare already, geez.” He helped the small fairy down from his horse. “I’m starving. We’re taking a lunch break.”
“Hn.” Heero turned and disappeared into the surrounding brush like smoke on the breeze. Duo scowled as he dug in his stallion’s pack. “Sheesh,” he snorted. “That guy’s got an attitude and a half. What crawled up his butt this morning?”
“Heero’s always like that,” Quatre said a little apologetically, after getting over Duo's choice of words. He seated himself comfortably on the grass. “It’s just the way he is. He isn’t mean, really… just a little brusque sometimes.”
"That's not the word I'd use," Duo grumbled, plopping down beside the blond and unwrapping a loaf of bread he'd snitched back in Margeha. He tossed his companion a canteen, which Quatre almost dropped. Duo was suddenly painfully aware of the fact that Quatre would probably be quite useless in a fight—especially once they got out of the woodlands he and his kind were so comfortable with.
Quatre took a tentative sip from the canteen and pulled a face. He rose gracefully. "The water is warm and stale," he said at Duo's blank look. "I can hear a stream nearby; I'll refill this and be right back."
Duo shrugged, breaking off a chunk of the nutty bread. "Suit yourself." When he glanced up an instant later, Quatre was gone, as if he had never been there at all.
He broke off a piece of bread for the fairy; then, after some hesitation, another for Heero, though he wasn't sure the Were would eat it. He finished his own portion and rose, letting his horse eat the crumbs from his fingers. He pat the dark stallion, hand running over the sickle-shaped mark on the powerful neck. "Eat up, Deathscythe," he murmured. "No telling when that crazy Were will let us stop again." He dusted his hand off on his breeches, then froze when his mount's ears suddenly pricked, eyes going a little wide. He seized the reins as Deathscythe gave a nervous snort and took a step back. Very slowly Duo looked over his shoulder, his free hand already creeping towards the long dagger in his belt.
Standing not two yards away, half behind a rowan, stood a large wolf.
Its fur was a shining gray so light it was almost silver, and it stared at Duo with golden eyes full of intelligence and wild things that made a shiver run up the assassin's spine. They stood staring at each other for several heartbeats until at last the wolf turned and slipped away.
Duo realized he'd been holding his breath and gasped quietly. It occurred to him suddenly that it had probably been Heero being a jackass, trying to scare him. "Damn it, Heero," he half-shouted. "That wasn't funny!"
There was a faint rustle, and Heero stepped out of the brush on the opposite side of where the wolf had been. He was scowling darkly at Duo. "Stop yelling," he said sharply. "We're out of my pack's territory. Are you daft?"
Duo glowered right back. "Don't be a dick, Heero," he snapped, patting his horse soothingly. "You scared the shit out of Dea—my horse."
Heero's eyes narrowed as he strode over. "What are you talking about?"
"Just now, when you went wolf," Duo said impatiently, pointing at the spot where the wolf had been. "You ass!"
Quatre appeared then, looking worried. "Is everything all right?"
"This idiot is babbling nonsense," Heero growled.
"Like hell I am," Duo said heatedly. "He decided to go fuzzy and try to scare the shit out of me and Deathscythe."
Quatre's lips quirked slightly. "Deathsycthe?"
"My horse," Duo muttered, shooting Heero a dirty look in time to see the condescending humor in those cobalt eyes. "You missed a spot," he pointed out nastily.
Heero's hand went up automatically to his mouth, then he lowered it slowly, glaring back at Duo. His tongue flickered out, lapping the spot of blood from his upper lip. Duo felt a little ill, but refused to show it. "Kill some innocent woodsman?"
Heero's eyes were hard and as wild as the wolf's. "Maybe I did," he said quietly, his voice angry.
"That's enough," Quatre interceded hastily. He sniffed delicately at the air. "It was a rabbit," he informed Duo. "Now please, you two, stop bickering. We're never going to be a good team if there's internal fighting all the time."
"Then tell this brat not to go wolf around me or my horse," Duo snapped.
"Brat?" Heero's lips lifted in a silent snarl, flashing perfectly white teeth.
"Duo!" Quatre admonished.
Duo took a deep breath and let it out. "Fine, fine," he sighed, accepting the canteen Quatre offered him. "Eat the bread and let's get a move on. I want to get this trip over and done with."
Heero calmed down, as well, though his eyes were still as cold as ever. Duo envied how quickly the other man could either hide or control his temper. Duo's had always been short; and though usually he turned that anger into sarcasm, he tended to get carried away when he was scared. And Heero scared him. He was suddenly very glad the gentle fairy prince was part of the group.
"What color was the wolf?" Heero asked.
