We took the train to Ginza and walked from there to the Oz base, again in silence. Wufei knew better than to try striking up a conversation with me when I was seeing red; he probably wasn't too happy himself anyway.
The fire damage that Harris and his little pyrokinetic monkey boy had done to the base's front gate was long since repaired. To our dismay, the repairs had been upgrades as well. There was a full guard station there, lots of cameras. Probably some hidden microphones as well, maybe a death ray or two. The usual.
"What's your plan?" Wufei asked.
I grimaced, "Well, we can't exactly walk up to the front door and ring the bell."
"That would be ill advised to say the least."
"And I'm not going to wait for him to send us an invitation. So I guess we might as well try the back door instead."
"I don't think -" Wufei began.
I wasn't listening to him - damn my temper anyway. I popped right up from behind the bushes we'd been using as cover and walked toward the back gate, as bold as day. Wufei didn't have much of a choice but to follow me, a few steps behind. As I approached the gate, one of the guards stuck his head out the window, obviously annoyed by a kid intruding, and yelled something about trespassing and vandalism. I ignored him, pausing just long enough to make sure the security camera got an eye full. Then I drew my gun and fired, smooth and dead on. The camera exploded into shards of plastic and metal.
Two seconds later, we were surrounded by a ring of highly agitated guards, each of them holding an automatic rifle. You had to hand it to Oz; they had trained their people well.
"Drop the gun or we will fire. DROP THE GUN!" One guy shouted, possibly the same one that had been yelling at me before.
I ignored him again. It was probably starting to piss him off, but he could deal with it as far as I was concerned. "Treize!" I yelled, "I know you're listening in, you son of a bitch! We're here for a chat, and the difficulty level is up to you."
The soldiers looked confused; even the yelling guy paused for a minute. Wufei shot me a look that promised he'd be practicing joint locks on me later. As far as I was concerned, he could hurt me all he liked as long as we made it through this alive. The rational part of my brain had finally caught up with the rest of me, and was calling me names that would have made a monkey blush.
Yet somehow, it worked. The gate opened on silent hinges. At the same time, a simple message crackled out of the radios that each soldier wore: "Hold your fire." It wasn't a voice I recognized.
Far across the sea of concrete that stood between the main base and us, a door opened and someone emerge, though it was impossible to make out who it was or even if it was male or female. We stood in uncomfortable silence as the person walked toward us, obviously in no sort of hurry. The entire time, the soldiers kept their guns up and steady, ready to shoot.
I recognized the person long before he reached us; Ivan, my favorite vampire in the world. That wasn't saying much.
He barely looked at Wufei and me, instead turning his attention to the soldiers. "Excellent work, gentlemen. I will take responsibility from here on out." The soldiers saluted him in crisp unison, and returned to their posts. Only then did Ivan turn his attention to us. The look in his eyes was frosty to say the least. "Follow me, please," he said, beginning to walk back toward the base.
I shrugged and did as asked, holstering my gun.
"That was extremely ill-advised," Ivan remarked.
"But it worked."
"Through sheer good fortune. I hope I do not see the day that your luck runs out; it would be most unpleasant."
I laughed, but there wasn't a lot of humor to be found in it. "I'm with you on that."
We didn't end up in Treize's grand throne room like I'd expected. We didn't even wait in the regency drawing room with its overly comfortable couches. Instead, Ivan dropped us off in a conference room that would have been quite at home debriefing twitchy field operatives that had been on their own for five years and started talking to themselves. Dim and monochrome. So dispassionately postmodern that I was surprised the floors were black carpet instead of bare concrete. Ivan watched us like an unblinking reptile until we each selected a metal chair to perch uneasily upon, then said only, "Wait here."
Before I had a chance to get sarcastic or even mildly snippy, he was gone in a blur of navy blue wool. The plate glass doors shut with the tiniest of sighs in his wake, and we were blanketed in silence.
"Something's wrong," I said, trying to swivel my chair. No dice.
"Oh, really. What brought you to that startling bit of mental clarity?" Wufei returned. Sarcastic little bugger. "You could have tried to make our entrance a bit more graceful, I think."
"They've been alive for hundreds of years. They can have a fucking sense of humor."
Wufei gave me a piercing look. "That wasn't a joke."
"And maybe they'll figure that out, too. Take the hint that I'm not playing tonight."
"We never do."
I laughed. I couldn't help it. "Maybe you don't. I personally believe that life is a big shoot-em-up arcade game that was invented for my benefit."
"That explains so much."
The door only made the barest whisper of air as it opened. Wufei and I both jumped, though we managed to refrain from drawing weapons. Despite the fact that we'd been facing the door as we talked, just so that we couldn't be surprised, we hadn't spotted anyone approaching.
