"That is unacceptable!"
"It's called hunting, chuckles. I need it to eat."
"It will delay our journey!"
"Tough luck - that's the price you pay for the pleasure of my company."
"I don't even want the horror of your company. Get lost, and take your wolf with you!"
Beside me, Solo snarls.
They've been like this ever since Duo and Solo started traveling with us. It's not that they donít like each other - I know that they do. But they have to fight over every stupid little detail - like the world will come to an end if they actually - gods forbid - agree on something.
"Don't worry about that," I tell the wolf. "He isn't trying to insult you - he's only caught up in the argument. Right now his attention is entirely focussed on Duo."
Solo hides his teeth again and turns his golden-eyed gaze on me. There's a surprising intelligence in that look. He understands me - I know that for certain. I'm not really sure if all wolves can understand, or if Solo is unique. It interests me.
To the other side, Duo and Wufei continue to bicker.
I really wish they'd just stop. What is that they feel they have to fight about, anyway? Maybe it's their personalities. Duo's got this devil-may- care attitude, and I'm starting to think Wufei was born prickly. A healthy sneeze would set him off. Unfortunately, if that's his problem, then I think Duo's is chronic sneezing.
Whatever it is, though, it's starting to get on my nerves.
"When are they going to stop?" I mutter, with a pained sigh to go along with it.
That's all it takes to set off my furry new friend. I probably should've kept my mouth shut.
Solo bounds over from where he sits next to me and leaps into the middle of their fight, snarling, back arched and ready to attack the next person who annoys him. Duo and Wufei both immediately back off.
"Quatre! Can't you call him off?" Wufei demands.
Solo growls at him.
"Uh..." Duo tentatively adds himself to the new conversation. "I wouldn't be making any demands from Quatre right about now, Wuffers."
"Wufei," the wizard corrects, through gritted teeth.
"Yeah, I know." Duo grins.
I'm starting to think they're going to start fighting again, but Solo is still crouched menacingly between them, so apparently they decide that it's not a good idea.
"Come over here, Solo," I say, and the wolf lopes over to my side. "I don't think they're going to start arguing again right now."
He wags his tail at me.
Solo must be a strange wolf. I don't think that others would be quite so intelligent - or so perceptive. I did touch on his mind, after all, so I'm in a position to know. There's a great deal in there that was odd - as I'd pretty much expected, seeing as he's a wolf. But it wasn't so strange that it was really different from a human mind - except in the way Solo thinks. He understands a lot more than I think we even suspect right now.
I'm starting to think that when I'm promoted to full sorcerer, I'll have to devote some time to studying animals in the wild. It's a really fascinating subject, and I'd like to know if all creatures have this same potential.
It's something to think about, anyway.
"Thanks for getting the wolf turned on us," Wufei mutters.
"Me?" Duo shakes his head. "Not my fault he doesn't like you."
"It's your fault he's here in the first place!"
"I didn't tell him to come with us."
"Yeah, but - "
"You know," I interrupt, watching them. "You guys fight like an old married couple. Are you sure you really don't like each other?"
The way they jump away from each other is priceless.
Solo's tongue lolls out, in a way that suggests he's laughing.
That pretty much puts an end to the fighting, for tonight anyway. I pretend to be oblivious and set up the camp while a blessed silence falls over us.
And to think, I used to hate silence!
With Duo and Wufei along, I've really gained an appreciation for it.
It's not easy being the peacemaker. Sometimes, like tonight, it's amusing. Especially when I have Solo to back me up. You wouldn't believe how well people will listen to you when you've got a snarling wolf beside you. He's been a great help.
It still gets irritating sometimes, though - I can't really help that. We're a strangely assorted group, for certain.
Something cracks nearby.
Immediately, all three of us are on our feet, and Solo is growling a warning. "Who's there?" Wufei calls out, suspiciously.
"I'm not trying to attack." Seconds later, a stranger steps out of the trees and into our line of vision. "I'm just a traveler, like you."
"Oh." I manage a smile. He's very strange-looking - dark hair, cold blue eyes, and a look about him that suggests he's all business. "Well... you can join us if you want."
