Troop transports were never designed for comfort; they were like glorified cattle cars, whether on the land, air, or sea. This one was no exception. It rumbled along the road, making noises like an elephant with laryngitis every now and then, and any bump we hit set my teeth rattling. Oz must have ordered extra special bad shocks from Satan himself to get this piece of work on the road. The sad part was, we were in the nicest transport they had, dubbed the "Command Bus" - the four of us, plus Noin, Johannes, Ivan, and Tony. Johannes and Noin were doing their best to ignore each other, which only made things that much more uncomfortable. Quatre had managed to get Ivan and Tony engaged in a lively game of rummy with him and Trowa, at least, probably to pass the time and break the tension more than anything else. Heero was the only one missing - he would be rendezvousing with us, bringing Wing along. He'd have to park it and hoof in like the rest of us, but that meant we had access to our only flying Gundam if things took a serious shit. Never hurt to have a backup plan.
"How much longer?" I asked Noin.
She looked up from where she'd been bent over, re-lacing her combat boots. She'd come out in the transports loaded for bear, in full military gear. It was almost disturbing, especially considering every other vampire was still dressed like they were about to hit the set of some period romance. "We're nearly at the staging area. From there, we'll be taking the two miles on foot. I don't want to give them any advance warning that we're coming."
Johannes, who had been leaning back with his arms crossed, pretending to sleep, cracked his eyes open. "Running?"
"Yes, running. The land is flat and sound will carry; we don't want to give them any warning. From the satellite reports, they seem to be taking their time and feeling fairly secure. It's in our best interest that they continue to do so."
"Of course, my lady," Johannes said. "You are the military expert; I bow to your knowledge."
Noin frowned, looking like she really wished she could take anything in his statement as an insult, but he'd said it without even the tiniest hint of irony. If I'd been feeling nice, I probably would have warned her that it was impossible to catch the bastard out when it came to being polite. But I was having way too much fun watching them annoy each other.
"Any luck commandeering some more MS for air support? I mean, Heero's the man and all, but it never hurts to backup our backup." I said, even though I already knew the answer.
Noin shook her head. "Most of our forces are otherwise engaged. We have ground MS available, but I have chosen not to bring them in for the same reason that you have left your Gundams behind."
"We want to rescue, not destroy."
"Exactly." She pulled the laces of her boots tight and tied them off, then sat up.
I couldn't help myself. I had to ask. "Noin, you're from Germany, right?"
Her eyes narrowed. "At one point, yes."
"Do you have family still living there?"
"Why do you want to know?" She demanded.
"Hey, no big deal. Just curious." I gave her my best disarming grin.
Noin crossed her arms, frowning. "I don't honestly know any longer. At one point I did, but I ceased to keep track of them. It became rather... painful."
"Good an answer as any." I checked my watch, then turned my attention to Quatre's little card game. If the facial expressions were any indication, Ivan was winning, and by a lot. "Hey guys, pack it in. We're almost there."
"Alright. Perhaps we'll be able to play again some time," Quatre said, gathering the cards up. "This was a great deal of fun."
Ivan smiled as he made a neat stack of his cards and handed it over. "Quite. I was unaware of this variation to the game, and it makes it a great deal more interesting. I'll have to teach my fellows."
"I still think we shoulda played poker. I coulda cleaned all of you out," Tony muttered.
"Perhaps next time. I could do with the occasional poker game, I think," Ivan said, clapping the were-tiger on the back. And Tony, oddly enough laughed and shook his hand.
It was nice to know that some people could play nice, I guess. I shook my head and checked the placement of my weapons for the second time in five minutes, making certain that the knife in my sleeve could pull free with no problem, and that I had plenty of extra round for my handguns. I wasn't taking any chances with this.
The transport began to slow, then the ride got suddenly bumpier as it left the main road and went into a field. I had to hold on to my seat for dear life to keep from being thrown to the floor. Eventually, we ground to a halt and Noin stood, picking up her assault rifle and slinging it across her back. "We've arrived."
"No, really?" I muttered under my breath. We hopped out of the transport and into a field where the rest of the troops were gathering. It was an odd assortment of humans (courtesy of Johannes), werewolves (courtesy of Noin), and a handful of vampires (belonging to both).
Noin stood on the rear gate of one of the transports. "Give me your attention!" she shouted. "We'll approach the air field from all directions at once. I will take the majority of the wolf pack and head south - it's the furthest away and also the riskiest side. Duo, you and your team will take the north side; you have the smallest group and it is the most lightly guarded." She smiled. "Plus it is the shortest distance to run. The rest we shall split in two, to take the east and west approaches. Master Johannes, I suggest that you choose one team to stay with; I shall send Ivan with the other."
"As you wish, my lady," he said, beckoning Tony over to him. The two had a hurried conversation.