Yet there she stood, all crisp blue wool and perfect black hair. A shock of recognition made the hair on my arms stand on end. I'd seen her once and only once before, a brief, panicked glimpse of her shouting at us to run as an unearthly wind howled in to being and Treize rended another vampire limb from limb with nothing but the sheer power of his will. Not exactly an auspicious memory, that.
She stopped just inside the doorway, standing at attention. Her dark eyes were the liveliest part of her, not the usual dead fish mirrors you get on blood suckers; she looked right through you with every glance. And vampire she was, not so old or powerful, but there was something strange in her energy as it danced across my skin. Hot and cold at once, dead and familiar, yet laced with something terribly, primally alive.
"I will be forthright with you, Mr. Maxwell," she said without preamble, "I am not myself a player of games. The Master of Tokyo is unable to give audience because he is simply not here. I rule as his second in his absence. Address your concerns to me."
"Where is he?" I asked, not really expecting an answer.
She smiled tightly, her fangs hidden. "He is in Europe, addressing the Council in regards to the unacceptable nature of their attempts to intervene in his city... and country."
I didn't rise to the bait on that one. The more I found out about vampire politics, the less I actually gave a rat's ass. "How long has he been gone?"
"Eight days on various aspects of business. He should return shortly."
Which if you trusted the word of a leech - not that I would - it'd put him out of the country when Angelo went to the big litter box in the sky. Not that being physically absent would really prevent him from doing what he wanted; he was a more hands-off sort of manager anyway. "I think I can just as effectively deliver my message to you." I said.
"Please do so."
I steepled my fingers and gave her the steeliest look I could muster, backed by all the rage I was holding in check. It was impressive enough to get an eyebrow raise out of her. Score one for the team. "A were-tiger acquaintance of mine, Angelo, got rather brutally whacked and mutilated. I know it had to be you guys, considering your stupid shit turf war. So I want to know how and why, and a good reason why I shouldn't be actively hunting your asses down and dragging you out for a look at the morning sky."
It didn't get even a little rise out of her, which was disappointing. I preferred a responsive audience. "What of your legendary neutrality, Mr. Maxwell?"
I frowned. "The rules change when it gets personal. And that's all this is. I'm not so much helping him as I am trying to kill you."
"Then we understand each other perfectly." She bared her teeth in a smile that was a direct challenge. "I am Lucrezia Noin, the Master of Beasts, and I love all the children of the Moon far too much to disrespect the laws of the Hunt and summarily 'whack' one."
And the hell of it was, I couldn't help but believe her with all my heart. There was nothing hidden about her, nothing at all. The feeling made me shiver, as did the realization that the color was bleeding from her eyes as her gaze focused on my neck.
"Now I have a question for you... Duo."
I was drowning, half hypnotized. Wufei surreptitiously poked me in the arm, bringing me back to reality. "Shoot."
"How deep do you want to go?"
"I'd like to still see the morning, if it's all the same to you."
"It's always twilight in my world." She turned and opened the door. "Come with me, I have something to show you."
Wufei shrugged at me. I shrugged back. This evening was deviating from its script, and we were off the map and into 'Here there be dragons' territory. So we followed her, through dark corridors with only dim overhead lights to guide us. She glanced back a couple of times, and her eyes would catch the light like those of a cat. Deep in the maze, she opened an unmarked door and let us through.
The room smelled of blood and sickness. At least this time it was fresh and salty; I could handle that a lot better than rot. The sour smell of vomit clawed at the back of my throat. I knew this all way too well. Wufei sniffed at the air, his face paling.
A woman moaned, thready with pain, and then followed with a whine like a wounded animal. Noin pointed toward a corner of the dim room.
At first I thought it was a crumpled blanket and nothing more, but then another moan emanated from it. An arm suddenly shot from the folds, fingers clawing with pain, followed by a bare shoulder, then a face.
I almost didn't recognize her; her skin was pallid and slick with sour sweat. Blood crusted her nostrils and eyelashes, and her face was etched with haggard lines of pain. Une. But not the proud woman I would have recognized, normally brimming with wild, sensual life like only the strongest lycanthropes did.
"What happened to her?" I asked.
Noin knelt by her, gently touching her face and making soothing sounds deep in her throat. Une sniffed, then lapped at her fingers, whimpering again. "The same thing that happened to most of her pack, except that she has survived." Noin said, her voice dropping to a growl.
I would have let out an exasperated sigh, but I didn't know how she'd take it. Instead, I let the tension continue to gnaw at my gut. "Can you give me more details?"