Duo, Wufei, and Solo all turn their heads at practically the same time to look at me. I see an incredulous stare on Wufei's. Duo just shrugs, and Solo appears to accept my word as law.
I could get used to that.
"Thanks." The stranger comes over to sit near the fire. He doesn't offer any more information. "Which way are you traveling?"
"East," Duo supplies, earning him a murderous look from Wufei. The braided druid spreads his hands out innocently, as if to say 'What? Why not?'
"I happen to be going that way myself," the newcomer says. "I'll travel with you, if you don't mind."
"Not at all." I manage to speak up before Wufei can. "We'd be happy for your company."
The look I get from Wufei tells me that 'happy' was not the first on his list of words to describe how he'd feel about the stranger's company.
"I'm Quatre," I say, ignoring the wizard. "My friends are Duo, Wufei, and Solo." I indicate them each in turn. "We're magic-users - one of each type, actually. What's your name?"
Not the talkative sort, I guess.
"Well," I continue, determined to get some conversation. "If you don't mind my asking, where are you from and where are you headed?"
"I'm on business," he tells me, voice flat. "I work as a mercenary - what business I'm on is open to no one besides myself and the one who pays me. If you meant to ask where I'm from originally, I can't tell you that. I travel around - but there's no place I would honestly call mine."
I'm a little taken aback by that abrupt answer, but I recover quickly enough. There's something telling me that I shouldn't exactly trust this Heero fellow... but that I should, at the very least, allow him into our mismatched little group.
"That's all right," I say, to answer him. "We all have secrets of some kind. At least you haven't lied to us."
He turns that intense gaze away from me. "True."
I let out the breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. He's very strange.
Still... I don't mind. I have a feeling that adding Heero to the group will be a decision that I'll live to be thankful for.
And when you're dealing with magic, those kinds of feelings mean a lot.
I love the woods. Even with all this snow about right now there is so much to see and look at. Like this.
In a sheltered valley, in a patch of sunlight, snow has thawed and a few delicate snowdrops blossomed. The flowers don't look anything like snowdrops to me, but that's their name, I guess. I run my finger along one delicate edge and puzzle over how something so beautiful and delicate can appear amidst so much harsh weather.
Solo snorts softly behind me, and strolls over to poke his cold nose down my neck. Wasting time?
"A good druid never shuts his mind of to any knowledge. Even a snowdrop might have something to teach us. 'Sides, its pretty."
Solo snorts again and sits down beside me.
"You're not happy, are you?" I said, sitting up. "What's the matter? Your new pack getting you down?"
Solo growled softly. I don't like him.
"Who? Not Wufei again. Geez, if you two would just leave off pestering each other--"
Solo laughed and swatted me with a paw. As if you can talk, you foolish cubling. The way you two carry on--
He's cheered up some. That's a good sign. "Well, if its not Wufei, I doubt it'll be Quatre--what's up with that? You follow him around like he's in rut."
That got me a sharp nip.
One should not talk about the pack-leader with such disrespect. Solo was disapproving. Quatre is a good and fair leader. He deserves our obedience and our respect.
"Okay, okay, sheesh. I think we've established its not Quatre that's the problem. So, you're mad at me?"
No. It's the other one. Solo growled again. He smells wrong.
"Heero?" I pondered this. "But--he's only been here, what, an hour?"
Too long. Solo's tail drooped. I don't like the way he's acting towards Quatre. He's being friendly and everything but the words don't match his scent.
"Really?" I was interested now. If anyone could pick up on that, then Solo could. "You think he's lying to us?"
I don't know that word.
I switched to mind speech. //Lying is when you say something that you don't mean. The opposite of truth.//
//I think I see," the wolf said. //Why do you have a name for it?//
I shrug. //Humans are pretty good at it? I don't know.//
//I have a lot to learn about my new pack.//
I ruffled his ears. //You're doing fine,// I told him.
