Chapter Six: Flawed Expectations
by Casey Valhalla
Two hours in the situation room. Five more in the command center of the docking station. Ten in the cockpit of a fighter ship. Another three in the command center, one in the situation room with Wufei and Trowa and two more directing traffic in the west wing of Dirin Roth that had undergone a sudden remodel into a medical ward. Eight hours ensconced in the northern machine gun turret of the fortress. And the past five trapped in the care of the medics himself after passing out from exhaustion.
Thirty-six hours without proper sleep, or food, with only one thought lingering in his mind.
~I never wanted to fight like this again.~
Heero picked his way through the empty streets of the city surrounding Dirin Roth. Only some damage was evident, most of it easily fixed. A few buildings crushed by a downed fighter, the majority of which, he noted with some satisfaction, were the enemy's ships. Varied structural damage due to stray blasts. No civilian casualties. The residents had evacuated to the network of underground tunnels that hadn't been used since the last clan war. The first and last he and Wufei had ever fought in. Heero remembered it as six months of Hell. He shrugged as he walked, shaking off the weight of old memories. They were likely enough to visit him in his dreams that night without dwelling on them now.
He was going to join Wufei and Trowa, who were busy with the Kaji First Division Infantry picking off the last of the enemy ground troops. All the fighters in the atmosphere had either been shot down or chased away, and the few left in the planet's orbit were making a hasty retreat. The command ship had vanished right before Heero's eyes, while he and a small fleet of pilots were closing in on it.
~Cloaking devices. Fuck! No wonder they got the drop on us.~
Thirty-six hours into the conflict and they were still no closer to figuring out who the hell was attacking them than they were when the first blast hit. It wore on Heero's nerves almost as bad as the sleep deprivation. He walked guardedly, knowing his knees could betray him at any moment. Every muscle seemed to tremble and twitch, sore and stiff from being thrown around in the ship's cockpit, and later enduring the amusement park ride masquerading as a gun turret. Every nerve ending tingled, and his head felt like it was floating a foot or two above his neck.
When all this was over he was going to find something soft to land on and not move for another thirty-six hours.
As he reached the outskirts of the city and the rolling plains and farmland beyond, the remains of the battlefield came into sight. The ground force hadn't been large; they had guessed a thousand strong, but it looked to be slightly less than that. Bodies littered the ground among heaps of ruined spacecraft and a short line of trenches, the reddening afternoon sunlight casting a bloody glow over the scene. Uniformed soldiers wandered among the dead, pausing occasionally to snuff out an enemy still clinging to life. Medics rushed in and out of a hastily pitched tent, stretchers carried between them or steadying soldiers limping along beside them. Heero turned off the dusty farm road he was following, catching the unmistakable stench of gunpowder, charred flesh and the metallic tang of blood.
As he crested a rise at the field's edge, he found Wufei.
The Mandate was standing in the center of a bowl-shaped depression, half-shadowed in the failing light. His body was encased in blackwashed chain mail over a thick skin of dark brown leather, his hair pulled back severely into a short tail at the nape of his neck. He held a katana ready in his right hand, a sub-machine gun in his left, cradled against his hip. His eyes scanned the field warily, a crease of concern forming on his forehead. He and his weapons alike were spattered and caked with generous amounts of blood and gore.
"I hope you were at least wearing a helmet."
Wufei turned at the sound of Heero's voice, offering a grim smile and motioning him down with the point of his katana. A small cut in his left temple was already scabbing over, a small trickle of red tracing a line to his cheek. "Of course I was. I'm not a complete idiot, you know."
"You shouldn't say things like that to people who remember your childhood." Heero stopped face to face with his friend and looked him up and down, noting an additional injury to his right calf, hastily bound with a length of cloth. "You look like shit."
"So do you," Wufei replied dryly, and tossed him the gun. "Think you can handle that?"
"I've been in worse condition." Heero slung the gun over his shoulder and cast his gaze around the field, what he could see of it from their location, as Wufei bent down to examine something. "Any new info?"