Duo was about to say "you tell me", but Quatre shook his head slightly. He sighed irritably. "Gray. Almost silver."
Heero reached up and captured a lock of his unruly dark hair between thumb and forefinger, eyes boring into Duo's. "Then it wasn't me."
Quatre explained at Duo's blank look. "Heero's fur is the same shade as his hair, Duo. The wolf you saw was much older than him if the fur was that gray."
"I didn't know that," Duo grumbled, suddenly feeling both a little silly and suddenly alert. The three of them glanced around warily.
"Did it make any move to attack?" Heero asked quietly, eyes moving slowly around their surroundings.
Duo shook his head, half-drawing his dagger. "No, it just kind of stood there and watched me for a minute. Then it left."
Quatre looked worried. "Whose territory are we in?" he asked Heero.
"Krad's," Heero answered shortly. "He won't bother us if we're just passing through. Let's go."
Duo didn't argue. He leapt up into his saddle and pulled Quatre up behind him. Heero fell in step beside the stallion, and they set off at a pace that was not quite a trot, but close.
The farther west they went that afternoon, the sparser the trees became. There were more rocks in the soil, now, and the trees were hardier. Finally there was more grass and rock than trees, and they knew they were no longer in Nas Forest. They halted at the fringes of the great forest, gazing back. Quatre looked mournful and a little scared, but Heero looked typically emotionless.
Duo took a drink from his canteen and passed it back to Quatre, looking around at the rocky terrain and squinting at the plains that stretched before them. "Is this what I think it is?" he asked.
Heero nodded, his eyes also scanning their new surroundings. "The Eastern Plains."
Duo sighed, accepting the canteen Quatre handed back to him. "I tried to cross them about three years ago," he said. "I heard it was another way to get to Silun, but it’s full of dangerous animals, and not many people. I turned back after a few days." He rubbed absently at the scar on his thigh concealed under his breeches. "A pack of wild dogs thought I'd make a good meal."
Heero glanced towards the sky, where the sun, blazing a bright orange, was very slowly making its way towards the horizon. "It will be evening in a few hours," he said briskly. "Where is this 'Ash' we're supposed to meet, Quatre?"
The fairy prince tore his eyes away from the forest and looked around. “I don’t see him,” he admitted. “Perhaps we should keep going; he could be out there on the Plains waiting for us. If he needs to find us, his dragon will be able to see us from the air.”
They agreed with the simple logic, and set forth onto the harsh Eastern Plains, which looked as if they went on forever in every direction but behind them, where even Nas Forest was quickly fading in the distance.
By sunset Duo was fed up with the fruitless search. He ordered a halt and began issuing chores. Quatre was to start a fire, Heero could catch them some dinner, and Duo would lay out the blankets.
Heero looked at first like he’d like to argue, but decided instead to keep silent, and trotted off to hunt. Relieved that there hadn’t been a confrontation, Quatre hurried to build a good fire that would last throughout the night, with an armful of tinder Duo had collected shortly before leaving Nas. Duo silently praised his own foresight; wood would be scarce on the Plains. He’d found that out the hard way, three years ago. His hand drifted unconsciously towards his scarred thigh once more. He’d been lucky to survive that time. He wasn’t going to make any stupid mistakes this time around.
The fire was burning merrily, and the blankets- thick, warm bearskin gifts from the Were –were all laid out when Heero returned with a pair of jackrabbits. He had them skinned and cleaned in a very short time, and then Duo took over the cooking while Quatre dug some crackers and cheese from the assassin’s pack.
A blazing fire and hot food relaxed them all considerably, and even Heero was in better spirits as they sat before the flames, finishing off their dinner.
The Were licked grease from his fingers as he glanced around at their surroundings. Duo found it more than a little unnerving that the firelight caused the other boy’s eyes to glow just like a wolf’s. “I’ll sit first watch,” Heero volunteered. “Quatre can take dog watch.”
Duo made a face, but after a lazy moment of silent debate, chose not to argue. He didn’t like taking middle watch, but it was better than nothing. Hell, he was used to having to sleep by himself, hand clenched on the hilt of his dagger in case some idiot robber tried to attack him in the night. At least he’d feel safer with a dangerous looking Were watching over him. “All right,” he conceded.
Quatre smiled sleepily at the both of them, a silent encouragement to get along. Duo tossed the bones from his plate into the fire, and sucked the grease from his fingers before settling down in the warm bearskin blanket that was closer to being a rug. Quatre was already looking close to unconsciousness, curled up under his own blanket.
Unused to having his back watched, and not entirely convinced Heero wasn’t going to try and eat him, it took him another half hour before he finally nodded off.