His tail wagged briefly but there was still something bothering him. //Duo-- I can understand you when you talk human, but--//
//That's nothing to worry about//I told him. //It's curious, but its not unheard of for an affinity with my personality and the use of my magic on you to allow you to understand me better--//
//That doesn't extend to the rest of your packmates, though, does it? And I can understand them.//
//You're kidding me// I said. //Maybe you're reading their body language-- //
//No, I hear them as clearly as we are speaking now.//
I released Solo, perplexed. Only one thing I could do--find someway to test this. "Wufei?" I called back to the camp. "Would you mind saying something to me? Anything you like?"
A minute and nothing.
With Solo at my heels I tracked down Wufei deep in some sort of meditation.
"Oi, Wuffers! Wufei--speak to me, Wufei." I tapped him on the head. "Anyone home?"
Solo and I took refuge in flight as Wufei with rather bad grace informed us of what he thought of my behaviour at volume and quite considerable length.
"Well," I said, as we regained our breath. "What did you hear him say?"
//He disliked being pulled from the serious contemplation of the universe for one of your idiotic stunts and would advise you to keep your moronic ideas to yourself in future. Moreover, he is not called 'Wuffers', as he believes he has already informed you, and requests that you only address him by his given name, that is Wufei. Furthermore, he suggests you get a haircut, interest yourself in some real magic or give up the pretence of practicing it altogether and--what was the last thing? Oh, that's it, he suggests you get off your behind and instead of wasting time cooing like an onna over the wildflowers, go and do your share of the jobs around here, namely the hunting you said you would// Solo reported smugly.
I stared at him.
Silence is a good look on you, the wolf reflected, beginning to groom himself sedately. You ought to adopt it more often.
With a smile I sat down beside him. //Mind if I take a look at your mind?// I asked.
After a quick shake, Solo assented.
It's hard to explain how the life and soul of someone or something feels. Solo's thoughts were loud as thunder in my head, his heart almost deafening. And under those lay subtler currents, his feelings, the sensations he picked up from the world around him, and, entwined with all the rest, running in his blood, yet connecting him to something bigger--
"Magic," I said. "Well."
Magic? Solo looked at with an air cocked. Does this make me like you?
"Not exactly. You don't have enough of it--or rather the right kind. You're kind of like a carrier rather than a user, more susceptible to others magic- -but there are some magics you can wield in your own right. It's difficult to explain."
And it is this that allows me to understand the others?
"Yes--I guess my magic must have awoken that. It would be interesting to know what else you can do with it, but I'm afraid this is out of my expertise."
This is interesting, Solo said. I will think on this. About to leave, he paused. Duo?
I saw a good sized rabbit by the stream before, if you ever planning on doing your hunting. He smirked and left.
I took up my bow and sought the stream. The rabbit had moved on but I caught a decent-sized pigeon.
"Thanks for your sacrifice, sister," I said as I retrieved my kill. "We are grateful."
There was a soft snort behind me.
"You must be the druid."
I turned around.
Heero faced me, his own weapons out. His eyes were cool and hidden, his face expressionless.
Somewhat disconcerted by his comment, I sought for something--anything--to say.
"You look to have had better luck them me," I said, with a laugh, motioning to the pair of ducks he held. "We'll eat well tonight."
"You could have had better luck if you'd tried," he commented blandly. "I saw at least two birds that you could have brought down that you let go."
He'd been watching me? How long? "I try to kill as cleanly as possible, with the least amount of suffering," I hurried my words nervously. "If I don't think the kill will be swift, I don't shoot."
"A very sentimental policy. I wonder more people don't adopt it."
He was mocking me? I shrugged. "Each to his own. You're a soldier, aren't you?"
"A mercenary," he corrects.
"What's the difference? Oh, that's right--soldiers have honour."
I saw something flicker in his eyes then but he let no trace of emotion show. "I find honour a much overrated principle."
"Is that so?" I knew it was a bad idea but some part of me wanted to draw him out further. "Perhaps," I drawled, infusing the words with just a hint of mockery, "you would do me the honour of walking with me back to the camp, Mr.--what was your last name?"
"Yuy," he said, holding out his hand to me with just a hint of humour.