"In that case, Duo, I suggest you start running now if you wish to reach the base in time," Noin said, an odd little smile quirking at her lips.
I refused to rise to the bait. "Aye, ma'am. Let's go, guys." I jerked my chin, and we trotted away, heading for the airstrip.
A moment later, Tony ran up to catch us. "I'm going with you guys," he said.
"What makes you think that?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Master Johannes told me to. You might need some extra muscles, but he figures that I'm the only one you'll be willing to work with." Tony smiled, earnest as a boy scout. I was starting to have a real hard time saying no to the guy.
So instead, I laughed. "Sure thing, man. Good to have you aboard." Life had been a lot easier before the monsters got to be so damn likeable.
We ran the two miles to the base in utter silence, moving easily over the flat land that had probably been a farmer's field at one point. The smell of earth was rich in my nose, and I felt like I could keep going and never stop until I ran off the edge of the world. As we approached the chain link fence surrounding the run-down little airstrip, there was a momentary pang of desire in my heart, to keep running and never look back.
That got squashed nice and quick. It was nice when intoxication induced thoughts were easy to pick out.
As we approached the gates, Tony slowed. "I'll catch up with you in just a minute. You oughta be able to get through the gate without me."
Quatre and I dropped back, covering the two gate guards with our guns. With any luck, it wouldn't be necessary to shoot them. I wasn't a real advocate of the unnecessary killing thing, plus it was damn noisy. We needn't have worried. The guards were facing each other, sharing a smoke and talking about God knows what. Heero and Trowa simply ran in from behind and pistol whipped them both in nearly perfect unison. They beckoned us forward as they eased the unconscious guards to the ground.
I examined the small panel that controlled the gate lock and had to make a face at how pathetic it was. All I had to do was yank off the plate and cross two wires - yellow and red. The gate opened with a great deal more squealing and metallic protests than we really wanted, but it was still quicker and less risky than hopping the fence.
The makeshift hangar where the plane sat, ready to be loaded, was on the opposite end of the strip from us. We took off running again.
The perimeter guards around the hangar were a different story entirely from the first two. They were well trained, quite possibly even current military depending upon how dirty the higher ups had decided to get their hands. We spread out along their line, trying to take down as many sentries as possible without alerting the others.
My guard was a tall drink of water with a mustache and a really bad haircut. He was reaching for his gun when I jumped at him from the shadows, snapping my leg up to kick him squarely in the jaw. He went down like a ton of bricks. I dragged his limp form back into the shadows from which I'd come, then approaching footsteps sent me scrambling for the dubious cover of a stack of storage crates. It must have been an especially lucky day for me - the person followed me right behind the crates, turning the corner and coming face to face with my guns.
Even luckier than lucky. It was one of the witch women in her ubiquitous black cloak.
I didn't even give her a chance to reach for her damn feather. I opened up with both guns, trusting in my silencers, and doing my best John Woo impression. She probably didn't know what hit her; she fell back into an untidy heap, smoke curling from her face. I gave the odd sight an idle look as I passed by; the tattoos on her face were blackening and curling up, then turning into ash and drifting away.
Eerie. Weird. I'd think about it when I had time and actually gave a shit.
More footsteps. I popped up from behind my crates, to find a guard bearing down on me. I grinned and popped him in the head. That was all it took to take him down. Agonizing cold suddenly washed over me, and a black-gloved hand fell on my shoulder. My muscles instantly locked, and I missed shooting myself in the foot by a hope and a prayer.
"I recognize you," a woman said. And I recognized her too, by voice alone. She'd helped hold me down for injections a lot. "How nice of you to come back to us, and just in - "
She didn't have a chance to finish her sentence. All I saw was a ghostly blur to one side, barreling toward me. She didn't even have time to scream. Something yanked her away, and I was free, if a little chilly. I whipped around, bringing my guns to bear...
...on a white tiger. He still had his teeth firmly locked around her neck, and his muzzle sported a candy coating of bright red blood. With a look of near disgust, he spat her out on the ground next to the one I'd killed. Smoke curled up from her face as well.
And then the tiger winked one bright blue eye at me.
Tony. Of course. I gave him the thumbs up, and off he ran, silent on the concrete. I shook my head and followed, catching sight of Heero as he rounded one of the smaller storage sheds. We were almost at the hanger, and that was a good thing, considering the plane was starting to heat its engines up. The crew of guards and Elvira wannabes had finished loading most of the boxes onto the plane. All that was left were two plastic crates.
Two very familiar plastic crates.
As we ran toward them, a couple of witches grabbed the first crate and started moving it up the ramp. Not on my watch, they weren't. I drew my guns again and opened up, all thought of stealth now abandoned. Instead of letting go and ducking like any normal civilian, the bitches did the thing I'd really been hoping against - the redoubled their efforts, yanked the crate up the ramp with a mighty heave, and started the cargo doors closing.