Heero stirred slightly from where he was sitting cross-legged by the fire. That incessant chatterbox was finally asleep. Now he could keep watch properly. He rose to his feet in one lithe movement and stretched before turning his head this way and that, scenting the air with delicate sniffs. He sorted through the strong smells—cooked rabbit, burning grease, smoke, cheese, and the warm scent of his strange companions –and reached out with his senses to reassure himself that there was nothing worth any notice close by.
Confident that- for the moment at least –they were safe, he began his night walk.
The Were didn’t hold watch the same way as humans did- not when only one was on guard, anyhow. Why sit there and wait for the danger to come to you—and consequently risk falling asleep?
Instead, he walked a circuit around the camp, always keeping his senses on the alert, ready for a change in what he heard, smelled, or saw. Walking kept him awake and limber; he wouldn’t be stumbling to his feet, legs half asleep from sitting down all watch. Neither did he go in the same continuous circle; he backtracked, or he went through the camp itself. He would be ready for anything that was foolish enough to try and attack his little group. He might not care much for them, but they were his responsibility. Heero was a person to take his responsibilities seriously.
So it was that when he caught a strange scent heading towards them from the north, he was prepared. Slinking off into the shadows, he began to hunt his quarry.
About five hundred yards from the camp, he froze behind a thorny bush, crouched and ready to spring, his strong hands digging into the soil in mimicry of claws imbedding themselves in flesh.
It was a male, judging by the sharp, flat planes of chest and back. He was standing still, not two leaps from Heero’s hiding place, staring at the distant campfire. The face was twisted in what Heero could only guess was a grimace. A look of fear? Of anger? Disgust, even? He crept a little closer, his eyes, adjusted to the scant light of stars and moon, picking out a few more details of the man.
That was the first word that sprang to mind. There was no buzz of power, of energy, humming in the earth where he stood, or seeping from his pores. This was only a human male, foolishly alone in the Plains at night.
That was the second impression he got, and his disdain of a moment earlier subsided somewhat. Some kind of wide blade buckled to his belt; light clothing that did not restrict movement; a slender but strong build with wiry arms; an uplifted chin, and a mouth that turned downward in arrogance, impatience, and a total lack of respect for whoever he took to be dozing at the campfire. His hair looked to be about shoulder length, but it was hard to tell, being pulled back in such a severe ponytail. All Heero could tell about it was that it was dark colored, and the moon seemed to delight in casting a shine on it.
Having apparently made some decision, the warrior muttered a barely audible curse and began striding towards the fire. Although he walked with quick impatience, his footfalls fell quietly on the ground, with hardly a noise or a disturbance. Heero trailed behind, watching him closely.
Out of curiosity Heero let him get all the way to the camp, where he paused to look over the slumbering boys, a deep frown of disgust on his face. He made as if to go over to Quatre, and Heero finally decided to make his move.
He slid out of the shadows as silent and deadly as a demon. Claws appeared where fingernails had been a moment before, and in a trice he had the startled warrior in a headlock, strong claws pricking at throat and shoulder.
“Don’t move,” Heero breathed in his ear.
The boy was rigid in his grasp, his body humming with the desire to retaliate. Heero dug into his captive’s flesh harder with his claws, and the boy flinched slightly.
“And here I thought they’d been stupid enough to sleep without a guard.” The boy’s voice was rich with an accent Heero couldn’t place, and laced with irony. Heero sniffed at him, testing. There was nothing malicious that he could sense. There was a will to fight, of course—but that came from the sudden, unexpected attack from the rear.
“What are you doing here?” Heero demanded in a low growl, careful not to wake his companions. He didn’t want them up until he figured out who and what this stranger was.
The boy was still stiff in his hold, but not so rigid. “You’re the team from Nas, aren’t you?” his voice was calm, but still with that undercurrent of arrogance that Heero had read in his body language earlier. “Pan sent me to get you. He thought you’d gotten lost.”
Slowly Heero released him, and took a step back. He kept his claws, however- still ready to attack if the boy was lying. The warrior turned smoothly to face him, standing tall and proud, a faint look of indignation on his face. Like a ruffled cat.
In the firelight, Heero could finally pin down a few minute details he hadn’t been able to see in the dark. The young man’s hair was black as a raven’s wing, yet still it caught the light from the fire, causing it to shine. His eyes were slanted slightly, and a deep, dark onyx color that Heero recognized immediately from stories. His exotic looks, and the sword- saber, he realized –at his belt named him almost as assuredly as the faint reptilian scent barely discernible.