I rose to his charade, accepting his arm with the grace of a noble-woman. "So, tell me, what is your view of honour, Mr. Yuy?"
"Simply a tool employed when all other methods fail," he said. "It's used as currency by the nobility, I've seen men suffer deprivations they would not submit to for any price for it, and too many die for its empty promises- -honour--don't make me laugh! A good meal and a full purse are worth more, any day."
"I see," I said. "So expediency is your line, then."
"I am a man of business," Heero said. His voice, even in his cool sentences was compelling--imbued with an under the surface danger that fairly took my breath away. I could see the source of Solo's discomfort readily--and yet I was fascinated. "I act in whichever way will best serve my interests." He sneered. "Unlike others, I do not quaver at a little bloodshed."
I bristled. "Nor do I--in good cause. But death cannot be undone, nor can any magic bring life--it is not a gift to be taken away lightly."
"To survive. Everything goes full circle. The beasts and birds prey on each other, and we on them until the day we ourselves are food for the earth."
"And what part does honour play in all of this?"
"It binds us all and ensures the circle does not fail. Respect for the other members of the circle, honouring the lives we take, avoiding excess and waste--" I stopped, letting his arm go. Heero's face was still distant. My words meant nothing to him. In that moment I realised he had no idea of life, none at all. "Honour can't be explained, Heero. It can only be understood."
Heero laughed. "A typical philosopher's answer. You seem to have been well trained to do nothing useful. You can keep your honour, druid. I have no need of it." He stalked off in the direction of the campsite.
I watched him leave, frowning. "You wouldn't say that if you knew--"
"Well," Wufei's voice broke into my thoughts. "It appears we agree on something."
I looked up, eventually spotting him, sitting on a branch in the tree above my head. "And what would that be?" I asked.
"The warrior is a problem," Wufei slid off the branch, landing delicately on the ground beside me. "A man without honour is a man who is lost."
"He has no idea," I grumbled. "Business--I wonder what business brings him here?"
The Chinese wizard nodded. "It is most unusual for him to be so eager to travel with us--usually magic-users and those of the sword do not get on well. Quatre is too trusting. I shall be on my guard--and I advise you to do the same."
This is almost ridiculous.
I've studied magic-users since I was young - that's what I was trained for, after all - and I've dealt with more than a few. But these three... They display their weaknesses far too easily. I can read the lot of them like they've got their personalities printed on their faces.
"Here's the bag." The blond sorcerer brings over the supplies needed for cooking. "I hope it's the right one - sometimes it's hard for me to tell." He smiles.
Quatre, their supposed leader, is soft-hearted. He follows his feelings and trusts easily - even to the point of disregarding his instincts at some points. I believe he's the only one in the strange little group who has actually started to like me. I think he knows he shouldn't trust me, but he chooses to give me the benefit of the doubt.
Careless. Very careless.
I've begun to think that wolf he always seems to have following him around is the only thing that would keep him from being accidentally killed or taken advantage of. Of course, I've yet to see him in a fight, so I'll refrain from judging him on that.
"Yeah, it's the one." The dark-haired wizard takes the offered bag with a brisk thanks, and digs into it. "Get out of my way for a while. I don't like people looking over my shoulder while I cook."
The easterner, Wufei, is proud. He's got a rigid sense of honor and, though he's not exactly conceited, his opinion of his skills and his worth is high. He's also overly serious and takes his actions and his words just as seriously. He's quick to judge, and doesn't like to back down from any position, even though his feelings or instincts might warn him otherwise.
Too easily manipulated.
I think that of the three of them, Wufei would be the most difficult to defeat in straightforward combat. He leaves himself open to trickery, though, mostly because his own sense of honor won't allow him to fully consider the possibility that an enemy would be so dishonorable.
"Got the firewood." The braided druid sets down his sizable bundle next to Wufei. "Think that oughta last you long enough, Wuffie? I could always get more, no problem."
