The three of them left the battlefield relatively quickly. The official part of the battle was over; soon the underworld would come. Locals would come to haul off valuables – food, electronics, clothing. Scavengers, like Maxwell’s friends, would take engines and weapons. By the time the military body retrieval units arrived, there would be little left. Wufei had seen fields of near-naked corpses lying on burnt earth – and not so much as a keyboard left behind.
While the battle parasites probably wouldn’t hurt them, information was a valuable commodity – any one of them could fetch an excellent price to the right people. War fostered the worst sort of free market capitalism.
Merquise took the couch in the room behind the cockpit. He was pale, but responsive, and showed none of the outward signs of internal bleeding. Wufei chose to take the copilot seat instead of sitting with Merquise. At least that way he’d know where they were going.
Khushrenada was a skillful pilot. They stayed relatively low, staying away from the more settled places, moving steadily northeast. There were few bases, OZ or otherwise, in this area, and they were moving steadily away from all of them. Perhaps a laboratory or prison? Wufei turned the options over in his mind until curiosity won out.
“Where are we going?”
“My mother had a close friend whose uncle had a hunting cabin up north. Occasionally I would join him for a week or two in the summer. It is one of the few places that wildlife still flourishes in this part of the world. It passed to a distant relation, but he lives on L-1 and never uses it. No one knows of it except me and him, and I doubt he reflects on his possessions overmuch.” Khushrenada sent a serene smile at Wufei. “I believe that we will be quite secure there.”
“How long do you plan to hide from Romefeller?”
“As long as necessary. Certainly until Zechs has recovered adequately; I suspect, however, that my figurehead role is gone forever. But that is the interesting thing about politics – even the best players must constantly change their strategies.”
Wufei snorted. ‘Player,’ indeed. “This is all a game to you, then.”
“Ahh, but there are all kinds of games. You think of a game as something amusing, perhaps? I think of it as a collection of rules and players. One plays for all sorts of different reasons.”
Khushrenada laughed, but did not deny it.
They flew in silence for another twenty minutes or so. Khushrenada pointed to a tiny clearing among the trees. “We’ll be landing there and driving the rest of the way. The airfield’s been abandoned for nearly a decade; it’ll be summer at least before anyone finds the transport.”
“So where did the car come from?” Wufei asked suspiciously.
“You may make an excellent detective one day, even if your political skills need polishing,” Khushrenada replied.
Wufei waited, but no real answer was forthcoming. Khushrenada landed the transport on the icy field, and let it roll slowly under its own power into the hangar. There was a car waiting for them – an old, dented blue car that hardly fit with Wufei’s imagination of what a general would be driving.
Merquise was asleep, and didn’t take kindly to moving from the warm, comfortable flight couch to the cold, lumpy pseudo-leather seat. He submitted to another quick examination by his friend with ill grace, blowing on his hands and stamping his feet pointedly until Wufei reached over and started the engine.
Khushrenada got to drive again, Merquise slept, and Wufei studied the endless landscape of snow, ice, pines, more ice, and the occasional deer in the darkening landscape. He was beginning to feel the ache of his muscles and the strain of exhaustion, nibbling around the edges of his attention.
There was little conversation. By the time Wufei thought of offering to spell Treize, he was far too tired to concentrate on the road. He leaned his head against the cold window, and closed his eyes.
He jerked awake, aware he’d fallen asleep and been dreaming, but not being able to remember his dream. Had he cried out? No. Khushrenada glanced sidelong at him as he sat straight up. He could taste blood; he’d bitten his tongue. “Bite your tongue, pretty boy,” cooed a memory. His skin crawled, and he suddenly knew he was going to be sick. “Pull over,” he rasped.
As soon as the car stopped, Wufei stumbled out, falling to his knees by the side of the road. He threw up twice, then spat, trying to rid his mouth of the thick taste of bile. There wasn’t much else to throw up, thank God. Footsteps crunched in the snow, and Khushrenada extended a bottle of water. Wufei took the water without looking up, rinsing out his mouth. How humiliating.