I really hated it when my enemies had apparently forgotten to read their part of the script, paying careful attention to the "stupid mistakes to make" section.
Suddenly, more gunfire lit up the night, and people began to scream. I could make out some shadowy shapes, one of which turned to look at me with eyes that glowed like blue flame. Johannes and Ivan, joining the battle. The vampires were rending and tearing with their teeth, knocking the guards down like bowling pins, while the humans covered the area with a hail of bullets. There was no sign of Noin and her pack.
Witches came pouring out of the warehouse, reaching into their sleeves. Cold slammed against me in a wave. It was strong enough now with so many of them present that it dropped me to my knees and stopped the other guys in their tracks. The vampires froze in place, and in the distance I could swear I heard the pained snarl of a tiger. Even they could feel it.
I bared my teeth into a smile and yanked my knife out of my sleeve. I knew what to do, somehow. I could remember it clearly. Without a second of hesitation, I added a new cut to my collection of scars, directly above the white bandage Quatre had already wound around my right wrist. The blood rained down on the field with an odd sort of gentleness, and the world burst into my mind. The witches were like voids in the ever changing tapestry around me. And their feathers? A different matter entirely, things that made me ill with their energy and with the knowledge of their purpose.
I gathered my power up, changing it into arrows by the hundreds, aimed at the feathers. I clapped my hands together, releasing them; in my minds eye, they flowed true, bringing with them the natural destruction that something so horribly unnatural needed. The wave of power sent them staggering back; it drove Quatre to his knees, and he covered his ears with his hands and cried out.
The feathers shattered into ash.
"Get them, NOW!" I shouted, then slumped over, breathing like I'd just run a marathon. Funny, but I could have sworn that the little trick shouldn't have taken so much effort. It certainly hadn't before. Or at least I didn't think so - I couldn't quite remember anything about 'last time' to begin with.
The battle raged on around me, turning the concrete airfield into a sea of gore. The witches, deprived of their magical toys, drew obsidian knives and set to work. For each of them that fell, they took at least two with them, sending humans down with blood spraying from their throats, or turning the vampires to ash. We weren't doing nearly as well as we had thought. The witches moved in ways that no human could, sometimes flowing like water. It was hard to catch them.
I felt like someone had drained every drop of blood from my body - I was pretty much useless, every drop of energy I had spent in the effort of destroying the feathers. Even worse, pain was gnawing at my stomach, twisting my guts. The drug was starting to wear off.
And worst of all, the plane's engines reached a fevered pitch, and it began to move, taxiing toward the runway. Shooting it didn't do any good; it was armored. One guy made the mistake of getting in front of it, trying to take a difficult shot into the left engine. The landing gear hit him and turned him into an eight meter long smear. Then fire flared from one engine, roaring and strong - it had to be Heero's doing. For a moment, I allowed myself to hope. Then the flame guttered, turning sickly green, and went out.
There was a meaty thud to one side, and I turned, falling back onto my butt. A witch stood there, blood dripping from her black knife, a corpse at her feet. I picked up my guns, smearing blood onto the muzzles, and fired. She tried to dodge, tried to twist out of the way, but her movements were to slow. The bullets took her in the head, and she went down with a loud screech.
Howling filled the night, overriding the sounds of the battle and making the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. From the south, there came monsters; wolves that stood nearly as tall as me at the shoulder. Fear washed over me like a wave, and for a moment, all I wanted to do was run, and not in the happy drugged way either. If they'd been after me, I probably would have.
They crashed against the witches, tearing throats and ripping at bellies. Even if they were at a disadvantage for speed, their sheer numbers overwhelmed the enemy. It was over in a matter of minutes, the eerie howls ending when the last witch fell. Instead, the moans of the wounded filled the air, and above it all was the scream of the plane engines.
And then the roar of a plane taking to the air. I tried to scream my frustration, but the best I could produce was a low, despairing moan.
Ivan hurried over to me. His mouth was covered with red smears, his normally neat hair mussed. The hand he offered me was tacky with drying blood, but I wasn't going to complain; I needed the help standing. "Noin is calling for air support, and we will do our best to track the plane. There is still hope."
There wasn't much else I could say - it wouldn't have been fair to take everything out on Ivan, no matter how tempting it was. "Has the crate been opened yet?"
"The battle just ended, Duo."
"Let's do it, then. Which ever one it is, we should let him out." Ivan and I walked over to the crate as quickly as we could. The pain in my belly continued to grow; I couldn't stand up straight. Ivan ripped the crate apart with his bare hands, not even grunting with the effort. He lifted the man inside out, setting him gently down on the field.