Out of the magic-users, the druid intrigues me the most - more than likely a result of the fact that I've never actually dealt with one before. Druids aren't combatants by nature, so one rarely finds oneself in a position to fight against them. Duo seems typical of their kind - efficient and disdainful of any waste. He's close to nature and values life of any kind. Most people would say there's something beautiful about that. I think that he's flighty and unreliable - not to mention stubborn. It's always interesting to hear the same argument about honor presented in different ways. Maybe some day someone will actually convince me.
He shouldn't hold his breath for that.
However, Duo wouldn't make a very challenging opponent. His weakness lies in the fact that, because of his views on the importance of preserving life, he'd be hesitant to kill unless he could see the absolute need for it. I know exactly how to take advantage of that sort of hesitation.
"Heero?" Quatre glances at me. "You're awfully quiet - is something the matter?"
I shrug. "Just thinking."
Duo rolls his eyes and sits down by Wufei. "Mr. Cheerful. He's worse than you." He nudges the easterner.
Wufei scowls at him.
Dorothy's final instructions to me were to bring back all five of the companions - but I only saw four. Well, four if you counted the wolf. Relena had spoken of a beast, so I assume that was what she was talking about.
I haven't seen anything of a man who was lost.
Still, I could bring these four in. Dorothy seemed most interested in the magic-users anyway; she probably wouldn't mind. And I'm not about to go hunting aimlessly after some obscure phrase. If she kills the others, it won't have any meaning anyway.
I have to consider my options carefully. If I decide to take them all at once, I'll have to be sure of their fighting skills. I haven't seen any of them fight yet, so I have no idea.
Perhaps it's time to do a little bit of field research...
I'll just have to make a request of my superiors.
I casually reach for my bag. Inside is a small knife, like the type used for skinning animals. I twist the handle to the right, one half turn.
That'll be enough to show me what I need to know.
"What are you doing?" Wufei demands suddenly. He's looking at me.
I meet his gaze. "Getting myself a blanket."
"Keep your hands where I can see them, mercenary," the easterner tells me coldly. "I don't entirely trust you not to stab us while our backs are turned."
"Wufei!" Quatre hisses.
"It's perfectly normal to have suspicions." I pull out the wool blanket. "I have no honor, after all."
The wizard glares at me suspiciously.
"Don't worry about it, Wuffie," Duo speaks up suddenly. "As long as our backs aren't turned, he doesn't have a place to stab us, now does he?"
His gaze meets mine - that is a definite challenge. There's more intelligence behind those eyes than I thought at first. I suddenly see the purpose behind the light, offhand comment.
I'm impressed. Maybe he's not so flighty.
Beside Quatre, the wolf snarls.
Duo turns from me. "Something's out there," he tells the others.
I make sure my weapons are in place. This should be interesting.
"What's out there?" Wufei asks. "Another wolf?"
Duo shakes his head, and glances back at the wolf again. "Nothing that belongs in this forest," he answers.
Quatre actually looks intrigued rather than frightened or tense. "Really? Well, maybe we should find out if it's friendly. If it is, it might be interesting to - "
"It's not," Duo interrupts him. He looks vaguely disturbed. "It's killing trees."
"Trees?" Wufei repeats. "Just how big is this thing?"
I could answer that one. Really big.
"Really big." The druid unconsciously echoes my thoughts. "And it's not normal. It's something created - unnatural."
By this point even Quatre is on guard. We can hear nothing from the surrounding forest; everything is completely silent. That's it then. I brace myself for the initial attack.
The creature bursts through the trees around the camp, and roars, leaping at its first victim - Solo.
An arrow hits its face, and the wolf has time to jump out of the way before the thing lands. I hadn't even seen Duo pick up his bow, much less draw it and fire.
"What is that?" Quatre gasps, as the wolf lopes over to his side. It stands between him and the beast, snarling, as if it intends to protect him. "It looks like a monster!"
I don't know the answer to that myself, but the creature is menacing enough. It has a huge snout like a boar's, and a broad expanse of thick skin over its enormous back. It's nearly as tall as the three of them put into one person, and its arms are apelike and twice the size of my waist. It doesn't carry weapons - there's no real need. The fur covering the thing is dark grey - appropriate, for a beast of darkness.