He took a few deep breaths. He felt immensely better, but also shaky, and suddenly cold, as though he’d vomited all the warmth from his body. Ignoring the hand Khushrenada extended, Wufei got back in the car, staring icily out the window, daring the other men to comment.
He didn’t feel at all sleepy for the rest of the trip.
Zechs studied Wufei’s reflection in the window. The pilot looked pale, and Zechs wasn’t sure he’d ever seen anyone look more exhausted. He had an urge to wrap a blanket around the boy’s shoulders and settle him in front of the vid with a mug of hot milk, which is what his dorm mother had always done when the cadets got sick. Except Zechs would be tempted to add a good portion of rum. And perhaps a massage. And a chest to sleep on.
His lips curved. It was fun to contemplate seducing Wufei because he was so different than Zechs had been at that age. Well, in some ways. It was probably the similarities that made Zechs want to mother him.
When they pulled off the main road, Zechs breathed a sigh of relief. He was tired, too, and still smelled of smoke and burnt circuits. And his ribs hurt.
The cabin was well off the main road. Treize went ahead to unlock the door and turn on the lights, while Wufei gathered his bag and offered Zechs a hand. Zechs waved him off, and then grimaced, as he discovered all his muscles had grown sore over the trip. Wufei seemed to be suffering the same problem from the way he was stretching. Like a couple of old men, they made their way up the porch inside the house.
Wufei looked around, poking his head into the kitchen and bathrooms. “Where should I put my stuff?”
Treize waved at the bedroom door. “Choose whichever side of the bed you want,” he offered magnanimously. “We’re not particular.”
Wufei looked stuck somewhere between scandalized and murderous. “What?”
“I’m afraid there’s only one bedroom.” That was more or less a lie. Zechs had stayed with Treize several times, and there was an upper level accessible through a hidden staircase that had several small beds. “I did warn you that these were modest quarters.”
“. . . I’ll sleep on the couch.”
Zechs intervened. “Not tonight you won’t. It’s far too cold in here.”
Wufei made some threatening noises and vanished into the bigger bathroom, slamming the door behind him. After a moment, the shower began to run.
“You didn’t tell him about the beds upstairs,” Zechs noted.
Treize sighed. “I said there’s only one bedroom. There’s an attic with a couple beds in it, but it’s hardly the same thing. You didn’t tell him that a fire gets this room quite warm in less than an hour, or that we have a goodly supply of electric blankets and down blankets.”
They shared a smile and then Zechs grimaced. “I’m going to wash off the grime. Want to join me?”
“I’d love to, but I’m going to heat some soup and check the security instead.” Treize stood, embracing Zechs tenderly for a long moment. “I can’t tell you what it’s like to know you’re safe.”
“I’ve missed this.” ‘This’ being Treize, being close, being at rest for more than a quick nap or a shower.
It was some time later that Zechs stumbled off to the shower. He took a brief shower, and made it back before Wufei. He was reclining at one end of the big bed when Wufei entered, looking endearingly young in sweatpants and a high-collared long-sleeve shirt.
Wufei lay down, propping himself up against the headboard as far from Zechs as possible, and almost instantly slipped into sleep. Considering he’d actually been swaying in the living room, it was impressive that he’d made it to bed. Still, Zechs wondered if Wufei realized that his location meant Treize would be sleeping in the middle. He’d give good money to see Wufei’s face when he woke up. Especially since Treize tended to wrap himself around his bed partners.
Treize pushed open the bedroom door, holding mugs of instant chicken noodles. He offered Zechs one mug of soup, and raised the other slightly. “Should we wake him?”
“No,” Zechs said promptly. Wufei was beyond exhaustion; food could wait until he’d had some rest. They ate, talking in low voices to avoid disturbing the pilot.
“Would you like something more substantial? A sandwich or omelette? It has to be simple, I’m afraid.”
“I’m fine. Tomorrow I’ll insist on my gourmet meals, but tonight –“ Zechs yawned hugely. “Come to bed.”