It was Wufei. He was curled up in a ball, shaking and shivering, covered with a sheen of sweat. His hands were curled into fists, so tightly that crimson threads of blood ran from beneath his fingernails. The moment Ivan ripped the top off the crate and the moonlight touched him, he moaned with pain.
"Wufei!" I fell to my knees beside him. "Talk to me, Wufei, Please, talk to me."
His voice was a ragged whisper. "I'm losing control, Duo. Help me..."
"They took Milliard, 'Fei. We couldn't stop them. They're flying off with him now." I covered my face with my hands.
"I..." Wufei's mouth open and shut a few times, and then he continued, "I can...fly...but...NO! I don't want to lose control. I can't!"
I yanked him around to face me with strength born of madness. He was strangely limp against my hands. "Are you saying that you might be able to stop this? Is that it? That you're afraid to? Damnit, Wufei, I don't care what the hell you're afraid of. If there's a way to win this and you don't take it, than nothing we've ever said means a fucking thing!" I grabbed him by the chin, forcing him to look into my eyes. "No one gets left behind. Are those words empty? Fucking let it GO!"
For a moment, he said nothing, his body jerking with spasms of pain. Suddenly, he stilled. His eyes were full of sadness older than the world; it was a look I would never forget. "Pray that you're right," he said.
The world held its breath as Wufei let go.
He exploded - there was no better word for it. It was wind and fury and a roar that sounded like a million deep bronze temple bells sounding. The force of it threw me back into Ivan, who was hard pressed to stand his ground. Around us, people fell to their knees, clutching their ears and covering their eyes. The werewolves howled, the sound edged with fear.
Where Wufei had once been, there was a dragon, bigger than a mobile suit. Its scales were dusty gold, the crests and spines that ran up and down its body the deep green of the forest. Each foot had five claws of pure diamond; a black pearl set in its forehead shone with light that made my head ache.
And when it looked at me, its eyes were Wufei's, but a million, a billion years older.
The dragon threw back its head and roared, the sound of mountains grinding into sand and trees thrusting their roots into the ground. Then he leapt into the air, and flew.
The earth began to shake, the familiar feeling of an earthquake. But the rumbling didn't stop.
The dragon that was Wufei twisted through the air sinuously like a snake, shooting toward the disappearing blot that was the plane. He sped up until he became a golden blur across the night, striking the plane. An instant later, it exploded into shards of metal and fire.
And still the ground shook, the tremors increasing with strength. The concrete airstrip cracked and popped, twisting like it was trying to give birth to something.
The dragon flew back, more slowly this time, something held carefully in its front feet. Somehow it landed, setting its burden gently on the ground. Somehow, I struggled to my feet, and half-ran, half-fell toward him. The dragon bowed his head, his outline becoming fuzzy and diffuse. Before my eyes, he unraveled into strings of gold and green energy that sank into the ground.
As suddenly as it had come, the quake stopped.
All that was left was Wufei, standing naked where the dragon's head had once been. He looked down at his hands and flexed his fingers carefully, then crumpled down to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut. I ran to him and fell to my knees beside him, pulling his head onto my lap while my shaking fingers searched for a pulse. It was there, slow and strong.
The horrified scream of a woman pierced the air; it took me a moment to realize that the voice was Noin's. "Milliard, NO!" She screamed again, running toward the still form that lay where Wufei had placed it. All that I could recognize him by was his hair; the rest of him was a bloody mess that barely registered as a human body any longer. She dropped down beside him, pink tinged tears running down her cheeks. When she bent down to whisper in his ear, I had to look away. It was too real, and far too painful.
When I looked back up, she was tearing her own wrist open with her teeth, and holding the wound over his mouth, letting her blood rain down. After several drops had gone down his throat, she bent and kissed him on the forehead, then stood. The terrible wounds that covered him began to knit, skin coming together seamlessly.
Noin walked over to me and knelt, reaching out to touch Wufei's forehead. "I don't know whether I should thank you or not," she said.
It didn't make any sense. Not that anything that had happened tonight had. "What happened to him?"
She looked as if she'd aged a hundred years in the space of a moment; it was disturbing to see in a vampire. "I couldn't let him go, Duo. I should have, but I couldn't. And I don't know if he'll ever forgive me." She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I made him mine, Duo. I forced him to become one with the beast that now lives within him, and I made him mine. He cannot die."
A sharp stab of pain ran through me, and it took me a moment to remember how to breathe again. When I looked back up, she had regained her composure, but it still hurt me to look at her and see the pain still raw in her eyes. She was a monster, right? She didn't have the right to look so human. Instead, I concentrated on smoothing out Wufei's hair. Around us, the others hurried back and forth, sorting out the wounded, laying out the dead. Quatre was hurrying in our direction, his arms full of blankets and worry shining on his face.
"I think, Noin," I said, the pain making my voice hoarse, "That a lot of things have happened tonight that will never be forgiven."