"Call it whatever you like!" Wufei has a thin strip of paper between his fore and middle fingers. "But speculate after we've killed it." He holds the paper in front of him like a weapon. "Quatre."
""Right." The blond holds out his hand and a blast of what I recognize as pure inner energy - knocking the creature back and dazing it. Quatre wavers where he stands. That's the main weakness of a sorcerer; their magic comes from within, so it drains them to use it.
Time to join in. I jump in from the other side and attack the sensitive part of its stomach. That's enough to enrage it. I deliberately slow my reaction time to the point where the thing can and does throw me aside with a clumsy swipe of one thick arm.
Pain rushes through me when I land. I ignore it in favor of watching the battle. I have plenty more to learn.
"Duo!" Quatre manages to recover fairly quickly - not bad. "Fall back and keep shooting! It can't take too much of that!"
"Got it!" The thing aims another swipe at Duo, who skips back out of the way and gives it a few more arrows. The tips must be poisoned, because it slows a little more with each one.
The wolf growls, and comes to the rescue of his comrade, jumping onto the creature's back and sinking its teeth into the back of that throat. It does no good, of course; its hide is too thick. The wolf is thrown back with very little effort.
"Solo!" Duo and Quatre both shout, out of sync with each other.
"Quatre!" That's a warning shout from Wufei's side.
The sorcerer appears to understand, and focuses on the charging creature. "Give it a hit!" he tells the wizard. "Duo needs space to shoot from!"
Wufei holds up the slip of paper and shut his eyes - then with a flick of his wrist, releases that energy.
A thick wall of flame bursts from where he stands and hits its target with a satisfying scorching sound, burning the creature in its side. It roars in anger and lashes out - at Quatre rather than him, forcing the sorcerer to take a dive into the bushes.
"Quatre! Watch it!" Duo calls, distracting the thing with another volley of arrows. Stupidly, the thing flails at him, and he dodges neatly. It hits Wufei instead, winding the wizard. "Wufei!"
It seems that the easterner is out of commission for the moment; he's lying prone, and gasping for breath. Duo is already running to his side, heedless of any danger.
Quatre finishes floundering in the bushes, and comes back up with a determined look. "I'll give us some breathing room! Hold on!"
He brings the statement to life by pressing his hands together as if praying, and shutting his eyes. "Shield," he says, in the same kind of tone as Relena when she's in one of her seer spells. The air seems to shudder and solidify around us - creating a kind of energy bubble that pushes the beast out and locks the magic-users in.
Quatre collapses to his knees, momentarily spent.
The thing howls its fury and beats against the translucent wall, but Duo's arrows appear to have done their work well. It slows, stops, and then falls.
Impressive. I admit to a grudging respect there. I had expected more hesitation, less skill... it was a little clumsy, but I can see the beginnings of a very strong fighting team growing there. With more practice, and more battles, they could easily become a force to be feared.
It's too bad they won't get the chance.
It was dead?
The massive form lay in the trampled snow, muddy and stained with blood. It twitched, writhing a bit, but did not rise.
Quatre was the first to recover and typically, his first action was one of concern. "Are you all right?" he asked, pulling Heero out of the snowbank he'd been thrown into. "Is anyone hurt?"
Wufei was throwing up into a bush. Duo had an arm around him and was rubbing his back. "We're fine," he said. "Just a bit shaken--where's Solo?"
Heero grunted, shaking off Quatre's hand. I suspected he felt he'd lost face by his part in the battle--having to be rescued by the others would rankle. Quatre didn't notice, he was concerned--for me.
"Oh no--Solo? Solo!"
"Sooloo! Answer us!" Duo was getting upset.
I barked in answer.
"Oh my." Quatre stared.
"Stay there! Don't move!" Duo was even more frantic. "We'll get you down!"
I barked at him again, telling him not to be foolish. As if I was going anywhere--
Four legs might be okay on the ground, but they were not much use in a tree. I couldn't move much for fear the branches that had caught me would let me go--
In short I was pretty much stuck.