“I’m going to shower quickly, and check the news feeds. I promise I’ll be here in twenty minutes.”
Zechs snorted. “Right. I’ll leave the lights on, then, even if I don’t believe you.” He settled down, groaning. Feathers were wonderful, wonderful things. So were expensive cotton sheets. And knowing that he could sleep as long as he liked? Perhaps being out of favor wasn’t a bad thing after all.
After a few minutes, he glanced at the young man across from him.
Wufei was shivering. Zechs rolled over far enough to pull up the covers. They didn’t seem to help; over the next several minutes, the shivers escalated to full-out shaking. His eyelids flickered madly.
Zechs touched him lightly on one shoulder, knowing that waking a Gundam pilot suddenly was an excellent way to die. “Chang? Wufei? It’s just a dream. Come on.”
Wufei didn’t wake, but he gave a low whimper. They’d both talked each other out from nightmares while under Romefeller’s care, so Zechs persisted. This time, though, Wufei wasn’t responding. He turned his head away, fingers clenching in the sheets. His breathing grew harsher, and he snapped something in Chinese. Then he gave a groan. The blonde jerked his hand back. That hadn’t sounded happy . . . and Zechs wasn’t going to wait this nightmare out. Not when Wufei’s lashes were glittering with tears.
Zechs grasped his shoulder to shake it, and jerked his hand back. The T-shirt was wet and warm. He jerked the covers down, peering at the shirt. The red shirt was slightly darker on one side, and there was blood trickling down the wood on the headboard as well.
Swearing under his breath, Zechs ripped the shirt, revealing a thick bandage encircling Wufei’s chest, looping over his shoulder. Blood was soaking through the cloth. Zechs had a moment of impotent rage. Wufei, the stubborn coward, had hid this from them, no doubt because it was a weakness. Never mind that the weakness could get him killed – could have gotten them all killed, if they’d needed to fight their way free.
“Wufei, you need to wake up. This isn’t real.”
The pilot lashed out blindly, catching Zechs’ forearm, which went numb for a moment before beginning to throb. Zechs knew that later he’d feel fortunate Wufei wasn’t drawing on his martial arts skills, but for the moment, he was too busy cursing the boy’s strength. Grimly, he grabbed Wufei’s wrists and held on, trying to keep his voice calm. “Treize, I need you in here.”
He missed Treize’s reply as Wufei’s eyes snapped open, and he began to scream. He clawed at the headboard, and then at his face. Zechs rolled on top of him, pinning the smaller body against the mattress, gripping the slim wrists. How in hell could someone so slight be so strong? Wufei stared unseeingly past him, eyes completely dilated, tears sliding down his cheeks.
“Wufei, it’s all right, just calm down. It’s a dream. Come on, now, wake up, and we’ll take care of your arm – oof!” Wufei twisted, jamming one bony elbow into Zechs’ stomach. Zechs loosened his grip just a fraction, and Wufei twisted free, punching his face. Zechs groaned, seizing the arm again. There was no doubt he was going to have a beautiful black eye. Wufei subsided a bit, and Zechs was just relaxing his hold when Wufei stiffened, back arching.
And then Wufei stopped breathing.
The freesia were open across the field, except under the patch where the mech was crushing them. It had been hard to get the hatch open, and the smoke smelled chemical. She’d been coughing terribly, but it seemed better now. She’d insisted on no doctor, instead going to this field.
It was a good choice – Wufei could already feel the strange aloofness from battle fading, replaced with a growing sense of normality. Meiran’s weight against his shoulder was reassuring, if strange. They were not reconciled by any means, but she was right; she’d been a strong fighter. Perhaps . . . perhaps they could still work something out.
“Meiran?” There was no answer. He snorted. Figured that she’d fall asleep. He wondered if he could get away with teasing her about it – just like a child. He poked her side gently with his finger. “Meiran?”
He glanced over at her. Blood trickling from her mouth. Eyes closed, the oddest half-smile on her face.