"They had left with the intention of raiding the territory of Johannes. Yes, our 'stupid shit turf war' as you put it." She smiled tightly. "They never completed the raid. The pack was attacked, with these." Something dropped from her fingers and hit the floor with a rather musical 'ting!' I retrieved it without comment. "They saw nothing, smelled nothing."
A metal dart, like the ones normally in animal tranquilizer kits. Somehow, I wasn't surprised. "I have a weird question for you."
I pulled a handkerchief out of my pocket and rolled the dart up in it. "Were there any mirrors around? Broken ones?"
Noin's eyebrows shot up almost to her hairline. "They were in an alleyway that contained a few shops, one of which apparently had mirrored windows. Those windows were shattered. How did you know?"
"Call it a hunch. Are you missing anyone, or are they all accounted for?"
She hesitated, then spoke. "All accounted for in Une's pack."
I wanted to call her a liar. I wanted to demand to know what she was holding back with that simple statement. I looked her in the eye, and couldn't do it. There was pain there, and it was way too real and alive for my comfort.
"Do you think she's going to make it?" I jerked my chin toward Une.
"If any will, it'll be her. She is Master Treize's chosen companion. They share a... bond."
I nodded. "Can I count on your support?"
"Anything I can give is yours."
Somehow, I knew that the offer wouldn't be nearly that open-ended from Treize. Lucky me, then. "Good, we'll be in touch," I said. Wufei shot me a look that needed no interpretation. I'd better be cooking up a good explanation.
Ivan was waiting outside the door and escorted us out. He didn't say a word to me, even when I tried to joke around. Apparently, my entrance had offended his tender sensibilities. Wufei didn't say anything either. Hey, it was time for yet another season of 'Duo Maxwell on how to make friends and influence people.'
As we walked across the broad concrete tarmac toward the entrance, I made a big show of looking around, which probably annoyed Ivan further. He could kiss my ass any time; vampires had no business caring about the current war of attrition we were having out with the fuckers in Oz anyway.
There were mobile suits parked everywhere, mostly Leos. If they had pilots already mobilized for all of them, it made up a pretty decent strike force. I only wished I knew if they were acting as a way station or if these were going to the colonies, it would be a major deal indeed.
A flash of red caught my eye, and I sauntered as nonchalantly in that direction as I could, trying to get a better look.
It was the Tallgeese, the mobile suit belonging to hot shot, 'I'm too sexy for my uniform'' pilot Zechs Marquise. What a shame I hadn't brought a nice explosive cocktail to feed to the damn thing. Ever since we'd watched it arrive months ago, doing the mechanical goose step down Chuo Street like a fucking Mardi Gras float, it had been nothing but trouble on every combat mission we'd run. Zechs was a thorn in our side, a pain in our ass, the fucking anti-Christ of Oz. Only a month previously, he'd caused some serious damage to Sandrock, which I was pretty certain had cemented the Doc's decision to break us up. The five of us together made one hell of a strike force and one hell of a target. No need to put all the eggs in one basket when you're fighting a guerilla military action. I knew it, but that didn't mean I had to like it.
"Mr. Maxwell! That is enough!" Ivan said, standing between me and the mobile suit.
"Sorry, man, you can't blame a guy for looking." I shoved my hands into my pockets and did my best to look contrite.
Ivan apparently could. Well, fuck him. His side had technically won anyway, so he could once again kiss my skinny white-boy ass.
As I allowed myself to be herded back toward Wufei, I realized something strange. The colors of the Tallgeese, normally brilliant white and crimson, had looked kind of dull, dingy, and sad. I reviewed my memories of the brief look.
That was it. The Tallgeese had been dirty, well and truly covered with a nice layer of grime. Suits didn't get like that unless they'd been sitting outside, uncovered for at least a week if not more. We put camo nets over our Gundams to keep them hidden, but it had the side benefit of always keeping them clean.
Now wasn't that interesting. No idea what it meant, but it was a thought to chew over later.
Wufei and I were back at the train station before he even spoke, and his words were terse. "When did we become private investigators?"
"I'm not asking you to do it, this was my decision. I knew it was coming the minute I agreed to see Relena's dead friend."
"You know it doesn't work that way."
I fed a couple bills to the ticketing machine and punched the buttons a little harder than necessary. "Yeah, I know. It shouldn't be that way, but I know."
I sighed. The little dart, wrapped up in my pocket, seemed to radiate malevolent cold. "Because I'm scared. Because I've seen people look like that before, and I will not let it happen again, even if it's people that have had the bad taste to become monsters. I just can't do it." My voice was shaking. Since when had I lost that much control?
Realization dawned on Wufei's face, and he nodded, finally getting it. He didn't need to say the word; it hung there in the air between us, so clearly it might have well been written: Plague.