In response the Mandate straightened and held up a bloodied object. It took a moment for Heero to identify it as a severed head. The skull structure was inhuman, and the skin was green and had a leathery texture. "Trogladyte," Wufei said with distaste, tossing the sordid artifact aside. He turned to move on to a smaller corpse, this one with contorted limbs and an oversized head. "Gremlin," he said, nudging the dead thing. "Nasty little buggers. That one," he indicated a brownish, skeletal figure with a sunken face, "was a Doppelganger. And," he continued, nodding towards a heap of arms and feathers that may have once resembled a female, "that was a Tanaríri." Wufei shuddered. "I'd much rather not face down one of those again. There were others. Weres, Rakshasa. Clever creatures. There was a small battalion of Drow. Trowa wasn't happy."
"They're dead." The elf's voice was flat as he walked across the hollow to join them. He, too, was blood-spattered and worse for wear, and though his only armor was a doeskin vest he appeared uninjured. A mechanized crossbow was slung over his back and a pair of long knives were strapped to his belt. His expression was drawn and more than a little displeased.
Wufei bore the newcomer and ascertaining look before exchanging a nod and focusing his attention back on Heero. "So, my well-traveled assassin, what do all these things have in common?"
"Lesser demons," Heero replied thoughtfully. "Unclassified and unregistered."
"Precisely." Wufei turned and began leading them up the rise to the greater portion of the battlefield. "And they aren't classified or registered because they aren't dangerous except in numbers, and their tribes are always bickering too much for them to organize."
"Remind you of anyone?" Heero intoned, poking Wufei in the shoulder.
"That isn't true of Drow," Trowa commented in the same flat tone.
"No, but there aren't enough Drow left in the lower galaxy to pose a threat, and they usually keep to themselves these days anyway," Heero replied. "But this attack *was* organized."
Trowa shook his head. "Not well enough to defeat Kaji's forces."
"Perhaps that wasn't the point. But they came here for a reason, no doubt." Wufei cast a look at his friend. "And since the command ship vanished..."
"We don't know who sent them," Heero finished. "Who in the Seven Hells would raise an army of lesser demons?"
"Should we notify the Torreldaeo Ministry?" Trowa asked. Wufei blinked in thought for a moment, and Heero scowled. Trowa raised a questioning eyebrow. "Is there a problem?"
"They're useless," Heero spat. "I spent two months arguing with those tight-assed bastards to get Duo a First Class security clearance."
Wufei waved away the outburst. "Aside from my dear foster brother's personal loathing, no, I don't think so. We'd either appear foolish, insane, or give the impression we were trying to stir up trouble. The Outer Rim has a heavy influence in the Torreldaeo Ministry and they have no reason to love the Modicum and its representatives." He offered Heero a half-mocking pat on the shoulder. "As for you, stop griping. You got what you wanted in the end."
The assassin grunted in assent, just as a soldier hailed them from several yards along the field. The three men made their way towards the approaching soldier, circumnavigating piles of corpses and pooling blood. Heero immediately recognized the guard that had checked him in -- was it only two days ago?
"Lieutenant Danoff," Wufei said in greeting as the soldier stopped at attention in front of them. "Report?"
"We've secured a ship, sir, at the eastern end of the field." The lieutenant's face broke into a very unprofessional grin. "We have a captive."
The creature in the fighter vessel turned out to be a male Drow, only clinging to life by sheer force of will. A handful of soldiers guarded him where he still lay in the shattered remains of the ship's cockpit, his silver hair matted with blood, a deep wound in his stomach slowly oozing away what little remained of his life. He managed to look up at the three new arrivals through hooded eyes, offering them a sharp-toothed grimace in greeting.
"Well, well, well," he commented in a hoarse voice. "I didn't know I was such a highly regarded prisoner." He turned a menacing gaze on Trowa. "You've even brought me a last meal."
Wufei's face darkened, and he leveled the tip of his katana at the Drow's throat. "You will tell us what you know, and perhaps I will provide you with a swifter death."
The dark elf laughed, a deep, gurgling, wretched sound. "Oh, you will, will you?" Bloodshot eyes slid past Wufei to land on Heero. "Ah, you come at last, my pretty prey." He coughed harshly, a trickle of red appearing at the corner of his mouth. "Heero Yuy, the Dragon's Assassin. How good of you to meet with me."
Heero's eyes narrowed. "Explain yourself."
"Ah ah ah," the Drow tisked. "There are not enough secrets in this lifetime, my pretty. Do be so kind as to allow me the few I have left."
"He's not going to tell us anything." Trowa spoke through gritted teeth, his fingers twitching over the handles of his knives, though he kept his face expressionless and his eyes locked on the creature in the cockpit.