He jerked away, and she toppled, half into his lap, blood smearing down his silks. She seemed obscenely heavy now, and he didn’t want to push her away, but he couldn’t bear feeling her cooling flesh draped over him.
He knew he was screaming, knew the elders would hear him, knew suddenly what the doctors would say, once they’d cut her open; she’d been dead before landing. Internal injuries; it happened all the time with the old mechs. They just moved too fast, without proper stabilizers, and literally jellied the insides. That’s the word the doctors would use in the autopsy report – jelly.
Now he could only feel the knowledge distantly, as he wailed like a lost child. Some part of him knew this was a dream, and was trying to get him to wake up. He could even hear a voice faintly now, telling him exactly that, but his memories held thrall over reality.
Then the Meiran opened her eyes. So dark in death, a mirror of his own black eyes. The smile changed, growing darker as well. Wufei shuddered. “So, scholar, read any good books lately?”
He pulled back, and she grinned heartily, the way Maxwell did, the smile far more terrifying than any expression had a right to be. Her hands had claws now, and they sank into his shoulder, ripping the mourning clothes, and he screamed thinly. “Stop!”
“Pretty little husband. Have you avenged me yet? Have you followed justice?” Her eyes darkened again, seeming to devour the light around them. “Or are you still protecting flowers?”
Blood flew from her lips, spattering across his cheek. Wufei shook his head blindly. He couldn’t hear his own voice, telling her what he thought of her claims, how hard he was trying, and he was trying, all the time.
She seized his thigh now, pinning them close together. All he could smell now was smoke and old blood. The freesias were wilting around them, bowing to the ground and then seeming to melt. Meiran howled triumph.
The soft petals touched his skin, caressing it, moving independently. Wufei looked down, and screamed. He was surrounded not by flowers, but maggots – thousands of them, millions, writhing together, feeding off of Meiran’s blood, Lee’s blood, the blood of the men who had died for Wufei’s cause and fighting it. So much blood. He was sinking into the maggots, blood creeping up, black-red like withered roses.
He fought to free himself, and Meiran sank her claws deeper, holding him down, keeping him from rising. He sank – or the maggots grew, multiplying impossibly. They slid over his hands, his shoulders, his neck, caressing his cheeks. Wufei closed his mouth, but they whispered, silky soft, over his lips, and then his nose. He tossed his head back, trying to get breath, but the smoke made him cough, and he inhaled squirmy bodies.
He panicked, and as he flailed blindly, they crawled into his ears, down his throat, against his eyes, through the gash in his shoulder. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t fight. Light exploded against the back of his eyelids, and he sank deeper into the blood. His lungs hurt, his head hurt, and Meiran was still grabbing his shoulders, shaking him, shouting.
That was strange. He didn’t feel too excited about it – the thought drifted through his mind vaguely. But that was okay – everything was okay. Not good, not bad, just . . . acceptable. Was that what he came to in the end? No more outrage, just acceptance?
Something jerked him around, snapping his head to one side. “Wufei, breathe!”
Not Meiran; she’d never be so irrational as to insist he breathe blood. She expected nothing from him.
Lips covered his, forcing air into his lungs. And again. The breath tasted strange – not like blood, but . . . different, warmer, a bit stale. Again. And so far away, someone was calling him, ordering him to breathe.
Another breath, and he was hauled above the surface of the blood. His head broke the surface of the blood, and he shook, trying to get the filth off himself. Someone was holding his nose closed, and he tossed his head, turning away from the mouth grasping for his. This time, he could feel the heat of the mouth pressed to his, forcing yet another lung of air into him. Wufei dragged a tiny breath of his own, one that made him cough uncontrollably, ripping air into and out of his lungs in ragged bursts. He was pulled onto his side, and he could breathe again.
“There, now, dragonling. There. Just like that.” Something brushed his cheek. “Just breathe.”
He could feel solid warmth curling around him, cradling his head and supporting him, keeping his head above the flood, even as the darkness returned to claim him.