"How did that happen?" Wufei wondered, recovering himself. "That ... thing just tossed him up there?"
I sighed. It had happened when I'd jumped on the beast's back. It had shaken me off like I was a flea--which I suppose was accurate in terms of our respective sizes. Still--I'd been powerless against that thing. I did not like that at all.
"Wufei, do you have a levitation spell?" Quatre asked.
The Wizard nodded. "Why?"
"I can make a solid surface out of the air. If you raised it we could use it to gently lower Solo down--"
Wufei nodded and they went to work. Duo hovered nervously, probably the most worried out of all of us, and Heero watched silently. The cloud-like platform Quatre had constructed was raised slowly to me, until I brushed the branches. Problem--I still couldn't free myself.
I barked this information to Duo.
"Hang on--I can fix that," Duo said, walking over to the tree.
"You can't climb it, Druid," Wufei said. "Those branches won't take both of your weight--"
Duo ignored him, wrapping his arms around the tree trunk and shutting his eyes.
Quatre and Wufei exchanged a glance.
"He's not thinking of--that's not possible is it?"
"I heard rumours--always assumed they were rumours--" Wufei broke off as the branches below me abruptly shifted.
I was slowly lowered through the branches to the floating cloud, the branches passing me along like so many hands. I barked and tried to fight them, not at all happy with this new development.
"Steady Solo! We've almost got you!" Quatre called. I looked down to find the cloud just below me--and suddenly I was sitting on it, rather startled. The cloud carried me down, dissolving into nothing as I reached the ground.
"Solo! Are you all right?"
"You're not hurt?"
I was immediately fussed over by Duo and Quatre, both of whom had to pat me strenuously in order to be satisfied that I was indeed still alive. I barked, wagging my tail, to show them I was okay.
"How did you do that?" Wufei demanded. "It looked like--the tree obeyed you!"
Duo hugged me. "Don't be silly, Wufei. If Druids could do things like that, don't you think everyone would know about it?"
"We'd better get going," Heero said sourly. "It's getting late--we don't want to be here when night sets. There might be others."
"Lead on," Quatre motioned to Heero. As Duo stood to walk after them I fastened my teeth in his sleeve.
I hauled him into the bushes. I would talk with you. It's very important.
"Duo?" Quatre called back. "Is something wrong?"
"Solo wants to talk to me," Duo yelled. "We'll catch up with you later." He turned to me. //What's the matter, hunt-brother?//
I took a deep breath. //I would be human.//
"Goodnight, Duo--Solo," Quatre lingered by the fire. "Are you sure you're not tired?"
"It's a beautiful night," Duo said with a shrug. "Look at that moon."
I barked in agreement.
Quatre followed our gaze upwards. "I don't think I'd noticed before--how bright the moon is--or the stars."
"The air is clearer up here in the mountains. Makes for great star gazing," Duo said, leaning back. "Sure you don't want to join us? It'll be good-- take your mind off--you know--"
Quatre hesitated, then a yawn decided him. "Some other night. I think I need the sleep."
I watched Quatre leave then lay down beside Duo. He'd said he'd think about my request and answer me tonight. I hardly knew what I hoped--on one hand there was the prospect of achieving my desire--losing everything I knew in the process.
"Solo?" Duo said. "Before I answer you, tell me why you want what you do."
I growled. Was such hedging really necessary?
"Yes. I've never used my magic to change another before--I have no idea how it may affect you. Therefore I want to be satisfied that it is for a good cause or I will not attempt it."
Of all the times for Duo not to act like an irresponsible cubling!
I told him of my resolution to travel with them, of my feeling during the battle when my inability to aid my pack-mates had been amply demonstrated. As a human I could aid them where as a wolf I could not--and I would protect Quatre.
"Always it comes back to Quatre--" Duo smiled. "Ya think I should tell him what a lucky guy he is?" He sat up as I bared my teeth at him. "Only joking!"
This is no joking matter! I growled. Duo--
"Easy, Solo. I know this is important to you--and for that reason, I'll do it."
Really? I stood, tail wagging. Now?