"Not true, my delicious little elf-boy," the Drow said, his voice beginning to crackle as he spoke. "One thing. Then you may kill me if you wish, or leave me to suffer as you will." The laugh sounded again, ending in a series of coughs.
When he recovered, the creature bore a vile grin at the scowling Wufei. "Let this be a warning, little Dragon." A rasping laugh followed, then silence, and the figure in the cockpit did not move again.
"My thanks for being completely unhelpful," Wufei muttered and turned to stalk away towards the fading sun, shooting one last order at the assembled soldiers. "Burn it, like all the rest."
Trowa bore the dead thing a look of disgust, but didn't move from his vigil. Heero glanced at his friend's retreating back, then moved to address the lieutenant who had brought them here. "What did he have on him?"
One of the soldiers handed him an object the size and shape of a short spear, but the business end lacked a blade. Instead the tip was rounded and wrapped in black silk. Heero examined it critically for a moment and looked to Trowa. He drew a breath and clapped the elf on the shoulder in a gesture he hoped was encouraging. "Let's go. It's been a long day."
Trowa met the assassin's eyes and nodded, cast one last glare back at the Drow, then fell into stride beside him. Wufei had stopped on a rise in the field some way ahead of them, gazing down at the medical tent beyond. They made for that point.
After a long period of cool but welcome silence, Trowa said, "It's been a long time since I've been in a battle." His voice had lost it's flat tone, sounding at once weary, chagrined and wistful.
Heero shifted the gun on his back. "Same here." He altered their course slightly to avoid a pile of bodies. At one time the carnage might have phased his calm demeanor, but that was a time he only remembered in dreams, now. "You know what the scary part is?"
"The ease with which we remember how it's done." The elf's fleeting smile twitched at his lips. "We will not be forgetting any time soon."
The Mandate of Kaji didn't shift his position as they came up behind him; his ebony gaze was pensive. Heero stood at his shoulder, a silent support all he could offer.
"He knew my code name, Heero."
The assassin turned and locked eyes with his friend. A resurgence of memory caught him, making him want to speak words of comfort, something, anything to fill the role of the older brother he had once played for the black-haired teen. But the weight of the hours were settling over his senses; Heero felt his brain turning to mush even as he struggled for words.
"Perhaps this was meant to be a distraction," Trowa intoned. "To keep us from leaving quickly."
Wufei's head jerked in the elf's direction, and his voice rose into a strained pitch. "You think I haven't considered that possibility? How can I leave now? How can I go anywhere when they know who I am?"
Heero wrapped his fingers around Wufei's forearm gently. "We don't even know if it was the ISG who sent them. It could have been a clan. It could be completely unrelated."
The Mandate yanked his arm away roughly, then wrapped both arms around himself and exhaled slowly. "Think about it, Heero. What else did all those beasts have in common?"
Blue eyes blinked, but Trowa's brain was already whirling into motion. "They're all native to the Outer Rim." The elf stepped forward slowly and turned to face both of them. "Perhaps you should instead consider the dangers of remaining here, rather than leaving."
"He has a point, Wufei. And not just you. He knew my name, too, if not my code name, and he knew I worked for you." Heero mused silently for a moment, forcing his exhausted mind to cooperate just a little while longer. "If someone has information like that about the Resistance, it might be better for all of us to go underground for a while."
The Mandate nodded, though he still looked torn. His dark eyes lit on the object in Heero's hand. "What's that?"
"The Drow had it, apparently. I don't know."
The assassin let out a breath as Wufei took the spear handle, the youth's expression relaxing into the scholarly contemplation of a curiosity. Wufei inspected the wrappings that covered one end cautiously. "Of all the times to need Duo's nose..." He waved the item at his two companions. "Any volunteers?"
"Afraid?" Trowa asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Since black silk absorbs magic, yes. Quite."
Trowa produced a gauntlet from his belt with something akin to a flourish. Once he had slipped on the thick leather glove and strapped the high cuff around his forearm, he took the spear handle from Wufei. "Stand back."
All the preparations were unnecessary, however, for Trowa removed the wrappings only to reveal a small white stone affixed to the end of the handle, finely polished and slightly luminous, but otherwise unobtrusive. The elf prodded it with a gloved finger, and his eyes widened in surprise. "This is a white moonstone."