This boy was from the northern mountains in Aragay- a part of the dragon tribe. “Ash?” Heero heard the note of incredulity in his own voice. But hadn’t Quatre’s senile old father said Ash was an adult? This boy couldn’t be any older than himself!
The warrior had been sizing him up, as well, but he scowled at the sound of the name. “No,” he said shortly. “My father couldn’t come.”
Heero’s eyebrows shot up, his mouth turning down in a dark frown. “Your father? Why not?”
“I didn’t come here to hold a conversation,” the boy snapped. “I came here to bring you all to Pan. Are you coming or aren’t you?”
Heero bristled a little, but could not bring himself to get angry- only annoyed. He was right. If Pan had sent him here to fetch them, then it wasn’t his business to start running at the mouth. Maybe Pan wanted to meet them before he began dropping any secrets or details. Heero would have responded much the same, so he brushed off his twinge of irritation and crouched by Duo, shaking him awake.
That was his mistake.
He’d developed such an air of disdain for the loud, overly-dramatic popinjay, that he’d already started to take it for granted that Duo was as foolish, slow, and unimpressive as he seemed.
Duo was awake in a flash. He drove a boot into Heero’s stomach, causing the Were to fall backwards with an “oof!” of surprise. In the next heartbeat, Duo was pressed against him, pinning him down with a wicked curved dagger pressed uncomfortably against his throat.
Duo was blinking fast to rid himself of sleep, and Heero realized belatedly that Duo had been barely awake throughout it. The reaction was all so deeply ingrained that he hadn’t started to fully awaken until just now.
Duo’s eyes focused on him in surprise. “Heero?”
Heero scowled at him darkly to hide the warring emotions inside. Anger at himself for being beaten by this scrawny, loudmouthed human, and a new flash of respect for someone he’d taken to be a helpless idiot. “Get off,” he snarled.
Duo scrambled to his feet, and immediately noticed the dragon warrior standing by the fire, watching them with a faint look of wry amusement. Heero realized as he rolled to his feet that he wasn’t the only one making a few quick readjustments in his head. The strange boy from the mountain would be more careful not to underestimate the Were or his dark-clothed human companion. Heero, though he would never admit it aloud, would also view the God of Death with a mite more respect. Hell, with reflexes like that, they almost didn’t need a night watch. Unlike most humans Heero had encountered, Duo was not always what he seemed.
Quatre, disturbed by the noise, sat up rubbing at his eyes sleepily. “Heero? Duo? What’s going on?”
“We’ve got a visitor,” Duo said tightly, watching the silent foreigner warily.
“I know.” Quatre yawned, missing the startled glance Duo tossed him. “He isn’t here to hurt us.” He rose to his feet, patting himself off, and offered the arrogant warrior a sunny smile. “Hello. You must be Ash.”
The boy shook his head with a slight scowl. “Come with me,” he said shortly. “Pan isn’t far from here. He wants to see you all.”
Quatre jumped to what he thought was the most important question. “If you’re not Ash, can I ask what your name is?”
The boy hesitated a moment before relenting gruffly. “Chang. Wufei Chang.”
Duo was squinting at him in the firelight. “You’re one of those dragon people?”
Wufei turned his back on them and began walking, not bothering to wait for them.
“Hey!” Duo started after him, then turned to Heero. “Well? Do you think we should trust him?”
Heero looked to Quatre. Heero relied on instinct, but this was more the fairy’s department than his.
Quatre nodded, already rolling up his blanket. “He doesn’t mean us any harm. I think we should follow him.”
“How would you know?” Duo demanded, still a little strung out with the surprises of the night.
“I’m what you could call an Empath,” the prince replied, carrying his blanket over to Deathscythe. “I can sense a person’s emotions- strong ones, especially. We’d better hurry if we want to keep up,” he noted.
Duo grumbled, but began to roll up his own blanket.
Heero kicked dirt into the fire to douse it, his mouth turned in a slight pensive frown.
Ash wasn’t here but his son Wufei was. Wufei was a warrior, but no older than they were. Pan had sent Wufei to get them—so did he approve of Wufei being here? Was Ash waiting for them with Pan, or had Wufei literally meant that his father hadn’t come? He had a lot of questions for that dark-eyed boy.
An hour later he was wishing he’d never met the dragon warrior.
Author's Notes: *shrug* Before you look at me incredulously and go "Empath"??... hey, it's all I could think of that was close enough to the Kokoro no Uchu. Remember, this is a fantasy AU, so I can't very well use Japanese (which is driving me nuts), or name Quatre's gift something that has to do with space. x_x;
For those of you who don't like Wufei... ^^;; I do. And I'm going to make him out to be cool, if I can write him well enough. Nyahh.
~to be continued..~
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