"No! Course not!"
My tail dropped. Why not?
"All sorts of considerations. I mean--you'd be naked! Not a great way to make an entrance--not to mention catching hypothermia--and if your build as a human is anything like your wolf form then my clothes aren't going to do you much good--and then there's the magic aspect! If I use magic here Wufei and Quatre will pick it up--and we're not supposed to use our magic openly! And I've already blown that rule once today--and am I ever in trouble when the Council gets together next--"
I nipped Duo to bring him back to the matter at hand. So when can you change me?
"I remember there being a town to the East of here a bit. We could get ahead of the others a bit--I could get clothes for you there--and the others could catch up with us when they get there. What do you think?"
I was already padding towards the forest. Let's go.
Duo whined a bit about missing sleep but a couple of assertive bites put a stop to that.
"What about tomorrow when the others wake up and find us gone? Do you really want to upset Quatre?" he asked, cunning.
I wavered. We'll come back quickly.
"Fine," Duo sighed. "The fact we're wandering through woods that, as we saw recently, are inhabited by monsters, in the height of night, all on our own doesn't bother you?"
I snorted at his statement. Anyone might think you were scared.
"You're really bent on leaving now?" Duo sighed. "Lead on, O besotted one."
I looked at him suspiciously. 'Besotted' is not in the vocabulary of most wolves--but as Duo seemed resigned to the journey I let it pass.
We made good progress through the woods. The snow had started to fall again, softly, giving the night a soft, veiled feel.
"I don't like this," Duo said. "Another one of those monsters might be out there, and we wouldn't hear it until it was on top of us."
I growled at him. We couldn't do anything about the situation, so what was the use in bringing it up?
Duo laughed at me. "Maybe there is something we can do. Take my clothes."
I listened amusedly to Duo swearing as he fastened his bundle of belongings onto my back. Having lived among humans for a while, I knew the meaning of a few of the words--You're done?
"Sssh," Duo told me, with his eyes shut. I watched as his form suddenly seemed to become fluid, reforming itself into a soft white body and wings. The owl blinked at me once, revealing bright yellow eyes, before spreading its wings experimentally.
I was impressed.
Duo launched himself into the air with a flutter of wings no louder than the sound of the fallen snow. He was quickly lost amongst the falling snow but a soft hoot floated back to me from several trees ahead, an invitation to follow.
The rest of the journey passed uneventfully. With Duo in the air we made much better progress--I could travel at my own speed rather than having to adjust my gait to match the two-leggers. Just as dawn began to lighten the sky and the snow stopped falling, Duo swooped down to inform me the human village was in sight.
"We'll be there in time for breakfast," he said, pulling on his clothes. "I might even have time to take a bath--a hot bath--with real hot water--"
I barked. He hadn't forgotten the reason for this journey?
"How could I?" Duo said. "You'd bite me if I did."
The human village was strange, unsettling. So many of them crowded into one space--enough for several packs. Not surprisingly, sharing such a confined territory, there were plenty of sharp voices and shouts. I stayed close beside Duo, wondering how he could thread his way through the confusion with such calm.
"Here we go--tailor," Duo said, pushing open the entrance to one of the human dwelling places--a sort of wooden cave, enclosed, but situated right out in the open. I followed him inside, not liking the feeling of being trapped that rose within me as the door closed.
"May I have a look at your wares?" Duo asked the man seated inside the den. He described what he wanted as the man looked me over with a sour look.
"There'll be no dogs inside my shop, thank-you," he said.
I bared my teeth, unnerved by this strange place and ready to defend myself against any slight. Duo came to my rescue.
"It's okay," he said. "Solo's a wolf. Now, about these prices--"
The shopkeeper gave the clothes to us for nothing.
"I ought to go shopping with you more often!" Duo chortled as we returned to the woods. "What's the problem, Solo?"
I fretted. The man at the shop--dismissed me.
"I'm afraid most humans are that way to animals. Ignore them--they don't know any better," Duo replied. "Are you ready?"
I tried to dismiss my worry from my mind. I'm ready.