Wufei furrowed his brows. "Valuable? Powerful? Dangerous?"
"Valuable, yes, but only to White Mages, and quite powerful. Extremely dangerous," the elf continued thoughtfully, "to demons."
"It's like an encased Holy spell. A touch of it would kill a lesser demon instantly."
"Yet it was a lesser demon who carried it," Heero pondered. "Which would explain the black silk, but not why." He abruptly dropped his head into his hands with a groan. "Damn it! I can't think! Wufei..."
The Mandate smiled secretively. "I've been waiting for an opportunity to say this for years." Still smirking, he raised his arm and pointed straight in the direction of the distant Dirin Roth. "Heero Yuy, go to your room!"
Heero caught the faint sound of Trowa chuckling somewhere out of his line of sight. "But if you need--"
"No arguments! You're completely wasted, and useless to me in that state. Go to bed. We'll talk later."
A watery smile of thanks appeared briefly on the assassin's face, then he turned to trudge across the field, raising one hand above his head in a wave.
Bed was an option he couldn't decline at this point.
Trowa was a silent presence at Wufei's back as the Mandate entered the medical tent and allowed a nurse to attend the wound in his leg. It wasn't deep, but it needed to be cleaned and properly dressed. The elf stood just behind his right shoulder the entire time, still poring over the strange weapon and the white stone attached to it, but whatever thoughts he had, he neglected to share them with the black-haired youth.
Wufei didn't like this situation. He didn't like it at *all*. The whole fiasco reeked of a trap, of an enemy trying to force him in a direction of its design. But what direction was that? Were they trying to keep him from Sabaku, or push him towards it? Were they trying to force him into hiding, or pull the Resistance out of its anonymity? The Mandate frowned as the questions scrolled through his head once more. He was relatively certain the army of demons had been sent by the ISG, too many factors pointed in that direction. But relative certainty was just that, and all the factors could be illusions intended to add to the trick. He didn't want to discount the possibility of another option.
The weapon confiscated from the Drow clarified one thing, however. He wondered if Trowa was thinking along the same vein. And that only raised more complications.
"Could a demon wield that?" he asked suddenly as they were exiting the tent, indicating the object still in Trowa's hands.
The elf nodded, brandishing the spear handle in demonstration. "The proximity of the stone would cause some discomfort, but I imagine it was intended for a single, surprise hit." In a deft motion, Trowa swung the weapon around and nudged Wufei's forearm with the tip of the white stone.
The Mandate rubbed the spot self-consciously. The touch felt cool and tingled slightly with power, but that was all. "You said it could kill a lesser demon instantly," he intoned as they set off towards the city gates. "What about a more powerful one?"
One finely arched eyebrow rose at the question. "Such as a Relic?"
Wufei started, and then frowned. Trowa was quick after all, Wufei thought privately. ~And it seems he is experiencing the same concerns as I am.~ "Yes, a Relic. The one with which I am associated, in particular."
Trowa paused in thought. "He would be unconscious for at least a day, perhaps more."
Wufei heaved a sigh. Long enough to be spirited away in the middle of a battle, shoved into the hold of a ship with a hyperdrive and be light-years away before anyone noticed he was gone.
Anyone except his controller. But with a little luck and a Drow assassin, said controller would be too dead to get in the way.
"Then there are only two questions left." Wufei's voice was muffled slightly as he snapped the band out of his hair and ruffled his fingers through the sweat-stiffened strands. "The first being how in the Seven Hells a Drow in a demon army got a hold of a white moonstone. The second being why they wanted Duo."
Trowa shook his head. "A third being how they knew Duo was here to begin with."
"He checked in with security. Those records are passed electronically to the monitoring computers at the Torreldaeo Ministry. It's possible they were intercepted." His frown darkened and he cast a dubious glare at the elf. "Unless your communications with the Grand Minister were unsecured."
Trowa's expression was blank, and he tapped his temple with one finger. "I assure you, our connection is perfectly secure."
The Mandate nodded and quickened his pace, feeling the effects of the last two days settling over him as surely as Heero had. "That's good to know."
"You didn't bring up the subject to Heero."
"He needs rest more than anything else right now, and worrying about Duo would only drive him to act irrationally. As I said, we will discuss the matter later, when we are all up to thinking about it." Wufei smirked, and stifled a yawn. "As they say, ignorance is bliss."